All posts by Arthur Davenport

How’s the Web Site?

I haven’t paid enough attention to this web site for about two years, and there’s a reason for that.  So, I’ll fill you in on my “secret”.  I am going on 77 years old and I have idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, scarring of my lungs in more common language.

It all came to my attention a few years back, showing its ugly head for sure in 2013.  So here I sit, breathing supplementary oxygen 24/7 and taking a few very expensive drugs.  It’s not all bad.  I feel fine.  I just run out of air easily.  The fibrosis does not seem to be getting any worse, but the affect on my heart now is the main issue, thus the prescription drugs.

I’m not telling you this to gain sympathy.  There are plenty of people who have this same situation who are much worse off.  There is no sure bet here, but my life span may not be affected by the situation.  However, all this has made writing and blogging in particular take a back seat in my life.  There has been progress for the better in 2016.  So, I hope to be able to spend more time living as normal a life as possible and much less time going to doctors, enduring tests, and struggling to find financial aid for the drugs.

The third book that I published, Fall to Earth, was started when I was still a working engineer for Boeing.  It was interrupted by two things.  the worst by far was the sudden death of our youngest son at age 24 in 1995.  And then this disease came along.  So, although it was actually my first novel, it took several years to finish.  Sounds silly maybe, but your life interrupts your life.

And then in mid 2013 I started this web site.  That takes time also, and it sadly has suffered from my lack of time.  However, just yesterday I took a look and found that there were over twenty comments for readers that were not marked as SPAM.  Furthermore, on January 7th,  The site had 30 hits.  This is all small stuff for devoted bloggers.  I only have 580 subscribers, which is not much for active websites.  In addition, I don’t know how many of them have looked at the site more than once.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, but I will do what I can find the time to improve the activity by adding value to the site.

So, if you are follower of the site, I really appreciate it.  Comments are always welcome.  Questions are always welcome.

Meanwhile, my remaining two children, now in their fifties, want me to provide them with an autobiography of my childhood.  There seems to be some doubt in their minds that I was ever a child.  They sometimes joke that I was born fully adult in mind, though not in body.  It’s meant in good humor, but I guess I do owe them a little family history.

The next writing project after that will then be another Doug Whittier novel.  The light is not totally on for that yet, but it’s getting brighter.  I like the murder mysteries, but I can’t keep killing people in an engineering department.  It’s too far from real life.  Lying, cheating, double dealing, competition, design failures, and insolvable problems are much more common.  I think I can write with that in mind.  You be the judge!

Thanks for stopping by,

Art

Seeing, Feeling, and Writing

1 – The Dark of Night

None, some, maybe many, maybe all of you have heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest…who knows? So I will explain.

The title of the contest is based upon the opening line of one of the novels of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a 19th century Englishman.  One of his novels starts out with a long sentence whose beginning is, “It was a dark and stormy night…”  In some literary circles it is considered one of the worst sentences ever published.  I don’t know.  True it may no be great prose, but it does catch your eye.  And what else do you want the first line of any novel to do?

The contest consists of submitting the worst fictional sentence you can devise. The sentence must not be from a published work, and it must be of your own doing. Maybe I’m wrong, but the contest was originally centered on sentences that would be used to start a book. Evidently any sentence will now suffice — too bad. My favorite entry was, “Beyond the narrows, the river widens.” Call me crazy, but that line had me laughing on the floor.

So, back to the “Dark and stormy night,” but forget the storm. Several years ago, I took a picture.  It was simple enough…standard camera, no electronics, and real film. The exposure was 1.5 seconds. I don’t remember the f-stop, but nothing special. So, what’s the big deal? The picture isn’t all that special. The color seems a bit off. What’s special?

It was taken in the dark of night in natural light!

I hoped to include a copy of it in this blog, but fate stepped in.  I can’t find it.  I know I have it somewhere, but where?  When and if I find it I will put it up.

So, what is the lesson here, aside from the need to file things more carefully? The lesson is simply that black has color! (I could explain the true color of the Sun at this point, but that’s an unnecessary  digression.)

So, where does black show up a lot in our lives? You’re looking at it…the printed word.

2 – The Printed Word

Having retired from over fifty years in engineering, my soul intellectual pursuit is writing. Sure, I give out the obligatory free advice now and then to my younger relatives, but it’s a different generation, and my “free” advice often seems more like “cheap” advice. No offense taken. It’s their world now.

In return, I get free advice on my novels. Some of it is helpful, like when I changed the sex of an important character, a dog, in the middle of one the books (prior to publishing, thank goodness). Most of it falls into two categories: first, “your books lack descriptions of the people”, second, “your books lack human interest.”

I don’t worry about being the world’s greatest novelist. And I can’t dispute that type of criticism. I am an engineer. I am used to writing what is necessary, not what is entertaining to anyone, except possibly myself. You either get it or you don’t. Face it, the vast majority of novels written hold no interest for you whatsoever…nor do they to me. Like all fiction writers, I am stuck with writing what I like.

And what is that exactly? If you haven’t nodded off yet, I will tell you.

First, there is mystery. I like mystery. If I didn’t, I would hate being an engineer. How does it work? Why did it break? Why did it do something unexpected? Can it be fixed? How dangerous is it? Why does it cost so much? The questions for engineers are endless.

OK, I have the mystery side covered.

But, what drives the mystery? Perhaps a better word would  be “curiosity”. Look at it this way. As an engineer I only see the mystery in things because I am curious about things. In fact, you don’t become much of an engineer unless you’re curious about pretty much everything…and you have an insatiable need to find out.

And that’s also what I think makes you a mystery writer, that and the ability to put it into words. Certainly much of these same characteristics belong to mystery readers.

So, where did the descriptions and human interest go? Well, the phrase, “love at first sight,” begs for description(s) and admittedly it is filled with human interest.

I’m sitting here trying to think of a “mysterious love at first sight” situation, one that is truly centered on pure love. I’m getting nowhere.

“I am curious as to why I’m attracted to you.”

“Your beauty is a mystery to me.”

“Do you agree with me that we would make a simply wonderful couple?”

You get my point?  It is not as though these mysteries don’t exist in social intercourse, but they will never be answered.  So, why bother?

Every story is a mystery of some sort, but much of it is in what you, the reader, are thinking or the story character is thinking. Mystery is about ideas, not feelings. You know how you feel. If it is love, you are not curious about your feelings, although you may be curious about her feelings. You may forever be curious about why she loves you, but it is probably not wise to question it if you know what’s good for you.

Don’t get me wrong! I have been married to the woman I desperately love for over fifty years. I have no quarrel with the human interest of love between people.

However, my question as a mystery writer/reader can’t be answered by how a person looks, whether they were orphaned, crippled, taught to hate by they’re experiences in life, or are simply your average Joe or Jane. We all have some grievances. Some are pretty severe, but that doesn’t make us criminals automatically. To me, mysteries are not human-interest stuff. A few of my characters are worth despising, but they are not obligated to be criminals. They might actually be victims.

I guess I could write about crimes of passion, but I wouldn’t be very good at that.  And quite honestly, they seem stupid to me…probably the lowest form of human thinking.

Oh! And by the way, the ugliness scale is not of much help in determining guilt.

So, I write with little description of either the character or beauty of the humans in the story, unless it actually tells part of the story. I concentrate on the character and beauty (or ugliness) of the ideas in the story.

I do provide some descriptions of parts of the Pacific Northwest, and I try to relate those descriptions to the story in general or to the thoughts and ideas and attitude of the protagonist.

Call that a dearth of human interest and description if you will. I actually do respect your opinion. I just may not act on it.

After all, I am a mystery!

The Running Water River Bridge

The Running Water River Bridge, my fourth novel is available both as an ebook and in paperback.  It is a complicated mystery starring my favorite narrator and protagonist, Doug Whittier.  Here is the cover.

RWRB Basic Cover Photo copy1 copy

Between the unknowns and the lies, the story builds using characters based upon my more than half-century experience with engineers and three quarters of a century of experience with people in general.

You will witness the motion of Doug’s career upward and the new responsibilities that come with it without warning.  Some of the characters will be familiar, others not.  Mitch, the “ninety percentile man” from my last book, Hidden Failure, arrives in the middle at Doug’s request.  Two very different private investigators are added to the mix, not without controversy.  And the lies told by the man at the top, Dr. Malerno Benjamin (Ben), make for a difficult puzzle to solve going back some ten years to the death of the only woman Ben ever really loved.

Doug’s wife, Jess, is very much involved, and let’s not forget The Running Water River Bridge, the beginning and end of the mystery.

What’s Next

It’s been awhile since I’ve had the time to add to the website.  2015 was a hard year.  I’ve been rather ill, still am, though better.  I won’t bother you with the details.  Needless to say, it has slowed me down.

So, here I sit, having finally finished working on my federal taxes for 2015, with other things crying for attention.  I did actually finish writing the next book for Doug Whittier, protagonist of Fall to Earth. The title of the new book is The Running Water River Bridge.  It’s a more complicated story than the previous books.  When the good guys lie, it’s worse than when the bad guys do it.  The next requirement for the book is to put it into the correct format for publishing…and then one last reread.  I think I will like this one the most.

The book to follow it will be a digression from the mystery/murder line, although I have a good idea for the next one of that type.  I have had requests within my family for me to write an autobiography.  Face it, spending  50+ years as an engineer leaves most of my close relatives and friends in the dark as to what my life has been all about.  My now deceased mother-in-law automatically thought that engineers simply looked up how to design things in a book…not so in real life!  You’ll see.

The plan for the book is for it to be grounded in writing that’s mixed with some poetry and sprinkled with some pictures.  My selected title is, The Practical Poet.  There is some chance that I can pull it off, but I do worry about its level of boredom.  It will take some thought, that’s for sure, and yet it will be non-fiction…easy, right?

Before finally deciding to write for fun and profit (still waiting for that part), I mused about the issue of why anyone would want to read what I write.  It all seems so egocentric.  As it turns out, it really is two other things, once you ignore the ego part.  It is both hard and fun.  I have written non-fiction memos throughout my time as an engineer.  I would say that fiction is actually much harder, especially book length fiction.  That first forty to fifty thousand words seem to take forever, and by then you still don’t know where the story is going to take you, the writer.  I worry that I left the reader back in the first few chapters.  You (the writer) don’t even know who the killer is in most cases until closer to the end of the story…or even how he or she gets caught…if ever.

Writing is probably more of a mystery to the writer than it is to the reader!

Anyway…glad to be back!

Spectre (Hope this isn’t the “new” James Bond.)

Saw this last week.  I’ve pretty much always liked James Bond, both as a movie and a movie character…not much in this case.  It appears that “politically correct” has finally taken over.  In addition, in the normal attempt to show Bond as vulnerable but triumphant, vulnerable seems to have just about found its game.  I know that Daniel Craig is no comic, but some of the old Bond humor would be a relief.  Oh, also get a new writer…or better yet, an old one.

And since when does M get to be a hero?

And whatever happened to Q?  Another great character gets a brain wash!

Come on people!  You can do better than this!  “If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it.”

Metal Coil Spring Failure for the General Public

How many times do you hear that a coil spring or set of coil springs have gotten old and soft?  Sounds reasonable, but is it?

The real truth is that the stiffness of coil springs is governed by their geometry, the type of metal that are made from, and the state of that material as it originally was when it first came out of the box.  It is not affected by use/age.  I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

There are many ways a coil spring can fail.  Here are some:

It can corrode (rust) and thus lose material and/or become cracked,

It can be overloaded beyond what it was designed to take,

It can wear out from constant rubbing on something,

It can lose its characteristics or even fail by being exposed to  temperatures higher than it was designed to meet,

It may take a “set” early in its use (essentially change its geometry) if that isn’t taken care of before it is installed for use, and there are ways to prevent that,

It can buckle (not remain straight) if it is not designed correctly for its application.  We had that happen on a large spring used in the Apollo Back Pack and had to redesign the spring.  Fortunately, we found the problem long before anyone had to use the Back Pack.

It can develop a “fatigue” crack from being flexed a significantly number of times beyond its planned life.  Oddly enough, this will not necessarily change its operation or stiffness.  We had a spring once that was cracked half way through, and it did not affect the stiffness of the spring at all.  I could explain why, but it’s complicated for a non-engineer (no insult meant).

If the ends are not ground flat properly, or not ground flat at all, the life of the spring before actual failure will be reduced.

The primary characteristic of interest that determines a spring’s stiffness once its geometry has been settled is a thing inherent in the actual material, its “modulus”.  The modulus is sort of a spring stiffness that is a natural characteristic of the material itself.  It can be affected by temperature, but not by very much in metals.  And, except for temperature, it stays the same regardless of the list I gave above.

So, unless a spring actually falls into one or more pieces, it does not get soft in use.

So, the next time someone tells you that the coils springs on your car have gotten soft, just laugh.

Now, if you want to make a spring out of a non-metal, you have my sympathy.

San Andreas

I watched this yesterday on disk with my wife, son, and his oldest son.  As disaster movies go, it was up there with the best.  Pretty well cast.  Pretty well written.  Pretty well directed.  No complaints about the acting, good job.  Plenty of action from start to finish.  Excellent special affects.

I’m not a geologist, but even as an engineer, I could see some faults in it here and there (a little play on words can’t hurt).  However, for the type of movie it is, those things don’t matter much.

If you like disaster movies, watch it if you missed it in theaters.

