What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The office. There’s nothing like being back in the office to really drive home the absolute absurdity of basing employment in the information age solely on the ability of / requirement for someone to sit in a specific geographic space for eight hours five times a week. I’m sure there are some jobs where “being there” makes an actual difference in how well or swiftly the information flows, but in my little corner of the bureaucracy, this week has stood as stark evidence that where work is location agnostic, corralling people into an office just because it’s how we did things in the before time isn’t so much strategic decision making as it is acquiescence to organizational inertia.

2. The end of an error. The fact that a serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other unformed officials were put in a position to actively ponder how to counter the possibility of a coup d’état in the United States isn’t so much annoying as it is horrifying… but I’ve been thinking a lot about it the last 36 hours or so. I suspect that as history sorts the wheat and chaff from January 2020 the details will be far more horrific than anything we know in the present. That so many among us still think the end of the Trump Administration was “business as usual” or it was somehow the victim of a vast and unprecedented left-wing conspiracy is both heartbreaking and infuriating.

3. Renovation. With multiple proposals now in hand, I’m edging dangerously close to becoming a broken record that says only “That’s almost what I paid for my first condo” or “I could buy a new damned pickup truck with that.” Evaluating the proposals shouldn’t be hard since they’re all within 8% of each other. I suppose technically that’s good news insofar as it means that’s probably a reasonably accurate estimate of what it’s going to take to put a new bathroom in this place. The hurdle I’m trying to get over, is that across the range of proposals, we’re about 50% over my original planning factor and into a point where cash on hand isn’t going to get the job done. Logically I know home equity loans can be had near lifetime low rates, but it all begs the question if I’m willing to pull a loan because I’m tired of schlepping down the hall to get a shower in the morning. 

Lack of substance…

I’ve long been in favor of informed debate over just about any issue you could name. Note carefully that I didn’t say argument. I also didn’t say just “debate.” In context, “informed” is the operative part of this sentence. I’m in favor of informed debate.

This means you need to know actual facts and use them to support your asserted position. 

“I disagree” isn’t a debate point.

“You’re stupid” isn’t a debate point. It’s even less of a debate point when it’s “Your stupid.”

“That’s dumb” isn’t a debate point.

If you want to support your position, you need to assert statements of fact. Say something like “X happened on Y date and these three things happened as a result.” I’m always happy to consider new information. It’s historically how we as a species learn things.

Asserting that “If you don’t believe X, Y, and Z, you kick puppies and hate America” isn’t a statement of fact. More than likely it’s a mindless regurgitation of some less than reputable cable television talking head or “internet personality.”

I’m up for just about any debate on the modern political landscape that you’d like to have, but I’m not going to pretend that I have to lend any credibility to people who flail their arms, stomp their feet, and pretend they’re defending a well-reasoned and intelligent position. 

We could be having a great national debate on the merits of the issues that confront our republic. We won’t, though, because throwing a tantrum on national television or social media is easier and creates a better five second clip to use so you can get many, many likes. 

I’ve finished with pretending adults who can’t behave like grown-ups are worth the time and effort it takes to engage with either in the real world or across the universe of social media platforms. I welcome a debate. I welcome learning new things… but statistically speaking, I’ve burned through a little more than half of my allotted time on this rock, so I no longer welcome ideas or people wholly lacking in substance. I have neither the time for, nor interest in entertaining them.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Three things at once. At several points during the day I found myself trying to do three things at once – something on the right screen, something, on the left screen, and something on a paper copy between the two. Technically it might have even been four things if you count attempting to vaguely pay attention to the conversations swirling around the room or to the occasional person asking me a direct question. I won’t testify to the quality of any of the things I did, but I’m quite certain none of them were getting the kind of attention they probably should have received. My powers of multi-tasking are just fine as long as no one is expecting any level of attention to detail.

2. Roadwork at rush hour. Seriously, there’s nothing you can do to that goddamned overhead sign at 4pm on a Thursday that couldn’t have been done at a time when people were less apt to need to use the road. One might be forgiven for speculating that the State Highway Administration didn’t put a lick of academic rigor into their planning process. 

