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Collected editorials

But is it beautiful code?

The Manchurian Candidate

Apparently the inevitable is not going to happen and Hillary is not going to be our first Woman President – unless, of course, received political wisdom reverses course once. My bad – in previous editorials I opined that I looked forward to her presidency. Now there is the kiss of death if there ever was one. My apologies to Mrs. Clinton for the disservice.

Still Obama is not a done deal. He is the anointed of what passes for the radical left in this country. The Daily Kos types are frothing at the mouth because Hillary does not roll over and play dead for their beloved. The Daily Kos types are good at indignation and frothing at the mouth. Rush Limburger, the tarnished knight of the right, has been promoting operation chaos, stirring the pot to keep the done deal medium rare. The general idea is to do some crossover voting by Friends of the Right to keep Hillary in the race. The Daily Kos types think that this highly immoral – only Democrats should cross vote. (Cross dressing is quite another matter – as I understand these things Republicans are allowed to cross dress.) Personally, I think they are making a mistake. Let the Friends of the Right vote Democratic – in due course they might discover that they like voting Democratic.

Be all of that as it may, there is a cloud hanging over the anointed one. By a cloud, I do not refer to the cigarettes that he doesn’t smoke in public. Rather, might he be, so to speak, a Manchurian candidate? The package being sold via pretty speeches is that of a standard grade Democratic populist, smart and charming. Things keep coming out, though – things that his wife and his minister have said. The thing is, for most of America he is very much an unknown without a significant track record. There is no real reason to even believe that he would be competent as a chief executive – not, judging from some of our Presidents, that that is a disqualification for office. More seriously, it is open to question whether he is acceptably close to the center of the American political spectrum or whether he is a Manchurian Candidate. Mind you, I’m not saying that he is; what I’m doing is speculating about the impact of the question. In elections it doesn’t matter what you are – it matters what you are perceived to be.

Learning Latin in my youth

People are sometimes surprised to learn that I studied Latin in my youth. They ask, as an American, didn’t you find it hard to learn a second language. Actually it was quite easy – I picked it up from the Roman soldiers.

My youth was a verrrry long time ago.

Visiting America

Some time in the last century I thought seriously about retiring in some third world country, some place interesting and relatively inexpensive to live. At different times I considered Portugal, Malta, and Costa Rica. I don’t really know whether I would like any of these countries since I’ve never been to any of them, and I haven’t a clue as to whether they would really be inexpensive. The besides of which I would probably have to learn a new language. The last language I learned was German some forty years ago. It’s quite rusty. I can count upwards of a hundred and I can recall a few phrases, of which the most useful is “man saugt Sumpfwasser”, in English, “it sucks swampwater”. I’m not sure I’m up for learning another language; indeed my critics have suggested that I work on the deficiencies in my English instead.

Be that as it may, I ended up in South Dakota instead. My friends and neighbours are a bit bemused that I refer to my new native land as a third world country. Technically it is not, of course. Legally South Dakota is a US possession, er, state of the union. We have ambassadors to the US, er, US senators and a US representative. We don’t need passports to cross the border and we use the same currency and postal system as the USA. We even get to vote for President, though as far as I know, it has never mattered whom South Dakotans vote for.

If we ignore the legal technicalities and focus on the nature of the beast, South Dakota has the style of a third world country. The residents are exuberantly parochial. For example, the sports news almost exclusively consists of local high school and college sports, which a bit of coverage of Minneapolis teams. The culture is different from that of mainstream America. The income level is depressed. In effect, people in these parts visit America just as though they were tourists visiting another country; we visit America to see the sites, to visit friends and relatives, and to shop. Particularly to shop – that part of South Dakota that I grace is not noted for its fine stores and cultural amenities. I could go on at length; in fact I generally do.

Be all of that as it may (I was shopping at a discount house the other day and got an oversized box of “be that as it may”s on sale; I’m trying to use them up as fast as I can. At least they weren’t made in China.) I recently made a trip to Des Moines. It is this way; Our Lady of the Large Black Dog has a son attending Law School at Drake University. Recently, within the last month as a matter of fact, she took to muttering, “I need a kid fix”. Being a mere male, I have never truly comprehended the fixation that mothers have on their children. We humans seem to be special in this regard. A mother cat will raise her kittens until they can take care of themselves, and then it’s sayonara, kitty cats.

Or perhaps it has something to do with curtains. I have observed that women have a peculiar relationship with windows and curtains. Now a man, real men anyway (men who talk about window treatments buy houses on HGTV), understands that the purpose of a window is to let light into a room and let you see the world outside. Transparent glass is a miracle, one that is not to be wasted by obscuring it with pointless bits of fabric. Women, however, have an obscure, vaguely perverse relationship with windows. A window is a background for draping various forms of material in odd directions and shapes. No man understands this, and every woman thinks it obvious.

Perhaps that’s the key – minds that believe in curtains needs kid fixes. No one knows why. Minds are not equipped to know why. Be that as it may (Whew, I only have 1143 of them left to go) OLOTLBD needed a kid fix. As the end of March approached, the word came down; we are going to Des Moines. Actually, it was phrased more tentatively – I’m going to Des Moines; you Want to come along, don’t you? Of course, I did. Who could pass up the opportunity to visit Des Moines? Perhaps it would be best if we don’t go into that in any depth. Everyone, well almost everybody outside of Bangladesh, wants to visit Des Moines. Don’t they? Well, perhaps not.

