Levelling up

Tomorrow, December 5th 2008, marks the 20th anniversary of my starting work in “the industry.”

This calls for five minutes of reminiscing.

I turned up for my first day of work as a trainee systems programmer at a big Australian bank’s EDP department. I recall being more than a little shocked at having to be at work before 8:06am each day. I was introduced to everyone I’d be working with shortly before being sent off to North Sydney to do MVS and IBM System/360 Assembler training for a few weeks.

At training I learned that the most powerful instruction in Assembly language was the no-op. The coding standard dictated that you sprinkle them throughout your code so that smarter programmers than you could patch your code, in memory, while running by overwriting your no-ops with useful code and then adding a statement to branch to the patch code over the defective instructions.

The bank had some great people. Some were consummate professionals and some were real cowboys.

Towards the end of my time at the bank I was introduced to the pointy-end of the economics of software development and process improvement.

A colleague returned from a long liquid lunch and let me in on the “big secret.”

He said only fools write good code. Code has to break for you to get called in. Being called in gives you overtime and visibility. Overtime is extra money. Being called in is heroism. Develop skill in writing bugs that are serious enough to call you in about, yet easy enough to fix soon after you get into the office. Overtime was paid for in four hour minimum units. Nobody notices people who write reliable code because they never get to perform heroic acts. Notice that the people who get promoted are those that handle high stress situations. Notice that the people handling these high stress situations are generally responsible for creating the high stress situation in the first place.

It was good motivation to find a new job.

Wondering if there is a dog

Some parents of kids in Mr 5’s class have expressed concern that the school-hours scripture classes are a little too “Fire And Brimstone!” Some kids have been coming home from school talking about death and pretty upset about their parents’ prospects for admission into heaven.

We hadn’t noticed anything particularly odd. A Moses colouring activity came home with a light saber once. At age 5 everything looks better with a light saber.

I decided to check out what Mr 5 thought about his scripture classes.

I don’t have this captured perfectly, but you’ll get the gist:

They’re always talking about God and Jesus. Mostly Jesus. They really like Jesus.

Jesus is really powerful. She has some big dogs who can cure blindness by licking people.

Really big dogs.

He hasn’t heard the joke about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic.

Too bad they won’t live

Blade Runner, in any of its forms, is clearly one of the finest science fiction films ever made. While enjoying our new Apple TV last week, I succumbed to the temptation to buy the high definition Definitive Cut version and watch it.

I’ve seen pretty much all of the versions of Blade Runner multiple times — even the versions with reluctant Harrison Ford voice-overs. I didn’t expect much more than to be washed over by very leisurely-paced science fiction film noir nostalgia and marvel at how Admiral William Adama has grown.

I was struck by just how much nostalgia there was to be had.

Blade Runner proudly supports Pan Am!

Ridley Scott was prescient in his ability to select 1982-contemporary brands for prominent display that would encounter some serious trouble by the time history caught up with the movie. Each of the brands I recognised seems to have experienced a pre-2019 hiccup or two:

  • RCA: Purchased by GE in 1986 and gutted.
  • TDK: Not dead, but owned by Imation since 2007.
  • Atari: A brand being revived post-1980s as the adopted name of Hasbro Interactive and Infogrames.
  • Pan Am: Does not require explanation.

Apart from Atari, these brands don’t look terribly likely to method act their way to a triumphant resurgence in 2019.

Solid state reliability

A while back I learned something that I think is interesting for anyone who is interested in reliability. The reliability of solid state components in computers is related to the Arrhenius Equation. The Arrhenius Equation describes how the rate of chemical reactions is affected by temperature. A theory of reliability about solid state components of computers says that the reason they fail (after DOA and child mortality failures) is primarily due to chemical reactions, like oxidation.

In Wikipedia’s inimitable style:

The general rule of thumb, without solving the equation, is that for every 10°C increase in temperature the rate of reaction doubles. As with any rule of thumb, it does not always work.

Theoretically that means that for every 10°C you can cool your computer beyond its nominal operating temperature, you can (according to the unreliable rule of thumb) increase the mean time between failures of solid state components in your PC by a factor of 2. Another way of describing this is that it doubles the reliability of those components.

Now, a question: Should I freeze my backup DVDs?

Hold my hand, Miss Jane

I work with a US-based manager called Jane with über-project-coordination skills.

One of Jane’s management super hero talents is a tireless ability to bring warring development groups together on the phone and gently negotiate agreement within minutes of observing email sniping or any of the other usual symptoms of project discord.

