Archive for January 2004

Such hard work

For most of high school and part of University, I worked for an ISP called Interlog, which no longer exists[1]. I was a glorified end-user support monkey, which by the way is just about the best job out there if you want to test the limits of your patience. I relished every available chance to look over both the literal and figurative shoulders of the system/network administrators – they were the Gods.

My dream job at the time was anything related to network design/architecture. With what little experience I had, I was incorrectly confident that programming would be child’s play, and had this bleak picture in my head of a 40-year future, 9-5 every day in a windowless, non-descript cubicle, forever programming according to someone else’s specifications. In fact, not unlike this.

There’s something called the Peter Principle, which I think holds quite true. The bleak future I pictured would really only happen if I absolutely sucked at programming – if you’re good at what you do, people notice and the scope of your responsibilities magically expand whether you want them to or not.

It’s interesting I think, how dream jobs frequently involve the word “design”.

  • I’m want to design cars when I grow up.
  • I’m want to design video games.
  • I’m want to design networks.
  • I’m want to design software.
  • etc.

It’s also interesting how people think they can immediately jump into designing something just because they’re a user of said thing. Just because I drive a car doesn’t mean I’m automatically qualified to design a car. I have absolutely no experience with the nuances involved in balancing the technical and non-technical tradeoffs that make a good car. Such experience is gained only by “working the front lines” so to speak (i.e. the chief engineer for car X probably started out doing something simple and mundane like choosing the nuts and bolts used to hold car X together). The exact same principal applies to video games, networks, software, and just about anything else.

Going back to my dream job from high school, I realize the folly of it now. If by some weird chance I was suddenly a network design engineer at some tier-1 network provider, it would have been a bad scene. Putting together a good design requires prior experience with poor designs, which would have come from working my way up, not jumping in at the top.

Something so completely logical now is difficult to comprehend at the time though. After all, offspring of the North American middle-class is raised with the mentality that they will exceed their elders in every way possible. It is expected, they are simply entitled.

Our grandparents endured decades of back-breaking physical labour just to feed our parents mouths. Our parents toil away at mostly white-collar work for 50 straight years just to feed, clothe, and educate us. Naturally, our lives should be just so much better. A high paying job that challenges us but is not too difficult, paying well enough to say, retire at 30, maybe 35 at the latest. Perhaps a brief stint of fame and fortune, if it’s not too much trouble.

The facts don’t usually hit until the first full-time, permanent job. Just as our grandparents and parents were, we are bound by the same 24 hours in a day, the same wonderful thing called inflation, the same stresses on our lives from familial and other inter-personal relationships. Until it becomes obvious that “exceeding our elders” really ends up meaning driving a nicer car, eating better food, living in a bigger house, and wearing moderately swankier clothes. We are not the chosen generation, not special at all. Just as they had to, we must work our way up the food chain. It isn’t going to be fun, easy, or short. I just wish they hadn’t gotten our hopes up.

[1] They were purchased by PSInet Canada, which later went bankrupt, and shortly thereafter their entire Canadian user base was bought by Telus.

Random GBA stuff

Some random stuff related to the Gameboy Advance (non-SP):

  • My 6-year old cousin loves his GBA, always has it with him when we see him. So his older brother bought him a carrying case for Christmas. Grey nylon exterior, rectangular so it’s just large enough to fit the GBA, and opens with a flap that flips up on the long side. As a finishing touch, there’s a dainty leather wrist strap attached to the top right corner. That’s right, picture a clutch for a GBA. Or as Bonnie affectionately calls it, a “murse” (man-purse).

  • I bought the GBA Afterburner kit from Lik-Sang for Tim. We finally got around to installing it last night. In total I think it ended up taking some 3 and a half to 4 hours. The kit already comes with a pre-cut replacement faceplate, so no dremelling was required. Even so, it was no easy job. The most difficult parts:

    1. Peeling the LCD off of the original GBA faceplate. The instructions say to “gently pry it off the front casing using the included plastic card”. Lemme tell ya, gently just doesn’t cut it, and the plastic card is useless for this task. We’re talking liberal use of thumb and forefinger along with some mad sticker peeling skills.

