subscribe to the RSS Feed

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Mysterious Power of Francis

Posted by admin on January 30, 2010

The power of a name is as ancient as naming. All throughout mythology, examples can be found of secret names, names that had the power to destroy, and names that had the power to bring great rewards.

-Kristen Hanley Cardozo

What, you may ask, does this have to do with engineering? It is an enigma, a puzzle, and engineers love to puzzle.

Deep Fryer

The Soon-to-Be-Infamous Fryer

A saner person would have stopped at the nearest fast food fish takeout but not me. Driving home from work July 7, craving fish and chips, I stopped at Wally World, bought a deep fryer, took it home, fired it up, and cooked myself a mess. Don’t worry; they were healthful; I used whole wheat flour.

Fish and Chips

The Mess of Fish and Chips

Although it served on a handful of occasions to make French fries, the fryer generally sat amidst the clutter of the small appliance cabinet, stuffed behind the blender, mixer, slow cooker, and food processor, all of which enjoyed more frequent usage.

One day last week, having half a bag of shrimp left in the freezer and a New Year’s resolution to declutter the kitchen, I remembered seeing a recipe for Masala Popcorn Shrimp on Monica Bhide’s blog, a blog inspired by the ingredients and flavors of South Asia and the Indian subcontinent , ingredients and flavors from a culinary tradition dating back to the bronze-age Harappan civilization and enjoyed by one fifth of the world’s inhabitants, a must-read if you enjoy experimenting with new ingredients.

Masala Popcorn Shrimp

Masala Popcorn Shrimp

I measured oil into the fryer, set the thermostat to 375F, poured a glass of wine, and slipped into the study to find and print the recipe while the oil heated. Returning to the kitchen, I poured a second glass of wine and began collecting the ingredients. It was then that I noticed that the oil was hot but the fryer was dead. I jiggled the plug, checked the breaker, checked the GFI, and tried a different outlet with no luck. With stomachs growling, my teenage son and his friend stared starvingly at me. “Fine,” I harrumphed, “we’re going out but you’re driving.”

The next day, after the oil had cooled, I strained it and cleaned the fryer. As I was drying it, I noticed a tiny, recessed reset button, undocumented in the manual. Using a chopstick, I pressed the button then plugged the fryer in. It was alive! I unplugged it, filled it with oil, plugged it in and set the thermostat. It started to warm up but after a few minutes I heard the reset breaker pop. The fryer was dead again. I thought I might throw it away instead of messing with it, since I seldom used it, but I didn’t. Instead I put the manual in the bag with my laptop and took both to work.

A few days later, having a spare moment I called the GE tech support number, 877-207-0923. After a few rounds of pushing 1 for this, 2 for that, and 3 for whatever, I was greeted by pleasant-voiced Francis who collected my contact information. No matter my frustration, I make being polite to support people a habit. I start by remembering and using their name. So, I wrote “francis” on a small yellow Post-It. We discussed the problem with the reset button. Francis asked if I had a receipt. “No,” I said. Francis said that the particular model fryer had a two year warranty, had been in production less than two years, and was only sold at Walmart. Therefore, even though I didn’t have a receipt, it was clear that the unit was under warranty and had been purchased at Walmart. She told me to clean it, take it to Walmart, take my cell phone, ask for a new one, and have them call her if they had any problem.

Two days later, I took the fryer to Walmart. I explained the problem to the customer service girl, who looked to be about 19. She asked if I had a receipt and I told her I didn’t. She asked how long I had it and I told her about 6 months. She said she couldn’t do anything if I didn’t have a receipt and it had been more than 90 days.

And then, it happened.

The Sticky with Mysterious Powers

I extended my arms, cell phone in one hand and the manual with the 877 number and the yellow sticky with the word “francis” on the front in the other, saying “Francis said to call her if you had any problem.” The 19-year old quickly peeled off the yellow sticky, blurted “stay here,” and bolted.

The New Fryer

The New Fryer

She returned a few minutes later telling me to get a replacement fryer. I know she didn’t call Francis because she didn’t take the cell phone, she didn’t take the phone number, and she had been gone less than two minutes. So, I’m wondering what is the mysterious power that Francis wields over the people of Walmart, a mysterious power so compelling that the lone word “francis” on a yellow sticky causes customer service to bolt in terror, a word with the power to produce replacement fryers?

German Shorthair Pointer

What Is the Point?

