Saturday, February 6, 2016

Support Days, I

About thirty years ago, I started to work in customer support at a company that made typesetting systems. The software ran on minicomputers, which were "mini" in comparison to the mainframes of the day, water-cooled machines that required raised-floor rooms. A minicomputer was simply the size of a refrigerator, say six feet high by two wide and two deep. These minis came from Data General, long since gone, and mostly were 16-bit machines running RDOS (real-time disk operating system) or 32-bit machines running AOS/VS (the advanced operating system with virtual storage).

At some point it must have occurred to someone at Data General that people wanted and were buying smaller computers. Data General therefore produced a small machine, the name of which escapes me. It was about the size of a toaster oven: remove the handle of a toaster over, spray paint it Army green, put on a couple of serial ports, and you will have something that looked like this machine. It had about 40 MB of disk space, roughly one five thousandth of the storage on the iPhone 5 in my pocket.. Our company had heard of desktop publishing, and must have decided to see whether people really wanted a Macintosh with Display Postscript and WYSIWYG, or would prefer a toaster oven with green screen dumb terminals and a hyphenation and justification pass.

The toaster oven was not popular. That I heard, only two of these machines ever shipped. One went to our West Coast support rep. One went to a small company in this area. One day, I was sent to the local company to see what I could do for them. The owner's complaint was lack of disk space. I was not familiar with the machine, nor with its operating system (AOS, a 16-bit predecessor of AOS/VS). But after some poking around I found a directory tree of unused software, removed it, and got back the space he wanted. Sometime during the course of the visit, having noticed my unfamiliarity, the owner asked, "How many of these things are out there?" I said something like "Well, not an awful lot."

Data General is, as I say, gone. It tried to make the transition to selling computers running a UNIX variant on RISC chips, and by all accounts made a pretty good machine. But even the companies who got into that business without the old minis to support are mostly gone now. I have heard, within the last ten years, of somebody running my old company's software, on what platform and how supported I can't guess. The guy with the toaster oven wasn't doing much of anything Word Perfect 4.2 wouldn't do, and I don't suppose his business survived very long.

Friday, February 5, 2016


About forty years ago, I watched an hour of "Firing Line" in which Leslie Fiedler was the guest. He spent most of fifty minutes explaining to William F. Buckley, Jr., that he considered the distinction between popular and high literature to be false and misleading, and why he thought this. I'm not sure now whether I agreed with him at the time. But I thought that he had made his position entirely clear. Fiedler wrote and spoke well, and Buckley's questioning gave him full scope to clarify anything one might have misunderstood.

On "Firing Line" there was always a panel that got to ask questions in the last ten minutes of the hour. The panel this time was made up of professors of literature from a local university or local universities. The first question any of them asked was, "Well, then Professor Fiedler, how would you distinguish high from popular literature?" At the time, I was astonished, for I had not yet learned the extent to which adults will not listen to one another. I am still surprised, since these men were put in front row seats for the purpose of listening to the conversation in front of them, and responding to it.

On reflection, I think that one can distinguish the purposes for which works of literature are written: the market, self-expression, forging the uncreated conscience, etc. However, it is drearily clear that much literature created with the best of motives is immediately or soon unreadable. And much literature that once qualified as popular literature--Homer, Dickens, one could say Tolstoy--remains worth reading and re-reading.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Who Said That?

In The Last Puritan, a letter of Mario Van de Weyer's reports a conversation with a friend, Lord Basil Kilcoole:
"If you never write down your inspirations, Cooly, aren't you afraid of forgetting them, or of getting them mixed up and spoilt?"
"Yes," he replied wistfully. "I often don't knopw whether something that's running through my head is a line of Shakespeare's or an early line of me own. For instance, at this moment I am inwardly hearing the words: Perpetual liars that deceive us never. Is that line somebody's, I wonder?"
"Oh, yes: you've cribbed it from La Fontaine."
"Why question who said it first? It's a chameleon. Perhaps it was French once. Now it is English. Perhaps it only meant that too much lying defeats itself: a copy-book platitude. Yet it has some to mean that our inspirations themselves, in the guise of endless illusion, may lead us mystically to the heart of truth."
 I can't say that I've every mistaken anything of my own for Shakespeare's, or vice-versa.  However, now and then I pick up a book read decades ago, and upon reading it again suspect that I have been unconsciously quoting it for many years. This time it was The Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot.

I have complained, now and then, the English Departments of the 1970s tended to give their students a pound of theory for an ounce of reading, and that some of those so trained went on to apply to the lyrics of rock and roll the tools made for a better understanding of Shakespeare or Donne. In the essay "Modern Education and the Classics", Eliot writes that
There are two kinds of subject, which at an early stage, provide but poor training for the mind. One is the subject which is concerned more with theories, and the history of theories, than with the storing of the mind with such information and knowledge as theories are built upon ...
Eliot is speaking of economics; however, a third subject "equally bad for training" is the study of the literature of one's own native language. The essay also touches on the universities as managing themselves as if for indefinite expansion. And it hints at the American superstition that if one keeps the young in a classroom for long enough, then some instruction will occur. On all these points I may have quoted Eliot without knowing I did so.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Another Blizzard

The snow began to fall downtown about one o'clock on Friday afternoon. I walked out of Second Story Books and saw a few flurries. By the time I had walked a few blocks, they were thicker, and they were quite thick by the time I got home. A truck was salting the side lane at Connecticut and K even before the snow fell. Workers were salting the walks beside apartment buildings here and there.

