It is with great pleasure that we present our annual collection of offbeat Web sites. The 11 months of diligent, intense Web research that produces this column often uncovers Web sites that are totally irrelevant to the topic at hand. These are saved for your winter solstice entertainment. Each of the following sites adheres to the basic philosophy we’ve followed for more than 12 years: authentic content that is zero-cost, noncommercial and registration-free. I hope you find something useful in this exploration of the off-the-beaten-path "sights" that don't necessarily have a rational relationship to the business life of the plant professional.
Honor thy craftsmen
Effective plant maintenance and engineering has its roots in a worker taking pride in doing something correctly the first time and fixing it so it won’t break that way ever again. Most people recognize excellent craftsmanship when they see it. It’s the little details and the precision with which work is completed that define the difference between the skilled cabinet maker in a studio and the typical wood butcher with a basement shop. To see a graphic example of true craftsmanship, point your browser at http://eyecurrent.com, scroll down to the archive listed in the right-hand column and select the January 2008 entry. The 20-minute video there shows how an amateur radio operator fabricates triode vacuum tubes from scratch. And, yes, of course, this craftsman uses several pieces of specialized tooling.
Give an artist a single sheet of paper and something with which to cut it and creativity blossoms — in three dimensions, no less. The Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden hosted a contest in which the rules were just that — one piece of paper and a blade. The entries were simply amazing. But, you can see that for yourself if you cut to http://whyinternet.blogspot.com and click on “Hirshhorn Modern Art Gallery — contest entries” in the January 2008, entry shown on the right side. The 26 entries depicted here include people, buildings, animals and flowers. Words don’t suffice — you’ve got to see it for yourself.
If you fancy yourself a craftsman with a delicate hand, then you have an opportunity to prove it in the virtual world. Our Technology Toolbox columnist, Sheila Kennedy, brought to my attention an online game posted by National Geographic magazine. The idea is that you control three tasks simultaneously using only your trusty desk rodent. As a crane lowers a rotor into a turbine housing, you keep its axis horizontal and centered on the journal bearings while keeping workers out of the danger zone. Give it a try the next time things get boring at the plant. Spin over to http://www.nationalgeographic.com and click on “National Geographic Channel” at the left. Then, click on “Shows” near the top center and again on “World’s Toughest Fixes” listed in the “Featured Shows” section. Finally, click on “Can You Handle a Big Fix” near the top center. Warning: It’s way too easy to overcorrect once things start moving.
Speaking of wheels
That fact we’re a mobile nation is intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer. Those trusty vehicles upon which we rely are subjected to different degrees of maintenance. Reactive people wait until the engine is about to seize before they so much as refill the crankcase. Preventive people get an oil change every 3,000 miles or every three months, whichever comes first, whether it’s needed or not. The rest of us predictive folk listen and monitor and maybe even check the dipstick once in a while. Those comments are here only because I needed a lead-in before mentioning Michael Kaufman, an AMSOIL dealer from Lowell, Mich. He wrote a 177-page book, "The Motor Oil Bible," that you can download at http://motoroilbible.com. Skip to page 17 to avoid the commercial material. From there to page 45, you learn the heavy techno-stuff about oil and get to his main argument that synthetic oils are better than petroleum-based lubes. Kaufman claims that if you use synthetic oil, you can go 10,000 to 25,000 miles between oil changes and rack up 300,000 miles on the odometer. But, he goes way off topic for five pages, beginning at page 145, before returning to the main content of this lubricant magnum opus.
Your vehicle probably needs other fluids, mainly fuel. Even with the recent decline in gasoline prices, you might want to optimize your ROI when you fill up that gas hog. The Microsoft Web site is going to point you to the least-expensive gas station in your area. Drive your mouse over to http://www.msn.com, park on the “Autos” link at the upper left and open the “Gas Prices” door in the lower right. From there you need only enter your zip code to be rewarded with the identity of your gas tank’s best friend.
Perhaps the best thing you can do now is dump that gas guzzler and treat yourself to a new car. You deserve it. If you agree, Edmund Publications Corp., Santa Monica, Calif., wants you to get the best possible price, whether you seek a new or used vehicle. Check out the offerings at www.edmunds.com. There are so many drop-down menus on this site and so many vehicular opinions out there that I’ll leave you to explore in peace.
Verbal precision needed
The reason our economy has been suffering lately might be related to imprecision in what passes for workplace or Washingtonian communication. One can issue directives, knowing full well what is intended, but if the transmission mode is muddled, the receiver won’t understand. Let’s make a New Year’s resolution to clean up our language skills and avoid the BBC’s “50 office-speak phrases you love to hate,” which will appear at http://news.bbc.co.uk after you enter “50 phrases” in the search box.
