Sunday, April 13, 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

or, Why Do People Have to Suck?

It’s been a while since I had a good old-fashioned rant on this blog.  As one gets older, one must keep one’s blood pressure down, you know.  So perhaps I’m just overdue.  But this new ban on e-cigarettes by the Los Angeles City Council is just too much.

(Warning: If crazy ranting and/or dropping the F-bomb offends you, please bail out now.  I must remind you yet again of the name of the blog.)

Some background: I started smoking at 18—later than many, I suppose, but long enough ago now that it’s unlikely that my habits are going to change at this point.  I was in my freshman year of college, my first time living away from home.  I had a roommate who was a bit of a dick, college classes were tough (not unexpected, but it’s one thing to know how tough they’re going to be and quite another thing to experience it), my grandfather had just died, and my situation with my parents was very rocky at the time.  For some reason, walking around campus late at night one night, feeling pretty crappy about life in general, I had a sudden urge to smoke.  I have no idea why: the only time I’d ever even tried cigarettes before was under the bleachers when I was 14 or 15 once, and I’d absolutely hated it.  No one in my family smoked: not parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nor cousins.  My grandfather’s elder brother was a 3-pack-a-day man, so I’d heard, but I’d never even met the man, or didn’t remember if I had.  Both my grandparents on my mother’s side used to, I was told, but they quit well before I was born.  My dad had one friend who did, and we all felt it was disgusting, myself included.  There is no earthly reason I can come up with why I would have thought smoking would help relieve my stress, or that I wouldn’t choke to death just trying it.  But, for whatever reason, I had a sudden urge, and I went to the store, and bought a pack of Yves St. Laurent menthols.  And, if you know anything about cigarettes, you’re probably snickering to yourself about now, because YSL is typically considered a “woman’s” brand.  But I quite liked them, as it turned out, and never had a problem with smoking “girly” cigarettes (nor with drinking “girly” drinks, although that’s a whole different topic).

For about 8 years I smoked anywhere from half a pack to a full pack a day of menthols.  Then a friend (and fellow smoker) convinced me to try CigArrest with him.  I found that all the herbal/homeopathic crap was totally unnecessary for me; the behavior modification tips were what really worked in my case.  Soon I was smoke-free, while my friend had relapsed.

I stayed off the smokes for 3 or 4 years, but stress has a way of creeping up on you.  And I still had that weird urge that I couldn’t shake whenever I got stressed.  I picked up a pack of cloves one night, telling myself that they weren’t “real” cigarettes.  But of course cloves have just as much tobacco as other smokes, plus they tear your throat up.  (This is because the eugenol in the cloves temporarily numbs your throat, which allows you take in more smoke more directly, which leaves you in a pretty sad state once the mild anaesthetic effect wears off.)  I eventually made a deal with myself: I would go back to smoking, but not menthols any more.  I would smoke ultra-light regulars in the hopes that I wouldn’t enjoy them as much and therefore wouldn’t smoke as much.

Believe it or not, that actually worked.  For the next roughly 15 years, I smoked no more than a pack a week, on average.  During stressful times, I would creep up to perhaps two packs a week, but during calmer times I might drop as low as half a pack a week.  I was pretty happy with this level of smoking.  It kept me calm and sane, and it fulfilled my worldview of “everything in moderation.”  (Yes, even smoking isn’t all bad.)  So everything was good until another friend convinced me to stop smoking with him, and this time the method was e-cigarettes.

I love e-cigarettes.  I can smoke whenever I like, for as little as I like.  It used to be a chore to have to finish a cigarette, but I also hated wasting them, especially since they’re stupidly expensive.  Now I can have a puff or two and put it away.  Or I can smoke for half an hour straight if I want to.  Except I’m not actually smoking: e-cigarettes use flavored water vapor.  So not only do I not get any smoke, neither does anyone around me.  It’s just water vapor, which my exhalations contain anyway, except you can see it ... no different from when I breathe out on a cold day.  And I’m paying less now, and I’m back to menthols, and I’m “smoking” more while smoking less, ’cause I’m not smoking at all.  Also, I’m not even inhaling any nicotine.  Oh, sure: many—most, even—e-cigarettes have nicotine.  But you can get them without, if you so choose.  And I do so choose.  As it happens, I don’t need the nicotine any more than I needed the herbal whatever-it-was: once again, it’s the psychological aspect that’s key.  I just need something to puff on.

So I’ve been doing e-cigs for a few years now, and you can see why this kind of crap from the LA City Council really chaps my ass.  First the anti-smokers told us that the tobacco companies were adding all sorts of horrible crap to cigarettes and that’s why they were so terrible for you.  The tobacco industry responded by coming out with additive-free brands like American Spirit, and even changing some existing brands to be additive-free, like Winston (both of which I’ve smoked).  The anti-smokers promptly freaked out and pursued legal action against both brands.  These suits were designed to force the companies to admit that additive-free cigarettes were ”‘no safer or healthier’ than other tobacco products.”  So, wait: the additives make them bad for us, but taking them out isn’t better?  What kind of fucked up logic is that?

