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A number of years ago, when I was just starting out in college, I’d often find myself driving through McChord  Air Force Base (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) in large part because

a) I could, and

b) there were SO many cool airplanes there.

One weekend they had an actual air show, with the Thunderbirds, and aerial demonstrations of guys jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, explosions, the whole works.  It was great.  I got to walk around the flight line and look at planes up close I’d only been able to look at from a distance, and in some cases, I was able to go out and either touch them or actually, the most fun, sitting in the cockpit of a military airplane, and pretending to fly it, you know, just like you do when you’re a kid.

So later that week, after the airshow was over in reality, but I was still reliving it in my mind, I happened to go over to McChord, and look out at that very same flight line, and of all things, found an F-4 Phantom in the very last spot on the left.  This is a plane that sucks down more gas in a minute than your car does all year.  Speaking of cars, I parked mine in a legal zone (no, really) and was just drawn to the Phantom.

I walked over toward it, with my hands behind my back – I wanted to be sure that if anyone did see me and had this feeling like I shouldn’t be there, that my hands were in a very obvious spot of not being able to do anything…

The plane was facing away from me, and I walked around it clockwise, starting on the left side and working my way around.  I looked at, but didn’t touch those elevators that were angled down so sharply.

I walked further, hands still behind my back, and ducked under the wingtip, which is angled up ever so slightly.

I looked into the engine intakes, imagining how much air they must have sucked in as those big J-79 engines spooled up.

I couldn’t see into the cockpit, but walked around the front of the plane – still careful not to touch anything, and made it back around the other side, and finally came to the gaping maw that was the back end of those engines.  The F-4’s engines have what are called ‘afterburners’ – which means simply that if you have the jet engine running at full throttle, and the engine simply can’t put out more thrust, you start pumping buckets of fuel into the hot exhaust – where it – well, it doesn’t ‘explode’ – but all those pictures you see of military planes with 20-30 foot flames out the back? That’s what happens when you hit the afterburners.  It can easily double the thrust of an engine.

Now the J-79 engine was weird, in a way… It was the one engine the military had that, surgeon general’s warning or not, they simply couldn’t get to stop smoking.  If it was idling, it was fine.  If it was in full afterburner, it was fine.  If it was anywhere in between, it smoked.

It was like leaving a big arrow penciled into the sky saying, “Hi! Here I am!”  All you had to do was look up and follow the pencil mark in the sky.  At the end, sure as anything, there’d be an F-4.

It made camouflage and stealth kind of a moot point.

But those engines, oh gosh – I’d seen what they could do in real life.   I was in a KC-135 tanker, shooting pictures of one being refueled somewhere over Missouri.  The plane, call sign “Misty 42”, was in the pre-connect position 50 feet behind us.  Gus, the boom operator (the boom being the big pipe that did the refueling) called out on the radio “Misty 42, forward 50” – as in “come forward 50 feet” – and this 60,000 pound plane that was parked back there behind us, just shot forward those 50 feet and then stopped like he was anchored there – right where Gus could top it off.  And when Misty 42 was finished, I saw something I’d only seen in movies – the pilot banked hard right, pulled hard on the stick, peeled off, and was gone.

So when those engines were running, they would just leave this layer of soot in the sky, and, coming back down from the sky and to that flight line, where I was standing with both hands behind my back, I was mesmerized by the business end of these huge jet engines, some of that soot I was talking about had been left inside the engines, creating a blackness so total it would make charcoal look white.  It gave a totally new definition to the term “black hole” and I was wondering how much of a problem it would be to swipe a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.

It was this wondering that caused curiosity to prevail over common sense.

…but not by much…

I unclasped my hands, and slowly, with my right pinkie, swiped it against the inside of that engine, to see if any of that blackness would actually come off.  It didn’t seem to, I was looking at my pinkie, trying to figure it out, when

“Can I help you, sir?”

Uh oh…

One of the United States Air Force’s finest SP’s (Security Police) was standing there, in uniform, which was as complete as a military cop’s uniform could be…

“Uh, no, actually, I was just looking at the F-4 here”

“Did you know, sir, that you’re not allowed to be here?”

My gosh he was polite…

On the other hand, he could afford to be.  He had Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson snug in a leather holster at his side to help him out, should he need it.

