Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Another good "Out of Office" message.

Here's another good "out of office" message.

I’ll be characterizing the performance (simulated vs. actual) of laminated composite low-friction materials against a low-temperature crystalline dihydrogen oxide matrix on Friday the 28th.  I expect to spend 7 to 8 hours performing a complicated series of temperature / altitude / insolation shmoos.  Back on Monday.

The location is Colorado. The date, in case you missed it, is February 28. The intended audience is 12 engineers. Two of them understood the message. Do you?

Monday, July 29, 2013


When I was very young, my mother brought out two different kinds of pie for dessert. There was only enough pie for each person in the family to have one piece. But both flavors looked so delicious, that I couldn't choose.

So when she asked me which one I wanted, I said, with all the innocent honesty of a young child, "Both."

She said, "Then you don't get any."

And she meant it.

How many times in our lives are we given a choice between A and B, and told that we can only have one of them? And how many times in our lives does our indecision leave us with neither one?

It was a harsh lesson to learn, at that young age, and the inhibitions that it built into me have burdened me all of my life.

When my kids were young, we brought out two different kinds of pie for dessert. Just like when I was a child, there was only enough pie for each person in the family to have one piece. One of my children looked longingly at both of them, silent tears forming in her eyes.

I said, "Why don't we give you half a piece of each? Somebody else can take the other halves."

And I meant it.

My children learned a different lesson from the one I learned. Not all of them learned that lesson, but the ones that did have gone on in life to sample and enjoy choices A and B, and also C, D and E. Their lives are richer because nobody put artificial limits on their freedom to choose during their formative years.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My greatest impact

Question from a job interview: "Thinking back on your career, what's the one thing you've done that has had the greatest impact?"

Well, I can't think of one. I'll have to give you three.

First, back in the 1980s, I did something that everybody said couldn't be done. I figured out how to gold-plate the inside of a copper tube. This tube was about 30 centimeters long and had an inside diameter of 7 millimeters. It had to be gold-plated on the inside, to a very exacting specification. I figured out a way to do it that was twice as exact as the specification. That might not seem like much, but these perfectly plated tubes were used to calibrate microwave test equipment, which was in turn used to calibrate and tune the radars in military helicopters and fighter jets. Our two biggest customers were Hughes Aircraft and the U.S. Marines. So, in summary, this is a story like "The House That Jack Built:" I invented a way to gold-plate the tubes, that calibrated the testers, that tested the radars, that went in the aircraft, that were flown by the Marines, that won the Cold War.

Second, I was one of the first 200 employees of Hewlett-Packard's Inkjet Components Operation. We made the printer cartridges that kicked off the inkjet revolution. My job was to turn the nozzle-plate manufacturing operation from a low volume R&D operation to a high volume, high quality, production operation. From 200 employees, our cartridge volume expanded to fill seven factories on three continents. If you open the HP printer on your desk and pull out the printhead cartridge and look at the business end of it, you will see a little gold square, smaller than a postage stamp, with hundreds of tiny holes where the ink comes shooting out. That little gold square is my baby. My work appears in every HP inkjet printer in the world.

But my greatest impact didn't come from my work as an engineer. It came from my work as a teacher. For two years, I taught 7th grade mathematics, and I had an impact on 200 young lives. Some of them came into my classroom hating or fearing mathematics, and unsure of their abilities. Almost every one of them left with an advanced understanding of math, and with increased self-confidence. I didn't just teach mathematics, I taught about math and reading and music and life skills and believing in yourself. Many of my students still keep in touch with me, and it's fun for me to see what they're becoming and what they're doing with their lives. Some of them will change the world, and I will take my share of credit for that. That is my greatest impact.

