Monday, April 30, 2007

Ass Surgery - Just Another Painful Reminder Of the Inevitable End

Gentle reader,

As I go through life I find it's best to pretend that I am immortal. Otherwise, I become preoccupied with dark thoughts. Thoughts such as "how did I get here?", "what's it all for?" and "shit I'm going to die".

Once in a while, however, something medical comes up that reminds me (sometimes quite painfully) that I am getting older. I am mortal after all, and my body is slowly starting to fail. One such event happened last week.

For the squeamish, fair warning: this post contains some graphic details. On the other hand, the principle of "know your audience" tells me that there are some that might enjoy the read. If nothing else, it will allow you to rejoice in your own good health.

Still with me? Good.

So, about 2 months ago, I noticed a strange lump on my ass. No, not on the fleshy part of the butt. A lump on the anus itself, towards the outside. The lump was soft and squishy most of the time. But sometimes when taking a shit it turned extremely hard, like a frozen pea. Mercifully, it wasn't painful at all. Those of you older than, say, 35, may recognize the symptoms (it's pretty common) of a hemorrhoid. So, no big deal. I have an ass lump, I mention this to my dear family and become known as "lumpy". All well and good. Until, one night last week, I awoke in terrible pain - the ass lump has now become permanently hard, engorged with blood, like it's burning and trying to burst.

Well, I am reluctant to let ANYONE mess with my ass. Not even my wife. I know Cosmo tells you that some guys like having their ass played with during sex. Ladies, this is not always the case. Even going to see a doctor was something I didn't want to consider. I would take the pain like a man. Well, I found out that pain trumps modesty. After just one fun-filled day of going to work and pretending that all was OK, I decided enough was enough.

Off to the emergency room I went. Years ago, the receptionists at the ER used to loudly ask what the problem was, forcing you to confess in front of a room full of people. Mercifully, they had changed that policy in favor of letting you write down the problem on a discreet little piece of paper. Knowing this, I had cunningly pre-determined what I would write: "Pain when going to the bathroom". Brilliant! Some truth, but not the whole (hole) truth. No mention at all of an ass lump. I would divulge that only when in the privacy of the doctor's room. Such intimate details were clearly only to be given on a "need to know" basis.

Well, after a short wait, in I went. After the blood-pressure and temperature rigamarole, I described my unfortunate predicament to the nurse. Then the doctor came in and he was a no-messing-around sort of guy. Pants down please, and bend over the table. Wow, another new experience. After a bit of hemming and hawing and messing around, the diagnosis was pronounced: A thrombosed hemorrhoid. That means a hemorrhoid that has managed to get a lump of congealed blood stuck in it. My body, in its infinite wisdom, had figured out that the blood clot needed to be gotten rid of and had started to attack it. The result was a nice little infection that only served to make things even more painful. The result of the visit was an appointment with a dedicated ass-surgeon for the very next day and a prescription for some powerful pain-killers.

Still with me? OK you are a glutton for punishment. So at this point, I was wishing for a remote control like the one given to Adam Sandler in the movie "click". I needed some serious fast-forwarding of my life. But I wasn't getting away with things that easily. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, my 1pm appointment rolled around and I was finally able to see the ass-surgeon, the person who I now refer to as "my blessed saviour" (doctor MBS). He had a dry sense of humor. Years of digging around in people's butt-holes will do that to you, I suppose. His solution to my problem: local anaesthetic, followed by "lancing" of the offending hemorrhoid. At that point, I would agree to anything (*anything*) that would reduce the pain.

We started immediately. First things first - it was time for more humiliation. Up onto a steel table with some white antiseptic paper coverings, and then my ass cheeks were gently but firmly stretched and taped back into place, 3 pieces of tape on each. They were spread wide open to the world, including the female nurse who was helping out who I had been chatting with a few minutes earlier as she took my blood pressure. The time had arrived for a shot of local anaesthetic. The nurse came over and offered me her hand. Well, isn't that a nice gesture, I thought to myself. But I wasn't going to accept her hand and be a wimp. After all, it was just a local anaesthetic, right? No problemo. Been there, done that.

Wrong. Really, badly, very terribly wrong. Never been wronger, ever in my life.

