Some not-so-random thoughts

Spent the month of May on a midnight-to-noon, 7-days-a-week work schedule as we were throwing everything we could think of at the well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Note that I do NOT work for BP. I work for a company that makes tools to fix broken stuff subsea. As the situation has stabilized somewhat, efforts are somewhat less frantic and more organized now and we’re back to a somewhat normal work schedule. My Facebook friends already know this. 😉 Don’t get me wrong: there’s still a LOT of work to be done. But on our end of it, it’s largely stabilized. Now watch as I think this and we go back to 24 hour, 7-day operations again immediately thereafter…

– So, did anything else happen in the world in May? I pretty much missed the whole month as my days went something like this: 11:30pm: shift change handoff meeting. Work through to noon. Go home. Eat something. Maybe do laundry, pay bills, skritch the bird. In bed about 4pm. Up at 10pm. Shower, get dressed, go to work.

– If you’re the CEO of a major multi-national corporation, you are not going to be intimately involved in the details of every single thing going on within the company, nor should you be. There are quite literally thousands of very competent people — specialists, even — who are handling the detailed operations. The CEO’s job is to tackle the big picture stuff.

– I sincerely doubt there is a single Representative or Senator in Congress who is intimately involved in what is going on in their district/state. Yet they expect the CEO of any company that is called before them to have total knowledge of every detailed aspect of their company’s operations down to the brand of toilet paper used in the company washrooms.

– While BP is streaming 12 live ROV feeds (not every ROV is in the water all the time), if you are watching a TV news outlet talking about the spill, they are virtually guaranteed to be showing one of the Skandi Neptune subs that’s applying dispersant to the plume. The other subs are typically doing far more interesting stuff, but that isn’t what the media wants to show you. They’ll gladly take BP’s ad money with one hand while slapping them around with the other.

– If you choose to go to a rally protesting oil companies, offshore drilling, land drilling, "wars for oil", or anything else even remotely related to the petroleum industry, may I suggest that it’s insincere to arrive or depart by airplane, helicopter, powerboat of any size, car, truck, bus, train, motorcycle, any other device with lubricated bearings, seals, elastomeric components (tires, tubes), or on foot while wearing shoes containing any rubber, plastic, nylon, polyester, etc., or over any asphalt or concrete roadway?

– It’s also a good idea, when picketing in front of an oil company headquarters building, to not scare a family of ducklings living in a wetlands habitat constructed by the oil company you’re picketing out in to street traffic where they will be run over. (This actually happened last month. It didn’t make the news.)

– I’m all for developing alternative energy sources. When I’m in a position to do so financially, it’s my intention to build a house with heavy solar input for electricity and hot water generation, and if I can get away with it (Home Owners’ Associations, the bane of many Texans’ existence), its own wind turbine. It will have a ground-looped (geothermal) HVAC system. It will be heavily insulated. It will use sustainable, durable, recyclable materials. It will recover rainwater for irrigation. It will be xeriscaped with native vegetation as much as the HOA lets me get away with. Why? Partly because I’m an engineer and the tech to make that work fascinates me. Partly because it’s the responsible thing to do. And partly because I’m cheap and don’t want to pay utility companies any more than absolutely necessary. And I’m willing to pay a bit more up front to have long-term savings.

– People who are calling for an immediate end to the oil industry (and they’re out there) should really put their money where their mouth is and swear off all petrochemical products entirely. Which means they’ll have to give up their computers, phones, hairdryers, anything with insulated electrical wiring (which is pretty much everything electrical), TVs, radios, cosmetic and toiletry items, rubber-tired bicycles, paints, wood protectants, shingles, roads, factory-made glass products (most glass furnaces are natural-gas-fired), any food or, indeed, any product whatsoever from beyond walking or ox-cart distance from home, the aforementioned footwear and transportation methods, air conditioning, most methods of heating (hand-cut wood still acceptable), home insulation, ceramics (natural-gas-fired kilns), most metal products (most foundries are either electric or natural-gas fired), most medications and medical equipment/procedures. If that sounds like a return to the heady days of the mid 1700s, well, you’re on the right track.

