Sunday, November 30, 2008

There but for fortune

Woke up this morning with this Phil Ochs song going through my head. Not sure why, other than the fact so much economic news recently has been so grim, both personally and in a more general national way. The S.O. and I are doing okay, but I worry about the Older Daughter, several blogpals are hurting, and a number of other friends and acquaintances are wondering if they're going to be standing in line at the food pantry or homeless shelter sometime in the not too distant future.

One of my younger cousins had been cruising along happily for a number of years, making good money as an engineer and feeling relatively immune to economic woes. . . not true anymore. He worked (insert ominous background music here) for the Cadillac division of General Motors. He did everything right: served in the military, then went to college using the education benefit (end result -- no crushing burden of student loan debt when he graduated), got a good job, worked hard, got promotions, and now where is he? Standing in the unemployment line with a pretty large cohort of fellow former GM employees. I can't think of much he might have done to avoid his present situation -- he's a smart guy, I'm sure he saw the handwriting on the wall well before the axe actually fell, but it's hard to change jobs in a shrinking labor market.

Other friends and acquaintances are either teetering on the brink of total financial disaster or have already slid into the abyss. And each time I hear the horror stories, the worrying about how to keep up the car payments, pay the winter heating bills, avoid foreclosure, manage to keep fresh fruit in the house so the kids don't grow up wondering what an apple is, etc., the temptation to give advice starts sneaking up on me. After all, I'm in the perfect position to tell other people how to run their lives -- I'm doing fine with mine, no current major financial worries, ergo, I'm an expert. I'll just share my secrets, whatever they may happen to be (always buying generics? figuring out that Great Clips does cheap haircuts before 10 a.m.?) while conveniently ignoring the biggest secret of all: sheer dumb luck.

The truth is you can do everything right -- live frugally, buy all your clothes at Goodwill, stash money in savings, drive a beater instead of making car payments -- and still have the ceiling cave in. Everyone of us is subject to forces we cannot control. The Atlanta paper has been full of stories lately about people who thought they had it made: from self-employed developers who went from being millionaires to worrying about ending up homeless over the course of the past two years to low level hourly employees who thought their jobs were secure and are now unemployed following company cutbacks. They're all victims of a struggling economy, the collateral damage caused by structural forces, and they all share one thing in common: they're all feeling individually guilty, like they did something personally to 'deserve' the raw deal they just got handed. After all, the Great American Myth is that anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough -- so if you're hurting financially, it's all your fault. Not the banks. Not the economy. Just you. Which is why everyone is sitting there eager to give you advice on What You Should Have Done Differently.

And admittedly there almost always is something You Should Have Done Differently. But no one really needs to hear it. When you're staring disaster in the face you're generally already engaging in self-flagellation. Everyone has a mental list of "should have" and "if only" scenarios, each of which has the ability to make you think It's All Your Fault. The last thing anyone needs when his or her world is crumbling around them is someone standing on the sidelines making them feel even worse. So I'll just keep my mouth shut, offer help if there's something useful I can do (help with the yard sale? volunteer our pick-up truck for moving stuff into storage or a smaller place? provide a reference?), and hope things work out in the long run.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Milestones and miscellania

Welcome to my 200th post. Time flies when a person is having fun. Back in February when I started blogging I wasn't sure it was a particularly good idea.

I'm still not sure, but it's definitely addictive. Not to mention the added benefit of it giving me something to do when I'm awake several hours earlier than any sane person should be.

The S.O. and I are in east Texas this week, enjoying the relative serenity of the piney hills and scenic Sabine County. I was a little surprised yesterday by how quiet it was here where the Younger Daughter lives. She's in a subdivision on the Toledo Bend reservoir, a neighborhood that is a mix of houses with year-round residents and vacation homes. I was expecting it to be relatively busy -- when we were here for Christmas there were a lot of people around, the infamous weekenders from Beaumont and Houston (you want to hear contempt in a local's voice? Ask about people from Houston). Both Christmas and New Year's were celebrated with lots and lots of fireworks and other rowdiness. But Thanksgiving was quiet.

For those who might interested in such things, the cheapest gas we saw between here and Atlanta was at the Evil Empire in Alexandria, Louisiana: $1.69.

The past week or so was an odd one. My detail and the assignment to edit that strategy document at Large Nameless Agency is winding down. The most recent draft of The Strategy went out to multiple agencies and "stakeholders" for comment on October 31. All comments were due back by November 26, so when I get back to the office I'll get to start collating them all and integrating them into the document. That's if there's anything to collate or integrate. As of Tuesday afternoon the response had been, well, a tad odd. And light.

