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November 25, 2013

Crunching Software, Hidden Writer

Unlike many other members of my family, I am a bit of an enigma. Easy identification comes with fame or recognition, and I have little of either. Most of my writing has been unattributed (software manuals and journalism) or under various pen names.

In the software industry, technical writers are not encouraged to sign their work. This bothers me. I am proud of the manuals and other materials that I produced and I wanted to be able to prove that they were my work, especially since I had interviewed several people who were obviously incapable of producing the examples that they claimed were their work. So I signed all the books I produced by hiding my name in them somewhere.

The first one I did was an excellent bit of subterfuge back in the early 1990s. I was working for Russell Frye of Frye Computer Systems. Russell was way ahead of the curve when it came to designing outrageously fine diagnostics and controls for networks, but when it came to me putting my name on the manuals I wrote, he stuck with the industry-standard. I never told him what I did so, if he's reading this and never figured it out, sorry Russell.

One of the illustrations in the manual was a list of network user names, The original was a screen shot of the list of users on our own system. We needed to replace those names with fakes.

It was easy to do. I used a graphics editor to write a new list and pasted it over the original. This was my chance to do some tweaking. I couldn't use the initial letters of the names to make an acrostic since they needed to look as if they had been sorted alphanumerically. So I had the bright idea of using the final letters instead. Since the user names were different lengths, making for a ragged right margin, and often appeared truncated, it was easy for others to miss my little personalization.

Reading downward the last letters spelled out "dlettvinmadethis."

Nobody knew it was there except me, and it would provide embedded proof that I was the author if I ever needed it.

I'm not the only one who has played around with manuals. One of my favorites was an old Mac manual the title of which I can no longer remember. I was reading it back in about 1990 when I was editing a tech support magazine for North Edge (later Timeslips) Software.

There was this one paragraph that kept bothering me. There was something about it that had my J. Jonah Jameson senses tingling. I read it a couple of times before it suddenly fell into place.

I re-typed the text block, breaking lines at the rhyme words, to reveal a hidden but perfectly written Shakespearean sonnet. It was in modern English, and the information was clear, but it was obvious that some poor schmuck had reached a limit and decided to have some fun.

I wish I could remember the name and version of the software. I would dearly like to try to track down the author to tell him or her how much I appreciated their little Easter egg.

November 14, 2013

The Worst Stew Ever


I was feeling in the mood for some sherry tonight. It must have been because I had been watching a lot of Stephen Fry shows. So I went out to buy some. As I browsed through the liquor store, I saw a familiar label. I had my hand on the bottle, but then decided against it since I'm the only person I know who has a taste for it.

When I got home, my wife was making a beef stew and I started to laugh. When I explained, she joined in the laughter. It wasn't that funny at the time.

Dee and I were living in a small attic apartment on Whalley Avenue in New Haven in 1969. I had dropped out of the CIA (chef not spy) school, had worked for a time at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and was now a sort of vaguely part-owner of a kind of half-assed co-op venture that consisted of an organic food shop called "The Food Shop" and an herb shop with the far more creative name "The Herb Shop." When we could afford to pay ourselves we did, but more often than not we'd make do with leftovers from the food shop to keep ourselves fed.

Dee worked at the Yale library and her salary went for rent with very little left over. So the food from the co-op was critical to us. There were many skipped meals and those we had were pretty skimpy.

One night, what we had left were some random aging carrots and potatoes and some scraps of meat. Dee was at work, so I was cooking. I cobbled together a stew; adding in some flour for thickener and a bouillon cube for more flavor. Some parsley and sage from The Herb Shop punched it up a little but it was still a bit bland, so I pulled a bottle from the cupboard, sloshed what was left into the stew and tossed the bottle into the trash. The stew bubbled away on the stove top for a couple of hours. It smelled fantastic.

When she got home, Dee's face lit up at the smell. I dished out a bowl apiece, and put some croutons made from the ends of some stale bread on top. I was basking in her approval as she raised the first spoonful of stew ...

"Oh dear God," she said, "what is this?" She spat it out.

I was shocked. I lifted my spoon, tasted then followed her example and spat it out. It was bitter; incredibly, inedibly bitter.

What the hell had I done? I thought back. The herbs were fine. The meat scraps smelled fresh. The veggies were a bit soft but should have been fine ... the flour? ... the boullon? Oh my God! The wine.

I went to the trash can and pulled out the wine bottle. The label spelled out my idiocy in large letters: "CAMPARI". I had spiced up the stew with one of Italy's bitter aperitif wines.

Attempting to salvage something from this debacle, I put our bowls of stew on the floor. The cats sniffed at the bowls warily and departed without even attempting a taste.

