Friday, December 21, 2012

New construction project

My project workload has continued to increase and has been very interesting. I worked on my first cable (formal memo), which also happened to be on a rather sensitive subject, so that was a bit of trial by fire. Very interesting though. Today I went to the top floor to get one of the final signoffs - it was my first trip up there! While I'm thinking about the top floor...

Recently the Project Director (site manager) for a project I'm supporting was granted tenure. This is a significant (and mandatory) step in the Foreign Service, so I congratulated him. I asked him to let me know what the executive bathroom on our building's top floor was like. He didn't seem to think my joke was funny. Who knows - maybe I wasn't joking because there actually IS a special bathroom up there. I didn't see one today but I didn't stay long. I think I'll keep asking people about it until someone confesses that there actually IS an Italian tailor who can let out your pants (that are clearly shrinking) while you wait. I fear Mario's job may be in jeopardy due to budget cuts though.

We had our holiday party yesterday. Our floor seemed to schedule it later than any other floor or department, I guess it's just how it worked out. We all ponied up and a volunteer group bought stuff and brought it in. There was some solid hanging out for an hour or so, good times. For reasons I can't explain, the rumors of an incoming karaoke machine failed to materialize. Too bad. I sortof suspect it had something to do with someone walking around the party with a video camera.

If you're interested in becoming a Foreign Service Specialist, there's a new Oral Assessment Study Guide available here. Of course, they don't list a sample hypothetical exercise for construction engineers. I'm sure it's because ours is the most challenging specialty and they couldn't think of a single construction engineering question that could possibly be answered in two pages. Or it was totally random. Anyway, it's still helpful.

By the way, those of you who slam the DC area should note that I got a happy holidays card from my bus driver. That's right: my bus driver. There are lots of good people here.

I volunteered for the technical evaluation panel for this new government construction project petition but I haven't heard back yet. I'm concerned they might think I have a conflict of interest. Popular Science even had a short article about it. Talk about a sweet post! It might be considered a stretch post for me but I'd finally get to use my astronaut pen as it was intended. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

(This post written while listening to Van Halen Top Jimmy.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Get a job.

The Construction Engineer position is open again until January 2, 2013: get on it!  There's definitely more than enough work to keep everyone busy.  Most of us new hires feel like we're getting close to a full workload already, although we also feel like it's taking us twice as long to do things as it should.  We'll fix that with experience, though, right?  RIGHT?  Yeah.

The nomadic nature of the job seems to apply even to people working in DC.  People who are visiting from a post often migrate between offices to use the computers of people who are out on training, on temporary duty, or just in the bathroom.  There are occasional reorganizations of the DC-posted as well that have resulted in permanent people moving around a bit too.  Some rumors suggest our floor will soon be "right-sized" to make the cubicles the correct (read: smaller) sizes.  I didn't take this job for the cubicle, so it's not a big deal to me.  Although I have to admit that the potential for getting booted has made me plan ahead, including affecting even how I organize files on "my" computer.  These are things I never thought of - and not exactly of major consequence - it's just all part of the adventure.

On a completely unrelated but potentially helpful note, if you're really having trouble finding that special gift for that special aluminum-foil-hat-wearing someone, you might find one of these 6 gifts useful.

Hemlow Island - Nova Scotia, Canada - $30k CAD and it's yours! (Well, maybe just one of its eight lots)
(This post written while listening to The BoDeans Good Work.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

And then there were 6

One of our group of seven new construction engineers had been seriously considering leaving for quite a while, and two weeks ago he made the final decision to that it wasn't for him and left. His primary reason was because he found he didn't like working for a large bureaucracy, but I think the real reason was because there's no free coffee on our floor. We may never know for sure. (Just kidding - I know it's the coffee.) We talked a lot about it with him. He's going to have to repay a very substantial amount to the government, but it's probably better to make the decision sooner than later since he knew it wasn't a good fit. It's unusual for someone to leave so early so it raised many eyebrows, but the "No coffee? NO WORK!" protest just isn't going to work, grammatically or otherwise. He admitted it was an expensive way to make friends in far away places that he'll be able to visit. He used to refer to our group as The Magnificent Seven, and now we're just the So-So Six.  We certainly all wish him the best - he's a great guy with a bright future, and hopefully our paths will cross again.

I had my first project-related secret meeting recently, which was very interesting. We have a project in [redacted], and we're [redacted] granny smith [redacted] mango [redacted]. Then he said "Hurry up" so we left. We'll see how it works out.

Speaking of secret stuff, I need to tell you all about our super awesome shredder for secret stuff. It produces what I would almost call a paper mist, it's unreal - far different from the 70s shredders shown in Argo. The first thing I thought when I saw it was "They'll never get that out of the carpet." To ordinary mortals, this might not seem interesting. But to the particularly mischievous, that fine paper purée has some amazingly messy potential. In my first year I'm probably unlikely to take too many risks, but I definitely need to keep that product in mind. Maybe I could put presents I give in a box of it to "protect" the present? Something to keep in mind for this holiday season...

(This post written while listening to Bruce Springsteen Working On The Highway.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Yvan Eht Nioj

Sandy turned out to be a non-issue for most of Northern Virginia, so we were fortunate. I'm still trying to use the rest of the water I'd hoarded in camping containers, but it's almost gone now.  I don't think I'd prepared adequately for losing power to the refrigerator, though - something to think about next time.

Work quickly returned to normal, and I'm continuing my transition from mostly training to mostly work. I did end up training for 3 days last week on Earned Value Management, which is similar in principle to what is already common in the construction industry.

I'm getting involved in projects at a variety of phases: design, pre-bidding, construction, warranty, and even post-warranty.  It's very helpful to see how they/we handle the different phases, particularly for observing issues that are coming up and how I might avoid them in the future.

