My Days with Ma Bell

 

Name dropping and learning lessons

One day, back in the late 80s, when I was working at AT&T Bell Labs/AT&T Microelectronics in Allentown, I received an interoffice package from Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ. Upon opening it, I was pleasantly surprised to see a red T-Shirt. Across the front were several “3K” symbols and among them were these words:

This is the way the world began

Not with a whimper but with a bang!

There was a letter of congratulations included in the package from Arno Penzias, who was the Vice President of Bell Labs then. I was thrilled to bits! I had not even heard of Arno Penzias at that time. It was a huge organization and he was not in my direct line of command. Well, it turns out that I had gone out of my way to test out a hardware accelerator that was developed in Murray Hill, for a real customer design, and somehow, it went to Arno’s attention. When I talked with other colleagues and friends, I found out that Arno was actually a Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1978, for his discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (along with Robert Wilson), which helped establish the Big Bang Theory of Cosmology. It seems that the “3K” on the T-Shirt represents the “3-degrees-above-zero-Kelvin” background radiation that Arno and Robert had detected. I was told that the T-shirt and letter were Arno’s way of encouraging engineers to stretch themselves and come up with innovative ideas/solutions. I truly did not think that my little test for the accelerator deserved such a high honor! In any case, I was on cloud nine and it did impress my wife (for a few days)! 😊  I never actually wore the T-Shirt and just saved it along with the letter as mementos. 

TShirt

 

After several years, when my daughter Ramya was in middle school, she came across this T-Shirt. She was quite impressed by the story behind it and wanted  to wear it to school. Sure, why not, I said! It looked perfect on her with the blue jeans! I wish we had a keepsake photo of that moment. That evening at the dinner table, Ramya mentioned about a strange reaction that one of her friends had to the message on the T-shirt! It seems the friend read it, scowled at her and said “That is against my beliefs”! Ramya was shocked and puzzled… and frankly, so was I! We had not thought much about any “hidden implications” of the lines. We were just feeling proud that it was a gift from a Nobel laureate about his research and were more than happy to show-off!! Upon digging deeper, we realized that some people oppose or disagree with “The Big Bang Theory”, based on their particular religious teachings. It certainly was a learning moment for us. Well… guess what? This is middle school, and you get to learn in the hallways, cafeteria and playground as much as you learn in the classroom! BTW, much later, I researched into the lines on the T-Shirt and found out that these were derived from T.S.Eliot’s poem from 1925 -“The Hollow Men”, which ends with :

This is the way the world will end

Not with a bang but with a whimper

Last week, after a frantic search throughout the house (specifically for this blog entry), I came to the unfortunate realization that I might have lost/misplaced the T-Shirt and the letter! Considering that I am a nostalgia buff and have treasured such keepsakes from my past ( for e.g, my favorite R.K.Narayan photos and memorabilia), I am very upset that I lost these! I am hoping that my wife will magically locate them (just as she has done so in the past)!

Orlando Magic!

A visit to Orlando and Disney Theme Parks is a must-do rite of passage, especially for families with children. Our family has very fond memories of the three trips that we had to Orlando in general and Disney Parks in particular. Of all the parks, my #1 favorite is Epcot. This “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” (EPCOT Center) made an indelible impression on me the very first time we went in 1990. The jaw-dropping rides were thoroughly entertaining and informative at the same time!! While initially I complained about the cost of entrance being so exorbitant ($25 per person per day in 1990), at the end of the day, I conceded that it was totally worth it!

When my friends at work found out that I was headed to Orlando, they told me that the main attraction at EPCOT was a ride called “The story of communications” in the iconic Spaceship Earth, which was an amazing and imposing structure! It is a Geodesic dome (the first of its kind),  which is composed of a complex network of triangles. My colleagues told me that this ride was sponsored and hosted by AT&T! They said that, as employees, we get to use the reception center associated with the ride. That sounded like a wonderful employee benefit! I didn’t quite realize how cool this benefit was till we actually got there.

 On that day, the lines for Spaceship Earth were up to ~90 mins long! I walked up to the Disney employee there and flashed my AT&T badge and she directed us to the private reception entrance for AT&T employees. There the secretary took us to a cozy reception area and asked us to relax, help ourselves to the snacks and drinks and let her know when we were ready for the ride! Wow! That was royal treatment. My family was thoroughly impressed! After soaking in the warmth of the welcoming reception and resting for a bit, the lady took us through a secret employee entrance to the front of the ride. It was all coordinated in such a subtle way that others in the line would not get a hint that someone was being given a preferential treatment. Even though it is an employee benefit  and a privilege, I can understand if others who stood in line for over hour and half would be upset, jealous and resentful! This reminded me of the folks in India with money, power and/or powerful connections, who bypass long queues at temples! I do remember the feeling of pride and joy at being given this special attention and at the same time it was also laced with a tinge of guilt every time we took advantage of this benefit. I get the same feeling whenever I am randomly picked to get “TSA PreCheck” at U.S airports, and I get to bypass a long line of travelers! The Spaceship Earth ride, which was narrated by Walter Cronkite (Journalist and CBS news anchorman) was very educational and exhilarating!

