Intel's Ronler Acres Plant

Silicon Forest

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Contracting

The Contractor
Contracting and contractors are a favorite topic amongst the lunch bunch. There are two facets to it. One is working as a contractor as an alternative to working at a steady job as an employee. The other is hiring contractors to get things done around the house.

Contracting instead of being an employee can be financially rewarding. Employers are often willing to pay a premium to get skilled help on a temporary basis. On the other hand, there is very little security with contract employment. If things go bad for the business, you are going to be the first to get let go. The employer may fail to pay you. Of course there is not that much security with regular employers these days.

Contracting is likely to be a short term arrangement, meaning you are going to be looking for another gig in short order. I was talking to a couple of remodeling contractors at my house one day, and one of them mentioned that he really had to devote 20% of his time to looking for new work. His jobs lasted no more than two or three days. He could have a fistful of job orders in his hand one week, but if he didn't keep looking, in a couple of weeks he would be out of work completely. This is really bad if you have a crew working for you. No work and they are liable to run off and start working for someone else.

Half of contracting is simply doing what you promised to do, like show up on time. When we were looking for contractors to work on our basement, we had one guy come out who was highly recommended, but he could not deliver his estimate on the appointed day. In fact he was like a week late. If he cannot deliver his estimate in a timely manner, what is going to happen when it is time to get the actual work done? He may have been a better choice, but screwing up this apparently simple matter really put us off.

Money can sometimes be a secondary consideration. When we were trying to get a small attic finished, we had several guys come look at it, but only one even gave us a bid. It was a small complicated job, but we wanted it done. He charged what I considered reasonable, but some people might have blanched.

Rebuilding the Indian by Fred Haefele
I remember reading a book (picture) about a guy rebuilding an old Indian motorcycle. He worked as a tree trimmer in a small town somewhere in Wyoming or Montana or someplace like that. He told one story about how he went to look at one job and for some reason he was not in the mood to do the work, so he doubled his bid, hoping the guy would find someone else. No such luck, he was hired anyway, but the money made it worthwhile.

Sometimes it does go the other way. I try and get three bids for any work I want to get done. I have had tree trimmers come out a couple of times and their bids are all over the map. One guy did want more than three times what the guy I hired wanted.

On the other side of coin, all of my experience in working as a contractor comes from the high tech arena, where giant corporations hire people who supposedly have the skills necessary for the development of complex electronic whoser-whats-its. These contracts tend to be longer term, measured in months if not years, though the IRS has cracked down on what were essentially permanent contract employees. This business goes through boom and bust cycles. In the boom times being a warm body can qualify you for a gig. When the bust happens, nobody has a job. In this line of work, you need to make hay while the sun shines, and sock it away because the bust is coming and you are going to need that hay.

I remember when it looked like the boom was going to go on forever, and then one day the bottom just fell out. Stock prices dived, projects were canceled, people laid off. I am not quite sure where we are now with high tech. The war in Iraq has really siphoned a lot of money (hundreds of billions) from the American economy. I wonder where it went, I mean it went somewhere. Where did it all go?

Many contracting jobs go through agencies, and most of those agencies are pretty opaque. They keep their rates confidential, that is both the rate they pay to the person who does the work and rate they collect from the employer who hires them. By keeping everyone in the dark they hope to maximize their profit margin. I suspect that most (opaque) contracting agencies pay the worker bee about 50% of what they charge the employer, and the person who actually handles the deal may get half of that, or 25%, which leaves 25% for the agency.

Of course there are some unscrupulous agencies that will try to pay people as little as 15 or 20% of what they are charging the employer, meaning the worker is getting $20 an hour for a job they are charging the employer $100 or even $125 an hour.

Now as a worker, I would have trouble with getting only 15 or 20 percent of the deal, but with these confidential arrangements, I will never know. 50% I can live with. 60% would be better, but let's not put the cart before the horse.

Agents have a skill set I do not, so if they can keep me employed and pay me enough, I don't have a problem with them making a ton of money for doing what is apparently nothing. Because it is not nothing. You have to keep up a relentlessly positive attitude and present it to people continuously for the off chance of getting a reward. The rewards can seem to be based entirely on luck, so you would have to be a bit of a gambler. Contracts may be few and far between. You many only land one or two contracts a year. I could not do that.

About The Lead Photo

This was one of the first pictures to pop up when I Googled images of contractors and I just couldn't resist using it. I saw the movie and it was pretty good. There was another movie with a similar premise, if not a similar title, out at the same time, starring Morgan Freeman. Another example of the twin movie thing. Snipes was recently convicted of tax evasion or some such, but you can read about that anywhere. Lena Headey is the girl in the background. She also played the Queen in 300.

Update December 2016 replaced missing picture, fixed broken link.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cadillac Dream #2

I am at some kind of public gathering place and it's time to go. A friend of mine and I are moving to the right across the edge of some open area, inside or outside I'm not sure. The place seems to be emptying out. We are a little concerned that we won't be able to spot the rest of our group because there are a bunch of people here. It looks like about 50, but it is not a problem, we spot the rest of our group right away.

We make a left turn on a walkway of some sort (sidewalk across a lawn, colored run in the carpet, painted area on the floor? It's all slipping away ... ). We come to another intersection where we have to make another left turn, but we miss it. We go right by, like in a cartoon or a slapstick movie, and have to struggle to get back to the turn off. But we make it before the following horde descends on us. Now it's straight shot into the little building. There are two or three steps at the entrance. We go down a short hall to the front lobby, which is kind of like an old, small movie theatre. The walls are painted a solid green. That is solid as in solid, not wimpy or weird. There are three or four employee's there and one scoots over to unlock the front door. I have to stop, but the door is open by the time my friend gets there and we run outside.

The rest of our gang has just pulled up in an old, whitish Cadillac. The two doors on the passenger side open and one person gets out from each door. Everyone is wearing colorful clothes, like jockey silks. I pile in the front with two other people and the rest pile in the back. There are seven of us all told.

The guy behind the wheel is big and fat. He takes off driving across something like a construction site or a junk pile. We are bouncing over stuff and banging into the dirt. The car is really old and beat so if it gets destroyed it's no big loss.

Now we are on the road and we are going really fast. We go through a big corner at high speed. I lean my head to the right and hang on to keep from sliding across the seat. The driver blows through a stop sign. It doesn't worry me too much because visibility is good in all directions and he wouldn't do that if he saw another car around. Now we are approaching a Chevrolet dealership. I tell the driver it's an anomaly, it's the only one here by this section of Northbound freeway. All the other dealerships are gathered together over on another street. We are in Austin, Texas.

We blow through a red light. This is a little more concerning but we are approaching a residential district. There are a bunch of upscale three story condos, so I figure he has to slow down now. The condos are burnt orange. He goes by one car. Now we see a motorcycle approaching from the other direction and heading straight for us because we are on the wrong side of the road. Someone is saying, or thinking "don't do this", hoping that something will happen (not quite sure just what), but nothing does, and we end up with a motorcycle stuck to the grill. The driver is a girl. Her boyfriend shows up (I don't know where he came from, we are still going pretty fast) and takes over the controls. The motorcycle is still stuck nose to nose with our Caddy. The guy on the bike conducts some eyeball negotiations with the driver. Now I get a view from the bikers viewpoint and I see our driver put away his revolver, so they have evidently reached some agreement.

