Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States.  When I was growing up it was never very clear what the purpose of the day was.  I don’t know if we didn’t talk about it in school or we did and it didn’t stick. Regardless, when I was growing up it seemed to be little more than one of two three-day weekends which bookended the Summer.  It wasn’t till I was an adult that I came to understand what Memorial Day was about.

My Dad was in the Air Force when he was young.  In his case I suspect it was less about service to the country than it was a way to get away from home.  He wasn’t even 18 when he decided the service was going to be his plan.  His Dad had to sign the paperwork to allow my Dad to join at 17.  I suspect that there was enough friction at home that both my Dad and his Dad were happy to have a path that would take my Dad somewhere where they would try to teach him how to follow orders and maybe teach him a job.

He was eventually stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, Washington where I was born.  As I recall the story, he was basically a mechanic.  He was also pretty averse to actually following orders.  This is a recurring theme I’ve heard over the years.  My Dad doesn’t like to be told what to do and that’s sort of the whole point of the military.  He told stories of getting a stripe (a promotion) then losing it for bad behavior over and over again.  But, he did his four years and at the end of that he left the military and I’m guessing both sides were happier for the decision.

My brother was also in the Air Force for four years before deciding to leave and do other things like raise a family, things that were made easier as a civilian.

Both of his two boys, my nephews Alex and Spencer, are currently in the Air Force and doing great.  Alex is in Japan where he met and married his wife and is learning things which are important to the Air Force and will provide him real skills should he choose to leave the Air Force.  Spencer has been trained in skills that are very useful both to the Air Force as well as capable of supporting him should he choose to leave and become a civilian.  I’m very proud of both of them for their service and their choice to spend this time in the military.

My sister’s oldest son, my nephew Christopher is currently is the Air Force Reserves.  This is a fairly recent development but I know he’s been through basic training and I’m looking forward to hearing about his experiences.

My best friend growing up, Mike, joined the military, specifically the Navy, right out of high school.  He’s currently scheduled to retire (separate) in October of 2014 after a 30 year career in the military.  In that time he rose through the enlisted ranks as a Navy Medic.  Eventually he went to school in the Navy and completed a degree to become a Physician’s Assistant and then he went to Officer’s Candidate School in his early 40s and kicked ass and became an officer with the same rank as the kids in their early 20s who joined as officers from ROTC or the Naval Academy.  In addition to those very laudable accomplishments, he’s married to his high school sweetheart and they’ve had three amazing kids and are a wonderful family, incredibly involved in each others activities and very supportive of each other.  I’m ridiculously proud of Mike.  He served in Desert Storm, has done multiple tours away from his family but I’m very happy he will soon be able to retire.

My step-son Zachary is currently enrolled at West Point as the United States Military Academy.  He’s a very talented young man and he worked ridiculously hard to get himself there and he seems to be truly driven by a desire to serve and help others.  He just completed his first year and while it was a great deal of hard work, he is in the right place for him at this time in his life.

His sister Zoe is also looking at military service and is working very hard to follow in her brother’s footsteps to West Point.  It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, but we’ll do whatever we can to support her in her goals.

I tried to join the military when I was a Freshman in college.  It didn’t end well.

I cannot tell you that I was driven by service, however.  There were several friends of mine that first year in college who were part of Air Force ROTC and had landed full ride scholarships in exchange for four years of service.  This seemed like a very good and reasonable trade as paying for college was going to be a struggle.

I took the tests and did very well.  I’ve always done pretty well in standardized tests.  I also figured I wouldn’t mind following orders.  I don’t think I’ve got the same resistance to that that my Dad has.

In addition to the standardized tests, though, I also had to do other tests like physicals.  Sadly, that’s what did me in, in the end.  I have bad vision.  Very bad vision.  Like “legally blind without my glasses” bad vision.  Turns out, as it was explained to me, they sort of expect that anyone coming in to the Air Force needs to be able to see well enough to defend themselves even without their glasses on.  And, frankly, if a situation arose where I was both armed and without glasses, the odds of me shooting and hitting *ANYTHING* are slim but if I did, there’s an equal chance it could be a bad guy or a good guy.

