Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Right to Work vote.

The email lists were buzzing. I received nearly a dozen invitations to go down to Concord and demonstrate in favor of the Right to Work law (HB 474). It was hinted, but no promises were made, that it would be voted upon today. The house speaker, Bill O'Brien, has been biding his time, hoping to scare up a few more votes. But time is running out, and right-to-work will be dead at the end of this session, with out a vote, so maybe it's time.
Any how I passed the invitations along on the up country email list, and set the alarm for 6:45. I set off for Concord thru early morning ground fog and light rain. I parked in the big shopping center, the one with Market Basket, the state Liquor Store, and Burlington Coat Factory. Our side had coffee and muffins and bright green T-shirts in the capitol cafeteria. I encountered a few stalwart north country types, Omer and Henry Ahearn, and Russ Cumbee. At nine o'clock we all file into the capitol visitors gallery. I was pleased to see we had as many of our people in green T-shirts as there were union guys in red T-shirts. Apparently the email gets around.
Business opened with CACR 14, a constitutional amendment having something to do with schools. I'd heard of it, but cannot remember whether it continued Court supervision of schools, or ended it. CACR 14 used up an hour before it was voted down and killed for the rest of this legislative session.
Then Rick Perry addressed the legislature. Perry laid into Wall St and Washington, accusing both parties of engaging in corrupt crony capitalism. Looks like it could be a grim year for Wall Streeters. The union guys were rude enough to boo Perry.
After Rick ran down, Huntsman popped up and spoke as well. Huntsman sounded more mature and less "hot button issue" than Perry.
Finally we moved onto the main event, HB 474, the right to work law. Both sides put up some speakers, and by noontime, the speaker called for a roll call vote (actually a push button vote recorded by computer). In New Hampshire, the push button vote lasts for a mere 30 seconds, unlike the US Congress which can let 25 minutes go by on a push button vote. In New Hampshire the legislators have to stay in their seats and make up their minds.
Too bad, when the red LED stopped blinking, the vote was 240 in favor to 139 against. Since this was a veto over ride vote, we needed two thirds (253 votes) to override Lynch's veto. Close but no cigar.
Too bad. Kiss that automobile assembly plant goodby. Apparently the campaign donations and votes of a mere 9% of the New Hampshire workforce are enough override the needs of the 91% of our workforce who are not in a union. Democracy in action.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Return to Harvard Square

I love Harvard Sq. I've been going there all my life. I visited it again yesterday, after an absence of a year, due to living in upcountry New Hampshire. Drove down on I-93. New Hampshire is widening I-93, making that four lane strip between Manchester and Mass, into 6 lanes. They are building the new lanes in isolated bits and pieces, so that they won't do us motorists any good until all the road is widened, in maybe four to five years. Smarter would be to start the widening at one end and build methodically toward the other end. That way as sections are finished they can be placed into service.
Harvard Square is still there, but it saddens me to think of all the great places that are no longer there. Ferranti-Deggi, that great camera store, where once upon a time I acquired a Kodak Retina SLR is gone. The Sunflower, with it's magnificent copper topped bar down stairs, got turned into a Pizzarria Uno. The Crate and Barrel in the three story concrete building out Brattle St, is now a ladies clothing store. The great book store that used to be across the street from it is gone. Wordsworth books in the basement of that strange round brick building on Brattle Sq is gone and the space is "For Rent". Abercromby and Fitch wiped out The Tasty and the Wurst House. Now Abercromby is gone and the space has a bank and a Starbucks. Boring.
The Starr bookstore in the Harvard Crimson building is gone. Brine's Sporting goods is gone.
There are a few survivors from the old days. The Million Year Picnic is still there and so is Charlie's Kitchen.
After three hours of Christmas shopping all I found were some comic books (aka graphic novels) for daughter, and a used Andre Norton paperback for myself.
Pretty soon it won't be worth going to the Square at all.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lack of skilled workers says WSJ

Front page piece on the terrible troubles finding skilled workers, welders, heavy equipment mechanics, repair technicians, network installers. To read the piece you would think the entire world was devoid of skilled workers.
Sorry about that. Those are the workers companies are failing to train. Every company needing highly skilled workers has a bunch of entry level guys on the payroll who would do just about anything to get some training on the job. If the company needs skilled workers, it ought to be training up it's unskilled workers.
Companies bitch that after training someone, the newly trained worker then leaves to take a job with some other company. Tough. Maybe after training someone, you ought to pay him enough to keep him around.

