Baby Steps Toward the New Normal

One lingering sign of my suspect masculinity is my relative indifference to hardware stores. I have nothing against them, and they sometimes give me mild pleasure. But I’m a stranger there. I feel no intimacy walking aisles full of incomprehensibly shaped metal objects. (OK, I know what some of them are, but still….)

This came to mind the other day when I caught a good vibe while shopping in an office supply store, open now that we are in Phase 3 of New York State’s business reopening. These aisles were filled with the tools of my trade. Here I know—and have opinions about—everything on the shelves. I even know the print shop. I’ve written case histories about their business plans and press releases about a manufacturer winning the contract to supply their printing devices. Not much gets by me here. 

Probably my mild ecstasy came about in part because my long stretch in pandemic isolation rendered my office supply experience into something bordering on sensory overload. An early warning came when rolling out of the driveway felt like a Springsteen song: “The night’s busting open, these two lanes can take us anywhere.” 

Staples or OfficeMax! 

But I confess to also having an affinity for office supply stores. When I went out on my own two dozen years ago as a freelance writer / public relations practitioner / communications consultant / fill in the blank for whatever title my paying clients preferred, this was where I bought all the little and some of the big things I needed to become a real business. It felt good at the time, exercising my self-reliance and simultaneously getting a little payback. The agency I’d left wouldn’t give me a laptop computer, so while I could type my notes to phone meetings on my company-supplied desktop computer, I reverted to handwriting at in-person meetings—while others typed on laptops. No more! And the new laptop I bought, wasn’t the Windows machine the agency mandated, but the Macintosh I preferred. 

Truth be told I bought the laptop from a mail order company. But the office supply store acquisitions—a headset telephone, a small collection of pens, a well-upholstered office chair and so on—were nearly as exhilarating, fueled by a similar “It’s my time now” esprit.

And what was I doing at the store on this day? I had a two-item list, both throwbacks. A phone splitter would help me rejuvenate the long idle fax capability in my multifunctional printer enabling me to respond to a financial institution’s limited and oddly antiquated information delivery options. (That’s another topic.) And I replenished our paper supply with a new 10-ream (5,000-sheet) box. Didn’t they cost $20 or $30 the last time I came here, I thought as I perused the multi-level shelves of copy paper? I’d heard that paper prices were rising, but double what I paid two years ago?

Hold on, I was in luck. The Hammermill box was on sale just over $30, roughly the amount I expected. It felt like a reprieve, like for once, an institution was watching out for me. (Well, twice if you count the $1,200 pandemic payment from the federal government.) 

The warning registered though. Next time out I should expect to pay more for paper. Amid the Black Lives Matters protests, the healthcare failures and the stalled culture and economy, the changes forthcoming in our new normal are starting to pile up. 

Photo at the top of the page by Santeri Viinamäki, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58468282

The Public Sink of the Future

Of course!

That was my reaction when I first saw a sink that grouped the three hand washing enablers inches apart in proper deployment order: soap dispenser, faucet and hand drier. A one-stop washing experience made especially convenient by motion-activators. Soap dispensed with a swipe of the hand. Water ready when you are. Then the coup de grace: the hand drier. No more hands dripping walks to nearest paper towel dispenser—or worse, waiting in line for one. It’s like the automated car wash for hands. What more could you ask for?

Well, actually, the coronavirus gives us a glimpse of a new frontier. 

Proper washing requires 20 seconds of scrubbing, healthcare professionals remind us as we attempt to stop the spread of the virus. So how do you time it? With a timepiece? Your watch is on your wrist, which is involved in hand washing, so it’s not ideal. Your phone probably has a stopwatch, but then you are pressing and swiping, which isn’t convenient, and you’re doing it in a watery environment, which may damage your phone. Timing it in your head isn’t reliable. Some suggest singing a 20-second song like “Happy Birthday,” but that gets old after say, your 10,654th washing.

Then there’s the boredom factor. Twenty seconds is a long time to invest in a repetitive act that offers no distractions from TV or social media. 

What to do? In the future, I believe we’ll have sinks with voice-activated timers that play 20-second songs to signal the proper length of a hand-washing session, thereby addressing both the timing and the boredom factors. Sink users could select a song they know or ask “Siri de Bain” to select one for them. 

Standard selections might remind washers why it’s important to give their hands the full 20-second treatment. See “20 Seconds” and “Let’s Talk About Your Hands.”

20 Seconds
Let’s Talk About Your Hands

No doubt some will offer tongue-in-cheek observations, as in “I’m Washing My Hands.”

I’m Washing My Hands.

And some experimental artists will forgo hand washing altogether to provide more of a 20-second experience. Give a listen to “No Time For Fooling Around.” 

No Time For Fooling Around

With multiple sinks in the public restroom, this could result in cacophony, so the enabling technology will need to provide a methodology for precisely controlling sound waves to be audible within tightly prescribed areas. Something like the Get Smart TV series’ “Cone of Silence,” but invisible. 

So there’s the vision. Technologists: make it a reality. 

RIP Gary Starkweather

I’ve learned that laser printer inventor Gary Starkweather passed away Dec. 26, 2019, at age 81. According to his obituary in the New York Times, the cause of his death was leukemia. 

In recent years, I was in touch with him several times, and he was always engaging and accommodating. His invention made life a little easier for the world’s office workers, and it contributed mightily to my career, as I’ve spent parts of four decades doing public relations and marketing work promoting laser printers. 

One of my last exchanges with him occurred last fall, sharing my post about him on this blog and congratulating him on the 50thanniversary of his laser printing invention. I don’t think he’d mind if I shared this excerpt from his response:

“Thanks so much. It is hard to believe that this much time has gone by. Now when I visit Doctor’s offices (not that infrequent anymore), I have to smile when I see the laser printer emit my papers.”

