Monday, September 24, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction

Some movies you go to see with the full certainty that you shouldn't. But it had Milla Jovovich in it.

Finagle's Law applies to movies -- going to see 3:10 to Yuma, no one asked me what I was on my way to see, when I'd have been happy to discuss it. Going to see Resident Evil, three different friendly people embarrassed me with that question.

Two black characters -- in one Sacrificial Negro bit the woman dies while protecting white people; the black guy (mild spoiler) ... dies after turning into a zombie and menacing a white girl. I still don't agree with Barnes about Unforgiven, but once you're sensitized to these tropes, it's depressing how frequently they appear.

On the upside, Milla spends the entire movie in a thin white t-shirt, and they must have iced her nipples before every scene. Worked for me.

The tiny bit of fame I've got has mostly not been enjoyable to me (and mostly not a problem, either, so no whining) -- but I did get this out of it:



The Last Dancer should go to Immunity later this week. If anyone out there is still reading, drop me a line if you've run across anything.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Trent's walking around the house with a handheld...

My now 9 year old son got a Nokia 770 for his birthday -- they're on sale at for $140. For another $20 he got a 1GB Kingston memory card for it. I was reluctant to buy it -- his birthday budget's $200, and this blew it. He got that Nokia, cake, ice cream, and a sleepover, and I worried he'd get frustrated with the device and feel like he hadn't had a good birthday --

Not to worry. It's his first real computer; runs Debian Linux and has 33 times the storage of my first hard drive, a bright 800x400 color screen, a USB connector and headphone jack.

He's completely engrossed with it. I've never seen him quite so excited by anything -- basketball, maybe. Litle blond boy walking around the house chattering at anyone who'll stand still about what he can do with his handheld -- look, books, music, movies! He's asked me a couple hundred (not even a faint exagerration) questions about how the damn thing works, what Linux is, how it's different from my handheld, how much storage he has, what the difference is between RAM and ROM and flash memory and hard drives, how to manage the number of files on the system -- he spent 20 minutes figuring out how many Firefly and/or Buffy episodes he could fit on the 1GB flash drive. (Enough, is the answer -- a single tv episode, encoded at 288x208, a size the Nokia likes, takes up 85MB or so and plays beautifully.)

Handsome, charming blond boy walking around with his handheld, completely obsessed -- I can't tell you how savagely disorienting this is, albeit in a good way. I'm living with Trent.

I told Richard I'd described devices like this, handhelds, in print 20 years ago, before anyone else did. This is broadly true as far as I know -- high powered computing device called a handheld using radio packets to communicate with a network -- I think I hit that pretty close, all around.

:-) He wanted to believe me, but I think he suspected I was pulling his leg.

Some years back a Compaq engineer wrote me to tell me he'd based some of the design for the original iPAQs on the description in Long Run. I've always felt like I should have bought an iPAQ at some point -- I've owned a couple handhelds over the years, but never did own an iPAQ. But I feel a little proprietary whenever I see one.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gay/Black/Female ... and Performance Tuning

Had a long discussion with Steve Barnes about privleged classes, who's got it harder and why ... grew out of the disagreement we had over Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven."

Steve is black -- by American social standards, anyway, he's about a third white by his estimate -- and his take is that in terms of social impedence, blacks have it hardest, followed by gays, followed by women. My take ran women, blacks, gays -- and why I think that, or he thinks that, isn't really the point: what do you think?

Do you cross more than one of those categories? If you're male, black and gay which part of your life's been harder to manage? If you're female, black, and gay, ditto?

If you, like me, are a straight American white guy and among the blessed of the earth -- and there's not a shred of sarcasm in that description -- I'm mildly interested in your opinion, but I'm more interested in your reports of people you know -- find someone who crosses two of those lines, and ask them -- which part of your identity has been harder to manage and caused you the most static in your life?

... and yes, I know the world isn't white people and black people, but the relationship between whites and blacks in this country is different from the relationships between any other groups of people, for obvious historical reasons. 70% of this country is still white, and the people "we as a group across time" have sinned against most thoroughly is that of "blacks as a group across time" -- I'm not asking anyone to shoulder the burden of past generations here, just to be aware of context.

