Saturday, March 30, 2013

Allen Key Entity Extraction I: Mazak the Misaligned

(Disclaimer: this gets heavy on technical stuff. If you have zero interest in machines, you should probably stop reading now. Part 2 and/or 3 will have more general entertainment. If you like machines, keep reading. You might learn something.)

     It's been a while since I've posted anything. That's largely because grad school life doesn't lend itself to many interesting stories (at least not my grad school life). I spend about half my time sleeping, commuting, eating, and generally taking care of myself. The other half of my time is split between class, research, errands, dicking around, and a little side project I'm working on for fun with these guys: Basically, the most exciting thing that happens to me on a regular basis is recognizing total strangers on the T during my morning commute.

     Incidentally, and not totally unrelated to the bore-factor of my life, research can move really slowly sometimes. For the last three months in particular, not much has been accomplished in lab on my part. There's a few reasons for this:
  1. IAP. Why would I work that hard when I'm used to taking all of January (for the last four years) to do absolutely nothing?
  2. Up until recently, I didn't have a well-defined project. It's hard to move forward on a project when you don't... really... have... a project?
  3. The lathe I need to make some critical components for my test fixture has been pretty massively misaligned for ages
     As it turns out, I am the responsible lab member for maintenance of the lathe. I was given this job after I voluntarily started performing repairs on the machine last semester. I had worked in this lab my junior year, and had spent a lot of time with the machine already. So much so that people would joke I was having an affair with "Billy Mazak" (Mazak being the brand of lathe). Anyway, my penchant for machining and restoration of old broken equipment (see: my cars) has led me to be quite involved with the Mazak these last few months. It's a very capable machine: the Mazak Super Quick Turn-15MS, or Billy for short, is a production style machine, similar to this one: The major difference is that our Mazak is from 1993, so it's not quite that nice. But it does have a 15 kW primary spindle, and the milling option and secondary spindle (critically, as you'll come to learn, no controllable y-axis).

     Since the Mazak is from 1993, and is in a research lab staffed primarily by graduate students, it's seen a fair number of collisions and misuses in the last 20 years. So it's not miracle that a few things are misaligned and out of calibration. I started off with the simple things in December. The tool eye (a super precise touch sensor, basically), used for touching off tools so the machine knows their position relative to the parts, was misaligned. The tool eye swings out on a little motorized arm like the one shown below.

     Once the arm is out, the operator touches the tool to two of the four faces of the tool eye (one X face, one Z face. The +Z face is being used below). This lets the machine know where things are. It's similar to when you turn a part on a manual lathe, and you measure the diameter of a test cut to calibrate your tools. Except this is more precise (0.001 mm precise), repeatable, and automated.

     The tool eye needs to be aligned and calibrated. If it is slightly rotated and the sensor faces aren't normal to the axes they're measuring in, things get inconsistent. Imagine your +Z face is slightly off-normal. If you move your tool in X, it will move further or closer to your +Z face, and your measurements will vary. The tool eye also needs to be clean. The little holes at the base are actually air nozzles that keeps dirt and grime from landing on the ground surfaces of the eye. After those two criteria are met, some test cuts are made, parts are measured, and then the tool eye position has to be derived and set as a software parameter. Seemed like a good place to start.

     I grabbed some manuals and read up on the procedure. Basically, a calibration block, consisting of two ground flat faces about an inch apart, is bolted to the +Z side of the tool eye, and a dial indicator (this one in particular) is mounted to the turret (the part with all the tools that rotates into place), The turret is moved in X, and the difference in Z between the two edges of the calibration block is measured. The four machine screws holding the tool eye down are loosened, and then snugged up. Then, using a hammer and punch on the back side of the calibration block, small impacts are used to rotate the tool eye into place. Yes. This is the official, published procedure. If you are unaware, precision machine alignment is often a matter of hammering something that's really hard to move into place, one micron at a time. The trick is having precise measurement equipment.

     So I did this alignment. As far as the indicator read, the two edges of the block were in plane. The indicator is guaranteed 3 micron accuracy and has a resolution of 1 micron. The process really wasn't that bad (not nearly as bad as aligning the head on a Bridgeport, at least). So I started getting confident. When I got back from winter break in January, I decided it was time to align the main spindle. This is where things started getting frustrating.

     The main spindle's axis of rotation on a lathe has to be parallel to the Z axis of the carriage/turret. If this isn't the case, an undesired taper will be introduced to your parts (e.g. if you turn a bar of constant diameter, one end of it will be larger than the other). So I attempted to measure this runout. My first attempt involved putting a large drill rod in the spindle and moving a dial indicator axially along its surface. Seeing that the runout was large, I pulled off the spindle covers. This turned into a bit of production.

     The Mazak is an enclosed CNC. It is designed to run unattended on a factory floor, and at fairly high speeds. The machinery is enclosed by thick steel panels designed to keep operators safe from runaway bricks of steel, moving parts, flood coolant, and high voltage. However, to get at the headstock for alignment, these panels need to be removed. Our machine is buried in the back corner of our shop, on the first floor of a 103 year old academic building. We have way too much equipment, and it gets a bit cramped back there. Seeing as nobody had needed to access this part of the machine in recent years, a fair amount of stuff had accumulated: disassembled lab benches, broken down shelving units, rubber mats, and probably some deceased wildlife (I suspect I blocked that part out from memory). I began clearing things out. After lifting some two inch thick wooden table tops out from behind the machine, I finally reached the bottom of the pile. All that remained were a few rubber mats. I began tossing those aside. At the very bottom was a roll of rubber. I went to toss it aside, and almost threw out my back trying to pull it off the floor. At this point, it occurred to me that this was actually a four foot long, six inch diameter roll of lead sheet, used for shielding our home-made x-ray cabinet. You can see the end of the roll against the wall in the image below. After struggling for a while, I eventually gave up. I don't know how that roll got there, but I suspect it's going to stay there for many years to come. 

