Monday, July 28, 2014

When Almost Doesn't Work

We are having the basement renovated. Most of the work is in the hands of the contractor, but we are cleaning up the windows, which is to say sanding them down, moving and replace broken panes, removing and replacing old brittle putty, and someday painting them. We are old hands at the work, having done even more elaborate restoration of the first and second floor windows. The experience doesn't mean that the work is faster or more entertaining.

On Sunday I was trying to get the first of the cracked panes out. I scraped away as much as I could of the bits of old putty that obstructed its way, pulled the glazier's points, and used the scraper to dig out the putty beside it on both sides. I then started gently pressing up on the bottom of the pane. I thought I pressed gently, but maybe not. There was a Bang!, and about half the pane bounced off my chin on its way elsewhere. It may have been the same piece that grazed the heel of my hand. I took time off to clean up. The cuts were tiny: had I not been continuing with the work, I'd have skipped the bandages. The other broken panes came out less dramatically. Still, it reminded me that glass has very little flexibility, and that partly stuck can be as bad as wholly stuck.

We are also replacing the old hinges on the windows. As far as we can tell, nobody now makes quite the same pattern: the holes in the leaves don't line up. My wife says, Well they almost line up. I say, That's even worse: you would have to drill into the side of the original hole and enlarge it so that the screw won't hold. I guess we'll putty the holes and let the contractors figure out a new placement.

Friday, July 25, 2014

SysAdmin Day

Today, the last Friday of July, is SysAdmin Day, a day to celebrate the labors of systems administrators, which, if successful, are never otherwise noticed.* Systems administrators are the men and women who keep computer systems running. Anyone who has ever used a computer used by more than one person at once, or connected to a network, let alone blogged about cats, has benefited from the work of a systems administrator.

Many of us no longer see our systems administrators, for our systems are out there in the "cloud" rather than in a glass room in our buildings. But the sysadmins are out there, keeping the systems running, keeping the data backed up. If you can't buy any of them a beer, think good thoughts about them.

(Thanks to The Register for reminding me of the day.)

*Some months after the computers in a limited part of the University of California campus were networked together, in the 1970s, the administrators found it necessary to bring the network down for some changes. At once the halls were full of persons complaining that they couldn't get any work done. Or so I have read.

The Ad Council Tells Me

I walk to work some mornings, passing many bus shelters. Over the last several months, maybe two years, I have been seeing many advertisements on them with an "Ad Council" mark near the bottom. I learn from them that

  • We should save money.
  • We should set examples for our children.
  • We should listen to our children.
  • We should talk to our children.
  • We should give our children healthier snacks. ("Change Your Child's Snack for Good": I think the item shown was a mango.)
  • We should become teachers, make a difference, and make more. Alternatively, we should become a teacher since there is no reason to be anyone when we could be someone.
  • We should not drive under the influence of alcohol.
  • Avoiding eye contact is a sign of autism.
  • We should do more to keep high school students from dropping out.
  • We should save energy.
I don't necessarily disagree with any of these, though I bet that most of those avoiding eye contact around bus shelters and on buses are attractive women who are not even slightly autistic. But I do wonder

  • Whether the firms advocating thrift had any part of Citbank's "Live Richly" campaign some years ago, the one that was going on even as the banking industry was lobbying to make personal bankruptcy harder.
  • Whether the firms that want us serve our children mangoes have any snack food accounts.
  • How many of the designers at the firms would really care to work at a teacher's salary.
  • How much the ubiquity of these public service advertisements has to do with a depressed market for outdoor advertising.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Noted a couple of days ago in Little Wilson and Big God, by Anthony Burgess, the first volume of his autobiography:

There is something desperately wrong with our remembering mechanisms. The trivial, especially if it is in verse, sticks. Great thoughts and great expression of great thoughts vanish. I have repertory of about a thousand popular songs and only one line of Goethe. From one of the 'Little Tales' in Punch, I remember this: "He said I love you, and she said I love you too. Then they went in to tea and he made jokes about the jam sandwiches.' What the hell is wrong with us? The greatness of James Joyce lies partly in his recognition of the importance of the trivial, but it is not his responsibility to explain the importance. Flaubert's Felicite dies seeing a parrot flutter over her head. I shall die on the memory of the HP Sauce bottle from which I first learned French:  'Setty sauce, de premier choyks. . .'
(I think that I have the advantage of Burgess in the matter of Goethe: I can remember three or three and a half lines, probably somewhat mangled.)

