My Yearbook

Let me tell you a story about a yearbook. No, not that yearbook. I will get to that a little further down. This is a tale of mixed identities in a mystery that I have only recently solved. Fear not, there are no villains, skulduggery or even a horse race, just a confusion that lasted for decades.

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The Electronics Engineering (EL) class of 1968. I am third row third from right, next to Ed Devine, a veteran like me, who’s promising football career was stopped by a broken ankle. We were a diverse group before diversity became an issue.

I graduated from then California State Polytechnic College ( University) in San Luis Obispo in the awful year of 1968. It was an awful year on the national scene. At least in that school year we could reflect with pride on the fact that we almost beat San Diego State in football. If you know anything about the history of football at Poly, you will understand why that would have been so. But that is a digression.

 

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The “offending yearbook still surprises me.

I still have my senior yearbook, though you will be hard pressed to find me in it. I was active with Poly Royal, a “Country fair on a college campus” the open house that was held at about the time of spring break. I would digress even more to delve into the circumstances of its demise. An annual open house, it was a major undertaking.

 

Fast forward now a half century and my Electronics Engineering class is invited to a reunion staged by the Electrical Engineering department. (The EL degree was retired some years ago and is now offered as an option in the EE department.) My college room mate and I have stayed in contact all these years, even though we are now almost a continent apart. He contacted me to find out if I was planning to attend and we made plans.

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The reunion group, third from right again. My roommate is far left, next to Dr. Don Winger, the one faculty member to make it, and Dan Malone, now an instructor at Poly.

The reunion included a tour of the campus and the annual engineering banquet and great hospitality. I am grateful to school for making this effort. It was superbly enjoyable event, even though few of my classmates attended.

 

I am sure that I am not the only one who takes a reunion as an excuse to review old yearbooks and whatever other items we might still retain. I was even able to amuse my daughter and her cousin with the fact that I had acted in a Ray Bradbury play in my senior year.

None of this directly addresses the mystery to which I alluded at the outset. The story is this. Though I never made an effort to inform Cal Poly of my occasional changes of address, year after year alumni magazines and newsletters would still find me. Of interest was the “Where are they now?” items which I would peruse with some interest. Then, in one issue about ten years on, I was surprised to read that I was now a 1st Lieutenant in the army stationed in Germany. This was erroneous to say the least and I resolved to inform them of the fact, something I never got around to.

Over the years I puzzled over that error. I recall a classmate remarked about it to me but the mystery remained. The reunion brought me back to my yearbook and finally I realized why that error had been made. It seems that there was a Rob Sexton at Poly during my time there what was a year or two behind me and in a different department. The similarity of our names caused some harried and overworked yearbook editor to assume that we were one and the same and that error was passed on to the alumni and newsletter editors and probably persists to this day. I do not know what happened to Rob or where he might be now. Perhaps he is puzzling over an invitation to participate in an engineering reunion soon.

All this came back to me when the news about Virginia governor Ralph Northam broke. It started with his lamentable comments on the Virginia abortion law but that was shunted aside when it was revealed that he had committed the unforgiveable sin of having done something stupid in his college years. That was where the yearbook came in focus. In his medical school yearbook a picture showed someone in blackface on his page. The fact of its existence was compounded by the ham handed handling by Northam when it came to light.

Make what you will of his transgression or his possible attitude or beliefs, these facts are certain. First, the picture shows two individuals, one in blackface and the other in a KKK costume. Neither can be positively identified as Northam nor does any caption identify the two. Such evidence is circumstantial at best and thus cannot -should not- be grounds for his resignation. Nor should anyone be similarly condemned except in extreme cases.

Northam’s handling, on the other hand probably ought to at least raise a few eyebrows. However, he belongs to the Virginia Democrats and, evidently due to the current politics, he remains in office. You may think he should or should not resign. But before you rush to the attack -or defense- you should likely not rely on his yearbook for evidence. Just ask me, I know.

Addendum: This name confusion struck again. On a recent hospital visit, my turn at the X-ray machine was missed because there was another individual with the same last name. They got my turn when the name was called.  What would happen if I had a common name?

