Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dentistry and Math

Back in the early '70s, I used to hang out some evenings (once a week maybe?) at the UH math department, where someone would give a talk and then we would go to "Chico's" at the foot of St. Louis Heights (where City Mill is today). Most of the guys would drink beer but I'd have a 7-up or similar (I was under age).

These were interesting characters. One of them, a PhD student, said on one evening that he didn't believe the fundamental theorem of calculus. I don't know how you can be working on a Ph.D in mathematics and not believe the fundamental theorem of calculus, but there you are.

One evening, a professor (it might have been Dr. Wallen, department chair) told us about his dentist. (I've told this story 2-3 times on this vacation, and as the lovely Carol points out, I laughed out loud each time, so I decided I should write it down.) So he was at the dentist one day, and the dentist asked (you know how they do, when your mouth is full of whatever and you can't answer), "So what do you do?"

"Mf-fa-muh-fix," he replied.

The dentist made some enthusiastic noises, and the professor thought, yeah right, and endured the rest of his dental treatment. But as he was leaving, the dentist said, "Wait, when can I come over?"

Come over?

"Yeah, come over and do math. I have some papers..."

So at the appointed hour some days later, the prof opens the door to find his dentist with a sheaf of papers and a bottle of vodka. (This is the part where I always laugh. Dentistry, vodka, math -- what a great combo!) So they drink and the prof looks over the dentist's papers.

Relating this story to us, the prof said, "This guy was powerful." He had worked out a conjecture regarding the infinite series Σn 1/nx; he wasn't sure, but it seemed to him that if x was bigger than 1, then the series would converge, otherwise not.

It turned out that this was correct; if x=2, the sum converges to π2/6; if x=1, it diverges; if x=–1, it converges, but I forget what it converges to. I thought this was called "Cauchy's theorem," but a quick search (it has been about 35 years) doesn't connect that name to that theorem.

The most recent occasion for telling this story was when talking with my nephew (currently taking high school calculus) about some of my experiences "when I was your age." It was fun re-living those experiences, and also helping him review some of his math and giving him a preview of the fundamental theorem of calculus (which I actually do believe, ftr).

Oops! November 2014 update

OK, that part about –1 is completely wrong. What I meant was, the series 1/1 - 1/2 + 1/3 - 1/4 + 1/5 - 1/6… which is not Σn 1/n–1; it's actually Σn 1/(-n)1

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Science of [staying in] Love

Reading the thinkmarriage blog, I saw this article from Scientific American Mind (which I hadn't heard of before). Here's the blurb:
Nothing is more fulfilling than being in a successful love relationship. Yet we leave our love lives entirely to chance. Maybe we don’t have to anymore By Robert Epstein
It's worth a read.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Worship the other day -- was "Ten minutes for a post"

Sunday, when we were staying in Kailua at a very nice "inn" -- not really a B&B -- we decided to walk to church.

There were signs posted near Wanaao and Awakea for "New Hope Kailua" iirc; we tried to follow one and it didn't work. We tried another one, and right next to it was one that said "Hope Chapel Kailua", which further explained that they met in the Kailua Rec Center. We thought "New Hope" and "Hope Chapel" were the same thing -- ha! Even "Hope Chapel Kailua" doesn't mean "Hope Chapel Kailua" -- one has a website and meets at the Windward Mall; another has no website and meets at the rec center.

It turns out that "New Hope" (at least this one) meets at the school next to the rec center -- maybe 200 yards down the street? But we went to Hope Chapel.

Since I only have a few minutes to write this (we're on vacation and the lovely Carol wants her computer back), I'll tell you about something that happened to me during worship. We sang "Beautiful One" and for some reason on this particular morning the words, which talk a lot about God's wonderful love, hit me especially strongly. That happens to me sometimes, and good thing, too.

Because I sometimes don't feel all that excited, I mean God loves me and that's great, but it doesn't really make an impact on me, you know?

I sometimes think that the Israelites were rather silly to forget God in the desert -- didn't they have the pillar of cloud and fire every single day? But I think that for them, as for me, it all became just everyday.

May the Lord deliver us from feeling that his love, which is with us every day, is just an everyday (as in "commonplace" or "ordinary") thing.

Duke's in Waikiki

The lovely Carol and I are on vacation in Hawaii, and last night went to Duke's in Waikiki. Here are a few things we discovered, so you don't have to :).

My niece's husband, who used to work there, explained that it's in the Outrigger Hotel -- 2335 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu (note). As you drive down Kalakaua Av, it's on the right after Seaside Ave. -- it looks to be about half way between Duke's Lane and Kaiulani Ave. Kalakaua Ave is one-way toward Diamond Head in this area (Ala Wai being one-way toward Ewa). I dropped the lovely Carol off on Kalakaua and went to look for parking.

