Our snow event

The Northeast United States, as you may have heard, has been under a “snow event” lately. This blizzard dumped two feet of snow in my neighborhood and kept my family largely confined to our house for three days. Today we adults struggle back toward something called normalcy. Our daughter Rosie still has no school. Somehow I doubt (seeing the condition of the streets) that schools can possibly open tomorrow.

Our last major “snow event” (as the newspapers called it) was back in 1996. Happily this went a bit better than that event. That blizzard found me with a bad case of the flu and my daughter with a chronic ear infection and unable to see a doctor. That left my wife to do all the work, including the snow shoveling. One improvises at times like that. We reached a doctor on the telephone and found out it was okay to borrow some antibiotics from a friend down the street. The DEA wasn’t going to come after us.

This event allowed me to repay the karmic debt to my wife for not being available in 1996. It was my wife Terri’s turn this time to be miserable. Something triggered severe headaches and she was largely down for the count. That left me to tackle winter. My philosophy was “keep shoveling” so during the blizzard I was out three times clearing surfaces. Monday morning found the storm finally receding but four inches of heavy, crunchy new snow on the ground. The stuff weighed a ton and had to be broken up one square at a time. It was hard going and tedious work. However, the weight machines I have been using at the health club were a big benefit. My biceps and shoulder muscles were in great shape. They never got particularly sore.

With the driveway cleared we realized we were all dressed up but had no place to go. Tuesday morning arrived and we discovered a snowplow had opened a single lane to our subdivision. Unfortunately that was it, and there was an additional twelve feet of road I had to cut through until we could connect our driveway with the street. So like my neighbors I was out there basically shoveling the street! But at least the sun was shining. I took off my coat for a while.

There is something about a major snowstorm to both fear and admire. The fear was wondering what would happen if we got sick or injured. My wife Terri was convinced for a while she had a sinus infection. The wonder was how awesome Mother Nature can be when she wants to be, and how transformed and peaceful all can become during and after such a snowstorm.

For a while anyhow I didn’t have to worry about Code Orange. Life became a lot less complicated. Life was pretty much shoveling snow, listening to my wife complain about her headache, and in those few spare hours taking advantage of the extra time to prepare for the class I teach on Saturday. I could mostly tune out impending wars in Iraq as something surreal. This was how we survived most of human history: just getting through one day at a time using our wits. It was nice to know that through sheer human perseverance I could beat Mother Nature one more time. All I needed were a few snow shovels, a lot of time, and a huge amount of endurance.

You can find pictures of our “event” here.

Back to Code Orange.

Who Moved Our Cheese?

I can’t seem to escape this talk of war, war, war. I try not to think about. But I am a federal employee and I work in DC. It’s hard not to think about it, particularly when less than two years ago I was here when a jet roared into the Pentagon. Now, pushed on by our Department of Homeland Insecurity, we can spend most of our days fretting about whether today is the day something catastrophic happens. I could use some plastic sheeting and duct tape here in the office. Shouldn’t someone issue me chemical warfare garments and a gas mask? How do we go about life as usual when talk of our demise is omnipresent?

Some people do get by. Every six weeks or so I do lunch with my friend Sokhama. She is from Cambodia and grew up there at a time when Pol Pot and his lunatics were running around, and when Nixon’s air force was dropping not so secret bombs on her fellow citizens. She managed to deal with it, although it helped that her father joined the diplomatic corps and she eventually spent much of her life overseas. On 9/11 she was quite calm, figured there was nothing she could do, worked as usual, took a late bus home figuring it was pointless to leave too early because it would be too jammed.

Lots of things are bothering me about of war on terrorism. But today what is bothering me is that no one realizes our cheese has been moved. Paradigms have shifted but we are still treating terrorism as if it is something we can win on the battlefield. We’re about to send over a hundred thousand troops into Iraq to make it safer for us. We will eliminate any biological, chemical and (unlikely) nuclear weapons we find. And we will be safer, right? Umm, no. The paradigm has shifted. We can’t ever be safe from these sorts of threats again through the application of military force. It’s like our pointless war on drugs: if we plug one place, it will pop up some place else.

