Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Where I've been

Among other places, Zoo Atlanta: Yesterday was a gorgeous day, warm and sunny, so we spent it wandering around the zoo.
And of course we spent a fair amount of time gawking at the pandas:
In the past week we've been to the King Tut exhibit, driven to Alabama to visit relatives, gone to movies, done a little shopping, and today, if all goes as planned, we'll be eating fried green tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Update: Tomatoes consumed; details later. Turned out to be another great day for playing tourist in Georgia.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Misogyny, self-loathing, and great writing

I've been reading Bill McKeen's biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Outlaw Journalist, and being quietly appalled by what an absolute shit the man was -- and from day one. He apparently emerged from the womb a fairly full-blown misogynistic racist homophobic sociopath with an over-inflated ego and a general feeling that none of the rules other people followed applied to him.

I knew the man could be an ass on multiple levels -- that came through loud and clear in everything he wrote -- but I'd never realized just how hard he worked at being that ass. I loved his writing so I guess I was hoping the total fucktard complete jerk persona was an act. No such luck.

Thompson apparently had more than his fair share of charisma -- from early childhood on he succeeded in charming various people into doing amazing favors for him, including keeping him from starving back before his writing career took off -- but that charisma definitely does not shine through in this book. No matter what the favor was, he consistently managed to pay it back by either destroying something his friends valued or by betraying a trust. His personality and ability to manipulate people has to qualify as one of those "you had to be there" things to understand because my reaction over and over to descriptions of his escapades was "why did people put up with that crap?"

Right now I'm only one-third through the book but, after learning more than I ever wanted to know about his long history of spouse abuse (the highlights include him routinely slapping his girlfriends/spouses around as well as his first wife having multiple Mexican abortions so as to not interfere with Thompson's writing career in the early 1960s), child neglect/abuse, irrational violent behavior, acts of vandalism, and just general assholery, I'm already looking forward to the suicide.

Update: Finished the book. Definitely a depressing biography. Thompson had potential, but squandered his talent. It could have been the drug and alcohol abuse, an underlying mental illness like bipolar disorder, or a combination of the two, but once he got trapped in his own "gonzo" image he was doomed.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Critiquing Twilight

Fillyjonk has a great post up on Shapely Prose about what all is wrong with romantic comedies in general and Twilight in particular. My own reaction to the book was that it was teenage narcissism at its worst, well-written but essentially vacuous, but I'm not always good at seeing the big picture. Fillyjonk sets it in a more feminist context. Here's a piece:
Twilight horrifies me, but it mystifies me not at all; I know exactly what the appeal is, not just intellectually but viscerally. When I was the age of Twilight’s target audience, I hadn’t had any of those defining relationships, of course, but clearly I had the capacity to find disdain, paternalism, and misused power attractive.
Now go read the rest.

Having an out of focus day

I'm definitely having trouble focusing today. I started off the morning feeling annoyed with the world in general, definitely have a dash or two of "bah, humbug," salted in, and think I'm sliding rapidly into ennui. Or maybe malaise. Life in a cubicle with no actual work to do plays tricks on the mind.

We did get the Xmas tree up yesterday. (((Billy))) had an interesting post a day or so ago about being a cultural Christian, i.e., a nonbeliever who celebrates the holiday and/or season for reasons other than religion, and it probably describes us, too. Never did feel any religious fervor, having grown up in a household affiliated with no particular denomination, and recognize the historical foundations of the season without buying into any of the mythology or bizarre focus on supernatural events. If I were to overtly celebrate anything at this time of year, it would be the solstice, which means Christmas doesn't even fall on the right day. So I'm not really sure why we bother with a tree other than it's what I grew up with -- and I do kind of like gambling with the cats, e.g., how long will it take before one of them decides it would be fun to climb/destroy ornaments/eat tinsel and hack up hairballs?

It's already shedding needles like crazy, of course. There's tinsel all over the floor, too, and that's kind of a mystery. I don't think we've actually purchased tinsel in about 15 years. That stuff just kind of crawls out of an alternate dimension shortly after the homemade ornaments go on the tree. The Younger Daughter will be thrilled -- the heirloom hand-painted egg carton ornaments and hand-painted milkweed pods made back in elementary school are still around. (Note to self: watch Tammi carefully if she claims she wants to help take down tree. Intercept any attempted deposits into trash can.)

