Technically Correct

“Bureaucrat Conrad, you are technically correct — the best kind of correct.” (Futurama, 2acv11: How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back).

Today I would like to talk to you about an afflicion that affects a large number ot tech workers: a penchant for finding the most technically correct and the most useless way to answer one’s queries.

Here’s an example of my interaction with my favorite support engineer at our hosting company. We were chatting about DNS setup, and it was perfectly clear to him that what I meant to ask was “is it an A record or a CNAME record”.

“2:31 PM me: what kind of a record is it?
2:31 PM him: A DNS record :)”

This brand of humor probably has its beginnings in early computer games, like Zork, where the computer would answer your questions only when they were asked “correctly”. Techies often take this kind of humor to ridiculous extremes.

For instance, I have a high school friend, L. A brilliant programmer, he likes to think that it’s hilarious to answer every single question this way. L lives in New York. I once was talking to another friend of mine, R, who is not a techie and who lives in Boston. I was telling her about L’s penchant for being technically correct. I illustrated this phenomenon with an old Soviet joke:

“Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a hot air balloon ride. A storm took the balloon above the clouds, and after a few days brought it down close to the ground. Below a man was herding sheep.

– “Where are we?” – Dr. Watson cried to him.
– The man looked at them and replied – “You are in a hot air balloon.”

The wind once again picked up and pulled the balloon beyond clouds.

– “What do you think that man’s profession is?” – asked Holmes.
– “Why, he’s a shepherd” – answered Watson.
– “No, he’s a computer programmer”.
– “Why do you think so?”
– “Elementary, my dear Watson. His answer was technically correct, but absolutely useless. So, where do you think we are now?”
– “I have no idea – he didn’t say, did he?”
– “We are in the Soviet Union.”
– “Why?”
– “A computer programmer is herding sheep.””

My friend laughed, but I insisted that L was really like that in real life.

A few months later R called me and said, “You won’t believe this story. I was in New York, walking down Brighton beach. I really needed to get some cash. I asked a passerby – “Excuse me, where’s the closest ATM?”. “Why, in the closest bank, of course” – he answered with a smile. R stared for a bit, and then said, “say, is your name L, by any chance?””.

It was indeed L, whom she randomly met in NYC.

I laughed, and told her another, old Jewish joke about search algorithms and certain applications of the Drake Equation.

“Two Jews, one young and one old, are riding Kiev – Odessa train. The old one is looking at the young one and thinking to himself –

“This young man, he’s either going to get off at Zmerinka or at Odessa. You only go to Odessa to make money or to spend money. He’s too young to make money and too shabbily dressed to spend money, so he’s going to Zmerinka. You only go to Jmerinka for weddings or for funerals. Nobody died for a while, so he’s going to a wedding. He’s not carriying a present, so he’s going to his own wedding. There are only two eligible brides – Sarah and Rebecca. But Rebecca just got married, so this means he’s going to marry Sarah. Sarah is not very good looking and has a bad temper, so only a total putz would marry her. Now, who’s a total putz in Kiev?”

– “Excuse me, are you Shlomo, Moishe Rabinowitz’s son?” – he asks the younger gentleman.
“Yes I am, do you know me?” – says they youngster.
“No, I don’t know you,” – says the old man – “but I figured you out”.

Happy New Year!

This decade left me very exhausted. I hope next year will finally be my annus mirabilis because I’m tired of making the anus joke. Happy New Year and Happy New Decade, everyone.

You can see the old New Year’s cards are here.

Three Firsts

I always thought that the quote went “I’ll try anything once” and it was Andy Warhol who said it. Apparently the quote is “I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure” and it belongs to Mae West.

Living in New York, amongst other things, pushes you to try something for the first time ever almost every single day. Here are three things I recently tried for the first time, mostly under pressure from New York City.

Religious

Probably every New Yorker that looks even remotely Semitic in appearence has been repetidly asked “Are you Jewish?” by the Hasidim. If you answer yes, you’ll get a Billy Mays-worthy pitch to pray/light Shabbat candles/put on at Teffilin. I will admit to occasionally denying my membership in the tribe when in a hurry, but most of the time my answer is “a little bit”, followed by a firm sticking to plain cowardly agnosticism.

Ever since I wrote a long and rambling post about Tefillins, I meant to put one on. So this one time, after being approached by a young Hasid in the Atlantic station passageway, and customarily declining his pamphlet, I accepted his halfhearted offer to help me lay Teffilin. He was particularly surprised – I don’t really think he gets to help a lot of people perform this particular mitzvah a lot.

He produced a Tefillin set from a black shopping bag and a loaner kipah from a pocket, helped me put it on and say the necessary prayers right there on the BMT’s Atlantic Avenue platform, amongst the hustle and bustle of people and trains. It felt strange, yet somehow very comforting – performing this ritual in one of the most familiar places to me.

