The Smell of Mathematics

Earlier this month, Jilly of Eight Ladies Writing discussed the use of scent to enhance our descriptive text. I have had mixed success in my own writing with the sense of smell, and while the short story I’m currently writing has smell as a significant motive for several characters, mostly I find that detailed description in general is an afterthought for me, added during the editing process. There is, however, a story in my personal history that highlights the significance of smell.

As I have mentioned previously, my home town had several farms of note, one of which was a dairy farm. As it happens, this particular farm included property directly across the street from our town high school.  The mathematics department, which abutted the street, was particularly close.

wbhsBeing an older building in a small town, the high school didn’t have air conditioning.  In New England, this doesn’t matter much: during school months, its never so hot that you can’t simply open a window to cool off.  The only real problem happened in the spring, when (you guessed it) the dairyman was mucking out his barns.

May is not terribly warm in Massachusetts, but you often have a few days here and there that peak in the seventies (F).  On those particular days, teachers needed to open their windows to cool off their classrooms.  At the same time, the pungent smell of cow manure rose from the dairyman’s property. It was occasionally so strong that it made my eyes water. You might expect, therefore, that I would associate the smell of cow manure with math, and I do.

What you might not expect is the emotional content of that memory.  Math for me has always been easy, and I was blessed with teachers who didn’t force me to waste time doing the homework as long as I learned the material. Occasionally I was given something interesting to do in class (chess on a TRS-80 comes to mind) so I’d stay out of the teacher’s way and let him teach.  Math was fun.

These days, if I’m out hiking with my wife, we may suddenly encounter the smell of cow manure from a nearby farm. “What’s that smell?” she would ask.

“Math,” I’d say, and smile.


Passing Notes

C and I had been friends from the beginning. When the other girls went to the far side of the playground for recess and the athletic boys took over the field, leaving a handful of us boys to play Star Trek with her on the jungle gym, we were friends. When we used to talk for hours about Tolkien and D&D on the phone, we were friends. And in seventh grade, in math class, we were friends.

The teacher, whom I’ll call T, had a strict rule in his class about passing notes: if you were caught doing it, your note would be posted on his bulletin board for the entire class to see. The prospect of humiliation was sufficient threat to keep the cool kids from even trying it. To me, it was a challenge.

T had organized the desks in his class alphabetically: seven columns of three desks each, with a fourth desk in the back of the first and last columns.  Because C’s name was near the start of the alphabet, she ended up in the back of the lefthand column. My name, at the end of the alphabet, placed me all the way in the back of the righthand column. Since I was a math geek, and C was well-behaved, T must have thought he had it all figured out. He was wrong.

Separated by five rows of empty desks, C and I couldn’t pass notes by any traditional method. Even folding the paper into a tight triangular football wouldn’t work; If T saw either of us pick up a piece of paper from the floor, he’d know something was amiss.  My solution?  A ball-point pen with its guts removed.

One day, when T had given us desk work to do, I saw my chance. I had disassembled a pen that was large enough to hold a fairly large note, provided the note was folded carefully and rolled up into a small cylinder. To test my theory, I wrote a brief note to C, inserted it into the pen, and slid it across the floor to C when T was looking away. So far, so good.

C wrote me a reply, and passed it back. T didn’t even look up, and I became bold. I wrote her a second note, inserted it into the pen, and shot it towards C’s desk. The pen banged loudly against her three-ring binder, and T looked up. C picked up the pen from the floor, and no one seemed the wiser. When C passed me her second reply, and I stepped on the pen to stop its progress, I was sure I would be caught, but T went back to his work after a brief glare towards my desk.a-note

At this point, I knew the jig was up. There was no chance I could possibly get another note past him, even with my innovative concealment methods. Knowing this, I fashioned one last, special note, waited for T to glance my way, and tossed it across the floor.

“Miss C,” T said. “Give me that note.” T and I had been challenging each other all year, and he seemed smugly satisfied to have finally caught me in the act.

C, who hadn’t even had enough time to look at the note herself, handed it over, a look of sheer terror on her face. T unfolded the note, glanced at it, and his face fell. Still, he had an official policy–no exceptions allowed–and he posted it on his bulletin board.

