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King James Bible, Book of Luke, Parable of the Prodigal Son
And he said, A certain man had two sons:

And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.

And he divided unto them his living.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.

And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.

And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,

And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:

And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:

For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing.

And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.

And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.

And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him.

And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:

But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.

And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.

It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

The word on the intertubes is that this parable is about being able to ask for forgiveness and it’s about God’s grace… But I think they got it all wrong.

It’s about love. That’s all.

Happy birthday, little son of mine.

Solitude

I have a very special memory. One that I have not thought about for years but it came to me today in the middle of Saving Private Ryan. I don’t think I’ve shared it before.

In my solitude, you haunt me

A long time ago, I had a girlfriend and I used to sing to her. At that period of my life, I was entirely entranced by Billie Holiday and my most favourite song was Solitude and my girlfriend used to ask me to sing it to her. I sang it over and over.

With reveries of days gone by.

Eventually we broke up and she moved out and went her own way but a few months later she called me out of the blue and said she was afraid and asked if she could come stay with me for a few days.

In my solitude, you taunt me

She was having headaches and problems with her memory. We took her to the doctor who sent her to the hospital where they told us she had a brain tumour. It was inoperable but they might be able to treat it with radio-therapy.

With memories that never die.

The treatment didn’t work out and her memory and her headaches got worse and eventually she slipped into unconsciousness.

I sit in my chair

And, filled with despair,

Her parents flew over from Malta and came to stay with me in my little apartment and, one by one, her friends and relatives from all over the world came to join us sitting by Rita’s bedside.

There’s no one can be so sad.

We sat by her bed for days and weeks and months and, every now and again, she would drift back into our life and say a few words before drifting back into the twilight. One day she slept and didn’t wake up again.

With gloom everywhere,

I sit and I stare.

I used to sing to her while she slept her deep sleep – especially when we were alone, just Rita and I. One day, one last time, she spoke to me.

“What’s that song? I know that song.”

“It’s Solitude by Billie Holiday.”

“It’s a beautiful song. My boyfriend used to sing it to me.”

Then she went back to sleep. She didn’t wake up any more.

I know that I’ll soon go mad.

In my Solitude.

I promised that I’d never forget you, Rita. I kept my promise.

I’m praying,

Dear Lord above,

Send back my love.

A Beautiful Mind

Whenever we hear a story about someone who has suffered a tragedy or illness that leaves them in a bad way physically, we have that conversation. The one that goes “I wouldn’t want to live that way. Just have me put down.” I always have the same response: as long as I can still think, I will want to go on.

And if I can’t think? I’ll go on anyway because a) I have nothing to lose (I can’t think, remember?) and 2) How do you know I can’t think? Maybe I really can think but just can’t communicate what I am thinking?

I expect the state of Ebert’s face leaves a lot of people thinking “I wouldn’t want to live like that” but those people are missing the most beautiful part of Roger Ebert. He is absolutely one of the most powerful writers on the planet and I feel privileged that I can read his blog every now and again (but cheated that I only discovered it in the last couple of years).

Even when Ebert is writing about something as trivial as a movie, his words are magnificent but he rarely stays on topic long enough to merit the lowly title of movie critic. More often he writes about himself – which is to say, he writes about me. He wields his pen like a time machine transporting me magically into my memories. To memories of burning shame – or burning pride – or of quiet moments of reflection that repeat, reprise and return.

Mural in Prescott Arizona

Today, Ebert started with the madness in Arizona but he was soon telling me about that time a bunch of midshipmen from Dartmouth drove down to Torquay with our consorts from Stover Girls School – me with the blackest girl i ever kissed  – and reminding me how it’s a mistake, if your grass skirt is homemade, to go commando.

But his important topic for today was how the deepest lesson you must learn, as you metamorphose from child to man, is to learn to imagine what it is like to be someone else.

Ebert’s example, as always, is mine.

That brings me back around to the story of the school mural. I began up above by imagining I was a student in Prescott, Arizona, with my face being painted over. That was easy for me. What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life?

I often wondered, seeing pictures of those brave first students who calmly smashed through the racial barricades in Little Rock, what was it like to be those people?

Liitle Rock High

Not Elizabeth Eckford. It’s easy to imagine being her – just like it’s easy to imagine being Neil Armstrong making his giant leap for mankind, or Geoff Hurst making sure it really is all over now.

What was it like to be the girl behind her with so much hatred for someone she does not even know?

What was it like to be that guy who was so offended by the idea of black people and white people eating lunch together that he poured his drink over them?

The Lunch Counter

What is it like to be so afraid of catholic school children walking on protestant streets that you need to throw bricks at them?

Holy Cross

Ebert:

But what about the people in those cars? They don’t breathe that air. They don’t think of the feelings of the kids on the mural. They don’t like those kids in the school. It’s not as if they have reasons. They simply hate. Why would they do that? What have they shut down inside? Why do they resent the rights of others? Our rights must come first before our fears. And our rights are their rights, whoever “they” are.

