Wednesday, March 28, 2007

And now for something completely different...

My last couple of posts have been heavy and long, so I'll give the five of you a break, now, with something trivial and short:

I discovered the other day that the plural of the word "chassis" is spelled the same as the singular: chassis. However, they are pronounced differently: "CHAS-ee" for the singular and "CHAS-eez" for the plural. So if you're reading aloud and you come to "chassis," how do you know which pronounciation to use? The singular or the plural? I can imagine situations where it's not obvious from the context.

English can be strange sometimes.


Monday, March 26, 2007

Exploring the 3rd dimension

From the Vermont bro: Many years ago I read a short book entitled, if I remember correctly, 'Flatland', in which a two dimensional creature spends quite a bit of time explaining to a one dimensional creature that there are in fact two dimensions. Again if I remember correctly, the book ends with an agreement between the two that there can be no such thing as a creature that exists in three dimensions.

I thought about this as I was watching Evelyn the other day. She is getting very adept at pulling herself up, and while she still travels on all fours (except when we are holding her little hands to provide some much needed stability) once she gets to her destination she will most often pull herself up to her full height. Often this destination is our pants leg, so Linda and I have been very careful about how we move recently.

Back to Flatland. It wasn't too long ago when Evelyn's perspective was from a single point. When we lay her down on her back she had no choice but to stay there. Then she slowly became a two dimensional creature. First she learned to locomote by rolling over and over and then she learned to crawl. Suddenly the floor was her oyster. Now she is discovering the magic of everything that is within about 15 inches of the floor, or at least things that are within 15 inches of the floor and are next to something she can use to pull herself up with.

Needless to say this has only served to further her scientific pursuits. These days she is engaged in an indepth study of the nature and constancy of gravity. It sure keeps us busy. And entertained.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies

The title of this post was the headline in the online NY Times that I woke up to this morning. You might be able to read the article for yourself, here. Or maybe not. I don't like to violate copyrights by posting protected content, but given the fleeting nature of online newspaper stories, I'm going to reproduce a few excerpts from the article:
John W. Backus, who assembled and led the I.B.M. team that created Fortran, the first widely used programming language, which helped open the door to modern computing, died on Saturday at his home in Ashland, Ore. He was 82.
The five of you who are reading this are mostly young, and I don't imagine you've ever even seen FORTRAN code. I doubt it's been taught for a long time. But (and it may seem strange to say this about a computer language) it has a dear place in my heart. FORTRAN (we always spelled it in all caps) was the very first programming language I ever learned, and I programmed in it a lot. The first successful third-generation programming language, it was developed to solve mathematical problems, but it filled a gaping need that few people realized even existed. From the NY Times:
Fortran, released in 1957, was "the turning point" in computer software... according to J.A.N. Lee, a leading computer historian.

Fortran changed the terms of communication between humans and computers, moving up a level to a language that was more comprehensible by humans....

...With some training, they [scientists and engineers] were no longer dependent on a programming priesthood to translate their science and engineering problems into a language a computer would understand.
With all due respect to the Times, the need extended far beyond scientists and engineers: For many years I maintained and enhanced business and factory management software written in FORTRAN. It wasn't an ideal language for those types of applications, but it beat the pants off assembly language. And back in the very early days of IBM TSO and green-screen dumb-terminals, I even wrote (most of) a word processor in FORTRAN, just because, you know, when you're young you have more time than sense and you do dippy stuff like that.

I guess I'm a member, myself, of the "programming priesthood" that the Times mentions. Although it's been years, I've written my share of assembly-language code. But I still appreciate the enormous significance of the advancements that have put computing power into the hands of end-users, advancements that include the programming language Basic, spreadsheets, desktop database environments, and even Web page development tools. Advancements that all began with FORTRAN. We've come so far in so short a time. Consider this:
The first written reference to "software" as a computer term, as something distinct from hardware, did not come until 1958.
Today, the challenge isn't getting users to write their own software, or even to write software for them. It's getting them (and, for that matter, the programmers who make up the "programming priesthood") to think, first, about what it is they're trying to do. It's become so easy to generate software that there's a tendency -- even a strong inclination -- to jump right in and start "coding" before thinking about what we need to accomplish. So whenever someone comes to me and asks, "Can you write me a program to do x," I always answer, "What are you trying to accomplish?" Most of the time I can propose writing a program to do y instead, and y will save even more time and money than x. Or I can even propose altering the underlying process. Recently I was asked to create a database to record a metric that had previously been logged on paper. I asked what the metric was used for, thinking that I could further automate the process and delivered already-analyzed results to the end user. However, what I found was that there was no end user. The metric wasn't used by anyone. So we were going to take a useless process and automate it. Instead of, you know, just not collecting it anymore. Which is what we ended up doing.

So that's the new challenge: Getting people to think about the problem before they start thinking of the solution. And we have this challenge in large part because of the pioneering of John Backus and his simple FORTRAN. It's a challenge we're blessed to have.

Rest in peace, John Backus. And rest in peace, my beloved FORTRAN.


Monday, March 19, 2007


OK, so living in a small town I don't get a lot of opportunity to overhear keen remarks that provide either comedy or insight into the world in which we live. We pretty much keep our remarks to ourselves since although you never know who is standing behind you in line at the post office, you can be pretty sure that whoever it is will probably be sitting next to you at the next community supper. Under such circumstances the entire town learns to keep their comments to themselves for the sake of peace.

It is sometimes quite amusing to see new people in town get (for example) all indignant with the people behind the counter at the convenience store only to realize later that the next store is 5 miles down the road (and the next one after that is 10 miles down the road). Yes, it does pay to hold one's tongue.

