Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sloppy scholarship

Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869I started reading a book last night penned by one of America's best known "historians," Stephen E. Ambrose. The book, Nothing Like It in the World, is a description of the construction of the transcontinental railway from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California. I'm not very far into it, but it's definitely readable. It's the first of Ambrose's books I've read (I managed somehow to escape Undaunted Courage, his book about the Lewis and Clark expedition), but I can see why he managed to turn histories into best sellers. Ambrose is good with words.

Too bad he's not as good with his scholarship. I've already run into something that helps explain some of the scorn I've heard expressed by academicians regarding Ambrose's books. I know the Civil War isn't his area (Eisenhower and World War II were his first big love), but even I know that saying Shiloh was Grant's first victory is flatout wrong. But that's what Ambrose does -- apparently his vast herd of minions, the various people serving as his researchers (which appears to be his extended family, i.e., his adult children), somehow managed to skip right over Fort Donelson.  The fall of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland opened the way south, as well as providing a tremendous morale boost to the Union. 

I hate finding bloopers like this in books, especially really early on in a book. Nothing Like It in the World is sufficiently interesting that I'm going to keep reading, but Ambrose's slip regarding Grant and  Shiloh means I'm now going to be a little bit skeptical about everything he describes.    

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Totally tapped out on empathy

For the past year, more or less, I've been listening to a co-worker whine about how miserable that co-worker is slaving away at the journal.  Lots of unhappiness about the behavior and/or attitudes of other staff, lots of unhappiness about our team lead and our supervisors, lots of muttering about being unappreciated. 

Naif that I am, I asked if this person had considered changing jobs, moving on (and possibly up) to something that might prove more congenial.  After all, USAJobs seems to have ads for writer-editors on a daily basis.  My co-worker is single, has no attachments in Atlanta, so if a change is desired, the entire country is a possibility, and, depending on the agency one lateraled to, it might even be possible to get moving expenses paid. 

Well, no, was the answer to the entire country -- didn't want to go through the expense and hassle of moving, wanted to stay in Atlanta until retirement.  Having moved myself more times than I care to think about, I wasn't particularly sympathetic to this line of reasoning, but it was understandable.  Once you're past 50, packing and moving gets old, especially if you've only got the memory of one or two moves behind you (after you've loaded and unloaded a U-Haul a dozen times or more, it's not that big a deal).  So how about trying to move into a slightly different job series right here at Large Nameless Agency, maybe slide on over to Health Communications Specialist (GS-1001) from Writer-Editor (GS-1082)?  Naturally, there was a string of reasons why that wasn't an option either. 

This month a job as a writer-editor came up that would have been a natural lateral -- duties would be almost identical, about the only differences would be the co-workers (a group that has a reputation for being really nice) and the teleworking policy (fully supported; about the only time people come in to the office is for an occasional staff meeting).  So did my co-worker take advantage of this opportunity to escape our dysfunctional environment and apply for a transfer?

You guessed it.  No. 

Every so often I try to come up with arguments to use on management to persuade them to let me telework.  Do you think they'd buy "I'll get more done if I'm not within earshot of that annoying whine?"

Monday, July 26, 2010

Guilty pleasures

True Blood.  Even better, seeing places I recognize on True Blood. 

Even though they keep talking about being in Jackson, they've done a lot of filming around Natchez, both interiors and exteriors.  I recognized the wallpaper in the dining room in the vampire king's house, and this, of course, is Longwood, the famous octagonal house begun before the Civil War but never finished.  Longwood is supposedly the king's house, except the interiors they show are shot elsewhere.

Longwood was fun to tour.  Because only the ground floor was finished, touring the rest of the house allows a person to see all the construction details -- timbering, brickwork, etc. -- that is normally hidden under plaster and paint.  The exterior is unfinished, too.  The original plans called for stucco over the brick to really emphasize the Oriental-style, but obviously that never happened.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mind candy

I made my usual Saturday trip to the library yesterday, and, also as usual, exited with an armful of mind candy.  I've been thinking about fiction and writers lately, probably because several folks whose blogs I follow are aspiring novelists, and I've had kind of mixed reactions to the examples they've posted.  But I'm realizing I am totally unqualified to critique mainstream fiction.  I'm too addicted to escapist mind candy.  Given a choice between "literature" (whatever that might be) and a couple forms of genre fiction, the genre fiction (mysteries, science fiction, fantasy) wins every time. 

