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December 13, 2016 |

Murphy’s Law, You’ve Met Your Match!

Sometimes a moment or simple image can dramatically capture the advance of technology.  For example, my father-in- law, born in Vienna in 1904, could recall a time when there were as many horses as cars on the city streets.  I was reminded of this the other day on the subway, where about half the riders were reading paper books or magazines while the other half was looking at screens.  One such moment is the highlight of this account of a recent, somewhat frenzied, and entertaining Acentech field trip . Thanks to the sudden leaps in technology over the past few years, I am convinced that Murphy’s Law—the idea that anything that can go wrong will go wrong—has met its match.

The story begins with my return from a long vacation in the sunny Caribbean.  I was hoping to experience a leisurely transition back to the real world, but I quickly learned that would not be the case.  While I was relaxing in the warm sun thousands of miles away, a colleague had been in an auto accident on his way to his summer house on Cape Cod. Although he is currently completely recovered,  I was devastated to hear of such a horrible circumstance at the time. He was also on his way to a project to measure underwater pile driving noise at a Navy facility in Georgia.  Time was of the essence as construction had begun but could continue only if it was demonstrated that the noise was within the Navy’s specified limits to protect the area’s marine life. With little time to spare, I was asked to hop on a plane and trek down to the site to carry out these measurements in my colleague’s place. I (of course) happily obliged.  Thinking that I would need to be in communication with my hospitalized colleague, who could barely speak due to his injuries, I packed a second cell phone with superior voice quality than my iPhone.

The logistics of the trip were difficult.  Fortunately Jim Barnes had been in the neighborhood making a hospital visit and was able to find the case with the measurement equipment which had been in the totaled car but had gone missing. He finally tracked it down in the third Mass DOT facility he visited looking for it.   Jim handed me the case at a hurried meeting in the cell phone lot at the airport and I rushed off to the terminal. The process of actually getting through security, however, was another story altogether.  Now there are times when bringing equipment through security can be a problem, but this time it was a big one. For some reason, the case set off an explosives alarm!  Perhaps an airbag had gone off in the car on impact? Countless questions started to swirl around my head. Would I be detained?  Arrested? Or worse — miss the flight?  Fortunately after going through security two more interminable times, finally getting clearance, I sprinted to the gate with mere minutes to spare.

After landing, I rented a car, and after about a 90 minute drive I arrived at my hotel in Georgia around 10 pm.  I unpacked the case and started up the computer to get some familiarity with the programs.  I ran a test case, which went fine, and went to bed.  In the early morning, I found myself on the job site, which was actually a tiny motorized rowboat 10 m from the pile drivers. I deployed the hydrophone under the boat, went to turn on the program to begin testing, and found the computer completely frozen on the last screen from the night before. There was nothing I could do about it.  It looks like Murphy’s law was again trying to sabotage this trip! But, I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

As my head again started to swirl with panicked questions, I could see the construction company clients off in the distance, patiently waiting on shore for me to signal that I was ready to start taking preliminary data so they could start the pile driving activity for me to test.  After visions of an embarrassing departure and early flight home, I got on my iPhone and called Bill Yoder, the author of the program, at his home in Virginia for help.  He first declared the problem impossible but I assured him it was all too real.  We started to troubleshoot but I could barely see the screen in the glare of the rising sun.  So Bill, being a great technologist and problem solver, decided that he should take over the computer online by setting up a hot spot using my iPhone.  I had never done that, and it seemed very difficult if not physically impossible, for him to simultaneously talk me through the process while setting up the hotspot that required me to look at the phone and perform the required clicks.  But suddenly I remembered that I had brought along a second cell phone and I called him on it.  Following Bill’s instructions on cell phone number 2 we set up the internet hotspot with cell phone number 1 and he took over my computer and, greatly relieved, I started to watch the mouse dance around the screen under Bill’s control. A digital-age miracle! The program was quickly brought up and running.

But think about it —here I was bobbing around offshore on a small boat with a computer being operated over the internet through a cell phone by someone in his living room a thousand miles away. How cool is that?  This would have been considered science fiction not too long ago.  It had to rank somewhere up there with horses and cars.

For the record, the measurements showed that the noise in the water was in compliance with the Navy’s requirements and the construction was allowed to continue.  The client (and the fish) were happy.

Author: Steven A. Africk

“Problem solving in the physical sciences is a joyful and immensely satisfying activity for me, and I feel so fortunate to work on challenging and interesting projects at Acentech.” Dr.…

One response to “Murphy’s Law, You’ve Met Your Match!”

  1. Fred says:

    What fun !! I had not heard the part about the second phone or the program not working, ‘thanks again for standing in!!

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