Jerry’s Story: The Student (Early Years)

If you haven’t been following along, you might want to start with the first post in this series: Jerry’s Story: First interactions. This is the 7th installment in the series.

Delving into Jerry’s experiences as a student takes us back to some of his earliest memories, even before starting school. In this installment of Jerry’s Story, we’ll explore Jerry Weinberg’s childhood and schooling through high school, with a few peeks beyond. We’ll cover other childhood experiences like Scouting and sports. Jerry and I have done our best to accurately document his memories, some of which are more than 80 years old. We might not have gotten all of it right, but I’ve done the best fact-checking I can.

Jerry remembers as early as age 3 how he spent time with the neighborhood gang in his Chicago neighborhood, hanging out in the alley and on the tops of the garages that opened up to the alley. It didn’t occur to him at the time to ask who owned the garages, and the homeowners never seemed to catch them there.

He was too young to be aware of any major illegal activities the older members of the gang may have been up to, but he did get involved with the fighting with other nearby gangs. He remembers that someone threw a brick that hit him in the head. When he was about 6 years old, Jerry had an altercation with a bully after school. He was within sight of his own house, where his father was watching from the porch. Jerry appealed for his dad to save him, but his dad said he had to take take of it himself. So he wrestled with the bully and threw him off of another nearby porch, breaking the bully’s arm in the process. Jerry’s dad seemed to be proud of him. This had a big effect on his sense of self-reliance.

Another formative moment was when Jerry visited an elementary school for the first time. This was at Gregory Elementary School, which Jerry would also later attend. Jerry says –

I must have been three or four. My mother took me with her for a conference with my older sister Charlotte’s teacher. I was given a brush and an easel with about six pots of paints. I painted a garage, but the only way I could think of to indicate the wooden siding was a rainbow series of stripes, using every color I had.

When the conference was over, the teacher came over for the first interaction I’d ever had with a teacher, one I’ll never forget.

She said, “That’s nice. What is it?”

“A garage.”

“Oh, no,” she corrected. “Garages don’t have rainbow stripes.”

My first experience with schooling, one I remembered when we finally had a garage that needed painting, outside of Lincoln. I’ll let you guess what I did.

Later, in Colorado, I ran across someone else’s garage painted in rainbow stripes. Take that, teacher!

Jerry had a lesson in how things can be done differently than you expect when he visited the Brookfield Zoo. He remembers watching a gorilla eat an orange by putting it whole in its mouth, then spitting out the peel. This wasn’t a technique he was physically able to try. But much later in life, he learned how chimpanzees peel bananas from the bottom, though he had always opened them from the stem end before. He decided to learn a lesson from the chimps, so he now opens his bananas from the bottom.

When he was 6 years old, Jerry saw his first movie. It was a horror movie, The Cat and the Canary. He saw it in a theater, because that was the only way to see a movie in the 1930s. He was sitting in the last row with a wall right behind him. He still remembers the scene where a bony hand reached out of a secret panel in the wall and stole a necklace from a woman in bed. This scene spooked him so much that he still doesn’t like to sit in the last row of seats in a room against the wall. Maybe that wasn’t the most useful lesson he could have learned.

When he was 7 years old, Jerry’s family moved to northern Chicago. Jerry transferred to Daniel Boone Elementary School. He was exceedingly bored at school. By the time he was in fourth grade, school officials had skipped him two grade levels ahead. His IQ was measured at 181. He was separated from the rest of the kids most of the school day and was taught by a private tutor. The tutoring generally went well, except for the day that his tutor told him he had learned all of the math that there was (he was sure this just meant he had learned everything that the tutor was able to teach).

Jerry’s favorite activity in elementary school was recess, even though he was often bullied by the other students. He did well at playing “line-ball,” where someone would bounce a ball against a wall and they would all try to catch it. He wasn’t very good at throwing the ball, but he excelled at catching it. His success at line-ball did not lead to more bullying, though his academic success did.

The troubles he had as one of the “smart kids” are reflected in a passage he wrote many decades later in his fiction book Quantum String Quartet

Anyone who’s ever been smart knows you have to hide your power. Otherwise, people try to control you, to take advantage of it.

In elementary school, Jerry didn’t know how to hide his intelligence in order to escape from the bullying. He did eventually figure it out, and has learned from the experiences of other smart people. He now likes to teach people how to be happy “in spite of their intelligence.”

Jerry almost won a spelling bee while in fourth grade. He made it to the final round–he was up against an eighth grader. He was given the word “vertices,” which was not a word he was familiar with. Nonetheless, he produced the spelling v-e-r-t-i-c-e-s, but the judges told him he was wrong. They said the correct spelling is “vertexes.” After missing out on victory, he went home and looked up the word, finding that both spellings were valid. He protested the outcome of the spelling bee, but this didn’t change the result. The sense of unfairness that Jerry felt from this stayed with him for the rest of his life.

There was a formative experience in music class at Boone. The teacher didn’t like the sound of his voice, so when the class was singing, she told him to lip-sync silently. This may have suppressed any desire he might have had to sing. Still, since then he has made music with a kazoo, a jug, a washboard, and a gut bucket, as well as playing a bugle at Scout Camp. He long had a desire to learn to play bagpipes, and he acquired a practice chanter that beginning bagpipe players use to learn, but never got very far in learning. He says he’s envious of those who have developed their music talents. However, he has always loved listening to music.

Jerry’s sister had a 78 rpm record player and only one album–Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He listened to the symphony repeatedly. In college, he would study in the library while listening to Mozart. He later bought a hi-fi and could afford only one album, Mozart’s Hunt Quartet. He now has recordings of all of Mozart’s compositions, and many other classical works.

When he completed the 8th grade at Boone Elementary School (there was no middle school between primary and secondary school), the teachers there wanted to send him to the University of Chicago, which had a policy of accepting bright students straight out of the 8th grade. However, the university was three hours away by streetcar to the south side of Chicago. Jerry’s parents didn’t want to send him to a dorm (likely because of his age or the cost, or both). So he went on to high school. Jerry wasn’t enthusiastic about college at this point, so he was happy with this decision.

Because he had skipped two grades, he was only 12 years old when he started high school as a freshman. He lied to his classmates about his age so he could blend in better. There had been talk earlier in elementary school about skipping him ahead one more grade level, but he refused to do this because this would have put him in the same grade as his older sister, who had skipped a grade herself. If he started attending classes with his older sister, it would be much harder to hide the fact that he had skipped ahead.

He had a scare when everyone in gym class took a physical ability test. The results were normalized by age, and the gym teachers used his true age for the calculations. His young age gave his scores a boost, and Jerry was pronounced the best athlete in the high school. The gym teachers couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t proud of this feat. He was nervous that the other students would do the math and figure out that he won because he was so much younger than them. But as far as he knew, none of the other students ever learned his true age. That included his 14 year old girlfriend, who would have been mortified to know she was dating a 12 year old boy.

Rainbow Garage

A reproduction of the rainbow garage. Original art by Gretchen Faught.

For several years, Scouting was an important part of Jerry’s life. He was a Cub Scout, and then he moved up to a Boy Scout troop. As a Boy Scout, he still volunteered to help with Cub Scout meetings. He quickly rose to the rank of Eagle Scout. One positive memory that he has from scouting was the the clear structure for earning awards. In many parts of his life before and after his experiences as a Boy Scout, Jerry felt he was denied the awards he had earned. In contrast, he felt that the non-competitive criteria for earning merit badges and ranks in the Boy Scouts were fairly administered. But again, he worried about his classmates discovering his age difference.

Though a Boy Scout can remain a youth member until age 18, teenagers often drop out of Scouting around the time they enter high school because they find other activities more compelling. Jerry didn’t want to look childish to his older peers, so he stopped going to his Boy Scout troop’s activities shortly after starting high school. He doesn’t recall anyone in his troop asking him why he hadn’t come back, and he had no friends in the troop that he missed seeing. He had been getting increasingly annoyed at having to travel to the troop meetings that were a significant distance from his house.

Eagle Scouts are now encouraged to mention their Eagle rank on their resume to give them an advantage in the job market. But that wasn’t the case for Jerry when he was a Boy Scout. He never mentioned it on a resume and it didn’t occur to him to bring it up to anyone at all. He says it was like his stamp collecting–something that didn’t seem worth talking about.

Several of the skills Jerry learned as a Boy Scout have stuck with him, including knot tying, recognizing trees, sewing, woodwork, electrical wiring, and first aid. He has bandaged a lot of wounds since his scouting days. The most dramatic use of first aid skills was when he was attending the University of Nebraska. He was using a circular saw while building a homecoming display for his residence house. Someone bumped into him, causing the saw to cut his thigh so deeply that he could see the bone. Several pre-med students who were nearby came over. Three of them fainted after seeing the wound, and the rest didn’t do anything to help. Jerry tore off his shirt and made a tourniquet for himself. He used a hammer he found nearby to tighten the tourniquet. He was angry with the other students for not helping, and he even had trouble convincing someone to take him to the student health center. Jerry was awake while a doctor sewed up his leg. The doctor wanted to reassure him that the wound wasn’t too bad, so he told the story of how he had recently treated a farmer who had tried and failed to kill himself by shooting himself with a shotgun, giving graphic details of the wounds. This did not help Jerry get through the experience, of course. He still has a 4-inch scar from the injury.

