Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Something for you code-cracking math folks out there

Now, let me say this does have to do a little with baseball cards, but that is not the primary reason for my posting this!

Since 2008, Topps has included a special "Crack the Code" game in their Allen & Ginter product.  The premise is that one has to collect the cards, figure out the code, then send the solution to Topps.

Last year's winners (Nick and Mike) posted the "How We Cracked It!" solution on a blog last year.  That can be found here: http://2009gintercodeunraveled.blogspot.com/


Having read through the entire solution, I have to say - WOW!  I enjoy puzzles, but I already know there is no way I would have ever solved this.  I would venture that neither Nick nor Mike would have solved it on their own either.  I could be wrong, but it would have taken much longer than 72 hours (the course of a weekend). 

For those of you that enjoy seeing how the magician's tricks are done, I wholeheartedly recommend reading through all the steps they took, including the missteps that took them off course a time or two.  The post bounces back and forth between the two guys and has some very funny moments ("UNRAVEL IT!").  The entire write-up is amaingly detailed (some might say 'painfully').  It breaks everything down, even building suspense as they only reveal certain aspects and leave the reader hanging with things like "more on this later" sprinkled throughout.

For those folks who like a challenge, the 2010 version promises to be even harder.  Break out the tweed jackets and magnifying glasses.  The game is afoot!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sharing and Taking Turns

(The following article is one in a series that I wrote for a distance learning-related blog I used to run circa 2008. For posterity's sake, I am reposting it -and others- here) 

Have you ever stopped to consider what your life would be like had you ended up in a different job (or career)? Have you ever stopped to think about the circle of influence you have, and conversely, the circle that influences you? It is really a combination of the two that guides today's musings.

I happen to be in one of those positions where the world of education meets the world of technology. This can lead to some very eye-opening revelations regarding the differences often seen between them. One that enters my mind foremost is that of sharing and taking turns. Generally speaking, in the corporate world, people do not share very often. If I were a peon at Wal-Mart or Axiom or Dell or Microsoft (or name any other large corporation), I might not share ideas I have because I might not be "allowed" to share. That is, my input would not be wanted and/or accepted, no matter how "right" I might be about the idea. Or, I may not share (or be allowed to share) because of fears of helping the competition get a leg up on my own company.

In contrast, I feel pretty confident that there is more willingness to share information in my position. Arkansas has 15 Education Service Centers, plus the Tri-District area of Little Rock. Each service center has its own personality, focus, and direction. In a way, each is its own company. Each of these facilities employs a Distance Learning Coordinator. While each center may have its own distance learning programs and initiatives in place, we DL Coordinators are open to sharing what we are doing with the other DL Coordinators. Why? It ultimately helps each of us. If I have an idea for providing interactive virtual field trips and another service center is already doing that, then I feel comfortable calling up the other site and asking for help in setting up my own program. Because we generally work well together, we often try to complement what the other sites may be doing, rather than compete with them. So, if one site is doing K-4th grade trips, then maybe I'd concentrate on 5th-8th or 9th-12th grade programs. It's a different atmosphere. I have become the de facto administrator of the K-12 distance learning curriculum portal. Does that mean "it's mine! All mine!" No. I am open to any of the other DL Coordinators helping out, offering advice and guidance. If one of the 300+ Dl Facilitators in the state had a suggestion, comment, gripe, or complaint, I would take that under serious consideration. Why? Because we are open to sharing, to learning, to taking what is in place and building on it in order to make it better.

I could easily sit on my "portal throne" and pretend that it is the greatest thing since the microchip, but what does that get me? A better question is: what does that get our customers? "Customers," you ask? Yes, we have customers – students, teachers, facilitators, DL Coordinators, superintendents, principals, legislators, parents, the communities at large… Without an open-ended means of communication and sharing of information and ideas, our programs can become stagnant, or worse, head off in directions no one really wants to go but heads that way anyway because no one speaks up about it. I welcome questions, comments, challenges to what I am doing. In a word, SHARING.

So, what about taking turns? Rarely have I seen corporations take turns. That is, can you picture Microsoft letting Google have its day in the sun without trying to find a way to bring in the clouds? I don't think so (please refer to Microsoft's latest foray into the online advertising business). I know I pick on Microsoft a lot. So, let's see… Say Target is offering higher-end trinkets than Wal-Mart. Does Wal-Mart let target do its thing? No. Wal-Mart starts buying higher-end trinkets in order to steal the customers (please refer to Wal-Mart's latest foray into more upper scale merchandise). In the corporate world, it is all about the bottom line, NOT what is best for the customers or their industry in general (sorry, but I cannot help but say "Vista" right here).

Another benefit of working in the capacity which I serve is that we get to pat each other on the back. We also will sit back, away from limelight, while another service center achieves great success in a new program or in growing an existing one. We generally take turns. This year, several service centers have started different projects (elementary virtual field trips, credit recovery programs, and others). The group, as a whole, applauds the efforts without immediately grabbing the idea and stealing the thunder of the center that initiated it. Each year, different DL programs come to the forefront while others remain out of the limelight, then the next year, different programs come forward. By holding regular meetings, communicating pretty freely, and sharing ideas, we all TAKE TURNS developing projects and achieving goals.

So, does this rosy picture have a dark side? Of course it does. There are bumps in the road. There are times when we may hold back on the sharing until a program or presentation is fully underway. There are times when communication breaks down, or a meeting gets heated. That is human nature. And, even if I am the only one who feels this way, I believe that at the end of the day, each of the DL Coordinators and their programs are better for it. We grow, learn, monitor and adjust following discussion and/or confrontation. The key to success and to moving forward, however, is that in the end, we are still SHARING and TAKING TURNS.

