Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Physicist, a Psychologist, and a Geologist find the true meaning of Christmas

The meaning of Xmas.  Originally published Christmas eve 2010. 

The invite was for a Dim Sum feast at a vegetarian restaurant up on Main Street.  I arrived early as I typically do, but was not awkwardly so and not alone in being so.   The others arrived before too long.  

We sat a big round table with a lazy Susan occupying much of the space, a common arrangement for family style meals.  The meal was good, though can only  recall one dish.  The company provided interesting banter.  At that time I was prone to taking pot shots vegans, of which there was one at the table, Mr. Dr. Rob.    It is a diet choice that can lead to some moralizing, which lead me to the engage in mockery.   One casserole topped with a simulated cheese produced the high point of my wit for that season.   

As written on the Facebook all those months ago.  

 While admiring the browned cheese on the rice and simulated seafood casserole I commented on the unique quality of  cheese to produce such an appearance. The vegan said, just you wait. My retort, There already exists a perfectly adequate means for turning vegetable mater in to cheese. It is called a mammal.

The meal stretched on for a comfortable hour or so before we started to disperse.  I lacked after plans, though there had been an invite to a church service where two of our number would be playing horns.

Three of us,decided a drink or two was in order. The three of headed up will looking for a open bar.   This is not a story that starts with a Doctor, Geologist and Physicist walking into a bar.

We walked south up hill in the dar and the rain. Searching for a pub, a golden fleece to our damp Argonauts. This being Main Street we did some window shopping commenting on the unusual knickknacks that in antique and other novelty shops. One storefront was full of mannequin parts and the red lights, This was clearly a robot brothel. Near the robot brothel was a shop proudly displaying a combination bathtub and love seat. It would have been comfortable as long as you stayed clear of the tap. Sharing the window with the love tub was a polished copper and brass contraption that at once looked like a bong a plunger. I now doubt that toilet water makes good bong water.  We came to the end of the block and the end of the novel shops. Still not bars in sight.  Then along came Bob.
Not Our Bob

Bob, was found in the road, which was doing its best impression of a small river. He was dead centre of the right lane.  It would have been generous to say he was walking. It was a jelly boned stagger.  Removing the man from the lane was generally considered an ethical choice. 

Our initial plan was catch and release. He had fallen and spilled out across the pavement.  We were lucky, the traffic light was red.  It would be for best if he was elsewhere when they traffic started flowing again. With a hand under each arm we moved him on to the sidewalk. 

Bob developed a list, he had scarily walked 5 meters before his stagger developed a dangerous leftward direction. He was aiming right for the road. Quick action steered him out of harms way, and we thought perhaps he could go on his way. This hypothesis was proven false when he fell into a cedar hedge. It was clear there would be need for some adult supervision on his journey home. So with a heave hoe, I pulled him up by the scruff of his neck and with Doctor on one arm the Physicist on the other we tried to walk him home. 

The weather that night was the kind of winter rain that might make you regret moving to Vancouver, snow could have been an improvement. It was dark, it may have been well above zero but the damp would suck the heat out of as sure as anything.  Between the monochrome light, the damp and the cut of his cloths, comparisons to It’s a Wonderful Life were inevitable. 
It was almost a shame that Bob did not call us a swell bunch of fella’s.  It would have been the perfect detail, especially if he pulled of old times radio voice, but Bob did not call us swell.  Our kindness was praised no less earnestly. 

Instinct must have guided us towards his abode.  We did stop more than once to clarify the directions, the answers were disjointed and vague.   During this trek he offered us a shot of brandy for our troubles.  How he planned to fit more alcohol into his blood was be feat that defied all medical sense. 

Bob started to share the story of Bob, the details space.  His presumably adult children were expected to visit. I am struggling to recall if this was met with anticipation or dread.  Memory fails here, I wrote that he was not looking forward to the visit and also recall that he was expecting a great Christmas.  It does not mater in the end, there is no version of the memory that does not translate into my imagining his family visiting out of duty. The holiday driving visits to the estranged old man.  

