Dec 03

Millidyne

I just noticed that it’s December 3, which means that exactly thirty years ago, I was laid off by Millidyne Inc., my employer at the time. I’ve been laid off numerous times in my career (it’s just a fact of life for technical writers), but this particular layoff stands out in my mind because it holds the record for short notice — just three hours.

Millidyne was a small startup company in northern Raleigh, and I had been working there for a year. I had actually landed the job by responding to a Help Wanted ad in the newspaper, the only time that has ever happened to me. (In 1989, the Internet as we know it didn’t exist, and neither did job-hunting online. So reading the classified ads was actually useful.) During that year, I was the only full-time technical writer.

I was doing my work on an IBM PC running DOS, probably version 4.01. (Windows 3.0, the first version of Windows to achieve significant sales in the business market, wasn’t released until halfway through 1990.) It was my first job using a desktop publishing application (Ventura Publisher), and while I had used laser printers in previous jobs, they had always been shared with many other users. This was the first time I had a dedicated laser printer connected to my office computer. And since I was the sole custodian of it, I was also responsible for its care and feeding. I learned how to clear paper jams and replace toner cartridges (which involved ordering more cartridges and disposing of the used ones).

Like many small startup companies, Millidyne fell on hard times financially, and this led to a layoff of about 40% of the employees on December 3, 1990. At 9:00 a.m., every employee was handed a manila envelope by their manager. When you opened it, you found a letter inside. Some employees got a letter telling them that their jobs were being eliminated. The others got a letter announcing the downsizing of the company. I was in the first group, of course.

The laid-off employees were asked to leave the premises by noon — three hours notice.

I was asked to bundle up all of the documents I was working on and transfer them to my boss, who would have to take over the technical writing work. I don’t remember exactly what that entailed, but it probably involved handing him a stack of 5.25″ floppy disks, because that’s what we were using at that time. I do recall that three hours wasn’t enough time to get it done. Fortunately, they didn’t throw me out of the building at noon. I was allowed to remain long enough to complete the handoff process, which took until about 4:00 p.m.

Early December is a lousy time to lose your job. For my family, it wasn’t so bad, because Marie was still employed. We were able to pay our bills while I hunted for another job, and we had a more or less normal Christmas. But it was tough for some of my coworkers. Millidyne had planned to hold an offsite Christmas party for the employees. A committee of my coworkers had been planning it for months, arranging the location, the catering, the entertainment, and so forth. After the downsizing was announced, the party was canceled.

The announcement caught us by surprise, but of course it hadn’t happened suddenly. A layoff of that magnitude takes weeks or even months of planning. I don’t know why the executives of the company chose to keep the whole thing a secret until the last minute, but they knew the Christmas party would never happen. In order to keep the secret, they let the committee members carry on planning it until the morning of December 3, and then pulled the rug out from under them.

That seems cold to me. I guess they felt it was the best way to break the news, but I’m glad I didn’t have to help keep that secret.

As I recall, I was able to find another job pretty quickly in early 1991. I think that’s when I went back to IBM for my second term as an 18-month contractor. More than half of my career has been contract work, and one of the advantages of a contractor’s life is that you usually know about when your contract will end, and you can plan for it. (Not always. My job at Alcatel around the turn of the century was open-ended. It was technically a one-year contract, but they kept renewing it year after year . . . until they didn’t. Still, they kept me employed for five years, and I’m grateful for that.)

Most of the times I’ve been laid off, I was given a week or two of advance notice. Sometimes it’s been less than that; when Alcatel laid off my whole team, we had until the end of the day to clear out. Other times it’s been more; in 2002, IBM laid off a bunch of employees, and it gave us two months notice. But thirty years later, the three-hour notice I got from Millidyne is still the shortest.

It’s a very bad sign when a company lays off 40% of its people in one day. I figured that Millidyne was in deep financial trouble and would not last much longer. And I’m afraid that I was right. A year or two later, I ran into my ex-boss at a restaurant, and he told me that the company was gone.

Ironically, that same ex-boss had received the longest notice of a layoff that I have ever heard of. He had previously been a college professor, teaching courses for a specific degree program. The college eventually decided to eliminate that degree, which meant that his services would no longer be required. But although no new students would be allowed to enter that degree program, the ones already in it would be permitted to complete it. And some of them were freshmen. His teaching position would not be eliminated until the last of those students graduated. So he was given four years notice that he would lose his job.

I’m not sure I would want to know that far in advance.

