Archives for category: Grumpy old man

Getting electrocuted

Have you ever experienced an electric shock? I have. many times. I guess being the son of an electrical engineer fed my interest in powered toys and my education led to the same type of career but my first shocking memory is of being put to bed in a spare room while my parents were visiting friends. I was probably four or so and I was mesmerised by the empty socket for the reading lamp above the bed. Naturally I stuck my finger in it and received 240 volts across the tip as I shorted the bayonet mount contacts. This was a shock in all meanings of the word and resulted in a burn.

We’ve all put our tongue across the terminals of a 9V radio battery haven’t we? I made a lot of electronic toys with triacs that bit and capacitors that discharged through me. Then I was employed repairing adding machines and computers with all kinds of high voltages or large currents. I once watched as a colleague used a spanner to loosen a bus bar from a large capacitor bank in a system which had been turned off and disconnected but not discharged. As he shorted between two bars the spanner disappeared literally in a flash right in his hand. Amazing.

Another time I was present when a switchboard I had assisted to wire up was tested with very high currents. It had 3 phase power running through copper bus bars 6mm thick and 10cm wide but we had forgotten to install the plastic insulators between them. As current flowed the electric fields caused the bars to bend and touch. There was another flash and when we opened the cabinet there were no bus bars to be seen but the entire inside surface of the cabinet was copper plated. Impressive.

A shock between one hand on a 240 volt connector and the other hand on a good earth is like being kicked in the chest by a mule. Trust me. A shock through your arm or fingers will cause the muscles to involuntarily contract very quickly. I was once standing in a factory next to a guy who did just this while holding a screwdriver. He unintentionally flung that tool straight up with such force that it was embedded in the roof some 10 metres above.

My favourite occurred while I was adjusting the picture on a video monitor from behind while the young lady at the keyboard provided feedback on height, width, pincushion etc. I touched the high voltage going to the crt which was about 12,000 volts but with no real dangerous current capability. I grunted and pulled my arm out instantly but the real shock came when the girl screamed and leapt to her feet. I don’t know what I thought but I screamed with her and the whole room full of operators screamed with us. Then we all had a great laugh.

Most modern electronics is low voltage and safe but I am sure there is still time for me to stick a finger somewhere I shouldn’t in a washing machine or something. With a name like Sparkes it is almost inevitable.


Which way is up?

Yesterday we were having breakfast in Marcoola when Carol said how nice it is to ‘come down the coast’ and then quickly corrected herself to ‘up the coast’. She was referring, of course, to the fact that we were north of home. From Brisbane, ‘down the coast’ means the Gold Coast, that seething den of drugs, vandals, violence and tourists whereas ‘up the coast means the Sunshine Coast, the bright, friendly strip of sun-washed beach towns. ( I hope my geographic bias is not showing.) However, since Brissie is 10km inland and up-river it is actually downhill in either direction. As John Masefield said:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

There is no mention of north or south here. Who decided that north is up and that all maps should be drawn that way? Was there a worldwide convention at some time that reached such an agreement? I have read that the Chinese may at one time have felt otherwise and that the word ‘north’ is derived from the German ‘nor’ and the earlier ‘ner’ which actually means ‘down’.

If someone had decided to paint the south pointing half of a compass needle red instead would everything be different? On further rumination I have decided that since the majority of early astronomers lived in the Northern Hemisphere they probably noticed that the stars seem to revolve around a point in the sky which probably seemed like a good start to navigation.

Here in the south in Australia, previously Terra Australis which means Land of the South, we have had an indigenous population for 30,000 years. Much of their art consists of abstract representations of their homeland in the form of maps or aerial views. I wonder whether they are oriented with north upwards. Does anybody know?

In the meantime, as Canned Heat once sang, I’m “Going up the country.”


Australian_Coat_of_Armspre-fed coat of arms

Recently I was watching Bill Hague, the British foreign minister, on TV and he was speaking from a dais decorated with the British coat of arms and it started me thinking. The Aussie coat of arms has a kangaroo and emu on each side of the shield which contains the badge of each of the six states. The shield propper uppers are probably the best known unique native animals. 