Any other details of Bob’s life have long since been forgotten, non of the specifics matter, just little slices of a little quiet tragedy.  Adding Bob’s narrative to the darkness and the perfectly choreographed weather drove home the It’s A Wonderful Life feel.  Here we were trying to save someone from a terrible fate on Christmas eve, pulling a struggling fellow from his metaphorical bridge.  Unlike the original this remake did not have the budget for one key thing, hope.  Its A life, not staring Jimmy Stewart.

Eventually he recognized his house. In a fit of independence Bob tried to make for the entrance way on his own power. This effort lasted all of 3 meters, where his leftward list lead once again into a bush. Once again we hoisted Bob to his feet.  After we righted Bob, and collected the sad plastic bags with his christmas cheer he steered us into the yard.  

The house could be described as a Vancouver special. It sat on some unassuming side street near 20th and Main.  The first sight of it was intimidating. A short stair case half a story or so lead to the front door.  I had no notion of how we were going to haul a man with consistency of a drunk octopus up those steps.  I need not have worried. Bob made the only right turn of that evening and took us around back. Here there was a door conveniently level with the ground, and unlocked.   We were thanked one last time, there was a lot of thanking that evening.  

We left Bob in what we assume to be his home. It had a sad worn quality it that suited him.  Was that his home? very likely, and if it wasn’t it was better than being out of the rain and in the traffic.  And isn’t that the true meaning of Christmas. 

A note on this repost. 

Originally I had planned to simply clean up the writing from 5 years ago. However I was embraced to read my own words.  It was written hastily full of chunky phrasing.  Run on sentences galloped through it tearing grammar as they went. So it I rewrote it.  In doing so it morphed from a funny story with sad details to a sad story with funny details.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thinking out loud, in words.


Lets try this again. I tried writing it last night but my head was too muddled from a tiring an seemingly unproductive day at work.  Had I tried writing it the night before last it likely would have worked out, the composition was fresh.  Yes sometimes it is the time to write something and then it passes.  Yesterdays writing was turning into a disjointed word salad.  So lets try this again.

About a year ago I took a contract. It was in far away Delta, coming from East Vancouver it was a ninety minute transit trek.  I was told something about photocopiers.  Once I got in the building I was handed a pile of printed instructions, a 5.5mm nut driver, and presented with a box and large photocopier.  The objective, to get the parts in the box into, or onto the photocopier.  It was an uncertain start, that was the first time building things was my main job.  So I did what made sense, read the instructions, laid out the parts and figured it out.  Nine months later that first build that inimated me had become my bread and butter and I could fly through it.  I occasionally had the opportunity to install bigger more complex things.  It was routine enough to get boring, it was also interesting enough to keep me there. My regret being I never had a chance to learn more.

Two months ago I took a demolition job. It had less to offer, but better pay.  It reminded me that in I am comfortable in certain industrial setting.  That there are even some advantages to sites where there are risks and machines.  The demands of situation awareness take advantage of my brains desire to be omniscient, it really wants to know about everything going on everywhere. Squirrel!. In combining these to experiences, with some qualities I want to find in a job I found myself needing to look into the trades as an means to a better working life.

Now three paragraphs in I can start to get down to details.  I am trying to narrow down things to a trade that I can both use as a branching off point, get into at a novice level. I want to both expand end employ the mechanical thinking that built up, but always existed, at the photocopier job. I know I am able to work comfortably in a construction, or industrial setting which is good because that's where a lot of the work is going to be.  So the problems start to be, I really don't know what's out there.  At some level I break it down to pipes or wires, and exclude wood.

I choose to ignore carpentry because the demolition job proved one thing clearly, my joints can't take impact loads.  Moving heavy things no problem, being on my feet no problem, repeatedly absorbing shock and vibration, big problem.  A reliable source tells me that carpentry requires repeated, nearly all day hammer use.

