Gapping (not spark plugs though)

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A gentleman who I think lives in Vancouver asked for stories about

the struggle to close the gap between an idea and its realization.

Well, that’s kind of the story of my life, isn’t it? So I tried to think of an example and the first thing that came to mind was that time I tried to modify seven gecos fields simultaneously while dynamically merging five different password files.

It didn’t work, of course — I tripped over an extremely subtle bug (or possibly an undocumented limit; I never did find out) in Perl 4.036 and had to find a workaround that was easy to implement, easy to explain and wasn’t too ugly (not that my code was a thing of beauty, you understand, but still…). It was a moderately entertaining process and…

Hmm. This is where it occurs to me that not everyone might find the process of crafting kludges (even if it is sort of on-topic) endlessly fascinating. Perhaps a change of subject is in order.

It was gaming night.

When I was younger In the olden days, technology wasn’t what it is today and some (not all — not every memory is in soft focus and sepia-toned) aspects of life were somewhat simpler. As a result, gaming night was usually a regularly scheduled thing. These days are, well, different. We (our group) is older, less flexible and scattered over an area several hundred kilometers across. At the same time, technology has made it simpler and faster to coordinate a posse of nerds gamers. So when I say ‘it was gaming night’ it means that it was at best a semi-planned thing. Some Preparation on my part was required.

First of all, gaming involves trappings.

ote_gear

Gear. But no chainsaws, psychotropic fruit or neurotoxins made it into the bag. Cattle prods, well, I’m less sure.

Apparatus.

Supplies.

Gear.

So I assembled what I thought I needed and crammed it into the Traditional Gaming Bag:

A rulebook. After all, rulebooks are important. How can you possibly bicker about meaningless minutiae without one?

My notebook. In particular, my notebook with the ‘confidential’ sticker that a nice lady named Margaret put on it in 1981. It contains virtually every character I’ve created in the last thirty-five years. Because what could be more relevant to today’s game than the character sheet (from 1982) of a delusional, sociopathic, violent aristocrat?

A 0.3 mm pencil. Not 0.5, you understand — .3. What better way is there to leave tiny bits of graphite under the seat cushions in someone else’s basement?

A bag (the red and white one that may or may not have been washed since the 1980s) of dice. Plus some ninja ones.

That covered the actual, you know, Gaming Stuff. But other things are de rigueur as well — one does not simply game without Sean Bean refreshments. That night I decided to adhere to the ‘sweet+caffeine/salt+fat’ theory of gaming snacks: I filled a badly-designed (but Canadian and not pink) bottle with organic stimulants and sugar and added it to the bag. Then I checked the
pantry for salty, fatty snacks.

There weren’t any.

Oh. That was a problem.

Gaming without snacks? InconCEIVEable. (For the proper effect, you have to imagine Wallace Shawn saying that.) What was I to do? Well, I realized, the supermarket that’s sort of vaguely on the way to where I was going was still open. Yay! Saved! All was not lost!

Yet.

On the way to the store I had decided on what sort of I was going to get. I had settled on something from the chip family — something simple, traditional and thematically appropriate. Easy peasy.

Or not.

There was a veritable wall of chips, about eleventy-zillion flavours. There were cheddar cheese flavoured chips. There were yogurt flavoured chips. Maple bacon. Dijon mustard. Pepperoncini. Low sodium (what exactly is the POINT?). Sriracha (inevitably — there’s sriracha-flavoured everything these days). Curry.  Poutine, f’r god’s sake. Even baked bean flavoured chips, although I can’t imagine anyone willingly buying those. But simple, traditional and thematically appropriate? Hard to find. Eventually I tried to visualize the N-space of chip flavours and calculate what flavour would minimize the least square distance from the Platonic ideal chip. Or at least the N-dimensional origin.

But that’s damned hard, so picked a bag more or less at random — I think I settled on jalapeno.

The moral of this story is, I guess, that the weirdest obstacles (Butter chicken chips? Really?) pop up when trying to do the simplest things. Well, that and you never know when a copy of Bevington might come in handy at the supermarket.

 

Signing (A different kind.)

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Patterns.

