My Grandfather’s Flag

The Following post was written by my Mother.

My Grandfather's Flag

My Grandfather's Flag

To the best of my knowledge, my father was given the flag while he was still in the army. He was not discharged immediately after the war but spent many years in the reserves. I remember him packing to leave for Camp Drum, as it was called in those days. He was not called up for Korea, but I think he was still in then because I can remember him going to camp for two weeks every summer for several summers. I was too young to remember him going in Ohio, and we moved to Merrick in 1949. I would have been too young to remember many summers when Korea broke out in 1950.

I remember him saying that when the war ended in Europe, they were preparing to go to the Pacific. As they were about to depart, the war ended in Japan. He said they then sailed back to NY, instead, and upon entering NY Harbor, they all through their mess kits overboard.

He became active in some military organizations. In Merrick the more active group was the American Legion, vastly different from what it has become today, a drinking, non-tipping hangout. He was an officer in that post. I am not sure which group gave him the flag, the VFW or the Legion, or the government. I remember him marching in some parades in Merrick on Memorial Day and Veterans (Armistice) Day, and they were a big group. The VFW post was, I think, in Freeport.

He won several medals which we played with, broke, lost. We were children, and he didn’t mind.

He didn’t keep up with any of the men he served overseas with but did with some of his reserve buddies.

Although he is not buried with that rank, he had told us that he was Chief Master Sargeant. I don’t know what that rank actually is. Maybe it was honorary. The chevron on his arm had lots of stripes and something in the middle. I think he is buried as a First Sgt.

As you know, his name is engraved on the memorial at Silver Lake in Baldwin. His name is spelled wrong, two L’s instead of one.

Grandpa always flew the flag on holidays. I continue to fly his flag for him and for all the men and women who have served in defence of this country. That includes just about every male member of my family–except your father. I only fly his flag on special holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day.

Uncle Gene has the flag that was presented to me at his funeral. I gave it to Uncle Gene because, like his father, he served. I would have loved to give it to you, but I thought Gene really deserved it. I will give you this 48 star flag. It is older and signifies much more. And, of course, it was definitely before Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959. So, for whatever the story, it really is Grandpa’s army flag. And he was proud of it.

Earning the right

I recently read a complaint that the Ushers at Michael Jackson’s funeral wearing what appeared to be West Point Full Dress uniforms was insulting.

Men’s fashion has always been derived from military uniforms. Look at many hotel employees, SGT Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, or any Gum Shoe that walked down the street wearing a WWI era trench coat. In the days of horses, gentlemen wore long tall boots, long stockings and short breeches, all of which were driven off the cavalry needs to not get caught up in your stirrups. High hats with plumes came from the uniforms designed to make the front rank look taller. The original designs were practical for military purposes, the later often mimicked the form without providing the function.

Jim Peckham ran a wrestling camp where the motto was “Earning the Right to Win.” I like the concept that a Right is something that can be denied to those who haven’t met the minimum standard. Yes, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are the right of all, but victory is the right of the one who has earned it.

If you earned the right to wear the uniform and then dishonour it, that is insulting. If you never earned the right to wear the uniform and wear clothes that look like it, it is merely that same sincere form of flattery shown by a younger brother that wears his older brothers Jacket. If the ushers claimed to be Active duty military, that would be inappropriate, probably illegal, but even then it would not be insulting.

In the days when gentlemen carried sabres, and were expected to protect their honour at the risk of their life, it was understood that a Gentleman could only be insulted by another gentleman. While the modern USA is an egalitarian society, I still reserve the right to select who is entitled to insult me. You have to earn that right.

Attitude Shift

When I got out of the Army, I had the choice of moving back to Massachusetts or anywhere closer to my last duty station.  Since I was in Hawaii at the time, I could choose from  a huge swatch of the country.  I went on several job interviews, and had a few places I could have moved.  I picked for location as much as for the job:  I moved to San Francisco.

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16 Random Things About Me

1. The mechanism in the brain is that is supposed to disengage the mouth doesn’t always work with me. When I remember an embarrassing episode from earlier in my life, I often yell at my self about it, out loud, usually something like “Stop think so much!” or “Quit it.” I have Programming induced Turrette’s Syndrome.

2. I read incredibly fast. I started reading in kindergarten and have always devoured books. I was reading the full length Alexandre Dumas books in third grade.

3. I wore braces while wrestling in high school. My lips were routinely turned into chopped liver by them.

4. Music has been an incredibly strong force in my life. I was singing before I spoke. I started piano lessons in first grade (Thanks Mrs. Stephanski!). My great Uncle Ben started teaching me Saxophone in second grade. I sing out loud whenever I am in the car alone. I contemplated going to Berklee school of music. As a Junior and Senior at West Point I conducted the Jewish Chapel Choir.

5. I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance while in High School. No other book I’ve read has had more of an effect of how I interpret the world.

6. As a Plebe at West Point, I got into big trouble twice. The first time was because I had a sword for the medieval studies club in my locker in the trunk room. The second time was for drinking. My roommate had snuck a bottle of Jack Daniels into the Barracks. I had to shots, and threw them up.

7. When I was a three years old I made up a Superhero named “Strong Running Man”

8. I was really into Archery when I was in boy scouts. I had a recurve bow. My cousin and I were shooting arrows up into the air in New Hampshire. One got stuck in the trees, and fell to earth right in front of my father, missing him by a few feet. He broke the bow over his knees.

9. My first crush was when I was in nursery school. Her name was Elizabeth Lubin. I still don’t know how to spell her last name.

10. I compose music. I’ve written a few jazz and folk songs. I have written about 70% of the book for “The Princes Bride, the Musical.” It is an Operatta.

11. I spent my first two and a half years as a professional programmer doing Microsoft programming. My focus on Linux and Open Source programming comes from having been burnt by MS too many times.

12. When I was Lieutenant in the Army, I lived in a beach house on the North Shore of Hawaii. On certain days, when I was allowed to do the morning exercises (PT) on my own, I would often go snorkeling right behind my own house.

13. My favorite hobby is Rock Climbing. I have done more damage to my body by climbing with out doing injury prevention exercises than any other way. My favorite type of climbing is climbing cracks by jamming my hands and feet into the wall and camming them.

14. I was incredibly nearsighted as a kid. It killed my depth perception. It is one reason I never liked sports like Baseball or Basketball. I had LASIK about ten years ago, and my eyes have continued to get worse to the point that I need glasses full time again.

15. I have a ridiculous memory for quotes. I can watch a movie or TV show once and pick up a quote that I remember for years.

16. I grew up wandering in the woods. The thing I love most about being back on the East Coast (aside from being near to family) is the woods here. There is something about the deciduous forests and terrain gentle enough to let you walk just about anywhere while out in the woods that I find really recharging. I’ve recently taken up snowshoeing because I love being able to wander through the snow covered woods and walk anywhere.