Jerry was bored with many of his high school classes. One experience didn’t help; as he describes it–”I’m in English class and we had to read a novel. HAD to read a novel, like who wouldn’t want to read a novel?” The assigned novel was The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy.  He read the portion of the book that had been assigned, and decided that he liked the book, so he finished reading it in one evening. The next day, the teacher led a discussion on the assigned reading. Jerry’s contribution to the discussion revealed that he knew what happened later in the book. The teacher rebuked him for reading ahead, which has stuck with him as being a ridiculous thing to complain to him about.

Jerry has much fonder memories of his auto shop class. He learned engine repair in this class, which is something that was lacking in his time working in his dad’s body shop. He remembers rebuilding a tank engine with pneumatic automatic transmission. He also took a course in electricity, where he built a small electric motor. There was no coverage of electronics, just basic electricity. He didn’t really have opportunities to tinker with electronics. He did enjoy using a ham radio to listen to radio programs from across the world. He used to hide it in his bed when he was supposed to be asleep. And he tinkered with a pinball machine that his father had, adjusting solenoids and relays.

Another useful class was print shop, where he learned how to set movable type. The students didn’t get to operate the printing press, but they learned a lot about formatting documents. Jerry learned the origin of the meaning of “upper case” and “lower case” (there were two separate cases for the type, with the upper case type conventionally propped up higher and behind the lower case). He felt that his hands-on experience with formatting documents physically in the print shop helped him later with using a computer to build documents, and he saw that others who didn’t have this kind of print shop experience struggled more with formatting documents. The print shop printed all of the school’s paperwork, including hall passes. Jerry is coy about whether all of these hall passes were used by authorized personnel.

Jerry remembers an important lesson on approximation from his trigonometry teacher. Jerry had been opposed to using any kind of approximations, thinking that it’s far better to do only fully precise calculations. What he didn’t know at the time was that he had already been using approximations any time he used a slide rule or a table to do a calculation. Drawing on his war-time experiences in the Army, the teacher explained how to do a milliradian (or “mil”) approximation. Jerry said he objected to using an approximation. Though most of Jerry’s teachers would have squelched his objections, the trig teacher listened. I’ll let Jerry tell the rest of it:

Unlike most of my teachers, he took my objections seriously, so he told us a story. He described Big Bertha, the largest cannon ever built. It could send a tonnish projectile over thirty miles through the air. ‘It could have been fired across the English Channel and into a trench in France.’

He then did two calculations: the most exact trig calculation, using tables (which were, of course, still approximations), and the mil approximation. Then he computed the difference. I don’t remember the exact number, but I do remember his exact sentence: ‘If you hit your enemy soldier in the left eye or the right eye, it doesn’t matter.’

In his last semester at Omaha Central High School, there was one last math class he hadn’t taken yet–solid geometry. Jerry remembers that the teacher was blonde, beautiful, and old, that is, probably 22 years old, which to 15-year-old Jerry, was really old. He found the class interesting for a few days. Then he finished the textbook and got bored listening to the lectures. Maybe because of boredom, and maybe because he wanted to win the teacher’s attention, he started acting up in class. She only tolerated this for a day or two before she talked to him about it after class. When she asked what was wrong, he said that he was bored, thinking that this was a smart alec remark that would get a rise out of her. But she took it seriously, saying “There’s not a whole lot to this subject. Not really enough for me to fill up a whole semester. So what interests you?” Still trying to be a smart alec, he replied “Gambling.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s good. I don’t know much about gambling, but I’ve heard there’s a lot of math to it. It’s called probability or statistics.” This was news to him, and he also really liked that she wasn’t speaking down to him. Then she said, “I have an idea that might not be boring.”

“What’s that?”

“Instead of hanging around in this boring class, you could go to the library and learn about probability and statistics applied to gambling, then you could come to class and I’ll give you an hour to teach the others about it. What do you think?”

Jerry jumped at the chance and studied like a fiend all semester, focusing on the game of craps. During the final week, he gave his lecture, working out all the odds in craps. He doesn’t think his classmates enjoyed it much, but he had a great time doing it. The way the teacher dealt with him in this class left a permanent impression on him.

Jerry has a broad interest in competitive and recreational sports–he calls himself a sports dilettante. Though he wasn’t usually committed enough to excel in a sport, he would study the sport extensively so that he understood it intellectually even better than the more serious participants.

There wasn’t so much study involved with his brief try at boxing in his Boy Scout troop. All of the boys had watched boxing on television, but otherwise didn’t have any training when they put on boxing gloves and went at it. In Jerry’s first bout, he won with a knockout, and he got excited about doing more boxing. He fantasized about being a star boxer like Joe Louis. Then a week later, he faced off against the same opponent again, but this time it was Jerry who was knocked out. All of his excitement about boxing dried up at that point. Getting a knockout was fun, but he didn’t want to be knocked out ever again.

Jerry enjoyed playing 16-inch softball. Softball had originated there in Chicago, with a ball with a 12-inch circumference, and the 16-inch variant was a direct descendent of the original game. Jerry’s contemporaries just knew the game as “baseball” or “softball.” This variant used 10 players on the field, and none of them wore gloves. This was slow-pitch softball–he remembers that there were a lot of hits and few strikeouts.

Jerry worked as a caddie at Tam O’Shanter Country Club near Chicago for part of a summer. He would sometimes work for 72 holes in one day while carrying two golf bags. Working as a caddie allowed him to play golf when the club wasn’t open, because he otherwise couldn’t afford to play. He says he was a pretty good golfer.

Tam O’Shanter sometimes hosted national golf tournaments. At one of them, he got to meet Joe Louis. Though Louis was best known as a boxer, he also had an interest in golf. Jerry listened to the white members of the country club make bigoted remarks about Joe, who was African-American. Jerry’s school was well integrated, so he hadn’t heard much of that kind of talk before. It made him feel so awful that he quit being a caddie right after the tournament.

Jerry also tried working as a tennis ball boy. He never played tennis, though, because the players where he worked treated him with contempt. He had no interest in playing tennis with people who would treat a ball boy like that.

He tried basketball on a club team in Chicago–at 6 feet 3 inches, he was a tall center for the time. He earned the nickname “Swede” because of his height, blond hair, and blue eyes, but not because of any actual Swedish heritage. His coach didn’t seem to know much about basketball, though, because his philosophy was “never pass, dribble as far as you can, then shoot.” Jerry’s team never won a game.

At 240 pounds, Jerry was a good candidate for his high school football team. Players on his team played on both the defense and the offense. Jerry tended to play center on the offense and end on the defense. None of the players wore helmets, and he says it’s a wonder he can recall anything after playing football without a helmet. The coach was abusive to the players on his team. At one game, the coach managed to get the opposing team’s star player isolated from the rest of his team. The coach ordered his own team to surround him and the opposing player so no one else could see what was happening, then the coach kicked him in the stomach. Jerry quit the team after that. This experience left him with a lasting distrust of all authority figures.

Jerry had much more fun playing for a local club team that was sponsored by the Chicago Bears and coached by two of their players. He stayed on that team until his family moved to Omaha near the end of his junior year. He was later offered a scholarship to play football at an NCAA Division II school, Drake University in Iowa. At the time he got the offer, however, he had no plans to go to college, so he turned it down.

In high school in Omaha, Jerry tried track and field sports like the mile run and shot put. He had some success with this, earning a few third place ribbons.

As the end of his high school tenure at Omaha Central High School drew near, there were a few more disappointing events where Jerry felt he was treated unfairly. The student commencement speaker was going to be chosen using an audition. Jerry wrote a speech and went to the audition, where he found six other students, each accompanied by a teacher acting as sponsor. He hadn’t heard that he needed to have a sponsor. The judges weren’t sure what to do with him. They gave him a chance to audition his speech, but it didn’t appear that anyone was listening. The teacher sponsors talked to their students while Jerry gave his speech. Of course, his speech was not chosen. It may not have been a stellar speech, but he would have liked to have a fair chance with it.

At graduation, the school gave awards to the students who had taken all eight math glasses that they offered and earned an A in all of them. Jerry had taken several math classes in Chicago, and after moving to Omaha, he took every advanced math class they had, getting a higher grade than all the other students each time. And yet, he got no award. When he asked about this, the answer was “How do we know your Chicago high school had the same high standards as Central?” Because he had taken some of his math classes at a different school, he was not eligible for the award. Because all of his grades from Chicago were discounted, he had no chance of being valedictorian. He didn’t receive any awards from the school at all. It’s easy to imagine the level of disappointment this would have caused.

