Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 5

Staying under the radar is important in the early days at a new company or in your overall career for that matter.  You want to create the right impression by not creating a negative impression.

#5 Volunteer, but choose wisely

Volunteering is a trap that over-achieving, ambitious employees easily fall into.  I’m here today to warn you about this trap.

Before diving in, let’s get on the same page regarding the definition of volunteering.  Volunteering, in the context of this post, means offering to do something when someone (typically your boss) throws an idea out to a group of people.  This could occur in a meeting, in the hallway, at lunch, etc.  She might say, “We need someone to get a list together of everyone’s birthday and ensure we have a once-a-month team birthday lunch.  Who can do that?”  I draw a distinction between this and any time that your boss asks you specifically to work on something.  If you boss asks you “if” you want to do something, the answer is almost always “yes,” unless it’s illegal, inappropriate, unethical or she’s forgotten something more critical you need to finish.

The logic in volunteering for things seems valid, doesn’t it?  You are showing your ability to take on more work.  You are showing your willingness to help others out.  You will add another items to that year’s performance review.  You may even get some good exposure from it.

More often that not, however, this logic amounts to no benefit at all in your career.  I’ll bet, if you think about all the items for which you’ve volunteered, a very small portion have truly resulted in the benefits noted above.  Why is this?  Because this is the truth about volunteering:

  1. When bosses ask for volunteers to do something, that “something” is not considered important or critical to the business. Think about it.  When was the last time your boss said “We have our most important client coming in tomorrow.  Who wants to take him on a factory tour?”   When was the last time your boss said, “We need to give a presentation on our three-year strategy to our CEO and CFO, who’s got that?”  When bosses have critically important tasks, then they decide who leads and who participates.  This is a hard and fast rule.  If they ask for volunteers for anything, then it’s just not that important to them.
  2. Requests for volunteers are usually thankless tasks that are quickly forgotten or have no value in your career. Volunteers pull together social events, pitch in to collate and bind presentations, proofread documents, or meet and greet the new employee.  Not only do none of these ever make up for poor work performance, but they carry risk, because they are usually so easy to complete.  What if the pot-luck lunch sucks?  What if you miss a page when collating?  What if  you find errors in the boss’s document, but he takes feedback poorly?  For me, the risk/reward trade-off is lopsided towards risk.
  3. Volunteering can aggravate your co-workers. The constant volunteer risks carrying a reputation similar to the head cheerleader, who is also head of the prom committee, editor of the yearbook, and coordinator of all the student assemblies.  She may do a good job, but she becomes known for being involved in everything and not for the quality of her work.  She becomes known as excluding other from helping, even if that isn’t her intent.  Don’t volunteer all the time, even if you can.
  4. Volunteering will lead your boss to question how you have time to do it all. When I realized this, it was incredibly frustrating.  When bosses see their team members doing things that don’t contribute to work on deadline, their brain says “How can they afford the time to do that?”  It’s not always rational, but that’s how executive brains work.  You may hit your deadline, and the summer intern dinner may go off splendidly, but that momentary thought by your boss will stick in his mind.  Bosses want to see their teams working, not putting up decorations or organizing the company softball leagues.
  5. Volunteering puts you on the radar, but for reasons other than work success. Simply put, this is not the best way to get on the radar or create a  reputation.  It distracts from other successes.

So – when do you volunteer?

I recommend volunteering for charity events.  Join the group to clean up a park, rehab a house, serve food at a shelter.  If you are at a level where you get asked to attend charity dinners, you should go to a few (although all require donations, so be careful).

I recommend volunteering for things when you get a chance to meet people who you don’t know well and can do so without the risk of failure at work.  Volunteer to courier materials to a senior executive’s house on the weekend.  Volunteer to attend a reception or usher at a reception that you know is dear to a senior executive’s heart.

I recommend volunteering when something needs to be done at the last minute.  This is when you will get credit for being flexible, and this is when your boss really needs you.  This is when even running to Office Depot to get some thumbtacks can be helpful to your career.

Remember, even if you identify a good time for volunteering, don’t do it every time – even if you can.  Let’s others volunteer.  Stay off the radar a bit.

In the end, you will gain the most benefit by contributing on an important extracurricular project that you are requested to work on.  That’s when bosses will give you credit and that’s what the right way to get on the radar.