However, given the now often up close news coverage of real disasters, it takes a lot to match reality.  I happened to be having trouble sleeping at the time of the Japanese psunami.  I found it live on TV by accident.  It wasn’t the visual spectacle of fiction, but the realization of the actual reality dwarfs even the most spectacular disaster movie!

 

A Few Good Men (On ROKU)

One of my favorites.  We only had a VHS copy, so ROKU came in handy so that we could see it in HD.  Watched it again a week ago.  Been awhile.

I’m not a lawyer, so the realistic level of what happens is not mine to judge.  However the story is strong right up to the climax.  It is military.  So, if you aren’t into military films, then you may not like it.  However, it is not about war.  It is a legal battle.

Writing, acting, directing, and casting are all exellent!  I highly recommend it!

The Martian

It was Good enough to keep my interest, but it was definitely science fiction.  The list of things that wouldn’t happen in a real Mars encounter is long.  The hype about the movie far outweighs its performance.  The acting is fine, but the writing and directing needs work in my opinion.  Hey, I worked on the design of the Apollo Backpack and the Shuttle Environmental Control System, I can afford to be critical.

When you think about it, the movie makes NASA management look like political hacks.  The one lowly worker who thought up the right way to perform the rescue got no thanks or recognition.  That was by far the closest thing to what happens in real life in the whole movie.

Oh well, most people will like The Martian.  It’s OK, just not as good as it could have been.

By the way Hollywood, when you burn hydrogen and oxygen, the flame has no color!  That’s one of the reasons why hydrogen is so dangerous.

Writing Fiction

I’ve had to write nonfiction as a part of my work as an engineer…a book chapter, and many memos, all technical.  That, I’m used to.  I feel safe doing that.

So, how dangerous is writing fiction?  Certainly nothing will catch fire or explode, which could be the outcome of poor nonfiction writing, but what about the insecurity that comes from writing a novel when you are not already a well known author…or even if you are a well known author?

So, let me ask one first question.  Why do you want to write fiction?  Is it for money?  Is it for fame?  Do you have a cause that you want to put before your readers?  Or do you just want/like to write?  It might even be a little of each.

For me, it’s mainly the last one.  I like to write.  Fame, in the sense that people like and buy my books, shows up somewhere in my list, but not first on the list, and certainly not fame like a movie star.  I just want to share my joy in the writing with readers.

A cause?  Let’s see, do I have a cause?  Hmmm.  I don’t think so.  I try to stay away from politics and environmental controversies, wars, and things like that.  I’m really more interested in the smaller things in people’s lives.  Mainly, the mysteries that befuddle us, and the emotions that hound us, the fears, our limitations, our defeats, and our victories.  And I write using characters that I know from my fifty years as a working engineer.  Some of it is right out of past reality.  Some of it is simply made up.

I’ve read a number of books on writing and selling fiction.  With few exceptions, they are the worst books I have ever read.  One notable exception is Stephen King’s,  On Writing, at least his section of suggested rules to follow.  I found that I was pretty much already following them, particularly the one about not restricting yourself to a plot.  I have an overall idea of the story, but the storyline of each chapter comes from the content and event logic of the previous chapter.  Beyond that, I pretty much don’t know the whole story.  In the book I’m writing now, the characters come from what was actually my very first complete novel, Fall to Earth.  When I started this new novel, all I had was an idea for the first chapter.   I only found out who the murderers were recently, after having written nearly fifty thousand words.  What that does however, is make the story as much a mystery to me as it eventually will be for the reader.  It makes it more serendipitous, more alive, harder to predict.

In fact, although my books are mysteries, I think any good book, even nonfiction needs a sense of mystery and discovery about it.  The reader should always want to read the next chapter.  And the next chapter, although connected, should not be predictable.  However, it does have to be credible.

I try to link the incredible to the credible, an event that is crucial to the story that has a real connection with everyday life that the reader probably never thought much about.  Here’s an example that I plan to use as a preface for a future book.

 Preface

Bungee jumping, your life hanging by a single thread…certainly that’s something for the foolishly courageous. OK, you may see things differently, and I respect your right to jump from a bridge only to be stopped before your certain death by a single rubber band. We all have our favorite risks that we think are safe or at least worth it, safe or not.

The list of activities that might kill us is long. Which one is the worst can be judged by its history, but we all know that life is never that simple. Much of safety depends on what others do and what we do ourselves. Controlling those sources of risk is not always easy, thus the need for training, but what about the mechanism itself. How do you “train” a mechanism?

It’s simple. You don’t train a mechanism. You design it.

So, let’s talk about that. The first and most primary rule of fail safe design is that no single failure of the equipment used in a design, shall cause a catastrophic event. Such an event is usually interpreted as one of two things:

1 – loss of mission (in other words, the loss of the capability to accomplish the purpose of the design), or

2 – loss of life!

And now you can see clearly why I picked on bungee jumping. Even when parachuting you have a backup parachute strapped to you, but in bungee jumping, it is obvious that there is only one bungee cord. And a single failure of that single bungee cord is the difference between life and death…your life and death!

In my world, designs, plans, and schemes are said to be “single threaded” if just one failure of just one part results in a catastrophe. There are no bungee cords in the story I am about to tell you, but single threaded scenarios are all around you everyday.

Can you see them coming…the next oncoming car that slides across that single white line, that sharp knife whose one slip cuts into your flesh, or that natural gas appliance whose design has that one fatal flaw?

******

OK, does that catch your interest?  If now I wrote a chapter about a woman  bungee jumping to her death, would you have a better feeling for how realistically dangerous it would be, even though the story was simply fiction?

The Preface, which is essentially the previous chapter, caused the chapter that followed to happen.  It left a mystery waiting to unfold.  And now the next chapter in line needs to resolve the mystery of why the cord failed.  Why was she the one who died, and not someone else.  Was it an accident?   I don’t have to know the answers before I start to write.  All I have to do is create a credible situation that has danger, or failure, or death, or injury, or confusion, and let it open up questions in the reader’s mind.  From there I pick a credible question or group of questions that lead to the next chapter.  And once you start asking questions, they invariably lead to other questions.  Essentially, the story builds itself from within, and answering the matrix of the exploding tree of questions becomes the full time, increasingly desperate task of the writer, although to the reader, it looks like the protagonist of the story is doing it.

I would have to say that if the writer isn’t as stumped as the protagonist in the story, it isn’t much of a mystery!

Percent Signs

Teach people to calculate percentage, and they think they have become statistical analysts!

So, in today’s paper there is an article about how warm our fall will be because of El Niño.  It further states that history in the Northwest has shown that the presence of warm Pacific water causes our weather to be warmer.

OK, so what?

Well, the next sentence says that because of all this, NOAA says there is a 49% chance that our fall will be warmer than usual.

Excuse me!  Doesn’t that mean that there is a 51% chance it will be colder?  After all there is a zero percent chance that it will be exactly the same.

What brain dead reporter writes this stuff?

 

Stupid Smarts in More Ways than One

Teach the percent sign, and what have you wrought?

A “statistician” is born who knows not but nought!

They think that they know when they don’t have a thought!

Whatever they write, they think you have bought!

They can’t even tell when their lies have been caught!

And this is why wars with the truth have been fought!

Percentage is a thing that is not to be taught!

Reading Poems that Rhyme

just a quick comment about poems that rhyme and those that don’t.

I know someone who has a hard time reading my poetry.  As a result, it has finally dawned on me why.  In order to properly read and appreciate rhyming poetry, you have to have a sense of musical rhythm as applied to the written word.  And although most people enjoy music, evidently not all people have a built in sense of rhythm.

I guess that’s why  free verse (poems that don’t rhyme) are popular.

Fortunately, rhythm is stuck in my head.  As a result, I need poems that rhyme.  That is not to say I don’t like prose, but if it doesn’t rhyme, it just isn’t poetry to me.

Well, that’s my theory!  What’s yours?

FICTIONAL TRUTH — a poem

Hot off my fingers today…

So Much for Truth

There ain’t no science anymore
They make it up while we just snore
It’s politics and money
Coverin’ up the sun while sunny
There ain’t no science anymore

You ain’t allowed to ever hear what’s real
Politicians and the news all know the deal
They pick the lie they like the most
And that’s the only thing they post
You ain’t allowed to ever hear what’s real

Learned experts are no better than the rest
PhD’s who say they know when they’ve just guessed
They too want money, power, and fame
And hope the theory’s named their name
Learned experts are no better than the rest

All the while short on facts and long on theories
They lie and lie and lie to squelch the queries
Then charge a healthy listening fee
To all us skeptics, you and me
All the while short on facts and long on theories

There ain’t no science anymore
When crooks and liars own the store
All I hope when day is done
Is the facts’ll stop what they have spun
But…there ain’t no science anymore!

Arthur K Davenport
September, 2015

 

Some Words are Better Than Others

Fifty years of engineering have taught me the importance of the written word if nothing else.  There is actually a lot of writing involved in engineering, and precise definitions and clear instructions are of great importance.  In some cases, it can mean the difference between life and death.

And having now written three novels, I find wording continues to be of great interest to me.  So, I watch what “professional” writers write.  And, I tend to make fun of them.  Forgive me!

From the RELIGION/NATION page of the KITSAP SUN, Friday, July 10, 2015.

1 —  In an article titled “U.S. in haze from Canada’s fires” there is a reference to actions taken in the province of Alberta:

“Alberta said Wednesday it was bringing in 62 firefighters from Mexico to help battle 92 wildfires burning in the province, including 33 listed as out of control.”

My question:  what 33 are out of control, wildfires or Mexicans?  Why not say, “…33 fires listed as burning out of control.”  Does that use too much ink?

2 — And just below that is the heading of another article:  “Push to reduce dying fish stressed by heat.”

Now you have to admit that there is quite a bit of room for interpretation.  I mean really, if the fish are dying from the heat, they are already being reduced!  What would you do, turn up the heat?

The Hole In The Wall Gang

INTRODUCTION

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, move over! This not about you two.  It is a mystery, one that started taking shape in 1839.  Even today, not all agree on the solution.

I’ll try to keep this as non-technical as I can, but it may be somewhat daunting for the casual reader. If you don’t find it interesting, I won’t take offense.

WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT HERE?

This is about the flow of fluid through a hole in a wall, in other words, an orifice.

HISTORY

I was going to say, Since The Dawn of Man, but I don’t think we have to go back that far.

1839 — Adhémar Jean Claude Barré de Saint-Venant (now there’s a name for you) and Pierre Laurent Wantzel developed the first correct compressible flow equations for ideal flow in a nozzle.  Tests seemed to show that there is a limit to the flow that can get through the hole.  If you divide the upstream pressure into the downstream pressure, the resulting pressure ratio appeared to not produce higher flow once that ratio reached 0.4.

1885 — Osborne Reynolds independently derived the same equations and theorized (no test data as far as I know) that the flow is limited by the speed of sound through the orifice.

1916 — Lord Rayleigh (born John William Strutt) figured that things were not resolved and asked a guy named Hartshorn to dig into it.  Sorry to say that there are so many Hartshorns around, I’m not sure which one he is.  I’ll keep looking for him.  At any rate, his tests showed that there was no choke point at the sonic pressure ratio.  In fact he saw increased flow all the way down  to a pressure ratio of 0.2.

1926 — Stanton pointed out that the orifice vena contracta changes in size, depending on the pressure ratio, and he had photos to prove it.

[I know, you’re wondering what a “vena contracta” is.  Without too many words, the flow coming out of an orifice is “pinched” to a size that is smaller than the actual hole size, and the issue is that the amount of pinching is affected by the pressure ratio — the smaller the pressure ratio, the bigger the flow area of the vena contracta.]

1945 — Chester Smith published an article that set things back.  He claimed that the flow was limited by the actual hole size and the speed of sound, thus ignoring the change in the size of the vena contracta.  And you can’t even criticize his work because he says it wasn’t his!  He says he learned this from V. Petrovsky, but you can’t even question Mr. Petrovsky because he had died prior to the publishing of the article.

This is the so-called “choked flow” theory of orifice flow.  It shows up in some textbooks.  It’s what they taught me in college.  And, amazingly enough, it is still in use, even though it has been thoroughly disproved since 1926.  Check the Internet.  You’ll still find people who believe it.

1949 — Perry, and back to sanity.  His Masters Thesis shows test data for small diameter ratios (orifice diameter divided by pipe diameter).  Chester Smith missed the mark.

1951 — Grace and Lapple developed an equation covering flow for small diameter ratios.

1951 — Cunningham expanded the known data to a wide range of orifice diameter ratios.

TODAY

Now you can sit around and argue over this, but the fact remains that there is a lot of good test data that shows the idea of “choked flow” in orifices is simply wrong.  No one is saying that the speed of sound is not involved, but what the data shows is that the size of the vena contracta varies with pressure ratio.  It’s no “CHOKE”!

Thacher’s Slide Rule — Thirty Feet of Numbers!

The slide rule shown on my home page is mine.  It is true that I broke it by not packing it properly for shipment in its later years, but I will never throw it away.  Here is a picture showing the crack.

midsize-Moon-SR-3

It was my first slide rule.  It cost around $20, which was a fortune to me as a starting freshman at Stevens Institute of Technology, but for a kid who had a predilection  for numbers, it was a marvel.  And it went on to help design a lot of great stuff, not the least of which was the Apollo Back Pack.  It couldn’t spit out 50 decimal places, only three at most.

But there was Thacher.  My slide rule is only a foot long.  His was 30 feet long — no way to hang that from your belt!  And now I own one.  Of course it’s too late.  I’m retired.

