On being retired

I just passed the third anniversary of my retirement date. I was told, when I was still employed, that being retired would be awful. I always replied that I thought otherwise. I tell the story of how I came to be retired below, then tell why retirement has been good.

I involuntarily retired on Wednesday, July 30, 2014, at 5:25 pm, in the parking lot of my cardiologist, although a year would pass before I finally acknowledged that I was, in fact, retired.

I had to look the date up, but the memory of the event is still vivid. My cardiologist’s office had called around 1:30. They had been trying to reschedule my appointment for a few days, because my cardiologist had had to rearrange her schedule on very short notice. I left my boss’s staff meeting to take the call. They asked if I could come in at 5 pm.

I left work in Saratoga at 4:30 and drove to Palo Alto. It was a routine appointment and went well. My recent echo cardiogram had shown no problems and my blood pressure was under control. I was admonished to exercise, reduce my sodium intake, and lose weight. We discussed the possibility of my joining a program to help with the exercise and weight loss. It looked like a good thing, even though it wasn’t covered by my insurance.

I didn’t give my cell phone number to employers, although I did give them my home phone number, for emergency use. I didn’t take jobs where my immediate response outside of office hours would be required. My boss had called my home a few minutes earlier. My wife, assuming it was an emergency gave him my cell number. His call came while I was in my car, preparing to leave the parking lot. In those days I didn’t receive unsolicited calls, so I took the call, even though I didn’t recognize the number.

It was my boss. The head of human resources was on the line. My services would no longer be required, effective in two weeks. I was not to come in to the office. They would pack my personal belongings and have them delivered. I was to return any company property by giving it to the delivery courier. All I had was a key card.

It took three rounds to get most of my personal belongings back. About a third of them had not made it into the first box, although several things belonging to the company had. I sent a list of missing items via email. I was again to return any company property by giving it to the delivery courier.

The second box only contained personal items, but wasn’t complete. I sent another email, again with a list. Some of the items still couldn’t be found, but most were returned. I was asked to provide replacement values, and a check for that amount was returned.

Over time, I would discover that I had forgotten a few items when I made the list of missing items. I can’t remember what most of them were, but one was a nice compact table top tripod, complete with case, that I used to mount various recording devices, such as a color meter, when I was calibrating color tables for a specific LED part. I sent an email asking for it to be returned, but never heard back.

It took around two months from that phone call to complete all of the paperwork for my severance package and another six weeks until the final amount was deposited in my account. Never the less, I consider that Wednesday to be my last day as an employee

Over the next year, I made an attempt to find another job. I was 57, had forty years of experience, and worked in a part of the industry that had very few employers, so I didn’t expect responses to my queries, even from people in my network. I received none. I retired a full ten years before I had meant to, based on financial considerations, but I had retired.

Eventually, I would admit that I was retired, but I really had been retired by that phone call. It was not a glorious end to what had been mostly a highly successful career. I had spent five years longer in the industry than I should have. At the end, it showed.

Through out my career, the people I worked with were convinced that retirement would be frustrating. They said, in effect, that they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. In the late part of my career, several people I knew retired, but returned to work almost immediately. My friends thought I would “go nuts” when I retired, mostly due to boredom. It has not worked out that way, so far.

I had, unknowingly, entered a major depressive episode in November of the preceding year. By the time I realized that in February, it was seriously affecting my cognitive ability. I took medical leave in May. I returned to work, with some restrictions, against the recommendation of my psychiatrist, in late June. I should have stayed out longer. In late July, my psychiatrist extended the restrictions for another month. A week later I was retired. Much of my retirement has been spent recovering from the episode, which was so severe, it would eventually earn Social Security disabled status.

Retirement has relieved me of having to interacting with professional peers. In an industry where poor social skills, including mine, are legendary, this is a great relief. It has relieved me of the pressure of overwork caused by the insane product development schedules rampant in the industry. It has relieved me from the daily commute, hours of tedious meetings and banal demands of the profession. For those reasons alone, I am glad I retired.

The reason many give for dreading retirement is that they would not know how to use the unstructured time and lack of externally driven motivation and work schedules. As I predicted, this has not been a problem for me. I am a dilettante in many hobbies and have several projects that were being neglected because I could only attend to them in my spare time. Now I can devote as much time as I want, paying attention to which ever project I am most interested in. This alone will keep me busy for at least a decade.

I spent most of the first year of retirement concentrating on photography, exploring the possibility of turning professional.  I did not turn pro, but I was able to spend hours every day making images. I had time to learn how to use software in a photographer’s workflow. To me, this meant learning how to use Lightroom and Photoshop effectively.

I was able to join a photography critiquing group and learn from reading helpful criticism of my work, as well as other. I had time to revisit some of the locations and make different images, informed by the criticism. In the end, I realized that my aesthetic is too far from the mainstream to be commercially successful.

I am a fan of realistic concrete imagery with little manipulation. This is the opposite of the currently popular aesthetic of abstraction or heavy manipulation. My images that were well received twenty years ago are now out of fashion. After a particularly unfruitful visit to Yellowstone National Park last year, I set aside photography, other than the tourist’s images for memory photography.

I like to travel, although the decline of the airline industry, coupled with the increasing hassle of “security”, has greatly curtailed my air travel. My jobs have always given me flexibility in scheduling travel. Retirement has made that flexibility complete. It also has allowed me to travel as much as I would like, whenever I want. I will continue to travel for as long as I can.

I have discovered social media. I have a twitter account now. Reading my timeline can take as much of the day as I let it. I have time to write blog entries, which nobody reads. I have an Instagram account.  It too can consume as much time as I let it.

