Armen Chakmakjian

Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

The way the social web works…

In Random on January 31, 2009 at 7:44 pm

I thought this amusing. So if you google iwork.com, one can go on for pages of endgadget and techcrunch and cnet reviews of the product. However, if I type “iwork.com review” down at the bottom of the first page I see my digg of my own review of iwork.com.

Now knowing that google also tailors the search results for you (esp if you are logged into their services), I nevertheless thought it amusing that I was the 10th hit on the page.

Now the tricky part here is that my blog isn’t the 10th hit…my digg of my blog is the 10th hit. That means that even though only I dugg my blog entry, there is a chance that many people have gone that particular path to my blog (because I have seen a lot of hits on that review…probably 4 a day average since I posted it).

Just thought it amusing, like I said. No greater deeper thoughts about it yet.

A day in an airplane, a week in Chennai…

In travel on January 28, 2009 at 12:50 am

I wrote this trip report 3.5 years ago on a trip to our outsourcing site at a former employer.  I have removed all product specific information as well as obfuscated individual names.   I have written several trip reports like this over the years and I think that anyone who writes a dry, list-like trip report is missing the point, especially if you are going somewhere way different than where you live.

A day in an Airplane, A week in Chennai
Trip report for a visit to Chennai, India, April 23-April 30th 2005
Armen Chakmakjian

Muthu warned me that the weather in April would be inhospitable to a person not accustomed to high heat and humidity, or at least the constant high heat and humidity.   I chuckled afterwards that after he told me this, we got our 3 foot snowstorm and he saw New England at its most inhospitable.   Anyway, that being aside I had only an inkling of what I was getting into.  Chennai is more than I could have imagined in every way possible: Heat, Humidity, Populace, Politeness, Haggling, Distance from Boston, Spice, People, Motorcycles, People, Spice, 3-Wheel Taxis, Spice, People, Heat, Humidity, 22 Carat Gold, Spice, Heat, Humidity, People.

The main intent of this trip was to visit our team at India Team Office and attach faces to what had been, up to this point, disembodied voices over the phone, except in rare cases of contact due to their travel to visit us.   There were several secondary purposes, like messages to be delivered in person, to allow them to attach a face to this loud Commandant like voice that the teams there had been hearing for close to 2 years.   As traveling companions, I was accompanied by AVS “Cast-Iron Glottis”, and JM “What’s your lowest price-don’t waste my time my friend”.    JM has been our interface to this team for the last couple of years.

This trip report has two sections.  One is the trip itself and descriptions of the sites, tastes and sounds of traveling to a far off place.   The other is the actual content of the meetings with our India Team Office counterparts.   I will be presenting this chronologically, alternating the two sets of information.  I’ve highlighted the sections about the meetings in gray like this paragraph for those who only care about real work (I’ve learned to accommodate the driver/drivers amongst us).

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Yes I used to sport just a mustache

April 23-24 – Flying

I have a penchant for over-preparing for travel – Too many clothes, multiple redundant bags so that if I lose one, I still have enough to survive on, over packing my carry-on with my plethora of electronic toys.  In the end, I could have reduced my clothing to about half and still complied with my redundancy packing obsession.  Plus as you’ll see later, the laundry service at the hotel can help you out in a pinch.

Flying coach sucks, no two ways about it.  Flying coach for 8.5 hours and then 9 hours with a 6 hour layover in Frankfurt really sucks.   I can handle a six-hour flight in coach domestically.  But this was the extreme in discomfort.  I’m a relatively small guy, about 5’10”  and a lean 200 lbs.  I don’t take up much space.  But damn they figured out how to make me feel huge!  I don’t have long poles to stand on, but they figured out a way to have my knees hit the chair in front of me.  Truly amazing.  And wait till the guy in front of you leans back immediately after takeoff to sleep.   You might as well get a marker out on the off-chance that he is bald, cause you ain’t fitting any LCD display on your tray, and at least you can play tic-tac-toe on his bald head.

The saving grace in all of this is that years ago, before Lipitor, I signed up on my profile to have the low cholesterol meal.   This bought me one thing on each leg of the journey.  No, the food was still terrible.  However, I got my terrible food first, because I was considered a medical case.   In some cases I ate 15 or 20 minutes before everyone else.    AVS evidently has signed up as vegetarian, and the vegetarians usually got served just after the medical cases.    I guess they are considered special.    Even the special-itarians were served several minutes before the rest of the passengers.

On the first leg of the journey, I had the pleasure of sitting next to AI, the departing Unix Product on-site coordinator.   I had no idea who he was and when we exchanged pleasantries in the first few minutes we came to determine who the other was.    It made for a pleasant hour or two conversation about Indian history and politics and Test Equipment Company’s business prospects (while still being careful about what we talked about vis-à-vis Test Equipment Company).

So after a meal and an early morning snack we arrived in Frankfurt for our 6 hour layover.   We were pretty beat, but still had our humor.  We arrived in Frankfurt before most of the services were open.  We ended up waiting for a bit till we could buy a cup of coffee.    After about 2 or 3 hours of sitting in the same spot, we started itching to figure out if there was more to this airport than this gate and we wandered over to a mall like area.

We noted with laughter the European rule-following.   Everywhere you see a no smoking symbol, you’d find a defiant traveler lighting a cigarette up just below it.   You see, when I see a thing with a red slash through it, I assume that it means don’t do this thing.  We discovered by repeated experimentation that in this airport if you found that symbol – a cigarette occluded by a red slash – you found somebody smoking right beneath it.   So we started to assume that the red slash meant something else completely.

