Thursday, August 31, 2017


At work, we have switched email systems for the second time in eight years. This transition, like the last, called to some users' attention just how much junk is in their list of contacts. In four hundred weeks, one can build--one's mailer can build for one--a remarkably long list of email addresses.

The last time, I set up some scripts to de-duplicate contact lists. The machine I ran them on was shut down and removed years ago, so over the last week I had a look to see what was involved in rewriting them. It wasn't difficult to write something that actually winnowed the junk. On the other hand, the number of the addresses was amazing.

How is that the list has the email addresses of forty persons at the Ford Foundation? I have never, that I know, exchanged an email with any of them. Why a handful of persons at this or that university where I have never had dealings? I suspect that I have the slightly misspelled email address of one of our department heads because somebody's fingers remembered "i before e" when it was not applicable. I know why I have the email addresses of persons who left our organization in 2010 or 2011, but do I really want to cull them one at a time?

Rather than grapple with these questions, I've set up a simple web page where the help desk techs may, if they wish, submit a comma-separate variable (csv) file, and get back three files:
  •  The better, meaning that every record is no worse than any other for the same email address, where "better" has to do with whether the name fields look like names, or like something split automatically from an email address.
  • The worse, meaning that every record is no better than at least one other for the same email address, using the definition of "better" given above.
  • The bad, meaning that there is no email address, or that it is in a less useful format such as an LDAP path.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


We have pickets around our front and back porches. They show well, but require a fair bit of maintenance. Those in the back get almost no sun, so that every now and then we suddenly notice that they have mold on them. Those in front get sun for much of the day, so that the paint peels and cracks; but they still get mold on, just less. The rails of both are apt to rot. In general, if you wish to know what sort of mold spores are in the air in your neighborhood, white pickets seem to serve well.

During the last couple of weekends, we have scrubbed what we could of the mold off the back pickets and about half of those in front. Once the scrubbing is done, we will next have to scrape away the peeling or cracked paint, and then, probably in October, we will paint them, either all or as needed.

Painting pickets is a remarkably tedious job. The difficulty of any given task of painting seems to me to depend on the ratio of surface to edge or corner work. Pickets are all edge, unless one finds it convenient to paint with a brush narrower than one inch. A contractor we knew said that he always quoted such work very high for just that reason.

Once in Martha's Vineyard, I noticed a couple of men painting pickets. One sat on one side, one on the other, and the work seemed to go very efficiently that way. Probably that is how we will paint ours. The men we saw seemed to be painters by trade, and no doubt did a good, professional, expensive job. We are not painters by trade, but we suit our own budget.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


I think of the noun "stuff" as colloquial. Years ago, when our son was in his mid-teens, and like most men of that age informed his parents on a need-to-know basis, we were returning from a neighborhood party. Those of middle age and college age had been out on the lawn, the young had been in the basement. My wife asked about the basement:
Wife: Who was down there?
Son: People.
W: What did you do?
S: Stuff
 Colloquial, perhaps, but not modern, for happening this week to open George Cavendish's The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, I found
"Sir, then," quod I, "will it please your grace to move the King's majesty in my behalf to give me one of the carts and horses that brought up my stuff with my lord's, which is now in the tower, to carry it into my country?"
Well, what would one have said in place of stuff? "Property" or "belongings" would serve now. The OED gives several pages to "stuff", with citations going back to the 1400s in the sense of personal property.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Concepts and Perception

In Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman tells of winding up a sabbatical year  in Rio de Janeiro with a lecture stating that no science was taught in Brazil. As a demonstration of his point, he stated that he could flip to a random page in the elementary physics textbook and find not science but memorization:
    So I did it. Brrrrrrrup--I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: "Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed..."
     I said, "And there, have you got science? No. You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven't told anything about nature--what crystals produce light when you crush them,  why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can't.
     "But if, instead, you were to write, 'When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called "triboluminescence"'. Then somebody will go home and try it. Then there's an experience of nature.
The previous pages had examples of students who knew all the rules for polarization and refraction, without having it occur to them that light off a bay is polarized, or that glass has an index of refraction. (This would have been in 1951.)

