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February 3, 2002

A Tapestry of Updates

I had a fabulous idea for an article that I was going to write this week. It was going to be stupendous - break right out of my mold and thrust my writing in an all-new direction that would stun and amaze everyone, including myself. Unfortunately, my imagination is bigger than my writing talent (cough), and when I actually sat down to write it, it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. I'm still working on it, and hope to yet impress everyone with my ever-expanding writing talents (cough, cough), but in the meantime I needed something else.

Over the past year I've written about an awful lot of things. Most items I write on are either long-held or newly affirmed beliefs, or topics that are immediately relevant to me, but then saunter off into the background. A few select topics, however, still percolate throughout my life, and do not end at the last paragraph each week. Things change, situations develop, and I continue to think on topics after I write them. I thought it appropriate (or at least a lot easier) to thereby give you some updates on previous topics.

In Stuff That Breaks Sucks, I mentioned a few things that were annoying me. One was the rear window wiper on my truck. Turns out that it's a common problem, and that the arm simply seizes up due to salt-induced corrosion in winter. A few liberal squirts of WD-40 and a pair of pliers later, it's working fine again. It's starting to show signs of slowing down again, so I should re-lube it. What seemed like a big deal turned out not to be.

Unfortunately, that is not the case for my water softener. After a month of pestering the company I bought it from (who will never see my business again in my lifetime), two failed service calls, and at least one bald-faced lie, I finally had to call in another company that services my brand of softener. Turns out the repair was quite straightforward - just a set of rubber gaskets that get dirty and wear out - and my softener was operating again within the hour.

Of course, as I did not purchase my unit from this second, competent company, I had to pay for the visit. One hundred dollars isn't much to pay for piece of mind, but I didn't believe (and still don't) that I should have to pay it, as the service should have been covered under warranty. After much hunting, I managed to track down the Canadian office of the water softener manufacturer, and started a dialogue with their customer service manager. After many months of phone calls, I finally get word that they are going to refund the cost of the service.

Now it's February, and I still have yet to see my money from them. Apparently there's a holdup somewhere, and I'm still waiting to get answers. What's worse, the softener is acting up again, and now I don't know from where I'm going to go to get warranty service. If it goes on much longer like this I'm going to be sorely tempted to drive to Mississauga and dump the entire load of soggy, sludgy softener salt on the service manager's desk, sell my unit, and get another brand. I'll bet the GE softeners that I could get at Home Depot are serviced well by competent people that return phone calls. Argh.

Back in early November 2002, I started being kinder to the environment and a bit healthier by cycling to work. The first week was extremely harsh on my derriere, but nothing that 3cm of foam padding and some duct tape didn't fix. As it turns out, all I needed was some seat time, as my butt barely registers any discomfort anymore on my rides. The sad truth was that I had gone soft after years of not riding. Now, however, I'm actually contemplating taking the foam off.

Although I've been driving or getting a ride in to work for the past two weeks due to the extreme cold, I've managed to cycle quite a bit despite the late start in the season. Late December, just before the Christmas break I celebrated my 500th kilometer traveled by bicycle since I started. This past month I broke 600 kilometers. Once the weather starts co-operating again, I'll hopefully get back up to at least 75km a week, and will look forward to 125km a week in the spring and summer. Breaking 1000km will be fun - stay tuned!

Just before Christmas last year I floated the preposterous idea of adding a wind turbine to the CN Tower, to both provide pollution-free power to Toronto and to recreate a cultural icon. I still haven't made the T-shirts yet, but the idea has been rolling around in the back of my head ever since. After writing that article I did a bit more research into wind power, and re-discovered the red headed stepchild of wind power, the Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT). You might know them as the "eggbeater" kind of wind turbine.

VAWTs have one big advantage over their more common horizontal axis cousins: they can accept wind from any direction without having to reorient themselves, and can better use wind of unstable speed as well. As is to be expected, they also have one big disadvantage: for comparable generation capacities, the VAWT has a higher initial wind speed requirement than the horizontal axis turbines do. This was overcome in one instance by adding a small electric "starter" motor to each VAWT to help it start up after the wind died down. Unfortunately, if the wind speed varied too much, these starter motors would eventually consume more power than the VAWT would generate.

I have to believe, however, that at the altitude of the CN Tower the wind speed is fairly constant, or at the very least variable with a higher minimum speed than would be found at ground level. This would be consistent with the research I've done thus far with respect to residential-sized wind turbines mounted on tall poles or towers. Thereby, I think that a VAWT would be more suitable to retrofit onto the CN Tower than any other kind of wind turbine. What's more, the very nature of the Tower promotes this, as the tower's shaft could easily reside within the vertical turbine blades. With blades going around the tower, no views would be obscured from within. As the blades are secured in two places as opposed to just one with horizontal wind turbines, there is a much lower likelihood that a blade could come off and crash down on to unsuspecting core workers in the case of unusually violent weather. It's a win-win-win situation. I'll redesign the T-shirts and start looking for sponsors.

And now, the big update. As long-time readers will remember, back in April 2002 I lost my job. During the ensuing job search I bitched about cover letters, pondered the merits and problems of relocating, and eventually found gainful employment locally at a company I could enjoy working at. Or, so I thought. Don't get me wrong: the company itself is great. The product line is something I can buy into personally and ethically, and the goals of both the products and the company are inline with my environmental ideals. In fact, everything is going just peachy, save for the fact that I'm not an employee there.

Small companies are great - you can help shape them from the ground up, and if you stick it out you'll be one of the lucky ones that got in at "ground level". The flip side to small companies is that they may not be well established, and adding one person to a small payroll can have dramatic consequences. Such was the case when I arrived in late October 2002. Without anything better to do than search for jobs and hope for something equally as good to spring up, I decided to volunteer there until such time that the corporate finances could fit me into the payroll. In theory, that should have been their next fiscal year, which began January 2003.

In reality, my position does not come with immediate fiscal benefits to the company. My work is long term in focus, and would only produce bottom line results on the scale of years, maybe months if we were really lucky. Having recently had a very scary year monetarily, the company is scared to commit to anything that does not have a fairly quick payout - including me. The one saving grace that we were all counting on was some funding available to industry specifically for the commercialization of new technology. We applied for said funding, and eventually were conditionally approved. The condition? The budget for the fund's fiscal year had run out, so until decommitments for funding in this fiscal year come through, we had to wait until the following year to get our funding. That fiscal year starts in April 2003.

I'm holding the decidedly short end of the stick on this one, but without any other place to go thus far, I may as well stick it out and hope for the best. There is goodwill on behalf of the company, and the desire to make me a full employee, but in the perilous first few years of a young business' life, the bottom line is boss. If I drag them into the red, I won't be there long, and they might disappear as well.

Meanwhile, I'm continuing to look. The job market slowed down considerably since September, and it's only now starting to pick back up. At this point I'm not even sure what I want to do - find something better, or buck up and entrench myself where I am now. Only time will show me what choices I have, and I'll be sure to let you all know as soon as I find out myself.


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