Category Archives: Technology

Leading a Horse to Water

During my last eight years at Rocketdyne (which traversed ownership by The Boeing Company and United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney Division) I was the Project Manager for an internal tool called AskMe. It’s original intent was to provide a method whereby people could find both experts and expertise, i.e. people with knowledge they needed or papers and other publications that expressed useful knowledge. I later came to realize what we were doing was using a social media tool.

During the entire eight years I worked on that system, it was a constant struggle to get people to use it. People clearly believed that sharing was not in their best interests. Either that, or they were too intimidated by the thought of putting their knowledge to the test of time, as the whole idea was to foster conversations that would be saved and could later be searched when that kind of knowledge was needed again.

At any rate, I tried lots of different ways of promoting the tool. This one, below, came about after I received an email (at home) for a penis enlargement product. I thought to borrow the concept and see if it flew. I have taken the liberty of blurring out my colleague’s face, as I’m not sure where he is and, frankly, I don’t even remember who he is!

BTW – Within a couple of years of my departure, much to the chagrin of many who had worked on it, the tool was gone. I’ll share later why I think this was so.

My Twitter Suspension

Uh oh! Ricky’s been a baaaaad boy. This is what happens when you suggest a man surrounded by secret service protection and the best medical care in the world experience something everyone’s speculating he’s experienced already. The man responsible for hundreds, if not thousands of needless deaths and who knows how much misery. The man who vilifies those he represents and spews a constant stream of vile, hateful lies and deceptions. The person who violates Twitters rules on a daily basis and suffers nothing for his transgressions. And, of course, there’s precious little I can do about it. I will appeal and suggest context matters, but I can’t even be sure what I was responding to. I think I know what it was, though, so I’ll go that route.

Golly gee whiz! I sure hope I didn’t hurt his feefees or anything.


Robot and Human hands touching

I have no doubt I am a very lucky person. Although I do not have an education in any science, I was able to spend approximately two decades working on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program at Rocketdyne (through four major aerospace corporations). I spent a lot of time working with some of the brightest rocket scientists (for realz) as well as world-class engineers and scientists in literally dozens of disciplines.

Since my retirement from (what was then) Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, I have worked intermittently with Quantellia, LLC, an artificial intelligence / machine learning software development firm. Needles to say, I have no formal education in any computer field, with the exception of two Visual Basic classes I took at a nearby Junior College. I was introduced to one of the co-founders of Quantellia shortly after my retirement. She showed me a tool they had been developing called “World Modeler”. It was the most exciting thing I’d seen in a long time, and I was especially impressed with how it brought a highly systemic approach to modeling and forecasting in complex situations. I ended up writing several papers and a bunch of case studies for them.

In 2015 I returned to work at what was then Aerojet Rocketdyne (still is, for now) where I worked on a small rocket engine program for a little over two years. After leaving, I started doing some selling for Quantellia and, beginning in March of 2018, I became the company’s Business Manager, a position I’m still working at.

Last year we held a summit, in conjunction with SAP Global Services, at their Labs in Palo Alto. It was called the “Responsible AI/DI Summit.” In this context AI stands for “Artificial Intelligence” and DI stands for “Decision Intelligence.” One of the main purposes of the summit was to discuss how we can develop artificial and decision intelligence such that we concentrate on using them to solve humanity’s most “wicked” problems, rather than merely work at developing apps, the main purpose of which is to make money for the developers, investors, and entrepreneurs involved in the business.

Below are some of the folks who worked on the Summit, including me (the long-haired guy in the middle of the back row). Also, here’s a link to this year’s second Summit – Responsible AI/DI Summit 2019, as well as a link to the RAIDI Blog.

Quantellia and SAP folks who worked on putting it all together

As I learn more about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and decision intelligence, I will work at sharing my knowledge and understanding of these tools, and the issues they raise. I know the people I’m working with are dedicated to serving humanity, not merely milking it for profit. That pleases me and I hope we’ll be able to prove we’re doing the right things to ensure such service continues to exist and grow.

When Do We Fight Back?

At what point do we switch from nonviolent protest to righteous self-defense? Climate denial is empowering polluters who don’t give a shit how sick we get or how many of us suffer untimely deaths because of their fucking intransigence. When do we rise up in indignation and demand, or force, the changes necessary to halt climate change . . . assuming it isn’t already too late?

