Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Removing / Installing a Transmission Using a Mid-Rise Scissors Lift

I have something so good to report, it’s practically life-changing. It’s so good, it’s up there with sex, finishing college, and Heath Bar frozen yogurt with hot fudge sauce and walnuts. It’s so good, I should charge money for it.

I figured out how to, fairly easily and safely, remove and install a transmission using a mid-rise scissors lift, getting around the “but the body of the lift itself is in the way of the transmission ” problem that has plagued do-it-yourselfers since mid-rises became affordable. You need a $150 scissors lift table, a wooden board, four milk crates, and a short section of 2x4. It’s trivial.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

About seven years ago, I bought a BendPak MD6XP mid-rise scissors lift. I’ve written about this on 2002FAQ, the Pelican Parts BBS, in my Roundel column, and in my book. A mid-rise scissors lift is like a big scissors jack. You drive the car over it, then swing the arms into position beneath the subframes, frame rails, or jacking points. The advantages are that it picks the car up four feet (which is high enough that you can easily sit fully upright beneath a car), it allows easy access to the engine, suspension, steering, and wheels, is fairly compact, can be moved easily, has no real installation other than rolling it into place and plugging it in, and is fairly affordable (about $1200 to $2000). The disadvantage is that the body of the lift itself is directly in the way of the middle of the car. For small things in the middle of the car, like an exhaust or a center support bearing, this isn’t a big deal; the lift has many cut-outs; you can literally crawl between the legs, sit right in the middle, and reach up. But what you can’t do is roll a jack through the body of the lift. The lift’s legs are in the way. What I tell people is that, if they have the ceiling height and garage space for a post lift, and they can afford the purchase and installation price of a post lift, get a post lift, but if, like me, they’re ceiling height-limited, they’ll love having a mid-rise as opposed to having nothing.

When I had my ’82 Porsche 911SC, the mid-rise was perfect for engine drops; using the lift in combination with a scissors lift table to hold and drop the engine was so easy it almost wasn’t fair. But the Porsche is a perfect candidate for a mid-rise scissors lift, since, on the Porsche, everything’s at one end or the other; there’s very little in the middle of the underside of the car. In contrast, on a conventional rear-wheel-drive car, the body of the lift is in the way of the transmission. Well, it’s not, actually; the lift has a cut-out in the front directly beneath the engine and transmission, allowing unfettered access. If I had the upper body strength of Dwayne Johnson there’d be no issue, but I’m just not strong enough to simply reach in there and pull and install a transmission. Like me, most people need a jack to support the transmission during installation and removal.

The real problem is that the lift’s hydraulic cylinders are below the lift’s cut-out and prevent you from rolling a jack into place. In other words, it’s not that the top of the lift is in the way of the transmission – it’s not – the problem is that the bottom of the lift is right where you’d put the jack. There’s no way to position a transmission jack or a lift table beneath the cut-out. Anything you’re trying to roll a transmission on, be it a jack or a furniture dolly, hits the base of the lift well before the transmission is far enough back to be in position to mate to the engine. This is shown in the picture below; I placed the transmission on my scissors lift table to demonstrate the issue. Note that the  back of the engine – where the trani would need to mate to – is directly above the center track rod and tie rod assemblies. You can see that, even with the cut-out on the top of the lift clearly visible on the left, the transmission can’t roll back that far. From a design standpoint, what’s really needed is for the hydraulic cylinders to be on the other side of the lift, and for a cut-out in the leg to be directly beneath the cut-out in the top of the lift so something could roll back. I imagine this is a mechanical stability issue because every mid-rise lift I’ve seen is laid out like the one in this picture, with the cut-out above the hydraulic cylinders.

The First Attempt
Years back, I found a way around this. I discovered and posted a somewhat convoluted technique where you turn the car around so that the engine is over the end of the lift without the cut-out. This seems counter-intuitive, but the end without the cut-out doesn’t have the hydraulic cylinders. Instead it has an open leg, over which you could make a flat floor by putting a board on top of a pair of wheels, letting you roll your transmission jack onto the board and thus actually inside the body of the lift, far enough back that you could move the transmission into position. This is shown in the following pics.

From here on in, it got hairy, because you needed to tilt the transmission ass-up at a steep angle to have the back of the transmission clear the cross-member in the body of the lift (remember, you've put the nose of the car over the end of the lift without the cut-out; see below). Plus, to make it work, you needed to have that cross-member as far back as possible, which meant the car needed to be off-center forward on the lift. For all these reasons, I never liked this method, and never used it again.

