Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How to NOT ship something cold in the mail

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 29, 2016

The elves didn't cover for me

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 15, 2016

New Year's Day in August

It's been a long time since my last post. When my mother passed away in May, it was hard to get motivated. I miss her a lot and even though I have more time for other things now, I found I had a lot more things to do. As Mom got weaker and her ailments multiplied, I had more things to do to help her, coordinate her care and pay more bills and buy more things she needed. And with all those extra duties, I neglected things that my wife and children needed, I let jobs around our house go and I let things at work back up a bit. So, once I had some time to catch up, I had to drop things like updating this blog.

But now I think I'm finally getting caught up. So, I've made a list of New Year's Resolutions to get my life back on track.

Walk every day - I've started this. I'm back to walking about a half to three quarter mile a day. Not much but it's a start.

Drink plenty of water every day. Part of this is to cut down on the amount of coffee I drink, too.

Use my Water Pic and floss my teeth - There were reports in the news recently about how little flossing has been studied and how it was being recommended without really understanding it. But I see the difference in myself and I know this is a good thing. I just wish they didn't call it "flossing". It sounds so useless - like your polishing your teeth.

Practice the piano - Boy do I miss this! Within this, I want to concentrate on two things - I want to learn a bunch of songs that I can just play at any time. Some of this is re-learning the songs I used to be able to play. The other thing I want to concentrate on is my velocity. I've always been good at playing slow songs and putting a lot of feeling into them. But I've always had trouble playing fast (some would say, happy) songs.

I hate to admit the next two things because they are so important:

Pray - I've always done this, of course, but over the last couple of years with the extra time needed to take care of my mother, my prayer was centered on my mother and myself. Most of my prayers were pleas for help. The prayers were answered! But now it is time to start with prayers of worship and thanksgiving and to pray for other people more.

Read the Bible - I always miss this when I'm not doing it. And, of course, I always read the Bible verses for our weekly worship service. But now I'm getting back to reading the Bible every day. It is not a burden but it does take time. But it is enjoyable time. It is enlightening and invigorating.It's like eating a good meal after having fast food for two years!

And, of course, I am going to write in this blog regularly. Here's to starting again.