That said ... if you're Latin or Asian or whatever and also gay or female, I'd certainly be interested in where your difficulties have arisen.

Summing up: which part of your identity, or that of the people you know and can question, has been hardest for you/them to manage, making your way through life?

I'd love to know.


One of my clients wants me to teach his DBAs how to do performance tuning -- I'm thinking about booking a hotel conference room and offering a 2 day course to any interested DBAs or architects.

Examples will be in T-SQL, though, magnetic media being magnetic media, the general principles will be broadly applicable across platforms -- I'm currently doing an evaluation/recommendation for a Fortune 500 finance company that uses Oracle, for example. I'm nowhere near as hardcore Oracle as I am SQL Server, but -- I managed a mission-critical Oracle environment for a $2Bn a year multinational for a year and ahalf, and end of day data is data, tables are tables, indexes are indexes, and disks are disks -- and SQL is mostly SQL despite flavors: most of it comes across.

If you're interested or know someone who is, drop me a line. The course will be taught in the Los Angeles area, if it's taught at all.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Laughing Baby ...

Moments like this are how we ended up with five kids at our house.

Friday, September 14, 2007

3:10 To Yuma

I agree with Steve Barnes in enough areas, and we like enough of the same movies, that I was very excited about 3:10 to Yuma. Saw it tonight, and it's a first-rate work. Steve's take is that it's the best western since The Outlaw Josie Wales. I just got back from it, and unlike Bourne Ultimatum, which I saw twice, once is going to be enough for this one.

It's a really good movie. Russell Crowe's likely to pick up an Oscar nomination, and so's Christian Bale. A supporting nod for Peter Fonda wouldn't surprise me a bit. Nor would one for Ben Foster, who's absolutely mesmerizing in the role of Crowe's sidekick and faithful dog.

OK, four performances, all first rate or better. (And the various supporting performances, though not as impressive, hit the right notes and never detract.) The skeleton of the story is that Bale's character, Dan Evans, has to take Crowe's character, the charismatic murderer Ben Wade, to the city of Contention, where Wade will be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma -- to stand trial and be hung.

The first 90% of the movie is among the best Westerns ever made, and over the years I've seen most of the great ones, so I speak with some familiarity on the subject matter. Bale gives one of the finest and most nuanced performances I've ever seen in a Western, and Crowe, gifted with the gaudier role, underplays relentlessly (probably a necessity, playing against Bale's stoicism) ... and still reminds you in every frame why he's a damned movie star.

Ben Wade is a relentlessly convincing bad man; there's nothing good in the guy .... until the movie's climax, when he does something decent and so thoroughly out of character it fucking near ruined that movie for me.

If you haven't seen it yet, and this is your sort of material, it's absolutely worth seeing once. And maybe the payoff will work for you. It didn't for me. A resolution that depends on a hidden core of decency in Ben Wade -- after the movie's gone to substantial and convincing length to show us the man's rotten core -- was a miscalculation. Wade needed some hint of character we're never given, or the movie needed a different ending.


Consistently the movies I like, Steve Barnes likes, and I admire that about him. But in the post I linked above, he spoke poorly of Unforgiven....

The greatest Westerns are Shane, Unforgiven, and Lonesome Dove. It'd take an essay on my part to adequately say why I think this, and why other movies such as Red River or The Searchers don't make the cut -- and it's all just opinion, end of day, mine or Barnes's --

Barnes: Yes, I can well understand someone feeling that “Unforgiven” is better, and more recent. But there’s a rather unfortunate bit of Sacrificial Negro business that keeps me from really embracing that one…)

Obviously I can't come at a movie from Steve's perspective, and I don't know that you can be wrong in how you respond to a given piece of art -- it touches you how it touches you. But I just want to take a moment to speak well of this particular piece of art. If intent counts a lick, this is a movie that end to end has its heart in the right place. It's a violent movie that shows the costs of violence. Possibly more to the point, the scene Steve refers to -- Morgan Freeman's character is whipped to death in a scene that has "lynching" written all over it -- was in the original script, which says not one word about the character's skin color ...

Now you're Clint Eastwood, and you want to hire Morgan Freeman to play that character. What are your options?

