Posts in "Engineering" category

AT&T and customer service

So I went into an AT&T store today. After waiting a considerable period of time, I was helped by the store manager. My purpose today was to get a NanoSim for a new USB data modem I had bought. Being old school, I prefer having a separate modem with a sim rather than just put a sim card in my computer. It’s easier to upgrade the USB device, and I believe they have more flexibility. Anyway, when the store manager got to me, it turns out that the business account that I have had with ATT for almost 30 years doesn’t have me on it as an authorized user. He says that there is nothing he can do to help me since it won’t accept my DL as a form of ID.

So I leave the store and call ATT.  After about 15 minutes I get to a Customer Service person who gets me back on the account (with no ID, simply with an ID phrase) and says she can send me a nano-sim. Great, I think, we decide on shipping (which she waves the 9 buck cost on) and then after getting a new email for me asks for a Credit card to put the$5 sim charge on. At this point I am driving down the highway and ask her if it’s possible just to put in on my account (which, oddly enough, is paid every month by the very credit card I would use, on an automatic basis). She says she is unable to do this, and since I am unwilling to pull off the road in order to pull out my cc and read her the numbers (the same credit card that is already on automatic billing on the account) we end the day.

So, I have a USB modem (which I had to buy on Ebay, since it was impossible to buy from ATT), without a SIM card, on an account I have had for 30 years. I have now spend an hour on the SIM card issue, and hour (at least) on the USB issue and an hour doing research on the USB modem. ATT has claimed 3 hours of my life, and I am no closer to getting my SIM card than I was at the beginning of the YEAR.

There are changes coming. I have moved one of my phones over to the very excellent Project Fi from Google. I am looking at a cloud PBX system for the company. ATT isn’t a terrible company, just as long as you don’t have to interact with them. I plan on getting out of that situation soon.

Drawing the line on service calls

A significant part of our business is service calls out to a customer’s site, who either in over their head or who has too many fires to put out at once. We have some standard rules about service calls, you must have a “known good backup” (see here), you must actually have a problem requiring a service engineer (bad wiring doesn’t count, and will specifically not be worked on) and you can’t have had a third party repair on a drive or motor you want us to look at. We don’t clean up other people’s problems, we don’t do repairs in the field and we try not to send someone out in order to tell you that you need to send a component in for repair and then hand you a bill.

However, at some times, it gets to the point we have to be explicit about this. On a recent Saturday, I get a call from a company who starts off the conversation by saying they have taken two DKR drives and pulled boards out of both to try to get one running. They don’t know if the drives are identical, and they know the “donor drive” was already not working. This is mostly akin to trying to pull parts from a junk car in a junk yard based on the fact it is the same color as yours. They are having other problems with their system (color me shocked considering this level of repair), and want to know if the Frankendrive may be part of the problem. Considering they have no clue what they have done, that is kind like asking what the meaning of life is, but since the drive they are explicitly having a problem with is not the Frankendrive, it is a low order probability. I tell them this, tell them what they need to do for troubleshooting, am informed they have no money and they go off to try to do something to get the system running.  I get a call back in about two hours (this is on a Saturday, they have never done business with us before and they have explicitly said they don’t have any intention of spending any money with us) asking if I can check board serial numbers on the internal components they have swapped. Since Indramat does not support field repairs, third party repairs or end users diving into their own drives, this is a non-starter. I offer them repair service for the drive and they ask about field service.

This is where I have to get tough. Field Service isn’t cheap, they will not work on drives in the field, and they will not work on third party repaired or Frankendrives, because we have no idea how it will respond to instructions. Until they are ready to send in the drive for repair, there is nothing we can do for them.

Time to move on with my Saturday. You can’t save them all…

Getting paid

One of the things that we do work for is to get paid. This may seem, at least on the surface, to be obvious, but you would be amazed at how many companies don’t seem to get it. After several years of enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous payment terms, we finally started hitting back. First, we took some very excellent advice from the WSJ, and started firing some of our customers. The largest sugar water sales company was one of these, when we went just short of a year in getting paid. Automotive companies seem physically unable to pay a bill in under 60 days, we have had at least one pay a non-discounted price just to get net 60. We try to steer these folks to a couple of outfits we work with who will gladly add their carrying charges on top to let the 60 day (or 90) clock run out. We have a list of about 20 companies that we just will not even quote anymore because of their payment issues. We also changed the wording of our quote since several people interpreted the add-ons for late payment to not be applicable to them. Now we quote the 30 day payment discount, and if you take it to 60 and then try paying the quoted price, you are trying to take a discount you aren’t eligible for.

