True Geek

Something seemed wrong.

We were at the Irish Well. The band was taking a break, but it was still loud. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. “How many tons of steel in the station?”

He told me again.

“How long?”

I was skeptical.

“And how fast does it rotate?”

“One full rotation a day. Earth gravity. Earth day.”

“That can’t be right, can it?”

We looked at each other. I grabbed a napkin. He borrowed a pen from the waitress, explaining what we wanted it for. She said to let her know the answer.

I wrote down a formula. Looked at it funny. It didn’t look right, and I didn’t think it was just the Guinness. I closed my eyes and tried to see the page from my textbook. No luck.

The band was starting again when I tried to call my ex-boyfriend. If he was home, he’d look it up. He wasn’t, but his new girlfriend wanted to know the answer too, once she could hear me over the music. She gave me the formula. I’d been close but not quite there. I promised we’d tell the ex what we found the next time we saw him.

I converted all the numbers to reasonable units and did the math. Really? I checked my work. Oops. One error here, one there. I was drinking Guinness, after all. But they cancelled each other out. The answer was still the same.

We looked at each other again and laughed. “You’re not getting me on that space station.”

“Half-millimeter steel hull? Huh-uh. Me neither.”

Then we went back to the band and the Guinness.

And if that’s not geeky enough for you, I can remember the results of the calculation, but I’m really not sure which fictional space station we were talking about.

Foreign Contamination 100%

Pixar can stop now. They’ve done everything they needed to do.

Twenty-two years ago, they released Luxo Jr. and set the standard for animating the inanimate. Luxo Jr. is the desk lamp in Pixar’s logo. It’s a great logo, but in the original animation, he’s even more playful, squirmier and demonstrably young. Sure, he’s beautifully rendered, but that’s almost beside the point. It’s all about his personality.

Wall-E is the culmination of what Pixar started with Luxo. The robots in this movie, almost entirely without speech and using just their own inflexible mechanical parts (no bumper mouths and headlight eyes), are so personable that even Greg might be enchanted by them. (Or terrified. I’m not making bets either way.) There are humans here, but they’re almost reduced to a running joke.

It isn’t just the animation that makes this a great film, either. The voicework is impressive, especially considering limitations of vocabulary. There’s none of the all-too-typical basing characters on the stars who voice them. One of the voices is even provided by Macintalk, which I didn’t realize until the credits.

There are a couple of Macintosh moments that made me giggle but could annoy others. The story is going to have some people screaming that it’s too political, but it’s well within the normal bounds of science fiction extrapolation. For a film about robots, it’s very human positive. The script is far more mature than those for the Toy Story movies or for Finding Nemo. It gets harder to rely on pop culture and throwaway lines when you have so little dialog. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a very good thing. I haven’t a clue whether kids are going to like the film, but it’s perfect for adults.

And for us old Pixar fans. I’ll be getting this one on BluRay. While I’m at it, I think I’ll pick up that disk of Pixar shorts I saw recently. Now I remember why I loved them so much.

A Big Boom, Then Silence

I know lots people who work at the U of M, not just the ones who work with my husband. Tuesday morning, one of them sends me an e-mail saying, “Wow, did you hear about the fire in WBOB?” This is the West Bank Office Building, the building in which my husband works. Everyone knows my husband works there, since his location next to the bridge means we give details to people who want a better picture of how the rebuilding is going.

I haven’t heard any such thing, and I immediately hit the local news sites. Nothing. Front page at the U. Nothing. Google’s local feed. Nothing. I shoot an email back asking for details. I haven’t heard from anyone who works in the building, which is a good sign, right? Nobody expects me to have heard anything they need to reassure me about. Or so I’m hoping. Either way, if they have work to do, I don’t want to interrupt.

I try to do a little work myself, but between sending and checking email and the news, not much is getting accomplished. Apparently the person who sent me the original email has abandoned their computer–or they want me to suffer, but I’m trying to be generous, knowing I’m a wee bit overwrought. Everyone else has evaporated. Still nothing.

Finally, I give in and call my husband. “So, what’s this about a fire at WBOB?”

It turns out fireball is more accurate. A transformer outside the building took itself out most spectacularly. Everybody is fine, and he’s working from a remote location to keep the most essential systems up. He’s busy. Has to go.

Okay. That’s not too bad. They have contingency plans for just this sort of thing. I go back to work. Then, finally, people start forwarding me the information I’d been asking for–emails sent to U students and staff.

From 11:30 a.m.: “At approximately 11:00 a.m. today (July 1), a power line was accidentally cut in the construction zone outside the West Bank Office Building (WBOB), causing a fire. By noon today, the Office of Information Technology will be shutting down the servers in the WBOB location to prevent damage…Access to e-mail is not affected.”

From 12:30 p.m. “Due to a power outage at the West Bank Office Building several services have been shut down by OIT. Our connections to the internet, e-mail and calendar systems remains functional.”

By 2:30 p.m. we find out that “Some E-Mail users” are affected. I’m guessing the users already knew that and that the message wasn’t going to do them much good. The best part of this message, though, is “The new Enterprise Financial System was not affected by the power
outage and was not the cause.”

