Archive for category Life Stories
My boss, Ralph, called me into his office one day in 1984 or 1985 and asked me to go to a meeting with him. He briefed me that there was a problem with the code that our project was using for tracking the detailed project expenses. Our project was in the midst of a big construction for a demonstration and we had our own code that allowed us to track our money and budget to a finer detail than the standard business systems tracking employed at our site. Although, we were in Laser Systems Analysis group and responsible for the laser design and analysis modeling and simulation codes, Ralph had been asked to look into the situation by his boss. So, there we were.
In the meeting there was a half dozen individuals that I hadn’t met before. The only people I knew were Ralph and his boss. We sat and listened for I can’t remember how long, as each individual told us that the code was broken but how this or that couldn’t be done to fix it. I can’t remember now if the problem had existed for weeks or days, but it was long enough to cause great concern and it didn’t appear that it was going to be fixed anytime soon. Of course, they were on the spot, but we were getting excuses and rationalization and no answers. At some point, I think I finally turned to Ralph and whispered, “I’m getting tired of hearing what can’t be done.” Ralph nodded in agreement.
A short time after that meeting, Ralph and I had our hands on the source code in question and were tasked with fixing it. I don’t think the people in charge of the code really minded, since they didn’t think we would succeed. Upon looking at the code, we could quickly see why there were real problems fixing this code and keeping it running. The code was written in old style FORTRAN. The logic thread was a real spaghetti mess. Large sections of the code weren’t even used any more, but that wasn’t always obvious, and variables had short, cryptic names which didn’t help us to understand what the code was doing. After Ralph and I assessed the code we came to an agreement that in order to fix it we would have to rewrite the entire thing.
So, Ralph and I rolled up our sleeves and started working through the source code. Going through every line from start to finish. Deleting code that was obsolete and rewriting it into a more modern structured style. Ralph and I broke it up and both started working on it in our offices. At times, we worked together and at other times we took turns. Tag team programming, with one person at the terminal and the other looking over his shoulder helping. We worked together like that all through the night and into the next day.
I forget the original name of code, but for convenience I may have shortened it to DF. As we worked through multiple major versions of rewrites, I remember simply labeling them A, then B, then finally C, thus DFC. The final pass through the code resulted in a version that successfully ran to completion and didn’t suffer from the bugs that had plagued the original code just the day before. By that point, Ralph and I both were both exhausted and referred to the code as “the f*ing code”. However, I think we told everyone else that DFC stood for something Financial Code or something.
I’ve always felt that the DFC experience was an important lesson for me. Ever since that experience, whenever I catch myself in a meeting explaining why something can’t be done, I’ll remember DFC. Then, I’ll sit back and try to think of what can be done and go do it.
Between 1984 and 1986, although I was an employee of Martin Marietta Energy Systems (MMES) which operated DOE facilities in Oak Ridge, I worked on various Laser scientific and cost modeling codes supporting the Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation (AVLIS) project going on at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, California. Just out of college, the most important software that I wrote during this period was called the Laser Integrated System Architecture, or LISA. The LLNL AVLIS design called for green light from copper vapor lasers to be used to pump highly tuned dye lasers in order to deliver the required light necessary to separate isotopes using selective ionization. AVLIS was being considered by DOE as an advanced enrichment process to replace the aging Gaseous Diffusion facilities and had been selected over the Molecular Laser Isotope Separation (MLIS) process that I had worked on previously as a co-op student.
LISA was the brainchild of Ralph Patterson. He had the idea for an interactive computer aided laser system design and analysis tool that supported the design and simulation of AVLIS plants. When it was finished, it was about 7500 lines of extended pascal code written to run on an expensive Apollo Engineering Workstation. It had two basic modes of operation. The first was a computer aided “plant design” mode which given the laser system delivery requirements, design constraints and input parameters, would automatically design the Laser system of an AVLIS plant: the laser power distribution, the details of beam combination, the numbers of copper amplifiers and oscillators, the number and sizes of dye amplifiers and the dye flow loop specs. The second mode of operation was a simulation of the AVLIS laser system which given the architecture and input constraints calculated the delivered light and made predictions about costs. In order to write the code, I spent countless long hours working closely with Ralph Patterson in order to learn the processes involved.
