Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What are you paying for?

 What are you paying for? That is the question. Suppose you’ve decided to purchase something. Not something whimsical, but something rather expensive. This may even be something you will have to make payments on, and who would want to still be paying for something that is broken and no longer usable?

I spent most of my life working in the area described as “quality.” I worked for a company that had a well known reputation for quality. But, like Mercedes Benz or Lexus, that quality came at a price. In fact, some would consider brands such as the two automobiles I just mentioned or IBM as quality exactly because of their price.

Doesn’t high price mean quality? Well, it can. A high price can mean that better materials and components were used and that the design and engineering is superior. Sadly, that is not always true. The best isn’t always the most expensive. But simple economics would tend to predict that the cheapest product on the market may have cut some corners in manufacturing and components, and that would encourage one to think quality costs more.

Of course, some of the most important factors determining quality are the underlying design and manufacturing processes, but how is one to know that. Well, as the British say, the proof is in the pudding. That is, if you want to know if someone is a good cook, you sample their wares. The proof is in the taste of the pudding.

In many industries, including automobiles and appliances, there are organizations and companies that test, measure, survey, and otherwise determine and report on product quality. It is an aggregate measure. Sure, sometimes products fail, even high quality products. The true measure is how often they fail or what percentage of the total product line fails.

That is called “reliability.” Engineers measure that as the “mean time to failure.” That’s the average time the product (or the average product) will last.

But things do wear out. Time takes its toll on all of us, man and machine. I was describing expensive machines. Seems like, if they do fail, they can be repaired … at least one hopes so. Certainly there is a thriving business in maintaining and repairing automobiles, both from mechanical and electrical failures, and even from fender benders.

My focus is on computers. There are computer repair shops and places you can take your electronic wonders for repair. But now we address some more quality measurements, “maintainability,” “reparability,” and “serviceability.” There are technical distinctions between these different terms, but we’ll just lump them all together and talk about “ease of repair.”

Again, if nothing ever broke, who would care about “ease of repair”? No one. But things do break and how easy they are to repair determines how expensive they are to repair. Ever have an old car that was worth so little that, it made no sense to perform a major repair? Sure, you just junk it in that case.

So with these thoughts in my mind, I’ve been considering Apple products. I recommend Apple to all my friends because I think it is a superior brand. Ease of use and a beautiful and functional design are all reasons for that recommendation. But I also think that the quality of Apple products is top-notch. Of course, you pay for that quality … and some of the quality is enabled by the high price.

I recently compared the new Samsung Chromebook to the MacBook Air. They look a lot alike. Yet the Samsung computer costs $250 and my MacBook Air was well over $1,000. When you look closer, you see what you get for your money from Apple. A high quality machined aluminum case vs. Samsung’s cheap plastic. A well-designed hinge that should last a long time vs. Samsung’s obviously cheaper implementation. You can go on and on comparing the two and see continued evidence that the Mac is money well spent.

But what if it does break? Well, that’s where I get concerned. Any compact device is going to be harder to repair, but Apple makes it particularly hard with the use of glue and non-standard fasteners. It is a major repair job just to put a new battery in an iPhone. The iPod is very difficult to disassemble, much less put back together, and the latest iMacs are thinner and even harder to get into for any needed repair.

Then I read an article about a tear-down of the new Microsoft Pro Surface, the Redmond giant's copy of the Apple tablet. Perhaps they copied Apple too well. The team at disassembled the new MS product and As it turns out, the Surface Pro is sealed with what iFixit termed "a metric duckload" of adhesive, which took more than an hour to overcome.

They gave the product an overall reparability score of one out of ten. That’s the worse possible score. The iPad did little better, but did garner a 2 out of 10 for its reparability. But the bottom line is that these new products just were not built for repair.

OK. I can live with that. I’ve never had to take any of my Apple products (and I have many) in for repair. My classical iPod with the 10 GB disk, on the other hand, needs a new battery. I’ve had that music player for over ten years, and the battery just won’t recharge any longer. So it will be time to take it to the shop since the replacement of the battery is not something that can be done in the home, even by a guy like me with lots of hand tools and experience.

So given this difficulty to repair, how does one view Apple quality? Well, then I ran across this good news. According to this report from FixYa, not only is the iPhone the most popular smartphone in the world – it’s also the most reliable. In fact, it is three times more reliable than Samsung smartphones!

The report examines the data from over 720,000 problem reports for smartphones, and the score is determined by dividing the number of problem reports from each manufacturer by the combined total number of problem reports. Apple comes out looking pretty good compared to the competition.

Not all the news is great for the iPhone, however – there were numerous reports of short battery life, lack of features compared to Android handsets, and little customizability. All things considered, however, this looks like a bit fat win for Apple, the iPhone, and the iOS platform.

As I’ve always preached to disbelieving company executives and project managers, “Quality pays.” Think of all the warranty costs Apple saves by selling a high quality product. Sure you can find cheaper phones and computers. But remember, the cheap can turn out to be expensive. As for me and my household, we’re sticking with Apple, even if they are hard to fix, that doesn’t matter if they rarely need fixing. And how was your day?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why Engineers are Awesome

Last week was National Engineers Week, kicking off officially on February 17. The theme for 2013: Celebrate Awesome.

When there’s a call to celebrate engineers and all they do, I’m not going to let that go by without adding my cheers.

Following, you’ll find 10 reasons engineers and being an engineer are awesome. I copied this article from Electronic Design News. It was written by Suzanne Deffree.

With much appreciation for all the high tech toys we’ve made part of our lives and appreciation for all that engineers are and do, enjoy National Engineers Week. I just wish we would celebrate engineers every day. And, if you are a young person or a not so young person – I’ve retrained people in their forties and fifties – and you are looking for a good career, and you love math, and … well the rest of the qualifications follow.

1. Engineers are “>” at math than most

Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division seem pretty elementary, right?

But with the New York Times printing op-eds like "Is Algebra Necessary?" and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2011 showing that only 7% of US students reached the advanced level in 8th-grade math, such basic skills are diminishing.

Factor in that every smartphone, iPod, and tablet has a calculator on it and the amount of folks who actually do math in their heads on a daily basis decreases and – use those math skills or lose those math skills – with that so does the overall population’s ability to do math.

Why is algebra necessary, NY Times? Because math makes you think. It makes you figure things out. It makes you chew on a problem until it’s solved.

