Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hewlett-Packard tightens the screws (1973)

Around the time of the 1973 Oil Crisis, energy conservation suddenly became an issue in California. Hewlett-Packard was concerned about their electric bill. So they started a program to save energy.

Most -hp- buildings back then had high ceilings illuminated by fixtures that held eight fluorescent bulbs, each eight feet long. Every division's maintenance staff had various ladders and work platforms for getting up to the ceiling. They came around to take one bulb out of every fixture.

When that was done, they came around and took another bulb out of every fixture.

About the time the fixtures were down to three bulbs each, a lot of people started to complain that they couldn't see what they were doing. So they sent the staff around to make sure there were at least four bulbs in every fixture. The complaining died down because the company had responded.

This is a pattern I have observed many, many times in other contexts. I suspect they actually teach it in management schools: lay off staff until the remaining staff explode from the stress, then hire a thin slice of them back until the screaming dies down.

Is this actually a good idea? Not always, I'd say. Consider the American health care system. Because so much of the health care and pharmaceutical industries revolves around profit, they tend to cut to the bone, and then maybe a little more.

Maybe in normal times this will fly for a while. But what happens when disaster strikes? Have you spent much time in an emergency room lately? Because so many people are uninsured, they can't afford preventive care, then they get really sick and go to the ER. Waiting times in most ERs nowadays, I hear, are pretty long unless you have a severed artery or aren't breathing. And this is pretty much all the time. What if we get a really ugly flu epidemic or a natural disaster? Where is the reserve capacity?

My solution is, of course, typical Progressive cant. Make health care a nonprofit activity. Go to single-payer like all the rest of the civilized nations, which spend half what we do and get better outcomes, like the Canadian healthcare system.

The day I wore a burqa (ca. 1980)

Somewhere around 1980 I was invited to a Halloween party by an old New Mexico Tech friend who was living in Palo Alto at the time.

Another friend of mine was an inveterate shopper of second-hand stores and had a number of treasures, including an authentic burqa. She agreed to loan it to me for the party.

It was a black robe with a head covering that left only two parts visible: a tiny rectangle enclosing my eyes (with some small coins hanging just underneath), and my legs up to about mid-calf. I put flip-flops on my feet and drove to the party.

This was during the Iranian hostage crisis, when Islamist militants took over the American embassy and held 52 Americans for over a year. The news often showed footage of Iranian militants screaming “Death to Carter!”

So when my dear friend Candy answered the door, I said in a high sing-song voice, “Death to Carter! Death to Carter! Happy Halloween! May I come to the party now?”

Candy and I have been friends since we were freshmen together in 1966, so I was quite surprised that she didn't seem to know who I was. But I wasn't armed or otherwise menacing so she let me in. I didn't shave my legs, so I doubt anyone thought I was female, but no one had any early correct guesses about who I was.

I stayed in character for twenty minutes before Candy figured it out! The lesson that has stayed with me, since that day, is how much a burqa makes one anonymous. This is not a value judgement, just an observation.

At this point I weighed probably around 300 pounds, so finding a costume that concealed my identity was a good trick. But a burqa worked surprisingly well.

The first computer program I ever ran (1966)

This story is part of my permanent Web, but you are welcome to leave comments here.

At Texas Tech, I found a sympathetic staff member who said I could run my program. I was in ecstasy.

They had two computers then. One was an IBM 1620 with add-on core memory (persistent storage—a luxury of the day!) and a Flexowriter terminal. However, such was not for mere mortals, but I would be welcome to run it on their IBM 7044, the older and not so shiny system.

The first obstacle was learning how to use an IBM 026 keypunch. What a miserable excuse for a human-computer interface! Communicating with computers by punching holes in a piece of cardstock! If you made a mistake, you had to throw away the entire card and start over: once you punch a hole, you can't unpunch it.

(the full story)