Category Archives: personal

the vagaries of memory

I doubt mankind will ever figure out how our memories work.

Think about it for a second: you’re sitting in your car, listening to some radio station playing songs popular when you were a kid – a young kid. And then, lo and behold, you’re singing along with the radio – to songs you either a) haven’t heard in years, or b) have no recollection of ever having heard in your life. But there you are, singing along, belting out the lyrics at the top of your voice (unless, of course you have the windows open, in which case, you’re probably just mouthing along).

Or say you’re watching Jeopardy! and the category is 14th Century German Romance Plays. Nobody actually knows anything about these things (or that they even exist) but the answer is given, and you respond before Alex has finished reading the clue. Boom! You got it – aced the most bizarre trivia question you could ever come up with. And then you start thinking about why you knew that. Is it because you’re a scholar of 14th Century German Romance Plays? Probably not. Did you major in German literature in college? Again, the answer is likely ‘No’. For that matter, as you’re contemplating this amazing moment in your life, you realize you’ve never seen anything written in German other than ‘Adolf Hitler’.

Then Final Jeopardy! comes on, and the clue is “This actress was the youngest to ever win an Academy Award.” Oh no! You’re an entertainment awards fanatic. You even know who won for Best Gaffer in 1983 – even though nobody else on the planet knows there are gaffers on movie sets, let alone what they do. You scan through your expansive collection of mental entertainment facts, and this one escapes you. (It’s Shirley Temple, by the way.)

My real question, though relates to how we should use our intelligence. Is it better to focus on knowing scads of unrelated, trivial matters, or is it better to know where to find unrelated, trivial information? If you are a machinist, is it better to know how to reverse-thread the inside of a titanium pipe end-cap, or to go look up what kind of tooling and lathe settings you will need when you get around to making that part? I suppose that if all you ever do in life is mill reverse-threaded titanium pipe end-caps, you should probably commit that piece of information to memory. But when you need to make two of these things. Ever. In your entire life. In the entire history of every company you ever work for. Well, then I would say it’s better to go look up that particular datum when you need it. And then promptly forget it.

I imagine that most people have a multi-stage memory, at least in some ways similar to my own. I have the immediate-recall memory for simple things like phone numbers that are read to me over the phone that I must then dial right away since I can’t write it down at that moment. There’s a short-term memory where I’ll recall some things for as long as I need them, and no longer – such as piddling things about contrapositive proofs that, God-willing, I’ll never need again, so I forgot about them after Discrete Math was over. Then there’s that intermediate memory where stuff I use regularly sits – stuff that is too complicated (or private) to write down (like passwords) where you start off with the information written down, but after a little bit of time (and a lot of constant use) you memorize it.

Right now, I can probably accurately claim that I know about 50 different passwords – all of them current, and that I use on a least a semi-frequent basis. But, as time goes on, and passwords are changed, or I no longer need to know them, they’ll fade from memory.

The next stage is that long-term memory that holds stuff you use all the time, and have used for a long time, and will use for the foreseeable future: family and friends’ names, birthdays, your address, cell phone number, social security number, how to get to work, how to get to some friends’ houses, etc. These are things you don’t even realize you remember because you use them all the time.

The next-to-last stage of memory is what I’ll call ‘fond recollections’. Events that stand out in your mind because either a) they were important to you, or b) something else important happened then, so associated events are also remembered. I won’t say that these ‘fond’ memories are necessarily ‘good’, but they’re isolated events that you recall – maybe a birthday when you were little, making cookies for Thanksgiving, putting tinsel on the Christmas tree, that sit-on fire-truck you rode around on when you were three. It might also include some not-so-nice things: crashing your first car, your house burning down, a close friend or family member’s death. But since these are isolated events also, I’m going to classify them here.

Lastly comes that queer, long-term memory that shows up when playing Trivial Pursuit or watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – random stuff you never knew you knew that comes flying back into your head just before the timer runs out on Final Jeopardy!

