Grinnell Reunion 2012 — a life of happy accidents

I gave a talk at my Grinnell College reunion last weekend and decided to build this post to share a bunch of links to things that I talked about.  This ain’t a’gonna make any sense to the rest of you.  But the stuff is interesting.  🙂

This is a story of rivers of geeks.  I described the rivers that I swam in during my career, but these are by no means all of the species of geeks that ultimately built the Internet.  I was lucky to be a part of a gang of 10’s maybe 100’s of thousands of geeks that came together in the giant happy accident that resulted in this cool thing that we all use today.  But don’t be confused — it was a complete accident, at least for me and probably for all of us.  Here’s a diagram…

 

The opening “bookend” of the talk was to introduce the idea of “retrospective sense-making” which I first learned about from Karl Weick when I was getting my MBA at the Cornell business school

I talked a little bit about what it was like as an Asperger guy showing up at Grinnell in the fall of 1968 — when everything was changing.  We Asperger folks have a pretty rough time dealing with changes.  Several people spoke with me about this part of the talk later in the weekend.  The really-short version of my reply was “just give us more runway.”  Many of the geeks that built the Internet are Asperger folks.

Another giant gaggle of geeks is the “community radio” gang that I was part of.  That part of the talk opened with a discussion of Lorenzo Milam, one of the folks who inspired many of us community-radio organizers to go out and do ridiculous impossible things.

  • These days Lorenzo hangs out at Mho and Mho Works (and Ralph Magazine)
  • He put the word “sex” in the title of his handbook about starting a community radio station, Sex and Broadcasting, just to get your attention and this was the book that got a lot of us going

Which led into a discussion of my involvement with the community radio movement — Tom Thomas, Terry Clifford and Bill Thomas are all still very much involved in public and community radio these days.

Then there was a musical interlude (you cannot believe how much the music went off the rails — almost all the technology failed — oh well).

The next series of accidents revolved around the “learn my chops in brand-name consulting organizations” part of the saga.  Another of the rivers of geeks — many people of the Internet construction workers came from big firms like Arthur Andersen and Coopers and Lybrand, the two places I worked.  Probably the biggest things I learned there were Structured Programming and project management.  And this…

The next accidents ran this Forrest Gump type guy through a couple of now long-dead mainframe companies , another BIG source of internet-building geeks.  First ETA Systems, the hapless wannabe competitor to Cray.  Then Control Data, where I learned how to do mass layoffs in an imploding manufacturing company.  Ugh.

I was an early personal computer enthusiast as were almost all Internet geeks.  I live in the Midwest, so I missed out on the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley.  Dang.  But relatively cheap modems showed up about that time which led to the rise of the Bulletin Board System (BBS) movement which provided the gathering places for a lot of us Internet geeks. Boardwatch Magazine, published by Jack Rickard, was the glue that held us together — Jack inspired me much the same way that Lorenzo Milam did.  The arrival of FidoNet allowed email to flow beyond the local boundaries of a BBS and brought a lot of us geeks together for the first time.

Another giant pile of Internet geeks came from the ham radio movement.  My call is KZ0C and I’m completely lame — I hardly do anything ham radio related these days.  But a whole giant tradition of “makers” comes out of that gang.  We hams were darn early adapters of the packet networking protocols that underpin the Internet.  We turned that stuff into packet radio.

So there’s the list of pre-Internet geek communities that I was a part of in one way or another.  No wonder some of my friends call me a Forrest Gump of Internet technology.  So what happened next?  This is what happened next…

 

That’s a picture of the first four-node ARPANET network in the late 60’s.  The network grew slowly over the next couple decades and by the mid-80’s had been opened up to include institutions of higher education.  I worked at the University of Minnesota which, when I was there, was home to the Gopher protocol and the POP3 email protocol — another great gaggle of geeks.  I was a Dreaded Administrator, there to fix a financial system problem, but I loved those geeks ’cause they were the ones that turned me on to the Internet.