Uh, duh. EFS is a PeopleSoft app. That may make it evil (just sayin’, PeopleSoft), but it’s not going to give it the power to take out a transformer. Hmm. Sounds like there’s some pretty heavy pressure from above to make sure absolutely nothing goes the littlest bit wrong with the EFS implementation, doesn’t it?

But I’m all set now, I can kick back and relax and wait for details from my husband. Who doesn’t call. Poor thing, I think, I hope he doesn’t have to work so late he can’t make it to class. Of course, what I don’t know is that he got off work early and fell asleep under a tree on campus while listening to his Science Friday podcast. I love him dearly, but….

I found all that out the next morning, when I finally saw him, along with a bunch of details that don’t belong in a public blog post. I promise: it’s boring technical stuff about how the U’s systems work together. I can’t share, but unless you’re a complete geek, you’re not missing much. Instead, I’ll leave you a bit from another email I got later on Wednesday, this time from someone who does work in WBOB.

“See that thing in the photo? That’s the transformer outside my building. It fucking exploded yesterday, caught fire. This was some truly biblical shit – in my office, the ground done _quaketh_. “


“The fire looks small, doesn’t it? That’s because the top piece of the transformer got bent upwards by about 45 degrees in the explosion, sort of hiding some of the flames. When I made it down to ground level, and walked by the transformer, the flames were about 12 to 18 inches high. The transformer is oil-cooled, so it had some fuel to burn.”

It does look tiny, doesn’t it? Awfully small for such a big boom.

Rockets’ Red Glare

As unlikely as it sounds, I’m one of those people who cries at the “Star Spangled Banner.” I can’t tell you whether I do it for the same reasons as anyone else, because I don’t know anyone else who does it. I can tell you that the reasons have changed somewhat over the last few years.

I’ve always, as long as I’ve understood the words, empathized with the soldiers who dreaded the rockets but looked to them to know the flag they fought for still survived. How desperate does their need to know have to be to make it worth looking up instead of covering their heads? How much of a relief must dawn be, and how great their fear of bad news that they have to ask instead of looking for themselves?

I can’t answer those questions, but even asking them makes me cry.

In recent years, though, my attention has been a bit distracted by the rockets–the trials and dangers that briefly illuminate our long night. I’ve been watching them fly overhead, hearing them explode all too nearby. I’ve been peering through the darkness to see what they can tell me about the state of our flag. I haven’t seen much that I can be sure of, but I’ve made myself look.

But now, with a light on the horizon, I find myself understanding the soldiers better than ever. There should be a flag there, battered though it may be. Not everyone has put their heads down. Many kept fighting despite the rockets. When the sun finally rises, we should see the flag.

Will we? And how many of us will even be able to look?

Why Am I Here?

Yesterday at work, despite my best efforts to check off the 1,001 tiny things on my to do list and to clean out my inbox so I can figure out whether there’s anything that never made it onto the list, I spent much of my time on two Projects That Will Not Die. Just when I think about catching up, just when I dream of breathing space, up pops one or the other of these. Yesterday, both.

These were supposed to be finished months ago. In fact, they’ve been finished several times, so when I see one again, it’s like looking at a zombie. Now, I didn’t sign up to work with zombies. Nobody said there’d be zombies. And I can’t even take a shotgun to these zombies. No, I have to treat them just like any regular project.

So it’s time for a deep breath and to remind myself why I’m in this job in the first place.

  1. Variety. I can’t see it when I’m staring at a zombie, but very few people have jobs with as much variety as mine. I have my own research project, my own administrative project. I crunch numbers, write client materials, edit client materials. I’m an IT backup, on a data security team, and a “guru” for most of the applications we use locally. That can be a lot of interruptions, but it doesn’t get stale.
  2. Impact. I make a difference at work. My administration work is a chance to smooth the path for people going through tough times. My research project puts me in communication with decision-makers in the company and was recently disseminated outside as well. I can make someone’s day a little easier by helping make their computers do what they’ve been trying to do. What I do matters.
  3. Challenge. Most of the projects I get come as goals. “The client wants to do this.” or “The client wants to know this.” Sure, we repeat some work, and I’m not on my own to figure out how to get it done, but I get to do it because the client couldn’t do it themselves.
  4. People. Since this is the kind of work we do, and since we do it successfully, you know I have to work with a pretty sharp bunch. What you don’t know is that they’re also hired for their people skills. Friendly, funny, smart, minimal gossip, no backstabbing–what more could I ask for?
  5. Authority. I don’t have a boss. I don’t have anyone reporting to me. I have things that have to get done, people who work with me on them, and a coach who is also a coworker. I have effectively sidestepped the chain of power, and the arrangement couldn’t suit me better if it had been made for me.
  6. Compensation. This isn’t why I do anything, since I’m mostly internally motivated. However, it’s hard to feel under-appreciated when someone apologizes to you over a pay increase that is above most companies’ top of the merit range.

There are more reasons to stay and love my job, but those are the highlights. Besides, it’s time to go see whether I can finally lay those zombies to rest.

Hah.