IMG_2384

It has a slide as you can see and many progressive scales that make up the thirty feet.  I won’t bore you with the details of its history.  You can find out all you want by looking on web, for instance:

http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1131290

The one thing my original slide rule and the Thacher I own have in common.  They were made by the same manufacturer, K&E.

 

What Do You Think?

Thinking it Over

I don’t mind being thought a fool, as long as I am not the one who is doing the thinking.

Wait!

If I am not doing the thinking, maybe I am not doing any thinking.  Maybe I am a fool.  Maybe if I were doing the thinking, I wouldn’t be a fool.  Or else I’m fooling myself by thinking that I’m not doing the thinking.  Yet, I did say that it was OK as long as I was not the one who is doing the thinking.

Wow, this is hard.  Think about it!  If you don’t think you are a fool, and others do think you are a fool, maybe the “don’t think” part really is you.

I’ll have to think about this.

OK, I thought about it.

I think I’m a fool.

Hold it!

Hold it!

Hold it!

I changed my mind.  After having thought and thought and thought and thought and thought, I think I’m thinking.  So, I’m not a fool after all.

Phew!

Wait!

Maybe I only think I’m thinking…

HIDDEN FAILURE…WHY, CHAPTER 1, and CHAPTER 2

hidden failure

Why Write Hidden Failure?

My engineering career has been spent working for three very different large companies:  The United States Air Force, Hamilton Standard (now called Hamilton Sunstrand), and Boeing.  Drawing on my experience with both successes and failures of complex systems, I wrote Hidden Failure.  So, it is fair to ask if any system I worked on ever killed anyone.  I should leave that question unanswered so it would add intrigue to this post, but that would be overly dramatic.  The answer is, no.

The fictional company in this story is not so lucky.  So, why write the story?  Sometimes the details are dangerous.  Consider it a warning.

###########################

Hidden Failure

1

Freedom

I knew I would always grieve for my now dead family, but I had thought that if I killed the murderer, the grief and rage would soften its grip on me. And in truth, when I finally killed the murderer, the rage did disappear, but the grief, much to my surprise, enlarged. It was as though the grief swallowed the rage, and they became one. You don’t just walk away from killing a human being and find freedom, regardless of how justified the act of taking another’s life without mercy may be.

I attended his funeral uninvited. And there stood Bradley Smithton’s family, his friends, his acquaintances — some in tears, some angry, some trying to hide their joy at his death — and me. I stood off near a line of parked cars, and watched, feeling nothing.

And then I saw a pair of eyes that watched the watcher — a pair I would see again — a woman’s.

2

The Long Fast Fall

The shaking began 9 miles above the earth at a speed of Mach 2.1. He backed off to 1.8 — and still it shook – even harder. Slowing to 1.6, he was sure that pieces were coming off the skin, at 1.3, off the structure. The noise of it added to his fear. The human missile/airplane hurtled through the sky. He nearly froze, stuck in a fear bigger than his mind could hold. He struggled with the controls. The controls stopped responding. The noise increased. And now the speed increased. The displays went blank. The nose went down. He tried everything to stop it. He saw the ground coming up at him. He knew it was a populated area. He held back on ejecting as long as he could, but when the time came to punch out, it didn’t work. It was no surprise. He knew he couldn’t eject at that speed. So, he watched in horror, fixated on the coming point of impact. He couldn’t even speak anymore. And what took mere seconds seemed like an hour to him.

The plane hit the terrain at a speed above the muzzle velocity of a handgun and below that of a rifle, mostly intact until impact, but in a mindless state. And the houses it destroyed were gone in an instant. So were the families – the husbands, the wives, the children. And it happened in the blackness of night.

It had been Bill’s third flight as a test pilot in the XF3. He had worked hard to get that position on the testing of an advanced fighter, one that compensated for it’s own loss of control surface capabilities, a plane with a mind of its own. And that night it lost its mind and took Bill’s with it, body and soul.

The preliminary verdict on the crash was that the pilot could not have done anything about it. It wasn’t the usual conclusion of “pilot error.” Enter, the unknown.

The two other experimental XF3’s were grounded. The maker of the control compensating system, Air Electron Inc., was called on the block, but Greg Kostle, the program’s Chief Engineer, was in no shape to explain anything. The pilot had been his son, William Kostle, an ex-Navy fighter pilot who was working as a civilian test pilot for NASA before he had landed nose down that night. And the grief had struck hard.

Days later, just when Air Electron desperately needed the person with the most history on the program, just when the lawyers of the families of those killed were jockeying for first place in the queue for lawsuits, just as these same families were lost in unimaginable pain, and just when Greg Kostle was still deep in his own personal grief, Greg Kostle disappeared.

And the very next day he appeared again, but now he was wet, and cold, and floating, and dead.

###########################

I read these two first chapters at a local library a few months back.  I don’t think it was what they had in mind, but Hidden Failure was what I wanted to write about!

Beyond the Breakers…Why, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2

Beyond_the_Breakers_Cover_for_Kindle

Why Write Beyond the Breakers?

Eventually, everyone faces tragic grief. At some point they will lose someone dear to them. Sometimes it seems normal, as when a person dies at an old age. And then there are those other cases of prolonged illness, or the long lingering results of an accident, or a killing that results in premature death.

When it comes to the emptiness and pain of loss, arguably the worst loss is the sudden and unexpected death of your child.  The death may be only at their start in life, or they may die in the midst of discovery at any age. What is left are unfinished lives, torn from their goals and their dreams far earlier than life’s intent. And your future dies with them.

The world goes on with the merest of notice. You want to scream, but you can’t, for it won’t help. Or, writing skills be damned, you want to put something down on paper that reminds the world of the wonder that’s been lost, but you can’t, not because you can’t write, but because you can’t write about it. And who will read it anyway?

So, that’s where I am stuck. My son of twenty-four years died suddenly, three thousand miles away from his mother and me. It has been nearly twenty years since…and I still cry.

Writing this book makes it no better. It is not my way of “letting it out,” but it is a story that knows why it screams in lonely silence. It is a fiction about non-fiction reality that all too many of us experience. I am not the protagonist, but I know how he feels. I know how he breathes. And I know how he yearns for justice. In my son’s case, the murderer was an accident, a wisp of fate. In the case of the son of the fictional Dale Riley Richards, it was an intentional bullet.

###########################

Beyond the Breakers

1 – The Ocean

Long Island is about 110 miles long east to west and about 30 miles wide at the thickest part north to south. That’s where I grew up – to the left of the middle.

Along the southern side there are a number of thin islands close to shore. The one separated from Long Island by Great South Bay is called Jones Beach Island. It contains Jones Beach State Park, which covers 6.5 miles of the island’s ten-mile length. It’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and has more sand than you could ever want to play in.

As a family, we often went to Jones Beach to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. I loved it there. Sometimes after my dad got home from work, we quickly drove out there and ate cold fried chicken and cold boiled potatoes in the cooling ocean breeze of the early evening. And the water was freezing too. It was great!

When I go there now my senses fill up with memories, mostly of the waves, beautiful and terrifying, waves that would knock the largest man down without any effort. The day after a hurricane went through, I once saw waves higher than the top of our house roof ­– power beyond belief – power from Hell! As a boy, I used to stand at the water’s edge and watch the waves come ashore in wild chaos, crashing down as frightening breakers, or so it seemed to me, fascinated and fearful. I couldn’t swim very well then, and have remained so, but I never even thought about the actual drowning process. It was simply the power of the breakers, simultaneously beautiful and deadly, that I feared. And yet the greatest lesson of my life was theirs to give me.

When the ocean was relatively calm, I could walk far out in the freezing water, but eventually a wave would always rise up to attack me. The fear of that wave, not of drowning, would overtake me, over wash me with shear unthinking terror, and there I was, just a little boy alone. I would run with legs as in a dream, slow, impeded, fighting the irresistible undertow, and seldom did I outrun the inevitable. I would tumble in a world of sand, water, violence, and darkness, drinking in the very wave I feared. I never cried, but it was my personal solid proof that going beyond the breakers was never to be done.

I look at ocean waves now, and they calm me down. Back then they were a living nightmare. Other children my age and younger would enter the water and go out beyond the breakers. “Just get beyond the breakers,” my parents would say, but I knew they were wrong. Yet, deep inside of me, the will and strength to do it was there all the time and growing. And then one day I did, and I became stronger than the ocean that threatened me. The ocean became calm for me in the midst of fury, chaos, and destruction.

The fear didn’t leave me, but now I knew its name, its face, its illusion. Now I could trick it, outsmart it, defy it.

And then I grew up and married, and we had a son who would hopefully someday learn the lesson of the breakers, but instead, in an instant, my wife and child were gone, as if washed out to sea by a violent, irresistible undertow, far beyond the breakers – lost in the darkness, yelling my name and yet uttering not a word, forever beyond my reach.


2 – The Aftermath

The murderer was never caught, and his reasons for the murder were drowned in a sea of ignorance.

I had been brought up a Christian, yet I couldn’t believe it was God’s will.   Still, it was one of God’s creations that had shot them. One lone breaker had finally risen to a height that I couldn’t cross. And it continued to grow as the minutes and hours flew by. Along with that breaker came an unrelenting undertow – grief, hatred, and darkness – the searing confusion of the greatest loss. I knew to approach the wave would bring more destruction, maybe my own, but I wasn’t ready to stop hating it. Those of you who have been through deep grief know what I mean. You would do anything to destroy the destroyer, even at the risk of your own life, but what was the name of the wave? No one knew.

I was left without my family, and surprisingly without some who had called me friend. They could leave rather than face it. I had no choice. The only thing I had left was a dying dog that hung on for what, for me? I don’t know. Maybe she wanted vengeance, and knew she couldn’t get it if she died. It was her family too. She had to know something about the horror. She was there. She was part of it. How deep can a dog think? Where was the reasoning in any of it?

Still, Esther hung on. She had been shot once, and after two nights at the vet, she returned home bandaged and on death’s brink. The vet held out no hope, but there we were in our house, just Esther and me. Esther was a comfort to me between the tears, and sometimes even while they rained down.   A few friends, relatives, and even strangers offered advice and food. Esther offered only extremely weak and intensely sad eyes, her breathing abnormal and labored. Strangely, at least to me, food was a big part of it. It was probably about the only real comfort that got through the haze along with Esther.

On went the ocean, waves of grief, waves of anger, waves of bewilderment, and the undertow of hatred for the person that did this.

I remember thinking soon after it happened, “Two hours ago they were fully alive, unharmed…three hours…four hours…a day…a week. How can it be true and yet seem so untrue? Let’s fix this mistake before it becomes permanent.”   And at that point my body would almost come to a complete stop.

Their names? You want to know their names? It’s hard even now to say them to people. They’re gone, and I feel so responsible for the thing that I could not possibly have predicted or prevented. I can just barely talk about it, but say their names, and it becomes too real to talk at all. I can only say them to Esther. Ask her. She’s still alive.

What purpose was there to leaving me here and taking them? They deserved their lives. They were good. Why kill good people? Why maim an innocent dog. Why give it the pain of a long recovery? Esther never barks anymore – for joy, for anything, with few exceptions. And the point is?

How can God allow this? Why fill me with hate and grief?

The police had all but given up. And I didn’t see why they had any reason to go on. Unlike the police, I had no choice, neither did Esther. “Move along, there’s nothing more to see here.”

I can’t. I won’t.

#########################

OK, Beyond the Breakers sounds pretty depressing, but you must know that the protagonist means to have his revenge.  I simply gave him a reason to do so.  That’s all.  And now he must find the killer, deal with him, and repair his life as best he can!

DATA…GOOD OR BAD? — Part Two: BIASED DATA

Before I go on talking about the pitfalls of dealing with data, I thought I would say a few things about writing  for this web site.   The other day I was thinking that I should really name it “My Own Two Cents dot com.”  Writing is a egocentric act in many ways.  If you keep it to yourself, I guess it falls out of that category, but doing what I do here does at times seem rather self-centered.  So, I looked up myowntwocents.com in a search engine.  I figured someone must have a site by that name.  Turns out that there is no such web site…but I could buy the name for $2495.00.  Now that was funny, to me anyway.  TWO CENTS would only cost me $2495.00!

So, why do I write these blogs for all to see?

I write because I enjoy the flow of what passes for logic in my brain down onto paper, the written word.  We all spend our lives wondering why most people don’t truly appreciate our thoughts about things, and the older we get, the longer the list becomes.  This blog and my novels are my list.  The blog is free and the novels are cheap.  Read what you want.  Then make your own list.

*****

So, back to talking about my logic and how it applies to data.  Feel free to comment.  I refuse to roast criticism, although I may comment back politely.  Don’t worry about embarrassment, The Novel Slide Rule doesn’t get many visitors, but the visitor list does cover a very wide range of countries.  That also surprises me.

*****

“Watch Out!”

If someone says that to you, are your senses heightened?  Now let’s say someone asks you to collect observations for them.  Are you liable to see things that you never noticed before?  There lies the problem.

A number of years ago a government agency that we all know was brought in to investigate a particular set of employee complaints about working conditions that seemed to be causing illnesses in the employees.  It was in an area that was of interest to me, so I read their report.  The report contained one rather silly mathematical mistake, but we can forget that for now.  It is what the report failed to contain that is of interest.

The level of complaints included those recorded both before and after the agency was on site working with the employees.  However, the report never presented the data as a function of time.  And as a function of time, it looked like this.  Before the agency came on site, the level was five complaints per month.  While the agency was on site, the level was ten complaints per month.  After the agency left, the level immediately dropped back to five complaints per month.