I watched too much of a TV show during my early childhood called Mr Squiggle. The show featured a puppet character called Mr Squiggle “the man from the moon” who…

…was a cheery, scatter-brained character who would often be distracted and would occasionally go for “space-walks”, and his assistant would need to calm him down to get him to focus on the task of drawing.

Mr Squiggle always had a female assistant to help him, and give the show some narrative consistency. There were several assistants during the show’s lifetime, but the assistant I remember most fondly is Miss Jane.

Even though he was easily distracted Mr Squiggle was a brilliant artist, as puppets go. He could change a piece of paper with some random-looking lines and curves into a complete picture by drawing with his pencil nose while talking about how nice the moon is this time of year.

Before starting to draw he would say “Hold my hand, Miss Jane.”

This seemed such a fitting parallel to our project (as the creative scatterbrain, Mr Squiggle) and our Ms Jane (as a stabilizing influence) that I thought I should share this parallel with her.

I was about to compose a Happy-New-Year-how’re-you-doing? email to Jane with background links to the Wikipedia article on the show when I noticed that there is also a short Wikipedia entry for Jane Fennell, the actor who was Miss Jane.

I read it and decided against drawing any parallels.

Now I think I need someone to hold my hand.

Inconceivable!

Setting aside the strange use of many terms, and the prevalence of management buzzword-speak syntactic sugar, one of the most misused words I’ve encountered since I arrived in the USA is misnomer.

The irony is delicious.

Scooter stereotypes

I’m currently in Denver. On assignment!

As my family and I will be here for some time, and we only have the one car, we’ve discussed getting something like a motor scooter for me to ride to work. A moped. Something like a Vespa.

J & I had a discussion about how cheap they are to run and how good they are for the environment.

I used to have one way back when I was in school, so I know the thrill of filling up each week with 90 cents worth of petrol. The slings and arrows of riding a moped in rural and regional Australia just helped to make me stronger. Don’t taunt me again, I could be pushed too far like a moped-riding John Rambo.

Getting a moped seemed like an idea worth pursuing. A potential problem we both noted was that neither of us had ever seen a motor scooter in the USA. We speculated that they’re considered too gay, or French, or both. Maybe, and this was the conclusion we snarkily agreed to, they’re unpatriotic in their frugal fuel use (notwithstanding the huge numbers of hybrids now on the roads).

As if to illustrate why having only one vehicle was a problem that needed solving, on Friday I was supposed to be picked up from work at 4:30 but I had a meeting that ran late. I lost track of time and I had no mobile phone. J waited for me in the car park for a while and then drove home with the kids to wait for my call. It wasn’t for another hour that I got in touch with her to arrange a pickup. We arranged a new time and I headed down to the car park to catch some late afternoon outdoors.

In the car park was the first motor scooter I had seen in America. We were proven wrong, Americans do care about fuel usage and don’t care about looking French, gay, or Italian!

I waited for 15 minutes for J to arrive, and noticed something odd. The back wheel of the scooter was slowly rotating, as if moved by the breeze. I got closer and realized that the engine had been left running.

When J arrived she said that she had seen it earlier when she came to pick me up and it had its engine on then as well. It had been running for 90 minutes or more.

Was this some form of effete fuel-wasting ceremony designed to exorcise perceived moped-gayness? Was it a French or Italian spy proving themselves to be American?

I could have ridden it away to rescue it into my laté-sipping life of looking like a felonious, gay, French-Italian, greenie, but I think I’ll just get a bicycle.

Letters to the editor

Some troublemaker managed lead letter in the Sydney Morning Herald today.

As the debate about housing affordability continues, I would like to see more discussion of the attitude towards renters.

It’s like a dirty secret in which we are all complicit. Once we’ve got our own patch, we seem happy to forget about the miseries of renting. There are no substantive policies or meaningful law reform. With renting recognised as the only option available to many over a lifetime, the time to act is now.

Renters are treated like second-class citizens by agents and owners alike. While there are clearly many fair landlords, and real estate agents, we see this as good fortune, rather than a right to expect. I was a good tenant: paid rent on time, looked after the places I’ve occupied, got on with the neighbours and still had humiliating battles to get my bond back.

Managing rental properties would be the lowest rung of real estate business and it seems to fall to the most junior staff. Determining the quality of our steam cleaning was often in the hands of a 20-year-old trainee. As I was young, too, this was merely galling. It must be excruciating for older renters.