Note for my seminary students: I didn't mention you in the interview. But for the record, I was an early-morning seminary teacher for 12 years, off and on, over a period of 30 years. I taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through the scriptures, to hundreds of high-school students over those years, for an hour every morning before school started. But it wasn't just book learning. I taught you how to search for and find spiritual truth on your own, how to recognize it, how to test it, and how to apply it in your lives. The spiritual foundation that you young people built for yourselves in my classes has sustained you through the years, kept you morally strong, and guided you through your life experiences as individuals and in your own families. Many of the things that I taught you have been passed down to your own children. That is an impact equal to, or greater than, the impact I had on my mathematics students.

Note for my children and my adopted children: Forget "impact." You are the greatest things I ever did in my life. I didn't mention you in the interview either. I didn't need to.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Stevie Wonder is Wrong to Boycott Florida

Stevie Wonder clearly doesn't understand what "Stand Your Ground" is all about, or he would be for it, not against it.

Florida's "Stand your Ground" law was passed to protect people who are bullied, abused, or attacked. But George Zimmerman did not use "Stand your Ground" in his defense in court. It was the newspapers and media that made all the noise about it, not Zimmerman or his lawyers.

And it was never meant to justify the winner in a street fight. "Stand your Ground" is an outgrowth or extension of the Castle Doctrine, which finds expression in Colorado's 1985 "Make My Day Law," among others. "Make My Day" allows you to use deadly force against an intruder in your home. "Stand Your Ground" simply means that you don't have to cower or run away when someone attacks you; you're allowed to fight back.

In fact, "Stand Your Ground" could be used to justify Trayvon Martin's actions, not Zim's. Martin is not around to give his side of the story, but it could plausibly be argued that Zim attacked him first, and he was fighting back - and winning the fight - when Zim shot him. This plausible argument is the reason that Zim's legal team did not use "Stand Your Ground."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dear Enersys: I'm not going to work for you.

Dear Enersys:

Someone pointed me to a test engineer job opening at your space batteries facility in Colorado. I read the job posting, did some more research on Enersys, and was intrigued enough to apply for the job.

Your online job application webpage is insulting, and tedious in the extreme. It consists of endless pages of online forms to fill out, and a watchdog timer on the website only gives me 45 minutes to fill them out. One of the first pages is the "Upload your resume/CV" page. The subsequent pages all require me to manually re-enter all of the information that already exists on my résumé. I'm not going to re-type all of that.

I didn't wait 45 minutes. After 25 minutes, I decided that if working for Enersys was as painful as applying for a job there, then it wasn't worth any more of my time. And you can bet that if I was put off by the application process, then so were hundreds of other qualified applicants - at least one of which might have been vital to your future success. I'm the only one who bothered to write anything about it.

I would say "I'm sorry," but it's your fault, not mine.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Best Temporary Job in the World

My son is currently serving as a Mormon missionary in California. I write to him every week. Most of my life currently revolves around my job search, and I'm sure my  letters get boring. This week's letter was a little different.

It helps if you know ahead of time that we live in a townhome on a dead-end street. All the garages are on the alleys behind the townhomes.

Hi Chris,

So, this week I decided I should at least get a temporary job to bring in more money than unemployment insurance does, until the real job works out. I contacted a temp agency I'd worked with before, called 10 Til 2. It's run by a lady named Ginny.

Ginny asked if I would be willing to do data analysis. It required some programming skill, and it would be a lot like editing a book. She said that if I were a good writer, I could certainly be an editor. Basically, I had to write computer programs to look for stuff in computer files. What kinds of computer files? She wouldn't say. I asked how much it paid, and she said $50 an hour if I was any good, or $100 for "hazardous duty." I asked what "hazardous duty" was. She laughed. I figured she was making a joke. $50 is pretty good money.

That was Monday. On Tuesday morning, a guy in a black suit showed up at the house. He looked a lot like the government agent that managed the Incredibles. Well, that's not what he looked like, but that's what he reminded me of. He had an old-fashioned leather briefcase. When I let him into the house, he asked to see my office. Well, it's an Ikea desk in the loft. So I took him upstairs.