Previous parts:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back
#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings
#4 Don’t Offer Suggestions Unless You Are Asked


In Praise of Webicon

For this Thursday’s “Other Sites I Like” post, I’ll add one more site that is purely for fun to go with Graphjam and GIFSoup that I’ve featured in previous weeks. is a feature of Paste Magazine and allows users to take ordinary photos and modify them into one of five designs, with four core features:

  1. Obamicon which transforms photos into images with blue, grey and red colors reminiscent of the Obama campaign posters
  2. Luvicon which puts photos into a pink posterized format complete with a heart on which you can write a message
  3. Iranicon which similarly transforms photos but puts them into a green format similar to Iranian election posters
  4. Conanicon which modifies the photo to add a big swath of red hair to look like Conan O’Brien

Like similar sites, Webicon stores users’ creations and shares them in a gallery for rating and comment.  In addition, once you’ve created an image, you can order a mug, t-shirt, stamp and other items with that image emblazoned.

The pictures are all created with similar functionality.  Click on the design you’d like from the Webicon main page.  You then either snap your own photo with a webcam or upload any jpeg, gif, or png photo up to 4MB in size.  Once the photo is uploaded, you can choose to use the image as-is or tell the software where your main image is located by clicking around that image.  It’s a bit tedious, although the image of Marcia Brady at right took only three minutes to cut out.  Once you’ve saved your image, you can then change the picture text, rotate or zoom in, and change the color.  Click “save & submit” and you are all done.

(For the record, I don’t have a Marcia Brady thing.  Since I used Marcia for the animated GIF, I might as well use her here as well.)

To show the ease of this site – I create a few others below.

My fellow Washington Capitals fans should enjoy the one of the left and my kids the one on the right.  Enjoy.

One Traveler’s Ranking of Las Vegas Casinos

During our Las Vegas trip a few weeks back (see this post and this post), I visited 12 different hotel casinos.  There were several that I didn’t visit this time that I have visited in the past and know well.  I do not like all of them, and my like or dislike has nothing to do with whether I won or lost money.  This post includes my thoughts on the ones I know and a final ranking.  If you don’t see a Casino (i.e., Rio, Hard Rock, TI), it’s because I haven’t spent any time there recently.

Full-disclosure – I am a slot player.  As such, here’s what I want in the casinos I go to and what forms the basis of my ranking:

  • Newer slot machines and newer poker machines
  • A floor plan I can navigate
  • Light
  • High ceilings
  • Bathrooms are easy to find
  • Frequent drink offers from waitresses
  • Some level of winning – I don’t have to win big or every time, but don’t eat my money without giving something back.

Newer Slot Machines and Newer Poker Machines

Three Best — Aria, Palazzo, Wynn.

Three Worst — Luxor, Monte Carlo, New York-New York

Casinos need to keep up with the times.  If I can visit a casino after one year and find the same machines in the same spot, I think that’s bad.  Newer machines have larger screens, so I don’t want to see the smaller ones any longer.  Lastly, I’d like to see casinos keep up with trends:  machines with more than one screen, machines with respins, and newer theme machines.  This year’s new themes are Sex and the City, Amazing Race, Lord of the Rings, and the Monkees.

A Floor Plan I Can Navigate

Three Best — Palazzo, Wynn, Palms

Three Worst — New York-New York, Planet Hollywood, Caesar’s

Please make your casinos big, square and open, with easy-to-find exits.  I can never find the exit at New York-New York.  I get lost in Caesar’s – really.  PH is just a mess with a big circular area with the down escalators to the buffet in the middle.  Yuk.


Three Best — Aria, Palazzo, Palms

Three Worst — Luxor, Monte Carlo, Caesar’s

Back in the day, casinos had no windows and doors were sealed so no light could get in.  No longer.  I want real light from the outside coming in.  The Palms is a bit like the casinos on Native American reservations I’ve seen in Minnesota and Arizona, with big entry ways that carry light in from the parking lot.  Luxor, Monte Carlo and Caesar’s are old school.  The casinos are deep inside the building with no light at all.

High Ceilings

Three Best — Aria, New York-New York, Palazzo

Three Worst — Flamingo, Monte Carlo, Palms

High ceiling for me equals comfort.  I don’t want to feel claustrophobic.  As much as I dislike New York-New York, the ceilings there can’t get much higher.  On the other hand, the ceilings at Monte Carlo are so low that I think the little black “eyes in the sky” hit people on the head as they walk by.

Bathrooms are Easy to Find

Three Best — Palms, Venetian, Wynn

Three Worst — Aria, Flamingo, Harrah’s

Honestly, I had trouble coming up with three best here.  Let me make a special shout out to the Palms, with very clearly market restrooms with directional signs.  Good for them.  As far as Aria, Flamingo and Harrah’s – I’ve been home 10 days, and I’m still looking for the bathroom at all three places.

