Technical writing was new. In 1981, it didn’t have a name. I was a pioneer. I didn’t chop down forests or slaughter aboriginal inhabitants, but I went where no one had gone before. Breaking new ground was exciting and risky.
The president of the group was named Micah. He was the “money guy.” Micah knew less about computers than me, but wielded serious clout. His money was paying our salaries, rent, and keeping the lights on. The definition of clout.
As the day approached when the team from IBM was due, it was time for me to present the materials I had created with Ruth, a graphic artist who had been my art director at the failed newspaper I’d managed the previous year. (This was well before computers could generate graphics properly.) Ruth was amazing with an airbrush. I’ve never seen better work.
The presentation materials were as perfect as Ruth and I could make them. I had labored over that text and she had done a brilliant job creating graphics that illustrated the product, its unique capabilities and benefits. And so it came time for the pre-IBM all-hands-on-deck meeting.
Micah didn’t like me. His dislike wasn’t based on anything I did or even my disputable personality. He didn’t like women in the workplace. I was undeniably female. As was Ruth. Strike one, strike two. At the meeting, he looked at our materials and announced “We need better material. I’ve heard there’s a real hot-shot in Jerusalem. I’ve seen his work. It’s fantastic. We should hire him.” And he stared at me and sneered.
Onto the table he tossed booklets as well as other promotional and presentation materials for a product being developed in Haifa at the Technion. I looked at the stuff.
“That’s my work, ” I said.
“No it isn’t,” he said firmly. “I’ve heard it was created by the best technical writer in the country.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Me.”
He was not done with humiliating himself. He insisted a phone be brought to the table and he called his friend Moshe in Jerusalem.
I’d worked for Moshe. I had quit because though I liked the man, he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. I had a bad-tempered, jealous husband — something I didn’t feel obliged to reveal.
Moshe gave Micah the name of The Hot Shot. It was me.
“Oh,” said Micah.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. The deadpan faces around the table were perfect examples of people trying desperately to not laugh. Micah wasn’t a guy you laughed at, not if you wanted to keep your job.
It was a moment of triumph so sweet — so rare — nothing else in my working life came close. I won one for The Team, for professional women everywhere. It felt good. It still feels good. We sold DB-1 to IBM — and for those of you who know the history of databases and how they have come to rule the world, the rest is history.
Today, considering the mass of protests by women against the men with many arms who think having a penis makes them extra special — Hah!
The big story a while back, or at least one of them, was a false missile alert that went out to the people of Hawaii saying a missile strike was imminent.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people freaked out, ran around in circles and hid under their desks. It took about a half hour for news to come out that it was a mistake.
What was also not surprising, at least to me, was how many people ignored the warning. They looked at the alert on their cell phones and went “Nah, gotta be a mistake.” And they were right. It was a mistake. It was supposed to be the weekly testof the EBS, the Emergency Broadcast System. Some poor schlub pressed the wrong button.
And in the poor schlub’s defense, it was easier to do than you might think. The system is on a computer. There’s a pull-down menu that has two selections, right next to one another.
So of course, the computer said, “Are you sure?” and he hit “Yes. “Which is not surprising either. It’s a brain thing. You see what you expect to see. You hear what you expect to hear.
The real question is, what idiot set up that program? For something this important, you should have to at least go to separate screens to for each choice. The back-up responses the computer makes should be a little more robust.
This is how the program should respond to you pressing option 1.
“Are you sure?”
“Are you really sure?”
“Really, really, really sure???”
“You do realize you’re about to scare the shit out of millions of people, right?”
“For Christ’s sake, stop looking at porn on your phone and pay attention to me! You really meant to press option 2, the TEST button, right!?”
The EBS system has been around since 1963. We’ve all grown up listening to weekly tests on the radio and TV.
This isn’t the first time an accidental alert went out and nobody paid much attention to it. When I was in college during the 1970’s I worked at my college radio station, WVHC. Back then we got our news from teletype machines.