The British coat of arms by contrast has a lion and a unicorn propping up the shield. A lion? When was there last a lion in England? Apparently it is a reference to King Richard known as the lion-hearted, it’s a bit like a football team emblem. The unicorn is meant to represent Scotland where unicorns once ran free. It is chained up because as everyone knows, free unicorns are dangerous. The shield has four quarters (How many quarters can you have?) with the English lions, the scottish lion, the Irish harp and then – the English lions again. Do I detect bias?
I started to wonder about the symbols of other countries and whether there was more humour to be mined. The U.S.A. has the “Great Seal” rather than a C of A. It shows a bald eagle holding an olive branch and a bunch of arrows balancing peace with war. There is a strong representation of the 13 original colonies but no reference to the current 50 states – maybe that is a number in flux. There are 13 stripes on the shield, 13 stars above, 13 leaves and 13 olives on the branch. Interestingly the stripes have the white on the outside unlike the flag which has the red on the outside. The back of the seal is the weird pyramid with one eye as seen on the dollar bill. There have been reams written about what this might mean so I will desist.
The German C of A is a simple black eagle on a yellow background. Pretty simple. But the old Imperial German one had a near nude wild man on each side. Kinky! The French don’t have a current coat of arms but the old one was a bunch of fleur-de-lis on a blue background. I have no idea what that represents which is typically Gallic. Monaco’s is a hoot with two monks holding swords. Apparently the monks invaded Monaco in 1297 hiding swords under their cloaks. And we thought the modern church had issues!
The Russian C of A is like the U.S. eagle except it has two heads and instead of the olive branch and arrows it holds an orb and a sword, symbols of power and control. The Mexican arms also have an eagle but this time it is sitting on a cactus and holding a snake in its beak. It is said to represent the victory of good over evil though this may be an evangelical interpretation of older Aztec traditions. Poland’s C of A has a white eagle with gold beak, talons and crown.
There is a trend here. Eagles. What is it about eagles? If not eagles it is lions. There is something about the choice of animals that transmits feelings of power, strength and grace. In this context the cute kangaroo and emu seem a bit tame but perhaps they are a true reflection of the Australian psyche.
Since writing this about a week ago I have admired the beautiful carved coats of arms on the old customs house next door. But they are different!  Of course, the building went up before Federation so there could be no representation of the states – they did not exist. Apparently there was a generally accepted but not official c of a which failed to comply with heraldic tradition. The shield contained symbols of Australia’s four main industries; transport, grazing, agriculture and mining. It is pictured above. Today, a similar approach would require symbols for banking, higher education, welfare and maybe still mining. ( for now)

Fire in the hole

How do you put out an electrical fire? I can imagine you struggling to remember which extinguisher has the black label and whether you want powder or foam or just a fire blanket. Well, in my illustrious and long career I have seen the evolution of fire-fighting in the glass house, the big computer rooms, and the stories have been hilarious. I stress here that I have never actually experienced a fire in a computer room but the near misses and false alarms make, I hope, interesting reading.

In the beginning there was CO2. (Carbon dioxide) This gas is inert and is heavier than air so it can settle on a fire, displace the oxygen and starve it to death. Unfortunately is is also deadly to humans. It can asphyxiate you at concentrations as low as 7% whereas fire flooding systems use up to 30%. A fire alarm in a CO2 protected glasshouse meant quick evacuation. I was present in the computer centre of my old alma mater when smoke from a bad servo motor in a tape drive triggered a fire alarm in computer room ‘A’. The computer centre was divided into two rooms, each with a large mainframe and associated peripherals and with separate power, cooling and fire protection. Within seconds there were deafening bells, a hurried power down of everything and a lightning fast evacuation. Then we watched and waited. Finally the CO2 went off. It was spectacular, particularly as it went off only in computer room ‘B’. Oh well’ back to the drawing board.

Then there was halon. Short for halomethane, this family of compounds react with flames to chemically quelch a fire. This allows them to be effective in a flooding environment at concentrations as low as 5% and they can be safely breathed by humans, even computer operators. It seems like a perfect solution but there were some problems. Firstly the small amounts required allowed high pressure bottles and when released it was almost explosive. I attended a system at a pharmaceutical company just after a fire alarm where where the halon was released beneath the raised floor. All the floor tiles had jumped about a metre and landed everywhere. It left a steel support grid about two metres above the concrete sub-floor which would have made it impossible for anyone to move about fighting fires or doing anything else. There was no fire.

