Friday, 2 May 2014

09:34 – Last month was our worst month for kit sales in more than a year. I’m not too worried. These things fluctuate, and we’re still running something like 160% of last year’s sales through April.

I’m still filling labeled bottles, and I’ve managed to cut the backlog down to less than 2,000, or roughly 60 kits’ worth. Of course, UPS delivered several thousand bottles yesterday, so Barbara will soon be building up that backlog again.

I decided to re-read all of R. Austin Freeman’s mysteries, which I last read about 50 years ago. Many have compared Freeman to Doyle and Christie, but in my opinion Freeman is better. His protagonist, Doctor John Evelyn Thorndyke, is what today would be called a forensic scientist, a fictional close contemporary of the great Sir Bernard Spilsbury.

But, unlike Doyle and Christie, Freeman wrote from direct experience. Thorndyke’s fictional laboratory is a more-or-less exact representation of Freeman’s actual laboratory. When Thorndyke performs forensic test procedures, he is merely reproducing what Freeman actually did in his own lab as he was writing the story. And Freeman “plays fair” with the reader, assuming that the reader has a great deal of arcane forensics knowledge.

I’d started to explore forensic science in detail by the time I was in sixth grade. Our librarian knew my interests, and one day she handed me a book and said she thought I’d really like it. It was Freeman’s The Red Thumb Mark, the first of his novels published under his own name, and she was right. When I returned it the next week, she asked if I’d figured it out. I told her that I had figured it out very early in the book, and that literally one word had given it all away. As soon as I saw that one word, I knew exactly who had done it and how it had been done.

So I read the rest of Freeman’s novels and short stories as fast as the librarian was able to get them for me. I figured most of them out early, because Freeman always told his readers early everything they needed to know to figure out the mystery (or, with his “inverted mysteries”, everything they needed to know to figure out how to do it). To figure things out often required some serious research. We didn’t have Wikipedia back then, so I often found myself delving deep into technical tomes about alkaloid poisons and so on. And what I found always confirmed that what Freeman wrote about forensic procedures was an accurate reflection of the state of forensic science in the early 20th century.

If you want to give Freeman a try, I recommend that you start with The Red Thumb Mark. It, as well as the rest of Freeman’s Thorndyke novels and short stories, are readily available free or at very low cost in e-book form. Amazon’s Kindle store has many of them free or for $0.99.


47 thoughts on “Friday, 2 May 2014”

  1. Interesting coincidence…

    I just finished watching one of my favourite films, The Mechanic (1972), with Charles Bronson. At the end of the film Jan-Michael Vincent poisons Bronson, but gets his comeuppance when he returns to LA:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mechanic_%281972_film%29

    “His apprenticeship apparently complete, Steve shares a celebratory bottle of wine with Bishop, having coated the latter’s glass with brucine, a colorless and deadly alkaloid.”

    According to the Wikipedia article on brucine it is bitter and not poisonous, although ingesting enough of it will kill you. . Hmmm.

  2. The dose makes the poison.

    Freeman frequently used alkaloids in his stories, including aconitine. That is easily obtained from the monkshood plant, and kills at such tiny dosages that it was essentially undetectable in Freeman’s time. Even today, using instrumental analysis, aconitine is very easy to miss unless you are specifically looking for it. And even then it may be present only at nanogram/L or even picogram/L levels in body fluids, so finding it is not a slam-dunk.

  3. Yeah, our April sales sucked wind also. The USA economy has definitely dropped a gear. The Great State of Texas is still blowing and going but that may be the only bright spot in the nation. Either the rest of the country will speed up or we will slow down also. Basically, I think that the feddies are sitting on everything and trying to regulate all facets of life.

    Saw this a couple of days ago on Drudge and was very surprised. Then I suddenly realized that I know a 52 year woman who moved back in with her parents last year. And two of her boys. I cannot imagine moving back in with my middle 70s parents, it would be torture. “Moving in with parents becomes more common for the middle-aged”:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2014/apr/20/business/la-fi-adults-in-parents-home-20140421

  4. Wow. The elderly parents of the two families they chose seem like pretty nasty people. One of them goes to bed at 7:00 p.m. and demands that her middle-age daughter do the same. The other wouldn’t let her daughter’s husband come into the house, even just to use the bathroom.

