Friday, 3 February 2017

'I'm in a bit of a rush' said Tom...

... Swiftly. <bou_boum_and_indeed_tsh>

The topic of Tom Swifties was broached in this week's Museum of Curiosity (starting at about 14'30"). The Tom Swifty is an amusing ... form (I nearly wrote "art form", but to say that would be to depend on an overly etymological understanding of the word art; wordsmithery would be nearer the mark.

This mention of Tom Swifties reminded me an online community I used to be a part of. It was based on a 1980s bulletin board system – ahead of its time (in those days) called variously Notes, Notes 11, VAX NOTES, and ultimately (marking DEC‘s nod to UNIX – ULTRIX) DEC Notes.

The halcyon days of NOTES are detailed in an article published in Knowledge Management magazine (which explains the abbreviation used in the text – KM). It's pretty long, but this gives a flavour:

...The ability to find a subject matter expert quickly and get the answer to a question or assistance in solving a problem, is a key KM priority. It saves time (and money), enhances customer relationships and ensures that knowledge transfer happens to the right person at the right time. And yet we also know that tools are not the whole answer. Even the best tools will not give you a return on investment unless the employees of the company are committed to helping one another.

Employees of Digital Equipment Corporation worked in an environment that got this combination of technology and culture about right, back in the 1980s. The technology was a simple collaboration tool called Notes... that ran on Digital’s worldwide network, supported by the company’s VAX/VMS... software development tools group. Among the people who worked at Digital during that time, the nostalgia for that tool and the culture it enabled (and that enabled its success) assumes Camelot-esque proportions.

More here
Notes was what in Reading UK was known as a midnight hack, and in the USA a skunk-works project (done in the engineers' "own" time – not that they had any [in the eyes of the corporate lawyers: the contract of employment was referred to by one wag as "a certificate of brain donation" my own very late name for it – the staircase for this bit of esprit has been grinding away {must have been an escalator} for about thirty years – is a writ of HABEAS MENTEM]). It was a vehicle of creative collaboration between users of DECnet (the internal network used by over 100,000 employees).
The midnight hacking did not stop with DECnotes. In the mid-'90s a US engineer (whose name escapes me) wrote a PC client to run on Windows NT (maybe other flavours of Windows too); this was just a client – the server ...
<explanation type="more egg-sucking">
At the time (and possibly even now...yes) the client/server model was a common and very useful system for designing software. We normal punters usually aren't aware of it – anything we get to use is a client. But if you use an app on your mobile phone you already know what a client looks like. The server is the beefy code running somewhere Out There, supplying services as required by the many clients.
...still had to run on a VAX or ULTRIX machine.  I wrote the online help for this client (volunteering, of course, in a way that exemplified that ability to find a subject matter expert quickly – through Notes).

I don‘t know if  later, in the unfortunate but inevitable jargon, this PC client was productized.
I was told that the Project Manager wanted to enhance it so that it could handle, in addition to text, all sorts of other media. Her bosses said No, she took the idea to Lotus, and the rest is herstory.  I can't vouch absolutely for this story, though this extract from a user suggests that it might be true:
Len Kawell wrote Notes-11 (his LinkedIn profile says that this work was done “in his spare time”) and later worked with Ray Ozzie on Lotus Notes. Notes-11 was then taken on by Benn Schreiber and Peter Gilbert as a “skunk works” project within DEC Central Engineering and resulted in VAX Notes

More here  (my emphasis)
Anyway, apart from being used for work-based collaboration, there were Notes files devoted to leisure interests. As that memoir goes on to say, 
...[I]n August 1989, some 10,355 VAX Notes conferences were active inside DEC, 390 of which were dedicated to employee interests such as “Good restaurants in the South of France”...
One of these employee-interest conferences was called JOYOFLEX, and harboured various sorts of discussion about language. A note in this conference was my introduction to Tom Swifties.
The Tom Swifties in this note had a twist: the punchline had to be the name of a language (but after a few weeks some latitude came into it – a contribution of mine, referring to the UNIX variant SCO and the name of the dialect spoken in Liverpool, was "'I prefer UNIX' said Tom, a Scouser". No...? SCO-user. Ah well. Some fell on stony ground. This one's less contrived: "Pass me the spanner' he called in French."

The idea of the Tom Swifty, at the time, was new to me. I expected that by the time I had got it (it wasn't very fully explained, as US-based employees already had the necessary cultural background), the well would have run dry  –  after maybe a dozen or so replies. But, rather like the holiday experience of Jack Waley-Cohen on Museum of Curiosity, the idea smouldered away for weeks, amassing eventually several hundred replies.

The memory stirred up by that programme was of my favourite (though I say it as shouldn't – TISIAS)

"'Just because the bread-mix is too dry, 
surely the recipe didn't say to do that
he said in Indo-European".


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