Friday, February 16, 2018

Taking Risks is a Virtue

[Umatilla, Florida:   I used this speech in two speech contests yesterday.  I won 1st place in the first contest and 2nd place in the second contest.  A man who saw both, said I seemed tired the second time.] 2/16/18 11:27 AM

Show of hands. How many of you saw the pictures of Elon Musk’s Tesla car in space? Wasn’t that a thrill? Musk hired smart people and he trusted them to do their jobs, and accepted the risk of failure Hats off to Elon Musk. He is my number 1 example of a risk taker.

But Elon Musk was not born and raised in the USA. Sadly, our home-grown NASA has become so risk adverse, that I for one believe that private risk takers like Musk will get us to Mars and the Moon before NASA does.

But NASA wasn’t always like that. My second example of risk taking was the NASA of 50 years ago. I’m speaking of the Apollo and Saturn V projects that put the first men on the Moon in 1969. That was the greatest single achievement is the history of man.

I was privileged to be slightly associated with those projects when I worked at GE’s Apollo Support Department in Daytona Beach. GE’s role was the computers that monitored status before liftoff. Let me describe how it worked.

At t minus 120, two minutes before liftoff, we had 400 GE engineers in a big room. The computers in those days were 10 billion times less powerful than the computer in my hand. But we had something then that you can’t buy today for any price. We had printers that printed 20000 lines per minute. We needed 400 pages paper, one sheet per engineer. At t-2 minutes two of those printers roared into action. Paper flew out of them so fast that it flew up to the ceiling and halfway across the room before coming down. It took only 12 seconds for those printers to print 400 pages. Then it took another 20 seconds to get those 400 engineers in position to read their page.

Each engineer was trained to read and interpret the data on one specific page. For example, engineer number 239 read page 239. They had 20 seconds to do their jobs. If the data looked good, he remained silent. If the data looked bad he would wave his hands and shout no=go. T=60 seconds was the go/no-go decision point for the whole mission.

Ladies and gentlemen, we put men on the moon by taking risks. We trusted smart people to do their jobs competently and took the risk they could be wrong. Modern day NASA doesn’t work like that.


Example Number 3. You may have heard the expression “reach for the brass ring” Raise your hand if you don’t know where reach for the brass ring comes from.

Let me tell you, because I know firsthand. When I was 14 years old, I got my first job as a merry go round operator at an amusement part. You can say carousel instead. On my carousel, kids riding on the outside horse could lean far far out to try to catch a brass ring on their finger. They had to lean so far, that it seemed like they might fall off and crack their skulls. Of course, nobody wants kids to be injured. The risk was more of an illusion. Nevertheless the kids who got a ring wore it as a badge of courage. Without the risk, the ring is just a meaningless bit of metal. We taught children of that era that courage and risk taking are virtues. We also taught parents to let their kids hang on with one hand instead of two hands at times.

Here’s the point. Our adversity to disasters can have the unintended consequence of limiting the height of our achievements. In a risk adverse culture, the average person may live longer and suffere less. But we shave off the pinnacles of success to fill in the valleys of failure. We are embracing --- mediocracy.

But wait! I’m preaching to the choir. We are toastmasters. We stand up here to speak. That takes courage. We risk failure. We value excellence. I urge you to go home and tell your friends, your family, but especially tell your children and grandchildren. Risk taking is a virtue.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Recovering From a Crashed PC

Umatilla, FL

Last week I asked my laptop PC to restart.  Instead it died.  It was so bad that I couldn't boot windows or DOS, or the boot options.  I have a bootable emergency recovery disk; that didn't work. After power up, it never gave me a chance to type anything on the keyboard.  Now I've recovered almost 100%.   My successes, failures and missteps may be helpful to others.

What Happened?
My PC did not actually die.  Nor did the hard disk actually crash.  It was a random write error on the disk that caused the problem. 

There are error correction mechanisms on the main memory and disk that make write errors rare.  But they can never be eliminated 100%.    Even so, almost all errors in your data go unnoticed because they don't cause trouble.  Suppose the color in one of the pixels in one of your pictures has a slightly wrong color?  You'll never notice.  But a few things are critical.  Most critical is the information on the hard drive used to navigate the file system on the hard drive.  A single bit being wrong in the most critical of locations could have been the cause of my trouble.