When a really important story broke, the machines would start dinging like a slot machine that just hit the million-dollar jackpot. You were supposed to drop everything and run to the machine to see what was going on. I was working one weekend at the station, doing a live show. I was there by myself. Suddenly the teletype machine went crazy. I ran to the machine and read the copy. It was an EBS “White” alert.
What was that?
Well, there were three alerts back then. A “blue alert” was a test of the EBS system. When they sent that out, you had to play the “Blue alert” tape cartridge. It basically said:
“This is a test, and only a test, of the Emergency Broadcast System. In case of a real emergency, you will be informed of where to tune to get more information of the actual emergency. Again, this is only a test.”
Then you would hear an annoying tone that was supposed to activate automated radio stations. Or something like that. I always thought it was just put there to be annoying.
Then you had the “White” alert. This announced some kind of “national emergency”. We never knew exactly what that was.
And then there was the “RED” alert. That was the one where there was an imminent nuclear strike, and we had 15 minutes to kiss our asses goodbye.
I can’t tell you what the “White” and “Red” cartridges said because they were sealed in envelopes above our broadcast console and we were NOT ALLOWED TO EVER OPEN THEM! Unless of course, we got the alert which told us to do so.
So, when the “White” alert came over the wires, I looked at it, and at first, I went “Wow, now I get to hear what the “White” cart says!” And then I went “Nah, someone just hit the wrong button.”
I went back to my show. It became a big story the next day. But not for the reason you’d think. It turns out, nobody paid any attention to the alert! Radio stations all over the country looked at it and they all went “Nah, someone just hit the wrong button.”
The government was very upset. They should have been relieved.
I’ll never forget one day back when I was Program Director for the radio station. I came down to the studio. A freshman was on the air. He’d just finished playing the “Blue” cart. When it was over he looked at me, very seriously, and asked,
“Tom, if there was a nuclear war, do I really have to stay down here and play the Red cart?”
At first I was going to say “Yes, it’s your patriotic duty as dictated by the FCC and God Almighty that you spend your last moments on this planet warning your fellow citizens they’ve got moments to live!” Then I realized he would probably not get the joke. Sometimes my humor is subtle.
Instead, I said “Dude, you do what you gotta do”. He was so relieved. Freshmen are adorable.
I grew up during the height of the cold war. In grade school, we had regular “duck and cover drills”. In some, we would have to duck under our desks when our teacher suddenly yelled “DUCK!”
And at least once a month we all had to leave our classroom, go out into the hall with our coats and sit cross-legged against the wall with our coats over our heads.
We were not allowed to sit next to a window. Why? Well, if you were sitting next to a window when a nuclear bomb went off, the flying glass could put your eye out! I’m not making that up.
I will never forget one day, when I was in sixth grade, we were doing our drill when one of my classmates stood up and started shouting: “What is wrong with all of you? Why are we sitting here with coats over our heads? If a nuclear bomb goes off, we are all going to be vaporized in seconds!! This is stupid!”
And just like that, like the moment when your cousin tells you Santa isn’t real, it dawned on all of us: “Wow, that makes sense.”
Needless to say, much crying, hysteria and gnashing of teeth ensued. The Principal was not amused and tried to suspend the child for pointing out the obvious. Fortunately, she didn’t succeed.
Does the EBS system make any sense?
In the case of nuclear war, not really. Do we really want to spend the last 15 minutes of our lives crapping our pants because we know what’s about to happen? As far as the “White” national emergency alert, there has been one time that it should have been used.
No, not that. I’m referring to September 11th, 2001.
Not one radio or TV station played any kind of alert that day! WTF?
We baby boomers grew up with the potential threat of total nuclear annihilation. It was part of our daily lives. Deep down, we never believed it would happen. Even after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the closest mankind came to ending it all, we didn’t believe it could happen.
It’s an odd feeling to be declared obsolete. I had been getting increasingly less relevant for a while, but after the dot coms went down, the high-tech world turned on its ear. Venture capital disappeared and so did the start-ups that had been my bread and butter.