There are two real problems here that our administration is working hard to ignore. Problem number one is that nuclear (as well as chemical and biological) non-proliferation is a failure. The price of entry into the nuclear club has gone way, way down. It’s a game any country not in the third world can play if they want to, and many of them feel they have to because their traditional enemy across the river is starting to play it. It is a fiction that we can contain the spread of WMD through the application of military force.

Problem number two is that conventional war is obsolete. That’s not to say it won’t crop up now and then. We’ve seen it in the Balkans, and might see it in regional fights like those between Pakistan and India. The whole nation metaphor is really obsolete. A lot of the reason we are being hated, loathed and targeted is because we insist we are a nation. But we’re not. We’re an interconnected world. As much as we declare we shall go it alone all nations are part of the same soup pot. We have no choice but to get along together or die together. The US Army can’t do much to protect us from some disgruntled Islamic extremist with visions of having a dozen virgins to himself in the hereafter. Borders are too porous. Weapons are easier to make miniaturize.

There are possible solutions to international terrorism but this administration doesn’t want to hear them. It the prism of its lens everything is in black and white. President Bush has said as much: “You are either for us or against us.” (I guess we can add France and Germany to our “Axis of Evil”, right?) It doesn’t want to hear that maybe having so many of our troops and airplanes in a region like the Middle East actually adds to the instability. It doesn’t want to hear that maybe the $6B plus we give Israel every year to oppress the Palestinians is one of the reasons so many people over there hate us. It doesn’t want to hear that although we claim to love democracy we support governments like Saudi Arabia, which runs a feudalistic, anti-feminist state, or Egypt, which we bribe to be our friend while it ruthlessly oppresses dissent. No wonder we are seen as the great Satan. We are keeping generations of Arabs from having normal lives, participating in the political process, and having much hope of a future. Naturally we are a tempting target.

I can see the future and it is not pretty. I can only hope that within six months after our invasion of Iraq, after enough Americans come home in body bags, after hundreds of guerilla attacks on our troops over there, we finally come to our senses, bring home our troops and scale back our presence over there. Maybe, if we haven’t had too many new terrorist attacks in the interim, we can let those people sort out their own problems. Maybe we can stop lecturing the world and throwing temper tantrums when nations don’t agree with us. Maybe we can act a whole lot more like Switzerland. Then maybe I will live to bounce a grandchild on my knee.

God had better bless America. We seem incapable of seeing the new world order. This war is about changing hearts and minds. Invading Iraq will not do that at all, it will only make us more vulnerable.

Where do we need to go as a planet? The solution is out there, but you can bet it is the last place the Bush Administration wants to go. But you can learn more about the World Federalist Society. It’s our only real hope.

Old Friends

They’re back: people I thought were out of my life years and years ago. In some cases I found them. In other cases they found me. In some cases they just showed up again.

I went and found Tom, my best friend from grades 4-9. It took the Internet for me to find him. We lost touch with each other a year or two after my family moved to Florida in 1972. Tom was a cool friend who loved the space program as much as I did, and together we collaborated on a number of things that made childhood really exciting and kept us from smoking dope or hanging out with loose women. We constructed model rockets and model spacecraft together (Tom was so good with the detailing!). We built interiors of simulated spacecraft and made pretend trips to the moon, or just went into a pretend orbit around the earth. We formed our own movie company and created Super 8 films that seemed brilliant to us. But there were tensions in our relationship. His family was pretty dysfunctional. Mine was dysfunctional too, but on a different sort of level. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found him many years later, living in Oregon, he had followed his creative bent and had done quite well for himself in the advertising business. But with the crash in the economy he was vastly underemployed and I believe he is still struggling. He now has two young sons and a lovely wife. But he is 3000 miles away. I’m hoping one day we will be able to share the same room again. It’s been 30 years! It’s so nice to find that when we email each other to find that we are still fundamentally the same people. We’re 15-year-old kids still on the inside. And his passion for the space program is undiminished, as is mine. Was it just coincidence that after so many years we would both be passionate liberals, even though we were faux Republicans in the early 70s?

