Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Power

Even today, I'm told, there are wild regions of Ireland, beyond the pale of Dublin, or any other fair city, where rustic folk still adhere to the old ways.

The story is from the Clancy Brothers, about the time, just after the bumbershoot had been invented, when the Bishop came riding up to the little house of Shamus and his brother, in a driving rain.

Shamus was looking out the window as rider and horse approached, and he called out for his brother to come see.

"It's the Bishop," the brother said.

Shamus said, "Aye, but what's that thing that's got hold of him?"

"It's a contraption."

They watched intently until the Bishop arrived at their door.

The brother said, "Look, he's dry as a bone."

Shamus said, "He'll never get that thing through the door."

But, when they opened the door, the Bishop stopped outside, raised his contraption to the sky and appeared to wrestle with it, whereupon the contraption collapsed with a whooop! until it was thin as a stick. He then walked through the door and propped the thing up in a corner.

When it came time to go, the rain was still coming down. The Bishop retrieved his contraption and got back on his horse. Then he held the thing up with both hands and suddenly, with another whooop!, it swelled out again like a great, black, menacing bird.

The brothers watched in silence as the Bishop rode away.

Finally, Shamus said, in a hushed tone, "They have the Power. "

I thought about that last week, when I watched Obama, intent upon a fly. He regarded it with a look of total concentration.

What followed was a feat of ordinary mayhem, of such skill that few possess it. Obama not only killed the fly with his bare hands, he knew he could do it. If he had not been certain, he would not have tried. Because he was on camera. And he knew the press would report it, with glee, either way.

As a moment, it was sublime. And not without a larger purpose, a chance to convey a message to every hall and hovel in the world.

He has the Power.

And he's not afraid to use it.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What it was like in the war

During the late sixties and early seventies, when it looked like the war was going on forever, a generation of Harvard's brightest and best, fresh out of medical school and eager to serve their country, signed up for the USPHS Commissioned Corps.

It was an acceptable and worthy way of getting through the next few years. Of course, sacrifices had to be made. They had to work in Government offices. But they found out it wasn't all that different from Harvard. Still, there was a revolution going on, and their fantasies were all on the barricades.

There was a bunch of these guys where I worked. The halls were alive with beards and sandals, where white shirts and ties used to be. It was the first time I'd ever seen doctors that young. To them, I was a civilian, but they didn't care. They were living the life.

I didn't care either. When I first got there, the buzz was all about another guy - a civilian named Rick Curtis. Curtis was maybe 25 years old, with breezy good looks and a confident smile. He had a style that was effortless and unforced. He didn't require attention, but he commanded it. Even though he had no real standing in the organization, he mingled easily with the bosses, chatting them up like one of their own.

I learned he was from a modest background, but had been sent to a prestigious academy for his education and, by all appearances, a good job had been done on him. His knowledge of things and goings-on in the world was very broad, although it was hard to tell at what depth, since he had a way of throwing little comments into conversations that gave the appearance of high wisdom to people his own age. It might have been possible to dismiss him as a lightweight, except for one thing.

He was a computer genius. In those days, that meant knowing everything about mainframe computers and the software that ran on them. Of course, he knew about minicomputers, too. And he was cognizant of the micros that were beginning to pop up. Any suggestion, to him, that his knowledge might be stronger in one area than another would invite a polite demur.

Where and how he acquired all that knowledge, no one was sure. But the Harvard medicos went nuts over him. They rebuked themselves for being plumbers, and esteemed Rick Curtis as a god. They all wanted to hang out with him.

The story was that he and his boss, Don Eddins, who had a knack for finding computer geniuses, had conspired together to establish and operate the first minicomputer in the history of the organization, over the dead bodies of the mainframe-hugging Directors of the Computer Services Bureau. Eddins liked nothing better than a nice coup and Curtis gave him the muscle to bring it off.

