Back to the Future Day

Today is November 12. Sixty-seven years ago, at 10:04 pm, Saturday November 12, 1955, lightning struck the Hill Valley town clock tower. Bad for the tower, but good for Marty McFly, who used the 1.21 gigawatt burst to power him back to the 1980s.

Blast From the Past

I found this program called Cathode that does an incredible job of recreating the experience of writing code on a CRT display, ca. 1980–83. Many was the hour I logged on the Lear-Sigler ADM-3A — in those days time was logged, so you could pay for it. That was incredibly unfair since the I/O (for l’users) was throttled down to 4800 baud.

CRT Recreation

Check it out. Then give it up, before the ergonomics make you blind.

As a sort of colophon, the code I’m editing here is genuine K&R C, from the Old Testament. There are two anachronisms:

  1. I’m using vi to edit it, but in the day I was busy getting all carpal with emacs. I had no choice here: there might be an Emacs on my system, but if there is, I can’t remember how to get out.
  2. I wrote this code in 1992, by which time we used terminal emulators like Kermit on PCs, instead of real terminals. However, it was a recreation of something I wrote in about 1983 to translate English into “Klingonese.” (Not the stuff used by Star Trek fans. That came later. I’m talking STA KANG, PUSHJ JRST.)

To be fair, I don’t think I ever wrote C on the ADM-3A, or even a VT-100. I don’t think the DECSystem-20 even had a C compiler. All my C was on the VAX, which had HP-2621A terminals.

Godfather’s Pizza

Earlier this week, Politico posted an article about Godfather’s Pizza, presumably as a way to knock down Herman Cain. It was a sad little hit-piece, as you might expect. Cain hasn’t been at Godfather’s since the mid-90s, and even if he were, this “blind taste test” simply brings to mind the Reagan’s observation that “there’s a difference between the critics and the box office.” Regardless what some food critics think about the pizza, nobody can dispute that Cain led the company back to profitability.

When I was in college, Albuquerque was where we went for fun, and most of the time, our evenings began at Godfather’s Pizza. One of my friends (Joel) could calculate everyone’s portion of the bill in his head between the cash register and the table, including tip and tax, and accounting for different drink purchases. And despite that, he was a mediocre student in the math classes. I hear he works at a bank these days, although he doesn’t use Facebook or LinkedIn so I can’t be sure.

Another friend (Kevin) used to tick me off because he was a quicker eater than me. Suppose you have a three people sharing an eight-slice pizza. Everyone gets two slices, and then they have an argument about who doesn’t get a third, right? Not with Kevin at the table. He’d eat three slices as quickly as the rest would eat two. Then he’d look at that last slice sitting all by itself, and ask if anybody else wanted it. And we’d say, no, shucks, we’re not greedy, you go ahead eat it, Kevin.

I don’t say these things to slam my friends. Well, I do, but that’s not my point. After all, I’m sure if you checked their memories, they might have some less than 100% flattering memories of me, too.

What’s interesting to me is that we always ate at Godfather’s. It wasn’t even a question. We just did. The pizza was good enough, I suppose, but nothing special. My guess is that, since that Socorro had a Pizza Hut, when we went to Albuquerque, we wanted something different.

After college, I moved to Albuquerque and learned about Nunzio’s Pizza, which I liked a lot better than Godfather’s. You could purchase by the slice, so there, Kevin. And if you asked for anchovies, they wouldn’t lie to you and say “we’re all out, sorry,” the way most pizza places do. Sadly, Nunzio’s went out of business sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s. I’m happy to see the family has started over with a new pizzeria called Saggio.

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

This was my first computer:

Vintage 1985 "Fat Mac"

The 512 kB “Fat Mac.” With an ImageWriter, Microsoft Word and Multiplan (the predecessor of Excel), and MacPascal, it set me back about $2,500. That was 1985 money, so it would be somewhere around $5,000 today.)

I was living in Albuquerque and my roommate, who drank deep of the Kool-ade, had been so affected by Ridley Scott’s 1984 “Big Brother” commercial that he ran out and bought one of the original 128 kB Macs. (If I recall, he bought some Apple stock too. I wish I’d done that when I bought my second Mac, an iBook, in 2003.)

Anyway, a couple of years later, I was working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, and Steve Jobs wasn’t working at Apple any more. He came to Murray Hill to give a presentation of the NeXT computer. I didn’t work at Murray Hill — that was the real Bell Labs, where they got Nobel Prizes in Astrophysics and worked on slug brains. I just worked for AT&T’s R&D unit. But I got to see the presentation way down in South Jersey via the magic of teleconferencing.

By today’s standards, NeXT mail wasn’t all that hot: it was basically email with MIME attachments. But I don’t think he was trying to sell Unix workstations to Bell Labs. (Who would be stupid enough to give up a 3B2 with a BLT running Plan 9 for a mere NeXT box? Ahem. Although, to this day, I’m not personally convinced that email improved when it grew to include anything beyond ASCII text.)

