Monday, May 7, 2018

Gimme Three Steps (Toward Success)

I grew up with a friend who made a fortune twice. And unlike other people who have done this, he didn't go broke after his first fortune and then earn another fortune. Instead, he started a successful business, sold it, and after a time he became bored doing not much of anything, so he started another very successful company. I was thinking about him this morning because I remembered something he shared with me about himself.

When I went to visit him in California after he started his second business, Blaze Pizza, he took me to his first restaurant in the chain. While we were sampling the food and service, I complimented him on his success.

"I'm really proud of you," I said. "You've worked hard to make yourself a success."

"Actually," he corrected me, "I don't like to work hard at all." He told me that he takes a very leisurely approach to business and spends very little time in his office.

That goes completely counter to everything I thought I knew about success, leaving me to wonder what really is the combination to unlock it. I don't claim to know all of the digits, but I think I have at least three of them.

1. Great ideas are a dime a dozen. Sure, my friend had at least two great ideas. The first was triggered by a childhood memory. When we were in grade school, one of the kids in our class used to tease him about his last name. He called him Wetzel the Pretzel. Years later, when he was searching for ideas to start a franchise, he remembered that and so he started the Wetzel Pretzel chain. But clearly, a great idea is not the only requirement for financial success or most people I know would be fabulously wealthy. I once had a friend who claimed to have come up with the idea of using a vacuum cleaner hose to drive a motor with a blade that you could use to cut your hair. Only later was the Flowbee vacuum cleaner attachment for cutting hair patented. But it wasn't my buddy who patented it and reaped the financial benefits. Clearly there's more to financial success than just having a great idea. You have to take action.

2. Risk has rewards. Once my grade school friend had an idea for a pretzel franchise, he risked his time and money to start the business. Had he not taken that leap of faith, he would never have made a go of it. But I think there's at least one other ingredient in his recipe for success.

3. Location, location, location. Corpus Christi, Texas is a great place to be from, but it's not the land of financial opportunity. It's a sleepy little seaside city where we grew up, but had his family not left when he was in high school, I doubt he would have succeeded in business. He ended up in the Los Angeles area, which is where he started his first (and second) business(es) and where there is ample opportunity for success in a variety of fields. That's not the only place where his franchises could have succeeded but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have happened in south Texas.

Whether you want to succeed in the restaurant business or in live event production, I think you need more than a great idea. You need to act on your ideas. It helps to have a tolerance for calculated risk, and be willing to relocate to where the opportunities are. Just ask Rick Wetzel.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Technology at NAMM 2018

Oscar Wilde once said that when business people get together they talk about art and when artists get together, they talk about business. So what happens when business people and artists get together? They talk about technology. 

Jackson Browne was presented with the Les Paul Innovation Award at the NAMM TEC Awards in January. When he accepted it, he talked about the first tape recorder he ever bought and how they took to the road to record "Running on Empty" in buses and live venues. Then he took the stage with Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, and Craig Doerge (the Section) and played a couple of songs. It was a magical night.

That wasn't the only opportunity to talk or learn about technology. There were a number of newly added sessions having to do with live event production. I couldn't attend them all, as much as I would have loved to, but I either participated in or attended several, including Mike Wood's "LED Technology: From Diode to Light," "Sustainability and Cost Savings in Event Lighting" presented by Mike Wood and myself, "Video Production: LEDs, Fluorescents, Automated Lighting; and Lighting Design for Video Production in the Age of LEDs" presented by Matt Ardine, Kieran Illes, David Kane, Mike Wood, and myself, "Electrical Safety for Stage and Set" presented by Alan Rowe and myself, "Video Production: Power on a Shoestring" presented by Kieran Illes and Alan Rowe, "Console Programming Workflow" presented by myself, "Media Server Programming and Pixel Mapping" presented by Matt Ardine and David Kane, and "Advanced Ethernet Networking" presented by Scott Blair, John Huntington, Kevin Loewen.

My favorite session was "Advanced Ethernet Networking" presented by Scott Blair, John Huntington, Kevin Loewen. These guys are the industry gurus when it comes to networking. Some of the notes I took during the session include...