Frequent Drink Offers from Waitresses

Three Best — Aria, Palms, Wynn

Three Worst — MGM, New York-New York, Planet Hollywood

Kudos to Aria here.  I was approached at least once every 10 minutes and asked for a drink.  On the other hand, I played over an hour in the same spot at PH and MGM and wasn’t asked once.

Some Level of Winning

Three Best — Flamingo, Harrah’s, MGM

Three Worst — Caesar’s, New York-New York, Palms

I come not to praise Caesar’s, but to curse it.  I could win once, couldn’t I?  Just a few bells or bonus games?  Say what you will about Flamingo and Harrah’s, but I win there.  I won this trip, the trip before that, and the trip before that.

Final Ranking

  1. Wynn
  2. Aria
  3. Palazzo
  4. Harrah’s
  5. Flamingo
  6. Venetian
  7. Mirage
  8. Mandalay Bay
  9. Palms
  10. Bellagio
  11. Encore
  12. MGM
  13. Luxor
  14. Planet Hollywood
  15. Monte Carlo
  16. Caesar’s

One last note – we have been up to Fremont Street and into some of the casinos up there, like the Golden Nugget.  They have an entirely different feel.  They are small, cramped, less glitzy and more smoky.  Some say that you can win up there, but we didn’t notice anything appreciably different.  Because of the large number of casinos on Fremont Street, I excluded them from the rankings.  They would be towards the bottom anyway.

“Should Parents Check Their Text Messages at the Movies?” and Similar 2010 Parenting Questions

In the past 24 hours, I’ve found myself confronted with two parenting questions that weren’t questions when I was the same age as my kids.  And they got me thinking.

Last night, Mrs. Spidey told me that a few parents of our kids’ summer camp mates had complained that not enough photos were posted on the camp’s website.  Being a bit more old school, I thought about the years I went to summer camp (1974-1981), during which the only contact with the outside world was USPS mail that came once a day.  I saw and talked to my parents at visiting day halfway through my 8 weeks at camp.  No one ever asked “How come there aren’t more photos on the camp website?”

Then earlier today, on the Japers’ Rink Off-Topic Thread, one of the regulars sent through a note from inside a movie theater telling that he had made it in before the movie started.  He was criticized (nicely) for texting from inside the theater.  I agreed, but I noted that I was torn as a parent, because one of my kids might be texting because they were hurt or locked out of the house.  When I posted that thought several jumped in a said I was wrong and pointed out that before texting parents went to movies and the world didn’t end.  “Should parents check their text messages at the movies?” wasn’t asked back in the day.

The reason these questions are relevant and get asked is because times have changed and our expectations have changed along with them.  In 1976, my parents couldn’t get photos of me at camp.  They didn’t even think to ask “How come I can’t see my kid more often?”  In 1980, parents couldn’t be reached inside a movie theater unless you called the theater itself.  Expectations have changed and new questions get asked.  Just because we were satisfied the way things were, doesn’t mean we should be satisfied keeping things that way.

I came up with five other 2010 parenting questions to consider that fall into the same bucket:

  1. Why did you get an 88 on your test today? With immediate online grade posting, we parents are more informed than ever.  Our parents learned of grades only when we brought tests home.
  2. Why does it take so long for your teacher to respond to my email? Our parents communicated with teachers twice a year at parent-teacher conferences.
  3. What store should Aunt Jenny get you a gift card from for your birthday? Gift cards have replaced cash and checks as presents.
  4. Why doesn’t little Bobby going to the library to do research? The Internet has ended the practice of going to the library to meet girls for research.  It is faster and more convenient.
  5. Why didn’t you tell me you were going from the mall to Taco Bell? Kids who are old enough to go to the mall, usually have a phone and can text or call.

In all five of these examples, there is an understanding that expectations have changed from the past.  I distinguish this from other questions such as “Why isn’t little Susie buckled into her car seat?”  Yes, we all survived no car seat or a flimsy car seat, but that doesn’t mean someone would argue it’s OK to keep Susie out of her car seat.

However, I can easily see someone who thinks it was “good enough” back in the day and answers back:

  1. You really need to check your kid’s grades online every day?  When my kids were young we kept track of his test scores, but we’re OK not knowing their final grade until we got the report card.
  2. Why should the teacher respond to you so quickly?  They have parent-teacher conferences, don’t they?
  3. Isn’t it easier for Aunt Jenny just to send a check?
  4. Learning how to do library research is a critical skill.  Don’t let Bobby take the easy way out with the Internet.
  5. You don’t need to know where he is always.  What did you do before mobile phones?

All these responses are true.  But they are based in an earlier reality.  To tell me that I don’t need to talk to the teacher between parent-teacher conferences ignores the fact that using email or voice mail makes the communications easier and faster.  I can communicate with teachers outside of conferences, because I can.  Why shouldn’t I?  Didn’t my parents want to know more about my education?  Sure they did, but it just wasn’t done.  Well – it is done now.