Dealing directly with an owner is usually worse. One, when asked to fix the hot water service, launched into a tale of his kitchen renovation woes. Tell someone who cares. Learn a little about your responsibilities.

In a friend’s case, the bond was put into the owner’s business, and had to be paid back in instalments. Just weeks ago, someone else I know had an owner change his mind and tell him to move out just days after he’d moved in. With no lease signed at that point, what was he to do? Although I hear good things about the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, it is still a fight that many don’t have the stomach for.

Renting hinges on a relationship that is fundamentally unequal and is founded on private return to the owner. The expectations of the tenants and their ability to plan and live their lives come a distant second.

Why can a business enjoy a five-year lease, with an option to extend, but the shelter which people need to live can be removed with minimal notice? Until this is addressed, nobody will see renting as an alternative to home ownership.

Kudos to J! It’s the biggest day in letter-writing in our house since J got lead letter, and 2 of the 3 other letters on the same topic were from friends of ours too.

I have vivid memories of talking to our landlord of yore about how we were tired of waiting for some long lost blue-collar member of his family to clear up some time to come fix our hot water service. Two days without hot water in winter would usually constitute a need for “emergency plumbing.” He began to tell me about how his family suffered when they were renovating their bathroom (not the kitchen as stated above — oops). I objected, saying that if we had rented through an agent, or any other landlord we would have at least seen a plumber by now. “Are you implying I’m not a good landlord?” he said. “I’m not implying anything. I’m telling you you’re a bad landlord.”

That felt good, and later that day we had working hot water again. We were informed that our rent was increasing soon after.

Occupations that are difficult to describe

I recently discovered that a lot of parents and kids at my son’s school think I work for Lego.

My usual “I’m a software engineer… I do stuff with phones and networking and software and stuff” might be the right mixture of tedious-sounding and insufficiently memorable to cause temporary amnesia in those not learned in the appropriate arts. That state of mind might open the door for the Lego meme to slip in.

My son swears he’s not the source of this rumour.

When I worked with ATMs at a bank, I used to prefer “I’m a software guy” to “I look after the ATM network management software at bank X” based on former allowing me to move the conversation somewhere other than vocation and the latter getting me bailed up with wild-eyed rants about appalling ATM service. Unlike ATMs, I’m not unhappy about being associated with Lego. I just wonder if this will end like the Seinfeld episode where George pretends he’s a marine biologist.

Are there any life or death situations that can only be resolved through encyclopaedic knowledge of the Lego product line?

A history of printers

This is a list of the printers I have owned in reverse chronological order. My recent purchase caused me to ponder just how universally crappy my printer experience has been, except for the laser printers I have owned. I might have been much better off saving $10,000 and buying a laser printer when they first became “available” to SOHO users.

Samsung CLP-300N.

CLP-300N

Networked colour laser printer. I picked up the 300N last week for about AU$1.10 per N. This is the first colour laser printer I have owned, and certainly provides the best $/kg value of any printer I have owned. It takes four toner cartridges which are rated at 2000 pages, and cost around $70 each. It’s fast, and while it isn’t the world’s best colour printer by a long shot — it works with Windows, Linux and Mac, and doesn’t require turning on a PC to use. So far, for the 5 pages it has printed, it rocks.

Dell Photo All-in-One Printer 922.

USB-connected Windows-only, colour inkjet, scanner and copier. This printer cost me nothing. It was practically thrown at me when I was buying a Dell laptop for a relative. While discussing the hilarious prices ink cartridges sell for the salesperson cannily told me I’d probably be ready to buy a new laptop next time I ran out of ink anyway, so why quibble over cartridge prices. That didn’t end up being true, as the “introductory pack” of black ink ran out very soon after it was set up and I felt the touch of Dell’s conveniently located “buy more ink” service right alongside the friendly graph showing just how out-of-ink I was. Buying one black cartridge was a complete rip-off, and buying two lowered the unit price by 40% or so, so I planned ahead and got two black cartridges for marginally less stupid prices.

Eventually, my kids’ readily accessible source of paper for aeroplane construction, drawing, and origami boulders grew tired of having the paper ripped the wrong way past its feeder rollers. It began its rebellion by feeding between 0 and 10 pages at a time, with 0 and 10 being the most likely values decided. Out of warranty, I declared the printer dead. Does anyone want to buy some ink cartridges?

Having a scanner and copier on hand was undeniably useful. I’ll have to find a reasonable replacement for the scanning capabilities at least.

Panasonic KX-P6100.