The Second Attempt
I used an alternate method when I needed to do the clutch on my Z3 M Coupe. With the car on the lift, I removed the exhaust and driveshaft and every bolt holding the trani to the engine except one bellhousing bolt, then rolled the car off the lift onto the ground, jacked it up on jackstands, and pulled the trani the old fashioned way. This was facilitated by my purchase of a 1965 Heim-Werner “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” transmission jack. This thing is so sweet, so built, so finely adjustable, with jewel-like movements in three degrees of freedom of the business end, that having the car on the ground wasn’t so bad. To install a trani, I did it in reverse – installed it on the ground with the Heim-Werner, held it in place with one bell housing bolt, then rolled the car onto the lift to allow easy access to attach everything else. Once I had the Heim Werner, I took my Harbor Freight transmission jack adapter in the photo above and heaved it into the Newton metal recycling bin.

Third Times the Charm: The New Way
I’m installing a Getrag 245 5-speed into the 2002tii. I wasn’t sure which method I’d use. But, for starters, the exhaust and driveshaft and everything else had to come out. So I put the car on the lift the “normal” way, with the engine over the cut-out. When the trani was ready to drop, with just one bolt holding it in, I tried something new. I grabbed my son Ethan (I’m amazed I’d never done this before with any of my three sons, but they’re young men, and rarely home :^). With four hands on the 4-speed, we had no trouble getting it out. “That was easy,” I thought. Of course, gravity was on our side. The next day I borrowed Ethan to help me test-fit the 5-speed. Unfortunately, the combination of up being harder than down, the added weight of the 5-speed over the 4-speed, and the restricted access created by the body of the lift (you can’t position yourself the way you’d like because the lift is in the way) made me abandon this path.

I looked at the lift and thought… how can I get the transmission, and the jack it rides on, further back where it needs to be, when anything that rolls on the ground hits the base of the lift? I thought about whether there was some method of cantilevering the transmission out on an arm several feet in front of the wheels of the jack or scissors lift table. The engineering struck me as prohibitive.

And then I realized. The body of the lift is only in the way on the part of the lift that’s on the ground. It’s not in the way several feet above the ground. I realized that a platform could be built, maybe two feet up, that could support the transmission jack and trani. Because, with the leg of the lift at a shallow angle, at two feet up you could go a lot further back before you hit the leg. And the key to this was that you could support the platform by putting something not in front of the lift but on either side of the lift. That way, you could raise it up and move it back without hitting the bottom of the lift.

I envisioned a movable platform, supported on furniture dollies so the whole thing could be rolled into place. Then, I thought, I have the scissors lift table; what I really need is a second scissors lift table so one table could be put on each side of the car and the platform stretched across them. This would allow the whole thing to not only be rolled fore and aft, but also to be raised and lowered one side at a time. Scissors lift tables are about $150 at Harbor Freight. I thought, if that’s what it takes to do this safely, I’m game.

I was about to run out and buy a second scissors lift table when I realized I needed to take measurements for the platform itself. And what would I build the platform out of? Between the transmission jack and the trani, we’re probably talking 150 to 200 pounds. It couldn’t just be a wooden shelf. It needed to be braced, probably wood on top of several 2x4s, maybe 2x6s. I’m not a right-brained guy. I need to try things, actually see them in front of me, to visualize. I went back out to the garage, found four milk crates, and stacked them two high on either side of the lift. The distance between them was about 40”. I had some 48x24 particle board shelves and laid one across the crates, just to visualize. This is shown in the pic below. The crates are snug against the sides of the lift, and the board is slid back until it hits the lift.

I thought, this board is too small in both width and depth. The depth needs to support the entire transmission jack and transmission, and it’s too shallow. And width-wise, they really ought to come out farther on the sides to be certain they don’t slide off the milk crates. And I’m not really going to use milk crates anyway.

I was still looking, but not seeing. I can be pretty dense sometimes.

I took the massive Heim Werner transmission jack, muscled it onto the lift table, jacked the table up even with the board, and slid the pair of them forward so I could have some sense of the dimension and balance issues. The edge of the lift table was flush with the edge of the board. I threw on a second board just to make sure it wouldn’t buckle from the weight of test-fitting the jack.

