Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Who's the Biggest Baddest Bureaucracy of them All?

I happen to work for two very, large bureacracies: Harvard University and Oracle Corporation. Today's entry is a lesson in how those enormous bureaucracies treat their employees.

I am typically pretty good about filing expense reports. When I travel, I almost always file expense reports as soon as I return. With monthly expenses (e.g., my Internet connection for Oracle), I am somewhat more lax -- the stupid charge happens every month and I only work for them one day a week; I hate spending the time doing a report every month. However, when I buy equipment, I really like to make sure that the equipment works as intended. This is where I got into trouble.

I bought some research machines in March and asked my students to set them up and then had to coordinate with IT to get a VPN for them, since they'll have data that while not technically confidential ought to be fairly well protected. As any of you who have been in academia know, not much happens during the semester, so it took quite awhile before we actually had everything configured.

In June (about 100 days after my credit-card was charged), I file my expense report. After many emails back and forth I'm told that I've exceeded the 90-day limit and the only way they can reimburse me is by considering it salary and therefore taxing it. Needless to say, I'm pretty annoyed (to say the least). I am given the same line I used to give Sleepycat employees to harrass them into sending in their expense reports (yes, I've been on both sides of the fence) -- "The IRS has strict rules about this." Well, they do, but not quite as strict as we evil CFO types would have you believe. Here is what the IRS says on the topic (from IRS publication 15, page 11)

    If the expenses covered by this arrangement are not substantiated (or amounts in excess of substantiated expenses are not returned within a reasonable period of time), the amount paid under the arrangement in excess of the substantiated expenses is treated as paid under a nonaccountable plan. This amount is subject to the withholding and payment of income, social security, Medicare, and FUTA taxes for the first payroll period following the end of the reasonable period of time.

    A reasonable period of time depends on the facts and circumstances. Generally, it is considered reasonable if your employees receive their advance within 30 days of the time they incur the expenses, adequately account for the expenses within 60 days after the expenses were paid or incurred, and return any amounts in excess of expenses within 120 days after the expenses were paid or incurred. Also, it is considered reasonable if you give your employees a periodic statement (at least quarterly) that asks them to either return or adequately account for outstanding amounts and they do so within 120 days.

Ultimately it's the organization that gets to set the rules and decide what is "reasonable" and notice that it "depends on the facts and circumstances." Thus, the organization is free to say, "Yes, your rationale for delaying the request for reimbursement is reasonable, so we can reimburse you without taxation."

Now, let's observe how two enormous organizations deal with this.

Case 1: Oracle

I did not file the expense report for my February Internet charge until June, thus missing Oracle's 30, 60, and 90-day deadline. Bad me. My manager properly reprimanded me and approved the exception. I was promptly reimbursed.

Case 2: Harvard

I file the expense report for two computers that we purchased as components, assembled, installed with an OS that runs the software we need to run, and got them on their own VPN and then filed the expense report. After dozens of emails later, I'm told that there is absolutely nothing they can do about it, they must consider it income and charge me tax on it.

So, two big bureaucracies and the one I expected to be less flexible and more impersonal comes through and the one I expected to be able to exert a modicum of sensibility doesn't.

Go figure.

The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The 2010 World Cup and the 2008 Superbowl

So what do the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 Superbowl have in common? The simple answer is that they made us believe. In 2008, with 35 seconds left to go, history convinced us that Tom Brady would lead the Patriots to a quick touchdown and another championship. With 12 minutes in the first overtime and 15 minutes in the second overtime, we believed that team USA would prevail -- they'd tie it up with Ghana and either score in injury time or win it all in penalty kicks.

Alas, we were wrong on both counts. Belief is a great thing -- it keeps you watching until the final whistle; it makes you feel good until the end; and then it makes you wonder, "What was I thinking?" The last-minute miracles are the exception, but once you see a few of them, you begin to believe that they are real, that they are a phenomenon. And then they break your heart.

Next time, let's play like we did in the second half from the opening whistle -- take it to them early and often. Then we can believe in something else.

- M

Thoughts on the ADA

Having spent six weeks on crutches, I have some thoughts on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the implementation thereof.

