May 03

Twin cities

When Marie and I were newlyweds, our first home was in Columbia, SC, near the university we both attended. A couple of years later, we moved across the river to West Columbia. The two cities were really just parts of a single metropolitan area, but it made sense for them to be different cities (with their own names and governments) because they were in different counties. The Broad River was the boundary.

But when I was a child, I lived in Monroe, LA, which was also part of a “twin cities” metropolitan area, with West Monroe on the other side of the Ouachita River. However, the river was not any kind of legal boundary; both cities were in the same parish. It was really just a single city with a river running through the middle. So why were Monroe and West Monroe separate cities (with different names and governments)? I’ve never understood this.

And my mother’s birthplace makes even less sense. She was born in Kansas City, MO, which is adjacent to Kansas City, KS. But not across the river! The Missouri River does run through the Kansas City metropolitan area, but it flows from west to east. The boundary is the state line between Kansas and Missouri, which runs north to south. So why do both cities have exactly the same name when they have to be different cities because they’re in different states?  And why are they both named after Kansas, when the one in Missouri has three times the population of the one in Kansas? It makes no sense.

Jun 17

Male programmers considered harmful

A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the practice of documenting computer programs by including comments in your code. More specifically, it’s about how male programmers are arrogant jerks who refuse to do this, while female programmers are “considerate of those who will use the code later.” The article — written by a woman, and citing only one source, a female executive at Ingres — is dripping with sexist bigotry and condescension, including a jaw-dropping statement that “there’s a big need to fix testosterone-fueled code at Ingres.”

Judging by that article, you would think that including comments in your code is something that female programmers invented, and that males do only if their female superiors nag and browbeat them.

Of course that’s totally false. When I took programming courses in the 1970s, my instructors were all male, and every one of them insisted that we document our code properly with clear and readable comments. If we failed to do so, we lost points on each assignment. Our programming textbooks all emphasized the importance of documenting your code. Every one of those textbooks was written by men.

So what we have here is nothing less than historical revisionism. Proper commenting of code was invented and championed by men in the earliest days of programming, but now Rebecca Buckman and Emma McGrattan want to rewrite history so they can claim that programming was a realm of “testosterone-fueled” barbarism until the women showed up and explained to us, in words of one syllable, how to do it properly.

This article claims that even today, men deliberately obfuscate their code “to show how clever they are.” I think that any programmer who actually did this would be asked to stop, and if he continued, he would be disciplined and eventually fired.

I also think that any male vice-president of engineering who expressed scorn and contempt for female programmers, and who was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying that “there’s a big need to fix estrogen-fueled code”, would be instantly fired.
Source: Dr. Helen

Sep 07

The last one to know

I shouldn’t read comments on YouTube; I really shouldn’t. I’m not sure why the overwhelming majority of the comments on YouTube videos are posted by subliterate morons, but I have seen enough of them to know that this is the case. I know that reading the comments will just infuriate me, so it would be best for everyone if I just refrained from looking.
But sometimes I forget. In this case, I was watching this new music video, a duet sung by Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson. I foolishly allowed my eyes to stray downward, and found myself reading this:
“I didn’t even know Reba could sing, it sounds amazing with her, the original is great too though.”
You didn’t know. . . that Reba McEntire. . . could sing?
I know she’s done a lot of acting, and perhaps you first encountered her in that context. But still — you didn’t know she could sing?
She’s one of the best-selling country music artists of all time: over 60 million records sold. Her first #1 single was in 1982. She’s recorded 29 albums and earned 72 awards. The Country Music Association named her Female Vocalist of the Year four years in a row. And you didn’t know she could sing?
I know a lot of people don’t listen to country or pay any attention to the careers of country musicians. But Reba is a lot more than just a country singer. She’s a crossover international pop megastar. That acting work of hers that I referred to earlier? It included performing on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, and at Carnegie Hall in South Pacific: classics of musical theatre.
Yes, Reba McEntire can sing.
Good Lord.

May 13

Zero intelligence

I try to pay attention to news reports about zero-tolerance policies in public schools because that’s an issue that has affected my family directly. By zero-tolerance policies, I’m talking about stuff like this and this: the sort of mindless, inflexible bureaucratic mindset that leads teachers and administrators to suspend and punish students for possessing two Tylenol tablets, or writing a story that mentions guns. In one recent case, a student was suspended because he accepted a cell-phone call (during lunch break, not in class) from his mother, who is a soldier stationed in Iraq. I say that this issue has affected my family because both of my children have been penalized for “offenses” of this sort; my son was even sentenced to perform community service as a result.
This insanity is even happening at schools where I was a student. I attended Rawlinson Road Middle School for two years, and my mother taught there for twenty years. Last week, an eleven-year-old student at RRMS was arrested and and charged with “carrying an unlawful weapon” because he had some nails in his pocket (left over from a Boy Scout activity, according to the boy’s father).
I think I am glad that my daughter has already graduated from high school, and that my son will do so in two years. When both of my offspring are out of the public school system for good, I will breathe a sigh of relief.