There are probably better/closer parking spots, but I took a left on Kaiulani, left on Kuhio, and right on Seaside. Almost at Ala Wai, I found the Island Colony apartments/hotel and parked in their garage. It's $3 for 30 minutes. Plenty of parking available there. I walked straight down Seaside, crossed Kalakaua, and walked the 250 yards or so to the Outrigger. I was at the hostess stand at 5:00pm, about 15 minutes after leaving my sweetheart there. This was on a Monday night, and we got a table in the dining room (Duke's Canoe something) one row back from the railing.

Something we didn't know is that there's a dinner menu and a bar menu. The bar menu, which you get by sitting in the bar (which may be at beach-level), is lower priced than the regular dinner menu. If the main reason you're going is for the view of the sunset, you might prefer the bar menu.

As I said, we didn't know that, so we took the dinner menu... the entrees (which I think started around $22) include the salad bar. The recommended fresh fish was "opa", a very light fish. My sweetheart took that fish in the recommended macadamia-nut crust. She shared a bite with me, and I thought it was terrific. Like halibut -- as our server said. I had the seafood luau, which was fish, scallops, shrimp, with coconut sauce. Also very good.

We also didn't know what the salad bar would be like. You can make a meal out of the salad bar -- besides freshly tossed caesar salad, other usual salad bar stuff like spinach and green leaf lettuce and beets and carrots and tomatoes, there is steamed rice, rolls, potato salad, black beans, grilled vegetables, corn, macaroni salad... all for $15 I think. I don't know if you can get the same salad bar in the bar area.

When we arrived, a fellow was playing in the bar, quite close to the dining room. It was one voice and one guitar, but he was very good and had quite a variety of stuff: Johnny Cash, the Beatles, some Hawaiian tourist music, some CSNY I think, and some stuff that's too recent for me to know. His name is Ellsworth, and if you have a choice of evenings to go, you should ask when Ellsworth is playing. That is, if you like any music from the mid-'60s to now.

Beautiful view, very friendly service, great food.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What do you do at the office?

Someone asked me, and I flatter myself that some other reader(s) might want to know too.

I work for (but don't speak for) NetApp, a great place to work. I started there in 2002, after getting laid off from HP along with 20,000 others in the wake of the Compaq thing. I kept my 2002 résumé for some reason.

My first NetApp assignment was on management software -- this was portable C (Solaris, Linux, and Windows) -- then I worked on replication (SnapMirror and SnapVault) for a few years. In 2005, I became part of a "quality team" within the Engineering organization (I told them a "mediocre team" might be a better fit, but they weren't buying), where I helped institutionalize static analysis tools. It's all very well to say "Thou shalt run lint frequently and study its pronouncements with care..." but when you have hundreds of programmers, thousands of files, millions of lines, and schedules to meet -- not to mention interruptions and other pressures of a commercial software organization -- integrating static analysis tools feels rather like adjusting the ignition timing while rolling down the freeway.

Since then I've worked on various other initiatives in engineering tools and our home-grown build system. It turns out that I now write more English prose than code. This is not a big problem, since I do get to code now and then, albeit more in Python and bash than in C or assembly. My current mission at the office is to make life better for development and QA engineers, whether by streamlining some process or making it easier to get at information that's otherwise hard to discover.

Sometimes I do some work on the product (troubleshooting mainly) in areas of logical replication that are not widely understood. Earlier this month I had an opportunity to meet with a customer to describe how we use our own technology in our build and release processes (the dog-food theory) to provide some great advantages to our developers and to the operations folks.

Also, for the past 18 months, I've shared an office with a young fellow right out of college. I've helped bring him up to speed, and I'm very happy and proud to be involved with his professional development. My boss told me a few months ago that I was an "awesome mentor" and that she's never seen a new college grad become a solid contributor in so short a time. (Is there anything in professional life better than that?)

So that's the summary. Any questions, please leave a comment here. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Choosing the matrix

"Cypher," the Judas character in the 1999 film The Matrix, decides he'd rather live a life of pleasant illusion than deal with reality:
Agent Smith: Do we have a deal, Mr. Reagan?
Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.
Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
Cypher: I don't want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important, like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.
from The Matrix [script]
Excellent arguments have been made about why this is a dumb idea (more), but surely nobody would actually decide to live a life of illusion, would they?

Perhaps not, but people do it for days or weeks. That's what John Edwards and Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods all did when they involved themselves in extramarital affairs. And on a shorter time scale, Eliot Spitzer and many many many other unfaithful husbands consult high-end prostitutes.

Why do I say these men are living a life of illusion, particularly the prostitutes' clients? Levitt and Dubner offer this description of one high-end prostitute, "Allie":

She genuinely likes the men who come to her, and the men therefore like Allie even beyond the fact that she will have sex with them. Often, they bring gifts: a $100 gift certificate from; a nice bottle of wine (she Googles the label afterward to determine the value); and, once, a new MacBook. The men sweet-talk her, and compliment her looks or the decor. They treat her, in many ways, as men are expected to treat their wives but often don't.


