Thursday, October 30, 2014

Searching for a Topic

Once again, this week, ideas for blog posts have passed through my mind without capture. But that doesn't mean I'm without a topic for today. I have at least two in mind as I start this.

One relates to something I'm working on at my day job. Next March I'll present a brown bag class in the office with the title "How to Recession-Proof Your Career". I've already started working on it, and several items from it would seem to make good blog posts. The other relates to our Life Group at church. We finished our "Jesus is Lord" study on October 19th, and we didn't have Life Groups on Oct 26th due to having a special service. We are supposed to start a new series this Sunday, November 2. The problem is neither I nor my co-teacher have a clue as to what to teach next. A request of the class on the 19th as to what they would want to study brought dead air, with the exception of maybe one of the shorter books of the Bible.

So, what to do? I was actually thinking of doing a series on prayer. The book The Circle Maker has been highly recommended, and I was thinking on using that. However, upon looking into it more closely, I'm concerned that it's actually not all that biblically based. Maybe it will work, maybe not. I meant to go to a bookstore and pick up a copy, but haven't yet had the opportunity.

An alternative method of studying prayer came to my mind over the last couple of days. Actually, two alternate series. One would take a fair amount of time to prepare lessons, the other very little time. I wonder which one I'd select if it were up to me. I hope I can convince my co-teacher on going that way. I'll try to contact him today.

Meanwhile, I think I'll write a few posts based on this class I'm preparing for work. I can see several that I could pull out as stand-alone posts. Enough to keep my busy for a while.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Post 900: On Accomplishment

As you'll know if you've read this blog or my other one, I'm in a Time Crunch. I put that in capital letters because it is the daddy of all time crunches. It's so much of a crunch that I can't see my way clear to do any writing. In an odd half hour here and there I do some research for a future project, the type of research that can be done in 30 minutes chunks of time. And to some extent I'm keeping up with my blogs. Beyond that, I don't foresee any writing for the next four months.

Yet, I have to say, I'm not without accomplishments during this time. This is my 900th post on this blog. That's not bad. I started it in late 2007, just under seven years ago, so that's an average of around 115 posts a year. I'm pleased with that accomplishment. Someday I hope someone will be interested in reading them all, seeing what the last seven years of my life have been like, and perhaps be impressed. Or, maybe not.

Another accomplishment of late has been better productivity in my engineering career. Most of the things I do are self-starting type stuff, and I've had trouble starting things. Recently though I've started several things. I have in-house classes planned clear up to December 2015. In the next four months I'll be teaching classes I've never taught before, which means I'll have to prepare notes, study the material, plan a presentation, and build a PowerPoint file for each. Three more things to put into my resume.

The main cause of the Time Crunch has also resulted in accomplishment. Lynda and I are in a stock trading education program. Part of that is having a mentor, having conference calls with him, and doing a bunch of homework. I'm pleased to say I've been keeping up with the homework, even out-pacing my wife with it. It's enjoyable to a degree. Whether or not it will make us more successful trading stocks I don't know, but I think it will. It's a quality program, unlike so many I've evaluated over the years. At least it's keeping me busy, and accomplishing things.

And today, I had a minor accomplishment: I paid the bills. We stayed home from church today. I'm nursing a mild cold, and Lynda was nursing a moderately severe headache. After morning devotions I grabbed accumulated mail from the kitchen table, went through it all, and paid all bills that were due, one not due till Nov 13. I sorted through things and discarded a bunch of junk mail. I have a few more things to go through, but overall I'm pleased with what I got done.

So three cheers for accomplishment. Of course, I'd rather these accomplishments be writing related, but perhaps that will come again in time.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Post Ideas Lost

As my regular readers will know, I missed my regular posting day last Sunday. I have no excuse except busyness. Our new stock trading education program is taking an incredible amount of time, essentially every evening, almost all hours, and lots of time on the weekends. To some extent this will pass, though I don't see a lot of time opening up for a while.

Having missed Sunday, I began planning for today's post. Several ideas came to mind, over the last few days. Unfortunately I didn't write them down, and just as quickly they passed through my mind back into the atmosphere. They were good ideas, and would have made good posts. Alas, they are now making the same impact an arrow through the air makes to the air around it.

This week I plan to do a better job of actually capturing those ideas. I'll post this coming Sunday, and will get back on a regular schedule. I have lots to write about. I just need to organize my time and mind better.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Political Off-Year

They say this is an election year, but an "off-year" election. That is, a president is not being elected, so interest in the election is expected to be less, with voter turnout lower than it would be in a presidential election year. That's the way it's always been in American elections.