“Sir, see, there’s this red line here on the pavement…”

He was right… there was indeed a red line on the pavement…

“Sir, you’re not supposed to cross that line.”

“Really?”

“Did you see the signs painted on the ground, sir?”

“No – I mean, I was just here the other day…”

“Sir, that was for the air show.  See here?”

…and he walked me over to where one of the signs was indeed painted in a big white rectangle on the ground.

“They’re painted on the ground every 100 feet.”

And I’d parked my car beside the hangar, and walked right out there, between two of them, totally oblivious to the signs, and totally focused on the F-4…

“Sir, can you read the line in red there, near the bottom?”

I started reading the stenciled letters on the pavement.

“Sir, do you understand what that means?”

And things suddenly became very clear.  That line there meant that Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson didn’t necessarily have to stay in their little leather holster, they could have come out to back up the Security Police officer and no one would have batted an eye.

“Yes sir, I do.”

He escorted me back to my car, realizing that I was just a young kid not much younger than he was, likely just as much of an airplane nut as he was, but I was driving a little red Saab (1967 model 96, 3 cylinder, two stroke, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious) at the time, all by myself, and he was driving a blue Air Force police cruiser, with his pals Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson quietly squeezed into the front seat with him.

I was a little more careful from there on out, but I still considered McChord my home away from home.

Fast forward 21 years.  I’d gotten married, had the wonderful privilege of becoming a father, and lo and behold, there was another air show at McChord AFB.  I took my son to see the show, and this time I got to the McChord AFB air show in a little blue Saab (1968 model 96, Deluxe, with a V-4 engine, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious), and this time, I wasn’t alone.

We watched, and heard the Thunderbirds tear the sky apart again – watched the aerial drops, the explosions, all the cool stuff, it was great  – and then as we were walking through the displays – I realized I’d been there before.  Not just on McChord AFB, but as I looked around, wondering why the hangars looked familiar, and why the tower looked so familiar, not just individually, but collectively, I felt this incredible feeling of déjà vu, suddenly I realized I was standing on the spot – THE VERY SPOT where that F-4, the SP, and Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson had been those many years earlier.

I’d told my son the story you just read more than once, to the point where he could do the little swipe with his pinkie just exactly like I did it, and I knew, I just knew, I had to show him that spot, and take a picture of the sign on the ground, with the red letters, and the red line on it.

And I did…

Sure enough… it was still there.

I got the shot of him with the sign in the story I’d told him so many times.

Fast forward again – to the year 2010, I’d done a presentation in Tucson, and found that after the presentation, we had a few hours to do some touristy things, and given the fact that I am an airplane nut, and that the last time we’d been in Tucson I’d only been able to drive past it, the Pima Air Museum was definitely on our list.  It has hundreds of airplanes, and in the few hours we had, we tried to see as many as we could.  We walked past some, paused for a moment at others.

And then I saw an F-4 and stopped cold.

A Phantom.

“Michael! This is it! This is the kind of plane I was talking about!” –

…and I did the little pinkie swipe with my right hand.

He knew exactly what I meant, and before I could do anything or even stop him, he’d gone to the back of the plane, and I suddenly knew what the SP had seen those many years ago.

Without me saying another word, Michael had not only gone to the back of that Phantom – but gone to the right engine, and with his left hand still held firmly in the small of his back, like I’d done when I was the very same age, he took his pinkie, and swiped a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.  ­

And no one stopped him.

© Tom Roush, 2010


You could see the man had had a hard life as he guided his electric wheelchair to our Scout Troop’s Christmas Tree lot, where my wife was working her shift.

He stopped, and for a moment, didn’t do anything, just breathed and smiled.

Both hands were wrapped around his paper cup of coffee, just like we all hold it when it’s cold out, partly just to hold it, partly as a hand warmer.

There was no question why he needed the wheelchair, he was missing one leg, and the other one had a different look to it.

Cindy asked if she could help him.

“Is it okay if I just sit here for a bit and enjoy the smell?  I can’t afford a tree this year.”

He didn’t ask for a giveaway, just asked if it was okay if he sat there for a bit.

“You can sit here all day if you’d like”

He looked up at Cindy, who for that shift wasn’t wearing her reindeer antlers, and wasn’t wearing her little “Cindy Lou Who” jingle bells, she was wearing a Santa hat – but instead of being made out of red material and white fuzz, it was made out of camouflaged material, and white fuzz.

