The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

May 25th

It turns out a lot of stuff happened on May 25th in years past:

  • In 1521, the Diet of Worms coughed up an edict formally designating Martin Luther a heretic;
  • In 1878, the infernal nonsense Pinafore opened in London;
  • In 1925, Dayton, Tenn. indicted John Scopes on charges of teaching evolution in a school;
  • In 1963, Mike Myers was born (yes, he's that old);
  • In 1977, Star Wars hit theaters (and I spent an hour waiting in line in Torrance, Calif., to see it);
  • In 1979, American 191 crashed in Wood Dale, Ill.; and
  • In 2006, Geek Pride Day had its first celebration.

No over-arching point is intended here. I just thought the connections interesting.

Great music in Evanston

Girlyman played Evanston SPACE last night:

Coyote Grace is touring with Girlyman this year; I'll be looking for them again. Also, surprise musical guest The Shadowboxers, who graduated from college Wednesday, led the show with a 4-song set. Again, another band I need to follow.

I'll have more photos next week. Tomorrow I'm off to Duke for our graduation ceremony. The school awarded our degrees in January (retroactive to December 30th), but I still want to walk—and see my classmates. Only, with work, a 7am flight to RDU, and everything going on this weekend, I don't expect to have time to organize last night's photos for a few days.

I will say this: even with the 7D's amazing low-light abilities, shooting a concert is hard. I experimented with a dozen or so combinations of ISO, aperture, and shutter, and I quickly put away my 18-55mm zoom in favor of a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. The shot above was ISO-3200, 1/125 at f/1.8. I tried slower shutters with tighter apertures but the band were so energetic that led to lots of subject movement. Lower ISOs gave me less grainy photos, but again, required slower shutter speeds, so they weren't quite up to my standards. And black & white, which ordinarily covers many sins in variable-light environments, didn't look right, because the lighting makes up part of a live performance's appeal.

I also shot about 18 minutes of video (which looks OK, actually), making my total haul for the evening a whopping 12 GB. I don't think I can post any video, though. (Pesky copyright laws.) If I find out from the band it's all right to do so, I'll put some up.

New data on language origins

The New York Times reports on new data about how languages diversified:

A researcher analyzing the sounds in languages spoken around the world has detected an ancient signal that points to southern Africa as the place where modern human language originated.

The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising. Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think that languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language. He has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.

I'd like to get more information about this; in particular, how does it account for languages like Basque that seem unrelated to their neighbors?

The Soul of a New Machine

Back in my last term at Duke our technology strategy professor, Wes Cohen, assigned us two chapters from The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I'm reading the whole book now that I've got some time. Anyone who has the least interest in how teams work and where technology comes from should read it.

Kidder embedded himself in a team at the Data General corporation from early 1978 to late 1979 as they struggled to bring a 32-bit minicomputer to life. He describes borderline-Apergers engineers, 14-hour days, building motherboards from scratch, untested technologies, irresponsible schedules, burnout, and success—all around a computer that expressed the state of the art for perhaps six months after it came out. When Kidder wrote the book, in 1980, neither he nor any of the people he wrote about knew that minicomputers had become obsolete as a class already. None of them could see that IBM's toy computer, the PC, was about to make Data General irrelevant.

Kidder describes the team debugging prototype CPUs using oscilloscopes. He explains the near-impossibility of writing microcode—the instructions that tell a physical set of chips what to do and in what order—without using a second computer to write it on. He talks about engineers carrying around punchboard covered in blue and red wires, the red ones representing bug fixes, the blue representing the first attempt. You think it sucks figuring out which class broke the build in a modern C# development environment? Try imagining your joy at discovering that the CPU didn't work because a piece of solder came undone.

I imagine my reaction to this book might be similar to that of a modern nuclear submariner reading a contemporary account of building a state-of-the-art wooden battleship in 1862 (with only a brief mention of the Monitor and Merrimac, because almost no one understood in 1862 what those ships meant to naval combat). There are parts that made me wince, exactly as I winced in the episode of Mad Men when they showed an invitation to a wedding—to be held 22 November 1963.