     After freeing up some space to work, I had to remove four large steel panels. Two of them involved some precarious use of the engine hoist in a cramped corner to pick them up and move them. Thankfully, no photographic evidence exists. The end result was an exposed spindle and associate high voltage (the machine is fed with 480 V. Turns out 15 kW is a lot. An average house draws about 2 kW). Fortunately, between the Electric Vehicle Team and working for Tesla's Battery Safety and Technology Lab, this wasn't my first time working around high voltage. 

     After all this work, I realized by that a drill rod long enough to give reasonable resolution (I was measuring microns over ~400 mm, in the end) will have a large enough variation in straightness to invalidate the entire measurement. Realizing this, I decided to use the correct technique.

     The published method for checking spindle alignment is to take a long, large diameter piece of material, and turn the outside diameter. After this, the diameter at the two ends of the turned surface should be measured, and if there is a diametrical variation, the spindle and Z axes are not aligned. So I did just this. I had specifically bought a 25-50 mm and a 50-75 mm micrometer for this purpose a few months earlier. The misalignment was massive! It was 84 microns over 300 mm. Or so it seemed. It turns out that when you have a 40 mm aluminum rod unsupported for 300 mm, it's really hard to take a cut on the end of it without deflecting it slightly. This kind of invalidates the entire taper measurement. So I had to step it up to a larger diameter piece of stock. Unfortunately, the largest collet we have is 40 mm, so I had to swap the collet head out for a three jaw hydraulic chuck. 

     Turns out leaning into a machine, holding a 49 lb chuck with one hand, and using the other to screw a large nut inside of the chuck onto the end of a hydraulic cylinder is difficult to manage. So rather than asking a labmate for help, I opted to make a rig. I grabbed a large piece of round aluminum and placed it over the open door, with one end on either side of the opening. Using a hoisting strap and some zipties, I made a sling and mounted that on the rod. using some aluminum sheet and some aluminum blocks, I made a pair of wedges to keep the bar from rolling around. I then placed the chuck in the improvised sling and let it bear the weight, freeing up a hand for carefully maneuvering the chuck into place. Once the chuck was mounted, I obtained some larger diameter stock and threw it in the machine for another go at machining the OD.

     Initial results were promising. The taper was reduced, and there was no audible chatter while machining the end. At this point, I assumed the spindle was, in fact, going to need alignment. So I went ahead and started looking for a wrench to loosen the six large hold down bolts on the headstock. The first problem: whatever is used to loosen the bolts will be used to tighten them. Tightening them requires a torque wrench, which means they need to be square drive. Each bolt has a 14 mm hex key socket. The largest square drive hex bit we have in lab is 8 mm. After spending a few days scouring various shops on campus, my housemate's automotive tools, and local hardware stores, I gave up on finding a 14 mm socket drive hex bit. Buying one online will cost a lot of money and more time, so I gave up and decide to make my own. I grabbed a piece of oversized hexagonal steel, and using my lab's wire EDM, I made it into the appropriately sized Allen wrench. I then used a regular socket wrench to drive it.

     The second problem: each of these hold down bolts is spec'd at 250 ft-lbs of torque. For perspective, my car's engine puts out about 100 ft-lbs of torque. We build medical devices. We don't have torque wrenches large enough for this job. So I spend another few days trying to find a torque wrench large enough. After exhausting all but one resource, I went to a shop on campus  (which will remain unnamed) and was kindly lent one under the table.

     And so, I went to align the spindle. Fortunately, I accidentally stepped on the pedal which activates the hydraulic chuck. This meant the part unfixtured, and the previous OD turn was no longer a valid reference surface for alignment. I say "fortunately" because had this not happened, I would have misaligned the spindle. After unfixturing by mistake, I performed a new OD turn and found that the taper was reduced. I had removed less material on this pass than before, which seemed to indicate that the bar was still deflecting during the operation. As such, I carefully tweaked my cutting parameters, and eventually the taper disappeared (well, 2 um over 300 mm. 1/150000 is basically zero), and the results were repeatable. And such, after 2.5 weeks of "spindle alignment", it turned out that the spindle had never been misaligned to begin with. I was a little annoyed. So I tried to make the most of the situation.

     The covers I removed had exposed the mechanism for the parts catcher, which had stopped working many years ago. Basically, the parts catcher is a box on a rotating shaft that is actuated by a little hydraulic motor, and it flips up during a parting (cut-off) operation to catch the finished part and deposit it in a box, rather than at the bottom of the coolant pan. It had mysteriously stopped working long before the current batch of grad students started. I began debugging the hydraulics system. Eventually, I found the appropriate solenoid. I triggered the mechanical override on the valve and the parts catcher flipped up, very slowly. I adjusted the flow control valves until it moved at a reasonable rate.

     Clearly, the problem was not of a hydraulic nature. So I began diagnosing the electrical system. I pulled the connectors on the solenoids and got a multimeter. The solenoids nominally get about 99 VAC. I tried issuing the parts catcher command, and observed no change. So I pulled off some of the other solenoid controls for working components (like the caliper for the spindle's disc brake), and tested them. It seems that the difference between on and off is about 1 VAC. Strange. Well, it was clear that the solenoid was not getting the appropriate signal. Just to be thorough, I swapped the control wires from the disc brake to the parts catcher, and tested to ensure that the solenoid worked when it received the proper signal. It did. Unfortunately, this meant that the problem was either a controller problem, or a software problem. Since I have little faith in software, and because it's a little easier to get at than the CNC controller, I decided to pursue a the software route.

