The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 25 May 2011 A couple of years ago I wrote an article about a stadiometer (height-measuring device) that used an optical scanner to read a Gray-coded height off the scale.

The article periodically shows up on places like Reddit and Hacker News, and someone often asks why the stadiometer is so complex. Most recently, for example:

How is this an advance on looking at a conventionally numbered ruler (with a similar bracket to touch the top of the head) and writing down the number? It's technological and presumably expensive, but it isn't delivering any discernible benefit that I can see.
Not long after I wrote the original article, I was back at the office, so I asked one of the senior doctors about it. She said that the manual stadiometers were always giving inaccurate readings and that they constantly had to have the service guys in to recalibrate them. The electronic stadiometer, she said, is much more reliable.

"But it's a really expensive stadiometer," I said.

"The service calls on the manual stadiometers were costing us a fortune."

This stadiometer transmits its reading via radio to a portable digital display. For this doctors' office, the portable display is a red herring. They had the display mounted on the wall right next to the stadiometer. I asked if they ever took it down and moved it around; the doctor said they never did.

At the time I observed that the answer was mundane and reasonable, but not something that one would be able to deduce. In the several discussions of the topic, none of the people speculating have guessed the correct answer.

When I was working on Red Flags talks, people would send me code, and I would then fix it up to be better code. Often you see code written in what seems to be the worst possible way, and the obvious conclusion is that the author is a complete idiot, or maybe just mentally ill. Perhaps this is sometimes the case, but when I took the time to write back and ask why the author had done it the way they did, there was usually a reasonable answer.

Here's an example that stands out in my memory. A novice once sent me a program he had written that did some sort of tedious file-munging job in Perl, selecting files and copying some of them around in the filesystem. It was a bad program in many ways, but what was most striking about it was that there were many functions to perform operations on lists of filenames, and whenever one of these functions called another, it passed the list of data by writing it to a temporary file, which the called function would then read back.

The diagram at right shows the structure of the program. Rectangles with rounded corners indicate subroutines; dotted rectangles are the temporary files they use for argument passing.

I suggested to the author that it would have been easier to have passed the data using the regular argument passing techniques, and his reply astounded me, because it was so reasonable: he said he had used the temporary files as a debugging measure, because that way he could inspect the files and see if the contents were correct.

I was thunderstruck. I had been assuming that the programmer was either a complete beginner, who didn't even know how to pass arguments to a function, or else a complete blockhead. But I was utterly wrong. He was just someone who needed to be introduced to the debugger. Or perhaps the right suggestion for him would be to call something like this from inside the functions that needed debugging:

        sub dump_arguments {
my ($file) = (caller)[4]; open my($f), ">", $file or die "$file: $!"; print$f join("\n", @_, "");
}

But either way, this was clearly a person who was an order of magnitude less incompetent than I initially imagined from seeing the ridiculous code he had written. He had had a specific problem and had chosen a straightforward and reasonably effective way to address it. But until I got the correct explanation, the only explanation I could think of was unlimited incompetence.

This is only one of many such examples. Time and time again people would send me perfectly idiotic code, and when I asked why they had done it that way the answer was not that they were idiots, but that there was some issue I had not appreciated, some problem they were trying to solve that was not apparent. Not to say that the solutions were not inept, or badly engineered, or just plain wrong. But there is a difference between a solution that is inept and one that is utterly insane. These appeared at first to be insane, but on investigation turned out to be sane but clumsy.

I said a while back that it is a good idea to get in the habit of assuming that everything is more complex than you imagine. I think there is parallel advice here: assume that bad technical decisions are made rationally, for reasons that are not apparent.

Fri, 11 Dec 2009

On failing open
An axiom of security analysis is that nearly all security mechanisms must fail closed. What this means is that if there is an uncertainty about whether to grant or to deny access, the right choice is nearly always to deny access.

For example, consider a login component that accepts a username and a password and then queries a remote authentication server to find out if the password is correct. If the connection to the authentication server fails, or if the authentication server is down, the login component must decide whether to grant or deny access, in the absence of correct information from the server. The correct design is almost certainly to "fail closed", and to deny access.

