Saturday, January 29, 2011


I just got back from Germany, was there two weeks for work. For some reason I didn't blog while there; I would like to say I was too busy drinking beer, but I actually didn't drink that much beer. I did spend a ton of time just walking around Erlangen, and running in the German countryside.

The German countryside is a great place to go running. You know how when you fly into Midway it sort of feels like you're going to land in the middle of a great big rail yard (not just any rail yard, but the Clearing Yard of the Chicago Belt Railway, one of the biggest in the world)? When you fly into Nürnberg it looks like you're landing in a big evergreen forest. On Monday the 24th I took a run looping around a big chunk of this forest, took a wrong turn near the end, and ended up running 18-and-a-half miles through the snow before work. The forests, small towns, farms, all of it just had this magical feeling to it. And even in the freezing January weather I always saw lots of people out enjoying it on bikes, running, and walking. Trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing are very well marked, which helps.

But what probably helps even more is that everything is just so much closer. German cities certainly have some sprawl to them, but nothing close to what American cities have. Tennenlohe (where I worked in Germany) is a lot like Canyon Park (where I work in the States). You might consider it a "small edge city". It's about 7km from Erlangen and about 11km from Nürnberg, and isn't continuously linked by sprawl to either city.

I took the train up to Bamberg on my free Saturday. Its old city has lots of old buildings still standing, and as it was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, there are a lot of historically important buildings in town. Coming from America, the re-use of the old buildings, cobbled streets, and plazas in the main part of the old city for a modern shopping district looks really strange to me. It is, of course, a bit of a touristy thing even in the winter. Up at the top of a hill going west out of town there's a trailhead for a walking trail going quite some distance. I also did some walking around newer parts of Bamberg, and even there a lot of the architecture is really beautiful. Somehow I forgot my camera, but I'm not sure pictures could really capture the different feeling of being there anyway.

I found being in a country where I don't speak the language very tiring. Even though a lot of people speak English there and I didn't have any serious problems resulting from not being able to communicate, it meant that every conversation took a lot of effort, even more than it usually is for me. I practiced German phrases that I thought I would need, but almost never was able to spit them out in context. I hated asking people, “Sprechen sie Englisch?” I felt like I had come to their home and forced my language on them. I obviously missed out tremendously on the culture and life of the places I visited because I couldn't understand people speaking in their native language, couldn't hear announcements or read signs.

On my way home from the airport I was waiting for a bus transfer at 3rd and Pine, and there were some guys shooting craps on the sidewalk. One of them yelled, “This is Chi-town, baby!” I'm not sure how often in Chi-town people shoot craps on the sidewalk downtown on an overcast, 50-degree, rainy day in January. That sounds about as Seattle as it gets. But just hearing the words and understanding them, and easily laughing at the irony of them, that meant a lot to me. On the bus going past an abandoned lot I thought, “I'm home — this is my home, even the stupid and ugly parts.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Getting It

I've just started reading Studs Terkel's classic Working. I'm not too far in, but it seems to be a testament to what you hear when you listen. It was written in the 70s — do we listen worse now than we did then? Do we have less hope of brotherhood than we did then? I didn't live then, and I don't know.

Then, this, on the Singularity.

I also recently finished Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute (essentially a memoir of his military education and service in Afghanistan). One striking aspect of the book, to me, is the following statement: “At West Point we'd learned that responsibility preceded privilege”. Leading up to that, he'd been describing difficulties re-adjusting to civilian life after returning, and the sorts of stupid comments he'd hear from people at parties. That they'd sign up for military service if they were “guaranteed a challenging assignment”, or that they supported the troops but not the war, when in fact they did nothing to support the troops.

His subjective response of disgust is clearly justified, and points to a more universal truth. Yes, these people are clearly putting privilege ahead of responsibility, asking for the sorts of promises they'd get in business. That's one privilege my generation has become accustomed to, instant gratification and recognition. It's never asked for and rarely acknowledged. Mullaney's early decision to go to West Point instead of an Ivy League school contained an acknowledgement of this privilege (and of his discomfort with it) and a rejection of it.

Another theme that ran through was the question of meaning. It's sort of a cliché to describe bureaucracies as Kafkaesque, and some reviewers called his descriptions of West Point life and of his experience as an adjutant by that word. I don't think that's quite right. In those things Mullaney found meaning where it wasn't initially obvious — in some (especially in frustrating training exercises) he found definite, specific meanings, and elsewhere he seemed open to the idea of a yet unknown or unknowable meaning. To really be Kafkaesque the experience ought to be meaningless. He seemed more ambiguous about the meaning of the war in Afghanistan. Obviously it had as much personal meaning as his training but an actual war demands more than that. Could he have undergone meaningful training for a meaningless mission? At least within this book, he asks the question but doesn't become consumed with it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dolphin rights, beyond glibness

In my last post I made a cynical comment about the idea of rights for dolphins. Since I have read about, and more importantly, thought a lot about exactly what sort of rights animals deserve generally, it probably deserves something more earnest.

