Preparing your facility for the unthinkable

Back in mid 2007, I was working in my office when when a fire alarm went off.  I knew that this was a serious situation because:

  • The alarm is only triggered by a flowmeter due to a sprinkler valve breaking.
  • Most employees had left for the day, greatly reducing the likelihood of an accidental breakage.

We had our accidental breakages and dealt with them with a sense of humor.  You could always tell whom was directly involved by pointing out the soaked employee in the lineup.  But the smell of burning plastic outside my door alerted to me that this was no drill.

The plant was at zero capacity for one day, and at one-half capacity for 6 days (two weekend days included).  The minimal downtime considering a burned out production line is a great success story towards disaster preparedness.

Tornados, earthquakes or fires can happen at any time.  Two of the three I have experienced in a production environment that resulted in emergency actions and repairs to be taken.

To hell with production, shut down the affected building.

And shut down the entire building before vehicles with red lights show up.  In our case, we had a ‘go kit’ prepared to shut down subsystems in the event of an emergency.  Consisting of a screwdriver, wrench and lockout gear, usually this is intended to shut off equipment that has failed destructively.  In this case, it locked out the building.

First shut off the natural gas or propane

Most equipment with burners will interlock off with a loss of gas pressure.  This removes an energy source that can feed a fire or fuel an explosion.  Make certain that your go-kit includes an adjustable wrench capable of operating this value.  Know the shortest route to this valve which is almost certainly located on the outside of the building.  If you gas-train has multiple valves, your energy supplier will gladly support you in identifying the most effective valve.

If you have equipment that runs on external fuel storage, such as diesel fuel or propane, those also must be disabled by closing the fuel line, or if that is unavailable, locking out the equipment.  This kind of equipment is typically air compressors or backup generators.

Lock out every valve you shut with a real lock.

Shut off the electricity

Mind the backup generators.  Disable those first.  Backup generators don’t apply to these situations; they are designed to replace external utility failures.

Know what you need to do to pull the switchgear.  Maybe even practice once during a time the facility is not operating.  Switchgears have a limited life and can only be pulled 10-15 times before needing service, so use this operation wisely.  They can be difficult to pull as you are powering a spring-loaded clockwork that powers a mechanical current interrupter apparatus once the lever is pulled to a sufficient distance.  Do not bother with the smaller switches first as you are increasing the likelihood of breaking the equipment for no appreciable increase in safety or minimization of liability. It is cheaper to rebuild one switch, instead of two or three.

Lock out every primary switch with a real lock.

If possible, vent the compressed air

This is not such a big deal, but a luxury item.  In the unlikely event of a collapse fracturing a pipe, the air could rapidly oxidize the flame, increasing the efficiency of the combustion.  Vented air is very loud and dangerous, be physically prepared for this.  Projectiles of dust and oil will leave the line as well as lift dust in the area, creating in inhalation hazard.  Protect your ears and quickly vacate the area.

Cap the drains

There is a lot of water, and if your environment includes hazardous chemicals, the fire department water can be interpreted as hazardous waste.  Make a good effort that loading dock drains, sump pumps are not able to release to the city sewer or storm drains.  Sweep the resulting water into the areas.

In our case, a loading dock as an improvised storage pond.  A rush order of 55 gallon drums had the fluids contained.

Reap the benefits of your efforts

Notice I said above to use a real lock.  They are difficult to defeat and are considered a viable lockout mechanism in most scenarios.  It has a secondary benefit.  It often occupies a single lockout point that prevents the utility companies from attaching their own lockouts.  Most of the time, the emergency responders are satisfied seeing a lock, regardless of origin, attached to sources of hazard.

When a city agency or utility places a lockout, you can be forced to undergo a lengthy assessment of the entire building (why you lock out the entire building instead of the affected region).  City inspectors are busy people and there is often a scheduled time a few days in the future for them to inspect repairs.  If you are non-compliant in your repairs, the entire building can remain disabled during the time the next meeting is scheduled.

You can negotiate with the inspector to justify turning on regions of the building that you can prove to be isolated from the utilities by additional lockouts, as was the case with our fire.  We had secondary switches that enabled certain regions and equipment in this building.  We locked out the ones in the affected regions and when the inspector was assured of our configuration, we were cleared for operation.  This all occurred on the morning of the morning after.