One facet of returning to Boston after half my life away is dealing with the demons of High School. Not just my demons but those of my friends from my home town. Things we didn’t talk about then are now part of the conversations. The emotional irritants from 1986 have been encapsulated in enough mother of pearl to be taken out and admired in the light. As technology increases the frequency of re-acquaintance, old names and faces trip old traps. The strong and confident find themselves in tears over a snub two decades passed. Anger long since packed away in the attic is extracted, unfolded, and ignites upon exposure to fresh air.

When we were expecting our son, my wife and I read many books. One phrase that stood out is ontology recapitulates phylogeny. In simpler language, an embryo passes through all the stages of evolution before it becomes a baby. All those previous steps are incorporated into the nascent human. But evolution didn’t stop with human infancy. Dr Karp suggests we should think of toddlers as cavemen not yet ready to comprehend full language. Is the teenager then still carrying around the same set of energy and impulses as we needed when we were in the trees? As adults, we have built on what we were as children and teens. We’ve incorporated it into our adult selves. Have we grown from our pains or just grown around them? Nietzsche promised us to grow stronger from a non fatal encounters, but was that may have just been the optimistic aspiration of a man in extreme pain.

Like Robert Frosts swinger of birches, I have gone away and come back. My arc described not just a removal from earth, although I have spent a good deal of time looking down at earth from high up on a cliff side, but also a removal from the society in which I first developed. I can’t claim to any great insights to any development but, maybe, my own. It is not that I have grown beyond who I was in 1989, but that I’ve gotten a sense of how that boy fits inside the man I am now.

Stoughton. Mention of the name of my home town now evokes a common response: Ikea. Yes, the great blue behemoth sits in the center of the woods that we dubbed Sasquatch Territory many years ago. The name came from the trees bent, like Frost’s Birches, from an ice storm, that an older brother in the neighborhood would rather have ascribe to the attentions of a descendant of some sibling branch of our phylogeny. The naming was inspired, no doubt, by the most popular of episode from the Six Million Dollar man. Those woods were our playground, our battle grounds, where we built dams and dug for old railroad spikes. The benefit of living with such great woods behind our houses came at the cost of being removed from the center of action, around the North Elementary School, where the tighter knit subdivisions lead to the forming of alliances that would play out on the school grounds and classrooms. Four of us from the edge of Stoughton had the combination of nurture and nature to succeed in Stoughton’s Academic environment. A Catholic, a Korean Buddhist, and a Unitarian, and me, the Jew, somehow survived and succeeded, at least academically.

Stoughton is proud of its blue-collar roots.  Drinking and smoking were normal part of teen culture, as was a moderate degree of drug use.  We lost a few kids to driving accidents, most notably for me one of my older sisters boyfriends.  There was social ostracism, taunting, bullying, and fights.  The latter were often started with our version of a thrown gauntlet, the phrase “meet you at the tracks”. We even have our own minstral, singing in much more evocative terms than I ever could.  My sister’s friend Lori Gerow grew up and married into the name Lori McKenna.  How a girl from a school that prized speed metal above all grew up to be a country/folk star is just the sort of irony that you might expect from a town that is caught on the edge of the Boston Metrosprawl:  not quite farm country anymore, but not quite the city.

There are many stories triggered by this reminiscence, but they don’t really address the matter at hand. My demons from this part of my life are domesticated beasts who now rarely ruin the carpet or chew my slippers. I faced them later in life, when they were the members of a larger pack that briefly overwhelmed me. That time brought deep introspection and a truce that has held.  Nec Stoughtonia Terrent. High School Ended for me in 1989. Between there and here is a long journey. But my connection with these friends, the commonality of experience ended then, too. After that, Stoughton was a place visited for a Week during Christmas or Summer in between Training and Education. After my folks sold their place on Larson Road, I didn’t have any excuse to go back, and lots of other demands on my vacation time. So to connect with people I knew back then, I refer to events of two decades hence. But what to do when the responses bring forth such vehemence? Stoughton wasn’t nearly the worst thing I’ve faced in my life. I can’t claim I would have chosen that as my upbringing, or that there are not major steps there I would have changed, but I don’t hate the place, not by any stretch.

One common theme though is a sense that we really didn’t know each other back then. Certainly the divide along gender lines was quite strict amongst us, the geeks. There might a be a strong friendships that crossed lines, but they were ones and twos. My friends were mostly guys. Girls in class were fearsome things, more likely to laugh at you then to respond kindly to an approach. My early relationships happened during transitions: summers, trips. Even crushes were reserved for girls outside my classes, girls who wouldn’t have seen the ass I made of myself by talking too much during a class I had prepared for too little. I don’t know if a 13 year old boy and girl can be just friends. Certainly it is a chemically unstable situation, too prone to slip on one side or the other into obsession or rejection. Some of the girls in the classes were caustic . Some unconscious action of mine would bring derision, a sneer of contempt and add another layer of shellac to my shell of isolation. It didn’t keep me from speaking up to the teacher, to challenging the pedagogy, but is kept my attention focused on the front of the classroom. Another girl from these days remain fixed in my mind with a perpetually startled expression, mortified of the least attention. An essay read aloud in English class would periodically cast a brief spotlight into the mind of one of these foreign entities.

There are a few things I got from Stoughton that I might not have if I had grown up elsewhere.  It was far enough from the city that there were still large tracts of woods.  Both houses I lived in backed up to stretches of woods large enough that I never fully explored them.  I loved the freedom and relative safety I had of wandering free in the woods, a freedom that my Brookline raised son will not be ableto enjoy without travel.  Stoughton was a small enough town that we knew, if not everyone, than the majority.  Rare is the member of my graduatin class whose name does not evoke some small memory.  I remember my teachers, knew the principals.  My folks and my friends parents were involved in town meeting and in social issues that affected our town.  If I was left behind by the organized sports collectives so popular amongst my peers in elementary school (Soccer, Baseball) the music department and High School Wrestling team made up for it.  The honors program challenged me enough to get me engavged, but was not so competative that it stifled anything other than the superstars.

Today Stoughton is more memory to me than reality.  I cheered to hear that we won the football game on Thaksgiving against tradition rival of Canton, but didn’t go to watch the game.  Few of the teachers that taught me are still employed in the system, far more have retired.  My friends no longer live there:  those that stayed in the area have migrated to surrounding towns, or, like me, have been drawn in to the city.  Periodic epsidoes involving Ikea aside, the greatest draw of Stoughton remains the staple of our diet from adolescence:  Town Spa Pizza.

Blinded by the Light

Springsteen’s version of Blinded by the Light was never a hit, but he still plays it in concerts to this day.  He’s changed the orchestration, end even done it as a Latin number.  The obscure lyrics have long caused much discussion as to their meaning.  Springsteen wrote this song when he was in his early 20s, and before he had any success as a recording artist. He has stated that it was based on his experiences as a young musician and was based on people he met. Many people have tried to show that this was a song about drugs, or about sex. Springsteen has often written about love and sex. He’s alluded to drugs, but never sold himself as primarily a druggie. I suspect that, while both sex and drugs are reflected in the song, the song is not primarily about either, but is instead a description of the adolescent life of a musician.