     Turns out that 1993 was not a good year for CNC controller software. Nor were any of the adjacent years, for that matter. All of the parameters for machine settings are hidden in these parameter menus, where every parameter is given a number (such as B49 or Q152). To understand what that parameter controls, you take the number, and you look it up in the manual, where an explanation is given. For some parameters, such as the ones that control the tool eye offsets, you put in some number that has physical meaning. For others, you put in some number derived from a formula. Some parameters are simply eight bits, and you input a string of ones and zeros to turn certain features on and off. Seeing as the machine does not have non-volatile memory, and it is 20 years old, when it loses power for extended periods of time, the back-up battery gets depleted and all parameters are reset. I know this has happened a few times. So my best guess at this point was that one of the parameters was not set correctly. The obvious solution would be to look through the parameters manual and find the one that corresponds to the parts catcher. Unfortunately, nothing is ever really easy with this machine. Mazak doesn't publish about 70% of the parameters, because they don't want users changing them. As such, I wound up looking online, and there aren't very many resources available. Eventually, I started digging through ancient documentation our lab keeps in the annex. I found a copy of the parameters list, with many years of edits scribbled onto it. Unfortunately, of the hundreds of eight digit parameters, only a few are labeled, and none of the labels or comments mention the parts catcher. So, in a brute-force approach, I wound up going through the entire list, checking each parameter one by one, until I found that a pair of bits were swapped. Sure enough, swapping the ones and zeros resulted in the parts catcher suddenly working again.

     After making a note on the paper parameters list about the parts catcher, I decided to pursue fixing another long-running problem on the Mazak: the inability to single-point right hand threads. When single-pointing threads, a triangular cutting tool (i.e. a tool with the profile of a single thread) is moved across the surface of  the part, and its motion is synchronized to rotation of the spindle, so that multiple passes can be made along the same exact trajectory, eventually leading to a nice spiral thread, as seen here (incidentally, we just this exact lathe in lab. It's a little benchtop unit. I was responsible for coordinating the purchase and getting it set up, which was a whole other set of headaches. The threading only happens in the second half of the video). Single-pointing is great. It allows you to quickly and easily cut custom threads that are nice and concentric, with way less hassle than using a tap or die. For some reason though, the Mazak doesn't like it. It'll approach the part, and then just stop and not move. No errors will be thrown. However, the operation works fine if the spindle is spinning in reverse. This basically means we can only cut left-hand threads. After many hours of searching through the parameters list, nothing came to fruition. I went to the internet, and after determining that our machine is the only one with this problem, I asked a machinist forum for help. Using some procedures they passed along, I recalibrated the spindle encoder. This involved sticking some o-scope probes inside of a box with some high voltage in it and carefully adjusting tiny potentiometers with a screwdriver while the motor was spinning until the waveform was correct. That was unpleasant, and frankly, unhelpful. The spindle speed tracking improved, but the threading problem was not resolved. I eventually gave up and put the covers back on the machine. Maybe it's time to call Mazak and see what they say. I doubt that'll be terribly helpful though.

     With everything back together, I realized it was time to pursue the major alignment project: the turret. The turret has been notoriously misaligned for years, meaning that all the tooling was off by about 150 um radially, in the Y direction. Since the machine has no control over this axis, there's no calibration or software solution. While the vertical error is acceptable for simple OD and ID turns, it was proving to be problematic when using live tooling, as any holes drilled in the face of the part would be in the incorrect location, which often resulted in non-functional parts. Unfortunately, I did not realize how long the turret alignment would take, nor how many resources. Look for the next two parts to learn how fire, diamonds, cavemen, and precision machinery all come together into one miserable experience.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Let's try this again.

      Hrm.... So I started this entry at the beginning of my summer. I then began working 60+ hours a week. So it got cut short. But I figure I can post it anyway, since apparently people keep asking for me to start my blog again. So here. I'm starting my blog again. Maybe I'll start regular postings again. But seeing as grad school is pretty uninteresting at the moment, you'll have to deal with an incomplete story from 5 months ago. Enjoy.

Monday, June 20, 2011

We will return to your regular programming shortly

     Ahem.. I've been absent from the blogosphere for a bit longer than anticipated. If you're wondering why, it's because The Chief and I have had many more adventures since the one below, and they happen at such high frequency that I can't keep up with writing about them. But more on that later. I expect to finish part three of the first misadventure with The Chief shortly. And trust me; they only get better from here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bonding time with The Chief - Part 2: Medium James to the rescue!

     So Tuesday was a disaster. There's really no way around it. I had discovered a few minor issues, but there was really only one critical issue on my mind. The Chief kept overheating, and I didn't know why. Regardless how awesome the zebra print interior is, a Jeep that can only go two miles before breaking down is pretty useless. That night, I did some research on overheating issues. I found a few potential causes. There were a few of the usual suggestions: thermostat getting stuck closed (could be, because there was definitely circulation), auxiliary fan failure (due to fan, relay, or temperature sensor failure), or water pump failure (again, there was definitely circulation, so unlikely). However, I learned that the old (1988-1992) XJ ran a closed cooling system, meaning the overflow bottle had to keep pressure in it. This elevated pressure raises the boiling point of the fluid, allowing the coolant to run hotter. However, the previous owner was oblivious to this and filled the overflow bottle to the top, meaning it built too much pressure and blew the cap off. In general, this system is not highly praised in the Jeep world. I had some leads, now it was time to investigate.

     I went to work on Wednesday and mentioned the failure to my coworkers. They noted that I could probably work on the Jeep in front of The Bunker (the building where our lab is located: nicely recessed into a hill and full of bomb-proof equipment). This was good to know about. I would definitely need a place to work.

     After I got out of work, I called Big/Medium James, who had just arrived in Palo Alto on Monday. I asked if he wanted to meet up and help me rescue The Chief. He and Leonid were both just sitting around and watching TV, so they agreed that they might be up for an adventure. They decided to pick me up from Tesla (since they literally live up the street), and off we went to find my car. I remembered vaguely where I left it (at the intersection of 84 and 101 in Redwood City), so we made our way over by use of road signs and a vague sense of direction. On the way, I found out Leonid (the driver) had only had his license for a week. Just long enough for them to drive cross-country. Upon arriving at the parking lot where I had left it, I was relieved so see that it was still there. After all, none of the doors lock (well, they don't unlock, so I don't lock them). I guess if somebody had decided to steal it, they wouldn't have gotten very far.

     After Big James and Leonid laughed at the sight of The Chief, I got on with investigating the problem. Being more informed than before, I knew what to look for. I discovered two major issues. First off, the pressure bottle was stripped and certainly leaking, causing all the coolant to boil off (I later discovered that there was a black mark on the inside of the hood from when the cap blew off.. More pierogi, please). The second issue was a bit of an unexpected one. It was, as suggested, a problem with the auxiliary fan. However, it wasn't the relay or the sensor. I just didn't have and auxiliary fan. I'm not sure how that even happens.

