24 September 2011

Bread Upon the Waters

Ecclesiastes 11 tells us:
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.

In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.
I suppose my interest in computing really goes back to my last year in high school.  Our physics teacher, James Anthony Rossas - JAR - had acquired a little device with lights and switches, wired up so that you could mimic some of the operations of propositional logic by setting the switches.  You could experiment with AND, OR and NOT - which are, I suppose, all you need for computing.  You could combine propositions in this way and see the little lights come on.  I was, frankly, fascinated by the concept.

My first experience with an actual computer was with a computer at UCLA - an IBM 704, it may have been - that was given to the students to play with as the University had acquired a newer one - I think an IBM 7094.  In 1960 or 1961, my senior friend, Lowell Wood, had talked me through writing some primitive routine for it, just to see how it worked.

I must, nevertheless, have had more experience in the years between 1961 and 1964, though I do not remember where or how, because in 1964, when I returned to the University of California at Berkeley to study linguistics, I began part-time paid work in a field that is now my full-time occupation: computing.

In late 1964, when I had just started there, I applied for a job in a machine language translation project.  It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had that panned out, but it did not - because, in fact, the whole MLT project was about to be abandoned by the University.  Mechanised translation was beginning to be seen as much more difficult than was once imagined (in my opinion true translation can never be mechanised), so there soon was no project at all.

But I was hired as student help to write statistical programmes - pretty simple ones by today's standards - for a number of linguistic projects that were going on at the time.  The whole business was quite different from what we think of as computing today.

Of course the programmes were all entered into the machine on punched cards.  In 1964, I didn't even punch the cards myself.  I wrote my programmes on coding sheets - programming in Assembly language - none of your high-level languages, please, not even FORTRAN! - which were then given to keypunch operators who punched them in.  The data were all on 7-track tape - 9-track came later.  I don't know who entered the data - not me.

Output was on fanfold paper - and much of the time my output consisted in memory dumps which I would mark up in order to discover the bugs in my code.

The technical bits above - Assembly language, 7-track tape, etc - are there not (simply :-)) to make the whole thing sound technical and impressive, but because several readers of this - at least Eddie and Johnny - will find it somewhat interesting.  But I describe the whole experience because I did begin serious computing work at this time, continued it quite a lot more at the University of Hawai'i when I did my Master's degree - and in part this was responsible for our move to New Zealand.  In Yap the computing began gradually to take over - so that in 1984 my way of making a living ceased to have anything at all to do with linguistics and became computing full-time.

The small things that we do in life may, like Ecclesiastes' bread and seed, have long-term larger consequences that we cannot anticipate at the time.

My parents' move to Hawai'i in 1963 was to have similarly large consequences for me - and for others.

18 September 2011


I suppose it started with a single fish tank - and even that I don't remember.  I mean, why was I ever interested in raising tropical fish?  Perhaps it was part of  a long-standing fascination on my part with what might be called scientific - or technical? - matters.  I was a keen amateur astronomer from about age 11 or 12.  My rearing of rabbits - admittedly as a little business and for meat - was nonetheless connected with the fascination of the structure of their life cycle.  Later, when we had moved to Honolulu, electronics became a focus.

In Berkeley it was fish.  I do not think we had any fish in El Monte.

Fish became a kind of obsession.  Our apartment in Berkeley had a largish living room.  By the time we left I think there were 15 fish tanks in it.  Thinking about what it was like astonishes me now.  The room gurgled.  Each tank had air bubbling through it.  I think I must have had a single air pump to service all the tanks.  Each tank had its own heater as well, of course, for these were tropical fish.  And the flat has to have been very damp, with all that water vapour in the air.

At its height, the fish business became a genuine - albeit tiny - fish business.  It never paid for itself - but I regularly sold both swordtails (and not the common green variety but a gorgeous goldfish-coloured sort) and blue gourami to the tropical fish wholesaler in Oakland whose warehouse Edna and I visited, at one time, almost weekly.  I bred a variety of different species.  Feeding them was itself part of the interest.  Our refrigerator had cigar boxes with - well, I have forgotten the name, but some sort of white grub-like thing - breeding in it - fed with cornmeal.  There were tubifex worms in the 'fridge as well.  They had to be left in water for some time to purify themselves, because they are caught in the sewers and will contaminate the fish if fed straight from the shop.  On top of our bookcases - in a warm spot - were jars with wingless fruit flies - I mean a strain bred to be wingless - I didn't pull their wings off!  Jars full of brine shrimp bubbled away.

