02 December, 2008

A day without Windows

I've had a laptop around since 2000 or so. The latest one I have is an old Dell C600 Latitude that a friend of mine picked up for me. I never used my laptops as my main computer; they were back ups in case I had trouble with my main PC. The laptops have always had the same operating system as my desktops. Which means they all had Windows. This Dell of mine started to suffer from a bad hard drive about a year after I aquired it. One day it finally just wouldn't work any more so I packed it away and forgot about it. I eventually decided to put a new hard drive in it and start using the laptop again. This time around, however, I decided to not install a Windows operating system. I'd toyed with the idea of using alternative operating systems for years, but could never take the plunge and install it on my desktops. I'd downloaded and burned "evaluation" CDs before to get a taste of some Linux operating systems and found them impressive. The main factor for not installing a Linux OS was that it seemed to be too much trouble to try and get my flight sims (which are made for Windows operating systems) to work. The laptop is a different story. Having a freshly installed hard drive, I decided that Linux would be the operating system on my laptop. Having done some research on the different flavors of Linux out there, I chose Ubuntu. I used my desktop PC to burn the installation CD and proceeded to install it. Before Ubuntu was even installed, I knew I was going to like it. Installation was flawless. Not one problem. I love open source software :) Learning to use Ubuntu was also very easy. There are some peculiarities to it, but if a person understands how to use a Windows OS, Ubuntu will be easy to learn. The software that comes with Ubuntu is amazing as well. A full suite of office software, audio/video software, games, tools... I love it. My desktop PC has a power supply that decided to retire on me tonight. What did I do? Pulled out the laptop. I haven't had it on for a month, but as soon as it booted, I was notified of 87 available updates. Believe me, when a problem is found, it gets fixed and updates are made available. No hassles at all. Try to get that from Microsoft. I had an interesting time trying to watch vids on YouTube tonight, though. The last time I tried getting the necessary Flash player for Linux, it didn't seem to work for me. This time it went just fine and that makes me happy :) I'm glad things work so well with this operating system. Until my new power supply arrives, I'm going to be using this laptop with its slick OS. If you have an extra computer laying around, I suggest giving a Linux OS a try on it. You might be pleasantly surprised with it. More people need to be aware that they don't have to be stuck with Windows. There is an alternative. The best part of it is that Linux is free. All it will cost you, at most, is a blank CD. Let's have more days without Windows.

I just realized that I'm an OS activist. I'm such a dork....

04 November, 2008

A "hit and run" post

I don't have much time before I have to head back to work from my lunch break, so this is going to be short and sweet.

I've voted in the Presidential elections regularly since I was eligible to vote at 18 years old. I never thought much about it and did it because I believe it's the civic duty of every citizen in America. I'd research the candidates a little and make my decision, but never was gung-ho about the whole process. This year is different. I think that as people age, politics become more important. This year I'm really excited to see how the election will turn out. I'm not going to say who I voted for, but I will say that there's things I like about each candidate and I'm chomping at the bit to see who our next President will be. I'm also a bit disappointed with some people I know who didn't vote because they think that their vote doesn't matter. Even though I think it would be extremely unlikely that a Presidential election would come down to one vote, it's still important for every eligible person to vote. Your vote DOES matter. If you still have time, go out and vote! Gotta get back to work now.

30 October, 2008

High tech irony

I was just watching a video on YouTube of a CNC five axis wood router and I had a good laugh. This incredible machine will take a raw blank (a table top for instance), machine any holes, apply edge banding to expose plywood edges and the trim the edge banding. It's mind blowing to see something like that, but there's some irony involved. The second video in the series started with a table top. The machine slides into place, some whirring noises are heard and then POOF! A huge cloud of saw dust shoots out and covers the floor. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A machine that works with such precision and costs so much money... doesn't have a dust collection system on it. LOL!

27 October, 2008

Pet Peeves II

I was just watching a show on the History Channel about mind control and one of the people being interviewed said "...through one way mirrors." Wouldn't that just be a plain old mirror? There's a few guys at work that frequently say similarly stupid things such as "unthaw" and "one way check valve." The first thing is mentioned during discussion about the air systems on a big truck. Drivers hardly ever drain the air tanks like they're supposed to, and that leads to the water in the air system freezing in the winter. One particular coworker will mention bringing a frozen truck into the shop to "unthaw" it. I kept my mouth shut for a long time, but when he uttered that ridiculous phrase one winter day I said "Well, that was an easy job. You're already done." He's not the brightest person in the world so it didn't sink in right away. I said "I think the word you're wanting to use is 'thaw', not 'unthaw'". "No, I need to unthaw the truck" he responded. So I asked "Why would you want to bother freezing a truck that is already frozen?" He still didn't get it so I gave up and he continues to sound like a moron.

This same genius, also in reference to air systems, uses "one way check valve" all the time. In a big truck the air tanks, for example, have check valves to prevent air from going the wrong way through the system. "One way check valve" is redundant, don't you think? I asked him one time "If a one way check valve only lets air travel in one direction, what would a two way check valve be?" I could see the gears slowly turning in his head and I answered for him, "A plain 'ol piece of pipe." As with the "unthaw" argument, this dope still didn't get it.

At my last job, the "bitch sheets" that drivers filled out every day made for some good laughs. They would write down such things as "left rear brake light doesn't work." Oh, as opposed to the left front brake light? I don't recall ever seeing brake lights on the front of a vehicle, so "left brake light" would have been more than enough information. Another similar bitch sheet proclaimed "Interior dome lamp burned out." Whew! That's good, because those exterior dome lights can be a bitch to replace. I'll go through the bitch sheets later. I saved a few of the good ones.