I'm also slowly becoming more familiar with the issues surrounding construction in Africa, including contractor-subcontractor arrangements, security, and travel issues.  On travel, I'd never heard of Asky Airlines before, but our contractors fly them sometimes so I thought I'd look up a bit of info on them as a random air carrier example.  Asky apparently has 4-6 planes (depending on whose data you trust) and flies to many of the West and Central African locations where we have projects.  Africa is just such a different market to me that I'm not sure how it will differ exactly from US carriers, if much at all.  It sounds like I'll generally fly US carriers due to the Fly America Act, but I might fly others depending on route specifics.

After seeing Argo and its obvious Foreign Service recruitment message, I was pleased with the State Department's less in-your-face recruitment effort in Skyfall last night.  I believe the term is nanosubliminal.  Good stuff.

(This post written while listening to Adele Skyfall.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Meet Sandy.


Ignorance is bliss, but even with the distrust of meteorologists I developed living in Colorado, I can't deny the emergency preparation press in the news ahead of Sandy's arrival tomorrow.  I doubt the fact that I started watching The Walking Dead yesterday has anything to do with this, but I can't help but draw an analogy to last year's CDC Zombie Preparedness campaign.  Store water, top off your car's gas tank, hoard non-perishable food, close/board up your windows, prepare for candle-lit séances, get out your flashlights, make sure you have batteries for your portable blender, etc.  The part I'm mostly concerned about is the power outage potential.  It's ridiculous enough to not have internet access these days, but to not have power is just uncivilized.  I recognize that I'm very spoiled from Colorado: most of us would just hole up in our homes with our buried utilities and we'd be just fine - in fact, it was fun as long as there weren't any leaks, breaks, or freak-outs.

We moved into our permanent housing last weekend, and we received our long term storage (household effects, or HHE) on Monday.  The resulting HHE explosion was pretty hilarious until the sobering reality of the unpacking and ongoing downsizing efforts hit.  We've made solid headway this week, but the still somewhat-disheveled look of the place has a somewhat apocalyptic appearance (again, not Walking Dead-influenced I'm sure).  I won't be able to use my latest excuse for much longer: "We shouldn't bother unpacking everything if Sandy's just going to make a mess of it again."  Actually that hasn't worked at all.

Our move-in had a classic example of "best-laid plans" when our internet installer wasn't able to complete the work we'd scheduled because our facility _didn't have keys_ to one of their own utility rooms.  It was a simple example of needing to be flexible, and unfortunately it was a recurring example since the connection went out later in the week and they again didn't have the keys.  It was odd, to put it mildly, but it was also an exclamation point on our new renting lifestyle.

Early in the week when we were without home internet, we climbed 3 to 4 couches (depending on your route selection and ankle strength) to decompress a bit and sit in front of our tv.  And I do mean RIGHT in front - the couch was touching the table with the tv.  I connected my iPhone to the tv so we could watch Netflix, and let me tell you, if your home internet access is out but you can get Netflix to stream to your tv through your phone, I assure you, it feels _exactly*_ like you've cheated death: totally awesome.  (* - I'm assuming this is true; I'll confirm after Skyfall comes out on November 9th)

Speaking of all this and looking at the cloudy skies, I guess I'll post this now.

Work's good.

(This post written while listening to The Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Africa!

My first two weeks in the office have been good; the most exciting was learning my branch assignment!  Africa = very cool (of course I would've said that about any of the branches).  Here's a map of the sub-Saharan countries covered by the Bureau of African affairs branch courtesy of this State Department website.


Specific project assignments are still getting figured out.  In the meantime, there's a LOT of info to learn to get up to speed.  Fortunately everyone I've met has been very patient and helpful.  The patient part is especially good since I've been making plenty of rookie mistakes like:
- confusing Maputo and Malabo
- properly hiding my ID badge in public but forgetting that the visible badge lanyard has "Overseas Buildings Operations" boldly printed on it
- mixing up the concepts of T-SAC with tea bag

Last weekend was great as we got out of town to stay with some friends in PA.  This weekend included a trip to the zoo as well as seeing Argo with a group of us FS-types.  Argo was good even with its artistic license (i.e., some historic inaccuracies).

We're getting used to living in DC - well, technically northern Virginia.  That said, we're about to move from our temporary housing to our permanent housing next weekend, so moving will shake things up again.  Hopefully our new place will have heat, which unfortunately one of my fellow 127th Specialists did NOT have when he moved this weekend.  Sometimes the little things make all the difference.

We'll be receiving our "household effects" from long-term storage a week from tomorrow, so we'll see how well we downsized before we left.  We're expecting to continue the downsizing effort for a while longer, which will mean our new place will be packed with stuff until we do more weeding.  It's all part of the change. 

We're also getting used to commuting via the subway system and walking more than we did in Denver.  Of course, it's easy to walk around now before winter hits for real.  Until then, we'll enjoy the fall colors (the photos below are from PA):



(This post written while listening to Depeche Mode Never Let Me Down Again.)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

End of orientation!

Orientation Week 3 is over and we're all officially sworn in!  Looking back on it, orientation was a pretty heavy crush of information, but I don't see a better way to handle it; there's a lot of information to cover.  It was great to get to know so many new people and I'm looking forward to working with them in the future.  Several of us went out for happy hour Friday night after the swearing-in ceremony.  Good times, and I'll just leave it at that.

This weekend we finally had a chance to relax since we decided on permanent housing last weekend.  Yesterday we walked from Roosevelt Island to the Foggy Bottom metro station via Georgetown, which was a nice tour of the area.  I'm not sure which was more strange: seeing deer pooping in the swamp on Roosevelt Island, or the ridiculously long line out the door of the Georgetown Cupcake shop (considering the street value of their product is $29 per dozen).

Just when I was starting to get used to orientation training, it's over and time to focus on normal work.  This week will start with a couple of days of general security overseas training, then I'll start working at the Overseas Buildings Operations building.  My regional assignment is still to be determined, but hopefully I'll find that out this week.  It'll be good to dig into the real work, I'm looking forward to it!