He also gave me a pamphlet in which the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains to a computer science professor that Tefillin is a symbolic representation of computers. He was very glad to be able to accomplish such an epic mitzvah.

Culinary

I was walking through Union Square farmers’ market, already having sampled and bought a package of organic bacon hawked by an upstate hippie (I’m not a very observant Jew as you might have already noticed in this post). I was passing by a little stall providing free samples of wine made by hippies somewhere upstate. That bit of hippie bacon called for some wine, but I did not want to fight the mob of greedy Manhattan housewifes for a tiny sip, but then I heard a magical phrase – “We also have dandelion wine”.

I never really finished reading “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury, and always thought that there was no such thing – how can you make wine out of bitter yellow flowers? Apparently this is how. I bought a bottle. All I have to say is that dandelion wine tastes just like they say it should: like summer and childhood. I also bought some salad corn shoots that I’ve read about in New York Times. Those tasted like raw corn kernels.

Automotive

You know that nobody really drives in New York because there are too many cars there. I’ve spent many happy car-less years here, but the arrival of a baby forced me to buy a car (a minivan, in fact). Parking is a very sore topic around these parts. I was never willing to splurge on a garage, and had to subject myself to the indignities of alternate side parking regulations.

There’s a whole book about parking in NYC – Calvin Trillin’s brilliant Tepper Isn’t Going Out. I bought it only because I have a friend named Tepper, but ended up immensely enjoying it. Which is what I can’t say about parking in the street.

Well, recently, I finally broke down and shelled out $200 for a spot in a garage. The feeling on the “alternate” days is rather novel – hey, I don’t need to move a car! Also new – not worrying about what those loud teenagers are probably doing to my poor car, or if there’s a used car window repair place that just received a shipment of my car’s specific windows (did you notice how they always have a used window for your car ready, no matter how obscure, when you go to a nearest car window shop for a mysteriously shattered one?). It’s a new and pleasant feeling.

What about you?

National Air And Space Visit

While in Washington, I visited the National Air and Space Museum. It is like some kind of Lovecraftian Costco warehouse filled with a mix of priceless artifacts encased in layers of plexiglas and cheezy recreations, carnival-like educational attractions, and disguasting food courts and kiosks.

Overhead, like beached whales or a giant boy’s toy models, hang famous air and space ships. They have just about everything you could think of – Spirit of St. Louis, Space Ship One, a Brietling Orbiter, even the original Wright Flyer. They all look lifeless and sad, especially the spacecraft.

I was a bit overwhelmed by the craft collection, but it’s the little things that I enjoyed seeing the most. They have, side by side, Nestler sliderules that used to belong to former z/k Korolev and former Sturmbannfuhrer Von Braun. Missing is the Nestler that used to belong to Albert Einstein. I also wonder who now owns the two two-copek coins that were Korolev’s lucky charm. I also wonder if Von Braun used to have a lucky charm.

The only remaining piece of the original Sputnik – an arming device that was removed prior to launch, an equivalent of little strips of paper you sometimes find in remote controls and other battery-powered gadgets.

It was interesting to notice how many aircraft were put together using slotted instead of philips screws, like these huge ones on the Soviet ICBM.

I don’t know why, but I stood for a good while admiring the hypnotic twists of a handmade screwdriver that used to belong to Charlie Taylor, Wright’s mechanic.

Soviet space kitch collection is vast: from magnetic Mir-flown chess (something of a 70s vintage space look to them)

to all kinds of space crappers (a low-tec suction bulb is probably safer where your privates and vaccuum are involved).

The nose cone from the Spirit of St. Louis is signed on the inside, but you have to cram yourself into an uncomfortable niche to see the swastika and signatures of well-wishers, including Wrong Way Corrigan. Apparently early aviators frequently used not yet befouled by Nazis swastikas as good luck charms.

One of the last things I saw, a crazy looking British pusher airplane had such an amazing Star Wars look that I maybe even gasped a little.

The Sense of Time

There are a lot of scary things about getting older, but the scariest and the weirdest is the change in perception of time. I’ve encountered this idea twice, once in Stephen King’s short story “My Pretty Pony”, and another in the movie “Blue Thunder”. At the time, in late 80s I thought that time “flies” only when you are enjoying something, and “creeps” when you don’t. Saturdays go by faster than Mondays. Turns out, as you get older time picks up pace, everything becomes a blur, good or bad.

Cult 80s movie “Blue Thunder” has this little bit about a helicopter pilot playing with his fancy digital Casio watch that had an interesting analog countdown feature. He was using the watch to test his time perception, claiming that “it was the first thing to go when you go over the edge.”