I recall when I first had kids and found myself wandering about with a stroller being grateful for wheelchair ramps. Ramps were less of an issue this time -- my top list of interesting things are:

  • Doors
  • Hotel rooms
  • Common Courtesy

Big heavy doors are a real problem. Automatic/handicap doors are a big win, but even within that class, there is some variability. For example, my orthopedist's office is in an office building with a multiple-door entrance. When you press the button, the first door opens and then the second door opens -- no airlock between the doors where you have to search for the second button. This setup gets an A. In contrast, my building at Harvard also has a two-door entrance, but the doors are not wired together so you have to push one button, go through the door, find the second button, press it, wait for the next door. Minor thing, but definitely annoying.

Amusingly enough though, once you get into my orthopedist's building, their office is on the second floor. OK, they have two elevators, no problem. However, imagine my surprise at getting to their office and discovering a big, heavy wooden door with no handicap button. Even more amusing though was my exit -- one elevator was broken and they were doing service on the second elevator in the middle of the day meaning that I was on the second floor on crutches with no working elevator and a bit of a spiral staircase. This setup did not get a good grade.

Hotel Rooms
Teagan and I went to Cleveland to watch the US Women play Germany (the US kicked butt 4-0) while I was on crutches. I called to request a handicap room so that I could shower without risking life and limb, and the hotel was gracious enough to accommodate. Now, I hate to whine, but who thought it was a good idea to locate the handicap rooms at the end of the building opposite the elevators? Seriously -- my room was the absolute farthest room from the elevator. Clearly, someone decided this was a good place to locate the handicap rooms, but for the life of me, I cannot fathom why one would do that.

Of course, they didn't do much better on the interior organization either. The good news is that the shower had a removable head so one had a bit more flexibility in the shower. However, the toilet, sink and waste paper basket were located in three distinct corners of a rather large bathroom -- so until you rearranged it, you couldn't actually put anything in the trash without getting up and moving around (requiring crutches and careful crutching use since both hopping and moving on crutches on potentially wet floors is lethal). A bit of better planning might have placed these things a bit closer together.

Common Courtesy
I must say that I was pleasantly surprised at how friendly and helpful people were (for the most part). People offered to grab my suitcase from the overheads on the plane -- something I could do on crutches, but was easier not to have to do. The more savvy folks would make it a point to open doors -- they didn't make a big deal about it, but would linger just a bit longer at a door than they might otherwise have and would open it. In some case, I noticed people seeing me coming and simply moving to open the door. (And those of you in my Harvard hallway who actually came out of your offices to periodically help with keys and door stops get a special thank you -- you know who you are!)

Then there were the (thankfully few) clueless. My absolute favorite happened in the checkout line for whole foods. Teagan and I were standing in line at the checkout with perhaps 6-8 items in our cart. I was next to unload onto the belt and there was a family behind me with a few items. The lane next to us opened and the checkout called, "I can take someone here." Just as I start to turn and move to that line, the family behind me in line, jumps in front and races to the cashier. Teagan and I cross over and I say to Teagan in a rather loud voice, "That's right, don't let the lady on crutches who was in front of you in line get there first." I don't think they heard me, but I was simply stunned into laughter at that one.

Now that I'm off crutches and barely limping, I do have a soft spot for anyone on crutches. If you want to help, open a door, offer to carry things, or just offer a sympathetic smile. If they're anything like me, they'll notice and be grateful.

- M

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why I Love the World Cup

I am a geek; I admit it. As a result, I spend a lot of time talking to geeks. In fact, my typical discussion circle consists of geeks and parents with kids like mine. In normal times, my conversations with non-geeks and non-parents is pretty limited. For example, "Could I have a small latte with skim?" and "Thank you!" Even with geeks, conversation covers a few standard topics.

But -- for the last few weeks, geek and non-geek conversation alike, I get to engage in conversations about my other passion: soccer! A trip to the coffee stand leads to a 5 minute conversation about the wondrous 91st minute goal of Landon Donovan or the amazingly baffling calls by the referees or the shocking performance of the Italians (really mixed emotions there -- I actually love the Azzurri, but you had to love what New Zealand accomplished -- fingers crossed today for their match against Paraguay). Even the geek conversations are as likely to be about the World Cup as they are about file systems. It's refreshing.

I've had other breaths of fresh air I suppose: NBA finals, the superbowl, and every four years presidential elections. But here is my real fantasy -- if only the world conversation could turn back to soccer one year from now when it's the women, not the men, battling for the title of best-in-the-world. In this country, we aren't even the underdogs -- we're currently ranked number one in the world. We regularly boast the best players in the world across multiple dimensions. Even so, tonight, when I cheer the Boston Breakers on (who desperately need a win), I'll do it amidst a crowd of only 5000 loyal fans, yet the quality of play will be world class -- we'll have national team players from the US, England, Australia, Sweden, and Brazil -- all playing on two teams. (Apologies but no guarantee that the officiating will be any better than that we've seen in the world cup.)

