Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Someone is dumber than me

I got this email today from Mr. John Stubbs:
Compliments of the day to you.
I represent UK IMPORT CORPERATION based in England, and we have a marketing quota for the year to meet.
For this we are recruiting representatives who can help us establish a medium of getting to our customers in Europe and North America as well as making payments through you as our payment officer.
It is upon this note that we seek your assistance to stand as our representative in your country.
Note that, as our representative, you will receive 10% of whatever amount you clear for the company and the balance you will be instructed on proceedings to come. We look forward to expanding worldwide before the year 2007 and do hope you could be part of the company's development.
Please, to facilitate the conclusion of this transaction if accepted, do send promptly via email the basic requirements provided underneath to commence registration processes:
(1) Your full names,
(2) Contact address and,
(3) Phone/fax numbers.
Thank you for your time.
Mr. John Stubbs
Freight Fwdg. Svcs.

So I realize we all get these all the time. My point, while vague, is something like this:

1) How stupid do you have to be to believe that a multinational corporation is going to look for help from random people (people who subscribe to AOL, for pete's sake!), and that they're going to go about it with a spam email?
How desperate and gullible must some people be? This makes me sad, so I'm not going to think about it any more...

2) If you're going to do this phishing thing, why not learn to spell? Why not decide exactly what your CORPERATION does? Does it import or export? Does it have proofreaders?

3) What exactly are the Compliments of The Day today?

4) I'm glad that "...the balance [I] will be instructed on proceedings to come" and I look forward eagerly to this happening.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

College Essay+

It occurs to me that one can post just about anything on one's blog, and the police are powerless to control this. What I'm trying to say is that I just realized that when I have nothing interesting to say, I can put up other people's stuff that I like, and Presto! -- instant blog entry. Don't nobody say I ain't quick on the uptake...


Hugh Gallagher's 'College Essay'



I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I'm bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don't perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.

I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.

PS re divorce

I've been touched by all the recent expressions of concern and support from family & friends. Thank you. It is much appreciated.

FWIW, things are proceeding cordially (WA has a thing called "collaborative law", which avoids the misery associated with an adversarial court process). The kids are doing remarkably well.

The truth is it's not easy, but neither is it the wrenching shock it can be for some. Things have been difficult for a while; it's been a long time since Hannah & I had a marriage we were happy in. We grieve for our dreams, for what might have been, for good things we leave behind. There is of course concern about the kids. But along with the expected sadness and regret is a measure of relief and looking forward to making the best of our lives in whatever time and circumstances we are given.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Slow news day

Hope everyone had a nice Thxgvg. Lots to be thankful for, for sure.

Hannah made turkey dinner at her new place -- the kids & I brought pies & whipped cream & drinks. A couple of Hannah's girlfriends came, too, and brought stuff. One of them is recently divorced also, and her ex-husband came too...

A great meal was had, after which much lethargic sitting around took place.

On Friday Samantha wanted to sleep in, but David & I went snowboarding. First time for both of us, fell down a lot, eventually started getting the hang of it. I took out a teenage girl who made the unfortunately choice of stopping on the same hill where I was going to be boarding (what was she thinking?) but it was a low-speed-low-impact collision and she wasn't hurt, just embarrassed, and zoomed away quickly.

I have no doubt David will soon surpass me in skill, but yesterday I actually caught on a little more quickly than he did -- maybe because I've skiied and ice-skated before? -- so I got down the mtn a lot more easily than he did and spent a lot of time waiting for him. Once while waiting near the lift line, I asked a kid (16 or so) if he had any pointers for me; he looked at my face and said "It's a little late to be learning now, isn't it?" So I beat him into the snow with my board. (No, I didn't.)

Today D and I are pretty sore, but I did play hockey for a couple of hours this afternoon which loosens the muscles up. I'll miss this Tuesday's game (back to Texas early AM Monday) so I had to get my fix today...

Then I went to Target and bought wastebaskets and stuff that I need after splitting our household goods into two households (did you know everywastebasket except the cheapest plastic kind costs $19.99? It's robbery, I tell you!) Hannah still hasn't finished taking all the stuff she wants, but it' 90% done, anyway. So far things are as cordial as one could hope for in a difficult situation, so that's a big thing to be thankful for, and here's hoping it continues.

Anyway, that's the news from Lake Washington, where the women are strong, the men are sore from snowboarding, and all the children are above average...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The acid test

When I was about 10, I started a battery collection. I had dozens of sizes and types, and I kept them in an armadillo shell that had been made into a basket. Which is irrelevant, but at the time was cool.

Eventually several of the batteries burst open and leaked acid all over the entire collection. I had to throw away all the batteries and the armadillo, too.

A year or two later, I saw my friend Jim at church. He showed me a couple of silver-and-green batteries of a type I'd never seen before. I admired them, then said, "Those are cool. I used to have a battery collection, didja know that?"

