Thursday, July 30, 2009

High-Tech Worker, Low-Tech Company - Round Two

A few weeks ago, I posted about a couple of the technology-challenged folks I encountered as a high-tech worker employed at a low-tech company. At the time, I mentioned that I had many more stories to tell, and I have received quite a few requests to post the next set of tawdry low-tech tales. So, here ya go! Once again I will make the same disclaimer that I made in part 1:

Disclaimer: Both of these stories are true and personally witnessed by yours truly. None of these are reposts from Snopes or anywhere else. Any similarity to stories you may have read elsewhere should be chalked-up to the fact that there are idiots everywhere and our species is doomed.

Now, for part deux:

Spam is the bane of the 'net. It is like the weeds that grow in your garden and in the cracks in your sidewalks and driveways - you can pull it, chop it or spray it and you may be able to control it for today - but it will always be back. There is one flavor of spam that has been around since the very early days of the internet - the fake notifications that tell of "secret" coupons or deals from well known national brands. Many large brands have been targets - including many restaurants, retailers, automakers, electronics companies, etc for anything from free cars (Honda) to free beer (Miller). You've probably all seen some of these, right? Did you ever think any of them were real? Granted, there are occasionally genuine offers that are similar - like this one - but come on, it's just spam, right?

Well, some people apparently take them just a bit more seriously...

One particular Chief Executive Officer was forwarded a well known spam that promised that our company would send a $50 coupon to anyone who forwarded the spam email to them. One of the store franchise owners had apparently been sent this email and wanted to know what the corporate office was going to do to stop it. This CEO immediately tasked the IT department to "stop these emails from being sent." Huh? It's spam! This CEO was dead serious - they thought there was some way for us to intercept and stop these emails from being sent - not just from our company servers, but from every mail server on the internet!

Our explanation that this is not how the internet works, and that there is no central control center we can call to have these emails stopped was met with the classic "you clearly misunderstood my last order - try again" look from the CEO. The head of the IT department eventually had to meet with the CEO and explain that this was not something we or anyone else could control, and that the vast majority of people in the world understand that these types of emails are just annoying fakes. A letter was then drafted and sent to all the restaurant owners, and a notice was placed on the company web site declaring these emails to be fake. I am willing to bet the CEO *still* believes we are just incompetent and there must be some way for those emails to be stopped. True story!

Anti-Social Networking
Internet discussion forums are a great way for people with a common interest to socialize, share knowledge and engage in healthy debate and disagreements. Forums are not new - they are as old as the internet. Many companies are using private discussion forums as a way to share information between employees, or with customers and/or vendor partners. Unmoderated public forums can get extremely unruly - but there are many moderated forums that manage to discuss very contentious issues and remain civil. Most private forums are much easier to manage - because (in theory) the members are all there for the same reason.

And then there is the forum that was built at our company...

The communications department wanted a discussion forum added to our private company portal. The users of this portal included corporate employees, the franchisees and the franchisee's employees. The public had no access to this portal or the discussion forum. Sounds fairly easy, right? There are dozens of free internet forum software packages available, and some of them are used in very, very active public forums. But, a private forum actually has a few unique requirements that are not an issue in public forums. The first is that we didn't want the forum users to have to login to the forum after they had already logged-in to the company portal. Since several of the best portals now support directory services like LDAP or AD, that wasn't a big problem and was easily solved.

However, the communications department and the marketing and legal departments apparently had a completely different view of how a discussion forum is used than I did. They were extremely paranoid that someone might post something that was not favorable to the company. I explained that could be controlled by having moderators police the forums and delete or edit any offensive posts. But that wasn't deemed good enough.

They decided that corporate employees could read the forum, but could not post. That would prevent a corporate employee from saying something that might be construed as putting the company at risk. It didn't matter that the corporate employees talked and emailed to these same folks every day - the forum was deemed "different". All questions asked by the franchisees and their employees would need to be posted by the forum admin who was also a communications department employee. If the forum admin did not know the answer to a question, then they would contact the relevant department, obtain an answer, and then post the forum response.

The brain trust also decided that the forum would ONLY be used for the franchisees and employees to post "Best Demonstrated Practices". If they knew about something that worked, they were asked to post a story explaining it so that the other franchisees could benefit. There was no Q&A forum, no general discussion forum - there were ONLY forums for them to post their tips & tricks.

Can you guess what happened?

Well, since corporate employees couldn't post to the forum, they typically visited the forum once, then left and never came back. Why should they? What fun is a forum unless you can participate? I suppose reading the posts from the franchisees could be interesting, but that leads to the second problem...

The franchisees weren't posting either. It seems that they weren't all that eager to share their "tips & tricks" with each other. They wanted to communicate with each other, and many of them did through email, but there was no way they wanted to post where corporate could see and know who was posting. In addition, since there was really no forum for them to post questions or just have general chit-chat with each other, the entire "social" aspect of the discussion forum was completely missing.

The result? Six months after launch, there had been a total of 6 posts to the entire forum - and that includes the post from the forum admin saying "thank you for your post" to the one guy who actually posted ONE "best demonstrated practice", and also the post from a franchisee who complained that the free item he had received from a franchisee conference had arrived broken. In short, it was a complete failure. The forum software itself worked great - posting was easy and simple. But the many weeks of effort to install, configure and modify the forum software were completely wasted by the desire to have complete control over how people engage in social interaction - completely missing the entire point of web-based discussions. True Story!

