A Good Engineer can Simplify the World in Time

November 30, 2012

Engineering is the challenge of making something complicated actually work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. This might sound simple – maybe even trivial – it’s not at all. Most people take it for granted that pushing a button has the result you expect every time you do it – on your phone, microwave oven, television, automobile, etc. But, it is a complicated world, and between you, me and the fencepost, well, maybe you shouldn’t take those things for granted…

Two events prompted this post:

American Airlines records for personal information were updated today again and again (and again) until successful.

Apple iTunes 11 was released – more than a facelift – a redesign…

These two events today were meaningful for me as an engineer.  I’ll tell you why:


American Airlines – they need a good engineer to tweak their website. Type a number from a card into a blank – push SUBMIT – should be done and over with…  Nope.

Type in a three field number separated by dashes literally from the official card in hand. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and no change was actually made.

Type the number in again. Press SUMBIT. Get an “error – not a valid number” message, and I am scratching my head… The number on my Government card looks precisely like the number I typed.

Type the number again – without dashes. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and the change was made this time successfully. Were the dashes the problem? Or will I be plagued with issues because the dashes are necessary, and they aren’t there even though the entry was submitted successfully?

This should have been such a simple thing to do. But a false success status, then an error without any hints. And finally a true success status on the third try… BAD American Airlines needs a good engineer to make the website work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. I’ll volunteer – for a fee! It would be a simple matter to say, “Do Not Include Dashes” next to the field – if, in fact that was the problem. Frankly, I am not confident that the dashes were the problem, but they probably were…

The American Airlines website issues are deeper than this one issue. Make changes in your profile, and they do not “ripple through” to your reservations, and vice versa. There will be occasions when your profile information and reservation information differ, and the engineering challenge is to accommodate that. There will be occasions when the “ripple through” will require you to revisit some kind of resubmission or confirmation of something you did previously, and those steps must be presented to the user reliably and only when necessary – yup, challenging to do correctly. When a credential expires – a passport, for example, the website does not prompt you to update the stale record, and it should. Instead, every customer stumbles on these details in the website, and we all fume about it.

A good engineer could simplify AA.com greatly. It just takes time an money…


iTunes – it was starting to look clunky in version 10 with all the sidebar stuff and then the cloud stuff. I was a little frustrated with this application. It worked quite differently on my Mac and iPhone. The iCloud features were sometime a little mysterious. It was becoming a complicated media application. And it was really two applications – one for the Mac and one for the iPhone. Yesterday, I was accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. Today, well, frankly, I am not sure what I think. Most people do not like change – change requires relearning, and many people don’t do that very well. Apple tasked a bunch of engineers to make this complicated clunker a much simpler application.

I’m relearning right this minute! The new iTunes tries to be more “contextual” – it tries to do what you want it to do in the most convenient manner possible for the task you are performing. It may display the same information to you several different ways depending on what you are actually doing. Browsing? Browsing to see “what’s around the next corner”? Or browsing to find something that is right on the tip of your tongue. Or browsing to find something specific. Browsing music? Movies? Podcasts? The new iTunes tries to present your library to you in the best way possible depending on just exactly what you are doing.

My take right now is that the new iTunes only halfway succeeds in using context to present your library. You can’t “train” it very well. You can set some preferences – many on the fly to sharpen its behavior, but there are not enough cues to the user, and there are not enough injection points for preferences. I can see what Apple is trying to do, and they will do better over time.

For now, I can’t find any way to turn on the old iTunes cover flow display of album covers, and I liked that feature…  Maybe it is gone. Maybe I haven’t discovered how to turn it on. Instead, there is a nifty array of covers like what you might see in the iTunes Store, and any cover can be “exploded” to show the songs. Nifty, but I liked the cover flow and the comprehensive songs list right below. Well, maybe I can “relearn”! But, maybe I don’t have to – maybe there is a way to do what I want, and I don’t know how, yet… iTunes gets a “thumbs up” – it is simpler (it IS simpler where it can be), and it seems to work just fine. Done by good engineers!


Here is what we will see new in iTunes in the future, and I think that Apple will establish some challenging expectations for PC and phone application and website behavior in the near term:

Contextual features – subtle, intuitive differences in behavior for the same functionality depending on what you are actually trying to do at the moment:

Make it simpler when it can probably be simpler.

Say less when you probably just want to know the summary.

Say more when you want to know all the dirty details.

Know to do that all without the application asking or you telling.

Adaptive features – learn what you want to do and how you want to do it from what you just did. If you change a preference or setting, method or workflow, the computer will do one of four things depending on context and obtrusiveness and usage patterns:

Ask if this is “how you want to do it the next time, too?”

Or, ask the next time you do it if you “want to do it the same way you did it the last time?”

Or, just let the change “stick” or persist without a confirmation.

Or, revert back to the previous behavior without a confirmation.

You can imagine that contextual and adaptive features are rather “fuzzy”. Some shaaarp programmers and revolutionary new programming tools are required before software tries to do more than the new iTunes. It will take a couple of good engineers and some time for the next “spin” of iTunes.

My point here is that it takes a good engineer – maybe an exceptional engineer to truly simplify something complicated. As I work in this world day to day, I am convinced that money-making objectives tend to cast the exceptional engineer aside and opt for the mediocre instead of the refined from someone less talented and passionate. I have been told directly on more than one occasion, “Brian, we don’t need it to be as good as you want to make it.”

