Tuesday, May 22, 2018

True Colors

I found myself in an odd, but strangely familiar, situation today. I had eaten a healthy steamed chicken and broccoli entree for lunch, but I was still hungry, so about two hours later, after a bit of light shopping, I stopped by a McDonald's drive-thru, then pulled over into a parking lot to eat my second lunch, because honestly, I just couldn't wait any longer. That alone was bad enough, but the really sad thing was that the lot where I was wolfing down my food was outside an LA Fitness gym. I sighed and resigned myself to errant behavior, but soon, the addictive flavor of the french fries washed over me and erased any sense of guilt I might have had. That's when I noticed them.

Two young men stepped out of their vehicles, stopped to say hello to each other, and headed into the gym. Both were rather heavily tattooed, with buzz cuts that gave them a rough and ready air. They strutted into LA Fitness, muscles a-blazing, and it was then that I remembered that once upon a time, I sort of walked in those shoes. Of course, there were a few differences. For one, I don't have any tattoos. (I got a temporary lizard tattoo on a 2007 weekend trip with friends after we had consumed a very large amount of light beer, and it scared the bejesus out of my friend Neharika, whose childhood home in India had been plagued by lizards. Since that time, I have not messed with tattoos.) Also, my haircut is a simple 3.5 clippers "do" that is very easy to maintain but still has a Baby Boomer One Step Removed look about it.

My commonality with the two modern gentlemen harks back to 1988, when I spontaneously decided that a) I needed to take more vitamins and b) I needed to get more exercise. A new gym named Sportslife was opening in the area, and they were signing up people at an attractive introductory rate. I braved it one evening and headed over. The very first thing the trainer did was to line us all up and give us a fitness evaluation. The group numbered about ten, and we were pretty equally distributed by gender. We were asked to perform various calesthentics, including a series of push-ups and sit-ups. Sit-ups have always been a weakness of mine, and I only made it to about eight or nine. The young woman next to me, on the other hand, attired in a brilliant yellow outfit with coordinated leg warmers and matching shoes, did 25 without missing a beat. She didn't even look tired. I realized at that point that I had a long way to go.

To make a long story short, I joined Sportslife and became a regular. I worked out three times a week, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, for about an hour and a half per session. I was religious in the order I did things and cycled through a combination of circuit training, cardio, and free weights that just made for the perfect workout. I began to see results, and that was encouraging. At one point, I could set a StairMaster on its 8 out of 10 setting and easily climb for 20-25 minutes. If I tried to do that now, paramedics would need to be on call. Yet, I was doing this three times a week and feeling absolutely incredible. But the exercise alone wasn't the whole experience -- part of it was a visual thing, and here's where I contrast the experience with that of today's gyms.

Sportslife was a product of the 1980's, and if you actively participated in the 80's, you remember such things as bright colors, form-fitting attire, Big Hair, and color-coordinated scrunchies. The gym itself was architecturally stunning, and everyone in it looked at least somewhat happy, even though, let's face it, we were all glistening profusely. On any given day or evening, the place was populated by a dedicated group of exercising fools, dressed in every color of the rainbow. And this didn't apply only to women -- we men had our own scintillating array of duds. I owned a nice pair of Nike white and teal training shoes, three pairs of stretch athletic tights in black, blue, and purple, and t-shirts in a plethora of colors. You would think that I would have stood out like a sore thumb, but I didn't. This was because Joe Schmo, weighing in at around 250 with biceps the size of Staten Island, would also be wearing a brightly colored outfit, as would all the other guys who made their way through the locker room. Drab was out, flash was in, and it was a grand time. I was in the best shape of my life, and honestly, I felt like a million bucks.