On ‘Hottest Day in History of France,’ World Told ‘Do Not Look Away’ as Police Tear-Gas Climate Campaigners in Paris

Random Memorabilia

I found this piece of historical info about the—shall we call it “first half”—of the Shuttle program in one of my collections of “stuff.” Note that it ends with the Challenger disaster, which happened almost a year to the day before I was hired in (initially as a temp) at Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division, working on the document that would prepare the SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) for the return to flight on September 29, 1988. Note also, as engineers are wont to do, the word “Incident” is misspelled at the bottom of the sheet. Color me unsurprised. OV-105 (Orbiter Endeavour) is also not on the list at the very bottom of the page.

I don’t imagine this will be terribly interesting to anyone who isn’t a bit of a human space flight geek like me but, as I have said recently, I need to memorialize some of the things I’ve kept over the years. They may not be of value to anyone but me—hell . . . they may not even be of value to me—but I want to get them scanned or reproduced and put out into the aether, for my sanity and possible future use.

Preserving My Past

The time has come for me to simplify . . . to apply some feng shui to my collection of old (ancient?) paperwork, some of which is more than several decades old. Paper is the one thing I seem to be a bit of a hoarder with; that and old clothing, I guess.

I am coming across papers, letters, and notes I’ve written over the years, many of them from my over two decades of service at Rocketdyne, where I was privileged to work on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program. In that time I worked for (without changing desks) Rockwell International, The Boeing Company, and the Pratt & Whitney Division of United Technologies. After I accepted an early retirement package in 2010, I returned as a contractor to work for Aerojet Rocketdyne in 2015, where I worked for a bit over two years.

Recently, I purchased a small, portable Brother scanner and I am slowly scanning old papers I’m finding. Inasmuch as I’m now publishing far more frequently to this blog, I’ve decided to save some of these things so I can throw the paper away and still have a record. It’s been over nine years since I retired and I find I’m forgetting what working in a large organization was like. Reading some of the documents I created helps me to remember what I did, as well as to feel reasonably confident I wasn’t just spinning my wheels.

What follows should be somewhat self-evident. It’s a letter I wrote to my manager in 1994, now over 25 years ago. I think I sound pretty reasonable, and I’m gratified to know I was pushing—pretty hard, I think—for positive change back then. I’m not an IT person; never went to undergrad and, besides, the earliest PCs didn’t come into existence until I was nearing my thirties. However, I did recognize the value such tools brought to managing and operating a business and I have always been a big promoter of technology in the office. At any rate, this is more for me than my readers, but some may find it “amusing.”

PS – I scanned the original “memo” in .jpg format and the accompanying Lotus presentation materials in .pdf, which you’ll have to click on if you’re interested in what Lotus was doing 25 years ago, before its acquisition by IBM.

Hey! Long Time, No See.

QuantelliaLogoPaleI know it’s been quite a while since last I posted here. I’ve been continuously active on Facebook and have begun tweeting quite a bit as well, but that’s not why I haven’t posted to this blog in the past nearly three months. As of March 1 I began a new career, probably not the kind of thing you hear about 70-year-olds doing all that often. Since then I have been working as the Business Manager for Quantellia, LLC. You may recall I’ve done work for and with Quantellia on and off for the past six years.

Quantellia is a small AI/ML software development house and, until now, one of the co-founders has been running the business. Inasmuch as she is also the organization’s Chief Scientist, and a well-known pioneer in Machine Learning, this was not exactly the optimal thing for her to be doing. I had been touching on the subject and, since she was having such a hard time getting someone competent to run the business, I pressed my offer to do so. She finally relented and things have been going swimmingly, although there have been times I was swimming against the current. I’m definitely climbing a steep learning curve, which sometimes has me questioning if I’m losing my edge.

Actually, at times I can’t quite tell if my intellect is slipping a little bit, or if I just don’t care as much as I used to and I’m not quite as arrogantly sure of myself. My memory seems to be intact, along with my ability to learn and adapt. I’m going to go with the “I just don’t care as much about things as I used to; I’m more sanguine about life, work, and the need to control everything.