The next kind of geeks that still play a huge role in the Internet are the folks that work at Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  Ralph Jenson and I started an ISP in my basement and called it gofast.net.  That project grew into an amazing gang that eventually got rolled up as the ISP market consolidated in the late 90’s and thereafter.  Lots of the geeks I’ve described in this post were involved in starting those early pioneering ISPs — what a time…

The last geek that I mentioned in my talk is Hubert Alyea, the role-model for the Disney films about the Absent Minded Professor.  Professor Alyea was another great Asperger geek who was quite emphatic in telling me about lucky accidents, great discoveries and the prepared mind.  Click HERE to see movies of some of his lectures on Youtube — they’re astounding.

What are Mike and Marcie obsessing about now?

The rest of this post is a series of links to projects that I mentioned during the talk.

The final thing I need to throw into this post is three little graphs I made up to describe the half life of knowledge — in which I choose to view the glass as half full.  As the half-life shortens, it takes less and less time to become an expert!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike’s Idiot’s Guide to the Truax Seed Drill

We planted the last prairie field this weekend — here’s Marcie’s post about the whole thing.

We rassled with the manual for the Truax Flex style drill — the model number of the one we were messing with was FLX-88, but I think these comments apply to any FLX model grass drill made by Truax. The problem I had was that the manual for that drill is written for people who aren’t idiots. The audience for the manual probably care about the stuff that’s in it, but all I wanted to do was hook up the drill, put seed in and plant. The manual doesn’t help with that at all, so this is my replacement — mostly for the next time I use the drill, but maybe it will help you too.

Puzzle Number One – What are the “transport locks” they’re talking about?

The manual has a dreadful picture (and only one) of the transport locks. So here are a few more, that make it obvious what’s going on.

This picture mirrors the one in the manual;

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This picture shows the lock turned so that you can see it. Ok, so those have to come off before you start using the drill. Hook up hydraulics, raise the drill a little, take the blocks out. I get that.

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Puzzle Number Two – Storing the trailer jack

Here’s just a stupid thing — I found it was a lot easier to rotate the jack and leave it on the drill than to pull it off. All the holes are set up for that. Here are two pictures to show you what I’m talking about.

Jack down;

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Jack stored;

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Puzzle Number Three – Making the drill actually work

I had a heck of a time figuring this out. Fortunately Dan Olson was home and clued me in. But the manual provided no hint. Here’s the deal.

There’s a little pin on the drive wheel that makes this happen. Here’s a photo of the pin the way we got the trailer. See? It’s pulled further out;

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And here’s a picture of it in the position where the chains and gears and stuff will actually do something. It’s further in;

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Here are pictures of the back side of the wheel that shows the opposite end of that pin. This first photo is in the non-engaged position (the one you would use to tow the drill to a new place). When the wheel goes around, the pin missed that ratchet thingy and as a result none of the gears turn;

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Here’s a picture of the engaged position. Now the pin sticks out far enough to catch that ratchet thingy and the gears and bobbins and whatchacallits all go round and round;

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Warning Number One — Check the seeding rate that the drill is set up for

Sheesh. We didn’t check this before we started. The lads at the DNR told us that the drill was set up for the lowest seeding rate, and we believed them. Not. It was set for the MAXIMUM rate, so we dumped about a jillion dollars worth of seed into about a quarter mile of furrows before we realized what was going on. Moral to the story — ALWAYS check.

Here’s where to look — behind this here silvery dingus. It swings forward;

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Here’s the little decoder-ring that tells you which way the gears work. Ours came with the chain on the far LEFT set of sprockets. For planting prairies you’ll probably want them on the far RIGHT set of sprockets;

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We tried the drill on the far right side for a while and concluded that it was too light, so we moved up one notch. Here’s a picture of the way we had it set up;

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You change the chain by lifting that little idler-wheel up off the chain, fiddling with the chain until it’s on the right pair of sprockets and then moving the idler over so that it centers on the chain in it’s new position. This is a picture showing how the idler swings up away from the chain;

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Warning Number Two — Beware of the “small seed” box, it overfeeds

We wound up using the drill ONLY on fluffy seeds. The small-seed box fed the seeds WAY too fast, even on the slowest gearbox setting. If I wanted to make a lifetime hobby out of this drill, I would have fiddled with that adjustment too. But I don’t. If anybody has messed with that set-up and wants to add a comment to this, feel free. But we just skipped it.

Editorial Comment — None of this information is in the manual

I know that for farm-equipment hotrods, this looks like the ravings of an idiot. But me I’m just a weekend warrior and figure maybe you are too. In which case, this little write-up might save you some time and aggravation.