Of the potential hundreds of responses, as of Tuesday we'd heard from maybe half a dozen entities. Two provided actual comments, but not many and nothing truly substantive. The Office of the Vice President (and yes, the e-mail did give off a faint hint of brimstone) said simply (or as simply as anything is ever written in bureaucratese) "Thanks for letting us see this." Several of the professional associations that have an interest in the topic made no comments on the document itself and instead merely reiterated their support for the work the unit is doing. Another reviewer said he felt the strategy was too ambitious and too generalized, but didn't give any specifics on what to do to bring it down into the real world of being SMART (setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound).

I, of course, have been wondering if this silence constitutes another smoke signal from inside the Beltway -- with a new administration coming in, The Strategy now falls into the category of irrelevant old news. I hope not. The problems in public health the document details are real and do need to be addressed. Maybe not in the same way the Bush administration would have gone at it (talked a lot about supporting various programs while quietly cutting funding and hoping no one noticed), but nonethless addressed.

An alternate explanation for the lack of response, and the one I'm hoping applies, is we went through so much thrashing things out with passing early versions around and asking for feedback and contributions from the numerous stakeholders (for a ~50 page manuscript we have two full pages of acknowledgements done in microscopic type) that this latest version really is something everyone from the professional paranoics in Homeland Security to the people inspecting eggs over at USDA can live with. Which means it's either really comprehensive or it's totally vacuous. I've been too close to it for too long -- I can no longer tell the difference.

Third explanation, of course, is that most people are procrastinators so a ton of comments will come in at the last minute -- and I'll get to deal with those when I return to the office on Tuesday.

In any case, my association with The Strategy should end December 12. All edits will be done by then, it'll get posted to a website hosted by one of the partners involved in the document's development, and I'll be free to go back to my quiet cubicle, back to functioning primarily as an author's editor, and back to enjoying my morning walk to work. I haven't much liked being a bus commuter, nor have I enjoyed the days when I drive -- Atlanta drivers are all insane. And I've missed the people who inhabit the offices and cubicles near mine. We may not work in the same program area (writer editors are "embedded" all over Large Nameless Agency, and may never work directly with the folks whose offices surround them), but when you see the same faces every work day for over a year, you get to know and like people.

For the next couple days, though, I won't have to worry about the document or work. Instead I get to think about playing tourist and doing some small-scale shopping. I know today is National Do Not Shop day for those of us who like to talk about sustainability, but I'm interpreting that as "do not patronize big box stores/avoid the Evil Empire (aka House of Satan)/don't go to the mall." We're driving up to Nacogdoches to wander around its historic downtown (not to mention checking out its historic cemetery that dates back to around 1830) and pick up a souvenir or two. Tomorrow we're driving to Natchitoches, Louisiana, to enjoy a craft show there, tour Cane River Creole National Historical Park, and then enjoy the Christmas lights and fireworks on the riverfront once the sun goes down. There's a free evening concert, too.

I'm hoping that this year the guy who has the "get your picture taken with a gator" booth is there. We went up to Natchitoches on Christmas Eve last year and, although the atmosphere along the riverfront was festive and there were numerous vendors selling food and drink, the gator guy's booth was closed. If he is there tomorrow, we may have found the family portrait for this year's Christmas cards.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Thanksgiving Tale

Ranger Bob has finally gotten around to explaining to the world how he wound up sharing his house with a whole herd of Newfoundlands. If you're a dog lover and you haven't heard the story before (and even if you have), you'll want to read The Thanksgiving Puppies.

Photo lifted from The Retread Ranger Station, of course.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A collective action problem, aka sustainability

A couple days ago I made the rather libertarian assertion that people should be free to spend their own money on whatever stupid thing they felt like spending it on, including humongous gas guzzling SUVs (e.g., that triumph of marketing over common sense, the Hummer) and sports car pecker extenders like Vipers. I just don't want to hear any whining from the buyers about the cost of fueling those vehicles once they've got them. Then Lisa administered a dope slap in a comment and reminded me about the elephant in the room, the thing we materialistic, shopping mall worshipping Americans keep trying to ignore: Sustainability.

The cold hard truth is that the typical American lifestyle is not sustainable. Collectively we're resource hogs. We live in houses that are too big, drive cars we don't need, eat foods that are farmed in ways that are destroying the planet, and do most of it in blissful ignorance. We've managed to convince ourselves that if we just switch our incandescent lightbulbs to fluorescents, haul newspapers to a recycling bin, and occasionally shop at a thrift store instead of Dillard's we're doing our part to save the planet. We're kidding ourselves.