Then I slid the transmission jack forward so that its front wheels were on the shelf, again, just to test-fit and see how wide the board really needed to be.

And then I saw it, and I understood. I don’t often have “eureka moments,” but this was one. The platform doesn’t need to support the entire weight of the jack and trani – it just needs to support the front wheels. The lift table, as-is, can support the rear wheels. Other than making sure the platform doesn’t sag, I don’t need to do much more than this.

I took a 2x4 and cut two 22” sections (the height of the underside of the boards). I put one section in the middle of the boards to prevent them from sagging. I put the other at the very front of the boards, so when the front wheels of the jack (with the trani on it) is rolled off the lift table, the boards are supported and don't tip forward off the milk crates.

I then did a test-run with the transmission on the jack. It works perfectly. The pics are below.

If I find four more milk crates, I’ll probably make two stacks of two on each side for added stability. And if I had shelf wood that’s more like 5’ wide instead of 4’, that’d be better. But really, this will work as-is.

So, there you have it. To install / remove a transmission with the car on a mid-rise scissors lift, you need:
  • A transmission jack or floor jack with transmission adapter plate
  • A lift table ($159 at Harbor Freight; see item 60730, Yes, I'm sure you could use another four milk crates and another wood board instead, but the lift table is nice and stable, and lets you just roll the transmission jack and trani right into place.
  • Four milk crates
  • A stout 48” x 24” board
  • A section of 2x4 to cut and support the board so it doesn't sag in the middle or pitch forward
I may not have another "eureka moment" for another 55 years. But this one was pretty good. I think it'll hold me. And the transmission. And the Heim Werner jack.

(copyright 2013 Rob Siegel. all rights reserved.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Yellow Car! Meditations on the Value of Competitiveness

Maire Anne and I have been coming to Nantucket for nearly 30 years. Our kids have Nantucket vacation memories woven into the fabric of their lives. About 12 years ago my brother-in-law Dan and my nieces Aidan and Guthrie began joining us. This has been a gift, as it has provided an opportunity for Maire Anne to spend time with her brother (who has evolved into my fishing buddy), and for my boys to spend time with their cousins.

And for me to enjoy my nieces Aidan and Guthrie, both of whom I absolutely adore. In the chapter in my book titled "The Bluefish Races (or, wanna drive?)" I talk about the family tradition of using Nantucket's vehicularly-accessible beaches to give my kids, and my nieces, their first driving lesson. This has been a particularly special thing with Guthrie, who is the sort of kid who knew, to the day, when she was eligible for her permit and license, and bugged her parents until she had the paper.

Driving on the beach was less important to Aidan, but the two of us have had other traditions, and some of them have brought out a competitive streak in both of us. This is a surprise to me. I'm not by nature a competitive person. Most of the time I could give a shit about sports (I'm certain I'm the only person in New England who felt a certain perverse satisfaction when the Patriots lost the superbowl at the end of their otherwise perfect season). I remember doing a team-building exercise at work many years ago where everyone had to write down their personal values, then work together to come up with group values. My boss wrote "winning" as his #1 personal value. I thought, that one isn't even in my vocabulary, much less on my list, much less the topper of that list. And Aidan is a whip-smart Mount Holyoke student, laser-focused on certain key interests. I hadn't expected her personality to manifest itself in a stridently competitive way (although I suppose her presence on the fencing team might have tipped me off).

Although Aidan hasn't participated in the informal competition for our annual family Fish Trophy, for several years we've competed in other ways. For a while, during both vacation and Thanksgiving visits, we played Trivial Pursuits -- The Lord of the Rings Edition. It was here that I first saw the fierce take-no-prisoners nature of her competitive streak. I drew the question "What language did the Riders of Rohan speak?" I answered "Ronic." The card said "Rohirric." She wouldn't give it to me, even though she was totally and completely mopping the floor with me, game after game. Of course, this set the bar for subsequent TP disputes. After that, I didn't give her an inch. And she still clobbered me.