Tammi is driving here from Texas to spend a few days enjoying urban life -- no doubt rural Sabine County is going to be looking good in January after doing the dance of death through Atlanta traffic, but right now she's talking about how much she's looking forward to getting out of the sticks for a few days. I've been trying to figure out how we can cram hitting tourist highlights (Martin Luther King NHS, the Margaret Mitchell house, Zoo Atlanta with its baby panda), going to the Tut exhibit, dining at six or seven different ethnic restaurants, shopping at IKEA, and visiting my sister and her family up in northern Alabama into one week. Maybe that's why I'm experiencing malaise -- the kid isn't even here yet and I've already exhausted myself trying to plan the entertainment.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cane River Creole National Historical Park: Magnolia Plantation

A few posts ago I mentioned visiting Cane River Creole National Historical Park, one of the newer units in the National Park system. Cane River Creole is located in northwest Lousiana south of Natchitoches. The park itself consists of two plantations, Oakland and Magnolia. The Oakland unit includes all the surviving buildings, including the main house, associated with the plantation; Magnolia includes numerous ancillary structures -- slave quarters, plantation store, blacksmith's barn, overseer's house (shown above), slave hospital -- but does not include the main house and the grounds immediately surrounding the main house. The main house is still owned by the family that operated the plantation beginning in the early 19th century. It's located to the left of this line of live oaks shown below that marks the boundary of the park and is so thoroughly surrounded by oaks and other vegetation that it was impossible to determine something as simple as architectural style, let alone photograph. The little house in the distance was the cook's quarters -- it's located about midway between the overseer's house and the main house.
The photo below is a view of the overseer's house as seen from the general area of the slave quarters.
One of the more interesting aspects of the history of the Cane River area is the role that free men and women of color played in the local economy. I'd read Barbara Hambly's historical novels set in early 19th century Louisiana, but had never really thought about the legal basis for the existence of hommes de couleur libre until visiting Cane River. The park has an excellent fact sheet on the "black codes," the French laws that dictated the responsibilities of owners and the rights of slaves -- and slaves did have rights under the French.

Probably key to the hommes de couleur libre was the fact that it was illegal for a French citizen to have sexual intercourse with a slave. If a white man wanted a colored woman as a mistress (or even a one night stand) she had to be free. He could keep a mistress; he could not keep a slave for purposes of concubinage. As a result, if a free man was attracted to a woman who was a slave he had to buy her freedom. Once the woman was free, any children she bore after receiving her freedom would also be free.

Not surprisingly, many of the women who attained their freedom proved to be quite entrepreneurial, as did their descendants. A number of historic plantations in the Mississippi delta region can trace their ownership back to hommes de couleur libre, including several in the Cane River area. Melrose Plantation, located close to the park but not part of it, began as 68 acres given to an African woman in the 18th century. By the time she died in 1817 the 68 acres had grown to thousands, her children were rich, and the ones who inherited from her owned quite a few slaves themselves.

Also not surprisingly, given Southern history in general and the tendency of local historical societies everywhere to engage in revisionism and hagiography, the spin the local bluehairs put on the history of Melrose Plantation is that the woman's owner freed her out of the generosity of his heart and not because it was the law. As usual, the popular mythology also includes the line "he would have married her if society had allowed him to."

And, speaking of slavery, the buildings below are the surviving slave quarters at Magnolia. They're brick, and were built by an owner who moved to Louisiana from Virginia in the early 1800s. They're one of the best examples I've ever seen of someone imposing an architectural style totally unsuited to a climate. No doubt the man took great pride in them, and they would have been totally appropriate in the Shenandoah Valley -- but in Louisiana? The windows are small, circulation is poor, and for half the year the folks stuck living in them must have felt like they were being baked alive.
Nonetheless, the historical record indicates the brick quarters were considered the high status quarters. The slaves who lived in them were the skilled craftsmen (blacksmith, for example) or worked in the main house. Magnolia was a large plantation, and at one time had over 70 buildings for slave quarters. About one tenth that number survive today. According to the park guide, quite a few of the quarters buildings were torn down and the brick used to reconstruct the main house following a fire in the 1890s.