So when I hear from a fellow Japers’ Rink poster that I should check not my text messages during a movie ever, I respectfully disagree.  I check because I can. I don’t have to wait until I get home to find out there is a problem, so I don’t.  If the momentary flash of light bothers you, I apologize.  I will not write texts or get on the phone during a movie.  If I need to do either, I’ll stand up and walk out.

I’m not living in 1980.  This is 2010, and I check to see if my child needs me because I can.

The Evil Goodness of Theater Popcorn

At about 9:15 last night, I shut off the computer and headed to watch the season première of Mad Men and the latest installment of Entourage.  It was three hours after I had eaten dinner, and I wanted something to snack on while I watched.  I grabbed a bag of 94% fat-free microwave popcorn.  Then my eyes caught a glimpse of two large bags of theater-style, pre-popped popcorn that Mrs. Spidey had bought for our daughter’s end-of-school party.

The theater style popcorn was too good to pass up, and I soon found myself in our basement with a large-sized serving bowl full of this evil goodness.  75 minutes or so later, with both shows under my belt, the bowl was empty.  I felt a strange mixture of tasty satisfaction and oily dietary calamity.

1,030 Calories and 57g of Saturated Fat of Evil Goodness

I know theater popcorn is bad for me.  Don’t we all?  When I plan to see a movie, I will eat a lighter meal in advance, making room in my daily calorie intake for the popcorn.  But with that oily aftertaste in my mouth last night and the “tasty satisfaction” quickly disappearing, I vowed to remind myself today just how evil this popcorn is.

The fan was first hit back in 1994, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest published an exposé on just how bad movie popcorn is from a health and nutrition perspective.  The Center updated the report late last year, and found, for example, that AMC, which owns the theaters we frequent, has a whopping 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat in the 16 cups of popcorn in its large popcorn — without any buttered topping.  According to CSPI,

That’s like eating a pound of baby back ribs topped with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream—except that the popcorn has an additional day’s worth of saturated fat.

I’m still stunned.

This means, even if and your kid or significant other split a large popcorn,  you end up with 500 calories and 28 grams of saturated fat.  That’s 25% of the daily intake from a 2,000 calorie diet and 50% of those calories from fat.  The popular Zone Diet recommends 30% of calories from “good” fats, which would be 600 calories in a 2,000 calorie per day diet.  Eating 1/2 a large popcorn would provide you with 250 fat calories, nearly half of the daily allowance.  Although coconut oil is among the healthiest of fats, I still don’t think anyone recommends getting fat in this way.

By the way, a large tub at AMC also has 580 mg of sodium.  So when you split a tub, you get 290 mg, which is 12% of your daily recommended intake of 2,400 mg.

The popcorn I ate last night, purchased at our local Dierberg’s, is from the C.R. Frank Popcorn Company here in St. Louis.  The bag holds 2 pecks, which I’ve learned is 4 gallons or 64 cups.  I won’t bore you with the math, but trust me, based on the nutrition facts, that 16 cups (the size of a large AMC popcorn) or 25% of the bag results in 700 calories, 40 grams of saturated fat, and 1,300 mg of salt.  Calories and grams of fat are less, but salt is more, and, like AMC, this popcorn generates 50% of its calories from saturated fat.

320 Calories and 2.67g of Saturated Fat for the Same Amount

Microwave popcorn, on the other hand, is indeed better.  However, watch out for serving sizes.  Labels can be confusing.  In our pantry we have the Pop Secret 94% fat-free buttered microwave popcorn.  One bag has 2 servings or 12 cups.  If we gross up to 16 cups (again – trust me on the math), we get 320 calories, 2.67 g of saturated fat, and 1,120 grams of sodium.  So, you get fewer calories and only 7.5% of your calories from fat, but also get an awful lot of salt to go with it.

I did this research for myself to show once again how bad this theater popcorn can be.  I learned that microwave popcorn also has its nutritional challenges, but is better.  Will I stop eating popcorn at the theater?  Certainly not, but at least I can’t complain that I don’t know how evil it is.

T.O. to STL? NO!

I was stunned to learn towards the end of last week that the Rams are apparently interested in signing Terrell Owens.  I was truly incredulous.

I am so hoping that in this age of Twitter-based, light-speed rumor mills, that this is a joke.  I’m not the only one.  Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post Dispatch thinks the Rams are nuts.