    I can’t imagine either Barbara’s parents or mine behaving that way. They’d have made room for us one way or another and never said a word about it. And vice-versa. When Barbara was getting ready to move her parents from their house to Creekside, I told her that I had no objection if she wanted to move them in to the grandma apartment we’d built downstairs for my mother. When Dutch died, I told Barbara she was welcom to move her mom in there. Both times, Barbara refused, but if Dutch and Sankie’s financial situation had been different, I’m sure she would have accepted.

    It used to be common for three or even four generations to share a house. I’m not sure why that’s become the exception, other than the more mobile workforce now versus then.

  5. Yeah, I’d buy that the actual unemployment rate calculated on reasonable terms is around 25%. Actually, I’d have guessed more like 30% on their terms.

    And it’s actually much, much higher, because it counts government employees as being employed. If one calculated their actual net contribution to the economy in terms of producing useful goods and services (where “useful” = something that people would actually pay for voluntarily if given the choice), probably two thirds of them would count as unemployed.

  6. It used to be common for three or even four generations to share a house. I’m not sure why that’s become the exception, other than the more mobile workforce now versus then.

    It is because the USA is an extremely wealthy nation. So wealthy that many in the middle class have a second home somewhere in the woods. Or a timeshare or two or five (my FIL has five timeshares that I have no idea what to do with).

    That wealth is declining now as we become a nanny state. You’ve got to pay off the feddies, the staties and the locals now to get anything done. And if they do not like what are doing with your property, they steal it.
    http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/will050114.php3#.U2PQ1CghujY
    and
    http://www.breitbart.com/Breitbart-Texas/2014/04/25/Ted-Cruz-Challenges-BLM-on-Texas-Land-Grab

  7. It is because the USA is an extremely wealthy nation. So wealthy that many in the middle class have a second home somewhere in the woods. Or a timeshare or two or five (my FIL has five timeshares that I have no idea what to do with).

    Timeshares? Sell them on EBay for a dollar to someone who will take over the monthly fee for upkeep… Or get the company to take them back? (Good luck with the second one!)

  8. Vermont is touted locally as having among the lowest, if not *the* lowest, unemployment in the country, and the figure they’ve bruited about recently is well under 3%. I know full well that’s bullshit. IBM laid off hundreds here last year, all the contractors first and then they cut into the permanent force, people I worked with who had fifteen, twenty years there. Now they’ve got their semiconductor manufacturing operations up for sale, here, and down in the Vampire State around Fishkill and Poughkeepsie. If they blow outta here completely with nothing to replace that, there will be another 5k outta work and many millions lost in the state’s economy. Which will also devastate the already shitty economy in upstate NY, parts of which look a lot like Appalachia during the Great Depression.

    And I haven’t heard jack from the people who were supposed to contact me last week or this week about the two positions I applied for that have been posted repeatedly all over hell at job sites and in the multiple job-hunting emails I get for months now.

    Can’t move back in with our parents ’cause the dads are gone and the moms not fah behind. As it was, I got back from Uncle’s plantations in early ’75 and moved back home temporarily until I got a job (with official 15% unemployment in MA at the time) and an apartment. A few months later the whole family, except me, moved to Illinois, where they stayed for three years. I haven’t lived at home since, and basically left when I was seventeen. Now we see guys well into their 30s and 40s living at home with mom and dad. I would have gone nuts.

    Another sunny day with blue skies here, but still a few degrees cooler than normal.

  9. And I haven’t heard jack from the people who were supposed to contact me last week or this week about the two positions I applied for that have been posted repeatedly all over hell at job sites and in the multiple job-hunting emails I get for months now.

    Well, that sucks. Do you suppose that they are advertising jobs that are filled with H1-Bs that want to convert to green cards?

    Now we see guys well into their 30s and 40s living at home with mom and dad. I would have gone nuts.

    No joke. I love my Dad but after three days, he and I start to butt heads.

  10. I really have no idea WTF is going on with those particular positions right now; initially, the recruiter for one of them was all hot and enthusiastic about me going back there and it was urgent, etc., etc. and now I have to bug them every week to ask about any possible activity or continued interest. I’m guessing they probably got a few hundred resumes for the two slots but they were pretty nearly exactly what I was doing there before and I had two years there and know where all the stuff is and the players. And how to do all the damn paperwork, too.