P.S. I know the car in the picture isn't a Cadillac, but it has the closest look that I could find.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Google & YouTube

yet another google-based timesuck
I have been having trouble playing some videos on my computer. The trouble comes in two flavors. One is the little glitches in playback: a moments' hesitation when the playback catches up with the download. If the download speed were slower than the playback speed, that would be one thing, but it's not. Sometimes if I click on pause the entire rest of the video will load in couple of seconds and I can continue the playback without running into anymore of those annoying little hesitations. Sometimes that does not work. I click on pause, and everything stops, the video pauses and the download also pauses. I click play and then every few seconds there is another glitch. Stupid computers.

The other problem shows up when a video is about halfway done and then it starts spazzing out. The red play line keeps jumping to the end and then back to the middle and playback stops. Pausing accomplishes nothing. No more is loaded, and no more is played. The red line does stop jumping around though.

I wrote to Google and complained about this and the next day the video that was embedded in my blog started working correctly. No message from Google, so there is no telling whether they actually fixed something, or whether it was just a fluke. The weird part is that even though the video in my blog would not play, the same video would play on the YouTube website. I think we may have to outlaw porn just so the internet is not totally clogged.

I got the graph from another website. It saved me having to muck about with mspaint to make my own, but it is not as big as the original. Click on the caption to see the original blog. You can generate your own on http://www.google.com/trends

Update December 2016 replaced missing graph.

Gun Nuts

I have been poking around on the internet, reading some blogs. Most of the ones I read are by right wing gun nuts. I am not quite sure why that is. I believe in the 2nd amendment, but I don't know that I support it more than any of the others. Some of the blogs I run across are rabid and shrill. They tend to put me off. Some of them also cover other aspects of life besides guns and ammo, and some of them are well written and thoughtful. The gun nuts tend to stick together.

They post links to each others blogs, so by just following these links, I am not going to stray far from gun nut territory. But I look at a lot of other web pages besides the gun nut pages, but I haven't found too many blogs that I like that are not written by gun nuts. So I am beginning to suspect that either I am more of a gun nut than I think, or there is something about the way their minds work that attracts me.

As for the 2nd amendment, I think we were screwed when the first firearms law was passed back in 1936, the one that required machineguns to be registered.

One of the slogans that was being passed around not too long ago was "anyone who is willing to give up a little freedom for a little more security deserves neither freedom nor security". Well, that's a very nice slogan, but we all gave up a whole lot of freedom for a little security a long time ago. The last time there was complete freedom on this continent (North America) was several hundred years ago, before the white man showed up with his books and his laws.

There are several facets to the weapons issue. On the personal level there is self defense. There are people who will try to take advantage or dominate other people, and resisting them sometimes comes down to physical force. A handgun can be a great equalizer in situations like this.

Then there is the fear of a police state where the police can come and take anyone away at any time without having to answer to anyone but their lord and master. This is what happened in Germany before and during WWII. I believe most people would agree that this was a bad thing, and if the Jews had had weapons they may not have been slaughtered.

Then there is civil war. This country had one, and by all accounts it was a really bad thing. Bloodiest war this country has ever fought.

Finally there is war with other countries. The 20th century was really bad for this. The revolutionary war was fought with militias raised by the individual states. The U.S. fought WWII with a great national army. The Federal government ran the entire show, the states had little to say about it. I can understand this. In order to mobilise a large enough force to counter the Axis powers in a reasonable amount time, things had to be done quickly. Leaving it up to the individual states to decide what, if anything, should be done, could have taken years, and our world would likely be very different today.

So, just what kind of rights do we want?

I am in favor of individuals owning all of the weapons and military equipment. I don't think the federal government should own anything. If we are going to fight foreign wars, the federal government needs an agreement with each of the individual states as to how much and what kind of a militia they are willing to provide. A small state (population-wise) like Oregon might be required to provide a thousand infantry men, a squad of tanks and maybe a couple of fighter aircraft along with all the support and transportation they would need. I doubt an idea like this will ever make any progress. There are too many states to reach any kind of agreement on doing anything in any kind of timely manner.

What do you do about the jack-booted thugs of a police state? Some people think we are living in a police state now. We have the largest percentage of people locked up in jail of any country in the world. Rumor has it that most of those people are in jail for drug offenses. Look it here, dope dealers, if you don't want to go to jail, you need to do two things: 1) keep a low profile, which can be hard to do if you are stoned all the time, and 2) maintain your standing with the local "family". They are only ones who can protect you. It's a social thing.

On the other hand, law enforcement is getting more money and more firepower and more authority. When are we going to say enough is enough? We may have reached that tipping point already with President Bush. This might be contributing to his extremely low approval ratings.

But what if the tide does not turn? When are you within your rights to fight back against the police? And what would be the most effective way to do that? Waiting till the SWAT team is knocking on your door is probably not a good idea. Maybe being part of an organized militia is your only real defense.

Update December 2016 replaced missing picture.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cowboys & Indians

Cowboy [3]: one having qualities (as recklessness, aggressiveness, or independence) popularly associated with cowboys.

I am looking for a job. I got a phone message last week that was darn near incomprehensible. It probably isn't anything important, but there is a slim chance that it could be, so I thought I better try and unscramble it. After playing it back three or four times I was finally able to decipher the phone number. When I called, it turned out to be a head-hunting company. I told them about the message and they said "that was probably Bill, let me get him for you". Bill. Right. Bill gets on the phone and in his thickly accented English tells me that the position that he had for me has been filled. Oh, really? Well, okay, fine. It wasn't anything important after all.

Still, it left me a little puzzled. Why would a head hunting company hire someone whose English is so bad? And how did a position get filled in the four or five hours between when Bill called me and when I called back? Well head hunting is entirely a commission business, and maybe Bill is the only guy they could find who was willing to give it a go. And the position could have been filled in between the two phone calls. It's not likely, these positions are often open for months before the powers that be finally make up their minds to hire someone. It's not likely, but it's possible. Maybe Bill got in on the tail end of the deal and didn't know they were close to filling it. Or maybe he tried to talk to the customer and the customer got fed up trying to understand Bill and canceled the order. Who knows?

I was talking to Jack at lunch today about this odd little episode and we came up with a couple of pretty good conspiracy theories. I am pretty sure Bill's accent is Indian, so I am thinking Everest hired him because he would be better able to communicate with all the Indians who are over here looking for work. (These are Indians from the Indian subcontinent, South of the Himalaya mountains in Asia, not the Native American Indians). It wouldn't be because he could speak the same Indian language, given that there are a gazillion different languages in India, but because he speaks the same flavor of English that they all do. What sounds heavily accented to me may sound perfectly normal to most Indians.

