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 The very nature of my job means that opportunities for work related travel are extremely limited. I am currently in Seattle on a rare work excursion to visit some of the companies that file applications in the technology I work on (image analysis). These trips are intended to be educational, a chance for us to meet with inventors and attorneys on their turf and learn a bit more about what they do. I'm being paid, but off the production clock, so it should be a relaxing week, sort of a free, paid vacation of sorts. This is only my third such trip during the 27 years I've worked for the Office, and the first that didn't go to Silicon Valley in California.

Yesterday was our travel day, and we flew out on Alaska Airlines on a non-stop flight from Reagan National Airport, which got us here before lunch time. We took advantage of the free afternoon to do some sightseeing, visiting the Space Needle and the Pike Place Market. The weather was incredibly clear, and we got some absolutely breathtaking views of Mt. Rainier throughout the day. Today we start our visits, which will continue through Thursday and we will fly home on Friday.

Downtown Seattle and Mt. Rainier from the Space Needle
I love to travel ( be more precise, I enjoy visiting places; the travel in between isn't always my favorite part), and it has long been my plan to travel more extensively after retiring. It is the biggest reason I plan to retire as soon as I am eligito collect my retirement benefits. I enjoy my work well enough, ble but my life is more than my work, and I want to experience more of the world.

Over the last year we've come to realize that we really don't need to wait for retirement to begin to travel more. Our retirement savings are on track to provide a more than adequate lifestyle after work, and a careful analysis of our current financial situation suggested that we had more than enough money left to begin travelling now. And, with our daughter off in college, we really only have to worry about managing our vacation time from work.

And so, we've actively been trying to plan significantly more travel. We began last fall, right after our daughter went off to school. We took a week and drove to Florida, visiting one of my wife's friends and doing some sightseeing that didn't involve theme parks. Then in November, we flew out to LA, in part to some sightseeing but also to visit one of my friends. And, of course, we took our daughter with us for our annual ski trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

And that's just the beginning. We have a number of additional trips either booked or in the planning stages. Over the last few years, I've done a poor job of documenting my travels, but I'm hoping to do a better job going forward. Watch this space to see where we go next...I'm looking forward to seeing some interesting things in the months ahead.

Perhaps it is a generational thing, but it feels like the newer employees at my office have a different understanding about what constitutes an acceptable level of effort in performing their duties than I do.  I come to this realization based on conversations I’ve had with some of these employees directly and based on general statements my supervisor has made.  For many of these newer employees, they are satisfied if they can satisfy the minimum level of acceptable performance (as defined in our Performance Appraisal Plan).  While the plan includes financial incentives (i.e., awards) for achieving defined levels of exceptional performance, these employees don’t seem to find these to be sufficient motivation to put forth the extra effort.  They argue that they can make more money by working overtime at the minimum acceptable performance level.

I simply cannot understand this mindset.  For me, achieving the higher performance levels is a matter of pride.  While it is nice to get a bonus in my paycheck at the end of the year, that really isn’t my primary motivation.  I believe in always giving my best effort, and I would feel like I was cheating if I gave anything less than that.  I suspect that this approach to the job is part of the reason my supervisors and colleagues seem to respect me so much.  This translates into a great working relationship with them, one that allows me a great deal of autonomy, which helps minimize the stress related to the job.

I have made efforts to explain to some of these newer employees how putting forth your best effort each and every day can help foster positive relationships with supervisors and colleagues, which in turn can smooth the path for a long and enjoyable career.  Some seem to get it, and make an effort to change, but there are others who just don’t seem to get it.  I wonder why.
On June 18, 1990, I reported to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to begin my career as a Patent Examiner.  Many of the details of that first day have faded from my memory, but I do remember having to complete a bewildering stack of paperwork, and I do remember being sworn in as a federal employee.  I'm pretty sure I got to meet my first supervisor that day, and that he took me around to meet the people I would be working with after I completed my initial training.

I know that I was nervous...I had little idea about what to expect from this new job.  I knew very little about patents and patent law, and I was about to go through a rather intense two week introduction to the legal terminology and concepts that would define most of what I would be doing every day on the job.  At the end of that all-too-short training class, I would have to learn on the fly.  I would be handed a patent application and told to examine it.  I remember being overwhelmed, initially, but quickly found my footing, with the assistance of the primary examiner who would become my mentor.

