Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ineptitude at the Post Office

No, not at the *local* Post Office, but at the national level among those whose job it is to provide a "help" function.

One of the categories in which I do a lot of online selling is school yearbooks, generally high school yearbooks.

Now the United States Postal Service has a shipping category - you know, Parcel Post, Priority, etc. - called Media Mail. It is the slowest, but also the least expensive way to ship anything by mail. Eligible are various media items - "books, sound recordings, recorded video tapes, printed music, recorded computer-readable media (such as CDs and DVDs)."

There is some confusion at my local Post Office about whether school yearbooks fall in the "books" category.

I'm not exactly sure why such confusion should exist. Read my lips:



But exist it does.

I thought I might settle the matter and after doing all the research I could at usps.com, which is entirely silent on the matter, I exercised the USPS help function. One option is to email your questions to the USPS and await the promised answer, which I did.

I specifically mentioned the local Post Office's confusion on the matter and specifically asked whether yearbooks could be shipped via Media Mail.

I also asked a second question. Prohibited from Media Mail are books containing advertising (except incidental book advertising). I asked whether fifty year old or hundred year old advertising was OK, since at this point it really is memorabilia, not advertising.

Today I received my email response, in which "Donna" played back to me exactly the material at usps.com, informing me of the materials considered eligible for Media Mail: books, sound recordings, recorded video tapes, printed music, recorded computer-readable media (such as CDs and DVDs).

Not forgetting my second question, she also informed me that advertising material was prohibited (except incidental book advertising).

You will have noted the glaring absence of answers to my questions.

And then, and *then* she provided me with a telephone number for further information, the telephone number of my local Post Office, which I had informed her was the one confused on the issue of yearbooks.

Why waste the electrons?

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Early Days of Mainframe Computers

A couple of posts ago there was a discussion of IBM green cards. My memory is now directed to the mid-1960's and one of the more entertaining pastimes of those we referred to as "system programmers." They were the real bit pickers, the ones who got right down inside the bowels of the system code, including the code that managed the hardware.

In those days disk drives were great big clunky old things. Look at the picture of the 2311 here (the fourth picture on the right).

The console was perhaps waist high. If you needed a different disk you opened the hinged top of the console, lifted the disk out, stored it wherever it belonged, and replaced it with the drive that contained the data you needed. Then you had a little over 7MB of different data.

The drives' cables ran under the raised flooring, and were of course longer than necessary for the consoles' current positions in case physical reallocation of space for the various devices became desirable.

The bit pickers, those who wrote their own channel control words and channel control commands, realized right away the potential for fun.

Those disks were heavy and slow, with mechanically directed physical read/write heads. It was possible to read *backwards*. You could, with the right channel control, cause the drive to stop spinning and start spinning the other way.

Now normally there would be a built in (the software) pause to allow the drive to wind down and come to a stop before rotating in the opposite direction, but some fun loving programmers wrote their own software to manage the drives, and by dint of causing a sooner-than-intended reversal of spin they could make the entire console jerk, physically moving it along the floor.

When the cats were away the mice would play, and console races were born. Two programmers would each take a drive, write their own input/output software, and race their drives across the floor. Disks would stop and reverse direction much faster than they were intended to, jerking the consoles a little, perhaps an inch or less, causing the consoles to make forward progress.

Naturally, IBM experienced a much higher than anticipated failure rate with drives. I don't know when they figured it out - or found out - but it drove them crazy for a while.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Time Flies When You're Having Fun

A friend who is younger than I  but no spring chicken herself  has poked a stick at me with a comment on the preceding post. She has provided the following link, which you should check out before reading the rest of this post:

Getting into the spirit of it, I confess that with regard to most items listed, I am even older than *that*.

  1. Rotary Dial Telephone: When I was in grammar school rotary dials had not yet made their appearance. You picked up the receiver and the operator came on the line. You told her what number you wanted and she took care of it for you.

  2. Manual Typewriter: I had one, a Royal Portable given to me for my fifteenth birthday. I learned to type on it, picking up a bad habit along the way. When I was composing and typing I often had to stop and think of what to type next, and would lightly drum my fingers on the keys. When the IBM Selectric came out in the 1960's it had no sense of humor at all about that, and a half dozen characters would be typed before I managed to stop my fingers.

  3. Coffee Percolator: It's electric. Ho hum. My mother had one that was *not* electric. You put the coffee in, added water, put the top back on, turned on the gas, and waited until it had perked a couple of minutes.

  4. Flash Cube: I actually owned a box camera, a Brownie. No flash of any kind. If you wanted a picture you waited until the daytime.

  5. TV Channel Selector: That was how it was with us. Get up, walk to the TV, manually set the selector to channel 4, 5, or 7.

  6. Record Changer: The earliest couple of record players I remember us having did not have the capability. When a record ended the needle skipped back and forth in a silent area near the center hole. You had to lift the arm manually and put it back on the arm rest. Later, we had a console record player. It not only had a record changer but it had four speeds: 78, 45, 33 1/3, and 16 2/3 rpm.

  7. Gas Station Driveway Bell: Yup, and a boy would come running. He'd pump your gas, clean your windshield, and offer to check your oil. Sometimes he'd just check it without asking.

  8. TV Station Sign Off: I remember them. I didn't see them very often because I was young and they occurred after my bedtime. I think the stations went off the air at 10:00 PM and started up again around 10:00 AM.