He gave me a funny look. I handed the batteries back, and went on my way. Several hours later, I realized that
a) I had shown my original collection to Jim.
b) He still remembered my collection, and as far as he knew was actively helping me with it.
c) He had saved the silver-and-green batteries especially for my collection.

This story has no point other than "Oops. Duh."


The Seattle Times has a thing in one of the Sunday supplements where you can send in some kind of essay or article or op-ed thing and if they select it you are sort of a guest columnist for the week.

The background for this piece I sent in was that we'd recently moved to Washington from California.

Over the past 2-3 decades there's been a bit of resentment from native Washingtonians about the influx of Californians -- the increase in population made the traffic worse, home prices rose dramatically, and... well, I guess that's about it. But it's a natural instinct to reinforce one's "belongingness" by Them-ing other people when we can, plus everyone needs someone to blame things on, so the anti-CA sentiment still lingers. We encountered a bit of that when we moved here -- mostly gestures from other motorists who saw our plates, etc.

So aaaaanyway, here's the thing the Times printed about our experience; imagine it in two-inch columns on gray newsprint, with my picture at the top...

My name’s Bryan and I’m…a Californian.

I didn’t mean to be. When I was little, I was from Illinois, but my parents decided to move west, and now it’s too late. I’m Californian, and nothing can be done about it.

The problem is, I’m living in Washington.

I didn’t mean to do that either. Really. But my boss sent me here. He said, “Go to Washington for a year, then come home.” So here I am.

You see, I didn’t know being from California was bad. I didn’t realize just where Californians rank in Washington (right after locusts), or how many bad things we were responsible for (low labor costs, overcrowding, high labor costs, the Mt. Saint Helens eruption, tooth decay…)

I thought what was important was to be a good citizen. I have a job; in fact, I brought it with me. I pay taxes; I am polite to senior citizens; I do not drive like an idiot. I keep my yard clean, I obey the law, and I have learned to pronounce Issaquah, Sequim and Puyallup. I now know 16 different drinks that I used to call “coffee”, and five kinds of salmon. I have put my 49ers sweatshirt in storage, and signed on for a year of Seahawks, Sonics, and Mariners. I do my best to help my community and to fit in; I give blood, I contribute to NPR and the Science Center, and I have erected a small shrine to Bill Gates in my living room.

I have tried to assimilate, but nothing seems to erase the stain of my state citizenship. Before I replaced them, my California license plates were a scarlet letter, revealing my sin to the world. “Go home!” the young woman mouthed to my wife through the window of her Explorer. “Go home!” the young men shouted as they sped by on their bikes. “Go home!” said the middle finger of the little old lady at the stoplight.

But recently a wonderful thing has been happening: I have begun to blend in. My wallet was stolen (which made me feel like I was back home already) and I had to get a new driver’s license. Now, with Washington plates on my truck and my new (Washington) ID, my camouflage is practically complete. I go whole weeks without being identified as a Californian.

And now, with my awful secret safely hidden, I have begun to see a whole new side to the people here. They are sociable, helpful, even generous. They are capable and responsible. They care about family and culture and the environment and social issues.

I have even caught myself thinking that this would be a nice place to live. These are good folks, here. I can imagine myself living and working next to them. I even presume to think I’d be a good Washingtonian myself. I might even learn to love the rain.

Yes, sometimes I think living here might be just about perfect – if we could just think of some way to keep all the Californians out…

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

And speaking of alzheimer's

Tonight I thought of two different things I wanted to blog about, but now I can't think of either one of them...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Super Dave

I have a friend. I call him Dave because this is a blog and that's not his name. I'm not sure if he's still alive -- I haven't seen him in 4-5 years. But I've been thinking about him lately, and I wanted to say something about him, and how I knew him, and his inconsistencies and quirks, and how exasperating he could be.

Over the years, most of my friends told me that upon meeting Dave they assumed he was gay. Since he had volunteered to me that he wasn't gay, and since it didn't make any differene to me, I took his word for it. Looking back, I'm pretty sure Dave probably was gay, but wasn't out even to himself.

Dave's mom died of Alzheimer's about 15 yrs ago. His dad died of emphysema (I think) shortly before that. His uncle died of AIDS. His brother got divorced two or three times, and sat on the couch watching TV a lot.

About 8 or 10 yrs ago, Dave contracted HIV and developed AIDS.

Dave wasn't good-looking or physically attractive, and seemed to encounter his share of challenges socially. Some of my friends called him "Opus" behind his back, because he was a musician ("Beethoven's blah blah, Opus No. 7") and he had a beaky nose and waddled when he walked -- he reminded them of the penguin from Bloom County.

He was a talented musician, but he was opinionated, often self-centered, controlling, and could drone on for hours about the most incredibly boring stuff (His drive from L.A. to Barstow; His 3rd-grade music award; Which pizza is worse, Dominoes or Little Caesars? Etc.) I don't know that he ever had a girlfriend (not sure about a boyfriend).

I don't know what it was exactly, but he had an uncanny ability to make people annoyed with him. I felt bad for him, except that he had a way of making you so frustrated that you stopped feeling sorry for him even if you were his friend.