    We knew when we got dumped last year that the gigs were going offshore, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how they covered four data centers that were taken care of by the four of us as a team, with many hundreds of RHEL servers up here and in NY, and at least 75% of the job was hands-on and hardware-related. Stuff you can’t possibly offshore. Who’s been doing all that for the past year? PHB manglers? Ancient fossils who should have retired years ago? Temp cowboys from an agency? No ideer.

    My dad and I butted heads for years while I was growing up; I was the oldest and got the brunt of the attention and discipline. I was going to demonstrations and rock concerts and growing my hair long, etc, and he was a Goldwater-Nixon conservative. Now I’m way off to the right of all that stuff, all these decades later. And it was rotten to see him get hit with early-onset Alzheimer’s and deteriorate in his late 50s and 60s from a big strong smart guy into a feeble wreck who might know who I was for about a second or two occasionally and you could see the light of recognition there, and then it was gone. So he knew what was going on in extremely brief interludes. WWII vet who signed up at seventeen in ’45, and did the Coastie trip in the north Atlantic against der unterseebooten. Mrs. OFD’s dad, who died when she was a baby, was in a similar gig out with the Navy in San Diego against Tojo and Hirohito. And my maternal grandpa was in North Africa for three years, at age 39 with five kids at home, against the Desert Fox. Paternal grandpa was in the wonderful Great War, fighting the Kaiser, nearly a century ago.

    Tempus fugit.

  11. RBT, thanks for the mystery recommendation. In theory I like mysteries. In practice, most authors hide essential information, commit some other major ass-pull, or simply are poor writers.

    Regarding considering government “workers” as workers, you’re understating the case. Not only do at least 2/3 of them contribute nothing to the economy, many of them have a negative effect.

    OFD, good luck. Don’t know what to tell you, other than to suggest you start some biz you can do from home. Freelance editing, course development for online universities, something.

  12. So, the DOJ has now decided to attack legal industries that they don’t like. Since they can’t ban payday lenders, they lean on banks to close their accounts. The bank is informed that the customer is “high risk” of being involved in illegal activities and that the DOJ will need to keep a close eye on them, i.e. expect to get a lot of expensive to comply with inquiries and subpoenas. Credit card companies are getting the same treatment. Called “Operation Choke Point” it seems to be the bastard child of DOJ efforts to grab financial assets of terrorists and the successful effort they made to get banks to close account for marijuana dealers in Colorado. (My brother knows a guy that did architecture design work for a dealer in Denver. Got paid in cash, as the owner didn’t have a bank account.)

    Now, they’ve stepped it up a notch, going after other businesses such as dating services, ammo sales (!), head shops, etc. They even have gone after the personal accounts of porn stars.

    See: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140430/12191027079/chase-bank-slutshaming-might-only-be-them-dancing-to-dojs-twisted-puppet-strings.shtml
    and: http://legalinsurrection.com/2014/05/dojs-operation-choke-point-strips-porn-stars-of-bank-accounts/

    I guess that anyone selling guns will be next.

  13. The editing, writing, etc. biz doesn’t pay shit, likewise teaching, etc. I’d be better off financially going on disability or collecting UI bennies or running a one-pot meth lab.

    I’ve done the teaching gigs, worked at a magazine, a bookstore, a library, etc. Lousy pay not worth the gas it takes to get to them.

    I like working with firearms but to become a decent gunsmith requires years of both training and probably some kind of apprenticeship, preferably, which at my age is not really feasible. And there isn’t much of a market or demand out there; real gun fans do their own work and customizing, mostly, and the rich idiots who can afford it simply buy new ones when something breaks.

    The idea was to keep doing hands-on IT work that couldn’t be outsourced/offshored and by jiminy the buggers somehow found a way to do that anyway. Run a local computer repair and customizing operation? Not enough of a market there, either; people tend to fix their own stuff now, and quite a few are really adept, judging by the online queries and blogs.

    I dunno, either; if I could get at least somewhere between $15 and $50 an hour tutoring and have regular work I wouldn’t mind doing that; I have an ABD PhD in English, and a couple of other languages with reading ability. I’ve looked into it briefly but again it’s a tough market to crack, even doing it online.

    Something better break our way soon, though.

