Archive for the ‘computers’ Category

Shoot Me Not

August 13th, 2016

My fashooterlure as a senior engineering manager was not shooting my direct reports. That was both physical and digital.

We all put in long, productive workdays. Mine tended to run longer. I got to the office around 5 AM. They’d stumble in around 9 or 10. I was the documentation manager/head tech writer. The chief UI designer would arrive about the same time. We’d work alone and together on our stuff and the complex interface, head to the downstairs FitCorp gym at 6 or 6:30 and be groomed and caffeinated when the programmers finally showed.

They’d goof around, then work, then insult each other, and keep it going until 5 or 6. Then they’d shift from coffee to Pepsi. As all savvy tech companies, ours provide unlimited cold and hot caffeine. They’d do hours of multi-player games over our network, taking great joy in visually splattering each other for hours.

Weekend meetings might be paintball, when then mayhem was more literal, involving downers (beer) and bruises from the balls.

Old Mike instead read books, wrote blogs, worked cryptic puzzles, and philosophized. I had no interest in figurative murder or literal punishment.

I’m older. The sprouts seemed to forgive me. We all went out to lunch and after-work drinks. I just had no interest in multi-player games and feigned warfare.

When my engineering VP went off to sell the company, he dubbed me in charge of engineering, as in development, test, QA, docs and such. I became the socket for the whines. “His code sucks…he doesn’t know how to clear a memory address…she uses 54 lines to do what I can in 12…my girlfriend’s cat pisses in my shoe…I found this function perfectly done in Fresh Meat…Tom did not subversion his code and I wasted four hours waiting…”

You’ll never find a bigger bunch of kvetchers than developers.

Yet, I admit, I’d been a better sport had I picked up a paintball gun and tried to humiliate and hurt my reports. I could have upended my life and fought rush-hour Boston traffic to get in late, leave late, and devoted two hours every evening to network shooter games.

Sorry. I win.

 

Your Name Here, On My Chest

August 6th, 2016

IMshirt copy Gentle branding of human employees was normal and welcome. Is it still?

Companies that paid well and had good benefits and policies always seemed to try to dress their folk. Of course, the polo shirts, windbreakers, hoodies and the like had the company logo and likely a product name. I scanned part of a couple of my remainders here. Internet Manager was one of the major products of Elron Software (later bought and murdered by Zix Corp.).

micbreakerMicrocom was one f the first and surely the best maker of modems, telecommunications software and chassis and such. Of the high-tech companies I worked for, Microcom was the best. Even after its suffocation and dissolve by Compaq, virtually all modems contain vestiges of it, specifically communicating via MNP (Microcom Networking Protocol).

I have polo shirts (high-end cotton pique, of course), heavy dress shirts, Polartec pullovers, super-heavy sweatshirts, as well as Nerf footballs and various geegaws. It’s the branded clothing that stands out though.

I’d worked for sleazy companies that underpaid. They rarely would spend even for modest t-shirts. I’m also away of rich companies that went out. A friend got a leather and satin jacket from Ziff-Davis’ internet service. A son got a leather bomber jacket from Google when he worked their security division.

From a business perspective, these make good sense. Employees feel special, they are billboards for the company, the non-recurring expense doesn’t add to the salary base. You have to wonder what the cheapskates in companies that don’t offer clothes are thinking. Surely this is penny wise and pound foolish.

I do think though of my erstwhile acquaintance, the late Al Goldstein. As an early 20-something, I did some freelance photography for his Milk Way Productions, which includes the sleazy tabloids Screw, Smut, Gay and Bitch. They did very little original photography, instead, as Al proudly told me, the bought black-and-white prints by the pound from pornographers. Their files were stuffed with drawers with labels like TWO BLACK WOMEN/ONE WHITE MAN.

Al did the shirt thing, largely to sell to subscribers (yes, Screw had mail subscribers). He gave me a couple. They were the cheapest possible fabrics. I remember that the first SCREW-logo one shrank in a few washings from a man’s XL to about a woman’s S.