That, as they sometimes say, is the official story.  That’s the reason I was given by the Commander of the local ROTC office.  But, I do have another theory why I was turned down.

The school year was months in session when I tried to join.  It wasn’t unprecedented, but it was going to mean extra work catching up for me.  My ROTC friends had been in Air Force history classes for a couple of months and if I was going to join, I would be in catch-up mode.  Early in that process, I was told that I needed to meet with a lower ranked ROTC officer (but a real Air Force officer) to discuss my plan for catching up.

The first meeting was mid-day, something like 3pm mid-week.  Unfortunately, I’d been up late the night before studying and I decided to take a nap in the early afternoon and I forgot to set my alarm.  As a result I over-slept my first appointment with that ROTC officer.  I did show up about 20 minutes late, but I’ve always felt that I burned a bridge at that point and that, eventually, was my undoing.

I think this because there were other kids who were in ROTC with vision that seemed as bad as mine.  At least they had glasses that looked as thick as mine.  So, I never was sure I bought the vision reason.  Rather I suspect that I had a negative vote from that ROTC officer and that probably contributed to them deciding to not proceed with me.

So, I believe I torpedoed my own chances at a ROTC scholarship.  Not consciously, though I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t take the time to set my alarm, but perhaps it was a sub-conscious decision.  Or maybe it was just a stupid mistake.

In the end it all worked out.  Yes, I graduated from school with a large pile of student debt, but I paid it off in five years or so and I certainly can’t complain about my career and the opportunities I’ve had as a result.

But, I will always wonder how my life might have been different if I’d set that alarm that day…

As a result, I don’t have any first hand experience serving my country as those in my family and my friends have.  But, I have an immense amount of respect for their service and their decision to be part of the military in our country.

So, on this Memorial Day I want to thank those who have served and are serving and those who have given their lives in the service of our country.  Thank you, all.

 

 

 

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Nirrad’s Labyrinth

When I was a freshman in college, my first computer game was published.  Coincidentally, when I was a freshman in college, my last computer game was published.  Which is, in other words, to say that when I was a freshman in college, the ONE time a computer game I had written was published.

At that time I was writing in BASIC (which stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).  I’d been writing my own games and programs for three years or so when I submitted this game for publication.  At that time, the best forum for publishing your own game, especially for the Commodore 64 or the VIC-20 was in a magazine called Compute! or its sister publication Compute Gazette!  Each month that magazine would publish a number of games from users.  I would dutifully type them in manually then debug them (because my typing would almost inevitably introduce transcription errors) and then play them.  From that process as well as looking at the source of other games and programs, I learned programming.  I should say “learned” programming because while I could write software that did (more or less) what I wanted, the quality of the software was … questionable.  I haven’t looked at the source in many years but my recollection is that if one were to build a flowchart of my program it would be the very definition of spaghetti code.  If you don’t program, spaghetti code, like spaghetti, is a pile of intention that gets tangled and hard to follow as pieces of it move around and through other pieces making it difficult to follow and prone to issues.

But, for all of that I had written a game.  It’s not a complicated game.  I called it “Nirrad’s Labyrinth”.  Note the clever reversing of my first name as  a way to get myself in to title.  No lack of hubris there…  In truth, as I remember it, I think my brother James helped me come to the name before I sent it in.

It was a simple game that built a (random) maze in memory.  The player, represented by an 8×8 pixelated knight, was supposed to go from the (S)tart of the maze to the (F)inish of the maze collecting treasure and then escape.  But, I introduced several twists.  First, at the start you couldn’t see the walls.  In fact, the only way you could see the walls was to run in to them.  So, the walls would slowly, over time, be revealed as the player ran in to them randomly.  Second, for each treasure on the screen there was a trapdoor.  Hit a trapdoor and you’d randomly be dropped somewhere else on the screen.  The location was random, so hit the same trapdoor and you would end up on a different spot than the last time you hit that trapdoor.  In retrospect, what that had to do with a trapdoor versus a teleporter is unclear.  Teleporter would have been better.  Finally, there was the motivation to move quickly.  That was the Boogens.  He was another 8×8 pixelated character and he was a monster.  He randomly hopped about the board.  If he landed on you, *BOOM* you were dead.  End of game, do you want to play again?  Oh, and there were also random blips and bloops for sound representing the various move sounds, hitting a wall, getting a treasure, getting teleported, etc.  You operated the player via an 8-direction joystick plugged in to the joystick port.  It probably also supported keyboard, but honestly I don’t recall.