Last election I published The Candy Store Generation. I had this out in July, and made predictions for the November elections. Those predictions were amazingly accurate: exact for president, exact for the House, off a little for the Senate. I had actually made accurate predictions in 2004, and in most years when I looked at the situation and thought it through.

I believe I was able to do this, beating such pundits as Karl Rove and Dick Morris, and the whole crew at MSNBC, because I predicted with my head and not my heart, and because I accurately considered what my own generation was like and how they would vote. I was listening to the world around me, taking in data from whatever sources were available, and making a decision of what I thought would happen, not what I wanted to happen. It seems that too many of the talking heads on news channels and talk radio predict with their hearts. They want a certain something to happen, and based on that they self-filter the data to prove what they want. They may be doing this subconsciously, but I suspect a lot of it is purposeful, hoping to move public opinion to what they want to happen.

So what about this election? What's going to happen? I actually haven't been following it close enough to make a prediction. I'm looking at data now, especially polling data. What I've noticed in the past that, when a political trend is rapidly developing, the polls tend to shift quickly and excessively toward that trend. Then, a short while later, the polls swing back to correctly measure baseline public opinion. It's as if people are caught up in the news and tell the pollster what the news is telling them, but later think better of it and return to the position they've always had. In a slower trend, it seems to me that the polls are more likely to be correct. I could give several examples showing both of these, but won't take up space with it.

At present the news for the administration and the nation is all bad. Multiple problems, foreign and domestic, beset the Obama administration. Congress seems mostly ineffective and lazy. A slowly growing economy, growth that is not expanding the employed labor force in any significant way, is mitigating some of the problems. If anything, Americans seem somewhat more apathetic than normal. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to assess this data, but my best guess is that the polls are over-predicting, by a small amount, the dissatisfaction of the electorate.

I thought about issuing a new edition of The Candy Store Generation to include a short chapter on what I think will happen this election. That would be risky, but I should have done that. It's too late to do that now, but not too late to make predictions and post them here. I'm still not quite ready to do that, but may do so before the election is here.

No promises, but stay tuned.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Weekends Are For Rest?

That's what we're told, right? Weekends are for rest, and leisure. For the Christian (devout or cultural), Sunday is meant to be a day of rest. We sometimes substitute a day of leisure for a day of rest. Of course, a person who works all week with their mind might find the mind most rested by partaking in rigorous physical activity. A person who works all week at a physical job might need to rest their body and engage their mind during the weekend.

Well, how can I report on the stewardship of my weekend? I'm not sure it was all that restful. On Saturday I was up reasonably early. The first hour is somewhat of a blur. I went to The Dungeon, but don't remember accomplishing very much. After that it was a combination of clean-up in the house and stock trading work. It was a rainy day, and outside work was impossible. Lynda and I watched two stock trading webinars, one in the late morning and one in the late afternoon. This is part of our assignment on the new stock trading education program we are in. We had much more than that to do, but that was what we could accomplish. We also had to work on setting up an account with the brokerage arm of the educational service we're in. This took much longer than expected, but we got it done. However, something still seemed wrong, as we couldn't access the many features we were supposed to. Time required that we put this off. Plus, we figured it would mean a call to their tech service, which isn't open on the weekends.

Another major task was to clean the kitchen table. This becomes a dumping ground for all kinds of things: mail until it's gone through; mail we don't know what to do with; Lynda's mom's papers waiting to be filed; piles of receipts waiting to be filed; sometimes food items or dishes from a meal eaten there; and countless other things. I had said Friday that we really needed to clean that. So Saturday morning I decided I'd do my part. I went through all the mail, and was able to get rid of most of it. I went through Esther's papers and discarded or neatly piled those still needing attention. Lynda went through her stuff as well. I won't say it's perfect, but it is definitely much cleaner than it was. Less than an hour of additional work and we could use it for a family meal.

Next, since Lynda was planning to leave for Oklahoma City on Sunday (for a while it might have been Saturday, but lack of progress toward that goal made Sunday the day), preparations for that was part of our Saturday work. That, and other cleaning needed around the house.

Around 2:00 p.m. I made our weekly Wal-Mart grocery and prescription run. That took an hour, plus more including putting things away. That evening Lynda had a meal in mind to fix, different than the one I was planning on, but a good one. I helped her with it and we had a nice combo dish for the meal. Meanwhile I had to begin preparing to teach Life Group on Sunday. I had 40 pages (27 catch-up; 13 this week) to read in the book we're studying, and then a lesson to prepare from it. I read it, and found that this week's chapter fed into a lesson that took less time to prepare than average. That brought us through the evening, and off to bed.