Now you can read anything you like into that, but be careful.  It is just data without explanation.  To its credit, the agency did a thorough check of possible causes, and no cause was ever found for any of the complaints.  Guessing is not an option at this point.

I have witnessed similar situations for other types of reported observations at least twice.  In both cases, the level of observations slowly returned to “normal” in about a year.  The observers in question were aware at the beginning that the levels were out of proportion to “normal”.  How did they know this?  Probably this can be blamed on two causes:  word of mouth rumors and the fact that they were asked to specifically look for the problem.  Eventually the excitement of the problem grew dim in the minds of the observers, and it disappeared.

I’m sure the world of psychology has already noticed this effect and written extensively about it, but I’m afraid that general data taking by public or private observations doesn’t always keep that in mind, maybe seldom keeps that in mind.

So, be careful how data is gathered by observation.   Try hard to keep the human mind out of the picture.

Just remember how many times you said in anger to a friend or loved one, “You always do that!”  No they don’t!  You didn’t really keep track.  You just think you did.  Prove it with objective data, or better yet, cut them some slack!

DATA…GOOD OR BAD? — Part One: A MATHEMATICAL MODEL EXAMPLE

Extrapolation:  The riskiest form of prediction.

It has been said that when you are afraid that people will think you are a fool, don’t open your mouth and remove all doubt.  That is precisely the risk involved in making a prediction based upon someone else’s theory, especially if you do not fully understand the theory.

To that end I will tell you a true story.  I have left out some of the names as my intent is not to embarrass.

The propagation of disease by the inhaling of airborne particles of the disease is of no small interest.  And I will tell you up front that it is not my area of expertise…but when has that ever stopped me.

A colleague of mine was studying airborne disease propagation, and I kept hearing about the “Wells-Riley” equation.  It is an equation that looks at propagation as a process of inhaling disease carrying particles in quantities called, oddly enough, “quanta”.  The theory is that if you inhale a single quanta of diseased particles, you will get the disease.  I’m purposely leaving out two important issues for the moment, but don’t worry about them for now.

OK, so along comes the equation.  It’s relatively simple, it’s elegant, and unfortunately for a particular group of researchers, it was beguiling.

Do you remember the anthrax scare?  Sure you do.  There were stories of letters and packages being delivered by mail.  In them was a powder which usually was harmless, but was thought initially to be anthrax, a deadly source of disease.  One such incident involved what I think was the main Washington D.C. Post Office.  This then became the focus of a now published study.  The study was done for good reason.  There were unanswered questions about how difficult it was to provide sufficient protection against the threat of anthrax, and since that post office had actually been attacked, it appeared to be an ideal case to study using the Wells-Riley equation.  Sounds perfect, doesn’t it.

When my collegue first showed me the equation, it looked strangely familiar.  So, I looked at a statistics book and confirmed that the equation was actually a form of the Poisson Distribution equation for the probability of having one or more encounters with a single item that is randomly distributed.  So, here is the first thing I neglected to tell you.  In their original paper, to their credit, Wells and Riley mentioned that very fact.  We’ll get back to this.

The next thing I didn’t tell you is that each type of disease is thought to require a different number of separate particles (identical particles in theory) in order to form a single “quanta”.  That is, not all diseases have a single particle quanta.  Most require several particles to form a quanta.  The only disease with a single particle quanta as far as I know is tuberculosis, and as I said. this is not my field of expertise.  I have heard that the common cold requires a few hundred particles before a quanta is reached.  Anthrax supposedly requires thousands of particles to make up one quanta.  This is important to know because the Wells-Riley equation only works for a single particle quanta.  If it takes more than a single particle to make up one quanta, the equation has to be modified to include more terms.

And there lies the problem.  The Wells-Riley theory freely admits that it only covers the one particle quanta problem.  If you are dealing with a disease that requires thousands of particles to form one quanta, you need to add thousands of separate terms of the Poisson Distribution equation to run the proper calculation.  As it turns out, the conclusion reached by the anthrax researchers was off by a very substantial amount for just this reason.  As mentioned above, anthrax requires thousands of separate particles to constitute one quanta.

A foot note for this is that no one seemed to be sure at that time how many particles are in a quanta for any given disease or any type of particle that carries the disease.  I would also guess that a quanta for one person is not necessarily a quanta for some other person.  So at best, you can only look at this from the standpoint of the “average” person, whoever that is.

As I said up front, this is not my area of expertise.  I presume that the study of disease propagation has moved on since this incident.  This is just an example of one of the pitfalls of dealing with data where adequate theories have yet to be promulgated.  “All that glitters is not gold.”

 

 

 

Survival of the Fattest

As many of you know, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States.  And a large part of it involves eating.  Admittedly, the United States has abundant food, although some of our citizens run a bit low on the stuff.  So, for Thanksgiving, I will provide you with the longest poem I have ever written:

Survival of the Fattest

I took a survey just for fun

I asked each and every one

If they thought that they were greedier than I

 

I assumed they understood

And they weren’t up to no good

And that half should have been low and half been high

 

For I’m a median sort of man

In the middle of the span

Surely it would turn out as I said

 

So, I wrote down their conclusions

And hoped had no illusions

But as I figured all the numbers in my head

 

It seemed it wasn’t so at all

Not even close, as I recall

For I fell far below the greed I thought I had

 

It seemed there was a large delight

In being at the height

And the implications of this fact are rather sad

 

But think! It makes good sense

In the logic of events

That the guy who has the most is bound to last

 

Evolution (Darwin’s guess)

Was surely bound to bless

The greediest of the greedies in the past

 

You think it’s just a spoof?

You want objective proof?

Well take a moment friend and simply look around

 

Little cars are getting big

And we each eat like a pig

So you see my theory really is quite sound

 

Once resigned to such a case

You’re quick to say you have no trace

Of remorse for what you want or how you act

 

It’s the natural scheme of things

Certainly of the truth it rings

Greed is really good, and that’s a fact

 

You see it as a drive

To keep you and yours alive

Why then is greed a bad thing for too seek?

 

I suppose it’s the institution

Of the word called distribution

For the average guy is well below the peak

 

But surely competition

Prevents the repetition

Of a strategy of life that always looses

 

A lack of greed will weed you out

Your offspring will be few no doubt

While the greedy guy has all the kids he chooses

 

But the wrench within the gears

Is that things do change with years

Nothing stays the same — no status quo

 

Since the greedier we get

As though Darwin drove us yet

We must ask ourselves how far this thing will go?

 

Is it not greed that starts all wars

Annihilates millions by the scores

Creates the hatred in our hearts for wrongs past done?

 

If we follow at this pace

Will we delete the human race

To the point that left standing is just one?

 

But how to rid us of this plague

Is an issue that is vague

It’s as if a gear inside a clock

 

Said, “I’m just a cog, I would opine

But even so, I’ll redesign

These works to stop the Tick, but save the Tock

 

For all our wisdom, we’re but small

So even though we know it all

We cannot change one tiny part of all this greed

 

We have instituted laws

But greed is still a mighty cause

And our plan is lacking something that we need

 

Take ethics for example

For although money is quite ample

Among the rich who seem to need more all the time

 

Their view is “take what’s showing

Especially if it’s glowing

For as long as you’re not caught, it is no crime!”

 

So much for jurisprudence

It’s wasted on the students

Of the greedy gots who run the railroad on this earth

 

For although you think giving

Is the better part of living

The greedies will just grab for all you’re worth

 

We also tried religion

Which we thought might help a smidgen

Maybe moral codes will do the trick?

 

Oh, but wait, remember war

And how many were fought for

Religious codes that generally make one sick

 

Even in written words

When we talk of worms and birds

It’s the guy who gets there first who gets it all

 

So if you want to be not needy

Then you’d better turn quite greedy

Or you’re the one who’ll have to take the fall

 

I guess I’m back where from I came

I still see things the same

But, I haven’t solved the problem that I found

 

Like world hunger, wars, and illness

Or the noise that shatters stillness

I’m convinced that greed will always be around

 

Art Davenport

February 2000

A WRITING EXERCISE — THE WALL

I belong to a local writer’s group that meets twice a month.  I was not at the last meeting in October and just saw the “homework” that was generated at the meeting.  Not having much time, I wrote something that doesn’t quite fit the request.  The request was to write a short story of 500 to 1500 words that ends in “And the ghost slowly faded through the wall.”

Here is my entry:

THE WALL

The night I died

I almost cried

It seemed so sad to see

But then I found

Once in the ground

It wasn’t bad “To be

Or not to be” alive in life

With all the strife

That filled my days with pain

And tears that fell,

As streams from Hell,

That turned the sun to rain

So now I rest

And try my best

To scare the living with a laugh

Those beings who

Are living through

A life that’s filled with chaff

Nightly is my time to roam

I startle them with slightest moan

Then tell myself a joke to bring my smile

Followed by laughing loud revealing

In them that so loathsome feeling

That life may end in just another mile

For what is life but fear of death

That near is the day you’ll lose your breath

And freshened air will never once return

Life rushes by

And with your eye

You see your end, a lonely clay-like urn

But urn or grave

You’re not a slave

To fear of death and rot

You’re free at last

To have a blast

Scaring those whose death is not

“Perchance to dream”

Just may not seem

So bad once you have left

Along a path that has no sound,

Ensconced or underground,

Where you’ll find you finally have no heft

And for that very reason

You’ve reached that very season

Where your matter doesn’t matter much at all

The living will surely feel the fear

Of having one like you so near

And say the moment you disappear,

“Thank God that ghost has faded through the wall!”

Art Davenport, 2014

Stories From an Engineering Office – #1- A Female Engineer is Hired

It happened around 1970. An exact date is beyond my memory, but I can tell you the following.

Our department within Hamilton Standard consisted of about two hundred people during the many years of the development of the Apollo Portable Life Support System (PLSS) and the environmental control system for the Lunar Excursion Module. Most of the two hundred were engineers, male engineers. True, we did employ one female engineer, but not in an engineering position. She had received her degree in the 1940’s as I recall, and she appeared satisfied with the type of work that she did. Why was she our only female engineer? I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think it was a lack of appreciation of the engineering abilities of women. The fact was that there simply weren’t many women in the profession at that time.  And what a time it was.

Our first hiring in the new era of a young woman engineer right out of college happened after we had finished our designs for Apollo, made the hardware, tested it, and provided it to NASA. In fact, it had already gone to the Moon. So that left just about exactly an acre of space without cubicles, a sea of desks and drawing boards containing no computers or even calculators, awash in engineers that had no contract left to support them. We then did what any upstanding company would do under the circumstances.  We started laying people off.

By the time layoffs had run their course, the leavings looked pretty bleak. Coffee mug stained empty desks were everywhere.  Those two hundred people had done a spectacular job of putting the first man on the Moon for their country, and now the country was done with them. It was truly a sad thing to see.

However, as most upstanding companies will do under such circumstances, our department went hunting for new work.  Slowly it began to happen. New work started to emerge, but it was too late for those who were transferred to other parts of the company or who had been layed off. And one day, into this sparse atmosphere, walked our first female engineer of the new era. I never met her. I never knew her name.  Why, you ask?  Read on!

This young woman had hired on to work on a project funded by the new EPA. It was that and the fact that her brother was nearby in a school for either the blind or the deaf, just another detail I don’t remember. She had accepted the offer from Hamilton based upon those two items.

The story gets kind of bizarre at this point. Her new boss, being one of us, a man that is, blindly insensitive to the aesthetics that please women, set her down at a desk in the middle of several other empty desks. He then piled half the desk high with documents having nothing to do with the EPA contract, told her to study them, and informed her that the EPA contract was delayed for a while, and she would have to do other work instead. He then turned and walked away. And just to top it all off, the desk was filthy.

I’m sure none of this was done on purpose. They would have done the same, maybe worse, if they just hired a young man. And the young man would simply have said, “OK.” Ah, but this was no simple case. This person was a young woman. The very next day I watched from my desk, maybe thirty feet away, as two guards escorted her out of our one acre wasteland of a department, never to be seen again. Goodbye, whoever you are! It was one of those “What just happened?” moments.

Later that day, one of our young male engineers stopped by my desk. If anyone would have the whole story, he would. He told me about her desire to work on the EPA contract and her desire to be near her brother. And he said in amazement that she had been displeased with what she had experienced upon arrival less than twenty-four hours earlier and had quit right then and there.

And then he said a curious thing. “If it happened to a man, he wouldn’t quit.  We don’t have the guts!”

ON THE AIR AROUND THE WORLD

I went on the air in 1954 and became known as KN2JOY — K, because I lived in the United States; N, because I was a novice; 2, because I lived in New York State; and JOY, because the FCC must have thought I was happy, and I was. I was awarded a license to transmit radio signals by the FCC.  And “JOY” just happened to be the next set of letters on their list.  The friend who did it with me got “JOZ”.

I was fourteen years old, and I was a ham radio operator. It hadn’t been too many years after our home phone number was simply 1220, four digits, that was all. There were no area codes then. You needed an operator to get long distance, and long distance was not all that long, but when KN2JOY went on the air, anything was possible…the whole world could hear me, and I could hear them, at least in theory, and that was exciting.  As confirmation of my contacts  I would send out what is called a QSL card.  Here is the first one I ever received back.

K2JOZ QSL CARD

I didn’t invent radio, but I felt like I had. I had built two Heathkits: an AT1 transmitter and an AR2 receiver. I had put up a long wire antenna that was about twelve feet above the ground. I had a simple telegraph key, and I was connected to the largest “grid” on planet Earth — RADIO. A year later I passed another test and became simply K2JOY, a ham with a General Class license.