In fact, in one of the great ironies of our times, we buy magazines like Real Simple that tell us that the way to simplify our lives (and, by implication, live more environmentally sustainable lives) is to buy more stuff to organize the stuff you've already got. Places like the Container Store exist solely to sell us containers in which to stash the stuff we don't need and never use but seem to believe we have to have anyway. If alien archeologists exist they're going to have a field day picking through the ruins of our society.

In philosophical terms, what we have is a collective action problem. If I ignore a do not walk on the grass sign one time, my foot prints on the lawn have minimal impact. If I walk across the lawn the same way every day, over time a path develops. If dozens of people ignore the sign, the social path shows up faster, the soil is compacted, the grass dies, the path widens, becomes a rut, encourages run-off and soil erosion. In short, my individual selfishness may not have much of an impact, but multiply it by a zillion other people cruising along in their own bubbles, all ignoring the world around them and thinking environmental awareness consists of buying a free range heritage turkey at Whole Paycheck and using a stainless steel water bottle instead of a plastic one, and we've got a planet that's in a death spiral.

Would it make a difference if we all switched to fluorescents? Yes. Will that difference will be totally negated if we then turn around and get a 50-inch plasma television for the "media" room? Can you say understatement? We all keep saying we need to use less energy while adding gadget after gadget that eats more. And I'm as guilty and short-sighted as everyone else. What keeps my life relatively simple and low impact (smallish carbon footprint) isn't heightened awareness; it's lack of money.

I could go on, but I'll just suggest you take a look at the November/December issue of Mother Jones. It's devoted to the economy and the environment. Read it, especially the piece by Bill McKibben, and weep.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

No one takes the train anymore

Inspired by DCup.

Where were you?

Today is November 22, the 45th anniversary of the day John Kennedy died. I was in study hall when the principal gave us the news, and then sent us all home early. There was, of course, a general air of total disbelief. It took a day or two to sink in that it had really happened.

What made it even more unreal for many of us, I think, was the fact we had been privileged to see Kennedy in person not long before. Kennedy had visited northern Wisconsin, flew over the Apostle Islands, and on September 24, 1963, spoke in Ashland on the importance of preserving natural resources. Every school district for miles around loaded its students on to buses for the day so we could see (and maybe hear) Kennedy speak at the Ashland airport. That C-47 behind my friend Diana Bluse is Air Force One.

I can't remember a word Kennedy said; I just recall that the man radiated charisma. He walked down the line shaking hands and we teenage girls all reacted the same way we would have if he'd been Elvis or Fabian. It's still a little hard to believe that less than two months later he was dead.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Speaking of bail outs

h/t to Swiftspeech

Selling ice boxes to Eskimos

The S.O. and I got to talking this morning about the auto industry, the economy, and the role advertising plays in pushing products people don't really need. Not surprisingly quite a few of the blogs we both read have been opining on the first two, maybe not so much the third.

We're pretty much in agreement that the typical American consumer can be an idiot when it comes to falling for auto industry advertising claims. Nothing new about that. Back in the 1920s Charles Kettering knew people wanted to buy status, so he developed a hierarchy for General Motors: Chevrolet was the el cheapo line of transportation and marketed to the ordinary working slob, then it went on up the income and status scale: Pontiac to Oldsmobile to Buicks (well known as doctors' cars) and finally the ultimate, Cadillac (the ride of lawyers). Kettering was a marketing genius -- he also came up with the idea of planned obsolescence: make minor cosmetic changes annually, and so convince consumers they need new cars when they really don't. Car running just fine? Still looking good? Doesn't matter -- the new models have more cup holders, and everyone knows multiple cup holders are worth going deeper into debt for. No one wanted to be the poor soccer mom whose mini-van had only four cup holders when everyone else's mini-van had six.

In recent years I've been amused by the way people fell for advertising claims that promoted vehicles using language that was so dishonest it would have made a politician cringe. Manufacturers wanted to discourage station wagon sales because although station wagons were popular with families they were classified as passenger cars so had to meet the same safety and emission standards. Solution? Develop the mini-van which was classified as Utility Vehicle with different standards than cars, and then push it as being "safe" when the opposite was true (higher center of gravity, making it much more prone to rollover than a station wagon), and watch the naive soccer moms line up to buy it. Ditto SUVS: Explorers, Jeep Cherokees, Suburbans, you name it. Less safe but promoted as more.

