Reply to: [YouTube] Sports Cars are Not Selling – Look in the Mirror

I just found this video a few days ago and couldn’t stop thinking about its topic. The video was released six months ago so sorry about being late to the party, I hope I still have something constructive to add. It would be helpful to watch the video first but I tried to make this not too centric.

The video’s creators forgot something that I believe has become another big reason and that’s the social aspect of driving an expensive car on public roads. I live in the Mid-West and people I’m seeing don’t like to see new expensive cars on the road. Old muscle cars are fine but I’ve seen they really dislike new BMWs and exotics. If a car makes a lot of noise it really upsets people and I imagine they are quick to call the cops and report it. If something happens those same people are willing to shoot a little video and you’re ratted out with what I’m sure is pretty good evidence.

Recently I saw a Hellcat rumble down the road, these cars are loud to start with and it’s driver was intentionally operating this one in a rather loud fashion by constantly blipping the throttle and bringing the RPMs up into the loud range before changing gears. Now this car was in traffic and a Hellcat does not look exotic or expensive but the reaction from the people around me from the noise was rather telling. The grumbling started immediately and I could see people saying, “Idiot” and stretching their necks trying to see who was making the noise. It’s just not acceptable to make loud racer type noises on the street anymore.

Whether the reason is poor people are hurting, we’re running out of fossil fuel or global change is destroying the world the auto and especially the cars of the 1% are deemed more responsible for it and that just looks bad. If I could afford a very expensive car this would be the main reason for not getting it, you can do the same thing in a cheaper car and not piss anyone off. If I’m going to live in the USA I’m going to drive a Chevy just so nobody bothers me.

On the topic of public roads, public roads at least around here suck. The pavement is utter garbage and even repaired sections don’t seem to last and when you do find a quiet smooth patch the cops watch it like blood sucking hawks trying to replace lost tax dollars with speeding and excessive noise tickets. Even Jay Leno who lives in always sunny LA constantly complains about the road breaking his expensive wheels and suspension, I wonder what he’d say about around here?

Then there’s drivers, I was asked a few years ago to man a booth at a very large auto show. It was shocking how few people that came up to our booth even had drivers licenses and we were selling race car driving courses! More recently my wife and I stayed at a hotel that coincidentally was next to a stock car race track, I got up early and went to breakfast myself and ended up sitting with a bunch of the drivers who were laughing that they tried to provide an event where fans could take a few lessons and drive a lap or two in a stock car. They had to pull the event when nobody who showed up could drive a manual transmission! These are stock car fans who signed up and paid for a course and didn’t even know what kind of transmission the cars had. I’m not saying that you have to know how to shift gears to know how to drive but if you have had serious exposure to cars what are the chances you don’t know how to drive a stick?

You make some alludes to the finances that I don’t think really applies to except for young people and insurance which has become pretty crazy but the price of cars per performance is likely better than ever. In 1969 a top model Lotus Elan sold for barely $5,000 which is about $35,000 in today’s money. The top of the line 2018 Miata does everything better than the Elan and costs about $33,000. Even gas prices can’t be blamed as a thirty-three cent gallon of 1969 gasoline comes to about $2.33 in today’s dollars which is what it was when I went out yesterday.

I have friend’s who’s kids that call themselves gamers own personal computers that cost between $5-$10,000, they have home theatre systems in the same range and collections of games and portables in the same range. Add all these together and I think you’ll find where the youth auto dollar want. Why buy a car when you can borrow dad’s SUV and save your money for fun stuff?

Personally I don’t like to drive fast in modern road cars on the street. Maybe I’ve outgrown my antisocial traits or don’t want to have my fun fund the local police force or have to suffer the deprecation of a vehicle that never gets to do what it was made to do but whatever it is it could be that I have had the experience of going to the track and putting it all out there with slick tires on a road course with a stick shift engine solid mounted to the frame and no driver aids, no computer controlled street car with 10 air bags and a cushy seat can match that. They used to call that man and machine, today it’s more man and robot and kind of a dim robot that does not even know to turn off traction control when it’s not needed (I’m so tired of seeing that).

