Oakland, 1978

I didn’t recognize my stuff when I came across a pile of junk in front of the apartment that wasn’t my apartment anymore.

I stopped at the front door, thinking I might score something when I saw your book,

the one you gave me.

On top of a familiar-looking dresser,

the one with the taped-up leg.

Drawers open, its familiar contents looked lost, exposed in broad daylight.

My busted mattress sagged next to it over an open box of loose papers that once had meaning.

I turned away, distancing myself from things now left behind, but when you called to me at the corner I looked back.

Take the book.

Trembling, I crossed Franklin street, your words ringing in my head.

‘What good are books?’ I replied when I reached the other side.

‘Without a place to read?’

We Fixed The Clock

Dedicated to the Schmidt Family, Karl, Anna, Bruno, Ossi, Oskar, Erika, Anni, and my mother, Gisela

I have an old mantel clock that belonged to my mother’s family, a crowd of eight souls, Oma, Opa, three sons and three daughters.

The clock sat in their home in a village called Elbogen, in the era of the second world war. It now sits atop a sideboard in my living room in a town called Benicia.

The clock fled from the Communists in 1947 riding in the back of a horse drawn wagon along with all the family’s possessions. The escape west out of Czechoslovakia had many accidents including one that put a crack in its front piece. The crack now serves as a reminder of painful circumstances long since forgotten that left a mark I see every day. Family members handed the clock from one to another, all the while the clock did its job keeping time.

I inherited the clock from my father who died leaving little more than a few precious fragments of his and my mother’s lives behind. Since then I’ve tried to keep it clean and lubricated, but it occasionally needs more attention than I can provide. The mainspring gets tired and the gear train needs attention or replacement. After a recent trip to a repair shop it came home with a shiny face plate, its mechanism solid when I wound the mainspring, but it didn’t keep accurate time. After many years of refusing to keep up with the present, it now raced into the future, with a hurried cadence of pendulum swings.

One night I showed the clock to some guests while we drank wine and listened to smooth jazz. It was running a half hour fast. “Whoa,” I exclaimed. “Not so fast, partner.” I had adjusted the pendulum’s swing many times to alter the clock’s speed. It’s a simple procedure, but this time when I twisted the pendulum’s threaded rod, the pendulum disconnected from the clock’s mechanism. “Oops!” Embarrassed, I attempted a hasty repair while my guests looked on, but the clock resisted the intrusion.

“Don’t touch me!” the clock told me over the laid-back sound of Miles Davis. “I will not be treated with hasty disrespect.”

So I apologized to my guests, returned to my wine and let the clock be.

Two days later on a quiet afternoon I placed the clock on the dining room table, opened the back panel and observed the clock’s mechanism. Instead of a simple, straight-forward connection between the gears and the pendulum, the clock presented a puzzle of wires that didn’t look like the arrangement I had seen before. Lengths didn’t add up. End pieces wouldn’t connect the way they were supposed to. I was ready to complain to the repair man, but I’d just had the clock in for maintenance. All I’d done was detach the pendulum. Nothing appeared to be broken. Couldn’t I figure it out?

The afternoon sun bathed the clock’s gear housing with good light. I stared at the brass pieces for a long time and, remembering the clock’s reproach, thought carefully about how to approach the repair.

My grandfather, Karl Schmidt, was a sheetmetal artisan and he worked with careful, skilled machinists. They were tool and die makers, cutting and shaping wood and metal into fixtures, jigs, gauges and clocks. The clock knew these people. Could I be trusted to tinker with their artisanship? Sure, I told myself. It’s just gears and springs. Old world technology, simple stuff.

“The loop at the end of the mounting wire is missing.” The clock spoke with a patient, measured voice when I touched its brass components, feeling for clues. “See the mounting wire in the bracket at the top of the gear housing? The loop links the mounting wire to the connecting wire. The pendulum swings from the other end of the connecting wire. Here. See?”

Mounting wire? Connecting wire? Loop? It sounded complicated. I picked out a length of thin wire from my tool chest, along with a wire cutter and needle-nose pliers. Why not just use one wire? I thought. After fashioning my own connecting wire with a hook at one end, I attached the wire to the bracket and connected the pendulum, bypassing the complicated wire-loop arrangement. I’ll improve the design. Make it simpler, I thought. With an elated “Tada!” I closed the back panel and tilted the clock to start the pendulum swing.