K2 JOY QSL CARD

I built another transmitter using money I made during the summers, a Johnson Viking Ranger, one beautiful, top of the line unit.

And then life began to happen. My mother became ill. My dad needed money because of it. I sold the Ranger and gave him the money. My mother died, and life changed. Ham radio fell out of my life, and several years later I was an officer in the USAF and a new husband.

A lot of years followed that, years without a license to transmit. And then in 2002, at the encouragement of a friend, I became known on air as K7WST with an Extra Class amateur radio license this time. I’m not obsessive about it, but even without an obsession, I have enjoyed contacts with other ham radio operators all around the globe, not just the East coast. My antennas now reach sixty feet above the ground, and my first signals as K7WST are now light years out into space and well behind those of that old K2JOY guy.

The first reaction among many people is, “Why bother? Today we have cell phones and the internet. You can contact anyone on the planet with no effort whatsoever.” It’s a fair question. And it represents the point where those of us in amateur radio say, “They just don’t get it, do they.” Well actually, millions of people do get it. There are literally millions of people around the world who are licensed amateurs. In the U.S. alone, one in every four hundred people are licensed hams. In my town of just a little over twenty thousand people, there are one hundred and seventy-one licensed amateur radio operators. Given that, there are at least one hundred and seventy-one different reasons for why they do it. Some because they like the gadgets, some because they like the challenge of making contacts around the globe, some because they want to help their community during times of disaster. Some of them are gregarious, extroverted people. Some are introverted. It doesn’t matter. You can be any type of person and enjoy amateur radio. You can be the most private person in the world and still like contacting other stations thousands of miles away.  And come on, do you really know someone in Bora Bora who is willing to accept your phone call or email?  You can bet there is a ham there who will listen to your morse code!

You can design and build your own equipment and antennas, or you can buy those same types of equipment and antennas from a myriad of companies in the amateur radio business. The ways you can lead your ham radio life are nearly endless.

Admittedly, amateur radio requires your learning about many technical issues, but you don’t have to be an engineer or scientist to do it. Plenty of people of all ages and backgrounds get licensed. There are numerous cases of children under ten years old who have licenses. And what do they receive in return? They learn about the sun, the atmosphere, even the ground and the oceans. They learn that you can bounce signals off just about anything: the moon, buildings, mountains, the Northern and Southern Lights. They learn about geography, time zones, sun up, and sun down.

And if you like competitive events, amateur radio has many, many contests for a wide ranging list of interests.

So, let’s look at amateur radio in more detail.

What Does a Station Look Like?

In its simplest form, all you need us a transmitter, a receiver, and an antenna. Nowadays, transmitters are usually built as one unit, a transceiver. Here is how I started back in 2002.

Ops-Position

The transceiver is a used ICOM IC-737. At the time I had been awarded AC7VM for a call sign, but having an Extra Class license, I was allowed to pick a different unused call sign. I chose K7WST. Why that? Well, it had some advantages. First, it is rhythmic for the hand when sending it by Morse code. Second, WST are my wife’s maiden initials. I could have waited to get a call with just two letters after the seven, but that takes a lot of waiting.

The antenna was a GAP (a manufacturer) multi-band (meaning it worked for several different frequency ranges) vertical. Vertical antennas tend to pick up more noise, but they send your signal out at a low angle, which usually gets you longer distances. And in fact, my longest distance contact was made with that antenna. I still use it today.

My station today has picked up a few more transmitters, receivers, a new transceiver, and two long wire antennas. I won’t go into all the details, but here is what my station looks like now.  It’s actually the QSL card I use at present.

QSL-2014

What can you do with an amateur radio station?

We’ve touched on this subject, but there is a lot more to learn. I, for instance, pretty much only use Morse code. I could say that I do that because my wife is related to Samuel F. B. Morse, which she is, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I like sending code. It’s fun. It also tends to go longer distances and still be understandable. It doesn’t take as much power as voice transmission, and it doesn’t take as much bandwidth (the spread of frequencies that comprise your signal).

When I got my license, you had to know Morse code. Now you don’t. So you can just use your voice if you like. I made a contact with someone in Brazil by voice, with only five watts! And that brings up another issue. How much power can you use? There is a limit, a legal limit. It’s fifteen hundred watts. That’s plenty. I would guess that many, if not most hams use a hundred watts or less. Most transceivers are built for one hundred watts. If you limit yourself to a maximum of five watts, it is recognized in the ham world as “QRP”, meaning low power. Some contests and other awards require that you use the QRP mode.

One of the more interesting awards that is not a contest is set up by a British group, IOTA, Islands On The Air. The idea is to contact all of the saltwater surrounded islands on their list. Check them out at rsgbiota.org on the web.

Besides contests and awards programs, you can participate in disaster support, collect contacts with stations at a great distance from you (DX’ing), experiment with radio designs, or just find a good friend and talk.

How does your signal go around the world?

No doubt you have heard of the ionosphere. If you haven’t, I’ll give you a simplified explanation. It is a series of layers containing ionized (electrically charged) particles (electrons, atoms, and molecules). It is at a height of about 30 miles to 600 miles above sea level. It changes constantly, especially from day to night, but also as a result of the activities of the sun. At any rate, it was amateur radio operators that found they could bounce signals off the ionosphere, thus getting the signals to travel well beyond the horizon. The distance from a station to the place where it’s signal hits the earth again after bouncing off the ionosphere is typically around two thousand miles. And it can then bounce back up and continue bouncing around the globe. Under the right set of conditions, it will actually bounce all the way around and back to the originating station. Conclusion? You can potentially contact anyone anywhere on the face of the Earth!

OK, there are a few problems with this story. Storms interfere, the state of the sun determines the strength of the ionosphere, and of course, someone has to be listening and hear your transmission. If there were no challenge to doing it, if it were easy, why bother? Challenges in life are part of the fun. You will find, however, that it won’t take long before you have contacted any number of far off places.

At very high and ultra high frequencies, especially the latter, things don’t bounce off the ionosphere well. They go right on through, but you can still bounce your signal off the Moon. True, it takes specialized equipment, but many hams do it.

This is only a broad look at how radio waves propagate. As you get more into amateur radio, you’ll learn a lot more.

Acronyms and Abbreviations 

Probably more than any other sport, hobby, or profession, except medicine, amateur radio has a long list of specialized terms, acronyms, and abbreviations. And there is a good reason for it all, brevity on air. In addition to all that, it carries with it the terminology of mechanical, electrical, and electronic engineering, and now, computing. Ham radio covers a wide range of technologies, anything from the mechanical aspects of putting up large towers capable of withstanding storms to the use of computers to operate transceivers and other devices.

Obviously, this booklet is too small to provide explanations for all the terminology you may encounter, and you shouldn’t be worried about it anyway. You’ll learn as you go, and you don’t have to know it all, just as much as you need. It’s always easy to look things up. The ARRL website and others can provide lists of abbreviations and acronyms that are particular to ham radio.

Clubs

There are clubs galore. They are great places to find help. They are great places to find like minded hams. Probably the mother of them all is the Amateur Radio Relay League, the ARRL. You can find them at www.arrl.org. They publish a monthly magazine, “QST”. Yearly membership in the ARRL is not very expensive, and you get QST monthly as part of the deal, either as a paper magazine or an ezine, or both.

Without looking very hard, you will find local clubs in your area.

Reading Material 

There seems to be no end of books and magazines about ham radio. The ARRL publishes a pretty long list, including a set of very helpful books on how to get ready to pass the needed tests.  And then there is the internet. Go there and go crazy!

$$$?

Money, it’s always money! OK, so it can be expensive or cheap. There is used equipment all over the place for good prices, including on the Internet. Just learn first. Get to know other hams. Their advice will be a great help. Virtually all hams are happy to be helpful. If you have only a little money to spend, you can always find what you need, even if it means fixing a transceiver that no longer works, building a kit, or waiting until you find the best deal. Antennas can be the cheapest part of the whole thing, or you can spend until you’re blue in the face. At any rate, cheap or expensive, the main ingredient is time and effort. All you really need is enthusiasm! 

Go for it! It will change your life!

Here are are few websites that will come in handy:

www.arrl.org

www.qrz.com

http://www.dxsummit.fi

www.ac6v.com

http://swap.qth.com

http://www.rsgbiota.org/index.php

Seattle Night Skies

During a sunny day in the summer, it is hard to beat the views of the Seattle/Puget Sound area.  Night time is another story.  True you can see the moon come up over Puget Sound or the Cascade Mountains, depending on where you are in the area.  And it is many times quite beautiful.  Its reflection on the sound at night can be stunning also.

So here’s the problem.  It never seems to be truly clear at night around the Puget Sound.  There is always some haze or clouds.  I remember sleeping outdoors on a lake in Maine many years ago — talk about a clear sky!  WOW!

Yet we have one little secret we never told you…until now.  You can go for a whole month in the summer here without a cloud in the sky.  Summers are gorgeous, but for that pesky night thing.

You can pretty well count on a lunar eclipse, or a Northern Lights, or a meteor shower happening with hazy skies,  rainy skies, or cloudy skies without rain.  They play it up big several days ahead on the news, and then BANG!  You can’t see anything of interest at night, except the lights of Seattle.  Admittedly, they are a sight, but the eclipse, the meteors, the aurora — no such luck.

Recently there was a lunar eclipse, the fourth this year that could be seen from here if it were clear, but it wasn’t as I remember, for any of them.

Back when I lived in Connecticut, our house was on the side of a hill that looked a long ways out over the Connecticut River valley.  And as it so happened, I owned an 8 inch Celestron telescope.  And a lunar eclipse was predicted.  In those days I never heard it called a “blood moon,” but now everyone calls it that as though it were some new thing, rather than just hype.

Did I mention that I also owned a film SLR camera back then?

Blood Moon

A FULL LUNAR ECLIPSE OVER THE CONNECTICUT RIVER VALLEY

METRIC ANYONE?

I received my Master of Science degree from RPI in 1977.  What was the most interesting thing I learned, you ask?  The dirty little truth of the metric system.

Hey, units of measure have been a problem right from the start.  It got so bad at one point that standards for units of measure were spelled out in the Magna Carta!  Go look…it’s true.

The problem was taxes.  One year the king wanted higher taxes, but instead of raising the number of bushels a farmer owed, the king simply changed the size of an official bushel.  So, when they forced the king to agree to the Magna Carta, they included standardized units of measure in the document.  That worked until King Charles I started ignoring the Magna Carta.  And from that came rhymes like, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water…”  At the time, Jack, Jill, and pail were all units of measure.  The rhyme goes on to say that “Jack fell down, ” referring to a change in the size of a Jack.  “And broke his crown” referred to the king.

And then there was another rhyme, “A pint’s a pound the world around.” Where did that come from?  Well, according to our Heat Transfer professor, who once spent a whole class period decrying the metric system, it was part of a union protest song against the incorporation of the metric system.  As you are aware, pints and pounds do not belong to the metric system.

So, what’s the big deal?  Why don’t we just change to the metric system and have done with it?  And here is where it gets interesting.  The primary reason why we in the United States stay with the English system of units is…you waiting for this?…screw threads!  There is no equivalency between metric thread sizes and English thread sizes.  The cost to manufacturers to make the change over in thread sizes, not only for their products, but also their machines, their instrumentation, their drawings, their documents, their tolerance studies, their stress analyses, their product literature, their stock of replacement parts,  the number of screws used in their parts, the number and type of screws stockpiled for new and replacement products, and the product literature for customers and customer service people would cost huge amounts of both time and money.  Guess who would pay for that…YOU!

And what is truly laughable about it is that few, if any countries are running completely on the metric system.

So here is another little thing you may not know.  Calories are not in the metric system.  For all intents and purposes, calories don’t exist.  I can’t wait to tell all the weight loss gurus that it is Joules, not calories, that are the units of energy recognized by the metric system.

Another well known secret that we aerospace engineers try not to tell anyone is that all length dimensions on airplanes and spacecraft are recorded in inches and decimals of inches.  We don’t use feet.  We don’t use yards.  Try to find anything but inches on our drawings or in our calculations?  Lots of luck!  I wonder how far it is to the sun in inches.  Somewhere around 5.9 trillion inches I believe.  No wonder it takes so long to get there.

GOT RHYTHM? — 3 AN ENGINEER’S OBSERVATION

I touched on this a little in my previous post on music, GOT RHYTHM? — 2, when I mentioned that the rhythm of a steam engine can be heard in the left hand of boogie woogie when played on a piano.  And that brings up the question of just what is it that has created various musical rhythms throughout the history of music?

Obviously, I am not professional musician.  I had one music course in college, an engineering college, and I don’t remember much about it.  So, it is safe to say that I am far from a musical scholar.  That I have played the piano for nearly seventy years and have listened to all sorts music, new and old, is all that I can claim.  So, here is my generalization about the creation of musical rhythms through the part of musical history with which I am familiar.  Rhythm is about movement of the human body!

And you are now saying in your head, “Tell me something I didn’t already know.”  When you think of the movement of the human body as it relates to music, you usually think of dance, but I’m not talking about dance.  I’m talking about “transportation” — the rhythm of walking, the rhythm of riding a horse, the rhythm of riding in a horse drawn carriage, the rhythm of riding in a ship, the rhythm of riding on a train.  And I admit this is truly a generalization, but you can hear those different rhythms become commonplace in music as the modes of travel become commonplace in history.  You may have to listen to some classical music all the way up through boogie woogie, but I would argue that changes in commonplace modes of travel cause changes in commonplace musical rhythms.