Well, there you go - two more examples from my files. Both of these stories share a common trait - the desire to control the uncontrollable. In the first story, the CEO needed to discover that it really isn't possible to control the breadth and speed of worldwide email communications. It shows a complete lack of understanding for how the internet has changed the dissemination of information - which is really, really scary when you consider this was the leader of a $2+ Billion company. The second story is also about control - the desire to control how people communicate with one another, and not recognizing that when you attempt that level of control, people will simply find a different way to communicate in order to bypass the oppresive controls. Don't worry - I have many more stories coming to future posts!

Friday, July 24, 2009

This Is News?

Do you still watch the news on television? I haven't used TV as my news source for several years. However, when something really significant is going on, I have no choice - the news invades into my viewing whether I want to see it or not. They are preempting my entertainment with the drivel they think is news. There are no journalists left in television. Edward R. Murrow must be turning over in his grave. It's hard to believe there was once a time when the news was the trusted source of the truth - and that when a "Special Report" interrupted the broadcast schedule, you paid attention, because the world was about to change. Apparently, we've had some *really* significant events lately, because the news has been blitzing more than Dick LeBeau. Let's run down a few of the earth-shaking news stories that have the entire news industry in a tizzy for the last month...

(Jon & Kate + 8) / 2
This absolutely takes the prize for the biggest non-story. Let's see - family with 8 small children has a film crew follow them everywhere they go for a couple of years, and now the couple is getting divorced. Wow, who could have seen that coming? But somehow, this story was not just plastered on every gossip/media tracking/scandal show - it was also a huge story on the network news. Interviews were shown on ALL of the major news shows, with analysis of who was the unhappier party, what this means for the kids, etc. This is news? Really? According to the U.S. government, 7.5 out of 1000 US residents have been married, and 3.6 out of 1000 US residents has been divorced. Gee, I don't recall seeing any of the other thousands of divorces on the news. Sure, I feel sorry for the kids - who wouldn't - but any divorce involving children is going to impact the kids - this is NOT news! The only part of this story I found interesting was how in the world a guy could hook-up with a mistress when he has 8 kids and there are film crews following your every move. The entire story is sleazy on many, many levels, but wow - that dude was an operator!

David Carradine Was Weird
If David Carradine had fallen down some steps and died, it would have been a page 6 story with a small headshot picture from Kill Bill. If some nameless schmoe had been found tied up and dead in hotel room in Thailand, that wouldn't have made the US news at all - of course, it also probably wouldn't have made the news in Thailand either. I admit this was a weird story - but does this belong on the mainstream news channels? Exactly how does this affect the world economy, or the state of our public schools, or the war on terrorism? OK, David Carradine was even weirder than we could possibly imagine, but I'm no longer surprised by anything one of the Hollywood crowd does. I expect them to be deranged and deviant. It isn't news. Once again, the life and death of a naughty celebrity was somehow considered newsworthy by an industry that pretends to take the higher ground.

We Are The World Of MJ
You didn't think I was going to forget the story that was bigger than the first meeting of the new US President with the leaders of some of the most powerful countries on the planet, did you? What can I say about this spectacle that hasn't already been said 24x7 for two weeks? Nothing. I was a little too young to pay much attention when Elvis died, and I was definitely too young to remember when JFK was assassinated - but from what I can tell the Jacko media frenzy was on par with JFK - even though the actual attendance and personal feelings of the general population for the person were probably much less. In other words, the news did not just report the story - they created it. The JFK funeral was held on November 25, only 3 days after the assassination. The MJ funeral was held 12 days after his death. I admit that some of that time delay was caused by the coroner investigation - but a lot of that time was spent planning the huge media events. Good grief, they flew the leader of the free world's body half way across the country and they had a state funeral attended by over a million people in 3 days! Can you imagine what the modern news services would do with an event on the scale of the death of JFK? That's a frightening thought!

TV news has become yet another reality show. They show us 15 second teasers during prime time commercials to get us to watch the 11 o'clock news. The news reporters look for the most entertaining witnesses to interview, and if they can't find a scared child, a sobbing woman or a angry man, the reporters will interview each other. Celebrities increase the value of any story, and the more outrageous the situation, the more coverage it will receive. So, now we have reality shows pretending to be news, and we have nightly news pretending to be reality shows. Thank goodness for the invention of the DVR!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

(With apologies to Robert Heinlein) 40 years ago today humans accomplished the greatest engineering feat since that first bronze-age inventor learned that round objects make moving things easier. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 lunar module on the surface of the moon. Mankind had reached across the emptiness of space and walked on land not attached to their home planet. The Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, Hoover Dam - they all pale in comparison to this achievement. It makes me proud to be a member of the human species, and to have been fortunate enough to have been alive when it happened. I have no doubt that this event, and the entire space race of the 60's & 70's are directly responsible for my decision to become an aerospace engineer.

And so, I hope you will understand why I take it very personally when I see that the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 has also brought out some of the most ignorant humans I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. I am, of course, talking about the conspiracy theorists who claim that the moon landing was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the US government and maintained for the last 40 years. Believe it or not, these mental midgets have not only been around since shortly after Apollo 11, but they have thrived and grown dramatically in the internet age.

I'm not going to use this medium to show and debunk their claims - there are many, many sites on the web on both sides of this issue. Instead, I would like to discuss these clowns from my own cynical viewpoint, and give a little explanation of why I am personally offended by their obnoxious ignorance. I will say this much - every single one of the "inconsistencies" they claim as evidence of the hoax is complete and utter nonsense. They have absolutely no understanding of basic physics, engineering or the space program, and there is NO credible basis for any of their claims. We absolutely DID land on the moon in 1969!

