Sunday 10 April 2022

Russia and the Soviets

I grew up the midst of the Cold War.  Although I never had to "duck and cover", we were constantly aware of the Soviet nuclear threat.  I was intrigued by the Soviet state.  What made this nation so culturally, scientifically and mathematically advanced?  And so, when I hit high school, I enrolled in Russian 1.  It was taught by Elena Vasilovna (Baskin) who I remember to this day.  My chosen class name was "Sergei".  And I was a horrible student.

But when I arrived at Revelle College, I had to pass foreign language proficiency.  That meant reading a text and conversing about it with native language speakers.  I thought I knew next to no Russian, so enrolled in Russian 1 again.  This was a mistake I quickly  rectified: I had actually learned something in high school.  It took me two quarters (and a bad grade) to pass the proficiency exam.  To celebrate, my parents took me to a Russian Restaurant in San Francisco where I spent the whole dinner speaking Russian with the staff.

In the intervening years, my Russian was covered over in layers of French, Italian and a bit of Japanese.  I discovered I wasn't so bad in languages, I just had to pay attention and listen. (Not my strong point in high school).

In 1984 I made my first trip behind the "Iron Curtain" by going to a workshop in Budapest.  It was fascinating but mainly because my grandparents were Hungarian Jews.  The stores were stocked with goods and the cafe life was alive.  And everywhere the sound of Hungarian being spoken reminded me of my grandparents.

The real revelation came in 1990 when I went to Latvia to visit my wife's relatives.  First, there were the visa documents in quadruplicate (with carbon paper!).  Second, when we landed, the baggage carousel was clearly hand-built.  And the toilets were, to put it nicely, smelly.  The relatives had to borrow a car to pick us up: While parked, the windshield wipers had to be removed because they might be stolen.  And we came bearing gifts: Cartons of Marlboros to use as barter.

The Latvians referred to the Russians as "The Occupiers".  This indicated to me that perhaps it wasn't as nice as the Russians would like one to believe.  But, as part of this trip we took a trip to Leningrad (Now renamed [again] to St. Petersburg).  Shockingly, my former Russian language skills were useless.  I had forgotten nearly everything.  When I was ticketed outside the Hermitage for jaywalking, I could barely talk with the Policeman.  I did get a chance to visit "Dom Knigi", the "House of Books" -- which was a place mentioned in our Russian language textbooks.  In order to buy a book, I had to deal with 4 people.

Food and other commodities were impossible to buy: At the summer palace I lined up to buy an ice cream but when I got to the front of the line, it was sold out.  The relative was laughing uncontrollably: "Congratulations!" he exclaimed --- "You've had the true Soviet experience!".

Leaving the Soviet Union was also educational.  We thought one could just show up and buy a train ticket.  Not so.  Not when the office issues 1-2 tickets per hour.  Unless, of course, you buy the clerk a blouse from the foreign goods store.  When we reached the Finnish border, Soviet guards came on the train and searched it from stem to stern.  While the locomotives were switched, we could explore the little store on the Finnish side.  Already commodities were available.  And when we arrived in Helsinki, it was if the world had switched from Black and White to Color.

In the intervening years, I have not returned to Russia.  I've never seen Moscow.  But now, it seems I will never see it.  I always wanted to take the Transiberian Express to Vladivostok.  Again, that's out of the question.

With Putin's murderous rage, it seems that Russia has again returned to the Soviet era.  They will try to be an autarky but will fail.  Once again, their citizens will thirst for what will lie on the other side of Iron Curtain (take 2). And the intelligentia will flee --- if they can.

Stephen Kotkin puts his finger on why Russia is always in a fix: "The West is not a geographical place and gives the following syllogism:  Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European."

Kotkin establishes the critical distinction between European and Western.  And to understand Russia better, one must realize why Russia is not Western (as much as the middle-class would like to be).

Russia could be a great nation if only they could free themselves from the notion of total top-down control.  It was so under the tzars, it was the same under the communists and now, once again, it is the same under Putin.  And therein lies part of their problem.

