No Ordinary Pen

There is a book called “Dress for Success” by John T. Molloy (ISBN 9780446385527) . I first read that book in 1990 when I was leaving the Navy and learning how to find a job.

In the beginning of the book they explain the raincoat experiment. What they did was dress people in different color raincoats then have them try to get inside to see the boss without an appointment. What they determined was that a black raincoat tested the worst. A tan or beige raincoat tested the best. With navy blue being a close 2nd. The reason, they claimed, was that people who wear a black raincoat are generally poorer and of a lesser class than those who can afford to buy and maintain a tan raincoat (with all those dry cleaning bills). They also claim “a gentleman never writes with a cheap pen”. What was true in 1980 might not be true today. They may have updated it.

Anyway today I accidentally washed a pen with my laundry. In most cases, the pen would be wrecked, the ink would be on the clothes, and I would have to go shopping for a new work wardrobe. But in this case the pen was fine, it still writes. No ink on the clothes. It was not an ordinary pen, not a cheap pen.

The pen is known as a Fisher “space” pen. This sort of pen is very well made, it is pressurized to write on a vertical surface or even upside down. This one was purchased at an AAFES which is the Army/Air Force Exchange store. They are available from other sources but at the military exchanges they are considerably less expensive. Looking at Amazon they have them for $15.

In conducting automotive testing, where the test log forms are frequently on a vertical surface this is the only pen to have. It works in freezing cold and in blasting heat (-30 to 250 F). It is snow proof and rainproof. It works in zero gravity. Comes with an unconditional lifetime guarantee. It is made in Nevada

The matching “rite in the rain” notebooks that are rainproof are also available at amazon for $7.

Another gem from the “Dress for Success” book is the white shirt experiment. They dressed people in different color shirts, took photos of them and then asked people to look at the photos and answer questions about the people in the photos. The conclusion was that a white shirt makes you look honest. And so, to wear anything else to an interview would be foolish. Or in any other situation where you want to look honest.


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Solar Panel News

Nasa publishes a paper journal called “Tech Briefs”. They have a website here  It comes in the mail every month.   It is a free publication, your tax dollars at work.

Sometimes the articles are good. I really like looking at the ads.

In the MAY 2011 issue there is an article on “Micro-inverters are Launching a Solar Renewable Revolution”.

Solar power is always interesting. I have a small 4 panel array that is just about big enough to charge the 12 volt battery for my 20 meter radio.

The big news is that rather than run DC from the solar panels to one big inverter, some company is making a small inverter part of the solar panel assembly. The first thing that came to mind is don’t they have to be phase matched to the line? Yes, they do and they have a way to do that although not much detail in this article.

I remember, one of my electronics instructors, Larry Schwartz told me a story about being in the Army and being ordered to start a big generator without really knowing how. That of course is the thing that went wrong, did not know to sync it to the line. Big noise, all the smoke leaks out, will never work again. Oh, and Carlos too, on a ship he was on they had some guy manually throw a big switch that put the generator on line before it was sync’d up. That was a good story.

This is the same debate where Edison thought we should use DC and Tesla thought AC would be better for the electric service to our houses. There is a chapter called “Why is Edison Frying Dogs” in a book called “The New Alchemists” by  Dirk Hansen  (ISBN 0380658542)  that explains all about that. Edison was actually electrocuting doggies to demonstrate how dangerous AC power was. In the final analysis, AC power has less loss on a transmission line than does DC. So we use AC. In a solar power system there are the same issues on a smaller scale.

Also in this issue, there is an ad for a new kind of spring. The website is and the thing is called a wave spring. It looks like one of those Chinese finger puzzles. More spring strength in a smaller space. They are offering free samples. I should make something with one, really interesting product.

Most companies that make little parts offer free samples for the purpose of getting a foot in the door and getting their product used in a design  Especially IC chips and that sort of thing. So if you can make the case that you might use their product in the thing you are designing, they will frequently send you a couple to play with. And even if it is just you inventing something at the kitchen table, some places will send you free samples.  Some places only require that you register at their website and then you can request samples.

My lovely wife has a new hobby. She has taken clipping coupons to a new level. Here is the website with all the information . At this website they have instructions that can be followed to bring home a large bag of free or almost free stuff from the major stores like Target and Rite Aid. I avoid Target because I don’t speak French. But you should see the stuff she brings home for free.




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World Ending Saturday

This may be my last post.