Allie is essentially a trophy wife who is rented by the hour. She isn't really selling sex, or at least not sex alone. She sells men the opportunity to trade in their existing wives for a younger, more sexually adventurous version--without the trouble and the long-term expense of actually having to go through with it. For an hour or two, she represents the ideal wife: beautiful, attentive, smart, laughing at your jokes and satisfying your lust. She is happy to see you every time you show up at her door. Your favorite music is already playing and your favorite beverage is on ice. She will never ask you to take out the trash.

Super Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner,
pp. 52-53
This is about illusion -- and not a steak-and-creature-comfort illusion; it's fundamentally an identity illusion. It's about being being attractive and sexy and funny, about being being validated by a "beautiful, attentive, smart" woman, about being known. In short, the illusion is about being a real man.

But as Mike Erre asks on the back cover of Why Guys Need God, "Why, after years of being told otherwise, do we still chase after bigger paychecks, better homes, and cuter women to define us as men?" I haven't read the book (except for a few pages on, but I think he's on to something very important. He's talking about pursuing an illusion, whereas Allie is providing the illusion in participatory form.

Now I'll say that some illusions are harmless (think "Happiest Place on Earth"), but the illusions fed by psychotropic drugs, pornography, and prostitution can destroy lives and families. Must we avoid all illusions, all escapes -- all entertainment? I sure hope not! But how to draw the line?

Let me know when you have it figured out, will you please?

Friday, December 25, 2009

What do you want?

One of my children gave me a copy of Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years which, like an earlier book, starts off silly but actually has a lot of depth.

Here's something that struck me: the question of what you (or I) want, and what that says about the story we're living. One of the things that makes the movie Star Wars so great, he says, is

... if I paused the DVD on any frame, I could point toward any major character and say exactly what that person wanted. No character had a vague ambition. It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want.
A Million Miles..., p. 113
Then some pages later, this:
The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person's story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don't want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaners, we are living stupid stories. If it won't work in a story, it won't work in life.
A Million Miles..., pp. 124-125
Well, I guess I'm living rather a boring story because I've got just about everything I've ever wanted. I wish some problems would go away (we all have problems after all) but that's stuff I don't want.

So why do I think this is so profound? He mentioned a family where a 13-year-old daughter was caught in a bad story. She had pot in her closet and dated a boy who was bad for her. After thinking about the story they were all in (girl misbehaves, father yells, mother weeps), her father came up with another story. He did some research and heard about an organization that builds orphanages in other countries. He found out how these orphanages helped kids -- kids who were otherwise in all kinds of danger.

He decided that the whole family should work toward building an orphanage. This would cost some $25,000. They didn't have this sort of money lying around, so living out this story would would involve some sacrifice, but it gave them a sense of purpose, and drew them together as a team. Rather than bickering while adrift, they were heroes working toward a greater goal.

He should have consulted his wife first, but they came to embrace the vision. The daughter dropped the bad boy; heroes don't put up with abuse.

It's nice that the story is turning out well, at least for now, but what I take away from it more than that is: I probably should have a clearer idea of what it is I want in this stage of my life.

And how about you? What do you want? If your life (or mine) were a movie and we froze the frame right now -- and if a viewer pointed at you... what do you want? What's your ambition, your story? What do I want?

Our answers are important, not just for us, but for those around us, too.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Guidance: Do you really want it?

Sometimes in the Christian life, we think we want to hear what God wants us to do, and we want to be quite sure about it. I don't mean what he wants in the sense of should I commit adultery, should I cheat someone, or something else where God has already spoken. I mean about asking this or that person on a date, to go to this vs that college, to study this or that, or in particular to take this job or that.

Here are a couple of stories where people got very clear instruction from God along those lines, but they were not very happy about it. In one case, a missionary family had moved to China, intending to live their lives there. But the husband came down with some illness, and on advice traveled to another city to receive medical care. The treatment had unfortunate side effects, the upshot of which was that they returned to the United States, where he basically had to lie on his back for the next year or so.

He told us some time later that this gave him a chance to reflect upon what was really important in life, so he used that time to some profit. And I remember thinking at that one good thing about the ordeal was that they now had no doubt about whether they should be in China. Not to say they erred in going there in the first place, but it became clear that their future was elsewhere. Heck of a way to find out, though.

Another case, written up by Rich Stearns in his 2009 book The Hole in Our Gospel, describes how the CEO of a luxury tableware outfit became US president of a World Vision. It went something like this: Many years back, when he and his wife were planning their wedding, he didn't want to participate in the gift registry thing as long as children were starving on our planet. So they didn't.