Watching this war, I am witnessing not only incredible carnage intentionally inflected on civilians (Bucha) but also the total conversion of the Russian state into a Stalinist state.

And this makes me depressed and beyond sad.


Friday 11 October 2019

Bill Seiter

In 1970, I applied to exactly one university: The one I could afford (I was putting myself through school) --- The University of California.  After visiting Irvine and San Diego, I made UCSD my first choice.  I didn't want to go to a large campus like Berkeley or UCLA or the ag campuses like Davis or Riverside.  Of course now UCSD is the third largest campus.  But I digress.  I chose Revelle College because I liked the concept of a liberal arts education (even though I am a nerd through and through).  As I recently found out, Revelle was modeled after the University of Chicago.

So, when I arrived at Revelle, I was assigned to a four story single sex dorm (as was the custom of the day).  From my very first day in the university, I knew that the university was an exceptional place.  And I met all kinds of interesting and smart people.  One of them was Bill Seiter.

I don't remember how I fell in with Bill, but I know it was freshman year because I also met his precocious sister Ellen (possibly at a dance?).  I also remember discussing the differences in Calculus (Bill was taking honors Calculus).  After the first two years of requirements, Bill decided to major in Linguistics.  Bill could have done anything, he was incredibly bright.  He chose linguistics because he liked languages.

In the senior year, Bill, myself and Don Eigler (of atom fame) decided to rent a beach bungalow in nearby Del Mar (there is no way an undergraduate could do that now).  Bill and I had the bedrooms, Don had the garage (where, as I recall, he installed a water bed).  The house was two houses from the Del Mar beach.  By senior year, Bill was already taking graduate classes and had been accepted into the graduate school at UCSD for the following year with an NSF Fellowship.  I remember when he was taking a Field Work class.  The "informant" was Navaho and Bill used to come home with  Navaho words to share.

The house in Del Mar was an absolute fun time: Bill and Don were great housemates.  We had people over for dinner all the time (I was really picking up speed on cooking).  I remember once I decided to make a shrimp recipe and rode my bike up to Solana Beach to a fish store.  When I returned, Bill was the one who knew what "devein" meant.  I didn't --- good thing he knew.

Bill was also a really good musician (he may have been a music minor like me, I don't recall).  He played the french horn in high school and could also play  piano.  But Bill was also a member of a recorder trio: I played soprano, Tyde Richards played alto and Bill played tenor.  We were playing a fair amount of renaissance music (I remember Machaut in particular) when we decided to tackle the Hindemith trio.  When we practiced (at home in Del Mar), we would eventually become quite giddy from lack of oxygen.  And then we'd stop and tell jokes and stories.

At the end of senior year, I left for graduate school at Berkeley and Bill and Don rented a different house in Solana Beach for the next year.  I saw Bill at least once more (at a wedding) but I haven't seen him in person for more than 40 years.

After Bill received his PhD, he decided to go to law school.   I believe firmly that Bill was so good that he could have obtained a faculty position in linguistics at a top school.  But his father was a lawyer (in fact a law professor at DePaul in Chicago), his older sister was  a lawyer and so I think that influenced him a good deal.  He went to Boalt (part of Berkeley).  And, as usual, graduated with honors.  He chose to practice trademark law --- I never asked him why.

I should note that it was through Bill that I met the entire Seiter clan. I found out about Bill's sudden death from his sister Ellen.

Bill was very funny (at least I thought so) and I found him constantly amusing.  But underneath it all was an amazing intelligence and scintillating mind.

Sunday 25 November 2018

Julia Child's fish soup

Julia Child's famous magnum opus, MTAOFC ("Mastering the Art of French Cooking") is reknowned for reducing many complex recipes to practice.  Her (or should I say "their") recipe for fish soup is worth knowing.

At first glance, the recipe appears daunting.  But it's not, you just need to proceed step by step.  And remarkably, measurements are not very important.  Let me restate the recipe as I see it.