I was surprised, however, to see both Mike Sando of ESPN and the much respected Peter King of Sports Illustrated write that it isn’t a terrible idea.  And the online, very unscientific vote at STLToday, showed local fans in favor of signing T.O. by 53% to 47% as of the morning of July 26.

The positive spin on signing T.O. is that a team can get a very talented wide receiver for lower than market prices.  As I see it, Owens is desperate to find a team willing to take him.  In theory, T.O. is a player looking for redemption, wanting to show a new team, the league, and the public that his team and the world know longer revolves around him.  It’s a often-told and often-seen tale in professional sports, but it rarely comes true.  Players that are difficult to work with tend to stay difficult to work with throughout their career.

The Rams Do Not Need the T.O. Distraction This Season

The downside with T.O., in my opinion, is much more significant.  T.O. will be a distraction for the Rams.  Even if he tries to stay out of the limelight, the local and national press will suck him back in.  Eventually he’ll say something he shouldn’t, and disarray will result.  The Rams, under second-year coach Steve Spagnuolo need peace and quiet at training camp.  The Rams need to take things slow and steady and build a nucleus around this years #1 pick Sam Bradford.  The Rams need to be Bradford’s team from the get go.  Owens presence at camp and on the field will simply not allow that to happen.

Even more so, it appears that T.O. is on the downside of his career.  He hasn’t been to the ProBowl since 2007, which is also the last year that he was among the statistical leaders at wide receiver.  Take a look at his career stats.  After three  years with more than 90 receptions with the 49ers, Owens has not exceeded 85 receptions in a year since 2003, and his number of receptions has declined every year since 2006.

In the age of free agency, smart owners and general managers have learned that championships are won by teams and not by individual players.  These same team executives have learned that you can rarely go from last place to first place in one year.  Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, the Washington Capitals, the Orlando Magic, and the Dallas Cowboys have had woeful seasons in which they retooled before advancing to the tops of their leagues, and, in the Cowboys’ and Hawks’ case, to the championship.

What does Billy Devaney, the Rams General Manager, gain by signing Terrell Owens?  Does he sell a few more tickets?  Does he attract a bit more national press?  Does he win a few more games?  Perhaps, but to me it doesn’t matter given the downside.

The 2010-2011 season for the Rams is about building for championships in future years, which means building a team.  I really don’t believe that # of wins is a top goal for the Rams this year. Their goals should center around educating and gaining experience for their young nucleus and building a cohesive unit in which the sum of the parts is greater than the individuals.

There is no way that T.O. fits into that plan.  Rams –  please stay away.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 4

Part 4 of “Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier” continues the line of thinking from my the previous three posts (links to each post are below) and focuses primarily on staying under the radar at work and not getting noticed for the wrong reasons.

Starting this line of posts with a sequence of what not to do may seem a bit negative.  However, there is a method to my madness.  I have learned that it is extremely important to build a bank of positive impressions at the outset of a career or new job.  Negative impressions are remembered more than positive ones, and negative impressions are much more difficult to eliminate.  You want to build up a reservoir of positive results so that, when you screw up (and you will screw up), people say something like “wow, that’s unusual for Fred.”  If the reservoir isn’t deep enough, then a screw up will immediately eliminate all the positive.  The workplace is very unforgiving.

#4 Don’t offer suggestions unless you are asked.

There are really only two types of suggestions — 1) do something differently than is being done now and 2) do something else that isn’t being done now.  I also stipulate that, if you are making a suggestion, you are making it to someone else who is doing something that isn’t your responsibility.  You don’t really offer suggestions to yourself.  Suggestions or guidance you give to your own team are different and are excluded from this.

The truth is that when you make a suggestion to anyone, you are telling them they are doing something wrong.  You may try to be tactful.  You may sugar-coat your comment.  You may think you have a lot of goodwill with that person.  However, at the root of your suggestion is that the person or group is doing something incorrectly or, at best, less efficiently than possible. If we take that a step further, a suggestion is telling someone that they are stupid or they don’t know what they are doing.

It doesn’t matter if you are right .  Let me repeat that.  It doesn’t matter if you are right.  Telling someone they are wrong or stupid, no matter how tactful, is risk-seeking, not risk-averse.  It’s putting yourself on their radar unnecessarily.

If someone asks you to proofread a paper, look at a spreadsheet for errors or review a process with them, then jump right in.  If you see a flaw in a spreadsheet that could result in lost profits, missed budgets or miscast financial statements, then raise your hand.  If you believe steps someone is taking might break the law, you should also chime in.  I’m sure there are other exceptions as well.

Follow this advice.  Don’t offer suggestions and stand back and watch.  You’ll notice that work gets done, although perhaps not as efficiently as you think it should. You’ll see people come through at the last minute, which is not a work cadence you follow.  You’ll see a boss understand the problem and step in to correct it, but perhaps not as fast as you would have.  You’ll also see bosses agree to push back deadlines or change deliverables, which you may find embarrassing.

