Thursday, January 31, 2008

Where Are The Clowns?

Where are the clowns? What do you mean, where are the clowns!? Look around you, for heaven's sake. Listen to the radio. Turn on the TV. Take a look at a newspaper or magazine. Pay attention for just one moment, would you? Look at what has happened here.

Clowns talking. Clowns lying. Clowns swindling other clowns. Clowns scrambling and clawing for a piece of the pie. Clowns passing bills. Clowns vetoing them. Clowns spinning. Clowns evading. Clowns justifying the ends. Clowns ignoring the means. Clowns torturing and killing and weaving plausible fictions of deniability while the rest of the world tries to understand how it all became nothing more than a game.

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 Friday, January 25, 2008

Life Boats 2

Life boats. You think I flew off the handle when I whined about the life boats. You know what I meant. You know what I was implying. I heard your rolling eyes.

But it's the way these things work. Invisible hand when it's about the people in the streets, about the little man. But seriously we can't expect that invisible hand to apply when it's the big boys who find themselves in a bind.

When the big boys scream loud enough, the invisible hand goes out the window and the welfare starts flowing liberally. And you think I rant. Check out the data. Look at the pictures. Then tell me about the life boats.

Percent share of the tax stimulus per quintile of the tax paying public

Hat tip: Paul Krugman, Who gets stimulated?.

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 Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nuts and Bolts

There were about 20 college seniors in the classroom. The fun part of my presentation was over: the slides that made them laugh, the slides that had cool pictures of the work we do. Now I had to open the hood and show them the nuts and bolts.

This is a visually oriented generation, their professor told me later. You need to keep it short and simple. But what I had to say now wasn't graphic. It wasn't sexy. It had to do more with nuts and bolts.

So before I moved on, I told them a story...

The other night, I sat down at the table with my son. We have been working on math nightly, and it was time. He had already done the assigned problems, and it was getting a little late, so I sat down with him and got him started on a derivation.

I gave him three collinear points arranged vertically in the X-Y plane: a "center" and two "foci" equally distant from it. He agreed that those points defined a hyperbola with parameters "a", "b" and "c". So we let (x,y) be the coordinates of an arbitrary point on the hyperbola.

Then I asked him to derive the x-y equation of the hyperbola.

He had watched me do the same thing for a parabola a few weeks before. And we did the same thing for an ellipse not too long after that. So it wasn't an outrageous thing to ask. And anyway, I got him started on the first page or so of algebra before I handed the pencil to him.

It took him a while, but eventually he began to nod his head in recognition as the equation unfolded before him.

Sometimes it's not enough to just know the equation. Sometimes you need to know where it comes from. Or at least, you need to understand that once upon a time you did the dirty work and could do it again if you had to. Math isn't just about results. It's about the nuts and bolts, too.

... and my story was done.

The college kids shifted a little in their seats. Some of them stole glances at each other. I flipped to the next slide in my presentation.

On the screen was a list of some of the gory details of my work: input files, default data, log files, preprocessing, code generation, jobs and models, simulation executives, real-time synchronization, compilation, linking, debugging... These, I said, are the kind of nuts and bolts that (like it or not) you'll need to master if you want to be top notch simulation engineers.

I wonder if they got the message or if they just think that guy's a slave driver.

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 Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Life Boats

As the money lenders wail in the streets and bemoan the plight that has fallen on them, the pillars of society trembled. The progress of a century seems to grind to a halt, for profits have evaporated and trend lines gone negative, and measures taken to stop the collapse have had shockingly little effect.

All our goods are made elsewhere, now. Our services are outsourced, too. Toys are painted with lead. The fashions of the day come from sweatshops in who knows where. Median incomes have long been falling while nothing but averages have graced the front pages. A yawning chasm has opened between those who work and those whose gilded lifestyles have glittered and shined more brightly with every passing year.

And so now as the money lenders find their smoke and mirrors gone and the captains of commerce find that they stand on shaking ground and the glitterati decorating the heavens take pause, who do you think is going to get the life boats?