“Why are you wearing hunter’s camo?” he asked.

“It’s not hunters’ camo, it’s in support of our troops.  My nephew is in the Army, and so I wear it to remember him.”

“I was in the Army, too,” he said. “They didn’t do this though,” he said, gesturing toward where his feet used to be.  “Diabetes.”  And he explained how he’d lost both legs to the diabetes and had gotten a prosthesis for that one.  He waved Michael, our son to come over, and pulled his pant leg up just a bit – and the leg underneath wasn’t skin colored, but the same camo as Cindy’s hat.

“I’m gonna get the other leg in January, but for now have to go with this.”

It became clear that not only would he not have a tree, but this lonely man didn’t have anything or anyone to help him celebrate Christmas – so he had come to the Tree Lot to find a little Christmas spirit to help nourish his soul.

But letting him go back to an apartment devoid of Christmas just didn’t seem right.

My wife found some of the branches we’d trimmed off other trees and used a little bit of wire that had been holding some wreaths together.  She wired them together, so they became a little Christmas tree all by themselves, and gave it to the gentleman.

“Here, no one should be without a Christmas tree at Christmas time.”

He put his cup down and reached for the branches with both hands, looked up at Cindy for a moment, and took the ‘tree’ from her with a reverence not normally reserved for a bunch of branches held together with a little wire.

He held the branches to his face, hiding it completely, and inhaled the aroma deeply.

He held it for a long time, and when he spoke, there was a catch in his voice, and it was a little rougher as he wiped his eyes and told Cindy, “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s done for me in a long time.”

“Now you come back next year and get a tree when you can stand on your own two feet and put it up yourself.  We’ll be here.”

“I will, believe me, I will!”

Merry Christmas, all – and happy birthday Cindy.


The back of the bus looked empty until I spotted the ringing cell phone laying on the seat.

I looked around.  No suddenly averted eyes, no rustling of newspapers.

I picked it up, rather nervously.  It was a foreign sounding voice, calling from Hawaii.

I’d just gone through security, and found myself a little unnerved at what was happening.  I’d accidentally made it through with some level of, we’ll call it “contraband” that I’d forgotten I had in my pockets, and was still a little jumpy.

Too much Hollywood , I suppose.

All I wanted to do was return the phone, I didn’t want to get involved in any international drama or intrigue, I just wanted to get back to work.

The battery on the phone was almost dead, and the fellow in Hawaii seemed to know some friends of the phone’s owner, so I gave him my number and had him call them and have them call me.

Sure enough, a few moments later – my phone rang, and a young lady, for whom English may not even have been considered a third language, tried to talk to me.  I could barely understand her – and she handed it to someone who spoke better English.

They were in the south end of town, I was in the north end, and the bus I was on was heading north-er.  I gave them the address of where I’d be, and the fellow said he’d be there ASAP.

Problem was, he didn’t know the city, and even with the GPS he had in the car, he got lost. The one-way streets didn’t help him at all.

I stood in the December drizzle in front of my building with my Subway cold cut combo in a plastic bag, expecting him to come by any second.

Ten minutes passed.

What I didn’t realize was that this would turn into a game of electronic Marco Polo, which, under different circumstances, could actually be a lot of fun.

I saw a silver Ford Explorer go by with two Chinese people looking intently at the building.

“That must be them” thought I, and I called.

Marco: “Are you driving a Silver Explorer?”

Polo: “What is that?”

Marco: “Uh – It’s a car… made by Ford…”

Okay… Scratch one Explorer…

Ten minutes later, still nothing.  I called again, got the young lady who didn’t speak English, who handed the phone to the driver.

Marco: “What are you driving?”

Polo: “A black Mazda MX-6 – I’m almost there.”

Okay, a black Mazda MX-6…

…just like the one that came rocketing around the corner as I hung up the phone.  Yeah, that would pretty much qualify as “almost there”.

I figured if he had his GPS, he’d be back in a second.

Turns out I figured wrong.

Not knowing this yet, I just stood there and waited.

And waited…

And waited…

Finally I called again and asked where he was – after several attempts, I got it out of him that he was near a McDonalds, and a Bank of America.  I could almost see that from where I was at, and at that moment, saw a trolley go by.

