Friday, September 27, 2013

How to Profit from Vanished Knowledge

If you know a little bit about a person, with some basic Internet search skills it's usually possible to figure out what he's been up to since about the late 90s. For example, if someone claims to have graduated from University A in 2003, and you find a few stale old pages mentioning him on, you can be pretty sure he's telling the truth. On the other hand, if you instead find him all over the much less prestigious, he's probably lying.

But this only applies to Internet-era events. You have little chance of proving whether someone spent time as a sword-swallower in the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1960s. If the person is roughly old enough to have done what he says he did at the time he says he did it, you won't be able to prove him wrong without going to extraordinary and expensive lengths, and even then you might never know.

There are some remarkable examples of people getting away with outrageous lies about their basic life experiences for years and years. The famous pilot Jackie Cochran claimed to have been orphaned and grown up dirt poor. In reality, she was neither orphaned nor poor, and the relatives who lived with her later in life were not, as she claimed, her adoptive family, but her regular old biological family. It's not clear why she lied about this, but the story was good enough to fool her friend Chuck Yeager, who repeated it in his autobiography, along with an anecdote about her having hired a private eye to search out her birth family, then declining to read the resulting report.

Then there's German politician Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was caught with a plagiarized Ph.D. from 2006, and an American academic named Leslie Berlowitz who said she had a Ph.D. but didn't. You notice that the 2006 case was only one of plagiarism, because that's harder to detect than an outright lie. Berlowitz said she earned a Ph.D. in 1969. Good luck Googling that one. I wouldn't be surprised if one in three Ph.D.'s "earned" before 1990 are completely fictitious.  

I predict that people who are old enough will start making more and more fanciful claims about their pre-Internet lives. The basic human drive to make ourselves look like heroes has been taken away by Google - at least, it has for people who were not adults before 1995. Those who were will use the mists of time to their advantage.

By the way, did I ever mention that when I was in high school back in the 80s, I took first place in the Midwest Regional Science Fair for a project in which I demonstrated a hypertext protocol on my high school's computer network? No? Well, that fair merged with a much larger fair years ago, and their records have apparently gone missing, so you'll just have to take my word for it. I joke. The truth is, my high school didn't have a computer network, just a couple of sad old Apple IIs we wheeled around on AV carts. Or maybe it did. You'll never know!  

Monday, September 9, 2013

Technical words

1965: "I wrote a program for this computer."

1975: "I wrote some code for this machine."

1985: "I wrote some software for this hardware."

1995: "I wrote a script for this system."

2005: "I wrote a solution for this platform." (Yeccchh! Let's hope the day of software "solutions" has passed.)

2010: "I wrote an app for the cloud."

This reminds me of medical terminology. I tease my wife the doctor that when too many people start to talk about an illness, doctors invent a new name for it to restore some mystery. First it was scrofula, then consumption, then white plague, and finally tuberculosis, but doctors couldn't cure any of them. Doctors call a bruise a contusion, and if your finger was ripped off by a machine, it was "avulsed." They even have a cute, sort of Frenchified way of pronouncing centimeter --- it sounds something like "sawntimeter."

The French have influenced aeronautics, too. Thanks to them, we have the fuselage and even aviation itself. We like to pronounce envelope in the French way: "onvelope," meaning the limiting values of some parameter.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Alcoholic archaeology

Last week I was visiting my mom, and she asked me to fish something out of her attic. While I was up there, I spotted an ancient carton of beer, way out near the edge of the attic where the roof meets the soffit. I'd seen it there before, but this time something finally made me crawl out on my belly and grab the sucker. I ended up filthy but it was worth it.

The box turned out to be a pre-pull-tab, pre-plastic-ring six pack of Stroh's. It was left with three empty cans in it. Some Googling revealed that this can design dates to the late 1950s, so it must have been left there by the carpenter who built the roof - the house was built the same year man first flew in space (that's 1961 for you civilians.) That means it sat there unmolested for 52 years. Because it was so far from the attic entry, it was probably left there before the plywood was even put on the roof.

The box and cans are in remarkable shape for their age. True, they have been out of the weather, but the attic is un-insulated, so they've seen 52 yearly temperature and humidity cycles. The attic is subzero in the dead of winter, and 120 degrees in the summer. After wiping the dust off, the box looks brand new except for the fact that it's been ripped open. And the cans have only the tiniest spots of corrosion. 

The cans are steel and heavy as hell. They've got a big welded seam running up the side. and they have no pop-top or pull tab - they had to be opened using a church key. I can picture the carpenter whipping out a big keyring with the church key on it, popping open a cold one, and draining it, thinking about how he's going to go to the Painesville Speedway on Friday night.  

That blue printing on the lid is a tax stamp from the Great State of Ohio. Here's a back view of the can and a bottom view of the box. "Brewed and packed by the Stroh Brewery Co., Detroit 26, Michigan." Keep America Beautiful! I am not sure we did, especially not Detroit.

In the center of the box bottom is the logo of Gaylord Boxes. Wikipedia informs me that there is currently a Gaylord Container, but that company was named after the generic term "gaylord" for a bulk cardboard box, which in turn was named after the original Gaylord Box Company that made this Stroh's box. 

Stroh's is still made, but it's just a label of Pabst now. The Stroh family sold out in 2000 after 149 years in the brewery business. I used to like those "Alex the Dog" commercials where the guy had trained his dog to fetch him Stroh's Beer. 

The ironic thing is, as a kid I collected beer cans, a very popular proletarian hobby. My collection started out as a big pyramid in my bedroom, but Mom got sick of looking at them and she made me stash them in the attic.  But these cans are more valuable than anything that was in my collection, and they were right there in the attic all along! The collection went to the dump decades ago, except for one very special can I've kept all these years... 

Yes, it's a Billy Beer can. It is almost miraculous that this can hasn't been dented. My dad --- rest his soul --- drank the beer out of it in 1977. He pronounced it sub-par, as did the rest of the beer-drinking public.