Taking care of your crew

I’m feeling pretty good about a decision I made as a supervisor.  One of my guys had a death in the family.  Cousin lost in a car wreck.  He told me on day 1(Friday) of our 4 night run that he would probably need to take off and he would let me know after the arrangements had been made.  Well we were already scheduled to run 1 short on the last 2 nights.  I took a deep breath and told him “Of course man.  Whatever you need.”

 The next day (Saturday) he said there was a visitation on Sunday and the Funeral would be Monday.  He had put together that we would be running short and started to feel guilty.  Saying “I don’t have to go if it will put y’all in a bind.” And “I don’t really want to go anyway.”

 It would’ve been easy to convince him not to go.  And keeping him here is what would’ve been best for the plant… and it was tempting.

But what I said is, “Nobody likes to go to funerals, but just being there can be important.”  And “I’m not your Dad.  It’s not my place to order you to go, but I don’t want you to later regret not going.”

 He decided to go on Sunday and come back in on Monday night.  At 9PM on a Saturday I made some half-hearted phone calls to the 2 people that could’ve covered his spot and neither of them called me back.  My remaining operators were spread thin, but they all knew why and no-one complained about the extra work.

 Here’s the question:  What if shit went sideways? It’s not hard to imagine scenarios where being short a man causes WAY more work for the remaining men.  Situations where having the right guy in the right place can save the day.  Situations where a missing guy costs us recovery time worth $60k/hr.

How would I feel about my decision then?

Probably pretty conflicted and shitty.  We’ll surely find out one day, because I can’t imagine a world in which I would make this decision the other way.


Promotions and Cellulose Avionics

I’ve long had a conflicted view of leadership.  On the one hand I’m completely confident making decisions. I know I’m as smart as anybody, and I do a better job than most people of listening to the evidence and making unbiased decisions.  On the other hand I don’t like telling people what to do.  I don’t like conflict.  I don’t like being bossy.  I like being liked.  On the gripping hand I don’t really want to do the same job for the next 20 years, and it’s hard to change jobs from where I am without either a pay cut or the word “supervisor” attached to your job description.

So after applying for the Shift supervisor position once and having it disappear and re-appear under someone other than me, I went back to my comfortable job confident that eventually the job would open up again and be mine… I just didn’t expect things to move quite so quickly.

I showed up to work and was told that my supervisor was switching to a different crew, and that I would be moving up from Control Room Operator to shift sup.  My first official act was to counter-mand the night’s shift assignment left by my so recent boss to put our shift’s (albiet very junior) CRO on the board and move the guy on OT to cover me onto the floor.  This projected my confidence in the guy I had trained, and kept a familiar voice on the radio for my crew… And it felt right.

The next set of shifts came and for the most part things ran themselves on momentum.  Most shifts the guys do their rounds and work their list and who’s in charge doesn’t impact them… My second real act as leader was to schedule a paper-airplane contest.  This put my personality on the crew for the first time.  This showed them that we are allowed to have fun… And importantly, this let me throw a paper-airplane of the 17th floor of the boiler which I’d been tempted to do for around 6 years now.


We were at the park with another couple and a total of 4 kids playing havoc.  The kids were doing this thing where they would put their belly’s on the swing and go face-down “superman style.”  My lovely wife commented that she used to do that as a kid, but she tried it as an adult and it was crushing.  Aimee was sympathizing with my wife’s troubles and I explained that it’s really a completely explainable thing… If the size of something doubles then it doubles in all 3 dimensions so it’s volume (and therefore it’s mass) is increased 8 TIMES.  Everyone kind of nodded in patient understanding of my nerd-dom, thankful that I didn’t go on to explain how strong ants were and why flying birds can only get so big… and them Aim said

“Did you just call me FAT?”

Split second of trapped man brain panic followed almost immediately by a deadpan “No, I called you PROPORTIONATE.”  This was perfect because a) it was true, and b) it was vaguely complimentary.  Though not quite a compliment it’s opposite DISproportionate is definitely an insult.