The world is full of them. They’re everywhere. (Kind of like zombies in a George Romero movie. Just less smelly. One hopes.)

Of course, people being what they are, sometimes they’re not there and we just think they are. (Again, kind of like zombies.) For example, we wait and wait (and wait) for a bus and then, finally, three of them show up at once. Turns out that’s a reasonably well-understood thing. On the other hand, good things coming in threes? Bad things coming in threes? That’s just something people say; it’s the result of a deep-seated desire to impose meaning on a sometimes random, always indifferent world. And what’s up with all those threes, anyway?

Turns out there’s a rule. Why does everything have to be so complicated?

What else comes in threes? Musketeers? Perhaps. Stooges? Definitely. Sometimes. Vision-impaired mice?  Sure, but count quickly — their population has been known to fluctuate… suddenly.

How about… omens? (By which I mean portents, not decades-old horror movies without zombies..) Because I was thinking about omens a couple of weeks ago.

It was homecoming weekend — a moderately relevant one. Well, ‘relevant’ might be overstating it just a bit but it was one of those years ending in five so it was an Occasion for alumni to return to their alma mater to see how fat, bald and wrinkly their surviving classmates have become. (In other words, one of those essential opportunities for group Schadenfreude.) In my case, I didn’t see a single member of my graduating class all weekend — I suppose the survivors could have been auditioning for the next Dredd movie or something. Whatever the reason, their absence struck me as, well, unusual. Perhaps it was an… omen?  “But for what?” I wondered. “Surely nothing good.”

On Saturday Ms. Rose and I went to the Homecoming Football Game to watch young gentlemen attempt to hurt each other. We saw (of course) none of my classmates but lots of hers; the first ones we saw were sitting in the wrong section. And why were they sitting in the wrong section? Well, to frighten away undergraduates (“Eww! Old people! Icky!”), that goes without saying. But mostly because their alma mater sold them tickets to seats that didn’t exist. Not ‘obstructed view’ seats or ‘nosebleed’ seats or seats with poor leg room, you understand — nonexistent seats. That’s darned odd — most of the time institutions trying to extract money from people don’t jerk them around quite that much. Perhaps it’s…

another omen.

As before, though, it wasn’t clear what it was foreshadowing. Nothing good — that seemed abundantly clear — but I couldn’t tell more until the next day when I had an errand up the road in The Nation’s Capital.

Now, driving to The Nation’s Capital can occasionally be interesting but usually it’s a completely uneventful hundred and sixty-nine kilometer drive in the country. But that day as we pulled onto the highway the various Omens all fell into place.

It was a Sunday morning in October. October being what it is, the sky was solid gray from horizon to horizon and just as we hit the on ramp it started to rain. At that very second, America’s sweetheart clarified the previous couple of days in barely more than a dozen words:

Sunday morning when the rain begins to fall
It’s the end of the world

So that’s what the omens were predicting. Oh well, if the world ends I won’t have to rake any more leaves.

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It hasn’t ended yet, but we did see leaves I almost certainly won’t have to rake.

Thanks to a nice lady dressed in black for reminding me that stooges don’t always come in threes.

 

Tieing

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The other day a friend of mine who works in academe (she used to curl with me but after only one year couldn’t take it any more — not that I blame her or anything, this happens around me more than you’d think; she’s also sort of named after a moderately famous literary computer scientist) ‘shared’ something on what the bingo callers, talking heads and pundits like to call ‘Social Media.’ In particular, she pointed out an article in the Guardian on why, among people doing Ph.D. degrees, more women than men appear not to desire to pursue careers in academia. (The study was specifically done on chemists so it’s not entirely safe to extrapolate too far, but it does point to a potentially troubling gender asymmetry.)

