Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Vacation Seige Day three - doing mommy work

You know, every one of these vacations starts out the same way - with the best of intentions. I'm going to get so much done around the house.

Well here we are two days before Christmas and we still don't have a tree. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get four active people together for an hour during the Holidays? I think that's the tipping point on the whole real vs artificial tree thing.

We you can't get together long enough to get a tree, what's the point? You might as well just drag it out of the crawl space. As long as it's green who cares? My Grandmother lived in the city and for years had one of those silver table top models. I remember thinking that those poor people in the city couldn't get a real tree and had to get one that looked like it belonged on the Jetsons. Who thought of that anyway? A silver tree?

And talk about last minute, I did all the cards in a day including one of those cheesy newsletters.

That was two trips to Kinkos right there. The first Kinkos was like a third world country. The electric door was stuck half opened on day with 0 degree F wind chills. Mental note: if you ever approach a store three days before Christmas with the door stuck open, run. Something was going on with the high speed color printer and the guy behind the counter pointed me towards PCs in the back with like cheesy color printers on them. I said thanks, but no thanks.

The second Kinkos in the afternoon was the complete opposite. There was one girl behind the counter and like 20 customers and she was keeping up. She was like blur back there.

In between was Walmart, Lunch and Target. Walmart was disaster. There had to be a nice lady on one of those electric carts in every aisle. She would smile as she blocked the entire aisle. Friendly? Yes. I still couldn't get by.

I was there for a "ship-to-store" which is always an adventure. The whole Walmart/Internet intersection is an interesting thing to behold. The nice Hispanic woman behind the counter was trying to 'splain to me that it may be here but she could find it. "I give courtesy call" in the afternoon. That would have been helpful along with that nice email that told me you did have it here so I could have stayed home - or gone to Target.

Target was the complete opposite. Aisles wider than the Mississippi, numbered all the way up to 5-9-7. No electric carts, but ironically I could have used one as I was exhausted by time I got all the way out to seasonals. It was like remote parking at an airport out there. The need signs like at the Grand Canyon "You need this much water to get to Kitchen Appliances - Don't even try it with out it because helicopter rescues are expensive"

I then spent the afternoon gather Christmas card lists. I'm not sure why but this gets harder and harder every year. I tried to organize it in 2005 and it was disaster. I still have a list that I have to mentally adjust address as I go - "No wait they moved in 06" comes up a lot.

Anyway, I made it to the post office in hand with 90% of the cards. Then it was off to pick up my wife since we are back to the three people two cars thing. Then make dinner for the boys and the hoard that had invited over. By 10 I was exhausted and passed out. I woke up at 12 to an impromptu all night D-n-D session occurring thin the room below.

I am working harder at this vacation then I ever would at work.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The worst Christmas of my working life (so far)

I've started my annual Christmas vacation and this year I'm taking two weeks off. I'm leveraging 4 Holidays into two weeks off.

My first official actions on vacation? I emptied the sink full of dishes, got up at 6:30 to take my wife to work and started laundry. Not exactly soaking up sun and relaxing but it beats working. In fact, I have a motto about it: "I like vacation better than work".

I got into this habit of taking time off around the Holidays at my first long tenured job at a local Telephony Billing company. They had a policy of closing between Christmas and the New Year and would split the time with you. If it were 5 days between Christmas and New Years outside the normal Christmas Holidays, they would take 2 as off but not vacation days. They were freebies.

I got used to it.

There have only been two times when this hasn't been possible, when I started my current job and didn't have the required vacation days saved up and the year that local Telephony Billing company released "New Product".

In 1991, I was in Software development at Telephony Billing Co. at the time and the New Product was going to be our premier platform for gathering billing records. We had farmed out the conversion of our flagship product to New Product to a large internationally known hardware and software maker with two initials. Their theory was to take all of the old code, written in assembler and Fortran, which ran on their propitiatory operating system and convert it to C and Fortran on UNIX.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

This is like taking a large wooden machine from the 19th century and part by part copying it into steel and titanium. I guess if you are Vice President of a small software firm this seems appealing since you can continue with the old product with in house people and contract out the conversion.

