Archive for September, 2010

Used Cars

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

There’s a sign painted on a block wall in front of Massey’s Used Cars outside of Athens. It says, “Everybody Drives a Used Car.” That is surely true, but some cars are way more used than others.

Saturday I drove Maybelle to Athens. Maybelle is an ’84 Chevy 4×4 pickup that my parents sold to Ben and me. She has less than 80,000 miles on her, which is both good and bad. “Settin’ up” is as bad on equipment as it is on people. Things start to leak, flexible objects harden and vice versa, and some parts just stop working all together.

The trip was rather calm, so I had time to muse on some of the well-used vehicles I’ve had the opportunity to drive. My first was probably an old Ford delivery truck at a TV repair shop I worked at for a few weeks in high school. In college I acquired a ’63 Austin-Healey Sprite, and from there the list grew quickly to include a ’71 GMC pickup, a couple of Suburbans, a 1950 International school bus (in Mexico City, no less), and countless others since.

Driving an older vehicle, especially a car that one has recently repaired, is an exercise in sensory awareness. You listen for strange sounds – squeaks, squeals, grinding, hissing, dripping. Windows rolled down, you sniff the air for burning rubber, and chemical aromas from fuel, antifreeze, or oil. Your eyes go back and forth from the road to the gauges to the hood to the rear-view mirror, looking for smoke, steam, abnormal readings, a trail of liquid. (And what color is the liquid? Green is antifreeze, red is transmission fluid, shimmery may be fuel.) From your hands on the wheel, to your seat on the seat, to the pedals and floorboard under your feet, you feel for thumps, bumps, and vibrations, but not the good ones the Beach Boys sang about.

One summer when the kids were young, we drove an old Suburban to a lake in north Alabama for a week of vacation. Just as we pulled off of the Interstate, I heard a deep clatter whose pitch changed relative to the engine speed (as opposed to the vehicle speed, which would have suggested a drive train or wheel problem.) The clatter went away as the speed increased, but faithfully returned every time we idled.

I eased the big white beast on through a national forest, through a couple of tiny towns, and to our vacation destination, a lakeside trailer belonging to Jayne’s mother and her sisters. Paying for repair was not an option for us at that time. So I paddled a canoe around the lake to a small (closed) marina that had a pay phone booth. I called Hankamer, who was my friend, co-worker, and auto repair mentor, to discuss the options. Based on the symptoms as I reported them to Hank, we concluded that it sounded like the engine bearings, and it sounded like they needed to be replaced now.

Fortunately, that was a job that required more labor than parts, so I called an aunt, arranged to borrow a car, and drove into the nearest town that had an auto parts store. I bought the bearings, gaskets, and some miscellaneous sealers, drove back to the trailer, and returned the car to Jayne’s aunt.

Fortunately, I had my tools, and the big Suburban sat sort of high off the ground so I could work on it with no trouble. For the next few days, while the kids swam, played, ate, and investigated the woods around the lake, I dropped the oil pan, extricated the old main and rod bearings, and replaced them with the new ones. They were indeed worn, with the copper showing through the bearing material on several of them.

It was hot, sweaty summer work, but jumping in the lake provided me with cool refreshment several times each day, and the lake also served as a big bathtub at the end of the day when I had to scrub off the oil and grease.

Finally I buttoned the engine all back up, refilled it with oil, and cranked her up. To my delight, it started right up. But to my huge dismay, the clatter was still there!!!

So I did what I surely should have done before I attacked the bearings. I took off all the fan belts (in my defense, not an easy task) and cranked her up again. No clatter. Turns out it was the air conditioner clutch. I’ve never heard one make that noise before or since. It’s a good thing the actual bearings were worn, or I would have felt even dumber.

But I must admit that the family and I actually enjoyed the week, and it all ended well. We got back home safely, and that old ‘Burb ran quite a few more miles before I finally gave her to a co-worker with a bigger family and smaller bank account.

I wish I could say that my Summer Suburban Misdiagnosis was my only auto repair error, but that would be terribly incorrect. I’ve made quite a few, several before that one, and plenty since. I finally figured out that it comes with the territory. Maybe that’s why driving elderly vehicles is such a sensory experience for me.

Me and Maybelle made it to Athens just fine, by the way. And when we got there, with Bo’s help, we turned this…

… into this …

All in all, a good day.


