march 2006

Back from skiing, and tired but refreshed. More tomorrow. Oh, and I swear I'll update my photos soon, too—I realize I've kind of been neglecting them the past couple of weeks.

Skiing was really great this year, which was nice since last year it mostly sucked. Last year we were lucky if we could get in a couple of decent hours of skiing in the fog and rain before the snow totally turned to slush, but this year, all three days we skied were great—in fact, the conditions on our "worst" day were poorer than the other two days simply because so much snow was falling that there was too much powder, and none of us are accustomed to skiing in powder having grown up skiing in the mid-atlantic. Snowshoe was able to groom all the slopes each night, the temperature stayed below freezing most of the time (except on the afternoon of our final day, when we had great snow and sunshine all day), and there was hardly anyone else there, so we almost never had to wait in line for the lifts.

Off the slopes, I mostly read and slept, with occasional breaks for food and conversation. We went to the Red Fox again this year (after missing out last year because our trip happened to coincide with Valentine's Day and they were all booked up), and Julie and I managed to get the check and pay for it for once. Now, on the menu for the Red Fox, they say that they automatically add in an 18% gratuity for parties for five or more, and since we had five people, I assumed that the amount I was leaving in the tip line of the credit card receipt was going to be on top of that 18%. I looked over the bill quickly to find evidence of this, and when I saw a line item labeled simply "Red Fox", I assumed that this was the automatic tip and proceeded to write in a bonus amount on the tip line, since our waitress had been really good and I usually like to leave 20%+ for good service.

Later that night, however, I began to have doubts that the automatic tip had been included—I just couldn't get the numbers to add up right, and I didn't have an itemized receipt to figure it out definitively. And since my bonus tip was quite pathetic as a standalone tip, I felt compelled to go back over to the restuarant before they opened to get it straightened out. Of course, the only person who had access to the receipts had left for the day already, and our waitress wasn't scheduled to work that day, and it was our last day at Snowshoe...long story short, the chef, who was a personal friend of our server, called her at home and I was able to speak to her and get it worked out. They hadn't added in the 18%, but they were able to go back and do it retroactively, so it all worked out fine in the end.

Anyway. It was a good few days away—it's always nice to get away from work, spend all day outdoors exercising, and visiting with family.

We went to see Belle and Sebastian last night at the 9:30 Club down in DC, and I wisely decided to take the day off today instead of pretending that I'm still a young man who can get home at 2 a.m. from an evening out at a smoke-filled club and still get up at 6:30 and go to work with no ill effects. We're also going to see the Pogues later this week, but luckily that's on Friday and so I'll have all Saturday to recover.

I'm finally caught up with my photos again, although I'll admit that I cheated a little bit and filled in the last few days of February with shots from my archive that I hadn't posted to this site. Some of them aren't bad pictures, they were just held back because they were too similar to other, better shots that I took in the same timeframe, and I don't like to have too much of the same kinds of photos in a given month.

Having said that, most of what you'll get this month is snow shots from our skiing trip last week and construction equipment from the field near our home that is being turned into a new road. Enjoy.

Let me just say this: my sister (not you, Tori) is a big fucking liar, and I choose in every aspect of my life to avoid dealing with liars whenever possible. The more I talk to my other family members about all the bullshit she's saying to me in her emails, the more I have all my worst suspicions about her bad intentions and dishonesty confirmed. She's got about another 24 hours to send me the most sincere apology letter I've ever read in my life or I'm fucking done.

I'm no big fan of David Wells, but man, I love anyone who bashes Bud Selig. This tirade isn't quite as good at Kanye West calling out George Bush on national television, but it's close. If only Mike Meyers had been available to stand idly by and gawk slackjawed as Wells ranted away...

Meetings = no work getting done. So explain to me again how it's efficient to have the most highly paid employees in an organization spending most of their days in meetings, because I'm not sure that I get it.

You know, the coming of spring is only really fun if you have a winter to contrast it with. This whole year I've been waiting for it to get cold, but with the exception of a couple of little spells, it never really did. Hell, I never even put the lining in my coat this year, the first time that's ever happened. One of the few good reasons to live this far north is to get a real sense of the seasons passing, but that didn't happen this year for me at all. I'm just not ready for another year to start because it doesn't feel like the last one ever had a proper finish.

Today feels like an important day, like there's an anniversary or a birthday or something that I'm fogetting. But I don't think there is...

I was not alone in my feelings that there was something important about the date yesterday. Here's what my friend Doug had to say about it (his wife is Japanese, by the way):

OK, for what it's worth, I woke up with the same feeling about March 14th—like there's something important about it that I'm forgetting.

I know it's White Day in Japan, which is the male corollary to Valentine's Day. In theory I'm supposed to give [my wife] chocolate, but she doesn't like chocolate so we've never really celebrated the day.

So maybe you and I are having some weird numerological convergence. Or perhaps we're collectively willing 3/14 to become a noteworthy day. Either way, I'll contact Hallmark about a line of cards...