Jun 14

Chicken scratch

I agree with everything Bob says about the uselessness of cursive writing, but I have a few points of my own to add.
Although the real-world advantage of cursive is that it tends to save time by sacrificing legibility, that’s not what the teachers have in mind when they force students to learn it. If you look at the textbooks, handouts, and chalkboard examples in cursive class, what you’ll see is penmanship, the sort of elaborately ornate cursive that no one actually does because it takes far too much time. (It’s art disguised as writing, really — but if that’s what you want to do, why are you fooling around with a ballpoint pen? Buy a calligraphy set and learn how to do really ornamental writing.)
I believe these teachers are motivated by nostalgia for a bygone era when people wrote on parchment with quill pens, and the writing was elegant and beautiful because nobody could write except aristocrats, scholars, and clerics. The scholars and clerics had plenty of time for fancy writing because that was their job, basically. The aristocrats had plenty of time because their slaves did all the actual work, and they didn’t do their own writing anyway — they dictated their words to a scribe or secretary. In other words, the cursive fetish is motivated by a nauseating mixture of cluelessness, elitism, historical ignorance, and feckless longing for the Middle Ages.
I can testify from personal experience that these teachers are warping their students for life. When I taught freshman writing classes at the University of South Carolina, I told my students that they were welcome to turn in handwritten essays, but only if those essays were printed (for legibility) and written in pencil (so they could correct mistakes and make changes by erasing, not scratching out). They ignored me and wrote their essays in ink, using sloppy, unreadable cursive and scratching out their mistakes. I repeated my requirements with increasing vehemence, but my students paid no attention. It eventually dawned on me that it was impossible for them to do what I was asking. They had been indoctrinated for years with the notion that civilized, educated people (i.e., the landed gentry) always used cursive and wrote in ink. When I told them to do the exact opposite, I might as well have been asking them to come to class naked and sit on the ceiling. It was so alien a concept that they simply couldn’t grasp it.
Isaac Asimov once made the same point about Roman numerals that Bob does about cursive writing. The Arabic numbering system is vastly superior to the Roman one in every conceivable way, so why are we still wasting class time teaching kids how to use Roman numerals? What good are they? Roman numerals are still in use, but only when someone wants to be pompous, pretentious, and obscure. I think the motivation is the same as for cursive: elitist nostalgia.
And don’t even get me started about long division.
UPDATE: A few days after I posted this article, blogger Donald Sensing linked to it, referring to me as a college professor. I e-mailed him to explain that I was just a lowly graduate instructor when I taught English 101, but he never acknowledged the correction.

Mar 28

Closing time

Bob and I had our monthly dinner tonight and (following our usual practice) went walking afterward. It was chilly outside, so we did our walking inside a shopping mall. We were at Southpoint in Durham, which is an excellent place for that sort of thing. Until the armed guards ordered us to leave.
No, we weren’t in any kind of trouble. But it was after 9:00, and while we were absorbed in conversation, the mall had closed. This usually happens to us. Our postprandial walks tend to last for hours, and by 9:00 p.m. we are just getting started. But in Mall Time, that’s the end of the evening. Time to go home.
Outside of malls, nobody seems to think that 9:00 is time to call it a night. Stores like Target and Wal-Mart are open until 10:00 or 11:00. So are bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Movie theaters don’t shut down until midnight, and many restaurants stay open until 10:00 or later. And why not? People are still shopping, eating, and lining up to see movies.
Everyone but the malls seems to understand this. If people leave work at 5:00, it’s close to 6:00 when they get home, and 7:00 by the time they finish supper and get started shopping. From 7:00 to 9:00 is only two hours, which isn’t very long if you have a lot of shopping to do, or need to visit multiple stores. By staying open until 10:00 or 11:00, the Wal-Marts of the world not only make our lives easier, but also increase their business. But the malls think you should be at home in bed by then.
What’s particularly strange is the utter uniformity of it. Every mall I’ve even been to closes at 9:00 or 9:30. Is there some kind of federal law requiring this? They must know they’re driving business to Wal-Mart, but apparently they don’t care. 9:00 is the Official Mall Closing Time, so they chase the customers out and lock the doors.
And the next morning, the malls open at 10:00, when everyone is at work. You can’t go shopping during the day, but the malls are open anyhow, because those are mall hours. Why?