Be proud of the fact that you, engineers, not only know that 2 + 2 = 4 but that you understand what a sine, cosine, and tangent are or that pi is more than 3 digits long … or, sadly, even that you know pi doesn’t come in cherry and apple.

Math isn’t just about numbers. It’s part of a well-rounded intelligence that doesn’t add up without basic skills.

2. Actually 'do' something and something that’s useful

Unlike many other professions, each day engineers wake up, head to their workbenches or cubes, and do something.

And typically, what engineers do is useful, again in contrast to many other professions. (Insert your favorite lawyer/marketing/politician joke here.)

We all have a little bit of paper to push now and then, but the end goal for an engineer is to design and create -- to do something, as opposed to talking about doing something or strategizing about doing something. Even on days when only small tasks are accomplished, that makes a valuable contribution to society over time.

3. Calculated risk takers

Some might say obsessively so, engineers are detail oriented, analytical, and meticulous. 

Such attributes are often misguidedly associated with being timid or nitpicky, making an engineer seem not the type of person who should lead because the team wouldn’t go anywhere.

On the contrary, these are exactly the traits we should see in leaders. Engineers examine all aspects of situations before making a move. They may not know exactly where the move will lead, but they move forward having a good idea.

They measure twice (maybe three times, to be on the super safe side) and cut once. They take risks, but calculated risks. 

Ultimately, this helps their teams succeed … assuming someone else doesn’t throw caution to the wind before they can do their thing.

4. Egomaniacs need not apply

Here’s a Facebook post from a friend of mine, an owner of a hair salon in Florida:

Just landed my second client. Time to celebrate. Drinks anyone?

You’d never see an engineer post:
Just completed step two of my design. Virtual high five!

Thanks in part to social media and reality TV making every meager aspect of life seem relevant, we live in a world full of egomaniacs who believe their smallest accomplishments deserve celebration. But not engineers.

Nope, engineers tend to shy away from self-promotion, perhaps because they are afraid of embellishment and straying from the straight facts.

In any event, being reserved is something to be treasured nowadays. Let the Paris Hiltons, Donald Trumps, and Orlando hair dressers of the world drink to mediocrity. We’ll save the cheers and celebrations for real accomplishments, like landing a rover on Mars or shrinking last year’s design into a footprint half its size.

5. Curiosity

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but not the engineer (well, maybe an unfortunate few).

Curiosity is a foundation of engineering. Where would we be if Edison believed a candle offered sufficient light or if a handful of geeks decades ago weren’t curious about the then new “computer fad” and didn’t commandeer the family garage to work on their devices?

Einstein once said: “Never lose a holy curiosity.” It wasn’t the answer that kept driving good ol’ Al to his great discoveries but his wonder at the question.

Forget the cat and never stop questioning. As Einstein also said, “Curiosity has its own reasons for existing,” but only a few lucky few understand the saying’s meaning. That understanding and living of life in a curious way sets those lucky few, including engineers, apart.

6. See things in different, wonderful ways

In my humble personal opinion, there’s a fine line between being an artist and being an engineer. Both see the world through a lens most cannot. Both create wonderful, until then unthought-of things. Both (for the most part) care deeply about their work.

As such, it’s never surprised me that Leonardo da Vinci was able to move fluidly from his inventions to painting the Mona Lisa and back again. The creative mindset is the same. It’s the medium that is different.

7. They can fix just about anything

Get in a jam and you don’t ask yourself: What would Don Draper* do? You ask: What would MacGyver do?

There’s no problem engineers can’t fix, even when in a pinch. Heck, give them some components, a little solder, a battery or two, maybe a roll of duct tape, and enough time and they could fix anything you throw at them.

When the rest of the world creates problems and makes demands, engineers step in and clean up the mess.

8. Don’t understand something? They’ll figure it out

Not only can engineers fix just about anything, they can figure out just about anything.

It may take some time and, in truth, they may “overthink” it, but if there’s a topic that offers some confusion, find an engineer and you’ll find an answer.

They’ll harness their ever-curious, detail-oriented, analytical, and meticulous nature and not only be able to figure it out, but explain it in full detail, diminishing or erasing all confusion.

Like the earlier mentioned math skills, these problem-solving skills should be common. But take a look around at the many others you interact with in a day and see that such skills are not.

Engineers don’t assume, they investigate, research, tinker, and learn. That adds up to a lot less “making asses out of you and me” and a lot more accurate answers.

9. Job prospects: Yeah, we’ve got those

First, an acknowledgement: The US job market for engineers isn’t what it used to be. Budget cuts, outsourcing, often abused visas, offshoring – it’s all taken a toll.

Even still, the job prospects for engineers are better than many other professions. US News & World Report in its 2012 Best Graduate Schools issue pointed out that at its worst in September 2009, the unemployment rate for engineers reached 6.4% versus nearly 10% for all occupations. By the middle of last year, it had dropped to less than 2%, according to the magazine.

Also, compensation continues to rise. Engineers employed full time with median incomes in the United States enjoyed an average 1.7% pay increase from 2010 to 2011, according to an IEEE survey.

To be true, the rise from 2009 to 2010 was 3.96% but, as layoffs continue to abound at near 2008 levels in many other sectors and the overall US unemployment rate sat at 7.9% in January, the engineering employment situation is better than many others.

10. What you make is awesome

Here’s perhaps the most important reason to celebrate engineers: What you make is awesome.

Pocket-sized phones that do more than a room full of equipment did just years ago, medical breakthroughs that save lives, Space Shuttles and rovers that bring mankind to new worlds, energy-conscious TVs that span walls, safer cars that will soon drive themselves, wireless everything, robots that do and go where no human has gone – the list of what engineers create is endless, as seems their ability to innovate and inspire.

So cheers to you, awesome engineers. Know you are appreciated and honored.

Celebrate all that you are and all that you contribute this National Engineers Week and the whole year through.

* Donald Francis "Don" Draper (born 1926) is a fictional character and the protagonist of AMC's television series Mad Men.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Language Barrier

I went to a small high school. It wasn’t tiny, but it didn’t have all the choices that the big city schools had. There were about three or four different tracks you could take: agriculture, shop, business, or college preparation. Since I wanted to be a scientist, I took the latter.