Certainly it was not a complicated game.  I had also written it to run on both the computers I had access to at the time, a Vic-20 and a Commodore-64, both of the computers that were targets of Compute! and Compute Gazette!

Also, it had to be small enough to fit in the amount of memory each computer had for programs, so this did not have fancy animations or even sprites.  It was simply character mapping via peeks and pokes (two methods to either look at a place in memory or to put something in to a place in memory).

In the summer of my senior year in high school I sent the program in to the magazine.  I don’t recall that I had high hopes for it, but I’m optimistic by nature so I figured I had nothing to lose.

Much to my surprise, in October of my freshman year in college I got a letter from Compute! indicating they wanted to buy the rights to publish my game.  Instead of publishing it in a monthly magazine, which had been my target, they wanted to publish it in a book of games and programs called “COMPUTE!’s Commodore Collection – Volume 2”.  This was very exciting to me because I’d never had anything published before!  More importantly, they were going to pay me cash money for it!  I was going to be a published author and I was going to get paid for it.  Life was good.

One might imagine that the publishing rights for such a sophisticated pieces of software, so tuned and well balanced, so replayable and, frankly, amazing might be measured in the tens to hundreds of thousands.  Well, that person would be so very, very wrong.

I was offered and happily accepted $625 for the rights to publish my game.  And, on top of that, I was offered residuals which would mean they’d send me MORE money for each book sold.

At this point I’m an 18-year old and I don’t have access to anyone to review the contract or tell me whether it was good or bad.  Or to suggest perhaps I could negotiate on anything.  Nope.  Just me.  So, I signed it because of two simple things.  First, I’d be a PUBLISHED AUTHOR!  Second, they would pay me to be a PUBLISHED AUTHOR!  The rest of it was just details.  So, I signed it.

They shipped me a check and the only thing I can recall doing with that, though I’m probably safe in assuming that I also bought lots of junk food, was to buy pizza for my wing of the dorm (probably no more than 4-6 pizzas).

Over time I also received a couple hundred more dollars as a result of sales of the book.  I want to say that I saw sales figures and it sold maybe a few thousand copies.  Oh! and as an author, I have a copy at home on my shelf which I received gratis because, you know, I’M IN IT!

Not long after that the publishing model for COMPUTE! and the Gazette changed and started trailing off pretty dramatically.  Brought on, in part, by the advent of the Internet.  And the fact that folks got REALLY tired of typing in their own programs.  So my game got published kind of in the sweet spot for that time and I’m fortunate for that.

Growing up I imagined that I might write, much like the authors I read and loved like Heinlein and Asimov.  That didn’t turn out to be my route.  Instead I wrote software and software has been good to me.  It’s helped buy houses, raise kids, go on vacations and given me a freedom to live a good life and provide for my family in the way I’d always hoped.  So, while that game at that point in my life may be the only time I’m published as an author, whether in software or prose, that’s okay.  Writing has turned out to be my career and it’s been something that’s allowed me to have the life I have and for that I’m thankful.

Graduation Speech

Here is my graduation speech, from one decidedly not-famous speaker to my decidedly wonderful soon-to-be graduate.

Congratulations, Graduate.

You’ve accomplished one of your life goals and now you have the wonderful and enviable opportunity to ask yourself the question: What comes next?

Recently you told me that for the last 15 years, you’ve had one clear goal: Get a college degree.  And you’re about to accomplish that!  Now, though, as you said: What do you do now?

For the first time since you were able to form goals and set expectations for yourself, you’re left to ask the question that all adults have to ask and answer: “What comes next?”

I hope you don’t get too hung up on that question.  That’s a “missing the forest for the trees” kind of question.  More important than “What comes next?” is the more important question: What Makes Me Happy?