1. Change the script so Freeman doesn't die.
2. Don't hire him.
3. Hire him and shoot it as is ... which they did.

I respect Barnes a huge amount, and Unforgiven is easily one of the five finest movies I've ever seen. I wish he'd give it another look. I'd be curious to know how he'd have handled it, had he been directing Unforgiven ...

Thursday, September 13, 2007


A Conversation
In the Kitchen
With Her Father

Her father and I went into the kitchen together, leaving Carrie in the dining room with her mother.

He was an electrical engineer, a quiet man with an inquisitive expression, a head shorter and a few years older than me, balding and shading toward softness.

"Cappuccino – non-fat foam?"

"If it's no trouble."

He smiled. "No trouble. I make it that way for my wife." He had the tools, the coffee roaster, the burr grinder, the foamer, the stainless steel dual drip espresso maker – he had thousands of dollars worth of equipment on the counter. He opened a container with beans he'd roasted and fed them into the grinder. Over the sound of the grinder he said, "How'd you meet?"

"I ran a workshop last year. I hadn't taught in a while and friends called in a favor." They thought they'd been doing me a favor, getting me out into the world again.

"Carrie took an acting class?" He sounded surprised.

"No" – the grinder went silent, and I lowered my voice. "Her boyfriend."


"I don't remember his name. He quit early on." I didn't remember his name, but I remembered him. He was strikingly beautiful, a couple years younger and rather prettier than Carrie. Possibly he hadn't known he was gay yet, and very likely he hadn't known he was the worst actor I'd seen in thirty years. "Very good looking boy."

He tamped down the coffee and slid it into the dual-spout espresso machine. "That was Mark. When she told us they'd broken up," he said carefully, "her mother and I were not terribly upset."

"Until you heard why?"

He shook his head. "She didn't tell us why."

"When did she tell you?"

"After she invited you to meet us."

We'd been living together for six months at that point. "Ah."

"You're not surprised."

"And nor are you."

"She keeps her own counsel, that girl." He put the frothing wand into the milk and steam hissed up. "You don't look your age. You look ten or fifteen years younger than me."

Normally I pass it off as good genes. What is really is, is work. "You read trade journals and such?"

"It's mostly moved to the web, but yeah, I stay on top of the publications."

"Sunscreen, botox, laser resurfacing, chemical peel, diamond micro dermabrasion, tretinoin, collagen injections. That's mostly for the face. I get a manicure and pedicure once a week. I don't have a bald spot, that's genetics, but I've had my hairline touched up twice. I dye my beard and hair. I had Lasik. I spend three hours a day working out – hot yoga every day for ninety minutes, aerobic interval training daily, weight work three times a week, longer-form aerobics four times a week." I thought about discussing my diet and supplements, decided that was more than the point needed. "I've started with intermittent fasting recently -- eat one day, don't eat the next -- supposed to help you live longer and improve your immune system and neural health."

He smiled, a little tentatively. "Hard work."

"It's the job. Or it's vanity, take your pick. It's mostly vain people who get into my line of work."

"I looked you up on IMDB." He shook his head. "I recognized a couple of your roles."

"And all of my movies."

The espresso machine started hissing, pumping dark coffee into the small cups. "Most of them."

Only people in the industry know my name. A couple years back an industry blogger figured out who the top dozen actors were by box office receipts – even he was surprised to find my name on the list. Harrison Ford and Samuel L. Jackson were first and second – I was sixth. I had speaking roles in two of the Star Wars sequels, one of the Lord of the Rings movies, Titanic, Aliens, True Lies, and Independence Day.

The only movie with my name above the title bombed so badly that the executive producer named an evil alien after me in his next project.

"You haven't worked much the last few years."


"You wealthy?"

"I don't need to work if I don't want to."

With a wide silver spoon he scooped foam onto my cappuccino and handed me the cup. "You don't pour the foam, or you get wet cappuccino. People asking for wet cappuccino really want a latte."

I sipped, and then sipped again. "This is very good."

"People get good at the things that matter to them." He stood there with the cup in his hand. "What are your intentions toward my daughter?"

"I don't have any."

"You've been together almost a year."