3a. Information. Ok, look. My general hatred of the 21st century is public knowledge, but it does have a single redeeming quality – the availaity it original source information which one could use form imreasonably informed opinions. So please, before you fake news this or impeach that can you please take a few minutes and read the source documents. They might just be more informative that the interpretation you’re getting processed through your favored news outlet.

3b. Impeachment. It’s not a synonym for removal from office no matter how many news sites use it that way. Read the Constitution. It’s the damned owners manual. When it comes down to a fist fight between the political branches of the government, knowing what the words mean would serve us all well.

Nothing significant to report…

A few hours after closing the books on this abbreviated work week, the very last thing I want to do is sit back down at the keyboard and try to come up with something sensical to talk about.

I’ve long been of the opinion that the best reports are the ones that don’t inflate the value of the information being imparted. They’re factual and to the point.

In that spirit, I’m please to tell you that on this particular Wednesday in July I expect a successful extended weekend with no limiting factors and have nothing significant to report.

The catalog…

I’ve been going through a period this last year or two where I’m acquiring books far more quickly than I can reasonably expect to read them. Most aren’t anything special – well preserved reading copies, hardbacks that will look good shelved as display items once I’ve read through them. More than a few are “modern firsts,” very clean, semi-collector’s items. A bare handful are legitimate rarities – perhaps signed by the author, or the first printing of a series that would go on to be wildly popular. My little collection doesn’t discriminate, except that I expect to be able to hold, fondle, and read every single item in it rather that treating it like archival material.

The most significant problem, aside from storage of the books I’m waiting to read, is honestly keeping track of of the growing collection – a particularly troublesome issue when it comes to books that are part of a series I’m trying to round out. The nice people at Goodreads give me a solid baseline, but I’m kicking around the idea of using it to create something that gives me a little more granularity and control over fine tuning – a true library catalog that I can use to manage the collection… since keeping massive stacks of books around doesn’t feel like a habit I’m going to break at any time in the foreseeable future.

I’m even toying with the idea of taking it all the way back to basics – a simple spreadsheet. One book, one line with key details. Rackable, stackable, and searchable based on whatever criteria I eventually settle in on needing to know for every single title in the stacks.

It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes my geeky little analyst’s heart happy.

Truth is, the idea of building out that kind of information is a little bit daunting, even with Goodreads doing a lot of the heavy lifting to get things started… although the idea of building out the definitive catalog – stored on my own system – of what I have in hand, what I want to acquire is probably less fear-inducing than the idea that at some point in the near future I’m going to have to clear the shelves and reorganize everything so the whole works has just a little bit of coherence.

Sigh. These are the ideas that plague me on Tuesday evenings.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Work issued computers. Sure, the bosses want to to be ultra productive and focused on executing key tasks and achieving objectives… but when it comes to giving you a computer that’s worth a damn, that’s obviously the bridge too far. If I were permitted by the great hardware and software manager in the sky to have some basic administrator rights on my machine, I feel confident I could correct a large percentage of what normally goes awry… but since I am a lowly user, all I can really do is call the help desk, put in a ticket, and then tell anyone who asks for something that I’d love to help but my piece of shit computer is broken again and they should check back in 3-5 business days to see if the “help desk” has gotten around do doing anything with my ticket. 

2. First reports. News outlets live and die by being the first to report on a breaking story… which is why what you hear as “breaking news” on any given day is almost always refined into something that could be completely different as facts are checked and the truth is revealed. Of course fact check, authoritative stories aren’t sexy and usually don’t come with their own theme music on cable news channels, so no one waits around to see what the real story is before launching something, anything, into the airwaves or onto social media. And that’s how we’ve become a culture that prefers being immediately outraged to one that would rather be informed or educated.