Tech writers were replaced by automated systems that generate “documentation” from embedded engineering notes. For years, no one cared if the material these systems generated was useful or readable. As long as “something” was included with the product, it was “good enough.”
Intelligent, human-based technical support had already been exported. Now, the same thinking was applied to documentation.
Need help? Call tech support on the other side of the world. Let your customers wait on hold, get disconnected. Finally, let them talk to someone who knows nothing and will provide incorrect information. Never provide a call back number, so if the solution doesn’t work — and mostly, it won’t — make them go through the whole thing again.
What could go wrong with this?
Who needs a manual?
A lot has gone wrong with this approach. Pretty much everything, really. Belatedly, a wide range of companies seem to have discovered that having horrible customer service and no documentation is affecting business! Imagine that. Industry-wide rethinking came too late for my career, but it’s nice to see respect for customers seeping back into service. Better late than never. It turns out that customers who buy expensive gear do want documentation. The more expensive the equipment, the better service they apparently expect. Who’d have guessed? I’m sure industry execs were shocked to discover people want manuals. Good ones. Written in a language they understand.
The whole “call tech support” thing got old really fast.
I never intended to be a technical writer. I was going to be a “real” writer. You know. An author. Novels. Literature. I eventually wrote a lot of books, all of them explaining how to do something obscurely technical and computer-related. For a gal who barely scraped through basic algebra and never took a physics or chemistry course, I picked up a lot along the way. I rode the high-tech wave until that fateful day when I was informed “no one reads manuals.”
The world keeps turning. I’m seeing “help wanted” ads for tech writers again. It was a long drought. At last, written (not generated) documentation is making a comeback. I’ve lived long enough to see the full cycle, to watch an industry — and my profession — come 360 degrees back to where it all began.
I cannot blame Windows. It was me, or rather … me and a dysfunctional Malwarebytes plus two “disconnected” (but not really) hard drives … and being told I must become the administrator when I am the administrator.
I got a message from Malwarebytes of a new update. Free. Just install it.
So I installed it and it deleted itself. Completely disappeared off my hard drive leaving a blank. It even removed its short-cut symbol on the desktop. I sighed. I have had trouble with this application before. Malwarebytes fixed it, but it took a week of back-and-forthing with the technical squad and I didn’t feel like it. Just not in the mood.
I tried backing up to see if I could recover the previous version, and I did, but it didn’t restore the broken application. It restored pieces of it, and it didn’t work. It just sat there. I tried one more restore, but that errored out. One of the more annoying problems with Windows operating systems is they never tell you why they are malfunctioning. They throw an error and leave you sitting there, staring at the screen saying WHAT? What was THAT?
So today, I tried to check the weather and all I got were ads that wouldn’t even let the program upload. I deleted what I could and realized … I needed Malwarebytes. That’s why I bought the program in the first place, to prevent this type of crap from happening. It isn’t viruses. It’s just garbage from advertisers.
I decided to restore Malwarebytes from scratch since I have the original receipt and key. This should have worked, but it told me it couldn’t complete, some kind of error. I could “continue and ignore” the error, but I got one of the Windows warnings that if I did that, terrible things might happen to my operating system. And I got another message telling me that the computer couldn’t find its hard drives.
So I diddled around and eventually, everything found everything else. Voila. No idea when they decided to disconnect, but I had a sneaking feeling that underneath all these other errors was that I needed to run the “network” function and connect everything to itself. Mind you, the computer was running fine, except for Malwarebytes, which wasn’t running at all.
I decided to delete Malwarebytes because it was listed as a program, but it wasn’t really and it didn’t work. It wouldn’t let me. It said I need to be an administrator. I am the administrator. I am the ONLY administrator. It is my computer. No one else has ever used it and when I look at my account, it clearly shows me as The Administrator.