He taught high school music; one time his students set his car on fire in the parking lot.

He came to our area a few yrs ago; I would have invited him to stay the night with us, but my wife was very particular about who she let stay in the house when the kids were small, so I ended up buying him a hotel room instead. I felt bad (still do), because I knew he might think it was about the HIV (I know some of his friends wouldn't let him near their kids any more when they heard.) I wanted him to know that putting him in a hotel had nothing to do with that, but it's a little hard to say "The HIV thing is cool, but you just creep my wife out too much..."

Anyway, I haven't heard from Dave in a while. The last time I saw him, he didn't look very well -- the drug cocktail they had him on made his face puffy, and he was balding and going gray at the same time. He was 35 yrs old. I wondered when we said goodbye if I'd see him again.

I suspect the answer is no...

Sunday, November 20, 2005

From Russia with Love

This is my impression of Russian women:

1) They're pragmatic.
They understand that opportunities for women are limited ("In Russia, the glass ceiling is made of steel and painted red"). Phrases like Equal Opportunity, or Sexual Harrassment are not heard much (I had the impression that some women felt if your boss isn't hitting on you, there must be something wrong with you...)
I'm pretty sure that their pragmatism also means that as a filthy rich (by their standards) foreigner, I could have my pick of Russian Brides were I so inclined.

2) They're beautiful.
I never saw so many beautiful women in one place as in Moscow. They seem to have some genetic pre-disposition to beauty, plus they all smoke, which helps keep them slender. They walk everywhere, so they've got killer butts/legs. They wear full battle makeup at all times, and they tend to dress like they're going to a party even if they're just going to the store. Tight tight pants, or short short skirts seem to be the norm.

3) They can cut you dead with their eyes.
I surmise that because they're hit on (rudely) about 100 times a day, in self-defense they develop a look that says basically "drop dead, worm." It was interesting to smile at them on the street (smiling at strangers is not a Russian thing to do anyway -- it makes them think their zipper's undone or they have food on their face) -- the standard reaction was a cold unsmiling brush-off. But the interesting thing is that if you got past that B**** Shield and established that you were just being friendly, not trying to hit on them, they were extremely warm and friendly. Big smiles, offers of advice and help, etc. The contrast was striking.
In fact, this was kind of the norm in general -- the poeple seemed to be very closed with strangers, not wanting to get involved, default answer NO for everything. But once you had established a connection, developed a little rapport, it seemed like there was nothing they wouldn't do for you -- they've got a defensive exterior, but inside they're as warm and generous a people as I've met.

All for now about Russian women. There will be no charge for this Social Studies lecture...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

My life

Not sure how they come up with these scores, but my life is apparently pretty decent. I tend to agree...
This Is My Life, Rated
Life: 8.1
Mind: 7.6
Body: 8.8
Spirit: 9.5
Friends/Family: 5.8
Love: 7.7
Finance: 7.1
Take the Rate My Life Quiz

Thanks to Jay Are...

Monday, November 14, 2005


About the Personal Favorites section...

I saw this on a couple of blogs recently. Once I got past the embarrassment of saying "This is stuff I wrote that I like" (which took about two seconds), I thought it was actually kind of a cool idea.

I mean, what if someone tries out your blog on a day (or month) when all you've posted is dreck? Wouldn't it be a shame that they didn't get to see some of your better efforts? This way, they can see what I think is my best stuff, and if they hate that (quite possible, likely even) they'll know they don't need to waste their time here because they ain't gonna find a bunch of better posts lurking in the archives .

And if they DO like what they read, it might trick them into coming back, not realizing that most posts will basically be a waste of their time.

Anyway, the first half of the list is stuff I think is funny (your mileage may vary, of course). The second half is more serious stuff.

If you think something on the list totally honks, just LMK -- I'm open to criticism and advice.

If you think something ought to be on the list, LMK that too. I may not do anything about it, but my little ego would be terribly gratified, and I would be your best friend for weeks...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Okay, so here’s a fun one...

There’s no light and breezy way to say this, so here it is: Hannah and I are getting divorced. It’s a long time coming; we tried really hard for a lot of years, but we’re finally chucking in the towel.

For those of you who know us IRL, I have a request:

Sometimes in this situation there's a temptation to look for reasons, to assign blame, to take sides; it would be great if my friends could resist that urge. I like Hannah’s friends, I like her family; I’d like to stay friends with all of them. Same with my friends and family – I’d like Hannah to be able to continue those friendships if she wants to.

Hannah is a good person. She’s the mother of my children, and in some measure we’ll be bound together by that for the rest of our lives. There are any number of things I regret having done in my life, but being married to Hannah is not one of them. Though there's no longer love between us, I respect her and admire her strength of character and her courage. For myself as well as the kids, I intend to speak positively about her in the future.

I know I’ve whinged and whined a bit about my marriage in the past. Please remember that that’s just my side of the story, and give her the benefit of the doubt – not every story has a Good Guy and a Bad Guy – sometimes two people just can’t make it work.