“THIS IS A NOTE” it read, in letters large enough that the whole class could read it without leaving their desks.

I feel somewhat sorry about doing that to the poor man, but I probably feel more guilty about the fact that I’m proud I pulled it off.


Microsoft Delivers

Nineteen years ago, I was one of the senior developers in a project to develop a new factory automation software package under the Windows NT operating system. I received, as part of this project, a “Solution Provider” tee shirt, with the tagline “Microsoft Delivers.” Being a stereotypical New Englander (read: cheap), I wore said shirt periodically. My friends, who knew me as an advocate for UNIX, would often question me about this behavior, and I would tell them a story.

cattle farm

No longer a dairy farm, but cows still live there.

My grandfather owned a vegetable farm in southeast Massachusetts. Though he sold most of the property long before I ever knew it, he continued to farm a small plot of the original land to supplement our diet with fresh produce.

Across town, a friend of our family owned a dairy farm. Every spring, when the dairyman mucked out his barns, he took a truckload of manure and spread it on my grandfather’s field.  Years of this habit led to my grandfather having excellent soil on his property, which in turn made it easy to find nightcrawlers there for an afternoon of trout fishing.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood around my grandfather’s farm was not the same as it had been in the days when my father was a child.  Over the years, a residential neighborhood had sprung up where once oaks and swamp maples had grown across the street. These neighbors, as you might expect, had a different perspective of the manure delivery:

  • As far as my grandfather was concerned, he was making an annual purchase of fertilizer for his fields.
  • As far as the dairyman was concerned, he was providing a service to an old family friend.
  • As far as the neighbors were concerned, however, somebody had just driven up in a truck and dumped a big load of crap in my grandfather’s back yard, and it stank to high heaven.

Clearly, this story has absolutely nothing to do with the slogan “Microsoft Delivers”, but as the storyteller I can choose to tell you whatever story I wish.  Still, I think that perspective matters, whether you’re buying a product, selling a service, or witnessing a transaction.

Do y’all have any Marlots?

Some time ago, I travelled to Venice, Italy, to work on the control system of a cruise ship being constructed at the Fincantieri shipyard in Mestre. While I was there, my customer, G, was asked to dinner by his customer, D. Since D was going to invite a “technical” member of his team (T) to the meal, G wanted to do likewise, to schmooze with him–and therein lay the problem.

During his time in Italy, T had established a reputation for being less than pleasant company. As a result, G’s technical people all demurred when invited to join the dinner, which led to him inviting me. I can schmooze, and I like to eat, so I agreed. I was then asked where we should go, and suggested Da Bepi’s, a nearby seafood restaurant that the team regularly enjoyed.

I see online that Da Bepi’s has mixed reviews, and to some degree, I understand. the two Da Bepi brothers who ran the place (mama stayed in the kitchen) ran the place like a traditional Italian home. You show up, you socialize, you eat what you are given, and you eat a lot. When asked for a menu during my first visit, they told us “you don’t need a menu–you just tell us how hungry you are.” If you want to be in control of your surroundings, Da Bepi’s was not the place for you–but the seafood was excellent.

The four of us arrived at about 7pm to find that the place was full, and we couldn’t get a seat. Apparently my customer, who was planning the event, hadn’t considered making a reservation. This was a problem, because a meal at Da Bepi’s often ran for hours. We weren’t getting a table there any time soon.

Fortunately, there was a third Da Bepi brother, the eldest, who had opened a restaurant of his own across town. The Da Bepi’s called their brother, made us a reservation, and sent us on our way. There is something truly beautiful about Italian hospitality.

The Da Bepi’s brother’s restaurant wasn’t quite as fancy a place, and the four of us sat in a booth for our meal. Still, we were happy to be there, and all went well until the waiter came to ask us for our wine order. T spoke first:

Do y’all have any Marlots?

The waiter was perplexed, and the Americans at the table weren’t faring much better, so T repeated himself. We still had no idea what he was asking. In all fairness, T was a Texan, and his thick drawl didn’t help things any. After a bit of discussion, we were finally able to discern that my customer’s customer wanted to order Merlot.

