Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another trip to see Mom

Last year, I went to visit my mother by myself. Here's the link about that trip. It was the first time since I'd been married that I made the trip alone. Well, once again we decided that the trip was too long for us to travel as a family so I'm traveling alone again and I'm taking the train again. I'm scheduling this blog post to show while I'm on the train. I hope everything works that way. I should be sitting in my seat as this is displayed. [edit - See this story to find out how this almost didn't happen]

The schedule is a little different this time. The train is leaving about a half hour earlier but I'll be getting to Pittsburgh about the same time. We're getting up at 4 AM so we can leave about 5 AM to get to the station in Providence, RI at about 6:30 AM. After that, everything should be easy. I'll get to Pittsburgh about 8 PM. A bus leaves from near the train station at 9 PM and gets to my mother's town about 10 PM. I don't think we'll be staying up talking long that night.

I hope to have some stories write about when I get back. Last year I meant to tell about the hard time I had finding the bus that was supposed to be leaving from near the train station. I never found it and had to walk all the way into downtown Pittsburgh and take the subway/streetcar to a town near my mother's town. She had to drive a lot further in the dark than we'd planned. It wasn't good. This year will be better.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Too close for comfort

We were watching an old Twilight Zone episode the other day with my son, Evan. It was one of the original series in black and white. He has enjoyed the stories in the past so we thought he'd like this one, too.

It was the story about a group of families in a suburban neighborhood back in the 60's when we thought about nuclear war more often. One family had gone to the time and expense of building, stocking and maintaining a bomb shelter. The other families knew about it and chose not to build their own. They even joked about it to the father of the family with the shelter. Then, while all the families were at a party at the home of the family with the shelter, an alert came on TV about a possible nuclear strike headed toward the country. Everyone leaves and the family with the shelter begins to prepare to seal up the shelter and prepare for the worst.

But one by one, the other families show up asking to be let into the shelter. They are turned away because the shelter will only hold one family and only has previsions for them. The other families plead with them offering to supply food and help and to not be trouble. When they continue to be refused and more families show up, anger begins to take over. The outside families at first start to fight among themselves trying to show how their family deserves to be included in the shelter and the others don't. Finally, the families outside begin to get violent and try to not only break down the shelter door (of course, removing any benefit of the shelter) and attacking other families who came late to request help. The final scene is an announcement that the alert was a false alarm. There were no missiles on the way. The families disperse with a few apologies.

Evan was visibly upset. "I didn't like that episode," my 13-year son said. "That's exactly the way people would react, Dad!" It's too bad he's already come to that conclusion. I would hope it would be different but somehow I doubt it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A new friend on my walk

Yesterday on my walk, I came across this turtle. It didn't seem to be afraid of me and didn't pull into its shell. So, I was able to get a few good pictures. From what I can find on the Internet, it looks like a Box Turtle. Also, from information on the Internet, it looks like it might be a male because of its bright, red eyes (see the bottom picture) and its bright coloration. This is considered the least reliable method of determining the sex of a turtle, though. I should have taken a picture of its tail!

He was right in the middle of the path and I was tempted to move him but then I changed my mind. Turtles have been getting along without my help for a long time. Maybe he was on the hunt for a female turtle or a meal and I could ruin that. So, in the end, I just took a few pictures and left him alone. I will look for him when I walk today but, in a way, I hope I don't find him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The bumble bees are still busy

As I noted previously, I've been seeing a lot of bumble bees this year. Unlike when I saw lots of butterflies, though, the number of bumble bees remains high. The number of butterflies peaked in a few days and now I'm not seeing many. The reason for that may be that butterflies will migrate but the bumble bees do not.

The bumble bees are still hard at it. You can see three in this picture. There were probably 20 - 30 of them in the group of bushes where this picture was taken. But I couldn't get them to cooperate to get a good picture of all of them. This is why large numbers of bumble bees will never replace the honeybees that we're losing. The bumble bees are just too individualistic!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I just wanted some coffee

Our office provides free coffee and tea but it's not the best quality. I don't mind that much. I can tell the difference between the coffee at work and the coffee from a good shop (or even the coffee I make at home). But some of the folks in our software group decided they couldn't stand the free coffee any longer and decided to bring in their own coffee maker and take turns bringing in coffee. That was fine. I kept drinking the free stuff. I'm cheap like that.