We went hungry that night, but we were young and resilient and it wasn't long before we could laugh about it. After all, we still had each other.

November 12, 2013

Tipping at a Wedding

My brother once got married in Toronto. His bride was Chinese and her family was a big part of the community up there.

He invited me to be the 'best man' (who could be better) and bring my family. Unfortunately, Avi, still an infant, and my wife were sick. I took the two older kids, Moishe (about 11) and Hosanna (about 9), packed them into our beaten-up blue Ford Escort, and drove from Boston to Toronto.

I vaguely remember taking the kids to the top of the CN tower, and also remember marveling at the cleanliness of the city. I don't remember all that much about the ceremony, or my contributions to it (if any). I do, however, vividly remember the reception, both for its size and for a kindness done for me.

The reception was held in a huge banquet hall in Chinatown. I was part of the greeting line to welcome the guests near the table where the red envelopes were being collected (red for luck, envelopes to enclose the gifts of cash). As people arrived it was obvious that the only people at the reception who were not Chinese were my brother, our parents, me, and my kids. Most conversations were being held in Chinese, of which I understood nothing.

We were eventually seated at the head table along with the bride's immediate family. My brother was busy with groom stuff. My father was pretending that his broad gestures and occasional Yiddish curses would pass for a sincere attempt at communication and my mother was occupied by alternately fussing over the bride and being embarrassed by my father's antics. So there was no-one for me to talk to other than my kids. We talked about how big the room was and the number of big round tables ( about 25) and how they were all full.

At one point during this affair, I was ambushed by a tradition that my brother had forgotten to mention. (I hasten to add that I'm pretty sure that he didn't know about it either.) Suddenly a waiter put two bottles of whiskey and a glass in front of me. I must have looked confused. The waiter explained that I was supposed to take the whiskey bottle from table to table and drink a toast to the bride and groom at each. I asked if the bottle was to fill everyone's glasses. No, the waiter assured me. These bottles are just for you. When you run low on the first one, I'll bring you the other.

I'm sure my expression must have changed from confused to horrified. There were a number of problems with the scenario: I had my kids with me and no-one else that I trusted with the responsibility, I had driven to the reception from a hotel across town, and I had seldom, if ever, had anything more potent than wine or beer. I logically assumed that downing two bottles of Four Roses in about eight minutes would render me three sheets to the wind with zero driving ability and almost certainly freak out my kids.

The waiter interpreted my expression correctly and quietly asked me if I didn't drink. I said no. He smiled and said he'd take care of it. He took the bottles away and came back with two identical ones. Now my expression must have been puzzled.

I hope that I made an impression on the other guests there that night, as a dignified, bearded, fat man who could hold his liquor as well as anyone alive. I finished my rounds making all the toasts and even multiple toasts and never stumbled, or slurred my words.

When I got back to the head table, I asked the waiter if he got to keep what wasn't used. He gave me a little smile and nodded. So I tipped him more than I've ever tipped anyone, asked him to tip a glass and raise a toast to me tonight, then I tipped the last of the cold tea out of the Four Roses bottle into my glass.

November 10, 2013

My Father Eats a Pepper

My father's sense of humor varied between incredibly complex wordplay, multi-lingual puns, an appreciation for Victor Borge, the Marx Brothers, and P.D.Q. Bach on one hand, and the most heavy-handed insults and practical jokes on the other. This was extraordinarily confusing to me as a child, since it was hard to tell the difference between being instructed and being set-up for a fall.

I still don't really understand what satisfaction he got from scoring points on his credulous and naive children, but whatever thrill it was it must have enough for him to continue it for far too long. Very seldom could we turn the tables on him and when we did it was almost invariably accidental.

My parents went to Mexico one year. I think I must have been 8 or 9 years old. They brought back presents for us. I can't remember what my sister got, but my brother got a red basketwork dragon that I was intensely jealous of. I got a wooden sculpture which has been with me ever since. I named him Atrocious. It was explained to me that this was a sculpture of an African lion done by a woodcarver who had never seen one. We all got heavy Mexican serapes that had the neck slit sewn shut so we could use them as blankets. My father gleefully told me that the figure on my blanket was Chac-Mool, and Aztec god who demanded freshly extracted and still throbbing, human hearts as a sacrifice.

Stuff like that didn't bother me at all. The blanket went on my bed. I toyed with the idea of sacrificing one of my siblings to the god, but it seemed overly messy and uncomfortable to explain and clean-up afterwards. The lion was placed in a position of honor on one of my bedroom bookshelves (yes, even then my bedroom was lined with books).

