Archive for the 'Personal Anecdotes' Category

06
Jul
11

Dirty Laundry

You don’t really need to find out what’s going on
You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone
Just leave well enough alone, keep your dirty laundry
‘Dirty Laundry’ – Don Henley

Many readers have followed the dramatic events of Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011. You have read many accounts of incredible perseverance, bravery, and resourcefulness. Even those Joplinites who were undamaged, or like me, barely on the fringes of the storm, have been affected deeply and indelibly. The community showed an immediate cohesiveness that was matched by the generosity and efforts of thousands of volunteers from across America. This tragedy has been Joplin’s finest moment.

A moment seems now to be too accurate a term.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Rep. Eric Cantor‘s assertion that disaster relief funds should be withheld without offsetting funding cuts was not universally condemned in Joplin. Senator Roy Blunt, the essence of Conservative propriety, had already promised swift funding for relief. That did not deter a number of political xerox machines from parroting Cantor. Joplinites were reduced to explaining to their thoughtless neighbors that Joplin had incurred a deficit – a deficit which could not be deferred until our grandchildren were safe from that other deficit.

The next phase in vanishing civility came with gloating. Some of the same thoughtless people, and a few more, bragged about how ‘Joplin had most streets passable almost immediately’ with chainsaws appearing instantly from locations that had not been crushed. And then they ‘went there‘ : saying that people in Joplin didn’t wait for someone to come help them – they got to work and helped themselves, unlike those lazy people in New Orleans after Katrina. Facts proved to be, as usual, irrelevant to such folks. It was frustrating and unproductive to point out that 90% of the New Orleans population was already gone, that the people who were left were in 15 feet of water, that the fungus growth after months of drainage & drying mandated cleanup & rebuilding while wearing suits & respirators.

Our family knows a two or thing about folks, including relatives, in Louisiana. Lazy they are not, not any more so than the lazy element which all our cities have. They proved it after the Joplin tornado. Within days, a group from New Orleans had arrived with food – Great Food ! – not emergency food. Many more Lousiana folks have helped Joplin in these difficult weeks. In a few days, Peace Lutheran Church of Slidell will work for a day cleaning the site of Peace Lutheran Church of Joplin. Our church, with a lovely pipe organ which my Little Red-haired Girl played every Sunday, two blocks from Joplin ‘HOPE’ High School, was utterly destroyed. These ‘lazy’ Louisiana folks will help us to regain something of what was lost.

Tonight presented a different phase in incivility. Rush Limbaugh brought his ‘Two If By Tea‘ truck to Joplin’s 4th of July celebration in Landreth Park. His donation of iced tea would have been nice. There was a catch. Limbaugh spoke as an official part of the City’s program. This was not the same as other charitable commercial promotions in Joplin. Tide brought the ‘Loads of Hope‘ truck, and cleaned lotsa stuff for many very dirty, very needy people.

Tide had not preceded its arrival with a history of divisive speech and an overtly-politicized statement. Limbaugh did both. He stated, on his radio program,

I’m gonna tell you something else is gonna happen at Landreth Park in Joplin on Monday night: We’re gonna grow the Republican Party.

Some City official or officials approved this. They did not explicitly publicize that Limbaugh would have a status substantially different than other vendors during the event. A City official whom I spoke with stated that Limbaugh had promised to ‘keep it light’ – as if that excused his rank and self-serving politicization of his appearance.

There were no immediate inquiries, during the next evening’s City Council meeting, into how the decision was made to grant Joplin’s imprimatur to Limbaugh.

That is Joplin’s dirty laundry. It’s time for Loads of Hope to come back.

11
Jun
11

Values Are For Hard Times

The motivation for a blog is often obvious to my readers. This time, I offer to you the impetus behind this edition. A Joplin Globe guest columnist, whom I will not name to preserve his shame for other forums, offered some pretty words about ‘values’. He then reverted to the frequently-used technique of parroting a politician’s pandering. He restated Rep. Eric Cantor‘s demand: “I, for one, call for no federal deficit spending to rebuild Joplin.” His fellow Joplinites, many of whom suffered damage which he avoided, are left to wonder whose side Joplin’s ‘Tin Man‘ is on.

My Mother and Dad were Great Depression fiscal conservatives, who practiced that fundamental tenant of not buying luxuries with borrowed money. A few of you may even remember Del & Ben Stone – they gave me my introduction to Joplin when Dad was Postmaster from 1968-1970. They also understood the wisdom of paying for necessities, with some financial hardship, rather than to fail to support important priorities. They supported committments to projects which required investment before receiving a cost-effective return. These were some of their values – values which they applied to neighbors as well as to themselves.

My parents’ values are values that many Joplinites are exercising as they recover from the tornado disaster. Many people who have lost much are giving generously to their neighbors. Churches, synagogues, and mosques have been providing impressive amounts of aid. Groups and individuals across America have sent help to us. My daughter, Mariam, gathered donations and brought a truck and trailer from Indianapolis! As tremendous as these friends have been, the task of recovery is vast and difficult to overcome.