Jack's theory is that they were trying to get work permits (H1B cards) for Indians. They put Bill on the phone and give him a list of a couple hundred people to call. No one calls back because they cannot understand him, so the employer can say that they tried to find someone, we hired an agency and they called hundreds of people and could not find anyone, so Immigration Service will give them an H1B card for their favorite Indian.

Now that I think about it, I can make it sound even worse. They are using Bill to locate Indians. Only Indians would be able to understand Bill well enough to decipher the message and call back. The agency wants Indians because they can pay them $20 an hour for the job that they are charging the employer $100 an hour for, which means they are making three thousand dollars a week off each person they manage to place.

While I am at it, let me just say that some contracting companies have gotten grief from mother Intel because they were paying the workers too large a percentage of the pay that Intel was shelling out.

Update December 2016 replaced missing picture.

Opinion Central

Opinion Central
So I am looking through "The Week" news magazine this morning, and I find a blurb about motorcycle deaths that I don't like, so I pull up their web page to complain and I get a pop-up asking me to take a survey. I've got a couple of minutes to kill and I am always curious as to just what angle these survey people are on, so I take their poll. They want to know about the military, and once you get to the heart of the survey, which is only a few questions in, all of their questions involved picking one of the four main U.S. military forces: Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines. No Coast Guard, no none-of-the-above or all-of-the-above, and no skipping the question. You have to pick one of the four to get to the next question. What's worse, is I basically have no opinion on any of the matters they wanted me to consider. For example: "What is the most technologically advanced service?" or something like that. I have no idea, and I don't really care. Or which service would you recommend to a young person? Can't say as I would recommend one. So I just picked the first one on the list. To give them a smidgen of credit, they did rotate the selection, so "Army" did not come up first every time. So what was this all about?

All I can think is that it was a ploy to get young people to think about the military, and to think of it as their only option.

Update December 2016 replaced missing picture.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday - Trip to Eugene

Dreams

I woke my son John up around 20 till eight this morning. He finally comes downstairs around eight. He tells me he had three dreams since I first woke him up 20 minutes ago but it had seemed like two hours to him.

I also had a dream this morning. I had colorfully printed sheet of paper about the size of a place mat. It seemed to have some ads for cars on it. It had a thin strip of plastic stuck to the back about eight inches long, and a half of an inch wide, and one sixteenth of an inch thick. There were several cars listed in the ad. I copied one of the car names into a blank on the sheet and then pressed a spot over the plastic strip. The plastic strip was a cell phone, which made a call, got the information about the specified car, and then displayed it on this same sheet of paper.

I was astounded that the strip was a cell phone that worked. I tried to tell my wife about it. She was sitting at a table talking to two middle aged women. At first she brushed me off as she is wont to do when I start talking technical stuff, and besides I was interrupting her conversation. I persisted and she relented and listened to my story.

Serendipity

I drove to Eugene this morning. I took my daughter Kathryn and her friend Emily to "Duck Days" at the University of Oregon. The girls are trying to make up their minds what school they want to attend next fall. Right now it seems to be between the University of Washington in Seattle and U of O in Eugene.

The University had sent us a parking pass that was supposedly good for lot 34, but when we got there the lot was completely full. I stopped at a gate house and explained our dilemma. The man there gave us a map and pointed out where there were some long term parking meters where we might be able to find a spot. I asked the girls for ten to twenty quarters and Kathryn gave me a handfull. I dropped the girls at the union and drove to the recommended spot. There were a whole bunch of spaces there and the meters were good for five hours. It was 11 AM, so five hours would take us to 4 PM, which should be good enough. So how much is this going to cost? 25 cents buys you 20 minutes, so I start shoving quarters in. I run out just as the meter reaches five hours. Bizarre.

Science Demo

As part of the "Duck Days" tour, we attended a lecture given by three professors from the college of Natural Science. One of the presentations was about interesting work being done by current students, and one the students mentioned was Ben Scholl, who is a friend of my oldest son. Pretty cool.

One of the professors gave us a little science demo. He had an aluminum pipe about six feet long with an inside diameter of a little more than half an inch . He had two slugs that fit easily inside the pipe. Holding the pipe vertically, he dropped one slug in the top of the pipe. It immediately fell out the bottom. Then he dropped the second slug into the top of the pipe. We waited several seconds for something to happen and then it too fell out of the bottom of the pipe.



The way I understand what happened was that the second slug was a magnet. Falling through the tube generated electrical currents in the tube, which generated a magentic field, which interfered with the magetic field of the slug, and so restrained its' fall.

The same thing could be done with a copper tube and a magnet. It took a long time to find a decent video of this demo. It seems most science types have a hard time making a decent movie. Many provided no context. A demo like this needs a "nothing up sleeves" introduction that few provide. There is the "SuperMagnetMan", but, well, that's another issue.

Driving

Eugene is about 100 miles due South of Portland on Interstate 5. It is three lanes each way till somewhere South of Salem, and then it turns into two lanes. Traffic flows pretty well but is given to clogs that can slow you down and last for 15 miles. Going down to Eugene was not too bad. The farther you get from Portland, the more the traffic thins out and the more consistant the drivers are.

Coming back to Portland is much worse. I am sure that part of it is that I am tired, it is at the end of the day. I think a bigger part is that the traffic gets more jammed up the closer you get to Portland, so it feels like the pressure is building. The picture is from an ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) camera. I pulled it Saturday morning when traffic is much lighter.

The speed limit for most of the road is 65 MPH, and on the way South most drivers who are in a hurry are content to drive at 75 MPH. People keep a respectable distance and there is not much pushing or shoving. Occasionally a slow poke from the right lane will pull out to pass an even slower slowpoke and you will have to slow down until they have meandered on past the obstacle and moved back over to the right lane. Generally speaking they do that fairly promptly, which lets the hurry up gang resume their zooming pace.

Northbound is something else. The time of day may have had something to do with it. It was almost 5:30 PM when we left Eugene so we have people going home from work, and being as it is Friday, they may be going somewhere for the weekend. So we have more traffic, more people not paying complete attention, more dawdlers, and more speeders (people who are going 80 MPH and more). It is not possible to just set the cruise control and go. The speed of the traffic is constantly changing. You may be stuck going 60 MPH until a slowpoke pulls over and then the fast lane picks up to 65 MPH for a mile or two, and then it changes again. No more just set the cruise control and leave it.

Sometimes I am tempted to just move over to the right lane and mosey along at whatever speed the trucks are going. That is often 55 MPH, which would add 45 minutes to the trip, each way. And there is no guarantee that you would be undisturbed at that speed. You are very liable to come up behind some pleasant individual mosing along at 50 or even 45 MPH. Or you are liable to find yourself holding up a hole line of Kenworths who are all breathing down your neck wondering why you are such a slowpoke.

I need to find a less stressful way to operate on this route.

Update September 2016 replaced missing pictures.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Windows is Wonderful, Part 9487

My brother fights with his computer:

PC processes debug

Hi,
I had thought that I was lacking when it came to figuring out why my PCs would run slow.