The inner rhymes of the song provide a great sound, but seriously constrained him as a lyricist. He often had to choose a series of words that sounded good together, not necessarily that were the most direct way to describe what he was feeling. The burden is on the free words, the ones that don’t rhyme, to apply the connotation of the line of the song. What is most telling is where he chose not to rhyme. These words we have to assume he chose more deliberately.  Because the style of the song is so constrained, it actually frees him from having to mean one thing, and instead can paint a picture with words that have multiple meanings, no one of which has to be the true one, but instead just have to be true to the theme of the lyrics.

Madman drummers bummers. The word madman is telling here, as it doesn’t rhyme, it strains the rhythm, and it leads of the song. [Update: Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez was the Drummer of the E-Street Bad] There is a sense of insanity, of hopped the up emotion that would cause one teenager to call the other a Madman. Drummers is both a music reference and again that sense of rhythmic energy, the pulse of life. Bummers: not everything is going to go well, and already we have a warning that there are things going on that will bring you down, bum you out, cause you to crash. Indians in the summer. Here I suspect the Indian refers not to a Native American, but to the motorcycle. In the north, you can’t ride in the winter when it snows, so the bikes come out in summer. The motorcycle is the symbol of freedom, and the cause of many young men’s premature death. The motorcycle shows up dominant in another Springsteen classic: Born to Run, where it is referred to a “Suicide Machine.” It is the mode of escape, the tool of the young. Did Bruce mean this? Possibly. [Update: `The Indians` were Bruce’s Baseball Team] It is not a rhyming word, and so was chosen more deliberately for meaning. With a teenage diplomat. The diplomat is suave, sophisticated, a term of maturity. This is at odds with the teenage modifier. The juxtaposition gives a sense of awkwardness, of just coming of age that pervades the song. A diplomat is also a person responsible for representing one culture to another. As a musician, Springsteen is a representative to the cities and towns he visits, and to the people of the older generation.

Down in the dumps with the mumps. Since mumps is a rhyming word, I was at first tempted to pass it off as simple alliteration as opposed to any real meaning. I don’t think it means a literal sickness, unless it was one in the past that lead to missing out on opportunities, but a disease as serious as the mumps would put our hero our of commission. The mumps causes mumbling from swollen salivary glands and testicular swelling. Here the mumps make more sense as a metaphor for teenage awkwardness (mumbling) and sexual frustration. It is telling that the mumps is a disease that gets more serious as you get older, that it is less serious to have as a child. The adolescent pumps his way into his hat. Pumps is a sexual word, and at a first reading I thought this was a metaphor for masturbation, but no self respecting teenage guy would jack off into his hat if he had any other option. I suspect that the pump refers more to a combination of fidgeting and perfectionism exhibited by the teenager to get his appearance just right before going out into the public. He’s not just putting on his hat, but making multiple small adjustments that look like pumping. [Edit:  A Hat could be a slang term for a Condom, leading to a sexual interpretation of this whole stanza. Bruce claims this line is self explanatory.]

With a boulder on my shoulder: Muscles. Our man has been working out, or has just started developing. It also is sounds like the expression “chip on his shoulder.” He doesn’t just have a chip, he has a boulder. So that he feels not only that he has something to prove, but that he has some thing huge to prove. [Edit:  also seems like a reference to Sisyphus, the spirit in Hades serving an eternity pushing a boulder up the hill. Another relevant Greek reference is Atlas, the Titan that held the World on his shoulders] Feeling kind of older: He’s starting to feel more adult, but just kind of, he’s still part kid. I tripped the merry-go-round: We have here the first fairground reference, but it fits with the theme of summer, recreation locations, the kind of gig a young musician would get. It also might be the other job of a kid who gets to play in his band, but doesn’t make enough money that way to survive. So he runs the merry-go-round as well. The key word here is tripped. It harkens back to “trip the light fantastic” but also to tripping a circuit breaker. The question was whether the tripping was accidental or intentional: the result of it being his job, or of a childhood prank. The merry-go-round could also be a metaphor for starting off the music of the band, the lights,and the dancing that is the teenage equivalent of a ride on a merry-go-round. While any of these might be what he originally meant, I think it is the plausibility of multiple definitions that really makes the line work. They all connote the same theme, the same feel.  With a very unpleasing wheezing and sneezing the calliope crashed to the ground. Here is the first bummer.  If we go with the explanation that it was the young man’s job to run the merry-go-round, than this means that something went mechanically wrong.  If it was a young prank, then he broke the machine.  If it was the band, then something went wrong on stage.  A Calliope is a musical instrument named after the Greek muse of epic poetry, fitting for the epic length of these lyrics.  The instrument made sound using steam and pipes, much like an organ.  Even if the merry-go-rounds music was not strictly speaking generated by a calliope, it was something similar enough that the word fits.  The sneezing and wheezing would have described a malfunctioning steam organ as it was falling apart.  Since the calliope was a keyboard instrument, it would have also been an acceptable metaphor for an organ or electric piano, or even the entire band in a stage performance. [Edit: If we go with the sexual interpretation, this implies an awkward first sexual experience, complete with being somewhat put-off out by the strange noises both he and his partner made during the act.]

Some all-hot half-shot was headin’ for the hot spot snappin’ his fingers clappin’ his hands. At first read this appears  one of the more straightforward lines in the song.  Half shot probably means that he got a hold of some alcohol before headed out, and was buzzed, but it could also mean that he was still a half kid.  He knows the music is going to be playing, and he already is anticipating the experience.  But hot spot is another word with multiple meanings.  The connotation could also be sexual, he’s headed to a tryst.  Considering the later lines of this stanza, that also makes sense.  It is even possible that both meanings are intentional:  going out with the possibility or likelihood of hooking up, dancing as a mating game, and barely contained and visible expressed excitement at all of the possibilities.

The object of the song switches from male to female.  And some fleshpot mascot: A fleshpot is a strip tease cabaret.  Men would be lured in with promises of sex, gotten to pay for booze, and kicked out without receiving any sexual favors.  A girl that would be the mascot could either be the girl that stands in the door and tries to entice men in, or could be a younger girl, adopted as the mascot of the older, more jaded women that work inside.  More likely it is a younger version of these girls, still young, but perhaps a little trashy already.  Maybe more  comfortable in the scene, but not by much.was tied into a lover’s knot: She’s involved with someone.  This involvement has tied her in a knot. with a whatnot in her hand.  Since whatnot is a rhyming word, and it makes the line work out well,  It is a filler word:  anything you can’t or don’t want to describe is a whatnot.  It could be a condom, a joint, a crumpled up piece of paper with a love note on it, a bauble won at some stand at the fair.  It has meaning to her, to the tryst, and is left to be filled in by the listener.