Early on, I determined that the graphic library available on the Apollo to be inadequate for the requirements of LISA, so I used the basic primitives from the graphic system, called the Graphics Primitives Resource (GPR), and wrote my own entire graphics library system. My library included everything required for LISA including two and three dimensional graphics and plotting routines making the software very portable. It also included some unique and very flexible routines for laying out and organizing the drawing canvas. After I left the project, the person that inherited the job of maintenance for the LISA software was easily able to port LISA to run on an HP workstation because of the design of this library. Years later, I also ported the graphics library from pascal into Ada using ReGIS graphics on DEC vt240 and vt340 terminals.
I think some of my finest ever solo software programming work was accomplished during these two years as part of LISA. I was especially proud of the supporting graphics library system that I had designed and coded. However, because of its nature and purpose, very few people would ever get to see or run the LISA software. After this solo work, I yearned to work on a larger software project as part of a software team. So, I returned to Oak Ridge for my next assignment and joined a plant wide Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) effort that was starting at the Y-12 facility, but that’s another story.
My first significant program that I wrote was called IDraw, for Interactive Drawing program. I was a co-op student at the time, so it would have been around 1981 or 1982, I think. A few years before the first Apple Macintosh came out. I was working with a DEC PDP 11/34 computer running Tektronix Signal Processing System (SPS) Basic that we were using for experiment instrumentation and control and data acquisition for the Molecular Laser Isotope Separation research at Oak Ridge. My mentor was a brilliant man, Doug Mashburn, that was always full of ideas. So, I suspect the idea for the program came from him.
The program was conceptually very simple. It captured key strokes and cursor coordinates on a Tektronix 4010 terminal when it was placed in graphics cursor mode. The scope display allowed for a very accurate line drawing capability. The only minor drawback was that like an etch-a-sketch, there was no partial erase capability. To erase, the whole screen would have to be flashed and erased. I came up with some simple solutions to get around the erase limitation allowing a drawing to be easily edited.
To work, the software saved the history of locations and the keystrokes. Keystrokes were pretty simple. A period declared a point. After moving the cursor to another location, pressing period again would draw a line between the two points. A zero would declare the center of a circle and subsequent 0 after a cursor move would define the radius of the circle. A letter T declared a starting point for text. In addition to lines and circles, there was also support for arcs, rectangles, zoom in, zoom out, edit, delete, and move, etc.
To edit existing historical steps, the code would redraw the step repeatedly every second, causing that step to flash brightly. The user could arrow through each step of a drawing watching the line or circle hilite and then delete or change the coordinates. After deleting a line, for example, the screen would then flash and the entire picture would be redrawn. For more complex drawings, the user could search the history through those steps close to the current cursor position.
We used the software to draw simple diagrams with labels describing changes to document the various experimental setups. The software turned out to be very easy to use and useful to the project. I was certainly proud of it and of the learning experience. After returning to school, I drew upon this work when I was taking a course in computer graphics as part of my minor in computer technology (my major was computer science). At that time computer graphics courses like the one I was taking focused on learning how to use a graphics library that was called from FORTRAN.
The big project for the semester was to generate a complex drawing. This meant writing out thousands of lines of code designed to generate just one specific drawing. I thought that sounding boring, so I decided instead to port my IDraw program from SPS Basic to FORTRAN with graphics calls and present that as my semester project instead. I then demonstrated live how I could interactively construct and edit, store, and reload the drawing. My instructor was impressed and I got an A for the course. The demo went well with several of my fellow students gathered around the tektronix 4010 terminal in the classroom to watch my program run. Later when the Macintosh with its Xerox PARC style user interface came out in 1984, this concept of interactive drawing was to become commonplace.
my dad used to say, “you kids are so lazy!
I’d hire a maid to cook and clean and more
but you kids are so lazy you wouldn’t get up
to let her in when she rang at the front door”
I always kept silent, because I was intimidated by my dad
but, I remember thinking of a solution I thought was not so bad
I wonder what would have happened if I had the guts to ask
“why don’t you just give her, her own set of house keys, dad?”