I was going to buy some bananas today, we are out. But then I remembered about Saturday. They announced on KFI that the world is ending Saturday, May 21st…at 6pm local time. So I did not want them to go to waste, maybe should have bought a small bunch anyway.

There are billboards, radio commercials, printed brochures. Robert Fitzpatrick, a regular guy in New York, spent his entire life savings, $140,000 , on the advertising campaign.

They played the audio of the guy in charge of the organization promoting the end date and I did not recognize the name but I did know the voice. I have heard him on shortwave radio many times. He does a question answer bible study show. His name is Harold Camping. He was always pretty grumpy and short tempered with his callers. Sounds old.

I am no scholar, but even I know “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” and “the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” So I wonder how this guy, based on a “close reading of the bible” was able to determine not only that the date could be determined, but was able to calculate the actual date.

In the referenced reference it clearly states that the knowledge is unknowable.

But just to be safe I am not starting any long projects until we know for sure. And I might have an extra scoop of ice cream tonight.


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59 Watt Light Bulbs

Update here:

Now in California the light bulb manufacturers are adapting to the new ban on incandescents by adjusting the rated wattage to numbers ending in 9.  Instead of 60 watt light bulbs they now offer 59 watt light bulbs.  This may give them an additional year, but on the left coast, the incandescents days are numbered.  Even without the government forcing the issue they would go out of style in the same way as the buggy whip as they are so much more costly to use.

In our house we switched to the compact fluorescents early, years ago.  The inpact on our electric bill was dramatic.  Even though they cost more at first I was convinced they were a great deal because they lowered the electric bill so much.  And, they helped preserve peace in the house.  Leaving a 14 watt lamp on is not such a big deal.  14 watts is a night light wattage.  The problems with the CFL are that they contain mercury and they have a low power factor.  The low power factor means that although they do save money on the electric bill, they consume more electricity than you are billed for and it becomes a problem for the power company.

The next big thing is the LED bulbs which are really expensive but reduce the load again to only a few watts.  C Crane Radio was early to offer these new bulbs.

I am hoping the price comes down soon as production ramps up.  When the CFL’s were new we found them at Target on clearance a few times for about half price.

LED flashlights are very bright and the batteries last a long time.  If you don’t have one yet try one.  They sell a kit to convert a standard pocket Maglite to an LED bulb. I have one that plugs into the outlet in the car to stay charged.

You can even buy LED replacement for the standard tail light and brake light (1157 and 1156) bulbs for your car.

Resistance is futile,  LEDs are here.

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The Wave and the Bamboo Story

A little off topic today but something that happened this weekend reminded me of the wave and the bamboo story. Working in automotive and even with the scouts this was a handy thing to have.

Terrence Webster Doyle is an author and Karate instructor. In his book “Facing the Double-Edged Sword” he gives an analogy about the wave and the bamboo. It is a childrens book. I first read it when my kids were having bully issues.

The wave is the attack, could be verbal or physical. Think big powerful ocean wave crashing down on a person. Imagine that you are bamboo, in the path of the wave. The bamboo bends with the attack, does not resist the attack. And after springs right back to its original shape, undamaged. He suggests you have a friend insult you and observe how you feel without reacting as an exercise. Many lessons that originate in the martial arts are useful in general.

Funakoshi wrote “there is no first attack in Karate”. Doyle took it a step further and suggested you can choose to block and not strike back. Or listen to the verbal abuse but remain calm and not return in kind. This can be especially useful if you have family members, maybe teenagers that get angry fast and cool off fast. The trick is to avoid escalation. Give them a chance to come to their senses.

I watched the new Jackie Chan movie the Karate kid with my family the other night. This movie is on the edge of believability but I enjoyed it. In the movie you see the new karate kid, Dre, at first, repeatedly being pummeled after running attacks at the bad guy (attempting a first attack). In martial arts, and in life in general, the bad guys will use all that force and energy, with a subtle redirection (especially in Aikido), against you. Better to give them the come on, let them run at you. They probably will walk away rather than do that, because they know better. Defense is generally easier and safer than offense.

Be the bamboo.


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Radio News

Field day is coming soon.  Field day is June 25 and 26 this year.

Practicing for field day last year running SSB from the car on batteries, had QSO with a New Zealand station,  ZL1BD.  Put the double bazooka up on a nearby tree for an antenna.

