Category Archive


Selfie Culture

Elizabeth History, humor, Innovation August 20, 2021

Pictures, for the sake of Memories

There’s nothing wrong with snapping pics at a concert, on a hike, or at the mall with friends. I firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with that. Pictures store memories. Scrolling back through your phone’s album or flipping through a physical one is meant to be a good time. Sure, nowadays the phone album often also contains pictures of dinner and three or four shots of the same thing, but the principle still stands. Used in moderation, phones and their picture-taking ability are not the enemy.

Selfie culture is.

Selfie Culture

‘Humans used to have to bow down to look at themselves in pools of water if they wanted to see their own face. There was symbolism in the act.’

– anonymous Tumblr User

Researchers say that selfies posted to social media can negatively impact self-esteem. At least, research show that quitting social media or purely lurking instead of posting your own pics is likely to make you more satisfied with your own appearance than you were when you were interacting.  Social media simultaneously boosts someone’s own self-perception while making them reliant on social media to deliver that boost – they become dependent on people telling them they look good, so their self-esteem is no longer internal.

That’s not all! Some part of taking a selfie turns other, more reasonable parts of the brain off. Ever throw away your keys instead of your empty drink cup? Or walk into a room, only to forget what you were going to do once you were there? The brain becomes so focused on getting all of the details of the picture right that it stops performing other tasks relating to awareness of one’s surroundings. The selfie is like that. The potential for the reward, those likes and positive compliments, removes worries about things like “context” and “imagery”.

Sometimes setting up the picture means losing the plot of why someone wanted to take that picture in the first place!

Filming a Concert

A video went viral on TikTok a month or two ago. A woman was filming a concert. That’s not too unusual – people like to keep records. Even if the quality is poor, they’ll presumably still like it for the memories it holds. What was unusual about this one was that she A) brought a portable USB ring light to the event (which is why her face is so brightly lit in that darkened bar) and B) was filming it using the front-facing camera so she could also capture herself dancing while she recorded. As @InfluencersInTheWild puts it, it’s a bad case of ‘Main Character Syndrome’, a condition in which people lose sight of what events are for.

Real life isn’t a movie – ‘Main Character Syndrome’ says it is, you just need to be filming for it to happen. Everyone else becomes a background character. Like this video here! There’s an entire crowd watching this performance, plus the performance itself, but she’s not willing to film it for her channel if she can’t also be in the spotlight, which is why she’s opted to watch it through her phone’s screen as she records, instead of live, a mere 80 degree turn to the left. She literally brought her own spotlight so she could do this.

Visible here, via the link:

There’s a lot to unpack here. As said before, there’s nothing wrong with filming a concert. Some people might even film it in reverse with themselves in the frame, which is weird to me but not creepy. This crossed into creepy territory. The fact that she brought her own lighting to film this event specifically in this manner says she’s premeditated all of it to look spontaneous and quirky, the same way an ordinary person taking a natural photo would be. Speaking of strange attempts to look natural…

Fake Mirror Shots

A strange trend where people, usually with an above-average amount of followers, have a picture taken of them with their phone in their hand. The idea is to simulate the mirror selfie, an artifact of a time before ‘second phones’ and millions of little phone stands for the purpose littered the market.

You can tell there’s no mirror in those photos by the lack of glare, any dust, and the incorrect angles of the camera to the ‘mirror’. Sometimes the framing is a clue too. Most mirrors have frames. If someone’s standing at a distance from a ‘mirror’ and there’s a lot of stuff around them but no hint of frame, it’s either a really big mirror or a fake mirror selfie. Even frames might sometimes be indoor windows. Or mirrors with the mirror part punched out.

You wouldn’t need to pose in a mirror if someone is with you to take the photo. That person could just take the photo in front of you, and you could pose freely without the phone in-hand. And yet, it sort of makes sense to fake the shot when you think about it. They want something that seems casual and carefree. Mirror selfies often are more casual than posed shots! The format also allows people to hold their phone directly in front of their face, and with how massive phones are, that means the subject doesn’t have to go overboard on makeup to take a picture of their outfit. Good photography’s pretty hard. Good posing is a chore. Mimicking a mirror selfie is paradoxically easier than taking a regular photo!