And now young Scott with a slingshot: It isn’t clear if were returned to the guy from two lines prior, the all-hot half shot.  It does not matter.  The experiences are in some ways universal, and are certainly spread over multiple people.  The slingshot could be many things:  an actual slingshot, which is both a child’s toy and a weapon.  As a weapon, it could be euphemism for a gun.  Since a slingshot has a rubber band, it could mean a condom.  Again, the ambiguity reinforces the blurry line between childhood and adulthood, between play and serious actions. finally found a tender spot the tender spot could be that he sweet talked his girlfriend into having sex, or he found a place secluded enough to have sex, or just that he found a tender spot in a girl’s heart that he was allowed to progress to more intimacy.and throws his lover in the sand: the kind of rough move a young kid might do, unaware of his own strength, swept away in the action.  The sand implies a beach, playing again on the theme of a recreation location.  The theme park and beach combination would fit in well with the New Jersey shoreline, probably the most important summer spot in the Boss’ home state.

And some bloodshot forget-me-not, bloodshot could be a reference to bloodshot eyes from smoking pot, or the blood from first sex, or as a result of the roughhousing in the previous line.  It could also imply blood engorged, as in one who is ready for sex.  It seems to refer to a girl again, maybe the same one from earlier in the song or a different one, as the experiences, if not universal, were certainly common amongst a good number of the people in the song. A forget-me-not is a flower, which would reinforce that he is talking about a girl, a pattern he uses again later.  That she’s called a forget-me-not can means either that the girl is unforgettable, or that she is worried about being taken advantage of, of being forgotten. It is this kind of dual possibility that loads this song with meaning. whispers daddy’s within earshot: once again we are reminded that these people are still half kids, worried about parents, and some even accompanied by them on these summer excursions.  These actions are illicit, below the radar of the parents and older generation.  Is it sex, drugs, or just sneaking out at night?  save the buckshot: buckshot may be a euphemism for his ejaculation, but it could also refer to any explosive action, anything that would kick of like a bullet. turn up the band, perhaps they are listening to music and she wants the radio louder to cover their activities.   The similarities of the situations in these four lines suggests that this is all about to one couple, hooking up secretly.  The main thing that challenges this notion is the non-rhyming words, the simple ones that could have more easily connoted that young Scott was the half-shot or the two girls were the same girl.  More importantly, the fact that he repeats the word some connotes different people:  Some fleshpot mascot, some bloodshot forget-me-not. If he wanted us to believe that they were the same person, he could have just said and the bloodshot forget me not.  If he wanted to signify that the girl getting thrown in the sand was the same girl from the last line, he could have used but the bloodshot forget-me-not.  Instead, the word some implies that we know the type of person he is describing,  there are more than one.  Thus, this really seems to be a collection of personalities, probably an amalgam of experiences collected over time.

Blinded by the light. It is both the title of the song and the most repeated line in the song. I’ve been on stage, and been blinded by the spotlights shined on me. I suspect that Bruce knew that feeling all too well when he was inspired to write this song, and that he is describing both that physical disorientation and the emotional overload of being young and the center of so much attention. The original (not the Manfred Mann) lyrics follow with Cut Loose like Deuce. He has stated explicitly that a Deuce refers to a sports car. The Manfred Mann version (at least as it is printed in the lyric sheet) is revved up like a Deuce. They have slightly different connotations. The revved up means potential, wanting to cut loose.   Cut loose here means that the car is already speeding down the road. A Deuce would have been an old car at this time, but possibly the kind of old car that a young kid would be able to get his hands on. Another runner in the night…As a musician, he was not only playing at night, but interacting with people in “go out and party” mode. As an adolescent, night was when you can get away with things. Runner: high energy, a kid full of hormones, young and dumb and full of come. But another runner: this is a common pattern, the person is joining the other runners out there, the other party goes, the other adolescents trying on adult life, love, drugs, rock and roll, and responsibility.  I suspect the primary person cut loose is the Boss himself:  touring with a band, just out of high school, the freedom must have been both exhilarating and bewildering.

She got down but she never go tight: Got down is an expression with many possible meanings: dancing, giving a blow job, depression, getting drunk. The key is the word “But” meaning that what ever she did, it wasn’t as serious as what comes next: Got tight. While it might be tempting to use the modern slang meaning of tight as a girl that is really attractive, this song came out about 25 years before that usage. Tight can mean drunk, but that is a little bit more British than Bruce would have used. Tight can also mean a virgin, but that seems at odds with the rest of the song about first experiences, and a virgin starts tight and then becomes less so, so one wouldn’t get tight. The only obvious slang meaning left is to be in tight with the crowd, and this may make the most sense. She got down, but she never got tight: she danced well enough to be well regarded, but wasn’t quite accepted into the the inner circle. This seems to be justified by the following “but she’ll make it alright.” The girl here is still looking for social acceptance, she hasn’t quite found it, but there will be other nights, other events, and the rest of her life. She’s alive, she’s healthy, she still in the game, if a little older and maybe wiser.  [Edit: a sexual interpretation is that she had sex, but not with someone that she is going to be with for the long term.  A fling.] Since this refrain is repeated but referring to other characters, both male and female, this seems to be the unifying theme. Early adulthood is hard, but the scars it leaves help define who you are. This theme jives well with the rest of Springsteen’s songs, especially those off of his first album.

The next verse is reserved for two characters, both authority figures of sorts.  The first is described as Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the east. Brimstone refers to fire and brimstone sermons, the baritone to a low, rumbling voice, implying an older man.  An anti-cyclone is a high pressure system that brings fair weather…perhaps he’s full of hot air.  As a rolling stone, he is a migrant.  Maybe he’s a rolling stone in the nature of the other musicians, and as such he’s giving the younger musicians pointers.  A Dictaphone is an old voice recording device.  Dethrone the Dictaphone could be a hint as to what was happening in the recording industry:  moving from records to tape.  Hit them in their funny bone could mean stage presence, make them laugh, be larger than life. that’s where they expect it least. You have to do something when you perform to set yourself apart.  The repeated one syllable in this couplet reinforce the baritone sound, giving a little weight of years to the preacher.

The other character is The new mown chaperone,  someone young thrown into a position of authority, something he’s not yet comfortable being.  He’s out of the action, in the corner all alone watching the young girls dance. He’s trying to keep aloof.  Now comes a great line:  some fresh sown moonstone was playing with his frozen zone to remind him of the feeling of romance. Perhaps this is a drug reference, but I suspect not.  Moonstone was a song by Cat Stevens that came out in 1967, so Bruce would very likely have known it.  In moonstone, the singer talks about something, likely some one that he caught just a glimpse of, that keeps coming back into his mind:

saw a flash, then a sparkle from a moonstone
Then the mist started, started to clear
I saw a face, a face in the moonstone
And then it started to disappear

Perhaps he saw someone that caught his eye, or maybe the band had just played the song, and it stuck in his mind as an ear-worm.  Either way, it was messing with a portion of his spirit that had been frozen, most likely hurt by a romance earlier in life.  He is not immune to the sexuality of the scene.  It is possible that these two guys are one and the same, but they seem to be different for the same reasons listed above.

