january 2015

Well, the Ravens sure had an interesting few weeks during my time away for the holidays. When I last wrote about them, they held their playoff fate in their own hands, needing to win out against Houston (led by a fourth string quarterback) and Cleveland (to be led by a practice squad quarterback by week 17) to clinch a playoff spot no matter what anyone else did.

But in week 16 they got clobbered by the Texans, while their AFC North rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh both won their games and clinched playoff berths. And San Diego also won, putting them in a tie with the Ravens, and holding the tiebreaker due to a heartbreaking 33-34 loss where the Ravens took a 10 point lead into the fourth quarter and lost the game anyway. So in addition to needing to win their last game against the Browns, the Ravens also needed Kansas City to defeat the Padres.

It was nervewracking watching that game, especially with the slow start that has unfortunately become a Baltimore signature for the last several weeks—they were behind 10-3 entering the fourth quarter—but the Ravens, particularly quarterback Joe Flacco, rallied and came back to win 20-10. Meanwhile, the Chiefs took care of San Diego in a game that was happening simultaneously, so mere seconds after celebrating a season-ending victory, the Ravens and their fans were celebrating a postseason berth.

It was the sixth seed, true, and thanks to the outcome of the Steelers-Bengals game in which Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati and claimed the AFC North title, we would have to play a road game in Pittsburgh, where we got beat badly (6 touchdowns thrown by Ben Roethlisberger in a 20 point victory) a couple of months ago. But still, anything can happen in the playoffs...

When we lived in Baltimore and I could watch all the games live because they were broadcast locally, I used to have a ritual for watching games: gin and tonic with Hendrick's gin and extra limes, and chicken wings. I haven't done either of those things since moving to Atlanta due to the odd times I typically have to watch the games, and due to the fact that I usually have to watch them sitting at my computer in the basement.

But Saturday's game was nationally broadcast because it was a playoff game, so I got to watch it upstairs on the flatscreen, and I was so nervous that I decided to reinstate the gin tradition to calm my nervers. I was superexcited that we had made the playoffs, and every game was going to feel like a bonus game because I'm really not sure this team deserved to be in the playoffs (although we deserved it more than any of the teams behind us, and certainly deserved it more than Carolina, who won their divison despite a losing record), but Pittsburgh was the one team I didn't want to see in the opening round. Because every game against Pittsburgh is a huge, emotional game, and to lose that to end the season while having to watch them march further into post season would have been an extremely bitter pill to swallow.

But luckily, the playoff version of Joe Flacco, who has been nearly perfect his last two trips to the playoffs (and was as close to perfect as you can get when they won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season) showed up, and the defense prevented the run and really kept Ben Roethlisberger off balance and making bad decisions. It was a solid, decisive 30-17 road win in one of the least pleasant road stadiums in the country against a team that had beaten the hell out of them on that same field earlier in the season, and I couldn't ask for anything more for this team this season. There's nothing better than sending Steelers back into their home locker room with their tails between their legs, and its even sweeter when it happens in the playoffs and ends their hopes for another Super Bowl run.

Baltimore plays the Patriots in Foxboro next week, and even though New England is probably the team I hate the most behind the Steelers, I'm really pretty relaxes about this game. Even if we don't win, we still sent the Steelers home to think about their home loss all offseason.

It's pretty freeing being the underdog lowest seed playing against the top seed: the pressure is all on the Pats. If we lose, well, that's what was supposed to happen. But if the Patriots lose, they'll be subject to criticism from the merciless New England sports commentators for months and months and create more frustration among a fan base that is rabid but unforgiving unless you bring home a championship (something the Patriots haven't done since 2004 despite two trips to the Super Bowl and 8 playoff berths since then).

And the Ravens have had success against Brady, going 2-1 against him in playoff games in Foxboro. I know, I know, that's not predictive of future success, especially given the turnover on both teams since them, but at its core, it's still Harbaugh-Flacco against Belichick-Brady just like it has been for the past several years. Baltimore isn't going to go up there and play scared, and a win is not out of the question, especially if we can rattle them early and the weight of their fans' expectations suffocates them.

