Wednesday, February 25, 2004

It's time for a mid-day tea break. Today I'm having black tea flavored with black currants.

I looked outside this morning and thought My umbrella will never survive this. But I needed to go to campus. So I changed into shorts and a t-shirt, put on a pair of sandals, and ran to Long's Drugs in the El Cerrito Plaza. Carlson Ave was flooded, and the water was knee-deep in places along the route I took. By the time I reached the store, I was drenched and dirty, as though I'd been swimming in mud water. I picked up a rain coat from the rack, walked to the register, and pulled my wallet out of the plastic bag in my pocket. The cashier looked at the rain coat and then at me. I smiled at her politely, and she started to laugh. I think I made her day -- she was still laughing when I left the store.

The rain was lighter when I walked in to campus for my meeting, and now there is no rain at all. I'm sure it will start again soon enough; I'm just thankful that I had the chance to walk in the sun for a few minutes.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

I spent part of yesterday handling routine paperwork that accumulated over the past two or three weeks. Part of my task was sorting through commercial mail: discarding the dross that I kept only because I'd not looked at it, retaining the book catalogs and newsletters which I'd like to read, paying the bills, and sometimes puzzling over what to do with the odd bits left over. One such odd bit is a DVD that I received from Genetic Programming, Inc. which contains a FREE 4-hour DVD inside! along with an advertisement for a book (Genetic Programming IV: Routine Human-Competitive Machine Intelligence). The packaging looks so like one of the gaudy AOL CD's that I quickly tossed it toward the discard pile with my left hand, only to catch it with my right before it landed among the car insurance ads. After a moment's thought, I put it in the pile of things that I may look at soon or may discard next time.

I know several ways I could reasonably appear on a mailing list of people interested in books on evolutionary computation. As I thought about mailing lists, I turned up the radio, just in time to hear an interview segment from Weekend Edition about the new essay section on the SAT. The interviewee recently wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly entitled Would Shakespeare get into Swarthmore? After analyzing essays by Shakespeare, Hemingway, Orwell, and the Unabomber -- only the Unabomber's essay would have scored well in the new exam -- the author of the article observed that the SAT is a perfect predictor of who will get into top rate colleges, and of very little else. And I thought, I wonder whether many marketers buy mailing lists from the Educational Testing Service?

Later yesterday, I read about a study of server break-ins. The company who ran the study looked at some thousands of break-ins, not including those due to Windows worms and viruses, and counted how many of the compromised systems ran one operating system or the other. Many of the compromised systems ran Linux, and relatively few ran Mac OS X; therefore, concluded the company, Linux must be insecure while Macs are secure, with Windows somewhere between. This conclusion seems eminently logical, as much as if the company surveyors walked into a local high-end jewelry establishment, counted heads, and decided that the most Americans make salaries of at least $100K and will marry within the year.

I spent much of the remainder of yesterday afternoon reading about the migrations of cranes and about fluid mechanics. I also took an hour to walk to Barnes and Noble, browse, buy a toffee bar, and return home. Such little things make pleasant days.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

My cold has migrated. I stopped constantly blowing my nose; now I'm just dealing with bouts of rattling coughs. I don't think it's bronchitis yet, and I'm trying to keep it that way. The sun was out today, so the trip to school would probably have been rather pleasant; still, I canceled meetings and worked from home today. I continued to drink enormous quantities of liquids: cold water, hot water with lime juice, mint tea, orange tea, osymanthus-flavored tea, and miso soup.

I did some work, but lacked the concentration to do anything substantial. I had a bad case of clear-ls syndrome, in which I suddenly realize that I've done nothing for five minutes but repeatedly clear the screen and list the contents of the current directory. My fingers know those command so well that they can perform them without any intervention from higher brain functions -- so if I quit thinking, they'll keep typing, just to stave off boredom. Of course, other tasks are nearly as automatic as clearing the screen: finding capitalization errors in a bibliography, for example, as I did yesterday evening. I might even find it easier to do such tasks when my wits are dulled; if I could muster my concentration, I'd probably find it annoying to spend it on such a picayune task.

I typically listen to the radio during the days I work from home, and today was no exception. I was particularly amused by Fresh Air today. The show featured an interview with a White House correspondent for the Washington Post, who spoke about what it is like to deal with the Bush administration; and an interview with the man who helped Bill Clinton make jokes for his speeches. Some of the things said by the correspondent in the first interview made me think about Bush's peculiar brand of cleverness. Garrison Keilor observed that Clinton speaks in complete paragraphs; in contrast, Bush seems to delight in devising malapropisms. But though Bush's unrehearsed public speech may be rough, he delivers prepared comments skillfully enough -- far more so than I would, were I in his shoes -- and I can only guess at what his private speech might be like. In any case, Bush is a successful politician: he has pushed through legislation that he wanted, and still he remains popular.