  14. Re: ech’s post: the government is starved for cash and with the economy tanking and trillions in debt with more to come, they’re now going after the nickels and dimes everywhere and however they have to scrounge for them. Taxes, seizing accounts, endless fees for everything, whatever it takes, by hook or by crook.

    We’re starting to see here what the regimes have been doing in Greece, Cyprus and Argentina.

  15. Well, if editing and writing don’t pay well enough, what about selling organs? With all the whinging I read about critical shortage this and high demand that, it seems you ought to be able to make good money selling kidneys and livers and bone marrow. Oh, not yours. You’re old and geezerly, and probably no one wants your retinas. But there are surely lots of stupid people who currently serve no higher purpose than turning food into shit, and who could find a new, higher purpose in assisting those with a higher purpose to live their lives more fully. Do it, OFD. Break down a punk for the good of society.

  16. The editing, writing, etc. biz doesn’t pay shit

    True, but writing original term papers (master’s theses, Ph.D. dissertations, etc.) does, and you have enough knowledge of various topics to do a good job. You write original papers and sell them as “research material” to students with more money than brains. It’s completely legal, and typical rates for original work start at $50/page and go up quickly for more difficult topics, graduate-level papers, etc.

    You can even spend your downtime writing material for inventory. You’ll need to do some research initially, but I’m sure you could quickly refamiliarize yourself with cite styles, etc. Normally, the student will be able to supply a document that lists any special requirements. I understand that one of the tricks is to find out who the students’ professors are and cite them liberally in the result.

  17. Oh most def no one wants my retinas; they’ve been effed since I was nine, when I started having to wear glasses. Mrs. OFD’s are even worse, legally blind. So what’s her vocation you may ask? She’s an artist and jeweler in her off-time. Pretty funny, and has a great eye for stuff.

    Breaking down punks for society; hmmmm….lotta hassle; better off becoming a hit man, I think, and more fun. Plus I got free training from Uncle.

    Oh, and that business earlier about me not hearing jack from anyone about those two jobs, or another couple of jobs I’ve been up for? You can forget about hearing diddly on Fridays anymore; no one fucking works, evidently. It appears that many who still have jobs do even less now. Why should they? The half that works supports the half that doesn’t, sort of. Also, summers are a time when no one works anymore, either. You can’t prove it by me that they do.

    Clouding up a little here now, maybe some more rain, gee, we’re parched here.

  18. Hmmm…xposted wid Bob; that term paper ideer sounds interesting. Hell, I was paying for the privilege of writing stuff before, maybe someone can pay me now. And I can research like a maniac. Cite styles not a problem and finding who the profs are likewise. Damn, I am looking into this!

    I even know all the goddamned theoretical lingo they spout. Hate using it, but hey, at $50 a page, what the hell.

  19. Here is just about the wildest thing going on in Houston. Exxon is building a new “campus” of four million square feet for their 10,000 employees in the Houston area on the north side of town. The entire area is 300+ acres of land.
    http://www.chron.com/neighborhood/woodlands/news/article/Reverse-commuting-could-be-on-the-cards-as-5446024.php

    Every single one of those buildings is brand new. Driving past there for the last couple of years looks strange because of the forest of building cranes.

  20. A “page”, incidentally, is Courier 10 with 1″ margins all around.

  21. Damn, I am looking into this!

    Did I mention that you’ll owe me a 1% commission on your gross?

  22. One-inch margins, eh? Works for me. And double-spaced should be about 250 words. And yeah, you can have the 1% gross, too. Just remind me once the money starts rolling in here.

  23. @OFD: Go ahead, why not? If the students are lazy enough and the prof’s are stupid enough…

    I have a big programming project my students have to do in their fourth semester. After finding the assignment posted on jobbing sites a couple of years ago, we added a little something: We have a 5-minute oral exam, asking the students to explain selected bits of their code. We only bother grading the assignment if they pass this little oral exam…

  24. Incidentally, the $50/page is entry level for simple papers at the undergrad level. For more difficult topics at grad school level, the price goes up rapidly. For a master’s thesis or Ph.D. dissertation, the sky’s the limit. Also, the price inversely correlates with deadline. Someone who buys a paper at the start of a semester pays much, much less than someone who buys it on a one-week deadline.

