Contract engineering, vehicles and the price of gas

One of the major differences between working as an employee and working for myself is the use of my car.  When I worked out of a central office, going to work meant driving there, then using the company truck to drive to the outlaying studio or transmitter site locations.  Now that I work for myself, I drive either my personal vehicle or the truck that belongs to my company.

Our radio clients are in several states in the northeast and covering all that territory on a weekly or monthly basis requires a lot of driving.  For example, it is 100 miles exactly, one way from my house to Bridgeport, CT.   Depending on what is going on, I can take the 1997 Jeep Cherokee, which has over 210,000 miles on it and gets about 21 miles per gallon, or the 2004 Chevy Silverado 1500 pickup truck, which has 68,000 miles on it and gets about 16 miles to the gallon.  With gas being about $4.00 per gallon, it’s a choice of shooting myself in the leg or shooting myself in the foot.

1997 Jeep Cherokee in early April snowstorm
1997 Jeep Cherokee in early April snowstorm

 

The Jeep I paid cash for in 1999 and I have kept it in good working order.  It is, by far, the best snow vehicle I have ever owned.  I don’t know exactly why that is, it has simple four wheel drive (really two wheel drive because of the full slip differentials).  I imagine the heavy cast iron inline six engine over the front wheels has something to do with it.  This is an important distinction, as many off air emergencies happen in the worst weather.  It is simple and rugged and wearing out.  I keep saying to myself, the first major problem, e.g. transmission or engine, I am having it towed to the junk yard.

Work Truck, Chevy Silverado 1500
Work Truck, Chevy Silverado 1500

The Chevy truck is owned by my company, I purchased it three years ago when I started the solar installation company.  It has the 5.8 L V-8 engine with the tow package and the “pre-snowplow package.”   It has real four wheel drive with limited slip differentials front and back.  It handles like a tank.  I use this when I need to haul tools, materials, parts,  junk or whatever.  I have portable parts bins and tools that I can move from one vehicle to another, as needed.

The problem with these vehicles is the expense in operating them.  I generally try not to take gas payments from the company I work for, as I am not an employee of that company, I’d rather take the mileage write off.  Still, there are times, especially at the end of the month, when I am filling up the pick up truck and watching the gas pump turn over the $100.00 mark, that I have to cringe.

Toyota Yaris 5 door hatchback, courtesy of wikimedia commons
Toyota Yaris 5 door hatchback, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the next personal vehicle will be something more fuel efficient, like a Toyota Yaris hatchback.  They look pretty reliable and get good gas mileage.  If I need to take the big truck, I still have it.  I have just three concerns:

  1. I am fairly tall; will I look like a weenie getting in and out of this thing?
  2. I drive a lot of interstate miles; if I get into an accident will I get squashed like a bug?
  3. Will all my stuff fit in the back of this thing?

That being said, it would be awfully nice getting 36 miles per gallon…

 

I will listen to the shortwave broadcast, but not the web stream

Here’s a secret to all those broadcasters that think streaming on line is the answer to all the worlds problems: It isn’t all that.  I used to like listening to Radio Netherlands (Radio Nederland) on the shortwave.  They have some excellent programs like The state We’re In.  One problem, the only way to get it these days here in the US is via webstream.

The same for many other world broadcasters like the BBC, CBC, HCJB, et. al.  Most of these former big shortwave broadcasters have greatly reduced their operating hours or left the air waves all together.

Issoudun HF antenna, courtesy wikimedia
Issoudun HF antenna, courtesy wikimedia

Streaming content on the world wide web is not broadcasting, nor can the quality and reliability be compared.  Web streaming is far less reliable and offers lower quality than does HF broadcasting.  The former broadcasters which have abandoned the airwaves to the likes of Radio China International will say otherwise, but that is their spin on the situation.  Of course, using and maintaining high powered broadcast transmitters is expensive, especially for governments that are faced with tough financial decisions.

First and foremost, streaming requires that I use my computer as a radio while I am trying to do other things on it.  I bit of background on my computer; I have a 8 year old Dell Inspiron 5150 that I purchased when I was working on my degree.  When I got it, I asked our IT department guys what was the best course for buying a new computer.  Their answer was to get the best, fastest processor available because everything else can be replaced/upgraded.  I did just that, with a 3.06 GHz intel mobile P4.  I have replaced the hard drive with a 200 GB unit and upgraded the RAM to 2.2 GB.  The keys have most of the letters worn off, it has very distinctive wear marks on the case where I place my hands, etc.  It has lived up to my expectations for serviceability and then some.

