Category Archives: history of technology

– Ghosts of Tech

Ghostly Tech

Tech Ghosts

It is the season for Ghosts. We’ve just finished celebrating the spirits and Ghosts of All Saints Day, All Hallows Eve and All Souls Day. Soon we will be visited by the Ghosts of Christmas.

Information technology has its own Ghosts, and we government technologists have our special subspecies of technology Ghosts.

We all know about technology Ghosts. The story of the ill-fated Microsoft Courier tablet, doomed to be stillborn, has been haunting the news feeds again lately. HP’s Touchpad and (maybe) WebOS were given up to an existence someplace between the living and the dead (tech Zombiedom?) earlier this year. Whole technology companies and technologies have become Ghosts or are destined for slow, lingering deaths and a future ghoulish existence. WiMax, once the darling of 4G wireless networks, is all-but-dead in favor of its big brother long-term-evolution or LTE. Steve Jobs is widely hailed for bringing Apple computer back from a Ghostlike doom; his role creating the Ghost of NeXt is less celebrated. And companies like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), once the #2 computer company worldwide, fell into the dustbin of tech history, being purchased by Compaq which in turn was gobbled up by HP. It sure seems like RIM and its successful BlackBerrys may be headed down a similar path.

As I mentioned earlier, Government has both Ghosts-in-common with commercial companies and our own unique set of Ghosts.

Most government computers are haunted by the Ghost called Windows XP. Ten years old, declared “dead” by Microsoft, Windows XP is still a workhorse in many agencies, as we struggle to make sure our myriad of applications will work with Windows 7, and we try to find the dollars to upgrade. At least the Windows XP Ghost will be fondly remembered, unlike Windows Vista, which hopefully has a home someplace in a tech Hades. Mainframe computers, and especially the IBM mainframes, are alive and well, working hard in some places. In governments, however, too often they house almost-Ghostlike tax systemsor scheduling and management systems for Courts, applications which are old and creaky but mainstays for some cities, counties and states.

Some applications are wraiths, staying long beyond their normal useful lives, because they are both functional and beloved by users. Northrup-Grumman’s PRC is a public safety computer-aided dispatch system, “green screen” and command-line driven. Dispatchers and field offers became familiar to its arcane but quick-to-type commands, and memorized them. Newer dispatch systems were Windows and gooey (Graphical User Interface, a term I never liked) based. But to do the same one-line-of-text PRC function on a newer GUI system often would involve opening multiple windows, drop down boxes, address verification functions and other tasks which vastly lengthened the time to dispatch a police unit or fire call. It took dispatchers some time and training to exorcise these Ghosts.

Analog public safety radio networks are another Ghost which many cities, counties and regions use today. The counties of the central Puget Sound, including Seattle, presently have older Motorola analog public safety radio systems – in our case with over 20,000 vehicle-mounted and handheld radios. These systems are functional and critical to dispatching fire, police and emergency medical officers to every 911 call and incident. Yet they are based upon 6809 chip architecture. The 6809 chip was used in the Tandy Color Computer, which was in its heyday around 1978-1980. Talk about Ghosts – what other technology from 1978 is still functional today? Such systems won’t be supported for much longer (just like Windows XP) but upgrading or replacing them will not be easy or cheap. Yet, unlike cell phone networks, these 6809-architected systems have been extraordinarily reliable, often with 99.999% uptime.

I’m sure readers of this blog (if there are any!) probably have your own favorite technology Ghosts, many of which may still haunt your support staff and data centers – don’t hesitate to leave a comment and describe them.

And, alas, many of these Ghosts are hard to exorcise for many reasons – lack of budget for the replacement, many interfaces and dependencies, and just plain old fear of change “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.   In many cases that means the data used in these ancient ghostly systems is locked up, and hard to interoperate with or interface to other, more modern systems.

In a sense, I’m also a technology “Ghost” of sorts, I guess, spanning the time from the first Apple II computer to the iPad of today, from the Apollo moon landings to today when the little netbook computer I’m using for blogging and tweeting has more computing power than the entire Apollo system had in 1969.

But this last “Ghost” – Bill Schrier – is not going away anytime soon!

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– 1999, an Odd Odyssey

The Year 2000 Bug

It was just ten short years ago that many of us were preparing to celebrate New Year’s Eve – by working all night!

Anyone over 30 probably still remembers all the information technology work that went into preparing for Year 2000.

I’m going to dredge (!?) up some of my memories in the next few paragraphs, but if you have memories or stories of that frightening December 31, 1999, evening, I invite you to leave them as a comment to this blog entry.

For many of us in Seattle, 1999 was not a good year.

First of all, we had madly been reviewing and fixing our information technology applications and programs and systems for Y2K bugs.

But no one really knew what would happen.  Would buses and trains stop dead due to bugs in their microchips?  Would the electrical grid fail?  Would 911 stop working?

