Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Review: Life in Code

I finished Ellen Ullman's book "Life in Code" (2017) last week. It's a marvelous collection of essays primarily concerned with computer programming. Her essays touch on the actual act of programming, but also the impetus of coding: what motivated her to want to learn to program a computer? She also tackles hoary subjects like computer privacy, the gentrification of San Francisco and artificial intellegence. Despite the title, the book is very accessible.

Ms Ullman explains her compulsion for coding by relaying her experiences with the Sony Portapak. As a college student, she reveled in the Portapak's utility as a video recorder. Released in 1967, the Portapak's size and cost instantly made video production easier and more accessible for the masses. She became an expert in how to use this machine to its fullest. She saw it as analogous to the appearance of the personal computer: a revolution in the old world order.

"I learned I had no fear of machines," she declared. Her ability to engage with the Portapak propelled her past videography and directly into a purchase of the TRS-80, an early personal computer. From this, she leapt into a computer career that spanned twenty years. She speaks fondly of her computers as "fine machines." She reminisces about talking her way into computer jobs, but she proved a durable ability to work on and solve computer problems.

She comments on the taciturn qualities exhibited by most programmers. "People imagine that programmers don't like to talk because they prefer machines to people. This is not completely true. Programmers don't talk because they must not be interrupted." She accurately distinguishes between low-level programmers versus high-level programmers. ("High is bad. If you want any money and prestige, you need to write code that only machines or other programmers understand.")

She knocks down the common analogy that computer algorithms are like cookbook recipes. Nothing could be further from the truth and she makes compelling cases for her argument. "For example, try to think of everything you know about something as simple as an invoice. Now try to tell an alien how to prepare one. That is programming." She imagines a hypothetical robot being asked to follow a recipe, and she wondered how we humans would translate for its computer mind the instructions "[sauté] quickly to a nice brown outside and a rosy center."

I read this book as an audio book while driving to and from New Jersey (from Boston). Ms Ullman was the narrator. Her voice over my car speakers made the book more personal. As she read her passages about the challenges of a varied programming career, she wove in stories of love, loneliness, her old cat and (yes) making dinner. I marveled at how seamlessly she brought in these subjects. Her writing is exquisite: refined, direct, yet evocative. I highly recommend "Life in Code" and I look forward to reading it again!


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Fun Facts About Me

At work the other day, we all went around the virtual table to introduce ourselves to a new co-worker. The first few speakers added "fun facts" about themselves, so I knew to be prepared to offer a fun fact about myself, but when it came to my turn, I froze.

"Well, I'm a parent of a college-aged kid, so most of my fun was before that," I said. The joke fell flat, and then I offered this: I binged watched five seasons of Homeland last Winter. "Binge watching TV," our host said. "That's always fun!"

The rest of the meeting went well, but I stewed about the lack of fun facts I could offer. My co-workers offered awesome-sounding fun facts: world traveling, high school athletic accomplishments, career changes, gaming. I had fun facts about myself too, I just couldn't be sure what they were.

Part of the problem was getting stuck on the word "fun". My ideas of fun have changed. I think I could have gotten past the word 'fun' by replacing it with 'interesting', but then they may as well be random facts. Fun is enjoyment and amusement. That helped crystallize the list: these were all things I enjoyed.

So, here are some fun facts about me:

  1. I attended a kids' soccer camp with Carlos Alberto as a featured guest (he was a player on Brazil's 1970 World Cup team) (circa 1980s).
  2. I have done a cross-country road trip across America with my family (1983).
  3. I did a tandem skydive (1989). It's not something I would do today!
  4. I met and shook hands with an astronaut during an internship (1989). (Joke: we were on Earth.)
  5. I met my wife through a personal ad in the Boston Phoenix newspaper (1991).
  6. I played ice hockey with a local recreational league (1993-1996), fulfilling a childhood ambition.
  7. I worked at a company that had an IPO (Open Market) (1996).
  8. I produced a cooking show (two episodes) for local community access TV (2001).
  9. I wrote a version of Tetris in C++ (for MS Windows) (2011). Remarkably, it still runs!
  10. I have read Ulysses (2012).
Tandem Skydive (credit: Joe Jennings)

Monday, March 28, 2022

Turning 21

I turned 21 on April 6, 1989. I have very few memories of this day but I know that I was a junior in college, and that I definitely had dinner at Holmes and Watson in downtown Troy. My favorite meal there was a patty melt with french fries. Of course, now that I was 21, I would be able to wash it down with a nice cold beer.

