Thursday, September 29, 2011

The unwritten laws of engineering

I learned a lot of things in engineering school. I learned the basics of electricity and electronics. I learned circuit theory, communications theory and digital electronics. But when I got my first job, I found there were a lot of things I didn't learn in college. I bumped into this series of three articles in Mechanical Engineering Magazine Online that covers a lot of what I and many other engineers didn't learn in college. Here are links to the three articles.
a) In relation to the work
b) In relation to your supervisor
c) Regarding relations with colleagues and outsiders.
This section covers what you need to know when you're first starting out. Remember that no job is too small. You need to demonstrate that you can be trusted with small projects before you are given more advanced projects where more is on the line. Enthusiasm for the job counts. One of the big things in this section that I still have trouble with is speaking up and promoting my ideas. It's never too late to learn things. This section also covers the importance of dealing with other people. The good and the bad. It's important to cultivate the habit of working with other people. You need to solicit their ideas, too. 
a) Individual behavior and technique
b) Managing design and development projects
c) On organizational structures
d) What all managers owe their employees. 
The second section carries on from the first. It's important to learn not to try to do it all yourself. This part is for when you are further along in your career. Presumably at this point, you've settled into the com[any structure and made a niche for yourself. This section also discusses the importance of learning to make concise decisions and wading through all the details of a problem and boiling it down to its essentials. At this point, you will be starting to run a project and this section discusses the way to do that. Finally, this section covers the situation when you take the supervising of other people.  You have to treat people right to get them to contribute to a team.
a) Laws of character and responsibility
b) Regarding behavior in the workplace
c) Regarding career and personal development
This last section is really for anyone. It's not just about engineering or even working in a company. It's just plain, good advice for anyone. It ends with a section on developing a career and looking toward your future. It's not that you're going to immediately be looking for a better opportunity as soon as your start working at a job. It's more that you need to keep in mind that everything you do at your job will reflect on you if you do want to (or need to) look for another job. Don't forget that it's important to keep learning. School never ends!
What is especially interesting to me about this series of articles is that they were first published in 1944. These "laws" are just as relevant today as they were then. Some things just never go out of style. 

[UPDATE: These articles are no longer available for free on that website. They have all been collected in a book (with revisions and additions). The book can be purchase online at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers site or at Amazon.]

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A historic collapse

In the evening of August 31, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League. That evening, they had a one and a half game lead of the Yankees for first place in their division. As they went to bed that night, they had a nine game lead over the third-place Tampa Bay Rays. Everything seemed rosy as they fell asleep that night. The Red Sox were beating the Yankees most of the time and everything seemed to be going well. At the beginning of the season, they had been picked, by some, to get to the World Series.

Then, September happened.

They started the month by losing to the Yankees. Players got hurt. Pitchers had trouble pitching for more than a few innings. They dropped out of first place. While they had a relatively easy schedule in the month, they didn't win a single series against any team that month. The Red Sox only won seven games the entire month.

On the final day of the season, they had given up their nine game lead for the wild card position in the play-offs and were tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for that last spot in the play-offs. All they had to do was beat the team in last place in their division while the Rays lost to the first place team in the division. The Red Sox were ahead in their game and the Rays were losing 7 - 0 in their game. It looked like the Red Sox were going to limp into the play-offs.

But they didn't. The Red Sox gave up their lead in the ninth inning and the Rays stormed back to win their game in the 12th inning. And that was it. History was made and we'll be telling our grandchildren about it. The Red Sox are back to the way they were in the 20th Century. And we saw it.

While I finished writing this and actually posted this in September 29, I'm labeling this post with the date September 28 when the collapse completed.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Forgivness and Trust

This post has been a long time coming. I first wanted to write about this after a sermon in our church on November 14, 2010. Yes, last year. Then, in another sermon on August 7, 2011, a different sermon touched on a similar theme. So, I thought it was about time that I wrote about this. The surprising thing to me is that I had never thought about this before but my son says he knew this already. The Child is father of the Man.

