Friday, December 31, 2010

In Texas We Call it Walkin’

Regardless of his struggles with eloquent articulation and his relentless problems with an incredibly hostile press, I’ve never found much to not like about this man.  Oh, he was more liberal than I would have liked but I just found the guy about the same as so many outgoing Texans with whom I grew up. 

When the press picked on him about his “swagger” he simply commented, “In Texas we call that walkin’.” 

I really got a kick out of him when Queen Elizabeth came to visit Jamestowne and Williamsburg during our 400th anniversary celebration in 2007.  He was very respectful but couldn’t restrain himself from tryin’ to break through her reserve.  One of the results is the classic picture below.

Some years ago when we visited Colonial Williamsburg, I was standing in line to get into one of the restorations behind an elderly, very English couple.  They were tall and proper.  He had the wispy white hair and tweed jacket with the cliché leather elbow patches of a professor whilst she looked more like the prim garden club type.  He sat on a planter reading a book while she stood in line.

I nudged her and asked, “Have you come to see what your ancestors gave up?”  Not missing a beat she sniffed, “Bit of a relief, actually.”  I doubled over. 


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snow & The Big Apple

Visits to NYC have always been a difficult thing for me. It’s just a hassle to get in and out and around. Hotel rooms are very expensive and timely transportation can be difficult. Good and reasonable food can be found but you have to look for it and planning a visit is time-consuming and necessary, if you aren’t very familiar with the place.

When a big snow event like this recent one hits during the Christmas holidays the place really goes into tilt because most of its working denizens are gone to somewhere else. So that leaves the second and third stringers scrambling to handle things and as we old footballers know, second and third stringers just aren’t the first string no matter how hard they try nor how good their intentions.

When things in NYC go to hell, the screaming begins, and so it has this week. The picture shows a local newspaper article reflecting the city officials attitude and a lot of lively retorts from locals. It’s amusing. The tow truck video shows one city worker trying to free a snow loader while he demolishes a SUV in the process. BTW, the SUV is a city vehicle, too.

Imagine what your winter visit would be this week if you had gone to the effort to go there. Few of the locals are there to serve, and fewer still want to be there.

Airline Deregulation – 1978

I flew heavily on business during the first half of the 1970s and the last half of the 1980s, both before and after Deregulation.  Schedules were much more reliable before Deregulation.  Passenger screening consisted of nothing until late 1972 when metal detectors were installed throughout the country at the direction of the FAA.  Airlines were made responsible for the screening.

Airlines were subject to government regulation from their very earliest days, 1920s to 1930s, the reasoning being that they served a function much like a public utility and that the government had paid a lion’s share of aircraft development to that point in time.  Utilities have traditionally been seen as services necessary to the smooth conduct of commerce; transportation, mail, electricity, water, sewer, police, fire, communications. 

Free market supporters, being what they are, always see functions that produce large amounts of cash flow as potentially profitable enterprises, if only they were free of government intervention and open to capitalists to work their magic.  There follows an ongoing dance between ever increasingly inefficient, bumbling government regulators, pliable politicians, and ambitions capitalists to determine if government regulation serves its initial purpose or not. 

In 1978, after nearly 50-years of airline regulation by the CAB, the government under the auspices of Messer’s Carter and Kahn, effected Deregulation amidst great fanfare.  Within a few years, during the 1980s, we lost a number of old line carriers as they merged or liquidated, leaving us with the few majors we have today.  Low cost carriers emerged and disappeared.

Competition, such as it was in a regulated environment, tended to focus on the quality of cabin service (meals & comfort) and reliable schedules.  Prices were uniform and expensive.  After Deregulation, comfort disappeared, as did meals and reliable schedules.  On the other hand, owing to the true capitalist nature, prices could range from too cheap to outrageously expensive depending on who had the upper hand in the transaction.

In a regulated environment, airlines tended to be assigned in pairs to specific routes in order to ensure service to underserved destinations and to provide a kind of measured seat availability.  Their departure and arrival times were also regulated in order to ensure smooth traffic flow.  However, it could be a challenge for a traveler to piece together a sensible schedule since it often required changing carriers on a multi-leg journey.

After Deregulation, carriers switched to a hub and spoke arrangement, much like the package carriers had been using for years.  This permitted an airline to capture a passenger for the entire journey as it made switching airlines difficult, expensive, and irrelevant (it also rendered the DFW “People Mover” even more useless than it already was).  Unfortunately, it made choosing a competently-run airline more important than ever which was difficult to do for the occasional or unsophisticated traveler.

So, here we are over 30-years down the road and airline travel, despite propaganda to the contrary, is not as comfortable and predictable as it was.  Ticket prices are lower and I suppose that’s something; but, I couldn’t imagine being trapped in a plane on a tarmac for 10-12 hours for any reason whatsoever—I don’t care what excuses are given or by whom.  The risk of that circumstance alone is enough, in my opinion, to constitute a significant decline in airline service over the past 30-years.  And the faces I would attach to that accomplishment are those of Messers Carter and Kahn, both of them Democratics. 