Why PR Matters

(The following article is one in a series that I wrote for a distance learning-related blog I used to run circa 2008. For posterity's sake, I am reposting it -and others- here)

In my line of work, keeping the Superintendents informed serves multiple purposes, of which Distance Learning Coordinators benefit as much as, if not more than, the Superintendents do.
  • Meeting with Superintendents keeps your face, your name, and your person, in their minds throughout the year. It is very easy for us (DL Coordinators) to get bogged down in the daily routine of troubleshooting calls, working on systems, scheduling events, and all the other things that go along with the position. By meeting with your Superintendents (either one-on-one or in a group setting), you break out of the routine, and because most of those everyday things happen "behind the scenes," the occasion to visit with the Superintendents does not always readily or easily present itself. By meeting with them specifically, you build the rapport and relationships you need in order to ensure success – not only for you, but for their DL program as well.

    For me, it also helps put names with faces, as I am not very good at doing that. So, I benefit by keeping THEIR names, faces, and persons in the forefront of my own mind!
  • Meetings provide the opportunity to share new ideas and new programs. Many DL Coordinators may find they deal more directly with principals, teachers, and facilitators than with Superintendents. While this may generally help move things along, Superintendents WANT to know what's happening in their districts.

    I made the mistake of NOT telling one school administrator that I was doing an interactive lesson with the National baseball Hall of Fame. When he found out afterward, he expressed his disappointment in that he would have liked to witness at least a portion of the program. Frankly, it was a "cool" thing he missed out on. It is a mistake I will not make again!

    When it comes to presenting new ideas, the DL Coordinator may find resistance at the Principal level (for whatever reason). By talking about the program with the Superintendents, a program may catch on from the top down. Additionally, they have a different perspective of how ideas and programs may affect their teachers and students, so that may offer input in ways the DL Coordinator (and/or teachers and principals) may not have thought of previously.
  • Presenting in front of the Superintendents helps develop and enrich the DL Coordinator's skills. By forcing oneself to speak in front of a group of influential people can help the more introverted DL Coordinator overcome fears, shyness, or other negative feelings. It may seem strange that a person with "presentation" issues would accept a position of DL Coordinator. In my case, I knew the position would require such face-to-face encounters, but I saw things more from the technical side (I am a techie/geek, after all). I also believed that taking this job would help force breaking the barriers that I often hide behind. It is not an easy process, and for me, it has more to do with the things that travel among the synapses of my brain than anything else. That is, getting beyond my public-speaking issues involves replacing the negative things I tell myself more than any external influence.
  • Finally (for the purposes of this post anyway), meeting with the Superintendents provides a sense of accountability and responsibility. No matter how "trivial" the information contained in the presentation, the fact that the DL Coordinator thought enough about those individuals (by keeping them informed) shows that the DL Coordinator takes responsibility in his or her position. It also demonstrates accountability. The DL Coordinator is effectively telling the leaders of the school districts: "I am in charge of this program, and I will do whatever I can to help make it successful for your district. I am also accountable, and accept that accountability, when things go wrong."
Earlier, I presented the following topics to the Superintendents in our area:
  • A brief overview of upcoming CIV events relevant to them
  • Introduction/overview of a couple new ideas for CIV events
  • Maintenance on Video Equipment

Even though only one of the items pertained directly to the group, each item led to further discussion as to how the item(s) affected their districts, encouraged participation, and/or led to additional programs or ideas for events.

After the meeting, the group expressed their appreciation for my coming to them with this information. In short, they WANTED to hear about happenings in distance learning without being overloaded with extraneous (useless or overly technical) information. By presenting to the Superintendents, not only did they benefit by receiving the information, but I benefited from the experience of presenting as well. Hopefully, if you are a distance learning coordinator (or someone in the position of heading up a distance learning program for schools), you will reap the benefits of making such presentations as well.

When acronyms and jargon rule, users may lose

(The following article is one in a series that I wrote for a distance learning-related blog I used to run. For posterity's sake, I am reposting it -and others- here)

Paraphrasing a recent conversation, "The mapping issue related to your CIV CODEC seems to be related to the new PVC and is directly related to the new VPI/VCI, so until that's resolved, your VC is DOA, but I'll work on it ASAP."

Some of my more tech-knowledgeable readers may understand the previous statement without any need for interpretation whatsoever. I, on the other hand, felt like I had been sent through the alphabet wringer. I do know enough about DL to get the gist of what the tech on the other end of the phone was talking about (and, by the way, I'm sure most of my co-workers can pinpoint the tell-tale signs with whom I was having said conversation).

But, one thing I have learned just recently is that one should never assume the person you are addressing understands all the acronyms being bandied about. If I were to take that same conversation and relay it verbatim to my affected end users, they would respond by either hanging up the phone or providing me with enough dead air time to fill a commercial break on your local radio station. This dead air would be followed by, "Okaaayyy, what does that mean?"

Think of it as going to the doctor, or even better the auto mechanic. When the doc steps in and begins to send a barrage of highly technical jargon related to your illness, do you feel more secure or less secure when you do not understand what the doc is talking about? At the shop, the mechanic starts rattling off terms for things you've never heard of. Your first thought (often)? "This guy is trying to rip me off or he has no idea what he is talking about." Exactly what your users may think, too.

My job, as I see it, is to take those acronyms and other industry jargon and convert it into "English" for my end-users. In this case, I told the district affected that the problem was not on their site, that it was related to the new line(s) dropped in recently, and that the Dept of Info Services would be working on it. I also let them know that I would be following up on both ends of this problem.

CIV, VC, DIS, PVC, VPI, VCI, CODEC, H.323, H.264, you name it. Every industry has their own acronyms, sure, but if you cannot break the technical terms into something your users can understand, you lose out on professional communication and collaboration, and may find that those users seek their troubleshooting from another source – one they can actually understand.