We ended up eating a rather hearty breakfast in a restaurant that had a no smoking section.   That prohibition just meant that our service was slower than in the smoking section.   I guess you served faster if everybody around you is holding up a little fire in their hands and gesturing grimly with it at you when they want your attention.

So then we rushed back to our gate, and waited for boarding of the next leg of our journey.   Here we discovered something even more amazing than the smoking culture.   When you end up in Germany, you expect a sort of stereotypical German efficiency in the airport.  After seeing several bicycles go by in the airport ridden by airport employees you get a sort of feeling that something is amiss.    When they started announcing boarding of the flight they called out the 1st class and business class and special needs and then they announced that they were going to board by zones.  AVS was in Zone 5 and I was in Zone 6.  Figuring that we had a while to go, we stood back.  Then we noticed that everybody started moving toward the gate, and there were a lot of people.  And suddenly the sheer force of humanity overwhelmed the gate and we all started going down the plank.  No zones were called, no one even tried.  AVS and I concluded that this was Teutonic efficiency being overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers.   And maybe it had something to do with the no smoking behavior.  “Wait till your number is announced” really meant “Run for your seat!”

The food on this leg of the journey was really bad.  I ended up with this piece of what appeared to be boiled beef.   It was horrible.  It was like somebody took a perfectly good piece of beef and hung in out in the rain and then microwaved it.   Euf.   Getting served faster than everyone else in this case was not particularly a good thing.  The later on snack was a bit better.  It was mostly edible, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

At some point during the flight they handed out some forms to us to fill out.  When I read the instructions it basically said that I didn’t have to register if I was staying less than 180 days.   Then I looked at the front of the form and the form was called “Registration”.   From that amount of evidence one would conclude that I didn’t have to fill out the form.   I checked with AVS and he came to the same conclusion.  I lost the form.

So then we landed.    We proceeded to the customs line.   When I got up to the agent, he asks me where my form was.  I responded that the form said I didn’t need to fill it out since I was only staying a week.  He responded that I needed to fill that form out even if I’m staying only an hour.  Sigh.  So he handed me a form, told me to step aside.   AVS alertly grabbed a form for himself.  I filled the whole thing out and then cut back into line and he processed me and I was through.

The baggage carousel was amazing.  Bags were appearing from behind a curtain and every once in a while a pair of hands would push through the curtain and put out another bag.   Bags caught each other in that dance and started to fall off of the belt.  People wouldn’t touch anything that fell off.   I lost one of my two bags on the carousel, just slipped through my hands, but it came around and we fetched it.

JM had given us advice to walk past anybody trying to sell us something and get as quickly as you can to a driver who would be waiting for us outside.    I figured that at 10 at night how many signs would I have to look at before we found my driver?    Then I had my first shocker.  There must have been 500 people standing behind a barricade all yelling at the doorway from which I exited.  I looked for George, Paul and Ringo, but they were not accompanying me.  Somehow, I noticed a sign for Mr. A. J. Chakmakjian and I followed it, came around the barricade was shuffled off to a waiting taxi, air-conditioned, of course, cause it was damn hot and humid outside.   And voi la I was on my way to the hotel.

The ride to the hotel was uneventful as there was very little traffic, except that I noticed that there was this unusual use of the horn on the taxi.  Constant tapping on it.   Every time we closed in on some intersection or some other vehicle, honk honk honk.   And then after about a half hour we arrived at the hotel.

The Taj Coromandel claims to be the finest hotel in Southern India.  It was pretty nice.  Lots of rosewood and marble everywhere.   The bellhops and other staff were constantly trying to anticipate your needs.  There was one problem.   I’m part of the Home Depot culture.   I’m used to doing things myself, within reason and cost.   The staff in the hotel however never heard of Home Depot or the DIY culture.  They’d dive back into an elevator in order to hit the buttons for me.    After a couple of days of this, I was afraid to select my floor if a member of the staff was on the elevator.    There was even a guy in the lobby rest room that turned on and off the faucet and would hand me a paper towel from the dispenser.    The only thing he never did was take the used paper towel back…I guess there is a limit to everything.

April 25 – First Day at the office

DSC00006We all met for Breakfast in the lower lobby breakfast restaurant.  Breakfast was very good every morning, so if you travel here don’t miss it.  We drove quickly across town.  The Outsourcing Parent Company facility we were visiting was not in Chennai itself but in one of the towns surrounding it.  The most notable thing on the ride over was how much traffic we drove through.  DSC00005And it wasn’t just cars.  Cars, 3 wheel taxis, bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, horse-drawn carts, ox-drawn carts, and tractor-drawn carts were everywhere.  Motorcycles would come down the road in swarms, and the guys who drive up to Loudon have nothing on these guys.  Absolutely fearless and without helmets.

The scarier thing was when swarms of people who were walking aside the road would turn and walk suddenly into the middle of the traffic.   They’d walk right up to the car and the driver would send them a message with a honk.   There would be a slight hesitation, on the driver’s part that is, and then he’d scoot by them.

It wasn’t just that there were a lot of people, the expression “lots of people” doesn’t describe how many people there really were.  People were selling wares out of their storefronts.  People were sitting on the side of the road.  People were standing waiting for buses.  Did I mention that there were a lot of people?
The other thing I noticed that the city was in a constant state of construction and demolition.  Buildings were going up next to buildings going down.  It was like SIM CITY in real life.

Eventually we reached the Outsourcing Parent Company plant and I had to lose the camera.  It wasn’t allowed, for security reasons.  The facility was a 3 level 2 sided building with a cafeteria and basketball on one roof and a badminton roof on the other.     We got our badges and were escorted into the floor where the bulk of our colleagues were situated.  The office area was completely different that what we are used to.  The cubicle walls were half height so that the only privacy you really had was that you didn’t see the person in the next office.   It was a completely collaborative setup.  You couldn’t avoid knowing what was going on everybody’s office.