Last year conditions were not great.  Field day site was a camp site on Keller peak.  The top is about 8000 feet up.  Site was at about 6500 feet.  Running on batteries  QSOs with quite a few California stations on 2 meters.  There was WB6CIA out with the scouts on 146.52.  On 20 meters W0VHQ in Iowa.  Also W0CET in Kansas.  Lots of Iowa stations. Talked to one guy doing the same thing  in Georgia up high at a camp site on batteries.

Maybe the beach would be better.  KH6IB has this little truck with a 20m vertical antenna with a hat.  He drives to the beach in Oahu and throws out ground wires and operates mobile that way.

On TWiT TV Bob Heil (the microphone guy) will be doing a ham radio show starting 24MAY11.  Can be found here

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After being downsized twice, once in 2005 and again in 2009 I thought that my days of being loyal to a company or a boss were over. It seemed that the world had changed. Companies don’t care about the workers, they just sent whatever work they can to the cheapest foreign country they can find and hope that by the time they retire, the bad quality and products tainted with lead don’t catch up with them.

But here I am in 2011, and I have become attached at a company and boss again. New company really does seem to care about the workers and about quality.

In my younger days I went on practice interviews, changed jobs for a little higher pay. Worked second jobs in the evening hours (while attending LTU at the same time). Young people are that way.

Loyalty is an appreciation for others, who appreciate you, and the good work you do. That is my definition not Websters.

I get calls now from recruiters. Some think I am still back east, some have more current information and have found a perfect job for me out west. And I am polite, send a note back, but really I have zero interest in changing jobs right now.

Is it wrong to enjoy work? In 2009 when that job ended I was actually glad. I knew I would find something better, not a very lofty goal. And Kelsey-Hayes, that was a hellish job. But in both cases it was not the work, it was the people that made the difference. Yes, I am talking about you Frank.

One of the vendors I knew in Detroit used to tell me that his cost and the competitions costs were about the same. What he could offer that was different from the competing company was himself and his people. Companies that compete on price frequently fail. And people that compete on price (hire me I work cheap) cause more problems than they solve.

Of the big three car companies my way of getting to know them was to do their testing for them. My impression was that each company had a personality with quirks and traits.

GM was stodgy. They tested cars that seemed old even when new. Always playing it safe. They don’t really care whether the test passes or not. Quality is not the top issue at GM. GM was mostly competing on price. Quick and cheap.

Now Ford (disclaimer, I have been driven Fords since the mid 1990s), makes a solid vehicle with some flash, some new and risky design features. They care very much about the quality of their products which means if they fail on a test I am conducting I know they will blame the lab for the failure at first and be very upset about it. Fords are expensive, they compete with unique and high quality products.

GM almost went under, and Ford is riding high with no government help. Better to compete on anything besides price.

Ever have any experience with a place that hired cheap? The place I was at in 2009 actually seemed to make a drastic change in that direction. What I heard was they downsized most of the experienced staff and hired kids right out of school. I know they probably have suffered for it. People leaving for 50 cents an hour more, etc… A little bird told me about it.

I think that it really what makes the difference in my mind. That loyalty that I have for new company and new boss. New company promotes from within and spends a lot of time searching for experienced people who know about the work. New company really cares about quality. Makes me feel good about what I am doing. Makes me want to go to work everyday. Builds loyalty and builds the team.


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The Microscope Story

In the book “The H.P. Way” there is a story about Bill Hewlett working late one night and he needs a microscope. He goes looking for it and finds the tool storage room locked. He breaks the lock off and leaves a note with instructions that it not be locked again.

In engineering everything is a compromise, always a trade off.  Do you want this or that.  Can not have both.

Really there are two ways to do things,  lock things up, or , leave things out where people can get them. In the first case you preserve your tools and capital equipment but at the cost of getting things done. In the second case your workers are free to get to the tools they need to get things done but you may need to spend some money on replacing things from time to time.

There is nothing more frustrating than to be prevented from doing your job by a lock or other barrier keeping you from getting the tools or information you need to do your job.

Today we lock up the means to production with a new kind of lock, computer passwords. People all have different levels of access depending on their position and department. I frequently run up against password issues where there is no way to get the job done until we can get the IT guy in there to “Administrate” the computer.

The shipyard at Pearl Harbor has a big tool locker. The workers there spend much of their time being issued and returning tools. This is the opposite end of the spectrum from a company like old HP.