Build your own shutdown strategy

  • Know all the paths from your go-kit to each of your energy sources.  Shut off natural gas, then liquid fuel, then electricity, then compressed air.  Do not let your path traverse across production lines so that you don’t run into equipment or become snagged by a hook handing from an overhead line.
  • Test that the tools work at each of their destinations.
  • Lockout at every point.  Make certain that you know how many locks you need.
  • Discretely show the inspector that events occurred to a plan.  They will have a greater confidence in your efforts and will afford you less scrutiny and a higher degree of self-assessment of your efforts
  • Identify the low points where contaminated water will collect.  If there is storage that cannot become wet, determine risks of this flooding.

Better and more meaningful experimentations

When I was an undergraduate at Iowa State in the mid-2000’s, I became fascinated with the research that was conducted under the programs or Vikram Dalal and Gary Tuttle.  My self adopted mentor, Dr. Curtis Sell whom I originally knew through the amateur radio club on campus and also recruited for my tutoring-for-pizza venture, was a very active participant in the microelectronics program.

The joke in that department was that “You get your masters for repairing the equipment and your PhD for using the equipment you repaired”  The equipment consisted of a PDP-11s and other mid-1970’s era equipment that had been likely discarded from prominent semiconductor fab firms that regularly contribute to the college.

Despite the old equipment, much of the work I had witnessed was groundbreaking glimpses into the future.  Photonic bandgap research that gave birth to on-the-die RF channels (waveguides) happened in this lab.  I was fortunate to have surrounded myself with some of the more brilliant graduate students doing dazzling work.

I also got to see the other side.  Those high on the ‘what-on-earth-is-he-trying-to-do’ quotient.  Usually confident, and somewhat self-assured, yet hiding in an office space, strategically arranged so that their desk, monitor or work area is entirely obscured from the vantage point of the doorway window.

It is from one of these people whose experiment I witnessed stuck with me to this day.

Imagine the world of radio.  Terrestrial radio signals almost universally appear deliberately from, or as a consequence of an electronic circuit.  These circuits, and the antennae that radiate signals are almost exclusively made from metals.  Metals allow for a very easy electron flow, so they are ideal conductors, but they also can cast very elaborate shadows (imagining radio waves as visible light) and diffraction patterns.  Modern human beings are well aware of this as we have adapted by learning the ‘cell phone dances’ which include steps such as the spin-around, the stretch-neck-tilt and the circling-wanderer. What you are doing is finding the sweet-spots that exist as columns and rays criss-crossing the area due to diffraction pattern due to building, steel rebar or radio interference.

With this kind of knowledge expected of an ISU Electrical and Computer Engineering Department undergraduate, I was dumbfounded to see an antenna experiment set up incredibly awkward.

Two microwave horn antennas facing each other, the 1/2″ adjustable steel rod that the antenna was attached to extended outwards and in front of the horn.  Observing the optics of the experiment, I was fairly confident that the receiving horn would be seeing diffraction patterns due to the mounting apparatus, patterns that will vary as a function of the changing distances made during the experiment.  When I asked about the validity of the experiment, I was told, “We tried warning him.”

Not a useful RF experiment.
Not a useful RF experiment.

If you are doing an experiment, do not be too confident to ask your peers if they see any flaws that may wreck your experiment.  The Journal of Irreproducible Results exists as a joke, and no, they seldom make calls for papers.  Use skilled and trusted people around you to make your work great, but if even a total goofball makes a suggestion about something being invalid or incorrect, take the criticism with a grateful appreciation and give the comment or idea a thorough analysis.

This semester, I am studying under Dr. Yadav of North Dakota State University in his course of Experimental Design.  The assumptions at this level are that your apparatus is reasonable, but approaches a scientific method in which experiments are conducted.  It is possible to destroy the validity of a perfectly good experiment by using even the wrong techniques during measurement, and your apparatus may be of a highly-elegant configuration.

Randomized ordering of experimental controls and statistical analysis of your data with multiple runs will give you a bank of data where noise can be filtered using statistical models.  It is not good enough the step through your controls in a linear manner, taking repeated data points on each pass, but instead randomize the experiments such that each pass requires changing at least one control.  Do not repeat your data points multiple times with the same control values, instead replicate your data points by performing each experiment as if it were the first pass.  Save the data aggregation for the statistical analysis use the data is collected.


Hypergeometric Distributions and Computational Solutions

I saw an interesting exam problem in my graduate level statistics exam.  What was particularly interesting was that we were given a problem that could not be solved with a calculator, or by obvious simplification methods.