And now somebody comes along and invents a “cigarette” that doesn’t even involve any actual smoke.  The anti-smokers were counfounded by this new developement for a while.  Inhaling and exhaling water vapor certainly isn’t bad for you.  It isn’t even bad for anyone standing next to you.  How the hell can we object to this, they wondered?  We better find some way: if people continue to exercise their freedoms in this way, anarchy will surely ensue!

So, here we are, with the LA City Council apparently not the first nor likely the last.  It was damned difficult, but they finally thought of something to object to:

Foes of e-cigarettes said they threaten to make smoking socially acceptable after years of public opinion campaigns to discourage the habit. Young people who get hooked on the nicotine in e-cigarettes may then turn to tobacco use, said Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Ah, yes, the classic “slippery slope” argument.  We all know how awesome those are.  Because they don’t require any proof.  Hell, they don’t even have to make any sense.  Allow gay marriage and pretty soon people will be wanting to marry turtles.  That follows, right?  Let me ask you this: what is more likely?  That e-cigarettes will get people off smoking in such numbers that it will radically reduce the amount of second-hand smoke you’re exposed to?  Or that, by exposing children to them, we’ll teach them that there are ways to be responsible with your vices in such a manner so as not to endanger yourself or others?  Oh, wait: those are both positive outcomes of staying the fuck away from my e-cig.

What I can’t understand is how I became a persecuted minority.  And not only a persecuted minority, but one that it is perfectly socially acceptable to persecute.  Encouraged, even.  Let’s think about this for a minute. Every day, you breathe a metric fuck-ton more car exhaust than you do second-hand smoke (and that was still true back in the days before smoking was banned everywhere).  But we don’t disallow driving in public, do we?  And then there’s alcohol: even if you believe the wildest statistics about the dangers of second-hand smoke, they pale in comparison to your danger of being hit by a drunk driver or shot by a drunk gun-owner.  So do we ban alcohol?  God forbid we let the little children see us driving, or drinking ... who knows what that could lead to?

I don’t work within the city limits of LA, so I’m not banned from using my e-cigarette at work.  Nonetheless, my boss asked me to stop because of complaints (more likely a single complaint) from one or more co-workers.  On the one hand, this doesn’t bug me that much.  Hey, I go around everywhere with no shoes on: I’m already used to people being dicks about my lifestyle choices.  But on the other hand, it’s really dispiriting to be punished for making such a positive change in your life.  Imagine that you embarked on a fantastic new effort to get into shape by riding your bike to work every day, and, just when it was starting to work and really show some positive results, your co-workers started a campaign to keep big, clumsy bikes out of the office.  They’re unsightly, and you could bump into people with them, and who wants potential customers having to come in here and see bicycle parking?  (Before you laugh and say this is a ridiculous example that would never happen, I have to tell you this actually did happen to a friend of mine at my last job.)  So, of course we would never tell you that you can’t ride your bike to work; you just can’t bring it into the office.  Park it outside.  Where it might get stolen.  Or rained on.  Or vandalized.  You’ll probably need to buy an expensive new bike lock, if you can even find anything convenient to chain it to.  But, you know, definitely keep riding your bike to work.

This is exactly how I feel.  Sure, I can still use my e-cig by going outside.  Just like the bad old days when I was actually smoking.  I can interrupt my train of thought, go down three stories, hang around outside for a while, then come back, try to figure out where I left off, and eventually get back up to full productivity again.  I don’t have to wonder if that’s how it will work: I’ve been there.  I already know how it works.  So, sure, I could do that.  It’ll cost me time, effort, and mental capacity, which means it will cost my company money, but I can do that.  At least my co-workers won’t have to ... well, what?  They won’t have to breathe my second-hand smoke?  They’re already not doing that.  They won’t have to breathe my second-hand nicotine.  Nope, already not doing that either.  They ... won’t have to breathe my second-hand water vapor?  Ummm ... I got news for you, people: you’re breathing my second-hand water vapor, every day, whether you can see it or not, just like I have to breathe yours.  My boss, casting around for a rational reason, vaguely suggested that perhaps it was the smell that bothered people.  But, remember: I smoke menthols.  The smell of my “smoking” is a variation of mint.  So that one doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

I suppose the primary benefit to my co-workers (or more likely one particular co-worker) is the smug sense of satisfaction they’ll have that they successfully trod on someone’s freedom of expression.  Speaking as a fellow who’s gotten kicked out of a hell of a lot of places for being barefoot, I can tell you with some authority that you should not underestimate this.  I was once kicked out of a record store by a guy with about 15 earrings in one ear and blue hair, essentially for being non-conformist.  There are some people who enter the service industry to actually be helpful to people, but there are plenty who find a great comfort in being able to tell people what to do.  Makes ’em feel powerful.  Makes them feel like they control their world, and I’m guessing they have a desperate need to feel that.  And I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who have that issue and yet don’t go into retail.  Whatever will they do?  In my experience, they generally become middle managers for medium-to-large companies, where they can boss people around and feel really important.  So I sort of feel like I have a co-worker (or two) who’s missing their calling.  But, hey: there’s yet time.  This is a great start towards their lifelong dream.

