Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tin foil hat time

This has been another week devoted to the health care debate.  It was all over the news channels, both before and after Thursday's political theater. And it is, of course, the first topic up on C-SPAN this morning.

Well, technically they're talking about bipartisanship, but it's all revolving around the health care as an issue and whether or not the Democrats should forge ahead on their own or continue to try to work with the Republicans.

The thing that continues to floor me are the numbers of theoretically ordinary people, folks claiming to be just your average American, who call in to C-SPAN to insist either that our current system is just fine or that we should just let the private sector work it all out, because government is sure to screw things up.  Well, our current system is, for most of us, a totally private system -- and it's not working particularly well.  The private sector has had quite a few decades to get thing right, and failed abysmally.  Premiums keep climbing, what policies actually cover keeps shrinking, people are paying more and getting less. . . so why would anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together think that the government could possibly do worse?  

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The groundhog choir

I was happily absorbed in a piece of escapist fiction, Sharon McCrumb's MacPherson's Lament, last night when a frisson of delight swept over me.  McCrumb was describing a local curiousity I knew well.  Her protagonist, fledging attorney Bill MacPherson, was unwrapping his flea market find, an object he had decided was the perfect item to decorate his new law offices, something he said was absolutely unique.  As the object emerges from the plastic bag, his partner stares at it in disbelief. 

"The taxidermist says that he's an authentic Virginia groundhog.  And he wasn't killed for display.  He's a road kill," Bill said happily. "And his little black robe is handmade by the taxidermist's wife. Isn't he marvelous?"

A. P. Hill frowned into the leering face of a large marmot, who was stuffed and mounted in a standing position. Moreover, it was dressed in a black satin gown that might have been judge's robes or graduation attire. 

I know that groundhog.  The fictional Bill MacPherson may have been fallen for the line that it was a one of a kind rodent, a unique piece of the taxidermist's art, but I know better.  I have seen his kinfolk, the groundhog choir, lined up neatly in their choir robes with their miniature hymnals in their paws.  And so, obviously, has the author, Sharon McCrumb.  I can only conclude we've been to the same antiques mall near Fort Chiswell in southwest Virginia.  

It is, after all, a part of the country McCrumb knows well, and is where most (or at least all the ones I've read) of her books are set.  Bimbos of the Death Star, for example, was a spot-on (and hilarious) description of Technicon, the sci-fi convention held annually on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. When one of her characters in another book ends up going for a "rest" at a local psychiatric facility, it's immediately recognizable to anyone who's spent any time in that part of the world as St. Albans in Christiansburg, the psych ward where VaTech faculty send their kids to deal with their adolescent adjustment syndrome.  As a Hokie myself, one of the pleasures of McCrumb's books is the familiarity of the setting.  The biggest problem she seems to have is being forced to tone the local weirdness down to make it believable--as is so often true, life in the Blue Ridge hills of Virginia can be too strange for fiction.

Which, no doubt, is one reason for one lonely groundhog in a judge's robe instead of a whole herd of them  looking like they're about to burst into a chorus of "Nearer My God to Thee."     

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Good news?

MSN had a headline this morning announcing "America's 10 Most Miserable Cities."  I linked to the slide show.  Atlanta didn't make the list.  I'm not sure what the criteria were, but Cleveland's number one.  I've been to Cleveland a couple times -- I didn't think it was that bad. 

If I were to think about U.S. cities in terms of the impressions they made on me the first time I saw them and do a list of "places I hope I never see again," it would include, in no particular ranking and with a lot of variation in size, New Orleans (seen long before Katrina hit); Norfolk, Virginia; Port Arthur, Texas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Houston, Texas; Marshall, Minnesota; Las Vegas, Nevada; Tacoma, Washington; Gary, Indiana; and Phoenix, Arizona.  New Orleans was just seedy and sad, Norfolk is a congested mess, Port Arthur looks like the setting for Dawn of the Dead, the last time I saw Kenosha it also qualified as seedy and sad, Houston is ugly, Marshall . . . well, it's hard to explain the antipathy I felt for Marshall, but having spent a couple days there, I don't want to go back.  Las Vegas shouldn't exist for multiple reasons (the way it wastes water being one of them), Tacoma's depressing, Gary is worse, and Phoenix is too many people in a place where they shouldn't be.       

Monday, February 15, 2010

Two in a row on The Stupid, It Burns

A few months ago a Facebook friend persuaded me to sign up for something called Circle of Moms, despite the fact my kids are (thank Maude) adults now and I really don't get too excited about discussions about arranging playdates or coping with housebreaking toilet training.  Long story short:  once a week I get an e-mail reminding me there are discussions going on in that particular forum.  Generally I just hit the delete key.