One of the basic teachings of Christianity is that we should forgive others as we have been forgiven by God.
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14 New Living Translation
But I always found this hard to do. How could I forgive people over and over and allow them to do bad things to me again? This is what I needed to learn more about and these two sermons helped me a great deal. There is a difference between forgiving someone and trusting them. Forgiveness is a gift but trust is earned. We are to forgive even if it isn't earned. Again, this is just what God has done for us. But we don't necessarily need to trust the people we forgive - until they earn our trust. When we forgive people, we are giving up on hatred and retaliation. But it doesn't mean we allow them to take advantage of us. We are allowed to not trust them until they prove themselves.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Matthew 3:7-9 New Living Translation
This made it so much easier for me to forgive. When I realized I didn't necessarily have to trust that person in order to forgive them, it allowed me the freedom to forgive. Not that forgiving is always easy but this definitely makes it easier. If you'd like to see these two sermons for yourself, look at People and Trust and People We Don't Like. I think our minister will explain it better than I can.

Monday, September 26, 2011

We interupt this blog...

Lately, I've been catching up on a number posts I had started but not finished (see Another long time between blog posts... ). But yesterday, when I was going to write about some sermons from our church, we ended up driving my mother-in-law to Connecticut at the last minute to see her sister who is in bad shape. The sisters needed to visit and my wife wanted to see some of her cousins that she hasn't seen for a while. The bad news was that both of our children had colds and we couldn't take them in to see their great aunt because she is so weak. Also, due to the length of the trip, we thought it was better if I drove. So, we decided that the three kids (the two younger ones and me) would go to the nearby Connecticut Trolley Museum while Cindy and her mother visited their relatives.

I have loved trolleys and street cars since I was a kid growing up near Pittsburgh where trolleys were always a large part of the mass transit system. I'd do anything for the chance to ride the trolley. So, I think I was looking forward to this trip more than anyone. The top picture is the view out the cab of the trolley we took a ride on at the museum. It is a 1912 St. Louis Car Co. open-air unit from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. We had a nice long ride but it was awfully slow. This is partly due to the condition of the tracks and the age and condition of the trolley. All the work is done by volunteers and there just isn't enough time and manpower to fix everything the way they would like. The picture on the left shows my son Evan next to this trolley. When we got to the end of the line, we got a short talk on the history of the local electric railway and the car we were on. Then, since there was no loop, they flipped the seats so we could be facing forward on the way back.

Just to show how much work they have to do to get the cars in shape for riding, the bottom picture shows my daughter Emma in one of the cars they are still working on. There were other trolleys in a lot worse shape and I wish I'd have gotten pictures of them. It is amazing to think of a bunch of volunteers giving up their time to recondition these machines that are in such terrible shape. When I saw the ones waiting for work, it sent shivers down my spine. One of my worst nightmares about work is to be put on a project where I have no idea where to begin. My heart goes out to the dedicated volunteers who can look beyond the problems and get started working on such a difficult problem.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Misunderstood lyrics

When we got our dog, Charlie, about twelve years ago, our son Evan was three years old. Charlie is half Basset Hound and half Black Labrador Retriever. Evan loved Charlie (and still does) and spent a lot of time playing with him and talking with him. He also liked singing to him and thought he knew the words to the song Hound Dog written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (and most famously performed by Elvis Presley) but he wasn't quite right:
He's the bottom of a hound dog
Cryin' all the time
He's the bottom of a hound dog
Cryin' all the time
He doesn't eat rabbits
He doesn't eat pie and
He can't know what to do
With the Hey being performed at maximum volume and enthusiasm. He didn't have a second verse. This was just repeated over and over. And over!

Thinking about this reminded me of the website Am I Right and especially the section of the site devoted to misheard lyrics. It is a lot of fun to read what some people thought the lyrics were to famous songs. Some songs, due to the strange accents of the singers or sound effects of the tracks, are especially prone to people mishearing the lyrics. For years I thought that one section of the theme song for The Flintstones TV show was,
Let's ride, with the family down the street
Through the, courtesy of friends this week
thinking they were referring to the sponsors of the program when in reality the line is,
Let's ride, with the family down the street
Through the, courtesy of Fred's two feet
meaning that the family car was moved by Fred's two feet pushing it. There is also a section of the Am I Right website for parodies of songs. That's another type of fun and it makes me think of my wife's parody of the song Feelings when she sings it to our cats and changes it to Felines.

Friday, September 23, 2011

5,000 miles

Earlier this month, my scooter turned over 5,000 miles (I'm up to about 5,200 miles now). It's ironic that I write about this today because due to some expected rain, this is the first time in months that I haven't ridden my scooter to work. It's been a good summer for riding. It hasn't been too hot and when we've gotten rain, it hasn't been raining in the morning or evening when I'm on the road.