I rebooted. I still couldn’t delete Malwarebytes because I needed to be an administrator. Eventually, it wouldn’t let me administrate and it wouldn’t let me out of the loop because I had to be an administrator before I could escape.
At this point, I realized I could not become the administrator because I am, so it was asking me to do something I could not do because I am that thing and I was …
(Drum roll and trumpets, please …)
In a loop. The ultimate circle of hell for computer users. You can’t do it, whatever it is because you aren’t an administrator, but since you really are the administrator, you can’t become one because all those boxes are checked. Sometime around this point I discovered a previously broken piece of the application has been fixed. When I got this computer, the restore system would only let you restore the “C” drive. The “D” drive — which is huge and contains all my documents and pictures which is pretty much what lives on this computer — had to be backed up separately. Which I do anyway, so I didn’t care. But now, you can. So I added the “D” drive to the restore function and things began to roll along. Suddenly, I could create a restore point for both drives, something I haven’t been able to do since I got the computer.
I created one. Astonished that this event had occurred and being suspicious by nature, I did it a couple of times more, calling each restore point “testing 1” “testing 2” “testing 3” until I was finally convinced … it worked. Damn! Was it because I had done the networking thing and the computer finally knew it really has two hard drives?
I then tried to delete Malwarebytes again and it didn’t work. Again. It still wanted me to be an administrator, but by now, I realized this really wasn’t a Windows problem. It was a broken application.
Back to installing a new copy of Malwarebytes. When I got to the place where it told me if I clicked “Continue,” terrible, awful, dreadful and dire things would occur. Possibly making my computer stop working entirely.
OH NO, NOT THAT!
“Screw it” I said … and clicked the (potentially) fatal link. The application rolled merrily along and installed itself flawlessly. It then scanned the drive, fixed everything, and set up a new — FUNCTIONAL — short-cut. I could have done all that stuff in the first place. But to be fair, I would not have known I needed to network the computer to explain to it that it really does have two hard drives. Nor would I have realized — miracle of miracles — I could set a restore point for both drives.
I suppose I ended up on the winning side of today’s “loop warfare.” You want to know about circles? Computers. Looping their digital lives through the circularity of binary heaven. If anyone wants to know why I haven’t been online today, I was in a circle. Me and my computer, doing the little loopy dance. But I won … I think.
Turns out former Vice President (and erratic shooter) Dick Cheney was right all along: Your heart can be hacked. At least if you have a pacemaker, that is. On Tuesday, the FDA recalled 465,000 of the medical devices — the ones that help control your heart beat — citing security vulnerabilities. The pacemakers, which come from health company Abbott (formerly St. Jude Medical), require a firmware update. Fortunately, it can be installed by a health care provider in just three minutes. The models affected include the Accent, Anthem, Accent MRI, Accent ST, Assurity, and Allure.
EPISODE: NCIS – NEED TO KNOW (2012)
Alan Katzenbach, a lawyer, waits for Gibbs with his client, a chief petty officer named Leland Wiley. Wiley was busted for drugs and wants to trade information he has — which he claims involves national security and Agah Bayar, the arms dealer.
Gibbs is interested. Wiley comes over to talk, but grabs his heart and drops to the ground.
Gibbs comes for the update from Ducky. Turns out, Wiley had top security clearance and his workstation is locked down. They haven’t been able to connect him to Bayar yet.
Abby calls Gibbs to the lab. She tells him Wiley’s pacemaker was linked into a computer to monitor it. Someone hacked it and raised his heart rate up to more than 400 beats per minute.
“Somebody murdered Wiley by remote control,” she says.
What does this have to do with me?
Well, I’m glad you asked. This particular episode so intrigued the heart surgery team at Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston where a group of surgeons wanted to see if it COULD be done. Can you “attack” a pacemaker by remote control? One of the people that performed this experiment was my surgeon.
They did it, though my surgeon pointed out you had to be no more than a couple of feet from the pacemaker to do it. But you could do it. So, they contacted the manufacturer who changed the programming to protect it from potential attack. Cool, yes?