This vacation, Aidan introduced us to the game "Yellow Car." She explained that, originating in the British radio sitcom "Cabin Pressure," the game is elegant in its simplicity. It has but a single rule -- when you see a yellow car, you yell "yellow car!" As we began to play, we learned that, in fact, there is a second rule: Taxis don't count (this because, on the show, the character Arthur Shappey blurts out "yellow car!" every two seconds when he sees the surfeit of taxi cabs in London, so his brothers impose this rule to get him to shut up). A vacation guest of ours saw a school bus and yelled "yellow car!" Aidan said "school buses don't count -- only cars." Then the same question came up regarding a yellow van. I pointed out that most yellow cars we'd seen on Nantucket were a Jeep or other sport utility vehicle, and that these are classified as light trucks, thus technically not cars. She grudgingly let the point go.

But for the rest of vacation, she was relentless in being the first to yell "yellow car!" whenever we were driving somewhere and encountered a yellow car.

So I, of course, stepped up to the challenge. Game on, MoHo girl. Whenever I saw a yellow car and called it before she did, she said "damn it!" She contended that I had the advantage because I, the driver, could see out the front window better than she could being a passenger in the back seat. I said that, no, in fact, as a passenger she had the advantage because she could look down driveways and in parking lots, which she did with cruise missile-like targeting, including remembering specific locations where specific yellow cars were parked (I will admit that I began doing this as well).

Finally, as Dan and the girls' vacation stay was nearing an end, we drove them to the ferry. As we wended our way through Nantucket center and were about to turn onto the street leading to the Steamship Authority terminal, I spied a yellow car and said, with a certain aplomb, "yellow car, and oh, by the way, probably the LAST yellow car we'll see before the ferry." I smiled, thinking that I had gotten her.

This, of course, elicited a stiff "damn it!" from Aidan. She then went into full-on focused Terminator mode, feverishly scanning in all directions as we drove the last few hundred feet into the ferry parking lot. 

Then, with some degree of triumphalism, she yelled "YELLOW CAR!" Sure enough, there in the ferry parking lot was a lone yellow car. She smiled triumphantly. Oh well, I thought, too bad. 

But it ain't over 'till the fat ferry sings.

As they loaded their luggage onto the cart, and we hugged goodbye, and they began to walk toward the gang plank to take them up onto the ferry, I looked back in the direction of Nantucket center. There, perhaps a hundred yards up the street, could it be? Yes! I said slowly and loudly "Yellow. Car. BOOM!" and pointed up the street. It was a ways away, but it was unmistakable. It elicited a final "damn it!" from Aidan, indicating that it was unarguable. If I had a microphone, I would've dropped it and engendered the loud DOOF and feedback squeal, as comedian Chris Rock sometimes does at the end of an in-your-face performance.

I can't say Aidan was crestfallen, or furious. That would be an exaggeration. It is only a game. But she was NOT pleased. My family gave me grief. "How could you have taken that away from her?" they asked.

I've thought about this for a few days. I don't think I "took anything away" from my dear niece. I think I added to our relationship. This is playful, constructive interaction. I fully expect Aidan and I to begin texting each other pictures of yellow cars.

But is this a window into a higher value for competitiveness? I'm not sure I'd go that far.

That having been said, I must admit that my final, door-closing, game-ending, microphone-dropping, soul-crushing "yellow car" was a thing of beauty. Like the Star Trek Next Generation episode where Data has to admit that he enjoyed killing the Borg, I need to admit that, despite my Zen self-image, I apparently do have a competitive streak.

Or maybe it's just that my brilliant quirky niece brings the worst in me.

So. Go ahead. Introduce "yellow car" to your family. See who plays. See what it brings out. But be prepared to bring your A-game. Take no prisoners. Expect no quarter. For none will be given.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thoughts on Overhaulin’ the Europa

I have made it known, both in my book and in presentations I give at events, that I have a jones to own a Lotus Europa twin cam. They weight just 1600 lbs, are only 42 inches high, look like nothing else on the road, and are currently undervalued because those looks are so extreme that they’re often referred to derisively as a “bread van.” My friend Alex said “I always they thought they looked like a Ranchero.” Ouch.

Having nothing to do with Europas, in my book I am a bit hard on the cable show Overhaulin’. To those unfamiliar with Overhaulin’, they take a beat-to-shit car that someone loves, work with their spouse or significant other, abscond with the car on the ruse it’s been stolen, then resurrect it. Automotive customizer par excellence Chip Foose is with the show, and there’s no denying that he and his crew do incredible work. The cars are rebuilt from the ground up, usually with heavy customization – updated high-output engine, massive wheels and low profile tires, leather-stitched dashboard, killer sound system, etc. They do all this in a hugely compressed time frame with a hard end date (“the reveal”). They then present the car to the owner, who is filmed overcome with tears of joy.