Online Backups
Things keep changing, if you keep up with the modern world.   One change is that much of my most important data is now stored in the cloud rather than locally on my PC.  "Cloud" merely means stored on someone else's disk somewhere in the world. Gmail stores my email.  Google Photos stores my pictures.  The Chrome browser stores my contacts and bookmarks. stores all the text and photos of the archives of this blog.

So, the only things I store only locally on my hard disk are:

  1. My archives from the ghosts of computers past.  I have a copy of the files from every computer I ever owned going back to 1979.  Why do I keep that?  Because I don't want to think through the consequences of deleting anything.  I hoard data.   It's not as bad as hoarding stuff because all my old data sits quietly in a corner of my disk.  If I keep the data, I don't have to decide whether or not it should be kept.  (Cynics argue that a crash and loss of all historical data every once in a while is beneficial.  There's a grain of truth in that.)
  2. Office documents,  Word documents, spread sheets, presentations.   Microsoft and Google keep trying to make me store those on the cloud, but I'm old fashioned and paranoid about my privacy.
  3. Programs that I installed on my PC.  In the old days, when you started with a new PC, it was a lot of work to re-install all your beloved software.  But today, I notice that there is very little old software that I still need.  Picassa, and PDFdirect were the only two software programs that I downloaded and reinstalled on my new PC.
The point is that a disk crash today is less disastrous as in the past.  By the same token, it should make it easier to keep backups, because there is so little new information not on the cloud that needs backing up.

For younger people who don't have the same hang ups as we elders, I recommend a tablet+keyboard or a Chromebook as the sensible modern PC.   Those devices have almost zero of your data stored locally.   Everything is on the cloud.  The only backup you are responsible for is your account and password. 

Chromebook also allows you to not have Windows (or Linux) at all. No operating system, no such thing as one of your files stored on the device, no apps.  It makes your life much simpler.

A New PC?
I went out and bought a new laptop.  That probably was not necessary, but I didn't know it at the time.  But there's also personal bias.  My laptop was 5 years old.  It worked pretty well, but one of the rows of keys on the keyboard were beginning to get stuck.  I'm a computer nerd and a gadget freak, so it doesn't take too much arm twisting to get me to buy a new machine every few years.

If you are one of the people who like to keep computers for 10-15 years, you're heaping a lot of grief on your heads.  All the software, all the web sites assume that you have a newer, faster, higher capacity PC.  If you don't things work poorly or not at all.  If you are a grandparent, and your kids want to buy a new PC for you, let them do it.

The Kinds of Backups
The old fashioned kind of backup is now called Windows 7 Backup.  It is a program to run.  You tell it to save a complete backup, or an incremental backup.  There is a restore program to retrieve data and files from the backup copies.   I discovered that the last time I made a complete backup was 11 months ago.  Uh oh.

A different kind of backup from Microsoft is called File History.   It stores only new files and changes to old files.   It runs automatically if your backup disk is online.  It is effortless.  I thought that File Backup protected me for all the new stuff I did since the 11 month old full backup.  Wrong.

No wonder everyone loves to hate Microsoft. On my new PC, I plugged in my USB external backup disk holding my File History, and I planned to recover all my recent files that way.  It didn't work.  I missed the check box outlined in yellow in the screenshot below.  That tiny error wiped out all my File History forever, and I can never get it back.  Sigh.

The Solution
There were two parts to my solution to recover all my files and data.

  1. I removed the hard drive from my old laptop (4 screws) and I  invested $7.99 on to buy a cable that lets me connect the old drive the the USB port of my new computer.

    When I plugged it in and tried to look at the contents of that hard disk, it failed.  I could not see any files on the disk.  That's what killed my old PC in the first place.
  2. A very old utility program that has been around since MS-DOS 1.0 is called CHKDSK.  You may remember using CHKDSK on misbehaving floppy disks.  Anyhow, CHKDSK is still around and updated.   I got into a command prompt window and simply typed "CHKDSK F: /R."  (F: is the drive letter of my hard disk when plugged in a USB port). It took hours to finish.  It is the kind of thing you should start before going to bed.  But in the end, it found and repaired all the errors on that disk.  I could access all my files!  There is a chance that some file is missing, but I don't see any.