Now, a quarter century later, I have been doing that same job for more than half of my life.  At the beginning of my career, twenty-five years seemed almost impossibly far away, but now it feels as if it has almost flown by.  I have seen so many co-workers come and go.  The Office has relocated from Arlington to Alexandria.  The paper files we relied upon when I started are all gone now, replaced by digital files floating in a computer network.  More and more of my colleagues work from home full-time, scattered across the country...I no longer can just walk down the hall and stick my head in to their office to chat.  The fundamentals of what I do every day remain the same, but at a cosmetic level, it hardly looks like the same job any more.

I have just a bit more than nine years to go before I reach my minimum retirement age, where I can begin collecting my pension.  While I enjoy my job (for the most part), I don't expect that I will linger here very long past that date.  How many more things will change before I retire?  It will be interesting to see the changes, but I expect the time will fly by and a decade from now I'll be looking back at a completed career, wondering where all the time went.
Yesterday was Independence Day, but I found it difficult to give much thought to celebrating the birth of my nation.  I'm feeling a bit strung-out, emotionally, at the end of this week.

Wednesday was an extremely long day, and not just because I was up by 5am and didn't get back to bed until after 2am Thursday morning.  I went to work to finish up somethings before disappearing for several weeks for some much needed vacation time, but I knew it wasn't going to be a normal day at the office.  The week before, the former wife of one of the supervisors in my work unit shot and killed their 7 year old daughter, before killing herself.  While I can't say that I am close friends with my colleague, he is someone I like and, having lost a daughter myself, I felt compelled to go to the funeral as a gesture of support.  Of course, it turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer so far, so that wearing a suit to work for the funeral was a bit uncomfortable, but nothing compared to the burden he now has to endure.

After finishing things up a work, I went home and packed a few days worth of clothes, picked up my daughter from her best friend's (16th) birthday party, had a quick supper of leftovers, and headed out to brave the holiday-heavy rush hour traffic with my daughter as we headed to my parents' house for the weekend.  It took us an hour to work our way around the Beltway into Maryland, but after we squeezed past an accident just before the state line, traffic thinned out quickly and the rest of our trip was uneventful, even though it was 2am before we arrived.  My daughter did about half of the driving, gathering some much needed night-time driving experience.

We were up early on Thursday, with a long day planned.  My brother and his family had been planning to join his longtime friend and his family for a day at the Darien Lakes amusement park, and my daughter and I had been included in the invitation.  My daughter has become a huge roller coaster enthusiast, which is why we drove up on Wednesday night.  We arrived at Darien Lakes under overcast skies, but were hopeful that the weather would clear, which it eventually did, but not until after we had endured a couple of hours of soaking rain.  We did manage to ride all six of the roller coasters in the park, and my daughter got to spend some time with her young cousins on rides more age appropriate for them, but it we were cold and wet, which made for a long day.

Yesterday morning, my daughter and I visited my grandfather at the local nursing home, where he was recently admitted after being in the hospital briefly after a taking a fall in his apartment.  He has become incredibly frail and weak, and the staff does not believe that he will recover sufficient strength to be allowed to return to his home.  He hasn't yet realized that this is his new home, and as my extended family arrived yesterday (for our annual get together this afternoon), my Dad and his brothers had a long discussion about how to break the news to their father.  None of them want to be the one to tell him that he can't return to his apartment and independent life.  They roll-played various possible scenarios, trying to form a plan and to make sure they were all on the same page.  They are planning to visit my grandfather this morning.  My parents are the only ones who live here locally, so it has been their burden to deal with my grandfather's issues by themselves up to this point, and it is clear that it has taken a toll on them.  Combine that with their efforts to close my brother's estate, and it is quite clear that my parents would really appreciate a long respite from any further bad news.

I'm looking forward to the family gathering this afternoon, even though the issues with my grandfather are likely to dampen the mood somewhat.  In addition, a couple of my cousins and their families weren't able to join us this year, and I will miss them.  But even so, it will be nice to catch up with those who are here, sharing stories and laughter.  It is a shame that we don't see each other more often, but we are scattered across several states, and everyone has time and money constraints, so we just have to make the best of the time we do have together.