Tim and I were young adults together. I was freshly relocated to Gaithersburg, Maryland. The year was 1980. It was recession in America. I had a degree in communications but no one wanted to hire me. I was working for not much more than dog food at a Montgomery Ward. Tim showed up one day and became one of our fence salesmen. Tim and I were ducks out of water in that place. We were both failures as salesmen. He had a wife and her income to fall back on, I had to eek out a living on wages averaging $4-$5 an hour. We conspired to turn the place into a union shop, but largely failed (retail workers are such weasels). I was drawn to Tim anyhow because he was a brilliant person. We were both so out of place at Wards, but we enjoyed analyzing the people who worked there. We had it all figured out. It was Tim who helped me get out of the retail business and into the federal government. Tim had somehow gotten a job doing clerical stuff at the Defense Mapping Agency. With his help I knew were to send applications. A GS-4 paid a lot better than a lawn and garden salesman. We worked together for DMA for a number of years, and even carpooled together. By the mid 80s though Tim had divorced his wife and had moved to Illinois to do graduate school. I was moving in with my live in girlfriend who would eventually become my wife. And he dropped off my radar until he found me last year on the Internet. Ah, the power of Google! Last year he was in town and we got together and looked at old haunts. The Wards store we worked at now as Toys R Us on the bottom floor and a Burlington Coat factory on the top floor. Tim worked a variety of jobs in the Midwest and recently completed a midlife PhD. Still brilliant he certainly could be doing better, but is home on the farm helping the family and his aging mother. He’s doing the right thing and stepping up to the plate where most sons wouldn’t. I hope the second half of his life allows him to put his considerable talents to more practical use. It’s funny how life turns out for people sometimes.

Stephanie was in my carpool during my early Pentagon days. She was there for six months, or maybe it was a year. I didn’t have too many fond feelings for Stephanie, but heck we were just riding a car together. It was a casual relationship. I liked the fact that she was young, and blonde, and had just gotten a degree, and was an environmentalist. But she didn’t know how to be on time. That drove the rest of us in the carpool crazy. So often we would wait for her to show up, or we would just leave without her. When it was her turn to drive we had no idea if she’d show up. Around 1993 she fell in love with an older man and was going to run off to Utah of all places to live with him while she did the grad school thing. She also wanted to be a Mom and envisioned herself carrying her kid in her knapsack while she did her field research. One lady in the carpool got a wedding invitation. I didn’t but I didn’t feel hurt. When she left I figured she was living happily every after somewhere, except I had a kind of gut instinct that her happily ever after marriage wouldn’t work. And I was right about that. It was over very quickly. Anyhow last year she shows up at the Unitarian Church I attend last year. Was I surprised when I got up to speak during Joys and Sorrows to see her face staring back at me. As I had suspected, real life had indeed wacked her around pretty hard. Her ideal marriage quickly crumbled, but she met the true love of her life on the rebound. She has three kids, all preschool age, and she plans to home school all of them. And we talk quite a bit after services. I like the new Stephanie much more than the old Stephanie. Whatever she has been through these last ten years it must have been tough. It’s taken a toll on her. I haven’t pried into her personal life. But she seems to be the model mother and Unitarian Universalist now. In a strange way I’m glad real life wacked her around a bit. Now she is imbued with a depth of character that I personally appreciate a lot more than the right out of college Stephanie.

It’s probably good that I am seeing people from my past. In particular both Tim and Tom are critical links to a past that seems increasingly distant. Yet both were essential characters in my story, and perhaps I am in their story as well.

Crying in my bier for Microsoft … NOT!

Microsoft is beginning to cry uncle.

Admittedly this is a strange thing to hear from the “innovators” at Microsoft. But it appears they are starting to realize that their software is, well, massively overpriced. It’s not very good either, but that’s not something they are going to admit, despite almost daily press articles about the latest security holes found in their products. Their web server, Internet Information Server, is so riddled with security holes that you have to be more than a bit nuts to install it today.