The City of Seattle, like any organization using IT, had very real problems – we knew the accounting/financial database – called SFMS for Seattle Financial Management System – was not ready for Y2K, so we replaced it with an entirely new system.  We also patched up the water utility’s and electrical utility’s billing systems, since another project to replace them was in progress. (That system, now called CCSS for the Consolidated Customer Service System, was implemented in 2001, a year late and $14 million over budget, which is a different story).

The City’s Chief Technology Officer was Lynn Jacobs, and in 1998 she had spread the alarm about Y2K, galvanizing the Mayor, City Council and most departments into action looking for their Y2K bugs.  But by October, 1999, Jacobs had largely checked out due to personal issues, rarely coming to work and exerting virtually no leadership.  So Mayor Schell replaced her with Marty Chakoian, who was, not coincidently, leading the City’s Y2K efforts. There was plenty of consternation among the IT leadership in the City government.

But the outside world was in chaos in 1999 too.

The Seattle Times ran a whole series of articles about the electrical grid and 911 systems and other critical functions, and how we were preparing them for Y2K. Gee, they even talked about potential water systems’ issues with Y2K, even though Seattle’s water reservoirs are high up in the mountains and the basic rule of water and wastewater is “s___ flows downhill” (The s___ stands for “stuff”, of course).

And we had the WTO riots in Seattle in November; Seattle sure appeared to be the anarchy capital of North America, if not the world.

Then on Dec. 14, 1999, a 32-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, coming across the border from Canada with 100 pounds of powerful explosives in the trunk of his car.  Was he headed to Seattle to detonate the explosives at the base of the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve?  We couldn’t take a chance, so Mayor Paul Schell cancelled the grand New Year’s celebration planned there.

For most of us tech types, and a lot of other folks, it didn’t make any difference, anyway.  We had already planned to be at work instead of celebrating on December 31st.

The City’s Emergency Operations Center was open.  At that time, the EOC was in a crowded basement of Fire Station #2 in the Denny Regrade (it has since been replaced with a $30 million modern facility).  Nevertheless, senior officials from every department hunkered down to see in the millennium in that basement.

My own Department of Information Technology was all of 5 months old – we were created as a separate department on August 1, 1999. Our operations center was in an old stock brokerage (Foster and Marshall) building at 2nd and Columbia, which is now home to the United Way of Seattle. That building was home to the telecommunications division, including the service desk – the rest of the department was in the Dexter Horton building next door. [The Dexter Horton building turned out to be much worse off in the earthquake of 2001, when virtually everyone working there was forced to leave it for a couple weeks due to building damage, but again that’s another story.]

City of Seattle IT Staff celebrate Year 2000

On December 31, 1999, we had a whole team of folks who celebrated the beginning of the third millennium* together, watching a quiet, uneventful Seattle 20th Century night turn into a quiet, uneventful and sleepy 21st century* morning.

Was it uneventful due to all our diligency and preparations, or was there never really any problem in the first place?  I don’t know, but I do know I’ll celebrate the end of the decade of the naughts tonight with a bit more enjoyment and a lot less trepidation.


*Note: Yes, yes, I do understand the real beginning of the 3rd millennium and the 21st century is January 1,2001. See article here. But, gee, popular culture doesn’t count the years that way, so I took a little tech-journalism-geek liberties with dates in writing this article.

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– Two Way Presidential Debates

The Famous Five O'Clock Shadow Debate

The Famous Five O

A highlight of the recent Presidential campaign were the three Presidential debates. In my neighborhood, our good friends Teresa and Joe (the marketeer, not the plumber) sponsored debate parties, which were a great neighborhood-building event. We crowded into their living room around the big-screen HDTV, and alternately cheered and cried as each debate proceeded. We made dozens of pithy and funny comments (all our comments were both pithy and funny, although some were in questionable taste). We suggested pointed comebacks for the candidates. We had fun. We were that most basic unit of democracy – neighbors and friends.

The 2008 debates pioneered new uses of technology. In at least one primary debate, questions came from YouTube. MySpace and MTV hosted one-candidate town halls with questions submitted via instant messaging and e-mail. Twitter was used extensively, I’m sure, for debate comments. And with the 140 character limit, I’m sure the comments were concise, if not pithy! CNN even tried to gauge voter sentiment, second-by-second during the debate, via a set of graphs powered by three groups of captive voters, a tactic which was interesting but disparaged by most observers.

Televised debates have been a staple of presidential campaigns since the infamous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of which was lost by Tricky Dick’s five o’clock shadow. In these “hi-tech” debates of 2008, I see the seeds of an interesting technology future for our still-young democracy.

My initial idea is a relatively simple one, but hard to realize. My friends Joe and Teresa have a widescreen HDTV. My household has an HDTV. With the digital transition in February, 2009, even more households will have digital or HD televisions.

