It Doesn’t Take Much

Just a couple of hours, far away from technology, and somehow I can come back exhausted but refreshed.

Biking is my drug of choice. Getting physically tired while not damaging muscles, tendons and bones too badly is a great method to “flush the system”.

Not that it’s always pain free. Beyond the usual aches from overdoing it (e.g., trying to go too far or too high), there’s the unexpected obstacle scenario.

2016-06-08 07.57.04This was back in June, when I was attacked by a chain link fence, laid down across the bike path.

Even after the pain and slight expense of repairing the bike, I was back to ‘relaxing’ the next week.

I wonder what other engineers do to relax? I guess as long as their lives are not dominated by being engineers, they can add other ingredients to sweeten the brew, and still come out ahead.


“Reducing Story Lines” is the New Euphemism

Story in the New York Times this week: 3 long time characters have been let go from the show, in order to “reduce story lines” and “focus on familiar faces each week.” What show?

Sesame Street! It’s another step in the sunset of an era. First, the show’s distribution rights are purchased by HBO, putting it out of reach of 50% of American households, and onto a network whose other content is, shall we say, beyond the limits parents set for pre-schoolers. (Thankfully, HBO has exclusive rights only for 9 months, after which time the show returns for free to PBS.) Now this downsizing.

Oh, and did I mention that the show has been trimmed from an hour to thirty minutes? “A more manageable time for children to focus,” according to another NY Times article. When did this psychological shift occur, when kids could no longer focus beyond 30 minutes? I thought that Sesame Street’s original premise was that a show based on very short and crisp vignettes would hold kids’ interest and afford an opportunity for education and social adjustment? (Wikipedia’s article confirms this, although it goes on to say that story-line format was added in the 1990s and onward, with “45 minutes needed to tell the story”.) Where does this pre-school audience depart to when the credits roll? Perhaps back to their tablets and smart phones?

I would love to see an in-depth article, telling the history of Sesame Street and its impact on children and pre-school learning, then going on to explain with sociological data how “children have changed”.

My question is this: What is the cause and what is the effect? This is, in engineering terms, the basic way to analyze observed information. Is the culture changing and therefore children are changing and therefore the shows on TV need to change [to hold their audience]? Or is culture changing and therefore TV shows change which in turn causes children’s behavior to change?

Let’s go back to the original premise of the show. Again referring to Wikipedia’s article, the show wanted to focus on African-American children in inner city environments, portraying a familiar and positive image. Whether it’s learning basic English, math and social skills, or observing how choices affect behavior, it seems that those goals are needed more strongly than ever in the culture around us!

And don’t get me started on how “reducing story lines” is a euphemism for down-sizing employee payroll, beginning with the older, more experienced workers. Do children today have fewer people of grandparent age in their lives than was true 45 years ago? I wonder…


Macros are fun. Having the right macro – especially one you’ve struggled to write yourself – is like a Get Out of Jail Free card. When the software you depend on doesn’t do what it claims to do, or what you need it to do, then sometimes a good macro will provide a way of escape.

Microsoft’s Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) is a good example.

Continue reading “Macros”

Two Wheels

Bicycle riding: that taste of freedom!

How well I remember getting my first bicycle! I must have been seven or eight – before we moved when I entered third grade. It was in the summer at 241 Zuber Road, in Rochester, New York. A blue frame, heavy-duty street bike. No speeds, only coaster brakes, but indestructible.

Me? Not so much. A crash which ripped open the big toe on my right foot proved that.

Continue reading “Two Wheels”

Technical Writing

Huge Specifications

Earlier in my career I had been responsible for writing Data Sheets and Application Notes. My new position, working on MHL, involved writing and editing the specification and compliance test spec, each of which were several hundred pages long. And they had multiple contributors, and multiple iterations of edits, corrections, clarifications, re-writes, etc.

Microsoft had improved Word since the 1990s, but it still was not an out-of-the-box content management tool. The company had struggled to justify putting in place a real content management tool, and – at best – had installed a document repository. So, what was I to do to manage the changes and reviews and approvals for these massive documents?