But somewhere in time, many people, and especially men, began to be fearful of color. We all remember how 80's neon gave way to 90's grunge, so it wasn't just a gym thing. Over time, I had let my Sportslife membership lapse, so when I once again joined a gym in the late 1990's, first a YMCA and then some years later, LA Fitness, I noticed that everything had taken on this monotonic variation of gray and black. It wasn't just the clothes, but the people, too. No one seemed to really smile at gyms any more. The atmosphere had become street-ready and aloof, and it made me uncomfortable, so I let it go and started walking for exercise, which I've maintained to this day. Who knows? It may turn around, and we may find ourselves back in a convivial workout universe. I would like for that to happen, but I'm holding on to a memory, I guess.

I still have those purple workout tights. They only measure about a foot across at the top. Every few years, during a clothing purge, I'll try them on, just for old time's sake, but I just can't bring myself to give them away, because they remind me how good I felt back then. I can't wear them for any measurable amount of time, because my circulation would be cut off, and given my recent experiences with eye issues and kidney stones, I just don't need anything else. But you know, I still think there's a special place in the world for spandex.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Wired

We relocated to Atlanta from Chicago in 1982, and we have been here since, except for two years in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the mid-90's. As soon as we returned to Atlanta after our time in the Tar Heel State, we located and put a contract on a house in a neighborhood that we'd always had our eyes on. It was in an excellent school district, which was very important to us. Plus, it was only about three miles from our old house, so it was like coming back to a familiar neighborhood. We instantly bonded with our neighbors and have remained that way ever since. We've lived in the house since 1995, and we always say that none of us will move unless all of us move. It's a nice feeling, to be living this way in a metropolitan area with lots of relocated folks and more arriving all the time.

Most of our houses were built between the years 1984 and 1989, well after the advent of cable television, so there was no waiting for cable to be run to the neighborhood. By the time we got here, it had indeed arrived; in fact, when we made our first visit to the house with our dedicated real estate agent Sandy, we noticed that there were cable jacks and telephones everywhere. The former owner had been the CFO of the Upton's retail store chain, and from all indications, he liked staying in touch.

Our cable saga began with Media One, which at one time had the dubious distinction of being the company with the worst customer service in the United States. It was acquired by AT&T in 2000 and then by Comcast in 2002. I have to say that when we initially moved into our house, there was no problem getting cable connected. Right away, we were able to experience the mystical adventure of being Media One customers. We survived the acquisitions by AT&T and later by Comcast, but it was in those early days that things began to get interesting.

From time to time, as is the case with all modern television technology, reception issues surfaced. The technicians would almost always come out at the appointed times to repair whatever was broken, but if you had to contact a person by phone, you had to be prepared. One night, I sat on hold with Media One for about an hour and fifteen minutes, after which time I was about to pull out locks of my already thinning hair. But the service people themselves were generally nice, and some even had a pretty good sense of humor.

One of the most memorable visits we had from service people was during the early Comcast days, when two energetic, knowledgeable young Japanese contract technicians who appeared to be related or at least very good friends, showed up to fix whatever problem we were having. At one point, they said that everything was really messed up and that they needed to run another cable along the side of the house. This was amusing to me, since at that time, we already had two cables running in parallel along the side of the house where they wanted to run the third one. Nevertheless, I acquiesced, and a third cable was run, parallel to the other two and evenly spaced. Several days later, my next door neighbor David was working outside, and when he saw the three cables, he started laughing and said that we would never have to worry about the house falling down, because it was now so well supported by coaxial cable. And he's a mechanical engineer, so I trust him.

All along our pay TV journey, we've had issues where the solutions, regardless of provider, have been to run more cable or replace splitters and connectors. As Mick Jagger once said, "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing." At one point in time, I knew what all the various cables did, because I would follow the technicians around and outside the house as they ran or rerouted them. But over time, I lost interest in doing this and instead opted to sit inside the house and wait for a signal to reappear -- to play dumb, as it were. The result is that we have a truly byzantine arrangement of cabling supporting our TV viewing, and I have no idea what some of it does or if it even carries a signal.