Still. The idea itself is funny. It’s like if an alien from a planet where mirrors weren’t a thing tried to blend in with humans online by having its bro take a picture of it with its communications multi-tool in its hand. A totally alien interpretation of the pictures. Something an AI would come up with.

Tragedy Selfies

I’ve written articles on how selfies can turn dangerous before. Some critical disconnect between the danger present and the reward to be gotten for it leads people to dangerous stunts that they’d never dare without the camera, and sometimes they die as a result of those stunts.

Tragedies after the fact also end up in front of the camera due to that same disconnect. Bad car accidents. Municipal failures. Buildings literally on fire. All of these are things you’d normally take pictures of. However, you’d never turn the camera around and take a photo of yourself in front of these things, right? You’d never make someone else’s unrelated car accident about yourself? In a time where cameras weren’t everywhere, there was still such a thing as “a bad time to take a photo”, but now that cameras are everywhere, the odds that “bad timing” and “has a camera ready” sync up are much higher.

A hotel in Dubai caught fire, and a couple posed for a picture with it in the background. Instead of looking at the fire or taking a picture of the fire itself, the couple used it as a backdrop. I’m not suggesting they stop and help with the fire – that would be stupid and impossible. I’m suggesting maybe taking a picture and posting it without themselves in it, if they felt they had to document it. Nothing wrong with taking a picture of the incident – everything wrong with using it as a prop. Especially with two people smiling in front of it. Many of the people online agreed the picture was gauche, but it’s scary that in the moment they stopped, took the picture, and posted it, all without thinking that it might be gauche themselves.

Environmental Selfies

California’s massive poppy fields are certainly picture worthy. Unfortunately, for some, documenting nature means destroying it. A superbloom of all sorts of wildflowers a couple of years ago attracted thousands of people to an otherwise unremarkable town in California, Lake Elsinore. Superblooms only happen about once every ten years, because they require steady rainfall and good temps to achieve. Most visitors do their best to stay on the trail and respect the flowers… many more do not, and end up stepping on them to get their photos before leaving.

Brief moments of self-awareness riddle interviews in an article about the fields, sudden realizations that they’re stepping on the less-pretty flowers to get to the pretty ones near the middle, thereby making those ones less pretty too. Official trails are criss-crossed by unofficial ones. Realizations that come too late or too quietly for them to take heed and pay for an entry ticket or stay on the path – some even complain about ‘poppy activists’ telling them not to damage the flowers. The same flowers they’re allegedly celebrating in these pictures. The same flowers allowing them the photos in the first place.

Many think their single photo op isn’t going to tip the scales. It likely won’t, in all honesty. The issue is that most people think like that. They assume someone else is looking out for the poppy fields, that the next person won’t walk down the same path they took and sit on the same crushed flowers they did to take an identical photo with themselves as the subject, showcasing the beauty of nature. Irony.

This isn’t new or exclusive to selfies. Early explorers thought the Dodo bird couldn’t go extinct because their God wouldn’t allow it. “Why, they argued, would an all-powerful God doom some of his valuable creations to such a fate?” ( It boils down to the same argument as the poppy fields: ‘someone else with more power is looking after these specimens and will protect them from my impulses’. Nature is powerful. Park management can prevent a lot. But humans have hands and cameras.

Be-All End-All Selfie Culture

We understand how turning tragedy, the environment, and other people into background props is ultimately a bad thing for empathy, because narcissists do it all the time. There’s a vital disconnect in bits of a narcissist’s brain that prevent them from feeling empathy the way they should, so everything that goes wrong or right for their circle of people is always framed around themselves. When a narcissist goes to get help and tries to practice empathy, they often have to do it intellectually, by force, because what comes naturally to others doesn’t for them, even if they understand that it’s causing rifts in their relationships.