I basked in my Hudini like verbal skills to escape the trap when she caught me flat footed with: “Yeah, EIGHT TIMES as proportionate.”

Touche’ madam.  Touche’

Yin and Yang and social Asymmetry

My first job was working in the seafood dept at the Kroger around the corner from my house. I had just graduated high school and would be starting college in the fall. The manager of the meat dept. was an old friend of my parents, and my mom called him and arranged the job. They were technically required to post all jobs, so there was a sign in the window for approximately 15 minutes to meet this wicket. Miss Lauree taught me to cook catfish nuggets for Friday samples and to eat them with hot sauce, which I still do to this day. Years later my particular wife tried to inform me that lemon juice was better, a “fact” overwhich we are not united.

At some point the seafood budget got reduced and I got moved to the meat department. Since I was in school (at least nominally) I worked evening shifts. 2 of us would come in at 3, day shift would leave at 5. We stocked the open coolers on the floor, wrapped whatever day shift left us, and sold deli meat at the counter. At 9 we shut down the front end at cleaned the bandsaws and knives and whatnot. At 10 we clocked out and went home… Except when I worked with Marvell, then we were done at 9:30.

I was frequently rolling out carts to restock coolers, and then something else would come up and I’d leave the cart on the floor while I went and took care of the emergent work. One day Marvell said to me:

“Shad I want to thank you.”

“What for?”

“Everytime I go to do something, I find that it’s already half done.”

“Well then Vell I need to thank you. I’m always starting jobs, and when I come back to them I find them already finished.”

When we were cleaning up he would put on a mixed tape and whenever Wild Cherry came in with their seminal piece he would shout and cheer for me as I hosed the “meat sawdust” down the floor drains. He would often tell me “Shad, you my nigga.” To which I would reply “thank you.” After months of this we had this exchange:

“Shad, you mah nigga. You know that?”

“Yeah, thanks… Marvell can I ask you a question?”


“Are you my nigga?”

… the palpable silence stretched for several seconds. With no smile or humor in his voice he said:

“Yes. But NEVER. Say that. Again.”

“Got it.”

Several years later I was waiting tables at Perkins. There was a cook named Terrence who overtime began to greet me with “What’sup my nigga.”

To which I would reply “Wassup Brutha.”

I note with some pride that this was not his universal greeting. One had to earn the title of ‘my nigga.’

“Like I care”

There’s this guy who cleans the offices where I work.  He’s in his early 20’s, and I think of him as “the Cleaning Kid,” which is a sure sign I’m getting old.  The Kid comes in at night, and there’s pretty much nobody monitoring him, but he works hard anyway and I like him for that.  He has his routine down and hits all the areas pretty quickly, then he picks some corner that’s hiding some dirt and spends about 10minutes working on that thankless and sisyphustic task before calling it a night.  Somebody in management came to the control room and decided that the area behind my computer monitors was a disgusting breeding ground for dust bunnies (which it was) and complained to the cleaning company.  I used to clean behind there about once every 2 weeks when I was on night shift, but when the vacuum cleaner disappeared I felt that I was excused from that duty.

A day or 2 later an old guy who worked for (owned?) the cleaning company came by.  He craned his neck around behind my horseshoe of 20 monitors and tsked.  He asked me what I thought of the cleaning service.  And I said I liked it fine, and if anybody wasn’t satisfied with it, it was because they hadn’t made their expectations clear.  That Kid works.

Months go by and then one night the Kid made some comment wondering whether people thought he did a good job.  I recounted that his boss had come up here after somebody complained about my horseshoe, but I told him “if anybody wasn’t satisfied with it, it was because they hadn’t made their expectations clear.  That Kid works.”

“Wow.  Thanks man.” The Kid replied.  “Unless you’re just saying that to make me feel good.”

“Yeah, like I care about your feelings enough to lie to you.”

In the hush that followed I see that Daniel is shaking with silent laughter.

“Did that come out too harsh?” I ask innocently.

“Yes.  A bit harsh, Shad.”