The quarters built as duplex units were converted to single family following the Civil War and the introduction of share cropping and tenant farming.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The economy, and other weirdness

"Good Morning America" showed a clip of an interview with The Prince of Darkness, VP Cheney, first thing this morning. Not my favorite way to start the day -- above and beyond oozing evil, that man resembles Montgomery Burns more and more, right down to the hand gestures. It's always very strange to see a human cartoon when you're not even a third of the way through the first cup of coffee.

Anyway, I've been thinking about the economy and how anemic it is. The proof is everywhere that things are a lot worse than the talking heads, the various paid experts, want to admit. The "Help Wanted" section in the Sunday Atlanta Journal Constitution has shrunk to being a super skinny section with the equivalent of 1 and 3/4 pages with a scant handful of box ads for the specialties that are always in short supply (e.g., nurses). This is for a metropolitan area with a population of approximately 5 million. The Real Estate section is also pitifully thin, and the difference in pricing now and a year ago is striking. To describe housing prices as having plummeted is an understatement. Housing values are definitely still in free fall, no matter how much the real estate industry would like to believe otherwise.

And then there are the malls. Sunday afternoon we drove past Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza on our way home from Piedmont, plus a bunch of smaller strip malls and specialty stores. This is Buckhead. We're not talking low dollar retail. Phipps houses Nordstroms, Gucci, Tiffany, and various other "not cheap" retail establishments; Lenox has Macys, Nieman Marcus, Crate and Barrel. . . you get the picture. Both parking lots had tons of available parking space -- that is flatout not normal, especially for Lenox. Once the Pink Pig is up and running (and eating up a huge chunk of upper level of the parking deck by Macy's) finding a parking space after noon on the weekend at Lenox is usually an exercise in frustration.

Then we went to the mall that falls more into my budget range, Northlake, to shop at JC Penney, Sears, or Kohls -- all stores where I know for sure if I buy a gift of clothing the recipient will be able to exchange it for something they actually like with no hassle. Once again, mid-afternoon on a Sunday less than two weeks before Christmas -- and the parking lot was half empty. No crowds, no long lines at the registers, no pushing and shoving to get the last size whatever on the rack. It was spooky.

On the other hand, we went to Lowe's last night to pick up a tree and they were just about sold out. The inventory was down low enough that they'd marked all the remaining trees down to $10 just to get rid of them -- so I guess it's a good thing we didn't make it to the Farmer's Market on Saturday.

Monday, December 15, 2008

And how was your weekend?

Mine started off okay. Got out of work slightly early on Friday, spent a reasonably productive evening puttering around the house, curled up with my book for awhile (The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I highly recommend), and fell peacefully asleep.

And then woke up just before midnight with a heart rate that, to put it mildly, didn't seem quite right. Really rapid. As in really, really rapid, and accompanied by nausea and vertigo and not showing any signs of slowing down on its own. It's one thing to feel your heart racing after you've had a good scare or you've just run a marathon -- but 160+ beats per minute when waking from a sound sleep? Not good, not unless it was the Sam Elliott dream again and I just wasn't remembering it. And even if it was, it should have started slowing down after I'd been awake for a minute or two and reality had sunk back in.

So I remembered all the speeches the Younger Daughter has given me and the S.O. about being in the prime heart attack years -- she's apparently been expecting either myself or the S.O. to drop any time since we turned 30 -- and decided to kick the S.O. awake. He looked, as he always does when woken unexpectedly, totally befuddled, but managed to find clothes and stumble out the door, play chaffeur, and get me to the Piedmont ER without running into anything. In triage the heart rate was 189 -- definitely not good. In nothing flat I was on a gurney in an ER cubicle with multiple leads and devices (EKG, oxygen level sensor, blood pressure, IV port) being attached to the body and blood being sucked out of one arm -- over and over. It's absolutely amazing how many quarts labs seem to need to check for cardiac enzymes.