I kid you not. He pulled a brand-new Alienware laptop PC out of that old briefcase. This thing had 16 GB of memory, and a water-cooled NVidia graphics card. How do you  fit a WATER-COOLED graphics card into a laptop? I don't know, but that graphics card had serious processing power. He said that I wouldn't be using it for graphics. They'd written a special driver that used the GPUs on the graphics card to do really high-speed numerical computations.

I said I would connect it to our DSL router. His face went white, and he looked shocked. He said that I should NEVER do that. The machine had its own cellular modem, all paid for and everything, and he told me to use that exclusively — never WiFi or ANYTHING else. I must have looked suspicious, because he then patted me on the shoulder — PATTED ME ON THE SHOULDER! — and said that they had a lot of corporate secrets to protect, and the cellular modem was 256-bit encrypted. Ooooooookayyyyyyyyyyy.

He set up my email for me, and told me that all my assignments would come via email. I asked him how I should log my time, and he said, "Don't worry about it. Just complete your assignments. If it takes you less time than we expect, that's cool."

After another hour of training, he left. I logged on and found 3 assignments in my email. They were all more or less the same: an FTP location where I could retrieve a ZIP file containing thousands of files; and a list of things to look for in the files. The list in the first assignment was just a bunch of phone numbers. Well, they looked like phone numbers. They didn't have any dashes, but they were 10-digit strings, and the first 3 digits were obviously area codes.

Python is a cool programming language. It can do just about anything. Whatever I couldn't do in Python, I did in C++. Oh, and this computer ran Linux. I LOVE Linux!

So by about 2:30 on Monday, I finished the first assignment and emailed my results to the address at the bottom of the first email. By 4:30 I finished the second one, and I kept working on the third one until 5:45, when I finally hit Send. Mom kept dinner waiting for me.

On Tuesday, I did about 5 assignments, and then I went to a 7 o'clock meeting. When I came back around 9 p.m., I saw about a dozen police cars in our tiny neighborhood, all with their lights off, but people inside. In the alley behind our house were two black cars. Like what Scott drives. Like Men In Black. I had to blink my lights and honk at one to get him to move, so I could park in the garage.

I asked Mom if she knew what all the cop cars were for. She was asleep in the Chair of Eternal Slumber, and hadn't seen or heard a thing. We figured The Neighbor From Hell was up to something. I took Baggy for a walk, in the single-family homes part of the neighborhood, like I usually do. I saw about 3 cop cars up there, crawling along with all their lights off, in the dark. Baggy and I were on the bike trails, but I think the cars were shadowing us.

I was getting rather bold, and if you'll forgive the expression, pissed, so on my way back in, I stopped by one of the MIB cars and knocked on the driver's side window. When he rolled down the window, I said in as rude a voice as I could, "What the hell are you doing?"

The. Guy. Didn't. Even. Flinch. He pointed at the "3230" over the garage door and said, "Do you live here?" When I said yeah, he asked, "Are you SquirrelBait?" That was the email login the Incredibles guy had given me. I said, even more rudely, "Who's asking?" He just said, "Good night, Mr. Depew. We're here to make sure you have a good sleep."

Okay, that was weird.

I got up twice in the middle of the night to  go to the bathroom. The black sedans were still in the alley. I counted three cop cars out front the first time. The second time, I saw six cars(!) on our little street. The cops had cuffed two people and were shoving them into one of the cars. You can bet both your tarjetas that I didn't tell Mom.

When I got up at 6, all of the cars were gone, but there were a green Accord and a white utility van across the street. The Accord was parked close to Newcastle Drive, and the utility van was down at the other end of the street. Both cars had guys in them all day long.

I only had one assignment Wednesday. I had to FTP six huge ZIP files. They were like 30 GB each. It should have taken hours. I think it took 10 minutes at most. Weird. Then I had to search everything in the zip files for three particular patterns, and whenever I found one of the patterns I was supposed to send an excerpt of the file in an email, then open a Skype-like connection, call somebody named "Robert," and report it immediately.