Look, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. But be sincere about it. Posting your anti-fossil-fuel manifesto to the internet from a Chinese-made, plastic-cased netbook powered by batteries made in China from Bolivian lithium, shipped across the ocean in a vessel powered by heavy bunker oil, charged by electricity from a coal-fired plant, communicating over a wireless network at a coffee shop you drove (solo) to while sipping a mocha made from Indonesian coffee beans has a bit less impact, at least in my mind, due to the level of hypocricy involved.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about tonight.

An open letter to US public school administrators

I’ve been around public school teachers all my life: one of my aunts was one for over 30 years, and I count several teachers among my friends. Also, there are a number of teachers who had a profound and very positive effect on me during my school years.

This isn’t about them.

This is about the people the teachers work for. The administrators. From the school assistant principal on up to state school boards and the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

A few recent events have prompted this. First was the Texas state school board mucking with history and science texts, expunging stuff that doesn’t meet the voting majority’s religious-right/neocon/creationist ideals. They’re perfectly willing to ignore scientific evidence, and this year took the taco: apparently, Thomas Jefferson, the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence and a major player in the Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution and Bill of Rights, isn’t “important” enough to warrant inclusion on a list of great Americans to be taught about in US history classes.

Next came the annual Salute to Mediocrity known as the TAKS tests: standardized tests, the scores of which determine which teachers will be retained, bonuses, school rankings, etc. And because of this, school administrators have decreed that teachers will “teach” the kids how to vomit up rote answers on the standardized tests, instead of teaching the kids how to think critically, how to set-up and solve problems, how to read for comprehension — all the stuff that we of my generation and older were taught in school.

And now, the child of a colleague and friend, who had never had any problems in school, has been suspended and subjected to ridicule and flat-out shunning for participating in a little cops-and-robbers horseplay with “finger guns” (no weapons, no toys that resembled weapons, just a finger and a thumb and a “pew-pew-pew” noise). Why was this good kid suspended and saddled with the label of “made a terroristic threat”? Because of a “zero-tolerance” policy, which most will recall was the knee-jerk reaction to the Columbine HS shootings in Colorado. Basically, that means no circumstances are ever considered, it’s an automatic suspension, sometimes an expulsion, sometimes an arrest. And note that if Columbine HS in Littleton, Colorado, had had a zero-tolerance policy at the time, the results would have been exactly the same…

Okay, so listen up, school administrators: You are the adults. You have been given the responsibility of educating the children of this society.

And you have failed. Instead of leading, you have created layer upon layer of policies that exist for the sole purpose of providing you with something to hide behind. Instead of treating the children in your care with understanding and compassion, you point to the policy and shrug and say “Oooooh, sorry, we can’t go against Policy” as if it was handed down from some deity instead of some nonsense you created.

These are children, not on/off switches. The world is not black & white, it is an infinite spectrum of greys and every color you know and some you don’t. Shoving every problem into the “all good” or “all bad” bins, with no ability to discriminate between a truly serious offense and what we used to call “horseplay” or “good, wholesome fun” isn’t the way to handle a problem. What’s more, the “bad” bin is considerably larger than the “good” bin as the number of so-called “offenses” that can get a kid suspended, expelled, and/or arrested increases every year.

Drug dealing kids are setting up innocent, gullible kids by planting drugs on them and collecting the Crimestoppers reward money for turning them in — planting it and snitching is more profitable than selling an Oxycontin pill. The set-up child gets suspended, expelled, and/or arrested, the setter gets rewarded.

I am certain, that if the statistics were ever made available, that more good kids have had their lives seriously compromised by zero-tolerance policies than have been protected from bad stuff by the same policies. Let’s face it: to a homicidal/suicidal someone bent on bringing injury, death, and mayhem to a school, a zero-tolerance policy has no teeth whatsoever. What’s more, it teaches the kids to isolate themselves, and mistrust the adults who are in the positions of authority in that environment: the teachers, the principals/school admins, and even the police.