I got infected. System Fix is a PITA

I paid my Bill Gates tax today. A virus drove right in thru Window's wide open barn door and set up shop on Blackbox, my Compaq desktop. This one turned the screen black and issued an alarming series of messages indicating hard drive failure, RAM failure, file system meltdown, and urged me to download a "fix" program. It turned off TaskMgr, and hide all my files.
I was able to use the Start menu's run option to start up Firefox and go out to Wonder of wonders, good old Bleeping Computer had a fix for this baby. I printed out seven pages of detailed instructions for killing this sucker off. Too bad the instructions only worked halfway.
Step 1 is to download and run a program ( to kill the active virus out of memory. While running, this virus keeps throwing up whole bookcases of scary error messages that sit on top and make in difficult to run anything else, cause the damn error messages (all false) block your view of the screen. Rkill reported the filenames of the two programs it kills.
You ain't done yet, Rkill just zaps the virus out of memory. The sucker is still alive on disc and will load and execute next time you boot. What you should do as soon as rkill finishes, is use Windows Explorer to zap the two filenames rkill reports, clean off your disk.
Bleeping Computer's seven pages of kill instructions don't mention this. They direct you to download and run antivirus "Malwarebytes". This baby spends 2 hours scanning your disc for bad stuff, finds a few, but doesn't find the damn virus.
So reboot and the "System Fix" virus comes right back to life. Repeat the rkill run to zap it, and then use Windows Explorer to delete all the files and Regedit to zap all the keys the virus planted in the Registry. This works.
Total virus zap time, 6 hours.
Thanks Bill, so glad you gave us WindowsVirusMagnet XP.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Go Newt

Newt is getting hammered over his stand on immigration. He said that married couples who have been in the country long time, have kids, have jobs, pay taxes and keep out of trouble with the law ought not to be thrown out of the country.
I agree. These are model citizens, and we need more of them.
Plus, I cannot stand the thought of sending black uniformed SWAT teams to seize them, cuff them, drag them from their homes, throw them and their children into paddy wagons, and dump them at the border.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Words of the Weasel Part 24

"Call upon the IMF to play an enhanced role." What an artful way of saying "Give us some money 'cause we are broke."

The sky is warming.

"CO2 may not warm the planet as much as thought" is the title of an article in New Scientist magazine. Groovy, I like it, maybe we can get off this economy killing war on carbon. I was going to post a link to the article but Blogger is feeling ugly this morning and won't make the link. You can get to it from Instapundit.
Of course, there are a few caveats:

"Schmittner plugged the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that existed during the Last Glacial Maximum into a climate model and tried to recreate the global temperature patterns. He found that he had to assume a relatively small climate sensitivity of 2.4 °C if the model was to give the best fit."

And how do we know what the CO2 levels were during the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago? There has been some work done testing bubbles of air trapped in Greenland glacier ice, but I never heard of an ice core going back 10,000 years. Best I ever heard of was a core going back 5000 years. And we are sure that a few tiny air samples are representative, and haven't changed over the millennia.

And he plugged questionable data into a computer model. Computer models are nothing special, they are just computer programs, and as such, subject to all the problems of computer programs, like bugs. Plus, when a computer model fails to give the desired answer, it gets reprogrammed until it does. You cannot trust computer models. Especially models written by someone else.

So here we have a fairly reputable magazine reporting a scientist feeding questionable data into an equally questionable computer program and thinking the result is meaningful.