06 October, 2008

The happy times are over

It happens every year. Summer turns to autumn, daylight doesn't last as long, temperatures get cooler and the crops are harvested. Today was the day I took the air conditioners out of the windows and stored them, not to be seen again until next spring. In the world of a diesel mechanic, this time of year stirs up a mix of emotions. We no longer have to worry about staying cool and working on a warm diesel engine isn't as uncomfortable as it was in August. On the other hand we know winter is coming. In a couple of months we'll find ourselves yelling at the other guys in the shop to "Close that damn door! You think it's fucking springtime out there?!" We'll also soon find ourselves working outside in frigid temperatures trying to get those damned diesel engines started. With all the technology in the world today, nobody can design a diesel that works well in winter on its own. Some idiots won't plug the truck's engine heater in or they won't put an anti-gelling additive in their fuel. Others will leave the truck's lights on without the engine running not realizing that a battery's power decreases as temperature decreases. But, that's how things go and we manage to deal with it year after year. Winter doesn't always mean bad things for a diesel mechanic, it has good points too. To us, winter means money. It's not snow that falls from the sky, it's white gold. That reminds me, after talking with the other guys in the shop I've come to the conclusion that we all think the same way about winter. Between snow and sub zero temperatures, we hate the sub zero temperatures the most. Here's a situation for you to ponder that will help make my point.

Imagine it's a Sunday evening and as you crawl into your nice, warm bed you can hear the wind howling outside. The last check of the weather channel told you that it was -20F outside and with the wind chill added in it feels like -35F. You drift off to sleep under a pile of blankets. You wake up to a ringing phone at 01:00 and have to go out on a service call. With regret, you throw off the blankets and get out of bed. You shiver as your feet touch the cold floor and get dressed. As you open up the door and head out to your car, the sub zero temperature reaches out and smacks you in the face. You get on your way to the shop in a cold car and your teeth start chattering because it takes a long time for the engine to warm up. Just as your car finally starts putting out some heat, you're only a few blocks from the shop. At least the service truck is inside the shop and will warm up quickly. You get into the shop and prepare to go out on that service call. Aside from your jacket, you leave your street clothes on. You pull on the insulated bib overalls, a hooded sweatshirt over the bibs, pack boots, an arctic work coat and top it off with a stupid looking fur lined winter hat. Complete ear flaps. After you grab your clip board and gloves, you're off into the cold, cold night. As you drive down the road toward the truck stop, snow blows across the road making it difficult to see where you're going. You keep the truck's heater turned down because you know it will make the transition to working outside less of a shock. Finally, you reach the casualty and reluctantly get out of the cozy service truck. The irony of this situation makes you smile because the problem isn't related to cold weather at all. Somewhere under the cab you can hear an air leak. This requires you to not only get underneath the truck, but squeeze between the top of the transmission and the floor of the cab. Not an easy thing to do with all that winter gear you're wearing. You find a broken air line fitting quickly and get to work fixing it. Being a small fitting, it's impossible to handle with gloves on your hands, so you take the gloves off and hurry to do what needs to be done. Within minutes you can no longer feel your hands and your knees ache from being on a solid sheet of ice. After the cracked fitting has been removed you start to crawl out from underneath the truck but can't. Your heavy jacket is caught on something and you have to mess around trying to free it. Not an easy thing to do when you can't feel your hands. You free yourself and crawl out from under the truck then hurry over to the service truck and climb inside, thankful to be in from the cold. The frozen gloves get put onto the defroster vent and the fan gets put onto "high". When the feeling comes back to your hands, you do some paperwork while warming up. Back out into the cold night to install a new part. It's the same process as before. Numb hands, getting stuck and an aching body. Once the job is complete, you get back in the service truck and fill out the bill. Hoping that this driver doesn't give you any trouble over paying the bill. This driver is an understanding person and pays without problem. You thank the driver for the business and wish him a safe trip, then your cell phone rings. Another service call. With the temperatures as low as they are, it looks like you won't be getting back to that warm bed for quite a while. You work throughout the night and finally return to the shop around 07:30. By now you have been chilled to the bone and are still shivering despite being in a warm shop. The day shift has already arrived and they know you've been out all night. Your regular shift starts at 15:00 which would give you a decent amount of sleep, but you won't get out of the shop until 08:00 at the earliest. The boss comes by and notices your drooping eyes and the shivering fits you're still having. He asks a question something like "Have a rough night?" You give a faint smile and reply "Yeah, you might say that." Being the sympathetic person he is, he says you can come at 17:00 if you want some more sleep. You take him up on his offer and head home after restocking the service truck. Even though the sun is up, you'll have no problem falling asleep. The warm bed you left seven hours ago is cold, but that doesn't stop you from crawling in. It will be cozy in no time, but you don't even notice because as soon as your head hits the pillow, you drift off to sleep. Shivering.

That was a bit longer than I had planned, but it's what diesel mechanics, towing professionals and other similar professions go through. Yep, I'm not looking forward to winter, but it won't last too long. At least I'll make some good money from all the overtime I'll get.

