Mom’s Transforming Desk

Mom & Dad had this neat desk. I’m not sure how they acquired it–probably a wedding present–but it’s been part of our lives for as long as any of us “kids” remember. At heart it’s a small executive desk, but it’s unusually well-made and has one unexpected feature–it folds out to become a dining room table. For my entire life it was the fanciest piece of furniture my parents owned.

It’s also nearly six decades old. A piece of furniture gets pretty battered if you use it every day for 57 years. Even if it cost a fortune, and even if it’s made of oak.

Mom passed away a couple years ago, and basically left everything to everyone. The desk was one of the easy pieces to settle: Debbie wanted to preserve it, while Richard and I had/have no interest in it whatever. We both recognize the quality, but it won’t fit well in our offices, it needs to be refinished, and the emotional connection’s pretty weak. Debbie’s office needs are different (she’s a preacher-in-training), and she’s clearly more attached to the desk than we are. That’s fine.

All this came up last weekend as Joan and I were helping Debbie move. Debbie still can’t believe I don’t want the desk….

Revision History:

Varsity

Spring 1974: Mom & Dad were about to leave on vacation–New Orleans, I think–when Mom handed me a couple twenties and said I should get my bike working while they were gone. Not sure what provoked the assignment, but it’s fair to say it changed my life….

The bike in question was a Schwinn Varsity. Dad had purchased it for me in 1968, for my use as transportation around St. Paul during my sophomore year at Macalester. The bike had served me well over the years, but had deteriorated to the point I couldn’t ride it any more.

The first task was simple repair. Didn’t know anything about maintaining bikes, then, so I hied off to the bookstore and collected a couple bicycle repair manuals. With their assistance I was able to get the bike apart, cleaned, lubed (with STP!), reassembled, and back on the road. It was immediately clear that the rear derailleur–a (Schwinn Approved) Huret Alvit–was past any hope of repair, and the rear wheel was similarly hopeless. Not knowing what it would cost to replace these parts, I started calling bicycle shops and describing my problem.

By far the most helpful responses came from Bernie (Baisch) Stevenson, one of the owners at Alfred E. Bike, who seconded one of my books’ recommendation that SunTour made the best shifters, reassured me that the changer would work on my bike, and quoted me a far better price than any other shop. So I found my way to the shop and spent most of the 40 bucks, came back, and had things working when Mom got back to Kalamazoo.

For the next couple years, the Varsity became my main transportation. I was working on political campaigns for most of ’74; in ’75 I became active in the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club–succeeding to President when John Busack graduated from college and moved away. Another time’s story….

Late in 1975 this bike was stolen, and the new Assenmacher replaced it as my main transportation. Can’t say I missed the old bike, but it was a trusty and reliable old friend for many years.

Revision History:

Akers Memories

My family was active in a Kalamazoo area political action group called Action Now. A fairly careful web search found only one mention of the organization. So I’m following up on that site’s mention today.


I don’t think I knew Brian Dana Akers in the 1970s, but since I was working closely with his brother and knew his parents socially it’s pretty likely I met him once or twice. Anyway, he’s grown up to write science fiction and has a lengthy online autobiography on his personal website. About a quarter of the way down the page is a word portrait of his father, Owen, which includes Action Now in a long list of organizations Owen participated in. Brian’s father was as remarkable as the portrait suggests. What I think the portrait misses is that Owen’s heavy workload was fairly seamless; I had contacts with him in several of his roles and he was always the same person, working on the same causes, and finding reinforcement from his friends and colleagues as he moved from meeting to meeting. A strenuous life, yes, and not everyone loved Owen Akers, but many did.

Brian’s summation is all too true:

When someone like this dies, it’s like standing on the rim of a huge crater. Only as the crater recedes into the past do the survivors comprehend the size of the hole in their lives, appreciate the death’s force of impact, and realize all that was vaporized.

More, though. Owen was an inspiration to his friends, and to some of his opponents. That did not end when he perished.


I spent years doing political organizing. Brians’ brother, David, was one of my colleagues in those efforts–he was the key voter registration and get out the vote organizer whose activities complemented our voter contact efforts in the early 1970s. That I had his respect was always a source of satisfaction, for Dave’s commitment to the work was far greater than mine. David Akers was a formidable organizer, bringing talent and passion to everything he touched. David was quite different from his father, but equally committed to his father’s causes.

