Micro Center Store Closing At The Mercado

Micro Center LogoA late Monday morning email announced the immediate closing of the Micro Center store at the Mercado in Santa Clara, CA, as a new lease couldn’t be negotiated. The sudden and surprised closing of Micro Center’s only store in Northern California—the other store is in Southern California—leaves only Fry’s Electronics and Central Computers as the biggest computer stores still left in Silicon Valley for building your own computer system from scratch. No word on if and when Micro Center will re-open their store in a new location in Silicon Valley.

As for building a computer system from scratch, I won’t need to do that again for a long time. Computer power is so cheap and plentiful that programmers are struggling to write software to absorb all that excess. The race to upgrade hardware to make the software—*cough* Windows *cough*—run faster is long over. The hardware is good enough to run current and future software for years to come.

The only hardware that might require frequent upgrading is the video card. Something I found out after updating the Blu-Ray player software that refused to work with my legacy Sapphire ATI 3870 video card. Micro Center had an XFX ATI 6790 on sale for $127 USD with a $20 USD mail-in rebate. Since the new video card had HDMI out and my 19″ Samsung monitor was long in the tooth, I also picked up an Acer 23″ monitor with HDMI in for $159 USD. Now my Blu-Ray discs play at 1080p in full detailed High Definition. (Too much detail since I can tell which male actors have too much makeup on.) If I need to order parts, I’ll go online through either Newegg or Micro Center for the best deals.

Losing Micro Center will be a big blow to Mercado. The biggest draw for that shopping center is the AMC Mercado 20 Theater. The only place to kill time before or after the movies if you’re weren’t hungry enough to visit the surrounding restaurants was Micro Center, which had a large selection of computer parts, consumer electronics, books and magazines, and everything else in between. When Borders went bankrupt and closed the stores at Santana Row and Oakridge Mall, my friend and I stopped going to the Century theaters at those location. Without a favorite hangout spot, I’ll be less inclined to visit the AMC Mercado. (The saving grace may be AMC’s discount card that returns $10USD for every $100USD spent.) As Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, there is no there there.

Fewer Young People Want To Work In I.T.

Seeking AnswerWhen I became a lead QA tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), I knew I was in a dead end job that would last three years and went back to school to learn computer programming. Although the dot com bubble was over by Fall 2002, I couldn’t get into some classes because there were too many students and too few seats as information technology (I.T.) was still hot. Towards the end in Spring 2007, I couldn’t get into some classes because there were few students and too many seats as health care was much hotter.

I graduated with an associate in science degree in computer programming and made the dean’s honor list for maintaining a 4.0 G.P.A. (a consolation prize for not being able to take assembly language programming in my final semester). Thanks to a $3,000 tax credit during that time, Uncle Sam picked up the tab for my career change. My first job out of school was help desk support, where I made the same amount of money as I did as a lead QA tester except I worked only 40 hours instead of 80 hours per week. This wasn’t what I went to school for, but it was good enough to make a living and a career. All I needed was for all these baby boomers to start retiring so I can have job security for life.

Then the Great Recession came to Silicon Valley in 2008.

After two years of being unemployed, six months of underemployed (working 20 hours a month) and filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, I’m working full time in the I.T. field. The biggest problem I have now is working with all the baby boomers still hanging on to their jobs, complaining about being unable to retire and/or afford the latest tech gadget, and bossing me around because they are more experienced farts than I am. This wasn’t what I imagined job security would be like 10 years ago when I planned my career change.

A recent study states that fewer young people want to work in I.T., which means a shortage of qualified workers for future I.T. jobs. Assuming, of course, the visa cap isn’t lifted to allow Fortune 500 companies to import skilled workers from India and other countries to take those jobs away from American workers. Between young and old workers, both domestic and foreign, this is the generational war that I find myself stuck between.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. I’m only working in I.T. long enough until I can earn a living as a writer and ebook publisher. My job security should come from what I do as an entrepreneur and not on the current trends in the job market. Or maybe I should go off the grid and become a farmer.

Building The City Of The Future

Pegasus Global Holdings plans to build a new city in the New Mexico desert that will feature all the latest technologies you can expect if you were to build a city from scratch: renewable solar/wind energy, a desalination and water purification plant, airport and train stations, a downtown with four- to six-story buildings, suburban neighborhoods, farming, secured borders and high-speed wireless Internet.

How many people will live in this city of the future? Zero.

The new city is meant to be a testbed for new technologies that normally can’t test in an established urban environment as people would get in the way. I can understand in theory why a simulated test environment would be needed. However, real life with real people is supposed to be messy. Technology developed in the simulated world often go awry in the real world as unanticipated scenarios unfold to screw things up.

