Thursday, July 31, 2003

I'm back in California and back at work. I even have food in the cupboard again. I still haven't completely adjusted to the different time zone, but I'm sure that will come shortly.

I talked to my advisor today, and he mentioned a conversation he had with an old friend at a recent conference. Some of the work I'm doing came up in the conversation, and with it, my name. Jim's old friend taught my upper division course on differential equations, and he remembered me. I was impressed; it has been seven years. The world isn't really that small, but some days it seems like it might be.

    Currently drinking: Juice

Friday, July 25, 2003

I went grocery shopping with Mom this afternoon. It was not a major expedition, but I wanted to get out of the house. The grocery stores here have self-service checkout aisles. It seems a reasonable idea; I wonder why I haven't seen such a setup in California?

When we came home, I made a late lunch of ramen noodles with broccoli and green onions for my parents and me. The onions and broccoli were both a little old, but the spice packets that come with the ramen noodles make such a salty, strongly seasoned broth that the freshness of any added vegetables makes little difference. It's the type of meal I'd make for myself in California, if I wanted something simple and I had some old vegetables. Both Mom and Dad said they liked it. I'm not surprised. They're the source of many of my food habits, after all, both in the preparation and the consumption.

I rarely remember dreams. If I remember anything, it usually vanishes within an hour of waking. If I sleep on a problem, the answer often comes. But when I wake, only the answer remains; the package in which it came has disappeared.

When dreams match memories, though, I remember them well. So I remember the dream about the raven. He was affectionate, and ate ivy. That was a second-hand dream, though; I only remember it because it was once recounted to me.

There are no dreams involved in the crazy cardinal waking me up. The bird is clearly offended by the intruder it sees in the mirror of the window. It has a morning ritual: fly from the branch, peck the reflection in the window -- bang! -- and return to the branch. Repeat until the angle of the sun makes the reflection disappear. Mom tells me that it will fly off in confusion if I walk to the window and stare out at it. She also tells me that the cats will come charging to see the cardinal if I leave the door open for them.

The cardinal's charges woke me, but I did not get out of bed for a while. I felt lazy, probably because I read late into last night. I've now finished the Belisarius series (the remainder of Destiny's Shield and all of Fortune's Stroke). I think after I finish Dawn to Decadence, I'll add some histories of the Byzantine empire to my list. Both Kay's Sarantium duology and the Belisarius series of Drake and Flint are loosely based on the Byzantine empire and it's neighbors in the sixth century CE, and I enjoyed both sets of books largely for their setting.

If I buy such a history, it will probably eventually make its way to the shelf below the window that so offends that crazy cardinal. That shelf is home to several nonfiction books that I've shared with my parents: Gleick's Faster, Putnam's Bowling Alone, and Hoffman's The Man Who Loved Only Numbers all sit there. Galileo's Daughter would be there, too, but my brother Scott is reading it now. I do enjoy loaning and recommending books. Perhaps it's similar to the enjoyment some friends find in playing matchmaker, but with much less work and much less potential for offense.

My old sticks lean against that shelf. They're a pair, cut to the length of my arm. They are light, in both color and weight, but they're tough. I remember cutting them to the right length, polishing them smooth, and finishing them with tung oil. When I first picked them up, they were still a little rough and the finish was still tacky. They rubbed the skin along my thumbs and index fingers raw, at first. One weighs a bit more than the other; I always used that one in my left hand. I have a pair of sticks in California as well, but they are heavier, darker, smoother, and a little longer. And I didn't make them. I like my sticks in California, though I practice with them far too infrequently. But they aren't the same as the old sticks by the shelf.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

  • Will and Liz have a newborn!
  • I need to explain to someone that averagely is not a word. Truly.
  • Pounce the Cat has huge pupils.
  • I should go to sleep.
  • Liz and Will have a newborn!

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

I'm on a Reading Binge. Taking a break from Dawn to Decadence, I've been reading light fiction, mostly. In particular, since I returned I've gone through:

  • The Gathering Flame - Doyle and MacDonald
  • The Wellstone - McCarthy
  • Drowned Planet - Foster
  • Men at Arms - Pratchett
  • In the Heart of Darkness - Drake and Flint
  • The first 2/3 of Destiny's Shield - Drake and Flint

Ah, books. Reading while rain patters on the roof is a joy of life. It's a rare joy in California in the summer, though there is plenty of rain in the winter months. But the weather in Maryland has been cool and wet all year, and it has rained frequently since I returned.