It was a disaster.

The part by part copying went OK. Large, two initialed, intergalactic hardware and software firm hired three contractors for this job and as is usually the case in such situations, one contractor was totally useless, one was so-so and the third was brilliant.

On average they were OK.

So the conversions were also on average OK. Coincidentally about a third were terrible, about a third were OK and a third were brilliant.

The real problem came at integrating all these hundreds of parts back together because no one knew how they all should fit together. The software program they were converting had some parts that were reused from older products, some as old as 15 years ago. It was well over a million lines of code. The people that wrote and understood those parts were long gone, having been fired or laid off when the company went through lean times. By the time of this conversion, I had been at the firm 2 years and the generation of programmers that wrote a lot of this code were know by us new comers as "the ancients".

I saying I developed during these times was "not all the ancients were wise". Some of the parts in the code made no sense. It was like body parts that had evolved. Ones that once had an important purpose were now confusing parts that no one knew they did. Like an appendix or that tip of the spine that "used to be a tail".

There was a lot of "what the hell is that"? and "who knew"?

There was one among us who knew the ancients and had worked among them, B.

B had moved from North Jersey when the firm folded shop up there. B. had worked at the firm for over 10 years and He was the only one with "the big picture". The rest of us had parts of the system we specialized in on this unbelievably huge software product but B, allegedly, knew how all this fit together.

Other than B, it was like three blind men and an elephant. "New Product is like a column" one would say. "New Product is like a snake" another would say.

The only problem was that B didn't actually say much. He was a deep thinker.

We spent most of the year testing all the little parts that had been converted and then by fall we were starting to integrate it. Well, large, two lettered intergalactic software maker was integrating since it was in their contract to do so.

Because they had no blueprints or documentation, some times they put things together wrong. It was like they were building Frankenstein and sewed a leg were an arm should be, put his head on backwards and used a thigh for neck. It was a mess.

Not only was it difficult to put together, the conversion was based on an emulator of the original operating system that mimicked the proprietary operating system under UNIX. And that e-e-e-mulator sucked. To this day I can't say that word without stuttering.

By late fall, we were "helping" them. By December, intergalactic software and hardware giant had all but given up and it was up to us.

Now things were way behind schedule mostly because of the integration issues and we had assumed that customers were being told that we were behind. So far behind that we were thinking that it would be sunny and warm by time our Frankenstein saw the light of day.

Around Christmas, I learned "never assume"

On the morning of our Company Christmas luncheon, I had made the first real release of the software. It was more like a test. I had no idea if all the parts worked or not I was just picking them up out of the development tree and getting them into a production environment, via DAT tape.

Tape number 1.

At the luncheon, my boss asked me:

"You know that tape you made this morning? Is there any way we can ship that to customer X?"

It was a Dilbert moment. All he needed was pointy hair.

I honestly thought to myself that he was insane. Whatever I had would never ever work. We all knew that. We had months of testing and integration ahead.

Well for customer X, a salesman had told them they were going to have New Product by years end.

Two days later, the President of the little company I worked for canceled Christmas as if He were the Sheriff of Nottingham. We were told that starting bright and early on the morning of the 26th we would be working to get customer X a tape. One that worked.

30 official tapes and 8 months of 80 hour weeks for 10-15 people later it was all over. There were many stories in between but let's just say that it was a terrible Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


'Twas da night before Christmas,
You hear what I'm sayin?
And all through South Philly,
Sinatra's Christmas tunes was playin'.

Da sink was piled high,
Fulla dirty dishes,
From da big Italian meal
Of gravy and seven fishes.

Da brats were outta hand
From eatin too much candy.
We told them to go to bed
Or there wouldn't be no Santy.

And me in my sweatpants,
Da wife's hair fulla rollers,
Plopped our butts on the sofa
To fight over the remote controllers.