Anyhow according to this article in its SEC filing Microsoft is warning its earnings may be lower in the future because of the growth of the open source movement. For those of you who don’t know, open source is software that is free of license and cost, and is maintained and written by volunteers. Microsoft is having a real hissy fit about open source software. They are calling it unreliable, which is hardly ever the case. They are calling it anti-American because no one is making a profit from it. (Not quite true. Open source software is often a platform upon which companies add value by creating customized packages that work with it. Oracle is laughing all the way to the bank.) They are even pressing for laws and regulations that would forbid governments from using open source.

This would be laughable if they weren’t so serious and were not stuffing so much money into the pockets of congressmen. Nonetheless many federal agencies have figured out that open source software is not only free to use, and of much higher quality than what can be maintained commercially, but can actually be inspected and modified. Yes, users can actually fix their own problems! What a concept!

The Microsoft approach is, of course, to make you pay for the privilege of talking to one of their technical support folks and maybe, if you are lucky, getting a patch or a work around to allow you to get things done. Release their code so you can inspect it and fix it yourself? Not a chance.

But Microsoft is beginning to understand it may not have a choice. European countries are looking at using open source software exclusively. The article I referenced above says that Microsoft has come up with a “Government Security Program”. This will allow governments like the United Kingdom to actually look at Microsoft’s source code and maybe fix things themselves.

Clearly it takes a lot of clout to get Microsoft to do something like this, and governments are one of the few institutions large enough to tell Microsoft to piss off.

As a federal employee working on information technology issues I can tell you that using open source software is a no brainer. Not that all open source software is great, but much of it is excellent and of extremely high quality. Even if it is unlikely that I personally will go in and inspect the software if an error is found, it’s easy enough to hire people or a service that can do this if needed. But the main reason open source is a no-brainer is because you are no longer locked in to a vendor. No or low cost, higher quality software, and the ability to actually make permanent fixes sounds like a winning combination to me. Open source is creeping into my agency. We have some Linux machines. Some of our software is written in PHP, an open source scripting language. We also have a comments database written in Perl. Our Linux web servers, for some reason, don’t seem vulnerable to so many security flaws.

I’ve been playing with open source software for a few years now. It’s amazing what is readily available for free. On one domain I put up a free content management system. When it no longer suited my needs I replaced it with an even better free content management system. On a forum I run, I am using phpBB bulletin board software. It works great. And I’ve been able to do in and tweak it to do things I want it to do. This blog software is not quite open source, but it is free to use for personal use. And it’s easily inspected since it is written in Perl. And if Moveable Type no longer suits me there are plenty of quality open source alternatives I can choose instead.

I doubt Microsoft will go into bankruptcy court. But if they fail they will have only themselves to blame. Meanwhile I sense that their desktop monopoly is likely to crack in the next couple years. The software is there to do away with Windows and its whole Microsoft Office suite. It’s free and programs such as Open Office work seamlessly with Microsoft Office. I would not be surprised at all if Microsoft realized Windows can’t be viable operating system much longer. Perhaps like Apple they will build a new Windows around a solid Unix interface. I know I would be happier. At least my computer is more likely not to crash and work predictably.

Karma seems to work on many levels, including the corporate level. Microsoft: beware. What comes around goes around.

20 Years in Club Fed: A Mixed Blessing

This week at a staff meeting my boss called me up to the front and presented me with a certificate and a pin. Apparently I’ve been employed with the federal government for twenty years. Instead of making me feel better, it just made me feel old and depressed.

Perhaps it’s not good to have these things happen so close to your birthday. I turn 46 tomorrow. But 20 years in anything is a long time. In actuality I left the federal government for about a year in 1987 and came back in early 1989. So while I started work in 1981 a few weeks before Ronald Reagan came into office, because I worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a while my “service computation date” is 1981, plus fifteen months or so. Sometime last year, probably in May, I hit the 20-year mark. The government being what it is, it took this long for me to get the obligatory certificate and pin.