It’s amazing how things work out.  Really.  And if the customer or client is happy and the boss is happy, then all is well.  By not offering suggestions on changes, you have avoided a negative perception among others.  If you have delivered on your work and contributed to the success, then you have just added to your positive reservoir.

Offering suggestions to others proactively only has downside.  You want to establish a track record of success so that people come to you and ask for your suggestions.  That should be your goal.  This is all about getting others to put you on the radar for the right reasons and avoiding the radar yourself for the wrong reasons.

When I told Mrs. Spidey about this post, she smartly pointed out how this approach has worked on TV reality shows.  Isn’t it always the outspoken ones on Survivor or Apprentice or Big Brother or even the Bachelor than end up getting booted out first?  The ones that contribute, do their job, don’t fail, and don’t make waves are the ones that “suddenly” show up with the $1 million.  If my examples don’t resonate for you, perhaps this comparison does.

Next week, we’ll talk about volunteering for stuff.  Since you’ve read all the way to this point, you probably know where I’m headed.

Previous parts:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back
#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings

I Like GIFSoup, But I Can’t Praise It Just Yet

For this week’s “Other Sites I Like Post” I want to tell you about GIFSoup (  Not unlike Graphjam, which I wrote about two weeks ago, GIFSoup is just plain fun.

(I want to give a nod to my friends at Japers’ Rink who introduced me to GIFSoup.  Thanks guys!)

Unfortunately, despite the capabilities that I describe below, which are pretty neat, GIFSoup continues to have problems that prevent me from really praising and recommending it.  I’ve delayed this post for about 24 hours, hoping that the site would get back to being functional.  It hasn’t.  That is unfortunate.  Googling a bit showed me that the site has had problems before on more than one occasion.

For any that don’t know, “GIF” stands for graphic interchange format, which was introduced by Compuserve in 1987 to display pictures.  In the 1990s, Netscape introduced the ability to animate a GIF and show motion in the picture.  For more on GIFs than you ever want to know, visit this Wikipedia article.

GIFSoup provides a service that allows any user to create an animated GIF from most YouTube videos.  It does not allow private YouTube videos to be used.  However, you can make a personal video temporarily public, copy it over, and then make it private again.  The animated GIF repeats an action sequence in an infinite loop.  Once you’ve created the animated GIF, it can be used as a static picture would.  It can be pasted in presentations, in emails, on message boards, blogs, etc.

GIFSoup offers two services.  The free services allows each user to create 100 animate GIFs up to 15 seconds long each.  Each GIF created for free also carries the GIFSoup watermark.  For $2.95 per month, users can create unlimited animated GIFs up to 25 seconds long each without a watermark.  Based on the site’s problems, I wouldn’t make the $2.95 per month investment just yet.

Creating an animated GIF on GIFSoup is very easy.  Once you find the YouTube video from which you want to create the GIF, you paste the URL (the web address) into a box on the home page and click “Create GIF.”  The video loads and you are taken to the next page, where you can view the full YouTube video and select the starting and end points for your animated GIF.  GIFSoup also allows you to preview your sequence and modify before saving.

When the site worked, I had some fun with GIFSoup before writing this post, and I created four animated GIFs.  They are all sequenced below.

Marcia Gets Hit in the Nose by a Football

Jordan Beats the Cavs

Keep in mind that GIFSoup has its share of problems.    So, as cool as it is, be ready for the frustration.  Unfortunately, it is the only site of its kind that I can find and, when it works, it is great.


UPDATE — Frustrations aside, two days later, I was finally able to upload a video of my son on the Flow Rider on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas from YouTube and made an animated GIF.  Again, because the site was up and functioning, it took all of a few minutes.  I also noticed this time that GIFSoup allows each user to make their GIFs private.  As noted above, once I created the animated GIF, I was able to go back to YouTube and make my video private there as well.

Here’s what I created:

The Flow Rider on Freedom of The Seas

Trip Report – Aria Hotel and Casino at City Center in Las Vegas

Tuesday night, Mrs. Spidey and I returned home from four nights at the Aria Hotel & Casino at City Center in Las Vegas.  We arrived on Friday evening and left on Tuesday afternoon.  I posted already about our discovery of the Buffet of Buffets, so I won’t rehash that here.  In this post, I’ll stay focused on the hotel itself.

Our Room

We stayed in a Corner Suite on the 8th floor.  We were disappointed by the low floor, but that was actually better than their first proposal of the 5th floor.  I think we’ve learned our lesson about arriving at 7pm on a Friday evening in the summer.  Most of the high floors were already taken.