That task is important far beyond Joplin. Our citizens who were not directly affected have been disadvantaged by the general and widespread destruction. Neighboring communities have lost valuable resources that Joplin provided. Corporations in Joplin have customers across America and internationally who need their important products and services. These people understand that they incurred a deficit on May 22nd. That is the deficit which must be remedied.

Our nation has a substantial habit of accepting deficits to pay for important assets. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire, and the decay of its formerly-formidable military, we have maintained a large and vigorous U.S. military. We currently maintain a fleet of 18 Ohio-class fleet ballistic missile submarines. We have deemed it suitable to spend about $50 million each year to maintain each of these vessels – $900 million each year, for many years. This cost, alone, is more than half of the current annual federal deficit. We also deploy nuclear fast-attack submarines, additional Navy surface vessels and aircraft, ground forces, and an incomparable Air Force. Some folks have debated the suitable proportions of such expenditures.

That is the only suitable debate about rebuilding Joplin: what is the appropriate magnitude of public resources to invest? It is probably less than $900 million – total. That such investment must be made is beyond reasonable debate. We value both what we have lost and what will replace that which is replaceable.

We will rebuild Joplin based on values. Let us assure our neighbors that those values recognize the value of lives, jobs, businesses, and property as worthy of the temporary sacrifices which will lead us to a better future.

When President Barack Obama assured us, “Your country will be with you every single step of the way”, he may have been thinking of Matthew 25:40“Whatever you did for the least of these, you also did for Me.” May it be that, in the President’s words, “It’s what Joplin has taught the world”.

25
Dec
10

I Am Thankful This Christmas

I am thankful this Christmas that science and humanitarians have allied to improve the lives of countless people.

I hadn’t recently read of the Carter Center‘s progress in combatting guinea worm, and this article was a welcome reminder of the important accomplishments of President Jimmy Carter. There is precedent for the eradication of a human pathogen – smallpox was eradicated under the direction of the United NationsWorld Health Organization.

Smallpox was a perennial scourge throughout the world. Every American of my age carries the vaccination scar received in childhood to control the disease in the U.S.. Millions elsewhere died from this terrible disease – a disease so vicious that it had also been implemented by militaries as a germ warfare agent. Today, no Kindergartener or First Grader is subjected to a treatment which remains in my memory, 54 years hence.

Eradication of the guinea worm may be the next thriumph of mankind over nature. It is the more remarkable for being largely the responsibility of a non-governmental organization (NGO).

The list of diseases which have been alleviated, controlled, or cured by science (often with the active support of governments) is too long for a mere blog to list. Most readers of this blog know someone who has been aided, during the course of a serious illness, by modern medicine.

We must be vigilant against the forces of ignorance and fear which obstruct progress against disease. In Africa, AIDS denial has even led to government officials’ active obstruction of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. Even in America, superstitious and ignorant people have employed propaganda to obstruct vaccinations important to public health.

I have faith that, next Christmas, we will have witnessed additional progress against suffering. That progress depends upon our sincere support and active opposition to dangerous voices in our midst.

Peace be upon you and your families.

17
Sep
10

The Best Engineering Exam

It’s tough to examine a job applicant well. Human Resources (i.e, ‘Personnel’) Departments can usually only screen applicants for the relevant buzzwords on a resume. Even managers can have a tough time getting past the buzzwords and unverifiable claims of competence. It is especially unfortunate that a manager with hiring responsibility often does not have any significant expertise with the position being filled. Some folks talk a good game that they have never played well. Such applicants are high-value targets to detect – and avoid.

I worked for a company, Big C, that was a significant manufacturer of force measurement devices. For a while, they were offering a few select Engineers a shot at interviewing Engineering candidates. Maybe they just wanted a way to consume enough time so that the candidate would feel that a long trip had been met with a thorough examination. Whatever the rationale of Big C’s HR Manager, my office partner and I were among the select few.

My office partner and fellow Engineering Conspirator, Big R, is a clever fellow. If we don’t think of something almost simultaneously (see? I’m clever, too!), we will be on the same track rather quickly. Somehow, in a way that I no longer remember, we turned a toy into a test.

Our Toy really was special and unique. It was an electrolytic capacitor which had an interesting defect. Capacitors are the electronic equivalent of buckets: they hold electric charge. An electrolytic capacitor is an especially good bucket. Its electrodes are sheets of thin aluminum foil, chemically and electrically etched to have an immense surface area – about 100 times that of smooth foil. Electric charges are stored along the specially-treated surface, so electrolytic capacitors hold a lot of charge.

A capacitor’s electric charge can be almost completely removed by ‘shorting‘ it – connecting its two terminals together, allowing the charge to flow around and neutralize itself.

Electrolytic capacitors, like all real capacitors, also ‘leak’ a little. Leakage allows charge to dribble away, like water through a hole in a bucket. Electrolytic capacitors hold so much charge compared to their leakage that they can hold much of their charge for over an hour (at room temperature).