     Well, that was it. The coolant system couldn't really be fixed on the spot. I had to get the car somewhere more workable. I believe that at some point, the plan was to get it back to Jason's place. However, that was quickly deemed a bad idea, and I decided that Tesla was closer and more conducive to working on cars. So I topped off the coolant and went back to the gas station from the night before to make sure I had enough gas to get me to Tesla (I didn't trust the gas gauge at this point. Turns out it's one of the few things that does work like it's supposed to). Being from Jersey and all, I'm not too experienced with self-serve gas. I've done it before, but still. On this occasion, I wasn't sure if the place took Discover, and seeing as I still didn't have a checking card (this seems to be a motif in these stories), I chose to pay with cash. Which I had never done at a gas station before. After becoming severely confused by why I couldn't get gas, James and Leonid told me that I had to go inside and pay first.


I knew that.

     So I went inside, to find the guy from the night before. "You're still here??" he said. I explained that I had left the car for the night and that I didn't get back to it until after work. At this point, he went off into some story about his brothers car breaking down, so he had to skateboard to work, or something. I don't know. I asked for $20 on pump 4, verified that I could use the hose outside, and went on my 'merry' way. It occurred to me last night that I may have left the filler cap at the gas station.. FML.

     After putting some gas in the tank and verifying that the fuel gauge worked, we filled up the two empty antifreeze containers with water from the hose and agreed on a plan. I would follow behind Leonid and Big James, and every two miles or so, we would stop to let the engine cool down and refill the coolant system. Off we went. I obviously stalled at a few lights, so in hindsight, it may have been better for James and Leonid to stay behind me at a safe distance (in case of stalling on a hill and rolling back). They were serving as navigation though, because I was going to be too busy trying to keep The Chief alive to be bothered with anything more than following the car in front of me. To be safe, I was keeping the revs up at lights to prevent the engine from sputtering and dying like it had the night before. Also, the higher revs with no torque meant that the main fan was pulling more air over the radiator while the engine wasn't producing too much additional heat (or so I like to think).

     About two miles into the trip, I waved for Leonid and James to pull off El Camino Real so we could check the status of the coolant. They responded instantaneously and gave me no time to react, so I drove right past them. I pulled off at the next possible location. Imagine my surprise when I found myself here:
Yes. I had pulled into the empty (but incredibly classy) parking lot of Ferrari/Maserati of Silicon Valley. Thank god they were closed for the day, as I'm positive I would have been shooed away immediately. James and Leonid pulled up a few minutes later, laughing hysterically. I grabbed the water from the trunk as James took this fantastic photo:
Upon opening the hood, I found the coolant bottle had sealed well and not boiled off all the coolant yet. So while I gawked at the Ferraris and Maseratis behind the glass, The Chief cooled off for the next leg of the journey.

     That next leg was not particularly long. I started smelling burning oil and noticed steam from under the hood. I waved James and Leonid off the road and we pulled into a small neighborhood. The overflow bottle and unsealed and sprayed coolant everywhere, and boiled off the rest. Flash boiling is an unpleasant thing when in a car. I let The Chief cool off some more and we sat around for a while. Finally, I refilled the coolant, and decided that refilling the antifreeze container would be a good idea. After spending about five minutes trying to figure out if we could just use a hose on the outside of one of the houses, we decided to just knock and ask someone to fill the bottle for us. We then spent five minutes trying to determine which door was the front door. Finally, we knocked and were greeted by a trophy-wife, who gladly filled the container with water.

     Off we went. And not much later, we were on the side of El Camino Real, right in front of the Stanford campus. I discovered that I do have a hazard light button, hidden on the steering column (where I had looked the previous night with no success). However, only the right rear indicator worked, which suggested I was trying to get back into traffic. No hazards it was. While Leonid walked off to the Trader Joe's across the street for some tasty mozzarella balls, James and I sat around waiting for The Chief to cool down before refilling the coolant, again.

     Eventually, we headed off again. At this point, it was already dark. We finally got off of El Camino and onto Page Mill Road, which we thought was the last leg of the trip. Leonid decided he wanted to turn off well before Deer Creek, though, and wound up at an entrance to one of the many HP buildings. He also decided to liberally use the brakes in front of me. We were in a parking lot, so I just drove around him and over a traffic island in the middle of the lot. This is why I bought a Jeep. O, and then I stalled, right as the steam started pouring out from the overflow bottle de-pressurizing. So it was probably a good thing that Leonid had taken a wrong turn.

     We stood around in the unlit parking lot for a while, forming a small circle around the container of mozzarella balls. We had each pulled out our pocket knives and were using them to stab the balls an eat them.  Eventually, The Chief cooled down again, and driving over another traffic island on the way out, we departed on what was to be our actual last leg. With the exception of stalling on a hill an almost rolling back into the BMW who had gotten to close (hey, he deserved the scare, for being that close), everything went smoothly. We dropped The Chief off in front of the bunker, and after our 3.5 hour, 10 mile long journey, we went to In-N-Out.

     We retreated to James's, Leonid's, and Karen's place to eat our In-N-Out and hang out for a bit. The adorable house cat demanded attention and took our minds off our journey. Finally, when it was time to leave, I realized I had left the keys in the ignition. On one hand, I knew it wasn't going anywhere. On the other, that's just poor practice. So James kindly drove me back to Tesla to grab my keys before dropping me off at home. We had started at 6:30 pm, and by midnight, all we had accomplished was getting The Chief ten miles, and eating some In-N-Out.

Clearly, I had some work to do.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bonding time with The Chief- Part 1

     So you may have noticed, but I haven't been on top of this blogging thing as much as I would like. Mostly because I've been busy this week. I had arranged to buy the Jeep on Tuesday. In between looking at the car and buying the car, I had to figure out how to pay for it. I called my bank, and found out that the "only way" I could get cash was via postal money order. However, you need to purchase a money order with a debit card.. Which I had lost. So, I had to settle for using Jason as a middle man and writing him a check to cash. I feel bad, because I was about to suck Jason into a lot more of my problems than I would have liked.