Ebert’s story starts with the town in Arizona that commissioned a mural for their elementary school and then made the artist lighten the faces after a local politician complained on the radio. It ends long ago with a story from his own life.

One day in high school study hall, a Negro girl walked in who had dyed her hair a lighter brown. Laughter spread through the room. We had never, ever, seen that done before. It was unexpected, a surprise, and our laughter was partly an expression of nervousness and uncertainty. I don’t think we wanted to be cruel. But we had our ideas about Negroes, and her hair didn’t fit. Think of her. She wanted to try her hair a lighter brown, and perhaps her mother and sisters helped her, and she was told she looked pretty, and then she went to school and we laughed at her. I wonder if she has ever forgotten that day. God damn it, how did we make her feel? We have to make this country a place where no one needs to feel that way.

John Newcaso was the first black kid I knew and I am happy to count him among my 7 year old friends. If my memory serves me well, he was an orphan and newly arrived from Africa. He was very popular (perhaps because he was the only one who could throw two punches in a second – Hey! We were seven! – or because he held the record for longest flight for a paper aeroplane even after we all copied his design) but we made fun of him because he wore a brace on his legs.

I wonder how he remembers us?

Was his first year in cold, dreary England tremendous fun because he had so many friends and lashings and lashings of ginger beer? Or hell because of our relentless teasing? Or maybe it was just my memory cleaning up the darker corners? I hope not.

Attack of the Killer Toaster Ovens

Just how much should we spend to defend ourselves from terrorist attacks?

There is a general agreement about risk, then, in the established regulatory practices of several developed countries: risks are deemed unacceptable if the annual fatality risk is higher than 1 in 10,000 or perhaps higher than 1 in 100,000 and acceptable if the figure is lower than 1 in 1 million or 1 in 2 million. Between these two ranges is an area in which risk might be considered “tolerable.”

There is more chance that you will be killed by a kitchen appliance than by a terrorist.

Pious Fraud

I was determined to not like or even read Robert Wright’s Evolution of God but Kindle makes it much too easy to buy books.

Fortunately it is excellent.

Even shamans who got no fees or gifts might benefit from their work. Among the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, payment for service was rare, but, as one anthropologist observed, “one abstains from anything and everything” that might put the shaman out of sorts or irritate him. Moreover, in pre-agricultural societies, as in modern societies, high social status, however intangible, can ultimately bring tangible benefits. Ojibwa shamans, one anthropologist reports, received minimal remuneration, working for prestige, not pay. One of the symbols of religious leadership prestige was polygyny. Male leaders took more than one wife. In his classic study The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that, among some Eskimo, a forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning).
So here is the pattern: in pre-agricultural societies around the world, people have profited, in one sense or another, by cultivating a reputation for special access to the supernatural. It’s enough to make you wonder: Might they, in the course of establishing their bona fides, sometimes resort to deceit? Was the average shaman a fraud” or, as one anthropologist put it, a “pious fraud”?

Why I Don’t Write Much

Ladies and Gentlemen. The magnificent Verity Stob…

The reality is even better: an extended example of that kind of feminism that implies the intrinsic superiority of women in nearly all things while simultaneously demanding privileges to compensate for claimed weaknesses, without noticing any implicit contradiction. I particularly enjoyed suggestion #4 that female-friendly projects should use attractive-to-women programming languages such as Python and Ruby (and Perl too, it says. Is Terry sure about this? I would say that Perl was notoriously one of the most engine oil-besmirched languages around, full of syntactical structures that are hard to shift if one only has small hands, and shot through with rusted-solid regular expressions that only reluctantly yield to the full weight of a big fat bloke).

I now see the programming world in a new light, and have hit upon a wonderful idea. I intend to devise an index that ranks all the major programming languages according to their pulling power. It will range from old favourites like Fortran, which is hopelessly male but in a pleasant pipe-smoking, GWR steam engine, leather elbow patches sort of way that reminds me of Dad; through to an obviously female-attracting language like Delphi: elegant and friendly, using proper words instead of resorting to pointless grunty man-squiggles, yet instinctively practical and not at all like frilly, ditzy, slow-to-react Ruby – the only language actually to be coloured pink.

http://www.simple-talk.com/opinion/geek-of-the-week/verity-stob-geek-of-the-week/

Sunshine of your Love

Sunshine of your Love

I’m not really sure why they call him Slowhand. My hands were much slower than his. I gave up trying to copy the last two measures of the solo and just made something up.

Sunshine of your Love

Performance by The Ragged Clown

I thought it’d be at least easy to sing. Turns out… not so much.

It Changed My Life – Book Four

When I returned from travelling around the world, I took a crappy job fixing avionics on planes at Heathrow Airport. Ooooooooooh how I hated that job. I quit after about three months with no idea of what to do next. Eventually, I narrowed it down to one of five things.

  • Six years in the navy had not cured me of my love of the sea. I applied for a job on a millionaire’s yacht based in Antibes.
  • I rather liked tropical islands. I applied for a job fixing satellite tracking equipment on Ascension Island.
  • I rather liked “abroad” in general. I applied for a course to learn to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL).
  • I had a tiny twinge of regret that I had not been to university. I applied to Cambridge.
  • I vaguely remembered that I had been good with computers as a lad. I applied for an adult education class in software engineering.