Sunday was busy with prep for church and Life Group, church, teaching Life Group, and helping Lynda find things, pack, load, and get on the road. She did so at 2:45 p.m., at which time I went to The Dungeon. I first pulled up the brokerage account. They asked me to provide a little more information for my profile. Once I did that, and tried to access all those features, I was able to. One task down! I took an hour to learn their platform, and to customize it for comfort of the eyes and for some things our mentor wants us to have on it. Then it was time for stock chart study. I had about 100 charts to try to get through by 8:00 p.m. Monday evening. I worked diligently at it for a while, though being unfamiliar with this new system of evaluating stock charts, I reviewed them in both the new system and the one I've been using. A couple of hours and I had 33 charts reviewed, and my mind was mush. Clearly I wasn't going to finish that evening. Also, Sunday was my day to blog here, but I wasn't going to be able to do that either.

So I said the heck with it. I needed to take the rest of the evening off. Rather than pull out the good food from the night before, I ate junk and watched Sunday night football. Not content with just watching, I pulled out the Nook, and between plays I resumed my research into the letters of Thomas Carlyle, identifying on a list whether they have references to the compositions he was working on. I did that between plays, so obviously it wasn't done very efficiently. But I managed to get through a couple of dozen letters.

Then, at 10:30 p.m. or so Lynda called from OKC, wanting to discuss some things about this new trading program and what our mentor expects. We talked through that, though it required me to return to The Dungeon and pull up certain things. We spent half an hour or so on that, then it was back upstairs to see forecasts of the severe weather expected in the night, and off to bed.

To sum it up: My body doesn't feel properly rested due to lack of an exertion outlet due to the rain, and my mind doesn't feel properly rested due to few opportunities to disengage it over the weekend. However, I was refreshed by the excellent worship and study with God's people, and with the reading in our study book. Looking ahead, may next weekend provide proper rest and rejuvenation for body and mind, added to that for soul and spirit.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Nothing to Write

Today is my day to post to this blog. Unfortunately I have nothing to write. We've been expecting rain since around noon, but then they changed the forecast to say we wouldn't get any till around 9:00 p.m. this evening. It finally started a few minutes ago, just in time for me to walk out to the car without a jacket. That's okay. Clothes, skin, and hair all dry without being damaged. Hopefully I'll be able to keep my papers from becoming wet.

Today I spoke to the engineering seminar class at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. This is a weekly, 1 hour class that features practicing engineers coming in to talk about a significant project. Back in August the call came in to me to try and set something up to support this professor and his class. I wanted someone else to do this, but got exactly zero responses to my e-mail, so I did it. Actually, I got one response to my e-mail: on Tuesday of this week—just a little late. I talked about the engineering challenges with the Crystal Bridges Museum, focusing more on the flood control issues than anything else.

The class had around 30 people attend. I knew two of them: students who interned with us this past summer. Actually, I knew an older man who attended. He's a practicing civil engineer in Fayetteville, where the U of A is. I recognized him, but couldn't remember his name. He came up after the program and introduced himself, and I recalled where our paths had crossed before, perhaps 8 years ago.

Tonight Lynda and I will participate in another live training webinar for stock and options trading. Following recommendations from this service, I placed a trade this morning that would go up in a down market. It gained close to 20% in the sharp downturn today. Had I not been on a conference call when the market opened, I could have made even more. I got in after 9:15 instead of at 8:30.

Other stock trading training will consume a lot of time over the next week, and even up to six month's time, as we work through this training. I'm hoping the time commitment will taper off some after the first two weeks, but we'll see. People who know about this have asked me when I'll write. I tell them I don't expect to write anything for the next 6 months. Should an hour or two a week present itself for writing, and should I have sufficient brain power left to actually work on something, my order of writing work will be:

- prepare Father Daughter Day for publication and publish it
- research my next Thomas Carlyle book, and begin working on the essay I'll include in it
- get back on my civil war book in the Documenting America series.

I should probably look to short stories, given that I'll have so little time, but that would mean beginning another project rather than working on a present one, and I don't think my head would stay together if I had another project to do.

Well, the rain has stopped; it's time to go home and see about supper and webinars and dream about leisure. Not much of a post, I know, but it's what I got today.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Any Compromise between JIT and FTT?

The extreme deadlines I've been under at work, coupled with being very busy at home, have caused me to think about deadlines, how they are set, and how they are dealt with. Tuesday-Wednesday I worked on a project with an urgent deadline. I put in some extra hours and turned it over to CADD people to complete, and I think it's going out on time. Thursday I was given a construction specification to write, with great panic on the faces and in the demeanor of the two men who brought it to me. It turned out to be much less work than either of them thought, and I had it done at the end of the day with barely any extra time.