     I had agreed to meet up with Paul for dinner on Tuesday after work. We met on California Ave and caught up while watching people ogle at his electric motorcycle. We finished our meal and went our separate ways. I had arranged for Jason to pick me up at the California Ave Caltrain so he could drive me to go get the car. I had brought a copy of the Kelly Blue Book estimated value of the car in hopes of talking the price down. It occurs to me that I should have done this before agreeing to buy the car. This isn't the last lesson in buying cars I would get.

     We arrived in Redwood City, and Jason asked me if I had bought insurance yet. Hmm.. I had shopped around for insurance, but for some reason I thought there was a grace period between buying a car and insuring it. It occurs to me that this was a stupid assumption, but since I had already shopped around for insurance, I knew who to buy it from. So Jason offered to look up the phone number while I was inside taking care of all the paperwork. Off I went, to attempt to negotiate price and to transfer the title.

     I walked up to the house and greeted the grandmother with a Polish "Good day!" She was ecstatic. Needless to say, negotiating the price didn't work out. Since I was still paying less than I had planned to spend on a car, I didn't mind and moved on. Next came the paper work. The Polish mother reminded me of my very own Polish mother. Similar haircut, similar build, similar way of talking. And of course, she works for a bank, so she knew how to handle all the paperwork (much like my own mother). It was rather hilarious hearing the daughter debate with her mother (not unlike my own mother and sister). The daughter spoke in Polish though, as her parents made her when she was young. The mother recounted "When they were young, if they spoke English to me, I would speak Russian to them. I don't understand you, and now you don't understand me!" Reminds me of when my parents would speak Russian to hide things from my sister and me.

     The paperwork went reasonably well. No real snags, apart from writing my first name before my last name (a common problem I have. Maybe I should just start writing Nawrot, Michael on all of my psets and tests). At some point, the daughter made a similar mistake and cursed in Polish. I snickered and she responded with "O no! I can't say that in front of him! He understands!" The entire time, the grandma was using the mother as a translator. Finally, as I was leaving, the mother finally caved and explained, "Mama! He can understand you! He just can't speak very well!"

     The grandmother was even more ecstatic. Suddenly I found myself in a casual conversation littered with broken Polish and resulting laughter. I don't remember much of the details, but the conclusion was as follows:

"Here, take some home made Pierogi with you!"
"O, wow, thank you!"
"Mama, I babysit near Tesla! Next time Grandma makes Pierogi, I'll bring him some!"
"That would be amazing! Thank you so much! You guys are too kind"

... For what follows, they owe me a lot of fucking Pierogi.

     It didn't start off too bad. I got out of the house, got the insurance company's phone number from Jason, thanked him for the map, and told him I would catch him later. He left, I got in the Jeep, adjusted the seat and mirrors, and went about attempting to drive stick for the first time (excluding the stick I've driven on an electric Porsche, of course. But you can't stall an electric car in the same way, so that doesn't really count). I'm glad I know the theory and the physics behind it, because I'm sure it would have taken me forever to figure out otherwise. So I put it in reverse, stalled once, and then set off on my merry way. I was going to drive it around the block to get used to it, then call the insurance company once I was no longer in front of their house (to not be creepy and awkward and all). I did just that, with many a stall along the way. At this point, it was getting dark. I called the insurance company and started going through the motions. In the meantime, I had noticed a few quirks about the car. The dash illumination didn't work, there was no interior lighting, and the glove compartment was tiny. Things I could live with or easily fix. The lady from the insurance company was quite friendly and helpful. However, when it came time to check my license and driving record, we ran into a bit of a snag. "Sir, the DMV database for New Jersey is down for maintenance... I'm not sure we can do this tonight. I'll give it a try, but it might be another twenty minutes or so. I'll give you a call back."

... Great. I had nowhere to be, so I continued practicing around the block. At some point, I got a voicemail. I pulled over and gave it a listen. Turns out the database was probably down for the rest of the night. Great. Screw you, New Jersey DMV. I'm not even in New Jersey and you still find a way to make me wait. At this point, I was stranded and needed to find a way back home. Driving without insurance, despite my momentary lapse of reason, is stupid. So I called Jason and asked if he could please come back and pick me up. I felt like a bit of a tool at this point. the Jeep smelled like it needed a rest from me burning the clutch up, so I got out and wandered around for a little bit. Finally, the insurance company calls back and informs me that I have been successfully insured. Right about then, Jason shows up. I felt bad for having him make the twenty minute drive yet again, but at least now I had somebody to guide me home.

     Off we went. The burnt smell hadn't quite gone away, but I figured the clutch had enough time to cool off that it was probably fine. I stalled a few times on the way up to the 101, at lights here and there, but I was keeping up and only pissing off a few people. Then the shit hit the fan (well, if there was a fan to hit). We pulled up to the last light before the on-ramp to the 101. As I was coasting down to a stop, clutch fully depressed, the idle dropped and the engine cut out. Uh Oh.

     I pull up at the light and tried to get the engine to turn over. At this point, Jason was two cars in front of me, first at the light, and didn't really have much of a choice but to go. This intersection was quite busy, and the people behind me were very frustrated when I didn't go. Even worse, I couldn't find the button for the emergency lights. I was stuck at this massive intersection with no engine to move me and no way of alerting anybody around me of what was happening. The light changed several times, and at some point, I got the engine to start. The idle was terribly rough, and it sputtered and died before I had a chance to move. Finally, after several more light changes, the engine came on, but this time, I kept the revs up by holding my foot on the gas. The guy in front of me kept inching forward, afraid I would run him over. I guess waiting at a light with a big Jeep roaring its engine at you could be a bit intimidating. Finally, the light changed, and momentarily breaking my streak of bad luck, I didn't stall. I rolled around the corner and into the nearby gas station. Right as I rolled in, the engine sputtered and died. This night was not over yet.