The following link shows that it is not a easy task to find the process that is slowing down the PC.


Now I don't feel so bad. It only took this Microsoft expert a couple weeks, in cooperation with other companies, to debug and then he is not really sure it is fixed.


So how do I prepare my kids for a world of hype & false expectations and the beating it gives the ego, other than to say 99% of what you hear, perceive and think is bullshit.


Meaning... I had thought with all the tech info available, I should figure this stuff out, after all it is only so many 0's and 1's. Yet I never made much headway.


http://blogs.technet.com/markrussinovich/archive/2008/04/07/3031251.aspx

For example: I had trouble with my internet configuration, it was intermittent, then fail, then I would [futz] with the PC internet comm. settings and it would work....then fail after weeks. No rhyme [or] reason. The ISP Mediacom, swapped out my modem for a modem to support the VOIP. Haven't had a problem since. So it wasn't the PC, it was the modem. Maybe.


-----------------

Red Demon - Of self torture
Donna Willard-Moore
I wouldn't bother with the link. My eyes glazed over after the first couple of paragraphs. Why people torture themselves with this stuff is beyond me. Well, it is beyond me now. I did put in my time trying to make Windows systems work, time I will never get back. But at least I stopped. Now I won't spend more than an hour a month on it.

This is why I hate Windows. It's better now, in some ways, but in the beginning it was a real piece of junk. It was never a "real" operating system. It was a program some kid cobbled together that put some flashy stuff on the screen and everyone thought it was cool. It was a lot like the wizard of Oz, a lot of smoke and mirrors, but no real substance, and no, we are not going to show you what is behind the curtain.

A real OS maintains control of the computer. Applications run only when they are allowed to run, none of this hog the CPU behavior is allowed. Windows never had any control of the computer. Whatever program was running had control. Poorly written programs behaved
poorly, they did not share like they were supposed to.

Windows has gotten better, I think there is some task control going on now. With XP, Ctl-Alt-Del will bring up the task manager and if there is an obvious CPU hog, you can usually kill it. Some web sites will cause my browser to lock up the whole system. Of course, there are still times when you cannot get control back, even with the task manager. That is why the power cord from my computer is plugged into a power strip with a switch. If you can't bring up the task manager, it's a fair bet the front panel power switch won't work either. If it won't behave, I can, will, and have shut off the power. It might take a little longer to boot next time, but I have yet to out and out kill a system doing this.


Unix/Linux/Mac is better this way because it starts with a real OS, a real task manager, and programs only get to run when the OS says so. I bought my son a Mac when he went to college a year and a half ago and I haven't had to touch it once. And he is tech-abhorrent.

Update December 2016 replaced missing pictures.

BIOS Engineer

Sometimes I think I may be in the wrong line of work. I just ran a search on indeed.com for "BIOS Engineer" and it returned 192 matches in my neighborhood. The BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) on a PC is a bit of code written into a chip on the motherboard. It performs a number of low level functions for the computer.

The one function everyone deals with is the boot (or bootstrap) loader. It reads the first bit of code from the boot disk which is what gets everything started. The boot loader gets its' name from the expression "pull yourself by your bootstraps", which is how one my professors explained it. I wonder how many people know what a bootstrap is?

On a simple machine, the boot loader may be no more than dozen bytes of code:
  1. Output the address of the control block to the disk controller,
  2. jump-busy until the controller is done,
  3. jump to the newly loaded code.
On PC's it is a little more complicated because you do not know which disk you will be able to boot from, or even if the device is a disk.

The problem with BIOS Engineering is that it seems to be a bit of a closed community. You can only get in if you have worked on a PC BIOS before. I think this is a load of hogwash. It is just code for Pete's sake, it isn't magic. Matter of fact, it's the simplest kind of code you can write. The constraints are fairly well understood. Most all of the problems have been dealt with before. It's just a matter of cutting out the obsolete and integrating the new bits.

I interviewed with a guy running a BIOS group at Intel some ten years ago. His guys were working 60 and 70 hours a week for months on end. I have done that on occasion, but never for more than a couple of weeks at a time. I find that it doesn't pay. After about eight hours of work, I am tired and I start making mistakes. I come in the next day and it takes me four hours to straighten out the mess I made the day before and get lined out with what I need to do today.

I remember reading something about the Lockheed Skunk Works. The guy who ran it (Kelly Johnson) was of the same mind: If you work smarter, you don't need to work longer. Here is another take on the same subject: Urgency is poisonous.

So what I am thinking is that BIOS engineering has attracted some real dweebs and I probably don't want to working there. Which means I am kind of glad I didn't get the job.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Haircut

I went to get a haircut at LaBelle this morning. Place was empty except for Nettie, the middle-aged Latino woman who cuts my hair. Usually the owner, a Vietnamese woman, is there, but not today. Very rarely is there ever another client there. I wonder how they stay in business. Of course, I try to time my visits so there won't be a lot of other people there, but still. It's a big place with half a dozen each of nail, hair and pedicure stations.

I have tried going to a barber several times, but my wife has never been happy with the haircuts I get there, so I go to salons. It's hard to find one that is acceptable, never mind trying to find one I actually like. Usually they are expensive and have that fake nail stench that is just repugnant. This place is okay, with no clients, there is no stink, and a haircut only costs $12. Since a haircut will last me at least six weeks, that comes to $2 a week. I think I can afford that, even though I am unemployed.

Part of the problem with the business is that there are seven hair salons within a couple of blocks of this place. I only know of one other, okay, maybe two or three others, but Nettie has it all scoped out. Used to be there was a law that prevented a salon from opening within a mile or so of another salon, but then the law changed and now people can open them wherever they want, not to mention all the people who work out of their houses.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Windows is Wonderful, Part 9486

Creative Speakers
1) I have no sound. I have had no sound for a day. I finally started looking into the problem about an hour ago, and I still have no sound.

About a week ago I thought I would install Google Desktop because of its' supposedly super ability to find things on the hard disk. Running Windows searches takes time, and I thought maybe this would help. I won't find out whether it will help of not, I did not get to try it out enough to find out before I decided to remove it. It definitely slowed my computer way down. And with this sound problem, I decided to pull it.

Computer started working faster, but still no sound. Go into the Windows troubleshooting section. "Speak into the microphone" it says. I don't have a mike. Next step. Speak into the mike and it will echo the sound through the speakers. What kind of stupidity is this? Just make a noise, any noise, but it won't do that, you must have a mike.

Somewhere in my reptilian brain I remember that the sound cable had come loose once before. I get a flashlight and crawl under my desk and look. Sound cable is fine. But wait, the green LED on the desktop speaker is out. What's up with that? Back under the desk. The power cable to the subwoofer is loose. Not a real solid connect. It just slides in, no click or snap involved. Plug it in, the LED comes on and we have sound!

But why didn't I notice the LED being out before? It is really bright now. Well, it's really bright when you are looking straight on at it, but turn the speaker a little bit and it dims to the point that it just blends into the background. The way things get shoved around on my desk, it's a miracle I can even see the front panel of the control speaker.

