Wednesday, October 22, 2008

842 lbs. of Carbon

I was originally going to call this post "Nick's Adventures in a Red State" or something similarly political. But in reality, my recent adventures in the lone star state turned out to be surprisingly un-political. Except for this moment when I was in an elevator, going down, with a group of VERY texan women who were discussing whether or not they were willing to gut and clean the deer their husbands shot. Those who wouldn't regarded those who would with a sort of superstitious awe. "Sarah Palin," I thought, "this is your constituency!"

But they were the exception. I was, after all, in a giant mega hotel surrounded by a comfortable bubble of business analysts. By and large, I've noticed these are a relatively apolitical lot, more prone to discussing analytical techniques, R^2 values, and the hideously complicated version landscape of the software package were were all there as users of.

Wait, though, I get ahead of myself. Where was I, and what was I doing here? And what does any of that have to do with 842 lbs. of Carbon? Time machine, back a few months. My company decided to send a couple of representatives off to the annual user's conference for a software package called "Business Objects." They make, as you might have guessed, analytics software used for data mining, business intelligence, and various related fields. My manager and I were the lucky attendees. There were supposed to be more of us, but clever budget hoarding meant that, when the call came down to save a few bucks coming in to Q4, she and I were the only ones to actually go.

It is a flattering thing, to a neophyte like myself, to be sent to one of these things. The whole trip cost a couple of thousand dollars. That's a flattering investment to have made in you. And then I took a look at my Alaska Airlines e-ticket and noticed an interesting line: each leg of my journey would produce 421 lbs. of nasty globally warming, debt incurring carbon. What was I to make of this? Should I have used carbon debt calculations in planning my trip? Chosen another airline that, through better routing or more ecological hardware choices, managed to only drop 411 lbs. of carbon into the upper atmosphere? I decided this was probably some vauge and general estimate, so no excess of detail should be ascribed to it.

Instead, I took it as a note: not only was this trip costing my company a few grand and me four days away from my family, but it was costing our plant too. So listen up, the e-ticket seemed to say to me, you'd better get something good out of this, because a lot of people are putting something down so you can get your corporate junket ya-ya's off down in Dallas.

Which is how we get to Dallas. For reasons I'm not privy to, the conference was in Dallas. Warm, central, and probably cheap. Not Vegas or Orlando, where the last couple were. Dallas. Flat. Hot. Red state.

Rather than trying to tell you some sort of play-by-play note of the conference (which you probably don't care about), I will try to distill the whole experience down into my personal observations and reactions. I really did go into it thinking of this as a serious work event. And it wasn't just the carbon. I'm out of the office for three full days (plus a day of free semi-vacation to make up for my Sunday spent in the air). I'm away from my family for four days. And so I wanted to replay those who sent me on this outing by getting everything out of it I could.

Learning experience the whole thing was great. But you don't probably care about the new software I saw demo'd or the techniques for multi-axis data analysis that I learned. I will tell you about one software package, though. Very interesting, and actually quite applicable to some work people on my team are doing. It analyzed text in a quite holistic and linguistically derived way to generate summaries of text document, searchable breakdowns of text content, and gestalt assessments of mood and tone. The demos all involved an analysis of product reviews. It was pretty start stuff -- able to understand that "though I usually don't like Mazda's styling, the mew MX-6 is anything but stayed" is actually praise, despite the preponderance of negative words.

But the thing that made this interesting was the occasional mention of "government clients." Un-named, non-specific government clients that usually caused the speaker to trail off a little. So I've got this to say: I don't know if the government is reading your email, your blog posts, your newsgroups, or whatever. But if they do, I suspect that I might have a lead on some of the software they are using. I don't want to launch a thousand conspiracy theories. We many not be talking about anything so exotic as some NSA glassbox scheme, it may just be for entirely reasonable analysis of the massive quantities of subpoenaed documents that so often feature in high profile federal litigation. But it was interesting stuff.

The rest of it all was pretty dry.