We had a recent company send a motor in for repair, and through an installation issue, the motor died after 6 weeks or so. This was a large motor, and the repair was somewhat expensive. So at 7 weeks, they call and get the motor sent back in, and we find that it is not eligible for warranty repair because of the failure mode. Some quite harsh words go back and forth, and we finally get to repairing the motor again.

Then accounting comes to me and notes that they have yet to pay the first bill. We copy everyone we have had discussions with on the email that says we will not release the motor until the first (now overdue) bill is paid, and yet we don’t get paid before the motor gets fixed. So the motor starts collecting dust, while their plant is down.

I will bet you money that accounts payable doesn’t get a single word said to them over this. Nobody ever blames Accounting for downtime, but there are people who we could have gotten up in a heartbeat (sugar water again) that we simply have said “we don’t do business with you any longer” and hung up. And the company with the motor? They took a 3 day downtime hit they didn’t have to.

The End of an Era

So I drove my Miata yesterday. Or my former, now my wife’s Miata. I have owned Miatas since 1996 (a 94M edition), and put very nearly 400k (386k and counting still) on 3 different ones. during that time. In that run, I had about 2200 dollars of unscheduled maintenance, a record that I never hope to repeat. We had some flirtations with the local Miata club, but most of my Miatamania was acted out on, the destination for Miatiacs everywhere. I found out how to wash the Miata, how to clean out the drain holes, what the best cover for the rear window was, best tires, etc.

I covered a lot of ground in the Miata. I used it in my business, and went to California in it once, and the East coast twice. I meant to do the 66 run, but never did, and now probably never will (at least in a Miata). The Miata taught me how to go on a trip lightly, instead of packing my whole closet in the car.

I owned 3. A 94M Edition, a 2002 Crystal Blue Metallic with Hard S suspension, and a 2004 Mazdaspeed Turbo. The Turbo is the one we still have, and is in many ways the finest Miata I ever owned. The 94 I bought used with about 9k on it, the 2002 I bought new in Sante Fe and the 2004 I bought used in about 2009 with 3400 miles on it. Each had their own quirks. The 94 was the “cleanest” Miata as far as lines went, resembling the Lotus that the Miata had, in part, been based on. I loved the car, and the wooden M edition gear shift, so much so, that I kept that gear knob through all of my cars.

The 2002, I bought new. That was unusual for me, I rarely buy cars new, although I will buy trucks new (as you never know how hard they may have been used (don’t ask me how I know that)). When I went looking for the 02, I knew exactly what I wanted. The local Mazda dealer in NWA didn’t want to talk to me since I had an EAA membership and got Ford pricing on the car, so I went looking for the one I wanted. There were 3 in the US that matched my wants (Crystal Blue Metalic, Hard S suspension, Hard Top and Anti-Lock brakes), one each in Chicago, Houston and Sante Fe. I had to buy the car before the end of the year to get a special financing deal, and as it was already Christmas I needed to move fast. The Houston Miata had dealer installed pinstriping that they wanted 150.00 bucks for, and since I didn’t want pinstriping and they wouldn’t take it off, that was out. That left Chicago and Sante Fe, and as it was the middle of winter, Chicago didn’t seem like a good plan. One call to Sante Fe and the deal was done. I jumped on a train (first, and so far only train trip) in KC, and road out to Sante Fe where my saleswoman picked me up at the station. Hilarity then ensued when the key wouldn’t fit the highly polished CBM that they had on the ramp for me. While they tried to figure out where the key was, I popped the hood and pointed out that this car didn’t have Anti-Locks (the module was obvious if you knew what to look for) and after a mechanic confirmed this, they figured out that the actual one I was buying was still buried in the snow in the back of the lot.  They were kind enough to take me to lunch while the prep’d’ the right car, and I drove back from Sante Fe over the next 2 days. I always wondered what would have happened had I left with the wrong car…

The 2004 demonstrated to me that buying a 6 year old car with 3400 miles on it was not the same as buying a new car. The tires almost got me killed (when the Fast and Furious actor was killed in a car with old tires, I was not in the least surprised by the cause) and the 17″ wheels on that model were very nearly worthless. I went back to the old 15″ wheels, and was much happier. A few other quirks reared their head (the dreaded turbo bog, which turned out to be a bad valve), but the extra horsepower was enough to make the car my favorite.