The latest one, though, made me do a double take.  What was the topic?  "My son sees spirits in his bedroom."  Holy crap.  Could not resist linking to that one.

Turns out the writer is a young mom trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that her 3-year-old says he sees a person in his bedroom when he's trying to go to sleep (or has been told to go to sleep).  He's afraid to be in the room alone.  My reaction?  First, seeing a person is nothing compared to the floor snakes I told my kids about in an attempt to keep them trapped in their bunks from dusk to dawn (idea stolen from Bill Cosby, of course).  Second, the kid's a typical 3-year-old, has an imagination and is starting to use it.  Just follow all the usual time-tested tips (e.g., engage in mellowing out exercises right before bedtime, like reading a favorite story, stick to a routine, and stop letting the kid watch "Ghost Whisperer") and don't stress about it.

So what does Circle of Moms provide in the way of advice?  Lots of OMG, we used to live in a haunted house, too.  Spirits are real, spirits are evil, quick, call an exorcist. 

Jesus wept.

Jobs Americans won't do?

There was a lot of bloviating over the weekend on various news programs about jobs creation and the economy.  The levels of stupid being displayed by the assorted talking heads ran astoundingly deep.  The tinfoil hat types calling in to C-SPAN weren't any better, of course.

Once again I got treated to such nonsensical gems as "there are some jobs Americans just won't do" as an explanation of why there are illegal immigrants washing dishes in restaurants, working in meatpacking plants, and hanging drywall.  What never gets mentioned is why Americans won't do those jobs, which is that most Americans (even the tinfoil hat types) aren't willing to work for less than a legal minimum wage, tolerate unpaid overtime, or take a chance on doing a dangerous job without the assurance that if the worst happens, at least there's worker's compensation insurance as a safety net. 

The truth is that there have always been people quite willing to do the work that gets described as being so beyond the pale for the average American.  Someone with a comfortably white collar middle to upper middle class background might not be able to imagine anyone who's a native English speaker being willing to get his or her hands dirty in exchange for a paycheck, but people do it all the time.  This country is full of people who work as mechanics, waitresses, carpenters, truck drivers, . . . you name it.  Still, there was some ass on C-SPAN, someone who was ostensibly on the liberal side of the political spectrum, who went on at great length about jobs like hotel maid and waitress and bus driver all needing to be done, but Americans being unwilling to do them.  What he actually meant, of course, that he personally would never consider taking a job that required him to actually sweat, so why would anyone else?  His idea, based on his tacit assumption that every other US citizen is exactly like him in wants, desires, and opportunities, was to liberalize immigration policy to ensure a steady supply of dishwashers. 

I've got a better idea.  How about cracking down on the employers who hire undocumented workers, violate labor law by paying subminimum wages, and commit tax fraud when they pay cash under the table instead of actual wages?  We've got some pretty high unemployment rates in this country -- if people are willing to humiliate themselves by donning blue vests and welcoming customers to Walmart, they're also more than willing to clean hotel rooms, empty trash, wash dishes, or hang dry wall if they are paid a legal wage.

Happy birthday, Val

My youngest sister, Valerie Jean, age 6.  I'll be nice and not mention just what year that was.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Happy blogiversary to me

On Monday it'll be two years exactly since I started playing with this blog. I started off intending to be studiously apolitical and never, ever mention where I worked.  The focus was going to be strictly fun stuff -- national parks, mutated muffler men, weird roadside art, maybe an occasional book review.

Well, that didn't last long.  Politics in 2008 were just too interesting to ignore, and enough bizarre stuff happens at work that posts on Adventures in Bureaucracy were inevitable.  I do have a strong enough sense of self-preservation that I try to remember to refer to my employer as Large Namless Agency, at least when I'm writing about my personal experiences or impressions as one cog in a giant machine.

Over the past several years I've watched other blogs come and go.  Some have gotten better, some worse, some of the bloggers I used to read on a regular basis got burnt out, and some decided to switch to different venues.  It's like anything else -- once the new wears off, it can be hard to sustain an interest.  I've gone through the usual mental gymnastics, too, the whole "who am I writing this for?  Me? Friends and family? Or strangers who may or may not like what I've got to say?"  One of the dangers inherent in blogging is it's easy to find yourself playing to (for?) an audience you may not have wanted.  Approbation is nice, so it's tempting to start saying stuff you'll hope will garner a positive comment or two.  Or a hundred.  Everyone wants to have his or her existence acknowledged; bloggers are no exception.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Firing up the wayback machine

