Thursday, November 29, 2012

Brawn Over Brain

Being retired means lots of free time. Where one once spent 40 or more hours at work, now that time is free. In my case, it was more like 32 hours at work since I sort of partially retired the last four years, only working four days a week, and only three days a week the last year. But now I work zero days a week … at least for money.

I use the free time many ways: lots of traveling, lots of reading, some writing (this included), plus other fun projects with camera, microphone, or guitar. But I do still have a couple of jobs. One is driving a truck for Habitat for Humanity every Thursday picking up donations for the Habitat ReStore Store. Part of that is the fun of teamstering a big truck around the neighborhoods, backing into tight spots (beep … beep … beep) and just riding up above all that automobile trafic. I love driving, and this is really fun for me to be behind the wheel of, maybe not an eighteen wheeler, but at least a six wheeler.

Of course, the job isn’t just driving. I have to get out and load (as well as unload) the truck. There are two of us, and the truck has a nice electric lift on the back to help, but it is a job of, basically, furniture moving. The people donating the items must put them on the driveway or the garage and we don’t go into houses, up or down stairs, or other extra effort things (except for now and then when people ask us real nice). A lot of times things are in the back yard, and it can be a long haul to the driveway, but most often the items are easy access and on a hard surface. I have a partner so the work gets split between us.

Today was a pretty typical day. The first stop was a refrigerator and an electric range. These are easy items and we use a handcart or — rarely — our appliance cart to move them to the truck. The second stop was a garage full of plumbing supplies: dozens and dozens of small boxes full of plumbing stuff from plastic pipes to tape and faucets that we hauled in trip after trip. None of the loads were big, but lots and lots of walking. There was also a medium size chest freezer and … get ready … a full size, cast iron, bath tub. My guess is that it weighed about 200 pounds. We lifted one end up (two guys: partner and home owner), and I slid a furniture dolly under it. It was relatively easy then to drag/roll the tub to the lift. Once inside the truck we drug it over to the side. There were about 100 loose ceramic tiles … they're never in the original boxes … and that was about three dozen more trips from the garage to the truck. "Can you take these plastic gasoline containers?" "Are they empty?" "Yes." "Sure" now that's more like it. I'll carry two at a time!

The next stop was a love seat and couch, two mirrors, a headboard, a toilet, some cabinets, and a couple of end tables with glass tops. These couches were pretty light weight. That isn’t always the case. Some couches must be made out of steel or rock because they take two men and a small boy to lift … then we use the dollies.

Next stop was a 96” Armoire. It weighted about as much as a small pickup truck, but the hand cart got it to the edge of our truck and we laid it down on blankets inside. Finally, two CRT televisions … one 25” and one 27”. Those big TVs can be tough because one person typically carries it. Then a plate glass mirror. Plenty heavy and I kept imagining it breaking into shards in my arms and stabbing me in the heart.

Next stop was a bunch of outdoor furniture, one of those full height pet doors for a sliding door, a bunch of lamps and lights, children’s toys, a vacuum cleaner, and 10 sheets of dry wall … the green board that is water proof. A dog house … sized for an Irish Wolf Hound … no problemo. All par for the course.

Then came the next stop. There were a bunch of bathroom cabinets, medicine cabinets, small folding doors, two bathroom sinks, and some tools. A couple of book cases, some small tables and chairs, a big bag of clothing, all very typical. Then the lady said, “Can you take the bags of cement?” I look and see ten big bags. On the side it says 42. Forty-two pounds … not bad. Wait … it is 42 Kg … about 90 pounds. I took off my gloves … too slippery, and grabbed a bag. Unfortunately we forgot our hand truck at the store when we unloaded earlier, so across the 20 feet of yard I went with almost 100 pounds hanging off the end of my arms. My partner is younger than me … he’s only 62. I’m 65 and 90 pounds was a real workout. After loading all that cement, I was ready for the chiropractor.

At least the day didn’t include my nemesis … those cheap computer desks made out of glue board. That’s wood made from little chips glued together. It has the approximate density of a black hole and weighs more than solid lead. “What was that pop when you lifted the desk?” asks my partner. Not sure … maybe my pants … maybe my back. I’ll let you know when the numbness goes away.

After that the big glass sliding door and other three windows at the last stop seemed rather light. So ended another typical … back breaking … sweat making … arm stretching … tired making day. Typical, except maybe for the bags of cement. We get help unloading back at the store, but my partner and I are there for that too. Very rewarding as the donations provide income for our house building program, and we help people get rid of things they don’t need anymore and keep them out of the landfill. Of course, all that would happen too if people would just bring their own items by the store! Just kidding. We’re one of the services that Habitat is happy to provide.

