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New London vs West

Texas. The name gives the feeling of romance and bravado and the call of the west. Just saying the name gives me a chill. It used to be a chill of excitement, now it is the thrill of horror. In the interests of full disclosure, my parents were from Texas and used to say while I might have been born in Oklahoma, I was “Made in Texas by Texans”.

New London, Texas is now a sleepy little town, with little to show that it was the site of a major disaster which changed the way the world worked, and saved countless other lives as a result. On Mar 8, 1937 sometime between 3:05 and 3:20, Mr Butler turned on the electric sander in his shop class. Students had been complaining of headaches, but these warnings to the buildup of natural gas under the building were ignored and flipping the switch on his sander caused the building with 600 students and 40 teachers inside to explode with such force that a two ton concrete block crushed a Chevy more than 2 miles away. Approximately 300 died, making it the worst school disaster in US History and the third largest disaster in US History (behind the 1900 Galveston Hurricane and the 1947 Texas City Disaster)

The immediate aftermath of the explosion and rescue operation is worth reading. It made a huge impression on Walter Cronkite, who despite covering WWII and the Nuremburg Trials said “nothing ever equaled it”.  However, what I would like to turn your attention to is the actions of the Texas State Legislature. Within weeks, as a result of the blast, the Legislature required that all natural gas in the state would have mercaptans in it (the substance that gives natural gas it’s distinctive smell, it it’s natural form it’s odorless). This action was soon followed by the rest of the US and the World and now it is standard to treat natural gas this way so there is no question of a leak.

Texas led, and the World followed.

On April 17, 2013 at 7:50pm, the West Fertilizer Company storage exploded, killing 15 and injuring 160-200 people and damaging or destroying over 150 buildings. Only the fact that the nearby school was not occupied kept the count from going higher.

The result of the explosion? The Texas Legislature has done very little besides rearrange the regulatory agencies responsible, something akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The politicos trot out the usual suspects as to why a company with 4,500 tons of Ammonium Nitrate storage in the center of a major Texas town still has that storage there. “Landowner Rights” to do whatever they want.

So, how do you fix this? There are many proposals, but I back a very simple, market based one. Require the companies with the storage to carry enough insurance to cover the buildings and people inside the blast radius. The West explosion caused over 100 million dollars in property damage and the plant had a 1 million dollar liability policy. A 100 million dollar policy probably would have caused the plant to move further into the country, or would have caused an insurance company loss consultant to visit, or would have required a sprinkler system (or all of the above). A liability policy covering the entire city of Corsicana, TX, if not prohibitively expensive, would move the company out of town at least.

Somehow, I would expect more in 80 years of progress from the Texas Statehouse.

I would be wrong.

Of phones and backups, and the perils therein

So one of the issues I have with my business is that I must stay in touch via phone and the internet. I have landed in Calico Rock, Arkansas(pop 991) and done 50k worth of business while siting in the (relative) coolness of the shade under the wing while online via aircard and talking on my cell phone. So, phone and internet, golden, but no phone or no internet, very very bad. I have, for years, had my company accounts with AT&T, and carry a primary and a backup AT&T phone. As an emergency backup and secondary wifi hotspot (my primary internet connection in the field is an AT&T aircard) I picked up a line through Verizon. Using this setup, I figured I had a backup AT&T phone if the primary went south, and both a backup phone and internet connection if everything on AT&T went down.

Ignorance is bliss….

So while traveling, I had some problems getting my phone to forward. It appeared initially to be a problem with my iPhone (although I later found that it was a problem with AT&T), so I went by the AT&T store to swap sim cards between my iPhone and my Nexus 6p. They very kindly did so, without reprovisioning the accounts to account for the phone changes. So now BOTH phones are messed up, and I can’t forward to the Verizon phone, because phone forwarding is messed up on both as well. Multiple calls to AT&T latter, and with most of the day lost, the phone were finally (mostly) unscrewed. But, this pointed up a hole in my planning, which was with both of my physical business lines on AT&T, the phone company itself was a single point of failure. I should note that I have several different lines I use for business 2 “real” lines and a couple of Google Voice lines, all forwarded into my primary phone. With call forwarding down, I could have called AT&T and had both phones forwarded to my Verizon line (which is not used as a business line), but then I wouldn’t have been able to get the phones fixed. So after loosing more than a few $$$ on that day, I have come up with a new plan. I have been watching Paul Thurrott’s experiments with Google’s Project fi, and have decided to put the Nexus 6p onto a Project fi account. That will give me hotspotting and a phone line through Fi, to back up the AT&T line, and may cause me to eliminate my Verizon line entirely. With one business line coming in through AT&T and one through Project Fi, I will be able to loose one (and forward if able) to a completely different network (and still troubleshoot the down one). If I cannot forward, I can still get half of my calls (or more, as I can change the forwarding on the Google Voice lines).

