Friday, December 30, 2011

Newman Bookstore

When last I was there, many years ago, Newman Bookstore was on 8th St. NE, about a block from the Brookland Metro station. It is now at Paulist College on 4th St. NE, in the Hecker Center building, and I must say that could hardly have picked a location better suited to illustrate the inconveniences of shopping at a bookstore. It is about a ten-minute walk from the Metro, for one thing. For another, one must punch in #0011 on a keypad to be buzzed in. Well, one can drive, and the buzzer is a reasonable precaution.

Newman Bookstore can be considered the neighborhood store of "Little Rome", Catholic University and the seminaries, colleges, and other establishments around it. It is largely given to theology, philosophy, and religion. Mostly the theology and other religious books are Catholic, though I noticed some inches of Luther. Hume and Hitchens do appear on the philosophy shelves, and Philip Pullman in the literature. John Henry Newman is of course well represented.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The School Board Member and the Standardized Test

About three weeks ago, a Washington Post blog had an item about a school board member in Florida who had tried the standardized tests given to the state's 10th graders. He did miserably. He knew none of the answers on the math portion, he wrote, but guessed 10 answers correctly out of 60. He scored a 62% on the reading portion. The man wrote, among other things
It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.
I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.
 I did not really see how somebody with a bachelor of science degree could do so poorly on the math test. I downloaded the 2006 test book and answer key from the Florida Department of Education site, and yesterday tried the test. I managed to get 49 out of 58 correct. At 84% this is not as well as I'd like to do, but apparently it would qualify as high performance. (Yes, for a 10th grader, which I was 40 years and 40 pounds ago.)

What did I learn?
  • It has been a long time since Algebra II.
  • I'm careless. In one analytic geometry question I calculated the y in (1,y) rather than the x in (x, 1); in another problem I got the three constituents of the sum correct, and added them wrong, perhaps misreading my handwriting; I calculated a percent remaining when I should have calculated the percent of decrease.
Was the math such as is necessary to my daily work? (Computer programming and administration, since you asked.) Yes, some of it. I don't use plane geometry or analytic geometry. I do use some basic algebra now and then, and do need to know some basic finite math such as is on the test. I don't use Venn diagrams, but the notions of intersection, union, and difference are fundamental..

How many others find it necessary? I don't know. I can imagine that a lot of people would find much of it useful. The first question on the test I took is comparable to comparing cell phone plans--better to pay more $x for the plan with n minutes included and m cents/minute beyond,  $x+y for n+z minutes included and m cents/minute beyond? Card players and other gamblers ought to know the ways in which subsets can be chosen from sets.

The underlying question is, What shall we teach? That's one for another day.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Giving the Gift of Football

My workplace participates every year in the United States Marine Corps Reserve's "Toys for Tots" program. About the beginning of December an NCO in full dress uniform shows up for a quick ceremony, and then for the next two weeks a box stands in the lobby for contributions. For the last couple of years, I have taken a football direct from the cash register at City Sports, a few blocks away, to this box.

For some Christmases of my childhood, a football was the standard gift. A football cost more than I could easily afford on a small allowance, but it didn't hurt the family budget. It would be used a lot, and it could be counted on to wear out in about a year. One child could amuse himself with it if need be, two could play catch, and four or more could play football. (Three, I guess, could be quarterback, receiver, and cornerback, but I don't remember us doing that much--it was the baby boom, and there were always many kids around.)

A football also has the merit of getting one out of doors. I began to reconsider televised football one winter day when some of us went out to play touch football at the halftime of the Sugar Bowl, and played until well after the game was over.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Winter Colors

Last weekend a relative, in from the Pacific Northwest, remarked on the drabness of the local winter. We were in Rock Creek Park at the time, with a line of sight up slopes drifted with brown leaves. The trees were mostly bare. I couldn't argue.

Out for a walk this evening, I saw that the area looked anything but drab. The high ground west of us across Rock Creek had brown trees, but under a sky that was blue and gold with sunset. Though there were plenty of brown leaves on the ground in the woods, we looked over and past them. The lawns were green, and the red brick of houses made for a warm tone, as presently did the street lights. And we have evergreens here too, if fewer than in the Pacific Northwest; some are holly, with red berries.

