Sun Down for a Year, Six Months at insideHPC

When Oracle took over Sun Microsystems in the USA in January, 2010, it took about 48 hours for them to let me know that I wasn’t invited along for the ride. If you’ve ever been laid off, you know what a scary feeling that can be. And even though I knew it was coming for the better part of year, part of me wanted to believe that the company was going to keep doing HPC.

Well that didn’t happen. Oracle has this strange preoccupation with making money that never got in our way at Sun.

So I went on my own with Flex Rex Communications while sending out resumes. I had interviews and offers to write at various publications, but nothing looked like it was going to pay the bills.

Then in August, John West asked me if I was interested in buying insideHPC. I had been a reader of his for years and I could not believe my good fortune.

We closed the deal and announced it on September 1, 2010, and I haven’t looked back other than to thank my lucky stars. The role just seems to fit like a glove and I look forward to working every day for the first time in recent memory.

I guess what I’m saying is that getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s just a way of looking at the same event in a different way.

So when I had a bit of setback in my family recently, I kept thinking about that perspective thing. And just by accident, I wrote something down that ending up being very cathartic:

The World is different than I want to be. I will adjust.

Lost Finale: All Dogs go to Heaven

The following post contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the Lost tv series finale, please come back later.

I’m not someone who spends a lot of time watching TV, let alone blogging about it, but the Lost finale has drawn me out. And the reason has to do with the Ultimate Question from my Catholic upbringing:

Who gets to go to Heaven?

Sages and clerics have struggled with this query ever since the concept of Heaven was created. For the most part, they have kept their answers nice and simple by focusing on who doesn’t get to go to Heaven.

So after watching the Flash-Sideways church scene near the end of the show and concluding that this depicted the main characters coming together in the afterlife, I have come away with the Ultimate Answers:

1. Murderers get to go to Heaven, quite to the contrary of Catholic dogma. Just look at the all the characters in the church who killed people over the course of the show: Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and the list goes on and on. Hugo even invites Benjamin Linus inside, despite the fact he is a mass murderer and probably the most evil guy on the show. Go figure.

2. There are no lawyers in Heaven. Sure this is an old joke, but the character Ilana Verdanski, the Flash-sideways attorney who helps Claire with her adoption, doesn’t wind up in Heaven even though she spent her whole life protecting Jacob’s candidates. She gets beat up, hospitalized, and blown to bits for her trouble, but no eternal reward. That’s harsh.

3. Interrogators who torture and murder get to go to Heaven. Thanks to Sayid, untold numbers of CIA operatives can now sleep peacefully.

4. Physicists don’t get to go to Heaven. Daniel Faraday is stuck in Purgatory playing classical piano in a bad rock band. Maybe his working knowledge of the space-time continuum condemns him to atheism or something. Or maybe he has eternity to get over the fact that Sawyer got some noogie from the redhead while he was playing cop.

5. Alcoholics and drug addicts get to go to Heaven, even if they were lousy fathers. What a relief! Just kidding.

6. Mothers who bear children out-of-wedlock get to go to Heaven. I’m not sure where the Church stands on this. Maybe it’s ok to enter as long as you feel really guilty about it your whole life.

7. Adulterers get to go to Heaven. Sun had an affair with her English teacher, who may also have been the baby-daddy. Her hubby was being a prick at the time, so I guess she gets a pass.

8. Arm-breakers get to go to Heaven. Jin busted people up for a living while working for his spouse’s father. What? There were no open positions in the mail room?

9. Con men get to go to Heaven. Sawyer does a lot of noble stuff on the show, despite himself. Sure, a con man was responsible for his parent’s death, but why would someone want to turn into the very person they obsess about murdering for revenge?

10. All dogs get to go to Heaven. Jack doesn’t have to die alone thanks to the pooch. Nice touch; got me all choked up.

So there you have it. This could go on forever, I suppose, since there were so many characters. But in the final analysis, I take great comfort in the notion that the neighbors in the afterlife won’t all be chanting “Drill, baby, drill!”

The year after Carmen

Carmen Martinez passed away on May 17, 2009. We were very close, and in some ways, I still struggle with the idea that she’s gone.

And now that it’s been a year, I thought it would be good to post the program that I put together for her memorial service. I printed it on this really amazing metallic paper that looked like it would last forever.

