Top load or: The old fashioned way…

Six years ago when I bought the current homestead, it came with a Bosch front loading washing machine. It’s quite a piece of kit. It’s got approximately 40 buttons on it and about 3700 different settings for getting your clothes just the right kind of clean (I guess). Honestly, I never loved it. Two hour wash cycles and having to let the door hang open for days after a load of laundry in order to avoid the stench of mold and mildew kind of turned me off of the whole front load concept.

Its replacement should be here in about a week. It’s a standard top loader from Whirlpool. Aside from the various rounded edges, it looks like home washing machines have looked in America for decades. No glass top, three or four knobs controlling maybe a dozen settings, and one button. My only concession to modernity was opting for the slightly more efficient impeller model versus a true agitator.

It’s not the kind of machine that turns the laundry room into a showplace, but it’s exactly what I wanted. I’m not the kind of person who wants to spend a lot of time tweaking settings on wash day. I want to dump in some detergent, pick hot or cold water, and push the start button… the same way I’ve been washing laundry my entire life, with the exception of the last six years when I was left to deal with someone else’s front loading ideal.

Plus, my nice middle of the road top loader still ended up costing less than the estimated repair on the ailing Bosch. I consider it a win both for personal preference and value for money.

On the illusion of business as usual…

There are always a few days each year when Uncle Sam would be better served to close up shop and send everyone home rather than attempt to maintain the illusion that offices are open and it’s business as usual. The Friday after Thanksgiving is, predictably, one of those days year in and year out. Most offices I’ve worked in over the years have had to assign someone the short straw that day to come in, turn the lights on, and then watch the clock for eight hours. Sure, technically it’s a work day, but virtually no business is transacted. Calling it a work day is fiction at best, farce at worst.

In any given years there are other days that result in the same basic effect. You can count on it happening any time a federal holiday falls on Tuesday or Thursday through the year. People are going to want to maximize their leave by turning a one day holiday into a 4-day weekend. Thinking that won’t be the case is just swimming against the tide of human nature – and that makes it an extremely foolish activity. The bureaucracy, of course, is no stranger to foolish activity, so we press on as if these periodic days of bare bones staffing will somehow result in actual productive work.

Although the mid-week holiday effect can take place any time of year, it’s most pronounced here at the tail end of the calendar, when so many of the old hands have leave that needs to be used or lost before the end of the year. The day before Thanksgiving or the day before Christmas are almost as useless, though not quite. Today there were four people in my office, well less than half of what it would have been on any other day, even given the reduced staffing due to plague.

I’m sure a few odds and ends that could be considered actual work transpired today, but when balanced against the cost of turning on the lights and heating every federal building across the country, I have to wonder if anyone has every paused to consider if the return on investment even comes close to making sense. If they have, they’ve obviously put far more stock in the value of maintaining the illusion of being open for business than I do.

Red shirt Fridays…

Since the beginning of the Great Plague, I’ve been an “occasional” essential employee. That mostly means I schlep over to the office on days when a warm body is needed to meet the mandate that someone physically be there.

Like my Pepto-Bismol pink shirts of yore, worn as a mark of being sick of a never-ending monthly series of hours long meetings that accomplished absolutely nothing, I do my best to arrive on duty these days wearing my finest red shirt. Like the red-shirted crewman of Kirk’s Enterprise, I know too well that my role here is to be utterly replicable phaser fodder.

What I’ve learned through four months of working through my occasional role as a red shirt is that easily 90% of what I do professionally can be done from anywhere in the world that offers a stable high speed internet connection. As often as not, it can be done faster from such far flung locations as my home office or back porch because the work isn’t interrupted every 15 minutes by chatty colleagues or impromptu meetings. If I’m brutally honest, the other 5-9% of work that I need to be in the office to do could also be done from remote locations, but would require something more than the current “basic load” of software we have to work with.

That leaves somewhere between 1-5% of work activities that require specialized access or equipment that can only be provided in the actual office. Even assuming the upper end of the range, which I’m not conceding other than for illustrative purposes, that’s a legitimate need to be in the office about one twentieth of the time spent working.

I have to wonder if, at some point, the universe of bosses will figure out that constructing these monumental buildings of concrete and glass are ultimately a bad return on investment. They’re literally billions of dollars of infrastructure that can’t be justified because the work doesn’t need those buildings to get done. Better, perhaps, to build smaller, more cost effective offices that people could use “as needed” rather than continue to proceed from the assumption that nothing can be done if it’s not happening in a cubicle.

I’ve got, hopefully, less than fifteen years left in this ride of mine, so I doubt seriously I’ll see that glorious awakening – not when the current generation of uber-bosses still like to throw around phrases like “team cohesion,” “collaborative workspace,” or “synergy.” They’re still too hung up on seeing asses in seats and slavering at the bit for the day they can bring everyone back to cubicle hell.

They have the power. They can return the office to (almost) exactly what it was before the Great Plague. They can, but they shouldn’t want to. They should replace the old constructs with something better, more cost effective, and employee friendly.

