If you can't remember why onions are in there, take 'em out.

Reading an old article by Paul Graham about the origins of Arc -- written about 3 weeks into the development of that language:

In The Periodic Table, Primo Levi tells a story that happened when he was working in a varnish factory. He was a chemist, and he was fascinated by the fact that the varnish recipe included a raw onion. What could it be for? No one knew; it was just part of the recipe. So he investigated, and eventually discovered that they had started throwing the onion in years ago to test the temperature of the varnish: if it was hot enough, the onion would fry.

By the time Primo figured this out, modern thermometers rendered onions inessential. PG says that Arc will be the Lisp dialect that tries to avoid the onions. The inessential things that creep into our lives. How did they get there? We can't even remember.

This strikes me as a useful story for life. What are the onions in my varnish? Lets get rid of that stuff.

27 responses
That's a great thought - with time, a lot becomes obsolete. I've discovered many onions in different religions/cultures where mindless customs are followed to this day.

Applied to individuals, these can be called blind spots. Habits that we formed to circumvent something or someone a long time ago (very likely in our childhood), but then we forgot. Circumstances may have changed, but these traits live on oblivious to us.

Wonderful post and excellent sentiments. It really calls me to be thoughtful in how I regard standards, habits, and rituals. Not in glib, jaded, cynical judgement, but truly thoughtful. When I encounter a custom, it behooves me to consider the fact that it became a custom in the first place. Perhaps, obsolete though it may seem today, it's a sign post pointing to a deeper thing that may have been lost along the way. Perhaps I can then craft a new ritual to express its newfound resonance. Maybe it is simply an onion in the oil, and the journey to discovering that fact is itself rich with discovery, if I'm open to it.

One of the most salient points for me personally here is not to get mired in endless second-guessing, but to iterate, and then reiterate, leverage those intuitive breakpoints, step back, take a good look from a higher vantage, get some perspective, then dive back in.

Love it. Thanks, Garry!

I like the story, but I think your headline is wrong.

I think it should be something like: If you can't remember why onions are in there, find out why they were in there, good chance that you can take them out once you do.

If you take stuff out of a recipe (or especially out of software), that _you_ don't remember what it's for, and you still take it out without knowing what it does, good chance you break down the whole thing.

I heard an interesting story on This American Life that in some way teaches the opposite lesson. (I might have the details wrong -- I *think* it was sausage -- but the punchline is definitely right.)

A sausage maker in Chicago had operated for decades in a factory on the South Side. This facility had been expanded piecemeal over the years, and was a confusing, dangerous warren of rooms and passageways. The manufacturing process couldn't even be wedged properly into the layout; at certain points people had to physically carry half-made sausage through the plant because they could set up a conveyor belt through the maze.

Finally, they company moved to a gleaming new plant in the suburbs, built exactly around their manufacturing process. But when the plant came online, they were dismayed to find that the sausage it produced wasn't as good. It lacked in the bite, and even some of the color, or the sausage from the old plan. But nobody could understand why -- all the ingredients were the same, and all the manufacturing steps were the same.

Or were they? After much trial and error, they realized that the process of walking the half-completed sausage through the plant, which exposed it to spices and off-gassing from other stages on the manufacturing process, helped create the distinct flavor. They ended up having to re-engineer that part of the process back into the new plant (though they did it without having to actually carry around the half-completed sausage, or course).

The lesson is that if you don't know why onions are in there, don't just assume they aren't doing anything.

I for one love onions in my varnish. It adds character. Locally grown, I guess?
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