Our elected "leaders" are suffering from an acute lack of any ability to actually demonstrate any leadership.  We are now in the second week of the third quarter of the Federal fiscal year, and we still do not have a Federal budget.  The government has been operating on temporary spending authorizations thus far, but the current one expires at midnight Friday night, and Congressional leaders have indicated that no further extensions are forthcoming.  We will have a budget, or the government will close.  With just over 48 hours left to the deadline, the budget negotiations appear to be stalled, and a Federal shutdown seems likely.

The last time our politicians played this game was 1995.  Clinton was President and Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, and the resulting closure was 21 days long.  My office remained open through the closure, in part because we generate our own revenue through user fees, rather than rely upon tax revenue allocated from Congress.  To my recollection, as the deadline loomed that time, we were informed early and often that we would remain open, so that I don't remember being concerned on a personal level.

This time, there has been exactly NO information coming from our agency leaders, which I find deeply disturbing.  The contrast to what I remember from last time worries me.  It makes me think that I may well find myself on an unpaid vacation next week.  Even my supervisors are in the dark.  I spoke with one of them yesterday, and he was as frustrated by the lack of information as I was.  He said that it feels like the administration doesn't want to discuss details about a possible shutdown because they don't want to sound like they're admitting it could happen!  I've seen reports in the news media that suggest elements of my agency may remain open, but that just feels like a rumor in the absence of any official information.

If we have a complete failure of leadership and the government does shut down, it is going to create widespread hardship among Federal employees.  The current political climate on Capitol Hill is significantly less friendly to Federal employees that it was in 1995, when furloughed employees were given back pay for the closure period when the budget was finally approved.  That is less likely to happen this time.

Meanwhile, the politicians continue to spew rhetoric and show little, if any, concern for the impact a shutdown will have, both on employees and on the public, who would feel the impact in the reduction in services provided by the Federal Government.  These are real people, with real lives, and our elected representatives are playing politics with them.
Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a link to a Washington Post article about a mom experimenting with public transportation for her high school son. That link generated some great comments that got me thinking about my relationship with the public transportation system.

I have used public transportation to commute to and from my office virtually every workday for almost 12 years now. For many years, my commute involved a combination of city buses and the Metrorail trains. Currently, I'm just using city buses. While I do get a subsidy from my employer to cover the costs of using public transportation, I was already using the system before the subsidies were offered, and I would continue to do so if they were discontinued. There are a number of reasons I prefer public transportation to driving:

  • Exercise - The public buses don't stop in front of my house (in fact, they don't even run on my street), so I have to walk to the end of the street to the nearest bus stop. This fits with my goal of trying to increase my activity level by taking advantage of opportunities to get exercise that arise during my normal day. (I have found that I cannot exercise just for exercise sake, but that's a topic for another post, another day.)

  • Stress - Driving in this area, especially during the peak traffic periods, is VERY stressful. Before I switched to public transportation, when I was driving to work every day, I was becoming a dangerous driver. I suffered from road rage and had become a dangerously aggressive driver. Now, I can read the newspaper or a book, and someone else has to worry about the traffic. My blood pressure is lower, and when I do have to drive, I'm less aggressive and have a more relaxed attitude.

  • Money - With the subsidy, my commute is essentially free. But even without the subsidy, the bus is less expensive than driving. Parking at my office would cost me $100/month. Add in the cost of fuel and maintenance for the car I would need to drive, and driving would be significantly more expensive than the $50-$60/month it would cost me to ride the bus everyday.

  • Intangibles - It doesn't have a big impact, but using the bus every day is my small contribution to improving my community. I'm helping, in my small way, to reduce the traffic volume on our streets, and at the same time, I helping to conserve fuel and reduce pollution. By myself, none of these change things very much, but there is a certain satisfaction from knowing that I'm doing something.