     I got a call from Jason as he was trying to make his way back to me. He had taken a wrong turn and almost wound up crossing the Dumbarton Bridge. It was going to be a little while. So I popped the hood and found out the cause of my problems. The coolant overflow bottle was completely empty. I opened the trunk and found some gloves, rags, and antifreeze. Seems like somebody had had this problem before me. I sure would have liked to have known that ahead of time. I checked the oil as a precaution and proceeded to refill the coolant bottle. At some point during this process, Jason showed up and helped me push the car over a speed bump and into the light. I filled the bottle with antifreeze, and watched it all disappear somewhere. Luckily, we were at a gas station.

     I went inside the station and asked for some antifreeze. The guy pointed to some and said, "It's right there, but I'm afraid we're closed"

"O.. My car broke down and I really need some antifreeze."
"Well, I guess if you really need it.. But I just counted all the money and I don't want to do it again.."

Too bad I didn't have my Visa.. *kicks self*

"Ok, thanks a lot man."

*rings it up*


     It occurred to me at this point that I had run out of cash, so I had written a slightly larger check to Jason, as a sort of ATM transaction on top of the money for the car. However, this meant I only had two $100 bills on me. I pulled out the hundred and the gas station attendant just glared at me. "You've got to be kidding..."

Luckily, I had a single and I let him keep the $0.13 of change, so he wouldn't have to count the coins again.

     Needless to say, we attempted to refill the coolant some more, running the engine a few times only to see the coolant disappear into nothingness yet again. I threw in the towel (or rag, I suppose) for the night. The gas station attendant was leaving right as I did so, so I asked him where I could park for the night. He pointed me to some spots, and as he left, I got the engine to start just long enough for me to pull into a spot and kill it. I got all my stuff out of the car (seeing as it doesn't lock at the moment) and drove off with Jason. It was close to midnight now, and I had started this whole car buying trip around 7:30. We stopped at Jack-in-the-box on the way back (delicious, by the way), and ate in Jason's living room while I researched potential causes of the problem.

Fun fact: If you search 1988 Jeep Cherokee, the second autocomplete is "Overheating".

After doing some research, I went to bed, hoping to recover The Chief the next day. I was exhausted from all the excitement, but unfortunately, it wasn't over....

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fog City

      Well, I hear it gets pretty foggy, but that certainly wasn't the case on Sunday. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen so much sun in my life. But that's besides the point.

     After looking at the Jeep and getting some lunch, I decided to get off my butt and go into the city. After failing to find someone from the 'tvte who was in the area and wanted to go with me, I packed up my laptop and bag and took off to the Caltrain station, with only a vague idea of where in the city I would end up, and even less of an idea of what I was going to do. Turned out that I was going to do a lot of walking and should have packed lighter.

     I arrived at the Mountain View Caltrain and ran into a bit of a dilemma. I was approaching my credit limit, I still didn't have a checking card, and I only had a small amount of cash that was supposed to cover me in the city. Now, Caltrain has a policy that you're supposed to buy a ticket before boarding the train, and they check it on board. However, in all the times I had ridden Caltrain up until that point, I would buy a ticket, and nobody would check it. I felt like I was bleeding money for no reason. So, I was awfully close to not buying a ticket, based on previous experience, but my gut told me, "If you don't have one this time, it'll be the only time they check for it." So I bought a ticket, and of course, while I'm staring out the window and listening to music, I hear a faint tapping through my headphones. Ignoring it for a while, I finally turned around to see a ticket-checker (I feel that any other name would over-glorify his job) looking up at me angrily. Well, at least I think it was angrily. He was wearing sunglasses (inside the train -.-), so I couldn't tell. I fumbled around and eventually found my ticket, at which point, he grunted and moved on, disappointed that he couldn't kick me off. I found it rather obnoxious that on a two level train, he just walks on the lower one and bangs on the ledge of the upper one to get people's attention (these train cars are super weird. Note the giant hole in the second level)
     So I passed the time on the train by some combination of listening to music, reading the musings of James May, and sleeping; at some point, I'm pretty sure I was doing all three. The train finally arrived at the last stop, I got off, and walked in the direction I thought the bay was, because I wanted to walk up the coast of the peninsula and take pictures of the Bay Bridge. So I walked a few hundred feet, crossed a small drawbridge, and wound up here:

     So I may not be from around here, but I thought San Francisco was supposed to be a city... Not a giant empty lot. I was a little confused and kinda sketched out by the lack of any signs of civilization. Luckily, I turned around and saw AT&T Field, home of those other Giants (I usually forget that when people talk about the Giants, they don't always mean the football team). I had been a little disoriented, but I managed to find my way back to civilization shortly thereafter. Even though the Caltrain station did put me near some interesting landmarks, I was still a little puzzled as to why it was on the very edge of the city. It just seemed odd.

     I crossed back over the drawbridge and started walking toward AT&T Field, as I knew that the Bay Bridge was just up from there. Whilst walking past the stadium, I caught a glimpse of this awesome piece of engineering:
Look at this freakin' counterweight!

     I wandered up past the stadium and found a nice big green area, and watched a man play catch with his dog for a while. As Jessie would say, "PUPPY!"
And a flying one, at that. I hung around and messed with my camera a bit and enjoyed the beautiful weather. It was a pretty great scene, with people enjoying their three day weekend with their children and their dogs (there were about equal quantities of both), the nice new city on one side (new compared to Boston, at least):
the bay on the other side:
and this thing in the middle:
... I guess it's better than Transparent Horizons. I'm afraid to admit it, but I actually kind of like it. Maybe because it's so massive. Maybe another perspective for a slightly better sense of scale:
Note the tiny people in the not-too-far-off background.

     As you can imagine, the green grass and large piece of scrap iron lost my interest pretty quickly, and so I moved onto that large bridge in the background, stopping along the way to watch some high school drumline performing for cash outside of some high class restaurant. Like I mentioned, my only real objective on this trip was to see the Bay Bridge. I'm an engineering dork, and I spent a fair amount of my time prior to MIT watching big engineering projects on TV (despite the host's occasional blatant stupidity, I still enjoy watching "Build it Bigger" on the Science Channel). The Bay Bridge counts as a big engineering project in my book. Just look at it:

That's a cargo ship on the right, by the way.