His geniality and political savvy aside, I dislike the reasons behind Bush's policies, even when I agree with his actions, or at least feel ambivalent toward them. I thought about that today when I listened to news about the report published today by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in which the authors objected to the administration's policy of loading scientific review boards with administration supporters. On one of the radio programs that aired this morning, a panelist said: So what? Scientists disagree; why should we not choose the scientists who agree with our point of view? The panelist's comment reminded me of a point Barzun makes repeatedly in his essays: we apply the label of science to too many subjects in which there is precious little of the scientific method. It should not be an insult to state that a subject is not a science. Indeed, I do not regard most of computer science as a scientific discipline; rather, it is an engineering discipline. But somehow the meaning of the word science has blurred; we can say that someone has a skill down to a science and mean the skill is so practiced it is nearly automatic. Where is the sense of questioning, of hypothesis and experiment, in such a colloquial usage? In what sense does political science employ the scientific method? Scientists disagree, true, and debate over interpretation of the available data is an important part of the process. But scientific review panels should be chosen according to familiarity with the data; if our administration chooses instead based on political or religious position, it risks promoting the likes of Lyshenkoism.

In the evening, the music programming began. For half an hour I listened to a musician trained in the drum styles of the Indian subcontinent; for another half hour, I listened to jazz; and for another half hour, I listened to classical music. I appreciate music without lyrics, or songs in which the lyrics play a secondary role. The tune of Summer time is poetry enough even when unaccompanied by singing.

Monday, February 16, 2004

I've caught cold: my nose drips, my sinuses hurt, and my chest rattles when I inhale. But I have the good taste to drink plenty of hot liquids, the good sense to take a decongestant and a nap, and the good humor to keep grinning.

I read the rest of Simple and Direct yesterday. I enjoy Barzun's writing not solely because he has wit, style, and insight, but also because he states his opinions so forthrightly. I do not always agree with him, but when I disagree, I find myself framing counter-arguments, and not simply shrugging and reading on.

Next on my list is The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes by Peter Matthiesen. I bought it last year, but it disappeared into my cluttered piles, only to emerge after I bought new shelves recently.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

We ate dim sum for lunch and a particularly good salad for dinner. We read from Cooke's America, walked in the sun, played frisbee, and practiced salsa. In the morning, I got confused and made a detour of nearly an hour through the BART system; and in the evening, I had to assemble my exit fare from two small tickets and the coins in my change purse. But my BART misadventures proved a minor irritant only.

It was a good day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

I spent much of the past two days dealing with Fortran 77 programs. I would say that I've spent the past two days swearing at the Fortran compiler, but the truth is that I'm much too mild-mannered to swear at such a commonplace nuisance. I satisfy myself by muttering I hate Fortran 77 from time to time, and by taking frequent breaks for tea.

Much of what I do on a day-to-day basis involves combining subprograms written in Fortran, C, C++, and Matlab into a single program that will solve problems that interest me -- and that may solve problems that interest other people, too. Not all of these subprograms were designed to work nicely together, and so it isn't always trivial to write the interface code that glues the program together. I typically receive a few e-mails each week asking how to use C and Fortran together, usually from people who want to use CLAPACK 3.0, a library which I built in my first years at Berkeley by translating the LAPACK library. This week, I've answered an unusual number of requests for technical help, not all of them related to CLAPACK. Between answering those requests and extending the finite element program FEAP to solve a problem in my own research, I've been dealing more than normal with some obscure, arcane, and frustrating details of various computer systems.

Some days, I think the work of building interfaces between different programs is like bringing together two or three unfriendly and remarkably stupid parties in a negotiation. In this analogy, I suppose I would be the skilled negotiator. But when I visualize a skilled negotiator in my mind, I see a middle-aged gentleman with a fringe of grey hair and a solemn and dignified demeanor. I lack grey hair, and am far too familiar with the workings of my own mind to call myself solemn and dignified, no matter what the rest of the world may see. Perhaps a better analogy would be this: I am like a monkey with a staple gun, a clever creature of questionable sanity who delights in firmly attaching together articles which are not usually joined. Likening myself to a monkey may be no more realistic than likening myself to a diplomat, but the notion of stapling a sock to the ear of a gargoyle on the roof is more amuses me more than the notion of concluding a treaty.

I think most people are likely to flee a monkey with a staple gun rather than to thank him. But almost everyone who has asked me a question this week has said Thank you after I've answered. I appreciate the thanks. Thanks keep me answering questions -- thanks and bananas. Of course, I'm aware that I can't record e-mails of thanks or acknowledgements in papers and theses on my CV. Still, I'm pleased to here that I've helped.