A few months ago I purchased an HD-camcorder at Radio Shack for $200. I just use it to take video of my three-year old, but suppose I hooked it up to the HDTV, and suddenly we had a two-way HD video stream? And we did that in every household. And suddenly, instead of having a Democracy where we observe a debate, we could participate in it. Instead of having hundreds of people drive (polluting the air) to a town hall meeting to interact with candidates, we’d have a virtual town hall with HD video feeds from households all over the City (Think “second life”, but with real faces instead of avatars.)

Now, clearly that won’t work with a Presidential debate with 70 million households watching. But there are a LOT of elected officials in this country. There are debates for Governor, Mayor, City Council and even Sewer Commissioner. Constituents are interested and sometimes quite passionate about these races, and may be quite interested in participating from their living rooms.

Of course two-way HDTV requires bandwidth. A LOT of bandwidth. And present DSL or coaxial cable networks won’t support that sort of two-way bandwidth from dozens or hundreds of houses in a neighborhood at once. Fiber-to-the-premise will be needed, and I suspect that will still be somewhat rare for some time to come, unless you are lucky enough to live in a place served by Verizon FIOS or a municipal utility such as Lafayette, Louisiana, or Clarksville, Tennessee. Those cities will have a bit more democracy than the rest of us, I guess.

1960 was the year of debate cosmetics (five o’clock shadow), 2000 was the year of the candidate websites, 2004 was Howard Dean’s year of Internet organizing, and 2008 was the year of IM and twittering. I’m not sure what new technology will take 2012 by storm, but I’m certain that eventually two-way HDTV will make us all active participants in elections.

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– Fossils and Technology

a Stone Rose

a Stone Rose

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Republic, Washington, a small, isolated town in Northern Washington State. Republic has a population of less than a thousand people, and is surrounded by many miles of forest and prairie and mountains and ranchland in virtually every direction. The nearest big cities are Tonasket (pop. 1013) to the West and Kettle Falls (pop. 1527) to the East, 40 and 30 miles distant, respectively.

My wife and I come here to dig fossils at the Stonerose site, one of the few fossil sites where public digging is encouraged.

In the past, I’ve always been comfortable with Republic’s relative lack of modern technology. Cell phones don’t work here, an Internet connection is non-existent, few (if any) local businesses have a website. On one trip, a few years ago, my pager started to buzz and beep madly – but only as we were driving away – and we were 40 miles away – between Kettle Falls and Colville!

This trip there was free wi-fi in our hotel room. I had five bars on my Sprint BlackBerry. Not only cell phone calls but e-mail flowed freely to the device, even in our motel room in the basement of the Prospector Inn. Technology has come to Republic.

The fossils are still here, just as they’ve been for the last 48 million years.

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– Seattle’s Toilets make E-Bay

Seattle's Hi-Tech Toilets

Seattle's Hi-Tech Toilets

Original post:  12 July 2008

Technology makes government vastly more efficient and effective. No cop or utility crew or building inspector could do their jobs without cell phones, radios and computers.
But technology is not necessarily the solution to everything. Seattle spent multi-millions of dollars for public hi-tech toilets in 2004. A noble experiment to try and improve the hygiene of the homeless and people on the street. Now the experiment is ending and you will be able to bid on the toilets on e-bay. See this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Governing Magazine’s “13th Floor” article here
The lesson here? The same lesson those of us working in information technology have learned this lesson hard way over the last 30 years: first of all be clear on the scope and objectives of your project, then re-engineer the business processes, and only after that look for a technology solution. Quite often the solution is not high-tech, but rather changing the business culture or process or the routines and habits of people. And this lesson specifically includes how and where people use the toilet!

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Green Screens for Earth Day

A Green Screen from the 1970s

A Green Screen from the 1970s

Original Post:   21 April 2008
A few of us are old enough to remember the old “green screens” of IBM terminals in the 1960’s and 70’s.   In these days of BlackBerries and mice and touchscreens, “green screens” and line-by-line outputs seem quaint, but once they were very innovative compared to “punch cards”.
Well, “green IT” is coming back.   We’ve suddenly discovered that our appetite for technology is filling up data centers with servers and hard drive storage and network switches, all of which suck electrical energy like a refrigerator gone bad or a steel mill.  
What are we doing at the City of Seattle to “get more green” and use less energy?    First, we’re really getting in to “virtualization”.   For the last few years, whenever we’ve added an application, we’ve added a server.  A new online payment system for electrical permits?  Add a server.  A new business license system?  Add a server or two or three (application server, database server, presentation server, etc.).   Often, each server was only 5% or 10% used.
With new technology, such as VMWare software, we can use one physical server to emulate five or ten or even 40 servers.  And use one-fifth, one-tenth or one-fourtieth of the power and the cooling and the space.  We are actively pursing a “green IT” technology using VMWare.  The “new green screens”!

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