For this, I am self publishing this document that describes an algorithmic approach to solving hypergeometric distributions that would be otherwise insoluble using conventional methods.  My software authored for this is accurate and is differentiated from Wolfram Mathematica or Alpha in that the method and code is open to academic scrutiny.

Here is that link: hypergeom.pdf

Homer Conferencing… Not ready for prime time

This is a lesson in vaporware.  Vaporware is a software or hardware solution that enters a high demand market without any actual viable solution.  Often times, they pretend to be professional, but through social media, they are actually heavily locked down information machines.


  • Photoshopped images of the application running on a PC.  Be sure to notice the presence of a beautiful generic woman on a beach in the application window.
  • Facebook pages that are locked down to where negative feedback is tightly controlled.  Be sure to notice that they are the only ones that post of their page.
  • Mailing lists or support forums don’t exist.  Be sure to notice that buttons that subscribe you to a mailing list opens a webpage on a separate website that never finishes loading (times out).
  • If the software downloads, it will have enormous amounts of configuration choices that aren’t targeted towards the actual purpose of the software.  Be sure to notice video conferencing software that doesn’t have a “Add webcam” feature, but allows you to configure various nuances to how the application appears.
  • The software is ad sponsored and has no uninstall capability.  In this package, I haven’t noticed any ads just yet, but I’m waiting.  First though, I have to run it again and currently, I have no reason to.

I’m not sure why peer-to-peer video conferencing is such a magnet for these kinds of fluff projects.  It really shouldn’t be so hard to do.  The webcam and microphone are data streams.  You encode them into a streaming format (MPEG, WEBM, OGG, H.264 if you insist) and pipe them out to an IP address.  A little extra effort, you can even use a SIP protocol, but it isn’t necessary.

So here I have it installed, and I’m really wishing I had done a time machine backup immediately before installing…

How can a project like this be saved?  It takes honesty.  Create open and world viewable forums.  Yes, people will post bad things about your software, but make a show of working towards a solution.  Open up your social network sites and use them to recruit developers and users instead of information control marketing machines.

Don’t go the way of the Ekiga softphone of the late 2000’s.  They were the official softphone of Ubuntu linux that was included with their distribution.  Problem is that it never worked.  There was no improvement.  And by 2010, they were expelled from the distribution.  They’re still around, but I don’t dare install their product.  I simply don’t trust them with my limited hard disk space.

I look forward to a day that an free and open video conferencing software becomes a reality.  Then, we can truly divorce ourselves from the spooky usage licenses (and potential eavesdropping) from services such as Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, or Apple FaceTime.

Large Matrices in Microsoft Word 2010

Ever want to simply go beyond 3×3 matrices in the Microsoft Word 2010 Equation Editor?

Screen shot of Microsoft Word 2010 graphical interface.
You don’t have a lot of choices for dimensions of matrices.

It looks like 3×3 is as large as you can go, but you can go ‘under the hood’ to create matrices of arbitrary size by switching between “Linear” and “Professional” modes.

Let’s first create a 3×3 matrix and populate it.  It doesn’t have to be 3×3, but for sake of explanation, it makes a clearer example.

Screen shot of Microsoft Word 2010 graphical interface.
This is a 3×3 Matrix with all cells populated

Once you have the matrix complete. Click on the black arrow on the lower right-hand corner of the Equation Editor.  This pull-down window selects between Professional and Linear modes.  Click on Linear.

Screen shot of Microsoft Word 2010 graphical interface.
Select Linear Mode

You will see your equation editor change the layout of the equations into a textual form.  You can think of this as a markup language for the matrix editor.

Screen shot of Microsoft Word 2010 graphical interface.
Textual mode of the equation editor.

The ampersand symbols delimit the columns and the at symbols delimit the rows.  If you have an incomplete entry of a row or column, the equation editor will try to make it complete.

Screen shot of Microsoft Word 2010 graphical interface.
A larger matrix created and fully populated to resembler a DTMF key arrangement.

At this point, go back to your menu and switch back to professional to view your new matrix.

Screen shot of Microsoft Word 2010 graphical interface.
A complete 4×4 matrix with all cells populated

And there you have it.  A hand-made 4×4 matrix in Equation Editor for Microsoft Word 2010.

The surprising rediscoveries of Dr. John Vetter Burkardt

As I create my Interactive Resume, I remember stories of working with some of these amazing people.  Dr. Burkardt is one of those people.  He is a living treasure for his mathematical and computational knowledge.  Even the content of his webpage leads people to suspect this fact.

