AAA goes from service to up-selling

Just a few days ago I returned from a short trip to find my car battery dead. Instead of getting out my jumper cables, I decided to call AAA with whom I have a Plus membership.

Calling them to request a jump-start was simple and they quickly dispatched a tow truck. I’ve been a member since 2002 but have rarely had to call them. So I was pleasantly surprised when they followed up with a text message with a link to a map which showed the location of the AAA truck in real-time. They even have an app I can use to request assistance without calling.

Once the tow-truck driver arrived he quickly jump-started my car and at this point I expected him to give me some advice about being careful and then leaving. However he started taking pictures of my battery. I asked him why he was taking pictures and, instead of responding, he put on a smirk and ignored me.

I’m surprised that AAA has removed being polite from their training. He then hooked up a device to my car which I later found out was a B2QTech Battery Tester. He took some measurements and came around to me and told me that my battery was on the verge of dying and that I should buy a battery he just happened to have in his truck.

I declined his offer knowing that AAA would overcharge me for a $40 battery and the 10 minutes of labor it would take to replace the battery. As a parting gift the technician emailed me a [B2QTech Battery Test Report (http://content.nexms.com/b2qtech_b1_battery_report.pdf). The so-called “report” looks completely bogus considering the battery was dead just a few minutes ago. Of course the battery is going to be under charged and in “poor health” right when it has been dead for a while.

I’m really surprised that AAA now trains its drivers to up-sell the customer and treat them with rudeness. I’ve kept my AAA membership for more than 14 years because they’ve taken care of me in the past and given me peace of mind knowing they’d take care of me if I got stuck. There are now many alternatives out there and it is in our best interest to keep them in mind.

A Cheap Standing Desk For Small Spaces

I used to live in a small space and didn’t have the space for a desk as well as a chair. While walking around at Ikea one day, I noticed they have a very versatile shelving system called IVAR. IVAR comes in two sizes, about 35×20 inches or 19×12 inches, and in a variety of heights.

I decided to try out the smaller one, the 19×12 inch version, for a standing desk. I found they are good for storage, but also make excellent standing desks.  Besides the sizes, you can also choose how many shelves you want. I got a 5-shelf version for about $70, similar to the one Ikea shows on their page here. For stability I opted for two X-supports instead of the recommended single X-support. The shelves are adjustable in about 1/2 inch increments so you can easily set them up to match your height and arm length.

I put my monitor on the top shelf and keyboard and mouse on a second shelf adjusted for my arm height. my laptop and power strip go on the fourth shelf. With all that, I still have two more shelves for storage or additional computer peripherals. I put a Novaform memory foam mat on the floor to help with fatigue.

There are a couple drawbacks though. It is hard to see the keyboard since it is hidden by the shelf supporting the monitor. But that isn’t a big problem if you are a touch typist and only need to look at the keyboard occasionally. The small shelf isn’t wide enough for a full size keyboard and a mouse. Luckily I have a 10-keyless Deck Keyboard. You can also get by with putting the mouse on the top shelf with the monitor.
Removing the shelves takes a lot of force and one of the shelves developed a crack during dis-assembly for my last move. I don’t think the IVAR shelves can take a lot of moving around. The shelf, typical of Ikea quality, is stable for vertical forces but, despite the X-supports, a wobbly when pushed forward or backwards.

One assembly ‘hack’ is to flip the legs over so the big gap is at the top, basically to do the opposite of what Ikea shows on this page.  This way you have more room under your monitor for adjustment.

Overall it is a decent deal for $70 considering regular stand-up desks can cost $200 and up, require much more space, and don’t have as many storage options.

A picture of my setup

IKEA IVAR stand-up desk shelf

Watson EN-EL14A Lithium Ion Battery Pack Review and Pictures

I’ve recently become interested in photography. I have a Nikon D5100 and while I can take several hundred pictures by themselves, using the screen and taking video tends to drain the battery. Since I only have the one battery my Nikon D5100 came with, I decided to get a second battery for extended photo sessions.

Looking at the B and H Photo website, I had the option of purchasing an OEM Nikon EN-EL14A battery for $42 or a generic “Watson” brand battery for $30. The reviews for the Watson battery were mostly positive. Both batteries had free shipping so the choice was clear – I picked the Watson battery and saved the $12 for future shopping.