The article got me to thinking — when and why did I decide not to pursue a career as an academic? Part of it was due to the employment climate of the time of course — jobs in my particular corner of academe were exceedingly rare: in essence you had to wait for someone who was roughly twenty years older than you to win the lottery, come into an inheritance or die prematurely. If that happened you still had to hope that the job would be filled and filled by someone with your particular specialty  (since my specialty was ‘nothing’ this part was, um, a little tricky) then you had to be the best damned candidate in a forest of applicants, all of them at least as qualified as you and probably less annoying to boot. The prospect of — at best — spending decades as a doomed postdoc of no fixed abode didn’t really appeal to me. (In those pre-weeb days there weren’t tens of thousands of people eager to tell you how unpleasant that would be. It was enough that the postdoc in the next office was trying to support a family of four on roughly the same salary that I had as a grad student.)

That was strike one.

Strike two was what you had to look forward to if you actually succeeded. As a junior professor you’d be asked to teach the courses no one else wanted to teach while at the same time sitting on every damned committee that no one at all wanted to sit on, all the while cranking out papers like some sort of relentless, unstoppable machine. (Kind of like this, now that I think of it. Only less violent. And without an Austrian accent.) And in the end it might not even work. Call me a quitter if you like, but that didn’t really sound like a lot of fun to me.

As for strike three, well, to be a professor you have to wear uncomfortable clothes (and I’ve only worn a necktie three times since 1987) and have a strong dose of savoir-faire. Which, well, I don’t.

I knew about the neck ornaments (which is strike two-and-a-half all by itself) but I didn’t know about the savoir-faire bit until one morning after playing hockey.

In those days grad students and some of  their friends and colleagues played hockey on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 AM. This ungodly hour was chosen because the ice was a little cheaper and also because, with only a minimal amount of attention to efficiency it was entirely possible to shower, change and still be at work by 9:30 with the entire day still ahead of you. Of course, grad students being what they are that didn’t always happen but it was possible.

But not everyone who played with that group was a lazy-ass grad student. Heck, some of the students (not many, certainly not me) were motivated and hardworking. Plus there were also postdocs, RAs and even a few professors (only one of whom I ever hit ‘down there’ with a slap shot) and most of them made an effort to do the 9:30 thing. (Some of them even succeeded.)  In particular, one of the professors (the one that habitually played in a Red Army sweater, not that that’s relevant to the story) taught a course with a lecture at 9:30. Professors are normally expected to attend their own lectures so after every game we were treated to a demonstration of quiet efficiency and economy of action: hit the bench, strip off the equipment, load the bag, hit the shower, towel off, don the suit, tie the tie, head out the door.

Until one week his established routine was disrupted. (Before you ask, I had nothing to do with it.) He was putting on his suit and not wasting time pondering the age-old fasten/zip dilemma when…

the zipper on his pants broke. Catastrophically.

Oh.

This disrupted his well-oiled and practised routine. Broken pants. Who ever heard of broken pants? More importantly, what’s a Serious Academic to do? He couldn’t just skip them, that would undoubtedly cause… consternation.  But he couldn’t very well wear them. Could he? And there wasn’t time to rush home for a non-defective change of clothes. He could have borrowed something but let’s face it — borrowing from a grad student’s wardrobe is complete madness.

A dilemma to be sure. He solved it like any good physicist would, with efficiency, creativity, quiet humour and using the tools at hand.

In particular, his necktie. (Not.) He tied it so that the front bit (which I just learned is called the ‘blade‘ — the internet: not just for porn) hung down to mid-thigh, thus covering any potential… let’s call it an ‘area of controversy.’ And off he went, only a couple of minutes behind schedule and only a little (yeah, right) unfashionable.

Problem solved.

Of course, several ‘helpful’ individuals (ahem) turned up in his lecture, sat in the back row and were remarkably focussed in their attempts to provoke a, I think it’s called a ‘wardrobe malfunction.’ He put up with the antics of these halfwits with remarkable grace, avoided an embarrassing scenario and presented a pretty good lecture on certain aspects of classical mechanics. Savoir-faire.

I couldn’t do that. Stee-rike THREE!

 

Courting

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There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Actually, Jane, there was. It was a nice day, not being November and all. There was weeding to be done (there’s always weeding to be done) but I didn’t feel like doing it. Which probably just means I was lazy but I might have been a little worried about violent backyard confrontations that might lead to exsanguination. And besides, there were some frogs at the church down the street that certainly weren’t going to stomp themselves.

An excursion seemed called for.

