A not so little Little Rock, Arkansas

Sequester madness is abating a little bit. There will be no furloughs in my agency, at least through the end of the fiscal year. I am not sure exactly how we are really saving any money. At least here within the water community, a lot of it is probably coming from funding fewer stream gauges. This is not a good thing from a science perspective. The fewer bodies of water that you monitor, the less rich your data set is and the chancier it becomes to draw inferences based on the data, like whether flash floods will occur. Doubtless contracts are being canceled or suspended as well, and maintenance is being deferred. Almost all of this is a false saving. If you don’t pay for maintenance, the cost of future maintenance becomes more expensive. But Congress seems to be saying “meh”. They are happy to leave it to some future Congress to act as genuine stewards. As for us employees, who haven’t seen a cost of living increase in three years, no furlough is welcome news. We’ve been pinching our pennies for years while the cost of living has steadily gone up. This direct attack on standard of living was scary, unnerving and pointlessly cruel.

Small cracks are emerging in the general travel prohibition. All it takes is a waiver from senior management. In general they are niggardly in handing them out. For someone like me used to traveling on someone else’s dime, it’s been a surreal six months close to home. Eventually we were granted a travel waiver, so here I am on the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas in hundred degree heat which is surprisingly bearable.

We are definitely not living it up. We spend nights at an upscale Holiday Inn. Getting to work means just walking across the grass to our building next door. There we are holed up in a conference room while the heat and humidity steadily builds outside. Lunch is usually at a Jason’s Deli down the road. Dinner of course varies from a nearby steakhouse to a restaurant in downtown Little Rock, where I found myself tonight. It’s a short ride. The heat may be high but after a day in a typically overly air conditioned conference room the heat feels kind of nice.

Little Rock has not lived up to my preconceptions. In a state where the governor gets only $30,000 a year (at least when Bill Clinton was governor) I expected Little Rock to be small, sleepy and prototypically southern. It’s not that way at all. It’s not a huge city but no one would call it small. And it is hardly sleepy. The traffic may not resemble Boston’s traffic but it is brisk during rush hour. In fact, Little Rock is imitating its northern cousin cities. A streetcar goes through the downtown. There is a long river walk along both sides of the Arkansas River. On this summer evening a band was playing in a small amphitheater along the south side of the river. Fans spraying mists of water tried to keep the audience cool. Further down the sidewalk were fountains that children were happily jumping through.

The population seems more than a bit metrosexual, much more trim in general than most cities in the South, with a preponderance of younger and athletic people. The bums smell as bad as bums anywhere, but panhandle more politely and seem oddly disproportionately white. The Arkansas River impresses, not so much for girth but for its swiftly flowing waters, at least today, coursing so quickly it is as if they could not wait to end up in the Gulf of Mexico. In general, despite the June heat Little Rock seems happy and reasonably healthy.

There is no question that it is the center of culture in Arkansas, such as it has. Arkansas is largely a rural state so Little Rock has become its cosmopolitan center. It sports the status symbols of a big city: a reasonably impressive convention center, a four-star Marriott where the porters are lined up in the driveway awaiting guests, a capitol dome (of modest size), restaurants where you can get craft beers and a general dearth of billboards, something rather exceptional for the south which generally turns its nose up at zoning laws.

Little Rock is also greener than I expected. The Ozarks are a short drive to the northwest. There are plentiful and lush trees and no sign of Spanish moss that I could see. The Arkansas River and its many tributaries provide plenty of fresh water. Consequently it feels more like North Carolina than Louisiana. At least in Little Rock the metrosexuals are moving in and everyone seems reasonably productive but chilled.

The Clintons have left a large imprint on the city. Its national airport is named for Bill and Hillary and of course President Clinton chose to leave his presidential library in the city. It’s a good tourist destination and quite impressive, or so I’ve heard. Since it closes at five p.m., I simply have had no time to visit it.