Or almost every time.  I did read Louise Erdrich's latest, Shadow Tag, this past week.  Her work is usually sufficiently depressing that it must qualify as literature -- and she can write, even if her novels always strike me as a tad thin, more novellas than novels and just barely long enough to merit stand-alone publishing.  And I did toy with the idea of "serious" reading this time.  Escapism won. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

When malice and stupidity collide

A minor miracle is occuring on my television -- C-SPAN is on, and they're not talking about Shirley Sherrod and how badly the Obama administration managed to screw up that mess up.  It's early, though, so I'm sure they'll get there.

For many years one of my favorite sayings has been "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."  I never really thought about what happens when the two collide -- but that's definitely a capsule description of the Sherrod mess.  A reich wing activist motivated by malice and paranoia collided with an administration staffed by idiots who quake in fear of allowing any controversy to develop. 

I'd love to see someone at USDA fired, but we all know that's not going to happen.  If the bureaucracy functions as usual, Cheryl Cook, the dipshit who bullied Shirley Sherrod into pulling over on I-20 and texting in her resignation via Blackberry,  is probably going to get a promotion, Secretary Vilsack will keep right on being a shill for Monsanto and Cargill, and next week the main stream medium will fall for another of Andrew Breitbart's scams. 

The truly ironic part, of course, is that Cheryl Cook told Ms. Sherrod that she had to resign because she was going to be on Glenn Beck otherwise.  As events unfolded, yes, Ms. Sherrod did indeed get mentioned on Beck's show -- as an example of the utter incompetence of the Obama administration because they fired her before bothering to do any fact-checking.   

There has also been (as there always is) a tinfoil hat theme emerging over the week.  Having had a day or two in which to regroup, the extreme right wing has once again found a conspiracy:  the Obama administration and the NAACP planned the whole thing just to bring down poor Andrew Breitbart.  I've never understood this fantasy life the right wing leads.  They refuse to believe the current administration is capable of ordinary governance, the above-board out in the open management of various agencies and policies, but they are willing to believe conspiracy theories that are as convoluted and unlikely as a 1960s spy novel? 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book Review: Jack Ward Thomas: The Journals of Forest Service Chief

This book was a surprise.  I had low expectations going into it -- it wasn't a work I had much interest in reading prior to 'winning' it at the Forest History Society breakfast meeting in Portland back in March.  There were some really good books given away at that breakfast, and what did I get stuck with?  A tome that I fully expected to be laced with a lot of self-serving revisionist history.  I had never heard anything bad about Chief Thomas, but like most federal employees I'm pretty skeptical about the folks in the Washington offices.  After all, who in their right mind would actually want  to manage any federal agency? 

Turns out the answer to that question is not Jack Ward Thomas, at least according to him.  He had been the lead agency scientist dealing with the spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest so had plenty of first-hand experience with Congressional committees and the mess politics can make of what to the professionals in the field look like pretty straightforward issues. He had even spent most of his career deliberately avoiding the training that would make him eligible for the Senior Executive Service (a prerequiste for anyone aspiring to the Chief's seat in DC; by tradition it was strictly a civil service position, not a political appointment).  All the previous chiefs had been foresters, a term that means a lot more within the Forest Service than it does to the general public because, among other things, it implies management responsibilities, and had along the way served as a forest supervisor or regional forester.  Thomas came from the wildlife research side of the agency, a dramatic switch for an agency that worships the memory of Gifford Pinchot.  Although Thomas doesn't dwell on it, by coming from wildlife rather than from forestry, he had to know there a huge old boy network within the agency that he had never been and never would be part of.  He was also the first Chief to be a political appointtee, and that he does dwell on -- he wasn't happy about it, and reiterates numerous times that he really wanted whoever succeeded him to be a return to the old tradition.

