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Saturday, September 25, 2010

What? You're Driving?!?

I have always been blessed to look young for my age. If I let my hair get a bit too long and happen to wear clothes that are scruffy enough, I am occasionally mistaken as my teenage daughter's older brother, even though she was born when I was in my mid 20's. I'm not complaining.

In the power company I deal with a lot of people by radio or phone only, and when they finally come in on a visit to the control center, it is pretty common for them to be surprised and say they expected me to be in my 50's, though I haven't yet quite cracked 40. I make keeping cool and using a calm "fighter pilot" voice a priority in order to put a lid on potential spiraling panic. It works the same in the FD, of course.

However, this youthful countenance worked against me in my earliest days on the FD.

Fresh out of the box, 21 and dumb, feeling ten feet tall in my brand new uniform and shiny badge. It was a very hot summer day, and we were prepping a house for a training burn, pre-cutting and then capping vents with plywood, boarding up some key windows, piling up pallets and straw, marking exit paths.... you know the drill. All of us working on this project were actually off-duty POC guys. Being the super-probie, I was the only one in uniform.... never wanted to miss a chance to wear The Badge, you know.

This was a relatively small Midwestern town, so when the work was done and the guys wanted to cool off, no one thought anything of having a cold beer or two. But who goes to get it? Super-probie, of course.

At the counter of the town's liquor store - in uniform - with two cases of Miller Lite..... my gosh how preposterous that scene looks to me now!! The clerk carded me. You have to be 21 to join the FD, but the clerk was playing it safe in front of the badge. And, you guessed it, I did not have my ID.

I never, EVER heard the end of it as long as I served with that agency, the Kid who returned empty-handed from the beer run.

Several years later and not too long before I moved onward and upward from there, on a routine medical call, we picked up a senior citizen with some nondescript issue that has long faded from my memory. As the medic climbed into the ambulance, the other EMT and I loaded the patient. She had been eying me oddly ever since I grabbed the cot on the way out, but when she saw the other EMT climb into the back with the medic, yeah, that's where this post's title came from.

"What? You're Driving?!?" Not a joke. She was legitimately concerned. I was ready to swap with the other EMT just to make her feel better, but the medic would have none of it.

"Don't worry ma'am, The Kid's got a perfect ambulance driving record, drives for me all the time."

As I closed the doors to the box I heard her ask in all seriousness, "But how old is he, really??"

Friday, September 24, 2010

Unplanned Kitchen Update

I actually thought the kitchen saga was more or less over. The work was done, illogically and haphazardly, and we had moved on. But no, someone had to kick the beehive again.

If you're new to this blog, there is a long, long history to this. I dare you to put on your favorite Dilbert pocket protector, refill your coffee, and read all the posts tagged Kitchen Remodel, from the oldest post forward.

Came in for the day shift a few days ago to find a slight modification. Specifically, a new counter.

No one asked for it. We sure didn't need it. There's no plumbing, no electric, and no nearby anything else you want in that corner. And, so far, nothing to put on it.

We just added clutter and cleaning space, usage pending. Important stuff.

I suspect we could have used this money to move the fridge as previously intended, but as usual I am not privy to the master plan.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Incomprehensibility Follow-Up

More laugh-out-loud fun with numbers. I promise to be brief.

Review: Grasping Incomprehensibility

I realized that I did not try to quantify how big of a computer monitor we would need to show the trend line of our ACE without changing the scale. Our display shows the ACE up to 300MW high or low before it goes off the edge. We can still see the +/- 300MW numeric value when it goes out that far, but the trend line falls off the monitor.

Anyway, today I did the math.

When the ACE jumped to 1,428,382,474,567,680, how high would that theoretical trend line have gone? Try 3 trillion miles. 3,005,855,375,774 miles, to be exact.

To put that into perspective, that is 819 times the distance from the Sun to Pluto.

It is 8.25% of the distance to the next closest star, Proxima Centauri.

If you wanted to see the top of that trend when it happened, you would have to travel at the speed of light for just over six months to get to the high end of your theoretical cosmic computer monitor.

See, math can be fun if you let it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Owning the Incompetent with Humor

In another life, I spent some time in the software industry. I had been in the electric utility business for a few years when I was offered a job with one of our vendors. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. OK, I'll admit that in retrospect it actually was a good idea, as my three years there looks really good on the ol' resume now that I am back in the system operations and dispatch circle of the industry.

I became sympathetic to the lives of software engineers, as I worked with them at length while dealing with dispatchers and power marketers using the software. I became a liaison of sorts, telling the software wonks about life in the control center, and telling dispatchers about software wonk life trying to make lots of people with often conflicting opinions all happy at the same time.

Sympathetic to a point, that is. I've never been able to tolerate blatant incompetence. My own included, I must add.