On the other hand, I have lots of highly serviceable logo-wear from elsewhere.

 

 

Carp Anglers?

August 7th, 2014

I have good spam filters on  my blogs as well as email accounts. I do scan the trapped messages, as much for amusement as the likelihood of an error.

Today, one here intrigued me. Freezers for fishing boats led with, “Here are a few very big secrets every thinking carp angler who wants to keep ahead of the crowd needs to know.”

I”m not sure why the spammer thought my personal, non-sports fishing blog was a good place to plant such an ad. I suppose it was non-thinking effort, a shotgun blast of shill. That inane spam probably hit hundreds, maybe thousands, of blogs through automation. Some surely don’t filter well or at all.

A quick Google search returned 40 results currently embedded in blogs with that exact phrase. I don’t know how many of those converted to fish-freezer clicks and sales. I do know that such frequent attempts keep me filtering this and my other blogs. I don’t want to read an blog’s comments only to run across such carp crap.

The WABAC (and round-and-round) Machine

May 14th, 2014

gmimeoFrom first grade, I was what could loosely be called a Red Cross volunteer. That is, my mother ran the local chapter, and pressed my older sister and me into service as needed.

At its worst, one time the three of us picked up the slack when real volunteers punked out. We worked all evening and night, stapling white, pink and red tissue paper (flowers) all around and on a flatbed trailer to be the basis of the RC float in the next day’s July 4th parade. (Actually, I recall enjoying being able to stay up all night, which I perceived as limited to adults, not elementary school kids.)

More typically, it was newsletters, newsletters, newsletters. Teens and adults also joined in, but it seems my sister Pat and I always had our role (after homework of course).

We became very adept at folding 8.5X11 sheets into precise thirds and stuffing them into number 10 envelopes. We used sensuously smooth whale bone to make the creases. Even now I wonder who ended up with those ivory treasures as they became illegal to own.

The newsletters themselves were most often done on mimeograph machines, as the Gestetner model above. My mother’s chapters tended toward that brand, which seemed indestructible, even when operated by volunteers as young as 6 or into their 80s.

I haven’t even gotten into this repro technology with my three sons. They are aghast hearing of the cheap thrills of moving from manual to electric typewriters. I’m not so sure they believe my tales of batch processing on a shared mainframe computer long before PCs existed. I did save the manual from my first PC, an Intertec Data System Superbrain. It had a 9-inch, monochrome screen and 64kb of RAM (not as typo — 64 kilobytes; we didn’t know of giga anything in 1981). A word processing program would load in 32K, leaving 32K for data.

Actually with no graphics or color, that was adequate. Moreover, even booting from one of the floppies (hard drives were about $5,000 or more), it was ready to use in seconds, much faster than today’s boxes. There basically wasn’t anything to test before loading the OS.

Here and now, we have Apple and Windows computers, desktops, laptops and tablets. We have laser and color inkjet printers, which we share wirelessly.

Mimeographs were not that way. (wikipedia as a good backgrounder on the technology.)

I remember the fragile, wax-based sheets you’d baby into readiness, wrap about the ink-filled drum and hope to hell they held at least for the print run.

You’d type without a ribbon to etch the sheet so the ink had places to go. You’d hope that the hollow letters, like B or g, did not destroy and tear the stencil. If you wanted illustrations, you drew directly on the stencil with a metal stylus or physically glued a doctored piece of stencil in place.

Those mimeograph users really had to be competent.

There are still mimeograph machines around. They are generations removed from the ones I used. They are now large, expensive and special purpose.

On the way to iPad Air and such, we went through the horror of desktop publishing. Starting around 1985, that software on PCs pushed the likes of mimeographs into closets. Suddenly everyone was buying dot-matrix printers and the likes of PageMaker or a half dozen other layout programs. You could do newsletters in a fifth or a tenth of the time…all without fragile stencils and smearing ink.

