Sunday, August 30, 2020

Itemized Bill

When I was in high school my father told me about a town in Nebraska that had a sewage treatment plant that wasn't working correctly. None of the people tasked with operating the plant could figure out what was wrong.

Finally in desperation the town called in a consultant in the hopes that he could solve the problem. When the consultant got there, he spent about an hour walking around the sewage treatment plant checking everything out. He then picked up a big hammer from a workbench and walked over to a large steel gate valve. He gave the valve a big whack with the hammer and the plant started working again almost immediately.

A few weeks later the city received a bill from the consultant for $10,000. That was real money back then and the mayor was incensed when he found out. He said, "All the guy did was walk around the plant for an hour and then he whacked one valve with a hammer. Why should we have to pay $10,000 for that? Send that bill back and demand that it be itemized!"

Several weeks later the town received this itemized bill from the consultant:
  • One whack with a 24 oz. ball peen hammer - $1
  • Knowing what to whack - $9,9999
The town paid the itemized bill.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Elevator Search

When my friend, Jake, and I finished Officer Candidates School, we both went to Military Intelligence school at Fort Holabird in Baltimore Md. The course lasted 4 months so we rented an apartment on the fourth floor of an older building in downtown Baltimore.

The apartment  had an elevator, but it was an old elevator that didn't have modern buttons to select your floor. It had a nice old elevator operator who would start and stop the elevator manually. The elevator had a big handle which he would push forward to go up and pull back to go down. To stop he would put the handle in its default middle position. There was a lot of lag between where the handle was moved to and how the elevator responded. He rarely ever managed to stop right on the target floor. If he was too high he would go down a bit. If he was too low he would go up.

This back and forth would go on until he got it right or just gave up and said, "Please step up or please step down."  Jake and I would regularly place bets on how many tries it would take for the elevator to stop at our floor.

It was an elevator variation on the binary search.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Skirting the issue

When I worked for Juniper Networks, the office of the founder, Pradeep, was in the same area as our group of engineer's desks. Rafaella, an attractive Italian woman in her early 40's, was his administrative assistant and was very good at her job. She always wore very classy, office appropriate attire and always wore slacks.

One morning I met her in the hall near the breakroom and saw she was wearing a very nice dark gray skirt that went almost to the floor. I said, "Rafaella, what's the special occasion you're wearing that nice ankle-length skirt for?" She said, "When I was in Pradeep's office a couple of days ago he complained about me always wearing slacks. He wanted to know why I never wore skirts. So," she said with a mischievous smirk, "I'm wearing a skirt today."

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Loading Dock Ballet

Once I had to deliver a load from Iowa to a large warehouse in Los Angeles. The warehouse loading dock was almost half a block long with about 20 trucks in the process of getting loaded and unloaded. I backed my truck into the dock and waited for my turn to get unloaded.

While I was waiting, I watched as a man in his fifties went about loading and unloading trucks using his electric pallet jack. He moved with a casual grace shifting his body from side to side as he maneuvered pallets in and out of the trucks and the warehouse. He had a serene, confident look and moved with a gentle rhythm.

It was almost as though his moves were choreographed to music that only he could hear and I was watching a loading dock ballet.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

On Target

Last night I was doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen while chatting with my wife, Lan, who was relaxing in the dining room. I was about finished and had just put the kitchen garbage can in the middle of the kitchen floor when Lan stood up. She wadded her napkin into a ball and threw it right into the garbage can in the kitchen.

She got a sly smirk on her face and said, "Not bad for an old lady, right?"

Friday, January 18, 2019

Happy News

Last week my wife, Lan, and I were watching a Vietnamese TV channel when the commercials came on. At the beginning of the first commercial the voice-over announcer enthusiastically proclaimed, "Tin vui! Tin vui!" This was followed by the rest of the ad.

At the next break a completely different commercial started with the same, "Tin vui! Tin vui!" I was curious so I asked Lan, "What does tin vui, tin vui mean anyway?" Her face took on a somewhat bemused look and she said, "It means bullshit, bullshit."

Tin vui actually means "happy news" or literally "news happy" since in Vietnamese the adjective usually follows the noun.

After almost 42 years of marriage, Lan still manages to surprise me with her dry wit and sarcastic sense of humor.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Nice Way to Die

My wife, Lan, has an old friend that just died. We've known Loan and her husband, John, for many years and they've always been very sweet together.