I suspect that the sticking power of the trivial verse comes in part from the age at which it is encountered. The lyrics of John Lennon or John Denver are remembered because encountered in childhood or adolescence, ages of energy and hope.  And I think that the same process works for much better verse. The Athenians captured at Syracuse could recite Euripides at great length; Eugenia Ginsburg, on the train to Siberia, could recite Pushkin for half an hour by the watch; I'm sure that they learned the verse young.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Sesquicentennial

One hundred and fifty years ago today and this weekend, Federal and Confederate troops skirmished on the outskirts of Washington, DC, three miles or so from where I sit. The Washington Post and other local news sources have items about the anniversary.

Federal forces under General David Hunter had been forced by lack of supplies to retreat from the Shenandoah Valley; their lack of ammunition meant that they had to retreat toward the Ohio River, rather than directly toward Harper's Ferry. This opened the valley to Confederate forces under Jubal Early, who crossed the Potomac, and moved on Washington. General Lew Wallace got together a scratch force of mostly raw troops, and fought a delaying action on the Monocacy River near Frederick. They Union force lost, but the Confederates were delayed a day, which gave Federal reinforcements, principally the 6th corps of the Army of the Potomac, to arrive from the James River.

July 12th and 13th saw skirmishing in front of Washington, mostly in the area around Fort Stevens, near present-day Piney Branch Road and Georgia Avenue, NW., though some Confederate cavalry made a reconnaissance in the direction of what is now the American University neighborhood. Fort DeRussy, in Rock Creek Park near Military Road, contributed fire support. Ultimately, Early decided that it was not worth trying to force his way into the city, and retreated.

Vestiges of the works and the battle remain. You can see the old earthworks at Fort Stevens from Piney Branch Road; you can see what is left of Fort DeRussy by walking a hundred yards or so in from the intersection of Military Road and Oregon Avenue, NW. Battleground National Cemetery, on Georgia Avenue, NW, between Van Buren St. and Whittier Place has graves of Federal soldiers; it occupies about a third of a city block. In the churchyard of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, about three miles north, there is a grave marker for some Confederate soldiers.

It certainly would have embarrassed the United States government to have the capital raided. Whether that would have had an effect on the war is less clear; there had been a year of successes by July 1864. Early's raid led to Philip Sheridan taking command of Federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley, where he defeated Early's forces at Fisher's Creek and Winchester, giving the US command of most of the valley.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

And One Grows Old

Mme. de Sevigne writes to the Comte du Bussy-Rabutin, August 6, 1675:
You also know about my life: five or six friends whose company pleases me, a thousand little duties, and that's something. But what upsets me is that the days go by in doing nothing, and one grows old, and one dies, and our poor life is made up of these days.
I can't say that many of my days pass in doing nothing; but enough seem to pass in accomplishing nothing, and given Mme. de Sevigne's thousand duties, perhaps that's what she meant.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Programming as Performance

Twenty-five years ago, in a systems administration class, I met a couple of women who seemed rather old, though reckoning says that they were younger than I am now.Both had started programming when it was an unusual occupation. At least one had learned the trade in Manhattan, which then probably had more programmers than Seattle and Palo Alto put together.

She told me that when she was a new programmer, the company's machine room had a picture window onto the sidewalk. Passersby would stop to look, for computers were few then, and not well understood. The programmer would hand off her card deck to the operator, who would read in the job, set it, and run it. This gave the spectators more to watch, for in those days tapes held much of the data and the work space, disk drives being new, few, and expensive: one could watch the drives go back and forth, tapes being taken down and hung, and so on. But if the program ABENDed (came to an abnormal end), all the tapes would stop at once, and the failure would be obvious to the public. It was, she said, a strong incentive to write one's program correctly.

I believe her. The PC revolution made it possible for millions to encounter program failures, and the web has greatly increased the number of programs and the number of users. But nobody has to hand off the code to an operator in full view of a sidewalk full of New Yorkers.