Saturday, December 28, 2013

Holiday Electrical Successes and Failures

As I'm rattling around the house the past few days recovering from a really poorly-timed evil cold/cough, not feeling well enough to actually go out and do anything but not so bad that I'm flat-out in bed, I figured I'd catch up on some projects.

I got all the parts in before Christmas to do an add-on for Anna's sous vide cooker that I built a while back. Anna wanted the ability to do sous vide in a smaller container, so we ordered a cheap hotplate, an aquarium pump, an additional PT100 temperature sensor, and some spring clamps. In this add-on, my existing PID controller box would be used to run the hot plate; when I built the controller box, it was with the intent that it could be used to control other things, so it has a 1/4 phono jack as the temperature sensor input, and a couple of 120V wall outlets (one switched by the PID, the other always on). The aquarium air pump will be used to bubble air in the sous vide bath, to keep the heat even.

I soldered up the PT100 to a 1/4" stereo phono plug I had from the previous sous vide, plugged everything in, and re-calibrated the PID to the new setup. Looks like it will work great!

On to the next project.

The Ikea halogen track lights in our office went out just before Christmas. I took the power supply apart, and it's just a rectifying transformer of the cheapest sort - should be very easy to replace.

For curiosity's sake, I broke open the case of the transformer. From the photo, you can see that the circuit board is populated with through-hole components, like you'd typically see in a DIY kit or something cooked up in my garage -- not seen in consumer electronics much since the early 1980s. Why? Because building it this way depends on human labor, not machinery, and there are still places in the world where that's by far the cheapest way to do it.

Exploitation of workers aside, this box does a pretty straightforward job, converting 120VAC into 12VDC, with some nice fringe benefits like turning on a bit gently so as to not shock the poor halogen bulbs, and perhaps a safety feature or two (like a tiny, non-replaceable fuse...)

Finding a replacement online was easy. Finding one that looked like it would be a drop-in replacement, *and* had at least a few reviews that didn't read like "DOA", "worked for a week and then died", "stay AWAY from this!" and the like, proved harder. I settled on a power supply that seemed to have decent reviews, and wasn't the cheapest of the pile, and ordered away. (Power supplies like this seem to run from about $10, to $60... a replacement Ikea lamp is about $80. I opted for a ~$20 part.)

The power supply arrived today, and I was eager to alleviate the darkness that has pervaded the office for a few weeks now. I wired it in to the lamp, and fired it up.

Hm. Looks a bit... dim. Anna agrees.


I fire up the 'scope to see what the heck this thing's putting out... and holy moly, that's an ugly waveform! But, it's driving lamps, so it really shouldn't matter too much, as long as it's about the right shape.

Zoomed in... not very clean!

Zoomed out, it's still pretty ugly. But, sine-like. With some filtering to take out the HF stuff...

It doesn't look too bad. But check out the voltage -- this is why the lights were so dim!

The new power supply is only supplying about 6V, peak-to-peak, running 5 x 20W bulbs. It's a 150W supply, so it should be OK with that load. I tried running 1 x 10W bulb, and it really didn't care for that... not enough load I think. Next, I tried 3 x 20W -- and got pretty much the same as for 5 bulbs. Crumbs. I'll be sending it back, and now I have to find a different power supply and throw the dice again.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Dear Sir

Dear Sir,

I'm really sorry for not reacting more maturely to your nearly killing me with your car.

I'm sure that you didn't intentionally make a right turn into your driveway so close to me that, had I not braked and swerved, I would surely have been crushed under the wheels of your automobile. Probably my suggestion of a creative but improbable use of your presumed anatomical features was uncalled for, and for that I apologize. I was incited to this level of reaction by your assertion that you "didn't believe you came very close" and that "in the grand scheme of things, it's not that big a deal" to be nearly run over and killed.

Surely it wasn't the cell phone on which you were talking at the time that distracted you from seeing my incredibly bright taillight, my reflective clothing, the electroluminescent wire festooning my bike's frame, the two glowing-green lights spinning in my bike's wheels, and my brighter-than-the-sun headlamp. And I recognize that it takes additional coordination to both talk on the phone and use the turn signals (except you didn't seem to bother with that part) while managing to turn into your driveway, all at the same time, without so much as colliding with anything except, almost, with a cyclist.

So you're quite right, Dear Sir, to respond to my calm inquiry as to what possible reason you might have had for coming so close to running me over by saying that you had nothing to say to me. That's OK. I didn't really expect you to interrupt your important phone call (which you didn't, anyway, while we conversed in your driveway.)  I just wanted to share with you why I really had been hoping for more, riding down the festively-lit street full of Christmas cheer. It all looked so happy and full of the Christmas spirit - you know, goodwill to all, tidings and cheer, neighborly.

