Behind the front lines of the pandemic

Originally published at

I’m a software engineer and so I usually fill this space with software and systems engineering topics. It’s what I do and love, and I enjoy writing about it, but not today. Instead I’m going to talk about what my wife does, and loves doing, and how the times we are living through have affected her job and our lives together. In many ways we’re among the lucky ones: we both have incomes and health insurance, and I already worked from home. In other ways we’re not so fortunate. The current crisis facing the world is like nothing any of us have seen in a generation or more. It’s impacting every single segment of our population and economy, and everyone has a story. This is what ours looks like, almost four weeks into lock-down.

My wife is a registered nurse. She works at a regional hospital in northern New Jersey, about 30 miles from our home. She has been there more than a decade. Her current role is as clinical coordinator on a cardiac critical care unit. You can think of it as sort of the captain of the care team. Some weeks ago, in preparation for what was obviously coming, her unit was converted into a negative pressure floor for the care of Covid-19 cases. This means that a lot of work was done to seal the floor off and provide ventilation to lower the air pressure within to prevent the escape of infectious material. The same was done to one other unit in the hospital, and a lot of work was also done to prepare to provide intensive respiratory care for patients in those units.

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After my disk crashed

Originally published at Reposted here with minor edits.

A couple of years ago I lost all of what I would have considered, up to that point, my intellectual life, not to mention a lot of irreplaceable photos, in a hard drive failure. And while this post is not about the technical and behavioral missteps that allowed the loss to occur those things nonetheless make up a part of the story. How does it happen that an experienced software engineer, someone who is often responsible for corporate data and has managed to not get fired for losing any of it, suffers a hard drive failure and finds himself in possession of zero backups? Almost effortlessly, as it turned out.

Since the early 1980’s I’ve kept all my digital self in a single directory tree off the root of my system’s boot disk. Over the years this directory structure was faithfully copied every time I upgraded, travelling on floppies, zip drives, CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, USB thumb drives, flash drives, from my first 8088 to my second and ridiculously expensive 80286 and so on through all of the machines I’ve bought or built in three decades. Along the way it grew, becoming the repository for all my software and writing work. The first VGA code I wrote was in there. The complete source code for my shareware backgammon game was in there. All the articles I wrote for Dr. Dobbs, Software Development and other journals were in there.

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Three new translations in the German documents archive

A couple of years ago my Dad and I began sifting through a treasure trove of family history that we had received, piecing together the story of our earliest ancestors in the U.S. Among these materials were many original documents in German, dating from the decades 1840 to 1870. These documents proved extremely difficult to translate, as documented elsewhere on this site. Nevertheless using various tools I was able to put together transcriptions and translations of many of the official Bavarian documents. I find these immensely interesting, and I hope they are useful not just to curious members of our sprawling family tree (Alois had ten children with two wives, the majority of whom survived into adulthood) but perhaps also to anyone interested in 19th century German writing and emigration stories.

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Indie Fiction @ The 4th Realm

My friend Kris Kramer is running a website that highlights indie fiction over at The 4th Realm. The site was originally set up to feature serial shared-world stories that he and some friends are working on, but the group is now soliciting other works of fiction to appear on the site. My story “Authenticity” was just posted there over the last few days. Here’s an excerpt….

Marton gripped the armrests of his chair and stared at the pad on the desk. His face looked grainy and skewed on the screen, but it was his face. His face. He shifted, and the leather cushion squeaked under him. On the bookshelf behind Gruenwald a small digital clock blinked. The ventillation system came on and in the far corner of the room a potted plant shuddered as the air began to move. Marton looked up. “I don’t know who I’ll be,” he said.

“You,” Gruenwald said. “In every internal respect that matters: memories, thought patterns, reactions, emotions, hopes, dreams. Self-consciousness. All the things that make us who we are.”

