Saturday Morning

January 26th, 2013

It’s Saturday Morning. My Infinitely Patient Spouse is exercising in another part of the house. Her current nutritional regimen precludes our usual breakfast together, so I have decided to make myself a fluffy omelet using found materials. Leftovers, if you will. The kitchen equivalent of folk art.

I start by cueing up a soundtrack of random selections from one of my playlists. Steve Jobs kicks things off with a medium-tempo tune by Bill Kirchen, the “King of Dieselbilly.”

Next I locate the skillet, and the lard. Yep, lard, hand-rendered by Casey Z, a fellow laborer in the telecommunications world, and somewhat of a Renaissance man. From the refrigerator, I also rescue the remnants of red and green bell peppers, some marginal whiteish mushrooms, three fresh eggs, and the last chicken thigh of a batch I baked last week. From the pantry comes a yellow onion, and a jar of Tico’s peppers, grilled jalapeños, side business of another co-worker.

Choppables, and two forms of chicken

I chop the choppables, add a small spoon of the lard to the hot skillet, and commence to saute. Once they are done, into a bowl they go. Doc Watson is flat-picking in the background.

Then I separate the eggs, whites in one bowl, yolks in another, and whip the whites using an old hand mixer. I fold the yolks into the fluffy whites, and dump the egg mixture into the skillet as Stevie Wonder croons a tune.

Yolks, whipped whites, and a mixer

While the eggs cook over low heat, I lay two pieces of multi-grain into the toaster oven, and set its timer for stun.

I’ve just noticed an elderly avocado on the counter that looks like fair game, so I half it, neatly de-seed it, and peel the halves. Then I slice the good parts into a pile on the chopping board, and squeeze some lemon onto it as Roy Orbison sings about a pretty woman.

The eggs and toast continue to cook, as Leon Russell takes the stage.

Eggs cooking in the skillet

When I decide that the eggs are ready, I spoon the sauteed mixture onto half of the eggs. The moment of truth draws near.

Getting close!

Gently I fold the other half over the plethora of ingredients. There is probably too much stuffing for a picture-perfect omelet, but what am I going to to – leave some behind? Here’s where I find out whether the eggs were really ready. And its not bad – maybe a smidge over-done, but perfectly serviceable.


I lever the omelet onto a plate, then add the avocado slices on top. I sprinkle on a little more lemon juice, and a dusting of seasoned salt, and finally top the whole thing off with a dollop of medium salsa from a huge jar left over from a Mexican party meal last summer. (The stuff lasts forever if you just shake it up occasionally.

Looks like breakfast to me

Bill Kirchen launches off into an extended version of his signature song, Hot Rod Lincoln, keeping me company as I dig in. In the middle of devouring the omelet, I realize it has no cheese, but I’m perfectly content without it. It’s everything I hoped it would be. And Doc Watson plays another folk tune from beyond the grave.

Almost gone. What, no cheese?!?

Finally it’s time for me to stuff the dishes into the dishwasher, and wash up the cooking tools. Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris serenade me through the suds and the spray.

Clean cooking tools

And, with perfect timing, my IPS walks into the kitchen just as I stow the last knife, and asks, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

All I need to do is show her the picture.

Once again, the camera at hand was not really up to the task of a photo-essay. I apologize to your eyes, and promise to do better next time. I should also warn you that I cook like I do most everything, with more gusto than skill. Ingest accordingly.

Concrete and Cocktails

January 13th, 2013

Thirteen years ago, an apparently persuasive fellow convinced his wife that he could make their replacement kitchen countertops using concrete. Today, DEX Industries ships their architectural concrete products world-wide. DEX was founded by that persuasive fellow, whose name is Craig Smith, and interior designer Lauriel Leonard. The DEX showroom and manufacturing plant are located in an industrial area in downtown Atlanta, not far from Turner Field.

The current exhibit of the Museum Of Design Atlanta (MODA) is titled The South’s Next Wave: Design Challenge. In conjunction with this exhibit, MODA arranged for DEX to host an after-hours tour of their plant. Craig and Lauriel graciously led us through the factory, guiding us around heavy equipment, concrete pieces, and over water troughs, as they explained how they got started, and how they learned through trial-and-error to manufacture these unique products.

In retrospect, I might have made a tactical error in calling it a “date” when I invited my IPS to the event. I believe the comment she posted was “Living large, people, living large.”

Are we done yet?

I thought the fact that they were offering free drinks put it firmly in the “date” category. Much to learn clearly I have.

Living large, for sure.

Let me hasten to add that the material DEX uses is not your Father’s Oldsmobile’s driveway’s concrete. They combine fine-grain cement in shades ranging from white to dark with aggregates (clear, colored, stone) and even optional artifacts (exotic seashell sections, bottle and glass segments) to make countertops, sinks, tubs, tiles, exterior building finishes, and more. The finishes are sealed, then buffed or polished.

This picture shows a modernistic, white double sink in the foreground, with sample slabs in the background (click the image for a larger view).

Sink and samples

This photo shows some of the aggregate samples displayed in their showroom. The table is also made with the DEX process, and there’s another sink example in the background.

Aggregate samples on table

DEX has always had an ecological consciousness. The reclaimed factory building they use includes natural lighting through large overhead windows that were part of the original building. This green consciousness led to the discovery of an optical fiber plant in north Georgia that was regularly throwing away tons of high-purity silica glass chunks, very clear and very hard. These chunks (shown below in a variety of shapes) are left over from the melting-and-drawing process used to produce optical fiber for telecommunications.

DEX figured out how to crush and size these glass pieces to produce DEX Glass, a unique and useful aggregate they not only use in their own products, but which they also sell to other manufacturers for similar uses.

Optical fiber remnants, and DEX Glass bags

The plant employs a variety of workers, including interior and industrial designers, sculptors and other artists, and experienced construction and renovation contractors. Some of their most critical jobs are performed by the woodworkers who build the crates and boxes that protect these heavy products as they are shipped to their destinations.

The final picture, below, shows an automated polishing machine in the background, on which is resting a piece of external building finish in white concrete. Such pieces are cast using custom rubber molds, also made by the DEX production staff. In the foreground is a section that will be assembled on-site with other pieces to form a large architectural planter, custom designed for a specific building installation.

Polishing machine, building finish, and planter section

It was a pleasant visit for me. The faint aroma of cement throughout the factory brought back memories of my ready-mix plant work with Superior Steel Fabricators. The broad span of mechanical and artistic processes Craig described so lovingly was really fascinating to me. And my Infinitely Patient Spouse really was a good sport about it.

But I’m pretty sure I owe her a Real Date now.

These pictures were taken on a older Blackberry, because I had no idea that I would want to document the trip until I got there. For a full description of DEX, and some much better photos, check out their web site: DEX Industries.

Lake Links

December 2nd, 2012

OK, if this posting takes more than 5 minutes to read (not counting clicking the links), I’m just going to hang up my keyboard and mouse.

Calm Low Lanier

An uncharacteristically calm day, 13 feet below full pool.

You, dear reader, may have noticed that I and my IPS live on a lake, specifically Lake Sydney Lanier, just north of Atlanta. Lake Lanier is one of many lakes, rivers, and dams managed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lake Lanier’s level changes rather significantly throughout the year, as much as 15-20 feet. The Corps of Engineers has to consider many factors as they decide how much water to release from Buford Dam.

Over the past few months, I have collected some links that explain more about the lake, the Corps’ management, and the state of rainfall in this part of the U.S.A. Here they are. Enjoy.

Corps of Engineers sites

  • A chart showing current, predicted, average, and historic low lake levels, and the 4 zones used by the Corps in managing the lake.
  • A page showing the series of dams collectively managed as the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) water system.
  • An explanation of the zones, including the parameters the Corps has to consider as it makes water-related decisions.