I read somewhere that the people who come into your life have a message for you, an answer to a question you’re trying to resolve. And in this theory, they aren’t even aware of the answer that they are passing along. Carmen wasn’t like that. She seemed to be conscious of the questions and the answers, even when she couldn’t find them for herself.

People like Carmen are a great gift to us all. Their capacity to love is limitless. And in them we see the potential of what we should be.

How I got into writing, Part II

Now, back in 1987 there was no Wikipedia, so I looked up Boolean in the Dictionary. When I read that it was a form of algebra, my face grew long. And after the first lecture in X-MP repair school, I cracked open one of the yellow volumes and there was nothing in there but equations like this: A^B B^C =  CA. To me, it was like looking at hieroglyphics.

It turns out that Seymour Cray, the guy who founded the company and invented supercomputing, used Boolean exclusively to design his systems. That’s right–no schematics or circuit diagrams, nothing. Every electrical path in the entire monolithic system was laid out in a series of gate equations. And when some error was called out of by the operating system, I had to trace the signal back through those yellow volumes until I narrowed it down to the malfunctioning module. Ouch.

Over the course of the next three months, I also learned a great deal about assembly language, flags, I/O, and all kinds of inner workings that we computer users don’t even hear about today. From the user’s point of view, it’s all been abstracted up to the point that my parents just flip through newspapers on their iBook like they have been doing it all their life.

I think back on those times now and the misery it was for me to sit through hours of this training for a job I wasn’t going to be doing. For my non-mathematical brain, the course was like a forced march served up in a series of all-day lectures spoken in a different language. Did I mention there were exams?

And in the end, I got through it all with a dose of charity from the instructors and a passing grade. Boot camp was over, but was I really qualified? Sure, I knew how to diagnose the machine on a basic level and replace broken parts, but did that make me qualified to write the manuals these engineers would rely on to do their jobs?

I wasn’t sure, and for the first year or so of writing manuals full time, I went to work each day in fear that I would be discovered to be an impostor. My fellow technical writers were all engineers on some level, and they really seemed to understand what they were doing.

But as I read their stuff in peer reviews, a strange notion became clear to me; in almost every case, I was the better writer. I was the one with the edits that showed them how to be better. And when the crisis arose, I was the guy they relied on to fix things.

The first time was when they wanted a special report written. It was essentially a glossy application for a NASA quality award, and management wanted to win it badly. They put me on the project and I totally shifted my focus to working with the manufacturing process engineers. It was field of study I had actually learned about in college, and I was really enjoying my work for the first time. While Cray’s quality processes weren’t robust enough to win the NASA prize, the report ended up winning an award from the Society of Technical Communications. In fact, the report ended up being used as a sales tool in a period where Quality was all the buzz.

As a writer, I was finally on my way. Then came the manual from Hell.

It started when Cray decided it needed a manual that would show customers how to build a proper computer room. Because they operated at such high speeds, Cray systems needed a very specialized computer room with environmental controls, a signal-ground reference grid, positive air pressure, and a raised floor in order to work reliably. So they put a senior writer on the project and he cranked away for a year. And when it was time for a review, the Director of the Customer Service decided he wanted to see it. The guy nearly had a coronary.

What the writer had produced as a first draft was three inches thick, with paragraphs that ran on for pages at time. It looked like a law book.

So they called me into a big conference room and they put me on the project with another new writer. We wrestled with it for a couple of months, but when we were done, it was compact, concise, and easy to read. The bosses loved it and it ended up winning an STC award.

So that felt good, but I realized then that I needed to move on from Technical Writing and get into something that offered shorter projects and more variety. And when an opening came up in Marketing Communications in Minneapolis, I was all over it.

So I aced the interview and made the move to big city. That was 1991 and I’ve been in Marketing ever since. I never did need that know-how on how to fix an X-MP, but I did learn the lesson that all limitations are self-imposed.

How I got into writing

I am starting a new practice today called 750 Words. It is a basic web site that tracks your writing output on a day-to-day basis. The idea is that it will help me in my quest to develop the daily writing habit I’m going to need in my new ebook venture.

So, sorry about this, but I am just going reminisce a bit here in the interest of accomplishing my word goal.

When I was young boy, I remember reading books and thinking that this was my calling. I am a writer, I said to myself, and this is what I want to do when I grow up. Well, somewhere along the way I read how hard it was to get published. You’ll never make a living at this, I thought. You have got to find a more practical career and then pursue writing as a side thing. But what career would that be?