Because of my tribology experience I became somewhat of the oil expert on the forums for a few years. That and my search for the proper oil for the 6 speed gearbox, which digested regular gearbox oil with grinding and balking.

In 2013, with way too few miles having rolled up on the Mazdaspeed, I had an aircraft refueling hose wrap around my ankle during retraction that caused a dreadful knee injury which ended up with me getting a partial knee replacement. The year between the injury and the surgery was enough to make the Miata unusable with the knee, so it went to my wife, and I got a BMW M6 (which is not nearly as fun to drive). About the time I was ready to try the Miata again, I tore the Achilles Tendon on the same leg and had surgery to repair that as well.

Yesterday was the first time I drove the Miata in over a year. Getting in and settling down into the seat was a breeze. Everything came exactly to hand, I knew exactly how much force to use to feather the clutch on the way out, and the x-acto knife steering was the same as I remembered. The car is still the funnest car I know of to drive, and as I have said several times, some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I missed that feel of horse and rider (although in truth, I never was that comfortable riding horses), of it responding to my every thought. Feeling the texture of the road through the wheel, noticing that one tire was probably about 2 lbs low from the feel of braking. Felt like I was 30 again.

But, with the top up, getting in for me is very nearly impossible, I just don’t bend my head that way anymore (top down is fine). The knees aren’t a problem anymore, but the car feels “tight” on me, like it never used to. Probably if I stopped wearing cargo pants, that would help. But it just isn’t my car anymore. We are getting ready to sell the Miata, my wife’s knees after a few crashes on her horses, aren’t Miata friendly anymore, and I have just become too used to other things to compromise to get back into the Miata (plus the whole getting in with the top up thing). It’s sad. I will probably never own another car that I know as intimately as the Miata. I will never own a car as reliable or as fun as the Miata. In a way, I would prefer not to get rid of it, just to keep it for those sunny days that the top can stay down. It wouldn’t be a financial trial at all, but that isn’t my way. My cars have to work for a living, not be hangar queens ready for the third coat of wax. Sadly, it’s time to move on.

But oh, the memories….

The Windows Spyware hack

The short version of this is that a unknown vulnerability (what’s known as a Zero Day Exploit) existed in multiple versions of Windows that was exposed in the NSA hack. As soon as Microsoft found out, they patched all of the versions of Windows that were currently under support, but not XP, which ended “Extended Support” in 2014 (12 years after it was introduced), which stopped all updates (including security updates) for everyone except a few large actors (the US Government among others) who couldn’t update their systems (or wouldn’t). Microsoft even put a pop-up in the last update to XP that told users they should upgrade to a newer operating system that appeared on the 8th of each month (although the user could disable this).

The New York Times has an Op Ed from an Assistant Professor at UNC on this. It demonstrates quite a bit of absolute ignorance of how the world works. She says a number of foolish things in this article (it’s worth reading), among which that MS should be supporting XP for free instead of charging for people who would like the privilege of running a 16 year old operating system. At what point should this stop? Should MS be forced to upgrade Win95 for free still (or at all?)?. I still have multiple systems that run 95/98/xp, because I am required to work with equipment that use these operating systems. For the most part, this equipment is airgapped at my customers (it is certainly my strong recommendation to do so), and if it is connected to the internet, well they pretty much get what they asked for.

The author also puts forward some of the standard FUD about Win10 being spyware, and complains (with some reason) about constantly changing interfaces in upgrades. So Microsoft gets (rightly in my view) blamed for the Win10 upgrade fiasco, but yet at the same time is to blame because people didn’t upgrade their systems, or had legacy software/hardware attached to the internet with a broad attack surface available.