We were immediately introduced to all the engineers on each project.   I felt like a politician out trying to get votes.   There were so many faces trying to associate them with the familiar names that we hear every week over the phone – it was a bit overwhelming.    The main thing that I can say here was that everyone was excited to finally meet.

After the pleasantries, we settled down in a conference room to go over the schedule for the week.  After we came up with the first of several refinements of the schedule with RK, the overall software manager for Test Equipment Company/India Team Office and Tamil the Test Platform Software manager and GR the Core software manager.

We broke for a few minutes to figure out how to get on the network.  We got on, but I found out that I couldn’t get to Notes.  For reasons far too complicated for me, we open one lotus notes server at a time for access to the India Team Office.  No Notes users had ever visited the India Team Office so Notes wasn’t enabled.  And just to make sure that I wasn’t getting on, Vail was down that day.   I never did get my access, except through the web client, which wasn’t making it easy,   I was able to get to my mail from the hotel wireless, so I mostly gave up for the week (even though we had a call into BPIT to get me access).

Afterwards we had a presentation by RK on how Outsourcing Parent Company is organized and about the company history.  Outsourcing Parent Company is a n.n billion dollar company from a revenue perspective and is in basically 2 businesses, its product business (which includes making Outsourcing Parent Company branded PC’s for the Indian Market) and its service business (which includes software consulting).  There are nn,000 employees.  One of us noted rather quickly after this meeting that that even though they are bigger than Test Equipment Company, we generate more money per employee.

We broke for lunch and went to the Cafeteria where a complete spread of local food was presented to us.

<Snip> Took out product specific content

We ended the day there and returned to the hotel where we ate at the restaurant Southern Spice.  It was a traditional meal and there was some very traditional entertainment.  JM helped us figure out the menu and we had a lot of delicious food.

April 26 – Second Day at the India Team Office

<Snip> Took out product specific contentDSC00001

DSC00004That was a pretty full day and after doing some scoping out of jewelry stores (you have to see the jewelry stores in India) we retreated to a restaurant at one of the other Taj hotels.  It was an outdoor restaurant with live entertainment.    I think I was led to digestive perdition in this place.  The place was set up to mimic a small town with a buffet that was placed on carts surrounding the stage.    Very quickly after I sat down this guy with a machete shows up next to me, starts hacking away at a coconut and hands it to me and shoves a straw in it.

The entertainment consisted of traditional instruments being played while a person on stage balanced a vase on her head while she sewed lemons with her tongue DSC00008and a needle and thread.  Don’t ask.  I couldn’t figure it out.

The food was very good.  The real trouble occurred when I was offered this thing called beetle-leaf.   It looked like a fresh tobacco leaf wrapped around what tasted like coconut and anisette.   The fact that I could described what it tastes like is the most likely hint as to the culprit in my later digestive problems.  The beetle-leaf was offered to me by a reliable source who claimed at the time it “aids the digestion”….yeah RIGHT!  Anyway it was so hot that night that we were dying out there.

Afterwards we went back to our hotel and we cooled off in the hotel lobby.  We talked about the day and the reaction of the India Team Office folks to our visit and what the plans were for the rest of the week.  We also wanted to plan our shopping trips.

April 27 –  Day 3 at the India Team Office

Wednesday started out on a good note.  A good breakfast again, a plan for shopping in the Spencer Plaza that evening, and a full day of meeting where teams would tell us how well they did.

<Snip> Took out product specific content

Finally we had our normal weekly 8 am EST India Team Office call, but from their end.  I liken their end of the meeting to the scene in “The Life of Brian” where all the competing revolutionary groups are coming in and out of the room trying to court Brian to lead their team.  A bunch of people would come in deliver a status and then shuffle out of the room.  A different set of people would do the same.  Then a few of the other guys would come back in for a second set of work they’re responsible.    It was pretty amusing.

DSC00001That evening we did do some shopping in the Spencer Plaza and watch JM work his wonders negotiating with a shop owner over a marble chess set that I wanted.   It was pretty impressive.    The Spencer Plaza is a must see if you go to Chennai, and by the time you get there they’ll have finished the expansion.

The mall looked just like any mall here except there were a lot more 1 man shops than we normally have at any of our malls.  The expansion of the mall is really ornate, and almost has a temple look to it.

As I said my health was deteriorating rapidly and we did go to meet with the rest of the team for dinner, as well as JA who came in a day after us.   It was another hot night in the outdoor restaurant at the other Taj (whose location was picked because of its proximity to the mall).   I tried to tough it out but the heat and my insides were a mess.   I left the team and went back and slept.

April 28 – Team at the Resort, Armen out of commission

That morning I got up and I was a mess. I had the traveler’s stomach in a bad way.   I made my way down for breakfast, but I knew that I wasn’t going to make it anywhere an hour or two away from the hotel in a taxi in the 110 degree heat.   So I begged off and slept all day in my room while the team got regaled by AVS on the Test Platform Software roadmap as well as a visit to a temple where AVS was accosted by the local vendors to buy all their wares.  I’ll leave that story for him.DSC00004

The highlight of my day was sending off my laundry to get done.   It came back and I was truly impressed when it was delivered by a guy in a tux.

That evening I met AVS and JM in the hotel lobby and we did go out and eat some dinner, although I was eating all lame stuff.