And Little Rock is growing. Out here in its western suburbs a huge new highway interchange is being built. And yet it is small enough where rush hour is bearable and getting to the airport is not a huge hassle. Coffee shops and Barnes & Nobles are easy to find. More upscale restaurant chains there are aplenty, but there are also quality local establishment.

Finding food I am supposed to eat on my crazy diet is a challenge. This is in part because when you are only eating certain vegetables and grilled proteins and you don’t have your own transportation you depend on the charity of others or you walk to dine. The hotel breakfast won’t do, so it is more packaged protein for breakfast instead. My powdered scrambled egg package won’t work as I don’t have a stove, so it is “Crispy Cereal” which is sort of like Rice Krispies, but not. Salads for lunch, another salad or grilled vegetables with dinner, and something grilled and about eight ounces for dinner without much in the way of garnishment. It will be good to be off this diet at some point, so eating off the land becomes less of a hassle and adventure.

Overall Little Rock is probably one of the jewels of the south, worthy of consideration if you like the climate. It was definitely worth the visit. I won’t be living here, but I can see where a true southerner could easily be captured by its modesty and charm.

High, flying and bored (and a bit whiny)

Did you see the movie Up in the Air? I did. In fact, I reviewed it. It made the life of an extreme business traveler interesting, so interesting that George Clooney’s character loved life on the road and at 35,000 feet and dreaded coming home to Oklahoma and his apartment.

In truth there is nothing glamorous about business travel. I know because today I am in the thick of it: flying across the country again on business. Normally when you fly across country, you switch planes somewhere, which at least breaks up the tedium. Today I am on a nonstop flight between Washington D.C. and that other Washington. That would be Washington State, more specifically Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The good news is you get there quickly. The bad news is that for an east-to-west coast flight, this is about as miserable as they come, being something like five and a half hours long. The movie is, of course, pretty mediocre, this flight being on United Airlines. This movie, Midnight in Paris, is reputedly one of Woody Allen’s better movies, but I found it kind of annoying. Perhaps this is because I find Woody Allen kind of annoying. Owen Wilson plays the lead character, and he is little more than a young and blond version of Woody Allen. Eventually, I tired watching the movie to write this instead.

To make this long flight less painful I was willing to exchange 7500 of my frequent flier miles for a first class seat. Alas, it was not to be because I waited too long, which means I am back here in the cattle car section. I’ve learned a few rules from these bicoastal flights. One of them is that a ready exit seat is preferred over a windows seat, so I am on the aisle. It is so much easier to get to the restroom this way. Second, keep the Kindle fully charged because you are likely to be using it a lot. I am, as I plod through the first volume of Shelby Foote’s chronology of the Civil War. Third, don’t try to watch a movie on my laptop. The video will come through fine, but with the aircraft noise and the limits on volume control, I cannot hear enough of the movie. A pair of noise reduction headphones might do the trick, but so far I have not succumbed.

When on a long flight, sleeping is one way to kill time. Coach seats are not designed for sleeping, and even if you succeed it will be a restless sleep because some passenger will graze your shoulders or poke you from time to time. Sleeping in theory should help the body adjust to an abrupt three hour time change when going west. I may try for a snooze but I have yet to actually fall asleep on a plane. And while it takes a day or two for my body to adjust to west coast time, it seems like I should not bother to try, because I will be high-tailing it out of here early Friday morning. Then there are the incessant interruptions. Seat belts on. Seat belts off. It’s been like this for hours.

Tacoma is my destination this time, which I have driven around but have not seen. I am hoping for decent weather, and the forecast is hopeful: a couple of days of sunshine, maybe. When you come to the Puget Sound, you have to expect clouds and precipitation. So the most important article to pack is a sturdy umbrella. I am prepared. If you are very lucky, the clouds might break and Mount Rainier will appear in its majesty.