While I’m certain that all of the people working on the cars (and on the show), take pride in what they do, I have problems with it on several levels. First, no restoration work – indeed, no project management work of any kind – is like this, ever. You never are part of a project with boundless scope and an immovable end date where you have absolutely no skin in the game. Second, a car, particularly an enthusiast car, is a very personal thing, and, as I say in the book, owning an enthusiast car is very much about the feeling of control. I wouldn’t want any of my cars taken out of my control and modified in ways I hadn’t explicitly approved of. Third, they never talk about the after-care of these cars. I doubt the pre-overhauled shitbox required high insurance and a locked garage, but the Cinderella version certainly does. And it’s a one-off. Who maintains it? Who documents, orders, and installs the necessary parts? I’ve always felt that “Overhaulin’ – Behind the Alcantra” would be a very interesting show.

So I took notice when two friends sent me e-mail referring to a recent episode of Overhaulin’ where they do a Europa. One said the treatment they gave it was pretty cool, and implied that if I watched it, I might soften the opinion expressed in my book. I’m actually inching closer to perhaps buying a Europa, so with a certain curiosity and enlightened self-interest, I found and Tivo’d the episode, and last night, sat down to watch it.

The episode was a bit unusual in several ways. The guy who’s Europa it was delivers soda to Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage where Jay maintains his cars. The guy volunteers his time there after hours as a wrench. So Jay Leno – the car guy’s Car Guy – was involved in this episode and had a lot of screen time. The guy had owned and raced this Europa over a 30-year period but blew up the engine about six years ago. The car was then parked at the Big Dog Garage, where it sat. He eventually traded it to someone at the garage for a set of wheels for his Camaro. So at the time of the episode, the guy no longer owned the car.

The Overhaul treatment the car received was over the top. A 350 hp supercharged engine from a Lotus Elise and a Porsche Boxster 6-speed transaxle were installed. The obligatory massive wheels and tires were stuffed under the wheel wells, requiring the fiberglass body to be cut and widened around the fenders. A full custom suspension was designed and installed, requiring the mounting points on the car’s frame to be changed. The usual retinue of body workers, painters, interior specialists, all did their thing.

At the end, with the paint literally still tacky on the car, the guy was called in on the pretense of a TV segment on Lotus being filmed, his role being an enthusiast who had once owned and raced a Europa. First they revealed that this tricked-to-the-max machine was the very Europa that was once his, then Leno and Foose appeared and gave him the keys. So, in ways, this reveal had three components: 1) This is the Europa that was yours; 2) Look at what we did to it, and 3) It’s yours again. His response certainly contained the customary surprise and gratitude, but seemed to me to be somewhat measured. That is, he was surprised that this was the same car and grateful for all the work that’d been done on his behalf, but he didn’t express any over-the-top sentiments like “oh, this was the best car I’d ever owned it was part of my life for so long I never should’ve sold it thank you for rectifying this mistake.”

But that’s not what wrapped this episode up with an unintended bow.

If you read up on Europas, you’ll find that the generally small size of any British sports car combined with the Europa’s 42” ground-to-roofline dimension makes them challenging to fit into unless you’re a little guy (see the banter on regarding a Europa I almost bid on several months back). Fortunately, I am a little guy.

But this guy on Overhaulin? Taller and probably a good 40 lbs heavier than me. At the end of the episode, he could barely fit in the car. They literally joked about getting a transmission jack to help him in.

It made me think. Of course he’s a bit restrained in his reaction to the car. He sold this car. No. Wait. He didn’t. He traded this car for a set of wheels for his Camaro. Maybe he was done with this car. Maybe he thought, yeah, at this point in my life I’m totally a Camaro guy. Maybe he walked away from the reveal thinking “what I am I supposed to do with this thing now?

So, Mr. Leno, Mr. Foose, you are Car Guys Extraordinaire. If we ever meet, I would be honored to soak in your aura. But, if you read my book, don’t mistake the misty rose-colored comments I made about my Triumph GT6+ and my ’63 Rambler Classic 660 for actual actionable lust. I don’t really want either of them back.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Apparently, People Like My Book

So much has happened...

“Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic reminds me of summertime Saturdays when I was a boy and Dad and his buddies would park their rides — Mercs, Caddys, Chevys — in our broad dirt dooryard and make out with them. It was a wrench-twisting ardor full of grunts, cursing and the sizzle of beer bottles bursting open. Rob Siegel, a writer with permanent grease under his nails, would’ve totally been into it. And this funny, frisky book tells why.”

“Rob Siegel, a Newton resident, has produced one of the best auto memoirs I’ve read in a long time."

“This book is written by a car guy for car guys about car guy experiences. It is part autobiography, part encyclopedia, and part advice column. It is chocked full of useful hints about everything from acquiring a car, repairing a car, and even when the sad event is necessary, disposing of a car. It is a lifetime of experience hard-won and passed on gladly.”

“Rob Siegel writes observations on the Life Automotive that are centered on both his personal quest towards Wholeness by fixing broken BMWs, telling the world (at least those readers of Roundel) about his journey towards this goal, tossing in what he accurately calls “actual useful stuff” along the way, and comes across as the sort of person who you pray will sit at your table at a dinner because you KNOW you will have a good time. Yes, he is funny in the way that those who never quite grasp the notion that life is supposed to be an A to Z proposition are, and, therefore, approach life on their own terms.

The tone and Zen-seeking flavor makes Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic an easy read that often makes you chuckle (because you've been there) or marvel at the clever solution to a potential landmine of a repair ("cascading failure" is Siegel's apt descriptor). Talking about the process of auto repair not from the "put-tab-B-into-slot-A" perspective, but from the "stand back and look at the big picture" point of view that the book takes is due, in part, to the author's day job as an engineer. It's good advice, and it's why the book has appeal beyond fans of Neue Klasse Roundies.

Jeremy Walton, Automotive Writer:

“Siegel’s expletive-undeleted sense of humour and intelligence rule and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The hard-earned mechanical knowledge shared is worth triple the price of the book, especially that on painting a car and degrees of rust. I think that’s summed up best by this observation: “I think I can safely say that one has ever taken a car in for restoration and been told, ‘You know, that rust isn’t nearly as bad as we thought.’”

“This is a must read for any self professed “car guy.” We're only about half way through it and so far it's fantastic! In Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, Rob Siegel shares his secrets to buying, fixing, and driving cool cars without risking the kids' tuition money or destroying his marriage.”

“Inspired by John Muir's VW 'Idiot Book' (aren't we all), Rob Siegel spins a fab mix of Zen and 20w50; engine rebuilds in the kitchen, a hated GT6, an obsession with BMW's 2002 (he owned 25!), song-writing, guitars and the meaning of life via a greasy tool kit. The wealth of advice and humorous stories will strike a chord with any classic car nut.”

“Author Rob Siegel from Roundel magazine came to the Vintage with his 1973 3.0CSi. Siegel signed copies of his new book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, and talked about parts of the book that might surprise people. “I have a chapter in the book titled ‘Why Men Love Cars,’ and it offers insight into the mind of a car guy,” Siegel said. “Cars are useful to men as objects of passion in a way that’s difficult for women to understand. But it’s also healthy and constructive in terms of long-term relationships. It’s maintaining passion within a sane set of boundaries.””

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thoughts on the Move, the Power of Personal Space, and The Importance of a Stupid Acrylic Dolphin

I have not changed jobs in 29 years. I was hired in 1984 by a small engineering firm as a software engineer to do mathematical modeling and software development for unexploded ordnance detection. I became lead software engineer, then lead engineer, then project manager. For a while I was quite successful at writing my own proposals, bidding and winning my own work, leading a team to build the equipment, doing the survey, processing the data, and writing the final report. Then, in 2005, the small company, which had grown to not-so-small over the 21 years, was bought by a ginormous corporation. They closed the Newton office and, due to their own incompetence, moved me and my small group into an oversized 12,500 square feet of warehouse space in Waltham. But I was still writing winning proposals, so it was good. Hell, it was great -- I could buy as many cars as I wanted and the warehouse would swallow them all and still have room to park a tractor-trailer inside. Seriously.

Then, with the downturn in the economy and the cutbacks of government spending, research money for UXO detection became harder to get, and my hit rate in writing winning proposals dropped like a rock. I voluntarily cut myself back to part time to avoid getting laid off. But with fewer billable hours for both me and my group, we weren't generating the overhead necessary to cover the rent on the warehouse. Upon getting back from Dry Prong over Thanksgiving, I learned that a decision had been made to close Waltham and we needed to be out by the end of January. I found industrial space in Woburn that's 1800 square feet. So over the past month we've been preparing to downsize and move to one eighth the square footage.