One of the main reasons that I wanted you to go to college and get a degree was choices.  As I’ve told you before, a college degree increases the number of choices you have.  Which is not to say, by any means, that someone cannot be happy or cannot be successful without a degree.  Of course they can.  The difference is, you will have more choices, more options as a result of having your degree.

If you never work a day in your life in a job that depends on your degree, at a bare minimum you will have learned how to learn.  And this, my Graduate, is one of the most useful skills you will ever possess.  You have demonstrated to your teachers and, more importantly, yourself that you can take in many different kinds of information and you can learn it and integrate it and demonstrate your ability to apply that knowledge.  This, I believe, is one of the most critical skills to be learned in college.

This skill will be incredibly helpful as you figure out what you want to do next because you know now that you can learn whatever is necessary for whatever you choose to do next.

There are other lessons, of course.  One is the ability to figure out what a teacher wants and figure out how to give that to them.  As you enter the adult world, you will enter a world where people expect things of you.  And the quicker you can figure out what, exactly, is being asked of you and how to deliver it, the quicker you will learn to adapt to a new situation and be successful.

You’ve been away from home for most of the last four years since you graduated high school because it was important to you to learn how to live like an adult.  This, also, is an important skill.  I’ve used the analogy in the past  that this is like the message they give you when you fly on an airplane.  In case of an emergency, the air masks will come down.  Put yours on FIRST, before you help someone else.  At first, this seems counter to your instincts, especially if you are a parent.  Of course I’m going to help my child first!  That’s the right thing to do!  But, the reality is, if you don’t help yourself, you may not be ABLE to help someone else.  This analogy holds for learning how to care for yourself, emotionally, physically and intellectually, before you think seriously about caring for someone else.  You can’t be there in all the ways you need to for someone else if you don’t look out for your own needs, too.

One of the question that I think gets asked by many graduates is this: Now that I’ve graduated, what do I do to make the money?  This is, I think, almost entirely backwards from the correct way to approach where you are now.  The act of asking how you make the money means you’ve put that question before the more important question which is this: What will make me happy?

It is my belief that starting from the money question will almost inevitably lead to a compromise on the second question of what will make me happy.  Doing things in that order will almost certainly lead to someone who gets paid well to do a job they hate.  I do not wish this on you.  I do not wish it FOR you.

I was asked recently how I would feel if you took a job at minimum wage but were happy.  The answer is, I’d be happy for you.  Money is nice.  It’s another enabler of choices and more money means more choices.  But, too often it also means more stuff and more stuff does not and never will equate to happiness.  As I’ve watched you learn to live on less during your college years, being on a budget, having to make trade-offs, learning to put away a financial buffer even when you weren’t making much money, I think you’ve figured that out.

So, do what makes you happy.  That path is the path you should walk.

You and I have talked about you getting an advanced degree and you know my opinion on that: Do it if you want to.  More education means more choices and more choices is what I want for you.  Education has already broadened your mind and your ability to embrace a much wider world than you had when you exited high school.  More education will broaden you further, expose you to more choices and a wider range of possible futures.  That is a good thing.

I don’t know whether an advanced degree is the right thing for you because you are an adult now and only you can answer that for yourself.  But, I do know this: You will never be less encumbered by debt, less encumbered by relationships and demands on your time and energy than you are now.

Your life to date has been as if you are riding on a tube down a river.  Sometimes there are rapids which have tested you, sometimes you’ve been able to float and just enjoy the slower pace and appreciate your life and the scenery.  But, fundamentally, as you’ve chosen, there’s only really been one path: Get a college degree.

Now, though, the river forks.  And it doesn’t fork just once.  It forks infinitely.  Some paths may look easier, some may look more appealing, some look scary and dangerous, but they all have different appeals.

Whatever you do, choose.  Choose and commit.  Don’t get stuck at the fork.  Figure out what the life you want looks like, what it smells like and feels like.  Figure out your perfect life and start taking steps towards that life.

You will make mistakes, you will choose wrong occasionally but you are equipped to survive those choices.  You are educated more than you have been at any other point in your life and so you will hopefully use that and choose wisely more often than you choose poorly.