Quit hiding behind the policies you created, and start administering. Consider the shades of grey. Far too many good kids are being put in the bad box for naive pranks or minor, unintentional infractions, and the results are clearly devastating to those kids.

And making your teachers, the lifeblood of the education system, slaves to student scores on standardized tests, instead of leaving them free to teach that critical thinking and the problem solving skills the kids will need in the real world, is quite possibly a larger crime than zero-tolerance.

Here’s a news flash: the teachers have no control over how the students (who are, after all, separate, if smaller, humans) perform on tests. Some will do well regardless of the teacher. Others will do poorly regardless of the teacher. Some will tank the tests on purpose just to see what will happen. But making the teachers dependent solely upon test scores for their job security, raises, bonuses, etc. is essentially extortion. Is there any wonder that there are teachers leaking the tests to the kids early, or helping the kids with the tests?

And because they have to devote all the classroom time to teaching to the standardized tests, there’s no time left to teach the stuff the kids will need when they graduate and go out into the world. And the results of that are telling.

I am an engineer. I have been in this field for nearly 20 years. And I am now starting to see the results of your policies of zero tolerance and the standardized testing trumping all as they enter the workforce. If they’re lucky, they were in a college/university program with some real teeth and they learned basic critical thinking and problem-solving skills there. But we’re seeing kids coming into the workforce who have never had to THINK for themselves. Given a simple, rigidly-defined task, they do fine. Given an open-ended problem, they flail helplessly. They don’t know how to set it up. They don’t know how to solve it.

Compounding that situation is the remarkable number of religious zealots on school boards seeking to impose their narrow-minded, anti-scientific view of the world on every child in their charge. Another news flash: you are administering a public education system in a country that has this little thing called the First Amendment that ensures the separation of church (that’s your religion) and state (that’s the school system). This has resulted in a discounting of science and technology — and, indeed, history! — in an era where, out in the real world, science and technology are influencing, if not defining, ever-increasing areas of our lives.

You, school boards who are shoving a religious mythos into science classrooms, who are creating revisionist histories because the documented facts don’t have your race or creed being the dominant player, you are letting down the side here. It is our job, our *moral responsibility* as adults, to impart that which we learned from our elders, mixed in with what we have learned from our own experiences, to the generations that come after us. There is *NO* room for tweaking of fact to suit a personal agenda. Dismissing millions of years of fossil records and hundreds of years of study as just a “theory”, for example, as a means of throwing in a lovely and well-written bit of folklore about how the world came to be, however you disguise it as “science”, is a clear violation of that responsibility.

It is no less egregious to dismiss the contributions to this country’s history by people such as Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Tubman, and George Washington Carver, among others, when the factual record of their contributions is both comprehensive and indisputable.

It is way past time for changes in this country’s public education system. We are failing this generation of children, and that is a crime we will be paying for for decades.

I do not presently have any children in the public education system. I fear for my nephews, though, who are or will be soon, in the hands of that system. I know they have the advantage of parents who teach and encourage thinking and creativity, and I hope they’re able to figure out that you can learn quite a bit in spite of the restrictions the school admins impose.

It’s been a while… and what I believe.

I’m okay. I’m enjoying my new job, which is providing lots of work, lots of challenge, and is keeping me busy. I did have a little event with a kidney stone last week that’s ongoing (it hasn’t pulled a full Elvis and left the building just yet), but is manageable.

So it’s the holidays, and there are always some stresses of time & travel involved with that. Making it fun this year, I’m single again, plus I’m only about a year into my time in a new city. Which results in a lot of well-meaning folks telling me things I really don’t need, nor want, to hear.

What follows is an editorial. It’s about beliefs, which are close enough to opinion as makes no nevermind. You may not agree. Great! Don’t try to change my mind, just keep making your own decisions. You don’t even need to outline them.