The church with the frogs (I’m moderately sure it’s not really about frogs. It might be about notaries, but that seems unlikely too. But let’s face it — all I know about organized religion is that it involves big hats, heavy books and people that knock on your door when you’re in the bathroom.) is about two blocks down; I walked out the door, past the spiders that guard the house (and offend passing accountants), past where one of the geophysicists used to live (at one time we had two — alas, no longer), past where the member of parliament used to live until I drove him away (I’m just that annoying), past the school named after a tank (not the park named after a tank — that is, of course, completely different and besides, it’s in the opposite direction).

From there it was left, left again at the store that used to be named after a horse, past another church that I know nothing about and left again just as the Rock of Butt-Bows came into view. (It’s one of the places people take wedding snaps — there’s another spot not far away but this year that one sports a porta-potty which is inexplicably not something wedding parties want in the background when they document their Special Day. Go figure.) After the turn it was past the house where the parents of the famous guy used to live, past the place where people hurl heavy objects at one another, past the neighborhood gynecologist’s house…

Hm. The neighborhood gynecologist.

He’s one of those people that, at some level, everyone knows. (Even me, although I’ve never dealt with him professionally for perhaps obvious reasons). He’s active in various charities, he has an extremely nice (a place for everything and everything in its place) garden and he used to have a spoiled rotten dog. The available evidence is that he’s a good man, although I hear he got in trouble selling greeting cards for charity without a permit. (Or something like that — I don’t always pay attention.)

Anyway, a few weeks back there was a knock at the door and since I wasn’t in the bathroom it wasn’t likely to be a door-to-door evangelist trying to convince me that the German tank commander was the messiah. It was, of course, Dr. NG.

“Is it that time of year already?” I asked, because he always comes by during nondenominational gift-giving season. (Because people are more charitable then? Maybe.)  He’s come by at other times of the year but never — IIRC — in July. I mean, people are often not home in July and I personally would find it tricky to talk to them if they weren’t there.

He was fundraising for a project in, I think, Pakistan. (I say ‘I think’ because I confess I wasn’t paying as much attention as perhaps I should have. But he’s a good man and besides, sometimes details make my head hurt. It was about helping with an infrastructure project in some place with terrifying poverty and that was enough for me.)

The next question was about, for lack of a better word, process. Was he collecting donations? I’m okay with that but depending on when I last visited a bank machine I may not actually have any cash. This is not uncommon — last week I visited the supermarket to buy a baguette and when asked by the cashier if I wanted to make a two dollar donation to the local children’s hospital or something I had to say no — I didn’t have enough pocket change for both social responsibility and dinner.

But I was talking about Dr NG. (He probably never has to count pocket change to buy a loaf of bread.) Or was he selling something? Normally I have a problem with that because I don’t want any grotesquely overpriced items of extremely dubious quality but Dr NG tends to avoid that sort of thing. But after the ‘Christmas cards without a permit’ episode I wasn’t sure what to expect. Besides, it was July.

But it turns out he was. Not cards but…

Dahlias” he said.

Cool. Flowers? He had never done that before. But he wasn’t carrying anything. “Where are the flowers?” I asked, looking behind him, wondering if he had an underscrogsman or something. He explained. Patiently. It was almost as if I was, I don’t know, a patient — one disoriented due to too much medication or maybe just colourful footwear.

“Not flowers. Plants. For your garden. Dahlias.”

Um.

Tricky.

I didn’t really know anything about dahlias. I had space for a tallish something out back in a corner that gets sun a little less than half the day for about half the year. Was that enough? I didn’t know. It’s also in the killing-and-maiming radius of at least two monsters. Are dahlias afraid of ravening beasts? Most flora seems pretty much indifferent to fauna that doesn’t want to eat it but you never really know. And what about soil acidity? Some things are pretty fussy about pH. The space out back is near some hemerocallis, monarda and aster. They’re all pretty happy but also not terribly picky. And what about the Tree of Doom? About twenty feet away is a tree that’s slightly more anti-social than I am. (I say ‘slightly more’ because I haven’t actually killed any of my neighbours. Not deliberately, anyway. That I remember. (I like to think that driving them off doesnt count.))

