What hobbies do you have? Have you learned anything useful from them?

This is my first “cross-posted” entry. I composed this on Quora. I was asked to answer the title question and I did. I probably won’t do this very often. Still, a little experimenting is fun.

Answer by John Baker:

The short answer is many and yes. The longer answer is pretty much everything I do, that matters to me, is a hobby of some form or other. Some of my major hobbies are:

1.      Amateur Astronomy
2.      Photography
3.      Blogging
4.      Recreational Programming.

Amateur Astronomy has been a lifelong pursuit. I was hooked as a child looking at Venus’s crescent through a small refractor in the badlands of Utah. It’s hard to relate how much I have learned from Amateur Astronomy or how much it has influenced my life but it is a lot and heavily.  My decision to study science in school and later university were outgrowths of this passion. I have traveled all over the world to view eclipses, see spectacular comets, and tour major observatories. Even today the best possible night for me is to stand alone under clear extremely dark high altitude skies and soak in the gentle light of the Milky Way.

Photography is also a lifelong hobby. I shot my first roll of film on a cheap fixed focus camera when I was eight. I blow hot and cold on my hobbies. Sometimes they utterly dominate my every waking hour. Other times they lie dormant, ignored, waiting for me to pick them up again. Photography is such a hobby. Over the decades it has taught me a lot of chemistry: I started picture taking in the “chemical” era. Nowadays I’ve absorbed a wide variety of photography related software skills. I’ve also learned a lot of history. Studying early photographers and how they created some of their iconic images is fascinating.

Blogging is relatively new hobby. I started with the idea that it would be good “composition practice,” a way to learn about web site maintenance, and finally a safe way to vent without serving time for assaulting imbeciles. It has met all these expectations and more. It’s presumptuous for bloggers to describe themselves as writers but you do acquire a greater understanding of what writers do. That old joke about being a drunk with a writing problem is not far from the mark.

As for recreational programming: despite going into work day after day,  year after year, and staring at screens of, please stab my eyes out, “work code.” I still muster the energy to work at home on software projects using unconventional programming languages and tools. Many professional peers have poked fun at my eccentric tastes and others have told me I was wasting my time. The joke has been on them. Many that cast these aspersions are no longer employed while my current job is a direct consequence of knowing things the convention bound do not.

I have learned many specific things from my hobbies but the single best thing I’ve learned is simple intellectual integrity. Nobody is going to do your hobby for you. Paying others to take up your hobbies makes no sense. Cheating on a hobby is crazy. You have to do the work by yourself; you have to learn by yourself; you have to think for yourself! Hobbies refine our individuality; I’d recommend more hobbies for everyone.

What hobbies do you have? Have you learned anything useful from them?

Dark Energy Entities

I’ve been having fun on a new social media site called Quora. Quora operates on the StackOverFlow principle. People pose questions and others answer. The act of asking of sincere questions, even silly ones, seems to take the wind out of troll sails. Political sites quickly degenerate into primate poo tossing contests. I enjoy pitching poo with the best of them but I demand wit, verve and humor with my insults. Sadly, these qualities are the first to go when vicious trolls tear into partisan believers of any persuasion. Honest political conversations have never been easy. I remember screeching, mostly left-wing, university harridans shouting down heretics forty years ago. I’m sure they would have burned them at the stake if the option had been available. Still there is something about the question that makes people put down their torches and give a heretic a break.

A good question and answer session is like a connect-the-dots cartoon. For example Javed Qadrud-Din observed when responding to the question:

Hypothetically, if there is intelligent alien life, with the knowledge and means to traverse space and travel to Earth, what would be their reasons for not making contact?

That aliens might be billions of years ahead of us and

we would be unable to recognize the evidence of their existence, and such evidence would instead appear to us as aspects of the nature of reality itself.

I thought about this and responded:

Your observation that some alien intelligences could be billions of years ahead of us and may, “appear as part of nature,” made we wonder what might qualify as a manifestation of such beings. It goes without saying that super advanced beings with real immortal ambitions will be somewhat bummed with mere matter. If our, admittedly primitive physical theories hold up, it looks like in the very long run, e.g. 10100 or more years, all matter will decay and space will expand into an unimaginably vast void with a temperature indistinguishable from absolute zero. All matter and energy based sentience will be snuffed out: everything, absolutely everything dies. What’s left in such a universe? Only Dark Energy survives and prospers. Cosmologists have noted that we appear to live in a Dark Energy dominated universe and the domination started fairly recently, within the last two billion years or so. If intelligent life evolved somewhere in the cosmos six or seven billion years ago that would be plenty of time to advance to the point that such beings could insert themselves into the only durable part of our universe: space itself. So perhaps the accelerating expansion of space is the “part of nature” that gives away the presence of such highly evolved beings.

We may be living in a Dark Energy Entity Cosmoscene. It’s unlikely that beings able to alter the entire observable universe are going to make contact with pitiful little poo throwing naked apes.

Cutting the Stinking Tauntaun and other Adventures in Software Archeology

The other day a software project that I had spent a year on was “put on the shelf.”  A year of effort was unceremoniously flushed down the software sewer.  A number of colleagues asked me, “How do you feel about this?” Would you believe relieved?

This is not false bravado or stupid sunny optimism. I am not naïve. I know this failure will hurt me. In modern corporations the parties that launch failures, usually management, seldom take the blame. Blame, like groundwater, sinks to the lowest levels. In software circles it pools on the coding grunts doing the real work. It’s never said, but always implied, that software failures are the exclusive result of programmer flaws.  If only we had worked harder and put in those sixty or eighty hour weeks for months at a time; if only we were a higher level of coding wizard that could crank out thousands of error free lines of code per hour, like the entirely fictional software geniuses on TV, things might have been different.