I always feel better when I take the scooter to work. I think the fresh air and needing to stay alert helps get my body and mind running. When I take the car in, I'm in that closed shell and don't have to think as much. The two good things about driving the car, though, are being able to listen to the radio and not getting stuck behind school buses because I can take a limited access road with the car that I can't on the scooter. It's all back roads when I ride my scooter.

This year, the school bus schedule was modified slightly and one bus actually starts closer to my house on one road and then makes the same turn I do onto another road where it stays for a long time. My only option, after a few miles of no passing zone, is to pull off onto a parallel road which adds some distance to the trip. This bus seems to have a new driver this year, too. Last year, the bus driver would pull the bus off to the side of the road after a while (always at the same place) to let the line of cars (and scooters) behind him get around. Not this year. But I find if I leave the house about five minutes earlier than usual, I can usually get to the critical intersection ahead of this bus. But getting that extra five minutes isn't easy. Something always seems to come up at the last minute.

A few weeks ago I happened to be reading the owner's manual for my scooter and found that I'd been checking the oil level incorrectly. Since the oil check stick is so short, it needs to be screwed into the pipe that connects to the oil reservoir. I just assumed that you'd screw the stick into the holder to get the oil level but I was wrong. When I checked the oil correctly, by removing the stick, wiping it off and just seating into the top of the pipe, I found that the oil level was low. Very low. I bought the right oil and went to pour it in only to find that it wasn't easy to get the oil into the pipe without spilling it. I tried a bunch of things and couldn't seem to get much oil in without spilling about twice as much on the ground. I finally got enough in to feel comfortable about starting up the engine. Sure enough, when I got out on the road, I'd used my five minutes up and found myself behind the school bus. Like I said, getting that extra five minutes isn't as easy as it sounds.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Plantar Fasciitis

When you wake up in the morning, does one or both of your feet feel stiff but, if you walk on it a bit, it will feel better? If you sit for a long time, does the same thing happen? When you are laying down, does your foot tend to rest with your toes pointing down? Well, you might want to check with your doctor to see if you have Plantar Fasciitis.

Those were my symptoms and I kept thinking it was just stiffness from either walking too far, working too hard or not doing either of those enough (maybe my foot was stiff because it didn't get used enough). It got worse and worse until I could hardly put pressure on my foot at all. Then it got to the point where walking around for a bit wouldn't stretch it out and relieve the pain. I was in constant pain. I finally went to see my doctor on May 26.

Arch supports
Actually, I saw the nurse practitioner and she knew right away what the problem was. Plantar Fasciitis is an inflammation of the thick connective tissue that connects the heel to the toes. It doesn't just go away but you usually don't need surgery or medication (other than mild pain relievers like aspirin or ibuprofen). The nurse suggested stretching by holding a towel around the toes and pulling it toward you. But her number one recommendation was to get arch supports for my shoes. And she said that it wasn't necessary to get expensive ones. The ones they sell in running shoe stores are good enough. As you can see from the image to the left, they didn't need to be high.

Boot to keep foot from flexing
Another thing that helped me was a type of boot (picture to the right) that is worn at night and keeps the foot from flexing with the toes down. The boot keeps the fascia stretched by keeping the foot flat at night. I got the boot from a friend at work who had had the same problem. As a matter of fact, an amazing number of people I know had this problem at one time or other. One guy let it go so long that he was walking on crutches before he finally gave in and went to his doctor.

As best I can remember, I first noticed this starting in April this year and it finally felt like it was better at the beginning of this month. From what I read, that is pretty typical. They say it can take up to 2 years! I'm glad mine didn't last that long. Of all the things I did to help, it was the arch supports that did the most to help. [Update, September 24 - I added the pictures of the arch supports and the boot]

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Be careful out there

One day, as I was using Google to look up stuff, I noticed that sometimes when I clicked on one of the search results I was taken to a strange looking site that acted as if it had search results of its own about the subject I'd just searched for. Except, the results it had were either bogus (leading to another search site), poor (nothing to do with the subject) or to sites I knew I didn't want to visit. The more I searched, the more often I got to one of a number of false search sites.