Rick visited home yesterday evening through this afternoon. At lunch, he asked if I'd be interested in visiting him at their place near College Park for a couple days. I thought about it, and declined. Rick replied, I understand; it's hard work being interesting. And he's right! Rick understands me well.

And now I'm going to finish my book and sleep.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

I spent Tuesday evening through Saturday afternoon at the SIAM Conference on Applied Linear Algebra in Williamsburg. The conference took place at the College of William and Mary, which has a beautiful campus. I count the conference as a success: I met interesting people, heard interesting talks, and got my fast polynomial root-finding code working.

It was finally able to match faces to some names I've known for a while. When I read a paper, I give the author a mental voice, and it's always a little surprise to find out that the voice from my thoughts does not match the real voice. I form mental images of faces, as well, but those pictures are less distinct, and I'm less surprised when they clash with reality. I'm also always a little surprised to meet people who recognize me in return on first meeting. I suppose I shouldn't be, though. The linear algebra community is small and friendly, and it's not too difficult to remember names associated with interesting papers and projects.

Conferences expose me for an introvert. I meet people and socialize, and am perfectly happy doing so. But I find that it wears me out after a while. Listening to talks also requires concentration, and it's difficult to maintain such a high level of concentration for a full day, particularly when the sessions extend into the evening. I enjoyed it, but I'm glad to have a break now.

Several people told me they enjoyed my talk and thought the work was interesting. I was pleased by the compliments, particularly since some of them came from people who I admire for their presentation style. I was also pleased afterward, when people mentioned various ways in which the work could be extended. Perhaps I'll be able to incorporate some of those ideas into the paper. Of course, I hope to finish this paper (among other things) by the summer's end, so perhaps some of the extensions will wait.

I look forward to the day when I no longer have to estimate my graduation date, or answer questions about it, or guess what I might do after I graduate. I'm not looking forward to a job search, but it will be a bearable chore.

I visited Pete and Nicole and Will and Liz today. Visits with old friends are a great joy in life, and I have not seen either couple since winter. We ate and talked and enjoyed a mild sunny day. And when it came time to go, there was still light left for the trip home. Summer daylight is grand; when I made the trip in winter, I clutched the steering wheel through an anxious drive. In daylight, the route from home to Pete and Nicole's place is a pretty twisting path threading through the woods of rural Harford and Baltimore counties. After dark, the sharp turns in the road and rapid variations in the speed limit seem less charming. But I didn't get lost this time, and since the trip was in daylight, I enjoyed it in full.

And now I think I'll go stick my nose in a book.

    Currently drinking: Cold water

Monday, July 14, 2003

I'm home. It's no contradiction to say that I left home Friday morning and flew home. My room in the apartment in El Cerrito is home; so is the room in Maryland where I'm sitting now. When I leave here at the end of the month, I'll be again eager to return home.

The flight was long but uneventful. the most excitement was at the transfer in Houston. The flight I'd taken from Oakland arrived late, and I sat at the back of the plane. The gate for my departing flight was far from the gate for the incoming flight, and I worried I might not make it in time. I walk quickly, but it turned out that my worry was not warranted. The departing flight was also late, enough so that I had a moment to use the restroom before boarding began. Still, the experience taught me something that I've long suspected: a fast walker can move through an airport more quickly than a cart can. A cart has more difficulty bypassing clots of pedestrians than a man afoot does.

Saturday, I ate lunch with my parents and brother Scott at La Tolteca. Then we went to the library. I passed the rest of the afternoon reading a Star Wars book by Alan Dean Foster; it was entertaining, if not inspired. Mom, Dad, and Scott spent much of the afternoon reading, too. We are a reading family, and always have been. We read to ourselves; we read aloud when we find a particularly funny passage; and we share book tales and recommendations. work, food, and books hold us together -- and with friends no less than with family.

We listened to Prairie Home Companion in the evening. Then the rain came and went, and with it went the power. I read by lamp light for a time, then went to bed. The power did not return until the morning.

I'm still reading Barzun's Dawn to Decadence. He writes stories in clear prose, simply but not simplistically. He describes human characters, not cutouts. He presents events within trends, not as isolated occurrences with attached dates. I read with pen in and, and write down the references I'd like to read and the points I'd like to share or to contest. I thoroughly enjoy the process. Why couldn't high school history have been more like this?

