Author: chipsquips

WordPress 3.0 upgrade

I’ve just upgraded all three of my blogs to WordPress 3.0. Please let me know if you experience any interruption of service.

WordPress 3.0 is nicknamed “Thelonious,” after the great jazz musician Thelonious Monk. Monk’s artistry was exceptionally creative, despite (or more likely because of) his apparent mental health issues. Hopefully WordPress 3.0 does not import insanity along with its innovations. If you’re supersititious at all, you won’t be comforted by the fact that 3.0 is also the 13th major release of WordPress.

When upgrading, I always do a test run first on a site that I maintain for testing purposes. For the first time since 2.0, the upgrade required me to delete some files first (it’s a recommended practice that I usually ignore). This time, I couldn’t get to the admin after uploading the new files. But after deleting wp-admin and wp-includes and reupping them, it all worked. YMMV.

We now resume our regularly scheduled programming. Today it’s C++.

Tags: theloniousmonk, wordpress
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Camel maneuver, or taken for a ride?

I glanced at my watch as I weaved the cart between old ladies and children. Right on schedule — ten minutes to get checked out and drive over to pick up my daughter. I scanned the checkout lines until I found a conveyor with some empty space — the checker was just scanning the last item. I veered in behind the previous shopper, lifted my cargo onto the belt, and whipped out my debit card.

“$54.50,” said the checkout lady to the slightly overweight, very young lady — too young to be juggling one child in her arms with another in a stroller.

“Oh wait,” she said, and began to pull items out to be removed from her total: first the cola, then the cupcakes. Yeah, honey, you don’t need those. Couldn’t you keep a running total while you were shopping? Oh yeah, I guess you were distracted by all your offspring. Now I’ll probably be late for my daughter, thanks to your lack of planning.

“$47.80.” Still not enough. Reluctantly, a package of ground beef and some broccoli left the ensemble. Doesn’t she realize that she’s holding me up? Then, a pang of guilt. Look at me, in such a hurry to checkout with my case of champagne — so I won’t be a few minutes late picking up my daughter from ballet. I have it so hard. And here she is, just trying to make ends meet.

But why not? (says the capitalist in me) I’ve worked hard to get where I am and to be able to enjoy just a few of the finer things. And what series of bad decisions led this woman to her present misfortune? Alone with children at such an early age — she probably doesn’t have a job.

Today’s economy. Perhaps she did have a job that recently evaporated. She might be a Navy wife, with a husband on extended duty. It doesn’t take much to upset most people’s finances. In the recent mortagage crisis, we were lucky — one additional bad credit decision could have spelled the loss of our home.

In fact, most of what I have accomplished in my career and finances resulted from making a good choice when a bad one seemed just as good at the time. Call it luck. And I hate to see her have to give up the beef and broccoli — that’s good food.

So I leaned over to her, handed her a $20 bill, and said quietly, “Maybe this will help.”

Her eyes widened with surprised joy, then turned aside in shame. “No, I couldn’t. Thank you very much, though.”

“C’mon,” I said. “You’ve got a family to feed, right? Just take it.”

She looked back hopefully, trying to make out in my eyes whether it really would be OK to accept.

“Oh, thank you! Nobody’s ever done that for me before. Thank you so much.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

I noticed with some satisfaction that she took back the beef and broccoli, and left out the cupcakes and soda. She offered me the change, but I waved it back at her. She thanked me again, gathered up her groceries and her children, and hurried toward the door. As the checkout lady began to scan my bottles, she called to one of her assistants in a voice that was calculated to get her attention without alerting anyone else, “Check her.”

In response to my puzzled expression, she explained, “That one’s in here a lot, and things seem to go missing.”

I didn’t know what to think. Suddenly, my first opinion of her seemed confirmed — even augmented. Or was the checkout lady unduly suspicious of her because she was poor — maybe also resentful of the extra time she took checking out? Had I aided a minor criminal? Would my act of kindness encourage her to reform?

No matter. I had achieved my purpose: getting her through checkout, and out of my way.