The bridge is 74 years old, 4.5 miles long, has an island in the middle, and carries over a quarter of a million cars a day. Freakin' 74 years old! They were so much more hardcore, back in the day. It's also on Route 80, so if I really wanted to, I could get on the Bay Bridge and go straight back to Flanders, NJ without a single exit in between. The bridge also just seems to loom over the city.
Long story short, I think it's awesome. Deal with it.

     After spending far too much time staring at the bridge, I got sick of all this sunlight making my head hurt. I wandered off between the buildings to get some shade, and to find the Transamerica Pyramid. I did so rather easily, mostly just by looking for the big pointy thing in the sky. I took some more photographs to fulfill my voyeuristic engineering urges, but my camera is ten years old and they managed to disappear between taking them and putting them on my computer. I'm obviously devastated, as you should be. Now how can I prove to you that there's a giant "church" of Scientology across the street? You'll just have to take my word for it.

     After craning my neck for a while at the base of the pyramid, I went off to find some food on Market Street, walking through the financial district along the way. About half way to market street, I noticed a Cathay Bank. I was under the impression that it was just a sketchy Chinatown bank in Boston, but no, it's apparently a sketchy Chinatown bank with locations all around the world. This made me even more annoyed with my bank for its sparse locations.

     I eventually stumbled upon Market Street and walked back and forth a few times, looking for a place to eat. Unfortunately, it being a Sunday, everything was closed. I am disappointed San Francisco. You're not supposed to be like Boston. Things are supposed to be open on Sundays!

     In my wanderings, I did a careful job of dodging the homeless, the unemployed, and the hippies. Everyone below the age of sixty seemed slightly eccentric, at the very least. At some point, I gave up on trying to find a reasonable place to eat and settled for fast food. I wandered into a Carl's Jr, which is apparently the fifth largest fast food chain in the country (even though I had never heard of it before). After getting my food and watching some crazy people get theirs, I sat down on a stool by the window and ate my food. At some point, a man wandered over with some food and sat down near me. I didn't really think anything of it, since he didn't seem particularly crazy or homeless.

"Mind if I sit here?"
"Not at all"
"Ok. I just know some people like to be by themselves so they can have time to think. I didn't want to intrude"
"Heh, nah, it's fine. Don't worry about it"
"Where are you from? You don't mind me asking, do you?"
"No, not at all. I'm from Boston."
"Man, Boston!? What're you doing all the way out here?"
"I'm working for the summer"
"Really? What do you do?"
"I'm an engineer"
"Shit man, an engineer? That's awesome. There's a lot of money in that.. Yea man.. Lots of money"

... Uh oh. Maybe I was wrong.

"I'm not gonna lie to you. I'm homeless. I may not look it, but it's true"

     Ugh... Yea, I was wrong. The conversation went on. He explained to me that he was 63 years old and has had HIV for the past 20 years (didn't look like either of those was true), but something about some "drugs they have in California" was "keeping him alive", and he was "one in a trillion". It was hard to follow what he was saying once the crazy came out. At some point I gave him the rest of my french fries, but he kept talking. Something about him being very spiritual, how hard it is to get a job, how cold it is at night - Wait, what? I interjected here.

"Yea, I've seen the homeless in Boston out in the snow during the winter.. It must be so rough"
"... O.. Shit. In the snow? Really?"

Based on his facial expressions, I imagine he was thinking, "Hm... Maybe it's not so cold here"

     The fries were not enough, and he continued begging for help. I had already been sucked into casual conversation, so my technique for ignoring the homeless and crazies wasn't going to work here. I was getting frustrated by my pocket change, and I did feel for the guy, so I gave him the fairly decent sum of change in my pocket. He continued to beg. I lied and told him I didn't have any other cash. I actually had about $20 in my wallet, but seeing as my means for getting cash were limited, I wasn't in a rush to give it up. Also, it's never a good idea to pull out your wallet in front of a homeless person. Eventually, he started asking me to go to an ATM and get money for him. Here, I was able to tell the truth.
"Sorry man, I lost my debit card. I can't get money from the ATM."
"Come on, I know how it is with you kids these days. You just gotta punch a few numbers and you can get cash"
"Yea, but I lost my card, so I can't. Look, I wouldn't lie to you "

Err... Yea, well, I'm not convinced he was telling the truth either. They guy on his ID didn't look like him.

"Come on. I'm begging you. You need me to beat someone up?"
"No man, it's cool. I've got nothing against anyone"
"Come on. I will beat someone up for you. Need anyone beat up? Need someone's car to get fucked up? I'll do it"

     If you couldn't guess, I was really anxious to get out of there at this point. He was finishing his food, and once he was done with that, I was afraid he'd follow me out the door, or hang around and beg if I stayed. So I looked at my phone to check the time and said, "Hey, I've got to run and catch a train. I'm really sorry I can't help you out anymore. For what it's worth, take this-" I passed him my drink, which I had pretty much forgotten about "-take care of yourself, man"

     I walked out the door and quickly walked away from the Carl's Jr, in case he decided to follow. Glancing behind me, it seemed as though he had stayed where he was an I had actually gotten away. I briskly walked back to the Caltrain station to wait for the next train to San Jose. I had walked a ton and been exposed to enough crazy for one day. I didn't know what else to do in the hour before the last train out, so I just took the second to last train instead. I got on board, relieved that things would go back to being calm for the rest of the evening.

     Except they didn't. I sat down in a mostly empty car. A little while later, all these kids started piling into the same car, wearing sweatshirts from various big name schools, like Cornell, CMU, UC Berkley, Brown, Princeton, Yale, etc. They all seemed to know each other, which all made sense when I saw one of them wearing a Stuyvesant shirt. Ah. I see. So, living up to their reputation (although I certainly know some likable people that went to Stuy), they were obnoxious for the entire train ride. At one point, one of them was convinced that they should attempt to have a party with "all the interns in the bay area." Good luck with that one, buddy. They wound up playing several games of Mafia over the course of the train ride, having people standing in the aisle and getting in the way of Caltrain employees and passengers who were attempting to get on and off the train. I'm not really familiar with the game of Mafia, but it seems like a moderately less nerdy version of Dungeons and Dragons, but with people pretending to be mobsters while one guy dictates a story that he makes up. Needless to say, it was really annoying, and I was glad to finally get off the train in Mountain View. I walked home and called it a day.