Monday, September 20th, 2010

I’m sitting in the Cafe Kia-Ora doing serious damage to a sausage and provolone omelet (which, by the way, I can never remember how to spell. Maybe my poor efforts in high school French are coming back to haunt me.) Breaking my fast has always been high on my priority list. From my Mom’s before-school breakfasts in my youth, through cooking Friday morning pancakes for kids and cousins during their youth, helping whip up big vacation spreads, all the way up to my current not-so-petite dejeuner habits, I’ve always liked breakfast. A couple of nights ago I went to bed a little underfed, and dreamed of a breakfast buffet the size of a supermarket aisle. It was awesome!

I’m not particularly picky. Leftovers, taters and onions, cereal, fruit, grits casserole, it doesn’t matter much to me. Breakfast is as much a time of day and state of mind as a specific type of food. Once at a college house in Athens, I was offered a slice of lemon pie and a PBR for breakfast. (I took the pie, declined the beer, primarily for culinary reasons.)

One of my favorite breakfasts when my schedule permits consists of chopped fruit (whatever is fresh and available – bananas, apples, peaches, strawberries, pears, cantaloupe, honeydew, berries), garnished with my own mix of raw oats, wheat bran, wheat germ, flax seeds, pecans, walnuts, raw almonds, and raisins, and topped with Greek yogurt. Jayne says it looks like I just scraped up stuff out of the back yard.

Another favorite is Jayne’s Saturday morning omelet. What she lacks in omelet experience, she makes up for with enthusiasm. They are always interesting and delicious.

Saturday I had breakfast at the counter of a perennial favorite, Waffle House. Watching a busy WaHo in full tilt is a study in the evolution of process improvement. For a start, I saw amazing examples of teamwork, especially in the grill dance performed by the two cooks, weaving a pattern of bacon, sausage, eggs, and scattered-and-smothered. The whole team has its own language, and everyone was in constant motion, taking orders, passing the orders to the cooks, refilling coffee, cleaning dishes, stacking dishes, taking phone orders, making change. From a communication protocol perspective, each command had an acknowledgment of successful delivery, or, if the command was garbled for some reason, a NAK followed by a retransmission. Each worker performed quality control making sure that the order was correct. They clearly have an effective training process, and an equally effective supply process. Everything they need is close at hand. And on top of it all, they seem to have fun. Amidst the normal name tags of Sandy, Dee, and Mark, there was one waitress whose name tag simply read “The Legend.” She looked to be all-business, even a bit gruff, until she got tongue-tangled on one order and broke out in a big grin at herself.

The Kia-Ora is my current favorite. Proprietors Jim and Shelley have arrived at many of the same techniques as Waffle House, but on a smaller, more personal scale. They opened their small breakfast-and-lunch spot almost two years ago, when the economic downturn was becoming painfully obvious, in a parking deck between two AT&T buildings. But they have managed to make a fine go of it, combining know-your-name friendliness with quality omelets and breakfast sandwiches, lunch sandwiches and burgers, creative salads, and great coffee drinks. While they are usually crowded for lunch, their breakfast traffic is mostly take-out, leaving the dining area available for the occasional meeting, breakfast bunch, or blog, as evidenced by the current missive.

You should really try it sometime. I’ll be glad to introduce you to Jim and Shelley, and Ron, Stormie, Norris, and Nate, any time you are in the neighborhood.

All around plus sound

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I don’t suppose I can blame anyone but myself for thinking that Monday would be a good day to target for new posts. I have, admittedly, stretched it a few times, posting so late Monday night that it was probably technically Tuesday. And I do try to keep an idea or two in the back of my head should words fail me. The Signal and Noise posting was one of those, an effort that was so dense and massive that it distorts passing light beams.

Today’s post is more pragmatic. It merely recounts some of the activities of the last couple of weeks, primarily for the benefit of one of my most faithful readers, namely, me.

Starting around Labor Day weekend, things had faded into a fog, memory-wise, so I decided to try to recall my activities, just as a mental exercise. Turns out it wasn’t that difficult, thanks to calendars and notes. By the way, if you notice that I have missed something important, feel free to ping me. I probably need to know about it.

Friday night before Labor Day, we drove to Columbus to see my family. Jayne cooked some of her classic specialties, I repaired the eye of a tree’s face (really; see photoTree Face), and we mostly just visited, watching baseball and working crossword puzzles. Saturday night we drove back home to join our daughter in entertaining some out-of-town guests.