I’m not even surprised that the latest car craze is a parking lot ballet that makes a lot of noise and goes nowhere with no clear winner. I gave up being a spectator at races when my favorites all moved to temporary city circuits from race parks because I quickly got tired of trying to watch a race through ten layers of chain length fence only to have one open spot where they flash by in milliseconds. Marketing said the city circuits brought more money and that’s what won. It might be exciting as an event but you don’t encourage people to take up racing if all they see is that crap.

My father and grand father took me to races and we walked up to the cars and could see most if not all of the track from our seats. We talked to drivers and the crew and were close enough to see, hear, feel and smell what was going on, you don’t get that from the jumbo-tron. As a ten year old child I had a race license and raced motocross and quarter midgets which was accessible to normal people then and there were plenty of tracks and organized races near where we lived. Only the children of the super rich can do that today so few are exposed to driving at a young age and that directly cuts into the number of sports car drivers there will be in the future.

Maybe you can learn from a video game, I hear that the current Formula 1 champion started on video games but I suspect he’s the exception that proves the rule and most people will never venture past video games even though you can buy a real race car for what a good computer game setup costs.

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I feel very fortunate that as long as I can bolt an engine to a frame and find a track I can have my fun but I worry about people who don’t know how to turn a wrench or find the line that are out on my streets with 600hp cars and brag about how the car will do everything for them.

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When is a company not a company?

I’ve recently become aware of a couple examples of how much the world has changed while it tries to conceal this fact. In my first example is something I had know about but since not being an insider did not understand the implications. I believe we have huge portions of the economy that are basically false advertising and are getting away with it because it happened slowly over a long period of time.

I have a friend that I’ve known for likely ten years, we met at a blogging site but since have met in person a number of times. He worked as a highly skilled assembler of  aerospace parts, something he thought was safe until his company moved overseas. This move happened at a time that a number of other companies pulled the same move and suddenly there was a glut of highly skilled workers and he was forced to come to grips with his future being shattered and at the same time expected to recareer.

He took some time off and decided he’d like to drive a truck. Long range and complex loads were for him as he could pass the tests and acquire the licenses being a pretty sharp guy with a mechanical background. He did this quickly and was on the road but it soon became evident that the same big business ethics that dumped him on his ass in another industry were at play in his new role.

The company he works for is called a trucking company, they advertise the service of trucking but they don’t own any trucks. The modern way to operate is to put up a sign and hire a room full of office people that pose as a trucking company but when an order comes in they “hire” a trucker like my friend to move the goods. This way the company does not have to pay truckers as employees even though they are posing as a trucking company. They also don’t have to maintain any equipment since all that is the employee’s I mean “contractor’s” responsibility. You see what is going on here?

I was a little shocked to learn this as it came out slowly because this is an accepted practice, for now. When he posted about buying a truck I did not understand that he was reaching into his own credit to buy that truck that immediately was sent to the paint shop to have the company colors applied, his name and his first name only appeared in tiny letters near the door.

Later he wrote about how the company used numerous tactics to get out of paying him, like how he would be called for a pickup at a certain time and then made to wait hours that he would not be paid for. They also penalised him for not making connections that were impossible if not illegal to make. Since the company had divided the work over numerous small contractors they were able to take advantage of them being the big fish while the driver was the easily replaceable small fish.

Even though he owned the truck and made all the payments he was not allowed to take any jobs from anyone else which is odd as you’d think that being under the complete direction of one employer would instantly make you an employee.

You should not be allowed to present your company as something it is not. If you call yourself a trucking company you should not outsource your entire business, what they are is brokers and not truckers and deserve no exclusive rights without offering employment.

Here’s my second example in this early similar scenario that reared its ugly head about 18 months ago when I spoke to a local fellow who does groundskeeping. The fellow said he also worked as a roofer actually he said his main skill and trade was as a roofer but had to supplement his trade and chose to call himself a grounds keeper because there are laws that prevent him from calling himself a roofer.

We spoke more and he had an interesting story. It seems that the local industry of those who legally call themselves roofers are actually just roofing brokers with signs and business cards that falsely purported them to be actual roofers as they have no hammers and no trucks and worst of all no employees but they do have a lic. and those are limited and hard to get.