But I always feel like an outsider - even though I'd been here longer than any of the others. So, in an effort to join in and be a regular guy, I said I'd take a turn at bringing coffee in. I noticed that when one fellow brought in a can of brand name coffee, some of the folks snickered (I thought it was fine) and when someone else brought in Green Mountain coffee (which I consider top of the line) and even that was panned. So, when it came to my turn I thought I'd better get what the more discriminating people were bringing in: Starbuck's.

I left early to stop by the Starbuck's shop in town. I was a little intimidated when I walked in and saw the variety of types of coffee that were available. I didn't have to wait long, though, a friendly person walked right up and asked if she could help me. "Yes, I'd like a pound of ground coffee, please. Nothing fancy, just plain, regular coffee. Not decaffeinated." I thought I'd given a complete description and would be on my way in a few minutes. "What continent are you thinking about?" she asked. I was surprised and assumed she somehow knew we had adopted our daughter from China. Had I mentioned that to someone who worked here that I hadn't seen? Maybe I was talking under my breath about a trip I'd taken to Africa or something. "What?" I said. "Would you like coffee from South America? Africa? Asia?" she answered. "Oh," I said, "I guess South America would be fine." That was the closest continent to us so it should be fresh, right? "Which country?" she asked.

Good grief! I suppose I should have cared but I just wanted to get to work. Colombia had the best advertisements so I went with Juan Valdez and said, "Colombian I suppose." "Very good," she said. Now I felt like a real connoisseur. These folks were well trained. I was now ready to leave comforted by the knowledge that I knew fine coffee. I started to ask how much a pound it would be when she asked, "How will you be brewing the coffee?" When I didn't answer right away she suggested, "Is this a preheated water type like the Bunn or is it a home coffee maker?" I told her is was just a home style coffee maker. Again I thought we were done but she asked, "What type of filter do you use? Do you use paper or gold?" A gold filter? Are you kidding? I didn't say that because, obviously, somebody did that. No one I knew but there must be such people or she wouldn't have asked. "No, just paper," I sighed. Now I felt really stupid. I felt like I'd just come in from the wild. I must be a coarse, ragged, dunderhead if I didn't know about these things. All this was going on right in my own town and I had no idea about it. I'd missed this all these years.

I finally got my coffee and paid enough for a good lunch for a pound of it. When I got to work, I wasn't ridiculed and the coffee was not the focus of laughter but somehow I still didn't feel like I fit in. Just the opposite. I felt like a guy who tries to dress up a little to impress his co-workers and then ties the tie in an odd way. I drank the coffee with them for a while but then went back to the free stuff. Trying to fit in made me feel even more of an outsider.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Update on my new hat

I wrote earlier about finally replacing my lost Red Sox hat and how I hoped it would bring them good fortune. Well, the tally, so far is 17 wins and only 6 losses. I think the hat is working.

[Update, Sept 18: Well, I don't believe in jinxes or hexes but maybe I shouldn't have said anything until the season is over. The Red Sox lost last night. I'm thinking of taking up a collection to buy sticky stuff for Boston catcher Jason Varitek to put on his glove. Two nights in a row?]

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sometimes you just can't win

I was reminded of this story the other day and thought I'd better write it down before I forget it again.

When our company was much smaller (I joined when there were 10 employees - now there are 130 employees), we all did technical support for our products. Another thing many of us did was to write part of the manual for our products. Our product (a 3" x 5" single-board computer that ran off batteries that let you read voltages, count electrical pulses, store data for later reading and control other electrical equipment) was pretty complex but you could do a lot of things with just a little bit of programming. The first part of the manual led you through all the basic capabilities and let you get up and running pretty quickly. If you needed to do more complex things, you needed to read further in the manual. It was pretty complex at that point and many customers would call to get help or ask for sample programs to learn about those things.