Sunday morning it was up bright and early in Lilburn, and seven of us headed up to the lake for a morning sail. The breeze cooperated, and the lake was not too crowded, considering that Labor Day is sort of the last big boating blowout weekend for the summer. We anchored in a cove while some of the younger folk swam, and the rest of us enjoyed the breeze and pleasant conversation.
Learning to hold your breath
We headed back to the marina just in time, as it seemed like the entire world had decided that Labor Day Sunday afternoon was the time to hit the water. While they were out battling for aquatic space, we were heading back to Lilburn for an afternoon of resting, cooking and eating. Side note: we found an interesting chicken marinade, Veri Veri Teriyaki, crafted by a Jewish and Asian couple who market their products under the company name “Soy Vay.” Yummy stuff.

Monday morning our guests departed, leaving us to wind down from the holiday weekend and prep for a merciful four-day workweek.

Fast forward to lunchtime last Friday, when I switched into bluegrass bass player mode (fortunately that doesn’t require a costume change for me) and headed up to a Dunwoody church to substitute in the Bitsyland String Band, playing for a Senior luncheon. As part of his schtick, the lead singer/emcee introduced his Native American wife, and explained that their small-town courtship went pretty well with one exception – whenever they went to a dance, it would rain. The Bitsyland players are fun people, and it was an enjoyable variation for me. After the gig, I returned and put in my afternoon’s work to close out the week, then my bride and I headed to another of Atlanta’s glitzy northern suburbs for appetizers and a couple’s massage, a relaxing gift from her.

Saturday after a rather luxurious sleep-in, I had to pay my dues for accumulating more music gear, tools, and electronics than I can possibly stash in my humble abode. I found a climate-controlled storage space just a little bit too convenient to my house for my own good, and spent most of Saturday moving, sorting, and, in a rare few cases, tossing out, stuff. The plan is to use the storage space as a staging spot for sorting and tossing. I’ll let you know how that works out, but I recommend that you not start holding your breath any time soon.

Sunday was a music and sound day. One Tree Hill played at the Forsyth Family Festival in Cumming, and (surprise!) volunteered the use of our sound system for the afternoon’s remaining seven musical acts. Since I understand the sound system better then anyone, I volunteered to drive.

In fact, it was quite an enjoyable experience for me. Since this is not my first rodeo, and I actually had several days notice, I came equipped with a tent, a table, a chair, and cooler with a big bottle of ice water, some leftover crudites, and the last piece of Soy Vay chicken from the refrigerator. And my wits. I actually remembered to bring them.

The schedule went something like this for each band:

  1. Jump up on stage while they are setting up, figure out what gear they have and how many singers, and assign the appropriate inputs and wires
  2. Spend the first song trying to remember who was plugged into what, and sometimes, why
  3. Spend the rest of their set actually mixing their sound (this is really the most fun part)
  4. Mute all the channels when they finish
  5. Repeat for next band

I really do enjoy all aspects of musical sound reinforcement, not just mixing sound for the audience, but also mixing the monitors so the band is happy on stage, solving the inevitable problems (Why can’t I hear the acoustic guitar?; Where’s that feedback coming from?), and even wrapping cords and loading the equipment in and out.

In fact, the only thing I would have rather been doing was tooling around Athens with my wife and daughter, who is visiting from Chicago. But we did get together at the end of the day for a nice meal at the Taqueria Los Hermanos to close out the weekend.

And to top it all off, it actually feeels like fall this morning! Mazel tov!

Signal and Noise

Monday, September 6th, 2010


Much of life consists of the transfer of information. The higher layers on Maslow’s pyramid of needs clearly require the transfer of information, but even the lower layer needs of food, water, shelter, etc., also involve information exchange. It is tempting to think of a rugged individualist making his way in the world on his own creativity, cleverness and strength. But before you go too far down that road, rewind the tape to the birth of our rugged hero. He had a mother and father, because that’s just the way it works, and probably siblings. So there was a family. And they had parents, so there was an extended family. It doesn’t take much imagination to extend our example family to create a community. And one of the benefits of a community is the sharing of information. “Food there.” “Water here.” “That will make you sick.” “This will make you feel better.”

