Tuesday, November 28, 2006


A young couple was sitting at a table on the patio near us. The dad fed fruit to the younger girl. She was probably two years old. The mom fed broccoli to the other. She was probably three. The girls took the food willingly, opening their mouths like chicks in a nest.

But with each bite, each girl turned her head and stared, zombie-faced, at the television against the far wall. With each bite, they squirmed and struggled to regain a line of sight with that glowing box. They were speechless, glassy-eyed, passively opening and closing their mouths, intent only on staring into the thing.

Preprogrammed, it seems to me, to settle down when the tube is on. The tube with a DVD being the universal nanny. Why teach your kids how to entertain themselves, when you can sit them in front of a TV? Why give them a crayons and paper? Why hide-and-seek? Why play ball? Why any of this stuff when there's the tube. Plop 'em in their seats and start the video running. Quick, before they get restless!

I feel strongly about this. Except ... um ... the only reason I noticed any of this at all was that I had switched chairs at our table so that the TV would be at my back.

You see when there's a television within sight, my eyes glass over, my brain shuts down, my speech grinds to a halt. Even though I love my crayons.

Imagine that.

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 Monday, November 27, 2006

A River Rescue

Did I ever tell you about the time last summer I rescued a guy from the river?

It was the middle of a hot day, and I had taken a scull boat up to Redbud Island. There were some college age kids swimming from the rocks when I got there, and I stopped to watch them and catch my breath.

There were boys and some girls. Three boys were in the water, and the rest of the group was on shore watching the swimmers as they made their way into the main river current.

Depending on the circumstances, the current there can be gentle or swift. And the swift water can be deceiving: a flat, calm surface concealing fast moving water. Still, it isn't wide at this point, and the fact is that there are two huge Sycamore trees on the far side with long swinging ropes hanging from their branches luring people from the island. So it's not uncommon to see people swimming to the other side from the island.

But something about these three guys attracted my attention. One of them was swimming poorly None of them was a particularly good swimmer, but this one in particular was swimming that fake crawl stroke that you often see boys swim, turning his always-above-the-water face from side to side as he awkwardly rotated his arms. The other two guys made fair progress across the river, but this guy's stroke was inefficient, and he wasn't making much headway. And as he got into the main current, he was swept downstream faster than the other two, who soon reached the slower waters by the far bank.

Now don't let me over dramatize this. There were no whitecaps. There was no rushing sound of water (as there sometimes can be at that spot). The guy was making progress -- just very slowly. And although he was moving away from his two friends, he realized this and had begun to correct this by swimming a little upstream as he made for shore.

I sat in the boat drinking water from my bottle, watching these events unfold. And then I heard the one guy say to the others in a calm but firm voice that he was getting tired.

I started to pull my boat around.

He then shouted, I don't think I can make it.

I pulled hard on the oars.

I'm too tired, he shouted.

I was half-way across. One of the other two guys was swimming back out from the shore. The other was telling his friend to call for help if he needed it, and he pointed at me.

By the time they began calling to me, I was almost there. I tried to convince the guy in the water to grab onto the nose of the boat, but instead he grabbed the starboard oarlock, which jerked the scull to the side. The blade of my oar slapping the surface of the water was the only thing that kept me from joining him in the water.

I pulled him slowly to shore. When we got there, he let go and swam the rest of the way. That he was grateful was obvious, but neither of us really knew what to say.

How are you going to get back across? I asked, pointing back to the island, leaving my next (obvious) bit of advice unspoken.

One of them answered by pointing to a path that disappeared into the woods. We'll walk!

Town Lake
Austin, Texas

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 Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Heat. The Fog.

Is it hot there? my mother asked.

She was calling from Illinois. I was in Texas. It had been warm during the day. But our warm was probably hot to her. Yet as the sun descended toward the tops of the Tallow trees on the far side of the pasture, the warmth of the day left. And as I stood there outside talking to her on the phone, it felt kind of chilly. But our chilly was probably warm to her.

So I really didn't know how answer her question. Instead, I told her about the fog.

From where I stood at the foot of the great pine tree, I could see a blanket of fog hanging over the field in the distance. As we spoke, its whiteness grew, and it came closer, swallowing the fence posts.