The people who ran Omaha Central must have felt they had a reputation to protect. Jerry remembers them proudly asserting that they were the second best high school in the nation. He never heard who had done this ranking, or whether there was any desire to take the number one spot. Since then, Jerry has counted 20 different people who assert completely seriously that their own high school is the second best in the nation.

In the next installment, we’ll continue to follow Jerry’s education into college and beyond. Here’s a teaser. Jerry went to a birthday party in Omaha when he was about 15 where he ate 36 hot dogs. This was the beginning of a new activity for him that continued into college. Watch for more about this unlikely competitive eating champion.

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Taking Care of Our Own

This is a true story about a harrowing rescue. Just replaying this story in my head gets my adrenaline up again. But really, this story is about family.

To set the stage, imagine an old farmhouse on the plains of West Texas. My great-grandfather built the house, and his descendants have now protected it with a family trust. The outhouse is still there, though the house was adapted for indoor plumbing some time ago. I love how you can identify such a conversion by observing the bathroom taking a corner out of a room rather than being built into the floor plan. This farmhouse and the land around it are important to the family primarily for the one weekend a year when they gather there for a family reunion. The numbers vary a bit every year, sometimes with perhaps fewer than 100 people coming, and sometimes closer to 200. But they keep coming every year. The extended family has long outgrown the capacity of the house, so for that one weekend and several days on either side, the old farm looks like a campground with RVs all around the house and a few brave souls pitching tents in between.

160 feet above the rolling plains

The view from 160 feet above the rolling plains.

There are reunions for other branches of my family, but this is the only one that I attend every year that I possibly can. I think it’s because this is where I’ll find my first cousins and many other relatives that I remember as far back as I have memories. It’s great to see the traditions of the reunion carry on even though my great-grandparents are long gone, and their many kids who lived in that farmhouse are mostly gone too.

The reunion happens at the peak heat of the Texas summer, because that’s when Great-Grampa’s birthday falls, and well, traditions die hard even when we’re facing the blazing sun and nighttime surprise thunderstorms. There are no name tags. I’ve actually started asking people I’ve seen for decades what their name is (or at least the name everyone calls them, which is often different), because they had never once said it to me directly. We’re just all comfortable sharing space without any formalities.

Most years during the reunion, a group of people set out to hike a spot near the Caprock Escarpment, which is a few miles away and clearly visible from the farmhouse. The Caprock is where the rolling plains rise abruptly up to the high plains. We love exploring this part of the landscape that our ancestors used to see from the house every day. The part we like to explore is a narrow ridge that juts out from the Caprock like a finger. As best as I can calculate, the top of the ridge is about a 160 foot vertical rise from where the base starts to level out below, and another 90 feet to where we start the hike. For people who are used to scaling mountains, it doesn’t appear to be a very challenging hike, but there are plenty of extra challenges along the way, including rattlesnakes, loose rocks on steep slopes, black widows, prickly pear, and very little shade from the intense summer sun. There is clear evidence of the presence of wild pigs on the trek to the base of the ridge. In fact, the only established trails are the ones made by the local animals. The clearest evidence I’ve seen of the pigs was the two I hit on the highway at night that tore up the front of my car. They can easily tear up a person, too, but I’ve never encountered one during the day except that one that we barbecued, and man was that good eating.

A few years ago, my then 67-year-old mother decided to try the hike, despite her frail knees. She hadn’t gone on the hike for some time, and she felt that this might be the last chance she had before her body couldn’t take it any more. It’s no coincidence that my father had not gone to the reunion that year. None of us who were there had the gumption to tell her “no,” but Dad certainly would have. She brought a walking stick, and offered an extra one to me.

Mom and son

We paused for a picture on the way to the ridge’s north slope.

Eleven people covering a broad age range joined the hike that morning. Mom fell once on the way to the base of the ridge, but she got right up, not much worse for the wear. She started slowing down as we got higher, taking breaks more and more often. The last 10 feet or so is nearly vertical as you scale the hard top of the ridge. Mom was so exhausted we had to drag her up. As I pondered the wisdom of dragging her up there, I thought about how the route down on the other side would be more direct. I took a picture of her looking across the landscape from the top that’s one of my all-time favorite pictures of her.

favorite picture of Mom

Mom is exhausted but happy. Facing north from the top, the Caprock is visible in the distance.

We rested at the top, hoping to regain some strength. All of the younger crowd headed back down, leaving my aunt, my uncle, me and Mom. As we snacked and rehydrated while we feasted our eyes on the expansive landscape below, we saw that Mom wasn’t recovering any of her strength. She seemed to be suffering from heat exhaustion. We had started our hike early in the morning, so we now had several hours before we would get any relief from the heat. Mom had difficulty standing up, and it was hard to imagine her getting back down from the ridge under her own power. I tried to stand so I would cast a shadow over her as we discussed what to do. The temperature was about 95º, a good deal less than the highest we’ve seen, but still we could feel the heat beating down on us. The breeze we often enjoy on the top of the ridge was sparse that day.

We decided to call for help. Cell phone coverage has improved in the area in recent years, but it still was challenging to find a signal from the top of the ridge. We needed more water, and something to repair a blown out sole on my uncle’s shoe. We asked for a tarp so we could fashion some sort of sling to get Mom down the ridge. We got through to the family at the farmhouse, and the rescue was underway. The ATVs that several families bring to the reunion proved useful in getting supplies to the base of the ridge quickly, and soon we had a bag full of water bottles and a roll of duct tape. Where would we be without duct tape, after all? But no tarp was offered–all the tarps that could be found were being used as ground cloths for tents, and they all had hundreds of sticker burrs embedded in them. We offered Mom more water, but she was feeling nauseous and couldn’t drink any more. She also tried to eat some cheese crackers, but couldn’t stomach that either. I’m thankful for whoever included some sports drinks in the bag, because I needed the extra electrolytes at that point. I had brought just enough water for an uneventful hike, but not enough for a rescue.

We struggled to make a plan to get Mom off the ridge. My aunt (Mom’s sister-in-law) sat with her, giving her a bit more shade, and kept talking to her to keep her calm and awake. They sang some songs, but they had to use some discretion a few times. They changed their minds about singing “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.” I vetoed “I’ll Fly Away”, though I love that hymn, because I know Mom wants to include it in her funeral. Some of our fears were cracking through our facade.

At some point, the decision was made to call for an air ambulance. However, the emergency medical services denied the request because we were too far away from where the helicopters were. It was pretty clear that we were on our own.

I grabbed the walking sticks and walked to the edge, thinking that I would throw them down the hill and recover them later. I needed to lighten my load. But I stopped myself, remembering my Boy Scout training about building a stretcher. If only we’d gotten that tarp! I walked back to the group, which now included several people from the farmhouse encampment who came to the top to help. I mentioned building a stretcher somehow, and one cousin immediately took off his T-shirt and offered it to me. I practically slapped myself over having forgotten that part of my first aid training. Another cousin offered a shirt, and soon we were building a stretcher with two walking sticks, two T-shirts, and the extra duct tape. I felt a little guilty for not thinking to use my own shirt, but I was feeling pretty exposed to the elements already and I was glad to have that little bit of protection from the sun.

lightning strike at night with a blue sky

A lightning strike near the farmhouse in the dead of night lights up white clouds and a blue sky.

We decided to go down the slightly steeper south side because it would give us easier access to get vehicles to the base. There’s a trail taking a nice easy slope angling across the south side, but it’s too narrow to accommodate the width of two people plus a stretcher. So we decided to go straight down. I’m guessing it’s about a 35º slope on average, starting with a vertical drop down several feet. We loaded Mom on the stretcher and down we went. We had six people holding the stretcher at a time, so if one or two people fell, the stretcher would still be secure. We found out pretty quickly that we had to build a headrest to keep Mom’s head from banging on the rocks that were just a few inches below her head on the high side of the stretcher. More duct tape to the rescue!

As people got tired, someone else would rotate in to hold the stretcher. It was rough going. Normally when walking across the rugged terrain, you take a wandering path, avoiding large rocks, cactus, and scrub brush. But with six people walking in the same direction, you don’t have much choice of where to get a foothold. I lost my footing a lot, and one time I fell completely underneath the stretcher, sliding downhill for a bit. We all had to take a break at one point, so one inventive family member sat down near the downhill end of the stretcher and held that end in his lap so we could set the stretcher down.

After we started our descent, we saw a patrol car that stopped at the end of a dirt road in the distance. Two sheriff’s deputies made their way toward us from the car, and one of them scaled the hill to meet us. He didn’t hesitate to join the rotation of stretcher carriers. Our call for help from the authorities didn’t come up totally empty after all.

