Archive for June 5th, 2007

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From mid-1976 until spring 1982 I worked for Ken Kolence at the Institute for Software Engineering. My main function was to conduct week-long courses at various sites in the U.S.,Canada, the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Over time my specialization was the detecting and correcting of path contention problems in large IBM disk farms. One of the practical problems in this area was IBM’s abominable presentation of slews of data from sources such as SMS, RMS and Component Trace. It was just this sort of thing that inspired Richard Hamming to say, “In the Sciences each generation stands on the shoulders of the generations before. In data processing, we stand on each other’s feet.” (Hamming is my favorite computing curmudgeon. In a review he said something like this: “There is more nonsense here than anything since Bourbaki.” Two birds with one stone!) In later years I wrote a program to make the Component Trace data for TCP/IP more digestible.

I used to tell the following story as a light-hearted illustration of the point that not only is some data not useful it may even be unusable.

One Sunday in the early seventies I was looking at the “pink section” of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. This was the part that covered recreation and entertainment for the following week. It was their practice to put an eye-catching photograph from one of the upcoming television or movie shows on the cover page.  On this particular day the picture was of Gina Lollobrigida in some sort of period costume: big pile of hair, low cut blouse, stomacher, etc. (I have a dim recollection of her being in a spoof of swashbucklers, but can’t seem to find any reference to it.)

As I was looking at this picture my wife, Barbara, went by and said, “That isn’t her real hair.”

Now, we both understood that I wasn’t looking at her hair, so I said nothing in response.

“That’s a wig.”

I had already lost the chance to steer or stop this discussion, so I said nothing again.

“She has the biggest collection of wigs in Hollywood.”

Now I knew a zinger was coming, so I just waited for it.

“That’s because she’s bald!”

Barbara had been reading the tabloids while waiting in line in the supermarket, obviously.


At that time, our across-the-street neighbor was Bill Brown, Berkeley poet, gardener and horticulturalist extraordinaire and a determined two-fisted drinker. He enjoyed some standing in the poetry world having long-standing friendships with Gary Snider, Phil Whelan, Charles Olson, Bob Creeley and so on.

A few days after Barbara enlightened me about Lollobrigida’s hair, Bill stopped over, asking if we had a beer which he wanted as a hair-of-dog remedy for the previous night’s excesses. As luck would have it, we did have one can of beer (we didn’t drink beer ourselves, had it for company as a rule) which I gave to Bill. As he sat on our couch, glumly sipping on the beer, he was facing the picture of Lollobrigida on the coffee table in front of him, although I doubt that it was registering.

Just to break the silence, I said “That isn’t her real hair.”

Bill grunted.

“That’s a wig.”

He grunted a gain.

“She has the biggest collection of wigs in Hollywood.”

Now he groaned.

“That’s because she’s bald!”

He sat there for several seconds, his face twisted by metaphysical anguish, then said “You know, I don’t know what to do with information like that!”


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