“But the body…”

“Will be very strange at first. Exceedingly strange. But you will become used to it. People have body parts removed, and they become used to it.” Gruenwald picked his stylus up from the desk and held it in both hands, rolling it between thumbs and forefingers. He smiled. “If you could have a body part added,” he said, “something which is fortunately no longer legal, you would become used to that too. It is the same here. In a few months you will feel as if it has always been yours, and Marton, it is a younger and much better body.” He put the stylus back down. “It is worth every penny of one hundred million dollars.”

If you’re interested please stop by The 4th Realm to check out the rest of the story. If you do, be sure to leave a comment to let us know you stopped by. If you’re an aspiring writer, consider joining the site community. For more information on that shoot Kris an email at

The Daylight Flight of Paul Revere

Listen my children and you shall hear
What my grandfather thought of Paul Revere

I read somewhere long ago that the problem with a liar is not that he can’t be believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else. It’s a wonderful insight, and I suspect something similar can be said of historians, who make a profession out of being lied to. Everyone who writes for posterity has an axe to grind, and the historian ends up having to look for common truths in all the dusty dissembling. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem whose opening lines I have mangled above, at the dawn of the Civil War, he was honing a patriotic blade and who can blame him? The country was going to pieces. He needed a name that fit the rhyme in his mind’s ear: Listen my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of… William Dawes? It would never do.

But still, Longfellow was in fact the grandchild of former General Peleg Wadsworth, who had served with Paul Revere during the revolution, and Wadsworth lived until the poet was twenty-two years of age. One wonders if they ever spoke of that time? Perhaps they did but the Boston silversmith’s name simply didn’t come up. Had General Wadsworth known that his daughter’s son would go on to make Revere a national hero and symbol of American Liberty, I suspect it would have. And in that case Longfellow might have written an entirely different poem. It would have taken particular hubris to write the exact same poem, knowing that Revere never even finished the ride that famous night, and that he was forced out of his command in the Massachusetts Militia and court-martialed for cowardice after his shameful role in the Penobscot Expedition.

As one of those children of the 1960’s who was raised to believe in the utter infallibility of our national myths, the real story of Paul Revere comes as a delicious surprise. It’s one of those nuggets of truth that occasionally pop out of reading history and make it so completely fascinating. For a good introduction to the real Revere I recommend “The Fort” by Bernard Cornwell. While not his best work (I found it rushed in places, and the ending was less than satisfying) it nevertheless confirms his amazing natural gifts in the art of smelling out a good story and conveying it to the reader. The tale of the Penobscot Expedition is certainly not as well known as it should be, but it is likely that the very popular Cornwell’s work will help to correct that situation.

Pining for Paper

My Dad and I got into an interesting debate while nursing cold beverages on the deck of his place in Canada,  during the annual “cram everyone into one house and see how long we last” multi-family retreat. We always have some good discussions during these gatherings. But my Dad and I aren’t that often on such clearly opposite sides of an issue. It started with some comment of mine about the declining importance of penmanship (shouldn’t that be penpersonship now? Or perhaps pencraft.) My Dad is in his 70’s and can’t imagine a world in which people don’t write notes, lists, invitations, and memos by hand. I’m about to turn 50, and can.

Ultimately, of course, my Dad is right: it will be a long, long time before humans fully forget the skill of making physical characters with a writing tool on some surface. But long before that happens penmanship will have been relegated to a ceremonial role, and then something of purely antiquarian interest. What of the stuff we write on? An article in the NYT (registration may be required) today about the bookselling giant Barnes & Noble putting itself on the block notes the rapid growth of ebooks, and the how the death of paper is poised over the publishing industry like a virtual wrecking ball. My analogy is imperfect because it implies sudden destruction, whereas this wrecking ball has been slowly swinging back and forth for a few years now.

I used to spend maybe $200 to $500 a year on programming books. I don’t buy any programming books these days, and haven’t for close to five years. Everything I need to know is online. I still do buy fiction, because I don’t yet have a reader. My wife, who does have a reader (a Nook), buys ebooks more or less exclusively at this point. I also buy non-fiction, but much less than in the past. In recent research for a historical novel I purchased four or five technical history texts, but I collected at least as much or more information online. I visit the library for paper books too, and wonder what will happen to Ben Franklin’s idea over the next twenty years? Who will lead us through the stacks when there are no stacks?