The trouble is his “boss” only calls him when he has a job, actually bosses as he contracts to a number of “license holders” who not only expect him to show up at a job site with one day notice but if you can’t because you are finishing another job they often penalize them for it by withholding future jobs. Worst of all with this new system of exploit the lowest is as a contractor he is no longer able to claim unemployment during the winter months as he used to when he started in this business as an employee.

He’s on his own for the bad times and it seems for the good times as well as the company scoops the bulk of the profits because they can. All these changes were know about in advance by those who perpetrated them, it was only a surprise for those who were negatively impacted.

 

The Story of a Book and then some…

A recent online discussion of other people’s art reminded me of a book I helped to produce in my studio in the late 90’s. I operated a studio named Digital Media Production which grew out of another company and was a supplier of digital know how to the advertising agencies and PR firms that were located in the area. At one time we had up to two art directors, five production artists and a couple of interns, our normal work was to take the clients ideas and direction and bring it to a stage that would allow it to be reproduced in a professional system.

If that sounds vague it’s because things changed fast in those days. This day we happened to be book designers when a client came in asking for us to design and produce a book for her client a large food manufacturer. She came to us with her chef and we discussed their ideas, she wanted a beautiful glossy coffee table book produced in full color with large photos on one page and the recipe on the other. After some initial proposals her client came up with the deposit checks for all those involved and we were off.

Hardcover binding and heavy glossy paper meant meetings with book binders and paper suppliers. We already had a photographer in mind and the same for food stylists and set decorator so more meetings and scheduling, scheduling, scheduling. Mockups were approved, studios rented and principle shooting started which went amazingly well, we were averaging seven photos a day which is really good for food photography.

Since the client was looking for beautiful full sized photos we shot everything on large format cameras and were preparing for Hi-Fi 6 color printing with a special color for the clients logo and spot gloss and flood varnishes, this thing was going to pop off the pages. A few weeks after shooting we were ready to deliver our artwork to the printer.

This is when things got fuzzy as our client the agency had gotten into a fight with her client the food company and nothing happened for a long time. I put my copies of the project into storage and went on with life which was beginning to get hectic as my wife had discovered she no longer wanted part of me and since she was a partner in my company it triggered a confrontation with our third partner who now wanted and was within his rights to ask that we close the company. This left me really scrambling with no time to worry about a shelved project.

Some time later and I don’t remember how long but the money part of the project found my former partner and wanted to restart the project, a deal was made and I released the files which meant I handed a CD to Phil when he asked for it. I don’t know what the deal was as I had no involvement and my company was long gone.

Well life goes on if you’re lucky and I think over ten years did. In the meantime I did many other things only remembering about this project recently thanks to a discussion on facebook. My initial searches turned up nothing because when the book was finally released they changed the name and they changed authors making it harder to find. Well Goodwill in Texas had a copy for ninety-nine cents on ebay so last week I bought my first copy of a book I created over fifteen years ago but never seen. It arrived four days later in a flimsy plastic envelope, way too small and light for the book I worked on. That was the first change, instead of the big beautiful coffee table book what arrived was a 7″ x 10″ softcover.

That’s not all, opening the first page the light hit the paper at just the right angle to reflect off the ink exposing that the piece was printed on a digital press which is more like a photocopier than the 6 color + specials offset press we prepared our work for. Also with the pages a lot smaller they had to shrink the margins and now the copy is awkwardly near the edges and dips way too far into the gutter. The serif typeface being printed with a less quality method and shrunk down slightly had become too fine making the edges look jagged and tattered.

The final thing I notice is my credit has been left off, I guess I’d rather not be named when the results are like this so it’s really no loss just another point in a long list of disappointments. Since I still have the original files I have no problem proving it’s my work I just wish they had executed it better. Well at least now I have a copy and I can put this chapter to rest.

Oh I almost forgot, my used copy which was listed as good condition had been marked up by a previous owner making the condition much worse but I won’t hold Goodwill responsible. It seems some person had taken a blue ball point pen and converted all the recipes into some Chinese characters. I actually like this as it shows this book was actually useful to someone. All this brings back memories of tasting these dishes from when we made the photos, I hope they enjoyed them too.