So why do I do this? Several friends warned me I would likely end up with a back injury and in the hospital. Others asked why I don’t tutor kids in math or write text books with my spare time rather than lifting and moving things. Well, it is sort of a reaction to a life spent sitting in a chair typing code or documents into a computer. A very sedentary lifestyle. I've got to recover from forty years of that office chair lifestyle.

I kind of enjoy the physical side of it … out in the weather … enjoying the mountain views … the fresh air … meeting people at every stop. When I was in my twenties and early thirties I used to run a lot. I typically ran five miles a day about five days a week and competed in long runs like the Bolder Boulder or the Longmont Turkey Trot. That was fun, but I kind of dropped that athletic lifestyle when family and kids and wife and job got me pretty busy.

I’ve been pretty regular at the club for the last ten years, lifting and pulling and running on the treadmill (plus lots of swimming, sauna, steam room, and hot tub to treat the sore muscles.) Just me and the dumbbells … “What you talkin’ about, Willis?” No, dumbbells are weights that you lift.

This physical stuff is good fun, good for the brain, good for the body, good for your health, and good for my attitude. Can’t say that sitting at a computer does that so well. So, if it’s Thursday, and you have a donation for Habitat to be picked up, look for me and my truck. We’ll be right over. Not a lot of thinkin’, just stoopin’ and liftin’. Strong back, weak mind … yes ma’am. We’ll take that. It doesn’t look too heavy. Ouch!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Nerd’s Walk Down Memory Lane … or Computer History for the Young-uns

Today is a day to recall blessings, and I have been most blessed with family, friends, health, and wealth. I live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and I’ve been able to spend my life in pursuit of my goals and interests. Some have described the mid-life crisis as when you first realize you aren’t going to be what you wanted when you grew up. I never had that crisis. From early childhood my goal was to be a scientist. Well, I ended up an engineer, but that is pretty close.

I think I was about eight or ten years old when I first subscribed to Popular Electronics. I would consume each issue and dream of the projects printed on the pages. I would order parts from mail order houses like Lafayette Electronics and Allied (no Radio Shack), and I built several projects out of the magazine such as a battery rejuvenator.

My dad bought me a used Hallicrafters short wave radio, and soon I was deep into amateur radio (WPE7BDC).

Hallicrafters S-85

My first radio was an S-40B. This is my second, an S-85 that I bought used with money earned working at my dad’s store. I paid $100, which seemed like a lot of money … and, in those days, it was. I later bought my first motorcycle for only $200.

The S-85s were made from 1955 - 1959 and provided continuous coverage from 538 Kc to 34 Mc.  (That’s Kilocycles or Megacycles. Today we use the term Hertz or KHz and MHz.) This radio has AM and CW but no Single Side Band. It has the usual band spread dial and a "pitch" control for CW.  The pitch control is a variable Beat Frequency Oscillator.

Like my original S-40B the set has 8 tubes with the exact same tube complement. So Hallicrafters made very little change, if any, to several models of receivers, but packaged them differently to keep up with the times.

It was several years later before I got into computers. My first computer was in 1965. For those of you who started with PCs or Apple computers, this is an ancient ancestor. This was before computers were personal, and I met this ancient digital machine at the Montana School of Mines during my freshman year.

IBM 709

It was the last of IBM's first generation of big scientific vacuum tube computers; this machine was built in 1959. It was the first computer with data channels for I/O. This picture shows the central processing unit, which can be opened up like a book to access the wiring. The complete system consists of seven different units including memory, data channels and power supplies plus a card reader, printer and many tape drives. The entire system originally cost $2.5 million although you could also lease it with complete IBM service support. Large corporations, government labs, and big universities would have one or two for the entire institution. The School of Mines used it to run their entire IT operation, and students weren't allowed to program the computer. We did get to operate it, however.

Tektronix 536 Oscilloscope

The most important instrument used in computer development and maintenance is the oscilloscope. Although Hewlett-Packard made the best general purpose test equipment, their oscilloscopes were not as good as the Tektronix ‘scopes, like this model 536. Note the "plug-in" drawers so you could put different vertical and horizontal control units with the 'scope. I had plans after getting out of the Navy to move to Beaverton, Oregon and work at Tektronix. Ironically, my parents ended up in Hillsboro, Oregon, which is next door to Beaverton, in 1975, and my dad still lives there. We visit frequently and several of his friends work at Tektronix, although it is only a shadow of its former corporate self.

IBM 7094

I met this computer about five years later in the Navy. I had been trained as a precision electronic test equipment calibration technician. (Say that fast three times!) The Navy version of this computer had specially designed, compact tape drives. In order to reduce space to fit onto a ship, the tape drives had very short vacuum columns. The vacuum columns held the magnetic tape and acted as a shock absorber when the tape rapidly started and stopped. The shorter columns didn’t work very well, and the tapes would often break.