I wonder if all our minds are somehow interconnected
by some as yet undetected electromagnetic mental force
so I sit in my room for hours and try to think good thoughts
and hope that for all that is evil, I am not the source
my mom was called manic-depressive when I grew up
and I remember thinking Lithium was such a miracle
when she began taking that instead of all those tranquilizers
my life became a little bit less satirical
“remember to put the dog in the dishwasher”
she once drowsily mumbled to me after school
I knew she meant to feed the dog and to do the dishes
for my momma didn’t raise no silly fool
imagine a big black and white springer spaniel
with his whole body wagging with love
springing out of a little kitchen dishwasher
and shaking water off like you never dreamed of
my dad told me many years later that mom tried
to take infant me and run out the front door one day
yelling that I was the antichrist or the devil or something
I guess I’m lucky dad was there and didn’t let her have her way
I suppose since my mom said that I’m the antichrist
I’m coming off as something of a disappointment to you
sorry about that, maybe later I’ll figure out
just what evil it was that I was supposed to do
many years later, sometime after our second child was born
my wife was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder
not sure if the new name for the same old thing helps or not
maybe it does, but that’s really a tall order
and I never saw this mental illness coming
but dad later told me he knew all along
perhaps I was blinded by bipolar love
and I should write that as my life’s theme song
or maybe reincarnation, that’s the ticket
in a past life, I must have been one hell of a heel
must have spent a cruel lifetime working overtime
stacking my future karmic deck with the cards that I must now deal
I got up one day and my wife was crying
she said someone was following her in a white van
wearing a white wig and trying to kill her
which isn’t the kind of thing for which I had any game plan
later they said she also suffered from schizophrenia
that knowledge didn’t really help me much
although they have so many new drugs besides lithium
all the dolls: haldol, risperdal and such
and each drug they tried created an alternative reality
a new woman in my wife’s body that I hadn’t met before
just a little different than the woman that I once knew
and a little scary standing there in my bedroom door
one day the county Sheriff knocked on my door
he found her out bowling in the middle of West Linne Road
he never told me if she struck out or not, he just pointed out
a bowling alley in the street was against the local building code
now, my final heartbreak for my daughter also suffers
and the doctors sit and argue whether she is bipolar or schizophrenic
no one can explain why the medicine doesn’t seem to be working
so sometimes I wonder if the whole world is pathogenic
my sweet daughter used to be so close to me
she once gave me a card on a mother’s day
saying that I was both dad and mother to her
now when she sees me she often just runs away
at least she is taking her meds and sometimes is doing ok
but the doctors still don’t really seem to have a clue
so I now I am back where I started
wondering if perhaps I am the source of this sadness, too?
My senior high school honors English class wrote and put on a silly little play that was a satire on the story of the life of David, but with a lot of slapstick and silly references to all sorts of topics of the day all mixed in. I was the narrator that was supposed to be an old man that came out with a cane at different points in the play and made smart comments about the whole mess. My best friend, David Lewis, was a gentle giant of a kid and he played the role of Goliath. Another friend was only supposed to say a few lines as God. He didn’t have an acting part, but he came wearing a T-shirt with a big G and a cape so that he would feel in character. Of course, Bathsheba was the lady in the tub and I think she was the one hiding in a closet at some point. Then the narrator comes out of the closet like he has been really busy in there and really wanted to go back. The big red letter dancing A came out dancing across the stage at one point perhaps during an intermission because we were all hoping to get an A for a grade. Just a bunch of silly fun, but we did get the A.
The play was a big success and the audience really laughed and clapped a lot. The whole thing was a lot of fun. After the play was over, I wrote a poem, “Narrator, Cane and Company”, about it.
We also had some excitement during the practice sessions for the play. The curtains had collected dust or something and one of them got too close to a high overhead spot light and caught on fire. Dave and I worked together to get a fire extinguisher and put out the fire. The Assistant Principal of our High School wrote letters to both of our parents, mine stated:
On Tuesday of this week, our school experienced a fire on the stage of our auditorium. Due to the quick action of your son, Ron House, and David Lewis, serious consequences were avoided. They worked together in securing a fire extinguisher and putting out the fire prior to fire and smoke damage occurring and before anyone was injured.
