Monday, May 30, 2011

For Memorial Day: Two Set Pieces

From Democracy by Henry Adams, chapter ix:

"Yet even Sybil was startled as she rode through the gate and found herself suddenly met by the long white ranks of head-stones, stretching up and down the hill-sides by thousands, in order of baffle; as though Cadmus had reversed his myth, and had sown living men, to come up dragons' teeth. She drew in her horse with a shiver and a sudden impulse to cry. Here was something new to her. This was war—wounds, disease, death. She dropped her voice and with a look almost as serious as Carrington's, asked what all these graves meant. When Carrington told her, she began for the first time to catch some dim notion why his face was not quite as gay as her own. Even now this idea was not very precise, for he said little about himself, but at least she grappled with the fact that he had actually, year after year, carried arms against these men who lay at her feet and who had given their lives for her cause. It suddenly occurred to her as a new thought that perhaps he himself might have killed one of them with his own hand. There was a strange shock in this idea. She felt that Carrington was further from her. He gained dignity in his rebel isolation. She wanted to ask him how he could have been a traitor, and she did not dare. Carrington a traitor!

Carrington killing her friends! The idea was too large to grasp. She fell back on the simpler task of wondering how he had looked in his rebel uniform."

From The Bostonians by Henry James, chapter xxv:

'"Now there is one place where perhaps it would be indelicate to take a Mississippian," Verena said, after this episode. "I mean the great place that towers above the others—that big building with the beautiful pinnacles, which you see from every point." But Basil Ransom had heard of the great Memorial Hall; he knew what memories it enshrined, and the worst that he should have to suffer there; and the ornate, overtopping structure, which was the finest piece of architecture he had ever seen, had moreover solicited his enlarged curiosity for the last half-hour. He thought there was rather too much brick about it, but it was buttressed, cloistered, turreted, dedicated, superscribed, as he had never seen anything; though it didn't look old, it looked significant; it covered a large area, and it sprang majestic into the winter air. It was detached from the rest of the collegiate group, and stood in a grassy triangle of its own. As he approached it with Verena she suddenly stopped, to decline responsibility. "Now mind, if you don't like what's inside, it isn't my fault."

He looked at her an instant, smiling. "Is there anything against Mississippi?"

"Well, no, I don't think she is mentioned. But there is great praise of our young men in the war."

"It says they were brave, I suppose."

"Yes, it says so in Latin."

"Well, so they were—I know something about that," Basil Ransom said. "I must be brave enough to face them—it isn't the first time." And they went up the low steps and passed into the tall doors. The Memorial Hall of Harvard consists of three main divisions: one of them a theatre, for academic ceremonies; another a vast refectory, covered with a timbered roof, hung about with portraits and lighted by stained windows, like the halls of the colleges of Oxford; and the third, the most interesting, a chamber high, dim, and severe, consecrated to the sons of the university who fell in the long Civil War. Ransom and his companion wandered from one part of the building to another, and stayed their steps at several impressive points; but they lingered longest in the presence of the white, ranged tablets, each of which, in its proud, sad clearness, is inscribed with the name of a student-soldier. The effect of the place is singularly noble and solemn, and it is impossible to feel it without a lifting of the heart. It stands there for duty and honour, it speaks of sacrifice and example, seems a kind of temple to youth, manhood, generosity. Most of them were young, all were in their prime, and all of them had fallen; this simple idea hovers before the visitor and makes him read with tenderness each name and place—names often without other history, and forgotten Southern battles. For Ransom these things were not a challenge nor a taunt; they touched him with respect, with the sentiment of beauty. He was capable of being a generous foeman, and he forgot, now, the whole question of sides and parties; the simple emotion of the old fighting-time came back to him, and the monument around him seemed an embodiment of that memory; it arched over friends as well as enemies, the victims of defeat as well as the sons of triumph.'

 I have read that both Carrington and Ransom were modeled on L.Q.C. Lamar, briefly a Confederate soldier, then diplomat, eventually justice of the U.S. Supreme Court..