Metric, Schmetric…

p1040376I was happily slurping my bowl of instant pho the other day while idly perusing the nutritional data on the label when I spied an amazing thing. The net weight was specified in grams. This was metric soup! I looked at another item, a can of beans. Here again a metric value. Even the green guy on that can of corn was metric. What is going on here? Have some insidious agents from a clandestine EU bureaucracy infiltrated our sacred domain? Have we been hacked? Horrors!

Actually, this is nothing new. I clearly remember a display of similarly labeled products p1040377displayed in a classroom at Cal Poly more than fifty years ago. The fact is, we have been on the metric system for all practical purposes even longer than that. This is a fact that was overlooked by the erstwhile Jimmy Carter during his sweater clad years in the White House, by the legion of petulant haranguers  pining for the chance to buy a metric cup of coffee (8 oz. = 237 cc), and especially by all those for whom science is religion and should be the measure of all things -metrically determined, of course.

p1040378Alright, I kid. I also scoff. While the metric system has been widely accepted and used, its merits are generally misunderstood. The justifications for adopting it miss the real reason it came into existence; standardization. Up until the time of Columbus, world trade was relatively limited and local weights and measures prevailed no matter where you took your corn. But as communications improved and trade increased, the ability to order goods by weight or volume across national borders became critical. it was this motivation that lead to the creation of the metric system. Then it was adopted by France during the reign of Napoleon and has spread across the globe since then.

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We use the metric system often, especially in nutrition and medicine.

Here is where the system shines. The difference between that and the British Imperial system is that he metric system is coherent. It was developed over a period of time as an integral whole, whereas the Imperial (and American) systems grew out of a myriad of specialized systems.But even though units differ, these systems are all tied together such that local variations no longer exist.

So why object to the metric system? Why haven’t we made the switch? Let me be clear. I do not object to the metric system, but I do object to some of the arguments made in its favor. As to why it has not been adopted, a passage from the Wikipedia article on the history of the system is very revealing.

In 1790, a proposal floated by the French to Britain and the United States, to establish a uniform measure of length, a meter based on the period of a pendulum with a beat of one second, was defeated in the British Parliament and United States Congress. The underlying issue was failure to agree on the latitude for the definition, since gravitational acceleration and therefore the length of the pendulum, is proportional to latitude: each party wanted a definition according to a major latitude passing through their own country.

Alas, as is ever true, politics ultimately rules, and so we have the situation as it is today. Political consideration must always be accommodated, even though there are now universally accepted standards in place that require no earthly reference. Sadly, the whole issue has fallen into the red-blue conflagration and is not likely to resolved, or even taken up, anytime soon.

So why did Jimmy Carter fail? one must consider the character of the systems and remember that the impetus for the metric system was standardization. The reality was -and is- that adopting the metric system would give little or no benefit to the average American. In our day to day lives, we benefit from the standards that exist but, other than the numbers (as on those labels), nothing will change. How we fry our eggs, mow our lawns, drive to work, and all our other activities, will not be impacted at all. Moreover, if adopting the metric system in place of the current units included adopting European standards (which I think would be the inevitable follow-on) for such things as nuts and bolts, wire sizes, pipe, lumber and a myriad more, an enormous expenditure would be required and in the end, we would have nothing new, nothing better, just nuts and bolts, wire sizes, pipe, lumber and so forth.

Hidden in all the noise is the fact that most of the English and American units of measure were developed at a time when precise measurements were rarely needed. The peasant trying to cultivate his 40 acres with a wooden plow and maybe a horse, hardly needed to calculate anything to four decimal places. Nor would it matter to him if it were described as 16.19 hectares. He could pace off the size of his field knowing that his foot was, well, a foot. His outstretched arms were his height which would be somewhere between five and six feet. He would likely know that there were 640 acres to a square mile, or a section.  In effect, he carried his standards with him. It is this human element that the metric system eliminates. Our hardworking peasant would have no reference with which to estimate anything in metric units.

There is more. The metric system is decimal based and why not? We have ten fingers to count on so it seems natural. The irony is that the development of computers ultimately required some pretty fancy software to do decimal arithmetic. Computers, at least the ones we use most, are inherently binary. One exercise for software developers early on was to code division such that 4/2 was not reported as 1.999999… Ironically, the old systems of measure rely heavily on division by two, something which is easy for humans to do physically. In liquid measure, for example, the units were jack, pint, gill , quart, pottle, gallon, each a multiple of two. Thus two pottles make a gallon and so on.

