Friday, November 27, 2009

A failure of technology or the understanding of it? - Part 2

There are probably more stories about the misunderstandings people have about technology than anyone could ever write down. But some are more endearing than others. My next story is abount one of my grandmothers. She and my grandfather had moved to California when I was in my early teens. I only got to see her on the infrequent trips they would make back to Pittsburgh or the even less frequent trips we'd make west. After my grandfather died, she decided to stay out there because she liked the weather, felt settled and her daughter, my aunt, and her family were there to help her.

After I graduated from college, I had a difficult time finding a job. I've probably got a few good stories about my job searches but not today. Just suffice it to say I went out to stay with her for a week or two while I looked for jobs. I also offered to help her while I was there. She had two small apartments that she rented out and one of the tenants had just moved out and had left a lot of stuff that need to be cleaned out. One of the things we found was a radio. Grandma looked at it and said she wasn't sure if it was worth keeping or not. She said she already had a few radios, "But maybe this one is tuned to a different station," she said. That went right past me at first.

We worked at separating the useful stuff from the garbage and getting the garbage out to the street for the trash haulers. Then, she started to divide the useful stuff into things she'd keep and things she'd give away. She got to the radio again and turned it on. "Well, it sounds like the same station as the last one. We'll just see if someone else can use it." I was floored. I asked her if she really had a bunch of different radios all tuned to different stations. She said, "Not that many. I only listen to a few stations." I asked her if she knew that you could tune a radio so that it brought in other stations. It looked like she didn't understand. So, I took the radio and tuned it to another station. "I don't like that station, " she said. So, I tuned it to another station. "Nope, that's not my style, either." As I tried to find a station she'd accept, she waved her hand in the way she did when something wasn't worth her time. She was busy and had no time for this foolishness. She looked at me the same way some people still do when I get excited about getting a piece of electronics or a program working in just the right way. I guess I've just always been a nerd and I'll never change.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A failure of technology or the understanding of it? - Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, I've got two stories about people misunderstanding how "high tech" things work. The first one is about a fellow I met while I was working for the U. S. Geological Survey at the national headquarters in Reston, VA. I wasn't a big shot. I was just a new, very green engineer right out of college who worked in the instrumentation group of the Water Resources Division. It was a huge building and there was an army of people needed to maintain and clean the building. The Survey was a very friendly place to work and the cleaning people, although they worked for a private contractor, hung around to talk with the scientists, engineers and administrators during their break time. Many of them took a real interest in what we were doing and how we were doing it. Our lab, with all its electronic parts, was an especially appealling place to many of them.

I remember one old fellow always saying hello and asking how things worked and he seemed to enjoy new projects as much as we did. He didn't speak very well and he may have had a learning deficiency but he didn't have a curiosity deficiency. One day, though, he came in with a small plastic container that looked like the microphone from a Citizen's Band radio. It was even called "Good Buddy After Shave". CB Radios were all the rage in the mid 1970's. He asked if I could make it work for him. He acted like he was 90% of the way there already. All I had to do was fill in the missing pieces. When I tried to make him understand that I couldn't do it, he misunderstood and thought I just didn't want to do it. He pointed to all the electronic parts we had and truly looked disappointed that his simple request couldn't be fulfilled. I got the impression that he'd already told his friends that he'd be coming back with a working radio. He never stopped by our lab again after that. It wouldn't be the first time I had to tell someone that something they'd requested wasn't possible or practical. But telling people the hard truth has never gotten easier.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Another short story

I promised another post about the little vignettes that WCAI, our local public radio station, plays throughout the day. This story, unlike yesterday's post, you can hear for yourself at this link. It's told by a local writer from the town of Truro on the outer part of Cape Cod. It's sad and funny at the same time. It's the story of a poor old fellow and his wife that save up to buy a coffee maker and then take that term too literally and start a fire with it. They didn't pour water in the machine nor put any coffee in it. It was a coffee "maker" after all. Why would they need to add anything? Luckily, people smelled something and got to them before it got serious.

It's easy to laugh but how many of us are confused by new technologies we don't understand? I'll tell a couple of other stories about this over the next couple of days - one about one of my grandmothers and one about a fellow I met at another job. But I can tell stories about myself, too.

I used to be able to work on cars - when they didn't have a million hoses and two million attached sub-assemblies on the engine. I hardly know where to begin, now. I can change the oil (and maybe the oil filter if it isn't in a place where you have to remove other parts to get to it) and add antifreeze but I can't even think of really working on the engine like my father and I used to.