The tree of doom is a very nice tree, you understand. It’s just that, like an ill-behaved pet, relative or undergraduate you have to be careful what you introduce to it. (“TOD, this is a tomato.” TOD replies “DEATH.” “How about this nice hybrid named after a squirrel?” TOD says “yeah, whatever.” TOD is tricky.)

The internet helps with all of this, of course, but (a) it takes time, more time than I have when there’s a gynecologist on my front porch and (b) a lot of what’s there is anecdotal which, while useful, is farther from ‘definitive’ than I really like. (It’s sort of like a contentious page on Wikipedia — there’s information there but it’s not clear if it’s entirely trustworthy. Perhaps a second opinion (or a third or a fourth) would be prudent.)

Anyway. Dahlias. I didn’t (and still don’t, I hasten to add) know much about them. I told Dr. NG I might be interested but I’d need to do some research before saying yea or nay. And being a significantly better gardener than I am, he understood the issues and didn’t take it as a pathetic attempt to brush him off.

So I did some research. It seemed to be that soil that wouldn’t kill the stuff already there probably wouldn’t kill a dahlia either. Check. It also seemed that the Tree of Doom would probably leave it alone. Another check. The sun, well… several sources said it was absolutely, positively Not Enough. Others said that, while not really optimal, it would almost certainly be fine. Call that half a check but, more importantly, it wasn’t a big fat X. Okay. So when Dr. NG came back I gave him the thumbs up and we walked to his house (on the street named after a dead mathematician) and there in the garage was a large, healthy (one big difference between him and me) array of several different species of plant. He indicated that I should pick my dahlia. There was only one problem — in my research I had looked up a variety of things: things like soil requirements, juglone sensitivity, shade tolerance, acidity limitations and winter hardiness — just not what the damned things actually looked like.

So I stood and drooled for a while and eventually he took pity on me and identified one; to ensure I didn’t look too much like a moron I took that one, paid him, took it home and planted it in the back yard. So far it seems happy and I thought the story was over.

But no. It turns out that it hadn’t even started.

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Apparently, well-camouflaged elephants can adequately protect one’s garden from ravening beasts. Good to know.

Shortly after I had planted my plant and surrounded it with a protective circle of elephants, Ms. Rose talked to a friendly mathematician from South Porcupine who lives down the street. It turns out that she had a similar story.

Well, sort of similar. Heck, if you forget the bits about the frogs, tanks, spiders and butt bows it was exactly the same story as mine.

Except there was no dahlia.

When Dr. NG came calling she received the same story that I did (and probably paid more attention to it) and was told that to support the project Dr. NG was selling, not dahlias, but azaleas.

I was confused. I mean, this not-really-a-revelation answered the question of why there had been so many different species of plant in Dr. NG’s garage but asked another: what were the criteria that determined the type of plant you would be offered?  In particular, why was the mathematician from South Porcupine offered an azalea when I got a dahlia? I mean, we’re practically the same. I mean, she’s a mathematician and I’m not, she sat at the front of math 373 and I sat at the back, she’s a girl and I’m not, she doesn’t live on a street sort of named after a two hundred and seventy-six year old Mohawk woman and I do. But we both have gardens, we both have doorbells that may or may not work at any given time and we both usually know how old we are. See? Practically interchangeable. So why the difference in plant recommendations? What is it that gynecologists Know?

After thinking about it for a few days and applying the vast analytic skills I learned in a decade of graduate school, I formulated a theory. I decided there must be some sort of non-obvious connection between mathematicians and azaleas and physicists and dahlias. I’ve never suspected this connection so it must be subtle and the available evidence suggests it may possibly only be obvious to members of the medical profession — perhaps only gynecologists.

I even found some indirect evidence for this theory: a google search for ‘mathematician azalea’ yields about 50% more hits than one for ‘mathematician dahlia’ while the reverse is true for physicists. There’s something there and I can’t find a correlation as strong with street names, classroom seating position or even gender. It’s university education — it has to be.