However, manufactured narcissism is great for social media. Social media encourages the exact opposite of treatment, tells people that it is all about you, which is only true because social media makes it that way. Social media is all about the individual. “Oh, this building is on fire? Great selfie opportunity”. “Surely my picture of the poppy fields won’t hurt. It’s just one more.” “Ooh, a concert. I should bring a bright light with me into this intentionally darkened room so my livestream followers will still be able to see my face.” The subtext for all of these is that the selfie-taker views themselves more important than the ‘background props’.  Social media in small doses is entertaining! In large doses, it’s bad for you.


Why do Recipe Websites Give you an Essay Before the Recipe? Or, the ~Magic~ of Ads.


Cookbooks. They’re great. They don’t have to load their contents, and they usually contain tons of helpful technique information on top of recipes. But they can be expensive, and they don’t always have every recipe you want. So recipe-makers turned into recipe-bloggers. Over time, the content got longer, and longer, and longer… and more websites sprang up out of nowhere with recipes.

And are the essays at the top of the recipe really that annoying?

Longer Websites = More Engagement… With Ads


This is the root of the problem. Access to the website doesn’t cost money, but it’s not free. To provide the platform for this recipe, most recipe bloggers use ads. If everything fits onto one scroll-bar’s worth of page, then they only have room for one scroll-bar’s worth of ads. ‘What, so I have to scroll for two minutes because they want more money?’ doubters might say. Well, yeah.

Hosting a website costs money. That doesn’t even include the labor of producing the recipe, taking the photos, and ultimately, creating the content that makes the website tick. Hosting something that other people can anonymously comment on is brutal and often thankless. The essay system allows many websites to keep running even if they’re very small. Recipe bloggers are asking for your time in exchange for free access to a quality recipe, instead of money, like cookbooks would.

Surely, viewers are adaptable enough to understand that, right? Most people are reasonable enough to wait or scroll for content they value… right?

Unfortunately, the end consumer doesn’t know the quality of the recipe before they invest this effort to get to it. It might have five stars, but only produces two servings when four are needed, or it might have five stars, but all the comments noted that ‘it fell apart, but it would be great if it had eggs!’ So it is frustrating to wait for the ads to load, wait for the page text to load, sit there as the auto-play video buffers so you can close it before it makes noise, scroll down so the recipe itself loads, wait as the screen jerks around because the top bar ad still had to load… it feels agonizing to wait for something when Google made it seem so easy and just scraped the ingredients for the slug.

It’s even worse if you don’t know how long it will take for it to finish – unpredictable waiting times make consumers angry!


More Engagement = More Ad Revenue – No Matter the Quality


Try to assume the worst of the recipe blogger, for a second. Assume the story’s obviously made up, or irrelevant to the final recipe. Assume it’s poorly written, and the narrative style doesn’t capture your attention. You only notice this if you’re actually reading these things or if the website sucks so badly you can’t jump to the recipe. Both of these scenarios mean you’re interacting with the site. The motivation to make the site better and shorter is merely “pleasant feelings from consumers”, but the motivation to keep it as-is would be ad money. If it’s what’s called a ‘click-farm’, then they don’t even care about consumer feelings. Click-farms don’t care about anything but views, they don’t care how many users hate the site, they avoid optimizing on purpose because you stay longer.

You’re more likely to click an ad, accidentally or not, if the website’s laggy, jumpy, or slow. You blame your frustration on that essay, because it’s the only thing you can still see when the site’s lagging, and it’s all totally pointless to you. (My conspiracy theory is that those auto-play videos aren’t meant to actually play a video, they’re there to slow you down. I have no proof of this. Don’t quote me.)

Bad recipe websites make users less tolerant of the ones that don’t make users suffer like this. And it’s not about the essay, it’s about formatting!

Determining a recipe’s worth has become harder because of this essay/ad space system, and frustration caused by poorly optimized websites is now transferred to the website’s format, which is a different thing entirely. Furthermore, click-farm websites exploiting the format get mixed in with the real sites ran by real people, but the end user can’t tell which is which. Recipe websites didn’t used to be like this, and many still remember the good old days. In fact, the good old days are still here, but because so many people are using mobile phones instead of desktop, this essay issue feels more prevalent than it actually is.