    As for our daughters, their elementary school is only a block up the street, and they've walked to and from school since the very beginning. While we walked with them when they were younger, they've been walking by themselves for more than a year now. However, if you go up to the school at the beginning or end of the school day, you will find cars lining both sides of the street, with parents dropping off or picking up their children. Many of these people live within easy walking distance (some live closer than we do!). Most of them leave their engines idling while they wait (and then complain about when fuel prices go up). I find it very irritating. Not only are they wasting fuel and contributing to our traffic and pollution issues, but they are also training their children to be inactive and lazy, rather than active and healthy. I just don't get it.
  • Patent Office, circa 1925

    Thanks go out to [ profile] melydia for bringing photo above to my attention (click on the photo for a high-resolution view). I love this photograph for several reasons. The setting is remarkable...the old Patent Office building in DC (now home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery). Compared to the relatively sterile modern office buildings we currently work in, this building is a work of art, as is evident from the photo. I would love to work in such a gorgeous building! Our current home is pleasant enough, in its way, but it has none of the character of our original headquarters.

    I'm also struck by the file storage. Our record keeping and file retrieval techniques had barely changed when I started working at the office in 1990. While the files were bar coded and a computer system tracked the location of the records as the bar codes were scanned, we still had to physically move paper files around. Searching the patents involved physically sifting through hundreds of printed paper documents. The change to digital record keeping has been swift and very recent. The patent search system was automated in the late 1990's, and we transitioned our application files from paper to digital only in the last five years.

    Looking at this photo, I can put myself into the shoes of the clerks shown. I spent my share of time digging through shelves of files looking for an application, or digging through piles of documents searching the patents. We are now training a new generation of employees that have no memory of the paper filing systems or of searching physical documents. They only know this job from the perspective of sitting in front of a computer screen. I'm curious what they would make of this picture, and whether they would feel as much connection to it as I do...

    Back again

    Apr. 9th, 2007 03:54 pm
    resqgeek: (Default)
    We're back, and life should be returning to normal, if only briefly. I do want to upload some pictures and write about our trip, but I'm not sure when I'll be able get to that. My wife and I enjoyed our seven day cruise through the Caribbean, with stops at Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios (Jamaica). I ate far to much food, enjoyed the shows, and loved the shore excursions. The long drive home from Miami on Saturday was made longer by the onset of a nasty head cold, so Easter was spent at my MIL's house, quietly suffering while the kids hunted for easter eggs and my wife helped my MIL prepare Easter dinner. I slept in this morning and came to work late (I'm going to claim it as sick leave), and chose not to go to the White House with my wife and daughters. My wife graciously offered to take the books I'd set aside to release this year, so my annual White House releases will continue this year.

    I've spent the day here trying to catch up with the backlog of messages and work. It looks like I'm almost on top of it, and then its back to the usual work patterns (I hope), which should leave me more time to write in more detail about the trip.
    My office made the front page of The Washington Post today, with an announcement of a new pilot program that will allow the public to comment on the merits of pending patent applications. A number of companies have volunteered to allow their applications to enter the pilot program that will allow internet users to review the application contents and provide prior art documentation and comments that are intended to help the examiners make better evaluations of the merits of the application. Recognizing that the system will likely be the target of people trying to game the system, it will include a voting system to attempt to identify the most relevant comments, which will then be provided to the examiner for consideration.

    I'm curious to to see how this program will work out. If well implemented, with good controls to minimize the gaming of the system, it could be a really useful tool that will provide the examiners with the most relevant (and often obscure) documentation into the hands of the examiner. This in turn should improve the quality of the decision making in the examination process and increase the quality of the resulting patents. However, a poor implementation could simply bury the examiner in additional useless documentation that only wastes what limited time is available to evaluate these applications.

    Of course, the only way to evaluate the merits of this pilot program is if people actually use it. The news article doesn't provide any details about when or where the applications will be available, but I suspect that an announcement will be posted on the US Patent and Trademark Office website when the pilot is officially launched.


    Jul. 13th, 2006 07:34 am
    resqgeek: (Default)
    Today is my first full day at the office this week. I spent the last three days attending a technical conference in Old Town Alexandria (about a mile from my office). The Office paid for the conference out of the technical training budget, and it was a nice break from my usual routine, but it limited my on-line access. I've been lurking, reading everyone's entries, but I haven't had time to post much in the way of comments.

    Tuesday night, the conference attendees went on a dessert cruise on the Potomac River, which was included in the conference fee. I've lived in this area for fifteen years, and have never been out on the river (at least not down here by DC and Alexandria), so I decided to go along. I had a fun evening, chatting with the various researchers and engineers about their work, and got to see Washington from a very different point of view. Unfortunately it got dark early in the cruise, and I just couldn't get good pictures from a moving boat in the dark. I'll take a look at what I did get and post any interesting pictures I did get.