As a writer who still has hopes of being published when he grows up, I am not at all disinterested in these developments, and whether they are good for writers. In balance I think they will be. What the publishing business represented was distribution. If the average author made a couple of bucks per book they were doing pretty well. People are already finding success publishing their own work, promoting it online, and delivering it electronically. With publishers focused on blockbuster novels and movie-star authors this change may in fact stir up the market, and let forth a lot of great material that would otherwise have mouldered on a hard drive.

However things turn out for writers, these changes will be cataclysmic for companies like Barnes & Noble, with thousands of stores and the massive bottom line associated with brick and mortar retailing. Companies that make paper, print books, bind books, sell books, and play other roles in the aging paper pipeline will be hit hard. Small companies may find new niches and prosper, but utterly disruptive change is nearly impossible for large companies to deal with. Just try to get a meeting room full of senior executives or board members to jettison an existing business model and pour resources into a risky new one. Netflix wins, not Blockbuster.

Books for Former Fantasy Lovers

Somewhere along the line, between devouring everything Tolkien wrote nine times, and putting down the eighth volume of The Wheel of Time in disgust, I lost my appetite for fantasy. There was a time when I would have departed for Middle Earth in a heartbeat, if you had shown me the door. I used to prance around my bedroom wearing my Dad’s Korean war-era bayonet as Sting. It was way too small to be any other sword, but as Sting it was ideal, even if I was far from the archetype of a hobbit.

I never recaptured that feeling with any other story, although I have read very many fantasy novels and series since. I have some favorites, such as The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, or Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I have my least favorites too, like The Wheel of Time, and The Wheel of Time, not to mention The Wheel of Time. In general, though, I’m just not that into it anymore. Part of this is no-doubt because I grew older. Another part of it is certainly because fantasy grew weirder. Whatever the reasons, I haven’t purchased a new fantasy novel since George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Kings.

That doesn’t mean I have lost my taste for swashbuckling adventure, the struggle of good vs. evil, and the days when men were men and wore armor to bed. Far from it. But I have lost my tolerance for what feel to me like the excesses of modern fantasy. Fortunately, to replace it I have gained a huge appreciation for historical fiction. After all, European history is awash with exactly these sorts of stories. So, for those of you who, like me, are a little worn out on High Fantasy, or no longer high enough to appreciate it, I present some alternatives that will take you to places just as epic, and just as moving.

Bernard Cornwell. Mr. Cornwell is the reigning Master of Dark Ages and Medieval European historical storytelling. Begin with The Last Kingdom, first in his currently five-part Saxon Chronicles. If that whets your appetite, and it will, finish out the rest of the series and then dig into The Archer’s Tale, which begins his three-part Grail Quest story. Speaking of grails and quests, be certain not to miss Cornwell’s Arthurian Cycle, beginning with The Winter King. It is one of the best renderings of that subject matter that I have ever read, second only to Mary Stewart’s, which I will get to below. Bernard Cornwell is a highly accomplished storyteller whose narratives will grip you from the first page. I devour every new one like a bag of potato chips, and even when I want to linger I can’t possibly.

David Gemmell. Mr. Gemmell was to the pre-Roman Classical Age what Bernard Cornwell is to the post-Roman Dark and Middle Ages. You can pretty much throw a dart at a list of his works taped to the wall, and be assured you’re getting something excellent and satisfying. If I were just discovering Gemmell I would start at the end. His Troy stories, the last series he wrote before his death in 2006, begin with Lord of the Silver Bow, and tell the story of the conquest of Troy from the perspective of Helikaon, Achilles, Ulysses, Priam, Andromache, and many other well-known characters from Greek Mythology. The last installment, The Fall of Kings, was finished by his wife Stella after he passed away. Once you’ve dined on those tasty dishes, don’t miss Lion of Macedon, and Dark Prince, or any of the Rigante books, beginning with Sword in the Storm. Like Cornwell, Gemmell was the very essence of a master storyteller.

