The Supremes…

The Supreme Court is getting one of its periodic moments in the sun and I’d be foolish not to take advantage of that built in level of audience engagement to talk about nominations to the high court.

So, here’s the thing about Supreme Court nominations…

Presidents can have a short list of nominees that scratch every itch and check off the right boxes proving their conservative or liberal credentials. The talking heads can know with perfect certainty what the nominee will do once they’re confirmed by the Senate.

The catch is, once a Justice takes the bench, with a lifetime appoint to the last job they’re ever going to have, well, what we think we know means absolutely nothing.

Sandra Day O’Conner was nominated by Ronald Reagan and was supposed to be a vaguely right of center anchor for the Court who became a regular swing vote. Eisenhower nominated Earl Warren as Chief Justice and the Warren Court became one of the most liberal incarnations of the Supreme Court in American history. Harry Blackmun was a Nixon nominee who went on to write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.

The story of Supreme Court nominees turned Justices is filled with disappointed presidents who didn’t get what they expected.

I’m not in any way pretending that a nominee’s history of jurisprudence is irrelevant, but I am saying that past is not always prologue. Justices sit on the bench for decades. Expecting their judicial philosophy to remain static over twenty or thirty years is patently ridiculous. How many of your own beliefs have grown, been refined, changed, or moderated over the last twenty years? 

The story of the Supreme Court is filled with men and women on both ideological sides who “grew into” their position at the pinnacle of the Judicial Branch. I can’t imagine why future nominees would be any less “surprising” once they’ve been seated.

Evaluation in a plague year…

It’s that magical time of the bureaucratic year where I have to describe how wonderful I am and what important work I’ve done in the last year.

Let me say for the record that I have no problem at all talking about myself… especially when it has a bearing on how much money I’ll make over the next twelve months. When performance appraisal time rolls around, I’m my own biggest fan and cheerleader – a happy warrior bent on carving out as much of the performance award pool as I can for myself. It’s most decidedly not the time to be shy.

What I’ve found, after two days of tinkering around with how to write my self-assessment this week, is trying to define and describe your value added in a plague year is, in a word, interesting. 

So far, it’s looking a lot like this:

  • Thing 1 – Cancelled due to Plague
  • Thing 2 – Cancelled due to Plague
  • Thing 3 – Heavily modified due to Plague
  • Thing 4 – Business as usual
  • Thing 5 – Has gone absolutely batshit crazy and now takes two people to do… due to Plague

If there’s ever been a moment where I’m thankful for the ability to string together a large number of long and important sounding words, this is it. 

I mean surely there are plenty of creative ways I can say “Redistributed workload to support alternative missions in support of emerging and immediate requirements in inter- and intra-organizational cross-functional operations in the COVID-19 environment across the enterprise.”

Yeah, I’m not 100% sure what it means either, but it sounds like something important might have happened, right?

A voice from the past…

I got the rare chance to spend an hour talking to one of my oldest friends last night. We text and drop facebook comments regularly, but actual conversations are exceptions to the rule… and that’s ok, because we’ve known each other so long now that we can basically pick up exactly where we left off no matter how much intervening time is involved.

Because we are who we are, the conversation almost immediately turned to politics. Even though he’s somewhere left of center and I’m somewhere to the right, we somehow managed to talk about the most divisive topics of the day without the whole thing devolving into a shouting match. It’s how I remember people talking about politics when we were young and dinosaurs roamed the earth. It’s what adults use to be able to do.

It turns out it’s still possible when you’re not keeping score or determined to get in one more zinger. It’s literally possible for two grown adults with differing opinions to talk like decent human beings and still like one another at the end of the conversation. You’d never know that from much of the discourse taking place in the social and professional media.

That state of the world may have been the topic of the day yesterday, but the conversation really could have been about anything… or nothing at all. As nice as it was to have a conversation about the world that wasn’t being shouted at full volume, sometimes, especially on a hard day, the more important thing is just hearing a voice from the past.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Algorithms. Facebook has recently decided that all of my personalized advertising should be focused on selling me condos in New York, Philadelphia, or DC. I’d be hard pressed to think of where I would want to live less than any of those places. I mean if there was property for sale in a Molokai at the leper colony, I’d be decidedly more interested in it than I am in East Coast city living. Chalk this one up to one of the small ways I know Big Tech still hasn’t completely figured me out.