I don't want to come off as too judgemental. I'm as susceptible as the next person when it comes to falling for bogus sales pitches. In all honesty, if I had the bucks to buy a new vehicle I'd be driving a 2008 Nissan XTerra to work instead of our mid-90s Ford. I think people should be free to spend their own money on whatever weird indulgence they want, and if that includes over-priced humongous SUVs then that's their privilege. I can even empathise a little (but not much) with someone who makes the mistake of buying a gas hog just before gas prices sky rocket, although I'd also be thinking that anyone who can afford $600 or higher car payments monthly shouldn't be fazed by gas prices doubling. If they are, they were obviously living much too close to the edge on their budget. (Translation: If you can afford it, buy it, but don't whine to the rest of us when you discover you guessed wrong about the amount of slack in your budget.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Up too early again

Woke up this morning from a rather odd dream -- I was either dropping off or picking up film from a CVS drugstore, and it was definitely the CVS that's at the intersection of North Druid Hills Road and Buford Highway here in northeast Atlanta, but nothing else looked familiar. All the other businesses on the block, like the Rusty Nail with its nifty barbecue, were gone. And it wasn't like post-apocalyptic gone (piles of rubble or vacant lots with rats scittering through the kudzu), it was gone like they'd never existed. The CVS was just sitting there, alone, in the middle of nowhere on what appeared to be tundra. Cotton grass was blooming, the sky was a deep beautiful smogless blue. No skyscrapers on the horizon, no multiple lanes of traffic whizzing by on either Buford or North Druid Hills. So then I found myself wondering -- am I having a nightmare or is this some sort of idealized fantasy based on wishful thinking? City amenities (if CVS qualifies as an amenity) without the city. One can dream.

Apparently, however, one cannot sleep in. I'm in training this week so do not have to report to work until the class starts at 9 a.m. My normal start time is 7. I could have been lazy, but my body obviously had other ideas. I have heard that once a person gets to be a woman of a certain age sleep disorders are common. I'm not sure I believe that. I do know that research has shown that older people sleep less than younger ones, which strikes me as incredibly unfair. A person retires, finally has the time to do absolutely nothing but snooze in a rocking chair, and then discovers he or she can't fall asleep.

As for the training, it's four days devoted to substantive editing. Large Nameless Agency is finally getting around to training me to do what I've been getting paid to do for the past 18 months. The training has actually been quite good so far. I've learned another technique for helping to make sense of disorganized manuscripts (marginal captioning) and have also had a chance to engage in bitch sessions with fellow editors. The nature of our work means we don't get to actually talk with each other very often -- we're scattered around LNA, embedded like ticks in the different centers we support, surrounded by researchers and scientists who never worry about parallel construction or dangling participles -- so don't get many chances to ask colleagues face-to-face if they've experienced similar weirdness with manuscripts or to share tips on dealing with problem authors. The social aspect of the training may be more useful than the technical.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Temporary comments policy

I finally had someone say something sufficiently offensive to push me into eliminating comments for awhile. I decided I'd rather block the trash before it has a chance to appear than have to deal with it after the fact. I knew it was inevitable -- from what I've read on other blogs, sooner or later someone drops by who just wants another space to air his or her delusions or favorite prejudices -- and I'm hoping that once this particular lowlife figures out this platform is no longer an option, that person will go away. But for now I figure it's enough that I got to be slightly nauseated when I read the rant; I don't need to subject friends and family to it, too.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Reading lists and intellectual challenges

LegalMist had an interesting post recently on literature, the Pulitzer, and ambitious reading plans. She's going to read every book on the list, which at this point is up to 82 titles. Looking at the list of winners got me to wondering just how many of them I'd read myself (answer: 15, all published prior to 1973 although I've read most of the 15 within the past decade). Then I started thinking about other literature prizes, like the Nobel and the Booker, and just how much actual mainstream "literature" I'd read in my lifetime as opposed to genre mind candy (mysteries and science fiction and fantasy).

Of course, how one defines "literature" can be tricky. Gone With the Wind won a Pulitzer, but if that book isn't the epitome of a bodice ripper, mind candy in its purest form, nothing is. Is it literature if it's also fun to read? What about the test of time? Some of the books on the Pulitzer list are still being read, still getting sold in Barnes and Noble and Borders: The Good Earth (1932), The Yearling (1939), The Old Man and the Sea (1953) all come to mind as novels that have become classics. Others on the list, though, could be a challenge to find. I had never heard of Scarlet Sister Mary (1929) by Julia Peterkin (I'd never heard of her before today either). Caroline Miller's A Lamb in His Bosom (1934) seems to have faded into obscurity, too.

In any case, it's an interesting reading challenge, so I think I'm going to do it, too. Methodical, borderline obsessive that I am, I'll start with the oldest and work my way toward the present, assuming, of course, that I can manage to track down copies of some of the more obscure titles. I've already discovered I'll have to get the first one at Emory University's library instead of my neighborhood branch of the DeKalb County system. DeKalb has no copies of Ernest Poole's His Family (1918), and the cheapest used copy available on-line is $26. The last time the book was reprinted was 1962. That is not a good sign.