“No!” the clock responded. One swing later the pendulum stopped. “The connecting wire doesn’t attach to the bracket. You need the mounting wire and a loop. Otherwise, the connecting wire won’t swing freely. The wires have to be positioned just so, to allow the pendulum unobstructed movement.”

With the clock’s disappointment ringing in my ears, I searched through my wife’s jewelry and found tiny loops that joined links of chain together. With her permission I salvaged a couple I hoped would satisfy the clock’s specifications.

The pieces were so small my pliers felt like a monkey wrench. Connecting the mounting wire was a trial and error process and all my trials were met with errors. After the second loop fell and disappeared under the table I dropped my tools and slid my chair back. This is ridiculous, I told myself. The only thing that kept me from leaving the table was a stubborn streak my mother’s family was also known for. I fumed and waited for inspiration.

The clock interrupted my vexation with a gruff, impatient command. “You’re going about it backwards. Attach the loop before you fasten the connecting wire.”

“But I don’t have the proper tools.” I rubbed my knuckles. “I’m all thumbs, sitting at a dining room table instead of a clockmaker’s workbench. I’ll never get it to fit.”

“You think the clockmakers in Elbogen had it any better?” the clock sneered. “Pliers and benches don’t make clocks. Clocks are made by steady hands guided by experience and resolve.”

I took a breath, salvaged another of my wife’s jewelry loops and picked up the wire with the pliers. The tiny mounting hole waited for me as unapproachable as ever. I was having a hard time keeping my tools steady. Both hands were shaking. The wire swayed around the hole, bumping into the bracket . . .

“Quit stabbing at the hole!” the clock barked. “Think about making me whole again!”

Elbogen, I thought, the watch makers, my grandfather, grandmother, aunts and uncles living in a village filled with precision, order and love. Down a narrow street, my grandfather Karl’s smiling face appeared in a doorway. He was holding tin snips in one hand, a cigarette in the other. “Clocks are temperamental,” he said. “Like your grandmother. They need to be pampered. Come in. Let me show you.”

I followed him into a small, but busy room filled with tools and machinery. The air smelled of cigarettes, lubricating oil and the musty aroma of hard, patient work. The clock sat on a worn work bench, its back panel open. Karl placed his tin snips in a drawer, took my hand and we carefully threaded the mounting wire through the hole, his rough fingers rubbing against mine. With deft movements, together we fastened the loop to the mounting wire and attached the connecting wire.

The clock made a satisfied ticking sound. “There we are. See?” my grandfather said. “She’s happy now. I’ll let you finish the job.”

I attached the pendulum to the connecting wire, closed the back panel and returned the clock to her place of honor, front and center, atop the sideboard. The pendulum swung with newfound energy. “Well?” I asked, pleased with the repair and grateful for my grandfather’s intervention.

The clock’s shiny face flashed me a peevish look in the fading sunlight. “Sheesh,” she replied. “It’s about time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confessions Of An Aging Technical Writer

 

According to the Society For Technical Communication, technical writing is defined as ‘…the discipline of transforming complex information into usable content for products, processes and service.’

I remember when that definition was accurate. Those were the days when transforming meant something different than it does today. Back when media was a tool and not the message.

My first tech writing job was working for a savings and loan. It was 1977 and I got the job because my prospective employer liked an article of mine that had been published in a local literary journal. The article had nothing to do with banking or technical writing for that matter, but it was a published article with passing grammar and sentence construction and positive reviews by a few obscure specialists in the article’s field.

I knew nothing about the savings and loan business, but in my boss’ mind I could write, and that’s what mattered. Her logic was that good writing was the hard part, understanding savings and loans came second. She had a point, but its days were numbered.

I didn’t know it at the time, but 1978 marked the beginning of the end of transformative technical writing. The glory days of Haynes and Chilton auto shop books, intricate electrical diagramming by Radio Shack and IBM, and typewriter and stereo equipment repair manuals ended when the process of transforming information changed to hiding information.

The end began in Japan and Germany while I was tech writing for a hydraulic machine tool manufacturing company. The company made hydraulic presses and shears the size of a house, and sold them to international markets. They were arguably the biggest and the best in the business. ‘Spare no expense’ was a popular catch phrase when it came to product development, marketing and sales. The engineers were patient and honest with me and we worked together to explain every maintenance step, illustrate every part and identify every hazard. I was in tech pubs heaven. So what if the engineers used slide rules and I typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter. The electrical schematics might have been drawn by hand, along with the assembly drawings, but they were beautiful. Clueless to its significance at the time, I fiddled with a digital, hand-held calculator a friend gave me as a curiosity from Japan. The calculator’s manufacturer had a funny name. Casio.

