December 19, 2014

The privilege of driving a stick shift in suburbia, and being able to laugh about it

My younger son recently got his learner's permit, and he's been eager to get out and drive as often as possible. He's only had four hours behind the wheel, and he's already almost--not quite, but almost--mastered the stick shift.

This is the car.
Last night he took me out for a practice drive. Fifteen minutes of warmup through our suburban neighborhood with broad, sparsely trafficked streets; gentle curves with good visibility and a few stop signs; and the mildest of hills. Christmas lights ranged from simple elegance to the most garish displays of electrical overindulgence I've seen anywhere. He almost missed one stop sign. Almost.

After the warmup, we went out on the bigger streets. Multiple turn lanes at stoplights, crossing major intersections, a lot more traffic. He was nervous but had done this once before and handled the vehicle well. Another stint through another suburban neighborhood... then:

He made a good start from a stop sign into a tight left turn despite the headlights of an SUV close behind. He got into second gear, then went to shift into third but missed and hit first again.

Have you ever accidentally downshifted when you meant to shift up? The car bucks like crazy, the engine fighting against momentum and slowing like you slammed the brakes. To his credit, he got it back to neutral and then found third gear almost immediately. He was flustered but not panicked.

Until the SUV behind us turned on its red and blue flashing lights. Yup, a cop. A cop at 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night during the height of holiday party season. My son smoothly glided to a stop on the shoulder with a little coaching from me. The cop pulled up behind. My son was now very flustered as I retrieved his permit from the glove box and handed it over.

"Can I see your license, please?" The cop shined his flashlight into the car but stood behind the driver's window. I couldn't see him. My son handed out the permit, and I leaned forward into the light and asked if he wanted my license, too.

The cop's face broke into a big, knowing smile when he looked at the permit. "That explains it," he said. He said he was just making sure "we got home safely because from the sudden deceleration in the middle of the street, he wasn't sure we would." I.e. he though he'd spied a drunk driver. But it was just a kid, learning to drive a stick shift. A few more seconds of kind and gentle banter between us, with my son explaining the mis-shift, and he went on his way. My son did an excellent job of recovering, pulling away cleanly, and finishing the last 20 minutes of our drive without any mistakes.

For me, that is a great story, a funny anecdote, a memory I'll enjoy for decades. For my son, it's a great learning experience.

It wasn't until this morning that I realized it could have been a very different kind of story, a very different kind of learning experience.

If we hadn't been white.

I don't know the officer we met, and he was absolutely right to stop us to check us out. And he was right to be cautious as he approached the car. Once he saw us, though, everything changed. If we hadn't been white, would he have so easily dropped his caution? Maybe he would have. Maybe another guy wouldn't. With us, he was professional, kind, understanding, and efficient. If we'd been black, would we have gotten the same quick and cheerful dismissal?

I like to think in our town, yes. I like to think that our town is somehow more enlightened about diversity than the towns we've read about so often in the news recently. But I don't know. That's probably what the white people who live in those towns like to think, too.

For me, this is still a great story, a funny anecdote, a memory I'll enjoy for decades. And for my son, it's still a great learning experience. For him, the lesson is that he doesn't have to fear cops or be nervous if he ever gets pulled over again.

I wish that were the lesson that all 15 year old boys could get when pulled over for a simple shifting mistake while out learning to drive with their dads.

But I understand that's not the case.


Some day. Some day.

December 10, 2014

I registered before this year's high school graduating class was born

Geoworks Ensemble, Signature Edition
and GEOS Software Development Kit
I recently checked the whois entry on my personal domain,, and I discovered that I first registered it on December 9, 1997. Seventeen years ago. That was when domain names were still free to register and hosting services essentially gave you space on a Unix server. The rest was up to you.

I was also still working at Geoworks back then. The GEOS software still lives on at, it seems, which is a wonderful and curious thing to me. I still think the engineers that developed that software were among the smartest and cleverest people I have ever known.

I was Product Manager and
all I got was this certificate.
I had many jobs at Geoworks. I was hired as a technical writer and got my start in management there; I was product manager for software and content development tools, and I think I still have my product requirements document from Geoworks Bindery, a WYSIWYG content editor that made it (relatively) easy to create hyperlinked documents for the desktop systems and mobile devices we were deploying.

It was a fun time, and a difficult uphill climb in a brand new market. Our CEO coined the term "Personal Digital Assistant" (PDA).

I still have some of the products we developed, including the Signature Edition of Geoworks Ensemble and the Software Development Kit, in their shrinkwrap. Also Geoworks Writer, the standalone release of the word processor which is still better than Microsoft Word (okay maybe not after 17 years). And I have three pieces of hardware our operating system ran on:

Casio Zoomer/Z-PDA

The Zoomer came out in 1992, at basically the same time as the Apple Newton. Together, these handheld computers led the way into the future we have today. The handwriting recognition was spotty at best--Zoomer used true handwriting recognition, and Newton used "graffiti," a specially designed stroke set that worked better but took some learning. Both were market flops but huge technological and societal successes.

Zoomer with its top open and its stylus beside it.

HP OmniGo

This HP handheld computer was, I believe, the first to have a screen that rotated, allowing you to use it in different situations. It was designed with field use in mind, and at least a couple of prototype applications were developed for medical and fleet use. This was supposed to be an extension of the existing successful HP product line, and it accomplished many of HP's goals but never sold enough to get HP to invest in further models.


Proof that I was there!

Nokia 9000i

Not long after the Nokia 9000 was launched in Europe and the Nokia 9000i was developed for the United States, I was laid off from Geoworks and Nokia hired me as a contractor for a year to help them promote the product and support software developers around the world. Part of my contract work was to build one of my first corporate web sites. Unfortunately, if I wanted to keep working for Nokia after my contract was up, I had to move to Irving, Texas, and that was not going to happen. Anyway, the Nokia 9000 featured in the movie The Saint with Val Kilmer (and more notably Elisabeth Shue), and I got to travel to some pretty cool places in my work for Nokia including Tampere, Finland. The Nokia people were incredibly nice. The Nokia product was groundbreaking in its own way, combining real computing power with a phone. Pretty incredible for the time, even though we take it for granted today.
It's a phone!

It's a computer!

Proof that I was there!
It was a great time and a lot of fun. I imagine the people who are in the 3D printing industry have a similar feeling of unlimited future potential right now. And well they should. After all, look at those products of just 20 years ago and imagine where 3D printing could be in 20 years. That's not so far off.