Leakage can be monitored by measuring the voltage of a capacitor’s stored charge. An occasional brief voltmeter measurement will track the leakage as the voltage falls to zero.

Our toy (similar to the topmost example in the photo) did not behave like a capacitor. After putting a charge into it, it could be shorted for a few seconds without losing charge. That is, a voltmeter measurement before and after shorting would indicate almost no charge loss. This became our Engineer Test.

We would pull the Toy out of a desk drawer (where it had stayed, undisturbed, since well before the candidate arrived) and give it, and a voltmeter, to the candidate. We instructed the candidate to measure the terminal voltage, short the Toy (although we were careful to refer to it as ‘capacitor’, if anything), then measure the terminal voltage again. The candidate was asked an utterly open-ended question: ‘Whaddaya think?‘.

This question was wonderful in its lack of specificity. Some candidates (including graduates of a well-known area Engineering college) were unaware that the Toy was special. These folks could be gently reminded how capacitors are ‘supposed’ to work, and allowed to try answering a subsequent query: ‘What’s happening?‘.

This question was wonderful for its ability to reveal a mind at work – or to reveal a mind that has sand in its gears. We did not expect a candidate, possibly suffering interview anxiety, to instantly divine the exact answer. We did expect a good Engineer to think under pressure. Their cogitation, expressed verbally, was a revelation of their real competence to do real Engineering.

The vast majority of candidates failed miserably. Few could offer thoughtful observations and suggestions. Eventually, the HR Manager quit sending candidates to us. We accepted so very few, and he felt obligated to at least hire a warm body for an open position.

How about you, my friend? Do you have something thoughtful to offer about Jim & Big R’s Engineer Test? If you absolutely know the answer to its strange behavior, save it for a while. But please! Do offer, in the meantime, some observations or additional meaningful tests.

15
Sep
10

Better (or Stranger) Refreshments With Zone Refining

Friends, I always manage to do this by accident. You, having psychological and gustatory urges which I can only imagine, may find that you will want to do this same thing intentionally. -This- is zone refining.

You may already know that, if water is chilled very slowly and uniformly, it may freeze uniformly, suddenly and thoroughly. The freezing point is very precise. It is also different for other substances. Mixtures of substances which freeze differently – such as water & sugar, or water & food coloring, or water & carbon dioxide – will not freeze uniformly. Such mixtures can *un-mix*.

The first time I saw this un-mixing was a delightful surprise. It was delightful because it was unexpected and because I recognized it immediately. The venerable Scientific American magazine had taught me about the phenomenon of zone refining.

I had been eager to chill a bottle of Manischewitz wine, one day during college. I put in in the hall freezer in the Alley 5 kitchenette of Ruddock House. Then I forgot about it.

No, I didn’t really forget about it. I merely remembered it later than I had intended to remember it. It was a stunning sight – a 3/4 full squarish bottle which now had a fairly clear chunk of ice perched over a much smaller amount of concentrated wine. My exclamations brought a few Trolls to the kitchenette doorway. They were happy for me. There was some discussion of the potential of the liquid to offer an enhanced drinking experience.

That discussion, as dorm discussions with random Trolls often do, diverged toward other subjects. ‘Stud‘ offered his opinion that “Three quarters of a lethal dose of anything is a great high.” My retort – that three quarters of a lethal dose of concrete would be really hard to keep lit for smoking – was met with Stud’s expert correction: “You don’t smoke concrete, dummy - you shoot it up.”

Most recently, I did it again with half a bottle of Pepsi. Vitamin P keeps me going, as it did during performances of Stone’s Throw Dinner TheaterOklahoma!‘. It needed some fast chilling one night, and a preoccupation with my role resulted in a chunk of ice and Pepsi syrup. Yum!

Freezing doesn’t strictly require a colder temperature than for liquid. Either (depending upon pressure) can exist at a phase-transition temperature. When a liquid mixture is cooled slowly, it will cool even more slowly at this phase transition. The movement of heat that is cooling serves to make liquid become solid, leaving no extra movement of heat to lower the temperature. Take a look at this phase diagram for water. The ‘mp‘ dot is the melting point (freezing point) that we usually think of – normal pressure, 1 atmosphere. ‘mp’ belongs to both liquid and solid.

Various substances have very different phase diagrams. Here’s Uranium Hexafluoride, the form of uranium that is convenient to use in processing nuclear reactor and weapons fuel. (I would offer a phase diagram for Pepsi syrup, but it doesn’t seem to be available.)

A liquid mixture will have its minute constituents freezing at their individual ‘mp’s. For Pepsi, water freezes at a higher temperature than (prior to) the syrup, which has sugar, flavoring, and coloring. The very transition of water from liquid to solid prevents (temporarily) the temperature from getting low enough to freeze the syrup.

This stuff has seemed understandable to me for over 40 years. I do wonder about one thing – can I circumvent laws regulating the distillation of alcohol by using zone refining (of Manischewitz wine, no less!) instead of differential vaporization (a ‘still’)? Do I need to alert regulators to this potential loophole?