Proponents of the metric system ought to pay more attention to their arguments. Case in point, the supposed difficulty of the English system. In one episode of The Big Bang Theory, in response to a comment made by Sheldon as to why we don’t use the metric system, Amy says, “…because Americans can’t handle the metric system?” But consider, if the metric system is so much easier, it would be no problem. In other words she is saying that Americans are too stupid to understand the system. But the fact is that we have no problem with the English system when we use it. The admonition “use it or lose it” has real meaning here. In that it is coherent in design, the metric system is easier and we have no problem using it when the need arises.

As for ease of calculation, there really is no difference. it is quite simple to conjure up example problems that demonstrate this but they are very limited. The fact is, anyone who is reasonable adept at mental arithmetic will find it easy to multiply 3/4 by 5/8. (The answer is 30/8, or 3 – 3/4.) The decimal equivalent will send most everyone looking for the calculator or pencil and paper. Try it for your self.

So why haven’t we adopted the metric system? The answer is that we have in many ways but as I have stated, there is no pressing need. Do you wake up every morning dreading another day without it? Of course not. It would have no useful impact on our daily lives. I suspect, however, that it will take over gradually. From things I have heard, it may be that many teachers are simply neglecting to teach the English system of measurement. stressing the metric instead, even though they have an obligation to teach what is the accepted standard. The demand does not exist because it does not matter whether our speedometers indicate miles or kilometers per hour, or for that matter, furlongs per fortnight*. (A standard of measure peculiar to Cal Poly engineers. A furlong is 1/8 mile, another binary example. How long is a fortnight? Give me a couple of weeks…)

And there it is. Those trying to push us into the metric system are generally misguided and want it for all the wrong reasons. By adopting it, we have nothing to lose but our humanity.

  • A furlong per fortnight was the insiders gag at in the EL department at Poly in my day, far too long ago. One furlong/fortnight, or f/f, comes out to about 6mm per second. Calculating the speed of light in f/f was der riguer  for any self respecting engineering student.

Dawson #1

miners_dawsonToday, February 8, is a somber anniversary. The event is not well remembered, as is, say, the Hindenburg disaster, but just as lethal. On this day in 1923 in Dawson, New Mexico, the #1 mine exploded at about 2:30 PM. The force of the explosion was such that pieces of the entrance portal were sent flying across the canyon, leaving a huge crater. There were 122 victims of the blast and only two survivors. It was the second major disaster in the Dawson mine complex, the first occurring ten years before, in which 283 miners died, my grandfather among them.

The Dawson Cemetery

AHEPA chapters throughout the country commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1913 disaster with memorials held at many Greek Orthodox churches. These memorials culminated in an observance held at the Dawson cemetery in 2013. Organized by members of the Albuquerque AHEPA family, I attended along with Brother Anthony Kouzounis, Supreme President of AHEPA at the time, and a number of others.

The Dawson mines do not quite fit the usual image of the careless mining company, oblivious to the dangers brave miners faced. The company town was also unusual, to the extent that to this day descendants  and residents of the town come together for a reunion at the town site. The definitive work on the Dawson mines and town is the book,Coal Town: The Life and Times of Dawson, New Mexico by Toby Smith. The book is out of print and if you find a copy, you will find it rather expensive.

The Dawson mines operated for more than half a century before closing in 1950. In that time, some 33,000,000 tons of coal were produced. It was the declining market for coal rather than depletion of the deposit that brought the closure. It is believed that another fifty years supply of coal is still there, should the mine ever be reopened.

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Good by, Dave…

The news came as a shock. David L. McDonald, the former CEO of Pelco, had died suddenly.. Last Thursday, January 24, a memorial was held at the Saroyan Theater in Fresno. The service, conducted by former mayor Alan Autry, made a pretty good effort to convey the magnitude of all that Dave had accomplished in his 69 years.

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Dave McDonald with a sculpture of one of his dogs at the time of the dedication of the Miss Winkles Pet Adoption center in Clovis, CA. Fresno Bee photo

I worked for Pelco for seven years, retiring at about the time that the company was sold to Schneider Electric. It was, to put it mildly, a unique experience. It was exceptional because Dave ~ we all knew him as Dave~ used a combination of perks and policies that propelled Pelco to becoming the dominant security camera maker in a highly competitive market.