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 Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Caught Off Guard

The Building Inspector.

Brandon's mom had come to pick him up from school. They were walking down the hall, hand in hand. Another kid stood and watched as they walked by. And he made fun of Brandon.

Brandon's mom turned and gave the kid a stern look, her inspector's badge level with the kid's face. She bent over and pointed a finger into his face and said, Is that really what you wanted to say to him? The kid's face was white. You've got a badge! he said.

The Police Detective.

Kimberly's dad was in a rush. He was still wearing his holster as he walked to the playground where she stood in the gravel by the swings. Her coat was nowhere to be seen again. He asked her where it was.

Not far from Kimberly, he saw a boy standing beside a small gravel mound, one dirty arm of her coat sticking out. He turned to the boy and said, Son, I don't want you to mess with my daughter's jacket again, you understand? The boy's jaw dropped as he found him self face to face with a black leather holster. How could he have known it was empty?

The Real Estate Man.

Alex asked who our home insurance was with. A friend of his was in the insurance business, he said. He could get us a good deal. Alex shook his head in evident wonder at the kind of deal his friend might make.

Five percent (or something like that) was great, he said. You must mean mortgage insurance, I said, but we've paid off our house. Alex was silent for a moment. Right, he said, and our conversation moved off to other matters.

The Telephone Salesman.

My black Western Electric rotary dial desk phone rang. There was a delay after I answered. Then a man asked for me by name but got the pronunciation wrong and had to fall back on just plain Dave. He babbled something about representing AT&T.

Was I familiar with the UVerse television and Internet service? You know, I said, we don't have a television, so I don't think we're a good match. He chuckled. No, I suppose you're right.

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 Tuesday, January 15, 2008

House Husbands in Suburbia

Boom! I looked out the window. Then I took my hands off the keyboard and went outside, standing on the doorstep looking and listening.

The street was quiet, not a soul to be seen in either direction.

Joe came out too, standing on his doorstep looking and listening. I waved and walked over. He had heard it, too. It sounded like a blown transformer, we thought, but we both still had power. I said it sounded like it came from across the street. He said he couldn't tell.

As we stood there under sunny blue skies surveying the power lines that run up the middle of the block across the street, Lance opened his door and stepped out in a long magenta robe with a towel on his head. He had lost his power while he was in the shower.

We shared our diagnosis with Lance, and he looked around, rubbed the towel in his hair, shrugged and waved and went back inside. Joe and I surveyed the situation a little more, noting that the transformers we could see looked fine. Then we talked about the weather, wondering when we'll get rain. Then we went back inside.

And we left behind a quiet street with not a soul remaining in either direction.

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 Thursday, January 10, 2008

Finding Words for Leroy

Behind sterile walls and closed doors, under white lights and on hard chairs, Leroy waits. He wrestles with hospital gowns and bed controls and television that gets lousier as you need it more.

The world turning outside his window fades into an abstraction: clouds roll by, the sun rises and sets, people walk along the sidewalks, but time in the hospital spins freely from that outside world.

Leroy has stared at himself in the mirror and reflected on his life, contemplated his mortality, thought of friends and family, struggled with the anguish and pain that cancer brought. And he has written about it and talked about it on the radio.

They told him he didn't have long, that his days were numbered and that the cancer would catch him soon. But the days stretched out, and despair became hope and then celebration as the doctors seemed to regain control.

And then the bad days come back and shades of despair as the doctors search for answers. Mortality scowls again from the mirror.

Leroy, what can you say to you? What can I share? To express regret isn't right nor to offer false hope. Yet it seems heartless to remain silent when you have shared so much throughout it all.

I don't know the you. You don't know me. Our paths will never cross. Yet they already have in a way. And I know my heart is with you, even if I can find no words.

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 Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Our Everlasting Shame

We're not very hospitable, here. We should be (it being the south and Texas), but we're not. Guests come, and they end up sleeping on a futon in the living room or on the floor in the boy's room. And they find that our kitchen doesn't get the use it should. To our everlasting shame, this is how it is.

