Damon Hart-Davis: Anecdotes

Some of my real-life anecdotes and safe-ish after-dinner stories!

Entries will be added when I have a burst of enthusiasm.

Luck: A Cup Half Full

While at my aunt's farmhouse (Bridget, aka Lady Silsoe), when I was about 17, she had rather a large number of adult guests and had set me to work making coffee for them, a job I didn't like partly because at that age I was no fan of coffee or its smell.

I have always had slightly shaky hands and been prone to clumsiness, and these were magnified as a teenager; the kitchen's red tile floor and the coffee cups were just waiting to get me, of course.

After making about the 20th cup of a guest my aunt suddenly piped up that I had not made her one, so I got another mug out and dutifully did so, with my back to her, and hers to mine as she continued chatting.

I turned to face her across the kitchen and she started to say something to the effect "but I want a half cup of my special [Hag] decaf" but I slipped, dropped the cup (threatening to smash on that lovely floor) and miraculously recaught it a spin or two down but having shed half the contents. Keeping a totally straight face I handed to her with some comment such as "Half a cup?" and everyone was flabbergasted!

Pint of Belgian

I had been teaching a techie course (Java to automotive folks) in Leuven in Belgium, and went to the train station to get back to Brussels and onwards home via Eurostar.

It was evening, I was tired, and my train wasn't due for a little while, so passing the time on the platform I paced and whatever, and noticed a row of beer taps on a slick slim bar on the platform. I did a double-take, as nice bars al fresco and suburban trains don't go together in my head.

The smooth talking bar steward offered me a pint—yes a pint since the measure had just been made legal for beer across the EU!—of good Belgian beer. What an unexpected simple pleasure!

Spinach and the 3-Day Week

When I was small, about six, my family lived in a small flat in Oxford. Famously, there was only electricity 3 days each week, so we used to cook on a portable gas stove then. Infamously, my dad used to buy huge blocks of frozen spinach, and smash bits off on the edge of the freezer, ready to cook.

So in my mind I associate (in a bad way) dodgy spinach, dodgy power, and dodgy industrial/economic management. I have largely overcome my distaste for spinach 40-plus years later, the rest less so!

In the very early days of the Internet in the UK (the '90s), I set up what was to become my multimedia gallery. In those days search engines were quite raw, and you could usually see the exact query that a user had typed to be routed to your Web site.

So imagine not my disappointment, but that of the searcher, on arriving at an artful picture of a huge paperclip given that their search query was for "huge vacuum penis expander".

Tech Astonishments: Randomly Faster

In response to a thread on HackerNews about "C++17 constexpr everything" and someone saying "Code generation is widely used, at least in automotive. Comparison of hard-to-read and hard-to-debug advanced template/constexpr machinery vs code generated by standalone tool that is easy to read and easy to debug would not be taken seriously" I responded:

Both approaches have their problems, but resolving to compile-time constants with simple expressions is NOT "hard-to-debug" if done with care. As ever, tools can be abused, and real life can astonish.

Example: for the credit dept of a now-ex investment bank many moons ago we had a set of blessed (including with the correct correlations) random numbers pre-computed and baked in via code generation.

I discovered that I could actually generate numbers faster at run-time with highly-tuned code because of the high cost of paging in the large-precompiled numbers array across the network.

Yes, that really was astonishing, and meant that we could actually generate new numbers each time with the right characteristics faster than pre-generating, and vary those characteristics, which made our Monte Carlo algorithms happy. This for the derivatives/credit desks of Lehman Brothers...

Tech Astonishments: Calculator Longevity

I find it amazing that the Casio fx-100 pocket calculator with which I did my A-levels* is still useful for me today, eg to check investment numbers for my business and compute energy consumption figures circa 2018.

I don't think that I've changed the batteries even 10 times over that 30+ years.

*There was some suspicion that 'my' fx-100 was swapped inadvertently with that of one of my fellow A-levelers at some point, and I thought that we then scratched our names in the cases to avoid further mishap, though I don't see any evidence of such marks right now!

Tech Astonishments: 10x Slower Files

In response to seeing again the infamous We can't send mail more than 500 miles story, I recall something similar!

We had 10x faster file transfers in one direction than other at a large oil company's campus. After weeks of effort and hiring some very expensive test gear and a person to operate it, turned out to be kinked fibre causing large (NFS) packets to fail frequently in one direction.

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