Christmas Travel Mess

Thank goodness we discarded our Christmas travel urges and responsibilities decades ago.  Bad weather problems are about a 70-30 proposition in the snowy parts of the country this time of year.  Although it does seem that the mess was dealt with more efficiently years ago than it is today, you have always risked a day or two delay in the event of a big weather event in New York or Chicago during the winter.

Clearly, airline load factor management focus coupled with hapless government meddling has conspired to amplify already challenging conditions imposed by weather upsets.  Add in the club-fisted TSA issues and we’re content to stay put, and have been for years.  Ho-Ho-Ho !

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Tree 1921

We never had such fancy ornaments on our trees.  This is a terrifically sharp photo taken of a D.C. lawyer's family tree.  Compare those ornaments with the ones you remember.  Also note the 12' tree in the 10' room.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Corporate Communications circa. 2010

Subject: quotable quotes....Whatever hits the fan will not be evenly distributed...

A magazine recently ran a "Dilbert Quotes" contest. They were looking for people to submit quotes from their real life Dilbert-type managers. Here are the finalists:

1.      "As of tomorrow, employees will only be able to access the building using individual security cards. Pictures will be taken next Wednesday and employees will receive their cards in two weeks." (This was the winning quote from Fred Dales at Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, WA.)

2.      "What I need is a list of specific unknown problems we will encounter." (Lykes Lines Shipping)

3.      "E-mail is not to be used to pass on information or data. It should be used only for company business." (Accounting manager, Electric Boat Company)

4.      "This project is so important, we can't let things that are more important interfere with it." (Advertising/Marketing manager, United Parcel Service)

5.      "Doing it right is no excuse for not meeting the schedule."

6.      "No one will believe you solved this problem in one day! We've been working on it for months. Now, go act busy for a few weeks and I'll let you know when it's time to tell them." (R&D supervisor, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing/3M Corp.)

7.      "My Boss spent the entire weekend retyping a 25-page proposal that only needed corrections. She claims the disk I gave her was damaged and she couldn't edit it. The disk I gave her was write-protected." (CIO of Dell Computers)

8.      Quote from the Boss: "Teamwork is a lot of people doing what I say." (Marketing executive, Citrix Corporation)

9.      My sister passed away and her funeral was scheduled for Monday. When I told my Boss, he said she died on purpose so that I would have to miss work on the busiest day of the year. He then asked if we could change her burial to Friday. He said, "That would be better for me." (Shipping executive, FTD Florists)

10.   "We know that communication is a problem, but the company is not going to discuss it with the employees." (Switching supervisor, AT&T Long Lines Division)

11.   We recently received a memo from senior management saying: "This is to inform you that a memo will be issued today regarding the memo mentioned above." (Microsoft, Legal Affairs Division) 

12  One day my Boss asked me to submit a status report to him concerning a project I was working on. I asked him if tomorrow would be soon enough. He said, "If I wanted it tomorrow, I would have waited until tomorrow to ask for it!" (New business manager, Hallmark Greeting Cards) 

13   And the winner!! As director of communications, I was asked to prepare a memo reviewing our company's training programs and materials. In the body of the memo in one of the sentences I mentioned the "pedagogical approach" used by one of the training manuals. The day after I routed the memo to the executive committee, I was called into the HR director's office, and told that the executive vice president wanted me out of the building by lunch. When I asked why, I was told that she wouldn't stand for perverts (pedophiles?) working in her company. Finally, he showed me her copy of the memo, with her demand that I be fired-and the word "pedagogical" circled in red. The HR manager was fairly reasonable, and once he looked the word up in his dictionary and made a copy of the definition to send back to her, he told me not to worry. He would take care of it. Two days later, a memo to the entire staff came out directing us that no words, which could not be found in the local Sunday newspaper could be used in company memos. A month later, I resigned. In accordance with company policy, I created my resignation memo by pasting words together from the Sunday paper. (Taco Bell Corporation)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 8

About 1917, the local DAR erected these 3 markers in a small, very old country cemetery in southwestern Arkansas. One of them is my 3rd great grandfather. He and the other 2 gentlemen honored by the DAR were soldiers of the American Revolution. Years ago, dad purchased a couple of books and did some light research of that family line but had done little more than work out the vitals and draw a crude family tree. What he knew of our great grandfather’s service in the Revolution was limited to the markings on that old stone monument. When Dad died, the books and the project passed to me. It was about the beginning of popular use of the Internet…the late 1990s.

About the first substantial project I undertook online was to dig into my family history, starting with this line. Like most of us, I was a native Texan with early lineage going way back to southern places east of Texas. North Texas stock generally came from Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. Migration of that stock occurred over a period of a century or so and several generations.

Advanced genealogists were among the first groups to make good use of the Internet for communications and exchange of information. Working within that group I learned how to protect my privacy, get information I needed, and give others what I could without opening up to some of the lousy parts of dealing with the web.

Finding my roots was a useful and sobering exercise that really illustrated the potential of the web. Beyond dad’s rudimentary work, most of the knowledge I have came from making contacts over the web. There is little that is more boring than someone else’s family history and I won’t bore you with mine. However, I think it useful to show some of the amazing discoveries by way illustrating what is possible with the web.