I used to teach security classes, and I would point out that programs sometimes have bugs, and do the wrong thing. If your program has failed closed, and if this is a bug, then you have an irate user. The user might call you up and chew you out, or might chew you out to your boss, and they might even miss a crucial deadline because your software denied them access when it should have granted access. But these are relatively small problems. If your program has failed open, and if this is a bug, then the user might abscond with the entire payroll and flee to Brazil.

(I was once teaching one of these classes in Lisbon, and I reached the "flee to Brazil" example without having realized ahead of time that this had greater potential to offend the Portuguese than many other people. So I apologized. But my hosts very kindly told me that they would have put it the same way, and that in fact the Mayor of Lisbon had done precisely what I described a few years before. The moral of the story is to read over the slides ahead of time before giving the talk.)

But I digress. One can find many examples in the history of security that failed the wrong way.

However, the issue is on my mind because I was at a job interview a few weeks ago with giant media corporation XYZ. At the interview, we spent about an hour talking about an architectural problem they were trying to solve. XYZ operates a web site where people can watch movies and TV programs online. Thy would like to extend the service so that people who subscribe to premium cable services, such as HBO, can authenticate themselves to the web site and watch HBO programs there; HBO non-subscribers should get only free TV content. The problem in this case was that the authentication data was held on an underpowered legacy system that could serve only a small fraction of the requests that came in.

The solution was to cache the authentication data on a better system, and gather and merge change information from the slow legacy system as possible.

I observed during the discussion that this was a striking example of the rare situation in which one wants the authentication system to fail open instead of closed. For suppose one grants access that should not be granted. Then someone on the Internet gets to watch a movie or an episode of The Sopranos for free, which is not worth getting excited about and which happens a zillion times a day anyhow.

But suppose the software denies access that should have been granted. Then there is a legitimate paying customer who has paid to watch The Sopranos, and we told them no. Now they are a legitimately irate customer, which is bad, and they may call the support desk, costing XYZ Corp a significant amount of money, which is also bad. So all other things being equal, one should err on the side of lenity: when in doubt, grant access.

I would like to thank Andrew Lenards for his gift.

Fri, 30 May 2008

A missing feature in document viewers
It often happens that I'm looking at some multi-page document, such as a large PDF file, with a viewer program, say Adobe's Acrobat Reader, or Gnome Document Viewer, and the page numbers don't match.

Typically, the viewer numbers all the pages sequentially, starting with 1. But many documents have some front matter, such as a table of contents, that is outside the normal numbering. For example, there might be a front cover page, and then a table of contents labeled with page numbers i through xviii, and then the main content of the document follows on pages 1 through 263.

Computer programmers, I just realized, have a nice piece of jargon to describe this situation, which is very common. They speak of "logical" and "physical" pages. The "physical" page numbers are the real, honest-to-goodness numbers of the pages, what you get if you start at 1 and count up. The "logical" page numbers are the names by which the pages are referred. In the example document I described, physical page 1 is the front cover, physical page 2 is logical page i, physical page 19 is logical page xviii, physical page 20 is logical page 1, and so forth. The document has 282 physical pages, and the last one is logical page 263.

Let's denote physical pages with square brackets and logical pages with curvy brackets. So "(xviii)" and "[19]" denote the same page in this document. Page (1) is page [20], and page (20) is page [39]. Page [1] has no logical designation, or perhaps it is something like "(front cover sheet)".

Now the problem I want to discuss is as follows: Every viewer program has a little box where it displays the current page number, and the little box is usually editable. You scan the table of contents, find the topic you want to read about, and the table says that it's on page (165). Then you tell the document viewer to go to page 165, and it does, but it's not the page 165 you want, because the viewer gives you [165], which is actually (146). You actually wanted (165), which is page [184].

Then you curse, mentally subtract 146 (what you got) from 165 (what you wanted), add the result, 19, back to 165, getting 184, and then you ask for 184 to get 165. And if you're me you probably mess up one time in three and have to do it over, because subtraction is hard.