The word “signals” can be helpful in describing the transfer of information. Signals are often visual or audible, but they could be related to any action detectable by the senses. The taste of salt coating a piece of meat can serve as a signal that the meat has been preserved. Signals are often immediate (“real-time”), such as a wave or a shout, but they can also be more permanent, such as a notched stick showing a path, or a stack of rocks indicating a property boundary.

Our world is full of signals, not just durable visible objects like billboards and other signs, but electronic signals such as phone calls, e-mail, radio, television, as well as visual signals (traffic lights and school crossing guards) and audible ones, too. There are train whistles, door bells, car horns, singing birthday cards, fire alarms, barking dogs, seat-belt buzzers, job performance assessments, and microwave oven beeps, just to name an eclectic few.

While most signals leave their source in a relatively pure form, few signals reach their destination in that same form. The word “noise” is often used to refer to the difference between the original signal and the received signal. Let’s use a radio broadcast as an example. Suppose you are in the room where the radio broadcaster is speaking, and you have the ability to hear and remember the sound of her voice precisely. Even better, you have a machine which can depict her voice in some visual fashion on a piece of paper – every nuance, every frequency, every phoneme, every word.

Now suppose you are in your home listening to this same broadcaster over the radio. The sound is somewhat different than you heard in the studio, having been affected by many factors. To name just a few, the microphone picking up her voice converts the sound vibrations to an electrical signal, and the electrical signal is converted to a radio broadcast frequency. Your radio receives the broadcasted signal, plus lots of other radio signals and frequencies, converts them to the range your ears can hear, then sends the electrical signal through a speaker which converts it to moving air. Finally the moving air impacts your ear drums, which transmit the sound impulses to your brain, where you interpret them.

Each of these detection and conversion steps is imperfect, and it changes the signal in some way. Each medium through which the signal flows, whether the air in the studio, the radio station’s copper wires and circuits, the humidified air between the radio station and your house, the wires in your radio, and the air in your room, they all effect the signal in some way, reducing certain frequencies, adding other signals, modifying not only the original signal, but each of the previously modified versions.

So imagine you once again document the broadcaster’s sound precisely on your machine, this time in your home. If you could measure the differences between the original signal and the signal you hear, those differences are what I mean by “noise.” Some types of noise introduced in an electrically amplified audio signal may consist of background hum, crackle, distortion, wow, flutter, phase shift, phase cancellation, all different types of noise, many of which have also, oddly enough, become special effects for electric guitars. Go figure.

Now, if you’ve heard how digital signaling is better than analog signaling, you might be thinking that there is no “noise” associated with digital signaling. I’m sorry to be the one who has to break it to you, but that is incorrect. The process of analog-to-digital conversion always introduces inaccuracies, not to mention time delays, which are, in fact, another form of noise, although one that is often acceptable. Unless you are trying to sound intelligent over a satellite phone link.

One last technical comment – the ratio of signal to noise is a good measure of the quality of an information system. A higher ratio means that the systems transmitting the signal are better, more accurate, or “quieter.”

Good grief this has been a painfully long introduction. The whole purpose has been to introduce the notions of signal and noise, for the purpose of making a rather simple point. There are probably easier ways to make this point, but that’s just the way my peculiar brain works.

The Point

And the point I’m trying to make? Most of the signals we receive in life include noise, some more than others. If the noise is sufficiently large, it begins to affect our ability to process the actual signal. It distracts us, disturbs us, slows down our thinking. It wastes our time, just like an error-correcting digital receiver, that must stop and recalculate the received signal to determine mathematically what the original signal was supposed to be.

What are some examples of noise in modern communication? Of course, that is a matter of opinion, and a matter of what the receiver considers to be the desired signal. For me, examples of noise include advertising, unnecessary graphical elements, and misleading content. My Internet tastes tend toward sites for which I’ve already paid, such as NOAA for weather, APOD for my astronomical photos, NPR for news, and georgia-navigator for local traffic, largely because those sites don’t besiege me with advertising. I use an e-mail client instead of web mail because it is clean and direct, rather than cluttered and, well, noisy. Whenever possible, I opt for the paid version of an application, rather than the advertising-supported version. I remove distracting backgrounds whenever possible, and make my chart lines thin. I use labeled boxes rather than clip art, unless the clip art conveys important information. And, despite the absurd length of this posting, I try to avoid words which don’t carry the reader swiftly and efficiently toward my writing goal.

Once you are aware of the difference between signal and noise, you can begin to detect the difference, and to make your own choices for information transfer. Happy hunting!