Somehow I imagined a trip of this length between two major airports might warrant a 747, but I don’t believe United Airlines has any 747s left in the fleet, at least not for domestic flights. This makes me a little sad because a flight on a 747 would make this otherwise unmemorable flight memorable. I’ve flown lots of flights over the decades, but only once did I have the pleasure of traveling by a 747. The 747’s cheap cousin is the DC-10. I’ve had lots of flights on DC-10s but they seem to now be largely retired. Today’s flight is on an Airbus A320, a very fuel efficient aircraft but incredibly ordinary with one row and six seats across. We know what aircraft designs work well in our atmosphere, which is why commercial aviation fuselages all largely look the same. The 747 is the exception, and is still elegant.

The only thing different about this flight is what I chose to eat on it. Since my triglycerides are high, I have been told to eat fewer carbohydrates. This meant a salad for lunch and a can of almonds for a snack. I had to pay for this airline food, but for United, the salad was surprisingly good and the almonds were quite tasty as well. I am not sure I can sustain a low carbohydrate diet, but a business trip gives me an excuse to try.

With the movie over, passengers are left with few alternatives but whatever United wants to put on the TV, which is whatever network wins the bid for captive audiences. Today it is NBC, which means a lot of 30 Rock episodes. I guess it is an acquired taste.

Movie done, lunch done, TV shows boring, no in-flight Internet and still with at least two and a half hours to go. I cannot wait for the flight to be over. I am glad my Kindle is fully charged.

The Pluses and Minuses of Business Travel

I can already see that one of the aspects of my new job that will become something of a grind after a while is the traveling.

One thing we do at the U.S. Geological Survey a lot is travel. Sometimes it seems like I work with a bunch of constantly migrating gypsies who only occasionally arrive back at the office. USGS is a very spread out agency with multiple offices in most states. This is necessary since scientists have to get out into the field and do the mapping, biological, geological and hydrological work of the nation.

During my first week in the job this February I met Colleen. She is someone with a position similar to mine and has an office right down the hall. Silly me, I assumed because she had an office she must live in the area. It wasn’t until the week ended that I learned this was one of many places she hung out. A typical month will find her on the road two to three weeks. She routinely spends a week a month at my office in Reston. Colleen’s case is pretty extreme, but the travel requirements for USGS employees are not. If you are a scientist you are likely on the go at least every other month or so.

Colleen’s team, like mine, is geographically spread out. But she has a lot more people on her team than I have on mine. She feels that to really be effective she has to constantly migrate from one worksite to the other. If keeping up with her employees weren’t enough, there are weeks of user and acceptance testing and numerous conferences to attend. There are also various side trips to remote offices to do things like make sure a server farms is configured correctly. She lives largely out of a suitcase, but she calls Tucson home. She told me she has gotten to the point in her 36 years of federal service where she doesn’t even notice the jet lag anymore.

My boss is not quite as bad but is typically gone for at least a week a month. More often she is gone for two weeks a month. As for me I can pretty much decide how much traveling I want to do. And there’s the rub. I don’t necessarily want to do all that much traveling. I understood it was a part of the job when I accepted it. But it’s not likely that I will be visiting exotic destinations. Indeed usually I go some place where there are groups of other USGS employees. And wherever I go there are usually social obligations. After six o’clock though I’d usually rather crash in my hotel room and get online.

So I’m trying to minimize my travel without giving offense or appearing ineffective. This is amazing to my 14-year old daughter Rosie. “Let me get this straight Dad. You can go anywhere you want on business at any time, and you don’t want to go anywhere?” That’s how she hears it. She is right in that my boss is very liberal with the travel budget. I’m a chief and have new powers. She told me I could pretty much go anywhere I feel I have a need to go. But I suspect my boss won’t approve a trip to Hawaii just so I can watch hydrologists at work. It must serve some reasonable business function. So I won’t likely be jetting off to Paris to attend some important conference and tour the Louvre in the evenings. Instead I will be meeting the same groups of hydrologists and scientists over and over again at various places in the Continental United States. Next week, for example, it will be an Eastern Region Data Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s close enough that I will drive instead of fly.

