Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Horror of Out of Date Equipment

Admittedly, this is a lame excuse for a Halloween themed post, but by the end of the story, someone was truly scared.

For the purists in the crowd, here’s a couple of quick vampire reviews:

Film For All Ages-
Hotel Transylvania II recreated the same mix of heartwarming and hystericalness the original had.  The filmmakers were clever enough to fast forward five years through a series of vignettes. This allowed them to include important, well written gags and family moments without it being a rehash of what the first film covered.

Comics Definitely Not For All Ages-
I read the first volume of American Vampire two summers ago, because of the Steven King written background tale.  The Scott Snyder penned main part stayed with me, and I took advantage of the Funnybooks Ladder sale this summer to get the rest of cycle one.  The characters are compelling and complex and the stories grab the attention and often surprise. Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque have woven an intricate web of society and history for different sects of vampires that is at least as deep and fascinating as the one Anne Rice became famous for.  Unlike her’s, however, these vampires are not of the whiny, soul searching, pining for a love they could never have type.  These are apex predators who live in the shadows of our world as they try to carve out a larger place for themselves and their kind.
In other words…vampires!

Now, back to the lab.

The group of friends I hung around with in college was connected via the Juggling Club from a variety of majors. Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Management, Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautical Engineering were all represented.  Therefore we shared almost no class time together. (Not counting the strangest class our school offered, but that’s a tale for another time.)  Brian and I both started focusing on Aero, before I bailed.  I ended up in Medical Devices and he ended up at IBM, indicating the trend toward diversification in the RPI Juggling Club continues.

Since Aeronautical was a sub group of Mechanical, we did have many of the same requirements, which led to us working as Lab Partners in Engineering Lab 2 (aka E-Lab 2).

E-Lab 1 was more about learning good laboratory practices, which meant the experiments were lame and forgettable as the main goal was teaching us how to document them properly.  Little did I know that a career in medical devices would be practically centered on knowing how to do that.

E-Lab 2 was where they gave us actual high tech equipment to construct and program.


Sorry, I couldn’t keep a straight face.

Dear old RPI didn’t want to go through the complications of retooling the curriculum of one of its standard undergraduate engineering classes. That meant they weren’t going to rewrite the controller programs we were forced to use, which in turn meant they weren’t going to upgrade the computers that ran them.

Because state of the art computers back in the mists of the early 1990’s would seem archaic today, I need to pause for a history lesson.

Hey kids, you know that little square you click on to save something.  The reason it’s a square is that it looks like a floppy disk.  Yes, I know disks are round, not square. The round part was on the inside of a square envelope. Stay with me kids.

By the time I reached Rensselaer, 3 ½ inch floppy disks were the norm. They started out holding 400K (Yes, K as in kilobytes) but by doubling density went up to 800K and eventually a whopping 1.44 Megabytes.

Despite this, we survived. Take that you giga-tera-bazingabyte young un’s. 
And before floppies, we used cassettes to hold data. 

Sigh, Cassette- for those of you that haven’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy: picture if your IPod could only hold a dozen songs at once, you couldn’t control play order, and the only way to change songs was swapping out   little plastic boxes containing the information on a fragile, foil thin, material wrapped around two spools. 

It would take most of an afternoon to load one 8-Bit game onto a computer with them.

And get off my damn lawn.

Anyway, before the 3 1/2 inch disks, I used 360K 5 ¼ inch disks when I was younger.

Either of those would have been welcome in E-Lab 2.  The computers we were given had to be pushing twenty years old because they still used 8 Inch floppy disks. These were roughly the size of a spiral notebook, but held marginally less information.

The rest of the equipment was similarly aged.

Several labs involved programming a robot arm powered by stepper motors.  The coolness of programming a robot vanished quickly due to it being older in actual years than C-3PO and R2-D2. Besides the inherent slowness and glitchiness of the elderly IBM controlling it, the bands on the stepper motors were loose and often slid.

More lessons - see my foolishness is educational.  A stepper motor is so named because it moves in increments, or steps.   In telling it how far to move, it is crucial that the controller can identify what “step” each motor is on, and how many “steps” it has moved.  Once the belts slip, the controller sadly doesn’t have a whit of an idea where the hell each section of the arm is.

This meant instead of our happy little robot moving its cute little claw over to the blocks it was supposed to pick and place, our happy little robot ground its cute little claw directly into the surface of hard, unforgiving table, often knocking itself over and possibly off of the hard, unforgiving table onto the harder, less forgiving floor, before we could shut down the ancient computer in a fit of screaming and running about.

Actually, I handled most of the screaming.  Brian was the level headed partner.

I was better with the big picture items: basic logic behind the code, the general plan for the set up and subsequently swearing at it.  Brian was better at the fine details – “Jeff you spelled ‘integer’ wrong in the program…again” or “Jeff, you didn’t connect that wire to the power source…again.” and some lower decibel swearing at the equipment. (It was really crappy equipment.)