Anyway, I don’t have any illusion that the next 6 months are going to be all fun & games. I expect turmoil and strong emotion. No one I know says getting divorced was the funnest year of their life. I just want to be the best person I can be in the situation.

A verse my uncle sent me that I like:

Life is full of froth and trouble,
Two things stand like stone:
Kindness toward another’s troubles,
Courage in our own.

PS. In case anyone cares, here’s what our kids said (paraphrased):

David: I know things aren’t good between you; if you’re going to split up, just do it. It would be easier for me if you did.

Samantha: I don’t care so much about you guys splitting up; I just don’t like having to give up our nice big house for two crappy little houses.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Hockey Guy

Conversations with Gary follow a consistent theme. In his mind, Gary is harried, plagued, and put upon by lesser persons who try to pull him down; his stories invariably describe how his talents are undervalued, his heroics go unsung, and he is consistently denied the respect he deserves.

Seemingly minor issues of everyday life are revealed to possess great hidden meaning, and the meaning is usually that other people are incompetent fools and scoundrels, who must be shown the error of their ways. Luckily, Gary is up to this task, to which he gives generously of his time and energy.

We sit sweating on the bench, removing our equipment after a game.

"That guy," he says, pointing with his chin, "tried to check me into the boards last game. I’m a pretty fast skater, so I was able to skate through it, but he could have hurt somebody." He gives me a hard stare, to make sure I see the full implications of the danger he had avoided, and the foolhardiness of the other player.

"Umm," I say, concentrating on my laces.

"So today," he continues, scowling, "I just gave him a good shot with my shoulder on the face-off, and told him to watch himself tonight."

I look out at the player he’s talking about, skating with the puck, taking advantage of the ice time. He’s a good-natured guy, a defenseman, plays hard. I picture him as he must have looked after the face-off, staring at Gary in puzzlement and mild irritation.

"…so anyway, in the second period, he tries to bring his stick across in front of my skates while I was moving with the puck. A lesser skater would have fallen, but I just jumped over his stick…"

His voice drones on, and I think about the phrase "a lesser skater", considering whether I have ever heard it used in just this way in the first person before. I haven’t. I ponder a wondrous deficiency of perspective that permits discussing one’s own skills with such naked admiration.

Does he really believe he is as good as he describes himself? Is he insecure, or grandly, spectacularly over-secure? Admittedly, we all tend to cast ourselves in the best possible light, but this is self-delusion on a master scale. Gary is a decent player; he is arguably as effective on the ice as I am. But I feel like I have a fairly clear picture of my limitations. I’m not sure if Gary is aware that he has any limitations at all; I have never met anyone who had such boundless unwarranted confidence in himself. I look at him almost with reverence; I feel I am in the presence of greatness.

"…so I said, ‘Fine. I don’t have a problem with that.’ I didn’t want to ref any more this season anyway, because I’m getting too much extra work driving truck for the quarry." He has exhausted the story of his battle with the unethical defenseman, and skipped to the subject of his refereeing career. Gary is a notoriously unpopular referee. He is honest, but inconsistent and often uncertain. It was by request of the remaining playoff teams that he has been replaced for the finals. Gary must realize this, but as he tells me the story, he re-invents his role; I imagine the story will only need one more telling before his refusal to referee is met with cries of anguish from the league and pleas to reconsider from the players.

"…with my wife’s salary, and my regular pay, plus the truck driving, I was *way* up there last year," Gary says. He has segued to how much money he made last year driving for the quarry at night while working his regular job. His regular job involves managing a machine shop or something; he gives the sun permission to shine on the building in the morning, and is, according to him, the reason for the company’s success. He knows everything that can be known about manufacturing whatever it is they manufacture, and this fact has, for once, not escaped the attention of others. The respect accorded to him by his supervisors and his colleagues is, apparently, just below that shown to Wayne Gretzky by his teammates.

He doesn’t say exactly how much money he made last year, but he does look at me meaningfully, to indicate that the figure was bound to be a lot more than I made.

"I was actually looking for ways to maybe not make so much, because of the taxes and everything…" he trails off, apparently realizing that in general, more is still better, even if your taxes are higher.

I don’t press him to explain how making less money could be better than making more. I am wondering now about his wife – does she see him the same way other people do? Is she equally self-absorbed? Do they sit home in the evenings and entertain one another with self-congratulatory accounts of their day? Or does she wince when he begins to describe his circular, Gary-centered world?

This line of thought gives way to another: If Gary can be so completely fooled by his own account of himself, is it possible that I’m no better? Is my self-absorption and self-delusion as complete as his? As I congratulate myself on my astuteness and revel in self-certified superiority over him, am I missing the beam in my own eye? I *do* have a fairly high opinion of myself in some areas; am I, after all, as bad as he is?

“…so if you need any advice about your money, just ask,” Gary says, “because I know a lot about how the world works, including the business world.”

I look at him. Nah, I think; not even close.

For geeks only

This story has been around for at least 20 yrs; it's about -- in the author's words -- a Real Programmer. My crabby commentary is at the end...