I didn’t apologize to the Kid for the burn, and it took me days to realize why I reacted the way I did.  In his desire to milk the compliment for greater assurances he implied I was a liar.  I pride myself on my honesty.

I told my insightful wife this story and she said “that’s why everyone is always so stunned when you get rough.  You start out smiling and giving compliments and then out of nowhere you hit ‘em with a “Yeah, like I care about your feelings.”  If I was an asshole as the baseline the mean things that I say would roll right off of people.  Instead I start out all friendly.  It’s like my left hand is a sock-puppet that distracts them before the right-cross.

This is now officially dubbed “the sock-puppet combo.”

Trolling the chess tables

Back in the wild-west days of the internet anonymity reigned supreme.  Early websites didn’t even ask for your name, they just wanted a “screen name” practically inviting you to make something up.  I was “Shaddicus_Nimbus” or ”ThePlatypus.”  When websites started asking you to register your zipcode I think all my friends started putting in 90210 without even consulting each other.  After all it isn’t yahoo’s business where we live.

I remember playing chess on some boardgame website that later got eaten by yahoo games.  This was about 1994, and I was in the computer lounge at University of Memphis.  Each game had a chat room.  Typically it was just the 2 of you, but people could watch the games and and ask to play the winner or whatever.  Whoever set up the table had the power to boot watchers from the room, but is seldom came up.  I used the chat box to tell people they made nice moves as well as to explain to them that my power was beyond their understanding. This is where I first saw “lol” and in the same conversation “lmao.”

you know you need it

click to go to training on knight forks

 For the none of you interested in this ground breaking event I’ll recount for you the quip.  He forked my Queen and my Rook with his knight and I said “OW!  My Anus!”  After that night I had a napkin with all these unknown abbreviations that I took to a more tech savvy friend (hi Nick)  

I tried asking people “ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”  Which was a very famous line from 1989’s Batman.  Then I had a conversation that went like this:



Platypus:   Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
Loneknight: What?
Platypus:   Nothing. Just something I ask of all my prey.
Loneknight: What?
Platypus:   Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
Loneknight: What are you talking about?
Platypus:   I’m quoting the Joker from batman.
Loneknight: Oh.
Loneknight: I’m in Greece.
Platypus:   Ah.
Platypus:   In view of the international nature of the internet 
            I guess I need to seek out more universal humor
Loneknight: Yes
Platypus:   Are "your mama" jokes universal?
Loneknight: What?
Platypus:   your mama is so fat she buys her dresses at the 
            tent store
Loneknight: Shut up
Platypus:   So they are universal?
Platypus:   your mama is so fat she jumped in the air and got stuck

From there he didn’t say anything else, but his playing went down hill.  Which I kind of felt bad about.  He wasn’t supposed to get upset he was supposed to talk shit back.  I felt a little bad, but not enough to curb my mouth once I got on a roll.

“Everybody has to learn sometime”

A while back I was trying to help Alaric make a ginger bread house.  He mixed up the icing and put it in the bag with the plastic nozzle, and cut off the tip.  I was then trying to use the icing as cement for the walls with little success.  Eventually I broke a wall, at which point I explained to Alaric that I did not have the skills to build his ginger bread house and he would have to wait for his talented mother to have time to do it.  We cemented the broken piece together and double bagged the icing with a wet papertowel and put it all away.

see how the walls are angled?  very tricky construction problem

a ginger bread house

Several days later my lovely wife was building the gingerbread house and taking pot shots at me when Alaric said “that’s OK.  Everybody has to learn sometime.”  I don’t think these are my words, so it’s probably someone from school, but I agree wholeheartedly.  He’s learned a valuable lesson about the incremental view of intelligence.  Lacking knowledge or ability doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, just get on with the business of learning it.  After the house was built, he requested my help decorating it because he was worried that my witty wife’s japes might have hurt my feelings.

I Love that boy.