The pain that I felt when he inserted that needle into the soft, very sensitive, never-touched-by-anything-rougher-than- a-soft-piece-of-bathroom-tissue part of my anus felt like someone had placed a red-hot piece of coal, with shards of glass in it, directly onto and into my anus and held it there for about a minute, every once in a while turning it around and digging it in. I cannot imagine how simply cutting off the hemmorhoid could bring pain even
remotely as bad as that injection. I speak as someone who has also suffered in the past from a kidney stone, which in itself is more painful then childbirth (they tell me) and it was worse, much worse, than that.

The good news...after a couple more minutes, all the pain had gone away. Then doctor MBS was able to cut into the blood-and-puss-engorged lump and remove the clot. After it was out, as a final touch, doctor MBS kindly, thoughtfully, took the time to carry the blood clot over to the head of the table and display it proudly to me. I was at a total loss for words at this point, even though I appreciate good work as much as the next man.

Thankfully, it was all downhill from there. After he was done and I was getting my clothes back on, I glanced back at the table. There was a patch of the white sanitary paper covering that looked like the top of a mcdonalds hamburger - a mixture of mustard and ketchup (just picture the colors). A messy business indeed and as my trips to hospitals and clinics continue I am reminded of my wise decision many years ago to not try to become a doctor or vet of any kind.

So having recovered over the past few days, I feel like I have had a small rebirth. After medical scares all seems new, and then I start to think, shouldn't I do something more productive with my life? Maybe. But for now, I am grateful just to not be in pain.

Time for today's quote:

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

Saturday, April 28, 2007

An Employee's Guide to Achieving Financial Security in America - In several excruciatingly difficult steps

Gentle reader,

Here are some thoughts on making sure that you don't spend your life in a state of continual financial stress. There are a number of steps. I'm afraid the first step is a difficult one. The other steps are difficult also. Hi-ho, let's get started anyway.

The first step is for you to get a very high paying job. How do you do that? Well, it depends on the job but you should definitely spend some time researching jobs that pay well. For some you will need to invest years into college (medicine, law). For some you will need to be extremely smart (Wall Street quantitative analyst). For some you will need to be able to handle large quantities of boredom and stress (management, law). For others you will need the ability to successfully lie to other people (sales, law). OK, I gave lawyers a hard time there. If you have a family and you want a decent house to put them in, you should aim for $100k or above. There aren't many jobs that pay that much these days, you may have noticed. That's what makes this step so difficult. The problem with high-paying jobs is that, usually, the amount of stress you will have to deal with is directly proportional to your salary.

Why such an emphasis on a high-paying job? Well, let's be honest. Inflation has been creeping up (gas, energy, education, little things like that). In particular, housing has gone up by a ridiculous amount over the past 5 years. I find it very frustrating that if I was starting out today I would not be able to afford my own house. I know it's nice for some to have their property value appreciate but not to the point where young people cannot afford to buy a place of their own. So, if you want a decent house you will probably need to make a lot of money.

The second step is for you to live below your means. There are many places you can go to read suggestions (e.g. blogs and finance web sites). I think you should aim to have at least $500 of cash left over every month to save, after all other expenses, including maxing out your 401(k). Maxing out your 401(k) means that you will need to invest around $15k a year, which is over $1k a month. See how step 1 is important? It's difficult to do that on a very low salary, particularly if you have a family. Be wary of the lure of the new car. That will take several hundred dollars a month away for a few years, at least. If you own your own house, your mortgage will most probably be your biggest expense. Don't underestimate heating and cooling as well, depending on where you live. Energy costs are rising far quicker than inflation. Owning a house in general is a constant source of expenses.

The third step is for you to build up an emergency fund. You should aim for around 6 months of expenses, but more is better. Be aware of the fact that if you lose your job, you will probably have to COBRA (continue paying for, by yourself) your health care. That can be EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE for a family. We are talking $1000 a month or more. That cost should be included when you are figuring your monthly expenses. Keep your emergency fund in a high-interest account or treasury bonds, something that is VERY SAFE.

The fourth step is for you to be VERY CAREFUL about your career. You do NOT want to lose your job for an extended period. That is terrible, financially (as well as emotionally). Basic advice here is to avoid companies that are clearly in trouble (unfortunately, most companies will be in trouble at some time, because many businesses are cyclical). If the company you work for is not making a profit, it is cause to be worried and start looking elsewhere. To this point, you must MANAGE YOUR OWN CAREER. Update your skills constantly, make sure that you are competitive. Be aware of current salaries for your type of work. Are you highly paid? BEWARE. You are a target for losing your job unless you are obviously justifying your higher-than-average salary. By the way, it is a fact of life that NOBODY cares about your career as much as you do, so look out for yourself.

