The Fab Lab and the Unwettables

There are occasional instances when my current employer makes me go ‘cool!’  or ‘I want that!’.  Today both have happened.

Recent research at MIT is codifying the way surfaces repel materials.  Researchers have been refining their understanding of the way thin liquids like oil can be kept from coating or being absorbed into a material.  By examining the way duck feathers resist the higher surface tension of water, scientists were able to come up with a surface that could resist coating by oil and even pentane (a solvent which has the lowest surface tension at atmospheric pressure, and is thus most liable to wet a surface).  They are now completing a list of the ‘rules’ that apply to wetting.  In this future this should mean super-wet-proof materials for consumers.  Cool.

In addition, based on MIT models, a new fabrication lab is being opened in Providence.  It will be an industry-grade lab that’s open to the public for a variety of projects and developments, and is being opened in association with AS220, an arts and technology collaborative.  Since its based on similar labs somewhere around here, it makes me want to go out and fabricate.  I have the ideas, and could possibly have access to the tools, so why not?  I want that.

It’ll only cost you a limb.

I’m not all that familiar with discrimination laws in India.  However, the recent cases against Air India have made me wonder.  Is it legal to ground a flight attendant without pay for not meeting a weight standard?  Should it be?  Are the reasons such standards are in place (reaction times in dangerous situations and the physical fitness required for the job) accurately reflected in the standards themselves?  Does a weight to height ratio truly sum up a person’s physical fitness or abilities?  Considering that muscle weighs more than fat, I would say no.  Not that I’m for muscle-bound air hostesses, but I do question the airline’s motives.  At the same time, if these are the rules of the job known when starting employment, is it fair to complain about them only now?

Most of the women are planning on dieting while in court, hoping to return to work eventually regardless of the ruling.  However dieting could still cause problems for them in the future.  It will be a constant strain to keep off the weight.  Added to that is the emotional pressure of being judged for your weight on a regular basis in order to keep your job, and you have significant mental stress.  At that point, it would almost be easier to cut off an arm or a leg to permanently take off the extra poundage.  If the airline comes after you for not being able to maintain your duties after that, it’s definite disability discrimination.  Does it say anywhere in the job requirements that you need two legs to perform the job?

Perhaps an even better way to address the physical fitness issue of flight attendants should be some sort of obstacle regularly taken to measure ability and performance.  It would be like a military one, but slightly easier and more appropriate.  It would involve things like climbing a cargo net, sprinting the length of a 747, lifting a 50-lb suitcase over your head, balance beam while carrying a drink tray, pushing a food cart at speed around a length of cones, and ending with opening up an emergency exit on a  plane and sliding down that inflatable slide thing, all in proper uniformed attire.  How fun would that be?  I’d want to take the test myself, just to measure my skills against stewardesses everywhere!  And it would add an aspect of fun to the kind of skills some airlines feel they need to measure.  You could probably even sell tickets, allowing airlines to recoup money on falling ticket sales.

White Hot (chocolate)

It is a legend of my office that at one time, we had a 12 cup coffee maker that rebrewed regular throughout the day.  There are various stories of people not making a fresh pot, people not cleaning and letting the coffee mold, and people generally being rude and somewhat inhuman to each other.   I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that.  However, the current solution of Keurig one-cup brews, or K-cups, is not an elegant one.  The coffee inside each package is pre-ground and generally stale, despite a ‘freshness’ seal.  Most of the flavors are either too strong or too weak (where’s my medium roast?!?).  Finally, the K-cups brew what seems to be 7 oz., an amount that is perfectly the wrong size for one or two brews in my 12 oz. mug.  I need like one and a half brews of K-cup.

But there is one thing I’ve discovered that not even K-cups can foul up – white hot chocolate.  Liquid warmth beyond the understanding of mortal man, it comes out a little foamy, reminiscent of marshmallows and downy pillows.  It’s like a hot cloud of wonderment.