    I could see OFD doing papers on various humanities topics, from English Literature to European History, at all levels from undergrad to Ph.D. Clearing $50,000+ the first year and $100,000/year thereafter should be easily doable. (More if he contracts out writing papers to grad students, unemployed post-docs, and so on, of whom there are plenty.) All he’d need would be good domain name (OFD, I’ll be happy to host it on my Dreamhost account at no charge), a PayPal account, and some examples.

    Incidentally, he needn’t worry about the buyers demanding a refund from PayPay. He has the student name, institution, and professor in question. The last thing a student who’s bought a paper wants is to make waves.

  25. Incidentally, there’s probably also good money to be made editing papers written by students who actually know the material but aren’t native English speakers. You can give them the option of a light editing pass that preserves the flavor of their English while correcting actual errors, or a full editing pass that converts their prose to something that could have been written by someone fully literate in colloquial English.

  26. I can remember, as a freshman in college, submitting a paper twice as a test. One of my good friends was convinced that Professor J had simply decided that Student K was going to get a C, no matter what. Since English 1001 was taught from a common syllabus, I simply typed two copies of one of the assignments and we turned it in. Sure enough, I got an A and my friend got a C. After that he more or less stopped bothering to put any effort into his work. We semi-seriously considered submitting the two papers to the department head, and the student newspapers. In the end we decided to let sleeping dogs lie. If you were a native English speaker, and were smart enough to have been admitted to Tech, freshman English was just busy work.

  27. Son#1 had surly, boy-hating, tenured teachers for English every year in high school. Halfway through 9th grade it became obvious that boys were getting lower grades than girls. I suggested the dual-submission experiment and my son and one of the girls did it. And he got, IIRC, an 87 and she got a 95.

    No, I didn’t file a complaint. At his request I did not bring this up to the teacher or the department head, because tales of vindictive grading had made it around the students. But the boys pretty well stopped giving a damn.

  28. Ah, but OFD could address that by including plenty of the PC claptrap that humanities professors expect to see.

  29. That sucks rocks about the discriminatory grading that some profs and teachers do; esp. when the hateful PC harridans inflict it on boys. It wasn’t as prevalent when I was coming up through the skool systems, but I got a glimpse of it in one of my undergrad English classes; the old lesbian witch teaching one of the sections of English poetry didn’t want me there and made it very clear and kicked me out. To my advantage, as it turned out, because I was moved to another section taught by a true scholar (Modernism and the Modernist poets, i.e., esp.Eliot and Pound) who showed me how to read poetry for the first time in my life, at age 27.

    I’m looking into the term paper capers; one of the beauties of it, in addition to stuff already pointed out, as that it can be done internationally. And no more commutes. (other than to an occasional library or archive, from which I am but, at most, several hours’ drive and would be a nice trip for me anyway).

    Incidentally, that English prof bitch who kicked me out? A decade later I was back there for grad school and one of the other grad students was making a few extra bucks helping to clean out and organize the Department’s files and rubbish in the attic. He discovered that the bitch had been using the exact same syllabus, not one measly change to reflect anything, for several decades. She basically ginned up a template and then phoned it in all those years and had a nice tenured slot until she finally retired. I don’t think there’s any academic field, even in the STEM areas, where you can do that sort of thing and still call yourself a scholar.

  30. Had an applied mathematics lecturer like that. He re-used course notes, assignments, exam papers. He was a Pakistani gentleman at the University of Adelaide and the year I took one of his classes I wrote a review of his class for the “Counter Calendar” – an unofficial and sometimes quite nasty alternate review of courses and teachers. Several other people also wrote reviews of him and his class, much nastier than mine, and as he knew I was involved he assumed I’d written one of the nastier ones. (“I’m not racist, but…”). He grilled me for a while while I was busy doing other stuff and wanted to get away. He wouldn’t seem to accept my assurance that I hadn’t written the offensive review. Sigh.

  31. You have students you like and students you don’t – for good reasons or bad, it doesn’t matter. It’s a natural human tendency to give students you like the better grades. For this reason I always grade exam papers without knowing which exam it is, and I periodically mix up the papers so they aren’t always coming up in the same order.