So, of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is Lou Reed: “There's no such thing as human rights when you walk the New York streets”. I said earnest, not idealistic. To me every being has the moral right to try to survive, but can never be guaranteed success, let alone any higher sort of dignity.

But just recognizing a dolphin's right to try is more powerful than we might think. A dolphin is not like a cat or dog, seeking a partnership with people. Surely our ability to understand animals is limited, but it speaks volumes that if you feed cats and dogs and let them generally run free (common enough in rural areas) they'll hang around for more than just the food. They'll enter something like a social contract with you pretty willingly. Dolphins won't, and it takes force and trickery to keep them in captivity. It takes constant frustration of their instincts and desires. That's true of almost every animal you see at a zoo, not just dolphins.

The question of zoos becomes more complicated in the context of widespread habitat destruction. Is zookeeping OK when it saves species from extinction? This speaks to an even bigger question. I don't want to go on endlessly about vegetarianism or something, 'cause that's not what this is about, but it's a necessary setup... it's really pretty easy to be a healthy vegetarian, as there have been a number of vegetarian food cultures in history and modern medicine believes you don't even really have to pay attention to protein mixing, just don't eat the same thing every damn day. But veganism is tougher — the current understanding is that the human body needs nutrients that can only be obtained through animal flesh, animal products, or industrial production. That is to say: we all have a need, as much a part of us as our right hands, or our abilities to reason, to either kill, exploit, or dominate. Choose wisely.

This need, which has developed with us (and our increasing ability to kill, exploit, and dominate) over many generations, is like our situation where many species are endangered by our hands. To someone that idealizes a peaceful and balanced world it's a moral burden we necessarily inherit. Satisfy our desires and frustrate those of another. Few take seriously the alternative: death.

Maybe at some point we had a choice but now we're kinda stuck with domination. I think it's true what Tolstoy said: that in his wars, Napoleon had the least free will of anyone.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Smorgasborg day

1. I don't have a lot to say about this, and it's sort of technical, but this blog post goes some way toward explaining why the Internet doesn't feel all that fast, despite gaudy bandwidth capabilities.

2. Also, from Slashdot, an article about whether dolphins should be considered persons and thus have rights. Based on how human persons treat each other, I'd say that in order to secure their rights as persons dolphins will have to present proof of citizenship — or, failing that, become a corporation.

3. Is it wrong that I don't like it when spec documents are given to me in Excel format?

4. I've been following some discussions over baseball's Hall of Fame, mostly in the Sabremetric community. I've been trying to waste less time and energy on that sort of stuff, but, you know, last verse of this song and all, what am I gonna do? Anyway, entrenched positions on the Blyleven candidacy have become truly silly over the last few years, and now are finally over. So, a few days late, I'll weigh in. Maybe one reason there's such a gap between Blyleven's aggregate stats (basically anything that's summed up without regard to the start and end of games) and his W-L record has to do with the distribution of runs given up per-start? Given his ridiculous number of shutouts, he might have a different-looking distribution than most pitchers, and really might not be as good as his aggregate stats in terms of winning games. Even if that's true, Blyleven might deserve to be in the Hall anyway...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

typedef structs

Within the last couple years I've become a fan of Yossi Kreinin's C++ FQA, which goes a long way toward explaining the feeling I get often when coding C++: This would be easier in any other language.

Often that includes C. The superiority of some old C features and methodologies over the C++ ones meant to replace them, and the fact that they're usually still available in C++, has led to their frequent use in C++ code. The use of macros, pointer arithmetic, format strings, and the like, is to me often justified, even if they make a program look a lot different than what you see in a C++ reference book.

One C-ism I keep seeing and don't understand, however, is typedef struct. In C you had to typedef your struct types to refer to them without the struct keyword. C++ lifted this requirement, but I still see it all over the place. Of course, C++ also changed what a struct is considerably: it's the same as a class, but its members are public by default, not private. Sometimes I see structs written basically as mini-classes, with member functions and perhaps even constructors. In this case I don't see the C-ish typedef very often. Similarly, these ones are more likely to have “C++-like” member names.

C++ is a language that gives its users lots of flexibility in pointless places. Of course, it's typical for the state of software in 2010 that we aren't making intentional choices with that flexibility...