So what do I want to do, don't know exactly.  I know I liked figuring out the mechanical connections involved in building things. Even if my work was large prefab out of the box stuff.  My brain loves systems, I am more engaged on working with the small things when I have a grasp on how it fits in the bigger thing. This is a general truth and does not exactly help me narrow things down.  There is a long term goal, being great at a useful skill set, working with even more skilled competent people. I want to dig into their deep knowledge and earn my own.  Thats the there I want to reach. So whats the path.

Here are the questions, and other things.

  • Optimistic plan A. Get hired as an apprentice, like trade, stay on said path. 
    • Plan A Modified, Redirect training as I narrow down what I like more. 
  • Plan B: Take on construction or other trade related work without out direct path to apprenticeship.  Gain access to experience and narrow down interests. 
  • Plan C:  Pick a foundation training program, or coop program, in an appealing trade and hope it's a good fit before sinking too much time and borrowed money into it. 
Plans A and B involve doing the one activity I fail at most consistently.  Plan B could be started by approaching day labour places as they often bring in grunt labour. However at zero job security, and even worse wages there is good reason to be reluctant.  Plans A and B are largely dependent on who will have me.  A thirty something failed geologist, the worlds slowest computer programer, and nerd. Once started I expect that any starting point will be off the mark and trimming the course will be an ongoing project.  I can no long hold on to the notion that I can plan one path and expect it work as imagined the first time.  Plan C is the comfort zone, of hitting the books and hoping something comes out at the end.  

The recent addition of body art to my skin sits as a permanent reminder that the differences between what I imagine and what is rendered is small.  More importantly the art is the product of thought planning, research, and communication, and proof that I can trust my tastes.  Neither of the pieces are exactly how I envisioned them, neither is so far off that they failed to fit the vision.  Being comfortable with those differences makes me more confident that I can steer my work life closer to stratifying. 

Some more questions I am trying to answer. 

  • Do I want to work in a workshop.
  • Do I want to work at a job site.
  • Both?!  I like that both idea
  • How much schooling am I willing to take at once. 
    • Largely conditional on how exciting I find the final outcome.
Now I must really engage in the uncomfortable job hunting work that will make plans A and B possible.   And when it comes to Plan B, whoever will have me will be a good start, I need to get my hands on site and learn what I can get better for the next move.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Coffee Calibration


It was late September, I was still enjoying work at the photocopier warehouse, though it was clear that the work was winding down.  That job did not pay enough despite its value in pointing me towards desirable work.  What it did do was have me looking at machines filled with gears, wires, sensors and rollers all day.  Not something I look do at home typically, but there were special circumstances.

I was planning a camping trip.  It was  trip planned at the end of summer, for near the end of September.  This was one of an ongoing series of field tests designed to ramp up the level of our outdoor adventures.  The core gear was proven and provided by the other member of the expedition.  Both by opportunity and inclination I took on the food.  A very specific set of things got into my head, I ran between several stores in different parts of town looking for and often failing to find what I had aimed to prepare. I spent more money in more places than I was comfortable with.  The last item on the list was coffee, a necessity for me.  The original plan, which is still a good one was to buy Turkish or Lebanese style coffee.  The stuff is finely ground and can be brewed with nothing more than a pot and boiling water. Two days before the trip I was spent from hunting all the other things, leaving the house for one last thing was not going to happen.  Enter the coffee grinder.

The faithful bean crusher.
 On paper, quite literally, my coffee grinder is able to produce a Turkish grind. It says so in the user's manual.  I have a moderately fancy grinder, it is a conical burr grinder, not a blade grinder.  The blade grinder is the one you likely have at home, two little knives spinning in a close little cup.  You hold your hand on the trigger till the beans sound right or your fingers go numb. I could never get consistent results with that, so I upgrade.  The upgrade, solved the consistency problem, I adjust two knobs, fill the upper hopper with beans, push one button and the lower hopper fills with correct amount of correctly ground coffee.  Except when I tried to grind ultra fine. 

