Friday, November 11, 2016

"How Can I Keep From Writing"

My title is in quotes but it probably shouldn't be. I'm referencing the old hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing". The words are wonderful. They say that in spite of all the trouble in the world and the problems we may have, there is great joy in knowing that Christ is Lord. God is in charge and he loves us. He provides for us and will see us through our difficulties. Therefore, how can we not be happy? Indeed, how can we keep from singing?

We've just had a Presidential Election that has shaken many of us. Not only was it a complete surprise that the man who won the election pulled it off, many of us are shaken that he is now President-elect of the United States. He ran a negative campaign that was terrible in its use of lies and innuendo to attack his opponents both in the primaries and in the general election. His own indiscretions made him appear a fool but it never seemed to affect the people who backed him. He once famously said, "I could shoot someone on 5th Avenue [in New York City] and I wouldn't lose any votes." He claimed to know more about opponents on the battlefield than the generals in charge. He has never won elected office before and it seems like his entire appeal is based on his non-politician status and his being an outsider. His followers seem to like the fact that he doesn't know anything about how to be the President because it means he will do things differently. They feel he tells it like it is and he will help them where none of the career politicians ever helped them before.

He tells it like he thinks it is. He doesn't know more than the generals but he doesn't even know that. He has never done anything without the promise of making a profit from it and in fact is a pretty bad business man. He thinks he is a great negotiator but he couldn't even get a widow to sell him her property so he could expand a casino in Atlantic City. How will he negotiate with hostile foreign powers? I am worried about our country's future and worried about my family. So, with all of that on my mind, in spite of the fact that I haven't written in this blog since September, how could I keep from writing this?

But I know everything is in God's hands. As the hymn says, "No storm can shake my inmost calm, While to that refuge clinging; Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?" I can live with that.

Here are the words to the hymn.
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it,
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Another of my neurotic problems

"Another neurosis. How does this guy cope?" you ask. Well, my wife and I have been binge watching Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) and Sherlock Holmes describes himself as a high-functioning sociopath. So, I guess I could describe myself as a somewhat-functioning neurotic. I get by with a lot of help from God, my family and friends.

Anyway, the neurosis I'll talk about here is my fear of using the telephone. It's not the phone itself that bothers me. It's the act of talking on the phone.

The worst thing is having to call someone. I know I'm bothering them - even if I'm calling them with good news. I am absolutely certain they are about to leave for a long anticipated vacation or they are in the middle of a conversation with someone else or they just don't want to talk to talk with me. No matter how they answer the phone, I am convinced I've interrupted them. Yes, you may say that they always have the option of just not answering the phone but my neurosis has an answer for that. They've probably been waiting for an important call and feel they must answer the phone. Lots of people have Caller ID but how many people really look at it? And how much can you tell by the short, cryptic characters that you can barely see in that little display? No, I'm bothering them.

The other problem is being called by someone. That covers all the bases doesn't it? For all the reasons I don't want to call anyone, I don't want to be called by anyone, either. I have yet to get a call saying, "You've just won a million dollars!" If I did, I wouldn't believe them anyway.

The final problem I have with the telephone covers both being called and calling. The problem is having to come up with things to say without time to think about it first. They always ask me a question that I might be able answer if I had time to consider all the possibilities. The worst kind of call is the argument. I never know what to say. Not that I want to argue with people but I can't think of the right thing to say to diffuse the situation. I can't even come up with a good apology without some time to think. And if you're talking with someone face to face, you may not have time to consider all of your answers but at least you have some body language to go by. You can see their face and know if they are mad or happy. And I'm a terrible conversationalist anyway. I think I'm working myself into another neurosis about talking with people.

I much prefer email. If I receive an email, I can handle it when I have time. I can think about my answers. When I send an email, the other person doesn't have to respond right away. Or they can just not respond at all.