18 September, 2008

Hide and seek with the brown shirts, pets and woodworking

I have an addiction that I cannot control. Luckily, the things I have to purchase to feed this addiction are cheap and easy to find. Books. I cannot stop reading and order books on a regular basis from Amazon.com since I can find just about anything I want on that website. I'll order three to four books at a time and it'll only cost me $25 to $30 dollars when I buy used books, which is almost every time. Shipping costs cause my totals to increase of course and I'll usually pick the "standard" shipping option to save a few bucks. This time, however, I selected second day air for two of the three books because I wanted to get them quickly. Like most people, I follow the package's progress via the UPS tracking web page. As long as I've been getting my books online, not once have I had a problem with the shipper. That changed today. The brown shirts usually drop by before I go to work in the afternoon so I'll be able to put whatever it is I receive in the house before work. Being small, books are usually left between the doors to keep them out of the weather. The brown shirts have even left things in my recycling bin to keep them off the ground. But today the package was still "out for delivery" as I left for work. I came home around 19:30 for lunch and rechecked the status. The status for the two packages was "delivered" around 17:30. Checked the mailbox, not there. Checked between the front doors, not there. Checked my back porch, not there. Checked between the back doors, not there. I started getting a little angry, but continued looking. The garage, behind the bushes in the front yard, all sides of the house, patio door... Either the brown shirt hid the books so well that I can't find them, or somebody stole them. There's a possibility that the driver changed his mind about leaving the package unattended and will try again tomorrow so we'll see. I just want my books, I didn't think I'd have to play hide and seek with UPS to get them. *grumbles*

The latest woodworking project that I've completed has been interesting and a little sad. I built an urn for a dog's ashes. Well, technically it's a box to store an urn that contains a dog's ashes. The Golden Retriever of a close friend died recently and she asked me if I would build a box to put Scout's ashes in. Of course I said "yes." I used to date this friend of mine a long time ago, so I knew Scout for long time and he was as good a dog and companion as a person could hope for. I'm honored that I could build the final resting place for her best friend. I miss you Scooter.

12 September, 2008

Bad day for truckers

Today just wasn't a good day for truckers. Our shop has been pretty slow lately but today the shit hit the fan. Trucks were breaking down left and right and we were hoppin' all day. I had a service call out on the side of the interstate for an unlucky fella. This guy was driving a car hauling rig and the wheels on the right side ,rear drive axle of his truck detached themselves. He was lucky that the detached wheels didn't hurt anyone. He found one wheel and when I got there, we went looking for the other one and couldn't find it. I'm guessing it's somewhere in the corn field which is next to the highway. Normally I hate car haulers because the damn things are so low to the ground, but it turned out to be a good thing this time. The fifth wheel (the big plate that connects the trailer to the tractor) on a car hauler is mounted to the very back of the tractor and is only inches from the road. When the tractor's wheels came off, the tractor was resting on the fifth wheel. This saved the hub, brake drum and brake shoes from severe damage. If this had happened to a normal tractor the hub, bearings, brake drum and brakes shoes would have to be replaced since they would get ground up by dragging on the pavement. The driver had a local tire shop come out with two new wheels and tires so all I had to do was replace the wheel studs and wheel nuts. It was a tough job, but it could've been a lot worse. I got it done pretty quick too. The total time from leaving the shop until my return to the shop was four hours and thirty minutes. That includes a parts run.

When I returned to the shop there was a white Freightliner in one of the service bays. I asked the service writer what it was in for and he said the turbo had failed and the air to air cooler ( a.k.a "intercooler") had a crack in it. The truck's owner/operator purchased the truck four days prior to it coming to our shop. The poor guy is almost broke from the truck purchase (it's an used truck btw) and then the turbo fails. The crankcase was overfilled by about two gallons, so I'm thinking that whoever sold this truck knew the turbo was failing. He couldn't get money to pay his bill tonight, so we'll see what happens in the morning. It's a "catch 22" for truckers. They need their trucks to make money, but if they break down and money's tight, they still have to get their trucks fixed or they can't make money.

To top the day off, the trucking company just down the road from our shop had a breakdown in their own parking lot. The truck was idling fine one minute and then *splash*, the coolant resevoir cracks open and the majority of the coolant spills out. It was an easy fix, but it required a two hour drive to aquire the necessary part. It's been a busy day and I'm dog tired, but it's not over yet. I've been the guy on call for the past week and I've been fairly busy. Right now it's 05:16 in the morning and my turn "on the hook" ends in one hour and forty five minutes. That's when the morning shift arrives at the shop and transfers the phones back to the shop. I would normally have gone to bed an hour ago, but when I'm on call there's not much point in going to bed until 06:30 at the earliest. If the phone rings I'll just have to get out of bed anyway. Might as well stay awake until I know I won't be interrupted. *yawn* I might crawl into bed after I post this. Even a short nap would be good right about now.

25 August, 2008

Under the (musical) influence

The people who know me know that I've been a KISS fan for a long, long time. Some of my earliest memories are of seeing the cover from KISS's first album. I remember my brother, Chris, showing me that album cover and telling me who was who in the band and what instrument they played. That was probably late 1975 or early 1976. What allows me to pinpoint that point in time is remembering seeing the ALIVE album around the house. I remember hearing ALIVE being played on the small record players my siblings had and was totally mesmerized by KISS. I literally grew up with KISS. Like so many boys from the 1970s, I had a favorite band member (Peter Criss) and wanted to be just like him. My best friend at the time, Kevin, and I would pretend to be KISS. Tennis racket guitars and all. In those days, kids like me had no idea of the sex, drugs and band disputes. To the kids of the 1970s KISS was, and still is, the definition of rock-n-roll. I can't remember who said this, but it went like this "If I met someone who had no idea what rock-n-roll was, I'd hand them the ALIVE album and tell them 'This is rock-n-roll'." Let's hop in the time machine...