First shopping: You need a leek or two (because it tastes better) and three different fish.  I buy a half pound of each variety.  I like to buy Tilapia because (a) it's cheap and (b) it's very firm.  Then I'll buy scallops (bay are cheaper of course but I'll buy sea scallops and cut them into thin rounds).  Finally, I choose a fish that is firm: Cod will do.  Flounder?  Absolutely not.  And you'll need a red potato, a red pepper, some very small pasta (orzo is nice) and a baguette.

Next, the broth: Cut the leeks lengthwise in quarters (removing the green parts of course) and then cut into small quarter rounds.  The onion should be diced.  Start by slowly sauteing onions and leeks in olive oil (the recipe calls for 1/2 cup).  You want them transparent but not brown.  Next, add two cloves of garlic (smashed and then sliced).  Then spices: I use thyme (fresh basil if you have it), maybe a few pistils of saffron, 2 bay leaves, and then two cups of diced tomatoes.  If you have it, you can add an orange peel.  If you don't, don't worry!  Add 10 cups of water (yes, 10 cups!).  Bring to a very soft boil.  Now peel and cut the potato into large pieces, say, 8 and put into the stock.  Finally, add a few sprigs of parsley.

Onward.  Cut the baguette into thin (1/4 inch?) slices and put on a sheet pan.  Put them in a 400 degree F oven for maybe 20 minutes.  You want them dry but not really toasted --- just don't burn them.  n.b. You can do this in advance.

Meanwhile, you can put a quarter to a half of the red pepper in boiling water.  Also add two dried red peppers (if you like your rouille spicy, I do).  I remove the stem end and de-seed them before adding to the water. Cook for a few minutes until soft.  Drain and put into a blender jar.  Add 2-4 cloves of garlic to the blender jar.  Have fresh basil?  Add some too.  Also add a few sprigs of parsley.

Is the potato done?  A knife should pierce it easily.  If so, then fish out all the pieces and put into the blender jar.  Next, add "sufficient" olive oil (the recipe calls for 4-6 tablespoons).  I don't measure, but I try to make sure it'll grind.  If it doesn't, I add more.  The last step is to finish with stock (just a few tablespoons says the recipe), it should really make the rouille pourable but not too liquidy.  Transfer the rouille to a serving bowl.

Almost done!  The fish should be cut up into small portions, maybe 3/8 inch?  Add about 1/2 cup of the pasta to the broth and then you add the Tilapia and scallops.  Cod is last.  Cook until the fish and pasta are done, about 10 minutes.

Now you're ready to serve.  The "toasties" are ready to be placed in the bowl.  Slather them with rouille.  And then spoon the soup from the pot into the bowl.  Serve with a crisp white, I happen to have fond memories of Picpoul de Pinet, but a California Sauvignon Blanc is just fine.

Saturday 24 November 2018

Norm Hardy

Norm Hardy died at the end of October at the age of 85.  He was a very important mentor to me at a very unstable time of my life.  I'd like put him in perspective as well as remember his achievements.

For me, high school was a horror.  I wasn't exceptionally good and wasn't exceptionally bad and so no one took notice.  It was excruciatingly boring and I was just marking time.  I had no idea what I was going to do in the future except "go to college".  What saved me was Tymshare.

The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) created an experimental program called the "Research Observers Program".  This was a great idea: The school district would find a student a "research" slot in a company.  My choice was Hewlett-Packard.  I was placed in the Microwave Lab because an engineer there thought it was important to mentor students and because I was intrigued by a particular microwave instrument in the catalog.  But I was way over my head.  But a curious event changed my direction: It was suggested that I learn how to program computers.  HP had a small room (more like a closet) with three teletypes.  The accounts and passwords were written above the teletypes.  And you could connect (via an acoustic modem) to two timesharing services: GE and Tymshare.  GE offered Dartmouth BASIC and that's what I started to learn.  I quickly figured it out.  What next?  Somehow I knew that the machine had an "assembly language" that was closer to the machine.  That's what I wanted to learn.