The battery shipped and arrived surprisingly fast. I ordered it on a Thursday and it was at my house on the following Monday. I opened the package and plugged the Watson battery into the OEM Nikon charger that came with my camera. It charged fine. Nikon is known to puts chips in their batteries to keep out competitors but this battery worked in my D5100. I was able to take pictures and change settings right away. The Watson weights about the same as the OEM Nikon battery but I expect it to last a little longer between charges because it is rated for 1150mAh vs the 1030mAh the EN-EL14 (no A at the end) that came with my camera.

I will update this page if the battery doesn’t live up to expectations. For now the battery functions the same and lasts as long as my OEM Nikon battery.

Pictures

Front
Front of Watson EN EL-EL14A Battery in Package

Back
Back of Watson EN EL-EL14A Battery in Package

So You Want To Be An Electrical Engineer …

In my spare time, when I’m not working on this site, I work as an Electrical Engineer at a somewhat major semiconductor manufacturer. I’ve been at the company for 12 years – ever since I graduated from college. For those heading to or in college contemplating Electrical Engineering as a career, I suggest looking for an alternate career path. If you have the aptitude to succeed in engineering then you most certainly will make as a doctor. If you get a bachelors degree in engineering then Finance or Law are good options.

Things to consider:

The hours are long and unrelenting. I’m usually at work at 7:30AM, leave at 6:30PM, and can count on working through lunch once or twice a week.
Weekend work is frequent and we often work over major holidays because the FAB will get their product out before the holiday so they can take time off. So we end up debugging over the holiday to meet customer commits.
Companies promote “work-life balance”. Mention this if you don’t want to work over a holiday or need to go home early and you’ll be marked down as a complainer.

Job security is non-existent. Despite our loyalty to the company, we’re on the chopping line every time there is a downturn or even a hint of a downturn. They say the employment is “at-will” meaning they can fire us at anytime but we can also quit at any time. However the balance of power is asymmetric – we rely on work for health insurance and literally the food we eat. But to the company we are replaceable commodities.

You are always competing against your peers. Companies use stack ranking to grade employees on a bell curve. Even so called “successful” employees are rated on levels of “goodness”.
This forces you to compete against your co-workers. Why share knowledge or help someone when you can do the work yourself and claim the credit? Or wait until there is a crisis and then swoop in to save the day?
Despite claims that only bottom performers are fired, recently we had a mass layoff where all “good” employees that had been on the lower end of good for the last two years were laid off. The reasoning was that even though the employees were rated “good”, they did not try harder to improve.
Of course the corporation did not take personal circumstances into account – one had been ranked low because he was taking care of a sick wife, another had been put on a low priority project by his manager, and another was dealing with kidney failure which leads me to my next point ..

If you get sick then you’ll be forced out. In the United States, the Family Medical Leave Act or FMLA allows a person to take up to a year of unpaid leave if they get sick or have to take care of a sick relative. If you are away from work then of course you’ll be ranked lower than your co-workers because obviously they are working and you are not. Guess what? You are now a target to be laid off for low performance!

There is rampant age discrimination. You may be young now but someday you’ll be old. The tech industry does not want older people because they tend to be slower and expect to work reasonable hours. Why pay an older worker when you can pay a new graduate a little less and have them work more? Doctors and lawyers on the other hand, gain more respect as they age and are revered for their experience.

It may sound like I’m complaining. I’m not. I feel like I’m paid well for my work but it is a tough industry without good prospects as you get older. The best thing to do is to work hard, save your money, and work on a side business you can grow into a full time job when you age out of engineering.

Review of the Cirque Du Soleil Show – ‘O’

I attended the Cirque Du Soleil Show “O” at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. I had seats in the center section in the third row from the front. I paid $160 for the seat. While the show is good, if I could choose again, I wouldn’t pay $160 to watch it from the front. I’d sit towards the back and pay the the $100 to $120 I think it is worth.

My thoughts on the show …

I didn’t gain much from sitting at the front. Parts of the show take place in the middle of the theater and it was difficult to watch that from the front. Also, a lot of action occurs on the sides of the stage and it was difficult to keep everything in sight without moving my head around because I was so close to the front. I would recommend sitting towards the back of the front section to keep everything in view and also see the parts of the show that occur in the middle of the audience.

It seemed like some of the performers were new or out of practice. it could have been that they were just out of practice since this was the first show of the week. For example, during some of the water scenes the people on the outside seemed to be a half beat out of sync with the center. In another scene some of the performers weren’t keeping up or the coordination was lacking and one even dropped their scarf.

