Sunday, February 3, 2013

Fetching the Milk

Chris grabbed the waiting empty milk can and called his dog, Jack.  “Come on, Jack!  We’re going to fetch the milk!”

Fetching the milk was Chris’s morning job.  On school days, he’d grab his bike and zip over to the farm, just half a mile away, along the country road that ran past his home.  He’d be there and back in ten minutes; then he’d be off to school.  But on weekends, and, like now, during the summer, he much preferred the forest path, a shortcut that began with a trail across the fields.  There was no biking there, but Chris loved the forest and quite liked walking, too.  And now it was another summer morning; his breakfast was done with, and the weather was superb.

“OK,” Jack said, got up, and stretched.  Jack liked to get his body properly tuned up for the walk.

“What were you dreaming of?” Chris asked.  “I saw your paws twitching and heard you sort of barking, or whimpering, or something.”

“I was chasing something, maybe a cat,” Jack replied.  “Dog stuff.  Yeah, a cat.  Can’t help it; cats are so much fun to chase.”

They were halfway across the fields, approaching the edge of the small patch of forest that lay between Chris’s family’s smallhold and the farm belonging to farmer Joe.  Joe was some kind of cousin, although his kids were the same age as Chris.  All very complicated.  But it was nice to get fresh, warm, whole milk every morning.  Chris’s mother would pour the milk into a large bowl that she’d cover and put in the cooler; the next morning, she’d skim off the cream and begin using the milk.  Pancakes or French toast with strawberry jam and whipped cream…  Chris’s mouth watered at the thought.

“Why don’t you ever talk to Mom or Dad or Frank or Nellie, Jack?” Chris asked the dog.  “They seriously think I’m crazy when I tell them you talk to me.  It isn’t that hard to believe that a dog can understand his folks, but they just can’t get it through their heads that you can talk, too.”

Jack jumped across the last ditch before the forest began and stopped to smell the ground on the other side.  “There’s a problem there,” he said, absent-mindedly.  “Sort of a Catch-22.  They don’t believe, so they can’t hear me talk.  If they could, maybe they’d believe.  But it never works in that order.  You have to believe first.”

“It’s so simple for me,” Chris commented.  “I just started talking with you when you were a puppy, and I never thought we’d have a communication problem.  So we haven’t had one.  Well, who cares, it’s their loss.”

Jack had his nose to the ground and was leading the way.  Chris followed without paying much attention to where they were going; the walk was very much a routine.  Chris was always more interested in the animals and the plants they passed than in the path itself.  But eventually, he became aware of having walked much further than usual and took a look around.  He didn’t recognize the place at all.

“Where are we, Jack?”

Jack reluctantly stopped and looked up.  “In the big forest.  Nice place, isn’t it?”

“Sure, but I’m lost.  What kind of scent are you following, anyway?”

“Oh, it’s just a rabbit.  Kind of old; I guess he went this way last night.  But I like knowing that I can track them even as the smell fades away.”

Chris was getting worried.  “That won’t do you any good!  You’ll never find him after such a long time.  What do you want with a rabbit, anyway?”

“Well, once I caught a jackrabbit, remember?  I brought it home after I had gutted it, and Mom cooked it for dinner.  Useful, don’t you think?”

“OK, but you won’t catch this one.  And I don’t like it here; I’m not even supposed to be here.  People get lost here.  I’d hate to come across a skeleton!”

Jack determined to get the most out of Chris’s state of mind.  “Not to worry; we’re not lost.  See this nose?  Dogs don’t get lost.  And you won’t see any skeletons.  They always find the bodies and bring them home.  They take their dogs along when they go looking for lost people, you know.  No skeletons; I guarantee that!”

“But what about trolls, then?  Frank says there are trolls in the big forest.  They could be dangerous, you know!”

Jack laughed in the funny way dogs laugh.  You could see the sides of his mouth pulling back, baring his big, white side teeth.  He panted and his tongue was hanging out a bit.  “Frank was just trying to scare you into staying out of here.  There are no trolls!  And even if there were trolls, they wouldn’t come out in daylight.  So there.”

“And what do you call that, then?” Chris asked with a slightly trembling voice, pointing at two bulging eyes set in a dark, hairy face, looking at him through some bushes by the path.

Before Jack could answer, the owner of the eyes took a step toward Chris.  A very long step.  A pair of huge antlers flanked a long, ugly face.  A snort emerged from the big nostrils as the animal shook his head.