At any rate, I’m having a lot of fun. I was once partnered with two CPAs, doing royalty accounting for some big acts: Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, The Cars, Dollie Parton, Ronnie Milsap, The Commodores, even Jimi Hendrix’s estate. I learned a fair amount about accounting back then, and now I’m getting the opportunity to revisit what I learned, applying it in different circumstances. I’m also learning about artificial intelligence and machine learning, and hope to convey some of what’s going on in these fields. Although not a data scientist, I am quite capable of seeing where AI can be applied in business to assist with all kinds of issues. I’m sure you can as well.

The Original Social Media

Do you remember hand turn signals? The cars my parents owned when I was a child didn’t have turn signals, which had been introduced by Buick in 1939, eight years before I was born, but didn’t really make it onto most vehicles until much later. Also, my family was not wealthy, and their cars were usually at least 10 years old. I’m not certain, but I don’t think electric, flashing turn signals were required until sometime in the late fifties or early sixties.

Nowadays, all vehicles are required to have turn signals, but you’d be hard-pressed to know it based on how often people don’t use them. Let me say here that I’m well aware there are lots of circumstances when a turn signal is functionally unnecessary, but in the last few years I’ve noticed lots of people just don’t use them at all, regardless of the situation.

I like to think of these simple devices as one of our earlier forms of social media. A method for people inside their vehicles to (you’d think) effortlessly announce their intentions. “Hey! Check it out. I’m slowing down for no apparent reason, so I’m letting you know I plan on turning off this road very soon.”

Or “I see you sitting there at the bottom of that tee intersection, expecting me to continue along the road, so I’m letting you know I’m actually going to turn onto the street you’re on and you can pull out now instead of waiting for me to pass.”

This type of signalling is, it seems to me, a simple, easy-to-do form of showing respect for others on the road — kinda like a “golden rule.” Unfortunately, as our society seems to be slipping deeper and deeper into the abyss of unprincipled narcissism, led by our erstwhile POTUS, the sociopathy inherent in ignoring simple, respectful customs is increasing and serving to further coarsen our driving (and all other, it would seem) discourse.

I’ve been noticing this for over a decade, and I’m a bit ashamed to say it didn’t fully occur to me how representative such a seemingly small thing could be of the direction our nation was heading in. I had a blog for a while I called “The Cranky Curmudgeon” and I wrote mostly about things that were pissing me off, like people who leave their shopping carts adjacent to, or in the middle of parking spaces, rather than taking a moment to return them to a collection area; or those who decided they really didn’t want that frozen meal they put in their cart, so decided to just leave it on an unrefrigerated shelf in some random place of the market; or the driver going much slower than you changing into your lane when there’s nobody behind you.

I noticed these things and used my blog to complain about them. Mostly it was personally cathartic, but I don’t believe any of my writing has captured much attention. Nevertheless, I enjoyed doing it and it really was a good method for getting things off my chest. I just wish I had made the conceptual leap from the everyday degradation of common decency, to the complete lack of responsibility toward the “general welfare” so evident in our national political leadership, especially the Republican Party and conservatism in general. I’m not sure it would have changed anything for me, but it does feel — in retrospect — like I missed some rather startling clues.

At any rate, since I drive my youngest daughter to school, as well as pick her up, every day of the week, I see this behavior (or lack of what I consider to be appropriate and legal – activity) constantly. As I noted earlier, clearly there are time when using one’s turn signals is not really necessary, but I think getting out of the habit ends up with lots of people just neglecting to ever use them. It’s an epidemic of disrespect for one’s fellow drivers. So, please, get in the habit of using those damn turn signals. They’re a social signal as well . . . and wouldn’t it be nice if we could all respect each other a bit more than is currently done?

It’s All Over, Humans!

Despite this foosball playing robot’s ability, it will be a long time (if ever) before robots or artificial intelligence actually displace us. More likely, they will augment our capabilities and free us up from most of the drudgery we’ve been dealing with for millennia. I find it easy to imagine a day when humans will evolve into cyborgs; part flesh, part machine. In some ways it’s already happening with prosthetics and it’s almost certainly going to accelerate with DNA testing and in utero surgery.

Stay intelligent, my friends. 