Indelible memories of EPCOT and Universal Studios

We did this ride (with separate family groups) several times in the 1990’s. While in Orlando, during one of these trips, we covered the Universal Studios tour as well, which is another fun filled adventure (especially for a movie buff like me!).  The “ET Adventure”, which is based on Steven Spielberg’s movie was a hugely popular ride in Universal Studios when we visited in 1996. Similar to the Spaceship Earth, this was also one of the rides that is sponsored by AT&T. It made sense – as the main focus towards the end of the movie is ET desperately trying to “Phone home”.. to communicate with it’s alien family. Even here AT&T employees had the same reception benefits as EPCOT. Unfortunately, just a few months earlier, my division of AT&T Microelectronics was spun off and became Lucent Technologies and that meant I did not have an AT&T badge! 😦 I approached the receptionist, showed my Lucent badge and explained the situation! She understood and said that we would still be covered as ex-AT&T employees till the end of the year! Yipee! That was sweet! We were thrilled that we could draw from that well of hospitality for one last time! We left the ride with fond memories that will last a lifetime and we thanked AT&T Pioneers for their warmth and hospitality!

Glimpses of the future

Airport Square in Lansdale was your average American strip mall. The AT&T Store was next to ToysRUs, which was adjacent to Borders bookstore (sadly, both of these are no more). From the corner of my eyes, I could see the sales lady sizing me up! I am sure she assumed that I was up to no good!  I was checking out the display case from all angles, and was probably drooling too, like a dog at an out-of-reach buffet table!

She approached me and said “Anything I can help you with?”.

I pointed to the case that contained AT&T’s leading edge communications marvel  called the AT&T EO Communicator and said, “How many of these have you sold”!

That’s not a typical question from a typical customer!

Looking at her puzzled face, I said – “I am sorry.. I should explain.. I also work for AT&T. In the Microelectronics division, up in Lehigh Valley. We designed the main chips that go into this cool gadget”

“Oh.. that is awesome!” she said, as she let her guard down, once she realized that I was not a weirdo or a potential shop-lifter, but just another colleague!

“So… have you sold any? How about other locations? Can you check how the sales are overall?”

She lowered her voice and said, “No .. no sales at all here. Just some people who saw the cool commercials on TV and have come in to stare at it! I think it’s too expensive. Who in their right mind would put down $2000 for a toy like this?”

I was disappointed. This was the first time a product which contained one of our chips was in  retail stores. I had worked on one of the 4 main AT&T chips that formed the brain of this phablet (Phone + Tablet). This final product was a collaboration of several groups and organizations (AT&T, EO, General Magic etc..).

AT&T’s version of an IPAD (circa 1993) (photos courtesy – oldcomputers.net)

In the following weeks I made several trips to the store and even brought my family over a few times. If it were 2018, I would have taken several selfies with the display pieces and proudly uploaded to Facebook and bragged about what a genius engineer I was! 😊 Well, this was 1993 and way before Iphones or Facebook and even Internet (of the kind that we are used to)!

AT&T Bell Labs was, as usual, way ahead of its time! This communicator with its futuristic promise was at least 15 years ahead of Apple’s Ipad. It was a contemporary of Apple’s PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) Newton and was much more advanced in terms of it’s communication capabilities. The TV commercial that promoted this communicator, clearly shows how futuristic this design was for 1993!

AT&T Bell labs has contributed immensely to the world of science, engineering, and overall technological advancement. To date, there are 15 Nobel prize winners from Bell Labs. There are inventions that came out of Bell labs, which touch us all every day in some form or the other. For e.g., : Transistors, Laser, Solar Cells, Cellphone Technology, Communication Satellites, Radio Astronomy, evidence of Big Bang, Unix operating system, C and C++ are just a small sample of their key contributions. Twenty five years ago, AT&T had a crystal clear vision of the world that we have today! Check out the “You Will” series of television ads they ran back then predicting what’s to come! While several other companies eventually made these predictions into realities, a lot of the building blocks did come from the work done at AT&T. 

While the work I had done was not remotely in the same league as all the fundamental research done at AT&T locations in Murray Hill and Holmdel, New Jersey, I thoroughly enjoyed and am proud of the opportunities that I had as part of AT&T Microelectronics to work on leading edge chips while learning and collaborating with the best in the industry.