My nerd buddies Hal Sampson and Bill Parrish were a year ahead of me.  We used to go up to the Stanford AI Lab on Friday nights and explore the system (and play Spacewar).  Bill informed me that Tymshare had a machine room only a half a mile from my house.  Furthermore, there were teletypes in the room next door.  This was the best: I could ride my bicycle to the teletype room and work on my assembly language code to explore the system calls.  I used HP's accounts to do all this work.  Now I have no doubt that I was burning up HP's money at a fast rate.  I was frequently spending my weekends working on my program and that's how I met Norm.

Norm was a distinctive character: he was tall and lanky with a distinctive craggy voice.  He came in on the weekends (driving his white "bathtub" model 356 Porsche) to debug his changes to the operating system.  He was always friendly and offered me advice when I asked.   My mother, meanwhile, wanted me to be employed over the summer.  So she pestered me to ask Norm for a job.  Being rather shy, I was extremely reluctant ... But when I did ask Norm, he said he'd look around.

What Norm found was the same job that other high school students were doing: writing regression tests for Tymshare's top selling product "Super-BASIC".  I handed in my badge to HP and joined in the effort for $1.50 an hour (no benefits).  When the summer was over, I was rehired at $2.10 an hour.  At this point, I was reading  the kernel code and becoming part of the Tymshare crew.  I spent all my spare time thinking about code.   Whenever I had a question, I would head for Norm and he would explain why the code was the way it was.  My favorite example is this one: When a page is created for the first time, the memory should be zeroed.  So, a loop cleared the memory.  But the page clearing routine wasn't as short and simple as expected, so I asked Norm  about it.  He laughed and asked me about the branch instruction.  Such a insightful question: just one instruction gives the whole answer.

Through the good auspices of Norm's wife, Ann (who was the main kernel programmer), I was able to be rehired constantly (mainly to work on the system call manual, which entailed reading the kernel code and writing the text to explain the calls).    I should note that I was reading assembler code constantly and doing the minimal school work to get by.  I did my homework during the lunch hour (with Arnold Wong)  and went to Tymshare immediately after school.  I arrived late for dinner because I was having a most excellent time and I could avoid the chaos of the family dinner.  Evenings were spent finishing homework and reading more code.

Norm always functioned as a kind of factotum for me.  One year, when I came back from college, Norm presented me with a paper about an operating system design.  This design evolved over many years to become an elegant and secure operating system and that's where Norm's passion really belonged.  Norm never really published in the technical literature but he was widely respected as a creator of a novel state-of-the-art operating system.  His blog (Cap Lore) is filled with stories and observations about computing.

But later I found out he had another passion: music.  I once visited him at his house in Portola Valley.  He had installed an enormous pipe organ!  Like Knuth, Norm liked his Bach both loud and very real.  And I had no idea.

At a critical time in my life, Norm appeared and showed me that one could be passionate about computers and make a life out of it (or from it in my case).  At a time when I wasn't sure "how to be", Norm was an exemplar of extreme competence in math and computers.  And he also exhibited a  joy and delight in explaining concepts.

My other recollection is that Norm had a huge collection of stories about various computers.  His first job was at Lawrence Livermore and he had extensive experience with many very fast and very expensive machines.  And he loved to tell tales about them.  And I liked to listen and learn.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Leo Beranek

Leo Beranek died this week at the age of 102.  He was a 20th century icon for anyone interested in acoustics.  He demonstrated an early interest in sound by playing drums in high school and then timpani in the Harvard orchestra.  His PhD advisor was Hunt, who was an early pioneer in acoustics and wrote a book giving a historical overview of acoustics.  After obtaining his PhD, Beranek became an assistant professor at MIT and then wrote his magnum opus "Acoustics" published in 1954.  This book is not to be underestimated even given its age.  It is a masterful exposition of the physics of acoustics.

Beranek left MIT to form Bolt, Beranek and Newman (a.k.a. BB&N).  BB&N started out life as an acoustical consulting firm but due to the "acquisition" of J.C.R. Licklider, they also became a computing company.  BB&N was responsible for a number of very notable achievements in the computing domain including the ARPAnet, the Tenex operating system and graphical computing.  They also were responsible for early research in speech DSP.