Commercial Lake Level Site

  • The current level of the lake, and its amount of change in the last 24 hours.
  • The monthly level of the lake, by day (this link shows November, 2012, but other dates can be selected.)

NOAA Drought Site

  • A map showing the current drought conditions across the U.S. There is an amazing amount of information posted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That’s it. Your 5 minutes are now officially up.

P.S. Things I considered writing more about, but opted not to:

  • The lake is named for a poet.
  • Climate change.
  • Fishing.
  • Sculling.
  • Why hanging up my keyboard and mouse might be a misleading promise (hint: iPad!)

So there.

P.P.S. In case you don’t remember, IPS is my Infinitely Patient Spouse.

Random? Wanna bet?

November 23rd, 2012

I know this is really random, but the notion of random numbers has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. In my early BASIC programming days, I was delighted to find the RAND function. Mostly I used it to draw randomly colored dots in random places on the screen, and maybe even thought of actual uses for it (dice? checkbook balancing?) It was definitely a simpler time, software-wise.

Recently I mentioned to my patient spouse that I had just read an interesting way to create random numbers, and she responded, almost on cue, “Why would anyone want to create random numbers?” What a set-up. This post is my answer to her (Hi, honey.)

We benefit from random numbers, and their engineered counterparts, pseudo-random numbers, in many ways. When you play a game on your phone or computer, it uses unpredictable numbers to help it decide where to position troops on a battlefield, aliens in space, angry birds, or cards in a solitaire game, or how to respond to your last move. Many work-at-home folk use a thumb-sized device that allows remote computer access by showing a fresh new 6-digit security number every minute of every day until its battery runs out. Many forms of data encryption, such as those used by your on-line bank, also use un-guessable numbers to protect your data. You know the shuffle mode on your music player? Well, it’s sorta random. And, believe it or not, a respected method for solving an entire class of complex math problems requires the use of high-quality random numbers.

The astute reader (yes, you definitely qualify) has doubtlessly noticed that I used quite a collection of vague alternatives and adjectives for “random” in the preceding paragraph. Unpredictable, unguessable, secure, “sorta.” Pseudo-random. High-quality?

Let’s start with the music shuffler. It does use a pseudo-random number generator, but it also weighs in other factors. With a truly random number series, a given song might be played twice in a row, or even three times. Statistically, that should, on the average, take a long time. But if it happened, the listener would likely think the shuffler was broken, rather than thinking, “Hey, random!” So its algorithm precludes too-frequent repetition. Other factors it considers include which songs have already been played, and which ones you have listened to the most (that makes sense – it wants you to be happy.)

Security login and encryption keys, on the other hand, can’t be just “sorta random.” They have to be strictly predictable, because the number sent (by you, or by your secure browser) has to exactly match the number the other end is expecting.

Game play is a lot less taxing for a random number generator. Even if the solitaire program deals the exact same game twice in a row, only Rainman would be likely to figure it out. But if it did it four times in a row, even I might start to get suspicious.

So there are different requirements for different uses of random numbers. How does one control the quality of “randomness”, you might ask. Well, there’s one pretty clear dividing line. Numbers generated through the use of a computer algorithm, regardless of how clever, are pseudo-random at best. The series of numbers can always be repeated if you repeat the process with the same starting number, called the “seed.” This turns out to be useful for security applications, or even if you just want to try the same solitaire hand again.

To produce true randomness, some element of nature must be introduced. It may be something a simple as the passage of time. You could use time by letting the seed be your computer’s idea of how many seconds have elapsed since January 1, 1970, a popular starting point for Unix computer system clocks. There are other natural phenomena which can be exploited to produce true randomness. Some computer security systems generate a code based on the movements of the user’s mouse during a specified interval. Electronic circuits inherently produce random noise, like the sound you hear between AM radio stations. This noise is usually filtered out, but for random number generation, the noise can be extracted.

My favorite method of generating “true” random numbers was invented by Silicon Graphics employees Bob Mende, Landon Curt Noll, and Sanjev Sisodiya in 1996. They pointed a video camera at a rack full of lava lamps, and use the resulting pixelated randomness to create a string of random numbers. (I know you are thinking it: “What were they smoking?”)

In The Quark and the Jaguar, Murray Gell-Mann tells of being twice-surprised when he found a book of random numbers on a university shelf. He was surprised, first, that anyone would go to the trouble of printing a book of random numbers. Then he was further surprised when he found an errata sheet inserted into the book, because some of the random numbers on one of the pages were “wrong.” How can random numbers be wrong? (I suppose it’s asking deep questions like that that gets you on the path to being a world-class theoretical physicist.)

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the importance of good random numbers is to describe the Monte Carlo method of solving complex problems. The method was invented in the 1940s by John von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam and Nicholas Metropolis, while they were working on nuclear weapon projects (Manhattan Project) in the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It was allegedly named for the casino where one of Ulam’s relatives consistently lost all of his money.

The Monte Carlo method applies when many unpredictable factors can affect an outcome. The theorist establishes or hypothesizes a formula describing the behavior of a system. Then the theorist uses a large set of random inputs to see how the “system” reacts to them. If the reaction makes sense to the theorist, then the formula has value.

Here’s where the tricky part comes in. If the random number are not truly random, that is, if they are biased in some way, the results of the analysis are not trustworthy. The example in Wikipedia link above shows how the Monte Carlo method can be used to calculate the value of pi. If you inscribe a circle in a square, the area of the circle divided by the area of the square is pi/4. You can calculate whether a given point is inside or outside the circle.

If you then pick a uniform distribution of points scattered across the area of the square, you can calculate an approximation of pi. But if the distribution is not uniform (that is, not truly random) the approximation will be off.

If you are interested in more details, you can find a “Monte Carlo thought experiment” and my own Monte Carlo computer simulation, RIGHT HERE.

My goodness, this post has taken a rather pedantic turn. I don’t suppose it would help to start musing about the psychosocial implications of preferring randomness, rather than predictability. Fortunately I’m not the only one: just look at the stars!

Let’s save that for another time. I’ll close with a wish for you, that your life will be predictable enough to be comfortable, and random enough to be fun!


November 10th, 2012

Recently I tweeted this deep thought: Reminder: Commercial television stations produce ENTERTAINMENT. They base content and broadcast decisions on “eyeballs.” Bear that in mind.

A twitter follower whose tweets are always thoughtful and interesting quickly sent the following reply: True. Honest question, not a challenge: what alternative do you propose? PBS?

I actually enjoy the challenge of trying to conveying a concise and complex thought within twitter’s 140-character limit. But serious thoughts are particularly difficult, so I usually stick to lame attempts at humor or even lamer social observations.

Here’s what I replied: Very good question. My intent was to encourage consumers to analyze what they see and hear from a fresh, critical perspective.

But, of course, that barely scratched the surface of everything behind the original innocuous-sounding comment.

So here’s a longer response.

First, I almost left out the word “commercial”, since Public Broadcasting Stations really have the same need for funding. They just approach it a different way. I do confess that when I must have linear video to test something at work, I tune to the local PBS station, because it is always SFW (safe for work), and has virtually no advertising. Which, of course, is one of the meanings of “commercial”.

To further complicate my thoughts on TV, I am quite un-fond of advertising in any way, shape or form. I understand the need for advertising, and there are, of course, some ad campaigns that even I will watch, such as the old Mac vs PC ads. But I don’t like broadly cast ads. (Of course, television advertising is changing, thanks to internet video and dvrs, forcing advertisers to be ever more creative and focused. We’ll save that for another post.)

The reality is, I don’t watch much TV of any sort, certainly less than the national daily individual average, which is just north of 4 hours per day. That’s average, meaning that half the country watches more than that!

It’s not that I don’t like television – more like the reverse. Apparently I am irresistibly drawn to its images, more so than most folks. Often, even into my adulthood, my dad would comment that I seemed to get lost in the television, even while we were trying to talk. I have been in many houses where the TV would run continuously in the background, through dinner and conversation. Frankly, it nearly drove me crazy: I wanted to yell, “Either watch it or turn it off!!!”