One afternoon about eight years ago, we were shopping at Best Buy, and they had one of those desks set up where they try to sell you some TV service other than the one you're using (how do they always know?). In our case, the salespeople were selling DirecTV, and when they snagged us and told us the phantasmagorical low price we'd be paying, we decided to make the switch from Comcast. In order for the service to work, we of course had to have a satellite dish installed. This was a bold step we'd never taken, but when the installation technician showed up in a nice, clean van with the logo emblazoned on the side, I figured the whole thing was legit, and our installation proceeded without a hitch. When we locked on the signal, I saw that the DirecTV channel guide was a beautiful thing to behold, graced with a tonal palette rivaled only by the finest of National Geographic photographs.

We had DirecTV for about five years, and I must say that overall, it was a pleasant period of time. DirecTV has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the business, and our experience bore that out. There was exactly one phone number to call, and when we needed something fixed, they were on it. One night, I was experiencing some kind of minor system malfunction, so I called "the number." The person who answered was not able to assist me, but she instantly (and I mean instantly) transferred me to a technical support representative. This lady sounded like a hippie, and I don't mean the faux-hippie-but-really-a-hipster-who-wishes-they'd-lived-in-the-Seventies type, but the real McCoy. She asked me a few questions and then immediately gave me a solution that worked the first time. I found her entertaining, and at the end of the call, when I thanked her profusely for giving me such a quick fix, she laughed and said, "You're very welcome. I've been doing this a long time, and you know how this stuff is. It's so weird." Amen to that.

Despite the great service offered by DirecTV, the prices started to climb, as they have been wont to do since the introduction of pay TV. My wife Karen started hinting about switching to AT&T U-verse, since they seemed to offer lower prices for more channels. I demurred, saying that I'd heard some bad things about the service. I held off like this for about two years, with the DirecTV prices climbing and the U-verse offers getting better and better. Early one evening, a young man came to our door trying to sell us U-verse, and I proceeded to lecture him on why I didn't want the service. I think that, after the first five minutes, he had actually stopped trying to sell me on it, but by then, I was wound up and had started listing all the various and sundry problems I'd heard from other people. He finally went away without convincing me, sporting what looked to me to be a profound sense of relief.

But finally, due mostly to service outages during periods of bad weather, we made the decision to leave DirecTV in favor of U-verse. It all happened when we went to upgrade iPhones at the AT&T store. They made it sound so good, both financially and technically, that I finally gave in, and we scheduled the installation.

Several days later, the U-verse technician showed up in a nice, clean van with the logo emblazoned on the side. This part felt familiar. Once again, I felt that we were about to get something pretty good, and when he entered the house with a professional demeanor and tools on his belt that I had never seen, I was fascinated. There were all these weird wrenches and electronic tools that appeared to be fiber optic related, and for about two hours, he took control of our cabling and set us on the path to U-verse. It started out well, except for one thing: he gave us this little book full of phone numbers to call in case something went wrong. Note the use of the plural here: there was not one number to call, but many numbers, depending on what might have happened. But the channel guide...oy vey...it was beyond magical. For any given program, a stunning (and grammatically correct) paragraph would be displayed, telling you everything you might want to know and then some. Aesthetically, it was just a beautiful thing to behold. But beauty, as we all know, can sometimes be only skin deep.

There is no way to truly describe in sufficient detail, within the length of this blog post, what we experienced with U-verse. Although I have great respect overall for the past accomplishments and true innovations of AT&T as a company, it is evident that the U-verse television service has some serious technical limitations. In fairness, many of these are infrastructure related and cannot be readily ameliorated. When I would ask friends who used U-verse about the service, I found that the answers were bipolar -- either the service fell into the "I don't know, I've never had any problems" category, or it had to be disconnected due to poor reliability.

The difference between DirecTV and U-verse was actually quite simple: DirecTV service would go out during bad weather, whereas U-verse would go out regardless of the weather. In some cases, it even appeared to perform more poorly during good weather. Whenever there was an interruption, a very detailed screen would appear, listing five steps to take to recover the service. Each step was listed as a paragraph, and each was grammatically correct. Punctuation was flawless. However, despite the five steps listed, the real fix for restoring service was either to simply sit and wait for a few minutes, or to go mix up a martini, after which time the signal would return in all its former glory.