GIGO, Garbage in Garbage out. Old computer business acronym.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Double Negative again

According to a review in today's WSJ, the double negative was proscribed by Bishop Lowth (never heard of him before) in 1762 in a short book " Short Introduction to English Grammar". I mention this tidbit because I posted about double negatives a couple of months ago and was intrigued to find a time and a book that first put the hex on them.

It's snowing for Thanksgiving

We got 4 inches last night and it's still coming down. It's warm, above freezing, so it isn't accumulating much more. Town plow went by at o'dark thirty, Ken King's boys did my driveway by 9:30.

Dexia Bank failure will cost France it's AAA rating?

Dexia, a big European bank based in Belgium and France failed a couple of weeks ago. Presumably (the newsies didn't say) Dexia ran out of money to pay bills and depositors and no one would lend to it any more 'cause everyone thought they were broke. At least that's what happened to Lehman Bros, and Merrill Lynch, and some other late lamented Wall St brokerages.
Belgium and France were going to bailout Dexia, but now it seems that isn't gonna work. An internet post speculated that Dexia's failure and non-bailout, might be enough to knock France's bond rating down from AAA.
What the post did not say was what the bailout plan was. Dexia, of course, wants the Belgian and French governments to just give them money (grants or loans, they will take anything) to continue in business, and avoid laying everyone off. I have no idea how much money this might need, but it could be big. On this side of the pond, AIG sucked up $140 billion.
What would be cheaper, is to pay off just the depositors, and let the bond holders, the stock holders, and the idiots that lent to Dexia go whistle for their money. This would impose some economic discipline, and put the idiots who drove Dexia over the cliff out of work. Europeans need to learn that lending money is risky, it is not a guaranteed never-loose-a penny sinecure. The hard part of banking is predicting if the borrower will be able to pay off the loan. Predictions are hard, especially when they are about the future.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Frank Luntz does a focus group

Representative, that's what our focus group should be. Frank is running an after-the-debate focus group currently televising on Fox's Hannity show. His focus group is ALL FEMALE. Representative that is.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The sound of a can kicked down the road?

That can called Super Committee has finally stopped bouncing. And it looks like nothing happened, not surprising when you consider WHY the can was kicked down the road back last summer.
Neither side had the votes to push thru their vision of budget balance. The Democrats want to hike taxes to continue spending, the Republicans want to cut spending and not hike taxes. Neither side wanted to suffer the 40 percent spending cut that failure to raise the debt limit would have forced. So they punted. And now the punt is falling back to earth.
If the country is lucky, a Republican victory next November will give the Republicans enough votes to push thru their plan. If our luck fails, we go the way of Greece and Italy, within a couple of years.

LED's for Grow Lamps?

Enthusiastic aditorial for a European company advocating LED grow lamps for indoor farming. LED's are described as "efficient".
Yeah right, but a glass window letting in sunlight is more efficient. Like in a greenhouse.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Need to Know, new TV show with Ray Suarez

It's a new Sunday pundit show, I caught it on NHPTV this morning. Trouble is, this show is deceptive. They were talking grand strategy, like keeping Saudi Arabia in the Western orbit. They show a graph saying that Saudi only supplies 11 % of US oil needs, and obviously, we can let Saudi fall to Islamic terrorists, Iranian mullahs or the Klu Klux Klan, and it will only cost us 11% of our crude oil. Right.
The three top oil producers in the world today are Saudi, Russia and the US. Loose production of Saudi and a world wide oil shortage will drive the price of crude up to $200 a barrel, twice what we pay today. This is a problem, and the Need to Know TV show tried to sweep it under the rug.
Ray Suarez should be ashamed to moderate this slanted TV show.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

