Sunday, August 28, 2005

Lessons in Morse Code

Long ago and far away I was the daughter of a science teacher who was a "ham" -- an amateur radio operator. Since he was a teacher, it was natural for him to guide his young students into the world of amateur radio. Since I was his daughter, it is not surprising that I was included among those students. I learned the Morse code and practiced it until I could send and receive it at 5 words per minute, memorized enough incomprehensible facts to pass a written exam, and received my call letters -- WN9DHQ. "N" for "novice". At the time, holders of a novice license were only allowed to communicate via Morse code, not by voice. For the same code speed but more memorized facts, I could earn a "technician" license and use voice but on frequencies with limited range. In order to talk around the world by voice, I would need a "general class" license, requiring a code speed of 13 wpm and an even more extensive written test.

The only way to increase my Morse code speed was to practice. The most interesting way to practice was to get on the radio and "talk" to people using Morse code. I would send out a CQ ("seek you") on an empty frequency or respond to someone else's CQ and we would exchange the usual information -- name, location, license level, etc. This is where I learned a lesson that is applicable to several areas of life.

It turns out that sending Morse code is easier than receiving and decoding it. I could always send it at a faster rate than I could receive it. With all the practice I had sending CQs, I could especially fly on that invitation to a stranger. There was the rub. People tended to respond at the same rate that I was sending. Whenever I sent code out faster than I could receive it, I'd end up missing half the letters of the response. Sometimes I could slow down and my partner in conversation would take the hint and follow suit. Other times, the attempt to comprehend what was being sent just became very frustrating and I'd have to sign off in embarrassment, knowing the other person probably despised me for starting a conversation at a speed I couldn't handle.

The other thing that I observed during this time was that it was often obvious when someone was sending code faster than they could receive it. It took on a telltale sloppiness. Although it's easy to send Morse code at a faster rate than one can receive it, it's not nearly so easy to do it well at the higher speed.

It has been years since I was a novice "ham" and it would take a lot of review and practice to regain my Morse code skills at this point in my life, but one lesson has stuck with me. When speaking, people can easily move beyond their grasp of a subject, but it shows when that happens.

I deal with computers more than radios these days. I hear various people "teaching" other people about computers. Sometimes they're "sending" at a higher rate than they can really handle, moving beyond what they clearly understand into areas where they have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. It starts to show.

The same phenomena can be observed in those teaching interpersonal skills or doing religious training. For example, sometimes I wonder whether those teaching about prayer have skills in keeping with their teaching. Are they sharing what they themselves have learned or are they repeating lessons they've heard from others but have yet to master? It reminds me to check to see if I too sometimes try to teach lessons I haven't quite learned.

Just some thoughts.

WB9DHQ, General class amateur radio operator.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Teamwork and Leadership

It has been an interesting and frustrating week. I certainly don't want to relive the whole thing here, just share a couple of observations.

One of the highlights of the week was a visit with a professor whose classroom my husband and I sat in 26 years ago at Tristate University in Angola, Indiana. After over 30 years as a professor and with three years to go until retirement, he is still enthused about his work. That was a blessing in itself. As he shared some of the current projects in the Tristate engineering department, he used the word "team" several times to describe the approach. I shuddered and was glad I escaped academia before the emphasis on teamwork in education took hold. There were few times I was asked to serve on a team during my early education. More recently, I took a graduate library science class and was assigned to do a team project. It was a source of high stress as we sought to coordinate schedules and efforts. The class was on organizational management and as a reaction against the team project I did my research paper on individualistic versus collectivistic cultures in the workplace. I much prefer to take responsibility for a project and do it myself than to use the team approach.

Dinner with the professor was Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, I discovered that management has zeroed in on something I do and is working on ways for it to be done better. As a first step, they've adjusted the format. This was disturbing to me. Should not those most affected by changes be involved in the process of planning those changes? As someone responsible for implementing the changes, why aren't I part of the leadership team? Why am I being informed of the changes via a general announcement?