And then one night, we were again upgrading phones at the AT&T store, the same store, in fact, where they had sold us on the U-verse service. The sales associate asked us what we were paying for U-verse, and he told us that surprise, he could save us money by switching us to DirecTV, which by now, AT&T had purchased. With a look of amusement I told him that it was right here, in this very same chair, that I had been sold U-verse. He laughed, and then he told me that DirecTV was now "the thing." I later found out that AT&T has for some time been pushing all new TV customers to DirecTV. So, once again, we switched, even though I had reservations about phone support through the "new" AT&T-owned DirecTV. Besides, U-verse hadn't had any hippies on its support staff.

Last December, the DirecTV technician showed up to perform the installation. This time, I did not see an emblazoned logo on the service van, but still, I allowed him to enter the house and make the necessary modifications to restore our DirecTV service, and I'm pleased to say that, since that time, we've only had two minor service interruptions during bad weather. On clear days, everything seems to work. A few weeks ago, I saw a note that DirecTV is sprucing up its channel guide, improving its tonal palette a few degrees more. Things can only go up from here.

Oh, by the way, in all this back and forth, some of the cables have been removed, so that now, alongside the house, those three parallel cables have been reduced to one. I don't know if that single cable goes anywhere, but I'm sure I'll find out sooner or later. Best to leave well enough alone, I say.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Press Hard

It's interesting how things come and go. The compact disc was released in 1982, and sales of the medium peaked in 1999. Yet here we are, only 36 years since its debut, and the compact disc is very quickly becoming a thing of the past. A recent article from Digital Trends indicates that Best Buy will stop selling CD's on July 1 of this year, and other major retailers are rumored to be considering a consignment model for selling discs. Truly, nothing lasts forever, and even though I was aware of that maxim at the time, I still took a job as data processing manager for a carbon paper company in 1980.

My employer, American Tara Corporation, was at that time one of the nation's largest producers of carbon paper. Headquartered in Chicago, and with branch offices in Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles, their annual sales volume peaked at about $50 million in the early 1980's. To understand the importance of carbon paper at the time, you have to know a little bit about the product itself.

To anyone born before 1980, carbon paper is something of a mystery. Everyone has heard the term "carbon copy," but many people may not know how that term originated. Carbon paper consisted of rolls of very thin tissue paper, coated with a wax-like ink, usually in either black, brown or red. The rolls were cut into document-sized sheets, and these sheets were used to make copies of handwritten or typed documents. The way it worked was that you would put a sheet of carbon paper behind your original document and on top of the second page, then another sheet between each layer below that. Often, there would be printed instructions on the top document which said, "Press Hard -- You are making xxx copies," where "xxx" ranged anywhere from one to about six. The mechanical nature of it sounds primitive by today's standards, but at the time it was, just like having no air conditioning, all we knew.

Offices used reams of carbon paper, because sheets did not last for more than one or two uses, after which most of the ink would be transferred to the copies. And "carbon copies" were a necessity as proof that the original had not been tampered with after the copy had been made, since any extraneous notations after that time would stand out like a sore thumb. Given its pervasiveness in the workplace, carbon paper held on for many years, until it was upstaged by carbonless paper and Xerox machines. One very specific niche market for carbon paper was for airline tickets -- years after the working world had adopted photocopying as the norm for document duplication, airlines continued to use red carbon in their tickets. In this application, there were no separate carbon sheets; rather, the top copy of the ticket would be coated on the back with a layer of red ink, and since all the ticketing machines in use at the time were impact printers, characters would be transferred through to the back copy. When airlines finally moved to computer printed boarding passes, it was evident that the days of carbon paper had come to an end.