My 21-year-old daughter also made her way up the hill and joined the rescue. I was fatigued at that point so I gave her my spot. She explained that she had been told that only menfolk were going to help and she should stay behind. She said “That’s my Granny up there!” and got in the car anyway. There might have been a few, uh, emphasizing words she added that I chose not to remember. I congratulated her for sticking to her guns. She was an accomplished athlete after all, and could certainly be a help.

Back at the farmhouse, tensions were high as everyone waited for news of Mom’s well-being. After the first call for help, adrenaline peaked as supplies and people were quickly gathered and sent on their way. But then that energy had nowhere to go. I had another daughter there who had some health issues, and she had argued with her sister about staying behind. Many of the remaining men were champing at the bit to join the rescue party, but others were pleading with them not to get in the way if there was enough help already. Some people were praying, and some were endlessly pacing. The person who is our best organizer for many things related to the reunion expended a great deal of effort coordinating the phone calls. It seems the anxiety was higher at the farmhouse than it was even on that hill, where we were focused on the task at hand.

Pretty soon I had given all that I could. Having helped Mom up that darn hill, I didn’t have the energy to get her all the way back down. My uncle and I both sat down on the hillside to rest. We had more than 30 people participating in the rescue operation, some on the hill and some providing support at the bottom. The stretcher crew continued down to the base where one of my cousin’s Jeep was waiting. I managed to get myself the rest of the way down. We loaded Mom in the back, lying down. We heard that an ambulance was waiting on the nearest paved road. Another cousin drove the Jeep, tearing through the landscape, right over prickly pear patches and even a few of the thorny mesquite trees. Our driver hadn’t driven the Jeep when she came over to the Caprock, so she didn’t have a good recall of what the route was. We lost all sense of where the roads were, and I had to use my phone to get our bearings to find our way to the ambulance. I couldn’t believe that the tires on that Jeep were still intact, though the paint was all scratched to hell. Our driver ignored us as we warned her that the car was taking damage. She was on a mission. The Jeep’s owner shrugged it off later, saying that that was her contribution to the mission.

Mom had this recollection of her journey down that hill–

I cried most of the way down, but I covered up my face with a damp bandana because I thought that seeing that would make things harder for the ones carrying me. And I prayed that we were making enough noise to scare away snakes. I was so afraid someone would get hurt because of my determination to hike. I was exhausted and felt old and stupid. And my hair kept getting stuck in that duct tape and that hurt. For some reason, both my feet were hurting badly, but I didn’t say much about it because I just couldn’t think of anything we could do about it.

prickly pear cactus

Prickly pear cactus tends to hide in the scrub. The fruit are good to eat if you have the patience to get all the tiny spines off.

We rolled up to the ambulance that was waiting some distance down the road. When we said that Mom had fallen, the paramedics were concerned and insisted that they take her to a trauma center some distance away. We told them that the fall wasn’t really the issue, and we convinced them to go to a smaller hospital in a nearby town.

I headed back to the farmhouse, where family expressed concern about my own condition. I was exhausted and dehydrated, as were most of the other rescuers. I found more electrolytes and took the coveted seat next to the window air conditioner in the house. You have to get pretty close to the air conditioner to get much of the benefit from it in the poorly insulated house. After a while I had recovered well enough to go with a carload of people to visit Mom in the hospital.

It was a pretty routine case of heat exhaustion. Perhaps it would have become a life-threatening case of heatstroke if we hadn’t taken action when we did. Mom’s sister, who’s an X-ray technician, insisted on reviewing the X-rays herself to make sure there was no damage from the fall. In the hospital room, someone noticed an orange trail on the floor. Mom explained that they must be crushed cheese crackers that had been in the cargo pocket on her pants. Her brother, who was also holding vigil in the room, dropped down into his chair and said “Oh, thank God.” He had grabbed her leg there earlier and felt a sickly crunching sensation. He had been afraid he had crushed the bone. Only then did he realize how silly that fear had been.

Mom checked out from the hospital, and we all went to the Dairy Queen for supper. It occurs to me that eating out with my aunts, uncles, and cousins is a rare event, though we’ve eaten home-cooked meals together countless times. I like the homemade food better. Mom had been very reluctant to call my Dad to tell him what was going on, but around this time she finally filled him in. I don’t think he’s going to miss another reunion.

Many of us who were involved in the rescue were due to go home that same day. As I drove to get back to my daily routine back home, it felt surreal having been through that experience. It still feels that way.

A few days later, the rescue was written up in a local newspaper. The article was filled with wild inaccuracies, like the slope being nearly 90º, and it minimized the family’s role in the rescue. The deputies were commended, and I’m fine with that. I was glad to have them there. Mom made commemorative bandanas for the family with “We take care of our own” printed on them. Those who participated in the rescue got a star added on the bandana. I can’t help but think of star-bellied Sneetches, but I digress. Mom kept the stretcher as a souvenir, and the guys didn’t mind not getting their shirts back.

the terminus of the ridge

The terminus of the ridge viewed from below the south side.

I’ve had a few years to reflect on this experience. Is my family special? Wouldn’t other families also take care of their own? Surely they would. We’re special in how tight-knit we are, though our links to each other on the family tree get looser with each new generation. We still show up in great numbers to see each other every year, so we had plenty of able hands at the ready when someone needed help. Maybe another family would have been smarter about letting a 67-year-old grandmother scale a hill, or maybe they would have figured out how treat heat exhaustion while still on the ridge so she could come down under her own power. Who knows? I like my family’s sense of adventure, though I do regret both the family and public effort that was ultimately required to recover from being a little too adventurous.

Most people in the family are proud to identify as rednecks, with the conservative politics and religion that goes along with it. That doesn’t describe me at all, but they let me hang out with them anyway. I can identify with the part of the macho redneck bravado that motivates people to get a job done without whining when it really needs to be done. But the part where the women are expected to stay in kitchen needs some updating. I hardly ever listen to country music, but I was happy to find common ground with my aunt recently when she was complaining that old-fashioned country music is better than what the kids are listening to now. Right on. One family member who played a prominent role in the rescue is someone who has made decisions both before and after that day that I take strong exception to. Typical dynamics found in any family, I suppose. He certainly earned some respect that day, and it showed me that no one is all bad all the time.

There's beauty all around in the harsh landscape

There’s beauty all around in the harsh landscape. Mom, you don’t have to climb up high to find it. 🙂

I’m glad that Mom got her one last chance to see the beautiful landscape below the Caprock with her own eyes. Actually, knowing her stubbornness, I won’t guarantee that it was her last chance, but she darn well better have a creative plan for getting back down if she ever tries it again.

Wikipedia: overcoming the difficulties in joining an online community

I have given myself a challenge that I’m enjoying right now – immersing myself more deeply in the Wikipedia community. The culture that has developed around the people who add to and edit Wikipedia bears some resemblance to the culture that we see with users of services like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack, but it’s much more complex. I aim with this article to convey a sense of the richness an online community can develop, and the frustration that an outsider can feel, much like a physical community. Maybe I’ll convince you to be a Wikipedia editor too.

First I’ll mention another online community that encourages its members to make contributions that everyone can benefit from. I made an attempt to become a productive contributor on Stack Overflow, a web site for asking and answering questions about computer programming.

Stack Overflow uses a reputation system, where various contributions you make will increase your reputation score. Additional features becomes available when your reputation grows. I thought that building a good reputation on Stack Overflow could be something I could add to my resume. I answered a few questions, and was able to especially build reputation when I answered questions that no one else had answered. But I had trouble finding questions that hadn’t already been thoroughly answered within minutes of being posted. And I was chastised a few times for not strictly following the rules when I posted answers, which was disheartening when I had put effort into answering the question. I understood that a community should have rules, but I lost interest before I really learned enough of the rules to be productive on the platform. I went back to only reading the content on the site, which, like many programmers, I do often.

I created my Wikipedia account way back in 2003. According to the contribution log, which shows almost every detail from the beginning, this must have been because I wanted to add a new article about load testing. I had made some edits to other pages without an account, but I needed to have an account to create a new article. That article is still there today, and I’m happy to see that after hundreds of edits, some of my original phrasing is still there.

Wikipedia newbies would be wise to hold off on creating new articles, however. I have added a total of seven articles. Of those, two have been converted to redirects to other articles with a broader scope, and one was deleted. I created an article about Brian Marick in 2007. Amazingly, it lasted until 2016 before someone claimed that he was not notable and eventually got it deleted. Recently, someone created an article about Janet Gregory, and within 24 hours, someone started a proposal to delete it. It was deleted 8 days later. For many topics, perhaps especially for articles about people, it’s quite difficult to prove that they meet Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. It must be sad when someone sees that they’ve been declared non-notable. I will probably not be adding new articles any time soon.