Oct 20

Job titles

I’m starting a new job tomorrow, and I noticed with amusement that, at least on paper, I have been given a job title that makes no sense. I am a technical writer; I write and edit documentation for computers and software. And in most of the jobs I’ve held, my job title was Technical Writer or something similar. But not always.

When I was hired by IBM a couple of decades ago, I was given the title Staff Software Engineer. Of course, I wasn’t writing computer programs, and I wasn’t really an engineer of any sort. But that’s what the paperwork said.

My most recent job ended a couple of weeks ago, and my official title there was Engineering Planner II. I’m not even sure what that means, but I still wasn’t an engineer, and I wasn’t planning anything except my own work as a technical writer.

And now I have a new job, where my title (according to the paperwork I’ve seen so far) is Manufacturing Engineer. Needless to say, I will not be going anywhere near a factory floor. I’ll be writing technical documentation at my dinner table, since this is a remote job.

I have no explanation for any of this. It’s probably the result of administrative or HR issues that I know nothing about. In any event, I’m not complaining. They can call me whatever they want, as long as I get paid on time. But I think it’s funny.

Oct 08

Polling place

When I lived in Holly Springs, my assigned polling place was Holly Springs Elementary School, less than a mile away from home. The first time I voted there, I made the mistake of driving, only to find out that voters were not allowed to park in the school’s parking lots. Along with a number of other people, I ended up parking on the side of a residential street in the subdivision across the road from the school (which I’m sure was not popular with the people who lived there).

After that, I made a point of walking to the school on Election Day. Google Maps says that it’s a 19-minute walk, but it probably took me a bit longer than that to get there on foot, because the path to the school is almost all uphill. (And downhill on the walk home, so I probably did that more quickly.) I didn’t mind the distance, because it was always a pleasant walk. I lived in Holly Springs for 18 years, and in all that time, it didn’t rain on Election Day even once, and the temperature never required more than a light jacket.

When I moved to Cary in 2016, that required a change polling place. My new voter registration card indicated that I would be voting at Glenaire, which is a retirement home not too far away. But it was a longer walk than before, and I wasn’t very familiar with this part of Cary yet, so I decided to try driving and see how it worked out. Fortunately, Glenaire has plenty of parking, and voters were not prohibited from using it. So I continued driving there on Election Day.

But now it’s 2020, the Year of the Pandemic, and inviting a large number of strangers into a retirement home does not seem like a good idea. So I was not at all surprised to receive a new voter registration card in the mail, directing me to a different polling place. The new location is Cary Presbyterian Church, which is actually closer than Glenaire. It’s a four-minute drive, but the walk is only 17 minutes, mostly along the Higgins Greenway walking trail.

That sounds even more pleasant than my walk in Holly Springs. I’m actually looking forward to it. I just hope the weather is nice.

Oct 05

The twilight of movie theaters

On October 3, MGM Universal announced that the premiere of No Time to Die, the 25th James Bond movie, was being delayed again. It was originally scheduled to open in April, but was postponed several times. Until last week, theaters were expecting to get it in November, but the premiere has now been pushed back to April 2, 2021 — a full year after the original date.

This was the last straw for Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Theaters. Like other exhibitors, they had been counting on the Bond film to help them move back toward profitability. Several other tentpole movies have been delayed (Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984), failed (Tenet, Mulan), or gone directly to streaming (Hamilton, Greyhound). No Time to Die was pretty much their last hope. With that film delayed until next year, Cineworld has given up. They announced on October 4 that all 543 Regal theaters in the U.S. will be closed next week. Cineworld says this is temporary, but I suspect it may be permanent.

The writing has been on the wall for movie theaters for quite some time. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, their revenues had been declining. The advent of large, high-resolution TVs, home theater sound systems, and streaming services has prompted a lot of people to watch their movies at home. And the pandemic pulled the rug out from under the theater chains. Their theaters were shut down for months, and when they finally reopened, it was at a reduced capacity that makes it impossible to turn a profit.

To make matters worse, one of the other safety measures is to require all customers to wear a mask at all times (except when eating or drinking). That’s a deal-killer for me, because a mask makes my glasses fog up. If I can’t see the movie, what is the point of being there? And I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that way.

That was before No Time to Die was delayed to next year. I would like to believe I’m wrong, but I think the theater chains are doomed. I don’t see how they can recover from this.

