Saturday, August 30, 2014


Some years ago, on a winter Sunday, a friend told me, "You know, I really miss summer. In summer things are alive. Even bugs are alive." The day was nothing unusual for a local winter: an afternoon temperature in the mid-forties, an overcast sky, maybe some drizzle, dark bare trees. I did not wholly agree. For one thing, I grew up in colder places, and would have been happy to see more snow and lower temperatures. For another, I find running more comfortable in cool weather than in hot. But I understood what he meant.

We are about at the end of another Washington summer. It was a comfortable one as they go. If I chose the shaded side of the street on lunchtime walks, it was to improve comfort, not to avoid discomfort. I think that there may have been one day I felt very uncomfortable running on a weekend afternoon: most summers there are a dozen or more. There has been no stretch like that I encountered my first summer here  and which almost fixed my notion: temperature above 90 F, high humidity, a low sky the color of freshly poured concrete.

I can do without many of the bugs, particularly the mosquitoes. But I do like the lightning bugs early in an eastern summer. I think they disappeared on the early side this year because it was drier and cooler. And I like the cicadas and crickets late. A couple of weeks ago they made a sound as of little bells shaken. Now they are back to the late summer sound I'm used too, less silvery and raspier. I like to watch the bees and butterflies on our flowers and shrubs.

And I enjoy the summer fruits and vegetables. My father did, and in fact discovered an allergy awakened by too many tomatoes and ears of corn. I have long passed the age at which he broke out in hives, so either I don't have the allergic trait, or I get through less of that produce. But from early summer we have fresh tomatoes always in the kitchen, corn sometimes, peaches usually, berries and plums from time to time.

Even the weather can be enjoyed, if one acts prudently. The runner has to know the intervals of sun and shade on his route, when to start, sometimes when to walk. But once he or she has learned to run in the Potomac summer, the rest of the day seems not so bad.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Coding and Cooking

A young neighbor said that she is taking an introductory programming class. Of course, I asked her what language it used--failure to do so could lead to them taking away my pocket protector. When she said C++, I stared for a minute. I said, Well, it's a big language. And I remarked on the growth between the two editions of The C++ Programming Language that I had owned, the first probably under 300 pages, the next, purchased at most five years later, over 500. I find that the latest edition, published this year, has 1386 pages.

Large books on programming languages are not unusual. However, C++ is a tricky beast, a tool designed by a very proficient programmer for his own kind. The beginning programmer can easily discover that the runes in the small print actually said "Here be dragons" or "Achtung: Minen" or "Chien Mechant", or indeed have to puzzle this out from a two-page error listing. I don't think that I would use C++ in an introductory course.

For what it can do, C++ is excellent. However, of all those employed as programmers, a small fraction need the facilities it offers, chiefly the ability to combine low-level access to the hardware with a high level of abstraction. Most of them can work at a remove from the hardware, as with Java and C#, or "scripting" languages such as Perl, Python, and Ruby.

It is certainly useful to be able to work at all levels of the software stack, however much one may stick to one particular level. I am grateful for the chance I had to learn assembler and C, and make gaudy but not too costly mistakes as I figured out about effective addresses and registers. However, I have worked with consultants who probably couldn't give a five-minute talk on pointers but are very productive with the higher-level languages they use. Plenty of the students intimidated or simply flunked out by C++ might be useful programmers, and eventually capable of tackling C++, if they started with something like Python.

I shared these reflections with a couple of friends. One responded to agree, mentioning the case of a young relative who had suffered pointlessly through half of a C++ class.

Michael Pollan, who writes about food, devoted some of his Omnivore's Dilemma to a meal beginning with the shooting of a wild pig. I believe that I read a bit of this chapter in the New York Times Sunday Magazine before I was called away to do something else. Or maybe I found it remote from my interests. I like Pollan's writing and more or less agree with many of his ideas, but have no urge to hunt my own pork.

Competence in programming is good for the individual, who becomes more employable, and for society as a whole, which nowadays can use programmers. Competence in cooking is good for the individual, who will generally eat better and weigh less, and for the society as a whole, which has member less likely to suffer from the ailments that accompany obesity. So, more of us should learn to code and more of us should learn to cook.

If instruction in cooking began with shooting and butchering a pig, how many of us would learn cooking? And the beginning student does not approach C++ with superior firepower. It is not a matter of lying in ambush with a rifle, it is a matter of contending in mud or thicket with a tough opponent, on terms of near parity. Odysseus got away with a scar when he went boar hunting.  How many of the students will?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Forty-odd years ago, Richard M. Nixon, Republican president of the United States, said "We are all Keynesians now." This did not please the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which tended to be parsimonious on government spending and opposed to any measures tending toward inflation.