My long tenure on Wikipedia has caused others to assume that I’m well-versed in the rules of the road, but with my off-and-on interest in contributing, I’m just beginning to absorb the elaborate set of rules and conventions that editors are subjected to. In response to an edit I made to the article on Jerry Weinberg that was not up to snuff, one editor told me “Surely you know by now that ‘he told me so himself’ is not considered to be adequate sourcing for anything here…” Unlike a traditional encyclopedia with articles written by trusted experts, everything on Wikipedia is expected to be backed up by published independent sources.

I find it rewarding to make edits that improve the content on Wikipedia. Doing the research to justify the edits helps me to build my knowledge. I can refer to the article later when I want to refresh my knowledge of a subject, and so can anyone else. But the benefits are greatly reduced if the changes aren’t accepted by the community. In the case of my edits on the Jerry Weinberg article, I swallowed my ego and asked how I could change my approach. This led to a healthy discussion, and I was successful when I used a different approach. It’s often not easy to engage in this sort of discussion when I’m still smarting from having someone erase my work.

I recently decided to get more involved with Wikipedia because of efforts by Noah Sussman and Alan Page. Noah put a lot of effort into improving the Wikipedia article on software testing. Then Walter Görlitz, another volunteer Wikipedia editor, removed a big edit that Noah made to the article, an action that Wikipedia calls a “revert.” A heated discussion ensued, and little progress was made on overhauling the article like Noah wanted to. Alan issued a call for help to figure out how to effectively improve the article (A call to action: let’s fix the Wikipedia page on software testing), and I and several others joined a discussion on a chat group outside of Wikipedia to strategize.

I decided to take an agile approach; make small changes and watch to see how the broader Wikipedia community responds. A few of us have also branched out and looked at the many other articles related to software testing and found that as a group, they aren’t very well coordinated or well written. We’ve made numerous small changes to these articles now with a great deal of success, though we haven’t made substantial progress on the original goal of completely revamping the software testing article. I’m starting to make somewhat larger edits now and I hope others do too.

Instead of wondering how Walter would react to my edits, I decided to engage with him directly, so I invited him to open a dialogue. I’ve seen that he puts a great deal of effort into improving and reverting vandalism on a large number of Wikipedia articles. Walter tells me that the small edits I’ve made successfully has improved my reputation with him, and he is now less likely to revert the changes I make. Unlike Stack Overflow where reputation is tracked in one place, on Wikipedia your reputation is earned individually with each editor.

I’ve found that the best way to get consensus on Wikipedia is to use the “talk page” feature on the site itself, so everyone who is following the changes on the page have an opportunity to respond. In fact, the Wikipedia community prefers for discussions like this to take place on Wikipedia, otherwise some editors may get suspicious that one person is trying to recruit a cabal of “meatpuppets” to artificially amplify their influence. Our chat group is very loosely coordinated, and the edits we make are all an individual decision, so I’m not worried that we’ll raise this suspicion, especially now that we’re using the talk pages more.

The response to an edit can vary significantly based on who is watching for changes on the article. Many areas don’t happen to have anyone watching closely, so whether the edit is useful or not, it may stay around for years. If someone feels strongly about maintaining the quality of a particular article, you’ll be held to a higher level of scrutiny. I’ve also found that newly added information may be held to a higher standard than what is already in an article. Once I added some information to an article without including a citation to back it up, and the information was removed, despite the fact that most of the information already in the article was also not referenced. It was just easier for the editor who did it to revert a recent edit than to address the broader problem. You can avoid this if you scrutinize your own contributions very carefully.

If you’re afraid you’ll have difficulty getting edits on Wikipedia to stick, take this to heart, from the instructions to “Be Bold” with your edits:

Think about it this way: if you don’t find one of your edits being reverted now and then, perhaps you’re not being bold enough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, that load testing article has become a bit of a mess.

My thanks to Simon Morley and Walter Görlitz for helping me improve this article.

Respect for the old folks

I enjoyed reading Andrew Wulf’s blog post, “The Future Is Always Different Than You Can Imagine. He looked back 36 years to his first day of work as a programmer:

On that first day I wore a suit to work. Everyone did. No one had a computer on their desk. We had a bullpen with terminals (both IBM and Harris) that you signed up for time on and thus were shared resources. On that first day I met two “old guys” who did batch programming on the IBM, they worked on multiple projects at a time as they got only one compile-run cycle a day. They had started programming, of a sort, in the late 1950s on some kind of analog computer involving plugging in wires. They seemed so old and wise. They were much younger than I am now.

These “old guys” seem very much like my friend, Jerry Weinberg, who used digital plugboard computers after he started working for IBM in 1956. His experience with analog computers was mostly in replacing them with more modern digital computers. It’s fun to imagine how he viewed the old folks using those analog computers when he first started programming.

Do we look at the old folks now with the same respect that Andrew did in 1981? I respected Andrew when I was working with him a handful of years ago, though he didn’t seem that old then. I think it’s difficult for the old folks to get much respect now. I’ve seen some who don’t want to embrace the technology changes as fast as they’re coming, so they find pockets in the industry where older technologies are still used. Or they use the authority they’ve gained as “old folks” to hold their organizations back from adopting the changes.

I do appreciate it when I find the industry veterans who are following along with the changes, like when Jerry talks about agile processes and ties them back to things he’s been doing all along. Andrew, thanks for the perspective.

 

 

Jerry’s Story: More Early Jobs

I found a few jobs I left out of the “Early Jobs” post, and they’re worth sharing, so here’s an addendum. As always, I feel obligated to point my new readers to the first post in this series: Jerry’s Story: First interactions

It was during Jerry’s undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln that Jerry got a summer apprentice job at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota. The year was 1952 or 1953. His job was to find a way to recycle the abrasive material that comes off of sandpaper when it’s being used. The challenge was to capture it and then separate it from the adhesive that had adhered it to the paper. He put both his physics and his chemistry coursework to use on the project. He was working for Arthur Fry–Jerry called him Art. Jerry doesn’t know whether any of his sandpaper ideas were developed any further, because he left the job before the summer was over. He missed his girlfriend, Pattie, so he want back to Omaha and married her.

Jerry lost touch with Art, but he did notice when Art achieved his greatest success a few decades later. Frustrated by the bookmarks in his hymnal that frequently fell out, Art put a new adhesive that had been developed by a co-worker on the back of a small piece of paper, and the Post-It Note was born.

Jerry and Pattie were in Lincoln for the start of his next school term. They rented an apartment in a former mortuary, with the kitchen set up where the embalming room had been. Jerry remembers that kitchen fondly because it was very spacious and yet had no unfortunate reminders of the room’s former purpose.

By the next summer, they both found jobs in Milwaukee. Jerry’s older sister, Charlotte, worked at a department store in Milwaukee as a buyer. Her boyfriend invested in a new business, the Eddie Mathews Bataway. But the business needed a lot of help, and Charlotte recommended Jerry. Pattie got a job in a hat factory in Milwaukee, so they moved there for the summer.

The Milwaukee Braves had recently moved from Boston, which threw Milwaukee into a frenzy of excitement over getting a Major League Baseball team. The Eddie Mathews Bataway wanted to harness some of that excitement. Eddie Mathews played for the Braves, and would later be called one of the best third baseman of all time when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mathews was a partner in the Bataway business.

The Bataway was in trouble. They had bought pitching machines from the lower of two bidders, but still investing a significant amount of capital. The machines arrived unassembled and with no assembly instructions. They didn’t know how put them together, and the supplier of the pitching machines had disappeared. Every week they delayed was costing thousands of dollars, and once baseball season was over, they would be closed for the winter.

Charlotte told her boyfriend that Jerry was a “mechanical genius.” While he was growing up, Jerry had tinkered with his father on a wide variety of things including home repairs, fixing electrical devices, and doing body work on cars. This gave him the reputation and the skills to help the batting cage business. Jerry was hired, with the promise that if he could get the pitching machines working, he would get the cushy job of managing the Bataway. They rented a garage, hired two gofers to help, and Jerry got started.

Less than a week later, two of the pitching machines were working. The Bataway was open for business as Jerry worked on the rest of the machines. He had to make several adjustments, including filing and taping the “pitching hand,” which was two long parallel “fingers” on an arm creating a track for the ball to roll up as the arm came up and flung the ball forward.

Eddie Mathews made a few appearances at the Bataway, which was a thrill for Jerry, who had tracked baseball statistics from a young age and enjoyed playing baseball himself. Jerry was able to hone his skills in the batting cages when business was slow, but he never found an opportunity to play on a baseball team again as his career progressed. But an even bigger thrill was the money he was earning, more than he had been paid for any job before.

The most memorable part of the job for Jerry, though, stemmed from the fact that the Eddie Mathews Bataway was built on top of a landfill that spanned at least five acres. The landfill supported a population of flies of legendary magnitude. Jerry said,

Swatting flies was about the most interesting thing about the job, unless one of the machines broke and had to be fixed. I soon set myself a goal of killing 100 flies a day, but that turned out to be too easy, so I raised my goal to 200. That also was too easy, and by the end of the summer, I was up to 500 a day.