When we got to the water tank labs, we looked fondly back on our days of playing with the spastic robot.

In a normal technologically up to date universe, the water tank labs would have been a breeze.

The first one required monitoring the temperature in a water bath for an hour using our computer controlled temperature probe, then doing the same thing with an insulated water bath.


Until one factors in that all the wiring was the same age as the computer and could carry a signal at a ratio of about one good one for every six we tried…and swore at.

Or until one factors in that the Neanderthal computers tended to crash at least every ten minutes, which is problematic when trying to make it run for a full sixty.

Or until one factors in that the “insulation” was a grubby, hole pitted, misshapen piece of sponge that neither fit all the way around, nor hung snugly to the metal water bath.

Or until one factors in that the multiple failure modes forced us to run the two tests on different days in a room where the environment was totally uncontrolled.

I’m listing all those horrendous factors to prevent being judged us too harshly for what we did…especially since we never did anything like it again in our academic or professional careers.

We completed this lab in three phases:

Phase One: We spent several sessions in the lab to gather the data, including time outside of class thanks to repeated moments where the equipment seemed destined to enter its death throes.

Phase Two: We prepared the report following all of best practices.  Data was initialed and dated, each section was concise, well written and informative, every “I” was dotted, every “t” was crossed, and it was formatted to be pleasing to the eye.

Phase Three: We swapped the headers on the two data sheets, since the “insulated” tank cooled visibly faster than the tank that didn’t have a moth eaten old sponge slapped onto it with scotch tape and spit.

Brian and I entered the lab on the borderline of depression the weeks we worked on the final assignment.  We had to use the same rusty old tank, the same sporadically functioning wires, and the same in dire need of a “no resuscitation” clause computer to run a feedback loop with the antique temperature probe and a similarly aged to imperfection heating coil.

This wasn’t the worst part.

We had to run the program in the lab and have the Teaching Assistant see the completed program on the screen, since the machines we used weren’t compatible with any printer invented after the Kennedy administration.  That meant the disaster had to function for a full hour DURING CLASS.

It took an interminable and interminably frustrating time, yet again, just to locate enough wires for the whole set up that could actually carry current, if you didn’t look at them too hard.

Multiple attempts at running the loop ended in despair and profanity as the antediluvian computer tried to commit suicide by going to the black screen of death with green wiggles. (Yeah, we didn’t even rate machines that could “blue screen of death.”) 

After myriad trials and failures, the precariously tuned system looked to be holding its pitiful self together.

It was working perfectly, holding temperature as if it had been calibrated, and vomiting forth a reading on the screen every minute.  It was a work of art in crappy control systems.

We called the Teaching Assistant over to witness our triumph…

Around fifty-nine seconds after the fifty-eight minute reading, the computer made ugly chunking and clicking noises and the screen went blank.

There was a moment of silence as we stared incredulously while my face turned the shade of a blood soaked stop sign.

I slammed both fists down on either side of the offending apparatus, yelled “F***!” with enough force to vibrate the neighboring lab tables I hadn’t just attempted to pile drive into the basement, and whirled around, breathing heavily through clenched teeth to face the Teacher’s Assistant.

I need to pause in this rather dramatic moment in the narrative to point out two things.

A) As much of a large, fur bearing mammal as I am currently, back then I was running for forty-five minutes twice a week, and weight lifting an hour the remaining weekdays, vastly increasing the amount of largness the fur was borne on.

B) The Teacher’s Assistant was a young Indian woman who had clearly only been living among larger and louder Americans for the year or so she was in grad school.  Her head came up to the center of my sternum, and the width of her shoulders was only slightly more than the span of both my hands.

Actually “face the Teacher’s Assistant” probably should read “Loom terrifyingly over the minuscule Teacher’s Assistant.”

She stared blankly for a second as her eyes widened, grabbed the lab sheet from the table and yelled,
“No No…Is OK, I saw!
Here! See!
Twenty out of twenty!
Very good!”
Before scampering off.

Back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned someone being truly scared. 

I wasn’t referring to our Lab Lecturer. She was somewhere well beyond that emotion.

No, I meant Brian. 

I probably should continue apologizing to him to this day, as he was slumped on his lab stool with his elbows on the table and head in his hands completely expecting that he’d be expelled shortly after I was arrested.


Chris said...

Loved the comparison of ipod to casette player and the segue to "get off my lawn". funny!

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx for reading, glad our stress can serve a valuable purpose now.

Unknown said...

Jeff and eMAD. He puts its name to the test. This is just so classic RPI trauma. You captured it perfectly bud.

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx. Which of my fellow inmates/classmates is this?

Jeff McGinley said...

I figured it out after I saw the other comment. Thanx for not killing me.