At one point the DP department (that’s “Data Processing” … a dated term) had only one alignment tape and it was broken in half. Due to the short length of the remaining tape, they weren’t able to get their oscilloscope to sync before the tape ended. So they came up to the calibration lab and borrowed our much fancier Tektronix 547. It could sync much faster than the 536 they were using. So I got to take some pictures of both their scope and their computer.

The IBM 7094 Model I was a middle member of IBM's second generation of scientific computers, built with discrete transistors. It was upward compatible with the 709, so that the same software could be used for both. This picture shows the card reader, two different data-channel consoles, and the system printer. The back row shows the CPUs, with the memory (blue module without doors) at far right. The memory had a total capacity of 32K 36-bit words—about 1 Mb, total. (The magnetic core memory was manufactured at the IBM plant in Boulder, Colorado.)

We used punch cards for our shop’s “Maintenance Data Collection System” and the computer also kept track of all spare parts inventory on the ship producing 14” wide, “green bar” printouts that stacked up into “books” several inches thick. The perforated printout paper was designed to fold, and you would read it by flipping it over vertically, rather than the horizontal flip of a book. Sort of like the iPhone app “Flipboard.” The printouts were put in large binders, some over twelve inches thick.

IBM 026 Keypunch

Keypunch machines predated computers. Herman Hollerith invented punched card data processing for the 1890 census. From the 20's through the 50's electromechanical machines like this cardpunch and card sorter were the mainstay of business data processing. Using keypunch cards for input into the first digital computers was a natural progression. Programmers would enter their software into the IBM 026 Keypunch using the keyboard...

IBM 082 Sorter

... the IBM 082 Sorter was handy for, among other things, reordering stacks of cards that had been dropped

These are relatively modern pictures taken at the Denver Department of Social Services where my friend William worked. The equipment was out-of-date then, but you would still see it being used in government offices that lacked adequate budgets. Besides … they worked!

IBM 2302 Disk Drive

Here’s an IBM 2302 disk drive for the 7094. The disk platters are 24-in. in diameter and the head assembly is positioned with compressed air. It is one of the last models this size and can store 300 MB. IBM invented the hard disk at their facility in San Jose, California.

Although I was assigned to the Calibration Lab on board the ship, I was a First Class Electronics Technician (E-6), and I had wide responsibility. On duty nights … that’s when everyone else went home, but you stayed to stand watches and fix any critical equipment failures … I would often get involved in our telecommunications systems.

Our ship, the USS Vulcan (AR-5), was a “man-of-war,” and we were in constant communications with the “net.” (That was before the Internet, but this was still a form of digital communications.) We used special Teletype machines that sent and received encrypted (top secret) military messages and orders. The machines were basic teletypes with additional secret sauce to handle the spy stuff.

The teletypes could be connected to radios and used while underway, but, in port, we would just connect to good old AT&T landlines. The telephone company provided a line to the pier. We would connect to a box on the shore and that was our telecomm connection. It was a 60ma current loop interface and there was a mechanical relay in the box on the pier that served as the interface.

If we lost communications during the night, I would troubleshoot the problem and determine if it was our equipment or did we need to call the telephone man to fix the issue. Often the problem was just the electromechanical relay in the box on the pier, and I would usually start by swapping out the relay to see if that would fix it. The relays were packaged in a little metal box with a base like a vacuum tube so you could plug them in and out. This little instrument would test the relays.

Teletype Test Set

This is a test set for polar relays used with teletypes. The polar relays amplified the signal as it came off the wire. The central hole in the middle of the instrument is where the relay probe plugs in and the dials allow the user to feed in different voltages and currents. The user could determine whether the signal was balanced and get a rough idea of speed.

I mentioned the Internet. Its roots were in early network and communications work started in the ‘60s. Simultaneous work on secure packet switching networks took place in 1964 at MIT, the RAND Corporation, and the National Physical Laboratory in Great Britain. 

At the same time, IBM’s new System 360 computers come onto the market and set the de facto worldwide standard of the 8-bit byte, making the 12-bit and 36-bit word machines almost instantly obsolete. The $5 billion investment by IBM into this family of six mutually compatible computers pays off, and within two years orders for the System 360 reach 1,000 per month.

On-line transaction processing debuts with IBM’s SABRE air travel reservation system for American Airlines. SABRE (Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment) links 2,000 terminals in sixty cities via telephone lines.


DEC unveiled the PDP-8 in 1965, the first commercially successful minicomputer. Small enough to sit on a desktop, it sold for $18,000 — one-fifth the cost of a low-end IBM/360 mainframe. The combination of speed, size, and cost enables the establishment of the minicomputer in thousands of manufacturing plants, offices, and scientific laboratories. 

With ARPA funding, Larry Roberts and Thomas Marill create the first wide-area network connection. They connect the TX-2 at MIT to the Q-32 in Santa Monica via a dedicated telephone line with acoustic couplers. (You may have seen these in old movies. You placed a telephone into cups on the coupler and it “talked” and listened via the telephone handset.)