    I had the boy-hater in first grade: boys were to keep their mouths shut, and let the girls answer the questions. Mostly I know this because my mother explained it to me years later. One time I apparently forgot myself – I have no memory of what triggered it, but I do remember her “losing it”, picking me up by one arm and swinging me around the classroom. It apparently wasn’t actually terribly traumatic, at least, I have no emotions associated with the memory, just the picture.

    One wonders what kind of person becomes a teacher when they don’t like half the kids in the world.

  32. One wonders what kind of person becomes a teacher when they don’t like half the kids in the world.

    If they go into it hating half the people in the world, then, as Lynn said, it’s probably because they’re sadists.

    Many women don’t like the way typical boys act. Thus the steadily increasing drive to make boys act like girls, by drugging them if necessary. Possibly the young women going into teaching didn’t quite realize what boys are like until it was too late to change course (at least not without having to take less pay than they think they deserve).

    Or the young teacher or teacher-in-training simply isn’t qualified for any job which pays much more than minimum wage. There’s a reason the school of education earned its reputation for taking the dregs. (Though I believe that the school of business has taken that coveted spot, what with the dramatic increase in number of students going to college.)

  33. The educationists worked in league with statist bureaucracies to gin up guild-like requirements and mandatory courses in colleges, most of which were/are patently useless. Upon successful pencil-whipped graduation, they’re admitted to the guild and the union, like it or not, and now most of their time is often devoted to about half ESL and half remedial teaching and nearly all of it sucked up by paperwork and trying to maintain a basic level of order in their classrooms. Then they get all the holidays off, the summers off, and lots and lots of “in-service” training, for a week at a time. Nice racket. (and yes, of course I know there are heroic gems out there doing the Lord’s work, etc., etc., just like in any field, probably about ten percent.)

    Biz skools? Yeah. I saw how that worked when they rolled in with their red power ties and their women-on-business carrying lawyer-like attache cases and banging down the hallways in their high heels. At the tech companies down in MA like DEC, Prime, Data General, Polaroid, etc. They didn’t know squat about the technologies and the engineering, but played off their biz undergrad degrees and MBAs to run those companies into the ground. They first cut the engineers out of the loop entirely and then began making product and marketing decisions based on their bean-counting data, and driving out innovation and creativity wherever they could find it.

    No offense to any current MBA holders here.

  34. And bearing in mind if you’d been one of the suits toting yer MBA and briefcase at any of those tech places, you would have set them straight and those companies would likely still be around today. Where the hell were ya???

  35. Oh, there are lots of us around who considered the MBA a supplemental degree, intended to add basic business/accounting knowledge to our actual skill sets. The problem is the people who consider “business” an actual skill set. They major in business undergrad and then go on to get an MBA. They come out knowing everything about “business” and understanding nothing about the real world.

    My MBA is from the Wake Forest University Babcock Graduate School of Management Executive Program. Being admitted required significant previous business experience. My class included a broad selection of previous experience, including one or two physicians, an airline pilot, military officer, general managers, systems analysts, scientists, engineers, etc.

    To begin the first class, the professor announced that he was going to illustrate the difference between this executive group and the kids who’d gone straight from an undergrad business degree into the MBA program. He stated a short case about a company trying to get its spending under control. They implemented a policy that required all purchase orders over $20,000 to be signed off on by a vice president. Six months later, there’d been no such POs submitted for approval and yet spending was just as high as ever. What happened?

    He had us write our proposed explanations on slips of paper and pass them down to him at the front. When he’d collected all of the responses, he unfolded the first and read “Split POs”. He opened and read a dozen or two more, all of which read “Split POs”.

    That, he said, was the difference between MBA exec students and MBA students without any real-world experience. Everyone one of us knew exactly what had happened without even having to think about it. Not one of the regular students figured it out.

  36. Split POs

    Heh. We see that in action all the time. Many schools won’t pay us over $3,000 per day for consulting. But they’ll pay us a full $20 a pop for our book and buy 500 of them. That’s how much money and stupidity is in K-12.

  37. I do consulting now and again, for a wide range of companies. For me, there is a huge difference when a company reaches a size that it starts hiring “pure business” types. As soon as the spreadsheet-wielding MBAs show up, the whole flavor of the place changes.

    Suddenly, the purpose of the business is no longer making widgets. It’s purpose is to make money – it just happens to do it by making widgets, but that could change any time (and often does). That’s not to say that small businesses don’t want to make money – of course they do. But the company is focused on it’s core business, and using that to make a living. With the suits, there isn’t really a core business any more, there’s just the current state of affairs, which could change with pretty much no notice.