I thought it would take a while to get back into the swing of things at the office after so much time away, but the week so far has gone by quickly and with a minimum of stress. My schedule has reminded me anew of just how much of my day is spent in meetings, but that's my role now, and I don't struggle with it nearly as much as I did even five years ago.

It looks like we're in for a banner year in terms of our application poo, which is nice—we've been working very hard to elevate our presence in the market over the past couple of years, and although there are some external factors which likely had a strong influence on our bumper crop, I have to think that some of the long-term plans that we've been patiently executing is also having a major effect.

Yes, I know it's not snowing like it is up north, and I know it's not nearly as cold. But it's too damn cold for Atlanta.

Only one full week back at work, and already I'm ready for a break. Luckily we only have one more week til we get another short week due to the MLK holiday. But then there's that long, painful stretch where there's nothing between MLK and Memorial Day—that's a pretty brutal way to come off a month and a half of holidays.

So yes, it would have been nice to beat the Patriots and go on to the championship game, but I'm really satisified with how this season went overall. We got back into the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, our offense was as good as it's ever been, and our defense should bounce back strong next year, especially with Ozzie having a whole offseason to fix up the secondary.

And I think the Ravens proved that, despite barely squeaking in, they belonged in the playoffs. They beat the Steelers handily in Pittsburgh last week, and if not for a weak secondary that a quarterback like Tom Brady was built to take advantage of (and a coach who knew that—New England didn't run the ball a single time in the whole second half), we would have won that game in Foxboro, because the Patriots defense (which has been called their best since 2004, the last time they won the Super Bowl) couldn't slow us down. It was a shootout that we lost, and one that we lost solely because we couldn't stop the short and medium passing game.

A lot of this offensive explosion this year has been thanks to Gary Kubiak, and I'm praying that he'll be back next season. That's what he announced over the weekend after being courted for several head coaching positions, and I wish I could believe him, but just today Denver fired its head coach, and he has a lot of ties to that city and to GM John Elway. So we'll see. But hopefully even if he's not around, we'll be able to find someone who is familiar with his system who can take over the OC position and keeps things relatively stable.

So, it looks like the Patriots and the Seahawks in the Super Bowl this year. Yes, Green Bay has a chance against Seattle in next week's NFC championship, but Indy is going to get killed by the Patriots. But that's okay, because two weeks after that the Seahawks are going to dominate New England, and we'll get to see lots of Brady angry faces on the sidelines. True, I won't be so much rooting for Seattle as I am rooting against New England, but nonetheless: Go Hawks!

Pretty much all the applications have been processed at this point, and despite cutting two weeks our submission cycle (we moved the RD deadline from January 15 to January 1), we're going to blow away the previous record for applications at my institution, likely beating the previous record by about 3,000 apps and going over 20,000 apps submitted for the first time ever.

Some of this is likely due to the work we've been doing over the previous couple of years to improve our marketing and become more focused about where and when we travel, but that's too big a jump to be explained by just these things, especially given that the early data we've seen from our peers is not leading us to believe that this is an industry-wide trend. My best guess: all the stories about Ebola that put my institution in the national spotlight.

I can imagine that it was a pretty strong pull for the natural sciences/premed types to see our school front and center in this battle, and I wouldn't be surprised if our pool, which is already heavy with those interested in biology and chemistry, saw most of its growth in these areas.

Anyway, it's a good thing, no matter what the cause, and although it's going to be a bit of challenge to read all of those files (our staff hasn't increased in size, and the growth in the pool is the equivalent of nearly four full-time readers' worth of files), I'm anticipating being able to recruit one of our strongest classes.

There has been a proposal for a new software implementation that I've been working on for MONTHS, and I finally turned it in today. It's not that I really needed that much time, but I developed some sort of mental block about finishing it, to the point where I had to ask my VP to give me a formal deadline for it (and that formal deadline was today, even though she gave me the deadline a month ago).