That meant four years of English … that’s all they called it … just “English.” Four years of science: Geology, Biology, Physics, and Chemistry; and four years of mathematics with Algebra, Plane Geometry, Trigonometry, more Algebra, and Solid Geometry. No “AP” classes. There was also History and Geography and I took Mechanical Drawing and Typing, and I suppose some Sociology or Psychology or something like that … I don’t remember exactly. Finally, I took a foreign language. You could chose from Spanish, French, or German.

Since I didn’t think scientists needed Spanish or French, I chose the German and took three years of the subject. So I can “Sprechen Sie Deutsch” pretty good.

This connection with Germany continued in my later life as we had a German exchange student live with us for a year. Sebastian was the same age as Michael and they were both in their senior year when Sebastian lived with us. That same year I had a business trip to Germany, so, after I finished the IBM work, I visited with Sebastian’s parents up North in Warstein. It was time for Oktoberfest and we traveled by train down to Munich for the festivities.

Sebastian’s parents both spoke excellent English, so I had translators with me on that trip. We did go to the big tents at Oktoberfest, but all the seats were taken. I’m not kidding. There were giant round tables of drinkers and not a single seat was available. You would think these people would at least get up now and then to relieve themselves. There were these big Bavarian waitresses who would carry about five beer mugs in each hand, aided by the big Bavarian … well, you know, they were well endowed. In the center of the tent was a Polka Band and people were having a great time. Later, we walked around the Oktoberfest grounds … sort of like a fairgrounds and there were rides and things in addition to the big tents sponsored by local breweries. It was as crowded as a New York subway.

Finally we escaped the crowds and went to a nearby beer garden that was almost deserted. We drank and ate whole chickens with our hands and a good time was had by all. I was practicing my German on my German friends, but I would sprinkle in English words for the words I didn’t know in the local language. I remember I didn’t know the word for “girl” so I said “little lady.” They understood.

Sometimes the communication was as simple as knowing the numbers in German … eins, zwei, drei. (Not a lot of “i” before “e” in Deutsch.) The funny part is that the letters were the same, but you pronounced them different. IBM was “ee,” “bay” “em.”

There is nothing like total immersion to quickly learn a language. Although I’d had three years of high school German, I was not fluent. I knew some important words like “die Toilette” which you can probably guess. German is more closely related to English than any of the Romance languages like Spanish, French, or Italian. Although, it does seem like “Toilette” would be French. By the way, and this makes things easier to write, in German all nouns are capitalized, not just proper nouns.

Another time, a few years later, I was on a long trip to Germany with my family. Linda and Mark were along, as well as Linda’s parents. Her dad did not trust my German and was always asking in the restaurants, “Do you speak English.”

I loved to order in the native language, but there was always a word I would be missing. At one point while we were in Hanover, I went to one of those street carts to buy some shredded potatoes. These were sort of like hash browns and they sold them on the street. I asked for “fünf Kartoffeln” (that’s five potatoes). The vendor said something I didn’t understand. Finally I realized he was asking me about portions. Did I want to eat five potato cakes or did I want potato cakes for five. That was when I learned the word for “portion” or “piece”: “Stück.”

Another time I was ordering sausages in a restaurant. German sausage is well known, even over here where we call it “German sausage.” Auf Deutsch it is “Wurst.” Now a meal might consist of one or two or three or even more sausages if you are really hungry. I ordered enough for all of us at this sort of fast food counter ,and they wanted to know how many dinner plates I needed. But I didn’t know the word for plate. I quickly learned it is “Teller,” which is easy for a Coloradan to remember since that is a famous name in Colorado history.

And so it went. I’d learn a word here, a word there, great fun. I went to a farmers market and that was educational. The place was filled with fruits and vegetables and they all had signs on them giving the price. So it was like a language lab with the actual object and the spelling of the German name.

Linda's dad may have been right about not trusting my language skills. One night we were in a Greek restaurant in Germany having a great time. I asked for a glass of "Wasser." That's water in German. You know that the "w" is pronounced as a "v." Well, since this was a Greek restaurant, the server didn't speak much German and expected I was talking in English and thought I asked for a glass of Vodka. In fact, in Germany, or most of Europe for that matter, you don't just order a glass of water or ice water. You get bottled water ... glass bottled water. So it was a double or triple mistake for me to order a glass of Wasser, and I got this big old glass with a clear liquid that I put to my lips and ... woowzer, it sure don't taste like water. It has been reported that later I did the chicken dance. I don't really recall.

I visited Germany several times both for pleasure and for business, and sometimes a combined trip. I think it was on my very last trip to Germany that this little story occurred. I was in Munich (or “München“). I was with a fellow instructor, Jim Abraham, and we were teaching an IBM hardware design process called S3. This was a method used to configure and design complicated IBM systems and we were teaching the method to the German IBMers so they could train the others in the country.

Now most of the places I’ve been in Germany, especially those that deal with tourists such as hotels and restaurants, understand a bit of English. Especially the younger people in Germany who take several years of English in school speak it very well. Our exchange student took Senior English here in America and got an A. He spoke better English than most of the other kids in the high school.

But Jim and I were seeking out a Munich delicacy, white wurst and red cabbage. That’s like the national meal in Germany. Of course, it is served with a large beer. We were near Marienplatz, a plaza in the old downtown area. We went to a Ratskeller, which is a bar or restaurant in the cellar; very authentic German.

I was ready to order when I realized that the plump waitress spoke not one word of English. We wanted white sausage or Weiss Wurst. That was easy. And I knew that red is “Rot.” (Pronounced more like “wrote.”) But I had no idea what the German word for cabbage is. Finally I just pointed at a plate at the next table.

Turns out German for cabbage is “Kohl”!! You know, coleslaw, or the head of the German government at that time. So we wanted “Weißwurst und Rotkohl.”

Oh yeah, that’s another German thing. They like to make new words by running together the old ones. I think the world record for the longest word in any language is German. The classic longest German word is “Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän,” which in English becomes four words: "Danube steamship company captain."

You see, travel is broadening. Well, auf Wiedersehen. (Or as we say in Germany, “Choos” which is sort of like “ciao.”)

Monday, February 18, 2013

New Ideas

Who will reinvent television? Will we soon see the new, improved “Apple TV?” Not the current Apple TV, which is a network box that ties your television into your network and accesses all the usual suspects including Netflix, YouTube, Sports, etc., plus special Apple offerings. No, this is rumored to be a real TV … screen and all.