As I spoke, it came nearer. The Tallow trees waded in it, silhouetted against the distant Houston nighttime sky. Their crooked branches and those of what seemed to be barren oaks in the middle of the field stood out against the glow. I imagined standing out there in the middle of it all and described how the fog would have come up to my neck. And then I looked about me and saw that wisps had crept about my ankles and were gathering in the low spots of the yard.

As I described all this, the fog grew deeper, washing now against my knees, glowing white from the yard light on the house.

You'll have to draw me a picture, my mother said.

I tried to imagine sketching an advancing fog bank in the dark of night against a glowing sky, imagined how I'd sketch the Tallows or fence posts. Or not.

I just did, I said, in words.

The words were the closest I'd come to sketching it.

And you know, now that I think of it, I never did answer her original question about the heat.

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 Saturday, November 25, 2006

House of Pies

We sat in the back, in a corner of what used to be the smoking section. But there's no smoking now in that whole place, indeed in any restaurant in Houston. So we were liberated from the previous non-smokers' ghetto.

Trudy had a cheesesteak. I had a BLT. We both had fries and never looked back. Ben had a second breakfast which involved strawberries and whipped cream. Afterwards Trudy ate some sort of chocolate pie thing, and I descended into a vortex of delirium as I ate a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie a la mode.

Seems kind of pathetic I suppose for the day after Thanksgiving. But we were on the road, and trust me, it wouldn't have been even if we weren't.

House of Pies on Kirby in Houston

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 Monday, November 20, 2006


Last week, by way of celebrating the 2006 election, I decided to rip the bumper stickers from the back of my car. I easily removed one. But the red, white and black No-W sticker had fused with the green plastic of my bumper, and most of it still remains.

Years ago, at the beginning of the spring track season on a wind-swept high school track on the south side of the town where I grew up, I ran a half-mile race. On the final turn, I left the others behind, sprinting down the final stretch to win. I can still see the smile on my coach's face and the pride in his voice as he talked about the season ahead. That was the last race I won.

There are many ways the new Democratic majority could define winning in the near term: passing progressive or environmental legislation, helping to solve the Iraq debacle, reforming the corrupt Washington political machine, controlling our budget deficits, holding hearings and issuing subpoenas, or even winning the presidency in 2008.

Alas I fear they are up to none of these tasks. I fear that the 2006 election could prove to be like that race of mine years ago. I didn't follow up. I didn't put in the time. I didn't work hard. And in the end, I didn't win again. In my darker moments, that is what I think of the Democrats.

In that sense, perhaps it is fitting that my protest sticker wasn't quite willing to come off. My celebration might have been premature.

Inspiration: georgia10's words on DailyKos: the crown of laurels feels a bit awkward on a head which has hung so low for so long.

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 Thursday, November 16, 2006

He Had An Ethnic Name

He had an ethnic name. He probably had an ethnic face—dark hair, dark eyes, dark face. Ethnic. And he didn't have ID.

It was dark outside the library. Night time on the UCLA campus. Almost midnight. There were students inside studying, and students need to be safe. You have to show ID when the authorities periodically come thru.

Now this ethnic man couldn't produce his papers. And you're not allowed in the library if you can't show your ID. So the authorities called the police. And when they showed up, the man got up to leave.

He began walking to the door with his backpack slung over his shoulder. Then an officer grabbed him arm, which made the man angry—this ethnic man who probably had brown skin and probably had brown hair. And the man got angry.

Get off me! he yelled.

When the police department says that the officers didn't shoot him, what they really mean is that no bullets were involved. But they did shoot the man, and he screamed in pitiful agony as thousands of volts pulsed thru his body.

Don't touch me. DON'T TOUCH ME! he yelled at the top of his lungs afterwards. And he cursed their abuse of authority. And he criticized the Patriot Act. And he used foul language.

Stand up, the officers shouted as he hung limply. Stand up! STAND! UP!

Again and again they shouted at him. And when he wouldn't or couldn't stand up, they shot him again and again, several seconds at a time. And his long screams of pain repeatedly filled the halls.

Students began to gather from all parts of the library. Some took photos. One videotaped almost the whole thing. They were all clearly petrified. Some began to object. Some were asking the police for their badge numbers. The officers refused and told the nervous crowd to stand back or else they would tase them, too.