“A moose!” Jack yelled.  “Don’t move!”

Jack tore away and placed himself behind the beast.  He barked furiously and snapped at the moose’s hind legs and knees, making sure that he was never directly behind the animal, where just one kick could easily have sent him off into orbit all the way to dog heaven.  The bull soon got annoyed and turned around, forgetting about Chris.

“Run!” Jack shouted.  Chris took off along the path.  Soon he got back to the familiar trail to Joe's farm, where he had never seen any big animals, and slowed down.  By the time he came to the milk room by the barn, Jack caught up with him, routinely smelling the ground.

“I told you there are no trolls in that forest!” he mumbled between sniffs.

“Thanks, Jack!  I’ll keep that in mind,” Chris said.  He left the empty can there and took the full one along; then they set out for home.

“How come you know so much, Jack?”

Jack casually lifted a leg against a tree.  “Well, first of all, I’m a lot older than you, so I ought to know stuff.”

“What do you mean, older?  You’re 3; I’m 12.”

Jack had a lot of patience when he really needed it.  “3 dog years are 25 human years.  I’m twice your age.  When I was your age, a couple of years ago, I chewed up Mom’s slipper and got quite a talking to.  That sort of thing gets left behind as you grow up, you know.  Maybe I should be putting the leash on you when we go on the road and not the other way around?”

“That would be after you give up chasing cats and following cold rabbit trails,” Chris laughed.  “But you do seem always to have an answer to my questions.”

Jack had expected such an answer.  “Anyway, maybe I know stuff because I lie around the living room all the time.  You all think I’m sleeping, but a dog’s got to guard his home, so I always have one ear open and an eye ajar.  That way I get to overhear a lot of grown-up talk between Dad, Mom, and Frank.”

“Frank’s no grown-up!”

“He’s 16, and as far as you’re concerned, that’s practically grown-up.  Sometimes I even listen to the radio, when it’s on.  You can learn things that way, too.”

“Oh yes, I like the radio, too,” Chris enthused.  “Especially the music—Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and all those guys!”

“Hmph.  If I want music, I make my own.  I mean the news and the talk shows; they can be quite interesting.  Recently, they had a program about dogs, and it actually made a lot of sense.  But lately, there’s been so much talk about war, and it gets boring.  I don’t even know what a war is.  They keep saying it’s in Korea, but wherever that is, it can’t be around here.  Maybe it’s in town.  Mom and Dad seem to worry that Frank may have to go there.”

“Korea is a lot further away than town.”

Jack didn’t like that at all.  “If it’s that far away, he won’t be able to come home for lunch, and he’ll have to eat some slop made by strangers.  That wouldn’t be good for him.”

“Sorry, Jack, but if Frank had to go to Korea, he wouldn’t be coming home at all for quite a while.  It’s that far away.”

“I’m telling you, it’s a bad business, this war thing.”  Jack snapped at a big black fly.  “Somebody ought to put an end to it.”

It had got stifling hot, although the sun had gone behind a cloud.  Just as they came to the last ditch on the border of their own land, at the spot where Chris had built himself a small hut to play in, the sky opened up.

“Into the hut,” Chris shouted.  “We can wait out the shower there.”

The hut was no more than five feet square, made from the trunks of young trees that had been cleared away from the ditches.  Chris had nailed the sticks to the corner posts and left a door opening; the door hadn’t yet been made.  Frank had helped him lay the roof, made of scrap wood found in the outbuildings.  The hut provided some shelter, although by no means perfect.

“Where’s Chris?” Mom asked herself in the kitchen.  She looked out the window but saw nobody in the fields.  And then she saw lightning strike Chris’s hut.  A wisp of steam rose from the wet wood, but there was no fire.

“Oh, I hope he isn’t in there!” Mom exclaimed.

Chris had slumped over on the bench where he had been sitting.  Jack was licking his face, but Chris didn’t move.  Jack realized that Chris wasn’t even breathing.

“Uh-oh,” Jack thought.  “I’ll need some help here.”

He tore into the kitchen, barking wildly.  “Chris is hurt!  Come quickly!”

“Frank!” Mom yelled at the top of her lungs.

Frank, already alerted by the barking, came down the stairs so fast that it sounded as if he were sliding down on his heels.

“Chris is hurt!” Mom cried.  “Hurry to the hut!”

When they got there, Jack was already there, licking Chris’s face.