(This post written while listening to Manu Katché Silence (remix).)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Flag Day!

Today was a VERY exciting day for new foreign service employees: flag day is when your first assignment is announced.  A ceremony was held (with family invited) to announce each person's first post.  During the ceremony, they announced a post, country, position, and then the person's name for the assignment.  Here's the flag I received:


It wasn't the flag I was expecting - if you're like me, then you wouldn't've recognized the flag for Washington DC.  But I _was_ expecting to get posted to DC.  It was interesting to experience the event, though, and to talk with others about their upcoming posts, which include China, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Lebanon, Barbados, Peru, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Congo, Russia, and more.  It's pretty wild to me to think that most of my fellow students I've gotten to know during the last three weeks are going to scatter to all kinds of places all over the world - I mean, obviously that's what was going to happen, but something about today made it more real somehow.  Interesting stuff!

(This post written while listening to Duran Duran Rio.)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

End of orientation Week 2

Another week of orientation complete and again they've done a great job with the training, including mixing in offsite trips.  No amount of caffeine could get me even close to our instructors' energy level.  Yesterday we had a class barbeque and we almost got thrown out of the place I reserved for it, so that clearly was a good time.

We _FINALLY_ made a decision on our permanent housing for a variety of reasons: we're going to rent.  We found a good place that, among other things, should result in about a 40 minute commute for me.  The location also has quite the international selection of restaurants: japanese, peruvian, ethiopian, latin american, kabobian, and even an international house of pancakes.  It looks like it'll only be an hour bike ride to work too, so that could work. 

This week will end with our official swearing-in, so that's very cool.  Next week I'll take an overseas security course then start work - and hopefully get a better line on my first assignment(s).  Interesting times!

(This post written while listening to Erik Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1 (as performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops).)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

End of orientation Week 1

The first week has been very exciting. I don't think I had a lot of expectations, I just went into it with an open mind and it's been great. Experiencing Main State, meeting the other people starting orientation at the same time - I don't think I can provide a lot of detail, but it's all been very cool.

The first week's excitement was also tempered by the week's embassy and consulate events; obviously the Benghazi attack was particularly significant. One of our orientation class teachers forwarded this article for our consideration, which I found very interesting. Rather than ranting for pages, I'll just say this: I'm very much looking forward to supporting our diplomatic staff in their positions around the world, now more than ever.

Sorry to keep it short this week, but I'm still trying to get a sense for what's acceptable to share, AND I should probably get some sleep soon too.

(This post written while listening to two snoring dogs.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Liftoff!

Now I'm REALLY in!  I have a badge so this MUST be real.  In fact, to prove it, here's a scan of it:

********************
********************
********************
********************
********************

***PHOTO REDACTED***
********************
********************
********************
********************
********************


We were briefed on the State Department's security protocols and concerns, including suggestions on information posted to blogs.  Many of the suggestions are common sense, however there's a line between acceptable and not that I'll need to research more to avoid the latter and its associated separation anxiety.

(insert a Terry Gilliam Flying Circus interlude between skits here)

Suffice to say that I (and many others) arrived on time, was sworn in (among other prepositions I'm sure), and left with my first badge since cub scouts.  I'd attach it to the fridge to show off to my family if I didn't think a magnet would ruin it.

Tomorrow I'm off to the Foreign Service Institute to begin detailed administrative training.  The next big items on the agenda are to select a health plan and figure out what to do about permanent housing.  I heard a rumor that OBO might want 1 or 2 engineers to leave immediately, so that might put a hold on housing planning for all of us non-local Construction Engineers until after the orientation, we'll see.

(This post written while listening to Bruce Cockburn [covering] Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

T minus 9 hours

T'was the night before...kickoff, and everyone's waiting through the pregame ceremonies and ads.  We've picked a strange way to spend a two week vacation, but we have several major tasks behind us so it's easier to focus on the path ahead.  Our Colorado house closing is continuing on schedule, which is great.  My wife is set up to start working remotely tomorrow from our temporary housing, so that's good.  Our dogs seem to be adjusting fine.  All systems nominal.

We've been looking at housing to purchase and to rent, however we haven't committed on either front yet as we just aren't sure yet about the first post.  Based on almost everything we've seen it should be DC, but obviously we don't know.  We might have to make a decision soon one way or another, we'll see. 

We've also been following up on a variety of logistical issues: registering our vehicles in Falls Church, licensing our dogs in Falls Church, buying and registering SmarTrip cards for the metro, and other odds and ends.  Nothing major but it all adds up timewise.

I met a couple fellow construction engineers for dinner last night, and met several other specialists in our class at a happy hour event this afternoon - it was great to meet a few people before my first first day of school in a long time.  It's been fascinating to meet people entering the foreign service from a variety of paths: some from private companies like me and some from public service positions, but also some military backgrounds as well as several spouses of current foreign service employees at foreign posts; the spouses have flown in from all over (including New Delhi, Lima, and Nairobi) to attend the orientation.  Very cool. 

Based on the latest collective thinking, I'm expecting the three weeks of orientation to be as follows: Day 1 at Main State (introductions, badges, much walking around, probably kissing a few babies for tourist photo ops) and the rest at the Foreign Service Institute (a campus atmosphere for training, although probably without pickup ultimate games).  I'm no longer expecting to get my bid list in the first week because it would just be a dead giveaway if it listed DC as my only option, and what kind of fun would that be?  It'd be like using an invisible box for presents.  (Note to self: submit invisible box patent.)  My post should be formally announced on orientation's "Flag Day", September 25th.

Exciting times! I'm really looking forward to tomorrow. I'd better try to get some sleep...

