What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Data mining. Every time I start thinking that data mining is becoming too invasive and privacy becoming too fragile, the interent reminds me that it’s still pretty far away from going Skynet and killing us all. You see, I know this because companies that specialize mining “big data” keep feeding me ads about how to find and finance the “perfect engagement ring.” I’ll admit to having a passing interest in gemstones, but I can’t claim a need or interest in actually buying them. I have neither the inclination or reason to do so… and I’ve never once searched the internet for one. The cloud might know our reading tastes and hold the secrets to our collective perversions in our search results, but in many ways it doesn’t feel like the interent knows me at all.

2. Domestic enemies. All newly hatched federal employees take an oath of office. The one I took isn’t too far different from the one taken by a typical Army officer or even the one sworn by members of Congress. Unless I missed an unprinted annex or codicil, though, my oath to support and defend the Constitution didn’t include an oath of poverty and it certainly wasn’t an oath of unpaid servitude. That there are near on 400,000 people who swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic currently fulfilling their oath without pay is an embarrassment – made all the worse because each day they bring back more an more “unpaid help” in order to avoid inconveniencing anyone. Excuse me? It seems that if you’re going to have a shut down of something the whole point is to make it as inconvenient and painful as possible. And these twatwaffels are sure as blue hell “inconveniencing” the people they expect to pay out of their own pockets for the privilege of coming to work. I blame President Trump. I blame the leadership in both the House and the Senate. I blame every single member of Congress who uses this as an opportunity to grandstand. And I increasingly think I know who the “domestic” enemies are that our oath featured so prominently. 

3. Blood. Blood as a rule doesn’t bother me. I can see people bleeding and not flinch. The rivers could run thick with the stuff and I’m not sure I’d notice… but let me be strapped into a chair at the local doctor’s office and have someone start sucking vials of my own precious life-sustaining fluid from my veins and I’m apt to go all cross-eyed and pasty. I just feel like medical science should do us a favor and step beyond the age of leeches here.

My 16th year…

Yesterday marked the 16th anniversary of my life in sworn service to our mad uncle. People say that time flies when you’re having fun, but in my experience having fun is entirely optional. Time just flies. Well, more specifically, the years seem to fly. Individual days feel like they might well last for weeks on end. It’s when they get rolled up into their individual 365-count bundles that they race away from you.

From my vantage point here as a solidly mid-career bureaucrat, I won’t pretend there haven’t been some good times. A few of them are probably only good in retrospect and with the benefit of distance from the facts, but that’s probably to be expected. Over the last 16 years I’ve been privileged to meet some of the smartest human beings I’ve ever known. I’ve also met more than a few sniveling, conniving, climbers who I’d happily shank in a dark alley if I ever got the chance – and thought I could get away clean. Not one of that bunch is worth going to prison over, though I hope I’m still around when they inevitably overreach.

About once a year someone on the outside asks if I’d recommend government work. A decade ago I’d have said yes. Government work isn’t going to make you rich, but the pay doesn’t suck, the health and retirement plans are good, and you never have to worry about your employer going out of business. It was a haven for those who value stability – a place of low risk and correspondingly modest rewards. After a decade of living through multiple hiring freezes, multiple pay freezes, and multiple government shutdowns, though, I couldn’t recommend it with a clear conscience these days.

Uncle is no longer a stable employer – pay and benefits are just another political football at risk every year. If you’re going to live with that much uncertainty, you might as well go work in the private sector where you might have a chance at making some real money for assuming the risk that your company or contract won’t be there a year from now. I won’t go so far as saying that both options are equal – but the assessment of whether public service or the private sector is a better place to have a career feels like more of a dice roll now that it has in the last 16 years.

In a few months I’ll climb over the halfway point on the long road to whatever retirement might look like in or about 2035. That feels like a far more important milestone than yesterday’s just passing another year on the job. Who knows, maybe my mood will even improve. Probably not, but it would be a neat trick if it did.

And we’re back…

Assuming I keep up with it so long, I think I can safely say that this blog will expire on or about the day I retire. It turns out that when I don’t have the job sucking every ounce of fun out of five days each week, I really just don’t have that much to say. That explains the spotty schedule of posting I maintained over the last couple of weeks. Not only didn’t I have much to say, but I had virtually no interest in sitting down and writing up whatever was rattling around in my head. It turns out you don’t need much catharsis when you don’t have something agitating the hell out of you on a regular basis.

The good news, or bad news, depending on your perspective is that the days of not needing to vent my spleen on a regular basis are still far off in the future. Now that we’re back on the normal schedule, I have a feeling that my notebook will soon be refilled with all manner of angst-causing stories just begging to be told.