Of course, if you were around, you saw the dreadful results. Newsletters, promotional material and even Christmas letters looked the same. Everyone tucked in all the pictures they could and used dozens of fonts and headline styles per newsletter. It was the hideously overwrought style we were taught to avoid in our journalism-school classes — circus layout, from being in the garish style of a Ringling Bros. poster. Every became editor, artist and publisher in one.

That curse carried over although the technology is long gone. We see its vestiges in Apple-based culture. That would be the likes of barely illegible sans serif fonts (from days when serif type was jagged, but no longer necessary), and white or other light type on a dark background, and still online and in print too many damned headline and body styles.

Stop it already. Contain yourself!

In fairness, I should relax myself. Most people just don’t know where their bad habits and preferences arose.

 

He talks!

October 27th, 2013

I have a little less excuse to hide inside my moderate introversion. Yes, I do host a weekly podcast, a.k.a. an internet radio show. Yes, my yellow glasses say, “Look at me.” Yet, public speaking has never been my love or forte. I remain nervous and avoid it.

Somehow while attending my fourth or fifth BarCamp Boston, I did it yesterday. I went ahead and populated a Post-it with a topic I thought I could wing. I also figured maybe a few folk would attend.

For the gregarious and Toastmaster sorts, that is nothing. For us publicly shy types, it’s a big deal. When I went back to school to add a management degree, I found how stunted I was here. While I went to J-school, worked newspapers and magazines for decades, interviewed big shots and small, and represented my department in group meetings, there were safeguards. I had a notepad or PowerPoint to hide behind, to distract. Also, I was not the focus of attention.

bcbtest

The way these self-suggested sessions work is the crowd mills around those stuck in the WOULD YOU ATTEND? grid. Those that get four or more checkmarks are OK. The suggester is supposed to move it to an open block on the schedule board for a room and time.

Most presenters planned their sessions well in advance. Many created laptop presentations and provided lots of visuals and in some cases audio.

I think of Steve Garfield (pic below). He presented on Storify.

His session was brilliant, professional and accessible. He’d taken a few snaps with his smartphone that morning, posted some tweets and Instagrams and was ready to teach. He plugged his laptop into the overhead connection and created a Storify post in real time. He searched for and pulled in his elements, text, pix, Vine vids and such from various social-media sites. He saved to Storify and embedded it in several of his other sites.

It was a great show and I was one of those who had vaguely thought about using that site. I shall now. That what BarCamp should do.

storifysg

In a pale contrast, I was now thinking after Steve’s presentation that I should go back to the WOULD YOU ATTEND? block and remove my Post-it. When I arrived, I had five checks and felt committed. Scary stuff for an introvert.

I sat at lunch and was not sociable much to the rest of the folk. I sketched my session ideas on four index cards. I wanted to speak to such things as:

  • recap of my background, why I am at all qualified
  • traits of bad online manuals and help systems
  • two kinds of tech writers (the majority being literal sorts incapable of thinking like naive users)
  • elements of good docs
  • down-and-dirty usabilty

I fretted and even thought of removing my Post-it from the block where I’d stuck it — Mattapan Room, 155 at 2:40 pm. By then though, I figured I’d goof up, no one would show, people who drift out during, or just maybe it would be OK even without visuals and prep.

It was the latter. About 20 folk came in and nearly all stayed. I had the good fortune to have three who were interactive, commenting and questioning.

At the end, They applauded. I confessed my introversion. One of the active participants said if I hadn’t told them, they wouldn’t have known.

I’ll never be as smooth as Steve. Yet, I think I might do this again. I have to year to come up with a topic and then produce a show. Even a shy guy should be able to do that.

Thumb-thing Silly

October 7th, 2013

What this neat pop-science Boston Globe article does not address is why so many of us believe, no, know, that we are splendid multitaskers. If we were anywhere as bright and observant as we pretend, we’d see frightening reflections galore that suggest otherwise.walking thumb

Adults, teens, even wee ones stumble and career into shelves, each other, closed doors and worse while punching into a (insert irony symbol, traditionally ironymark) smartphone. More poignantly than the clown bumps and pratfalls, one aspect of device-distracted humans is texting while driving, too often, killing while doing so.