Tags: charity, economy
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Regex Anglorum

As I was walking the dogs this morning along our usual route, Halley and Harry stopped to sniff a greasy spot in the road which had been occupied the day before by an unlucky squirrel. “Hmm… some otherscavenger must have cleaned it up,” I thought, then corrected myself: “scavenger, or scavengers.”

English has no specific form to indicate “one or more” — nouns can be singular or plural, not (usually) inclusive of both. The more advanced syntax for Regular Expressions uses ‘+’ to indicate this set. I propose that we adopt this into English, as in “some other scavenger+ must have cleaned it up.” That would naturally cause some consternation for present tense verbs when one of these nouns is the subject, but we could use the same ending there: “The scavenger+ eat+ all the dead squirrels.” (I never understood why the ‘s’ occurs on singular verbs instead of on the plural).

Of course, in a regex /scavenger+/ would mean “scavenge” followed by one or more “r”s. We’d need to say /(scavenger)+/ instead.

Wait, that isn’t right either — that just indicates one or more occurrences of the word scavenger. Not one or more scavengers. Abstract symbols are a bit foreign to Regexen, but they do exist in the more advanced syntaxen. Take Ruby’s, for example:


Now that says,”one or more of what the word ‘scavenger’ represents.”

The English language is not nearly so rigorous. Take the plural, for instance. You might think that a regex equivalent for “scavengers” would be:


That says, “two or more of what the word ‘scavenger’ represents.”

In English, though, we also use the plural form for zero. “Yes, we have no bananas.” Let’s add that ambiguity to our expression:


The star says, “zero or more of the previous pattern” — so this accurately represents the idea of “two or more bananas, or none at all”.

Of course, in English I could use the singular form for zero as well: “Yes, we have no banana.” That would carry the connotation that we could have exactly one banana, but we don’t. We’re going to need a smarter squirrel.

Tags: english, language, regexen, ruby
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Busting Bug Butt

This weekend I took part in FreeBSD Bugathon #7. This was my first involvement as a FreeBSD BugBuster (though I’ve been busting bugs for more than 30 years now), so I relished the long-forgotten role of n00b as I learned the ropes of their PR (Problem Report) system.

Gavin Atkinson and Rene Ladan have been kind enough to help me along, and I’ve managed to test 14 PRs and submit corrections to a couple of patches.

Perusing the open PRs, the triviality of most of them impressed me. Critical bugs seem to get handled on the fast track in FreeBSD, thanks to the dedicated people who donate their spare time to deal with these things. That leaves mostly low priority bugs to be cleaned up by these Bugathon sessions. It’s a tribute to the high quality that a voluntary system can produce.

By far, the majority of PRs are in the ports. Many of these merely involved updating the application to a new version, so I applied the patch to the Makefile/distinfo and tested the install. I did get my fingers into a couple of termcap PRs (one of which I had submitted) to add 256-color support to xterm and rxvt. Those, I’m happy to say, have been committed. I also tested out some kernel patches to provide more helpful info for sysctl — a favorite nit for a newbie like me to pick.

Speaking of newbie, this event occasioned my first ever use of IRC. I chose simpleirc as my client, because it’s, um, simple. I think, if I have time, I should build IRC support into jab. Simpleirc operates much the same way as jab does, but I have a couple of reasons for preferring jab — jab is scriptable, and I’ve already built xmobar notifications of new jabs.

Another first (for me): to provide test-beds for the Bugathon, I brought up FreeBSD 8 as a guest of VirtualBox — in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors. It runs great — which I’d expect, given how well VirtualBox runs Windows 7, the Napoleon of Resource Hogs.

The Bugathon lasts through today. I may work on a few more items if I have time, but I need to get some billable work in today as well.

Tags: bugathon, bugbusters, freebsd, irc, virtualbox
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Newspaper obituary

Seth Godin asked, “When newspapers are gone, what will you miss?“  Then he proceeded to dismiss the missing of everything about newspapers from content to delivery mechanisms, because the web does it all better.  You know what I’m going to miss?  A twelve-year-old’s only chance for a regular job: delivering the paper door to door.