But it would be extremely easy for viewer programs to mostly fix this. They need to support an option where you can click on the box and tell it "your page number is wrong here". Maybe you would right-click the little page-number box, and the process would pop up a dialog:

Then you would type in 146 (which you can see at the bottom of the page you're viewing) and click "OK". From then on the process would know that the logical and physical page numbers differed by 19, and it would subtract 19 from the number in the little box until you told it something else. You could then type 165 into the little box, and the process would think "well, you asked for (165), and I know that (165) is really [184] because you told me earlier that [165] is really (146)" and then you would get [184], which is what you wanted. And when you scrolled down from (165) to (166), the program would think "ho, you just went from [184] to [185], so I will change the display in the little box and display [185]-19 = (166) there".

But no, none of them do this.

The document itself should carry this information, and some of them do, sometimes. But not every document will, so viewers should support this feature, which is useful anyway.

Some document formats support internal links, but most documents do not use those features, and anyway they are useless when what you are trying to do is look up a reference from someone else's bibliography: "(See Ogul, pp. 662–664.)"

This is not a complete solution, but it's an almost complete solution, and it can be implemented unilaterally, by which I mean that the document author and the viewer program author need not agree on anything. It's really easy to do.

[ Addendum 20080521: Chung-chieh Shan informs me that current versions of xdvi have this feature. I was unaware of this, because the version installed on my machine was compiled in celebration of the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exhibition and so predates the addition of this feature. ]

Thu, 01 May 2008

At that moment, the novice was enlightened...
Presented without further comment, a conversation I had yesterday on IRC. I am yrlnry:

 --> You are now talking on #ubuntu 23:37 I upgraded to HH this afternoon. Since the upgrade, when I select a URL in gnome-terminal and then pick the "open this link" menu item, the link doesn't open in my browser. Instead, I get a dialog that says "Could not open the address "http://...": There was an error launching the default action command associated with this location." How can I fix this, or find out what the "error" was? 23:38 yrlnry: this happeds in Windows yrlnry: i get that in Windows 2 23:39 lpkmgj: thanks! that fixed my problem! yrlnry: sarcasm? lpkmgj: No! yrlnry: right .... 23:40 lpkmgj: WHen you said that, I realized that the problem was that HH had installed Firefox 3, and that the terminal program wants to use the default browser, which is FF2, which is no longer present since the upgrade. lpkmgj: so I told FF3 to make itself the default browser, and the problem went away. yrlnry: oh, well glad i helped : )

(I have changed the name of the other person.)

Tue, 20 Mar 2007

How big is a five-gallon jug?
Office water coolers in the United States commonly take five-gallon jugs of water. You are probably familiar with these jugs, but here is a picture of a jug, to refresh your memory. A random graduate student has been provided for scale:

Here's today's riddle: Can you estimate the volume of the jug in cubic feet? "Estimate" means by eyeballing it, not by calculating, measuring, consulting reference works, etc. But feel free to look at an actual jug if you have one handy.

Once you've settled on your estimate, compare it with the correct answer, below.

 It is about 2/3 of a cubic foot. One gallon contains about 231 cubic inches. Five gallons contain about 1155 cubic inches. One cubic foot contains 12×12×12 = 1728 cubic inches.

Hard to believe, isn't it? ("Strange but true.") I took one of these jugs around my office last year, asking everyone to guess how big it was; nobody came close. People typically guessed that it was about three times as big as it actually is.

This puzzle totally does not work anywhere except in the United States. The corresponding puzzle for the rest of the world is "Here is a twenty-liter jug. Can you guess the volume of the jug in liters?" I suppose this is an argument in favor of the metric system.

Wed, 14 Mar 2007
 Order New York's Architectural Holdouts with kickback no kickback
The subject of really narrow buildings came up on Reddit last week, and my post about the "Spite House" was well-received. Since pictures of it seem to be hard to come by, I scanned the pictures from New York's Architectural Holdouts by Andrew Alpern and Seymour Durst.

The book is worth checking out, particularly if you are familiar with New York. The canonical architectural holdout occurs when a developer is trying to assemble a large parcel of land for a big building, and a little old lady refuses to sell her home. The book is full of astonishing pictures: skyscrapers built with holdout buildings embedded inside them and with holdout buildings wedged underneath them. Skyscrapers built in the shape of the letter E (with the holdouts between the prongs), the letter C (with the holdout in the cup), and the letter Y (with the holdout in the fork).

