Tag Archives: GLink

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have to go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  He is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when the copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant a few weeks later, they were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I forget the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned.

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years.

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said, “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and looked at the IT guy (Ed, I think is his name).  Ed just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Ed said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Ed replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Ed asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t every say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    ALways enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

Power Plant Trouble With Angels

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software.  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week.

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers.

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the Network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned.

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smartaleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a posted note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

Power Plant Men Take the Corporate Mainframe Computer Home

When the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma downsized from 218 employees to 124 employees in 1994, everyone was scrambling to figure out how we were going to complete all the work that needed to be done to keep the plant running.  We had become cross-functional teams which seemed to help right away, but we needed to know what jobs were the higher priority jobs, because it became obvious, at least for the short run, that we were not keeping up with the workload.

That was where the “Planners” came in.  In other industries, we may call these guys, “Project Managers”.  They planned the work, and gave us the Maintenance Orders when it was time to work on them.  At first, this was a daunting task for the four planners at our plant.  The planners were Mike Vogle, Glenn Rowland, Ben Davis and Tony Mena.

This was a new job for all of them.  Glenn Rowland had been an A Foreman for the Instrument and Controls Department.  Tony Mena had been on the Testing team.  Mike Vogle had been a B Foreman over the Labor Crew.  Ben Davis had been an electrician.  Now they were suddenly working on a computer all day long trying to learn how to plan their days so they could plan ours.  I currently don’t have any good pictures of this team, or I would let you see for yourself what great guys they are.

Oh.  Ok.  Here is a later picture of Mike Vogle which I absconded from his Facebook page:

Mike Vogle

Mike Vogle

At this time, though they were using the “state of the art” 286 PCs, they were really working on the Honeywell mainframe computer at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  They did this by using a Dumb Terminal emulator named GLink.  See the post: “Working Smarter Power Plant with Dumb Terminals” for a better explanation.

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

The Power Plant Men knew that I liked to play around on the computers.  I was always going around helping people improve their computer experience by writing little programs that would do important things.  For instance, Windows back then had a screensaver that would fly the windows logo out from the screen so that it looked like you were flying into  the windows logos and they were passing you by.

Flying Windows Screensaver

Flying Windows Screensaver

In the executable program, if you changed the value of one particular byte, you could change the picture from the windows logo to any other of the 255 Wingding Characters.  This included things like Skull and Crossbones, Hearts, Crosses, Envelopes, Stars, Snowflakes and a lot more.  So, I was able to customize their screensavers using any of the wingding characters.

I wrote simple little programs to change their font size and color when they were using DOS, so they could read their screen easier (for the old timers that had a hard time reading the little letters).

Anyway, I had developed a reputation as not only being a troublemaker, but also of being a computer whiz. I have more stories to tell at a later time, but for now I will stick to the one about bringing the Honeywell mainframe home.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

Mike Vogle first asked me the question.  He explained to me that he was staying later and later each night at work doing his job.  The earliest he was leaving was after 7pm each day, and he didn’t have time anymore to even see his family by the time he arrived home. So, he asked me if there was some way he could take his home work with him.  What he would ideally like to do would be to take a disk from work with the Maintenance Orders on them where he could complete them.  Then the next morning bring that disk back to work and put it in the computer and load it into the system.

I can see that a lot of you are rolling your eyes wondering why he didn’t just log into the company network and work remotely.  Well, in 1994, the Internet was something new.  We didn’t have the Network infrastructure built yet that would allow something like that.  We were using Windows 3.1 on old 16 bit computers.  Most of the programs we were running on the computers were still Pre-Windows.  The GLink application, even though it had a windows Icon, was really a DOS program emulating a Dumb Terminal.

I told Mike I would look into it to see if there was some way I could emulate the emulator.  That is, write a program that would be able to interact with the GLink program to upload and download data from the mainframe automatically.  I was sitting in the Electric Shop Office with Charles Foster thinking about this over lunch when Terry Blevins came in.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

Terry and I had worked together the last seven years on the precipitators.  During the downsizing Terry was offered a job working on “Special Assignments”, which was a great move up for him.  We were all happy for him.  He had setup shop at the warehouse office where he could work part of the time from our plant instead of having to drive from Ponca City, Oklahoma to Oklahoma City to go to work.

When Terry came in to eat lunch with us, I told him what Mike Vogle had asked me.  Terry said right away that the GLink program had a Macro language that we might be able to use to automate the process.  This was just what I needed to hear.  If I could write a program that would write macros and send them to GLink to run, then that would do it.  I looked up the macro commands for GLink by opening up the Help section and printing out the list.