About two years ago I read Pete Peterson's account of the heyday of WordPerfect Corp., which I also recommend, but for different reasons. Peterson wrote knowing the outcome, and he also had an axe to grind; but "Almost Perfect" still hits me right in the gut as a practicing software developer.

Twenty or thirty years from now, I'll look back and laugh at everything I didn't know in 2011. The Soul of a New Machine is a brilliantly-written monument to getting the job done, and advancing the profession right into a cul-de-sac.

Having a moan

Because coming to the UK and not moaning about something would be like going to Wrigley and not having an Old Style, here goes. My troubles began last night when my plane arrived fifteen minutes early at Heathrow, and then we had to collect our bags from the spot where the baggage handlers had them waiting for us when we got through Border Control. This got me through the airport from touchdown to the Tube in 40 minutes, which is unacceptably efficient. The Tube itself cost almost £2 all the way to Central London, took nearly half an hour, and didn't even have any drunk people on it.

At least the lifts were out at Earl's Court so I could carry my bag up some stairs, and I had to deal with a comforting cock-up involving the hotel's credit-card machine, both of which made me feel like I'd gotten to the real UK. Unfortunately, the night clerk ruined it by working efficiently and professionally to get through the issue and get me checked in. Then, once that was done, I was unable not to find a curry restaurant still open, and I had to have a chicken tikka with actual spices and flavor procured by a polite and smiling—smiling, in London, the thought!—server.

Finally, this morning, when my room's Internet connection went out, the day clerk completely broke from British custom and offered to fix the problem himself, so that when I got back from getting some coffee, it worked fine.

Don't even get me started on the weather. I came all the way to the UK only to have the trip ruined by sunny skies and 20°C temperatures. I mean, not even one bloody cloud in the sky. Now I suppose I'll have to spend the entire day walking around in it, and possibly eat lunch sitting outside. One just doesn't do that in London in April; it's just not done.

I really don't know if I can take four days of this.

Stupidest Scrabble move in history

I counted the Rs. I counted the blanks. I thought of the likelihood that Terence could form any other words out of what I left him. And then, of course, it turned out he had a D:

I feel like Bill Buckner all of a sudden.

Still more Hofstra photos

In my final installment from beautiful Hempstead, N.Y., I present two buildings that sprouted from parking lots. This one, behind Emily Lowe Hall, sits in what used to be the faculty parking lot south of Weed[1] and Adams. So far, no one has coughed up the requisite millions to rename it, so it's called "New Academic Building:"

Seriously, I'm not making up the name:

For comparison, here's a photograph taken from above the Hofstra Fair in May 1992. The new building in the photos above is in the parking lot in the lower right corner of this shot:

Here's the current campus map of the location:

Then, on North Campus, sprouting like a boxy steel weed from what used to be the best parking spaces on campus, is "Graduate Residence Hall:"

Another map inset for y'all:

And the "before" photo:

I might post a few more photos from the 1990s later. But for now, I think I'm all Hofstraed out.

Yes, Hofstra has a Weed Hall. No, they didn't put the chemistry department there.

More Hofstra photos

Here are a couple more photos from the Hofstra, as promised. Also as promised, they might not mean anything to people who didn't live there, but to us alumni, they might bring back either memories or today's lunch. First, the original Unispan, looking north from the apex over Hempstead Turnpike:

The north-central Student Center stairs, leading down to the Small Clubs Office (which has since become a game room):

And when you need that massive dose of greasy pizza in the afternoon, where better to get a slice than the Rathskellar:

Finally (for now), a nod to everyone at HTV:

Round-up of suspicious stories

Someone has put something in the water today. News organizations seem to have made some surprising discoveries today:

Oh, wait—that last one is real. It's still a foolish story.

I'll post more throughout the day as I discover them.