April 29 – Final day at India Team Office

Feeling mostly better, I got up that morning, and had a simple breakfast.   As we were driving over to the India Team Office, I started snapping pictures off on the road.  More pictures of how crowed a place we were visiting.
This picture is one of those swarms of motorcycles. DSC00014

The most interesting thing that happened that morning was when we ran into these huge turbines just kinda sittin there on the road.   They didn’t seem to be going anywhere and were still there when we left that night.

The final day at India Team Office was spent going over the India Team Office’s quality and process maturity, as well as their 2 week Test Platform Software defect analysis.   This was an extremely interesting discussion.

<Snip> Took out product specific content

The analysis was done in about 3 or 4 different ways and the data was combined in order to get the final set of projects.

A further step of what the potential causes of these problems was then attempted, partly by searching the available documentation for process adherence (like did all the documents exist in the repository, were they up to date et cetera).   Several initial conclusions were tested with us and of course we placed the blame squarely on gremlins that had infiltrated our ranks.

Some of the analysis did show where we are good however.   Evidently, we have an exhaustive post development testing strategy.   Basically that quarter from devel close to shipping (alpha beta et cetera) is where we turn up the gas.   There were many suggestions as to how we could improve our process adherence from using independent auditors (RB get away from the window).   Also there were no checklists in our Software process for review steps.  For example code review and document reviews had no guidelines or checklists for which a team could make sure that all the content was correct some level of standardization was being followed.   Yes and they mean curly brackets.

Also they gave us an example of the ways documents are reviewed formally in their environment.  Content and Process adherence were separate reviews AKA did you put in all the right stuff is separated from does this make sense at all.  Both reviews are criteria for acceptance.

It was a very interesting discussion and did provoke a lot of give and take amongst AVS, JM, Me and the India Team Office team.

April 30 – Going Home

So finally we were on our way home.  Our flight was at 2:00 AM India Standard Time.  Now on top of my digestive problems, I was coming down with a cold.   I was a mess.  Each leg of our flight was longer on the return than on the way out to India Team Office.  And the seats felt more crowded.   Here’s a final picture of me in Frankfurt after the first 9 hour flight with all my problems.  DSC00014This is what you’ll look like after a day in an airplane and a week in Chennai.

When we arrived in Boston, AVS asked me if I wanted to kiss the ground.   At that time we happened to be walking down the hall between the gate and customs.  I noted that since this was a suspended concrete bridge we were walking across, that I hadn’t actually touched ground yet.  I figured I’d wait to get home and do it there.  But there was a Dunkin Donuts in the terminal.  A hot cup of weak American coffee with lots of cream and sugar made me know that everything was going ok now…

Summary and Conclusions

People have been asking me whether this trip was worth the effort.  My conclusion is a rousing “Yes!” despite my digestive and respiratory incidents.  The fact that I got to meet the team, and they got to put a face to a voice that had been plaguing them for two years for status made a load of difference.   I got to speak frankly to GR and RK about areas where our expectations were met and where we wanted improvement.  They had an opportunity speak frankly to us about how our way of doing things works and causes them uncertainty and confusion.

There were also some intangibles.  I noted their method of working day to day and what the chemistry of our weekly status meetings were as observed from their end (Like how loud our voices were on the speakerphone, and what is really happening on their end when we hear many, many voices murmuring when we ask a pointed question).

At some point, everyone who manages people at India Team Office ought to visit them at least once.    But please let us go business class in the future.

Hey, I’m listed on Alltop! AWESOME!

In career, Literature, Science Fiction, web 2.0 on January 26, 2009 at 5:51 am

I just got listed on the alltop  SciFi and Fantasy Novel page way down at the bottom after many relatively famous, not so famous and infamous sci-fi bloggers and writers.  I thought it kinda kewl!

For those who don’t know what alltop is, I direct you to their about page which explains it pretty well.   alltop considers itself a “digital magazine rack” of the Internet.

As to why they might consider me interesting, I found the following in the about page:

  • Some sites and blogs bring us credibility. For example, Politics.alltop.com has to display the Washington Post fairly near the top. If it were missing or far down the page, we’d expect a first-time visitor to question our quality.
  • Some sites and blogs are relatively unknown but provide such high-quality information that we feel it’s our moral duty to tell the world about them. Newmedia Jim on Twitterati.alltop.com is an example of this; he’s only a NBC cameraman flying around the world on Air Force One

So considering that I’m not the Washington Post, I fall into the second category, “relatively unknown” and “high-quality.” 😉 The measure of my relative quality though should be obvious by my placement which is LAST on the page 🙂 I do appreciate the listing and I am honored that they’d consider me at all.

That particular page I’m listed on has some really good stuff on it too, if you are into Sci-Fi.   And alltop asks that we who are listed should send people there if we can, so please go visit alltop

Obama’s Need for a Blackberry…Mil Spec…

In Random on January 26, 2009 at 5:22 am

So a friend of mine is interviewed on this Bloomberg clip about the new super secret NSA style phone that they are going to allow President Obama to have.

I thought I’d cross-post this from youtube in Michael’s honor. He now joins the Armenian speaking Chinese guy on my blog hall of fame…:-)

Personal thoughts on writing…

In Literature, Science Fiction on January 22, 2009 at 2:09 am

So I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while.   I want to separate this topic from publishing and deal with that separately at some point.  For that topic I do need to do more research and get more involved with local writers’ community events so that I get some education (beside the plethora of stuff on the web, to which people have graciously pointed me).

When I was writing my book my first book, I threw everything into it.  Every synapse was firing, every thing I ever learned: allegory, analogy, cliché, metaphor, simile, historical figures, civil discourse, science fiction novels, comparative religions, dead family member characterizations.   All this made getting from beginning to end really, well not easy, but enjoyable.   Being somewhat of a romantic myself, it was easy for me to create archetypes for certain themes: out of control usurpers, plotting Iago-like villians, cynical enemies, wise mentors and the main character.