Photos are of what's left of my personal library. There used to be a lot more . . . and then we moved. The books are not necessarily ones I had decided I could not live without -- I'd boxed up a bunch before I started thinking that maybe instead of shoving them all into the back of a U-Haul I should be sending some off to the Friends of the Omaha Public Library for the annual book sale. I also hauled a bunch into work for friends and co-workers to pick through. One thing I did not do, though, was open up boxes that were already taped shut and go through them.

And, yes, when I look at the ones I decided to move I have a hard time figuring out why I bothered with some of them. Trollope and Wodehouse make perfect sense; David Brin and the Duct Tape Guys not so much.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why the dancing on the desktops continues

From the Federal Times:

Obama to expand benefits, unionize TSA, curb outsourcing, review pay reform

President-elect Barack Obama said he will expand family leave, flexible work schedule and teleworking benefits to federal employees; roll back controversial pay-for-performance systems; review current outsourcing policies; and give collective-bargaining rights to Transportation Security Administration employees.

In a series of late-October letters to John Gage, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Obama sounded off on numerous issues and policies. The union released the letters today.

“While I strongly believe that workers can and should be rewarded for high quality work, the administration’s failure to fund the [pay-for-performance] initiative guaranteed that rewarding one employee would be at the expense of another,” Obama said in a letter on Homeland Security Department issues. “This is unfair and serves to reduce morale, rather than improve it.”

A tribute to Star Trek?

The panaderia across the street from us sells these turnovers. I keep telling the S.O. (he stops by the bakery almost daily on the home stretch of his fitness walk) that he needs to ask the baker if he's a Trekkie.

Sarah Palin - The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The Washington Post has an article today on Bible Spice's attempts to pull her political career out of the toilet. The woman has a rich fantasy life. I saw pieces of her chat with Wolf Blitzer. She sounded like she suffers from Tourette's, without, of course, the colorful random obscenities that can make actual Tourette's so much more interesting than the usual mindless babbling. Her "answers" came close to qualifying as glossolalia. Wolf would ask a question; Bible Spice would respond with a string of disjointed sound bites and stale talking points. And way too many references to doors.

Doesn't she get it? The door got slammed in her face, and the American public is (to borrow the metaphors being tossed around on Mudflats yesterday) busy nailing it shut, pushing large pieces of furniture in front of it, and looking around for sheets of plywood or concrete blocks to make sure the closure is permanent.

Wolf had invited viewers to submit video questions for Palin, and to his credit he used a couple tough ones, including the obvious "Still think God's on your side?" Her rather bizarre response was essentially that the progressives managed to outpray the conservatives. Shades of Catholics who believe the more candles you light, the better. Very, very strange.

Watching her responses to questions about what happens if (a) Ted Stevens wins re-election (still a strong possibility); and (b) the Senate kicks the felon out was intriguing. Would she consider appointing herself to fill the seat? She tapdanced in a way that was designed to make it look like she was being humble when the reality is that she'd have to be a total and complete idiot to do that -- and, although Bible Spice is remarkably ignorant on many levels, she's not an idiot. She also never mentioned that the rules in Alaska are that, although the governor could do an interim appointment, there'd have to be a special election within 90 days of Stevens' resignation. If she appointed herself to fill the seat, she'd be giving up the governorship with no assurance she could win the special election. Given the current political climate up there and her sinking approval ratings, odds are that if she took that chance she'd end up back in Wasilla quietly cursing the day she said yes to McCain -- and blaming it all on the evil, evil MSM with its gotcha questions.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Guaranteed to make you smile

Veterans Day

I started off the day in a rather cranky mood. The bubbly people on the morning chat shows were a little too full of good cheer in wishing people a "happy" Veterans Day. I'm old enough to remember when the day was commemorated with a mood of sober reflection -- if it fell on a school day there'd be the moment of silence at 11 a.m. Back in the '60s it was still a day to think seriously about sacrifice and the real costs of war. Now it's a day to go hit Dillard's for a good deal on Ralph Lauren sheets (50% off).

The photo is of my uncle Bill, Wilho Oikarinen. He served in the European theater during World War II as a jeep driver, was at the Battle of the Bulge, had multiple jeeps blown out from under him, came home with a Bronze Star and multiple Purple Hearts -- and never, ever talked about the war. My father once described my uncle Bill as "the bravest man he'd ever known." My dad was in the Navy, trained as an electrician's mate, was in the Pacific theater, and saved his reminiscing for stories about being in Japan after the war ended. I'm kind of glad neither of them is still around now to see their sacrifices being trivialized with linen sales.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sunday morning amusements

Grover Norquist on C-SPAN decrying the Chicago-style politics Senator Obama will bring to Washington, the type of cronyism in which government contracts are awarded without competitive bidding to personal friends and/or individuals and companies who have made major financial contributions to the dominant political party.