Japan and Germany popped our comfortable analog bubble with computer aided design and automated manufacturing technology. Within two years they captured the hydraulic machine tool market with cheaper, more efficient products, sending me out on the street and my company to an unexpected grave. It was 1980 and all of us held our pink slips with dazed looks on our faces, wondering what the hell just happened.

Five years and a steep learning curve later, I resumed my tech writing career with another manufacturing company, this one made integrated circuit manufacturing equipment. Tech writing is tech writing, I told myself. So what if they used word processors instead of IBM Selectrics? What difference did it make if product design was done using a software platform called computer numeric control? I knew all about computers. I had a word processor at home. “Bring it on,” I said.

What I didn’t know when I took my seat in a sterile room full of technical writers was the engineers were no longer just down the hall, they didn’t know my name and they had no interest in documentation. Many of them barely knew enough English to qualify for a green card.

Innumerable corporate training classes repeated the mantra that computer-assisted anything was a vast improvement over what came before. The opportunities for increased output and efficiency were endless and management expected employee performance to increase proportionally. Timelines for product design, implementation and delivery squeezed tighter.

Technical publications may have advanced to word processors, but the end product was the same, ponderous books that took vast amounts of time to be printed, managed and maintained in warehouses. Production schedules for documentation were expected to stay in line with the new, product development schedules even though product engineering and documentation followed very different paths.

Engineers had the very latest productivity tools at their fingertips, but nobody had time. Everyone was supposed to share their work, but nobody shared their passwords.

Electronic schematics, essential for troubleshooting, where phased out of common-source databases so that nobody, except engineering, held the key to accessing their research. Then, in the name of efficiency, engineering implemented a new design process, ‘modules.’ Interchangeable modular components that were quick to design, quick to implement and quick to modify. Suddenly, all a machine’s parts became moving targets. Changes to a machine’s design were instantly dropped into the hands of manufacturing. Forward Thinking! we were told. Increased Customer Satisfaction! became the buzzword.

The ECO (engineering change order) program is a slow-moving, administrative function whereby all changes to a machine, no matter how small, are incorporated into a high-level plan that requires a formal review, an implementation schedule and sufficient notice to everyone affected by the change. In the name of customer satisfaction, modular engineering side-stepped the ECO, leaving everyone outside the engineering department in the dark.

The ECO program was essential for documentation. We needed the time it took to implement an engineering change to research and update the ponderous technical manuals. With allowable production time now set at near zero, the manuals sitting in warehouses became an anachronism and the customers, both internal and external, that depended on the manuals cried foul and blamed me.

I decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em and developed an HTML-based documentation process that resided within a machine’s software. Since there wasn’t any time to update whole books, we’d keep up with modular-based engineering by focusing on the module alone; a paragraph here, a drawing there, maybe a new chapter. The virtual documents would update in a matter of days instead of months. It wouldn’t be pretty at first, but the process had the potential to grow an interactive function whereby the machine’s software would bring up the appropriate maintenance or repair procedures on the operator’s control monitor. Failed parts would show up on a map, blinking red, or whatever. Sidebar documentation would identify the part, explain how to replace it and provide ordering information.

Virtual documents also solved the cleanroom issue.* Pollutants of 0.3 microns or larger, such as dust, airborne microbes and aerosol particles, adversely affects the integrated circuit (IC) manufacturing process. To protect the IC manufacturing environment, elaborate precautions are taken to ensure low pollutant levels, including, to name just a few, air intake filters, air-showers, gowning and training. Taking fibrous paper products, splashed with ink, into a cleanroom would be a serious breach of cleanroom protocol. Also, speaking from personal experience, consulting a paper manual while gowned is beyond impracticable, involving exiting the cleanroom, removing one’s gown, reading the manual and jotting notes on a cleanroom-certified tablet, re-gowning and showering before returning to the cleanroom. An alternative was essential. The answer was to get out of the Gutenberg mindset and eliminate paper entirely.

What could be better?

Turned out, a lot.