Indulging hypotheticals is like arguing with young Earth creationists about the distance of galaxies.

“Given the absolute constancy of the speed of light how is it possible to see the Andromeda galaxy, something we know is over two million light years away, in a six thousand-year old universe?”

The inevitable reply to this young Earth killing query is always something to the effect that God could have made the universe with light en route.  God could have also made farts smell like Chanel #5 but sadly he[1] did not.  Similarly, God has also failed to staff corporations with legions of Spock level programmers ready and willing to satisfy whatever au courant notion sets up brain-keeping in management skulls.  The Andromeda galaxy is millions of light years away, we don’t live on a six-thousand year old Earth, and software is not created by magic.  Projects work or flounder for very real reasons. I was not surprised by the termination of this project. I was surprised that it took so long to give up on something that was never going to work out as expected.

Working with bad legacy code always reminds me of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo rescues Luke on the ice world by cutting open his fallen Tauntaun with a light saber. When the Tauntaun’s guts spill out Solo says, “I thought they smelled bad on the outside.” Legacy code may look pretty bad on the outside, just wait until you cut into it. Only then do you release the full foul forceful stench.

The project, let’s call it the Stinking Tauntaun Project, was an exercise in legacy system reformation. Our task was adding major new features to a hoary old system written in a programming language that resembles hieroglyphics. I know and regularly use half a dozen programming languages. With rare exceptions programming languages are more alike than different. From the time of Turing we have known that all programming languages are essentially the same.  You can always implement one language in another; all programming systems exploit this fundamental equivalence. It’s theoretically possible to compile SQL into JavaScript and run the resulting code on an eight bit interpreter written in ancient Batch I just wouldn’t recommend you start a SOX compliant software project to create such insanity. This goes double if only one programmer in your organization knows ancient Batch!  The Stinking Tauntaun Project wasn’t this crazy but there were clear signs that we were setting out on what has been accurately described as a Death March.

Avoiding Death Marches, or finding ways to shift blame for them, is an essential survival skill for young corporate programmers. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a lot of modern software is built on the naiveté of the young. When you first learn to program you are seduced by its overpowering rationality. Here is a world founded on logic, mathematics and real engineering constraints. Things work, and don’t work, for non-bullshit reasons! There aren’t any pointless arguments with ideological metrosexual pinheads about “privilege” or “gender.” Programs don’t give a crap about the skin color of the programmer or whether their mother was an abusive bull dyke. After a few years of inhaling rarefied logic fumes young programmers often make the gigantic and catastrophic mistake that the greater naked ape society in which they live also works on bullshit free principles. It’s at this delicate stage when you can drive the young programmer hard. There’s an old saying that salesmen like money and engineers like work so in most companies the salesmen get the money and the engineers get the work. As the great sage Homer Simpson would say, “It’s funny because it’s true!”

Death Marches shatter the naïve. Gaining a greater understanding of nasty world we live in always does a naked ape good but there’s a cost; your career will suffer and you will suffer: enlightenment is proportional to pain! The school of hard knocks is real thing and unlike that party school that you boozed through no one graduates alive. I’d strongly recommend a few Death Marches for every working programmer. To paraphrase Tolstoy, “All successful software projects are alike; every unsuccessful project fails in its own way!” You may consider what follows my modest contribution to the vast, comprehensively ignored, literature of software Death Marches.

Code Smell #1: A large mass of poorly written test free legacy code that does something important.

“Refactoring” is a word that I love to mock but the refactoring literature showcases an astonishingly precise term: “code smell.” Code smells are exactly what you expect. Something about the code stinks. The Stinking Tauntaun code base didn’t just stink, it reeked like diuretic dog shit on choleric vomit. This was well-known throughout the company.  My general advice to young programmers that catch a whiff of rotting code is simple: flee, run, abort, get out Dodge! Do not spill your precious bodily fluids cleaning up the messes of others.

When recruited a number of experienced hieroglyphic programmers asked me the pointed question, “How do you deal with giant stinking piles of legacy doo-doo?” Maybe it wasn’t quite phrased like that but the intention was clear. They were telling me that they were dealing with a seething mass of half-baked crappy code that somehow, despite its manifold flaws, was useful to the organization and couldn’t be put out of its well deserved misery.

I honestly answered. “Systems that have survived for many years, despite their problems and flaws, meet a need. You have to respect that.” I still believe this!  Every day I boot up ancient command shells that look pretty much like they did thirty years ago.  Why do I use these old tools? It’s simple; they do key tasks very efficiently. I try new tools all the time. I spent a few months playing with PowerShell.  It’s a very slick modern shell but it has one big problem. It takes far longer to load than ancient DOS or Bash shells. When I want to execute a few simple commands I find the few extra seconds it takes to get a PowerShell up and running highly annoying. Why should I wait when I don’t need the wonderful new features of PowerShell?  The Stinking Tauntaun System also met user needs and, just like I am horrified by the clunky ill-conceived incoherence of old shells, Stinking Tauntaun users held their noses and used the good bits of what’s overall a bad system.

Code Smell #2: No fully automatic version controlled test suite.

There is a tale, possibly apocryphal, from the dawn of programming that goes something like this: a young programmer of the ENIAC generation was having a bad day. He was trying to get some program running and was getting frustrated “re-wiring.” Our young programmer was experiencing one of the first “debugging” sessions back when real insects came into play. In a moment of life searing insight our young programmer realized that from now on most of his time would be consumed hunting down errors in faulty programs.  The tale goes dark here. I’ve often wondered what happened to the young programmer. Did he have a happy life or did he, like Sisyphus, push that damn program up the hill only to have it crash down again, and again, until management cried stop!