I always took my own tools.  Sometimes borrowed one or two from Sid.  I left them out where my fellow workers can borrow them if they need them.  Sometimes  they were not returned.  Most times they were.

Old HP was about making test equipment. And getting the job done was more important than possibly losing a few tools.

So what is more important at your company? Making sure all the tools are in the tool crib at days end, or is it a workplace free of barriers to creativity and production?


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Parts is parts

Why is it so difficult to get parts from the big manufactures these days?


Today we have this little Agilent fixture come it. It is missing a couple of brackets and four attaching screws. In the back of the manual there is an exploded diagram clearly showing all the parts and a table with the Agilent part numbers.


I go to the Agilent find a part webpage, put in the part number, and there they are, $1.29 each. 200 in stock.


So, I order the two brackets and four little screws I need and send the order to the purchasing guys. A while later there is an email for me, purchase guy says the screws are not available from the vendor web site. He advises me to call Agilent and explain to them which part I need. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? It is there own part number, how could they not know what I need. So I go there myself, put in the part number, and up comes the “this part does not exist” screen. Weird.


So instead, I try it by putting in the main model number. A parts list come back with the screw the 2nd item from the top, still available, still $1.29. Put all the links and instructions and a screen print of the web page in an email to the purchase guys to order in the morning.


Probably in the morning Agilent will have readjusted the site again to make the part impossible to order. Why?


In the old days, the part numbers are all in the back of the manual. Having the part number guarantees that you can order the part. That is why they assign part numbers.


Now the US office frequently is only a storefront representing the overseas company that does all the design and manufacturing. My last place was designing and engineering in Europe and manufacturing in China. The Europeans will not return phone calls and/or were always on holiday. The Chinese don’t speak English. No wonder the storefront can’t get a straight answer.


We have these Agilent power supplies that are the size and shape of a pizza box. Can not order knobs for them. Customer looses the knob, the thing sits on a shelf. We call to get the part, can not be ordered. Sometimes we can get a free sample, but none are for sale.


I think the issue is the cost of selling incidental replacement parts is so high that the only reason to do it is for the convenience of the customer, there is little profit in it. So in the old days they did it for the customer. Now a days few companies care about good customer service. They care only about short term profits generated by selling expensive durable goods. To quote Charley Sheen “I’ve already got yer money dude”. Customer service is out of fashion. A calling center with English speaking operators is actually a selling point for the companies that have them.


So instead of getting our incidental parts from the manufacturer increasingly we find them ourselves and order them from 3rd party distributors. The process goes like this. First remove the part or if it is missing check one from a second asset that still has all its parts. Try and get a manufacturers name off the needed part. Go to Google and look for the manufacturer and or the part number if there was one on the part.


As I was getting ready to leave the lab tonight William calls me over to look at the input barrier strip on a Chroma load. One of the plastic “barriers” between the neutral and hot conductors was gone. We can’t ship it like this. Customer wants it back fast though.


He had one old one with a stripped out screw for me to take a number off. The maker was Hoppy and the part number was HP-T4047. I found the Hoppy website, Korean place. No distributors listed. Anyway I start to look for the part on their site and the different kinds of barriers strips include “modular” barrier strips. I look at the part again, take off my glasses and look very close. I see little number 1 phillips screw heads on one end and little nuts on the end of the two bolts that go all the way through the part. Now I am excited,


“William, it comes apart!”




“Look, it comes all apart!” Now hunting for the right size screwdriver.


William still does not get it “How does that help us?” he asks.


I am now just getting the screws out. The part falls apart in 20 pieces.


“Oh, now I get it.”William is smiling.


Chroma is one of those places that is a Taiwan company but has a US office. We have one asset that needs replacement cables that come with them when new. Now, the cables still come with a new one when we order them but today the purchasing department told us the cables are no longer available from vendor. So I had to order all the little pieces to make them ourselves. Now, I am going to have fun doing that task, but really, how could they not be available from vendor? They still come with the new units. I found replacements for the voltage cables as a ready assembly. Six dollars and sixty cents. Before we paid over one hundred dollars a set. The current cables materials cost quite a bit more, but considering we can make four sets with the materials I ordered, still about one half the cost not including my time.


Money can be saved by ordering parts from the 3rd party distributor. All the parts are off the shelf these days. The trick is to figure out who made it. Then who distributes it. I miss the 80’s. Life was simpler then.


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