Monday, May 25, 2015

California as Heaven, or Not.

In Palo Alto in 1956, George Kennan wrote
California reminds me of the popular American Protestant concept of heaven: there is always a reasonable flow of new arrivals; one meets many--not all--of one's friends; people spend a good deal of their time congratulating each other of the fact that they are there; discontent would be unthinkable; and the newcomer is slightly disconcerted to realize that now--the devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant--nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again.

(Sketches from a Life, entry for May 13, 1956.)

I thought of this today when I happened to pick up Mazes by Hugh Kenner, and found a bookmark at the end of the essay "Please Welcome My Next Idea", a piece from 1982. Within it, the angel at the entrance to the afterlife is catechizing Mortimer Adler, who then had a show running on PBS:

ANGEL: ... Back when the morning stars were singing together, I made my thousands of decisions with elan. Now I scarcely know which telephone to pick up.
ADLER (quickly): The blue one.
ANGEL: Hush, you do not know what you are saying.(A long pause.) I have decided. Your eternity shall be unique.
ADLER: Not . . . (he gropes for the worst) an eternity of culling the Great Thoughts of John Dewey?
ANGEL: No. An eternity at this very desk. You are a packager, I am a packager. Heaven, Hell, those are packages. Our appearance, even is not unlike. I shall change my pace for an aeon. I shall descend and run the Aspen Seminars. You shall sit here and catechize the clients.
ADLER: With the files? The Rolodex? The video archive?
ANGEL: With all of it. You will find it comes naturally. I must tell you, though, the secret of the telephones. Red, blue, it does not matter: mere decor. Both go to the one Dispatcher. What matters is not which you pick up but the word you say: you say merely "Los Angeles," or "Kalamazoo."
ADLER: Los Angeles. Ah, of course: Heaven.
ANGEL: Your blind trust in categories! For once consider reality. No, for the deserving, seasons and Michigan air. For the mass of men, in their infinitely greater number, an eternity of smog and issueless freeways.
ADLER (speechless): . . . 
Unfortunately, the University of Georgia Press seems to have let Mazes go out of print. It is not perhaps the best collection of Kenner's essays, yet it has excellent pieces--this one, "The Wherefore of How To", and "Marshall McLuhan Redux" among others.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

So That's Who John Galt Is

Having discussed the new "Far From the Madding Crowd" with a friend (we thought well of it), I was going down the list of poets on the University of Toronto's Representative Poetry Online site, looking for Thomas Gray and the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", when I saw the name John Galt. After a moment of surprise, I had a look.

The University of Toronto hasn't much to say about this John Galt. It gives his year of birth as 1779, his year of death as 1839, and his literary period as Romantic. One of the poems they give is in broad Scots, heavily footnoted, and a couple of others use Scots words here and there.Wikipedia says that he was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, and founded the city of Guelph in what is now Ontario. Wikipedia also gives "(novelist)" in apposition to his name, to distinguish him from the better known John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged.

It seems improbable that Ayn Rand named her character after the literary John Galt. He was successful enough in business, but one of the poems that the University of Toronto offers is The Selfish, which begins
There is a death, an apathy profound
As that of those who in the churchyard lie,
Although the sepulchres be above ground,
Where rot these moral morts unconsciously.
 That is not the Randian view of selfishness, as I understand it.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Rereading Walker Percy

It seems to me that one of Walker Percy hints at one of his strengths early in The Moviegoer:
.. "We'll not see their like again. The age of the Catos is gone. Only my Jules is left. And Sam Yerger. Won't it be good to see Sam again?
This is absurd of course. Uncle Jules is no Cato. And as for Sam Yerger: Sam is only a Cato on long Sunday afternoons and in the company of my aunt. She transfigures everyone. Mercer she still sees as the old retainer. Uncle Jules she sees as the Creole Cato,, the last of the heroes--whereas the truth is that Uncle Jules is a canny Cajun straight from Bayou Lafourche, as canny as a Marseilles merchant and a very good fellow, but no Cato. All the stray bits and pieces of the past, all that is feckless and gray about people, she pulls together into an unmistakable visage of the heroic or the craven, the noble or the ignoble. So strong is she that sometimes the person and the past ar ein fact transfigured by her. Uncle Jules has come to see himself as the Creole member of the genrs, the Beauregard among the Lees.Mercer is on occasions not distinguishable from an old retainer. Truthfully, I do not know, and Mercer does not know, what Mercer really is.
In 1961, Walker Percy knew how quite a few people talked: women like the aunt, Emily Bolling Cutrer, born to property and authority about 1900; her Vassar-educated stepdaughter; the speakers on "This I Believe"; screenwriters for the movies or TV; New Orleans newsstand operators; Midwestern veterans; and many more. He well deserved his National Book Award. He did not lose his ear as he got older; the voices in The Second Coming are believable.

The one voice he did not seem to hear well enough was his own, that of a Catholic existentialist novelist. I found it increasingly doubtful as the years went on. I would sum it up by saying that Walker Percy was good at depicting what he found wanting--"This I Believe", the Phil Donahue Show, bad 1970s TV--but not clear on the alternatives. The apophatic mode is useful and necessary in theology, but I don't know that it gets one far in fiction.

