The Tale of the Greaseball

This is a story I have found fascinating for years, as related to me by my late uncle. I figured I’d post it here to share the strangeness and maybe some of the vaguely guesswork science.

Back in the 1990s, he worked with a security company, probably Wackenhut at the time, and had a pretty sweet post where he worked overnight in what’s now called the Southeast Financial Center in downtown Miami. This center consists of at least two buildings, one being a 15 story annex that’s mostly a parking garage but also houses some shops and stuff, and the other is a very tall office tower that was, for decades, a distinctive part of the Miami skyline. Nowadays it kinda fades into the other buildings, but it used to be the tallest.

Over the years, it had a few different names, the most amusing of which was when it was the First Union tower and was thus possible to be abbreviated to “FU Tower”.

Well, one day, it said FU.

On one of the floors of the annex, there was a big fancy beauty salon, and a cafe. The salon, which was one of these “if you have to ask, you can’t afford their services” kinds, was having chronic issues with their sinks backing up for a while, sometimes leading to the whole salon floor getting flooded with inches of soapy water. The building’s engineers had been investigating the problem for a while but were faced with one of the more maddening issues that likes to slap engineers in the face:

* It’s not working, we’re investigating—-
* Oops, now it’s working, and we don’t know why.

Sometimes they’d arrive to find the water on the floor, and absolutely no signs of the drains being clogged.

They had a large wet vac that my uncle called Big Bertha that they’d haul in there and make quick work of the soapy water on the marble floor, and that’d be that, right? Well, then it’d come back in a week, and everyone was getting pissed off.

This building annex was a strange piece of architecture.

I believe the area he told me about with the beauty salon and cafe were up on what’d actually be the second or third level of the building (depending on how far undeground things went). They were definitely above street level; approaching this building from the street involved going up large stone stairs or ramps. As I recall, it looked like as soon as you went into the parking garage, the first thing was a big ramp up, as there was a basement level below it. I’d also heard that this basement level extended out under the courtyard, but not in the “it’s all hollow under there” sense – more like it had a series of little rabbit warrens under it populated with small chambers that contained chilled water circulation pumps and other frobnications. It was not uncommon for the air conditioning contractors to spend half their time on site just trying to figure out how to get to what they were trying to work on!

He did often have to go down into that space to turn chillers off. For whatever reason, the HVAC automation was capable of turning circulation pumps and chillers ON as required, but was not capable of turning them off. It’d basically signal a warning on a computer screen that it needed the chiller shut off. The procedure for shutting it down was to physically walk up to the chiller and press a stop button, which would begin its pump down and shutdown cycle, accompanied by gigantic, shuddering, disturbing noises.

I’d never gone into the garage annex there though I’d always wanted to, based on some of the weird things he told me about it. It was a very strange piece of architecture, one of those that looked like it was designed by a committee that was at constant war with someone forcing feature creep into it. For instance, he told me one day about deciding on one of his rounds to go through an emergency exit door in one corner of the garage. This door at something like the 11th level led into the beginning of what felt like over a mile of turbulently twisty concrete hallway that connected to NOTHING ELSE with multiple stairwells, most going down, but some going BACK  UP, as though this hallway had been laced over and under various other parts of the building on the way out. At intervals there’d be air vents through which he heard sounds that didn’t match with the sound of anything he was familiar with in the building…. strange howling sounds of air rushing down very long ducts? Finally, after he’d been walking for about 25 minutes, it made one final dip and set of stairs UP, and came to a concealed door that ejected him next to the main entrance of the office tower itself. When I say it connected to nothing else, that is to say there were no doors in or out of the exit hallway. It was just a long strange labyrinth.

Usually where I’ve seen that in the process of casual urban exploration, it’s the result of a space that was remodeled and repurposed needing a fire exit out the back. The fire codes said you needed an exit, they didn’t say it had to be a quick and direct one???

One of the things he noticed in this garage was that it had several helical ramp structures inside it which contained a hollow utility duct up the middle. One of them was part of a smoke evacuation system, which you can see clearly on aerial photography of the building. There are five enormous exhaust vents visible up on top, and the entire upper levels of both the annex and the office towers are hollow and have ventilation louvers that look like false windows. I seem to remember him describing two of those vents having massive variable speed fans in them that sucked car exhaust out of the garage, but would spin up to a fearsome, screaming speed if the fire alarm system triggered. One of them pulled air out via vents that led back into one of the helixes, the other came out of a different system that had vents outside the stairwell doors to pull away smoke. The stairwells were pressurized with clean air from below by something in the mystery zone under the courtyard.