Be sure to bring your own water or get a drink before you go to the show. There are no water fountains, even at the restrooms in the theater lobby. The only water was the “$7 for a small bottle” water.

Pricing for souvenirs is similarly exorbitant. Before the show they had people going around taking photographs of attendees. At the end of the show these photographs were being sold at $40 for just two prints. Don’t bother with the gift shop – even the discount rack was expensive. You are better off purchasing souvenirs from Ebay.

The stage pool is marvel of engineering. The surface of the water is very smooth and despite the pool being filled to the surface, the audience was not unintentionally splashed. The pool has a floor that allows the depth to vary and it even comes up to create a solid floor.

The set itself is also interesting. Instead of the traditional rise or part, the curtain is pulled back and disappears into the background. At closing it is pulled back into place. Overhead there is a huge crane with a rotating section that operates very quietly. Look up during the ship scene to see it.

Here are several videos online that go behind the scenes and give a preview of the show.

Behind The Scenes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhvYbWg3-iQ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuVduewBMBA

Official Trailer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4ywwKBKTCM

Le Rêve

La Rêve is a similar show at The Wynn hotel. I imagine their pool and technology is similar to the one used by ‘O’.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmBzWOE3ktM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ULQQVz9Ek

 

Résumé Tips for EE Majors

Unlike Computer science where people are changing the world through apps like Uber and businesses like Amazon, Electrical Engineering is a boring sedate field prone to outsourcing and poor employment prospects. Most companies have their own unique processes and tools which makes it hard to transfer experience to other companies. It is a very competitive field that is undergoing consolidation – giants like Sun and DEC die regularly and the industry is headed towards large monolithic companies that can afford to fab on the latest processes.

So it is not surprising there is a surplus of newly minted EE graduates looking for employment. These new graduates are competing with experienced engineers for the same few spots. The problem with most resumes I see is that they are similar with little differentiation. I’ll gladly hire a new graduate over an experienced person if they can show they can go outside the box and learn fast. Here is a list I’ve compiled of common flaws I see in the new graduates I’ve interviewed.

Learn to code – Most EEs are not exposed to programming beyond introductory C and C++ or Java. Computers now are used in every aspect of design and test. We embed dynamic code in our test flows and processors are designed using HDLs like System Verilog. Actually learn a programming language and do a few projects with it. While dynamic languages are more popular – C, C++, Perl, Python all have similar concepts and knowing just one will help you solve most programming problems interviewers will throw at you.

Know what you put it on your resume – I see a lot of people throw things onto their resumes that they see in the job description. Don’t say you know Python or Perl if you have no experience in using it. If it is a language used on the job then you are guaranteed to be asked about it. Nothing makes an applicant look bad like not knowing the difference between a Python hash and list or C scope rules.

Grades matter – It is a sea of mediocrity out there. Everyone takes the same classes – Verilog, circuits, semiconductor physics – so we go to grades when we have to choose someone. Given the same courses and no experience, a person with a 3.7 GPA has a better chance of getting an interview than a 3.4 GPA. Some may say that grades don’t matter – they do matter when you have nothing else to differentiate you. A GPA tells us of the person’s capacity for learning and their aptitude.

SONY DSC
Don’t you wish you lived here?

Have an internship or hardware volunteer experience – Internship or volunteer experience makes you stand out. They tell us you have experience with working on an actual project, dealing with people, and meeting deadlines. I know internships are hard to get and having one tells me you you can get through another company’s hiring filters. That gives us more confidence in you.

Take outside classes – Another way to differentiate yourself is to take classes outside of school. Take classes on Coursera or other online MOOC. Coursework outside of school shows me you can take the initiative to learn on you own to fill in gaps in your knowledge. Of course I’m going to first call candidates that will go the extra mile to learn on their own.

Work on side projects – Always have a side project going on. A new graduate is pretty much an instant hire if they can show capacity to carry out a project on their own. Very few new graduates have the ability to do practical work right out of college. Show you can design and debug a moderately complex PCB. Put up a blog post and a video on Youtube. Bring it to an onsite interview you’ll impress any hiring manager.

It is a tough world out there for EEs, especially for new hires and older folks. Everyone is competing for the same few jobs and you have to do whatever you can to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Always be working on growing yourself and with luck you’ll be able to retirement a few years early with enough to live on before social security kicks in.