But Dear Sir, I noticed, those festive lights belong to your neighbors, and their neighbors, and really most all of the other houses in the neighborhood, but not yours. I'm sure your importance (as evidenced by the need to be on the phone at all times) precludes participating in the holiday spirit. Or perhaps, you've been so beaten down by the ever-present holiday trappings of your neighbors, since they have now been up for all of two days. So I will gladly cut you some slack and assume that your blasé response to my query was just because you were busy and not paying attention to anything around you, including me on my bike.

After all, I ride by your house twice a day, every single workday. I'm sure I'll have lots of good chances to observe your progression into madness, delusion, and self-loathing as the Christmas cheer merrily eats into your brain.

I do hope you'll accept my sincerest apologies for not having more patience, and

Merry Christmas!


The Decline and Fall of the Cell Phone

(Another post from the Wayback machine, found stuck in the blogpost "drafts" - this from two years ago, around this time of year.)

My daughter was cleaning out some of her old toys and stuff (in anticipation, I guess, of the forthcoming Christmas arrival of new toys and stuff) and decided it was time to part with this:

Motorola's Micro T.A.C. Lite

I gave her this old phone a few years ago; it had been sitting in my parts bin, and I thought it would make a great "play phone" -- and it did, until this year it was outgrown and replaced with a desire for a real cell phone (no, Santa's definitely not bringing a nine-year-old a cell phone for Christmas...)

Looking at the phone, which represented the state-of-the-art when I bought it back in the early 1990s, I found myself musing on what had happened to cell phones since then.

This "Micro T.A.C. Lite Digital Personal Communicator" was the first of the "small" phones - small enough to stuff in a jeans pocket, or in a purse. It was the lightest cell phone ever, at 7.7 oz. Prior to this, cell phones were twice the size. It looks big now, but this phone represented a huge leap forward. The battery life was OK, but the phone was truly portable, and broke new ground.

It was also tough, in a nearly-unbreakable way. My phone wasn't treated with kid gloves, and it still looks pretty much like new.

And, it was a good phone. It worked well. It felt good - the materials had a feeling of quality, it sat nicely in the hand, the distance from earpiece to the end was sized to match the human head. It was the cellular, mobile analog of the classic Ma Bell desktop phone, ubiquitous across America for a couple of generations.

All of these things can also be said of the next phone I bought, also from Motorola - the Star TAC. It, too, represented a big leap forward (or downward?) in size and weight, and was still convenient to use in the hand; somehow, Motorola kept the toughness of the Micro TAC, for the Star TAC felt equally indestructible.

These phones were from the time when phones were just phones - they were expected to do one thing well, and (mostly) they did, and kept doing it better over time. They got smaller, their batteries lasted longer, but the basic functionality (it's a phone!) stayed the same.

Eventually, though, two things happened: consumers wanted (or, perhaps, technology companies decided to sell to consumers) ever-smaller devices, and phones took on more and more functionality. The very simple phonebook feature of these early Motorolas led to addressbooks, simple games, a calculator, text-messaging... a slippery slope. Soon enough, the fairly short list of features that made a truly great phone (robustness, a bright, clear display, good audio quality, long battery life, and a nice feel in the hand) was almost entirely pushed aside in preference to miniaturization, sleekness, size and color and quantity of the display(s), and number of secondary functions the device could perform (games, music player, calendar, to-do list, etc.)

I think we are, in some cases, starting to drift back towards good functionality of cell phones as phones. But Motorola and Nokia, once the dominant designers and manufacturers of truly good phones, seem to have fallen by the wayside, casualties of the market's whims. I don't hear consumers clamoring for fewer features in their phones, but perhaps a bit of recognition that the absolute sleekest, thinnest, most-stylish phone is not necessarily the most useful phone...

Anna says, this is the same thing that happened to toaster ovens (and, I suspect, many many other appliances, and other consumer products.)

Oh The Crushing Banality

(I originally wrote this a couple years ago, and stumbled across the draft. It's still an accurate account; there's been some improvement but not enough to invalidate the observations.)

I've noticed a couple of trends at work lately, and they aren't ones I like.

The Fallacy of Saving Cost by Reducing Support Staff

As in so many companies and gov't agencies, we've gradually reduced support staff to a bare minimum over the last several decades. Where we once would have had several secretaries and other administrative professionals supporting our 200-person department, we have one. Where we once would have had a team of technical writers and graphic arts professionals available as a resource, we have none. The consequence of these "cost saving measures" has been to push secretarial duties and assorted skills that normally demand considerable education and experience, onto the technical staff.