I will tell you about Texan buffets, though. I don't know what the food safety laws are in this part of the country, but there were some downright Texan sized time/temperature hold violations going on. Erica could fill me in on the actual values, but let me leave you with this quick summary: in no situation should a breakfast sausage patty and yogurt be held at the same temperature for an hour. Like I said, the laws may be different down here, and so may the gastrointestinal systems, but I tried my best to stay away from both, helped by the fact that I just don't like yogurt, even when held at a safe temperature, and that the breakfast sausage had apparently been slowly brought to temperature in a solution if old grease. Nasty stuff.

In fact the food was the biggest disappointment. My expectations were good -- the registration form had displayed an astonishing sensitivity to dietary preferences, with check-boxes for vegetarian, vegan, Kosher, shellfish allergy, wheat allergy, and a few others. Somehow, though, the buffets were the same old (uniform temperature) standards. I did see a few specially marked plate covers going around, though, so I think that next one of these I go to, I'm going to be Kosher for a week. At least the food should be hotter.

Finally we broke down, my manager and I, and skipped second of two free "evening socials" with beer and passed appetizer platters. We headed for the hotel's Mexican restaurant, figuring that while in Texas, go for a form of cuisine that they probably do well. Remember how the massive hotel sort of insulated me from Texan politics? It also apparently insulated me from Texan cooking. The tortillas were ill-heated and probably Cisco. The shrimp were probably imported frozen from the Philippines. The fajitas were very much lacking in veggies. The rice was under seasoned. There was a damn good pinto bean soup, though, that had some real nice heat to it. But the rest? Well, better than another round of snacks.

Now you are probably wondering how I did (am doing -- I'm writing this from DFW) away from my wife and daughter for so long. For this part, I will write a brief journey. For dramatic emphasis, I will use the present tense.

Sunday: So far, so good. This day has been an adventure of travel and, thanks to the two time zone skip, not all that long. By 10pm in Dallas, I've only been away from Erica and Bella for eleven hours -- no longer than I would on a typical workday. And those hours have either been the action of travel or a pleasant chance to do some quiet reading. I've got Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke's interesting alternate history novel of magic and fantasy going on the iPhone and have nearly figured out the Concorde's fly by wire system -- yet again testing my belief that a thorough understanding of an analogue system can often provide a powerful insight into it's more obfuscated digital counterparts. The hotel is decent, kind of dull, and I get a nice chance to talk to Erica before bed.

Monday: First day of the conference -- so much going on! I hardly miss my family at all, I've got so much going on. Sure, I awoke alone, but I usually get up a couple of hours before Erica and Bella, so I'm used to sneaking around alone and in the dark. After that -- hey, it is just like a day at the office if you think about it. Seminar sessions from 8am to 5pm, no different from the workday. Until, oh, about 5:30pm and then suddenly it seems like I should be home. Instead I'm drinking a beer at the first reception party and chasing down platters of sushi in a vain effort to get full. After that comes the after-party. No strippers, not like at those hip-hop after-parties I have never been to, but a fortune teller who tells me the following things:

I am sleeping poorly.
I have back pain.
I am learning a lot at work but it will lead to stability.
There is some stagnation in my relationship and I should "give in" on something to bring the novelty back.

She also turned over a death card, which I found interesting, but never really addressed that, which I found disturbing. Now I figure that from obvious clues (wedding ring, in town for convention, etc) she could probably have made some good guesses, but it was fun none the less. Called Erica and and told her that she has one free "give in" card that she can play, and that she should spend it wisely. But tonight the loneliness is starting to creep in. Barely saw the family yesterday -- but I have three nights a week that are just as bad. But now it is an entire day without seeing either Erica or Bella. Perhaps because I am not aided by as pointed a combination of alcohol and Benadryl, sleep comes a little harder tonight.

Tuesday: I awake to the best email I've seen in a long time. Well, good in the sense that it makes me feel good. Erica missed me and had a hard time falling asleep. Bad for her, though, so I feel sort of sad and wish I'd been there to tell her a story. Now I miss conversations. The morning sessions are pretty dull -- nothing as fun as discovering potential not-so-secret text analysis software. The keynote was very corporate-speak laden. Words like "monatize" (or is it "monitize"?) and "accelerate capitol velocity" and "open partner fabric" and "hire-to-retire process."