The customer this story is about was very bright and knew a lot about our product. But once he was under the gun. He worked for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the ship he was using for his research was leaving in a few days and he was still having trouble getting something to work correctly. He'd tried everything and prided himself on being able to figure most things out by himself. But he was stuck and in a hurry so he called us. I took the call and was happy to tell him when he described the problem what the solution was. Normally, he would have been glad and would have thanked me but this time he still had the worry of getting other things ready before the ship left. "That information should have been in the manual," he said. I replied, "It is in the manual." I knew because I had written that part of the manual. I only told him this as a matter of fact. I didn't mean it as, "You should have read the manual before calling us." I know how complex a manual can be - especially when you're in a hurry. I just wanted him to know it was there if he needed it again.

But he took it the wrong way. He was mad now! "Well, it should have been in the same section as the other information!" Well, unfortunately, it was. Should I tell him? I didn't want to ramp this up but I worried that if he needed the information again, he should know where to find it. So, I told him that it was in that section and I turned to it in my copy of the manual and told him the page number. I could hear him furiously turning the pages in his manual and when he got to the page I'd told him, he paused to read it. If he hadn't been in a hurry and wasn't under so much pressure, I'm sure he wouldn't have ended the conversation this way but just before he slammed down the phone, he shouted, "Well, it should have been in bold face!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Rules of Life - Part 1

I went to the kitchen in our office for one last cup of coffee and needed a paper towel to wipe up the mess I made. No paper towels were in the holder. Yet, when I looked at the storage shelf, there were plenty of new rolls. The person who took the last paper towel either didn't know where the towels were stored (not likely), was in too much of a rush (aren't we all?) or just didn't know one of the simple rules of life.

In the hopes of helping others who somehow missed the Rules of Life as they were growing up, I'm going to start a series of entries in this blog to list the rules everyone should know. The entries in this series are guaranteed not to come regularly and are not guaranteed to be rules that anyone else will agree with. Yes, I know I'm being silly but this should be fun. And yes, I know the real rules of life are found in the Bible, But those are already collected into one, easy to find Book. The rules I'm going to write about are not quite so important. They are just common sense and make life a little easier for the rest of us.

Rule of Life #1 - If you take the last of something (paper towels, coffee, whatever), replace it. You are not any busier than anyone else. And if you are so busy, why did you have the time to take the last of that item?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Don't forget there are at least three dimensions

This is another story about the summer I worked with my father on a construction job. The first story is here and gives a little background. I've included another picture of a truck crane so you can keep that in mind while you read this story. It's not the same type we worked on but it's similar.

The contractors on this job had chosen to use a truck crane because they only needed one crane but needed it to move quickly from place to place on the job. As the Oiler on this piece of equipment (my father was the Operator - the skilled position), one of my duties was to drive the truck. A truck crane isn't as inherently stable as a crane on tracks or crawlers (like a tank - see the picture at the left) but it can be made more stable by using outriggers (see the bottom picture on the right - this is a hydraulic crane but you can see the outriggers more clearly).

Dad helped me slide the outriggers back in the truck chassis. Then he had to go off to talk to the boss. He pointed out where we were going but I didn't pay much attention to the route he showed me. I just looked at the destination (you could see it from where we were) and told him I start over that way and would meet him there.

We hadn't slid the outriggers all the way in nor removed the pads (the wide square the legs rested on) because we were only going a short distance. I'd just have to watch them a little more closely as I drove. I was very careful to check all around me for obstructions or other vehicles or people walking. There are plenty of mirrors on a crane for checking those things (sometimes - that's another story). I was going slowly so I could continue to check around me and was looking in the rear view mirror when I saw my father running toward me. He was waving his arms and running faster than I'd ever seen him run. Lucky for me I took it seriously and stopped to wait for him. As he ran up to me, a little short of breath, all he could do was point up and a head of me. There were power lines running across the work site that I'd missed. Dad had given me a route around the power lines bit I was going the most direct route. I'd come within 20 or so yards of running into them with the crane boom. We'd left it up because we weren't going that far and there was a way around them. I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd run into them. At the very least, the site would have lost power for the day. At the worst, I'd have endangered the lives of the workers around me and perhaps myself (although being on big rubber tires may have saved me).