We lost contact when I moved to Lansing. I’m saddened to learn that he died fairly young.


Postscript: While I was working on this essay, iTunes delivered Rhonda Vincent’s performance of Carl Story‘s If You Don’t Love God:

If you say you love Him while you hate your neighbor
then you don’t have religion. You just told a lie.

Fitting.

Revision History:

Heart Warming

Yesterday’s mail brought this correspondence from my health care provider:

A review of your request for an inpatient admission at [hospital name] has been completed.  It has been determined, based on current guidelines, medical policies and/or your Certificate of Coverage, that this service with the above listed provider is eligible for Benefit Coverage.

This approval is subject to the terms, conditions, limitations, and exclusions of the benefit contract at the time services are provided and is based upon the information [health plan] has at this time.  This approval is not a guarantee of payment.  New information and/or changes in existing information may result in a different decision when the claim is received and reviewed.  The above approval number must be included when submitting the claim for payment.

The decision to pay a provider claim is made only after the services have been rendered and the claim has been received in the appropriate form (electronically or in writing) and with sufficient information to make a payment determination.  [Health plan] pursues coordination with other carriers as appropriate.

Services not listed above require additional approval.  A member may be billed only for applicable copayments, deductibles and/or services that are not a covered benefit.

So they sent my heart attack to a committee, decided I was probably sick, and are likely to pay my bills.  Then sent me a form letter written by a lawyer.  That’s reassuring.

Revision History:

An Age of Wonders

On Sunday afternoon, Dr. Duane Berkompas, his surgical team, and a host of other players saved my life.  I was in no condition to be taking notes, or I’d list everyone by name.

Regardless, here’s the general overview:

Thanks, everyone.  Truly an age of wonders.

Revision History:

Once Upon a Time: a reporting story

Lessons

I’ve mentioned before that we have an ad hoc reporting/data mining tool on our mainframe. We’ve been using the system for about fifteen years, and at any given time there are three or five analysts on the business side who might be called expert users. Another handful use the tool regularly for very specific tasks, and there are always a couple dozen “users” who have access to the program but rarely or never use it. Every eighteen months or so George, our DBA, discovers there’s enough demand to justify teaching another group of users and sets up a class for the five or dozen folks who’ve been designated by their managers.

For several years, now, George has led off the class with a cautionary tale: Once upon a time, George, Randy, and Joel–all of whom were (still are!) believed to be both capable and knowledgeable–came up with significantly different estimates of the impact a major change in departmental procedures. Although our queries were technically similar, the results were so dissimilar that all three estimates were suspect. Circumstances forced us to take this disagreement public, which our superiors found annoying.

George treats this as a lesson in the need to establish standards. There may be other lessons.


Study

Our DBA’s typical involvement in a project begins with “George, we need to know how many records meet these criteria.” George asks questions until he understands the issue, runs some queries, and comes back with some numbers. Those get plugged into equations, and the staffing and budget estimates get populated with “real” data.

Of course, George is rarely the only person running these queries. I may have been involved in the project meetings, and perhaps been asked to provide estimates and analysis. Randy & Chase, who work in other bureaus, bring similar backgrounds and similar skillsets to our projects; often they’ve been in those meetings and may have run queries about the changes as well. (On other projects you might find Lucy paired with Sharon, but their story’s similar.) Our numbers get compared, we puzzle out the differences, and management goes with the numbers which seem best. Whatever “best” means.

Once upon a time, a revised drunk driving law completely changed the legal logic of one of our core activities. While I wasn’t on the project team, I sat with most of the key players and was supporting their efforts in many ways–offering advice, attending meetings, identifying example cases, running tests, assisting the training effort. (It’s fair to say this project defined Second AT.) Eventually it became clear we’d need thousands of example records, so I created a comprehensive list of every relevant record and generated presorted printouts of sample records. In the process I acquired/created a more-or-less complete local database of record summaries pertinent to the change in legislation.