Look, I’m thankful for the pay check – and glad I’m not one of those poor bastards at State, or Treasury, or Homeland Security either working for nothing or stuck sitting around waiting and wondering when the next direct deposit is going to hit. That shouldn’t put anyone under the delusion that there’s nothing I’d rather being doing than clearing two weeks worth of emails from my inbox while scouring them for the one or two nuggets that might need some actual attention.

We’re back… and that’s probably a good thing in that long march out towards the back half of this career… but don’t think for a minute I’m not missing the long, lazy days when a few critters and a good book was more than enough to fill the passing hours.

The unnecessary search for the perfect pen…

As much as the government likes to claim that we’ve gone or are going “paperless,” such claims are fabrications if not an outright lies. There as much if not more volume of paper flowing around the office now as there was when I showed up almost 16 years ago. One of the only other consistencies in all that time is that I’ve been on an eternal quest to find just the right pen. 

Copyright ANN PINSON/STARS AND STRIPES 

I’ve used roller balls, gel inks, ball points, felt tips, fines, and ultra-fines. I even picked up – and very quickly put down – a couple of fountain pens along the path. The truth is, I have the perfect pen sitting on the desk in my home office already. The Cross Century pen that my dad handed to me the night I graduated high school fills the bill as a “good pen” nicely. Given its sentimental value there’s no way I’m willing to risk losing it somewhere in the vast bureaucracy. Adding another Cross is cost prohibitive. What I’ve always searched for is a good, serviceable everyday pen. 

The fact is, I probably found the right pen for the job long before my search really began. All I had to be willing to accept was the learned judgement of a bunch of bureaucrats way back in 1968 when the General Services Administration adopted the 16 pages of requirements that ultimately resulted in the production of the definitive Pen, Ball-Point, Black, NSN 7520-00-935-7135. The venerable Skilcraft pen is harder to find in government offices than it used to be, but it’s still there if you know where to look. 

It’s not the best pen I’ve ever used. Sometimes the ink is a bit clumpy and it feels a little small in hand, but by way of trade off, I’ve never actually run one out of ink. That’s a claim I can’t make about a run of the mill Bic or modern gel ink wonders. I suspect this little wonder has more of a cult following than many will admit to, as plenty of them have been swiped from my desk over the years. It’s one of those rare moments when design and function are pretty much ideal even 50+ years later. 

That’s all a long way to say that I think my search for the perfect pen is probably over. I’ll keep my fancy Cross at home, but for the office I’ll be keeping a supply of archaic black ball-points on hand to meet my writing needs. It feels like one of the few designs that we, probably by pure dumb luck, managed to get right the first time… if I ever catch wind of anyone threatening to improve the design I’ll just have to requisition a dozen boxes to see me safely through the back half of my career. One box would probably be enough, but the inevitable reallocation through theft must be considered when determining supply requirements. Same as it ever was.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Perception. Working for our Uncle lo these many years has given me an odd relationship with money, particularly with my perception of what constitutes a “large amount” of it. Sure, in my personal life $100,000 is a big number. It’s almost twice what I paid for my first place. In my professional capacity, though, throwing out round numbers in the tens and hundreds of millions is the rule rather than the exception. That’s why having long drawn out conversations about spending $100k makes perfect sense to my tax paying soul, but drives my professional self to madness. In the overall scope of the budget it’s barely a rounding error and I’d just like to get on with other stuff.

2. Facebook. I secretly suspect that we all have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. It turns out due to a recent policy change, my blog, hosted on WordPress, is no longer allowed to communicate directly with my Facebook profile. What I use to be able to do with one click can now conveniently be done with about twelve. I do love it when technology is used to make simple tasks even harder to do. I also enjoy it when the solution to having a handful of bad actors exploit a feature is to terminate that feature for all users. Look, I know Facebook is a “free” platform and they can do what they want, but honest to God at some points their tweaks and “features” are going to drive one to ask if it isn’t just easier to interact with the other platform instead.

3. The Privilege Police. I have a bad habit of browsing the comments when I read news articles or opinion pieces. I’d probably be far less agitated by the news if I’d stop doing that. On one recent article, every 3rd comment was some variation on “this was so written from a place of privilege,” as if that were somehow sufficient reason to invalidate someone’s opinion or personal experience as detailed in an article written from their point of view. It feels patently ridiculous to assume every American, living and, dead has had the same American Experience. I feel not one ounce of shame about where or who I’ve come from and will continue to tell my story from my perspective no matter the gnashing or teeth and rending of garments it may cause the Privilege Police. After all, they are perfectly free to write an article addressing the same topic or experience from their point of view. Apparently creating original content is harder than just sitting at the keyboard being offended by every damned thing.