One of the other messages I’ve had for you through you life is to be actively engaged in living your life.  Be in charge of your life, don’t let your life happen to you.  Do not be passive in your life or your choices.  Be an active and engaged participant.

I’m going to steal this bit from Commander Chris Hadfield, currently in charge of the International Space Station.  Here was a piece of his advice:

“Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you and start moving your life in that direction.  Every decision you make from what you eat to what you do with you time tonight turns you in to who you are tomorrow and the day after that.  Look at who you WANT to be and start sculpting yourself in to that person.  You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in.”

And, “Don’t let life randomly kick you in to the adult you don’t want to become.”

Finally, whatever you choose, know this: I will always have your back.  Just as I was behind you when I was teaching you to ride a bike, I’ll be back there to support you now and forever.  As time goes on, if you look over your shoulder, it might look like I’m farther away than I’ve been in the past but that’s only because I believe you are ready to do this, ready to do it on your own and take that credit for your life.  But, should the bike fall over, should you crash and scrape your knee, I’ll be there to help.  Your brother will be there to make you feel better.  Your family, ALL of it, will be there to cheer for you when you succeed and cry with you when you stumble but will alway be there behind you to support you and love you.

So, enjoy the moment as this phase of your life comes to a close.  Spend time to appreciate how far you’ve come, how much you’ve changed, how much more you are than when you started down this path by your choice.  But, don’t linger.  Don’t get stuck.  Get ready to figure out what comes next for you, how next you will challenge yourself, what you will choose next towards your goals.

Now, go out there and kick ass, whatever that means for you, and know that I love you and am terrifically proud of you.

No End of Questions

When I first started writing these … whatever they are: columns, postings, articles, I imagined I was writing them to my kids.  I wanted them to know more about me and I imagined I would share with them wisdom and answers that I had come to over my life.  This week reminded me that I still have real and substantive questions ahead of me and I don’t have answers for myself, let alone anything I would want to offer to anyone else.  This week I was thinking about retirement.

We met with an investment advisor this week to start to gather information to answer a very basic question: When can we retire?  Before that, though, I found myself struggling with an even more basic question: What does it mean to be retired and if I know that answer, how do I get from where I am to there?

I have one friend who is only about five years older than I am who is retired.  In his case he has lived very carefully, started investing much earlier than I did in my career and is single with no kids.  All of which has led him to a place where he can retire and start doing exactly what he wants to do.  In his case he’s volunteering time to his church as a maker and creator for large scale projects.  He’s also got a slew of projects and ideas he wants to work on, not to mention numerous projects that he’s started over the years and now can complete.  He also plays volleyball, juggles and pretty much seems to do what he wants to do.  That sounds pretty great.

My best friend growing up has spent 30 plus years in the Navy and will be retiring either this or next year.  In that time he entered as enlisted, picked up a Masters equivalent degree to become a Physician’s Assistant and then entered the Officer’s Corp via Officer’s Candidate School.  He’ll retire and will work a limited number of hours as a Physician’s Assistant and will have more free time and still have a very solid income.  So, he’ll be retired from the Navy but semi-retired (working part time) from the work force.  That sounds pretty great as well.

We had a joke back when I started working wondering where all the old engineers went?  For us that would have been around 45 or so.  Our company was young and had hired a slew of young engineers who, over the years, I’ve largely stayed in touch with.  Even our managers were only 5-10 years older than we were.  So the notion of working at 45 and what one would do was a bit of a mystery to us then.

As time went on and we became the 35 year old engineers, we did see the engineers a bit older than us and they did continue to have careers.  Some went in to management, some stayed engineers or moved up to Architect positions or changed careers in to Sales or Marketing.  A few left the industry, but mostly they stuck around.  Our joke changed a bit: Where are all the 55 year old Engineers?

Now I’m a 47 year old looking out that additional 20 years and still asking the same questions: Where do engineers go after their mid-50s?  I know I’ve moved in to management and many of my peers are doing that or becoming Architects or staying Engineers in various capacities.  So, for the most part, we seem to be holding our own.  It’s not like I’m hearing evidence of folks being forced out of the industry or jobs or exiting voluntarily.  But, I suspect it will start happening in the coming decade.