The main character was interesting because he started as a manifestation of my grandfather, and ended as the person I wished he would have been.  This was quite a cathartic event for me because even though he died when I was 7 years old, his death was the first person’s death about which I needed to deal.  In writing the book I have had to deal with the humorous stories while acknowledging the fact that he was human.   I’ve always had a here and now attitude for most things, however with him it has always been “then.”

Anyway descriptive writing, like trip reports, was always fun for me.  I would tell my story visiting customers as a “little do-good engineer” in the field as someone once described my writing.  Writing a trip report was something I looked forward to, because it allowed me to record what I thought was important or odd.   The narrative was the key.  Could I get the Armen in the story from the Airplane to the site to the lab to the dinner to the hotel to the office to the plane flight back and have something other than “We arrived.  We sat at the tester.  The customer was not pleased.  Here are the 43 issues we found.”  I read many trip reports like that.  Those trip reports are for the data driven.  If you are looking for something specific, you can index it and find it.  The problem was that most people could not make it through reading an report like that.  They were truly boring.  Lacking any editorial comments or some description about what they saw, the ennui weighed on your eyelids like sandbags.  So that was what I resolved to provide.   In the midst of it, I would describe the “event” of coming across and issue, who was there, why we were trying that feature et cetera.  Of course then I’d add the list of issues as an appendix, for the data driven.  This truly was a lot of work.

When I sat down to start writing Urtaru, it was not because I had actually wanted to start a novel at that point. Of course I always wanted to write a novel or two, but I hadn’t set a time.  Then the motivation came from a situation.  The story was that my younger son had a journal and had been writing a book for 3 or 4 years, constantly updating it.   It was a story inspired from his reading of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and Lemony Snicket.   The characters got nowhere fast, but my son’s descriptions of staircases and secret doors and worlds were quite ornate.  When we got together with friends, I’d see all the 10-11 year-olds go off in a corner and they’d have a reading of his next chapter.  I found this all quite amusing.

On the other hand, his older brother, interested in the story from a familial point of view, thought the work somewhat childish.  So he set out to write a story.  He was imbued with Lord of the Rings and a series of fantasy novels that he and a neighbor were exchanging.  So being a little motivated to get similar attention, he started to write his novel.  After writing several pages, he had a great idea.  His main character was a Fantasy/Historical Bourne-like character that is figuring out who he is as his capabilities increase.  He handed me the first few pages and I read it.  It was like one of the BAD trip reports.  It was an outline put into prose.  All I could imagine was bullet items.   Immediately I started an intervention.   I said to him, “Write down what that character is thinking and feeling and seeing.  Describe or paint the situation so that people understand what is important in that scene.”

He didn’t take this well.  As I didn’t want to discourage him, I said to him, “Give me a half hour and I’ll give you an example.”  So that was when the first chapter of my book was written.  I had this story of my grandfather in my head living British Palestine, hunting with two Englishmen.  This was a story my father told me 3 or 4 times and it was always interesting.  My grandfather had a shotgun and spoke English and Arabic and Turkish and French and Italian and and and…So these men found him interesting and a good guide.   I wrote a fictional account of my grandfather hunting with two archetypal Englishmen.  The names I used were the real ones that my father told me.  The situation was real, but I obviously took great literary license and wrote 6 pages quickly.   I handed him my laptop and said, “try writing like this.  It’s not perfect but it is kind of what you want to do.”  I got a positive reaction and several questions and he got back to work.   I think it changed his attitude on writing because after that event he really took to history, narrative and his language classes in High School.

I, on the other hand, re-read my short ditty and said to myself, “Hey this is pretty good.  I ought to continue this.  I have a few ideas.  Let’s see where this goes.”  So I outlined an interstellar conflict with an Armenia at the center of it and started writing.   At about this time, after writing maybe 40 pages, there was a conversation at a holiday party with several friends, and one of them expressed interest in reading what I wrote.   He read it some time later and gave me positive feedback.   After that it was a race against time.   I was writing at every free moment.  On the beach in the summer, at Panera Bread in the morning before going to work, late at night in the dark.

I did have a hard deadline.  Simultaneous with this, I had started down the road to an MBA.  My first class was in September, and I needed to get this over with before that started, as I was worried that I’d have no time for it.   So I plowed through the final parts of the book and finished it this past summer.

I’ve started writing the second book, but I’m having a hard time putting in the time.  Lots of stuff going on in parallel.  I do have an idea of where I want to go.

Now here’s the funny part.  My older son just recently expressed an interest in reading my story, so I put the pdf file on a thumb drive and gave it to him.  Being the voracious reader, he’s been working at it for several nights.   He’s given me some major suggestions about getting the action earlier into the first couple of chapters to hook the reader.   He thought the courtship scene in Chapter 3 was old time TV corny.  He also said that my story is relatively fast moving and that he wishes I spent a little more time describing things because he enjoyed my descriptions and wanted more.   The circle is now complete, like Darth Vader said to Obi-Wan.  I’m getting advice from my kid.

The other thing that has been somewhat getting in the way of just writing the 2nd Book is blogging, which is also writing.   I’m getting practice writing, although it’s more like the trip reports than a Sci-Fi novel.  I’ve heard that writers need to read read read and write write write no matter what else is going on, so blogging serves some purpose.    So I’ll continue to communicate here, and hope that I’ll find my science fiction muse again and get back writing my story.