I vividly remember the first time I had trouble with the phone (I've written about this before here). I was just a kid and I was going to call a friend. I had called relatives before but for the first time, after looking my friend's number up in the phone book, a saw a phone number with a zero in it. Well, one of the first things I learned about the phone was that if you needed the Operator, you dialed zero. I dialed the first part of the number and got to the zero. I paused. What do you do? If I dial the zero, the Operator would come on and I'd have to talk with her! I dialed the zero and, probably because I'd paused so long, something clicked on the line and I panicked and hung up. I tried to dial again but gave up when I got to the zero. I don't remember how this ended up but it's been downhill ever since.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Misheard phrases

I've talked about misheard lyrics in the past (at this link) and about the site Am I Right and it's section on Misheard Lyrics. But in the past few days, my son and I have had a two instances of misheard phrases from the news (my son) and from a commercial (me).

There was a tragedy in Boston recently where the driver of an SUV (sport-utility vehicle) lost control of his vehicle and drove into a restaurant killing two people. My son was just waking up and was not quite in the TV room room when he heard, what he thought was, the announcer saying, "An SOB drove into the restaurant." I'm afraid to say that for as sad as the story was, we had to laugh. In a way it was true. It turns out that the driver, the SOB, is being charged with vehicular homicide.

My misheard phrase came from a commercial for a bank. The announcer says that their bank offers "hassle-free" loans. I was busy in the kitchen making noise and I was sure he said, "ass-hole free" loans. No one else thought he said that, though, so I guess it really is hassle-free loans.

A long time ago, I also misheard a commercial about a hospital for children in Boston associated with the Tufts Medical Center. They were touting their Floating Hospital for Children but the way the announcer said it made it sound, to me, that they were talking about their Exploding Hospital for Children. I know kids like exciting things and enjoy going to action movies but this seemed to be taking it a bit far. I was wrong, of course, but you try saying, "Tuft's Medical Center and it's Floating Hospital for Children" and see if it does sound a little bit like, "Tufts Medical Center and Exploding Hospital for Children." See what I mean?

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

How an automobile differential works

You probably already know all about this but I just learned. I've always been interested in how the differential of an automobile's rear axle works. It seems like magic and, surely, it must be very complex. Just look at the picture on the right!

I happened to be looking up another mystery (to me) - What's the difference between All Wheel Drive and Four Wheel Drive? The site I found explaining that had this video from Chevrolet. It was made back in 1937, it's not in color and it starts with a precision motorcycle team and you wonder, "How is this going to explain a differential for four wheel vehicles?" Well, just watch. It's very well done and makes it seem so simple.

In case you have trouble playing the video, here is the link to the original.

By the way, the original article I was looking for, explaining the difference between AWD and 4WD, is found at this link. It's really good, too.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

I'm not sure if this is good or bad

 I enjoy playing FreeCell on Windows. It is similar to a game on the Macintosh called Seahaven Towers. The reason I first liked these games is that the game play is a lot like programming a computer in a low level language. The four open 'cells' in the upper left, the Free Cells, are like the registers of the processor. Building the stacks of cards in the main playing area are like last-in-first-out stacks we're used to using in programming, too. The four cells in the upper right are the results of the program. So, in order to get the cards separated into suits (hearts, clubs, spades, diamonds) and in order (start with Aces and end with Kings) in the final cells in the upper right, you have to manipulate the cards through the "registers" and the "stacks" like you would in a computer program.

OK, that's fair enough but it has gotten to the point where I play this game too much. If I have any free time or I am waiting for something on my computer, I start a game. As you can see in the pictures here, I've played 2,487 games of FreeCell. That's a lot of time spent manipulating registers and stacks! I need to cut down on this but I'm having a hard time. Unlike Solitaire (one of the other games you get for free), someone has proven that every game of FreeCell can be solved! So, I can't just give up and say, "This is impossible!" It is possible and I'm just not patient enough or smart enough to figure it out.

Another problem is my competitive spirit. I've worked my way up from winning only occasionally to having won 85% of the time. And also, as of now, I am working on a winning streak of 41 games. Those make it hard to just stop. By the way, there are ways to cheat and throw away a game you can't solve so that it doesn't go into the lost column - but I don't do that. I use only the Undo method that the games allows.