The logic is dubious. Eliminating several lower-salary positions may save some money in the short term, but the long-term effects are several and significant:

  • For starters, we now have the most highly-paid personnel in the organization spending their time on trivia: filling out forms, tweaking the format of documents to ensure compliance with various standards, trying (and, for the most part, failing) to produce high-quality figures and graphics to illustrate technical reports, navigating ever-more-obtuse systems for booking travel, procuring supplies, tracking activities.
  • One direct repercussion of imposing non-productive work on the technical and managerial staff is a drop in morale, and difficulty in retention. Why put up with the distractions? Even if the reality is that most other large employers have followed the same flawed logic, the most competent staff are also the most able to leave and find out just how green the grass is over at the competition. The grass may in fact be just as brown as it is here, but the staff are gone nonetheless.
  • The quality and quantity of useful work produced by the staff will assuredly decrease. When I look at the technical publications we produced 30 years ago, I am stunned by the quality of the writing, the readability of the figures, and the consistency of the production. Most of all I am impressed with the depth of thought and the care put into the report by the author(s). It is clear that they had the uninterrupted blocks of time required to think deeply about their subject, analyze their data, and with due consideration, craft what they wanted to say into a cogent text.

This has been a long-term trend, evolving into the present state over a period of decades. Those joining the workforce in the past 20-odd years might simply view this as what is expected; older workers, or those who spent part of their careers in "enlightened" companies, may have seen how it once was.

The Fallacy of Remote Support

As a consequence of the above support personnel reductions, managers decided to rely on technology to improve efficiency of the remaining staff. This took the form of web applications for things like timecard entry, vacation requests, and booking travel. Aside from the lowest-bidder user interfaces and other egregious affronts to the poor users (such as separate password for each application, all expiring on different schedules and with complex but inconsistent rules about what constitutes a valid password) this approach also served to further separate the staff from actually getting things done.

In some cases, the ways the new applications worked changed almost continuously; it bacame obvious that the staff would pretty quickly have to spend all of their time just learning how to navigate the tools! Where the staff could once muddle through and either learn how to navigate the processes themselves, or beg the few remaining support staff to help them out, there was now hired a new cadre of low-level contracted personnel, dedicated to be intermediaries between the technical and managerial staff and the new business applications. However, rather than being co-located with the people they support, and therefore both cognizant of the unique requirements of those particular people and accessible (and responsible) to them, the new group was located together, removed from any direct relationship with those they were ostensibly to support. The resulting level of service, as you might imagine, was not perceived to be high.

Further, because of this distancing of the support staff from those they support, a new pressure on the supported personnel emerged: the support staff was getting bogged down by requests and data that didn't follow procedure, necessitating considerable back-and-forth with their "customers" to clarify. Arguing for improved efficiency, they developed complex procedural instructions and provided them for their customers to follow.

Never mind that the published procedures were almost always inconsistent with actual practice; the customers were now somehow expected to follow the undocumented procedure, and the support staff was not likely to pick up the slack. This sorry state resulted in ever-more-ludicrous situations, such as one I had the misfortune to encounter today: having duly submitted the six (six!) pieces of documentation requested by a published procedure two pages long, I has an email exchange that went something along these lines:

Support: Thank you for sending your request, you're missing five of the required items and I can't process this until I have them all.

Me: If you look again, you'll see that you are in fact in receipt of three of the five items in question; the fourth was ambiguously stated in the procedure, but here it is (attached.) The fifth wasn't mentioned at all in the procedure, but here you go. (attached.)

Support: Thank you, please take the information you sent in items 2 & 5 and use it to fill out these Word templates, attached. I can't process any of this until you've done that.

Me: Arrrrrrrgh! (Pounds keyboard in abject frustration.)

Now mind you: they could have provided the templates in the published process but didn't. They had all the information needed to fill out the templates, but didn't. The total amount of time spent reading the process, interpreting the poorly-written requirements stipulated by the process, generating the documents to respond in accordance with the process, and then negotiating what was really required with the "support" staff was completely out of whack with what should reasonably have transpired, which should have gone something like this:

Me: Hello, I need to do [blah], what information do you need from me?

Support: OK, we need these four items; you can email me the information.

Me: Great, thanks, here they are (attached.)

Support: Got it, we'll have this ready for you by noon three days from now. We'll give you a call if there are any questions, but it looks like everything we need is here.

Even better if the support person actually knew who I was, and thus whether my request carried any particular extra weight or urgency (does Chad ask for this a lot? Is it always approved by the boss? Or does he frequently make requests only to cancel them shortly thereafter, or have them declined?) And to improve upon that, what if I knew the support person, and what their workload might be at any particular time? The exchange would be more productive and satisfying for all involved. But with the support staff at a distance, both physically and psychically, there seems to be little incentive, let alone mechanism, to establish such a useful relationship. It quickly devolves to "us" and "them".

This has been a shorter-term trend, but its influence on daily worklife seems to be profound. Staff's ability to get things done has been curtailed in a fundamental way, with incomprehensible barriers erected for no coherent reason. I have rarely heard such dissatisfaction from people otherwise happily engaged in meaningful and productive work -- I believe it is because the roadblocks are now so frequent, and so complete, that their impact cannot be subsumed to the more enjoyable aspects of the workday.

I don't know if this is cropping up at other workplaces, or if it has been prevalent for years and I'm just now seeing it in my own workplace; I'd be very curious to hear from others what their experiences have been.