The Memoir as Score-Settling: de Tocqueville

 This past winter I reread de Tocqueville's Souvenirs, his memoir of 1848 and its aftermath. His judgments of his fellow actors run toward the epigrammatic and brutal. Early on, he remarks of Louis Philippe

"In general, his style on solemn occasions recalled the sentimental jargon of the late 18th Century, reproduced with facile copiousness, and singularly incorrect: Rousseau touched up by a 19th Century cook (a pretentious one)."

Opening toward the middle of the book (Part II, Ch. VI), I find

"Lamartine's wit reflected itself in Champeaux's stupidity like the sun in a smoked glass, which lets one see it without rays but more clearly than with the naked eye."

In the next chapter, a psychiatrist ("an excellent doctor, ... though himself a bit cracked") confides that various notables of his own left party are mad and should be in the hospital, not the assembly. In Part III de Tocqueville  tells how he kept the elder statesmen of the previous regime happy by flattery--always welcoming, often soliciting, almost never following their advice.

I should say that these portraits are a minor distraction, or even spice, to a fascinating book. One hesitates to believe that the other politicians were quite so lost or venal, or de Tocqueville quite so clairvoyant as he depicts them and himself; yet his speech of January 27, 1848 anticipates and explains the coming troubles clearly. 

His evaluation of French politics and society in the period is not much different from Flaubert's in Sentimental Education. One could, I suppose, read de Tocqueville's unflattering portraits as a key to Flaubert's roster of Dambreuse salon:

"There one met the great Monsieur A, the famous B, the intelligent C, the eloquent Z, the wonderful y, the old stagers of the Left Centre, the paladins of the Right, the veterans of the Middle Way, all the stock characters of the political comedy. [Frederic] was astounded by their abysmal conversation, their pettiness, their spite, their bad faith..."

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Today I needed to paint a couple of small windows, in Benjamin Moore Atrium White like all our trim. Because I made searched from right to left and the quart can was at the left of the lineup, I made a fair survey of our paint holdings, at least those in standard Benjamin Moore trade dress. To summarize, we have a lot of white paint. Our holdings are largest in Cameo White, Decorator's White, and White Dove, amounting between them to five or six gallon cans. There is a gallon can of Corinthian White, and a quart can of Polar Ice, which I suppose must be a white. A couple of gallon cans of Moore's "Aura" line are probably White Dove.

Certainly I reached 20 without imagining that there was more than one thing called "white paint". I've learned better since.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

RIP Tom West, Begetter of "a New Machine"

Tom West, who led the development of the Data General (DG) MV/8000 minicomputer, died last Thursday. He achieved fame 30 years ago when Tracy Kidder wrote about the project in The Soul of a New Machine, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

I read a bit of the book when excerpts appeared in a magazine, then a bit later read a roommate's copy. Later still, after I had some experience with the MV/Eclipse line, my wife was assigned the book for a management class, and I read it yet again. A couple of points were clearer on that reading:
  • The decision to incorporate the 16-bit instruction set imposed certain constraints. The MVs had four general-purpose registers, for example; for another, one could address words but not bytes with a register-relative address.
  • The lead architect of the team had wanted a VAX-like instruction set. The VAX instruction set was elaborate, just the thing if one were writing an operating system in assembly language.
  • About the time that the book came out, researchers in California were discovering how hard it was to speed up the VAX to the point they wanted, and considering alternatives. The new model of "reduced-instruction-set computing" (RISC) produced some startlingly fast machines, and ate into the old minicomputer market at the high end while the 386 started to nibble at the other.
By the early 1990s, the DG users' group magazine quoted West as saying that customers "wanted to get their MIPS from gun-gray boxes running UNIX." This was pretty much true. With the Aviion, based on Motorola's 88000 RISC processor, DG made a very good effort to give the customers what they wanted. Alas, Motorola was one of many companies to discover that trying to fight the x86 machines was pointless. EMC bought up the wreckage of DG  for the Clariion storage line.

