Showing posts with label Operations Management. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Operations Management. Show all posts

Monday, January 16, 2017

Introducing Megan McCree

On February 7, 2017, I’ll be introducing a new member of the Seamus McCree extended family to the reading world. Her creation did not come easily, and I worried whether I was doing her justice. Let me explain.

Megan first entered my consciousness four years ago. I wrote the first 40,000 words of a novel set in the future. The YA main character had an older sister, a real tomboy. I thought the kids would be Seamus McCree’s distant descendants (just to keep it all in the fictional family). As I worked through the story, the sister role faded out and the first sparks of this female character were extinguished.

Then I decided to bring the story closer to the present and made Seamus McCree’s son, Paddy, a very old man—well over a hundred (medical improvements and an organic vegetarian diet worked). But Paddy at 140 was still too close to the present. That’s when I decided to utilize Paddy’s child, Seamus’s grandchild, the very old person. As I considered what internal forces would drive this character, I decided she should be female. Eventually, that project faltered and still awaits future attention. And so this as yet unnamed Seamus McCree granddaughter faded into the background.

When I started writing Empty Promises, the fifth in the series, hopefully coming out later this year, I recalled my vision of the ancient woman, and decided to bring Megan McCree to the stage. I wanted to show in this girl the seeds of the woman who in the very distant future would became a marvelous “ancient.” Because of the planned time gap between Doubtful Relations and Empty Promises, Megan will then be age three and a half.

I worried about what I knew about three-and-a-half-year-old girls. My daughter had been that age in the mid-1980s. Even my granddaughters are now preteens and teens. Could I carry off developing this short person in a way that was realistic?

When I sent a draft of Empty Promises to my developmental editor, I specifically asked for a critique of Megan, and then I held my breath. The editor had lots of suggestions, but none of them related to Megan as a character. Whew!

While continuing to work on Empty Promises, another opportunity for Seamus and family arose: a novella set in Georgia’s Lowcountry. What could be better than to bring Seamus, his darts-throwing mother, and Megan to Tybee Island, Georgia—the barrier island near Savannah—for vacation and havoc? But for this vacation to make sense in Seamus McCree’s overall arc, this story takes place several years after Empty Promises. Megan is a shade over six.

More worries for me. Could an old guy depict a six-year-old girl that mothers would accept? (Fathers accept any daughter, right dads?) Again, my development editor had no issues with Megan. I polished the novella and recently sent it to two terrific beta readers. Both know the Seamus McCree series and have an eye for errant homonyms, misspellings, misplaced modifiers, and the like. Again, I held my breath. These folks had never heard of Megan. Would they accept her?

Beta reader one gave me her corrections. She loved the story, and particularly loved Seamus’s mother. I broke down and asked if I had drawn Megan realistically. “Oh yes, she was fine,” she said. “But I really like Mom—probably because of my age.” Her grandchildren are older than mine, all out of high school. I didn’t take that as a vote of confidence on Megan.

Just this past week I received corrections from reader number two. She started her note with, “I just now finished the book and thoroughly enjoyed it! I fell madly in love with Megan.”

I think I’ve been holding my breath for four years—a long gestation period even for a fictional character. It’s nice to breathe naturally again.

You can meet Megan in the novella titled “Low Tide at Tybee” in Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas to be released in print and Kindle editions on February 7, 2017.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 1/15/17.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Black Box Concerns

I started out my home computer life an Apple guy. In 1985 I bought an Apple IIe. The “e” meant it was enhanced from the original Apple II. I chose the 128KB of RAM memory instead of the standard 64KB because I was a heavy computational user. My most recent computer, a Dell XPS 8700, has 8GB of RAM (a 62,500 times increase). For a few bucks more I could have had another 8GB of RAM, but I didn’t need it. My first machine handled 8 bits of data at a time; the new one handles 64 bits. Processing speed differences (how quickly data is processed) are just as great.