I've been trying to figure out why I've gotten so stressed about this one, because it's clearly the right thing to do for the future of my office, and I have 100% confidence in my team's ability to implement it on-time, and I think it's because of the pushback we're likely to get from some other groups at our institution. There's one team that won't like it because they will lose a decent portion of their budget (we're their largest customer, and the new product will completely replace what they do for us), and there are other groups that don't like the precedent it will set by us taking almost complete ownership of our process rather than relying on centralized resources that don't know anything about our actual busines process, and not only do I not like fighting those kinds of political battles, but I also don't like the fact that there's a possibility that one of the governance committees could actually say no to it, even though it will save us a lot of money and take pressure off of some of the teams that support us.

Luckily I have my VP and my dean on my side, and they have a lot more clout than I do, and they also know much better how to fight these kinds of battles. So it will probably take a couple of months to go through all the approval processes and involve several committee meetings that I won't enjoy (including one committee where I'm normally a voting member), but writing the proposal was a grueling process for me, and I'm glad that that part is over now.

This afternoon I had management training to review the university policies on harrassment and discrimination in the workplace, and while I liked the guy who gave the presentation, I found the scenarios they showed us on the videos to be pretty ludicrous. I mean, almost every sentence that came out of everyone's mouths was completely offensive and wasn't reflective of even the worst offenders I've encountered in 20 years in office environments.

Also: it didn't seem to be so much about training us as manager of human beings how to handle difficult situations as if we were human beings too, but rather to remind us that we are to be reporting robots with zero discretion and personal judgment. I guess that's the way things have to be in today's litigation-happy environment, but when this whole training session was prefaced by a discussion about how trust is such a big part of creating a strong, productive team, the instructions they want us to follow when it comes to certain kinds of behavior ask us to explicitly violate the trust we might have with our employees, especially those with whom we might have a personal relationship with that extends outside of the workplace.

I'll do what my employer asks me to do, but from my perspective, they way they want us to handle this stuff could easily lead to an environment of paranoia and distrust to the point where there would be serious underreporting of problems, simply because employees who might want to ask advice about how to handle an issue in the workplace won't be willing to do that for fear that anything they say might lead to a full-blown investigation that they don't believe is warranted given the current state of things.

But again, that's not my call to make. I just think there needs to be a parallel presentation to the people who work for me making it clear what my obligations are when it comes to this type of stuff so there aren't any surprises when I do exactly what I've been told I must do.

Another afternoon away from actual work, this time participating in a Birkman evaluation with my boss and the other two people in my office who manage employees. I'm a little wary of personality tests, and while taking this one was very similar to some of the ones I've taken earlier in my life (like the Meyers Briggs and the MMPI), the results were very different.

It's pretty hard to explain quickly, but they assign you one of four colors in three areas, and then use those same colors to represent your style of problem-solving. They also rate you on a scale of 1-99 on about twenty different patterns of behavior, showing you on the one side the kind of behavior you typically exhibit, and what you actually need internally in that regard (the most interesting for me: I scored 99 on the activity scale, meaning that I typically am very busy, but on the need side, I only scored a 2, which means that, left to my own devices, I wouldn't feel compelled to always be in motion, and that disparity felt pretty spot on to me—I'm incredibly busy at work because that's what my office and my institution demand of me, but I'm actually a pretty serene person who is perfectly comfortable with non-activity).

It was interesting to see what the test had to say about my tendencies and needs, but it was much more interesting sharing my results with the others, and having conversations about the results about how our tendencies and needs affected how we worked together, and how we might be able to use this understanding of how we each prefer to work to come up with better ways to collaborate and manage our teams with more cohesion. Again, I'm pretty wary of things like this generally, but I really feel like I learned something new about each person in the room (two of whom I have worked with for over a decade at this point), and I think we all have some new techniques to add to our toolkits when we're trying to run the office together.

The facilitator said that most people find the test to be 75-80% accurate in terms of capturing their personality, habits, and desires, and seems about right for my results. I have yet to read through the full report—the main point of this session was to focus on the very highest level results and discuss how the personality types in our leadership team impact how we jointly manage the office—but I'm looking forward to digging deeper into the report to see if there's anything in there that I hadn't consciously realized before but which hits home as the truth.