10
Sep
10

Our Moslem Neighbors

It is a boast to describe America as a ‘Melting Pot‘. We have been a strong country for many reasons. Some are accidents of geology or history. A major reason, derived from the complexities of the flow of history, is that we are many. The fact that America is a composite of many cultures gives us unique qualities in the same way that glass fibers and epoxy, individually deficient for structures, form a composite – fiberglass - that is both strong and resilient.

Tomorrow marks a day of anguish for us. It will remain in our national consciousness in the same way that Pearl Harbor Day has. It will always be 9-11.

The events of that day, and subsequent events, have tested our American ideals. Many folks have not been confident enough, loving enough, and insistent enough to stand for American ideals and keep them as realities. Some folks have gone out of their way to fight enemies who are imagined, only existing in their anxieties.

Some of those imagined enemies are fellow Americans and neighbors who are not yet Americans. Some of them are otherwise accorded the deepest trust in their work for others as doctors, engineers, attorneys, and in a host of semi-professional and non-professional jobs. They are good and productive people who are worthy of our friendship. They are Muslims.

A while back, my friend Kasim (Craig) invited me to visit The Islamic Center of Joplin for a worship service. The Moslems in attendance that day were enthusiastic in their warmth and interest in Kasim’s friend. It has been too long since that day, so tomorrow is a good day to visit again. {Note ‘Prayer Times’ at the link.}

I invite you, fellow American, to embrace a neighbor in friendship on 9-11. I hope that some of you seek a Moslem neighbor to affirm that we are still the great Melting Pot.

PS I have a kufi – a cap worn by Africans of all faiths – which is good headgear to wear to a Muslim service. To be extra neighborly, learn the Islamic greeting, “Assalaamu ‘alaykum“!

Note that men & women worship separately at the mosque. That’s why I was reared as a Southern Baptist instead of a Methodist. Dad insisted upon being with Mother for Sunday School!

07
Jun
10

Faith as a Grain of Mustard Seed

A friend, Lydia, told me an interesting story about teaching her young daughter. She explained Matthew 17:20 to Daughter, who was then very young:

I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

The Daughter was impressed in that special way that we too often lose as adults. Daughter promptly asked Lydia to show her a mustard seed. Lydia actually had some whole mustard seed in her cooking supplies, and Daughter was treated to their tiny loveliness. That, unfortunately for Lydia, was not sufficient. Daughter asked if they could plant some and watch them grow.

Lydia went into Full Mom Mode.

‘I don’t think we can do that, dear.’ ‘Mustard seeds for cooking have probably been prepared and won’t grow.’ ‘We could grow some pretty flowers instead.’

The look on Daughter’s face overruled all of Lydia’s rationalisations and excuses. They planted some of the diminutive parcels of life.

The Diminutive became the Substantial, and then the Impressive. The plants were both lovely and much larger than the original germ.

How is is that we can be extolling the virtues of faith one moment, then hesitantly worrying that ‘it won’t even grow’ the next moment? Lydia is not special in this. I have done it, and I suspect that most of you, Dear Readers, have done it. It is not, as some Preachers might suggest, an obvious example of our faithlessness. I hope that we can understand ourselves, and whatever faith we have, by looking at Lydia’s experience another way.

Humans are both prey animal and predator. We have substantial control over our environment while also being subject to a number of vulnerabilities. We have always been a social creature, sharing both our resources and our dependencies with others. We have evolved emotional predispositions to be cautious, because an incautious action may hurt us and burden our family. Following tried-and-true maxims, even maxims that are ineffectual, is essential to a long and productive life. Trying new things, or doing old things in new ways, has the potential for disaster.

Parables and analogies are inherently limited and incomplete. They are often most useful when examined with that realization. Matthew 17:20 tells one thing, but it also omits other things. Many useless, noxious, and even poisonous plants grow from tiny seeds. Will our faith do anything to change their inherent nature? Has faith ever made dandelion seeds sprout petunias?

Those of us who have been reared in churches have been taught how we are ‘supposed’ to view analogies such as Matthew 17:20. We are not supposed to take perspectives other than that handed to us from the immediate context of Holy Writ. We are not supposed to actually try to move a mountain. Our religions are a bastion which protects and preserves our evolved basic -cautious- nature.

Lydia was not being ‘silly’ in her apparently contradictory behavior with Daughter. She was, as a person who has been thoroughly oriented to her church from a young age, not prepared to look at Matthew 17:20 as would an innocent who is not yet prepared to confront a dangerous world.

Lydia could have told Daughter, ‘Yes, we’ll try growing some of the mustard seeds from my kitchen. If they don’t sprout very well, we can buy a new pack of seeds that will grow well.’ Lydia didn’t do this, because she was not troubled with the probability of germination. She was troubled with Breaking A Rule - the rule that the teachings of our church are to be accepted without test or other examination.

Unfortunately, this predisposition has become counter-productive in our industrial and scientific society. We are no longer vulnerable prey animals except to charlatans, thieves, swindlers, and the lazily greedy. We have long repeated the same basic errors in judgement – evidenced by the latest giant swirl of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. We need new social institutions which will encourage critical thinking.