A parade of inventors came by to pitch their fly control solutions. One that they tried consisted of an inch of yellow liquid in the bottom of a gallon-sized jug. This actually worked so well that the jug would be full of flies in about four hours. No matter how many jugs they put out, they would all be full in short order, and the flies kept coming. Jerry abandoned all hope of slowing the fly onslaught and swatting flies just became a way to pass the time. He constructed a giant fly swatter that could kill a square foot of flies in one blow, all the while recalling the fairy tale “The Brave Little Tailor” who killed seven at one blow.

At the end of the summer, Jerry and his wife moved back to Lincoln for the next term at the University of Nebraska. But Jerry’s most lucrative job to date left them with no more savings to pay for school expenses. Most of their money was spent at restaurants because the apartment they rented in Milwaukee had an ancient stove with an oven that had two inches of grease in the bottom. They never used it. Jerry was angry with himself and he resolved to start being more diligent about saving money. Their last $100 was spent on a speeding ticket they got in the middle of the night in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin on the way back to Lincoln.

Now, more that 60 years later, Jerry hasn’t gotten another speeding ticket since then. He feels a connection to Mount Horeb that perhaps helps him to remember to watch his speed. Jerry likes the fact that his middle name, Marvin, is the name that people occasionally choose when they Anglicize the Hebrew name Moshe or Moishe. The more common Anglicized name is Moses. The Moses many of us know received the Ten Commandments on Mount Horeb. And Mount Horeb, Wisconsin was named after the biblical mount. Through this tenuous connection, Jerry has managed to both improve his driving record and save a lot of money.

Coming up in the next installment, we’ll explore more about Jerry’s schooling, starting back before he enrolled in elementary school: “Jerry’s Story: The Student (Early Years).”

Jerry’s Story: Early Jobs

This is the fifth installment of the series of posts about Jerry Weinberg’s career that starts here: Jerry’s Story: First interactions

Jerry says that he learned a lot from every one of the many jobs he has held. His entry into the world of work started about the year 1944, at age 10 or 11, when his family lived in Chicago. He took a job delivering a weekly newspaper that contained mostly advertising. He had a big route in the northern suburbs. To carry all of the newspapers, he tied a cardboard box to the handlebars of his bicycle using a rope. His pay came from what the recipients of these newspapers paid, but payment was voluntary. Jerry was tasked with asking the recipients to pay for it, and of course not very many people did, so it wasn’t a lucrative job for him. His clearest memory of the job was his last day. A sudden rainstorm hit while he was on his route and far from home. With no way to protect his cargo from the rain, he watched the newspapers and the box disintegrate into pulp. When the box fell on the ground along with its contents, he reflected on how much the job was worth to him. He abandoned the remains of the newspapers along with the job itself, and pedaled for home. He didn’t tell his employer he was quitting, and he doesn’t recall ever hearing from them again.

Around the same time, Jerry also started to earn money by babysitting. He liked kids, but he also liked seeing how other people lived. A voracious reader, he loved to read the books on the shelves where he was babysitting. More generally, though, he saw that families didn’t interact with each other the same way his did. Jerry was often affected by his mother’s irrational behavior—he describes her as “nutso.” He doesn’t like to discuss the details of this and perhaps other painful family interactions. Learning that the interactions he had with his mother weren’t normal was a matter of survival. Looking back on it, he said he can apply a motto he eventually adopted: “Things don’t have to be this way.”

photo credit: Dave Hensley

He later had a job as a soda jerk, first at one drugstore in Chicago, then at another, over the course of two years. At one, he remembers that he was paid 30 cents an hour. The minimum wage was 40 cents an hour, and he was supposed to make up the difference in tips. But he only got a tip once, a dime, when he delivered some prescriptions to a third-floor walk-up apartment. He felt this discrepancy was easily made up for by the fact that he was allowed to eat all the ice cream he wanted.

He used his unlimited ice cream privileges to experiment with different combinations of syrups and ice cream flavors. One summer day, the store featured fresh limeade, and also peppermint ice cream, so he decided to make a milkshake out of both. He realized his mistake after the first sip, but here’s the problem–whatever treats he made for himself, he was required to drink all of it. His boss looked on as he drank the full glass of milkshake that had been curdled by the lime juice. This concoction make him feel so ill that it was a very long time before he wanted to taste any lime juice or peppermint ice cream.

In his next job, Jerry learned the grocery business as a stock boy. He filled in for absent stock boys in all departments at Hillman’s, a large grocery store for its time in Chicago. The grocery store experience came to bear years later when he wrote about “Rudy’s Rutabaga Rule” in his book The Secrets of Consulting (pp. 14-15):

“But mostly I noticed the rutabagas. I not only noticed the rutabagas, I made their acquaintance. I appreciated that each rutabaga had a distinct personality, and week after week I recognized the same rutabagas smiling at me from the same produce section. Evidently, nobody ever bought rutabagas. Rutabagas were just a permanent decoration, smiling their happy smiles at all the shoppers.

“One morning, I was standing in the produce section with Rudy, the produce manager, trying to figure out how to place the fresh vegetables in the limited counter space. Rudy had wrestled with this problem for a long time but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. He asked if I had any bright ideas–and suddenly I was a consultant!

“‘I’ve noticed,’ I suggested, ‘that the rutabagas don’t seem very popular. In fact, they seem to be the least popular vegetable we have in the store. Would it be any great loss if we didn’t use any counter space for the rutabagas and used it maybe for something else?’

“Rudy looked at me sideways. I knew I was in serious trouble for implying that a mere, temporary stock clerk could help him solve his problems. But he had asked for help. To my surprise, he suddenly smiled and grabbed an empty banana box. Sweeping the rutabagas into he box, he said, ‘That’s a great idea, kid.’

“I beamed with a consultant’s pride. For the first time in my life, an adult had actually listened to me and taken my advice. Rudy looked at the void left by the departed rutabagas, then looked at me, then at the many vegetables that still had to be stocked, then at me again. After a long pause, he said, ‘Well, kid, that was a great idea. Now what’s the least popular vegetable?’

“Once you eliminate your number one problem, number two gets a promotion.”

After Jerry started high school, his family moved to Omaha. He had gotten his driver’s license in Chicago at age 14, but found that as a Nebraska resident, he couldn’t legally drive until age 15. This didn’t deter him from getting a job as a parking lot attendant in Omaha. He was required to keep it legal by only driving the cars on the lot.

Jerry’s father bought Wayne Auto Body in Omaha, and the rules there were more lax. Jerry helped moved cars on the lot and delivered them to their owners when the repairs were complete. This was done more for fun than as a job, but it did come with the perk of being able to borrow some of the cars. His favorites to take out on the town included a Cord luxury car, an antique Ford, and a flatbed truck that somehow got a lot of attention from the other kids.

Also while in high school, Jerry had a summertime night job at the Omar Baking Company. His job was to use an adding machine to calculate how much of each product to bake for the next day based on the order than came in, and he also ran the telephone switchboard for the last incoming phone calls of the day. Before he took the job, his boss had taken all night to do the calculations. Now Jerry was doing it in less than two hours. The bakers were delighted to get the numbers they needed so much earlier, but he had to convince his boss that he was actually done, by proving that his calculations were correct. There was another problem—Jerry was paid hourly, and finishing so quickly was going to drastically cut the pay he was expecting to get for working a whole shift. With the backing of the bakers, he was able to negotiate getting paid for the whole 8 hour shift even though he was finished with his work in significantly less time.

Jerry isn’t sure how he was able to complete his calculations so much faster than his boss. A few factors were probably at play. He started the calculations while still working the switchboard, but his boss had waited for all of the calls to be finished first. Also, he was doing many of the simpler calculations in his head, and his accuracy was good enough that his calculations didn’t need much verification.

A few of the bakers would drive him home in the wee hours of the morning, usually after expressing their appreciation by giving him a fresh loaf of bread. They would often stop at a bar for a drink. He wasn’t old enough to be in a bar at all, but he didn’t have any trouble coming in to enjoy a ginger ale.

An earlier installment mentioned Jerry’s summer job as a camp counselor after he graduated from high school, and some of the jobs he had while he studied at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. There were a few other jobs that helped get him through college, like moving furniture for Eno Cabinet Works, where he learned that there was no shame in asking for help with a job, especially when that job involves moving a grand piano.

He worked at a greasy spoon restaurant that he often heard referred to as a “cancer kitchen,” based on the assumption that either the quality of food or the lack of cleanliness was likely to make the customers gravely ill. He started as a dish washer and later was a short order cook. He liked the dish washer job better, even though the pay was less. He liked being able to set the pace when he was washing dishes, and being able to see clearly when the job was done. Working as a cook, he tended to burn himself, and he didn’t like the pressure of having to get the orders out. He still enjoys washing dishes.