I opted for two external 5.25” floppy disk drives on my Apple IIe. Each disk held (I think) about 360KB of data. Then came double density disks with 720KB of data. Today I have an internal drive with 1TB of data and external drives with 2TB of data and cloud storage of another 2TB of data. I even have little thumb drives that carry 32GB of data (over 40,000 times as much storage as one of those floppies). Those Apple disk drives were great, though. They could read mud on cardboard. That computer still functioned, as did its disk drives, when I finally gave them to my father (circa 1993) to act as backup for his own Apple IIe system that contained all the backup material for his published textbook.

I cannot tell you how many crashed hard drives and thumb drives I have had to pitch since then because they no longer worked.

But surely, you say, my life is better with this more advanced technology. In my IIe days I had a spreadsheet program (Visicalc) that even in its early versions would still do 99+% of the work I do on spreadsheets today. I had a word processing program (whose name I no longer recall).

The only major word processing improvements in the 30 years since that I would find it difficult to do without are Microsoft Word’s style sheets and review functions. Occasionally in the old days I could get in a typing groove and get ahead of the computer recognizing keyboard strokes. There was a buffer so I didn’t lose the work, but it did force me to slow down every once in a while.

So why do I use Microsoft-based products now instead of Apple? Well, despite writing the first program to determine the cost of post-retirement medical programs for our clients on my little Apple IIe (it took 20 hours to execute with a Fortune 10 company’s data!) my employer moved to the “Wintel” computers (Windows operating system and Intel chips) and it made sense for me to follow suit.

So why, you wonder, this burst of nostalgia? Just the ramblings of an old man who walked ten miles to and from school each day and it was uphill in both directions? A strong desire to return to a circa 1985 squarish green screen and flashing white cursor? Hardly.

No, for the last month I’ve had to deal with Windows 10. Microsoft has reported over 100 million computers now run the Windows 10 operating system. I have two of them and the experience has been anything but satisfactory for me. I won’t belabor all the issues I’ve had; suffice it to say I have spent many hours searching for fixes, finally finding (most of) them, and implementing them. One computer was a brand new desktop that came loaded with Windows 10; the other is a laptop I migrated from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10.

All those hours I spent repairing my Windows 10 installations, a bloated product that includes myriad things I do not want, were hours I did not spend writing, or reading, or watching birds, or photographing nature or any one of the top 1,000 things I would do with my life if I had not tied myself to the computer world. It also got me thinking of the hidden costs of our technology.

My recent frustration and time spent getting Windows running properly is only a small part of the hidden cost of my long-ago choice to use computers. In the Apple IIe days, I could pop the lid and add a printer board to connect to my dot matrix printer or add a second operating system (CP/M) to access a freeware word processing program. There were so few parts, I could fix anything and understand what I was doing.

Now, unscrew the cover of a laptop and you likely invalidate the warranty. And it might not even do much good—one accidental move and you may fry your motherboard. And don’t get me started on the software. Programs were efficient in the dark ages because there was no room for inefficiency. With the early Apple operating system, I could peek and poke and adjust anything (those are actually technical terms). Now almost all software are black boxes.

I give it some input; it gives me some output. I have no idea what happens in between.

That’s life in America. Ask Google or Siri a question and a list of possible answers appears. Your answers will not be the same as the ones I get because one of the software’s algorithms has been paying attention to our preferences. Ask two GPS devices how to go from point A to B and you might get two “best” answers. How am I to know which to choose? Do I have to look at a paper map or do a third search to break the tie? When I was traveling from Savannah to Raleigh to attend Bouchercon, my phone’s GPS knew that I-95 was closed through much of South Carolina because of recent flooding. My Garmin GPS (which has in the past told me of even minor delays along a route) had no clue and kept trying to get me to turn around when I took the detour.

It’s a black box problem.

We confront more of them daily. We provide input; a black box provides output; we have no idea what happened in between. We have to trust the process and even when we know it is broken, we can’t fix it.

We don’t know how Google (or Bing or whoever) determines what articles appear first on search. If we’re authors we need to learn about and worry about and fret about SEO (Search Engine Optimization). For example, when you type in “James M Jackson Author” I want my name to come up first. And when Google decides mobile friendly websites will be favored in their searches, we must rush to comply with their desires to retain our prized search rankings.