Perhaps it doesn’t feel like 20 years because I’ve moved around. I started out as a lowly clerk typist for what was then the Defense Mapping Agency. In 1981 we were in recession and even a lowly clerk typist job was better than where I was at: selling lawn and garden stuff for Montgomery Ward. My friend Tim Bagwell from those Wards days who suggested I come to work for DMA. As miserly as the GS-4 wages were back then, they look liked a king’s ransom compared to my wages with Wards.

Things obviously improved since then. By the end of 1981 I was working as a production controller in the Graphic Arts Department as a GS-5. It was sort of related to my degree, which had been in communications;I had just never really studied printing. It was the Wang 2200T “calculator” (minicomputer) that we had the piqued my curiosity about all things computer related and I was soon using it and an Apple 2 Plus computer to manage my work. Every one else was using index cards. I had sort of liked the one programming course I had in college in the 70s, but it was such a pain to deal with punch cards and wait hours for jobs to be run that there was not much “fun” in the experience. A “real time” computer was a different story.

I took a COBOL course and used it to get an entry level programming job one floor up. I never looked back. My only deficiency was the lack of a degree in the field. I finally took care of that in the last half of the 90s when I went back to school and got a masters degree in software system engineering. Now I hardly ever touch a line of code, at least on the job. I do mostly project management stuff, which is not terribly inspiring. It does however pay well.

After being laid off by the Democrats and having scrambled on a contract for three months to make ends meet I ended back in Club Fed with the Air Force. I spent nine years toiling in the bowels (actually the third floor) of the Pentagon. I made minor and major changes to legacy budget systems written in PL/1 but eventually got put on a number of “cool” projects using something called a “client/server” architecture. And I guess I did well. In 1997 when that organization royally pissed me off and I shopped my resume within Club Fed, I was quickly picked up by HHS and here I am.

Things being what they are I wonder how much longer I will stay in Club Fed. The work is not terribly challenging, but at this point the benefits are good and the steady income stream is something I can appreciate after so many lean years. The biggest reason for me to stay though is not the money, but the time off. For the first time in my life I have the leisure to do things. I can take substantial chunks of time off and explore other areas of life, such as teaching. So I am grateful for the income (I am a GS-14) and I have often been proud of my accomplishments over the years too.

But the trend to replace federal workers with contractors seems to only be accelerating. There are really no cost savings to this contracting out business any more, but it is political anathema to suggest it. Politicians like the illusion that the government is shrinking when in fact it gets more and more bloated every year. So I may be offered an early out at some point, although 46 is probably way too early for such an offer. And then what will I do? I do know that by age 56 I could retire with a full pension should I so choose. And I probably will.

So the 20-year pin probably is just causing more denial of age feelings. I am sure I have plenty of company. I am sanguine now about the cost of completely following my heart. I work now not so much for the joy of having accomplished something significant, but to pay bills and provide for those I love. The current trends suggest that work for me will continue to be less and less interesting. But at some point, probably after I leave federal service, maybe work will become inspiring again.

Terrorism or not?

Terrorism is a term being used a lot lately. It’s being used inappropriately in many cases.

Terrorism is “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.” The primary thing though is violence used to achieve political ends. It differs from war, I suspect, because most people consider the right of one country to wage war against another country as lawful, although I personally don’t.

Osama bin Laden is a terrorist. Little doubt about that. Saddam Hussein? The issue is a bit murkier. He did use violence against his own people to kill and oppress Kurds, other minorities and those who don’t like him. He has apparently used unlawful biological or chemical weapons, but I don’t know if Iraq ever signed that particular treaty. Mass murderer: most likely. Terrorist: dunno about that rap. Doubtless though we will hear Bush call him a terrorist in his State of the Union speech tomorrow. He may fill his own people with terror, but that is not the definition of a terrorist. He has been involved in no act of terrorism against the United States that we know about.

