Archive for June, 2008

Weekend enjoyment

Things making this weekend more enjoyable:

  • Seeing a “Republicans for Obama” bumper sticker on the car in front of me
  • Finding that 5th Season is starting to carry beer and wine making supplies
  • Gardening (more or less)
  • Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”
  • Receiving ~1.5″ of rain Sunday night… after taking the dogs on a walk
  • Getting TurboGears to work through fastcgi
  • Knowing that it’s only a four day work week coming up

Presumably there were other things, but these are the ones that come immediately to mind 🙂

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Yellowstone pictures – part 2 of 2 (updated)

update: and for those that prefer a better interface, all of the pictures in gallery

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Telecom immunity passes the House. sigh . . .

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Yellowstone pictures – part 1 of 2

I haven’t finished processing all of the Yellowstone pictures – it takes a bit of work to get the color balance set right.  (THM – that’s why I always shoot raw on the D80.  It gives me more freedom to get the image “right” later.)  But at least the first half is done.  I’ll post the second half this weekend sometime.

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Louisiana, setting the standard in science education . . .

It’s things like this that embarrass me when I tell someone I’m from Louisiana.  The Louisiana House has voted overwhelmingly to pass the Louisiana Science Education Act which allows science teachers to use supplemental materials when teaching controversial subjects.  For those who haven’t been there, in Louisiana, controversial subjects include: evolution, global warming, Keplerian astronomy and the round earth theory.  Okay, I made the last one up – at least 85% of Louisiana households do believe that the earth is round.

Supporters of the bill say that it will promote critical thinking in science classrooms.  Well, hey, who couldn’t be against critical thinking?  Well, since the bill is supported by creationist Discovery Institute, I guess me.  But at least I’m in good company:

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the bill would promote teaching creationism in public schools and said some teachers might use supplemental materials produced by fundamentalist Christian organizations.

“It’s time for Louisiana to step into the 21st century and stop trying to teach religion in public schools,” Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the organization, said in a statement. “Laws like this are an embarrassment.”

In essence, the bill allows science teachers to inflict their own opinions and beliefs on to students instead of teaching actual science.

Maybe I’ll start claiming to be from a more respectable state, like Mississippi. :-/

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Management, leadership and information technology

A few years ago, I participated in a six month program to train leaders in information technology. I learned a fair amount, perhaps enough to be disillusioned, and ever since the program, I can’t help but look at organizations in terms of their leadership. Case in point, the grapevine of ex-employees from my former workplace says that three employee resignations were announced last week. One person only gave one week notice. By my rough count, that’s about 20 people leaving since January – or approximately 8-10% of the work force. Ouch!

As a benchmark, I tend to think that a business organization will see about 15% turnover in a year. An academic institution, maybe 5%. The last 12 months at the old job has seen something close to a 20% turnover, prompting me to suggest to friends that there needs to be a web-based application to stream line the process. You could have work flow, automatic announcement letter generation, employee exit reviews, etc. Someone’s suggested name… iQuit.<org>.edu. Perfect 🙂

Ironically, several months before I left the organization, I started getting concerned with turnover and was probably thought a troublemaker. But again, the leadership course I took, the books I’ve read, etc. All suggest that when your best people are leaving, it’s a bad sign. Even if they are nominally leaving for personal reasons, their happiness in their current job was factored in and found wanting. Turnover means that the organization faces a loss of productivity as a replacement is found and trained. Skills and institutional knowledge are lost.  In my opinion, even a termination indicates a problem – i.e., what went wrong in the hiring process such that you hired a poor candidate? For a good explanation of why turnover in all its forms is a problem, read Peopleware – it focuses on software development, but can be applied to IT as well.

In contrast, I was reading Richard Clarke’s “Your Government Failed You: breaking the cycle of national security disasters” on the plane ride home from vacation. Near the end, he describes how to build an effective organization, borrowing from Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s 1981 speech to Columbia titled “Doing a Job.” In the speech, Rickover describes the management (“leadership” wasn’t the in-fashion word at the time) style he used in building the first nuclear submarine. Clarke summarizes the Rickover’s points as follows:

  • People, not organizations or management systems, get things done.
  • Management is hard work.
  • Subordinates must be given authority and responsibility early in their careers.
  • Get rid of formal job descriptions and organizational charts. Define responsibilities, but define them in a general way so that people are not circumscribed.
  • Complex jobs cannot be accomplished effectively with transients. Short rotations ensure inexperience and non-accountability.
  • Don’t downplay problems to save face.
  • Flatten management structures, but empower the remaining managers and hold them responsible.
  • Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.
  • The man in charge must concern himself with details. If he does not consider them important, neither will his subordinates.
  • Develop simple and direct means for finding out what subordinates are doing and what the status of projects is.
  • Don’t let your inbox set your priorities. Unimportant but interesting trivia pass through every day.
  • Check all work through independent and impartial review. In engineering and manufacturing, industry spends large sums on quality control but the concept of impartial reviews and oversight is important in other areas also.
  • Important issues should be presented in writing. Nothing sharpens the thought process like writing down one’s arguments.

Those seem like pretty good goals to me. I bet they reduce turnover too.

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new computer

Over vacation, I managed to convince K that we should get a new computer.  Our old one was bought just after I started my last new job, so… February 2001?  For most things, it worked pretty well: email, word processing and spreadsheets, etc were fine.  It didn’t hurt that we were running Linux, so there was minimal pain for upgrading the OS (it originally came with Windows 98… can you imagine trying to run XP or god forbid Vista?).  But given that it was reasonable for desktop use, it still had a few problems for some of the purposes I had.  It was using USB 1.1, so a max of 12 Mb/s off to an external disk (instead of 480 Mb/s for USB 2).  The hard drive was small and not mirrored, so if it died, we were in trouble.  No DVD burner, only a 4x CDROM writer.  Finally, you couldn’t do much photo editing because of the small amount of RAM and the slow speeds.