(This doesn’t explain how Dr. NG knew that I’m a physicist or the mathematician from South Porcupine was a mathematician. It is, of course, obvious. (Well, mostly.) For the first part, all physicists are arrogant bastards and since I’m an arrogant bastard it’s a reasonable connection to make. For the second, the mathematician from South Porcupine has the same name as a mathematician from Kent, so, again, it’s a conclusion anyone could make.)

Anyway, I was moderately satisfied — the dahlia appears happy, the elephants seem to like it, my theory might be shaky but explains some of the observed phenomena and provides an interesting insight into the workings of the medical mind. Good deal.

Until.

I was talking (I was hardly smug at all) to the mathematician from South Porcupine about the gynecological affinity of dahlias with physicists and its meaning and implications when she pointed out that her neighbour — also a mathematician — was sold a dahlia by Dr. NG.

But…

Damn.

Back to the drawing board.

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Topping

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I am not…

There’s a lot of things I’m not. I am not an athlete. I am not a cow. I am not a Freudian. I am not a birder. There’s lots of things that I am not. Heck, the string ‘I am not’ appears more than twenty times on this blog.

grep 'I am not' blog.postings | wc -l

I am also not a photographer. Because of that, usually the weekly photo challenges that the nice people at ‘The Daily Post‘ create get read, filed away and eventually deleted. “That’s nice” I sometimes think; “If I was a photographer I might do something about that.” But I’m not.  So I don’t.

But this week, well, it was sort of a ‘meta-challenge’ in which sewers were involved (sort of) and that piqued my interest. Even though I’m not a photographer.

Sewers were involved because the city where I live has subterranean infrastructure dating from — in places — the Qing dynasty so every year during road construction season things get… dug up. A few years back it was our street’s turn so it got dug up. Heck, every street in the neighborhood got dug up. And, most importantly to the story, the front yard — the one composed entirely of crabgrass — got dug up.

Now, we weren’t sad to see the crabgrass go but when the digging was finished we had a choice: we could fill in the holes and rebuild the lawn — a lawn like every other house in an N block radius — or we could forego conformity (even though it would be a crabgrass-free conformity) with the North American ideal and plant something else.

How about roses? I like roses and, while you do need to prune them and trim them and feed them, you don’t need to mow them. So roses it was.

We planted a few red ones because all the books say that’s essential but mostly yellow, orange and white ones. (Because at least one of those books says yellow roses are ‘as clear and bright as a sunny day’ and who doesn’t like those?)

Four years ago I was looking for something to plant in one of the spaces between bushes. And one day I bumped into a nice-looking rudbeckia just sitting there begging to be taken home. It looked like about the right size to fit the space and all the photos on the internet (because if it’s on the internet it must be true) looked nice and the colour would fit the ‘theme’ of the rose garden. Sold.

That year it did nothing. It didn’t die or anything, it just didn’t do anything. In particular, it didn’t flower. The next summer was more or less the same — it grew a little taller and a little healthier, but still didn’t flower. (Well, with me, ‘didn’t die’ is a modest success.) And the next summer it went “Well, I’ve done nothing for two years. Time to earn my keep.” It grew about twice as tall as the card (and the internet) said it would and also pooted out an impressive array of very nice purple flowers.

Purple? But the card said yellow… Don’t believe everything you read, I guess.

The next year (that would be, like, now) it did/is doing the same thing — twice as tall as the card said, tower-y rather than mound-y, purple rather than yellow. And most days the flowers are visited by several members of the bombini tribe. That’s nice because there hasn’t been many of them for some years. (I’m not naive enough to think ‘they’re back, crisis over’ — it’s more likely that there’s just a nest somewhere nearby — but it’s still nice. Cherryesque, even.)

So.

The rose garden is the cherry on top of the shiny new water line that replaced the old, dull, probably lead one.

The garden is pretty — certainly prettier than the crabgrass was — and the not-really-cherry-coloured-but-closer-than-yellow-would-be flowers are the tallest things in the garden, so they’re sort of ‘on top.’

And our yellow-and-black dinner guest (?) was the cherry on top of that.

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Did you know that when you tell an insect to turn around because you can’t see its face it rarely listens to you?

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Close enough.