The story of Mel
Source: usenet: utastro!nather, May 21, 1983.

A recent article devoted to the *macho* side of programming made the bald and unvarnished statement: Real Programmers write in Fortran.

Maybe they do now, in this decadent era of Lite beer, hand calculators and "user-friendly" software but back in the Good Old Days, when the term "software" sounded funny and Real Computers were made out of drums and vacuum tubes, Real Programmers wrote in machine code.

Not Fortran. Not RATFOR. Not, even, assembly language. Machine Code.Raw, unadorned, inscrutable hexadecimal numbers. Directly.

Lest a whole new generation of programmers grow up in ignorance of this glorious past, I feel duty-bound to describe, as best I can through the generation gap, how a Real Programmer wrote code. I'll call him Mel, because that was his name.

I first met Mel when I went to work for Royal McBee Computer Corp., a now-defunct subsidiary of the typewriter company. The firm manufactured the LGP-30, a small, cheap (by the standards of the day) drum-memory computer, and had just started to manufacture the RPC-4000, a much-improved, bigger, better, faster -- drum-memory computer. Cores cost too much, and weren't here to stay, anyway. (That's why you haven't heard of the company, or the computer.)

I had been hired to write a Fortran compiler for this new marvel and Mel was my guide to its wonders. Mel didn't approve of compilers.

"If a program can't rewrite its own code," he asked, "what good is it?"

Mel had written, in hexadecimal, the most popular computer program the company owned. It ran on the LGP-30 and played blackjack with potential customers at computer shows. Its effect was always dramatic. The LGP-30 booth was packed at every show, and the IBM salesmen stood around talking to each other. Whether or not this actually sold computers was a question we never discussed.

Mel's job was to re-write the blackjack program for the RPC-4000. (Port? What does that mean?) The new computer had a one-plus-one addressing scheme, in which each machine instruction, in addition to the operation code and the address of the needed operand, had a second address that indicated where, on the revolving drum, the next instruction was located. In modern parlance, every single instruction was followed by a GO TO! Put *that* in Pascal's pipe and smoke it.

Mel loved the RPC-4000 because he could optimize his code: that is, locate instructions on the drum so that just as one finished its job, the next would be just arriving at the "read head" and available for immediate execution. There was a program to do that job, an "optimizing assembler", but Mel refused to use it.

"You never know where it's going to put things", he explained, "so you'd have to use separate constants".

It was a long time before I understood that remark. Since Mel knew the numerical value of every operation code, and assigned his own drum addresses, every instruction he wrote could also be considered a numerical constant. He could pick up an earlier "add" instruction, say, and multiply by it, if it had the right numeric value. His code was not easy for someone else to modify.

I compared Mel's hand-optimized programs with the same code massaged by the optimizing assembler program, and Mel's always ran faster. That was because the "top-down" method of program design hadn't been invented yet, and Mel wouldn't have used it anyway. He wrote the innermost parts of his program loops first, so they would get first choice of the optimum address locations on the drum. The optimizing assembler wasn't smart enough to do it that way.

Mel never wrote time-delay loops, either, even when the balky Flexowriter required a delay between output characters to work right. He just located instructions on the drum so each successive one was just *past* the read head when it was needed; the drum had to execute another complete revolution to find the next instruction. He coined an unforgettable term for this procedure. Although "optimum" is an absolute term, like "unique", it became common verbal practice to make it relative: "not quite optimum" or "less optimum" or "not very optimum". Mel called the maximum time-delay locations the "most pessimum".

After he finished the blackjack program and got it to run, ("Even the initializer is optimized", he said proudly) he got a Change Request from the sales department. The program used an elegant (optimized) random number generator to shuffle the "cards" and deal from the "deck", and some of the salesmen felt it was too fair, since sometimes the customers lost. They wanted Mel to modify the program so, at the setting of a sense switch on the console, they could change the odds and let the customer win.

Mel balked. He felt this was patently dishonest, which it was, and that it impinged on his personal integrity as a programmer, which it did, so he refused to do it. The Head Salesman talked to Mel, as did the Big Boss and, at the boss's urging, a few Fellow Programmers. Mel finally gave in and wrote the code, but he got the test backwards, and, when the sense switch was turned on, the program would cheat, winning every time. Mel was delighted with this, claiming his subconscious was uncontrollably ethical, and adamantly refused to fix it.

After Mel had left the company for greener pa$ture$, the Big Boss asked me to look at the code and see if I could find the test and reverse it. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to look. Tracking Mel's code was a real adventure.

I have often felt that programming is an art form, whose real value can only be appreciated by another versed in the same arcane art; there are lovely gems and brilliant coups hidden from human view and admiration, sometimes forever, by the very nature of the process. You can learn a lot about an individual just by reading through his code, even in hexadecimal. Mel was, I think, an unsung genius.