(This post written while listening to Nick Drake Time Has Told Me.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

T minus 4 days

The major updates since Friday are:
- We drove from Colorado to Virginia
- We accepted an offer on our house
- We began our permanent house hunting

We took 4 days to drive 1900 miles and visit friends along the way.  The trip had some interesting moments, including:
- watching a cropduster fly alongside us low over farm crops then pull up at the last second to fly over a house
- seeing a car's engine fire by the side of the highway that had started a significant grass fire that was getting fanned by strong winds
- in Maryland on highway 68 east at exit 14, seeing the attractions sign that had a question mark on it

I had a great time on the trip - it was really fun to see so much of the country by car. It did seem odd that over the entire trip, I think I saw far more entire car front bumpers on the side of the road than hubcaps.

We checked into the Oakwood Falls Church complex last night and it's quite nice. Our UAB hasn't arrived yet, but that's fine as it took many trips to unload our cars. We brought WAAAAYHAYYYYHAAYYYYYYY too much stuff. It seems like we barely scratched the surface with our downsizing efforts. We might look like hoarders, but really we're just trying to not be wasteful and throw things out. Hmmm, now that I think about it, that's probably classic hoarder thinking. It's apparently a fine line between being efficient and a hoarder (as well as between clever and stupid). 

Our entire specialist class (the 127th) has started getting email tips from volunteers from the previous class, which is very helpful - I really appreciate the time they're taking to reach out to us noobs. For example, they're suggesting that we keep hard copies of every form we've submitted in case someone needs it. While this is a lot of forms, this isn't hard to do with an adequately-sized Trapper Keeper. Some of my form hard copies are already in HHE so that's not ideal, but I scanned every form I signed so I could reprint them if necessary. 

Yesterday we visited an apartment complex looking at places to buy. 11 to be precise. Today we're going to call and visit some places to rent. Hopefully the answer will present itself soon.

(This post written while listening to Talking Heads Born Under Punches.)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

T minus 10 days

The major updates since Sunday are:
- The movers came on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; we had three major categories of movers: HHE packers, UAB packers, and HHE loaders/shippers
- Our UAB shipped out on Wednesday
- Our HHE shipped out on Thursday
- Tonight is our last night in Colorado for probably quite a while

Okay yeah, it's happening.  I believe it now.  The house is empty.  We slept on our air mattress last night, we cleaned the house today, and we'll be hitting the road tomorrow morning.  Our dogs have never been outside of Colorado before, but I think they're cool with the change.

On Monday around noon I instinctively thought "I need to make sure I record my time for this morning's work."  There were multiple things wrong with that. 

The move went fine as far as we know.  There were some minor complications, like:
1) We had stuff designated to move out of our UAB into our HHE if we were over our allowance, but the movers assured us we were under the 450 pounds.  Then we got a call the next day saying we were over by 90 pounds.  I mean, not even close.  Frustrating to say the least considering we specifically called their attention to the issue and how we weren't sure how exactly to weigh 450 pounds of random items (using a bathroom scale?).  Chalk this one up to experience.
2) The list of prohibited items was broader than we imagined.  Flammable liquids, ammunition, and fireworks - sure.  Matches, lighters, and batteries - no problem.  But their prohibition of just about all liquids, including open bottles of anything, is more limiting than I would've imagined.  Consequently our car will have many more liquids in it that we expected.

The movers liked a local hip hop radio station, and - like all effective advertising - the song I remember the best was played many times and had an extremely repetitive line: "I don't really care".  Not exactly the greatest motivational soundtrack for one's movers - I would've much preferred "Use extra padding on that crystal, yo" - but they seemed to like it.

Here's a free tip I learned during the move: if you don't have enough Gatorade mix for a full bottle, you can pour a little mix straight into your mouth, then take a drink of water, mix it around, and voila!  Now, you might think that wouldn't work - and you'd be absolutely right - but I PROVED that it doesn't work.  Word to the wise (from the unwise).

It turns out our HHE driver has a 1993 rig that he's racked up over 1,078,000 miles on.  Wow.  He also said it gets 5 miles per gallon whether or not he's pulling a load.  I expected it to be significantly different from a conventional car, but I didn't expect numbers like that.  Interesting.

We're still undecided on whether to buy or rent.  The general pros and cons of both are pretty obvious, but on one facet, we think it could be great to rent and experience different parts of the DC metro area.  Renting offends our equity-building sensibilities, but we might have to get over that.  The uncertainty of how long we'll be in DC isn't helping our Kepner-Tragoe decision making flow chart nomograph either.  We'll do some house hunting next week and see what makes sense, particularly assuming we'll need something as of about Sep 30th.

Alright it's time to get some sleep before The Drive begins.  If the adventure hasn't begun already, it clearly will tomorrow.

(This post written while listening to Waka Flocka Flame I Don't Really Care.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

T minus 15 days

The major updates from the past week are:
- I had my last day at my company
- I submitted my pre-employment forms
- This all became real when I sold our 105-pound plasma tv (a weight that's not exactly conducive to moving)

I recognize there were many signs before now that indicated this was all "real".  Flying to DC to interview, going through the medical and security clearances, signing the appointment offer saying I agree to join, and scheduling the movers.  But when I sold my baby...er, the plasma, that did it.

Another sign: I'm officially in between jobs.  Surreal.  Exciting.  There are a great many words that apply.  It was hard to leave everyone, but we think the experience will be worth the change.  I'll also find ways to keep in touch with everyone, like this website.

I don't have many administrative updates this week; I had a few questions on the pre-employment forms that got answered late last week so I turned them in this week.  As it turns out, I only had to turn in 15 of the 23 forms at this point.  Nice.