Like many things, Engineering is a young man’s job.  A young engineer will put in 60 hours a week indefinitely in the early part of their career because they’re needed, they’re learning a great deal and they have the energy.  Learning new things comes more easily when you are young.

I don’t have many examples in my family for what retirement looks like.  My Dad stopped working after a workplace injury a decade ago, so he stopped working in his 50s and he’s gotten by on disability and living carefully.  Extended family members would stop working but I never had any insight in to how it was done, how they put together their finances, whether they were comfortable or struggled once they stopped working.

My mother and father-in-law retired early, in their 50s, when Christina was in her early teens.  They had lived very carefully and invested in real estate and put together a steady income stream that allowed them to travel and do the things they loved to do, including focusing on being there for Christina through Junior and Senior High as well as college.  Later they would travel and visit their kids around the country.  That’s a model that looks pretty great.

On the upside, we’ve done pretty well putting away in our 401K and some other relatively small investments since Christina and I have been together.  Both of us were in make-up mode after our divorces, so that set us back a bit.  So, not enough to retire in our early 50s, certainly, but it looks like if I can somehow figure out how to keep working till I’m 65, I’ll be okay financially.  That doesn’t actually sound very encouraging because I’m struggling a bit with the idea they’re going to keep letting me do what I’m doing for another 18 years.  The industry will change, the needs of the company will change and I’m not sure they need a first level manager in his 60s, let alone his 50s!

I question what I’ll be doing for the next 18 years.  It worries me a bit, sometimes.  I like to feel like I have some control over my destiny and I don’t like not knowing and, frankly, I’ve always seen myself as someone who worked and was a provider.  That and trying to be the best parent and partner I can be have defined my adult life and much of my sense of self.  But I’ve largely only worked as a software engineer and now a manager of software developers and product development.  Certainly I’ve broadened my skills in those areas and I’m comfortable in a startup or a larger company, but will that be enough?  Probably not.  I’ll undoubtedly need to continue to learn new things, new methodologies, new ways of doing things.

I’ve tried to encourage my kids to start thinking about getting in the practice of putting away money in to their 401k or IRA early because, as we all know, the magic of compound interest is a powerful thing and $10,000 put away in your 20s is worth so much more than $10,000 put away in your 30’s or, heaven forfend, your 40’s or later.  But, it’s a bit of an uphill struggle for them, just as it was for me when I was that age, because they’re just getting started and putting away money for a mythical period 40 years in the future is much harder to do than what they know they want to do now and next week.  But, as a parent, I’ll keep poking and encouraging and trying to model good behavior as we go along.

I don’t know what I will do or would do if were retired.  In my imagination, I’d have time to do projects and learn new things that I don’t have time or energy to do now.
I find that it’s very hard to put time in to learning a new thing right now but I suspect it’s largely due to the fact that I’m working full time and between a lengthy commute and the full time job, that is 60 hours away from home and when I’m done at the end of the day, I’m just tired and my brain does not want to absorb new things.  My brain wants to be entertained without having to work for it.  Anything more is a struggle.  And, I do struggle, but it definitely is more difficult and, I suspect, is more difficult as I get older.

I know there was a time when I imagined that by the time I reached this age I would have all the answers figured out.  My path would be clear before me and I would just be executing and enjoying my life.  And, to be clear, I do enjoy my life.  I appreciate my life.  All the things that contribute to my life are in good and positive places.  I suspect that as long as I’m doing the work to plan for that future and I know I’m putting away what I can when I can, perhaps that’s the best thing to do: Enjoy Now.  The Future will be here soon enough and with it will come clarity about the things that I don’t know today.  And, of course, there will be surprises and things that I can’t predict, can’t know, can’t see coming.  But, that’s life.  And, really, if I knew what that was going to look like, if I knew the answers, there’d be no mystery.  It’d be like being told the end of a really good movie and I don’t want that spoiled for me.  Meantime, I’ll keep doing the work to try and put myself in the best place, on the best path I can and let life come to me as it will.  I guess I don’t need the answers now, won’t know all the answers maybe ever and that’s okay.  It should be a fun ride!

 

 

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