Friday, August 21, 2009

Tribal knowledge

This tale took place in a company where I worked for a while, quite some time ago. It could be quite a few companies. If by chance you are a former colleague who has kept in touch, this most likely is not about you.

My task was to reproduce an existing machine that this company had built many years before my visit there. For the first time in about a decade, a customer wanted some more of these systems, and the company never really had complete documentation or control over the hundreds or thousands of parts that made up the machines. There were a few ten-year-old drawings for some of the large parts and partial parts lists for a succession of versions.

To make up the difference, someone found some old machines in storage, so we could go measure parts and do some reverse engineering, if we could figure out which features we needed to copy (no two were alike). It turned out, though, that most of the missing information came from a senior technician (I'll call him A.) who had worked at the company for long enough to have assembled the machines in the first place. Long hours and a lack of recognition (real or imagined; I'd guess some of both) had made A. a bit surly and cynical, but a kind word or a bit of friendly commiseration could usually get the answers flowing.

A. remembered when the company had had a machine shop on its premises, along with a full team of machinists and welders. That shop was part of the reason that the machine had been poorly documented: the shop knew how the parts went together and they customized them however they needed to to make them fit. I'd walk down to the shop floor with a parts list or legacy drawing in hand and ask about some part, and A. would tell me why they were all wrong and declare that they weren't doing that anymore. Then he'd usually fish around in his toolbox or some other hiding spot and produce a hand sketch of the correct dimensions, squirreled away since last time anyone had asked. However rough the sketch, it was almost always right. I'd take my notes and measurements and proceed back upstairs and add this "new" information to the model we were building.

There were other things that A. knew that apparently had escaped the notice of the rest of the company, and most particularly anyone in charge. One of these things was how parts actually came in. One part always needed a threaded hole either cleaned out or enlarged (I've forgotten which) every single time it came in. A proper, clear specification for that part would have stipulated that the hole have a clean thread of the correct size, and a receiving inspection should have caught out-of-specification parts and returned them for rework. As it was, A. ended up chasing most or all of these holes with a tap. But that was just one part.

Almost all the parts this company ordered came meticulously cleaned and wrapped in many layers of packaging, a result of the standard drawing notes on all the drawings that did go out. These drawing notes referred to a numbered manufacturing specification, which nobody read before rubber-stamping the standard notes onto every part drawing that went out.

This level of cleanliness is warranted if the part is very high precision and likely to be used in certain sorts of applications, and this company and even this machine included such precision parts. In practice, though, many of their machines were being assembled not in a cleanroom but in a warehouse environment with no air cleanliness controls at all. Many parts also don't need to be cleaned to this degree. A floor mounting bracket will simply get dirty again, and it should never come near the parts that need to stay that clean, anyway. The company, then, was paying extra for the cleaning and packaging, and it was paying more still for an exasperated technician to peel off several layers of unnecessary packaging.

I did ask for and obtain permission to write some simplified drawing notes for parts like the floor brackets, but I doubt anything happened to the standards in the long term.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I am not the first to comment on our habit of trying to ward off lawyers. People here place so many warnings on so many things nobody reads any of them anymore. It is already the subject of no shortage of spoofs. We post signs for everything we can think of and then pay teams of safety and legal experts to think of potential problems where none existed.

I don't claim that this one takes the cake or anything, but it still strikes me as a bit absurd that we no longer take it for granted that a literate adult can infer the safe use of a mundane, household object with no power source or moving parts (the photo should get bigger if you click on it):

Here's another useless warning I spotted recently. In this case, the hazard is real (unreinforced masonry does not fare at all well in earthquakes) but it's not at all clear what I am supposed to do about it. The building should be fine if the ground is not moving (which even in California is most of the time), and nobody seems to be suggesting closing it down.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Satyr of Los Callejones of Coín

This post is a departure from the usual format (if I have a usual format) in a couple of ways. It is fiction (or at least folklore), and it is not, originally, my writing. It my translation of this story. This work remains copyright 2008 Laura Flores Fernández. I post it here with her permission.

The strange story that I am going to tell you happened in Coín, a town in the province of Malaga, located at the center of the Guadalhorce Valley, surrounded by Monda, Guaro, Alozaina, Pizarra, Cártama, Alhaurín el Grande and Mijas. Located 30km from Marbella and 33 from Málaga, Coín constitutes a strategic location in this Andalusian province, since it is at the same distance from the Costa del Sol as from Antequera or the Serranía de Ronda.