After seven months, those of us who used to go to movie theaters have been broken of that habit. We have learned that we don’t really need theaters, and the studios are starting to think that they don’t need them either, with so many people using streaming services. The 007 film title seems ironic now, because the movie theaters do have time to die — and their time may be at hand.

Update: Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune, which was scheduled for release on December 18, has been delayed to October 1, 2021.

Sep 09

Usage note: Line of succession

I saw a blog comment today that referred to the Speaker of the House of Representatives as “third in line” for the presidency. No, the Speaker is second in line. The Vice President is first. The President is not “in line” at all. He is already President. You can’t be “in line” for an office you currently occupy.

I don’t know why so many people get this wrong. Even Babylon 5 made the same mistake, misstating the line of succession for Emperor of the Centauri Republic.

As a professional writer and editor, I have a lot of gripes about English usage. I may as well vent about them here. I thought of categorizing them under Gripes, but I decided to give them their own category.

Aug 29

Dropped from the Dow

I saw a headline stating that Exxon Mobil is being dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and I clicked the link because I was curious to know why. I learned that Exxon Mobil has been a part of the Dow since 1928, making it the oldest member. So what happened?

As I read the article, I realized that I had misunderstood what this means. I was confusing it with being delisted from a stock exchange, which usually means that your company is circling the drain and its stock is almost worthless. (This happened to one of my former employers, Pliant Systems, in 1999.) But the Dow is a stock index, not an exchange. Basically, it’s a bundle of stocks that are selected to represent the American economy as a whole. As such, it needs to be updated as the economy evolves.

This particular update was triggered by an impending Apple stock split, which would alter the blend of manufacturing and technology stocks in the index. So the Dow is adding some tech stocks: Salesforce, Amgen and Honeywell. Also being dropped are the drug company Pfizer . . . and my current employer, Raytheon Technologies.

That was a bit of a shock. I’ll try not to take it personally.

Aug 29

Return of the Commodore 64

I missed out on the popular Commodore 64 computer entirely. I was alive at when it was unveiled in 1982, but thanks to my father’s eagerness to adopt new technologies, my family had already had a home computer for several years. Also, I was in college at that point, and since the 64 was primarily a game computer, it would have been a distraction from my studies. (I did own an Atari 2600 game console, but I gave it to my brother rather than bring it to college with me.)

When I acquired my first computer in 1983, it was an Apple //e. And in 1987, I traded that one in on my first DOS machine, an XT clone. From that point onward, I owned a series of DOS and Windows machines (and in recent years, a couple of Chromebooks). The entire Commodore 64 ecosystem was a road not taken.

But it holds the Guinness world record for highest-selling single computer model of all time, so I have occasionally wondered what I missed. I could always buy a vintage 64 on eBay, but I don’t relish the challenges of getting an obsolete computer to work in today’s world. Fortunately, there will soon be a better way: the C64, an authentic replica that looks and works almost exactly like the original .

The C64 comes preloaded with 64 Commodore and VIC-20 games, and includes a joystick controller. You can also write your own programs in Commodore BASIC. But it has USB ports and an HDMI port, so you can connect it to modern-day displays and other peripherals.

I’m tempted to preorder one (it ships in November) just to find out what the fuss was all about. But I live in a small apartment, and I already have five computers here (including the two work laptops that don’t belong to me). I’m not sure where I would put it. Still, it would be fun to have.

May 03

Twin cities

When Marie and I were newlyweds, our first home was in Columbia, SC, near the university we both attended. A couple of years later, we moved across the river to West Columbia. The two cities were really just parts of a single metropolitan area, but it made sense for them to be different cities (with their own names and governments) because they were in different counties. The Broad River was the boundary.

But when I was a child, I lived in Monroe, LA, which was also part of a “twin cities” metropolitan area, with West Monroe on the other side of the Ouachita River. However, the river was not any kind of legal boundary; both cities were in the same parish. It was really just a single city with a river running through the middle. So why were Monroe and West Monroe separate cities (with different names and governments)? I’ve never understood this.

And my mother’s birthplace makes even less sense. She was born in Kansas City, MO, which is adjacent to Kansas City, KS. But not across the river! The Missouri River does run through the Kansas City metropolitan area, but it flows from west to east. The boundary is the state line between Kansas and Missouri, which runs north to south. So why do both cities have exactly the same name when they have to be different cities because they’re in different states?  And why are they both named after Kansas, when the one in Missouri has three times the population of the one in Kansas? It makes no sense.