That last category is certainly the most interesting to me. I love playing Trivial Pursuit or pub trivia and watching quiz shows. And if I know the answer to the question, it will come flying back in time to answer about 95% of the time. And if I don’t know – well, then I don’t know.

But getting back to my question from earlier – is it better to know stuff or know how to find what you need to know? I’d say it’s a balance. No, I’m giving a cop-out, I’m going to explain myself.

Knowing where to find the answer is far more practical in everyday life than just knowing the answer, but only on topics that are not entirely in your knowledge domain. For example, I don’t use the PHP function mysql_fetch_array very often – so when I do I go to and look up the exact usage in the manual. I would wager that most machinists don’t reverse-thread titanium pipe end-caps often, so if and when they need to, they’ll just look it up – but they know where to look.

Knowing how to find what you’re looking for is an important skill for other reasons, too. If you’re interested in a topic but don’t know much about it, you might be inclined to go to your local bookstore to see what titles they have available. By knowing how to find information, you can evaluate – by title, book size, and a quick skim of the contents and chapter layouts – which book(s) will be of the most help to you in your quest.

I run into this frequently when searching for stuff online – lots of times I don’t know much about what I’m looking for, but I have learned (through lots of practice) how to filter my searches to return likely candidates to my queries. I also have learned how to find people who are both able and willing to help me in areas I am not very knowledgeable. For example, when something’s wrong with my car, I take it to a mechanic I have already proven to be knowledgeable, and ask him questions. I know enough about the basics of automobile design, implementation, and maintenance that if they tell me my hemofligger needs to be replaced and the muffler deck should be tightened to 500 pound-inches of torque to reduce rattling – they’re pulling my chain. On the other hand, if I’m seeing a problem with my car overheating and they tell me the pressure cap and thermostat should be replaced, then I know those are components of the coolant system, so the response sounds reasonable.

I think the answer to my question, then, is that you need to know a little bit about what you’re trying to find if you don’t use is very often so that you can get the information you need quickly. I know there is a function in PHP’s GD library interface that will convert an image from GIF to PNG formats. I don’t recall what it is, but I know where to look. I know there is a remote desktop utility in Windows, and it’s called mstsc (Microsoft Terminal Services). But I haven’t memorized the command-line options to KDE’s rdesktop tool because I don’t use it very frequently (that’s what man pages are for).

So, know the stuff you use constantly, and remember where to find those nuggets you only need on the blue moon.

other drivers suck

I went to upstate NY for my fall break this past weekend. The trip up was great – until I got about 5 minutes from my parents’ house when a dumptruck driver decided he didn’t like Mazda Proteges and just changed lanes whilst I was next to him. Fortunately I-787 has fairly decent shoulders there, and I could avoid him. But what a jerk.

All through my stay in NY, and the first leg of my return to NC via NJ was good driving. But I got stuck for about 3 hours in traffic due to 4 crashes on I-81. My budgeted delays for construction of 20-30 minutes turned into just 5, but the crashes held me up for a disturbingly long time. All in all, they pushed my return time to NC to 2a Wednesday rather than about 2230 or 2300 Tuesday.

I’ve decided that other drivers need to be taken off the road. If you can’t look before changing lanes – and especially when you can’t use a turn signal, you should have your license revoked. If you do look and just miss somebody, you need better mirrors.

But the idiots who decide that watching the aftermath of a crash means that you need to slow down to 5 miles per hour, and – oh heaven forbid – not switching lanes until you’re at the crash are morons and need to be taken off the road.

Ahh. That feels better. Rant over.

airport security

This past weekend I had the, ahem, joy, to fly with firearms, and I was struck again by how stupid airport security really is. Of all the people you would think you would want to be onboard your flight, you’d think you would want someone who was competent in using a firearm – and who had one with him. But no, all firearms have to be in hard-sided lockable (and locked) cases – and must be checked.