Thomas also doesn't speculate much about why he got tapped in 1992 by the Clinton administration to replace Chief Dale Robertson, but given his background -- wildlife management, not forestry -- and his involvement with the spotted owl study it seems like a fairly obvious signal to the environmental activist community that the new administration wasn't going to let the 'timber shop' drive the agency any longer.  Unfortunately, as Thomas makes clear, if there was any relationship that personified the dilemma of your friends causing more problems than your enemies, it might be that between environmental activists and the Clinton administration.  Thomas's descriptions of well-designed plans being stymied by the group they had been designed to help reminded me of a quote attributed to President Warren G. Harding -- Harding reportedly said he could deal with his enemies, but "Lord, save me from my friends."  Invariably, at least from Thomas's perspective, the result of environmental activism was to create more long-term problems than it solved.

It didn't help that the perception within the Forest Service, a perception that contributed a great deal to damaging employee morale, was that the Clinton administration was bending over backwards to cater to the environmentalists in an effort to gain the support of urban voters in Portland, Seattle, and other west coast cities.  There's no doubt a great deal of truth in that.  The problem was (and still is) that the environmental movement is extremely diverse, it includes people holding a wide range of opinions, and an action that satisfies one segment of that movement is almost always guaranteed to anger another.  Industry, in contrast, could easily present a unified message.  End result?  Major headaches out in the field, as local staff had to cope with demonstrations and protests, and major headaches in Washington, as Thomas and others tried to satisfy Congress.

Of course, one thing that employees in the field could not know for sure, but that Thomas was seeing up close was the penchant of administration officials, political appointees like Leon Panetta, to ignore the advice coming from within the agency.  Field staff from the various agencies involved in natural resource management -- Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and so on -- would spend many months working on Environmental Impact Statements, soliciting public comments, exploring various alternates -- and then just before a plan, after years of work, was finally going to be implemented,  the White House would get a phone call from someone with a lot of personal influence and almost no actual knowledge of the facts on the ground,  and that was that.  Thomas mentions several examples of being blindsided by Panetta or someone else in the administration.  It's actually moderately amazing he stayed on as Chief as long as he did -- the job sounds like one long exercise in frustration.

Whether or not the Clinton administration was any better or worse than any other at engaging in micromanaging and second guessing the professional civil service is, of course, debatable.  If anything, it was probably typical.  Every administration comes in totally convinced that the outgoing administration managed to staff the upper levels of every agency with party hacks, various lobbyists had undo influence, and that policy was being driven totally by political considerations.  They spend a huge amount of time trying to 'clean house,' and by the time they figure out that some of the agency professionals do actually know what they're doing, they're running out of time to accomplish anything worthwhile before the next election.  And then it starts all over again.

Thomas does seem to have a thoroughly low and essentially nonpartisan opinion of politicians in general.  The Republicans might be industry tools, but the Democrats are equally lazy and ill-informed.  Hearings are called, but Senators and Representatives put in only token appearances, with a typical  Congressman or Senator showing up just long enough to do a little posturing that will make a good sound bite for the news media back in his or her home state and then vanishing.  After sitting through numerous Congressional hearings and seeing how remarkably ignorant and lazy the typical Congress critter was, Thomas is quietly appalled by his growing realization that what was actually shaping U.S. environmental policy is litigation.  Where does the real power in the federal government lie?  The Department of Justice.  DOJ decides which rules to enforce through criminal prosecution or civil litigation, DOJ decides which cases need to work their way up through the appeals process and which they'll try to find fast out of court settlements for, and they'll do it all without bothering to consult with the technical experts in any of the natural resource management agencies.  The hearings, the discussions, the fact-finding efforts are all just theater -- it's DOJ that decides what's actually going to happen.

Thomas's descriptions of some of the Senators and Representatives he had to deal with make it obvious politicians do not get elected based on brains.  It's quite clear he's convinced that the late Helen Chenoweth made the proverbial box of rocks look sentient in comparison, and Larry Craig wasn't much better.  Maybe it was something in the water in Idaho?

Overall, this book proved to be much more interesting than I was anticipating.  It was also oddly reassuring.  We hear so much these days about the partisan bickering in Washington, the inability of Congress to work together, and the general gridlock when it comes to changing or implementing policy.  But as I was reading this book, it read as though Thomas could have been writing his journal entries last month, not almost 20 years ago.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Should I be comforted by the fact that politicians haven't changed much, that Cabinet secretaries still fight turf battles, and that sometimes the good stuff that comes out of a decision is the result of unintended consequences and not actual thought?  Probably not, but it was reassuring to see that no matter what weirdness happens in DC there are still career civil servants out in the field fighting the good fight and doing their best to hold back chaos.