The dam…

According to local news reports over the last day or so, the State of Maryland wants the energy company that operates the Conowingo Dam to pick up the tab for cleaning debris that washed down stream into the Chesapeake following two weeks of heavy rains. It’s a fine thing to blame the dam for causing this. The dam, hundreds of feet of concrete 2880px-Conowingo_Dam_and_Power_House,_near_Bel_Air_and_Havre_de_Grace,_Md_(73856)standing astride the Susquehanna is a large and convenient target for the ire of politicians and activists. Blaming the dam, though, misses the point entirely.

Since it was put into service in 1928 the Conowingo bought about 90 years of reduced sediment flowing into the Bay, trapping decades of pollution behind its imposing concrete walls. The fact is that without the dam, every bit of that debris, silt, and chemical contamination would already be laying on the Bay’s floor or washed up on its shores. That’s 90 years’ worth of accumulation versus the two weeks’ worth that was washed through the spill gates last month. Sediment reduction wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye in the 1920s, but it has been a fortunate consequence of having the dam managing water flow downstream to the Bay.

Of course now that the Conowingo pool has reached or at least gotten close to the maximum amount of sediment it can impound upstream we’re seeing debris washed more frequently downstream into the Bay we’re identifying it as an emergency. I’ve been back now seven years and for at least that long the state and federal government have been wringing their hands on this issue without giving any real sense that they have a clue what to do. Even assuming for a moment that they do know what to do, they seem utterly flummoxed by deciding who’s going to pay the bill.

That’s all a long way of saying that I don’t blame the dam. It’s doing exactly what a dam is designed and built to do. I blame generations of regulators, legislators, governors, government officials, and corporate board members who let the situation develop and then fester. I blame the states up stream for not adopting practices and policies that would reduce their impact on the river and Bay.

If you were new to the world of environmental discussions about Chesapeake Bay, you might think the time is now ripe to launch the long needed effort to dredge the sediment impounded behind the Conowingo, haul it away, and prepare the dam for another 90 years of service. Since, of course, this is taking place in my beloved home state of Maryland, though, I know what’s really going to happen is that we’re going to have another blue ribbon panel, commission another study, and call in dozens of experts to tell us that which we already know to be the case.

I’d almost dared to hope that a raft of storm tossed debris driven ashore at the foot of the statehouse might garner some action on getting on with the job that needs doing. Shame on me for being so optimistic in the face of our political masters in Annapolis.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Login.gov. The main platform for applying for work with the federal government, USAjobs.com, has introduced 2-factor authentication. In order to log into you account you now have to enter you user name and password and a six digit number provided to you via phone. That’s fine, except that in order to set up this new fancy ID with the 3rd party service, login.gov, you need the original phone number you used to set up your USAjobs account – which is a desk number I had more than 10 years ago. Without that one little bit of information you find you can’t log in to your old account, you can’t set up you new account, and there’s no way to fix A without fixing B witch requires you to fix A. It’s one of the most magnificent do loops I’ve seen the government foist on us in recent years. In discussion with the “help” desk it turns out I can’t even delete my old account and try again unless I can somehow transport back in time and answer a phone at a desk I haven’t sat at in over ten years.

2. Lawn Sprinklers. I have no philosophical issue with anyone piping water to their yard when weeks without rain threaten to bake it into oblivion. Sure, we’re all on wells and probably drawing from the same aquifer, but after three years of reliable water, I’ve got at least a small degree of comfort that we’re not going to run the damn thing dry. My problem comes when, after almost a week of nearly unremitting rain, when rainfall records are dropping like flies across the region, these same lawn sprinklers are running full tilt in the middle of a torrential downpour. I know it’s a relatively minor thing, but in my mind that also makes it one of those that’s easy to correct. I’m tickled pink to come from the land of plenty. I’m thrilled that the rain has turned my own lawn from wilting embarrassment to lush green carpet again. Although it’s completely outside the scope of what I usually care about, I’d really appreciate it if the house down the street could just stop making it rain for these few days while nature is providing the service gratis. I’m sure there will be plenty of days in August when they can show off their new toy to the neighborhood.

3. HVAC. Heating and cooling systems can be complex even at the residential level. Scale that into a multi-floor office building with a warren of offices, conference rooms, and open space, and I don’t even want to speculate on what mathematics may be involved in trying to make the place comfortable. First, I don’t want to speculate on that because I hate doing the maths. Second, I won’t speculate because I honestly don’t care. I just want the system to work. I want it to spit out cold air in the summer and warm air in the winter. Beyond that it can do whatever it wants. All I know is that somehow we’ve managed to make the lobby with 40 foot ceilings nicely chilled even in the heat of the day, but haven’t found a way to get any of that cool refreshing air down the hall to the back of the building. The first safety officer who comes down here bitching about too many fans plugged in is going to get kicked in the junk.