Friday, November 2, 2012

Keeper ∅f The Empty Brain

I was a computer science major in college. It was a small department, sort of a university afterthought, and we all pretty much knew each other. So it was extra surprising when this old guy -- practically a mummy, maybe even over 40 -- showed up in an algorithms class. This was firmly an undergrad class, so he couldn't just be a conspicuously creaky grad student. There must have been some oddball situation to explain his presence.

He was annoying. He asked questions all the time, usually about things no one cared about. You might think the professor would be annoyed, too, but he seemed to know this guy in some way. They'd go on and on about some esoteric bit of junk that certainly wasn't going to help me do the homework.

His favorite question was "what about the empty set?" That needs explaining, but it's simple: in set theory, you can have sets of things (set theory is the best-named theory). If there's nothing in a set, it's called the empty set (see? those folks can name!) and abbreviated ∅. A lot of algorithms have to handle the empty set in a special way. 

So what this winner was asking, over and over, was essentially "how does this particular algorithm handle this thing that all algorithms need to deal with?" It's the sort of question that lets you seem smart without knowing much. We dubbed this guy the Keeper f The Empty Set, or K∅TES. It was catchy -- we had t-shirts printed; we wrote a theme song. OK, not really, but we did roll our eyes whenever he opened his mouth. I mean, why did this guy need to be the center of attention?


This Tuesday, 15 years later, I was a creaky 35-year-old sitting in a classroom surrounded by 20-somethings. This was kind of an oddball situation: I'm taking this class because I need to get accepted into a PhD program that I don't really have the background for. It's a small program, the kind where everybody pretty much knows each other.

I need to prove to the department that I can do the classwork. Here's what I worked out: the professor will write a "recommendation" letter to the department describing my performance in class, however I do. If I do badly, the letter will say "send this dork the thin envelope" and I'll be throwing away the $85 application fee and a whole lot of time. I have one goal, here: impress the professor. 

I talked to the prof ahead of time, so he kind of knows me. I don't have all the background that the kids actually taking the class for credit do, but I have other areas of expertise. So I ask questions that are a little off the topic of the lecture, about related esoteric junk that the prof might be interested in but that won't help anybody do the homework. 

And getting a chance to ask questions is no problem. Turns out -- and, man, I wish I'd realized this a decade or so earlier -- 20-somethings have pretty much zero self-confidence in class! So the prof will ask a question, and there will be silence, and then crickets, and the crickets will complete the entire first movement of Cricket Symphony #3, and then I'll pipe up and try to score some points.

I'm sure that gets pretty old for the other students. What I'm really curious about is the nickname they've chosen for me. I hope it's catchy.

Monday, June 4, 2012


In the kitchen at work, on the counter, there was a white paper plate. On the plate were a dozen or so packets of red pepper flakes, left over from some lunchtime orgy of probably-disappointing pizza. The plate was there long enough to become part of the scenery.

One day, I noticed that someone had arranged all of the packets in a 360-degree fan pattern around the edge of the plate, with each packet scalloped precisely on top of its clockwise neighbor and under its counterclockwise neighbor, and two packets proudly on display in the center of the circle.

I rotated one packet about 20 degrees.

The next day, it was back in alignment.

Someone was compelled to keep these packets ordered. I quietly campaigned to drive this unknown person mad. I'd wait a few days and then rotate one packet upside down, or flip one over, and it'd be back in formation by the next day. Things were underway.

I started to wonder about my opponent. Was it someone I knew? Did they have some real issues with compulsive behavior? How did they feel about someone so blatantly messing with them? Did they guess that it was me?

Over the space of two days I removed a packet, leaving a gap, waited for the gap to close, and then placed the missing packet next to the whole arrangement; it was swiftly reincorporated. 

Maybe it was someone with a good reason to spend a lot of time alone in the kitchen. Nighttime cleaning staff? But, no, sometimes packets would be replaced during the day. The kitchen doesn't serve that many people; it was probably someone I knew, or at least passed in the hall pretty often. I wondered who secretly harbored an inability to let this structure be out of order.

For my part, I couldn't not mess with the arrangement. At one point, I printed some text to look like the front of one of the packets, drew the packet decorations on it ("Brand for Quality!"), cut out my decoy, and inserted it into the fan shape along with a few other minor adjustments to the pattern. The fake packet was gone within an hour, and order was restored.

Scalloping disrupted, one packet flipped, and an impostor

One day, the packets just disappeared and the game was over. I wondered if my OCD-beleaguered coworker had finally had enough or if someone else intervened on their behalf. I could see them walking into the kitchen and being hugely relieved that they would no longer have to lurk there, making awkward small talk with whoever was in there washing dishes, until no one else was around and they could furtively adjust the arrangement of packets that was so viscerally unacceptable to them. I could imagine how that would feel; I could imagine it pretty precisely, in fact.

Maybe someday there'll be another pizza party and the whole thing will start again. I kind of hope so. I've got these 14 fake packets of red pepper flakes neatly stacked in my drawer, all identically and carefully trimmed to shape, just waiting to mess with someone who has a little trouble controlling compulsive behaviors.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


My boss had to write a letter of recommendation for me, to get me into a workshop. He dragged his feet for a while and then eventually admitted he wasn't going to get around to it and asked me to 'draft' it myself.