In the early 1980s, I decided I was going to be like my hero and be a drummer. After years of lessons and practice I got my first drum kit and started to practice daily. I'd put on a mix tape of my favorite KISS songs and play for hours on end day after day. In the late 1980s I was in high school and in band. Now, I'm the youngest of my siblings. The next youngest being Chris, who's eight years older than me. By the time I got to high school the whole phenomenon of "KISS-mania" had passed into the rock-n-roll history books. Consequently, when I played in pep band and jazz band, my musical influence came out. Simply put, I sounded like Peter Criss. In the debates of what drummer is "the best" nobody can ever agree. I think it's crazy to think that just one drummer can be proclaimed as "the best." Peter Criss always gets cut down because he's not as complicated as other drummers. It doesn't matter to me, Peter Criss played with a lot of feeling. He also played some pretty crazy stuff. Trust me on that one. When I was learning to play there were some unspoken "rules" to follow and you weren't supposed to deviate from them. Listening to Peter Criss changed that for me and I started to color outside of the lines. One of the other drummers in band was one of the drummers who could play anything. I was impressed with his ability and asked him for help often. But, he was a bit of a snob. Anyway, the kids I went to school with got used to hearing his drum solos and always went nuts when he showed off. Rightly so, he was an outstanding player. He took care of the soloing to get people riled up during basketball games, pep rallies and the like. However, there were rare occasions where he wasn't around and the second string drummer had to fill in. Can you guess who that was? Yep, me. I loved playing in band, but I suffer from stage fright. I was one of those kids who just blended into the crowd and never drew attention to myself. So, suddenly having the band director pointing at me and telling me to whip out two minutes of drum solo terrified me. I was (and still am) horrible at improvising solos, so I did what any musician would do. I drew on my influences. I would whip out riffs that were either direct rips from Peter Criss or, at the very least, in the style of Peter Criss. Since I wasn't playing as fast or as complicated as the snob, I didn't get the same reaction he did. I didn't care. My classmates had forgotten KISS and, for the most part, didn't recognize anything I played. But, I played what I knew how to play and loved every stage-fright-filled minute of it. My senior year, one of the first things I did was to get transferred out of a study hall into the band room helping the director with the freshmen band. A few older band members did this. It was a nice escape from a boring study hall and I got to spend an hour in the band room. For most of the year, I sat either in the band director's office or a practice room talking with a girl whose name was April. She had some problems, but was still a good person. In the last days of my Senior year April thanked me for being non-judgmental and for just simply listening. She still had two more years to go and she said she was going to miss me "... and those crazy drum solos." I still get a good laugh out of that. OK, back into the time machine.

In the mid 1990s KISS had done a session for MTV's "Unplugged" series and the band invited Ace Frehley and Peter Criss to join them for a few songs. My girlfriend at the time was kind enough to tape it for me and even teased me by calling me at work to tell me how good the show was. I couldn't get to her house fast enough. I watched that tape over and over, smiling from ear to ear the whole time. Later on, I was at a friend's farm, working on a car in their garage, when I heard an announcement on the radio. The DJ said that the original members of KISS were reuniting and were going to do a tour. Make up, platform boots, levitating drum risers, pyrotechnics and all. It was one of the few times in my life that I actually yelled out without thinking. Chris and I went to see them in Chicago and it was a dream come true. I was in that arena screaming, shouting and pumping my fists in the air. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be able to hear Peter Criss play a solo. In person. I lost my voice from shouting so much. I had been thinking of getting a tattoo for years and could never make up my mind of what to get. I knew it had to be something that was meaningful to me and it had to be something I wouldn't regret forty years down the road. Then, while at that concert in 1996, I made up (pun intended) my mind. It was going to be Peter Criss. Being at a KISS concert, obviously, allowed me to see tons of KISS related tattoos and I realized something. No matter how good the artist, a tattoo of a persons face never looks "right." So I decided it was just going to be Peter Criss's makeup that was going onto my arm. I drew up what I wanted because I wasn't going to "hope the artist gets it right." The reason I got into music, the reason I listen to what I like and not just what's fed to me via Top 40 radio, is Peter Criss. I've had strange looks from people, but I don't care. The black ink on my arm isn't just for show, it's important to me and I'm proud to show it.

Now, in 2008, I'm still influenced by KISS. The reunion tour was awesome and I saw them another three times with my brother. Peter Criss and Ace Frehley were out of the band again and the whole thing became very clownish. Still, I'm proud of the tattoo on my arm and what it represents. I haven't sat down at a drum kit in years and probably wouldn't sound good if I did, but that KISS influence is still there. I have what I call a "mental jukebox" and when things happen to me, certain songs start playing in my head. When I'm with a certain female I know, what plays on the "mental jukebox" is predominantly KISS. I see her and all of a sudden I hear those drum riffs start playing. I'm still under the (musical) influence...

17 August, 2008

Move over or slow down!