Perhaps my greatest shock came when I found an innocent loop that had no test in it. No test. *None*. Common sense said it had to be a closed loop, where the program would circle, forever, endlessly. Program control passed right through it, however, and safely out the other side. It took me two weeks to figure it out.

The RPC-4000 computer had a really modern facility called an index register. It allowed the programmer to write a program loop that used an indexed instruction inside; each time through, the number in the index register was added to the address of that instruction, so it would refer to the next datum in a series. He had only to increment the index register each time through. Mel never used it.

Instead, he would pull the instruction into a machine register, add one to its address, and store it back. He would then execute the modified instruction right from the register. The loop was written so this additional execution time was taken into account -- just as this instruction finished, the next one was right under the drum's read head, ready to go. But the loop had no test in it.

The vital clue came when I noticed the index register bit, the bit that lay between the address and the operation code in the instruction word, was turned on-- yet Mel never used the index register, leaving it zero all the time. When the light went on it nearly blinded me.

He had located the data he was working on near the top of memory -- the largest locations the instructions could address -- so, after the last datum was handled, incrementing the instruction address would make it overflow. The carry would add one to the operation code, changing it to the next one in the instruction set: a jump instruction. Sure enough, the next program instruction was in address location zero, and the program went happily on its way.

I haven't kept in touch with Mel, so I don't know if he ever gave in to the flood of change that has washed over programming techniques since those long-gone days. I like to think he didn't. In any event, I was impressed enough that I quit looking for the offending test, telling the Big Boss I couldn't find it. He didn't seem surprised.

When I left the company, the blackjack program would still cheat if you turned on the right sense switch, and I think that's how it should be. I didn't feel comfortable hacking up the code of a Real Programmer.

What I think about it:

Mel's method adds absolutely *nothing* to the product, other than (possibly) performance gains, and that only if everything else remains constant.

I can think of no other serious endeavor where such an inefficient, egotistical approach to a task is even tolerated, let alone admired. If I were his boss (and I understood what he was doing), I'd fire his self-congratulating butt before the read head got halfway to the next instruction.

For programmers like old Mel, the object is to build a monument to one's own cleverness, not to produce a quality product. I can easily picture him mocking modern programming methods and languages, and deep down his reason would be that they don't make it as easy for Mel to be the creative, clever, special showoff that he wants to be.

And for him to refuse to do his job (by some bizarre twist of logic invoking "programmer ethics" and honesty) is the icing on the fake.

So there.

The Good Ole Days

You know how people always talk about the "good ol' days" and they always seem to be better in memory than they were at the time?

I think lots of times they were great times, but that a lot of other things enter into it also.

Apparently most societies have The Myth of The Golden Age, when all was peachy, and on a personal level we tend toward that also.

A lot of times when we say "things were excellent then" what we really mean was "I was happy then".

Also, to us, familiar = good. The UNfamiliar is scary and uncertain. In the context of the FAMILIAR we know how to act, we know what to expect.

The Past is the familiar. It has revealed to us all its threats and we've proven we could survive them. Relative to the present, with its myriad unknown -- and therefore potentially dangerous -- challenges, The Past is a relatively safe and hospitable time.

The problems of the past have resolved themselves and we tend to remember mostly the good things. In most cases we've learned to deal with past challenges, and we miss our innocence and think "if only i could have *those* little problems again" etc.

I bet it's even worse when you're old and in a nursing home. You don't look forward to any more victories or accomplishments. The Past represents a YOU who's healthy, popular, good-looking, admired, accomplished; by comparison The Present is an evil time.

But instead of realizing how much our perception of the past & present is what we're projecting onto it, we tend to criticize and disparage specific things about The Present. In some cases, we're right -- things ARE worse in area X -- but mostly our reason for pointing it out is that it's unfamiliar, it's not our Golden Age, and therefore it's bad.

Just my two cents.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Summer of '75

Stuff we did in Montana with our cousins and their friends from the rez:

- swam in irrigation canals

- rode horseback all over creation. They had a horse named Hawkeye who reportedly was in the movie Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman. (By all accounts, he nailed his part…)

- walked down to the roadside stand to buy cokes, candy, and fireworks

- learned not to wipe the can when sharing cokes (if you’re really bored, see spit and polish)

- lit firecrackers

- broke firecrackers in half to create spark shooters with which we terrorized unlucky crickets and grasshoppers

- blew up anthills and watched them swarm out looking for something to attack

- put red ants in with black ants (and vice versa) to watch them fight

- tried to smoke a cigarette (Roxanne & I). We were temporarily out of matches and couldn’t get it lit using just punk*, so we never inhaled.