Went to see it at a friend's house. Friend had a VERY nice home theater with a huge screen and room shaking audio. Comfy movie theater style seats, popcorn, it competes well with the Jax Jr.
The movie can be reviewed on several levels. I never read the Ayn Rand book upon which it is based. The plot held together and was coherent to a non-book-reader. That's better than Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, which cut so much and moved so fast that if you had not read the book you were lost.
The plot has a Colorado railroad tycoon rebuilding a worn out branch line to current standards. She orders new rail made of a supermaterial from another industrialist. There is a lot of nice photography showing giant tracklaying machines pulling up rotten wood ties and rusty rail and plunking down fresh new concrete ties, shiny rail, and replacing bridges. Naturally the lady railroad tycoon and the supermaterial industrialist form a romantic attachment. Thruout the movie we see key employees disappearing from both firms. After each disappearance someone will ask "Who is John Galt". We never do learn who John Galt is. We also see a lot of idle rich going to parties, and a lot of political scumbags passing New Dealish share-the-wealth legislation, and union scumbags attempting to scuttle progress both on the rails and back at the supermaterial foundry. This could become a rail fan's movie, a lot of nice closeups of huge trains barreling along.
The movie carries a lot of ideological freight. The friend who showed it did it as a Tea Party activity. The original anti new deal slant of the book is still there in the movie. In fact the whole movie has a new deal/great depression look-and-feel about it.
Viewed just as a movie, leaving out the ideological stuff and the Ayn Rand tie in, it's an OK but not great movie. The plot lacks conviction and has too many Tom Swift science fiction elements, the characters are cardboard (although pretty or handsome). The photography is good, lots of great scenery, gritty urban decay, lush office interiors. Most reviewers panned it, but you have to suspect that the movie's political points rubbed lefty movie reviewers the wrong way.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Should the Supercommittee fail to agree

The Supercommittee is running out of time. They have to produce a deal by Thanksgiving and that's only a week away. By all accounts the Democrats refuse to reform Medicare and the Republicans won't go for soak-the-rich income tax hikes. The Republicans did offer a $200 billion "revenue increase" (aka tax hike) but that wasn't enough for Democrats.
So what happens after Thanksgiving?
Ans: nothing.
So what happens in 2013?
A little bit of tummy suck in. The 2013 spending plan is right now $1047 billion. The suck in would reduce that to $953 billion. A horrible 9 %. Oh woe. The sky will fall. And this world shaking spending cut is just a plan. Congress usually goes over plan by the time the fiscal year is over.
With the Feds borrowing 40 cents of every dollar spent, a 9% spending reduction ain't gonna save a thing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Words of the Weasel Part 23

"Austerity". Used to mean reducing spending to the point where it hurt. Going without stuff. Not any longer. Today "Austerity" means tax hikes.
Just the other day a piece about French "austerity" imposed to keep their AAA bond rating. Read the piece, and we find that all the "austerity measures" are all tax hikes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Psychiatric-drug use climbs 22%

From the Wall St Journal. Hmm. Does that mean that Americans are 22% crazier than they used to be?
We are talking prescription drugs here, so that means doctors are writing 22% more prescriptions. Have we developed new drugs to treat the previously untreatable? Is this a reflection of the decline of Freudian psycho-analysis in favor of drugs to set the head right? According to this article 20% of the population is taking psychiatric drugs. That's a lot.
Apparently a lot of the growth is in ADHD prescriptions for grownups. Ritalin is rising.
Anyhow, it's bound to increase the awful cost of American health care.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A few WSJ words about Credit Default Swaps

For those who tuned in late, a credit default swap (CDS) is paper insurance, if the financial paper you hold defaults, the credit default swapper will pay you off. For a slight fee of course. The swapper will charge a percent or two to cover his expenses. So eager beaver young hi-roller can buy Greek bonds that pay 28% and tell his supervisor "It's OK, I bought a credit default swap on them, so when the Greeks default, we get paid off."
Only, the Greeks or the ECB or somebody worked some kind of evil magic and the Greek CDS's won't pay off after the bondholders took a 50% haircut. Woe is me.
"investors concluded that the CDS's of other EU countries weren't to be trusted either. So when fears mounted over Italy's solvency last week, investors bailed out of euro-zone debt."
Oh the horror of it. Investors will stop pouring money down an Italian drain. The world will end on Tuesday. Francesco Guerrera, a Wall St Journal editor, thinks this is terrible.
Actually, it's a good thing. Capital ought to be invested in economic development, factories, mines, off-shore oil platforms, sea going ships, roads, bridges, airliners, you know, stuff that employs people and makes money. Money loaned to EU governments just goes to pay pensions of retired bureaucrats. The bad part about CDS's, is that they encourage investors to invest in loser government bonds instead of useful things.
Far as I am concerned, anything we can do to stamp out CDS's is a good thing. Investors ought to look at the risk involved in any investment. CDS's (when they work) shuffle the risk off on the third party, and allow the investor to put his money into really risky stuff but without assuming the risk himself.
Society's capital will be better directed, resulting in greater economic growth and more employment, if the investors have to face up to risk.

