High School Daze

I remember sitting in my room in Murphysboro, when I was seventeen years old, I was attempting to do the impossible, or so it seemed to me. I was changing high schools between the sophomore and junior year. And not just changing to the school across town. I moved ninety miles north to a different town and state,

I had met some of my classmates the previous spring. My spring break had come a week or two earlier than theirs. My father was teaching there while attending classes to get his PhD. at the university eight miles down the road. Having nothing better to do, I decided to go to school with dad one of the days of my spring break.

He was in the middle of rehearsals for the spring play, a play that I was intimately familiar with. It was a play called J.B. by Archibald MacLeish. It was a retelling of the Biblical story of Job. My dad was obsessed by it. He had done a production of it at Paducah Tilghman high school several years before when I was eight. I had played one of Job’s children in the Tilghman production. I had been in the third grade at the time but I had been an extra in a summer stock play the summer before and I had this acting thing down.

I enjoyed seeing the differences and similarities between this production and the one I had been in. When you are in a play, you learn everyone’s lines. You can’t help it. You hear them over and over again in rehearsal. Besides, that’s the first thing an actor has to learn how to do, memorize the lines of the part that he is playing.

I met a lot of people that day but I hung out with a group of girls most of the day. I had learned that it was much more fun hanging out with girls than guys. I sat in on dad’s classes and ate lunch in the cafeteria with the aforementioned group of girls. I remember hanging out with them on a break from rehearsal that afternoon. Several of the girls were smoking outside the auditorium where the rehearsal was being held. The rest of the group were hanging out there to keep them company.

One girl was bragging that she had gone to Woodstock the summer before. I doubted she had but I didn’t challenge her. I had a friend that had gone hitch hiking that same summer and he was only a year older than me. That would have made him sixteen the previous summer. The bragging girl put out her cigarette and kissed me hard, out of the blue. Then she turned and went back into the auditorium for rehearsal.

I didn’t really know how to process such an impromptu show of affection. Especially not from such a “liberated” alpha female. She had big boobs and, as was the fashion at the time, didn’t wear a bra. The girl who had appointed herself as my guide for the day was totally embarrassed by the whole situation. She was also the stage manager of the play and was smitten by dad. Dad was kind but brooked no nonsense from students like that.

It certainly gave me something to think about on the drive home that night, Later that summer we moved to Murphysboro. I ended up running around with that same group of girls for the next two years, plus a couple of other people. We were the hippy crowd. The theater crowd. We thought we were dangerous and bad. We were actually pussy cats. I miss those people. I wonder how their lives turned out.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Another Day in Our Surreality

Today I planned to attend the North Alabama Web Developer group meetup. The program was An Introduction to Elm. I particularly wanted to participate in the discussion about it that I expect went on before, during, and after the presentation. I rushed through my morning routine to get to work an hour early so that I could take time to attend the meeting and get in a full day’s work without having to work too late this evening.

I went out to my car to go to the meeting. I turned the key and was disappointed to hear the click, click, click that indicated that my battery had gone bad. By the time I could have gotten a new battery installed, the meeting would have been over. So I went back to work and arranged for a friend to give me a jump at quitting time.

I got a new battery on the way home. It wasn’t the way I planned for the day to go. But I adapted to the situation as it unfolded. I grabbed some lunch from the Food Truck Corral across the street from my office building. I got more work done than I usually manage to do in a typical day.

I am trying to age gracefully. I am trying not to be that old man that says “You kids get off of my lawn.” For the record, I don’t have a lawn. But I honestly think we have crossed the line into the realm of the distinctly surreal lately. I don’t know what bizarre thing is going to be on television when I get up tomorrow.

Last week the US president and the leader of North Korea were threatening each other with nuclear war. Then I got up on Saturday morning and there were Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I vowed not to use this blog as a political soap box but in this case we have gone beyond politics. This is not about Republican versus Democrat. It is about what do we do about our clinically crazy president. Even his own party doesn’t know. I am scared of what he might do in a knee jerk reaction to a petty attack that will have ramifications for all of us for the foreseeable future.