Frank checked Chris’s pulse on the side of his neck and said, “No pulse.”  He laid Chris down on the bench and started giving him CPR.  Frank’s summer internship that year was with the fire department, and he had just completed his First Aid course.

Jack switched to licking the carotid artery where Frank had felt for the pulse.  “No use resuscitating a brain-dead boy,” he thought.  “This will force some blood to his head, I hope.”

“Go call the ambulance, Mom!” Frank said.  “I’ll keep this up until they come.”

Mom ran back to the house and turned the crank long and hard.  When the operator answered, she had to control her voice.  “Nancy, we need the ambulance fast!  Chris has been hit by lightning.”

“They’re free at the moment, and they’ll be right there.  Meanwhile, do all you can for him.”

Nellie had come down, still in her nightie, and clung to her mother, tears in her eyes.  “Is Chris going to die, Mom?” she asked.

“No, he’ll be fine,” Mom forced herself to answer.  “Frank is trying to revive him.  We’ll have to wait here.  When the ambulance comes, we’ll go down with them.”

The ambulance took less than ten minutes; town was just a couple of miles away.  By bike, you got to school in ten to fifteen minutes, depending on whether you were late or not.  Mom led the way down to the hut.

Chris was sitting up, looking dazed but otherwise normal.  Mom couldn’t stop hugging and kissing him, and Nellie got up in his lap for a while.

“Good work, Frank!” said Frank’s elder colleague, the ambulance driver.  “You’ll get full marks for your internship for this.  Our work doesn’t get any better than that, it’s that simple.  Chris’s vital signs are fine, but we’ll take him to the hospital for observation for the day.  His dad can bring him home after work.  Onto the stretcher you go, boy!  You come along, Frank.  You can go straight to work when we return to the F.D.”

In the kitchen, Mom and Nellie sat down properly to thank Jack.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Jack!” Mom sobbed.  “Chris would have died if you hadn’t come to tell me he was hurt.”

“That’s OK, Mom,” Jack answered modestly.  “I love that boy as much as you do.  But do cheer up and look at the bright side:  Chris will be fine, and you now understand me when I talk!  That’s worth something, isn’t it?”

“And so do I,” Nellie said happily, and planted a big, wet kiss on the dog’s soft, brown muzzle.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Do Gremlins Exist? They Do, And I Could Have Proven It

Long ago, before I graduated from Helsinki University of Technology, I took a job as a field engineer for one of those early computer installations where a computer with the processing power of a modern wristwatch filled up an entire floor of an office building, cost a million 1960s dollars, and had to be run in three shifts around the clock to recover its costs. We field engineers also worked in shifts. It gave me a lot of free time to work on my thesis; on the other hand, when the computer broke down, rapid action was of the essence: every minute of downtime cost the client a fortune.

Finding the fault was not a problem if it was a permanent one. The training we had been given and the tools we had been issued were up to the task. But most of the faults weren't permanent, they were intermittent. And this is where the gremlins come into the picture.

An intermittent fault is normally the result of a component beginning to break or a faulty connection like a cold solder joint or a loose connector. For some time, before becoming permanent, such a fault will come and go, perhaps depending on temperature, electrical load, or vibrations. There in the computer room, however, the coming and going had a pattern to it.

Faults would crop up and crash the computer, and the operators would alert the field engineer. During night shifts, we slept on an inflatable mattress in our little office room and got used to being awake and in action without delay. But when one of us would report to the computer console to observe the fault, all would be well, and would remain that way until the engineer left again. This was a discernible pattern, agreed to by both operators and engineers. Come on: you know that your TV and your computer work the same way: when your grandkid turns up to fix it, it stays on its best behavior.

At the time, we laughed at it, changed some part that was likely to be causing the problem, and went back to the office with the suspect part, there to look for the fault. Usually this approach worked and life went on.

But just think what would have happened if I, at the tender age of 24, with my whole career ahead of me, had had the sense to marshal all the operators and both of my field engineering colleagues to keep a record of these nuisance calls! I'd have had undeniable statistical proof from over a year of working at that computer center, to the effect that the mere presence of somebody with the skills to fix the problem keeps an intermittent fault from repeating itself. Definite, statistically valid proof. I could have gotten a Ph.D. right there and then, even before completing my M.Sc. thesis. I could have become famous... Was I an idiot, or was I not?? Well, we all seem to agree.

How can this behavior of an inanimate piece of equipment be possible? Clearly, it can't be. A machine has no consciousness. But gremlins do.