What Steve was doing, I think, was giving AT&T some (desperately-needed) business advice. I admire his chutzpah: a kid in his 30’s, who’d just been sacked by his board, telling AT&T how to do business. But that’s what he was doing.

He was telling them that AT&T Mail was a disaster, particularly compared to what he was selling. But more than that, he was telling them to stick to their core competency. Instead of chasing him (or ignoring him and Inventing-It-Here, as Bell Labs was, ahem, wont to do), he said that AT&T should sell him connectivity. Just give him pipes to move his bits around, that’s what he wanted.

People talk about Steve’s “reality distortion field.” But that day, nobody was buying what he was selling.

That’s a hard message to sell to companies like AT&T. There’s some weird virus that infects marketing people at telecoms that makes them think it’s possible to add value to every bit that passes through their network. Indeed, that it’s not only possible, but their company is also capable of doing it!

Yes, yes, it’s a preposterous notion, but nevertheless, telecom marketers are all infected with it. Twenty-five years later, they still have it. They just can’t stand the idea of simply doing their core business well. They’re terrified of becoming a commodity.

Steve Jobs wasn’t worried about becoming commoditized. None of the businesses he built into category killers are commodities. Pixar is head and shoulders above everyone else in the business. The Mac stands out and commands a price premium in a world of commodity computers. Ditto the iPod, the iPhone, and lately the iPad.

Business is infected with the opposite approach. One of my managers at Bell Labs told me to quit improving a piece of software this way: “You’re polishing a turd.” Steve Jobs knew that you couldn’t make a great company by shipping turds, so he kept polishing products until there wasn’t anything turdlike about them.

Good for him. It will be interesting to see if anyone learns the lesson.

Reflections on Salary

My first job out of college paid an annual salary of S. (The actual amount S represents is unimportant.)

For a brief period of time, that was more money than I could imagine. (We didn’t discuss money in my family, but I have reason to believe that my dad supported us–four kids, mom, and himself–on less than that amount.) Two years later, when I moved to Bell Labs, I also “right-sized” my salary to 140% of S. Then S didn’t seem so impressive.

What’s interesting is that my 1984 salary is 70% of what I make now, 26 years later, according to the web site. (Actually, they provide a bunch of estimates, ranging from 71% to 140%. I picked the lowest one.)

Now, that was in Albuquerque, which is cheaper to live in than Yucca Valley. According to the cost-of-living comparison at Sperling’s BestPlaces, a dollar there buys as much as $1.06 does here.

So my first job out of college paid effectively 75% of my current salary. And I only had one car and three less mouths to feed. But what’s really amazing is that within two years of graduation, I had run up more than 10% of my salary in credit card debt. To be sure, I do have a mortgage today, but (so far!) we’re paying our bills and living within our means.

Pssst! You’re Mortal!

Supposedly, when a conquering general returned to Rome and was given a triumph to celebrate his victory, a slave would ride with him in the chariot, holding a wreath above his head but whispering in his ear “Remember you are a mortal.” Sometimes I feel that way after a sermon.

A while ago, I went through a period of several weeks where my sermons just didn’t seem to work well. The idea was fine, but I never felt satisfied with my ability to communicate it. And, judging from the faces looking back at me, I think it rubbed off on the congregation. If I communicated much, it seemed to be my vague dissatisfaction with the sermon.

Eventually, my “bad streak” ended. (I say “bad streak” because of my perception of the sermon and its impact, but of course I have very little insight as to how God may have used my words to speak grace to the assembled faithful.)

Finally, after several weeks, I preached a sermon that I liked. More of the faces out there seemed to be following me. Great day.

It was a great day for about 2 minutes, at least. Then this dear saint came up to me after the service to offer a critique of the sermon. She told me she didn’t appreciate it when I’d said Jesus was talking “crazy talk.”

It’s true; I’d said that. I’d been talking about how the things Jesus said didn’t make any sense according to the world’s standards. And the way I said that was that Jesus said a lot of crazy talk.

And I was right. The woman was clearly wrong about Jesus. People who heard him face to face thought he had a demon. They grumbled about his “hard sayings.” They said his disciples were turning the world upside down. If you think everything Jesus said is self-evident and obvious, you either live in a bubble that keeps you isolated from the world — which I doubt — or — more likely — you have completely missed the point.

But that’s not what bugged me about this woman. My real frustration was that I wanted to enjoy my triumph and this woman was whispering in my ear that I was mortal.

The Lives of Others

I finished watching The Lives of Others. That makes two subtitled foreign films this century! Awesome. It’s the story of a secret policeman with the East German Stasi and a couple he is assigned to investigate.

I’m no good at movie reviews, so I won’t try. I think the story and the characters were both excellent. There is almost no “action” — and yet at moments your heart is pounding because of the intensity. (More like a thriller or old-school horror movie, in that way.) No special effects, no CGI.

The main character is Gerd Wiesler, played by the late Ulrich Mühe. His life story is interesting in its own right.

I’m glad I saw this movie. It’s an excellent critique of the totalitarian state — the best I can remember; perhaps as good as Animal Farm. But it’s also an enjoyable movie to watch.