Two of My Patents Emerge From the Labyrinth

I have about a zillion patent applications filed with the Patent Office on behalf of my employer, Citrix Systems, where I’m something of a network acceleration guru.

Patents are weird, especially the way other people do it. My goal is always to write up the idea just as clearly and completely as I can, which is the least-weird (weirdless?) way of doing it. An alternate school of thought is that the patent should be lawyered up to increase its protection even at the expense of clarity (or comprehensibility). That’s what happened to these two. Yet a third school is that the patent should be made incomprehensible on purpose, and even given a misleading title, so that only you know what it means. This theoretically gives you advantages in court, but I think it’s too clever by half.


Tech Docs Death March

One of the problems with doing user manuals as part of my day job (the WANScaler group at Citrix Systems) is that the scheduling is always so wacky. You can’t document the product precisely until it stops changing, and it doesn’t do that until the last minute. Then the documentation has to be done in a rush. Good thing I like a challenge! So I’m in a tremendous rush to get everything done for a big software release.

There are some specific techniques for making this work. The most important one is to be a bona fide expert on the product, so you already know what it does, why it does it, and why the customer should care. You can’t succeed at a last-minute rush if you’re faced with big knowledge gaps. You just need to catch up on what the last-minute changes do.


Use Randomness Right

When I was working with the game designers at Activision in the Eighties, it was a truism that most players don’t really like randomness. They want games to be predictable. If there has to be some randomness, users want it to behave like a shuffled deck of cards — you don’t know what card will come up next, but you can be sure that you won’t bet dealt the Ace of Spades twice in a row.

True randomness isn’t like that: true randomness is the equivalent of using a zillion decks and shuffling them after every hand. Sometimes you’ll get the Ace of Spades sixteen times in a row. It doesn’t happen very often, but it really gets your attention when it does! And not in a good way. As with poker, you tend to conclude that the dealer is cheating! At Activision, we treated this as a basic fact of human nature.


The Extended-Run UPS Trick

For those of you who know how to mess around safely with car batteries and other high-amperage/low-voltage applications, here’s an interesting one (please note the warning below!:

APC makes an extended-run UPS called the Smart-UPS XL, which supports external battery packs. The ones I have (Smart-UPS XL 1000) are a 24V system, which means that the internal batteries and the external battery packs are all 24V. The external battery packs and replacement batteries are expensive.

So when my batteries gave up the ghost, I wondered what would happen if I replaced the 20 amp-hour gel-cell batteries with 100 amp-hour RV batteries, which were cheaper in spite of having five times the capacity.


Where Does Performance Come From?

On the one hand, I think that most people are way too snobby — they think that most people (except those like themselves) are idiots. (Why, I don’t know. I can’t see it from where I’m standing.)

But there are some cases where the distance between the superstars and everyone else is huge. Night and day. My first job out of college was at Activision, back in its glory days in the Eighties. I learned that there were two kinds of video game designers: the ones who could write games that were fun, and the ones who couldn’t. There was no known technique of turning someone who wrote boring games into one who wrote interesting ones.