What follows occured in the area of Los Callejones, corresponding to the municipal district, where the Grande river flows. The ancient Romans called it "el Sigiloso" because the light murmur that escaped the calm waters as they circulated on the banks.

For generations, my grandfather's family has always lived in Coín. My grandfather, like his grandfather before him, lived in a farmhouse in an orchard, in a group known among the people there as the Cortijon Benítez.

I still recall with nostalgia that, when I was a girl, I stayed in the Cortijo farmhouse during my summer vacations and every weekend that I could. I felt very at home there. Besides keeping my grandfather company, I loved to walk with my dogs and explore whatever new places the natural setting could offer. Satisfied as the days passed, my trips grew longer and I went farther.

One day, when the spirit of exploration led my steps toward the Los Callejones area, my grandfather sternly forbade me to go to that place. Curious, I asked him the reason and he answered me that it had to do with an evil place, a place inhabited by a demon. On seeing my pupils dilate, he told me to sit beside him and pay close attention to what he was about to tell me.

I sat down beside him and he began relating an old belief, that his father had once told him, according to which, at certain times during the seventeenth century, the witches of the Coín area and their neighbors had gone to that place to celebrate, under cover of the darkness of night, horrifying rituals and all manner of Satanic rites.

His father told him that the neighbors of Los Callejones were so frightened that they could not stand more such acts. The shrill screams and the strange lights that they perceived in the distance until all hours of the night were truly terrifying, a situation aggravated by a plague of strange illnesses for which the most expert doctors and healers had neither explanation nor cure. Under the circumstances, they decided to take the case before the authorities.

But to submit the state of affairs to any official scrutiny, it was necessary to apprehend a witch and bring her to trial.After no shortage of meetings, they agreed to resort to trickery: sending a handsome, good youngster to request a witch's presence in the village, on the pretense of expelling the evil eye from a neighbor. This he did, and once the witch arrived in the village, the a mob of the bravest men set on her to capture her. From Coín, she was taken before the tribunal of the Granada Inquisition, before which she was accused of having placed the evil eye on many surrounding neighbors, causing miscarriages in pregnant women, and turning the cows' milk sour.

All the inhabitants of the Los Callejones area went to Granada to testify against her and to learn the result of the hearing. The witch was condemned to death by burning at the stake, and everyone watched as her body was devoured slowly but surely by the fire. But as she was consumed by the flames, the people of the village heard the sorceress cast a curse, asking Beelzebub to punish the people of Los Callejones and their descendants for all eternity. With bloodcurdling screams, she asked the Prince of Darkness to send an executioner wrapped in goatskin, since the people of the village had so misjudged an innocent as to blame her and send her to her doom.

After telling me this legend, my grandfather told me that, when he was still a boy, he had spent a day with a friend of his named Carabantes to go to the town fair. His friend, to arrive at the village sooner, took a shortcut through the Los Callejones area, rather than follow his usual, somewhat longer route. When he went through that area, the donkey that was his mount gave indications of discomfort, as though it saw something that my grandfather's friend could not see, and started to bray like crazy, wanting to backtrack to the main road.

Suddenly, he noticed a small goat kid, bleating, lost, near a bush. My grandfather's friend caught the kid in his arms and lifted it onto the donkey. He had barely resumed his trip when he noticed that the little, defenseless animal that he carried in his arms was transforming itself into a fiery monster. First, starting with its legs, each moment longer; then, its talons and teeth, and finally, its horns, ever larger, twisted and sharp. It a time barely perceptible, that harmless kid had become an giant, black goat with long legs and eyes that glowed like the fires of hell.

When it finished its metamorphosis, what it presented before Carabantes was something like a cross between a man and a goat, which stood upright over its hind legs, leaving its front legs, with hooves as sharp as knives, free. My grandfather told me that Carabantes, even with all that stood before him, had the courage and valor to ask it, "Who are you?'

And the beast answered, "I am the Satyr of Los Callejones."

On hearing the beast speak, the poor man felt his heart pounding in his chest and, with all the courage he could muster, asked yet another question of the being that stood before him: "Why do you have those teeth and such long claws?

The beast answered him in a sarcastic tone, "Perhaps your poor mother doesn't have the same teeth as I do?"

After that brief exchange of words, Carabantes told my grandfather that the creature disappeared, vanishing in a dense, greyish mist with a strong odor of sulfur.

Shocked by the phenomenon he had just witnessed, he abandoned his donkey to run off into the wild night, and when he arrived at the village, he told my grandfather what had happened.

Seized with panic, that night he stayed in his aunt's house so as not to have to go home to his own. His entire body trembled and it seemed as though his eyes would leave their orbits at any moment.