Our car was making a strange noise one time and I tried to find the problem. I looked all though the engine and under the body and could find nothing. My son Evan, who was about 3 or 4 at the time, took one look and said, "Is that the problem, Dad?" Sure enough, he'd found that the exhaust pipe had caught on something and gotten twisted so that it was right up next to one of the tires and was blowing on the rubber - soon to be a major problem! I'd been overwhelmed by the complexity of the entire system and couldn't see it. Evan just looked for something out of place and solved it. I guess that's one way to deal with complex systems and this is what engineers are taught to do - reduce a complex system to a collection of less complex subsystems. I let the complexity confuse me. My son is probably a natural engineer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Short stories

Our local National Public Radio station, WCAI, has a nice feature they call "Voices of the Cape and Islands". They are short (almost always less than a minute) sound bites that are played between programs and announcements throughout the day. Most of them are local people telling a little story about some local person, place or event. You can hear a sampling of them at this link.

One I heard a few days ago isn't available for replaying on that link so I'm going to repeat it here from memory. Given my memory, it may be completely wrong.

It seemed like the story was being told by the wife of the man the story was about. She said that this man had been a dairy farmer all his life and had worked seven days a week year around. He'd never taken a vacation or gotten very far from his farm. Once, I forget the occasion, they took a trip to Nantucket. He had never seen the ocean before and tears filled his eyes when he saw it for the first time. He said, "This is where I want to live," and they moved there and have lived there ever since. I don't tell it as well as the woman who narrated it on the radio. But it moved me because I felt the same way when my parents took me on vacation to the North Shore of Massachusetts when I was a teenager. I'd seen the ocean before (Ocean City, MD when I was much younger) but the rugged, rocky coast of Massachusetts filled me with wonder. Even though Cape Cod is much different, I've never lost my fascination with the sea.

Next time I'll tell another story from this series that reminds me of two other stories from my own life. I'll tell those, too.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A bumper crop of leaves

Two years ago, we saw the largest number of leaves ever in our yard. Well, this year is even bigger. The picture on the top right shows the kids playing around in the leaves before we got started on raking them up. Actually, the kids raked and I used the leaf blower. I find the leaf blower works well when the leaves are scattered. Once you get big piles of leaves, the blower has a harder time. It works with big piles if you turn up the velocity of the air but that also adds to the noise. So, once we get to a certain point, I switch to the rake, too.

In the upper picture on the left, you can see the kids (with Charlie standing guard) finishing up the leaf pile. It looks a lot bigger than the pile from two years ago and that's compared to the kids who have grown (a lot) since then.

We had a very wet spring this year and the winter moths that kept last year's leaf "crop" small were less numerous this year. The crazy part about this year's leaves is that this is only the first part. We're probably going to have to go through this all again around Thanksgiving. There are still a lot of leaves in the trees.

Well, you can't make a big pile of leaves like that and not enjoy it so the last picture on the right shows the kids enjoying themselves after all their hard work. Charlie ended up in the pile, too, but I missed that shot. Charlie especially enjoys these sorts of activities when he sees the cats watching out the window. Then he can go in and tell them about all the fun they missed. [Update - my wife Cindy got some great pictures of Charlie enjoying the leaves - see her blog]

Monday, November 09, 2009

Tell me why

One of the things they tell you when your company says your retirement fund is in stocks and bonds is to think long term. "Don't go selling your shares or moving them around on a day-to-day basis," the pundits say. "If you sell when stocks fall, you're selling when the price is low. You'll have to buy it at a higher cost when the stock goes up." A friend says that when stocks drop and are low, it's like when regular stores have a big sale. "That's the time to buy," he says.

Well, that all makes sense to me. OK, I've bought into it. I'm "in the know". I'm one of the guys who understands the stock market. I'm proud of myself. I didn't touch our retirement fund during the past two years when everything dropped. "We're being smart," I told my wife, "We're buying low and we'll sell high." Just like the big dealers do.

Tell me why, then, that the stupid stock market is so volatile. Are there that many "stupid" people who buy and sell on a daily basis? Are there that many "dunderheads" who try to sell as soon as a stock goes down a little and sell as soon as it starts to rise? Or is it all the people "in the know" who are doing that and laughing up their sleeve at me because I actually bought their little story? The stock market had a pretty good day today so our retirement fund inched a little closer to where it was back in 2007 but what's going to happen tomorrow? Where's the long term thinking from the big players? I guess you can't earn the big bonuses if you just sit in your office and tell your boss your thinking long term.

Friday, November 06, 2009


My son has been playing an interesting game on his Nintendo Wii game system called Pikmin. It has been around since the Nintendo Gamecube (released in 2001) but was updated to work with the Wii's controllers. In case you don't know, Nintendo turned the gaming world upside down when it came out with its wireless motion sensitive game controllers. It lets you get into the game in ways I never imagined. All of a sudden, you felt like you are really bowling or really swinging a bat or, in the case of Pikmin, really telling some little creatures what to do and where to go.

In the picture at the right, you can see Evan and his assistant, Henry the Cat, playing the game. The premise is that Olimar, the captain of a space vessel (in the picture on the left), has his ship damaged by being hit by an asteroid and has to make an emergency landing on the closest planet. His ship breaks apart as he is landing and the pieces are scattered on the planet. The planet has a poisonous atmosphere (of oxygen;-) and that limits how long he has to find all of his parts and repair his ship for the trip home.