Do I believe in stimulus?

In this day and age of scary big budget deficits, some governments (like NH) have reacted by cutting government spending. Others (like CA, USofA and Greece) have not. Each time a thrifty government cuts spending a whole bunch of pundits pipe up and say "Reducing government spending reduces economic stimulus and casts us deeper into Great Depressions 2.0". Is this really true?
The pundits have all been brought up on Dr. Maynard Keynes, British economist from Great Depression I. Keynes claimed that the Great Depression was caused by a "failure of demand" and the proper role of government was to create demand by spending money, and if necessary, printing it in order to spend it. This theory is attractive to politicians (who love spending money), business (who receives this largess), and liberals.
But does it work in the real world? Certainly Obama's $1 trillion porkulus bill didn't do much for Great Depression 2.0. Keynesian spending requires money that has to come from somewhere, either out of taxes, or inflation (which takes money out of everyone's hide). Could it be that taking all that money away from taxpayers reduces those taxpayer's ability to spend?

Monday, November 14, 2011


Napoleon is remembered for saying "In war the moral is the the physical as three is to one". By which he meant that his army won because his solders believed in the cause they were fighting for. And there must be something in it, Napoleon repeatedly beat enemies as numerous as his and equipped with the same weapons that his men carried.

Of course we should remember that Napoleon is also the man who said "Le feu est tout", which translates into English as "Firepower is everything".

Words of the Weasel Part 22

"Nuanced." As in "President Obama's nuanced response to the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Quoted from Elizabeth Warren, currently running for Scott Brown's Massachusetts senate seat. Nuanced. Speak softly and slink out of the room. The Iranians are dead set on getting the bomb. Only military action or regime change will stop them. Nuanced won't cut it. Once the Iranians get the bomb, they are immune to invasion. With nukes they can pretty much do anything they like, and if we move to stop them, they will threaten to nuke someplace we care about, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Tel Aviv.
"Firepower." As in "The European Stability Facility needs more firepower". The Economist and even the Wall St Journal have taken to using "firepower" in place of "money" which is what they are actually talking about. Not quite sure why. Can it be that all these good liberals really think "firepower" sounds nicer than "money"?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Back to the Civil War

Whenever times get slow, the services change their uniform. The US Army has gone back to Civil War style blue uniforms and rank insignia. I just saw Chief of Staff Gen Ray Ordiero on TV. Instead of the traditional silver stars on the shoulder loops, he was wearing gold shoulder straps of the sort that William T. Sherman and U.S. Grant used to wear.
Only took 65 years for the Army to get back to blue. When the US Air Force got started in 1947 it picked blue for it's uniform. To prevent anyone from confusing Army soldiers with Air Force airmen, the Army promptly switched over to green uniforms. Now the Army is over it's snit with the Air Force and the soldiers are going with two tone blue uniforms.