Grandpa Jim Williams died in 1851 at age 87. On his DAR marker are 2 other names and it was those names that first opened up Jim’s story to me. Jim, himself, was an illiterate farmer who made his mark, an “X”, on legal documents. However, one of those documents was an application for a Revolutionary War pension made in the County Clerk’s office in 1833. The clerk wrote Jim’s words down and in them was Jim’s own statement of service during the Revolution. His words were not flowery, just a simple statement of facts that included several more names of men with whom he served. One of them was a regular correspondent with Thomas Jefferson and another was the first governor of Tennessee.

At age 15, Grandpa Jim was a junior member of the Overmountain Men; frontiersmen, who played an active part in settling early America and were living in settlements in the vicinity of today’s NE point of TN and SW point of VA. Daniel Boone was one of these Overmountain Men. Family lore has long had it that his branch of the Williams family came from Wales to Charleston about 1740. Finding specific Williams ancestors is about as tough as finding Johnson and Smith ancestors…and most males were named John or James in those days.

That Williams line goes kind of murky before about 1770 such that it has been impossible to firmly tie individuals to one another for a couple of generations. However, another bit of information learned in the study is that there is one of the earliest southern maps in a Carolina university that shows names of early settlers on the plantations lining rivers and tributaries…there were so few people on the land in those early days that it was the custom to name the plantation owners on the map itself.

A section of it shows 4 plantation owners named Williams located in the far NE corner of North Carolina, just inside the Outer Banks. Although it is likely that these Williams’ are not direct ancestors, they are most likely the first contingent of Welch Williams’ to immigrate to the New World. Where just 10-years ago I had to send off for a large copy of the map, it is now posted online in HD. A fifth plantation owner shown in the map is Boone.

Other interesting projects have been to flesh out my father’s WWII service in the Air Force and my great grandfather’s service in the Confederate Army. Both studies have led to some amazing discoveries and some wonderful connections with fine, knowledgeable people.

Quite aside from the armies of newly minted future business tycoons spouting CRM, ERP, Six Sigma, or errant daughters exposing themselves with cheap cell phone cameras, and all that other crap, the Web holds fantastic possibilities for anyone to learn just about anything he or she wants to learn.


Friday, December 17, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 7

I’ve struggled a bit with how to wind this little series up and get on to more interesting things.  However, it’s probably been worthwhile to create a reasonably brief summary record of computer technology’s march through some of our lives, at least from one ’63 Highlander’s point of view.  Many of us struggled with this stuff for decades before we started retiring.

With the introduction of additional complexities brought to us when Internet connections started replacing our old familiar phones and fax machines, it sometimes seemed that all the new stuff was just a new way to add layers of complexity to an already complex working environment without really solving any of the lingering problems.  Indeed, it seemed that despite copious lip service given to the benefits of the newer technologies, lots of things that were relatively simple were made more complex.

For about 30-40 years MIS initiatives have been trying to find ways to automate more and more of the business environments.  The simple reason MIS proponents keep finding support is their promise of eventual labor and cost savings.  Automation of simple financial functions has found reasonable success; however, more recent initiatives have been pointed at automating more complex portions of a business.  People in operations and marketing seem to be more difficult to fit into CRM, ERP, and other such MIS schemes.  While I’m no expert in the subject of automation, I’ve been fortunate to have spent most of my working life in smaller, entrepreneurial enterprises where individual capabilities are valued and indispensable. 

After selling our last enterprise to a much larger multi-national, during the earn-out period, we had the experience of observing a new management team institute a state of the art CRM software program.  They promptly took a profitable enterprise to zero EBIT and then to a series of solid losses.  Although not lacking in hubris and arrogance, it seemed perfectly clear that their CRM approach was not producing what they expected.  If you Google “CRM failures” you will find a number of articles on the topic; and if you Google “CRM successes” you find fewer positive stories in the list.

Suffice it to say that this part of the computer revolution is a work in progress.  If all this has left you wondering what I’m talking about…good for you…you must not have had to deal with it in your former professions.  If you recall the FBI story of scrapping a $150,000,000 data automation project a few years back; or the Denver airport baggage fiasco when that facility opened; or even further back, the People Mover at DFW that was pretty much an expensive failure; or any number of other failures of a similar nature, then you have some knowledge of the CRM activities I’m dealing with here.  Finding specific knowledge of large failures can be difficult because those responsible for those failures will generally be pretty good at covering things up. 

One writer succinctly said it:  computer programmers know nothing of business and businessmen know nothing of computer programming and they don’t talk to one another.  Of course it’s not that easy.  Business schools all over the nation are trying to rectify that now by sending out legions of newly minted MBAs to serve as “coaches” for the implementation of current versions of CRM programs.  It seems to me that the problem is still in the businessmen finding the time away from conducting business to play around with the programs.  For most people in their day-to-day work life I think it’s just a nuisance.  I’ve about blown myself out on this…it’s not a favorite topic, but it is one that has been sucking up billions of dollars for a couple of decades now and for the most part it seems that the leadership has been supplied by a legion of clones resembling Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 6

There has been no shortage of amusement to be had with this PC stuff. Remember when you first saw those alarming messages, “fatal error, illegal operation, critical condition” flash onto your screen? Goodness gracious, I expected an imminent lighting strike or the cops charging in the door any moment.