And next time I see paper churning out of a laser printer, I’ll think of you. Rest in peace Gary Starkweather.

The photo above shows Dover, one of the early laser printers Gary Starkweather developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. (Photo courtesy Xerox Corporation)

The Coolest Thing That Ever Happened in a Building I Worked In

Once when I walked to the elevator of my office at 100 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a woman I hadn’t seen before was waiting alone in the lobby. I said hello and asked if she’s been at the photo studio that shared the floor with us. She said yes, then we withdrew to silence. A colleague from my office joined us as the car arrived, and on the ride down, he nodded in her direction and whispered with a cupped hand over my ear, “That’s Paulina Porizkova.”

Yes, Paulina Porizkova, the 1980s and ‘90s supermodel, dressed to not be recognized in floppy hat, loose-fitting clothing, glasses and little makeup. If my sharp-eyed friend hadn’t been there, I never would have known I’d shared an elevator ride with Paulina Porizkova. 

And so it is at most of the buildings I’ve worked in over the years. Surely many noteworthy things happened at other places I’ve worked, but nothing has crossed my path, nor have I done much research. 

But research did lead me to learn that a building I once worked in is where the laser printer was invented. That’s Building 114 on the Xerox campus in Webster, N.Y., near Rochester, pictured above and visible along Phillips Road as you drive north past San Jose Drive. And I’m revealing it now because it’s the 50thanniversary of the 1969 invention, and in the anniversary year of Woodstock and the moon landing, I’m afraid it’s getting short shrift. 

I did the research as part of an assignment I had writing a blog post for Xerox about the 40thanniversary of the company’s first laser printer. My source was the inventor himself, former Xerox scientist Gary Starkweather. From my days in the early 1990s working with Xerox R&D in Building 114, I knew that the laser printer was invented somewhere in Rochester. Yet in recent years I’ve heard scientists from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) claim their institution as its home. Some Wikipedia pages and even the historic timeline wall at the Xerox customer center on the Webster campus place the invention there, as well. 

Gary Starkeweather (Photo courtesy Xerox Corporation)

In speaking to Starkweather, I wanted to set the record straight with not just the invention’s city and building, but the very room where the light bulb went off. Maybe it was my old office!

As it turned out, that level of detail wasn’t possible. From his home in Lake Mary, Fla., Starkweather couldn’t remember his office room numbers. Nor did the Xerox historian I checked with have that information. 

So I got what I could. Starkweather conceived of laser printing in the now shuttered Building 114 and built his first prototype in Henrietta at 1350 Jefferson Road, now home to a Harris Corporation’s RF Communications operation, not far from Henrietta’s shopping mall row. 

Palo Alto also figures into the story. Starkweather transferred to PARC because Xerox Rochester management didn’t want him working on his laser-printing concept. Wait…what?

It’s true. At the time, Starkweather was relatively new to the workforce. He had recently earned a master’s degree in optics from the University of Rochester and had worked for a short time at Bausch and Lomb. His Xerox boss wanted him to focus on the engineering work he was assigned, which is reasonable enough. One of Starkweather’s first assignments was to make an early version of a facsimile machine run faster, as the cathode ray tube technology that was central to the imaging system had maxed out just at a few pages per minute. That was when Starkweather proposed lasers. As a brighter light source, it would provide capacity for increased speed. 

Lasers had been invented just a few years earlier, in 1961, and were still expensive. Starkweather’s manager discouraged him from the pursuit, dismissing the argument that costs would come down as the technology gained acceptance. 

Starkweather disobeyed, continuing to work on his concept. His boss soon found out and told him he’d be fired if he continued. Still he worked on it. A lot of inventions are created in teams, with the boss getting the credit. But there’s no mistaking this one. Starkweather was solo. 

Just about that time, in 1970, Xerox opened PARC to explore the future of office technology. Starkweather put in for a transfer. Really, it was an ideal place for him to develop his invention. But his boss objected vehemently. So Starkweather made an all or nothing bet, going over his boss’s head. Fortunately, his boss’s boss thought it was a good idea. “My boss was steamed,” Starkweather said.  

So Starkweather joined the mythic PARC team that was inventing the future of the office. His colleagues were developing the graphical user interface for computers that Apple’s Steve Jobs copied after seeing it on a lab tour, the Ethernet technology that led to the formation of networking company Cisco Systems, the page description languages for digital printing that led to the formation of Adobe, and so on. 

Starkweather soon built a prototype that became PARC’s central printer for several years. Over that time he worked out most of the bugs, so that when Xerox finally began developing its first commercial laser printer in the mid 1970s, a high-speed model for the lucrative centralized print market, his system was battle-tested and highly reliable. 

But the delay in commercialization had a consequence. IBM beat Xerox to market with its 3800 in 1976. Still, the Xerox printer, the 9700, was widely viewed as superior, and subsequent laser printer models used many of the standards Xerox had set. 

The Xerox 9700 laser printer. (Photo courtesy Xerox Corporation)

That noted, Xerox also was slow to recognize the potential of the consumer market. Starkweather developed a prototype of a small machine, but “the marketing and product planning people couldn’t see where the money was to be made with such a device,” he said, and they missed the opportunity.  

It’s worth noting that those Xerox managers also missed the 2012 ceremony in which Starkweather was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his laser printer invention. 

Congratulations, Gary Starkweather, on the 50thanniversary of your laser printing invention, the coolest thing that ever happened in a building I worked in…at least, that I’m aware of.