Respect the rank, not the person…

We’re the government and no self respecting government agency goes more than a day or two without having a meeting. Mostly, given our slightly inconvenient location just outside of BFE, we keep our meetings to ourselves. Sadly, though, there are times when someone vaguely approaching the definition of a VIP shows up. Such an arrival, of course, requires a meeting befitting the distinguished status of the guest. That means the development of many, many wonderful charts… because the more charts presented for your consideration, the more important you are in the hierarchy. And then there’s the hardcopy – because a VIP apparently can’t be troubled to remember something from one minute to the next without having a fist full of paper slides in front of him. Reading the ones projected across the room onto a 8×10 foot screen would certainly be below his esteemed level of dignity.

With enough notice, it’s generally possible to make anything happen. Deciding at 8:30 that you want to change half the slides for a meeting starting in half an hour, sure, that’s manageable. But for God’s sake don’t come back ten minutes later and tell everyone they’re late to the meeting… that isn’t supposed to start for another twenty minutes. And then pace the aisle sighing and making comments under your breath about being unprepared. When the only thing keeping someone from beating you to death with a keyboard is an ingrained sense of respect for rank and a desire not to go to jail, it seems best not to antagonize that many of your underlings all at one time.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Deal breaker…

A few days ago, I was asked why I was so intransigent about not wanting kids and invited to come up with a post expounding on my view of what has been described more than once as a deal breaking issue. At an age when nearly all of my friends have settled in to the routine of child manufacturing and upkeep, it’s a fair question. It’s also a question I approached with some trepidation, because of the inherent risk of causing unintentional offense as I refine and clarify my own thinking on the issue.

While these may not be the best or most altruistic reasons, they are mine… at least my top five.

• People seem hard wired to think babies – their own, ones they pass on the street, any babies really – are adorable. That gene seems to have skipped me. My response is more along the lines of “Ohhhh look… a small scrunched up human.”

• I’ve heard my entire life “having a child will change everything”. That’s great and all, but I like my life. I like the things that are important to me now and I want them to continue to be important to me in the future.

• Having dogs has meant giving up a certain degree of freedom to travel and do things on short notice – but I can lock them in a cage for a few hours and go do what I need to do or drop them off at the kennel for a few days and fly off to whatever tropical place interests me. With a baby, that’s apparently considered “neglect.”

• It sounds selfish, and it undeniably is, but I’m my own highest priority. I’m not wild about the thought of completely subsuming my goals, wants, and priorities to a small human for the next 18-25 years.

• Kids are crazy expensive. I bitch about $200 vet bills and $50 a bag dog food. Want to guess how I’d react to a $500 stroller or thousands a year in private school tuition?

I’m not a militant kid-hater (unless they’re crying in a movie theatre or throwing food at a restaurant). I’m a three time Godfather. My friends’ kids are awesome. But when the end of the day rolls around, I’m not the one with the responsibility for clothing, feeding, and educating said friends’ kids and I’ll be going home to a house not strewn with toys, without crayon on the wall, grape juice stains on the carpet, or crumbs on the couch. Being Uncle Jeff is great like that. It’s having all of the perks without any of the drawbacks.

I just don’t see how this can be a point of compromise. It’s a binary sort of thing – unless there’s a lease-purchase arrangement that could be worked out – maybe two days a week and every third weekend. If there’s any uncertainly at all about the desire to procreate, it seems best to err on the side of caution. I don’t want to spend the rest of my days resenting the hell out a child or its mother for finding myself living a life I was never sure I really wanted. Maybe in my declining years, I’ll wonder “what if I had….” But those thoughts for a few years in my dotage seems like a far better option than spending the next 30 years wondering, “what if I hadn’t”.

For me at least, it’s about risk management. I’m mostly happy with the life I’ve got. As much as I love a good day at the casino, I’m not about to give up a sure thing now to roll the dice on the long shot that I’m wrong about all this. If that’s a deal breaker, I guess it is what it is.

