Thursday, June 30, 2011

Robert Morris, RIP

Noted via Hacker News, an obituary of Robert Morris. One of the HN commenters quotes

Never underestimate the attention, risk, money and time that an opponent will put into reading traffic.
Rule 1 of cryptanalysis: check for plaintext.
The three golden rules to ensure computer security are: do not own a computer; do not power it on; and do not use it.
--Robert Morris


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Recent Lessons on Databases

To the technically indoctrinated,
  1. It is an important and elegant feature of relations that the tuples within them have not top-to-bottom ordering. This is because tuples are mathematical sets, and sets have no order. It is from relations that relational databases take their name; the tables and views within a relational database are just special cases of relations.
  2. Concatenating a number and a string of characters produces a string of characters. This resulting string supports the operations valid for strings, not for numbers. If one is to sort it, one will sort it in lexicographic order and "101 Dalmatians" will always precede "3 Musketeers" in a non-decreasing sort.
  3. In fact, distinguishing the "101" and the "3"  within their strings violates "First Normal Form", according to which the attributes of a tuple must be atomic.
For points 1 and 3, see any good introduction to relational databases, for example C.J. Date's Introduction to Database Systems.

To those not technically indoctrinated,
  1.  If I didn't want it in order, why would I have ordered it before I gave it to you?
  2. Of course 3 is less than 101.
  3. First Normal Form?
I must say that Microsoft has learned about point 2, I'd bet through hard experience; if you have MP3s of "12 Days of Christmas" , "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" , and "4 Green Fields" in a directory, Windows Explorer will display them in numeric order when it orders by name.

I must also say, as the technically indoctrinated one in this particular back-and-forth, I was grateful to the other party for her independently deciding to zero-pad the numbers of items, which resolved the problem.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

John Jay Chapman

 A dozen years ago the University of Illinois Press published a selection of his writings, Unbought Spirit, which is remarkably hard to find, the Gutenberg Project makes his Emerson and Other Essays available for free download, and The Strand in New York usually seems to have a couple of copies of a selection from the 1960s. Chapman is worth the trouble of looking up, and I wish that Illinois had not put the book out of print. He is best on New England, education, literature, and politics, the topics of course tending to overlap.

In his essay on Julia Ward Howe he speaks of Boston clannishness at greater length than I will quote here, save, near the end
If you know the town well, you will find persons there who are not of the caste. Their countenances do not fall at the mention of Moses and Aaron, and they wear no phylacteries. You will generally find that such people are mere sojourners in Boston; their fathers and grandfathers came from elsewhere.
Unbought Spirit collects four essays on education, all worth reading: "Learning", "The Function of the University", "Professorial Ethics", and "The Pleasures of Greek".All could be quoted at length, but here is the end of  paragraph, no more striking than several others, from "Learning" (1910):
It has thus come about in America that our universities are beginning to be run as business colleges. They advertise, they compete with each other, the pretend to give good value to their customers. They desire to increase their trade, they offer social advantages and business openings to their patrons. In some cases they boldly conduct intelligence offices, and guarantee that no hard work done by the student shall be done in vain: a record of work is kept during the student's college life and the college undertakes to furnish him at any time thereafter with references and a character which shall help him in the struggle for life.
Chapman shows to advantage as a critic in his essay on Robert Louis Stevenson, collected in Emerson and Other Essays. Ford Maddox Ford and others complained about Stevenson's style, but I never quite got their point.Chapman make his very clear:
To a boy, the great artists of the world are a lot of necromancers, whose enchantments can perhaps be stolen and used again. To a man, they are a lot of human beings, and their works are parts of them. Their works are their hands and their feet, their organs, dimensions, senses,
affections, passions. To a man, it is as absurd to imitate the manner of Dean Swift in writing as it would be to imitate the manner of Dr. Johnson in eating. But Stevenson was not a man, he was a boy; or, to speak more accurately, the attitude of his mind towards his work remained unaltered from boyhood till death, though his practice and experiment gave him, as he grew older, a greater mastery over his materials. It is in this attitude of Stevenson's mind toward his own
work that we must search for the heart of his mystery.
Chapman was born to politics in a sense; his grandmother was an assistant of William Lloyd Garrison's. He was a reformer in a day when the breed was not much respected by either party. Any of the essays "Between Elections", "The Unity of Human Nature", "The Doctrine of Nonresistance", or for that matter long stretches of his essay on Emerson make good introductions.I'll end with a quotation from essay called "Politics" (1898):
The situation as it existed was made to the hand of trade. Political power had by the war been condensed and packed for delivery; and in the natural course of things the political trademarks began to find their way into the coffers of the capitalist The change of motive power behind the party organizations--from principles, to money--was silently effected during the thirty years which followed the war. Like all organic changes, it was unconscious. It was understood by no one.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Personal Brands