Debugging is a necessary evil. If you program — you debug. It’s impossible to eliminate debugging but at least you can approach it intelligently, and to this day, the only successful method for controlling program errors is the fully automatic version controlled ever-expanding test suite. Systems with such suites actually improve with time. Systems without such suites always degenerate and take down a few naïve programmers as they decay. The Stinking Tauntaun System lacked an automatic test suite. The Stinking Tauntaun System lacked a non-automatic test suite. The Stinking Tauntaun had no useful test cases what so ever! Testing The Stinking Tauntaun was more painful than dealing with its code. The primary tester had nightmares about The Stinking Tauntaun.

withouttests

My Power-Point-less illustration of Quality over Time for a system that lacks a fully automatic ever expanding version controlled test suite. Systems without well designed test rigs are almost without exception complete crap. Unless someone is paying you huge bucks it’s best to start sending out resumes when asked to fix such systems. You can ruin your health stirring your yummy ice cream into the shit but it’s almost certain the final mixture will taste more like shit than ice cream.

It’s the 21st century people! In ENIAC days you could overlook missing automatic test suites. Nowadays missing automatic test suites is a damning indictment of the organization that tolerates such heinous crimes against programming humanity!

Code Smell #3: Only one programmer is able to work with legacy code.

When I was hired there were a few hieroglyphic programmers on staff. No single programmer was saddled with the accumulated mistakes of prior decades. We could divide and deal with the pain. During this happy time our work was support oriented. We we’re not undertaking large projects. Then an inevitable bout of corporate reorganization occurred, followed by terminations and a stream of defectors fleeing the new order.  Eventually only one hieroglyphic programmer remained: moi!  Most programmers would have joined the exodus and not taken on the sins of other fathers but as I have already pointed out I am a software whore and proud of it.  Still even software sluts must avoid ending up like the, “there can be only one,” Highlander. Most of those sword duels ended rather badly as I recall.

Code Smell #4: Massive routines with far-ranging name scope.

With noxious fumes already cutting off our air supply we should have stopped in our tracks but we soldiered on because The Stinking Tauntaun System did something important and alternatives were not readily available. The corporation recognized this and started a number of parallel projects to explore New Stinking Tautaun’s.  I wasn’t lucky enough to work on any of the parallel projects. I had to get in the stall and shovel the Tauntaun manure.

We weren’t entirely clueless when we started Stinking Tauntaun work.  We recognized the precarious hieroglyphic programmer resource constraint and tried to divide the work into units that alleviated it. We decided to implement part of the new features in another programming language and call the new module from the old system. The hope was this would divide the work and possibly create something that might be used outside The Stinking Tauntaun System. This part of the project went reasonably well. The new module is entirely new code and works very well. Unfortunately, it was a small part of the greater effort of bolting new features into The Stinking Tauntaun System.

Stinking Tauntaun code is magisterial in its monolithic madness. The hieroglyphic programming language is famous for its concise coding style yet the main routine in the Stinking Tauntaun System is close to 10,000 lines long!  I had never seen hieroglyphic language routines of such length. I’ve only seen comparable programs a few times in my battle scared career. As a summer student I marveled at a 20,000 line, single routine, FORTRAN program.  At first I thought it was the output of some cross compiler but no, some insane, bat shit crazy government drone, (I was working for a government agency in western Canada), had coded it by hand — on freaking punch cards no less! Such stunning ineptitude is rare: most programmers have a passing acquaintance with modular design and know enough to reconsider things when code gets out of hand. We all have different thresholds for judging out-of-hand-ness, for me it’s any routine that’s longer than sixty lines: including the damn comments.

A 10,000 line routine is a monumental red flag but The Stinking Tautaun’s length was not the biggest problem. There is this thing programmer’s call “scope.”  Scope marks out name boundaries. It sets limits on where names have meaning or value. Ideally name scope is limited to the smallest feasible extent. You really don’t want global names! You absolutely don’t want global names like “X,” or “i,” or “T,” cavorting in your code! Most of the cryptic names in the Stinking Tauntaun System had far-ranging scope. Vast scopes make it difficult to safely make local changes. This makes it risky, dangerous and time-consuming to change code.  Large scopes also increase the burden on testers. If tiny changes have far-ranging consequences you have to retest large parts of the system every time you tweak it. All of this sucks up time and drains the pure bodily fluids of IT staff.

Code Smell #5: Basic assumptions about what is possible quickly prove wrong.

It was looking dark. Timid souls would have run but we plowed on. Our naïve hope rested on the theory that we could change a few touch points in The Stinking Tauntaun’s code base and then get out of Dodge before the dark kludge forest closed in. My first estimate of how many routines I would have to touch was around twenty. Two months into the project I had already altered over a hundred with no end in sight. The small orthogonal change we hoped to make was not possible because The Stinking Tauntaun System did not sensibly do one thing in one place. It did sort of the same thing in many places. You couldn’t make a small change and have things sensibly flow throughout the system.  I worked to isolate and modularize the mess but I should have just waved my hands and spent my days on LinkedIn looking for another job.

Code Smell #6: A development culture steeped in counterproductive ceremony.