The good news, after 9 hours in the ER, 24 hours in the hospital, and a long conversation with an electrophysiologist -- it wasn't a heart attack. The bad news, because the electrophysiologist got me to admit I've actually had quite a few episodes of a racing heartbeat and the episodes seem to be happening closer together, is I got to learn a new (at least in terms of it being applied to me individually) medical term, supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), and I'm also going to get to experience a new (to me) medical procedure, cardiac ablation, in the not too distant future.

Getting news like this is always a little tricky to process. Part of me was like, wow, cool, will I be awake so I can watch the monitor? I loved the echocardiograms I've had because it's not that often you get to watch your own heart beating, so watching it get zapped could be cool, too. And another part was like, sweetjesus, they're going to fry chunks of my heart. Little tiny chunks, true, but chunks nonetheless. And then, of course, there's the ultimate question: will I be able to live blog the procedure?

Bottom line for the weekend: Christmas shopping delayed, no trip to the Georgia Farmer's Market for a tree, minimal baking done, no gifts wrapped, no housecleaning accomplished. Nine days to go, and nothing mailed yet. Not good, but not a disaster.

Incidentally, I did learn one trick from the handouts they gave me at the hospital --if you ever have a racing heartbeat that doesn't seem to want to slow down on its own, plunging your face into a basin of ice water might shock it back into a normal rhythm. If it doesn't work, at least you'll be wide awake for the panic attack.

Friday, December 12, 2008

It's not over 'til it's over. . .

Today was my last day on the detail with the surveillance people. The Strategy document is done; it looks good. Theoretically I should never have to think about the content of that particular document again.

No such luck. Yesterday my team lead e-mailed me to say she'd just put my next editing job into my queue.

What's the topic? The same one I've been working on for the past four months. Who's the lead author? The division chief for the unit where I spent that time.

I guess the good news is that at least I'm not likely to be confused by any of the technical language in the paper.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Two more days

The Strategy document is in the home stretch, last minute revisions and wordsmithing were being done today by a work group before being passed on to the division chief, he'll do his comments sometime between whenever he gets the document this evening (the work group was still fussing over it when I made my escape for the day) and tomorrow morning when he'll kick it back to me to do the final clean-up. That's when, of course, I plan to undo a bunch of the stuff that's been done by the workgroup, but they don't need to know that. None of them wants to believe that they collectively have the writing skills of a rock.

One of the key editorial skills I do possess is being able to clean up cumbersome prose without the authors realizing it's been cleaned up, a skill that's been sorely tested by the steaming pile of fecal matter that is the Strategy. There's only so much that can be done with an agency is determined to persist in speaking bureaucratese instead of English. There is good stuff in the Strategy, but it's going to take a lot of shoveling to find that particular pony.

Found out at yesterday's staff meeting the division chief has to hand carry copies to various players in DC on Monday (folks at the General Accounting Office, people with the Obama transition team, and assorted other "stakeholders" inside the Beltway) so whatever the document is going to be, it's going to be it by about 3 p.m. Friday afternoon to allow time for running it to Kinko's to have some spiral bound copies burned. After that, I should never have to think about it again.

Thinking about the economy

Monday, December 8, 2008

Vintage clothes and vanity sizing, an update

A few weeks ago I mentioned having some vintage (circa late 1950s, early 1960s) dresses that I've been considering selling through Etsy. They're all labeled with what I'd consider fairly large sizes (14, 15, 16) so the question was what's the modern equivalent.

The Younger Daughter suggested I bring them to Texas at Thanksgiving. She'd try them on, and we'd be able to extrapolate from her size to the dresses' sizes. So I did -- brought half a dozen dresses, and to say a size 16 from from 1960 is not a size 16 in 2008 is an understatement.

Both of these dresses are labeled as 16s. Tammi wears about an 8. The top dress, the pink polka dots, fit fine, although she did have a little trouble figuring out the mysteries of a side placket zipper (she'd never seen one before). (The dress has never been worn -- still has the tags from Gimbels department store -- but I have no idea why.)