Along with other things, this means the end of the 4.5-mile-each-way commute I've had for 29 years, and the beginning of a 20-mile-each-way jaunt. But, I thought, I don't need to be up in Woburn every day -- only when I have to work with physical hardware. If I'm just doing computer stuff I can work from home, which I'd occasionally done for years anyway. And, I thought, if I was working from home, I didn't need to move my cubicle to Woburn -- one less thing to move. I could just set up a table when I needed a computer up there.

Going to 1/8 the space isn't as bad as it sounds. The Waltham building was always four times as big as it needed to be, and thus had a lot of empty space, so it's not like we had to put eight pounds of shit in a one pound bag. I donated our ground penetrating radars -- developed for land mine detection applications under contracts that ended in 2001 -- to a colleague at Northeastern University who consulted for us.I threw out a ton of stuff. 

And I left everything else behind for the liquidator. In these moves and closures, an odd sort of economics takes hold. Here we had a large building with electronics, equipment, machine tools, and furniture. We had liquidators come in and bid on it. I thought the company I work for would earn pennies on the dollar for the equipment. Wrong. It COSTS the company money. The liquidator calculates what the leftover equipment is worth (and they've very concerned that you'll cherry-pick before they get it), and subtracts that from the cost of disposing of stuff that isn't worth anything and leaving the building in broom-clean condition. People are often surprised when they hear that when a company closed, everything went in a dumpster. The reaction is "how could they do that? What a waste." But if you think about it, it doesn't make economic sense to pay me my salary to put items up on eBay unless the return is greater than the cost. 

Now, we've all had the experience of organizing things and winding up with odd leftover piles. I have a song about it:

When I organize the office
Or clean out my top drawer
The bills go in the folder
But there's stuff that's hard to sort
Here's some cufflinks from my father
Here's a tape from my old band
Here's a fountain pen from high school
When I used to write longhand

Here's a birthday card from Lisa
Here's my old UMass ID
Here's a clipping from a magazine
That reviewed my CD
These things can't be filed or organized
And can't be thrown away
So I put them in a box
With other stuff that I must save

Irreducible... fragments of a life
Irreducible... it's a wonder what survives
Irreducible... these pieces I can see
Irreducible... must mean something to me

Sometimes I open up these boxes
And let them take me back
I don't clean them out or second-guess
I leave everything intact
As I look across this cluttered house
From the mundane to the grave
I think about these memories
And wonder what to save

Irreducible... fragments of my life
Irreducible... it's a wonder I survived
Irreducible... greater than the whole
Irreducible... breadcrumbs to the soul

Granted, this wasn't my house, but the same dynamic took hold. I can be both entropy in motion as well as meticulously organized, depending on which need is greater. Here, organization was paramount. I dutifully sorted everything in my office and my lab into boxes with labels like long serial cables, short serial cables, RS232 hardware, USB devices, office supplies, etc. 

These days I rely heavily on archived e-mail and don't file many paper documents, but as I found important pieces of paper, I placed them in a manila folder. Then I remembered -- I had a whole file cabinet I hadn't looked at in years. I rifled through it and pulled out a few original documents that existed only in hardcopy, and a folder of personal memos.

In this archaeological dig, as I was able to see the bare surface of my desk, I exposed the personal objects that have been in my office for over 20 years -- photos of the family, a root carved into a fish I bought on the Vineyard when Maire Anne was pregnant with Ethan, a sliding MC Escher puzzle, one of those oil-and-water things that you flip over and watch bubbles bounce down a flight of stairs. I flipped it and watched the bubbles do their little walk. I thought, this is silly, I should just throw these things out already. But I didn't. I put them in a box. With other stuff that I must save.

As this process winds all the way down, the only things the objects have in common is that they have nothing in common. Between the framed photos, keys to locks I'll probably never use, the desk toys, and other last-moment bric-a-brac, I had three boxes labeled "last stuff out of my office."

And then I noticed the knee-high under-desk filing cabinet. I hadn't used it in years. I slid open the top drawer and found mainly the detritus of office living -- tops of pens, staples, paper clips, a pack of PostIt notes, and whatnot. But then I saw two old health care ID cards. I looked at them closely. They had my social security number printed on them. Gee, I thought, good thing I looked. Let me dump everything out and make sure there's nothing else in here that could cause identity theft.