Addendum
‘Full Mom Mode’ and ‘Full Dad Mode’ are, indeed, the same. I think.

25
May
10

When Management Can’t Manage

It is guaranteed that Management will manage – anything they do can be regarded as ‘managing’. How they manage, and what results from that, are highly variable and uncertain.

There is no way that an outside observer can say, given a particular situation, how a company’s Management will handle it. Without specific foreknowledge of the personnel & practices of Management at that company, no standard of conduct can be applied. This contrasts greatly with the practices of other professions. Medical personnel have, for many situations (including ‘emergencies’, which are routine for them), protocols for handling the situations. Engineers, especially for disciplines that depend upon public funding, have practices and formal methods which may be expected to be applied to an arbitrary scenario.

The history of man-made disasters is littered with a detritus that illustrates these points. I do not have the data for a statistical analysis to verify what I believe to be true. I do have numerous anecdotes, from personal experience and from highly-publicized incidents, which have a consistent pattern.

An excellent example is available from the Shuttle Challenger ‘accident’ in 1986. The shuttle, with a crew that included the first participant (a civilian) from the “Teacher in Space Project“, exploded during the ascent after launch.

Shuttle booster engines were solid-rocket boosters (SRBs) which were made in segments. The segments had, at their joints, elastomer O-rings to provide a seal against the hot, high-pressure gases of the SRB. Launches in cold weather had a temperature limit – the O-rings stiffened with cold, and could not provide a seal.

Earlier shuttle launches in cold weather (and within temperature limits) led to Management questioning of Engineering. They asked, in essence, ‘Hey, the O-rings were fine at 6 degrees Centigrade. They’ll do just fine a tad lower, won’t they?’ Since that ‘tad lower’ was not really beyond limits, Engineers conceded the point. Subsequent launches, which managed to broach the limits, brought more insistent appeals from Management: ‘Hey, we flew with no problems 1.5 degrees under limit, so maybe you guys are being too cautious’.

It went on like this until Challenger’s last launch. Engineer Roger Boisjoly did his damnedest to intercede with Management when he learned that launch conditions were the coldest ever. He was over-ruled, and disaster followed.

The fallacy which led Management to cause the disaster is ‘confirmation bias‘. It may have also involved the psychology revealed in the fascinating diversion known as ‘Auctioning a Dollar Bill’. When someone gets around to bidding 99 cents, someone must bid $1 – break even. And at that point, some damn fool will tell himself, ‘It’ll only cost me a penny, and I’ll win!‘. That opens the floodgates, and the dollar bill may find a new, proud, incredibly foolish owner for $5, $10, $50, or more.

A subsequent disaster investigation included Prof. Feynman‘s minority view: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

At this writing, we watch the daily horror of oil erupting from a broken well pipe, 1 mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. This economic and environmental disaster will result in reams of analysis and commentary. I offer an anticipatory viewpoint.

There is a lot of excellent Engineering in oil & gas drilling. The BP Deepwater Horizon originally set a ‘blowout preventer’ which is designed to handle ‘worst-case’ scenarios. It has a shear mechanism that is supposed to, either by operator action or by its own backup ‘dead man’s switch‘, cut the well pipe and close it. It failed to do so. It should not have been one device. Blowout preventers are sometimes stacked, providing different mechanisms to shut off a well. They may be stacked with other safety devices. It would have certainly been as prudent to do so for an extremely inaccessible wellhead, as for wellheads in less extreme locations.

An Engineer looking at the situation prior to drilling would do a risk-benefit analysis. What are the risks to equip the well various ways? What are the benefits? Equipping a well with a single blow-out preventer (albeit a version with differing and redundant activation mechanisms) carries a different risk than having redundant blow-out preventers. The benefit of redundancy? A greatly reduced chance of environmental catastrophe.

A Manager would also do a risk-benefit analysis. The risks of having redundant blow-out preventers are clear: higher initial cost, delayed initial oil production, and higher maintenance costs. The benefit is less clear, because to a Manager, a 1-in-1000 chance of disaster is, for that single well, equivalent to zero. I am confident that BP Managers have been saying ‘We couldn’t have anticipated having a huge floating rig explode and sink, severing all control of the blow-out preventer. We chose the most prudent and fiscally sound configuration possible.’

I do wonder if any BP Managers have been considering ‘How much is this costing BP in loss of production, clean-up costs, and lawsuits compared to a more reliable wellhead configuration?

My first assignment for ‘Big E‘, a company which is mostly known for making batteries, was as the first of two support Engineers on one of the two most important joint ventures in all of Big E. By ‘all’, I mean the entire corporation, which then included about 5 other divisions.

The joint venture was for the development and production of a battery charger. This was not, according to the cautious information proffered during my interview, a routine battery charger. It was a Marvel. It could charge tiny batteries extremely rapidly without heating or degrading them. The technology was being provided by the joint venture Partner, a European person of significant eccentricity. He even had a patent.