You’ll probably stay unless the website is atrocious – and they know that


I don’t find myself often visiting the same site twice; when I’m looking for a recipe, I usually already know what I want to make, and I’m just looking for a recipe to facilitate that. I, like many people, don’t follow these recipe blogs for ideas. There’re so many websites following the same format that they’re all more or less interchangeable. So it would make sense for a good website to try and outcompete the others by optimizing better, right?

That’s the trick, that website has to show up in the results first for that strategy to be effective. But if they’re new (and if they’re one of the millions of sites with a blueberry muffin recipe) they’ll get sorted to the bottom, and the top sites all follow the winning format because the winning format can pay for their ads. The newbies then have to optimize for the limited number of visitors to their website, which – you guessed it – means following the winning strategy. Increased funding means they can now pay for advertising campaigns, and now they’re one of the horde.

Besides, If I click on a website and realize it’s terrible, I’m still going to wait for it to finish loading. I don’t know if the other websites with similar recipes are going to have the same loading time, so I’m not saving any time if I risk it and find out the second result from the top is also poorly optimized. They’re all playing chicken, and they know that aside from standouts like Allrecipes and other crowd-sourced sites, you really don’t have another option. You won’t leave unless the website’s truly, truly horrible.


Personality books and TV – Hope


This whole event is so frustrating that cookbooks have come back into fashion, but with online personalities instead of TV ones. Binging with Babish, Sohla El-Waylly, Claire Saffitz – you might not know these people, but they have a big enough following on Youtube to create and sell their own recipe books.

I know these names because they got big – and because they broke through the format that haunts these smaller recipe bloggers. Therefore, I don’t worry that Babish’s website is going to suck because I enjoy his content, and I know the quality is going to be there. I know Sohla is an expert in her field, and I know the recipes she films have worked for me in the past, so I know the cookbook’s going to be decent at minimum. I don’t know that for these recipe bloggers. I’m interested in what Claire has to say about technique, because she went to school for it, and she tells her viewers where these techniques came from. Recipe bloggers screw up techniques (or oversimplify them) all the time, so trusting one feels more dangerous than it should feel.






Good and Bad Ways to Cool a Computer

Elizabeth humor, Ideas July 7, 2021


Listen, sometimes machines get old, and they work too hard, and then you don’t want to burn yourself by watching Netflix, so you resort to other methods of cooling your computer. There are right ways, and there are wrong ways.


DON’T: Put Your Machine in the Freezer or Fridge


It sounds like a good idea, but it’s really not. Condensation can form on the inside of the machine, which can then permanently break things as said condensation re-melts and drips onto other components inside your device. Plus, if it’s a systemic issue like a broken fan or overworked CPU, this isn’t actually fixing the issue. You’re going to be taking your machine in and out of the freezer forever!

Cold screws up glue over time, too!

As an unrelated hack, freezing gum can usually get it off the bottom of your shoe.


DON’T: Put Ice Packs, Popsicles, or Bags of Ice on or in the Machine


Condensation, once again, can ruin your machine if it drips into the wrong spot. However, ice bags have the added danger of leaking! Ice sometimes has sharp enough points to pierce its own bag. Popsicles, while usually sealed for safety, are not worth the risk of some sharp component in your machine piercing the bag full of sugary dyed liquid. If that doesn’t kill the machine, it will make you wish it had!


DON’T: Run Every Program at Once


You shouldn’t be running high-distance Minecraft alongside high-render Overwatch while also running your internet browser for a live Youtube stream in 4K unless you’ve got a super-computer. If it lets you get those programs open and running, but you notice your computer is unusually, abysmally hot, those programs might be contributing. You can overload your CPU! If you can’t identify which program specifically is eating up all your CPU’s power, check the task manager! Windows devices have a task manager that allows them to see how much of the RAM, the hard drive, and the CPU the program is using. Just hit (Ctrl + Alt +Delete) and you’ll reach a menu with Task Manager at the bottom. If you can’t narrow your issue down to a specific program, then restarting the computer may fix whatever background program has gotten stuck in the RAM. It’s a good idea to reboot regularly anyway!