Best of luck to ’em.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Another Birthday Weekend

This weekend marks the end of our March birthday season.  We still have a Virgo birthday season coming up, and then a single birthday soon after that.  But the March season is our busier time, as both those birthdays are children’s birthdays, and those are more exhausting to deal with than parent birthdays.  Parents tend to have moderately sedate birthdays.  Probably from being so tired after dealing with all the children’s birthdays.

In our family, we have the tradition of “the birthday weekend.”  This is a weekend, typically either the one before your birthday or the one after, where you call the shots.  You say what food we eat, what outings we do (within reason), and what activities we do at home.  If there are games to be played, you pick ’em.  If there are movies to be watched, you say which ones.  You say when we go outside and play with chalk on the patio, or get in the pool or jacuzzi, or just fire up the bubble machine.  Or you can decide that we should sit on the sofa and chill out, in which case (naturally) you get to control the remote.

So your birthday weekend is all about you, which is as it should be.  In a family of five, you’re constantly fighting for attention, so there ought to be at least one time in the year when you can get it for free.

This birthday weekend is for our youngest, who’s just turning two.  At that age, it’s a lot more difficult to figure out exactly what she wants us all to do, but we do the best we can.  We let her pick out a bouncy castle, which we had planted in our driveway all day Friday, and we invited over our Sister Family to share the bouncing, the jacuzzi, and some cake.  It was a rainbow cake, with rainbows on top made out of TwizzlersThe Mother made a rainbow fruit plate out of watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, green grapes, blueberries, and red grapes (which are of course purple).  We had rainbows coming out our butts.

Yesterday we chilled at home and ordered pizza and pasta for dinner (which are two of her favorite things to eat).  Today we went out shopping.  We went to a Toys “R” Us, which currently has a bunch of stuff on clearance.  Typically “sale” prices at TRU means only slightly more expensive than everywhere else (as opposed to way more expensive than everywhere else), but we got some pretty good bargains today.  Maybe Amazon is about to put them out of business too.  Wouldn’t surprise me.  (Or disappoint me, really.)

This particular Toys “R” Us that we went to is a combo TRU and Babies “R” Us store.  This meant that our two-year-old got to go clothes shopping.  She picked out about 15 dresses, which we finally managed to whittle down to 3.  After dealing with that, she found the shoe section.  She immediately plopped herself down and started to take off her shoes so she could try new ones on.  “Oosh!” she said, pointing, which is how she says “shoes.”  Stop and think for a moment about how terrifying that is.  Two years old and she’s already excited about shoe shopping.  This is a long, expensive adolescence I have ahead of me.

In any event, that’s been my weekend, so I’m pretty exhausted at this point.  Being at the beck and call of a two-year-old ain’t easy, ya know.  But at least now we’re good until late August.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Worthy Successor?

I’m currently listening to the third book in the Iron Druid Chronicles via audiobook.  While checking out what Wikipedia had to say about the book, I ran across this quote:

In their review of Hammered, SFFWorld said that “Hearne and Atticus could be the logical heir to Butcher and Dresden.”

Now, I’ve talked before about my enthusiasm for the Dresden Files (twice, even).  So obviously I’m keen to evaluate anything that might live up to that standard.  Does the Iron Druid fit the bill?  Well, the short answer is, it’s in the same vein, and it shows some promise, but (at least so far) it’s still a significant step behind.

First of all, of course, one must ask if Butcher and Dresden need an heir: the series is still ongoing.  I’m not exactly desperate for something to fill a void, seeing as the void doesn’t yet exist.  And secondly, we have to recognize that Dresden is pretty much the top of that game.  Something can fail to meet the excellence set by Butcher and still be pretty damn good.  It’s somewhat like comparing (say) Artemis Fowl to Harry Potter.  There’s no doubt that Colfer has written a damn fine set of books, and they’re interesting, engaging, and immersive.  I highly recommend them.  But, as good as Rowling’s masterpiece?  Let’s be reasonable here.