Flying from RDU to EWR was straightforward, but the return flight was a bit more hectic. When checking my firearms in NC, the check-in lady verified I had a key for the case, then had me stuff the firearms declaration form into my case, and then happily put the case onto the conveyor belt to be checked. A simple process that only took an additional 30 seconds over the normal process of checking bags since a special form needs to be signed.

Checking in at Newark, however, was more of an ordeal than it should be. First, I told them I was flying with firearms, then they escorted me to an employees-only security area to open the case, and demonstrate to the agent that they were unloaded, then put the form inside, then seal the whole works back up. Ahh, I thought, that wasn’t too bad. Alas, that wasn’t all. Next I was escorted over to the Xray machines, and had to surrender my key to the Xray guy so he could open the case – again – and verify everything was fine, then he sealed it back up and returned my key to me.

Grrr. Ok, I understand opening the case once to demonstrate there are no bombs in it, but a second examination, and especially without my presence, did not make me feel very good about the state of affairs with ‘security’ at EWR. I was unable to verify that nothing was stolen until I got to RDU later that morning. It really would have been a simple thing for the Xray tech to take a magazine, or even one of the guns I had in the case, and I wouldn’t have known until it was far and away too late.

This really helps to exemplify the sorry state of so-called security in the US, and especially at airports. By definition, once I have passed through airport security into a ‘secure zone’, I am now no longer a security threat. But I also wasn’t a threat ahead of time, or they wouldn’t let me through (I hope at least). No, the real threat isn’t from somebody flying who wants to check their firearms. Or folks who just want to lock their bags to keep them safe. The real threat is from some jackass sitting a half-mile from the runway with a smuggled, shoulder-mount missile shooting at a plane in the pattern.

I could understand not allowing people to carry firearms in their carry-on bags if they didn’t also have a certification indicating they knew how to use them – such as a concealed carry permit. However, anyone who can demonstrate (via a government-issued certificate for example) that he/she is competent to not only own but also use a small weapon, should be allowed bring such a device with them onto the plane.

I would certainly feel more comfortable knowing that at least some of the flights I’m on would have people who knew how to handle a handgun onboard. I’d feel more comfortable knowing I was one of those people.

But most of all, I’d feel more comfortable if airport security reverted to its pre-9/11 status. The islamic wackos who hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and the final one that was re-hijacked and crashed into a field didn’t have to sneak any contraband through airport security. Everything they brought onboard was legit. Their crime was lying about their identities to obtain US documentation that indicated they should be here.

Outlawing pocket knives, nail clippers, knitting needles, baseball bats, and the like doesn’t improve security. Security is improved when everyone takes on personal responsibility and doesn’t let bad stuff happen. If even one person onboard any of the hijacked planes on September 11th had been carrying a weapon, or if anyone on the first three planes had grown some balls and stood up to those jackasses who hijacked the plane, we might not be now remembering 9/11 as the biggest act of terrorism in US history: we would be remembering the acts of a couple people who decided to act rather than sit idly by while their jet was flown into a skyscraper.


No, not the fabric softener. The church I grew up in in Albany NY (Albany Baptist) has been trying to move out of their old building for several years, and finally got a sale on their current facilities to be able to buy a new building. However, before they could move, they had to have their closing on the old building.

It had been waiting in semi-limbo for a couple weeks, but a week ago Saturday the officers got a call saying that the buyers wanted to close the following Thursday, the 8th.

I decided Monday evening that I was going to head to Albany for the last prayer meeting in the old building. It’s the only reason I went up, and I knew it was going to be a very long, tiring trip. Fortunately, a couple friends, one of whom grew up in Albany the first half of her life, were able to come along to help split the driving.

Last Tuesday a little before 7p, we left Mebane and started driving. Got into Cohoes a little after 7a Wednesday morning, crashed for a bit, then popped around the capital district for a few hours before heading to church that night. After the service, we hung around for a while to say hi and visit for a couple hours with folks we know there, then got back in the car and headed south.

Unfortunately, we had a bit of a hiccup going south and lost about 1.5 hours of travel time due to my not giving full enough directions to my friend driving while I took a nap, but we made it back to Mebane safe (and tired) Thursday afternoon.