The first three times I reported a hit, Robert just said "thank you" and cut the connection. The fourth time, he got really excited, said "Stand by," and ran out of the picture. Does this feel kind of see eye ay / enn ess ay to you? That's what I thought. When Robert came back into the picture, the Incredibles guy was with him. The Incredibles guy asked me to describe all the cars on Springfield Drive. I ran downstairs, looked out the front window, and ran back up to tell him. He said "DID YOU OPEN THE FRONT DOOR?!!" And I said, "No, I looked out the window." Moron. Then he asked me who was parked out back. So I looked out the bedroom window and told him.

The only unusual cars out front were the Accord and the white van, and the MIB cars had reappeared out back. He looked relieved when I told him that. I heard a BUNCH of sirens in the distance, which usually means one of the old people living in the houses next to the golf course is having a really bad day. I casually mentioned that to Robert and Incredible. They said, "When you hear a knock on the door, close your computer and take it with you. Answer the door and go with whoever's there."

Honestly? I didn't know what was going on. The sirens were getting louder. I said, "What about my wife? She's out shopping." Incredible said, "Don't worry. She's safe." SAFE??!?!! I thought of calling Ginny, telling her this wasn't funny, and demanding more than $100 an hour. I had NO IDEA what I was getting into.

Finally, Robert had the good sense to ask if my search program had scored any more hits. I looked at the output window and it had about 30 hits. I emailed them to him. He got the email and read it while I was standing there, listening to the sirens getting louder. Just as the doorbell rang, he said to somebody offscreen: "They've landed in Phoenix. Move. NOW!" Then he turned to me, and said, "That's your doorbell. Go."

I know what you're thinking: WTF? That's exactly what I was thinking. One the one hand, this was the coolest temp job I'd ever had. On the other hand, I was scared out of my wits. I didn't know what was happening. I felt like I was the confused guy in a Harrison Ford thriller movie. Or Bruce Willis in Die Hard or something.

Did I mention that Baggy was going crazy? You would have thought that UPS, FedEx, the mailman, and Grandma had all driven up at the same time. I didn't know an 82-year-old dog could move that fast. Or make that much noise.

So I unplugged the computer and closed it, and ran down the stairs with it under my arm. Whoever was outside started doing the ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong thing on the doorbell. I grabbed Baggy and flung open the door and there was the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen.

She was about five-six, wearing an emerald-green business suit — you know, a skirt and jacket. She was built like a ... well, a Miss America winner with an extra 30 pounds of beef on her bones. Solid muscle, though. She had long, wavy, dark-brown hair. Well-turned legs, and heels the same color as her suit. And she was carrying a semi-auto pistol that said "H&K" on it. I've seen enough of your Airsoft guns to know what she was doing. Her finger was beside the trigger, and the safety was on, but she obviously meant business.

I just stood there with my jaw on the tiles, and drool running down my chin. I had the computer under one arm, and Baggy's collar in the other hand. I didn't know what to stare at: her face, her gun, or her chest. I must have been staring at her gun, because she said, "Don't worry, Mr. Depew. This isn't meant for you. It's meant to protect you. Come with me please. MOVE!"

I don't know if it was the imperative tone in her "MOVE!" or the two guys dressed in black BDUs with M16s, like you when you're playing Airsoft, standing out at the curb, but I MOVED. I shoved Baggy behind the door, stepped out and closed it. The. Lady. Locked. The. Door. (Where did she get the key? I STILL don't know.) The two BDU guys weren't pointing their guns at me, by the way. They had their backs to me, and were pointing 'em everywhere else. We all piled into a crap-brown Pontiac Aztek sitting in front of The Neighbor From Hell's house.

I said, "ARE YOU KIDDING? AN AZTEK? YOU GUYS ARE KIDNAPPING ME IN AN AZTEK?" I think I threw some four-letter words in there for extra effect.