In the streets…

I was a kid when the Berlin Wall fell. I watched it, like the rest of the world, from on the living room television on the still new medium of 24-hour cable news. A few years later, on Christmas Day 1991, I watched the red banner of the Soviet Union lowered atop the Kremlin for the last time and the Evil Empire vote itself out of existence. It was supposed to be the “end of history” and a new era of peace and prosperity as the cold war between superpowers ended with a wimper and not a bang. And it seemed that way. For a while.

With the benefit of hindsight, we all know now that history was mostly just taking a breather. An operational pause if you will. Instead of stable, peaceful, and decidedly American, we discovered that without the weight of two competing superpowers, the world was a complex and and downright messy. The price of winning the Cold War was learning to live in a much less certain world full of unintended consequences.

I’m once again watching unimaginable events beamed from space into the comfort of my own living room. Twenty years have passed, the names and places have changed, but it’s the same old story. A change is gonna come. In Egypt. In Libya. Perhaps in Saudi Arabia and across the whole Middle East the world is proving, once again, that it’s still a complicated place. After all, we’re still America and it’s our long-held obligation to midwife democracy wherever in the world it might take root. We must, together, stand with these people who are rising up against decades of ruthless tyranny – not to dominate them – but to help them on the path to real and lasting democracy crafted to suit the particular needs of their country and their culture.

We have a moment, and just a moment, where history hangs in the balance. We’ve proved our mettle in two grinding wars to defeat a ruthless enemy on the battlefield. Now let us show our mettle as peacemakers and diplomats to take away the very chaos, instability, and hatred that sustain our enemies.

It keeps me up at night…

I’m not generally given to bouts of fear, but sometimes, lying in bed, late at night, I think some moments of trepidation are unavoidable – a product of a brain churning through a 100 different scenarios each more unpleasant than the last. Perhaps that’s the curse of the educated class; that we know the things we know and are thereby unable to live lives of oblivious happiness.

There are hundreds of possible “bad things” that one can reasonably fear. There are the perennial favorites: war, famine, plague, pestilence, dogs and cats living together. Then there are the more personal fears. Is tonight the night the “big one” is going to hit the New Madrid Fault? Is Uncle Sam going to open his doors on March 5th? And what could I have done to be better prepared? While those are quite real possibilities, that’s not the one that wakes me up at night.

The one that gets me every time is the fleeting notion that this 30-day hiring freeze could easily be extended through the end of the fiscal year – or beyond. Even more vexing is the thought that I’d then be sidelined here in Memphis indefinitely. It’s not an unreasonable thought. Should Congress pass a Continuing Resolution at or less than the funding level during FY10, I fear it’s altogether possible that the human resource managers at echelons above reality could decide that hiring and transfers are not currently in the best interest of the government due to the costs involved and in an effort to attrit the workforce into its desired size and composition. That would mean another six months marking time awash in a rising tide of disinterest and discontent.

To have gotten so close only to be turned away now would be a hammer fall. Even my self-confidence has its limits.

A clean desk…

I suppose if you’re an egomaniac, it’s easy enough to confuse your way of doing something with the only actual way of doing that thing. Usually when the boss is out trying to manage by walking around, I make a concerted effort to be on my own walkabout and thereby avoid the three or four random tasks that he wants to focus on that day. Sometimes, though, he’s on me before I can make a clean getaway. Yesterday was one of those days… and led to this exchange:

Boss: What are you doing?

Jeff: I’m reviewing the last twelve monthly reports from human resources to validate year-over-year workload and staffing requirements.

Boss: There’s nothing on your desk.

Jeff: Everything is on the network drive. I’ve got all the data I need on the computer. *gesturing weakly towards my monitors*

Boss: If there isn’t paper on your desk, you’re not doing anything. You’ve seen my desk, right?

Jeff: Uhhh… Yes. I’ve seen your desk.

Boss: Good, then. Make an appointment to talk to me about some-random-other-issue.