Friday, November 11, 2011

After doing something stupid, sue

Something called "FairPoint Creditor's Trust" is suing Verizon to recover the purchase price Fairpoint paid Verizon for the privilege of going broke. For those of you that tuned in late, some years ago Verizon decided that operating telephone lines in rural New England was a money loser. Few paying customers, spread over a wide area means lots of wire to maintain and few bill payers to fund the thing. So Verizon found a bigger sucker. Small backwoods phone company from down south somewhere , name of Fairpoint, thought they could make money running land line phone service in New England. Verizon wasn't making any money off a fully paid for physical plant. Fairpoint was going to borrow a zillion dollars at 12 percent, give the money to Verizon, and then make enough money to operate the system and pay off the debt. Right.
Not only did Fairpoint fall for this scam, the public utility commissions of all the affected state bought into the scheme. And some bankers somewhere (Wall Street?) were dumb enough to loan out the money.
Things happened as any idiot could have predicted. Fairpoint couldn't make money, couldn't service the debt, and declared bankruptcy a few years ago. I haven't been following this closely, but I hope all the idiots who participated in this stupidity lost a lot of money.
Anyhow, the suckers, after getting thoroughly plucked, hired some lawyers to try a get some money back from Verizon. Let's hope it doesn't work. Far as I am concerned anyone who got mixed up in the Fairpoint scheme was too stupid to be allowed outdoors without a keeper.

Obama's Jobs plan

Kill the XL pipeline. That will create a lot of jobs. Although he claims merely to be delaying approval until AFTER the election, in the real world putting a one year delay on a big project often kills it dead. The oil producers in Canada need to market their oil. There are plenty of countries in the world who need oil and have money. China for instance.
So kiss the jobs, and the oil goodby.
That's really good for the country.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Yet another Republican debate

This one was televised on a channel that Time Warner Cable carries up here. It had the usual semicircle of podiums on a stage, a candidate behind each podium, and NO name tags on the podiums. Which is OK for a political junkie like me who knows the candidates faces, but for a more casual viewer, not OK.
The studio audience cheered many of the candidates when they made a good sound byte. Romney and Cain did especially well on applause. They booed the newsie moderators for asking Cain about the sexual harassment thing. Makes you wonder how that studio audience was selected. Just passer's bye off the street? By invitation only? Each candidate given a block of tickets? Who knows. Anyhow they cheered for the candidates and booed the newsies.
And Rick Perry suffered an embarrassing brain fart on stage. He declared he would eliminate three federal agencies, named two, and then couldn't think of the third.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rick Perry

So I emailed an old college buddy who has been living in Texas for better than 20 years. What do you think of Rick Perry I asked.
The answer came back "Not much".
The friend pointed out that Texas's economic success during Perry's governorship is mostly due to vast deposits of oil and gas in Texas, rather than any particular cleverness on Perry's part.
The Texas housing market is in trouble due to crazy mortgage lending. The cost of home owner's insurance is thru the roof.
The state budget is out of balance and they have been cutting school funding despite a massive untapped rainy day fund.
There was a case called "Willingham" in which a probably innocent man has been convicted of arson and executed. Perry fired the review board.
"Perry looks good, has good hair, but a whiny wife."
He is close to the religious right, he is OK with creationism.

I've known this guy for 50 years. He is pretty level headed and an astute observer. With a recommendation like this, I don't think a wanta go with Perry.
His final comment was, "Republicans can do better."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Close encounters of the Asteroid kind

Front page of the Wall St Journal has a big drawing of asteroid 2005 YU55, which crosses earth's orbit and came within 201,000 miles of earth (inside the Moon's orbit) Pretty science fictiony for the staid old Wall St Journal.
This one missed.
Question: what should we do when we detect one that's gonna hit us? The only thing that might do some good, it to nuke it. Good big nuke, close up, might blow it into gravel. Or it might break it up into a dozen pieces. But the pieces keep coming. What causes more damage, one really big hit, or a dozen smaller hits?
Do any of those ICBM's have the oomph to boost a big nuke up that high? These asteroids are small and dark and hard to see, so they will be real close before we spot them. No time to build a special rocket, we would have to use something off the shelf. That's an ICBM that's been standing silo alert for decades. Or possibly a satellite launcher from Space-X.
If we have enough delta-V to do a rendezvous and land on the thing (heh, works in the movies) we could set a big nuke on one side of it it. Set it off, and that rock is gonna move. Trouble is, it may not move all that fast, which means we gotta nuke it when it's far out there, to give it time to move far enough to miss the earth.
Do we have any rockets with that sort of delta-V?

Monday, November 7, 2011

What do you lead with?