As I write, I'm listening to an Internet radio station. The station plays electronic music, and the altered sound of the bass drums in the song that is playing reminds me of a rhythmically talented bullfrog. Croak! Thump! Croak! Thump! It tickles my fancy to hear these things, even if it might annoy me in other circumstances. My taste in music, like my taste in food, is catholic. What a wonderful thing it is to be able to listen to classical music, news programming from NPR, jazz, or techno just by turning a dial! At the same time, I'm glad that the radio and the computer both have convenient off switches. I like to write in my blog and to surf the web, but I also like to write with a pencil and read a book.

I think it is time to turn off the computer. A book, a glass of water, and a warm bed all beckon.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Today was a day of tea.

After this week's social dancing class, Winnie and I went to San Francisco for high tea. We had one pot of tea flavored with black currants and one of a blend of black teas. There were also finger foods to savor between sips.

In the evening, I went to dinner with friends at La Mediterranee, a local Mediterranean restaurant. The wait was longer than we expected, but the food came quickly after we were seated. It all tasted good to me. We ate cake at home. Two friends brought tea with them. My friends have excellent taste.

It was a full day, and I'm omitting details. In the brief quiet moments, I did a little work, listened to the radio some, and read more from Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun. And now I will read a little more and go to sleep.

And tomorrow I'll start with a cup of tea.

I was sitting in a chair in the Barnes and Noble Cafe this evening, reading a book and nibbling on a cookie, when I was distracted by a comment from the people chatting at a nearby table. You actually remember CS 61A [Berkeley's introductory CS course]? one exclaimed. Yeah, said the other, but all that stuff you learn is useless. When I started this job, I was looking at code with some other programmers, and I said something looked like it was O(n3). They laughed at me, and I said to forget it.

The conversation at the next table turned to the topic of night life in various Bay Area communities, and I stopped listening. I finished my dessert, closed my book, and left the store. But as I went to buy milk and then to walk home, I continued to think about the exchange I had overheard.

How quickly I never use it becomes It is useless! A college acquiantance of mine -- a business major with a concentration in information systems -- once told me that computer science education was worse than useless, because computer science students learned irrelevant crap. Business majors who had introductory programming coursework, he argued, are in a far better position: they know all the programming anyone really needs, and they have business savvy as well. I've heard others say similar things, though less bluntly. Oddly, I know few who say the same of mathematics. Of course, I know many people who have an unwarranted high opinion of their own computer expertise, but most of those people find mathematics frightening -- at best . Perhaps they would prefer not to mention math at all, for fear that an integral might smite them from the sky, hurled like lightning by a vengeful god with a short temper and a part-time job teaching freshman calculus.

My college acquiantance's attitude annoyed me, but I shrugged it off easily. I was more disturbed by the statement I overheard tonight. It is one thing to hear a businessman say that an understanding of electrical current is useless; it is quite another to hear the same from an electrician who supposedly learned his trade in school and who helps design the wiring for new office buildings. The businessman may be blindly, willfully, and woefully ignorant, but he is probably less dangerous in his ignorance than the electrician.

Perhaps I'll regret that metaphor by the morning. Or perhaps I'll have forgotten it.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Every night since Wednesday, including tonight, I've thought I'll take a break this evening and spend a little time reading before I sleep. But I haven't quite managed it yet. It was a productive week, but a busy one.

Tomorrow, I intend to spend a little time reading before I sleep.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Am I incorrigible, encouragable, or simply uncorrugated?

I finished Master and Commander (Patrick O'Brian) and Angels and Demons (Dan Brown) this weekend and last night. I enjoyed the former a good deal more. I didn't understand most of the nautical terms -- this despite the fact that many pages are spent in explanations of those exact same terms to the ship's doctor.

I re-discovered today that I cannot maintain adequate attention through 3.5 hours of lecture without some break. Today was the first meeting of an interesting, if hastily-organized, course on numerical optimization. Alas, it came on the heels of an hour and a half of fluid mechanics. The first lecture of the optimization course could be entitled a two hour review of elementary analysis: in which we briefly review definitions related to topology, sequences, continuity, and compactness, focusing predominantly on the real line. At least, it could be so entitled if the title conventions of former centuries remained in vogue. Fortunately, times change, and so the first lecture would more likely be entitled lecture 1. Regardless of the title -- and of the familiarity of the material -- I could feel my eyes crossing by six.

I think I will stick to fluid mechanics and the matrix computations seminar for this semester's formal offerings.

  • Currently drinking: Hot water with lime and honey

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. Sadly, it seems overshadowed by football at the moment.

For my part, I think prognosticating rodents are far cooler than half-time commercials.