A French wine.

In Italy.

For the benefit of those who have never been to Italy, let me say simply that the Italian wines they send to the United States do not do them justice. From what I can tell, mediocre “house” wine in Italy is better than “good” wine over here. And it’s cheaper than Coca Cola.

There was no chance that the Da Bepis’ brother’s restaurant kept a stock of French wine for American idiots like us.

Our waiter called over the elder Da Bepi from his kitchen–a hulk of a man, looking somewhat like Luca Brasi from The Godfather–and we explained to him what T had requested. Da Bepi spoke to his waiter in Italian, too quickly for me to follow, and the waiter scurried off.

Because of my location at the end of the booth, I was the only one who could see that the waiter ran out the door and sprinted down the street. A few minutes later, we got our bottle of Merlot, which we drank.

Some time later, we asked for a second bottle, which we also drank. At this point Da Bepi showed up at our table again with a bottle of Chianti.

“This is from my own vineyard,” he said. “I want you to have it as a gift.”

Now, it is possible that Da Bepi was just being gracious with us–the other Da Bepi brothers would often open a bottle of their own wine to share with us when we ate with them–but I suspect a more complicated motive was at work.

Da Bepi had sent his waiter out of the restaurant–possibly to a wine shop, or more likely to his own wine cellar at home–from which he obtained the two bottles of Merlot we had enjoyed that night. But it was now 11pm, and the shops were all closed. There was no chance whatsoever that Da Bepi could get us another bottle of Merlot if we asked for it. So, acting preemptively, he gave us something better.

I later learned that Delta airlines had an article in its in-flight magazine about “the growing popularity of Merlot wines” that week, from which we inferred that T was trying to impress his boss. D was apparently none the wiser, and T’s reputation with the rest of us was confirmed.

For my own part, I’d still rather drink Chianti.

The Legend of Big Bill

Those who think larger-than-life American personalities are limited to the Old West have never lived in a small town in New England. When you live in a small town, you get to meet any number of fascinating characters.

Back in the 1930’s in my home town, Big Bill was one such character. At six-feet-plus of muscle and sinew, he could have stood toe to toe with any of our modern exercise freaks, but Bill was the town fire chief, and he earned his strength from hard work farming and fighting fires. I only knew him in later years, but he was still a hulk of a man, and strong.

When World War Two arrived, the Massachusetts state government decided that a well-trained populace was going to be vital to civil defense. To that end, they sent an official to every small town to teach them how to put out the phosphorus bombs the Nazis were using to such devastating effect in London and elsewhere.

This particular government man was no fool– he knew how small town influence worked. To teach these stubborn New England yankees anything, he would need a vivid example of his own superiority. And to do that, he used the town fire chief.

For his demonstration, the government man chose a gravel parking lot near the center of town, framed to the south by Town Hall and to the north by the local Catholic church. In this lot, he set up a small wood-frame building similar to an outhouse, and placed a phosphorus bomb within it. The whole town turned out to see the event.

The plan was simple. The government man would light the bomb, then ask the fire chief to put out the blaze. A single man on a fire hose would normally have to use the standard firefighting method of spraying water on the fire in a broad arc. This would fail, because you have to suffocate a phosphorus blaze to put it out. The government man would then step in, douse the fire with sand, and thereby teach everyone how to put out a phosphorus fire.  His mistake? Assuming that Big Bill used “standard” methods.

Bill may have been a small-town fireman, but he knew there was a firebomb in that outhouse, and he knew he had to put it out.  When challenged to put out the fire, he didn’t spray water on it at all.  He picked up that hose, held the nozzle within a few short inches of the bomb, and turned it on.  Full blast.

The phosphorus bomb was snuffed out like a candle.

The reason this isn’t a standard method, though, is the strength required.  A single man should not be able to hold a hose that steady with that volume of water flowing from it. An ordinary man couldn’t.  Big Bill was no ordinary man.

After a few moments of astonished silence, the government man recovered and explained what they had just seen.  “Unless you are as strong as your fire chief,” he said, “I recommend you use sand to put out a fire like this.”

By all accounts, the people listened.