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!

Tech Astonishments: The Early Search Disappointments

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!

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Damon


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