 Photo credit: Jerry Callen
When Henry Siegel, a New York store owner, got news in 1898 that Macy's was going to build a gigantic new flagship store on Herald Square, he bought the corner lot for $375,000 to screw over his competitors. The Herald Square Macy's still has a notch cut out of its corner; see the picture at right. The Macy's store on Queens Boulevard is in the shape of a perfect circle, except for the little bit cut out of one side where the proverbial old lady (this time named Mary Sendek) refused to sell a 7×15-foot back corner of her lot for$200,000 because she wanted her dog to have a place to play. (Here's a satellite view of the building. The notch is clearly visible at the northwest corner, facing 55th Aveue.)

But anyway, the Spite House. The story, as told by Alpern and Durst, is that around 1882, Patrick McQuade wanted to build some houses on 82nd Street at Lexington Avenue. The adjoining parcel of land, around the corner on Lexington, was owned by Joseph Richardson, shown at left. If McQuade could acquire this parcel, he would be able to extend his building all the way to Lexington Avenue, and put windows on that side of the building. No problem: the parcel was a strip of land 102 feet long and five feet wide along Lexington, useless for any other purpose. Surely Richardson would sell.

McQuade offered $1,000, but Richardson demanded$5,000. Unwilling to pay, McQuade started building his houses anyway, complete with windows looking out on Richardson's five-foot-wide strip, which was unbuildable. Or so he thought.

Richardson built a building five feet wide and 102 feet long, blocking McQuade's Lexington Avenue windows. (Click the pictures for large versions.)

The building soon became known as the "Spite House". The photograph above was taken around 1895. Lexington Avenue is torn up for maintenance in this picture.

Richardson took advantage of a clause in the building codes that allowed him to build bay window extensions in his building. This allowed him to extend its maximum width 2'3" beyond the boundary of the lot. (Alpern and Durst say "In those days, such encroachments on the public sidewalks were not prohibited.") The rooms of the Spite House were in these bay window extensions, connected by extremely narrow hallways:

As you can see, the Spite House was divided into two dwellings, each with a separate entrance, four floors, and two rooms on each floor. The rooms were 7'3" wide and were connected by hallways 3'4" wide.

After construction was completed, Richardson moved into the Spite House and lived there until he died in 1897. The pictures below and at left are from that time.

The edge-on photograph below, showing the Spite House's 3'4" frontage on 82nd Street, was taken in 1912.

The Spite House was demolished in 1915.

### Picture credits

The photograph of the Macy's Herald Square store is copyright ©2004 Jerry Callen, and is used with permission.

All other pictures and photographs are in the public domain. I took them from pages 122–124 of the book New York's Architectural Holdouts, by Alpern and Durst. The original sources, as given by Alpern and Durst, are as follows:

 Collection of Andrew Alpern. January 1897 issue of Scientific American. New York Journal, 5 June 1897 New York Public Service Commission

Mon, 20 Mar 2006

The 20 most important tools
Forbes magazine recently ran an article on The 20 Most Important Tools. I always groan when I hear that some big magazine has done something like that, because I know what kind of dumbass mistake they are going to make: they are going to put Post-It notes at #14. The Forbes folks did not make this mistake. None of their 20 items were complete losers.

In fact, I think they did a pretty good job. They assembled a panel of experts, including Don Norman and Henry Petroski; they also polled their readers and their senior editors. The final list isn't the one I would have written, but I don't claim that it's worse than one I would have written.

Criticizing such a list is easy---too easy. To make the rules fair, it's not enough to identify items that I think should have been included. I must identify items that I think nearly everyone would agree should have been included.

Unfortunately, I think there are several of these.

First, to the good points of the list. It doesn't contain any major clinkers. And it does cover many vitally important tools. It provokes thought, which is never a bad thing. It was assembled thoughtfully, so one is not tempted to dismiss any item without first carefully considering why it is in there.

