Posted on April 28th, 2011 2 comments
As some of you may have noticed, I have gone missing in action in this blog. Why? Well, it’s because I’ve been busy with several commitments. The commitment that has most distracted me from posting to the blog has been my teaching gig at Aims Community College. Last year I was asked to teach a 4-credit C++ class in the Computer Science department and I agreed to do it. It’s one of the most challenging classes offered by the department, and so I was honored that they thought I’d be able to teach it. Like many people, I was curious to see what it would be like to teach a class at a local college.
If you want to get a sample of the class, you can find the example programs, assignments, and quizzes here. That web page doesn’t describe the entire class, but it does give you a sense of what’s required to pass it. In addition to that class, I also took a 4-credit class in Java. So between the teaching C++ and taking the Java class, it ate up about half of my time but I found that teaching a class was far more work than taking a class. I also have a few engineering consulting clients who took up the rest of my time.
So you may have noticed that nothing new has appeared here in a few months. But today I delivered my last lecture in the C++ class and I have just one final responsibility for that class, namely to administer the final exam, which will happen on Thursday, May 5th, and after that I promise that I will have a more regular update of this blog.
Posted on May 30th, 2008 5 comments
During my first year at Penn State’s Wilkes-Barre campus, I took a physical education class called orienteering. The PSU Wilkes-Barre campus is located near Lake Lehman, PA in a rural, wooded area surrounded by fields and farms. The main building on the campus, called the Hayfield House, was previously a country estate that has been converted into classrooms and offices. The campus is visually breathtaking.The Hayfield House at PSU’s Wilkes-Barre campus
The orienteering class required us to use a topographic map and a compass to find a series of flags hidden in the surrounding woods and copy down numbers from them. It was essentially a timed race to see who would find them all and get back to the starting point in the shortest time. It was great exercise, because you covered a lot of terrain in a short time and it had an element of fun to it because you had to think at the same time you were running. Plus, it was all outdoors in a beautiful setting. I still have many fond memories of exploring the countryside around the PSU W-B campus during that class.
A few weeks ago during one of our regular neighborhood walks, Terri and I found a couple looking for something using a GPS. I asked them if they were geocaching and they told me they were attempting to find their very first geocache. I had heard about geocaching a few years ago from my friend Kyle, but I had never seen anyone doing it. We helped them for a few minutes, but we didn’t find the cache. GPS units are accurate to about 30 feet, and so it can sometimes be a challenge to find a small geocache, especially if it is well concealed. I learned later from a geocaching website that they eventually located it. It was knowing that they found it that convinced me to give it a try.
GPS signals were not always so accurate. Or, I should say, they were not so accurate for civilian GPS receivers. At one time, civilian GPS receivers were only accurate to about 300 feet. The military intentionally added random noise to the GPS signal which only military receivers could remove. On May 1st, 2000, the Clinton administration turned off this random noise, called ‘selective availability’, and over night civilian receivers had their accuracy improved 10 fold. The removal of SA along with the availability of inexpensive handheld GPS receivers and geocaching websites has made geocaching possible.
The brief description of geocaching is that someone hides a cache, which is usually a weatherproof container. The cache can be as small as a bullet-sized container or as large as a metal ammo box. The person who hides it posts the container’s GPS coordinates on a website that contains a database of geocaches. The first and largest of these websites is geocaching.com which was started in 2000. It contains the locations of more than 500,000 caches around the world. The person who hides the cache includes a ‘log book’ in it to let those who find it log their username along with the date and a comment. In the small containers like the ever popular 35 mm film canisters, (which are usually covered with camouflage tape), the log is just a small scroll rolled up inside. Some of the caches contain trinkets and, if you’re so inclined, you can take a trinket and leave one of your own. There are also some special serialized tags and coins that are unique to geocaching that you can move from cache to cache and the website can keep track of the object’s whereabouts. Each cache has a unique identifier that starts with the letters ‘GC’. The subsequent characters are assigned by the website at the time the cache is registered. The person hiding the cache usually gives it a clever name and possibly a clue to help locate it. When you set up an account on geocaching.com, you select a unique user ID and you are able to log your discoveries of the geocaches. The geocaching.com website accounts are free, but you can also get a paid account for $3/month that has more features.
The website allows you to download the cache coordinates to your GPS which is a great convenience. I downloaded a free program called EasyGPS and that will take a file of geocache locations and put them on my Garmin eMap GPS. You can enter the coordinates by hand too, which is what I did for the first few caches, but it takes much more time to do that and can be a source of error.A screen shot of EasyGPS along with a route I uploaded from the GPS on a recent bicycle ride. Click on the image to get a full screen version.
Inside the city of Greeley, CO which has a population of around 87,000 people, there are more than 70 caches hidden. Some of them are elaborate ‘multicaches’ which have clues in them so that you may have to find 3 or 4 caches before you can find the coordinates to the main cache. Some even have quizzes based on subjects like math or history that makes finding the final cache that much more challenging. Within a 10 mile radius of my home, there are nearly 200 geocaches hidden.