Although my therapist predicts that I will be bored of it in three months, I am currently focusing on computer generated imagery. I have been interested in computer graphics as long as I’ve been involved in computing, but it has always been a spare time hobby for me. I have the very good open source application Blender. I am making a brief 3D animated feature with it. This requires learning how to use Blender’s tools, effectively. I am reading books and watching online tutorials. This too can consume as much of my day as I allow it.

In summary, I was forced to retire. I am enjoying retirement, because it allows me to focus on hobbies. I have enough projects in my to-do list to keep me going for a long time.

Make it wave

I was the system programmer at Montana Tech in 1979. I talked the school into buying a Tektronix 4027, one of the first color raster computer terminals. The 4027 was “the highest resolution” color terminal at its introduction.  It supported a whooping 640 x 480 display.  We refer to that as VGA resolution now and it seems quaint compared to the 1920 x 1080 resolution of HD TV. It was capable of rendering any of sixty-four colors, but only eight at a time.

It was also very expensive, at $9000, a considerable sum for a small college in the late ’70s. This made it very visible to the school’s president, department heads, and major graphics users. Buying it was a big risk, as the money could have been used to fund other needed computer upgrades. The administration wanted to see justification for spending so much.

I had to do a demonstration. I decided to display a US flag. In an era of monochrome monitors, that would be impressive. I quickly ran into a snag. The flag required a full minute to draw. This would not result in an impressive demonstration. (For the nerdy, “Did it really take that long” explains why.)

I learned how to leave the screen black while the graphic was being drawn. The computer would end by sending commands to map the 3 black color table entries into red white and blue. The flag would display instantly.

I timed the speech I would give to introduce the display.  With one minute left, I started the program that would draw the image.  All I had to do was push the return key at that point and continue my talk.

The administrators gathered around the terminal. I gave my talk. It described the terminal’s capabilities.  I pushed the return key at the right time.  I ended my talk by saying “Let me show you an example.”  The flag displayed almost instantly. The administrators approved.

They asked a few questions. I answered them easily.  Then, having said nothing so far, the president of the school asked “Can you make it wave?” I was completely deflated.  We wrapped up the presentation. My boss told me later that the presentation had gone well, despite the closing question.

It requires computer animation software and very complex mathematics to “make it wave.” In 2010, I got a copy of blender. Blender is an open source program that you can use to create models and render images of those models. I played with blender from time to time, but never seriously.  I never thought about making a flag wave until a few days ago.

A few weeks ago, I decided to become more proficient with blender. I downloaded the current version and started working through a book I had bought years ago. Blender has grown significantly since 2010. It has much better rendering, 3d animation and a physics model of cloth. It should be possible to do a very realistic rendering of a flag waving. I still didn’t think about that first demo.

My wife saw one of my early animations. It reminder her of the demonstration. She asked if I could make it wave.  The answer, right now, is ‘no’. I couldn’t come close to a photorealistic animation.  I had to see how well I could do.  The result is less than spectacular.  It is a very cartoonish rendering. But it waves.

Eventually, I will improve on this. For now, I’m happy that I finally made it wave.

Update: August 4th, 2017. It waves.

I’m working my way through a book on animation in Blender. This morning, I reached the chapter on Blender’s various physics simulations. I don’t need any form the animation I’m working on, but two of them, cloth, and wind, are perfect for making a flag wave. I watched a brief tutorial on YouTube, and fifteen minutes later rendered a much more realistic example.

It still needs a lanyard to be believable, but it’s a long way from that original static image.


Did it really take that long?


Yes it did.  Here’s why.  NERD ALERT: this involves a lot of detail and arithmetic that very few people will find interesting.

The flag graphics demo I did for Dr DeMoney and others in 1979 was done on a Tektronix 4027 color graphic terminal. It operated over a serial port at 9600 baud. The computer sent text strings to draw graphics.  They were not information dense.

It had a 640 x 480 resolution pixel display.  It was “the highest resolution” color graphics terminal available at the time.

It used a color look up table (CLUT), with 8 slots. The flag would use the first 3 slots.

Colors were expressed using a hue, lightness and saturation format.  Hue was expressed in degrees around a color circle.  Lightness and saturation were expressed as a percentage.  Although a wide range of colors could be described, it could only render 64.  

The text strings are describe in detail in the 4027a operator’s manual. I had to send

  • GRAPHIC command, GRA, requiring 4 coordinates to place the terminal in graphics mode, 14 characters.
  • an ERASE command,  ERA, to clear the graphics, 14 characters.
  • MAP commands, MAP, to set the colors in the first three color table entries to black, 8 characters each, for a total of 24 characters.
  • Color commands, COL, to set the fill colors used when drawing the polygons,  8 characters each, for a total of 24 characters.
  • 64 POLYGON commands, POL.
    • 14 rectangles, drawing the 13 stripes and the blue field, each requiring 4 coordinates, 24 characters each, for a total of 336 characters.
    • 50 star shaped polygons, each requiring 10 coordinates, 125 characters each, for a total of 6250 characters.
  • MAP commands, MAP, to set the first three color table entries to red, white, and blue, 30 characters each, for a total of 90 characters.

This gives a grand total of 6752 characters.

We could send it 960 characters per second.  It would require roughly 70 seconds to transmit the entire string of commands, roughly 1 minute and 10 seconds. By contrast, the five year old laptop that I rendered the video on, produced an 8 bit / color, 960 x 540 bit rendering, including draw time, in 1.24 seconds. That render contains sky, ground, and a flag pole, as well as the flag.