Even so, it does have it’s limitations.  Listening to streaming audio of watching streaming video is not one of it’s strong points, especially when engaged in other tasks.  Often, when listening to streaming, there are drop outs and other interruptions and the audio just doesn’t sound great coming from the computer speakers.  Even external speakers leave something to be desired, quality wise.  Something about the digitized sliced and diced bit reduced stream that I find annoying and worse yet, fatiguing.

We live out in the sticks.  Our local phone company, in spite of being the largest dial tone provider in the nation, has some reliability issues when it comes to their DSL service.  Several times, the DSL goes out for not apparent reason, returning several hours or days later without comment from the TELCO.  If you call in outage, they always act like they never heard of the problem.

Listening to my shortwave receivers offers better reliability and quality than streamed audio.  I know I am not alone in this regard as several others have made the same comments.  Listening to shortwave is listening to real radio, listening to tinny thin audio over a computer or smart phone is crap.

There is an ever dwindling selection of English shortwave broadcasters listenable in North America.  Nature, as is said, abhors a vacuum.  Therefore, in come the religious broadcasters, false prophets, anti government crack pots, hucksters, other governments with money like China and Russia, pirates and others to fill the void.  That is all well and good I suppose, but I do miss that day that I could get BBC news at the top of the hour on 15400 KHz.

Secretly, I like it when things break, sort of

Not that I am a glutton for punishment or anything, but I enjoy troubleshooting. There is a certain satisfaction in the analytical aspect of tracking down a problem and fixing it, hopefully in a permanent fashion.  Figuring out where a problem is requires a good bit of detective work;

  • Examining the clues; what happened before the failure, what are the fault indications, are there any external factors
  • Round up the usual suspects; a good maintenance log is helpful here to track re-occurring failures.  If the failure cannot be attributed to an external source (such as power surge or lightning storm), what was the last thing that was changed or worked on.
  • Following the trail back to the origin; Often the first failed part found is a symptom, not the actual problem.  It takes some skill in reading schematics and making sense of a failure to trace it back to the real problem.

It can sometimes be exciting, like turning on the 25 KV high voltage supply and have big blue flashes issue forth from the top of the transmitter.  Sometimes it can be quite frustrating, like when the station owners refuse to spend money to fix a problem.  Sometimes it can be dull, like fixing the same problem over and over again because of the previously stated money problem.  It’s also disheartening when the problem was caused by the stupid DJ spilling soda in the console.  Not that all DJ’s are stupid, just the ones that spill things into consoles.

The challenge of finding the root cause can often be enlightening.  I have often discovered unrelated problems waiting in the wings while investigating the why of an outage.  It is great to fix those things before they burn the house down, but this approach often goes unnoticed by the ownership or management.  Lately, for some reason, an once of prevention goes un-noticed or unappreciated.

There is quite a bit of science to trouble shooting, but there is some combination of personal traits that make a good trouble shooter.   These are:

  • Inquiring or curious disposition.  It is fairly easy to get to the first failed module or part.  Discovering the reasons behind the failure and or getting down to the component level takes a good deal more effort.
  • Patience.  This goes with the second part above, it takes some stick-to-it-tive-ness to trace out the not readily apparent problem.
  • Good analytical skills.  Often failures generate a cause and effect scenario.  The effects can be  startlingly distractive and mask the causes and the under lying problem.
  • Ability to view the large picture.  This is critical to discover outside influences and other issues that are indirectly connected to the system or issue at hand.
  • Ability to analyse the system design.  This requires the background training and experience to look at a circuit diagram and discover non-error tolerant systems.  Sometimes these systems can be modified for better fault tolerance.

Poorly designed equipment is the bane of the broadcast engineer.  Equipment manufactures can sometimes fail to follow two key principles: KISS and maintainability.  KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid.  There is no better design criteria than the KISS principle.  Adding layers of complexity increases the failure expectations.  Maintenance can be something as simple as cleaning or changing air filters.  Making maintenance tasks difficult almost ensures that they will not be done.

Bathtub design curve
Bathtub design curve

Eventually, all things wear out.  It also takes some large picture skills to know when it is time to replace equipment and that can vary greatly from situation to situation.

They do it a little differently in Europe

Old world and all that.  I am of the impression that the European broadcast engineers are a more studied lot.  There process involves much more deliberation, thoughtful analysis and planing than ours does.  For example, when it comes to station loudness, most programmers and many engineers (myself not included) to the more is better.  It is thus that we get the Omina 11 and other audio squashers.

The EBU technical group takes a different approach:

EBU R128 (ed: Loudness Recommendation) is the result of two years of intense work by the audio experts in the EBU PLOUD Group

Aside from the above mentioned EBU R128, there are four technical papers dealing with implementation, meters, distribution and so on.  The body of work is a recommendation not a requirement.  I can’t imagine voluntary implementation of something like this in the US.  Even so, there are advantages to having a single acceptable level of programming audio.  It is interesting reading.