Even now, the locals still recall the bad end he had. It's said that, the morning following the incident, dawn broke upon him dead, with an appearance of sheer terror. He wore an expression of indescribable panic, his face contorted; his hair turned white as the snow; and his eyes, open and protruding, seemed to watch all those present with a horrifying, fixed gaze.

Still, when night falls, I feel a bit of fear when I pass around the edges of that area. There are those who are sure they have heard some nights, in the dense darkness, the ballads of the Satyr of Los Callejones.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Aboard the U.S.S. Hornet

My German friend's California visit ends later this week, so this was probably the last excursion together for this trip. Now I have to get back to real life and prepare for a trip of my own.

In Alameda, California, there is a World War II era aircraft carrier that has been turned into a museum. As one guest book comment earlier yesterday observed, "Don't wear heels." They have a good portion of the ship open to the public, with different levels accessible by the original, steep ladders.

We may not have explored every corner of the ship, but we arrived at around 10:30 and we left at about 4:30. After walking around the flight deck, we took a docent-led tour up into the "island," the ship's control tower and navigation unit. Visitors, especially the smaller ones, are invited to sit in the captain's chair. There's an excellent view from up there, one I was not tall enough to see without climbing up.

Most of the ship, though, is below the flight deck. The other docent-led tour was down into the engine room, and it also included such spaces as the galley and the brig. (A detachment of Marines aboard the ship controlled access to munitions stores and saw to it that time spent in the brig was unpleasant.) Some parts of the lower levels are open to visitors, including rooms full of the "racks" and small lockers that served as quarters for most of the enlisted men aboard.

The hangar bay and flight deck also serve as an aeronautical and aerospace museum. The U.S.S. Hornet was the ship that recovered a couple of the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 capsules, and the capsules and the quarantine trailer (a converted Airstream that was state-of-the-art in its day) are among the items displayed in the large hangar bay that forms the main level of the museum.

When we first began to plan the day, we were thinking in terms of something that involved less walking, since the trips to Sacramento on Friday and San Francisco on Saturday involved quite a lot of walking. We certainly missed on that count, but I'm glad we saw the ship. It's certainly not a run-of-the-mill museum, and we'll both have plenty of time when we're not together to rest our feet.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A trainy day in Sacramento

The same visitor from Germany who wanted to see the San Andreas fault is still in California, and when he's not curious about local geology, he's interested in all things railroad. It was a remarkably cool day for Sacramento in summer at only about 85F (30C).

The plan was for both of us to take the train to Sacramento, getting on at our respective stops. I had never gone to that train station from this end of town, and it was perhaps too early a morning for me, so I missed it on this end and ended up driving, instead. As frustrating as it was to be on the wrong side of the road watching the train go by, I'm now glad I drove. It meant neither of us needed to rely on the train schedule to get home, and in any case, I met him and his train in Sacramento just before 10am.

Sacramento has an old-town section that's right near the river, and right near the train station. It also has the California State Railroad Museum, which I figured was a necessary trip for any serious train fan. It's an impressive museum, displaying an assortment of locomotives and cars. Visitors are invited to walk through an old Pullman car and a dining car with place settings from different railroads on each table. There are also stairs up into the cab of a large steam locomotive (my guest could probably tell you which one). It may be sturdy, thick metal, but the back of the cab is the front of the boiler, which the docent tells us is not so bad as long as the train is moving and the windows are open.

The smaller second floor displays model trains in a variety of sizes. There's actually one train on the second floor, too. They got it there with a crane, through a large window in the wall.

We stopped for lunch in Old Sacramento along the water and went back to a part of the museum that most visitors probably don't even know they miss. In the Big Four building (named for the four businessmen who helped underwrite the surveying and building of the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad), there is a hardware shop and gift shop. There's also a door that leads to a staircase and up to the second floor, where the Museum Library is housed. It's a bunch of old books that I wouldn't recommend it to parents of young children who just want to see big trains, but for a Wikipedian and train buff who takes an active interest in railroad timetables from 1870s, it's just the place. We spent perhaps an hour there, talking to a very helpful librarian, leafing through various old train directories and schedules, and even requesting something that was stored on another floor. The librarian dispatched a dumbwaiter in the building, followed it down (or up?) the stairs and sent the materials back in hinged cardboard boxes (much like bakery boxes, only not pink).

From there, we walked a few blocks to the capitol building, stopping briefly in the public library along the way. We turned a corner from the library and somebody coming the other way asked me if the library was close. I'm normally not the right person to give directions, and I don't know that area well, but they asked me the one question I could possibly have answered at that moment about navigating Sacramento, so I told them.

