Friday, June 29, 2012

Deceptive want ads

At lunch, we were reminiscing about the past (our Director of Engineering is leaving to start his own company) and he reminded us of the time the company tried to place a want ad for a "Senior Engineer". What the company wanted was an experienced engineer and not someone fresh out of school. The newspaper staff informed our company that the word "senior" could not be used in an advertisement because it was discriminatory so the ad had to be changed to use the word "experienced".

That reminded me of another story about our hiring a software engineer. At the time (about 15 years ago), we had a specific need for a programmer who was familiar with the Microsoft Foundation Classes and their use in Windows programming. Since you pay by the word, it was decided to abbreviate Microsoft Foundation Classes to MFC. This was how it was most often used among programmers anyway and we figured if people didn't know what MFC meant (in relation to programming), they weren't right for the job. When this was read to the newspaper staff member, they didn't quite get the MFC part and the head of the Software Group repeated it as "M F C - Mary Frank Charlie" to emphasize the letters. Our ad came out that we were looking for a "Mary Frank Charlie" programmer. I don't think we ever found one.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How I'm going to get rich

Do you recognize the picture here? It's a sink strainer basket (or sometimes just called a sink strainer). Have you ever had one that worked? Neither have I. It is very frustrating, wastes a lot of time and causes all sorts of problem with the plumbing. You know how it goes. They may even work for a while but sooner or later, the thing fails to strain anything and just works to block your sink. As a matter of fact, they are terrific at acting as a stopper for the sink. But who needs a stopper in their sink - all the time? So, what usually happens is that people just remove them or tilt them so that water can get through. Then all sorts of stuff finds its way down the drain where it blocks up the drain and then you have more trouble.

I'm convinced that there is only one, true maker of these things and it is probably a subsidiary of the Drano or Liquid Plumber companies. They are the ones who profit when these strainers fail to work. It's like the great Streetcar Conspiracy where automobile, oil and tire companies supposedly bought out streetcar lines so they could replace the electric railways with buses. How else do you explain it?

Well, my idea is to simply design a sink strainer basket that works correctly and is easy to use. How hard could it be? You just need something with a screen or strainer that doesn't block the drain. My design will be foolproof and inexpensive. My design will just work and it will always work. My design will be the only one, apparently, that can do this so I will be rich. Don't worry, I will continue to write this blog so you won't miss any of my future Earth-shattering announcements.

Disclaimer - In case you haven't figured it out yet, this post should be taken as a joke. I don't believe in the conspiracies mentioned here and I probably won't be designing the Great American Sink Strainer Basket. But I sure wish someone would!

Monday, June 25, 2012

"Take Your Cats on Vacation" week

As I mentioned in my last post, we were on vacation last week. Whenever we go on vacation, we always miss our pets. This time, though, we decided to do something about it. My wife, Cindy, got an idea to print near-life-sized images of our cats and attach them to cardboard cutouts and pose them in our own pictures. We included a cardboard stand in the back so the "cats" could stand on their own. We couldn't do the same thing for our dog Charlie because the near-life-sized picture would have been too big.

Having the "flat" cats along didn't completely solve the problem of missing them  but it certainly was a lot of fun. We enjoyed looking around for places to pose them and had a great time setting up the shots. But the best part was the reaction of other people to what we were doing. As you can see in the top picture, even the busy workers were happy to be in the pictures. In the bottom picture, there was a group of people watching us as we prepared the shot. I heard a number of people saying they were going to do the same thing on their next trip. As with all of my pictures, just click on the picture to get a larger view. You may have to do that in the bottom picture to see the cats at all.

Another side effect of only having cat pictures with us was that unlike our real cats, they didn't cry during the night keeping us up. The motel beds did a good job of that.

For more views of our cats on vacation, go to Cindy's blog and see her post about it.

[Update: Cindy has another post with pictures of the "flat cats". Oh by the way, Emma and I are in the pictures, too.]

Friday, June 22, 2012

National "Take Your Dog to Work" Day

We have been on vacation for four days (more on that in another post) so I found out about this too late. Plus, our dog, Charlie, had been in the kennel for those four days and he wasn't himself after we picked him up yesterday (or "breaking out" as he puts it). So, I probably wouldn't have have him to work today anyway. But two of the guys in the Software Group did bring their dogs in today.

I guess the news story that prompted me to write my "Dogs at Work" post was looking forward to today. They didn't mention that this was a special day, though. Go to this link for a news story about it. It has a funny picture, too. The first picture (on the right) is of Max, the Cockapoo. He was very curious about what goes on in our office. He made sure to check everything out and sniffed everything to make sure no danger was lurking in the corners. He was very well mannered and didn't cause any problems. By the way, yes, Max does have two eyes. The other is just covered up in this picture.