Elsewhere Feynman speaks of listening to and intervening in talks in Japan:
He thinks I'm following the steps mathematically, but that's not what I'm doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he's trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing. So when the equation says it should be have so-and-so, and I know that's the wrong way around, I jump up and say, "Wait! There's a mistake!"
  Chapter VII of the Supplements to the First Book, in the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, has the title "On the Relation of Knowledge of Perception to Abstract Knowledge". Schopenhauer writes that
On the other hand, to perceive, to allow the things themselves to speak to us, to apprehend and grasp new relations between them, and then to precipitate and deposit all this into new concepts, in order to possess it with certainty; this is what gives us new knowledge. But whereas almost everyone is capable of comparing concepts with concepts, to compare concepts with perceptions is a gift of the select few. ... Even writing and speaking, whether didactic or poetical, have as their ultimate aim the guidance of the reader to that knowledge of perception from which the author started; if they do not have this aim, they are bad. For this reason the contemplation and observation of everything actual, as soon as it presents something new to the observer, is more instructive than all reading and hearing about it....
    With most books, quite apart from the really bad ones, if they are not entirely of empirical content, it is true that the author has thought but not  perceived; he has written from reflection, not from intuition. .. I will introduce the difference here touched on by a quite easy and simple example. Every commonplace writer will describe profound contemplation or petrified astonishment by saying: "He stood like a statue"; but Cervantes says: "Like a draped statue; for the wind moved his garments" (Don Quixote, Bk. vi, ch. 19). In such a way have all great minds always thought in the presence of perception, and in their thinking kept their gaze steadily on it. We recognize this, among other things, in the fact that even the most heterogeneous of them so often agree and concur in detail, just because they all speak of the same thing which they all had before their eyes, namely the world, the actuality of perception.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Uses of Email

At the office, we have moved from Outlook to GMail. Mostly the process went smoothly. I doubt that I will ever like the GMail interface as well as the Outlook web interface or fat client. (Yes, I know that one can use the Outlook client with GMail; but it isn't supported, and I have better things to do with my time than fight through that.) However, I grudgingly moved from GroupWise to Outlook some years ago, and got used to the latter, so I suppose I will forget Outlook almost as thoroughly as I have GroupWise.

There was some difficulty with moving certain shared mailboxes to Google groups, though. The network admin sent me a link to Google's page on automatic posting. The Python sample worked nicely once I had Python 2.7 installed on a virtual machine. Then it was a matter of reading the Outlook object documentation. Presently, I had a script to take messages from an Outlook inbox and post them to a Google group. It turned out that the messages in the box in question all had attachments, which meant a longer look at the Outlook and Python documentation. But presently that worked, too.

Then I had a close look at the Outlook inbox: about 1200 messages, all with attachments. I raised a question with the manager concerned: shouldn't this all be in a database? A simple table of administrator, employee, subject, date, and document could be easily searched, sorted and presented. We could in a matter of days put up a web interface to allow submission of the documents and allow her staff to see them. The answer was roughly: We are used to this, and people can check it on their phones. Well, they could on the interface I proposed, too. I pushed the messages.

For about twenty-five years I have seen people use email as a database, generally with some ill effects. In the old days, it slowed the shared minicomputer, for simply keeping track of thousands of files in one directory slowed such systems. Now it simply leads to important information being lost, or hard enough to find that it might as well be lost.

I do use email too much when I should write things down, or keep a computerized log of discussions held. It serves well enough as a journal, if one is reconciled to a journal that lasts only so many months. Now and then this does catch up with me.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Schopenhauer sets forth the requirements for understanding The World as Will and Representation  in the preface to the first edition:
  1. Read the book twice.
  2. First read On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Philosophical Essay.
  3. Be acquainted with the principal works of Kant.
  4. For preference, be acquainted with Indian thought.
  1. That will take a while: the two volumes comprise about 1100 pages, and I have only started the second.
  2. I didn't, but perhaps will take up the book this fall.
  3. I thought that I was acquainted with Kant's work. However, the appendix to the first volume, "Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy", disabused me.
  4. I am a bit weak on this point.
It would be fascinating to see the copies of Kant's works that Schopenhauer used, I imagine: what annotations must he have made? I can see that after setting Schopenhauer aside I should probably go back and read through The Critique of Pure Reason again.