He discovers a unique life form that he calls Pikmin (in the picture at the lower right - with Olimar) that start out like plants but once they are plucked, they behave like animals. They seem to like Olimar and follow his commands. The game lets you slowly discover how to control the Pikmin and to discover new things about the planet. There are many hazards to overcome and you have to use your puzzle solving skills to get past the barriers and hostile animals that stand in the way of retrieving all the parts for the ship and getting back home. Evan has me and my wife playing the game. It's very interesting and a real test of patience while you try to figure your way out of problems. There are three different types of Pikmin with different skills, strengths and weaknesses and you have to figure out how the different types can help in different situations.

It's a lot of fun and when I think I've got problems, I just imagine what it would be like to be marooned on a strange planet with a limited time to fix my ship before I can get home. I'm glad I can just jump in the car and get home in fifteen minutes!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Another story from my trip to see Mom

I wrote a story back in May about a bogus election for picking a mascot at our brand new junior high school. Actually, it was two stories: one about a bogus election by NASA about selecting a name for a part of the International Space Station and that story reminded me of our junior high school election. Well, on my recent trip to visit my mother, I drove by the old "junior high school" and guess what? They've changed everything. Well, not everything. The building looks the same but it is no longer a junior high school. It's now a middle school. And now, where it used to be called the Finley Junior High School (located in Finleyville, PA on land donated by, or bought from, the Finley family), it is now named after its school district: Ringgold.

But the worst part is that the Knight mascot is gone! After all the effort the junior high administrators went to, and we students took in voting, it's all been wiped away.The middle school now shares the mascot of the high school called (are you ready for the symmetry?) Ringgold High School (where a fellow named Joe Montana went and was actually known more as a basketball player than as a quarterback for the football team). When I went to that high school (from 1966 through 1969), it was called Monongahela High School and was located in Monongahela, PA. Then it merged with the Donora, PA school district to form Ringgold. The funny thing is, I also got to be part of the naming process for the new, merged high school mascot.

The Monongahela mascot was the Wildcat. The Donora mascot was the Dragon. They had to come up with another name and some students were selected from each school to come up with a list of names that both student bodies would vote on. Of course, the Rebel (see the article back in May for more on that) was suggested for its historical and alliterative qualities and was quickly rejected. The administrators didn't want to invalidate yet another election (I think some of them moved to Florida for the 2000 Presidential Election). The Wild Dragon didn't last long as a suggestion, either. For some reason, speaking of alliteration, it was decided early in the process that the mascot should start with an 'R' like the new high school name. I remember the names "Roadrunners" and "Rockets" (my favorite) being brought up but the loudest, most insistent people backed the "Rams" and that's what went on to win the vote and became the mascot for the new, as-yet-unbuilt high school - and later the mascot of the renamed middle school.

Ours was the last class to graduate from Monongahela High School. After that, even though the new high school wouldn't be ready for 10 years (1979), and the students from each area went to their own high school building, they graduated from Ringgold High School - Monongahela Division or -Donora Division (there's that alliteration again).

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A surprise good time - 2

My wife took the kids to a Halloween party at my mother-in-law's church yesterday. We'd never been to one there so we didn't know what to expect. The kids dressed up in the costumes they were going to use for trick-or-treating that night - those are the pictures shown here with my wife. By the way, how did our 13-year old son, Evan, get so big?

Evan is dressed as the game character Mario (I especially like the big hands that came with the costume - we got the mustache right side up later) and Emma is dressed as Mulan from the Disney movie of the same name.

I was going to just drop them off  and leave the car there for them and I was going to walk home. Before I left, though, it was obvious that the party was not designed to include older kids like Evan. He didn't want to stay so he decided to walk home with me. We were having a good talk as we went along but I noticed people looking at us from their cars. Then I noticed them pointing. I finally realized they were reacting to Evan's costume. I mentioned it to him and he started to notice the reactions, too. He had taken off the mustache and the large "hands" so he put those on, too. Then people really started to react. We could see people smiling and pointing him out to other passengers in the car. Then people started beeping their horns and shouting out to "Mario".

Evan had been really disappointed that the party hadn't worked out but he was now having a great time. He was smiling and waving back at the people who beeped and waved to him. He liked the idea of bringing a little joy to their lives. I was telling him how he was doing better than I would have in this situation. I would have been embarassed at the attention and wouldn't have enjoyed it like he was. Now, I was enjoying it because he was having such a good time. He was almost sad when we got home and couldn't wait to tell his grandmother what a good time he had..

We had another good time when we all went trick-or-treating last night. We even took our dog, Charlie, with us. But it was the unexpected good time Evan had that I will remember about this Halloween.