The best light in Washington, I think, is late afternoon light, at a low angle through trees. I became accustomed to it years ago on the trails along the west side of Rock Creek Park. Now and then, in our neighborhood, or on the road up toward Carter Barron, I'm reminded that east of the park one has it, too.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Are We Losing Our Edge?

The Technology Policy Institute asks: "The Internet Hysteria Index--Are We Losing Our Edge?" The answer seems to be Yes, or maybe No. The piece has footnotes, numbers, and bar charts, so you know it must be rigorous. (Thanks to the comp.risks digest for this one.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

No L

On a short stretch of 16th St. NW there are two statues of bishops. About Irving there is an equestrian statue of Francis Asbury, a pioneering Methodist bishop in this country. At Park Road there is a statue of James Cardinal Gibbons, whose dates of birth and death are about 100 years after Asbury's. I think Asbury's statue much the better, on the grounds that a horse and plain clothes make for a better sculpture than ecclesiastical robes and a chair.

On the other hand, the makers of Gibbons's statue took the trouble to cut the inscription into the base of the statue, and after 80 years the letters show no particular wear. The lettering for Asbury's statue is metal, affixed to the base. For at least a month he has been "THE PROPHET OF THE  ONG ROAD", an "L" having disappeared. I trust that somebody--the Park Service? the Methodists?--will fix this, eventually.

In Washington, Asbury is remembered also by the Asbury Dwellings at 7th St. and Rhode Island Ave. NW, and by the Asbury United Methodist Church at 11th and K Streets NW. Gibbons has a hall named after him at Catholic University on Michigan Ave. NE, but after that I suppose one must go to Baltimore, where there is a high school named after him, and another statue.

(December 21: Asbury's title is missing the "P" also, which I believe must be a fairly recent loss. There is in fact incised lettering on the base of the statue; however, it is at ground level and so visible only if one enters the horseshoe-shaped hedge that surrounds it.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Future of History

The other week I happened to spot The Future of History on the shelves at Kramerbooks. It is slim, about 180 pages. Like all of John Lukacs's books it is generally well written. To those who have read Lukacs's other works, the themes will be familiar: the end of a bourgeois or European age; the importance of historical thinking; the intrusion of what is thought into material conditions; history as the remembered past; Tocqueville, Burkhardt, and Huizinga as exemplars of historical writing.

Those who have not read Lukacs might do better to start with his earlier work: Confessions of an Original SinnerA Thread of Years,  or Budapest 1900, and then read further as inclination guides. One can also get a large and wide sample with the reader Remembered Past.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Bike Race

This afternoon in the Carter Barron parking lot, I saw a contest that I never would have thought of, but which makes a great deal of sense. The course is two parking spots long by one half wide. The object is to be the slowest cyclist through, without straying out of one's lane or putting foot to ground. As I passed through, a heat of three was nearly done. One man had turned out his lane and was disqualified. The other contestants, a man and woman, were very close to the end of the course, he about six inches behind her. It didn't look to me as if she could win.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

At the Bookstore

Monday evening I stopped at Second Story Books with a couple of books in mind. I found neither, but found two that I would not have expected: the Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Weather, and Alexander Theroux's The Enigma of Al Capp.

The Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region is handy--it helped our group identify a couple of trees during a neighborhood tree inventory some months ago, and I refer to it now and then. But I have seen most of the varieties of North American weather, tornadoes excluded, and feel confident that I can tell a chinook from an ice storm. I passed on the weather volume. Visitors to the country might find it handy.

The combination of Theroux and Capp, at $3.50, I did not resist. "Li'l Abner" was nearing the end of its run when I started reading the newspapers. Of Capp, I knew next to nothing. I remembered hearing that he was distinctly conservative as he got older, though only one of the sequences I remember reflected this.*  I had remembered a few of the expressions that came out of the strip--triple whammy,  Kickapoo Joy Juice--and found others that I had forgotten (Skonk Works) or had never known came out of it (Nogoodnik).