I look around my room at home, and I realize that the notes I take now will probably still be with me a decade hence. I'm a packrat. The things in the room remind me: the plaster casting of a fox pawprint, the figurine of the little frog with a beseeching expression, even the used backing powder can that serves as a pen holder. They have all been around for well over a decade, now, which is a long time for someone my age. I still have the filger full of copper from the penny I dissolved in high school chemistry. In the closet are 5.25 inch disks for the C64 that I probably could no longer read even if I had access to a compatible drive. There are old letters, and long-broken watches, and colored pencils that date from middle school. And of course there are books.

Unfortunately, there is not an old Parker fountain pen of the type that fits the ink cartridge I tried to put into one of my Sheaffer pens. I poked a hole in the cartridge before I realized it would not fit: thus, my search through all the artifacts in my room. I think the relic I sought is in California, though.

I wrote a lot with those pens. I still write a lot with those pens. One summer when I was in middle school -- was it before seventh grade, or before eighth? -- I taught myself again how to write. Before that, my print was a messy scrawl, and my cursive came out at a crawl. Now, both print and script are neat, though sometimes too small, and I can write reasonably quickly. Further, I've discovered that I enjoy the feel of having a pen in hand. I enjoy typing, too, and I type more quickly than I write by hand. But it's not the same.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Today was the IEEE 754R meeting for the month. I went, I took notes, and I got a headache. Details are important in this business, but sometimes it seems as if we should advertise as a floating-point arithmetic committee and de-lousing service. So many nits, so little time. That's the nature of committees, I suppose.

I leave for a 2.5 week trip to the east coast tomorrow. The flight leaves at noon, and I have barely started packing. I travel light, though, and as long as I'm with my family in Maryland at this time tomorrow, I'll be happy. I want a break from Berkeley, and the anticipation is keeping me from what might otherwise be a very dour mood.

I'd better pack and get some sleep.

  • Currently drinking: Stash Chai

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

I talked to Ming today, and I finally understand the formulas I'm using. Once I understood, I knew how to devise tests to isolate the problem in my code. The tests works as I expect now, and now I know what to expect. I'd made a type of error that I make often enough: a mishandled boundary case. What surprises me was not the nature of the error, but the fact that it had such subtle and counterintuitive consequences.

The world might be easier if our errors all had immediate and obvious (non-fatal) consequences. It all our errors had immediate fatal consequences, the world would be very quiet.

  • Currently drinking: Water

Monday, July 07, 2003

Mike and I biked through the lower hills in north Berkeley and Kensington this evening. The views were gorgeous. The snapshot moments are more obvious from the heights than they are lower down, but that's part of the charm of the lower hills. The view of the setting sun lighting the white plaster of the mission chapel, bracketed by trees and with a backdrop of clouds and the water of the bay, is as lovely in its own way as the panoramic hilltop views. It's a matter of composition.

  • Currently drinking: Vanilla hazelnut tea

Sunday, July 06, 2003

I ran out of ink yesterday, and discovered to my dismay that there were no fine-tip pens left in the empty yogurt cup that serves as my pen holder. Writing letters in pencil seems like bad form, though I'm sure I'd be forgiven. I finished the letter with the one pen I had left which contained ink. It was a medium-point rollerball, which is barely fine enough to lend my script the appearance of legibility, and I thought as I sealed the envelope Tomorrow I'll visit Staples.

Actually, I thought I would visit Target. But the pen and pencils aisle in Target offered only glitter pens and colored pencils, and the local Staples is just across the street from Target.

Now I have new ink cartridges, lead, erasers, a box of disposable pens, and a pair of discounted earbuds to replace my headphones. My old headphones are a Frankensteinian contraption now, held together as much by layer after layer of masking tape as by the original plastic. The sound in the left earpiece sporadically fails, too. The earbuds work nicely, but it still took me a few minutes of contemplation to decide to spend the five dollars to buy them. Once I've repaired something, I feel a certain attachment to it -- even if I the quality of the repair is questionable.

As I unlocked my bike outside Staples, some guy rode up on another bike and started shouting at me. Apparently, he felt insulted that I'd been staring at him. Given that I didn't notice him until he started shouting, my first fleeting thought was that I ought to have the prescription on my glasses adjusted. It has been a few years. I decided my vision might not be degrading so quickly after all when he continued by stating his intention to break my Jewish homosexual nose. I think he called me a leper after that, though I'm not sure. It would be exciting if he did. I've been mistaken for Jewish before, probably partly by my appearance and partly by my given names. I don't know if I've ever been mistaken for homosexual. But I'm sure I've never been mistaken for a leper, or even called a leper as an attempted insult.