“What is the point,” you ask, and to tell the truth, I’m not sure. Perhaps it is that one should be nice to people at tech support. Perhaps it is the value of the individual person. Had I said, “Tech Support said . . .,” would the result have been the same, or was it only because that someone at tech support had a name? Perhaps it is that the universe is working against my ability to unclutter my kitchen? Perhaps it is that Francis’ good service inspired Walmart’s? Perhaps it is that the power of a name is as ancient as naming and the name “Francis” has the power to bring great rewards – at least at Walmart? Perhaps only Francis knows? Do you know Francis or do you know someone who might know Francis? Would you ask for me?

What do you think? Let me know by posting a comment!

Photo credits:
Masala Popcorn Shrimp, photo by Nate Lankford, courtesy of Monica Bhide
German Shorthair Pointer, photo by Barbara Van Hoffman

Don’t Be a Pilot

Posted by admin on January 27, 2010

The most degrading experiences we have are in the simulator when learning a new aircraft. When we do something incorrectly, we are reprimanded and then get one or two chances to do it correctly. Not life and death in this instance, but the point is that we have to get it right in training because while actually flying the plane, we have to get it right since sometimes it is life and death!
First Officer Sarah Murphy Case
Delta Airlines Pilot

This is the second in a series of articles to help improve your critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Consider the very different world of the pilot and the engineer. The pilot gets one chance and has to execute perfectly every time. An engineer may consider tens of ways to approach a problem, narrow the options to a handful, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each, and prototype and test a few. During testing, problems will be found. More prototypes may be made and tested before finally putting a new product into production. Where a pilot demands of herself that she be successful on every try, an engineer expects to fail many times before he suceeds. Neither of these is right or wrong. Someone willing to make mistakes would not make a good pilot nor would someone afraid to make mistakes make an effective engineer.

These differing professions attract people with differing personalities. People naturally gravitate towards professions that are suited to their unique personalities. A pilot may prefer order and stability while an engineer not only embraces change but seeks to be an agent of change.

One of the classes in my MSEE program at Colorado Tech was Creative Leadership. My fellow students were a diverse lot, coming from a wide variety of graduate programs. The class was a hybrid, meaning half of the time was spent in a classroom and the other half in online discussion. I particularly enjoyed online discussions with another student who was a pilot. We had different ways of looking at the world, which resulted in lively and enjoyable discussions.

Dobie Pilot

What Is Your Personality Type?

One in-class exercise was completing the DISC assessment, a personality test designed to “examine the behavior of individuals in their environment.“i The pilot and I had strikingly different profiles. She scored high on Steadiness and Conscientious, while I scored medium to low. She scored medium to low in Dominance and Influence, while I scored high in both:

Dominance: People who score high in the intensity of the “D” styles factor are very active in dealing with problems and challenges, while low “D” scores are people who want to do more research before committing to a decision. High “D” people are described as demanding, forceful, egocentric, strong willed, driving, determined, ambitious, aggressive, and pioneering. Low D scores describe those who are conservative, low keyed, cooperative, calculating, undemanding, cautious, mild, agreeable, modest and peaceful.
Influence: People with high “I” scores influence others through talking and activity and tend to be emotional. They are described as convincing, magnetic, political, enthusiastic, persuasive, warm, demonstrative, trusting, and optimistic. Those with low “I” scores influence more by data and facts, and not with feelings. They are described as reflective, factual, calculating, skeptical, logical, suspicious, matter of fact, pessimistic, and critical.
Steadiness: People with high “S” styles scores want a steady pace, security, and do not like sudden change. High “S” individuals are calm, relaxed, patient, possessive, predictable, deliberate, stable, consistent, and tend to be unemotional and poker faced. Low “S” intensity scores are those who like change and variety. People with low “S” scores are described as restless, demonstrative, impatient, eager, or even impulsive.
Conscientious: People with high “C” styles adhere to rules, regulations, and structure. They like to do quality work and do it right the first time. High “C” people are careful, cautious, exacting, neat, systematic, diplomatic, accurate, and tactful. Those with low “C” scores challenge the rules and want independence and are described as self-willed, stubborn, opinionated, unsystematic, arbitrary, and careless with details.

Each personality type excels in different environments. A person who challenges the rules may be good in some situations but disasterous in others. People with diverse personalities can form strong teams with each member taking on different aspects of a task, taking aspects that best fit their personality. For example, “big picture“ people may be good at getting projects started, but people who love detail are better at getting projects finished. Understanding personality differences can help you appreciate the people in your life. Appreciate the positive aspects of the personality types around you. The pilot in your life may be hard-headed and stubborn, but they’ll save you from leaving the house with the coffee pot on. Love them because their antics are humorous and worthwhile. They are reflections of the personality traits that make them good at what they do.

Why not také a personality test and compare the results with friends, family, and co-workers? There is a free test available online version here.