Since so few companies offer pensions any more, the fifth step is to invest steadily for your retirement and invest in the right things. Again, you can read books about this. A good one is "The four pillars of Investing" by William Bernstein. Avoid the following mistakes:
* Do not invest all your money in your company's stock! Remember what happened to Enron?
* Do not invest more than a few percent of your savings in any one particular stock. Consider low-cost index funds or ETFs (exchange-traded funds). Google for IYY (Dow Jones total market) or EFA (European large cap).

Also, do not overlook international funds. Many very intelligent investors are sounding warnings about the US economy. Are they right? Beats me. But it doesn't hurt to diversify into European stocks, and maybe consider China and India as well. Once you have picked what you want to invest in, STICK WITH IT. Don't be constantly changing your mind and chasing "hot" sectors. Every day the press focuses on what the stock market has done. Forget about it. You need to invest your money for the long term (20, 30 years). If you are investing steadily (e.g. every month) it is best for you that the stock market goes DOWN for a while anyway, especially when you are starting out. It's like prices being cheap at the supermarket.

Well, that's it, I have run out of advice for now so on to today's quote...

If you're old enough to start thinking about sex, you're old enough to start saving for retirement.
-Phil DeMuth

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain as always,

your friend,

Buford Twain

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What I Believe

Gentle reader,

I borrowed the title of this post from an article written by EM Forster (you can google that if you *really* want a good read).

Here is what I believe, at the tender age of 41. I wonder how much this list will change as times goes on.

1) Nobody on earth (from the Dalai Lama and the Pope to Stephen Hawking) has the slightest idea why we are here, where we are from and what is the meaning of life. If anyone tells me they know, then I assume that they are either deluding themselves or they are lying.

2) Anyone who believes in and follows any of the existing world religions is either deluding themselves or they haven't thought about it enough.

3) The artificial division of the planet into countries, states, etc. is ridiculous and leads to huge problems (see 4).

4) Nuclear war is almost inevitable. The probability of nuclear war is not zero and the amount of time available to have a nuclear war is pretty much infinite.

5) To be happy in life you have to work at something you can be proud of. Artists have a head start.

6) Most people, when taken individually, are decent and sane.

7) Large groups of people with something in common, and particularly those who lead them, are usually to be feared.

8) It is best for a parent to educate their child, if possible and practical.

9) It is terribly wrong to treat people like parts of a machine.

10) The goal of people should be overall happiness. This is sometimes thought of as being the same as wealth. That is a huge mistake.

Today's quote?

Politicians and diapers must be changed regularly, and for the same reason.

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

Two Weeks Off a Year

Gentle reader,

Somehow, we need to get more leisure/vacation time. Aside from just feeling downright tired all the time, we are losing many ideas and are spending time doing all the wrong things while not having time to do the right things.

Have you ever noticed what happens when you take an extended vacation? I am not talking here about a hectic five day trip to DisneyWorld (TM). I am talking about taking a vacation where you do "nothing".

As you decompress, you start to forget the pressures and stress of your job. You become happier. Time takes on a different feeling. Your time is your own and not somebody else's. You are not as hurried, you can focus on things that YOU want to do, not that somebody else wants you to do.

And after a few days, you might start to notice something else.

If you are like me, after a few days, your brain may start to throw out ideas and thoughts that previously would have been suppressed, pushed to the back of your brain as being too impractical. Thoughts that are radical and "foolish". Big thoughts.

For example, how can I improve life for others? How can I work less and have more time to myself? How can I spend more time with my children? How can I do more of the things that make me happy?

Sometimes, I will get some ideas about how I can make a positive difference to the lives of others. For example, would it be possible for me to set up a network of buses that could carry people economically from the suburbs to their jobs downtown, so they wouldn't need to drive any more? Would it be practical for me to install a big wind turbine near my house, to generate electricity to help
slow down climate change and save money in the long run? How about doing some more writing and maybe even beginning that novel I have been meaning to write? What can I do to organize non-religious people to come together and
do projects for the benefit of others (e.g. helping the poor and elderly)? And so on.