The refrain ends differently this time: He got down but she never got tight, but he’s gonna make it tonight. Again, suggesting that the couple got together, here it seems to refer to the chaperon above, hooked up, got shut down, but he’s going to make it…hey are older, and sex is perhaps less formative for them.  It isn’t their first time, so perhaps it is less important to be in love in order to have sex.  Or perhaps just the experience of a near miss is enough to get his  frozen feelings moving, to rejoin life, and start playing the game again.

Some Silicone Sister: This seems to be a pretty straight forward reference to a woman with a breast implants.  I suspect that sister does not have a racial meaning, but it might.  with her manager’s mister:  She has a manager.  A Boob job wasn’t cheap in 1973, and wasn’t that common either.  A woman with implants was probably either rich or in show business.  Since she has a manager, it implies the later.  But she isn’t just with here manager, but her manager’s mister.   Perhaps her manager is a woman, and she’s with the her manager’s husband.  That seems like a stretch.  It could refer to a device that sprays mist, either for perfume or something, but that seems weak, unless is was some form of drug paraphernalia, but again, it seems like a stretch.  Mister implies something masculine.  It may mean that she has her manager’s manhood tightly under control. Told me I got what it takes: if she is in the music business, she thinks Bruce has the potential be be big.  I’ll turn you on sonny to something strong if you play the song with the funky break. She’s older, and hitting on him.  She’s tried to turn the tables:  I can make you big.  She tries to be manipulative:  she’s asking him to change his set list.  She promises to turn him on to something strong:  implying both sex and drugs.  She is either a powerful woman and maybe just a little desperate for validation from a young rising star.

Go-kart Mozart repeats both the music and amusement park themes from earlier in the song.  Either word could be the metaphor.  If Go-Kart is supposed to be a metaphor, and Mozart implies that this character is a musician, than the Go Kart could refer to the sound of an electric guitar with a lot of distortion.  If the Mozart part is the metaphor, than this could just be the guy that runs the Go Karts, [Edit: or is very gifted as a mechanic].  Was checking out the weather chart to see if it was safe to go outside. If Mozart here is a guitarist, then chart probably refers to sheet music.  It is possible Weather chart refers to music from the group Weather report, a Jazz fusion group that was just starting on the scene in the early 70s.  Go outside might mean playing outside the changes, getting funkier, getting more risky with the music.  Of course, the great thing about this kind of poetry is that it supports a great degree of  flexibility of interpretation it supports.  The weather chart could be the paper, and looking at the weather for the rest of the night, a fairly banal interpretation.  Or it could be the racing forms and Mozart is afraid of running into his bookie.

An Early Pearly is a type of white flower, and is also referred to as a she, another case of referring to a girl as a flower.  In this case, a Pearl white flower, both implying virginity, and the term Pearly Whites, a big smile.  Or perhaps her name is Pearl, and so she got the nickname Early Pearly.  Or it could imply that she get physical early in a relationship.  Little does imply that she is young, perhaps another adolescent.  Came in by her curly-wurly A Curly Wurly is a candy bar.  Curly hair, appearance, a girly look.  Or a girly Car.  Asked me if I needed a ride.  She’s hitting on the singer.  Hey, it is Bruce!  But I just noticed that the lyric sheet says came in by her curly-wurly.  This might be a typo, as I think Bruce sings it the other way around.  A  reference to pubic hair, and thus another sex reference seems a trifle crude, especially since it seems more that she is propositioning him.

There are a lot of lines still to go in this song, but I feel like they are not so impenetrable.   [Some additions from  from here to the end, providing my detailed analysis]

Oh, some hazard from Harvard was skunked on beer playin’ backyard bombardier

Harvard boy, drinking and doming something wild in the backyard.  Sounds like a house party.

Yes and Scotland Yard was trying hard, they sent a dude with a calling card,
he said, do what you like, but don’t do it here

Well I jumped up, turned around, spit in the air, fell on the ground
Asked him which was the way back home
He said take a right at the light, keep goin’ straight until night, and then boy, you’re on your own

Scotland yard is the home of the British police, and so that stanza seems to refer to a run in with the authorities, getting run off, a house party broken up by the police.  Bruce tries to impress, tries to sweet-talk, but gets told to head out of town.  straight until night seems like a Peter Pan reference.

And now in Zanzibar a shootin’ star was ridin’ in a side car hummin’ a lunar tune

Zanzibar sounds like the name of a  bar, a bad pun, trying to play on the exotic locale.  I picture a dive with a Neon sign out front with a picture of a palm-tree and a martini glass.  Lunar toon is both a reference to songs like  Moonstone or Moon Dance, or just the  addled moaning of someone that is high,  but also Looney-tunes, Bugs Bunny and so on.  Again, the crossover from child to adult.  Sidecar is a motorcycle reference, but also to someone that plays a supporting role, that doesn’t get to drive, not in control of his own destiny.

Yes, and the avatar said blow the bar but first remove the cookie jar we’re gonna teach those boys to laugh too soon

Avatar is a leader, the person directing the action.  Perhaps an older musician or manager.  Remove the cookie jar is the cookie jar the tip jar or the stash of weed? Possibly the venue owner decided not to pay them in response to some clownish behavior, to teach those boys to laugh too soon.  Or is this payback for a bar owner that stiffed them?

And some kidnapped handicap was complainin’ that he caught the clap from some mousetrap he bought last night,

Well I unsnapped his skull cap and between his ears I saw
a gap but figured he’d be all right

Members of the band or friends experiment with beer, drugs, prostitutes–mousetrap seems to be an interesting euphemism–and yet they all survive.  The kidnapped handicap sounds like a similar reference to the sidecar, someone that had to be taken out to the bars under duress of both the escort and the escorted.  A wing-man that ruins chances. It may be that a degree of growth has happened to the band by these later stanzas.

Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun/Oh but mama that’s where the fun is: This is the ultimate line of the song, and seems to sum it up nicely.  We’re old enough to make our own choices, we may knowingly choose to something dangerous, but we do so to live fully.  This song  is a youth anthem, not necessarily promoting sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but describing how alluring the lifestyle is to kids on the cusp, but also to reassure that many kids go through this and are OK.  They’ll be singing “Glory Days” a decade later, just like Bruce Springsteen was, and he hadn’t even hit his prime.

Book Ends

The last two nonfiction books I’ve read are Black Hawk Down and  In a Time of War. The two nonfiction books have both dealt with wars that have happened since I became an adult.  In a Time of War chronicles some of the members of West Point’s class of 2002 as they progressed through the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mostly Iraq.  Black Hawk Down retells the events of the Battle of Mogadishu in October of 1993.  Both these books strike close to home for me.  They present a set of delimiters around a pattern within the  U.S. military involvement overseas.

In October of 1993, I was in my final month of the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course at Fort Benning Georgia.  Within the year I would  arrive at my first Regular Army unit, the 25th Infantry Division.  The Ranger platoon leaders in Somalia were class of 1990 grads, the seniors when I was a Plebe.  The soldiers to my left and right at Rangers school, the ones from Ranger regiment, would go and serve with the men that fought in Somalia.