He had an ethnic name.
He didn't have his papers.
He tried to leave, as they told him to do.
And they shot him with thousands of volts of electricity when he got mad.

Afterwards, a sergeant minimized the episode by saying, "If he was able to walk out of here, I think he was ok."

I see. My mistake. I was thinking that this didn't sound much like my America. But you see, I have an ethnic name. And my skin looks kinda dark. My bad. He walked out of there ok, after all. It must have been alright.

Some sources:

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 Monday, November 13, 2006

From One Bar to Three

One bar all day long. Echoing conversations. Words delayed in transit. Dropped calls. One bar all day long.

But in the evening things cleared up. After dinner I looked over and saw three bars. Three bars! So I picked up the phone and called the fair and industrious Trudy.

The phone rang in the kitchen.

Trudy! Can you get that? I shouted from the study.

Hello? said she.

Hello Trudy, said I.

It was a trick! said she.

Yes friends, the technology troglodyte has entered the 21st century. He's sixseven years late (or fivesix if you know how to count), but he's finally here.

Update 10:23pm: Six/five. Seven/six. Evidently I'm the smarty-pants who can't count!

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 Sunday, November 12, 2006

He Didn't Dare To Hope

In 1969, Revell sold a 1/96-scale model of NASA's Saturn V rocket. It came in a tall box and when assembled was about four feet high. David asked for it for Christmas, but he didn't dare to hope.

In late December of that year, David's family gathered at his grandparents' house. An Austrian Pine tree cut by his grandfather stood in the fancy living room. It grazed the ceiling in the far corner and was hung with years-old decorations and lit up by colored lights. This was the room with the wobbly marble-top coffee table and golden overstuffed sofa. It was a room where the cousins were not allowed to play or even sit. But this was the room where the main event would happen.

Early Christmas morning (or very late the night before), the cousins snuck downstairs and crept into the room. The decorations hung silently from the green branches. The air was full of the scent of pine. And the room was filled with presents piled under the tree, flowing along the walls and spilling out into the center of the room.

And there in the middle of it all, there amidst the piling and flowing and spilling stood a tall, narrow present unlike any they had ever seen. It didn't fit under the tree. It didn't fit under anything. It towered over everything else.

David didn't need to look at the tag. He knew the shape. His hope beyond hopes had come true. Now he had to wait until morning.

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I sat down with John at his computer. He opened a terminal window and listed the contents of his home directory. The name of one of the files jumped out at me: ser.tar.gz.

Hah! I exclaimed, pointing at the file.

It was a serial input/output library I had once written and shared with him. That was five maybe six years ago, but he still had it sitting around.

Do you ever use it? I asked.

Sometimes, he said diplomatically after a moment's silence.

Whatever. I still took it as a compliment.

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 Saturday, November 11, 2006

What Were The Odds?

What do you think are the odds? I asked, wondering whether Ben would follow my advice and derive the quadratic equation using coefficients D/E/F instead of the traditional a/b/c.

92 percent, my brother predicted.

65-80 percent, guessed Melissa.

They seemed overly optimistic. I was certain the advice went in one ear and promptly out the other.

The next time I saw Ben I asked him, Say, did you derive the quadratic formula with D/E/F?

No, he said.

Aha, I thought.

Then he added, I derived it with L/M/N.

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Morning Mug Shot

I made the mistake of having my picture taken as early as I could. My face is always puffy in the morning. And on top of that, Houston abuses my eyes. I should have known better. I should have waited until the afternoon.

This is a non-smiling picture, the woman said. So I didn't smile.

I stood there puffy-faced, eyes bloodshot and looking punched out, smileless, with what looked like a five o'clock shadow on my chin. The camera flashed, and my thug of a picture was printed onto a temporary badge.

As I entered Building 16, I walked somewhat in shame and hoped that I might figure out a way to have the picture retaken when I get a permanent badge.

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 Monday, November 6, 2006

Waiting for the Tidal Wave

For heaven's sake, now it's salamanders?

I think we've had this conversation before.

But it seems we need to again.

We do?