But this got me thinking about two ways of planning your schedule. My dad's way was to build in what he called "flat tire time." That is, wherever he wanted to go, with a sensitive deadline, he wanted to leave early enough time to be able to change a tire if he got a flat en-route. In 18 years of riding to church with him, or being the driver once I had my license, we never once had a flat tire. Two miles on a main road with light Sunday morning traffic, sometimes picking up old Charlie Kenyon at the bus stop to save him the fare. Always there way ahead of time, with time to sit and pray or otherwise contemplate why we were there.

The alternative is what modern industry calls the "just in time" schedule. If church starts at 9:30, and the drive should take you 18 minutes under normal conditions, leave the house at 9:12 and you'll get there on time, if all things hold to the average. Poor Charlie will have to take the bus. No, actually, he'll have caught the bus long before you whiz by at 5 miles over the speed limit. If anything isn't average, you have no margin for error, and are likely to be a little late close to half the time.

I must confess to being a FTT person. JIT throws me for a loop and gets me overly stressed out. If I have a deadline, say on Thursday, to have everything ready to give to the client Friday morning, I'd rather work my extra hours on Wednesday (or even Tuesday) rather than on Thursday, giving myself flat tire time. Alas, the dominant culture at my company is built around JIT, and I can't do anything to change it. Many things in my personal life seem also to be built around JIT, with no hope of changing it either.

Where is the compromise point? If the drive takes 18 minutes, and changing a tire would take, let's say, 15 minutes, that says you should leave 33 minutes before the event. Or, actually, since you'll have to wash your hands once you get there, before you enter the event, that's more like 35 or 40 minutes ahead. If everything goes well, you'll be there 20 minutes early. Lots of contemplation time. Most of the time that won't be needed.

But, surely some amount of margin in needed. Planning to get there 10 minutes ahead of time gives you margin to account for a wreck on the highway that slows you down, or for rainfall that slows you down. Or, if you plan for 10 minutes of margin, and you're getting ready to leave and can't find your cell phone, you have time to track it down and you can still make your engagement on time. That's margin. That's what I like.

I wish I knew how to make that happen. If anyone knows, I'd appreciate you leaving me a comment about it. Meanwhile, I can only control my own behavior, give myself margin, and use that margin to contemplate when things go according to average.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Your Failure to Plan

The last two days at work, and now today, the modern adage "Your failure to plan is not my emergency" reared up in the office. Tuesday they (i.e. someone with the emergency) and said they needed my help urgently on a somewhat large and very complex project designed in our Dallas office. Actually, the man may have come by my desk Monday evening late and made the request. Tuesday I started on it, working more of the day. It turned out to be the need for a end of the project quality control check. The project manager had quit, the department head was taking on that role, and it had to go out. There was some confusion about what the deadlines were, and a few hours were lost therefore.

I spent all day Tuesday and Wednesday working on the project check, including some overtime (unpaid, of course) on Tuesday. I did my check, though to be honest the complexity of the project required I spend at least 4, maybe 8 hours I didn't have on it. I met with those producing the work, and all's right with the world. Today I've had three minor questions about it, all easily dispatched.

So today, the VP of Production comes to my office around 8:30 a.m. He said another department, one here in Bentonville, was in a jam, and they needed my help urgently. They needed a construction specification put together for a street project in nearby Rogers. The project is being advertised Sunday, and they are still working on the drawings and haven't started the spec. But, this one was extremely simple, as it's really just to do some of the preliminary right-of-way clearing, not construct the street; that will come later. So I asked for a set of the drawings so that I'd know what I was specifying. It's now 1:00 p.m. I still don't have the drawings. I have been able to do a lot of work on the spec, however, just based on the description of the work included. If I get the drawings in the next hour, I should be able to complete the project without staying much past my normal quitting time.

That's important, because, I'm on a vacation tomorrow (Friday) and Monday. I'll be in Branson, with Lynda, meeting my half-sister, who I just learned about in the last 45 days. Our rooms are already booked and paid for, as is her flight. This is a vacation I can't give up for the company.

So all the work I had planned on doing this week has not happened. I'm speaking at a class at the University of Arkansas on Tuesday afternoon, and figured I'd put my presentation together today. Alas, I don't think that will happen. I did manage to find the time to do some scheduling of some training sessions. Perhaps I'll find a little time to work on that presentation.

So, here I am, under the gun, as always seems to happen when I announce vacation time. Next time I should just not show up on those days and call in. If I do that, most likely no one will miss me.