McDonald’s may have its persuasive hooks in the world with copious amounts of salt, fat, sugar, and other horribly bad things, but Keurig will now always have a deeper hook in my heart.

Please, do not make me hurt you.

There are a number of annoyances that people must put up with at work.  As Joe vs. the Volcano exemplifies, there’s the lights, there’s the disgusting coffee, and there’s the totally depressing and pointless job environment.  There’s also co-workers who talk on the phone too loud, and the people who never, ever clean up after themselves.

My own personal pet peeves from the working world come from the inability of others to do things for themselves.  Half the time I have to print a document, the printer is out of paper – all four trays.  Thanks, guys.  Or the water cooler, which always seems to be out of water when I need a drink.  I mean, I know I’m a strong woman and all, but I’m also a klutz.  Leaving me with a whole 5 gallons of water is bound to end with wall-splashing.

But the absolute worst, the one that makes me crazy enough to want to hurt small puppies, has to do with filing.  Specifically the inability of others to use alphabetical or chronological order when returning documents and files to the file room.  I mean, really.  It’s the alphabet.  I can guarantee that even if you never finished elementary school and don’t know how to read, that you are at least somewhat familiar with the alphabet.  Also, if you already managed to locate the file you want, you’ve already used that same alphabet to find the file.  so it’s strictly a matter of putting the file back in the same place.

Now, I know some of us are extremely lazy.  I  know I certainly don’t want to spend all day every day filing (or reorganizing others’ misplaced files).  But really, if your expending almost the exact same amount of energy to get up and go to the file room, the least you could do is watch what your doing and put the silly thing in the right place.

Otherwise, all that misplaced paper may come get you.  Just look at what happened to Robert De Niro in Brazil.

Another girl thing?

Today is the day of baking.  Or more specifically, yesterday was the day of baking and today is the day of eating.  That’s right, it’s time for the Oven Glove Money Makers* bake off event (*Note: this name is a pseudonym for my workplace used to protect the innocent, namely me).  Today we will taste desserts and various sweet baked goods in a variety of forms and flavors.  I’m excited.  I was excited and hungry, but then I had lunch.  Hopefully the hungry will come back at about 3:30, Bake-off time.

There’s been quite a bit of  male/female baking rivalry as to who is the best.  And it is true that baking and cooking are often considered the natural domain of women in modern society.  And it’s also true that in my childhood, my mother made dinner almost every night of the week.  Of course, my dad did occasionally grill or otherwise char meat, and it’s true that  my mother did have her kitchen ‘helpers’ (aka child slave labor), but now looking back it seems to be a bit of an unfair distribution.  Dinner almost every night?

My current living situation is almost the exact reverse.  Mike makes the dinner when we eat at home, unless he’s sick or we’re eating at different times.  I do his laundry in exchange, but in some ways this may be unfair.  Some weeks we eat out or eat separately almost every day, while others we spend mostly at home.  The laundry is pretty much always the same.

He is a natural chef, great with flavor, and probably a better cook than me – except with vinegar,  I’m better at vinegar.  But he does feel a certain intimidation in the area of baking.  I think more of this has to do with personal experience and family tales of leaving key ingredients out of baked goods.  He views baking recipes as inflexible and more demanding than whipping up a dinner or other meal.  And at some level, I understand this – with baked goods, you don’t know if it’s right until it’s over.  There’s no fiddling with the ingredients or tasting along the way.  There’s no changing your mind halfway through the baking.  But in other ways, it’s more like an experiment – an experiment of deliciousness.  You have a hypothesis that such-and-such recipe will turn out grand.  Or, even better, you modify a recipe to make it better.  So what if the actual experiment takes 20 minutes to prepare and an hour to run?  If it fails, you’ve learned something.

Perhaps  it is this basic experimentation that attracted the male mind to the profession of ‘baker’ in former days.  Although I’m not sure that a candlestick maker would be a particularly manly profession, the profession of baker at least has the masculine appeal of its association with ‘butcher’ in the nursery rhyme.  In addition, actors such as  Nicholas Cage as Ronny Cammareri in Moonstruck or shows such as Iron Chef illustrate our fascination with those oh-so-many bakers. Sadly though, the contemporary man is not quite so enthralled with baking.  Why?  He hasn’t given up his love of sugar or things that are bad for him.  Why give up the skill?