All credit to Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, who has dealt with the expression "personal brand" as it deserves. I don't know when the story will go behind a paywall, but for now you can see it here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Damien Searls, editor of the NYRB edition of The Journal 1837-1861 remarks that he
condensed the thirty-nine pages on John Brown (October 19-22, 1859) into a few of the most powerful lines, then kept Thoreau's references to Brown in later entries, to suggest the depth of his engagement.
 The references are all laudatory. His reference to a militia muster some weeks before, on September 8, was anything but. Yet what were Massachusetts's well-equipped regiments worth to the Union government a year and a half later? A great deal, I should say.

Beach Reading

I picked it up, anyway, in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, and read some pages of it on Spring Lake's beach: Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War by Edmund Wilson. I have looked so far at what is familiar to me or interesting. As far as the familiar goes, Wilson's remarks on Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman seem just; his Lee and Holmes sound like the Lee and Holmes I've read of in passing.

Among the unfamiliar, I'd be interested to read some of Mary Chesnut, Albion Tourgee, and George Cable. I'd be particularly interested to read Francis Grierson's The Valley of Shadows, and perhaps excerpts from Frederick Law Olmsted's The Cotton Kingdom. I doubt I'll undertake the 1400 pages of Alexander Stephens's A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States; and likely enough Patriotic War and I will part ways before I've read every one of its 800 pages. Mostly likely the details of Wilson's judgments on H.B. Stowe and Sidney Lanier will escape me.

Wilson published the book in 1962, during the centennial of the Civil War, which he called "this absurd centennial--a day of mourning would be more appropriate".

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Three-Language Day

  • In the morning, cleanup of some old PL/Sql code that I neglected to fix months ago.
  • Ongoing, testing and modification of some Python to rewrite DXF (CAD interchange) files of floor plans to label offices with their occupants.
  • In the afternoon, some work with T-SQL first to encapsulate some SQL I don't want to have to rewrite time and again, second to debug somebody else's that was giving a wrong answer.
And had I the time and energy, I guess I could have moved on to JScript for the network administrator's work.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor, RIP

Today's NY Times carries the obituary of Patrick Leigh Fermor. It is worth a look, and his books are worth reading.

Of them, I have read through A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, accounts of his late teenage journey, mostly afoot, from the Netherlands to Hungary, and from Hungary to the Iron Gates; also The A Time to Keep Silence, accounts of stays in Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, and of visits to long disused cave monasteries in Cappadocia. There are a couple more of his books around the house, collections of travel pieces on northern and southern Greece.

In 2006, the New Yorker carried a profile of Fermor by Anthony Lane. I was a little disappointed to learn that he had taken some liberties with the characters in his books; a German companion in Vienna was a stand-in for two brothers, he said. Still, I'm glad to have read his books.

He spent the middle 1930s on his walk across Europe partly because he had been expelled from King's School in Cambridge; his final offense, among he says many, was to be caught holding hands with a grocer's daughter. The other summer I noticed in a used book store a book on this school, and at once checked in the index. The book, published late 1950s or early 1960s, mentions Fermor without reference to his exit.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Tutors and the Duke

In Wednesday's New York Times, I noticed
... the mother pointed out. She said she had paid Mr. Iyer’s company $750 to $1,500 each week this school year for 100-minute sessions on Liberal Studies, a total of about $35,000 — just shy of Riverdale’s $38,800 tuition.
The New York state median income for 2009 was about $54 thousand. That year the state spent about $15 thousand per student in the public schools.

I trust that the mother's offspring will get into a very good college. (If not, Mr. Iyer may need to hire a bodyguard.) Will they regard this as a case of merit properly rewarded? Will they complain about affirmative action if he is placed on a wait list?

I think now and then of the Duke of Wellington's good words for the Order of the Garter: there was "no damned nonsense about merit."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Another Book

Because David Ives's Venus in Fur is playing in Washington,  Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs  is the book for our next club meeting.