Feeding baby fish is a different challenge.  Some can initially only eat single-celled organisms - paramecia, principally - when they are newly-hatched.  Here is how you raise paramecia to feed your baby fish - in case you ever wanted to know.

First you take a large tank.  It need not even be a conventional fish tank.  You aren't going to look in.  Could be an old bathtub or refrigerator shell, but mine was a tank.  Put a number of apple snails into it, and drop a few lettuce leaves into the tank.

The snails eat the lettuce.  The snails - er - process the lettuce :-)  The by-product of this processing, via the snails' gut, becomes food for paramecia.  You could get your original paramecium culture from the fish store, or you could just do what I did - get pond water to start it off with.  Ponds have fine cultures of paramecia, along with lots of other interesting life.

Now to check your culture, you can put a little of the water into a test tube and just hold it up to a very bright light.  Astonishingly, these tiny creatures can be seen as bright little specks in the water - but I used to use a 15x lens to see mine.

These are now the first food for baby gourami.  Later they will eat newly-hatched brine shrimp.

A few of these gourami you will grow to adult size and sell - not many, because gourami are very prolific and you don't get much for them from the stores.  Most of them ... become food for other more valuable fish.

It's a fish-eat-fish world.

You may see from the above that I found the whole business quite fascinating.  There was much else I had to care for - pH, temperature - both have to be adjusted to stimulate breeding behaviour - fish cannibalism (to breed zebras you have to provide a layer of small stones or marbles in the bottom of the tank.  Otherwise, the spawning pair will eat the eggs as they emerge, falling to the bottom - or eat the fry when they hatch).  I became so entranced by the whole business that at one point, when Edna and I had moved to Honolulu, we talked moderately seriously about buying a tropical fish breeding business there and doing that for a living.

Silly, of course.  There is no slightest chance I could succeed in any sort of business.  But it was fun, and fascinating.  I do not remember the details of how, eventually, we wound the whole thing up - in Honolulu, that was - but now my only relation with (live) fish is the goldfish in the pond in my front yard - and they take care of themselves.

I may say - to allude to a painful fact about the future - that the fish contributed to my and Edna's eventual separation.  When, in June, 1966, I had finished my last exam and rushed off to Honolulu in advance, I left Edna with the very demanding task of shipping all our belongings to Honolulu, including the fish.  This latter task involved:

1)   Edna arranging with our fish wholesaler to specially bag the fish into triple-layered plastic bags, with straight oxygen filling the air space in the bags;

2)   Arranging with them to pack the bags into insulated Styrofoam boxes.

3)   Edna's getting these Styrofoam boxes to air freight in the shortest possible time - changes of temperature, loss of sufficient oxygen, any of a number of other hazards could have killed them all.

All this whilst taking care of Kathleen, disposing of the remainder of our furniture, overseeing the packing of about a million books and other useless objects, getting rid of our 1954 Ford station wagon, and flying to Honolulu herself.  It was a daunting prospect - one which I do not think I would have been happy being left to do.

I do not think Edna resented having this to do.  But she did tell me later, once peace had returned to our relationship, that her accomplishment of this had given her the first sense that she was a competent person in her own right - a sense of independence.  Given the other reasons for the failure of our marriage, this was instrumental in giving her confidence to start again.

Or so I see it.  All this will come up later, but I thought I would mention it here.  Gentlemen, do not suppose that you can mistreat your wife without concern, because you think her unable to live without you.  It is not so.

11 September 2011


This article, from what many would call a conservative - and certainly a Catholic - web site, calls for another Mario Savio.

Perhaps.  I confess to being dubious.  I am not, perhaps, the best judge of this sort of thing.  I have never been particularly political.  I should make clear that I do not think politics of no importance.  I think it of great importance, and, potentially, of great good.  It is the means whereby we, in Ronald Knox's phrase (from "The Belief of Catholics"), a way of deciding disputes by "counting heads instead of breaking them."

Nevertheless, due more to cowardice, laziness, and self-absorption - and perhaps a certain fastidiousness - than to any virtue, I have never been able to be very interested in politics.

I do not recall the precise date in September, 1964 when I first arrived back at the University of California in Berkeley, but already, before Jack Weinberg was arrested on 1 October, there were exciting disturbances going on around Sproul Hall Plaza.