Marco: “Do you see the orange Trolley?”

Polo: “Yes! We do! Are you near that?”

I was blocks away, but I could see it.  He said he was walking up the street, but I couldn’t see him.

Marco: “What are you wearing?”

Polo: “A black jacket and blue jeans.”

How ironic… So was I, “I’m wearing the same thing – – and I’ve got a subway bag… in my right hand…”

I mean, if I was already into this whole international intrigue thing, I may as well go all in.  I suppose I could have told him it was a cold cut combo on wheat, hold the olives.

Marco: “What do you see around you?”

Polo: “AMC Theatres”

That didn’t do me any good, there weren’t any – no, wait, it did tell me something… it told me why we weren’t seeing each other… we were on somewhat parallel streets, that actually joined right about where he’d parked.

Marco: “What’s the name of the street you’re on?”

Polo: “Olive.” (the kind that weren’t on my sandwich)

I was on 7th and Stewart.  7th and Olive intersected a block from where I was.

Marco: “I’ll meet you at 7th and Olive.”

He said something in a language other than English – and hung up.

I got to 7th and Olive, hung a right, and crossed the street – and sure enough, a tall Asian fellow in a black jacket and jeans, code named “Polo”, was walking toward me, uh, “Marco”.  With him were two young ladies, one of whom was the owner of the phone.

I held it out – she laughed and took it.  The young gentleman in the black jacket shook my hand, introduced himself as Jeffrey, and thanked me for getting the phone to the young lady.

I smiled, said, “You’re welcome,” and headed back to the office with my sandwich, my 45 minutes of international intrigue over for the day…


I used to work at a local health care cooperative, and my job there was to be what they called a ‘program assistant.’ This meant I wasn’t very far up the food chain, but my job involved quite a bit of monkeying about with computers.  I was developing this tool that would allow the automation of the data gathering of the department (an outbound call center) and to be honest, was using the wrong app for the job, but that’s what I was told to use.  As a result, this application took hours and hours to calculate the overwhelming amount of data it needed to calculate.  My work week was such that I’d work days Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, and work evenings Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Sometimes I’d have to let the machine chew on this data for the full 18 or so hours between the end of a day shift on a Wednesday, and the beginning of an evening shift on a Thursday.

I worked with, among other people, this wonderful fellow named Jim, who had both a sense of humor and a couple of quirks.

You know how every now and then you’ll leave the house in the morning and the tag on the back of your shirt collar will be stuck out?

…or how you might have returned from a ‘bio break’ with some of the associated paperwork still attached?

…or how you might have, worse yet, forgotten to button, zip, or snap something in your hurry to get somewhere?

Most people would somehow be embarrassed to tell you about that.

Jim was not.

He was fastidious about his appearance and just assumed everyone else was, too, so he was the kind of fellow who’d tell you any and all of that.

And instead of letting you go through the day with people snickering behind your back, Jim would tell you.

Instantly.

And, it turned out, he would expect you to do the same for him.

But if you had some leftovers from lunch in a spot that could be embarrassing in the next meeting,

Jim would tell you that.

If you had something stuck between your teeth, or some fuzz in your hair, or that label sticking out, Jim wasn’t embarrassed to point it out to you.

Lord love him, he’d tell you that.

So one week, I’d been the recipient of several of these comments, and I figured it was time to tweak the rules just a bit.

He wandered by my desk one day…

“Say Jim – you’ve got a piece of spinach or something stuck there between your teeth there…”

“Oh gosh, thanks! How long’s it been there?”

I almost, almost felt guilty about it, but managed to keep a straight face as I lied, and said, “Oh, about two hours…”

The absolute horror as he clawed at his teeth was just priceless, but it set something in his mind, where he clearly felt the need to get even.

And one day, he did…

I had that program crunching data, and when it was done, it would say “ready” in the bottom left corner of the screen.

So one Thursday morning, I was at home, and I’d set the program to run the night before, and just had this niggling feeling that something was wrong – so I called Jim on the phone and asked him if he could go over to my monitor and just look at it and tell me if it said “ready” in the bottom left corner.  If it did, then the calculations would have completed and I’d be able to move on. If it didn’t, they were still going on, and my day would be spent waiting for them to complete.