The professor then advocates a more governmental regulatory system for operating systems(to keep us safe). If you thought Win10 was insecure now, wait until the USG gets through with it.

It really is one of the more foolish op-eds that has come out of the times in recent history, and demonstrates a propensity for governmental regulation that is astounding to me. The end user has some responsibilities, and if the UK system can’t afford to properly run their IT departments, that’s on the UK government, not MS.

Third party repair nonsense

So in the 30 years or so so that I have been doing this, third party repair houses have (I thought) burned out all of the awe at their stupidity. I am, however, pleased to report that my sense of wonder has not been completely jaded out of me. I get a call today from a third party outfit who starts off with “We have an emergency”. I already know who these people are ( and I am astonished that the 9 lines I have blocked already are not the only lines they call out on), so I am already primed to say “no parts are salable. Then I am astonished…

“We have a RAC 2.2 drive here that we have in on an emergency from the customer and we need a manual for it to start the repair”

So they took the drive in for emergency repair, represented that they could DO that repair, I assume even gave them a price (or a price range) all without not only not knowing how they were going to fix it, but also without even having a MANUAL for the drive (or knowing where they could find one).

Their customer is SOOOOO SCREWWWED.


Life one legged

So, a couple of months ago, I had an Achilles tendon rupture. A couple of weeks ago, the great surgeons at Mayo Clinic, put me back together again, without the aid of all the King’s horses and all the King’s men. I am detailing most of that at a new blog on Achilles tendon injuries, but here I would like to detail what the digital usage side of the injury and recovery is. After the surgery, where they had to harvest the big toe tendon to lace up the gap between the two ends of the Achilles (apologies to Dr Turner for any misconceptions, he was very clear and concise in his explanations, any misinterpretations are my fault, not his) they cast up my right leg below the knee to the toes and told me quite sternly not to put any weight on it. I am spending the non-weight bearing period of the recovery in Rochester, MN, to be near the Mayo, as they need to see me back every 3 weeks or so. I have a very nice house rented from Serenity House Network, a charity that does this sort of medical rental. The house came fully furnished, and with a very good internet connection (15Mbs), so that made life easier.

So, currently, I am getting around longer distances with a knee roller, which looks a bit like a scooter, but has a place to lay your lower leg. Shorter distances (a couple of feet), I am doing with a walker and hopping. Oddly enough, crutches have not been a major mode of propulsion, although I have them here if needed. Probably, if I was getting outside more, the crutches would be of better use.

Consequently, there is very little ability to carry devices with you. Most of my time is spent in a robe, so phones can ride in the pockets, but I have 3 computers scattered around the house (bedroom, living room and breakfast nook), with additional screens on the one in the nook and the living room. As they would prefer the leg to be elevated at all times, finding proper typing positions to work in has been a trick. Thus, I find myself using phones more often, with voice recognition software to do more of my work than in the past. Phones can do much of my work, but for some things, like doing quotes, there is no substitute for an actual computer. My best option at the moment is the breakfast nook, with a Surface Pro 4 in a dock, with an external keyboard (Filco Ninja in bright red for the keyboard snobs among you) held on my lap, with the cast leg up on my knee roller. It is an odd position at best, but I am becoming more limber (at least on one side).

I have found the SP’s ( I have a 3 and 4 here) to be very nearly totally unsuitable for work with the folding keyboard. Also unsuitable, has been the Thinkpad X1 Yoga, which is quite a disappointment. The problem is not in the computers, but in the working positions required. I am still experimenting, finding a good stand for working in bed was a multi-try experiment, and I am still not entirely happy with it.

The iPhone is still my primary phone to get things done with, although all of my calls are going to my Project Fi Nexus. The AT&T signal in the area is poor enough I have had some complaints about the call quality. Therefore, the calls are being forwarded to the Nexus and the iPhone gets the non-call work. That is probably just my familiarity with the iPhone, everything I have taken the time to figure out on the Nexus has worked smashingly. One of the things that I am glad I took the time for is getting the full size keyboard set up, without it much that I am doing (including this blog post) would be terribly hard, if not impossible.