For the holiday yesterday, we took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and accepted the invitation of a family we know from Will's school to go hiking at a nearby park. We've never really done that with Will, and we weren't sure how he'd do, but he loved it, and it's something we'll definitely have to do more of once the weather warms up for real.

The park itself was really nice—it wasn't too far out of town, the trails weren't too challenging (in addition to Will's friend, who is also four, the other family also had a three year old and a newborn), and at the end of trail where we stopped for lunch there were the ruins of an old mill. There was also a visitors center next to the parking lot that we visited before we went hiking and after we came back—they had snakes, turtles, little models of the mill, and even some artificats (like one of the giant gears, which Will was sort of obsessed with).

I usually just like to do nothing on holidays like this, especially if we've done other things the rest of the weekend, but I'm really glad we did this. We haven't really explored the local area, but we know there are a ton of state parks not too far from the city, and now knowing that Will can handle a few hours running around the woods, we'll need to make a point to get to know more of them.

Gotham has become my favorite new show this season, and it's really the only drama I'm watching aside from Walking Dead. The casting is pretty amazing all around, but they achieve a nice balance between over-the-top-bordering-on-camp (Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney and Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin) and nicely grounded (Ben McKenzie's Jim Gordon, with McKenzie putting his previous cop experience in Southland to good use, and Gordon's partner, Harvey Bullock, portrayed by Donal Logue).

The real star is Penguin, though—I'm not a huge DC guy, but I've never really liked the character of the Penguin that much, I've never understood his place in that universe. But the way they've written this show (which is set some 15-20 years before the emergence of Batman in the period just after the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents), his origin story makes perfect sense and grounds what his character will eventually become in a world that doesn't feel comic-book-y at all. Taylor couldn't have been more perfectly cast—if this show stays on for more than a season, you can already tell that this actor might have trouble moving beyond roles like this one, because he was clearly born for this part.

It felt a little gimicky the way they kept shoving more and more eventual superheroes/supervillains into the storyline (the Riddler/Edward Nygma is a Gotham PD CSI; Catwoman/Selina Kyle is a street hustler and burglar who witnessed the Waynes' murder; Two Face/Harvey Dent is just starting his career in the DA's office; and I think we even caught a couple of quick glimpses of Poison Ivy), but the more I watch the show, the more natural it feels.

And even though this is really supposed to be the story of Jim Gordon and how Gotham grew into what it was when Bruce Wayne decided to join the battle as Batman, there's still plenty of screen time for young Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred Pennyworth, who is an even more muscular and physical version of the ex-soldier version of Alfred that Christopher Nolan brought us in his Batman universe.

This show is clearly very influenced by Nolan's take on the character—I can't see this show ever getting made without those movies (although I'm betting he's not receiving a dime from them)—and for a fan like me, that's part of the appeal. Still, the show keeps you engaged by alternating the types of stories it tells, sometimes engaging in the long-simmering storylines about the rise and fall of the various underworld figures, and sometimes focusing on a single crime/criminal and executing an off-kilter police procedural that wraps up the storyline in a single episode.

Anyway. I'm enjoying it pretty well, and it's certainly helped to keep me entertained while waiting for the Walking Dead to come back next month. I have no idea how it's doing in the ratings, but I'm hoping well enough that it will get reneweed for at least one more season.

I haven't written about the books I've been reading in a long time. So I need to do that. But not today.

Taco night! I've been looking for easy meals that Will can help me cook a couple of nights a week, and although we have wanted to do these for a while, Will kept on insisting that he didn't like tacos. But then something clicked, and he realized that they have tacos at school and that he loves them there, so we finally convinced him to try making them at home last night.

It's really fun to cook with him—he has a little stepstool he gets out of the corner of the kitchen and drags over to the stove or the prep counter or the sink, and he helps me with whatever part of the process I'm working on. As with most activities that he enjoys, he gets very focused on it, which gives me some hope that he'll actually be able to start cooking somewhat on his own (with close supervision, of course) in the next few years.

