Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Merry Bee: Riding the String

Riding the String
By Rob Watson

All mechanical devices have development problems. This is especially true when the developer is inexperienced and in a hurry to get things done. In this case "hurry" led to some good news and some bad news. The good news was that the idea to make the clutch hydraulic saved me from figuring out the complex mechanical linkage to make the clutch work. Just mount a hydraulic master cylinder next to the brake master cylinder, screw a slave cylinder to the transmission and you are done. (for the nitpickers, there is a hydraulic line and an actuation rod as well) The bad news was a string attached to the throttle... (actually a length of electrical wire) that could be passed to the control of another person. You made the Bee go faster by pulling the string(wire). Because there was a very limited exhaust system installed, you could also create a great deal of noise by pulling the string.

The a few days before, I had discovered the break and clutch master cylinders both were not working properly: no breaks, no clutch. I took them apart, rebuilt them with new parts, and readjusted them and let them set. On a Sunday I decided to test them out to insure there were no more problems. As I went cruising down the road south of Big Lake in Arkansas, I encountered Jimmy. We chatted for a bit and Jimmy decided he wanted to go for a ride in the Bee.

As we toodled on down the road (I liked to drive about 50) Jimmy saw how the throttle worked and asked if he could operate it. Presumably, he was enamored with the increased speed and increased noise associated with jerking on the string, 'cause he was working it over.

You may recall that road is mostly straight on the east end and passes through unoccupied areas. There, speed and noise were not a problem. The west end is curved and occupied.  As we approached the curves I tried to get Jimmy to stop jerking on the string. Apparently, he was otherwise occupied to the point of ignoring me. No problem, thinks I. Engage the clutch, depress the breaks. Still noisy but we would slow down. Nope, nope, nope!!!

When I depressed the clutch it went, easily, all the way to the floor and stuck there, without disengaging the transmission. I immediately depressed the break. It slipped easily to the floor and stuck there without engaging the breaks. No Clutch, No Breaks, and a madman jerking on the throttle.

Fortunately, after a few seconds of pure terror, I remembered there is always an option of last resort, on automobiles it is the ignition switch. I turned the key as the Bee zipped through a series of S curves with Lake on one side and big trees on the other. ( it has always amazed me that, in the movies, someone is driving a car that goes out of control and they never, never turn off the ignition... But that is the movies)

When the engine died, while roaring down the road and the madman jerking furiously on the throttle, Jimmy looked at me with a look of pure puzzlement. When the Bee came to a complete stop, I demonstrated to my puzzled passenger that neither the break nor the clutch were working. He did not faint or die of fright...  it was a near thing either way, I am sure.

If you get the chance, ask Jimmy to tell the story. His is a much more dramatic version.

PS: at the risk of ruining a perfectly good mystery, The problem turned out to be: I had used the wrong kind of hydraulic fluid. It caused all the rubber parts to swell up and stick... once depressed they leaked around the seals and would not return to the original position. The lesson from this: if the book says use DOT 3 hydraulic fluid, use DOT 3 hydraulic fluid, or you may end up "riding the string" and need to remember about the ignition switch.

Social Security may not be a bad deal

Today I started, as all good mathematicians and scientists, with a hypothesis: Social Security is a bad deal for those who have been gainfully employed all their lives. Ultimately there are two cases. First Case is my out of pocket expense and potential return. Second Case is the return on the total paid to Social Security by me and my employer.

As you may know there is no money in the Social Security Trust Fund. A Democratically controlled congress, back in the '70s I think, took all the cash out and spent it, all future surplus was also put in the national treasury and spent. The trust fund now contains a pile of IOUs to be paid from future income taxes. (If you have an income, you get to pay yourself for your Social Security "entitlement")

That said, the following is pure speculation as congress may decide we are not entitled to our entitlements after all... they having the wisdom to spend our money as we might have if given the choice. (yep, you bet)

Case one: Having applied for early Social Security benefits at age 62, My entitlement payment is X dollars a month. As I am embarrassed at the smallness of the number, it will remain a secret. However, I have used standard financial formulas and calculations, you should be able to put your X in and have your numbers.

Step one was to find how much I actually paid to Social Security from age 13, when I was paid to work in my parents store, to the present. 52 years. Social Security reported that total annually until I started taking benefits. I built a spreadsheet, entered each annual payment, and calculated the future value of these to the present.  That is 112.5X for the total of all the years, Which had to be calculated separately because the SS tax rate changed almost every year. I did the same for medicare: 26.3X

Next I wanted to figure out what I would be able to get if I had that 112.5X dollars. First I looked up an insurance association web site. They had a calculation for figuring the lifetime return from an annuity, payments continue to death, no survivor payments: .7136X. From Medicare I would get : .1664X Please notice the placement of the decimals. I would get about 88% of what Social Security now pays, from the annuity. ( but then again SS takes back some of my X so it may be a wash)

Case Two: The total paid to Social Security, my money plus the employers contribution, is fortunately, exactly double. Then, look at these numbers. From an annuity I would get 1.76X out of which I would have to pay about .2X for a $2500 deductable Health Insurance policy similar to what Medicare provides. That is to say I would be forced to live on 1.56X instead of X.