The plan was simple.  Grind the coffee as fine as the machine would let me.  Take the powder out to the woods add boiling water let it settle. The reality proved more frustrating and a lot more chewy than planned. I turned the dial, it goes from 9 to 1, 1 being the finest setting.  Somewhere near 2.5 it jammed, it would not budge.  Pushing any harder on the plastic wheel would have risked ripping off the flesh of my thumb or braking the plastic gear.  At that time I had spent more than 8 months with a  screw drive in my hand for most of the day, I was used to big complex machines, even if I was only touching the simplest parts of them.  The demand for coffee in the following morning cemented in my head, I would fix it and I would fix it now.

Step one, was grind some coffee at the setting it jammed on just it case I broke it, this is what I took camping.  Then it was a simple mater, of unplugging it, emptying the bean hopper and separating the top and bottom halves of the machine.  That part actually went well, I had a screw driver fine enough to engage the small phillips heads that held the top half in place, and all the parts I would need to access were at that level.  It was the parts I did not expect that caused the first problem, where did that spring a plastic cap come from.

Now to get a little technical.  This grinder drops the beans between two steel discs fitted with what looks like carbide tool faces, making it the cutest tunnel boring machine ever.  When the grinds are fine enough that the teeth can not longer engage with them the fall out into the lower hopper.  Grind size is controlled by the spacing between the to discs. Simple right.  Thats what I thought.  So I cleaned all the parts I could reach, betting it was gunk jamming things put it back together and tested it.
Lower grinder. All the gears removed. Note the threading above the disc.

It worked.  It worked in that, the dials turned, the power went on and coffee was ground. The coffee was ground so coarse that only way you could have brewed anything out of it was boiling it stove top, till the souls of the beans scream for the fires of hell. I had missed a key element of the design.  A simple elegant and logical design.  The upper disc of the grinder nests in a plastic cup that threads into the lower half of the machine, it is also toothed along the outside. When you turn the grind selection knob you are causing a second gear to rase or lower the cup holding the grinder.  When I had put it together the first time(s) the grinder elements were far enough apart that all they could do was politely crush the beans.

So I took it a part again. And again. I recall perhaps as many as five strip downs. I found the use of the plastic cap, and where the spring went. They both went under the selection knob to hold it in place. On the most worrying test runs the machine refused to run, the lid was off, a user error.  Calibration also included several runs where I was very confident of things going great, until for no apparent reason upper plate rattled loose. The reason is crystal clear now that it is not late in the evening hours into the project. They were too close together and upper half twisted loose. It made a frightful racket.
Upper Hopper, lower grinder

At the edge of giving up I tested it yet again.  It worked, sort of.  Nothing jammed nothing rattled loose, coffee came out.  However, the knob said it was grinding the coarsest, but the output said it was grinding its finest.  Had I tried to select a finer setting at that point things would have jammed quickly. But I had a calibration point, an output close to Turkish. The fix then was simple, without moving any of the other parts I lifted the selection knob and dropped it back down inverting the settings.  That worked, it now grinds the full range as described in the manual, the knob still travels freely between all the settings.

Ideally I would have liked to strip the machine to create  a detailed photo log of what I did, but that is unwise.  The three screws that hold the upper
Upper grinder. 
half on have an aggressive thread and connect with soft plastic stocks, mess up that plastic and I won't be able have it hold together.

The end of September and first half of October saw me drinking a lot of extra bitter coffee. The first calibration runs half ground a lot of beans, I had a freezer bag full of them, there was no way I was tossing them out.

As for the camping trip. I used the inappropriately ground coffee I had saved just before I started tinkering. It was far too chewy to be worth recommending. The grounds made a plug in the throat of the thermos and the only way to get the coffee out was to get more grit in your cup.  On the second camping trip it was not chewy. Yes my cup got lined with a thick black sludge, but thats normal. It out performed the instant coffee brought by others.  Next time I might just buy the damn stuff.