The other helix served a far different purpose: The building’s electrical service and main switchgear were located inside it. It had a ventilation duct up into the hollow upper level space, where hot air from the room would be ejected along with hot wet air from the evaporative cooling towers.

So…. Remember the salon with its backed up drains? Well, nobody realized this previously, but the drain line also ran down the helix with the switchgear in it. Forming inside the drain line was a rock hard amber plug of grease from the cafe, and every night when they cleaned and sanitized the kitchen, the hot soapy water was slowly getting past, with the overflow escaping into the beauty salon. That is, until the pipe finally just gave up.

One Friday night he was in the building’s control room on the 15th floor of the office tower when everything pretty much lit up at once then immediately went dark. The fire alarms made one brief honk and died, the HVAC systems completely powered down, elevator controls blanked out and the elevators stalled (luckily, this being like 1 AM, nobody was using them!), and the phone was dead. He walked down many, many stairs to the lobby, and as he did he noticed no air flowing into the stairwell. At the first level, thick stinging smoke gushed out of the vent that was supposed to blow clean air into the stairwell. Upon exiting through the lobby doors, he saw smoke roaring out of the garage entrance as the fire department rolled up. The giant fans on the roof were not running, and the fire department deployed portable smoke evacuation fans to clear things up.

Once the smoke was cleared, a giant piece of sheet metal that looked like it’d been worked over with oxyacetylene torches on one side was found at the bottom of the helix. He looked at it and identified it as having been an access panel that was partway up the helix and had been used to install a transformer or something that was too big to fit through the normal maintenance access doors into that space.

The building engineers had Florida Power & Light de-energize things, then took one look inside the helix and walked quickly out. What they found looked like the remains of a fiery tornado from hell had spun around inside the space a few times and vaporized everything before overpressurizing the big concrete tube it was all installed in, blowing out the access panel and blowing up the vent duct at the top like a balloon, and cracking the concrete all around. The basement was also now full of smoke and steam that’d been blown downwards when the whole thing went WHOOMP and buckled a thick steel floor panel, shot it into the basement, and sliced it through several gutters full of high voltage cables like a hot knife through butter. Amazingly, the one thing that survived was the remains of the drain pipe, with the plugged horizontal section of it found wedged in the remains of a breaker panel. A high water line was visible about a foot up the wall, where the water had come right up into some 14KV Pringle switches, and once you pop, you just can’t stop—-

What followed was a Herculean effort to get the place back in operation… the switchgear had to be bypassed using a temporary setup installed in a cargo container, structural engineers had to come in and figure out how to repair the helix that had been poured and fabricated in place since the concrete center was beat to hell, and thousands of gallons of water had to be pumped out of the remains of the switchgear room and the basement. Amazingly, they were all back up and running by Monday morning, but the foul metallic smelling smoke with hints of turdwater and dish soap had permeated the entire complex via the basement space.

Hurricane Andrew came along about a month later, and after it caused a near miss with almost flooding the switchgear AGAIN with salt water, a portion of the garage several levels up was walled off and the electrical cables and switchgear were relocated up there.

At the time they had some special arrangement to make sure this never showed up on the news, however, he actually did make news accidentally a year or so later – someone was riding by in a limousine outside when the limo’s A/C compressor popped and died hard under the hood, causing a great eruption of smoke and fire. He walked up and assisted everyone inside the limo off to safety, and the paparazzi caught pictures! It was published in the National Enquirer with some wacked out eyebait* headline like “heroic security guard saves (whoever it was) from car explosion”.

* I guess “clickbait” before clickbait was a thing? I dunno. I’m just an engineer, ok?

BWAAAAAHHHHH!!!

King of the Hill memes are a wonderful thing and this is no exception but it led me to notice something ridiculous

The internet is only an imaginary construct to the Hills. Please note the shadowed gray circle to the left of center on the back of the iMac G3.

That is the IEC power jack.

I cannot think of any point in the show at which a power cord was seen plugged into that jack.

In addition, when Peggy’s iMac was first seen, it was a “Bondi Blue” tray-load model. Later, as seen here, it became a slot-load model (the 400 mhz through 1.2 ghz models at the end of the iMac G3’s run used the same physical chassis). This model is one of the later “flavors”, either Blueberry or Indigo.