Armenian Speaking Chinese Student

In Random on January 21, 2009 at 8:52 pm

Armenian Speaking Chinese Student

I thought this was pretty impressive. I also thought the Armenian guy speaking Chinese was impressive too.

In a similar way, years ago, I had another incident like this portrays. I was taking evening Armenian language classes (mostly to learn how to read but also to get practice speaking again). At one point we had a student from BU sit in who was Chinese. Of course we were curious about why he was doing this. So he spoke to us in perfect english. Then the instructor walked in. She started to speak to us in Armenian, and then did an introduction with great flourish about our new student. She asked him to talk about himself, and he responded in perfect Western Armenian and explained that he was doing research on ancient biblical era texts and was writing a piece of OCR software to read and then translate those documents.

Of course the shock of him speaking Armenian better than us native speakers took a while to get over. The amazement to us (let’s say rather than a Frenchman or an Englishman who are used to someone else learning and speaking their language) is that with our small numbers, we assume nobody knows what we are saying or cares to learn our language. But I guess we continue to be proven wrong.

Intuit’s Mass. R&D lab pushes service platform ideas

In Random on January 21, 2009 at 3:11 am

I dugg this last week. But not a lot of us are on Digg (as far as I can tell)

Intuit Inc. is reinventing itself — but much of the push for change isn’t coming from company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. It’s coming out of an office building in Waltham, where about 140 employees are probing areas that have never been seen as part of the company’s core strengths.

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The full text of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address…we have finally lived up to it…

In Famous Quotes, history, politics on January 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm
Fellow-Countrymen:

AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.


On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

iWork ’09 and iWork.com (beta) Review

In technology, web 2.0 on January 20, 2009 at 4:52 am

So I’ve been playing with a trial of iWork ’09 and iWork.com. If you don’t know, iWork is apple’s replacement for it’s old Appleworks suite and is a would-be competition with Office. Because every Mac comes with a calendar and an email program, the Outlook or Entourage part of Office is sort of built in. So by buying iWork, you get Pages (Word), Number (Excel) and Keynote (WAY WAY WAY better than powerpoint).

Anyway I’ve wrote my book using Pages and as I said in a previous post, they have really cleaned it up. It no longer is just a version of Publisher, but is a true word processing tool. I love it and in some weird way evokes feelings of the old old framemaker (not sure why) that we used to write documentation back in the 90’s. It does the page layout of documentation generation way better than Word. And supposedly this version allows you to do the one Word feature that is a killer app, mail merge. Truly, at home, mail merge is a killer app because at Christmas, addressing 80 envelopes is a snap. Yes I know, with all the free services on the web, why am I sending cards? Because of tradition.

Numbers is a good spreadsheet, but the previous version was so feature/formula limited, I couldn’t really use it. I really would go to GoogleDocs or more likely Excel (if heavy math was required) to get the job done. In fact, I was taking a stats class this past semester and using Numbers to list my definitions of all the terminology and examples, but I could not use it to do the homework because it did not have basic statistical functions like binomdist and tinv. Well that limitation has been solved. They seemed to have tripled the number of formulas under the statistical tab. Now they don’t have the data analysis pack yet, which allowed you do do things like get all stats at once from a list of data, but I’m sure they’ll get there in Numbers ’10.

Keynote is Keynote. It so blows away powerpoint, I can start to tell you. Powerpoint is so lame and I have both Key and PPT on my mac right now (PPT07 is on my windows VM) I don’t want to elaborate. Suffice it to say that whenever I’ve needed to do a presentation outside of work (teaching my sunday school class or going in to do a “what’s it like to a be a manager at a sw company” at my son’s middle school) I use Keynote.

Strangely, Apple has yet to come up with something that is a mini Filemaker/Access for the iWork suite. I’d suggest, of course since I have a stake in it, that if you are going to need an online database that has full sharing and security capability, please use QuickBase. It’s awesome, I use it every day, and even if I had Bento or something, I still would probably have a hard time doing all I can do with QuickBase. But back to iWork (sorry for the egregious self promotion 🙂

So moving to iWork ’09 as some advantages (not the least of which is the price). But nothing is pulling me there. I really will continue to do homework in Excel for my Finance and Accounting classes because that is what they want. Pages is a fine editor, but the new version doesn’t seem to have any compelling reason for me to move.

What will make me move to iWork ’09? Well, depending on the cost of iWork.com when it moves out of beta, that will be the key. I’ve been playing with it for two days now. Not extensively, but enough to get a feel. As a collaborative tool for reviewing docs it is wonderful. I think it is a MUCH BETTER presentaiton that Groove, Sharepoint or GoogleDocs. Annotating shared information live works between mac and pc because it is all web based. Downloading works great in all formats. The killer app though is missing. Simply put, shared docs and annotation are cool, but until iWork allows you to edit a numbers spreadsheet collaboratively like GoogleDocs, it isn’t ready for prime time.

Now that sounds tough but the current features are actually pretty cool.

a shared keynote file

a shared keynote file

The picture above is a slide from a project we did in my Sunday School class a few years ago in Keynote.  As you can see, it shows you who posted the doc at the top right, has a notes cell on the side for general commenting.  There’s an add comment button so that you can attach a comment to any sentence, element or point you have selected on the screen in Pages or Keynote.  In numbers, you can attach comments to cells.  This is all real time.  I kept running from my desk to my wife’s office and making comments in the docs and they were there on the other machine’s browser immediately.  (btw, for those of you who want trivia, the slide above shows St. Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles and 1 of 2 that preached in Armenia…and got killed doing so, but we won’t go there)

For education document sharing, this is awesome.  I can see using this to put keynote presentation for my sunday school class. For example, I can post a presentatation, share it with the students during the week, and ask them to leave notes and add comments to particular elements like questions “what are you driving at here” for example. I think in that respect I can see how cool this could be. This could open a whole set of possibilities for educational purposes. Another area where this could be really cool? Well, if I were to share a doc that I wanted people to proofread and give me comments. I think it would be excellent for that.