I used BASIC 7.0 (no.  Not Visual Basic, I hadn’t advanced that far yet).  BASIC 7.0 was the first BASIC that did away with line numbers and advanced a real second generation programming language.  It came out about the same time as MS Windows.  When I first bought the program, it was about $500.00 which was quite a lot for me.  But it allowed me to create actual DOS executables where I could do just about anything I wanted.

BASIC 7.0 Programmer's Guide

BASIC 7.0 Programmer’s Guide

Keep in mind that the language I was using to write the program didn’t know about Text Boxes, or even “Word Wrap” for that matter.  Everything that the user did on the screen, I had to take into account myself.  Just like I was working with a dumb terminal.  It didn’t understand “Word Wrap” either.  When you finished typing at the end of the line, if it jumped down to the next line in the middle of the word, you had to arrow up, and arrow to the right (forget using a mouse), and backspace until you had erased the letters at the end of the line, and then arrow back down to the next line and start typing again.

So, I put in my own logic for word wrapping because the mainframe window had only so many characters per line, and it had no mercy.  Everything had to be in the right box when you clicked on Submit.  When I was finished writing this program, I was so proud of myself for creating something as simple as “Word Wrap”.

Word Wrap, for those of you who don’t understand the phrase is when you get to the end of the line you are typing and instead of splitting the word up when it goes to the next line, it moves the entire word down to the next line.  You see it all the time now, but early on, the person writing a computer program had to take that into account if they wanted something to word wrap.  Windows Text Boxes and Word Processors had Word Wrap built in, so today a programmer doesn’t have to worry about all those little things, because the objects already know how to do that.  Just like this internet page knows how to do it.

Years later when I was interviewing for a Developer job with other companies and they would ask me what was one of my greatest programming accomplishments, I might blurt out “Word Wrap” before I realized how silly that sounds today.

Another problem I had was that strings of characters in the computer code are delimited by Double Quotes, so what happens when someone is filling out their Maintenance order and they use a Double Quote (“).  I didn’t think about this, and the first time I gave the program to Mike Vogle to test it out, it went all crazy and entered a bunch of bad data into a Maintenance Order because there was a Double Quote in it….. Yeah.  I forgot that if you want to say you worked on a four inch pipe, you would write that as 4” pipe.

So, my second great accomplishment when writing this program was to watch each key stroke, and if it was a double quote, then I would concatenate the string to another string around the double quote that was delimited with single quotes.  After doing all that, the program worked pretty good.  I gave it to Mike, and he tested it out and after making a few more tweeks, it was ready.

Mike could then take his disk of Maintenance orders home with him, and complete his work there, and in the morning he would put the disk in the computer, type a simple command, and it would open up GLink and start uploading all the work he did the night before.  Flashing screen after screen as it worked through all the Maintenance Orders.

Over time (not overtime, but Over Time, as in after a number of days or weeks, not like getting paid time and a half), the program became popular with some of the foremen, because it had Word Wrap and the GLink Emulator didn’t because it was emulating the Dumb Terminal which is too dumb to wrap words from one line to the other.  So, this one little feature that I was so proud of figuring out actually turned out to be the selling point for the foremen to use my new program during the day at work.

I had originally written the program so that Mike could take it home and use it to store macros on the disk that would upload the data to the Mainframe in the morning, but now the foremen were using it during the day at work because it was easier to use than the actual program that talked directly to the mainframe.

It was fun writing a program that essentially wrote another program (macros) that would tell another program (GLink) what to do.  To me, it was the first step for me to take over the world (as one of my Managers at Dell used to accuse me of doing).  What I mean is, that if you could write programs that writes other programs, aren’t you essentially creating some sort of “Artificial Intelligence”?

Because of my initial experience with this effort, it has given me the idea to write a program called:  “Old Man”.  Someday, maybe when I retire, I want to write a program that will help old men… like I will be.  Old men that are losing their memory (like I will be… or already am).  And it will learn what the old man does and how he lives, and it will remind him to do simple tasks.  Basically, it will nag him like his wife would do if she was still living.  It will use voice recognition so it will speak and listen to the old man speak back.

The “Old Man” application will remind him to brush his teeth.  Go to the barber, wash the sheets on his bed.  The list can be endless, because it will learn what this person needs from scratch and dynamically build the database and infrastructure in the background to take care of this old man when he can’t remember if he has just taken his medicine already or not.  It will even make a shopping list for him and help him with cooking.  It will be connected to the Internet so that it can pull all sorts of information it needs.

The “Mainframe Emulator Commander” program that I wrote for Mike Vogle really was my first step to becoming a real nuisance at the plant, because after that, I wanted to write more and more programs. So, I was always on the alert as to what I could do next.  I will write about some of the things we came up with throughout this year.

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have to go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  He is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when the copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant a few weeks later, they were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I forget the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned.

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years.

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said, “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and looked at the IT guy (Ed, I think is his name).  Ed just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Ed said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Ed replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Ed asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t every say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”