Now that we’re past the don’ts, what should you do? You obviously can’t let it stay hot, that will slowly fry the hard drive. Excessive heat is worse for electronics than cold is, especially the kinds with batteries in them. You should take steps to cool off your machine if it’s getting ridiculously hot.



DO: Use a Fan


There’s a small fan inside of your computer already. If it’s not cutting it, then the next best step is to use a real fan, and just position the intake for your device in front of it. The extra air flow is just doing what the fan inside the device was already doing, but on a bigger scale! You might find that repositioning your computer so the fan will fit by the intake can help cool it down, too – computers in front of windows might be absorbing more heat than you realize.


DO: Use a Specially Designed Cooling Pad


Some companies sell cooling pads, pads that cool the device down externally. These are specially designed to avoid condensation, while still wicking away heat safely. If you can’t get a fan into the area it needs to be, a cooling pad is a solid second option. Unfortunately, due to the shape and size of PC towers, this is generally only feasible for laptops.


DO: Make Sure the Vents Are Clear


If the machine’s pretty young, and the programs on it aren’t too intense for its specs, the reason may be external. Check where it’s vents are! Especially for PCs. If the tower is pushed right up against the wall, it might not be able to generate the airflow it needs. Also, don’t put stickers or decorations over vents. That’s also bad for the vent’s venting power.

Speaking of vents, make sure the vents are cleared of dust, too! Clean off the vents, and if you have the technical know-how to clean off the fans when they get dusty, that may also help! Cleaning them improves efficiency.


DO: Restart Every Once in a While


Your computer is doing a lot of things in the background for you. Many programs are still doing things after you close them! Steam, a popular gaming platform, is almost always also connected to the internet when users aren’t looking. It does this at start up, and it keeps an eye on it’s own connection to let you know if you lost internet. It’s not the only program to do this! As such, it’s important to occasionally restart, so these programs don’t ‘get stuck’ on eating processing power for their own little functions.


DO: Consider a Shop


If the computer’s hot enough to fry eggs, the odds are pretty good that something’s up with the CPU, the fan, or it’s own internal thermometer, depending on the age of the machine. If you’ve tried everything you can think of to cool it off, or keep it from getting so hot in the first place, it might be time to visit a shop. At the very least, you should be keeping backups of your files. If the heat eventually kills the machine, a backup saves you a lot of money on very expensive data recovery.




Wildly Specific T-Shirts: Why?

You’ve probably seen some variation of the shirt.

You’re wondering how it’s so wildly specific. You click it, and scroll down, and somehow… somehow the company seems to have made shirts specifically for you, the boyfriend of a Registered Nurse who was born in June, who’s a little crazy with a heart of gold.

And then you notice on other channels, people are getting shirts that say ‘Never mess with a Union Welder born in November with Blue Eyes’. ‘My Boyfriend is a Crazy Libra who loves Fishing and Mountain Biking”. Okay… it’s specific… but no harm, right?

What’s happening?

The Ads

First, some context. Facebook takes information like birth date, gender, likes and dislikes, etc. to hyper-tailor ads directly to specific individuals. On the advertiser’s side, Facebook allows their advertising customers to modify ads depending on group – companies can make multiple ads for their product to better build a brand image for any one customer’s specific demographic profile.

Picture that a company makes hair gel for adolescents as well as young adults, for example. The adult is looking to impress their coworkers, but the kid just wants to prevent helmet hair. The gel does both, but the ad will change the target customer’s view of the product – is it for skateboarders, or is it for professionals? Only a super generic ad could appeal to both, and generic ads do much worse than targeted ones. Luckily, Facebook’s fine-tuned ad program can determine which set of ads the viewer should be seeing, and the company can make two ads, one for skateboarders, and one for young professionals.

However, that’s time consuming, so many ad vendors allow mix-n-match campaigns, where lines are taken from one ad and put in another. An adolescent’s ad would work for most teens if the wording was a little different – see Axe’s body spray ads. Sometimes the company doesn’t even have to make the new lines themselves, they just include a modifiable blank field in the ad space and they’re good to go.

