September 2017

What If We Had to Start Over?

I've done a lot of writing that tries to explain how technology works, but the technology I write about has all developed over the past fifty years or so. I think we forget how much accumulated technological knowledge is required to make our world run the way it does. Start with a finished product we all use, like a house. How many of us could build a house, or even a simple shed, using whatever we find at a Home Depot? Then work backwards from there. What if you didn't have power tools but could buy all the materials needed to make an electric motor. Could you build one, even a crude one? Or how many of us could fell a tree with a handsaw without endangering our lives?

These are the thoughts that went through my head when I saw the following video, showing a young man who is first creating mud bricks, then using the bricks to make a kiln to fire clay tiles, all using materials found in the woods.

(Note: there's no narration--you can turn on captions for more information but it's easy to follow the idea without them.)

If something happened to our civilization and we needed to start over, this is the place where we'd begin, with the knowledge we can put to use with just those things found in nature. These ideas are foundational, both in the literal sense (bricks) and intellectually.

More broadly, we take the workings of the world for granted and forget how much knowledge we need to pass on from one generation to the next. Of course, no one person can absorb it all, but we must each learn and pass on as much as we can. I'd like to think I'm doing my part, but with programming for people all over the world, and with more general topics like mathematics and music with my daughter. How about you?

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On the Use of "Velcro"

So the Velcro company just put out a video about not using the word velcro in a way that would weaken its trademark.

The video is clearly trying to be funny but the company appears to be serious about the dilution of their trademark. Well, I think they are way too late on trying to change public habits on this, but what is really strange is when they say, in the text description of the video:

So please, do not say “velcro shoes” (or “velcro wallet” or “velcro gloves”) - we repeat “velcro” is not a noun or a verb.

Um, guys, the word velcro is being used as an adjective in those examples! The company may be displeased with having the word in lowercase, but those examples are using the word in the form they actually want it used, as a modifier to a noun. The problem with these examples is actually that the clasp in question may not be an actual product of the Velcro comapny, not the part of speech.

It's a good rule of writing: if you don't know what you mean, your reader won't know, either.

I also notice that the people at Velcro, Inc., want us to write the word in all-caps: VELCRO (with a registered trademark symbol affixed). But Velcro is not an acronym, as explained right there on the Velcro web site. I know that companies are always fudging the rules of capitalization (and punctuation and everything else) in a bid to make themselves and their trademarks more noticeable, but there's no reason in the world for the rest of us to play along. These requests should be distributed among Velcro's own PR department staff and to overly-compliant news outlets. Putting this kind of content in front of the public is not a good look!

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