I enjoyed working with the MV/8000 and its successors, and for that matter their 16-bit predecessors. The AOS/VS operating system did many things well, the command-line interpreters were well thought out, and the assembler easily enough learned. I'm grateful for the chance to have worked with those machines.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fun with Calculators

The Sunday NY Times carried an excerpt from Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon, by Gretchen Morgenson. The excerpt is interesting, and the book no doubt equally so. But a calculation slowed my reading:

"According to documents filed in a borrower lawsuit against NovaStar, Aurora Loan Services, a Lehman subsidiary, studied 16 NovaStar loans for quality-control purposes. What the analysis found: more than half of the loans — 56.25 percent, to be exact — raised red flags."

Or, in other words, "nine". The expression "56.25 percent" is most useful in cases where one cannot be exact--election or census returns, say. If you do not trust your readers to remember the previous sentence, the expression could be "nine of the sixteen"; if you do not trust them to remember grade-school math, you could throw in "more than half." But why use two decimal places?

Apparently because calculators make it easy. A couple of years ago, my wife received a synopsis of the student evaluations for a course she had taught. Again, the percentages were carried out to two decimal places. This would have made sense for a lecture section of a few hundred students, but there were 29 in her class. I found myself reckoning Well, OK, that's 23 of 29 thought the homework was appropriate.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What's in a Verb?

Various papers quote Michel Taubman, author of a campaign biography of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), as saying of his wife Anne Sinclair “She was subjugated by his intelligence and charm.”

Was he ill-served by his translators? A woman or two may have thought me quick on the uptake. One or two may have thought me intelligent. If I subjugated any, by intelligence and charm or card-tricks and soulful eyes, the record is lost. And conceding happily that I am not worthy to unlace DSK's sneakers, I must still say that I have read a fair bit about men of unchallengeable intelligence, and who had no reason to complain of women's unkindness--Richard Feynman, Bertrand Russell, etc.--and have not so far run into the verb "subjugate."

About 30 years ago, the National Lampoon ran an "Aggression" issue, in which P.J. O'Rourke had a piece taking literally the ways of speech of the young male urbanite: thought I'd have go into the kitchen and kill the cow myself/call in an airstrike to get a cab, and so on. I don't think the narrator got around to subjugating any talk-show hostesses, but then this was long before Oprah or Ms. Sinclair. O'Rourke knew he was being juvenile; he wrote for effect. Is Mr. Taubman serious?.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Memoir as Vengeance, Introduction

Some time ago I noticed how much I enjoy reading memoirs: in the last dozen years I've read or reread the memoirs of such as John Lukacs, George Kennan, Alvin Kernan, and Iris Origo. In general these are not the sort of memoir that seems to have started wearing on people, in which the emphasis is on escape from bad familial and personal situations. All the authors just named lived through difficult enough times, chiefly WW II, but that is not why I read them. The clue is in Thoreau's Journals, entry of March 18, 1861:

"You can't read any genuine history--as that of Herodotus or the Venerable Bede--without perceiving that our interest depends not on the subject but on the man,--on the manner in which he treats the subject and on the importantce he gives it. A feeble writer and without genius must have what he thinks a great theme, which we are already interested in through the accounts of others, but a genius--a Shakespeare, for instance--would make the history of his parish more interesting than another's history of the world."

A minor but entertaining interest in such works is the author's judgments on his fellows. Some memoirists, not particularly those above, set down in their works judgments that a devil's advocate might find harsh or at least unbecoming. In the Goncourt brothers' journals one finds

5 janvier [1865]--Sainte-Beuve a vu une fois le premier Empereur. C'était à Boulogne: il était en train de pisser. N'est-ce pas un peu dans cette posture-là qu'il a vu et jugé depuis tous les grands hommes?

Sainte-Beuve seems to have been notably given to this, to judge by the bits of his conversation the brothers--not ones themselves to waste good words on the undeserving--reproduce.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Two for the jargon file

After certain embarrassments in the news recently, it seems we could use

Unpatchy, noun: The Apache server that came with your Linux distribution three years ago, and to which you have never applied any security patches.