‘Twasn’t an easy problem. The legislation identified four distinct behavior patterns which needed regulation. Three of the patterns were affected by the peculiarities of individual licensing histories; two of these extended existing practice, the third simplified a process which had gotten hopelessly messy. The fourth pattern, while simpler in design than the modified processes, was a completely new concept for the agency and we had little useful summary data for benchmarking purposes. A record might contain more than one of the four patterns–and (under the law) we might or might not care about that overlap. Another complication, for predictive (budgeting) purposes, is the design of our driver databases: While they often contain several years’ history for an individual driver, they are intended as a current snapshot of his or her record. Any history which isn’t relevant to that purpose is regularly purged. If the research question runs back more than two years, this purge might have considerable impact on the study result. So part of the art of querying our databases is constructing plausible reconstructions of that missing history. In this project, that missing data was the precise issue of the change in the law.

We constructed similar queries, as it turned out. Our results were surprisingly different:

  • George estimated the initial impact at 80,000 drivers.
  • Randy estimated the initial impact at 120,000 drivers.
  • I estimated the initial impact at 150,000 drivers.

Why the differences? Filters, mostly.

  • George badly underestimated the impact of the (missing) historical data. His estimates, extrapolated from a seven-year sample, grossly miscalculated some of the context.
  • Randy had the best grasp of the historical data–he’d been tracking some of the relevant information over time, for other purposes–but he wasn’t in a position to estimate the new (fourth) pattern’s impact. For the calculations he was able to make, he was able to build an acceptable estimate of a forty year window, based on ten years’ data. Quite frankly, this is a really impressive accomplishment, though I think only George and I appreciated it.
  • The bulk of my difference with Randy resulted from my ability to generate a passable estimate of the fourth pattern. This is because my bureau agreed to pay to run an expensive query on the mainframe’s database. In places where our estimates could be directly compared, Randy’s numbers were consistently a bit higher than mine.

George’s story ends here. Mine doesn’t.


Politics

All offices have internal politics. Our operation is embedded in “real” politics, which sometimes generates chaos. While the legislature’s (usually) not deliberately disrupting our budgets, they’re also not (usually) very concerned about those disruptions.

One reason I was making estimates was that our bureau would be most directly affected by the changes, and our director wanted “independent” numbers for her budgeting purposes. Since the project manager–Randy’s boss, as it happens–had been heavily involved in the legislative negotiations, my bureau’s management considered her to be “married” to the legislative staff’s budget estimates, which everyone considered too low. (We all have our own pressures.) Our manager also had a raft of related questions which she could more conveniently run past me than Randy, and (as noted above) I was explicitly tasked to identify sample records for the test team.

As I was completing my analysis of my data, the PM authorized a mailing based on an 80,000 estimate. I hit “reply to all” and opined that the estimate was low, and supported the opinion with “better” data. I also pointed out that there were three estimates available and suggested that someone ought to figure out why we differed before committing to any of them. The fallout wasn’t pretty:

  • Almost immediately I heard from the PM’s Chief of Staff, who’d been my boss for several years. Ben was sounding me out, not trying to persuade. We all have our own pressures.
  • Janet wasn’t much concerned about the disagreement, but she made it real clear she wasn’t pleased with my “reply to all” response. She’s not one to take arguments public.
  • My bureau’s manager thanked me for defending her interests. That she was Janet’s boss at this time perhaps explains why I didn’t get drawn and quartered over this dispute.
  • Randy had a similar chat with his boss/the PM.
  • The PM–an old friend, actually, though we’ve a long history of disagreeing in public–called and politely thanked me for my input. She adjusted her numbers. Slightly.

Aftermath

After the dust settled, George, Randy, and I got together and wrote up an after-action report. Everyone’s reputation survived the experience.

Who got it right? None of us, really, though Randy was in the right range on his data and I did well on the new programming. The programmers figured out that we’d missed a critical parameter, which skewed the numbers in an unexpected direction.

My database had an ongoing life; we were running queries on it for another year. It may have been expensive to create, but we got excellent milage out of it.

Revision History:

Hacking the Azalea Quince

When Dad died, someone gave Mom an Azalea to honor his memory.  Mom planted it, tended it, cared for it; things didn’t work out.  After a couple years of fighting for and with the plant, it was still just a twig in the yard.  Mom offered it to me; hoping I’d have better luck.