Go USA! Go Breakers! Go Soccer.

- M

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ankle Rehab -- end of week 2

I finally had my PT evaluation last Thursday (4 days ago). I'd been pushing pretty hard on flexibility and strengthening, so I was able to walk into the place with only a minor limp. The limp seems to be caused mostly by the swelling in the ankle that prevents me from flexing properly when I walk. However, as I learned, I am capable of flexing more, so it's just a question of forcing myself to do so.

First, overall status: I can spin bike now for 30 minutes and figure that it's no longer the ankle that's holding me back there, so I might as well just bite the bullet and go back to a real cardiovascular workout. Even though I spent 6 weeks on crutches using a lot of upper-body strength, I can no longer do the sets of bicep curls I could do before -- sigh, back to the weights too. However, I'm getting some decent strength out of the ankle and I can balance on it for at least 10 seconds (neither the PT nor I wanted to push much more than that right now).

My physical therapist took a lot of measurements to quantify just how limited my flexibility is -- plantarflexion (pointing the toes) is the worst (about a 15 degree angle instead of a 45 degree angle), although dorsiflexion (toes to your nose) isn't much better -- I can get 3 degrees past neutral (as opposed to 20-25 on the other foot). A figure 8 around my foot and ankle is 2 cm larger on the left (swollen) side.

Basically all good progress, and I promise to write about things other than my ankle real soon now!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ankle Rehab -- day 4 or 5, depending on how you count

The euphoria at being off crutches is waning now. I walk with a pronounced limp, mostly due to the fact that the ankle is stiff and doesn't flex properly. However, no crutches, no cane, and best of all, two hands with which to do things!

Managed 15 minutes on the spin-bike today -- the ankle gets tired, but I was able to push it just a tad harder so that I could tell I'd done something after 15 minutes. I still wouldn't call it a cardiovascular workout, but it's something that reminds me of what a cardiovascular workout is.

I moved on to strengthening exercises today, using light resistance (the "green" band). OK, I'll admit it, the moving and flexing and such is actually a tad painful. Oh yeah, and I finally assessed the damage. If I measure my calf before it swells up, there is a good solid inch difference between my right and left calf circumference. There is also a solid inch difference around the lower quad. So that's the extent of the muscle atrophy -- shall we start a pool on how long it's going to take to build the muscle back up? (I honestly have no good idea.)

And as for the intelligence of the design of the human body -- who thought it was a good idea that although the swelling is pretty minimal in the morning, by the end of the day, my left leg looks like it belongs to the Michelin man. Yeah, that does a lot of good for everyone I tell you ...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ankle Rehab from the Inside

After 25 years of playing adult recreational soccer (having never played in high school or college), I had my first serious injury on April 25 -- a broken fibula and tibia (OK, so the tibia only broke off a small portion of the lateral condyle, which is the knobby part at the end of a bone). Yeah, yeah, I'd ruptured my plantar fascia the previous fall, but that was nothing compared to this.

Anyway, as I have just gotten the cast off and am beginning rehab I find myself wanting to know what this is going to be like, what to expect, what others have experienced, etc, and you know what? Amidst the morass of information that is the web, it's not easy to find a real personal account of ankle rehab -- I mean Carli Lloyd busted her ankle the same day I think -- I'd love to know what she's doing (OK, my rehab is likely to be slower, but hey, it's important to have goals). So there you have it -- this has inspired me to begin blogging (and I apologize for the length of this first entry; they'll get shorter). I'm not the only one in the world who wants to know this kind of stuff, right?

Now, before I begin -- a word for all of you out there who believe the old wives' tale of, "Oh, you're lucky it's broken; broken ankles heal so much faster and better than sprains." I suppose in some universe it might be possible to break your ankle without spraining every ligament and straining every muscle in the ankle, but get real. Most of the time, breaking the ankle is only possible after you've done all the damage of spraining all the ligaments. What does this mean?

After being immobilized in a cast for six week letting the bones heal, I am only now beginning rehab that has been necessary since day one -- and guess what? The longer you wait to begin rehabbing a sprain the longer it takes. See that pretty sprain picture from a light sprain two days after injury? Mine looked worse than that after six weeks. So the next time you are tempted to tell someone how lucky they are to "only" have broken their ankle, bite your tongue -- hard!