Once businessmen broke the 40+ year grip engineers and programmers held over computer technology (since 1939 prox), the flood gates of innovation started opening as fast as technology advancements could be accomplished. Driven by demand identified by businessmen, the techs were funded and tasked to develop the necessary technologies to meet the demand. Engineers might find certain tasks scientifically impossible, but are very good at developing suitable alternatives.

When the Net started opening up to the masses about 1995, we the masses responded in many different ways. Our children quickly gravitated to “chat rooms” where they could readily meet perverts posing as peers. Parents had no clue...nor did teachers…nor did legislatures…nor did law enforcement. The only response we really had then was to keep ourselves informed, keep an eye on the kids and limit access to the net until we could figure out what was going on.

With the subsequent arrival of broadband about 2002-3, which enabled rapid transfer of images and videos, came more issues. Cell phone access to the net compounded those same issues even further. Now our pubescent offspring could recluse themselves and send out x-rated pictures to the world. Probably never before had competent parenting been more important or more lacking.

At work, adults had and still have similar problems with their junior employees. Not only is it a problem concerning competent business communications, it’s also a problem in the always vague arena of common sense, or lack thereof. As I was cautioned so many years ago about taking care with my written communication, or more importantly to think about what I was doing before doing it, those lessons seem to be in a serious decline in the Internet world.

Literally everything that is digitized and posted to the net is potentially forever in the public domain and subject to surfacing at any time in the future whether convenient or not…whether true or not.  And that picture your daughter or granddaughter took of her skivvies for some chuckles might rest in hard drives all over the world only to be brought forth later on when she might least wish it to resurface.  Good grief.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 5

Technology company senior management tended to be about 10-years younger than our generation and their engineering staffs were perhaps 10-20 years younger.  Initiatives and routines developed by those younger people reflected their own views and experiences which were often much different than ours.  In no small degree, our generation tended to be more like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss than the tech-savvy subordinate staff.  Our ages at the time of various significant technology milestones are marked on the Windows timeline above.  Note that Gates bailed out about the time we started winding things up ourselves, or about the time the Internet started gaining influence. 

I’ve read that the Internet and PC technologies were originally brought forth by hippies.  A quick glance at the fledgling Microsoft 1978 staff portrait seems to support that statement.  No wonder we have been struggling to understand all this stuff bubbling up behind us.
A number of large corporations by-passed our generation for senior management positions, instead, dropping down to those a decade or so younger for their next senior managers.  The thought was that those younger managers would be more tech savvy, which was correct, and would be available to run those corporations for 20-years, or more…which may prove to be incorrect.  Time will tell.

We are regularly seeing some of the results of immature business leadership in the Internet age.  Some examples are the release of large numbers of private credit data to the Net; the release of confidential government messages in large numbers; the failure of the entire air traffic control systems some days; the shutdown of entire airlines and airports on others; and the failure of large sections of the power grid.  These lapses are undoubtedly examples of senior management fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the technology they’ve been entrusting to junior employees.  This, I believe, is a manifestation of Gates’ “tidal wave.”

As a young employee of a large corporation many years ago, I was cautioned to never write anything that I would not want to see again or be prepared to defend.  An old Boston politician addressed the notion a century earlier when he said, “Never write when you can speak, never speak when you can nod, never nod when you can wink.”  And one of the late New York governors amplified the sentiment when he added, “and never put it in an e-mail.” 

It seems that companies and governments led by immature management have forgotten that old saw and/or neglected to teach it to their junior charges.

The arrival of the Internet to our PC world suddenly introduced almost unlimited communications capabilities to our desk top.  No longer were we dealing only with how programs worked, we were dealing with how to effectively communicate with others while maintaining our privacy, professionalism, and confidentialities.  Suddenly, most of our communications were written and thus subject to the Boston politician’s caution. 

Not everyone in a “brick & mortar” business organization were authorized to create written business communications with others.  The simple truth is, not everyone is a competent writer.  Good writers are not always good thinkers and I’ve seen many examples of very smart people who were terrible writers.  Combining and controlling those talents and skills was once one of the principal responsibilities of an organization’s managers.  If my own observations in the advancing Internet “tidal wave” are common, then I would think that competent communications within large companies are suffering.

Monday, December 13, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 4

You probably recall the 1980s & 1990s stories of young “teams” of programmers working days at a time 24/7, eating pizza, and riding skateboards in the hallways of the fledgling software companies.  Then there were the lavish product announcement parties and the dot-com bubble of the 1998-2000 (prox).  This spending was done on the seed money lavishly provided by venture capitalists hoping to gain ownership of the next big hi-tech payoff.  The gamble for those youngsters, who were working for low pay and stock options, was that their dot-com business would go public in an IPO and their share options would make them suddenly rich.  For some, it worked out that way, for many others it did not, as the bubble burst during spring 2000.

For those of us working in the suddenly old-fashioned “brick and mortar” businesses and institutions, the struggle to make sense of all the computer noise was a prodigious one.  We had the existing businesses to run and didn’t have much free time to take on gobs of new technology initiatives that were being thrust on us by eager corporate and academic managements.  To us, those utterly computer illiterate, elder managers were looking more and more like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss…a guy who wanted to be a part of the new technology world, but hadn’t a clue how to do it himself.    

