June 10, 2008

"Knit One. Puff Two:" Bent, Folded and All Punched Out in the Summer of '66


Speak, memory! The brilliant and always fascinating Kevin Kelly @ The Technium today brings up a long-lost method of making a data base:

Edge-notched cards were invented in 1896. These are index cards with holes on their edges, which can be selectively slotted to indicate traits or categories, or in our language today, to act as a field. Before the advent of computers were one of the few ways you could sort large databases for more than one term at once. In computer science terms, you could do a "logical OR" operation. This ability of the system to sort and link prompted Douglas Engelbart in 1962 to suggest these cards could impliement part of the Memex vision of hypertext.
The subject ignited a long-lost memory in me from my days as a student at the University of California at Berkeley.

While it may be faintly amusing, I think it also holds a lesson for our increasing dependance on statistics -- especially in this election year of a poll a minute. It's about a job I had and about being in on the ground floor of the acronym GIGO (Garbage In. Garbage Out).

Edge-notched cards. Oh, my sweet lord, that brings back the remaining specks of a mostly obliterated memory.

Sometime in the summer of 1966 in Berkeley I was part of a group of "students" hired to punch the codes into a mountain of cards that recorded the data from some obscure study. The study in question was was the life's work of a couple of academics at the University.

I know longer recall the subject of the study. Only that there were a lot of cards whose edges needed punching after we figured out which ones to punch. A WHOLE LOT OF CARDS! We punched them oblivious to the Mark Twain story centered around one of the earliest known earworms:
Punch, Conductor.
Punch with care.
Punch in the presence
Of the passenger!

If we had known it, it would have become our theme song after only a few hours of this mind-numbing chore.

Our scurvy group hired for slave student wages of the 60s must have been no more than five. We were given a room to punch in down in the same building as the then main post office of Berkeley. Boxes of punched and unpunched cards loomed in the room. There were more at the door. There was some coffee on hand worse than the coffee that was always on hand in that time and in that place. Our hair was long, but our days of punching were longer.

As it was summer, the room in which we would punch became hot. We soon figured out that, since we had no real supervision, we could haul the cards, and the coding, and the punches, and the sorting boxes, and all the sorting needles ( a lot like knitting needles) up to the roof of the Post office. Up there it was cool. And was about to become much cooler.

At the time I had another friend, Chris the Mailman, whose last name is lost to me, but who I think of as, in the parlance of the time, "Chris and his Old Lady Karla." Both were, as were many in our part of town then, hippies. Original hippies. Chris worked as a postman. His Old Lady Karla was an... "experimental agronomist of a gentle persuasion" with a very avant-garde interest in local, sustainable, and highly organic agriculture.

Planted behind a virtual hedge of giant sunflowers in Karla's big back yard were stands of some of the best amateur ganga in Berkeley at the time. Chris the Mailman was not slow at figuring out that his job as a "Federal Officer in Charge of the Mails" was an excellent cover under which to run the distribution end of Karla's farm harvest. He was a responsible sort and used two mailbags. One for the mail and one for the harvest whenever it was ready. If his superiors at the Post Office thought about it at all, they probably thought that, with his two mail bags, Chris was just an exceptionally devoted mail man.

Well supplied by Karla, Chris had a habit, before starting out on his route, of ambling up to the roof of the post office. There he'd hang out with us awhile as we pretended to punch and sort the cards at about the rate the academics whose study it was were pretending to pay us. I'm thinking it must have been $1.25 per hour and they got their money's worth.

Chris favored the fuming and deadly Nepalese chillum (It could and did hold half-an-ounce.), and was always looking to share. And share he did. One memorable day, Chris forgot his chillum. All we had was a sheet of newspaper and the rudimentary knowledge of how to roll the Jamaican spliff... a very big Jamaican spliff, a two-hander. It emptied the second mail bag. It was one of the most laid-back days on a job I ever had. The winds became more gentle. The sky became very, very blue. Our dedication to our task? Dissolving into giddy waves of laughter and the mantra "Knit one, puff two." I don't know if the mail got through, but for once the appointed round was, well, delayed.

Today, I can't help wondering what happened to the study since our punching of the cards was not exactly crisp after Chris the mailman left to roam his daily rounds. I do like to think that somewhere in the great realm of statistics there is a study -- I hope a foundational one; one that many many other depend upon -- that is itself completely dependent upon the cards we punched high on the roof in that long ago summer.

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Posted by Vanderleun at June 10, 2008 4:22 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.


Posted by: Nancy Irving at June 19, 2008 3:05 AM
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