I don’t believe that any significant number of the members of the United States House of Representatives or the United States Senate are racists or bigots. I may not agree with their politics but I believe them to be decent American citizens. I can’t say that about our president with the same degree of confidence. We need to take action to preserve the reputation of our country and the integrity of our government. I trust our legislative branch will do the right thing in this regard. I hope to not be disappointed by them.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Sins of the Fathers

I remember where I was on November 22, 1963. I was at school. I was in the third grade at Clark school in Paducah, Kentucky. The teachers did not tell us what had happened. They left it to our parents to decide when and how to tell us that our president had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas earlier in the day.

Consequently, I was unprepared to deal with the fact that my father, a teacher at Paducah Tilghman High School, would be so distracted by trying to change all the arrangements for the high school Fall play that was opening that evening.

My father was very strict about some things. He didn’t hit me and rarely spanked me but he did yell at me. He had told me in no uncertain terms where I was to wait for him. As soon as school let out I took my post where he had told me to wait for him. That was around three o’clock or maybe three fifteen.

As four o’clock rolled around and dad hadn’t shown up, I realized that I needed to pee. But I was afraid that if I went back inside the school, something that by itself was against the rules, I would not be where I was supposed to be when my dad finally showed up.

As it got close to five o’clock, I couldn’t hold my pee any longer. I peed down my leg like a baby. I was so ashamed. When dad finally showed up, I was crying. It took him a minute to figure out what I was so upset about. He was, of course, very sorry that he had forgotten that he was supposed to pick me up. It was one of only a few times in my life that he let me down.

In later years I was always the one who made arrangements for us to meet at a certain place and time any time I went somewhere with a group. It took me a number of years to realize that this was due to my anxiety of being abandoned by the group. It’s strange how little things like that reverberate through our lives.

It makes me wonder what other quirks that I have that can be traced to events that happened in my childhood. Common sense would suggest that many of our adult foibles are consequences of experiences from earlier in out lives. We just need to examine our memories and reflect upon them to start to understand ourselves better. This is the starting point for learning to deal with these foibles.

I’ll see you here, same time tomorrow.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Changing Horses

I have been studying at the feet of masters. They are not the masters of my father’s generation, although I have great respect for many of them as well. They are the masters of my literary passion. People like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. People like Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen. People like Neal Young and Bob Dylan. Those are the poets that speak to my heart.

When it comes to prose, Neil Gaiman, Charles DeLint, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson light the fire in my soul. There are others, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, J K Rowling, Sharon McCrumb, and Nora Roberts to name a few more. They have stories to tell that resonate with something in my soul. They give me something to aspire to with my writing.

I find myself once again becoming a student of literature. I find that it is not enough just to read for enjoyment anymore. I want to observe how the master turns a phrase and plucks on heart strings to form that exquisite, joyful chord of emotions. I want to understand how one sentence leads to another, one page flows into the next, until half the night is gone reading the magical story in my hands.

This is what I want now. To learn how to play the harp of people’s souls and sculpt my words to move their intellect and emotions. I understand what English class was supposed to be about. It has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and many others but I just remember that my mother used to say, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I have a Herculean task before me, honing my literary skills through reading, writing about what I’ve read, and ultimately writing from my soul.

It may be selfish of me to pursue this goal. The world is full of more noble pursuits than becoming a writer. It is something that has teased me all my life. I have tried to ignore it and do other things. I have done fairly well at some of them. But I find myself left cold by these other pursuits now. They are simply means to an end, a way to make a living and lord knows, we need the insurance.

I’ve never been good at business and this is one of the most competitive businesses in the world. Everyone writes, very few sell their writing, and fewer still sell enough to make a living. I joke with my writer friends that I have started a new hobby. I am collecting rejection slips. Then, when I submit a piece to a publisher, I win whatever the outcome.

I have gotten two conflicting pieces of advice about writing. One camp says to write what you know. The other suggest you write whatever strikes your fancy. They contend it’s more fun that way. I imagine that I shall do both, that way I have twice the chance of succeeding. But seriously, I think my best chance of success as a writer stems from my stubbornness. I will keep trying until I do succeed.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

It Ain’t Easy Being Smart

There are a couple of down sides to being a child prodigy. The first is experienced immediately. The child in question is almost universally despised by their peers. They are patronized by the adults around them. They are often exhibited as some kind of intellectual performer. This is enjoyable to some but not all savants, some being incredibly shy.