Our other visitor was Rocky. He is in the second picture (on the left) and was a little more hesitant about being in the office. He is part boxer and part something else. You could tell he wasn't used to being in a room of cubicles. He was especially wary of me! I hoped he would smell my dog on me and relax a bit but something about me worried Rocky. Like Max, he was very well behaved and didn't cause any problems. I was just a little disappointed. I like to think that all dogs everywhere like me. It's humbling when you find out that isn't true.

It's no different than when we find out that we won't be liked by every human we meet, either. Try as we might, we are just not going to be liked by some people. Just as we don't necessarily like everyone we meet. Some people just rub you the wrong way. We are admonished to love everyone but it doesn't mean we're going to like everyone.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My father at my age

I don't know when this thought came to me but one day, recently, I started to think about what my father was doing at my age. He was born in 1922. I am 61 years old now. So, he would have been this age in 1983. At that point, he was still very active and, since he was in construction work, still very fit and strong. He operated heavy machines like cranes, bulldozers and that sort of thing. Due to the nature of construction work, though, he often went long periods where there was no work. During one of those periods, he took the time to come and help me work on the house I had bought.

I bought the house in 1982 and was very optimistic that it would take no time to fix up. The house had been built in 1928 and was in very bad shape. Plus, there had been a fire that I wasn't told about and neither of the house inspectors I'd hired had found out about. There was practically no insulation in the house and there were a lot of tiny rooms that I wanted to turn into fewer larger rooms. I was so naive! I had no idea what I was getting into. It didn't take long, though, for me to realize I was in way over my head. My parents both knew I was making a mistake and tried to dissuade me from buying the house. They hadn't even seen it (they lived in Pittsburgh and the house was on Cape Cod) but knew from my description that it was going to be trouble.

Anyway, at 61 years old, my father came up to help me. We shared my apartment while we worked on the house during the day. We tore down the interior walls in the three small rooms on the first floor to make it one big room and bought a huge wood beam and posts to hold up the second floor and installed them. We tore out all of the plaster walls (the inside walls), put in insulation and put up Sheetrock. Putting dormers in the roof to expand the second floor was beyond us so I hired a contractor to do that part. My dad worked with me for about 2 -3 months and I had a hard time keeping up with him. I had to go back to work after the first two weeks so he was working all alone during the day and we worked together at night. I don't know if I could do what he did at this age. I try to keep active but I don't have the strength and energy he still had at 61. The only thing I have on him is that I have more hair at 61 than he did.

About 15 years later, after my father had died at 71, I was working in the basement using my big ShopVac vacuum and was going to change the filter. As I opened up the housing that held the filter, I noticed a handwritten note. It was written by my father when he had been here helping me. It explained how the filter was mounted and how to replace it easily. After all those years, my dad was still helping me. I still miss him.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dogs at work

While watching the local Boston news this morning, we heard a story about some businesses allowing dogs in the workplace. Here is a link to the story at the Boston Business Journal website.

I like this idea but I could also see where you'd have to take a firm hand and not allow all dogs in. Having a dog fight in the office wouldn't be a good thing and having dogs who aren't trained could lead to some smelly problems. We do have one dog in our office, though. The fellow to the right, Craig, has a certified service dog who has recently joined our organization. The dog can do a lot of things including opening the door and getting items that are out of reach. He is a very well behaved dog and normally you can't even tell he is in the room. Craig brought him around to introduce him to everyone and let us know what we should expect. The hardest part is to not bother them while they are working. He is a very friendly dog.

Pets in our office go way back. When there were only twelve of us in the company and we were still working in the barn behind the owner's house, their dog Sally would often come in to spend time with us. Later, they got two cats who enjoyed roaming around and investigating what we were working on. One of the cats, Garnet, liked to jump up and sleep in my lap. But only when he'd been outside in the rain. I was a good place to dry off. But for as bad as that seems, I really looked forward to rainy days. Garnet would listen to my problems and purr away. Nothing seems so bad when a cat is telling you, "Everything is going to be OK."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sometimes luck works for you

Yesterday, on my walk in the woods behind our office, I startled a mother Ruffed Grouse and her chicks. This has happened before (see this post) so I was prepared for the hen to make a lot of noise and a "hurt" sound to distract me and draw attention away from her chicks. Even though I was ready, I was still surprised when one of the chicks flew right in front of me. Another chick flew off in a different direction. All I could do was hold up my camera and click the button. No time to hold it up to my eye and aim. Fortunately, the auto-focus worked pretty well.

It's hard to see in the picture above. It looks more like a picture of trees and bushes. You will have to click on the picture to see it full scale and then look in the left side of the picture and a little over halfway up. I've also included a second picture on the left that is a cut down view of just the chick. As you can see, it is bottom heavy and is really having to work to stay in the air. It only flew about 10 feet but it was enough to get away from me. The hen continued to make noise in the bushes to try to draw me away from the chicks who all stayed quiet once they landed.

