Sunday, December 29, 2013

Should we thank the Tsar?

Did Tsar Nicholas II lead us to
the Information Superhighway?
Have you ever contemplated the debt we owe to Tsar Nicholas II? No, perhaps not. But as I showered this morning, the connection came to mind.

Like tsars and tsarinas for centuries before him, Nicholas was a despot who despoiled the Russian peasantry. He and his family lived in grand isolation, living off the labors of millions of miserable serfs who were barely more than slaves. Then along came war in 1914, and Nicholas decided to fight the forces of Kaiser Wilhelm--with the blood of his serfs, who eventually objected and overthrew him. But there remained numerous conflicting interests, allowing a small group called the Bolsheviks to wrest power. They established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), withdrew from the war, and inflicted untold additional pain upon their own countrymen. Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin and their ilk were godless communists.

From afar, America looked on the USSR with a combination of fascination and dread. Even as our allies in World War II, America's establishment hated them. After the war, they got The Bomb. Would there be a World War III? When in 1957 Sputnik circled the Earth, Americans saw the vivid threat and the space race was on. Throughout the 1960s we fretted over potential nuclear attacks from ICBMs and Bison bombers. If the Soviets destroyed certain of our mainframe computers, they would leave us defenseless. So in 1969 we (and not Al Gore) created a network of computers across the country and called it the Internet. That way, our defense never depended on the functionality of one specific computer.

So the space race brought microchips and satellite technology to the world, along with less memorable innovations such as Tang. The Internet eventually became public and birthed the World Wide Web, which truly boomed with the continuous advent of smaller and smaller devices processing more and more data at faster and faster speeds. Thus the iPhone, Microsoft Windows, and blogs such as this one.

In the 1970s a PBS series called Connections attempted to establish historical links between, say, cow pox and nuclear energy, or the Magna Carta and agricultural policy in Kansas. (I made up those examples, but you get the idea.) In that spirit, it seems reasonable to ask: If Tsar Nicholas had only shown a little more compassion to his people, would Google exist today?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A firing offense

I entered this in the El Paso Writers' League's annual writing competition and won Honorable Mention. 

Bang! Bang! The sharp gunfire frightened me. Was someone being murdered here in the office?

My employer was CGI, a well-established company that supplied software and support to automobile insurance providers such as Progressive Insurance. My colleague Lorraine and I were the only technical writers in our division, so we were attached to the Underwriting department. We worked in separate cubicles and were surrounded by sporadic noise as we churned out customer bulletins about product updates.

Bang! There it was again. The loud shot came from down the hallway, along with muffled conversation.

I hunkered down while others carried on with shouting and laughter. Our manager Patti was not a writer, and she relied on Lorraine, who was senior to me, for all editorial judgments. Every bulletin I wrote had to go to Lorraine for review. She marked it up and graded it in pencil—if she found typos, she graded the bulletin -1, -2 and so forth, then reported to Patti, who ignored my vehement objections. She told me it was nothing personal, but she was data-driven. “I’m anal retentive,” she liked to say.

No one screamed at the gunshots, but I heard a muffled conversation, so it seemed safe to stick my head out and see what was going on. Frank Chapman stood in the hallway, smiling as he showed a woman colleague what appeared to be a .38-caliber pistol. When he noticed my slack-jawed look he said, “Don’t worry. This is a starter pistol for races.”

That was a relief to me, although no one else seemed concerned. It was just one more part of the general office cacophony. I grumbled and went back to work. Frank and his friend finished their conversation, and he went back to his cubicle. It was next to mine, although he worked in another department. Thank goodness that’s over, I thought.

A few minutes later came another loud bang! from his cubicle, and by then I’d had enough. I stood up and looked over the cubicle divider and saw Frank at his desk, still playing with his pistol. I shouted at him, “Will you cut that out?” He looked embarrassed. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, and he put the pistol in his desk drawer.

The next day, Patti called all of her department into a conference room. “There’s been a company reorganization,” she said, “and I’ve been promoted to Director, effective immediately.”

That was fine, but who was our new boss? “Your new manager is Frank Chapman,” she said. Then she gleefully recounted to us what I’d said to him the day before. Clearly she thought it a great joke on me. I thought the company should have fired Frank instead of promoting him, but I kept mum.

Once Frank took over the department, he apologized to me once more, and then we stopped talking about the gun incident. Then he learned about Patti’s policy of Lorraine nitpicking my work. “That’s demeaning,” he said. “That stops immediately.”

When I thanked him he replied with a wink, “I trust you to do your job. But if you disappoint me I’ll shoot you.”