Conclusion: I doubt I could live, in any condition except poverty, on the X. With 1.56X I could live in comfortable poverty. What would surprise me more than anything if the X does NOT trend to zero. Does anyone know what Walmart pays those greeters?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Stories of the Merry Bee: In the Beginning

Stories of the Merry Bee: In the Beginning
By Rob Watson

The Merry Bee was a hot rod. She was black and yellow. I built it myself, well, mostly. It had parts from 23 different automobiles and all four major auto manufacturers. (this was back when there were four major auto manufacturers and the only import was a Volkswagen Beetle.) The name came from a really pretty girl with which I had a short, unsuccessful relationship. Her name was Mary B... (and who ever reads this first will be the first person, other than myself, to know the real origin of the name)

As I got ready to head for college, I wanted a car. The Ford place had a nine year old 1957 Chevy. They wanted $100 for it. I had a hundred dollars, but, alas, not my parents permission to buy it.

During my Freshman year, a good friend and classmate had twin brothers as roommates that had built a hot rod. They had sold it before going off to college. They had a set of books that had detailed information on each of the systems that made up a hot rod and gave them all to me. I was on my way. I even got my parents permission to build the thing. (It was always clear that the permission was granted with the firm belief that the car would never be finished.)

During the summer after that freshman year, another friend and former classmate came home on leave from the Navy. He happily joined the search for something out of which to make a hot rod. For a week we queried people, followed rumors, and chased ghosts, driving all over the north central part of the state, looking for a suitable body and frame. On the last day before my friend was to return to the care of Uncle Sam, we drove out of his neighborhood by a different route. There, sitting in a yard, a block from his house, was the perfect candidate... a 1931 Ford coupe body and frame.  The owner was willing to part with this treasure for the paltry sum of $20. At a junkyard in the big city we found a 1949 ford front axle, wheels, and drum assemblies, along with a complete oldsmobile rear end. (All recommended by the set of books.) Within days I had ordered the correct size front wheels and drag slicks for the back. We had also acquired an old oldsmobile engine for $5. It met with an unfortunate accident in being transported. (The statute of limitations has probably expired and my parents have expired as well so, I may relate that story in my section about evading the law.) The replacement engine and transmission came from the 1957 Chevy that was now languishing in a local junk yard.

As long as it is true confession time, I should disspel a myth I have fostered myself. When asked, and sometimes when not asked, I told listeners I started building my hot rod by buying four tires and working my way up. A total fabrication as you now know.

College raised its ugly head again and I was off to continue my education. On weekends I would come home and haul the frame to a welder to have  it reinforced. With the engine and transmission in hand, the welder was also able to fabricate the needed mounts. Ditto for the front and rear axle assemblies and the steering mechanism.  To this point all skill and knowledge came from experienced people or books. From here on out the tasks became my own to accomplish.

With the frame and mounts all done I began to take all the assemblies apart. I needed tools. I could have borrowed Dad's but I bought my own top of the line sets... which, almost 50 years later, I still have and use. (To date, I have never paid another person to repair any automobile that I have owned... well, except for paint and body work. I am no good at those things.)  In taking each thing apart, I figured out how it worked and how to repair it and put it back together again. Oops, there is one exception to the above extravagant claim. I hired two real mechanics from the Chevy place to put my engine back together again.

The first real adventure came the day these two mechanics finished assembling the motor. They chose to assemble the motor in the frame. The frame had the front end assembly (springs, axle, steering, and wheels) in place on the front and the rear end assembly (springs, axle, and wheels) in place in the rear. This had been towed to their house to be worked on in their garage. I also trucked all the engine parts.

Patients has seldom been one of my attributes, and in this case, it had not infected my two mechanics. When the engine was complete everyone wanted to see if it ran. Most newly and properly assembled engines are hard to turn over. (start) I had Daddys truck and a chain. The plan was to tow the frame/engine to get it started. The mechanics laid a board across the frame for a seat. One sat on the board and steered, He also had a string tied to the curburetor to control the throttle. The other sat on the transmission with a crowbar, operating the clutch and shifting gears. The valve covers had been left off to adjust the valves, once the engine was running.

I tied on the chain, hopped in the truck and started dragging the thing down their residential street. Within a few hundred feet the engine started. The mechanics adjusted the valves and set the timing. The engine purred like a happy kitten... only louder as there were no mufflers attached. With everything running it seemed a shame not to go for a ride. I untied the chain, hopped on the board and off we went, oil spraying out the missing valve covers and all.

We drove out of the subdivision and down a country road for a mile or so, then back again, judging the engine to be running low on oil. I only remembered later that I had not changed out of my Sunday clothes, which were now covered with oil spots (the oil never came out).

Monday, August 1, 2011

Best Boss

Best Boss
By Rob Watson

In my post on my First Year Teaching I described what had to be the worst long term experience of my life. The readers of this will be better prepared for the following if they have read that post.  My second year teaching was only a point or two, on a scale of ten, better. However, I closed that first tale on a happy note: my new boss (Principal) was the best boss I ever had. This should in no way be taken as a mark against the half-dozen or so other really good people for whom I was privileged to work over the years. (There were some bums in there as well.)

A couple of weeks after leaving my first teaching job, I was invited to visit my new school and meet Principal. He was a big man but not fat, Early fortyish, short salt and pepper hair. He had an outdoor look and moved like an athlete. He had a confident air about him. When he spoke his mouth took a distracting twist. He was a vast encyclopedia on the people around him. His judgement of these people was always direct and without error. When I spoke to him a few years ago, I found he still thought I had a good knowledge of my subjects. (I was exceedingly careful not to prompt an opinion of my classroom control skills)

Like my first principal, Principal handed me my books (6) from which I was to teach six different math classes in five periods. (unlike year one I had 2 1/2 months to prepare, instead of 2 1/2 minutes) He showed me to my classroom and gave me its history... An old music room that had been added some years after the main building had been built. He then carefully described a "situation" from the previous year. Two students had filed a law suit against a coach for physical abuse... they were paddled for bad behavior. The suit came to trial and the students lost.

Principal showed me pictures of these students and instructed me not to ever touch them... If they became a problem I was to send for him immediately. He then described other students and problems I should expect from them and how to best handle those problems. These sessions continued throughout the year. With his own four children in school, Principal had his own "information network". I never doubted that he got regular reports on me and all my successes and failures.

My one glowing success, the story of which went around the school like a grass fire in a Wyoming wind, involved a math problem. I think the class was Algebra. I had given a set of word problems for homework. Next day several students reported one of the problems could not be worked. I told the students to pay attention while I worked the problems on the board, then we would look at the one that could not be worked. I put the three problems on the board and explained how each should be worked. Then I worked each in  turn. When I asked about the problem that could not be worked... "It's the second one on the board."

Apparently, a group of the smarter students got together to do a "group study" on the problems the day before. They were unable to find a solution and went to the 8th grade math teacher (who also taught an advanced form of algebra to 8th graders... this was in the years before it was thought 'advanced' classes hurt the self esteem of those who were not in advanced classes) This man is an entirely competent mathematician. (I can only guess he had a brain freeze at the time) He was unable to find the solution.
Thus, the stranger and outsider out shined the here-to-fore math whiz. (and, yes, I am fully aware this was not much of a success)

One afternoon, last class of the day, a brain freeze of my own lead me into what could have been a repeat of the "monkey" incident of my first year. I was explaining problems on the board. The student directly in front of me had turned his back to me and was talking to the girl behind him. I picked up a foot long chalk board eraser and tapped him lightly on the ear. the residual chalk on the eraser covered the left side of his face. Before the class could stop laughing the bell rang to end the school day.

A minute or so later I was "invited" to my classroom door (located beside the stream of students exiting the building) to face an extremely angry mother. She was breathing fire. To condense the data stream, it seems she was concerned that I had, or could have, caused her son brain damage. My mouth was open but nothing came out... much to the amusement of the students walking past.

Out of nowhere, Principal showed up. He got between the mother and myself and completely shouldered the fight. I became, no more or less than, a casual observer... of a battle over my competency. Principal insisted I was competent and without flaw of any kind (which, I am sure, Principal could have had cause to doubt). As the fight raged on (much to the amusement of the students walking past) the recurring theme of brain damage brought me to my senses.

I judged this mother to be a sane and competent person who was just under stress. With that in mind, I walked back into the classroom and picked up the eraser that had hit the student. I walked back to the edge of the ongoing shouting match and began to flex, twist, and bend the offending object. (You see it was quite soft and flexible with no hard parts)

The mother's eyes caught this motion. She stopped in mid sentence and paused without comment eyeing the flexing eraser. Principal also paused. After several seconds she asked me if that was the eraser with which I had struck her son. My only spoken words of the encounter: "Yes, ma'am." Mother took the eraser from me and flexed and twisted it in her hands.

Mother handed the eraser back to me. She grabbed her son by the shirt collar, gave him a serious jerk and said "come on boy" and walked away without another word to me or to Principal. While this young man was large and tended to be troublesome, I never had another problem with him. Principal, much to his credit, never retracted a word he spoke in my defense, not in my hearing, nor that of my friends.

If my sources are correct Principal assended to the position of Superintendent of Schools for that school system. He later became a school board member, then school board president.

My wish for you, the reader, is that sometime in your working life, you have a boss like Principal. One who recognizes your flaws and uses that knowledge to guide you to a be a better professional. One who also has the strength of character to defend you against all detractors.