Right up front, nothing in this post exposes sources or methods or any other secret-squirrel shit that might get me in trouble with the Canadian Navy.

I hope.

I spent a work term at the Canadian Naval Engineering Unit in Dartmouth ,Nova Scotia. Memory is a little bit fuzzy, but I think it might have been the summer of 1980 or 1981. It was an opportunity that allowed me some small level of autonomy when it came to delivering what I was asked to deliver.

One of the many projects (and one of the most rewarding) was to deliver a level of automation to their sonar self-noise trials. There’s an interesting instructional manual on self noise, on how to identify it and mitigate for it here. Essentially, the ship’s sonar is used to identify many things external to the ship, but in order to be effective, it can’t contribute to what it’s listening to. That ideal rarely exists, so a second best is to know what noise the ship makes when nothing else is present, and then remove those signals when actively using sonar for real.

The self-noise trial, prior to my project, involved two or more days off the coast, after steaming to deep water, where various parts of the ship were activated, one at a time, then recorded on a sonar sweep. This was used as a baseline and a reference when sweeping later. It’s also used to identify noise on the ship so it can be corrected. The old way was to create a radial chart off each beam of the ship that “identified” noise sources. It was very time consuming; the collection and analysis was manual.

I wrote a program on a sort of HP computer. Remember, this was in 1980-ish, so state of the art was pretty archaic. It interfaced with an HP spectrum analyser connected to the sonar system. It was a really basic collection program (written in Basic) that logged date, time and sweep scenario (which elements of the ship were off or on) and digitally stored the sweep.

All of this sounds really boring, and up to the test phase, it was.

Then one morning I was told to bring a bag the next day — I was going to sea to prove the program.

We left the dock in the late afternoon and I was shown an upper buck to sleep in for the overnight steam. Naive me thought the trip was solely for the self-noise test. Just for me.


Also on the schedule was some Bofors 57mm gun tests. If you don’t know (click the link) it’s a big fucking gun parked on the deck of the frigate. Now I realise there was absolutely no need to include me in the discussions of when and why these tests would be happening, but it would have been nice. I was asleep. Into deep REM sleep, I recall, when the first shot went off. I mentioned I was on the top buck, right? Smashed my head into the “ceiling” above the bunk. Naive me didn’t realise that more than a single shot would be required, either. When my heart rate finally dipped below three digits and I was trying to relax into some sort of hellish sleep, it went off again. Every minute for ten minutes.

Then it missed a minute. I’d adapted to the frequency by then, so the missed minute told my 20 year old brain they were finished and I could attempt sleep again.

They weren’t finished. They were on a break.

Another head smash and a dozen or more firings later and I slowly, tentatively slipped back to sleep. I got about four hours that night.

Breakfast was good, I guess. I don’t remember it, but naval food is generally awesome. Then I went with the sonar techs to the sonar room to set up. I remember being a little nervous, since this was the proof of concept, in the wild, of something I’d basically just been playing with on my desk, but there was also excitement.

Because the ship’s captain wanted to run the trial as quickly as possible, we were setting up in the sonar room while we steamed to our destination. The sonar room is at the very bow of the ship. It’s also below the waterline. We were crashing through pretty heavy seas and I was  in the part of the ship that took the brunt of the wave action. There was no horizon to use as a reference (below decks, below the water line) and the deck dropped out from under my feet with nauseating regularity.

I got seasick, the one and only time in my life. The CPO (I wish I could remember his name) got me to the head in time and I left the breakfast and probably some of the prior night’s meal in the toilet. “No wonder you didn’t feel good,” he said. “You had a stomach full of puke.”

The test was a success. I was told it reduced the trial from three days (plus steaming to and from the test location) to an afternoon. Smarter brains than mine took the digital traces and performed more detailed analysis and helped make the Canadian navy a very quiet navy.

I was thinking today, while in a position that is very conducive to thought, that there are some things in life that we expect to be easy, simple and basic, and some things in life difficult, complex and hard to understand.
In the ‘easy’ category we would have walking on the beach, opening doors and making peanut butter sandwiches.In the ‘difficult’ or ‘hard to understand’ pile I’d include triple integration, calculating the thrust required for geosynchronous orbit and how they get the pizza in Pizza Pockets.

We don’t expect the easy to get more difficult, and while we may pray for it, particularly just before mid-terms, we really don’t expect the difficult to get any easier.

Which brings me to my point.