Or will it be Google? Or Intel? Or Samsung. My new Samsung TV can connect to my network by itself and also offers … surprise … Netflix, YouTube, etc. Go down to Best Buy, seems like all the new televisions know about the internet and your home network. Apparently the word is out.

Or will it be Comcast (now, sometimes, called Xfinity) or Dish or maybe AT&T or Verizon (both already in the cable TV biz).

What will this TV version 2.0 look like?

Well, I’m peering deep into my crystal ball, and I have this surprising discovery: the next big thing is “mobile.” That’s right. People will be watching video … a new name for TV … on everything from your computer and laptop to your tablet and iPod to your smartphone and iPhone to your wristwatch and eyeglasses.

That’s right. I’ve hit upon it. The next big thing will be MOBILE. Wait a minute. That last commercial on the TV … I mean the video … something about your programs on any of your devices. Those people have read my mind.

That’s OK … I’ve got another new idea. I call it INTEGRATION!! Imagine all your services combined. Your telephone service, your cable TV service, your internet service, all INTEGRATED. What if, when the phone rings while you’re watching TV, the name and number appear on the screen? Oh wait. Got that all ready too.

This prognosticating stuff is harder than it seems. People keep thinking of things before I can think of them. Does this mean that Microsoft, Apple, Intel are all trying to get into the living room. Yeah … that’s the plan.

Here’s one from Intel. What if you miss your favorite show on TV? Well, you could set up your DVR to record the program, but what if you forgot or missed it. Recent discussions at consumer conferences are about putting the last week of TV in the cloud for quick access. Wait, Comcast already has that one too.

Here’s one that hasn’t been solved yet. Have you called up your TV schedule on your TV or the Internet. Notice how it looks like a giant spreadsheet. Who, but some programming nerd, would want that kind of interface. And the lists are usually in channel order. That makes no sense at all. Put all the sports together, all the news channels together, all the movie channels together … you get the idea.

What we really need is one of those interface breakthroughs that Apple is so good at.

Here’s an idea (from a Panasonic presentation, not my own idea). What if your TV could see you? It would know if it is the man of the house or the lady, if the kids are in the room, or not. Customer program displays based on who is watching. Why can’t it be like a good butler: “I’ve selected your favorite channels, sir.” Or like Amazon: “People who watch this program, also enjoy these …” Or Googles’ “I’m Feeling Lucky.” (Try it if you never have before.)

And a remote control, why “clap on, clap off.” Of course, I can see a great battle brewing between a brother and a sister each waving to change the channel.

So just what is next? Mobile and integration are here now. New ideas about content distribution and even new kinds of content … 3 D anyone? … have already arrived. Expect new players and expect old players in new arenas.

Sure has changed since there were only three networks, NBC, CBS, and DuMont … DuMont??? Yea, that was a while back.

So just as color totally replaced black and white (and Ted Turner did his best to cover up all evidence of B&W), the next changes will be big and revolutionary. The numbers are clear. Not every home in America has a computer … but I’d bet every single home has a television. It is really the American way. What a business opportunity!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Pile of Crap

This story is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. But then, who amongst us is really innocent? This story is based on a collection of sea stories told to me by my shipmate on the USS Vulcan, Woody (David G. Woodman). I don’t really remember all of the details, but that’s OK because I’m just going to make up what I don’t remember.

The story begins.

I had this friend, Bradley Bruce. Seemed like his name was backward, something I used to remind him of all the time. He had a first name for a last name and vice-versa. He also had a 1958 Mercedes Benz 190. It was a big car. We used to take it to dances hoping to pick up some girls. Although, a carload of teenagers (four to be exact) trying to pick up girls leaves a lot of problems unsolved.

First, let’s consider the mathematics. I’m familiar with the statistical equations, and I can tell you that the odds of all four guys actually getting girls to agree to ride in this clunky European automobile, much less ride in it with four boys, were somewhere between slim and none, and slim has just left town.

With odds like that, we never really had to deal with the other issue of how to fit eight people in the car. The one time I brought that up solicited the response that we would put four in the front and four in the back. Now that Mercedes was a big car, no doubt about that, four across the back seat would probably work, but I doubt that four in front was going to allow room for essential things like braking and steering. Doesn’t really matter … never happened.

Now we all had our lines that we would use for picking up girls, which we’d practice in front of a mirror. But Bradley just had a natural knack. I think it had to be his lines because it sure wasn’t his car … unless just having a car was his secret.

I tried to figure out how he did it, but I never could discover his method. I remember one time when he was talking to this girl and she asked him for a picture. He didn’t have one with him. All he had was his drivers license, so he gave that to her so she’d have a picture. Now that’s a line!

So, one night we were all in Bradley’s car headed to some dance somewhere. We were running late since not everyone was ready to go on time. Some were still in the shower, and I had to finish my supper or my dad wouldn’t let me go. We were headed for a town about twenty miles away and the dance had already started. We always like to arrive early before the lights went down so we could check out the situation … so to speak.

Anyway, we were running late and traffic was very heavy. Bradley said he knew a short cut. It was down an old highway that had been replaced by a new road when they built a bridge over this river. The old road went around a circuitous route to avoid crossing the river and was no longer used. They didn’t tear up the old road because it provided access to some farms, but these were no longer maintained roads.

So, with some serious misgivings on everyone's part, Bradley turned off onto this old highway and began tooling through the countryside. Things went pretty well for the first ten minutes when suddenly Bradley slammed on the brakes and we skidded to a stop. There, ahead in the roadway, illuminated by the car’s headlights, stood a pile of cow manure. Some farmer had used the hard surface of the roadway as a place to dump newly excavated cow doo-doo to “cure.”

The pile was about four feet deep and ten feet across, and I swear it was still smoking. Now those not raised on a farm may wonder why you would pile manure up like that. Let me explain. You often keep animals, especially dairy cattle, in an enclosed area for some period of time. Since these cows are not potty-trained, they pretty much do their business everywhere in that area. So, periodically, you take the tractor with a scoop shovel on front and scoop up the stinking stuff and pile it somewhere.

You then let the manure “season” for a while and it turns into fertilizer that can then be spread on the crops and grasslands to produce food to feed these animals. It is the “circle of life” and a sustainable farming technique. Well it seems this farmer had chosen the roadway of the closed road to pile up the dung.