American Tara was a well-managed, profitable company, and it treated employees fairly, regardless of their positions or levels within the organization. I recall being asked by my boss, the corporate controller, only a week into the job to make an emergency trip to L.A. one afternoon. He paid for a first-class ticket for me and put me up in a fancy Marriott. There were no per diems, so dining could be fairly open-ended as well, although we were careful not to go out on a limb in that regard -- we did work for accountants, after all. For me, travel was frequent, but since I was visiting the same offices over and over, I began to make friends all across the country. The work was demanding: I handled programming, support, maintenance contracts, and budgeting, but I didn't mind, because the experience was so educational. On one occasion, I even spent a week wiring a recently remodeled, high-ceilinged office with data cable, climbing on Jack-and-the-Beanstalk height ladders and soldering each individual connection, of which there were many.

Adjacent to each of Tara's administrative offices, where people in roles like mine worked, was a physical carbon paper plant. My boss told me during my first week that there was no point wearing my best clothes, since I would likely get ink stains on them, not to mention that the pervasive smell of hot ink would permeate every thread. (I stuck mostly to sport coats and dark suits.) Because of the nature of the business, our plants weren't located in ritzy areas, but the Chicago plant stood alone in this regard.

We were located on West Lake Street in Chicago, about a dozen blocks west of the Loop, in an industrial area that had seen better days. Down the street were a handful of cafes, a loan company, and a bookie joint. (The bookie joint didn't have a sign over its entrance, but my compadres told me what it was.) Prostitutes periodically roamed the streets, with the most common invitation being, "Honey, do you want a date?" One snowy, slushy winter evening, I was very late leaving the office after working on a payroll system upgrade and took a side street to save some time getting over to the Kennedy Expressway. I stopped at a stop sign, and suddenly, out of nowhere, four or five hookers converged on my old Chevy Nova, some lying on the hood of the car. I was startled and to be honest, somewhat terrified, but I motioned to them to move away, which they did in a singular collective water-parting motion. I drove very slowly past.

Located in South Central L.A., our West Coast office presented its own unique challenges. Our management recommended that we leave early, so every afternoon at 4:45 PM sharp, office operations would cease, and the employees would move equipment such as adding machines, check writers, and calculators into a walk-in safe. The computer system was rack-mounted, and it was located in its own locked room, so it was presumed to be secure. Nevertheless, one evening, plant employees in the adjacent building watched two men roll the computer cabinet out of the office and down Beach Street in a vain attempt to steal it. The two thieves were spotted by plant employees, and they fled immediately. After that, I took the 4:45 PM closing time even more seriously.

The L.A. plant manager was a man named Bob Judy. He was a former Marine who, despite a sometimes rough and ready attitude, was a consummate gentleman and something of a big kid. Bob and his wife lived in a beautiful home in Whittier, California, just outside the city. I was born in Whittier, and when I told him this, Bob and I became fast friends. I spent several evenings with Bob, his wife, and others at their home, drinking wine, playing the piano, and soaking in their giant hot tub beneath the stars. Bob was a personal friend of Robert Mondavi, and he received regular shipments of 375 milliliter wine bottles, delivered to the office directly off the Mondavi truck. He and his wife maintained a small cellar beneath their kitchen. Being the consummate entertainer, Bob also kept an inventory of disposable plastic-paper swim trunks that he would offer to guests when it was hot tub time. There was nothing not to like about Bob's house.

Even with the challenges of the each of the respective factory neighborhoods, we had some fun days. At the L.A. office, a food truck would appear every morning about 9:30 and announce itself over the intercom as "Lunch-er-o!" I would stroll out to the parking lot and catch up with the factory guys while we feasted on high-carbohydrate snacks. Unlike the L.A. operation, Tara's Boston office was located in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, but once the employees found out that I was married to a native Bostonian, I immediately became family and was treated to many lively New England breakfasts and lunches. Funny things happened at that office.