My favourite printer ever. Purchased in about 1999 and still going strong. The KX-P6100 is small parallel interface Windows GDI-talkin’ monochrome laser printer that inspired the “toaster” building at Sydney’s Circular Quay, I’m sure. It’s about the size of two reams of A4 paper and stands “upright.” Panasonic no longer have a printer division — this was the printer that broke the mould. Panasonic apparently didn’t “get it” like other printer manufacturers do. They seemed to think that there was nothing magical about their toner so they didn’t use much and sold it cheap! $25 per ~2500 pages cheap.

Unlike a bubblejet, the KX-P6100 can rest for months without printing and work perfectly when you pull it out of mothballs. I still have it waiting in the wings, but driver support is getting a bit shaky with the arrival of Vista.

[…Time passes, and Chris & Jessica own a series of anonymous colour bubblejets…]

Canon Bubblejet BJ-10 & Apple Stylewriter

When Bubblejet technology hit the big time and Canon released the BJ-10, I was employed, relatively flushed with funds, and eager to torture my dot matrix printer collection to death and dance on their grave. I had been dreaming about bubbles and jets since I read about them in Byte magazine so I snapped one up as soon as I could.

The BJ-10 was a dream — relatively fast, black, laser-like printing on ordinary paper with a little bucket of ink which it could inform you was empty (or could it?) and no nasty ribbons. Sure bubblejets need to be used constantly or they jam up. And they need to be used sparingly or they fuzz up. But they were still way better better than dot-matrix dinosaurs.

Owning a Mac meant owning the Apple-branded equivalent of the BJ-10: the Stylewriter.

Epson LQ-500 & Epson LX-50. 24 and 9 pin dot-matrix printers.

I’m guessing here. I think I was the proud owner of two ribbon-chewing, mis-feeding, very rugged and noisy Epson printers during early university days. The two features I recall being impressed about are speed and price. Not having to wait a week to see hard copy of a 500 word essay was pretty novel. I recall printers being staggeringly expensive for something that you rarely used, and paper and ribbon prices seemed sky-high too. I guess the people I shared my university accommodation with probably recall an overwhelming sense of knowing which very early mornings I had assignments due, from the fantastic cacophony that accompanied the completion and near-completion of any assignment. I bet they marked the date when graphical fonts extended the printing time on dot matrix printers nearer to the upper thresholds of noise tolerance.

I marked the advent pf graphical fonts by allowing several times the printing time to get my assignments in on time. Sitting for hours between midnight and dawn waiting for the printer to jam, or screw up the feed hole alignment so you could restart the page over and over is not a fond memory. These were awful, awful printers.

When I first started working at the Commonwealth Bank, I was given a tour. My guide showed me a large room which was wall-to-wall dot-matrix printers making paper copies of every ATM transaction made in the region for dispute resolution. Even as I stood in the door to that room, watching two operators fumbling with printer ribbons or jammed paper, I estimated I could see 5 or 6 other printers with similar problems.

Commodore 1520 Plotter. Centronics-connected 3(4?)-pen plotter.

I didn’t own one of these, I just convinced my school to buy a few of them for the (don’t laugh) Vic 20 lab. They had fantastic text quality and quiet operation. This made the 1520 stand out very favourably from the early dot matrix printers that were common at the time. It was trivially easy to apply basic maths to generating colourful spirographs and other sophisticated-looking graphics. The downside was the paper was a roll that was only about 3 inches wide and had to be ordered from Commodore. The pens held a minuscule quantity of ink too, and guess who you had to talk to about acquiring new ones.

Quay

Knowing we would be without kids over the Easter weekend, J and I decided to treat ourselves to a meal at one of the restaurants in Sydney’s foody stratosphere.

We ticked off Tetsuya’s (been there for many fantastic meals when he was in Rozelle) and Guillaume (no space for us) eventually deciding on Quay (never been there before).

At $175 each for a four course a la carte meal, and a public holiday surcharge we didn’t want to think much about money once we were there. We wanted to sit down and forget about our wallets and take in the magnificent views and sumptuous food and pretend we’re DINKs for a few hours.

The menu opened into four panels. We got to pick one dish from each panel. The food was amazing. The ingredients include truffle, abalone, hand-shelled crab, figs, squab… a cornucopia of rare and expensive ingredients artfully assembled into exquisite food.

But what’s this? One dish includes lobster, and for some reason it’s an extra $20.

Suddenly we feel like we’re at an expensive RSL.