Cooking is something I've always enjoyed, and it would be fun if it's something that Will and I could continue to do together as he gets older. It would make me feel good sending him out into the world as a young adult if he had a stock of recipes to take with him when he leaves home for college (and yes, I know that seems a long way off, but I can't believe the little guy is almost five, so I know it will be here in the blink of an eye).

On Sunday nights, I've started playing an online game with a group of folks, but they start playing at a time (8 p.m. my time) that means I don't get to tuck Will into bed. So, to make up for missing a few minutes with him, we've tried to make Sunday night the night when Will can help me cook dinner so we get to hang out for some extra time.

Last night we tried something that I had actually never made before: lasagna. We thought it would be good because he tends to like pasta dishes (although if you call them pasta instead of spaghetti he'll say he doesn't like them, and he'll eat any noodles even if they aren't spaghetti-shaped), and we figured it would be fun for him to help with the layering. We also know that we could customize the ingredients so it would be filled with things he already liked, in this case italian sausage, mushrooms, and zuccinni/yellow squash.

I prepped all of the fillings in advance, and then called him in to help once I had the noodles boiling (fun fact: Will calls the colander the "hole bowl"). The ricotta layer was a little tricky (I misread the directions and mixed in too much mozarella with the ricotta, which made it very dense and hard to spread), but other than that, he was able to help me with each layer. And although once it was cooked, he claimed he no longer wanted the mushrooms and the squash, he actually ate pretty well, so this is definitely a dish we'll have to keep on the list for future Sunday nights.

To keep building on our hiking experience last weekend, we decided to take Will geocaching, something Julie and I did fairly often back when the sport was first getting started but which we haven't done in a long, long time.

We went to the geocaching site and found that there were several in or near a park in the neighborhood that we walk to sometimes, and since we weren't sure if Will was really going to like it, we decided to use our phones and the free intro geocaching app (which only works when you're within a certain, very limited distance of a cache), and that was just fine for that day.

We ended up searching for four total, and finding three of them (the one that we couldn't find had several other recent comments that said people couldn't find it, leading us to believe that it has disappeared and the owner isn't maintaining either the cache of the listing any longer), and Will really seemed to like it. For those of you not familiar with this sport/activity, when you find a cache, you typically sign the logbook, take an item that another visitor has left behind (the person who starts the cache typically stocks it with a few items to get things started), and leave an item for other visitors. We ended up taking a coin from Puerto Rico and a very small can of Play-Doh, and leaving packets of flower seeds.

Most state parks have geocaches, so if we do a couple more runs and Will still seems into it, we'll probably invest in a new GPS unit (which would keep us from having to have our phones out while we're climbing on rocks and jumping over streams, and which would be rugged enough that Will could hold onto it without fear of damage if he dropped it).

It looks like there have been a lot of advances in both the GPS systems and the web site since we last used it (which isn't surprising, because we haven't gone hunting in about 10 years, and our GPS unit is probably 15 years old at this point), like being able to load coordinates and cache information direction into your unit instead of having to manually enter the coordinates and printing out cache descriptions. And they really aren't that expensive—less than $200 for a midgrange unit that includes web-updateable color maps and multiple internal antennae.

Well, the Super Bowl is almost here, and it's become clear that the NFL is not going to take any action or reveal any official findings from the latest Patriots cheating scandal. This doesn't come as any surprise given what a weak and ineffectual leader commissioner Roger Goodell has shown himself to be in the last couple of scandal-filled years for the league, but I tell you, it's going to leave a nasty taste in my mouth if New England wins this game (and not just because they have become bitter rivals to the Ravens who are really only second to the Steelers).

(Sidenote: I find it hilarious how stridently the New England fans are defending their team by saying 1) there's no way they could have done this; 2) they should be allowed to do this and it's a stupid league rule; 3) even if they did do it, it clearly had no impact on the game because they dominated the second half, when we now know the Patriots' footballs had been reinflated by the game officials to their proper pressure.