Modes of travel and modes of music share a common desire…freedom!  Maybe that’s why they share rhythms.

What do you think?

(So here is a small digression related only to riding horses — another piece of history on which I am not an expert.  Military tanks are part of the  “cavalry”.  And that is because they replaced horses on the battlefield as a weapon of war.  Tanks have been around about one hundred years as the premier mobile weapon on the ground.  Prior to that, horses were the premier mobile weapon of war on the ground.  Horses on the other hand, held the job for four thousand years!  Do you think tanks will ever match that record?)

Try This in Your Vanpool

In my last several years working for Boeing, I rode in a vanpool.  Sometimes I drove, and sometimes I just sat.  In the times that I just sat, I noticed something interesting.  If I simply mentioned something, even just a single word, the conversation in the van would change to the subject that I mentioned.  I pointed that out once and explained that I had been placed in the vanpool as a psychological researcher to observe vanpool conversations.  Of course it was a joke, but the process of uttering a single word to change the whole conversation was impressive.

One day, the single word influence was challenged by my fellow riders.  They swore they wouldn’t say anything, no matter what word or subject I suggested.  I thought about it for a few seconds and then said the single word that proved my theory, “shoes”.

Immediately, the van went quiet, and it remained that way for a minute or two, but you could literally feel the tension building.  The vanpool was roughly even between men and women, and as I suspected, one of the women finally broke.  In tones of desperation  she said she could no longer stand the strain.  And off went the conversation about shoes.

I can’t give you much advice about the best words to use.  I tried “dinosaurs” once.  That worked pretty well.  I think you have to know your audience well enough to know what they will talk about easily.  Don’t tell them what you’re doing, simply pick a word and say it aloud.  See what happens.

Let us know how well it works by commenting on this particular blog!

Got Rhythm? — 2

By now, you are aware that I like at least some, maybe most, classical music, but there’s more to the story…

When I was a boy growing up in Hicksville, New York, I enjoyed going to the train station.  I was told back then that the Long Island Railroad ended in Hicksville.  I just recently found out that Mr. Hicks owned the railroad when he was alive.  So, it all sort of makes sense.  Nowadays it goes much further out on the Island.

Diesel engines were just starting to show up in the mix when I was a kid.  Most of what I saw at the station were steam engines.  There were no safety rails or fences, no yellow lines you had to stay behind, and no one looking out for a small boy who wanted to stand close to the tracks.  I remember standing there as a steam engine rolled in slowly to a stop.  The wheels were taller than I was.  The powerful rhythm of the engine was nearly deafening.  The motion of the linkages was complicated and fascinating.  It was a dance really, a dance of power. I was transfixed by it all.  I stood there willing myself not to move, taking in every noise, motion, and vibration I could.

Beholding a steam engine in motion conveys many things to your mind — power, strength, speed, distance.  And the one thing that holds all those experiences together is rhythm.  You don’t hear much of steam engines in music, certainly not the music of today.  However, there was a day when there was a music that had that same sense of rhythm, that same sense of unstoppable power, Boogie Woogie.  Sometimes referred to as Eight to the Bar, Boogie Woogie is music that was built for the solo piano.  It shows up in bands sometimes, but the piano is its home.  Four names come to my mind in this discussion, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Jim Yancey.  Certainly there are others both before and after these men, but these are the ones with which I am familiar.  Among these four, I would rate Albert Ammons as my favorite.

So, why do I like Boogie Woogie?  Because it sounds, for the most part, like train engines — the relentless left hand providing the rhythm that drives the train forward.  It has that sense of a machine with a purpose, an unstoppable one.

There’s plenty to read about Boogie Woogie, but listening to it tells you more than anything.  I would recommend two CD’s.  One is an early CD reproduction of recordings made by Albert Ammons.  On that CD, you will also find his version of “The St. Louis Blues,” written by W. C. Handy, and published in 1914.  Now admittedly it’s a blues piece not Boogie Woogie, but blues is a close cousin.  In a way, Boogie Woogie is blues without words.

The CD is titled, “Albert Ammons The Boogie Woogie Man.”  Also included on it are four of what I remember to be eight great duets featuring Pete Johnson with Albert Ammons. I like “Barrelhouse Boogie” and “Sixth Avenue Express” the best.  I’m a sucker for polyrhythm.  Here is the Amazon link.  See if you hear the same train engines I do.

A second CD I would recommend is called “Albert Ammons 1936 – 1939,” and it is another great source of the music.  “Chicago on My Mind,” is my favorite on that CD.  [I just noticed that the price shown on the link is $125.  On the Amazon site there are several options for price.  That is not the Amazon price.  That is from a separate source.  The Amazon price is around $27.]

Takeoff

We all wonder at the flight of birds, baseballs, and airplanes.  Well, I’m neither an ornithologist nor a pitching coach, but I am an engineer.  And I would like to tell you about the wonder of flying machines.  I’ve watched many airplanes takeoff while standing at ground level not too far away.  Besides commercial airplanes, I’ve flown in a fair number of  other planes, quite a few rides in C-130’s, once in a C-123 (and once was enough), once in a T-33 single engine jet trainer, once in a float plane, once in a biplane, a few other rides in small planes, and a couple rides in gliders.  They were all fun to ride in, but watching a takeoff while standing nearby in the open is something altogether different.

An airplane goes through many stages in its life — from a brief flash of an idea to real flying metal.  As each stage runs its course, any number of things can go wrong.  The initial concept itself changes rapidly as new ideas come to the forefront.  Some of those ideas are good, and some are not, but eventually some of each get incorporated.  Then the hard design gets going.  Calculations are made.  Schematics are drawn.  Parts are selected.  New part designs are developed.  And all through the design process mistakes are made.  They usually aren’t big, or else the plane would fail miserably somewhere in its development, or it would possibly turn out to be too expensive.  It is not uncommon to find better ways to do things, and many times those things cause changes to be made, but some “mistakes” become apparent  too late in the process, and we learn to live with them.

As the design progresses and corrections are made, finished drawings start to flow out of the engineering departments.  And, you guessed it, they also have errors in them.  So, they get checked, and the ones that are found get fixed.   As manufacturing goes on, other problems arise, and most of the mistakes that cause them are fixed, but not all.

One day a hanger door opens and a new plane is rolled out.  It won’t be perfect.  Perfection is always beyond reach.  And ultimately, there is only one way to be sure it will fly…FLY IT!

That first flight of a new design is an amazing thing.  I’m sure the Wright brothers were no less amazed than we are today when a new design takes flight for the first time.  I’ve seen it, and many others have seen it, but most people never do.  So, let’s see if I can make it real to you.

It will be a day of good, if not great weather.  It won’t happen at the crack of dawn.  It will be near midday, not too early to get the plane ready, and not too late to curtail the flight to come.  I’ve seen many airplanes takeoff, as I have said, but watching a design that has never flown takeoff for it’s first flight is especially breath taking.  I’ve seen new models of the 767 and the 747 takeoff for the first time, and I’ve seen the first takeoff of the ultra flexible 787.  They were all nail biters in their own way, and they were all spectacular.

So, don’t just watch an airplane takeoff from where you sit or stand at an airport waiting area window.  Find a place to watch either a large jet or a jet fighter takeoff, and be right there on the ground nearby.  Listen to it.  Feel the ground shake.  Ask yourself, how can this be possible?  How can a machine seem so alive?  And even if it isn’t the first takeoff of a new design, it will be new to you every time you see it.  And the imperfections will no longer matter.  No one ever asks a bird how it feels.

Got Rhythm? — The Flight of the Bumblebee Revisited

It is impossible to ignore music.  You may say you don’t like music, but music exists in everything you do.  It exists in everything in your personal universe.  One of my novels, Beyond the Breakers, has a cover that was made from this picture:

 Indian ocean

It’s a picture of waves in the Indian Ocean.  I’ve never seen the Indian Ocean, but it looks like the same waves I swam in as a boy on Jones Beach, off of Long Island, NY.  If you stuck a long pole in the sand and measured the time it took for each peak to pass the pole in terms of the number of peaks passing it per second, it would be less than one peak per second.  Yet, as we all know, ocean waves are loud.

So, how can that be?  Our ears can’t hear sounds at frequencies as low as the frequency of the peaks of those ocean waves.  It’s because there are other waves mixed in with the big ones.  And those waves have all sorts of frequencies.  Many pass the  poll at frequencies that are in our hearing range…usually considered to be about 20 to 20,000 cycles per second.  So, there must be waves in that mix of ocean water that you hear that are passing the pole anywhere from 20 to 20,000 times each second.

I don’t want to make this too technical, so I will leave out the tiny, and in some cases not so tiny, details.

That said, I will only add that vibrations and waves run the universe.  They carry energy, both sound and radiation, everywhere.  There is one other thing that you should be told.  They interfere with each other.  In so doing, they create other waves at different frequencies.  And that will bring us back to music and ultimately to ” The Flight of the Bumblebee.”

I wrote a blog recently about my piano.  It was all writing and a couple of pictures.  You will note that I did not include a sound file.  Why didn’t I?  It would have been a natural fit.  The reason is that recordings are not as easy to make as you might think.  And one of the most difficult things to record faithfully is a piano.  It is all because of waves, what frequencies the microphones can hear, where they have to be placed in the piano, and how the wave characteristics inherent in all electronics interact with the wave characteristics of the piano.  On top of that, add the hearing characteristics of the human ear and brain.  Believe me, I’ve tried to record my piano.  It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t my specialty.

So, when you hear a recording of musical instruments, keep in mind that live music is the only type that actually sounds like live music.

What if a composer or performer has died?  Are their performances lost forever?  It would seem like it, but I have a recording of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” which, except for the fact that it is not live, is as close to the actual performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff as you can find.  And strangely enough, the recording was created by an engineer.

At this point I have to introduce you to a different kind of piano, a “recording piano.”  You know what a piano roll is.  It’s a paper record of the keys played and the timing of those keys that matches what a pianist has actually played.  What it does not do is record how loud or softly the  keys are played.  It doesn’t record how the peddles are used.  It misses a lot.  Recording pianos record all of that.  So, if you play back the “tape” made by a recording piano on another recording piano, you will hear pretty much exactly what the original pianist actually played.  If Rachmaninoff recorded his playing on a recording piano, you could play it back “exactly” as he played it even after he was dead, which unfortunately, he is.  However, he did make those recordings!

There was a restaurant in New York City that had a recording grand piano.  It may be still in business.  I don’t know.  I’ve never been there, the restaurant, not New York.  I was born in New York City, stayed there a day or so, and then was sent home to Hicksville.  Meanwhile, you could (maybe can) eat dinner in that restaurant and listen to Rachmaninoff and many other great composers play their own music as a ghost, so to speak…not that creepy actually.

So, would you like to hear a recording of Rachmaninoff playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov and other music?  Well an engineer named Wayne Stahnke has made that possible at the highest level so far.  I have two CD’s of Rachmaninoff playing a list of classical pieces for the piano.  And for the impatient among you, they are each rather short.

OK, so I like classical music and some of you don’t.  I don’t like everything I hear, but you will be surprised when you hear some of these pieces.  “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is the third piece on the first CD below.  So, sit in front of a grand piano with nobody at the keys and listen to Rachmaninoff himself.  Like all music, some you will like and some you won’t, but you will be amazed at what that man could do!  Here’s a picture of my piano you can pull up and print if you don’t have a grand piano hanging around.  Don’t light the candle!  It is wood after all.

IMG_1872

And here are links to the CD’s:

Enjoy the waves!

“Flight of the BumbleBee”

“Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov is a short, busy piece of classical music.  And although I would love to tell you more about it, I will save that for another time, but there are more than just bees in the air — airplanes!  Have you ever considered how amazing they are?  The 747 weighs nearly a million pounds!  Its wings do not flap, and yet it flies — at nearly the speed of sound — at up to 43,000 feet above the ground!

How do I know this?  You may have guessed.  In my former life before retirement, I was an aerospace engineer, probably still am at heart.  In the recent past, I spent time certifying cooling systems for the latest 747-8 passenger and freighter airplanes.  That included flight testing.  So, I know it can fly.  I assure you it can fly…and fly well!  And here is one interesting story about one of those test flights.

We were testing the EE Cooling system at various altitudes a few years back, and on one particular day, late in the day, we were flying over the Pacific Ocean not too far from Los Angeles.  The sun was near to setting, and we were at 3,000 feet above the water.  We did that type of testing over the ocean to be sure we didn’t run into things at that low altitude…you know, like a mountain or something.  What happened next was that we climbed back up to 43,000 feet, and that baby can climb!

Behind us, as seen by a landlubber, was a streak in the sky starting at what looked like ocean level and going up rapidly.  Behind that was the sun.  The streak, although we couldn’t see it from inside the airplane, was made a brilliant yellow, gold by the sun, a hard to miss event.  It made the news all across the country.  Some people thought it was the Chinese firing a test missile offshore of the United States.  At least that was the most spectacular explanation.

And no one seemed to know.  The FAA was contacted, and they didn’t know.  None of the “experts” knew.  We knew!

It was us.  We were the missile.  We were the streak in the sky that evening.  It was simply a test flight of the 747-8.  And, of course, we never got credit for it.

Oh well, fame…even when you’re  famous, they don’t know who you really are.

