Making the world better

December 6, 2018

The clear lesson of history is that almost every system or scheme to make the world a better place, if implemented, in actual fact makes things worse.

Do you really want to make the world better? Repent!

Now, we tend to think of repentance as some kind of punishment or penance for sins, but that’s not quite right. As Pres. Nelson pointed out in this year’s Christmas Devotional, the Greek word translated as repent (μετανόειν) means changing your mind or your spirit. Even if we’re basically good, until we become perfect we still have opportunities to change to something better. This is good news1: we aren’t stuck with what we are today, we can change!

So don’t try to change the world, try to change yourself. If we each become better people, then the world will be better too.

1 Gospel (Greek εὐαγγέλιον) means “good news.”



September 18, 2018

I get the impression that a lot of people think if we could just get rid of Trump, everything would go back to normal. This is an illusion, and it seems to me a dangerous illusion.

The problem is that what most of us consider “normal” is just the situation that has existed since the end of World War II, when society has been dominated by a particular set of institutions like academia, a unified news media, and government bureaucracies. Unfortunately these institutions, as happens to almost all human institutions as time passes, have been growing increasingly corrupt, sclerotic, and isolated from the people they are ostensibly designed to serve, and the people in them (and others in their social circles) have become arrogant, contemptuous, and condescending. (Also, the technologies and social situations for which those institutions were designed have disappeared or become outmoded.) Whatever else you might say about Trump, he spoke for and to the people who were the objects of that contempt, and they were the ones who elected him. Getting rid of him won’t do any good as long as the arrogance and condescension continues, and that hasn’t shown any sign of decreasing.

Rituals of the fall

September 15, 2018

Since it’s September, we once again have the announcement of this year’s Ig Nobel Prizes and the winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Follow the links to enjoy.


August 15, 2018

As anyone who has read the Book of Mormon knows, at the end of King Mosiah’s reign the Nephites changed their political system from monarchy to an elected judgeship. Many critics of the Book of Mormon have suggested that Joseph Smith was just reflecting the ideology of his time and place, but the account in the Book of Mormon is subtly different from typical American views of democracy. Consider Mosiah 29:38:

Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.

“Freedom” is supposedly one of our American values, but we don’t usually think of it in terms of “a willingness to answer for [our] own sins.” Many people seem to view real freedom as being able to do what they want without experiencing any negative consequences, but the Book of Mormon is correct in equating freedom with accepting responsibility. If people are truly free, they will make mistakes and own up to them.

As I mentioned in my last post, my father worked on electronics in the Air Force. At the time I was born he was working for Motorola, but he didn’t feel like he was making enough money to support a family. When he saw an ad saying IBM was hiring he applied, and convinced my Uncle Lee to apply too. They showed up for a day of testing and interviews with about 80 other candidates, but at the end of the day only my father and Uncle Lee were hired.

Since I work on IBM z computers, the modern descendants of the IBM System/360, I decided to ask him several years ago for stories about the early days of that architecture. Most of his stories weren’t about things he did, but he did tell me that one time he was working on a communication program, and his manager had arranged test time in the middle of the night on a customer’s computer. They had loaded their software onto a tape, but they had been given the wrong address for the tape drive, so after loading the first part of the program when it tried to read the tape the operation failed. The manager started ranting and railing about how much time and money he had spent setting up the test and flying his team to the test site, which would now be totally wasted and would set their project back weeks. (I think he said the manager was also blaming the problem on the female workers who had prepared the tape.) While this was going on, my father quietly went over to the console, found the memory location where the tape unit address was stored, altered it to contain the correct address, and then turned around and said, “Let’s try it again.” He restarted the program and the test was able to proceed as planned.


IBM System/360 model 30 console at the Computer History Museum. Photo by Carlo Nardone; accessed from Wikimedia Commons. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I regret that it didn’t occur to me to ask him about his work at JPL. It’s cool to think, though, that code he helped write might be executing outside the heliopause in interstellar space.

When we lived in Houston he was working on the computers that were to become the onboard processors for the Space Shuttle. From what I remember, they were developing a new programming language (named “HAL”) to write the software, and the compiler was new and untested. My father’s job was to debug programs that weren’t working and determine if the program had been written incorrectly or if there was a bug in the compiler. One time for MIA we had a series of meetings where men in the ward came and talked about their jobs, and my father was one of the ones who did this. I was pretty impressed when he started writing down instructions in machine code from memory. (Having since then had to do some debugging of my own, I’m not as impressed as I was then. It was still cool, though.)

After he left IBM he worked for a microcomputer company named Billings Computers, where he headed up their systems programming division. This meant we were one of the few households at that time that had multiple computers in our home. While he was at Billings I left for Texas, so I’m not as familiar with what he did after that. I know that the last few years before he retired he was working for Novell, where he led the team that certified third party hardware and software to work with Netware.