I liked electronics and I was always taking radios apart as a kid, so I decided to major in electrical engineering. Never mind that the fact that I was never able to get those radios working again or that my interest in math was pretty much nil. As a result, I pretty much realized that engineering venture was not for me sometime during my my first semester.

I remember when I first heard the about technical writing. It was a required course at Stout, the state university I had transferred to with a major in Industrial Technology. One of my college room mates was grumbling about what a hard time he had getting through the class, but when I read the course description, I thought it sounded interesting. A few months later when I was found myself acing the first couple of assignments, I realized that I had found the “it” that I was seeking.

Fortunately for me, Stout was in the process of starting up a Technical Writing program under the umbrella of Industrial Technology. There were plenty of companies looking for college interns to help them write technical manuals, so I had my choice of gigs after my Junior year. I interviewed at a little company in Chippewa Falls called Cray Research. They built the world’s fastest computers and they had the coolest facilities I had ever seen. I accepted the internship in a heartbeat.

I worked with some very nice people at Cray. They had never had an intern before, so we kind of trained each other. And when I graduate a year later, I had a nice-paying job waiting for me. Good fortune was following me around like a new puppy.

As an intern, I got the entry-level writing tasks you might expect. Most of this involved updating existing manuals for new computer models. You change the specs, insert a new drawing, and once in a while you even got to rewrite a section that was full of passive voice. Sure, I could do this, I thought, but could I really write a manual?

Before I could find out, there was one big hurdle to get past. Cray required all of it’s tech writers to take the CRAY X-MP supercomputer repair training. It was the same three-month course incoming field engineers had to go through.

Now, a computer company like Cray doesn’t hire just anybody to fix their systems. These machines were the fastest computational engines on the planet and they were used primarily by folks in the National Labs for the design of things like nuclear weapons. My fellow students were mostly guys with lots of experience from big companies like Control Data and IBM. They all had degrees in electrical engineering or computer science.

The problem was, I had only one semester worth of electronics courses under my belt, and that hadn’t gotten me past setting up a basic transister circuit on a breadboard. In other words, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I remember the first day of class. They sat each student down in front of 12 big yellow binders in a row nearly three feet wide. The instructor dived right in and starting talking about how the various functional units within the system worked. I had no idea what a functional unit was at the time, but today I can relay that it consisted of a group of circuit boards that worked together to perform one arithmetic function.

That’s right. In those days, a single processor in a supercomputer consisted of hundreds of circuit board modules that worked together. The whole point of the course was to find the individual board that was failing and then swap it out. Not so hard, right? Well, wait until the next entry when I tell you about what was in those Yellow binders: 12 volumes of nothing but Boolean algebra.

Forecast Calls for Cloud Computing

cloud image

After the big Sun RIF this past February, I decided to take a little break from blogging while I figured out my next move. Neil Peart said that “A spirit with vision is a dream,” but my first concerns had more to do with figuring out how to file for COBRA and unemployment benefits.

The Sun HPC Watercooler was a daily habit for me for nearly four years, and Oracle has been nice enough to keep it up there on the Net. It feels good that it’s still one of their most popular blogs, and I’ll take any vindication I can get. The Watercooler was designed to help get Sun HPC on the map. It worked. It continues to work, and the know-how I gained from producing that blog is serving me well now as a consultancy for other companies.

One thing I did come away with from that experience is that this Flex Rex blog needs purpose, scope, or mission beyond what is going on today, and Twitter pretty much has that covered. So I’m going to set a course, here and now, and hopefully it will lead somewhere.

I’m starting an online publishing venture, Flex Rex Publishing, with me as the primary author. In other words, I am going to write and sell ebooks on the side while I continue to do marketing communications on a contract basis. The ebook subject matters will vary, but I want to help non-techies live in the cloud. This is something that I do for my friends on a regular basis, and I want to try and turn this passion into a buck or two.

Why the Cloud? Well, Cloud Computing is the buzz at moment in IT circles because all the big players like Amazon, Google, and Apple are investing in cloud in a big way. They know that cloud services are where their money is going to come from in the future. And that’s why you can find tons on articles, blogs, and white papers on cloud computing that come at the subject from an IT perspective.

But what about the poor schlub that wants to use these services to “live in the cloud” and make his computing life better, cheaper, and more secure? He needs a friend in the business.

Rest in Peace, Carmen Martinez, 1963-2009

Rest in peace, Carmen. We all loved you very much.