Part of my job as a truck mechanic involves going out on service calls. If you're not familiar with the trucking industry, the idea of a mechanic coming to you to fix your car might seem odd. The difference is in towing. If you thought having your car towed is expensive, be glad you don't operate a big truck. Having a tractor and trailer towed can easily run over $600. The cost of a tow is bad enough, but then you have to add on repair costs once the rig is at a shop. Most of the time, the most logical choice is to have a mechanic (someone like me) go to the truck and repair it on-site. It can save money and, this is important in trucking, time. Most of the service calls I do are to parking lots of some sort. Truck stops, warehouses, rest areas and the like. But occasionally a driver simply can't make it to a safe haven and has to pull over onto the roadside. For all involved, the roadside is not a good place to be. Most states have "Move Over" laws which require drivers to move to a lane further away from emergency vehicles. Therein lies the problem. Drivers will move over for police cars, fire trucks and ambulances frequently, but won't do it for people like me. I want to make it crystal clear to everyone reading this that service trucks, tow trucks and tire trucks fit into the "emergency vehicle" category. Simply put, if you see flashing lights of any kind on the side of the road, you need to move over. Sometimes it's not possible to change lanes due to traffic and I understand that, but if you can't change lanes please slow down. I don't mean slowing from 75 mph to 70 mph, I mean slow down to somewhere in the 40-45 mph range. Sometimes I have to be on the traffic side of a truck and having someone whip by at 70 mph just a few feet away scares the hell out of me. The thing that really gets my blood boiling is seeing a vehicle coming towards me that can easily change lanes, but doesn't. I guess sometimes that phone call or text message is more important than the safety of a person on the roadside. I'm guessing that the people who can't be bothered to change lanes or slow down have never been on the side of an interstate highway. I had a close call a few months ago that scared me to my core. I had to be on the traffic side of a truck and was very close to the white line. I'd check for traffic and do my work when no vehicles were coming. I always keep one eye looking up the road so I don't get surprised. So, I see a truck coming and duck into the space between the truck I was working on and the trailer it was pulling. Well, not only did the oncoming truck not move over, it didn't even slow down. It was also dangerously close to the white line. When that truck roared by there couldn't have been more than a few inches between its right mirror and the left mirror of the truck I was working on. I'd say it was about two feet from me. My hat was blown off my head, road dirt got blown at me and I was sure that I'd pissed my pants (I didn't). In the split second that I could see into the cab of the passing truck, I noticed the guy was yakking away on his cell phone. There were no other vehicles near so he could have safely changed lanes, but he didn't. It was a Schneider rig by the way. I take mental notes of the assholes who don't pull over if they can. Anyway, I stayed composed long enough to finish the job and get back to the shop. Then I started shaking. I thought about how easily I could've been killed and it chilled my blood. I called a friend because I needed to calm down and I knew that hearing her voice would do the trick. Since I'm at the end of this little story, I have a request to make of you. I'm simply asking for you to keep an eye out for emergency vehicles on the side of the road and, if you can do so safely, move to a lane further away from the emergency vehicle. If you can't safely change lanes, please slow down. I'd also like you to remind the people you know to move over or slow down. I can't change things on my own, but we can make a difference if we all pitch in. So please, move over or slow down.

02 August, 2008

Pet peeves

Let's start with a question. What is in the air conditioning system of your car? If you answered "Freon", please leave. Let's get this straightened out right now. Freon is DuPont's brand name for their R-12 refrigerant. Anytime I'm doing air conditioning work on a truck someone will inevitably ask me "How much freon did you put in?" or "Is there any freon in there?" My answer is always "none" and "no." It annoys me to no end when people generically refer to any refrigerant as "freon." When those people are mechanics, I instantly question their abilities. Unless you have a vehicle from 1993 or older which has been pampered it's whole life, your vehicle does not, and will not, have "freon" in it. Starting with the 1994 model year vehicles, R-134a has been the standard refrigerant for vehicle air conditioning. In fact, R-12 is not produced anymore. If a 1993 or older vehicle needs air conditioning work, it will probably have been converted to an R-134a system. Don't hold your breath though. R-134a won't be around much longer. Recently, an old classmate of mine from the tech school days showed up at the shop. He's a truck driver now and brought his truck (a very nice Freightliner Classic BTW) to our shop to have the air conditioner serviced. He called later in the evening to find out how his truck was doing and asked to talk to me, since I was the one who worked on it. Long story short, he used the word "freon" and I was a little disappointed. He and I went through the same classes on mobile air conditioning and he had been working at a Ford dealership until he started trucking. Hearing him say "freon" caused me to lose faith in his abilities. If he refers to the engine in his truck as a "motor", all hope is lost.

What's with the poor spelling these days? I'm not wondering about rarely used words, but the more common words. I'm a product of the public school system and never did well in grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, but I can spell common words correctly. Don't think I'm standing on the soap box preaching about the poor state of the English language. I'm guilty as well. I ask people to correct me whenever I fuck up so I can become a better writer. I actually wish I'd paid more attention in school. Maybe it's time to go back to school.

01 August, 2008

The Mysterious "Black Box"