We shop online and often an algorithm (not a person) determines what price we see based on other posted online prices, the time of day, day in the week, month of the year, where else our cookies tell them we have looked. Everywhere we examine things closely we find more black boxes.

Some say this is efficient, good for us, definitely progress.

I sense this further disconnect from understanding how things actually work is not a good trend. I can’t prove it, but I sense it.

Or maybe I’ve gotten to be the old man who walked ten miles to school each way and both ways were uphill.
  
~ Jim

Originally published on the Writers Who Kill Blog 10-11-15

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dumbing Down Insurance Licensing Exams

The Wall Street Journal reported on April 25, 2011 that Primerica is pushing to make state insurance licensing exams easier so more of their potential agents can pass.

I have limited experience with state insurance licensing exams. In the mid-1980s the company I worked for brokered annuities for its small pension clients as a way to mitigate mortality risk. Since I was responsible for the folks who made those sales, I decided to become licensed myself.

I had to go to required classes—not exactly onerous—although it was a long Saturday because the class was B-O-R-I-N-G. I had to pass both the state licensing exam and a couple of NASD licensing exams since I was to sell annuities. I did read the suggested material for the state exam since many of the questions related to specific New Jersey requirements (including all the stuff about what happens to you if you don’t follow the rules). My study for the NASD exams consisted of taking one sample exam. I don’t recall my scores, but I had absolutely no problem passing and thought at the time that the minimal requirements New Jersey imposed didn’t make me feel comfortable that a state-qualified broker could give the best advice to the Aunt Bessies and Uncle Jakes of the world.

And now Primerica wants to make the tests easier? Insurance products have not become more straightforward in the last 25 years. If people can’t pass the tests, Primerica should change its recruiting so it attracts people who can. Primerica carps about an unsatisfied need because of the lack of brokers. The public, they say, is not being well-served.

If Primerica can’t attract people who can qualify under the current system, they need to change their ways. Perhaps they should look at their unique compensation structure that pays agents for bringing in other agents in addition to actually selling insurance products. Maybe if agent compensation was aligned with public needs, they would find qualified individuals, as their competitors do.

Oh, did I mention that if you want to join Primerica’s agent training program, it will cost you $99?

~ Jim

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Mythical Man-Month

Recently, I watched the third episode of The Pillars of the Earth. The book is by Ken Follett and is one of my all-time favorites. His love of cathedrals shines. What caught my eye in the made-for-TV series shown on Starz was a scene in which all of the nearby townspeople come out (in the nick of time) to work one day on the cathedral (for which they are paid and given a free dispensation from the church). The progress is so vast that the project moves from almost dead to sufficiently amazing as to impress King Stephen.

What’s wrong with this picture? It suffers the same problem as outlined by Fred Brooks in his 1975 book The Mythical Man-Month even though Brooks was writing about software design and Tom Builder is designing a cathedral.

When a project is running unacceptably late, a first reaction (okay, probably a second reaction; the first is to lay blame) is to add more people. Brooks postulates that adding more personnel tends to further delay the project because (1) all the new people have to get up to speed, and (2) communication issues increase exponentially. These same issues must have applied to 12th century England, even in the made-up town of Knightsbridge.

Yes, the skills the villagers applied were menial—but still, would one master builder be able to keep all the carts hauling earth, carved stone and the like straight? Might not someone have bumped a support pole here or there? Well, it was in a movie, so I’ll cut them some slack.

Back in the real world, however, we keep applying the same mistake. We see a surge works in Iraq and add more men in Afghanistan—ignoring the communication and infrastructure needed to support the surge. We pour massive resources of people and money at improving our security networks, tell everyone to “play nice” in the sandbox and are amazed when terrorists slip through the cracks.

You can add your examples in the comments below. One point to remember is if the proposed solution is to add staff to catch up, it’s probably going to make it worse.

~Jim