It must be like being a pilot or the captain of a submarine. You have to stop thinking in two dimensions and start considering the third dimension. That's another lesson I've not forgotten.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A quick story

I was reminded that when I worked for the US Geological Survey, a government agency, everyone had a job description that included the phrase, "Other duties as assigned."

That was always the excuse our supervisors would use when they asked us to do something that we weren't trained to do, didn't want to do or shouldn't be doing. I wonder if it was just the Survey that did that or is it common in the government?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Learning from our mistakes

As I mentioned in my previous article, I am going to write a few things about the summer I worked with my father on a construction job. He had been an Operating Engineer (the heavy equipment operators union) for most of his adult life. I joined for the summer work and the good wages ($5 was terrific money for summer work in the 70's). We were working on Interstate 79 north of Pittsburgh where it crossed over another road and a stream. One of the things that needed to be built was a cement tunnel so the stream could pass under the new highway. Dad and I were working on a truck crane (similar to the one in the picture here). He operated the crane, the skillful part, and I did anything he asked me to do. The official name of the job is Oiler, though, and I kept the machine lubricated and clean. All the important moving parts were lubricated every morning and during lunch (I ate after the official lunch time). Another task I had was to give him hand signals when he couldn't see where the load was.

Normally, on this job, the crane was used to lift heavy metal pieces from the trucks that delivered it and move them to the guys who would assemble it. The crane held the heavy part in position until it was attached. Then Dad would swing it around to get the next part. Another of my jobs was to attach the pieces to the crane's hook. Also, we would hook up a large bucket to hold cement. The cement trucks would pour the cement into the bucket, Dad would swing the bucket where the cement was needed and the guys there would pull a lever and the cement would be released into the form that would hold the cement until it dried. The final part of the pouring was for the top level. I didn't realize that would be any different than the others but for the very top level, the cement needed to be smoothed. I figured it was just going to be buried in dirt and rocks so why make it look pretty but I guess it was important to smooth the top of the cement.

On one part of the cement tunnel, my father had to lift the load over a small mound of rocks and dirt and he couldn't see where he was placing the load so I had to stand where I could see the pouring site and see my father in the cab of the crane. I'd known the hand signals since I was a little kid. That part was second nature to me. Deciding where to have him move the cement bucket was a different story, though. We filled the cement form up to the last layer where they would need to start smoothing and everything went fine. Then, the smoother came in. After the first load he needed to start working, I needed to move the bucket to get the next load but now he was in the way so I had my father move the bucket a different way back. This worked and I just assumed it would work this way for the rest of the pour. We brought the bucket back with more cement, it was poured, the smoother continued his work and I signaled to move the bucket back the way it had come. But this time, some cement that was clinging to the bucket dropped into the area the smoother had already finished. The cement was now not perfectly smooth.

Everything stopped. I mean everyone at the site turned and looked at the smoother who was now standing up and staring straight at me. You've heard the expression, "If looks could kill..." Well, I think I actually felt a blast of heat on my face as his eyes glared at me. I think all the other guys were expecting him to run up and throttle me. He looked that mad. My father noticed that I was no longer giving signals and motioned to ask me what was wrong. I just waved him off and signaled to get the bucket back to the cement trucks. I noticed that even the cement truck drivers were looking from me to the smoother and back again. I was amazed. At first I wondered how this guy could take it so seriously. All this was going to be buried in tons of rock and earth and no one would ever see his work. I learned a great lesson. This guy was good at what he did. He didn't care if no one would see it after it was covered. He saw it now. The inspector would see it before it was covered up and all the other workers saw it. He wanted to do the best job he could.