I met Beranek in 1993 when I was the general chair of the "Mohonk Audio Workshop".  I came up with the idea of having Beranek give a keynote address since I knew he was getting up there in years.  When I called him to see about his availability, he could only stay for one day since he was consulting.  Keep in mind, he was 78 at the time.  He was very proud to announce that he had been the first chair of the IEEE Audio and Electroacoustics committee (I was the current chair at the time).

When I met him, I was impressed.  Beranek was small, I'd say 5'4" maybe.  But you sensed a physical and intellectual dynamo.  He didn't move like he was 78.  He mentioned he  exercised every morning.  Jim Flanagan was at the meeting and I remember how deferential he was to Beranek.  Beranek was also a nice guy, he was very approachable and was intensely involved in the technical discussions.

Beranek published his last paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America earlier this year.  It was on concert halls.  He was devoted to the science and measurement of halls.  He wanted to know what physical parameters corresponded with the psychoacoustic experience.  He published several books on the topic.

Beranek was an amazing guy when you read about his career.  His critical life point (in my opinion) was when he helped a guy change his flat tire outside of his father's hardware store.  But this was no ordinary guy, this turned out to be the person who wrote the recommendation that got Beranek into the Harvard graduate school.

Leo Beranek's story is one of those quintessential American stories that charts the life of an exceptional mind from Solon OH to Harvard, MIT and beyond.  He lived a full and extraordinarily productive life and I mourn his passing but celebrate his accomplishments.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

Vietnam, the draft and me

Visiting Vietnam in person brought to mind a whole stew of complex memories about the Vietnam War.  For males of a certain age, the Vietnam War was a period of uncertainty and dread.  The draft was around the corner, lurking to grab unsuspecting hippies (and their cohorts) and send them to war.

My own history with the draft was fairly mundane.  I registered when I was 18 and then filed for conscientious objector status (CO).  This was routinely denied and then you would be re-categorized appropriately.  If you made it to 1-A, then you were called up for the dreaded physical (as re-told in "Alice's Restaurant").  I would have been classified 1-A had it not been for my student deferment.  If you filed the right form, the university would tell the Selective Service Board you were a valid student and therefore given a 2-S.  But, this was clearly discriminatory.  Most of the middle class were exempt from the horrors of war, at least for four years while the high school graduates who didn't go to college went to die.  In my sophomore year they instituted the lottery, which meant I was assigned a number based on my birthday.  I drew 138 and they didn't intend to go past 100 that year.  I was safe.

But back to Vietnam.  This war grievously wounded the US in ways that are still continuing to this day.  It split the country between left and right and I think one could make the argument that this rupture is still being manifest in modern politics  (although I also believe that what is going on is a counter-revolution to the hippies).  So, what of Vietnam?  What happened?

When you arrive in Vietnam, you see a vibrant capitalist society covered over with this socialist (communist?) veneer.  It's all a lie of course.  The collectivist farms were dissolved during the economic reforms.  Private property was allowed to return.  What's left is a one party state, like China.  Candidates for office must be members of the party and while you must vote, you can do so by proxy (!).  It's not a democracy.  Neither is China.

The population is quite young and most were born after the "American War".  And so, the U.S. is viewed as an ally against their ancient enemy, the Chinese.  You can see foreign investment left and right around Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City).  But there are remainders from the war all around you.

The "Reunification Palace" is what I remember from television: It was the "Presidential Palace" during the war.  And now you can rent it out for weddings.  But it's the "War Remnants Museum" that gets the attention.  This features various pieces of American (and Soviet) military hardware on the outside and an inside devoted to retelling the war experience from the victorious side.  It has been said that "History is written by the victors".  And so, the "War Remnants Museum" gives you that perspective.  I found the raw statistics to be most persuasive: more bomb tonnage than WW II is just stunning (Gen. Curtis LeMay's famous quote about "bombing them into the Stone Age" was displayed).   A decimation of the commanding ranks of the US forces (complete statistics per rank) were given.  Interestingly, they didn't address either the incredible losses by the Vietnamese or the support of the Soviet Union and China.