Besides customers, training was the biggest user of technical manuals and their biggest critic. The manuals were their textbooks, their lesson plans and the basis for their curriculum. Many thousands of dollars and man-hours went into developing their training classes and nobody was going to scrap it all and build a new curriculum that dovetailed with some hair-brained tech docs process. Trainers were engineers. Technical writers were glorified secretaries. Training didn’t deploy cleanrooms in their labs, and considered cleanroom protocol a customer issue. When I explained my project to recalcitrant training administrators, they responded; “Just do the manuals right!” I walked away disappointed but undeterred. “Don’t say I didn’t tell you so,” I said.

But my process also meant cutting corners. To keep within the production time restraints, down-slope research, such as adherence to OSHA and ISO guidelines, safety contingencies and compliance with local, state and federal regulations of all sorts, got short shrift. In the name of efficiency, I compromised professional standards and put the customer in harm’s way. I was no longer transforming information.

I had my back against the wall. Either continue publishing paper books and sink into semiconductor oblivion or convert to a digital process, thereby compromising industry standards and alienating training.

So I resorted to a typical management rationale. While presenting my plan to a committee of disinterested administrators, I argued that industry standards and training issues would be cleaned up in future revisions. They stared at their laptops while I made noises in front of PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets. My strategy depended on upper management’s indifference to both training and documentation. In their minds, we were insignificant blips on the company’s balance sheet. An obligatory cost of doing business, nothing more.

As I expected, after the usual platitudes, nobody said no, so I hired a C+ programmer and we went to work transforming complex information into bits and bites that moved fast, but hid the truth.

I succeeded in launching a documentation website and a suite of lean, module-based informational packets that took the place of manuals. The company’s forward thinking customers gave me satisfied reviews and engineering even bought in to installing the info packets in the machines’ operating program. I called the project a success.

Training, meanwhile, howled in protest. They claimed they were blind-sided and, while their out-dated lesson plans and textbooks became useless, they demanded my digital boondoggle be suspended.

A year of hostility and stonewalling later, Training convinced my manager to hire an outside consultant for me to groom as my replacement.

I was relieved. With the ghost of transformative manuals skulking over my shoulder, and the specter of legal action for missing and misleading information staring me in the face, it was high time I bid adieu to my tech writing career. I left at the apex of a booming economy, when a middle manager could still leave Silicon Valley with some money in his/her pocket. The lean recession years started the next day.

* * *
*Unique to the semiconductor manufacturing and similar industries. Not associated with ‘cleanroom design,’ defined as the process of copying a design by reverse-engineering and recreating it as a new product without infringing on any of the copyrights associated with the original product.

A TEST FOR TECHNICAL WRITERS

INSTRUCTIONS: Read each question carefully. Answer all questions. Time limit: 4 hours. Begin immediately.

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America and Africa. Be brief, concise and specific.

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes.

PUBLIC SPEAKING: 2500 riot-crazed aborigines are storming the classroom. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin or Greek.

BIOLOGY: Create life. Estimate the differences in subsequent human culture if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier, with special attention to its probable effect on the English parliamentary system. Prove your thesis.

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and drum. You will find a piano under your seat.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Rameses II, Gregory of Nicia and Hammurabi. Support your evaluation with quotations from each man’s work, making appropriate references. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Estimate the sociological problems which might accompany the end of the world. Construct an experiment to test your theory.

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In ten minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. Take whatever action you feel appropriate. Be prepared to justify your decision.

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: cubism, the Donatist controversy and the wave theory of light. Outline a method for preventing these effects. Criticize this method from all possible points of view. Point out the deficiencies in your plan, as demonstrated in your answer to the last question.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: There is a red telephone on the desk beside you. Start World War III. Report at length on its social-political effects if any.

EPISTEMOLOGY: Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your stand.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on science.

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

GENERAL KNOWLEDGE: Describe in detail. Be objective and specific.

The Big Trout Sez…

At this moment all we know is all we have. And in the next moment we know a little more.

  *   *   *

Ducks fly upstream in the morning and downstream in the evening

…from The Secret Life of Ducks, Quacken Press

*   *   *

Believing in yourself doesn’t guarantee you anything, but it promises you happiness.

*   *   *

The Six Stages of a Project

  1. Wild Enthusiasm
  2. Total Confusion
  3. Disillusionment
  4. Search for the Guilty
  5. Punishment of the Innocent
  6. Promotion of the Non-Participants

*   *   *

  • Bad News Is Good News
  • Good News Is No News
  • No News Is Bad News

… corporate customer service incentive slogan, 1992

*   *   *

Don’t let perfection get in the way of good writing

*   *   *

Poetry is the naked truth

Fiction wears socks

…with permission from author/poet/artist Nicky R.