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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tech Geek Proust's madeleines

Technology makes all kinds of interesting but unnecessary appliance features possible.

Take my clothes dryer. Please.

It has a beeper that sounds in the same tone, but different numbers of meep-meeps, when different functions have run their course and the nano-nannies of Silicon Valley are convinced I want to drop what I am doing and go answer the demands of the Big Matte-Black Box.

Today the meep-meep sensor has gone wonky. It beeps steadily, and unceasingly, through the entire drying cycle.

The effect is like I imagine it would be getting pursued by a box truck backing up all the way from Charlotte to Los Angeles.

Such devices are a particularly well-developed earworm of mine. See, in the 1990s I had to become an expert in the things.

I was doing a lot of customs and trade law. The US Customs Service- the main source of government revenue until the income tax in 1913 and the only government agency that turns a profit- has one rule: if you can classify an imported anything in one of two ways, pick the one with the higher tariff rate.

My client made meep-meeps. Customs said they were horns. We said they were annunciators.

The case was a liberal arts major's Walter Mitty daydream. I pulled down my OED and started a brief tying the technology of horns and annunciators to their history of usage in English.

A horn can emit differently-pitched sounds at different volumes. An annunciator can only do one tone, at one volume, forever. Electronic fox, meet alternating current hedgehog.

"Pish-tosh," said my boss, The Customs Expert. "Flummery. Argle-bargle."

I argued the Harmonized Tariff Schedules were nothing if not a huge Dictionary of Trade. What duty gets charged depends on how a thing is defined.

"Oh, all right," Customs sighed. "It's an annunciator."

Mind you, Customs isn't always so amenable. They will go to their day of Deconstruction of the Administrative State insisting that rare autos are not duy-free as collectibles or antiques. No, your 1938 Talbot-Lago Teardrop is a used car, and you get to pay $200,000 in duties on that multimillion-dollar addition to your not-collection, Jay Leno.

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