I pulled out the drawer, and there, all the way in the back, was the tackiest vacation trinket you've ever seen. It was a pen holder in the shape of a flat acrylic dolphin, clear but with beach sand and small shells embedded in it. It said "Greetings from Jamaica." My son Kyle brought it home for me when he went there with my mother.

I instantly burst into tears.

I placed it in the last "last stuff out of my office" box, and filed away this utterly surprising reaction for later analysis. (Yeah. I know. Mister left-brained engineer has a bolt-from-the-clouds right-brained emotive experience, and "files it away for later analysis." Don't you just want to slap me? I do. Sometimes I think a good hemorrhage would do me wonders.)

The absolute last thing out of my office was my computer, a heavy engineering-sized desktop with a big monitor. Decision time -- where would this computer go? That question is subservient to this one: Where would I set up my office? I'd already decided that would be at home, right? I thought, well, I have my personal notebook PC, I have my work notebook PC which I always bring home with me, and now there's this big desktop. What, am I going to put all three of these on the dining room table? Makes no sense, right? Right. The big computer goes to Woburn. Thus, my "office" goes to Woburn. But I'd already made the decision to leave my cubicle behind. Again, I thought, no problem, I just need a table. I'm an engineer. I'm a functional guy. Just need a surface.

The space we're moving into has about 1500 sqf on the first floor that we're setting up as storage, machine shop, and dirty assembly area, and about 350 sqf on the second floor designated to be a clean assembly area. The move was like a tidal wave, with me in Waltham directing the outgoing trucks, and an employee of mine in Woburn managing the inflow. I didn't plan thoroughly enough, and even if I did, stuff doesn't always come in in a useful order. So shelves and cabinets went where they went, and stuff rapidly got unloaded onto those shelves because it had to go somewhere. When I arrived in Woburn to look at how it had been set up, I couldn't visualize where I, where my office and lab space, would go. Of course, my employee very adroitly set up where his stuff would go -- he's better at that than I am, and he was right there to direct stuff into its resting places.

Over the next day, as I organized Woburn, I still couldn't quite visualize how I would work there. Oh, sure, when I'm fixing equipment or building electronics, there's a bench set up for me, but I was having trouble seeing where I would set up a table for... other work. It took me a while, but I realized the problem.

Cubicles, for all the ridicule they take, do provide an environment. They define a space as yours. They provide vertical surfaces to pin the pics of your family and your "hang in there baby" poster. And even if you don't stick anything on the walls, the walls provide borders for the desk. They allow you to put things on the desk and shove them all the way to the corner and not have them fall off. Things like staplers. Like tape dispensers. Like a root carved into a fish. Like the Escher puzzle. Like the bouncing blue droplets descending a flight of stairs. Like... the dolphin.

I burst into tears again.

I looked at the three boxes labeled "last stuff out of my office," and realized that nothing in them matters a whit, nothing is of any importance whatsoever, but the issue I'm struggling with centers around where the stuff in them should go because that stuff makes a place feel like it's mine. I realized that I was wholly unprepared to relegate these boxes to my basement, or to storage in Woburn, not to be opened again except to reminisce. 

Trying to deconstruct the "office question," I realized that I set events in motion in a way I did not appreciate by not moving a cubicle over to Woburn.

As to why the dolphin in particular has become such a talisman, the simple gift of an eight year old to his father, politely received upon giving, dutifully taken into work and put on the desk, lost, utterly forgotten without a second thought, unearthed from the back of the top drawer of a file cabinet, now seems to be imbued with deep magic from before the dawn of time. It has become precious to me. I start to cry whenever I think about it. It has become...


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hack Mechanic Memoir Status

Hi everyone. If it's not too shameless a self-promotion, I wanted to provide an update on the status of the book. Bentley Publishers is very close to having a publication date and the ability to pre-order. They've set up a Facebook page for the book where you can "like" The Hack Mechanic and check on the publication date and my speaking schedule. The FB link is:

For these early speaking engagements, since the book isn't out yet, Bentley is setting up a system where, if you come hear me speak, and take a photo of the two of us and post it to the FB page, and then order the book from the Bentley web site, Bentley will cross-reference the pic with your order and have me sign your copy before it goes out.