A few days ago they were sitting together on the couch when Loan told her husband that she was really tired and wanted to lie down. She stretched out on the couch with her head in his lap and went to sleep. Less than an hour later she died.

We all have to die sometime, but that was a really nice way for her to die.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Good News Bad News

I used to drive a gasoline tanker for Mobil Oil delivering to stations throughout the bay area. Our main terminal was the Southern Pacific Pipeline in San Jose where we loaded the trucks. The pipeline had several loading racks and the tankers had to wait in a staging area until a rack was available.

One Monday morning several of us were standing around talking in the staging area when Gary from King City pulled in. When he got out of his truck we saw that he had a large bandage on his left thumb. When asked what happened, he said that he bought a table saw a couple of weeks ago and managed to cut off the end of his thumb while using it over the weekend.

My friend, John, said, "Well Gary, I guess you could say you have good news and bad news. The bad news, obviously, is that you cut off the end of your thumb. The good news is you can now use that thumb if you're hitch hiking and only want a short ride."

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Cowboy Club Protocol

In the spring of 1976 I rode my Triumph out to the Washington D.C. area to take in the summer long celebration of our country's bicentennial. I stayed in a small motel in Alexandria Virginia and rode into D. C. every day to check out the festivities. I spent the better part of one week just wandering around the Smithsonian Museum.

A couple blocks from my motel was a huge country and western night club. One evening I decided to walk over there and check it out. When I got to the door, the bouncer said, "I'm sorry, but you can't come in. You're wearing Levis and that's not allowed." I said, "Do you realize how bizarre it is to not allow people to wear Levis in a cowboy bar?" He thought for a minute and then said,  "You're right, that's pretty fucked up. Go on in."

Inside I found a bandstand with a large dance floor and two large groups of tables. Most of the guys were wearing cowboy hats, string ties, and boots. The women favored big hair, heavy makeup, and lots of jewelry. It was a safe bet that the only cow most of those "cowboys" had ever seen was on TV.

I was just standing there taking it all in when one of the two women at the table near me asked, "Are you new here?" I said, "Yes, as a matter of fact I am." She said, "Let me explain the setup. This side of the room is for people that are just here to dance. The other side is for those that are here to get laid."

"Is that posted somewhere?"

"No, but everyone knows about it."

"Well, thanks for explaining the protocol."

It felt like I was in some kind of Twilight Zone episode. I wandered around a bit more and then headed for the exit. The place was just too weird even for me. 


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Peterbilt Air Trac

In 1972 I worked for Pacific Provisions in South San Francisco driving a Peterbilt truck hauling produce to the mid-west and meat back to the west coast. The truck had what Peterbilt called an Air Leaf suspension on the drive axles. This consisted of an quarter elliptic spring for each wheel with one end anchored to the frame and an air bag mounted on the other end attached to the axle.

I noticed while watching the suspension in my mirrors that every time I turned, the drive axles would get quite a bit out of alignment with the frame. I also noticed that the springs would wind up when accelerating or braking. I was not in the habit of driving in such a way that I would break springs, but on this truck I was breaking them fairly often.

I was in the San Francisco Eng Peterbilt dealership getting another broken spring replaced when I wandered into the office of one of the salesmen. I told him I had broken another spring and explained to him why I thought it was happening. The axle alignment issue along with the springs winding up was what I thought was the cause.

I said what the suspension needed was a panhard bar going from each axle to the frame to keep it in alignment along with a torque arm parallel to the spring to keep it from winding up. I drew the whole thing out on a piece of paper for him. This wasn't any kind of radical insight on my part. This was a very basic way of controlling a rear axle used in many race cars.

A few months later at a big truck show, Peterbilt introduced their new air ride suspension called Air Trac. This was exactly the design I had drawn out in the salesman's office.

The next time I was in the Eng Peterbilt dealership for service, I went to the salesman and asked him how Peterbilt happened to introduce the same suspension I had drawn for him.

He said, "I took your drawing along with your explanation of what was happening down to the factory in Newark, CA. They liked the idea and wanted to know if you had any other suggestions."

I never received any money for my idea, I gained something even better. I gained the satisfaction of seeing my design widely used in Peterbilts all over the country for the last 45 years.