Another problem with the huge pressure change on release is the accompanying temperature drop. This effect is the basis of any air conditioning system but when ice cold halon meets hot running computer power supplies the results can be devastating. I have seen a fine mainframe almost wrecked by this and requiring weeks for repairs.

Aside from these issues it turns out that releasing halon gives you sunburn. Indirectly admittedly but, like freon, the released halon rises to the stratosphere where it reacts with and destroys the ozone layer. (So they say) So halon disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Do you know what the current preferred fire fighting compound is for computer rooms? H2O. Yep, water. Sprinklers are easy to install and manage, the water lowers the temperature of any burning compound and quickly puts out a fire. In the mostly low voltage environments of large computers it doesn’t even cause short circuit damage and it turns out that most people power a computer off when they hear a fire alarm, either manually or automatically. Once you dry out the system there is not usually much damage to repair. As an example have you ever dropped your mobile phone in your swimming pool? I have. Open it, leave it in the sun for a day or so and “hey presto” all good usually. Coffee in your keyboard? Try soaking it in your kitchen sink with the dishwashing water and then air dry thoroughly. It often works.

One last fire related anecdote that still irks me after about 25 years. We had a small system at a major library which also had a Fujitsu system back when they were known as Facom. There was a fire in a nearby room and all the computers were engulfed in thick, acrid smoke all day while the fire was fought and beaten. We spent a week dismantling, cleaning and polishing all the disks and generally washing everything. We were very proud to have restored the system and made thousands in maintenance revenue. Our Japanese friends did not bother. They just wrote off the system and used the insurance payout to sell the library a new one. Several millions in revenue. Bugger.

I hope you never have to face a fire yourself.



I keep hearing that cars are becoming appliances. Performance cars are too fast to be used anywhere and luxury cars are unaffordable so we all drive appliances to and from work and, just like kitchenware, they are mostly white or silver with the occasional black.

Perversely, fridges are becoming more like cars used to be. They come in stereotypes depending on origin. For example, if you can hang half a carcass along with eight slabs of beer it is probably American. If it scans barcodes, keeps inventory and orders refills over the web it is Korean or Japanese and if it is colourful and stylish it will be European. If it’s white, noisy and goes forever it might be an Aussie.

A trend I have noticed lately is bloke’s fridges. These come swaddled in denim or deer hide or just painted in your team colours and they are meant for the ‘man cave’. They hold many cans and bottles and there is no shelf for quiche. My question is, “What about the girls?”.

I don’t subscribe to the convention that women belong in the kitchen and I can fry bacon sandwiches as well as anybody. Why are there no fridges for the room dedicated to the lady of the house. I’m not necessarily suggesting pink ribbons or quilting but has anybody thought this through? And why is the man cave also known as the sports bar or game room. Of my acquaintances most of the actual sporting activities are carried out by the WAG. I have female fiends who run up mountains or compete in triathlons or marathons. Most of my male friends have bad backs or crook knees and prefer to sit in a soft recliner with a cold beer watching footy or cricket on a half-hectare Television.

Oh, I just realised that I have answered my own question!

P.S. WAG = Wives and girlfriends.

Faster than a speeding bullet

Recently I was driving down Hale St, a six lane, divided road with no traffic lights or intersections on a gently descending slope past the Suncorp Stadium. It was seven thirty on a Sunday morning, there were about three other cars in my field of view and we were braking gently to maintain the sixty kmh speed limit when I noticed it. A police car in the off-ramp with two officers, one pointing a radar gun at us. I cannot think of any location where exceeding the speed limit by five or ten kmh would have less impact but I can see how easy it would be for someone to do so. I was, and still am, disgusted by this use of my tax money even though I am sure the operation is profitable.

In the early days police were private organisations designed to protect property or collect taxes so the emphasis on revenue raising is well founded. In the early 19th century in England, Robert Peel formed the first modern police force to keep “The Queen’s Peace.” Still, I don’t recall reading about a surfeit of police on horseback enforcing the road rules for horse and cart traffic. Today we have a lot of cops and many of them are ridin’ the range. In Australia we have 65,000 police (50,000 of them sworn officers) at an annual budget of $8.2 billion. That’s 290 officers per 100,000 people or 6 officers per 1,000 square kilometres. The USA has over 900,000 sworn officers. In the UK, 5 people die and 65 are injured every day on the roads at an estimated cost of 32 billion pounds a year.