As time passes, the child does not necessarily progress so fast as to stay as far ahead of their peers as they once were. IQ is after all the quotient of mental age over physical age. One side effect of such normalization is the gifted child misses an opportunity to develop certain mundane skills that there peers are forced by circumstance to develop. The most prominent skill of this sort is learning how to strive to master something. When everything comes easily, you don’t learn how to try, fail, replan, try again, and so forth until you ultimately succeed.

One consequence of that developmental deficiency is that accomplishments don’t mean as much to someone if they didn’t have to struggle to achieve them. Later in life when something presents itself as a legitimate challenge, the former prodigy is often frustrated because they don’t know how to go about overcoming the challenges that they face.

And, unlike their less gifted peers, they haven’t had much experience with asking others for help. They are either stubborn, embarrassed, or else they just don’t think of it in the first place. Not having cultivated many friends, as often happens with savants, they often become anxious, neurotic adults.

This is not inevitable though. If we recognize the development patterns of the over achiever and help them with their special developmental needs, this need never happen. Unfortunately, the overachiever is often stigmatized and being quick to adapt to situations they learn to hide their talent from their peers and their teachers. These crypto prodigies present a real danger to themselves and society. They often grow up to become resentful and frustrated. They secretly view their less capable peers with secret disdain.

How ever their story works out we could prevent many of these unfortunate side effects of truly exceptional intellect by more carefully screening for talent and knowing how to help them overcome their developmental challenges.

Nobody seems to ever think that the intellectually gifted need special consideration. Many schools don’t have the budget or the staff to deal with them. This needs to be dealt with as surely as we deal with the other end of the developmental spectrum.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Once and Future Library

I was recently asked to imagine what libraries might look like in two hundred years. Being a dedicated amateur futurist, I could hardly overlook such a tantalizing challenge. I started my analysis with a quick summary of what I understood the charter of public libraries to be right now.

They are first and foremost repositories of books. They typically take a broad view of their charter and try to provide a significant sample of all genres of books, both fiction and non-fiction. They also have collections of newspapers and periodicals although those are beginning to get scarce.

In recent years they have been adding other types of media. Everything from microfilm to DVDs, audiobooks to streaming media. They have also ramped up sponsorship of various activities and interest groups, taking on a role of social hub.

Being a public service organization they have taken on some unexpected roles of late. Homeless people have learned that they can take shelter from adverse weather whether it is torrential rains, scorching heat, or freezing cold, they can come in and read a book or talk quietly with friends. I understand that a number of them are happy to volunteer to do small chores around the library such as helping to set up tables and chairs for events or even suggest to disruptive people that they might want to move along.

Now let’s project into the future. Much of humanity’s knowledge is now kept in digital form. It is accessible through brain machine interfaces that connect people to digital stores of knowledge and to each other. People are concerned with archiving their experience for future generations. For that matter, they want to archive it so that they can remind themselves of it periodically as their live stretch out decade by decade and century by century. Death by natural causes is practically unheard of any more. The only way people die is by infrequent accidents, or more frequently by their own hand.

People are concerned about storing their creations, be they literary, musical, or artistic. Engineering, architectural, or dramatic. Libraries have realized the challenge of keeping up with hardware capable of running the archaic software as well as keeping archival copies of various applications capable of rendering the content that is stored in the archive. In just the span of my career, from 1976 through present (2017) we have seen such media as paper tape, punched cards, magnetic tape, magnetic drums, magnetic disks that have grown in capacity and density in an exponential fashion over time, floppy disks in ever shrinking size and ever growing capacity, solid state media consisting of USB thumb drives, embedded hard disk drive replacements, and extremely small storage cards such as are used in phones and other devices for highly dense magnetic story.

In short, I think that many libraries will start archiving the digital lives of their patrons. There will be terms of service that ultimately benefit the entire community after a period in which the descendants and other designees will have sole say over the access to the digital assets of the deceased.

The library will also provide holodeck like VR facilities for consuming VR literature. This will allow people of modest means the means to enjoy media originally created for people with enough space to have their own holodeck facility.