I never know what I'll see on my walks. Mostly it's just a chance to get out in the fresh air and get some exercise. It's always nice to be out in the quiet and peacefulness of the woods. But once in a while I get to see something worth telling others about.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The power of the sun

Our company is now running on solar energy! The solar panels were purchased last year and installed over a period of months this spring but over this past week-end, the switch was thrown and today we're running on power generated by the sun. We have over 130 employees and have a LOT of power hungry equipment (we manufacture all of our products here) and it's nice to know that we reduced our dependence on fossil fuels.

In the picture, a view from Google Maps, you can see the two buildings that comprise our entire company. If you click on the picture to show it larger, you'll see two red arrows in the upper left portion of the photo. The left one (pointing down) is pointing to one of the solar panels. So, you can see that there a lot of panels. The roofs of our two buildings are flat so it was relatively easy to find places for the panels and mount them. It was interesting to be working here while the panels were lifted into position and mounted on the roof. Many times it sounded like things were dropped and we all jumped a few feet in the air from the sound. Then they had to all be connected. Then the equipment to turn the direct current from the solar panels into alternating current for our equipment had to be installed. But now it's all done. Our computers and other equipment can't tell the difference. Electricity is electricity.

Another thing to notice in the picture is a second red arrow pointing to a red ellipse near the top of the picture. That's my scooter! This picture must have been taken early in the year when I was the only one riding a two-wheeled vehicle into work. Usually there will be two or three motorcycles in that area, too. If you look hard, you can also see people out walking around the parking lot. Many people get their exercise that way. I prefer to walk in the woods behind the building on the left.

One last thing to notice in the picture is the amazing number of cracks in our parking lot.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Photo tour

My wife, Cindy, is an avid photographer. She has taken classes at the Cape Cod Conservatory and just loves taking pictures - especially of our kids and our cats (and the dog when he cooperates). She signed us both up for a wonderful program called A Photo Tour of the Heritage Museums and Gardens. Heritage Museums and Gardens is a 100 acre site is located in Sandwich, MA and has gardens, nature trails, a classic automobile collection, art exhibits, a working vintage carousel and many other attractions. They are famous for their rhododendron collection. But we were there to learn more about photography.

Our teacher, Jim Pennypacker of the Photography Center of Cape Cod, started out by giving us a number of useful tips that aren't covered by (and often contradict) the advice given in the Kodak manual. The first technique he taught us was "shooting through". That's where you have an irregularly shaped object in the foreground and out of focus and the subject of the picture is in focus in the background. The foreground object blurs and gives a hint of color to the object in the background. The top photo is my poor attempt at doing that. I should have picked a foreground object that wasn't white. It just looks like a mistake. As with all of these pictures, to expand them, just click on the picture.

Jim then took us to the carousel where, luckily, a school class was taking a field trip so the carousel was kept busy spinning. Our assignment here was to widen our shutter speed and follow our subject as the carousel rotated and then take the picture. In this way, the subject stays relatively in focus while the rest blurs to highlight the subject. As you can see, I'm starting to get the idea but I have a lot of work to do.

As we walked around, we saw a new part of the gardens called Hidden Hollow. It's designed for children and they are drawn to the tree house pictured here. It's amazing to be walking along and then suddenly see this magical looking place as if a fairy cast a spell and allowed you to see something only children would normally see. It looks like something out of The Hobbit.

We ended up in the automobile gallery where beautifully maintained cars from the early part of the Twentieth Century are housed. Our assignment here was to deal with the low light conditions (no flash) and to isolate parts of the cars. Anyone can take a picture of the entire car but we were to take a picture of a part of the car with no interfering lines or obstructions from other parts of the car. My camera had a hard time in the low light conditions. My only two useful pictures came when I was looking at light colored cars. The first is a picture of the graceful lines of a Duesenberg fender. As you can see, I didn't really do it right because the straight line of the hood and the edge of the headlight interfere with the beautiful curves of the fender and hood vents.

My final picture is of the side of the hood of a Cord automobile. I thought the car itself quite ugly but the streamlined shapes and the reflection of the fins on the fender are very interesting (to me).

We had a wonderful time. It's always exciting to learn new things plus the day was beautiful. But it was also nice for Cindy and I to spend some time together where we weren't trying to solve problems or make other people happy. We were able to just enjoy each other's company. And now we've got some things to work on to improve our photography. We can help each other as we each remember different things from our wonderful day together.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Habitat for Humanity

I first heard about Habitat for Humanity in 1984 when Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn volunteered to work on a house in New York City but the organization had been going since 1976 (and it got its start at Koinonia Farm which began in 1942). Ever since I first heard about it, I thought it would be a good idea to get involved but there was always something else to do.