"And living together for half of that. I keep expecting her to get tired of me and move out. So far she hasn't."

"You're an unusual man."

"As actors go I'm not extraordinary."

"Forgive me if I think that's a highly qualified statement."

I shrugged.

"She said you were married and don't like to talk about it."


"Why not?"

I wanted to leave, take Carrie or leave her, and get out, and not talk anymore to this mild, inquisitive, friendly little man.

"I've never told Carrie. I don't think she'd understand."

"Ah. Well, there's that. Twenty years difference between you two."

"I've never told her my wife died. In a car accident. And --"

"How long were you married?"

"-- and so did, so did the kids."

"You had children."

"Two. Two children."

"When did this happen?"

"Four years ago. My son was eight. My daughter ... would have been a couple years younger than Carrie, today. In her first year at Berkeley, probably. She wanted to go to Berkeley. Her Mom went to Berkeley."

"What were their names?"

I hadn't spoken their names aloud since it happened. "My wife was Marie. My daughter was Jane. My son was Lu...Lu...Lucas." Stuttering. Christ, I hadn't stuttered since I was twelve.

"How long were you married?"

"Seventeen years."

Marie and Jane had died at the scene; Luke had taken two days dying. The first time he woke up they hadn't medicated him yet, and he screamed until his voice gave out, from the pain of the burns.

"Ah." He sipped at the coffee, slowly, enjoying it, and looked up at me with those kind eyes. "I very much wish you weren't involved with my daughter."

"I can understand that." I thought about it. "Yes. So do I."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Last Dancer off to proofers ...

I'm going to be on the road for a bit, and my home computer is still flaky, so I wanted to get that out the door while I could. It's in my yahoo e-mail now -- if anyone who volunteered to read didn't get a copy, let me know and I'll forward it.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle died ...

Her LA Times obit ...

A nice profile, about 7 years old

An interview, last year.

One of the Christians I wholly admired. From the interview:

Did you see there are several books coming out refuting “The Da Vinci Code”?

L'Engle: That’s silly. It takes too much energy to be against something unless it’s really important. Now if you’re against evolution, that’s important.

I stopped reading her as an adult, and then started again when my kids started reading her. She holds up really well across the years.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Real estate, USB, Angel and Chickens

If you're tracking the real estate crash, you probably already know this blog; if you're not, you might want to start. It's going to get worse before it gets better.

Peter Viles writes the LA Land blog over at the LA Times; if you're interested in Los Angeles real estate particularly, it's a good blog. Viles is a first rate journalist -- I suspect I disagree with his politics, but he makes a good effort to be objective despite his biases -- all you can ask of anyone and probably more than should be asked of a blogger. And he has good taste in burgers.


My main computer's been down for a week, but I got it back up last night at 2 AM, so Last Dancer should go out to the people who've volunteered to proof it tonight. (My computer won't boot if it doesn't see the USB drives it expects on the chain, and my USB hub flamed out last week. So I got a new one -- but it's worrying that my XP Pro system thinks those drives are critical for booting. It took me some days to track down that the problem was the USB hub -- who's seen a machine refuse to boot because the hub had gone south? I hadn't.)


Had dinner last night with Angel Greenwood -- old girlfriend. Model for Angel in "A Moment in Time" and also for Angel de Luz in "AI War" and "Crystal Wind." She was this stunning dark-haired half-Latina motorcycle courier -- 2nd female motorcycle courier in the history of the city of L.A. -- Jim Cameron owes the girl royalties.

Hadn't seen her in a decade and was surprised to find myself nervous before meeting her -- would she be old and fat? Would she think I was old and fat?

It turns out we are old, but we're both hanging in there and she looked good and was doing well. She's a first-rate artist and had started working again recently -- right about the same time I started writing again, by coincidence.

And she liked the patch. :-)


Stupidest joke I've heard in a long time, but it made me laugh --

How do you sell a chicken to someone who's hard of hearing?

(You get up in the face of the person you're telling the joke to and shout): DO ... YOU ... WANT ... TO ... BUY ... A ... CHICKEN?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Infinite Methods

What follows is 1,899 words. The original, found here, was 2,645.