At 8:00 sharp on the first day with my assignment, I was given the confidential portfolio. It was about 3/4 inch thick. I scanned its somewhat disorganized contents for relevant material, and settled upon The Patent. I did not find a ‘marvel’.

What I did find was comparable to the following. Gardeners sometimes use fertilizer dispensers in-line with a water hose. The dispenser is typically positioned between the hose end and the nozzle. If positioned between the faucet and the hose, the fertilizer would be delivered identically.

The Patent was for a electronic equivalent of that example. A conventional and well-known electronic circuit was patented for having a component in an atypical, but equivalent, position. (The Patent Examiner, we learned months later, had awarded the patent on precisely that narrow basis and not upon any other novelty.) It was a fertilizer delivery device.

An hour with this patent and some supporting documents convinced me that the marvel was bogus. I spent another two hours searching the portfolio to insure that I hadn’t missed some ‘secret sauce’. I had not.

I met with the Boss for a review after lunch. After reviewing his understanding of the situation, and determining that he had nothing surprising to add, I explained the situation. It was something of a revelation to him, although he did have some bewilderment. After all, he had traveled to Europe and had held a tiny battery in his hand while it was charged extremely rapidly without heating – or so it seemed at the time.

The next year & a half was dictated by Corporate Management according to a Stage-Gate Process. A Stage of development was followed periodically by a review and a determination whether to proceed - the Gate. The Stages were pre-planned as if the Project was known to be valid and worthwhile. The Stage-Gate Process served to implement confirmation.

The blatant reality that the project had no technical basis in fact was not a consideration. I was repeatedly assured that later Stages would test the real capabilities of the project. Corporate Management, deeply committed to a pig-in-a-poke that they had loudly and publicly bragged about at its inception, acted as if the puny Engineer’s objections would disappear as each Stage successfully passed its Gate.

No intervening incident could affect their resolute commitment to the Project. A massive fire in a prototype was explained away by the joint venture Partner, who had direct access to Corporate Management both in the offices of Big E and in numerous cocktail lounges.

A Stage, just short of final financial commitment and contractual consummation of the joint venture, arrived to actually test whether the project had a functional, practical, marketable, manufacturable, and profitable product. It did not. The joint venture Partner was a bit delusional about Engineering, for which he was not trained or knowledgeable, so the project was deficient in even routine Engineering aspects.

The second major joint venture was also problematic, and the Corporate Management, which was so easily convinced that they could pick winners, was convinced to find other employment.

I was rewarded, at the next salary review, with the information that one of those departed Corporate Managers had, before he left, ordered my annual salary adjustment cut by 1/3. I guess that settles the question of ‘Who’s to blame?’, huh?

The failings of Engineering are usually exceptions which confirm my assertions. The famous Verrazano Narrows bridge collapse was due to faulty Engineering. A previously unfamiliar phenomenon – vortex generation in winds – combined with natural vibration modes of the bridge to allow a high wind to shake the bridge to bits.

How many bridges since have failed due to ‘resonance phenomena’? Zero.

How many Managers use the same delusional thinking and make the same mistakes as their predecessors? That, unfortunately, is as common as tar balls on a Louisiana beach.

This post is dedicated to Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Teacher in Space,
and Shuttle Challenger crew Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka,
Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, and Gregory Jarvis.

22
May
10

Poe’s Law was incomplete – Stone’s Law is absolute

I tried. I really, really tried.

‘Dr. Rand Paul, Civil Rights Patriot‘ was a test of subtle interpretation. Many folks, here and on other blogs, took me to be a True Libertarian. My comments that Rand Paul is not a consistent Libertarian were received especially enthusiastically by Libertarians, who take him to be a Traitor.

It was natural that someone (who is more closely aligned to my political & social views) would be sufficiently offended by the parody to describe me as “sickening filth“. No problem there – I understand the confusion.

I offered explanations here and on other blogs ‘Rachel Maddow vs Rand Paul‘, ‘NOW ASK HIM ABOUT BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION‘, ‘Rand Paul: Views on ADA and the Civil Rights Act‘, & ‘I’m Sure!‘. Some responded in good humor. Others knew better than I !

‘NOW ASK HIM ABOUT BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION’ changed the original link, “UPDATE. A Paul defender agrees …” to “UPDATE 3. The “Paul defender” mentioned above says in comments that his post was a parody. I want to believe him, but …“. They are willing to consider my comments, thank you muchly.

‘Rachel Maddow vs Rand Paul’ changed the link to Hey! Get This… from “Jim at heygetthis has more” to “Jim at heygetthis has more (although he doesn’t realize it)” after my explanatory comment. My comments truly get short shrift (what the hell is a shrift, anyway? is a long one better?) here.

I quoted Poe’s Law ad nauseum:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

That doesn’t really provide a thorough commentary on my experience in this episode. I propose a new, enhanced version of Poe’s Law. Newtonian Gravity needed Einstein’s General Relativity, so why not make a Good Law even better?