The big reward — here’s a picture of the field as I’m dragging the drill behind TracDor.

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Muni WiFi — let’s build a model

I just posted a story over at the St Paul Broadband Committee site about my belief that a lot of the municipal WiFi networks don’t seem to be grounded in financial reality.

Here’s a link to the article and here’s a link to the muni-WiFi financial model I built to go with it.

Here’s the deal — let’s get these models out of the hands of the VooDoo consulting expert type people and into the hands of the people. “Open source financial modeling” if you will. Let’s beat on this model — or write a new one if this one is hopeless — and get to the point where we ALL understand the economics that underpin these projects.

That way, we can either rejoice in bridging the digital divide, solving the problems of the world and putting a chicken in every pot (as advocates claim) or we can avoid the mess that comes with yet another technology project that over-promises and under-delivers.

What say you? Let’s have at it.

Question for y'all — should I add conferencing to the site?

Steve and Ralph and I had a little chat in the “comments” section of the video-conferencing post that went up a few weeks back, which got me thinking this morning…

Since I imagine most of the folks who are reading this blog are Beer Gang members-in-good-standing, I was wondering if you'd be interested in having a conferencing area on the site so you could talk to each other directly. It's easy (a couple mouse-clicks) to put up, if you think it's a good idea.

Podcasting

Julio’s been writing about podcasting for (seemingly) ever — and i didn’t read any of the posts until today when he pointed folks at this great 4 Minutes About Podcasting movie.

NOW I get it!

Amazing — all of the “tell your own story” ethic of community radio, combined with all the cool “build your own feed” capability of RSS feeds, which results in “radio” that’s going to show up in Google.. If you’re a community-radio type person who hasn’t messed around with podcasting, go watch that movie — and then let your imagination run wild. I’m sitting here thunderstruck, realizing what the possibilities are…

What an amazing community technology. For example; you’re an organizer of (fill in the blank), laboring away in your local community. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to hear an occasional “show” about your cause, direct from the mouth of your inspirational mentor? If you’re an inspirational-mentor type person, wouldn’t it be great to periodically share your “show” with others?

Or, if you’re more like the typical community-radio programmer, wouldn’t it be great to reach the .0003% of the population of the planet who shares your passion about (fill in the blank)? Conversely, wouldn’t it be great to listen to shows produced by people who exactly share your tastes and views?

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be broadcasters. Their days of being in any way relevant are numbered.

This one totally nifty technology. Thanks Julio for pointing me at the link that finally turned the light bulb on. I’m going to add useful links “below the fold” as I explore — to see that stuff, hit the “read more” button.

Bandwidth — A puzzler

The community radio movement was all about access to limited bandwidth (in our case, noncommercial FM channels). Podcasting is going to present an interesting bandwidth problem for the person with a really popular podcast — it’s going to slurp up a lot of bandwidth to deliver a 50 mByte file to thousands (millions?) of fans that are hungry for your stuff. Looks to me like we’ll need to marry BitTorrent with podcasting pretty soon now.

I’m really interested in the “how do you do it?” part of podcasting right now, so that’s what this first collection of links reflects.

Engadget provided a great starting point on this page about podcasting.

Creating podcasts is pretty straightforward — make a radio show, but pipe it off to an MP3 file when you’re done. I was Googling for “make a podcast” and got zillions of articles about how to make digital radio shows — lots of talk about mixers, and line-inputs-to-the-computer, and like that.

What I’m interested in right now is the RSS feed part — and the very last part of that Engaget article is what tipped me over to understanding. It all revolves around the notion of an “enclosure” in an RSS feed — something that most blog-creating software doesn’t grok yet, but I bet all off them will soon.

I think for now I’ll try just editing up my own RSS feed by hand rather than trying to force-feed Xoops (the software I’m using to create this blog). I’m going to use the XML file in the Engadget article as a template, build me a little “hello world” podcast and see how I do. But not right away. First I gotta finish helping Marcie lay down flooring in the upstairs room at the farm.

Rural development

Marcie and I alternate between a house in town (4 days a week) and our farm three days a week.