Traveling on someone else’s dime can be a lot of fun or mind expanding. Early in my federal career I was selected for a two-week tour overseas. I had to install some customized software we wrote and to help people learn the system. I spent a week at the Atsugi Naval Air Station near Tokyo and another week at Subic Bay in the Philippines. This was in 1987 when our Navy still had military facilities in the Philippines. The week in the Philippines was particularly a real eye opener. The Philippines showed me a side of reality I probably needed to see but really left me appalled and disheartened. I found plenty of readily available prostitution just outside the gates. Our sailors seemed to have no scruples about banging anonymous women without even using protection. I found most of the kids there didn’t go to school because only those of privilege could afford schooling. Instead they roamed the streets, smoked cigarettes and often were involved in petty crime. I found horrendous air pollution in Manila. And I learned that if I had no scruples I could have had sex with a minor, no questions asked, for about twenty bucks. So this trip in particular was a very mind expanding experience. Even my time in Japan was noteworthy. I didn’t know that air could be so polluted you always had a bad taste in your mouth. I didn’t know a city could be denser and more expensive that New York City. Overall I learned to appreciate the United States as something of an oasis in the world. Much of the world is mired in poverty and filth. I am lucky to be an American.

This kind of business travel, when it doesn’t happen too often, is actually welcome. It happened exactly once and is unlikely to happen again in my federal career.

Today though business travel is mostly just a hassle and rarely a mind opening experience. The cities I go to in the continental United States all look the same after a while. Each city has pretty much the same restaurants, malls and hotels. The hotels have a bland, uniform familiarity about them. The hassle of getting in and out of airports gets old quickly. The airlines … well, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about them. It is never a good experience. At best a flight is a neutral experience. I hate the way the airlines treat us like morons. Yes, I know they have to say and go through all that stuff because it’s required. But thank you I think I can figure out how to put an oxygen mask over my face by now. I know where the exit doors are and I’ve only buckled a seatbelt a few million times by now. I’ve learned the tradeoffs of sitting in an exit row. And I’ve learned when possible to travel with my carryon luggage alone.

It’s often the case that now there is usually someone I know on the other end. We USGSers are one big happy extended family. But I’m not the most sociable of critters. I am working hard on that aspect of myself. When my business day is over I’m not necessarily in the mood for happy hour or a long meal with colleagues at a local fern bar. I just want some downtime, some privacy and a nutritious but quick meal somewhere. I often feel itchy because I need to exercise but haven’t found the time. Coming back late to my hotel room in a semi-alcoholic haze stuffed with steaks and fried potato skins is hardly conducive to exercise.

So I find business travel to be a mixed blessing. I’m trying hard to limit my travel to a week or less a month and so far I’ve succeeded. I figure someone has to help keep down the travel expenses. For me the best business trips are often the ones where I don’t know anyone at the other end. Then I am usually free of the social obligations in the evening. I often have a rental car at my disposal, and may actually go see some of the local attractions. Or I might prefer to hole up in my room and watch a movie on the DVD player built into the laptop computer. But those trips are few and far between. Business travel is really more like working a twelve-hour day and getting paid for eight.

Still I probably need to get out more. I am the more restless spouse. Going for years at a time without traveling anywhere on my employer’s dime gets old too. So mostly I don’t grumble about the travel and try to think of the travel as a job perk. After all I am not some trucker constantly on the move up driving all night. I am not sleeping at a Motel 6 and selling grub out of a suitcase. And the best part of business travel? Someone else is paying!

Back from Orlando

Back from a MySQL User Conference in Orlando, Florida. It was a good conference and perhaps a lead for a future topic on how open source software is going to either kill or fundamentally change Microsoft at some point.

While I was there I took a couple hours to see my sister Lee Ann (along with her husband Rick) at a Steak and Ale Restaurant off International Drive in Orlando.


International Drive is the ritzy area of town and full of tourists sick of Disney World. Lots of places to spend money and the competition must be rough, because apparently in order to entice tourists to part with their money, they have to deliberately construct upside down buildings.