Stone’s Law:

Even with a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t insist, despite overt profferings of revelatory explanation and analysis, to be the real thing.

{ Permission granted under Copyright to re-use this statement
if quoted exactly and completely, including the title “Stone’s Law”. }

People believe that blimps, eerily lit by the nighttime glow of a city, are alien spacecraft or ultra-secret government spy drones.

People believe that, regardless of the realities of Physics, only a bullet fired from the Grassy Knoll could have produced the kinetics (observed and reproduced) of the JFK assassination.

People believe that antibiotics won’t really work unless they offer earnest appeals to a Deity. They also take the antibiotics if they have an infection.

People believe most of what they believe for emotional reasons. Facts, or at least alternative explanations, have such miniscule influence on their thinking that they will not deign to check the facts or examine the alternative explanations.

Herein resides a great strength of Science: it is a system which explicitly guards against superstitious human tendencies. It has mechanisms to correct - even if slowly and frustratingly - errors, misinterpretations, and oversights. Much of the rest of life is, by comparison, a free-for-all, devoid of rules.

15
May
10

How I became an athlete – NOT!

It was a peculiar thing that I discovered in 6th grade. We were given standard fitness tests. I cleared 6 feet, 0 inches in standing broad jump. The teachers and the test administrator were amazed - other students could barely clear 5 feet. This fantastically useful talent languished until high school, where it somehow re-emerged as a significant test for Physical Education ‘teachers’ to conduct. { Do I seem inadequately deferential by accenting the word teachers? Indeed, I have as poor a regard for my P.E. teachers as I have a high regard for most of my other teachers. There was seldom instruction. That was a certainty, since there was seldom a teacher present during P.E. }

When tested for the standing broad jump, I blasted into orbit over a gym mat and made re-entry at a point far beyond what any other student could do. I had a genuine, unassailable athletic skill, and other people noticed it. Before this accomplishment, people noticed two things about me: my intellect (you probably have suspicions by now, yourself) and my rail-thin physique. A couple of years hence, as a junior, I was 5’11″ and weighed 118Lbs. That is skinny. I kept loose change between my ribs so I would have room in my pocket for a slide rule.

The new attention to my special athletic ability (an ability which contrasted with my athletic mediocrity in other areas) was not uniformly lauditory and benevolent. One of the things that we learn in school is that being exceptional can be a prime motivation for other students to resent you. Star athletes in major sports seem to be given uncritical adulation. Their performance as representatives of the school offers many opportunities for other students to project themselves into the role of a hero. The solo athlete, whose skill is strictly personal and isolated, is competition to the egoes of non-athletes.

During my freshman and sophmore years, some P.E. classmates made their disappointment obvious every semester, when the standard tests were conducted. They found a reason to hope during our junior year.

Junior year introduced my first competitor. I will call him Matt. He was a transfer, so none of us had seen him jump. No one needed to see. Matt was about 6’4″. He was as skinny as I was, but that was irrelevant. Matt could almost *fall* as far as I could jump. The class sensed that, as the first semester standard tests began, they would soon be able to tell the thorn in their sides to get the pluck out.

They were, due to their anticipation, doubly disappointed with the result. Matt jumped farther than anyone else had ever jumped – except me. My efforts bested his in the best-of-three jumps. Maybe they would have been comforted to know that, on a bad jump which ended with a fall backward, I sat hard on a thumb. The arthritis occasionally reminds me of that jump.

Afterward, between classes, one of the decent guys (which most of them were) in class told me that ‘the coach said that he wants you to try out for track’. This is your opportunity to understand something about Jim. The comment did not strike me favorably. A few minutes before, I was in that teacher’s (or rather ‘teacher’s’) class. He had every opportunity to speak directly to me. I decided that he was behaving, at minimum, immaturely. He was possibly attempting to get me to approach him, which would have made me a person asking him for a favor. I had seen enough of coaches harassing and verbally abusing their athletes to be suspicious of his manner. Other teachers could conduct a private conversation with a student, or even telephone the student’s parents. If he wanted something from me, he would be seeing me in class in another day or two.

The hopes of the small clique of the resentful seemed to have vanished in a flash. Those hopes rose again like a snarling Phoenix. Another student transferred to Parkview for second semester, and he was in my P.E. class.

David Sturgis was the greatest track star in Springfield history to that date. He had been a student at Central before circumstances (and the end of fall track season) brought him to Parkview. David was about 5’6″ and looked like he could have run through brick walls. He competed in as many track events as humanly possible. It was common for him to win six individual events. He could run, jump, and throw faster and farther than many thousands of others his age. It seemed that every track record belonged to him.

When standard P.E. tests began for the second semester, the clique of the resentful were unable to restrain themselves. It was not possible for the greatest track star in Springfield history to lose to the undeserving nerd. They found a way to restrain themselves after David’s first jump. I had jumped over 8 feet. David cleared less than 7 feet.