Later the ARPA-funded JOSS (Johnniac Open Shop System) at the RAND Corporation goes on line. The JOSS system permits online computational problem solving at a number of remote electric typewriter consoles. The standard IBM Model 868 electric typewriters are modified with a small box with indicator lights and activating switches. The user input appears in green, and JOSS responds with the output in black.

Built with discrete plastic "flip chip" transistors, this was the first computer for less than $25,000. It was cheap enough to be purchased for individual projects. Its 1.5-µs core memory made it fast enough to be useful on a wide range of applications from scientific research to typesetting. It quickly became a popular node on the still evolving DARPA Internet. Here is a close-up of the front panel lights and switches. This was our computer at Electronics Technical Institute where I taught in the '70s.

IBM System/3

IBM introduced its System/3 computer (IBM 5410) on July 30, 1969 to meet the computing needs of small businesses. It was IBM's first mini computer. It was the first system totally developed in-house by the company's laboratory in Rochester, Minn., and the most significant IBM product announcement since the IBM System/360 in 1964. The System/3 was not compatible with the System/360, as it featured a smaller punched card that could encode up to 96 characters per card. That's right ... it had "state-of-the-art" PUNCHCARDS! The System/3 used IBM's new monolithic integrated circuits, and rented for less than $1,000 a month -- about half the cost of a System/360 Model 20.

On October 28, 1970, the company rolled out the IBM System/3 Model 6 (IBM 5406). Rochester's Advanced Unit Record Systems Programming group had developed the Report Programming Generator II programming language intended for commercial applications on the Model 6. RPG was a simple language and a forerunner of VisiCalc ... at least in function.

On July 10, 1973, IBM introduced a new, larger-capacity System/3 -- the Model 15 (IBM 5415) -- with added function and versatility. Developed in Rochester, the Model 15 was manufactured in Boca Raton, Fla., and in Vimercate, Italy. I visited Italy several times as the site was also a manufacturer of the Series III Copier. I also spent several months at the plant in Rochester, MN, too; home of the Mayo Clinic. A beautiful little city in the summer ... a bit cold in the winter ... but some great restaurants and very friendly natives.

By July 1974, more than 25,000 System/3s had been installed around the world, and another version, Model 8, jointly designed by Rochester and Boca Raton, debuted that September.

The IBM System/38 ultimately succeeded the System/3 in 1978, and all System/3 models had been withdrawn from marketing by June 1985. Today the System/3 legacy is carried on by the IBM AS/400 family sharing hardware with the RS/6000 line and produced in Austin, TX. Many a small office or company still uses this versatile computer for day-to-day "data processing" needs.

During this hey-day of the System/3, I was working as a test engineer, first on IBM’s Series III (name coincidental) Copier and then on the ESTAR – Eight Station Test and Repair facility at IBM’s US production facility for Diskette Drives, Boulder, Colorado. I was responsible for testing all diskette drives produced by IBM. I developed and maintained the ESTARs to perform that function. A Unified Test System computer based on the System/3 ran the ESTAR. We manufactured six different models of eight-inch floppy drives, as well as 5.25 inch and a special 4 inch drive that we developed, but it was never a success, foreclosed by the 3.5 inch drive developed by SONY.

During that time I wrote a lot of code in both PL/I and Assembler, and I also earned several patents for data formatting algorithms on disks. It was during this time that I wrote code that was released with the new IBM PC. I wrote parts of the diskette access driver for DOS 1.1 … very nerdish. I also did extensive data analysis of diskette wear characteristics. All of that work was done on this 3741 Data Station, although I also used 3276 and 3278 terminals connected to an IBM mainframe for my mathematical and design algorithm work. Some of the circuit board layouts were designed on Tektronix terminals that had display storage CRTs originally developed for oscilloscopes.

IBM 3741 Data Station

I did all the programming using this simple data entry station that was part of the ESTAR, the 3741. The introduction by IBM of the Data Station, in 1973, made it clear that the end of the punched card era was coming. The Data Station was designed to eliminate keypunch equipment like the IBM Model 129, using the newly invented diskette (floppy disk) as storage medium. The original IBM floppy disk was intended to restore the operating system on large computers, but it was quickly recognized as a good, inexpensive, and very portable data storage medium.

(That's an IBM Model 129 pictured at the start of this essay.)

Indeed, the "Data Station" was the first IBM product to use read-write diskettes. The original floppies were read-only. These single-sided diskettes were 8 inches in diameter, with 77 tracks, hard sectoring (8 sector holes), and room for 240 kB (equivalent to about 3000 punched cards). We quickly added a second side and then doubled the capacity of the drives, ultimately producing a juke-box like drive that held thirteen individual disks that could be loaded under computer control.