    BEWARE:  There are numerous services and software packages that offer "Disaster Recovery"  or "Data Recovery">  Many of those cost hundreds of dollars.   It is true that they might recover some things that CHKDSK doesn't, but you should always try CHKDSK first.  It is free and it solves the most common problems. 

Did I Really Need a New PC?
I could have borrowed a PC from a neighbor to run CHKDSK.   But I would have to keep it overnight.  That's a much bigger imposition than borrowing it for one hour.

When I owned a house, I always had some old PCs around that could have run CHKDSK for me.  But when living on a boat, and now an RV, there's no room for old stuff.  Old stuff is clutter.
Besides, as I said, it only takes minor arm twisting to make me buy a new PC.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Speech #15, Innocense

[This Toastmasters project is called "Make Them Laugh".  I was required to come up with some personal experiences and make them humorous.  I had a bit of trouble thinking of things.  The result was this speech.  The audience was polite, but in all honesty, I bombed.  Oh well, everyone has to strike out sometimes.]

In our culture, we expect children to be innocent.  By the same token, we expect adults to be the opposite.  I don’t mean guilty.  I mean innocent as in lack of guile.  When adults are truly innocent, the results can be funny.---
In the 70s, my business was building simulators.  I’m sure you have all seen videos of flight simulators used to train pilots to fly.   Well, my simulators duplicated  control rooms trained nuclear power plant operators.  My simulators were huge, about the size of a basketball court.
In 77, I was helping a company in Finland to make their first simulator.  Because Finns have a fine eye for art and aesthetics, their gymnasium size simulated control room was not just functional, it was strikingly beautiful.
The project manager was a delightful handsome young man named Martti.  Martti was very innocent.  That year was the international conference on simulators to be held (in all places) Gatlinburg, Tennessee.   I went there with the team of Finns including Martti. For most of them it was their first trip to America.S Martti brought with him a portfolio of pictures of his beautiful simulator.
One day at breakfast, Martti told us that after yesterday’s session he met a woman engineer from a major American utility.  The two of them hit it off and had a nice conversation.  Then Martti said, “I asked her to come up to my room to see my simulator pictures.  She refused.   I can’t understand why.”  The rest of us howled with laughter because we knew that Martti was completely innocent.
At that same conference, I was presenting my own paper on simulators.  The darkened room held about 300 people in the audience.  There was no stage.  Midway through my talk, I noticed a man in the front row holding a sign. 
Uh oh.  I backed away from the light of the overhead projector, and I did a little pirouette to quickly zip it.  But it wasn’t open, it was broken and it wouldn’t zip.
What to do next?   Well, I noticed that because there was no stage, nobody behind the front row could see me below the waist,  So I pretended that nothing was wrong and finished my speech.
A few years before that, I went to work for a big company in Sweden.  My knowledge of Swedish was very elementary at the time, but most Swedes speak excellent English.  On my first day on the job, I was sent to the company infirmary for a physical.  The nurse at the infirmary didn’t speak English, but she managed to convey that I should take off my clothes.  Swedes are less modest than Americans.  As I stood there naked, she grabbed a clipboard and sat on a stool directly in front of me, and said (in Swedish)  “How long are you?”  The only reply I could manage was hamana hamana hamana. My boss explained to me later that the Swedish word long should be translated as tall.
Back to Martii once again.  After the Gatlingburg trip, Martti invited the team with their wives to a dinner at a fancy restaurant on an island in Helsinki.  At the dinner table,  Martti eagerly showed us his most prized souvenir from the trip.  It was a digital watch.  That was the year that digital watches first appeared.  Martti’s watch was as thick as a thumb, and the digits glowed an evil red like the eyes of the Devil in a monster movie.  But Martti was sure that the was the first person in all of Finland to own such a watch, perhaps in all of Europe.
“Where did you get it?” we asked.  Martii said, “I went to New York City on my way back.  A man came up to me and opened his coat.  He had lots of watches and he sold me this one for only two dollars.”  Martti held up his wrist and pointed proudly.  But when he did that the works fell out of his watch and dropped into his soup. 
So here’s the point.  In all of those stories, the humor comes from someone being truly innocent in an otherwise adult situation.  Long live innocence.