It has been said that bumblebees can’t fly, any aerodynamicist can tell you that, but yet, the bees fly.  A propulsion engineer once said in defiance of the aerodynamicist, “Give me a big enough engine, and I can make anything fly!”  So, I guess all bumblebees are cleared for takeoff.

FYI…

Here are some books about the Boeing 747 available from Amazon:

And just for kicks, here are a few of the other links for some of the Boeing related books on Amazon:

 

THE PLSS

The PLSS, or “Portable Life Support System” is the backpack that was used for the Apollo Moon missions.  Since I have mentioned a number of things about it, I thought it would be of interest if you had a bit more information about it in general.  I recently found this link on the NASA website:

http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/LM15_Portable_Life_Support_System_ppP1-5.pdf

 

It evidently was written by my old company, Hamilton Standard.   And no, the guy in the picture is not me.  Maybe I knew him, but that was nearly half a century ago.  I can’t expect to remember everyone.

If you have any questions, drop me an email or leave a comment.

Water on the Moon — Part 3

If you go back to one of the earliest posts found on this website, you can read about the importance of water to the Apollo Moon missions. The story below relates to a device that was developed for the Apollo backpack, but never included in the final versions.

Just as a quick reminder, you may remember that water was boiled off into the vacuum of space by the Sublimator in the Apollo backpack. Since the water quantity left in the backpack reservoir was then a crucial issue, we thought that adding a water quantity sensor would be a good idea. That way an astronaut using the backpack could tell how much time he had left before he had to return to the Lunar Module from walking on the Moon’s surface. So, one of our designers designed one, and it was built and tested. It worked as planned, but…

When tested, it always overestimated the amount of water used by quite a bit. That came as a surprise, a very disappointing surprise, and one that took a while to figure out. And then one day it dawned on one of our engineers just why it happened. Unfortunately, it made perfect sense, and there was nothing we could do about it.

If you remember, there was nitrogen dissolved in the water held in the Reservoir of the backpack. And, as the water was released for use in the Sublimater, the pressure of the water dropped dramatically as this happened, and the nitrogen would come out of solution and form bubbles in the water, much like the formation of bubbles when you open a soda. Well, that now happened inside the newly designed Water Quantity Sensor. The Water Quantity Sensor then counted the volume of bubbles as it did the volume of water that passed through it. As a result, the sensor was always wrong on the high side. Given that sort of reading, an astronaut on the Moon’s surface would always stop his moon walk quite early. That wasn’t acceptable, so the wonderful little mechanical Water Quantity Sensor was never used in the final design of the backpack. The astronauts then had to limit their walks by timing them.

Another great idea down the drain, if you’ll excuse the pun!

BASEBALL

As a kid, I lived on Long Island, NY. I’ve actually spent two thirds of my life living on islands and still do. However, when you look at Long Island you realize it is sizable, 110 miles long and about 30 miles from south to north at roughly the middle. It’s hard to think of it as an island when you live there.

On Long Island there are two counties that are a part of New York City, Queens and Brooklyn. I was born in a hospital in Queens in 1940. A couple of days later I went with my new parents back to our home in Hicksville, a village in the town of Oyster Bay, which is in Nassau County, outside of NYC.

Given all that geometry, I should mention that there was a Major League baseball team in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Dodgers. One would think that as a boy I would root for the Dodgers, but my parents were from southern New Jersey, and although they did not follow baseball, my Uncle Arthur did. He was a Philadelphia Phillies fan…and so was I.

Our TV was black and white in those days. I never saw a game in color on TV. And then my Uncle took me to Connie Mack stadium in Philadelphia to a night game between the Phillies and the Dodgers. I was probably around ten at the time.

I cannot tell you who won, but it was the time of the Whiz Kids, and Philly could certainly have won. What I can tell you is that I will always remember the colors of the uniforms and the color of the grass. Both were a sight to be seen for a boy who had watched games only in black and white. I was a little disappointed to see that the uniforms of the Dodgers stood out in the bright lights of the night game much more so than the uniforms of my team.

And there was one other thing I saw. It was simply amazing. A Dodger swung, and the ball climbed like a rocket, easily lifting itself over the very high double decker left field stands and out of sight into the streets of Philadelphia.

The man who did it was named Jackie Robinson! I can still see it happening.

The Problem With Little Green Men

So here is my problem with little green men, not the fictional ones, the real ones:
  1. Regardless of your perceptions of probability, there is no evidence of life elsewhere in the universe.  That bothers many people.  They WANT there to be life elsewhere.  Recordings of data have a way of being distorted to meet the WANTS of the data takers and interpreters.  Wait for the truth.  Don’t devalue it with WANTS.
  2. War is almost a law of Nature in itself.  I do hate to say it, but the will to survive leads to competition to survive, which leads to wars.  If there indeed is life elsewhere, it will be as warlike as we are on this planet.  There is no reason or evidence to support any other theory.  We are the only DATA, and we are pretty convincing.  It may not be what we WANT, but DATA is FACT.  Oh, did I mention that war is expensive?
  3. Space travel is expensive.  For that FACT, we have overwhelming DATA.  To think that it is different on some other planet falls into the WANT category.  Our DATA predicts that their economics are similar to ours.  We have no other DATA.  One should expect that they have debt crises, just like ours.  They have other priorities, just like we do.  Even if the technical challenges were easy, they can’t afford to get here anymore than we can afford to get there.  Show me a real wormhole that can bypass the economic reality we live in, and I will reconsider the issue.  Just keep in mind that its life cycle costs have to be low, very low.  It must cost only a very small percentage of the GNP, not the whole thing.  I will not vote for anything that bankrupts planet Earth just so two guys and a woman can travel beyond the speed of light, only to be eaten by the little green men when they get there!
So, keep on with the fictional little green men.  They’re the only ones who don’t require reality.  Nature and your wallet do!

The Piano

{copyright 2014 Arthur K Davenport}

There is much written about the history of the piano, and I will leave it to the reader to find what they want on the subject.  So, what can I add?  Well first, I should say that I play the piano, but not professionally.  I am fair at it, but not great.  I once memorized twenty pages of Gershwin’s, “Rhapsody in Blue”.  That gives you sort of an idea.

I took lessons for eleven years starting at age six.  I took my second year off and finished the remaining ten years starting at age 8 or so.  Who knew it would take that much boring practice.  Why did I continue to do it?  Simple, I love the piano.

The first nine years of lessons were wasted with teachers who were nice enough, but not inspiring enough.  And I didn’t practice enough.  I never had anything to learn that I liked.  It was probably typical of many music student’s lives, except that I didn’t give up.  And then I met a guy across the street, Harry O’Mera, who was a jazz pianist by trade.  I think most of what his quartet played were weddings and night clubs.  He kept miserable hours, and was a chain smoker.  However, he was generally a nice guy with a good sense of humor and an ability to play just about anything if you just hummed the tune for him.  I learned more about music in two years with Harry than all the other lessons combined.  Heck, I learned that much from him in the first month.  AND, I started practicing.  I played things I liked. Harry enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it.

So, what type of piano music do I like?  Well, just about everything.  I like classical, jazz, boogie boogie, ragtime.  However, I have my limits in all of those fields.  Who is my favorite classical pianist?  There are many, but I would say my all time favorite is Gary Graffman.  My favorite jazz pianist:  Earl Garner…boogie boogie:  Albert Ammons (his duets with Pete Johnson are classics)…ragtime:  Max Morath.

And what do I really know about the insides of a piano?  OK, I’m no expert, but most engineers don’t let that stop them.

There was an article in Scientific American many years ago about acoustic pianos versus electronic pianos, and electronic ones have come a long way since then, but here are some of the interesting points that were made.  First, acoustic pianos are filled with sounds that you don’t really notice.  You hear them, but you don’t notice them.  So, when they asked a group of strangers to determine which recording was from an acoustic piano and which was not, 85% of them picked the right answer.  The noise comes from numerous sources:  the pedals, the hammers, the movement, strings that are not being struck, parts of the strings that are never struck, any number of things.  It’s what makes the acoustic sound unique.  Remove those sounds, and it doesn’t sound like a piano.  I have never heard an electronic keyboard that can touch it.  And maybe that’s just me.  I wasn’t raised listening to electronic music.

However, it would be wise to conclude that not all acoustic pianos sound the same.  After all, there are numerous mechanical items whose materials vary, even though they are the same on paper.  The designs of different size pianos and different manufacturers are another large influence.  How each piano is tuned and adjusted is also a big influence.  And then there is always humidity, room acoustics, and who knows what else.

Finally, there is the ear of the listener.  If you were to be in the market for a piano, what would sound good to you?  I happen to like “bright” pianos.  Typically, solo concert pianos are bright.  They are great for solo piano work, but not so great for background situations such as accompanying singers or for use in bands.  Some manufacturers are better at bright pianos, and some are better at pianos used for accompanying other instruments and voices.  If you are a soprano, you probably do not want to be accompanied by a piano that sparkles in your voice range.

For all of my piano playing history, I have loved the sound of a Steinway, a concert grand Steinway.  It is certainly a bright piano…just what I like.  Decades ago I visited a dealer that had ninety Steinways on the floor.  I tried several of them and found a seven foot grand piano that I loved.  I should add that not all Steinways of the same size and design sound the same or feel the same.  You have to find the one that fits you best, just what real concert pianists do.

There was only one problem with the piano I liked.  The price was $40,000.  That was far out of my range.  So, I went back to my upright and settled on the idea that I would never own a grand piano.  And then one day, decades later, my wife heard of a concert grand piano, a bright one, that was for sale.  It was old, built in 1906, but within our price range.  It was a Weber concert grand, fully nine feet long, and it was my piano in both sound and feel from the moment I touched it.  We bought it.

So, I am going to tell you about a Weber piano that sparkles and booms, one that doesn’t like competition for the top spot.  Here are two pictures:

IMG_1867IMG_1876

This piano is quite special to me.  I love its sound.  I love the feel of it.  And yet, as they say, there’s more.  What follows is not verified, although it’s probably true.  It’s hard to get the facts pinned down.

It’s well known among professional pianists that concert tours are physically demanding.  And even for a famous man like Ignacy Jan Paderewski, it can take its toll on arms and nerves.  He is known to have had problems with one arm.  And here is where there is no direct support for the story, but he is said to have asked his normal supplier, Steinway, to make four special pianos for him.  These pianos were to have a greater number of strings in each unison, the group of strings that make up each separate note.  The idea was to limit the effort required to get the same sound level.  In a normal piano at the upper end, there are three strings per unison.  In his pianos, he wanted four per unison.  Supposedly, Steinway refused.  However, Weber is said to have agreed.  If you look again at the right hand picture above, you will see that the unisons have four strings each.  It seems that this is one of the four Paderewski’s pianos.  Another one belongs (or did belong) to a dealer in California.  I am told that another one is in a bar in Portland, Oregon.  The location of the fourth is unknown to me.  Paderewski did indeed play some of his concerts on Weber pianos and did write at least one letter of recommendation for Weber, a copy of which I have.  And here is one more proof of his use.  This is a copy of a playbill that I found in the Seattle Public Library.

IMG_1863

If you look closely at the bottom, you will see that a Weber piano was used.  My guess is that the pictures above are of that exact piano.

All I know of the piano’s history after Paderewski is what the salesman told me.  He said that it had belonged to the Mason’s for many years.  After that it was owned by a woman whose name I do not know.  When I got it, I found fourteen pieces of dried chewing gum on the underside and numerous glass stains inside (not visible when fully assembled) under the action assembly.  True, it could use a little work, but it is really in good condition overall and sounds wonderful.  At the time we bought it, I had no idea of its possible history.  It was our first piano tuner who was surprised by the four string unisons, and who knew the owner of the other piano down in California.  It would be nice to know more, but it plays and sounds just as well even if that’s all we ever learn about it.

file:///Users/Art/Pictures/iPhoto%20Library/Previews/2010/Jan%206,%202010_2/IMG_1863.JPG

 

The Solution to the Area Problem

Just so you have the weekend to consider things, here is the solution for the last post.  I did it ten or fifteen years ago.  If you have any questions after looking at it, drop me a line.  I used three pages to do it, but with smaller writing, it will fit on just one page.  In the end, I remembered the correct selection of numbers from the first time I solved the problem.  If you were doing it for the first time, you would have to do a few more quick trials at the end of the process.  If you used a computer to find the answer for you, you get no points for the solution.

PAGE ONEPAGE TWO

 

PAGE THREE

A Hand Calculation — NO COMPUTERS ALLOWED!

Well, it’s been a while since my last post.  I’ve been busy.  Here is something that will keep you busy as well.  There is only one rule.  You must solve this problem with paper and pencil only — No Computers Allowed.  It is easily solved by a computer, but where’s the fun?  Where’s the understanding?

To the best of my memory, this problem first came to my attention in the 1960’s.  That was before we had personal computers.  Back then, it had to be solved by hand (and mind).  I gave this problem to a colleague a few years ago with the same admonition to not use a computer.  He was really proud of himself for solving it with his computer.  Good computer, bad memory.

Anyway, as I recall, I found this in a copy of Aviation Week.  If my memory is wrong on this, my apologies.  I do not recall if the problem listed its author.  Here goes:

There are three rectangles of the same area.  The area is a positive whole number.  (no hidden  tricks)  The sides are as follows:

X by (X – 278), Y by (Y – 96), and Z by (Z – 542)

X, Y, and Z are also positive whole numbers.

What is the area?

I assure you, there is only one correct answer.  And you can fit the solution on one side of one sheet of 8X10 paper if you don’t write too big.  You don’t have to write all that small either.  However, use as much paper as you want.