I was recently on a well-known audio discussion forum where a thread was started that asked members to vote whether they thought the moon landing had been faked, and to then state why. Over the next several days I debated post-for-post with some people who were adamant that it was all an elaborate government conspiracy and hoax. The poll results indicated ~18% of the 180 respondents believed the moon landings were fake. As usual with lies, d@mn lies and statistics, I think those poll results do not really represent what they seem to show. Don't forget that an internet poll is not truly random. It would be heavily skewed toward representing those people who have strong enough feelings about the subject to actually cast a vote. What the results really mean is: ~18% of the forum members who were interested enough in the belief of fake moon landings voted that the landings were a fake. But what that discussion did clearly show me was some of the fallacies and misdirected ignorance that is prevalent in our "modern" society. It was really an incredibly depressing display!

One of the very surprising observations was just how incredibly close-minded the conspiracy crowd can be. They are very willing to put forth a claim of evidence of the hoax, but when their own evidence and very basic scientific principles are used to debunk their claim, they will simply ignore your counter-claims and dismiss your use of science as your own opinion. They simply cannot be convinced to see anything other than their own beliefs. No amount of logic, physics, experimental results or mathematical proofs will cause them to waiver in their basic belief that the conspiracy exists, therefore anything counter to that belief must be part of the conspiracy. They have boxed themselves into a corner, and their own ego-driven paranoia will never let them out of that position.

It also became very clear that one of the reasons that they could hold so tenaciously to their beliefs is because they are simply ignorant of basic physics and engineering. For example, one of their claims is that the many photos and videos taken during the moon walks could not have been accomplished, because the "surface temperature" of the moon can reach up to 250 deg F, and that would have melted the film used in the cameras. There is a simple explanation: the moon is not like the Earth. The moon is airless. On the Earth, the "surface temperature" heats the air above the surface through both convection and radiation. The air and the earth's surface are in contact, and that quickly heats the air to very nearly the surface temperature. Anything located in the air is then heated by the air via convection, as well as by the radiant heat from the direct sun and the surface reflections. But that is not the way it works on the airless moon. Since there is no air, there is no convection heating. The camera is heated only by the radiant heat from the surface and the sun. By insulating the camera, and keeping it out of the direct sun and not in direct contact with the surface of the moon, the astronauts were able to keep the film from becoming too hot. In fact, the cameras contained temperature sensors so the astronauts could make sure they did not have problems. But the hoax believers would NOT accept this explanation. They refused to acknowledge the difference between convection and radiant heating. Why? I think it is because they are simply ignorant of the basic concepts of heat transfer that are taught to every first year physics student. Since they did not have this basic knowledge, they could not understand the counter argument. Once again, their own ego-driven paranoia prevented them from recognizing that physical principles may exist that are outside their level of understanding.

It is precisely this ignorance of their own limitations that makes me the most frustrated and depressed. No one can explain to them how a complex problem can be solved with engineering and science if they are unwilling to learn the engineering and science! If I say that acceleration is the second time derivative of distance, should they believe me? My statement is true, and I could show it by experimentation, but linking the experiment to the math requires that THEY (not me) understand the concept of a time derivative, and that requires them to understand the first chapter of any calculus text book. If they aren't willing to learn these concepts, then they will never be convinced, because any explanation will ALWAYS be just words that can be doubted. Peeling away the rhetoric, we find a basic problem - they do not believe that a properly trained engineer may be able to solve a problem that is too complex for they themselves to understand. Good grief, how egotistical is that?

Consider a few of these questions:
  • Can an engineer design a way for the human eye to see a person sitting in a completely dark room?
  • Why does a shower curtain get sucked *in* to the bathtub when taking a shower?
  • Is it possible for an engineer to design an object that can be heated to 1000 deg C and then picked-up with your bare hand a few seconds later?
Could you answer these questions? If you couldn't, does that mean these problems cannot be solved and that anyone who claims otherwise is part of a conspiracy to defraud you?

In order, here are the answers:
  • Absolutely - it could be done easily using an infrared sensor. The person sitting in the room would be much warmer than the surroundings, and the sensor could easily pick them out.
  • This is actually a bit tricky. When I was in college, I was taught that it was due to the Bernoulli Effect. In 2001, a physicist created a computer simulation demonstrating that the Bernoulli Effect did not fully explain the lower pressure, and that there is also a vortex effect due to the swirling droplets. Either way, like many things in the real universe, this simple phenomenon has a not so simple explanation.
  • You betcha - this is exactly how the space shuttle tiles are designed to operate.
There are plenty of things that I don't understand that I take for granted because I trust that other, smarter people *do* understand those things. I like to think that I *could* understand most of them if I really tried, but I certainly would never think they can't exist just because I do not understand them. I don't know how an LCD monitor works, but that doesn't stop me from believing in laptops. I also don't know how or why a plant uses Nitrogen, but that doesn't stop me from believing that fertilizing my lawn will make it greener. The guy at the nursery store said it would, and I believed him and bought the fertilizer. The size of the problem shouldn't matter - I either believe others can solve complex problems that I don't understand, or I don't. But it's up to me to make the effort to learn!