It's just two weeks before starting orientation.  As a reminder of the overall schedule:
2011-Dec-16: Construction Engineer vacancy announcement closed
2012-Apr-19: Passed Oral Assessment
2012-Jun-12: Notified that I was added to The Register
2012-Jul-13: Received official appointment offer e-mail
2012-Aug-22: Submitted pre-employment forms
2012-Aug-28-30: UAB and HHE packing
2012-Sep-1-4: Drive from Denver to DC (Note to State security: don't worry, I won't post stuff like this in the future.  I believe I'm anonymous enough at this point that it doesn't matter.  Then again, I believe a lot of things...)
2012-Sep-10: First day of orientation

At this point in the process, we're entirely focused on moving.  This hasn't been an ordinary move for us as we're downsizing dramatically: we're expecting to live in about 1/3 of our current space.  Good thing we like each other.
The packers will be here Tuesday through Thursday and we're not exactly sure what we're in for.  We're trying to create three piles: travel/car stuff, UAB (short term shipping), and HHE (long term storage).  We've read various bits of advice for improving the experience, such as tagging items with different-colored sticky notes, buying donuts, and offering massages.  We're just so mired in the minutia now that it's hard to see the forest.  It seems a bit wrong that I'm looking forward to an 1800-mile drive as a vacation (although now that I think about it, we did almost exactly the same thing in Ireland a few years ago) (although now that I think about that, the 1800 miles in Ireland was over two weeks, not four days).  For some examples of this week's logistical items:
- Encrypted our external hard drives and USB drives (yeah, I know - my techie friends will be very disappointed in me for not doing this sooner)
- Reviewed our files and shredding many boxes of old records
- Sold and gave away many more items, requiring varying amounts of effort

In the haze and haste of our packing extravaganza, my wife pointed out tonight's thought-provoking/accidental centerpiece for dinner:


For my final retrospective on the top practical jokes in my 15 years at my current company:

1 - The Box.  The same deviously-minded co-worker I referred to last week quickly developed a reputation as a practical joker with a variety of tricks: graphite-coated vaseline on eyeglasses and phone earpieces, decorating unsuspecting people's motorcycles, and various other ideas.  This was early in our company's life, when were were about 10 people total.  He engaged one of our bosses who worked in the office next to his and the war of jokes went back-and-forth.

In reviewing this early history with a different co-worker close to the situation, I recently discovered an unusual twist: I may have triggered a significant step in the evolution.  I noticed that the practical joker happened to have a skylight over his desk, and that he wedged a piece of foam board in the skylight opening to reduce the amount of light in his area.  For reasons I can't quite explain, I decided to remove the board, pour all of the hole punch paper dots I could find on top of the board, and very carefully wedge it back in place.  He blamed the ensuing mess on the boss he'd been battling with, and evidently it prompted a major retaliatory strike.  Oopsies.

He ended up developing the Little Boy of the exchange: a certain type of box rigged with a modified rat trap and internal platform that could "deliver a payload".  It was ingenious.  He described the extensive testing required to get the right tension for the trigger mechanism.  After selecting a payload, he carefully applied labels to the box addressed to our boss to make it look like it was from a contractor.  He picked a perfectly random day to set it on his desk after the mail had arrived.  I was in an office one door away when he opened it.

The sound was incredible.  Not the boss' moaning, which was very satisfying in itself.  My jaw dropped as I heard the sound of the hundreds if not thousands of tiny bird seeds bouncing on the plastic desk chair mat.  No vacuum was powerful enough to clean them all.  We moved offices years later and our boss was still finding bird seed _in books_ in the bookshelf behind his desk.  I discussed payload options later with my co-worker, and we agreed he was right to not use toner.  After The Box, peace was achieved.

Fast forward several years to an office holiday party.  I started a white elephant gift exchange that we've continued for, well, 15 years now.  My co-worker suggested that he resurrect The Box, and evidently we didn't think the worst thing that could happen was all that bad.  We'd grown to over 20 people but we still felt like we knew everyone well enough that the joke would be appreciated no matter who opened it.  We had no way of controlling who would pick a given present, so my co-worker prepared the box, wrapped it, and set it with the rest of the gifts.  Most of the office participated, so we sat down for the gift exchange and a name was drawn at random to start it as usual.  When we realized the first name was the same boss who'd received the bird seed box years ago, the three of us that knew about the box went into high alert.  The boss got up, walked over to the stash of about 20 boxes...and picked The Box.  I barely contained myself as he unwrapped the box, set it in front of him, and opened it.  Once again it launched its payload, which this time was a combination of bird seed and paper hole punches.  It ran into his lap and down his shirt.  Everyone howled with laughter, it was unbelievable: the odds seemed so vanishingly small, yet it obviously was possible.  It was a very proud moment for The Box maker.

This goes down as the top practical joke for me because of not only the history and the incredible odds of the same boss picking first and choosing The Box, but because of the impressive legacy: every time anyone in our office who was there opens any box, they do so very, very carefully.


(This post written while listening to The Cure Fascination Street.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

T minus 22 days

The major updates from the past week are:
- We scheduled our moving dates (starting just 9 days away) and had our pre-move survey with the mover
- We reviewed real estate options in the Virginia area and discussed related issues with an agent
- We established our new bank account in DC (that we assume will be more conducive to international management issues than our Colorado bank)
- We continued our massive possession downsizing efforts

This will be my last week at my company.  While it's quite hard to believe, the change became much more real to me when we scheduled the movers.  The self-imposed level of effort is a bit staggering, but I can't help but feel we have it incredibly easy compared to a family with kids.  That has the sound of a classic horror story setup.

Unfortunately our house is still not yet under contract.  This will be a nuisance (to put it mildly) if we haven't sold our house by the time we need to fund our permanent housing in DC.  We also still have a variety of extra furniture we've been unable to sell.  This will also be a nuisance if we move furniture to DC and then have to try to sell it there.  Logistics.