A few days later, I walked into our apartment kitchen to find my father busily searching the drawers. Since he had a can in one of his hands, I assumed he was looking for the can opener. I found it for him. He was excited and announced with great pomp and circumstance that I was just the person he was looking for. This was enough to instantly make me wary. He had smuggled a can of chili peppers back from Mexico and he wanted me to be the first to try them.

Without actually running out of the room in fear, I explained that there was no possibility of my acting as taster for his royal highness. He insisted that these peppers weren't THAT hot. I insisted that I didn't trust him. "Then just dip your finger in the juice," he said, " and put a drop on your tongue. I continued to refuse. I had been caught too many times before.

He finally tried to suggest that my refusal was due to my wimpiness and lack of character. I remained steadfast. He smirked at me and popped a whole pepper into his mouth and bit down.

There's an expression that comes over a persons face when they've done something without sufficient thought. I have seen it on the face of a woman who liked the look of the pretty green stuff on the side of her first plate of sushi and popped a walnut-sized lump of wasabi into her mouth. I have seen it on the face of a friend who ordered a brew pub's hottest chili con carne and their special beer of the day, not realizing that their chili was intensely spicy and that the beer of the day was jalapeno. I have imagined my own face after having told a waiter at an Indian restaurant that I liked the heat of chilis and that they should amp it up for me. The first time I saw it, however, was on my father's face that morning.

There was a very slight widening of the eyes, damped down quickly by pride and not wanting to seem surprised. Then came a flush starting at the base of the neck as the heat hit for real and started to spread. It was clear that had I not been there he would have spit it out, so I stayed. The flush reached his forehead and he started to sweat while still trying to maintain a poker-face. He didn't want to swallow it, but I wasn't about to let him of the hook that easily.

Then came the bonus, he reached up to wipe the sweat off his brow ... with the hand he'd used to take the pepper from the can. I stood there quietly as if waiting for his verdict on the deliciousness of the peppers and my loss at refusing to go first. More sweat started to trickle down, this time washing the minute traces of pepper juice down through his eyebrows and into his eyes. He waved, as if to dismiss me and raced to the bathroom where I heard him spit out the pepper and wash his hands and face over and over again.

His eyes were red for the rest of the day. I never saw that can of peppers again.

The kicker to this story is that I am a great aficionado of chilis now. I grow my own jalapenos, and habaneros, I have jars of hot chili and curry powders, and containers of Jolokia (ghost peppers) and Trinidad Scorpion peppers in the cupboard and use them regularly. I am sure that the peppers that destroyed my father's composure all those years ago, would be mild to me now.

November 3, 2013

Doing Laps in the Jury Pool

I know what you're thinking. You're muttering, "boy, he started well but he's lost his impetus again." You are only partly right.

I got home, after two weeks in Boulder CO, last Saturday evening and was immediately faced with several pounds of mail. Somewhere in the stacks was a jury summons and questionnaire that needed to be filled out before Monday. I did triage on the mail on Sunday to find it, filled it out, called to confirm they needed me, and before I knew it the day was gone.

On Monday, I arrived at the courthouse, as ordered, at 8 am, waited in line to confirm my identity and prove that I was an upstanding citizen. Then watched a video which tried to persuade me that I was being a mensch by doing my duty. Then I waited. Eventually I was called to a Superior Court criminal case about drunk driving ... I was excused. Then I waited. Eventually I was called to a Superior Court civil case about someone suing about tripping on an uneven parking lot that was covered in snow at a popular local roast beef sandwich shop ... I was excused and it was obvious which lawyer had chosen to exclude me. I waited. They told me to go to lunch. I went to the local hotdog stand and ordered a vegetarian sausage. I hear someone behind me mutter "Dammit, I knew I fucked-up." I looked over my shoulder and saw the lawyer for the plaintiff who had excluded me. I ate my veggie dog. I waited.

I was finally seated in a jury for the housing court fpr a landlord vs. tenant dispute. I didn't like the landlord's attorney, and I liked him less when it turned out that the landlord was a corporation. He also seemed to concentrate on minor technical stuff when it was obvious that there were significant overarching property management problems.

I did like the tenant's attorney. She was bright and personable underlining the problems and did a bang-up job for the tenant. Unfortunately, her client had been a bit disingenuous and had obviously manipulated the situation.

I found myself, sadly, finding for the landlord. This so devastated my sense of rightness that I ended up unable to write for a while. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that I'd had no time to renew my prescription for attention medication. I'll have the new scrip on Monday, just in time for the final phase of my colonoscopy diet. So don't expect anything coherent from me before Wednesday at the earliest.