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Entries For: August 2009

An unlikely encounter

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Strange and unexpected: those are the first two qualifiers that come to my mind for this evening.

For a start, I was not expecting such a successful date. The energiest, pretty and extra-ordinary girl I planned to have dinner with reached me with her life projects. As we went through our groceries, my mind slowly stopped wandering around with recollections of my working day (plenty of good stuff in store for tomorrow!) and eventually focused on the conversation with my host: while our previous encounters had prepared me to a relaxing evening, I found her daring enterprises unexpectedly surprising and inspiring. This, in addition to the discovery of a remote part of Amsterdam which proved to be in reality more welcoming and civilized than what the local urban culture would otherwise suggest, soothed my busy mind and left it open to appreciate the beauty of a well-decorated interior. Such a reception! It really made my day.

As an expression of my gratitude I tried my best to prepare something edible — unfortunately likely a failed attempt, given the polite lack of feedback, but we fed nonetheless — and we had otherwise a pleasant and entertaining conversation, about experiences past and to come.

Meanwhile, rewinding this story a little, as I was initially waiting for my host to pick me up I wandered around one of the busiest areas in the neighbourhood; either the idle atmosphere or out of some desire for entertainment (not knowing yet how agreeable my date would be) instilled in my the idea of a visit to the nearby cinema. She accepted.

And zo was het, a boy and a girl having a good time after a dinner together, in a wonderful mood, and going together to the movies, and planning to enjoy a film and each other's company in the anonymity of obscurity…

As we sat down, I was already thinking: what will I say to people? What will people think of this? What am I doing?

We watched Brüno together.

As we sat up, I was now thinking: what will I say to people? What will people think of this? What have I done?

But then I was not taking myself seriously any more. My company was barely hiding her putting back her brain and her senses together after the exposure to more skin than she was expecting. I was still laughing, of course. Note to self: educate friends, especially females, with the basics before bringing them to the advanced courses. Because that's what Sasha Baron Cohen has made there — and I didn't know before tonigh, I swear! — although I wonder how she understood it; alas we did not take the opportunity to talk about that since she was busy stating and rehearsing her disbelief that anyone could even imagine such a concept… I was happily thinking: honey, there goes your sanity; denial first, we'll see to the rest later. We parted, I laughed again, and I took the metro back to the city.

What a nice movie. What a nice take on all I've ever been thinking personally about culture on the other side of the Atlantic. Would I ever myself have expected to identify so much with the message of a movie whose main character is so exaggeratingly, undoubtedly, painstakingly and obnoxiously “over the top”? Whatever, life is like a box a chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.

Still, this day will be difficult to summarize.

Amsterdam is a city of many surprises — not. As I was unlocking my bike, the most derelict shadow of a human being I have ever met in person asked me if I knew my way around the city. His hat, sunglasses and scarf were hiding his face; his heavy winter clothes the rest of his body; except for his hands and his nose. The latter was wearing a piece of stainless steel; the former were spotted with open sores, although they were surprising clean.

Only years of experience in Paris allowed me to detect the slightly rehearsed side of an otherwise brutally honest, straightforward and heartbreaking conversation. He needed help, and his opening line was merely asking for it. Do you know places in Amsterdam where I could get help? City shelters for the homeless were my blind guess. They don't accept non-EU citizens, or you need to pay a small amount of money upfront. A hospital? That's where a friend died of an overdose yesterday. They provided the list of all the shelters, but it doesn't work out. The police? They are friendly and understanding, but they don't provide the most important: some money and/or a trip. I was honestly searching for more ideas. The guy genuinely sounded despaired, and why should he not? Even if his story is rehearsed, his trump card is certainly his honesty and his clarity. Despite the many recognizable scars over his veins and arteries, he was rational, polite and relatively well-mannered; he only needed a few coins either for a dose of whatever drug he's on, or to get into the only shelters that would accept him. And he was tired, visibly so.

“What would Jesus do?” My immediate previous experience had not prepared me for this. But the following scene still plays in my head:

— look, I don't have any cash on my. I usually don't anyways. But it happens I have some free time, and I'm in a good mood.

So we go to the nearest shop and I get two beers with my debit card. We sit. He tells me his story, not surprising and yet so human. I get an idea:

— I lied earlier. I have these two English pounds in my wallet from a previous trip. Those are the only coins I have. But I have an idea: you tell good stories. So why not making a show of yourself in Amsterdam, telling about your life and the mistakes you've made? Propose to answer questions; challenge tourists to guess what your life looks like, amidst the prejudice of what they think about how drugs work in the Netherlands. And then ask friendly a British visitor to change these pounds for the same denomination in Euros. Given the exchange rate they might accept.

In a way, I fathom it can be difficult emotionally to live isolated from society when one dragged themselves this way out of it. There was not much left in that human to let others identify with him in any way. But he was telling a good story, so how could I not spend a few minutes of my time with him, offer and let him feel honest and sincere attention for a little while? As any decent and moral social person ought to do, as they would expect others to do the same in return?

As this scene was forming in my mind, I was reflecting on my own mess. On the one hand, I socialize with wonderful and passionate women and I have absolutely no first-hand experience of the myriad of feelings they try share with me; yet I persist because the invisible wall that clearly separates us and establishes our mutual trust gives me a slight sense of control that my abysmal relational ignorance would otherwise shatter. On the other hand… Here should come a sentence with "men", but also "invisble wall", "mutual trust", "abysmal relational ignorance" and "myriad of feelings", although in quite a different order that I haven't sorted out yet. Every day, as the sun sets, I am scared. While a beautiful job and an exciting social life get me out of bed happy every morning, they are merely pushing away the nagging call of my hormones: seduce! couple! settle! breed! cherish your elders, so your offspring will cherish you as well!

An isolated life is a battle to fight every day, and I am proud to dominate my biological urges more often than not. If I can, why shouldn't he? Or maybe I was contemplating myself, twenty years down the line?

This world is a jungle: as I was unlocking my bike, I instead closed our conversation saying that I was coming from Rotterdam, and that I didn't know the city enough to answer him. I wonder if I can look at myself in a mirror tomorrow.

Still, this day will be difficult to summarize.

Oral examinations — C/Unix

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In the process of sorting through archives and old stuff, I found a collection of sticky notes that colleagues and I used five years ago to evaluate students at EPITA. These were oral examinations with no computer, only pen and paper or whiteboard. As I am recycling the paper, here is the transcript for archival.

  • each page of the Unix User Manual belongs to one of its sections. Give the title of each of the first three sections.
  • given two C++ strings s1 and s2 representing two large numbers expressed in base b (each character is a digit), write an algorithm that returns the sum (as a C++ string of digits) expressed also in base b.
  • what is the canonical mode for a terminal? Explain.
  • SIGKILL and SIGSEGV excluded, give the name of 5 signals, their meaning and their use(s).
  • %d, %i and %x excluded, give 5 distinct printf format conversion specifiers.
  • give 6 gcc options and explain them. Only the options properly explained are accepted.
  • give the library function names and data types involved in reading a Unix directory.
  • given a make macro named SRC defined to an arbitrary list of Texinfo file names (e.g. SRC = foo.texi bar.texi ...), write a Makefile which creates PostScript and PDF output for these sources, using commands texi2dvi, texi2pdf and dvips.
  • given a 2D character array (dimensions W and H) with each cell set to X or O, representing respectively ground and water (it's a map), write an algorithm which takes the coordinates of two points and which returns true if and only if one can swim from one point to the other.
  • write an algorithm which takes two strings as input and returns true/false according to whether the two strings are anagrams of each other (e.g. abc/bca -> true, aab/bba -> false).
  • given an array of zeros and ones, write an algorithm that returns the index in the array which maximizes the sum of the number of zeros on the left and the number of ones on the right (e.g. 001101 -> 2).
  • given the expression printf(1["foo"]), comment.
  • given a sorted integer sequence s and an integer n, write an algorithm which returns the value in s which is closest to n.
  • write an algorithm which takes a string representing an arithmetic expression as input and which returns true if and only if parentheses are properly balanced.
  • write an algorithm which takes a character string as input and returns the character with the most occurrences.
  • given a 2D character array (dimensions W and H) with each cell set to X or O, representing respectively ground and water (it's a map), write an algorithm which returns the sum of the lengths of the coasts. Each cell side counts for 1.
  • given a directed graph structure G, an operator V which for a given graph returns the set of nodes, and an operator T which for a given node n returns the set of nodes accessible from n, write an algorithm which takes a graph as input and returns true if and only if the graph contains cycles.
  • to establish a connection with a client, a TCP server on Unix must call four library functions; give their name and the call order.

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