Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Coming home from New York City

An old picture of an Acela
So, last time I wrote about going to New York on the train for my company's part of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Expo at the Javits Convention Center last week. We got to go on the train and that made it special. The expo was very busy and I enjoyed seeing all the booths and demonstrations. We stayed the night in a hotel not far from the convention center and were to leave the next morning by catching the 10 AM Acela Express (we took the Regional train down). I was really looking forward to that because I'd never been on an Acela before. I had been on the TGV high speed train in France but that was a long time ago. I couldn't wait to get up the next morning!

The center of the universe
Well, as I mentioned, it snowed all day on our arrival in New York. But so what? We were going by train. What stops a train? It turns out that snow and freezing temperatures can cause problems with switches and signals along the route. Also, getting workers to operate the trains can be a problem in the snow. Also, electric locomotives can have their power disrupted by snow (as I would find out on our way home). So, at breakfast, we found that our 10 AM Acela had been canceled but we were rescheduled to be on the 12 noon Acela. Not too bad. That would give us a little time to look around the city. Then, as breakfast went on, we found that the 12 noon Acela was canceled. That meant we were on the 2 PM Regional train. That's still OK. It's a train. I'll ride the Acela some day. That gave me a little time to look around the city. Our hotel wasn't far from Times Square. You can see from the picture on the left that I found Broadway and got to 42nd Street.
"Come and meet those dancing feet,
On the avenue I'm taking you to,
Forty-Second Street."
And, as you can see from the picture on the right, "They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway," is correct. And they move and dance and really grab your attention. I should have taken some pictures of the theaters on 42nd Street, too. They've come a long way from just a lit up border of lights around the name of the show. But it was very cold and very windy and there was a lot of wet snow seeping into my shoes. My socks were wet and my feet were starting to get numb. I had started walking around about 11:30 and wanted to get to the train station by 1 PM in case our train schedule changed again but I wasn't going to last that long. So, I started heading down to Penn Station. On the way I saw a couple more interesting things.

This film crew was set up for a shot with Times Square as the background (including a tour bus with the words on it in case you didn't get it). The fellow holding the microphone was the only one on camera. The young woman in the white coat was all bundled up but was still freezing. She was running in place and flapping her arms right up until the time the camera started. I felt sorry for her but I felt the same way. I had to keep moving or I was afraid I'd get frozen to one spot.

A little further on, I saw the scooter pictured to the right. I've ridden my scooter in some bad conditions but nothing like this. Look at those tires. I don't think they are going to give him much traction when he starts out again. I should have taken a closer look but I think that is the model of Yamaha scooter I considered when I was shopping for a scooter. I think this one is a Zuma. I ended up buying Honda scooter and I think mine looks better than this one. But then, I've never gotten mine all snowy like this one. Being small is definitely a nice feature of a scooter. You can park it almost anywhere.

Horseless carriage
Another interesting sight was this carriage in the picture on the left. In case you can't read the sign with the prices, it says, "$50 for the first 20 minutes. $20 for each additional 10 minutes." If I was taking that to a wedding, I'd definitely say, "Get me to the church on time." I wonder if the carriage is there for the winter or do they bring out the horse when the weather is a little better? I wonder where you stable a horse in the city?

I finally got to the train station and our 2PM train was still on time. Good news. No more delays. I'd seen enough of the city. At least in these conditions. The station was packed. I guess because there were so many canceled trains, all those people (like me) were hanging around to see if there were going to be any more changes to their trip. I sat in the lounge area for a while but worried about finding the right track in such a big area. So, I got up and got oriented. It turned out not to be that bad. The tracks were all clearly marked. Now, if they'd just say which track the train would be on. My fellow traveler showed up and we both wondered if we could get on an earlier train or on a later Acela. As we waited in line we heard a booming voice ask, "Is this your bag?" We had our bags with us but wondered if they looked suspicious. The policeman was more insistent the next time and then, apparently, the owner of the bag must have acknowledged that is was his bag and then we heard the policeman shout, "Get over here. And don't roll your eyes at me!" This was getting serious. They brought in the sniffer dog. I'm not sure if he was a bomb sniffer or a drug sniffer. Do they have dogs that do both? You could see that the guy who had left his bag unattended was not going to make his train. But we were. Even though we couldn't get on an earlier train nor a later but more comfortable train, our train was On Time - or was it? Just a little while before the train was scheduled to depart, they flashed the sign that it was delayed. They didn't know this before? Oh well, it was only going to be 15 minutes late. But 15 minutes later, it was going to be 30 minutes late. And 15 minutes later, you guessed it - it was going to be 45 minutes late. We were afraid to sit down in the lounge area because we might miss something - like our train being 60 minutes late or being canceled.