    2. Sticking the anti-reflective film to the LCD without bubbles or dust. Both sides of the AR film are covered with clear protective plastic, which you’re supposed to peel off before applying. Only one side of the AR film is sticky. They refuse to write any sort of meaningful information on the protective plastic to tell you: 1) Which side is sticky; 2) Whether the protective plastic is actually there (important for the non-sticky side, since it’s practically invisible).

    3. Soldering. I haven’t soldered since grade 10 IDS class. It generally turned out OK, but it’s scary melting the factory-soldered joints on the PCB in order to add in more leads. Also, I thought I remember them telling us not to touch the solder to the iron. Turns out the soldering iron I bought is so wimpy that touching the solder to it is the only way that it’ll melt.

Turkey deep-fryers

At Bonnie’s Boxing Day dinner party, Hube brought up the subject of turducken, which “naturally”[1] lead to a discussion of the turkey deep-fryers that are so popular in the U.S. right now.

Then I remembered this Underwriters Laboratory link that someone showed me at work, warning that the deep fryers are unsafe. Check out the hilarious video they have at the bottom of the page.

[1] I hesistate to use the word “naturally” in the same sentence as “turducken”.

Polarized electrical sockets

About 4 years ago I was in Germany with my family, visiting an aunt and uncle who live there. My dad had recently bought one of those Digital8 Sony camcorders, which was meant for travel since the AC adapter could handle both 120 and 240 volts out of the box. The shape of the electrical outlets in Germany are the same as in North America, but there was a slight problem when we went to charge the camcorder battery. My aunt and uncle live in an older house, so the electrical outlets aren’t polarized (“polarized” meaning one prong is larger than the other, so non-grounded plugs can only be inserted in one direction).

My uncle goes and phones Sony Germany and asks if its OK to file down the larger prong so that it’ll fit in the socket. They give the OK, which makes sense since it’s AC. Neither prong is really a “positive” or “negative” so to speak, they alternate polarity some 50-60 times per second, depending which part of the world you’re in.

So the question that’s been bugging me on and off since then is why they bother making sockets and plugs polarized in the first place. I’ve periodically googled for the answer, but never come up with anything useful until now[1]. Even then, it’s a single page, only available from the Google cache, and it doesn’t come outright and explain why. It’s like some weird electrical engineering conspiracy to keep the secret of socket polarization under wraps.

The answer turns out to be obvious, but it never occurred to me before because I was always thinking in terms of how DC batteries work. They’re rated for a certain voltage, with one terminal positive, one terminal negative. That doesn’t mean the negative terminal is at 0V and the positive is at 1.5V (e.g. on an AA cell). It just means the difference between the two terminals is 1.5V. In fact, the negative terminal will most likely be floating somewhere above or below 0V, unless it’s pulled to ground by an external source.

So for some reason I always thought of AC outlets in the same way (i.e. the difference between the two “live” prongs would always be 120V/240V, with the positive and negative alternating at 50Hz/60Hz, but neither terminal would ever be guaranteed to be at any fixed value). I thought only the third “ground” prong was guaranteed to be 0V.

Not so. The larger prong is actually fixed at ground, and the smaller prong just carries a 50Hz/60Hz sine wave. So polarization is a useful safety measure because when a device is plugged in but turned off, it would be nice if the switch cut off the lead attached to the smaller prong. That way, any sort of energy storage components (e.g. capacitors, inductors) in the device will not get charged up and cause electrical shock if the device is opened and prodded. Makes perfect sense now.

I think it’s all kind of dubious as a safety measure though, especially in comparison to the direness of the warnings against filing down the larger prong and/or forcing the plugs in “backwards”. I mean, who opens and prods while things are still plugged in?

[1] This time around I was prompted to google for the answer while reading the manual to the APC SmartUPS 1400 that Tim got me for Christmas. The manual kind of touches on how the UPS can detect if the electrical socket is wired correctly.