So what would make that different than the last 8 years?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Slow day at work

It is, as the astute reader could probably guess from the multiple posts today, a slow, slow day at Large Nameless Agency. The Document, the interagency strategic plan over which I've labored for the past three months, went out for another round of comments this past Friday. The deadline for responses back isn't until November 26 so it's probably going to be a slow, slow month.

We have heard back from a couple people already -- but none of the comments have been anything really noteworthy. One person managed to spot an error in the multiple-pages long list of contributors (several hundred people have had their fingers in this government-baked pie), despite that section being in a font so small we're jokingly referring to it as "Enron Beelzebub," but I guess when it's your name that's misspelled it doesn't matter much how tiny it's shrunken you're going to notice the mistake. Another offered the rather vague criticism that the document was "too ambitious." And that's it. Don't know if I should be encouraged by the silence or not.

While I wait for the comments and corrections to come back, I've been going through a hard copy of The Document, catching all the little odd spacing errors and minor typos we missed during the last insane week we worked on it and pieces kept dropping in and out unpredictably depending on which contributor or reviewer talked to the project manager last. Naturally there was a blooper in the first paragraph on the first page, an error in subject/predicate agreement (plural nouns, singular verb). Fortunately, the project manager inserted so much verbiage into the text using such dense bureaucratese that only a member of the Grammar Police (me?) would be likely to untangle any of the sentences enough to catch that particular mistake.

I started off on this project trying to trim that verbiage, but the manager kept putting it back -- she came from the private sector, has a management background, and suffers from a severe addiction to business jargon. Dealing with it has been frustrating, but in the end I came to my usual conclusion when it comes to troublesome editing projects (it's not my name on the by-line)(or its equivalent) -- and as long as they keep issuing the paychecks I can tolerate a temporary manager who doesn't quite seem to understand just what an editor does and who also seems unable to grasp the concept of "version control."

This detail is scheduled to end December 14, one day before the next deadline for The Document. December 15 is the day Version 1.0 is supposed to be done and up on a semi-public web site as well as submitted to the Homeland Security Council. [When I started in August we were at Version 0.2; the Document that's circulating now is V 0.9.] How public the website will be probably depends a lot on what LNA hears from the incoming administration. In an ideal world, it would be fully accessible by the public -- I find it reasurring to learn things like health departments monitor for West Nile virus and/or avian flu by using sentinel chickens (and isn't that a great image? Foghorn Leghorn in uniform, standing guard, patrolling in a Humvee, fearlessly protecting public health)*, but there are always professional paranoics in bureaucracies who want to clamp down on information instead of disseminating it. (Or maybe use the SOP suggested on last night's episode of "Eleventh Hour" that dealt with what LNA euphemistically refers to as "an adverse human health event"** -- lie to the public.)(A really, really bad idea in today's wifi/cell phone/twittering age.)

As thing stand now, I'll be exiting at a good time, although there has been talk of extending the detail. I'd then get to work on a potential nightmare of a document currently referred to as an "implementation plan." I'm still debating whether or not I'm masochistic enough to say yes if they ask me to stay on for another 120 days.

*Sentinel chickens are flocks of chickens state and local public health departments keep in areas where mosquitoes carrying West Nile are likely to appear. Blood samples are taken from the chickens to see if the virus is present. If the virus is present, local health departments warn health care providers to be alert for patients coming in with symptoms associated with West Nile so doctors don't inadvertantly delay treatment thinking the patient's illness is something less serious.
** Aka "public health emergency," like a widespread salmonella outbreak or a derailed freight car leaking toxic fumes.

Putting government back to work

The Federal Page in the Washington Post has an interesting piece today on government workers looking forward to being able to actually do their jobs under an Obama administration. Here's a quote from it:

In numerous agencies, federal civil servants complain that they have been thwarted for months or even years from doing the government jobs they were hired to do. Federal workers have told presidential transition leaders they feel rudderless, their morale impacted by the Bush administration's opposition to industry regulation, steep budget cuts or the departures many months ago of Bush political appointees. Though they fear publicly identifying themselves, numerous federal workers said in interviews that they are down, but also excited about new leadership.