As with many things in life, you think you have a solution going until such time as it actually gets tested and you find out notsomuch. I have gone through several data backup plans, and have one now that works pretty well, but I have lost data more than once when my “Foolproof” plan was thwarted by someone making better fools. Phones are apparently the same way. One of the things I love about the 21st century is that with phones or computers, using cloud services, you can now loose a unit, walk into a store and buy a new one and in under 2 hours be back in business (don’t ask how I know that). The trick now is choosing the proper plans and providers, so that you have no single point of failure. That is where I went off the rails in the past and will do better now.

I hope…

 

Those who don’t know….and the Internet

A chemistry professor of mine used to offer up a fount of truisms and sayings, one of which that stuck with me was “Those who don’t know, don’t know that they don’t know, whereas those that know, know that they don’t know”.  As I have gotten older, I continue to relearn how true this is, both with myself, and with other people.

I live in a rural area, which has several advantages. My nearest neighbor is about half a mile away, and the next nearest is a lot further than that. It isn’t quite as remote as living in Kansas (2.5 and 5 miles, respectively) but it is nicer here without having to drive 25 miles for a average steak. One of the things that is not nice is internet access. Over the course of the years I have used a separate phone line, satellite internet, DSL, Multiple DSL with a load balancing modem, Verizon HomeFusion (which was a joke) and finally my own wireless tower relay to bring 50Mb internet to my home office. I would not have said that “I didn’t know”, but getting significantly faster internet has opened up a new world. My Surface Pro 4 was misbehaving and so I tried blowing away the installation and reinstalling Win10 from scratch. So far, no further misbehavior, but it would have only have been possible with this sort of connection. My desktop machine is on Win10 Insider (Technical Preview), and instead of taking all night, this now updates in a matter of minutes. Ditto for flight updates for avionics. Even writing this blog is now much easier. Between me and Mrs Dr Thinking Engineer, our internet usage has tripled in a couple of months, and is still going up.

This was neither easy, or inexpensive. The cost per month is more than my house payment, and if I was not running an internet based business, I couldn’t justify it at all (justification is still a bit shaky, but there you go).  On the other hand, I have started several new business ventures just on the strength of having this sort of connection. It makes me wonder why cities aren’t doing more about this. The mayor of the local municipality will spend time, effort and money on some quixotic wind farm that will generate “Millions of Dollars” without ever explaining how, and yet the one thing that he could do relatively simply to generate new business and tax income is something he hasn’t even thought of, put in a high speed internet system in town. It’s a relatively small town, it is entirely possible that you could hit 90% of it using wifi off the same tower I am using. If that gets 900 people, and 10% of them have an idea for a business and 2% of those make it, then that is 18 business and money coming into town that wasn’t there before. For the rest of the town, quality of life goes up, and their children have a leg up on the future.

It’s a lot of money. But it is already worth it, and we have had it a very short period of time.

The University of Football at Arkansas

Mrs Doctor ThinkingEngineer has a PhD of Chemical Engineering from the University of Arkansas. It is a shining achievement, a jewel in her crown that she was able to go back 20 years after a BS in Biology and get a PhD in a very nearly unrelated field. Because of the requirements of the time (they have since changed), she had to take very nearly every undergraduate engineering course before she started the graduate work. We figured at one time that she needed 6 additional hours (all in Freshman courses) to get a BSChE to go with the MSChE and the PhD ChE. My admiration for her in this achievement knows no bounds. There is no way I could have done what she did.

The “from the University of Arkansas” is a bit more problematic. The UofA is a land grant school, and as such, I have certain expectations of them. I should say that I graduated from a land grant school (along with Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer), the University of Missouri at Columbia. The UofA makes Columbia look like Harvard. The single most important thing with the UofA is Athletics, Football and Basketball. Basketball has taken second seat lately, while neither of the teams is great, Football makes money even when it isn’t doing well. What I expect of a land grant school is that the tuition and fees are reasonable, that they have relatively small classes and the labs are stocked with equipment that works.