Yesterday we’re riding in the car, and I’m complaining about one of my co-workers… (must tread carefully here as my real life identity is not secret at all).  After a short and viscous rant which gave no identifiable details as to who the person was…

  • My son asked “why you mad?”
  • And I calmly said “because he doesn’t deserve to work where I work and make the kind of money we make.”
  • “Papa, everybody has to learn sometime.”
  • “True, but he’s had plenty of time to learn.  He either can’t do it, or he’s too lazy to do it.”
  • “Oh”
  • “If he worked hard and tried to learn everyday I might get frustrated with him, but I wouldn’t get mad.”

Am I wrong?

More trolling of chess tables

Different people feel differently about resigning.

Bobby Fischer

At some point in my inglorious chess career I took up an interest in individual study of annotated games.  I had one book, called something like “The 10 best chess players and the games where they prove it.”  I tried to find it on the googles to link to it, but to no avail.  Good book. Great resource. Pretty much unreadable for a normal person though.  You pretty much had to set up the chessboard and play through each game in it’s entirety to get anything out of it.  It would have a few lines of text every now and then, but if you hadn’t been following along (or have a way better brain for chess positions than I did) there would be no context for the text.  It was also in written in descriptive notation instead of algebraic (coordinate) notation.  Honestly both systems are basically equal in their merits, but algebraic has all but completely taken over, which meant I was developing a skill of thinking in a notation which was approaching obsolescence.  Over the course of several weeks my late nights at CKs Always openwith only my chess book and my magnetic chess set the size of a paper back novel I took note of something.  These Grandmaster chess games would always end when someone resigned.  Sometimes I wouldn’t even understand why, following the authors notation for several more moves to prove that defeat was inevitable.  Often we weren’t even staring a forced mate in the face, but rather a material advantage against an opponent who knows how to exploit it. This led me to new slogan to throw at people when I was trolling the chess tables:

“If you weren’t American, you would resign”

People would get really offended, as if I insulted their American-ism rather than merely observed it.

  • What’s that supposed to mean?!
  • Look at the board.  I’m up a R and a B going into the endgame
  • So?
  • So there’s no rational expectation that you could win.
  • I can still get a P across.
  • And monkeys might fly out my butt.
  • … said the American

Americans are like delusional kamikaze pilots that think they’re going to destroy the enemy and come home a hero.  They expect to stand their ground outnumbered 10 to 1 and still live happily ever after.

Someone once asked:

  • Why do you think Americans are like that?
  • Programming…
  • Minutemen vs the Redcoats
  • Root for the underdog
  • Win one for the Gipper
  • It’s not over till the fat lady sings
  • Quitters never win and winners never quit.
  • You’re American, aren’t you?
  • What makes you say that?
  • You know the dogma too well…

A couple of times I’d be playing someone in a rematch and they’d say:

  • If you weren’t American you would resign
  • The situation’s not symmetric at all.  I’m just down a B with strong central pawn structure and superior development.
  • My bad B at that.
  • I’m totally still in this.
  • You should resign and quit wasting both our time.
  • You should scold your mom for raising you with unrealistic expectations of effortless success.

Or more shockingly

  • If you weren’t American you would resign.
  • Touché, sir [Black Resigns]

As a side note on the art of trolling:  The troll leads the conversation down a path.  It feels like a spontaneous conversation to the mark, but it’s almost a rehearsed script to the troll.  You know that feeling you get when you think of a witty comeback hours later?  To the troll that comeback gets put in the arsenal of future witty comebacks.  That being said, the true Joy of Trolling (for me anyway) comes about in those moments of flow when the comebacks truly are off the cuff, and the mark can hold his own.

Followers and Leadership

On facebook the people you interact with are termed “friends.” This sets a tone and an expectation of some degree of symmetry and personal knowledge of the individuals you are interacting with. This subtly discourages you from “friending” strangers. There were a couple of games I used to play which relied on inviting friends to play for advancement. This led absurdly to me going to groups to find people to friend who already played the game so they could be my ally, despite the fact that this meant giving strangers access to quite a lot of personal information.  For reasons I don’t understand myself, I still have one such stranger on my friend list.

