Friday, May 23, 2008

Hard at work

Well, I've been working hard lately. It is close to delivery time at my work. On the bright side, that means I'm just about the end of my first shipping product. In other words, I was working on this software when it was barely a twinkle in our customer's eye, and my water just broke.

It's been a great experience. I've been getting better with Emacs and the shell, and with a lot of C++ over the last five months. Working with the team and a larger existing code base has also been enlightening. I've found it just takes a while to get up to speed with how things are organized, and the project's standard ways of doing things. I wish I'd had my TAGS file in Emacs months ago though. (It basically finds the proverbial needle in the haystack of code files for you.) Learning to give and take with my teammates and come up with mutually beneficial designs has been great too.

Now, we're working overtime. I am glad that we don't do 50 to 70 hour weeks for most of the year. This is really wearing, it's reminding me of grad school. I get about one day off per week at the moment. We're fortunate enough to get paid, so Sarah and I are probably taking down another credit card or two this month.

Hemingway slipped to the back burner as I read some Isaac Asimov this week. He's a giant in the sf field, writing many well-loved novels. Foundation, which is about the a society whose future has been mapped out by a psychohistorian, is a real classic. There's Nightfall, which is about a planet where night only falls once every couple of millennia.

And there are robots. Asimov coined the word "robotics" and wrote some great stories about them. I finished rereading I, Robot again, which is a collection of short stories about the first robots, and the three laws of robotics. They made it into a movie, I hear, but it was more "inspired by" than "based on" the stories in this book. It's charming and rereadable, and it even has a female lead. Pick it up, 100%.

I also read the first in a trilogy (Robots of Dawn, maybe?), which was a robot murder mystery called The Caves of Steel. It posits a human race, thousands of years in the future, on an overpopulated Earth, that has crowded into massive biodomes, made yeast products the main nutrition, regulated everyone's employment, and started to replace human workers with robots. Although humanity has space flight and has colonized other planets, the agoraphobia and xenophobia of the remaining earthlings is keeping a lid on the society, living out their lives in caves of steel. And that's just the setup. This is a fine, fine book. Its point-of-view feels alien to us air-breathing, outside-enjoying humans, just as it should. The main character's outlook on robots prefigures some of our current obsession with illegal immigrants stealing American jobs, and our mistrust of foreigners. There are some great moral themes as well. This is highly recommended. It might make more sense, though, if you read I, Robot first.

I've been working my way through C++ Coding Standards, which is a list of 100 pithy dos and don'ts by Herb Sutter and Andrei Alexandrescu. Sutter is the chair of the ISO C++ standard committee, and Alexandrescu is an expert on using C++ to do template metaprogramming (for libraries). Now, in some ways, C++ is a pig, and this book is like the lipstick on the pig. It's testimony on the complexity of the language that a book like this, which is almost completely language-specific tricks, had to exist. But there's another way that C++ is like a pig, and that is that it is liable to eat your foot if you try to ride it, and poke you with its bristles. And this book is like a saddle for the pig, for those of us forced to get on and put that pig through its paces. And, for what it aims at, it's a terrific book.

Ok, I just ran across this video, and it's too cool. This is just one more thing I love about computer science:

Change of subject. We bought a scuba diving game called Endless Ocean. It is very low impact as far as difficulty goes, but it is beautiful and mellow, like interacting with a screen saver.

Last, we preordered Wii Fit from Amazon while they were still taking orders. It arrived yesterday, and boy are my arms tired. Yes, they were weak, but still. The thing, for those of you who don't know, is an exercise game packaged with a balance board, which can sense your weight, center of gravity, balance, pressure, however you want to think of it. It is about one third game and two thirds exercise tool, with yoga and strength training as well as balance games and aerobics. It tracks your weight and activity, and tells you how weak you are. Sarah and I both got a good workout from it. In fact, I'm going to spend the next few minutes working at it again. It offers few advantages over the gym, but it does have one killer feature: the privacy of your own home. And, it does all the tracking for you, and it's fun.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

I've got a bike you can ride it if you like

Feeling introspective today. We used a bit of tax rebate money (the Bush legacy) to buy bikes, and today I rode a great many-speed bike (the first bike I've ever bought) for the first time in several years. I think the last time was summer of 2002. I had agreed to look after someone's house and they loaned me a bike to ride across Logan in.