What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is Thermodynamics classes with over 80 students in them taught by a first time graduate student instructor. What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is an Engineering School that just BARELY scrapped by its ABET accreditation, so close that the seniors put the near failure of the school into their senior skit that year. What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is a Chemical Engineering Department without a permanent Dean, for YEARS, because none of the candidates who were offered the job would accept. What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is a Chemical Engineering Department that isn’t allowed to replace retiring professors, despite the fact enrollment is high and tuition is at an all time high. Where is all that money going??? What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is laboratories that are stocked with broken equipment. I had to get Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer numerous pieces of Lab Equipment, simply because waiting for the school to replace the equipment would have cost her additional YEARS of time.  Yet the fees (in addition to the tuition) at the University of Football at Arkansas just keep going up.

Having graduate Engineering programs should enhance the entire state of Arkansas. However, when the Engineering programs are being starved of money, when they lag behind on the most basic quantifiable areas, is it no wonder that the graduates tend to move out of state instead of staying to help Arkansas? What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is very little help with post doctoral work, or with help starting a business. The Genesis Center, the new company incubator is currently merely providing state sponsored space to several companies that no longer fit the term “startup”. If you can’t afford your own space after 3 years, you need to get out (or at least be forced to show an upward trajectory). If you get bought out by a larger firm, you should have 30 days to pack your bags.

What you get at the University of Football at Arkansas is a 120M bond issue for a nearly 200M project to put 3000 more seats in a stadium that is rarely sold out. Those are 3000 “high value seats”, that the university is spending more money on for use about 14 times a year than they do on students. Former Senator Pryor made a blazing statement against the expansion, as did five former members of the Board of Trustees (including Springdale’s own John H Tyson). I salute these men of courage and principle, coming out against a football proposal in Arkansas is like standing in front of a Tidal Wave with a 3″ umbrella out of a beach drink. People say that it will be paid back by Athletic Funds, but they always say that, yet the fees keep going up. If the Athletic Department is such a moneymaking proposition, why do they have a budget from the University? Is the best thing that we can say about the University of Arkansas is “Thank God for Mississippi”?

I don’t know what the solution is. Obviously, college athletics rules the roost (or hog pen as the case may be). What I do know is that the University of Arkansas has lost sight of it’s mission. What I do know is that to get through the PhD program, we had to contribute much more than I expected to get the lab space up to a level where the work (that was expected for graduation) could be performed. What I do know is that I recommend to anyone who can afford it to go to a better Engineering School than the UofA. But, Mrs Dr ThinkingEngineer has her degree. While we might have some additional dealings with the University, there is one group that can stop with their mailings.

It will be a cold day in HELL when I donate any more money to the University of Football at Arkansas.

The importance of not under performing.

There are a few things that engineers mostly agree on. The three laws of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy and gravity. They also agree that Lt Cmdr Montgomery Scott pretty much ruined engineers for life on Star Trek, as he would report to Kirk that it would take weeks to repair the Enterprise, and then when the Captain shouted “You have 20 minutes!”, he would simply go “Okay” and manage to save the day. I cannot tell you how many plant managers I have met that have felt that raising the volume of an unreasonable demand would result in Scotty’s “Okay” and they could go back to the corner office and dream of green women adoringly staring up at them in various stages of undress. Informing them that this wasn’t the Enterprise, I am not Scottish, and they sure as hell weren’t Capt Kirk did not seem to help matters any.  It would be finished when it was finished and while I could probably tell them a probable date, it would depend on other people doing their job too, people who I had no control over. So there was always some margin of error in the estimate, and I would typically pad the estimate with 10% for unexpected delays and 10% more for unexpected, unexpected, delays. Usually this came out about perfect, or gave me a bit of room to be a hero.

I have been dealing with a aircraft detail and paint touchup crew lately. They are based on my field and I have been having them do a clean and polish of the plane for about a year. I then had them do a bit of paint touchup, and some sort of paint coating for protection. The results weren’t bad, but they missed the delivery date by a week, without telling me. This caused me to miss a flight after heading up to the airport. Many apologies and free cleanings later, I decided to give them another go with carpet and some interior work, along with doing some paint work on an area that they hadn’t had access to the first time. I impressed on them that I would need the plane back when they said it would be done. Once again, they missed the date. When it got to the revised time that it was supposed to be done, they brought it over at the end of the day. Like with shipping, getting a package at 5pm doesn’t qualify as getting it “that day”.  Having the airplane show up at 5-6pm in the hangar doesn’t do much unless I am willing to do a test flight at night. So, got the airplane back on a Monday, and then it rained all week. Friday, my instrument instructor came up with his airplane (or his employer’s aircraft) and we talked about going up while the aircraft was being worked on. Decided not to as 1) ceilings were persisting in staying quite low, and 2) my plane hadn’t been flown after getting it back, and breaking into 400′ ceilings as you discover you have some sort of airframe or instrumentation issue caused by the work is not often survivable. Being cautious (and still alive) pilots, we decided to wait for a day either better in conditions or (more likely) after I had flown the aircraft in visual conditions. Today was a perfect day, little wind, few clouds. I pulled the plane out after a thorough preflight, and got in to start boring holes in the sky as a Jr Aviator, only to find the pilot’s seat stuck at the full aft position.

