Monday, August 29, 2011

The Storm, as Presented

Corin, in As You Like It, had noticed that "the property of rain is to wet". On Saturday we got to see the television stations demonstrate this at length, varying the rain now and then with storm surge and blown foam. The pictures were great, and we were impressed with a neighbor's composure as she reported from Calvert County. Yet I could see the rain better still from my porch.

We needed accurate forecasts of the rainfall, the wind speeds, and the duration of the storm. We got them all, as a tidy signal embedded in a volume of noise. I could happily have spared
  • One station's report on the relation of wind speeds to height, how a wind that blows 50 mph at ground level blows 100 mph some tens of stories up; do you think that the engineers who built New York and drew up its construction codes hadn't thought of that?
  • Many minutes of broadcasts from Ocean City and other beach towns.
  • Our elected officials' visits with the local news desks.
  • Radio reporters working their way through Roget to tell me of Irene's "ire" and "wrath".

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Storm, as Experienced

At our house, the main effect of the storm was about six hours of extra work, divided almost evenly between putting things away on Saturday, and bringing them back out and raking up Sunday. Saturday I put away pretty much everything--porch chairs down the basement, plants, tools, garbage and recycling cans in the garage, and so on. About all that I left loose outside were a door mat (too soft to cause damage if it blew) and the bird bath (unlikely to fly off). Today I brought most things back out, and then raked up a couple of big bags of twigs in the yard and the alley.

We had drizzle from 9:30 on Saturday morning, then rain from about 3 in the afternoon till about 8 Sunday morning. The water went around the house, mostly; a little got into the north side of the basement. We did not lose power except for a few second around 7 on Sunday morning. Matters could have been much worse.

It was our impression, looking out our windows or standing on the porch, that wind never got that strong. Across the street, by the light on a neighbor's house, the rain seemed generally to be within 20 degrees of vertical. None of the gusts that we were awake to see brought it anywhere near horizontal. We had discussed sleeping on the first floor of house, or even down the basement, for safety, since there are some big oaks near the house. At 10:15, though, the desire for a sound night's sleep took over, and we slept upstairs, in bed.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Languages and Letters

In looking up something John Ousterhout had written, I noticed with surprise that his home page is

The last three letters were the source of the surprise, for long ago Ousterhout developed the scripting language Tcl (tool-command language), which serves decently enough for web development. Or it served so anyway, for the last updates to AOLServer happened in 2010, and to Apache mod_tcl in 2003. There doesn't seem to be much talk about either of them lately, for the first page on a Google query for either retrieves postings from years ago. There may not be many patches, either, if somebody comes up with a zero-day exploit.

Tcl has its maddening aspects; with a bit of searching one can find Richard Stallman's diatribe against it. It has in its favor that it was built to be readily extensible. I learned it first because "expect" was built on top of it, a tremendously useful tool for some system administration tasks. I've used it via Tk (Toolkit, a handy tool for setting up graphical user interfaces), "oratcl" for running jobs under control of the Oracle "intelligent agent", and then with AOLserver. And I didn't know how much I liked its "upvar" until I looked without success for an equivalent in PHP.

Clerical Names

At a used bookstore the other week, I picked up a copy of Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope: The Commentaries of Pius II, an Abridgment, which I have just started to look into. Early on, the author mentions an imperial delegate, Heinrich Senftleben, Dean of Breslau. To my eye, this "Senftleben" looks like "Sanftleben", "to live soft".  But perhaps that is not at all the derivation; Zenklava in the Czech Republic was also known as Senftleben.

Jaroslav Pelikan's history of Christian doctrine mentions one "Nausea",  bishop of Vienna late in the first half of the 16th Century. On following this up, I learned that the bishop's family name was "Grau"; "grauen" in German is to become queasy. I suppose it speaks to a rage for classicism or a sense of humor that he would have gone by a Latin equivalent.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Earthquake

A little before 2 pm, I was listening to a Microsoft techie discuss Javascript, and noticed to my annoyance that the floor was bouncing slightly. I took this to mean that somebody nearby was bouncing his leg; I was beginning to glance around when the co-worker to my right said something. The bouncing intensified, the presenter broke off her talk to order an evacuation, and people began to leave. By the time I had my laptop unplugged, the bouncing had stopped. The half or so of the audience that had not yet left seemed inclined to stay. I plugged back in, and tried the Geological Survey web site; thanks to my unsatisfactory wireless connection, a neighbor beat me to it.

