I'm lucky to still have my father around. He was too young for WWII. He did his time as a cold warrior in the 50's and 60's in the Army Security Agency. He described one of his duties as "dressing up in East German workers gear, packing a '45, and slipping across the border" [going East]. He was doing electronics things - tapping phone lines and such.
When the Berlin wall went up, he was in friendly territory on communications duty. He received the first communications from Berlin about the wall going up. After decoding the messages, he would encrypt them again with different keys for transmission to the Pentagon and, in this case, the White house. He was the first military or government person outside of Berlin to know about the wall going up.
A bunch of people were on leave when it happened. He said he had to stay up, awake, and on duty for five days straight (as in 24 hours awake for five days solid). When I was quite a bit younger than I am now, I tried to bead his record but only made it four days.
He ended up a teacher rather than an engineer, and I've never met a more resourceful and clever person than him, nor anyone with more integrity. He totally had the knack and passed, at least some of it, down to me.
It just struck me that my dad was born in 1915, which is almost 100 years ago. He passed just after Christmas 2000 (we all got to see the new millennium in together) -- he was 84 and I was 1/2 his age at 42, which seemed sort of symbolic, which is why I left my job and formed my own company with a couple of friends.
Ahh, my Dad. He had a huge influence on me, for sure! He dropped out of high school and joined the Army during the Korean war and sustained some non-combat injuries. He was the kind of guy who was always tinkering or building something. Of course, I loved to help him and he let me do a lot of things with power tools; pretty thrilling for a small boy!
He would also bring gizmos home from the paper plant where he worked (and retired from). Most of these things were discarded/scrap industrial control panels and such - I had a LOT of fun tearing those things apart!
He lived to 72 and has been wandering the Cosmos for the past 20 years - I do miss his home-spun wisdom every day!
"In the high and far-off times", I had a gig as an assistant professor at a large university. One day a student asked me an interesting question: "How did you learn to debug things?"
I hadn't really given this much thought before, but after thinking a bit it dawned on me that if was probably because of all the detective novels I had read as a teenager. In particular, the policier or "police procedural" is a great model for debugging: an anomaly (a crime) has occurred. First, you try to reproduce the bug ("reënact the crime"). Then you go about interviewing all the possible witnesses (i.e., check the values of signals and/or variables) and you must always assume that they may be lying to you. Don't fall in love with a solution too quickly -- the problem (or perpetrator) could be something (or someone) you've never heard of -- the "J.P. McGillicuddy" of The Naked City (1948). Above all, debugging needs to be a slow, methodical process. If you try to hurry it, you'll miss something important.
It was Dad who introduced me to detective novels: tough private detectives created by Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Dashiel Hammett, as well as policiers starring Maigret. We both discovered Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö when we saw The Laughing Policeman (1973): they wrote a series of what are IMO the best police procedurals ever. They are slow and methodical, lots of details, lots of dead ends, but they sure get you into the right mind-set for debugging.
So that was a gift my still-living non-engineer art-historian father gave me long ago, along with many others including an appreciation for aesthetics, a love of movies, and a sense of humor. These are all vital necessities as far as I'm concerned, and none can be assigned a monetary value.
January 2016 Cartoon Caption ContestBob's punishment for missing his deadline was to be tied to his chair tantalizingly close to a disconnected cable, with one hand superglued to his desk and another to his chin, while the pages from his wall calendar were slowly torn away.122 comments