Other novelties of the Data Station were that you could see what you were doing by looking at a CRT screen, visible in the opening at the left through a mirror, and that you could make corrections. The little, green, eight-line by forty-column display is that little box to the left of the keyboard. I would put an eight-inch floppy into the system and write code that was then cross-compiled on an IBM Series/1 computer in a lab. 

I later added bar code readers and other improvements to the data input of the ESTAR, eliminating manual data entry and reducing errors. I won a $10,000 IBM prize for that work which saved IBM ten times that amount in less than a year.

It was shortly after that that I got my first IBM PC and … as they are wont to say … the rest is history.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sad News for Kodak Employees

I have followed the recent woeful tale of the Eastman Kodak Company with great interest and sadness. There is a local connection since a nearby Colorado town, Windsor, has a large Kodak facility … or, at least, it WAS once a large facility. In addition, I’ve been interested in photography since an early age and my first 35mm camera was a Kodak. I also used a lot of Kodak film before switching to digital about ten years ago. Ironically, Kodak was an early pioneer in digital photography and has some of the most fundamental patents at the basis of digital camera success. Sadly, like many similar stories in the past, Kodak didn’t recognize that the the film business was about to become the latest example of buggy whip manufacturing, and they failed to be the pioneers in digital photography that their basic research would have enabled.

Now as they approach bankruptcy it appears that, according to the bankruptcy court, the retirees may be left holding the bag … an empty bag at that. Employees of Kodak have learned that what they had earned from a grateful company, "retiree medical, dental, life insurance and survivor income benefits," may be lost. Recently, 56,000 Kodak retirees got a rude jolt when a bankruptcy judge agreed with the company's request for the termination of those benefits, effective December 31. (Why is it that all the layoffs, termination of benefits, and other Grinch events occur around Christmas time?)

Kodak in a pre-ruling statement said it could not "support continued payment of retiree benefit" even after initiating several cost-reduction actions that included laying off "nearly 4,000 employees this year and exiting or winding down several businesses and the proposed sale of our Personalized Imaging and Document businesses."

Kodak is clearly a troubled company, and its many problems are spilling over to all employees — current and retired — suppliers, customers, and shareholders. The once-mighty photographic equipment, printing, and imaging company is fading slowly into oblivion with sales dropping sharply each of the last four years, and net losses piling up in the hundreds of millions. The company's market value has dwindled to less than $60 million, and its shares now trade as a penny stock on the PINK exchange. Sadly, the company that gave millions worldwide the photography equipment to record their memorable moments today is lacking even a smidgen of its own previous glory.

By the time Kodak emerges from bankruptcy — if it perchance achieves even this moderate goal — it would have a tiny footprint. The company's management is reorganizing Kodak as a "much smaller, leaner enterprise focused on commercial, packaging and functional printing and enterprise services." It will also have lighter debts and a much reduced retiree obligation, thanks to bankruptcy court judge Allan Gropper who agreed Kodak should terminate many of its obligations to retirees," according to a report in USA Today. "Individuals may see their life savings lost or lose their jobs," the judge said. "Bankruptcy can have a particularly painful effect on retirees."

Really? Tell that to Kodak's retirees who counted on the company to continue providing generous benefits long after they had left the company, and who must now seek alternative medical and survivor obligations. Many of the ex-employees cited in news reports blamed Kodak's management for mismanaging the company's affairs and for failing to anticipate or foresee the major technological changes that ended its domination of the photography market.

The news that Kodak's current management wanted to ditch many employees and substantially cut retiree benefits hit me hard initially as I thought about all the naïve folks who based their lives on two wrong assumptions. The first was that the company would continue to be the undisputed leader in its market segment, and second, that it would unfailingly stick with the agreement to provide those benefits. They were wrong on both counts.

Kodak and other troubled companies may not see anything wrong in terminating benefits to employees, but there's a larger lesson here for American enterprises and workers. While one part of me would like to side with the retirees and blame Kodak, the more enlightened (or cynical)  part of me, recalling the words of Intel ex-CEO and ex-chairman Andrew Grove, I am aware that employment and, unfortunately, promised benefits are "at will" in the United States. This means your employer only owes you wages for work already done and does not owe you guaranteed employment or lifelong benefits beyond what it is able to pay, even if it promised much more. Employees therefore have an obligation to ensure they secure their retirement by whatever means necessary and independent of past, current, or future employers.

Turns out it is true … there are only two things certain in life … death and taxes. Except maybe for CEOs. Guess which one doesn’t apply!