As I told my co-worker when he pointed this story out to me, all the new city needed was a bunch of androids to go berserk and start killing visitors (i.e., the 1973 movie, “Westworld,” directed by Michael Crichton). Or maybe the U.S. military will use it for weapons testing and/or urban warfare training.

Having read too much bad science fiction in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, I can’t help to think that maybe this project is a prelude to the mile-high city states where the 1% ruled from the penthouses, the 99% worked the lower levels, and sentient computers run everything else. American society is ripe to make this happen.

Squirrels, Squirrels And Robosquirrels

Brown Squirrel

If you stopped looking at your computer screen long enough to look out the window (i.e., the big blue room with the bright yellow light), you might notice that Silicon Valley is filled with squirrels. The common brown squirrel can be found everywhere. The black squirrel in Sunnyvale and Mountain View. (If you travel up to Placerville near Lake Tahoe, the grey squirrel can get as big as a football.) And in the eastern foothills of San Jose, the robosquirrel is the newest squirrel in the valley.

In a flash of fangs, the rattlesnake lunged, striking in less than a second. Its prey: a mechanical, remote-controlled squirrel, now with a pool [of] venom in its head.

“That was really exciting,” said ecology doctoral student Bree Putman. “The snake saw it as real prey.”

On a high-tech reserve in the rolling, pastoral hills east of San Jose, Putman and her adviser, San Diego State ecologist Rulon Clark, are using robosquirrel to understand the relationship between the predator and prey, which it turns out is “complicated.” That’s where robosquirrel comes in. Clark and Putman said that decoding their conversations, one robotic move at a time, could help explain how populations of the pesky critters naturally balance out.

I wasn’t aware that squirrels would confront a rattlesnake by going nose-to-nose and waving its tail, which confuses the rattlesnake as the squirrel’s heat signature becomes much larger, and was immune to snake venom until I read this article.

When I went into work on Black Friday —the day after Thanksgiving when most Americans are out shopping—in November 2008, the Fortune 500 campus along the Mountain View shoreline was eerily deserted without any vehicle traffic. As I took public transportation back then, I had to walk a mile from the bus stop. I noticed all the squirrels along the way and all the squirrels noticed me. If that wasn’t creepy enough, the city of Mountain View had to trap attacking squirrels in Cuesta Park in 2007. Turned out I wasn’t supposed to be at work and I later went shopping.

That experience became the basis for an unpublished short story about a call center support technician trapped in an office building with killer squirrels while his roommates are out shopping on Black Friday. I haven’t been able to sell the print rights since most editors don’t want a holiday-themed short story in their non-themed anthology, and its too long for many holiday-themed anthologies. I’m planning to do a final revision for publication as a short story ebook in October. Maybe the story will go from “man versus nature” with killer squirrels to “man versus technology” with killer robosquirrels.

If the military is developing ariel drones that look like small birds to spy from the sky, wouldn’t robosquirrels be the next technological leap in ground surveillance? Once that technology gets loose in the wilds, anything could happen.

The Black MacBook is Dead, Long Live the Black MacBook!

While talking to an employee at the Apple Store in Valley Fair Mall a month ago, I mentioned that my first-generation black MacBook had a bad fan that either didn’t work to prevent system from overheating or whine so loudly that I couldn’t use it. The employee told me I should bring my MacBook in to the Genius Bar to have the fan replaced for under $50 USD. That surprised me since this was a six-year-old laptop that should have been too old to repair. I set up a Genius Bar appointment to bring in my MacBook.

[singlepic id=812 w=240 h=240 float=center]

I showed up for my appointment a few days later and waited five minutes before I sat down at the Genius Bar in the back of the store. The employee hooked up power and network to my MacBook, which booted off a network server to run diagnostics. The fan was flagged as not working. The battery, which stopped holding a decent charge years ago and started bulging out from the case, was also flagged. The repair bill was quoted at $150.00 to replace the fan and the battery. That was surprisingly inexpensive in comparison to the third-party repair centers that wanted $500 USD to replace the entire logic board to fix the fan. Since my black MacBook was a “vintage” system, I was warned that it might take a week or longer to get the replacement parts.

I got a phone call four days later that my MacBook was ready to pick up. During my dinner break at work (I worked from 3:00PM to 12:00AM at the time), I went over to the store and waited a few minutes before I was seated at the Genius Bar. An employee brought out my Macbook, encouraged me to boot up the system, and finalized the transaction. The MacBook booted up normally and was whispered quiet, but it became unresponsive to the keyboard and trackpad. The employee confirmed that there was a problem and took it into the backroom for a technician to look at.