2) I don't know who is at fault for this next problem. Videos are clogging the internet. The videos I want to see all suffer from hiccups. The videos I don't care about play smoothly. I have watched all my preferred videos before. They should already be on my computer, they should not have to be downloaded again. Or is it that they are on my computer, and playing videos from the disk causes hiccups, but playing direct from the internet works smoothly?

Update December 2016 replaced missing picture.

Mormon


What a family of four ate in the 1950s in a year
Mormons don't smoke, drink or swear. No wonder some people consider them a little odd.

Nit-picking aside they do have one policy that I admire, and that is keeping a one-year's supply of food on hand. Think about it. We live in a land of bounty, but what would happen if one year, say, the Midwest got hit with a massive drought and was not able to grow any food at all? How much food reserves does this country have? How much canned food is in the warehouses? How much frozen food in the giant warehouse sized freezers? How long would the grain in all the grain silos last?

It might be a good idea to lay in a supply of food, just in case. There are companies that will sell you a years supply of food for however many people you need, but it is not what you would call appetizing. It is basically emergency rations, and who knows how long it will keep before you need to throw it out and replace it.

I am thinking you need something that you can use as you go. You could do this with canned goods. Keep a years supply in storage. Every week you pull from the front of your stored supplies what you are going to use. When you go to the market, you buy enough to replace what you took from storage. Take what you just bought and put it in the back. This way you would constantly be updating your stored supplies, so they would effectively never be out of date.

But man cannot live by canned goods alone. Well, he might be able to, but he won't like it. What about bread? I don't think bread keeps very well for more than a few days. You could store the ingredients for bread, but that would mean you have to be constantly baking bread. Some people enjoy that kind of thing, but others (people like me) just want a nice, fresh loaf of sliced bread, ready to eat. Now, if baking were the only way to obtain fresh bread than, yes, I would be willing. But circumstances would have to pretty dire. Like no bread for a year.

How about meat? People who live in the country can keep animals, but the biggest animals you can keep in suburbia are rabbits. Well, you might be able to keep a sheep if you have a big enough lawn. But what if the grass is all dead from drought? Or covered with snow? You could slaughter the animal now and freeze it, if the weather is cold enough, or you have enough power to run your freezer.

Well now we are getting into hard core survival and farming. Bags of flour, beef jerky and canned goods would make an adequate emergency store. After all, nothing terrible bad is going to happen, is it?

Update January 2016. Replace missing picture (http://www.booksattransworld.co.uk/billbryson/billBrysonAssets/images/Endpapers-pic.jpg) with a new one. We shall see if Google's photo cache will remember this one.

Low Tech

1) Cheap pens. My favorite pens are free plastic retractable ball points with the built in pocket clip. Pocket clip doesn't do me any good, none of my shirts have pockets anymore, but it does not seem possible to get a pen without a pocket clip. For a while this style was all the rage and I collected several of them. They're great, except for one thing. They won't fit in the front pocket of my trousers. Well, that's not exactly true, they will fit, but they won't lie flat in the bottom, which means they tend to get wedged in and are hard to remove.

Then I found another free pen, a little shorter and a little fatter and it fits just perfect. It is really ugly. It was a promotional pen from a drug company and has cartoonish pictures of multi-colored bugs all over it. It usually works, but not always. Same thing happened to Jack. He had a pen he carried in his truck. Pulled it out to use it one day, and it wouldn't write. Took in the house and left it for a couple of days and tried it again and it worked fine. So I am wondering if the constant jiggling upsets the pens, because my short one is working fine now.

Anyway, a folded sheet of paper and a pen that works comprise my PDA.

2) Candles. There is a small candle in the basement bathroom that I light occasionally because, let's face it, sometimes it just stinks in there. The candle sits in the bottom of a small glass container about the size of a shot glass. The wick gave out before the wax did. My wife gave me another candle, but without a glass, so I just set in on top of the old wax. Eventually the wick on that one gave out also. At the end, there was just a tip of the wick sticking up and trying to light it, my fingers got hot so I dropped the match into the jar. It burned for quite a while. As the days went by I continued dropping lit matches into the jar. Some of them would burn for a while, some would go out immediately. I dropped one in there before lunch and when I came back downstairs the whole surface of the wax was liquid and on fire. I had to huff and puff to blow it out. Impressive for such a little candle.


3) Slippers. I got a new pair of slippers for Christmas. They were a little expensive, made from Elf, er, Elk hide, from Eddie Bauer, but they are comfortable enough. However, one of the seams is starting to come undone. Eventually it will unravel enough to make them unwearable, but so far they are holding together well enough. But what should I do about it? Take them back to the store? I imagine they would exchange them without any fuss. But that means actually going INSIDE the mall, not to mention burning a bunch of time getting there. And what if the new ones suffer from the same problem? I could take them to a shoe repair shop and get them sewn up properly, but that is more time spent fooling around. Or I could just fix them myself. Hmmm. Probably would not take any more time, but I would actually have to do something. Think I'll just wait till they unravel so much I can't wear them anymore.

Update December 2016 replaced missing pictures.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Amatol, New Jersey

QE2
Don't look for it on a map, it's not there. It was built during WWI. After that it disappeared.

I watched the movie "Juggernaut" the other day. It is based on a true story of a bomb planted on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II. That is the QE2 in the picture.

If you watch many movies, you know that any time there is a bomb to be defused, it always comes down to whether one should "cut the red wire or the blue wire". This movie was made in 1974 and I am willing to bet that this is where the phrase originated.

So I was looking for a picture to post with this little bit of wisdom and I got sucked into one of those internet rabbit holes (take the red pill and I'll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes). It all started with the explosive used in the movie: Amatol.

1880 Picatinny Powder Depot established at Lake Denmark, New Jersey.

1916 The Black Tom explosion in New York harbor . Related to the Annie Larsen affair. More on that farther down.

1918 The explosive used in the bombs in the movie was Amatol, which has a namesake in the town of Amatol, New Jersey, that was built a couple of miles away from a munitions factory during World War I that made Amatol. So was the town named for the explosive, or vice versa? The town no longer exists. What happened to it? No one is telling. Seems to have just evaporated.

1926 The Naval Ammunition Depot at Lake Denmark blew up. It is also in New Jersey, not far from Amotol. The Picatinny Arsenal is still there.

1928 Now we have the Hawthorne Arms Depot in Nevada operated by Day & Zimmermann.

The Annie Larsen was a ship chartered by some German agents to smuggle arms to India. The plan did not go well. They had two ships sailing around in the Pacific Ocean trying to rendezvous. One of the places they were supposd to meet was Johnson Island, or Johnson Atoll, or Johnston Atoll or Johnston Island. There seems to be some doubt as to it's name and just where it is. There seem to be two, both in the Pacific, both within a thousand miles of Hawaii, both used by the US Military in WWII, and since. Which one is which is still a little hard to tell.


View Larger Map

Update September 2016 replaced missing picture.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tires

Name brands are 10 to 20 percent higher than generics. Half of that goes to advertising to keep their name in front of you. Generics are generally just as good, and you are not supporting the advertising industry.