“Google Generation” doesn’t know how to Google – DUH!

(The following article is one in a series that I wrote for a distance learning-related blog I used to run. For posterity's sake, I am reposting it -and others- here)

I received this article as part of my subscription to GLEF (George Lucas Education Foundation, yes THAT George Lucas):


http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080118-the-google-generation-not-so-hot-at-googling-after-all.html


This was a British study (meaning we can just about write it off anyway) done with school-aged kids (the OLDEST of which were High School freshmen, for crying out loud). And, the study found that the kids were very tech savvy, but couldn't "Google" their way out of a paper sack. That is, the students did not have any kind of advanced (or even Novice, in some cases) skills when it came to searching for information, discerning the information, and applying the information.


What cracked me up the most was the fact that in the opening paragraphs of the study itself, the authors cite Wikipedia as the primary source of their "Google Generation" information. That says more about the authors than it does the students they surveyed!


They also found that their respondents tended to be 'lazy' in checking sources, validating information, etc. Excuse me, but didn't they say the OLDEST respondents were Freshmen? I know I have been out of High School for a while, but, um, I seem to recall quite a bit of laziness in my general direction around that age. Of course they will come off as being LAZY, they don't WANT to do the work – THEY ARE KIDS, duh! Parents, teachers, administrators have to MAKE them work – it's kind of our JOB, is it not?


I think it's funny that there seems to be some preconceived (and very ILL-conceived) notion that kids who know MySpace and FaceBook and know "of" Google are somehow magically supposed to be able to understand HOW to search effectively. Sorry, but isn't that something we had to learn when we went to the library and were taught (holy cow, did I just say the "T" word?) HOW to search using the card catalog? Isn't the fact-checking part of research what we were taught (oh, that danged "T" word again) as part of our course requirements for doing research papers? No one (well, maybe SOMEone out there in the world) is born with an innate ability to perform sophisticated searches and analyze documents for authenticity and validity. Heck, I was still learning many of those skills well into my undergraduate college years, still honing them in my Master's years…


Then again, maybe I was just slow…

Monday, June 28, 2010

When customer service...isn't

(The following article is one in a series that I wrote for a distance learning-related blog I used to run. For posterity's sake, I am reposting it -and others- here)

Recently, I decided that it was time to upgrade the software that powers my codec (the piece of equipment that allows video conferencing to happen). Generally, I am from the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought, especially when it comes to technology that is already behaving itself. That day, however, I let my imagination get the best of me.

I had sent an email to the company that oversees our maintenance agreement on the video systems, asking him to send me the keys for the latest version of software. I let him know that I was currently sitting on version F2.3 (we have Tandberg 6000 MXPs), and he let me know that he'd get the keys from Tandberg to shoot us up to F6.3.

Sure enough, I get the software keys, download the software, connect my computer to the codec and upload….

Now, I should not have started this at 3:30 in the afternoon, I know. But, I did, and at 4:05, while the system was still upgrading, I decided things were fine and that I would head to the house for the evening and see how things went after I got back in the next morning. Disaster ensued on several levels. The two main areas focused on the touch panel and connectivity to the outside world.

Starting with connectivity, my system was reporting that it could not see the gatekeeper in St. Louis, where our video traffic goes. The weird thing was that I could actually still make calls. The gatekeeper host told me that they could not see EITHER of our video systems (I had only upgraded one, for fear of something going wrong). After a couple hours of troubleshooting, the local telephone company was called in, and sure enough, we had actual line problems not related whatsoever to the upgrade. Once that problem was fixed, I moved on to the touch panel.

The touch panel has a handy little button that lets the user select the destination. The problem I was having went something like this: Touch "Make a Call" which would send the touch panel screen into a frenzy, ultimately making a "call connected" status active, yet not actually calling anyone. Now, normally, after the user touches the green button, they have to select the destination site or choose to manually dial an IP address. The system was not letting me get that far. Then, I would press the now active "disconnect" button, though we were not actually connected, and try again. After the third time, I decided that what I needed to do was contact our support folks. Here is where customer service breaks down.

After a few hours, I receive a message from tech support stating that we cannot just simply upgrade from F2.3 to F6.3. The codec must be upgraded to F3.5 and then THAT can be upgraded to F6.3. At this time, I would like to refer you back to my earlier statement: "I let him know I was currently sitting on version F2.3…" He KNEW my codec was not at the "3.5 pitstop" (his words), yet he only sent me the "super-jump" key to the latest software.

My job should not require me to know the various upgrade paths for codec software. That is why we have tech support to begin with. When I call tech support, no matter what the product, I expect the service personnel to PAY ATTENTION before offering a "solution" to its customers. Ultimately, I had to download and "downgrade" to F2.3, which is the version of software currently in place on my codec. Will I get the F3.5 and install it, then move to 6.3? Only if someone sells me on a series of compelling reasons to make the move. Yes, 6.3 supposedly ties into Microsoft's Office Communications Suite (or whatever it's called), but we do not have that here yet, and the video system works just fine as it is.

It ain't broke, so I ain't fixin' it.

Teach users to fish without making them feel stupid

(The following article is one in a series that I wrote for a distance learning-related blog I used to run. For posterity's sake, I am reposting it -and others- here)

The old adage goes something like: "Bring a man a fish, and you feed him for a meal. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." As true as this is, there should be an addendum: "Teach a man to fish (without making him feel stupid)…"

Anyone who works in IT can tell you humorous stories about "simple" issues that were caused by the user, either directly or indirectly. Or, the IT professional can relay stories of users who are/were technologically challenged. How we handle those situations, and more importantly how we handle the users, can mean the difference between securing repeat business or getting a bad reputation as a customer service professional. And, the reality of life is that any IT professional is really a service professional.