Like I said sharing is one thing, but live collaboration is another. What I’m hoping is that by the time this transitions from Beta to live, that we see at least Numbers shared editing. Also the fact that you can’t actually change the doc/spreadsheet that is online (yet) means that you don’t have true sync functionality working. I can’t have someone add information (forget collaboratively, just shared for editting). They can download, but they can’t upload after edits.

So there you have it. Really cool, excellent presentation, ready for some time, maybe not prime time just yet though MS and Google should take note. This thing just WORKED “out of the box” as we used to say. I hear that microsoft is coming out with something to challenge this beyond Groove inside of Sharepoint. Knowing MS it will be full of functionality and capability and no one will be able to configure it right unless you do the most simple task. Just from my experience. My suggestion is that if you have a mac, go try the iWork ’09 trial just to play with iWork.com for 30 days. It works and it’ll be fun.

This was really funny. If you’ve never seen Star Wars, you have a soulmate:

In humor, Science Fiction on January 19, 2009 at 3:57 pm

I got this in my FB feed this morning and I haven’t stopped laughing since.

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn’t seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.

Modified my social network map…

In Random, technology, web 2.0 on January 18, 2009 at 3:37 pm
What a tangled web we weave part II

What a tangled web we weave part II

In another post I started to map this out.  So last night, I started poking around each of my feeds to make sure that I got it right.  I don’t use utterli much so when I went over there I noticed that my feed from ping was going there.   I’m not seeing stuff from double pumping into twitter if I start at ping.fm so something smart is going on here.  As one comment pointed out in my original post on all the social networks I was looking at, I can see how the ping -> friendfeed as the two ends is pretty useful.  The only thing that is odd is that the thing that I was trying to avoid was double pumping any of the sites, and it looks like friendfeed gets a copy of at least 3 to 4 depending on where the content starts.   I suppose in that way, I can use FriendFeed as a diagnostic tool for the rest of the network.  If for some reason something isn’t getting through I can tell from there.  But the jury is still out.

Truly though, there has to be a winnowing of technologies here.   As I mentioned somewhere else, back in the day when Palm first added the IrDA to beam things to other devices (before bluetooth), I had a small 2 line 2-way skypage motorola pager.  It had a single toggle key to allow you to blip out <300 character messages which could go from one pager to another (via the 877 numbers) or to an email address, or call a phone number and have the message read to the person answering (that was cool).   In those days most people still didn’t bring laptops to meetings, but I had my palm and a keyboard.  Which was an oddity.  Then I found an app on the palm that talked to the pager via the IrDA and I was able to send email real time in meetings to people and not be staring into my pager (like people do now with blackberries).  Somebody would say, we need an email sent to so and so, and I’d say, “Give me a sec”  I’d type it in, pick the person’s name from my palm address book, and hit send, and lift up my pager to the top of the palm and zing the message went out.  This was actually not dissimilar to tweeting because I could send email to distributions also.  Just as I got this all debugged and working (I also used Lotus Organizer on top of Lotus Notes to sync my palm….I could draw a map like the above about how this was all connected) Moto and RIM started coming out with the pagers with the small thumb keyboards attached.   My marrying of technologies was no longer looked upon as cool, it was suddenly a contraption right out of Rube Goldberg.

I mention that story because, again, having all these social networks all pinging each other is quite cool.  But at some point it is technology for technologies sake and will be winnowed, or whittled down so that the web isn’t just a rat’s nest.  There really ought to be 1-3 front end content generators (for arguments sake, Google MSN/Yahoo WordPress) which talk through a couple of sieves (Twitter, Facebook, Some IM engine) and maybe have a couple of rss feed aggregators (Google, FF).  I’m not picking technologies I’m somewhat agnostic (or in this case omni-gnostic),  I’m just saying, there are too many things now and winnowing is inevitable.

More experimenting…embedding an self recorded mp3 in my blog

In Music, Random, technology on January 18, 2009 at 2:10 am

Here’s a version of Dust in the Wind I recorded on Garage Band, maybe 3 years ago.  I haven’t really had the time in the last couple of years to carve out time to fool around with Garage Band. This evening, with a little help from google, I learned the html trick to embed an audio track in my blog. way cool. On the other hand, you can see how much of an amateur musician and sound engineer I am even with Garage Band helping me.

http://idisk.mac.com/armenchakmakjian-Public/Dust%20in%20the%20wind%20.mp3/

If this works, I might make my next move, Podcasting…the world of technology will never be the same. Now if this doesn’t work, it might be because WordPress prevents this, but the preview worked so here goes…

What a tangled Web we weave!

In technology, web 2.0 on January 17, 2009 at 2:03 pm
How I manifest myself on the web

How I manifest myself on the web

So I did a little experiment this morning.  I wanted to map out how i have all the various social network sites tied together.  I’ve pretty much debugged the cross-posting double-pump problems.

Start anywhere on this chart, consider that a point of adding content (whatever media: text, graphical, video) and then follow the arrows until it looks like you will go back on yourself and stop (so where FF and Twitter connect, I have it set up that they won’t double pump info onto each other)

Anyway, for the moment I’ve got it such that if I want something to permeate through almost everything, I start at ping.fm.   At ping I can select everything to get updated OR I can make it so that only microblogs or status’s get updated (these are the levers that I was hoping I could find but failed to find in FF).