That’s where things go sideways! A blank line in an insurance ad can tell the user that they’ll be eligible for a rate as low as X$ based on their age and gender. A blank line in a kennel ad knows they’re looking for a medium dog over a small cat based on their search history. A blank line in a T-shirt ad tells them that Facebook knows they’re a Gemini, an accountant, of Swedish descent, a regular fisher, an occasional beer-drinker, and more.

Art and More

Even worse, bots that work on similar mechanisms have been caught scraping art from artists and slapping it on cheap T-shirts. Since copyright enforcement is dependent on the copyright owner filing for takedown, shirts with that artwork might get sold before the artist even knows something’s amiss. The shirts are frequently poor-quality rips directly from the artist’s social media account, triggered by comments requesting wearable merch or complimenting the work – the bot determines demand and then harvests it, without human intervention, just like the ad T-shirts.

Sure, the artist can request a takedown each and every time the bots snag their art, but it’s a slog, and the company itself never seems to actually do anything meaningful about the violations. It’s also bad for the artist’s reputation: fans complaining to them about the quality of a shirt they bought may be the first time the artist hears about the art theft, and then explaining to someone that they’ve been scammed is only going to make them angrier. It becomes “How could you let this happen” instead of “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize” – everyone loses except for the ad bot’s shirt company.

The ‘Why’

Before companies like ZapTee and CustomInk, getting a custom shirt meant going to a print shop and paying a hefty price for the final product. As such, shirt companies just didn’t make shirts like these ad bots do. It was unfeasible. If it didn’t sell, it was a waste of production. The closest you could get was “I’m a Proud Mom!” or “Rather be Fishin’”. If you were an artist, and your work was too fringe for major manufacturers to work with, you might have had to buy the screen-printing supplies yourself, build your own website or storefront, source blank shirts, and do things the hard way.

Now, all of that is easily outsourced to these printing companies that specialize in customizable products. The tech has improved so much that they can make money on single shirt sales, where before orders had to be in bulk. It’s honestly incredible. However, customers don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms behind these shirts. The specifics on the shirt are just blank space fill-ins, based on information Facebook gives to the ad. They think they’re seeing a unicorn out in the wild when they see something that relates to them. They’re thinking back to the times where companies couldn’t do this, where everything was geared towards two or three consumer profiles. “Wow, a shirt for Peruvians!” instead of “Oh, Facebook knows I’m Peruvian”.

Or in the case of the art-rippers, they see merch from an artist they really like and respect, and buy it without wondering if it’s official because – once again – they’re thinking back to a time when companies didn’t steal art (not officially, anyway) for shirts. Independent artists had to beg, barter, and network their way onto the front of a T-shirt, there wasn’t any other way to sell art-shirts en masse before silk-screen tech got cheap. Therefore, there’s no way unofficial or stolen art merch exists, it just doesn’t happen!

The Marketing

A company named Signal decided to take out ads mocking Facebook’s hyper-specific targeting by simply filling in a MadLib with demographic spots.

The result is, shockingly, just like the T-shirts! Facebook already knows you pretty well. A trend of ‘hyper-targeting’ took over once social media websites realized that people guard their info from companies but share it willingly with friends, publicly. As a result, it can pinpoint things like your favorite movie, your favorite color, what items you’ve bought online (and post about), your perfect vacation, and how dark you like your coffee, to name a few, all harvested from comments and posts you share with your friends. Ads then generate shirts out of what the site gathers. You can turn off targeted advertising in Google, but that doesn’t mean they’re not gathering information. It just means you’re not seeing the direct results of that. The only way to fight the hyper-targeting is to be vague and lie to the platforms, or stay off of them altogether.

If you or an artist you know gets their work ripped by bots, combatting it is unfortunately pretty difficult. The best you can do is sometimes just cave and make your own branded products via something like RedBubble or FanJoy. Give customers an official way to support their favorite artist, and most of the time, they’ll take it! Making your social media work obnoxiously and obviously watermarked helps, as does making the preview pic low-quality. Fans need to know that you have official channels, and if they buy from anywhere else, they’re not supporting you. If they like it so much that they want to wear it, they should want the artist to keep making more of it! Make that link between your official purchasing channels and their support of your work clear.


