1. Automatic shutoffs. For as long as I can remember, gasoline pumps have come equipped with an automatic switch that shuts off the flow of fuel from the pump when the vehicle’s tank is full. I’ve been pumping my own gas since 1994 and have never personally seen what happens when one of those switches fails to do its thing. As it turns out, the result is gallons of gasoline gushing back out of the filler tube until you can reach into the frothing mess and manually shut off the flow. If you manage not to catch on fire, the convenient side effect is a) the side of your vehicle being drenched in gasoline; b) the parking pad being drenched in gasoline; c) Your boots and pants being drenched in gasoline; and d) your arm being drenched in gasoline up to the elbow. In conclusion, whoever designed the “automatic” switch for gas pumps can see me in hell.
2. Bureaucracy. I sent off some paperwork that needed approval – literally one page of not very complex text, mind you. I sent it off way back in the first week of December, winging its way through the bureaucracy. This one page piece of paper, after 6 major revisions, and review by all manner of doctors, lawyers, and indian chiefs, was finally approved this week…. only 57 short days after the process got started. It’s hard to believe there are people around who wonder why it’s so hard to get anything done in something approaching a reasonable amount of time.
3. Natural consequences. The doctor insisted, during my last check up, that I start drinking more water. It’s a tall order given the volume of coffee that’s required to keep this machine running, but I’ve gotten fairly good at complying with easy instructions. So, drink more water I do. The only problem with this plan is that every morning at 1:30 on the nose I have to wake up to take what I affectionately refer to as an emergency piss – as in get yourself out of bed right now this is an emergency. Look, I know that water is supposed to be good for me, but I’m fairly sure that the doc is also the guy who told me I needed to get more sleep. Just now, I’m trying to sort out the priority of effort between these two obviously conflicting bits of guidance.
I’ve used carbon paper, but it had its last gasp as an office staple while I earning a diploma. I caught the tail end of using overhead projectors to show written documents to large audiences. I can even vaguely remember using a typewriter to fill in some forms carrying the dreaded “must be typed” instructions.
Looking back on those items, they weren’t particularly convenient. Using them was time consuming and far from automated. Even so, I have to grudgingly admit that they worked and were all successful at conveying some quantity of information from here to there. What they lacked in convenience and time saving, they more than made up for in reliability. Unless the bulb burnt out, that old heat throwing overhead projector would keep trucking along essentially forever. That’s one of the many beauties of systems with so few moving parts.
By contrast, most of my morning today was taken up by what felt like an endless do-loop of software updates and enforced restarts that made my computer at the office effectively unusable. It made me briefly long for a return to dry erase markers and acetate sheets and when ideas were communicated at the speed of fax. I’m sure that kind of throwback would make me miserable in its own unique way, but in the moment, anything seemed better than spending another moment staring blankly at the startup screen while the machine drug itself through the motions.
By lunchtime whatever gremlins were afflicting my laptop seem to have satisfied themselves with the damage done. I gave getting on with the day the old college try. I really did, but the damage was indeed done. Oh sure, I spent a few hours after that mashing away at the keyboard, but as for how much really got accomplished, well, I won’t be the one to incriminate myself on that front.
The time it takes to go from “flash to bang,” is an allusion to the time between a round impacting on target and when an observer hears the sound of that impact. Essentially it’s a low tech method of determining the amount of distance between you and whatever caused the bang. There are vagaries such as terrain and weather that intervene, but in principle sound travels at about 350 meters per second, therefore if flash to bang is 2 seconds, you’re 700 meters away – and that probably makes you way closer than you want to be to whatever is being pummeled.
In common usage down on the cube farm, flash to bang is used to mean the time between when you make a decision to the time that decision reaches fruition. The flash to bang on wanting a cup of coffee to getting that cup of coffee is generally very short. For other seemingly mundane tasks which seem like they should be accomplished quickly, such as publishing things to a website or getting a memo signed, the flash to bang could be months.
There’s no good reason for it, but as a professional lifetime spend tending to such things has taught me, that’s just the way it is. The lesson here, perhaps it’s the Zen of the Bureaucracy, is to try not to take it personally, shun emotionally entangling yourself with however long “the system” takes to do something. As a cog ex machina you don’t have any actual control over those things. Like terrain or weather you can influence them a bit around the margins, but getting from flash to bang is just going to take however long it takes.
1. Unintended consequences. I read an article this week decrying the fact that so many fuel efficient cars on the road are causing the federal highway trust fund to go broke. All I could do is sit back and wonder if this is something that should have come as a surprise to anyone when they were laying on tax incentives and pushing people towards higher efficiency standards and cute matchbox car looking vehicles. Less fuel used, but definition will lead to lower revenue if all else is held equal. Now of course the writers of this article lead that into the discussion of whether we should raise the national gas tax or lay an entirely new tax based on miles driven or some other calculus. I noted with much annoyance that prioritizing funds and making due with what’s available, leaning out the highway construction and repair process, or privatizing antiquated infrastructure weren’t even part of the discussion. It troubles me to no end that a goodly proportion of people in this country only ever look at the revenue (and how to increase it) side of the equation rather than first looking at how we reduce costs and gain efficiencies using what should be a massive economy of scale that Uncle could generate if he were spending judiciously rather than just chasing the next dollar. If they didn’t think the problem past the “fuel efficiency is good” phase, why on earth should anyone trust them with even more money?