Anyone who has seen Li'l Abner knows Capp's enthusiasm for the female form. Those who didn't share it, he said, could read "Little Orphan Annie". In the newspapers this occasionally led to problems. Theroux mentions, for example,
... the wildly savage Wolf Gal, who with her feral lewdness, always ran [the Sadie Hawkin's Day] race and whose costume, a light tunic with only one shoulder strap and a half open miniskirt, drew the wrath of national Mother's Clubs, especially since a Philadelphia high school close her as their class symbol, and Al had to add a strap and sew up the sides of this skirt.
But Theroux writes of a number of occasions on which Capp passed from simple lechery to harassment or assault. Grace Kelly considered bringing charges in the 1950s, the University of Alabama expelled him from its campus in 1968, and a woman in Wisconsin did bring charges in 1972. In the last case, he pleaded guilty to attempted adultery. The publicity from the case led many newspapers to drop the strip, which may account for my memories of it ending about 1970.

Of the admirers mentioned, I remembered only Marshall MacLuhan. Theroux quotes Alan Resnais as describing Li'l Abner as
America's one immortal myth and the dominating artistic influence of my life.
(But then one never knows what the French will discover in America.)

* As I recall it, Lower Slobbovia employed an instrument of torture called the Snapple. Consuming a Snapple caused one to become 18 again, an atrocious punishment because one needed to be at least 40 to have enough body fat to get through the winters there without acute discomfort. The product escaped to the US, where it threatened the privileged position of the baby boomers. You could look it up.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Friday it bothered the plumber that he could not get one bucket beneath two overflow pipes. I did not care, since  neither pipe has ever discharged, since I can't guess why both should discharge at once, and since in any case they have below them a concrete floor sloping gently to a drain. But the separation offended his sense of fitness.

After an experimental wiggle or two at the left, longer, pipe, he bent it up to about a 90 degree elbow at the halfway point. So bent, it cleared an intervening horizontal pipe, and he bent it back down, beside the other. The ends of the two pipes are now close enough that one bucket will serve both.

It would never have occurred to me to do something like that. Seeing him do that brought to mind the etymology of "plumber" and "plumbing", which derive from the Latin "plumbum", lead. Lead ores were widely found, lead is easily worked, and so the original pipes for plumbing were made of lead. It was only later that we discovered its unfortunate property of poisoning us slowly. Copper had its place in classical civilization, alloyed to make bronze, and as currency, but evidently one didn't make pipes of it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hot Water

Billeted in France, William Alexander Percy writes, he suggested that his orderly see whether warm water could be had across the street. The orderly thought not: That old woman hasn't seen warm water since the last time she cried. If the orderly said so, he spoke in an old tradition. Hume reports of Richard II, imprisoned at Pontefract Castle, that on being told by his guards that there was no warm clean water to wash his face with, he wept, and said that this refuted them.

Thursday  evening, I found that we had no hot water. At first I supposed that a late-afternoon shower might have left the water heater catching up. Later I discovered that the unit was not working at all; the pilot light would not stay lit. A plumber came by Friday morning, and diagnosed a failed ignition unit, which he replaced that afternoon. In all, we were without hot water for about 20 hours.

It seems soft to complain of a lack of hot water. Yet Homer carefully describes a couple of hot baths Odysseus gets, at Circe's house, and in Phaecea, and he presents Odysseus as one who can rough it when he must.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Unix is 40!

IEEE Spectrum this month recognizes the 40th birthday of Unix. Anyone who uses an Apple computer running OS X, anybody with an Android phone, has a Unix variant running on that device. The chances are that most of the web sites one visits run at least part of their stack on Unix variants.

Spectrum's account is worth a look for techies, and I suppose for anyone interested in the way that interesting projects sometimes get started and run beneath the notice of management in large organizations. It is well known in techie circles that UNIX got started when Ken Thompson ported a computer game from a GE-465 computer to a PDP-7.  But I had never heard that
End runs around AT&T's lawyers indeed became the norm—even at Bell Labs. For example, between the release of the sixth edition of Unix in 1975 and the seventh edition in 1979, Thompson collected dozens of important bug fixes to the system, coming both from within and outside of Bell Labs. He wanted these to filter out to the existing Unix user base, but the company's lawyers felt that this would constitute a form of support and balked at their release. Nevertheless, those bug fixes soon became widely distributed through unofficial channels. For instance, Lou Katz, the founding president of Usenix, received a phone call one day telling him that if he went down to a certain spot on Mountain Avenue (where Bell Labs was located) at 2 p.m., he would find something of interest. Sure enough, Katz found a magnetic tape with the bug fixes, which were rapidly in the hands of countless users.