Their will be other services but these are just some of the low hanging fruit. Of course you’ll still be able to check out a book. Books will never go out of style. It may be printed and bound for you on demand at the checkout desk. And when you return it, it will be kept on a shelf for a while and then recycled if no one else wants to read it right away.

See you at the library.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Is Programming Science, Engineering, or Art?

Programming is a new profession. As such, it is still finding its footing. The curriculum in many colleges is called Computer Science. That carries a connotation that it is a field that studies computers as if they were naturally occurring phenomena. It implies that there is a right way and a wrong way to use computers and by studying them and conducting experiments on them we can discover the right way.

The truth is, Computer Science doesn’t study computers per se. It studies how to use computers to solve problems. For the most part, it studies how to write programs that are verifiably correct and perform well, making best use of the hardware resources available to it. If anything programming is an engineering discipline, not a scientific one.

But that leaves something to be desired in terms of putting an accurate label on programming. Engineering disciplines have a body of best practices that govern the development of new projects. Programming is more of an art than an engineering discipline. The developer imagines a system that could meet the requirements of a project they’ve been assigned to write. She implements it iteratively, addressing first one, then another of the requirement that she has been given.

Getting all the pieces of a significant program to mesh together is a challenge. It takes an inquisitive mind to try various ideas until a good solution is arrived at. And a good solution is probably the best you can hope for. Excellent solutions are few and far between. They take a talented programmer, a well specified set of requirements, and a lot of hard work.

The programming profession is so new that we haven’t got a universally recognized and agreed upon collection of best practices. That is probably because the field is so wide open. With software, you can model at different levels of fidelity. A great statistician once said all models are wrong but some are useful.

Programming is all about modeling the real world to the level of detail sufficient for your purpose. Model fidelity is a difficult issue to resolve. You need high enough fidelity to allow the model to predict the behavior of the real item being modeled. You probably can’t afford to exceed that threshold by much. Often it becomes an exercise in patience while you track down the hidden assumptions and flaws in the model.

We don’t have a checklist for producing good software. But, we do have experience and a growing literature of open source programs we can skim through to glean inspiration from people that have faced the challenge and produced a solution that they decided were eloquent.

I think it’s safe to say that programming is still an art with definite mathematical and engineering leanings. We need to take inspiration from scientist colleagues and use the experimental method to help us discover what works. But we should remain cognizant that we are not studying natural phenomena, we are building a tool that is by definition flawed (a model with perfect fidelity becomes indistinguishable from the item being modeled).

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Power of Words

People that make lists often find that they accomplish the things on those lists without even necessarily referring to them. It’s almost as if writing is a magic spell that bewitches your mind into completing the tasks laid out for it. That’s been my experience anyway.

I have a fetish for stationary which is a little bit weird because I have an even stronger fetish for digital devices. I guess the habits formed when you are young never quite go away. Because of this stationary fetish I have stashes of notebooks of all sizes and styles. I have little three by five inch notebooks that have lined paper in them. I have five by seven inch notebooks with grid lines, straight lines, and blank. I have notebooks with leather covers. And that’s just a sampling.

I don’t write in them a lot. Especially since I’ve had a cell phone, a tablet, and a laptop. I make my lists on whatever device is handy. But whether I make my lists with pen and paper or I save them in files on one or more of my devices, I often don’t look at them for quite a while, if ever.

The other day I found a list from ten years ago. I went down the list checking off items that I had accomplished. Out of twenty or so items on that list I had done all but two of them. And those became pointless after we moved five years ago.

I think the neurolinguistic programming people got it right. Your subconscious hears everything you say and takes it very literally. When you create a list, whether by typing it in on a keyboard or writing it out with a pen and paper, you are programming your subconscious.

And so this becomes a cautionary tale of sorts. Be careful not to put something on a list that you don’t really want to accomplish. As writers we know, or should know, that words have power. They transfer knowledge, emotion, opinion, in short they convey thoughts from one mind to another, Be careful with your words so that you won’t find yourself in a situation where they can be used against you.

Be kind with your words. They have the potential to change the world for the better, Don’t ignore their power, harness it. Inspire with them, inform with them, entertain with them for they will determine how people remember you.