As we stared at the heap of cow excrement completely blocking the road, many thoughts went through our collective minds. I was thinking we’d have to turn around and go back. We’d be late to the dance, but it was obvious that this way was blocked.

Apparently that wasn’t the thought going through Bradley’s mind. His thought was something along the lines of “this fantastic German car can get through that fecal matter!”

He quickly explained his plan to us. He was sure that he could drive through the pile and get to the other side. However, to maximize the chance of success of his plan, he suggested we all get out of the car to lighten the load and increase the horsepower to weight ratio.

Being teenagers and always ready for a good show, we jumped out of the car, all the time expressing our estimate of just how far into the pile of crap the car would go before getting stuck. I mean, this was a four-foot deep pile of fresh cow manure and manure is not known for its high coefficient of friction. Actually, quite the opposite as anyone who has ever stepped on a fresh cow pie will testify that it is one slippery substance.

So there we were standing along the side of the road next to one heaping pile of cow shit when we noted that Bradley was backing up. Apparently he intended to take a run at the pile of compost at maximum acceleration. Before the complete importance of our discovery had time to penetrate our brains and send commands to our feet to get the hell out of the way, here came Bradley racing through the gears and straining that good Teutonic engine to its upmost.

I think he hit the pile at about sixty miles-per-hour … yet, despite that excessive velocity, he only penetrated about half way through the slop. When his car first hit the dung heap, it spread the crap like Moses at the red sea. The cow poop went up into the air and out to the sides … to exactly where we were all standing.

Now speaking of Moses, I understand one of the seven plagues he inflicted on the Egyptians was a rain of frogs: toads falling out of the sky. Well, if papa Moses had just thought of it, a rain of cow droppings would have eliminated the need for any further incentive to the Pharaoh to “let his people go.”

There we all stood, petrified by the sight of what was about to rain down upon us — "what had hit the fan," so-to-speak — unable to move a muscle as the wave of kaka fell upon three dressed up cowboys ready for the dance. Now we were really ready for the dance, the barn dance.

We just stood there in our putrescent glory, looking up and down our best dancing clothes now covered in cow offal. We were all going to need a shower. Just then, Bradley rolls down the window of his now stuck car and pronounces the obvious, “I’m stuck.”

That should have been clear to everyone involved, but apparently Bradley felt the need to make the obvious vocal. Then it dawned on the three of us that he was more than just describing the situation. His was a plea for assistance.

Now, under normal circumstances, you are unlikely to get much help for a car stuck in the middle of a giant pile of poop. But we were young, and idealistic, and already covered with crap, so, what the heck.

We waded into the pile of manure and took up posts at the rear of the car, completely unaware of the danger of being behind the tires as Bradley began to spin the wheels in an attempt to escape the gooey substance. Now you’ve heard of adding insult to injury. Well that’s what happened to my two mates on either side of me. Providence had smiled up me, however, as I had taken up station behind the license plate and was out of range of the new cow poop shower that further covered my two assistants. Soon my friends looked like mummies, only they weren’t wrapped in something white, but shite.

“Sorry,” said Bradley. Oh, he was going to be sorry. Of that we all agreed. With nothing else left to do but push harder, we did our best and were able to get his car off the giant mound of cow output. We than began our revenge by jumping into his, as yet, clean interior despite his rushed pleas to the contrary and there we sat. I was in “shot gun” next to Bradley, and I gave him a taste of the bitter medicine we had just received as I wiped a gob of the stuff off my pants and onto his nose.

Then we all started laughing. It was sort of that insane laughter you hear from people as they approach the guillotine. After recovering from our laughing spell, we located a small stream and proceeded to bathe, clothes and all. There were some old rags in the trunk of the car and we cleaned off the seats as best we could and decided the dance would have to be for another night. Besides, since Bradley gave his drivers license to that girl, it probably would be best that he not drive that much anyway.

We headed for home and that was the end of that night. I took one more wash with the garden hose before slinking inside. My mom was already in bed and my dad was watching TV. He asked me if I wanted to join him. I said, “No,” and said I was going to take a shower and hit the sack. He said something like it looked I had already hit something other than a sack and asked that I stand downwind as I explained our night’s adventure.

He quickly cut the story short as the stink began to expand and rushed me off to the shower and took the clothes outside to air. He said something about growing up on a farm and that he thought he’d left that smell in his past. Maybe it was a good reminisce for him. We never spoke of it again.

And the Bradley and gang, we never spoke of it again either. This will be a reminder of that fateful day. Bradley never got the smell out of the car, so he just left the windows down for a week and then quickly traded it in. I suspect that poor car dealer, upon realizing just what he had bought, took the car to the crusher.

I wonder if Bradley ever got his drivers license back from that girl?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Here's an Idea

Here’s an idea. It isn’t new or even unique. I’m not the first one to think of it. But I do think it is a whale of an idea. While some would blame technology for the trouble we’re in, I think technology holds the solution to many problems. Yes, the atom bomb is a terrible weapon and nuclear proliferation is a great worry in the world today. But the threat of the bomb has prevented world war for over 60 years.

Through technology we’ve developed a new way to extract oil and gas from the ground. These new methods have many environmental drawbacks, not least of which is the fact that burning more carbon is not good for the earth.

Actually, that’s not correct. The earth is pretty indestructible, regardless of what you’ve read. We’re not destroying the planet; we’re destroying ourselves. The planet will be here long after we’ve melted all the glaciers, turned our oceans acidic and caused them to rise and swamp most our major cities, and destroyed all the viable cropland. No, the planet will survive. It is the survival of mankind that is at issue.

There are alternatives. Until we figure out how to perform cold fusion, an almost unlimited fuel source with zero green house gas production and zero nuclear waste problems, we are probably stuck using oil to fuel our transportation and heat and power our homes and industry. There are many carbon-based fuels to choose from, and natural gas seems like the least damaging. At least that is a positive point.

But what about renewable energy sources? There are many. Some, such as geothermal and damming rivers have real limits, and may already be fully developed. I think there is a tremendous source of power in the ocean and it’s tides and waves, but the very power of this source has made its extraction difficult.