I suppose it is a natural side effect of this attraction that video content almost always produces some sort of deep, visceral reaction in me, especially intense action scenes. My heart races. I feel responsible. I am immersed.

There is no small irony here. My current job includes work on interactive television applications; there is at least one television in every cubicle on my floor. I am surrounded by television. Even in my boss’ office, I am drawn to the monitor behind her. I have to force myself to focus on our conversation.

Yet, despite this direct connection to my brain, I do not find video to be an efficient form of information transfer for me. It is clearly good for a few, very visual topics, but generally I would much rather have a thick, well-organized document to read through, scan, pore over.

At home I do watch a few shows, mostly joining my infinitely patient spouse, who has learned that Big Bang Theory or Doctor Who will almost always entice me away from whatever else I am doing at the time.

OK, it’s time to stop this awkward self-analysis and get back to my tweet interchange. My thinking in this area goes back to my first noticing the phenomenon of day-time radio commentators. These folks are given hours per day to fill, and fill them they do. Even though I did not listen much, I often heard reports of their internal inconsistencies and outlandish claims, and noticed their dedicated listeners. It all perplexed me. Then one day I heard someone say that they are not really doing news reporting or analysis – they are attracting listeners, and they say whatever they need to say to keep those ears. All of a sudden, it made sense to me. They are entertainers.

It seems to me that advent of the 24-hour television news stream, coupled with near-instantaneous transmission of even the most minor events, on a world-wide scale, has produced a similar effect. The news channels are obligated to fill their air space whether the information density of the day warrants it or not. If it is a “slow news” day, they find something to talk about, which unavoidably amplifies the importance of whatever they focus on.

Years ago I read that the value of content (what I’ll call “information quotient”, or IQ) is proportional to the time required to produce the content in the given format. The IQ of a news article is less than a magazine article, which is less than a book. That observation hasn’t really changed much, even as technology has provided new forms of content distribution. Tweets are low-IQ, blogs are higher, but they are less than news articles (especially if you consider additional quality-increasing factors such as group review and editing.) A multi-part television documentary may actually contain more IQ than a book.

Lately I have heard stories of people who say they want to cut off their cable service. They have become super-saturated. I certainly understand – like many people, I had to put myself on an “internet information diet” during the last few weeks leading up to the election.

So I guess that leads me back to the recommendation that I so foolishly tried to summarize in 140 characters. There is so much more you can do with your time than watching television. Go outside. Organize your life and/or house. Read. Write. Think. Invent. Teach. Learn. Meditate. Draw. Paint. Rhyme. Converse. Sleep.

And when you do consume content, budget your eyeball time and your eardrum time. Try to round out your diet – try a station or genre you don’t usually watch or listen to. Feel free to enjoy your “comfort food” content, but make sure you’re getting some information “vitamins,” too.

Bon appetite.

Words 2

October 21st, 2012

A few months ago I posted a musing about text on computers, and about document editing, called Words. It dragged on for so long that I felt compassion on all y’all readers, and stopped half-way in. So here, at long last, is the concluding installment.

Be bold

At the end of Words, our intrepid author could write and edit “plain text” content using a computer. (For grammatical simplicity, I’m going to pretend our writer is named Paul West. For more about the Paul West who inspired this choice, see this Writer’s Almanac entry.)

Now let us suppose that Paul has tired of plain text, and is ready to introduce bold thoughts, big headings, small footnotes, and italian emphasis. (I suppose that’s a reasonable explanation for italics, at least for this posting.)

Of course, those options have been available to book, magazine, and broadsheet printers, with their metal type elements, for centuries. And almost immediately editors developed ways to mark up hand-written and typed text to indicate to the typesetter how the text should be formatted. (For some entertaining editor marks I found in my googling, see this page). And computer program coders often used special characters as a way to *emphasize* words or to _highlight_ text.

So the original approach was to use a visible “mark-up” language, which turned out to be a robust approach, and a solid foundation. We are somewhat familiar with “html://”, that odd but well-known collection of characters that begin the uniform resource locator (URL) for a world-wide-web page. Well, the “ml” stands for “mark-up language.” (The “ht”, by the way, stands for “hypertext.”)

Don’t run off

Apparently one of the first recorded uses of a mark-up language hearkens back to the sixties on computers using the Multics operating system, which used RUNOFF-marked files in its Compatible Time Sharing System (CTSS.) Although Multics was written decades ago, it offered considerably stronger security than most systems commercially available even as late as 2002. (For a little more on Multics, see this Wikipedia entry, and for an even deeper dive into CTSS, check out this “Multicians” site.) Apparently, in one of the earliest version of Multics, if your program had too many errors in it, the system printed an ASCII image of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E Newman on your output page. And for those of you interested in the recent cloud computing trend, take note that the Multics operating system introduced the concept of virtual machines before most of you were born. (Yes, I am making assumptions about the average age of my readers, but I feel like I’m on firm ground.)

Multics also sired another durable operating system, Bell Labs’ UNIX, which is still the heart of Apple OS X’s, famously named for members of the family Felidae. Unix birthed a series of RUNOFF-based formatting programs called roff, eroff, nroff, and troff, leading eventually (but not alphabetically) to groff, a GNU-licensed version still in use. These programs allowed our writer Paul to insert formatting commands between his characters and lines of text to indicate how the content should be formatted for printing.

Many excellent documents were written using the *roffs, including the under-appreciated Unix manual (“man”) pages. If you open a Mac Terminal window today and type “man groff” you’ll enjoy the meta-experience of reading the GNU roff manual page, as formatted by groff. And the LaTex format is still widely used in many academic settings because of its reliability and flexibility.

No, that’s not cursing, it’s formatting

In practice, however, the use and adoption of mark-up languages by “non-professionals” was very limited, due to some significant shortcomings. First, the commands were obscurely terse, with arcane grammar and punctuation. To address this problem for non-geek users, programmers created “macro” scripts, which combined the necessary commands to rapidly format selected document types: a manuscript, a technical document, and, yes, a “man” page. Macros were slightly less daunting, but they were still often perplexing, and, without additional fiddling, all of the document types looked alike. This was good for academic and professional consistency, but bad for creativity. And thirdly, you couldn’t tell what the finished product would look like until you printed it out. This was partly due to the nature of the line- and character-based terminals used in the day, and partly because of the nature of a markup language. (For a first-hand example, look through your browser’s menu until you find “view source”, then take a look at HTML source of a web page. For a meta homework assignment, find this sentence in the page source code. I just noticed that viewing html may be difficult on a newer browser. Apparently “view source” is considered pedantic. Sigh.)

Toward the mid-80s, graphics-capable computer systems finally became available (and “affordable”). These computers used hardware and software that could display and print bit-mapped content, which means that they could render fonts and graphics very similar to typeset content. This enabled the development of editing systems described as WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) writing and editing programs. The Radio Shack TRS-80 I used about this time at Superior Steel included a very functional document editor, a spreadsheet, a database manager, and a terminal program. It was admittedly a little weak on drawing, since there were very few affordable printers that could produce graphical output (although we did have an 8-color, letter-sized plotter that I could create diagrams on. It was painful).

Don’t tell me, show me

Armed with these early document-creation programs, our writer Paul can now use special key strokes, menu options, and (eventually) a “mouse”, to select and format characters, words, lines, paragraphs, and sections. These programs became known as word processing programs, and some early versions such as WordPerfect even allowed the user to make the formatting codes visible. This gave great power to the editor, who could see exactly what formatting codes were being used. Today’s programs, such as MS Word, provide a huge set of editing and review functions, but they also hide the more complex codes from the user. This often results in a frustrating confusion of overlapping and unintended formatting commands, especially with the addition of multiple, obscure, “automatic” numbering and formatting options, which almost do what you want them to do.