And from a couple of years ago

Preloopsarian, adjective: In that state of programming innocence in which one has discovered assignment and conditions, but not iteration.

For a classic example of the latter see Chapter 3 of Jon Bentley's Programming Pearls. I regret to say that it is not one of the chapters at the on-line site.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In the New York Times

Monday's NY Times begins by quoting a ruined Greek businessman who does not wish to use his full name, but identifies himself as "Anargyros D." This struck me as an odd looking name at the time, and indeed Liddell and Scott render "anargyros" as "without silver: without money."

I suppose that the secondary meaning "not bought with silver: incorruptible" might lead a parent to confer the name on a child. But in the context it seems odd, leading me to wonder whether somebody was pulling the correspondent's leg.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Parallel Texts: Yeats and Newman

A couple of winters ago I found myself reading Yeats's Autobiographies, part of which I had read 25 years before. Then I must have read it as stories--of Dowson, of Lady Gregory and so on--this time I was struck by his reflections on all sorts of matters, and particularly by his sentences. The book was full of sentences that made me wonder, "How does he do that?"

One paragraph,

"Yet even if I had gone to a university, and learned the classical foundations of English literature and English culture, all that great erudition which once accepted frees the mind from restlessness, I should have had to give up my Irish subject-matter, or attempt to found a new tradition.... I was of those doomed to imperfect achievement, and under a curse, as it were, like some race of birds compelled to spend the time needed for the making of the nest, in argument as to the convenience of moss and twig and lichen."

reminded me of passages of Newman's suggestion that the English language had its classics behind it:

"There never was a time when men wrote so much and so well, and that, without being of any great account themselves. While our literature in this day, especially the periodical, is rich and various, its language is elaborated to a perfection far beyond that of our Classics, by the jealous rivalry, the incessant practice, the mutual influence, of its many writers. In point of mere style, I suppose, many an article in the Times newspaper, or Edinburgh Review, is superior to a preface of Dryden's, or a Spectator, or a pamphlet of Swift's, or one of South's sermons.

Our writers write so well that there is little to choose between them. What they lack is that individuality, that earnestness, most personal yet most unconscious of self, which is the greatest charm of an author."

NPR pours out highly polished three-minute essays, which wear on me. The lighter sections of the New York Times often carry pieces of highly polished, indistinguishable individuality. I could name a since-deceased NYT columnist, who could manage an elegiac tone to make Horace look like a bumbler; yet when I tried to think why I was reading her columns, I could find no good answer.

Art and Tech

Earlier in the spring, I went to St. Anselm's to see the Priory Players put on scenes from plays by Neil Simon and David Ives. It was my impression that Ives makes Simon look like Chekhov; a neighbor active in the local theatre community says that this was very early Ives, so perhaps it was as if I were to judge Jane Austen by Love and Freindship.

.I did enjoy the pieces by Ives, though. And in watching "Words, Words, Words", three chimpanzees trying to write Hamlet, I found myself suddenly recalling a computability class taking about 20 years ago, in particular what I find are theorem 7.7 and lemma 7.2 of Hopcroft and Ullman, on Turing machines as enumerators::

Theorem 7.7 A language is [recursively enumerable] if and only if it is G(M1) for some [Turing machine] M1.
Lemma 7.2 If L is recursive, then there is a generator for L that prints the words of L in canonical order and no other words.

I blame this on a neighbor, since moved to Australia, who selected Charles Stross's Accelerando for the neighborhood book club. Among the many technical terms--Thompson hack, anyone?--was Turing complete; just to check that I remembered correctly, I pulled the Hopcroft & Ullman off the shelf and spent a little, enjoyable time going through chapters 7 and 8. And I enjoyed Accelerando.