- learned to rope

- pretended to give sermons from the pulpit of the tiny neighborhood church, which was open and empty during the week

- explored the junkyard, sitting in old cars with broken windshields and pretending we were old enough to drive

- watched the cows urinate and defecate (while at first glance this may not seem attractive, it’s actually pretty impressive if you’re 10 yrs old and have never seen it up close before)

- lit fires (Roxanne’s little sister Michelle and I). We stole matches from the kitchen and lit dozens of little fires in the fields. We were very careful, always making sure we had an area of bare dirt between our fires and the surrounding vegetation, but try telling the adults that. When Roxanne told on us, we both ended up writing “I will not play with matches” 500 times, plus Michelle got a spanking. Not sure how I got left out of the spanking part, but I didn’t ask too many questions about it at the time…

- enjoyed ourselves immensely

*slow-burning brown stick used for lighting fireworks

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

your cold, cold heart

When my brother and I were about 18-20, we took a trip to Calgary, AB, the city of our childhood. We stayed in the home of a family we'd been close to when we lived there. They had three daughters and a son -- the oldest daughter, Rochelle, was a couple yrs younger than we were, maybe 15 or so. (Note: this story is not salacious, so if that was what you were hoping for, you can give up now...)

Anyway, one day we made arrangements to spend the day with another childhood friend and her mother. We spent the day shopping for a suit for my brother, and by the end of the day the other friend (or maybe it was her mum) had a headache and a long drive ahead and didn't feel like taking us home.

Calgary is a big city, and we were miles across town, but there's a pretty good bus system so we weren't worried.

What we didn't know was that while the main bus lines run into the night, the feeder routes into the residential neighbourhoods shut down in the early evening. We ended up getting a bus back to the right section of town, but we were still miles from Rochelle's when we had to start walking.

Another thing about Calgary is that in the hilly residential neighbourhoods they don't feel too much pressure to make things grid-like for easy navigation. There are endless meandering roads with thousands of identical houses on them, and names that tend to follow a theme: you'll have Stonehill Drive, Hillstone Crescent, Stonecrest way, Blackstone Street, Stonehearth Close, Hearthstone Blvd, Mountstone Avenue, Millstone Place, etc etc etc, all winding through the same area of rolling hills and just about impossible to navigate without a map or help from someone who lives there.

We knew roughly where we wanted to be -- we could see the area of hillside where we knew their house was -- but we just couldn't find a road that would take us there. Eventually we started cutting through yards and between houses in an attempt to reach our destination. With my brother holding his new suit on a hanger, we clambered over fences and casually strolled through back yards, front yards, side yards, alleys. Eventually -- around 11pm, I think -- we ended up back at the house.

And then we had a new problem -- all the doors were locked, and the house was dark. It looked like everyone was asleep. We were embarrassed at coming in so late, and we didn't want to wake everyone up, so we decided to sleep on their trampoline in the back yard.

Here's another thing about Calgary: except for a few days in the middle of summer*, it gets COLD at night.

We were used to sleeping outside in California -- we weren't so used to sleeping outside in the Great White North. By 3am, we were freezing, but now it was even later and we were even more embarrassed (ie, still too proud) to knock on the door. Abandoning all pretense of cool, and putting aside our homophobia, we slept spoons, shivering and miserable. I was ready to put on my brother's new suit, but he refused to let me.

Around 7am, when the first light flickered on in the house, we knocked on the door. The family let us in, told us what idiots we were for staying the night outside, and let us slink gratefully into our warm beds.

Rochelle told us later that we should have tried ringing the bell -- she'd been up till midnight reading anyway. ..

* (July 27 - Aug 5)

doublemint standard

Sometimes we talk about someone applying a "double standard", meaning usually that a (moral) standard is being applied more strictly to one group than to another.

But sometimes there isn't a single standard that fits every situation. Sometimes applying different standards to different people or in different contexts makes perfect sense -- the alternative would be to have one standard for everything, which would be stupid (should we let 6-yr-olds drive just because 16-yr-olds can?)

As H.L. Mencken -- or quite possibly someone else -- said: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Allllrighty, then.

At 36, Gandhi entirely renounced sex in order to devote his energy to public service. He observed the Hindu practice of Brahmacharya (celibacy) and, as a test of self-discipline, invited naked young women to share his bed...

Now that test looks like a win-win if I ever saw one.


From a comment on someone else's blog:

Well there is one thing you can say about American politics. It is not perfect, but... it is not perfect. I think that sums things up nicely.


On the front of USA Today, 25 October 2005:

Bush's Fed Pick Ensures Stability

Does anyone else see anything odd about this headline? Specifically, that it's an editorial comment rather than news?

It seems to me that who Bush picked is news; an opinion about the impossible-to-predict future that will result from his choice is not. To actually ensure stability is impossible, and I think it's interesting that USA Today would report it that way.

Bush's intentions may have been to ensure stability, and pundits may be saying that his choice will ensure stability -- those things are both news. And I should add that I think stability is absolutely essential to our economy, and I support its pursuit fully. The stock market is only as good as investors think the economy is, so anything that keeps things stable is bound to be good. But in choosing a headline like that, it seems to me the paper is veering away from news reporting and moving toward something else...

When we dance to the seratonin tango...

At least two members of my original nuclear family, plus my wife and both kids, suffer from depression.

If you have no direct experience with depression, now is where you get to say that some people just need a swift kick in the pants, that they need to quit moping around being self-indulgent and feeling sorry for themselves when there is so much real suffering in the world.