Jerry tried his hand at sales as a shoe salesman. He was very successful at selling men’s shoes. When helping men buy shoes, his approach was just to explain the properties of the shoes, which he felt were well-made. Then he just had to find the right size, and he had a sale. He was the top salesman for men’s shoes. But he believed the women’s shoes at the store were “cheap cardboard crap.” He explained the quality of the women’s shoes to his potential customers without sugar-coating it, and he never sold a pair. He felt he was doing the women a service. His employer, however, wanted salesmen who could sell any of the shoes they offered, so he was fired.

One summer while back home in Omaha, he had another job involving sales. He worked for a siding company, driving around rural areas of Nebraska and Kansas looking for houses where aluminum siding could be installed. He would ask the occupants questions that would qualify them as a sales prospect, and if that went well, he would try to schedule a time for a salesman to visit that evening. He would come back to introduce the salesman and then silently observe the pitch. Three weeks into the job, he saw a salesman give a high-pressure pitch to a poor farm family. He decided he didn’t want to take advantage of people like that, so he quit.

Also while working his way through his undergraduate studies, Jerry worked for a frozen food company, both in their storage locker and driving a delivery truck to make deliveries to grocery stores in Eastern Nebraska. This was when the frozen food business was in its infancy. While working at this job, he turned down an offer to take a full-time job in Florida with an orange juice company, so he could continue his studies.

Starting with his first two jobs, Jerry learned the benefits of having more than one source of income at a time. This insulated him from being influenced by threats from managers. Several times, managers have asked him to do something he didn’t feel was right to do, with the understanding that his job was on the line. He ignored the threats, being unafraid of losing the job, and he never did lose his job as a result. For all his career, he tried to avoid relying solely on one employer.

Jerry also learned that feeling exhausted from a job was a warning sign that he wasn’t doing it right. He would back off and allow the people he was working with to do more for themselves. He has applied this approach to many areas, including parenting, consulting, and training.

His most unlikely source of income while in college was from gambling. Jerry estimates that he earned half of his college expenses from gambling, which was a common pastime then. The bulk of his gambling earnings was from playing poker and hearts. He was good at it, and he would even be able to win repeatedly from the same people. Jerry said, “People always have an explanation for why they lost, and that explanation never involves their intelligence or ability.” He also played bridge. He and his bridge partner won two college bridge championships, but this wasn’t as lucrative as the other card games he played.

Jerry was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship that supported him and his first wife through graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, so his next job would be the the one that finally introduced him to the world of computers at IBM. We’ll explore this further as we look at Jerry’s role as a programmer.

The next installment in this series is Jerry’s Story: More Early Jobs.

Jerry’s Story: The Roles of Jerry Weinberg

This is the fourth installment of the series of posts starting here: First Interactions: The Beginning of an Influential Career.

You may be wondering, “Who is Jerry Weinberg, anyway?” I have much more to learn before I can competently answer that question, but for the sake of my blog readers who are following along as I put the story together, I’m going to set a foundation as best I can. I expect that I’ve been able to uncover some surprises even for people who know him well.

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Jerry in his office in Corrales, New Mexico (May 2017)

His given name is “Gerald Marvin Weinberg,” and the name that you’ll see on his books and articles is “Gerald M. Weinberg.” But if you talk to him, you’ll learn that he’s always just gone by “Jerry.” My first exposure to his work was reading one of his most popular books, The Psychology of Computer Programming. First published in 1971, that was his fifth book. I discovered it 25 years later.

I decided to learn more from him by taking the Problem Solving Leadership (PSL) workshop that was developed and taught by Jerry and his colleagues. My employer at the time wouldn’t pay for it, so I satisfied myself with joining the more affordable online SHAPE forum (an acronym for “Software as a Human Activity Performed Effectively”), which Jerry moderated. Many people who had learned from Jerry hung out there and shared their wisdom.

A few years later, I finally arranged to participate in PSL. I followed up by participating in the “Change Shop” workshop as well. I enjoyed these experiential workshops so much that I attended a workshop on how to design experiential workshops. I have been in touch with Jerry off and on ever since.

Here are the roles that I think best explain who Jerry Weinberg is:

The Programmer
Jerry started his career as a programmer, and he continued to work with software programming, testing, architecture, and management throughout his career. He is the designer of the world’s first multiprogrammed operating system, used for NASA’s Project Mercury.

The Author
Many people discover Jerry through one of his books, which are the way he has been able to reach his largest audience. My most conservative count is 36 non-fiction books and 16 fiction books that he has authored or co-authored. This doesn’t count books that were later split into multiple volumes, translations, republished books, new editions, his doctoral thesis, short stories, or books he edited or contributed to. All told, Jerry estimates that he has been through the book publishing process about 100 times. He started out writing books for computer programmers. Jerry reports that his first book, Computer Programming Fundamentals, was the best-selling computer book of all time not long after it was published in 1961.

The Student
Jerry wants to always be learning, so much so, that if he feels that if he isn’t learning new things fast enough, he gets out of whatever situation that is stifling his learning, no matter how lucrative or prestigious. His love for learning is at the center of most of the things he does.

The Teacher
Jerry’s love for learning also applies to seeing other people learn. He has a rich history of teaching, starting while he was still a student. He found opportunities to teach while he was a programmer, as a college professor, and as a consultant.

“I always learned more through teaching than sitting through conventional classroom boredom.” -Jerry Weinberg

The Consultant
After working for IBM for about 12 years and teaching at SUNY Binghamton for three years, Jerry started working full-time as a consultant, a role which has defined the bulk of his career.

The Counselor
Jerry is known not only for consulting with high-tech organizations, but also for helping other consultants improve their craft. He is often called the “Consultant’s Consultant.” His mentor, Virginia Satir, also taught him a lot about family counseling, and his high-tech clients sometimes took him aside to ask for more personal advice. Jerry translated many of Satir’s counseling techniques into a form that engineers could use on the job. He also founded Consultants’ Camp, which still runs to this day.

The Human
I’ve discovered some interesting stories that help us to see Jerry as human. He is a son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather. He was once arrested for vagrancy. He paid for half of his college expenses with his gambling earnings. He briefly ran a computer dating service without actually using a computer. And he helped organize teach-ins in the 1960s.

I’m going to explore all of these topics more thoroughly in future posts. Stay tuned!

The next installment in this series is Jerry’s Story: Early Jobs.

Jerry’s Story: Jerry, the Real Programmer

This is the third installment of Jerry’s Story. You might want to start with the first two:

Jerry Weinberg had worked as a shoe salesman, dishwasher, and camp counselor, among many other jobs. But he was finally getting to work with the “giant brains” that he had hoped to get his hands on. He asked to start two weeks early because, he says, “I had a wife and 1.66 kids by then, so I needed the two weeks’ pay.” Still living in Berkeley, he commuted across the bay to San Francisco on the F-train.

The first machine he used on the job was the two-ton IBM Type 607 Electronic Calculating Punch, which IBM also referred to as an “electronic calculator.” The term “computer” was in use at this point in the 1950s, but it doesn’t seem to have yet become the most common term for these machines. The job ad he had responded to referred to “electronic data processing machines.” It didn’t matter to Jerry what they were called—he was fascinated by these machines.

He hadn’t known that unit record equipment like the 607 had been in use since the late 19th century. Unlike the era of the IBM PC, which made IBM a household word in the 1980’s, IBM wasn’t marketing these data processing machines to consumers, so their existence wasn’t common knowledge.

Jerry was IBM’s first applied science representative in San Francisco. His first assignment was to teach a programming course to the three other applied science representatives who were starting two weeks later. He would soon be providing technical sales support to help salesmen sell leases for data processing machines and other IBM products. IBM would also send him to new customers at no additional charge to teach them how to program the computers, which usually also involved writing their first program for them.

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Plugboard, system type unknown. Photo by Simon Claessen.

There was no training available for learning how to program, but there was a set of manuals. Jerry dug in to the manuals for the 607 and mastered the machine in a week. This was a wired program machine, programmed by plugging wires into a plugboard. He still easily remembers the technical details—20 wired program steps (this was expanded from the base model with 10 steps) and one signed ten-digit number of data storage. This was a big advance over the desk calculators he had used before. He also got familiar with other machines, like the keypunch, verifier, reproducing punch, collator, printer, and sorter. Some of these could also be programmed in limited ways, such as formatting and adding totals with a wired program on the printer, or defining the formatting for the cards on the keypunch using a special program card.

Jerry earned a reputation as a whiz kid by making the 607 do tricks. He won a dollar bet by turning on all the lights on the 607 control panel, which no one else in the office had figured out how to do. Jerry sums up his feelings about his new job: “I was being paid $450 a month for playing with the world’s greatest toy, a job I would gladly have paid $450 a month to do—though I wisely didn’t tell IBM that.”

Jerry moved on to learning how to program the IBM 650 Magnetic Drum Data-Processing Machine before the San Francisco office had one available. This was the world’s first mass-produced computer, and the first stored program machine that he encountered. The machine arrived a short time later.