Still, there is The Moviegoer. I bought the copy I now have, when I found that NPR had revived "This I Believe", for the one paragraph
I did not always enjoy This I believe. While I was living at my aunt's house, I was overtaken by a fit of perversity. But instead of writing a letter to the editor, as was my custom, I recorded a tape which I submitted to Mr. Edward R. Murrow. "Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans," it began, and ended, "I believe in a good kick in the ass. This--I believe." I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called a "smart-alecky stunt" and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Noise and Signal

We requested some data from another organization. Eventually a CD arrived that was said to have the data we wanted. We found a T-SQL script, T-SQL being the dialect supported by Microsoft SQL Server. The file was large, about 55 megabytes. However, it appeared to have only the data definition language (DDL) to create the database.

The other organization said otherwise: the data was in there. I doubted this. The script had no INSERT statements, for one thing. For another, the script had a suggested database size around 500 gigabytes, five orders of magnitude larger than the script. But  I went ahead and ran the script. It created more than 5000 tables, all empty. I pulled a list of them to be sent back to the other organization

The next day I had another look.The name of the database sounded like that of a well-known Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and some of the tables seemed, according to Google, to belong to that system. That satisfactorily explained the number of tables. A look at a printout we received with the disk provided more information, enough to make some educated guesses. It appears to me that

  1. The organization found a contractor to build the new system..
  2. The contractor's data analyst looked about for a system that might suggest what he should do.
  3. His eye fell on this ERP system, which had tables matching a component or two of the requirements. (It has tables for almost any data a company might need to record, from payroll to cash-register transactions to customer complaints and loading dock traffic.)
  4. He selected and perhaps adapted about twenty-five tables and created about twenty-five more.
  5. He or the database administrator created such intermediate tables as were needed to load up and modify the data from the previous system.
  6. At no point did anyone drop any of the load tables,which usually have multiple versions, with a suffix indicating creator or date. In fact,
  7. At no point did anyone drop the 5000+ tables set up for the use of loading dock, kitchen maintenance, payroll, etc., etc., and of no use to the new system. The noise to signal ratio therefore is about 110 to 1.
  8. Somebody in management told yet another employee to extract the whole database.
  9. That employee found instructions for dumping the DDL and followed them.
This sort of thing happens. Programmers have very good reasons for reusing code, though reusing 1% and dragging the other 99% along seems careless. But it would be good if one could find that one person who understands the system at all, or at least multiple, levels and could provide what we asked for.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Flyover

Today between noon and one, a series of flights of American WW II aircraft flew over the National Mall. About forty of us were on the terrace of the building where I work to watch, and we could see crowds on top of other office buildings in view. It was well to have an aviator's eyesight or a pair of binoculars; I had the latter.

The difficulty of identifying the airplanes varied a good deal. Fork-tailed craft--the P-38, the B-25, the B-24--were simple. The P-51 with its air scoop and the F-4U with its gull wings were easy, as were the PBY Catalina, B-17, the B-29, and the C-47. The Navy's mainstays were harder, for the Navy favored small planes with radial engines, and the F4F Wildcat could hardly be distinguished from the TBM Avenger or the SB2C Helldiver, at least with my eyes, binoculars, and vague memories of pictures seen long ago. This is a little unfortunate, given how decisive the Battle of Midway was and how gallantly the Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought--both represented chiefly by those small planes.

I found myself, partway through, serving as narrator for my end of the terrace.
"The lead one is a C-47. That was the military version of the DC-3."
"It was the first really successful commercial airliner."
At the end a woman, probably about 30, asked how I knew what the planes were. I said that I was a baby boomer, and that when I grew up essentially everyone's dad had been in the war. (And for that matter a lot of  moms; two of my aunts were nurses in the military.) One heard the stories and read the books.

The Washington Post website has a video that gives a fair representation of what it was like to watch without binoculars.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Somehow Lacking the Fire

On Saturday I found myself in the last quarter mile of a five-kilometer race, maybe twenty yards behind a remarkably small young girl, who just then slowed to a walk. I told her that she should get going, that she shouldn't let her grandpa beat her, and she returned to a run and maintained her lead through the finish line. It was only later that I thought it interesting that I should have told her to get going rather than run on by--not that there ever would have been much glory in outrunning someone who isn't yet twelve.

In my late twenties I ran a good deal, generally entering a couple of marathons and a couple of shorter races every year. Usually I had a time in mind for the distance, and usually that time proved to be more or less correct. That part remains the same; I had a time in mind for the five kilometers and finished fairly close to it; that the time would have embarrassed me in my twenties is true but not relevant. But as I recall, I had a system that worked for me back then: run very hard until I felt terrible, then slow up so that I just felt very bad. On Saturday I didn't quite do that. I don't think I train enough to be able to do it, and I'm not sure that it would be good for someone my age.

Well, I enjoyed myself and some of my registration fee went to a good cause. It was a good Saturday morning.

Friday, April 24, 2015

It Will but it Doesn't

Most springs since I have lived in this area, there has been a day in early spring when I have gone running and  found myself thinking, In July or August this will feel refreshing. The corollary of course is, But right now I'm uncomfortable. Last Saturday was one of those days.

The day's high temperature was about 80 F and the humidity was low. However, the trees looked to me to be maybe a quarter in leaf, so the shade was sparse, even where soon it will be dense. At Sheridan Circle I looked around to pick which side of Massachusetts Avenue to take up the hill, and conclude that it didn't matter. Nor did it seem to, for I saw no more shade on the side where I ddin't run than on the side where I did.

The humidity was low enough that I got home with a mostly dry shirt. Perhaps I gained a little in acclimation for the summer that is coming soon.