When out in da shtreet,
There was all dis friggin' noise.
It sounded like a mob hit,
Ya know, by Merlino and his boys.

I trew open da stormdoor
To look and see who's who.
Like a nosy little old lady
Who's got nuttin' better to do.

In da windows of da rowhomes
Stood white tinsel trees.
And those stupid moving dolls
You get on sale at Kindy's.

When what should I see,
Comin' from afar.
But fat Uncle Nick
In his big ole Towne Car.

He was swervin' and cursin',
Givin' all da gas he got;
As he barreled up the shtreet,
Looking for a spot.

More faster than Santa,
My drunk Uncle came;
Wit a car full of relatives,
All drunk just the same.

Yo Angie! Ay Dino!
Vic, Gina, and Pete.
He yelled out there names,
Then spit a loogee in da shtreet

I can't find no spot nowheres
Pissed off, he said.
So he double-parked the Lincoln ,
And came in to hit da head.

As he hugged me, he burped,
And passed a loada gas.
It stunk up da house,
Like a rotten sea bass.

His coat was pure cashmere,
His pinky ring shined;
His toupee was all twisted,
The front was now behind.

He ran up to da bathroom,
Bangin' pictures wit his hips.
Never lettin' da smelly stogie
Fall from his lips.

With eyes oh so bloodshot,
And a butt, oh so flabby;
In walked Aunt Angie,
All dolled-up and crabby.

Jeat yet? she asked,
As she thundered to da kitchen;
All da calamaris gone?
Aunt Angie started bitchin'.

In came Cousin Gina,
In Guess jeans too tight.
She was bathed in Obsession,
Her hair reached new height.

In strut Cousins Dino,
Little Petey and Vic;
Shovin' pizzelles down their throats,
It was makin' me sick.

I said, What da hell
Are all youse people doin?
Not one of them answered,
They was too busy chewin'.

Uncle Nick came down at last.
His face was beet red.
Sorry I missed da toilet.
I pissed in the tub instead.

That was it, I had had it.
I yelled, get the hell out.
Uncle Nick looked real puzzled.
Cousin Gina started to pout.

Wit that they mumbled curses,
And opened a Strawbridge's bag.
And fumbled round to find da gift
Wit our name on da tag.

I felt kinda stupid,
As I thanked them for their gift.
But they stormed out da stormdoor,
All of 'em miffed.

We tore open da paper
That was taped on and on.
It was a bottle of Sambuca,
And half of it was gone.

But I heard Uncle Nick yelling
As he slammed on da gas.
Merry Christmas, ya ingrate!
You can kiss my ass!

Yo. Happy Holidays, a'ight?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gonna take my heater back to rehab, I say 'no no no'

I know what you want hear about now... A heater update!

The fun continues as we had a factory representative out from Buderus to look at the German built Logamatic controller just before Thanksgiving. He was basically giving me the "so why am I here" routine since he drove in from New Hampshire on the day before Thanksgiving and so that is exactly what he asked me "Why am I here?".

The Logamatic controller ...ur ahh... that sound so formal. From now on, I'm going to call it a Farfanugan.

So the Farfanugan supposed to sense the outside temperature and adjust the boiler water temperature accordingly. If it is 50 degrees out, the boiler won't come up to 180 degrees as a typical boiler will, it only comes up to 125. It will take a little longer to heat your house but you save money since you are not bringing the boiler up to full temperature and if the weather is warmer this should be OK.

Those Germans sure are smart. Those of the single eyed persuasion.... well... you be the judge.

One-eyed Bob set the Logamatic/Farfanugan to the equivalent of not having a Farfanugan since every time I looked, the boiler temperature was one hundered and ninety freaking degrees. Remember now, he had come out in early October when I called one morning. The weather was warm and the heat never came on. I suspect at the time that just slammed the Farfanugan so it came on in warm weather.

I just reminded me of a scene in "The Hunt for Red October" where Sean Connery is conjecturing that the captain of the Russian Alpha sub "won't make that mistake again and right now is turning off the safetys on his torpedoes" but Sean says it more like "shavtys".