On top of all these screeching sirens yelling stop there were other impediments. I work in a SOX saturated environment. Readers of my blog know that I consider SOX to be one of the biggest time-wasting piles of DC idiocies ever pushed on American companies. Like many “government solutions” SOX did not drain the intended swamp but forever saddled us with inane time-wasting ceremony and utterly stupid levels of micromanagement. Is Active Directory management really a concern of freaking government? Somehow it’s become one!  One of my favorite consequences of SOX is the religious ordering of development environments and the sacraments for promoting code changes. During the long bruising Stinking Tauntaun project many releases boiled down to me making changes to one file! Pushing a new version to test should have been a simple file copy.

Of course it couldn’t be that simple. Numerous “tickets” had to be approved. Another branch of IT, that was even more stressed and suffered higher levels of turnover than ours, was dragged in to execute a single trivial file copy. In many cases more bytes were generated by all this pointless time-wasting ceremony than I had changed in that single file. Of course all this took time, and as hard as I looked for a useless-time-wasting-bullshit category in our web-based hours tracking system, I couldn’t find one. There’s a management mantra: you can only improve what you measure.  Funny how companies never measure the bullshit.

In retrospect we should have junked The Stinking Tauntaun System or opted for a radical rewrite. It’s ironic but something like this is what’s going to happen. If I was young I would be bitter but I cashed in on this project. In my consulting days I was always on the lookout for Stinking Tauntauns: they were freaking gold mines for those of us that have acquired a taste for the bracing putrid fumes of rotting code.

[1] If you are the type of person that gets your panties in a knot about the gender of hypothetical supreme beings please go away.

JOD Update: Version 0.9.97*

JOD LogoIn the last year much has changed in the J world.

  1. There are new official J 8.0x builds for all supported platforms.
  2. The QT based IDE JDE has matured and is in widespread use.
  3. The column oriented J database JD is drawing new users to J and enticing J veterans to reconsider how we use databases.
  4. There is a small group of J system builders experimenting with additions, extensions and revisions of core J source code.

In short, there are have been enough changes to revisit and update JOD.

JOD version 0.9.97*1 is the first JOD update in many years that mocks the god of software compatibility. In particular:

  1. The syntax of the jodhelp verb has changed.
  2. The jodsource addon no longer uses a zip file to distribute JOD dump files.
  3. JOD online help will no longer be supported or updated.
  4. Volume size is no longer checked before creating new JOD dictionaries.
  5. There is a new version of jod.pdf.

jodhelp changes (#1, #3 and #5)

jodhelp has always been a kludge. In programmer speak a kludge is some half-baked facility added to a system after more essential features have stabilized. The original versions of jodhelp pointed at my rough notes. It was all the “documentation” I needed! Then others stared using JOD which resulted in an “evolved” online version of my notes. I originally thought that hosting my notes online would simultaneously serve user needs and cut the amount of time I spent maintaining documentation. In retrospect this wasn’t even wrong!

I used Google Documents to host my notes. If you’ve ever wondered why completely free Google Documents hasn’t obliterated expensive Microsoft Word or hoary old excellent \LaTeX I invite you to maintain a set of long-duration-documents with Google Documents. During jodhelp‘s online lifetime the basic internal format of Google Documents changed in a screw-your-old-documents upgrade which forced me to spend days repairing broken hyper-links and reformatting. I was not amused; you still get what you pay for!

I originally choose Google Documents because of its alleged global accessibility. Sadly, Google Documents is now often blocked by corporate and national firewalls. Even when it isn’t blocked it renders like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant. All these problems forced me to rewrite JOD documentation with a completely reliable tool: good old-fashioned \LaTeX. The result of my labors, jod.pdf, is now distributed by the joddocument addon and is easily browsed with jodhelp.

After jod.pdf‘s appearance another irritant surfaced: synchronizing jod.pdf and the online version. I tried using pandoc and markdown to generate both the online and PDF versions from the same source files but jod.pdf is too complex for not-to-fancy portable approaches. I was faced with a choice, lower my jod.pdf standards, or get rid of something I never really liked. I opted to drown a child and abandon online help. I don’t expect a lot of mourners at the funeral.

Using the new version of jodhelp requires installing the addon joddocument and configuring a J PDF reader. It’s also good idea to define a JQT PF key to pop up JOD help with a keystroke. To configure a J PDF reader edit the configuration file:

 ~config/base.cfg

this file is directly available from the JQT Edit\Configure menu. base.cfg defines a number of operating system dependent utilities. Make changes to the systems you use, save your changes, and restart J. The following example shows my Win64 system settings.

 case. 'Win' do.
   BoxForm=: 1
   Browser=: 'c:/Program Files (x86)/Google/Chrome/Application/chrome.exe'
   Browser_nox=: ''
   EPSReader=: 'c:/program files/ghostgum/gsview/gsview64.exe'
   PDFReader=: 'c:/uap/sumatra/SumatraPDF.exe'
   XDiff=: 'c:/uap/WinMerge-2.14.0-exe/winmergeu.exe'
   Editor=: 'c:/uap/notepad++/notepad++.exe %f'
   Editor_nox=: '' 

I use SumatraPDF to read PDF files on Windows. It’s a fast, lightweight, program that efficiently renders jod.pdf. Good PDF readers are available for all commonly used platforms.