Lady Mary Stewart. For my part, when it comes to the Arthurian tales, nobody has told them like Mary Stewart. I read the first book in her five-part series, The Crystal Cave, back in the early eighties and quickly finished off the three additional volumes that were then available. Since then she has published a fifth, The Prince and the Pilgrim. My favorite aspect of these stories is her treatment of Merlin’s character, and the way she weaves Arthur and his family seamlessly into actual events taking place in Britain at the close of the Roman era, and the dawning of the Saxon invasions. If you love stories of King Arthur then Lady Stewart’s cycle is not to be missed.

What you will not find in any of these books are flashy magic, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, amulets of power, or rings that can save or doom the world. What you will find in abundance are the essential qualities of epic storytelling: compelling characters, irresistible historical forces, honor, loyalty, treachery, betrayal, the clash of mighty armies, and the saving of the occasional female in need. In other words, all the good stuff, and none of the hokum. Enjoy!

You Know That Thing?

“Have you seen that thing?”

“What thing?”

“That thing that does that thing it does.”

“Oh, that thing. No, sorry.”


thing; noun; from Old English thing, assembly; akin to Old High German ding, thing, assembly; Gothic theihs, time.


I’m not known for brevity. Whether speaking or writing I tend to use a lot of words. Sometimes I even use more words than necessary. Of course, I don’t think they are unnecessary words, but from time to time I feel my listeners or readers probably do. I’m a bit of a throwback. People used to speak, and write, using far more words than they do now. In our hurried times staccato bursts of vernacular whipped with slang seem the rule, and any spoken or written statement longer than five or six words feels burdensome.

The exceptions, of course, are lawyers and legal documents, and by inclusion legislators and bills. They grow wordier in inverse proportion to our terseness, and it’s possible that’s no coincidence. Lawyers know that language is a minefield of ambiguity. They add words in order to reinforce the meaning of the text and anticipate ways in which future readers will attempt to take from it meanings that are at odds with the original intent of the writers. Pursue this goal long enough and what emerges makes for less-than-entertaining reading.

It is, however, precise. I learned to read contracts and legal language long ago, and it has served me well in a number of cases worth real money. I even like writing them, much to the consternation of barristers I have worked with. There is something satisfying about the weighty, measured cadence of legal language thumping onto a page as you write. The words matter in the most practical and immediate sense. They are at the same time statements of currently agreed fact and potential weapons in future disagreements.

Terse language, on the other hand, is often imprecise language. It doesn’t have to be. “Pick up that hammer” is a pretty precise statement. “Grab that” is not, but when accompanied by a nod or hand gesture it can be enough. One sure-fire way to boil the precision out of any statement is to add the word “thing.” It may well be the most useless word in any language. At the very least it’s one of the most irritating. One definition for the word “thing” is: a separate and distinct quality, fact, idea, or usually entity. “Thing” can mean any damned thing, and as a result actually means nothing.

I guess the idea worked well for all those Carpi, Allamani, Tervingi, and Taifali running around central Europe 1500 years ago. They had probably just figured out that there were things in the world, and it is kind of heart-warming to imagine them pointing to a walnut in the Hyrcinian Forest and stating “Ding!” with a confident and knowing air. Yes, Fritigern, that’s a thing you have there. Once you get past that basic philosophical understanding of corporeal entities and their existential selfness the word “thing” is just a hair more useful than the word “noun.”

So while I hesitate to suggest that people go back to writing and speaking in complete sentences that offer fully-developed thoughts,  I do propose that we banish the word “thing” from all polite usage written and spoken. I trust you will get right on that. Meanwhile I have this ding I have to do.