2. Sport. If COVID-19 hasn’t done anything else, it’s at least muted the coverage of sports in America. With wall to wall coverage of the pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, and the presidential election, professional sports, even in the midst of their own protests, has largely been a below-the-fold story. It’s a pity it won’t stay there once the other stories run their course. Athletes, like the rest of us, are entirely entitled to have an opinion… but I remain under no moral, ethical, or legal obligation to care what a bunch of grown adults who spent their time chasing a ball think about the topics of the day.

3. Baltimore. Fifty people were shot in Baltimore last week. It would be easy to blame that on guns – it’s what various Mayors and councilors of Baltimore have done for years. It’s always easier to blame the tool than blame the trigger-pulling constituents themselves. I wonder, though, how much of it is really do to what I have observed as the general ineptitude of city government throughout my adult lifetime. Currently the city can’t manage to keep up with the most basic services like trash collection. What hope, then, is there that the same august group of august leaders will stumble upon the secret sauce to bring violent crime under control? I have great faith that we can rely on them to keep doing what they’re doing while expecting different results.

Formative reading…

Books have always had a sort of power over me. I spent my formative years in elementary school reading books about orphans who live in the woods in an old boxcar. Later, I found a nice shady spot on the cafeteria loading dock to read about MacArthur and Patton. That’s probably where my never-slaked thirst for history was really born. It was infinitely more interesting than kickball or whatever else younglings were expected to do during recess back in the mid-1980s.

In middle school, I devoured books about Nixon, Kennedy, and, yes, even Trump. That was back before he was a politician and even before he was a TV personality, of course. I was deep into historical biography and assorted non-fiction.

Finding a tatty copy of Atlas Shrugged on a shelf in my junior year English classroom changed my life, setting me on a course to ask questions about the proper role of the state – what government can do versus what it should do.

Down all the years from then to now, books have been just about as formative to who I am as a person as it’s possible to be. I take comfort in their presence, even if they’re a towering reminder of how little I know even about subjects I know well. It would be absolutely impossible to do without them.

A minor concession…

Today was the first of many concessions made to the changing season. Putting on jeans instead of shorts isn’t exactly abject surrender, but it does mark the day as the tipping point of the long slide into hibernation weather.

I’m ready for a bit of a break from schlepping hoses all over the yard, keeping the grass in check, and keeping up with the long list of other items on the summer maintenance list. Even though I’ve largely been home this summer, the indoor “stuff” always takes a back seat when it’s nice enough to be outside. With the extra traffic in here for the last six months it’s probably well past time to shift focus.

I’ll be in love with these days of coffee on the porch during these increasingly crisp morning… right up to the point where crisp gives way to cold. After that, of course, I’ll spend a few months pondering the virtue of those creatures that head south for the winter.

For now, I’ll appreciate the minor concessions… and hope that we catch a last few days of Indian summer in the coming weeks that will make such minor concessions briefly unnecessary.

A next week problem…

After going through this past Friday like a scalded dog, I didn’t have high hopes for today. I mean Monday is bad by its very nature. Non-telework Mondays pile badness upon badness. I expected today to be an unmitigated shitshow – just a continuation of Friday by other means.

A perk of my generally pessimistic view of the world is that every now and then things don’t go as abysmally as I anticipate. That’s not to say they go altogether well, but from time to time, the universe momentarily forgets to conspire against you and all your works.

That was today. It wasn’t great – cubicle seating and fluorescent lighting made sure of that – but the day had a reasonable ebb and flow that last week lacked in its entirety. The day had breathing room instead of presenting eight solid hours of things that needed to be reacted to immediately. That’s not to say that all the things with immediacy issues were important. My experience in the belly of the bureaucracy is that the really important stuff almost never requires an immediate, off the cuff reaction.

I fully expect there’s a price to pay for avoiding ridiculousness today. The universe will have to balance the scales… but just now I’m hoping to skate through two more days and get to my long weekend. Then balancing the scales can be a next week problem.

On the virtue of hoarding…


I’ve been hoarding vacation days. I’ve mentioned it before. I’ve been hoarding them in hopes that someone at echelons higher than reality may have a change of heart and let us carry over more leave than usual into next year. With those hopes extinguished, it seems I’m about to reap the benefits of my months-long refusal to use leave a little at a time when I was already staying home anyway.