Grove's observation may be coming too late for many Kodak employees, but I would like to restate the six points he emphasized in his book here for current workers. He said:
  1. Nobody owes you a career
  2. Your career is literally your business. You own it as a sole proprietor.
  3. You have one employee: yourself
  4. You are in competition with millions of similar businesses — i.e., millions of other employees all over the world
  5. You need to accept ownership of your career, your skills, and the timing of your moves
  6. It is your responsibility to protect your personal business of yours from harm and to position it to benefit from the changes in the environment. Nobody else can do that for you.
There are implications for businesses, too. Executives must understand that as Grove noted in his book Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Point That Challenge Every Company, employees will become more mercenary in their actions and will not always put company interest first. You may not like the implications, but that's what the Kodak bankruptcy ruling has reinforced.

I used to be the most loyal of IBM employees. As such I was not alone. A super majority of old-time IBM employees would have told you that their blood was IBM blue and that IBM was the greatest company in the world to work for. IBM had a "full employment practice," which meant no layoffs. I was in charge of IBM's Programmer Retraining Program which was an integral part of that full employment practice. If your old job went away, IBM would train you for a new job. I was proud to be part of that process and very proud of IBM's benevolence as well as its technical prowness.

I was certain that I worked for the greatest company in the world. At that time, it was true. But how things can change. I still have a high regard and respect for IBM, but no longer think it is the best company in the world to work for or to buy from. It’s still a damn good company, but things have changed. Just ask the former Kodak employees. I suspect they considered Kodak the best company in the world too. Ask not what corporate America can do for you. Ask what you can do for corporate America. "All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness." — Tennessee Williams.

And Then There Were Four

With the announcement from Research In Motion or RIM that the new BlackBerry 10 OS will launch on January 10, the smartphone race heats up. Predictable with this company that arguably started the smart phone category and that was once an essential component of every corporate traveler’s entourage along with a brief case and a copy of the Wall Street Journal, this announcement will be too late for the Christmas buying season. But then BB has never been that big of an attraction for the home user, so maybe that doesn’t matter so much.

The new OS has many positive attributes including a “BlackBerry Hub” that aggregates all of your messages and social alerts — sort of like a super inbox. The intuitive multitasking menu and predictive, touch-friendly keyboard have also received praise. The expected products will include both full screen virtual keyboard devices as well as the familiar physical key style. In addition, The “BlackBerry App World” (think Apple App Store) has been growing with the addition of nonbusiness apps for music, movies, and TV shows. But will it have a version of Angry Birds?

It is a crowded field that RIM used to have to its own. On top of the heap (IMHO) is the new iPhone 5. Although more evolutionary than revolutionary, this latest Apple offering is both ready for Christmas and continues the elegant and user friendly features that are the Apple by-word. And Apple hardware is just an esthetic wonder and an artistic object that is a pleasure to hold and to use. Although the market is a bit confused between the iPhone, iPod Touch, and the new iPad Mini, the iPhone continues its popular success with consumers. The lines of customers waiting to purchase the latest Apple creation are evidence of this success.

The real numbers leader, of course, is Google’s Android which offers new superphones like the Samsung Galaxy S III or Note 2, various LG offerings, or the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD (whew … that's a weird spelling mouthful). Although still not as seamless as the Apple offerings and a confusing collection of versions from various manufacturers, the Android continues to polish the user experience and expand their app store offerings. Even if Android presents a less refined total offering than Apple (and many would disagree with that statement), the number of available phones at various price points insure the continued success of this family of phones.

Finally there is the new kid on the block … new, at least, after several previous outright failures … the Microsoft Windows 8 smartphone. The Nokia Lumia 920 and the HTC Windows Phone 8X are both worthy competitors bringing their own unique user interface and a raising of the competitive bar. Just as with Apple and Android, Windows 8 also appears on tablets.

The broad range of portable devices supported by iOS, Android, and Windows 8 make it more attractive for application developers to write programs specifically for these portable operating systems which increases the number of apps on the phone. BlackBerry attempted a tablet with its PlayBook, but that crashed worse than the Hindenburg.

Missing entirely from these scenarios is the offering from the other original smartphone company, Palm. Their WebOS met little customer acceptance, and was then lost in the purchase by HP. HP later killed the project, although, like a zombie, WebOS is still wandering around the playing field mumbling something about "brains," but not really living up to expectations. (Get it? Living up … zombie!) Now, if it was a contest to see which corporate entity has less of a clue, the competition would be down to HP vs. RIM. But, at least RIM still has a horse or two in the race. HP is “thinking about it.”

And, did you know that IBM created what some consider the first smart phone back in 1994? The IBM Simon Personal Communicator was a handheld, stylus input screen cellular phone and PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) designed and engineered by IBM and assembled under contract by Mitsubishi Electric Corp. BellSouth Cellular distributed the Simon Personal Communicator in the US between August 1994 and Feb. 1995. The Simon Personal Communicator was the first cellular phone to include telephone and PDA features in one device. Although the term smartphone was only created in 1997, when Ericsson described its GS 88 “Penelope” concept as a “Smart Phone,” the Simon may be considered the first of the genre. That's a Simon in the picture at the start of this article resting in its charging station.