Jeff: *Bangs head on desk as boss walks away.*

I’ve increasingly come to suspect that the reason that an employee “goes postal” from time to time just might not be a defect in the employee.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Planning for the end…

I’ve been thinking alot about retirement this weekend. Not the actual act of filing my paperwork and getting my gold watch, but of all the preparation and planning that needs to go into making that moment happen. It’s the big picture questions that have been bothering me lately and that’s probably the internet’s fault for running adds screaming “will you have enough money to retire” on three sites I visited yesterday. I’m not a financial genius by any stretch of the imagination and I’m not even all that good at the day-to-day stuff. I’m not going to sell the truck for a bag full of magic beans or anything, but checking out my Target cart on any given visit will show there tends to be more wants than needs loaded in it.

I’m throwing a respectable percentage of my pre-tax salary into the Thrift Savings Plan, the government’s version of a 401(k) and have an IRA that isn’t as well funded as it probably should be. I’ve got the real estate portion of an investment strategy covered (even if the part of it that’s in Memphis will never be more than a tax deduction). Gold and precious metals were out of sight before I ever thought about stashing any money there. Still, I feel reasonably good about my allocations… but that doesn’t overcome the voice in the back of my head that keeps whispering “you should be doing more.”

The element that’s still working in my favor is the sorcerer’s elixer of investing: time. I’ll be 33 this summer. Under the current rules, it will be another 29 years until I can retire “early” and collect social security at age 62. If I wait for full retirement, now set at age 67, it’s another 34 years. Of course as social security implodes in the next two decades, I don’t have much expectation of those milestone ages meaning much. Even if the system is “saved,” I expect the age to collect will be much higher. Under any set of rules, it’s safe to assume that I’ll be working for at least as many years into the future as I’ve been alive and probably more. Assuming an uninterrupted federal career, I’ll meet my age and years of service requirement at age 57 in 2035. That’s a full five years before the current Social Security early option and 10 years before full retirement under the system. I don’t necessarily “have to” walk away at that point, but by that far off moment in 2035, I’d like to be well enough financed to do it if I wanted to. I’m pretty sure that is the working definition of having “F%#& you” money.

I suppose the good news is that I’ve got the better part of 30 years to throw money at this particular problem. The bad news is that it looks like baring a PowerBall win, I’ve got almost 30 years of bitching and complaining still ahead of me.

Authority: 1

I’m pleased to announce that is now registered with Technorati. If you’re blogging, there’s a fair chance you’re familiar with the site. If you’re not, the gist is that Technorati racks, stacks, and compares your blog based on a system of algorithms that are far beyond my meager abilities to understand and spits out your “authority” among bloggers. That is to say, it gives you a number you can compare against other blogs on similar topics and lets you compare your relative importance in the blogosphere. The scale is between a no-name, nobody of 1 and the elite-of-elite 1000.

Current Technorati Authority: 1. This is one of those moments where it’s ok to be optimistic, because there’s absolutely no way to get lower than 1 on this scale. Onward and upward!

My generation…

One of the most shocking moments of my early career was realizing the level of discomfort most of my fellow employees felt when dealing with issues of technology. On the outside, I made the (unfortunate) assumption that government was full of code breakers, supercomputers sending men to the moon, and software that could track anyone, anywhere. I suppose those tasty bits of tech may exist somewhere, but the most advanced piece of hardware that anyone in my agency has is their Blackberry (already two or three generations out of date). It’s fair to say I was shocked and appalled at the number of people in government who just don’t get the role technology is going to play over the coming decades.

We’re in the leading edge of that future now. Utilities like Facebook and Twitter may have a toy-like simplicity – I’ve heard my own leaders dismiss them as “for the kids” and nothing more than a drain on productivity – but as more traffic is driven to the web, as electronic communication in its many forms continues its rise, the fact is that this is going to largely be the way people communicate in the future. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you received an actual letter from someone under 40?