Before I get to my main point, let me give an example. Several years ago, I had a user call me to let me know her CD drive was not working. The conversation went something similar to this:

Me: "When you say 'it is not working, what do you mean?'"
Her: "Well, I can put CD's in, but the computer doesn't do anything."
Me: "Okay. Just to be sure we're on the same page, are you putting the CD's in with the label side facing upward so you can read it?"
Her: "Yes. And, after they go in, I cannot get them to come back out again."
Me: "How many CD's have you put into your drive?"
Her: "Well, I have about three in there now, but it won't let me put any more in."
About now, I am thinking that she has a 5.25" drive in her computer and she has been jamming CD's into it. Turns out that was not the case, as you will see.
Me: "Hmm… I'll be right over as soon as I can to look at it."
(I hop in my car and drive to the school)
Me: "Hey there! Let's see if we can figure out what's going on."
(She gets out of her chair so I can sit at her desk)
I push the button on the CD drive, and it is empty. Now, I am thinking her drive is actually 'eating' the discs… This thought is interrupted by:
Her: "Hey! What is that!?" (Pointing to the now-open and visible CD tray)
Me: "The CD tray where you put your discs, right?" (I ask, expecting her to say yes)
Her: "Oh, no, that's not where I'm putting them." (Her computer does not have a 5.25" drive)
Me: "Oh. Okay, can you show me where you've been putting them?"
She takes a CD and attempts to insert it between the top of the drive and the computer case.
Her: "See? I used to be able to put them in here."
Me: "Oh, okay. Well, I'll see if I can get the other CD's out, but instead of trying to put them there, you can push this little button (I show her the button next to the tray) and put the CD in there."
Her: "Oh, my gosh! I feel so stupid! I can't believe I didn't know where to put the CD!"
Me: "Don't feel bad. You just didn't know. Now, you do. (I smile)"
I remove the side panel from her case and find the CDs resting on top of her CD drive. There are four of them, and they are scratched beyond use from being squeezed through such a tight slot.
Me: "Well, here are your CD's, but I'm afraid they won't work anymore. They're pretty scratched up."
Her: "(Looking embarrassed still) Oh, that's okay. I'm just glad you figured it out without making me feel like an idiot."

The situation was diffused without turning the user into an angry or bawling mess. I also showed her (and that district) that I could be trusted to get the job done without belittling the user for simply not knowing what to do (which brings me to a discussion on assuming things about our users, but I will save that for another day).

How does this tie in to today's post? Please consider the following email exchange (names have been removed) that took place the other day:
From User:
Hi David,
I tried to log in and it won't let me.
I used: thepassword
Password: theuserid
Am I doing something wrong?
Please let me know. THANKS!

My Response:
You have the right username and password, but you have them flipped… your username is theuserid, and the password is thepassword. Also, we just got done re-booting the server, so it could be possible that it was still coming back up, if you just tried it a few minutes ago. Trying again now should let you in. If not, let me know and I'll shoot, er, troubleshoot it.
--David
(I received a "Thank You" and then the following email)

From User:
I tried again (with them in the correct order) to no avail. Please shoot the computer…oh yeah, I meant troubleshoot

My Response:
Hmm.. I tried it and was able to log in as you. See if you can get in by copying and pasting your username and password from our previous email. If that doesn't work, I'll try something else on this end. If that DOES work, then it usually just means there was something mistyped – usually it is a capitalization issue.
Keep me posted!
--David
(A few minutes later, I received the following email)

From User:
Got it! It seems that my computer had an operator error.
Thanks!

My Response:
No worries! Mine has the same problem more often than I care to admit!
Glad you got in!
--David

Do you see what happened there? First, I helped the user get the correct order of things for logging in. This was done without making the user feel stupid. I also added a bit of information that may or may not have been related to her problem. This lets the user know that she is not being "blamed" for the inability to log in (that is, it might be related to a server rebooting – which was true based on the time of the reboot and the time of her email). Third, I encouraged the user to try again, and threw in a bit of 'dumb tech humor' to alleviate any negative feelings the user may be having (possible due to her realization that she had switched her username and password).

When she responded that it still did not work, I logged in with her credentials so that I could see if something had gone wrong with her account. I was able to log in. I let her know that I could get in, and offered a non-combative suggestion (copy/paste). I also explained what to do whether my suggestion worked or not. I also offered an explanation that helped (I hope) her see that she was not the only one this happens to and something (capitalization) she may have overlooked as she typed her password.
Her response lets me know that she was able to get in, and she used "tech humor" back at me, which let me know she was taking things pretty light-heartedly. I followed her response up with some of my own self-deprecating humor, letting her know that I make the same kinds of mistakes, too.

I give you this "play-by-play" in order to demonstrate and explain the process (or at least one possible one) through which IT professionals can help users solve problems without making them feel stupid or inadequate. I could have responded with a simple, "You have your username and password backwards, and make sure you check the punctuation and capitalization of your username and password." Perhaps some users would appreciate such a direct, terse response. But, in my experience, taking the direct blame away from the user keeps whatever "us vs. them" issues out of the conversation. In fact, she threw in her OWN "operator error" comment about herself.

If you want to keep your customers coming back to you, treat them with respect and TEACH them what they need to know. One of the things I will often ask a customer when I am trying to help them solve a problem is, "Would you like me to teach you to fish, or would you rather I fish for you?" Usually, the first time I work with a user, they tell me to fish for them (that is, get the problem fixed and get out of the way), but the next time, they will ask me to teach them to fish (that is, show them how to fix it themselves). But, even when I am doing the fishing, I am always trying to at least do a little teaching at the same time. Feed your users/customers for a lifetime without making them feel stupid for not knowing how (or for tangling the line, breaking the hook, etc) in the first place.