Seems like the two best candidates to replace uranium, coal, and oil and gas are wind power and solar power. Technology continues to improve the efficiency of these power sources, but there is one giant problem that we’ve yet to solve. Wind power is only generated when the wind blows and solar power is only created when the sun shines. Add to that the fact that there are no practical and efficient methods to store large amounts of electrical power — no super batteries yet developed. There are other issues too, such as power distribution, but regarding the electric power grid, the unreliability and lack of control of wind and solar power is a big obstacle to their further adaptation.

And what about oil and its product gasoline? What is that primarily used for? Why for transportation. And all those cars, busses, trains, and airplanes are not only burning a valuable and increasingly expensive natural resource, but one that is not being renewed since we no longer have any dinosaurs to turn to oil … nor the millions and millions of years it takes to do that.

Mass transit is a solution, but not one that is very practical in this sparsely populated country in the western United States and elsewhere. We are still very dependent on our automobiles.

One solution that has become quite popular is the electric car. Those come in several varieties. One is a hybrid design. A gasoline engine is used to charge a battery and to provide power when the battery is discharged. The primary advantage of hybrid cars is the return of power to the battery that occurs when braking. This gives the hybrids a very good fuel economy around town with lots of stop and go. But, on the highway, the benefit pretty much disappears.

What about full electric cars? Plug in cars? Cars that are charged off the power grid? Well, if the electric power that charges these cars comes from burning coal or natural gas at the power plant, then all you’ve really done is to shift the source of pollution. Plus, the battery, once run down, requires hours to recharge. Again, like the hybrid, pretty good for around town, but not so great on the highway going from city to city.

So that brings me to my idea. We need an electric car that does not produce pollution from the source of electric power, and that can be “recharged” in just minutes to drive for hours.

Such technology does exist. For many years we’ve known how to build “fuel cells.” These are devices that you provide a fuel, often hydrogen and oxygen, and these elements combine and create electricity. The result is water, good old H2O. No pollution from a fuel cell.

However, where do we get the hydrogen and the oxygen? That is, without pollution.

Every student in a high school science class knows you can get both hydrogen and oxygen from electrolysis. You take some water, slightly salted, and supply DC electricity, and you break the water down into its component elements.

So now we get to my idea. We used solar and wind power to generate DC voltage. That’s actually the normal output of solar cells, and we can either generate DC directly or convert the normal AC from wind power to DC without any atmospheric pollution. We use wind farms and solar farms to generate electricity to perform electrolysis on seawater producing a nearly inexhaustible supply of hydrogen gas. We can let the oxygen go into the atmosphere. That won’t harm anything at the rates needed for this solution.

We then use the hydrogen gas to power fuel cells in electric automobiles. The fuel cells would get the oxygen out of the atmosphere just like we do when we breathe.

There are technical issues to be solved in this solution. The cost and practical power produced by fuel cells needs to be improved. Widespread use of fuel cells would bring down costs via economy of scale and science would undoubtedly improve the designs through demand.

We would need a system to distribute the hydrogen gas. An infrastructure consisting of hydrogen “filling stations” spread across our nation. There are issues of transportation and storage and even how we would fill the cars. These are really relatively small technical problems and we’ve seen them worked out and solved with other technology such as distribution of gasoline.

But look at the advantages. We would generate hydrogen gas when the sun shines and when the wind blows. This gas could be stored, transported, and put into our electric cars in just minutes, just like filling up a gasoline driven automobile, or maybe more like filling a propane bottle.

There is no pollution at the power source since wind and solar are basically zero pollution, renewable energy sources. And no pollution from the automobile since the output of the fuel cell is simple water vapor.

There are technical and economic problems to be solved. But that is true of all new technology. At least we don’t have to wait for someone to invent cold fusion or come up with a very lightweight and high capacity battery.

This power source and technology is here today and ready to be refined. Maybe it won’t solve all the problems. But it would certainly be a better solution than hybrid powered automobiles, and hybrids seem to be quite established in our modern world.

That’s my bright idea. I didn’t think of it. But it is a real good idea, eco friendly and quite practical. All it needs is some serious effort at refinement.

Monday, February 11, 2013

I watch for the iWatch

 There’s been a lot of news lately about the supposed new watch from Apple that has been dubbed, obviously, the “iWatch.” Of course, Apple isn’t saying anything, but there is a lot of speculation.

Let me tell you about my love affair with watches. Unlike this modern generation that refers to their cell phone when they want to know the time, I’ve always had a wristwatch. I’d feel naked without it.

I prefer looking at hands rather than digital displays since my eyes are not as good as they used to be. (Nor are my arms, legs, chest, or even my brain … but that’s a story for another time.) I did have one of those early LED watches back in the seventies, but I could not tell the time when I was outside since the sun blotted out the dim display.

I’ve had many watches over the years, and gravitated toward the fine mechanical ones. I’ve spent $300, $400, and even more for my watches. I’ll pay for the quality I desire.

I’m a stickler for accuracy. I want the time on my wrist to be as accurate as the National Bureau of Standards Time Broadcasts. I want to know to the minute, if not the exact second. I used to teach a lot and starting on time was a key goal of mine. I still stress about being late and I set all the clocks in all my cars to the correct time.

I’ve owned Citizen, Seiko, Pulsar, and Bulova. I’ve had electric watches and self-winding watches, and even one that was like a self-winding watch, only the movement of the wrist charged a battery. Some were destroyed by battery corrosion and some just didn’t work as well as I wanted. I was particularly disappointed in the quality of a recent Bulova watch that I paid nearly $500 for, and it lasted about one year.

About five years ago, I bought a nice new Seiko that had the automatic charging stuff. It wasn’t real thin, which is a desirable design characteristic, but it was nice and simple and I thought quite pretty with a silver case and a blue face. Besides the time, it showed the date in a little window by the numeral three. I had just received that watch in the mail, when I was distracted by a new idea. (I shop a lot on the Internet. Lots of choices and good prices.)

I ran across an article about a Casio watch that would automatically update the time to the Atomic Clock at WWV or other time transmissions. Plus this watch had a solar cell built into the face and would automatically charge its battery. Top that off with the small LCD display able to show date and I was sold. In addition, this watch was less than $200. I ordered it right away and ended up gifting my new $400 Seiko to my friend Steve.

(Look close at the picture above. Click on it to make it bigger. See the center part that looks like it has little squares all over it? That's the solar cell. The four buttons are around the sides. One turns on a light for the dark, although the hands do have fluorescent paint. The LCD screen can show time in different time zones or other information. However, no weather report, temperature, heart rate, or any of that "smart" stuff.)