  • John Huntington said that terminating Cat6A is a "pain in the ass." He said you can use Cat5E for gigabit networks and it works fine.
  • An auto IP is a way of automatically assigning an IP address to a device if it does not receive one from a DHCP server. Scott Blair said that auto IP works with sACN because, as long as the device has IGMP snooping, the IP address doesn't matter. Auto IP addresses are in the range 169.254.x.y.
  • Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) is a protocol that allows you to monitor a network. According to the panel, there are several SNMP applications but I think I missed their favorites. I'll be researching that next.
  • John Huntington recommended the Byte Brothers Real World Certifier for testing LAN hardware and cabling. I found this link on his web site with information and specs.
There is still lots to unpack from NAMM but this is a start.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Art of Troubleshooting Like Leonardo

True story. My wife teaches spin classes at a local gym, and the other day I went to her class. Before class she was struggling with the computer that runs the audio and scheduling in the room. She couldn’t get it to work, so I thought I would help. The computer is a NUC-type, about six inches long by about four inches wide and inch deep, and it was mounted to the back of the equipment rack. All of the cables, both power and data, were routed through the locked rack, concealing their path. The monitor had an error message saying that it was not receiving a video signal. So I disconnected and reconnected the video cable at the monitor and at the computer, but the same error message appeared. Then I disconnected reconnected the power cable at the computer, thinking that resetting it might help. Again, the same error message appeared on the monitor. It must be a bad video cable, I thought. It was frustrating not being able to get into the rack to get a better look, and I was at a loss about what else I could do. I almost gave up. About that time, the manager of the gym came along and pushed a button on the computer and it came to life. It turned out that the On/Off switch was in the Off position.
The first rule of troubleshooting is to check the obvious things first. Bill Byrd used to be a technician at High End Systems. He started there shortly after serving as a tech in the Air Force. That’s where, he said, he picked up the first rule of troubleshooting. “Is the O-N/O-F-F switch in the O-N position?” That was his favorite line.
Another good practice while troubleshooting is to take pictures as you go so that you can reference them when it’s time to put things back together. We used to have to write everything down but now with smart phone cameras, it’s much quicker and easier to take pictures.
One last tip is to write down your steps as you go so that you never have to repeat your work. Last month I was troubleshooting a complicated lighting network at a major television studio. (Look for the article about it in the Winter 2018 issue of Protocol magazine.) We had run a temporary Ethernet cable to a network switch in a computer closet, so we had two cables – the main and the temporary. The system worked fine on the temporary cable but there were problems with the main cable. I wanted to rule out the cable itself, so we tested the system in four different conditions; one with the main cable connected to the main port in the switch, one with the temporary cable connected to another port in the same switch, one with the main cable connected to a different port in the switch, and the last with the temporary cable connected to the main port in the switch. So I quickly drew a table with four rows and labeled them 1 through 4. As we conducted the test, I would write down the results.
I’ve learned over the years that even a simple test like this can be interrupted or you can lose track of which combinations have already been tried. So writing it down saves time and effort. This is a technique that I learned from reading about Leonardo da Vinci, who was said to document everything his did in excruciating detail. It takes longer but in the end, it saves time.

There is a lot more to troubleshooting, and as you gain experience you will develop your own techniques. But in the meanwhile, focus on the simple solutions first, take lots of pictures, and document your work.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Is it Time for AC to Go Away?

You know about AC and DC, but have you heard of IAC?

Probably not, since I just made it up to describe how we are increasingly relying on wind and solar power to generate electricity. In the process, it's stored in batteries in the form of DC before passing through inverters to convert to AC and then converted back to DC again to be used by the computer chips that ultimately drive our LEDs, consoles, video projectors, and almost everything else we connect to electrical power. Each of those conversions comes with an energy cost, which is why I believe that we might one day return to a DC grid.

In the meanwhile, we'll continue to use that intermediate step using AC.

The only reason that we use AC today is because 125 years ago when Edison began building and selling DC generators, we didn't know how to change the voltage of DC, so the voltage produced by a DC generator was the voltage that had to be used by the consumer.

And when it comes to distributing electricity, there's a trade-off between safety and economy; the higher the voltage, the more dangerous but the more economical, and the lower the voltage, the safer but the more it costs to distribute. That's because of the relationship between power, voltage, and current. To transmit the same amount of power at low voltage requires bigger conductors, which cost more money.

That problem left the door wide open for George Westinghouse to walk through with his newly purchased patent on the transformer, which allowed him to build and sell AC generators. That, in turn, allowed consumers of electricity to remove their very loud and smelly generators from their property and tie into the electrical grid, which was supplied by very large generators located far from the premises, and that's mostly how it's done today.