I know this is true. It is how I remember my mother and father. It is how I remember my grandparents. It is how I remember my teachers and friends. And it is how those that are still around remember you.

Words are what set our species apart from others. Savor their magic. Revel in their sound. And use their power wisely.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Reinventing Yourself

It is easy to fall into a pattern. You get up, take a bath, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, and go to bed. Maybe things vary slightly from day to day but by and large one day looks a lot like any other.

There is nothing wrong with living that way but sometimes, you get to an age where you start to think about how many more of those days there are going to be. You consider the things that you have meant to do in your life and haven’t done yet.

Suddenly, the daily routine isn’t good enough any more. The job may start to lose some of its luster. You have to figure out how you can afford to make this change, especially if you’ve grown accustomed to a nice comfortable salary.

Chances are, the thing it is that you want to do with the rest of your life may not pay quite as much as your current job. For one thing, you probably would have to start as a junior level worker in your new profession. Or you might have to develop a whole new skill set, like how to operate as a freelancer or a small (read single person) business.

If you’re like I am, you didn’t pay too much attention to the business end of the deal. You concentrated on producing the product or service that your employer paid you to produce.

What you are contemplating is cutting out the middle man. Instead of making product for someone else to sell, you are making product to sell directly to the customer. If you want to stop and watch a TV show, that’s your prerogative. But that is not going to make you any money.

It’s a whole different mind set. Some people thrive in that environment. Others are like little lost babes, looking for someone to set goals for them and tell them what to do.

How do you find out if you are cut out to be a sole proprietor or a freelancer? Well, it’s probably a good idea to try it out first. Your employer may have a clause in your terms of employment that restricts you from engaging in certain types of business activities without their prior approval. Be sure that you honor any such agreement.

If your employer will allow it, give the new business a try. Take a week or two of vacation and see if you even like doing the think that you are proposing. See if you are good at it. See if there is a market for it. See if you make money.

If so, maybe take a leave of absence to see if the business is going to work out. Or, if your an old guy like me, go ahead and pull the trigger and retire. If you’ve got sufficient savings and a pension, you can afford to struggle a little bit before you find your ideal job. But most important, be sure to have fun.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Self Made Programmer

It has been a little over forty years since I first programmed a computer. I learned how to program by reading a book about it. The computer was a large timesharing system called Plato. The language was called Tutor. It was an apt name for a language intended to empower teachers to create Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI). Looking back I can say that the language was influenced by Fortran and BASIC. It included some features that were not available in any of the languages of that era. In particular it had a facility for posing an essay question which the machine graded by looking for relevant phrases that the author deemed central to the question posed.

I had been lusting after a personal computer for several years before I obtained access to Plato at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale where I was studying Cinema and Photography. I had an aptitude for math and science but a passion for making movies. I had read the article in Popular Electronics about the Altair 8800 personal computer kit. It’s six hundred dollar price was totally out of my means. Little did I know that the darn thing would do nothing without further investment in input output devices and serial cards. It was a real money sink but it was so alluring.

When I needed a job to support my new family, I joined the Army on the condition that I get the longest training available in the Army in computer repair. I correctly assumed that the longer the school was, the more they would teach us. Sure enough, they taught us to program a trainer that was loosely based on the PDP-8 in assembly language. Then they took us circuit by circuit, subsystem by subsystem, through the Burroughs mini computer that was the launch control computer for the Pershing missile.

While I was in school I started reading Byte magazine. It had articles that described both software and hardware that people were building in the exciting new hobby of personal computing. I read it with a passion. But when all was said and done it was like reading about bowling. Something was lost in the translation.

I spent two years in Germany. I drooled over the personal computers in the shop windows there but they still were more expensive than I could afford. A friend in my company bought a computer kit. It was what I would call a second generation personal computer. It had an 8080 microprocessor but it also had a keyboard and video generator. You hooked it up to a TV and it displayed text on the TV. I didn’t get to program it much. I don’t think I ever got a program running on it. But it was better than just reading about it.

When I got back from Germany, Commodore was selling the Pet computer, Radio Shack was selling the TRS-80, and Apple was selling the Apple II computer. It would be several more years before I would have my own computer but I found jobs programming until then. Mostly in BASIC. Always self taught.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.