Seeing with our ears

(The following article is one in a series that I wrote for a distance learning-related blog I used to run. For posterity's sake, I am reposting it -and others- here)

I had the distinct "pleasure" of trying to explain how CIV bridging works during a radio interview once. Though it is not necessarily a complex procedure, explaining it to people who could not see me was a little daunting.

I began my explanation with something along the lines of: "The different sites around the world connect to their designated hubs…" and then I realized that this was not going to pass muster to a rural AM audience (not to mention the host was starting to glaze over).

As the panic of impending "dead air" was approaching (I was still talking, but knew that if I didn't change course quickly, I would stop talking altogether and really lose folks), I stopped myself and explained the best way I knew how and in a way that most folks who have learned anything about the Internet are familiar with: Roads.

I paused, and then I backtracked a little. "In Arkansas, each of the half-dozen sites that are hosting Megaconference Jr connects to St. Louis. Most of the sites worldwide connect to hubs, like cities, through their highways. Those highways, from the cities, connect to other, more centralized cities, and eventually everyone ends up connected to Ohio, where the main event is taking place." Those were not my exact words, but close enough. The host got it, and then he did a quick summary of what I said, and we moved on.

The host has some technical background, so he did a good job of prompting addition questions about how CIV works, how distance education works in the schools, etc. We also talked about the "novelty" and how we can still be WOWed even after we get more and more accustomed to the technology. I told him that even as we move from novelty to application, we still have to maintain that sense of wonder, because without it, we stop moving forward.

Of course, if I had been thinking on my feet, I would have said something like, "And, as Walt Disney said, 'keep moving forward…'" alas, I am not that clever…

It's been a while since my radio days, and this served as a reminder that not everyone SEES what we're doing. Sometimes, the only picture they have of distance learning is the one we paint for them in their minds….

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Learning to Cook with Emily

For the better part of an hour, Emily and I play "Cook Me!" In this case, we used her play food, stove, microwave, toaster, mixer and and any other play appliances we could find. We each took turns playing the waiter/waitress and the cook.

Orders ranged from the "Baloney Pineapple Cheeseburger with tomato" to the "Burrito and taco with salsa fries" to things that really didn't have a name. Those were the ones where we basically cooked everything we could fit into the various pots and pans she has.

At one point during the furious food frenzy, we had onion rings and fries in the toaster. The problem with the play toaster is that it isn't, well, fry-friendly. We ended up taking the toaster apart with a screwdriver and fished the fries out of their trap. Naturally, that led to an experiment to see just what else would fit in the toaster's thin slots. We managed a couple pieces of bread, buns, cheese, peanut butter and jelly, lettuce, tomatoes, pancakes, and several other things I can't even remember!

By the end of the playtime, we decided to put a bunch of things into a pan, arranged in an appealing, appetizing manner. Judge for yourself:


After I took the picture above, Emily decided to beat the dish senseless... What can I say, she's a tortured chef.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Not the sharpest tack


Have you ever done something stupid that you wished you could take back immediately after you did it? Feel free to share. You may be asking yourself, "Why would anyone share such things in the public forum that is 'The Internet?'" I can't answer that for you, the reader, but for me, writing about my past experiences (both good and bad) helps me remember those things. Why would I want to remember the things probably better forgotten? Think about the stories your parents or grandparents (or aunts and uncles) told you as you were growing up. How many of those stories involved some mishap that later turned the whole incident into something humorous (though may not have been at the time it happened)?

Fine, so write them down, sure, but why share them with the world? Because when we can laugh at ourselves, or learn from our own mistakes, we find others that may have done similar things. We may also find a memory that we can then turn into a short story or a full-on novel if we really get going.

Here are a couple examples from my own experiences. As best I can, I will also include the approximate age this happened. Why? because you'll see that you don't have to be a child to do dumb things.


When I was in second or third grade (7 or 8 yrs old), I had been watching Bugs Bunny cartoons on TV one day. The show where Bugs helps Betsy Ross come up with a pattern for the flag gave me an idea. I went out into the front yard and laid a rake on the ground with the teeth facing skyward. I paced back and forth a few times. On the last time, I stepped hard down on the teeth of the rake. The handle came directly at my face and smacked me squarely on the forehead, side of my nose, and my chin. Much like the cartoon, I saw plenty of stars. Unlike the cartoon, however, I fell backward onto the ground, having been nearly knocked out by infinite wisdom. I don't particularly remember much between falling and getting back up again. I can say with authority that one should not attempt the things one sees in a cartoon. I'd be especially wary of the Roadrunner ones.


My father refereed soccer for many years while I was growing up. For a time, I too earned money overseeing matches. I suppose I was in ninth grade for this particular adventure. Dad worked a tournament in the Southside of Pittsburgh. After the matches were over, my brother and I ran on to the field and began kicking the ball around. We dribbled, shot, tries tricks, and generally goofed around while Mom and Dad gathered everything to head home. I stood about midfield and kicked the ball at my brother, who was in one of the goals. He blocked the shot and kicked the ball back at me. As the ball got close, I started dribbling backward. The ball moved between my legs and under my feet as I continued to move further and further away from him. As I gained speed in this backward motion, I suddenly found myself lying on the ground with a powerful headache. I had backed myself full-speed into one of the goal posts! My brother came over to check on me. My parents, who must have only seen him walking toward me and me lying on the ground, called out, "Get up and let's go!" It wasn't until the ride home that I told my folks why I had been on the ground. When quizzed as to why he didn't stop me, my brother said, "Well, I thought you were going to turn around or stop. I didn't think you'd run into the goal post."