Tonight and last night The Newshour led with the Herman Cain sexual harassment story. Where as Fox News, put the story on "page 2", after other lead stories. Looks like the Newshour wants to torpedo Herman more than Fox does.

Internet censorship bill in Congress

US rep Lamar Smith (r -Texas) is supporting a bill to allow the Dept of Justice to shut down any website it wants to. No trial, no nothing, if DOJ wants the site off the internet, bang, it's gone.
This measure is the darling of Hollywood, 'cause they want to use it to "prevent piracy".
Rep Smith has accepted a few hundred thou from the entertainment industry.
What does it cost to buy a US congressman? Not much apparently.

News from the People's Republic of Cambridge

Cambridge public schools will close for a Muslim holiday this year.

Glad I no longer live in Cambridge.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Strange Obit in The Economist

The Economist wrote an obit for Dennis Ritchie, who died October 12. The obit writer was so ignorant as to fail to mention that Dennis Ritchie is the Ritchie of Kernighan and Ritchie, "The C Programming Language", a slim paperback book owned and revered by every programmer on earth. The book is so basic and so well known that it goes by the name of "K&R" in the programming world.
Then the obit writer makes a few wild claims. "C fundamentally changed the way computer programs were written". Not quite so. That honor belongs to FORTRAN which goes back to the early 1950's. FORTRAN was the first widely accepted higher level language and made portable (will run on more than one brand of computer) programs possible. It was so popular that all competing computer companies were obliged to offer a FORTRAN compiler on their machines.
C came later, 1960's, from Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson at Bell Labs. C caught on and became wildly popular because it was a vastly better FORTRAN than FORTRAN was. Not that C could do anything that FORTRAN couldn't do, but programming in C was infinitely easier. C swept away the myriad of pit falls, gotcha's and spaghetti coding practices of FORTRAN. I can still remember the pleasures of doing it in C after years of struggling along in FORTRAN.
C had a lot of great features, foremost among them was manual, K&R. This thin book was clear and lucid and above all short. Everything you need to know is in it, well organized and so well written you could read it for pleasure. Compared to the massive, wordy and opaque manuals that came with other computer languages, The C Programming Language was pure poetry and contributed mightily to the success of C.
Today practically all commercial programming is done in C. So in honoring Dennis Ritchie we are honoring a man who created modern computer programming, not single handedly, but with co workers. Dennis didn't do all the work, but he did do a lot of the work.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Firewall, or is it a ring fence

With Greece sliding down the tubes, and the rest of the EU running around crying out "The sky is falling, the sky is falling", newsies on NPR and at The Economist keep agitating for a "firewall" (American speak) or a "ringfence" (European speak) around Greece to "prevent the contagion from spreading".
I wonder what they are talking about? Do they mean a great big sugardaddy who will step in and guarantee that all lenders to Greece and every other shaky country will get paid off in full and nobody will ever loose any money?
That would be nice, but neither the Americans nor the Chinese have that much money, and even if they did, they are not inclined to spend it on Europe. Nobody else in the world is big enough or well heeled enough to be a creditable sugardaddy.
The fundamental problem with Greece is nobody in their right mind is gonna lend them any more money. They are broke, owe more than they can ever pay, and still want to borrow more to cover their government spending. Their economy, never very good, is not growing, and doesn't throw off enough cash to pay their way. What kind of "firewall" can change that?
Then come the other shaky European countries. They aren't as bad off as Greece, yet, but everyone of sense can see where they are headed. Already they have to pay 5 and 6 percent for money while Germany and America can borrow for under 3%. As confidence wanes, they are going to find it harder and harder to borrow money. Soon it will become impossible.
Again, what sort of "firewall" will convince people to lend to deadbeats?
Or are we just hearing naive newsie's wishing for Santa Claus?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dances with Dragons George RR Martin