We have a chain of tire stores out here: "Les Schwab" and they have a devoted following. I used to futz with tires and prices and what not. Eventually I went to Les and was so pleased with service I have not been anywhere else since. I don't even look at tire ads anymore. Last set of tires I bought were the economy versions for my truck. Schwab had 3 or four grades of tires from $350 to $600+ for a set of four, installed. I bought the cheap ones and they have lasted about 20,000 miles and it is time for a new ones. The original Goodyear tires last 70,000 miles, more or less.

The truck is going to need new tires before next fall, and so is the Sebring. I sold the van, so no tire problems there. The Mitsubishi is still new, should not need tires for years.

Of course, if we don't buy brand names, that is going to put people in the advertising business out of work, which means they will be turning into crack dealers, getting arrested and we are going to be paying taxes to keep them locked up in jail.

So maybe buying the brand name tires is a good idea.

In my experience warranty's are pretty much worthless except as a guide to how well the product is made. If a product turns out to be junk and wears out in short order and you go back to the store to make a claim, they give you a prorated discount off the retail price of whatever it is, which turns out to be more than you paid for it in the first place. Not to mention all the hassle of filing a warranty claim in the first place. Throw the worn out piece of junk away and go buy a new one somewhere else.

Coniving over dribs and drabs is a waste of time. If you like coniving, do it on something worthwhile, like a skyscraper, or ten million dollar IPO. Not on a set of tires for crissakes.

Everyone has their own comfort level, and mine does not involve searching out "big kills". And that IPO thing, that requires a lot of promotion. Say you want to raise 10 million dollars. You have to convince 3,162 people to each invest $3,163 in your scheme. To do that you have to convince them you are going to make money. When you have the whole world convinced you are going to make a ton of money, then you issue the IPO, pocket the loot and head for the hills.

How many people are smart enough to pull off a big deal? How many people have the energy and drive? How many people have both?

I suspect there are more big deals out there than there are people who can pull them off. Even if you meet the rough qualifications for being able to work the deal, you still need to find or invent a deal to work. That can be difficult.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Dance along the edge

Whatcha gonna do? We use too much oil. Quickest and easiest way to cut oil consumption is to raise the price. Tack on another $1 per gallon and watch oil consumption drop. But of course, you can't do that, Americans like their gasoline too much. And raising the price of gas will make it so expensive poor people won't be able to drive to work. Whatcha gonna do?

I wonder how many people in this country have real jobs. By that I mean a job that pays enough to live on and be able to afford good medical care. Jobs that actually produce something useful. I don't mean minimum wage jobs, and I don't mean celebrity jobs, or any job that pays more than ... wait a minute, what would a good upper limit be? $40,000 a year was recently considered a "family wage" kind of job. At what point does a wage become obscene? Seems I recall military contractors were making a thousand dollars a day in Iraq. Soldiers in the US military are getting what? Maybe $10 a day? Maybe a hundred?

A thousand dollars a day for an eight hour day translates to $125 an hour or $250,000 dollars a year (roughly 40 hours a week times 50 weeks a year). My lawyer charges $250 dollars an hour for his time, but I don't know how many hours he actually bills a year. Say he manages to stay busy half the time, then he is bringing in $125,000, which probably keeps him comfortable, but he has to keep working to maintain that level of comfort. And it's not a job, he does not work for anybody else, he is dependent only on himself.

We constantly hear about the guys on Wall Street making millions, ten of millions, or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but even if we are hearing about it constantly, it is not that many people in actual numbers. You can only hear so much news in a day. There are pert near 300 million people in this country, and if you listen all day long (and you give them one minute of fame each) you will only have time to hear about 300,000 people in a year, which is one person in a thousand.

Much of that so called wealth is just paper. The money is invested in stocks or bonds or something and so their net worth is dependent on whatevery body else thinks their stuff is worth. If you can't sell it, it's not worth much. And you don't really want to liquidate a hundred million dollar investment. I mean what would you spend it on? How many houses can you live in? How many jet airplanes do you need? Shoot with a hundred million dollars you could probably start a small war someplace and win.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Garage Door Problem


I stopped over at my friend Jack's house today. He was futzing with his garage door. It was being uncooperative. It finally jammed up good about a foot from being closed. So we went to lunch.

When we got back we set to investigating this recalcitrant mechanism. We found a number of small things wrong: one of the wood panels was seperating, there was a nut that wasn't tightened all the way, there were a couple of shiny spots on the track where something had been rubbing. But we could not find why it was getting so jammed up. When it was open, it was fine, but the farther it got to being closed, the more difficult it got to move, until when it was about a foot from the ground it was like it was locked up completely. The wheels were all free to move, the door was not rubbing on the frame. It was like it was just suspended there in space, hanging on some giant nail. I finally got up on a ladder and looked at one of the pulleys that supported the cable and noticed that it was all catty wampus. Not a good sign. Turns out the bearings in these pulleys were shot. New pulleys and bearing should put it back in working order.

Update December 2016 replaced missing picture.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

High Capacity High Technology

1) I came across a news article the other day about how Comcast is going to start cooperating with someone (YouTube maybe?) in managing their internet traffic. Seems videos are clogging up the internet. Who'd a thunk it?

I had, or rather still have, a video camcorder. Mine says Magnavox on the side but it looks just like the one in the picture, right down to green tip on the focus lever. It's 15 or 20 years old and doesn't work anymore. It was great while it lasted. It used compact VHS cassettes, which meant we could play them in our regular old VCR. Had to have an adaptor, but that was easy enough to use. No cables to sort out. Just pop out the cassette from the camera, drop it in the adaptor, and slide it into the VCR. The batteries were a big pain, they would die on a regular basis and they cost $50 to replace. The camera itself broke once before and I had it repaired for some astronomical sum. I doubt it would be worth repairing now, even if I could find someone who would be willing to try. I still have it. It is one of those things I tell myself I am going to get around to working on someday. As if. But it is such a fine and complex machine I cannot bring myself to throw it away, so it sits in the corner gathering dust. I am the only one in our family who ever learned to use it, and at some point I got tired to taping my life and decided I would rather just live it.



We had one of those little ball cameras that they were giving out a few years ago. Use it for video conferencing, or making videos of yourself and your friends in your living room. We played with it for a couple of days, and then it fell into disuse.



2) You can buy a one terabyte capacity hard disk drive for $200. My computer has an 80 gigabyte hard disk and it is only half full. My son, the computer whiz has a couple 250 GB disks in his system. What do people need that much capacity for? Videos, people tell me. Well, I suppose. If you are a video nut, maybe you would want all of your videos immediately accessible. Me, I watch a movie once and that is usually enough. If it's a good movie I can watch it again in a few years maybe, but it's not really a high priority.

If I wanted any kind of high capacity storage for movies, I would want one of those carousels that hold 2 or 300 disks. They are built for CD's, but you could replace the drive with a DVD drive. The advantage here is you don't have to wait for the disk to copy to the hard drive. The disadvantage is you have to buy the disk. But movies are so cheap these days, I think you would have to be a bit of a nut to want to spend the time copying the disks.