But last month, one of the fellows I work with in the software group sent out a note about a need for workers on a local house. He is very active in Habitat and was very enthusiastic in talking with us about it. I decided the time had come and I signed up. I'm really glad I did. Not only are the volunteers doing a good thing, they are also learning a lot and meeting other people with the desire to help others. I was amazed what hard workers I found at this site. There were people of all different skill levels but there were things to do that needed any skill level that was available.

We arrived at 7:45 and the leaders already had things organized. We had a short safety talk and then the plans for the day were announced. We were going to construct and raise the gable walls on this house (you can see them in position at the end of the day in the picture here). Once we got started, it seemed very disorganized at first. But once everyone found their job to do, it went very fast. I was pleased with the level of concern there was for doing a good job and how everyone pitched in. If you needed help with what you were doing, there were people who gladly showed you how to do it or worked with you if you felt intimidated. Here we were mostly strangers but I felt a part of a team right away. No one looked down on the people with less skill and no one was left just standing around with nothing to do. If you found yourself with a job complete and nothing to do, you were asked to join another group that needed help.

There was a short coffee break at 10 AM and a local minister gave a little talk and we prayed together before returning to work. It reminded me that we were here not only to help the people who would be purchasing this house but we were here to help each other and to give the glory to God. We've been studying the Epistle of James in our church and this verse really sums it all up for me.
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. James 2:14-17 NLT
I hope to be able to do this again. My skills are limited and I may get in the way more than help but you wouldn't know it from the reception I got form the other volunteers that day. They made me feel like I was a vital part of the work crew. They made me feel I was worthy. They were reflecting God's love to me. I hope I can do the same for others.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Dealing with fear

Going to visit my mother reminded me of two stories about how we deal with fear. The first comes from my mother. She mentioned that she had always been fearful during lightning storms. I think it's natural and we should all be a little afraid when we hear the rumbling at the start of a storm. But her fear was more than that. But when I was a little boy, she didn't want me to be afraid of the storms, too, so she put on a brave face and acted as if she wasn't afraid. I don't remember that but I also don't remember being afraid of lightning storms when I was young, either. I'm not crazy - I don't go out during a storm unless I can't help it (there's another story there for a later time, right Sweetheart?). But my mother's love for me and her desire to help me from being afraid let her overcome her fear if just a little. And she helped me to not be afraid.

As we talked this over, it brought to mind how I felt during my first storm at sea when I was working aboard ocean-going research vessels for the US Geological Survey. Operating a boat is an expensive proposition and the fact that there are few qualified vessels that can be used means that schedules must be created and kept. So, if the weather is bad, you must go out to sea and do your work because the next group using the boat has been planning to go out when you get back. Also, while you're out at sea, you can't just come into port every time the wind picks up. You do come in for a hurricane but that's about it.

So, it's inevitable that when you spend three to four weeks at a time hundreds of miles off the coast, you're going to get caught in a storm from time to time. I vividly remember my first one. It started small but built up pretty quickly. There was warning because the ship's crew always kept a close eye on marine forecasts. But all that meant was that you had time to tie everything down that might move. In this particular storm, the winds were constant and the waves were high (about 12 - 15 feet if I remember correctly) given the size of our boat (by definition, a boat is less than 200 feet long while a ship is 200 feet long or more). The ship was moving around a lot. You had to hold on whenever you moved from place to place and when the storm got worse, you had to hold on even when you were seated. As I sat in the galley with some of the crew after our noon meal, you could hear the waves crashing into the hull. It sounded like someone was hitting the steel hull with a large steel hammer. I thought it was the anchor being knocked against the hull but the crew members laughed. "If that's the anchor, we're in big trouble," they said. "The anchor is tight against the ship and doesn't move until it's released. What you're hearing are just the waves hitting the hull." I couldn't believe it. I admit I was a little scared. But I looked around at the crew and the other scientists who'd been through this before and they all seemed so calm. It made me feel OK. If they weren't worried, everything must be all right. All I had to worry about was keeping our equipment from falling off the benches and making sure my coffee didn't spill into the electronics.

I try to remember this when I start to feel afraid. I look around at the people I trust and are dealing with the same things I am. I also remember the verse in Matthew 8:
Then Jesus got into the boat and started across the lake with his disciples. Suddenly, a fierce storm struck the lake, with waves breaking into the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, "Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!" Jesus responded, "Why are you afraid? You have so little faith!" Then he got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm. The disciples were amazed. "Who is this man?" they asked. "Even the winds and waves obey him!" Matt 8:23-27 New Living Translation

Jesus wasn't on the research vessel to rebuke the wind and waves but I knew I could trust him and I could trust the reactions of the crew. Everything was going to be all right.