I've never heard of White Day before, and I'm a pretty staunch opponent of Valentine's Day anyway, so that couldn't have been it. Then there was this missive from my buddy Ryan:

Okay, I was going to send you an e-card as proof, but they're all really stupid. Today, of course, is Pi day. I should use it to impress everyone with how many digits I have memorized, but I doubt anyone would care.

Pi Day, of course, because 3.14 is Pi to two decimal places. But that wasn't it, either—despite being friends with a giant nerd like Ryan (who if I remember correctly has memorized Pi to 100 decimal places), I hadn't heard of this date until a couple of weeks ago, when my director mentioned that MIT (the national haven for giant nerds) traditionally likes to mail their admit letters on this date. I also learned in class last night that March 14 just happens to be the birthday of another giant nerd who certainly must have had his own affection for Pi: Albert Einstein.

But I think I did figure out what was significant about it to me: see, in my poorly wired brain, each number and month is associated with a particular color, and March 14 looks exactly the same in my mind's eye as December 14, which is my stepmother's birthday (I got similarly confused last week with one of my friends—his birthday is March 8, but March 8 and March 4 look the same to my brain and I can never remember which day is actually his birthday).

So it actually wasn't really significant to me, my brain was just getting it mixed up with a day that actually is important with me. But thanks to my culturally diverse/oddball friends, we've all been able to benefit from my confusion.

Meetings, meetings, meetings. Nothing but meetings today. All I can do is pray that they all miraculously get canceled like they did on Tuesday so I can get some work done, because let me tell you, this time of year I've got a serious amount of work to get finished before we mail our decision letters.

As it turns out, I didn't end up going to any of my meetings yesterday, because some virus hit me hard almost literally as I was walking out the door to go to work. I'm home sick today again at a time of year when I can ill afford to miss two days of work, so I'm guessing that I'm going to be doing some work this weekend to make up for it (that is, if I actually start to feel better and find myself able to concentrate for longer than 15 minutes at a stretch).

I don't have class this week, but this still has the makings of a longer than normal week. I have a new web site to build for our admitted students by the end of the week, a new search engine to configure for our main site, a book and some articles to read for my paper next week (not to mention actually writing the paper), and my normal slew of daily tasks and meetings to tend to/attend. It's so hard to stay focused during weeks like this, because there is no task that is considered backburner or bottom of the pile: everything has high priority, and it has to get done somehow within the next ten days.

I suppose most industries are like this, but ours is especially so: in the eyes of the university administration, our office really only has one task, and that is to admit the freshman class. We blow that, and nothing else we do all year counts for anything, no matter how much work we've done or how well we've done it.

I don't know. I guess I'm just ready for April to be here, because that means that the letters have gone out and we can take a little break to breath and regroup (although this year, there's so much potentially going on between May and August that I'm not sure how much time we'll really have to slow down; already there are some project timelines that we're seeing that I think will be very difficult to meet).

Spring? I don't think so. But please, let's just try to avoid snow on opening day again this year.

I was planning to take the day off today to sleep in and enjoy a day of doing nothing after being out late last night at a show, but there's so much to do at work that I only got a couple of extra hours of sleep and then worked from home the rest of the day. One more week, then those decision letters are gone and we can go back to a less pressurized environment in the office.

My life is pretty boring these days. The most exciting thing I have to tell you about in the coming days: my research for my first physics paper. It's about why the sky is dark at night. The answer's not as obvious as you might think, but nevertheless, I'm sure you're all on pins and needles waiting for that entry.

There are two articles I have read in the last week about the modern workplace that just left me shaking my head. The first was this piece from Wired News, which tells the story of a man who was supposedly hired over equally qualified candidates for a tech management position at Yahoo! because of his experience as a guild leader in World of Warcraft. I'll be the first to tell you that managing a guild or other large organization within this game is a difficult leadership challenge, because at the end of the day, you really don't have any true authority over the other people (you can't cancel people's accounts or take gear or experience points away from them), which means that your leadership decisions must be transparent and fair, and you must coordinate the activities of a large number of people who you've never met by building consensus while still reserving the right to make unilateral decisions when necessary.

But I can't imagine ever wanting to put this on a resume, because even if the potential employer knew what the game was and knew the skills it took to run a guild, they might be concerned about the inordinate amount of time that people who are that involved in the game spend thinking about, talking about, and playing the game. Maybe in tech-heavy California you could get away with putting this on your resume and having it be seen as a positive thing, but there's no way this would work on most people's resumes.

The second article was this one from, one of their occasional series about recent trends in the workplace and how take advantage of those trends to get ahead/keep from getting fired. Aside from obvious tips like "don't come in late all the time" (duh), the article generally discusses ways that people slack at work and how to develop routines and habits that will prevent you from becoming a slacker.

Most people who actually work in an office on a daily basis would find their observations/tips unhelpful becuase they are so blindingly obvious to anyone with even a modicum of common sense, but here's the real reason that this article is pretty pointless: because no matter what, people are going to find ways to slack at work. I've seen this as a newly minted office drone who worked five times harder than most of his colleagues in a futile effort to impress the higher-ups, as a team member in a fairly low-key organization, and as a mid-level manager in a ridiculously huge bureaucracy, and no matter how much an organization tries to limit the non-work activity that happens in the workplace, people will still find a way to keep their work/non-work ratio pretty much the same.