Fast forward a couple of decades or so, and he's worked his way up the management ladder at Parker Brothers (of board games) and then Lenox. He drove a Jaguar to work every day from their 200-year-old 10-bedroom farmhouse, the kids were thriving at expensive private schools, and so on. One of their church friends called him up one day. He was a fund-raiser for a seminary and was moving over to World Vision -- they, in turn, were looking for a new president. His friend said he had a sense that Rich was going to be that next president.

"That's ridiculous," Rich replied. He wasn't interested, he didn't think he was qualified, he liked his job and his company car and the old farmhouse. He didn't want to move the family across the country, etc. His friend pushed on him a little, but Rich wasn't interested.

Then one of his vice presidents sent him a hand-written note. Attached to the note was a clipping from the Wall Street Journal (the daily diary of the American dream). The note basically said, Rich, I saw this job opening and thought you would be a great person for this. But don't take this wrong -- I love having you as a boss and think you're doing a great job. But I thought you'd be terrific at this, if you ever decided to do it.

The job opening was, of course, for the presidency at World Vision. It was from the one day that they ran the ad. Rich tried to ignore it.

Then one day the phone rang. It was a recruiter from World Vision. No, he had not talked with Rich's friend. Rich said he wasn't interested, he brought up one objection after another (which the recruiter knocked down one by one), he tried to get off the phone... and then the recruiter said, "Rich, are you willing to do this if it's God's will for your life?" or something like this.

He couldn't refuse, and over time it became increasingly clear that this is what he was supposed to do. On the day he was going to fly across the country to visit World Vision before making his final decision, a man from a Lenox business partner in England came for a visit. He also offered Rich the chance to run his china business -- a step up in responsibility, prestige, and wealth.

Would Rich abandon his 200-year-old farmhouse, move his family across the country, take a 75% pay cut, and start a job that he felt completely uncomfortable in? Or would he move his family across the Atlantic, give them an exciting experience, take a significant pay increase, and continue working in an industry he was comfortable and capable in?

Reading his account, it seems like he felt like he was being herded somewhere he didn't want to go. Knowing that God is good probably helped, and I think he's glad he followed God's leading. But being herded -- not a fun sensation.

So -- do we really want guidance? I'd have to say: only if God thinks it's really important. And sometimes I'm glad that I'm not supposed to do anything Really Important.

Monday, December 07, 2009


Heard on NPR: Hook's Cheese of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, has a 15-year-old cheddar currently for sale at about $50 a pound.

By weight that would be on the order of a $75 bottle of wine. Mr. Hook says he has some older cheese -- about seventeen years old -- but it's not for sale. It's only for him and his family. A brilliant PR move -- my covetousness was aroused and I immediately began thinking about this. $12.50 for ¼ pound... that would be an interesting experience. I mean, that's less than movie tickets for two!

Actually, for the price of two movie tickets ($10.50 a pop at the local multiplex) you could rent a couple of movies at Blockbuster and have ¼ pound of the 15-year-old Cheddar. H'm...

"Life has loveliness to sell -- buy it and never count the cost." No idea whether I'd consider the experience lovely, but it did arouse my curiosity.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

What was God thinking...

At yesterday's meeting of Good to Great Dads at our church, one of the speakers said that God's interest isn't in accountability; rather, it's in our healing and transformation. He wants us to be all that he had in mind for us.

Our speaker then asked the question: "What was God thinking of, when he thought of you?" Put differently, "What did God have in mind when he decided to make you?"

I don't know what the specific answer is for you, but I do know this: He had something marvelous and wonderful in mind, and two things in particular:

  • To show the riches of his grace in kindness toward you in Christ (Ephesians 2:6-7)
  • To bless the world through you (Ephesians 2:10)
What would this look like? It depends on your gifting, the people you're in contact with, and other circumstances you're in. To discover the answer may involve prayer and solitude and community.

So I don't have anything profound to say about that -- I just liked our speaker's question and wanted to share it with you. Because God really did have something wonderful in mind when he thought of you. (Oh, and please think prospectively, about that -- you know, "today is the first day of the rest of your life", not "oh, crap, God had this great idea for me and I've so far wasted however many decades not being that." See Philippians 3:13)

Because essence precedes existence

There are some people who claim that existence precedes essence for human beings. That is, we show up (existence) first, then we define ourselves (essence) later. You can believe that if you want, but you'll be disagreeing with Psalm 139 at least:
For you created my inmost being;
     you knit me together in my mother's womb. 
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
     your works are wonderful,
     I know that full well. 
My frame was not hidden from you
     when I was made in the secret place. 
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
     your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
     were written in your book
     before one of them came to be. 
and also the Apostle Paul: "...even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world..." (Ephesians 1:4).

So if you're imagining what God was thinking of when he thought of you, I'm here to tell you that you're wondering about something that actually happened! God really did think of you and he really did have something marvelous and wonderful in mind when he did that.