And here is what is surprising about it.  Sometimes I get curious and ask search engine a question.  It’s easier that way and often times faster than finding a human to ask.  Could be how to spell a word, or looking up a numerical algorithm.

Dr. Burkardt is notable in that twice his web site has come up in a list of google results that I clicked on, only then to discover I was on the page of a person whom I previously had worked for.  And yes, his pages have a 100% rate of having the answer I seek.  So far, the rate is about once in every 5 years this happens.

Check out his site below.  It looks small, but it is in fact quite huge; it only looks small due to it’s tight organization.  This site represents a lifetime of publicly accessible work this brilliant mind has worked on.

Servicing a dry bearing

At my father’s house today and I heard the heat pump chirping occasionally. To me, that is the sound of lubrication failure and an early state of electric motor failure. As compressors are hermetically sealed and lubricated, I was almost certain the culprit was the blower motor.

I opened up the unit and saw the blade still spun freely, a good sign. After shutting the breaker, I disconnected the compressor and powered the heat pump back up. The fan ran for about 30 seconds and started chirping again.

I proceeded to remove the motor. It is a 48Y frame 1/4 horsepower single phase motor made in 1989 by General Electric. Looking up the cost of this motor to be $160-180 in the 60C ambient temperature spec (the 40C was $60 cheaper, but would fail soon). Given the expense, I decided to experiment with servicing it.

Loosened the set screw to remove the blade. The motor has 4 long screws/nuts that hold the motor together and they were removed.  With a screwdriver, I carefully prayed the pot metal caps off each end. The armature slid out of the stator and gave access to the two sleeve bearings. I lubricated them with a grease that was convenient, but a heavy gear oil probably would have been more appropriate.

I reassembled the motor and electronically attached it to the heat pump circuit.  I decided to let it run for a while to see how it performs.  After about 30 minutes, it was warm, but silent, so I decided to end the test with a declaration of success.

The heat pump was mechanically and electrically reassembled and seems to be performing well with fresh lubrication.

Anybody curious what NEMA frames are, I attached a chart.

On the Home Depot e-mail hack

53,000,000 e-mails.  Amounts to about 1/6 the population the United States.  Now I can’t imagine every one of those being valid.  I will confess that on occasions where I was pressed for an e-mail address, I simply made one up for the sake of moving right along without arguing with the cashier.

There are occasions where I simply can’t get away with posting bogus data.  Let’s say with Amazon, Google, Facebook, the e-mail address is an important part of your identity, and in many cases, my actual login ID.  What if one of the big guys gets hacked, or an unscrupulous employee collects and sells the data and retires in southern Snoozebeckistan?  The is a preventative measure.

I own my own domain.  Your sitting here and reading it.  No one knows of any specific e-mail address for me. One of the perks of owning my own domain is a have total control over the email addresses on my server.  I have an e-mail for each service I subscribe too, such as for Facebook or for all things Google.  These addresses simply alias and to a common local address that I receive mail from directly.

So yeah, some place that verifies over e-mail before creating an account, I create a special address just for them and have it delivered to my inbox.  Sometimes you find out who got hacked or sells out when I start getting Canadian Pharmacy or Russian Singles emails and that’s a bonus.  To fix it,  just rename the e-mail address and let them try to get it again.

Going wide with your e-mail addresses is the best spam filter.  They have to find it, and then after that, send me enough junk mail to where it’s worth changing my address.  I typically change my address every three or four years and have been quite fortunate.  In all of 2014, I have only gotten about 15 spam messages.

You want to send me a message on e-mail, just go to my website and look it up.  It’s current and fresh.  You know where to find me.

How safe is that old car?

Every now and then, you find something on youtube that is so fascinating that you can’t help share it with everybody you know.  You play the video, pause it, and ask yourself, “How is this going to turn out?”

A few years back, the IIHS celebrated their 50th anniversary by crash testing two cars for a direct comparison of the technologies of restraint systems and energy-absorbing crumple zones.  The subjects of this test were both Chevrolet makes: a 2009 Malibu and a 1959 Bel Air.

The outcome of the test will surprise many people, excluding a few trained engineers whom daydream about types of destructive evaluation experiments.  If you haven’t searched it out already, hit up the youtube link that I selected as being the most comprehensive.

A number of social changes occurred during this time to make safety  profitable for automakers.  The deaths of Jayne Mansfield and James Dean were catalysts and culminated with the best selling book Unsafe At Any Speed by Ralph Nader.