And then there was the dandy little piece of software that Rick put together that let you enter a bunch of data and then run correlations and chi squares on it 'til the cows came home. It was so easy, even the Harvard Docs could use it by themselves. They saw right away that they could turn out papers twice as fast with this thing. Rick Curtis earned their everlasting praise. They fell prostrate before him. They worshipped the motherboard that had given rise to him.

I liked him, myself. I got to know him because I was working for Eddins, too. And I had an itch to become a programmer. Rick took me under his wing, even though my wing was several years older than his. I had tried reading the manuals, but that didn't work. Rick would say a few words and things would become plain. He pointed me in certain directions and I began to understand.

Once, I told him about a menu routine that I was working on. He said, "You might try putting the menu items in the data, rather than the program." I took it all in.

After a while, I went off on my own. I was interested in creating a kind of software system that would act as a guide for a person through a complicated process. And the system would be constructed so that all the difficult work would be done by the computer, and all the person would have to do is supply the information that the computer didn't know about. Most computer programs, I observed, were not written that way.

Anyway, for this to work, the person and the computer had to be able to interact with each other back and forth, and the kind of microcomputer that could do this was just then being introduced by IBM. I found out that a nearby military base had bought one and I got them to let me practice on it, a couple of afternoons a week, for over a year. I read the programming manual till the pages were tattered, and I wrote code.

After a year, Eddins was getting curious about what I was up to, so he got Rick to ask me about it. I was tickled, because I felt like I was ready to show it to somebody.

So Rick and I drove down to the military base where the computer was. Rick was in a chatty mood. I think he had an idea about what he was going to see and he figured he'd make a few suggestions, and then encourage me to keep at it.

At the base, we sat together in a small, dimly lit room in front of a screen about the size of a piece of Wonder Bread. And I gave him a tour through a process, organized around the functions of an immunization clinic. Immunizations were recorded as they were administered and maintained as a retrievable record for each child. Inventory was reduced, a dose at a time, and re-order points were established for alerts. And finally all the loathsome monthly reports of how much of what was given to how many at what age came rolling out. Everything was integrated and customizable by the user. It took me two hours to cover everything.

At the end, I realized that Rick hadn't said a word during the whole show. He seemed lost in thought. Finally, he said, "You should be very proud."

On the way back, we didn't do much talking, as I recall. But, a couple of months later, he made mention of it again. He and a few of the Harvard Medicos had their feet up, one afternoon, shooting the breeze. I was in the room.

One of the guys, a PhD epidemiologist from New York, asked, "Where is the good work being done these days? I don't see anything innovative going on."

Rick said, "Blumen's doing some interesting stuff."

The guy looked over at me and said, "Him?"

A number of years later, after Rick had gone, I ran into this PhD epidemiologist in the men's room. I had been working in the Computer Services Bureau for several years, so our paths had not crossed for a while.

He said, "You still working in the computer office?"

I said, "Yeah."

And he said, "When are they going to replace you with somebody who knows what he's doing?"

Now, it might seem indelicate, but it's germane to understand that we were standing up, side by side, at the urinal.

So I thought, this might be a good time for the joke about the rabbi who, at bris, always cut on the bias.

So I said to this guy, "Do you know Rabbi Glusman, from Cincinnati?"

Monday, June 8, 2009

Death of the Salesman

On the Internet, concepts are born, live, die and evolve, just like everybody else. Not just concepts, but ways of thinking about things.

Shopping, for example. One of the fundaments of capitalism and modern life. Where the buck passes. By which I mean, old fashioned stores with salesmen and buyers. Thousands depend on them. Thousands more are dependent.

Buyers get pleasure and satisfaction. And things. Salesmen get to feed their families at night. A mutually beneficial situation.

So what kind of havoc will the Internet wreak on this inoffensive arrangement?

First, all the salesmen are killed. Buyers don't need them anymore. But the stores are kept open. The buyers come and all trip off each other, buying things that they see others buying.

Transactions occur. Everybody gets paid.

Eventually, the very concept of a salesman disappears. But it's OK. Everybody lines up at the door. Everybody buys and sells. Everybody gets paid.