The people who say we could never have landed on the moon are saying that all of the engineers and scientists who accomplished this incredible feat are frauds and that they were not smart enough or talented enough to have done it. That is personally insulting and simply another example of their own gargantuan egos. Solving complex problems is what engineers and scientists do - and they absolutely did it in this case. The incredible amount of new technology that came out of the space program is staggering. Astronaut James Lovell said it very well when he was asked about Bill Kaysing, one of the first moon hoax kooks:
The guy is wacky. His position makes me feel angry. We spent a lot of time getting ready to go to the moon. We spent a lot of money, we took great risks, and it's something everyone in this country should be proud of. - James Lovell

D@mn Skippy! So, on this day, be proud of what we once accomplished. Do not let the wacky conspiracy kooks take this day away from you. Finally, go out and hug an engineer - there's no telling what they may come up with next!

Friday, July 17, 2009

The High-Tech Worker In A Low-Tech Company

It's my birthday, and on this auspicious and historically significant day, I am taking the opportunity to vent a little. Given my luck, *this* will probably be the post that causes my career and life to go up in smoke - but what the heck - it's my birthday!

My career has taken me into both high-technology (aerospace & electronics) and low-technology (restaurant) companies. Although they each have their challenges, I must say that being a high-tech worker in a low-tech company was without question the more frustrating experience. There were many days when I was ready to pull out what little hair I have left. I didn't realize how many assumptions I was making on a daily basis until I was faced with an entire industry of people who had zero experience and understanding of the technology surrounding them. It's not that they were stupid (well, not most of them) but they were ignorant - and they were making just as many assumptions about my world as I was about theirs.

Disclaimer: Both of these stories are true and personally witnessed by yours truly. None of these are reposts from Snopes or anywhere else. Any similarity to stories you may have read elsewhere should be chalked-up to the fact that there are idiots everywhere and our species is doomed.

Now, for two entries from the all-star list of forehead slappers from my 5+ years as a high-tech worker in a low-tech company:

Shortcut To Nowhere
I'll start with one my favorites - the infamous desktop shortcut to nowhere incident. One of the accounting clerks was responsible for verifying that a step in the monthly close process had completed successfully. The verification consisted of opening a report generated by the ERP system and making sure the totals tied together. She wasn't responsible for running the job that created the report - just for reading the report and verifying the results. She did this process on the third Tuesday of every month, and had been doing it for over 10 years.

However, on this particular third Tuesday, she had a big problem. We received a frantic phone call from her manager that the ERP system was "messed up" and that we couldn't complete the monthly close. Oh crap! She said she was getting an error message saying something about a file being missing, and she wanted to know why we had deleted her files. Wha??

We checked the server - and everything looked fine. So, we visited the user. After enduring the typical "Why do you guys always change things without telling us?" (we don't) and "If you don't fix this you are in big trouble!" (what else is new!) She finally showed us her problem. She went to her desktop, double-clicked on a Windows shortcut and got a Windows error. "See!" she said indignantly, "It does that every time!" After pausing for a moment, I said "Umm, you aren't in the ERP system? What is that shortcut supposed to do?" She looked bewildered, then said "What's a shortcut?" OK, obviously I wasn't going to get anything else useful from her!

The shortcut pointed to a file located on the shared file server. That file wasn't at the location specified in the shortcut. The user said "It always worked before". We now started a search of the file server to see if we could find the file - and we also began questioning other users about the file.

Eventually, we pieced together the answer. The missing file was an Excel report created by a batch job in the ERP system. That job is manually run on the third Monday of every month by another accounting clerk in a different department. She was sick on Monday. Her manager had submitted the job, and had run the job with incorrect inputs and the job had failed. Since the job was written to first delete the old file then create the new file - well, you can guess the rest...

That batch job had been written by a developer who had left. The accounting department ran the job but they had no idea what the job was supposed to do. An IT tech had created the desktop shortcut to the report many years ago because the accounting clerk kept forgetting how to open the Excel report. She had no idea what the shortcut was for, all she knew was that she was supposed to double-click on that icon on her desktop on the third Tuesday of every month. True story!

Executive eMail
My second story moves up to the top of the food chain to a CEO. You really can't get any more low-tech than this senior executive. Can you imagine someone in business today who doesn't use a computer at all? No email, no web - nothing. Oh, you can send the CEO an email, and you may even get a response - but the CEO didn't use a computer or Blackberry or any other electronic device to do it. Here's the process used by an industry leader running a $2B+ company:
  • An email arrives at the CEO's inbox.
  • One of the CEO's two Executive Admins located at the corporate office opens the email and prints it out.
  • The printed emails are then delivered to the CEO - and since the CEO is often traveling, the printed pages are usually delivered via overnight shipping to wherever the CEO happens to be. If the Admin determines it is an urgent message, the email may be faxed to the CEO, or even read over the telephone.
  • The CEO receives the stack of printed emails and hand writes a response on each page. It is not unusual to see her reading and writing responses during meetings.
  • The stack of responses is shipped back to the corporate office via overnight mail.
  • One of the CEO's Executive Admins reads the handwritten response and types and sends a reply email.
  • You receive your reply "from" the CEO.
The number of things wrong with this picture are simply mind-boggling. That quick note you sent to the CEO resulted in a piece of paper being flown across the country and back again! So much for email being a greener alternative to the paper memo! Did you really believe the confidential email you sent the CEO was private? Guess again - it was also read by at least one Executive Admin and whoever else handled the printed email and the written response. Did you think sending an email might get the information to the CEO quickly? Nope - your email is subject to the whims of the shipping companies - and the location of the CEO and the weather along the route. But even more than these practical aspects - this is just wrong - a low-tech zone has been created around the CEO like a protective bubble. The rest of the world is rushing forward to make electronic communications faster, more secure and full of rich media - but this CEO is pretending that the technology clock has stood still since 1978.