In high school (this would be 10th grade), a friend of mine offered to drive me home in his truck. We lived in an apartment in Westminster, Colorado. We pulled into the parking lot and he stopped to let me out. I opened the door and he suddenly gunned the vehicle into motion. Rather than shutting the door, I jumped from the moving truck. As I flew through the air, I pictured myself landing hard and rolling across the pavement. Rather than face that, I managed to reach back and grab the door handle of the truck. I slammed against the side and my legs dragged across the ground, tearing a large hole in my jeans at the knees. The truck stopped and my friend said, "What the heck are you doing!?" "I was jumping out to get home." "What the heck would you do that for!?" Honestly, I hadn't lived in the area long and I didn't know if he was going to let me out or not. I told him, "I didn't think you'd let me out." He laughed. "Man, that is the craziest thing I have seen anyone do!" You would think I had learned not to do such things in the future. Nope.


As a sophomore (or maybe freshman, hard to remember) in college, a group of friends and I were up late after going to the movies. Rather than heading back to the dorm, we went to a nearby park. We played on the see-saws, rode the swings, and generally made fools of ourselves. As the swinging continued, we decided to see who could jump the farthest while the swing was in motion. I'm not sure what happened, but when it came my turn, I got the swing going high enough that it at least appeared to reach its peak parallel to the bar that held the chains. As I came forward from the backswing, I thrust myself out of the seat and into the air. As in my previous story, I suddenly questioned my actions midflight. I grabbed the chain and fell straight to the ground. As everyone laughed, I checked myself for signs of destruction. The only thing bruised: my ego.


Naturally, I have done many other things that left eyewitnesses scratching their heads. Each of these tales from true events could be expanded into longer stories and/or combined into a novelization.

So, I pose to you the question I asked at the beginning: Have you ever done something stupid that you wished you could take back immediately after you did it?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

2010 Atlanta Vacation



I present to you the photos from our vacation to Atlanta this year! Click on the image to view the album. Some pictures are great, some or not. But, no matter what, each is worth its own thousand words. Or six. Sometimes, less is more.

2010 Lake DeGray June



Yes, the infamous photos from our day at the lake with the Hartman's is now online. Proceed with dumbfounded amusement! (Click on the photo to view the album)

Emily gets creative at the office!

Emily spent part of the day with me at the office. Well, actually, she spent most of the time helping out in the front area of the building. She helped put together buttons, cut out shapes and letters, make posters, and a myriad of other things that the women up there taught her to do. I think she could make quite a fine Co-op employee one day, if she chooses. Here are a few of the projects she created during her stay:

(A large "EMILY" sign, complete with hearts!)

(VERY pink paper with her name and a cute dolphin!)


(A slice of watermelon just for me!)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Random Vacation Thoughts - Atlanta

Yeah, yeah, I was going to post something new for each day we were in Atlanta. Yeah, yeah, we've been home for a couple days now and I still haven't revealed the secrets of our vacation.  Well, secret or not, I present to you a few thoughts on our trip to Atlanta.  First of all, any pics on here are from my phone. I will get other pics posted from Shan's camera at some point.

For starters, the trip to Atlanta through a myriad of southern states ranged from hot and humid buzzing along to blinding rain that brought everyone down to a parking lot crawl.  As we drove through and around various towns, we had stretches where we rarely saw another vehicle to bumper-to-bumper traffic.

That brings us to Atlanta. I-75/I-85 roadways are never without vehicles.  Even after the Braves game, tooling around at near midnight, the traffic was lighter but certainly NOT non-existent!  At the height of traffic season (basically, anytime outside the midnight hour), everything crawls along.  I used to live in Northern Virginia with a commute into Alexandria.  On the weekends, the trip took 30 minutes. During the week, it was a two-hour commute.  Driving through Atlanta reminded me of those days of long ago.  Many drivers were courteous and careful.  Others fancied themselves NASCAR racers, weaving in and out of spaces that still defy logic and explanation.  Trips that were a mere 8 or 10 miles down the road took 30-45 minutes to complete.


In my previous post, I talked about our trip to American Girl.  I also told how excited we were to be heading to the Braves game that night.  One small problem: we had tickets for THURSDAY, not Wednesday!  Luckily, we made this discovery while sitting in the hotel parking lot about to pull out and head for the game.  As we looked over the parking pass, Shan noticed that it said the pass was for Thursday.  And then we rifled through the game tickets to discover that they, too, were for Thursday and not Wednesday.  Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, but Thursday was already scheduled to be packed with the World of Coke and Georgia Aquarium.  So, we spent some time on Wednesday at Atlantic Station.  Atlantic Station is a higher-end planned community.  It proclaims to be a model of self-sustainability.  That may be partially true, but I'd be interested to know how people commute out of the area for their jobs.


Atlantic Station has many little shops built around several anchor venues such as Target and Fox Sports Grill, which is where we grabbed a bite to eat.  If you ever get a chance to eat there, I whole-heartedly recommend it!  The food was excellent, the service was good and you cannot complain about more than 20 televisions in the place!


On Thursday, we got up and hit the road running as we headed out to the World of Coca-Cola.  If you are the nostalgic type or a fan of Coke products/memorabilia or if you happen to enjoy trying flavors from around the world, I recommend stopping by for the tour and tasting!  There are 64 flavors to try out and Shan tried nearly all of them.  I am not so adventurous.  I did, however, try the Beverly.  All I can say positively about it can be summed up in two words: acquired taste.  I didn't.

Since Coke is a sponsor of the FIFA World Cup, they had a tent set up with a 3D movie.  While I do enjoy 3D movies in general, I believe the whole concept is being overused.  In the FIFA movie, the children looked like weird bobbleheads.