It’s also instructive to compare and contrast.  Dresden is classic urban fantasy, meaning that it’s like the best supernatural fantasy combined with the best detective noir.  The Iron Druid takes a small sidestep; it’s still urban fantasy, surely (although Tempe Arizona is never going to be mistaken for a major modern metropolis), but Atticus owes nothing to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.  While there are definite callbacks to Butcher, I actually see more similiarties to Gaiman—American Gods in particular.  And, since that’s Gaiman’s masterwork, that’s a pretty high compliment.  And, while there’s a strong comparison to be made, it isn’t just a cheesy rip-off either.  It’s an interesting take on the concept, exploring different avenues than Gaiman did.  (Although, to be fair, that’s a particularly large neighborhood, so Hearne and Gaiman and several other authors besides could all wander around in there for a few odd decades without needing to do more than cross each other’s paths occasionally.)

Iron Druid retains the general shape of urban fantasy—the vampires and werewolves are present, but slightly backgrounded, and the other legends and monsters are focused on for variety—but by mining the mythological vein that Gaiman struck with Gods (and, to a lesser extent, Anansi Boys), Hearne opens his story to epic quests such as those of Ulysses, Gilgamesh, or Bran.  The latter of whom is the most relevant, of course, since Celtic mythology is the source of the druids in the first place.  So it’s going in a slightly different direction than Dresden.

Additionally, Atticus is a very different man than Harry.  Atticus is over 2,000 years old, first of all, which puts him in a whole different category of wisdom and experience.  He remains surprisingly relatable (and modern) for all that, which sometimes works to the disadvantage of the story, as it can make him harder to swallow than Harry, who’s just an ordinary joe who happens to have some magical powers.  Atticus has very different goals than Harry as well, hiding from supernaturals as well as mortals, whereas Harry practices his magic openly.  And when Atticus goes into full-on diplomacy mode, mainly to deal with beings more powerful than himself, you definitely feel that Harry would be hard-pressed to match it.

On the other hand, both have a homebody streak, and seem constantly surprised and a bit annoyed that trouble keeps finding them, sort of reminiscent of Dante’s cry of “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”  And both have more than a dash of what I described previously as “insouciance,” although uses a definition that doesn’t capture all that I mean when I use the term.  What I mean is an irreverance—almost to the point of being ridiculous—in the face of serious, even life-threatening, situations.  Last time I talked about it, I specifically drew a parallel to Shawn from Psych (who completely removes the “almost” from that definition); if Shawn is at one end of a spectrum of what I’m calling “insouciance” and Harry is in the middle, Atticus is on the far side of Harry ... but not by that much.  So there are certainly parallels in characterization as well as genre.

And in overall story arc: in the first two Iron Druid books, just as in the first two (or so) Dresden Files books, there’s nothing much serious going on.  Just a typical sort of “monster-of-the-week” type plot.  Then, in the third book (pretty much the same time as in Dresden), things are starting to get more serious and world-shaking quest-y.  Although I have to say that the Iron Druid books feel more “fluffy” than the Dresden Files, and thus far I’m having a hard time taking the serious as seriously.  But perhaps that will improve if I stick with it.

I will give Hearne one leg-up over Butcher, though: as awesomely cool as Mouse is, Atticus’ Irish wolfhound Oberon is an amazing character.  Maybe it’s just the way Luke Daniels reads him in the audiobook versions, but I suspect Hearne’s writing deserves most of the credit.  Although I can’t recall if it’s specifically stated in the books, Oberon is most likely older and more experienced than a normal dog, and Atticus has taught him to speak English.  As a result, Oberon has a unique voice, a bizarre combination of canine wisdom and doggie innocence.  One moment he’s making insightful comments on the nature of mortality; the next, he’s begging for sausages.  Here’s a typical quote—in response to Atticus’ query about which movie Oberon would like to watch while he’s gone:

I think The Boondock Saints, because the Irish guys win.  Plus the cat ends badly.  It affirms my worldview and I feel validated.

So Oberon is damned entertaining whenever he shows up, and maybe even just a bit more fun than the conversations Harry has with Bob the skull.  But I would say that’s the only area where Atticus can edge out Harry, and even then it’s not by much.

Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some value to the Iron Druid Chronicles.  If you’ve caught up on all your Dresden and you’re looking for something else to fill some time, you could do far worse than this.  Particularly if you’re looking for an audiobook series—Luke Daniels is a great reader and does a fantastic job with bringing the books to life.  My only complaint is that they’re pretty short compared to a lot of the audiobooks I listen to, so I blast through them much too fast.  But they’re enjoyable, and I’m glad I discovered them.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Twice as long to get half as far

As promised (or perhaps threatened) last week, I’m taking a break this week to concentrate on getting a few other things done.  Of course, given that last week’s post was twice as long, you could just go back and read that again and it should work out the same.  Assuming my math is correct.