Still Lost

Ok, I admit I have been in the middle of a really unproductive cycle for the last couple of weeks. I’m not talking about work. I’m talking about the other 50% of my life, or more specifically the 50% of that 50% that is available for liesure, and which for some strange reason I can’t explain continues to be devoted in large part to watching old episodes of Lost. I can’t stop. I need help. There is no reason for me to be watching this show. Actually, I did have a sort of rational goal in mind, which was to catch up before the start of the final season. But I’m not sure I’ll make it.

Lost has a great premise, but a tough one to get a long run out of. Gilligan’s Island only made it for three seasons, and that feels like some sort of cosmic constant because I have just started in on Lost’s fourth season on Netflix and it’s just getting ridiculous. There must have been at least some members of the cast and crew looking at those scripts each week and thinking “what the hell?” So far my favorite example of how ludicrous it gets involves the “Looking Glass” underwater station.

First, and maybe funniest, is the moment when Sayid unfurls a blueprint of the station at the Beach Camp, and the title on the document is “Looking Glass Hatch.” Why is this hilariously stupid? The blueprint was created by Dharma, and is a document that pre-dated the castaways’ arrival. The castaways referred to these installations as “hatches” because the first thing Locke found was a metal hatch. The rooms below it then became known as the hatch, and the other rooms they found were by extension hatches. There’s no reason to think any of the original builders would have thought of an underwater habitat and lab as a “hatch” or labelled it that way on a blueprint.

Then there is the whole series of events leading up to Charlie’s checking out. If the Looking Glass station were the source of the jamming signals don’t you think that, before paddling out and trying to dive on it and get inside without SCUBA equipment, you might try, oh, I don’t know, cutting that fat cable leading down to it from the beach? Yes, there could be backup power. It might not work. But I would try it before I got wet, and so would any other rational person. As an aside, what builder sophisticated enough to create an underwater habitat and lab would just leave that cable lying on the damn beach?

Then we get to Charlie in the communications room, where he has just turned off the jamming signal. He knew he was supposed to drown there, and it looks like he has cheated fate. But wait! The Russian guy who got shot in the chest with a speargun is swimming outside the porthole, and he has a grenade! The grenade goes off, the porthole shatters, water is pouring in. What does Charlie do? Does he step through the door he is standing right next to and pull it shut after him? No, he closes it and locks himself in the room. Yea, I get to die!

This is just bad writing. It’s lazy writing. You could rewrite that entire sequence of events, preserve every ounce of drama and mystery, and have it all make sense from start to finish. But to do that you have to think about it, and maybe that’s a luxury television writers don’t have anymore. Or maybe the absurdity itself has some larger meta-purpose that I don’t get yet. I have no idea. But it’s hard to imagine people watching this stuff without laughing.

Getting Lost

Given the title and what I often write about here, you might think this post is about either losing one’s way, or becoming hopelessly mired in the documentation for some arcane class library. It’s about neither of those things, nor is it concerned with any other variation on the theme of not knowing where you are. Rather, it’s about writing, and the title reflects that I got to thinking about writing while watching a billion episodes of ABC’s drama “Lost.” Well, perhaps not a billion. Anyway, let me explain.

I hardly watch television. I have an HDHomerun on our network and can get 120+ channels at my desktop, but frankly it’s 99% crap. Pick a channel at random and you have a 75% chance of hitting a commercial. Wait the commercial through and you have an 85% chance of finding yourself watching Cops. The remaining 15% of the time is split between informercials and a show on the “History Channel” entitled “Mega-awesome Disasters III: The Earth is Overwhelmed by Ice and then Explodes!” Most of the time I turn it on after work and fall asleep waiting for dinner to be ready.

So I missed the whole “Lost” phenomenon. I was aware of it like a distant cultural carrier-wave, but up until two weeks ago I hadn’t watched a single episode. Then my wife got a Netflix account and I discovered their on-demand streaming library and Windows 7 Media Center integration. If you have a job and responsibility do not sign up for this service. It should be a schedule II controlled substance. Once you start watching there is no reason to stop. An intervention will require physically removing you from your couch with a large putty knife. The service is fast, the quality of the video and audio excellent, and if the library isn’t massive yet, there is still enough to keep you supine for a year. It should be illegal.