It was just a twig!  I planted it in front of the kitchen window; gave it the usual new-bush care, but didn’t do anything special.  And watched it flourish.  This plant loves my yard; left to its own devices it would grow a couple feet taller each summer.  The birds love it; year ’round, it’s a refuge near enough the feeders for convenience and far enough for protection.  Because it’s so close to the house, we’re always fighting it for space; at least twice a year we cut it back to size.  I’ve been working on that today; first you hack off the worst offenders, then you trim it to a reasonable shape.  I’ve just completed the first step.

Wish I’d planted it farther from the house, so it could reach its full growth.  It’s really a wonderful plant, except a bit problematical.


Addendum 2/7/2011: I’ve learned that the bush is actually a quince, whatever Mom thought. No matter, doesn’t meaningfully change the story.

Revision History:

Someday Soon

My “play a randomly-selected selection you haven’t played yet” playlist has just popped up Ian Tyson’s Someday Soon, the best song on an album I’ve purchased several times.  A short story….

I used the cash I received on my twentieth birthday to buy a book–Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, as it happens–and the then-new Judy Collins album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes.  A few months later I was drafted; bought a second copy of Who Knows in California, then another in Nam.  I’ve also owned copies on other media:  Reel-to-reel tape, cassette, and (of course) compact disk.  That CD now has a twin in iTunes–thus today’s rendition.  Neat.

I’ve nearly as many copies of Bitches Brew, for similar reasons.  Except I don’t play that album nearly as often.  All this probably says something about my relationship with RIAA, or Elektra Records (Collins), or Columbia (Davis).  Or something.  Not sure what, though.

1313 unheard “songs” in iTunes, by the way.  Spending more time in meetings, and less at my desk.

Revision History:

Dale Warland Singers

Another concert I wish I’d attended.  Dale Warland’s retiring, and the Dale Warland Singers sang their last concert yesterday in the Cities.

Courtesy of A Capella News


A couple years back, I bought the DWS recording of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb.  I’d sung the piece in high school; Tom Kasdorf is partial to Britten, and our choir was up to the technical challenge.  In TK’s first rehearsal he introduced us to Christopher Smart‘s  Cat Jeoffry, who’s been following me around ever since. 

When the Warland Singers recording arrived, I picked it up at the post office on my way to work and popped the CD into the player on my desk.  Suddenly, a bit over a minute into the performance, a vision of Dale, in a rehearsal on Macalester’s stage, dancing and chattering the complex rhythms of Britten’s second movement:

Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter….

It was probably our second rehearsal.  We’d stumbled badly on a run-through, and Warland was isolating the technical problems.  We worked on the rhythms for a time, added the words when he was confident we’d mastered the counts, and finally fit the music to the section.  I’d forgotten I’d sung this at Mac.  But I’d not forgotten Dale’s teaching methods.


Best wishes, Dale.  Hope the new career goes as well as the Singers.

Revision History:

Ars Nova

Oh, to have been in Boulder last weekend….

[Thomas Edward] Morgan, artistic director of Ars Nova, masterfully conducted the hushed phrasings of the integrated folk influences and traditional chants of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the rich, resounding acoustics of the cathedral, the lambent songs of praise enveloped the audience in a wash of celestial sounds.

The Denver Post/via A Capella News

In January of 1982, while I was busily putting the finishing touches on my B.A. coursework, Tom Morgan was producing and directing Godspell as a for-credit academic project. I ate lunch with Tom and his crew pretty regularly, and Tom kept me up to date on the production’s status. Most likely I told him about Andrew Carnegie, since the steel industry’s early days were dominating my afternoons and evenings–or about Tommy Thompson, whose half-awake music-making–the course was American Folk Music–helped (en)lighten my mornings.  The need to actually finish the Carnegie paper on deadline prevented me from attending Tom’s production, a decision I regretted then, and regret now.

Tom graduated a couple years after me, then moved to Colorado for grad school. He’d send an occasional note to report on his life and share what he’d heard from mutual friends.  Not sure how we lost touch, but it’s probably time to renew the friendship.

Revision History: