jimsjournal
 Automata Theory-- 06/04/04
Automata Theory: The mathematical study of abstract computing machines (especially Turing machines) and the analysis of algorithms used by such machines.

When Nancy and I were in grad school in systems science, one of the professors on our master's thesis committee was very involved with finite automata theory, the kinds of questions that fascinated people like Turing and Von Neumann. Our paper dealt with human factors engineering and the design of online computer application systems -- so obviously he had little interest in our topic, but we needed three people on the committee and he agreed to serve.

This has nothing with what I thought I might talk about today except for the word automata.

I am an organic automaton in the morning.

I get up, I stumble about, I manage to get my glasses on, I find the bathroom, I pull on a pair of jeans, I slip my feet into moccasins. If it is summer, the jeans may be shorts; if it is winter I may add a sweatshirt. At this point I manage to get downstairs with only minor amounts of bumping into walls along the way.

Now it is time for coffee. On good mornings there is enough coffee left in the coffee pot for me to be able to microwave a mug of coffee for myself before I have to master the feat of making a fresh pot of coffee.

Once I have started putting coffee into myself, I can now move through my other tasks. On weekdays from early September through late June, unless it is a school holiday, I put together breakfast for Nancy before I wake her up. I have this down to a science -- or, if not a science, then at least organized into a series of steps I can follow -- just as if I were some kind of automaton -- without the need for creative thought. Pour small amount of juice (Nancy doesn't care for more than about a third of a glass). Pour cereal into a bowl. Add fruit (a simple flowchart could outline this -- a series of nested IF statements or perhaps, more elegantly, an implementation of the CASE statement format -- Blueberries? If yes, put on cereal and exit task, if no then check for Strawberries. If yes, slice on to cereal, if no... etc., through the likely fresh fruit that might be good on cereal and if no fresh fruit, then consider dried fruit such as raisins. Pour coffee. Put a different fresh fruit in a small glass dish (orange slices? grapefruit? melon? cherries?). Pour milk on cereal. Put everything on a tray. Add a refilled mug of black coffee for me. Carry it upstairs. Turn on television to channel 10 for the morning news. The television going on wakes Nancy. She sits up. I give her the tray and take my coffee mug from the tray. I spent a few minutes watching the morning news with her while I drink my coffee.

I've perfected these moves over the past six years (that is, since she began teaching).

I don't have a good interrupt-handler mechanism.

That's why I like working from home. I'm mostly alone (Jill and Jeremy tend to either be asleep or out; if they are home and awake they are probably either in the living room or in their rooms, watching TV or playing computer or video games) -- the most common interruption might be Tiger begging for a Pounce or asking to have a window opened, but mostly he sleeps. If I need information from someone, I can telephone or use e-mail or use Lotus Sametime (an instant message utility). When I'm at the office I'm not in a private office, I'm in a cube farm. Distractions. Two or three or four people on the telephone. Not just a quick call. Someone might be in a two hour long meeting on the telephone. About thirty-five feet away is a guy who spends about two-thirds of his day on the phone, day after day. The business consultants who claim that using cubicles instead of real offices for people who do intellectual work saves money without any adverse impact on productivity must have been smoking some pretty potent stuff.

So this morning I come downstairs and microwave a coffee for myself and start to organize ingredients for Nancy's breakfast, when I hear footsteps on the stairs.

It's Nancy. She woke up and decided to come downstairs for breakfast.

I am now totally thrown off.

This is not the normal pattern. My semi-conscious process has been interrupted.

She wants a bagel. No problem; I had picked up fresh bagels yesterday afternoon, I have cinnamon-raisin and cranberry-orange. But I feel confused, unsettled. This isn't a weekend. This isn't the right pattern. I set my coffee down and then have to hunt for it. I almost forget to plug in the toaster. I almost forget to toast a bagel for myself.

 She wants a bagel. No problem; I had picked up fresh bagels yesterday afternoon, I have cinnamon-raisin and cranberry-orange. But I feel confused, unsettled. This isn't a weekend. This isn't the right pattern. I set my coffee down and then have to hunt for it. I almost forget to plug in the toaster. I almost forget to toast a bagel for myself. I'm all confused. It's a good thing today is Friday. (It is Friday, isn't it?)

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