We wish to commend Ron for his alertness and remaining calm during the emergency. Please accept our thanks and extend our best wishes to your son for this assistance during this emergency.
What is it that they are teaching the kids these days about diet and nutrition? Some sort of food pyramid? It sounds so complicated to me. How the heck are you supposed to eat six servings of something in a day? Are we supposed to have second breakfasts, like hobbits? And how many servings are there in a foot long Subway, anyway? I was taught the four basic food groups. That is simple, balanced and so elegant. It’s been many years since I was in public school. Let me see, if I can remember them all:
- fast food
- frozen food
- junk food
Yes, my memory is foggy, but I think those were the four food groups. To this day, I’m very careful to eat a well balanced diet based upon these four food groups.
My dad told me the story recently that he got a phone call from my mom one day while he was at work. She told him that she had a flat tire and asked if he could come and change it for her. He answered that he was at work and couldn’t leave and so she would have to call for a tow truck. She replied that she was down in the lobby and the car was in the parking lot. He was was surprised to hear that since he had thought she was across town. “You had a flat in the parking lot of my office? I thought you were across town?” He asked her incredulously. “No, I was across town. I drove the car here, so you could come down and change the tire for me.” Hearing that, dad rushed down only to find the mere shredded remnants of a tire and that the rim of the wheel was now ruined.
I never get tired listening to family stories like that one.
She brought me to life with her smile. The eternal silence faded as I listened to the passing of the clouds and sang the endless song of the wind. I had been waiting for her to pass my way for forever, not knowing that she would or if she even existed. A delicate flower, I was drawn by her youthful essence, her aroma of innocence, her bouquet of feminine grace. She sat down on the park bench underneath my gaze and I had no choice but to watch her. I could not move to look away.
She had a lost look about her. I wanted to hug and comfort the little girl that I felt was hidden within, but I could not. I wanted to reach out and hold her hand, to reassure her. But the words were never spoken and the moves were never made. If only I had the guts to be a man and not a statue. If only I were made of flesh instead of cold chiseled stone.
She briefly looked up at me, frozen here on my pedestal in the park. And I saw visions of a pure white statue of Venus and my marble form moving to meet her in an embrace that would last forever. Then, she turned away and got up, preparing to leave. It was as if a chisel was cutting into my stone heart. I tried vainly to reach out to her before the eternal silence of stone returned.
As the woman walked away, she glanced back over her shoulder at the tall gray statue by the park bench where she had rested. She could have sworn that it moved, but no. That was silly. It must have been a trick of the light. She felt the hard stone eyes fixed upon her and shuddered, glad to be leaving the shadow of the sad looking statue.
She was not a ravishing beauty or a Miss America, but she was very attractive. She filled me with with an inexplicable feeling of joy whenever she was nearby, and left me with an empty feeling of loss when she wasn’t. Something in the way she moved, I suppose. Something I couldn’t define or put into words. Something about her smile that stirred me like I was a slowly simmering kettle of chili being cooked over a fire at a day-long outdoor picnic in the park.
In the creative writing classroom, things were very relaxed and we could sit where-ever we liked. Often we placed our chairs in a circle, and so I carefully positioned myself in a spot so that I could easily observe her. Nothing obvious, mind you, just careful and deliberate. In the course of class, sometimes our eyes would randomly meet and she would briefly smile. Sometimes, I thought she seemed to look at me questioningly as if expectantly waiting for me to say something. Of course, I never did. Generally, I avoided such overt contact, quickly averting my gaze away like a bird fleeing from a stalking cat.
It was an evening class, and we met each Wednesday night. After class ended, I would walk alone back to my car in the dark chastising myself for not having the guts to approach her and say hi or ask her to go for a walk with me. As always, the coward, I would rather not take the risk. The fear of rejection loomed over me like a guillotine held only by a thin string. I was left wondering and not knowing what she actually thought of me, if anything. I supposed it was more likely that she didn’t even notice me at all, as if I was ghost in class that could only be seen by someone touched by a painful loss of someone dear.