I had all that heart surgery in March 2014, not 2013 (how soon we forget) — which I now know was 2014 because I have implant cards to tell people what spare parts are in my body. Unfortunately, none of them indicates which part is which — which ones are implanted heart valves and which one is the pacemaker. Just trying to find out if my pacemaker is being recalled. I mean, my car is being recalled, so why not my pacemaker?
I also had one transplant card for each breast, but that one seems to have gone missing. Oh well … I believe that number is imprinted on the silicon baggies, so I’m sure they will find it as needed.
In theory, nobody can hack my pacemaker because the surgeons fixed it back in 2012. I am safe from remote terrorists. Which is good, because worrying about it was keeping me up at night.
I find it oddly comforting. Garry finds it disturbing. I suppose I can see where he’s coming from. He doesn’t like thinking about the mechanical and electronic stuff that keeps me alive. It would creep me out too, but I’m a bit of a geek and can detach from it on a personal level and get into the coolness of the electronics.
It is kind of creepy. However, it doesn’t matter. No matter how I feel about it, I’ve got this thing in my chest. It keeps my heart beating. If my heart beat on its own, I wouldn’t need the pacemaker.
Every time I go for a pacemaker checkup, they use a little machine and briefly stop the pacemaker to see if my heart will beat without it. My heart stops beating. Talk about creepy. It is an icky feeling. Anyone with a pacemaker knows what I mean.
The blue tooth remote functions work. They are (in theory) more secure than they were before the NCIS episode aired and the guys got curious. Remote functionality is important. After all, I might need a remote tune-up. Blue tooth lets my doctor access my pacemaker from … how far? I don’t actually know. A considerable distance, whatever that is.
Garry — again — doesn’t want to know about it. I pointed out if someone murders me, this is potentially important evidence. He would rather not think about it.
So there we are. Too creepy?
I can feel my pacemaker. It’s in the hollow by my left shoulder. The outline is visible. I can feel the wires, the connections through my skin. It’s impossible to ignore. I might as well find it interesting. It’s part of me, after all.
My granddaughter needed a copy of Windows 7 to try and reload the laptop I gave her last year. I found one, finally, after finding at least a dozen version of Windows XP. How old are the XP operating systems? They are still sealed in their original envelopes. Would they run on newer computers?
I found a sealed version of Windows 7, but I had no idea what computer it was supposed to run on — or even if that computer is alive. I think it may be the one I have in my bedroom. If so, it already had its operating system replaced.
Kaitlin tried to use the DVD, but the computer said it didn’t know what that thing in it was. It didn’t even ask for the serial number. It wasn’t going to get fixed tonight. She finally gave up and called Jeremy, the Guy Who Fixes Computers.
During all this racing around, I realized I had no idea where the stuff that came with my new computer might be. I tore the house apart looking for the set of discs I was sure came with this computer. I did find the ones that came with the computer that Garry is now using. That was when I realized … I don’t have a set of discs for this computer.
It doesn’t have a DVD player or writer. It can’t natively run a disc. I did buy a USB auxiliary for it, in case I want to play music or install something that does come on a disk, but otherwise, I’m searching desperately for something that never existed in the first place. If I don’t back up the system to a hard drive myself, I have no back-up. There’s little point in doing that anyway because they keep changing the system, so whatever you save is useless a few weeks later. I back up data, but as for the system?
How would I use the backup even if I made one?
I sat down. Tired, sweaty, and covered with dust.
The good news? I cleaned out a lot of junk. The bad news? There so much more junk remaining. I have crates of old software and manuals and widgets and connectors for computers I haven’t seen in years. We may not have as much paper as we did, but we’ve got a lot of everything else. DVDs and remote controls and batteries. Truckloads of stuff I have saved for years and have no use for. Never did.
And meanwhile, I am hunting for discs for a computer that came without discs.
I watch a lot of TV. Probably too much. I’m fond of action shows. I’m really fond of all the various comic book shows.