The Corner Suites are local at the far ends of the hallways – literally as far as you can walk, a good three to four minutes from the elevators.  They are 920 square feet and consist of a small entry way, a powder room, a sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathroom.

The sitting room had a small bar area that included both the mini-bar with items to purchase and any empty fridge for your own water.  Be careful, as this is one of those mini-bars where just lifting an item can result in a charge.  Examine your bill carefully, as we were billed for some chocolate almonds we never ate.  We used the mini-fridge to store a 12-pack of Diet Coke we bought at a CVS just out on the Strip.  The sitting room also has a desk, a couch and chair, and what appeared to be about a 50-inch HDTV.  The bedroom had a king-sized bed and a smaller HDTV.  The bathroom had two sinks, separate shower and tub, and a separate commode, which included a “washlet” toilet.  More on that in a later post.  There is also a television in the bathroom.

The Sitting Room in the Aria Corner Suite 8125

One of the room’s signatures is the way the curtains, lights, temperature and television are all controlled by a master handheld at the side of the bed and on the television.  Curtains and lights can also be controlled on the wall in several locations.  We found this interesting, but not the easiest system to use.  The curtain buttons on the walls are not labeled.  As a result, it’s not clear which control controls which curtain until you see what moves when you press a button.  In addition, the controls on the television remote are a bit sticky.  Sometimes you click up or down to go to another item and sometimes you click sideways.

The Room Controls on the Bedroom TV

The other signature is the floor to ceiling windows of the Corner Suite.  Although our view was more limited from the eighth floor, the windows and views didn’t disappoint.  There were great views from bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room.

The Tub in Aria's Corner Suite with a View of the Strip

The View from Corner Suite Bedroom Including the City Center Tram and the Rio

Because we had a suite, we were given newspapers every morning, and the wireless internet was free for up to four devices.  We had two laptops and an iPhone connected.  If you are in a regular room, the WiFi costs $15 per day.  Remember this when you compare rates.

Things we liked – separate sinks, a desk outside the bedroom, three televisions, the windows (for the view and for the light), the available mini-fridge, the ease of connecting to WiFi, the 2:30pm checkout time upon request, the quality of the housekeeping, and the washlet toilet.

Things we didn’t like — the pillows (too smushy and not enough), the slippery floor of the shower, the complexity of the electronic controls, and the slow draining sinks..

The Casino

Mrs. Spidey and I play machines, not tables.  From what we saw there was plenty of variety among the tables, and I clearly saw $10 blackjack tables mid-day.  The video poker machines were relatively basic and standard.  We saw few of the newer machines that allow multiple bets and multiple hands.  The slot machines did seem to be among the newer machines, including Amazing Race machines, Monopoly machines, and Sex and the City machines.  Compared to other hotels we visited, the Aria Casino definitely has a newer feel to it and, in that way, is like the Bellagio, Wynn and Palazzo.  Places like Monte Carlo, Harrah’s and the Flamingo have a much cheaper, outdated feel.  Mrs. Spidey turned $100 into $300 on dollar video poker.  I won periodically on the slots, but Mrs. Spidey was the winner in the family.

While you are in the casino, don’t forget to sign up and use an MGM Mirage Players Club card (now called M Life), even if you only play machines.  We played for four days and ended up getting a combined $23 in free play and $50 off our bill.  Get the card, play, and then visit the desk to ask for the comps.  They won’t come automatically.

The Pool and Spa

The Aria pool is nothing fancy.  There are two pools there, plus the Liquid Pool, which explodes on the weekend with a young crowd.  I have not seen so many people in such a small wading pool.  There appeared to be enough lounge chairs and plenty of umbrellas at the main pools.  It was not difficult to find a waitress, and there were cups and a jug of ice water for anyone to have.

We visited the spa/gym twice.  Each visit was $30, but there is a 3 days for $80 deal as well.  The $30 gives you access to the gym and the locker room areas.   The gym had plenty of weights and cardio equipment.  The treadmill on which I ran had an adapter for my iPhone.  Once I plugged in my iPhone, I was able to listen to music or play videos from my iPhone on the television screen.  The machine was also compatible with the Nike+ iPod app and automatically recorded my workout.

The spa was very comfortable and well-appointed, second in my opinion only to the Wynn.  The spa has a sauna, a steam room, three hot whirlpools and one cold plunge pool.  There are ample towels and the robes are comfortable.  There are plenty of grooming supplies from Q-tips to disposable razors to shaving cream to hand lotion.  Both times I worked out, I spent more time up in the locker area than in the gym, relaxing on a lounge chair near the whirlpool.  In fact, I wrote the Sunday post about George Steinbrenner on my iPhone sitting there.