All these thoughts I find far more important than working. And yet, after a week or so, I am forced to go back to work and those thoughts disappear, or are pushed back into the back of my brain, lying dormant.

If we had a more equal balance between work, and leisure, I think we would see many benefits because some of these ideas would be able to see the light of day, instead of becoming pipe dreams. And then I wonder to myself, how many millions, billions of fantastic ideas have died in someone's brain, just because they don't have enough time to do something about them?

Ultimately I suppose the key is to become independently wealthy. I am trying to do that, but it is tough and paradoxically, I find that this requires even MORE time than simply "working for a living". It seems to me like the 2 weeks off a
year rule was set up on purpose to make sure people stay docile, to make sure that they keep their noses to the grindstone and don't think of anything too radical, until they are too old and tired to really do anything beyond play
golf. We are cogs in a gigantic industrial machine that chews us up, and then spits us out. With just 2 weeks of vacation time a year life becomes just a gigantic treadmill, from school, to working, and ultimately to the grave, with precious few redeeming features beyond the joys of friends and family that one doesn't see often enough.

If you read this and you own a company, consider increasing the amount of vacation time you offer. Perhaps you won't immediately realize any financial benefits. But overall, happiness will increase. And isn't that what life is all about?

Time for today's quote:

A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.
-Nikos Kazantzakis

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your Friend,

Buford Twain

On Flag Burning

Gentle reader,

There is one thing that seems to have been overlooked by the folks who want to ban flag-burning.

To ban flag-burning is to deny certain rights to your own people.
These rights would then be afforded to everyone else in the world EXCEPT YOUR OWN CITIZENS.

If a flag-burning law were passed:

Citizens of the USA would NO LONGER HAVE THE RIGHT to burn a US flag.

Everyone else in the world would KEEP THEIR EXISTING RIGHT to burn a US flag.

As a British citizen, I could sit in my postage-stamp-sized yard in London (if I still had one) and have a little US-flag-bonfire without fear of major recrimination. Though I'm sure there would be complaints from the neighbors.

As a US citizen, if I tried to do the same, I could be arrested and imprisoned.

To me, that is LOSING FREEDOM.

You cannot legislate respect.

Not for a person.

Not for a country or for its small rectangular, colorful iconic symbol.

True respect, as opposed to mere lip-service, is earned.

It is given to those who deserve it.

The best way to minimize flag-burning is for a country to earn and keep the respect of all people, both inside and outside the country, not by legislation that takes away the freedom of the country's own citizens.

Moving on to the quote of the day...

I realize that all society rests upon force.
But all the great creative actions, all the decent human relations, occur during the intervals when force has not managed to come to the front. These intervals are what matter.
I want them to be as frequent and as lengthy as possible, and I call them "civilization".
-EM Forster

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain as always,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Chicago Ghost Story

Gentle reader,

Some time ago I found myself working for a software consulting company in Chicago which, as it turned out, was only a few short years away from bankruptcy. One of my clients at the time was a retailer that sold what I can only describe as "stuff for rich people who already have too much stuff". After spending a few days poring over the software that ran their web site I discovered some serious problems in the computer code that was being used to process the online orders. I needed to perform an update and I needed to do that at a time when very few people were using the web site. I decided to schedule the update for late on Friday evening.

Well, Friday rolled around, and as luck would have it, the evening was cold and stormy. Living in the Mid-West you come to expect a relentless procession of cold-fronts. A cold front in Chicago can quickly drop the temperature by 30 degrees or more and in late fall you can expect wind and snow. That night didn't disappoint, and I made my way through the driving sleet, passed under the "L" tracks at Wells and Adams and pushed through the revolving doors of the towering office building on West Monroe. A memory flashed through my mind of a consultant from Idaho who had visited me in Chicago once, only to get stuck in the revolving doors, trying to go through the wrong way. He had never in his life encountered a revolving door before. Walking up to the front desk I flashed my ID to the security guard and crossed over to the elevator banks.

I stepped into the elevator and the journey up was enough to allow me a brief and pathetic lamentation on how I was spending my Friday evening. Maybe it was time to move on to a management gig instead of spending my days as a computer jockey. Sometimes the work was frustrating. I had my plan of attack for that night worked out pretty well but I had been around the block enough to still expect some problems to crop up. That's just the way it is with software. Call it Murphy's law. Somehow, things always took longer than you expected.