Jim seemed incredibly eager to please that day, and was willing to drop whatever he was doing to help me out…

He even volunteered to go over to my desk and call me from there while he was looking at my monitor.

This piqued my interest, because while Jim was friendly, and Jim was helpful, Jim didn’t generally volunteer to do stuff like this.

So I waited until about a minute had passed, and called my office phone from home.  Jim answered.

“Okay, so does it say “ready” in the lower left corner of the screen?”

“No, Tom, all I see is this big message that says, “system error, please see your LAN administrator”

Uh… LAN administrator?

At the time, as I learned later, we were running our client programs off a central server, and every night that server got rebooted, so if you had a file open in one of the programs running from that server, there was a good chance that it would be toast in the morning, especially if it was one that was doing a lot of calculating…

So as I was thinking this through, realizing that while it sounded a little silly to be asking my LAN administrator about this, I realized there might be some truth to the message, and it started to bug me – until my thoughts were interrupted by a stifled giggle from Jim.

He knew I’d been working on that program for a long time, and the data was quite valuable, so it was important that it be accurate, and messing with the one guy in the department who actually knew the computer system was a rare opportunity, so Jim took it – he laughed this wonderful Georgia belly laugh that just made it hard to stay mad at him.

However…

It didn’t prevent me from getting even, and as I rode the bus to work that day, I realized that what he’d told me was – well, in simple terms, a lie…

And messing with the one guy in the department who actually knew the computer system, while a rare opportunity, did have its risks. I pulled out a napkin, and wrote a short program on it, in which I penciled out the logic for making his computer tell him a lie that was far more believable, far more insidious, and far, far more evil.

And I have to tell you, I smiled.

Now I knew it was possible, but I didn’t know the details on how to write the code at the time, so I did what anyone back then did.  I called product support, and I’d invariably start off with something like, “Hey, I’m working on some code where I want to mess with a buddy of mine and have it freak him right out when he opens a file and have him think that his computer’s crashing…”

“Uh, sir? We’re not allowed to do that.”

Somehow I figured that would be the case…

“Okay, fine, no problem. “

– and then I completely sanitized the request, making it generic about coming up with message boxes, and what would happen when certain buttons were pushed and so on.

I could actually hear the grin in the tech’s voice as he started to help out – with an ‘official’ problem – but both he and I knew what I was really doing, and he was in on it.

It actually took a lot of work – over several weeks, back and forth on the bus, writing logic, rewriting logic, testing it out, finding the right timing, how to get it to him, and so on.

The program I was using was Microsoft’s Excel, while this was a spreadsheet program, it also had a programming language behind it that you could get to.  This programming language was called VBA, or Visual Basic for Applications.  It was powerful, it allowed you to automate just about anything you could do on the computer.  You did this by writing short programs called macros.  You could also create what were called “auto_open” macros. That meant that as soon as you opened the workbook you’d put the macro in, the macro would fire, or start running, and whatever commands had been stored in it, would run.

Now there were people out there who realized the power behind this and did very bad things, destroying people’s data.  That falls into the exquisitely uncool category of things to do with code, and is why you can’t put macros in people’s workbooks without them knowing about it anymore.

But you could then.

And the thing is, I had no desire to mess with data, I just wanted to mess with Jim’s mind, and in doing so, I learned that I had to have the macro start running about 4 seconds after he opened whatever file it was in – that was enough for him to have recognized the file, orient himself to what he wanted to do, and likely do whatever the first thing was he was going to do in that file.  He would then immediately associate what came next with his own actions, not mine.

However, it was me who wrote what came next.

And what did indeed come next was an alarming series of beeps, at which point an even more alarming message would come up.  Given what we all knew about computers at the time (which was very, very little), it was actually a fairly simple process, from a code perspective, to totally mess with his mind psychologically, and that’s what I did…

My rule – in all of this, was to make sure that absolutely nothing on his machine got harmed, so over those weeks, I perfected it.

And this is where it got evil.

Since I’d written it – my goal was to have him experience that moment of raw terror when you think you’ve lost everything.

J-u-u-u-u-s-t like he did with me…

Only better.

The tough thing was setting it up, but one day, weeks after this initial “spinach” comment, he called me up with this innocuous question about an excel file that had a bunch of zip codes in it.

“Sure, I’d be happy to take a look at it… why don’t you email it to me?”