At any rate, I’m sure you have some cat video to watch or somesuch, so I shan’t keep you further.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

What Morris Wrought

So, this week I’m going to talk about the titles I came up with for my 13-part blog series on my relationship to Perl that I did on my Other Blog.  When you do a long series like that, you have a number of challenges: presenting the topic concisely, laying the groundwork for the following week, the simple grind of cranking out the next 1500 words.  But there’s also the issue of coming up with titles.  Naming things is hard.  In my technogeek life, it’s probably the thing that we fight most about.  In fact, there’s a famous quote we’re wont to trot out at times:

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things. —Phil Karlton

Sometimes you see people online wondering why this saying is famous: naming things is easy, they say.  These are invariably young programmers who have never had to deal with users who can’t understand why a feature doesn’t (or can’t) work because they’re confused about what it is because it’s so poorly named.  Or the pain of having to use a word in one sense when talking to sales (because they use the industry standard definition) and a different sense when talking to fellow techies (because they use the literal meaning) and an altogether different sense when talking to management, because they use a completely arbitrary defintion that they got from the guy before the guy before the guy before you, who was invariably a young programmer who didn’t understand that naming things is hard.

So, yeah: coming up with good names for things is hard.  Coming up with consistent, good names for things is harder.  Coming up with consistent, good names for things 13 weeks in a row is very difficult indeed, and so hopefully I can be forgiven for doing only a mediocre job of it.

The first two or three came to me fairly naturally, and they established the pattern: quotes, either direct or paraphrased, that referenced different cultural things.  These might be songs, poems, television shows, movies, quotes by famous people, or whatever.  Several of them were as easy as the first few; some of them were so hard that I almost spent longer searching for a good title than I did writing the post in the first damn place.  Some of them are so obsure I don’t expect anyone else to know what the hell I’m on about; some were obscure enough that I didn’t know them myself until I Googled them for the purpose of the series.

Here’s the 13 titles I came up with, along with the hints I gave out last week.  Honestly, some of the hints are fairly obscure as well, but I didn’t want to make it too easy.

  1. The Road So Far: a Winchester recap
  2. The Power of OOP: Johnny Colla would have done a mean sax solo
  3. A Moose Once Bit My Sister: I apologize for the obscure references; those responsible have been sacked
  4. A Worthy Program, Exceedingly Well Read: also, profited in strange concealments ...
  5. Speaking with the Speech of Coders: a present from Vietnam
  6. Perl is Engineering and Art: what’s to learn? it’s a snake ..
  7. The Most Powerful Weapon Which You Can Use to Change the World: according to Tata, not Perl at all ...
  8. Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful: there was grandeur in his view of life from the Beagle
  9. That’s Why I Failed Recess: it was funnier when Rudy said it to Fat Albert
  10. What We Talk About When We Talk About DWIM: involving two couples and a bottle of gin
  11. Please Mr. Perl, Will You DWIM?: a plea to m’colleague Hugh
  12. The End of the Beginning: once described as “sounding more like the Primitives than the Primitives”
  13. Here’s to Future Days: why are they called “twins” if there’s three of them?

Now let’s look at which each one references, as well as discussing its relevance to the particular post it ended up tagging.

The Road So Far

This is what they put on the title card when they do a longer recap on the TV show Supernatural.  The card looks like this, or maybe like this.  The protagonists of the series are the Winchester brothers, thus this is “a Winchester recap.”

This was a fairly natural choice for the first post in the series, which told a highly abbreviated version of my programming life, from age 14 or so, up to the present.  It’s a cool reference if you get it, but it still works well if you don’t.

I think a lot of people think of Supernatural as a teeny-bopper series, probably because it’s on the CW along with other teeny-bopper series like Gossip Girl, or The Vampire Diaries.  Of course, I was watching Supernatural when it was on the WB ... which was the home of Charmed and Dawson’s Creek, so I suppose I’m not digging myself out of that hole very well.  I dunno; I suppose it is a teeny-bopper series in many ways, and it’s probably gone on far beyond when they should have called it quits, but I still enjoy it.  Call it a guilty pleasure.  Besides, every now and again Felicia Day shows up, and that just makes it all worthwhile.

The Power of OOP

My second post in the series was about object-oriented programming, or “OOP” for short, and what makes it so useful.  So it seemed natural to harken back to Huey Lewis & the News’ classic 80’s song, “The Power of Love”.  The hint refers to the great sax player of the News, Johnny Colla (who was also a co-writer of “The Power of Love,” as it happens).

I’m not actually a huge fan of “The Power of Love,” nor its companion piece “Back in Time,” both off the Back to the Future soundtrack.  As far as I’m concerned Lewis & the News peaked with Sports, and it’s all downhill from there.  By the time Huey was declaring that it was “Hip to be Square,” I was embarrassed to admit that I’d ever seen them live.  (But I did, with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble opening, and it was a great show, I gotta tell ya.)

A Moose Once Bit My Sister

No self-respecting programmer should have missed this one, which is of course is a reference to the ultra-classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  As you probably know, all the credits of the film are at the begining, and the Pythons couldn’t let it get too boring, so they peppered it with lots of moose references (for whatever reason).  The title is a direct quote from the credits, and the hint is a paraphrased version of a later credits quote.