Exciting is the word.  I was very much involved in each of the events that occurred between that arrest, with the students surrounding, occupying, and effectively destroying, the police car that Weinberg was put in, and the rally at the Greek Theatre on 7 December of that year.  I shouted with the rest.  I called for ... well, for whatever was being called for.  I marched.  I carried a sign once - but I don't recall what the sign said nor what it was supposed to be about.  My involvement was not political.

Certainly that of the leaders was political.  Jack Weinberg was arrested at the CORE table.  The movement for black civil rights had been going on since the CORE 1947 freedom ride, and before.  I had known some who were active - passionately active - in the movement to end racial segregation and similar injustices, even in 1960-61 at UCLA.  But I understood almost nothing of this, and, honestly, was not very moved by any of this.  I do not defend this.  It is a lack and a failure in me.

But marching, shouting, carrying signs, listening to impassioned speakers was exciting.

My involvement ended on that day in 7 December.

I don't recall precisely what the rally was about.  The president of the University, Clark Kerr, spoke.  I think his message was an attempt to say that all legitimate demands would be dealt with properly, but that the disruption of University life, and and demand that the University of California campus must make itself available to political action, were not legitimate and must stop.

I confess to thinking, now, at age almost-69, that these are quite reasonable positions to take.  This is why I said at the beginning of this that I was less than convinced that our age needed another Mario Savio.  I do not very clearly see why the young, who are, certainly, impassioned, are ipso facto wiser than others.  Perhaps my age has something to do with it.  Perhaps - but I think this has been my view for as long as I remember.

Whether or not, I do remember that rally at the Greek Theatre.  The President had been one the one who called the meeting.  I call it a 'rally' but it was in fact a convocation called by the administration.

The President was still speaking when Mario Savio came up, grabbed the microphone away from him, and began shouting - demands, whatever, I don't recall.  What I do recall was his saying that we must all rush down to Sproul Plaza to ... well, I suppose, to have a rally.

We did.  We rushed out of the Greek Theatre and down the hillside.  We were shouting, I recall.  And we - I, anyway, and I was imitating others - were destroying.  Destroying plants, mostly - pulling up bushes, knocking over small trees.

I am not certain that had there been people in our way, we would not have been destroying them.

We got down to Sproul Plaza and Savio began to speak.  I was more or less on the outside of the crowd.  And I remember being shocked.  I do not know that my thoughts were as coherent as, "what in the world is this about?  I don't know anything about politics, and don't care, but I see that I could have been even more destructive, without any self-restraint - and I am sure that if I go on this way, I am not going to finish my degree.  I have a wife and a child to be concerned about.  I had better leave this stuff alone."

My thoughts were probably not so coherent, but that was their substance.  I was never again involved in any of that after that point.

The degree of my lack of interest in politics may be reflected in what I became much more interested in at this time: fish.

04 September 2011

more busy...

Well, I was going to write more memoirs today - honest I was!  Last week and this coming week are semester break at the University, and we in the computer support team have a considerable amount of infra-structure changes to make.  It was planned that we would do the week-end work yesterday, Saturday the 3rd September, and then then finish during next week.

Yesterday is not enough.  I am going to have to go up to the University today.  No time to write anything except just this feeble excuse.

One more matter: please pray for Father Paul Horgan, SJ.

Father Horgan was our (my and Susan's and our children's) closest friend during the 8 years we lived in Yap.  Although Father Horgan was one of those dreaded Catholics - and a Jesuit, forsooth! - we just ignored that (completely!) and treated him as though he were a normal human being.

You just can't trust these Jesuits.  I am morally certain that, even though he seemed to be a friend, he was doing something in secret: he was praying for us!!

The result is that we became Catholics!  Let that be a lesson to all of you who want to remain non-Catholics.  There may be people out there praying for you.  If so, watch out!

Father Horgan was moved out of Micronesia to New York two or three years ago.  We have had e-mail contact with him during that time, and when Susan went to see Adele in New Jersey last year, they, together with Susan's sister Candace, went to see Father Horgan.

I have just been told, by Johnny, that Father Horgan had a stroke this last February, 2011.  He is now recovering, but has a way to go.  Johnny is going to the US next week, Wednesday the 7th September.  He will spend about a week and a half with Adele in New Jersey, then another week and a half with Peter, my brother, in California, then go home.  It was because Johnny was trying to make arrangements to see Father Horgan that he found out about the stroke.  Johnny will certainly go to visit him when he is there.  I ask your prayers for this wonderful man to whom, in earthly terms, Susan and I owe, at least in part, our Catholicism and, indeed, insofar as the Catholic Church is the instrument of salvation for all men, our salvation.