In my line of work as a diesel mechanic, I talk to many truck drivers and I am asked many questions. Almost every conversation winds up being about engines. "Motors" is the word most commonly used, but "engine" is the correct word. Motors are electric. Anyway, I've noticed a trend among truck drivers through my many conversations with them. They're afraid of technology when it comes to engines. I should explain big rigs to those of you unfamiliar with them. They are, by far, old technology when compared to cars and it's been said that big trucks are about twenty years behind cars. I believe it. One example would be the brakes on a big truck. They're predominantly drum brakes. DRUM BRAKES! When was the last time you saw a car that had drum brakes on all four wheels? The late 1960's? Air operated disc brakes do exist, but I've only seen them twice. Once on a motor home and the other time it was a tour bus. What I'm leading to in this post is the technology found on diesel engines. In the mid to late 1990's electronic engine controls were starting to appear regularly on heavy duty diesel engines in an effort to reduce the bad stuff coming out of the exhaust pipe. It was nothing special, but the electronic control module, or ECM (sometimes called a powertrain control module or PCM, it depends on the manufacturer) was almost unanimously not trusted by truck owners and drivers. "Why" you might ask? Because they didn't understand how it worked. Prior to the use of ECMs on diesel engines, the fuel metering was done by a mechanically operated injection pump. Injection pumps are big pieces of metal, make whirring noises and have fuel lines coming out of them. If you've ever heard of someone "turning up" a diesel, they're referring to a mechanical fuel injection pump. What a "mechanical diesel" has over an electronic diesel is reliability and simple operation. Technology-wise, a diesel engine with a mechanical injection pump is on the same level as a gasoline engine with a carburetor on it. A person could understand how mechanical injection worked and could tinker with it themselves a little bit. Fuel is delivered to the pump, the pump distributes the fuel to the right cylinders at the right times and smoke comes out the stack. That's where mechanical diesels are bad. Smoke. For reasons I can't understand, some people will equate smoke with power. They think it's cool to have smoke pouring out of the stacks (usually without mufflers). I see wasted energy and money coming out of the stacks, because that smoke is unburned fuel. I've talked with drivers, who in just a few minutes of conversation, bitched about high fuel prices and then praised mechanical diesels. Umm, I don't get it. I've even heard of people wanting to swap out an electronic diesel for a mechanical diesel. First of all, that's probably the most stupid thing I've ever heard and secondly, if they complain about poor fuel economy now, just wait until that mechanical engine goes into the truck. Moving on. In the early 2000s, heavy duty diesels were equipped with EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) systems to comply with emission regulations. Simply put, EGR systems put some exhaust gas back into the cylinders and is mixed with fresh air/fuel mixture. Exhaust gas will have unburned fuel in it and by putting it back into the engine, that unburned fuel gets burned and isn't wasted. Well, the EGR systems were put on in a hurried fashion to existing engine designs and it caused all sorts of problems. The engine manufacturers were the first to be blamed, then the EGR systems were declared "crap" by the drivers/owners and eventually they figured out the EPA was to blame. The EPA wasn't really at fault, their goal was good, but I think they gave an unrealistic deadline that was too short. After the first couple of years with EGR systems, the manufacturers got the problems straightened out, but the drivers/owners still didn't trust the system even though the car or pickup they drive has an EGR system on it that works just fine. In fact, cars have had EGR systems on them since the early 1970s! The latest thing to spook drivers/owners is the 2007 diesel engines and ULSD (Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel) fuel. First came the ULSD, which was to replace Low Sulfur Diesel at pumps by the fall of 2006. ULSD is not as good a solvent as low sulfur diesel and when it appeared at the fuel pumps, fuel filters started clogging with alarming regularity. Low sulfur diesel will break down a lot of impurities that find their way into fuel tanks. Think of how salt dissolves in water, now imagine if those salt crystals didn't dissolve. That's the problem with ULSD, particulates don't dissolve. Guess where all that non-liquified crud ends up? That's right, into the fuel filter where it belongs. There was a huge problem in the fall and winter of 2006/2007. Our shop was changing fuel filters for customers so much that we went from keeping one each of the most common filters on our service trucks to keeping CASES of the common filters on our trucks. There was a point where we had trouble finding fuel filters because demand was so high. Again, the drivers didn't understand why their filters clogged, they just knew it was because of the switch to ULSD. The filter problem was a non-issue by the spring of 2007, but the effect will last for years. But the fun doesn't end there. Beginning 1 January, 2007, all new production diesel engines were required to meet another new set of emission standards. The engine manufacturers knew of the new standards well in advance this time and were ready for it. So now we have electronic engine controls, EGR systems and *gasp* Diesel Particulate Filters (DPFs). It's an exhaust filter. Particulate matter (i.e. soot) gets trapped in the DPF and every so often the DPF does something referred to as "regeneration." In a nutshell, what happens during regeneration is this. A small amount of raw fuel is injected into the DPF causing the thing to heat up to the point where the trapped particulate matter is burned off. The only thing left is a small amount of ash. The stuff coming out of the stacks is super clean, probably cleaner than a car's exhaust. But, there is a price to pay. DPFs will have to be cleaned on occasion to remove the ash trapped inside. The truck manufacturers have suffered for their brilliance. Since nobody trusts this "black magic", sales of trucks with 2007 engines plummeted. What I hear on my end is this frequent phrase from drivers "... that emissions shit." They don't understand it, therefore it's shit. Even though it's a good thing. Lower exhaust emissions, what's not to love? I'd like to see each person who complains about the "emissions shit" spend a day in a shop with running mechanical diesels. Just starting a mechanical diesel in a shop will instantly fill the place with eye burning smoke. It is not pleasant at all, even with a good ventilation system. If you fear something because you don't understand it, what's keeping you from learning about it? Use Google, read a book, read the trade magazines. Knowledge is power.

16 July, 2008

I'm guilty of neglect

I'm guilty of neglecting this blog. Not that anyone actually reads this thing, but if there is, I apologize for not posting frequently. But that's just me. I'm not going to write for the sake of filling space at a regular interval, that's not a good way to do things. Anyway, on to what I wanted to write about today.

I get PMs and emails from younger people who start their messages out the same way. "I'm planning on going to school to be a diesel/heavy equipment technician..." The first thought that goes through my head is something like "Oh boy, here's another one who's been suckered into believing the tech school recruiting bullshit." It's true, I'm sorry to say. The big tech schools have all these flashy videos and shiny brochures, all shown by slick recruiters who troll the high schools for new students. Maybe these poor kids have watched "The fast and the furious" one too many times and have a glamorous view of what it's like being a mechanic. By the way, I always refer to myself as a "mechanic" and not a "technician" for a reason. When was the last time you asked someone if they knew of a good diesel technician? The public refers to me as mechanic, so that's what I am. It's no different than having the title of "custodian." To the world, they're janitors. I've had both jobs, so I speak with authority on the subject. Back to the young wanna-be mechanics. Every time I get an email from one of these kids, I'm tempted to block them so I don't have to read the same thing over and over again. But I don't. I was just like them in my younger days, so I take a deep breath and answer whatever questions they ask me and give them the truth. The recruiters make this job out to be a lot better than it actually is. They'll have the kids thinking that dealerships and top notch shops will be beating down their door, begging them to work at their shop. They'll think they're hot shit and will be making $80, 000/year right out of tech school. The brochures show the school's spotless shop, filled to the rafters with the latest equipment... and everyone has a clean shirt. The kids turn into adults, graduate and head off to their first job with small, albeit brand new, tool kit. Then, with very few exceptions, the real world reaches out and bitch-slaps them in the face. The freshly minted mechanics find themselves doing jobs that any idiot off the streets could be trained to do. Changing tires, oil changes, trailer services and the like. What the new guys don't realize at the time is that no shop in their right mind, would turn a new, still wet behind the ears, mechanic loose in a working shop without finding out for sure what they can do. Truck shops don't exist to showcase a mechanic's technical prowess. They exist to make money. It's a business just like any other business and the owners can't afford to take chances with mechanics who haven't proved themselves. There's an unfortunate "Catch 22" with this process. Usually, by the time the new guys have been found worthy of moving on, they've forgotten a large chunk of what they were taught in tech school because they haven't been able to use those skills. So you can probably understand why getting these emails are slightly depressing. I know what's in store for these kids if they choose to be a mechanic as their profession. I also know that if they enjoy working on cars and trucks in their spare time, working professionally as a mechanic will probably kill their enthusiasm. One of the things I learned at a young age was that turning a hobby into a profession is a bad idea. The last thing I want to do on my own time is work on cars, trucks or even my own lawn mowers. Still, the emails come.