Man I love this Casio watch. I’ve had it now for over five years with no problems. Since we live less than one hundred miles from Ft. Collins, the home of the National Bureau of Standards WWV time transmissions, it reliably sets the time each night at midnight … to the second! It has other functions such as multiple time zones, stop watch, and alarm clock; but I just use the simple date and time function. (I usually know what day of the week, but that shows with the date.)

I’m so happy with this watch. It is quite attractive and came with a good band I’m still using after all these years. Part of the case is plastic and it is fairly thick, and I have to read the manual every time I change time zones because it has four buttons and you have to use a fancy combination of the buttons to change zones, but I’m happy. I just keep a copy of the manual on my iPhone.

Now we read about the iWatch and the current implementations of smart watches in all the news. I’ve heard about these new smart watches and someone at the hockey game the other day had one. It looks like a tiny TV on your wrist. You have to press buttons to see the time, and I doubt it works well in direct sunlight. So I wasn’t impressed. Plus I suspect you have to charge it all the time. I wear my watch to bed in case I wake up in the middle of the night and want to know the time.

Then I read this article by Bruce Tognazzini (or just Tog). He’s a former designer with Apple. He has a lot of good suggestions as well as a good review of the current crop of smart watches.

My son, Mark has one of those Nike sensors in his shoes that record his running and send the data to his iPhone. I've got a Polar watch that communicates with a band on my chest recording heart rate. The treadmills at the club can receive the data from the Polar watch. I haven't used it for a couple of years because the battery is dead. I'm going to have to send it back to Polar to get it replaced since the watch is sealed.

I've also looked at new wrist sensors such as the Nike Fuel Band and Jawbones Up. So I do understand some of the special things a smart device on your wrist could do. Tog has a lot of examples in his article.

With all the talk about Apple using curved glass (they are so good with glass) and Tog’s suggestions, I can hardly wait to see that new iWatch. Whether it will replace my Casio or my Polar is a good question. Tog addresses several disadvantages and good points. But then I do have two arms.


Passwords: the key to security. From logging into your computer to logging into a network to logging into a website to logging into your private data, the “password” is the key to security. There are a few other ways to assure that only the authorized user can access data and systems, but the password is the ubiquitous key to most all things digital.

So what’s in a password? What’s its purpose and how can it be designed or created to best accomplish that purpose? The best passwords are ones that are easy to remember, but hard to guess. That’s the “key.”

The “easy to remember” part is important. If we can’t remember our passwords, then we’ll have to write them down and refer to the writing every time we log on. That fact means we usually don’t use random combinations of letters for passwords, although they would actually be the best. In some cases, writing down the password is just a time consuming annoyance. In other cases, recording the password can make it possible for a thief to steal the written password and eliminate the requirement to guess it.

To make it easy to remember, most people use familiar things to construct a password. They might use the names of their children or pets. Of course, is someone knows them, that might be easy to guess. Or they could use familiar things like important dates or addresses or common words. But using common words or constructing passwords with predictable patterns make it much easier to guess than using a truly random collection of characters to construct a password.

The length of the password is also a factor in making it harder to guess. It is much easier to guess a four-character password than an eight-character password. In fact, most systems will insist that a password be at least six or eight characters to be accepted as a password.

Let’s examine the mathematics behind that idea of longer passwords are harder to guess. The difficulty of guessing something correctly depends on how many choices there are to guess. If I said, “guess which hand has the quarter,” there are two choices, “left” and “right” and the odds of guessing correctly is 50%. In addition, if you got two guesses, you would be bound to get it right.

If I said, “guess what day of the week we’re going to the party,” you’d have 1 in 7 chances of getting it right. And, if I gave you seven guesses, you’d be certain to guess it correctly.

So we have to give the hackers trying to guess our password a lot of choices to try because they are going to try more than once. In fact, with modern computer hardware, they are going to try billions and billions of times. (I’ll have to write a more technical article about the methods hackers use. I’ll save that for later.) For now, let’s figure out how many possible passwords you can create of a given length.

Suppose we created a single character password using only the lower-case letters on the keyboard. There are 26 letters from “a” to “z.” So there could be 26 possible one-letter passwords.

Now suppose you could have two letter passwords? Then for each of the letters as the first letter, you would have 26 passwords made up of different second letters. For example, “aa,” “ab,” “ac,” … “az.” Since there are 26 “first” letters, that would be 26 times 26 total passwords. Twenty-six times 26 is 26 squared or (26)2.

If there were three letters then the total number of unique combinations would be 26 x 26 x 26 which is 26 cubed or (26)3. It should be obvious now that the formula for the total number of combinations of lower-case letters in a password of length “n” would be (26)n. You see, the bigger the “n” the more possible combinations.

A password made up of eight, lower-letters would come from a possible collection of (26)8 = 208,827,064,576. Seems like a pretty big collection to guess the one right answer from. That’s 208 billion possible passwords. If we chose only random combinations of letters, then that is how many guesses it would take. Or, put statistically, if the hacker guessed half that many, then the odds would be 50-50 the hacker would guess right.

But we also want the password to be memorable. So we are more likely to make the password some word we know, such as “aardvark” or “workroom.” The problem is that the hacker knows we are likely to use common words, so he (or she) will not try all the possible 208,827,064,576 combinations of letters, but just common words out of a list called a “dictionary.” There are only about 50,000 common words in the normal dictionary. Of course, people use names too as passwords, so hackers will add all the common names to their word lists, but you can imagine that that only comes to around 60,000 eight-character words. That’s a lot less to guess than our original 208 billion possibilities.

For that reason, most passwords are created with numbers in addition to letters. That raises the total and makes passwords that don’t exactly match common words. Since there are ten numerals from 0 to 9, now the formula is (36)n and an eight-character password would include (36)8 possibilities which equals 2,821,109,907,456 combinations. We’ve increased the number of possible passwords by ten times, but – more importantly – a simple dictionary search would be prevented, assuming we are smart in how we use the numbers.

You see, hackers know what we’re doing because they are people too. In addition, they’ve analyzed millions and millions of actual passwords to determine just what people are most likely to do when choosing a password.

