In the February, 1962 issue of Datamation magazine, the would-be computer designer could learn from J.W. Granholm, an esteemed engineer with The Boeing Company and General America Corporation, about “one of the most beloved words in (modern computer) design terminology” — Kludge.
For beginners tempted to excitedly take notes, Granholm cautioned that Kludge was “not work for amateurs,” for there existed “a certain, indefinable, masochistic finesse that must go into true Kludge building.” To muffle the raised eyebrows of the nearest wordsmith, Granholm provided a comprehensive etymology — from the German to the Latvian, both via the Sanskrit — that ultimately defined a Kludge as, “an ill-assorted collection of poorly-matching parts, forming a distressing whole.”
To his great and enduring credit, all of this was fake. Granholm not only coined the word Kludge, but wrote an entire article that contained a series of “elementary rules for ‘kludgemanship’”. I can’t speak to how solid Granholm’s engineering game was, but he was definitely having fun, and that’s an improvement over many engineers I’ve met.
Despite its hokey beginnings, Kludge has stuck around — both with engineers and folks in the military, where it often refers to something that probably shouldn’t work but somehow does. The connection to the military is important, but in the spirit of Granholm I’d like to suggest an inversion of the above — Something that probably should work but somehow doesn’t — which is an excellent precis of our country’s military exploits in the Middle East.
When I think about “an ill-assorted collection of poorly-matching parts, forming a distressing whole” I realize I can’t find a better summary of America.
In today’s NY Times — the same NY Times whose 88-point-font headline recently read, TRUMP INDICTED — I came across the following sentence in an op-ed about the Fed’s handling of the recent inflation crisis, “And yet the Fed’s response, kludgy as it is…”
That same NY Times subsequently reported that Ivanka Trump posted a message on Instagram that reads, “I love my father, and I love my country. Today, I am pained for both.” If America is a kludge — an ill-assorted collection of poorly-matching parts, forming a distressing whole — then surely the Trump family sits at the apex of our Kludgery.
Here’s another poorly-matched part: my uncle Terry was a mechanic. Mostly he worked on cars, but later in life he worked for an airline at Detroit Metro Airport. At some point in the late 60’s, Terry and his brother Gary (their parents being the types who thought it clever for their kids’ names to rhyme — my step-dad is Larry…) broke down on the side of I-94 somewhere in the middle of Detroit. Led by Terry, the two brothers diagnosed the problem, walked to the nearest auto parts store, bought some parts and replaced their transmission right there on the side of the highway, after which — they simply drove home.
Terry’s dead now. I don’t remember exactly when that happened — must be eight, ten years ago? There was a funeral back in Michigan but I didn’t go. Probably that was a mistake, for Terry’s dad’s funeral was one to remember. If you weren’t there, envision a swarm of bleary-eyed Polish-Catholics getting drunk on Crown Royal while huddled around a casket in a cold suburban church. To my knowledge, Grandpa went off into the mystic with at least two bottles by his side. Hopefully that’ll be enough to endear him to anyone he meets along the way.
I don’t think Terry would’ve minded that I didn’t intend his funeral. He certainly never complained about it. (I like to think Terry would’ve appreciated a line like that. Of course, I can’t prove it, but since he’s not here to correct me, my word will have to suffice.)
I think about Terry often, usually anytime I’m confronted with something mechanical, and I thought of him again when I came across Kludge. Sadly, we never discussed kludges, but I think Terry would’ve enjoyed Granholm’s entire bit. Beyond enjoying it, I think he would’ve appreciated Granholm’s notion and related to the implementation.
All of this has been my attempt to build a kludge with words. It’s possible I’ve succeeded, although my conclusion is rather light on the distressing whole bit. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by America. We’re definitely not whole, but we’ve got distressing down to an art form.