My neighbor Phillip was getting tired of delivering the paper.  He paid me 50 cents to take his place for a day, and he even let me use his bicycle.  It was a Schwynn with high rise handlebars and a sissy bar, very much in style at the time.  My bike, on the other hand, was a Frankenstein’s monster that my Dad constructed out of parts from two bikes that had belonged to my mother and her sister — so besides being big and ugly, it was also a girl’s bike.  Man, I sure had fun riding Phillip’s new Schwynn all over the neighborhood that day!

When I told Phillip how much I had enjoyed delivering the papers, he asked me if I wanted to take over the route for good.  I checked with my parents, and they said I could — but I wouldn’t be able to use a bike.  They didn’t like the idea of me riding on US 29 (a four lane highway) with cars going 60 mph.  I’d have to do it on foot.  Phillip countered with how much money I could make — he collected more than $5 a week from customers!  I had rarely seen $5 all at the same time, so I agreed.  I discovered later that I hadn’t fully grasped the distinction between gross receipts and net income.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I would have to pay for the papers I delivered (albeit wholesale).  So $5 a week gross yielded only about a dollar net per month, if I could get everyone to pay on time.  It was obvious to me that I needed more customers.

My father had delivered newspapers in Queens, New York back in the early ’50s — and he had lots of advice on growing the business.

“The most important thing is Service with a Smile, Son,” he said.  “Don’t throw the paper at the house — walk up to the door and leave it inside the screen” (most houses had screen or storm doors back then).  “Always smile, wave, and say hello when you see your customers.  And don’t let them see you walking — run from house to house.  Impress them with your efforts.  Always collect on the same day of the week, so they don’t have an excuse for not having the money.  Once every couple of weeks or so, buy an extra paper – then go up to one of the houses that isn’t on your route and ring the doorbell.  Tell them that you have an extra copy that you’d like for them to have, free of charge.”  I got quite a few new customers that way.

These strategies eventually grew my route from the ten daily customers Phillip had (with only two Sunday deliveries) up to 24 dailies, with most of them receiving the Sunday paper as well.  This was in rural Virginia, so those customers were spread out over a four mile round trip.  Running that every day improved my health significantly, and led to later successes on the track team.

My money management skills being somewhat derelict, my mother took on the role of Chief Financial Officer of the business.  Times were often tight for us then, and my parents regularly borrowed from my profits to pay the bills.  But my Dad kept track of the amount owed, and when I was 18 he paid me back in full: $360, which I used to finance a trip to visit my college of choice.

I ran the paper route for a total of about four years, until I was sixteen.  It wasn’t much money for all that effort.  But it was a great lesson in business, and excellent exercise to boot.  That’s the part of the newspaper business that I’ll miss.

Actually, I miss it already — everyone I see delivering papers nowadays is an adult, driving a car (that’s got to cut into the profits).  The distribution areas are too large to do it on foot anymore, or even on a bike.  And the dangers for children out on the open road are too great to ignore these days.  The archetypal ”my first job” has already faded into the mists of our memories.  Today’s youth no longer have this opportunity to learn the value of working hard to build a business.

I guess they’ll have to become web entrepreneurs instead.

Tags: bicycle, business, delivery, exercise, memories, newspapers, schwynn, sethgodin
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A frank look at my third year

Today marks three years since I first posted on Chip’s Quips.  I guess this blog will survive to adulthood after all.  Here are links to the first two bloggiversary celebrations.

During the last year 321 new posts were created here, up from 254 the year before – although 240 of this year’s were collections of links, leaving only 81 instances of original writing on this site, or about one every four or five days.  I’d like to do more of that here in the coming year — we’ll see if I’ll be able to devote the time to it.  In 2008, I continued my pace at TechRepublic and increased my posting at [Geeks are Sexy].  I don’t expect to slow down on either of those.  I added 19 posts to Chip’s Tips for Developers (my private plan to post once a week there falling way short of the mark).  I converted my business site into a blog in April, and posted there a whopping 6 times.