"I have some questions for you regarding the Detroit 60 series, Cat C15 and the Cummins N14" began one email. I wouldn't even have to read the rest of the email because I know what's coming. They will want to know which engine I think is best. Who the hell cares? All engines have their own peculiarities and there's no one engine that's better than the others. These kids think the trucking world is full of Peterbilts, Kenworths and Western Stars, all of them chromed out so much that they look stupid. They think they'll spend their days in the shop working on engines all the time, but that ain't the case. Brakes, grease jobs, air hoses, tires etc. are the day to day tasks. The kids spend too much time watching "Trick My Truck." To be fair, there are a lot of nice looking Petes and KWs out there, but what the kids will run into if they get into this field is Freightliners, Sterlings and Volvos. Freightshakers, Shortlings and Swedes are the trucks of choice for large fleets. "Why?" you might be asking yourself. Because they're cheap. Plain and simple. Lots of plastic, poor access and what I refer to ask fake luxury. I can't leave out the other trucks a neophyte wrench holder will likely work on. Heavily abused (and old) Mack dump trucks/heavy equipment haulers, lots of diesel pickups whose cocky owners think a pickup with a diesel qualifies as "heavy duty", and garbage trucks. Oh how working on a garbage truck can be a wake up call. It should be mandatory for anyone wishing to be a diesel mechanic to spend a week servicing nothing but garbage trucks. Believe me, if I had known how much it sucks to work on garbage trucks, I never would've moved from being a car mechanic to being a truck mechanic. I'd rather bag groceries. But you can't expect an eighteen year old to accept reality. No matter what profession a person chooses or how exciting it is when they start out, it eventually becomes nothing more than a job. The kids just will just have to find that out on their own.

If, by chance, you're still wondering which engine I prefer, I'll tell you... some other time ;)

06 April, 2008

Career Blues pt. IV

My six years as a mechanic with the courier company was fantastic. I worked with good people, The place was organized well, leadership was excellent. 'Ol Rob became a very good friend despite him being almost two decades older than me. We had similar personalities and a shared knack for using one liners. Rob had gone into the USAF the year I was born and then did a two year hitch in the USN, stationed aboard two aircraft carriers. He'd also worked at a local airport for about twelve years. Given my enthusiasm for anything aviation related, I was fascinated by the stories he had to tell. I also have a deep respect for veterans and there were a lot of them working with me at that place. We had a couple Korean war vets, a Vietnam vet that flew F4 Phantoms, another Vietnam vet that was a B-52 crewman and Rob, of course. Consequently the place had an unintentional military vibe to it. Every day when I'd get to work, I'd walk into the shop and Rob would snap to attention and we'd salute each other. I'd ask for permission to come aboard and he'd reply "Permission granted. How ya doin' Jasper?" I'd reply with "As you were, I'll be in the area all day." Even now, when I think about it, I smile. My future at that place started to become dark about three years in. The company had reorganized and began selling the routes to independent contractors (ICs are what we called 'em). That meant as routes were sold, the number of company vehicles began to get smaller. The shops at our other terminals were closed one by one until the only shop left was the one I worked in. Rob and I knew what was coming, but we didn't want to accept it. The brass in the corporate offices came up with the idea to open our shop to the public so anyone could come in off the street to have their vehicle worked on. In theory it was a great idea and many of my coworkers and the ICs took advantage of our services. In fact, many of the ICs had purchased our old fleet vehicles so they figured since we worked on them all the time, who better to have continue to work on them? We even had a few accounts come in. A parts store, an exterminator and a pool guy were bringing their business to us. But it wasn't enough business. After one year of an open shop, we reverted back to being a "company only" shop. The IC thing wasn't working as planned and it was taking longer than expected to sell off the routes. To me, that was a good thing. It meant there would still be work for Rob and I. There came a day when all of us in the shop were called into the CEO's office. We were told that two of the four would be let go and given a severance package. Each of us went with a different manager to learn our fates. I went with Tim, the Corporate fleet manager. I could tell that he didn't want to let any of us go, but he had to. Sitting in his office, I was close to passing out from an anxiety attack. I had just closed on my first house and couldn't afford to lose my job. I was granted a reprieve though. All my hard work and dedication to the company over the years payed off on that day. I learned that I would be one of the two people staying on. Rob was the other. Karl and Jim were the unlucky ones. It was a dark day. We were like family in that shop and now two of us were leaving. After Jim and Karl left, the shop was physically cut in half and the body shop became more warehouse space. Rob and I were both told that we would eventually be let go, but it wouldn't be for sometime. They didn't know exactly when. Rob and I knew when that would be. It eventually got to the point when there wasn't enough vehicles left in the fleet to keep us busy. We spent a lot of time looking for something, anything, to keep ourselves busy. The day came when Tim called me into his office. I knew what the meeting was about, he didn't have to tell me. I could see it in his face. I was told that I had one more month of employment and would then be let go. I was given a very nice severance package that could have covered my expenses for three months had I not found another job right away. Luckily, I didn't have to depend on that severance pay. As my time grew shorter and I became a "one digit midget" as Rob would say, I packed up my tools and took them home a little at a time so I wouldn't have to move a loaded tool box. My uniforms were turned in and all my paperwork was done. On my last day I didn't even have a uniform and Rob let me work out of his tool box. I made the rounds and said my goodbyes. I hadn't told anyone that I was leaving because I didn't want to deal with a bunch of questions. So, some people were shocked when I told them goodbye. I could have stayed on with the company as a driver, but that would've been a step backwards career-wise. I was back doing what I wanted to do and I wasn't about to let it slip away again. That last day after I punched out for the last time, I walked back to the shop and saluted Rob. "Permission to go ashore, sir" I asked. "Permission denied!" he said. It was over. I'm man enough to admit that I got a little teary eyed as I drove out of the parking lot for the last time. I had a new job lined up and I was once again heading into the unknown. Would I succeed as a diesel mechanic?