For a post extolling the virtues of Moose, but also lamenting a few of its warts, there was no way I could pass up this title.

A Worthy Program, Exceedingly Well Read

This is one of the ones I spent a lot of time trying to find a good reference for.  The post was about legibility: the idea that a good program should be able to be read like a good story.  After several fruitless Googles, the phrase “well-read” popped into my head.  I wondered what the origin of that phrase was.  Of course, if you’re a native English speaker and you spend any time at all poking at the origins of common phrases, you know what the answer is 80-90% of the time: Shakespeare did it.

As it is here.  I paraphrased the relevant bit for the title, and I used the surrounding context for the quote.  Here’s the full text, from Henry IV, Part 1:

In faith, he is a worthy gentleman,
Exceedingly well read, and profited
In strange concealments, valiant as a lion
And as wondrous affable and as bountiful
As mines of India.

This is Mortimer speaking about Glyndwr, whoever that is.  I never read Henry IV, personally.  Still a good quote though.

Speaking with the Speech of Coders

Every once in a while we Americans wake up out of our egocentricity and remember that not all our blog post readers share our Western heritage.  By this point in my blog series, I felt it was time to pick a reference from the other side of the world.  I spent some digging through the Tao Te Ching, which is normally my go-to source for pithy quotes from the Orient.  I poked around The Art of War and Hagakure, both of which I also like, but they weren’t very helpful for this post, which was about linguistics.  I think I even explored the Analects briefly, but I lean much more towards Taoism than Confucianism, as you might imagine of one so obsessed by balance and paradox.

Then suddenly, after long and futile searching, it hit me: I already had a great source which would be perfect for this.  “The Red Cockatoo” is a short poem by Chinese poet Po Chu-i (also romanized as Bai Juyi), who lived in the Tang Dynasty and is very popular in both China and Japan (at least according to his Wikipedia page).  There are several different translations, but I prefer the one by Arthur Waley, the great British sinologist who gave us excellent translations of both the Tao Te Ching and the Analects.  Here it is in its entirety:

Sent as a present from Annam
A red cockatoo.
Coloured like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.
And they did to it what is always done
To the learned and eloquent.
They took a cage with stout bars
And shut it up inside.

Beautiful, and piquant.  The hint refers to the fact that “Annam” is an Chinese name for Vietnam (or part of what is modern Vietnam).

Perl is Engineering and Art

This one was obvious to anyone who read this particular post, which spent a good deal of time analyzing a sidebar from the O’Reilly book Learning Python entitled “Python is Engineering, Not Art.”  I almost didn’t use this title, actually, as it’s so much more obvious than all the rest.  But then I decided that this title was just too good to pass up.  The hint is obvious as well, or at least is so in hindsight.

Fun side note: the animal on the cover of Learning Python is a rat.  Write your own joke here.

The Most Powerful Weapon Which You Can Use to Change the World

Another tough one to title.  This post covered several different subtopics that didn’t really fit anywhere else, so there wasn’t a great choice for a title anyway.  One of the topics I covered was my school experience with programming, so I started looking for quotes on education and ran across this one by Nelson Mandela:

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

There’s a bit of contention on whether he actually said this or not (and whether he used the word “which” in it if he did), but overall it seemed solid enough.

The hint refers to one of Mandela’s nicknames: “Tata” means “father” in Xhosa.  His other nickname is “Madiba,” but some have argued that it’s inappropriate for non-South-Africans to use that one.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful

This one was a little easier.  The post was about evolution, so it made sense to peruse the words of Charles Darwin, who was not only a very influential scientist, but also an eloquent writer.  The full quote is:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

This is from the conclusion of Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species, and is in fact the only time Darwin ever uses the word “evolve,” in the first edition.  (And, in the second, he added the phrase “by the Creator” to make it clear what he was talking about.)

The hint, of course, is a bit of the quote above, combined with a reference to the famous ship that Darwin sailed on, HMS Beagle.

That’s Why I Failed Recess

The ninth post in my series was about Getting Shit Done, and, when I was trying to think of a title for it, I kept remembering a joke from my childhood.  As the hint suggests, I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was on Fat Albert.  It might have been Rudy who said it, or then again it might have been Russell—he was always a smartass.  Then again, we’re talking about 40-odd years ago, so I might be misremembering altogether and it was never in Fat Albert at all.

Anyways, here’s how I remember the joke:

A: I don’t play.  That’s why I had to quit school in the third grade.
B: Whaddaya mean?
A: ‘Cause the teacher said “recess,” and I said “no, I don’t play.”

There are countless variations of this joke, including the more concise version I used for my title, used in the common venacular, multiple rap songs, blog posts by other people, Facebook user names, tweets, and Internet memes.  In fact, this is a meme from before we knew what memes were.