    Of course being out of the office for two and a half days allowed things to explode on my desk, so now I've got a number of small fires to put out. I think I can get them taken care of today, and then I can try to get back to my normal routine.


    Apr. 7th, 2006 08:55 pm
    resqgeek: (Sleeping)
    I was thinking about making another entry in [ profile] squirrel_tales tonight, but I simply don't have the energy. My wife is at work, and I've got the girls in bed, and I'm tempted to head straight to bed myself. I've run up against a rough patch at the office. I'm struggling to get enough work done, everything is taking much longer than I want it to, and I'm getting really stressed about it. I was at the office for at least twelve hours every day this week, and I'm beginning to feel like a visitor in my own home. Tomorrow, I have to drive the girls around to their various activities, and try to catch up on my chores around the house. I also have to get the taxes finalized. Then back to the office again on Monday. Ugh!
    What? You look puzzled. Didn't you know that it's the Iranian New Year? Well, now you do.

    One of the things I like about my job is the incredible diversity of the employees here. A few months back, a co-worker from Ethiopia took a bunch of us out to an Ethiopian restaurant to celebrate the retirement of my old boss. Today, it was Iran's turn. I have a number of co-workers who were born in Iran, and every year they invite a bunch of us to join them for lunch at an Iranian restaurant to celebrate the Iranian New Year. Today, a group of about two dozen people from our work unit piled into a bunch of cars and went out to celebrate. We had a variety of Iranian dishes to sample, and I believe we all left the restaurant wishing we were headed home for a nap instead of back to the office to work. The food was fabulous, and the conversation included discussions of Iranian New Year's traditions. All-in-all, quite a fun lunch.
    Today, I set a personal record for my longest commute to work. I started at my parents' house in upstate New York, and ended at my office, some 370 miles away, arriving by 9:40 this morning. It also marks the first time that my commute to work has included an airplane! I was out of bed by 3:30 this morning, so my father could drive my brother and I to the airport in Buffalo. My brother had a 6:00 am flight to JFK in New York City, and I had a 6:30 flight to Baltimore. When I arrived in Baltimore, at about 7:40, I caught a shuttle bus to the Amtrak/MARC rail station located just outside the airport and bought a ticket for the MARC commuter train to Union Station in Washington, DC, where I switched to the subway to my office.

    Except for the early start, it was a very pleasant trip, and I'm happy that I was able to get here in time to work a full day, without making my wife drive up to Baltimore to pick me up. I'm also quite pleased with the price. My one-way airfare from Buffalo to Baltimore was only $57.20 on Southwest Airlines, and MARC and Metrorail added less than $9.00 additional to that cost. At the current gasoline prices, it would have cost more for me to have driven!

    My week

    Oct. 22nd, 2005 08:55 pm
    resqgeek: (Default)
    I'm not really sure why, but I haven't really had a great deal of motivation to write this week. Last weekend was all about physical labor. I finally got motivated to collect the firewood that's been sitting down the hill at a neighbor's place for a couple of months. It took five trips with the trailer, but all the wood is now stacked at the end of the driveway, waiting for me to split it. Then I brought another big pile of freshly cut oak from my next-door neighbors over and stacked it in the driveway too. I was hoping to get started splitting the wood this weekend, but the rainy weather has changed that plan.

    It was actually a pretty relaxing week at work. I spent the week at our training facility, teaching new employees. I wouldn't want to do the training full time, but it is nice to have a couple of weeks each year where I don't have to worry about the usual job issues. Its also refreshing to interact with the new employees...their eagerness to learn and enthusiasm for the job are fun to watch. Of course, next week will be back to my usual work, but hopefully the positive energy from last week will carry over for a while...

    Finally, my parents came down from NY on Tuesday. They are spending the weekend at my brother's place in Maryland, but they came down early to visit their granddaughters. I didn't really get to see much of them while they were here, but it sounds like they had a good time with the girls. We did make tentative plans to send the younger daughter up to my parents' place after Thanksgiving so she can help Grandma make Christmas cookies!