To define JQT PK keys edit the configuration file:2

 ~config/userkeys.cfg
 

This file is also directly available from Edit\Configure menu. My JOD specific PF keys are:

 F3;1;Require JOD;require 'general/jod'
 Shift+F3;1;JOD Help;jodhelp 0
 F6;1;Dev Dicts;od cut 'joddev jod utils' [ 3 od ''
 Shift+F6;1;Fit Dev Dicts;od cut 'jodfit joddev jod utils' [ 3 od ''
 Ctrl+Shift+F6;1;Test Dev Dicts;od cut 'jodtest joddev jod utils' [ 3 od ''
 

Pressing Shift+F3 executes jodhelp 0 which pops up JOD help.

jodsource changes (#2)

The jodsource addon is a collection of JOD dump scripts. Dump scripts are serialized versions of binary JOD dictionaries. When executed they merge objects into the current JOD put dictionary. I use them primarily to move dictionaries around but they have other uses as well. Prior to this version I distributed the three main JOD development dump scripts, joddev, jod, and utils in one compressed zip file to reduce the size of JAL downloads.

The distributed script jodsourcesetup.ijs used the zfiles addon to extract these scripts and rebuild JOD development dictionaries. This worked on 32 bit Windows systems but failed elsewhere. J now runs on 32/64 bit Windows, Mac, Linux, IOS and Android systems. To better support all these variants I eliminated the zfiles dependency and pruned the JOD development dictionaries. The result is a more portable and smaller jodsource addon.

Bye bye volume sizing (#4)

Early versions of JOD ran in the now bygone era of floppy disks. It was possible to create many JOD dictionaries on a single standard 800 kilobyte 3.5 inch floppy. Compared to modern porcine-ware JOD, which many J’ers consider a huge system, is lithe and lean. In floppy days it was important to check if there was enough space on a floppy before creating another huge 48K empty JOD dictionary. This is a bit ridiculous today! If you don’t have 48K free on whatever device you are running you have far more serious problems than not being able to create JOD dictionaries.

Volume sizing code remained in JOD for years until it started giving me problems. Returning the size of very large network volumes can be time-consuming and there are serious portability issues. Every operating system calls different facilities to return volume sizes. Even worse, security settings on corporate networks and cloud architectures sometimes refuse to divulge national secrets like free byte counts.

To eliminate all these headaches this version of JOD no longer checks volume size when the FREESPACE noun is zero. To restore the previous behavior you have to edit the file

 ~addons/general/jod.ijs`

and change the line FREESPACE=:0 to whatever byte count you want. Alternatively, you could NGAF3 and just assume you have 48K free on your terabyte size volumes.

Still to come

You may have surmised from JOD’s version number that the system is still not feature complete.  The JOD manual lists a few words that I am planning to implement. I only develop JOD when I need something or I am bored out of my mind at work and need a break. Such intermittent motivators seldom insure project completion but I have found a new reason to finish JOD. To list a book on Goodreads or Amazon you need an ISBN number.  The hardcopy version of the JOD manual is a sort-of-published book. To complete the publishing process I need an ISBN. If I am going to bother with such formalities I might as well complete the system the manual describes. So there you have it a new software development motivator: vanity.


  1. The version number is *‘ed because you are always a point release from done!
  2. userkeys.cfg is only available for J 8.03 systems.
  3. Not Give a F%&k!

Mahin and Carl

On the very memorable date of New Year’s Eve my wife’s mother Mahin died. From now on the dropping ball will remind us of her. Mahin had a long and honorable life. She was loved by children, grandchildren, and in-laws. She was the calm matriarch in the storm of her family. I meet her late in life after marrying her daughter Mali. Mahin was almost eighty then and still living on her own. She liked me and regretted having a son-in-law that she couldn’t talk to.  In the 1980s Mahin followed her children out of the chaos of Khomeini’s revolutionary Iran. She settled in Canada in her late sixties taking on a new country, a foreign language and a new way of life. It would have been a big change for a young person but for someone of Mahin’s age it was almost heroic. She got on, adjusted, learned enough English to function, but not enough to properly talk to son-in-laws, and enjoyed life. She never manifested a trace of bitterness or self-pity. She was a strong woman.

-

Mahin standing beside a reflecting pool in Iran. This picture was taken long before I met her. My wife was still a school girl in Tehran.

 

In her later years Mahin suffered from dementia. Her children took turns helping her out. We were the last to look after her. She lived with us for nearly two years. Mahin and I similar tastes for the absurd. We both enjoyed the idiotic television show Wipeout. Being knocked on your ass works equally well in English and Farsi. We’d laugh at people plunging into gigantic vats of goo.  Dementia slowly ate away at Mahin’s mind. Eventually she required twenty-four care and her daughters placed her in a nursing home in Toronto. They agonized over putting her in a home and did what they could to make her life comfortable. Mali stayed with her sister Sedi in Toronto five months last year to look after Mahin. She went to the nursing home every day to feed her, give her baths, do her laundry and talk to her. Dementia claimed Mahin’s English. Nursing home staff could not talk to her or understand her. Mali and her sisters were very fortunate to find a sitter that spoke Farsi. Hiring nursing home sitters is more common than you would think. Many of the residents in Mahin’s home had sitters.

Mahin died surrounded by children, grandchildren, her sitter, and nursing home staff.  Home staff told my wife and her sisters that everyone loved Mahin. I am sure they tell many families something similar but having known Mahin I don’t doubt their sincerity.  Mahin was a sweet dignified lady to her last breath.

A week before Mahin died I learned from my ex-wife that Carl, an old mutual friend, was in a Calgary hospice and not expected to live out the month. I’m not a particularly friendly person. Oh, I’m pleasant enough and can, when motivated, skillfully navigate social milieus. If you work with me you might even think I am your friend. I’m not! I’m reluctant to form deep friendships. Entering my sixties I can count my real friends on my fingers. Carl was the best friend I ever had. For nearly twenty years, from high school, until the birth of my daughter, Carl was a happy presence in my life.