To begin with, there was the orientation, a legendary experience that every new employee, no matter how high or low, would receive. The orientation was a day long seminar that gave the new recruits a comprehensive overview of the company’s operations. This was not put on by outside trainers, nor delegated to low level subordinates. Instead, each department head spent an hour or so telling and showing just what their departments did and how. Typical of Dave’s policy, at the end of each spiel, a small offering of gift items was handed out to each of us present. This included little things like pens, notepads, etc.

And then Dave entered the room. His role was the wrap-up, giving a thorough overview of the company concluding with the secret weapon of Pelco. You must understand that company organizations are hierarchical in nature. They have to be as someone has to be in charge. Someone has to make the final decision. All too often, this degenerates into a system of buck-passing, pushing decisions ever upward, trying to avoid responsibility for failures.

Dave had a different idea. In his domain. every employee was empowered to make decisions when dealing with customers. That is, if I went on a service call and decided that a camera needed replacement, I would not have to call the office for approval or permission. My only call would be to locate that camera and get it shipped ASAP. This policy gave all of us a sense of responsibility unlike any other business.

There were other policies, two of which were instrumental in building the company’s reputation for service. For one, shipping on the promised delivery date was sacrosanct. Missing a date would bring on a review at the weekly staff meeting by Dave himself. So rigorously was this adhered to that Pelco had a track record of shipping on time better than 99.9% of the time. Interestingly, as onerous as this sin might be, Dave never yelled at or humiliated the responsible parties in any way. The facts were reviewed and then he would simply state that steps must be taken to ensure this would not happen again. No one ever doubted that he was serious.

Along with that policy, repairs were guaranteed a 24-hour turnaround. Send in your broken equipment and it would be repaired and returned in 24 hours. Again, the adherence to this policy bordered on the fanatical. This sometimes meant replacing equipment if the repair solution was elusive, but it built a solid reputation for the company.

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The parking lot in front of Pelco. The flag and pole were put in place as a memorial for the 9/11 tragedy. This included a museum displaying items from ground zero , along with first responder equipment and uniforms. As a salute to those men, McDonald had some 1,100 of them brought to Clovis in December of that year for relief and recreation. 

And Dave knew how to treat customers as well. Equipment training was a definite part of the Pelco experience. Not long before the sale to Schneider, Pelco acquired a private jet, but not for business travel. The jet was first and foremost for bringing customers to Clovis for sales meetings and the like. Annually, Pelco displayed at the security show in Las Vegas. This included a dinner and show and admission was much sought after by attendees. Pelco employees were brought to Las Vegas to get exposure to the industry and to act as hosts at this dinner. Did I say ginormous shrimp? And first class entertainment? I went twice and saw Huey Lewis and the News, and Kenny Rogers, just as an example.

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One of my work spaces at Pelco. As the company grew, we moved more than once.

Dave knew how to treat his employees just as well. There were things like the Friday donuts, the monthly department lunches. In the engineering department, when a project was completed, a special lunch was held. There were opportunities to volunteer for many of the charitable events that Pelco staged and sponsored. Fresno will never forget the campaign for Measure Z that helped fund the Chaffee  Zoo. Nor has the Marine Corp forgotten the Toys for Tots donations that Dave promoted. There were the departmental safety gifts, handed out for each quarter that the department had a clean safety record. I still have a very nice thermos, typical of them, and a number of other items. And there were Pelco Bucks, given for various reasons and redeemable at the gift store.

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My engineering group on a tour of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in 2007, lead by a certain interesting personality. Sadly Dave McDonald is not the only  one to have passed on. Two of this group have died recently, Dave Toste next to Kopi and Ann Henebury, the blond lady next to me.

All good things come to an end. Businesses are no exception.  In 2007, it was announced that Schneider Electric, a major company in the building integration market, had acquired Pelco. With the change in management came changes in the policies and purpose of Pelco Since then, the plant in Clovis has essentially shut down and perhaps a third or more of the staff let go. The unique experience of Pelco is no more and now Dave is gone. It is a temptation to liken it to a Camelot but I will resist. Even so, it was a far better working experience than any other I have had and I know, judging by the fact that ex-Pelconauts still get together, that many others thought so as well.

Good by, Dave McDonald. May you long be remembered.