On Monday, I placed an order for a new computer.  Nothing fancy, but still a significant improvement.  Well, it showed up yesterday – 3 days later.  Apparently Dell built it at their new Winston-Salem plant and between a quick build and a 3-5 day shipping that turned around over night, I got it much sooner than I hoped.  Hrm, maybe the Dell incentives were worth my share of $250+ million dollars in taxes…  probably not.

So far, the new machine is great.  Mirrored 250 GB drives, fast DVD burner, 2 GB of RAM and actual USB 2.  The last meant that while it took 6+ hours to write our old files to a temporary hard drive, it only took 10 minutes to write ’em to the new machine this morning.  Progress!

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Back online

Testing, testing, is this thing on?  “My fellow Americans. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Er, wait, sorry – wrong decade.

Sorry for the lack of posting for the past few weeks.  K and I were out in Yellowstone and just got back last night (or was it this morning?).  The advantage of Yellowstone is no news.  No television, no computer, no phone.  I suppose there was a newspaper, but we didn’t read it.  So what’s been going on while we’ve been away?  Has Clinton conceded yet?  Have gas prices dropped yet?  Is it still fashionable to conserve water in North Carolina?  I guess I already know the answer about Clinton and gasoline.  Since we’re on a well, I think water conservation is going to be a way of life for now on, so that doesn’t matter either.

Quick recap of the trip, more later:

Saturday night, we made it into Bozeman.  The rental car company had given away our midsized care and wanted to put us in a mini-van.  Lovely.  After pitching a small fit, they told me to come back in the morning.  We did that and they gave us a Prius – score!  We wound up driving about 1300 miles over two weeks and the Prius must have saved us ~$200 over the car we had last year and maybe $300 over the mini-van.  BTW – a Prius in the mountains is like a Prius in the city, but instead of stopping and starting you go up and down mountains.  We were averaging over 57 mpg.

It was cold in Yellowstone.  Really cold.  The first few days we were there it snowed 15″.  In fact, it had snowed so much recently that the cabin owners had to put us in a different cabin since the first was flooded (we’re not certain if the cabin flooded or the sceptic system, either way, those cabins didn’t open by the time we left – two weeks later).

The cold altered the timing of a lot of the animals in the park.  Raptors (hawks, eagles and owls) were several weeks late in building their nests.  There were more wolves and bears lower in the Lamar valley.  The advantage of going to the same place at the same time of year is that you get a sense of that place.  You know what’s normal, what’s abnormal.  What belongs and what has changed.  It lets us spot wildlife more quickly than the casual tourist, and in this case it helped us to know that this was an unusual year.  Of course, K says that the reason you go back year over year is that it gets into your soul.  I’m not too inclined to be metaphysical so you have my understanding of the advantages described above. If we are going to be metaphysical about it, I would say that the place does not get into your soul, instead, you leave a piece of your soul in the place and the only way to feel whole again is to go back to the place and find the missing part of your soul.

The first Thursday was our aniversary – 15 years if you can believe it.  We couldn’t go out to dinner because none of the area restaurants were open for the season yet.  Instead, we went out Friday which was the start of Memorial Day weekend and the official opening of the summer (did I mention it snowed/hailed almost every day we were there?) Yellowstone season.

We didn’t do too many hikes because of the weather.  We did our first on that first Friday.  When we got back to the cabin, it was empty with a note on the door saying that they had moved us to (yet another) cabin.  Excuse me?  I was really not happy with being moved, but you make the best of things.  The new cabin was quieter and by the river.  Unfortunately, it was also smaller, colder and less comfortable.

We continued with the occasional hiking and wildlife viewing (finally seeing and photographing the otter at Trout Lake).  Saturday my Sony Reader stopped working.  That hurt since I had only brought one other book and while the “Notes on the Constitutional Convention” by Madison is interesting, it’s a bit rough as your only book for week.  So we bought some books at Tower Falls and Mammoth – what can I say, I read a lot.  As an addendum on the Reader issue, Borders book store (where I bought the reader) was great.  I called ’em this afternoon and they said that they were happy to replace the Reader so long as I had the receipt.  That just made my day – I can’t tell you how used to the Reader I’ve gotten in just the past month (minus the week it was broken).

The next week we goofed off for a bit.  Thursday we went to look at a different cabin rented by some friends of ours in Cooke City (three miles up the road).  Their cabin was gorgeous.  They’ve just added a kitchen which makes it perfect.  We’ll probably be reserving a spot next year.  We also visited Dan who has been having a bit of a hard time this spring.  All of the birds he wanted to photograph are either late or gone.  He invited us on a hike to try to find a great grey owl in the area.  We met at 5pm, drove to the site and must have hiked for two hours off trail through some beautiful meadows without seeing any more than pellets, whitewash and a single great grey feather – stupid bird.  It was still a good time.

Friday we watched the wolves for a bit (they had made two kills the night before with a grizzley taking one).  We watched the few birds we knew of, including nesting sand-hill cranes, bald eagles and an osprey nest.

Saturday, we took off for home, spent about 14 hours traveling, finally making it in an hour late.  These days, I would call that a win.

I’ll post some pictures later, but that was the trip in a nutshell.  Now to readjust to the “real” world.

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