Carl was a happy presence in the lives of everyone that got to know him and could tolerate his manifold eccentricities. He was everyone’s crazy uncle and he relished the role. Since leaving western Canada I moved out of Carl’s orbit. We’d trade the odd letter, email, and in recent years, Facebook posts. On the few times that I passed through Calgary I’d always look him up. We’d fall right back into old days blithering. Hearing that he was dying of the nasty form of prostate cancer was a jolt.

Mali petitioned me to call him right away. “You better call before it’s too late.”

I was reluctant because I don’t know what to say to the dying. I missed saying goodbye to my paternal grandfather and I botched my last conversation with my mother. Christopher Hitchens recounts some of the awkward conversations he had with friends and colleagues while dying of cancer in his last book Mortality. Many avoided the sword overhead while others swung it callously. Hitchens didn’t know what to feel. None of their goodbyes really helped.

I called Carl more for myself than him. Carl took a few moments to recall who I was. He was understandably more depressed than I had ever heard him. He was also vague and struggling to respond. Pain medications dull more than pain. I asked if family and friends were about. We aren’t comfortable with people dying alone which is strange because no matter how many friends and family members surround us we all die alone. The only hint of the old Carl that came out our chat was when he referred to Nazar: a very old friend that we both enjoyed making fun of.  Before hanging up I told Carl I would check in on him later but later never came. He died less than two weeks later.

Care to guess what really happened?

Carl in his card counting days. He actually cashed in retirement savings to play Black-Jack in Vegas. He was a very good friend but not exactly your financial go to guy.

 

Death is the most serious thing that will ever happen to us. It forecloses on what’s next. We simply cease! There is no childish heaven or burning hell. We are not reincarnated and we don’t see ghosts or talk to the dead. If you think or believe otherwise you are simply wrong. I won’t argue with you. I am tired of your irrational objections, your contemptible myths, and your weakness in the face of oblivion. The human machine wears out and breaks down. We don’t imagine afterlives for our cars so why do we indulge such fantasies for ourselves. As much as I would like to see Mahin, Carl, my mother, or anyone of the hundred billion people who have already died, again I won’t and neither will you!

Ferguson and Dark Matter

For the last month the big story here in St. Louis has been Ferguson. At least that’s what media hucksters have sold as the big story. You will have to excuse me; my interests rarely align with “the news.” I don’t watch broadcast TV, listen to the radio, or pay for newspapers. Despite my media starvation diet I am better informed than many broadcast addicts. What’s my secret?

Everyday I read scores of news stories from many Internet sources. When I gave up broadcasting a few years ago I worried that I might miss something.  Actually the exact opposite has occurred. I usually learn of things long before they are “discussed” in main stream outlets. Contemporary broadcasters remind me of short wave Radio Moscow transmissions in the 1970s. Radio Moscow was an insipid utterly predictable propaganda outlet. Listening to what they said was unnecessary. I could predict with nearly 100% accuracy what their slant on any topic would be. They only surprised me by what they didn’t cover. With propaganda only silence is news. I bet you feel the same about that broadcaster you despise. Is it really necessary to listen to MSNBC, FOX, BBC  or the CBC? Their ideological positions are almost as predictable as cold war era Radio Moscow. If your news is not surprising it’s not news; it’s noise.

Ferguson is a classic case of surprise free news. Everyone agrees that a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager. Such a lovely bare-bones tableau invites creative interpretation and that’s exactly what we got. There are hundreds of predictable Ferguson authorities. You can Google any viewpoint you want. What’s lacking in all the hysteria is what skeptics call reliable data.

To me the officer’s guilt is similar to your favorite type of Dark Matter. The case for Dark Matter is very strong. Something out there is undeniably affecting the rotation and formation of galaxies. Similarly, we have a dead teenager, and a literal smoking gun, in Ferguson. Now pay attention; this is where we separate skeptically informed thought from raving ideological demagoguery. The case for Dark Matter is strong but the case for particular types of Dark Matter is close to nonexistent. Detection experiments are ongoing, inconclusive or outright failures. Yeah, the Dark Matter science is not settled. Similarly, the case for the officer’s quilt is far from ironclad. Perhaps that explains the grand jury’s verdict. If you disagree offer incontrovertible evidence.

Of course missing incontrovertible evidence is never a problem for people who have made up their minds. People believe all sorts nonsense, ghosts, demons, past lives, central banking efficacy, but, as I often say, “belief is a bullshit word; you know or you don’t know.”  If you cannot mount a rigorous case that withstands the harshest and meanest of skeptics please calm down and refrain from looting and arson.

Incoherent Interstellar

interstellar-black-hole

Don’t look for plot points in Black Holes!

Christopher Nolan has made some excellent commercially successful films like Inception, The Dark Knight, and Mememto. When word got out that he was working on a serious science fiction film expectations got out of hand. Those of us old enough to remember the first screenings of 2001 thought maybe, just maybe, we might see something comparable to Kubrick’s masterpiece. Well I am sorry to report that Interstellar is no 2001; it’s not even a Blade Runner or Nolan’s own Inception. Interstellar is a giant, moderately entertaining, incoherent mess.

Much has been made of Kip Thorne’s involvement with Interstellar. The Black Hole depicted in Interstellar is based on General Relativity calculations. Apparently the CGI animators uncovered something unexpected in how a spinning Black Hole drags light around it. We are told the Black Hole in Interstellar is the most technically accurate ever seen in the movies. Unfortunately, it’s the only technically accurate part of the whole damn movie.

There is no point going over the boners in Interstellar. They are numerous, annoying, glaring, and embarrassing. If you must torture yourself the Bad Astronomer has catalogued Intersellar’s most egregious violations. Now I know what you’re thinking. John, it’s a freaking sci-fi movie, lighten up! You’re going on like a character on the Big Bang Theory.