And now you know the rest of the story. Tune in tomorrow to hear about the first digital camera that was produced by Apple. History of technology is fun … yes it is.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

More Thoughts Thunk on the Way to Thinking Other Thoughts

Thoughts thunk on the way to thinking other thoughts;
If you’re gonna copy, at least make as good as the original (if not better).

I was reading a review of the new Microsoft “Surface.” In case you hadn’t heard, this is a new Microsoft tablet / iPad wantabe running Windows 8. The big diff is that the hardware is also produced by Microsoft. If you’re one of those corporations grown fat selling MS software on your hardware, you may not want to hear that MS is now in the HW game.

Personally, I like the HW MS has produced in the past. They made excellent mice (mouses? moose?) and the Xbox is pretty good … or so my nephew Joel tells me. The Surface even has an interesting twist. They copied the Apple magnetic clamp on cover, but this cover has a touch sensitive keyboard, turning the tablet into what MS is really more comfortable with … a laptop. The review complained that the stand for the display when used this way is not adjustable and not really at the right angle for viewing while typing, but I expect MS would blow the subtle ergonomic issues that Apple seems to excel at.

The interesting news in the review was that the Surface has a magnetic power connector. Now those who own modern Apple laptops know that Apple created a very interesting magnetic latching power connector. You can connect the cord from the 110 volt adapter with the wire out the back or toward the front. It is "reversible." That flexibility is typical of Apple product engineering, and it was duplicated in the new Lightning port on the latest round of Cupertino products.

So no surprise that MS copied this nice feature … and why not copy it … it works great and lasts a long time. Think of all the broken power cords and adapters out there wrapped with electrical tape (or white medical tape) and a little spit and chewing gum to keep them working. The magnetic attached power doodad is not only convenient, but it is almost 100% klutz proof … important in a world of klutzes.

However, the Surface reviewer said the magnetic port is hard to get “plugged in.” The combination of black metal and plastic and the un-ergonomic design makes it a major problem to get the cable to attach. Even with Steve Jobs no longer on the watch of product quality, Apple still produces products that just work … right … without a fuss. Get the Apple connector within about three feet of the computer and it just snaps in place like a guided missile.

Apparently Microsoft failed to copy that page of the design cookbook.

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

Indeed: when will they ever learn?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Voyages of the Blue Buss -- Oil Patch

It had been over a month since the Blue Bus was on a cruise, and the bottom of my feet needed scratching, so away we go. Nice weather for this time of year made it possible to turn north. I had an itch to visit the oil patch in North Dakota and inspect personally what this economic whirlwind was like on the ground. What I found was very interesting, although not surprising.

First five days in Bozeman visiting my sister. She is our favorite, and Linda loves to just spend time with her in conversation. I was able to do my usual computer maintenance mission, fixing both her anti-virus and backup software via software updates and solving a mystery of her banking logon. I also replaced a dishwasher part that we had ordered on the internet on my last visit, but we did not replace a shower head due to an alignment problem with the new fixture. Had breakfast with one nephew and dinner with another and his friend. Always good to see those two handsome guys. We shopped and ate and walked and walked. Weather was in the mid to high sixties throughout the visit, although we encountered a light rain while walking the old neighborhoods by the University. The sun hid itself from us most days, but it was a good visit and we spent most all of it out of doors.

Then we turned the bus toward Canada, driving north of Lewistown, crossing the big Mo, and arriving in Malta (just 30 miles below the Canadian border) before heading east on highway 2, the “high line.” We were following the path of Lewis and Clark, although opposed in direction since the famous explorers returned East via a southern route following the Yellowstone. Knowing the crowding I would find in the eastern end of Montana due to the oil boom, I had called to reserve a room at the Homestead Inn in Wolf Point two days before my arrival. I got the LAST ROOM AVAILABLE!

This is the edge of the oil patch, and with all the activity and workers in this previously sparsely populated region has made a bed something hard to find. Some drive 50 to 100 miles each night to sleep, returning the next day for work. The motel’s parking lot emptied before dawn with the departure of these commuters. The place we stayed was quite nice, but it was noticeable to me, the son of an inn keeper, that they were renting by the day, week, and month; and I paid a price that is about double what I would expect for this region under quieter times. Plus, this is hunting country and hunting season, so we also had to complete with the boys in orange.