She was not at all like Lori. She had dark eyes and short dark brown hair while Lori had that long and wavy bouncing blondish color hair. She was quiet and reserved where Lori had been outgoing to the point of being bubbly like a shaken can of soda pop that just explodes all over when opened. And yet, something about her triggered something in me and made me think of Lori. Bringing back all the emotions and the joys and pains in my memories, rushing over me like I was a man trapped in a barrel falling over the thunderous Niagara Falls.
I had met Lori at a time in my life when I was shifting gears. I had dropped out of Purdue University after a year and a half of uncomfortable and uneventful engineering studies. It quickly became obvious to me that I was not cut out to be an Engineer like my dad. A man who wore white shirts to work with pocket protectors full of pens and pencils and little metal rulers. That was not me, so I returned home. Of course, my father was upset and disappointed beyond words. His pained facial expressions spoke for him. He feared that I would never return to college and would never amount to anything. A waste of potential like a carton of milk left exposed on the doorstep during the heat of day.
Perhaps my father was right because although my stated intention was to transfer to Indiana State and major in Computer Science, I was depressed and tired and uncertain of what I was going to do. I only knew what I didn’t want to do. Mechanics, Calculus and Thermodynamics had me burnt out like an old light bulb swinging by a frayed cord from the roof of the back porch where nobody ever went. I needed time to think. Time to decide what was next for me.
In the meantime, I got a part-time job as a salesman in a local shoe store where Lori also worked. That was where I first met her. She was younger than me and was still in High School. She was just seventeen, if you know what I mean. She was a fellow Pirate, attending my old High School, Madison Heights, and her older sister had been in my class, the class of 78. Inevitably, like a thirsty man drawn to the waters of a desert oasis to drink, I was attracted by her energetic youth and vitality.
About the same time, the sudden death of ex-Beatle, John Lennon, made me think about the impact their music had upon me as I was growing up. They represented love, optimism, creativity and youth to me. Their music was forever to be ingrained in that romantic and idealistic part of my soul. My mother carefully spoke the words that shook my faith in humanity, breaking the news to me. “But he’s not dead”, I’d said to her in shocked disbelief. Stunned, I walked into my room and closed the door. I sat down and looked at the latest record album that I had just purchased, his album. And I cried.
Just weeks previously, it seemed I had heard his comeback hit, “Starting Over”, for the first time on the radio. It had immediately struck a chord deep in me, reviving feeling I had listening to the Beatles as a young boy. How could that person who recognized that “All you need is Love” be dead? With his killing I felt the passing of my childhood dreams. Suddenly, I was embittered and old and distrustful. As if all the love in the world was suddenly gone, like all the inviting porch lights of the world were turned off at once.
Then, there was Lori. We had become friendly at work just talking and sometimes eating lunch together at a cafeteria in the mall where the shoe store was located. I had not taken her too seriously, despite being attracted to her, because of our age difference. Until, one day she surprised me by saying, “Well, when are you going to ask me out?” She sneaked by all my defenses and walked right over my shyness, driving deep into the lonely territory hidden in my heart, like a modern Stealth fighter, invisible to radar, flying right into the heart of a well defended city.
Lori sparked my interest and we began spending more time together. We went on our first and only date to see the new Flash Gordon movie with music by Queen. That date was my first real date in my entire life. I was always far too shy and afraid of rejection to even talk to girls. Looking back, I think the times I spent with Lori were the happiest for me since the carefree days of high school. Her lively playful ways restored me like a battery put through a deep cycle recharge. She gave me what I had been searching and longing for, a reason for life. I was ready to take the next step and start in a new direction at Indiana State. I was ready to begin my new studies seeking to major in Computer Science.
Lori and I said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. I have not seen her or heard from her for the nearly two years since then, but I think of her often. We parted with promises. “Promise me that you’ll write”, she asked as I kissed her goodbye. “I’ll write” I replied and I did, but she didn’t. As I left, she’d given me an envelope to open later in which she said that “this card says good-bye, but that’s not what I want to say. Because it isn’t good-bye. We will meet again and I will remember.” I do not know where she is or how she is doing, or why she never wrote me back. But, I will always remember her, my dear Lori.