My answer to such ankle biters is simple.  Science fiction is as an Art Form.  An art form has two equal components: art and form!  Art, without form, is usually effete garbage, and form, without art, is an income tax return. Greatness only emerges when the two are in perfect balance. The first step in achieving balance is honoring the basic elements of the form.  So what are the basic elements of the serious science fiction form?

I’ve gone over this before but clearly you weren’t paying attention. Serious science fiction differs from fantasy in the way it treats reality. Serious science fiction is allowed a few departures from physical reality. You can assume wormholes connect different parts of the universe and that it’s possible to safely traverse them but that’s it cowboy!  Outside of wormholes it’s physics as usual! This is the science part in science fiction. Great science fiction strictly follows this mandate. Take 2001, the exemplar of how this is done, anything non-obelisk related in 2001, including HAL 9000, is completely and absolutely plausible. The obelisk is the singular departure from reality in 2001.

Interstellar bombs because it often departs from physical reality for the basest of reasons: advancing a clunky nap inducing plot. I cannot abide such transgressions. It’s like watching a prima donna ballerina stop in the middle of Swan Lake, drop her tutu, and take a dump on stage. Now prima donna dumps may be entertaining but they’re not ballet. Similarly, Interstellar has its good parts but it’s not serious science fiction. In my opinion Interstellar is a bigger disappointment than Transcendence and it makes we wonder if anyone in Hollyweird is capable of making serious science fiction these days.

I Voted for Nothing

I have just returned from another biannual exercise in futility: voting in mid-term US elections. Once again my preferred candidate, none of the above, was not on the ballot; so, once again, I held my nose and did my best to sabotage the fetid dreams of the rotting things that were. Any barely sentient ape knows that voting, especially in the corrupt US system, is almost a complete waste of time. The choices we’re presented with have been exquisitely gamed by armies of conniving manipulative hacks all hell-bent on not asking the important questions.

Behold your ballot: the primary process purged principled people leaving a scummy residue of stunted subhuman choices. Most are ignorant delusional leftists, grasping smarmy right-wing car salesmen, or outright apolitical narcissist psychopaths. I wouldn’t cross the street to pee on any of them. Where are assassins when you need them?

As bad as voting is the alternative, despotic rule, is still worse so I always haul my cynically enlightened ass to the polls and do what I can to erect roadblocks. I always vote for divided government by carefully selecting bitter opposites. I will vote for Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, even Communists and Greens provided I can pit them against someone they detest, abhor, loathe, hate, and want dead on the other side. I want to minimize agreement and maximize conflict because conflict always results in doing nothing, and nine times out of ten, doing nothing is vastly superior to political something. So, until we get some qualified candidates – don’t make me laugh it hurts; it’s critical to vote in people who want to smash in their opponents heads.

The original republican design of the US government recognized the fundamental importance of doing nothing and divided government into three coequal branches to prevent the political class from doing things just for the hell of it!  This basic design has degenerated into an out-of-control executive, a cowardly self-serving congress, a swamped navel gazing judiciary, and an ever-expanding underachieving overpaid bureaucracy that fills in the details on massive template laws like Obamacare. It doesn’t take much of a constitutional scholar to see that this is not what the originators intended. Today we endure a massive, bloated, expensive, inept, corrupt and stupid government run by simpletons, parasites, and criminals.

Fortunately for us, government isn’t nearly as important as political assholes of all stripes think it is! As long as ordinary citizens can buy off and safely ignore government they will tolerate its existence. So keep doing nothing boys and girls; it will keep your heads off the bloody spikes you probably deserve.

slavesuggestion

Photospheres Away!

Photographers are notorious gear-heads. Everybody has a favorite lens, camera or tripod and, no matter how much gear we have, more is always better! Hey, somebody has to stimulate the moribund Obama economy. Gear lust is not entirely irrational. Good cameras really do take “technically” better pictures than mediocre or poor cameras but here’s the infuriating thing. Technical merit does not make the image!

Image quality depends of many things and changes over time. If you doubt this imagine you have an old locket that frames a Daguerreotype of your great-great-grandmother. I’d bet that every single portrait on your shiny new iPhone is “technically” superior to that old Daguerreotype but I’d also bet you’d chuck your iPhone before giving up that old Daguerreotype.  An image’s quality goes far beyond MTF curves and pixel counts.  Photography and geometry are both bereft of royal roads.

In the early days of photography gear was a serious constraint. Getting a good picture was a technical and artistic struggle. Imagine shooting a panorama using large glass plates covered with a home-brewed ASA 0.5, (you read that right ASA 0.5), blue light-sensitive emulsion. Despite such limitations early photographers managed to create some great images. Imagination and gumption have always been the most important photographic tools with good lenses as a distant third.  Well, the 150 year reign of the lens has ended, software has displaced the lens as the primary modern photographic tool and Google’s Photosphere cell phone application neatly demonstrates this technological shift.

A photosphere is a panorama on steroids. It’s a complete 360 degree look around image. The Google photosphere app derives from Google Maps street view. Street views are shot with special multi-lens cameras that look everywhere at once but some bright spark in Google realized that you could get roughly the same result from a single lens if the photographer was willing to endure a vertigo inducing dance. Shooting a photosphere takes at least three twirling 360 degree passes. You have to shoot the ground, horizon and sky.  It takes about twenty frames to build a photosphere.

