Keeping it simple. And dry.

By Chuck Sigars | Jun 20, 2012

It’s been six years this month since the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska entered the Catchphrase Hall of Fame.  Speaking on the Senate floor, opposing an amendment in favor of Net Neutrality, Sen. Stevens attempted to simplify the concept of bandwidth congestion by describing the Internet as a “series of tubes.”

This was breaking news for the writing staffs of Leno and Letterman, a perfect storm of caricature.  Here’s an older man, kind of cranky anyway, obviously clueless about technology, ranting and raving about things he didn’t understand.  It was if Mr. Rogers’ evil twin decided to take a tour of the Internet Factory.  It was funny.

I have no problem poking fun at politicians, of course, or at cranky old men with power and stature.  And if you watch the Stevens speech, or read the transcript, it does seem clear that he was talking about a subject he knew little about, or at least wasn’t familiar with the terminology.

We can imagine that he probably referred to the computer as “the machine” and never thought about it much, leaving the drudgery of reading emails and such to his minions.

But he wasn’t wrong, you know.  Cranky, sure, but not wrong.

That’s the opinion of journalist Andrew Blum, at any rate, whose new book is called “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” an examination of the infrastructure that supports our Facebook habit and brings us as many pictures of cats as we like.  I heard Blum interviewed the other day, and his book is now queued up for my next read.

Our fascination with tubes has a long history.  Even while proto-Americans were hammering out our Constitution, Scottish inventor William Murdoch was conducting experiments with compressed air, and is credited with developing the first pneumatic message system.

A century later, pneumatic tubes were all over the place, inspiring 19th-century futurists, including H.G. Wells.

These dreamers imagined a time when communication would travel around the world at the speed of air, and not just messages.  Pneumatic trains would whisk people across countries and under oceans.  We would travel, communicate, work, and live through the miracle of tubes.

In some ways, pneumatic tube systems represented the high technology of the Industrial Age.  Well into the 1960s they were common (and people were still dreaming about their potential: See Jetsons, The).  They’re still in use, for drive-in banking and in hospitals, a simple if inelegant way to transport items from one place to another.

So, tubes.  They’re important.  They now carry photons, but the underlying structure, as Blum points out, feels very 19th century.

There’s a reason this is on my mind.

I was having coffee with a couple of friends the other day, and we were talking about our varying skills and lack of same when it came to fixing stuff.  One of us was good with cars but knew nothing of computers.  I’m comfortable around electronics, but I can’t read directions and I’m missing the measuring gene.  That sort of thing.

I mentioned that I was having a slight plumbing problem at the time, and by “slight” I mean “no water” and by “at the time” I mean “still.”  And this was frustrating to me, because it was just a leak, and it seemed to me that the underlying infrastructure was pretty simple.  As my friend pointed out, “It’s just a tube with water.”

And it is, although this is not the sort of leak that one could place a bucket under.  This is a leak in the water line that runs from my house about 30 feet under my yard, and then, just to be mean, goes another 150 feet or so under my neighbor’s yard until it reaches the street.

Where it heads from there I don’t know; maybe to a special place where Oompa-Loompas make water.  I’m not good with infrastructure.

Given the situation, one might assume that the odds of a leak in this line occurring under my neighbor’s yard instead of mine were higher, and one would be right.

Given that he was out of town on business, his lawn was getting soggy, water was being wasted, and my meter was spinning like a press agent, I started digging, paraphrasing Robert Frost as I did:

Whose lawn this is, I surely know
He works in Costa Rica, though.
He will not mind me digging here
I hope.


Given some rainy weather, a very busy schedule, and my overall tendencies, I did the natural thing and made it worse.  Making the moral of our story this: Even in a complex world, some things remain fairly straightforward and simple, such as tubes.  And even simple things can be made complicated by me.

Oh, and if you know an Oompa-Loompa looking for work, let me know.  My neighbor’s coming home any day now.

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