Early developers of word processing software made up their own codes, resulting in document formats which were proprietary and non-interchangeable. Eventually, thanks to its inclusion with every Microsoft operating system, Word became the de facto standard, although there are still users who are devoted to other software like WordPerfect, and newer programs such as Apple’s Pages. My personal favorite is still FrameMaker. I have used FM for the creation of documents for over 20 years despite many of Adobe’s business decisions, which, although presumably necessary, have significantly reduced FrameMaker’s availability to me. FM is a professional-grade product which teams still use to create large documents, and while it is a little difficult to learn, it is almost totally free of surprises – it simply does exactly what you ask of it.

Returning to the evolution of document processing, I must acknowledge the Microsoft Office suite, which is built on the strength of Word and bolstered by Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. MS Office, continues to dominate consumer-quality software, and is still included with most Windows-based computer systems. In fact, most computer users today utilize the MS Word editing format for document distribution, but this is not really a great option, for reasons which I will mention later. Note also that the most recent Office formats such as those with the .docx extension are actually saved in eXtensible Mark-up Language (XML) format, which is, at least technically, human-readable. It’s not quite as accessible as WordPerfect’s old View Codes option, but it’s somethin’.

Fortunately, the open-source movement, with the significant support of Sun Microsystems, and now Oracle America, has produced and maintained the Open Office suite of programs which provide most of the functionality needed by a consumer at no charge, including word processing, spreadsheet, drawing, and presentation software. Open Office programs use their own proprietary format, but can also read and write most common document formats.


Two other document formats are worth mentioning before I finally summarize this tome and say goodnight.

The Rich Text format (extension .rtf) was developed by Microsoft to allow the interchange of formatted documents between otherwise incompatible programs (and even other versions of Word). RTF uses a small set of the most common embedded codes so other programs can export and import content without losing fonts and formats. On multiple occasions, I have encountered a Word document whose formatting was so entangled, the only option for fixing it was to export it as an RTF file, import it into FrameMaker, fix it using FM’s predictable formatting tools, then reverse the process to get the document back into Word.

The Portable Document Format (extension .pdf) is a document distribution format, rather than a document editing format. Created and still maintained by Adobe, it has become the most common document distribution format on the internet, largely because the consistency of PDF document rendering. A PDF document looks and paginates the same across multiple platforms, unlike a Word document, whose appearance varies with local settings, and which might not even be readable by users of certain devices. In addition, for business use, the PDF document format avoids the unintended, but potentially embarrassing and costly, disclosure of private information which is often buried in a Word document.

Bring it on home

I suppose the main take-home for this whole discussion is that there are five main document formats modern writers should understand: plain text, proprietary editing, rich text, document distribution, and html. Here are the uses and advantages for each:

Plain text is the safest, least tampered-with, way of creating and sending content. It can be created by a wide variety of text editors, including MS Notepad, Apple TextEdit (although the default in TextEdit is RTF), and many command-line programs such as ed, emacs, and vi (short for visual editor). True plain text can be opened by any document editing program, and it can generally be pasted into any other program (e-mail, browser form) without screwing up your formatting. I download a copy of the Programmers File Editor (PFE) onto every Windows PC that I operate. Last updated in 1999, totally unsupported, but solid as a rock, it runs on any version of Windows, and it is guaranteed to remove all formatting, including some sneaky formatting that Windows retains between programs even when you select the “paste plain text” option. It also addresses the one cross-system “gotcha” that remains between Windows and Unix/Apple machines: what character signals the end of a line. (See “For More Information”, below.)

Proprietary editing formats are what most people use most often. This includes Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, Apple’s Pages, Open Office Text Document, and older programs such as PCWrite, Appleworks, and Claris, to name just a very few. Besides usability and availability, the most important thing to understand about these document formats is that they are proprietary. This means that a recipient of your document must have a program capable of rendering the document. This is less of a problem for Word documents, since the format is generally well-understood, but you should not assume that every recipient will be able to open (and, especially, edit) your document sent in a proprietary format. (See RTF and PDF, below.)

Rich text is a reasonable format for exchanging documents between users where further editing might be expected. Many programs such as text editors and e-mail programs support the use of Rich Text, and it allows you to add specific fonts and font sizes, character formatting such as bold, underlined and italicized characters, and line formatting such as indenting. Bear in mind that some older e-mail systems don’t support rich text, and the formatting may be stripped off. And it does not support document-wide formatting tools such as Styles (I could write a whole posting about the use of styles, and maybe I will, later.) But Rich Text is generally a reasonable choice for basic document sharing.

Portable Document Format may not be the only document distribution format, but it is certainly the de facto standard, and you should use it any time you want your document to be presented in an available, consistent, searchable, manner, to the maximum number of recipients. The most important fact about PDF is that Adobe Acrobat reading software has for years been freely available for all operating systems, and is already included on most computers. (I mentioned “searchable” in the list of pdf features, because a single jpeg or png file will also retain a constant image, but the text is neither selectable nor searchable. Images don’t work very well for multi-page documents, either.) I personally also like to have a copy of Adobe Acrobat Standard available at work, because it allows me to extract, add, delete, assemble, and even renumber whole pdf pages and documents. For some reason, I use that capability a lot.

HTML is the format used for web pages. I think everyone should know how to create and understand a basic web page. It is the best introduction to “programming” I know of, primarily because the tools are available on every computer system, and it allows novices to learn a little about how computers process information in a safe and friendly environment. Using a text editor and a browser, you can create a basic web page using a few simple commands such as html, head, body, p, img, h1, and h2. A great place to start is the HTML tutorial from W3 Schools. Sooner or later, understanding the basics of HTML will pay off for you. Trust me.

For more information

OK, enough. I suspect it is a character flaw that makes this stuff so interesting to me. If you have read this far, you must suffer from the same genetic malfunction. If you have a sufficiently bad case of it, I have posted some raw notes from my “research” (the high-class name for browsing and googling) at this location.

Anyway, thanks for hanging with me this far. Until next time….

Quick Brown Fox

August 20th, 2012

Back in “the day”, typewriters, terminals, and printers utilized individual components to produce characters. In addition, these devices were considered “repairable” rather than disposable.

Before a repair person returned a device to the user, they usually tested to make sure all of the characters worked, and the sentence they frequently typed was something like this: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” because this sentence uses all 26 letters of the English alphabet. For some reason, I learned the long form, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890 times.”

For lots of reasons, the use of that sentence for that purpose has disappeared.

But those of you who remember will appreciate this animated gif.

To fully enjoy the experience, let it run exactly 1,234,567,890 times. According to Wolfram Alpha, that will take 143 years, 3 months, 11 days, 10 hours, 1 minute, and 17 seconds. So you might want to start soon.

When I posted this at work, Tony noted that if you curse the dog, you can pick up most of the symbols: “… the lazy !@#$%^&*()_+ dog….” Poor dog.

And if you want to read a longer posting on my personal history of technology, click here.


June 5th, 2012

Updated 6/7/2012 to add McLendon’s remarks.

[ My remarks were preceded by remarks from Cathy and McLendon. ]

Wow, what a challenge. There is not enough time to tell all the stories I could tell. I would love to be able to speak eloquently for Mom and my sisters. But we each have our own perspective. When I was ten, we moved to Gainesville, Florida, while Dad was attending the University. A fellow Psychology student named Art invited his classmates to a picnic, and distributed mimeographed invitations to the invitees. (This was not only before GPS, it pre-dated Xerox machines!) The Psychology people were studying different types of perception, so on his detailed, hand-drawn map, full of little landmarks and side comments, Art wrote, “May your perception be like mine, or See Thee Like Me.”

For the next nine minutes, I want to share some of my perceptions of my Dad, trying not to overlap with other remembrances, printed and spoken, you may have already seen or heard. [Obituary | Local News Article]

If you know me at all, it is no surprise that the first thoughts about my Dad that come to mind are about innovation and scientific curiosity. My Mom recently reminded me that his interest in psychology started when he observed the way different Marines reacted to stressful situations on the battlefield.