There is a legendary story about Mel Kaye, the “real programmer.” Mel wrote hand-optimized programs for the Librascope/Royal McBee LGP-30 and RPC-4000 computers, which had storage on a rotating drum like the IBM 650. Mel implemented tricks like placing instructions on the drum so that after an instruction executes, the next instruction would have rotated to the read head at the moment it was needed. This eliminated the need to wait for the drum to rotate to the instruction before reading it. There was an optimizing assembler, but Mel’s hand-coded machine language programs always ran faster than the equivalent automatically optimized assembly program.

In order to optimize the amount of space a program occupied on the drum, when he needed a number in a calculation, Mel would try to find an instruction code in the program that happened to have that number, so he could just refer to the same memory location rather than adding another storage location to hold the data. The ultimate optimization described in Mel’s story involves using features of the machine that aren’t documented at all.

To learn about his competition, Jerry later wrote a few programs for the LGP-30, though he didn’t have a chance to run them. Recalling the IBM 650, which was similar in some ways to the LGP-30, Jerry says that the kinds of manual optimization described in Mel’s story were very common, and necessary if you wanted to have an efficient program. The optimizer might even cause a correctly written program to crash the computer. There was an assembler called “SOAP” (Symbolic Optimizing Assembly Program) that tried to place the instructions in an optimal location on the drum. Jerry says, “SOAP was okay for many programs, but for critical apps, we optimized by hand.”

Ed Nather, the person who wrote Mel’s story, was the programmer who tried to understand Mel’s code. It was a convoluted mess, almost impossible to decipher. Most of the Mel’s optimizations made the code harder to change, but even so, Ed wrote of his awe of Mel’s programming prowess. Programmers at that time did not consider maintainability an important attribute for their programs.

One of the optimizations that Jerry applied was on the IBM 704. There were many possible values for machine instructions that were not documented. Programmers were expected to only use the codes (often called “opcodes”) that were documented and supported. But of course, some of the programmers were curious, so they experimented with the undocumented opcodes, and found that a few actually were useful. One of them was a single instruction that would clear a memory word—the supported way to do this required two instructions. They coined a new instruction, Store Zero (STZ).

Someone added the STZ opcode to the assembler that was distributed by the SHARE user group, so all 704 programmers could use it and reduce their program size. Later when IBM produced the 709 and claimed it was compatible with the 704, Jerry and other programmers found that the STZ instruction no longer worked. They pressured IBM to add the STZ instruction so that they wouldn’t have to modify every program that used it. IBM complied, but if they hadn’t, the programmers would have had a big job in modifying their programs to work on the 709.


Less than a month after Jerry started the job, IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson Sr. died. This inspired a lot of talk in the office that informed Jerry about company history. It can be interesting to trace the machines of IBM’s roots to what Jerry experienced there starting in 1956. IBM started life as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which itself was formed from the merger of four companies in 1911:

  • Computing Scale Company of America—manufactured “computing scales,” scales similar in function to modern butcher scales, which weighed a product and calculated its price at the same time. They also made meat slicers (you can watch a video of a hand-cranked IBM meat slicer). Jerry only encountered these scales and slicers via the stories people shared about the history of the company.
  • International Time Recording Company and Bundy Manufacturing Company—both interrelated companies manufactured time clocks, tracing their roots to the world’s first time card recording company. Jerry never got involved in selling time clocks, but he does remember being required to punch a time card, simply because it was “part of our business.” When IBM sold the time recorder business to the Simplex Time Recorder Company in 1958, Jerry hopefully asked if he could stop punching a time card that didn’t really help anyone. The answer was “no,” but in fact the practice of punching in and out did fade away in his office. Bundy also got involved in producing adding machines, but these didn’t seem to make their way into IBM’s DNA.
  • The Tabulating Machine Company—Founded by Herman Hollerith, who built a tabulator that successfully processed the data for the 1890 census in the U.S. This machine was the first in a long line of unit record equipment, which includes the IBM 607 that Jerry started with, and evolved into modern computers.

One more later acquisition is worth mentioning here–

  • Electromatic Typewriters, Inc.—IBM entered the typewriter business with this acquisition in 1933. Jerry helped sell “a slew of typewriters,” which established his reputation in the office. He remembers that a typewriter salesman was making a pitch to a biologist who was doing genetic research. The biologist wanted to buy several IBM Selectric typewriters, but he needed to be able to make the standard symbols representing males and females. The salesman couldn’t find a typeball in his catalog that had those symbols, so he sought out an applied science representative to help. Jerry remembered that these symbols were also the astronomy symbols for Mars and Venus, and with this help, the salesman sold five typewriters. After that, salesmen started to bring a variety of problems for Jerry to help solve.

The next installment in this series is Jerry’s Story: The Roles of Jerry Weinberg.

What, us a good example?

I was pleased to hear Alan and Brent respond to my post “The black box tester role may be fading away” in AB Testing – Episode 43 (starting at 9:52). Their primary response was to my claim:

“The project structures they describe seem to be on the leading edge of the future of the software testing role. In my limited view of the software industry, I don’t see many companies that are anywhere near Microsoft in their evolution.”

They don’t think they’re really on the leading edge. I suspected that they would protest, because it’s human nature – everything is relative. If the organization I’m working with has a long way to go to achieve something that theirs is already doing, and I feel that theirs is a good enough exemplar, I don’t need to seek out something that’s even better. But from their point of view, they want to improve with the help of others who have gone even further, so their sights are set on others who have gone beyond. I’ve seen many software organizations recently that are so far behind in their evolution that it’s easy for me to point to Microsoft (which granted, I’ve also found many reasons to malign) and say that they’re far ahead of the pack.

These organizations that are behind the curve are generally surviving, and their companies are usually still making a profit. I saw this many times in my consulting. They are more or less successful and often don’t feel a strong need to make significant changes. This is where the traditional approach to software testing will hang on for a long time and keep the black-box testing role alive. At least for me, though, these are often not desirable places to work, and they may eventually find that it’s difficult to hire talented testers. Note that I’m more concerned about some of the antiquated traditional practices like scripted manual testing than I am with the black-box tester role itself, for now.

By the way, I’m amused that Alan introduced me as “our good friend,” but then didn’t seem to know whether that was okay to say. I’ve found that calling someone a friend often makes it so. I owe you guys a hug.

 

The black box tester role may be fading away

Is the traditional software tester role fading away? A recent blog post from Cem Kaner helped to reinforce this idea for me. You’ll find his comments inside this long post, in the “2. Oracles are heuristic” section, under the heading “A supplementary video”: Updating to BBST 4.0: What Should Change. Incidentally, the topic of the whole post is updating a course on software testing, which I think I attended a very early variation of around the turn of the millennium.

Cem’s parenthetical notes on tester careers are interesting. He suggests that traditional black-box testing (whether exploratory or scripted) will give way to piecework, where a tester will be paid by the number of completed tests. I’ve seen this model already underway in outsourcing companies like Rainforest QA and its competitors, where the manually executed test step is the basic unit that you’re paying for. It’s much easier to see this happening for scripted tests than for exploratory tests, and I argued against using this kind of service when an executive asked me to consider using it, because I see little value in scripted manual tests.

You can imagine that this kind of piece work will not pay testers very well. Cem noted that he already sees a significant pay differential between black box testers who don’t do any programing and those who have jobs that require some kind of programming. He suggests a fews skills like programming that testers could add to become more marketable. I have a few items of diversification I can point to, including programming and automation skills, though I don’t often focus on automation. I’m familiar with testing web apps and mobile apps (and even mobile web apps :). My experience with embedded systems often gets the attention of recruiters.

I’ve added a few items to my resume this year that I’m happy about. I took a training course and became a Certified Scrum Master so I could understand the leadership aspect of agile processes better. Perhaps the most promising, given the current job market for security, is the Certified Ethical Hacker course I took and passed the exam for. I know that passing a certification exam doesn’t really prove anything, but these particular certifications do seems to carry some weight that might help my career. Both are subject areas I already have experience in, and I was happy to round out my knowledge in the classes.

I’ve been following Microsoft employees Alan Page and Brent Jensen on their AB Testing podcast. They both have had fairly traditional testing roles, but now are in roles that seem to be much more future-proof. Brent is now a data scientist, specifically, Principal Data Scientist Manager. Alan, Principal Software Engineer, describes himself as a helper, doing the odd (but challenging) tasks that don’t easily fit the developer roles on his team, which is something that appeals to me. Both are still involved in the testing process. The project structures they describe seem to be on the leading edge of the future of the software testing role.

In my limited view of the software industry, I don’t see many companies that are anywhere near Microsoft in their evolution. If the traditional black-box tester role is fading, I think it’s going to happen very slowly. I think it will require a very broad view of the industry to track a slow evolution like this, and I’m curious if you’ve heard from anyone who is in a good position to see it.