It's the latest and fifth in the Game of Thrones/Fire and Ice saga. It's thick, and takes some time to read. It ends like the first four books of the series, all the good guy protagonists get killed, and the bad guys are still alive and ready for use in the next book. Actually I think one or two of the Starks are still sort of alive at the end, but the rest have bought the farm.
If you have read the previous Fire and Ice books, you will want to read this one, just to learn what happens, but toward the end I found myself just skimming hoping to get to where something happens. I'm afraid Mr. Martin has been reading too many of the Robert Jordan fantasies which just go on and on and nothing ever gets accomplished. Good old Tolkien, who invented the genre, at least made things happen. At the end of the trilogy the ring was thrown in the fire and the dark lord destroyed. Tolkien's modern imitators don't do that sort of thing anymore, the story just rambles on and on and never seems to get anywhere.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dr. Watson on NPR

NPR ran a piece this morning about Watson, the IBM computer that is now the world's Jeopardy champion, having beaten the top human players on live TV a while ago. Watson has been hired to do legal scutwork, replacing 500 lawyers. (Question: What's 500 lawyers thrown out of work by a computer? Ans: A good start)
The NPR piece ran on speculating that massive unemployment awaits as computers take over from humans in other places.
Funny thing, the piece was all science fiction, things that might happen in the future. They didn't talk about draftsmen, clerk typists and travel agents. All of which have gone away since I started working.
Back when I started in industry, I sketched the needed drawings on squared paper and then went down to drafting. Where a full time draftsman would make beautiful D size drawings in ink on vellum. Or, even more time consuming, "tape out" a printed circuit board, laying each trace out with thin sticky tape. My first real design, a 4 by 8 inch CPU board, took a draftsman four weeks to tape out. Back then companies had more draftsmen than engineers.
Then we engineers got desktop computers with CAD programs. I could produce better drawings, faster, right on my desktop. The last few places I worked, before retiring, had no draftsmen at all. The engineers did all the drawings, using desktop CAD.
Back when I started work, everything written, memo's, proposals, instruction manuals, test procedures, parts lists had to be typed. And companies had clerk typists who took hand written rough copy and typed out fair copy using the legendary IBM Selectric typewriter. Then we got Word for Windows. Pretty soon everyone typed their own stuff on their own desktop computer. Again, the last couple of companies I worked for, didn't even have one clerk typist.
And, back then, to go on a trip, you called the company travel agency and they arranged air tickets, rental cars, and motels. Not any more, everyone makes their own arrangements using Orbitz or Travelocity. The travel agencies are mostly gone by now.
So, fairly humble automation has already replaced a lot of workers. I mean a $600 Windows desktop is peanuts compared to Watson. The cheapy desktops ought to replace a lot of pure paper shuffling jobs. Which isn't all bad, who really wants to shuffle paper for a living?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Grade school math scores improve, reading flat

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show a solid 9% rise on the math scores, whereas reading scores are flat. The test results cover the years 1990 to 2010, twenty years in all. Assuming they haven't watered down the test over twenty years, this says that the math teachers are improving their performance and the reading teachers ain't. Wonder why?
Could it be that reading teachers assign nothing but awful books? I made a point of reading all of my son's assigned middle school and high school reading and wow, every one of 'em was awful. Wimpy protagonists who get sand kicked in their faces for 350 pages. Hard core distopias that make 1984 seem like summer camp. Totally boring tales. Age inappropriateness, books that would make sense high school junior year, assigned in 7th grade. Minor works assigned in place of the author's best work. Books of pure political indoctrination thinly disguised as literature.
Could it be a steady diet of awful books turns kids off from reading?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Obama doesn't negotiate, at all

A week ago, Obama announced he was withdrawing ALL American forces from Iraq. Despite objections from the Pentagon and leaving Iraq wide open to invasion or subversion by Iran. At the time Obama claimed this unfortunate result was caused by Iraqi intransigence; the Iraqi's refused to sign a status of forces agreement exempting US troops from Iraqi law.
Say it ain't so. Well, Max Boot, writing on the Journal's op ed page says it ain't so. According to Max, President Bush used to have weekly video conferences with Mr. Malaki. Where as the only time Obama video conferenced was just once, to announce that negotiations had failed. In short, Obama didn't bother to negotiate, he just picked up his marbles and went home.