Well, a good engineer with enough time can be certain to simplify the world in some meaningful way and do something tremendous – and virtually unnoticed – because it just works the way it should every time for everybody.

So, “Stay tuned!”  Um, ah, “Stay iTuned!”

AT&T U-verse Video – Doing Better!

November 18, 2012

About two years ago, I started to badger AT&T about their lacking elements for U-verse Video service… I wanted “everything everywhere.” Anything that came to me through the set top box should come to my cellphone and my desktop computer.

Did you notice the welcome online changes on November 1? I did…

After months (years) of e-mail with use cases and user interface design submissions and critiques back and forth, I saw my ideas put into practice. Almost everything I asked for was delivered – everything except a simple channel list to click on to watch what is playing on a channel right now. They did a nice navigation window to see what is scheduled, didn’t they? Some channels stream live to my desktop computer – most channels show the latest episode of most every program. Added to that is the Hulu-Plus library on demand that has been in place for quite some time, now. This is not bad. At some point, every channel will stream current programming to the desktop – just you wait.

So, I’m tickled pink!  They listened!  And they are following through! For now, though, you still need that darn set top box…

The Short Sightedness of US Energy Policy

October 17, 2012

When was the last time you lost electricity in your home or office? Our household power is “bumped” about once a month and lost for more than an hour about three or four times a year. It should be 3-9’s reliable – on for 99.9% of the time – that allows about 8 hours and 45 minutes of outage time per year. I’ll tolerate about 8 hours of outage a year and a power “bump” about monthly, but not much more. Currently, my power meets my minimum expectations, but it is getting less reliable when the forward march of technological innovation should make it more reliable. Some locations around the country suffer brownouts and blackouts dozens of times during the summer months and outages with winter storms that last days or weeks. The US Government is relatively unconcerned about reliable electricity today. More broadly, I think that the US Government is relatively unconcerned about energy policy today.

I have been looking at fuel cells for my home – not solar panels, and not a windmill, but fuel cells. There are only a few companies in the US that are trying to manufacture affordable fuel cells for residential applications. Fuel cells have been used in highly specialized applications such as space vehicles since the ’60’s. Fuel cells are just now being used on a massive scale by Apple and Google to power data centers, for example. But I am looking at fuel cell applications on a “micro” scale for a home – or, perhaps my car!

The classic approach to fuel cells combines hydrogen and oxygen at a minimum temperature under a minimum pressure in a anode-electrolyte-cathode assembly to produce electricity (the desired output) and water (a byproduct) through a process that is the reverse of electrolysis.

One contemporary approach to fuel cell design passes a hydrocarbon such as natural gas or methane through a catalytic membrane to separate out the hydrogen and produce heat. Oxygen from the normal atmosphere is utilized in the cell to produce electricity. This modern cell yields water and carbon as byproducts, and the carbon accumulation may require periodic removal from the catalytic membrane depending on the cell design.

To make a fuel cell useful for my home, the electricity produced must be “converted” to AC, “conditioned”  to steady the voltage under dynamic power demands, and combined with the electric power infrastructure to sell excess power generated by the cell to other consumers on the “grid” during my low usage conditions and supplement power generated by the cell with power from the “grid” during my high usage conditions.

I am looking for a fuel cell that generates 3KW continuously and accommodates demand spikes as high as 5KW from my home. It would be fed by natural gas, should be about the size a microwave oven, should not be a fire hazard, should pass the water byproduct to a reservoir for household use, and use the waste heat to heat my water and even my home in the winter.

So, why am I even thinking about this? I am concerned that this country’s current energy policy is limited in scope today and likely to become even foolish in the future. The day may come in the not too distant future when the conventional electricity infrastructure (the grid) is so unreliable and so costly that my quality of life will decline. My concern is much broader than electricity – it extends to gasoline, coal, natural gas, nuclear materials, wind, solar, thermal and water – it includes efficiencies – it includes the components to convert and condition electricity to make it useful – it includes how energy is used by society at home, at work, for transportation of goods and people, etc. Energy is critical to our lifestyle here in the US, and it is costly – it will surely become more costly in the future. Today, and in the near term, it is my opinion that natural gas is not only sold through a more reliable residential infrastructure compared to the “grid”, but it may be a generally more efficient energy source for the home, and it is likely to be a less costly energy source to heat and cool my home in the future.

Current US energy policy relies on tax credits to encourage generation diversity and consumption efficiencies, and investments in alternative generation and consumption techniques through grants and loans. On a more global scale, energy policy relies on a “cap and trade” strategy to encourage reduction in emissions (but not necessarily to make better use of energy). I fail to see much attention paid by the US Government to future objectives other than gas mileage for cars, and that disturbs me.

Current political forces I see focus on production strategies – to become less reliant on foreign oil production and more reliant on domestic natural gas and coal production. Coal and petro-deposits are like a savings account in a bank – consume it today, and it is gone forever – you may need it in the future more than you need it today. If its value appreciates over time, it has more value in the future – consume it today, and you sacrifice the future appreciation in value, too. Coal and petro-deposits are nonrenewable – they become scarce goods – when it is all consumed, there is nothing left to put in that “savings account” in the future. When it is all gone or no longer accessible, you are at the mercy of someone else who has the natural resource for sale – you are hostage to the terms and conditions imposed by the other party, and they may not be generous T’s and C’s. The political forces today are encouraging us to “eat our seed corn”, so to speak, to consume our own natural resources today rather than someone else’s, and that is likely to make the future even more uncertain, and that disturbs me.