I have been to Sacramento before, but I had never been into the capitol building. I normally carry a Leatherman, but I left it at home yesterday in anticipation of visiting, and they do indeed screen visitors and their bags at the door. The capitol building is well equipped for visitors. Most of the hallways, the museum area, the galleries for both the senate and the legislature, and even the anteroom to the governor's office are all open. We followed a tour guide around for most of these stops and then went back through some of the areas that the tour didn't visit. It's a beautiful building with a lot of history, and I enjoyed seeing it.

I drove him back to the house where he was staying, since it was basically on my way. We stopped for buffalo burgers in Davis at the restaurant formerly known as Murder Burger, where we sat outdoors and watched two Amtrak trains and a freight train go past on the tracks nearby. We took a brief tour of the campus by automobile on our way out, nearly the only time I have ever tried to navigate the Davis campus by automobile.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

War stories from the plumbing shop

There's a plumbing shop just next door to the big chain home center here, and I go there whenever the home center comes up short on parts for my faucets, which seems to be most of the time for my faucets.

Last week I went in and requested a replacement hose for my pull-out kitchen faucet. The home center had a "universal" replacement with at least two additional fittings at each end, meaning six potential leaks. There was a customer in front of me in line, very confused about what needed to happen to repair a broken bathtub drain (the conclusion: call the landlord and let him deal with it). I think the guy behind the counter was relieved to have a patient customer with an easy, specific request, but he didn't happen to have the part in stock. He took down my name and number and promised to call when they got it.

He phoned me today and I returned to collect the hose. There was no one else in the store. My pen conked out mid-signature, and as I restarted with a different pen, I remarked that I could probably sign it "Mickey Mouse" and no one would ever even care. It being a slow day, he was inspired to share a couple of stories. He used to be in the military, and some admiral "got a feather up his tuckus" and put a picture of a chimpanzee on his ID card. As the plumber tells it, the good admiral proceeded to take this ersatz insignia onto every ship in the fleet without being challenged about it once. Needless to say, many people got taken to task about identification needing to match the people carrying it.

It was our hero's turn to guard the door when the admiral came around (I didn't get whether this was the same admiral), so he made a point to ask for ID, as he should for everyone to enter. For his trouble, he got an earful about how he should know who his commanding officer is and so on and so forth. His response, as he tells it, was, "Yes, sir, I do believe you, but may I please still see your ID?" The admiral proceeded to produce valid ID and proceeded on his way. He heard later from others that it was a good thing he stood his ground. He'd have gotten much more than an earful had he not.

I've never been in the military myself, so I shared a story I had read. I'm pretty sure I'm paraphrasing from a book called The Compleat Practical Joker. An enlisted fellow was frustrated with the amount of paperwork his job entailed. In addition to the heap of reports he routinely filed each week, he made up a report of his own and added it to the stack. His bogus report listed a count of the flies caught on the flypaper at either end of the mess hall. The result: those back at headquarters noticed the excess report and started wondering where every other unit's flypaper report was.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Wiktionary type

I haven't edited Wiktionary actively in awhile, but I think I may drift back to it eventually. For me, one distraction often leads to another, and back around.

There's something about Wiktionary that attracts a certain sort of people. Perhaps it's because I am such a person that I enjoy meeting the rest of us so much.

One evening, we happened to have a person from the Dutch Wiktionary and Wikipedia wander into the Wiktionary IRC channel. I don't really read Dutch, except that it resembles English in some spots. I looked up this visitor's user page in Dutch, and started putting together the colorful graphics in his user boxes, cognates, a couple of visits to a dictionary, and some plain old guessing. I gathered from these clues that our visitor mentioned the following traits:

  1. He drank no alcohol.
  2. He opposed the death penalty.
  3. He was a fan of quantum mechanics.
  4. He's an atheist.

Now, perhaps these characteristics are not that rare, but I think you would be at it awhile trying to find all four in one person by standing on a street corner asking random passerby.

I wasn't so sure of my Dutch, so I asked the visitor if I had understood those user boxes correctly, and I listed them in the channel. He confirmed that I had them right. I replied, "me, too". Then, in a channel with perhaps 12 to 15 people scattered all around the world, I got a chorus of "me, too"s. Allowing for a couple of people who did like the occasional beer, I think the total came to about five.

I think it takes a certain sort of person to write a dictionary in his or her free time. Whatever sort that is, I tend to identify with it pretty strongly. I'll be back, sooner or later.