So, it's not a terrible habit but it is a habit, of sorts, that takes time away from other things I could be doing. I'm going to try weaning myself off of FreeCell. We'll see how well I do.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How to NOT ship something cold in the mail

This is another one of those stories that I just remembered that I want to write down before I forget it for another 30 years.

I was working in the US Geological Survey in the Water Resources division and we were asked to look at a proposed solution to shipping water samples from the field to a testing facility. The proposed container was similar to what is in the picture here except it was much smaller than the 30 gallon drum in the picture. It was about 24 inches high and maybe 18 inches in diameter. It was made of steel so it was very strong. The lid was loose but could be attached to the drum with the clamp you see resting against the side of the drum. It seems silly, in retrospect, to have thought about shipping something that big and heavy via the post office but that's what we were asked to do.

We thought about various ways of keep it cool for the whole trip. I forget what the target length of time was but let's say it was a week. We figured the final product would be heavily insulated but that might not be enough. So, we tried packing ice in the container. No matter what we did, though, the ice would melt and make it very difficult to keep out of the insulation and to keep from contaminating the water samples. Of course, one solution would have been to use frozen gel packs encased in plastic like you see in food coolers but I don't think we had access to those back in 1975 or so. So, our next goal was how to keep the ice from melting. Our first thought was to use dry ice, in a separate waterproof container, to keep the water ice from melting. We had already drilled a hole in the top of the canister so we could slip a temperature probe into the container so we could monitor the temperature over time. We had a rubber grommet in the hole so the sharp edge of the metal wouldn't damage the temperature probe. So, we figured, this would act as a safety valve for the expanding carbon dioxide when the dry ice warmed.

We started the test and it looked good at first. The temperature stayed nice and cold and we didn't hear any sloshing around when we moved the can. But days later, I noticed that the top of the canister was bowing up. It looked like our "safety valve" wasn't working (I must have picked a grommet too close in size to the temperature probe's cable) and the carbon dioxide was putting quite a lot of stress on the container. So, I unfastened the screw clamp to open the lid. But even after I loosened the screw all the way, I couldn't get the lid off. This couldn't be good. Maybe I should have tried drilling another hole in the lid but that would take too much time. So, I started tapping the clamp with a hammer to loosen it.

All of a sudden, there was a BOOM. The lid hit the ceiling and ice, some water and what remained of the dry ice flew everywhere. People from all over the place came running to see what had happened. Nowadays, with an explosion occurring in a government facility, I'm sure the police or building security would have been called. But all that happened was that we had a lot of cleaning up to do and we looked kind of stupid. I think that project was taken away from us, too. I don't remember. But I do know we never assumed that a hole with a grommet would act like a safety valve again.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The elves didn't cover for me

We just got back from a short vacation. I hope to write more about that in a later post. But what I want to talk about here is how you really don't get to go on vacation. Yes, you can go away. You can be out of the office. You can do something besides your job for a short time. But in the end, the work doesn't get done and you have to work twice as hard when you get back to catch up. It puts up a barrier to taking time off. I love to be with my wife and children and the more time I spend with them the better. But when I think about taking time off, all I can think about is that when I get back, I'm going to have to work harder for a least as long as I was away.

This time, things went better than I could have hoped. We are nearing the end of a months-long project and we're now just needing to finish up the testing and we'll be ready to release a new version of the application. Only two new bugs were found while we were gone so I only had those to work on (besides the usual paperwork of getting the application ready for release). So, while I do have more work to do than I would have if I had not gone on vacation, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. And now I am refreshed and I can work better. But I'll still have worries for the next time we want to go on vacation.

The problem is that businesses have had to streamline their processes and cut down on "redundancy". I put redundancy in quotes because it's not really redundant to have two or more people working on one thing. It may mean that the people have some down time every once in a while but it also means that the work doesn't stop when one of the people takes time off - or gets sick - or gets fired - or quits. But I'm afraid fewer and fewer businesses think about work this way. The new way of doing things is to have people have so much to do that there is no down time. It can be wearing.

My title refers to one of the fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers.  It's the story of the poor shoemaker who finds that elves have come into his shop at night and finished the work that he started during the day. You can find a version here if you'd like to read it yourself.