Yassir Arafat, terrorist or not? The difference between terrorist and freedom fighter gets very murky. His aims are certainly political, but his aim is a Palestinian state. Is everyone who takes arm to create a state for their own people a terrorist? If Israel is to lay this rap on him, why weren’t the founding fathers of Israel also terrorists for having done pretty much the same thing to the Palestinian inhabitants of what was then Palestine?

Drug dealers are often called terrorists when they kill people. Murderers yes. Mass murderers: sometimes. Terrorists, no, unless you count the thugs in Columbia who basically want an anarchy to run the country as one big narcotics manufacturing facility. By in large though drug dealers and narcotics distributors just want the large sums of money. Running a country doesn’t interest them.

This discussion hopefully raises another issue: what is so special about terrorism anyhow, as opposed to say, mass murder? For example what makes what happened in Oklahoma City worse than say, what Jim Jones did to his followers in French Guinea in 1978? The key difference is the act is political, but does that really warrant a more severe form of punishment and admonition? The big nasty sin seems to be to want to change a system of government through means of force of arms outside of a declared war.

But there are plenty of inflexible governments out there, such as, well Saddam Hussein’s where if a group if insurgents tried to use terrorism as a means to bring down his government we’d be calling them “freedom fighters”. So it seems the issue is the kind of government. If it is something like the United States then this sort of activity is terrorism. Otherwise maybe it’s okay and it’s freedom fighting.

I hope I’m not the only one disturbed by the sloppy and inappropriate use of the term “terrorist”.

A Neighbor in Hell

Does life have you down? Do you feel overwhelmed by circumstance and wish you could start over? I often feel that way, not because I really don’t like my life that much nor not love my family. But sometimes even when I think my own personal problems are overwhelming, I can take some comfort in knowing that for other people things can, and indeed often are, much worse. This is a perverse sort of comfort, but it does help me realize that in the grand scheme of things my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Latest case in point has to do with a 14-year-old friend of my daughter who must, of course, remain nameless. Our daughter (thankfully) has been confiding in us that this girl, who I shall call “B”, has been cutting herself. These are not the sort of cuts from someone trying to take her life. She’s not bleeding from an open wound in the bathtub. But she is doing this and Rosie caught her at it at school, where B was using tissues to catch the blood. Thankfully Rosie is not stupid and immediately brought it to the teacher’s attention. The teacher immediately sent B to see a student counselor. Things escalated from there. B is now in the children’s psychiatric wing of a local hospital and will likely be in there for some time.

Because, you see, B’s family is dysfunctional. Her mother C is trying to hold the family together but it seems to be a lost cause. Because C is married to D who lost his job some months back and who also a world-class alcoholic in complete denial. C and D spent lots of time having arguments. D doesn’t think he has a problem even though he is staggeringly drunk most of the time. C is embarrassed to be seen with him. Naturally all the yelling, not to mention having a drunk father 24/7 is freaking B out. Fortunately her younger brother E seems to be largely immune from all this.

C has been trying to keep the family together on the belief that it is best for the children. But it is becoming apparent that some marriages can be so toxic that it is not best for the kids. B’s latest cutting tendency is no doubt a response to the rage and pain that she feels in her life but can’t control. B is in many ways an exceptionally bright and pleasant girl.

C needs to escape from all this once in a while … who can blame her? So she took off for a retreat with some friends. B immediately stopped taking her medications and D was too drunk to notice or to care. C gets called home prematurely from her retreat when the school calls. B is still in the hospital. C comes to visit, but B spurns C. B probably blames C for her whole family situation, not realizing that it is C who is doing her best in impossible situations.

All this, of course, while the family income is cut in half. Painful financial decisions will have to be made, like downsizing their life and perhaps selling their house. But the most painful of all, but perhaps most necessary of all, is for C to separate and divorce D. D may well end up on the street, homeless. He doesn’t seem to have a true friend in the world. Maybe D will hit rock bottom and go into recovery. It doesn’t look likely though.