The age of instant communication and access to the sum total of all human knowledge is going to level the bureaucracy, whether the bureaucracy accepts it or not. It’s happening already – those with a little bit of savvy are using basic tools like Dropbox, Google Chat, or SharePoint to circumvent the cumbersome “authorized” communications channels that stovepipe information to “collaborate in a matrixed environment.” Instead of sending a request for information up the chain-of-command and waiting for the answer to come back down from on high, we’re reaching out directly to the person with the information we need. That person may sit a few desks away or not even be on the same continent. The beauty of the age is that location doesn’t matter. The future is going to look like the cloud, not like a hierarchical org chart.

There’s more information stored electronically than we could ever hope to archive in the biggest file room. Electrons and knowing how to use them are what’s going to be left when we as an organization realize that the old forms are no longer viable. Information has always been power. Managing and controlling the flow of electronic information is going to be the “institutional knowledge” of our time. I don’t think command-and-control model of management will ever go away, this is government after all, but we few, we happy few who know how to make the electrons hum are going to be the voices of power behind that throne… if only because the king doesn’t know how to turn on his computer.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Doing it wrong…

I smoked a pack a day for the better part of 14 years. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me I’d feel better if I quit, I’d have something like $210 and change. I’ve been fat for way longer than I smoked and it was the same story: You’ll feel better if you start exercising and eating better. I haven’t had a smoke in more than nine months. I’m eating more salad than a triceratops. And if I spent as much time on a real bike as I have on that bloody stationary bike, I’d be a front runner for the Tour de France.

The fact is, I don’t feel any different than I did I did six months ago or even a year before that. I’m apparently missing the part of this process that people rave about on Facebook. People say they feel energized following a workout. After mine, I’m pretty much just sore. And tired, which I already was before the exercise. I’m told I can be less than a ray of sunshine on my best day, so you can imagine what a great mood I’m in by that point.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I feel particularly bad. I wasn’t expecting the skies to open up, or the choir invisible to thunder into song, I was expecting to, you know, feel better than I did before or at the very least to feel different. As it stands, I’m pretty much just not doing something that I enjoyed and eating alot things I don’t like. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong…

Doing it on webcam…

I work for a guy who likes to think his time as a system administrator in the late 1990s qualifies him as an authority on issues of office technology. If those of us with a passing awareness of tech, this is a very bad situation. It means we’re in a position of being forced to agree with ideas and recommendations that are not only expensive, but also doomed to sink into the befuddled mire of advanced middle-age angst over technology that is one of the defining characteristics of our “leadership cadre.”

Two years ago, we were instructed to buy two dozen webcams and run a test with our agency’s behind-the-firewall proprietary knockoff version of Skype. The test was, as I described it at the time, less than successful and we recommended shelving the project. Most of our test bunnies couldn’t figure out how to plug in their cameras and of the ones that did, only a handful managed to actually use them. I’m pretty sure they just ate the microphones we sent them. To be fair, I should point out that this failure wasn’t completely the fault of the doddering soon-to-be retirees. The network infrastructure in our building was something less than robust enough to handle the “load” of several simultaneous streaming audio/video connections. It was sort of fun to say something, run to the office across the hall and see yourself “in real time,” but we decided that wasn’t going to be a real plus-up to our collective productivity. After the abysmal initial test, I assumed the idea was left to die quietly in desk drawers and file cabinets around the country. As is so often the case, I was wrong.

I discovered last week that we ordered 50 more webcams to be issued to all of our field offices to “improve communication” and “facilitate meeting online,” since the organization doesn’t have money for our traditional cross-country boondoggles these days. Now, if I had even the slightest notion that any of these devices was actually going to be used, I’m all for outfitting every computer in the office. It would be great to have one official feature on my work computer that I’ve been using for free from Google for years. My concern is only that we already find it nearly impossible to get our “leaders” to pick up the 100 year old pice of tech that’s already on their desk and talk to one another or call in for a teleconference. I have no idea what makes us think we’ll be able to get them to use “magic” to talk across the intertubes?

Then again, it might be fun to watch them try.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.