There’s another class of social network in which the interaction is asymmetrical, where one person talks and another listens. In these cases “friends” is clearly not an accurate description of the relationship. In facebook land they decided to call this “liking,” which is a touch deceptive since they use the word 2 different ways. If my friend posts a picture of himself at a convention next to George Takei and I like the picture all I’m doing is sending him a little ping of warm fuzzy feeling. Clicking a single button has got to be the lowest level of social interaction imaginable, but it works. When I get notifications telling me that 12 people liked it when I quipped:

“My daughter has learned to use the stool to reach things… I might as well hand her the car keys now.”

I felt a little self-satisfied rush of dopamine with each new notification. Back in the pre-likebutton days people were slightly more likely to comment a short “lol” after a good status, but if a comment already had 4 lols did you really want to tack another on? It made you sound like you had nothing to say… and really you didn’t. Inversely If a comment already has several likes it makes people MORE likely to click like again so people all see that we like the same things.

If instead of liking my friends picture of George Takei, I “like” George Takei this button did something different. Now it subscribed me to George Takei’s page. This used to be called “becoming a fan” but by adding the “like button” to everything and then using a button of the same name and icon to do something different you have lowered the psychological barrier people had to letting commercial type stuff creep into their newsfeed along with the social stuff from their other “friends.”

In most the rest of the internet the official parlance seems to be that you “subscribe” to an RSS feed, and that you “follow” a person’s output on a particular website. They are not your friends. Either you follow them, or they follow you. Or possibly both. Twitter feeds default to public, but to many people it’s just another social website where they personally know all 150 of their subscribers. They are friends with their “followers.” When my sweetly paranoid wife sees that strangers are “following” her on Pinterest she feels as though she’s being stalked. On a gut level someone following her is inherently a creepy guy 30 feet back trying not to get noticed. Conversely when I hear that there are 15 people following me on wordpress it often makes me feel like an evil genius. My eyes read “followers” and my mind replaces it with “minions.”

Another trick my mind does when told I have 15 followers is it asks “where do they think I’m going?” Which just about sums up why I’m uncomfortable with leadership positions. I find myself getting uncomfortable with the idea of a bunch of people waiting for me to tell them what to do. They’re grown-ups. Can’t they decide what to do for themselves?

Many of you (or more likely none of you) are thinking: “wait, aren’t you a Control Room Operator at a 670MW powerplant? Don’t you effectively have a crew of 5 guys that you boss around all the time?” Well let me tell you, it feels different. When I’m giving orders on the radio, we are responding to changing conditions in the plant. I’m not telling “D” to walk down C Mill and then go to oil ignitor row because I’m his boss, I’m telling him because B Mill tripped and we’ve got to recover load. When I tell “T” to go to the atomizer penthouse and check a valve position it’s not because I’m in charge, it’s because we lost slurry flow through the atomizer and SO2 is climbing. I’m just the guy who has the most information, the one who hears the alarms. I’m just giving information to the guy responsible… or occasionally the guy with knowledge and skills if the Operator is new to his area or the problem is a real screwball. I feel less like I’m telling him what to do, and more like we’re working together to get something done. Sometimes I’m terse, but they understand the situation. Being curt conveys urgency. Long explanations over the radio can actually reduce clarity of communication.

Maybe that is a valid style of leadership, but it’s not what the Navy (or society in general for that matter) taught me to think of as leadership. Having said that several examples of more cooperative leadership styles start to pop to mind from my Navy experience. EM1 Armstrong was always putting in as much effort as we were. EMC Bagwell always took the time to fully explain the expectations and the reasons for it… Both were also willing to chew you a new asshole if they felt you weren’t doing your end. I’m less of an ass chewer and more of a “I really expect better of you… we look pretty incompetent” kind of guy, but some people ignore the soft sell and really need ass-chewins.

Petit Jean

I’m recently back from a week of vacation at Petit Jean state park.  I’ve been going to family reunions there for over 30 years.  When I was very young I thought the place was boring, a bunch of old people sitting around playing bridge.  Somewhere around 12 yrs old I discovered that there were miles of trails, and most of them were lined with climbable rocks. 

