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small orange square The business dinner last night went well - I had tasty Chicken Marsala, which is one of those nebulous, contemporary dishes which can be fit anywhere into a wide spectrum of flavors, seems to me. I guess actually knowing what makes it 'Marsala' would be useful. I said little at table, but enough. Another of the visitors contributed nothing to the conversation (a problem G is having with almost all of his travel companions, making his meals with them agonizing) while the allergic-to-nuts guy was a borderline boor (he eventually perceived this, though, and dummied up). I suppose the friendly two I've met before (including the big boss) find my comments so entertaining because my interests are wide-ranging, unlike the successful computer nerd's narrow focus. <1> And what exactly is a nerd? I've always favored the description I heard on Harry Shearer's radio show when he asked his listeners to answer this question - one said "anybody who likes anything to much, except for Sports, is a nerd". The question's provocation was then-President George Bush's comment that "saying No doesn't make you a nerd." For more info on these semantics, check this recent Slate article which details the differences and overlap between the nerd and the nebbish. (It mentions the schmendrick but not the twerp).

small yellow square Three tales from Texas (all from business trips):

  1. October 1992, Fort Hood. We are providing 24-hour support to the U.S. Army during a big operational exercise - our system is in place and it's hoped that they'll use it. Naturally there are problems and that's where we come in, wearing our "field engineer" hats. On this particular night I find myself riding in a military truck traveling off-road over very rough terrain, en route to a Brigade field headquarters. My driver is burning only his parking lights, in accordance with the exercise rules. Eventually we arrive at a tent, connecting a couple of trailers surmounted by a tall radio mast. I'm handed off to another enlisted man, who leads me under a raised tent-flap, the way through the darkness marked by those phosphorescent Cyalume lightsticks (I see a red one for the first time); eventually we round a corner, and I follow him up some steps (army boots on shiny steel criss-cross dimple-plate) into a windowless trailer, where I see my familiar terminal in its hardened Army-green box, amidst a bunch of military hardware and people wearing camouflage BDUs. I get to work, reinstalling our software from the clunky (and very expensive) Magneto-Optical disks we used then. Irate voices from various nearby loudspeakers recite military gibberish; none were directed at me but they exacerbate the annoying vibrations. As I worked I tried to formulate a successful plan whereby I'd never get stuck in this position again. As dawn breaks, I'm finally able to leave.
  2. October 1993, Fort Hood. At least this time we don't have to wear those uncomfortable "test team" uniforms (made from blends of all-synthetic fibers), and our support is daytime only. But I'm still doing the same thing - this time, however, rather than in a tent out in the woods I'm driven to an older building on-base and led to a small auditorium filled with tables upon which various military clerks are typing at computer keyboards or doing paperwork. The air is electric with bustle. My system has been placed in the only space available - up on the small stage, where I'm sitting in profile before my own keyboard, like a parody of a piano recital. Our system is not working there, and I have no idea why. Only solution - reinstall - and it works! Once again I'm a software hero through dumb luck. Before leaving I visit the men's latrine where I swipe a new bar of the military version of Lava soap - theirs is gray and stamped with the word "POWER". <2>
  3. October 1997, DFW. Late morning and a thunderstorm is in progress. From up here in the west control tower we can see lightning striking various targets off to the north and east. The controllers are holding all departing traffic on the ground until the storm passes, but due to fuel considerations this option isn't possible for the arrivals. Every few minutes a plane materializes up in the cloudy soup and becomes more distinct as it descends to landing, eventually passing our eye-level and dropping the final hundred feet to one of DFW's five big parallel runways. This has been my only tower experience so far - I work with an ATC system, but contrary to popular belief the controllers aren't up in the tower, they're arrayed in big dark rooms with no windows. Tower personnel only handle initial take-off and final descent, and they deal mainly with ground traffic. Most of this trip I'd been in those big windowless rooms - we we're only up here as a favor, a phone request made because of course, everybody wants to go up. Later that day I join the rabble of the traveling public down in the terminals, where all flights are delayed due to the morning's storm. But eventually I arrive back at SFO, late by just an hour or two.

ATC - Air Traffic Control
BDU - Battle Dress Uniform
DFW - Dallas Fort Worth (airport)
SFO - San Francisco (airport)
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<1>A realization which adds to my ever-increasing desire to ditch this whole computer-stuff career, to become a full-time vagabond for a while. Why fritter away my life among these dweebs?

<2>The only facilities at the cluster of trailers we called the "office" was a row of "Johnnies-on-the-spot" out back.