2. Being wrong. Remember back six months ago when I was complaining about the polar vortex? I have a confession to make. I think I may have gotten that one wrong, because quite frankly putting on another layer felt way better than reaching the point where modesty, social convention, and the county sheriff say you can’t take any more layers off. But don’t worry, wait six months and you can be sure I’ll be right back to complaining about being frozen right down to the bones. Wash, rinse, and repeat as needed.
3. The “working lunch.” There’s no such thing. Either I’m working or I’m at lunch. They are, in my mind, mutually exclusive activities that have no business occurring simultaneously. Lunch, for purposes of this discussion is defined as a 30-minute period of not work dividing the four morning hours of work and four afternoon hours of work during a standard business day. Dragooning everyone in the office into a conference room, “asking” them to bring food, and then talking about “work stuff” for an hour is a thinly disguised meeting. The only reason it has a passing resemblance to lunch is that there happened to be food in the room while it happened. As for me, I need my 30 minute break in the middle of the day to help prevent my brain from melting and leaking out my ears. I think we can all agree that’s something we should all try to avoid if we can.
If you stick around any sufficiently large organization long enough, that which was shall be again. A reorganization here, a shuffle there, a bit of consolidation, another reorganization and it’s as if all the powers of the universe conspire to carry you back to the way things were before the wheel first spun. It’s one of the great universal truths of the bureaucracy.
Some people get up in arms over such circularly repeating patters. Others will tell you how much of an improvement the “new” system is over the “old” one. They’ll cheerfully tell you that it’s better than sliced bread and twice as nutritious. Some people will buy the company line about gaining efficiencies and economies of scale. Those who approach life with a slightly more cynical eye will shrug, maybe chuckle, and keep on doing what they’ve always done.
In that spirit, I can only offer the words of one of the 20th century’s great poets:
I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution;
Take a bow for the new revolution;
Smile and grin at the change all around;
Pick up my guitar and play;
Just like yesterday.
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray;
We don’t get fooled again.
That Pete Townshend, man… He would have been a masterful bureaucrat.
Imagine, if you will, ten grown adults in a room. All of them are very busy and important. You know this because they’re wearing ties. Ties are always the sign that you are a busy and important individual. They stare intently at the table before them covered with hundreds of sheets of colored paper, as if trying to divine the sanctified intent of the gods on Olympus. After a brief bit of this intent staring, all the very important and busy grown adults spend the next 90 minutes alternately locked in conversations unrelated to their reason for being there in the room or attempting to stifle yawns and not look completely comatose.
There’s an 11th person in the room, though. He’s not wearing a tie (because he’s a well respected malcontent and cynic – and because no one bothered to tell him in advance that he was going to be part of this particular gathering). He’s the guy in the room whose sole responsibility is for making sure the PowerPoint slides being shown on the “big board” get flipped on time. That’s another way of saying that for almost two hours, his only responsibility in all the known universe is hitting the right arrow on a laptop keyboard more or less in time with the disembodied voices being pumped into the room over speakers.
I realize that being busy and important is most likely a full time job. Still, I think that in austere fiscal environment where we need to make every hour count towards something productive, maybe one of the other ten people in the room could have handled the hard work of being PowerPoint wrangler rather than calling in an 11th and making that his only mission in life. Of course that’s only true if we care about efficiency rather than personal convenience and giving the impression of being too busy and important to add even the most basic and undemanding of tasks to the hard work of sitting there trying not to fall asleep.
1. Priorities. I don’t know that I’ll ever get use to something that was a earth-shatteringly critical issue yesterday being completely irrelevant today. Look, I completely understand that focus changes and priorities shift, but maybe it would be ok to give a guy some advanced notice before he spends eight hours working on something that will never actually see the light of day. Hard to believe anyone ever accuses us of being inefficient.
2. The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Since December we’ve been listening to Dear Leader: Part III lead a veritable chorus of batshit crazy tirades about attacking both the US and South Korea. Sure, everyone on the planet, including the Dear Leader’s biggest boosters in China think he’s taking his unique brand of nuts way out past the edge of reasonable saber rattling, but no one seems to know quite how to deal with him at this point. I’m a simple man, really. When someone is standing on my front porch with a lit match and a gallon of gasoline talking a lot of smack about burning down my house, I don’t just stand there waiting for him to add one plus one. It’s one of those occasional times in life that calls for swift and decisive action, rather than another six months of handwringing and hoping we can just “hug it out.” It’s all a lot of talk right up to the point where it isn’t. For once I’d like my country not to be on the receiving end of a sucker punch to spur us out of complacency.
3. Evolution. As an apex predator, humans have evolved over millions of years right along to the various flora and fauna that inhabit the earth. Over that vast amount of time, you’d think our species would have evolved some kind of general ability to deal with pollen and other allergens in the air – beyond getting a clogged nose, watery eyes, and scratchy throat. I think it’s high time we expect more out of evolution… and for that matter we should expect a hell of a lot more from science in general – because the allergy medications it’s come up with pretty much suck.