As a teenager and a couple of times in my twenties I went there to camp and climb.  We would often wonder off the official path, and hike the edges of the valleys on inviting washouts.  And I discovered a trend.  We would follow a trail to the bottom of the valley where it ties in to an official trail, and we’d have to duck to go under a big red sign announcing  “DANGEROUS AREA ENTRY UNLAWFUL.”  This didn’t happen too many times before we began to seek these unlawful paths out deliberately.  Sometimes you would even see a foothold cut into a rock on the path, or stones that were arranged in a suspiciously staircase fashion.  I have come to the conclusion that some time prior to the 90’s (when my exploration started in earnest),  these trails were officially sanctioned and maintained, but someone decided that they were too dangerous and that people would get hurt, so they put up signs telling lawful citizens to stay on the safe paths.

The rocks at petit jean are a mix of iron deposits and sedimentary layers.  Over years the sandstone washes out and leaves ridges of iron that are just perfect to grab.  “The Bear Cave” is full of these, as well as some places with stairs cut into the rocks so even someone completely unskilled, but of reasonable health can make it to the tops of the rocks.  I look at these and I know that if this park was newly made they would’ve never put these in.  They’d be too scared to get sued… either by idiots who got themselves hurt (and in several nearby universes I am such an idiot) or under the “American’s with Disabilities Act” (because it’s not fair for you to let people healthier (read luckier) than me have fun).

These stairs are steep. I hovered behind Alaric the whole way.

And that brings me to “Petit Jean gravesite and overlook.”  This used to be a gravel road that lead out to a pile of large bolders overlooking a bend in the Arkansas River.  In the last 10-15 years they’ve made improvements.  Now it has a parking lot (with stripes and everything) which leads to a 8’ wide walkway (wooden deck) bound in by decorative stonework and cast-iron fencing.  The walkway has 2 steps down onto the tops of the boulders.

There’s no sign saying not to climb on the boulders, but there has been a definite dampening effect on people’s behavior.  I watched a woman stand on the deck and hold her 7yr old son back by his shoulder.  She was definitely breathing hard. A few feet past her she could see this:

That’s my girl!

The decrease in climbing  is measurable by the visible growth of bushes and small trees in the cracks of the rocks where in the past they would’ve been crushed under the feet of adventurous tourist, who kept the area clear and climbable for years without any paid maintenance.

That’s me in 1989 with my ex-step-dad

‘Dem bushes didn’t use to be dere.

Next year I might bring a machete.
It’s not the same rock, but it’s the same overlook. This is the best I can do for comparison.

You probably can’t tell because of the overgrowth, but maybe you can tell by my white knuckles… it’s quite a fall from there.

All this raises some questions:

  • “Are there fewer injuries?”
  • “Are there fewer deaths?”
  • “Do people enjoy it more or less?”

These questions seem answerable, but it’s not as easy as you might think.  If you type “Petit Jean injury statistics” into google you do not get linked to the information I want.  And on the enjoyment question, you can’t answer it now.  Maybe if they’d done a baseline survey 20 years ago and asked the same questions again, but we still wouldn’t really know.

When I was 6ish my grandparents drove me from Memphis to Disney land.  I spent a lot of time laying in the back window of their car.  I remember my dad’s mazda RX3 in which he had actively hunted down and destroyed the buzzer for the seatbelt.  I remember the first time I ever saw a bicycle helmet.  I remember a trampoline without a safety net, and jumping onto it from the roof, and falling off of it onto the ground.  I remember riding in the back of my uncle’s truck on a boating trip.

I’m opposed to people getting killed in general, and especially kids and especially for something stupid.

However I’m not opposed to people getting hurt.  Especially kids and even for something stupid.  You have to get hurt to realize that getting hurt is not the end of the world.  You have to feel adrenaline to get a taste of what you’re really capable of.  You have to live though fear and come out on the other side to taste how sweet life can be.