I spent the next two hours waiting for my MacBook to be diagnosed and repaired again. The employee, technician and store manager all repeatedly apologized for my inconvenience. Finally, with another round of apologies from everyone, I got my MacBook back with a brand new keyboard and trackpad top for free since the technician pinched the brittle cable when putting it back together that it broke. The difference between the worn down top and the pristine new top was amazing. I felt like I was getting a brand new MacBook and grateful that Apple could repair my “vintage” system.

With the new fan working twice as fast as the old fan without sounding like a banshee in heat, I decided to get back into web programming by updating and relaunching all my websites. I stopped doing any serious programming since the fan started acting up over a year ago. Now I can program again in relative silence. If nothing else fizzles out, I could do web development on this system for another six years.

Putting A Headshot Into That Old Monitor Cable

Whenever my friend comes over to my place to watch a DVD, we sometimes end up playing Unreal Tournament 3 multiplayer. This year we been playing team deathmatch with six bots and low gravity enabled to make the game crazy enough to actually enjoy. (Unlike the perfect gameplay of UT 2003/2004, the gameplay for UT3 was compromised for better eye candy and stopped being fun for enough players that the developer decided not to put another UT game in the near future.) The one thing I was always disappointed with when I played on my multiplayer machine because  the LCD monitor had a 15-year-old unshielded SVGA monitor cable that produced a fuzzy picture. A cable designed for 800 x 600 screen resolution doesn’t handle 1280 x 1024 that well. I finally switched the cable out. I told my friend to expect my headshot count with the sniper rifle to increase dramatically.

Headshot!

Headshot!

Headshot!

Headshot!

“Oh, come on!” my friend cried from the other computer as the game kept announcing my kills.

Headshot!

Headshot!

Headshot!

A sharp screen makes it possible for me to be extremely accurate with the sniper rifle. At one point, the announcer screamed “Head hunter!” (15 headshots). The bots were somewhat stupid when someone is shooting the sniper rifle at them. (The bot AI setting is one notch below the “hand your ass back on a silver platter” mode.) They stop and turn before firing their weapons. Within that brief moment I can score a headshot. I’m vulnerable if someone is charging me head on or at an angle with guns blazing while I’m zoomed in on the scope. Something my friend knows all too well.

I tend to be a defensive player who enjoys hanging back from the heat of battle to pick off my targets and striking forward only when I have a significant advantage. The game becomes longer as I take the time to rack up my headshots. If I can’t play with the sniper rifle or flushed out of my hiding spot, I switch back to the rocket launcher and go on the offensive. The game then becomes much shorter as my body count stacks up. Either way, I get my kills in deathmatch.

The iPad Generation Rediscovers The Ancient Typewriter

Must have been a slow news day for both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times to feature articles about typewriters. Yes, Virginia, typewriters. Those ancient devices that physically impacted black ink on to white paper that supposedly were swept aside in the great digital age. Like vinyl record players in recent years, the typewriter appears to be making a comeback. Surprisingly, the biggest fans for typewriters might be the iPad generation that grew up in a mostly digital world. Maybe they are steampunk fans, where pre-digital computers in the 19th-century were mechanical devices and dressing up in Victorian clothing is a cool trend. Although a manual typewriter cannot compute, it does share the mechanical attributes of pre-digital computers. For those digital users who don’t want a typewriter to be simply a typewriter, there is a USB-compatibe typewriter to plug into the iPad. I’m sure the younger generation will get a kick out of famous writers in front of their typewriters. But those of us in the business of writing, a typewriter will always be a typewriter.

I fell in love with the typewriter when I was in kindergarten. My parents were attending a conference to discuss my future, the principal rolled a piece of paper into an IBM Selectric typewriter, showed me what keys to press, and the little silver ball spun to type out my name like magic. Fully distracted by this wonderful device, I kept typing out my name as the principal and my kindergarten teacher erroneously inform my parents that I was MENTALLY RETARDED (which was how it was stamped in my records that I saw ten years later) and needed to go into the special education program. Actually, I wasn’t. I had an undiagnosed hearing loss in one ear that made it difficult for me to distinguish between similar sounding words (i.e., glass and grass) and skewered my speech patterns for years. Learning how to read and write made it easier for me to distinguish the differences between similar words. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

When I grew up in the 1970s, typewriters were still king of the technological hill. When my family shopped at Gemco at Hillsdale Avenue and Ross Avenue in San Jose, my father and I would moon over the 20 typewriters on display, starting with the cheap manual typewriters and ending with the electric typewriters. Alas, no IBM Selectric typewriters since they were business typewriters sold only at business stores. Gemco went out of business to be replaced by a string of similar stores until Target came in. Typewriters were soon phased out when home computers became king of the technological hill.