For this week's retrospective on the top practical jokes in my 15 years at my current company:

2 - Chickens.  My co-worker had a great relationship with his two sons.  In addition to the good times, he also had to mete out his share of parental guidance (punishment).  The story goes that, when his sons misbehaved, he would sometimes make them move a stack of cement blocks from one side of the backyard to another - and then back again.  He was also arguably the ring leader of practical jokes around the office, with a particularly devious - or creative - mind, depending on how you look at it.

Along came his 50th birthday: his sons and co-workers decided this would not be a single-day celebration.  In fact a seven-day celebration was in order, with each event building to a crescendo.  His co-workers went to great ends to make a conventional mess of his office, which was all in good fun.  We weren't involved in all of the events, so we waited to hear the stories.  One morning he came in a bit late after his sons had stacked a pile of cement blocks behind his truck overnight - he had to move them before he could get out of his driveway.

The next morning I was in early and happened to be present when one of his sons brought into his office - you guessed it - two chickens.  Let your imagination run wild with the absurdity and you'll begin to get a feel for what it was like.  Two doors down from my office, the chickens started by bawk-BAWKing, then settled down to clucking, then eventually just murmured quiet chicken sounds with occasional outbursts.  Trying to get work done was like trying to sleep in a hotel with random loud noises in the hallway - just as I settled in a bit, a chicken's bawk-BAWK would resonate down the hall.  Eventually I was laughing so hard I was crying.  I called a friend to try to convey the scene but I couldn't control my hysterical laughter and I had to hang up.

When he arrived, he knew something was wrong because his door was closed.  He carefully opened the door and saw the pictures below. 


After he stopped swearing, he got some work gloves from his truck, closed the door to his office, and started trying to catch the two chickens.  For the rest of us, this was a glorious flashback to the days of old-time radio before television, when the listener heard all of the sounds and imagined the pictures.  What I neglected to imagine was that an excited chicken getting chased would poop on the floor, desks, and even mid-way up the walls.

He did catch them eventually (the chickens, not the sons) and they were released to some homeowners a block away from our office who actually had chicken coops (strange zoning for central Denver); no chickens were harmed.  He then spent some significant time cleaning his office.  I must say to his sons: bravo gentlemen.  Bra-vo indeed.

You might think that was the end of it, but no.  Evidently the sons had two more days planned.  Rumor had it a goat was somehow planned for one of them.  However, the sons felt their message of love had been received and they skipped the final two rounds.  Raising the alert level to Chicken was adequate: a Goat Alert was unnecessary.

(This post written while listening to The Samples Finest Role.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

T minus 29 days

The major updates from the past week are:
- I received many responses to questions I posted to AAFSW Livelines
- We had our Clean Out the Bar party last night, which means I have just two weeks left at work
- My parents surprised us by showing up unannounced for the party, what an incredibly fantastic surprise!

I'm still working on resolving official questions on the pre-employment forms, packout scheduling, and other issues, but I'm very hopeful these issues will land this week.

AAFSW's Livelines Yahoo group has already been a great resource: many people responded to my questions on pre-orientation concerns.  I can't stress enough how much I appreciate the time so many members spent responding.  Obviously it's really reassuring to have information in a time of major flux.  I've forwarded the info to three other Construction Engineers in our September class - we're forming a concensus of opinion on what to prepare for and what we might expect.  For example, based on the AAFSW responses, we're expecting to complete the three week orientation class then start immediately at the Office of Construction Management.  This should mean our temporary housing per diem allowance will end, and we'll need to find permanent housing around the end of September.  Based on this, my wife and I are planning on getting to DC a few days before the orientation class starts to get hunting.

Unfortunately our Colorado house is still on the market.  Apparently SOMEone must've listed its haunting on the MLSS.  Er...wow, this is embarrassing, BUT evidently I have to be crystal clear on this: I'm joking about the haunting.  Thanks Stambovsky v. Ackley.  Thanks a lot.  *facepalm*


I'm afraid I'm going to defer this
week's retrospective on the top practical jokes at my current company.  This afternoon I attended a memorial for a 36 year old friend who passed away.  My deepest condolences go to his wife and seven children.


(This post written while listening to Nick Drake Fruit Tree.)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

T minus 36 days

The major updates from the past week are:
- I got my appointment offer e-mail!
- I got my revised appointment offer e-mail!
- I got my revised appointment offer mailed package!

The appointment offer is the conventional employment offer.  It included or referenced 23 forms to complete.  Wow.  Off we go!

This is definitely seeming much more real now.  I have only three weeks left at work and only four weeks until we leave for DC.  I like to think that we've been diligent about our house cleaning and organizing, but our To Do list seems to be piling up faster than we're Doing, largely because of unanticipated issues that are pretty obvious in hindsight.  For example:
- We'd like to open a DC checking account that's geared for heavy traveling before we're in DC (we have this handled now)
- We need a new home mailing address to complete forms that are due before I start BUT we won't have our full temporary housing address until I start (we have this handled now...I think...only time will tell if The Plan works)
- We need to really start distinguishing between the three categories of all of our stuff (without physically labeling everything because our house is still on the market):
 1) Stuff we're bringing with us in our cars
 2) Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) = 450 pounds of relatively small stuff to be shipped
 3) Household Effects (HHE) = long-term storage until training ends

We have lists everywhere for everything we've thought of so far.  (Hey, whaddya know: there IS an app for that.  We haven't actually been using it, but we probably should.)  Our recycling can is overflowing, and we've been very good about filling our garbage can each week with things we should've gotten rid of long ago.  I posted 9 things to Craigslist today alone (one of which already sold).  We've decided that our Clean Out the Bar party next weekend will include a silent auction for an incredible amount of stuff we don't need and haven't taken to Goodwill yet.  Looking for an inflatable globe beach ball?  Maybe you haven't [re?]discovered croquet yet.  This one's killing me, BUT: my life-size cardboard Han Solo is already in rough shape and I don't think he'll survive many moves - he deserves a nice retirement in a cool, dry place.