I decided to see if this was a common problem and typed "google search redirect" in Google and came up with a lot of entries about a virus with those characteristics. Of course, I couldn't go to any of the sites the results pointed to because I'd end up at one of the false search sites. So, I decided to switch to Bing for my searching. That worked once. Then I started to get the bad searches there, too. Next I tried using a different browser (I normally use Firefox) but that didn't help, either. I was getting desperate and went to my wife's computer to see if something was wrong with searches on the Internet in general. Everything worked on her computer so I finally realized that I'd gotten a virus on my computer. I disconnected from our home network in case it could spread that way.

Using the links I found on Cindy's computer, I researched what might be wrong with my computer. What I found was scary. Many links referred to a rootkit virus that acted like what I was seeing. But nothing I tried from those links seemed to work. I even found two highly regarded anti-virus companies that offered free programs to fix this problem but neither of those found the specific rootkit that the sites mentioned.

This went of for over a week and things were getting worse. Pop-up dialogs were randomly appearing on my screen (even when I wasn't running my Web browser) and it was taking a long time to shut down and start up my computer. Some of my programs were not running and others were acting strangely. As I tried each method to defeat this virus, I found that it would work for a few minutes and then the old behavior would return. It was not only frustrating, it added more time to the job of trying to fix the problem - I couldn't just try each method, I had to try using a few searches before I could say that the problem hadn't been fixed after all.

One of the things I first tried to fix the problem was to use Windows System Restore. This allows you to restore the system files on your computer to their state at an earlier time. But when I tried that, it failed to run correctly. Just getting my computer back to running condition after that failure took a few days. So, as I got more desperate, I realized I might have to start from scratch and reformat my entire hard disk and reload the operating system. Before I did that, though, I needed to make copies of all my personal files including pictures from my camera, files I needed for work, information I'd saved about our network set-up and a list of the programs I'd installed on my computer since I bought it. That took another day and filled up two DVDs. Finally, I felt I was ready to start the process of wiping my computer clean.

On my Dell computer, there is a separate section of the disk that is protected and allows you to restore the computer to the way it was when you first bought it. I started the program and it complained that I needed to start this process from power-up. I followed those directions and was about to hit the "OK" button to start the process when I had one more thought - what if I had tried to use Windows System Restore from a state that was too close to the start of the problem? Maybe the virus had corrupted the Restore Point I had tried to use. Maybe I just had to use an older Restore Point. I stopped the wiping procedure and tried, in desperation, using a Restore Point from a month before I started noticing the problems. The first good news was that the System Restore worked! Where my earlier attempt had locked up and wouldn't even finish its own process, this one at least finished and said it was successful. Was I just being teased by this insidious problem? I tried a few searches and clicked on the resulting links. They took me where they said they would! It seemed like the problem was fixed.

I couldn't relax for days after this. Every time I'd search for something, I'd expect to be sent to one of the bogus search sites. But after two or three days of no problems, I assumed I was going to be OK. Now, I'm very careful about what I click on in the search results. I believe my problem was brought on by searching for information about a television show I liked and one of the links pointing to a site about one of the actors on that show. But I'm not sure. It could have been any of the hundreds of searches I do every day. I just don't click on links without thinking about them anymore.

I know you're saying that I probably didn't have an anti-virus program running on my computer but that is incorrect. I have a very good anti-virus program running and I never turn it off. It runs with maximum protection settings. The customer support people at the anti-virus company attempted to help me get rid of this virus but none of their suggestions worked, either. Although my repeated scans of my computer showed a number of problems, removing those problems didn't fix my big problem. Only the System Restore solved the problem. And I'll never look at a search result the same.

Monday, September 19, 2011


As I mentioned last year, Cindy and her mother (my wonderful mother-in-law) were diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. They've both done well and have not needed further treatment since it ended late last year.

But because of her brush with cancer, the doctor's were especially careful when they found a growth in her nasal cavity and decided to remove it and look closely at what they found. When the lab work on what was removed came back, even the surgeon had never heard of the results - Amyloidosis. It's a relatively rare disease where certain proteins take on a distorted, insoluble form are deposited in the organs and fatty tissues where they do nothing and can prevent the ordinary functioning of the organs. It can be very serious if the Amyloids are deposited in major organs. There is information available from the Mayo Clinic and from the Amyloidosis Foundation.