A Career Change at 70

When I was in High School (1962 – 1966) it took me three and a half years to escape) there were no computer classes. Although there seems to be some disagreement on when the first personal computer was invented, even the earliest claim puts the date six years after I graduated. There was no such thing as a computer, let alone a programming or coding, class. Also, I did not attend university and, to my recollection, nobody I knew at the time was interested in computers or information technology. Actually, I was a terrible student and wasn’t interested in much of anything by the time I finished High School.

IBM Memory 50

The IBM Memory 50 Typewriter

Fast forward to 1974. Despite having no undergraduate education, I was able to secure admission to an accredited Law School, located not far from my home in the San Fernando Valley. I began in the fall of 1973 and the following year I managed to get a job in the law office of a sole practitioner in Beverly Hills as a legal secretary/law clerk. Shortly after I began, the lawyer I worked for purchased an IBM Memory 50 Typewriter. I attended a one-day class where I learned how to use it. This was my first introduction to anything resembling “computing.”

The office later upgraded to an Artec Display 2000, which had an LED readout of approximately 30 characters. There was no CRT display. It used two 8″ floppy disks and had a document/data merge capability that made it perfect for boilerplate documents, e.g. Pleadings, Interrogatories, Summonses, etc. It was a great leap forward in word processing.

Edward Ladd & Sons

The Family’s Wholesale Food Business

Shortly after graduating from law school I had, for numerous reasons, decided spending the rest of my work life around the judicial system was not something I really had my heart in and, after much gnashing of teeth and going over my alternatives, I decided to join my family’s wholesale food distribution business. One large factor in making this determination was my father suffering his second major heart attack. The business was supporting my mother and my sister, who was only 10 years old at the time. I felt the need to help the business grow, ensuring they would be taken care of if my father were to die . . . which he did eight years later.

Edward Ladd & Sons Jacket

Our company jackets. Logo design by me, jackets created by Cat’s Pyjamas.

After a couple of years, the business had grown substantially and, given my desire for another type of challenge, I once again struck off on my own. I dabbled in a few things, then joined forces with a couple of CPAs and formed a royalty auditing business, serving some very high-end artists. The company first purchased an Apple computer (I can’t recall if it was a II or a IIe but, based on the release dates of the two, I’m inclined to think it was a II). We later purchased a Northstar Advantage, which used the CP/M OS and two 160 KB, 5.25″ floppy disks. We also purchased a dot matrix printer and, in anticipation of taking the system out on the road, we had Anvil make a hardened case for the two, with room for cabling, paper, and instructions to be packed inside.

At that point our audits required us to visit the artists’ recording companies, and my first visit was to RCA records in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. Standard procedure for the record company was to stick us somewhere that was relatively uncomfortable, then bring us stacks of paper, which we then transferred to ledger pages. Upon returning to our office in Playa del Rey, we would then have to transfer all the data to a spreadsheet; we were using SuperCalc on the Northstar Advantage, though we had started with VisiCalc on the Apple.

I suggested taking the computer with us when we performed audits, so the people who went out on the road could enter the numbers they received directly into an electronic spreadsheet, thereby saving a huge amount of time and stress. We were also using WordStar at the time for writing the narratives that would accompany our audit analysis.

My first experience with programming came when we were contemplating taking the system out on a European tour with Neil Young. I sat with my friend and partner, who had performed many a box office reconciliation, and we sketched out the different scenarios that were used to close out the night’s receipts. Doing so required the use of nested “if” statements, which determined the precise equation to use for each venue. Unfortunately, that same friend who had worked so diligently with me to create the formulae that would power the spreadsheet never felt comfortable with using it by himself and it never went out on the road.

Sinclair ZX81

My Very First Computer, the Sinclair ZX81

It was also around this time I purchased a Sinclair ZX81, which was a small computer that had a membrane keyboard and used a cassette recorder to save programs on. It also had its own OS, as well as its own version of Basic, which I endeavored to learn. The first program I wrote, which took me all night to complete, counted down from 10 to 0, in the center of the screen. It then plotted a single pixel (resolution was 64 x 48) at a time, starting from the bottom and, after reaching a height of six pixels, began plotting another pixel above the previous six and erasing a pixel from the bottom of the stack, until it left the screen at the top. This required me to learn how to use either (I don’t recall the exact commands; it’s only been a little over thirty-five years) nested “if” statements or “do while” commands.