Mike Palaza, a 1991 West Point grad and fellow Alumnus of Stoughton High School stated that he wasn’t going to marry his girlfriend if he was headed to Somalia:  he was headed to the 10th Mountain and knew that he’d be deployed.  He was being melodramatic when he said that he wasn’t going to get married before going to Somalia. “I won’t make her a Widow.”  But they got married and he deployed there anyway.  He is still alive and well.

SSG Franklin was my senior squad leader when I got to my Platoon in Hawaii.  He had a Combat Infantryman’s Badge from his deployment to Somalia.  He claimed he hadn’t really earned it, just had done a lot of Cordon and Searches in houses looking for weapons.  When I went to Haiti, I had a team leader in my platoon who said comparable things.  It seems that for most of the deployment in Somalia, the US forces were considered a neutral force, just there to help distribute food.  It wasn’t until we decided that Aidid was the bad guy that things went south. It is hard to hear these two points of view and then read the chaos and hell that was Mogadishu during the events told Black Hawk Down.

If you look at the chain of events from the time I graduated High School up to the present situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a continuing narrative.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, we stopped paying attention to the Mujhadeen in Afghanistan, and we lost interest in the Iran/Iraq war and it’s effect on those countries and the region.  Saddam Hussein didn’t get the message that we wouldn’t tolerate an invasion of Kuwait.  By responding, we put American troops on the Arabian Peninsula. The mujahideen fighters, trained and equipped by the United States, now turned their enmity against us.  We were already questionable allies due to our support of Israel, so it wasn’t too hard to make us the bad guys. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for inciting much of the violence in Mogadishu in 1993.  It was these actions that lead the US to drive Osama bin Laden out of the Sudan (a short jaunt away across Ethiopia) where he was then building the terrorist network that later attacked American 2001.  He claimed that they learned the US could be chased from a country by making it take casualties.

What was clear from reading the book and from what little I’ve studied is that we misread the situation.  Aidid was willing to let the United Nations help, but he was the real power in Mogadishu.  In the news they called him a “Warlord.”  He was the single most powerful leader to come out of the Somalia Civili war.  Not that he was undisputed, there were many such powerful men, but he had a larger power base than the others.  When the US decided that he was not to be allowed to participate in the future government, they turned a potential ally into an enemy.  Yes, he was a vicious man, but the country was known for brutality, he was just more successful.  Yes, he killed UN peace keepers.  But the story there is fairly murky, at least from what little I’ve seen. The facts of Somalia are such that no one with any degree of power got there without blood on their hands.

What is the difference between a warlord, a tribal leader, a sheik, a community leader, a mayor, a governor?  The power to rule must be granted at least in a portion by the people who are ruled, if only because they think the alternative is worse.  Here in the United States, we were unusual when we said that the military leadership you be subservient to the civilian leadership.  This new fangled idea is not the norm in much of the world:  it is still catching on.  I acknowledge the difference between a person who has seized power and one who has been selected by his community.  We in the United States often forget that places without traditions of elections have more primitive methods for selecting leaders that  nevertheless still have the support of the community.  We may not like these men:  we certainly decided that we didn’t like Aidid.

In a time of War shows a later next stage in the evolution of America’s foreign policy through force.  The West Point class of 2002 deploys to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and  suffers casualties. Nine years after I graduated from West Point, a year after I had removed myself from the roles of the Army Reserves, these kids were graduated into a very different Army than I had experienced.  But things don’t change much at West Point.: Their experiences had been similar enough to mine.  The soldiers upon which  the book focused were from company D-1, the Company next to mine for my final two years at the Academy.

I often wonder what would have happened if President Bush senior hadn’t listened to the advisors who told him to stop before heading the troops up to Baghdad.  If what happened in Iraq since 2003 is any indication, we would have certainly been involved in some serious fighting come 1993.  I suspect that my generation of classmates would have been placed in much the same situation as the class of 2002 and later classes.

I cried a couple of times during the book.  Both times it was during the notification scenes.  I can’t imagine a worse thing to do to someone you love than to make them suffer through the fear and dread of deployment to a war zone, except to die on them.

The war in Iraq was going poorly when the book was published.  Since that time, we have lived through “The Surge”, “The Anbar Awakening” and a change in the outlook for Iraq in the long term.  A big part of that change is that the American strategy changed.  Gen Petraus, the Armies chief counter-insurgency expert, gets a lot of credit for his role in getting Army commanders to understand the real situation on the ground, and to work with the people in their locales.  With his current position in CENTCOM, he will be able to affect the operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as monitor the evolving relationship between Iran and the United States.  I am cautiously optimistic that we will carve a decent situation out of these conflicts.

Returning to thinking about Somalia in the light of the current conflicts really drove home how lucky I have been personally, how much some of our soldiers have given, and how complex American foriegn policy really is.

Computers and Me

The defining question of geek culture before the .com boom was, ‘What computer did you program on first.’ Before Microsoft became ubiquitous, there a period where many different systems, all incompatible, became available within the price range of the average family. Brian Graber worked on his Dad’s IBM PC, Cristin Herlihy had an Apple II, the O’Neil’s had an Atari computer (they had the game console, too). My cousins from New York lent us a Commodore VIC20 with a two volume set on teach yourself BASIC. My cousin Christopher came to visit for a week, and ended up staying for the summer. I read out loud out of the books and he typed. By the end of the summer, we were able to program our own text based adventure game.

Even more impressive, we could perform such amazing feats as turning the background and foreground color to black, making text entry difficult. This minor bit of wizardry was performed by using the the arcane command poke. The format was poke memory address, value. It allowed you to program at an incredibly simple level. Note I said simple, not easy. You could set any memory address on the machine to any value you wanted. Once you knew where the memory location was that controlled the text color, or the background, you could produce magic.

The VIC 20 returned to New York at the end of the Summer, but the Holidays brought along a Commodore 64 and a subscription to Computes’ Gazette. A month or two later, I talked my mom into subscribing for the Disk that accompanied the magazine. Now, you may accuse me of being lazy, but most of the programs they release were nothing more than a long string of poke instructions to be typed in. They even released a checksum program, to make sure that the numbers added up to the expected values, but I never go the Canyon Crawler program to run correctly. The Gazette, in addition to a word processing program and a slew of video games, published two tools that were very instructive. One was a font editor, and the other a sprite graphics editor. With these simple tools, you could make video games that were arcade quality (1985 arcade quality, that is). My first video game was a spy game, where you had to parachute down between two roving searchlights. If either touched you, you fell to your doom. Programming this required using the other most arcane of instructions, peek. Peek told you the value of a memory location. Armed with the peek command and the address of the joystick port, I could move the parachute left and right, while it drifted ever downward.

