Saturday, October 27, 2012

Gunk n' Stuff

It seems as though virtually every ad, every article, every product that counts itself as contemporary carries the word "digital" as the two jacks just to get into the game. The library has digital books. You can shoot digital photographs. Your car has digital gauges. There are digital ovens, digital toys, digital vacuum cleaners. And yes, there are even digital gloves, offering the digital experience to your digits.

But what does any of that mean? In its purest sense, digital means the data involved is discontinuous. That is, it makes individual, discrete steps from one thing to another. That's as opposed to the way the world really is, an analog state of affairs. More simply, things are continuous as opposed to this or that, tall or short, blue or red. Forget 50 shades of gray: there are a zillion. And to be really accurate, there are an infinite amount: you can always slide a little one way or the other to something else more illegal, more immoral or more fattening.

Still, we have come to expect that digital is how we manage the world. Partly that's because it's how computers work: they reduce everything to ones and zeros. Partly because it gives us faith that broken things can be fixed: it either works or it doesn't. And partly because it helps to provide explanations for the unknowable: if they bombard enough particles at that collider in Switzerland, sooner or later we will get a digital picture of another that shows how things work, though it's still all mumbo-jumbo no matter how many cute animations they trot out.

And yet things aren't that neat. No matter how hard we try, you can't always reduce things down to a simple yes or no. Certainly we see that in the current political environment. For while absolutes make for great campaign slogans ("No new taxes!" "The fault is with the banks!"), they don't recognize the reality of on the ground. Most issues and explanations bear a more nuanced approach, an analog one if you will. And while it may not be as comforting, it is more in line with the real world.

The best example comes recently from American Airlines. On three different flights over the past few weeks, seats came loose while planes were in the air. We're not talking a broken armrest or tray table. We're talking about whole rows that suddenly tilted back. Forget fasten your seat belt: how about fasten your seat.

While there was some initial speculation that the problem might be tied to lax maintenance in light of labor troubles, by all accounts it's purely a mechanical issue related to cabin remodeling. Still, when pressed to explain the cause of the problem, there was no digital answer. That would have been something like "The R7/S33 opine clamping mechanism was installed incorrectly" or "Upon inspection, the Z81Alpha retaining bolt had a crack in it" or "We've had a failure of the 74G-22 Hyper-rigid frimit." Any of those explanations, while disturbing, would have been acceptable. Something is broken, let's identify it, let's fix it.

But according to airline spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan, the seat lock plunger mechanism got "gunked up over time with people spilling sodas, popcorn, coffee or whatever." Gunk. Is there anything more analog than that? While she may have mentioned the component elements involved, I doubt they have a chemical formula for it. Then again, maybe they do: a product called "Fudge Urban De-Gunk Deep Clean Shampoo" promises to "remove the excess product build up that can leave your hair looking dull and oily!" As a frequent flier, if a bottle of shampoo is what it takes to keep a 757 in the air, so be it.

Still, it is refreshing to acknowledge that things are indeed analog and sometimes mushy. We even saw it in the Vice Presidential debate. You can like or hate Joe Biden, but when he tried to dismiss Paul Ryan's charges and defend the sanctions against Iran, the exchange took a colorful turn. "This is a bunch of stuff," Biden said. "What does that mean?" asked moderator Martha Raddatz. "It's Irish," Ryan said. "We Irish call it malarkey," chimed in Biden.

Stuff and gunk. Makes one wonder: it may be green, but is gunk Irish too? Now, there's something we could use the super collider to figure out.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a lot of stuff with gunk on it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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