I know it’s a dream, but it’s a happy one – and one I won’t stop advocating for even when they bring all the red shirts back.

What I learned this week…

After getting my first job out of college I moved into a tiny apartment with a rattling old window air conditioner that I would only turn on at night (because electricity is hella expensive) to change the room from furnace to obnoxiously hot. I could sleep fitfully under those conditions… and some sleep was better than the none that I’d have had otherwise.

It was sweating through those late summer nights at the southern tip of southern Maryland that I vowed, with God as my witness, that when I’d “made it,” I would set the temperature in my home for comfort rather than economy.

For me, the ideal indoor temperature in both summer and winter hovers right around 67-68 degrees. When I’m home, that’s where I set it and let the furnace or a/c do it’s thing.

Here I am now, almost twenty years later, having officially “made it” by my 22-year old self’s definition. Living the fully controlled indoor air temperature dream…

So, the whole point of this post: What I learned this week is that I’ll tolerate the house being 1-2 degrees colder than the optimal 68 degrees if I’m wearing wool socks. I feel like that’s something I probably should have known years ago. Better late than never, or something.

Being busy…

There is a world of difference between being busy and getting things done. I was looking at my calendar for the next ten days or so and it’s absolutely undeniable that I’m going to be busy. Meetings are stacked up like cord wood and on a few days there might even be time to eat a lunch that won’t feel like either a late breakfast or an early dinner.

Although I’m going to be busier than a one armed paper hanger, what I can tell you with almost perfect certainty is that I’m not going to be getting things done. Experience tells me that the amount of work accomplished is inversely proportional to the number of hours spent sitting in meetings. It’s a known fact across the bureaucracy, but doe some reason the illusion that meetings in some way equate to work accomplished persists in the minds of people who call meetings.

Maybe it’s possible to both attend meetings and be a productive and contributing member of society, but I’ve never cracked the code on making that happen when the meetings and the work insist on occupying the same eight hours of the day. I suspect that the people who pull off spending all day in meetings and also somehow manage to get something done are willing to slip in a few extra hours on the side.

If you’re sitting around waiting for the same from me, my best advice is to get comfortable, because you’re going to have a bit of a wait.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Inefficiency. Look, I’m delighted that Big Pharma is reimbursing me 93% of my out of pocket costs for the meds that one of the smart docs from Hopkins tells me will contribute to being able to continue to living better through chemistry. I’d be even more appreciative if their reimbursement scheme allowed for ordering more than a 30-day supply of the stuff at a time. Everything else rolls in as a 3-month supply that’s simple enough to refill once a quarter except this one little pill. It feels like I’m online getting that one refilled or coordinating the refund about every seven days. If you’re going to spend the money either way you could save us both processing time and effort by doing it four times a year instead of 12.

2. Single points of failure. The world is full of people who want to gather all decision making and power unto themselves. I’ve never understood that particular logic for several reasons. First, the ones who seem to be drawn to absolute power are generally the last ones who should be engaged in decision making. Second, there’s nothing more ridiculous than a few dozen people standing around knowing what needs done but being paralyzed for lack of having someone explicitly telling them to do it.

3. Consistency in the space program. I really wish we lived in a country that had consistent and achievable, manned and unmanned space exploration goals. I want NASA to be above politics and be maybe the one instrument of government that is the best reflection of ourselves. I want to see big rockets with the stars and stripes plastered to the side hurtling American astronauts back to the moon and then getting their ass to Mars. To think that’s not the next logical step in exploration is nonsensical and flies in the face of humanity’s eternal struggle to expand into the unknown. Other people will tell you this should be way down on the list of priorities, but those people are wrong and should be quiet.

Spiked…

I like to know numbers when it comes to household operations. I track metrics on utilities because I like knowing how and why the bills are what they are. I’ve seen something on my utility statement that’s always kind of bothered me, but that I’d never bothered to investigate in detail.

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You see, every 7-8 days I have a surge in the amount of electricity that I use. For a long time I wrote it off as the increased demand caused by my being home on the weekend. I took a closer look, though, and realized that the spikes in use don’t exactly correspond to the days when I just happen to be home all day. If they did, I should see three columns out of every seven standing out instead of just the periodic one day spike. I thought briefly that the spikes might be tracking the day I work from home – when I tend to have two or three computers fired up, the furnace running, and maybe a load or two of laundry snuck in to the mix. Those are all things that logically I understand consume electricity.

The problem is, that none of the usage spikes corresponded to anything like that. Some hit days when I was here. Some didn’t. Being slightly obsessive, I still wanted to know why.

I wish I could tell you I slipped off the toilet while standing on it to hang a picture and had a vision of the Flux Capacitor, but alas that isn’t the case. The culprit showed himself when I was laying out a couple of chicken breasts for a long cook. It turns out every spike in electrical draw showing on my most recent bill actually corresponds to a day when I had dinner cooking away in the crock pot.