Obviously, there's inconsistency in my attitude. Am I a team player or not? I'm still working on the answer to that question. I think it has to do with whether or not the project is too much for one person to handle and how teamwork is managed. Group grocery shopping drives me crazy. If there are two of us working together to fill one grocery cart, it seems to me that one of us is superfluous. One can quickly make decisions and fill the cart. Two will end up discussing which brand of yogurt to buy and whether we really need the Twinkies. If both have opinions, my philosophy is to give each a grocery cart, assign general categories of responsibility, and cut out all the negotiations. Buying groceries for a household does not require a team but if it's going to be approached as a team project, find a way to divvy it up into individual projects.

On the other hand, the graduation party we had back in May was more than I could handle and I was glad to team up with two other families for it. I became a team member, discussing details, measuring how strongly each felt about certain aspects of the event, reaching compromises, and dividing up tasks in order to do more together than we could do apart. After all the parties were over and my graduate sank exhausted into the clutter of gifts and memorabilia, the reward for our work was her contented sigh as she commented that she and her buddies had the best party of all. It was teamwork that did it.

Back to the grocery store analogy, what I encountered this week was the discovery that while I was out filling my cart, someone had changed the menu without telling me. When I signed up as a shopper, I was agreeing to a particular set of expectations. If the expectations are changing, I'd like to be involved as part of the meal-planning team. I may not be interested in the job if I have to visit specialty shops every week to seek out elusive ingredients added to my list by people who don't shop.

Some things require teamwork. I like being on teams with worthy goals and good management where I can find a role to play. I don't mind managing teams if all the members are interested in working together and listening to each other. I'm uncomfortable on teams where the team members are assigned tasks at the whim of management without involvement in the decision-making process.

I protested Wednesday's management decision and a team meeting has been scheduled for next Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether I can continue as part of the team. Once again, relationships get difficult, but they are still worth the trouble.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

What is it about a garden?

When you live with people you live with expectations. You're generally expected to do something more productive with your days than sitting around eating bon-bons and watching soap operas.

I spend too much time at the computer. Sometimes it has to do with productivity. Other times I'm keeping up internet relationships. Either way, my family finds it annoying. If they were in charge of planning my day, they would put more emphasis on other activities.

I read. In the morning I read inspirational books and magazines. In the evening, I'm more likely to turn to fiction (if I can get away from the computer). Again, those who observe my life most closely seem annoyed to find me reading while they're doing other things, even though I seldom read anything beyond the newspaper between my morning reading and bedtime.

I have a garden. There is very little productive about gardening the way I do it. I have 20 4X4 raised beds and work them by hand. I don't use commercial fertilizers and don't end up with a bountiful crop. One bed is in alfalfa, four have strawberry plants, two others are growing flowers. Once strawberry season is over in early June, my main harvest consists of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. I hope to increase the productivity of my garden as I move into the empty nest years. (There's something wrong with that picture -- finally having enough time to cultivate a productive garden when those who would eat the produce move out of my life.) For now, however, I garden more for pleasure than for produce. I like to work in the dirt, to break up the soil and plant seeds, to knock Japanese beetles and potato bugs into a jar of ammonia water. There's something very relaxing about sitting out in the garden pulling weeds, seeing the contrast between the bare ground behind me and the weeds ahead. The actual crops are just props for those other activities.

What amazes me is that no one seems to mind the time I spend in the garden. Don't they notice how little there is to show for my work? Don't they worry about the things I'm not doing while I'm out in the garden? Aren't they annoyed that they have to track me down when the phone rings? Shouldn't I be cooking their meals or ironing their clothes or ... something?

When I'm reading people want to talk to me. When I'm sitting at the computer people want my attention elsewhere. Those same people would be perfectly welcome in the garden. I could chat while I weed. I wouldn't mind if they sat and watched. The cat shows up consistently, knowing that the garden isn't really a good use of my time and that it's a good opportunity to claim my lap and my attention. But the people mainly wave as they drive past the garden unless a phone call comes in for me.

I'm certainly not complaining here. I greatly enjoy my time in the garden. I'm just not sure how I can get away with using my time so frivolously with so few complaints. How does playing in the dirt pass for real work so much more easily than, say, updating financial records?

This is a good deal.