The next pour, I made sure to have the empty bucket swing far away from the finished area. The smoother didn't acknowledge me at first but after a few more passes of the bucket, he did give me a grudging nod as acknowledgement that I'd learned my lesson. After we were done, I made sure to go to him and apologize and he was gracious in accepting my apology. But he made it clear that I was never to do anything like that again. I never did. I've always tried to look ahead and see if my actions would make more work for someone else.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A surprise good time

I was planning on taking the Friday before Labor Day week-end off but I had promised to do the builds of our product and have them ready for that morning. "Doing the builds" means getting the latest versions of all the program code (the instructions the programmers write - we all check our code into one, central repository), compiling the code (making the actual program that you can run on the computer) and then making an installer for the program (so that anyone in our office can install it on their computer to test). This has to be done every day (except holidays) for both Windows and Macintosh computers. For the most part, this is an automatic process for the Windows build because there is a program that does all of this. But it must be checked. The Macintosh build is in the process of being automated (by me) but it is almost as easy.

So, all I had to do was log into my work computer from home, do the two or three steps needed to make the Mac build and then test both builds (just to make sure they actually installed and allowed the latest version of our program to run). Well, for some reason, I couldn't log into my office computer from home. So, I was going to have to go into work for a few minutes to make sure everything was OK. I asked my son, Evan, if he'd like to come with me and I was pleasantly surprised that he said yes.

We had a nice, relaxed ride into work and I was looking forward to a quick and easy ten minutes in the office. Well, when we got there, I saw that the automatic Windows build had failed. So, I had to look around for the cause. Before I got too deep into looking for the cause of the problem, though, I thought I'd better do the Mac build. When I did that, it worked. So, either the problem was Windows specific or the code base had changed between the time the automatic Windows build was done (at 4 o'clock that morning) and when we did the Mac build (about four hours later).

Evan seemed to enjoy looking behind the scenes of what I do all day. It turns out that someone on our team (I know who but won't name names :-) had checked in some code late Thursday that didn't work! So, there must have been new code checked in that morning that fixed the problem. Sure enough, that was what happened. So, we just had to start the Windows build process again and everything went well. Evan liked how I was able to track things down and figure out how to fix it. I tested both installers and the program after it was installed. Then we wrote up a note of explanation and sent it to the rest of the team.

We were heading out of the office when we bumped into one of the mechanical engineers. He had just gotten a new machine that I wanted to show to Evan. It's called a 3D Printer (the one our company bought is from here) and is the closest we've come to the replicator in Star Trek. What this amazing thing does is take any kind of object you can draw using standard three dimensional drawing programs and turns it into a plastic prototype. This includes screw threads, holes and even notches and o-ring slots inside the piece. Evan got to see a part under construction and also a few parts that had already been made. He really liked it. The machine makes the parts by putting a layer of plastic ten thousandths of an inch in diameter on the model each pass. It takes a long time (hours) but it's faster than sending the drawings out to a manufacturer and getting the prototype back.

Evan and I had a great time (I think - he sometimes tells me what he thinks I'd like to hear) and it reminded me of the time I got to work with my father on one of my summer jobs. My father belonged to the Operating Engineers union. They are the guys who run the heavy construction equipment you see - bulldozers, cranes and backhoes to name a few. While I was in college, I joined that union, too, and worked on construction jobs in the summer when they always needed extra help.

My father had worked in that trade for all of his adult life but I'd never worked with him until the summer before my senior year in college. It was a great experience and, mostly, a good time. The experience Evan and I had on Friday morning has inspired me to write some articles on the summer Dad and I worked together.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Lots of bumble bees

I had another surprise while walking at lunch time. Previously, I'd mentioned that I'd seen a surprising number of butterflies on one of my lunch walks. Now, I'm seeing more bumble bees than I've ever seen before. This is good for two reasons:

1) It's good to see an animal doing well. All too often we hear about a species dying out (California Condors or frogs) or a species just taking over (like Zebra Mussels or Kudzu, the vine that engulfs everything). Here, we see a useful species doing well. It bodes well for our efforts to improve the environment.

2) With the loss of honey bees (Colony Collapse Disorder), we need all the help we can get with pollination. Sadly, there is really nothing that can replace the honey bees because they are domesticated and we can take them where we need them. Bumble bees (and all the other pollinators in nature) can't be moved to the areas where they are needed. Also, bumble bees are solitary and it's hard to get a group of them to do anything.

But it's good news none the less.

[Updated July 25, 2010: It seems that Bumble Bee is correctly written as two words so I edited this post.]