Plus it’s really funny.

What We Talk About When We Talk About DWIM

Along about Part 10 I wrote a post that was so damn long I had to break it into two pieces.  Originally the title of this post and the following one were going to be switched, so that the title of this one could be a callback to the mention of “m’colleague” which I had dropped into the text.  (Instead, I ended up using that for the hint for Part 11.)  But eventually I made the switch to the titles that we have now because it just made better sense: this post was a fairly long digression in the form of a story from my college days, and this title fit that perfectly.

The title, of course, is a paraphrase of the title of a famous short story by Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” as well as the book which contains it.  In the story, two couples talk about everything but love over a bottle of gin (thus the hint), but really love is all they’re talking about.  You see the parallel in my post.

Really, though, I’m not a huge Carver fan.  The best thing about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is probably the title.  “Cathedral” is better.

Please Mr. Perl, Will You DWIM?

If you are a connoisseur of Britsh comedy, the television series at the very top of your must-see list is of course Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  After that, it should be The Young Ones and Blackadder, although we might quibble over which one should come first.  Next on your list, before Fawlty Towers, before Red Dwarf, and, yes, even before AbFab, should be A Bit of Fry & Laurie.  If you think of Hugh Laurie simply as House, or (even worse) as the insipid father of Stuart Little, you really don’t know Hugh Laurie (in fact, you may not even realize he’s British).  Likewise, if all you know of Stephen Fry is his voice—he’s the Cheshire Cat in the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, the narrator of Little Big Planet, and a prolific audiobook narrator, including the UK version of the Harry Potter books and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—you’re missing out.

A Bit of Fry & Laurie is at once similar to Monty Python and also removed from it.  There’s still a certain amount of the surrealism (perhaps a bit less), but very little of the physical comedy such as the Ministry of Silly Walks or the Gumbys.  Most of it was like taking the best verbal humour of the Pythons (such as the Argument Clinic, or my all-time favorite, the penguin on top of your television set) and cranking it up to 11.  Stephen Fry would often do the heavy lifting in such sketches—playing the Groucho, or the Abbot, role—but Hugh Laurie had many talents other than just being an outstanding straight man.  One of which is an amazing range of musical ability: he plays guitar, drums, harmonica, sax, and, of course, piano.  At the end of every show, Fry would turn to Laurie (who he often referred to as “m’colleague”) and say: “Please Mr. Music, will you play?”  To which Laurie would respond by playing the piano in a loungy sort of way, usually while Fry mixed ridiculously named cocktails such as the Swinging Ballsack.  Occasionally he would elaborate the phrase to enhanced levels of flowery silliness; my favorite of these was:

I say, as I like to on these occasions, those six refreshing words that unlock the door to sophisticated evening happiness. I say: Please Mr. Music, will you play?

If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, I highly recommend it.

The End of the Beginning

Here at Part 12 I finally decided to start wrapping things up.  However, I knew it would take me (at least) two posts to conclude satisfactorily, so I needed a title to reflect that.  “The End of the Beginning” is (appropriately) the final track on the sophmore album of the Darling Buds, Crawdaddy.  Although Crawdaddy came out in 1990, it definitely has that late 80’s sound, including a remarkable similarity to the Primitives, particularly their first two albums Lovely (‘88) and Pure (‘89).  Although technically speaking the Primitives were English while the Darling Buds were Welsh.  But to us stupid Americans that subtle distinction is lost.

Although it was a Brit who made the comparison I reference in the hint: specifically, Dave Kendall, creator of MTV’s 120 Minutes.  He made the clever observation in his review of Crawdaddy, and I couldn’t help but agree, even though I probably like the Darling Buds a bit more than the Primitives.  But it’s a close thing.

The first track on Crawdaddy, “It Makes No Difference,” has one of the coolest hooks of the 80’s.  Too bad you’ve never heard it.

On the other hand, if you want to hear this track, YouTube is your friend.

Here’s to Future Days

And finally we reached the end, and I decided to touch on my thoughts about Perl’s future.  The title for this one took absolutely no thinking or searching at all.  While there can be no doubt that Into the Gap is the pinnacle of the Thompson Twins’ career, Here’s to Future Days is also a great album, the last of the good TT records before they transmogrified into Babble (whose debut was better than the last three efforts from the Twins put together ... not that that’s saying much).

Here’s to Future Days was also (probably not coincidentally) their last album as a threesome: it may not have seemed like Joe Leeway was adding much other than standing around looking cool (much as Andrew Ridgely did for Wham!), but apparently that was an illusion, because they sure sucked without him.  Definitely most people think of the Thompson Twins as a trio, and wonder what’s up with calling themselves “twins.”