You tell us you found a salamander. While the generals revolt, while the neocons point fingers, while the good pastor's flock weeps, while the president is left on the stage by himself, while the phone lines are flooded with deceptive robocalls, while the veneer of war finally begins to peel off, while a tidal wave of discontent threatens to wash across our capital, all you can talk about is a salamander!?


There are so many things to talk about.

I'm waiting for the tidal wave. You'll have to make due with my salamander. Better yet: just delete it.

Trust me, I will.

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 Sunday, November 5, 2006

A Salamander

I saw a salamander in the Michigan woods: under fallen leaves and needles, between two pieces of plastic. It was there for the winter, but the plastic was bound for the dump, so I picked up the salamander to move it.

On a warm summer day, I would have been hard-pressed to hold it, but in the cold air, with snow falling thru the canopy of yellow-brown leaves, the salamander barely moved. I easily held it in the palm of my hand, pushed aside some leaves and pine needles and gently set the salamander down beside a decaying branch, covering it all as best I could.

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 Saturday, November 4, 2006

Upgrading His Memory

It started with a question about upgrading the memory on his computer. That led to a conversation of bits and bytes and a question about which is which and what they mean. That led to a conversation about pixels and how many bits they take, which returned us to the topic of memory and whether he needed more.

We had a conversation of RAM memory and hard disks. That led us to a conversation about operating systems and virtual memory. And in order to motivate the need for that, we covered multitasking and Unix processes. If you look at the picture I drew, you'll clearly see where our conversation ended up: with chunks of memory being swapped from RAM to disk (pages-out) and back (pages-in). And that was the answer to his memory upgrades question: his ratio of pages-out to pages-in was too high.

He was remarkably patient thru all this: paying attention, studying my diagrams, asking good questions. I have tried to get him interested in such things in the past to no avail, so I smiled inwardly at his evident interest.

Later in the evening, we came back to the subject.

Do you want to see how to write a Unix process? I asked. He answered by pulling up a chair.

I showed him main() and waved my hands at printf() and fflush(). We throttled the process with nanosleep(), which he seemed to absorb with little difficulty. And we watched the process consume more or less of the CPU, depending on how we throttled it.

But then I took it too far.

I went on about return codes and shell scripts, and his eyes began to droop. I ran into a compiler warning, and his head began to nod. I searched in vain for the typo I had somehow introduced into the code, and he jerked in his seat.

Dad, he said. I need to go to bed.

Ok. Good night, Ben, I said.

Inwardly my smile was undaunted.

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 Friday, November 3, 2006

The Quadratic Formula

What's going on in math these days? I asked.

Oh, quadratic equations, he said. You know, b squared minus 4 a c.

You mean the quadratic formula? I asked.


So I had him explain it. And we went thru the derivation, which he got mostly right. And I showed him what it meant graphically. And then I told him what I used to ask on exams.

I told him how I promised my students that they would have to derive the quadratic formula on the test. And I told him how when I wrote the tests, I would tell them that instead of starting from

ax2 + bx + c = 0

that they should derive the formula using different coefficients:

Dx2 + Ex + F = 0.

His eyes widened. And then I pointed out that it that it could be worse: I could have used α/β/γ as the coefficients and ξ as the unknown instead of x.

A few minutes later, him mom arrived. As he got into the car I said, Practice the derivation tonite with D/E/F, and you'll never have any trouble with it.

Or with ξ! he said.

What do you think are the odds that he did it?

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 Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Creepy Old People

The weather was perfect for the occasion. Thanks to the time change a week before, there was no light left in the sky even though it was still quite early. The wind made our candles flicker, and there was a chill in the air.

Trudy and I sat in front waiting for the kids to come. I donned my robot mask again. She sat with a flying monkey in her lap. A cauldron of candy was on the walkway between us.

Look. Let's go to that house, Trudy heard someone say from the shadows on the sidewalk across the street. There are creepy old people there.

Creepy old people, maybe, but you should have seen the looks on the little kids' faces as they stared glassy-eyed at my robot head and listened almost mesmerized to my robot voice drone, Come-this-way. We-have-candy. Please-take-candy. And you should have seen their struggles to comprehend as I pointed to bell-bedecked creature crouched beside the fair and industrious Trudy and asked, Do-you-like-our-monkey?

Creepy old people, indeed.

Halloween 2006
Austin Texas

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