(By the way, the items above certainly do not appear as such in more recent editions of Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation, which has been beefed up--I'm guessing they're in Chapter 9..)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Intellectuals, part 1

From The Guardian via James Russell Ament, a question about intellectuals. Why Don't We Love Our Intellectuals? This really is two sets of questions, a silly one and a sensible one:

  1. Do we dislike intellectuals, and if so, why?
  2. Does the Anglo-American tradition make less of intellectuals than for example, the French or the German?
 Taking the "we" to be a civic we, as in "We the people", the first question is as silly as asking "Do we dislike fashionistas?" We (as in middle-aged men with no fashion sense) do not hate fashionistas; we don't think about them often enough to form an opinion. Now and then we notice the fashion pages with amusement and astonishment, then we forget for another few months. The author of The Devil Wears Prada surely is not one of those people who go to the store in sweats and sneakers.

Look for someone denouncing intellectuals, and generally you will find an intellectual playing populist. Hitler disliked intellectuals, said that it was a pity one needed them, since otherwise one might wipe them out. He was not an intellectual anyone would call satisfactory, but he spent jail time writing a long book; non-intellectuals don't do that sort of thing. Mao made life terrible for intellectuals (among others) with the Cultural Revolution. Yet Mao was the author of The Little Red Book and a poet, though his works have gone out of fashion lately. William Safire wrote alliterative diatribes against "pseudo-intellectuals" for Spiro Agnew, after which he went on to 30 years of writing a column on language for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, writing novels, etc.

Or, in the better case, you may find the true intellectual damning others for failing as intellectuals, taking what is set out for them and not examining. This tradition runs at least from Erasmus through Rabelais and on in more recent times through such as Henry Adams, Nietzche, John Jay Chapman, Mencken, and beyond. I suppose one could carry it back to Socrates.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Caught in the Details

Last week I had time to do what I had meant to do the week before, set up a Linux server for another group at work. The requirements were simple: Apache + PHP, using a SQL Server database on one of our Windows servers. This proved to be a little more complicated than I thought:
  • FreeTDS (for the database layer) went in without problems, so that was easy enough. Configuring obbcinst.ini and odbc.ini was easy.
  • My own preference with PHP is to use PDO for database work. But libc6 decided that PDO was taking indecent liberties with the stack. So, no PDO.
  • ODBC? Well, I've never used it under Linux, certainly never with PHP.Something I Googled spoke of it faking the binding of variables on SQL Server. So, not ODBC.
  • The mssql_connnect was fine.
  • Then I discovered why PHP's odbc procedures fake  binding against SQL Server; SQL Server doesn't want to bind variables against anything but a stored procedure. Who knew?
  • Still, mssql_query worked well enough in "SQL Injection Mode", concatenating stuff from $_POST into the query text. This was reassuring, but not what I had in mind for the long run.
  • And then I found that my stored procedures, which ran nicely enough in SQL Server Management Studio, wouldn't execute with PHP's mssql_execute.
  • There's always Google, and somebody helpfully explained that one must set the version to 8.0 in /etc/tds.conf. Gee, how did I miss that? I edited the file, and just like that, the stored procedures worked as intended.
  • Until I rebooted after squeezing down memory, and mssql_connect quit working. Eventually I worked out that the httpd server needed to have LD_LIBRARY_PATH set.
By the time I was done, and had written up instructions for the other team, I was tired and distracted. When I spoke to one of them and she changed the topic, it took a moment to catch up.

Yet having said that, I have to acknowledge how much simpler it is to set up a Linux machine now. Fedora and VMware/VSphere take so much of the pain out of installation, and no doubt other distros are comparably good. To one who can remember the monitor shaking and chuffing as XFree86 tried to evaluate it, this seems like magic.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Parallel Texts

In reading Locke on Saturday, I noticed the passage

"And how covetous the mind is to be furnished with all such ideas as have no pain accompanying them, may be a little guessed by what is observable in children new-born; who always turn their eyes to that part from whence the light comes, lay them how you please."

This sounded familiar, and indeed Aristotle's Metaphysics opens

"All men by nature desire to know An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight."