In retrospect I should have stayed with the Parachute idea. On the next screen you might have had to parachute onto a moving boat, or a bouncing trampoline, or perhaps avoid a flock of geese. However, I wanted to make a game that scrolled. I had a vague idea that maybe I could reset the CPU to look at any memory location for its character map, and coupled with a really cool font set you could wander through a maze of building looking to steal secret codes. What I didn’t know was that this type of machine was based on memory mapped IO. Certain fixed memory locations were actually just links for other processors, or input and output devices. There was no way to change where the CPU looked for the character map, as it was the result of the underlying electronics.

I was frustrated by the limitations of BASIC. I wanted to know what all those peeks and pokes were doing. Once I started reading about assembly language programming, I realized that the coders at Compute were distributing, not source code as they would for a program written in basic, but a sort of executable. The C64 only knew how to load and run basic programs. These long listings of pokes were actually copying instructions into memory. Not just color codes for the background or bitmaps for sprites, but instructions like, ‘Load the value from this memory location into the X register.’ I had no idea what a register was, but still, this was pretty cool. The only problem was that I never found an Assembler for the Commodore, so my hacking was limited to converting instructions into numeric codes, and loading them in by hand: my learning mostly theoretical.

I mentioned Cristin Herlihy had an Apple II. This became significant during my senior year of high school when I took a structured programming course in Pascal. I spent long hours over at the Herlihy’s debugging programs to do simple text based operations. The cool thing about Pascal over both Basic and Assembly was, get this, you didn’t need line numbers. GOTO, the standby command for BASIC programming, was forbidden by our teacher. I had learned subroutines and looping before, but you got to call everything by a friendly name like ‘do_something’ as opposed to calling with the cryptic GOSUB 65000. Also, we had floating point numbers. But where were the graphics? I never learned that, as it wasn’t on the AP exam. Programming became more practical, but more removed from the reality of the underlying hardware. It must have been a good course, though: I managed to get a 5 out of 5 on the Advanced Placement test.

After toying with the idea of going into music (I was a fairly serious Jazz Saxophone player in high school), I ended up going the opposite extreme: The United States Military Academy at West Point, or, as I tend to call it, Uncle Sam’s schools for delinquent children. The 5 on the AP test got me out of the first two levels of Computer Science, and into the Data Structures and Algorithms. Now instead of working with floats and strings, we were working with linked lists, arrays, stacks, and heaps. We learned how to sort and search, but more importantly, we learned how to analyze algorithms. I took the the standard set of courses: Language Theory, numerical analysis, discrete mathematics, operating systems, software engineering, and so forth. By having opted out of the first two classes, it opened up more electives at the latter part of the program. I got to take compilers, graphics, artificial intelligence, and databases. I was well armed to enter the workforce as a programmer.

Except that I entered the Army as an Infantry Officer. For the next several years my interaction with a computer was primarily via Calendar Creator and Microsoft Office. One time, I needed to copy a file from one computer to another, and it was too big to fit on a single floppy, so I wrote a short Pascal program that cut the file in half, byte by byte, and another that put it back together. I eventually got an America Online Account, as I hadn’t had email since graduation. Information systems at the lowest levels of the Army were still based on the time honored tradition of filling out a form and putting it in the inbox. The primitive systems worked, to a point. I learned what it really meant to be an end user. Using the applications at our disposal, we built better systems, planning training and tracking soldiers administrative needs in home built systems. We did unspeakable things with Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations. Division Headquarters had a scanner, and I showed out operations officer how we could scan in the maps and draw operational graphics on them electronically.

My first job out of the Army was at Walker Interactive Systems, a company that built accounting software that ran on IBM mainframes. The group I worked in built applications that ran on Windows machines that ran the transactions on the mainframe. My team supported the infrastructure that made communication between the two worlds possible. The mainframe stored its letters using a mapping called EPCIDIC, the Windows machines used ASCII. Even more confusing was the way the two systems stored numbers. Back on the Commodore 64, I only had to worry about a single byte of data. But Systems had grown so that a number was stored across four bytes. For historical reasons, Microsoft decided to store the least significant part of the number in the first byte, and the most significant part of the number in the last byte. IBM chose to store it the other way around. To avoid having to deal with these problems in the buffers we were sending, the architects had decided that all numbers would be sent in their string representations. While we might send a positive or negative sign, we never sent around decimal points. A certain field was just defined as 10 digits long, with the decimal point assumed to be between the eight and ninth digit. Dates had four different formats: Julian, Year Month Day, Day Month year, and that barbaric American format Month Day Year. The system was designed so that we would package up a large amount of data, write it into a buffer, and send it across the network to the mainframe. The Mainframe would plug and chug and send back the data in another buffer. This type of transaction mapped to another technology that was justing make inroads; the Hypertext Transport Protocol, the underlying workhorse of the World Wide Web.

One thing about developing code is that sometimes you are so busy you don’t know how you are going to get things done, while at other times you are just waiting for someone else to finish, or just waiting. During a long period of downtime, I got hooked on web comics. One of them,, touted the virtues of Open Source software and the Operating System built around the Linux Kernel. Intrigued, I found an old Pentium 100 and purchased a Copy of Red Hat 6. While the knowing out there might scoff at me paying for free software, it proved to be a great investment. This was my entry into the world of Free software. When I had booted that Commodore 64, instructions that had been burnt into read only memory would execute, making it impossible to tell the computer to do other things. With Linux, I had access to this same type of code, but now with the ability to look through it and change it. I learned how to compile my own Linux Kernel. Because the Ethernet Card that came with the machine was not supported by Red Hat, I had to get code from the source and compile it in myself.

In this case, the source was a guy named Don Becker, who worked for NASA. His project was making a Supercomputer by linking together lots of little computers. In a nod to his Nordic ancestry, he named it after one of the heros of Germanic legend: Beowulf. Because his Beowulf was built more like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together from many different pieces of available hardware, he needed to be able to use all the various types of hardware he found. The Linux Kernel allowed him that flexibility. The price for the use of Linux was that, if he distributed the executable, he had to distribute the source code as well. Don became the Guru of Ethernet device drivers for Linux. This is what is known, in business speak as Win-Win. Linux and its community won because it got good drivers. Don won because he was able to build his supercomputers and spin them off into a company that specialized in Beowulf clusters. More on that in a bit.

Just before leaving Walker, I looked into rewriting the Client side of our code using a language that was really getting popular: Java. Java was yet another step away from the hardware. As a language, it was not designed to be compiled to the instruction set executed by the CPU of the machine it ran on. Instead, it was converted to a very simple set of instructions that were interpreted at runtime into the CPUs instruction set. This final step is what made Java so portable. Now your code, once compiled, could run on any machine that had a Java Virtual Machine installed. There were limitations, of course. It ran slower than code compiled for a specific CPU. The graphical user interface layer, called Swing, was especially slow. So it never really caught on for client applications (although right now I am using Open Office Writer, a Swing based word processor to type this). It was, however, a perfect fit for business logic processing, especially web site development.