I was a little deceptive there. The first bike I bought was yesterday. We bought a Magna piece of crap from Target. The brakes honked when I used them, so I spent a few hours on Mother's Day trying to tweak them. I finally got them acceptable, then when I rode around the block, the seat tilted forwards and backwards uncontrollably. When I finally wrestled it into submission and started pedaling, the chain broke in half, so I coasted a block with brakes, then walked back to our driveway.

I got very nostalgic about bikes. I rode all over the place in them: from my house to Paul vB's by Sylvester, to Mr. Norris's high school, Thomas Jefferson, out on S 288th St, up and down Normandy Park, to Des Moines, to Mt. Rainier... and then of course, my parents got into biking and we went all over the place: Lopez Island and the rest of the San Juans, the Canadian islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, UW to Woodinville (to a brewery; is Pyramid up there? no, Google tells me it was probably Redhook), the Green River trail, Burke Gilman, the STP... I still remember great biking moments, like heading out to Shark Reef with Tyler and Ian, and pitching over the handlebars after an ill-considered attempt to steer with one hand and drink a Slurpee with the other. There was a brief moment in undergrad at UW where I really missed having a bike, but I didn't act on it (or much else) until it was all over.

It meant something to me to be able to travel around town, to go where I pleased. Maybe part of it was wanting to be alone, too. I don't know how deeply to think about this now.

My parents definitely did us a service by giving us all the opportunity to get into it. I knew all the equipment to buy, for one thing. So we have our pump with built-in gauge, our mirrors, our helmets, our water bottles, our tire patch kit, our trunk-mounted rack for two, our bungee cords. Sarah also wants to take Alex out on the town with this bike, so we got a nice trailer that will double as a jogging stroller.

The new one is a silver Diamondback Wildwood Citi. It's for people who want to go around on the road, the trail, and possibly the path, not really the mountain (and don't want to spend much money). I like the gear shifts in the handles (they're rotaties, which I always liked better than paddles, or especially the analog pull-handle. Best of all, it's got a seat with its own suspension, so it's springy.

I couldn't get very far today, on my first ride in six years or so. So I just went on the trails by our house, got frightened all over again of going downhill through the gravel on my half-road, half-trail treads, and did a little loop until my thighs burned. Then I got home and wobbled upstairs on my weak legs.

I'm excited.

You may not know I'm a Pink Floyd fan (at least until Roger Waters left). Here's the early Pink Floyd (The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, 1967) on the subject of bikes:

We had a Mother's Day for the ages. We started out at The Village Inn for breakfast, but they were announcing tables with a handheld microphone at the servers podium and a loudspeaker. There was a tarp outside with water, and the pre-service church crowd, I don't know how else to explain it. We tried one more place, then ended up at the Farmer's Market that happens every Sunday in Highlands Ranch. We got a delicious cherry strudel and some Jamba juices, then a bag of hickory smoked almonds (speaking of which, they're in the car right now. excuse me...), and some cleverly carved wooden flowers that will always stay lovely, until the paint fades I suppose. Then we did the saga of the bikes. It was touch and go there, but we got it all sorted out. We rounded out the day with Sarah's new favorite, ice cream cake.

I found Book Lust and a cooking book at the Borders outlet this weekend. I am enjoying both, so far. The omission of Lois McMaster Bujold from Book Lust is a bit of a let down, though. Stephen King also doesn't get much play (although he's written tons of terrific stuff).