First Computer ‘Bug’

Behold, a common moth. It died stuck in the newest Harvard Mark II after being caught in a relay. But there’s some misconception over whether or not this is why errors are called ‘bugs’, and the rest of the story’s sometimes forgotten. Here’s a brief overview – there’s links at the end for more information on each section, if you’d like to know more!


Source of the Term


The terms ‘bug’ and ‘debugging’ were already in use in regards to computers and similar machines. This moth incident wasn’t the origin of the term, but it’s a funny side note that an actual, literal bug got into the machine. It would be like actually ‘dropping the ball’ during a game.

The term ‘bug’ has been in use for machines since Edison, comes from Welsh, and used to mean irritating or vexing things. Over time, machinery problems got pretty freaking annoying, and insects, spiders, and other ‘bug’ family members bit and stung people. As English formed, the word was incorporated into general use, until it eventually came to mean three things to English speakers: little crawly things, computer problems, and something being persistent and annoying.

Bugbears, someone bugging you, something being buggy, etc. all come from this!


Grace Hopper


Grace graduated from Yale with her doctorate in math between wars, and worked as a professor before taking a leave of absence to try and get sworn in (several times) for the Navy. She’d been slightly too old, and then she was too thin, and then she was too useful to let go to war – eventually, she got in via persistence, and the military was lucky to have her.

She’d go on to help create UNIVAC as well as the Harvard math machines. Mark I was used towards the atomic bomb. She’d also continue to write and research in peacetime – COBOL, a programming language still used today (albeit rarely) was her creation, making computer language easier to read and write. She’d write papers the entire time she worked under the Navy, constantly pushing forward and improving the tech she worked on.

She was retired out of the Navy at 60, and then called back – and then she retired again, and then she got called back – she never really “retired”, as even when she left the service she was scouted by the private sector. Most of her roles in this time were advisory, and she helped guide tech companies in the right direction.


Harvard Math Machine


Harvard’s computer department is where Grace did some of her most memorable work! She’d helped assemble, program, and test these absolute behemoth machines. Harvard MK II is where the bug came in, but given the nature of the system, it’s safe to say her contributions in programming made it into all four machines. They built off of each other, each machine containing the best parts of the ones before it.

Anyway, Grace was crucial to testing, re-testing, re-retesting… and making improvements! Under Grace and a man named Howard Aiken, the department built and programmed the Harvard Mark II, a beast of a machine weighing well over 20 tons, taught to think with relay switches, magnetic tapes, and vacuum tubes. Besides the obvious talent in math, she was a pretty decent speaker, too! The duty of explaining the system usually fell to her, and she’d have to do so in a way the upper management would understand.

This wasn’t the only Harvard machine, either. They got to Mark VI before another computer-tech leap was made that moved Harvard University beyond the gigantic fridge-walls they’d been using. In short: Grace and the rest of the Harvard team were at the very forefront of new tech at the time, and usually either on the cutting edge or barely behind it.


Bug Time


Relay technology was new, and everybody who could get their hands on it was eager to see just what it could do. The Harvard Mark II was very fast, thanks in part to the relays that replaced the mechanical counters used in the Mark I. The downside to those relays is that they require a space between the contact points to work. When the space was open, no signal was sent (there was an air gap between the two parts), and when the space was closed, the signal could make it across. Relays are very fast, much faster than the counters previously used, and are still used today in things like light switches and car signals.

The moth got into the gap, closed the bridge, and allowed signals to be sent continuously, which ruined the machine’s results. Luckily, the machine was advanced enough to put up an error message instead of just shutting down or giving an incorrect answer, which would have been significantly more difficult to track down.

It’s a funny coincidence. A moment in time, caught in the relay of the world’s fastest computer. What a way to go. Good for you, moth. Good for you.



For more on the bug (with pictures):

For more on the definition of bug:–debugging-the-origins-of–bug-.html (Warning: this website would like you to sign up for their newsletter via pop-up)

For more on Rear Admiral Grace Hopper:

For more on the Harvard MK II