And Jim, not having any idea what he was doing, did just that.

In two minutes, I had his zip code problem fixed, but also had a little macro put into it so the next time he opened the file, life would get interesting.

And…

I felt like a kid on Christmas morning, just impatient as all getout, wanting him to open the file RIGHT NOW – but I had to wait, to be patient, and to just let it happen…

And sure enough… it did… about 10 minutes later, the phone rang.

It was Jim.

And Jim was calling me for “support”.  Now remember, I’d been dealing with product support people on this thing for some time.  I knew the drill.  You sounded calm, you sounded compassionate, and you sounded confident. I took a deep breath, put on my ‘guru’ hat, warmed up my ‘guru’ voice, and answered the phone.

“Hello?”

The voice that came out of the receiver sounded far more like a dying duck, or maybe a dying chicken than Jim ever had.

“To-o-o-o-o-o-m?”

Me: in my best guru voice…

“What’s up Jim?”

“My machine just made a bunch of beeps it’s never made before and I just got a message that says I’ve got an unrecoverable hard drive error.  It’s asking if I want to reformat my hard drive now.  What do I do?”

“Well gosh Jim, reformatting your hard drive will erase everything… what choices does it give you?

“It says ‘yes, no, or cancel’”

“Hmmm… Are any of them – you know, like ‘emphasized’ or anything like that?”

“The ‘no’ button is.”

“Okay, given that, I’d click on either the no or the cancel button. Let me know what happens.”

The terror in his voice was just that, terror.  His machine had all the departmental information on it.  If it went down, there was no backup.

It would be bad.

He clicked on the ‘no’ button.

But one little note we have to remember… I was the one who had decided weeks ago what would happen if he clicked that ‘no’ button.

And it worked like a charm.

Another message box popped up.

“Reformatting your hard drive will erase all data, do you wish to continue?!!!!”

I stifled a giggle, thanked God for mute buttons on telephones, and took another deep breath…

“Gosh Jim, I don’t think you want to continue on that, that’d be bad.”

He clicked ‘no.’

At that point, I had several things happening…  There was a very short beep, along with the simultaneous appearance in the status bar (where I’d taught him to look for the “ready” notification earlier) of a message along the lines of ‘Formatting disk: x percent Complete” – and for disk activity, I just had the file save itself a few times so that you’d hear the drive, see a percentage change, hear the drive, see the percent and so on…

“FORMATTING DRIVE!???”

“Gosh Jim, I’d shut the thing off, maybe you caught it in time…”

He rebooted.

We went through it again, he chose different options, instead of ‘no’, he chose ‘cancel’ – and all it did was get him to the formatting section faster.

He shut it off again…

“Can you come over?”

I was waiting for this.

“Sure Jim, no problem…”

I went over to his desk, and kneeled down beside him like I’d done many times before, assuming the position of helpful, friendly problem-solving guru….

He fired the machine up again, and opened the file again.

“See, every time I click on this cell right here…”

Four seconds later, I heard my little creation at work…

BEEP BEEP BEEP!

And sure enough, there it was…  Subtle enough with the question mark, but the words were more than terrifying enough to get his attention.

“Hmmm… Well, Jim, something’s clearly amiss here – let’s reboot it and try again, sometimes that clears things up…”

He hard-booted the machine and when it came up, he opened the file again .

“Every time I click on that cell – it does that…”

Of course it did…

BEEP BEEP BEEP!

A striking cobra’s head couldn’t have shot out any faster than Jim’s hand did as it hit the power button of the machine.

After the machine restarted, he opened the file again, and I tried, tried so hard to keep from letting the guru persona crack.

I could see beads of sweat on his forehead, he was really worried.

“So what’s going on? Every time I click on that cell – it does that…”

“So… don’t click on that cell…”

And sure enough, next time, he didn’t click on that cell, and the message came up again, the beeps, the “unrecoverable disk error” – he clicked ‘Cancel’ and got the next message.

Sure enough… right after that, the drive started whirring and the status bar started showing a percentage increase message…

“Well, Jim – if it hasn’t done anything the last few times it’s gone through, just let it run till it’s done.”

Against everything he knew was right and holy, Jim let it run all the way through – and nothing happened…

The sky did not fall.

The earth did not quake.