I am wondering where this disk drive technology is heading. I was just thinking that moving the read/write head is the slowest operation. It can take much longer to move to another track than to read an entire track. Perhaps if they had more recording heads the times would improve. Could you build a disk with one head per track? They used to do that back in the days of core memory. They had things called drum memory which were built using a cylinder a foot or two in diameter and two or three feet long. There were a row of recording heads running the length of the cylinder. Each head read/wrote one track on the "drum". Really fast, even by today's standards, though not much capacity.

If they had some way of making read/write heads for disks using the same technology they use for making chips, it might be possible to make a disk with a head for each track. What could you do with something like that?

Update December 2016 replaced missing pictures.

Kids & Power Tools

Does not sound like a good combination, does it? And it can lead to trouble, even minor disasters. I had an old microwave I was trying to troubleshoot some years ago. My young son was helping me. I thought I had things under control, but I accidentally shorted two pins together and something went blooey. What had been a minor problem with a cheap to replace part turned into an expensive trip to the repair shop. It could have been worse, nobody got hurt, we still have the microwave and it still works.

A guy I knew in Arizona was working in his garage cutting some boards with a radial arm saw. His little kids were also in the garage playing. I think he was supposed to be keeping an eye on them. While he was making a cut one of the kids screamed, he whipped around to see what the problem was and lopped off two of his fingers. I think they were able to reattach them, but I doubt they will every work right.


This afternoon my neighbor needs some help running a long, rough cut board through a planer. His young son sticks his head in the garage and wants his dad's attention. Dad offers to let him help. I am thinking "this is not a good idea". A kid and a planer in the same room sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. But the vacuum is running as well as the planer and I would have to shout to make myself heard. Besides, it's his shop and his son. I'm not going to tell him how to run his house.

Eventually shorty gets bored with us and heads off to play with his friends. I am relieved. Until. A few minutes labor another neighbor comes running over to get Dad. They both run back across the street. It takes me a couple of minutes to extricate myself from my designated corner and wander over. Son has fallen off his bike and broken or at least badly twisted his leg.

Update December 2016 replaced missing pictures.

Pergelator Lite

I just started another blog. I wanted somewhere to post all the stuff I came across that did not make into this blog. I am not quite sure why I thought I needed a second blog for this. Might be because I don't have much to say about it, at least not more than a comment or two. Mostly it's just stuff I have stumbled across, or people sent me, that I thought was cool, or funny, or somehow interesting. So if you are tired of listening to me, and are looking for something a little lighter, you might want to try Pergelator Lite.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Team Player

I have been out of a job for almost a year now and I am supposed to be looking for work. I'm not doing a very good job of it. This is at least partly because the phrase "team player" leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Intel Corporation is the biggest employer in Washington County (Oregon) where I live and they pay very well. It can be a really great place to work, or absolutely horrible. I have heard it both ways. Some people think their job at Intel is just great. Others think the pointy haired boss in Dilbert would be an improvement. I think the deciding factor is the manager you work for and the people you work with. A good manager can make your job a joy. Unfortunately, they seem to be few and far between. Working with people you can get along with will make your job tolerable.

Fortunes have been made, and lost, in Hi-Tech. The fortunes that have been made outweigh the fortunes that have been lost by a factor of a billion to one. Anytime there is that much money around it is going to attract all kinds of con-men and criminals. It may even help persuade normally honest people to do things that are not quite on the up and up.

There was a rumor floating around a couple of years ago that the "Egyptian Mafia" had taken over Intel's Ronler Acres plant. Some smart guy from Cornell had gotten a position there and had proceeded to fill his staff with family and friends, and whoa be unto he who crossed him up. You could end up with a bad performance review and a boot out the door.

Intel had a bunch of layoffs last year, but it looks like they are hiring again, and they are even hiring firmware engineers, which is what I claim to be. I have been knocking around in the computer business for pert near 30 years now. If I had played my cards right, I might be sitting on a fortune and not even thinking about a job. Unfortunately, I did not even know there was a game going on. I was busy building houses of cards (elaborate castles even) but everyone else was betting on which way the cards would land when the house collapsed. So I am back to looking for a job.

The problem with the term "team player" is that in the world of corporate double-speak, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. In sports, a team player is someone who works with his team to win the game. If it means helping other players score instead of attempting to score himself, he does. If the coach says sit on the bench, he sits on the bench.

In sports the goal and the rules on how to get there are pretty clear. In the business world, nothing is clear. Being a "team player" may mean doing whatever will make your boss look good so he will get a bonus. It may mean covering up some kind of foul-up so your team, or boss, does not get blamed, and even better some other team catches heck. There are no referees in business, at least not at this level. So the term "team player" has gotten a bad reputation, and any time I see it in a want ad, I am repelled. Looking around for images to go with this story, I stumbled across this list of suggestions of how to deal with a "Pointy Haired Boss":
In summary:
  • Explain constraints. Tell your supervisor in advance why you'll be making decisions and what factors influence those decisions.
  • Put it in writing. Create a documented trail of decisions.
  • Blame software & hardware. Be willing to put yourself on the human, non-technological side of the argument.
  • Take time to "research" an idea. Even if you know an idea is impossible, never say that to a boss. Go away for an hour and then come back with enough technobabble to dismiss the idea after having (ahem) "researched" it.
  • Give Choices. There's nothing a stupid supervisor likes more than control. If they're not making choices, they don't feel like they're earning their paycheck. Let them make decisions on things that don't really count so they feel they're contributing to the project.
Computer systems really are like houses of cards. Any little glitch can cause the whole thing to come tumbling down, and I do mean little. Features on microchips are down towards the nanometer level now. We will be starting to count atoms per transistor pretty soon. Visible light is too coarse to be used for drawing features on silicon wafers. The industry is moving towards ultra-violet. My neighbor got a PhD in this subject. He flies around the world talking to people about making masks to use with ultra-violet light. Seems it's a bit of a trick. It keeps him very busy.

I have thought about going back to school to study quantum computing, but I would have to fill out forms. I don't know if I am really ready to do this or not.

Meanwhile, a nice job writing code for some kind of black box would suit me just fine. All I have to do is get after it.

It just occurred to me after writing all this that if a manager includes the phrase "team player" in a want-ad, he probably has his priorities screwed up: politics over engineering and I probably don't want to work for him. If there were a shortage of jobs, I would not be able to be so picky, but this week there are a dozen open positions.

Update December 2016 replaced missing picture.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Cell Phone Follies


My brother just sent me a message:

"My cell died in the washer, just to make sure, I put it in the oven, that cooked it."