I've been going through old floppies recently, transferring files that I'd forgotten I had.  Most of what I've come across has been stuff that if it was paper would have been in a recycling bin long ago, but there were a few files worth saving, including these images  of the Lullabye logging operation on Outer Island.
Outer Island is part of the Apostle Islands archipelago in Lake Superior, and is called Outer Island for a reason.  It's the farthest out from mainland Wisconsin and can be the hardest to get to.  Nonetheless, once the timber on the mainland had been cut over, the lumber industry managed to get to the island multiple times, with the final major logging activity taking place in the 1950s, which is when most of these photos were taken.
The photos show the logging activities done by Ed Bush, a contractor from Ladysmith, Wisconsin, and his crew.  They harvested hardwoods like birch for use by the Lullabye Furniture Company of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Lullabye specialized in manufacturing cribs and other furniture for infants and children, hence the name.  The remains of the camp are known today as Lullabye Logging.  When the logging operation ended, a lot of equipment was simply abandoned in place -- it wasn't viewed as being worth hauling back to the mainland. 
Equipment was hauled to the island with a World War II surplus landing craft, The Outer Island (originally LCT(5)-103), owned by the Lullabye Furniture Company.  Logs left the island via that same landing craft.  Because getting to the island by boat wasn't always possible, particularly in the winter when Chequamegon Bay froze over, Lullabye decided to construct an airport.  

Above, the hanger on Outer Island in 1956.  Below, that same hanger in 2001. 

One of my assignments when I worked at Apostle Islands was to assess the condition of the surviving structures associated with Lullabye logging. The camp was easy. There's a clear, well-maintained trail to it from the light station. Assessment was easy, too. "Ruin" is nice short word.

The air strip was a different matter.  It's still visible from the air--it takes a long time for an opening that big to revegetate to the point of blending in seamlessly with surrounding forest--but finding it on the ground involved some bushwhacking.  But find it we eventually did, and discovered the hanger slowly mouldering into the soil.  

We also found an old-fashioned sickle bar riding mower, an artifact that's destined to totally baffle any future hiker who stumbles across it sitting in the middle of an officially designated wilderness area. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More adventures in bureaucracy

The folks above me in the food chain did a terrible thing to me -- they gave me something interesting to do.  I had been thinking it would be really easy to walk away from the job in a few months, that, (*sarcasm warning*) fascinating though it might be to edit articles about methicillin resistant staphylocoocus aureus or clostridium difficile, I would not particularly miss the work once I retired and left it behind.  Then my team lead did something sneaky:  she asked if I'd be willing to take on a collateral duty, writing scripts for podcasts.  I could not resist.  I don't get to do much actual writing as part of my regular duties.  I said yes.  

This is Not Good.  It means new challenges.  Which in turn means the job, at least for awhile, will no longer qualify as comfortably routine.  I've never had a problem walking away from a job once I thought I had it nailed -- I'm a sucker for novelty.  The podcasts assignment also holds the potential for being (gasp) fun because it will involve going over to the main campus to meet with people in the broadcast studios to collaborate with the voice talent and the subject matter experts. 

I have no clue how many people ever bother listening to the podcasts Large Nameless Agency produces, especially the podcasts that are based on articles that appear in the journal, although I imagine the ones that name health problems or diseases in the news at the moment might be popular.  As a person who owns neither an I-pod nor an MP3 player, I've never quite understood why anyone would bother to download what amounts to a radio broadcast to listen to later -- if something is only 5 minutes long, why not just listen to it immediately?-- but I know people do it.

Monday, February 8, 2010


Too bad no one in a position of power ever pays any attention to Ted Rall's cartoons.  I found this one yesterday while going through some zip disks containing files from 2001. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Odd dreams

I had an odd dream last night.  In it I was living in New York City, right in Manhattan.  It was a typical dream in some ways (in dreams I'm almost always younger than in reality), but unusual in others.  For a start, I woke up remembering it fairly vividly.  Usually no matter how interesting the dream, when I wake up all I can remember is that I was dreaming and not many details of the dream itself.

I don't know why I'd dream about New York.  Maybe I've watched a few too many episodes of "Cash Cab." The only times I've been to the city it's been as a transient.  I've flown out of La Guardia after visiting friends in New Jersey, transferred from one bus to another in the Port Authority bus station, driven through on the interstate, and sat in a train on Amtrak while traveling from Boston to Washington, DC, and vice versa.  None of those experiences ever gave me the feeling that the one thing I'd like to do in life is live in New York City.  If anything, they had the opposite effect.

The Port Authority in particular stands out for its ability to evoke a "dear God get me out of here fast!" frame of mind.  Maybe I shouldn't be so harsh on a location when I was probably seeing it at the worst of times, right around the holidays (Thanksgiving weekend, if I recall correctly) when more people than usual were traveling.  It also did not help that the bus from Boston was late getting into New York (traffic on the interstate was moving at a crawl for many miles) so I missed the connection I wanted to D.C. I had to spend several hours waiting for the next one so had plenty of time to soak up the negative energy and be appalled by the ambience.