All told, we were gone for 46 hours, and spent all but 16 of those hours in the car (either sleeping at a rest stop or driving).

While not the most ambitious bounce trip I’ve ever pulled off, it was still fun. If you know me, and would like to know more about the trip, feel free to leave a message in the comments.

cirque du randall’s island

On Friday, 26 May, my parents, sister, and I descended onto Randall’s Island from the Triborough Bridge to see Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo production.

We’ve enjoyed watching Cirque du Soleil’s productions for years on TV, but had never had a good opportunity to see them in person. CdS is a circus in the European tradition rather than the American one, so there are no animals – just clowns and acrobatics. The entire show is actually a story set to music and gymnastics rather than a spectacle of just noise and juggling atop elephants.

One of the cool things about the Corteo production was that it was done ‘in the round’, so the audience sat all around the stage, and the show is viewed from every side. It was also done in a tent – which I will be the first to admit I didn’t know was done anymore.

Being in a tent in New York City with a few hundred other people on Memorial Day weekend wouldn’t normally sound like an enjoyable experience, but apparently tent design and contruction has improved since the early days of PT Barnum: Cirque du Soleil’s tent has an integral HVAC system attached to it made from the same material with a slew of holes punched-out. It is quite effective – enough so that just sitting still under the vents could make a body chilly.

Tickets may seem a bit pricey (ours were ~$50 each), but it is well worth it. They’ll be in NYC until the 25th of June, and have other tour dates listed on their web site. I strongly recommend getting out to see the show if you can.

virtually speaking

I’ve gotten very interested in virtualization technology recently. There’s a high probability I will be working with VMware this summer, and several of my websites (including this one) run on a virtual private server provided by Tektonic, running CentOS 3 through Virtuozzo.

Virtualization is a fascinating concept. Instead of needing gobs of physical servers, by running operating systems through a virtualization layer, several servers can be run off one physical piece of hardware. With several options available – including Xen, VMware, Virtuozzo, User-Mode Linux, Virtual Server – deciding on a particular route is difficult at best. Depending on your budget, actual server OS requirements, and available physical hardware, all of the above may end up being viable options.

Because several guest operating systems will be running inside or on top of the host virtualizer, underlying hardware generally has to be pretty hefty. However, some of the available virtualization options will allow as many as 100 guest operating environments – so installing just a few high-end servers can replace potentially dozens or hundreds of pieces of hardware.

Solutions such as the new edition of VMware ESX Server are actually smart enough to automatically shift virtual instances from one piece of physical hardware to another based on server load, or in the event of hardware problems.

User-Mode Linux, aka UML, is actually Linux ported to run on an abstract hardware standard implemented in Linux – so it’s Linux ported to run on itself. Now that hurts to think about.

As I get more personal experience with virtualization technology, I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it.

on open-source

I am a huge fan of FLOSS: free/libre open-source software. My website runs on CentOS Linux, one of my home machines runs Kubuntu (you Gnome users are lost), I use emacs (down you vi fiends!), Anti-Vir, Crimson Editor, Firefox, Apache, PHP, BitTorrent, Python, WordPress, and so many more I can’t count them all.

I have often thought about how/whether I can contribute to these projects. The ones I use are all worthy of support, and I suspect many more would be if they got some momentum behind them. And I don’t have the time, skill, desire, or energy to try to pitch-in on bug fixes, feature adds, porting, or any of the other thousand and one things these projects ask for.

I contribute by linking back to those projects. I tell my friends and family about them, and try to get them to use them and spread the love, so to speak. On a few projects I have contributed to their donations page. And I contribute to those projects by releasing libraries of my own.

Code I’ve written, mostly in the forms of low-level data structures and little utility functions, may not be very sexy, or even ever get used, but I put it out there for folks to grab.

I love the determination and drive shown by those pushing forward on FLOSS projects, and I wish I could contribute more. Maybe some day I’ll be able to, but for now, thanks for your efforts.