Here's the Forbes list:

1. The Knife
2. The Abacus
3. The Compass
4. The Pencil
5. The Harness
6. The Scythe
7. The Rifle
8. The Sword
9. Eyeglasses
10. The Saw
11. The Watch
12. The Lathe
13. The Needle
14. The Candle
15. The Scale
16. The Pot
17. The Telescope
18. The Level
19. The Fish Hook
20. The Chisel
The Forbes list has some restrictions. "Tools" must be simple, portable physical implements. Fundamental machines are omitted; most notably, this excludes "the lever" and "the wheel". (The invention of real importance there is not the wheel, but the axle. But that's another article for another time.) Inventions like fire, glassblowing, the computer, gunpowder, the windmill, and written language are ruled out, not because they are unimportant, but because they are not "tools" in the sense of being fairly simple, portable physical implements. They belong on some list, but not this one. (That didn't stop Don Norman from writing a ponderous and obvious essay about how the Forbes list was the wrong list to make. I know Don Norman has his fans, but I've never understood why.)

## Categories

 Order The Pencil with kickback no kickback
The Forbes items are also allowed to stand for categories. For example, "the Rifle" really stands for portable firearms, including muskets and such. "The pencil" includes pens and writing brushes. (Why put "the pencil" and not "the pen"? I imagine Henry Petroski arguing about it until everyone else got tired and gave up.) The spoon, had they included it, would have stood for eating utensils in general.

But here is my first quibble: it's not really clear why some items stood for whole groups, and others didn't. The explanatory material points out that five other items on the list are special cases of the knife: the scythe, lathe, saw, chisel, and sword. The inclusion of the knife as #1 on the list is, I think, completely inarguable. The power and the antiquity of the knife would put it in the top twenty already.

Consider its unmatched versatility as well and you just push it up into first place, and beyond. Make a big knife, and you have a machete; bigger still, and you have a sword. Put a knife on the end of a stick and you have an axe; put it on a longer stick and you have a spear. Bend a knife into a circle and you have a sickle; make a bigger sickle and you have a scythe. Put two knives on a hinge or a spring and you have shears. Any of these could be argued to be in the top twenty. When you consider that all these tools are minor variations on the same device, you inevitably come to the conclusion that the knife is a tool that, like Babe Ruth among baseball players, is ridiculously overqualified even for inclusion with the greatest.

But Forbes people gave the sword a separate listing (#8), and a sword is just a big knife. It serves the same function as a knife and it serves it in the same mechanical way. So it's hard to understand why the Forbes people listed them separately. If you're going to list the sword separately, how can you omit the axe or the spear? Grouping the items is a good idea, because otherwise the list starts to look like the twenty most important ways to use a knife. But I would have argued for listing the sword, axe, chisel, and scythe under the heading of "knife".

I find the other knifelike devices less objectionable. The saw is fundamentally different from a knife, because it is made and used differently, and operates in a different way: it is many tiny knives all working in the same direction. And the lathe is not a special case of the knife, because the essential feature of the lathe is not the sharp part but the spinning part. (I wouldn't consider the lathe a small, portable implement, but more about that below.)

## Pounding

I said that I was required to identify items that everyone would agree are major omissions. I have two such criticisms. One is that the list has room for six cutting tools, but no pounding tools. Where is the club? Where is the hammer? I could write a whole article about the absurdity of omitting the hammer. It's like leaving Abraham Lincoln off of a list of the twenty greatest U.S. presidents. It's like leaving Albert Einstein off of a list of the twenty greatest scientists. It's like leaving Honus Wagner off of a list of the twenty greatest baseball players.

No, I take it back. It's not like any of those things. Those things should all be described as analogous to leaving the hammer of the list of the twenty most important tools, not the other way around.

Was the hammer omitted because it's not a simple, portable physical implement? Clearly not.

Was the hammer omitted because it's an abstract fundamental machine, like the lever? Is a hammer really just a lever? Not unless a knife is just a wedge.

Is the hammer subsumed in one of the other items? I can't see any candidates. None of the other items is for pounding.

Did the Forbes panel just forget about it? That would have been weird enough. Two thousand Forbes readers, ten editors, and Henry Petroski all forgot about the hammer? Impossible. If you stop someone on the street and ask them to name a tool, odds are that they will say "hammer". And how can you make a list of the twenty most important tools, include the chisel as #20, and omit the hammer, without which the chisel is completely useless?

The article says:

We eventually came up with a list of more than 100 candidate tools. There was a great deal of overlap, so we collapsed similar items into a single category, and chose one tool to represent them. That left us with a final list of 33 items, each one a part of a particular class or style of tool; for instance, the spoon is representative of all eating utensils.