This last one I find especially funny, because it reminds me of what players used to say about corked bats—despite contradictory scientific evidence about whether or not a corked bat actually helped you swing the bat faster and/or hit the ball farther, there was a definite psychological advantage/placebo effect that made players feel like they could hit better, so they often did. Presumably the Patriots didn't know that they balls had been properly reinflated for the second half, but that psychological edge could definitely have been a factor in the game.

Also: you know that if there was any hint that any other team had done anything to violate league rules regarding the state of the equipment, the field, etc., during a game that New England had lost, they would be screaming bloody murder for the next several decades about how Saint Brady and Pope Belichick were cheated out of a championship.)

Seattle's not exactly an easy team to root for; Green Bay would have been a little easier. Lynch is a great back, but he's an asshole off the field (and presumably on the field, but we can at least focus on his play in that arena), and Richard Sherman is, always has been, and always will be a loudmouth jackass who always thinks he's better than he actually is—even though he has clearly been one of the most dominant corners the past three seasons, he thinks he's the greatest of all time, and he'll continue to think that even when he hits his 30s and his skills start to degrade.

So I'll be rooting more against the Pats than rooting for the Seahawks, which is what I would have been doing even without the deflation scandal, but which I'll be doing even more vigorously in light of the very high probability of cheating (if the allegations being bandied about weren't true, the league would have flat-out denied them, especially given how much of the public conversation they've been taking up in the lead-up to the Super Bowl) that almost certainly involved Pretty Boy and couldn't have been going on under the nose of micromanager Belichik without him knowing something about it either.

Long couple of weeks at work, but we finally go through one of our most complex decision release processes today, and me and my team couldn't be more glad that it's over.

See, it doesn't have to be very complex, if we could just settle on a process and stick to the schedule. But as with every year I've been at this institution, and despite starting to meet about this process back in August because we didn't want to have the same chaos around the process this year that we had last year, none of the seemingly dozens of people who think they are decisionmakers could stick with a plan between one another (or even just being consistent to what they might have said last time we met) for longer than a day or so—you couldn't get the same answer to a given question about the process from two different people on the same day or from the same person on different days.

Anyway, it's over for this year, and despite the high chance for failure in some part of the process because it was so fluid and unstable, even in the final hours leading to the release, it seems to have gone off without any major hitches. And I'm sure we'll start meeting again in the summer to start talking about how we can make it simpler, cleaner, etc., for next year, but after this year, when we met at least once every two weeks for MONTHS with no change in the outcome (in fact, it was even more chaotic and changeable this year), I almost think we should just meet with them once, ten days before the release, have them tell us what they want, and then not talk to them again—they get one shot to tell us what they need, and no additional opportunities to change their minds and waste the work we done.

I know this will never happen. But sometimes you have to comfort yourself with the fantasy of a solid process just to make the prospect of going through this craziness every year somewhat bearable.

So if you're one of the few people who checks this blog at least once a week, you've probably noticed that I didn't appear to post anything for two weeks and then suddenly two weeks worth of "daily" entries show up. Let me explain.

See, I always have at least a note about what I want to write about on a given day, but sometimes I don't finish writing it the same day. Still, that's what I intended to post on that day, so I keep the date for the post the same even if I don't end up actually posting it until a couple of days later.

This last couple of weeks has probably been the most extreme example of this: after the MLK holiday, I had a hard time getting back into daily posting mode, especially with all the chaos at work leading up to our most complex decision release (which we did yesterday), and that chaos continued into this week. Still, I had all of these posts in at least partial form (and several of them completed, but there were earlier entries that had not yet been completed, so I couldn't post the later ones until those were done) on the days they were intended to be posted, I just never really got caught up until now.

Again, this won't be apparent historically, and there are probably very few people who are aware of this/care about it in real time, but I just wanted to post some sort of explanation for those very few.

december 2015
november 2015
october 2015
september 2015
august 2015
july 2015
june 2015
may 2015
april 2015
march 2015
february 2015
january 2015

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