The article does deal extensively with another key aspect, how iPhones and their like are great programming tools. That is, they program their ostensible owners. In fact, they are the owner in the relationship.

I’ve dealt with and even obsessed on the whole mess here numerous times. Samples are in links to posts using multitask.

A current cliché is how smart the millennials and young folk are. Aren’t they masters of technology?

That would be a resounding, “No!” for them as a group. In fact knowing how to use the icons, menus and keys on a cellphone, being comfortable with numerous social-media and their keywords, do not translate into broader intelligence or even technology skills. Instead, as many of us note, we as a populace are being dumbed down, just as we are increasingly under the control of our devices.

By cracky, Mable, it isn’t just the kids either. In a supermarket, on the street and well, everywhere, the seemingly ubiquitous Androids, iPhones and such make humans hop. 60-year-olds as well as middle-schoolers largely cannot control themselves when their device tones or jiggles. They, the nominal owners, are dancing to the notes.

A few years ago, Boomer and older folk lamented the rudeness of folk putting their phones on the restaurant table, constantly scanning them, and unhesitatingly answering them should they command so. Of course that’s ill mannered and speaks poorly of whoever raised them. And, an alter kaker like I am tells people not to bring their phone out. I, perhaps self-righteously, tell them that in my house, if we’re having a family dinner when a cell or other phone rings, that call just goes to voice. We’re busy and in the moment.

Still, for all those people who believe they are smart enough to multitask, I wish awareness. When they respond like birds or other lower animals conditioned to push a button for food or perform some other stupid pet trick, will they please see that? Will they get a grip and realize they are in thrall to their $500 gadget?

My hope would be if a 17-year-old gains that level of awareness, it would be a teachable moment. Each enlightened lad or lass would show peers how to be in charge of the device, instead of the other way around.

That smarter lifestyle might even spread to their parents and grandparents. Honestly, humans can decide what’s really urgent.

 

Fiercebook strikes

July 30th, 2013

turtlefaceLaddies and germs, Facebook bloats like a dead animal in the sun, bigger and more intense daily. Yet, if my chums are any measure, some demographics have run in terror or trepidation.

I thought it was silly. In many ways, I’m still right. Back when I first looked at FB, ain’t-my-kitten and ain’t-my-kid and ain’t-girlfriend cute pix ruled. Double bleech.

I avoided it until my wife went canoeing with other aged Girl Scouts to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.There, the daughter of one of these former Brownie chums led extended paddling/camping expos. When she returned, she announced that the only place the commentary and images of the trip appeared and would ever appear would be on Facebook.

Thence I joined and have remained…for the past six years.

Truth be told, I don’t and never have stalked or even checked up on former girlfriends or more intimate sorts. Yet, I do post my photos. I do keep tabs with a few former HS and college classmates. I do get updated by and update various relatives and friends. I have many political acquaintances on my friends lists. I plug into events, restaurants, bars and such. FB has become a casual, occasional part of life that takes from a few minutes to a half hour a day for myriad info exchanges.

Lately though, there’s been a bifurcation among my chums, like my drinking buddies. Several have announced, always self-righteously, that they closed out their FB accounts. One is an efficient sort, shifting to a new line of service business. He has fair reasoning that he was spending too much time on FB, got most of what he needed professionally from Linked In, and did a cost/benefit analysis. In truth, what I actually heard was that he lacked self-control and didn’t manage his FB interactions well. Moreover, in his new service biz, he’ll likely regret missing out on customers who expect to find him on FB.

Another is more typical, the turtle sort. He’s a fair Luddite, always convinced that with a moment’s inattention, the latest virus or malware will eat up his hard drive. FB is just another risk, like the easy, pretty girl in high school everyone suspected of carrying VD.

fiercebook

To these two and many I know or know of like them, Facebook has become FierceBook. There’s something not quite right, something risky, something d-a-n-g-e-r-o-u-s about it.