One of the titles in the Netflix streaming library is all of “Lost.” I always wondered what the buzz was all about, so I decided to watch a few episodes. I’ve now watched about 35 of them, and will probably watch the remainder of Season 2, at least. But as I have watched it an interesting thing has happened: I’ve transitioned from watching to see where the story goes, to waiting for the next completely absurd plot twist to unfold so I can laugh and launch derisive comments at the monitor. What prompted me to write this post is not that I have been watching “Lost” devolve into a comedy of writing horror, but rather that it seems to me like so much writing these days has succumbed to the same fate.

Making a good story is very hard. I know because I keep trying and failing. Aside from all the other well-cataloged elements a good story requires, its events must be constructed on a foundation of plausibility. You have to get the little things right in order to make the world feel believable and real. Not to say that a good story cannot contain the incredible. The incredible and otherworldly make great story elements. But the incredible has to spring from the credible. When the big incredible thing happens, it has to happen in the context of a world that is wholly credible in all the small details. That’s what allows the reader to disregard reason and leap that small gap from the mundane to the wonderful.

The problem with “Lost” is that virtually nothing about it is plausible. It could have been. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t have been. The big incredible things that happen work very well. It’s just that they happen in a world that is itself absurd. It falls apart the minute you start to think about it. Yet the show is hugely popular and won an Emmy. It makes me wonder if most of the audience ever does think about it. Clearly some get it, and the evident absurdities and incongruities have even led fans to speculate that all the characters actually died on the plane and that they are in purgatory. I don’t think they are, but the viewers might be.

Start with the basic premise of the show. The writers needed to get a group of people into an exotic, isolated location without hope of rescue or recourse to any of the normal amenties of civilization. How did they choose to do that? They had an airliner break up at altitude and dump its three sections onto a mountainous island in the South Pacific, relatively intact and with a substantial number of living humans aboard. Every single aspect of this series of events is implausible in the extreme.

The pilots were on their way to Los Angeles from Sydney when they “lost all communication” and “turned back toward Fiji.” First, airliners don’t lose all communication unless they lose all power. The average airliner has something like four independent radios, as well as satellite communication with the fleet home office. Second, when an airliner breaks up at altitude at full cruise speed (the airliner in Lost was actually in a dive and would have been exceeding cruise speed) it doesn’t come down gently, or in very large pieces. People don’t live through that, or at least not often. There is one case I am aware of where a stewardess was tossed into the tail section of an aircraft after it was split by a bomb. The tail impacted on a forested slope and bounced to a stop and she lived, although very seriously injured. Everyone else on the aircraft was killed. In “Lost” some of the passengers are tossed into the water, some into the jungle, but at least 60-80 of them get up and walk away.

Yeah, right. Was that really the best the writers could come up with? There was no other way to get this group of people into the situation they wanted? I can think of at least three. “Lost” doesn’t really get any better after the passengers are deposited at the edge of the jungle and struggling to survive. One of my favorite chuckle-inducing scenes was when Sayid turns on a handheld VHF radio and exclaims breathlessly “We have a bar!” It’s as if all the writers are 20 year-olds who think every communications device works like an IPhone. Later he takes that same, single transceiver and by setting up some aluminum antennas in various places he uses that same, single transceiver to attempt to triangulate the position of a radio signal they intercepted. The producers should have hired some of the team that created MacGiver. At least some of the science would be sound.

The silliness just continues to multiply the longer you keep punching up that next episode, from hunting wild boar with a knife, to making use of dynamite that has been sitting in a humid jungle for 90 years. We don’t even have to get into the illogical, irrational way most of the characters behave. And yet I keep watching those episodes on Netflix, and from this and the series persistent popularity the writers might conclude that they have done a bang-up job. And so, from a business perspective, I guess they have. But in terms of quality there is quite a large difference between watching something out of appreciation for its merits, and watching something else out of the morbid fascination of witnessing a trainwreck.