What chance did an IT professional have in a company run by this CEO? How could an ERP upgrade or an increase in data bandwidth be explained such that this senior executive would understand the importance and impact to the company? The answer is 1) none, and 2) you can't. True story!

Trust me - these two stories are just the tip of the iceberg. I think I'll save the rest for future posts - this garden is simply too fertile to harvest all at one time.

There are plenty of corporate IT stories about silly users on the web. But why? The personal computer has now been around for 30+ years. My 90 year old father reads email and can use a laptop touchpad well enough to play solitaire. And yet, there are still professional employees in large corporations who avoid technology whenever possible and see absolutely no reason why they need to do anything differently than they did before some IT geek placed a PC on their desk. Is this only a phenomenon of the low-tech business? No, of course not - but in my experience a company that has a large number engineers & scientists has much less tolerance for this kind of nonsense. There were plenty of challenges for an IT professional working in a company full of techies, but at least I never had to worry that my users didn't know how to use a mouse.

So, call me a typical arrogant IT geek - but if you were able to logon to your computer, start your browser and read this story, then it's a good chance I'm probably NOT talking about you!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Remembering A Great Engineer

Today I am going to break from my usual cynical diatribes to remember the birth of the greatest inventor of the modern age. Who am I referring to - Thomas Edison? Alexander Graham Bell? Orville & Wilbur Wright? No - I am referring to Nikola Tesla, who's birthday was July 10, 1856. Happy 153rd Birthday Niky!

OK, unless you are an engineering history geek (like me) you're first response was probably "Who?" That's because Tesla also has the dubious distinction of being the most royally screwed man of all time. Tesla was screwed over by EVERYONE - fellow inventors, his employers, the US Government - everyone. You *might* recognize the name Tesla from the "Tesla Coil" your 7th grade science teacher used to thrill you, or perhaps from the movie "The Prestige" where Tesla was played by David Bowie. But Tesla was much, much more.

Nikola Tesla's list of achievements is staggering. He was granted over 275 patents, but many people think there were many more that are lost in the patent archives of the many countries where he filed his patents. Here's just a few of his greatest accomplishments:
  • The Induction Motor - used in every electric tool, vacuum cleaner, electric cars - anything that runs on AC electricity and spins, whirs, lifts or moves.
  • The Tesla Coil - in addition to being a really cool special effect for horror movies, it also led to the use of x-rays, fluorescent lamps and the high-discharge lights used on street lamps, large buildings and sports venues. It is also the basis for the wireless transmission of electrical power.
  • AC Power Transmission - the electrical power you depend on to have lights, television, computers and DVD players is made possible because Tesla figured out how to get the electrical power from the power plants to your house.
  • Harnessing of Niagara Falls - Tesla was the man behind the construction of the Niagara Falls power plant by Westinghouse, which provided AC electricity to all of New York City.
  • Radio Control - In 1898, Tesla demonstrated a remote controlled boat to the public and was granted a patent for "teleautomation" the same year. This led to the development of guided torpedoes, missiles and other remotely controlled devices. Please note that this was several years before Marconi was granted his patent for the wireless telegraph! Marconi actually used several of Tesla's patents in his wireless telegraph.
  • Spark Plug - Tesla received a patent for the "electrical ignitor" that allowed the spark plug to be developed for gasoline engines.
  • Radar - At the beginning of WW I, Tesla described bouncing high-frequency electrical energy off the metal hulls of ships in order to detect the ships at sea from a great distance. This was decades prior to the actual development of the first radar.
  • Particle Beam - As WW II was about to break out in Europe, Tesla wrote a detailed technical description of a directed energy weapon that he believed would make war obsolete. It was the first description of a charged particle energy weapon.
As brilliant as Tesla was, he was also completely unable to reap the benefits of his contributions to the world. He was cheated by Thomas Edison and never paid for his complete redesign of the previously inefficient Edison electric motors. After spending years fighting with Edison on AC power transmission and the creation of the Niagara Falls power generation plant, he gave away all of his royalty rights to George Westinghouse in order to keep the Westinghouse Corporation afloat and prevent the robber barons from taking the company. The US Government mysteriously allowed Tesla's patents for wireless radio to be infringed and co-opted by Marconi, allowing Marconi to become fabulously rich while Tesla received nothing. It seems as if everyone except Tesla became incredibly wealthy from his work.

In Tesla's later years, he became more and more eccentric - becoming obsessed with avoiding germs and caring for sick NYC pigeons. He became extremely secretive, and his ideas became increasingly more fantastic. Some of those ideas have never been fully understood, and unfortunately the mixture of hyperbole, science and lack of thorough documentation means that much of his brilliance has been lost or ignored. In 1943, just a few months after Tesla's death, the US Supreme Court ruled in Tesla's favor and agreed that he was the owner of several key patents used by Marconi to develop the radio. It was, of course, too late.

When we think of great inventors, we usually think of people of like Thomas Edison. But Edison was a brute force inventor - he was self-taught and he often did not understand the science underlying the devices he built. He succeeded by continuous & non-stop experimentation and achieved success only after many, many experimental failures. Tesla was exactly the opposite of Edison. Tesla was a brilliant mathematician and engineer. He developed his products after first studying and understanding the science involved. Edison distrusted and rejected AC power because he couldn't understand the principles. DC power was much simpler, albeit also much more limited in it's usefulness. Tesla was also believed to possess a photographic memory and to practice what was called "picture thinking" where he could visualize an invention in great detail before ever attempting to begin construction. There could not have been two more different styles than Edison & Tesla.