For this week's retrospective on the top practical jokes in my 15 years at my current company:

3 - Projects Doppelganger and Latex.  I'm breaking The Rules a bit here by picking two, but you'll get over it eventually.  I spearheaded both, which were played on two of my clients.  Fortunately I happened to know them well.  And lest you get the wrong impression, we're still friends today.

Project Doppelganger was suggested by a friend and I marvelled at its simple beauty.  One of my clients happened to have a lot of pictures of his family in his office.  I know what you're thinking.  "Did he have six pictures or only five?"  Well, to tell you the truth, with over 20 photos I kind of lost track myself.  So I printed 21 different pictures of myself (as many as I could find - it wasn't easy) and made a few extra copies, got into his locked office while he was out, and changed them.  It was disturbing.  And hilarious.  To me.

Project Latex celebrated another client's 50th birthday by filling his cubicle with almost 1000 balloons.  After you get the hang of it, it's not hard to add confetti to the balloons as you fill them with an air compressor.  They only very rarely blow up in your face and spray confetti everywhere.  And I do mean everywhere.  But this project wasn't completely without consideration to the victim: I included a balloon-deflating tool to help with the demolition - a small pet cactus.  Of course, it might've been more useful if I hadn't buried it under the balloons.  And on the seat of his chair for good measure.  This community effort included other quality additions like boxing up his work boots and gloves behind a sign reading "In Case of Non-Administrative Work, Break Glass".  We weren't completely heartless: we left a ShopVac so he could clean up after the mess he made.  Good times.


(This post written while listening to The Clash The Magnificent Seven.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

T minus 43 days

The major updates from the past week are fairly vague:
- We've had several people look at our house, but no offers yet (it's only been one week)
- The effort to weed out our old stuff is ongoing and substantial
- We're coordinating with a variety of contacts soliciting advice on relocation questions

The change isn't quite real yet.  There's increasing evidence that something big is coming, like the water level dropping before the wave.  The constellation of options is starting to resolve into a plan and it's very exciting.  Unfortunately this weekend we had a relative pass away so the excitement is muted.  In time, this too will pass.

For this week's retrospective on the top practical jokes in my 15 years at my current company:

4 - Operation Ding Dong (a.k.a. Operation Tin Cup).  While the idea wasn't ground-breaking, the breadth of involvement was spectacular.  One box of aluminum foil from CostCo covers an amazingly - and disturbingly - large area.  This was the caliber of joke that really made people think twice about scheduling a vacation.



(This post written while listening to Peter Himmelman This Too Will Pass.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

T minus 50 days

We're considering doing a documentary called "It's a Logistical Life".  The major updates from the past week are:
- We have reservations for temporary housing starting on September 8th,
- Our house is on the market,
- I submitted by resignation letter (with my last day 5 weeks away), and

- I now own several suits.  (I know, this one's the real shocker.)

The temporary housing at Oakwood Falls Church looks sweet.  Its best amenity has to be that it has steam room.  In DC.  Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of steam rooms, but DC in the summer seems like it's probably one big steam room.  I'm imagining a "Steam Room" sign on a door that leads outside to a lawn chair under a boiler exhaust vent.  It might be better than that.  Especially in the winter.

I'm already feeling pretty sentimental about leaving the company I've worked at for over 15 years and one client I've worked with for over 10 years.  It's interesting: I haven't had strong feelings like this since high school.  It's invigorating, actually, and it affirms my decision to make the change.  To explain part of what I'll miss, over the next few weeks I'll explain the top 5 practical jokes (IMHO) we've played on each other over the years.

It's hard to choose just 5 because there are so many excellent candidates, such as:
- when my coworkers used Liquid Nails to glue cardboard boxes together in my new office doorway to block my access (because I was conveniently on vacation during an office move)
- covering the office and parking space of one of my bosses with CU posters because he went to CSU
- when a coworker brought his dog into his office then took the dog to the vet, at which point another coworker placed a few heated and hand-molded Tootsie Rolls under his desk where the dog had been sitting...
- when an overly enthusiastic coalition of my coworkers and clients moved a wide variety of old equipment into my office then added a "Storage Closet" sign to my office door

- when a coworker added a urinal splash pad at the bottom of a tall, narrow, trickling water fountain in our office foyer with a label "Demonstration Unit - Urinal Fountain"
- when my coworkers decorated my 400cc (i.e., relatively small) motorcycle with handlebar tassles, a bike flag, a bike horn, and clothespins with my business cards so they would slap the wheel spokes

5 - Curb Feelers.  This was my introduction to the practical joke big league.  One of my bosses had just gotten a new Pontiac Grand Am, and he was, um, "enjoying its sporty ride"?  He hit a curb while he was driving with a coworker and word spread to the rest of the office.  Another coworker suggested curb feelers could be added for his safety and the mission was accomplished.  As he drove home that night, he called his brother and held his cellphone out the window so his brother could hear the awful noise of one of the curb feelers scraping on the ground as it had slid out of position.  (Practical jokes on cars were informally outlawed after this.)



(This post written while listening to The Smiths A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

T minus 57 days

We're already caught up in the whirlwind of change and it's only been two days.  It's exciting...until it gets too exciting and then it's scary...which gets exciting...until...

I think we're almost over the initial shock now.  I'm incredibly appreciative of getting about two months' notice.  It'll give us time to get rid of 21 years of possessions we've accumulated in Colorado that we won't need or want in our new life.  Well, "new life" is a bit extreme - it's not like we'll get issued Witness Relocation Program hats.  But odds are we won't need a pool table.  (If you're interested in a pool table, let me know.)

The biggest questions/issues we've identified at this point are:
- How long will it take for our house to sell (which will determine when my wife can come out to DC with me, which will affect shipping our stuff, which will...you get the idea).
- What we'll do for long-term housing because of our two dogs.  Let alone not knowing whether we'll be in DC for one year or two, and not knowing in which building(s) I'll work, among other things.