It's short. Still,
  1. Evelyn Waugh writes "Nothing is more ludicrous than the posturing of a Svengali who fails to put his Trilby under." I suppose that the man who likes a good dry beating would find the book stimulating almost beyond bearing. For the man of simpler tastes it falls flat. One starts glancing at the page numbers somewhere in the 30s.
  2. I am in no way prepared to dispute on antiquity with someone who came up through the Central European gymnasium system (even if he's a century and a quarter dead). Yet is the Venus of antiquity such a terrifying figure as Sacher-Masoch imagines? My impression of the Romans is that they were about about as romantic as the Wall Street Journal stock listings. And doesn't Homer treat Aphrodite with scant respect?
  3. Sacher-Masoch's name survives in "masochism", a coinage of Kraft-Ebbing's. Once in the fiction section of  the now closed White Flint Borders I noticed in the Ds a notice saying "Works by de Sade are shelved under S". I doubt they had any such notice for Sacher-Masoch in the Ms; at least, without looking for it,  I do notice de Sade's work now and then, but never Sacher-Masoch's. Commercially it seems better to be hammer than anvil.

More Unexpected Sights

First, the Street View car again, this time downtown. Google is photographing Washington, DC, or at least 16th St. NW. The thing atop the mast is not a dodecahedron, I see. It is round, with cutouts for the cameras.

Second, in my neighborhood, a mockingbird diving at and scolding a black cat. The cat looked a bit heavy to be an efficient hunter. The bird's attentions moved it from the intersection toward the cover of bushes, not very far or fast.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Unexpected Sights

First, in Rock Creek Park, a bicyclist towing a trailer with a boom box on it, one the size of a small suitcase. I suppose he must have been going to meet friends, else why not bring an MP3 player with earphones and lose the weight? I didn't care for the music, but when I'm running  I prefer cyclists I can see coming, and he was hard to miss.

Second, on 16th St. NW, a Google Street View car. I spotted the superstructure first, a dodecahedron(?) on a tripod mast, then the car with its identification. One of these days I'll go to Street View to see whether it shows a glum fellow in sunglasses oppose 16th & Arkansas.

Study and Attention

In an essay of Simone Weil's "Reflections on the Right Use of Studies with a View to the Love of God", I find the paragraph
 Although most people seem unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention  forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree.
Her interest in the essay is on attention in prayer; in another essay in the same collection, she writes of reciting the Lord's Prayer (in Greek) every morning with complete attention.

She makes an excellent case for developing the faculty of attention. Clearly she had that faculty herself. Yet I wonder how far studying in any system I've met develops that faculty. I seem to remember a lot of looking at the window and daydreaming in my own school days. More recently the physicians have been helping the teachers. I suppose the kids sit stiller, but are they more attentive?

Nancy Mitford may have been more practical when in Love in a Cold Climate she suggested that the appeal of fox-hunting is that it makes the stupidest person concentrate for long periods. (I would not know about that, having small acquaintance with horses and none with hunting. Still, I can imagine that inattention could lead to painful falls.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Executive Compensation: The Early Days, or, But Who's Counting?

The action of the Iliad begins when Agamemnon takes offense at Achilles's presumption and seizes the latter's slave girl, Bryseis, in return for the priest's daughter he must give back to placate Apollo. Agamemnon is already unhappy with Achilles for calling the meeting that has led up to the announcement that Chryseis must go back home; however the quarrel ignites when Achilles disputes Agamemnon's demand for compensation from the army:

"You must prepare for, however,
a prize of honor for me, and at once,
that I may not be left without my portion--
I, of all Argives. It is not fitting so."

Here "prize" seems to bear a naval sense, as indicating a spoil of war. Within a very few lines, tempers are to the point only Athena's intervention prevents Achilles from taking a sword to Agamemnon.

By Book IX, the Greeks, without Achilles, are in a bad way, and Agamemnon prepares to send offers to compensate Achilles and bring him back into the fight. The compensation up front will include gold, cooking implements, and horses, but also

"... seven women, deft
in household handicraft--women of Lesbos
I chose when he himself took Lesbos town,
as they outshone all womankind for beauty."

Now granting that the gold, tripods, cauldrons, and horses might have been brought from Argos, I wonder by what accounting the women of Lesbos don't count as "prizes of honor." Yet Achilles apart, the board, taking this to consist of leaders of the army, say Odysseus, Diomedes, the Ajaxes, Menelaus, Nestor, and Idomeneus, doesn't raise objections. Clearly Agamemnon's "reality distortion field" was in the same class as Steve Jobs's.

(The translation is Robert Fitzgerald's.)