My overwhelm sense was and is both sadness and waste.  The waste of many lives.    The squandered resources of the US applied to a people who have never been conquered.  But this is looking at the war "in the rear view mirror".  But it appears to me that we still haven't learned lessons about when and when not to interfere.

But then you step out of the museums and into the life of the street, dodging motor-bikes and cars with abandon.   And maybe you'll buy a Banh Mi for $1.50.

Monday 16 March 2015

In praise of badminton

One distinct advantage of living (however briefly) in the U.K. is the opportunity to get re-acquainted with badminton.  I have a special relationship with badminton: it is the first sport where I realized that I might actually have some aptitude.  Let me set the stage.

In my senior year of high school, we had a badminton unit in P.E.   I was matched up with someone (whose name has slipped into the mists) and we proceeded to beat the entire class in doubles.  This was a revelation.  Never before had I ever shown such aptitude.  My exposure to sports had been to the usual american sports: baseball, flag football and basketball.  My father favored baseball and I was anxious to please him, but frankly I was terrible.  I was (and continue to be!) afraid of a hard hit ball.  I was typically assigned to right field: the sink hole for the inept.  I remember being more interested in the gophers than the progress of the game.

As discussed in a previous post, I'm all about the ball.  And so basketball was one of my favored sports.  I was, once again, not very good.  But at least I could chase the ball and try and inhibit the other players (in this way, I am drawn to soccer).  There were two lightweight leagues "C" and "D".  According to your age, weight and height, you were allowed to play in one or the other league.  And when you got too old, well, unless you qualified for varsity, you were done.  In 10th grade, I qualified for "D"s.  I only tried out because my history teacher, the infamous Ron Jones (of the "Third Wave") mentioned it in class.  And in the subsequent year, I qualified for "C"s.  I should note that there were two strings and leftovers.  And I was in the leftovers.

But badminton was different.  I could sense that this was a sport I could really play.  First, it doesn't require strength.  Second, it's about strategy (like tennis).  Third, it favors a kind of twitchy fast reaction kind of body.  And fourth, being small and lightweight is not a problem, and perhaps even preferred.

And so, by the time I went off to college, I had bought my own racquet.  I took a few classes in college but both the other players and coaches didn't really take it as seriously as I did.  Had there been a team, I would have tried to make it.  But there wasn't, so I let it go.  I also learned about squash as an undergrad and I liked that too.  But I think squash doesn't have as much finesse as badminton.  Badminton is all about guile and changing speed.  Both sports emphasize precision and that is always my emphasis.

So, I didn't play badminton again until I was teaching at Rutgers.  I ventured to the other campus to play but realized it took a good 3 hours out of the middle of my day.  Not a good plan.  So, again it languished.

And now, here it is, many years later and I have found a badminton club.  When I first started to play, I was extremely rusty.  I couldn't hit the bird very reliably and I certainly couldn't figure out where to put it precisely.  Now, it's all coming back.  I can clear the bird to the end of the court.  And this week, all of a sudden, I could drop the bird over the net.  And, my close net play returned --- just like that.  Backhands have always been a problem (in squash too) but that's starting to come back.

I couldn't even remember how to play singles: I knew it was "long and narrow" but that was it.  And once, I only played singles!  But after a single session it started to come back: the long serves, returning to the tee.  It all started to come back.  And I found that I certainly don't have the stamina that I had.  But not playing more than once a week is also responsible.

But why is squash easier to find in the U.S. than badminton?  The answer is simply courts.  Squash courts are special built.  They have to have the "tin" to signal the out of bounds low shot as well as the regulation court.  But badminton requires a flat court.  And given the choice between basketball and badminton (or even volleyball) which sport ends up on the bottom?  You know the answer.

Badminton has a bad reputation in the U.S. as a backyard sport for wimps.  I, for one, would like to erase that categorization and show how diabolical it can be (not to mention, how difficult it is to play properly).  But I don't hold out much hope.   But I have to say, this trip has reinvigorated my love for this game --- I remember why I felt it was the game for me.