A real gem of a Web page, “The InventoryOps lame lists,” seems like a natural follow-up to the BBC’s list. In this case, Dave Piasecki, from Inventory Operations Consulting LLC in Kenosha, Wis., offers his keen perception of modern behavior patterns and his opinions about something he sees as much too pervasive in the business world. Limp over to www.inventoryops.com and scroll down on the left side to find the link to “InventoryOps Lame Lists.”
It’s been said that the English language can be difficult to learn once a foreign-speaking student passes some magic age. I think the best evidence of that is found at http://engrishfunny.com, which contains some malapropisms of the highest quality.
If the economy goes south, are we going to be able to afford medical care? Nobody really knows the answer, so it might be worthwhile to learn a little about self-administered TLC, brought to you through the wisdom of a 27-yr-old nursing student in California. Her lore is posted on the forum section of http://allnurses.com, an active community Web site owned by Worldwide Nurse, Savage, Minn. When you check yourself in, click on “Forums” at the top left corner and enter the phrase “read me read me” in the search box (use the quote marks). Then select the entry that mentions amazing home remedies.
To a clever April
In 1997, Alex Boese was working on a doctoral dissertation on silly beliefs and began using a Web site to store his research notes. During the intervening years, the effort morphed into the Museum of Hoaxes, a site dedicated to promoting knowledge about hoaxes. It’s probably sufficient to tell you that paying a visit to www.museumofhoaxes.com will provide access to his hoaxipedia, the top 100 April Fools pranks, college pranks, a history of hoaxes, a list of hoax Web sites, hoax photos and photo tests, gullibility tests and tall-tale creatures.
Fill the iPod
It was William Congreve who penned that famous line: “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast.” It was the opener to his 1697 poem “The mourning bride.” So, when things get a bit dicey or hectic on the plant floor, grab your trusty iPod and chill, dude. Ideally, you want to collect a quantity of aural pleasure sufficient to last an entire shift. Achieving that soothing, Nirvana-like state might be easier if you’re not hearing the same old familiar songs repeatedly. Something else might offer more of the desired calmative effect. Explore that proposition at www.icompositions.com, an Internet community for aspiring musicians. It is there you’ll find hundreds of homebrew compositions in a variety of familiar genres, some of which sound professionally orchestrated, nearly all of which can be downloaded at no cost. You’ll end up with a one-of-a-kind collection.
High-quality digital cameras having multi-megapixel resolution are commonplace. The unit cost of an exposure is so low that it’s possible to shoot dozens of images under varying conditions and instantly select that one perfect exposure. Lighting is a critical variable but the built-in flash on most cameras isn’t sufficient to capture an award-winning photo. Achieving artistic excellence is easier with a digital SLR camera and multiple flash units, but the execution can be more complex. If you want to improve your images, you might want to investigate http://strobist.blogspot.com, a single-focus site dedicated to showing you how to use small, off-camera speedlights to produce something in which you can take pride. This site isn’t for the casual photographer. There’s some serious thinking and planning involved in making good images, but the site can help. It claims to have more than 1,000 articles about lighting. Also, there are how-to videos that help explain the techniques that will separate you from the rest of us amateurs.
Don’t waste your money
With many government entities operating on deficit budgets, charities and nonprofit organizations can no longer expect support from that quarter. It’s going to be up to the good citizens of this great country make a financial contribution where it’s needed. Revealing where you get the most bang for your buck is Charity Navigator, Mahwah, N.J., an independent evaluator of the financial health of more than 5,300 of America's largest charities. The ratings the organization offers show how much of your donation actually goes toward programs. You can see a tabulation of annual revenue and expenses (and trends for both), total net assets and leadership compensation, among other metrics. Reach out your hand to www.charitynavigator.org to help you make your donation before the end of the year so you can claim the tax write-off next April’s 1040 filing says you’re entitled to take. The organization doesn’t rate religious-based charities because they’re not obliged to pay taxes. Before you leave the site, though, I’d recommend you locate “Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors,” one of the articles on the site.
Higher-level programming software, such as Basic, is interpretive, meaning your PC processes the program line by line as written. The Fortran programming language that IBM developed about 50 years ago for heavy-duty, high-performance computing needs special software to translate program code into something the computer can digest. The advantage of the extra step is that compiled programs are much faster than interpretive programs. In fact, Fortran is the lingua franca in the supercomputer world. If you homebrew custom programs in Basic, you might want to try your hand at Fortran. Thanks to Hamzeh Roumani, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, York University, Toronto, you can download a free Fortran compiler, a library of Fortran routines, a guide and user notes, and pretty much everything you’re going to need to make your PC emulate those old mainframe computers. Aim that acquisitive mouse at www.cse.yorku.ca/~roumani/fortran/ to start the downloading.
E-mail Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, at firstname.lastname@example.org.