Man, I want to pour a stiff one from just hearing about this! I can’t imagine living this scenario 24/7! My heart really though goes out to all of them. C is doing her best under impossible conditions. B is a 14-year-old kid who shouldn’t have had all this nasty stuff thrown at her at such a young age. And as much as I don’t like D being a drunk and wish he’d sober up, alcoholism is a disease, so I have sympathy for the guy and an addiction that is clouding his brain so much that rational thought is pretty much impossible.

We’ll see how this soap opera plays out. The good part is that C has now fully confided in my wife and my wife, bless her, wants to help out where she can. We might even host B in our house for a while. B might get better being in a normal family setting for a while.

As awful as this family’s situation is, there are other stories I know of personally that would make this one look like nothing. This is just the one I know about at the moment.

My life: I think I’ll keep it!

Read the last chapter | Read the next chapter

The True Size of Government

My agency is going through another one of its periodic, politically required, staff reductions. My agency is hardly unique. Cutting the number of federal employees has become the key metric for demonstrating that government itself is smaller. In 1996 when President Clinton declared the era of big government was over there were approximately 1.9 million of us on the payroll. This follows a downward trend that President Bush is only accelerating.

If government is getting smaller why does it still feel so big? Our office space has not shrunk, and I don’t pass rows of empty cubicles every day. The answer becomes a lot clearer when I look at who is now occupying cubicles of the departed. Their badges are not white. Their badges are pink. In my agency this means they are a contractor. It should not be news that the federal government has relied more on contractors and less on civil servants to get its work done. Indeed in my agency the political imperative to contract out is written into the performance plan of every manager. These contractors are doing work that previously was done by federal employees. Those in favor of a leaner and meaner federal government should applaud. But is the government really any leaner?

Clearly the cost of a federal employee is not a trivial expense. We come with generous leave allowances and decent health care plans. Those of us who remain often have other benefits, such as flexible work schedules and, increasingly, flexible work locations too. And no civil servant I’ve run into can candidly admit they haven’t seen fellow employees abuse the civil service rules and get away with it. Clearly some reforms are needed. I can report after nearly 20 years in the federal trenches that the stereotype of the lazy government bureaucrat is a rare exception to the rule.

One motivation for hiring a contractor instead of a federal employee is that they are expendable. Or are they? I found a curious thing when I arrived at my agency in 1998. Many of the contractors had been working for and supporting the agency longer than many of the federal employees. On those infrequent occasions when contract companies changed, the new contractor invariably picked up these old time contractors. Even more alarming from my perspective is that they often had sole subject matter expertise. If all our contractors were to leave tomorrow it is not even clear that my agency could even function in any meaningful sense. In the information technology shop where I work, many of us “feds” would be hard pressed to modify a line of code, and would be harder pressed to find it. If a contractor looks like a fed, talks like a fed, and squawks like a fed, isn’t it a fed? Clearly the Bush Administration doesn’t think so, and Congress shares this opinion. To admit otherwise would be to admit that government is not leaner than it was.

A leaner government should be able to squeeze more value for the taxpayer. As a taxpayer I certainly hope this is the case, but I am skeptical. Most of the contractors I encounter work on services contracts. While there are exceptions most of them work in-house. My agency provides them virtually all the standard services it would provide a federal employee. Their cubicle may be a bit smaller, but they use the same phones and copiers. When they travel, they use government travel services and get the same discount airfares. But there are a few things that are different. Some of them have to take leave on federal holidays. And work cannot be directly delegated. It must go through contracting supervisors, which can create lag times. In addition the contract can be performance based.

I do know that of those contracts I have seen that the billing rates have raised my eyebrows. I know there are indirect costs (such as the cost of the infrastructure) that must be added to my direct costs that make my official salary nowhere near my true cost to the government. But these are mostly services we provide to our in-house contractors. So it is tempting, though perhaps not completely accurate, to compare direct federal costs vs. contract billing rates.

If our contractors were federal employees I’d guess their average grade would be a GS-13 making perhaps $65,000 a year. Let’s add a generous 70% for other direct employment costs such as employer contributions to social security and amortizing costs for retirement then if they were federal employees they would cost the taxpayer about $110,000 a year in direct costs. This amounts to about $53 per hour.