Me? I am all for using up the petro-deposits in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Venezuela rather than our own deposits here in the US. On that course, when it comes to “crunch time” for global oil supplies to feed the US, European and Asian economies – when supply fails to meet demand, the US would have the advantage of being the most independent country in the world in that respect, rather than the most dependent one. I am all for keeping as much US coal, oil and gas in the ground as possible today by consuming someone else’s for as long as possible to secure our future security. I am afraid that the present course secures a future disadvantage for the US for the sake of a more comfortable present, and that disturbs me.

For now, I like foreign oil in lieu of American oil, but there is much more to the energy equation. So, I am looking at a fuel cell for my home – and perhaps for my car! And I am hopeful that someone more intelligent than I will implement a prudent comprehensive  US energy policy soon.

A Conversation about the Weather

October 11, 2012

I pulled up to a table at a local Starbucks – I shared a largish table with a stranger who kindly offered to share in the completely full Starbucks with a sea of laptops adjacent to empty coffee cups… I was glad to share this fellow’s table, and he was happy to strike up a conversation about the weather.

“Strange weather out,” he said.

“Yup,” I replied.  “The western storm system is pushing moisture into our region of the country, and a cold front is whizzing through the plains right into Texas.  Strange weather,,,”

“This isn’t global warming, though. That’s nonsense,” he said. “This is just strange weather.”

“You think that global warming is nonsense,” I asked?

“Yes, of course it is,” He said. “Just a conspiracy for someone to get rich off of carbon taxes. Just an excuse to justify more and more Government regulation. People don’t understand that we have bastards all around us who want power and money. They can all go to hell for all I care.”

“Sometime it does seem that we are surrounded by greedy, power hungry people who want all my money – and yours, too.” I retorted.

I am smiling on the inside. I don’t want to offend this gentleman.

“Who is the real expert on global warming,” I ask?

“Well, it’s not Al Gore. Rush Limbaugh says it is all nonsense. So does Glenn Beck,” he pronounced.

I guess that I shifted visibly in my chair.

“You think that global warming is real? Heck, they say the ocean is a half degree warmer than it was fifty years ago. A half of a degree – that’s nothing,” he says. “A half of a degree doesn’t matter at all. The ocean is just absorbing more sunlight, is all.

“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe so.”

I am thinking to myself that a half degree warmer ocean is pretty significant, and that this fellow should be somewhat alarmed about that if that is indeed the case. But the reality is that a warmer ocean is disputed in scientific circles because the data is largely inconclusive considering other factors such as ocean currents and salinity.

My brain was busy preparing a slew of questions to put this fellow in a corner so he would realize the degree of ignorance he was displaying, but I refrained.

I asked, “What do you think the weather will be like tomorrow?”

This conversation brings me to the point I really want to make: Our society as a whole is terribly ignorant about science. This fellow I was having a cup of coffee with was turning to Limbaugh and Beck for scientific confirmation – two gentlemen who are none too credible in my book for scientific reporting.

More to the point, when a person is ignorant, they are easily manipulated. Extend ignorance to an entire society, and important decisions about policy and priority are easily swayed by a measure of “razzle-dazzle” and a convincing face. Give me facts that I have the knowledge to comprehend, and I will apply them to a relevant context, and I will make better decisions. So will the public – if the public can in fact comprehend the most basic of facts.

My observation is that much of the public is held in ignorance about most things scientific. The average person seems to want the “convincing face” to tell them the answer they want to hear so that they don’t have to think about something they are ignorant about – someone with a good haircut can do a fairly good job as the “convincing face”! I just want the facts (and they can be hard to come by) – and I wish that society as a whole was better educated, particularly in the sciences, than we seem to be.

Oh well… The weather tomorrow will be a little cooler!

It’s a Simpler Balancing Act if You Know the Mission

October 2, 2012

I “run” our neighborhood. I am the HOA president – have been for almost a decade. I manage a non-profit company as a volunteer with an army of volunteers behind me who have my back. Our priorities and initiatives are all a balancing act. Money vs. Impact; Support vs. Opposition. Someone asked me one day,

“Brian, how do you make decisions for the HOA? What are your criterion?”

I replied, “It’s all the mission. Does it add or detract from the mission? It’s all a balancing act.”

“What’s the mission?” he asked.

“Maximizing your home’s resale value – and mine, too,” I replied.

In our HOA, every decision I make adds to my neighbor’s home’s resale value – and mine. Is the neighborhood pretty? Yes. Are we addressing crime in some tangible way? Yes. Do we promote good relationships between neighbors? Yes. Do we promote attractive homes and responsible home ownership? Yes. Do we want children to be able to play safely in our streets? Yes. Do we seek some visual harmony in the neighborhood? And some visual interest in the neighborhood, too? Yes. Do we want wildlife nearby to be visible, but still at arm’s length (we have bobcats and coyotes)? Yes. We wave at our neighbors walking or driving through our neighborhood, and they wave back – this is a genuinely nice neighborhood to live in.

It’s all a balancing act. For precisely $30 per month per homeowner – essentially a dollar per day, I balance all these things with the consensus of our Board, help from homeowner volunteers,  and the services of a small number of companies we contract with. We don’t have a glitzy fountain, a swimming pool, or a clubhouse. Instead, we have more than 6.8 acres of wilderness land that we oversee in the middle of a small metroplex neighborhood with two creeks, canopies of trees, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, beavers, hawks and eagles, rock outcroppings, redbud trees, pecan trees, dogwood trees, tall oaks and elms – this is the eye candy that I appreciate. It’s all a balancing act…

When a realtor friend drove into the neighborhood with me one afternoon, she remarked, “This is beautiful – nice entrances, nice landscaping – it is peaceful.” Walking along one of our streams with a glass of wine in hand, she remarked, “I can sell homes here!” “See the bobcats over there?” I asked. “Oh.” and she turned to leave rather quickly. It’s all a balancing act – I would have sat across the stream from the bobcats…

With elections looming, it is ever more apparent that we are seeing a difficult balancing act unfold before us. And I have to ask, and ask again, because I don’t hear the answer in the Presidential campaign, “What is the mission?” To my mind, it should be “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But that doesn’t  appear to be the mission at all…

If you don’t have a mission, you don’t have any defendable criterion for balancing priorities…

Dha-guhr – That I Am!

September 28, 2012

I am “with cold” with a sore throat and a bit of a fever, and my head is fuzzy – just not quite working at 100% – just a little off… So, I spent part of the afternoon watching cooking shows on the TV. Just two: Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods”. These shows are usually interesting to me. I have been in more than 80 countries, and every country I have visited has a gastronomy boast.

Bourdain’s fun – he tells you what he likes and what he doesn’t and why. Anthony was in Italy this afternoon – he loves Italy, and so do I.  I would gladly live there just for the marvelous food. As long as you don’t cross the local Mafia boss (just kidding), life would be great. I have a cousin in Rome who knows the local people and great authentic places to eat quite well after thirty or more years there.

My first time in Italy, I spent significant time in Venezia, and carbonara for breakfast was the local treat. Long, soft noodles, gooey egg and cheese sauce, and crunchy, salty pancetta – just a great way to start the day, and I have never found such tasty carbonara anywhere here in the States – never. Mr. Bourdain had a meal with carbonara on his show this afternoon, and it brought back great memories of Italy – nothing beats carbonara for breakfast!

Andrew’s fun, too – he tells what you should appreciate about what he doesn’t like, and he eats it anyway (unless it has walnut in it).  Mr. Zimmer was in Chengdu, Sichuan, China – I have never been to Chengdu, and I want to go. This is the world’s capital for chiles – I love hot, spicy food, and I can stuff chiles down my throat until the cook quits cooking! One of Mr. Zimmern’s tour guides came with a tag-along named Dha-guhr, and that brings me to the title of my post – actually, this is the second thing that brings me to the title of my post, so read on!. I need to go to Chengdu!

The first time I was in China in Shanghai, and last time I was in China in Beijing, I heard the word “dha-guhr” mentioned behind me throughout my trips. I know a little Mandarin – just a little – I can be polite, ask simple questions, count, but I stop right about there. One word I do know is “dha-guhr”.

I learned the word “dha-guhr” in Ulan Bator, Mongolia in the ’80’s. My hotel was a local place with local furnishings including the most peculiar bed I have ever slept on. It was about 1-1/2 M square – about 4 or maybe 5 feet square – you were supposed to sleep rolled up in a ball with a heavy blanket to keep warm. The old Chinese man who would come into the room during the night to put wood in the big. blackened pot-belly stove always grunted when he saw my feet hanging over the edge. “Dha-guhr,” he’d say every time on his way out. I learned about that word “dha-guhr”…

Like many words in Chinese, there are two sharply different meanings depending on context. Dha-guhr literally means “big piece of meat” in Mandarin Chinese. Dha-guhr is 1) the big clumsy oaf, or maybe the country bumpkin, or 2) the big boss, or the “big cheese” (maybe the local mafia boss in Italy, Mr. Bourdain) depending on context.

In Shanghai, I had to bend my head to fit in the elevator (dha-guhr, I heard behind me). In Beijing in a alleyway restaurant, we needed to move the tables around a bit so that I would fit (dha-guhr). In Beijing in a restaurant bathroom, I just could not close the door (dha-guhr). In Shanghai, the subway cars were, well, smallish, and I was heads and shoulders taller than anyone around me – I could see to either end of the entire train, and everyone in the train could see me (dha-guhr). Zimmern’s tag-along was 2.2M or about 7-ft tall athlete Dha-guhr – an apt nickname.

In Italy, I was the big boss (dha-guhr). In China, more the clumsy oaf (dha-guhr). That’s OK. Great food in either place! I’m big – 3 ft shirt sleeves, 3 ft waist, 3 ft from crotch to the floor. I can look imposing (dha-guhr), and I can be clumsy (dha-guhr).

I have a trip to Taiwan coming up (dha-guhr).

Gluing Stainless Steel – Some Footnotes

September 26, 2012

UPDATE – See Final Footnote at Bottom re. the Armstrong Method.

A conversation with a friend included this comment:

Well, Brian, just how strong were these glued joins?

And from e-mail:

Did the join strength you tested confirm the claims of the manufacturers?

Were the joins strong enough to use adhesive applications in lieu of brazing? Well, were they?

We tested the strength of the joins – we tested dozens of joins… Unfortunately, we did not have any sophisticated apparatus to measure join strength – we relied on the “armstrong” method of testing by four able, middle-aged men tugging and pulling in various ways to force join failure. In general, we believe that manufacturer claims are reasonable. Here is what we found:

The lap join – the 1/2 sq-inch plate-to-plate joins were incredibly strong.

Of all the trials, the acrylic joins submerged in water for 10 months all failed with two men pulling together to break the join; these joins were strong enough that one man pulling could not break the join.

All other lap joins tested survived four men pulling to break the join. Wow!

The irregular surface join susceptible to peel – the rod and ring join showed a wide range of strength among the trials tested.

The H8610 acrylic join failed with the one man holding the ring stationary and another man twisting the rod – it took some “heaving” and “grunting”, but the join failed.  This adhesive was the strength standout for the acrylic adhesives, though, and all other acrylic trials failed with considerably less grunting!

The DP420 epoxy required two men twisting the rod to break the join. The E-214HP epoxy required a bit more strength from the two men twisting the rod to break the join than the DP420 epoxy. All other epoxy joins were broken with one man twisting the rod.

So, this is all rather subjective, but the conclusions were apparent to all four of who gathered around the pile of joins…

Some elements of application still need to be investigated to fully evaluate these adhesives. The most significant consideration we did not explore was adhesive thickness. We suspect that there is an optimum join thickness – greater than which and the join will fail by pulling the adhesive apart while leaving adhesive on both substrates, and less than which and the join will fail by pulling the adhesive from a substrate. We suspect that join thickness is less of an issue for epoxies in general. For our trials, we used a binder clip to apply uniform squeezing force on all joins, and the result was a thicker join for a more viscous adhesive. None of the manufacturers could give us guidance on optimum join thickness.

We are satisfied that a lap join can indeed replace a braze or a bolt. The irregular join where peel force is evident may fail in the real world application where the braze currently serves the application adequately; however, the manufacturer will give the epoxy a whirl and see if it survives!

Happy gluing.

Final Footnote – a friend asks,

Say, Brian, what is the Armstrong Method?  It sounds sophisticated, but nothing here is sophisticated…

Well, my good friend, the Armstrong Method is a play on the words “Strong” and “Arm”. When you don’t have a sophisticated tool, you are left with no other choice than brute force methods. You can shy away from that embarrassment by referring proudly to the “Armstrong Method”!

Gluing Stainless Steel – a Problem Revisited

September 23, 2012

About one year ago, I was drawn into a problem with an acquaintance: is there an adhesive application that can replace brazing for two small pieces of stainless steel? The answer is, “Yes, maybe…” At the time, as my buddy and a few more mutual friends were dragged with me into answering this question, well, we all “strayed into the weeds” before we answered the question. It was an interesting experience, though, and there are things to learn and pass along.

First, just for the record, a description of one of two applications we considered (the second one was a plate to a plate or “lap” join):

Join a 316 stainless steel rod onto an irregularly shaped 316 stainless steel piece with a permanent, mechanically rigid bond. The rod is 10 mm in diameter, and it rests on top of the other piece. The other stainless steel piece is a ring that has been crudely machined to “cup” the rod along a portion of the length – for about 20 mm. The current solution is to braze the pieces.

The dominant force applied to the join is a peel force – the ring wants to twist away from the rod with a variable force as high as 25-30 Kg. The service environment of the assembly is warm, humid ambient air – about 40 C and 95% with a dilute vinegar content in the water vapor at its most extreme state. The assembly will be periodically cleaned in hot water and hot air dried.

So, that was the original requirement. Can a hi-tech adhesive replace the braze?

Conversation drifted to include considerations for precision machining the ring where the rod lies. Adhesive trials tested a multitude of products including epoxies, methacrylates and acrylics, cyanoacrylates (superglues), one-part adhesives, two-part adhesives, two step adhesives (using an activator), VHB (very high bond) adhesives on transfer tape, etc. There are a LOT of adhesive products… None of the “party” of problem solvers except for myself were engineers, though one was a chemist. We downloaded application guides and data sheets.The most promising manufacturers were phoned for advice. We all learned a lot about adhesives.

The manufacturers could have made solving our problem much easier than they did – manufacturers typically had “readers” on the phone to search for terms in their document archives, and read to us from their application guides and data sheets. When we approached the problem with the right amount of knowledge, specificity and “pleading”, the person on the other end of the phone on two occasions forwarded our calls to a product specialist who was a test lab technician in both instances. The manufacturers gave us knowledge, but not insight – the manufacturer representatives we could speak to had no real world experience in a production environment, nor any comprehensive data reporting success gluing stainless steel with their products.

Of all the manufacturers we spoke to directly, Loctite and 3M were the most helpful. Loctite provided us a number of useful publications, introduced us to local distributors, volunteered to send us samples (and they sent us a half dozen different adhesives and dispensing guns), and asked for us to report our experience. 3M also wanted to put product samples in our hands. These two manufacturers were eager to help us, knowing full well that we were trivially small business prospects for them.

Choosing our objective “handful” of adhesives to trial in our garages was challenging. Loctite and 3M would have saved us a lot of time by guiding us more effectively in the product selection process. Neither manufacturer had the confidence in their product application knowledge to recommend the two or three most promising candidate products, and both recommended more than a half dozen products to be certain we would find a “winner”.

After describing our requirements I stated above, Loctite asked us questions that started out like this – in this order:

  • Did we want a structural acrylic, a cyano or an epoxy? “We don’t know,” I said.
  • What were  the materials to bond? “316 stainless steel.” (I already told you…)
  • What were the dominant forces? “30Kg peel force.” “What about sheer force?” they asked. “About the same,” I said. “We don’t know much about peel force performance…” they admitted.
  • What was the bonding area? “About 3 sq-cm.” “How many square inches is that,” they asked? “Oh – a little more than 1/2 sq-in,” I replied.
  • What was the in-service environment? “Like summer in Houston,” I said.

We had already told them these answers when we described our problem, but they weren’t listening to us, quite yet…  And then:

  • What was the allowed handling time – the minimum fixture time? “A minute or two should be plenty of time,” I said. “How about 15 seconds,” they asked? “A little too quick,” I replied. I indicated that I preferred shorter fixture times over longer times.
  • What total allowed process time – the maximum curing time? “Overnight – maybe several nights would be OK,” I said. Time is not of the essence!
  • What was the scale of production – the number of joins per day? “Between one and a half dozen,” I said. This should have told them we needed 30ml or 50ml containers, and some products come only in 400ml and larger volumes…

And then after narrowing down our choices considerably, finally:

  • Did we need to “void-fill” – fill gaps and spaces? “Yes – fill a 1-2 mm void – a 1/16 of an inch,” I said.
  • Could we do UV curing or heat curing? “Heat we can do; UV we can’t,” I said, and it should have been obvious that UV curing was not applicable to our application. I have a toaster oven!

Our trial results were interesting. We tried Loctite H4710, H8000, H8500, H8600, H86010, E-20HP, E-30UT, E-60HP and E-214HP products. We would have been interested in trying H4720 in lieu of H4710, but Loctite did not have small 50ml containers of this product in stock. Two Loctite adhesives proved to pass muster, though – H8610 Speedbonder  2-part acrylic and E214-HP 1-part epoxy. All other Loctite adhesives failed under stress for our application. E-214HP may degrade significantly in a humid environment, and H8600 may degrade significantly due to the heat of numerous washings and dryings. My money is on the E-214HP epoxy for the long term solution!

We tried 3M DP420, 4DP20NS, DP460 and DP460NS epoxies – the NS variety are highly vicsous “non-sag” formulas. And we tried DP805, DP810, DP810NS and DP820 acrylics. The NS non-sag formulas sacrificed significant sheer and peel strength for the higher viscosity varieties on our stainless steel test parts. The acrylic products all fell far short of the epoxies for overall bond strength. The 3M DP420 product was a close second to the Loctite E-214HP for overall bond strength.

Surface preparation was performed for all trials. For acrylic adhesives, surfaces were polished with 400 grit alumina paper, cleaned with a detergent, then isopropyl alcohol, and finally rinsed with filtered water and air-dried. For epoxy adhesives, surfaces were cleaned with a detergent, and then with methyl ethyl ketone or MEK, roughed with 80-grit emory paper, and cleaned again with MEK and air-dried.

We tried several of 3M’s F9460-series VHB transfer tape adhesives with disappointing results – surface prepped as if for acrylic. These adhesives never dry – they remain flexible and give slightly under stress which did not meet our requirement for a rigid bond. We also tried Devcon’s acrylic Metal Welder and Lord’s 310 epoxy with appropriate surface prep with disappointing results for our stainless steel adhesive test – these two adhesives were simply below average performers in our field of adhesives we trialled.

The summer heat in a garage degraded the acrylic adhesives across the board – they permanently lost about 10% to 20% of their overall bond strength after a summer. Likewise, long-term water immersion degraded the acrylics across the board with more than 50% of strength lost for the several samples we trialled side by side dry and wet.

We had some trouble with 10:1 mixing applicators – three of the Loctite acrylics demanded really precise 10:1 mixing, and it proved to be a bit difficult to do even with the recommended equipment. None of the other adhesives exposed us to this frustration, but we could do this if we needed to.

It would have been much more helpful to approach our problem with this more practical line of questions from someone with current, practical product experience:

  • Do you want a flexible bond (for a high vibration – high motion environment), a strong, durable bond or a permanent, structural bond (from a premium product)?
  • What materials are you bonding?
  • Do you have any operating environment issues – high heat, high humidity, acid vapor? (those conditions eliminate superglues and most acrylics)
  • Do you need to machine the bonded surface? Is the bond exposed to impacts? (points to an epoxy with high compression strength)
  • Will you sacrifice sheer strength for peel strength?
  • What consistency of adhesive do you think will work best for you – runny like water, gooey like honey, gloppy like jelly, or pasty like peanut butter?
  • Do you need a fixture time of seconds, minutes or hours?
  • Can you tolerate a cure time of an hour or two? Up to a day? Several days?

This simpler line of questions would have taken us down the product trees directly to the H8610, DP420 and E-214HP products in a quick conversation.  But we had fun experimenting anyway!

Phone Spam – From India Coffeeshops

September 8, 2012

Telemarketers are bypassing the Do NOT CALL list – legally, and there is little we can do about it. Here’s how they are doing it, and I hope there is a way to stop it…

My phone rings several times a day everyday with “phone spam”, dog gone it, even though I am on the DO NOT CALL list. Some of these latest calls are a new kind of telemarketer calling me, though – these are Skype calls by cellphone from India to my home phone. When most of these calls ring my phone, the Caller ID shows a local number. I see a different number each time. The Caller ID frequently shows: 1 (972) 0 followed by six more digits and UNKNOWN CALLER. If I answer the call, about half the time, there is no one on the other end, and the line drops after a few seconds. When there is someone on the other end, they explain that they are representing local companies to (fill in the blank) repair my roof, fix my plumbing, add new outlets and light fixtures, etc. If I call the number back from the Caller ID record, a recording usually informs me that the number is not in service for the majority.

One time, I engaged the person on the other end in an interesting conversation. The caller was in India in a tea house doing telemarketing before his normal job started – they use a cellphone to call every number on a weekly e-mail from “the boss” through a Skype gateway. The bosses e-mail goes to more than a hundred addressees. If someone answers and the call duration is more than a minute, the employer pays him a fee based upon the detail in his monthly phone bill. If he gets a “lead” with a name and address for the phone number, he gets a bigger fee. He sends the lead information by e-mail to someone else who has an account with a US Internet home services company that pays the referrer (the Indian telemarketer) a fee for every referral.  This US Internet home services company represents a number of local businesses near my home such as roofing companies that pay them for every referral.

Pressing even further, the caller explained that his cellphone number (in India) is 972-045-7852 (yup, that’s what my caller ID shows) – you can look this number up on the Internet at http://indiamobilenumber.com, and this particular caller is apparently somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. Skype passes the cellphone number as the local caller ID information, and this particular caller explained that they request their cellphone number to start with the same area code in the US that their e-mail assignment refers to. He has another cellphone with a local number that starts 7130, and he calls Houston homeowners from another e-mail assignment. He says that the boss has boxes of cellphones that he passes out whenever there is a new client in a new city.

He confirmed that the recipient of his calls would see a local number on their Caller ID, and they were more likely to answer the call. Yes, that is why I answered the phone the first time… He has an Android robot caller app that reads his e-mail for phone numbers and invokes Skype to dial the numbers. The robot caller app dials the numbers in one after another until one number answers; his local Skype gateway drops all ringing calls in progress, of which there may be several, as soon as a number is answered.

Just an aside, Indian cellphone numbers are all ten digit numbers that start with 7, 8 or 9. So, that leaves a lot of cities they can call in the US that will reflect local numbers! And another aside, there are no exchanges that start with a 0 or 1 in the US, and an initial 0 or 1 initiate an operator service or a long distance call. And a final aside, the Do Not Call list we are on, now, doesn’t apply to the Indian caller – FTC and FCC oversight of this problem simply does not exist for the Indian telemarketer.

So, AT&T Uverse and I have been working to find a way to block these incoming calls, and time will tell if the strategy I employed was actually put in place successfully. Some years ago – many, in fact, I helped to define the generic requirements for a VoIP call blocking feature (for AT&T, coincidently), so I understand exactly what they can potentially do for me. Their rollout of call blocking allows a residential customer to only block up to 20 numbers – far too limiting for this new nuisance.

AT&T’s rollout of call blocking for commercial customers is quite different – the intended extension of this feature for a business customer allows for a longer list of blocked callers, but it also allows the business to block all toll-free numbers. The “behind the scenes” feature is simply completing a list and using wild cards for all digits that follow 800, 866, 877 and 888. When Tech Support completes the call blocking request on behalf of a commercial customer, they simply fill in a form – a different form from what the customer would see in their own account management window online, and the tech support staff will simply stop with the toll free 800, 866, 877 and 888 and go no further to finish the number. I asked, “what of you type in one more digit – will the system wildcard the next six digits like it did for seven digits following 800?” “Well, I have never tried it, and no one here knows what  will happen…” “So, try it!” I said to the business account tech support person I eventually managed to get on my side, and they did, and it appeared to work correctly when they received a confirmation of the change back.

So, time will tell whether this strategy is actually allowed by the current AT&T management systems. And all bets are off when the Indian cellphones that this company uses have numbers starting 9722…

Copyright – Smopyright – Bad Law

September 4, 2012

Well, I woke up in “rant mode”. Don’t know why – I mean, I have a smile on my face today, and the cats were happy to see me at twilight.  Maybe it was that dream I awoke from… In my dream, the Intellectual Property Police were walking with me through our home demanding for me to prove that every Book, CD and DVD was lawful – they wanted receipts! They are all legal, by the way. So are my shirts and pants…

I think that Copyrighting is essential to lawful commerce. But don’t go after the consumer for violations. What does the consumer know, anyway? Seriously. Focus on the chain of custody from manufacturer up to the point of acquisition, but don’t focus on the poor consumer.

First, let me give you an inventory of my investment in tangible copyrighted media – I pay a lot money to copyright holders, and that is a fair exchange:

BOOKS – I have more than 300 linear feet of books – all copyrighted, and more than 95% bought new from a seller such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com

CDs – More than 4000 – all copyrighted and more than 99% bought new from a seller such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com

DVDs – more than 800 – all copyrighted and 100% bought new from a seller such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com

Blu-Rays – 0 – ooops, I need to step into the modern world!

Next, let me give you an inventory of my investment in digital copyrighted media:

Well, I don’t know what it is… I mean, I don’t know what is copyrighted and what is not. What the source is authorized to do, and what I am authorized to do. I am certain I have legitimate copyrighted digital media that I purchased from an authorized seller. I may have copyrighted media purchased from an unauthorized seller, and I am sure that I have an unauthorized file or two that is copyrighted that I acquired from YouTube before they scrubbed their library to address copyright concerns. But, fact of the matter is that I don’t know what of my digital media is legal and what is not with regard to copyrights. Some of the digital media is from foreign sources. I just don’t know with any confidence what of my digital media is “legal”, but I am liable, regardless, and I don’t like that.

Oh, and I have authored a book that you can purchase through amazon.com – it is copyrighted – registered with notice!
A System Dynamics Calculator: A New Visual Approach to Computing for Ordinary People

I recall in 1977 or 1978 preparing for a management meeting as a young engineer. I wanted to distribute a magazine article to promote a conversation. I dutifully phoned the publisher to ask for permission to copy – “I need permission for sixty copies, please.” “That will be a dollar each,” they replied. “OK – here is my corporate American Express Card number.” “No, we don’t take a credit card. You need to write a letter and ask for permission and we will send you an agreement to sign, and you can pay from an invoice after we receive the signed agreement back, and then you can make your sixty copies once we receive your check and it clears.” “Forget it.,” I said, and I made my sixty copies and didn’t think a thing about it when I passed the article around the table and to the audience of observers – SIXTY copies! And I wasn’t the only one passing out photocopied magazine articles for everyone in that meeting. I recall thinking at the time that the Copyright law did not accommodate the consumer need – it was a ridiculous, burdensome law. That was 35 years ago, and this area of law has become even more burdensome and less accommodating to the consumer. In all fairness, the ability to photocopy journal articles has been “addressed” in the industry – you can now pay over the phone and orally accept the extension of the right to use that you can read on the publisher’s website.

So, allow me to “pick away” at this area of law with a rant or two.

1) A copyright costs the author nothing – NOTHING! Declare your work copyrighted, and it is, and it doesn’t cost you a dime for the protections provided by our Government! You can pay $35 or $50 to register a copyrighted work and receive a certificate back from the Copyright Office. You can register your works anytime after their creation. How many copyright holders actually register works? I have no idea – relatively few, I suspect. The big media companies certainly register copyrighted works, though.

Here are several opinions from Brian’s Brain:

If you don’t pay for a copyright – if the author does not register their work, in other words, there should be no protections.

Further, what you pay to register your copyrighted work should be based in part on the value you attach to your work.

And further, the damages you can collect from a violation of your copyright should be capped to a small portion of that value your declared for your work.

And finally, the author should be able to revise the declared value of their work whenever opportunities are realized – only if the author can substantiate it.

2) A copyright holder has no obligation to distribute their work over the lifetime of the copyright. This is fine and good, but even while the copyright holder refuses to distribute their work during the lifetime of the copyright, they can still claim damages from a copyright violation.

Here is an opinion from Brian’s Brain:

If you don’t exploit your copyright by distributing your work for some continuous period of time, then you surrender your right to claim damages until you subsequently do distribute your work.

3) Copyrights have a long lifetime, and it has been extended time and again by legislation. Copyrights survive the death of the creator for 70 years. Copyrights for hired works and company endeavors last for the shorter of 95 years from first publication or 120 years after creation. Rights can be bought and sold and subordinated. Wow – rights that survive the consumer and can be transferred to an entity – a person or company that never participated in the media’s creation…

Here is another opinion:

Corporate interests are apparently better protected in this area of law than individual interests. It should all be the same level of protection… Why not 99 years from creation or up to the death of the creator? Not transferrable. Just that simple. Why not?

4) A copyright notice is not required. WHAT? This is my biggest pet peeve. As a consumer, I may have no way to know if I am participating in a violation of a copyright, but I am liable none the less. And the copyright holder can increase their level or protection retroactively by subsequently displaying a notice after a violation of their rights and exercise those greater rights in disputes that originated before the addition of a notice. I am incredulous – this is an attorney’s fantasy land. What were the law makers thinking.

My opinion:

No registration – no notice. No notice – no rights. No rights until you register your work with a notice prominently displayed.

5) Multiple treaties and agreements between countries cover copyrights for media imported from other countries. This is no surprise – this is simply what countries do. But again, as the consumer, it is incumbent on me to know the copyrighted nature of media I acquire – I am the liable party under US law.

A few last opinions from Brian:

The consumer should not be the target of the law if there is no manufacture, distribution or resale that the consumer actively performs.

The law needs to be concise and readable, and it is not – it is a minefield of special interests and an amusement park for the lawyers.

And I have yet to touch on the DMCA which gives safe harbor to internet service providers. WHAT – the ISP has virtually no liability for copyright infringement that they might enable? Ridiculous…

And don’t even get me started on SOPA or ACTA or the successor attempts at legislation in Congress… It’s all ridiculous legislation. Bad Law.