Monday, November 11, 2019

A Joke Lost

In the movie of The Accidental Tourist, there is a scene in which Macon Leary's boss, visiting the home of the Leary siblings, watches them all look at a ringing phone without making a move to answer it. They consider who might be calling--not the brother who is off on an errand, for he would know to call a neighbor instead. The boss becomes more and more nervous as the phone goes unanswered. The scene got a good laugh in the theater where I saw it.

Would anyone under twenty-five understand it? I'm not sure how many under thirty remember the days when a phone readout did not show who was calling (or purporting to call). Few enough live in a household with a landline and a telephone in a common area. Phones these days ride in the pocket and display the caller, or at least the purported number.

Though I grew up with landlines, I can sit peaceably and ignore a phone as once only eccentrics did. I'm sure no movie script would contain such a scene today. But it was funny then.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Dates and Databases

A co-worker of admirable initiative is learning SQL in what is probably best way there is: to meet an immediate need. I have offered a clarification or two when asked, but as far as I can tell she has been mastering it quickly.

A while ago, though, a query that should have produced some rows produced none, and it was not clear why. I had a look at the query provided, where the final restriction was something like
ImportantDate BETWEEN 2015-01-01 and 2017-12-31
meaning "the important date occurred in 2016, 2016, or 2017".

Now, not all database engines will accept this. Oracle will reject it as an attempt to use a number where a date belongs. SQL Server, though, and evidently MySQL will happily read 2015-01-01 and 2017-12-31 as arithmetic expressions reducing to 2013 and 1974 respectively. Now, there is no number that is larger than or equal to 2013 and less than or equal to 1974, so such a condition will never allow rows to be returned. She dropped single quotation marks around the dates, and got what she needed.

Monday, November 4, 2019

On Borrowed Words

Ilan Stavans's On Borrowed Word: A Memoir of Languages turned up here, though I don't quite remember buying it. I must have bought it, and that was the right decision. Stavans is tremendously interesting. I have little or no first-hand knowledge of most of what he writes about: the lives of Mexican Jews (of the generation about to turn 60 and their parents), Mexico in general, or life in Israel. But Stavans gives an interesting picture of his worlds, and of his parents' worlds.

The languages he writes of are Spanish,
I never learned to love Mexico. Instead, adoro the Spanish language. It is far easier for me to think of my birth as having occurred in the tongue of Quevedo, Cervantes, Borges, and Octavio Paz than to perceive myself as un mexicano hecho y derecho.

 Yiddish, a language for which
the number of speakers, whose average age was around fifty, made it a less used language than Serbo-Croatian .... [but] the mother tongue, whereas Spanish, the street language, the one I most often used, was the father tongue. The duality was not artificial; Jewishness (though not Judaism, at least not then) was in my heart and soul.

English, in which at first
 I could, indeed, make myself comfortable in English, but I could not dispel the sense of inhabiting a rented house, of bothering another person's suit.
Hebrew enchanted me. .. But language alone does not make the mand, and when I exhausted my curiosity toward Israel, I also let go of the Holy Tongue and gravitated toward Europe.
By the time of writing the book, 2002, he had been resident in the US for a dozen or so years, as student and then as professor, and as journalist explaining the US to Latin America and vice-versa. He was quite at home in the rented house. Few enough born to the tongue write so well.

There are oddities in the book. Stavans's description of his Mexican passport seems to be badly copied from Robert Graves's description of his own in Goodbye to All That. Stavans says that the passport gives his height as 1.58 meters. This is about 5'4", but one can transpose the last two digits to get 1.85 meters, which matches Graves's 6'2". Stavans gives his weight as 170 kg., where Graves stated that he weighed 170 lb. Now 170 lb. is a lean 6'2" and a hefty 5'4". But 170 kg. is a weight for the occasional NFL lineman (generally 1.9 meters tall) or the morbidly obese.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Math Input Panel

Today I wished to calculate a little nearer a value I reckoned at around 1500. I brought up the Start menu on my PC, opened Windows Accessory, and found not Calculator but "Math Input Panel". I had seen this under an earlier version of Windows, had made nothing of it, and hoped that it had been discarded by the time Windows 10 shipped. It had not.

I clicked in the window, started to type, and saw nothing in the panel. The keystrokes were going to the window previously visited, which was not what I wanted, of course. I therefore tried to draw the first term of the calculation with the mouse. That turned out worse than I'd have imagined.

I did once manage to trace a "4" that the panel accepted as a 4. Most times it read my 4 as the Greek letter phi. Out of curiosity, I kept on going, to draw 47000 as best I could. The panel interpreted it as phi to the delta E something-something. (E backwards, the symbol logicians use for "there exists").

The program strikes me as a tour de force, a case of programmers seeing what ingenious notions they can implement without considering what the users will make of it. I find it odder in that I never supposed programmers as a class to have good fine motor skills in general or good handwriting in particular. I generalize from my own experience, but am I wrong?

As it happened, I was also working on a Linux system, so I used its calculator. That accepted keyboard input, did not interpret "4" as phi, and gave me the answer I was looking for. One never really expects Linux to have friendlier tools than Windows, but in this case it did.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

To Mars, and Also to Armonk

On Wednesday afternoon, I passed a man wearing a tee shirt that read "Open Source Took Us to Mars", a reference to the use of various open source software in processing the data from the Curiosity rover. Of course I then had to look back to see what the back of  his shirt said, which was "Red Hat". Red Hat is one of the oldest and most successful providers of Linux distributions, so this wasn't a surprise.

But IBM recently purchased Red Hat. That also is not astonishing, for IBM has supported the use of Linux virtual machines on top of its systems for a long time. Yet when one thinks of open source software, one thinks of young coders, casually groomed, and in casual clothing. That was not at all the IBM style. It is said that many years ago the way one established one's genius at IBM was to grow a beard: if one was not fired, the world saw that one was too intelligent to fire. And a salesman once employed by IBM told of the shock a co-worker produced by wearing a dress shirt that was blue rather than white.

Sunday, October 20, 2019


Noticed in Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Chapter 16, "Cultural Revolution":
For the rest, there is no part of the past we know so little about, for all sorts of reasons, as the three to five decades between our own twentieth year and that of our fathers.
One's own first twenty years offer an intimate view of the times, though neither a broad nor an impartial one. Why our view of the preceding decade or so should be so obscure, I don't know. Do we take our parents' words for how things were? And one can only suppose that Musil has in mind a deep understanding, not a knowledge of facts. During the last decades of the 19th Century the press relentlessly collected and published facts, and the rate of this has only increased since.

(Also, "three to five decades"? The governing classes of the Dual Monarchy seem to have married late.)

Monday, October 14, 2019


Yesterday, October 13, 2019,  the Roman Catholic Church canonized John Henry Newman.

In his John Henry Newman, Ian Ker quotes his subject, who "Amused as well as embarrassed by a lady who called him a saint... remarked"
I may have a high view of many things, but it is the consequence of education and of a peculiar cast of intellect--but this is very different  from being what I admire. I have no tendency to be a saint--it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales. I may be well enough in my own way, but it is not the 'high line.' People ought to feel this, most people do. But those who are at a distance have fee-fa-fum notions about one. It is enough for me to black the saints' shoes--if St. Philip Neri uses blacking, in heaven.
(Chapter 8, Controversy and Satire, section 4)

One might raise various objections here: St. Jerome was troubled in conscience about his love of the classics; St. Thomas More is remembered for his tale Utopia; etc. But now one can use an argument Newman steadily returned to: Securus judicat orbis terrarum.