Oddly enough, my Apple watch has been a great help in this time, being able to check on messages and email without going through pulling the phone out of my robe pocket is a lot better that it would seem on the surface. I have learned much more of the ins and outs on it.

At three weeks, I am still learning some of the workarounds, but am getting full days of actual work in. That’s good, because the help here costs money.<G>

Third party repairs (again, and again, and again…)

Got a call at 5pm on a Friday.  Company having problems with a MKD motor rotating backwards on a DKC11.3 drive. Having been here before and being able to distinguish a hawk from a handsaw, I already know the answer to the question I ask. “Is this motor a 3rd party repair?”

If you take a thousand new and a thousand factory repaired MKD motors and attach them one at a time to the same drive, they will all rotate the same direction for forward and backward. It’s one of the things about Indramat Digital drives and motors, the combination of part numbers and parameters always gives you the same results, no matter how many different ones you use.

Third party repairs, are, like the direction the motor will run, a crapshoot. In this case, the motor is running backwards, and the drive is happy with that, so he has TWO things messed up. Then we get to the third thing. He doesn’t have software or a cable. So no backup parameters, no way to change the parameters and no way to look at what the motor is doing.

As my old chemistry professor used to say, “Those who don’t know, don’t know that they don’t know”


It never fails to amaze me when a customer calls without backups. I spend most of my working life amazed, however. Companies who backup their computers religiously, who have the most elegant solutions for document retention, and who even check the desks of people leaving to make sure they retain all their “Stuff”, fail entirely when it comes to having any backup for their equipment programs and parameters.

Trust me, having known good backups are more important than making sure the guy leaving the company doesn’t have a company stapler in his box.

I have seen two companies this year close (yes, the whole company is gone) because they had one machine, and let the program evaporate without having a backup. Obviously, these were companies that were on the edge already, but they were making money, just not enough to be able to spring for a complete control system rebuild, with the accompanying downtime. Usually, by the time they called me, they were already one foot in the grave, so it didn’t take long.

Lest people working for larger companies smile and move on, I will also say I have had Fortune 100 companies take severe downtime hits for the same reason. Add in the cost of having an integrator come in and rework the system, and having to give all the refunds and fines for not shipping product on time, and making those backups seems quite cheap by comparison. If you have known good backups, even if you don’t have anyone who can load them, we can get you back going in a day or so.  If you don’t…


Well, how long would you have been with the company had you made it ‘til Friday?

Well, this is a revolting development….

So, I went to Mayo last week about my Achilles tendon, or my whole leg. I am a big guy, and I have Popeye legs, you need a lot of muscle to be light on your feet at my weight. About 4 months ago, I was in a hurry down the hall of the house, I could hear Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer yelling at horses while trying to unload from the trailer and figured she needed help. Our 19 yr old Siamese dodged right between my legs and kicked her with the left leg right into the back of the right one. There was a instant of pain, and I went one legged. Fortunately, my crutches from my knee replacement were just around the corner, so I was able to get on crutches and get situated (the horse issue did not require my help after all).

The leg swelled up, but the pain was manageable, and with my severe lack of trust of the Drs in the area after my knee, I decided to wait and see how things went. I had already been fighting a problem with a calcified tendon and some inflamation, so I kept on with my stretching and exercising and things eventually got better’ish. After a couple of months though, I noticed that my calf muscle was disappearing, and decided after another week or so (now 3 months or so out from the injury) to call Mayo. To my surprise they had an appointment a week away so I took it. At the same time, however, Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer had a horse fall with her, and went right off over the top, with her helmet grabbing enough mane to flip her onto her back before landing. The upshot of that little contretemps was a fractured L1 and L2 vertebrae, putting her almost entirely on bed rest for a couple of weeks, and with a 3 month timeframe for recovery.  With some assistance for her, I decided not to miss the Mayo appointment, and headed off to Rochester. I had some fear that I had done something major, and wanted to get it looked at.

Damn, I hate being right. The initial X-Ray and examination showed a tear in the tendon, rendering it mostly ineffective. Subsequent MRI showed more of the same thing. So, now scheduled for surgery and planning on staying in Rochester afterwards for care. Unfortunately, this means that I will be doing it without Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer, as she will still be in recovery of her broken back.

This is gonna suck on toast.

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