    To take a current example where you can really see this: Google. Google was once a search company. Search is still part of the business model, but so are a zillion other things – the ones that make money are kept, the others discarded. If search ever ceases to be a money-maker, it will be phased out like any other product.

  38. We have a 5-minute oral exam, asking the students to explain selected bits of their code.

    I got called in to explain some code twice in my intro programming class. The first was to explain some APL code. IIRC (it’s been 40 years), the APL code involved some complicated matrix manipulations that were not what they expecting.

    The second discussion was to explain a program in PL/c (a subset of PL/I) that dealt and printed bridge hands like you see in bridge articles in the paper. The traditional way to do that was to “shuffle” a deck of cards, deal them to the players, sort by rank and suit, then print – a computer implementation of the physical process. I realized that you could do this in a much easier fashion.

    Keep the “deck” in sorted order in an array*. Simply randomly assign each card to a player. When a player gets their 13th card, drop them from consideration for a new card. The deck is kept sorted, so all you do is make a pass through for each player and suit. The instructor and his TAs had never seen this approach, and it frustrated one of their goals which was to have us implement a sort algorithm. I pointed out that proper data structures were key to any program, I just did a better job of designing them. I got an A in the class.

    * Most people had each player have an array of the cards dealt to them, one at a time, just like you would with a physical deck. I had a two dimensional array, 4×13, with one index for suit, one for card value, and the data being the player that the card was assigned to. I had to bookkeep who could get cards and modify the random selection on the fly, but that was easy.

  39. BTW, I’m getting the itch to code again. The last programming, aside from Excel and Word macro, I did was to lead the C++ implementation of a procedural reasoning system for reactive planning for autonomous agents I did about 18 years ago. The system was originally done in LISP, but all we had was the “language manual” and not the code.

    Anyway, what would be a cheap, preferably free, way to get back in the swing of things? I’m not a language bigot, but it needs to be for Windows. I’ve programmed in APL, PL/c, PL/I, COBOL, FORTRAN II and IV, RPG II, MUMPS, C, C++, several assemblers, LISP of various kinds, KEE, and PROLOG.

  40. Which reminds me of Terri Mistarz, the girlfriend and later wife of my best friend in college. I was a serious bridge player back then, and when I wasn’t playing duplicate, I played contract with my friends. Terri sat in occasionally.

    I have never before or since seen anyone deal bridge hands the way Terri did. Rather than deal a card sequentially to each player until each had 13 cards, Terri dealt apparently at random to the four players. I watched her carefully, and I never could detect any pattern at all. It wasn’t even grouped with random recipients for each round of four cards. A player might get two cards in one round of four, one card, or none. And she never misdealt.

  41. ech, I suggest one or more of:

    – Web-facing programming. Free, easy to get into, can get as complicated as you like, and there’s lots of source code available on the web. Most of the available source is mediocre at best, but you can learn just as well from that if you have the basics.

    – Find an open source project implemented in your language of choice.

    – Set yourself to implementing some utility that you want, in your language of choice. It doesn’t have to be anything big. A GUI on a script to back up your data is as good as any.

  42. Anyway, what would be a cheap, preferably free, way to get back in the swing of things? I’m not a language bigot, but it needs to be for Windows. I’ve programmed in APL, PL/c, PL/I, COBOL, FORTRAN II and IV, RPG II, MUMPS, C, C++, several assemblers, LISP of various kinds, KEE, and PROLOG.

    http://www.openwatcom.org for a freeware Windows compiler / linker with C, C++ and F77 compilers. Open Watcom is OK, not great. It is fairly behind the times though.

    You can get a express version of the Microsoft 2013 C++ compiler at:
    http://www.visualstudio.com/en-us/downloads

    We use Visual Studio 2005 for our C++ so I am not sure what they have not changed. Probably about as different as XP to Windows 8 is.

  43. @ech: I think the most important thing is to have a goal that you find attractive. What would you like to create? A web-service? A useful or fun program? Set your goal, then choose your tools appropriately.

    You will have no trouble finding free tools for what you want – even all of the Microsoft stuff is basically free for hobbyists.

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