The work I was doing in Word was already seen as ‘magic’ by most of my peers. They were terrific engineers, but had never been called on to master Word.


I thought back to work I had done in Visual Basic some years before. I read up on the macro usage and object-oriented structure of Word. And, working in spare time for a couple of weeks, developed some lengthy macros, and a style of tracking changes, that served the team well for over 5 years.

Many times a question would come up: “Who requested this change on page XXX?” With the change history and notes in the document itself, I could answer this each time. When reviewers groaned at having to re-read the next draft, again at hundreds of pages, I explained, “You can just review the changes by using the history at the back of the document.” A sigh of relief, and the project moved forward.

I used the same approach to partially automate checking for field names used throughout the compliance test specification, and to generate various versions of the form to be used by customers with that spec. I searched for, but never really found, the best tool to migrate such form automation from Office documents to XML or even to Wiki pages. This is a challenge for the next project.

First Chip Software Tool

Silicon Image eventually came out with a chip which couldn’t be controlled by simple register reads and writes. The chip designers created a device which could accept a video input stream and scale the image to a new resolution. It could also superimpose a message or picture onto the stream: an on-screen display (OSD) message.QFP package

To define and modify these OSD messages (text or picture) one had to program a lot of registers for font, color, character strings and image. It was not practical to do this with peek-and-poke instructions.

I saw a problem waiting for a solution!

Continue reading “First Chip Software Tool”

Complexity or Chaos?

Are the challenges we engage to solve becoming too complex for our current methodologies? I believe that, in the last 50 years, we have lost sight of the exponential relationship between “problem complexity” and “problem management”.

I got to thinking about this once again while reading this intriguing article in The Atlantic: ‘Trust in Government is Collapsing Around the World‘. (Thanks to my well-educated friend, Ari, for pointing me to it.) Thinking in terms of “definition of experiments”, the number of independent variables is expanding like crazy, and the standard deviation in each variable is also increasing: bigger variety of people, more sub-cultures with power, higher expectations of government, etc.

Take a look at modern computing devices. Within this class I would include laptops, tablets, smart phones, and the like. They contain a powerful computing engine, plenty of memory and storage, access to the world of information we call the Internet, and claim to provide a platform on which any number of challenges can be addressed. Manage your money? No problem. Write anything from a note for the fridge to a doctoral thesis to a novel? No problem. Digest news feeds to something palatable for each user? Again, no problem.

But I would suggest that the software world has delegated the actual solving of the problem to the users, not the computer and its software. A word processor can do many things, but to do it bug-free requires legions of users writing in about this-and-that problem they encounter. Fix the problems one-by-one, and you end up with a solution to the problem. Wait! Haven’t we moved the problem from “how to write a manuscript on paper with pencil and then use a typewriter” to “how to diagnose or live with bugs when you want to get fancy”? Why not test the software and find all the bugs before it leaves the factory? That takes a different type of resolve, and using experts to create the final system, not the user community.

Uri Friedman writes ““we may not know how to architect trusted institutions at scale in public space,” quoting a former Department of Homeland Security official. She continues, “Our institutions—their weight-bearing effectiveness for social problems of enormous complexity is being called into question now across the board.”

The ‘public space’ has scaled dramatically with the shift to social media and away from ‘juried’ publications. Yet people are reading less. But why put these institutions in the public space at all? Apparently trusting direct democracy is not a new issue: according to Wikipedia, it was an issue for the Founding Fathers. Are we going to put “beta social policy” into the public sphere, and let the users find the bugs?

(I’m beginning to see S.T.E.M. efforts evolving to S.T.E.A.M. – including the arts and history. I predict this will be a “pendulum swing” like the one in 1958, when Sputnik caused American politicians to direct more effort to science and math. When the competitive crisis had passed, we went back to social studies.)

This article could go on and on. Parting thought: I wonder when our political and cultural system will begin to look a lot like ancient Athens? A ‘direct democracy’, as we learned in school, but it ignores the castes of slaves and non-citizens. (See Wikipedia article, paragraph #2.) I wonder how ‘direct democracy’ has changed in Vermont’s “town meetings” in recent decades.

Democracy: it’s still better than the alternatives!