Attack the problem, not the symptom


The mysterious man who claims a 42% resemblance with the 16th American president. No false Google matches on image search, though. Yet.

Even though our city is brand new, it’s built on old infrastructure. I’m not just talking about the Internet, which relatively speaking is ancient compared to Cortex. The city also interacts a lot with the physical world, which sometimes have even older infrastructure and systems.

Just outside of Cortex there’s a small farm. It’s been there for more than one hundred years. Rumors speak of summer parties taking place there for citizens bold enough to ask for an invitation. Today, we will speak of something different. We will talk about quick fixes, engineering practices, and legacy code. Also, we will talk about electrical wiring.

To make the story much harder to understand we will speak metaphorically, and use examples from the real world, not the software world. Let’s go.

Avoid assumptions

On the Moonshine farm, the stove is starting to malfunction. Being a standard piece of equipment, it’s of course easily replaced. Measurements and electrical wiring are standard. Behind the stove we find a Perilex socket (standard in Sweden) that looks like this:


That’s great, because it means we can just go out and get any new modern stove and just plug it in the socket. The five holes are for the three phase conductors (L1, L2, L3), protective earth (PE), which we refer to as ground, and a neutral conductor (N).

Back in the day, stoves rarely needed a neutral, and the one in this story is no exception. The plug looks like this:


By now, the most astute readers will say “ah, so the upper-left hole in the socket is for the neutral conductor“. Quite right!

Having done our homework, is it now safe to assume that we can get a new stove and just plug it in? Absolutely not.

All we know is what we have seen. On the surface, we’re good to go. Who knows what’s going on behind the socket?

The walls do not speak

We remove the lid of the socket and look what’s behind. Lo and behold, there are five cables attached, just as one would expect! However, we take out our debugger, I mean, our multimeter, and see what’s really going on.


Interestingly, we find that there is no voltage between a phase and neutral. What could possibly be the reason for that? We’ll need to go into the core to find out. For electrical wiring in the Moonshine farm, that means the fuse boxes in the basement. Yes, you read that right, the plural form of fuse box applies here.

As the decades have passed, more and more electrical wiring has been done, adding to the complexity of the system. Lots of people were afraid to touch the existing legacy wiring, so they decided to just add another fuse box instead.


So we descend into the dark and mysterious basement and start tracing wires. Before long, we find the one that leads to an innocent-looking fuse box on the wall. Inside, things look rather normal.


The only thing that is not so normal is that the neutral wire in the terminal block is alone. There is no other wire coming in, so there is simply no neutral connected.



What do we think of people who still connect it to the socket? We think they’re only slightly better than people who connect neutral to ground…

Our hero (ah well) traces the connections to this fuse box throughout a number of other fuse boxes, only to realize that neutral only exists in the very first fuse box, which displays a very creative and beautiful wiring.


Fixing the real problem

By now it’s clear that we can simply connect a wire to the rail where neutral comes in from the main fuse box, lead it through those additional fuse boxes, and connect it in the terminal block. Once we see the real problem, the solution is usually very easy!

On the way here, there are three things to note:

  1. It’s tempting to not do the homework properly and just assume things work. When they don’t you’ll end up breaking things or putting yourself in a worse position than before.
  2. It’s tempting to just apply a quick fix. When finding out that we probably didn’t have a neutral conductor, we might have tried to find a stove that would work on 400V with three phases and ground only. We might have removed the Perilex socket and connected the wires instead. That would not have fixed the problem, leaving it there for next time.
  3. Doing things right takes time and effort. But that’s where engineering practices and craftsmanship come into play. That’s why I like to work with the best engineers in the world. They want to do the right things, and do the things right. They’ll fix the real problems.

I have an additional insight to share. When things break and we fix them, we always learn new things. Therefore, we should appreciate also our problems. Or at least attack them with creativity and patience rather than frustration and anger.

Do I follow my own advice on that last one? Absolutely not. But it makes sense…

Thank you for reading,
Bjorn “The Mayor” Karlsson


Posted in Cortex City

One comment on “Attack the problem, not the symptom
  1. IqJa IqJa says:

    I like it. Move fast but don’t move too fast

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