Terri and I have been looking for caches lately and we’ve managed to find 14 just in the area where we take our regular walks. I’ve put a GPS handlebar mount on my bicycle and now that we’ve found most of the caches within easy walking distance of our house, I’ve been planning to venture out to find the more of them on the bicycle and to get some exercise in the process.Garmin eMap mounted on my mountain bike’s handlebars
People who like to work with technology can spend an inordinate amount of time indoors, often sitting in front of a computer. Geocaching requires you to get outside, get some exercise, and do some exploring. If you have a GPS, I’d recommend you give it a try. Will you feel funny doing it? Oh yes, you’ll feel like an idiot at times, especially if there are any ‘mugglers’ in the area. A muggler is a non-geocacher who will stare at you and make you feel odd, and who among us can’t use a little more of that? You’ll get to learn a whole new language too, such as abbreviations that you will put in your on-line log like ‘SL’ (signed log), and ‘TFTC’ (thanks for the cache), and ‘TNLN’ (took nothing left nothing), and it’s hard to put a price on knowing an obscure lingo like that.
Posted on May 25th, 2008 No comments
A tornado came through Northern Colorado and missed our house by 3 miles. It touched down and destroyed some farms just west of Greeley and then went on to Windsor where it did a tremendous amount of damage. Terri took this photo from the LongEZ today and if you click on it, you can get the full resolution image. If you zoom in, you can see the devastation it caused in this Windsor neighborhood.
I wanted to post this entry to the blog to let everyone know that we are fine and didn’t sustain any damage at our house. Please accept our sincere thanks to those of you who emailed and called to check in on us.
Update: I’ve posted a few pictures of the tornado damage.
Posted on April 15th, 2008 1 comment
In February, I wrote a book review about a book entitled “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by Dan Pink. A few days after I wrote the review, my good friend Jeff Patton from NYC visited us for the weekend. Jeff and I met in 1987 when we were working at HP in Avondale, PA. During one of our discussions, he mentioned that a high school friend of his was married to someone who had written a best selling business book which had helped to propel his speaking career. I had asked him what the book was called, since I tend to pay attention to business books and thought maybe I had heard of it. Jeff struggled to remember the title, but couldn’t recall it off the top of his head. The next day, I was quoting some fact I had learned from “A Whole New Mind”, and Jeff stopped me mid-sentence and said, “That’s IT! That’s the book title I was trying to remember yesterday!”. I could hardly believe it. I had just read the book, wrote up a review of it, and then my friend who I’ve known for 20 years turned out to know the author personally. It’s one of those synchronicities that is hard to ignore. I also noticed that Dan Pink had written a best-seller previously entitled Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself. Since I had recently become a free agent myself, I decided to pick up a copy of it. The day after I started reading it, I was at a meeting and one of the presenters had asked if anyone had ever read ‘Free Agent Nation’. Again, I couldn’t ignore the obvious synchronicity. I’ve since finished it and wanted to highlight some of its points and also put in a recommendation for it as a very worthwhile book to read, especially if you’re a free agent or considering becoming one. Before I do that, I want to provide a little of my background.
In my formative years, the conventional wisdom was that a person should stay in school, get good grades, go to college, and get a job for a respected and well-established company. I took this advice to heart and after graduating from Penn State, I went to work for Hewlett-Packard. I had considered HP to be at the very top of my list for years, ever since my father had brought home a calculator when I was a teenager and let me play around with it. You’ve no doubt heard one of the laws formulated by Arthur C. Clarke that stated that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. Well, at age 13, getting to play around with that calculator and seeing how fast it would calculate factorials was magical. A factorial is the product of all integers from one to a given number. It’s written as the number with an exclamation point. For example, 4 factorial, written 4! is equal to 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 = 24. The HP45 could evaluate up to 69 factorial before it overflowed the exponent capacity of the calculator. It did all these calculations in less than a second. It was astonishing.
I guess this event must have made a significant impression on me because it played a role in me landing a job at HP after college. I subsequently ended up staying for 24 years. Things changed significantly from the time I started at HP until I left but what I noticed as the biggest change was the way that people were hired and how long they stayed. When I started at HP in 1983, it wasn’t unusual to find people there who had worked at HP for their entire careers. There just wasn’t a better place to be, nor were there many good reasons to leave. When one project was done, it was a simple matter of moving on to another. The company would even help you to get assigned to the next project. But as time went on, I started to notice that if you were part of a division that wasn’t performing well financially, then your career could end suddenly and you might find yourself out on the street. In essence, the lifetime employment path was no longer an option. Keeping one’s job was sometimes a matter of being in a division that was financially healthy or having the keen sense of timing to switch divisions at the appropriate time to avoid a layoff. The effect of this change is that many of people who were intent on staying with a company are instead becoming free agents.
Today, pledging loyalty to an organization, a loyalty that can no longer be reciprocated, is virtually impossible. Instead, people are becoming free agents and going to wherever there is a need for their services. In some cases, people are working on a part time basis for several employers at once. This provides a form of employment diversification that you can’t get from working for a single employer.