This beautiful blue linen dress, on the other hand, although labeled as a 16, is more like a 6. Tammi was able to get into it, but it was obviously small -- among other clues, it flattened her chest into oblivion. Which was a shame, because we agreed it's a gorgeous dress. Fine quality workmanship, wonderful detailing (triple darts on the bodice), and a style that a person could actually wear into work today, if, of course, a person had an office job. Although it looks like a straight skirt, there's actually a deep pleat in the back that provides enough material to make it possible to sit comfortably.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cane River Creole National Historical Park: Oakland Plantation

It was a rather gray day when we visited the park last month, but here are a few photos from Cane River Creole National Historical Park, starting with a side view of the main house at Oakland Plantation, one of the two plantations that comprise the park. The modern structure to the side of the stairs is an elevator that allows the structure to be accessible to all park visitors. The house is a wonderful example of Creole architecture. There is a ground floor to the building, but it's the equivalent of a basement and was used for primarily for storage, with the exception of living quarters for the cook. There is an attic, but, although there are dormer windows, it also was primarily for storage.

The main house as viewed by visitors from the walkway from the plantation general store to the house. I thought the plastic walkway was a great idea for a wet climate. Water goes right through it, but no one ends up walking in mud. The garden in front of the house is known as The Bottle Garden -- the flowerbeds are outlined with wine bottles embedded neck down. It was kind of a neat effect, and I'm wishing now I'd gotten a better photo of it. The interpretive ranger wasn't able to provide much information (it was only his tenth day on the job so he was still learning the park; however, if we'd been at all curious about Natchez NHP he would have been a fount of information because that was his last duty station) but said he thought the Bottle Garden had been established in the late 19th century. Oakland was owned by the same family, the Prudhommes, for multiple generations, which is one reason it retained remarkable integrity and made it a good candidate for consideration as a historical park. They also drank a lot of wine so had lots of empties to work with.

View from the veranda looking down the live oak allee toward the main road and the historic approach to the house. I'm always fascinated by the resurrection ferns covering the oak limbs.

Outbuildings behind the main house include a laundry shed, chicken coops, and a carpenter's shop. The plantation also included a general store, slave quarters, mule barns, equipment sheds, a smaller house known as the Doctor's House which now houses administrative offices for the park and an overseer's house.

The overseer's house:

Having worked in NPS cultural resources, I still mentally do condition assessment for structures and landscapes when I visit parks. Cane River's had a fair amount of money and work poured into since its establishment in the 1990s. There are before and after photos on display in the store for a number of structures, and there are obvious stabilization and preservation efforts in place. There's plastic netting over the remnant wallpaper in the overseer's house to prevent what's left from being peeled off by vandals, and the exteriors of several buildings have rolled roofing sheathing the walls. According to our guide, the management plan calls for the house to reflect an early 1960s appearance, which struck me as a nicely pragmatic decision: the same family lived there for multiple generations; the 1960s is the last time any major changes were made to the interior (the kitchen was updated); it makes perfect sense to use that as a marker for telling the entire story of the property. In short, no major restoration headaches, just stabilization and routine maintenance.

Although the front of the overseer's house is wood siding, the side and rear elevations had apparently been sheathed with faux masonry asphalt siding in the past. That was apparently the last siding put on the house, so I'm kind of wondering if they plan to do a restoration on that.

Oakland's cash crop in the 19th century was cotton so the property at one time included numerous slave cabins. Following the Civil War the owners switched to a share cropping system that included (of course) debt peonage through the Prudhomme-owned general store. Only two cabins remain extant; both had been quite derelict when the park was created in 1994, but have since been stablized. This is one of them.
The exteriors are sheathed with rolled roofing; my assumption is that's a stabilization measure.

The park also includes Magnolia Plantation, but I think I'll do that as a separate post.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Who says there's no good news out there?

In today's AJC: Bill O'Reilly to end syndicated radio show

Welcome to my world

A small sample of what I'm currently attempting to turn into standard English:

"[the document](hereafter The Strategy) takes stock of current capabilities and opportunities to improve to steer a highly distributed nationwide effort that makes better use of our nationwide health information infrastructure to assure health security for all Americans."