  9. Cash Register: To tell you the truth, I never paid much attention to them and have no clue regarding what they looked like when I was young.

  10. Film Projector: Yes, I remember those, particularly from grammar school days when the entire school would be summoned to the auditorium to watch The Night Before Christmas or something similar.

  11. Broken Record: Yup. Sometimes the needle would hop back and forth from one groove to another, over and over again. Another potential hazard was the "skip," when the needle would jump a groove and some small period of music or words would not be played.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Some Terminology Never Dies

I imagine that most occupations and pastimes of any age have not only unique descriptive terms, but terms that in fact misdescribe, because whatever they once described has evolved.

This is an IBM green card that I was using when I wrote programs for mainframes in the 1990's.


Yes. Yes it is.

OK, then, here's what the original (1960's) green card looked like.

(If that link goes dead, someone please mention it in the comments and I'll replace it.)

The original was basically a two-sided piece of heavy stock with information useful to some programmers, particularly assembler programmers. It contained instruction names, the hexadecimal codes for the instructions, instruction mnemonics, that sort of thing. You carried it in your shirt pocket, you carried it in your back pocket, or you left it on your desk, in which case it went missing. Being carried around in pockets accounts for the disreputable appearance of the green card in the above picture.

Over the years the card was from time to time reprinted, having been expanded to provide more information and/or tailored to meet the requirements for use with more modern and different systems. The version shown above is also of heavy stock, but unfolds to eight pages with two sides.

These later versions made their appearance in different colors - blue, pink, yellow, whatever, but no veteran assembler programmer was going to ask to borrow someone's "pink card" or "blue card." Programmers who did so and were heard by veterans faced death by derision. Green card it was and green card it would remain.

When my programming career ended (2001) the green card was in fact neither green nor a card. It was a booklet of roughly (perhaps even exactly) the same width and height of the original green card, but containing dozens of pages of information.

For your amusement, I shall mention that I first got into electronic data processing a few years after its commercial inception, not at the very beginning. The mainframe was at a Boston newspaper and required its own room, climate control, raised flooring, etc.

It was an IBM 360-20, with 24K of memory. Of that 24K the first 1A40 (that's 6720 for fingers and toes people) bytes were reserved for the system. Thus, for application programmers the first byte available was 1A41 and the last byte available - "high core" - was 5FFF (24575).

That 24K is what my first home computer (as they were called at the time), an Apple II+, came with. You could buy an additional 24K, but that was it. That is laughable today, as your desktops and laptops have so much more.

Mainframe computers are known by old timers as "the big iron," and are in much wider use than many people imagine. Why? Power. If you need to process ten or fifteen thousand transactions per second, then you still need the big iron.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Keep on Keepin' on

I have mentioned Rob, mentor and close friend, in earlier posts. Rob was about ten years older than I, personable, funny, knowledgeable to some extent about nearly everything. I met Rob in 1971, I think, in Boston. When I worked at Blue Cross there he was my vice-president. He took a senior vice-pesidency at Blue Cross in Chicago in 1979 and surprised me by offering me a vice-presidency there, which I accepted.

We ran together off and on throughout the years in Boston, then non-stop from 1979 to 1983 in Chicago. At that point I left Blue Cross and we saw each other less frequently but kept in touch.

A year or two later he left Chicago, got divorced and married again, and ultimately settled in Georgia. It's the state he was from, but that was a coincidence.

By then, "keeping in touch" pretty much meant a phone call every three or four years, but the conversations were always long and full of laughs.

He fell prey to Alzheimer's Disease, and in the early stages his wife had to separate him from the internet, as he was sending emails containing some lurid stories which he presented as fact, which was highly unlikely.

About six months ago I asked a mutual friend (and former girlfriend of Rob), Maryellen, what she'd heard from or about Rob. She was horrified to learn that I didn't know that he had died "quite a while ago." I googled him and found his obit, and he had been gone for three years.

Although we hadn't seen each other for perhaps twenty-five years, for me the world is emptier now.

This has been a strange year in that regard. My best friend in Vietnam (1966) was Fred. It is quite normal, you might even say routine, for Army friends to lose track of each other, and when we left Vietnam for different assignments that was the last I saw of him.

I never forgot him, and when the internet came along I began searching for him. He had a slightly unusual name, and I found only one person with that name, a resident of McMinnville, Tennessee. I called and it was the wrong Fred.

Around 1997 or so I left a message on a site that was designed to help Vietnam veterans contact each other. I just said I wanted to know that he was out there somewhere and left my email address.

I kept looking and a few years ago found that he had been promoted and gone back to Vietnam around 1970, but that was all I ever found.

Several months ago I got an email from a woman who said "I think you are looking for my grandfather." This wasn't going to end well. If he was alive she'd have let *him* know, not me.

I sent her the details I had about knowing him in Corpus Christi, Texas and in Vietnam, and found the two pictures of him that I knew I had somewhere, scanned them, and sent them to her.

She is Fred's granddaughter, although they never met. Fred took his own life in 1972, shortly before she was born, leaving no information as to why.

It does seem strange that I was still looking for him thirty-nine years after he died, but many things that happened before the advent of the internet haven't made it there yet.

I guess I'm thinking of him today because of Veterans Day, and because a couple of days ago his granddaughter emailed me. She checks on me every three or four weeks.

I hope Rob and Fred are the only two I find out about this year.

Keep on keepin' on, y'hear?