Fast forward to 1984, the year my father died. Shortly afterward, I returned to help my brother keep the business going. We purchased a more advanced Northstar Advantage, which had a huge hard disk that could store 5MB of data! At the time, we also purchased a copy of dBase II, which was one of the first database systems written for microcomputers. I taught myself how to write systems using their programming language, which I wrote using WordStar. I wrote an entire accounting system for the business. My favorite component was the preparation of a deposit ticket, where I laboriously emulated the workings of a calculator in allowing for numerous methods of inputting dollars and cents (whether or not a decimal point was included) was the real differentiator and sticking point for me but, after much trial and error, I figured it out.

Unfortunately, my brother and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on the direction the business should go in and, after a while I left again, this time taking temporary jobs to keep me afloat. It was during this time I worked for a while at a litigation support firm that used a DEC minicomputer and several of the earliest versions of the Macintosh. All of my work with computers was novel for me, as I never took any classes — with the exception of that class I took to learn how to use the IBM Memory 50 typewriter. I taught myself how to program through reading and doing, sometimes taking dozens of iterations to get a bit of code correct.

In 1987, I had been working for a company that made hard drives (Micropolis). Their business was highly seasonal and, on one particular Friday, all the temps got summarily laid off. I was using Apple One at the time to send me out on engagements and, thanks to my willingness to show up wherever, and whenever, they would offer me a job, I got a call from them on that very Friday, telling me to report to Rocketdyne the following Monday.

By this time I had been shifting my focus from working under the hood, to figuring out how to best use the systems and tools that were rapidly evolving as business tools. I was beginning to focus more on business results with whatever was available. My first responsibility at Rocketdyne was to enter text I received from Engineers into a document called a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis / Critical Items List (FMEA/CIL). It was in direct support of recertifying the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) for eventual return to flight after the Challenger disaster.


SSME Hotfire Test

It was a strange task, as the document was clearly text-based, yet we were using a spreadsheet to create it. I suppose it made some sort of sense, as the company was an engineering company and that’s kind of how engineers see the world; in numbers, rather than words.

I also worked with a stress engineer on creating an app (we didn’t use the term back then, but that’s what it was) that could be used to predict crack propagation and its effects. I was unfamiliar with the equations behind the program, but my job was to use dBase II to create an interface that allowed for data input and crunched the numbers. It was fun and was successfully used for some time after that.

One year after joining as a temp (referred to as a “job shopper”) I hired in full-time and began working with the Flight Ops team. It was exciting and I spent much of my time massaging telemetry data from hot fire tests of the SSME. I received flat files from a Perkin-Elmer mainframe and eventually ported the data to Microsoft Access, which allowed for further massaging and reporting.

In October of 1988, a little over eight months after hiring in, the U.S. Space Program returned to flight with the successful launch of Discovery. At a celebratory event that evening I met one of the managers of the Program Office. As we talked and he discovered my background, he offered me a job. I did some research and talked to my current managers, who advised me to take it, which I did. As time went on, I moved further away from anything resembling coding and, eventually, wound up concentrating on the use of software and computing tools to increase the effectiveness of me and my colleagues.

Not quite 22 years later, I took an early severance package (which was offered to everyone over 60) and retired. I would turn 63 less than a month after leaving the company. In 2015, I returned as a contractor doing something I had done nearly 20 years previously. I spent the next two years (until February 17 of 2017, to be exact) providing program scheduling for two small rocket engine programs.

Last month I turned 70. I recently signed a referral partnership agreement with an organization I worked with a few years ago. They specialize in machine learning (ML) though I was unaware of that back then. My primary responsibility will be selling their services and, when possible, any product they may create. In order to be effective, I am now studying statistics and ML, partly to better understand what it is I’m selling and partly because I’m fascinated by the algorithms that power these efforts.

I do worry that my comprehension is somewhat hampered by, if not the years, the considerable mileage I’ve managed to accumulate. There’s also a minor problem with my “just don’t give a shit” attitude about a lot of things. Nevertheless, I will persist. I intend to share what I’m learning but, as with most things these days, it may be sporadic and somewhat unfocused.

I do believe machine learning is going to drastically change just about everything humans do and I’m well aware of the disruption it might entail. I don’t however, believe that to be a show stopper. We’ve opened Pandora’s box and there is no closing it. Let’s roll!

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