Toilet paper dispensing should sit very close to the top of the ‘easy’ list, alongside ‘sitting’ and ‘Suzy the head cheerleader’.

The physics are extremely straightforward, and the application of the physics even easier. Sure, there will be interminable debate over whether ‘over the top’ is preferable to ‘hanging down the back‘, but that’s really just silly.

(‘Over the top’. Discussion just displays your backwardness.)

Unfortunately somebody at a company I can’t name has decided to complicate it. REALLY complicate it. (I’d name the company, but the dispenser doesn’t have a name on it. Anywhere. Hiding something maybe?)

This thing, which I examined very closely while sitting and thinking in the office today, is designed to hold three rolls of paper. A Tall, rectangular metal box nailed to the wall, and locked at the top.

Yes. Locked.

At first blush, this would seem a great idea. No chance of running out at that critical, and potentially embarrassing, moment. Nightly cleaning staff (this is in the office, remember) would be tasked to make sure it never got below two rolls.

Simplicity itself, you might be thinking.

And you would be so wrong.

You see, the bottom roll, the one that the would be accessed first, has two rolls sitting on top of it. When you try to roll the bottom one, you have to also roll the ones above it. The bottom one, rolls in one direction, the middle one is rolling in the opposite direction and the one on top, reversed again.

That’s a lot of extra weight to deal with.

Pulling on the square on the bottom roll requires an infinite amount of patience. You need to pull with some degree of force – you’ve got the weight of two additional rolls to deal with – but you can’t pull TOO hard or you’ll be ripping off single panels and that’s just not acceptable.

So, in an ideal situation, it is possible if you’re careful and patient.

It’s more often than not a non-ideal situation though.

In the non-ideal scenario, the middle and top rolls are loose, their respective tails dropping down and mingling, YES, MINGLING, with the TP tail you’re trying to grab. You might manage to grab the right one, but odds are better that you’ll get either the middle or top tail and then you are up shit creek, as they say, without a, um, paddle.

It’s like some weird kind of negative feedback loop is deployed. The harder you pull on the wrong tail, the tighter the whole mess gets, and you end up tearing off a piece about the size of a fifty cent piece.

Which is why I’m still sitting here, four hours later…

Ever have those days when you’re not entirely sure you’re sentient? When seemingly basic technology foils you at every turn?

I was probably thirteen or fourteen (this is the earliest instance of tech ID10T I can remember) and about a year or so into teaching myself guitar when a TV show with Leona Boyd, Chet Atkins and a ton of other guitarists at the top of their genres would be playing. The show was coming on at 8:00. I sat in front of the TV, worked on some homework with the lead-in show on. I couldn’t wait for this show. This, remember, was in the days WAY before recording on VHS was an option.

At about 7:45 our big Persian cat (Syla — I think that’s how it’s spelled) walked by, ignored me with intent, and crawled behind the huge floor model TV.

At about 7:55 the TV went blank. I was devastated. I’d finished my homework early to watch this damned show.

At about 8:45 that fucking cat walked out from behind the TV. I looked behind it and saw that he’d knocked the plug out of the wall. Basic stuff, and I didn’t have the foresight to check. And because of that I missed watching George Benson.

Flash forward about twenty-five years to September 11, 2001. I was in Singapore at the time so it was evening and I was on a conference call with my head office. A regular Tuesday night thing. Someone on the call mentioned a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Wan’t sure if was a light plane or what. The call was terminated and I spent the next hour on the internet attempting to get more information. Lines were terrible. Links were extremely slow to open. I was getting bits and pieces of the story but also was getting more and more frustrated that it was taking so long to get information.

Then it occurred to me that the television was right in front of me and if I turned the damned thing on there’d be a better than even chance that every news network in the world would be beating this story to death.

Again, basic stuff that eluded my allegedly intelligent brain for almost an hour.

Third third one wasn’t mine. And I’ll freely admit that there was probably a background that I’m not aware of that might provide an explanation.

I was in a tire shop a couple of weeks ago getting a new set of wheels after hitting a nasty pothole at about 80 kph. There was another guy in there face-timing his wife. At first I thought they were speaking really, really quietly, then I noticed they were signing each other. ASL stuff. Going right to town with it. My immediate thought was “What en excellent use of technology.”

I actually held that thought for almost fifteen minutes before I replaced it with another, more logical thought.

“Why in the hell aren’t they just texting each other?”