An even odder aspect is that several of the guys hear others of us talking about trips, pictures, blog posts and other personal info we’d shared and enjoyed online. Even hearing about such splendid moments, they remain in their anti-FB shells.

I’m not the best self-promoter around, far from it in fact. I have a couple of good friends, one an artist and the other a musician, who share the so-so marketing bent. We could all do far, far better at pitching our wares. FB is just one of those places to do that.

I think of my friend Steve Garfield, a paragon and god on FB, twitter and his own site.  He understands how to use them all. His social media work for him, not the other way around.

I guess it’s not too surprising to hear of Boomers tucking back in their shells, increasingly convinced that something terrible will befall them on the scary internet.

Yet, many of my chums stay on and actively contribute to FB, twitter and their own blogs.

I draw my personal line at texting. I consider that lowbrow and simpleminded. I fall into tweets when I want it down and dirty. I see texting as for the immature and still impulsive.

Perhaps there’s a spectrum of social media if my thoughts and feelings hold. I am only surprised at how many I know who fear FB.

 

Banks of the Muddy Dan

June 2nd, 2013

Back to key childhood town today via the NYT opinion piece, I recalled Danville, VA. Tess Taylor, likely the age of my eldest son, wrote on how early Civil Rights protests hit even her white, establishment granddad.

In the very segregated setting only three miles above North Carolina, I went to elementary and junior high. Separate black/white schools were the norm. Even Greyhound was the white bus line versus the black Trailways. Some accommodations were not quite blended. I think of the Rialto movie theater, which kind of accommodated black folk, so long as they sat in the balcony. In fact, when I was eight, a friend thought he was tricking me by sending me upstairs with my bag of popcorn. When I noticed that the white people were downstairs and I was among rows of exclusively black people, I wasn’t bothered and watched the double feature (always at least a double and the Rialto had the Westerns and other action flicks). Later I wondered whether anyone in the balcony resented a white kid in their seats. If so, they didn’t let me know. After the movies, my classmate met me and looked chagrined. I think maybe he tasted his own racism and found his joke unfunny.

Taylor’s piece is on her grandfather’s modestly foolish upbraiding of a racist judge for coming heavy on black protesters for integration. It gives nice background on Danville as well as the perceived praise of her relative.

I’ve written on Danville here before. I lived there longer than anywhere until I moved to Manhattan after college and those were formative years.

Fortunately, my mother was not a racist and we were not infected by the malevolent disorder. She ran the Red Cross chapter, where black folk as well as white volunteered and received such services as blood, transportation, first-aid and home nursing training and such. Black folk were as welcome in our lives as whites. There were a few Jews, including the physician who rented to us, although I don’t recall knowing or even seeing Asians. It was a two-colored world.

Danvillelibrary

We moved to a far more rural Chester — middle of the same state, but not at all a city, before going to Plainfield, NJ for high school. PHS was half black. Plus my classes were a quarter to half Jewish students. I took the bus to Manhattan every chance I got. I experienced intense culture shock, almost entirely in a good way. I did hear and see Yankee de facto segregation and overt racism though, as I did and do during my decades in Boston. The first time I heard anyone openly using the N word was in my first few days in New Jersey. The separation of races in old Danville seems to have minimized open disdain, plus likely the veneer of civility in the South.

Pic note: The building was my public library and had been the site of the last capital of the Confederacy. Danville came with extra baggage.

On a far more prosaic level, I can draw light lines to other cultural transitions. I think of common tools, such as computers. I went from a manual typewriter to an electric one, on to when being a computer user meant bringing your task, like data analysis to a programmer who typed out punchcards and handed them to you to pile into a huge computer for calculation, I went on to batch processing in a shared environment and to paper tape mainframes before dedicated (and very expensive) word processors before workstations and then personal computers.

The improvements in integration and race relations have not been as linear or incessant. Yet integration advances, even in places like Boston, although there’s still a lot of happen. To return to the weak tool analogy, much as occurred in my lifetime and my towns. I think of my wife’s late grandmother, who grew up from the era before electricity and automobiles. Like Mable Thames, I have seen and benefited from much. Keep it coming.