[A minor side note:  as a civil servant myself, one of the things that amused me was Thomas grousing about his annual performance review.  He's the Chief of the Forest Service, and he's as unhappy as any GS-4 technician about getting dinged for being less than "exceptional" on one aspect of the review.  It's the one thing everyone in federal service has in common -- we're all convinced our supervisors don't have a clue when they're assessing how good we are at our jobs.]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Climate change and disaster capitalism

I've been reading a great series of articles in the current Mother Jones on the subject of climate change.  Clive Thompson's "Disaster Capitalism" is particularly good. As he notes:
IF YOU LOOKED merely at the realm of politics, it would be easy to believe that the question "Is climate change really happening?" is still unresolved. In the last year, skeptics have attacked climate science with renewed vigor. Doubters seized on "Climategate"—leaked emails from bickering atmospheric scientists—to argue that the evidence in favor of warming is being cooked. Other skeptics unearthed shoddy parts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report, such as the fact that it cited non-peer-reviewed work by an activist group when it predicted that most of the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. And all along, conservative politicians have hissingly denounced global warming as a shady liberal scheme: Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma famously called it "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." These attacks appear to be working. A spring Gallup poll found that Americans' concern over global warming peaked two years ago, and has steadily declined since.
But there's one area where doubt hasn't grown—and where, indeed, people are more and more certain that climate change is not only real, but imminent: the world of industry and commerce.
Companies, of course, exist to make money. That's often what makes them seem so rapacious. But their primal greed also plants them inevitably in the "reality-based community." If a firm's bottom line is going to be affected by a changing climate—say, when its supply chains dry up because of drought, or its real estate gets swamped by sea-level rise (see "Buh-Bye East Coast Beaches," page 40)—then it doesn't particularly matter whether or not the executives want to believe in climate change. Railing at scientists for massaging tree-ring statistics won't stop the globe from warming if the globe is actually, you know, warming. The same applies in reverse, as the folks at Beluga Shipping adroitly realized: If there are serious bucks to be made from the changing climate, then the free market is almost certainly going to jump at it.
The article cites a number of examples of individual companies and industries as a whole (like insurance) that are quite certain climate change is happening and, unlike the dithering politicians in Washington, are doing something about it.  In some cases, like with the shipping company mentioned, they're seeing opportunities to either save or make money.  In others, they're realizing they'd better start adapting now if they want to survive.  I was reminded of a brief news blurb I read someplace else a few months back about the wine industry:  Vintners are establishing vineyards in places where the growing season used to be too short for grapes, but that's no longer true.  One reason for the shift:  they've also realized that the traditional locations for their vines were becoming too hot and dry. 

In fact, if you look around, about the only industries still spouting nonsense about climate change being a hoax are the ones peddling fossil fuels.  Unfortunately, they've got deep pockets and make a lot of noise, so the weather may have to get a lot more erratic before some folks decide it's time for serious policy changes.


I finally got around to making some shopping bags to replace the ones my neurotic cat peed on a couple weeks ago.  I know the bags Publix, Target, et al. sell are a mere 99 cents apiece, but I'd also realized right after we bought the ones that got pissed on that those bags are made in China.  Somehow it didn't seem particularly 'green' to buy a reusable bag that had traveled many thousands of miles. So I decided to make my own.  I thought I had some hideous upholstery/drapery fabric hiding in the stash, an inheritance from an aunt who could not resist remnant sale tables, and I was right:
The bag pattern I had said to use a piece of material 48 inches long and 22 inches wide.  This chunk of unbelievably garish fabric was 50 by 48.  Perfect.  Two bags worth.  The only other thing I needed was webbing for the handles.  That I had to actually buy from Hancock Fabrics.  End result:

The webbing was $1.79 per yard, each bag requires 3.25 yards, so instead of spending 99 cents per bag at Publix, I've now spent at least $5.82 per bag, not to mention the externals involved (e.g., the other $30 I spent at Hancock, because being unable to resist remnant tables is apparently a genetic trait) or the opportunity cost of spending an hour sewing when I could have been doing other things.

On the other hand, the sense of moral superiority I may have gained by using not just my own bags, but the Ugliest Shopping Bags on the planet is priceless.