Leading the digital pack in 1995

Of the most interesting jobs I’ve had my favorites were always those where I worked with people who were smarter, more skilled or just plane leaders it their field. One of these occasion was in 1995 when I was called to run the digital prepress operations for the Canadian introduction of the first digital offset printing press at the largest printing trade show in Canada.

Dr. Fischer was from head office in Germany, and the leader of the digital research department was in charge of making sure the machine arrived and was installed and run to the highest standards, it was his baby. I expected a stern ship’s captain but was pleasantly surprised when he introduced himself in a cheerful happy voice and a big smile. His assistance, of course he called the shots but it seemed like he was helping us and his funny jokes made the long hours setting up the show pass quickly. We completed our tasks on time with everything moving along smoothly.

As the last day of setup was coming to a close it was noticed that the huge show booth did not have enough light so the show services department were summoned and extra lights were quickly hoisted up to the rafters. It was as the last of the extra lights were being adjusted that the large scissor lift truck lurched backward and its steel frame clipped sharply into the delivery unit of our secret weapon press breaking and bending precious bits of aluminum and steel with a loud crunch.

The booth was filled with shock and horror, would Dr. Fischer freak out, would he hit the extra high ceiling in a screaming panic? Nope, in much more coolness than I’m sure anyone else there could muster he calmly walked over and started to explain to the press technicians which parts were from which other model machines and off they went back to the shop to collect them. I believe it was his control of the situation that allowed the work to progress unhindered by panic and drama. It took until late in the night but all was repaired and the show went on like nothing happened.

Our big deal was that we could print directly from a normal computer and at that time it was a Macintosh laptop to an offset press, no film making, no traditional printing plates and no waiting, push print and a few minutes later beautiful four colour sheets were flying off the press at up to 10,000 an hour.

We produced a newsletter specially for the show on a glossy tabloid sized sheet, one side was printed in the morning with news of that day and the other side was printed during the demo using photos and info from the group that was being given the demo. After the demo the room was filled with the smell of ink and the guests were handed the fresh sheets that contained photos of themselves with the warning that the ink was still wet. Amazing!

We also produced a more challenging demo that was printed in the evening. I combined many of the features of the machine that were difficult to achieve on normal small format presses like very tight registration, very long gradients, very small type, highly saturated colours and it was printed on the maximum size sheet the press would handle. This allowed an interested customer to compare our sheet to the other high speed machines at the show. Since at this time the competition were merely colour photocopiers their sheet was dull and smaller and the print was fuzzy and the ink sat up on the paper like drops of paint from a paint brush, they were no competition. Dr. Fischer also allowed me to print my name on the sheet as creator which made it the centerpiece of my portfolio for years.

After donning a shirt and tie for a week the show was over and the wrap party was held at a nearby steakhouse where the company paid for a huge keg of beer and fabulous dinners for everyone. It was here that I found out that our special press was the hit of the show and the expected target of 15 orders was exceeded by over 70 orders! Ahhh my job was secure.

Now with the show over I was back to developing the first digital demo center for the Canadian headquarters near Toronto. The company already had a very large traditional demo center with many printing presses large and small and all the equipment to support those machines like film processors, plate makers, light tables, cutters, punching machines, etc. enough to mostly fill a 10,000 square foot room. We were given about 500 square feet to start with and permission to get what I thought we needed.

Up until this point my duties were as technical consultant to the sales specialist for the new and up until now secret and unannounced digital printing products. The person I was assisting was trained on traditional offset presses and had some Macintosh graphic arts familiarity but not enough to complete the demo center. After the success of the show he was required to hit the road supporting the new customers and I was left mostly on my own to complete the task in anticipation of our demo press arrival.

As I spent day after day in the new demo center digital room, at first assembling and starting up the equipment and then proofing and preparing customer demo jobs staff members started to pop in and see what I was up to. This interaction with other staff members lead to other jobs including working with the marketing department on preparation of the monthly ad buys. I assembled all the ads for spots that ran in many nationally distributed trade magazines and delivered them in digital format. By the time of the next trade show I was producing signage to be displayed on everything up to multi-million dollar presses and a whole range of graphic needs.

1995 was also the dawn of the internet in business and being a unix networking person I was called to teach the company president how to access the internet with an ISDN connection we had installed in his office. Later I registered their first domain name and created and maintained their first web site.

