Justified…

You’ve literally had weeks to get your shit in order. There have been countless meetings in which all the materials have been changed, changed back, and then altered a dozen more times. But for some reason here we sit at 4:45PM the day before the goddamned meeting starts waiting on “final final” changes so we can go forth and kill a few dozen trees in this mad quest to build the Briefing that Saved the World.

Here’s the secret I’ve learned after sitting through, easily, hundreds of very similar gatherings of the great and the good: What you have written on the slides generally doesn’t matter all that much. Conveying information isn’t about the damned slides. It’s about what you say, how you say it, your body language, and the connection you can forge with the person you’re trying to communicate with in the few minutes you’re in front of them. By contrast, 75% of the handouts you’ve slaved over are going to end up in the trash can. If your audience is polite they’ll at least wait until they’ve left the room to throw them away.

I’ve often theorized that if people knew how much time (and salary dollars) were wasted in the endless transition of “happy” to “glad” or trying to pick out just the perfect shade of blue, they’d rise up in bloody revolt. They’d be well justified.

The dark art of staff work…

For going on fifteen years now, I’ve heard how PowerPoint is making us stupid and is at least a contributing factor in people not being developing actual communication skills. In fact, there was quite a kerfuffle back in 2010 about a brave lieutenant colonel who was booted out of Afghanistan for daring to admit he spent his days in “endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.”

That’s the kind of snark we appreciate here at jeffreytharp.com, but it is not the kind of truth-laden sarcasm that is much appreciated by most at echelons higher than reality. There are a few exceptions though, officers like H. R. McMaster (now National Security Advisor) and James Mattis (now Secretary of Defense) are both well-known critics of PowerPoint. Mattis, has gone so far as noting that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” McMasters, more diplomatically, notes that “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control… Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Although these two leading lights are notable exceptions to an establishment that has drawn PowerPoint into an ever closer embrace, they are the exceptions (even now almost a decade later). The sad fact of the matter is that when it comes to staff work on an average day, he who controls the PowerPoint controls the meeting – the flow of information, what gets presented and what doesn’t make the cut, how far (if at all) in advance someone will get an early version of whatever information is hiding in plain sight on those slides.

Information, you see, no matter how badly displayed on a conference room wall, really is the coin of the realm. It’s precious and is so very often guarded jealousy by those who have it against those who want it.

As a staffer in the belly of the beast it’s my job to make those slides say whatever the boss thinks they need to say. It’s not so much about the truth as crafting the message in such a way that nothing comes as a surprise, the rough edges are rubbed smooth, and the viewer is carefully guided away from information someone doesn’t necessarily want them to have or questions they’d really prefer the person being briefed not ask. I find it’s generally helpful if you suspend disbelief and go along with the program. Making waves won’t necessarily get you in trouble, but it will make your life just that little bit harder than it would have been otherwise.

There’s a bit of a dark art to doing staff work – and the better you do it, the darker that art becomes and blossoms well beyond your individual ability to make a PowerPoint briefing dazzle. In fact, the dark art of staff work feels like something that might just be worth talking about in a companion volume to Nobody Told Me… if I can just sit down and muster up the internal fortitude to actually do the writing.

Shit sandwich, or The election of 2016…

By this time next week the presidential election of 2016 will theoretically be over. The polls will be closed, anyway. Getting to the final results of the election may well drag out for weeks after that. But at least the coverage will shift from the electoral horserace to an dirty hot mess in the judicial system. Then we can crank the nastiness on both sides all the way up to eleven. Sigh.

Until today I was all set to cast my vote for the Libertarian candidate. I say was because this morning I saw that the Libertarian vice presidential candidate offered up an interview that turned into more than a passing attempt at defending the actions of the Democratic candidate for president for failing to protect sensitive and classified electronic information, going so far as calling her a “person of good moral character.” That leaves me with a very large question mark when it comes to Bill Weld’s judgment and suitability to serve as Vice President. If he really does think mishandling this type of information is no big deal, I can’t in good conscience give him my vote any more than I could give it to Hillary Clinton herself.

My philosophies generally tend to run libertarian. If a man wants to get his jollies with another man, it doesn’t hurt me. If a person wants to snort cocaine on their bathroom floor until their nose falls off, again, it’s no harm to me. This country use to be about maximizing the liberty of the individual and should be again, since we have seen time after time that the solution of adding more government so regularly causes more harm than good.

Although I strongly supported John McCain’s candidacy, his selection of Sarah Palin as his running made cost him my vote in 2008. I simply couldn’t abide her religio-right wing views. If I’m to maintain my intellectual consistency, how can I not then deny Gary Johnson my vote when his running mate proves similarly unsuited to the office in my estimation?

The Johnson-Weld ticket was my refuge of last resort in an election season of discontent. I will not cast my vote for Hillary Clinton. Weld’s commentary has made my assumed vote for Gary Johnson nearly untenable. So I’m left with the Republican candidate who I find profoundly objectionable for any number of other reasons.

So does anyone want to remind me how you go about eating a shit sandwich?

Buy American…

I was about to start this post by saying “I’m a simple man…” and then of course realized that despite my powers of written persuasion, not even I would buy that particular argument. I’m mostly an enigma even to myself, but that isn’t the point. At least that isn’t the point this evening. What I started this whole post to say is that it’s possible I’ve gotten entirely too accustomed to ordering something online and then having it show up at my door 24-48 hours later… or maybe 72 if I’m ordering from overseas. That fact that it happens so consistently is really a remarkable feat of logistics. It’s so remarkable that I’ve started taking it utterly for granted.