So, we'd been on our feet since 1 PM (it was 2:45 PM now) when they announced the train was coming into the station. Good! Now they'd announce which track it would be on. No such luck. They had announced that it was unloading but we couldn't see where people were arriving to see the track ourselves. In the meantime, they brought in more sniffer dogs and they were barking to each other. I guess they were passing along vital information about which smells were especially good in the waiting area. People were getting restless and whenever a track was announced, it was like the starting gun at a track meet. We were bumped, jostled and yelled out as people tore along the dotted line to get to their track. Finally, they mentioned our train number but instead of announcing that it was boarding on Track Number X, they announced it was getting a new locomotive. That wouldn't take long, though, because they do that all the time. Don't they?

I guess they don't change locomotives that often. It took them another 45 minutes. We finally found out our track number and calmly headed there. I didn't bump, jostle or yell at a single person on the way.  As we walked along the train, we saw lots of empty seats and rejoiced in the fact that we could spread out over two seats each. But they wouldn't let us on the cars with lots of seats. We were herded onto the cars that only had a few sets left. We were able to sit near each other and were thankfully able to finally sit down but we didn't get to spread out over two seats - but - it was warm and relatively quiet and no one was bumping into us. After we got to New Haven, the car really cleared out and we did have room to spread out over two seats. After leaving New Haven, two things happened together. The heat came on full blast and the lights and fans went out. Then the train slowed to a stop. The speakers in our car weren't working but it sounded like they knew what the problem was. The snow and ice had caused an electrical problem and they would have to restart the engine. We joked that this was just like a computer running the Windows operating system.

We sat there for about 10 minutes and the reboot worked. The train started up again and things were moving again. Especially the heaters! My friend happened to have one of our company's temperature loggers with him and it showed 84 degrees Fahrenheit. It never got any cooler. The funny thing was that when people would walk into our car from the other cars, you could see snow blowing in the area between the cars. When they got into the car, it looks like they'd walked thought a blizzard. I got up and took the picture to the right. This was the snow that was collecting between the cars. You'd think with all the heat in the cars, the snow would have melted.

We had an uneventful journey the rest of the way. We picked up my friend's car at the station and he drove me home. I got in the door around 9 PM that night. We had originally thought that getting on the 10 AM train, we'd get back early enough to go to work for a while around 2 PM. It didn't work out that way. But if I got a chance to ride the train (especially an Acela), I'd do it all over again.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

My adventure in New York

I should have mentioned that I was going to New York City this week. Our company had a booth at the Air
Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Expo at the Javits Convention Center (pictured at the right) from January 21-23. Our product s are used to read and store temperature, humidity, time-of-use and electrical characteristics (among others). So, people who make or use heating and cooling equipment can keep an eye on how well their equipment is working. Normally, only the sales and marketing people from our company go to these shows but sometimes they like to have the engineers go, too.  That way we get a feel for what our customers need and what they like or don't like about our products. Also, it's good to see what our competitors are doing to see if we are missing something or if we are comfortably ahead of what they are doing.