Other interesting jobs were when the president would assign special top secret projects. These were usually tests to see how good the equipment really was, how close could we come to a competitor’s claim of being the best at something, how close can new equipment duplicate old methods, what changes would new processes have on quality? Many questions were answered and I swore to not talk about the results.

Since fifteen years have gone by I think I’m free to talk about them if anyone cares to hear. The real point is when you get millions of dollars of equipment and a room full of professionals in different disciplines you can do some amazing stuff. I feel some of the trade show jobs we created were totally unfair to customers as we had a large team and virtually unlimited budget that allowed us to produce a job until we got it perfect and then some. I remember modifying huge bitmaps to allow the ink keys to appear more uniform, which is kind of unnecessary but I’m sure allowed some kind of bragging rights for the show manager.

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Getting my photo taken during the show, GraphicTrade1995, Toronto, Canada.

Designing a game with PLCs

I’ve been working with mini PLCs for over ten years now and I’d like to describe how I used them to control a sports training/amusement device I designed a few years ago and is still in production. The mini PLCs are a relatively new class of devices that unlike traditional PLCs everything you need in one tiny rail mounted box instead of a large cabinet that used to be required with traditional PLCs.

I was first introduced to the Moeller Easy line of mini PLCs by our electrical supplier who sent us an invitation for a seminar and workshop. By the end of the workshop I had my head full of ways to use this amazing new product, from energy savings to modernizing old equipment to reducing complexity and product count in new products or even to add new features that would have been unthinkable before.

A PLC is an industrial controller that has at its heart a computer, it interacts with the outside world through a series of electrical contacts and various inputs. They can operate as simply as a switch remotely operates a relay or can perform advanced mathematical functions to allow you to precisely control sophisticated processes and mechanisms. Traditionally these devices were developed for factories and required many different components to function. The power supply, input modules, output modules, display units, communication units, etc were each one device or more. MiniPLCs contain all the modules in a simplified form

English: Zenith Space Commander 600, an early ...

English: Zenith Space Commander 600, an early television remote control. The Space Commander 600 was available for color TV only. This particular design was offered between the years 1965 through 1972. Deutsch: Zenith Space Commander 600, eine frühe Fernsehfernbedienung. Die Space Commander 600 war ausschließlich für Farbfernseher erhältlich. Dieses spezifische Design wurde von 1965 bis 1972 angeboten. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

in one small box that could fit on the palm of your hand.

The first Easy controls I ordered were used as simple timers to replace a couple of delay relays and some switch logic. I not only cut down on the number of parts and made more room inside of the electrical box but I saved money over the old parts and was able to offer some new features without increasing costs. That was a hit with the boss and I was hooked. Another advantage was I could now draw out my switch logic on the computer and try out new designs without cutting a single wire!  Another good reason is my back hurts when standing on concrete shop floors for hours so this armchair design worked for me.

During the 1970s the company I was working for had custom made a pair of machines that were used as a skills challenge during a nationally televised pro sports program. The machines were very bulky and weighed as much as a large motorcycle and each had a control box filled with timers and relays that synchronized and automated their functions. The system was never made commercially available but many people fondly remembered them as being on TV with their favorite star. I used to see a large photo of the event almost every day at the office so it was always somewhere on my mind but one day the idea of putting the functionality of the old system in a new machine with the tiny control came to me and I decided the time might be right to bring back the old TV star.

Designing starts with an idea but quickly moves to the notebook and sketch pad. For a product like this one which also plays a game while attempting to train a skill some fluency with heuristic theory is also helpful. There is also an aspect of  kinesiology when using the device, athletes will be expected to perform a series of repetitive motions so a study of how it affects human movement should also be considered. The company already had years of experience of training athletes and I based my game off a well proven model so we’re now off to the drawing board.

I start with a list of simple design objectives then proceed to sketch out the functionality with a flow chart. A simple schematic is hand drawn to help plan for complexity and to have a rough guide of the parts count and thus cost. I now present the company with my findings and ask for some kind of commitment and a budget. When this all starts to make sense some prototype assemblies were built and tested, I’m trying to add the new functionality to a standard model machine to keep costs down. The prototype parts are operated and a simulation of the machine is performed with a series of toggle switches operated manually, the test is recorded on video, this is done because video can be easily analyzed and timing information can be measured that will later be programmed back into the PLC.