That is to say I took it for granted right up to the point where I’ve had a package sitting in Philadelphia waiting to clear customs since Wednesday of last week. Apparently because it’s “imported goods,” it now requires an FDA release prior to being released by Customs. Just one release use to be good enough to satisfy good old Uncle Sam, but in the best traditions of government, where one is good, two must be better.

What all that means, as far as I can tell is that instead of the 72 hours turn around I’ve grown accustomed to, getting something into the country now takes God knows how long. All things considered there are easier ways to convince people to buy American. As is now all you’ve really managed to do is set me thinking about ways to subvert the official process and still do what I want to do without technically being in violation of the law.

The great debate…

I’ve noticed that one of the major news networks is advertising tonight’s debate with the same style commercials that are usually reserved for the UFC fights or boxing matches. It’s good imagery… and as much as I’d like to sit here tonight and tell you that I’m not going to tune in, I just can’t bring myself to spin that yarn.

It’s going to be a great debate. I don’t, of course, mean that it’s going to rise to the standards set by Lincoln and Douglass, but rather I’m just assuming it’s going to be an epic shitshow worthy of the best (or worst) reality TV we’ve ever seen.

I don’t see how it can avoid being a train wreck. The only three scenarios I can envision are all equally bad. 1) Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump spend the whole night beating on each other; or 2) Mr. Trump spends the whole night perfecting his carnival barker routine while Secretary Clinton watches him implode; 3) Secretary Clinton collapses on stage while Mr. Trump dances around her like Apollo Creed at the beginning of Rocky IV. None of those, given these two candidates, bodes particularly well for the future of American democracy.

Most of the time I can take comfort in the fact that somehow, the Republic endures. These days even that feels like it could be more and more of a stretch.

Starting around 9PM I’ll be live tweeting the debate @jdtharp for as long as I can stomach it.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Ghosting. If you thought dating at 18 was an exercise in the absurd, you should really try dating at 38. I don’t do it often, which is a testament more to my incredible shrinking tolerance to people than it is the number of opportunities available. As obnoxious as I find most human interaction, I think the thing that bothers me most are the ones that just disappear. You plug along being your normal charming self, go on a few dates, and *poof* suddenly they disappear from social media and stop answering texts. It’s one of those times when having generally low expectations of people is such a valuable trait. If you had any kind of decent personality I’ll probably spend a day or two wondering if you ended up in a ditch somewhere, but after that I’ll file you under T-for-twatwaffle and move on with my day. In retrospect maybe I shouldn’t be annoyed and just appreciate that I’ve been saved from discovering that factoid six months down the line after I’ve invested more than a few hours and a couple of meals into figuring out if you are a total asshat.

2. EpiPen. I’m always a little perplexed when people seem to be surprised that it costs money to keep yourself alive if you’re not in perfect physical health. As I pointed out to a colleague, a hundred years ago, people who needed EpiPens or really any significant medical intervention to save them from the earth’s flora and fauna just kind of dropped dead. While I’m not endorsing that as the ideal solution for people with allergies, but when death is the consequence, spending a few hundred bucks to stay alive doesn’t feel like too stiff a price to pay. Somewhere along the lines in this country we’ve developed the idea that more and more “essentials” should just come at no cost to us. I have no idea where that kind of mindset comes from. There’s a cost for everything in life, the only real question is whether it comes out of our pocket in the retail line when we decide it’s a necessity or at the point of a gun when government decides the next installment of our tax bill is due. We can give the government enough power to feed us all, to house us all, to clothe us all, and to medicate us all… and on the day that happens we’ll all be well and truly slaves.

3. Accountability. I’m bombarded multiple times a year with reminders to fulfill approximately 178 yearly training requirements. Among them are such classics as ethics and cyber security. Let me not check those boxes on time and there’s hell to pay. Let me violate one of the rules, policies, or laws they cover and there’s a good chance I’ll end up seeing the inside of a courtroom if not the inside of a federal minimum security prison. I’m smart enough to know that the rules are always somewhat different for the rich and powerful, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It certainly doesn’t mean I have to give my vote to a candidate who doesn’t feel in any way constrained by the rules and requirements that have a tendency to make the job such a pain in the ass for the rest of us. Just once I’d love to see a little accountability and a story of a senior official caught in a web of misconduct that resulted in more than solemn-faced apology or blanket denial.

Know your acronyms…

One of the most important skills you’ll develop as a staff action officer, aside from the obvious requirement for extreme proficiency in PowerPoint, is the ability to name projects, programs, and groups in such a way as to make their acronym memorable. In a giant bureaucracy there are few things more important than making sure the leaders high on Mount Olympus being able to remember what your little part of the machine does for them. Giving it a good name is where that starts.

To that end, members of the staff since time immemorial have struggled with just the right naming convention for the efforts. The US government is replete with agencies – NSA, CIA, FBI – that need no further introduction. A few, those gifted with true overachievers, have striven to match their make with a pronounceable acronym. The White House Military Office (WHMO) is pronounced “Whamo!” for instance. Whoever came up with that one deserves some kind of damned medal.

On the other end of the spectrum are the ones who tried and failed. That’s when you end up in a meeting talking about the ASTWG and ASTAG. For some inexplicable reason the Army Science and Technology Working Group decided their name should be pronounced “Asswig” while the Army Science and Technology Advisory Group settled on “Asstag.” I have no idea why anyone thought either of these was a good idea… but expecting anyone to sit through a meeting to discuss the important workings of the Asswig and the Asstag and somehow manage to keep a straight face is just entirely unreasonable.