I didn’t really have a strong preference and decided to accept the first offer that arrived in my letterbox. Software engineering came in first so software engineering it was. I headed up to the East End of London for a five month course.

If you have ever been to Whitechapel, you will know that it is one of the poorest, crappiest parts of London and home to recent immigrants, gangsters and outcasts. Imagine a neighbourhood that has not changed one whit since Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. That should help you picture the environs of my classroom.

If you have ever been unemployed in England, you will know that there is a prevailing threat that your benefits will stop unless you attend an endless stream of adult education classes. That should help you picture my fellow students.

Our instructor was a total nutcase. It was not clear that he had ever programmed a computer before but that didn’t stop him from having a sackful of forceful opinions about software engineering. Fortunately he only showed up for class about one day in four.

The Blind Beggar, WhitechapelMy fellow students were delighted. There was a pub next door and I got pretty good at pool. Winner Stays On was the prevailing convention and one of the highlights of my life was racking up for the first game at 11AM and not leaving the table until the pub closed at 11PM after thrashing all-comers including several shady-looking characters as the evening hours wore on and the bar filled with gangsters.

A few weeks into our course, the four of us who were not receiving unemployment benefits decided to complain about the lack of an instructor. The company that ran the course – fearing for their government funding – promised to find us a new teacher. They gave us a copy of The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie to help pass the time while they searched for the new guy.

I opened the book and, on the very first page, was the program that changed my life.

#include <stdio.h>
int main()
{ 
  printf("hello, world\n");
  return 0;
}

Our new instructor eventually showed up and tried to teach us ADA but I wasn’t interested. I already had my White Book. I had my passport to a successful career in software.

Kernighan and Ritchie

Two weeks later, I finished my first C program – an editor for sheet music that could playback the music you had typed in. Two months later, I had my first programming job [remind me to tell you about my first gig at Reuters]. Two years after that, I was managing a 12 person team building insurance software (Ultima is still on sale!). Two more years and I was working on Wall Street then, later still, Silicon Valley.

My story is not complete unless I tell you about the Women into Technology class next door or, rather, about Rita, a woman in that class and how we moved in together and… well… that’s a longer story and I’ll save it for another day…

Epilogue
The very day that I started my class, I received a letter from Antibes requesting that I fly down for an interview on that yacht but I’d already made my choice and I stuck with it. I wonder how my life would have been different if I had got on that plane?

It Changed My Life – Book Three

I bought The Golden Treasury of English Verse and a harmonica as my only mementos of civilization when I set off to go backpacking around the world. I’m not entirely sure why though because I couldn’t play the harmonica and I hated poetry.

By the time I got back, I was enchanted by both.

Being untutored in the arts, I was free to decide for myself what I liked and didn’t like even if what I liked wasn’t the right thing or it was unfashionable or whatever. That sentiment applied equally to my music playing and to poetry.

darwinOne night, in Darwin, during a bone-shaking thunderstorm, I heard someone playing blues harp in the other room. It was the most amazing sound I had ever heard come out of a harmonica and I went to investigate. There was an Australian dude a little older than me and we got talking.

He invited me to play a little too and he said words to the effect of “Wow! I have never heard anyone play the harmonica like that!”. I am still not sure if he meant Wow! That was great! or Wow! You suck!

Since I had no idea how I was meant to play it, I just played what sounded good to me. Same deal with poetry.

I jumped around all over the book and each poem launched me into a quest for more poetry like this. I had been force-fed Wilfred Owen at school but reading him of my own accord felt reckless, revolutionary. After six years in the navy, I had to read poetry to find out what war was about.

I have, again, no recollection of why I decided that I should learn The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by heart but I gave up after about 75 verses. I was heartbroken when my new team at work decided that Team Albatross was too gloomy for a team name. They must not have read Coleridge (or heard the song).

My tastes were eclectic (sorry, Dylan, that I made you learn For Whom the Bell Tolls for a recital) and after mini-expeditions with Kipling (Kim, The Man Who Would be King), DH Lawrence (The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love) and a day trip or two with Tennyson and Betjeman, I settled on George Gordon Byron as my travelling companion and soulmate.

250px-George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)I read everything that Byron had ever written and, for a short, mad while, I wanted to be him. I wanted to be the second mortal to swim the Hellespont; I wanted to so scandalize my wife on my wedding night that she would file for divorce the very next day (must’ve been a pretty successful night as it produced Lady Ada who also discovered the joys of programming); I wanted to seduce the wives, sisters, sons and mothers of prominent politicians, including the prime minister’s; I wanted to raise a private army and go liberate the Greeks from the Turks or to die trying – like Byron did.

Shelley and Keats travelled with us for a while, but neither thrilled me the way Byron thrilled me.

I haven’t read poetry for a long, long time – except to read old favourites to my daughter. My passion, like Byron’s life, was brief but intense.