1901 comments were left on this blog over the last year — we’ve had some excellent conversations, and I thank every one of you for stopping by and sharing your perspectives.  Um, except for you spammers (yeah, you know who you are).

Page views and subscribers have both leveled off it seems, and didn’t differ materially from the year before.  It’s been a lot longer than a year since I gave up my quest for the Technorati Top 100, though.  If you ask me, Technorati isn’t even an authority on authority any more (if it ever really was).  I write what I like, and if you like it too then we can both be happy.

To make the distinction between popularity and quality more stark, here are the five most popular posts from the last year:

  1. Parental incentive – cut and paste from an email.
  2. To all the editors I’ve loved before – stoking the text editor wars for page views.
  3. Banana about programming – stole the idea from an email.  Added language wars for extra success.
  4. How to clean the toilet without using that nasty brush – cut and paste from an email.
  5. Ruby, romance, and revenge – reviewing recent reads.  Book reviews are always good for some traffic when they google the titles.

Now, here are the five posts that I liked best:

  1. A Pearl of great worth – memories of my grandmother
  2. Don’t drink it – thoughts on religion
  3. The worst and the best – how the life of a child is the most precious thing
  4. Conversation with a neighbor – my first attempt at science fiction
  5. The mud pattern – reality slapstick

What would you like to see more of on this blog?  What, if anything, do you not like about it?

Well, here we go into year four.  I hope you’ll come long.

Tags: blogging, bloggiversary, comments, technorati, traffic, writing
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Thoughts on MLK day

This morning we watched CNN’s airing of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, popularly known as “I Have a Dream”.  CNN replayed the entire speech at noon Eastern time, which was 9AM here.

The children are off school for the MLK holiday, so I explained to our son that we would be watching this famous speech.  I don’t know what the public schools teach about this particular slice of history, but apparently none of it sunk in.  How would I briefly explain the significance of King’s life to a child who has never witnessed racial discrimination?

When I was a child in southern Virginia, almost everything was still segregated.  Not only the schools, but also the eating establishments and the churches were either black or white.  One bar at the edge of town was considered progressive because it had separate sections for both races.  About the only thing we shared were our surnames.  Probably more black people than white in our county bore my mother’s maiden name – because from the time of the revolution until the Civil War her family owned large tracts of land in that region, and they had many slaves whose families kept their last name even after they were freed.

My great-grandmother (whom we called “Nana”) told me about living on one of those family farms as a young girl in the late 1800′s.  Many of the former slave families still lived there, too — working the farm for their food, clothing and shelter.  Economically it was no different than slavery, except for the fact that they could leave if they wanted to.  But children have a way of simplifying relationships until grown-ups complicate them, so a little black girl that was her age became her best friend.  Nana always told me that there was really no difference between white and “colored” (the less objectionable term in those days).  “We’re all just people, and many a white person is just as bad or worse than any colored folk.”

My great-grandfather on my mother’s side fought for the Confederacy.  He was over 50 when he fathered my grandfather in 1890.  When my grandfather died in 1968, he was laid out in our church for the funeral service.  Along with the others attending came Mr. Callands.  The Callandses lived just up the road from my grandparent’s house, and Mr. Callands and my grandfather (who was called Joe) were great friends.  “I didn’t think Joe would mind if I came,” said Mr. Callands.  I believe he may have been the first black person ever to set foot inside that church since it was founded in 1800.

That was just several months after Dr. King had been killed in Memphis.  Our school system had already taken tentative steps towards integration, swapping only a few students and teachers, some of whom received threats of harm.  But a couple of years later, full integration proceeded without any major incident.  I remember how strange it was to meet all these black children my age — some of them got on the school bus not far from my house, and I hadn’t even known that they existed before.  Yes, at first there was mistrustfulness — but it wasn’t long before friendships began to develop.