This suggests that the Hills were so strangely attached to this imaginary technology that they UPGRADED at some point, still without plugging power into the iMac.

In addition, well… let me point out how few games were ever released for this platform, making Hank’s playing “Pro-Pain” a very unlikely detail.

Thank you for your attention to my silliness. If you stick around, I may also go into a fun explanation of how ridiculous Channel 84’s technical operations are…

So as for Channel 84… I always laugh inappropriately at the scene where Nancy drives the news van into the active wildfire in “Gone With The Windstorm”.

This van is seen equipped with, well, the usual equipment in electronic news gathering/live broadcast vans, with an extendable mast on the truck roof that has a microwave transmitter on it to send the live video and audio back to the station.

At the time this episode was produced (May 2005) it is doubtful that any modern video over bonded cellular systems like Dejero (gah!), LiveU, or TVU (just give me back the Dejero! ARGH!) existed, so I’m going to rule out the possibility that one of those was in use.

Generally these trucks are sent out with at least two people onboard – a reporter and a trained technician/photographer who will set up the microwave link once on scene, and the reporter.

The microwave link is HIGHLY directional and only works line of sight. You have to aim it right at the receiver that leads back to the studio and this usually requires a little game of hot and cold talking to a tech back at the studio until you get the signal peaked. If you don’t have the mast raised, which takes several minutes, it’s unlikely you will get this clear LoS and be able to send back usable video. The dish is in a stowed position when you’re driving the truck around, which basically aims it at the truck roof.

The trucks also have a generator onboard to power the video processing equipment, switcher, and microwave transmitter, and if you don’t have this running, you’re not getting a shot in.

The camera that Dale puts on his shoulder is likely one with manual focus, white balance, and iris settings. At first I thought it’s unlikely that he’d be used to dialing these in to get a good picture, but I couldn’t rule out that he’s used this type of camera before to make his weird conspiracy theory videos and stuff.

That being said.. they pull up, Nancy jumps out of the truck, Dale aims the camera at her, and POP— they just appear on a monitor back at the station and are punched up live on air as Nancy’s eyebrows get torched off.

The switcher setup looks really undersized and terrible for a live news operation, but then again, it IS implied that Channel 84 is kinda rubbish, considering that they pass off an air conditioner on the roof as a Doppler weather radar.

Some kinda freaking magic.

Also, I always wonder what happened to the new weather guy. Did he just… die of laughter or something and thusly disappear as a character, never to be seen again?

Well, somewhere, engineering was attempted

Here’s a supermicro that pissed us off this week. It’s from 2015 and clearly got dumped on us as the result of a certain “text-that-gets-scrolled-on-the-bottom-of-the-news” vendor cleaning out back stock when my workplace ordered a new system.

Blaarffff. It literally seems like the bios doesn’t like certain monitors, and you have to fight it for hours to get video. You’d think with a vendor like Supermicro you’d get a board built with better parts but this thing looks like a damn Soyo. Remember Soyo? They drove themselves out of business by delivering dumpshit. This Supermicro sure looks like overpriced dumpshit complete with “hey look it’s 2001 again” capacitors.

More folderol to follow

Read more “Well, somewhere, engineering was attempted”

Snap, Crackle, Pop! Triax Crispies.

I’ve always found the old school triax connections used for some studio cameras….. charming. Triaxial cable looks mostly like a RG-6-ish coax with another dielectric layer and another braid over it, with the end result looking a bit more like RG-11… until you see the freaking WEIRD connector it terminates into. It’s like a ginormous shell around a BNC. Trust me when I say you do not want to be coiling this cable up and have the connector fly over and smack you in the— uhhh— output spigot and terminating resistor. OW. But anyway—

Cameras hooked up by triax can be powered over the triax. To do so, the Camera Control Unit (CCU) sends a high voltage – 120-170 vdc I think, down the cable, between the outer and inner braids. A DC/DC converter inside the camera powers it and any ancillary equipment like lights hooked up to the 12v output it provides. It works great, but you MUST ensure that the voltage has been removed from the cable before unplugging it. On some systems, it seems like powering down the camera tells the CCU to stop sending that voltage (or it drops to just a few volts – just enough for it to power whatever onboard the camera tells the CCU that the cam is connected and requesting to be powered up?). Anyway— at my old station I had a few instances where someone would unplug the cable hot and it would make the camera mad or even carbon-track the plastic inside the connector.