I’ll post my solution in late June.  I have an old handwritten version that I can scan.  I wrote fairly big, so it took three pages.  However, I could fit it on one page if pressed only slightly.

You’ll have to trust me when I say I have already solved this three times over the years.  The first time took a week.  The last time took less than an hour.  They were done far enough apart so that I forgot most of the details of the solution, but having a vague memory of it certainly helped on the second and third efforts.

Maybe you have a better way.  Just remember, do not use a computer!  This must be solved by hand.

WHY ENGINEER? – Chapter 9 – Some Rules of Thumb!

I’ve been giving this some thought, and I will provide a few simple rules here, but I may add to them in the future.  I never wrote these things down.  So, please be patient as I recall them over time.

I will start with two rules from two Rays, Ray Horstman and Ray Trush, neither of whom knew each other.  I can’t say with assurance that the rules were originated by the Rays, but they certainly could have been.  I am still in contact with RH, but I have not seen RT in nearly thirty years.  And although these two rules are both possibly in the category of humor, there is quite a bit of serious truth in them.

1.  RH:  “Thumb times it works, and thumb times it doesn’t!”  Depending on your own view of the world, you could interpret this to mean that either success is inevitable or failure is inevitable.  At any rate, you have to be ready for either.

2.  RT:  “An once of image is worth a pound of performance!”  My memory of RT is of his positive humor.  He used this phrase to softly mock those who followed the path of image before performance.  I include it here to remind you that good engineering is sometimes an uphill battle of attitudes.

And here is a third rule of thumb.  It is a serious comment, and I am sorry to say that I do not remember the name of the person who penned it.  It was in an article about the engineering of systems from many years back.

3.  “Remember, a model is not reality!”  Mathematical modeling of physical and electrical systems has become common place with the introduction of computers on every desk.  And it is both a wonder and a danger.  When you print out the results of computers on graphs and other media (especially in color), it adds a sense of reality that all too often is not quite true, sometimes not true at all.  Computer output may be impressive, but it should always be looked at with caution. Don’t read too much into it.  It is the easy way out at times, and very tempting.

Here’s an example:  computational fluid dynamics, CFD, depends on things called “turbulence models”.  And to quote a phrase, thumb times they work and thumb times they don’t.  The reason for this is that no one truly understands turbulence, and therefore can not truly model turbulence.  And the answers produced by these various models can be quite different from actual test data.  Now don’t throw CFD out the window because I just said that, but as with all mathematical models, be careful how you use it.

And finally, here is an old one that has been around the block many times.

4.  “We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over!”  (origin unknown, at least to me)  Unfortunately, this is more than the ordinary rule of thumb.  In many cases it is the “Law of Thumb.”  All I can say is that when you run across it, do the best you can.

 

There is a category of rules that is worth a short discussion.
Murphy’s Law, or Laws, consists primarily of one statement, “If something can go wrong, it will,” or words to that effect. You can find various lists of Murphy’s Laws, some being rather long. Many items on these lists probably did not come from Captain Murphy.  Some are entertaining, and some are true; however, the original law is not a central point in design.  Rather the point is that everything has a probability of failure, and the point of good design is to reduce that probability to an acceptable level.

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 8 — How Much Does Engineering Pay?

When I started my engineering career, I didn’t know how much engineers were paid. I knew roughly how much my dad was paid, and he was an engineer, but he was way beyond the starting salary level. Nowadays you can go on the web and find numerous sources for pay information, and I assume you have done that.

So, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? You’ve probably noticed that pay varies with specialty, industry, company, and location. And no doubt you assume that it goes up with experience. Well, I would say that experience is tricky. In general, pay eventually goes down with experience!

OK, that does sound strange, and you may not want to worry about that early in your career, but someday it will become an issue. You no doubt can find information about this phenomena on the web if you look hard enough. Here is a quick and simplified explanation.

The good news is that the younger engineers get the best raises. Of course that means the older engineers don’t. If you were to see a graph of salaries of all the engineers at your company versus years out of college you would notice that it climbs, flattens out, and then goes down! It isn’t that the salaries of the older engineers actually go down. It shows up in the graph that way because of salary inflation. The younger employees started out higher, and that starting level loads the curve to the left. Companies actually use that sort of data in mapping out their salary plans.

The shape of the curve also reflects the fact that the older engineers are a captive audience, so to speak. A company holds onto employees by giving the biggest raises to the young and inexperienced. Sorry, but that is the way things are done. Some people try to avoid that by changing jobs in an attempt to get higher pay at the point where the graph starts to flatten. I have never seen data on that, but my impression is that it is by no means a guaranteed strategy. There are things at play here other than salary level. Change has its problems, many of which are personal. Also, change actually does cost money. What you see about changing jobs for money in the news, in TV shows, and in the movies is not representative of average reality.

I changed employers in my mid forties. I didn’t do it for the money. The real reason is complicated. I can’t even explain it to myself. If I had the chance to do it over, I would. The money was better where I was, the job was better, and starting over at that age wasn’t easy — but who knew? One of my first bosses was born and raised in Germany. His favorite quote was, “Ve grow too soon old and too late schmart!” He had an accent.

Some things you are going have to figure out for yourself. Just remember that the way pay looks this year will not be how it looks twenty years from now.

Hey, you won’t be poor.

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 7 — What Do I Need to Know About Office Politics?

Just to get you going, how about a little sarcasm? Here’s my definition of “politics”.

Poli-tics : many blood sucking insects.

OK, now I can back off a little, just a little.

The first and already discussed aspect of politics is the use of lies to get ahead. I think I discussed that enough in the blog about ethics, so I’ll skip that part of politics.

Possibly the least objectionable thing about office politics is the surest way to the top, treating the company as though it is the most important thing in your life. All you have to do is work more hours than anyone else. Work weekends. Work nights. Companies tend to reward that type of behavior with promotions. Pretty soon you will give the impression that you will make a good manager.

That was simple! Yet, it has some flaws that can catch you unawares. First, when you are promoted into management, you will convince yourself that you got there because you are the greatest engineer the world has ever seen. The odds of that being true are near zero. If you don’t fall for that, you will probably be a better manager. The next falsehood you need to avoid is that you got the job because you are a great manager…WRONG! You got the job because you sacrificed most of your life for the company.

So, if you can avoid those two traps, and you don’t mind what it has done to your private life, and you actually do have good management skills, you will do well and be happy.

So, here is the other side of the coin. I have a friend who was faced with a request to work a lot of free overtime. This was his response, “I have a job, and I have a wife, and I am only married to one of them!” You might want to think about that.

The third side of the coin comes from a statement by one of my undergraduate professors, whose name I can not recall. “You will never get rich as an engineer, but you will always love your work.” That is no small thing for most of us. Remaining part of the “productive flow” has great charm. There is no shame in it, even if you never have anyone work for you throughout your whole career. And it has one really nice benefit, you can pretty much avoid any involvement in office politics.

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 6 — Where Do Ethics Fit In?

When I was a new engineer on the job, I learned a valuable lesson.  Quality Control is not about Quality of Design.  Quality Control is about being assured that the drawings were followed faithfully during the manufacturing and testing phases of producing products.  That was fine with me, and still is.  I don’t actually want a Quality Control Engineer telling me how to design “real” quality into a product.

Ethics, on the other hand, is something your company doesn’t think you have unless they put it in you!  Now that is where I start to have a problem.  It is quite evident that ethics as a subject has been taken over by the legal profession.  It is not about “doing the right thing.”  It is about doing nothing that will put the company in legal trouble.  That’s all it is in their view — case closed.

Well, that may be all it is to a lawyer.  That may be all it is to Management.  That is not what it all is to me.  When you take your first class in ethics that is sponsored by your company, you’ll see what I am talking about.  Ethics is not about keeping your word.  Ethics is not about telling the truth.  Ethics is only about keeping the company out of court.  They won’t come right out and say that to you, but that is exactly what they mean.

It has always grated on my sense of justice that a company has the gall to set itself up as the judge of ethics, as if you had none of your own when you hired on.  And I would guess that working for the government works the same way.

Now, I have no objection to keeping the company on the right side of the law, but to me there is much more to ethics than that.  Understanding the laws that affect your products and business is a good thing, but always adhering to the truth is not heavily stressed in ethics classes.

Once someone lies to me, I will never trust them again.  And lack of trust is erosive.  It wastes time with having to check things that you are told because the teller lacks credibility.  Customers in particular hate being lied to.  Can you blame them?

Unfortunately, I have run into quite a few coworkers who lie to get what they want or to get what they think the company wants.  That usually means putting you down and taking credit for your work or not telling a customer the truth about what you are going to supply, when, and how much it will cost in the end.

Watch your back and the backs of those you trust — and watch the backs of your customers!

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 5 — What Influences Decisions

The simplest answer is “everything”.  Maybe the question should really be, “What Should Influence Decisions?”

I suppose the answers depend on who you are, but since this is my blog, I can only offer you my view.  Here is the list as I see it:

  • Safety
  • Performance
  • Expected life
  • Reliability
  • Maintainability
  • Ease of operation
  • Cost

I would include legal requirements, such as government regulations, but they can affect any of the above.  And in that sense, they do affect decisions.  Weight is also a frequent requirement, so is power usage, range of operating conditions, simplicity, etc.  However, these types of requirements usually fall under one or more of the above categories.

What this should tell you is that writing the requirements for any particular design is by no means an easy task.  And getting them right is extremely important.

And what shouldn’t affect decisions, or at least should not significantly compromise a proper design?

  • Politics
  • Personal animosity
  • Ignorance or stupidity on the part of the customer — that may take some polite convincing on your part.

We haven’t discussed schedule.  As they say, “time is money”.  I would caution you against swapping time for any number of real requirements, but don’t hang on to unnecessary requirements.  When you make a promise of time to a customer, put yourself in their shoes.  Quicker is better, as long as you meet all necessary requirements.

One last thing, aesthetics!

So, here is a little story from the past ––

We were in competition for particular device that was to be mounted to the Apollo Space Suit.  And as a part of that competition, all the potential suppliers were required to show prototypes of their designs to NASA.  We all complied, but there was one thing that our company did that a competitor did not do.  We paid all of our attention to performance and none to aesthetics — even in how we presented our design that day.  Our man on the scene said that he placed our fully compliant design on the table for NASA to see.  Ours was not bright and shiny, nor was it colored in anyway.  It simply worked as ordered.  Right after our man placed our device down, the competitor brought out a Tensor light and placed in on the table.  Then he put down a piece of black velvet.  And then he put down their design on the velvet — all shiny and color anodized.  And then he turned on the light.  The only thing their design lacked was compliance to the design requirements — not a small thing one would think.  And what went through the mind of our man?  “We are going to lose.” And so we did.

Not sure what to do with this imformation…

Why Engineer? Chapter 4 — Research, Development, and Design

This is not a big subject, but it is worth discussing.

Generally speaking, the categories are pretty much as given below:

  1. Research – Research is the type of work that involves figuring out how something works, what laws or rules it follows.  It may or may not be pointed at a specific final application. And it may be that several separate areas of research ultimately underpin the development and design of a product.  The research may or may not be original.  Indeed it may simply be a matter of finding the research of others and cataloging it for future use.
  2. Development – Development is an early stage of design in that you take what you learned from your own research and/or someone else’s research and you develop a method(s) to put the knowledge to a practical use.  Development bridges the gap between research and the design of the final product.  It is the application of the knowledge gained in research to a practical objective.  It can be simply one approach to the design or a series of approaches to the design.  And part of what is being developed is the specification(s) of what is desired in the final design in terms of performance, life, maintainability, and price.  In this case, performance is really all encompassing.  It is not just how well the design accomplishes its mission, but how easy it is to use, what resources it expends, and possibly some aesthetic issues.
  1. Design – In a final sense, the design is what defines the final desired product.  The word design will show up during the development phase, but I use it here to designate the final design.  The final design will probably go through rigid test and evaluation to assure that it meets its by now firm requirements.  Failures may require backing up into the development phase to some degree in order to solve the problem(s).  Once those issues are resolved, the final design will continue to be tested at some level to be sure of the manufacturing and materials that go into the final product.  Those “acceptance tests or inspections” may vary over the life of production, but their objective is only to assure the quality of the final product.  They are not meant to be a test of the design definition.

Why Engineer? Chapter 3 Part 3 — What Can You Only Learn on the Job?

Here’s something extra that they don’t teach in school. Some things are so complicated and lacking in answers that they require quite a bit of study before you reach a decision about how to treat them. And the odd thing is that your can study and study and eventually find that you have the answer you need, but all the things that you learned are useless. It’s as though you become smarter and smarter and finally come to the conclusion that all you learned was a waste of time — and then you really are smart.

Here’s an example. I once had to design heat exchangers that transferred heat from water to an agricultural waste slurry (a mix of solid particles and water). The viscosity of the slurry was unknown, indeed not predictable for every case. So, I started ordering articles and books from the company library on everything I could find on heat transfer involving slurries. Nothing fit my case. I worked at it over several months and learned a lot about things I would never use. And then it hit me. Pretty much every slurry in the studies I read absorbed heat better than water. So if I designed the heat exchangers as though they were dealing only with water, the result would be at least as good as I needed. So, all the knowledge I had gained was ultimately not applicable, but I now knew how to make the designs work. You climb the knowledge curve until you fall off. That’s when you finally get smart.

I’ve seen this happen several times in my career. Just beat around in the dark until you find that one little light switch.