But my children don’t like to listen to any of my old stories, so I tried a different approach.

“Martin Luther King told people that they shouldn’t hate each other just because they’re different.  They should get along together and treat each other the same.”

“He sounds like the best person ever!” my son replied.

“I don’t know if he was the best person ever,” I replied, “but he was right about that.”

Tags: ihaveadream, integration, martinlutherkingjr, memories, mlk, racism, segregation
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Rolling elevens

Eleven years ago tonight, my father passed away.

One sunny summer Sunday afternoon when I was eleven years old, my mother, my sisters, and I returned from my grandmother’s house in our aging Chrysler.  Dad was waiting for us outside, standing beside a newer Chrysler – a Blue 1966 Newport, that he had bought a few months earlier.  It was all packed for a road trip.  Dad motioned to me, “Get anything else you need from the house — we’re going to Texas.”

I hadn’t known anything about this trip in advance.  I was a bit confused as to why only Dad and I were going.  But I was excited — I love road trips.  We were only able to afford such long journeys once every several years, and usually employed them to visit family.  Earlier that summer the whole family had already made a long trip from Virginia to Memphis, Tennessee for a family reunion.  The only person we knew in Texas would be my Dad’s best friend Wally, who was stationed in San Angelo — way on the other side of Texas.

Unlike our older Chrysler, the newer one had air conditioning — which felt heavenly on the long southwestward journey.  It also had a working radio complete with an FM dial, so we could listen to decent music the whole way.  But my father had one more amenity to provide.  At a gas station near our house, he bought us each a new pair of sunglasses.  Now we were ready to ride off into the Texas sunset.

We didn’t get far on the first day — we only reached Statesville, NC, where we stayed in a Holiday Inn.  This was another treat, as I had never stayed in such a nice hotel before.  Most of our previous road trips involved the kind of single-story motels whose rotting carcasses still litter most US highways across the nation.  Here I had a bed all to myself, instead of my usual cot or floor.

The second day, we made it all the way to Texarkana.  I learned to distinguish the big rigs on the Interstate: Peterbilt, Kenworth, and Mack.  I was amazed to see the double-bottom trailers, which weren’t allowed in our part of Virginia at that time.

We consumed the entire third day crossing Texas.  We got lost in Dallas trying to change from Interstate 30 to 20 because all the exit signs were right on top of the exits, with no warning.  I marveled at the buttes and mesas of west Texas, which inspired my subsequent artwork for years to come.  We finally reached San Angelo about 1AM, after having a little trouble at a Chevron station on the way.

Back in those days, almost all gas stations were full service only.  The attendant not only pumped your gas, but they also washed the windshield and lifted the hood to check the fluids.  Our attendant walked up to Dad’s window and said, “Sir, you got a busted hose we’re gonna hafta fix for ya.”

Dad got out to examine it for himself.  He knew a lot about auto parts, having worked in the industry for years.  He had checked all the hoses before we left home — and he could tell right away that the hose in question had been slashed.  But out in the middle of Nowhere, Texas he wasn’t going to make any accusations against the station employees who outnumbered him.  So instead he replied, “No thanks” and drove off.  Then he stopped at the next station down the road (not a Chevron, just to be sure he wasn’t benefiting the same owners) and had a new hose installed.  He told me all about what had happened, with every third word being some new variation on an old vocabulary.

We spent several days in San Angelo.  Dad showed me the house we had lived in when he was stationed there years before, now run down and overgrown.  I learned how to skateboard using Wally’s stepson’s board.  I went fishing in the Concho River with a neighbor boy about my age, whose younger sister developed a huge crush on me.  And I took walks around the neighborhood, where I once met two very lovely girls who were a little older than I.  As I lowered shades to greet them eye to eye, I overheard one of them whisper to the other, “he looks cool.”  That comment boosted my confidence immensely.  Combined with all the time spent palling around with my Pa, the trip represented a turning point for me in terms of self-esteem.