Anyhow, I don't think we need to worry about this gentleman becoming a major demagogue; he becomes incomprehensible when excited. Since he was still straddling his bike, it seemed unlikely that he had a clear notion of the next step in his nose-breaking plans. He didn't seem to be carrying a weapon, and he had no jacket or backpack in which a weapon would be easily concealed. Even were he serious, it would have taken him at least a few seconds to dismount and move into punching range. So I released my grip on my U-lock, zipped my bag, and rode off. He followed for a block, but then stopped shouting -- from laziness, boredom, hoarseness, or a sense of victory, I know not and care not. He wasn't following me any longer by the time I reached the next light.

Saturday, July 05, 2003

I finished a collection entitled German Essays on Science in the Twentieth Century. I've been reading it on-and-off for a while. I enjoyed the articles by the physical scientists and biologists a great deal. I enjoyed some others less. The only one I didn't finish was an essay by the philosopher Karl Vossler entitled Language and Science. That one made my eyes cross.

Now I'm reading From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun. I bought the book last year when I was reading a sequence of books on history, but I didn't actually start until today. I've enjoyed the first few chapters. Barzun writes in a lively style, and he focuses on people and the details of the times he describes. If only my high school history texts had been like this! Then again, I'd hate to see any general field of study judged by the merit of an average high school text.

And now the fourth of July has come and gone. I napped, walked, read, and wrote today. I did no work. I did stroll in the sun, whistling and humming and thinking to myself. I had raisin bread with breakfast and corn and tomatoes for dinner, and quiet disturbed only by the sounds of fireworks. That's all I can ask from a day, and more.

  • Currently drinking: Water with a bit of lime juice

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

More pointed quotes from Unix fortune:

Why don't somebody print the truth about our present economic condition? We spent years of wild buying on credit, everything under the sun, whether we needed it or not, and now we are having to pay for it, howling like a pet coon. This would be a great world to dance in if we didn't have to pay the fiddler.
-- The Best of Will Rogers

The paper was for INFOCOM; the SIGCOMM deadline was something different. And the INFOCOM deadline was extended by a day, since something in the submission software was not working correctly. Such extensions are about as much relief as an extended visit to the dentist.

I'm working from home this morning. So far, I've looked at the most recent Springer Applied and Computational Math catalog, read through our paper submission again, and thought muddled thoughts. I've made two observations that do seem pretty clear, though. The first observation involves a point of linear algebra involving a hypothesis about equivalence classes of matrix Hessenberg forms under unitary similarity. The second observation is not my own, but is striking nonetheless: a Google search for monkeys drinking coffee includes this blog in the first page of results.

Back to the brachiating.

  • Currently drinking: Black coffee.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Most days, I spend at least part of the day thinking My code is broken, and I don't understand why! Today, I found myself faced with an entirely different problem. My code is working, and I don't understand why!

To be fair, I didn't understand why it was working when I put it aside Sunday evening. I thought I might be able to figure it out with a little work, though. Now I've put some thought into it, and it only seems ever more mysterious. The intermediate steps in my computation have none of the nice properties that I think they might have, which might explain the behavior I see. At least, they don't always have those properties. When I write code to enforce those nice properties, my program stops working. I have no analysis, no intuition, no promising leads that hint at why this code should work as it does. Yet it works.

I think I have an attitude of tempered optimism. All the same, I'm suspicious. I think many good programmers I know become suspicious when code works too easily. Are there no errors, or is there insufficient scrutiny? And in this case, I'm working with a relatively simple mathematical construct. I don't want evidence that it works. I want a proof! But it does work, and I haven't figured out how to prove it yet. So I'll ponder some more, and perhaps I'll know the answer tomorrow. Or the day after. Or the day after that.

And my office mate is getting married. I don't understand that, either. I wasn't immediately that surprised when he mentioned it; after all, two of my other office mates have plans to marry as well, one a bit sooner and one a bit later. As I recall, fifteen minutes later I was telling him about Markov chains and Perron-Frobenius vectors. But then I thought about it later and was surprised all over again.

At least my recent surprises have been pleasant ones. Perhaps the good Dr. Pangloss was onto something? Perhaps Murphy was an optimist.

    Currently drinking: Red tea