And I will let you live because you speak from ignorance. I can see how it would be comforting to believe that determination and grit (what made this country great, etc) are enough to counteract the effects of depression. ("When I was a lad, we didn't have time to sit around on our cans complaining about how we felt that day -- we just got up and did what had to be done, gosh darn it...")

I mean, it would sure be scary to think that thru no fault of your own you could become emotionally incapacitated, wouldn't it? -- much better to believe that if *you* got depressed, you'd just turn that frown upside down, take your lemons and make some lemonade, click your heels together three times, and fly back to Happy Town. Or something.

And actually, there is some validity to the idea that getting up and doing what needs to be done is helpful. Some treatments for depression include just that: doing what you need to do, whether you feel like it or not. Activity often does help. But that's just a part of the picture -- activity alone does not approach a full treatment, and by itself seldom solves the problem.

As far as I can tell, treatment for depression (and emotional/mood disorders in general) is a pretty inexact science. There are wonderful drugs, but they dont' all work for everyone, and finding appropriate dosages can be tricky. Depression can be cyclical, coming and going in waves. External factors -- some of them beyond our control -- often contribute. All in all, I'd much prefer gallstones.

And just for the record, here is how you feel when someone you love suffers from depression:
- sad that they're unhappy
- powerless; frustrated that your attempts to comfort are useless
- impatient with them for their lack of ability to engage, to fight back, to DO something to try to get out of their funk
- annoyed with them for being self-absorbed, for being beaten down by (and complaining about) relatively minor issues/problems
- guilty for feeling aggravated with them when they are clearly in so much emotional pain
- guilty for wanting someone to take care of/comfort/coddle you sometimes
- tired

This country blows

I wish to rant about the air-blower-hand-dryer-things that cheap establishments have instead of paper towels. They're loud & annoying, they dont' work unless you have a lot of time to invest in the hand-drying process, and you have to wait in line to use them one at a time. But other than that, they're great.

They used to have the nerve to put a little placard on the machines -- you know, telling how this method is more sanitary, eliminates towel waste, blah blah blah. My favorite complete and utter lie was that the air method "reduces chapping". What are they smoking? In the book Hand Chapping for Dummies, wetting your hands and blow drying them would be at the beginning of Chapter One.

The bottom line is they're cheap to operate -- you don't have to buy paper towels or pay someone to stock them. THAT'S why people put them in, not because they're more convenient for the poor sucker washing his hands. I feel cranky when someone tries to tell me "This is better for you, you like it" when in reality they're the ones getting the benefit.

Anyway, I'd like to have a chat with the guy who invented those things. For starters, I'd pull his jersey up over his head...

Sunday, November 06, 2005

hockey and fighting

OK, here's the deal according to me: other than actual "combat" sports -- fencing, boxing, martial arts, etc -- hockey is probably more permissive than any other when it comes to allowing direct physical action against an opponent.
While the object is to move the puck around, you're allowed to deliberately push, shove, run into, and knock down opposing players. Within some limits, you can hold them against the boards, hit their stick with yours, tie them up with your arms/legs, etc.
With all that direct personal contact happening, and with the line being often a "referee's discretion" type of thing, it's not surprising that tempers sometimes flare, and people get a little worked up.

But more importantly: the physical part of the game is important to success. You win more games if you can dominate your opponent physically and mentally, if you can make him hesitate, if you can make him not want to mix it up with you. (In the words of famous NHL coach Scotty Bowman, "Be first to the puck, and arrive in an ill humour.")

I don't think they allow it just because the players are padded and unlikely to get badly hurt, altho if players regularly got actual injuries I'm sure they'd stop it. For the record, the protocol is that you drop your gloves, and the object is to punch the other guy in the face, so facial cuts and loose teeth are as bad as it gets 99% of the time. Usually each player ends up with one hand holding the other guy's jersey and the other hand free for punching. Ultimate success is when you can pull his sweater over his head and tie up his arms, then you can really bloody his nose or whatever. As for stopping it, the linesmen wait until there's a moment when they can swoop in without getting punched themselves and without giving one player an advantage over the other -- you don't want to grab a player's arms just to have his opponent clock him in the head -- so when both players end up holding the other guy's sweater, or when they go down on the ice, that's when the linesmen dive in.

But anyway, the fighting serves several purposes, listed here in no particular order: it intimidates; it prevents your opponent from establishing mental dominance; it makes your opponent respect your boundaries when it comes to the physical game; it's used to break up the other team's momentum, to distract them from whatever they're doing to beat you; it sends a message that you're here to battle them at whatever level they want to play at.

As I said, in our league and at our level -- it's rec hockey, and the stakes are microscopic -- actual fighting is pointless, so all we ever end up doing is jaw at each other. But in its place, that can accomplish most of the things listed above. If you get in the face of their guy when he messes with your goalie, he's less likely to do it the next time...

Oh, and PS: we lost tonight, 4-3. I had a goal, but it wasn't enough -- I guess I should have tried fighting somebody...