I knew that David had never done a standing broad jump before. Perhaps he mentioned it? It was certainly understood, because he would not have been required to take standard P.E. tests before. He probably was allowed to do special workouts instead of regular P.E. classes. Whatever the activity, a degree of experience (or inexperience) makes a difference.

David’s second jump was as poor as the first. My third and last jump was the best I had ever done: 8 feet, 11 inches. He had one opportunity to jump at least two feet further than either of his first two jumps – farther even than the coach had ever seen anyone jump.

This is what makes a true champion: a true champion has physical skills, mental concentration, and emotional drive in equal proportions. A deficiency in one area weakens the others. David was a true champion.

His final jump was just over the end of the gym mat, lightly grazing the end seam. Exactly 9 feet, 0 inches.

I was happy for him. He had much at stake in a showdown which he did not anticipate and did not seek. I had nothing to lose. He was a quiet and unpretentious guy, so he was gracious and made nothing of these events. It was the best possible ending. The clique never uttered the smallest murmur again.

Postscript
I was a fast walker. I always walked 6mph. I could even walk fast while carrying books and a violin for two miles to Parkview. I could race-walk about 10mph, but never tried to do it any real distance. The jocks could run faster than me, but I could walk faster than all of them.

12
Mar
10

The Secret Life of a Friend

We have seen many examples of people who have secret lives, sometimes concealing something which is only a problem because of society’s inappropriate reaction to it. Sexual and gender orientation is the most common example. There is another secret which is darker – if revealed, it is often confronted with either intensely painful pity or by rejection.

That secret is adult illiteracy. It is often a deeper secret than sexual orientation, criminal background, and familial abuse.

I have corresponded for a fairly long time with a person I have known for some years. I respect this fellow – whom I will call ‘Joel‘ – and acknowledge his accomplishments in life. He has reared a fine family, contributed to society in an exemplary career, and maintained a productive and active retirement.

How could such a person be illiterate?

How could he have gone through life, enjoying at least as much success as those of us who are ‘educated’, without being able to read above the 3rd-grade level?

How could I, and many, many others, not have realized quickly (if ever!) that Joel is ‘impaired’?

The answers to these questions are an illustration of the immense resources of a strong personality and an active and very intelligent mind. One in five adults in the U.S. is functionally illiterate. They are neither stupid nor lazy.

I have not discussed this with Joel. I would not expect him to welcome such a discussion. He does ‘read’ somewhat, so it is possible for him to find this blog and discover its indirect and rather fearful attempt to provide an introduction to dialogue. It is a dialogue which I want. It is the reason that Hey! Get This . . . exists. I have no feelings of condemnation or pity, and I seek no further exposure of a secret that belongs only to him. I do want to share understanding and respect.

Joel must have, as have many illiterate adults, learned many clever manipulations to conceal and compensate for illiteracy. He was able to retire from a job in management for a government agency. That job had various qualification exams during his career. The exams were typically multiple-choice, designed such that most people taking the exams had studied by key-word association. They did this even if they could read! It seemed easier to them than mastering actual content. My first experience with this practice was when I took the ‘First Class Radiotelephone Operator‘ examination. This exam provided certification for operators of radio and television stations. I was very familiar with the test material, but I also learned how most folks ‘studied’ for it. Joel, able to recognize individual words, would have been unremarkable as he studied with co-workers. A few selected exams were verbal. This offered every opportunity to avoid exposure of Joel’s secret.

As my correspondence with Joel developed, I endured repeated frustrations. It often seemed that he had not read my letters. He never maintained a substantive line of discussion. If I questioned anything or disagreed with him, he never responded by offering an exposition or defense of his comments. He would respond with only a diversion, such as ‘we agree to disagree‘. He was always very attentive to courtesy, and he sometimes received it in return from me. I was not emotionally disposed to be suspicious toward someone whom I like and wish I knew better.

He sometimes made major gaffs in correspondence. Sarcasm (yeah, that would be me doing it) was often completely misunderstood. After one such incident, it struck me that he had responded to my sarcasm exactly as if he were one of the slobs in the Kansas City F.C.C. office, struggling to decide which word was the key, and how to phrase the response.

One thing has changed for me. It is now especially difficult for me to correspond with him. Am I corresponding with him, or with his lovely wife? She has, very likely, assisted him in managing the many accomodations that are necessary to maintain the appearance of literacy. Am I really having a dialogue, or am I engaged in a special pas de deux, choreographed (outside of my observation) to form an artistic interpretation of a dialogue?

I do hope that Joel finds his way to literacy. It is a difficult thing to do. Becoming literate, like any major change in life, threatens relationships, habits, and self-image. Change, even for the better, can be very stressful.

Resources

The Shameful Secret of Illiteracy in America

Joplin NALA Read

Adult Education & Literacy Missouri AEL Programs

Demers’ [NHL coach!] secret struggle with pain, shame of illiteracy

The James Brooks [Pro football player] Illiteracy Scandal

Center for the Study of Adult Literacy

An Open Letter about Adult Literacy From the President of ProLiteracy




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Basic Understanding

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
- Edward R. Murrow

Intellectual Property Notice

All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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