We're still pouring through the State documentation trying to make sense of it all: at this point we're mostly referring to the Career Candidate Guide they gave me after the interview and It's Your Move.

Alright time to get back to work on the house.  This might be the most fun I've had doing housework ever though.

(This post written while listening to Prince Let's Go Crazy.)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I'm in!

I got The Call from DC yesterday afternoon, followed by the official employment appointment e-mail!  Followed by some significant celebration while re-reading page 15 of the 2012 ACEC presentation and playing with a world map app.  This is freakin' awesome.  (Except that I don't think it's cool to say "awesome" anymore.  It might not be cool to say cool either.  W/e.)  The training class will start on Monday, September 10th, followed by my initial post in Washington D.C.

While I'm insanely excited about the change, I must say that I can't help having regrets about leaving my company.  I've worked with them for 15 years, and I've worked with one client for over 10 years.  This is the only job change I've ever pursued because the experience has been so good.  My company has been incredibly supportive of my Foreign Service pursuit...almost _too_ supportive (just kidding).  It'll be tough to leave, but I'll obviously try to make the transition as smooth as possible.

The e-mail indicates I have 3 days to accept the employment appointment or I will be considered to have declined the offer.  The e-mail includes the phrase "Please review the salary determination Standard Operating Procedure 134B..." - I suppose I'll be adapting quickly to this jargon in the near future.  My acceptance response has to include an updated resume along with other information so I guess I'd better get to it.

Surreal.  But fortunately, real.  And I do feel very fortunate, including about getting almost two months' notice.  The next two months are going to be very busy.  Time to get the house on the market and learn as much as possible about relocating (me, my wife, and our two dogs) to D.C.  More to come!

(This post written while listening to LMFAO Sexy and I Know It.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Register update

I got an update from my registrar today and it's pretty exciting:
- I'm currently ranked 3 of 5 on the register,
- Seven construction engineers will be invited to the September 2012 specialist orientation class, and
- Offers for the class will be sent out soon.

Hoping for the best...maybe sometime next week...

(This post written while listening to Peter Himmelman Weight of the Wait.)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Patience test...

I got an e-mail this morning indicating Greg posted the following comment (although for some reason I can't see it now):
"Just found out I made it onto the register as well (#2/4). From the sound of it, there will be a September class for engineers and the invites should start going out after 16 July."


Congrats Greg, that's outstanding!  Although I expect I'm probably #3 at this point, I'm hoping State still wants to fill 7 spots...and that I stay above #8.

I haven't gotten (or requested) any additional info since my last entry.  Two weeks ago my registrar indicated managment had not yet decided on whether or not the September specialist training class will be held, and indicated more information should be available around the middle of July.  Consistent with Greg's comment: at least two more weeks.  Bummer.

I'm thinking this is all part of the assessment: can I survive the wait to determine if my life will change radically.  I'm trying to smile for the traffic cameras they're surely using to monitor my movement and behavior, but it's tough.  I have to passify my anticipation by looking at things like this State presentation at this year's ACEC conference: check out slide 15 showing 2012 and 2013 projects.  MajuroSrsly?

By the way, here's a quick shout out to all the State staff outside the U.S.: hope you have a great 4th!  Based on what I've read, 4th of July celebrations at embassies can involve months of planning and effort.  Thinking about their situations brings a new appreciation to what the 4th means for me, with reminders to avoid complacency and feelings of entitlement.  This represents part of what makes this position so appealing to me: there are a lot of fascinating perspectives around the world I'd like to understand better.

Time for me to get back to waiting.  More [information] soon hopefully.

(This post written while listening to Gogol Bordello Start Wearing Purple.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On The Register!

Well, a lot has happened since my last post.  Let's review a detailed timeline to date:
2011-Nov-09: Construction Engineer vacancy announcement opened
2011-Nov-27: I submitted my application
2011-Dec-16: Construction Engineer vacancy announcement closed
2012-Mar-23: Invited for Oral Assessment on Apr-19
2012-Apr-19: Passed Oral Assessment
2012-May-02: Submitted medical clearance documentation for me
2012-May-07: Submitted medical clearance documentation for my spouse
2012-May-21: Contacted by security investigator
2012-May-22: Interviewed by security investigator
2012-May-30: Construction Engineer vacancy announcement opened again
2012-Jun-05: Received worldwide medical clearance
2012-Jun-12: Received e-mail notification that my case has been approved by the final review panel, and my register letter will be sent by postal mail

Wow, on so many levels.  Based on what I've read, the process timeline can vary dramatically.  My experience to date seems to be fast compared to others' experiences.  It's very exciting, however I don't have an [unconditional] appointment offer yet.  In fact, there are many things I don't know at this point, including:
- my "rank order", which is my ranking on the Register compared to other Cleared Candidates
- exactly how many positions State is looking to fill this year (I've read 7, but that was subject to change)
- if State will have funding for the positions
- when the Construction Engineer training would start (I've read September 10th, but I'm not sure about that)

At this point I don't believe there is anything else I can do: I suspect State is completing the suitability review process for other candidates in order to determine the entire rank order (which would determine where I rank compared to everyone else).

Because there isn't anything else I can do, I can ponder why State opened the CE vacancy announcement again.  I assume it's because they didn't get enough candidates from the November 2011 vacancy effort, but of course I don't know (add this to my list above).  But then I wonder if State would have enough Cleared Candidates to justify having a training class this year (add this to my list above too).  With all of these what-ifs, I could...go crazy?  Don't mind if I do...

Nevertheless, I'm incredibly excited because I'm at the final step before an appointment could be offered.  It's been a long trip: an investment of time, money, and mostly emotion that I wouldn't've believed going into it, but things appear to be on track for a fall training class.  Sweet.

(This post written while listening to Richard Cheese Sunday Bloody Sunday.)