As the driver took the corner at Newcastle on two wheels, and on two wheels again at Tabernash, he said, "The body is the only Aztek thing in here. The windows are an inch thick. The body panels and floorboards are backed with laminated armor plate, made of cobalt-steel and Kevlar. The suspension is adapted from a Humvee. The wheels are from Big O, but the tires are puncture-proof Big O lookalikes.The engine and tranny are custom-made by Allis-Chalmers. We've got six forward gears, two reverse, and compound low. It can go zero to sixty in 3.5 seconds and it tops out at a hundred and forty. "

By the time he finished saying this, we were eastbound on Eisenhower, going around the lake. The driver kept talking. "The interior was redone by Northrop Grumman. Angel here," pointing to the gorgeous babe, "has her pistol hardmounted in a gunport." (I thought "That's why they call it 'shotgun,'" but I didn't say that out loud) "And her friends have their M-16s hardmounted in gunports behind you." I looked, and the BDU guys really did. They had their M-16s poking out through the fenders above the rear tires.

I thought, "Chris would wet his pants if he could see this. He'd wet them twice!"

"So," said the driver, "good enough for you?"

I wasn't thinking very straight. Like a true redneck, I said, "Yeah, I guess. But WHY A CRAP-BROWN AZTEK?"

I think that this driver and I were hitting it off. By now we were speeding past Mountain View HS and the stake center. I noticed that we had two police cars clearing the way in front of us, a SWAT van tailgating us, and police cars with flashing lights blocking every. Single. Intersection. The driver grinned and said, "Because, who would ever suspect a crap-brown Aztek of this kind of action? Its ugliness makes it invisible!"

I had to admit: he had a point. In the 30 minutes it took us to get to Denver (yeah — 30 minutes — well, actually, more like 25), he and I hit it off pretty well. Angel, the gorgeous babe, didn't say much. The BDU guys were talking into their mikes almost constantly, and every once in a while Angel would say something into her earpiece, too. I think that the driver kept up the conversation with me so that I couldn't hear what they were saying.

About the time we flew past the Brighton exit and the E-470 interchange, Angel told (not asked, TOLD) me to open my laptop and finish running the analysis of those files. I got about 12 more hits from those megafiles, and that was about it. When we got to the carpool lanes, they were closed and empty. The cop cars smashed through the closed gates, and we followed them down the carpool lanes, taking a left at the split and going right past Coors Field. We drove UNDERNEATH one of the big highrises downtown, and pulled up beside an old rusty steel door.

The rusty steel door slammed open and six more BDU guys ran out and surrounded the Aztek, with their guns pointed outward. Angel, the driver and the two BDU guys hustled me out of the Aztek and inside the door, where we went into an elevator. It had two buttons: UP, and DOWN. They pressed UP, the doors closed, and my stomach fell out through the soles of my shoes.

I was alternating between "Oh wow, this is so cool!" and "Holy crap, what did Ginny get me into?" Once in a while I would think "What about Valerie? What about Baggy?" but mostly it was "oh wow" and "holy crap".

When the elevator stopped, my stomach jumped up into my nasal cavities. I didn't feel the urge to vomit, but if I had sneezed I think that my entire breakfast would have come out my nose. We stepped out onto a floor that was completely open and unfinished. Concrete floor, steel pillars, bare ceiling beams, and dirty plastic dropcloths covering all the windows. In the center of the floor were the elevator and restrooms. Oh, and drinking fountains and a tiny break area. It looked like we were on the top floor of the tallest skyscraper in Denver, but I don't know. I couldn't see much out of the windows. There was a patio door on each side, and my driver muttered to me that there were eight sniper teams and two rocket launchers out on the wraparound balcony.

This whole time, I had been thinking, "What am I gonna do when I get to wherever they're taking me?" Now that I was there, I was thinking, "Now what am I gonna do?"

Then Robert and Incredible walked around the corner from the restrooms. They seemed to be in a big hurry. They grabbed me and pulled me out from the middle of the guns, over to a collapsible table with four or five folding chairs in front of it. And three other laptops running other programs. I saw tracking programs, with vehicle or aircraft tracks superimposed on Google Earth-style terrain, satellite tracking programs, running transcripts of phone and radio conversations, a chat program populated by what looked like a SWAT team somewhere. And SOMEBODY had a Phineas and Ferb cartoon running in a tiny window in the corner.