Cindy was referred to a special Amyloid clinic at the Boston Medical Center and had to undergo two days of testing. Because she was afraid she'd miss the kids too much and because they kids would miss her too much for those two days, we decided to go up as a family and stay in Boston one night to make it easier on Cindy. After all the testing, it looked like the news was mostly good - the Amyloid deposits seem to be limited to her nasal cavity are are relatively harmless. But in all the testing, two unusual nodules were found - one on her Thyroid and another in a lung. So, we had to go back again today for further tests and another CAT scan. We'll find out more about this but, once again, the doctors, nurses and other medical workers were fantastic. They are very organized and really work well together as a team. There doesn't seem to be any conflict between the various departments. They all work to complement each other. As we await the test results, it really helps to have confidence in the medical team.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Another long time between blog posts but...

It's been 17 days since my last blog post. This is due, in part, to more illness. Both to my wife and to my computer! I'll be writing much more about both of those subjects plus a lot more. I have a number of posts in draft right now and hope to finish them up soon. Just as a sampling:

1) My wife Cindy has been diagnosed with one of the forms of Amyloidosis. We spent two days in Boston as she underwent tests. Most of the news was good. Some wasn't so good and we're headed back to Boston tomorrow (Monday, September 19) for another day of tests. [Update - see Amyloidosis]

2) My computer got some sort of virus that caused clicking on any results from a search engine search to redirect me to a bogus web site acting as if it was a search engine, too. Yes, I had full anti-virus protection enabled and updated on my computer and it wasn't picked up there. I went through an epic struggle to get rid of the problem but in the end something very simple and basic fixed it. [Update - see Be careful out there]

3) I myself have been plagued with a problem called Plantar Fasciitis and after about five months, I can finally say I think it is behind me. I'll tell you what I've found out about it and what helped me. [Update - see Plantar Fasciitis]

4) My scooter has turned over 5,000 miles and I found out I wasn't checking its oil level correctly. I've been running it for some time with a low oil level. [Update - see 5,000 miles]

5) I was reminded of a time when my son was about 3 years old and we'd had our mixed Basset Hound and Black Lab dog for a short time, he heard the song Hound Dog but mixed up the lyrics. His version is funny enough but I'm going to tell you about an entire website dedicated to misheard lyrics. [Update - see Misunderstood lyrics]

6) We've had some great sermons at our church over the years. I'm going to write about a couple and point you to videos that you can watch. Happily, our church has decided to find a permanent home for the sermon videos. [Update - see Forgiveness and Trust]

7) I ran across a series of articles in a mechanical engineering magazine about the unwritten laws of engineering. They were written in 1944 and still make sense - even if you're an engineer in another discipline or even if you're not an engineer at all. [Update - see The unwritten laws of engineering]

8) While my wife was undergoing two days of tests in Boston, I took the kids to an amazing 3-D movie in an IMAX theater that I want to tell you about. [Update - see "Under the Sea"]

9) Also while we were in Boston (and Cindy was getting poked and prodded), I took the kids to the New England Aquarium and I want to tell you about that, too. [Update - see New England Aquarium and New England Aquarium - part 2]

10) One other thing the kids and I did in Boston was to ride the 'T' a lot. If you don't know what that is, you'll find out. You'll also find out how I fulfilled something I'd always wanted to do. [Update - see Riding the 'T']

That's it for now. I hope to get these posts ready and published before the end of this month. I know I once said in Promises and Monkey Wrenches that I would never say ahead what I was going to be writing about in the future. I am going to trust that this will be more an encouragement to me to finish the posts than a hindrance that ties my hands. We'll see.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

What are the numbers for?

I happened to see a headline in the sports news about Texas A&M University moving its football program from one conference to another. Normally, I'm not a football fan but something intrigued me about this story. Why would a team make this move? Also, I had spent a lot of time on a research vessel run by the Texas A&M Marine Sciences department and the crew on the boat were BIG football fans and talked about the Aggies' football team all the time.

The news story was that Texas A&M was going to be leaving the Big 12 football conference. But when I went to look up that conference, it turned out that they only have 10 teams - and it's soon to be 9. What's going on here? Then, while in the list of conferences, I happened to see that the Big Ten conference (they use the number spelled out) has 12 teams. This is crazy. I know there have been arguments in the past that the football programs have gotten far away from insisting that the football players be students in good standing but this mixing up numbers is really going too far.

But it's not just mathematics that is suffering. Geography has taken a hit, too. There is a conference called the Pacific 12. At least they do have 12 teams. But 4 of them are in states that aren't on the Pacific Ocean. Colorado? Utah? Not even close! Only 8 of them are in states that border the coast.

When will we return to the days of student-athletes? When will these university-sanctioned organizations set a good example for these athletes?