Signaling that change was in the air, Bill Gates wrote his infamous 1995 “Tidal Wave” memo to his Microsoft executive staff stating the Internet would bring a “Tidal Wave” of change for the company.  He was right about that and within a few years stepped away from the day-to-day management of Microsoft.  What wasn’t entirely clear at the time was that Gates’ style of dominating the PC business was being swamped by that “tidal wave” developing on the Internet. 

At least since the 1980s, large manufacturing companies had been working to trim their payrolls and other overheads by setting up “Supply Chain Management” systems.  I think they got their notions from having their clocks cleaned by the Japanese manufacturers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Studies determined that the Japanese were doing a couple of things differently than the USA.  One, they had established close working relationships with their suppliers to provide just-in-time delivery of parts and supplies to the manufacturing lines, the theory being, that the mfg. would not have to carry taxable parts inventories; and second, they had applied their employees as cooperative “teams” intended to cut away separate division impediments to problem solving and sweep aside levels of managers protecting their turf. 

When the Internet came widely available, proponents of the “team” and “process” approaches got their chance to advance their ideas to the net.  The trouble was that those same companies were dependent on old farts like us to ensure that things would continue to run smoothly using the older methods.  We were about 55 in 2000 when this stuff began to gain steam.  More in Part 5.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 3

I've long thought that the computer business was an immature enterprise, not only in its chronological age, but also in the personification of its principal proponents and the constant chaotic nature of it. Perhaps other fledgling industries started out the same way...with a great, if incomplete, idea, promoted by ruthless, possibly deceptive young people, chaotic, exciting, and ultimately life changing. Not since the Industrial Revolution moved us from an agrarian society to an industrial one, have we experienced the potential for such enormous change to our way of life.

The troubling thing for me has been the realization that the impetus for all this change has been has been pushed hard by the young behind us. That’s probably not unusual within the sweep of history, but it’s troubling nonetheless that we apparently have been neither competent nor aggressive leaders in the revolution, and we should have been. Since about 1995-96 the comic strip, Dilbert, has been chronicling the oppressive ineptitude of the clueless pointy-haired boss and his hapless employees. Whether we are the pointy-haired bosses or those just older than us are, would be a matter of what your particular experience has been.

I noticed the rumble of things to come on the horizon about the same time Scott Young started his Dilbert strip in 1995-96, just as the Internet was becoming widely accessible. It came as the muted noise surrounding Supply Chain Management initiatives and later by ERP, CRM, Six Sigma, and a plethora of other acronyms used to describe, in fuzzy terms, the application of computer control systems to every facet of business processes; those work elements that are relatively common to all businesses—invoicing, receivables, payables, costing, inventories, schedules, business communications, payrolls, insurance, taxes, reporting, follow-up, etc.

In those early days, the SCM ambition was huge, but the capability was miniscule and somewhat laughable, causing the initiative to be slow in gaining footholds in the large companies that were our customers. Existing employee resistance to change was as significant as was the absence of competent technologies, despite the promises screaming from the technology proponents. Older people like us tended to view the technology as a tool, while the younger, true believers, had come to view the new technologies as irreplaceable processes, without which nothing could succeed and everything would fail.  In some recent experiences it seems that massive failures have been accelerated by the slavish dependence on the technologies themselves. 

More to come...Part 4

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 2

There is plenty of detailed history of this subject on many sites around the net so all I will try to do is summarize what happened while we were busy raising our families and working. If you were like me during the 1980s, life was a combination of survival mode and running fledgling businesses…there was no time to spend trying to understand all the noise going on in the computer world.

In my mind, it was these two guys, Jobs and Gates, that came to summarize personal computing in our lives, at least since 1980 or thereabouts. In simple terms, it was their drive and their companies that finally won the operating system wars which would pave the way to standardization of software, a struggle much like the video format wars fought a few years earlier to settle whether we would use VHS vs. Beta format. I had a Tandy computer by 1981, but for 2-years or so had little clue what to do with it. About all I recall about computing in the 1980s was that you could write letters and reports with a word processing program; you could fill a spreadsheet with formulas and do a lot of calculating; and you could waste a ton of time playing some rudimentary games, like Pong or Space Invaders.

By 1986, I had a Tandy laptop that had 48K (yes, K) of memory and a small floppy drive. The 48K internal memory on this Tandy could hold about 4 letters, then you had to dump off to the floppy everything over that.  It was running subsets of MS software, which at least provided an introduction of what was to come.  Large companies were paying tons of money for higher power systems but that was out of reach for those of us on smaller budgets.  What, if anything substantial, those larger companies were accomplishing with that high power equipment I couldn't say with any authority.  The lagging piece of the technology puzzle was always we the people not knowing how to make good use of all that stuff.  There were "training" courses, but those that I saw were pretty weak with respect to applying the knowledge.

By 1989, we were using some larger Tandy machines, but still mostly as typewriter replacements.  There was no linkage between them until sometime in the early 1990s when we added a LAN server.  That sure saved a lot of time by not having to save documents to floppies and walking them from one computer to another, or shipping a disk out via FedEx.