I was pretty sure he wouldn't even read the whole thing before sending it on. Things I considered including:

  • Damon once climbed a skyscraper with one hand tied behind his back
  • Damon is highly accurate with his eye-lasers at a range of 150m
  • Damon cannot be harmed except by weapons made from cheese
  • Damon is one-quarter badger, on his father's side 

I lack the self-destructive streak necessary to do any of that, so I sent him a straight letter. A few minutes after I sent him the draft he emailed me to tell me he'd sent the letter off, so I was pretty sure he hadn't read it. Next time he stopped by my office, I tried to mess with him:
"Hey, did you like my zinger in that draft?"

"What zinger?"

"You know, in that draft recommendation letter."

"Yeah, what do you mean?"

"'Damon can shoot lasers out of his eyes'. You saw that, right? You deleted it?"


"Seriously, you sent on a letter to the university that had the sentence 'Damon can shoot lasers out of his eyes?!'"

<shrug> "Well, I edited the letter a bit, so maybe, maybe not."
He bought it hook-line-sinker, but he didn't care. Stone cold unflappable.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Scent of the Wind

This will make no sense unless you've read Patrick Rothfuss' glop of fantasy The Name of the Wind, which has an unbelievably overpowered hero named Kvothe. And possibly even if you have.  

Sweat pooled on Kvothe's furrowed brow. He was weaving so many threads together in his mind. Weaving just three of these threads would break most men's will, and there were roughly sixteen threads involved, so Kvothe's mind was at least as complicated as eight normal men's*.

"Kvothe, the vessel is about to burst! You have to do something!"

Kvothe couldn't spare any effort for speech, but he had been using his spare time in between classes, music, and teaching eighteen different languages to orphans at the same time, to master the art of knitting. He quickly knitted the word "silence" into a blanket and showed it to Denna, who quieted, chastened.

"There!" he gasped, "It's done." The massive water tank had held. The pipes were in place and connected, held there by the force of Kvothe's thought. He placed his hand upon the lacquered handle.

"Now, who would like to try the first flush?"

*As revealed in A Wise Man's Fear, Kvothe is not so good at math, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's not at all a ridiculously overpowered fantasy superhero. At all.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The best dog property damage story

When you own a dog, you expect the occasional bit of property damage.  They'll puke on a rug, or they'll chew up a shoe. Until New Year's Eve this year, the worst thing our dog had done was munch on some drywall, in a bizarre fit of puppy destruction. He got our Complete Works of Shakespeare, too, but that was also when he was a pup. He's seven now, middle aged.  Beyond all that.

He's also terrified mindless by fireworks. We know this; we take measures. A week before the 4th of July, we haul out his cage -- pet people insist on calling it a "crate"; it's a cage -- and cover it with blankets so it's nice and dark and cavey. He spends nights in there for a couple of weeks, and he's in there for about three days straight, around the 4th. That pretty much does the trick, and, when it doesn't, he flips out in a cage and nothing gets hurt. New Year's Eve isn't nearly as bad.  He hears a few pops, quivers a bit, settles down by 1AM, and that's it.

As usual on New Year's, we stuck him in the bathroom. We figured he couldn't do too much damage to himself or to anything else, in there. Worst case, maybe he goes nuts and eats a roll of toilet paper, right? He was fairly messed up when we came upstairs to go to bed at 1AM, so I sacked out on the bathroom floor with him. I woke up with an aching back, the start of a hangover and the feeling that this was a dog who had weathered the fireworks storm. It was 2:30. I went to bed.

I woke up at 4:30AM. Something was wrong. I got up in the dark, opened the bathroom door, and got a spray of water in the face. Turned on the light. What the hell? The floor was wet, the dog was huddled in the corner, and Something Was Wrong. 

It took me several seconds to find the source of the water and several more to believe it sufficiently to do something about it. There was a leak in the toilet water supply line. You know, that plastic tube covered in a strong metal mesh so that nothing bad happens to it, because it would be just terrible if anything bad happened to it. I found the valve and shut it off, and the water stopped.

Except it didn't. My wife was up by this point, and she alerted me to the fact that there was some kind of water noise from downstairs. We went downstairs and saw water streaming from a light fixture in the ceiling onto our hardwood floor. And it kept going from there, sort of jauntily over the edge of the floor by the staircase, in an impromptu, well-lit waterfall.

Well-lit. Around this time, one of our houseguests (of course we had houseguests) stumbled upstairs, took a look at things, and casually suggested that maybe it'd be a good idea to cut the power to that particular circuit, since it was streaming water, and all.

I figure the dog went nuts and attacked the water line at 2:45AM, at the earliest. Any earlier and I'd still have been awake enough to hear him. So the water was flowing for nearly a couple hours. However long it was, it was enough to take a 15'x20' irregular section of ceiling drywall completely out, as in sodden and scarily slumped. The floor... well, we'll deal with that in a few months, after it resumes a shape that more closely resembles what most people think of as a floor. There'll be some replacing, and some refinishing, and altogether enough unpleasantness that we'll just get out of town completely for that.

Meantime, a big chunk of our house is sealed in plastic, E.T. style, and the rest of it is a pretty rough place to be because of the drying fans. The air in here feels as dry and raspy as someplace in the American Southwest where old people move when they're done with the world of the living. The noise is a little crazy-making.

Expected price tag for our dog's little indiscretion: about $20,000.