As I watched the dark-haired girl across the class room smile, I suddenly didn’t feel lonely anymore. I knew I’d find the right girl for me, someday, maybe even today. Perhaps, all I needed was to summon the strength to be brave and take a risk. Somewhere deep inside me, I heard a friendly voice ask, “Well, when are you going to ask her out?”
I used to have a check list of attributes that I was looking for in my future wife. I never wrote it down, but I thought about it a lot. Which is odd, because I wasn’t dating at the time. So, it is unclear how I ever really expected to meet the woman of my dreams.
- a compatible sense of humor. I wanted us to be able to laugh at each others jokes.
- intelligent. Of course, intelligence and a sense of humor go together, I think.
- likes science fiction. I wanted us to be able to watch everything from Star Trek to Doctor Who, together
- likes same music. I wanted us to be able to enjoy listening to the same music, especially The Beatles and power pop. And I thought it would be nice if she liked my music and poetry.
- likes computers. Perhaps even works with computer software, like me.
- appreciates science and technology
- wants to have children. I wanted to be a father ever since I first held my little sisters first son. so, looking for a good mother for our children seemed obviously important.
- someone I could trust. I was looking for a equal life partner that I could share anything and everything with.
- pretty. Of course, beauty is not easy to define and attraction is often inexplicable.
- compassionate, caring, sensitive. I think it is important to be empathetic to others.
- forgiving. Hey we all make mistakes. It is critical to be able to forgive ourselves and others.
Interestingly, when I finally started dating and met my future wife, I purposely decided to throw out my list. Something about having a list of criteria and checking them off seemed so cold and calculating to me. Which is really odd, because I’m a computer scientist. I am cold and calculating. Anyway, as a result, my wife doesn’t particularly care for science fiction, doesn’t like Star Trek or Doctor Who. She listens to country music. She is not very computer savvy. And she doesn’t laugh at my jokes. Instead, she says, “Funny, Kirk”. We did have lots of things in common. Some things that might seem kind of inconsequential to some. We both liked “Winnie the Pooh“, for example. We collected little Pooh objects and decorated our son’s baby room in Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too. I had a small collection of Pillsbury Dough Boy items in my kitchen from when I was single. We often searched for more dough boy collectables together.
when I’m worrying about how to pay my bills
and whining that my house has lost half its value
so that my mortgage is under water
and my son can’t find a job
because the economy sucks
and the price of gas is rising
while fossil fuels are being depleted
and China and India are growing
Iran is working underground to build nuclear weapons
and the Fed is printing dollars like nobody’s business
and my wife likes to gamble and smoke
way too much
I remember that
I am sentient and
live on a planet in a stable orbit
around a warm yellow sun
that four billion years ago was formed
in the habitable zone
and somehow survived
a collision with another Mars sized planet
to end up with a moon
that helps stabilize our rotation
and probably helps keep our planet’s geodynamo
which generates an electromagnetic field
which protects the planet
from the charged particles in the solar wind
that would perhaps otherwise blow away our atmosphere and
destroy all life as we know it
I’ve lived fifty plus years, so far
in relative health
during the amazing computer age
with two wonderful children
a boy and a girl
I have a home and a challenging job
working with computer software
which I love to do
I’ve gotten a higher education
and enjoy a higher standard of living
than many people living today
in a country that values liberty and freedom
it’s kinda like I’ve won the lottery
I fondly remember many Sunday evenings of my youth watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea while enjoying eating pineapple upside-down cake with my family. My parents had a recipe that was just beyond delicious. Unfortunately, we later discovered that the recipe was something of an art and appears to require a special electric skillet. Without that exact skillet, my parents found it very hard to repeat the recipe with any success. I’m not sure the source of the recipe. It may have come with the big old skillet in the first place.
I remember discussing with my son about my heroes. He asked who my heroes were and why. He was in grade school and had decided to write something about heroes. I was surprised and touched when he showed me what he had written.