Biography: Alaska Court Years

HERE FISHY FISHY FISH

The next part of this biographic attempt will pick up where the USAF left off and where I stumbled into a job with the Alaska State Court System. Since everyone seem to assume that every Alaskan is a serious outdoors-type (not true, but there is no way to change the perception) here is a picture of the last fish I caught in Alaska. And believe it or not, this is not a seriously big fish, weighing only 182 pounds. The bragging-class weight for halibut seems to be 300 pounds and over.

Just for fun, mouse over the fish to see my first trout. I was perhaps ten or eleven years old then and was just as proud of that one as I was of the halibut. The trout was far easier to clean and cook.

This section was rewritten entirely a couple of times and edited many more and it still is overly wordy and nerdy but if I keep at it then it will never be posted. I'll put it up for now and may return to it later if any better ideas occur to me.

I retired from the Air Force on August 1st of 1985 after 20 years and 7 days of service. Obviously, with a major bit of money still owing on the house I had bought at the insistence of my ex-wife and with no desire to lose what was already invested I needed a job to pay the bills. I searched the local newspaper and asked around about possible work and got lucky when a state government job advertisement showed up. I really knew nothing about the opening other than the skimpy requirements posted but it seemed as though I must be qualified for almost any sort of electronics job after decades of varied work in the field. I did have a bit of the fish-out-of-water feel: I was nearing 38 years of age and had never once actually filled out a job application or been to a real job interviews. I did have indirect resumé experience, having helped several separating AF personnel who worked for and with me so I quickly whipped up a current resumé that seemed fine-tuned to the advertised requirements and sent it off. I got back an invitation to an interview within the week.

Happily, my first job interview was less stressful that I had feared. In fact it was downright easy. Richard, the supervisor conducting the interview, seemed more than satisfied with my experiences and training in the AF which were, frankly, far more than they had advertised for or expected. The equipment I would be hired to maintain was simple compared to what I encountered in the AF and it was fairly reliable to start with. There were computers involved but they were quite primitive even in comparison to a current home PC. I had been running at various times while I was in the service a side business maintaining arcade video games and a consultancy developing software so I didn't fear what might come up on the computer front. I got notified in a week or so that I would be offered the job and I took it without hesitation (bills to pay, y'know) and, even though the pay wasn't great by Alaska standards, it would be steady and the benefits looked good. I started work on the Tuesday after Labor Day.

First, the obvious: Alaska is damned big although the tiny population is concentrated mostly in a few centers. The Municipality of Anchorage holds about half of the states's population. The Alaska Court System, which I'll refer to as ACS from now on, covers pretty much every bit of the state from big cities to small villages. The number of judges and staff is pretty much proportional to the population served with the small villages covered having a magistrate's court if they have anything at all. Court proceedings must be documented and the sort of court reporters you might see in a TV crime show are expensive and problematic for many reasons and just would not work in remote areas so the creators of the ACS decreed from early days that audio recordings would document trials and hearings. This meant that there was a lot of audio equipment to be maintained and the court had its own 'Electronic Engineering' staff to keep everything working. I joined that staff.

The equipment when I joined up were reel-to-reel audio recorders of the quadraphonic variety popular with audiophiles during the 70s. The format was a commercial failure but the ACS bought the recorders by the hundreds and modified them by machining down the drive capstan to move the tape more slowly extending the recording time. Not too long after my employment the court began looking for a recording solution that would be easier and smaller and shippable. This lead them to contract for Gyyr Verbatim recording equipment. I'll label this the first instance of the ACS curse. After the usual teething problems the equipment was installed statewide in old courts and new and then some of the faults revealed themselves: the recorders were quite sensitive to radio frequency interference meaning that even a CB radio outside the building would cause extraneous sounds, cassette tapes are quite fragile and once a tape is mangled it is often impossible to recover the audio and this is a no-no in the court context. Insult to injury, the company making the recorders, or at least that division of the company, failed. The court system, as the only real major user of the equipment did their best and bought up every bit of unsold stock and parts preparing to, one way or another, keep the machines working. I won't go into the gory details but the ACS apparently started trying to get out of this hole in the year I left. Details are here and apparently they were still trying to get things right as late as 2004. I, half-jokingly, called this the ACS curse: the tendency of companies contracting with the court to suddenly go awry. This was not the last time during my time at the court.