Perhaps the hammer was one of the 13 classes of tools that didn't make the cut? The writer of the article, David M. Ewalt, kindly provided me with a complete list of the 33 classes, including the also-rans. The hammer was not with the also-rans; I'm not sure if I find that more or less disturbing.

## Also-rans

Well, enough about hammers. The 13 classes that did not make the cut were:

• spoon
• longbow
• broom
• paper clip
• computer mouse
• floppy disk
• syringe
• toothbrush
• barometer
• corkscrew
• gas chromatograph
• condom
• remote control
Presumably some of these would have been cleaned up for publication, had they been selected for the top 20. For example, "longbow" should obviously be "bow". So I don't want to criticize these too much. The omissions seem more striking to me than the inclusions. But some of the inclusions are just too strange to let pass without comment, and some of those comments will help us understand what should be on the list and what shouldn't be.

"Gas chromatograph" seems to be someone's attempt to steer the list away from ancient inventions and to include some modern tools on the list. This is a worthy purpose. But I wish that they had thought of a better representative than the gas chromatograph. It seems to me that most tools of modern invention serve only very specialized purposes. The gas chromatograph is not an exception. I've never used a gas chromatograph. I don't think I know anyone who has. I've never seen a gas chromatograph. I might well go to the grave without using one. How is it possible that the gas chromatograph is one of the 33 most important tools of all time, beating out the hammer?

With "syringe", I imagine the authors were thinking of the hypodermic needle, but maybe they really were thinking of the syringe in general, which would include the meat syringe, the vacuum pipette, and other similar devices. If the latter, I have no serious complaint; I just wanted to point out the possible misunderstanding.

"Paper clip" is just the kind of thing I was afraid would appear. The paper clip isn't one of the top hundred most important tools, perhaps not even one of the top thousand. If the hammer were annihilated, civilization would collapse within twenty-four hours. If the paper clip were annihilated, we would shrug, we would go back to using pins, staples, and ribbons to bind our papers, and life would go on. If the pin isn't qualified for the list, the paper clip isn't even close.

I was speechless at the inclusion of the corkscrew in a list of essential tools that omits both bottles and corks, reduced to incoherent spluttering. The best I could do was mutter "insane".

I don't know exactly what was intended by "remote control", but it doesn't satisfy the criteria. The idea of remote control is certainly important, but this is not a list of important ideas or important functions but important tools. If there were a truly universal remote control that I could carry around with me everywhere and use to open doors, extinguish lights, summon vehicles, and so on, I might agree. But each particular remote control is too specialized to be of any major value.

Putting the computer mouse on the list of the twenty (or even 33) most important tools is like putting the pastrami on rye on the list of the twenty most important foods. Tasty, yes. Important? Surely not. In the same class as the soybean? Absurd.

The floppy disk is already obsolete.

## Other comparisons

### The telescope

Returning to the main list, eyeglasses and telescopes are both special cases of the lens, but their fundamentally different uses seem to me to clearly qualify them for separate listing; fair enough. I'm not sure I would have included the telescope, though. Is the telescope the most useful and important object of its type? Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that most of the uses of the telescope are either scientific or military. The military value of the telescope is not in the same class as the value of the sword or the rifle. The scientific value of the telescope, however, is enormous. So it's on it scientific credentials that the telescope goes into the list, if at all.

But the telescope has a cousin, the microscope. Is the telescope's scientific value comparable to that of the microscope? I would argue that it is not. Certainly the microscope is much more widely used, in almost any branch of science you could name except astronomy. The telescope enabled the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe, a discovery of vast philosophical importance. Did the microscope lead to fundamental discoveries of equal importance? I would argue that the discovery of microorganisms was at least as important in every way.

Arguing that "X is in the list, so Y should be too" is a slippery slope that leads to a really fat list in which each mistaken inclusion justifies a dozen more. I won't make that argument in this article. But the reverse argument, that "Y isn't in the list so X shouldn't be either", is much safer. If the microscope isn't important enough to make the list, then neither is the telescope.