After a decade of fussing with incompatible software and no electronic linkage, early versions of Microsoft Office came available about the same time we were able to put in a LAN.  Soon all the internal squabbles regarding what software to standardize with, went away.  Windows 95 ushered in the Internet age and email for us and Windows XP expanded image handling capability along with the arrival of broadband ISP connections which enabled moving a lot more information around by 2003.  Of course upgrading all of our ISP connections was time consuming and expensive.

For us, all this development came in fits and starts, as not only were the computer industry players jockeying with one another for competitive advantage, our company head was a computer illiterate dinosaur who never got beyond thinking of the PCs as typewriter replacements.  To him, Internet, email, and other such technologies seemed to be unobtrusive ways for employees to waste time, so he was difficult to prod along toward advancing our communication capabilities beyond fax and phone.  Most of us simply bought our own computers for the home and kept up with the racing advancements from 1995 onward.

It's been easy to see so many small businesses and professional practices struggle with incorporating the new communications technologies.  Many of those principals are our age and most of them would rather not be bothered with this tedious stuff.  Unfortunately dealing with other companies and agencies has rapidly resulted in the need to update everyones' communication capabilities.  And Mr. Jobs and Mr. Gates started it all for us.


Monday, December 06, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 1

My first brush with a computer came in 1963 when the college engineering school thought it would be a good idea to give their incoming class a brief introductory course. It was more of a one-week seminar during which several hundred students were to write a small program to solve a trig problem, go to the lab, punch the IBM cards (yes, IBM cards), hand the pack to a computer dude behind a gated enclosure who then inserted your stack of cards for reading and performing the instructions.

There were 4 card punchers and 1 computer…for several hundred students. The lectures were unintelligible and the experience was a nightmare. I didn’t care if I ever saw another computer…let the dorks who liked that kind of stuff deal with it. There was one more experience a few years later that was about the same. Again I said to heck with that computer stuff. Sane people simply didn’t waste their lives with that kind of frustration. As it turned out later only dorks like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs put up with that kind of frustration.

Watch about 5-10 minutes of this video to see what put me to sleep

Our age group is about the eldest that took some time to become familiar with 1980s desktop computing—there are some exceptions, of course. Some of us stayed clear of it while some older folks took to it with gusto. We were about 35 when the PCs started showing up in the workplace and most of us were far enough along in our careers that we could avoid dealing with the stuff if we wished.

During my working years I noticed another discriminator between computer literate people and those who were not. That was whether they had touch typing skills or not. If they did not, then interacting with a PC was much more difficult. I’ve seen remarkably fine professionals who were really handicapped in doing much with a computer by their inability to type rapidly. Some of them are still writing their things out in long-hand for a secretary to type for them.

In the early 1970s I saw the first remote terminal installed in a large company engineering office. There were 30-40 engineers in the office and one computer terminal that none of them knew how to operate. One guy, the weakest of them, was assigned to learn how to use it and he spent weeks and months in front of that screen. He got very good at playing games on that old computer. In manufacturing plants large mainframe computers were used to log and report process data points. PCs came along about 6-7 years later and everything started to change.

For most of the 1980s we used computers as expensive typewriter replacements that had some additional capability to store documents. A few made some rudimentary use of the spreadsheet programs; there was no Internet then, nor it seemed, did any of the programs people chose to use have the ability to be read and acted on by other programs…nothing was compatible with much of anything else. Industrial plants started using PC based controllers to replace the old analog devices. Operators seemed overwhelmed by excessive data reporting…it was hard to tell for sure because no one wanted to be seen as lagging behind the technology.

The 1990s brought software standardization with Microsoft’s Office, Local Area Networks, and the Internet for the masses about 1995, only 15-years ago. Software began to expand and improve permitting computers to be used for more than typewriter replacements and simple spreadsheets.

In my opinion the most significant milestones in the useful application of PCs was the 1990 Windows 3.0, their first GUI program, followed by Windows 95 in 1995 which opened up the Internet along with more user friendly software. In 2003, broadband was replacing phone lines as ISPs and data transfer sped up by orders of magnitude. Windows XP was introduced that same year and was, in my opinion, the first real improvement since Windows 95.

Development of the PC operating environment has been a constant balance of processor speed with memory capacity, operating system improvement, band-width growth, and the availability of competent software programs. Thrown in the mix has always been the noise from wireless vendors which have, to my mind, added quite a bit of confusion to understanding the PC environment. It’s simply a phone company vs. cable company battle for providing ISP services. I think the confusion added by this and many other noise makers has significantly hampered moving the entire science forward. More in the next posting.


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Lever B - Let Me Aks You a Question (Yes, Aks)

I am about to start a multi-part computer technology rant in which I hope to clarify for those of us senior citizens who have an interest in the subject, why so much of it seems shrouded in foolishness, accompanied by breathless blather, and while useful, seldom lives up to expectations. And why I, and I suspect many of us, have felt prodded by this stuff for the past 20-30 years.

I learned long ago be very wary about installing "critical updates" to various software programs I'm running when the update notices popped up on my screen. It's not so much a matter of distrusting 3rd party meddling as it is distrusting the software supplier itself. I'm aware that "beta" simply means that the work is not complete but is being thrown out there anyway...a bit like a manufacturer shipping known defective products in order to meet his company management's periodic quota demands.