Travel was relatively rare at the beginning of my tenure but became nearly constant when the new recorders were being installed (and quite often replaced). I'm sure that during this period I visited every city and town in Alaska with a population over 1,000 and a few with half that. Good for me, in a way, since personnel were allowed to keep their airline points and with Alaska Airlines' frequent point-multiplier promotions I eventually garnered enough to get a number of first-class upgrades for vacations in the lower-48, that being the Alaskan term for anywhere outside the state.

What turned out to be the second major manifestation of the curse was the court's computers.

The court's computers were, even for the day, quite primitive — certainly behind what would have been seen as a state-of-the-art home PC at the time. To give an example which the computerphiles among you might find unbelievable, the primary computer used in the courts was a huge metal box made by IBC (Integrated Business Computers) which featured a Z80 processor, perhaps 256K of memory, and primary storage on an 8" Fujitsu hard drive holding less than 500mB if I recall correctly. The really amazing thing was that because all of the storage and processing was text-based the computers were capable of supporting eight terminals with these meager resources. The Technical Operations Department, the department that did the data processing and contained the Electronic Engineering Department also had a mini-computer of some sort but I can't remember it every being used. Perhaps it was part of the statistical analysis the department did annually but every time I saw it, it was sitting in the back room turned off.

The decision to replace the computers lead to a contract with a small company that was selling an interesting computer that used a microprocessor made by AT&T to replicate the 3B2 computers widely used in telephone company facilities and which ran the widely-used SVR4 Unix. That seemed OK and the computers were delivered but afterward inexplicable things started to happen. Heat problem? Power supplies? No, the microprocessor had an inbuilt problem which caused unrecoverable crashes if a certain instruction was executed and then within a number of clock cycles another specific instruction was executed. That took a long time for the system manufacturer and AT&T to work out and there was really no way to fix the problem. Through some dealings way above my pay grade somebody, presumably AT&T, delivered a number of large loud 3B2-600 computers as replacements for the duds. Later, again for reasons way above my pay grade, we wound up with a number of AT&T Starserver-E computers. I actually liked these improbable machines and with four Intel 486 microprocessors and a large hunk of memory they proved to quite capable for the day. A number of these were purchased to serve the larger courts. Smaller courts were equipped with home built systems using standard PC motherboards with the addition of multi-port serial I/O. All of the court's computers at the time used dumb terminals connected via serial RS-232 ports and all displays were text-only keeping down the demands on the computers (and the programmers). All of these ran either straight-up SVR4 Unix or SCO Unix.

The problem remained that the court's existing software would not run on these system so the old programs had to be converted and then the data had to be migrated. The old IBC computers ran a form of BASIC under the THEOS operating system. The shortest path to getting the new systems up and usable was to convert and re-write the old software to run under Business BASIC under Unix. This lead to a big break for me since, due to the time crunch and small programming staff, more hands were needed. This earned me a temporary promotion to the programming staff. I had already proven my knowledge of programming work in my time as a technician. With that came a nice little bump in pay. The two languages were similar , just differing dialects, but the storage formats were mismatched enough to cause some headaches until we worked out the quirks. For the devotees of antique technologies, all of the data was stored in ISAM on the old computers and C-ISAM on the new. It took a couple of months to rewrite the quirky and much-patched old court software. I took quite a bit of pleasure in removing the kludges that had crept in over the years and cleaning up some of the bad programming practices that BASIC seems to encourage. Converting the data was sometimes hellish and seemed ready to defeat us. Years of court employees entering critical data with no sanitation precautions left us with all manner of transposed characters and substitutions. In some ways we had a minor example of leet speak where lower case L was just a good as the digit 1, upper letter O was just as good as a zero to the non-technical users and the software didn't bother to check. Add random punctuation and letters here and there and you have a mess. We did finally work out a decently reliable easy of moving, cleaning and reformatting the data. The real problem was that it had, in the end, to be carried out on-site at the remote courts and it was a slow treacherous process sometimes taking 15+ hours and which had to happen during off hours. The whole process resulted in a number of multi-day trips to the courts to convert systems and data and train the users. By the way, I made certain that the re-written software would never allow garbage character substitutions again!