Unrelated to that, as yet, is that I am also a wise-ass at work. Many many years ago the senior dispatcher on my shift would always react the same way when a line tripped. The first thing he would do was quote Robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld) from Lost in Space: "Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!" Then he'd get up, refill his coffee, and saunter back to the console to fix the broken stuff.

The quote inspired me, and it was very easy to find a WAV file of that quote online. I added a toolbar shortcut to it, and could play it loudly with a single click every time a line tripped. Hilarious. You had to be there.

I soon expanded my WAV collection and built an interface to instantly play back any of the 75 or so witty one-liners I collected over time. Some examples:

"I've felt a great disturbance in the force." (Obi-Wan Kenobi/Alec Guinness, Star Wars: A New Hope)

"Scotty, I need warp speed in three minutes or we're all dead!" (James T Kirk/William Shatner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

"Look, I'm gonna tell you about an accident and I don't wanna hear about an 'act of God', OK?" (Jack Burton/Kurt Russell, Big Trouble in Little China)

"No sense worrying about it now." (Raymond Stantz/Dan Akroyd, Ghostbusters)

"I think it is time we demonstrated the full power of this station." (Grand Moff Tarkin/Peter Cushing, Star Wars: A New Hope),

"Finally, we shall bring order out of chaos." (Egg Shen/Victor Wong, Big Trouble in Little China)

"I'm sorry, but this is a highly sophistamicated doowacky, you don't treat it responsibly, ka-BLAM-o!" (Homer Simpson/Dan Castellaneta, The Simpsons).

You get the idea. So where the heck am I going with this?

Do you remember how reserve sharing works? If not, go refill your coffee now, then come back and review Tutorial 4: Basic ACE, and Reserve Sharing before proceeding here.

So one day we're testing a new reserve sharing application built by my former vendor employer. It's not tied to anything yet so it can't actually make things happen, but you can tell it to do stuff and see how it would theoretically react. I have a sneaking suspicion (aka insider info) that it isn't quite ready for prime time, and evilly relish the thought of breaking it. I am suspicious that they are testing it while it has known deficiencies, hence is a waste of everyone's time. Test it when you really think it is ready, instead of pretending you're making good progress and hoping no one exposes you by breaking it. Their bad luck I was on duty.

Every utility in the entire reserve sharing pool had someone in on the conference call. Our turn came up, and we were to simulate requesting replacement energy for loss of a power plant in our system. I selected a large, 550MW plant that was shared contractually with three utilities. The software threw down an ugly error message to everyone's screens. Exposed. Software guys fumble mumbled apologetically about how the application was not configured to handle shared units yet.

So why are we testing it? Grrr.

OK, I say, let me try something else. When picking off the big 550MW unit, I noticed that their drop-down list of power plants included every single dinky unit we had. So this time I picked a tiny 0.85MW (850kW) hydro plant. Submit.

Everyone's alarms went off, as you could hear over the phone. So the application alarm was working fine. Then the comments started. "I got the alarm, but no megawatt contribution". "Same here". "Yeah, we see the event but are not being asked to provide assistance" Then the largest utility, with the biggest prorated share of the pool, said "I got one megawatt on my display". Mind you, they are so big that they can swing 100MW every few minutes as a matter of routine. 1MW to them is rather less than a day-old fart in the wind.

Software guys were feeling pretty burned now. But I knew these guys, and was not exactly a big fan of their work to begin with. Finally I played along and picked a "safe" 220MW sole-owned plant, and the application worked OK and let everyone see numbers like they wanted to.

As we continued through the round-robin testing, a couple of other dispatchers followed my lead and started trying to break the thing on purpose with new tricks. A few were successful.

As the call wound down and a sort of debrief was being held, I grabbed my PC speaker and pulled up the WAV interface. Holding the speaker by the phone, the entire conference call was treated to:

"So far, this is not blowing my skirt up, gentlemen." (Spencer Trilby/Charleton Heston, True Lies).

Several rather rewarding snickers were heard from other participants. Conference call anonymity is nice.  The software guys were silenced for a few seconds, and then went on like it hadn't happened.

Next time we tested the application a few weeks later, shared units worked, and no plants below 25MW were in the pick list.

Monday, September 13, 2010


The worst part of the storm has passed, but some cleanup will be around for a long, long time. Still, I said I'd be back after a while, and it has been long enough. Although we were blindsided by a trial I wouldn't wish on anyone's family, I know that we will all be stronger because of it. We are in fact already benefiting from stronger relationships. Some important lessons have been learned. Time goes forward, and so shall we.

Writing on here again will probably be good for me, so let's roll this thing back online.

Now is a good time for me to take stock and ask what my faithful and suffering readers prefer. Power grid rants? Funny pictures? Resume my editorials on future energy? Fire and EMS rants? Tutorials? What do you want more of? Less of?

To those of you still here and waiting patiently, I pass to you many thanks of appreciation of not just tolerating my arrogant self-righteous self, but coming back again and again to suffer more of it.

Roll on.....