For example, we may just take a seven-letter word and add a number on the end, such as “realize5,” or we may take two short words and put numbers between them such as “big5tent.” That does make it harder for the hacker as they might have to test a lot of dictionary words with one or more numerals at the end or they may test putting two short words together separated by a numeral. That greatly increases the number of guesses required to have a possibility of guessing correctly, but, remember, they are using powerful computers that can make a lot of guesses in a short time.

Many systems will require the addition of capital letters and even other symbols to make passwords harder to guess. That’s a good idea. Suppose we used all the lower-letters, all the upper-case letters, and numerals? Then there are a total of 26 + 26 + 10 choices for each character and an eight-character password could be any combination of (62)8 = 218,340,105,584,896 possibilities. But, more important, the number of dictionary words increases greatly too.

Unfortunately, most people will do something very predictable, such as only capitalize the first letter in the password. Hackers know this, so now they just have to test every word in their dictionary twice, once with no caps and once with the first letter capitalized.

Remember that random passwords are the hardest to guess, and so try to be a little random. It does help to add some more symbols such as punctuation and special characters such as “#,” “$”, or “@.” There are actually 256 total ASCII characters in most computers character sets, but we need to stick to characters on the main keyboard. Since passwords are almost always entered without seeing what we’re typing to increase security, we want to stick to simple characters on the keyboard. Plus, some of the ASCII characters have special functions that we don’t want to have in a password to keep things simple for the programmer writing the programs that process the passwords. Still I count an additional 32 special characters on my normal English keyboard so adding them gives us 26 + 26 + 10 + 32 = 94 total characters. So an eight-character password using all the keys on the keyboard and upper and lower case letters would yield (94)8 passwords = 6,095,689,385,410,816.  The bigger the number, the harder it is to guess. (Certain characters may not be allowed in passwords such as the comma or the period; so I tend to stick to the characters across the top of the keyboard.)

In fact, with modern computers that the hackers are using to guess passwords, I suggest longer than eight character passwords. Making the password ten characters, and not even bothering using special characters, just the upper- and lower-case letters and numerals yields (62)10 = 839,299,365,868,340,200. That’s about a thousand times as many possible passwords as we got with eight characters and all the funny symbols.

I don’t want to say in public how long my passwords are because I don’t want that information known. Even the length of your password is something to keep secret because the hacker actually has to test all lengths that are likely. That increases the total even more. So they will have to use their dictionary to create all six-character, seven-character, eight-character, nine-character, and … well, they’ll probably not even try more than eight characters. Remember, it isn’t important that the locks on your house be impossible to break into. They just have to be good enough to discourage the burglar so he (or she) will go next door and rob your neighbor.

Make your passwords hard enough to break, and the hacker will just go find an easier target. It’s “every man (or woman) for themselves in this scary world.”

So make your password long, I suggest 10 to 12 characters or even 16 if you’re truly paranoid. Use upper- and lower-case letters, but don’t just capitalize the first letter. Don’t use common words or names. You can use common words, but mix in numbers and even special characters. Oh, and a warning. Those of you that think it is a good idea to substitute a “3” for an “E” or a “1” for an “I,” the hackers know that.

One of the first passwords they’ll test is “s3cr3t.” Remember, the hackers are smart. They’ve studied how most people make passwords. They use powerful lists of common words and they add all kinds of special rules to handle capitalization and or use of numbers and they know most people put the first letter capital or end the password with numbers of make these silly substitutions. Those are the first million guesses they try. Then they move on to harder and more random combinations.

Here’s a good suggestion: Some people think of common phrases and then use the first letter of each word in the phrase as the password. It appears random, (and it’s been proven to be equal to truly random letter combinations in difficulty to guess), but it is easy to remember because you recall the known phrase. For example, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” becomes “tbontbtitq.” A rather nice, ten character password. Go ahead, substitute zero for “O” and one for “I.” This helps in this case, and makes it even harder, “tb0ntbt1tq.”

Now, I suggest a little less common phrase than the famous “to be or not to be” phrase, but it isn’t hard to come up with phrases that won’t become words in the hackers list of words. Bible verses are a great choice since we know all the hackers are heathens. :-) How about “fgsltwhghoaos.” But then I told you not to use really, really famous quotations. (It does depend on which Bible translation you use. Some say “only begotten” instead of “one and only.” That’s a hint folks to the last phrase.)

Also notice that this phrase technique tends to produce fairly long passwords. Some web sites will require capitals and numerals and even special characters. You can still use the phrase technique by combining it with the silly number substitution, which, are now, not so silly. You could also substitute “$” for “s” or “&” for “e” or “@” for “a.” Be creative, but consistent. That will make them easier to remember. Your passwords will still be nearly random and not open to dictionary attacks. You can also be consistent in capitalization. You might always capitalize the fifth and the seventh letter.

Finally, and this may be the best advice of all, use different passwords for your different accounts. I know that can be very difficult and may drive you to recording your passwords. But hackers can break into some web site of company computer and recover your passwords. (I’ll write a more technical article about that too … someday.) If the hacker was able to steal your actual password from some computer system, then, no matter how strong your password creation algorithm is, the hacker doesn't have to guess. He (or she) knows it now and will likely try it on every bank that exists.

So, at the very least, use unique passwords for your bank, credit union, and stockbroker. They should each have separate passwords. Also protect your email account or accounts with strong passwords. If a hacker gains access to your email account, they may request new passwords for other important accounts and these new passwords will be mailed to your email. Guessing passwords isn’t the only trick up a hacker’s sleeve.

It is also a good practice to change your passwords periodically. At IBM we had to change passwords every 60 days. Since I had a couple of dozen IBM passwords, that was almost an all day chore, and I had no choice but to record the passwords. I used an encrypted file on the computer to do that.

Computers and browsers may offer to memorize your passwords for you. That’s OK in some instances, but I worry that if your local computer gets hacked or stolen, this may backfire on you. I don’t have a strong opinion on the use of such features. If you create really strong passwords, then that is good. If you have your “every-day” computer memorize those strong passwords, well … I just don’t know if that is a good or bad thing. I’ll have to research that more.

Well, that’s all folks. Now you have some good ideas for making good passwords that will defy hacker attacks. And don’t be stupid. They know what letters you are likely to capitalize or where you’ll probably put the numbers. Be different. Be creative. Be hard to guess.

Don’t be a donkey … or a jackass. Do you know how many people use “secret” for their password? But you know better now. You’d make it “sEcr3T5.”