My temporary posting to the programming side of the house became permanent when the manager went to bat for me and convinced his superior and the personnel office that I would fit and was qualified. Thanks, Dick. The promotion did not mean a huge increase in pay over the electronic technician position but every bit was welcome. Over in the electronics side two new technicians had been brought on before the mass installations of the new computer systems. We were lucky to get two men who had just retired from the same USAF unit and they proved to be valuable additions. It is great to have people on staff who know what the job is and who can figure out how best to do it on their own. We did have a bit of a shakeup when a bit of hidden nepotism was uncovered resulting in some sudden personnel departures. There was also a bit of insubordination on another front resulting in another termination but things did keep perking along. There was a bit of slack time during which I took it upon myself to write a simple C-language mail program presenting what amounted to a graphic user interface but without the graphics. Unix mail was a real disaster for non-technical users requiring multiple steps with arcane command-line instructions to send a simple note. I automated all of that showing the user a simple one-page program with address book/reading/writing/mailing capabilities and I, wisely I think, limited the length of any given message to no more than a few hundred characters. Everything done between computers in the court was made difficult because there was no networking between systems. All communications took place over sometimes-shaky telephone lines using modems. Yes, they could dial themselves but the communications were almost terminally slow. During all of this our offices relocated twice. The eventual upside was that I wound up, for the first time, with a private office, the first since I had left my position in the USAF.

A decision was made to change all of the court's software over to an integrated database system and to replace all of the existing software. I have no idea how or by whom the decision was made but there it was. Looking back I can see that this was the beginning of the end for my career at the court but there was, at the time, no way to know. The software chosen was called PROGRESS and, to me at least, it seemed to be hideously expensive especially when compared to our existing stuff which was basically free beyond a bit of maintenance. PROGRESS was simple enough and anybody who knew or could learn SQL Structured Query Language, a means of database access on many computer platforms. could pick it up pretty quickly. There was enough commitment to the massive switch that two out-of-state programmers who worked in PROGRESS were hired on. The main problem, to my mind, is that there was no real idea what the final product was to be and someone, I know not who, decided that it would be up to the clerks from the various courts to get together and design it themselves. This would have the upside that, having done it themselves, there would be nobody to blame if it didn't do what they wanted/needed. The downside was that not a person among the "designers" knew anything about the possibilities. This lead to a seemingly interminable period of week-long meetings, and I mean that literally, where they tried to hash things out while some unfortunates from the programming staff tried to keep them to the doable and rational. The only actual productive work done, in my opinion of course, was to sink a lot of programming time into determining that the old systems' data could in most cases be made compatible for import into PROGRESS. The catch there was that there was no actual software to test against so there was no way of knowing what data holes might exist in a real changeover. Oh well, at least that kept four programmers busy for a couple of weeks.

This period of flailing about went on for a long time. Probably a year or so or at least it seemed like it and all the while nothing useful was being done. Sure, we kept up the old software and made improvements where warranted and I did get a lot better at the day-to-day handling of a distributed Unix environment and along the way I guess I earned my spurs as a true Unix sysadmin System Administrator — one who handles the down-and-dirty work of keeping systems working although more often than not I wound up doing nothing more than tech support and hand holding over the phone. I guess this period was what did it for me. I welcome a break in the workload as much as the next guy but at this point it looked as though nothing would ever be accomplished and major disillusionment and no little bit of disgust set in.

I guess you could say that my salvation came along just in time since I was on the verge of quitting to look for a job where I might be able to accomplish something useful. My salvation was in the form of a buyout offer from the state personnel office. By random chance I had been hired by the court shortly before new standards were imposed and that meant that I was considered an expensive employee by dint of better pay and benefits than newer hires. The state offered many of us in this situation a buy-out offer of additional credited years of service on our records if only we would take those years and retire. In the time since I've often joked with people that when the offer was made I thought about it for fifteen seconds and ran for the door. It wasn't like that but the pointless make-work I was enduring made the decision a lot easier than it should have been for such a major life change. Looking back I realize that I should have taken the latest-possible offered retirement date but I jumped at an earlier one and left the court in May of 1997. Had I waited I would have a slightly better monthly check and the recovering housing market would have made it possible to do better on the sale of my house but the house definitely had to go. There was no doubt about it though, given the cost of living in Alaska and my projected income there was no way to stick around in the long term.

Upon retirement I set about prettying up the house for sale, contracted with an agent and put it on the market. It sold far more quickly than I expected, to the third or fourth couple that looked at it, but closing could not take place until the end of October. Contract in hand, I did a quick sell-off of anything in excess of needs and had almost everything else packed off to Tennessee for storage. I was set on my idea of driving out in the Miata and time would be quite critical. A friend was kind enough to handle the closing with a Power-of-Attorney so that I could bail out before the weather closed in entirely. The last couple of piece of furniture was given to my neighbor for use in his cabin on the morning of departure because I spent the last night sleeping on the couch. This was the genesis of Driving on the Edge. Off to the next stage of my life, whatever that might be.

© 1999-2018 by John McGaw — Page last modified: Sat Sep 29 16:29:04 2018
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