So I, along with the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, learned to develop websites. The first was Tavolo, the second incarnation of what was originally digital chef. Tavolo was a specialty food and cookware website developed by the Culinary Institute of America, or as they like to be called, the CIA. We wrote their new website using a product called Dynamo, from the Art Technology Group. Dynamo was an application server. It was a program designed to run other programs, and many of them at once. Dynamo had components for personalizing a website based on the person who used it, and a significant amount of support for ECommerce. Many of the solutions to these problems ATG put into Dynamo were parallel to, but different from, the solutions that eventually became the standards put out by Sun for Java enterprise computing. Since the marketing people at Sun decided that Java need a second version this became Java 2 Enterprise Edition, or J2EE. Maybe they thought is sounded better than JEE.

As these standards got better and better developed, various people started implementing them. Some were companies trying to sell their implementations. But many people who were doing Java programming released their code under various open source licenses. The most popular, the Tomcat Web Server was developed under the auspices of the Apache organization, the same folk who made the Apache web server. JBoss, (renamed from EJBoss due to Copyright Issues with Sun) was the transaction server and database wrapper. These performed the same job as Dynamo, but were free. Additional packages existed for various stages of website development, database access, document generatation and more. I now had open source code for an operating system, and for all the software I needed to build Enterprise Software. As the dot-com bubble burst, I headed to a small company that needed a website built. Using this stack of open source software, we brought up the website in a few weeks, and grew it over the course of the following year. All of my follow on projects have used this mix of Java and open source software.

The secret to Java’s success is also one of its shortcomings. Java comes from a long line of programming languages that try to make it hard for the programmer to do the Wrong Thing. In particular, Java allows you to use memory without having to clean up after yourself. Once an object is no longer referenced anywhere in the system, it is eligible for garbage collection. While there are numerous other features that make Java a good language in which to work, this is the one that most contributes to productivity. The drawback is that sometimes you need to know exactly where memory comes from, how long it can be used, and when it can be reclaimed. In Java, memory is difficult, if not impossible, to access directly. Probably most telling is the fact that Java is not programmed in Java, it is programmed in C and C++. Because something as critical as the Virtual Machine that Java runs on has to be fast, or all programs are slow. Where Java takes the position that programs should check for and report errors to speed development, C requires a much more dedicated quality assurance process to make sure the programs don’t have an unacceptable amount of bugs. Not that you can’t write fast code in Java, and not that you can’t quickly write bug free code in C, It is just that each language makes it easier to do its own thing.

So I made the effort to break out of the very successful track I was in, take a cut in pay, and get in to Linux Kernel development. In a sense, this was a return to my roots, being able to go right to the hardware. I spent quite a long while looking, when opportunity found me. A recruiter called me from Penguin Computing. Penguin is a hardware company, they sell Linux Servers. Cool. About a year ago, they bought Scyld. Scyld was the company spun off from Nasa’s Beowulf project, lead by Don Becker. Itold you there would be more later. The geek value was immense. I was hooked and convinced them to hire me.

Why was I drawn to computer science? I like patterns. I like being able to hear the chords of “Always look on the Bright Side of Life” and realizing they are the same as “I got Rhythm” just with the Chorus and verses reversed. I like trying to tell which of my nephew’s personality traits came from his mother and which came from his father. When it comes to programming, I like taking a solution, and extracting the generic part so I can extend it to solve a new problem. Design Patterns work for me. I’ve been interested in many portions of computer science, and enjoy learning the commonalities between tuples flowing through portions of a query, packets flowing through a network, and events flowing through a graphical interface.

The one topic in my course on Artificial Intelligence that really piqued my interest was neural networks. After several decades of trying to do it the hard way, scientists decided to try to build a processing model based on the brains of living organisms. Animal brains do two things really well. First, they process a huge amount of information in parallel. Second, they adapt. Traditional neural networks (funny to be calling such a young science traditional) are based on matrix algebra as a simplification of the model. One vector is the input set, multiplied times a matrix gives you an interim result, and then multiplied by a second matrix gives you an output set. The matrices represent the connections of neurons in the brain. At the start of the 1970s, scientists were convinced that Neural Networks were the big thing that was going to get us Artificial Intelligence. But traditional neural networks learn poorly and do little that can be called parallel processing. After a brief time in the sun, they were relegated to short chapters in books on AI. They are still used, but people no longer expect them to perform miracles.

If you believe that upstart Darwin, real intelligence is the result of millions (or some greater illion) years of evolution. Expecting a cheap imitation to learn to perform a difficult pattern analysis with a short amount if training is either a case of hubris or extreme optimisim. If I had to guess, I would say both. Around us are a vast (albeit dwindling) variety of animals that all have wonderful examples of neural networks. We are lucky in that we have such great models to work from, we should learn from them. I would like to use a neural network model as a starting point for a processor that learns and moves like a living creature. Recent work with hardware based neural networks have performed superbly at voice recognition. The focus on the timing between the neurons, an aspect not accounted for in the simplified model, was a key differentiator. The animal brain is superb at cycles such as the motion of the legs while running. Once the basic cycle is learned, the system will be taught to adjust for rough terrain, different speeds, and quick changes of direction. If the behavior of a single muscle is analyzed, we see it has a pattern of contracting and releasing timed with the activity it is performing. The brain controls all the muscles in parallel, as well as absorbing input from the various senses. This cycle can be seen as a continuously adapting system built out of: 1) a desired process (running), 2) the state of the muscles and other organ systems, 3) a prerecorded expectation of the flow odf the process, 4) and the inputs to the senses. In order for a cycle to progress, some aspect of the output must be fed back in as input. Additionally, a portion of the system must remain aloof and compare the actual end result with the desired end result, using that to tune the behavior of the system. The best result will come from an interdisciplinary approach: the system should be engineered as a mix of software and hardware, traditional engineering techniques and genetic algorithms, using everything learned from biology, especially animal physiology. The latest advancements in materials science will be needed for making motive systems that get maximal energy for minimal weight. Currently, we can program a robot that can walk. I want to develop a robot that can learn to run.

And to run it will take great advances in Operating Systems. An animal receives and processes a vast amount of information from all its senses at the same time. Layers upon layers of transformations turn this information into action. Future events are predicted in space-time with a high degree of accuracy and an even higher degree of fault tolerance. Some of this is reflected in the way that current robotic systems work, but we have much to learn. We need to develop systems where parallelism moves from being a difficult concept to handle to the primary tool of development.

National Security

For years, our distance from other countries provided us with security.  We were an Island Nation.  Once our manifest destiny was completed, there was no significant threat left in our hemisphere, and we were too far from the nations of the old world for them to threaten us.  Even the attack on Pearl Harbor was far away:  Hawaii was not a state, just an island protectorate in the middle of the Pacific.  Since WWII, we have grown more and more used to the concept of global threat.  We were in a staring contest with Russia, half a world away.  The threat of ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads made the end of the world seem plausible, but it was abstract.  Mutually Assured Destruction was the word of the day:  If they try to take us out, they will take themselves out, and they are not going to do that.  We fought proxy wars and ran tank maneuvers at NTC and in Germany.

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