For completeness, here are some other stories he told me about the early days of System/360:

IBM salesmen had a base salary and an annual quota. To get the full base salary they had to meet the quota, but if they exceeded their quota they were compensated at a much higher rate. Now, the System/360 project had been kept secret, but at the beginning of 1964 the salesmen were all given quotas substantially larger than what they’d had in 1963, I think he said about twice as high, and there was a lot of grumbling from the sales force. Then in April the System/360 was announced, and most of the salesmen had made their new, higher quotas by June. So they went from very unhappy at the beginning of the year to quite pleased and wealthy by the end of it. Technical staff like my father were given a two week technical briefing right before the announcement.

The System/360 model 30 of course by default ran System/360 programs, but you could change the microcode and it would run programs written for the 1401, IBM’s previous line of business computers. Technology had progressed so far that it ran 1401 programs twice as fast as an actual 1401. Our neighbor across the street in San Jose worked for a competitor that made what we’d now call 1401 “clones”, and he was quite discouraged when he found out how fast the model 30 was. (Erick and Hans probably remember this neighbor’s son, Eddie Baker “Snake”, who was about our age.)

One of the customers my father worked with had a set of 1401s that they were looking to replace with 360-30s, but their 1401s had been purchased with what’s called an RPQ (Request Price Quote, I think) that added a special instruction to the hardware. (Yes, in those days you could pay extra and get a modified instruction set for your computer.) The standard 1401 emulation code didn’t support that instruction, of course, so IBM flew in their microcode expert to see what could be done. He asked what the instruction operation code was, so they told him, and then he sat down with some paper and did a bunch of calculating and then said, “If you do that it should rewind the tape drive and unload the tape.” “Yes,” my father said, “that’s what happens.” “Well, what do they want it to do?” So they told him, and he did some more calculations, then pulled out some blank, copper-clad punch cards (that was what the microcode was stored on) and a hole punch, punched some holes in a handful of cards, used the new cards to replace some of the ones in the computer, and said, “Now try it.” They did, and everything ran just like they wanted it to.

My father, veteran

April 26, 2018

If you followed the link to Anna’s blog on my last post, you should have seen that my father was buried with military honors due to his service in the United States Air Force. Here are some of the things I heard over the years about his military service.

His specialty was Electronics and he mostly worked on B-52 bombers, so despite being in the Air Force I understand that he spent most of his time on the ground. He did say that once he was working on a plane and apparently there was some miscommunication, because before he finished the plane started moving, and he had to jump out as it was taxiing to the runway.

While he was in New Mexico he sang in the choir on Sundays. One day after choir practice the guy singing next to him started asking questions about where he was from and what his hobbies were and such. I don’t know if Dad knew it at the time, but this man was an FBI agent, and a few weeks later Dad’s commander told him he’d been given a security clearance to work on nuclear weapons.

He was serving during the time the Korean war was going on. He said once they asked for volunteers to go to Korea, so he raised his hand. Shortly after that he was given a new posting—to England!

(I’ve heard both those stories many times over the years, but it wasn’t until just now that I realized they might be connected. I doubt that many of the plans in Korea carried nuclear weapons, so it makes sense that after going to the trouble to get him cleared they would send him to a place where there were planes that did.)

They sent him to England by boat. About half way across the Atlantic they went through a hurricane. My father never suffered from seasickness or motion sickness of any kind (I’ve inherited that from him) so it was have been no big deal for him. However, everyone else was very sick and he couldn’t go out on deck due to the weather, so he had to stay in the hold with all the sick people which he didn’t much care for.

After he got there he had to get an English drivers license. The person he went to to get the license was surprised to learn that there were automobiles in Arizona and that the state issued drivers licenses.

One time he and a friend were trying to go somewhere and ran into a big crowd. It turned out that the crowd was there to see Queen Elizabeth go by as she was returning from her first tour of the commonwealth after her coronation, so they stopped and watched her go by.

He went to Germany at least once while on leave, and bought a Leica camera.

He always paid his tithing right after getting his pay. He said most of the other airmen had to go pay off loans they’d taken out, but he always had a least a little money left over from the previous payday.

He and my mother were engaged by mail while he was in England. My Uncle Bruce (my mother’s youngest brother) was really disappointed when the Hershey’s box he sent her just had a ring and no candy.

They planned their wedding for a month after the date he was supposed to be discharged, but then the Air Force decided to extend his enlistment a month or two. My mother was very upset, but her father called their congressman, John Rhodes, and complained, so my father was discharged on the original date.

So that’s most of what I know about my father’s military service.

Gerald Pew, 1933–2018

April 23, 2018

My father, Gerald Pew, passed away on April 12. I don’t think I’m ready yet to say much about him, but here are some links for those who want to know more:

The slideshow my brother Tim made for the viewing.

The grandchildren singing at his funeral.

All my brothers, two of my uncles, four of my sons, lots of my cousins and nephews, and I singing at his funeral. (The arrangement is by my cousin Lane Johnson. His father, Lee, is not only my mother’s older brother but also my father’s life-long best friend. Both of them are in this group.)

A post by my niece, Anna. She’s an accomplished photographer, and included the obituary and my father’s testimony.