Those who went as far as the street report that the shoppers in the Friendship Heights stores were not distracted from their business, but kept right on. After about 20 minutes, so did the presenters. They did a good job despite the distraction.

I gather from what I hear that the shaking was more intense downtown. Quite a few buildings were evacuated there and elsewhere in the area. I must credit the builders of 5404 Wisconsin Avenue; on the fifth floor, the rolling and shaking was astonishing, but not by itself alarming--the notion that more might be on the way did trouble us.

Given that earthquake magnitudes are reported on a logarithmic scale, I think that 5.8 is plenty to satisfy my curiosity.

Friday, August 19, 2011


A blogger at the Harvard Business Review has come up with the interesting back-formation "mentee", meaning the recipient of a mentor's care. I would not expect HBR to copy edit its blogs, but this came to my attention via Bloomberg Business Week and an Association for Computing Machinery Career News digest, both of which passed "mentee" right along.

The expression has apparent symmetry to recommend it. On the other hand, it looks like "manatee" at first glance; then it sets the mind searching for the verb stem "ment", which leads directly to "mentir" and "mentior", probably not what those who speak earnestly of mentoring intend; finally it suggests that the writer cares nothing for or knows nothing of etymology.

I suppose that if I had to write on the topic I would use "protegee", though one expects a mentor to instruct as well as protect.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Subtle, Indeed

Preparing to paint some wood with Benjamin Moore's "Subtle", I was troubled to find that there was a can of Cameo White next to the plastic container holding what I had thought was Subtle. I found the quart can of Subtle, held it and the Cameo White quart next to each other, and could not distinguish the color of the paint smears on their sides. Either, held up next to the wood already painted, looked a plausible source. It then occurred to me that where intuition failed, analysis might serve; specially mixed cans from the Benjamin Moore stores have a sticker on the side that gives the components. The mix proved to be the same for that base, namely 5.25 OY, .25 BK, .5 each OG and GY. And on the Benjamin Moore web site, the suggested matches for each are "Elemental" and  "Mississipi Mud".

Evidently the naming of paints is as special an art as the mixing of them. The color, call it what you will, strikes me as a beige or putty or light tan.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Neglect and Exposure

If you live in a reasonably well-off area of the United States, the chances are that you know of a few of the young whose parents have relentlessly focused them on academic achievement since about the age of four. They have spent afternoons at tutoring centers; every summer they've spent a week or two at an academic enrichment program; from 5th grade on, they've taken the SATs a couple of times a year. The more susceptible may catch the bug themselves with varying degrees of virulence: mild cases have an odd knowledge of where this or that school ranks according to US News and World Report;  acute cases bore classmates with their calculations of where to spend that binding early admission application.

In some ways this is good. A retired chemistry professor, said by his wife to have recruited more accountants from Chemistry 101 than the business school ever did with all its brochures, has told me more than once that far more students do poorly from lack of work habits than from lack of intelligence. The child who has spent all those afternoons at the tutoring center knows something about work habits. She may well grow up to be the person you want as your doctor or lawyer, somebody who will see that every test is run and every citation checked.

Yet for the best results, I think one needs not only the power of concentration but the self direction to find a worthy object, and the leisure to pursue it. If self direction means what mom and dad want, and leisure is evidence of idleness, then I think something is lost.

A couple of years ago, reading Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, I was struck by a passage on Goethe:
 He further says of himself: "I had lived among painters from my childhood, and had accustomed myself to look at objects, as they did, with reference to art."  And this was his practice to the last.  He was even too well-bred to be thoroughly bred.  He says that he had had no intercourse with the lowest class of his towns-boys. The child should have the advantage of ignorance as well as of knowledge, and is fortunate if he gets his share of neglect and exposure.


Many years and a couple of jobs ago, I twice got on a plane to a customer site, there to help them recover from a corrupted file system. In both cases, the unit that failed was a 25 megabyte disk. Now, Apple will sell you an iPod with 16 gigabytes of storage, nearly 700 times as much as fit on these units. The iPod will fit nicely in a pocket, but these units came in a cabinet about 2 feet wide by three feet deep by a foot and a half high. The prudent user backed them up, generally using 8 inch floppy disks that held 1.2 megabytes. The main drive (and I suppose the floppy--I never looked) was driven by a rubber belt like a car's fan belt--if it dropped off the system would halt.