Over a handful of birthdays, I got a toy typewriter that typed in ALL CAPS, a blue Brother manual typewriter with a black-only ribbon, a white Brother manual typewriter with a black-and-red ribbon that I kept for a dozen years, and, in the early 1980s, I got an electronic typewriter with film ribbon, correction tape and daisywheel cartridge that I also kept for a dozen years. I was still using my typewriters in the early 1990s while in college even though I had a Commodore 64 and a near letter quality dot matrix printer. When Macs and laser printers became more prevalent at the college library and computer labs, I would enter my final draft into the Mac and print out a clean copy since instructors were threatening a failing grade for handing in a dot matrix print out. I eventually gave away my typewriters because I kept moving around too much and relied more on computers to get my documents done.

My father and I parted ways when home computers came around in 1980s. He was strictly an analog guy and I became strictly digital guy. Later, when he gave me his old car as a birthday present several years ago, he grew frustrated at my apparent lack of mechanical knowledge when repairing the car. I had to pointedly remind him that my brother became the auto body specialist and I became the computer tech. After my mother passed away from breast cancer in 2004 and I saw a counselor a few years later, he was amused that I got a new manual typewriter that was identical to my old white manual typewriter (except the new one was made in China and a piece of junk). I was rediscovering my passion for writing and spent many evenings typing away on my balcony. Surprisingly, the neighbors didn’t complain about the tat-tat-tat and ding noise. Then again, they were too stoned to care.

Although two-thirds of my first novel was written behind the steering wheel of my car, the other one-third was written on a Brother GX-6750 electronic typewriter. I still use the typewriter for writing the rough drafts of manuscripts. If I’m having a problem writing a short story from beginning to end and have an outline of all the scenes, I would use the typewriter to write the scenes in reverse order. As most writers who uses typewriter knows, you really have to think before you start typing. Writing scenes in reverse order requires some serious thinking. After all the scenes are written and revised with a red pen, the pages are typed into the computer for further revision.

The typewriter is dead, long live the typewriter!

All Those Little Nuclear Reactors In The San Francisco Bay Area

After the earthquake and tsunami damaged the nuclear reactors in Japan, the safety of the nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California became an immediate concern. KGO Radio had Dr. Bill Wattenburg and other leading nuclear experts on the air for one hour in the mornings, afternoons and evenings for the first several weeks of the crises to reassure listeners that what happened in Japan couldn’t happen in here in California. I’m not sure if that reassured anyone or not. No one cares about nuclear power when its produces electrical power without incident. But once an accident happens because of an unexpected eventuality—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima—everyone goes into knee jerk reaction mode and run screaming for the hills. What many people don’t know is that there are many smaller test nuclear reactors tucked away in plain sight, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Indeed, the most common type of test reactor – called TRIGA, for Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics – was designed to be safe enough that university students couldn’t screw it up. Nuclear engineering students often train on the small reactors before landing jobs at big commercial power plants.

When I was attending San Jose State University in Fall 1994, I took an introduction to chemistry class and the instructor gave us a tour of the science building. Down in the basement behind these locked doors, we were told, was a small nuclear test reactor. We joked about the possibility of the nuclear reactor blowing up or melting down. The instructor reassured us that the test reactor would shut down long before reaching dangerous conditions.

Terrorism wasn’t a consideration back then as it is now to worry about the 500 or so pounds of spent nuclear fuel being used for a “dirty” nuclear bomb. For many of us who grew up during the Cold War, we had long lived with the fact that Silicon Valley was a secondary target for a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union, either for a ground burst to physically destroy military infrastructure and/or an air burst to fry out the electronic industry with an EMP blast.

During the introduction to chemistry class, I learned about half life and isotopes. I never got far enough in chemistry to conduct nuclear experiments with the test reactor. I made the mistake of enrolling in general chemistry the following semester. Everything I knew about chemistry was reviewed on the first day. I was totally lost within six weeks and eventually kicked out of the university for having a lousy semester. (If you’re junior or senior, you are not allowed to have a lousy semester; the university changed this policy a year later when 20% of the student body was at risk and threaten to significantly reduce the university’s income.) When it came to mathematics and the sciences, I could only go so far before hitting a wall that prevented me from going further.

I had a friend who worked in 13 years at the General Electric plant at Monterey Road and Curtner Avenue in San Jose (now the location of The Plant shopping center) in the nuclear division. He never did say what he worked on, or if he had a government security clearance. When pressed on the subject, he would say nuclear medicine and leave it at that. He might have been telling the truth—or maybe not.