Nov 15

Media drivel addendum

Retail sales shot up 7.1% in October. Yeah, American consumers are definitely cowering in their basements, all right.
A closer examination shows even more evidence that we’re not the Nation Paralyzed By Fear that the journalists would have us believe. Sales of automobiles and parts skyrocketed by 26.4% in October. That’s the biggest October increase since 1968. And sales of building materials rose 2.8%. A general increase in spending could perhaps be explained away as a fatalistic “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” reaction to terrorism and war. But if people are investing in new cars and home improvements, that means they expect to be around to enjoy them. These sales figures depict a nation that is optimistic about the future.
The article tries to dismiss the increase in auto sales as a response to interest-free financing, and claims that “people told consumer surveys they were miserable, but they were willing to borrow money to pursue a bargain.” But I just don’t believe it. Consumers aren’t that easily manipulated. For evidence of this, look at Japan, where the economy has been stagnant for years and shows no sign of recovering. The Japanese central bank has reduced interest rates all the way to zero, but consumers still refuse to borrow or spend money. They don’t believe things are going to get better any time soon, and prefer to save as much money as possible. This is not happening in America.

Nov 14

Media drivel

Even before September 11, I didn’t hold the news media in very high esteem. But since then, my opinion of them has plummeted to an all-time low. Their hysterical, overhyped handling of the hijack attacks and the anthrax-by-mail story thoroughly disgusted me. Now, in the wake of Monday’s plane crash in New York, they’re busily squandering what little credibility they had left.
This CNNmoney article is a perfect example. There’s not a single fact in the entire piece; it’s nothing but guesses, conjecture, and idle speculation. The crash might affect consumer spending. The holiday season could be in trouble. People may stay at home instead of going to the mall. And so forth. The article is full of statements like “at this point in time it’s hard to predict what will happen” and “the impact of this latest crash has yet to be determined.” In other words, we don’t know anything. But we’re not going to let that stop us from blathering on for 19 paragraphs about how everything is going to get worse.
The low point of the article is this statement: “Americans, who have been shying away from malls and other large public places since Sept. 11 for fear of another attack, could hunker down at home even more now that another plane has crashed, experts said.” I have been reading claims like this for the last two months, and as far as I can tell, they are completely false. I’ve gone to malls, restaurants, and movie theaters numerous times since 9/11, and they have been as crowded as ever. I can only recall one exception: at lunchtime on September 12, the parking lot and food court at Prime Outlets near Research Triangle Park were semi-deserted. But that was no surprise, because most of the lunch business at Prime Outlets comes from the nearby airport, which was closed that day by federal order.
Other than that, I have seen zero evidence that people are avoiding public places. In fact, on November 11, I drove a friend to Crabtree Valley Mall, where she was meeting someone else. I tried to park in the lot at the Hudson Belk end of the mall, but that lot was completely full. So I tried parking in the lot in front of Toys ‘R’ Us nearby, something I normally only have to do during the holiday shopping period. There was no parking there either — not a single space. I ended up having to drop off my passenger and leave without parking at all. Does that sound like people are “shying away” from Crabtree? On the contrary, I took it as evidence that holiday shopping has started early this year.
The assertion that Monday’s plane crash will prompt people to “hunker down” at home is particularly stupid, since the plane crashed in a residential area. This means that people on the ground were killed because they were at home. If this disaster prompts people to change their behavior at all (which I doubt), it will make them avoid their homes and spend more time in public places, not less. But that’s a logical conclusion, and I don’t expect logic from journalists any more than I expect facts. They’re too absorbed in their mission of telling us we should panic and predicting economic disaster to waste time on such things.

Oct 04

Bad ideas

Listening to All Things Considered on the way home this evening, I heard how Washington is celebrating the reopening of Reagan National Airport. Am I the only one who thinks this is a mistake? DCA (that’s its three-letter code) is dangerous for reasons that have nothing to do with the recent terrorist attacks. No airport should be where it is in the first place. I’ve been there, and you can literally look out the terminal window and see the dome of the Capitol.
The FAA can tweak the security procedures and flight paths all they want, but it will always be insanely risky to have jumbo jets taking off and landing inside a city. DCA should have been permanently closed years ago, and I was hoping that after September 11, it finally would be. But apparently convenience still trumps safety in Washington.
NPR’s next story made me forget all about that by giving me something even worse to worry about. Since the World Trade Center was destroyed, I’ve seen quite a few harebrained and ill-considered proposals for anti-hijacking measures, but by far the worst is the notion of remote-control systems for airliners. The idea is that if a plane is hijacked, or the pilot incapacitated, people on the ground can send a signal to disable the controls in the cockpit, take control of the plane remotely, and land it safely in a secure location.
But if the FAA can seize control of a plane remotely, then terrorists can do it too. In fact, it will make their task much easier — now they can fly airliners into skyscrapers without putting themselves at risk. They won’t even have to go through the security checkpoint at an airport. Sure, you can build security features into the system, but can you guarantee that nobody can hack their way in or steal the password? The system has to be absolutely bulletproof, or you get a repeat of September 11.
Linda Wertheimer discussed this proposal with the president of the National Air Transportation Society for over four minutes, but it apparently never occurred to her to ask what would prevent terrorists from exploiting it. The closest she got was to suggest that terrorists could take over the control tower at an airport and seize control of airplanes from there. But why would they need to? All they need is the right kind of signal. I can’t believe anyone is taking this proposal seriously.