I remember science always being a part of our family – watching a solar eclipse reflected onto the ceiling of a darkened bedroom, because that was the safe way to watch it. I remember following our country’s progress in the space program, and watching the moon landing on our black-and-white television. All the time I was living at home, our family subscribed to Popular Science magazine.

When we were in Florida, my Dad bought me a crystal radio kit to build, and encouraged me to join the Boys’ Club telescope club. With his help and encouragement, I built a 6″ reflecting telescope which I still have.

A few years later, the kit was an EICO amplifier/tuner set, and then a Heathkit electronic organ. When we added three rooms to our house, he supervised while I ran the electrical wiring for the addition. Together we learned how to lubricate the car bearings, and then how to change brake linings.

He brought home tape recorders and microphones for me to experiment with, and helped me convert my Kay guitar into an “electric” by strapping a tape recorder microphone on with an elastic strap, and running the sound through the tape recorder speaker.

He was always modifying things, trying different ways to solve problems, like turning a riding lawn mower into garden tractor, or a garden tractor into a sugar cane grinder. Or building yet another shed for his trailers, tools, and plows.

Perhaps my fondest memory springs from his collection of miscellaneous, odd-shaped metal pieces, which were a key component of his experimentation. Frequently, while we were looking through boxes and drawers for a particular bolt, nut, or widget, he would find something interesting, hold it up, and say, “Do you remember where this came from?”

Moving from innovation into a glimpse of our life as a family, I first thought of a powerful childhood memory that is welded into my mind. We had walked down the hill to a creek behind our house, and were throwing rocks into the creek. I tossed one particularly hard, and inaccurately, and it hit the frame of his glasses right next to his temple. I was scared to death, but he just calmly looked at me and said, “Let’s be more careful.”

We did all sorts of athletic activities, at first in in our yard, then later on community and school teams. One day I was riding my bike down the hill in our back yard, and my sister was sitting on the handlebars. For some reason that my memory has blocked out, I decided it would be cool to step off of the bike and just let her roll on down the hill. I don’t even think she knew I had done it. Dad looked up, took in the scene, looked at me and calmly said, “You better go catch her.” And I did. I caught up with the bike and jumped back on before tragedy could strike. In high school, Dad encouraged me to play basketball and to high-jump.

Another area in which he affected my life was music. I have early memories of sitting in the empty pews on Wednesday night listening to the choir rehearse in our little church sanctuary. I remember him singing in the choir, towering above the other men, and I remember one special choir party at the home of a fascinating couple. Not only did they keep peacocks, they had a drum set in their living room, and their son gave me my first, and only, drum lesson.

By the way, another memory from the choir days encompasses many aspects of of my Dad. He noticed that the bulbs in the ceiling lights high over the choir loft had burned out. They had not been changed, because no one at the church could figure out how to get up to them – the irregular choir loft floor prevented any sort of tall step ladder from working. So he and I took an extension ladder to the church one afternoon, and he held the ladder vertically under the lights while I climbed the ladder and changed the bulbs. He was a strong man, and I trusted him, mostly, but the scene did have sort of an Abraham-and-Isaac feel to it. Our mission was a success, by the way, and the choir was enlightened.

Mom and Dad encouraged my musical efforts by buying me a guitar. When I had learned my first song, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, they encouraged me to play it at a church fellowship. Realizing that I didn’t have a solo-quality voice, they turned it into a sing-along, complete with lyrics my Mom typed out. Dad helped transport my Heathkit organ over to the church for other musical efforts, and, when our fledgling neighborhood band had the opportunity to perform with the youth choir at an Old Folks Home, Dad and Mom convinced us to play the lovely guitar song, “Sleepwalk,” instead of our first choice, which was “Love Potion #9.” I’m sure the old folks would have enjoyed that.

Despite an early picture showing me sawing a tree limb at an early age with absolutely no safety equipment, and what appeared to be little supervision, Dad was always known for his concern for safety, as Cathy has already mentioned. But he did not let that get in the way of living life.

Yes, he did install aviation seat belts in our 1957 Chevy wagon, and he always asked about our plans to drive home. “Will you get home before dark?”, and, “Be sure to call when you get home.” Yes, he did practice chain saw and tool safety, but…

… the six of us made frequent trips to the South Farm, often in the rain, in a 1967 Bronco with cloth doors. Little Charisse sat between the two front sets on a padded box Mom made. We had some legendary camping trips, including the pitch black midnight we walked a half-a-mile back to the car because the mosquitos had taken over the camper.

We all learned to swim, and enjoyed swimming pools, starting with the Bradley pool in Columbus, moving up to an inflatable, then a small round above-ground pool, and finally a large oval above-ground pool, complete with a Daddy-B-constructed deck.

No remembrance of him would be complete without mentioning two other staples of family life. He loved to work crossword puzzles, an affinity he passed on to me. We enjoyed exchanging clever clues and answers. I even considered tucking one in before they closed the lid, you know, just in case.

But, just as much as he loved crosswords, he hated opening gifts. Each gift-related family event was two things: (1) a challenge to try to find something to amuse him, and (2) an opportunity to see some of the most droll visual reactions any human has ever displayed. I remember finding one gift that actually brought a smile to his face. One rare Christmas while I was at college, I did my own gift shopping, mostly at Pier One Imports. (The rest of you may remember that year, too.) I found for Dad a foot-high statue of a tall, lean African chieftain in native garb, holding a long walking stick in one hand, with a dignified expression on his bearded face.


It made me think of his dignified bearing, and his approach to family leadership. Maybe that is why he smiled at it.

Woody Allen famously said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying!” We all leave a legacy, but my Dad’s legacy is particularly well-documented, thanks to my Mom’s tireless efforts. When the time came to summarize his life in print, we had no shortage of pictures, letters, personal notes, and writings.

As my nine minutes draw to a close, there are several sayings of his that stick in my mind.

The earliest of his sayings I remember, obviously born from his boot camp and battlefield experiences, was, “A man can stand anything he has to.” My Mother did an incredible job caring for him as his abilities and faculties gradually ebbed, but there were times toward the end that I thought of that saying on his behalf.

When he retired in 1982, I asked him if he would miss his job. I knew he had a heart for the people he served, and he always seemed to enjoy his work. But he was quick to answer. “I don’t live to work – I work to live.” And he proved that over the next thirty years.

Years ago my Mother heard an exchange that she recently shared with me. Our family attended a local church while we were all growing up, and the people in your church, especially the pastor, get to know you pretty well.

One day our pastor, Brother Jimmy, said to my Dad, “Y’all are some of the best parents I know. How have you done it?”

My Dad replied, “Lots of Love and discipline. (nodding to my Mom) She provides the love, and I do the discipline.”

Brother Jimmy smiled, and said, “I know better than that.”

Finally, I remember a story Dad told me about a family who had a son who just couldn’t get the hang of schoolwork. Let me insert a comment here. I went to work with Dad a couple of times, and I knew what his job titles were, but as a kid at home, and a college student away from home, I had no idea of the impact he was having on the Columbus educational community until I was researching for his obituary. Even this morning, many of you have shared wonderful stories with me. Anyway, this kid just couldn’t get the hang of schoolwork. His parents, well-meaning but perhaps like many parents, somewhat clueless, told my Dad, “We give the other kids a dollar everytime they make an ‘A’. It just doesn’t seem to work for him.” My Dad’s reply probably told as much about my Dad as anything I have ever heard. He said, “Did you ever think about giving him a dollar just because you love him?”

He was truly a unique individual, and quite a man.

Dad’s love for gardening is as well-known in our family as his love for music, so this next song we have chosen is particularly appropriate. Join us in singing, “In The Garden”.

In the Garden

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.


And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice,
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.


I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.


