A short holiday read – and an insight into me.

Around 1993 was probably a big turning point in my career life. Up until then I had spent a lot of time involved in designing and implementing solutions around process control systems at the Port Kembla Steelworks. When I graduated (in 1985) I was doing straight electrical control work as well as some PLC (programmable logic control systems work). A few years later I was writing FORTRAN code than allowed operators to control big machines (such as plate mills and cranes). I became fascinated with communications and networking, and started doing work in that front in the late 80’s, a lot of this was around the low-level communications between process control computers, but also more general networking like DECnet. I got introduced into UNIX and C in the early 90’s, both doing some communications driver coding as well as X11 based operator interfaces. I bought my first PC for home in 1993 and made sure it could run Windows 3.1 and Linux (SLS, which later begat Slackware, on around 30 floppies was my first distro). I had BBS access and the ‘net soon enough as well. I guess, just like today, I was always reading about new things, and at least having a bit of a play at making things work.

One thing I had a little play with at the time was VRML, which is a 3D markup language. At work we also started using the Internet tools a lot. Also the new engineering projects were all being done in CAD, some in 3D, with intent on being better able to plan all the services required on such huge mechanical and civil works. I was also a big fan of raytracing, particularly POVray. Anyway, I saw all this coming together, potentially a huge aid to engineering support. I was starting to becoming more focussed on IP, ATM and other network protocols so it probably was almost farewell to process control world.

So I wrote the following short-story in 1993. The chief electrical engineer at the time loved it, and it appeared in the departmental newsletter. I think it was quite well received, though it is probably the first and only short story I have had published. I have made a few small edits from the original, mainly to make it a little clearer to non-steelworkers. I hope you like it!

The VirtEng.
Kurt abruptly woke from his doze as the ‘comm indicated that his attention was required. Despite wanting to throw a heavy object at it, he heeded the ringing.
‘Comm answer...Greber here, who is it?”
“It’s Max, with got a problem at the Finishing Mill again; hyper-axial gamma ray gauge it seems.”. The last thing Kurt wanted to see on the ‘comm screen was Max.
“Strike, can’t I get a moment’s peace, even out here?” He gazed solemnly at the gently swaying palm trees, and the glistening sand out of his window. “OK I’ll get on to it. Bye. ‘Comm hangup.”
Reluctantly, Kurt stepped across his room and donned the VirtEng, and waited for the retinal scan to authorise him.
VirtEng …Goto Port Kembla Finishing Mill” he uttered to the machine. In an instant he felt the familiar experience of floating above this bane of his life. As he pointed his way down, the VirtEng displayed the detail of the 21 stand rolling mill. The physical view of the mill from above always fascinated him despite rather being someplace else. The hundreds of tonnes of metal and motors and hydraulics had to be coordinated to within a micron in microseconds in order to make the steel strip of the correct properties. As he came up level with the end of the mill, his attention was drawn to the pinkish hue of the gamma ray thickness gauge. For years now the VirtEngs had been able to diagnose equipment status, even subtle problems, and give an indicative colour to the components. “Just out of tolerance” he thought as he mused on the problem.
VirtEng … Logical view” he instructed his helmet and the scene before him faded and a conglomeration of blocks and lines appeared. He began walking past the various schematic components of the gauge. Occasionally he would stop at an amplifier or processor and point at the various panels before him. Charts showing the equipment status immediately appeared before him as he pursued a prognosis of the fault. He could also access a history of this component; not just in this gauge, but of course the database was continually fed by input from all the installations in the world. “It must be this proton accumulator” he thought, “I’ll get the Auto-Tric”. After issuing the dispatch, he investigated the software problem that caused the overload. Again each instruction could be removed, visually displaying a history of past values and execution sequences. After tuning a parameter down with a downward wipe of his finger and satisfied with his work, Kurt thought he’d call it a day.
Just after he issued the “VirtEng …Physical view” command he made out the shape of the “Auto-tric” trundling down the mill floor. With a PA-481F in the manipulator, the ‘droid electrician approached the gauge and within a minute had the component replaced and tested. Without as much as a nod the robot returned to the Parts Dispatch Terminal from whence it came. As the mill commenced rolling again, Kurt felt comfortable with the soft blue emanating from the gamma gauge, indicating it’s sound health.
Just as Kurt turned to depart, his virtual image bumped into the virtual image of the Mill Superintendent.
“Thanks for that Kurt, I thought you were on R&R, but I knew you would help us out”.
“Sure, It’s only Fiji, I’ve been there before anyhow.” As the stereo headset filled with sound of metal meeting metal, Kurt issued his “Log out” to the machine and returned to the pleasant scenery and sounds at his window of a few minutes before the call-out. He returned to his couch for another snooze, in readiness for a late afternoon surf. As sleep drifted back, a thought entered his head – “I wonder what people did before VirtHoliday?”

Martin Visser – copyright 1993 – 2009

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