And this is Cleo, who pees in laundry baskets and on area rugs, pillows, and shopping bags when she's feeling stressed out or unhappy:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Race to the redneck bottom

I'm at home today, happily playing hooky from work, but made the mistake of leaving the television on a little too long.  Every commercial break is solid political ads, several minutes of Georgia's politicians on parade. It is an election year, the primaries are now less than two weeks away, and the Republican candidates appear to have decided the winning strategy is to appeal the dumbest, most racist segment among registered Republicans.

In the past ten minutes, I've heard Republicans promise to round up illegal aliens, eliminate all taxes (which are high because of illegal aliens), improve the crumbing infrastructure (which is crumbling because of illegal aliens) (and, after all, we all know you can get something for nothing, so the candidates all promise to reduce state revenues while spending more money), and to fight the implementation of the dreaded Obamacare (which was created solely to pander to illegal aliens).  Some of the ads are so jaw-droppingly stupid it's hard to believe the candidates are able to spout this bilge with a straight face.  Definitely a race to the bottom when the candidates seem to all believe that the way to win is to come up with the ads that demonize Mexicans and/or liberals the most. One guy's big selling point is that he fought the ACLU in a court case, which he apparently lost, because there's no mention of beating the ACLU in court, and for sure he'd be crowing about that if he had won. In short, he wants us to vote for him because he was dumb enough to waste time and money on a lost cause.  Interesting strategy:  "Vote for me; I'm even dumber than you."  Unfortunately, given the current depths of sheer stupidity flowing through the populace in this state, come November, one of that crop of yahoos is likely to prevail in the general election.

Haven't noticed many ads for Democrats, other than for Roy Barnes, the former governor who wants his old job back.  Barnes has an interesting ad out stating pretty bluntly that the Republicans have turned Georgia into a national joke.  Think he's in the frontrunner in the primary. I wish him luck in November, but I'm not optimistic.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

So many rants, so little time

Afghanistan. Immigration.  Arizona. The economy.  The BP oil spill.  American exceptionalism.  So many issues threatening to make my head explode, and so little time to vent in.  The levels of ignorance displayed by both policy makers and by the general public never cease to amaze me.  Every time I think I've heard the dumbest thing ever, someone manages to plunge to even lower depths.

I was all set to do a thoughtful little piece on connections between joblessness, the economy in general, and Afghanistan, when one of those typical tinfoil hat-types crawled out of the phone line on C-SPAN.  His pet project?  Getting the recipients of Social Security drug tested because there are, as he put it, a lot of deadbeats on Social Security and they need to get their lazy butts back to work.  My 88-year-old mother is going to be thrilled with that prospect.

It takes a special type of moron to confuse Social Security for the elderly with welfare, but given some of the other dumb stuff I heard this morning (example:  the United States is the only country on the planet that was settled by immigrants from Europe, which is what makes us so special)(apparently the caller has never heard of Canada, to name the most obvious example), it shouldn't surprise me.  What I don't understand is why these people bother to call in to argue with whoever happens to be the guest expert. 

Then again, maybe the better question would be why do I bother to listen?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Adventures in bureaucracy

I work with some odd people.  We got a 59-minute early release today, which several of my colleagues opted to ignore.  I don't get it -- why stay at work if you don't have to?

Of course, one of those colleagues is also notorious for working from home during the evening and on weekends even when there's absolutely no reason to do so, so it doesn't surprise me that much that he'd hang out at work for no reason other than to hope the managing editor notices his dog-like devotion and throws him some sort of verbal Milkbone.

Long, long ago I sort of majored in industrial sociology -- I did the STS track in social sciences at Michigan Tech with a concentration on technology and work -- with a vague plan of going into human resource management when I graduated.   Fortunately, sanity prevailed, I opted for grad school, and wound up focusing more on history of technology than on any practical applications.  I could never supervise people.  I have a hard time as it is just watching from the sidelines.  I should be a mute given how many times I've had to bite my tongue.  There are so many days when the phrase "Are you fucking nuts?!" is just a nanosecond away from being heard. 

Then again, maybe it's just something about the organizational culture at Large Nameless Agency.  I don't recall having quite so many *head*desk* moments at other jobs.

I really miss Omaha.