Friday, May 09, 2008

Folding proteins for fun

There's been a project called Folding@Home around for a while. Basically, a project at Stanford borrows your computer to do heavy computations related to biochemistry: protein folding and misfolding, solving problems.

Well, a somewhat related project called Foldit allows you, the user, to fold protein chains interactively. I've tried it and it's a hoot. Essentially, you are trying to find the most stable state for the protein (highest energy maybe? lowest energy? I don't know the chemistry).

It's a fascinating way to play around with chemicals. It might even be possible for the scientists behind the game to teach protein folding to computers by using human play.

Download it if you like puzzles. The control isn't terrific, but it's plenty good enough for fun.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Catch-22 and Different Seasons

I finished Catch-22 this week (and today I went and picked up the sequel, Closing Time). It's a great, great book. The later chapters are poignant and funny (the thing with Doc Daneeka is probably the saddest), and the ending is great. I don't know if I would've been prepared for it in high school. Or rather, I don't know if I would have been unprepared. It is the kind of book that catches you with your pants down and knocks you on your butt.

It is an over-the-top satire of the vagaries of war (unfortunately, probably not very over-the-top) and the illogic of bureaucracy and war in general. It is also a really good example of how the language of the story can become the story on some level. It wouldn't have been nearly as forceful without stuff like this:

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?"

"He sure is," Doc Daneeka said.

"Can you ground him?"

"I sure can but first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule."

"Then why doesn't he ask you to?"

"Because he's crazy," Doc Daneeka said. "He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to."

"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"

"That's all. Let him ask me."

"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.

"No, then I can't ground him."

"You mean there's a catch?"

"Sure there is a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

I would've gotten jokes like this, sure, but I don't think I would've groaned as much. The narrator of Catch-22 accepts all they see and say, something like Huck Finn. As I've said before, I wasn't good at standing outside the narrator's head. It's not that I had to be hit over the head with things, but I felt like I had to see things like the narrator did in order to understand the point of the story. This put me at a disadvantage with the unreliable narrators of modern fiction.

Anyhow, reread this if you haven't seen it for a while. It was great. I don't remember a single boring page. Sex, violence, language, and philosophy warnings.

I resumed my Stephen King program. I think I'm up to 1982 or so. I checked out Christine (which I think is about an evil car), and Different Seasons. Different Seasons is about as long as a paperback, and contains four short stories/novellas/novelettes/whatever. Three of them have been made into movies (and I'm not sure about the fourth). They all seem to have minor links between their characters.

The first one was "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption", which was the basis for The Shawshank Redemption (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman took the main roles). It was a great story, just as touching as the movie. It surprised me how much of the language from the story had survived into the movie. Most of the important incidents made it too. Looking back at the movie, I see why they added and changed what they did: somebody had some real brainstorms for the movie. But there are no substantial differences in the feeling of the thing. Make haste to read the story and see the movie.

The second one was "Apt Pupil". Once, I read that good vs. evil is a hoary old conflict for a plot to do. Instead, you should do something closer to good vs. good; that is, oppose characters who want conflicting things for their own good reasons. There are a lot of reasons to do it: the characters will be more realistic, the conflict will be more meaningful, the story will be less predictable.

"Apt Pupil", on the other hand, is pure evil vs. pure evil. It's about a kid who becomes fascinated with the Holocaust and the concentration camps, then recognizes an old Nazi living in his town. Instead of turning the Nazi into the cops, the kid coerces the Nazi into telling him every gory detail. And that's just the beginning of the story. Everything spirals down from there. In a way, I couldn't wait for both of them to get their comeuppance. But it gets pretty horrible along the way.

It was made into a movie with Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro, but I don't think I really want to see it.

Next up in that one is "The Body", which got made into Stand By Me, a movie I might have seen snatches of, but now can't remember.

I also got The Old Man and the Sea. It was on the shelf near Joseph Heller's books. I don't think I have ever read a whole story by Hemingway, much less a novel, so this is another big classic for me.

So many classics, so little time.