Do not think that I didn’t want to go. I enjoy visiting America now and then, and Des Moines is definitely America. I had in mind that I might get a computer that I can use for all sorts of obscure operating systems like linux, free BSD, Solaris, and Vista. I have disks for all but Vista and that comes with consumer grade computers. (Savvy computer users are waiting until service pack 6 or some such before abandoning XP.) Some might say that I don’t really need another computer – such people are almost invariably wrong about the movie preferences of people in Bangladesh. The besides of which I always enjoy buying good wine in places that are not gas stations – in central South Dakota the best place to buy wine is in gas stations. Did I say something about third world countries?

So there we were in Des Moines for an extended weekend. Number one son, mama, and I dined at various nice restaurants and some not quite so nice restaurants that number one son thought we would particularly enjoy. The latter were at least as nice as one might expect. A saturday was spent chasing around Des Moines looking for apartments – number one son needs a new apartment. Sunday was devoted to mall visiting.

Des Moines is, I suppose, representative of real to say nothing of red America. The central region is composed of one strip mall and shopping center after another, each one featuring chain store palaces of consumption. If you want to buy STUFF America is the place to be. One billion Chinese are working overtime to fill our palaces of consumption – it is our moral duty to ensure that their labors are not wasted. I’m sure that there is some taste, culture, and sophistication in Des Moines, but it’s not immediately obvious to the casual observer. Let me give a couple of examples.

Des Moines has bookstores. It has several Barnes and Nobles, and at least one Borders. Beyond that it gets pretty sparse. There is the usual gaggle of Christian bookstores. I looked for a variety of specialty shops and turned up nothing. If a chain superstore doesn’t have a book then, by God, you just don’t buy and read it in Des Moines.

I bought a Dell computer at Best Buy. That’s a trifle weird, but that’s the way the world works these days. Best Buy advertises that they have a Geek Squad. Don’t believe them. Once upon a time Best Buy had a tenuous relationship with real geeks. If you were interested in computers, the real stuff, not just whatever Microsoft was palming off on the public lately, they at least had some stuff and people that knew something. That was so last century. At BB geek means knowing how to run the diagnostics and reinstall vista.

Our visit was extended a day – the plains was having one of its spring blizzards and we decided to wait it out in comfort. Tuesday came bright and sunny. We headed out and made the seven hour trek back to dear, drear Highmore. It was good to visit America and good to get home.

Spring in South Dakota

I finally figured out the deal with spring in South Dakota. The thing is, South Dakota doesn’t actually have a season called spring. The way it works is that in the transitional period between full winter and full summer the weather flips backs and forth between summer days and winter days.


I went to church on Easter Sunday. My readers may think that odd, but it is not. Deborah asked me to go and I agreed – I may be a non-believer but I am comfortable with Christian ritual and dialectic and, after all, when one is an atheist in God’s country it is well to keep a low profile. The flowers were nice, the decorations were nice, and the sermon was thoughtful. The church did its duty in providing community communion and cohesiveness.

All went well until I thought to read the selected bible passages from Matthew. It had been a long time since I had actually read the Bible. All might have been well if I had only read the selected verses, but I went on to read “the rest of the story” and came to Matthew 27:24-25, the infamous blood curse verses:

24 When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.

25 Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.

This is a passage that was used to justify centuries of persecution of the Jews, a persecution that is a central part of the dark and bloody side of the history of Christianity. When one is sitting in a prosaic church, surrounded by good people participating in its simple rituals, it is easy to forget what Christians have done in the name of Christ.

I wished I hadn’t read it; reading it quite spoiled Easter.

But is it beautiful code?

A while back I asked for references for a portable storage allocator. Well back in the last century I has coded such a beast and, in 1990, I released a version of it under a BSD type licence. I was sort of hoping that someone had done something similar (but much better) that wasn’t quite as archaic. No such luck – there were some alternatives, but none was close to what I wanted, so I went ahead and did it myself.

There is an interesting sidelight to all of this. One Edward N., an effusive usenet crank and crackpot, looked up the original code (posted on usenet) and pronounced it beautiful. As far as I can tell, his sole reason for pronouncing it beautiful was that every line was commented in annotation style. The left side of the line is code, the right side is annotation. It is a style that I used when I first wrote C code, one that I had used in assembly language code.

Over the last two months I have been engaged in creating a new version of the aforesaid allocator. Why so long you might ask. I suppose the answer is that it is yet another case of gold-plating bovine fecal material. I have reworked the original until it is like the fabled Greek ship in which every part has been replaced by another, often different in shape and function. When does it cease to be the same ship? When all of the code has been replaced and the algorithms are different, is it the same program? The intellectual property mavens have their own answer, several of them in fact. I have taken the view that they are not in any meaningful sense they are not. Since nobody cares the issue is moot – just the sort of thing I like to discuss and think about.

The question though is whether the new code is beautiful. The only thing unchanged is the commenting style. So, is it still beautiful code? And, if it is, is it because of the commenting style or despite it.

This page was last updated April 6, 2008.

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Collected editorials