Anyway, where were we -- OK, broke the ankle on April 25 and spent the first 2 days in a knee-high walking boot (no weight-bearing) followed by 5 weeks and 6 days (who's counting?) in a regular old knee-high fiberglass cast. The orthopedist gave me the option of staying in the boot, but the cast is lighter and immobilizes the ankle better, leading to better healing, so I went for the cast (good choice).

A public service announcement about leg casts: no one told me this, but because my cast was getting large just as I was about to take an airplane trip, I talked to my orthopedist about flying and the cast. If you ever have a leg cast, do not fly without getting the cast cut in half and then wrapped with an ace. Legs swell while flying and can swell sufficiently that the cast cuts off circulation. Let's just say that the combination of that kind of swelling, a hard cast, 30,000 feet and TSA regulations can lead to a pretty ugly ending. It's not worth the risk.

Anyway, June 7 arrived and they took my cast off! Yahoo -- 6+ weeks on crutches was plenty for me. It's not the getting around part that drove me crazy, it was the not having hands free to do anything part. A closed soda can? No problem -- toss it in a backpack, but open it and now you just stay where you are and drink it, because you aren't moving anywhere with it (unless you like bathing in soda)

Upon removing the cast you discover that your leg is furry (6 weeks of hair growth), flaky (good news: new synthetic cast liners don't absorb so much moisture that your leg itches; bad news: you still shed 30,000-40,000 skin cells per minute -- do the math -- there is a lot of dead skin on that leg that hasn't seen the light of day for 6 weeks), and fleshy (muscle atrophy). A good shower and shave takes care of furry, improves flaky, and emphasizes fleshy.

In my case they put me in a fancy sports aircast (which requires no inflation), but your mileage may vary -- I've heard some people go back in a boot for awhile. Then they say good bye and you (try to) walk out. This walking thing -- very odd. Much to my surprise, the foot is still (very) swollen, sufficiently so that stepping on it causes the bottom of the foot to hurt because there is so much fluid in there. Hmmm, wasn't expecting this. Ankle doesn't hurt, but foot does. This is probably good news -- after all, how long can this stay swollen?

I walk with one crutch for the rest of that day -- full weight bearing is too painful on the foot, but the ankle actually feels OK. This is good news, I think. In fact, walking with shoes is considerably more comfortable than walking barefoot, because the floor is, well, hard.

I expect to wake up day 2 and find that swelling is gone. Oops -- no such luck... however, bottom of foot is not quite so painful. I head downstairs and decide to try: 10-12 minutes on the spin bike with very light resistance (this feels OK), and ankle exercises:

  1. pull back on towel around ball of foot -- hmmm can't really get much flex in that old ankle
  2. standing calf stretch -- can't stretch ankle enough to even feel it in the calf
  3. standing achilles/soleus stretch -- ditto
  4. Mobility exercises -- something resembling a circle not so bad

OK, we've got a long way to go! I don't start official PT for 10 days, but I am determined to make progress before then

By the end of the day, I am walking mostly without the crutch. I find that I'm causing more strain and imbalance using the crutch than I am simply by walking slowly without it. The problem continues to be more the bottom of the foot than the ankle itself.

Day three (today), I see that my foot looks almost normal -- there is still some swelling, but it is noticeably less. I abandon the crutch -- I am now a free-walking individual -- such liberation! I have not only one free hand, but two! Yippee!

I can walk upstairs like an adult -- one foot on each step -- perhaps I'm putting a tad more weight on the bannister than is normal, but I could almost pass for a normal human being going up the stairs. Down is still tricky -- the ankle doesn't yet bend that way -- it can't really flex forward. I miss getting up early enough to do spin bike, but do my ankle stretches again. This time I push hard to get something resembling a calf stretch -- I'm still not stretching the calf, but I'm now feeling the pressure in my ankle and the achilles/soleus stretches are downright painful -- good painful, not bad painful. It strikes me just how much hard work lies ahead (I'm not a big fan of pain).

Range of motion is getting better -- I can both flex and extend the foot just a tad, and side to side motion is actually quite good (once I remember how to do it -- seriously -- it took a minute).

Most of the bottom-of-foot pain is gone (slight remnant) and my uneven gait is mostly due to the stiffness in the ankle. My pace yesterday was snail-like; I think I've now moved on to turtle-like.