In an odd sense, it has become accepted practice in the software world to "roll out" a beta version of their product and invite "developers" or even their customers to find the bugs and report them to the vendor for "patches" to be developed. While a certain amount of that kind of thing has always been done by producers of first one thing or another, it seems particularly irritating in the world of software to be an end user having to deal with this stuff. In a sense, it is the transfer of QC responsibility from the vendor to the customer.

Let me aks you sum questions...why does my email client not operate properly after I installed their latest "updated" version of the program?

Why would a software vendor who provided the operating software for an automated parking garage to a town in New Jersey be permitted to turn that software off, trapping dozens of citizen's cars in the parking garage when the town opted out of the ongoing "service" contract?

Why would several Federal agencies and countless corporations simply scrap hundreds of millions of dollars of software development that ultimately did not do the job it was advertised to do?

Why did most Microsoft "critical updates" to my own computer operating system routinely cause other programs to malfunction? Why does my system continue to operate well now that I ceased, years ago, installing updates from that company?

These are some of the things I've been thinking about.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Lever B – A Random Thought

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a range of people from craft laborers to corporate CEOs and everything in between. Some of the most intelligent of them have been craft labor in the construction trades. Often, they are people who either didn’t have or take the opportunity to achieve a formal higher education. However, their innate capabilities are frequently evident in how they address problems and they tend to be delightfully without inflated egos.

I’ve also known a lawyer with a prestigious national law firm, a graduate of one of the nation’s top tier law schools who used duct tape to secure a Christmas tree to the roof of his car only to discover after the fact, that he had taped his doors shut in the process.

The CEOs I’ve known have ranged from very good to very bad people. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust any of them that I’ve met. Seems to me that the days of the cream rising to the top are no more…at least on the paths I’ve traveled. And even the very good ones tend to be working to one kind of private agenda or another.

One of the most memorable characters was a construction superintendent I met when I was quite young. As we drove a locomotive onto the site he told me the story of Lever “A” and Lever “B” as an illustration of the value of using caution. The locomotive was operated using several levers; he said that given the choice between Lever A and Lever B, always choose leave ‘er be…his message was don’t screw around with something you don’t understand.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Marketing Crap

Many years ago I learned that when selling something, give your customer a choice of 2, choose A or choose B. I may have had 40 choices to sell, but once I brought out that 3rd choice and added it to the first 2, my prospective customer was instantly thrown into a confused dither. A confused, dithering customer will invariably make no choice at all rather than risk making a bad one. Hence, no sale.

However, if you put only 2 candidates out and forced a choice of one of them, you had accomplished something. First, your customer has made a choice of one of your wares…a step in the right direction; and second, opened a spot up for you to bring out another potential choice. Bringing out choice 3 and putting it alongside your customer’s first choice set up another choice of 2 scenario. Walking a customer through this straight-line decision process resulted in a high probability of closing a sale, simply because the customer was not confused and always had their first choice in front of them, no matter how many decision cycles they had completed.

Businesses discovered years ago that one-on-one selling is expensive and sought to develop cheaper selling methods. First, they withdrew their support to only the largest wholesale customers leaving the mom & pops to fend for themselves and ultimately disappear; next, they sought to circumvent the retailers altogether with the outlet mall approach where the manufacturers would sell direct from their own stores. There, they discovered how difficult it is to deal directly with a mass market; then, they sought to sell through the mass marketers via a self-selling, bullet point card approach. This method required that neither the seller nor the buyer have any particular knowledge of the product, regardless of how complex it was. This latter method is what we still see today and has worked fairly well.

Manufacturers are entirely motivated to sell in large quantities with minimal selling costs. It’s just cheaper to deliver pallets of goods to as few retailers as possible. The last thing they want to do is deal directly with we the people…we are a large pain-in-the-ass. We demand value and performance at a cheap cost. And we will go to great lengths to achieve this goal…and we are resourceful in that quest.

Now, we have online links directly to manufacturer websites. Even then, the manufacturers have motivation to deal with we the people through third party intermediaries. It’s cheaper for them that way…and, we remain a pain-in-the-ass.
When I go to the local Target or Walmart or even the grocery store, I am repeatedly reminded by manufacturers displays that manufacturers are not and never have been good retailers. The massive displays of multitudes of choices of basically the same products in different sizes and tastes simply confuse me. I want one of the same product I’ve been using for decades. I do not want to waste time trying to find it in a stupid fog of superfluous bullshit.

Yes, I know the game is to gain shelf space and visibility in that retailer’s store. However, hot-shot…if you piss me off, I am old enough to have identified alternatives and will choose another manufacturer’s product if your display wastes much of my time looking for the product I want.

Crest in original or mint is good enough…I do not believe claims of greater things coming from Crest that costs twice as much. A six or twelve pack of Coke in original is good enough…I don’t need decaf, decaf diet, vanilla, cherry, diet, or zero in several different packages and sizes. Pepsi will do, and some of the house brands will also do.
So much for this week’s marketing rant. However, when you have one product to sell and the boss wants to sell more, about all you have to work with is gaming your customers. I got frustrated with my wife some years ago when it seemed that she was eternally adrift when trying to settle on an acceptable shampoo. I raged, “dammit, at your age why have you not picked a shampoo?” More recently, as I watched that topic more closely I saw what was going on…the shampoo manufacturers are constantly changing the names, the packaging, and dropping the familiar brands altogether. It’s an outrage. Folks, it’s perfumed soap...period.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Corporate Departments

If you've spent some of your life in a larger corporation, you may have seen something like these illustrations of how various groups (teams, they call them today) interact with one another. The top panels are very similar to a hand drawn production I saw in circulation almost 40-years ago. No telling how old these things really are.