### The level

This is the only tool on the list that I thought was a serious mistake, not quite on the order of the Post-It note, but silly in the same way, if to a much lesser degree. It is another item of the type exemplified by the telescope, an item that is on the list, but whose more useful and important cousin is omitted. Why the level and not the plumb line? The plumb line does everything a level does, and more. The level tells you when things are horizontal; the plumb line tells you when they are horizontal or vertical, depending on what you need. The plumb line is simpler and older. The plumb line finds the point or surface B that is directly below point A; the level does nothing of the kind.

I'm boggled; I don't know what the level is doing there. But the fact that my most serious complaint about any particular item is with item #18 shows how well-done I think the list is overall.

### Sewing

The needle made the list at #13, but thread did not. A lot of sewing things missed out. Most of these, I think, are not serious omissions. The spinning wheel, for example: hand-spinning works adequately, although more slowly. The thimble? Definitely not in the top twenty. The button, with frogs and other clasps included? Maybe, maybe not. But one omission is serious, and must be considered seriously: the loom. I suppose it was eliminated for being too big; there can be no other excuse. But the lathe is #12, and the lathe is not normally small or portable.

There are small, portable lathes. But there are also small, portable looms, hand looms, and so on. I think the loom has a better claim to being a tool in this sense than a lathe does. Cloth is surely one of the ten most important technological inventions of all time, up there with the knife, the gun, and the pot. Cloth does not belong on the Forbes list, because it is not a tool. But omission of the loom surprises me.

### Grinding

Similarly, the omission of the windmill is quite understandable. But what about the quern? Flour is surely a technology of the first importance., Grain can be ground into flour without a windmill, and in many places was or still is. This morning I planned to write that it must have been omitted because it is hardly used any more, but then I thought a little harder and realized that I own not one but two devices that are essentially querns. (One for grinding coffee beans, the other for peppercorns.) I wouldn't want to argue that the quern is on the top twenty, but I think it's worth considering.

### Male bias?

In fact, the list seems to omit a lot of important handicraft and home items that have fallen into disfavor. Male bias, perhaps? I briefly considered writing this article with the male-bias angle as the main point, but it's not my style. The authors might learn something from consideration of this question anyway.

The pot made the list, but not the potter's wheel. An important omission, perhaps? I think not, that a good argument could be made that the potter's wheel was only an incremental improvement, not suitable for the top twenty.

I do wonder what happened to rope; here I could only imagine that they decided it wasn't a "tool". (M. Ewalt says that he is at a loss to explain the omission of rope.) And where's the basket? Here I can't imagine what the argument was.

## Carrying

With the mention of baskets, I can't put off any longer my biggest grievance about the list: Where is the bag?

The bag! Where is the bag?

I will say it again: Where is the bag?

Is the bag a small, portable implement? Yes, almost by definition. "Stop for a minute and think about what you've done today--every job you've accomplished, every task you've completed." begins the Forbes article. Did I have my bag with me? I did indeed. I started the day by opening up a bag of grapes to eat for breakfast. Then I made my lunch and put it in a bag, which I put into another, larger bag with my pens and work papers. Then I carried it all to work on my bicycle. Without the bag, I couldn't have carried these things to work. Could I have gotten that stuff to work without a bag? No, I would not have had my hands free to steer the bicycle. What if I had walked, instead of riding? Still probably not; I would have dropped all the stuff.

The bag, guys!. Which of you comes to work in the morning without a bag? I just polled the folks in my office; thirteen of fourteen brought bags to work today. Which of you carries your groceries home from the store without a bag? Paleolithic people carried their food in bags too. Did you use a lathe today? No? A telescope? No? A level? A fish hook? A candle? Did you use a bag today? I bet you did. Where is the bag?

The only container on the Forbes list is the pot. Could the bag be considered to be included under the pot? M. Ewalt says that it was, and it was omitted for that reason. I believe this is a serious error. The bag is fundamentally different from the pot. I can sum up the difference in one sentence: the pot is for storage; the bag is for transportation.

Each one has several advantages not possessed by the other. Unlike the pot, the bag is lightweight and easy to carry; pots are bulky. You can sling the bag over your shoulder. The bag is much more accommodating of funny-shaped objects: It's much easier to put a hacked-up animal or a heterogeneous bunch of random stuff into a bag than into a pot. My bag today contains some pads of paper, a package of crackers, another bag of pens, a toy octopus, and a bag of potato chips. None of this stuff would fit well into a pot. The bag collapses when it's empty; the pot doesn't.