3. Holy crusaders. Over the long span of my career I’ve worked with a lot of people. Most of them are a decent enough sort. Some of them though, are crusaders, determined against all contrary evidence to believe their memos or PowerPoint charts are destined to save the republic. If I’m honest, I can report that I have worked on a handful of projects that were legitimately important or that made someone’s life better in some way when we finished. The rest were mostly some degree of vanity exercises in which we expended vast resources to make sure someone got a fancy sticker on their next performance appraisal. I’m all for showing a sense of urgency when urgency is called for, but nothing in my education, experience, or temperament makes me suited to pretending urgency over something that doesn’t make a damned bit of real difference to anyone.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The perceived speed of time. An entire Saturday runs its course in approximately 1 hour and 37 minutes. By contrast a typical Tuesday afternoon drags on for something like 14 days. Yes, I know it’s largely just a function of the way the conscious mind processes routine experiences and memory building, but damn. I wish I could find a way to bottle that 6am Saturday morning just after I’ve had my first cub of coffee and the whole weekend is still spread out before me feeling. I could use a strong shot of that at least three times a day on any given Monday-Friday. 

2. Moving with purpose. Wherever you go, no matter the time of day, you will find yourself surrounded on all sides by people who seem to be loose roaming out in the world with no particular place to go and no particular time when they need to be there. They walk slow, they drive slow, the veer left or right without warning and for no obvious reason. It’s like these poor misbegotten souls are in need of some basic purpose in life. Any semblance of purpose would be a wild improvement from the norm. Day in and day out it’s these absolute shitbirds that are the most constantly infuriating aspects of any activity that requires leaving the house and interacting with people. 

3. Ask for what you want (but first know what you’re looking for). I’ve been at this kind of work almost 16 years now. I generally know the back story. I know where the bodies are buried. I know why some projects succeeded and why others failed. I’ve been around long enough now to remember the last time someone had your “brilliant new idea.” If you want my help, all you really need to do is ask for it… but when you do, it’s best to ask for what you actually want. Don’t ask me for a brief history of Process X and then tell me that wasn’t what you wanted once I gin up the information for you. If you don’t know the name of the thing you want me to talk to you about, try describing it. Give me some detail. Don’t just keep saying Project X repeatedly and thinking that we are in any way communicating. If it’s obvious by the information I’ve provided that my attempt at deciphering your meaning has failed, you should probably come at it from a different angle of attack. I don’t generally want to stonewall anyone. My goal is to get the information you want processed and off my desk as quickly as possible – because that’s the most direct path to reach my overall objective of getting you to stop bothering me. I’ve developed many skills over the first half of my career – but reading entrails and divination remain, sadly, beyond my grasp.

Slide monkey…

Being the designated slide monkey, there are an outsized number of meetings I sit in for no other reason than they need someone well trained and fully capable of hitting the forward arrow and advancing to the next slide. I’m mostly resigned to that being my fate for the foreseeable future. Whatever. As long as the checks don’t start bouncing, what the hell do I care about how my time is allocated, right?

Human Chess.jpg

It’s a rare day when something in a meeting catches me off guard. This last couple of weeks, though, has been a string of exactly that – surprise piled on surprise. Today I had the distinction of being designed “the human forward arrow.” This distinction comes along with the mission of flipping the three foot by five foot printed foam core posters that we’ll be using this week to replace the information that every other office on the planet would present using some kind of electronic presentation tool.

I’m fairly sure that this isn’t what anyone meant when they said we should think about briefing information without using PowerPoint. Taking what would be projected on three 60-inch monitors and printing it on one 60-inch poster doesn’t quite feel like fully embracing the call to do things differently.

Then again, what do I know. I’m just this meeting’s equivalent of a pawn on a human chess board.

Hypothetical…

Let me ask you a hypothetical question… Let’s assume for a moment that you are hosting an event for somewhere between 50 and 75 of your closest friends. An absolutely unavoidable part of that event is providing those people with between 300-400 pages of information, some of which changes on a daily basis.

Knowing no other information than what was provided, would you rather:

A) Get all 300-400 pages in hard copy, knowing that some of the information contained therein is already two versions out of date.

B) Get 100 pages of hard copy that’s pretty much set in stone and a link to the additional 200-300 pages that is updated daily/weekly.

C) Get a link to all 300-400 pages of information so you can access it electronically, because this is the 21st century and who wants to lug around 400 pages worth of binder all day.

D) Neither. Timely and accurate delivery of information has no place in the contemporary decision-making environment.

Take your time. Your answer won’t be graded, but it’s very possible I’ll judge you based on your answer.

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.