So when something truly interesting comes along I just can't help but share it, even if you have probably already heard in on your friendly NPR station. A few days ago they aired a piece of filler in which certain characters tried to sing the classic '99 bottles of beer on the wall' using roman numerals. Later on I tried it, getting as far as 98 before getting thoroughly confused. Try it, it is really hard. 'C' is easy, but just try the line 'XCIX bottles of beer on the wall."


Saturday, March 17, 2007


Some years ago Toni Braxton had a hit song called Unbreak My Heart. I once saw the music video on TV, while I was walking on a treadmill at the gym. The video is hot. I mean, Toni Braxton is gorgeous anyway, and in those outfits and all, she's hot. But what was most affecting was, still, the song. It drips anguish. And you hear the pain in the lyrics partly because of the unexpected use of the prefix "un-":
Unbreak my heart
Say you'll love me again
Undo this hurt you caused
When you walked out the door
And walked outta my life
Uncry these tears
I cried so many nights
Unbreak my heart, my heart
"Unbreak my heart" and "Uncry these tears" -- talk about drama and emotion! Compare, for example, to "Mend my heart" and "Dry these tears." Ho hum.

Braxton the lyricist was, in fact, following in the footsteps of a more illustrious predecessor: William Shakespeare. In The Stories of English, David Crystal analyzes the Bard's coinage of un- words: It seems that Shakespeare was the first to introduce many new un- words that are in common use today, such as uncomfortable, uneducated, and unaware. But it was his use of un- with verbs that produced the most striking results:
Unshout the noise that banished Martius

Unspeak mine own detraction

Again uncurse their souls

Unswear faith sworn

My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear
(From Coriolanus, Macbeth, Richard II, King John, and again Richard II, respectively.) "Unswear faith sworn" is especially poetic. I like "undeaf his ear," too.

I've been thinking about the un- prefix, about what makes it so effective, and about when it can be used. One thing I've decided is that using un- in unexpected ways is, realistically, only for grand or rhetorical speech. It would seem odd, for example, to take a sip of coffee in the break room at work, grimace, and say, "Unbrew this coffee!" You might draw some glances. On the other hand, it would be easy to picture, say, Martin Luther King saying something like "Unstrike these blows." That the unexpected un- isn't suitable for everyday use is disappointing, because I was looking forward to giving it a try.

The other thing I've decided is that the un- prefix is most powerful when used to create a verb that descibes an action which is, in a literal sense, impossible. Take Ms. Braxton's song, for example: It's not actually possible to uncry tears. Cried tears are water over the dam. Or down the cheeks. But that just intensifies the anguish: We know that she's really asking for something a little different -- to be made happy again -- but expressing it indirectly only has the effect of calling attention to it. And we wish we could uncry her tears.

Okay, so now I'm going to try my own hand at un-. Just do me a favor and imagine me having the voice and projection of Martin Luther King. Instead of, you know, how I really sound. Here I go:
Mr. President! Mr. President, unwage this war! Unmake the mockery that American has become. Untarnish the reputation of our great nation. Unshed, Mr. President, the blood of our children.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Town Meeting

Earlier this month we in Vermont practiced our annual exercise in direct democracy. It is such a rush! This year in our town about 150 voters gathered for 6 hours (with a break for lunch) to discuss and vote on local budgets, whether or not to have a winter sports program in our schools, which social service agencies should receive local tax support and other issues. And, oh yes, we voted by a 3 to 1 margin to ask our US Representative to impeach the President.

In this era of political spin and manipulated votes it is so refreshing to take part in a direct democratic process in which 'one person one vote' is the rule not the exception and in which people are not afraid to stand up and participate in a reasonable discussion of the issues.

I know my bro is a big Nero Wolfe fan and am reminded that Mr. Wolfe, always reluctant to leave his home, would never miss an opportunity to vote. I wonder if he would have liked town meeting.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Wonders of Bipedalism

Well, I finally got around to posting this Evelyn photo update. The big news is that she can now stand on two feet, as long as she is holding onto something. This makes her very very happy. She loves to stand up and loves to walk (as long as we are holding on to her little hands). Her running days are not far off. Here is a relationship hint: The first time your little one stands up DO NOT turn to your significant other and say "Look! She is standing up on her hind legs!". Trust me, they do not appreciate it.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Walter the Farting Dog Alert

If you're trying to complete your collection of Walter the Farting Dog books (and if you aren't, why not?), here's a helpful alert: Walter the Farting Dog Farts Again and Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale are exactly the same book, with the same artwork. Apparently it's gone out of print as "Farts Again" and was reissued as "Yard Sale."

I don't know why none of the on-line bookstores let me know this, but now I've got an extra copy of this story to give to a fart-appreciating friend!

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Return

I have been absent from this blog for a while, partly because I was intimidated at the thought of having to transfer to a google account (it wasn't that bad) and partly because I hadn't much to say. Linda and Evelyn were in California for three weeks so I had no daughter updates. I was left to hold down the fort and do some household projects and as much as I tried to think of a way to write about laying down a new bathroom floor in an interesting manner I just couldn't do it.

But now they are back. What a difference three weeks makes! Evelyn is now officially crawling, which means we can't turn our backs for even a minute. To make it even worse, she seems fascinated with the wood stove. Yikes! So far we have managed to keep her away from it. Strangely enough, for a little tyke who loves to scramble across the floor as fast as hands and knees can move, she doesn't mind staying in the playpen for up to 15 minutes at a time which gives us a little break.

She is still cute as all get out, and now has 3 teeth! This weekend we are taking up to the sled dog races in Laconia. I can't wait to see what she thinks of that.


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