After the World of Coke, we grabbed a bite to eat at the new Pemberton Cafe. It is so new, they were having their Grand Opening while we were there.  It is also so new that the owners/workers had no idea just how many people would be coming through their lines. They had ONE person at the register, ONE person running orders, and ONE cook in the back.  Each order took roughly 15-20 minutes (we're talking burgers here, not full-blown meals).  If you are ever in the area, I strongly suggest walking the block or two to a different eatery. It's worth the walk.

After eating, we toured the Georgia Aquarium. It is laid out in a hub-and-spoke scenario with the main gathering zone centered among different "venues" visitors walk through.  Each area leads back to the central hub.  By far, the ocean display makes the entire trip.  One enteres through a somewhat traditional walkway, but after just a few displays, turn a corner and POW!  Visitors are treated to a 180-degree (or more, actually), fully immersive environment as sharks, whales, assorted fish and other creatures swim freely around the massive tank.  It was truly the most incredible aquarium experience I have ever had. We stood just feet from massive creatures (manta rays, whale sharks, tiger sharks, you name it)!!  I could have stayed there for hours just watching.  As we watched, schools of shiny silver fish would swim by with light reflecting like the charade fish in "Nemo." 

Other displays included a river area, a polar area with Penguins, and a few others that have escaped my memory.  After walking around, we decided to watch a "4D" animated movie about ocean life and what people can do to preserve habitats etc.  I hate being pummeled over the head with "peace, love and many groovies" stuff.  But, it was fun despite the propaganda.


After we left there, we headed to the Braves game.  As we headed out, we needed to swing passed the hotel.  We made a quick pitstop and drove down the full-packed interstate before realizing we had left the tickets in the room!  So.... I turned the car around and we headed back to the hotel again.  We arrived at the ballpark at the beginning of the second inning, but really the game should have been much further along than that.  Evidently, there was a rain delay (or some kind of delay).  Another thing we noticed was the number of people still filining in BEHIND us!  I couldn't believe how many people arrive so late to a ballgame. 

Once inside, we looked around the "Toony Field" which is based on Looney Tunes.  Of course, our seats were on the opposite side, so we made our way around and man was it worth it!  We had GREAT seats in the 109 section!  We were close to restrooms and concessions, but best of all, we were close enough to the field to really enjoy the game without paying a fortune to get closer!

We ate what we could of our suppers, and the man in front of us offered to buy what we hadn't eaten.  Turns out, we had not eaten quite a bit of the food.  We gave him fries and half a foot-long hot dog.  He was very appreciative and, of course, we did not let him pay for any of it.  Why would someone "charge" another person for leftovers?  I dunno. We couldn't.

The game ended with the Braves winning!  Now, we put our annual tradition to the test.  So far, any team we have gone to see has either won the World Series that year or had won the Series the year before (and actually, we've had more teams win the series after we visited.  St. Louis had won the series the year before we got there).  We'll see if the Braves can pull off a WS this year.  If so, we'll be taking bids on where we vacation next year - Winner goes to the team that offers the best deal to get us to their home game during our vacation.  It could happen, right?

On Friday, we took things much easier.  We visited Underground Atlanta for starters (well, after a bit of a swim that morning).  The Underground is a red-bricked vintage city under the city.  I took several pictures with Shan's camera and I'll get those posted soon.  There are a lot of different shops, including a candy store, an MP3-only store, and the "As Seen on TV" store, among a lot of other specialty stores.


We decided to eat at Johnny Rockets for lunch.  It's a 50-60's style diner design with sock-hop music etc.  the atmosphere was lively and we had fun sitting, eating, chatting.  After lunch, we walked around, mainly trying to avoid the beggars looking for change and the "unseemly characters" that inhabit the area.  Outside, we found several waterfall effects built into the walls around the main strip.


After our tour, we headed back to Atlantic Station to watch Toy Story 3D!!  I haven't been this excited about seeing a movie in a long time!  If you are a fan of the Toy Story movies, you have GOT to see this one.  It was a very emotional end to a beloved story that is, quite literally, as old as Tyler (they were both born the same year)!  We got back to the hotel, walked across the street to Target and found something to eat at a Waffle House down the road.  For the record, it was one of the worst WH's ever.  Everything was burnt - eggs, waffles, toast... Heck, i think even the milk was burnt.  Ah well, we ate anyway.

Saturday came and we packed up for the trip home.  Rather than head straight out, we found a "Steak N Shake" for lunch (AWESOME!) and then visited a local mall (Cumberland Mall) for a bit.

As on the way to Atlanta, the trip back had us driving through random rain showers and a lot of traffic.  The big difference for the trip back ,though?  I used my Magellan GPS for routing instead of the Google Maps we had printed.  So, instead of going through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, etc, we spent most of the trip driving across Tennessee.  i think it took a little longer to get hom, but we really didnt care.

In the end, I think we will all have some great memories of Atlanta!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Keeping up with the Hendersons

Welcome to Wednesday!  We started the day with free hotel breakfast.  It was free.  It was, technically, breakfast.  That's all I have to say about that.  After we ate, we hung out for a bit and then hit the swimming pool!  At 10am, the place was.... EMPTY! We had the whole pool to ourselves for more than an hour.  The pool has nice shaded areas and is very well kept.  When we came upstairs, the cleaning woman was in the room across the hall and two doors down.  Remember this bit of information. 


After we got dressed from swimming, we went to the American Girl Store, which is technically in Atlanta, but in reality is in what I would call the suburbs of the suburbs of Atlanta.  There were a LOT of girls there buying outfits and what-nots for their dolls.  The store also had a beauty salon where the dolls could have their hair washed and styled.  Emily ended up with a freebie washing, but I'll get to that in a moment.


