C’mon, it’s like a zipper!

– I-80 motorist to merging traffic

On a crowded freeway, when two lanes of traffic must narrow down to one, the cars may come together like the teeth of a zipper – two sides taking turns to open and fill spaces efficiently. The “teeth” are not like chomping teeth but like the teeth in the gears of a well-designed machine, such as a pocket watch.

But sometimes the traffic gets jammed, as zippers sometimes jam. Jamming occurs in traffic when some of the drivers see themselves as racehorses rather than gears, jockeying for position in a crowded field where one will come out ahead and the others…well, they’re losers. Clearly, putting racehorses together with gear teeth results in a mishmash, something like a log-jam, in which the benefits of competition and cooperation are both lost. It is bad to mix metaphors.

The word log-jam entered American speech by 1885 (or 1851), and registered in the national imagination as an image of colossal system breakdown by 1907, when the Springfield Weekly Republican reported that a legislative log-jam had at last been cleared in Congress. Traffic jam became a word around 1917. The zipper came to market in 1925 as a closure for boots, a quick and easy alternative to too many buttons.

Photo: Karl Stull

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Hurricane Irma barrels toward Florida

– Repeatedly on newscasts in September 2017

To barrel is to travel with great speed, especially with great weight and force, like a train, bus, or runaway barrel filled with 250 gallons of wine (called a tun, weighing about 2,000 pounds/900 kilos). This use of barrel is an American expression, documented in the 1930s but likely going farther back. In a 1914 short story called “Easy Money,” W.W. Jacobs alludes humorously to the sight of a barrel getting loose on a loading ramp:

“Wot’s the matter?” ses her mother, coming downstairs like a runaway barrel of treacle.

Ancient Rome learned the art of barrel-making from Celtic tribes in the north. Compared to the clay jugs (amphorae) used previously to transport wine, oil, and similar commodities, a barrel was light, less susceptible to fracture, repairable in the event of leaks, and maneuverable. A dockworker could roll a barrel that was too heavy to lift and easily steer it left and right, thanks to the bulging sides, called the bilge.

Satellite video of a hurricane looks like a rolling barrel that sprays wine as it powers toward landfall.

Photo: Tony Thompson, RR modelers blog: http://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2012/02/wine-as-industrial-commodity.html

An egg is a space capsule.

– Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Real Time with Bill Maher (May 19, 2017)

An egg is a sealed environment, protecting a passenger. It provides oxygen, nutrition, waste disposal, and shielding against life-threatening conditions outside. It is fragile, but engineered aptly to its purpose, and strong enough for the job most of the time.

An egg is meant to be opened. An egg delivers its passenger to a new world.

Thinking about the first creatures that came out of the sea to live on the land, it’s hard to picture how they transitioned from breathing water to breathing air. Yet it happens every time a chick hatches, every time a baby is born.

So the egg:space capsule comparison brings us to the answer to an age-old question: Which came first, the astronaut or the space capsule?

Obviously, there can be no space travel before there is a space capsule.

Photo: Apollo 5 space capsule, NASA/Wikipedia

Watch the order as they load the sled. It’s like layering cold cuts into a sandwich, John. It takes maximum efficiency.

– Bree Schaaf, color commentator on 4-man bobsled at the Pyeongchang Olympics (2018)

This is a simile meant for Subway employees. They work on a fast-food assembly line (no wasted motion). And the sandwiches they produce resemble a bobsled. But most of us will have a hard time seeing the urgency – much less the “maximum efficiency” – in everyday sandwichery.

We also have a hard time appreciating the athleticism, performance, skill, and strategy in 4-man bobsledding – which, of course, was the point Schaaf wanted to make. To the untrained eye, bobsledding looks like drinking buddies out for a Saturday night prank, joyriding somebody’s trashcan down an icy hill in Vermont. There they go: Ham, Cheddarhead, Turkey, and Monterey Jack.

Photo: US Army team at 2010 World Cup trials 2010, by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs https://www.flickr.com/photos/familymwr/4383583231

Race against time

You can’t race against time – any more than a runner can race against the racetrack. A fish cannot outswim the sea, nor can a bird fly above the atmosphere.

However, it is possible to imagine a race against the clock. On the day Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes (May 6, 1954), he circled the track faster than a clock’s second hand swept around its circle. Even so, though Bannister beat the clock, he did not outrace time. Crossing the finish line, he was 3:59.4 minutes older than when the race started.

Consider an alternative scenario:

Time is a train, heading to Buffalo.

A runner in the caboose advances from car to car toward the locomotive, moving toward Buffalo faster than time itself. The runner climbs onto the cowcatcher in front and, with a hypothetical leap, arrives in Buffalo before the train of time – an achievement of infinite phenomenological significance but, alas, a very brief moment of victory (even Bannister got to hold his record for 46 days).

Is time like a train? Or is it more like a river, which is already joined to the sea before any boat can begin racing downstream?

In a search of Google Books, the earliest instance of “race against time” occurs in 1788, when the author of The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, promises he will write unhurriedly.

Photo: Karl Stull

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The system is totally rigged and broken.

– Donald Trump, October 22, 2016

The rigging of a sailing ship is fairly basic engineering, but it can get complicated. To hold a mast upright requires a system of adjustable ropes that pull with balanced force in different directions. Added masts and taller masts require more elaborate rigging, with rope tensions “in tune” throughout the system. In the early 1500s, a “weale and pompously rigged” ship was an admirable sight.

A hundred years later, landlubbers were using “rig” metaphorically. Just as a sloop or yawl was recognizable by its arrangement of sails, so a man’s “rig” referred to his character. A related expression, “I like the cut of your jib,” persisted into the 20th century.

By the early 1800s, “rigged” also described clever schemes to lure stock investors – with “made markets, rigged shares, paid puffs in the newspapers, and all the other scandals.” In this image, an insubstantial investment is made to stand up, as it were, by an array of clever supports.

The stock-market sense of rigging is an insult to seamanlike ingenuity. On the other hand, it is understandable that all expert systems look alike to an outsider – difficult, arbitrary, favoring those who know how to pull the strings. When candidate Trump said the US electoral system was rigged, he meant it was engineered to favor political insiders.

Then he won the election. We are forced to conclude: if the system was rigged, it must also have been broken, because the rigging didn’t work. Never before in history has a president been so right about so many things he knew so little about.

Note: Quotations are from “rig” entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Photo: USS Constitution in Boston harbor, by Seaman Matthew R. Fairchild; Wikipedia

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Slippery slope

Ought we not to try and stop them if we can, and get them off the slippery slope to the safe, level ground of abstinence?

The Adviser: A Book for Young People (1862)

The slippery slope was a favorite metaphor of the temperance movement in the 1800s. By the end of that century, the image of an unstoppable slide to perdition had made its way into politics, with advocates of free trade warning that one tariff would lead to another and another and then over the cliff to the economic rocks. In the years before World War I, a few voices in Parliament decried Britain’s stumbling on a slippery slope to international catastrophe.

After Prohibition, anti-alcohol rhetoric fell out of favor, but the slippery slope got a shot in the arm as society turned to the menace of non-bourgeois drugs: marijuana, amphetamines, heroin. The oft-told tale of descent into the underworld of addiction always began with: “The first one [first step] is free.” Over time, attitudes toward marijuana began to soften, but a new metaphor arrived in 1981 to re-emphasize the importance of the first step and the inevitability of further steps: marijuana became a “gateway” drug.

Photo: Devil’s Toboggan Slide (1887); albertapolitics.ca

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