"Many we talk to are weary, but cautiously optimistic that with this change in administrations they will get to do their job again," said Jeff Ruch, of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "In the environmental agencies we deal with, they weren't allowed to do their jobs because the Bush White House operated on a very centralized basis. The rule was, that which the White House doesn't want to hear shall not be said."

Feeling good about the job

The lastest MMWR Recommendations & Reports issue came out yesterday. I looked at the title (Recommendations for Partner Services Programs for HIV Infection, Syphilis, Gonorrhea, and Chlamydial Infection), opened the PDF out of curiosity, and then thought to myself "This looks vaguely familiar." And then it hit me: six months ago I edited that puppy, or a big chunk of it. At the time I had no idea where the manuscript was eventually going to be published.

I may complain about the vagaries of the bureaucracy occasionally, but I must admit I do get to read some intriguing stuff as part of the job.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What do I do now?

Click on the cartoon to see the full strip.

Why I voted for Obama

Had a long, long, and at times uncomfortable conversation with co-workers at lunch yesterday. A colleague was moving on to a different position at LNA so our unit treated her to a farewell lunch at a restaurant where the service was, to put it mildly, a tad slow. But it was a chance to be out of the office for awhile, the unit chief was there and as long as he wasn't moving neither was anyone else. Naturally the election results were a major theme at the table.

The two people I happened to be sitting closest to (both of whom are really nice guys with whom I enjoy working but had studiously avoided mentioning anything political to since starting this detail in August) are disappointed McCain supporters, one more so than the other. That wasn't a surprise to me: both fellows are retired military, former Army officers, and one is a graduate of the Citadel. Which is why I never, ever talked politics with them. What would have surprised me would have been to learn that either one of them was a Democrat. One fellow said he was disappointed, but not surprised. He agreed picking Palin was a major blunder on McCain's part. The other guy was still a tad shell shocked. He had truly believed McCain's disaster of a campaign would manage to pull off a miracle.

He did ask me several times why I had supported Obama. I rattled off my usual talking points: the emphasis on community, the "we're all in this together" instead of pandering to individual greed, that great line Obama used ("When did selfishness become a virtue?") in multiple speeches, but then realized it comes down to something even more fundamental, at least for me.

It's okay be smart again. We've had almost 40 years of Republicans glorifying stupidity, starting with Spiro Agnew under Nixon and the beginning of the attacks on the "liberal elite" right through St. Ronnie and into the current (soon to be past) administration. Republicans have mocked intelligence, learning, higher education. Work hard in school, get good grades, and go to Harvard on merit instead of as a legacy student? Well, for the Repugs this wasn't something to praise -- it was something to make fun of, to sneer at. Clinton was enough of a good old boy that they never got any traction with being able to mock him as a policy wonk or the possessor of too much "book larning," but maybe if he hadn't given them so much ammunition to work with due to his weakness for womanizing they would have tried harder. Gore and Kerry, of course, were different stories.

Even worse, of course, was the contempt the Republicans showed for expertise in any field. If the scientists were telling you stuff you didn't want to hear (you know, those awkward things called "facts") instead of looking for solutions the Republican answer was to mock the science, to claim people who had spent 20, 30, or more years researching an issue were just stating opinions, only giving one side of a (usually nonexistent) controversy. Bible bangers uncomfortable with the results of a couple hundred years of research and scholarship in the natural sciences? Well, then, the obvious thing to do was to pander the loud-mouth know-nothing minority with their bizarre fantasy creationist view of the world. Oil and coal industries unhappy about being asked to clean up pollution or do something to slow down global warming? Ignore the geologists, meteorologists, and oceanographers who actually know what they're talking about and trot out a paid shill or two to claim the facts aren't all in yet. People getting sick from toxic exposures? Force public health agencies to edit reports or cover up public health problems (FEMA, CDC, and formaldehyde in trailers is a good example of that). It's a really long and depressing list.

I have been reminded many times that whoever is president doesn't make that much difference, all politicians end up disappointing you, and that all politicians lie. I'll agree with the latter two points, but not the first. The person in the Oval Office sets the tone, who he picks as advisers and cabinet officials do wield a tremendous amount of power, and the President himself can do an awful lot with the stroke of a pen. Both Executive Orders and Presidential Directives can be amazing forces for good, or they can do incredible damage. We've had 8 years of a President noted for his lack of curiosity, his willingness to believe whatever he's told by those close to him, and who has, unfortunately, used a pen to advance a destructive ideological agenda by presidential directive rather than through legislation far more often than most people realize. We're about to get a President who is the opposite: a man who is openly, happily an intellectual, who respects science, who won't mangle the English language and embarrass us all every time he opens his mouth, and who, while still far too cozy with corporate America for my liking, is going to be a whole heckuva lot more transparent in governing than his predecessor.