During the infamous "War of Currents" between Edison's DC power and Tesla & Westinghouse's AC power, Edison went after his former employee with a brutal and vicious propaganda campaign to discredit AC power. Edison used his wealth and political friends to portray AC power as hideously dangerous and a disaster waiting to happen. Edison filmed animals being electrocuted by AC power, including the killing by electrocution of a Coney Island circus elephant named Topsy. He also funded the development of the AC-driven electric chair for human executions, and lobbied to have execution by the electric chair be known as being "Westinghoused". Ultimately, despite Edison's efforts, Tesla's AC power was chosen as the superior technology. Unfortunately for Tesla, the years of fighting with Edison had left Westinghouse near collapse. Tesla tore up his extremely lucrative royalty contract in order to save the Westinghouse company. Westinghouse survived and flourished, while Tesla was left with financial problems for the rest of his life.

I know of no other historical figure quite like Tesla. No one else contributed as much to advance modern technology, yet received so little - certainly not wealth and not fame outside of engineering geekdom. I do believe the internet has dramatically increased the visibility and knowledge of Tesla and his accomplishments - and I think that is only fitting. I believe Tesla would be quite pleased that a worldwide network of interconnected data storage and computing machines is now available to nearly anyone in the world. I also think he would be disappointed that we still have to plug those devices in!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Education Means Anything Except Teaching

As my children have navigated their way through the California public school system, I have had a parent's view of another of my favorite examples of the decline of the human species - the education system. I need to throw out a disclaimer that I am NOT a product of the same school system - I was sentenced to 8 years at a small Catholic school, and was not released into the public school system until high school. So, my personal experience was MUCH different than the modern public school - but I think that also allows me to look at the current system as a complete outsider.

My kids were very fortunate, a brand new elementary school was opened in our neighborhood when my oldest son entered 2nd grade. The new school was really excellent - the principal was top-notch and she hand-picked her crew of teachers. However, even this ideal situation was flawed. At my son's previous school (only 3 miles away) the first grade program had embraced a hand writing method called the D'Nealian Method. OK - I don't know why they felt they needed to use a method that none of the parents knew anything about, but if they thought it was an improvement - OK. But unfortunately when he got to the 2nd grade, they announced they had abandoned the D'Nealian Method and gone back to the more traditional Zaner-Bloser Method. So, after having the slanted, curly D'Nealian method drilled into him for an entire year, he was now told everything he was doing was incorrect, and he now needed to try to both advance his skills AND re-learn the basics at the same time. Since 1st and 2nd grades are critical in the development of writing skills - he was seriously screwed, and I honestly believe this affected him at a crucial time and continues to affect him. My daughter (who is younger) was more fortunate and did not have this disruption.

But, all-in-all, elementary school was fabulous - especially when compared to middle school. Middle school is an absolute nightmare. It is the worst combination of jaded, uncaring teachers plus draconian, inane school policies plus obnoxious, viscous preteens - all jammed together in an over-crowded and under-maintained facility. Kids learn some important skills in middle school - they learn there is safety in groups, they learn that the weak become targets, and they learn that adults will not always be around to save them. Is this really what we want to teach our 11 to 13 year old children? But it's not just that it isn't a safe environment - they also fail inside the classrooms.

The middle school curriculum is bizarre. For the first time, kids are categorized and segregated - both by their abilities and also by their interests. But God help your child if they don't fit in one of the available categories. Your child has one big decision to make. If they want to take ANY music, then they give up all of their electives and take music for the 3 years of middle school. They are not able to take shop or computers or art - only music. Or, if they choose not to take music, then they can choose from a variety of electives - but they can not take any music classes. Why? Who decided that at 11 years old you need to decide that music is more important than anything else? It is yet another ridiculous and arbitrary rule created by the group that believes they are the only ones who are qualified to know what is best for our children - the educators.

The educators like to blame the parents for not helping to educate our children. I call Bull Crap. The school system doesn't want our help. If they did, they would actually communicate to the parents about the assignments that are coming up, the topics they are teaching and references we can use to help our kids complete the assignments. A very small minority of teachers use tools like Parent Connect to inform us of the scores our children have received - but even the best of them give us those scores only AFTER the assignment - they do not tell us what the assignment is, or when it will be due BEFORE the due date. Why not? Don't they know what assignments they are going to assign? Isn't it nearly identical as it was last year and the year before? Here's a new flash to the school system - the parents can't help if we don't know what you are doing in the classroom! You can't honestly believe we are going to find out everything from our kids, can you? Have you talked to our kids? They can't remember what they had for lunch, let alone what assignments were issued. You claim that it is the kids responsibility to keep track of the assignments - but which is more important - the lesson in accountability or turning in the book report? Gee - since you only issue a grade for the report, maybe that should be the priority, no?