But of course the truth is the name has nothing to do with the number of band members.  The first (little known) TT album was recorded with four members, and the second featured a whopping seven, before they trimmed it down to the famous three, who would go on to produce the Twins’ three great albums: Quick Step & Side Kick (known simply as Side Kicks in the US), Into the Gap, and Here’s to Future Days.  Nope, the name was simply a reference to Thomson and Thompson, the detectives from The Adventures of Tintin who only look like twins.

“Future Days” is the track on this album that contains the lyrics “Here’s to future days / Here’s to future ways,” which is what I hear in my head whenever I read this title.  If you’d like to have it stuck in your head as well, YouTube can arrange that for you.

In Conclusion

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I spent quite a bit of time mentally wrestling with a title for this post itself.  Should it be some sort of self-referential thing, being that it would be the title of post about titling posts?  Should it somehow proclaim to the world that it was a meta-title?  Should it be a quote about naming things, or about clever wordplay?

In the end, I decided to make it a shout out to one of my favorite books as a child.  I got my fair share of fiction, certainly, but my family also recognized that an aspiring writer must have a love of language, so I got a fair number of dictionaries, thesauri, etc.

I was eleven years old on Christmas in 1977, the year that my grandfather presented me with the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, which had been published for the first time that very year (although much of it was derived from the earlier version, which was similarly titled but without the “Morris”).  It’s a “dictionary” only in the sense that the entries in it are alphabetized.  Lovingly crafted by husband and wife William and Mary Morris, it’s not so much a reference work (although it can be used as such) as it is a mishmash of fascinating tales of how English expressions came to be; I was fond of just opening it to a random page and reading whatever I found there.  I was rarely disappointed.

The Morris’ youngest son Evan carries on the family tradition on the web, writing as the Word Detective.  On his “about” page, he quotes fellow etymologist John Ciardi:

The more words I traced back through time for our readers, the more I appreciated Ciardi’s observation that each word, no matter how humble, was “a miniature fossilized poem written by the human race.”

And that’s what this exercise in naming was like: a verbal archaeology expedition, a paleontologist finding words trapped in amber.  My love for this sort of thing is certainly directly traceable back to the Morris dictionary, and the many hours I spent perusing how words and meanings become bent and reshaped to suit new ends across the generations.  Yeah, I was a weird kid.

So, this week’s installment, while longer than I’d anticipated (and probably longer than you’d hoped), at least may provide some insight into how these titles get here and where they come from, and why I tend to obsess over them more than is probably healthy.  Next week I probably won’t be so garrulous, most likely because I’ll be busy catching up on all the things I didn’t do this weekend because I spent too much time on this blog post.  But it’s been fun.  For me, anyway.  For you ... well, didn’t anyone tell you not to read this blog?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Perl blog post #32

Well, it’s finally happened: my never-ending blog series on my relationship with Perl has ended.  You can check out the final installment over on my Other Blog.

For 13 weeks, I had to come up with clever titles for my blog posts, and I decided to lift them directly or paraphrase them from various sources: books, movies, songs, TV shows, poems, quotes from famous people, etc.  I knew that some people would instantly recognize some and scratch their heads over others, and different people would do so with different entries.  I figured perhaps no one would recgonize them all, as they were quite an eclectic mix ... from the the Bard to the CW (though of course I might be wrong about that).  So I thought it might be sort of fun to give everyone a second chance at guessing them.

Next week, I’ll do a blog post (here, not there) explaining all the miscellaneous references.  In the meantime, feel free to guess at them and see how many you can get.  I’ll include the hints I left on the Other Blog:

  1. The Road So Far: a Winchester recap
  2. The Power of OOP: Johnny Colla would have done a mean sax solo
  3. A Moose Once Bit My Sister: I apologize for the obscure references; those responsible have been sacked
  4. A Worthy Program, Exceedingly Well Read: also, profited in strange concealments ...
  5. Speaking with the Speech of Coders: a present from Vietnam
  6. Perl is Engineering and Art: what’s to learn? it’s a snake ..
  7. The Most Powerful Weapon Which You Can Use to Change the World: according to Tata, not Perl at all ...
  8. Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful: there was grandeur in his view of life from the Beagle
  9. That’s Why I Failed Recess: it was funnier when Rudy said it to Fat Albert
  10. What We Talk About When We Talk About DWIM: involving two couples and a bottle of gin
  11. Please Mr. Perl, Will You DWIM?: a plea to m’colleague Hugh
  12. The End of the Beginning: once described as “sounding more like the Primitives than the Primitives”
  13. Here’s to Future Days: why are they called “twins” if there’s three of them?

I rewrote one hint to make it work for people who may not have read the actual blog posts.  Have fun, and tune in next week for the answers!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Perl blog post #31

My never-ending Perl series on my Other Blog is finally ending.  Hop on over and check out part one of the thrilling two-part conclusion.  Or, you know, don’t.  Totally up to you.