Ultimately, all updates end up at 3 endpoints as feeds: Twitter, FriendFeed and Plaxo.  I’m trying to avoid massive updates of Facebook because I think it isn’t a good place for that so I broke those connections (that’s the point of the levers…now I can selectively update facebook along with the rest if I desire to do so).

Anyway, I just though it an interesting exercise in mapping.  Oh yeah, and some of those places actually have RSS feeds from other places, I suppose if I added them in it’d go from web to rat’s nest.

Further testing…

In Random on January 17, 2009 at 6:38 am

I’ve set it up so that in the few cases that ff passes something along to twitter, it now sends the source information, rather than the ff feed link.  This will be my last test for the night.

Testing Ping.fm

In Random on January 17, 2009 at 6:32 am

Someone commented in my complaint story about friendfeed that I hadn’t found a good way to select how to rebroadcast my status updates in such a way that if I update on any site, twitter gets an update.  Ping.fm seems to solve my concerns.  It allows me the levers that I wanted to pick how updates flow through all the social media connections, and I can follow the aggregate traffic through FriendFeed.  and the one tool I use that isn’t supported by Ping.fm was digg, but that I handle by  doing updates from FF to twitter only on diggs and these blog entries.

Let’s see how it goes.  I’m trying to debug the LinkedIn connection next.

In Random on January 17, 2009 at 6:23 am

OK, still need digg connection through ff to twitter since ping doesn’t support digg. testing that now…

In Random on January 17, 2009 at 6:16 am

Ok I’ve turned off cross posting of stuff from FF to Twitter.

In Random on January 17, 2009 at 6:07 am

Trying Ping.fm (watch for social networking feedback loop…I haven’t turned FF off yet)

Patrick McGoohan – Some thoughts about how “The Prisoner” affected me…

In 60's Television on January 16, 2009 at 3:01 am

Many, many years ago, probably when I was 12 or 13, I was turning channels (we turned them back then because they were on a Dial, no remote), on UHF (omg) where all the really weird programming was.  You could see Lucha Libre, wrestling in Spanish…or see the Marvel Super Hero’s from a barely capturable station from Long Island (Dr. Banner, Belted by Gamma Rays, turns into the Hulk, ain’t he unglamourate….or Tony Stark Makes you feel, he’s a cool exec with a heart of steel…When Captain America throws his mighty shield….Cross the Rainbow Bridge Lies Aasgard…I can’t remember the one for Submariner) stuff like that.

Anyway, one day I was turning the UHF knob and came across this guy dressed in a black suit and mock turtleneck (no not Steve Jobs).   Then he appeared in some room where another guy spoke threateningly to him saying, “We want information.”  “Who is Number 1.”  “You are Number 6.”  And he was kidnapped.  Then he appeared in some weird colorful city near water.  And then he tried to escape on a beach and this thing that looked like a weather balloon came bounding down the beach and smacked him down.  It was so freaky that I had to watch it as bad as the reception was.  I kept trying to tune in the station every week about that time because I looked it up in TV Guide the next week and saw that it was on again.  It was SO WEIRD.

He was trying to get away from this place and he couldn’t.  They’d outwit him, he’d outwit them.  Then suddenly the silly weather balloon would appear and smack him down again.

I had to keep watching –  it was too weird.  No one at school knew what the hell I was talking about.  I found that two friends of mine watched the show and they lived in Westport and they knew all about it and had seen the final episode before.  (I lived in Bridgeport…no one watched the Prisoner;-)   I had to watch it through to the end.  Many many weeks later I watched the final episode.  Here’s a clip:

IT was even more bizarre than everything I watched up to this point.  Yes I watched Star Trek, I watched the old Battlestar Galactica, I loved Star Wars, Sean Connery WAS James Bond…But this was nuts.   And Patrick McGoohan was the good guy and somehow sinister at the same time.  It was all very unsettling.

From time to time, I would see Patrick McGoohan in other roles (as Wellington in some movie about Napoleon…in Braveheart as Longshanks…in a few other things…always evil for some reason).   I’d also catch Leo McKern on PBS, he was the last #2.  Then when I saw that he was not only Rumpole of Bailey but was the weird guy chasing Ringo Starr in “HELP” (you remember him, the guy who stuck his head out of the manhole in while the beatles sang “You’ve got to hide your love away.”) I was amazed.  This show really affected me and yet I NEVER UNDERSTOOD IT.

Many years later, when I was at DEC, I was poking around in VAX Notes and found a notesfile about “The Prisoner” which had several discussion threads about the meaning of the show and pointers to Prisoner unix news groups (something like alt.prisoner or something).   It was amazing the following that this show had in geekdom.   People I worked with at the time had NO Idea what I was talking about.    Then I found the website for the town that he was held prisoner, Portmeirion. It’s actually a real place, not just a set for the show.  Fascinating.

Anyway, Patrick McGoohan died the same day as Ricardo Montalban.  Mr. Rourke and Kahn were definitely significant characters and lots of geekdom is upset that people aren’t focusing on his work on the latter but he had a huge body of work beside that (yes including spy kids).   But in an odd way, the character of the Prisoner and the dilemma of him trying to leave the spy agency stuck with me at a much more basic level for some reason (and yes I remember that Chekov WASN’T in the botany bay episode).

Anyway Patrick McGoohan, Requiescat In Pace.

Good night’s sleep may prevent a cold, study finds

In Random on January 14, 2009 at 2:50 am

People who averaged less than seven hours of sleep a night were about three times more likely to develop cold symptoms than study volunteers who got eight or more hours of sleep, Pittsburgh researchers reported yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

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