And, best of all, it's okay be smart again.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Doing the Happy Dance at work

I don't think much actual work is going to be accomplished here at LNA today. Colleagues are too elated following yesterday's election. The last few years have been quite demoralizing for the scientists and other staff -- lots of being forced to pander to religious ideologues, editing reports to downplay things that didn't line up with White House beliefs, seeing respected researchers assigned to dead end projects or being forced into early retirements. I'm low enough in the food chain and lucky enough to work in an area where it was never an issue for me, but I've heard the horror stories. And I did occasionally wonder just what I would do if I got asked to write a public web site feature that I knew was garbage, like something claiming condoms don't work in preventing STDs or that having an abortion causes cancer. Fortunately, it never happened.

Wonder when and if the rats will start leaving the ship here? Under the Bush administration a lot of people came in at the Senior Executive Service level -- they get paid whopping salaries for not doing a whole lot -- so it would be nice to see some of that deadwood cleaned out. A lot of us lower level peons are hoping that exodus starts soon.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A distraction

Today's the election, it will be in the back of my mind most of the day -- will the Rethuglicans manage to steal another one? How successful will they be with their vote suppression efforts? -- but for now I'm focusing on other issues. Like sizing vintage dresses.

I inherited about a dozen "Lucy" dresses from an aunt. They were stashed in the attic when we cleaned her house out about 12 years -- she put it up for sale after moving into an assisted living place. Most of the clothes and other attic odds and ends went to the Salvation Army, but I took about a dozen dresses that looked to be circa 1955-1960 because I thought they looked kind of neat and they might come in handy for Halloween costumes. Plus, of course, the dresses with full skirts had zillions of yards of material (this striped sleeveless number being a classic example; that skirt has about four yards of material in it) -- and I quilt.

The dresses are great -- I'm willing swear I saw Lucille Ball in one just like a blue linen number that's part of the stash, and, if not Lucy, then for sure it's been in a Doris Day movie. There's a pink polka dot sun dress that would be ideal for anyone who wants to channel her inner Marilyn Monroe (and it's even the same size Marilyn supposedly wore, a 14), and several nice cotton house dresses that just beg for a string of pearls to complete a June Cleaver outfit. Some are brand new, still have the store tags on them -- which is a minor mystery (why buy a new dress at Gimbels and then never wear it?), but not something I'm going to worry about much.

At one point I almost donated the lot to a small museum in the U.P. that has a "fashion through the years" focus. I also thought about donating them to the theater department at a university for use in costuming. Then I started thinking about selling them -- and did, in fact, try one time on E-bay. The E-bay experience was sufficiently horrific (who would have thought an auction for a vintage dress would bring lunatics out of the woodwork?) that I vowed to never go near E-bay again, either as a buyer or a seller.

Then I discovered, "your place for all things handmade." Turns out it's also your place for things vintage, both clothing and supplies, so I'm contemplating opening an etsy store. The big question, though, is what size do I call these dresses. Thanks to vanity sizing, a dress that was a size 14 or 16 back in 1959 might be only a 10 now. A 16 is supposedly a size Extra Large in 2008, but looking at these size 14, 15, and 16 dresses I'm guessing they're Mediums at best. Research is called for -- hence, a distraction. Instead of thinking about stolen votes and/or voter intimidation, I can focus on doing web searches for information on converting 1950s sizes to 2008 sizes.

All I have to do is figure out how to describe them in a way that gives an honest approximation of what body type they might fit now. So I'll spend my day worrying about defunct fashion instead of thinking about the many ways ballot boxes can be metaphorically stuffed (or emptied), and maybe one of these days I will actually set up the etsy store.

It appears vanity sizing is worse than I thought. Several sites have informed me that what was a size 14 for my mother's generation is a size 8 for my daughters. One site had a photo of a model wearing a vintage garment (circa early 1950s) that was a size 12 when originally sold -- the dress appeared to fit quite well, and the model wears a size 2/4 in 21st century clothing. This trend keeps up, who knows? Maybe we'll all be size Zero in the not too distant future.

I guess I'd know this stuff if I ever wore anything other than jeans and souvenir tee-shirts.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Reagan economics

There's a great post up on Brilliant at Breakfast. Here's a taste:

But this is where we are today, thanks to the Bush family and their cronies, who ALWAYS believed that the world was a private fiefdom for the benefit of their family members and friends, to John McCain, who supported policies that fed this notion and became one of those friends so he could benefit, and to spineless Democrats who have been too lazy or too frightened to articulate the reality that Ronald Reagan was wrong -- you can't have everything you want and it's all free if you just give the already wealthy even more.