Watch buffs know this watch as Casio AA-85 and the analog feature as Module 101. I always wanted one of these, and now I finally picked one up on eBay for a song. I know I need it – it seems to me that I am really losing the proper perception of time, it really sped up for me.

In Stephen King’s short story “My Pretty Pony”, an old man is instructing his grandson on the nature of time after watching him lose in a hide and seek game to a kid who counted too fast. He says, that there are three times, only one of which is real. When you are little, it seems that the time goes by very, very slowly. I remember that very distinctly – days were very long, even the summer vacation took forever. Then, when you are about 14, time starts to be “real” – neither slow nor fast. As you get older time picks up pace, only slowing down when you are badly hurt. He called time “a pretty pony with a wicked heart.”

I don’t know about you, but time is definitely speeding much more now than when I was younger. It’s pretty scary.

[Update] Bought on eBay, fixed and even found a similar watch band:

The Devil Wears Prada

A delightfully dishy novel about the all-time most impossible boss in the history of impossible bosses.

Andrea Sachs, a small-town girl fresh out of college, lands the job “a million girls would die for.” Hired as the assistant to Miranda Priestly, the high-profile, fabulously successful editor of Runway magazine, Andrea finds herself in an office that shouts Prada! Armani! Versace! at every turn, a world populated by impossibly thin, heart-wrenchingly stylish women and beautiful men clad in fine-ribbed turtlenecks and tight leather pants that show off their lifelong dedication to the gym. With breathtaking ease, Miranda can turn each and every one of these hip sophisticates into a scared, whimpering child.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA gives a rich and hilarious new meaning to complaints about “The Boss from Hell.” Narrated in Andrea’s smart, refreshingly disarming voice, it traces a deep, dark, devilish view of life at the top only hinted at in gossip columns and over Cosmopolitans at the trendiest cocktail parties. From sending the latest, not-yet-in-stores Harry Potter to Miranda’s children in Paris by private jet, to locating an unnamed antique store where Miranda had at some point admired a vintage dresser, to serving lattes to Miranda at precisely the piping hot temperature she prefers, Andrea is sorely tested each and every day—and often late into the night with orders barked over the phone. She puts up with it all by keeping her eyes on the prize: a recommendation from Miranda that will get Andrea a top job at any magazine of her choosing. As things escalate from the merely unacceptable to the downright outrageous, however, Andrea begins to realize that the job a million girls would die for may just kill her. And even if she survives, she has to decide whether or not the job is worth the price of her soul.

The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel

In a future world racked by violence and environmental catastrophes, George Orr wakes up one day to discover that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. He seeks help from Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist who immediately grasps the power George wields. Soon George must preserve reality itself as Dr. Haber becomes adept at manipulating George’s dreams for his own purposes.

The Lathe of Heaven is an eerily prescient novel from award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin that masterfully addresses the dangers of power and humanity’s self-destructiveness, questioning the nature of reality itself. It is a classic of the science fiction genre.

Kicking The Atomic Space Rocket Bucket

Yesterday, while having tea with my wife, I mentioned the uneasy feeling that I was getting over not only how many science fiction writers that influenced the way I think have passed away already, but also of how many were dying lately. I started making a list of dead sci-fi writers (which I enhanced through Wikipedia while writing this post).

Jules Verne died in ’05. Karel Capek died in ’38. H. G. Wells died in ’46. H. P. Lovecraft died of cancer in ’47. Henry Kuttner went to shovel snow off of his driveway in Jersey and died of a heart attack in ’58. Paul Linebarger died in 66. Hugo Gernsback died in 67. William Jenkins died in ’75.Philip K. Dick stroked-out in ’82. Kuttner’s wife, C. L. Moore died in ’87, of Alzheimer’s. Cyril Kornbluth died the same year. Bob Heinlein died in ’88. So did Clifford Simak. Isaac Asimov died in ’92. As it turns out, of AIDS that he contracted from a blood transfusion. Douglas Adams was working out and had a heart attack in 01. Robert Sheckley went to visit Ukraine, fell ill and later died in a hospital in ’05. Andre Norton died in ’05.Stanislaw Lem died in ’06, also of heart-related problems.

Well, at least Kurt Vonnegut is still alive – said my wife. Yeah, but he’s pretty young, I said. Little did we know that he was already gone

It seems that I received a package in the mail from him just recently, although it was already 9 years ago.

Theodore Sturgeon, the real Kilgore Trout died in ’85.

The era’s not over yet. As I went through Wikipedia’s list of important sci-fi writers I was surprised to see so many classics born in the 20s and 30s to be still writing.

Also, three out of six Beatles are still with us.