The pot has several big advantages over the bag:

1. The pot is rigid. It tends to protect its contents more than a bag would, both from thumping and banging, and from rodents, which can gnaw through bags but not through pots.

2. The pot is impermeable. This means that it is easy to clean, which is an important health and safety issue. Solids, such as grain or beans, are protected from damp when stored in pots, but not in bags. And the pot, being impermeable, can be used to store liquids such as food and lighting oils; making a bag for storing liquids is possible but nontrivial. (Sometimes permeability is an advantage; we store dirty laundry in bags and baskets, never pots.)

3. The pot is fireproof, and so can be used for cooking. Being both fireproof and impermeable, the pot enables the preparation of soup, which increases the supply of available food and the energy that can be extracted from the food.

The bag probably predates the pot. To make pots, you must locate a suitable source of clay, shape it, and sun-dry or bake it. To make a bag requires nothing more than to grab a large animal skin by the corners. The bag doesn't get as much notice by anthropologists---not because it's less important, but because it's not as durable. We have potsherds that are thirteen thousand years old. All the bags that old have long since turned to dust.

I have no objection to Forbes' inclusion of the pot on their list, none at all. In fact, I think that it should be put higher than #16. But the bag needs to be listed too.

## Other possible omissions

After the hammer, the bag, and rope, I have no more items that I think are so inarguable that they are sure substitutes for items in Forbes' list. There are items I think are probably better choices, but I think it is arguable, and, as I explained at the beginning of the article, I don't want to take cheap shots. Any list of the 20 most important tools will leave out a lot of important tools; switching around which tools are omitted is no guarantee of an objectively better list. For discussion purposes only, I'll mention tongs (including pliers), baskets, and shovels. Of the items on Forbes' near-miss list that I would want to consider are the bow, the broom and the spoon.

## Revised list

Here, then, is my revised list. It's still not the list I would have made up from scratch, but I wanted to try to retain as much of the Forbes list as I could, because I think the items at the bottom are judgement calls, and there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about any of them.

Linguists found a while ago that if you ask subjects to judge whether certain utterances are grammatically correct or not, they have some difficulty doing it, and their answers do not show a lot of agreement with other subjects'. But if you allow them an "I'm not sure" category, they have a lot less difficulty, and you do see a lot of agreement about which utterances people are unsure about. I think a similar method may be warranted here. Instead of the tools that are in or out of the list, I'm going to make two lists: tools that I'm sure are in the list, and tools that I'm not sure are out of the list.

The Big Eight, tools that I think you'd have to be crazy to omit, are:

1. Knife (includes sword, axe, scythe, chisel, spear, shears, scissors)
2. Hammer (includes club, mace, sledgehammer, mallet)
3. Bag (includes wineskin, water skin, leather bottle, purse)
4. Pot (includes plate, bowl, pitcher, rigid bottle, mortar)
5. Rope (includes string and thread)
6. Harness (includes collar and yoke)
7. Pen (includes pencil, writing brush, etc.)
8. Gun (includes rifle and musket, but not cannon)
The lesser twelve, the tools that I'm not sure are off the list, are:

1. Compass
2. Plumb line (includes level)
3. Sewing needle
4. Candle (includes lamp, lantern, torch)
6. Eyeglasses (includes contact lenses)
7. Saw
8. Balance
9. Fishhook
10. Lathe
11. Abacus (includes counting board)
12. Microscope
My lists merge the sword, scythe, and chisel under the knife. This frees up space for the hammer, the bag, and rope, which I think were Forbes' most serious omissions. The only other omission I felt that I had to correct was the ladder; I removed the watch to make room, although I had misgivings about that.

The other adjustments are minor: The pot got a big promotion, from #16 to #4. The pencil is represented by the pen, instead of the other way around. The rifle is teamed with the musket as "the gun". The telescope is replaced with the microscope. The level is replaced with the plumb line. The scale is replaced by the balance, which is more a terminological difference than anything else.

The omission of mine that worries me the most is the basket. I left it out because although it didn't seem very much like either the pot or the bag, it did seem too much like both of them. I worry about omitting the pin, but I'm not sure it qualifies as a "tool".

If I were to get another 13 slots, I might include: