Four Random Things

Friday, June 28, 2024

A Friday Hodgepodge

1. Donald Knuth, known as the father of the analysis of computer algorithms and inventor of the TeX typsetting language (among many other things), has an article to his credit in Mad magazine of all places:

Knuth published his first "scientific" article in a school magazine in 1957 under the title "The Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures". In it, he defined the fundamental unit of length as the thickness of Mad No. 26, and named the fundamental unit of force "whatmeworry". Mad published the article in issue No. 33 (June 1957)
Thanks to my Dad's collection, I was a childhood fan of Mad, and I remember seeing the term potrzebie frequently in the magazine, so I had to look that up.

Interestingly, that term seems to be one of the few things Knuth didn't invent.

2. Having skipped around the country over the years, this hackish-hobbyist chef has had to shop creatively in certain parts of the country. Among other things, I discovered that Boston grocers had ethnic food aisles for southern cuisine, and in Maryland, I was fortunate to live near a store I'd never head of before: H-Mart: It was the only place I could find certain spices I like to use.

It was a wonderful place, as well-captured by a piece about large Asian grocery chains:
"It is about the feeling of being home when they walk into my store," she said. The shops still smell of spices and the employees speak various South Asian dialects and wish customers a happy Diwali -- "because when you go to Walmart, they say, 'Merry Christmas! Happy Thanksgiving!'"

That authenticity is precisely the appeal for many non Asian customers as well.

"I find it fascinating that there are things on the shelf that I have no idea what they are," said Jill Connors, an economic development director for the city of Dubuque, Iowa, who started shopping at Hornbill Asian Market earlier this year... [links omitted]
H-Mart reminded me a lot of Fiesta Mart, a chain in Houston that I loved, and which mirrors the cuisine of the neighborhoods its stores serve. The one I lived near in grad school had such good selections of Mexican, Creole, and mainstream American items that I rarely had to go anywhere else.

I was not aware that H-Mart was a national chain, and had not heard of the others featured in the article. I'll keep an eye out now, whether at home or when I'm traveling.

3. If you've ever worked with electronics components, you probably wondered Why Do Electronic Components Have Such Odd Values?

The answer lies in one man's solution to a stocking problem about 150 years ago:
Image by Knarfili, via Wikimedia Commons, license.
Enter Charles Renard. He was tasked with improving the balloons, but discovered this rat's nest of cables in the inventory closet instead. He spent some time thinking about it and came up with a series of 17 cable sizes that would allow for every type of balloon to be properly moored. Each size of cable had a max/min rating that just overlapped [its] neighbor above and below, so every required value was covered by one or more cable. This system of numbers became known as the "Renard numbers" and was later included in the "preferred numbers" when the concept was expanded for other applications and became an international standard with ISO (International Organization for Standards) 3 in 1952.
The values are such that any given range between powers of ten is covered by the series of numbers plus or minus some level of error tolerance.

Renard's solution is much more elegant than the seemingly arbitrary numbers might suggest.

4. From an interesting piece on "Poets' Odd Jobs" comes inspiration in the form of Langston Hughes making his own literary break happen while he was on the job:
While Hughes was working at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., he saw poet Vachel Lindsay dining in the restaurant. Hughes slipped three poems under Lindsay's plate, including his now-famous "The Weary Blues." Impressed, Lindsay called for the busboy and asked who wrote the poems, and Hughes responded that he did. Lindsay read Hughes's poems at a public performance that night and introduced him to publishers. The next day, a local newspaper ran an article about the "Negro busboy poet," and reporters and diners flocked to meet him. The next year, Hughes published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues.
These are all good, and I have to say the story of Wallace Stevens's day job was good for a chuckle.

-- CAV

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