I rationalize to myself that we shouldn't feel bad. I tell myself that if an aunt were to spend, say, a couple weeks in winter with us, fleeing the snows of New York in December, her eyes would widen and her jaw drop at the blue skies and sun -- weather permitting of course, which for a two week stay it almost certainly would. I tell myself that this would make up for our shame.

And so it was that my New York aunt came to stay with us for a while, fleeing the onset of winter blowing in off Lake Ontario. Our skies were blue, and the sun did indeed shine, and she yearned to be outdoors even as we bundled in sweaters and huddled under blankets.

So we hiked up the Greenbelt -- down canyon trails winding thru the limestone rocks, thru the green woods littered with blue Juniper berries, out onto the creek bed.

And we went to Pedernales Falls -- down into the canyon, picking our way across the limestone ledges out to where the swirling water rushes.

And we kayaked on the lake -- under Cypress trees at the water's edge with Cormorants perched overhead, up Barton Creek past Coots and Scaups and Snowy Egrets and Great Blue and Yellow-Crowned Night Herons and turtles basking in the sun over water so clear and deep that it made you dizzy to look down.

We did those things with her under blue skies on warm days, and her eyes did widen, and her jaw did drop, and she gasped at the wonder of our Central Texas winter.

And I hope that the memory of those days will make her forget how she slept on the floor and ended up cooking for us, when it should have been the other way around, to our everlasting shame.

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 Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sunday Night

Up there somewhere, the wheeling stars are turning, and Orion, lying on his side, is rising from the east as he does this time of year. But tonite he and the stars are hidden behind overcast skies.

The wind chimes on the back patio are ringing, and I can hear the buffeting wind from the fireplace flue.

Just moments ago we were all sitting in here, the boy reclined with a book in his Cleopatra pose, Trudy rocking with her computer in her lap, me pushed back in this distinctly non-Cleopatra recliner, and the dog at the far end of the couch from the boy, gazing with adoring eyes across the conversation pit at his mommy.

Just moments ago that was, it seems, yet here I am alone in the room with the music now off and only the wind and chimes to listen to.

The weekend is over. Yesterday's blue skies have gone, and cold weather and rain are on the way. Tomorrow is Monday, and it's getting late. There's not much more to say, so maybe it's just time to go to bed.

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 Friday, January 4, 2008

Such Shivering Days As These

Yesterday, as the sun set in the west, I looked outside and saw the evergreen leaves of the Monterey Oak rustling in the cold north wind that had blown all day. The glow of late afternoon painted them gold, and their shimmering radiance under a cloudless blue sky was a glory to see, and the bench at the foot of the tree beckoned. Yet I knew better, for the wind was blowing, and I had spent the previous day shivering.

Now you will pipe in here, that the cold wind was not in fact cold, and that Central Texans must not know what a cold day is. Indeed, there are colder winds blowing in the midwest, and deep snows have fallen along the Great Lakes, and a great winter storm is about to assault the west. So you would be right: cold to us is no cold at all, and yesterday's golden glow at the end of day would have been a Godsent Edenday for many.

Yet, on this point I am not entirely prepared to concede. True, I have seen cold and felt cold, and I do know that yesterday's north wind and my shivering the day before were lame. But...

Come visit us in summer, when the sun is hot and the temperatures high. Come see us when the creeks have run dry and the grasses have turned brown and snakes lie coiled in the dark, shady places between the rocks. Come with us then, and go with us for a run along the trail by the lake. Run hard with us during those dog days, and you will find yourself shivering too on such days as these.

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 Wednesday, January 2, 2008


There is but one room in this house for congregating, and the teenagers have it — lights out, sitting side-by-side on the couch for a movie. And so we find ourselves banished to the provinces.

We sit around the dining room table and quietly chat. Or we wander into the study and click at the keyboard. The bedroom in the back beckons although it is early.

But here's the thing of it...

A year and a half from now he'll be gone. And we'll have all the light we want and plenty of time on the couch alone. And we will be wishing that he were here, claiming the living room from time to time just as they are tonite. And we will missed being banished.

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