Hank, Part 2

May 19th, 2012

Some days I feel like writing about technical stuff, and some days I don’t feel like writing at all. Today I feel like Part 2 of the Hankamer saga. You might want to find a comfortable seat, and some strong coffee. I know it took both of those for me, because I wrote, edited, and posted this one in a rare, single-day posting spasm.

I’m working from a list of memories I jotted down about 5 years ago. I don’t know why so many of Hank’s actions stuck in my brain. It’s not really practical to recount them all – it would be like an unresearched, half-way biography. But I can at least group some of the stories in categories that make sense to me. And I will, as promised in Part 1, eventually tell you how he helped me retain the love of my life. Here we go.


Like many of life’s best memories, some of my memories of Hank revolve around food and drink. I remember simple meals around their small table with Barbara and the three girls, and Hank examining a can of sauerkraut from the ‘fridge, saying, “Sauerkraut can’t go bad – it already is bad.” Meaning, of course, that fermentation had already taken place. Sometimes we would strike out from the shop at 3AM for pecan waffles at the local (and somewhat sketchy) Waffle House. He kept a case of Carling Black Label beer bottles in the shop refrigerator, and he gave me a bottle of Jack Daniels when I turned 21.

After he and Barbara had split, and he was living by himself, he prided himself on his ability to live on a tiny expenditure for food. He made friends with the local grocer, and would get a discount on dented cans, and buy cheese, and meat just after the expiration date, for pennies on the dollar. He would freeze the perishables, make a big pot of soup, and live on it for weeks. He even developed his own cost-saving approach to dish-washing. He kept a mixture of clean water and dish soap in a bowl next to the sink. He would dip a few fingers in the soap, then wash and rinse a single dish, leaving his fingers clean to dip for the next dish.

And when I would visit, he would make tasty sandwiches, the origins of which I dared not ask. But I never got sick, either.

Edie Avenue Campus

The Hankamers lived in a small white house on Edie Avenue, near Grant Park. His shop was a single-car garage outfitted with storage shelves, and an electronics bench equipped with an oscilloscope and a signal generator that he claimed would output “from DC to daylight.” That shop is where I rebuilt my truck engine, but I wasn’t the only beneficiary of Hank’s wisdom. He would help anyone who wanted to learn, as long as they would do the work, and obey his “rules”, which mostly meant cleaning up after yourself, and putting the tools back where they belong.

Fairburn Campus

About the same time he and Barbara were growing apart, he bought a house in Fairburn, surrounded by several acres of land, and already equipped with a couple of open storage barns. I really think he was trying to make a nice home for Barbara and the girls, but it apparently wasn’t enough. It became his “campus.”

He built a 3-bay steel building between the house and the outbuildings. One bay housed his electronics bench, parts, and surplus equipment, and an overhead storage area. The second bay was mostly power tools for wood- and metal-working, and welding, and the third bay, complete with a service-station-grade hydraulic lift, was for vehicle maintenance and repair. It was clearly designed by, and for, a multi-talented fellow.

He wasted no time in filling up the old storage barns with surplus gear, much of it bought through state auctions. After he died, his daughter Dale told me it took her 6 years to clean up the mess, since some of the equipment included chemicals that are now classified as hazardous.

But it was an amazing collection. When Papa Chandler was looking for a particular replacement engine for an old riding lawnmower, Hank poked around one of his barns and found one in good working condition. A few years later, I actually found a replacement heat exchanger for the old Carrier furnace that warmed our house on Birch Street.

Even the house in Fairburn turned into a storage and work area. He kept the kitchen and his bedroom intact, but the living room was full of radio-controlled airplane parts and other experimental toys, and there was always a giant stack of electronics magazines at hand in the, er, “reading room.”

Work and invention

His shops were not for show, but were practical and well-used. His skills ranged from electronics, to machine shop welding, wood-working, and repair of vehicles of all types. And, although his name doesn’t show up in the hallowed listings of the USPTO, he was a prolific inventor. Here’s a list of the ones I can remember.

Automatrix unit

The first project I worked on at Tech recorded lectures as a audio channel and a “blackboard graphics”channel. The blackboard graphics were generated by the professor drawing on an Electrowriter.

Electrowriter "transmitter"

But the cassette tape on which the signals were recorded did not turn at a constant speed. The variation was not audible for recorded speech or music, but caused the output device to wiggle more than a half-inch, meaning that output of the hand-written content was illegible.

Hankamer solved the problem by designing and building a circuit board based on a new “phase-locked loop” chip. The “transmitter” circuit recorded a precise carrier frequency along with the Electrowriter signals. Then the “receiver” circuit measured changes in the carrier frequency due to tape distortion, and adjusted the Electrowriter signals on the fly. I thought it was totally amazing. Hank then manufactured several complete units consisting of the circuit board, a cassette deck, and the necessary knobs and plugs to allow a teacher to record a lesson, then play it back multiple times, with the “blackboard graphics” displayed on a projector screen.

This doesn’t seem very amazing in this day of PowerPoint, iPhones, and big-screen TVs, but in the era of mimeograph machines and punch cards, it was pretty hot stuff.

Hankamer needed a company name for his various endeavors. Some wholesale companies would only sell to a company, not an individual. So he settled on a name that covered vehicles, electronics, science, and even math: Automatrix. So his cassette devices became known as Automatrix units.

Mag tape position detector

Another idea our group worked on consisted of reel-to-reel tape decks containing professorial lectures with the same blackboard graphics. The plan was for a teaching assistant or individual learner to connect another Automatrix device to two phone lines, then enter a code to select which lesson was desired. The appropriate tape deck would fast-forward to the beginning of the lesson, then play the lesson over the phone lines.

One problem with this plan was finding the beginning of each lesson. The tape decks were being controlled by a program running on a PDP-8 minicomputer. So Hank built and mounted a photocell device on each tape deck that would sense a piece of aluminized tape manually applied at the beginning of each lesson. It was not as cool as the phase-locked-loop circuit, but still cool.

And that solution gave me my first insight about how fast computers were, even at that time. To the human eye, the aluminized strip flashed by so fast it was barely visible. But starting when it first “saw” the beginning of the strip, the computer could process hundreds of instructions while it waited for the end of the strip to finally pass by.

Telephone ring detector

Another part of that project required the PDP-8 to answer a telephone and connect the circuit to the output of the tape deck. I was at Hank’s house one night when he first tested his circuit. He had designed it so that, when it answered the phone, it would reduce the volume of the stereo that he played while he was working. He expected to hear a portion of a ring on the phone, then it would answer. But while we were sitting there, the stereo all of a sudden just dropped out. He cocked his head sideways, then smiled, picked up the phone, and said, “Hello.” The circuit had detected the ring well before the phone’s bell could start making noise.

LED highway flasher

One of the last projects he worked on was an idea for using LEDs on highway flashers rather than incandescent bulbs, which took a lot more power. At the time LEDs were mostly low-power, low-output indicators. But he designed a flasher that used 4 yellow LEDs spread out across a reflective surface that amplified the light from the LEDs. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to market it before high-power LEDs were developed, originally for truck side markers, then eventually almost all automotive lights, and even traffic lights.

Other Pursuits

After he had left Ga Tech, he kept finding uses for his skills. He fell in with a group of RC airplane enthusiasts who flew planes in a field near the Purina Plant south of Atlanta on I-85. He quickly became the go-to guy for all technical questions.

I went to the field with him one afternoon, and he was particularly delighted when this nondescript 20-something kid showed up with his plane. Hank, in typical understatement, said, “Watch this.” The kid proceeded to put on an RC aerobatics demonstration the likes of which I have never seen since. Steep climbs, loops, barrel rolls, breath-taking dives when he pulled out at the last second, letting the plane skim over the ground less than a foot over the concrete strip. He had flown so much he just had an innate sense of how the plane would react, and which way to twitch the stick, regardless of which direction the plane was heading. For the last show, he put the plane in a near-stall climb, where it slowly cork-screwed upwards at 30-degree angle off vertical, seeming to defy both not only the law of gravity but most of the other laws of physics. Finally he twitched the stick and the plane flipped over on its back, then headed down to the ground for a landing as smooth as silk.