15 March, 2008

Thank God it's over!

Thank God, the worst of the winter is over. Winter is a very busy time for a heavy duty truck shop. Heavy duty diesels do not like winter weather at all. The trucks need to have the engine heaters plugged in, the fuel needs to have anti-gelling additives put into it, plastic airlines become brittle and break easily, the list goes on. The last time I was on call, the weather was very cold and I was extremely busy doing after hours service calls. Sunday nights and Monday mornings are the worst. Morons will forget to plug their trucks in or sometimes they'll shut them off and leave them for a day thinking it will start when they come back. At one of our accounts, the drivers will be written up if they don't plug their truck in at the end of the day. If we have to go and get a truck started, we have to note whether or not the heater was plugged in. The last Sunday I was on call, I had to go out around noon on the first service call of the day. I was out until around 20:00. The next call came in a few hours later and it was non-stop the rest the night and into Monday. I didn't come off the road until 06:30 Monday morning when the first people of the morning shift started coming in. All I was doing was starting trucks and getting frozen trailer brakes to release. All night. I made a lot of money on overtime, but the trade off was not being able to sleep. Before I was at this job, I had no clue as to the true meaning of "exhaustion" and "cold." It made for a long week. The temperatures stayed around 0 degrees until just a couple weeks ago. I'm so glad it's warmed up and the snow has been melting. Everyone in the shop was hanging by a thread because we'd been so busy. Everyone put in lots of overtime. When we (the mechanics) are out running service calls, the two shop foremen and the shop's owner are out in the shop working on trucks. Since the owner and foremen are out in the shop, the three people in the office have to cover more jobs, too. Work that had been scheduled gets put on the back burner for a day or two, so when the road calls taper off we're still busy catching up with the scheduled jobs. But, it's over until next winter. I'm sure we'll get snow again, but the temperatures won't be so damn cold. It won't be long and we'll have the shop doors open again. We're all white as ghosts from not getting any sun.

01 January, 2008

I agree with Jack White

If you've read a few Jack White interviews, you'd know that he isn't a fan of digital recording, electronic music and modern recording techniques in general. I agree with him. I think recording digitally is a good thing, but I don't think that computers should be used to correct mistakes or to replace musicians. People are what makes a good recording a good recording. A musician's emotions can totally change the way a part gets played. Concerts are good place to see this in action. If the band or performer isn't feeling it, the audience can tell. Conversely, if the performer is into it the performance can be amazing. Also, if you have two musicians play identical parts, those two parts will be different. The human element is infinitely variable and no matter how hard programmers try, they can never really duplicate that.

I'm not saying electronic music is shit, it certainly has it's place, but to my ears, it lacks emotion. I find songs that are the the same, performance after performance, to be very boring. Of course, not all music, digitally enhanced or not, is good. The country music of the last eight or so years, for example, has been pretty bad. The songs have been fairly good, but production has sucked really bad. A lot of it has sounded like the music was being played on a boom box in the background and the singer was singing in front of it. The stereo spectrum sounded like it had been reduced to front and back, with nothing on the sides. Once I realized this, country music and I parted ways. I went backward, it went forward.

This brings me to another point. I think all songs should be recorded live in the studio, with minimal tracks and overdubs. The old AC/DC recordings are a great example. Put on some headphones and listen to "Shot down in flames." When the main guitar riff starts playing you can hear someone holler in the background and then Bonn Scott hollers himself. The band records their tracks at the same time, in the same room (at least they used to, I don't know about now) and they can react to one another. However many people are in the band, that's how many tracks there are, occasional overdubs not withstanding. Had they recorded their parts seperately, I think the records would've sounded very bland. Another example of what I'm talking about is the old recordings of Sinatra, Martin, Bennet et al. Most of those old recordings were only two tracks. One for the vocals and one for the band and everything you hear is coming from musicians. Those old recordings are incredible! One room, one gifted crooner and a big band. Now THAT'S music. Everyone involved was good at their job, rehearsed beforehand and probably only had to do a couple of takes before they nailed it. Digital production (I'm not talking about digital recording, just production) has only degraded music. It has been used as a crutch for people that don't rehearse or have talent. Songs should be ready to go before entering a studio. Writing songs while in a studio only kills any spontaneity and emotion that might have made the difference between getting an incredible recording or a bland, vanilla recording that sounds as empty as it is.