The second-last paragraph of the preface runs
I am afraid, however, that even so I shall not be let off. The reader who has got as far as the preface and is put off by that, has paid money for the book,and wants to know how he is to be compensated. My last refuge now is to remind him that he knows of various ways of using a book without precisely reading it. It can, like many another, fill a gap i nhis library, where, neatly bound, it is sure to look well. Or he can lay it on the dressing-table or tea-table of his learned lady friend. Or finally he can review it; this  is assuredly the best course of all, and the one I specially advise.
In the Austrian movie "Das weite Land", based on Arthur Schnitzler's play of the same name and released in the US as "The Undiscovered Country", the doomed admirer of the industrialist's wife gives her a copy of The World as Will and Representation shortly before he shoots himself. I find that this cannot have occurred in the play, for when it commences the admirer is already dead and buried; whether the book turns up as a prop, I can't say, lacking the patience to find my way through many pages of Fraktur.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Back from Oregon

After a quick trip to Oregon, I have decided that it is best to vacation to the east of one's place of work. Difficulties discovered when everyone gets to work in that time zone will occur when one is awake, alert, perhaps ready to take a break from hours of sightseeing. Those discovered in the afternoon can be dealt with in the morning, when the workplace is still dark.

Corvallis was hot, by local standards. To us it felt comfortable, with temperatures around what we had left in Washington, DC, but with very low humidity. The air cooled quickly after sunset, and there was a breeze. Newport, which we visited on Friday, was foggy and cool. I walked into the ocean water just far enough that my feet were wet and my ankles not, and considered that this was enough.

A large swath of Oregon will be in the path of totality during the eclipse of August 21. Everyone is preparing for an immense influx of tourists. A friend in Salem has rented out her apartment for one night at $1000. Oregon State University is putting tourists up in its dormitories, and letting them camp out on its fields. Smaller towns are wondering how everyone will get home--gas stations have only so large a tank, and small towns may have only one gas station. (People are thinking of calculations such as 1500 gallons/tank divided by 500 cars multiplied by 25 miles per gallon minus 100 miles to the average next stop. One hopes that the tourists will arrive with a fair bit of gas in the tank.) Everyone expects the worst traffic jam in the history of the state.

I would not mind seeing the eclipse, but I don't envy those who will have seen it and wish to get home. In 1999 we happened to be at Neuschwanstein during an eclipse. We hadn't known of the eclipse until long after we made our travel plans, and we thought little about it after the sky brightened. Having seen the castle we left, heading west in fast-moving traffic. Then, about Ulm, the traffic slowed considerably. In my recollection, we were in a traffic jam from Stuttgart to Mannheim. The cars traveled at about walking pace between rest stops and went stop-and-go past them. We got to our hotel in the Hunsr├╝ck very late.

I did not take many pictures this time, but here is a thistle on one of the streets near the OSU campus:

And here are some items to keep yourself entertained in the Interzone cafe across from campus:

I wonder whether mediocre ukulele playing is tolerated as calmly as bad chess.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Last night, I happened to read Les Murray's poem "Upright Clear Across", about floods that would cover the Pacific Highway when he was a boy. The children would earn pocket money guiding motorists across causeways then flooded:
Every landing brought us ten bobs and silver
and a facing lot with a bag on their motor
wanting us to prove again what we
had just proved, that the causeway was still there.
Today, I heard from a co-worker of difficulties during her recent vacation at the shore. They began when her sister's car was flooded during heavy rains a couple of weeks ago. The local mechanic told them that the insurance company would write the car off as a total loss, for the electronics in modern cars don't tolerate flooding. He mentioned among the possible consequences the sudden deployment of an air bag. And in fact, the insurance company did write off the sister's car. Insurance companies will presumably have to write off some rental cars as well, for the car the sister rented to go home in sloshed on starting and stopping. The sisters returned it, and returned in a tightly packed car.

I  am grateful for many of the electronics in modern cars. I would not care to go back to the days before there were air bags. But cars did once stand more abuse. Every summer in Denver, thunderstorms would flood I-25, otherwise the Valley Highway, and some cars would get water on their spark plugs and stall. They started well enough when the plugs were dried off, or so I remember it. And evidently the cars Murray wrote off tolerated a bit of water, maybe with some salt in it.