In addition to the RC plane interests, Hank was always looking for ways to help people. There was a “hippie” couple living in Pete’s old farmhouse who always needed something. And a big black guy named Brady that Hank started a dump truck business with. Brady drove the main truck, and knew the contacts and other drivers, and Hank knew how to keep the trucks running on a shoestring.

To complement his hardware knowledge, he started to learn programming, in assembler, naturally. I think he could see how things were headed in the electronics world.


Hank drove a sort-of plain-looking El Camino that was as fast as a proverbial bat. Once on a short stretch of Techwood Drive, a smart-aleck passed us, and Hank said, “There was a time I would have run him into the wall.” Probably just as well I didn’t know him at that time. Oddly, I know next to nothing about his upbringing, or any part of his life before we met. It just never came up. I do know that his father died of stomach cancer, so Hank’s death by heart attack probably came as a surprise to him.

One night he was working on a truck, and asked me to go to the International Harvester dealership to pick up a part for him. He suggested I take his Kawasaki, but he warned me, “Just don’t wind it out in first gear. I’ll explain when you get back.”

When I got back with the part after a very careful ride, he had pulled out a chart of the torque curve of the Kawasaki engine. He pointed to a near-vertical section of the curve, explaining, “If the engine hits that RPM in first gear, the front wheel pops off of the ground.” Well, so there.

The first car I actually owned was an Austin Healey Sprite, which several of us drove for the few years I had it. That car taught me many, many lessons, and eventually wound up at Hank’s while my friend Andy rebuilt it for his niece.

Another project truck was the F-150 into which Hank installed a 6-cylinder marine diesel. He had to install extra springs on the front end, a heavy-duty transmission, and a special differential, but when he finished, as he explained it, “You can start it in any gear – it just takes longer for the truck to catch up with the tires.” I guess since he is dead now, I can reveal that he installed a small oil heater in his shop for which he would buy “heating oil” which, coincidentally, would burn quite nicely in the F-150.

One night while he was building his steel building shop, he let me drive the bulldozer on the lot. I will simply say that, while I had fun, actually trying to level ground with a dozer is much harder than I would have guessed.

Another time he proudly showed me a used Isuzu sedan he had picked out for one of his daughters. Just as I was thinking to myself, “Why an Isuzu?” he said, “This is one of the greatest automotive engines ever built,” and I had no doubt.

But maybe the best Hankamer vehicle story starts with my family on vacation at a rural corner of Smith Lake. We had driven over to a family trailer for a week at the lake, and just as I exited the expressway near the trailer, our old Suburban started making a serious-sounding racket proportional to the engine speed. I nursed it the next 10 miles to the lake, and the next morning pored over it gathering data. Then I paddled a canoe for 30 minutes to get to a pay phone outside a closed cafe, from which I called Hank.

After I reported my data and observations, he agreed with me that it sounded like engine bearings. So for the next week, plus a few days, with a car borrowed from a relatively close aunt, I rebuilt the bottom half of that Chevy V-8. (Fortunately, I had brought my big tool box. Driving old cars is a good teacher.)

Anyway, the bearings were definitely worn out and needed changing, but the audible problem turned out to be a peculiar failure of the air conditioner clutch, which was easy to silence for the ride home. (Easier than silencing the progeny, who had to rough it in an un-air-conditioned vehicle.) But in retrospect, all of us have fond memories of the week at the lake when Dad rebuilt the engine. With Hank’s help, of course.

Friendship and Humor

Hank was a good friend to many people, and not just because of his technical expertise. He was fun to talk to, knowledgeable about current events, and had a good ear for music. He introduced me to several musicians I had totally missed, perhaps the most significant of which was Jackson Browne. Not long before his death, he gave me a jazz CD by the Modern Jazz Quartet, a soundtrack from the movie “No Sun In Venice.” It is a lightly instrumented performance that he loved for its sparse tightness.

On the other hand, he would hardly be called a social guy. Our family had started a tradition of hosting a drop-in get-together on Christmas Day. When he actually showed up for one, I’m not sure who was more surprised, him or me.

When a mutual friend joined a company that showed promise, Hank encouraged me to buy some stock by doubling my investment. Although the amount seems small today, it was a significant thing for him to do. When the company finally re-organized, I got back all we had invested plus a little interest. Nothing to be ashamed of in the world of small investments.

"Pickle Fork"

Perhaps the geekiest funny thing I remember him saying happened when I was changing out a ball joint. To separate the ball joint from the tie rod, you use a heavy steel tool with a tapered tip, split to slide on either side of the bolt, with a heavy handle where you pound with a hammer to effect the extraction. When I described what I was doing, and the tool I needed, he said, “Yeah, you need a pickle fork.” The mental dichotomy between the miniature silver fork used to spear gherkins and the heavy tool used to separate an automotive assembly still amuses me.


Long after Hank and Barbara had divorced, tragedy struck the family. Their youngest daughter was murdered in an Atlanta park. Hank kept her picture on his refrigerator in Fairburn until he died, as far as I know. He used to call her “Jo pig” around the little table where we all ate when I first met them. She was his baby girl.

But to add insult to tragedy, there were rumors circulating among Jo’s acquaintances that her Dad might have done it. I suppose her circle of friends had heard stories about her Dad being sorta strange, and jumped to conclusions about him. There was never a formal charge levied, but an article in the local alternative paper kept the rumor alive for a while.

Eventually the talk and the rumor died out. Hank was definitely a different sort of person, and who knows what kind of talk went on in the family after the separation and divorce. But the whole premise was preposterous to me.

He continued to live his monastic/electronic existence at his Fairburn Campus until the day he went to sleep healthy and woke up dead.

A few years after his death, that same alternative newspaper published a follow-up article. It seems that a prisoner in the Georgia penal system had to have his DNA tested relative to another case, and it turned out to match the DNA traces found on Jo’s body. So Hank was vindicated after all.


Well, I have finally reached the part of the story I alluded to at the end of Hank Part 1. There are two Hank stories that fall into the “love” category.

The first is about Hank and Barbara, and he said it one night as we were talking about marriage, possibly about my plans therefor, and probably after a few Black Labels. He reminded me of an old tale. It is said by some that, if a couple makes a chalk mark on the wall every time they make love during their first year of marriage, and then erases a mark every time thereafter, they will never erase all the marks.

He looked at me with his typical half-grin and a conspiratorial roll of the eyes, and just said, “It ain’t true.” I don’t know what broke them up, but at that time and to that man, their relationship was good.

The other story happened in the middle of my courtship and marriage, which is a story that deserves its own posting. In short, the love of my life had gone to a different state and had decided to marry someone else. I was talking about ifs and buts, and maybe even considering playing some sort of game to trick her back, when he brought the whole thing back to its essence.

“Have you told her you love her?” he said. “That’s all you need to do. Make sure she knows you love her, and it will work out.”

I spent that summer doing a lot of things, recording a banjo album with my cousin and Bill Blaylock, appearing on a bluegrass stage with monster picker Roni Stoneman, and singing in the choir at our old church like I didn’t know any better. But the one thing I didn’t do that summer was worry. Oh, I missed her, and I wondered how things would turn out. But, perhaps in part because of Hank’s advice, I didn’t worry, because I did tell her that I loved her.

The End

So, how should I end this interminable saga?

I suppose with a few last comments about Hank. Like Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Hank loved finding quality, sometimes in the most unexpected places. And, like Pirsig, I know he had his own kind of craziness, his own Phaedrus-demon. But he was (I suppose it could go without saying, but won’t) definitely memorable.

So, was he a mentor? Did I follow his advice?