The rest of the year looks a little something like this: Next week features am impromptu four day weekend. Then I’m working three weeks followed by a week off. Three more weeks of work and then another week off. Then I work a week and pull in another four-day weekend. Finally, it’s work three more weeks and then take two weeks of vacation time to cap off the year.

Sure, there’s still a pretty significant chance I’ll be spending most of those days at home, but weighed against the prospect of losing the time completely, it’s hardly a sacrifice.

At some point during our long march through the plague year the bosses are going to expect us back in the office on a regular basis. On the off chance that happens between now and January 4th, at least I’ve build myself a nice cushion of down time so I can kind of ease back into the routine that we’ve spent the last seven months proving to be antiquated and unnecessary.

Sure, our political overlords are shit, the bureaucracy is ridiculous by its very nature, and the work can be grindingly routine, but that big bucket of leave you get after spending 15 years on the job absolutely does not suck.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The White House Press Office. I’ve never been a public affairs officer. I haven’t even pretended to be on at the behest of our wealthy uncle. Still, in my bones I know that setting up my principle with over a dozen phone interviews with a journalist who hates his living guts is probably not going to end well even if my guy is the most articulate bastard to ever give on the record remarks. You can make what you will of the president’s recorded statements, but whatever staff puke from the press office decided an interview series with Bob Woodward was a good idea gives staff officers a bad name… and that’s saying something.

2. Questions. Look, if there’s a point of contact listed and it’s not me, there’s really absolutely nothing I’m going to be able to tell you about whatever topic is on your mind. Maybe you should just go ahead and read to the end of the message and send your question to the person who’s actually running that program. You still might not get a good answer but it will be miles better than anything I’ll send you… and even if it wasn’t, going direct to that person would have kept you from making me take the time to drop you back in the proper lane. We all win, when you read the goddamned memo.

3. Risk. People, as a group, do a really shitty job of assessing risk. The way we respond to natural disasters like fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes seem to bear that out. For as long as I can remember, summer in the west has been “fire season.” It’s also “hurricane season” along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In the long history of humanity, fire has scorched the western sections of the North American continent. Water has always run downhill, occasionally turning normally babbling brooks in the valley bottom into torrential rivers sweeping all before them. Every time a fire or a flood or a hurricane hit, we collectively look around shocked that such a thing could happen. Except none of us should be shocked at all. We built our communities in dry areas historically prone to fire, or we built them along the coasts or in bucolic valleys that are prone to flooding. We built there because the scenery was nice or because there were local jobs – but almost never because the area represented a relatively low risk to life, health, and safety. As soon as the smoke clears or the water recedes, we’ll go right back to building up the same areas and then being “surprised” the next time the worst happens… because we do an amazingly shity job of assessing risk.

TEOTWAWKI (and I feel fine)…

On it’s best day, the conglomeration of office buildings where I work looks like a blend of minimum security prison and post-modern community college arranged around a central courtyard. The bosses would probably want me to call it a “campus,” but the best I can usually manage is naming it a “complex.” Campus has too many connotations of good times spent smoking and joking on the lower quad for me to sully that particular happy memory through such an inapt comparison.

Regardless of the naming convention, I was schlepping through the courtyard today in search of lunch (read: Going to Subway and hoping my key card still worked in that building). People have been mostly gone from the complex now since mid-March. I couldn’t help but notice that the lack of people is starting to show – mostly in the form of the number of weeds that are now growing in sidewalk joints, trash cans with their doors hanging open, and the general disarray of the outdoor furniture that’s supposed to make the place a hub of outside-the-office activity.

The space looks, in a word, abandoned. It’s a feeling reinforced by the disembodied Spotify playlist that’s still being piped through to the wide open space now utterly devoid of people.

The whole scene put me in mind of a series that ran on the History Channel back before they decided there was more profitability in Ancient Aliens. Life After People showed short vignettes of what various landmarks might look like in a world where people simply vanished – ending each episode by showing what that particular place could be once nature reclaimed it in total. We don’t appear to be in any immediate threat of reverting to wetland or deciduous forest… but it looks for all the world like the opening few minutes of an episode when humans have been gone for a few weeks or months.

It had a decidedly post-apocalypse feel, as if it really were the end of the world as we know it… and I’m really kind of fine with that.