 

Tricksy Managers

December 21st, 2012

ESpen

On discovering a couple of what could kindly be termed collectors items, I ran though some of the corporate gifts I’ve gotten over decades. Yesterday’s finds were impressive looking ballpoint pens. The pen body was in the same wood as the substantial box. Both had etched ELRON SOFTWARE into them.

Its Israeli parent, Elron Electronic Industries, is still fat and thriving in various medical and defense businesses there. The mistimed decision to jointly develop software there, here and with some help in Russia was solid, but unfortunately foundered in the industry collapse of 2000-2001 and an IPO that was about three months too late.

Along the way in the good times, management gave us these tchotchkes, along with fleece pullovers, polo shirts and seemingly anything you could weave or brand with the company name or its product names. I have bright yellow INTERNET MANAGER and blue WEB INSPECTOR apparel.

Likewise, various previous companies handed out backpacks to our children on bring-your-kid-to-work day, as well as t-shirts, note pads and on and on. I still like wearing Microcom gear, because I was proud of those products. That company sold itself to Compaq, shortly before that one bought DEC and a NIC manufacturer, with the idea that all together we’d put Compaq instantly into the networking business. That best-of-breed amalgam took more smarts than Compaq’s management and marketing and their new owner HP had. The network-card, DEC networking and Microcom teams were all tossed in the street.

Truth be told, many of us at various companies were amused by such gifts. They cost the companies very little, all of which was tax deductible anyway. The company got diverse use by giving the same stuff to customers and vendors.

The cynical aspect though was what I heard directly from the shots at American Management Associations a long time before. That AMA made its consistent profits by holding seminars for execs. Some of those meetings were at the New York City HQ and others at more luxurious locales like the horse farm at Saranac Lake.

They told us in the publishing division that companies’ managements understood the tchotchke nature of these expensive trips for their underlings. Sure there was the airfare and the hotel and meals costs, some away-from-office time and incidental penalties. The pretense (dubious, I say, having attended numerous of these sessions) was that the managers given these wonderful AMA privileges was that the brass at home expected them to be even better at their jobs after attending.

In reality, AMA told the big shots that these were a great way to make the recipients feel special, and maybe increase the productive competitiveness internally. The best part was that the one or five thousand spent did not add to the salary base. That is why companies so love bonuses over raises. The rewards immediately expire and do not compound.

I don’t even get tired of kindly correcting people who ask about my ENRON jacket. After all, Elron had bad timing with its software efforts, but they weren’t a bunch of crooks.

 

Multi-Bumbling

March 22nd, 2012

For only one more example that, for crying out loud in a bucket, we as a species are not multitaskers, consider the young woman who walked off a pier into cold Michigan water while texting. Sure it happens widely and rarely makes the news, except on the level of ridicule by acquaintances and relatives.

I’ve ridden this horse for years, like here and here.  For over a decade, I’ve seen adults and kids in malls walk into objects and people…because their brains are too single-stream to use a phone and travel simultaneously.

I lay special blame at the feet and graves of the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As marketing ploys, they blithely told consumers and managers alike that humans multitask well. This dovetails perfectly with the managers’ belief that lazy employees should be doing three or more complex tasks simultaneously (and well) instead of sucking away company money for goofing off.

Unfortunately for that fantasy, having several computer programs running and one or more phone calls connected and maybe even a meeting or oral conversation at one time is plain stupid. To belabor the computer context, we simply don’t have the RAM, processor speed, or disk to deal with many threads concurrently. A tiny fraction of us have brains capable of multitasking and the odds are high that you are not in that group. Give it a rest.

We believe we do only because software companies and bosses say that is so. This delusion has become so pervasive I’m a multitasker has joined I’m a people person in the list of top meaningless self-descriptions.

The fault, dear humanoid, is not in the handheld device or app, but in ourselves. Do one thing at a time well and avoid rear ending a vehicle or falling on your face.