The store is bigger than most "regular" mall stores!  It was huge for a store that sells mostly doll clothes, though AG does have outfits hat match for the girls to buy.  They also have more accessories and tidbits than should be available for a DOLL.  Seriously. Whoever came up with this idea was/is a friggin' genius!  Talk about making money.


The store we visited also had a bistro.  Each meal was $14.50 and that included an appetizer and lunch.  Drinks were extra.  No, I am not kidding.  We each ended up with "Pretzel Bites," which is a misnomer.  It is actually one baseball-sized pretzel ball thing that has been cut into eight pieces.  One pulls off a piece and then can dip it into a cheddar cheese sauce or honey mustard.  And here is the "rest of the story" regarding Charissa's free washing.


When our waitress picked up the plates, the plates nested.  Since we did not eat all of the various sauces, the nesting plates squeezed the dip out the edges.  The waitress was standing right over the doll, and well, yes, the stuff dripped into the doll's hair.  It happened faster than I could say anything, but just as I was about to, Emily's eyes popped open in horror and she yelled, "Oh no!" and pointed at Charissa.  The waitress felt bad, and took the doll over to the beauty parlor for a free fix-up.  A little while later, the doll was back, wet-headed and all.  At least the hair had been combed.  But, really, they were blow-drying every other doll.  You would think they would blow-dry the one the waitress dripped honey mustard onto!  Ah well.

The doll was given her own chair that attached to the table plus her own plate and cup. It was cute.  Emily got to keep a souvenir menu, but the plate and cup "could be bought" from the store. At $15+ per plate, I think we *all* should have received a mini plate and cup as a parting gift.

Emily ended up with an outfit and a set of pajamas for the doll and matching PJs for her.  The outfit for the doll has an AG shirt that says "American Girl - Atlanta" on it which makes for a cool take-home item that she can show her friends.

After lunch, we went to Sears to pick up new swimming trunks for Tyler. That led to a trip to Hagen-Daas.  We walked around the mall for a while and decided to head back to the hotel before the Braves game tonight. 

Traffic in and around Atlanta is... NUTS!  I have driven in many cities around our country, including Chicago, Denver, Little Rock, Dallas and others.  So far, Atlanta wins the "holy crap, get me outta here" award.  EXIT ONLY lanes seem to pop up out of nowhere.  Thru-traffic lanes shift from one side of the freeway system to the other without any rhyme or reason I have yet to discern.  I enjoy city traffic (okay, perhaps 'enjoy' is a bit strong), but DAWG even I have been white-knuckled on more than a couple occasions in the short time we've been here. 

Now, remember what I asked you to remember? The cleaning woman?  Yeah, when we got back to our room (this is a full two hours-plus after we had left), the woman was JUST FINISHING our room.  In fact, she was still working in it.  We told her she didn't have to vacuum, just so she would be finished.

It's been quite an interesting day so far.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Road Trip!



We are beginning our vacation journey to Atlanta! This is a shot of the sun peeking through the clouds along the Interstate.  This is the first trip vacation we have taken that is just the four of us, so it is both exciting and sad.  We wish our extended family could have come with us.  So, I will be posting often in order to allow everyone to travel vicariously through us!

Thus far, we have been stuck behind trucks in the left lane and poor Shan had forgotten her sunglasses at home. Never fear! We stopped at Wally World so she get some new ones, which she wanted anyway. Hmm, maybe there was a reason for leaving those behind....

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Word Verification



Many sites use word verification for posting comments, downloading software, etc.  This pairing of words came across a site where I was leaving a blog comment. Sometimes, the random words dont seem so random.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Welcome to Summer

Last week started "Summer Hours" at the office.  For most employees, it means working 730a-5p Mon-Thu with Friday off.  For me, it meant working those hours plus hanging out on Friday for a disaster recovery workshop with various Superintendents, Tech folks, etc.

One of the Supts requested the workshop and Friday was the only day the computer lab was available *and* the presenter was available.  When a Supt asks, we do what we can to make sure those requests are met.  In this case, the fact that this is a mandated function (disaster recovery plans) helped ensure that it took place in a timely manner.  The result of this workshop birthed a request for a follow-up workday so that schools would have time to enter information while the folks that know the most about the software and the requirements stand at the ready.

As the workshop progressed, I received a phone call from the city employees working to install our telco conduits.  As what has become status quo, the gentleman on the other end asked me several questions to which I not only had no answers, I barely understood what was being asked.  That means that Monday will see me phoning my contacts to follow up.



Summer also means time for the annual "Chicken and Egg" festival in Prescott, AR.  I'm sure in days-passed, it lasted three days.  Nowadays, we get a Saturday.  It's a day of food, fun, music, and friends.  This past Saturday, "Pail" played, and local Trey Johnson provides the lead vocals.  They are on Facebook and MySpace.  They play a little country, rock, blues, and a combination of everything.  Well, maybe not everything.  Though, they did a southern rock version of several rap songs and a blues-rock version of "Billy Jean."



Of course, the best part of summer: VACATION!  This year will be unlike most for us.  We usually have a whole crew that go on vacation together.  This year, it's only the four of us.  We're heading to Atlanta, GA.  Why would we go there?  Because we've never been.  Well, not outside of the airport anyway.  Our vacations are almost always within a day's driving distance, and we try to go places we have never been.  Of course, there are exceptions like San Antonio. We've been there several times.  Likewise, Memphis TN.  Emily has not been to San Antonio that I can remember, and Tyler was very young.  I would love to go back again and take Emily and Tyler now that they are older.

We have tickets to see the Braves in Atlanta and we plan to visit Underground Atlanta, World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium and more!  Of course, there will be swimming, dining, and general craziness!  Of course, we'll be blogging our (mis)adventures!