Even if my later posts are windy, I'm not going to do this again, but I hope it was of interest to the people who asked for it.


The nine kinds of words are nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, propositions, conjunctions, interjections and articles. My sons didn't know this; nor had I when I was their age.

I dropped out of high school after the tenth grade; the summer I was sixteen I was homeless and sleeping in a park, which put a crimp in further education.

Recently my 8 year old, Richard, wanted to know if I'd played basketball in college. We play together regularly and we have not much in common otherwise outside action movies and being guys. Richard's older brother Bram lives and eats Pokemon, and Richard's almost as bad. My Pokemon knowledge extends to "Ash," "Pikachu," and "training," because you train Pokemon. Aside from this their lengthy discourses on the subject are in Mandarin.

So we talk basketball or movies, which is more than my Dad and I had in common. (To be fair to us, my Dad didn't watch movies much, and football bores me; but I watched University of Miami football games so I could suffer and gloat with him. At the 2 minute mark of Lakers games I'd know Dad was tuning in so he could call and exclaim over Magic or Kobe's brilliance, despite being even more indifferent to the Lakers than I was to Miami. "I love you" can be said lots of ways.)

"Did you play basketball in college" -- I sidestepped. "No, honey, I never played organized basketball." My older kids know I didn't go to college (my daughters even know why) -- but my kids go to good schools, are doing extremely well in school, and once the habit of good school performance is set, we can talk about why I didn't do well in school.

One of the reasons, though, is that I think analytically and was frequently bored in school because the material wasn't presented in a unifying structure. This analytic tendency has been useful to me as a programmer: decades of hammering away at my craft have separated out what's critical to the process of building scalable, maintainable systems, from what's not.

For example, I used to be a big Hungarian notation guy. Naming conventions are necessary but otherwise largely irrelevant, so long as they're not downright stupid. I've known this for years but still felt that a Hungarian notation-based naming system (iThing for integer data, sThing for string data, and so on) was really the best approach.

For about a year now I've written in, and gotten comfortable with, a non-Hungarian naming standard. And then I returned to a client where my code, three to eight years old, is in production. Working with this code ... I was downright annoyed at how unintuitive the naming convention was. Obviously a Hungarian notation-based system is less intuitive than the approach I've been using the last year ....

I'm never having a naming convention argument again so long as I live. The part of my brain that cares about such things is stupid and fickle.


So what is essential? Despite being bright I did badly in school. I was in my teens before I could diagram a sentence. An early story came back from George Scithers, bless him, then editing Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, with the suggestion of a book on grammar. I read that book and discovered there were only nine kinds of words. That's it! That's grammar! Or at least the hard core of it ...

If any teacher had ever told me there were only nine kinds of words in the English language, I'd have learned them.

I recall one class in which I got a rare 'A' -- a ten week Geometry class, summer before the tenth grade. The teacher didn't want me: I'd done badly in his Algebra class. But ten weeks was the right speed. It went fast enough to keep my attention, was the sort of material I'm wired for, and across the years I went to school is my one really outstanding memory for hitting a subject I liked, engaging with the material, and having the class move fast enough. That teacher took me into his tenth grade trigonometry class with high expectations. Bad year -- we had the PSATs that year and I got the second highest score at that school, a Catholic boy's school with some very smart kids. I'd skated through the ninth grade without any teachers noticing me; that damned test brought me to their attention and I was miserable the whole tenth grade.

But the person most disappointed in me was my math teacher, because he knew what I was capable of first hand -- so halfway through the year he let me study at my own pace, and the second half of that class was better than the first. I was well into a different textbook by year's end.

Aside from a few courses on computers, astronomy, and writing, I've never been back to school. But I've kept learning. I've read over a thousand non-fiction works, learned a variety of useful business and life skills, at my own pace and when I felt like it. And what's come to me through the School of Dan, which I never got straight in real school, is that in all material there are core concepts, peripheral concepts, and chrome. Looking back, most of the schools I went to taught chrome.

What does core look like? In both writing and programming I've come to believe that it boils down to conciseness. I recall, very early in life, reading a book called "Philosophy and Cybernetics." This exposed me, though I didn't realize it at the time, to this idea: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.