Recovering from file system corruption required backing all recoverable files off to the floppies, a few dozen at a time. This made for a long day and a late night, and one never got all the data back. At one of the sites, I sat in on the inquest where a manager a couple of levels up, with perfect southern manners, made it clear how inappropriate such disruptions were; I met some volatile and expressive customers at that job, and at least one who was outstanding at profanity, but there was none I'd fear more to disappoint than the lady with perfect manners.

The other week I found myself the customer in need of help. An old computer crashed, and damaged a couple of file systems beyond recovery. Pretty much everything I needed was backed up, but the backup and restore software depended on a number of settings that had changed between the old operating system and the new one I had restored. After co-workers were unable to help me, I put in a call to the vendor's support line, where I was promised a call back within two hours. The first cogent response came 21 hours after my call, by which time I had figured out a way around the difficulties.

I have seen disks develop from the 25 megabyte units to 1 terabyte disks (400 thousand times larger, that is). I have seen the backup media go from 8 inch floppy and 1 inch tape to 4 mm tape, to DLT  through a couple of generations of LTO. The throughput rates and capacity have astonished me at each jump. Yet it seems that you can never get data back as quickly as you'd care to . You can get gigabytes and soon terabytes back as fast as once you could megabytes. But now it's GB and TB you need back, not MB.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Both Ends Against the Middle

Some time ago I gave my brother a copy of Butcher's Crossing by John Williams, which New York Review Books had brought back into print. He remarked that enjoyed the novel, but found the introduction obnoxious. I replied that I had forgotten that the novel had an introduction, and that when I read the novel, with the introduction right there, it had not occurred to me to read it.

The copy I now have of Dawn Powell's The Locusts Have No King has a set of questions for book club discussion. Such questions strike me as implying that we in book clubs cannot come up with our own, and have to be primed like high school students. Frankly, I'd rather the publishers sank the money into a decent errata sheet, for the text here and there has distracting errors--"bridge" for "bride", "refuse" for "refuge", etc.

Certainly introductions can be useful, particularly in giving one some context: who was this author; when did he live; what else did she write? And I have read more discursive introductions that I thought just and informative, for example Louis Auchinchloss on The Bostonians and R.W.B. Lewis on The Europeans.  Generally, though, I'd rather open to page 1 and start reading.

Questions I think excellent for technical matter. It would be careless to read a mathematical textbook and not work and check all the problems one can. But for the novels I'd rather find my own questions.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ahead of the Trend, If There is One

In the New York Times for the last Thursday of July, I saw an article about persons deciding to restore old windows rather than replace them. Probably I did not read it with the closest attention, for after all it was in the Thursday Styles section. Yet, unlike a large proportion of what appears in the softer sections of the Times, it is a topic I know something about.

I did not notice a mention of one important fact: restoring an old window is a lot of work. Perhaps, though, the article was aimed at the carriage trade, readers who'd never undertake the project themselves and wouldn't wince at writing a check for what it must cost, which should be quite a lot  As amateurs painfully taught by experience, my wife and I can probably restore a window in forty hours of work. Professionals who came up through an apprenticeship must be faster, but I doubt they're more than twice as fast.

The work requires chiefly a painter's and a glazier's skills, and indeed the same workmen have often had both. Brendan Behan wrote of being trained in both, and in this country the main painter's union, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) includes glaziers. It can require carpentry, if somebody (say, me) has broken a sash in getting it out. It requires a good deal of plain old shoving, shaking, and yanking to dislodge windows painted into place. And I must say that removing a window dirties the hands as thoroughly as changing a tire. I take it that this is because the window has recesses that are neither washed by the rains outside nor reachable by house cleaning.

For some years I read "trend pieces" as if they meant something. I didn't suppose that the behaviors reported were anything to imitate--commonly I thought "my, how odd"--yet I thought they reflected actual trends. It strikes me as strange that I should have done so in my twenties, considering that at the age of six I had come to have my doubts about Santa Claus. The explanation must be that Christmas presents interested me a great deal at a young age, and all the stuff the lifestyle reporters write about really doesn't.