I don’t know why my father visited Wally.  There was some talk about a possible job opportunity for him, but nothing ever came of it.  Wally became an officer while we were there, but my Dad didn’t attend the ceremony — he watched Wally’s stepchildren so Wally’s wife could go.  Whatever the reason, it was one of the most magical weeks in my life.

Eleven years after I earned the right to vote, and eleven years before I reached age 40, my oldest son and I made a road trip:  from Pensacola, Florida to Annapolis, Maryland for my youngest sister’s wedding.  My son, who was five, was to be the ring bearer.  I had just purchased a brand new Chrysler:  a red 1989 LeBaron convertible.  It was Spring, and we kept the top down most of the trip.  But the first thing we did was to stop and buy two new pairs of sunglasses.

Tags: chrysler, dad, memories, roadtrip, texas, travel
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Towards the Origenal

That title isn’t a mispelling. See if you can figure it out. I bet Stu will.

Several years ago, while going through an intense Nietzsche phase (from which I still haven’t fully recovered) the thought occurred to me to go back and reread the Bible with more open eyes than those I employed in my earlier readings when I considered myself a devout Christian. I never acted on that impulse, but it recurred to me (how Nietzschesque) as I recently read H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History. By now, my religiously-inclined readers are probably grunting in disapproval of my perspective, but bear with me. After finishing Wells’ somewhat outdated but still worthy Outline, I nearly picked up my Oxford Annotated RSV — but having read through the Bible several times already I knew what a large project that is (1189 chapters plus Apocrypha), and I wanted to read some other things on my shelf, so I put it off.

My son John, who is now teaching English in Korea, corresponds with me by email. Not knowing of my half-baked intentions, he suggested out of the blue that we read the Bible together. John recently discovered a more meaningful connection with Christianity, and if that were all I knew about John I probably would have politely declined. But I also know that John has explored Buddhism and other alternatives, and that he’s intelligent and has a great sense of humor. I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to spend more time conversing with my son, as well as to revisit an old passion of mine with someone who is likely to contribute to a most interesting discussion.

I don’t think that either of us intends to convert the other. We’re probably both expecting that the text itself will do that. It will be interesting to observe the results. Although I take a critical perspective on the text and I’m a tenacious agnostic, I don’t rule out the idea that I can be changed by this experience. In fact, I embrace it. If Fitzgerald and Henry James can transform me, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I might find some personal benefit in the collection of human insights and inspirations known as the Bible as well.

John chose the New Internation Version for his reading. That’s a fine translation, despite it’s somewhat conservative associations — two of my college professors contributed to it. But I chose to use the Oxford Annotated RSV instead, because unlike the NIV I’ve never read through the entire RSV, and I appreciate the notes in the Oxford Annotated volume. Besides, I always think it’s a good idea to compare translations, if for no other reason than to avoid projecting too much into the translator’s choice of specific English words. The RSV is a more literal translation than the NIV, but the latter often conveys the original sense better — so comparing and contrasting them yields food for thought.

Additionally, I dug up my Hebrew text of the Old Testament and my Hebrew lexicon so I could dig deeper whenever questions arose about the text.

John and I began corresponding, and so far our discussion has not disappointed me — although I’ve probably been doing too much of the talking. John has a busy life, so we’ve had to take it very slowly. We’re just through chapter 14 of Genesis now (a fascinating chapter, that). But I don’t mind taking my time. In fact, I decided (after catching myself in a couple of mistaken assumptions about the Hebrew text) to use the opportunity afforded by John’s preferred pace to fulfill a desire from more than thirty years ago: I will simultaneously read the entire Hebrew text in parallel with the RSV.

Last night it occurred to me that while I’m at it I might as well also make use of another volume that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for the last thirty years. As the oldest known translation of the Old Testament into any other language, and because of its influence on the New Testament and later Christianity, I will also read the Septuagint in Greek at the same time. I have already observed many interesting details of this translation — both extremes of cases in which the Greek has been bent into a literalist Hebraism on the one hand, and cases in which the Greek obliterates the Hebrew meaning on the other.

