Saturday, April 18, 2015

Warning: Dangerous Post

Recently I went through an experience familiar to most people with jobs: the dreaded annual safety training. I work in an office building and spend most of my day either sitting at my desk or at a table in a meeting room. Once a week or so I might go down to the lab, where they are so worried about peoples' eyes getting injured that they give you a brand new pair of safety glasses every time you go into the lab, and you can just throw them away afterwards. No expense is spared to keep your eyes safe.

My building is climate-controlled, handicapped-accessible and in strict compliance with all safety regulations of the State of New York. But, once a year, I have to spend an hour or two looking at web-based safety training so that I do not trip over a loose rug, strain my back trying to lift a parcel, accidentally guzzle a bottle of whiteboard cleaner with my lunch, or run like a maniac through a plate glass window when the fire alarm sounds.

Things have really changed since 1989, when I worked as a construction laborer to earn money for college. In that job, I dug holes, moved lumber, broke up skids, and ran a power grinder. This was in a high-rise, and several of the upper floors were still unfinished and open to the four winds. I could and did go onto the the roof of the building, which had no safety railing whatsoever.

They were using cranes to lift big slabs of very nice pink marble, like 10 by 20 feet, that formed the outer face of the building. These must have weighed several tons each. Frequently I would have to walk directly under the slabs as they hung from the crane. I also had to walk under ironworkers who were working on the framework above me. Once a guy dropped an enormous wrench that must have weighed ten pounds, from thirty feet above me. If it had landed on my head, it would have driven me about a foot into the ground like a big nail.

Once I and another guy had to use an acetylene torch to trim off several vertical beams that were sticking up through the roof, while standing near the edge of the roof at least fifty feet above the ground. Then for good measure we hauled a pile of torn-up fiberglass insulation to a dumpster. We just picked up big strips of it with our hands and threw it in the dumpster. It itched. One of my jobs was to empty waste barrels into a big rollaway in the basement. Whenever I did that, a big cloud of some kind of dust would blow up into my face. Not to gross you out, but I used to hack up black phlegm at night.

The safety training for that job consisted of the foreman handing me a hard hat and telling me to be careful.

But even by 1989, industrial safety was advanced. They already had the concept of a "confined space"; if you needed to go someplace you couldn't get out of right away in an emergency, you were given a special briefing and someone had to stand watch until you got out. In contrast, I was watching an old movie of some guys building a solid rocket motor in 1956, and two guys shimmied right into the bore of the motor, which was about a foot and a half in diameter. Now, that's a confined space, but if something had gone wrong, no amount of training would have saved them.

I worked at a solid rocket motor plant for a couple of years. When a solid rocket is built, the propellant is cast right into the motor, so there were literally tons of live propellant in many of the buildings. They obviously needed a lot of safety precautions. My favorite was that if you parked your car outside a building where they were handling a lot of propellant, you were supposed to park with the car heading away from the building, with the keys left in the ignition. Then, if something went wrong while you were in the building, you were supposed to bust through the nearest breakout panel (thin plywood panels built into the walls every 50 feet or so), jump in your car, and gun the throttle to get away from the building as fast as possible. They didn't say we had to yell "Waaaaaaaa!" but I would have. I wanted to do that at least once, just for fun, but never came up with a fake reason to.

Here's the building I worked on in 1989. It's the William Green Building in Columbus, Ohio.  I used to go up on the roof (the pyramid-looking thing on the top is just an open framework) and throw paper airplanes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Fads and Fashions in Computing

When I was in high school, we had an IBM PCjr. Despite what you've heard, it was a pretty decent computer. No, it didn't have a GUI, but neither did any other computer of the day except for the Mac, which cost $2495. I think the PCjr was about $1200 including a big color monitor. They both shipped with 128K.

The funny thing about the PCjr was how all the newspapers and magazines complained about the "chiclet" keyboard. They didn't like all the space between the keys; said it wasn't ergonomic. The New York Times said reporters "gasped with dismay" when they first caught sight of it. They said, "Its keyboard is not designed for extended typing." Of course, in the same story, they claimed a 16-bit computer is faster than an 8-bit computer because it can process more bits at one time. That sounds like common sense, but it's completely incorrect.

Anyway, here's the "horrible" chiclet keyboard of the PCjr:

here's the ideal keyboard of that time, the big 101-key Keytronic keyboard.

aaaaand here's a standard Apple keyboard from 2015.

I'd say the PCjr was about thirty years ahead of its time. We used to be such snobs about keyboard quality, and now we type with our thumbs on a flat piece of glass.

Everything old is new. In the early days of the Internet, all the snobs looked down on amateur web pages with flashing type, meaningless counters, animated GIFs, and disorganized or confusing layout.  The worst offense was to have your webpage automatically play a song when it loaded. What if you're surfing the 'net on your lunch hour? Do you want to risk everyone hearing your computer play a MIDI version of "Dixie" when you visit a Civil War website?

Let's see...flashing type, distracting sidebar items, and autoplaying audio. Sounds like pretty much every news site I visit now. It looks a lot slicker, with Flash and whatnot, but it's the same old crap people were complaining about in 1995. The old-timers may have been wrong about the keyboard, but they were right about this.

On a similar note, I was forced to learn Pascal my freshman year in college. Language of the future, they said. FORTRAN's days are numbered, they said. Fortunately, I paid just barely enough attention in that class to get a B, and then immediately forgot Pascal. Sometimes laziness does pay off.