Our route from Penn Station to the Javits Convention Center
A few of us took the train down on Tuesday morning (January 21). I always like to take the train but in order to get there by 10 am when the show opened for the day, we needed to leave Providence before 7 AM. That meant getting up and leaving the house by 5:30 AM. While we were still in Connecticut, it started snowing. It didn't stop all day. There were 2 - 3 inches of snow on the ground as we walked from the train station to the convention center. The temperature had dropped and the wind was blowing pretty well. We only had to walk about a half mile but it seemed like more on the slippery sidewalks. It was nice and warm inside, though, and we found our booth without too much trouble. We were able to leave our bags and coats in the area behind the booth and we started visiting other companies' booths (the sales and marketing guys had to stay at our booth but the engineers got to walk around). I wish now that I'd taken my pedometer with me. I'll bet I walked 2 - 3 miles but I'll never know for sure. There were two floors of booths and there were hundreds of booths. I visited at 30 of them. Unfortunately, lots of signs were warning that no photography was allowed so I don't have any pictures inside. I took a break at 1 PM when I got hungry. There was a food court but it was packed and the prices were high. But I did manage to find a place to get a decent meal for about $10. It wasn't easy finding a seat in the crowded dining area but I shared a table with some folks who pretended I wasn't there. Just as well. I was too tired to talk.

Our route from the convention center to our hotel
The show ran until 6 PM and I visited booths until just before that time and headed back to our company's booth.  We grabbed our bags and headed to the hotel. That was another walk of about a half mile but the conditions were much worse by this time. The temperature had plummeted, the wind was blowing harder and the snow had really piled up. They said there was about 10 inches of snow in Central Park but people had stamped down the snow on the sidewalks so it looked more like 6 or 7 inches that we trudged through. Cars, trucks and buses couldn't stop very well and we had some close calls on the way. But we made it and it was dry and warm. You can't beat that. I would have slept on a cot that night but the rooms were really nice. I had one of the most comfortable beds I've ever had in a hotel. They guys all wanted to go out to dinner together but were talking about 8 PM! I said I couldn't wait for that and just wanted to grab a quick bite and jump into bed. But then they said we go somewhere sooner and I gave in. We still didn't get to eat until about 7:30 but I managed to survive.

It was a very good show. I learned a lot about what our customers want and what our customers don't want. I learned a lot about ways of presenting data so that it's understandable without needing to take a lot of time to set up. But I also learned that these folks are passionate about their jobs and know a lot about how to save money and energy when providing heating and cooling to houses, office and factories. The hard part is setting up and adjusting the equipment that does the work. They don't want to spend a lot of time and effort setting up our equipment that just has the "easy" job of monitoring conditions. Our stuff needs to be easy to use and easy to get information from. That's my job and I think I will do it a little better now.

We were going to be heading home the next day and my next post will be about my tiny tour of New York and the trip home.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Humans of New York

"If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't change a thing."
It seems like a such a simple idea. Take pictures of people on the streets of New York City, ask them questions and write down their responses. Then, put the pictures with the questions and answers on a blog. Anybody could do that, right? Well, if I did something like that (change Cape Cod for New York City), it wouldn't be nearly as interesting nor garner as many viewers. You should try going to Humans of New York and see for yourself. But you have probably done that already. As usual, I think I'm late finding this site.

As you can see from the example picture and caption I've posted here, the pictures combine with the stories perfectly. They make you wonder what the back story is. What is going to happen to this person in the future? Are the people in the picture OK? Do they have any friends? The stories and pictures are sometimes joyous and sometimes sad. They can be uplifting or depressing. How do some of these people get along in life? Sometimes you wish you could follow them to find out how everything works out. In this sense, the captions that accompany the pictures remind me of the six-word stories I wrote about in my "This is the story..." post years ago. So much wonder in such a short space.

Some of the subjects are the kind of people I wouldn't like if I met them. Many of their opinions differ what what I think. Some of the people are just out-and-out wrong about things - at least according to me! But they are fascinating. It opens up your world a bit. If I did ever meet these people, I think it would be interesting to discuss their ideas with them. There are people there that I think I could help and there are others who could help me. There are people I'd rather avoid and people I would love to meet and learn more about. As a Christian, it makes me appreciate what Jesus did and said about our neighbors. Whether we like them or not, we should love them all. They are all loved by God, after all, and deserve our respect. But it does make me realize how, "Love thy neighbor," is both a responsibility and a privilege. It is easy in some cases and hard in others. But it is not an option. It's a requirement:

"Owe nothing to anyone - except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, 'You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.' These - and other such commandments - are summed up in this one commandment: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law". Romans 13:8-10 New Living Translation

The owner of the "Humans of New York" site, Brandon Stanton, is talented in both his photography and his interviewing. Where does he get his ability to walk up to perfect strangers, ask to take a picture and get them to open up so readily?  His shots are usually posed and he photographs and composes the picture well. He asks a lot of the same questions to different people but how differently the people answer his similar questions is part of the fun. There is also a book appropriately titled Humans of New York. But the blog is free and updated almost every day. It's great fun and you will learn a lot about people. And yourself.