For an example of the former, in Genesis 2 when Yahweh (or Kurios in Greek) instructs Adam not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge for “on the day you eat it, you shall surely die,” the Hebrew for “surely die” is mot tamut, literally “die by dying” — the reiteration is for intensive effect. The Greek translates this literally as thanato apothaneisthe.

On the other hand, the word play of that same chapter becomes lost in the Greek. “Adam” is Hebrew for man, so the term is used interchangeably in the chapter as a name and as a noun. The Greek chooses to render it as “anthropos” exclusively until the injunction against eating the fruit, in which it is translated as “Adam,” then switches between the two afterwards. The whole pun on dust (adamah in Hebrew) is also lost in the Greek chous.

Even more striking, and rather funny, is the phrase “she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.” In Hebrew, woman is ishah and man is ish. The -ah suffix can be used for a feminine as it is here, or it can mean “towards” or “from” — thus the pun. It almost works in English, if you can invent some suitable meaning for “wo-” (it actually comes from the Old English wif “wife, or woman”), but the Greek murders it: she shall be called gune because she was taken out of andros. That must have left a lot of Greek readers scratching their heads.

By reading the Greek also, I’ll make a smooth transition into the New Testament when we get there. At the rate we’re going, that should be in about the year 2017.

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Argentum quoque fugit

A friend sent me one of those emails that are constantly making the rounds filled with old quotations complaining about ridiculously high prices that now seem ridiculously cheap. An example from 1955: “Did you hear the post office is thinking about charging 7 cents just to mail a letter?”

As it turns out, the 1955 postage rate was only 3 cents per ounce, and I can remember from my childhood in the sixties mailing letters for a nickel. These ruminations led to other memories of the days when pocket change counted for more than tiddlywinks.

Some Coca-Cola drink machines charged 10 cents for a large (12 ounce) bottle, or 6 cents for a small (6.5 ounce) bottle. I recall when most of them jumped to 15 cents for the large bottle, and I remember being shocked and appalled at having to pay 25 cents for a Coke at a summer camp I attended. It was a hot day — my thirst overcame my financial prudence and I ponied up a whole quarter, feeling completely ripped off and wondering what my mother would think of my profligacy.

In my first grade class, we were given the opportunity to buy ice cream at a specific period of each day: popsicles, ice cream sandwiches, Brown Mules, or (my favorite) Nutty Buddies for five cents each. I begged my parents to give me a nickel a day out of their budget for this frivolous expense. It was more about status and belonging than it was about sugar or calories, because during that period which was set aside for the consumption of dairy treats, those who partook not had nothing more to do than enviously observe those who did. My parents reluctantly agreed, and placed a nickel in my wallet each night for that purpose.

One day, for some reason I can no longer recall, I didn’t buy any ice cream. When my father discovered the nickel still in my wallet from the previous night, he added another nickel. The next morning he congratulated me on my self-discipline and frugality, which I accepted without revealing that fiscal virtue had played no part in my abstinence.

“Whenever I find the money still in your wallet,” Dad said, “I’ll reward you by adding the same amount to what’s there.”

Even at that tender age, my math skills were sharp enough to realize that I had struck a gold mine. Some of the other kids at school always seemed to have money, and now I would become one of those kids. I quit eating ice cream altogether.

At an interest rate of 100% per day, compounded daily, within a week my father (who only made $64 a week at that time) could no longer afford to keep his promise. I had to settle for a five dollar bill when I should have had $6.40. I kept that portrait of Mr. Lincoln in my wallet for weeks, and I walked the halls of the school feeling as if I owned the place.

I think my mother eventually convinced me to commit that five dollars to my savings account at the local bank, increasing my balance from $25 to $30. Several years later that balance had grown to around $125 through deposits of birthday gifts and compounded interest at 4.5%. I withdrew the original $25 with which my mother had opened the account, took it to the local jewelry store, and bought her a silver pitcher for Mother’s Day. She still has that pitcher.

Tags: memories, money, prices
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