One of the things that bugs me about the farm is how difficult it is for people to make a living in rural America. It seems to me that just like there's a pretty strong tide running in the “outsourcing” trend, there's also a trend that ultimately leaves rural America empty — except for “gentleman farmers” like me.

Lots of people have observed this before me, but now I'm a part of a rural community, so I devote a little more of my time working on the problem. Here's a story that just ran about Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and some strategies that small rural towns are adopting in order to retain their younger generation.

I hate to be a grouch, but I don't think this kind of thing is going to work. The underlying economic forces are so strong that efforts like these strike me as wishful thinking.

I hope to be wrong on this one, but as I've poked around in my Western Wisconsin county, I have discovered that there's no business-starting infrastructure left. The local banks have all been sold to regionals, as have the bedrock main-street businesses (the phone company, electric company, grain elevator, etc.). Big-boxes are killing the local retailers.

More than just brains are fleeing — capital is too. Used to be that farmer-capital would get reinvested in local projects (a meat packing plant or a window manufacturing company). Now, when farmers sell their land (which they didn't used to do), the money winds up in a Fidelity account and invested in the usual-suspect portfolio.

As a tech guy, I've been involved in the rural development discussion for years, mostly focusing on the need for broadband Internet. Internet is often painted as the economic savior for rural America. Sorry kids, but this isn't going to cut it — any job you can do over the wire in Western Wisconsin can be outsourced to a place with much lower wages. Don't bet the ranch on that idea. Sure, you have to have Internet as a precondition for lots of other things, but it isn't going to float the boat.

Sorry to be such a grouch — but that article started this little cascade and I had to get it off my chest.

XP SP2, virus scanning and adware blocking software

Everybody's hyperventilating about how SP2 “breaks stuff” today — here's a typical article that ran last night. I wish they'd describe this in less dramatic terms. 'Turns out they're talking about the impact of having the firewall turned on by default, instead of turned off (which is the default up until now). So a better version of the headline would be “XP SP2 needs to be reconfigured if you use certain apps” or some such…

Which got me thinking — why doesn't Microsoft bundle anti virus and anti adware software in too? Sure, it'll annoy the companies that have made a business out of fixing MS flaws, but so what? 'Sure would make life easier…

Assuming this will never happen, here are the (free – well, donations-accepted) packages I currently use.

AVG Anti-Virus software

Spybot Search and Destroy – anti adware/spyware software.

I was pleased to see that Consumer Reports just gave Spybot the nod as a “good thing” in their latest issue.

Mind-mapping software — I'm going to stick my toe in the water

David Coursey has a piece this week about MindJet’s Mind Manager software that caught my eye. I like David’s stuff a lot — like the Baby Bear he’s usually thinking about stuff that’s in the “just right” place for me, not too far out there in rocket-science exotic whacko new-idea land, but not talking about stuff that I’ve looked at six months ago and already evaluated.

read on for more observations about mind-mapping software and the community-collaboration connection… Continue reading “Mind-mapping software — I'm going to stick my toe in the water”

First entry

I've been gearing up for this blog for a couple of weeks now. And finding lots of displacement behaviors that keep me from actually posting this first entry.

Enough awready… Here it is. The first post into Safe Haven, my little hangout on the 'net.

Being a “stand on the shoulders of those who came before” type guy, I've read a buncha blogs to see how other people start things off…

There seem to be 2 schools of thought about the “first entry.” There are the people who start like this, with a little “hello out there” posting. And those who start with a post as though the blog has been going for a long time and you've joined the conversation in the middle. I find the start-in-the-middle thingy less satisfying. Somehow, it seems better to acknowledge the starting up rather than bursting into song right off the bat. Kinda like the bands and orchestras my kids are in — they do a little tuning up and throat-clearing before the downbeat.

Besides, I like beginnings-of-things that are celebrated, so this is the celebration. I've done a lot of work to get to this point in the blogging world, learned/built a lotta tech plumbing type stuff, steeled my will to actually write and post this ice-breaker and dag nabbit i'm gonna pat myself on the darn back i am.

It's not unlike the first time I did a radio show, somewhere back in the late Jurassic age. Speaking to unknown listeners, out there in the void. Maybe conversing with nobody. Maybe saying nothing of interest. Quite exhilarating, what?

Ok. Here goes… Hope the water's ok…

m