Then Sunday morning I happened to see two children of at most three weeks old, the daughters of acquaintances, and did not have have a chance to check up on Locke; one was in a shady vestibule, in her mother's arms and without much chance to turn, the other in a shaded carriage in the full sun of 16th St.

The book review

This morning I gave the New York Times Book Review a quick and purposeful look, ignoring all but the page counts of the books reviewed. My estimates were 2700 pages of non-fiction (memoir, history, economics, etc.) and 1200 of fiction, not counting the crime fiction that gets lumped together in one column. It seems to me that the fiction count is lower than usual, for there are novelists of varying quality who run to 500 pages in their usual novel. Review a couple of those one week, and you're up around 2000 pages of fiction.

This really doesn't matter to me, for there is very little chance that I'll read most of these books. Yet I find it interesting to compare the page counts with what I guess my rate of reading to be. For non-fiction of any complexity, I might read 100 pages a week at the high end, say fairly academic history, maybe 60 for philosophy. Serious fiction I might read at 200 or 300 pages per week. Of course, all these rates are subject to reduction owing to house projects such as painting or planting, work emergencies, travel, and so on.

So were I to read every book reviewed in today's issue, it would likely take me half a year, in which time the NY Times will brought out another 25 or so book reviews, call it another 12 years worth of reading. (And this omits the difficulty of picking a half year that does not include either a summer beach reading or a holiday books issue, either of which is much larger than the usual.)

In his autobiography, Trollope writes

"And readers will also find that by devoting an hour or two on Saturday to the criticisms of the week, they will enable themselves to have an opinion about the books of the day. The knowledge so acquired will not be great, nor will that little be lasting; but it adds something to the pleasure of life to be able to talk on subjects of which others are speaking; and the man who has sedulously gone through the literary notices in the Spectator and the Saturday may perhaps be justified in thinking himself as well able to talk about the new book as his friend who has bought that new book on the tapis, and who, not improbably, obtained his information from the same source."

I guess that's it.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I have a long-held notion about schooling: instruction is necessarily labor intensive, but the American genius is for substituting machinery for labor. The substitution works beautifully in all sorts of applications, from cleaning cotton to mining coal to tabulating census results, and we think it should work beautifully everywhere. This winter we were at a party down the street and found ourselves talking to a man about our age who works in the media. He was interested in applications of computers to instruction. I said that though I work every day with computers and enjoy doing so, I am skeptical about their use in education. He mentioned the appeal of games to students, etc. I thought my wife considered I was showing my skepticism too blatantly, but found afterward that she was wholly on my side. (I'll add that the fellow was at the party because his daughter had gone to a private high school with the host & hostess's daughter; he paid a stiff price for her schooling--call it 25% of the median income for a local two-earner family in this area--and I don't think computer costs made up much of the bill.)

And we think that we can use technology or at least technique not only to replace labor, but to allow the use of less skilled labor. For an example of that, look in the attic of a house built in the last 30 or so years and with a peaked roof. You will see metal trusses that secure the roof beams where they meet. Before somebody invented those, carpenters had to "toe nail" the beams, which required a good deal of skill. Now they slip over the truss, nail through that into the beams, and they're done. Quite possibly I could do that, and quite certainly I could never have secured beams the old way.

The equivalent in schooling seems to be to eliminate the teacher's discretion. Teach to this curriculum, assess with these tests, and all will be well. The rule books get thicker, but I don't know that the instruction gets better.

We do acknowledge the labor-intensive nature to the extent that we attend to class sizes. Still, I've seen complaints here and there that productivity in education hasn't kept up with that in other parts of the economy.

We acknowledge the importance of skill with our enthusiasm for such programs as Teach for America, though the skills that get one into TfA seem to be the skills of the student, not the teacher. And in many ways the public debate concerning teachers seems to point a moral that you don't need the smarts of a TfA kid to learn--you're young and cute now, but at 40 you'll be regarded as a drain on the public purse and a symbol of what is wrong; better schedule that LSAT/GMAT/MCAT/GRE.