[Update: For those of you who use Facebook, there is an entry for Humans of New York there, too, at this link. It lets you read the comments others have made on the pictures. I suppose it lets you make comments if you belong to Facebook. I don't. Also, I just noticed, it doesn't seem like you get to see all of the pictures like you do on the blog site:]

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A silly joke

This is a joke one of my friends told me when we were about 10 years old.

An ant is standing on a cereal box when all of a sudden another ant goes running past him. A few seconds later, the running ant comes back the other way. Finally, after this happens a bunch of times, the first ant calls out to him and gets him to stop. "Why are you running so fast here?" he says. The running ant says, "Can't you read? It says, 'Tear along the dotted line.' " and runs off again.

If you want to see a fascinating documentary on ants, watch Ants: Nature's secret power on YouTube.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Working in Hell

This Sunday, as part of the sermon, our pastor asked us to think about the worst job we ever had. He wanted us to look at that job and find something to be satisfied with. Something we learned. Some satisfaction at having done a job well or in helping someone. The job that came to my mind had none of those redeeming qualities. The job I thought about only lasted one night. It made me think of what it must be like to be in Hell.

I've mentioned before (here and here) that while in college, I worked summers in a union for workers who operate heavy construction equipment - the Operating Engineers. I was classified as an oiler. In this type of work, that's the person that works as an assistant to the operator of heavy machinery. The oiler's job is to keep the equipment running by doing preventative maintenance on it. That involves keeping the machine clean, greasing the machinery and adding oil (hence the name) on a regular schedule. The oiler can also hook up loads when necessary and make sure the space around the machine is free of hazards and is not endangering other workers. It is not a high skill job. It's almost like an apprenticeship for someone who wants to make a living operating heavy equipment. The oiler learns how to run the equipment well and in a safe manner by observing and learning from the operator. I was a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 in Pittsburgh. I was not planning on making this my life's work but they always needed oilers during the summer when there were lots of jobs and the sons of union members were a good source of temporary workers. In the winter, when jobs were few, I would have never been able to get a job and would not have wanted to take a job away from someone who needed the work to support a family.

One of the problems with being an Operating Engineer was you never knew how long a job would last or where it would be. Most of the jobs I was called on went for a few months. That was just right for working summers between semesters. But sometimes you'd get called for a shorter job. One time I was called to work in a steel mill in the Southside district of Pittsburgh. There was no information about what was entailed in the job and I wasn't told how long the job would last but it sounded like I would just be filling in for the regular guy. I was just told when to show up and who to ask for. It was going to be the night shift. I was actually kind of happy about it. It was the closest job I'd had to home. Usually, the jobs were well over an hour's drive away. This job was only a half-hour away.

I showed up, found the office and showed my union card. They sent me inside the steel mill but when I met the operator I'd be working with, be took me below the mill. We would be working underneath the steel making area. The machine I'd be helping with was a Bobcat-like machine. Those are small, agile machines that often have a small loader or bucket on the front for excavation in small spaces. But in this case, the machine had an attachment that looked like a jack hammer on it. It was designed to get into tight spaces like the ovens and chimneys under the mill floor and chisel out the left-overs of the steel making process. Here is an explanation of how steel is made and that is where I got this picture. So, just imagine you're working below the space where all this 3000° Fahrenheit molten metal is being swung around, poured and spilled! Well, not much spilling went on because the steel workers are very good at what they do. But it does happen. So, here we were - working in a cramped, (the ceiling beams were just above my head), dusty, hot (you can imagine), dark (there were lights but many of them had burned out), noisy basement. Every once in a while, there would be a thunderous noise and everything shook when something dropped or was set down on the floor above us. There was never a warning when this would happen. Also, I noticed stalactite-looking things hanging down from the ceiling. I reached up to touch one and the operator yelled at me to stop before I could put a finger on it. "Those can be hot enough to burn off your finger and still look like they are cool," he said. He didn't have to tell me again.