On reaching the 22nd floor the elevator cut into my thoughts with a cheerful "Bing!". The doors opened and I was greeted by the all-too-familiar office. My home away from home, for the past several years. Instead of being filled with polite chatter though, this time the office just hummed gently with the sound of lonely computers. I made my way to my cube, threw off my coat and got down to business.

I worked more methodically than usual - my normally frantic typing tempered by fear - the particular fear that one can only acquire by having previously fucked-up a company's sacred data. I knew I was at the point of no return. With trepidation, I uploaded the new computer code to the main web servers. The time was exactly midnight.


Suddenly, the entire office was plunged into darkness. My computer itself mercifully remained on. It was connected to an "uninterruptable" power supply. However, working in a dark sea of cubes bathed only in light from screen-savers was not what I had in mind. I headed for the elevators. I had just reached the closest elevator bank when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a shadowy figure. Unable to deny that the figure was human, I instinctively reached for the knife that I always carry in the right pocket of my Levis. It was not a knife of any consequence, it was a true nerd's knife, manufactured by none other than Victorinox of Switzerland.

"Who the fuck is that?"

"Hey, how ya doin'? It's just me!"

Oh for Christ's sake. It was our network admin, Regina.

"I'm sorry, but you scared the shit out of me!" I said, trying unsuccessfully to sound calm and in control.

"Yeah, well I heard that you were going to come in to do an update tonight, so I thought I'd at least give you some moral support. And besides, we've been having so many weird network outages lately. I wanted to be sure you could connect to the servers."

With a sense of relief, I told Regina that I was going down to the lobby to try to get our lights turned back on. "Good plan" she said, before walking off toward the server room. That room was still reasonably well-lit, by emergency backup power, presumably. By then, I had realized that the lights in our office was almost certainly on a timer, set to go off at midnight, aimed at saving some electricity.

Sure enough, in the lobby I mentioned the problem to the security guard, who flicked a switch and restored our office lights. I made the trip back up to the 22nd floor and looked for Regina, but she was nowhere to be found.

There was still plenty of work to do. I moved on to the next phase of my late-night project: a little testing. I wanted to be absolutely sure that my new code worked. I submitted a few orders with a special fake credit card. Let's see...I had always wanted a hydrofoil water scooter. While I'm at it, why not take a couple of radio-controlled blimps. Things seemed to be working as well as could be expected. I breathed a sigh of relief. Time to wrap things up. I walked over to the server room, looking for Regina. Unable to find her, I headed for the elevators. Back down in the lobby, I asked the guard to leave the lights on, in case Regina was still in the office. I braved the raw Chicago night one more time, finally making it home around 3am.

The following Monday I walked into the office, as usual, at around 9am. Immediately, I could tell that something was wrong. People were talking in hushed tones in small groups. My boss was in one of the groups so I went over to talk to him.

"Did you hear the news?" was his greeting. He appeared agitated. He continually smoothed over the few remaining hairs on his forhead.

"No, what's going on?" I replied.

"It's Regina - she was in a car accident. She didn't make it."

I felt nauseated.

"But I just saw her! When and where did this happen?" I inquired

"On Friday night. She was hit outside her apartment in Roger's Park just before midnight." was the reply.

A cold shiver ran down my spine. Before midnight?

That summer, on our annual camping trip with the kids and nephews, I recalled sitting by a camp fire, trying unsuccessfully to come up with a ghost story. Next year, I wouldn't have that problem.

Not at all.

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

Does Science Provide any Real Answers?

Gentle reader,

Despite what you may have been led to believe in science class, physicists don't have all the answers, though not many of them seem able to admit it.

In all my time in high school science, not once did I hear a physics teacher say the following:

"This theory provides a model of what is going on, but what is actually going on may be quite different. We don't really know."

Too bad, because that would have helped me realize that science, and physics in particular, is in the business of providing MODELS, not true understanding.

Physicists, over a period of hundreds of years of trial and error, have stumbled
upon some mathematics that, when applied to the behavior of objects, can model and predict the behavior of those objects. They tried this theory, and that theory, and each time compared the theory with the experiment. Along the way (and this is rarely emphasized) thousands of theories that didn't fit the experimental data were thrown into the garbage can. Once in a great while, a scientist came up with a theory that seemed to fit the data. Even more rarely, a theory was devised that not only agreed with the experimental data, but also, amazingly, correctly predicted things that hadn't yet been measured. Einstein's theories of special relativity and general relativity are two examples.