I don’t think they are going to get a recommendation from me….

 

 

Engineers as managers, the worst of all possible worlds?

My father spent 25 years in Industrial Relations, back when it meant negotiating with unions for contracts that spanned many plants across the country. One benefit of this for me growing up was that I got a chance to see how the business world worked. Another was that I got to meet a whole passel of pilots, astronauts and assorted engineers as they came through on business tours. Dad figured out pretty early that instead of taking them out to dinner at a nice restaurant (on a trip undoubtedly full of nice restaurants), he would offer them the choice of coming home with him to a home cooked meal (with me in attendance). It was, a great way to grow up during the space program, and one of the many ways that my father was truly the best father a boy could ever have.

Another interesting part of growing up was that I continually heard how horrible engineers were as managers. The other side of it was that professional managers could rarely get engineers all headed in the same direction (the phrase “Herding cats” comes to mind), because they were not really respected by a group of people where your standing was based on your technical and project completion skills. When my choice of careers became obvious to me (in the second grade, after my first Tom Swift book), I resolved to do better than my average compatriot.

I succeeded, but to a great extent because it was a pretty low bar. My average compatriot had little or no idea how to run a crew, shop or plant. It wasn’t part of their schooling, and honestly, most engineers are a bit introverted to start with. I, at least, had the benefit of 20 years of my father’s work environment. Even then, I found working with folks who were a lot older, and with a lot more experience, rough. Most of those problems went away as I got older, but as far as mentors went, most of my superiors were worse at managing than I was, in some cases, horribly worse.

The final straw came when at the staff level, I was tapped as a plant manager. I wanted to be a plant manager about as much as I wanted open heart surgery without anesthetic, so I took that as a sign from the universe as it was time to get out of the business world and into running my own company.

My point is, most engineers don’t like the idea of being managers, don’t want to be managers (no matter what the pay) and will, therefore do a lousy job at it. The ones who do well at it, often are sneered at by their compatriots as folks who couldn’t make it as an actual engineer. Finding an engineer who can manage well, and has the respect of his peers is like the guy with the beard and the lantern looking for an honest man. Most companies make do with what they find and wonder why things blow up after awhile. I don’t know all the answers, but I do know if I had a pretty good engineer who could also manage, it would be worth a bit of training. Send him to some week long classes on management theory and such. It’s a situation where just trying to hire the right candidate probably isn’t going to help, you need to build him on your own. You will probably loose him after the training (or within a few years) because HR will not keep up on salary, but that is a whole ‘nuther issue…

“Pilot’s watches” and the modern world

One of my pet peeves (I have many) are ads for multi-10s of thousands of dollar watches that seem to indicate they are a requirement for flying high performance aircraft. They typically show someone in a full pressure suit or at least G-suit in a high performance cockpit with the sky outside, and indicate that this watch is how you get there. Or an antique fighter or racer with the same message. These ads have about as much truth to them as your average beer commercial.

Allow me to interject some reality into this situation. My aircraft has 6 video displays in the cockpit, all of which can display the time from the GPS constellation down to a level where they correct for the Time Dilation effect from the speed of the satellite in orbit. Moreover, from the time of my first GPS (which was about the time I started flying, they became more common about the time I got my license), I have never looked at the clock in the aircraft again. The GPS tells me where I am at, when I will get to my destination and what time it will be when I get there (local and Zulu). All without removing my glove (a complex maneuver in a G-suit) while trying not to crash or rip the wings off the plane in the process.

Chronograph watches? Please. I don’t carry a buggy whip when I fly either…

Safety Tech warnings in Indradrive using Safety Technology

With the Indradrive product, you get a whole new range of error reporting (as evidenced by the 5 digit error codes, one more than the earlier Diax04 product). Some of these errors are the same (F8022 is the same as F822 in Diax04 and 22 in Diax02, it’s always the feedback cable), some of these errors are more granular than before. Sometimes there is a whole new class of error.  Safety warnings are part of this new class. E3xxx series errors have to do with Safety Technology add-ons to the drives, options that allow the use of more positive safety control. Some of these errors show that there is a problem in the external safety wiring (E3100 is an example of this) or a problem in the safety hardware itself. These errors have to be approached with some caution, as this falls into the same class of problems as an Estop failure, something that must be resolved properly for the safe operation of the machine.