Our Boston office manager was a charming lady in her sixties named Miriam, who kept absolutely everything humming. Whenever she would call with a computer problem, I knew it was real. She was adept at handling her own issues, but one morning she called me at my office in Chicago, and before I could even answer, I heard her laughing hysterically. Every morning, Miriam's first order of business was to boot the computer from a Teletype console. (Teletype machines were high-impact printers with attached keyboards and paper tape readers.) When our computer systems booted, the operators were typically presented with a message which read "PLEASE WAIT...", but that morning, Miriam was treated to an Easter egg.

When Miriam finally stopped laughing, she said, and I am rendering her thick regional accent the best I can through written words, "Rich! You'll nev-ah believe what the compu-tah said this mah-ning. When I booted it up, instead of saying 'PLEASE WAIT,' it said 'PIS-SAH!" When I repeated what I thought I'd just heard, she confirmed that the computer had indeed issued a scatological message. We never again saw that exhortation from any of our systems, but you had to think that someone at Data General (the computer manufacturer) was laughing his or her head off. That computer eventually booted up, by the way.

On another occasion, I received a call from Teresa, who was the data processing manager in our Boston office. When I answered, she exclaimed in an agitated voice, "Rich! The compu-tah is on fi-ah!" When I asked for details, Teresa told me that the entire 12 x 12 room was filled with smoke. I called our Boston service representative, and when he checked out the system, he found that a light panel on the front of the computer chassis had shorted out, sparking a small internal fire which burned its way through a circuit board. I have worked for years since in the computer industry, and not since that day have I seen a computer catch on fire.

In 1982, the owner of the company began to turn over control to his son, who lived in Atlanta and worked in the office there, so several of us were offered an opportunity to transfer south. I had worked with the Atlanta crew for several years and already had some friends there, so after an evaluation trip and some soul-searching, we decided to move. Our last winter in Chicago, American Tara hosted a Christmas party at the legendary Como Inn in Chicago, which in its 57-year history had been host to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como. We had a wonderful dinner, followed by jazz and dancing. Late in the evening, the band played "Georgia on My Mind" for all of us who would be moving to Atlanta the following summer. That's an emotional moment that I will always remember.

The American Tara operation in Atlanta was not quite the same as in Chicago, but there were some glory days. We bought a house in suburban Roswell (as far out as our realtor wanted to take us, but now relatively close to the city). In 1985, our first daughter was born, and soon thereafter, I left American Tara to explore greener pastures. Several of the Tara employees are Facebook friends, and there are several others whom I see from time to time.

There are places and times you never forget, and for me, my days at American Tara were among the most memorable. I learned from my time there that you don't have to be in a leading edge company to learn. In fact, my times at Tara offered more broad-based experiences than I've seen since, and I've worked in companies far larger and more "modern." But in a small company, you learn about people. You see good and bad, up close and personal. For its part, American Tara was in many ways a compassionate company which truly understood its people. I'd like to leave you with a story about that compassion.

The founder of American Tara was a man named A.M. Bridell. He had started the company himself, and he ran a tight ship, but he was fiercely protective of his employees. During the early days of the company, in the 1940's, he employed a number of young Japanese men, and several of them were still working at Tara when I started there in 1980. One day, I was talking to Mak Kawano, who was one of our chemical engineers. Mak was constantly monitoring and studying ink formulas, which were, of course, the core of our business. As we concluded a meeting one afternoon, Mak said to me, "You know, Rich, I owe A.M. Bridell my life." When I asked him to explain, he told me why.

According to Mak, A.M. had stood between his Japanese employees and agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who had come to take the workers away, presumably to internment camps. Mak said that at one point, A.M. looked the INS officers in the eye and said sharply, "You're not taking MY MEN." That was the end of the story: the officers left the premises, and A.M. assured them that they had nothing to fear. Consequently, Mak and many of the other men worked at Tara until they retired.

Mak passed away several years ago at the age of 90. Had I not heard his story, I would never have known the things he'd lived through, because he was the personification of a peaceful man. I like to think that Mak left the world knowing the spirit of goodness that he saw exemplified by American Tara, the same place where I learned that you don't have to be a giant to make a difference.