The single thing these shows have in common is they all have at least one computer genius. A girl or guy geek who’s the best hacker in the business. They always have at least a half-dozen computer monitors in front of them. Each one has 10 or more windows open with lines of data scrolling by at about a hundred miles an hour. They can do anything and everything. Instantly.
BOSS: I know this is illegal, but I need you to hack into the CIA, NSA and FBI servers. They have the most secure and impenetrable firewalls ever designed. Can you do it?
COMPUTER GENIUS: I was into all three 15 seconds ago, sir. The ones that work for the FBI can find anything in 10 seconds or less.
FBI BOSS: Our serial killer is male, early thirties, white, and probably living in a two square mile region south of Albany, Georgia. He’s left handed and likes string cheese. We need to narrow our search …
FBI COMPUTER GENIUS: Found him! His photo, home address and a copy of his permanent High School record have already been sent to your phone.
Probably not the real bad guy, but this got me to thinking. What would these shows look like if they were happening in the real world?
BOSS OF SUPER SECRET GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION TASKED WITH SAVING THE WORLD FROM SUPER BAD EVIL DOERS: OK, listen up. You two are the world’s best black hat and white hat hackers. We’ve brought you here because a Super Bad Evil Doer has stolen software that will allow him to access all the world powers’ nuclear codes. He is demanding 1 trillion dollars in ransom or he will launch all the missiles at once and destroy the Earth. You each have a whole bunch of computer screens in front of you with dozens of boxes open scrolling lines and lines of stuff. You have less than 10 minutes to somehow find our Evil Doer and figure out a way to block him from launching those missiles. Can you do it?
HACKER #1: Yes, but we will need to write some specialized software, at least 10 to 20 thousand lines of code.
BOSS: My God! Can you do it in time???
HACKER #2: Already done sir. Now all we have to do is upload it to the Evil Doer’s computer. Ready to send in 3, 2 ….
HACKER #1: NO! NO! NO!
HACKER #2: What’s wrong? OH GOD NO! NO! NO!
BOSS: What’s happening?!
HACKER #1: My computer is shutting down!!
HACKER #2: MINE TOO!
BOSS: Are you being hacked? Have your computers been infiltrated by some kind of malicious software? Does the Evil Doer have a genius hacker of his own???
HACKER #1: WORSE! Windows just installed updates! It’s rebooting so the updates can take effect!
BOSS: Can you stop it!??
HACKER #2: It’s too late! Look! It’s already started rebooting and configuring the updates!
BOSS: There’s nothing you can do???!
HACKER #2: No sir. Look at the screen. It says “Please do not power off or unplug your machine while updates are in progress”!
BOSS: How long will it take to reboot?
HACKER #1: God only knows! Look! It’s still installing update six of ten! This could take an hour! Even more.
BOSS: We have less than ten minutes before nuclear Armageddon! What are we going to?
HACKER #1: Wait! I’ve got it! I can use my smart phone!
HACKER #2: Yes! We will have to adapt about 15 thousand lines of code but …
HACKER #1: It’s done! OK now all I have to do is input and send the kill command. “NEUTRALIZE ALL NUCLEAR LAUNCH CODES”. And … done!
BOSS: Thank God!
HACKER #2: Oh NO! You entered “NEUTRALIZE ALL NUCLEAR LUNCH CODES”!!
HACKER #1: What?! Damn you AUTOCORRECT!
BOSS: What do we do now!!
HACKER #2: You know what? Pay the ransom. I’ve had it with Windows. I mean look, it’s still on update 6 of 10! We’re going to be here all day!
HACKER #1: I agree. Pay the money. This is just too much trouble. I’m telling you, ever since my phone updated to iOS 9.0.1, nothing works right.
HACKER #2: Tell me about it.
As the two hackers walk off into the sunset discussing whether or not upgrading to Windows 10 would make the situation better or worse, small mushroom clouds appear in the distance.