The schools are completely focused on the state testing scores. That's really a shame - because focusing on standardized testing is not going to produce better students or better human beings. Should there be standardized testing? Yes, there should - it is the only way I know to evaluate a large population. However, there is a fundamental problem with using standardized test scores and ignoring that problem completely oversimplifies the reality of teaching children. As an example, I use my own experience in a college engineering class. The department head decided to evaluate the different teachers all teaching the same class by having each teacher submit two questions for the final exam. Every class would take the same final, and the test would be composed of all the questions from each of the instructors. When I took the final, it was obvious which two questions came from my instructor. I easily solved those problems. The questions from the other instructors were MUCH more difficult - I didn't understand the problem statements and I didn't have a good grasp on how to approach the problem. When I spoke to students from the other classes, they felt exactly the same - the problems from their own instructors were easy, but the others were extremely difficult.

What does this example show? It shows that how problems are presented is just as important as the core concepts being learned. All of those instructors were presenting the same concepts - but how they presented those concepts and the example problems they used to illustrate the ideas differed. I have no doubt that with enough time and with access to the right reference materials, we could have all figured out all of the problems - but in a test environment you don't have a lot of time or any references - you either recognize the problem and the solution approach, or you probably aren't going to get that problem correct. I believe the same situation affects the state standardized testing. Problems that the kids recognize are solved easily, those that are not recognized are probably not solved. Of course there are kids who do well no matter what - and there are kids who will not do well - but the vast majority in the middle of the bell curve are the ones being hurt - and that is the overwhelming majority of our children!

Of course, the schools are focused on the state testing because their funding is tied to the test results. I'm not sure that's the right metric to be used for school funding. It's tempting to make the funding performance based, because we want the schools to have incentive to succeed. I agree the schools need to be held accountable for their performance, but if the standardized testing is flawed (and I claim it is) then that's the wrong metric to use for funding decisions. I would rather see the schools judged against standards, but controlled more locally. And part of that local control is parent involvement in the policy decisions at their schools. I'm not talking about the PTA or the other pretend organizations - and I'm also not talking about the school board or the other political/bureaucratic bodies - I'm talking about parents with kids currently in the school with a seat at the management table and with direct input and visibility into the operations of our schools and how the money is spent.

Would this work? I have no idea. Could it be worse than what we have now? I very much doubt it! I believe it would elevate the issues that matter to parents, and it would blunt the schools penchant for using the parents as their excuse for their own poor performance. I want the accountability at ALL levels on ALL parties - the kids, the parents, the teachers AND the administrators.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Language & Hypocrisy In Corporate America

How many of you have bosses that cuss like drunken sailors? Do they drop F-bombs in meetings and everywhere else? If you do, you are not alone - in fact, it is one of the most common taboo words in the English language. It is forbidden in newspapers, forbidden on network television & radio and forbidden by the vast majority of corporate HR policies (check for code words in your policy manual like "obscene" or "vulgar") And yet - most of us hear it spoken nearly every day in those same corporate workplaces.

Let's examine a few of the most respected public figures who have been caught using this troublesome & taboo term:Let's face it - if you aren't afraid your immortal soul will instantly go down in flames, you have probably thrown out an F-bomb at least once.

But in 2009 there are also employees at corporations across America that are being fired for writing an F-bomb in an email. That, boys and girls, is called hypocrisy.

It doesn't even have to be one of those scalding mass emails that the disgruntled Columbine kid sends to the entire company - it happens to employees that send "private" emails to each other. Of course, there is no such thing as a "private" email inside a corporation - many corporations can and do screen employee email boxes - and they can and do fire employees for the contents of the messages they send. (This is the subject of a whole 'nuther article that is yet to be written!)

Why? What is it about this word being used in an email that is so much worse than simply saying it out loud? Good grief, technology-based communication has become ubiquitous to an entire generation - and yet we still treat the spoken work differently than the written. I understand the difference between libel and slander, and the permanence of the written word, but given the rise of cell phone video & youtube, can you really be so sure that your spoken words aren't just as permanent as an email? Every one of those political and celebrity gaffs I listed were verbal - and after a short google search, they appear to be pretty darn permanent to me!

I admit that I have a real problem with hypocrisy. If a CEO wants to run their company by a set of strict family or religious rules - fine, go for it - but don't throw F-bombs during closed door meetings and then act outraged when an employee writes the same word in an email. In my opinion, that is MUCH worse than the choice of a particular word. Either live by the rules you make, or eliminate the rules.

When I write: "What a freakin' jerk", you know exactly what I really mean - in fact, I'm willing to bet a good majority of you subconsciously substituted the main star of this article for the placeholder word freakin'. If I write "What the fudge?", you also know what I meant. In fact, just writing "F-bomb" or "F--- You" provides exactly the same impact and mental image as using the actual unforgivable word. Some might say "Yeah - so why not just use a substitute?" My response is exactly the opposite: If it means exactly the same thing, why is the substitute OK and the taboo word is not? I'm sorry, but anyone who uses "freakin" or "fudge" or "flippin" as a polite substitute (as I have done throughout this diatribe) is a fraud and a hypocrite.

Words are symbols used to convey meaning within the context of their use. I will make the claim that there are no "bad" words, no more than there are bad numbers or letters. It is the intent and the use of the words that is important, not the words themselves. It has been stated that "the ultimate offensiveness of words is determined entirely by pragmatic variables such as speaker–listener relationship and social–physical setting, as well as the words used and tone of voice" (Jay & Janschewitz, 2007, 2008; Locher & Watts, 2005). There are abusive emails that contain absolutely no taboo words - and there are emails full of profanity that are not abusive. Corporations and society in general needs to take their blinders off and pull the plugs out of their ears - it's just a freakin' word!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

What Happened To The Holidays?