But do these mathematical theories and models give any real understanding of what is going on?

Well, not really.

Take gas pressure, for example. The mental picture we are all given in science class is of a bunch of little particles all bouncing around and pushing on the side of bottles to create pressure. It's a nice, convenient model. However, if you look deeper, you run into quantum mechanics which says that actually, particles sometimes behave like waves. Tiny particles are governed by strange laws and they behave irrationally. This means that the model we have of little particles bouncing around and pushing on things while convenient,
tends to sweep under the covers what is actually going on.

Now take gravity. The picture we are given in this case is of two bodies such as the sun and the earth attacting one another. Do you remember receiving an explanation of WHY they would choose to do that? Didn't think so. And, it turns out that this naive picture may not be complete anyway. If you dig deeper, you will find out that the theory of general relativity tells us that the attraction can be modelled by looking at a type of geometric curvature in four-dimensional space-time. Similarly, we have models that explain electrostatic attraction but they don't tell us WHY particles with a
positive charge attract those with negative charge (and try asking a science teacher what charge actually IS).

Richard Feynman, a very good (and sadly dead) theoretical physicist, once said that nobody understands quantum mechanics. Since quantum mechanics seems to accurately describe the behavior of small particles, and big things (we are told) are made of lots of small particles, this effectively means that nobody REALLY understands ANYTHING in our physical universe.

To give another example that you don't often hear mentiond, physics explains nothing about life. You can plug numbers into any equation you like, even a so-called "theory of everything", and you will not be able to explain why, if person A farts, person B laughs. Until you can do that, my fine feathered friends, I would argue that you don't really have a theory of everything.

So if you had a tough time in science class, don't worry. Perhaps your brain was hurting because you were trying to truly understand things that aren't understood, even though the teacher might have been pretending
that they were.

And if you couldn't follow along and understand the theory or the model they were trying to teach you? Well, remember that you were trying to understand a theory that was created by a person of genius after many years of careful study, and most probably after they had thrown out many other similar theories.

So the fact that most people don't understand physics is, well, understandable.

Time for today's quote, in honor of Kurt Vonnegut, a man who made my life harder to understand yet easier to live:

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.
-Kurt Vonnegut

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

Saturday, April 7, 2007

C++ Mostly Sucks

Gentle reader,

If you have absolutely no interest in programming computers, you can safely skip this article. Rest assured, you will have lost nothing.

For the rest of you geeks...

I recently spent a couple of painful hours trying to rekindle my long-dormant interest in the C++ programming language. To give you an idea of my history with this language, many years ago I was part of a team proposing a switch from fortran77 to C++. I started learned the language back then and, as one does when one is learning a new language, I read books and wrote some small programs. Even back in the early 1990's, C++ was far more complicated than fortran77. After spending some time with the language I gave a talk to a group of Fortran users about the learning curve that people would encounter when making the switch from fortran to C++ and I estimated that it would take 6 months for people to learn C++. After the talk I was told by others who were more experienced than I was that my estimate was probably too short. In retrospect, they were absolutely right.

My main motivation for getting back into C++ was (and still is) a growing interest in game programming. It is difficult to avoid C++ because it has been used so extensively in that field. Well, I started to look at some game code and quickly remembered the reason I had abandoned C++ many years ago. Quite simply, the code looks like gobbledygook. Code in C++ is so full of artifacts (ampersands, asterisks, underscores, to name a few) that it just gets in the way of understanding the business logic.

I understand why C++ is widely used to implement low-level features like device drivers. It is a natural fit for such applications. However, coding extensive business logic in C++ is cruel and unusual punishment for yourself and for anyone who follows in your footsteps trying to understand your code. A programmer should be able to look at the code and quickly make sense of it. This requires clear variable names and uncluttered language constructs.

One area where clutter really gets in the way when reading C++ code is iterators. Iterators are clumsy, and looping over them is just plain ugly. Java used to have a similar problem, but that was solved with the introduction of a new language construct that I call the "for each bee in the beehive" construct. That construct makes code look more like English. Such code will be easier to write and, more importantly, easier to read.

As part of my effort to rekindle my interest in C++ I also picked up Bjarne Stroustrup's "Programming C++" 3rd edition. That book is a monster. It is enough to frighten away most computer science students because it is jam-packed with language details that are beyond what most "normal programmers" will care about. Apologies to Mr. Stroustrup but it is also not the most entertaining read. The feeling that I got from cracking this book and spending some quality time with it was "Goddamn it, life it just too short to be messing with this poxy language. I can be far more productive in Java (for big programs) or Python (for little ones)."

Sweet Jesus, spare me the details and let me get some frigging work done.

I realize that there is a ton of existing C++ code out there (much of it virtually intractable, pun intended) and there will be ample work for many years to come for those masochistic enough to thoroughly master C++. However, until all other programming jobs are dried up (I am guessing, never) I will continue to avoid C++ where possible when writing my applications.

Instead, I will write code in languages that are
a) easier to learn
b) more enjoyable to use
c) more readable
d) more productive

As for writing games? Well, it turns out that it's possible to write excellent games for most platforms using Java. And so for now, I am going to give that a try. I can keep myself amused, and hopefully, with the passing of time, C++, at least for business programming, will fade into oblivion. One can always hope.

On to today's quote. It's from the protagonist of C++ himself:

There are only two kinds of programming languages:
those people always bitch about and those nobody uses.
-Bjarne Stroustrup

To which comes the rejoinder:

Please create a programming language where there isn't quite so much to bitch about.
-Buford Twain

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

Just for once, be a big fat LOSER

Gentle reader,

It is rare that a day passes without news of people lying, cheating and stealing.

From secretaries to politicians to CEOs, why does it seem that dishonorable people are everywhere?

I wonder if one reason might be that we are taught from an early age the importance of winning above all else.

Winning at baseball.

Winning at soccer.

Winning at football.

Winning at school.

Winning at college.

winning at your job

winning the dating game

Winning, winning, winning, winning, always frigging winning.

It is no coincidence that "LOSER!" is a particularly harsh insult in the US and elsewhere.

When we are told to win at all costs (and make no mistake, we get this message from an early age and it never stops), it is not surprising that many people bend and break the rules to live up to those demands. Which means...

Students cheat on assignments and tests.

Soccer players elbow each other and pretend to be injured.

Parents cheat to help their children succeed.

Teachers cheat on behalf of their children so that their school gets a good grade.

People lie on their resumes to get a job.

Salespeople lie to get people to buy things.

Companies lie in commercials to get consumers to buy things.

Politicians lie and manipulate to get people to vote for them.

Scientists bend the truth (lie) to get grants or gain prestige (their version of winning).

And so on. It never ends.

What is the real outcome of all this winning and who is better off as a result?

Well usually, if someone wins, someone else loses.

Many religions have the concept of the "golden rule" - don't do to other people what you wouldn't want done to you.

It's a simple rule, but it gets trampled in our quest to win everything.

At the end of the day, we are all going to the same place. A hundred years from now, who will care that we "won" these things?

I respectfully disagree with the premise that we must win everything.

In particular, when faced with a choice between winning, and being honorable, why not consider choosing the latter? At least once in a while. We poor losers will thank you.

Time for today's quote:

"I believe in aristocracy, though - if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the con-siderate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke. "
-EM forster

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Are you Middle Class or Working Class?

Gentle reader,

Do you consider yourself Working Class or Middle Class?

I am guessing that you answered what the vast majority of people in the US would answer: "Middle Class!".

But, what does that mean, and how do we define the "Middle" and "Working" classes"?

Let me suggest a very simple definition of Working Class, based on one simple test:

You belong to the working class if the majority of adults in your household *need* to work for a living in order to make ends meet.

I think this is a reasonable definition. Why? Because as soon as the percentage of working adults
in a household rises above 50% life becomes more about survival than "the pursuit of happiness". To use the vernacular: "It Mostly Sucks (TM)". Even if you enjoy what you do, your time is no longer your own. Well, aside from those 2 weeks of vacation (assuming that you even get that much).

In other words...

If you are a parent in a single-parent household and you need to work then using this definition
you belong to the Working Class, irrespective of the particular job that you have.

And, if you belong to a 2-parent household and both need to work to meet expenses then your
family is Working Class.