Proper repair of these units is also critical. Compare the cost of an injury with the cost savings from using a 3rd party repair shop, the choice will be clear.

Third party repairs again

So after the dust has settled a bit on a customer, let me tell you about their problems, relating to improper installation of a regenerative power supply and a third party repair of a motor. Get a call a few months ago for a regenerative style power supply. Talk to the customer a bit and they had a raft of F860 faults before the power supply finally gave up. F860 is a short, either in the drive, the motor power cable or the motor. They were worried about just putting in a power supply, and I was too, but they meggered out the motor and cable and everything looked ok. Power supply in and they started running just fine. For a month. Then the drive blows. At this point I hear the story of the third party repair of the motor, but they will not hear of sending the motor out to have it checked as it was done by a local shop that “they have good luck with”. So, we send them a drive. It will not start as it is getting a F860 constantly. We send them new cables, and tell them they should get the motor checked again. New cables are installed, they run about a day and then blow out the drive and power supply. So we send everything in for repair and eval, including the motor. For the motor, freshly “Repaired” we get…

 

– Physical condition: Fair condition, Output shaft has light grooved damage.
– Pre-repair assessment: Thermo check is within Bosch Rexroth specification, HiPot test passed,
Winding test passed, EMK test passed, brake test failed.
– Operational Test: Failed, Encoder give out 89 fault and 22 fault.
– Disassembled the motor for visual inspection and found that Front beairng is severely worn out,
Bearing cup race is worn, Encoder is severely worn out and contaminated with dust. Rear bearing
and brake are worn out. Brake is overheated. Brake resistor is missing. The cooling fan has been
modified, Instead of cooling fan blowing the cool air to the motor, it instead it is pulling the air out.

So the “repaired” motor needed – Replaced: Front and Rear bearings, Brake, Front flange, End shield, Encoder, Supporting disc, Shim, Rotary shaft lip, Shim ring, O-Rings, Brake pins, Brake
connector and resistor, Cooling fan.

The interesting thing is that this didn’t even fix the problem. We had one more iteration to go before noticing that this motor was of a date code that had extended windings which required a different end plate. That was listed per serial number and was only something the manufacturer of the motor would have had (along with the special extended plate).

End result, customer down 4 weeks because of a badly repaired motor. The money they saved on the first repair was pointless, as it had to come back in for repair.

The iPhone6s+ and battery life

So after a couple of weeks of use of the 6s as a business phone, I came to an inescapable conclusion. The battery just wasn’t up to par for a business phone. I was stomping this phone flat every day, and my headset still had power when the phone battery went into the red. Not a problem I want to have. So, I went to the iPhone6s+, giving the 6s as a long needed but avoided upgrade to Mrs Dr Thinking Engineer. The 6s+ is about the size of my Lumia 1520, so it wasn’t like the form factor was alien to me. Switching to the larger iPhone points out a couple of issues with iOS.

  1. It doesn’t scale very well.  If you look at a 6s and a 6s+ side by side, you will notice the icons are the same size, and the same number of rows, but more space between the icons. Unless you are getting a bigger phone for the ability to see more of your background pic, this is useless.
  2. For the bigger size, the battery isn’t THAT much bigger. Some of the issue is the screen, which always is the biggest power user on the phone. Some of it is just the phone battery itself. I do have to keep a backup battery around using this, something to plug into in order to get a midday boost.

On the good side, Siri is almost as good as Cortana on her good days and unlike Cortana, actually works most of the time. This points out the other thing about all of the current crop of smartphones. With a good headset, the system will allow you to do most things without actually pulling the phone out of your pocket. Add a watch (I have used both the Microsoft Band and the Apple Watch) and you can nearly go all day without looking at the phone itself, depending on your usage profile.

As with all iOS devices, you now get the best Microsoft experience on the iPhone. All of the Office programs run well, the new Outlook is a better mail client than the native one and the more esoteric programs are ONLY available on iOS.  It’s odd, but I guess you go where the money is, and with Win10 Mobile still being a hot mess at best, this is where the users are.

The 6s+ isn’t perfect, but it is, at least for the moment, the best phone I have found out of the current crop of competitors. The 950xl is a disaster, and Android is still not my cup of tea. On the other hand, I never thought I would be using an iPhone for business either.

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