There is nothing new about multi-frame panoramas. Photographers started shooting multi-frame panoramas shortly after the camera’s invention. I shot them when I was teenager. Panorama software isn’t new either; it’s been around for decades. Two “new” developments make photospheres possible: photosphere viewers and cameras (cell phones) that are more software than camera.

gert-driveway

I shot this panorama in the 1960’s. I rotated in my grandfather’s driveway shooting an entire roll of film with my Instamatic camera. Many years later I scanned the prints and used panorama software to stitch the images together. Click on the image for more panoramas.

The sphere cannot be mapped onto the plane without distortion. This mathematical fact limits how wide-angle your wide-angle shots can be before they are unnaturally distorted. A flattened 360 degree view of common rectilinear subjects looks wonderfully, or horribly, weird: straight lines become curves and areas lose proportionality. Many natural vistas can tolerate such torments but average street views cannot.  Photosphere viewers fix this problem by simulating how we look around.  Every time you browse a Google street view you are running a photosphere viewer.

Shooting panoramas and photospheres is like any other type of photography. It takes lots of practice! It was hard to “practice” shooting such images before cell phones could run stitching and viewing software because you couldn’t see what you had until you took your twenty frames back to the “lab” and tediously put them together.  Ten years ago panorama software required a lot of manual intervention. I spent hours putting three or four frames together. I didn’t put a twenty frame panorama together until I snapped my first iPhone Photosphere.

The iPhone lens is a pretty crappy short focal length lens. Any decent camera lens easily outclasses it yet I cannot shoot photospheres with my expensive Nikon’s while my cruddy little cell phone can.  What’s the difference?  Software!

iPhone Google photospheres are fun but they’re flaw ridden. You can easily see stitching errors, blending artifacts, ghost people, and other blemishes. Now that we can shoot photospheres the race is on to shoot quality photospheres! Software will dominate but hardware has to catch up to make this happen.  Before long you will be able to buy a special multi-lens photosphere ball camera that you can literally throw into the air. This ought to fix the viewpoint problem for people with good pitching arms and the rest of us can drop the little sucker from a drone. Photospheres away!

Panono Ball Camera

The Panono ball camera is a small multi-lens camera that shoots 360 photospheres by simultaneously capturing images from all its lenses and stitching the result together. It is designed to be thrown into the air. Photosphere baseball is going to be huge!

Pandora’s Star: a Grand Sprawling Entertainment

pandoras-starIn my fevered youth I was an avid fan of science fiction but as I crossed the Rubicon of middle age I read less and less of the genre. For years I preferred nonfiction: mostly science with a smattering of history and biography. Then, about five years ago, I started reading science fiction again.

What kept me away? Most of the authors of my youth had died: Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Anderson, Herbert and Dick – all gone! I had to find new – to me – authors. I knew and loved Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon, Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Anathem, but after four or five thousand pages of Neal it was time to move on. My first post Stephenson, new to me, author was Iain M. Banks.

Banks specialized in what’s often called alien infested space opera. His universes are overflowing with life. Aliens are everywhere, inhabiting niches that most biologists would poo-poo as impossible. I prefer more empty and serene universes but Banks’ books like The Algebraist, Surface Detail, and Consider Phelbas whet my appetite for his crowded milieus. I was looking forward to following Banks for years but it wasn’t to be. Iain M. Banks died of cancer, at the ridiculously premature age of 59, leaving fans all over the word wanting. There is no greater outrage than mortality!

After Banks’ death I looked around for other operatic authors; it didn’t take me long to find Peter F. Hamilton and Pandora’s Star. Pandora’s Star is a huge, highly entertaining, example of what I call restrained science fiction.

Restraint is what separates science fiction from fantasy. Fantasy tolerates an anything goes mishmash of logical inconsistencies. Literature has a term for this: Deus ex machina. Modern fantasy is a veritable high-tech Deux ex machina factory churning out beta-male vampires that take implausible romantic interests in their food, prepubescent wizards jerking off in boarding school, (Oh it happened), fireproof maximum babes with pet dragons, and armies of oxymoronic brain-dead brain eating zombies. Only scripture piles on more logical nonsense than fantasy.

I enjoy fantasy as much as the next nerd but it’s not science fiction. Proper restrained science fiction admits a small number of “magic suppositions” but otherwise rigorously adheres to what we know about physical reality. You need some damn science in your science fiction people. The universe of Pandora’s Star presumes a few impossibilities; it assumes wormholes and faster than light (FTL) travel. FTL is a standard plot enabling device. Civilizations spanning thousands of light years simply cannot exist, on human time scales, without it. Pandora’s Star makes three more “impossible” assumptions which I will not divulge because ruining good books should be a capital crime. Aside from these allowed departures from reality the universe of Pandora’s Star sticks to scientific bricks and unfolds with lovely consistency.

Most science fiction writers make impossible assumptions but great ones take them in unexpected directions. Consider wormholes. Wormholes have been a staple of science fiction forever. Three, not entirely restrained, TV series had contemporary soldiers marching through them every week for years. They’ve popped up in every two-bit tale that needed quick point A to B plumbing. Wormholes are a cliché and their presence often signals unimaginative hackery. If you’re going to confront me with wormholes you better damn well show me something new or I’m outta your lame book. The opening chapter of Pandora’s Star is one of the most humorous and imaginative use of wormholes in science fiction. A few pages later Hamilton sends trains through wormholes. It’s Sheldon Cooper’s wet dream: trains in space. I had to smile and keep on reading. Pandora’s Star is a big book, almost one thousand pages, but like all great sprawling books it’s too damn short. Fortunately, there’s a second book, Judas Unchained,  that keeps the story rolling. I haven’t had this much fun with a science fiction since Dune. It’s that good.