     The following day was Memorial Day, but I decided not to do much of anything. I found out that Jason lives within walking distance from an In-N-Out (and by walking distance, I mean a 40 minute walk), so I went there for lunch. I got two double-doubles, one of them animal style, as well as animal style fries. It was a bit too much, to be honest. But it is strangely addictive, for some reason. On the way back, I stopped by a convenience store and bought some batteries for my camera. This is what I got:
Welcome to California, I guess?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A little bit of irony and a whole bunch of crazy

     So after failing to accomplish anything on Saturday, I set out to make up for lost time on Sunday. I followed up on the craigslist ad for 1988 lifted Jeep Cherokee and went to Redwood City in the morning to take a look at the car. I have to admit, it's not the best car in the world. But it has one hell of a personality, and I kinda fell in love with it on sight.
How could you not, right? If the mildly dented exterior of a former rock-crawler isn't enough to sell you, try on the zebra-print interior accents.
Pretty snazzy, huh?

     So Jason drove me out to yet another San Fransisco suburb to this garage sale, and I began investigating the car. As much character as the car has, it does have some non-ideal things about it. For starters, the sway bars are in the trunk, which is not where they're supposed to be. They should be visible here:
... Yea, they're not there.

Ok. So I can't corner too quickly, unless I want to find myself on three wheels. Luckily, I wasn't planning on being too aggressive in the corners anyway. At the very least, I have the swaybars, so I will be able to reattach them if necessary. The truth is, they do slightly reduce the off road capability of the thing, which is 90% of the fun of owning a Jeep.

     Apart from that minor issue, the body work has a few nicks in it, but for the most part, it's in pretty good condition for something that has spent a good portion of its 206,000 miles and 23 years away from conventional roads. The rear floodlights (and quite possibly the front floodlights as well) are not hooked up, but that's an easy job, and they're only necessary for off-roading and high-beaming the a-hole behind me (as Lou would do). The interior is a bit utilitarian, but that's exactly what I want. Perfect for getting covered in mud. Just pop off the zebra-print seat covers and throw them in the washing machine. The exposed wiring is a little questionable, but it just makes it easier to work on.

     So the owner (a woman in her mid twenties, if I had to guess) offered to give me a drive around the block to see how she ran. I went to get in the passenger seat, but the door was locked. So she tried to unlock it. No luck. We tried again. No luck. Her boyfriend (his buddy used to own the car) came over and wrestled with the lock a bit. No luck. You can see a pattern forming here. Eventually, we wrestled it open. I'm pretty sure it just needs some WD-40. So the passenger door doesn't unlock, and it also appears that the trunk doesn't lock... I'll put that on top of my list of things to fix.

     We took it around the block, and she seemed to run fine. Upon returning, I told the woman and her boyfriend that I was sold. When it came to the topic of price, the boyfriend and I didn't really know where to go. The woman asked, "Has either one of you ever sold or bought a car before?"
"Aw, this is adorable! I'm just going to stand over here and let you two figure it out"
Not much negotiating was done. Unfortunately, I feel like I'm overpaying a bit. However, they do have another Jeep coming soon that is busted but can be salvaged for parts, which they'll let me have access to for free. And apparently the boyfriend's mother works for NAPA, so they have agreed to get me discounts from them. Even still, it seems a bit high. I've got my copy of the blue book estimated cost, and we'll see if I can talk them down. Worst comes to worst, if I can't talk them down, it's still less that I was planning on spending on a car. Having the ability to go off-road over the weekends will certainly make this summer more exciting, and the cost of fun is probably equivalent to whatever extra amount I pay.

     So that was it. The car was mine, as soon as I could pay for it (damn you, local banks). The woman ran off to get her paperwork while her boyfriend manned the garage sale and Jason and I sat in his car listening to the Red Sox game. Upon returning, we signed some things and made some copies, and at one point, I showed them my license. The woman exclaimed, "O wow! I've never seen a New Jersey drivers license before! It's so cool! Mom, I need to get my Polish drivers license"
"Wait, you're polish? Me too!"
Heh, fancy that. I'm buying a Jeep from a fellow Pole. Her mother and grandmother were there, and we exchanged some words in Polish (mine was rather broken and slightly embarrassing), but suddenly, everyone seemed to trust each other a lot more. It was a pleasant little coincidence.

     I left with a copy of the title and a signed agreement, stating that the car would not disappear on me (like that 190E I was hoping to buy, but was sold right out from under me). On the way back, Jason and I passed a little reminder of home:
Unfortunately, that's a bluer sky than the real Mass. Ave ever sees.

     Now that I think about it, it's a bit ironic that I'm buying a lifted Jeep, seeing as I'm working on zero-emissions cars. As Nick so accurately put it, now that I 'have' a lifted Jeep, I'm going to have to get a lowered Prius to make up for it. I'm not sure if I really want to drive this thing to work every day. Among other things, I'm not sure if the spots are wide enough to park it. Tesla has increased the number of employees and therefore the number of parking spots. However, the parking lot has not changed in size, so the parking spots have just gotten narrower. There seems to be a fundamental problem with this approach. I'm sure they'll realize it soon enough.

     After the whole car bit and a tasty burrito for lunch, I decided to head to San Fransisco for the remainder of the day. This is where the "whole bunch of crazy" mentioned above comes into play. However, it's late, I have work in the morning, and I'm not really in the mood to keep typing at this point, so I'll have to recount my odd experience in SF tomorrow, at which point, I will hopefully be in the possession of a "brand-new" 1988 Jeeeep Cherokee.

     I'm thinking "The Chief" is a good name.