This week, Francois Hollande, Socialist president of France, dissolved his government because his economics minister, Arnand Montebourg, had criticized the government's austerity measures, speaking in favor of more government spending to stimulate growth: I gather that Montebourg had considerable backing in the cabinet. I lack the training in economics to say who has the better of the argument. But I would not have thought that a member of a French socialist cabinet would be turned out for speaking against austerity.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Back to School

The first student I saw was a boy of five or six, walking with his mother. He had on dark cardigan, tie, and slacks, and a white shirt. I could see by not quite read the school's device on his sweater: the initials ended in DS, presumably Day School; but the two or three schools I can think of that call themselves such are a good ways away from Spring Road and 16th St. NW.

After that there were children and teens from schools obvious and not. Obvious were the teenagers in Bell High School shirts and their juniors in Lincoln Middle School shirts. Not obvious were the boy in white tennis shirt and dark slacks at Park Road and the little girl in a plaid jumper at Euclid St. Either or both could have been headed for Sacred Heart Academy, but I don't remember the girls' plaid, or the boys' uniform there.

It seems to me that I usually enjoyed the first day of school, however disenchanted I might become. There was the promise of a fresh start and things to be learned, for one thing. There was the promise of fall, as well, a wonderful season in the Midwest, with cool weather, colorful leaves, and football, on TV and in the back yard.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

1914: The Sleepwalkers

By now, I have read many accounts of the outbreak of WW I: Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August probably first, then accounts embedded in histories of England, Germany, Russia, or the Hapsburg Empire. This week, I read to the end of The Sleepwalkers,by Christopher Clark.

Tuchman's history is exciting, with ship chases, infantry engagements, towns burned, and troops sent to the front in taxis. It also, I gather, blunders on the actual schedule of mobilizations. She read the history of 1914 through the history of 1933 through 1945, a point that I certainly did not see when I first read the book 40 years ago.

Clark's history ends before the battles start. It appears to me that he reads 1914 through the history of the breakup of Yugoslavia, so that the Austrians and Germans come off better, the Slavs worse. But wherever the blame falls, I cannot read it except as the history of the suicide of Europe. As such, it is thoroughly depressing.Once one has read enough histories of WW I, each next one appears to asymptotically approach Karl Kraus's In These Great Times.

George Kennan's history of the development of the Franco-Russian alliance is worth reading along with The Sleepwalkers if you can find it. Many of the actors of 1890, when Kennan's history ends, were still active in 1914. It makes for less depressing reading, with fewer and smaller wars, and with coups d'etat that do not end in regicide.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Dawn Patrol

Last Thursday morning, on my way past the Russian cathedral, I thought I heard singing. This surprised me, for it was not yet 7:10. I paused to be sure I heard the choir, then checked the bulletin board beside the parish hall. It was "Procession of the Holy Wood of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord. Holy Maccabean Martyrs." The liturgy had begun at 6:40. This Tuesday morning, the choir was back for The Feast of the the Transfiguration, and next week they will turn out early for "Dormition of the Most-Holy Theotokos", what Latins call the Feast of the Assumption.

I am impressed at their devotion. It is not difficult to find a 7 am Roman Catholic Mass, and I think that St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom even has a 6:30 Mass on weekdays. But if you want a Catholic choir before 10 o'clock, you might have to find a convent or monastery.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Scientific Terms

At the beginning of the week, I noticed a headline in The Washington Post:
After 40 Years, Nixon's Vitriol Still Resonates
This is pretty standard headline writing, but it distracts those who remember that vitriol means "sulfuric acid". We imagine waves dashing back and forth in a beaker.

Later in the week, I found, in a most interesting and learned book, that
At the epicentre of the deepening opposition to the crown was the Serbian army.
I think not. The epicenter is the point on the surface above an earthquake. The author does not suggest that Serbian society shook, and the army fell on the king. Rather, officers of the army were leading conspirators. I think that the author has fallen into the bad habit of taking "epi" for an intensive.

And steadily we have"implode". Marriages implode, families implode, states implode. I believe that most of the entities said to have imploded simply failed. They might be said to have collapsed, from weakness in their structures, but generally they did not fail through sudden overwhelming pressure from without. Still, "implode" acquired a prestige at Los Alamos that it hasn't lost yet.