After a brief and sparse breakfast, we headed for the border, adding North Dakota to the Blue Bus map. We started finding evidence of oil soon after leaving Wolf Point. Road construction, new wells being drilled, lots of trucks, all showed the activity du jour. We continued on highway 2 to Williston. Although this ND city is on the northern edge of the fields, as the largest burg in the area, it is heavily impacted. I noted many unusual abodes. We saw many recreational and travel trailers obviously being used for more permanent residence as evidenced by the plywood winterizing the undersides of the trailers. We often saw five or ten or more travel trailers here and there. As we got closer to Williston we found a lot of rectangular prefabs that I call “trailers without wheels.” Some were lined up like soldiers with some large installations having over 50 units. They all looked new and clean which is in contrast to the trucks we saw, many so covered with mud that you couldn’t make out their license plates. We passed by a heavy equipment dealer and you never saw so many vehicles with treads. There was farm equipment on the road too, but the concentration was semis with flat bed trailers and tanker trucks interspersed with those heavy duty, pick-up like trucks you often see from tire dealers. Of course, lots of regular pickups too.

We arrived in Williston and I have two words: “hustle” and “bustle.” Two more words: “traffic” and more “traffic.” The jam started ten miles out of town at a stop light where US 89 turned south. That was our route, but we went on into Williston to investigate the town. The traffic was brutal and many stop lights had to cycle twice to let us through. We stopped for lunch at an Arby’s which was enjoying a rush like Santa on Christmas Eve. Lots of new construction. We saw two different projects made up of two high prefab units and a wooden roof being constructed over the top of the two-layer cake. Everywhere were trailers, many of the recreational type that would be short of elbow room for a small family, although it may only be the bread winner in residence.

I noted several small concerns, obviously in the oil or construction business, which had half a dozen small trailers in the yard. I suspect companies were hiring and providing space for their employees. Besides all the small home and trailer construction, there were earth moving machines everywhere. For every cat you saw on the ground, we saw another on the back of a semi on the move. Most of the large truck traffic was tankers of some sort. Obviously some were hauling oil, but many were hauling water either to or from the fields. I saw two “salt water” disposal sites. Everywhere tanks were growing out of the ground like mushrooms after a shower. Most were the typical twelve foot diameter, small tanks, often in groups of ten or twenty, but we saw one facility with several tanks over fifty feet in diameter. As we headed south on US 89 we continued to see drilling operations, as well as the familiar “hobby horse” pumps all busy drawing black gold out of the ground and rapidly turning the US into the top oil producer in the world. Fresh plowed earth and brand-spanking-new mats to protect from erosion were a common site, as were hard hats and people in day glow safety clothing.

As we continued south, we approached the Teddy Roosevelt National Park, the home of his Elkhorn Ranch. Roosevelt first came to the North Dakota badlands to hunt bison in September 1883. In that first short trip he got his bison and fell in love with the rugged lifestyle and the "perfect freedom" of the West. After the death of both his wife and mother on February 14, 1884, Roosevelt returned to his North Dakota ranch seeking solitude and time to heal. That summer, he started his second ranch, the Elkhorn Ranch, 35 miles north of Medora. Roosevelt took great interest in his ranches and in hunting in the West, detailing his experiences in pieces published in eastern newspapers and magazines. He wrote three major works on his life in the West: "Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail," "Hunting Trips of a Ranchman," and "The Wilderness Hunter." His adventures in "the strenuous life" outdoors and the loss of his cattle in the starvation winter in 1886-1887 were influential in Theodore Roosevelt's pursuit of conservation policies as President of the United States (1901-1909). Sadly his hyper-rural ranch and view is now somewhat threatened, not by the oil boom, but by the a proposed bridge near the home which will open up the area to more development. Although this region is considered “badlands,” its beauty and solitude made a permanent stamp on my favorite Roosevelt president which ended up manifesting itself in several new national parks and monuments which he preserved for future generations.

We finally reached I-95, the southern end of the oil patch, and continued heading down to the Black Hills. A short stop at a convenience store and the girl at the counter told me she lived in the rec-vehicle parked behind. I check out the location and there were five small trailers lined up behind the store. Room and board is short everywhere in this area. Even after crossing the ND / SD state line we continued to see oil pumpers, but the drilling was not evident that far south. We are now at our evening destination, Spearfish, just north of the Black Hills. Tomorrow it will be Sturgis, Deadwood, Mt. Rushmore, and that big Indian fellow. The weather is still holding in the sixties and no snow in sight, although the forecasters are predicting snow by the weekend, so we will continue south to home in a few days before the snow flies.

Most of the trip through both ND and SD was on the National grasslands. It isn't hard to imagine these plains covered with buffalo. (Did see some Bison, but they were "tame" and ranch animals.) The sunset was spectacular. In Colorado, the front range hides about half the sunset. Here it was like out on the open sea with the horizon a distant line. Moderate clouds helped present the reds and oranges ... it was magnificent. I took some pictures, but the scope of a camera just isn't wide or tall enough to capture the entire scene. Panoramic views would help, but the human eye is still the best camera for these nature views.

So the Blue Bus adds two new states to its accomplishments and Linda, and I get to enjoy what will likely be our last trip in 2012. We already are planning 2013. The wheels haven’t fallen off the bus, and my trust funds are still adequate. I may get those 49 states accomplished before long.