Thursday May 24, 2012

celestial harmony

Listening to music helps me concentrate at work. Music with words is too distracting, but all kinds of classical and jazz works for me, as well as various kinds of atmospheric sounds, natural or constructed.

Lately I’ve been enjoying audio transcriptions of electromagnetic field measurements taken by NASA’s Voyager probe, which I got from iTunes. (My son David, who has a degree in psychoacoustics, turned me on to this.) As has often been noted, the sounds of space are unearthly yet somehow natural, often pleasant and sometimes eerie. There is some sort of deep structure which our earth-trained senses can still respond to. I suppose it has something to do with auto-correlations and self-similar structures at multiple scales in both frequency and time domains. Composers have sometimes chosen to create sounds like this to suggest “spacey” or other-worldly environments. For example, the NASA recordings sometimes remind me, vaguely, of the creepy electronic beeps and bumps heard in Forbidden Planet. The actual sounds from space are less dramatic, as one might expect. But even when they are a little creepy, the NASA sounds provide a very pleasant and unobtrusive background for me as a I hack away on my code.

So why am I not working, but writing a blog entry instead? Well, starting at minute 12 of the track “Sphere of Io”, there are sounds which resemble a women’s choir singing (wordlessly) in rising tone clusters. You can also find this on YouTube, where the tone clusters start at about 7:30.

Recently I have also been listening to Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite. Planets, of course, is great listening for nerds, both for its own sake and because of the links to astronomy and also (via John Williams) to movie music. I love the first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War”, for its rowdy energy, and have learned to appreciate the other movements also. But I find the final movement, “Neptune the Mystic”, to be frustratingly anticlimactic. It doesn’t stride triumphantly to an dramatic conclusion, but rather slowly fades out into a women’s choir, which sings (wordlessly) in rising tone clusters.

That’s what suddenly ripped my attention away from work: I heard Io doing a cover of Holst’s final fade-out. You can hear Holst’s choral fade-out at the end of “Neptune”, from about 5:42 onward in the Boston Pops recording. You can also hear it on YouTube, where the fade-out starts at about 6:02.

The most remarkable thing about this, I suppose, is that in reality Holst is not imitating Io (since he wrote it a century ago), and nor is Io’s behavior patterned after Holst. Either the two of them are following a common pattern, or I am indulging in a common human behavior of seeing patterns in noise. I think both of the latter alternatives are true; we humans usually require some basic phenomenal structure to prompt us before we begin to see patterns. In this case, I think the basic structure has to do with slightly dispersed audio-range tones, modulated to wander on the 1-second scale, as I hinted above. (I wonder: If air-breathing extraterrestrials exist, would we enjoy their songs? It seems likely to me at the moment.) The most enjoyable thing for me about this is to contemplate the unity of physical laws as we experience them personally, and as they operate in unearthly places like Io. The proof of this unity made Isaac Newton a rock star and launched modern science, but it has been pondered since humans were human, and is still puzzling today. The ancients called it the music of the spheres, and so do I.

Tuesday May 22, 2012

solar eclipse backyard adventure

Sunday's eclipse was lovely here in San Jose. My sons and I made some impromptu observations in the backyard. The best picture is of crescent-shaped shadows under the leaves on our ash tree.

Monday Aug 16, 2010

advice from a master teacher

Tonight my father and I were talking about education, with the end of the summer and fall classes coming on. He is glad to be retired, but he is still a teacher at heart. I asked him, “What is your best advice to teachers?” Here is the answer he gave, as well as I can reconstruct it. The first word is “Listen”.[Read More]

Tuesday Apr 13, 2010

when nerds call customer service

I'm proud of my home network and maintain it out to the phone company point-of-presence. When the service provider's DSL line goes out due to an external short, I need to open trouble ticket with their phone line people. How hard could that be?

Monday Jun 01, 2009

a beautiful life

Just about 24 hours ago, I was working on invokedynamic compilation in my hotel room with colleague Christian Thalinger. I have since learned that around that time, my dear grandmother, wise and loving to the end, slowly breathed her last and went to be with her Maker.

I suppose this is a strictly personal event, but as beautiful things deserve be shared, I would like to provide a glimpse of what this woman was like, in a photo of her and me taken 18 months ago.

[Read More]

Monday Dec 08, 2008

the date of Christmas comes more from Easter than the winter solstice

Christmas can be enjoyed as a much needed vacation day, a cheery cultural pageant, or a profound spiritual observation. For my part, I’ll take generous helpings of each. As it is a widely shared holiday, the first question is where to put it on the calendar. Thanks to Julius Caesar and his calendrical reforms, and to their enthusiastic adoption by the early Christian Church, we possess a clear date for Christmas.

But, why did the eventual consensus settle on December 25? Accounts vary, and it is a curious mystery. I think our date is equal parts historic reconstruction, arbitrary convention, and high art. [Read More]

Friday Nov 07, 2008

three software proverbs

Today I was late for lunch. As I walked to the cafeteria, pondering my work, this haiku came to me:
It will take more time:
If you touch it, it will break...
Software is wily.
Relaxing the syllable count limit in favor of word count gives each epigram a fuller and more independent expression:
Somehow it always takes longer:
If you touch it, it will break...
Software is a wily opponent.
Those latter three lines express the way I feel about my chosen craft.

I think of the middle line as Kempf’s Law of Software. It was a favorite expression of Jim Kempf, who was on the Sun Common Lisp team with me, long ago.

The last line expresses a stance I call “defensive programming”, which is what we programmers do when we take Murphy’'s Law seriously.

Wednesday Mar 12, 2008

destroy the home schoolers in order to save them

Some of my colleagues have noticed the news flurry about home schooling and the sudden declaration of its illegality by a panel of federal judges in Los Angeles. The formal decision features a spicy stew of judicial threats to parents, in a section entitled “Consequences of Parental Denial of a Legal Education”.

That certainly got my attention and that of many friends, since (dare I now admit?) I've been home schooling my children since 1987. Two have finished with honors at good universities and are now productive taxpayers, two more are now making their way through college, and the rest are ahead of grade level and nicely socialized, thank you. Who knew my wife and I were guilty of Parental Denial of a Legal Education? (Gotta get some of that Legal Education. It must make you as wise as a Judge.) To those of us in the home schooling community, the general consensus is more adequately phrased in a San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed: “What planet are those judges coming from?” I realize the education of one’s children is a culturally subversive thing to do, but since when is California suddenly shy of cultural deviancy?

One can only wince in wonder at the ideal California those judges are contemplating. The state has an interest in many children’s rights beyond mere education, such as nutrition. Perhaps we should require parents to be certified dieticians before they cook their children’s lunch. Or, let’s just go all the way and eliminate the inconvenient families, by requiring a parental license before the first child is brought to term. That would bring everything nicely under control, and our Wise Judges could rule a utopian, aristocratic Plato’s Republic—which is really a nice place to study, but a terrible home.

In my own home town of San Jose, I just noticed a reasonable Mercury News editorial on the subject. Common sense still rules in San Jose!

I make one key exception to the Merc.’s editorial position: All else being equal, I as a private citizen greatly prefer benign neglect to any form of regulation. But unlike us private citizens, editorial writers and politicians seem to have a professional rule: Never make ringing calls to do nothing. (And the corollary: Never be without a ringing call.) I am thankful that, somehow despite all the political fidgeting, life goes on anyway.

Also, I’m proud to say that the two debaters the Mercury mentions are from our group’s debate club. I think it is not too much to hope that, in their day as judges or other community leaders, they will write better opinions.

In the end, my advice to judges, and even to friendly editorialists and politicians, is: Leave parenting to us parents. It worked when all of us were growing up, and it works now.

August 2008 Update: The court has reversed its decision. Here is Governor Schwarzenegger's take on it:

This is a victory for California's students, parents and education community. This decision confirms the right every California child has to a quality education and the right parents have to decide what is best for their children," he said. "I hope the ruling settles this matter for parents and home-schooled children once and for all in California, but assure them that we, as elected officials, will continue to defend parents' rights.
And Superintendant Jack O'Connell says,
As head of California's public school system, it would be my wish that all children attend public school, but I understand that a traditional public school environment may not be the right setting for each and every child... I recognize and understand the consternation that the earlier court ruling caused for many parents and associations involved in home schooling. It is my hope that today's ruling will allay many of those fears and resolve much of the confusion.
(Source: LA Times.)

Monday Dec 10, 2007

it's a beautiful thing...

I just browsed the gift catalog at Heifer International, Here is a truly great antidote to all those worst-of-the-season ads urging you to "give yourself a gift" of whatever the advertiser is selling. The idea is to give a family in some other part of the world an animal which can help them create food and clothing. What a cheerful, hopeful charity!

My grandmother, Evenlyn Ashbrook, has been giving us "kids" Heifer gifts for Christmas over the last half century. (Bless her, she keeps us supplied with National Geographic subscriptions too.) When we were very young we were disappointed that we got just a slim envelope, and some other family elsewhere got a farm animal. But soon enough we saw the wisdom of redeeming the process of gift-giving from the passions of acquisitiveness, by giving gifts to people that need them. Rather than to us kids (of whatever age) with full toy boxes.

This year, at the instigation of relatives (thanks, cousin Kris!) there's a little old lady in Texas who is going to get a menagerie from her family... Shhh, don't tell her.

Merry Christmas, all!

Thursday Jul 12, 2007

Truth, Beauty, Machine Code

I was struck by Roger Penrose's words in his recent book The Road to Reality, as he describes the difficulties physicists face in evaluating each other's mathematical accounts. It sounds like he knows the difficulties we software designers face:

...Mathematical coherence [let alone mathematical beauty] need not itself be readily appreciated. Those who have worked long and hard on some collection of mathematical ideas can be in a better position to appreciate the subtle and often unexpected unity that may lie within some particular scheme.

[Read More]

Friday Jul 30, 2004

on keeping silent

We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room.... (Austen, P&P, ch. 18)

John R. Rose

Java maven, HotSpot developer, Mac user, Scheme refugee.

Once Sun and present Oracle engineer.


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