I don't know about you, but I find that it is becoming tougher to make ends meet than 10 years ago. House prices have increased, heating and gasoline are more expensive. Wages haven't really risen much, in real terms (adjusted for inflation). Many families are finding that they need both parents to be working. I think that in the future, a lot people who thought that they were middle class are going to find out that they are really Working Class.

And on to the quote for today:

If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him.
-Cardinal Richelieu

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

UK and USA: Compare and Contrast

Gentle Reader,

I thought I would write down some things I had noticed about living in the UK and USA.

I moved from England to the US about 20 years ago and have remained in the US the whole time since (about another 20 years) except for a 2 year stint in Italy.

Here are some of the reasons I left the UK:

* Different rules for different people - the worst case being the royal family and privileges awarded by virtue of birth. WTF?
* Constant grey skies. Maybe this is changing or will change soon with global warming?!
* The depressing feeling at times that "nothing is possible".
* Felt very crowded, especially London, where I used to live. Listen to the song "Waterloo Sunset" by the Kinks to get an idea what I mean.
* People often seem pessimistic ("mopey"), they spend a lot of time complaining, with not much "get up and go".
* I sometimes felt unsafe. I was mugged a couple of times.
* I was awarded a scholarship for study in the US that at the time paid about the same as my full-time working salary in the UK. So that decision was a no-brainer...

Here are some reasons I am glad I live in the USA:

* The feeling that "anything is possible"
* I can actually afford a reasonably sized house and back yard with a bit of space. (No, I don't live in California or NYC).
* The weather is usually interesting (lots of snow in winter, lots of sun in summer, storms in-between)
* Easier to find an interesting job (I am in IT)
* Americans like the British (it's the accent thing, which seems to more than outweigh our bad teeth, haha)
* The women are more attractive (!) I never thought I'd be so chauvenistic. But there you go, sometimes I surprise myself.
* People are generally very optimistic. They get things done and have a "can do" attitude.
* America helped to liberate Europe during WWII. Americans led the allied invastion of Normandy. Near where I live there is a memorial featuring a life-sized bronze replica of a man crouching behind one of those criss-crossy metal beam structures that the Germans placed all over the French beaches.
It brings a tear to my eye imagining the courage of the people who overcame such terrible odds as they made their way up those beaches against the relentless machine-gun fire.
* I feel more independent, less "babied" than in the UK
* The US seems less bureaucratic, less intrusive into my life
* The US seems to be more of a meritocracy - less emphasis on "pay scales", most jobs pay based on experience and aptitude.
* No annoying UK public school accent (in the UK, public school really means "private school", don't ask me why)
* Still plenty of wide open spaces

Here are some of the reasons I sometimes wish I were back in the UK:

* I have many UK-based friends - for some reason I found it much easier to make friends in the UK, maybe that's because you make friends easier when you are young?
* Weather is usually very mild, assuming you live somewhere vaguely in the South.
* Despite its reputation, the food is generally better in the UK (at least, you don't have to work quite as hard to get good food).
* The UK has reasonable public transportation (trains, buses).
* You can often get places by walking, The USA is too focused on use of the car.
* Healthcare for all, as opposed to healthcare tied to your job
* Better (different?) sense of humor. People are "quirkier"/funnier in general. Bit of a sweeping generalization there, but...
* More vacation days! The USA is pitiful in terms of vacation days (unless you work for the US federal government, interestingly)
* More of a safety net if you lose your job. I have lost my job in the US and it's genuinely frightening how quickly things can go downhill.
* Seems like the education system may be better in the UK (I have been gone a while though and it could have deteriorated by now). On the other hand, nothing of use is taught in school, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde.
* Geographically closer to the relatives on my side of the family who live in England and France.
* Pubs! As opposed to sports bars. You can have a conversation in a pub. Beer is better in the UK as well by the way.
* No George Bush. Oops, there goes my green card application.
* Far fewer religious fundamentalists, far more atheists and free-thinkers. By now you may have figured out that I am god-free.

Here are some of the reasons I may never return to the UK:
* Cost of housing has increased too much. My poor dollars ain't worth very much any more...
* Constant grey skies, feeling that "nothing is possible", crowds, the feeling that I am unsafe...

Before I get too misty-eyed, here is a quote for today:

History continues even though the graveyard is full of indispensable leaders. -Charles De Gaulle

And until the next time, gentle reader, I remain as always,

Your friend,

Buford Twain