Nov 23

Blog repaired (again)

After not posting anything for almost a year, I decided it was time to revive this blog. The first step was to update to the latest version of Movable Type, but that proved more difficult than I expected. In fact, it was impossible. I was able to install the files, but the script that was supposed to upgrade the database just wouldn’t run.

This wasn’t the first time Movable Type had left my blog in an unusable state. Clearly, the time to switch to WordPress had arrived. I had to reinstall the old version of Movable Type in order to export all the blog’s content to a text file, but after I did that, WordPress was able to import that file and recreate all the blog’s posts, comments, and trackbacks. I’m still experimenting with themes, so don’t be surprised if the appearance of the blog continues to change for a while.

Jan 27

Thoughts on the Apple iPad

Apple has announced the iPad, and reactions from pundits of every stripe are now flooding the Web. The verdict is mixed at best. Apple cultists are of course proclaiming this to be the Second Coming. One of my Facebook friends shrieked, “EVERY e-book reader just became obsolete. EVERY tablet PC just became obsolete. EVERY netbook just became obsolete. EVERY low-end laptop PC just became obsolete.” Nicholas Carr declared that “the PC era ended this morning at ten o’clock Pacific time,” explaining that “what made the moment epochal was not so much the gadget itself – an oversized iPod Touch tricked out with an e-reader application and a few other new features – but the clouds of hype that attended its arrival.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person reminded of the euphoric hysteria that accompanied the launch of the Segway in 2001. Before the Segway’s unveiling, when it was still known only as Ginger, rumors ran wild. Some people speculated that it was an antigravity device. After the true nature of Segway was revealed, Steve Jobs said it might be more important than the personal computer, and that cities would be redesigned around it. Instead, it because a curiosity and the butt of jokes. And the investors who funded its development lost all that money.

For those of us who weren’t intoxicated by Jobs’s clouds of hype this time around, the iPad is distinctly underwhelming. Among the commenters at Gina Trapani’s Smarterware blog, the consensus was “Meh.” Jay Garmon dismissed the iPad as crippled by the iPhone OS, which he called “one feature that’s billed as a benefit but may prove to be more of a bug.” On YouTube, numerous people reposted videos of the CES demo of Lenovo’s U1 tablet, saying that anything iPad does, U1 does better. And after declaring the PC era ended, Nicholas Carr calmed down and admitted that the iPad has numerous drawbacks:

It still, after all, is a tablet – fairly big and fairly heavy. Unlike an iPod or an iPhone, you can’t stick an iPad in your pocket or pocketbook. It also looks to be a cumbersome device. The iPad would be ideal for a three-handed person – two hands to hold it and another to manipulate its touchscreen – but most of humans, alas, have only a pair of hands. And with a price that starts at $500 and rises to more than $800, the iPad is considerably more expensive than the Kindles and netbooks it will compete with.

In today’s announcement, Steve Jobs presented the iPad as a device that “bridges the gap” between smartphones and laptops. A couple of weeks ago, I might have agreed with him, but that’s when I was using a Windows Mobile smartphone with a tiny, non-touch screen and a difficult-to-use thumb keyboard. Now I’ve owned an iPhone for eight days, and if you ask me, there is no gap between it and my Acer netbook. In fact, there’s quite a lot of overlap. I’m already using my netbook less now that I have a smartphone with a multitouch display, WiFi capability, and apps that replace all of the functionality of my late lamented Palm PDA.

I don’t doubt that some people will find the iPad useful. But I can’t imagine myself as one of them. With no multitasking, no camera, no Flash support, and no tactile feedback for typing, it can’t replace a netbook for everyday tasks like surfing the Web, writing e-mails and text messages, or using Skype for a video chat. It can’t snap photos, place phone calls, or fit in your pocket like an iPhone. And the pundits who are calling the iPad a “Kindle killer” are mistaken. Yes, the iPad’s video display is gorgeous compared to the Kindle’s shades of gray — but in daylight, a backlit color screen is unreadable, while the Kindle’s e-paper display is bright and clear. And the iPad’s battery life of ten hours (according to Jobs) is no match for the Kindle’s two weeks of reading time. There’s also the price: for the $500 starting price of the iPad, you could buy two Kindles.

Sorry, but this oversized, overpriced iPod Touch just doesn’t live up to the hype it’s generated. The iPad is pretty, but it isn’t going to change the world any more than the Newton did.

UPDATE: Adolf Hitler has similar reservations about the iPad. I’m not sure whether to be pleased or deeply disturbed.