Epilogue

When I was getting ready to move from Iowa to Allentown in 1988, to join AT&T Bell Labs, my co-workers tried to paint a bleak picture of Allentown by playing Billy Joel’s song (“Allentown”). Thankfully, I had never heard of Billy Joel or his song back then, so I ignored them. Today (4/3/2020), after 32 years in Allentown and working for : AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies, PMC Sierra, Agere Systems, LSI, Avago and Broadcom, it’s time for me to get off the bus. My stop has come. It was a wonderful journey where I had the opportunity to work with (and learn from) a great group of professionals and friends, and in the process created 32 years worth of nostalgia (to be used for future blog posts 🙂  )

Close Encounters of The Blue Kind

October 20th 1990 is a very memorable day for us!  No! it’s not our wedding day or the day our child was born or any such thing. That was the day we got our first speeding ticket! You all do keep track and celebrate your 1st speeding-ticket-anniversaries, right?  🙂

Here’s what happened…

That was a Saturday and we were excited about going to a party in Allentown, when we were pulled over in Coopersburg! The officer was very polite. He inquired if I knew why he stopped me (hmm.. what’s with this quiz?). I was very  nervous and mumbled a “No! officer”.  I felt like every one driving by was slowing down to take a look at me! The officer asked me for my  driver’s license and registration. Then, after what seemed like a long time he came back with a speeding ticket for $150 and then told us to have a nice day!! I appreciate the politeness .. but that almost felt sarcastic!

“Nice day”?? He pretty much ruined our day. The only saving grace was that the party that we went to, turned out to be a surprise baby shower for Uma!! Of course, THAT is the real reason we remember Oct 20th!

The next day, when I discussed this ticket with friends at work, I got a lot of advice..

You should have known that Coopersburg is a speed-trap town!” one said.

“Contest it – the cop never shows up and therefore you will beat the ticket” chimed another!

You should have told him that your taxes pay for his salary”, said another wise guy!

“Next time you should be prepared – when he asks “your eyes are red, have you been drinking?” you should say “Officer, your eyes are glazed, have you been eating donuts!!”

Ahh.. everybody is a comedian.. when passing out such free advice!

A few weeks later, I went to court to contest the ticket. I was dressed in my best jacket and tie, even though, those were usually reserved for weddings and funerals! I had seen enough episodes of “LA Law” to know how the system worked. I walked in with a briefcase in hand. I gave a look that said “I am an engineer, I know what I am doing”, while the faint, nervous voice in my head said “damn, I should have gone to the bathroom before coming in.” I was quite disappointed to see that the officer did show up. When I asked him about the calibration data on the radar, he read out all the dates and measurements – as if he was expecting this exact question! Finally, I opened my brief case and brought out my Exhibit A – a receipt from the grocery store in Coopersburg, where we had stopped earlier to pick up some flowers for our host. Then, I took out Exhibit B – the speeding ticket itself! I told them that the distance from the grocery store to the place where the cop stopped me divided by the time taken should be the speed at which I drove! Based on the evidence, I stated that the speed thus computed does not match what the officer noted. I therefore declared with a flourish that the speeding case against me be thrown out! The judge and the officer were taken aback by this display of theatrics and middle school level time-and-distance math! I was prepared to be yelled at by the judge for wasting his time. Surprisingly, he and the cop had a hearty laugh, after which the judge said something to the effect of  “get out of here!” and reduced the fine to $35, I guess just for my efforts! I thanked him and got out of there. I could hear them laughing even from the outside. I can definitely tell you  – that was not an “LA LAW” performance.. it was more of a  “My Cousin Vinnie” performance!

That day,  I had learnt a valuable lesson: no more speeding…  in Coopersburg! But, Warrington? That’s an entirely different town and I got my speeding ticket #2 there, a few years later!  This was another ticket for 40 mph in a 25 mph zone! I was not as nervous this time around.  When I showed up in the court, I did not do the phony lawyer routine. I was dressed in my business casuals. As soon as I walked in, the judge’s face lit up! He pointed to the “Lucent Technologies’” logo on my shirt and said “that’s a great company”! I was befuddled by such an opening! By way of brief background – that was a brief period of glory for Lucent (my employer), when its stock was skyrocketing.

Lushirt3
A brief period of glory for Lucent!!

The judge and I reveled in our mutual admiration of Lucent! He said that he had a lot of Lucent stock and of course he was thrilled about its performance. After this bit of distraction, he almost forgot to admonish me on my speeding infraction! He reduced the speed and I just had to pay $25. I gave him a thumbs up while the bewildered cop just looked on!

If you think that I am the only one in the family that’s always speeding, you are totally wrong! Uma had her share of tickets too! There was this one time when she got a ticket for 50 mph in a 35 mph zone! Being the veteran with traffic courts, I accompanied her, to show how it is done! As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw an older gentleman walking slowly . We stopped and waved him on with a smile, while cursing him under our breath for being the slow poke, as we were getting late for our court appointment.

As soon as we got into the court, we saw that the cop was there with all of his documents to make the case… and when the judge showed up, we saw that it was the old man from the parking lot. He recognized us and smiled and winked at us! After that it was smooth sailing. He sent us off with a minor admonishment to Uma for not being careful with the speed. Yay!! Another successful overturning of a speeding ticket!

There are several lessons that I have learnt from all of these court appearances:

  1. Always contest speeding tickets.
  2. Always be respectful to the officer and the judge. They are just doing their job. Having a nasty attitude towards them is not going to do you any good.
  3. Wear proper clothing that will make a good impression. I wonder what would have been the judge’s reaction if I had worn an “Adult World T-shirt” to court!
  4. Be nice to people walking slowly in parking lots… or just everyone around you. You never know who will be in a position to judge you!
  5. Final lesson – Try not to speed…  too much!