Why my boss will never win ‘Best Boss’.

There are a number of competitions out there that recognize strong leadership in the workplace. I know – I spent a few seconds scrolling through them on Google. The most famous one, the ‘best boss/worst boss’ contest, stresses how your boss is a great motivator, communicator, and leader, and how they make the office more productive and satisfying.  That’s great, as far as it goes.  But it doesn’t go very far.

I did have one interesting related post I hit upon here, having to do with creativity.   The writer in question has done this activity with  variety of types and classes of employees, which I think is something important.  1) In the workplace, people regularly separate and group themselves.  2) Inter-group association, knowledge, and cooperation is not encouraged.

Take my office, for example.  There are two lunch groups – the admin assistants, and the other office workers.  It’s not because anyone looks down on us admins – many just feel more comfortable with their own group, where they can talk casually about daily tasks.   The same thing is true across the office – individuals in one department, such as real estate, don’t know about the daily or even major actions of those in private equity.  How do we create a sense of office unity despite this?  Better yet, how do we enliven progress recognition and achievement if we don’t know what anyone outside of our own small group is doing?

My own current boss is trying to make things more overlapping and to have different groups dabble in each-othe’s work.  Of course this is great as an ideal, though we haven’t worked out what the overlap is going to look like, or who will be responsible for what.  But most importantly for a growing organization, it moves people to start to be aware of the total work environment, hopefully breaking down some of those barriers between work groups.  It will not make him a more productive or a better leader over the short term especially.  Just because of his position people are sometimes afraid to approach him, and striking up major office innovations is not going to change that.  But over the long term, I think it will do something real and good for us as a company.

Work Woe, Work Joy

There are quite a few books/blogs/agendas/workshops that seek to address the idea of a work-life balance.  It’s something that I often address myself, in my search for that uplifting career path.  I found this particular post helpful as a starting point to considering this path.  However, it also raises quite a few questions about my current job.

One of the things I noticed about my own responses to the post were in regards to creation.  I like making things.  It doesn’t much matter what – I like working with my hands for utility or beauty, I like writing, I like making.  I even like polishing up other people’s work and making it pretty, or arranging things in an artful way.  It appeals to my sense of order and beauty.  The problem I am faced with is that my current job allows me to do many of these things frequently.  I keep office things in order – I organize and beautify our quarterly books.  Yet I am still often unhappy at work.

A part of my frustration I know comes from not having enough to do at some points.  True, there are a few months out of every year in which I’m truly busy, but most of the time I have significant down time.  A part of making my current job more worthwhile may simply mean filing this time too.  But I think there is also a larger issue.  Growing up as I have in an environment in which career change is not only possible, but also perhaps desirable, I am very hesitant to commit to any career path longer than a year or three.  Why spend my time and money on something I’m not going to keep with? How do I address my own career path when I feel such a broad and general desire in my future career needs?

What my job needs.

So, I was browsing online today and came across this.  Now, I was a big fan of the idea behind the “eats, shoots, and leaves” book (even though I never read it) and this seems in line with that whole idea.  So I’m excited about that, and about possibly getting to the library.  I had heard of the book before, but now I’ve been completely sucked in by the endorsements.

And then I thought, ‘You know, everyone in my office could use this book.  In fact, you might as well call us ‘Comma Splice City’ and be done with it.’  But endorsements can on occasion be wrong, so I’d better read the whole thing first myself.  Then I only have to convince my supa-cool boss man that everyone in the office needs one.  Here’s my argument: not only will they be funny (because they are), but they will also be educational.  And guess what?  We work at an educational institution! It will increase worker productivity too.  Really.  Especially my productivity if people actually use it and I don’t have to correct them every five minutes.