Below is a present day adaptation I found online. Same song, different verse.

And here is another contemporary treatment of a hand-drawn sketch I recall seeing in the early 1970s. The old version was not as elaborate as this one and had just the word "defiance" as its message. It hit a chord with a young lad trapped in the bowels of a monster corporation charged with doing dumb stuff for not much money.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Part 5

Risky Business was a 1983 film that launched Tom Cruise’s acting career and became another iconic film of the Ferris Bueller Generation (FBG). Regular readers will recall that I do not like the FBG. Where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a story about scamming, Risky Business was a story about running a whore house out of the parents’ home while they were on vacation. Guido the killer pimp, prostitutes, and scams…with their late adolescent characters formed by films like these, no wonder the FBGs are unlikable today.

Be that as it may, this film has some cute scenes and lines. One of my favorites is the school scene with Nurse Bolik posted below. Maybe you had some of the same emotions about school as Cruise's character voiced…I know I did.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Aussie Folk Songs - 3

The first of these last two songs is a take-off of an old Johnny Cash song, "I've Been Everywhere" that features many of the odd sounding Aussie town Wodonga, Geelong, and Wangarrata etc. I had fun puzzling the Aussies by reminding them that those words had their roots in the Aboriginal language which were then spelled out phonetically by the early English settlers...the Aboriginals have no written language! Most Aussies had a startled look on their faces when something that they had taken for granted all their life was defined by a Yank in a way they had never before thought.

Here are the last two...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Aussie Folk Songs - 2

That line, "Shame About the Flies" is something the Aussies themselves celebrate.  Whenever you go walkabout in the bush (anything from a stroll in the woods to a cross-continent trek) you are quickly aware of the flies.  There are a lot of flies and it seems that they all bite. 

The graphic comes from a T-shirt I picked up and the flies are the actual Aussie creatures...kind of pretty, don't you think? 

A couple more rousing Aussie folk songs...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Aussie Folk Songs - 1

Had a project in Australia some years ago and the opportunity to bring the family down with me for a few months. Has to be one of the best places on earth...except for the snakes and spiders. Shame about the flies. But the people are the greatest, terrific sense of humor and the music is fun. The next couple of posts feature some songs from a tape I played the whole time there. Videos are a little weak, but close your eyes and enjoy...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Thanksgiving Parrot

John was given a parrot that could talk.  At first he was very excited to have received such a gift until learning to his dismay that the parrot had a bad attitude and a vocabulary that would make even a drunken sailor blush.       

Every word out of the bird's' mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with unbridled profanity. John tried and tried for several days to change the bird's attitude by consistently saying only polite words, playing soft music and anything else he could think of to 'clean up' the bird's harsh, bitter and disrespectful vocabulary.     

Finally, John got fed up and he yelled at the parrot. The parrot yelled back.  John then reached out and shook it for a second but the parrot got even angrier and ruder. In total desperation, John threw up both hands, then grabbed the bird around his neck and put him in the freezer. For a few minutes the parrot continued to squawk, kick and scream shameless insults.  Then suddenly there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard from the bird for over a minute.      

Fearing that he may have hurt the parrot, John rushed over and opened the door to the freezer. The parrot calmly jumped out onto one of John's outstretched arms and said "Sir, I fully realize now that I may have offended you with my inexcusable lewd ignominious language and disgraceful actions. I'm sincerely remorseful and totally humiliated for such inappropriate transgressions and hope you will believe that from now own I fully intend to do everything I possibly can to correct and repent for my scandalously rude and unforgivable behavior. I humbly ask for your forgiveness."     

John was stunned at the change in the bird's attitude.      

Then as he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird rolled his eyes to look up and said very softly, "May I ask you what the turkey did?"         


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Airport Molestation - The Brain Trust

I've mentioned earlier that since serving in the military in my youth, I've always believed that "they" are usually 1 or 2 people responsible for pretty much anything that catches your attention...good or bad. And that it is sometimes useful to have a look at the decision makers. Weak decision makers usually shrink from such scrutiny and seek to lay off blame to someone, anyone else. I suspect we've all seen them at one time or another.

If old men shown in the mash-up above are really seen as potential threats, also children, pilots and cabin crew, then how must they be treating soldiers? Don't lose sight of the fact that the responsible "decision makers" for the current airport molestation initiative are those 3 shown in the top picture. Not one of them has yet offered a credible explanation for this molestation of American citizens. Instead they threaten us of what they will have done to us if we fail to "comply" with their orders.

Each soldier repeats the following oath when he or she enters the service:

“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

Not one of the "decision makers" in the picture ever took that oath.

American Airlines might have other problems that irritate me, but someone in that organization got it right in this commercial: