What were they thinking?

Engineering Idiocy. I know I’m late to this particular party, but I had not encountered this until today. Several years ago, after picking us up at the Houston airport, Linda was riding in the rear seat of my father’s BMW 535i, and casually said “Charlie, I love your car. If you ever think about selling it, I’ll buy it from you.”

Long story short, we bought the car from my mom not long after he passed away last summer. We drove it home last autumn, where it spent most of the winter parked in my shop as it isn’t really an ideal winter car. For that we drive her old Subaru.

This 5-series is several years old, but has very low miles. We literally doubled the odometer driving it from Texas to Oregon. It is likely overdue for an oil change in time more than distance. I looked up the oil required and bought two large jugs of it yesterday. I had stocked up on filters from BavAuto (R.I.P.) soon after we bought it. I opened the hood in the shop to be presented with…


I recall lots of complaints in Roundel (the BMWCCA magazine) about this issue back when BMW started doing this, but I didn’t give it much thought.

So I was sort of stuck. The owners manual doesn’t list the engine oil capacity(!) and everything BMW presents you with basically says “bring it to the dealer for oil changes”… grrr.

I’ve been changing my own oil since I was a teenager. It was the first thing I learned about automotive maintenance. For me it is almost a therapeutic action. It is good for the car, it is good for me. I drive away with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. But now I’m just confused.

Thankfully I have the Internet. The Internet tells me I need 6.5 Liters of oil for this engine. Typical of how I’ve always done this I’ll fill it a bit short of what should be “full” and then top it off in small increments to avoid overfilling the engine.

However without a dipstick, there is no way to actually do this. To measure the engine oil you have to be in the car and use the onboard computer. Not only that, the car has to be on level ground, engine on, and UP TO OPERATING TEMPERATURE. ????

This is sort of stupid. I let the oil drain out overnight. The engine is cold. In fact it got below freezing last night, so the engine is about as cold as it will ever be. I feel stupid starting a cold engine with at least a half a liter short of the correct amount of oil… then letting it idle for long enough to warm it up.

The dipstick is a perfectly adequate tool for this task. It takes seconds to measure oil levels with a dipstick, and it poses ZERO risk to the engine to use it. While I’m not really scared of damaging this car, doing this for the first time ever does make me feel… mild trepidation mixed with annoyance for some engineers in Munich.

So here I KNOW I shorted the amount by 500ml, so I expect the car to tell me to add that after I perform the check…


Now I’m REALLY annoyed. How can I trust this thing? It’s like those temperature gauges they program to stay right in the middle unless something really bad is happening. I know I’m 500ml short, but the car tells me “I’m at 100%” (note the lack of actual measuring units).

I guess I’m going to have to check often to see if it changes.

So happy that all the other engines I care for have dipsticks.

Imagine what we can do!

Perhaps the finest achievement of mankind, other than the chairlift of course, is the silicon transistor & integrated circuit. When you process it at a base layer we have taught rocks how to think.


Place that now smarter rock into a powered device, with input/output systems, storage, memory, and a connection to all the other thinking rocks we’ve created and the potential is truly unlimited. I get very excited when I think about all we have created and my very small role in making it all happen.

Imagine what we can do!

Then I go out into the world and look around, only to see my fellow humans using these amazing devices…

…to play solitaire.


Welcome to Hell, please take a number…

We flew from central Oregon to Colorado to visit my parents for the holidays. We (reluctantly) flew United, as our preferred carrier (Alaska) had no available flights for the trip. United has never failed to fail me every time I’ve flown them. This time was no exception: Sue had all her prescription medicines stolen from our baggage. I have no idea if it was UAL or TSA at fault here, but I’m now in the complaint process with both. It is sure to be a Kafkaesque journey.

Twitter as a Marketing tool: Failure

Twitter Marketing Failure

Twitter is an amazing communications channel. It serves to maintain several types of communications. Here’s how I use it:

  • Keep a sort of running conversation going with my friends, many of whom are literally scattered around the globe.
  • Follow news, as it is shared and interpreted by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.
  • Gain insight into things I’m interested in, such as Datacenters, the Network Operations side of the Internet, Web Hosting, Cloud Computing, Technology news, Apple, the Automotive Industry, Collector Cars, Photography, and the Pacific Northwest.

At work we use Twitter as an out-of-band comms channel with our customers. We post notifications of scheduled maintenance, new support blog posts, and real-time updates when there is any sort of an issue going on within our facility, such as UPS maintenance.

Twitter is great for items that are “important now” like that. Where I have seen Twitter consistently fail, is marketing to new customers via responses. Usually this is a Twitter API driven “bot” (automated software) that responds with a pat bit of sales-speak to any Tweet that makes mention of them, their product/service, or posts a URL that links to them in any way.

The image above is an example of one such miserable, fail-prone auto-replies. I posted a URL pointing to an article on TechFlash, which is a local news blog, covering the Seattle-area technology & business beat. The article in question pointed out the irony of a local Tech Exec, being swept up in a long-term criminal investigation concerning suspected organized crime involved in a Seattle strip club. The exec in question committed perjury with regard to having “Clintonian” relations with a stripper at said club. The irony of course was the same exec’s on-stage demo of their software which allows people to perform background checks of people they meet, on the fly using their mobile phone. The criminal history feature of this software is called “Sleaze Detector.” The layers of irony here are too good to pass up, so I sent the tweet.

The employer (which by the way has a history and reputation in Seattle of seemingly sleazy executives) of this seemingly sleazy executive responded to my tweet with a discount on their software!

This is why human beings are unlikely to lose their jobs to software over the long run. Software lacks judgement, and can not detect sarcasm or irony.

Wall Street Sheep bleat to Steve Jobs’ tune.

I don’t have anything to say about Apple’s new “iPad” device. Unlike technology pundits, I would prefer to get my hands on one before I start spouting opinions about it.

What I would like to point out however is Wall Street’s view of today’s product announcement. I noted that when the name was announced AAPL stock nosedived a bit, then slowly climbed as features were explained. Later when the price was announced (at a bit more than half where the pre-announcement speculation put the price tag) the stock marched right back up again. In my twitter stream it seemed only myself and Kevin van Haaren were commenting on the stock market’s reaction.

There are at least two months to go before the (real, not stock) market can begin to asses what this product can and will do. It will be interesting to observe the stock along the way. I generally have a very dim view of what Wall Street analysts think, as I see them of incapable of real analysis, completely out of touch with the real world, and far more prone to herd mentality than they’re willing to admit. Meanwhile, I wish Apple luck here though, as a customer and shareholder.

Crisis? What Crisis!?

The stuttering of the furnace, well pump, and digital clock woke me up around 5 am this morning. Power flickered a few more times, then ceased into a near-total darkness. The sudden stillness within our house brought the outside sounds to the fore. Wind. I could not hear the wind so much as the straining and rustle of the fir and cedar trees outside. I climbed out of bed and grabbed the one of the flashlights we keep handy for just such an occasion. The dogs eyed me with optimism initially, but sank their heads back down to the floor as I passed by heading towards the front door. I stepped outside into the chill wind and light rain to survey the area; looking to see how wide this outage might be. The entire area was dark; no street or houselights on between us and the mountains to the east. Looking back over the house to the west showed a comforting glow of the town of Arlington four miles away, reflecting off the low heavy clouds. Even brighter glows emanated to the south and southwest (Marysville & Everett respectively.) From this data my evolved mammalian brain ascertained the outage was very local, and confined to between Arlington and the mountains of the Boulder River Wilderness. This meant that it was likely to be very brief, unlike previous extended outages that covered the region. Such is life living in the Cascade Foothills. I climbed back in bed and told Sue that power was out. In our home this means no showers, so we just stayed in bed past our usual waking time. Nick, without his alarm stayed asleep in his room.

After a bit I wandered out to the kitchen, and Sue fed the dogs. I stood at the window and admired the darkness. At this latitude the sun rises late (around 8 AM) and low this time of year, and never flies very high above the southern horizon. Clouds obscure it most of the time anyway. The only light visible at all was that glowing reflection of other towns on the underside of the overcast. That odd light and swaying conifers gave the atmosphere a very odd look. Very dark. Very mysterious. My mind wandered back to time without electricity when the world was lit only by fire, and how, absent that far away glow, absolutely DARK it would be right here, right now.

Every little thing I wanted to do, take a shower, make breakfast, read the newspaper the normal routine of a normal morning… all dependent upon electricity. Instead I grabbed a handful of nuts and a glass of water from a pitcher, and stared out the window in thought.

I thought about perspective and how we, as highly evolved humans, fail to recognize reality. Despite our opposable thumbs and big brains, we tend to overreact like frightened chimps to things which are quite harmless. Among the headlines I could make out of the murky twilight cast on the kitchen table was yet another mention of the “Economic Crisis” we supposedly find ourselves in. “Bullshit” I thought. This is anything but a true crisis. In a crisis we’d be eating the dogs and burning our furniture to keep warm. Things we take for granted, such as electricity and the availability of the pistachios I’m eating right now would be unimaginable and exotic luxuries. Our society has grown so damn secure and comfortable that we now have to manufacture problems.
We create artificial controversies (which are in reality side-shows) for television pundits to endlessly rehash.
We imagine catastrophes (which are in reality minor stumbles) for political parties to use to point fingers of blame at one another.
We conjure up legions of plotting enemies (when they are in reality numbered in the dozens) that frighten us into discarding our most cherished values.

This is NOT an “economic crisis” at all. Nor is it the failure, and especially not the “end” of Capitalism. What we find ourselves in right now is the inevitable mild down cycle, which naturally occurs as part of a healthy market. Market cycles go up, and they go down, performing corrections when things in any particular sector get out of… the invisible hand, as it were. Down cycles always cause human beings to panic, thinking that things are somehow really bad. Well, I’ve got news for you folks, this kind of thing happens all the time, over and over again throughout history, though the history books only focus on one of them. In reality we’ve been in this down cycle for almost ten years. Corrections have jumped from sector to sector, and recovery very slow, but overall if you look back at 2000—2009 the economy has been flat as Kansas compared to the crazy days of 1990—1999. So can we drop the hyperbole and focus on reality: Things right now are not that bad, and in fact they are pretty damn good. I’d wager that it the larger scheme of things, it is the best time ever to be alive. Sure, I’d love it if my stock portfolio were partying like it was 1999, but on the upside we’re not burning useless banknotes for warmth or eating our pets. In the latter cases you can be forgiven for calling it a crisis, but the word is not justifiable to use for today’s situation. Other terms off the table: “meltdown”, “free-fall” and “disaster.” Why? Because none of them are actually happening. Unless you live in Haiti of course.

If anything console yourself with this oddly comforting fact: We live at the only time in all of human history where things are so good, and living is so easy, that even poor people are fat.

So next time somebody on TV or radio utters the “C” word, turn it off.
Next time the phrase “Economic Crisis” comes up in conversation, reply with the question “Have you eaten your pets?”
Next time you think things are really tough, flip your home’s main breaker and sit in the dark for a while.

Sense of perspective will return.

Crappy Morning…

As I drifted off to sleep last night, I heard the hum of the well pump in the basement of our house. It usually runs when anyone uses water… the diswasher, a shower, toilet, etc. I didn’t think much of it as we had a full house – Christopher came home from college last night. Around 5:00 am I sort of half-awoke, and the pump sound was still there. My brain sort of skipped a beat and then I jolted fully awake. I knew that a pipe somewhere was broken. Things had just thawed completely from the recent big freeze. We’d had snow all Saturday night, into and through Sunday. This after two+ weeks of sub-freezing weather. So I throw some clothes on and grab a flashlight to go check that indeed the pump is running (it is) and then start searching for the break.

I really love this house, but it is obvious that it has an Achilles Heel in the form of its water system and plumbing. I actually PREPARED for this freeze. I shut off the water to the barn, and drained its pipes. I even shut off the valve I installed to protect the last pipe that burst in a big freeze. I found the leak, and thankfully was able to fix it easily.

Since Chris is home, and would like to have a car to drive, and I have some bulky items in my office to bring home, along with a waste-oil run to Snohomish, I left the Jetta for Chris and drove the truck. We rarely drive this truck. Sue bought it a decade ago to haul horses, but now the horse trailer is gone, and most of the horses are gone, and the sole remaining one lives elsewhere. The truck has been kept for runs to the dump, the hardware store, etc. and of course situations like today. So I’m driving down I-5 to work and I note an (obvious) unmarked police car following me for a long ways. I’m in the right lane, and have the cruise set at 55, even though the limit is 60. I don’t like to drive this truck, and never feel safe going fast in it as it always feels top-heavy and dangerous. After several miles the cop flips on his lights and I pull over onto the shoulder. He tells me my tabs have expired… in March(!)
How did I let THAT happen? Usually the DOL sends out renewal notices and I renew them online within days. I never forget to do this… how did I not notice? The truck gets driven maybe 10 times a year, and usually only a few miles. But still… I’m usually not that unaware of things.

The cop takes my lic, reg, insurance, etc and goes back to his car. When he comes back he says “I’m not trying to be a jerk but… ” Sure enough he hands me a citation. Grrr. He explains how I can deal with it in court, but all I’m thinking is “What a jerk.” Now I know I can have Sue take care of all this, as she is an “officer of the court”… but I also know she’s going to be all ticked off at me for:
1. Forgetting to renew the tabs.
2. Getting a ticket.

Revenue collection device.

I take the citation from the Sheriff, and drive off to work in a bad mood. I renewed my tabs online as soon as I arrived at the office, but my mood hasn’t improved any.