The smart organizations realize this and take the broad view that, as long as the work is getting done well and on time, they don't care how or when you do it. This means that managers don't spend endless amounts of time monitoring phone calls, email/IM/web usage, long lunches, etc. Some employees might have to work a few late nights now and then to get things done, but that's their choice, and as long as their output meets the assigned timelines and the expected quality, then that's the price that they are choosing to pay in exchange for a little more relaxed environment on an average day.

I honestly believe that the companies that go to great lengths to monitor bathroom breaks, lunch hours, phone/web/email/IM usage, watercooler breaks, etc., are just wasting time and money, because to enforce these rules, many of their relatively well-paid middle managers spend most of their time performing babysitting tasks rather than using their skills and expertise to come up with ideas that will actually improve the company's products and/or efficiency.

Here's what I've seen in my workplace experience: no matter what you identify as a slacker activity among your employees, your attempts to curtail that activity will simply result in a reduction of that activity with an equal amount of slacking now put into a new activity, which you must then identify and police. In my view, this is a zero-sum game: you can squash one kind of slacking, but it's just going to pop up somewhere else, and given the infinite variety of ways to not do work when you're at work, it's a losing game; managers don't have enough resources to hold down all the slacker release valves at the same time.

Really, the only way to prevent slacking in the workplace is to have a 1:1 ratio between workers and managers, so that each manager is given a single employee to monitor all day. And not only would this be the height of ludicrous inefficiency, it would also create a work environment so uncomfortable that no one would stay with your company one second longer than they had to and where they would be actively seeking to make themselves as unproductive as possible just to feel like they have a measure of control over what they're doing all day.

It cracks me up to read these articles with all their talk of "lost productivity", because it's not lost if it was never there to begin with. As long as there have been offices, there has been slacking, whether it's chatting at the watercooler, staring into space, browsing the web, or whatever. The only thing that really matters in terms of assessing productivity is whether or not people get their work done on time and at the quality level that is expected—if you get that, then don't pry too much further into what people are doing, because at the end of the day all that counts is that the work got done.

Oh, and if you really want to "reclaim" some lost productivity, try canceling some meetings. I know that those are generally the most inefficient uses of my time each week.

We saw V for Vendetta this weekend with my brother. Agent Smith was his usual brilliant self—he really pulled off a fine acting job despite having a ridiculously silly mask on for the entire movie—and the movie had some nice visuals, which is to be expected from a film overseen by the Wachowski brothers. But I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it. I mean, it was better than going to see some piece of formulaic crap, because it was stuffed full of ideas, but I'm not sure if its grand vision really added up to anything. There were also a few slow parts that could have been tightened up a bit, and we could have done with a bit more background on a couple of the major characters, but still, it was definitely worth seeing. I'm just not sure if it would be worth seeing again.

I'll have to think on this some more...

In my class this semester, we have two options: the first is to write two papers of 3000-5000 words each (the first of which is due today), or write one longer paper of 5000-8000 words due at the end of the semester when the second shorter paper would also be due. My original plan was to do the two paper option, but thanks both to my overly hectic schedule and to the fact that despite the seemingly simplicity of my question—why is the sky dark at night?—I would be able to write a longer paper on the topic, I have decided to go with the one paper schedule.

This relieves some of my short term pressure, but I still really need to get cracking on it, because while it would have been fairly easy to get 3000-5000 words out of my existing sources, I'm going to have to dig a little deeper to make this worthy of a longer effort. It's definitely doable, but I need to get my first draft in place so I can figure out exactly how much more I need to add to reach the required length for the longer paper.

This story is about a kid who spent his spring break hiding out in a Wal-Mart for no particular reason. Seems pretty stupid to me, but the article is worth reading for the part about the military recruiter who approached the guy in the store and told him he had the right stuff. When the student asked him what he meant by that, the recruiter said, "You have good posture and you didn't look sad."

Crossing my fingers that we actually mail our decision letters today...

We did mail our decision letters yesterday, and as is our tradition, everyone got to go home early once the packages had been deliverd to the post office. I had planned to spend the afternoon leveling up one of my alts in World of Warcraft, but instead I took a nice, long nap. I think it was a good decision.

For the past few years, we have sent out decision emails in addition to the more formal mailed packages, and I'm the guy responsible for configuring and sending them. That's probably the most stressful thing I do all year—every spring it seems like some university makes the news for screwing up its admit emails, and I don't ever want to be the guy who sent the wrong email to the wrong group of kids. It's nice to have our primary annual task complete—capping off three months of very intense work—but for me personally, it's nicer still to have the emails go out correctly.

There's still lots to do in April, and I have a feeling that things will be busier than usual for my team this summer, but really, it's cake compared to the last few months, and it will be nice to be able to relax a bit more at the office.
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