In some ways, yes. I still work on cars, although not always as successfully. I still repair electronics, often just by the tried-and-true method of just taking things apart and putting them back together. I own an engine stand, a motor lift, and an air compressor, and a bunch of tools, most of them clean and in the right place. And I still have a great appreciation for Quality in everything I do.

But in other ways, no. I don’t stay up late working in my shop, and it shows – it’s a mess. I don’t own an oscilloscope or a signal generator. I have spend a lot of my life doing things for churches and church people, and playing in a band that specializes in concerts at drug rehab centers.

But, perhaps best of all, I really did marry the girl that Hank gave me the advice about back in ’74, and, four kids and plenty of love later, we are still at it.

I think my time spent with Hank was not wasted.


April 29th, 2012

Earlier this year, someone asked me a question about document editing, and in a split-second, my brain did one of those weird image fly-by things through 40 years of technology. “Hey, I could write a little posting about this,” I thought. So here I am eight weeks later, with a half-finished combination of geek memoir and technical explanation, which turns out to be more than a thousand words. So I’m posting this half, with noble intentions of finishing the second half in a much shorter interval.

Like my other quasi-historical postings (computers, lasers), the usual caveats apply – my comments are based on my memories of my perceptions, which, in turn, are the product of my environment. Oh, I think most of it is pretty accurate. I just feel obligated to warn you, in the spirit of truth.


Classical computer discussions usually begin with a thing called a “bit”, short for binary digit. Computers started with binary data because it is easier for a computer to do a simple thing many times real fast than to try to do slower, more complicated operations, like decimal math. So, in the beginning was the bit. Mathematically, one or zero. Conceptually, there or not-there. Switchwise, on or off. Magnetically, flux or no-flux. Optically, light or dark. In a punch card or paper tape, hole or not-hole. On an electrical conductor, voltage or not-voltage. Bits can be represented in many media.

But what can you do with a bit?

For our purposes, with a little thought and effort, you can make a series of bits mean whatever you want. At first bits were used to represent numbers as in this table…

Decimal Binary
1 1
2 10
3 11
4 100

… and then characters

A 10000
B 10001
C 10010

… and with the addition of the space character (” “), words, and with the “new line” character, paragraphs.

(The image to the right shows a binary rendition of the preceding two lines. Optional exercise for the reader: Why don’t the bold words show up differently?)

So, bits can be used to represent Information.

But to share your information with another person or computing machine, you must both agree on the meaning of the strings of bits. Just like a secret code, except not secret in this case.


In a giant step for computer geekdom during the 1960s, a national standards body created and approved the American Standard Code for Information InterchangeASCII – usually pronounced “ass-key”. It is probably unnecessary to point out that ASCII focused on the English language as practiced in the USA. Since those early provincial days, the computing infrastructure has expanded to support many languages, not only those that use a similar alphabet, but also languages that use different character sets, and even those that read right-to-left. Commerce is a great equalizer. But for simplicity, I am going to stick with American English in this post.

Built on the technology of the telegraph, then the teletype, ASCII is an under-appreciated standard (IMNSHO) that was a crucial enabler for the rapid spread of computer technology. (Other similar under-appreciated technologies include the RS-232 serial interface and the Hayes Modem command set.)

In the early days, computer memory and data transmission were scarce and expensive, so the first character codes used as few as 5 and 6 bits, which means you could only represent 32 or 64 symbols. Eventually 7-bit ASCII became the accepted standard. Seven bits fit nicely on the 7-channel magnetic tape in use at the time, and the 8th bit available in most computer memory systems was used as a parity bit, a rudimentary way to check for errors in data storage or transmission.

Seven bits can be used to represent 96 symbols, including the 52 letters of the alphabet (upper and lower case), ten digits, miscellaneous mathematical and grammatical symbols, plus the critically important non-ink-consuming characters (space, tab, end-of-line), one audible character (BEL, which sounded a tone or bell), and some miscellaneous symbols used for data transmission, of which my two favorites are ACK and NAK (acknowledge and not-acknowledge).

Plain text

So now we have a set of agreed-upon symbols that can be used to represent information. These bit-based information elements can be stored in computer memory, recorded onto magnetic media, punched into paper tape, and transmitted electrically. But not yet easily seen. (Some of the early computers featured consoles that displayed the binary contents of selected storage registers. A person who could read and interpret those was truly a geek’s geek, or perhaps a mutant.)

Teletype Model 33 ASR

For reading purposes, we need a visual representation of the characters, which we now call a font, derived, interestingly, from fondue, because the original printer’s fonts were made of molten metal. (See font.) Over the centuries, monks, calligraphers and designers of moveable type have given us a variety of practical and artistic letter renditions to choose from.

But the early efforts were much more utilitarian. Original output devices, such as the Teletype Model 33, printed on paper. The “font” was determined by the typeface molded into the metal print head. The teletype “font” was selected for readability on inexpensive paper using an inked cloth ribbon that probably should have been replaced months ago.

Sample Teletype Output

Later, so-called “dot matrix” printers were developed that composed letters from, well, a matrix of dots, but the font was still preset within the printer.

The purpose of these printers was to provide the user with a visual representation of the computer’s output. As a side effect, the paper copy provided a backup in case the computer lost information (which they did quite often), and provided a means of sharing information. Remember, early computers were isolated machines, with no e-mail, internet connections, or even removable storage. Data was input by typing, and output by printers to volumes and volumes of paper.

An ecological and economical advance was the cathode-ray terminal (CRT), which used the same technology as the television to represent computer characters on a glass screen by turning a beam of electrons on and off as they swept across a phosphorescent layer. The characters usually glowed in an oddly-appealing orange or green hue, but the size and shape of the characters was preset in the terminal.

These terminals followed the lead of the teletype, and presented character data on a screen divided into 25 lines which were typically 80 characters wide. And the font? A matrix of electronic dots.

Plain text

ll of the information, systems, and devices mentioned so far used “plain” ASCII text – there were no real options for bold, italic, or underlined characters, although some clever programmers figured out how to create a slight bold effect by printing a word, then backspacing the teletype head back to the beginning of the word, and reprinting it. There were no font options unless the printer had multiple fonts designed into its circuits. Even then, changing fonts required a manual selection process.

This is a good time to note that the fonts used on computers, like those on typewriters, were all non-proportional – a skinny lower-case “i” occupied the same horizontal space as a fat capital “W”. The complexities, and benefits, of proportional spacing, ligatures (which, for example, join the f with the i) and kerning, were the domain of typesetters in the world of printing. Kerning, by the way, is the precise spacing of proportional letters to produce a pleasing visual effect, most obvious in large newspaper headlines, and most often violated in amateur signs, hand-made posters, and ransom notes.

For simplicity and predictability, early computing, display, and printing devices used the much simpler non-proportional spacing. This is why you could state unequivocally that there were, say, 80 characters in a line – the printer was mechanically indexed to space the letters that way.

Plain text is exactly that – a numerical representation of characters used to create language. Plain.


So now we have a character set, and a means of storing, displaying, and printing the characters. We now need a tool to enter and edit our strings of characters. Early typewriters allowed you to enter characters, but there was no way to edit the text, leading eventually to the invention of Wite Out, and also setting the stage for several generations of jokes about Wite Out on computer monitors.

Fortunately, since computing systems were used to write programs, they already included text editors, and these could be used to edit words, paragraphs, and entire treatises, although the appearance of the output was still very dependent on the device used to render the text. Early text editors included the tersely-named ed, ex, and vi, followed by EMACS (my personal favorite).

So, armed with a character set, a text editor, and a computing and storage device, an enterprising writer can record and edit thoughts, ideas, and information.


And for now, we shall leave our enterprising writer in plain-text-only mode. That’s really not such a terrible place to be – there is really quite a lot one can accomplish with plain text.

Next time, we’ll figure out how to get from plain text to the feature-rich word processing tools we enjoy, and abuse, today.