Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nerd Bumper Stickers

Seen today on I St. NW, next to the Department of Veterans Affairs:

For those not immersed in the culture, a brief explanation. In the LISP programming language, "car" takes the first item in a list, "cdr" takes what is left over. The programming language Perl is ubiquitous on machines running UNIX and Linux; the pathname of the executable is generally /usr/bin/perl. This sticker seems to have Linux in mind, with a penguin dressed up in knitted hat and scarf.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Emblematic" Come Back, All Is Forgiven

For about twenty years, I wondered whether I would live to see the popularity of the adjective "emblematic" fade. I had no fear that it would kill me, but it annoyed me, and it seemed to have more staying power than I felt in myself some days. So-and-so would be emblematic of such-and-such, usually meaning "typical" or "a fair example", and I would grimace as if I had cut my finger on the paper. But its popularity has fade over the last year or so.

Now we have "iconic". The Northwest Current has a caption describing the Kennedy Center as "one of the iconic Foggy Bottom landmarks to be featured on the [heritage] trail." The Kennedy Center is certainly recognizable, which I suppose is what they mean; though how a landmark could not be recognizable, I don't know. I hear of iconic books, poems, and songs, meaning important or excellent ones. But why iconic? The poem that I can think of off-hand that I'd be willing to call "iconic" is the section of "Among Schoolchildren" beginning "Both nuns and mothers worship images".

Still, I can think of a landmark in Washington that is in its way iconic. The National Presbyterian Church has a "Chapel of the Presidents", the stained glass windows of which depict various presidents rather abstractly. I don't believe that Presbyterians recognize the place of icons in worship, and I doubt that even Steven Ambrose would say that Dwight David Eisenhower was a saint; but say this for his window: it is Ike-onic.

Friday, September 5, 2014


Today's XCKD brings to mind Wilfrid Sheed's essay, "A Few of My Favorite Sins", collected in Essays in Disguise:
Naming the deadly sins is uncannily like trying to remember the seven dwarfs. The first person to say "Doc" three times figures he's made it. (In my own case, the Taj Mahal serves the same purpose for the Seven Wonders of the World.)
 In the case of the sins, I can always fall back on the acronym "Saligia", thanks to Czeslaw Milosz's essay of that name in To Begin Where I AmA bus driver at Disney World told us all a handy way of remembering the dwarfs names, something involving categories (moods was one, comprising at least Grumpy); but that was a while ago, and I've forgotten.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Still in There Punching

With a notion for a post not yet written, I went to the University of Toronto's wonderful Representative Poetry Online site. The poem for the day was "There was a young lady of Riga", which I remember from long ago as "There was a young lady of Niger" (and Niger seems the better rhyme for tiger, but maybe not in Toronto). But what struck me most was the attribution of the limerick, to "(Anonymous, 1100 - 2010)". He seems be suffering from writer's block lately, something that happens to poets younger than 900; still I trust he will back strong as ever.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Some years ago, on a winter Sunday, a friend told me, "You know, I really miss summer. In summer things are alive. Even bugs are alive." The day was nothing unusual for a local winter: an afternoon temperature in the mid-forties, an overcast sky, maybe some drizzle, dark bare trees. I did not wholly agree. For one thing, I grew up in colder places, and would have been happy to see more snow and lower temperatures. For another, I find running more comfortable in cool weather than in hot. But I understood what he meant.

We are about at the end of another Washington summer. It was a comfortable one as they go. If I chose the shaded side of the street on lunchtime walks, it was to improve comfort, not to avoid discomfort. I think that there may have been one day I felt very uncomfortable running on a weekend afternoon: most summers there are a dozen or more. There has been no stretch like that I encountered my first summer here  and which almost fixed my notion: temperature above 90 F, high humidity, a low sky the color of freshly poured concrete.

I can do without many of the bugs, particularly the mosquitoes. But I do like the lightning bugs early in an eastern summer. I think they disappeared on the early side this year because it was drier and cooler. And I like the cicadas and crickets late. A couple of weeks ago they made a sound as of little bells shaken. Now they are back to the late summer sound I'm used too, less silvery and raspier. I like to watch the bees and butterflies on our flowers and shrubs.

