2.062 freedom day, writing

Tuesday 02/02/2021

Today was the 14th day after my 2nd vaccination shot, and the day I decided I would begin doing a few things I would not have done before. I had collected quite a list and started out about 9am to do some of them.

I went to Piazza’s market and bought some things that, before, I would have ordered through Instacart. Then I went to BevMo! in Menlo Park, because the Rogue Brewing Co. website said, they stocked my favorite beer, Dead Guy Ale. It’s an amber ale that is on the opposite end of the bitterness scale from an IPA, mellow, a bit sweet. Also quite potent. I had a can for dinner, but drank about half before the tray arrived, and felt quite the little buzz for an hour afterward.

That ran the time close to 11am when the writers’ group met. I had written for this week so I didn’t want to miss it. The prompt was, write about someone you remember who taught you something. I wrote a somewhat fictionalized account of a moment early in my IBM career. Fictionalized because I can’t remember the name of the guy I’m remembering, although I am clear on the details of the problem and the punchline. See below.

Yesterday, I didn’t mention, I had declined dinner (didn’t care for the selections) and instead made myself a lovely cheese, salami and mayo sandwich. Today I had declined the lunch selections, so I made myself a lovely open-face PBJ. I am such a sophisticated gourmet.

After lunch I went out again, this time to IKEA to buy a pillow. The last two pillows I’ve bought, I got at BedBath&Beyond, but the only standard size firm pillow they have, is a MyPillow. And I will not support that sonofabitch with another dollar. So I remembered that IKEA has pillows, and went there. I will find out tonight if the Lagensrom or whatever it was called, is satisfactory.

From there I went to the big Safeway in Menlo Park, because Piazza’s didn’t have Quilted Northern toilet paper. I keep a personal stock of that because I don’t like the thinner stuff that CH supplies, and I was running low. Aha, Safeway did have it.

There’s another item on my list that I didn’t get to, Macy’s to buy a belt. I’ll do that tomorrow maybe.

Here is the fictionalized account of a memorable moment in early IBM. With an illustration, even.

It was 1968 and I was just into my second year as an IBM “field engineer”, a title for we who repaired IBM data processing machines on the customer’s premises.

Every morning I would don my business suit, white shirt and tie, pick up my pager (remember pagers?) and my brown leather briefcase full of tools and spare parts, and drive to the IBM office at 340 Market Street. After a brief team meeting we would pick up our first calls from the girls in the dispatch center, and head out for a day of fixing machines.

I was trained on the card accounting hardware: keypunches, card sorters, and the big gray rhinoceros-sized accounting machines. I was becoming more confident in my ability to diagnose faults in these electro-mechanical beasts, where maintenance might require lubricating a cam shaft or adjusting a spring’s tension as it often as it did changing a vacuum tube or filing the contact points on a relay.

One thing I was not trained on, and feared, was the Selectric typewriter, with its bobbing “golf ball” print head. In IBM’s highly stratified hierarchy, typewriters were part of Office Products Division. OPD had its own band of field engineers that worked out of a different floor at 340 Market. I was in the Data Products Division where we worked on digital stuff, including the real computers like the then-new IBM 360 line.

However, this sharp line was being blurred, because a few DPD machines were using Selectric typewriters as I/O devices. Around the office I’d heard plenty of bad-mouthing of the Selectric as a fussy, touchy, hard to maintain beast, and I was frankly glad I’d not been sent to school to learn it.

One day, my pager went off and when I called the desk, Peggy the dispatcher asked me to take a call to work on a 6400 accounting machine. I only vaguely knew what that was, and said so. “Please, can you go look at it?” Peggy pleaded, “I’ve got nobody else free and the call is two hours old. I’ll get some backup for you as soon as I can.” So I drove to an unfamiliar office somewhere south of Market and faced… my worst nightmare.

The 6400, now long (and deservedly) forgotten, was a “ledger card accounting machine.” Picture a wide formica desk. Set into it is a keyboard and a huge version of a Selectric typewriter. Its platen is over two feet wide, with multiple forms tractors, so it could type on different forms at once. To one side is a smaller desk with a drawer and inside the drawer— is a second Selectric typewriter! This is the ledger card unit; the operator could drop a customer’s ledger card into the drawer, it would index down to the next free row and type a summary entry on the card and spit the card back out.

The problem, the woman who ran the thing explained, was that sometimes when she was typing, the main Selectric would jump a few spaces, or type an extraneous character. She tried to show me the problem but it wouldn’t fail and she didn’t want to set up a real job and let me mess up customer records. She looked at me dubiously and left me to do what I could with this twin-Selectric monster.

I poked ineffectually at the beast for nearly an hour, reading the manual, trying different things, finally getting it to fail but not in any clear pattern. I called Peggy the dispatcher, who said, “Right, Rich is on his way now, that’s his customer.” That was a relief.

In a few minutes Rich, who I had only met in passing before, arrived. He was brisk and cheerful and casually dismissive of my attempts to explain all the things I had tried. I showed him the problem and he pushed me aside. He sat at the keyboard for a minute, then pried up the keyboard cover and rocked the keyboard back. There, stuck in the key levers between the space bar and the shift key, was a large paperclip.

“Needlenose,” he said, and held out his hand. I put my needle nose pliers in his palm. He carefully extracted the paperclip and lowered the keyboard back into the desktop.

“Ya see, Dave,” he said, waving the paperclip under my nose, “Ya gotta think stupid. Don’t complicate it. Think stupid.”

And many times I’ve found that motto a very good diagnostic aid. When faced with a difficult problem, don’t complicate things. Think stupid.

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