There are two other pluses to the gym.  First, with access you get unlimited drinks – they have waters, juices, and sodas – plus fruit, tea and coffee.  Second, there is a co-ed porch overlooking the main pool.  On this porch is a small pool and a few chairs.  In theory, you could pay your $30 every day to have access to this porch.

All-in-all, I was very impressed with the gym.  It is very relaxing and a great way to stay out of the casino or, in my case, out of the heat.

I should also mention that I visited the salon for a shave.  I had never been shaved with a straight razor before.  The shave cost $75 including tip, but included facial treatments beyond the shave.  Vinnie, the barber, was very friendly and conversational, although I worried about answering him when the straight razor was moving down my neck.

The Location

City Center is located between Bellagio and the Monte Carlo, just across the street from Planet Hollywood.  You can walk inside through to the Monte Carlo and take a tram over to the backside of the Bellagio.  Aria is set back a bit, however, even in comparison to some of the other hotels.  It was about a ten minute walk from the lobby out to Las Vegas Boulevard.  We walked through the Crystals mall out to an overpass between the still under construction Cosmopolitan and Planet Hollywood.  Initially, we had some trouble finding the exit, as Crystals is still being built out, and store construction creates a few dead ends.  Once we figured it out, we were fine.  Whether we took the tram to the Bellagio or walked out to the road, it was a bit of a trek from hotel to street.  That much said, it’s right in the middle of the strip and, even in the heat, we had an easy walk back from the Palazzo one night after seeing Jersey Boys and eating dinner at Dos Caminos.

Bottom Line

The Aria is probably our second favorite hotel now behind the Wynn, although, for comparison, we’d like to stay at Bellagio one more time when the pool is open.  We feel like the Wynn’s basic room (often going for $99 in the summer mid-week) is sufficiently large with floor to ceiling windows, that we don’t need to pay for a suite to be comfortable.

Despite our challenges with the electronics, the room was indeed comfortable.  The pool was easily accessible, and we had no trouble finding machines we liked to gamble.  We only ate at the buffet and Todd English’s Public Urban Bar, but they were very good.  If we had to do it again, we’d get there a bit earlier to get a higher floor.

Pledging to Be the “Right” Parent of a High School Athlete

Just over a month ago, I posted somewhat of a diatribe about how poorly the high school ice hockey league in the St. Louis metro area is run. I’m sad to say that the issue did not resolve itself as I had hoped.

In the end, my son’s public high school will not be able to field an ice hockey team for the 2010-2011 season. Instead of allowing us to merge his school’s program with another from a nearby school, the adults that manage the league want to disperse the kids to other teams via a draft or the equivalent of free agency.

The dispute I and other parents have with the Mid States Hockey Association is a bit political.  It’s two sides with different opinions, both of which seem logical to the holder of the opinions.  I won’t rehash the argument here.  Like many political arguments, the dispute is not, at this point, resolvable.

I am able to justify the blog post and a couple of widely broadcast emails because I believe I was doing what I needed to do as a parent to support my child.  Upon reflection, however, I suspect some other parents or the leaders of Mid States didn’t perceive my actions in the same way.  I wonder if others thought I was lobbying for my son in a way that put my son above the others because my son is “special.”  That’s certainly not what I intend.  I never want to become that ugly parent of an athlete that clearly thinks his child is above everyone else.  I want to be known as a supportive, fair parent, who encourages his son to play to the best of his ability.

I pledge to be the “right” parent.  Specifically:

  1. I will make sure that my son attends every practice and every game, except for illnesses or for schoolwork problems.
  2. I will attend every game that does not conflict with other family obligations or business trips out of town.  If I cannot attend, my wife will do her best to attend.
  3. I will support the coaches’ decisions when my son complains and encourage him to raise any concerns to the coaches and not to me or his mom.
  4. I pledge not to talk to my son or yell at my son to do something in the middle of the game.
  5. I will allow the coaches to make their own strategic decisions, playing time decisions, and playing position decisions.
  6. If I want to talk with the coach, I will do so privately, but not within 24 hours after the end of a game.  This will give me time to reconsider or calm down, if I am frustrated.
  7. I will not talk negatively about my son’s teammates’ abilities.
  8. I will not denigrate the opponents loudly during the game.
  9. I will volunteer to assist the team in score-keeping, fund-raising or other role.
  10. I will make sure that all fees we owe for the team are paid.

Are these the right things to focus on?  Tell me what you think.

Does it make sense to list out these things and have all the parents sign a pledge?  Personally, I think so.