ALTOM: I’ve enjoyed sharing what I know—and hearing from you

I recently mounted an unusual decoration in my office. It’s a shadow box containing two slide rules made by Keuffel and Esser, a company affectionately known to my generation of techies as K&E.

One of the slide rules is a Deci-Lon from the mid-1960s. The other is a Log-Log Duplex Vector from even further back, circa 1955. Both belonged to my father. I didn’t get to use the good slipsticks when I was a kid. I had to make do in school with the cheap plastic ones you could then buy at department stores for a couple of bucks.

I later graduated to real K&Es of my own, though, and used them until the 1980s when I finally succumbed and shifted to a power-hogging LED scientific calculator. Although those vintage K&Es are now retired, they have an honored place on my wall and a warm spot in my heart. Old technology superseded only by convenience, not by functionality. We sent astronauts to the moon using slide rules. We designed the world’s best aircraft using slide rules. The modern era was founded on slide rules. But they’re just not fast enough or versatile enough for today. They had to be retired.

After this week’s column, like those slipsticks, I, too, will be retired to other purposes. I figure that I have produced some 314 pieces since I took on this splendid writing chore in January 2002, 12 years ago this month, and the philosophy I followed in this space has never wavered.

In that inaugural column, which was preserved under glass for me by a friend, I stated the foundational belief under which I would write: that technology in business should contribute to making money or saving money, but should never be selected by attaching the adjective “cool” to any device. Technology is a servant to business, not a partner. It has to work for a living, or it’s just a toy.

All forms of business technology have their day and then move off to museum shelves, and the same is true of columnists. But know that it’s been a wonderful ride. Thanks to this column, I’ve been able to profitably explore an entire universe of business technology.

I’ve written about donating spare cycles to worthy causes, and I’ve explored markerboards, ink, trial software as Christmas presents, and many other offbeat and interesting topics in business tech. Thanks to this column, too, I’ve had numerous fascinating conversations with friends, acquaintances, and strangers who turned out to be readers. It’s one of the hidden benefits of this job, and something I’ll miss.

I have some people to thank, so bear with me. My tolerant editors rarely questioned either my subject matter or my style over the years, but when they did object to something I wrote, they were invariably right. I owe them a great deal. Editors are the unsung coaches in publishing, and the primary reason good newspapers like IBJ still have top-notch quality while the majority of Web drivel is wretchedly inaccurate and poorly written. Editors make the difference.

And speaking of the Web, permit me one last curmudgeonly grumble: “Lead” is not the past tense of “to lead,” despite the insistence of ignorant Web authors, and “lol” is not a word but an affectation.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to those innumerable bloggers, magazine writers, correspondents, readers, friends and coworkers who provided streams of column ideas through the years. I was rarely stumped for a topic. There’s just too much happening out there to allow for that. For me, the world is one big playground to explore, and I’m fortunate that I live in an age when my fellow beings are creating innovations at such a rapid clip, and that I get to play with them. I’m doubly fortunate to have had the chance to share my play dates with my readers.

And speaking of my readers, I thank you with particular vigor, especially those who took the time to write to me, either to agree or to disagree, or to ask me to elaborate. Readers are the writer’s delight. We don’t do this for the money, you know. We do it because we’re absolutely certain that someone out there, somewhere, needs to know what we know. We must share; we can’t help it. And please be generous in return. The greatest gift you can give a columnist is to write to him or her.

As for me, I sign off wishing you devices that don’t break, software that always works, and that every day will be a profitable one.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. He can be reached at

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