Holmes and Watson had a feature where you could start a World Tour of Beers. You would ask the bartender for a World Tour card, which was a long rectangular card listing all the beers available on tap and bottle. The bartender put your name on the card, and your Tour began. You had one calendar year to drink 50 beers off the card (there were up to 80 beers from many countries). I knew people who completed multiple Tours and I aspired to be like them.

The Tour cards were stored in a wooden box with dividers for letters, and people who were serious about the Tour would fish their card out when they entered the restaurant. After you ordered a beer off the card, the bartender would punch a hole next to that beer's listing on the card.  Finishing the Tour rewards you with a tee-shirt, a mug and a hat. I'm proud that I finished my Tour before the year ended.

I'm pretty certain that I would have had this 21st birthday dinner with Dean Kehoe, a classmate from Massachusetts who indulged my humor and my poor attitude towards school at that time. I relished the opportunity to drink legally, and he and I were regulars at Sutters, a nearby bar that was famous for Thursday night wings, a loud juke box, and cheap beer by the pitcher.

Turning 21 is supposed to be the start of adulthood, but I admit that I had a rocky start. I was unhappy in school, and I wanted to tranquilize my anxious state. I wanted to make changes. I wanted to start over. I felt a lot of pressure, but when I look back, it was all self-imposed and self-inflicted. It took a while to gain my bearings and to take the reigns of my adult life.

There's a lot the 53-year old me would have told the 21-year old me. I'm not certain I would have listened back then, but I'm listening now.

Me in college


Monday, February 28, 2022

The Great Binge

Late November of 2021, I started a great binge of television. I only read one book in December because I was too busy watching TV. And I liked it!

I started with Homeland, the acclaimed Showtime series about CIA officer Carrie Mathison (actress Claire Danes) and her hunt for terrorists. I was instantly hooked. At the height of my TV watching, I would get through three or even four episodes in a single weekend day. On a weeknight, if I started early enough, I could power through three episodes. Many nights I wanted to gobble up the episodes as the show was so good. I won't spoil it (even though it was released in 2011) but suffice to say I gobbled the first four seasons and was craving more.

In an attempt to hold off consuming the remaining four seasons of Homeland, I switched to House of Cards, the political thriller/drama featuring Frank Underwood (actor Kevin Spacey) on Netflix. Though I didn't watch it at the same feverish pace as Homeland, I certainly devoured it, getting through three seasons by mid-January. I would leaven the darkness of House of Cards by mixing in episodes from the first season of The Mandalorian (Disney+). I would sometimes watch The Madalorian first to warm-up for my evening TV or I would watch it second to cleanse my mind from the lurid action from Cards.

Unable to stop my rampage of television, I moved over to Ozark (Netflix), the crime drama featuring money launderer Marty Byrde (actor Jason Bateman). I had watched the first season back in 2017, the year it debuted. This time around I had to watch some recaps to reacquaint myself with all the characters, but it was not difficult to get back into the flow of the series. I really liked the overall arc and direction of Season 2 and I came close to answering "Yes" when Netflix asked if I wanted to watch the next season but I didn't.

Instead, I started Homeland Season 5. This kept me occupied until late January. A Reddit post has commenters giving this season low marks in terms of quality but I enjoyed all the plot twists. By this point I realized that I was watching way too much TV so I searched for a spy novel to ease me out of TV mode and into reading mode. (This search lead me to "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden" by Mark Bowden and "Damascus Station" by David McCloskey.)

The last series I binged was Season 3 of "The Wire" from HBO. It's a testament to the density of this show that it's very difficult to watch multiple episodes in one evening. I had to read the HBO synopses and during my watching I would often rewind to remind myself who was who, and to read what was said by turning on the captions. The climax of Season 3 devastated me, but like all great endings, there was an inevitability to it that made perfect sense.

It was fun experiencing the modern way people consume television, but I'm done for now. People reading this: recommend me a TV series to watch. I may add it to my future binge list!

TV Time

Monday, January 31, 2022

My 2021 Books and Movies

In 2021, I watched 60 movies (Letterboxd) and 43 books (Goodreads).

My favorite book from last year was The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu. This book is a collection of short stories, including "The Paper Menagerie" which won both the Hugo Award (2012), and the Nebula Award (2011) for best short story. The stories featured mind bending ideas and intense flights of fantasy that were dazzling to hold in my imagination. Honorary mentions: "Sapiens" (Yuval Noah Harari), "Klara and the Sun" (Kazuo Ishiguro), "(Re)born in the USA" (Roger Bennett).

When I look at all the movies I rated as perfect last year, six were movies I had seen before. Of the remaining five, I most enjoyed Netflix's "Don't Look Up". I liked subdued and meek Leo DiCaprio, and over-the-top Jonah Hill.

(detail of Paper Menagerie book cover; design by Michael McCartney)