On Saturday afternoon, after I had cleared the walks, they looked like this

for about an inch more had fallen while I cleared the porches, the walks around the house, and so on.

This morning, 17th St. NW at Shepherd looked like this

Long ago it struck me that this is the way of snows: the beginning is beautiful, the end dreary. And everything just takes longer, which is hardly noticeable at first, but eventually tedious.

However, Friday through Tuesday were on the whole quite enjoyable. We had dinner with neighbors three consecutive nights, the last at our house. We took walks in the neighborhood, talked with neighbors, and watched their children play in the snow. We remembered to admire the alley onto Argyle Terrace that friends had shoveled out. We did without newspapers Saturday through Monday, yet somehow didn't manage to read that much more in books.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Magic, or Not

A friend lent my wife a copy of Marie Kondo's The life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. I infer that the friend has not yet internalized the message, for between a couple of pages are two bookmarks and two receipts. Now, I agree that I should be neater; my wife has always thought that I should be neater. I do not think that Ms. Kondo's directions are the ones that will accomplish this. It could be that I have dipped into the book in the wrong places, and a fuller reading would persuade. But the book goes back to our neighbor soon.

For one thing, there is the notion that one should keep only things that thrill one ("spark joy") when touched. That would leave our house remarkably bare. It would not be more tidy, for we would have no dishes to eat from (unless they thrill my wife), and no brooms or other tools of cleaning. It would be dingy, eventually, for there would be no paint brushes or rollers. I suppose that we could rely on maid services, painters, and plumbers, but that sounds expensive. Probably I have missed a codicil that covers such dull items, but the book itself does not "spark joy" for me, which ought on its own terms excuse me from looking.

For another thing, she is for austerity in books. She believes that books not read as soon as acquired will not be read, and that books once read will not be reread. My experience says otherwise, for there are books that I have read the first time, with interest, twenty-five to thirty years after acquiring them; and there are quite a few books around the house that I do reread. Ms. Kondo thinks that in general people reread at most five books, and only scholars re-read as many as a hundred. This seems unlikely to me. Perhaps it is a matter of who hires her.

I found myself thinking of Hilaire Belloc's The Path to Rome, a passage making light of "real life":
... in these houses there is no honest dust. Not a bottle of good wine or bad; no prints inherited from one's uncle, and no children's books by Mrs Barbauld or Miss Edgeworth; no human disorder, nothing of that organic comfort which makes a man's house like a bear's fur for him. They have no debts, they do not read in bed, and they will have difficulty in saving their souls.
 I do wish Ms. Kondo and her soul all the best. But I don't plan to organize my house, and particularly my bookshelves, on her plan.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


The reviews of Pure Act: The Ucommon Life of Robert Lax, bring to mind Wilfrid Sheed's account of Lax's work on the magazine Jubilee. Sheed writes that Lax would take a manuscript and begin marking out words and sentences. Most editors do this of course, but Lax might continue until tens of pages were reduced to a sentence or even to a word. According to Sheed, Lax did identify what was best in a manuscript, however impractical this was a means of preparing the next issues of the magazine.

I have been reading a book that could use a milder form of that treatment. It appears to me to be an excellent book of 200 or 250 pages: unfortunately, it has been published at 420, not counting index and acknowledgements. Some of this is standard padding, an excess of adjectives and a habit of repeating slightly varied sentences to establish a mood. Some is the author's self-fascination. I can't blame him for finding himself interesting; but I do blame him for then not making us interested in his career, his interviews, his reflections.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Books Fall Apart

Late last year a couple of books started to come apart:

  • An old Langenscheidt's German-English dictionary started to come apart. So far only the page that concludes "statuieren" and begins "Stich" has detached.
  • The cover of my copy of Programming Perl came off. (This was about the time that there was news about the more or less stable Perl 6; I resisted the temptation to see an omen and install it.)
Most of the damage was done to the Langenscheidt's about 35 years ago, and much of the damage since must have been done by age rather than wear. My copy of Programming Perl is something less than twenty years old; really it is not a book I consult much these days, unless to refresh my memory on the syntax of one or two routines. (Checking the details of Getopt::Long probably did it.)

Modern bindings can be weak. I lent a copy of Poems and Problems by Nabokov to a friend, with the understanding that she would discard rather than return it if the binding failed. She discarded it. An old Three Famous Short Novels fell apart as I reread "The Old Man" about the time of the floods brought on by Hurricane Katrina. The other week I had a look around the house for Edward Luttwalk's The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, but suspected that I had recycled it when the quires came loose. Maybe I and they didn't, but the book isn't here. A few other books show signs of trouble.

This bothers me less than it would have once. A book with its back damaged and leaves coming loose has at least been read.