I was reminded of this recently when I checked into my hotel in Shanghai and I found a variety of electrical connectors, including USB, which provide low-voltage DC to charge batteries in all of our devices. That's not unusual these days, but if it becomes more commonplace and expands to include higher current DC outlets, it could alleviate some issues having to do with electrical power distribution. For example, with AC, we now have to think about power factor and harmonics, which can cause overloads and overheating of electrical apparatus. Neither of those exists in the DC domain. And low-voltage DC is much safer than the 100VAC to 240VAC that we currently use around the world.

Converting to DC won't happen any time soon and there are no guarantees that it will happen at all. But imagine having universal voltage at the connection point (5VDC?), universal connectors, and universal frequency (0 Hz!). In the meanwhile, watch out for the effects of low power factor and harmonics.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Watch This!

When I worked at High End Systems, we used to sell a strobe light called Dataflash. It had an 8-inch diameter clear plastic dome, and the first versions of it were made of breakable plastic. But in the second version, the dome was made of Lexan, which is virtually unbreakable. In the demo room at High End we had an 8 x 8 matrix of Dataflash mounted on the wall and it was programmed to play patterns and effects. Richard Belliveau, one of the owners of the company at the time, used to bring customers into the demo room and tell them how tough Lexan is. It's used for bulletproof glass and for the windshields of helicopters, he would say. And then to demonstrate how indestructible the domes were, he would walk up to the display, remove one at random by spinning it off of the fixture, and then he would slam it down on the floor as hard as he could. The floor was concrete and it was covered by a thin layer of colorful carpet, so it was very hard. The Lexan dome would bounce around but it wouldn't break.

Richard taught me everything I knew about lighting when I worked at High End, including how to sell customers on the features of our products. Soon I was emulating his demonstration of how durable the domes are.

One day, I brought a customer into the demo room and I said, "Watch this." I spun a dome off of one of the fixtures and walked to the middle of the demo room. With all the flare I could muster, I slammed it to the ground as hard as I could. Much to my dismay, it shattered in a thousand pieces.

Apparently, someone had replaced one of the Lexan domes with one of the older style domes and that happened to be the one I randomly picked. When it broke, I was embarrassed and I waited with baited breath for the customer's reaction. Would he laugh, cringe, or walk out in disgust? None of the above. He said, "Wow, that fantastic!" He loved it.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

More Books, Less Guns

"What does labor want? We want more school houses and less jails. More books and less guns. More learning and less vice. More leisure and less greed. More justice and less revenge. We want more...opportunities to cultivate our better nature." - Samuel Gompers, founding President of The American Federation of Labor

I was very fortunate that to very important people in my life emphasized the importance of education - my mother and father. My education has afforded me opportunities that other people didn't have, and I'm grateful for that. As political tensions around the world elevate, it's increasingly important to educate our children to give them the opportunity to make the most of their lives and give them the tools to better themselves by applying what they've learned about the world. Education levels the playing field. Teach the children well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What's the difference between a stagehand and a tech?

Stagehand Versus Tech

Being a stagehand is an honorable way to earn a living. And it's hard work. Loading and unloading trucks, hauling heavy gear, and working long, hard hours can be a physical challenge, but plenty of decent human beings do it for a living. And as long as you take care not to hurt yourself, you can make it a career. But maybe you want more of a mental challenge. Maybe you want better pay, or better working conditions. Maybe you want to be a tech.

A tech is a skilled craftsperson. It's also an honorable way to earn a living, and it can also be hard work, but it's more mental than physical. While a stagehand works with their hands, a tech works with their head and their hands. A stagehand works against gravity while a tech works with technology. 

A stage hand can see their work - sections of truss, spigots, bolts, wrenches...It's not hard to figure out how to properly assemble sections of truss. A tech, on the other hand, knows how to calculate how much dynamic force can be applied to a truss before it's too much. 

A stage hand can look at a male and a female Edison connector and see that they can be mated. A tech understands how to calculate the load current and knows whether or not the cable can supply enough ampacity for the connected load.

How do you become a tech? You read, study, learn, and put into practice what you have learned. There are plenty of options to chart your career, whether it involves university or the school of hard knocks. Either way, it can be challenging, rewarding, and fun.

If you need help deciding which route to take, drop a line.