But most importantly, Jim’s machine was not dead.

In fact, it was still running, and running just fine.

He was stunned.

His eyes were focused on the screen, and he was truly baffled…

“Tom, I’ve never seen anything like this before… Are you familiar with this?”

Oh, what a perfect way to ask the question.

I looked left, then right, then looked at Jim, and in a conspiratorial voice, quietly said, “Intimately…”

Time, for Jim, stopped at that moment.

He was looking at the monitor, but wasn’t seeing it – his mind had gone elsewhere.

If Tom was ‘intimately’ familiar with this – then…

He looked at me, and in that wonderful Georgia accent, asked, “Did you write this?”

The look on my face was all the answer he needed.

“For me?”

I couldn’t help but grin a little.

Then there was this literal confusion of emotions that spread across his face, one right after the other.  It was clear he wasn’t sure whether to hug me (because his computer, and all his data, was okay) or whether to throttle me (because I’d just about given him a heart attack…)

And then he looked at me, and realized that this was done… over a number of weeks, specifically for him and no one else.  And it added another emotion, a bit of awe.

I didn’t expect that, but it was fun, and kind of neat.

I’d written the macro to keep running for a bit before popping up one last dialogue box.

And when I left, on his monitor was one little dialogue box with a single button in it.

And as far as I know, Jim still hasn’t clicked on that one.


Some time ago I was visiting my in-laws in Michigan, and had to learn how to make coffee all over again.

The thing is, living in Seattle, and having a daughter who’d worked at a, shall we say, ‘Moby Dick’ sized  purveyor of coffee (therefore getting me the beans at a lower price than normal) I’d gotten quite used to grinding my own beans, brewing my own coffee, and knowing what I’d get in the end.

It wasn’t scientific perfection I was after, it was simple things, like knowing how much water to put in (until it looked right), and how much coffee to put in (until it looked right), and then letting it brew (until it dissolved any spoon used to stir it) and then it WAS right.

But their coffee maker was different, and at the time, I don’t think there was a Starbuck’s anywhere near there.

I tried to make coffee using their little coffee maker, and did manage to succeed at that, but the next step was so remarkably unsuccessful that I could do nothing but stand there and wonder what had gone wrong.

In trying to pour coffee into a mug (note: you shouldn’t need a degree in physics or thermodynamics to do this) – I managed to pour it all over the counter.

At first, I just thought just wasn’t quite awake enough and maybe I’d just missed, but later tried it again, and realized that the lip of the coffee pot was bent in such a way that instead of the coffee shooting out toward the cup, a good part of it would actually shoot backward under the coffee pot as I was pouring – and miss the mug entirely.

And I’d have almost a third of the coffee on the counter, not in the cup.

Day after day I tried to fix this, pouring faster, slower, different angles, aiming at different spots in the cup – didn’t matter, it just poured out onto the counter, and I’d clean it up.

One day, my father in law walked up and watched with mild amusement while I was trying once again to pour a mug of coffee.  This was the guy who’d made coffee with this crazy little coffee maker for years, and I figured that over that time, he must have found some sort of secret way to do this right.  So that morning, out of just a touch of frustration, I asked him, “How on earth do you pour this without getting it all over the counter?”

And the answer was simultaneously simple, basic, and brilliant.

“I just pour it over the sink.”

You… just…

What?!

And he showed me.

He poured the coffee into his cup, and it spilled just about as much as it did when I poured it –but he did it over the sink, and while it spilled, it didn’t get on the counter.

And it made me think about the question I was asking and the problem I was trying to solve.

Which was more important?

Getting coffee into the mug?

Or keeping it off the counter?

Because if I could solve one of the problems (getting a decent amount of coffee into the mug) while keeping it off the counter, I could effectively solve both problems at once.

And if spilling a little coffee was irrelevant, then the problem was solved.

You could substitute anything for the two options there, and in this case, a simple solution that didn’t even cross my mind solved all the problems I was concerned with at once.

It was a win-win…

I got the coffee I wanted.

I kept the counter clean.

…and I learned a lot about solving problems from a little off the cuff comment from my father in law Bruce.

Bruce Harris, Coffee Pourer extraordinaire (and cool father in law)

Bruce Harris, Coffee Pourer extraordinaire (and cool father in law)

Tom Roush

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