They told me to turn on my laptop and show them what I'd found. They were pretty rude, actually. There was no "please" or "thank you." It was "do this" and "now do that." I was getting kinda ticked off, and I was sure gonna tell Ginny at 10 Til 2 about it.

There were people sitting at other folding tables, too. But they were all government agents, of one flavor or another. I still didn't know who I was working for. They were looking at other laptops and talking or yelling into telephones and headsets. Finally, one kid about 30 years old pounded on his table, jumped up, pointed at a wide-screen TV hanging from the ceiling, and said, "There they are! LOOK!"

I felt like I was in a Tom Clancy novel. Weird. The TV showed what looked like video from a news chopper, but the crosshairs in the middle of the picture meant that it wasn't from a NEWS chopper. The video showed a white Escalade and a black BMW SUV racing across a desert, past mesquite and sagebrush, and suddenly about a dozen black Ford Excursions zeroed in on them from all directions. The BMW tried some crappy Hollywood evasive maneuver and rolled. One Excursion peeled off to follow the BMW, but the rest forced the Escalade to stop. Then a Humvee with a big monster machine gun turret on the roof pulled right up to the Escalade's nose.

The Escalade tried to back up. There was a puff of smoke from the muzzle of the machine gun, and then a  cloud of black smoke from under the Escalade's hood. I thought, "Holy crap, I'm glad the police in Fort Collins just pull you over and ask to see your license." Then I thought "I wonder what the bad guys look like?" Sure enough, the next second they pulled, like, EIGHT bad guys out of the Escalade and made them lie facedown in the desert. They looked like regular old American businessmen, except they had dark, curly hair and tan hands.

And no, I'm not profiling. That's what they looked like.

Everybody cheered, and then they all started talking to each other. But nobody talked to me. Somebody said, "Yeah, they said six flights. Six different airports, six different targets" Somebody else said, "We figure over 100,000 lives saved." Finally Robert came over and said, "Mr. Depew, your work just helped us stop another nine-eleven incident. We brought you here because we knew your life would be in danger if these guys knew what you were working on, and because we need you to do some more analysis for us."

It wasn't even lunchtime yet! It was, like, 10:30 in the morning. And suddenly I realized that my heart was pounding faster and harder than the engine in my old Mustang.

They made me stay in that unfinished penthouse for two more days. They said Mom was okay and that she had armed bodyguards. I'll bet she was loving that.

I sat at the same table with everybody else, but instead of emailing me the assignments, they would shove a USB stick at me and say, "Here. Analyze this." We ate well. These guys had breakfast burritos, gourmet pizza, Chinese food, and fantastic barbecue takeout, three times a day. Plus awesome munchies and gourmet soda pop. Well, half of them drank Coke nonstop. I slept on a sleeping bag on the floor, and didn't shower for three days.

On Friday about 4:30, that same crappy brown Aztec pulled up in front of the house and let me out. I didn't get a police escort this time. All the bad guys had been caught. As I walked into the house, Mama was sitting in the Chair of Eternal Slumber, chatting with Angel, who was sitting on the couch wearing VERY tight jeans and a men's white dress shirt. Angel stood up, said goodbye to Mom, shook my hand, and went out the door. She got in the passenger side of the Aztek and waved as the thing drove away.

Then I turned to Mom, and she said, "What was THAT all about?" I gave her the U.S. Government check for $8000. Not bad for one week's work. Especially as a temp. Her eyes bugged out and she looked at me with a big question mark over her head. I said, "Overtime, hazardous duty, and a bonus, because we caught the bad guys."

She said, "What bad guys?"

I said, "You'd never believe it if I told you."

Not one word of this story is true. I wish it were. Wouldn't that be an awesome temp job?