So with some risk, here are just a few things I believe:

I believe religion is not the same as spirituality, and one doesn’t need to follow any particular religion to have faith, nor is following a religion a prerequisite of being a good person. There Is No One Right Way. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something, or looking to line their pockets and/or their power base with your assets. You’ll note that many religious leaders also would prefer that their followers let them do all the thinking for them. Turning off the brain is a living death, not a spiritual awakening. And that whole exclusivity-on-rightness thing, our-way-or-damnation? Ha!

Related to that, I believe one can find friends and support without joining a religion. Having someone willing to bring a casserole by after a Life Event is not exclusive to members of religious groups. I am fortunate in that I have been able to prove this — there are people I know, unaffiliated with any religion, who would drop whatever else they were doing and come to my aid should I need it, and I hope they know I would do the same for them. And that’s not even counting my family, who, I know, would likely cut off parts of their own bodies if it was necessary to save me — as I would without hesitation do for them.

I believe that belief doesn’t contra-indicate facts. Sometimes, a sequence of events happens that, on the surface, appears causal. On closer examination, though, you see that they are indeed coincidental — two things happened in a particular sequence, but the first did not cause the second and the second would have happened even if the first did not happen.

I believe that trying to bludgeon someone into submitting to your dogma when they really have no desire to or intention of doing so is a form of emotional blackmail, if not outright abuse. Yes, that’s right: this whole thing is just a statement, not an invitation to follow me. I may not be going someplace you really wanted to go. And I’m quite alright with that. I most assuredly do not claim any sort of exclusive on what’s right and what isn’t. THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY! Do your own thinking, make your own decisions, follow your own path, and I will cheer you.

I believe that if you are concerned about someone you love’s actions or decisions, snarking at them in a public manner is precisely the wrong way to convey that concern, no matter how much humor it’s cloaked in. Make a phone call. Send an e-mail. Pull them aside for a quiet chat. This is something I’ll readily admit failing in the past, but I have made considerable effort to change my behavior and catch myself. I don’t always succeed, but I do more often than not now. And I appreciate being called on it when I slip.

And I believe that it’s absolutely vital to listen. Not just hear, but listen. There’s a difference.

New Job!

Okay, last week, had the first interview, which lead to a 2nd interview, that after a bit of schedule shuffle, happened on Wednesday.

That 2nd interview in turn lead to yesterday afternoon’s phone call with a verbal offer. The written offer arrived this morning in e-mail, I signed, scanned, and e-mailed it back, and my planned start date is Monday, October 26th. This is of course pending the usual reference, background, and drug checks, which will get going next week.

So, you ask, what is this new job?

"Mechanical Engineer, Sr. – DTS" with a company called Oceaneering. "DTS" stands for "Deepwater Technical Solutions". What I’ll be doing is joining a team that essentially does "triage for the offshore oil & gas industries", as my new manager put it. Something underwater breaks, and it’s too difficult/dangerous for humans to get to it, and too expensive to pull it up to the surface, Oceaneering’s fleet of ROVs gets a call and the DTS group designs and manufactures a tool to fix the broken stuff.

Each job is thus different, and the turn-around time from getting that initial call to the tool going in the water to do its thing can be 4-8 weeks — sometimes less. Why so quick (and for designing, fabricating, assembling and testing machines & mechanisms, that is *very* quick)? Because an offshore rig costs around $1-1.5 million *per day* to operate, and if something’s broken, they’re not producing, but the costs are still there.

I have quite a bit to learn, but I’m looking forward to it. The DTS team that I’ve met so far are great people, and the general attitude is one of getting it done the right way and quickly. Lots of engineering, lots of individual responsibility for a project, and something new on a frequent basis.

The salary is not quite what I was making at the last job, but it’s well within the realm of reason, and the overall package is great, as is the opportunity to grow. And the whole package is what I was concerned about, not a number.

And so now I just have to do all the pre-employment screening, which won’t be a problem. No funky chemicals in my bloodstream, and a pretty quiet background, all things considered.

I do have to thank everyone who has been on Team Jim during this process. It’s been a great boost to get a comment or an e-mail of support when things were looking rough. While I sincerely hope none of you ever find yourself in need of such support, know that I’ll do what I can in return should it come to pass.