In the business world I work in good database design does not consist of doing more with less: it consists of doing less. Storing less data. Creating less structure. Writing less code.

This is not the way business people think about databases (to the degree they do think about databases.) Business people tend to prefer large to small, more tables to fewer, more data to less. The problem is that data may or may not be meaningful. The following strings contain equal amounts of data:


'I love you.'

Each string contains eleven characters but the second string contains more information. Plainly, data is useless and information is useful: and the more concisely information can be characterized, the more useful it is.

I approach both writing and programming from the same perspective: do less. Omit words, to quote a smart guy. A sign with the words "Minimize structure - Minimize code" has hung over my desk at several companies.

I've been interviewing DBAs for twenty years. There's a question I ask all prospects, which in twenty years only a few people have ever answered correctly. It's this:

What, in almost all cases, is the difference between a query that performs badly, and one that performs well?

I've interviewed some very bright people over the years, and received interesting answers to this question. Good indexes, I've been told: covering indexes, clustered indexes, high cardinality indexes. Good statistic. A proper execution plan. Proper use of temp tables, or derived tables, or table variables. Proper joins. Correct normalization. Wise denormalization.

None of these answers are necessarily wrong, but they miss the point. Queries run on a computer, a thing in the real world. With rare exceptions they run against magnetic media: and magnetic media is slow. Off a good RAID array at this time, for sequential file transfers, you might pull bursts of 300 megabytes per second. Database queries by nature access media more randomly; 100 megabytes per second throughput is a superb real-world result.

For context, modern high-speed RAM has throughput to the CPU of over 10 gigabytes per second – about two orders of magnitude faster.

The difference between queries that perform well and badly is, almost always, that the query that performs well executes with fewer reads. So the concept that's not peripheral or chrome is this: databases perform well in direct proportion to the degree that they retrieve the correct answer with the fewest reads.

This question will be on the test.

To broaden out from computers, our goal is the correct result with the least effort. Now ... how you get to that goal is peripheral. There's more than one right way to perform most tasks ... but there are an infinite number of ways to perform a task incorrectly. (Moran's Principle of Infinite Methods -- "Infinite Methods" is the title of one of the many, many books I'll probably never write.) The first pass in learning any skill is to get out of the Infinite Methods. Once out you're an amateur: you produce functional work, though the work is likely not elegant or scalable or easy to maintain -- the criteria vary by field. But the work produces results that match your stated goal.

At some point you're a professional. (I'll define the word for you, ignoring connotations from various fields: a professional gets paid.) By now, one hopes, you know several ways to solve a given problem outside the Infinite Methods ... and so your job grows more complex. If you're honest you'll admit you don't always know which approach is best for a given problem: you haven't solved Problem X often enough to know all the options. (Some people never do solve Problem X more than one way, and they never get past the status of journeyman.) So you flex; curiosity is useful here. Try X, try Y, try Z. You have deadlines and that's life in a capitalist society -- so stay late and try the alternate approach. Noodle away at it over the weekend and before bedtime. What's the core of my problem? What's the simplest way to solve it? What approach takes the fewest steps, requires me to build and maintain the fewest objects?

This is one of the places where programming and writing fiction part ways: you don't maintain a production environment in writing. Once a piece is done it works or doesn't, and with some exceptions you're not going to revisit it. This is unfortunate: re-writing an old piece many years later is a good learning experience in both arenas.

If Stephen King and JK Rowling had to come back years later and rewrite their novels, they'd write shorter the first time.


Minimize structure. Minimize code. It's a reminder to me to never build something I don't need or that's similar to something I've already built. When in doubt, extend and reuse the similar entity. When in doubt ... don't.

Despite popular misconception, Occam's Razor doesn't say Pick the simpler solution, all else being equal; it says entities should not be multiplied needlessly. Which, studying, takes you to reductionism and parsimony. I've written statistical software; if I hadn't been exposed to the idea of parsimony already I'd have written useless statistical software. In business (as opposed to research, or so I'm told) statistical software works best to the degree you can identify the core data required to make successful predictions, and then quitting before you get yourself into trouble … which is parsimony.

What is parsimony? Less is more. Minimize structure, minimize code. And save some thoughts for later.