So how did this situation come about? The first reason for the rise of free agency is that there can no longer be a long-term social contract between employees or employers. Things change too fast. Companies get bought, sold, merged, and go bust at a dizzying speed. It would be lunacy to pledge loyalty to a company when these conditions exist. Another change is that you can do productive work today without the need to acquire a lot of capital. For some professions, the only physical assets required are a computer, a phone, and access to the Internet. These assets no longer require the resources of a large company. We also have widespread abundance of the basic necessities for life. My observation is that people spend most of their income on things that weren’t even available or necessary 100 years ago. One could argue that many of them aren’t necessary today. The basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing can be provided for a smaller percentage of an income than was possible previously. This means that people are not living as much of a hand-to-mouth existence as was commonplace throughout human history. So having an unpredictable level of income is not as big an issue as it may have been at one time, provided you can reduce your expenses accordingly. People are also becoming more particular about how they earn a living and are not as willing to put up with soul crushing work as they may have been in the past when they needed to do it just to feed and clothe their families.
The ability to network with peers, find opportunities, and get support as a soloist is better today than it has ever been. With the Internet, there are people from all over the world who are able to seek out opportunities and provide services for each other, often without the need for physical proximity. Unlike conventional hierarchical structures, free agency is a meritocracy where one must follow the Golden Rule to maintain one’s reputation. For many people, that’s a welcome change.
Today, more business is also being done by way of virtual infrastructures. With the advent of ad hoc meeting places like Starbucks along with office superstores and service centers like Kinko’s/FedEx, independent workers have easy access to services that were not available to them previously. You don’t have to own a copy center or a mailroom, you can simply rent them.
Free agency allows for opportunities for workers to blend family and work together. A free agent who works from home gets to spend more time with family, which is more aligned with human needs and desires than what is required by an organization that needs standardized education that separates family members for most of their waking hours. In other words, you may have more opportunity to strike a favorable work/life balance as a free agent than you do with the more conventional employer/employee arrangement.
One of the eye openers I got from the book was the concept that group health insurance in the U.S. arose accidentally when the U.S. government, in an effort to freeze wages with the 1942 Stabilization Act, induced employers to start offering group health insurance plans as a way to attract employees. This benefit, for the most part, has since been exempt from both payroll and income tax. But group health insurance has a downside too. For example, if you or one of your family members is not in perfect health, it’s difficult to get health care coverage unless you join a company so you can get access to a group plan. As medical costs have risen out of proportion to wages, this benefit can have the effect of trapping people in jobs they don’t like. Health insurance can still be a challenge for some free agents unless all family members are in good health.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about free agency without mentioning the free agents who are classified as ‘temps’, many of whom would prefer a full-time job with an employer but have to make due with a degraded status that denies them access to benefits like health care, vacation, and a pension plan. In some cases, these people are not free agents in a voluntary sense, but rather because it’s the only alternative they can find. The worst situation is the ‘permatemp’, i.e., someone who does the same work as a permanent employee but at less pay and with no benefits. In some cases, these people are hoping to be hired full time and so the job is almost viewed as if it’s an extended job interview. It would be best to understand an employer’s expectations prior to taking a temp position because some employers may really be looking for temporary workers who they can dismiss at a moment’s notice, and if that’s the case, you should not take a job like that unless you’re in agreement with that arrangement.
Retirement for a free agent may be a lot different than it is for an employee of a large company. For a free agent, there’s really no need to retire completely. As long as you are able-bodied and have a desire to continue working, then there’s no need to sit on a beach drinking Mai-Tai’s or playing golf all day. You can still opt to participate in your chosen field if you are willing and able to do so. This may help to cushion the blow of the ‘retirement boom’ that is expected to happen over the next few decades as the baby boomers move into retirement age. There is a general fear about a large percentage of the U.S. population having to live off a much smaller percentage of the working population paying into the tax system. If fewer people opt to retire, but instead continue to to work, it can help alleviate this imbalance.
Education is likely to change as a result of free agency. High school and college education has been tuned over the years to produce cookie-cutter clones of The Organization Man. But now that model of employment is obsolete and so high school and college are likely to become more tailored to self-reliant forms of eduction that are better aligned with free agency. With one or more parents at home, home schooling will become a more attractive option. Also, since people will tend to need to keep their skills up-to-date to remain competitive, adult college education will continue to grow as more people become lifelong learners.
The book discusses many other important trends and makes other predictions regarding the future of home workspaces and the political influence of free agency. I found it to be a worthwhile and thought-provoking book and highly recommend it.
I’ve exchanged email with Dan Pink and he told me he’s got another book called The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need that has just been released also focused on the future of careers with the unusual premise of being written in a Japanese comic style known as Manga. To get an idea of that book’s genesis, you can read a recent Wired article Dan wrote on the topic. I plan to pick up that book too to see what new insights Mr. Pink has to offer.