It's going to be a long day.

More adventures in bureaucracy

Yesterday was one of those Harlan Ellison days, one long experience in "I have no mouth but I must scream" as I suffered through two really long pointless meetings. The Document is coming down to the wire, the absolute drop dead date for anything substantive to get added was last week, on November 26, but minor comments are still trickling in -- and of course no one has the spine to tell any of these people, look, we gave you a deadline, you missed it. Your comment will be cataloged and considered when the Document is updated next year.

The formatting is still a mess, the pagination is not right, and I've got a project manager who thinks it's useful for me to spend endless hours in teleconferences debating whether or not "member states" should be capitalized when used in the phrase "member states of the European Union." She even had the nerve to put someone else on the computer to do the Live Meeting shared screen as we went through the document and to tell me to just "sit and take notes."

I also got to go back and forth with a scientist who wanted to use the phrase "countries with good public health surveillance capability, e.g., the European community, Canada, and Japan." The man has multiple degrees so must have taken an English composition course at some point in his career. He would have an absolute hissy fit if I were to say something like "infectious diseases, e.g., typhoid, influenza, and asbestosis.*" Didn't he ever watch Sesame Street?? One of these things is not like the others! Finally got him to agree to member states . . . and then we wasted another 15 minutes on capitalization. I finally got pushed into saying "You guys can have all the opinions you want on this issue, but if the Large Nameless Agency style guide says it's wrong, I'm going with the style guide. I won't argue science with you, don't argue grammar and punctuation with me." Jaws kind of dropped -- apparently support staff (and that's how the editors are viewed) aren't supposed to either argue or draw lines in the dirt.

Monday is going to be another day in hell -- nothing but meetings from noon to 5 p.m. -- but that should be it. Then I'll have 4 final days to clean up formatting and also clean out my office . . . Friday afternoon the document (or at least my association with it) is done, and the following week I'll be back in my cozy little cubicle dealing with one lead author at a time instead of committees and work groups.

I quite frankly don't understand why we bothered with the teleconferencing to "vet" comments at all. We received very few, and the ones we did get were extremely minor. One or two people suggested slight changes in phrasing, but nothing that altered the overall content or concept. I have, however, learned since arriving at LNA that the organizational culture here consists of endless second-guessing and fretting about minutiae. And there is a definite addiction to holding meeting after meeting to rehash stuff that's been discussed a zillion times before.

*Update/clarification: the first two illnesses are contagious diseases; asbestosis is a noncontagious condition caused by exposure to asbestos.

The Pulitzer Project begins

I started reading Ernest Poole's His Family last night. It was immediately obvious why I'd never heard of the book, the first novel to win the Pulitzer Prize back in 1918. Calling it dated is an understatement. It may have been published in 1917, but it feels very 19th century. It's not actually a bad book -- I've managed to read worse from cover to cover -- but the style feels overly contrived and so far none of the characters are particularly appealing.

The central character, the "him" of His Family, comes across as a self-centered twit, a solidly middle class businessman with nativist leanings (he's appalled by the immigrants who are "ruining" his city), which may be intentional (Poole was a progressive journalist noted for his sympathies toward the labor movement and social reform) but it still makes it hard to get interested in either the primary character or the people around him. I'm already looking forward to 1919 and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. I read Tarkington in high school, and have a vague memory of actually liking the book.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Speaking of luck

Update: If this was true, there's a woman in West, Texas, who would now be wealthy beyond her wildest dreams.

Depressing news

Woke up to the depressing news that Senator Shameless managed to get re-elected. There was some unintentional humor in the news report, though, as Channel 2 said "Chambliss will take some time off before returning to Washington in January. . ." As far as I can tell by looking at his voting record, he's been taking some time off since his original election to the U.S. Senate in 2002. He has proposed no note-worthy legislation, and has been a nicely compliant rubber stamp for aWol's misguided policies. There was a strong volunteer effort to get out the vote, but, as usual in run-off elections, participation fell way short of what was needed.

I hate to think that once again Chambliss's incredibly sleazy, low road, name calling politics managed to bamboozle the voters -- but it's obvious they did.

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.