Another friend told me he was hiking through the Mount Diablo area in the east bay when he stumbled upon a top secret government nuclear research facility. He noticed that the radar equipment was oriented differently to track intruders on the ground, and wasn’t surprised that a squad of soldiers showed up to escort him off the premises under  gunpoint. He might have been telling the truth—or maybe not.

Military installations are everywhere in Silicon Valley. Besides the more obvious Moffet Airfield and the Cold War-era radar building on top of Mount Umunhum, the famous Blue Cube (an Air Force satellite tracking facility) was visible from the 101.

When I worked in construction with my father in 1989, we built some block walls at a building next door to the Blue Cube. It was a very tense work environment. We were searched at the gate under gunpoint and armed military police with German shepherds patrolled the perimeter a dozen feet from where we were working. My father, a former Army captain who babysat tanks in West Germany in the early 1950s (the engines had to be turned over every four hours in the winter to avoid freezing over), thought building sound walls on the 280 with cars whizzing by two feet away was safer in comparison. A recruiter told me last year when I interviewed for a Lockheed position in that same area that the military was long gone after the base was decommissioned in 2007.

What’s the going to happen to nuclear technology after the disaster in Japan?

Probably the same thing that happened for the last 30 years: the nuclear industry will stay at standstill with no new major design breakthroughs for smaller, safer and efficient nuclear reactors. The environmentalists will scream, the politicians will knee jerk, the people will worry. Within 30 years there will be another crisis point when gas becomes too expensive to import and non-nuclear electricity won’t keep up with the demand to power electric cars. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood remakes all the disaster movies from the 1970s. The only reason that nuclear power is unsafe is because the electrical utilities and government regulators allowed safety to be compromised to save money in the short term. Until safety becomes the cornerstone for nuclear technology, accidents will continue to happen.

Paul Allen – The Idea Man At Microsoft

Vanity Fair had published an early excerpt of the forthcoming new book, “Idea Man: A Memoir of The Cofounder of Microsoft” by Paul Allen, who cofounded Microsoft with Bill Gates before they both dropped out of college to build the world’s fifth largest corporation. This should be a fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in Silicon Valley history. The excerpt focused on creating the BASIC programming language for the Altair microcomputer in 1975, and how Gates repeatedly tried to increase his ownership of Microsoft at Allen’s expense in 1983. Already there reports that Allen’s recollections of key events at Microsoft are being questioned by others who there at the time.

Although I had read nearly every book on Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple, I haven’t read that many books on the cofounders at Microsoft. The few that I had read were focused on the federal antitrust case against Microsoft, which, from my perspective, was nothing more than a government shakedown to increase the amount of money that Microsoft spent on Washington lobbyists to spread the wealth around. (Apple, which is also facing a possible antitrust investigation, is now hiring more Washington lobbyists.) If I’m not mistaken, this is the first insider account about the early days of Microsoft.

If you read “Hackers: Heroes of The Revolution Computer Revolution” by Stephen Levy, the story about the Altair BASIC that Allen and Gates put together, and the controversy a year later when hobbyists were stealing their software, is well known.

What Allen brings to the story is the behind scenes account of how the program was put together. They didn’t have actual hardware to test the code on since the company producing the Altair microcomputer was no better than a fly-by-night operation, putting electronic parts into a plastic bag for hobbyists to put together. The Apple II several years later would become the first assembled computer for the home market that didn’t require users to own a soldering iron.

Using the Intel 8080 microprocessor guide as a reference, they rented time on an underused PDP-10 minicomputer at Harvard (which school officials later frowned upon), and created a software program of the hardware to develop their software on. They worked non-stop in the familiar Silicon Valley grind to make the deadline in two months, often missing classes and regular jobs until they had more or less dropped out altogether.

The BASIC program worked fine on the simulated hardware, but what about the real thing? Allen took the paper tape—the common storage method back then—to New Mexico, wrote a quick-and-dirty bootstrap loader program on the plane to have the Altair load the BASIC program into memory, and it worked flawlessly. Microsoft had it first sale and the rest was history.

Much hay is being made out of the fact that Gates tried to squeeze Allen out of the business. This isn’t surprising in Silicon Valley. When a startup stops being a small business and starts attracting serious outside money, there can only be one dominant founder to claim all the credit and glory for the company’s success. Everyone else is either shoved overboard or long forgotten. Besides, Gates wanted to run a Fortune 500 company since he was 13-years-old. Even Allen was wise to step aside in the face of such ambitions when the time came for him to leave the company.