Gremlins, on the other hand, would be entirely inconsequential, and unknown to humankind, unless they had the means to make their presence and their actions observable. It's easy to conclude that these means must consist of a measure of psychokinetic energy, i.e., the ability to affect the workings of material objects through mental effort. The energy in question need not be large, considering that we people provide the ideal tool: equipment with unreliable components and connections. On that, often microscopical, level, a gremlin can play around with us, because such a fault, while ever so minuscule in extent, has the potential of disturbing or halting the functioning of a large machine.

Now, look at the matter from the gremlin's point of view. Irritating the operators is a lot of fun, and they can't do anything about the fault. Enter the engineer, and here's someone who knows how to deprive our gremlin of his plaything. So, obviously, you do all you can to keep the fault from reoccurring, because that way, maybe, the engineer will go away and you'll have just a little more time to play around. But no, that nasty engineer took out precisely the one printed circuit board that, at this particular time, had a bad transistor on it. Damn.

The time, back in the sixties, would have been ideal for proving the existence of gremlins. We were on duty, not on call. We were only fifteen paces away from the computer console, and every fault was addressed immediately. After those initial years of insanely expensive but unreliable computers, field engineering would never be the same: the equipment became more reliable and had redundancy built in; preventive maintenance kept it running smoothly, and repair calls were handled by whoever was on duty in a geographical area, not by permanent teams of on-site engineers. As the hardware became more reliable, the software became more complex and was soon the cause of most interruptions. Software bugs are due to faulty logic and can be reproduced, but don't lend themselves to playing around by gremlins with psychokinetic powers. I doubt that anyone will ever have such an opportunity as I had then. Woe is me: I didn't think of the chance I had.

I made a lot of typos as I wrote this. Maybe it's gremlins at work?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Normal Washing-Machine Operation

One of life's really deep questions is, "Why be normal?"

Think about it. Is there any good reason--just give me one good reason!--ever to be normal? And if there were one, what is normal? Is it politically correct? Is it average? Is it what people expect of you? If so, why should you ever want to be any of the above? Be yourself, for Heaven's sake!

What I wrote above is just some idealistic crap, really. It's what the new washing machine said to confuse me when I was ranting at it for using so little water that the dirty clothes hardly get wet at all. That's the fashion, you see: a modern washing machine has a computer in it that's programmed to save water. At the expense of cleanliness, I say. Somebody has spent months of their life thinking up a way to pretend that the clothes are being washed, so as to be able to slap an "A" on the machine for water economy. Meanwhile, the poor machine rolls a ball of semi-moist fabric around its innards, hoping against hope that, at the end of the program, they'll smell so much of fabric softener that the person using the machine will think the clothes are now clean.

That isn't the way it used to be. Our previous washing machine--bought before they started putting computers in them and at a time when people understood that you need a certain amount of water to get things clean--filled the drum halfway up the front-loading glass door, and then turned the dirty clothes around and around under the most convincing splashing. It didn't take any effort to trust that the result would be good, and good it was. Now that's what I call normal clothes washing.

And then this fancy new washing machine comes back at me with all this politically correct hogwash. It even hinted that I'd get on somebody's blacklist for holding un-ecological views. But I'm not afraid of a washing machine.

See, my better half is smarter than any embedded computer. She bought this great big coffee pot; I'm sure it holds at least five liters. We don't make coffee in it; we fill up the washing machine with it. Right after the machine has dribbled its computer-optimized sprinkle of wash-water on the laundry, I fill up the coffee pot at least three times over and pour the water into the detergent box. Then the water again goes halfway up the glass door as it's supposed to, where you can see the suds, and the clothes splash as they turn. That's what I call normal.

The new washing machine doesn't like me. They forgot to put a Plan B into its program for what to do if there's more water in the wash cycle than the "A" rating requires, and so the machine just sits there and has to wash the load the old way. It's degrading, the machine says, and threatens to report me to the thought police.

Just let it. When the jack-booted thugs break down my front door, I'll have the perfect defense at the ready.

I'll say, "Why be normal?"

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bearded Man

Oh where oh where is my bearded man, I have hacked into his account and decided to write something in my self defense. Yes, I am a difficult wife, who wouldn't be when your husband's head is why up in the clouds of boxed thinking. Living this far north there are practical things to do and with the age of workers who want full compensation even for cutting down a tree, it's cheaper to use electricity, so I asked him to chop down a tree! You would think I want to pull his toenails out. Have to go now, I see him coming in. Bye.Bye.