The Laboratorium
January 2002

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I went to the mall, that wretched hive of scum and villainy, this weekend, in search of a pair of boots. I didn't find a pair I liked, but I did wander into the Apple outlet store.


Walking through that doorway is like stepping through the screen of an iMac. The walls are white, brilliant white. The shelves are black; the counters grey. Everything -- and I mean everything -- is backlit, so that the store itself seems to float in a sea of white. Everything is spotless, everything is austere and Zen.

David Foster Wallace, in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" desribed cruise ships as floating mausoleums. In their obsessive sterility, he sees a form of death-denial, an attempt to scrub away all evidence of the physical world from their staterooms. Walking around the Apple store, I knew exactly what he meant.

Mock Steve Jobs all you want for his obsession with design; the man is a genius. Lots of companies built computers or software, but only Apple built a brand. From desktop to casing to store, Apple's every detail fits in with the brand image: cool, clean, smooth, transparent, and glowing unearthly white. Apple has branded immortality.

In the universe according to Apple, nothing ever breaks or gets dirty. You remain unchanged, but the rest of the world just floats away. Stress and danger and all the little things that pull you under can't reach you once you become one with your iMac.

I'm not a religious person, so I'm skeptical of those who offer Paradise. A place without crashes and bugs, where your software always works -- sure I'd like to believe, but I know better.

I hate Microsoft with a passion, and I have plenty of gripes with Unix, but at least I feel alive when I use Windows or bash. Every blue screen reminds me that software, like life, is not always easy or painless; every rm carries a whiff of the great rm -r * that waits for us all.

Computers are crap, but the Apple store offers a world without toilets.

Timothy McSweeney’s Questionable Originality

As of this evening, McSweeney's is running a piece entitled "Poem," by Joshua Kryah. "Poem" consists of twelve numbered warning labels, each noting a frightening-sounding but utterly innocuous fact of physics. For example,

This product contains minute electrically charged particles moving at velocities in excess of five hundred million miles per hour.

Because of the uncertainty principle, it is impossible for the consumer to find out at the same time both precisely where this product is and how fast it is moving.

This is funny stuff, but it was funnier the first time around. I first saw the list in Absolute Zero Gravity, a collection of science humor.

As best I can determine, the list originated in the Journal of Irreproducible Results, volume 36 (1991), issue 1, as "A Call for More Scientific Truth in Product Warning Labels."

Of course, ripping off this list is nothing new, some of the plagiarists are strangely honest about it, and some even plagiarize the plagiarists.

If so many people are willing to reprint these disclaimers without attribution, why not a literary magazine? While McSweeney's is well-known for its appropriations of found text and also for its difficulties with science, it has never, so far as I know, simply reprinted someone else's writings, scientific or not. The lists are not precisely identical -- Kryah has stripped the initial "Consumer Notice" labels from each item, edited the list down to twelve items, and altered the wording here and there -- but the differences are minor. Universities expel students for this sort of copying.

I want to be clear here. I don't know precisely what is going on. It might be that Kryah just wanted to be McSweeney's-level famous and decided to let someone else do his dirty work for him. Or he might have gotten turned around somehow and honestly forgotten that someone else wrote the warnings. Maybe he was even the original author, through some strange set of historical circumstances that let someone else take the authorial credit -- though JIR almost certainly would have retained the copyright in the article.

It might be that this whole effort was a trick played by Kryah on McSweeney's, to see if he could get them to print a piece of common Net folklore. Maybe the McSweeney's people saw through the trick and played along anyway, out of amusement, or maybe they and Kryah were in cahoots from the start. Maybe it's a complex literary hoax being played by McSweeney's on its readers, or maybe the insignificant changes are the whole point of the piece.

I don't know what the deal is. But someone has a lot of explaining to do.