These days I can’t think of any car incapable of 160kmh with most capable of well over 200 and no place where you can legally drive one at more than 110 kmh. Even our motor scooter can exceed this. (So I am told!) When I was a young ‘un, the 300hp of a Falcon GTHO was amazing but today I can buy that in a family appliance like a Camry.

I object to seeing hundreds of commuters fined for doing ‘5 over’ and then having it justified by the police minister claiming that “Speed kills” and using as an example some idiot kid who hit a tree at 150. We will never be able to prevent testosterone or alcohol charged fools killing themselves and others as long as we keep supplying them with weapons but if we are willing to accept the draconian regulation of our speed by radar, maybe we would accept some restrictions on the car manufacturers.

Any car can have a GPS for $100 and every speed zone in the country is programmed in the system. I propose that cars simply be regulated to achieve no more than the speed limit plus 15 kmh. It would still be illegal to speed but the 15 kmh would allow that surge which may be argued as a safety margin. We could get away with less police (whose cars would be unregulated) and they could perhaps focus on actual crime once more.

I can’t see this being acceptable in the US where the constitution prevents them from protecting themselves against themselves. I heard yesterday that there have been 3300 deaths by gunshot in the US since the Newtown school shooting. However, it might get by in Europe and here. There would even be some advantages. For example, racetracks would become more popular and cars could easily be programmed to use all their capabilities on the track. The Nissan GTR already has this built in. We could also eliminate those ridiculous 95 kmh advisory speed signs on long bends where they can’t put 130 or 140.


How many rods in a chain?

America is a funny place. I love it, don’t get me wrong but it is definitely quirky. You know that I am an avid fan of the metric system so arriving in the US was like going back to my childhood as far as measures are concerned. I had to delve deep to remember how many pounds in a ton or feet in a mile. It intrigued me because the Americans are loathe to change anything but when they have, it is usually for the better. Three things about their system of weights and measures particularly struck me as amusing.

Firstly, the name of the system. I remember the inches and ounces system being called either ‘Imperial’ or ‘Avoir dupois’. The first relates to the British Empire or all the countries painted pink on the map. The empire does not even exist anymore and I cannot imagine Americans wanting to be associated with the apron strings they cut 250 years ago. The second is French for ‘to have weight’. Even more than accepting a British Imperial system I cannot see the Americans agreeing with the French. You cannot even buy a Renault, Citroen or Peugeot in the Home of the Brave. Maybe they don’t need a system name. It is just accepted as what always was and always will be.

Secondly, the spelling. Noah Webster dropped all the ‘re’ endings of words back in the nineteenth century. Centre, theatre, spectre all became center, theater and specter. (I hope spell check has not derailed me here.) But acre persists. I guess if it did change it would become a Taiwanese computer maker but do you know what an acre is and how archaic is the concept? An acre was historically defined as the area that could be ploughed (plowed) by a yoke of oxen in one day. How many modern Americans know what a plough, yoke or oxen are? (Device for turning soil over, two, an adult castrated bull). This inexact area was more defined in England in 1824 as a strip of land one furlong by one chain. Clear? It is equal to one six hundred and fortieth of a square mile. Better? A simple Hectare is 10,000 square metres. There are one hundred hectares in a square kilometre. Simple.

Thirdly, the ridiculous U.S. gallon. They have their own gallon which is smaller than an Imperial gallon by about 15%. The imperial gallon, although archaic and almost gone at least had some logic which is missing from the U.S. gallon. It was originally defined as the volume of water that weighs ten pounds. It consists of eight pints, each of twenty fluid ounces so that one fluid ounce of water weighs one ounce weight. None of this works in America. Their pint is 16 fl oz. Crazy. It stems from Americans’ huge inertia against change. In the seventeenth century there were many different gallons depending on the liquid being measured. 1824 saw the British standardize on their current gallon but America went on and evolved their most commonly used gallon which was the one used to measure wine for tax purposes. There is a sweet irony there.

Long live the litre.
P.S. The image shows all countries that have NOT adopted the metric system of measures.