Update December 2016 replaced missing picture.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Lettuce Train

Sometime in the last couple of years I saw a show on PBS about a train that carries produce from California to New York non-stop everyday. Okay, they stop to change crews and maybe they only run it once a week, not every day. Something got me started on this topic this afternoon (I don't even remember what it was now), and I could not find anything I was all done with my first draft and went back looking for links and pictures. Then I found something. But before that, all I found was all kinds of related stuff, like how they used to do it, and how some railroad is going to start service from Walla Walla Washington to Rotterdam (a suburb of Schenectady) New York. But I could not find any reference to such a train being run now.

I did find one reference that mentioned it was laughable for the railroads to try and compete with trucks in shipping produce:

"Shippers and motor carriers may be excused for laughing when they hear railroaders talk about reefer traffic as a growth opportunity. Reefer traffic--freight moving in mechanical refrigerated boxcars or intermodal trailers and containers--is a business from which U.S. railroads have virtually been expelled over the last two decades."

I think what happened was the Clean Air Act. All of a sudden anthracite coal from Appalachia becomes carbona-non-grata and the coal companies start digging up low sulfur coal in the Powder River basin in Wyoming and shipping it to the East Coast at the rate of 300 million tons a year. That basically consumes all of the railroads resources and they can no longer be bothered with a single express train full of perishable vegetables, they have real work to do.

So the lettuce train fell into disuse and the trucking industry took over. The railroads have had a couple of decades or so to adjust their business to this new long distance coal transportation model. They have automated their systems and now they are ready to start competing with trucks for the less than "100 fully loaded trains a month" deals.

Coal Trains at North Platte, Nebraska

View Larger Map

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Kunming, China, Part 2


Popout Map
My brother just got back from two weeks in China. He sent me a couple of souvenirs. One is a "Popout" map of Hong Kong. It is pretty cool the way it folds out and then folds back up. Printed on card stock. It has a list price of four English pounds or $40.00 local, whatever that is. Yuan, I suppose.

He also sent me a copy of a tabloid size newspaper called "Beijing Today". It makes for some interesting reading.

Students crossing the Nujiang River
On page 3 there is this photo of some people crossing the Nujiang river on a pedestrian suspension bridge. The caption in the paper reads "Students of Bula primary school, near Kunming, Yunnan Province, can cross the Nujiang river to school on a safe bridge starting this week. Before, they had to shimmy across on a rope." This version of the story is a little more forthcoming.

Weird how once something catches your eye, you start seeing it everywhere.

Update September 2016 replaced missing pictures.

DOT Logger

One of my first projects when I joined Stevens was to develop a new data logger. The picture shows both the original enclosure (bottom) and the newer metal chassis (top). The most recent design was getting a little long in the tooth, and users (and sales) were clamoring for more capabilities. My boss found a small microcontroller board that met our requirements:
  • Extended temperature range. Our equipment was being used all over the world, from Arctic regions to equatorial deserts. This means basically -40 degrees to +60 degrees Celsius (-40 to +140 Fahrenheit).
  • Minimal power consumption. Many locations are accessible only by extraordinary means: hiking, mule, airplane, etc. Most locations are not served by power lines. These sites must depend on batteries and perhaps solar panels. Arctic regions are particularly bad. Batteries do not do well in cold weather, and solar panels need sunlight, which is sometimes hard to find in Northern regions.
  • A variety of inputs. We needed at least two serial ports, some digital I/O pins and some ADC's (analog to digital converters).
  • Very reliable.
The board we found satisfied all these requirements. It was a little expensive, but it was ready to go. All we needed was to make up an I/O board to mount it to, put it in a box, and write some firmware. Simple enough, though there were a plethora of details that had to be dealt with.

The I/O board was not too difficult. There was minimal active circuitry on it. It was mostly connectors for communications and all the various sensors. Once I had drawn the schematic, we turned it over a layout man, and then shipped the layout off to a board house to have some boards made.

We used a small plastic NEMA4 enclosure, and to keep things simple, we used the I/O board as the "front panel". The CPU board was mounted to the I/O board, and then this assembly was mounted in the lid of the box, so the CPU was hidden and all the I/O connectors were exposed. The body of the box was drilled to accept weather proof cable grommets, and the entire body of the box was used to hold the ends of the sensor cables and their connectors. The idea was that the box could be mounted to the wall of a gauge house and the cables routed to the their sensors. The connectors from the sensor cables would be plugged into the connectors on the I/O board that is mounted in the lid of the box, and then the lid would screwed down onto the body of the box, sealing all the electronics and cable connections inside a weather- and bug-proof container.

Firmware


The firmware was by far the bigger part of this project. As always, the more you can deliver, the more the customer wants. Once you have the basic structure operating, adding one more little feature does not take a whole lot of effort. Previous loggers had only recorded data on one or two channels. This logger started with 18 and eventually was increased to over 200 channels. The whole concept of what a data logger was and how it would be used had to be revised. This led to numerous adjustments to the user interface to accommodate the new capabilities while maintaining the same "flavor" as previous data loggers.

Evolution


This project was supposed to be a stop gap measure. It would allow us to get a new product on the market quickly, but given it's limitations in processor and RAM, it was not going to be long before it became obsolete. Fortunately the environmental market is rather slow moving and so even thought the CPU manufacturer has ended development in this product line, the DOT logger lives on.

Compiler Limitations

The compiler reached its' limits several years ago. It was specific to this vendor and it was fine, as far as it went. It had two modes for compiling: one was direct to the target board and the other was to a file. For development, direct-to-target worked fine, but when you were done with development and wanted to move to production, compiling to a file was what we wanted. At some point, this quit working. It may have been due to the size of the program but the compile-to-file option no long worked. Now we could have had manufacturing compile the source code for each board, it would not have added much time, but it did add a certain amount of complexity, not to mention being error prone. I had written some debug procedures to display a hex dump of memory, so I used these, along with file capture on the host to create a hex image of the code. I then wrote a simple program to convert this hex file into a binary image that could be loaded using the standard vendor supplied loader program. This allowed manufacturing to continue using the same procedure as they had been using on earlier versions of the firmware.

Field Updates


Since we had encountered so many requests for changes and features during the development of the firmware, we decided that it would be a good idea to provide some method for updating the firmware in the field, possibly even over a remote connection, like a phone line. The initial program is loaded into the CPU through a serial port using a vendor supplied loader program. In order to use this program, a jumper had to be set on the CPU board. Once the logger was assembled, this jumper was no longer easily accessible. To avoid having to gain physical access to the logger in order to update the firmware, I developed a download subsystem for the firmware that would perform this operation using standard Xmodem protocol, and without having to set the jumper.

This program was fairly straight forward, though there were a few critical places where the machine instruction sequence was absolutely critical. The CPU board has two 256 KB Flash memory chips. One was used for code, the other for recording sensor data. To perform a firmware update, the new code was downloaded onto the second chip. Then a special piece of code is copied to RAM, execution is transferred to this code in RAM. The RAM based code then copies the new firmware from the second chip to the first. We then execute a reset, and if all went well, the new code takes off and runs.

The major difficulty with this bit of code was in figuring out how to set the memory mapping registers. This is an eight bit processor with a 64 KB address space that is mapped into three windows into a one megabyte physical address space using a couple of memory mapping registers.