Goofy Dobie Pilot

Expect to Make Mistakes

What this means for problem solving though, is that if you have a personality that thrives on following procedures and craves a world of order and perfection, you can become a better problem solver. Consider these tips:

  1. Be more accepting of yourself. Accept that mistakes and missteps are natural, expected, and necessary to problem solving. Expect that you will make mistakes, turn down a few blind alleys, and follow a few false leads.
  2. Be persistent. It is said that Thomas Edison tried 9,990 experiments before finding the right wire to make a lightbulb. If one approach does not work, do not get discouraged, try another.
  3. Open yourself up to more possibilities. Search for “creativity exercises“ on the Web and warm up with a few.
  4. Brainstorm. Write down as many ideas as you can. Then, write some more. Don’t judge any ideas as “bad.“ Allow the creative juices to flow. Only after you have written as many ideas as you can, select the most promising for further study.

When you are a pilot happily turning your jetliner for final approach at your base and the end your trip, revel in your perfection and your well-ordered world. But when you are on the ground and facing a dilemma, don’t be hard on yourself. When it comes to solving problems, don’t be a pilot. Although it may not come easily or naturally, avoid being discouraged when you do not come with an answer in one or a few tries. Make a conscious effort to open yourself to change and use techniques to increase your creativity. Accept that mistakes, missteps, and blind alleys are part of the process. Adopt an engineer’s perspecitive!

On a final note, watch for my upcoming article, “Don’t Be an Engineer: How to Eliminate Chaos, Clutter, and Insanity from Your Life in Five Easy Steps.“ It’s a work in progress. Expect it in, oh, say, a few years!

Two Easy Steps to Eliminate Math Anxiety from Your Life!

Posted by admin on January 16, 2010

Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”[i] – G. H. Hardy

A seemingly insignificant incident in one of my electrical engineering classes changed my entire thinking about my long-time nemesis, math. The answer given for a problem was 1/j2πf but I kept coming up with 1/j2πf+δ(f)/2. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how to make δ(f)/2 go away. I gave up and showed my work to the professor. He laughed, “Simple! Ignore it! It represents random noise,” he explained, “so it cancels itself out and has no effect on the signal.” That incident changed my relationship with math. To an engineer, math is a tool, a way to model elements of the real world so they can be better understood and shaped into new creations, a hammer that can be used to beat problems into submission.

The problem with math is that it is taught by math teachers, like Professor Hardy, acolytes of the religion of math, and, frankly, it doesn’t connect with most of us because our minds work differently. For example, if you find yourself in a grocery store contemplating two bottles of ketchup, and the little one is on sale, and you want to know if it is a better value than the big one, do you need to know the cost per ounce down to six places behind the decimal? Of course not! You just want to know which is the better value! We’ll talk about quick and easy math tricks you can do, tricks that will give numbers close enough, though not exact, to answer ketchup problems in a future post. Before we can do that, though, we need to address that math anxiety you caught from listening to math classes taught by the Dr. Hardys of the world.

I teach part-time at Colorado Tech. Sometimes I teach pre-algebra. It is a no-credit course for new students who need math help. Many students fit a profile similar to this: They did not study seriously in high school. They are now in their mid-30s. They are working in a low-skilled job. Something happened that inspired them to change their life. The stories students tell me about inspiration, change, rebirth, and redemption make this my favorite class. Almost without exception, the students fear math but know they have to get through this class to achieve their dreams. You’re going to laugh, but I have developed a two step process that works to eliminate math fear. It is stupid. It is simple. It works!

Step 1: Confront your fear! Imagine your fear as a math anxiety monster. Take a blank sheet of paper. Draw your monster. Ugly, isn’t it? Okay. Kill your monster! Do it in whatever gruesome, horrible way you imagine. Take joy in its death! Wish it good riddance from your life!

Slay Your Math Anxiety Monster!

Slay Your Math Anxiety Monster!

Step 2: Purge negative thoughts! If you sit around thinking, “I’m not good at math,” guess what? You won’t be good at math! Change your self talk! Replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations. Imagine yourself in the present being comfortable with math and using it to solve everyday questions and turn these into affirmations. Post them on your bathroom mirror, beside your bed, or where you can see them at work. Here are some to get you started:

  • Every day, I’m getting better and better at using math!
  • I use math tricks to answer everyday questions!
  • Math is my hammer!

Corona's Hammer
Math Is Your Hammer!

We will talk more about using simple math tricks to answer everyday questions in future posts. Start getting ready by using my silly, simple, two-step process to eliminate fear of math from your life. Why not start today?


[i] Hardy, G. H. (1940), A Mathematician’s Apology, University of Alberta Mathematical Sciences Society