To get the point across about how hot and dry it was, here was the first thing I had to deal with when we got to our machine. It wouldn't start. It didn't even want to crank. We looked at a number of possible problems but finally the operator said, "Oh, I know what it probably is," and went to the battery and unscrewed the caps where the water should be. It was completely dry!. The battery water had evaporated. I had to walk a long way to find some distilled water to pour into the battery. It started right up but apparently, this happened quite often.

Another disconcerting thing was that there were a LOT of small vehicles running around in this maze of corridors and none of them seemed to have horn nor did the drivers go slowly. You'd be working and all of a sudden this little machine would come tearing past you. I had to watch where I went and always keep looking around to make sure no one was going to run me over. It was the longest, weirdest, most uncomfortable night I had ever spent. When it was finally time to go home, the sun was just coming up and I couldn't wait to get into bed. The union called again the next day and wanted to send me back there because it looked like the regular guy was still out. For a real Operating Engineer, you wouldn't want to refuse a job because if you did that too often, you would find the job offers drying up. But in my situation, I had no problem refusing to go back to hell.To answer our pastor's question from Sunday - What I learned from my worst job was to not take a job in a steel mill.

"If you're going through hell, keep going."
Winston Churchill

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The day I performed real magic

From a young age, I loved magic. I don't remember the first magic trick I saw but it must have made a big  impression. I'd see magicians on TV variety shows and at live shows at the county fair. Then, a magician named Mark Wilson started a Saturday morning TV show that I never missed. He was very good at encouraging kids to try different magic tricks so in that sense, I knew that there were "tricks" to the magic. Some magic. But I think I still believed in real magic, too. I was never really motivated enough to actually try the tricks that Mr. Wilson showed on his TV program because a lot of his demonstrations were for sleight-of-hand illusions and I wasn't patient enough to practice to get them right.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when this story happened (probably about 9 years old) but I do remember the circumstances vividly. My parents were shopping for furniture and didn't want me to be bored while they looked over items and haggled with salesmen. So, they bought me a small deck of cards for doing magic tricks. I sat down at a couch that had a coffee table in front of it. I remember that this deck had various types of cards for different tricks but I picked the first one that was in the instruction manual. It was a set of cards imprinted with musical notes. I tried the trick as I read the instructions. They were in the form of printing what you would say to the audience (the "patter" in magician-speak) interspersed with instructions on what you were doing while you talked. As every magician knows, the patter has a double purpose. It explains what is happening to the audience and it distracts the audience so they don't see the trick.

The trick involved picking up two of the cards, one in each hand, and laying them down on the table together. As I read the patter and performed the trick, I laid down pairs of the cards on the two stacks until there was only one card left. Then the instructions told me to make a big deal of showing which of the two stacks I put this last card on. Then, I was to tell the audience (I was telling myself) that this last card made the stack I'd put it on have an odd number of cards but my magic was going to move the extra card from that pile to the other pile. I touched the stack with the extra card as I said the magic incantation, amazingly, I remember to this day: "Music, music everywhere. Extra card move from here to there!" as I dramatically pointed to the other stack.

Then the instructions said to count the cards in the stack I'd just pointed to and, sure enough, it was an odd number of cards! I'd done it. I had actually made real magic. I remember being exhilarated and then scared. Such power! Moving cards now but perhaps moving cars later? What would I do with this ability? Was it the magic incantation that did the work or were the cards themselves magic? Or did I just have a gift? What would become of me? I started to pray and to tell God that I would use this new ability only for good things. Could I keep my promise? From all the fairy stories I'd read and Twilight Zone episodes I'd seen, I knew I was in dangerous area. Great power could corrupt people. I tried the trick a couple more times to prove to myself that it wasn't a fluke. After the third time, it hit me. It probably occurred to you a while ago but I was probably about 9 years old and it took me a while.