And I enjoy the summer fruits and vegetables. My father did, and in fact discovered an allergy awakened by too many tomatoes and ears of corn. I have long passed the age at which he broke out in hives, so either I don't have the allergic trait, or I get through less of that produce. But from early summer we have fresh tomatoes always in the kitchen, corn sometimes, peaches usually, berries and plums from time to time.

Even the weather can be enjoyed, if one acts prudently. The runner has to know the intervals of sun and shade on his route, when to start, sometimes when to walk. But once he or she has learned to run in the Potomac summer, the rest of the day seems not so bad.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Coding and Cooking

A young neighbor said that she is taking an introductory programming class. Of course, I asked her what language it used--failure to do so could lead to them taking away my pocket protector. When she said C++, I stared for a minute. I said, Well, it's a big language. And I remarked on the growth between the two editions of The C++ Programming Language that I had owned, the first probably under 300 pages, the next, purchased at most five years later, over 500. I find that the latest edition, published this year, has 1386 pages.

Large books on programming languages are not unusual. However, C++ is a tricky beast, a tool designed by a very proficient programmer for his own kind. The beginning programmer can easily discover that the runes in the small print actually said "Here be dragons" or "Achtung: Minen" or "Chien Mechant", or indeed have to puzzle this out from a two-page error listing. I don't think that I would use C++ in an introductory course.

For what it can do, C++ is excellent. However, of all those employed as programmers, a small fraction need the facilities it offers, chiefly the ability to combine low-level access to the hardware with a high level of abstraction. Most of them can work at a remove from the hardware, as with Java and C#, or "scripting" languages such as Perl, Python, and Ruby.

It is certainly useful to be able to work at all levels of the software stack, however much one may stick to one particular level. I am grateful for the chance I had to learn assembler and C, and make gaudy but not too costly mistakes as I figured out about effective addresses and registers. However, I have worked with consultants who probably couldn't give a five-minute talk on pointers but are very productive with the higher-level languages they use. Plenty of the students intimidated or simply flunked out by C++ might be useful programmers, and eventually capable of tackling C++, if they started with something like Python.

I shared these reflections with a couple of friends. One responded to agree, mentioning the case of a young relative who had suffered pointlessly through half of a C++ class.

Michael Pollan, who writes about food, devoted some of his Omnivore's Dilemma to a meal beginning with the shooting of a wild pig. I believe that I read a bit of this chapter in the New York Times Sunday Magazine before I was called away to do something else. Or maybe I found it remote from my interests. I like Pollan's writing and more or less agree with many of his ideas, but have no urge to hunt my own pork.

Competence in programming is good for the individual, who becomes more employable, and for society as a whole, which nowadays can use programmers. Competence in cooking is good for the individual, who will generally eat better and weigh less, and for the society as a whole, which has member less likely to suffer from the ailments that accompany obesity. So, more of us should learn to code and more of us should learn to cook.

If instruction in cooking began with shooting and butchering a pig, how many of us would learn cooking? And the beginning student does not approach C++ with superior firepower. It is not a matter of lying in ambush with a rifle, it is a matter of contending in mud or thicket with a tough opponent, on terms of near parity. Odysseus got away with a scar when he went boar hunting.  How many of the students will?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Forty-odd years ago, Richard M. Nixon, Republican president of the United States, said "We are all Keynesians now." This did not please the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which tended to be parsimonious on government spending and opposed to any measures tending toward inflation.

This week, Francois Hollande, Socialist president of France, dissolved his government because his economics minister, Arnand Montebourg, had criticized the government's austerity measures, speaking in favor of more government spending to stimulate growth: I gather that Montebourg had considerable backing in the cabinet. I lack the training in economics to say who has the better of the argument. But I would not have thought that a member of a French socialist cabinet would be turned out for speaking against austerity.