One Eyed Bob didn't want to tune the new fangled Farfanugan from Germany and so he set it as high as he could. He turned off the Shavtys since the heat didn't come on.

I told Buderus guy this minus the shavtys part and he says "let's have a look". He went nuts on the keyboard and dial. Four of us stood in 3 x 5 room filled with a boiler, a washer and dryer while the heater came on and went off. We waited and measured and tuned and watched for an hour. In the end, the Farfanugan was appropriately tuned. He told me "don't touch it now". He must know me. Maybe the thermometers wired all over the heater gave me away.

Great! The Farfanugan was tuned just in time for actual winter where it does very little since it is cold outside and the boiler temperature is going to be 180 degrees anyway.

Having been satisfied that the smarts on the heater were OK after he left, I noticed that the setback thermometer was making the heat come on at 3 AM in order to get the house up to a warm temperature by 7 AM. These new thermostats are supposed to learn how long it takes your heater to heat your house and then start at the right time to heat your house. It's called Automatic Intelligent Recovery or AIR, except mine wasn't being very intelligent. I'm pretty sure that's because the super smart thermostat learned while the farfunugun was mis-tuned.

I know the heat was coming on at 3 because I have more charts and graphs for my heater than NASA has for a shuttle launch.

See? The heat was coming on at 3:27 AM.

I wanted to fix this but I wanted do it without having it drop all the set back times and temperatures.

So I fiddled with it.

I turned off the AIR feature and then turned it back on not knowing if this would reset it or not. Actually I did it and then forgot I did it so wasn't I surprised Monday morning when I woke up on the coldest day of the year to a freezing house. I ran downstairs to see what was going on at about 6 AM and found two things:

1. It was 57 degrees.

2. The super smarty pants thermostat was flashing "IN RECOVERY".

The IN RECOVERY thing made perfect sense, because the thermostat was on some sort of twelve step program. Step 1, admit you have a problem: "yes, my house is freaking c-c-c-c-cold" I have a problem.

You know this "IN RECOVERY" message had to be the work of some engineer. Any normal person would used a word like "learning" or "discovering". IN RECOVERY sounds like it is raking leaves with Liza Minnelli or making Popsicle stick bird houses with Lindsay Lohan. But then that does explain the whole coming on at 3 AM thing. It was drunk and up at three AM. I guess I'm just lucky it didn't flash me on the way out of the Escalade.

It's the Amy Winehouse of thermostats.

That was Monday. By now Amy and I have come to accept each other for the way we are and I am generally leaving her alone.

This seem to be working OK now but I have no idea if I am actually saving money or not yet. I think I have to go through a whole season to figure that part out. Until then, I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thursday, December 04, 2008

This has to stop. Today. Forever.

Have your men disabled the Hyperdrive of the Millennium Falcon?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Deer Down

On Friday of last week I put up the Christmas lights. This was two weeks and 20 degrees ahead of schedule as I usually get stuck putting them up two weeks before Christmas when it is 33 degrees out, 40 MPH winds and horizontal rain.

I put up those nets of lights around the bushes and bought some new globe lights for the tree out front. The secret is to have enough extension cords and a plan. I started 11 years ago writing down how I put the lights together the year before. I now have the plans for a lot of years between then and now.

I also put up the deer and I'm not sure why I bother. They only fall down.

Mrs F loves having the deer. We've always had deer. We're deer people.

The first deer we had was a bright white two dimensional model that had the equivalent brightness of 35 or so car headlights in incandescent lights. It had one red light on the nose. It was a Rudolph. Because it was two dimensional, it also had two giant stakes attached to the frame. The two stakes sank into the ground and anchored that bad boy into ground so that nothing was going rip that thing from the ground.

Rudolph never fell. He light up the neighborhood like it was mid-day but he never ever fell.