I just assumed that the little fella sat there on the counter and cooked up a nice hot meal without drawing off as much power as I use to tend to every other electrical appliance and device operated in this house on any given day. I feel like this is something I should have known kind of intuitively since by definition the thing is sitting there drawing power for eight or more hours at a time, but honestly I’d never given it much thought.

If I were all green and earthy I might consider altering some of my crock pot recipes for oven-based cooking… but as in most things, there’s a prince to pay in terms of convenience. As it turns out it’s a price I’m happily willing to pay. I’m just glad that I now know I’m paying it… though it might just be time to go out and see if I can upgrade my 15 year old slow cooker to something newer and (maybe) more efficient.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Automatic shutoffs. For as long as I can remember, gasoline pumps have come equipped with an automatic switch that shuts off the flow of fuel from the pump when the vehicle’s tank is full. I’ve been pumping my own gas since 1994 and have never personally seen what happens when one of those switches fails to do its thing. As it turns out, the result is gallons of gasoline gushing back out of the filler tube until you can reach into the frothing mess and manually shut off the flow. If you manage not to catch on fire, the convenient side effect is a) the side of your vehicle being drenched in gasoline; b) the parking pad being drenched in gasoline; c) Your boots and pants being drenched in gasoline; and d) your arm being drenched in gasoline up to the elbow. In conclusion, whoever designed the “automatic” switch for gas pumps can see me in hell.

2. Bureaucracy. I sent off some paperwork that needed approval – literally one page of not very complex text, mind you. I sent it off way back in the first week of December, winging its way through the bureaucracy. This one page piece of paper, after 6 major revisions, and review by all manner of doctors, lawyers, and indian chiefs, was finally approved this week…. only 57 short days after the process got started. It’s hard to believe there are people around who wonder why it’s so hard to get anything done in something approaching a reasonable amount of time.

3. Natural consequences. The doctor insisted, during my last check up, that I start drinking more water. It’s a tall order given the volume of coffee that’s required to keep this machine running, but I’ve gotten fairly good at complying with easy instructions. So, drink more water I do. The only problem with this plan is that every morning at 1:30 on the nose I have to wake up to take what I affectionately refer to as an emergency piss – as in get yourself out of bed right now this is an emergency. Look, I know that water is supposed to be good for me, but I’m fairly sure that the doc is also the guy who told me I needed to get more sleep. Just now, I’m trying to sort out the priority of effort between these two obviously conflicting bits of guidance.

Pepperidge Farms remembers…

I’ve used carbon paper, but it had its last gasp as an office staple while I earning a diploma. I caught the tail end of using overhead projectors to show written documents to large audiences. I can even vaguely remember using a typewriter to fill in some formsPepFarm carrying the dreaded “must be typed” instructions.

Looking back on those items, they weren’t particularly convenient. Using them was time consuming and far from automated. Even so, I have to grudgingly admit that they worked and were all successful at conveying some quantity of information from here to there. What they lacked in convenience and time saving, they more than made up for in reliability. Unless the bulb burnt out, that old heat throwing overhead projector would keep trucking along essentially forever. That’s one of the many beauties of systems with so few moving parts.

By contrast, most of my morning today was taken up by what felt like an endless do-loop of software updates and enforced restarts that made my computer at the office effectively unusable. It made me briefly long for a return to dry erase markers and acetate sheets and when ideas were communicated at the speed of fax. I’m sure that kind of throwback would make me miserable in its own unique way, but in the moment, anything seemed better than spending another moment staring blankly at the startup screen while the machine drug itself through the motions.

By lunchtime whatever gremlins were afflicting my laptop seem to have satisfied themselves with the damage done. I gave getting on with the day the old college try. I really did, but the damage was indeed done. Oh sure, I spent a few hours after that mashing away at the keyboard, but as for how much really got accomplished, well, I won’t be the one to incriminate myself on that front.

Flash to bang…

The time it takes to go from “flash to bang,” is an allusion to the time between a round impacting on target and when an observer hears the sound of that impact. Essentially it’s a low tech method of determining the amount of distance between you and whatever caused the bang. There are vagaries such as terrain and weather that intervene, but in principle sound travels at about 350 meters per second, therefore if flash to bang is 2 seconds, you’re 700 meters away – and that probably makes you way closer than you want to be to whatever is being pummeled.

In common usage down on the cube farm, flash to bang is used to mean the time between when you make a decision to the time that decision reaches fruition. The flash to bang on wanting a cup of coffee to getting that cup of coffee is generally very short. For other seemingly mundane tasks which seem like they should be accomplished quickly, such as publishing things to a website or getting a memo signed, the flash to bang could be months.

There’s no good reason for it, but as a professional lifetime spend tending to such things has taught me, that’s just the way it is. The lesson here, perhaps it’s the Zen of the Bureaucracy, is to try not to take it personally, shun emotionally entangling yourself with however long “the system” takes to do something. As a cog ex machina you don’t have any actual control over those things. Like terrain or weather you can influence them a bit around the margins, but getting from flash to bang is just going to take however long it takes.