Today I found out what happens if the cable ITSELF gets angry:

tri-axial foaming cable

From top to bottom: The outer jacket with subtle black mark from the fault within, the middle dielectric and inner braid, and the outer braid, which frayed then burned in half at the fault location.

The ridges are from the connector’s strain relief. This fault occurred right behind the connector, where the cable was getting flexed a lot.

The CCU reported the cable was shorted out, and this was confirmed by a resistance reading of about .15 ohm at the connector on that end as measured by the onboard multimeter on a Tektronix 2236

All three elements of the cable – the center conductor, inner braid, and outer braid were shorted together.

I was able to lop off the end of the cable and remake the connector. The connectors we had in stock were circa 1996 and were made by Kings about, oh, two corporate umbrellas ago. Currently they’re under Winchester Interconnect and Winchester has no documentation on the connector including what the strip lengths are for the layers of the underlying cable. Canare and Cinch have different takes on the same thing. I managed to get it back together with new parts for the center.


The center is pretty much a crimp type BNC. Not shown, the….. ridiculous oldschool clamp thing used to hold the outer braid to the connector body, nor the giant ball-bonker connector body itself.


Not sure if it’s the world’s most perfect installation, but hey, it passed the Smoke Test and the camera’s back up on it and in service.

dave what are you doing DAVE STAHP

I installed this board a couple years ago in Redding and then I see this on Facebook

Congratulations, you win a free upgrade to this shitty old Arrakis 1200 I dragged out of the e-waste bin.

That being said, You Can Decrease The Likelihood Of Damaged Consoles With This One Weird Trick: use consoles with a vertical front surface. Here’s an SAS like that, I stole the pic off someone else’s post and forget where it is but it’s slick.

Many early consoles had this layout, using big chunky rotary faders.

SAS has also replicated this with the Dees Digital, designed to meet Rick Dees’ desire to have a modern board with digital routing but with the classic rotary pots and vertical panel. It’s a beauty.

And now, additional folderol

Join Hands, Let Go

When browsing Facebook or other places you may have come across this GIF of a guy having a ketchup bottle go all Old Faithful on him and wondered just what’s going on here.

via GIPHY

Sorry (not sorry), but you’re about to take a trip down the rabbit hole here. Bear with me, this is a strange tale.

A few of you may also seen the most perplexing piece of film that this came from, most likely by way of RiffTrax. But what actually is this? Why was it made?

Amazingly, RiffTrax seems to be the only place I’ve found the video online. It’s worth paying them a dollar for what they do to gaze upon this… weirdness… and ponder along with all of us.

The reactions to most people after having seen it are similar to mine – see this Facebook thread for lots of mass confusion.

After being suitably confused by this and the fact that it was apparently produced and distributed (where?) by Encyclopedia Britannica, I reached out to them for the mysterious background behind this film.

Much to my surprise… I got an answer from them. Here’s the story:

Hi Tom,

 

Thanks for asking about the Britannica film “Join Hands, Let’s Go” (1969). This film was part of a series called Magic Moments, which was produced for elementary-school classrooms through the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation.

 

More information about the concept behind the series can be found in this blog post, about a different film in the series: http://blogs.britannica.com/2013/09/britannica-classic-videos-magic-sneakers-1969. Essentially, Magic Moments films were “designed to be ambiguous in order to promote thinking and provoke discussion among elementary students.”

 

The following text, from a 1970s print ad, may give you an additional idea of what the series was aiming for:

 

“Today, we helped teachers hear from the silent minority. You’ll be delighted with the way even the ordinarily withdrawn child will respond to our imaginative Magic Moments film series. And your entire language arts class will react to these full-color 16 mm sound films with enthusiasm you never believed possible! Minds become unlocked. Verbal skills are encouraged that help develop reading and writing skills.  And children are eager to accept assignments. An ideal supplement to our Language Experiences in Reading program. Magic Moments should be seen to be fully appreciated. Twenty unique films in all—send for one film to examine at your leisure. You’ll see why Magic Moments makes the silent minority want to be heard.”

 

No doubt, these films are rather…odd. But hopefully, this context makes them a bit less baffling.

 

Best,

 

John M. Cunningham

Manager, Audience Engagement

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Well, if the goal was to be ambiguous and stimulate discussion, this worked— perhaps a little too well, along with a colossal air of mystery. I have to wonder how many language arts classes were filled with confusion and laughter by these film reels…