Slightly-more-than-average Stacey

I have noticed today that people are more likely to make certain comments on a Monday at work, in particular a Monday morning.  There’s the normal, friendly how-are-you greeting which somehow wears a little thin as the week progresses.  You can’t really ask how someone is if you’ve just seen them that morning, or the day before and the day before that.  It falls a little flat – how were they the last time you made eye contact on your way to the bathroom?

But on Monday morning, everything is fair game.  You’ve had the whole weekend to build up possible angst or joy without the knowledge of your coworkers.  You may, in fact, have won the lottery or discovered you’re dying of cancer.  Quite a bit can happen in a 48+ period.  Still, I find myself almost angry at the questioners.   How do you answer, anyway?  It’s foolish small talk designed to keep people from awkward silences or noticing the hum of the HVAC.

Previously I’d had a few ready-made actions to stave off conversation, in particular awkward and dumb small talk questions.  The first one is easy and not too freakish – the hall wave.  Once you see someone coming towards you, give them a friendly-looking wave.  Then duck immediately around the next available corner.  If you’re in certain buildings, you may have to duck into an office, bathroom, or broom closet and pretend you were going there for … something.   Even knocking on a closed door while someone passes is enough to keep you from being drawn into conversation.  That way, you’ve satisfied the ‘communication’ obligation without having the hear someone else talk.  I like to change up the wave with finger-pointing, winks, and distance high-fives, just to spice things up.

Another solution is the preemptive question.   Ask about something completely not mundane (Do you know the chemical formula for Chap Stick? What’s the capital of Tadjikistan?), or if you’re really at a loss, ask about some specific work-related question.  It doesn’t matter if the person you’re addressing knows the answer, if they work in the same department as you, or if they even know who you are.  It’s more likely to be effective if they don’t know the answer.  If you’re bilingual or fluent, asking in another language might be best.

Personally I prefer to take more direct and aggressive action.  My personal favorite is to look at the questioner as if they had two heads and then answer in a nonsensical fashion, a la Time Bandits:

Robin Hood:  And you’re a robber, are you?  Jolly good!  How long have you been robbing?

Figit: Four foot one.

Robin Hood: Four foot one?  That is a long time!

My new response to the how are you question is going to be ‘slightly more than average’.  That way, I almost sound reasonable enough for the work place.  It’s not as obvious as saying ‘slightly larger than average’ or ‘twopence’, but still discernible to people who are really listening.  All in all, it’s a good way to get rid of the Mondays without violence.  Your annoying fax machine thanks you.

A Work-Life Balance or, Falling Off Your Chair.

Few of us can say we have ever actually fallen off of our chairs, despite the common use of the phrase as an indication of our intense laughter.  I have.  In a public place.  On purpose.  I sat on the edge on command and proceeded to slip off the edge and down to teh floor on my tush pillows, exploding the chair from beneath me.  Though our waitress thought I had, in fact, broken the chair and not just fallen off it,  I am not a fat person.  But that’s neither here not there.

The point is, I am one of the few that has some real-life experience with the falling-off-the-chair bit.  And really, the whole idea is a lot like the idea of a work-life balance, the idea that your kids, or your spouse, or your activities, or whatever it is that’s important can somehow be balanced out with your career responsibilities.

As  Leslie Morgan Steiner writes in her blog on this topic, it’s not possible.  Not only is that kind of balance impossible to maintain, it’s also very hard to reach for a few brief moments of your life.  Either your life or your job or both are going to edge in demand more than their share of attention.  Usually both.

So what do you do?  Leslie calls it ‘hugging the gorilla’.  I prefer something a little closer to home – I try to remember to be unafraid to fall off my chair.  If I can’t maintain the perfect balance, who cares?  No one can maintain yogic position, perfectly chair-balanced forever.  And the floor isn’t really so bad.  If you’re a little prepared to fall, it doesn’t even hurt coming down.  So I just try to be ready, on the edge of my chair.  Maybe when I fall the next time I’ll even get a laugh from the waitress.

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