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.