I try calling Erica a few times during the morning but can't get through. Its frustrating. Conversation is surprisingly rare here. Everyone you meet at a session is a single serving friend (thank you Fight Club!), and the conversations we had at the after-party were pretty single serving too. So I'm yearning for a conversation with someone where it is just free flowing and casual. Where I'm comfortable talking about any topic and freely expressing myself. While I'm at it, I'd like to know what Bella's up to. I'd like her wonderfully childlike perspective, to tell her about what I'm doing and hear her, doubtless, wonderfully fresh take on it all.

Finally Erica and I do talk, for a while, which is nice, but actually just serves to remind me how much I like her. The afternoon sessions aren't particularly exciting -- there is actually a lot of very good information but it all pertains to a version of the software that, if I'm lucky, we'll be running sometime around the next election. The one after this one, I mean. And I mean presidential elections here, not some little in-between state representative thing.

But the evening gets good -- my manager and I skip out on the reception to get the previously mentioned Mexican dinner. Based on stories she tells, me, I calculate that I have a 7% chance of going insane. By now I have also named several of my fellow convention attendees:

Abe Lincoln
Jim Furyk
Sweater/Thong Woman
Three-Beers Woman
Friend of Three-Beers Woman
Boring Obama (looked, but did not speak, like a young version of the candidate)
Limping Lin

I'm noticing something interesting about this time zone, two hours earlier than Seattle but still one short of the East Coast. It might be that, emotionally and in some ways professionally, I am still on Seattle time, but it seems like world events happen more slowly here. I suspect the reason is this: Like it or not, the news-making-and-reporting center of this country is the East. So most days, when I get in to work and start checking online around 7am, there have already been two hours of news-making business day going. Here, if I check online at the same time, the business day is just beginning. So I don't start with a backlog of news to catch up on. And then checking on events back home, at the office or with my family, I have to wait two hours for them to happen -- or so it seems. So it is as if there is a buffer placed around me, and everything is happening two hours later than it should. Is this why Texas have that slow, easy going drawl?

Second City gives a pretty good improv performance for us. The bad part was the audience suggestions:

Improver: "May I have the name of a profession?"
Audience member: "Business Analyst!"

Later

Improver: "May I have the name of a location that would fit on this stage?"
Audience member: "Trade show!"

You guys get out much?

But then we met up with a fellow who works with us a lot as a consultant and trainer, got some drinks, and got some really fantastic social bonding time. Getting to know the people you work with every day -- in a non work environment -- can be very rewarding. You learn their values, histories, what makes them tick. It is fun but also, frankly, politically astute. Like I know that I have a 7% chance of going crazy.

Wednesday: I slept poorly last night. I talked with Erica a while and that got me all second winded -- not just from talking to her but because she's on Seattle time, two hours more perky than I am. So then I ended up packing up, getting everything ready to go in the morning. Net result, now I am short on sleep.

And my loneliness is now a visceral thing. It is no longer just being bored or wanting a conversation, but it is a true longing, an emotional and, dare I say, hormonal longing to be back with my wife. And my family, lest it sound like I am giving dear Bella some sort of second billing. I miss her energy and enthusiasm and, again, those childlike but brilliant insights, distilling situations down to their essentials. Her snuggling, her creativity, her drawings of pet rockets to take dogs and cats and fish to astronauts in a space station, her emotional intensity, her moments of complete weakness and remarkable strength.

But there are four more presentations, ending with a whimper as a mumbling frenchwoman narrates Quicktime movies of unreleased software. So we skip out early, catch a shuttle, get to the airport. On the way, I count bumper stickers, engaging in my favorite ad-hoc poll. The count, on the President George Bush Turnpike (again I ask -- which one?), the count is Barack Obama: 1, Ron Paul: 1, John McCain: 0. I don't know what that means, but it surprised me.

My boss is taking a nap and I've gone exploring, to a pseudo Irish pub in the international terminal that serves chicken strips and hamburgers. The beer, however, is Irish. A Smithwick's Ale -- a damn nice, solid, full flavored but easy drinking beer. Soon I suspect it will be augmented with that most Irish of dinners, the bacon cheeseburger. And then I'll be back in our terminal, waiting for the last flight of the evening out to Seattle.

And, with a suitcase full of powerpoints and a brain full of new knowledge and new contacts, I will return home.

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