Red Oxx Rigger Wallet – A Review

I happened across Red Oxx while reading through the Flyertalk forums. The thread was about about their Mini Air Boss and was filled with rave reviews about the build quality and the Red Oxx unconditional warranty. I checked out their site and noticed they had a wallet. I had been looking for a wallet for a while and almost settled on a Bellroy but was hesitant because it is pricey and the thin fashionable leather did not seem durable.

There are not many formal reviews of the Red Oxx wallet or even the many Red Oxx products. I suspect this is because Red Oxx does not advertise an affiliate program and I suppose this lack of payment for clicks precludes many bloggers from shilling their products.
However, the many forum posts I perused spoke highly of their products and warranty which is why I decided to try them out. The Red Oxx Rigger wallet looked simple and durable and was not too expensive at $25 so I purchased a red one along with a Safari Chica bag.

Purchasing

A few days after my order, I received an email from Red Oxx stating that the Red Rigger wallet was out of stock with an unknown availability date and that I could pick a different color. Most interestingly the email mentioned that Red Oxx does not make the Rigger wallet. The representative mentioned that it is the only product they outsource and it is made by a company in California. I decided to go with a black wallet instead figuring it was probably more formal than a red wallet and it had red stitching which was enough for me.

I received a shipping notice the same day I replied to the Red Oxx representative and the wallet and Chica bag showed up a few days later.  They were nicely packaged in a box bearing the Red Oxx logo and a cleanly formatted packing slip that detailed the order and shipping costs.

The Wallet

The wallet itself is well made and is built out of a very durable Cordura nylon fabric. All the edges are wrapped in another soft fabric which is then double stitched. There is only one main pocket but it is deep and surprisingly long when folded out. Besides money, I’ve also stashed my ID and ATM card in the big pocket.

The front consists of three sections. On the left there is a zippered change pocket, the middle contains a credit card pocket with another, hidden, compartment behind it for additional cards. The right side has a pocket with a transparent plastic front meant store your ID. The whole wallet is held closed by a very grippy velcro closure. The back of the wallet is a continuous strip of the same nylon fabric and has a strip across the lower third with, all stitched in red, the words “RED OXX” on the front, four parachutes on the back, and the word “RIGGER” on the inside flap.

The wallet is slim even after it is folded. I can feel it in my back pocket when I sit but it does not feel blocky or uncomfortable. The tall height allow the edges go beyond the cards inside which allows it taper off which gives the wallet a nice curve at the top and bottom. That helps when you’re sitting on it. The Cordura nylon feels tough with a tight weave and is decently water resistant. The zipper on the zippered pocket is not Red Oxx’s usual #10 zipper but rather their #5 zipper for comfort.

Image of the Red Oxx rigger wallet

Drawbacks

I consider the The Red Oxx Rigger wallet to be a nice wallet but it has some drawbacks.

The zipper pocket needs to be a bit bigger so users can store credit or business cards in it. It’s usability as a coin pocket is limited. Putting more than a few coins in the wallet is not practical because it causes the wallet to bulge out which, unless you are ham handed, makes it difficult to carry and handle.

The plastic on the see-through window is rather soft and easily marked. I initially put a credit card in that slot but had to remove it since the raised credit card numbers were getting embossed into the plastic. I now have a flat card in that pocket but have noticed the Red Oxx label on the inside of the wallet is starting to mark the soft plastic.

The branding on the wallet is ostentatious. The RED OXX on the front, RIGGER on the inner flap, and the Red Oxx label sewn onto the middle pocket makes it seem like a gaudy kid’s wallet rather than a sleek something a professional should carry. Speaking of branding – Red Oxx lines the inside of their bags in red for visibility and it is considered one of their trademarks. It is interesting to see the red lining is not present in any way on the Rigger wallet.

Improvements

While the Rigger wallet is decent, there is room for improvement.

Opening and closing the velcro is annoying if you have to do it often. It is very grippy and usually takes two pulls to open. It would be nice if there was a credit card pocket on the back of the wallet where we could stash our most commonly used card and perhaps some ID. A smaller inset pocket could even hold a $20 bill for quick access.

There should be an option for a bi-fold or larger tri-fold wallet that can hold a passport. This would make the wallet useful for travel and even allow for a bigger zipper pocket suitable for cards. Red Oxx could even add a pen.

Video Review

I have a short video review on Youtube. It is embedded below.