The place was packed with humanity, most of whom seemed to be using black plastic Hefty bags as luggage.  I found myself thinking that the fact I had an actual suitcase instead of a trash bag or battered cardboard carton was going to mark me as "affluent" for every potential thief or pickpocket in the place.  I kept expecting to see someone leading a goat or carrying a crate of chickens on to a bus.  It wouldn't have surprised me a bit to see a bus driver instructing overflow passengers to sit on the roof -- that evening the Port Authority had a definite Third World aura.  

The weird  thing is that although the place had a seedy, dirty around the edges feeling, there were maintenance people and cleaning crews working constantly. There was no trash on the floors, and every time I turned around I seemed to spot someone with a mop or a broom.  There also weren't any particularly creepy characters around, no persons who could be readily identified as definite sleazeballs.  In general, security seemed to be good.  There were no panhandlers or obvious crazies, no one homeless sleeping on the floor of the women's restroom, although there were periodic announcements over the public address system to be careful when one left the building for the streets of New York.  If there were lowlifes in the vicinity, they were apparently congegrating on the sidewalks outside and not making it past security into the terminal itself.  In short, there was no logical reason why the place should have felt as sad and rundown as it did.  Nonetheless, I'm quite happy to have never had an occasion to repeat entering or leaving New York via Greyhound bus.

[Photo is of La Guardia, obviously.]

Monday, February 1, 2010

Employee evaluations

We underwent that bizarre annual exercise in mutual misunderstanding at work recently, the performance review.  Large Nameless Agency refers to it as the PMAP.  It has multiple components, of course, some of which relate to the overall goals and standards of the agency as a whole and some of which are specific to an individual's job.  The employee gets a score for each component (1-4, with 4 being the best), the scores are then averaged, and the resulting average determines whether a person is Exceptional, Fully Successful, Less Than Successful, or a Total Loser.  Or something like that.

As sure as the proverbial swallows returning to Capistrano, the typical performance review results in the employee getting a couple of Exceptionals and a couple of Fully Successfuls, regardless of just how good or bad the employee actually was.  I have never known anyone below a GS-13 who managed to score solid Exceptionals, just as I've rarely known anyone to be less than Fully Successful, although the latter does happen occasionally.  There are Reasons -- one is that it's generally a lot easier to determine when someone is truly screwing up than it is to figure out that someone is consistently above average in every aspect of his or her work performance.  (There's also the fact that if all you are is Fully Successful, there's a cap on how much of an end-of-year bonus a person can get.  Exceptional employees can get the mega-awards; the Fully Successful might get a one day Time Off award, a hearty handshake, and, if they're really lucky, a cheap pen.)

Also as sure as the swallows returning, every employee spends a fair amount of time griping after the fact about their review being Wrong -- because every employee, no matter what their actual level of competence may be, is convinced that he or she is above average in some way.  I, for example, am completely convinced that I am absolutely stellar at complying with arcane bureaucratic rules, like the protocols for naming and archiving files (being borderline obsessive-compulsive helps considerably).  Thus, when my supervisor gave me a mere Fully Successful on the part of the evaluation that included that type of activity I was Seriously Annoyed. I came really close to actually insisting on an addendum to the review that would state, in effect, that I was the Queen of Electronic Files Organization, a move that would have no doubt succeeded in convinced my supervisor I was definitely OCD, and not just borderline.  

I am told there was a time when the annual performance review consisted of basically a pass/fail grade -- you were either doing your job, or you weren't.  In the latter case, you'd get stuck on an improvement plan to give you time to shape up (and the agency time to build the file they needed to fire you if you didn't) before the next review. To me that makes more sense, which is no doubt why they stopped doing it. And it could be worse -- when I worked for the Park Service, there were 5 levels. 

Actually, what would make even more sense would be for my supervisor, the person who signs the forms indicating whether or not I'm doing a passable job, to drop by more often than once every six months so that maybe, just maybe, she'd have some clue as to just what it is I and my colleagues do. Due to some quirks of the organization and the fact supervising us isn't the only thing she does, our supervisor occupies office space on one of LNA's campuses while my colleagues and I toil quietly away in a building in an office park 5 miles distant.  She sees the final product (so does the whole world, for that matter), but she doesn't see the day-to-day behaviors, the interactions at editors' meetings (she doesn't attend, even by telephone, which has struck me as odd since I started with the journal 9 months ago), who's showing up on time and who's getting there late and leaving early. . . which, now that I think about it, is probably just as well. Given a choice between extremely hands-off management and the potential for micromanagement, I'll take the former every time.