Humans ruin everything they touch. We take every idea to such a ridiculous extreme that it becomes a defiled parody of the original intent. Independence Day is perhaps the least corrupted holiday left in the United States, but even the 4th of July has become an example of human insanity. I am a rabid capitalist - but this is the dark underbelly of the free market system.

You want examples? Good - every cynic should be ready to back-up their statements with proof.

Have you ever tried to buy a small American flag in October? Good luck. You will probably have to go online or perhaps find a specialty flag store. During the last 2 weeks of June they sell them at every 7-11, gas station and grocery store. Apparently, there are only 2 weeks a year that Americans are willing to purchase our nation's most recognizable symbol.

Is there a weird annual natural phenomenon that causes the worldwide supply of oil to drop during the weeks surrounding the 4th of July, causing the price of gas to shoot up 25%? And on the flip side, when did it become mandatory for 80% of the population to be *somewhere else* on Independence Day? Every July 2, everyone suddenly has this irrepressible need to rush 300 miles away from their home like refugees from a N'awlins hurricane.

I really like fireworks - they are the next best thing to actual explosives (I've been a pyro since I was a kid). But the laws for buying fireworks in Southern California are absolutely bizarre. Selling *any* type of fireworks (even the really wimpy stuff) is illegal in most counties and cities. However a few enterprising cities have made *buying* fireworks legal - as long as they are sold by licensed vendors. Using the fireworks is still illegal everywhere outside the city limits of those towns - but since there are no rules about where the people buying the fireworks come from - the town does a tremendous business during the weeks preceding the 4th. People come hundreds of miles to buy their fireworks from the non-profit organizations that are the licensed vendors. There's nothing quite as satisfying as buying cardboard tubes filled with flammable gunpowder from the Senior Center or the St. Francis Catholic Church. Hey, its for a good cause, right?

Why do we do this to everything around us? We take everything 50% past the point where it makes sense. If 1 pound of something is good, then 2 tons of it must be GREAT. More is always better, moderation is for wussies. I suppose it's another aspect of the silly super-size mentality that pervades today. They don't call us "consumers" for nothing - that is our primary role in the world today - to consume as much and as quickly as we can. When we don't, entire industries fail, and with it goes the world's economy.

So do the world a favor - on this 4th of July drink beer until you pass out - the economy is counting on you to do your patriotic duty!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Modern Hunter-Gatherer

I'm not a very evolved human being. I define myself by my ability to provide for me and my clan. I guess that makes me not very much different from my Lower-Paleolithic ancestor Homo habilis. Bring home a woolly mammoth for dinner, and you are the big hero. Come home empty handed, and you might find yourself evicted from your cave and the main entree at the home of a sabre-toothed cat or hyena.

As a society, we like to pretend that there is a huge difference between us and our rock-throwing forefathers. Personally, I don't see much difference. Sure, we have much more stuff - and we have made the world a much more complicated place - but - peel away the technology, the pretentious social & political trappings and the other luxuries that come from being the top predator on the planet, and what are you left with? You are left with a group of two-legged hairless apes scurrying around trying to bring home dinner.

In fact, an argument could be made that Homo sapians still has a heck of way to go to be able to claim to be as successful as Homo habilis. H. habilis is believed to have lived from about 2.5 million to 1.6 million years ago. They survived for about 900,000 years - that's about 50,000 generations. H. Sapians has been around for only about 200,000 years - less than 25% of H. habilis. We will have to survive waaaaay past the Star Trek era to match that!

Beyond simple survival and species longevity, we may have much more to learn from H. habilis. It has been conjectured that the social structure of H. habilis was the first group to cooperate in activities such as hunting, food gathering and tool making. The longevity and success of their species may have been due in part to their relatively peaceful coexistence with neighboring groups and their willingness to work together instead of competing. Believe it or not, there is actually a term known as "primitive communism" attributed to Marx & Engels to describe the egalitarianism of early hominid societies. I doubt very much the early humans were very concerned with the oppression of the masses by the capitalists - but if it got more meat in the cave, great!

So, if I am just another grunting, stick-waving hominid, what does it mean to be unemployed? We have no way of knowing what H. habilis would have done with a member of the clan that temporarily couldn't contribute. They rest of the clan might have cared for him (state unemployment insurance) or they might have had him for dinner. The latter might certainly also explain the success of their species - there is nothing like a little thinning of the gene pool to strengthen the following generations. It would also have made sure that able-bodied workers got off their butts and back to work as soon as possible!

No, I'm not advocating cannibalism as a solution to unemployment - at least not while there's still so many other (better tasting) species for us to eat. This is not a treatise on how to solve unemployment. I'm just pointing out that the funk that descends on the unemployed may have very deep-seated roots in the human psyche. A person who has spent their entire adult life as the primary provider for their family cannot easily become a non-productive member of society without it also affecting their mental self-image and how they view their place in society. Maintaining the belief that you CAN reenter the workforce is a critical part of surviving a temporary unemployment. When you start believing that you can no longer be a provider, you are entering a very dangerous downward spiral.

What can you do to keep your chin up while being ignored by dozens of recruiters on a daily basis? Well, one way is what I am doing with these blog posts - I am using this blog as an outlet for my frustrations and also as a way to keep my brain active. If I can write a bit of drivel that I am proud of, then perhaps I CAN still use my brain to provide value to an employer. Find an outlet that allows you to be proud of something you do, whether that is writing, consulting or just working on projects around the house.

So, to my great-to-50,000th grandfather H. habilis, I salute your indomitable spirit, your ingenuity and your skill with a stone axe. I will not let you down!