The patter had done what it was supposed to do. It even distracted me. I was fooled into thinking the two stacks of cards had an even number of cards (before I put on the final card) because I'd put down two cards at a time. In reality, there were probably ten cards total so there were five cards in each pile. So, they both had an odd number of cards before I added the extra card and when I added the extra card to one stack, I made that stack have an even number of cards - six cards. The stack I pointed to started out with five cards and it still had five cards. I remember feeling foolish but I saw how a good magician could fool his audience into thinking that magic had happened. If he was able to convince them and distract them.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The misplaced newspaper

Here's another story about how I got myself in trouble (so to speak) when I was only trying to help.

When I was walking my dog, Charlie, every day, I would notice things around the neighborhood. Big things were obvious but I'd notice small things because of seeing the same things every day. So, one day I noticed that my next-door neighbor had two papers in his driveway. From previous walks, I knew he got one of the papers but the other one, a local paper, looked like the one the next neighbor along our street subscribed to. I didn't think much about it until I got to that next neighbor and didn't see his local paper in his driveway. I figured that a new delivery person was on the route and had gotten mixed up. So, when Charlie and I were heading home, I stopped at my next door neighbor's driveway, picked up the local paper, back tracked to the other neighbor's house and tossed it into his driveway. What a nice guy I am!

The next day, the same thing happened and I made my special delivery again. I was really feeling like I was making a difference in the world. But it kept happening and I did this for the next few days. My wife explained to me that this was never going to get fixed if I keep making the deliveries. So, I stopped and hoped that the other neighbor would miss his local paper and call the office to straighten things out. But, as usual, I worried about it. Maybe the second neighbor was too busy or forgetful to call the paper. Maybe I was going to get the delivery person in trouble. I wasn't sure whether to knock on their doors and explain what had been happening or not. In my usual way, though, I just let it go.

It became one more thing to take notice of on our daily walk. A couple of days later, I noticed that the local paper was being delivered to both houses! Now I saw what must have happened. My next-door neighbor had started delivery of both papers at the same time that the other neighbor went on vacation and stopped delivery of the local paper for a week or so. Then they must have returned from vacation and started delivery again. So, I'd been giving my next-door neighbor's paper to the other neighbor. Someone must have been checking on their house and taking the papers away or putting it in their house because the paper was never there the next day. Or maybe the delivery person did get mixed up with a new client and forgot to deliver papers to both houses. Of course, I'll never really know because I'm too embarrassed to ask my neighbors what the story was. I'll just add it to my list of worries and regrets that I drag with me through life.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

There may be a little more litter and trash in our neighborhood

I mentioned in my previous post that it has been a hard year. I feel guilty saying that because there are so many people so much worse off than my family and I. Other people are hungry. Other people have terrible diseases. Other people don't have clean water to drink. Other people live under repressive governments. Other people are not allowed to worship God or acknowledge their faith in Jesus Christ. Other people have lost hope. I could go on and on. But we have had a bad year all the same.  

Our dog Charlie died on Tuesday, November 19, 2013. We will miss him forever but it has been especially hard since that day. It was a somber Thanksgiving for us and Christmas was just not the same without him. My son always bought him a huge rawhide bone for Christmas and we always had a wonderful time when Charlie got that bone and immediately decided he needed to go out in his yard to chew on it for a while and then bury it to hide it from us. The bone was so big, it was hard for him to get it out of the house. You could see him figuring out the problem and coming up with solutions. Then, the look on his face as he made sure that we weren't following him so he could hide it in a secret place was priceless.

My title comes from the fact that Charlie insisted on going for a walk every morning. I always took a recycled plastic shopping bag with us to hold his poop because I didn't want to leave it laying around along the sidewalk and I knew that no one else wanted to see it, either. The bag was large enough to hold other things and when Charlie would point out trash along our path, I would put it into the bag to be thrown in the garbage can when we got home. In that way, Charlie did a service to our neighborhood by cleaning up some of the garbage that people throw away as they walk or drive in our town. Now, I haven't walked since the day he left us and when I do finally start walking again, I won't be taking a plastic bag with me so the trash won't be getting picked up like it was before.

Or maybe I should. Charlie started a good thing and why shouldn't I continue it in his name? I should continue to pick up trash along the streets that Charlie walked each day for his sake. He would have wanted his streets to look nice so other dogs can take walks there without the worry of them picking up something to eat that they shouldn't.