Now that I know that the mechanical functions can be achieved I start to program my PLC. Basically the game is just a large number of nested relays, one function must be completed before the next can proceed and some functions require complete routines like the machine must reset itself between players, the machine must wait a certain amount of time to allow the player to attempt to complete the task, the machine must incorporate some sense of randomness to keep the players from guessing the sequence and timing, scoring must be acknowledged, etc. This became a rather long list and the final program was almost 200 lines long.

Whenever you design automated machines safety must be considered, machines are powerful and you don’t want a person injured by careless design so a certain amount of forethought and testing are required. I designed my circuits so that in case of failure the machine would default to the safest position, this means that if something like a wire is cut or a relay fails the machine goes off and not continues operating. I also used very large red reset/stop button on the machine and on the remote control and they were wired to directly cut the power and to open any pinch hazards. There are some special PLCs made that are dedicated to safety functions, for a machine of this small size this was not necessary.

Testing is not normally considered part of design but for devices that will be used by the public it is important to allow people not involved with the design operate the equipment, you can’t proof your own work so you never know what this will produce and the earlier you get some “real world” testing the easier it will be to correct these problems.I like to call it “user blindness”, its the ability of designers and engineers to overlook what a normal user would do.

Another nice feature of the Moeller Easy and other mini PLCs is the ability to update the program just by transferring it from a memory chip. After the first few machine were in use for a short while customers were providing valuable feedback and modifications were made to the program. These changes could then be given to the customer by just mailing them an inexpensive chip and having it uploaded with no costly trips back to the factory. People found the slow too slow and the fast not fast enough and this was corrected in software, tested on a factory machine and shipped to the customer.

From concept to delivery, mini PLCs might make sense to you too.

Repair of the day, Black and Decker Belgian Waffle maker

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NOTE: This post has been updated to include a 3D printer solution, download this part if you have a 3D printer.

Its called the Model WMB500 and I got one for Christmas last year. It worked perfectly the first time I used it but when I went to use it a second time one of the hinge pins was broken so we took it back and got another one but those pins broke within a few weeks. I called the Black and Decker hot line and was sent some more pins but shockingly they broke too so I put away the waffle iron thinking that one day the idea for the perfect fix would come to me.

Its really too bad as the little machine made perfect waffles and wasn’t too hard to clean for a waffle maker, less parts makes less parts to clean you know. Its small size was perfect for storage and fit neatly on its edge in the cupboard next to the waffle mix. I was disappointed, really that was an understatement as I blamed outsourcing for destroying the integrity of the manufacturing sector and was driven to a sad state where I would watch Noam Chomsky for hours clutching my tiny blanket and murmuring.

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(One of the many broken pins I have)

Last week I took my broken waffle making appliance to the local Ace Hardware and walked up and down the isle of little screw and nut bits until an idea came to mind. If I could find some fuel hose that fit in the hinge opening then a small nut and bolt could be used to expand the hose and form a new hinge. You want to use at least “fuel hose” because its made to withstand a bit higher temperature than normal hose and since a waffle iron gets hot you gotta think about these things.

Image(The parts used to make the new hinge pins)

I bought two 1/4″ x 1-1/4″ counter sink bolts with hex nuts included, two 1/4″ washers and one foot of 1/4″ fuel hose. If you want to try this you have to make sure the hose fits in the hinge opening as hose is sold by the inside diameter not the outside diameter so that number can vary.

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The hose was cut to just over 1″ and one end was counter sunk by hand turning a 1/2″ drill bit to remove a tiny bit of hose material.

ImageHere the bolt and hose have been inserted in the hinge opening. Make sure the hose passes through both parts of the plastic body so there is room for it to expand.

ImageTighten only to apply enough pressure to keep the pin from coming out, too much could break the plastic body.

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Finished repair. I used the least expensive hardware which made the total cost less than $3.00 but you could use an acorn nut that would hide the threads and make a slighter nicer looking repair for another $2.

I wish I had another picture here of my smiling face grilling waffles but I’m sure you get the idea.