Rudolph was eventually replaced by a pair of three dimensional deer. Still white, male and female they were created, except in China. They stood three feet high but somehow they fit into a box that was 10 inches by 14 inches by 28 inches. They folded.

One was a boy deer and one was a girl. The boy stood on three legs like he was jumping before flying away. He never stayed up. Ever. I staked him down with PVC pipes, tent stakes, what ever and he never stayed up.

I would spend from December 1st to the first weekend in January picking boy-deer up off the ground after a stiff breeze. Girl deer had four full feet on the ground and never fell. Boy deer spent most days on the ground.

The other thing was that the lights would stop working in sections. The back legs would be dark or the front.

Somewhere in China there was a man laughing at me.

Eventually boy deer and girl ended up at the curb only to be replaced by stick deer. Stick deer is the one we have now. Stick deer falls down. A lot. He is down right now. I don't care.

Stick deer is three dimensional and painted brown. It is a technical marvel because it isn't bright white. It even has sticks on it's head.

"Deer down" Mrs F and I say as we pass our house.

This year when I put up stick deer, his head didn't light up. When he stands up, his head is dark.

That same Chinese man is laughing and now he bought a new BMW since I see a new deer in our future.

Monday, December 01, 2008

What Engineers do when they are bored.

It was an excellent Thanksgiving and I got to see all of my family with the except of my sister in law who wasn't feeling well. She remained in undisclosed location while brother-that-does-not-exist-on-the-internet-even-though-he-has-a-domain drove up with his boys.

I did not get to participate in this year's million man nap last Thursday but I heard it went well in spite of everyone have to give urine samples because of last years artificial tryptophan doping scandal (you know who you are cousin....). Mrs F had to work until 4 and my boys drove over to my mother and father's ahead of me in the other car.

That means that I was home alone for most of Thanksgiving. That is usually not good.

So what does an Engineer do when left alone for hours? I wired the heater with temperature probes. Or at least I did until I ran out of heat shrink tubing. (Did you ever try to buy heat shrink on Thanksgiving? Radio Shack is closed!)

I am not making this up. I have a computer connected, multi-probe thermometer that I have wired to just about every room in my house.

Thursday I put the final touches on connecting my new heater to the thing.

Why? I don't know. This is what I do.

I found this device years ago when I was just getting started on weather stations. I didn't have a lot of money and I found this Electrical Engineering Professor at Morgan State University who was selling kits of some of the projects he and his students designed using PIC devices.

I wanted to know the Outside temperature so I bought a kit and put it together. Pretty soon I wanted to know the temperature of everything in my house.

I hooked up the garage, the dryer, the family room and the freezer in the garage. I went a little nuts. I now have 8 probes and every three minutes the record their temperature. By the way, measuring outside air temperature turned out to be way harder than expected and I gave up on that and bought a weather station.

So I spent Thursday morning watching the Detroit Lions get destroyed by the Titans and hooking up this probe to the chimney so I can see every single time my oil burner goes off.

The plan is to tune my set back thermostats, adjust my heat flow and add insulation and watch the impact.

I'll be able to figure out exactly how much the dishwasher costs to run or if the flue from the chimney is open. Or I could just go look at the flue.

Sometimes having all this temperature information is not a good thing. Like the time I convinced myself that I had a ghost in the garage. I hooked up the freezer expecting to see like a straight line of below freezing temperatures all day and all night.

What I found was that the temperature in the freezer jumped to nearly 60 degrees F in the middle of the night. Now it was an older fridge, so I knew it was on its last legs but 60 degrees?

I was convinced that someone or something was opening the fridge at 2 AM until I realized that the freezer was doing an automatic defrost with little heaters in the freezer. Besides, having a ghost that opened the freezer seemed a little far fetched. What did they expect to find in there?

Or the time I thought I left a space heater on my room since the temperature was heading up. The room was being heated by the sun. I feel bad that two of my neighbors had to check it out for me.

So I'll just keep hook these little probes up and recording temperatures. I'll let you know how hot is in my attic next summer.