How much is the government being billed by the contractor for these services? If you were to add 50 to 100 percent you would be in the ballpark. Ah, but contractors are disposable! Congress could come by tomorrow and wipe out the program they support and off they would go. But of course Congress hardly ever wipes out programs. So contractors stay. And their meters keep running.

The true size of government is hard to calculate. Statistics are hard to come by because it appears that agencies don’t want to collect this information. The Brookings Institution published a persuasive book called “The True Size of Government” in 1999 that argue as of 1996 there were in excess of 12 million fulltime federal employee equivalents. Even if the true number is half that amount, the true size of the federal work force is growing.

Federal employees keep retiring at a brisk pace, often spurred on by early retirement options provided by agencies desperate to make the latest politically motivated head count. Those who remain grow grayer. It is increasingly difficult for agencies to bring in new employees to replace them. It is a safe bet that domain knowledge is being transferred to contracting staff. This assumption means that large numbers of government contractors are in effect federal employees performing inherently governmental functions. And contracting agencies are likely making very nice profits.

As a federal employee I am concerned about this trend. Congress needs to examine the true size of government and think about what it means if inherently governmental functions are being done by those who are not federal employees. New and meaningful metrics on the true size of government are needed. As a taxpayer you should consider that increasing the number of federal employees might well be in your interest, provided they are coupled with meaningful reforms in the civil service system. Be suspicious of numbers you are hearing about how the size of government has shrunk. Most likely you are being sold snake oil.

Thinking vs. Feeling

It’s not easy being a feeling person. At least not for us INTPs*, dammit. I’m a thinker. My brain is constantly in analysis mode. As you may have noticed from this blog, I feel almost compulsively required to analyze anything. I assume that with sufficient analysis I can understand anyone or any phenomenon. Before I have to deal with someone or some thing, I really, really want to have him, her or it entirely analyzed. This way I think I can figure out the safe and predictable way of interacting with them, and perhaps use them in my short interaction time in a way that I will find most satisfying.

My wife is the same way. We both often wish there were a pill we could take that would slow our brains down. It’s not unusual for us, even though we are dead tired, to be lying in bed not sleeping. Our bodies our tired but our brains won’t stop racing!

But I am also intuitive. I instinctively grasp how others are feeling. But because I am introverted I tend to keep my opinions to myself, and not always trust my own intuition either. For me, thinking is dominant over intuition. Consequently I am the sort of person who knows, for example, if someone is attracted to me. In these cases I can’t act on the knowledge because I either my left brain doesn’t fully trust my right brain or I am looking at all the consequences of acting on the feeling.

One of my challenges in midlife is to try to turn off the thinking part and plug into the feeling part. Because I am intuitive I understand how people are feeling. But can I choose to react to people on the basis of their feelings without overanalyzing thing. It is difficult when someone asks me how my day is going to respond with “How are you feeling today?” It is hard to reciprocate a feeling with another feeling. Instead I want to be Mr. Spock.

Being a feeling person instead of a thinking person may well be a great advantage. For one thing I imagine it would be easier to turn my brain off. Also I suspect a feeling person has much greater influence over others than a thinking person. People’s perceptions of you are largely colored by how you respond to their feelings. By responding in a way that complements their feelings it is likely I’d have more friends and be a lot more popular than I appear to be. In addition it can be faster to get them to do your bidding (if that were my desire) or at least relate to them because I already “know” and don’t need to justify the approach through endless analysis.

My coping strategy for now is to deliberately try to turn off the analysis machine and to try to respond in a low level way to the feelings I sense. I listen for the emotional meanings of the words I hear, and read the implied emotions in the voice or in their body language. But I need to get better. Perhaps a book on Emotional Intelligence is what I need.

And so I ask all of you out in blogland what strategies you use to tune in to people’s feelings. Help out a die-hard introvert become a more comparing and compassionate human being, before it’s too late!

* This is how I am categorized by a Myers-Briggs personality test. See http://www.mtr-i.com/mb-types/mb-types.htm.

Polynesians: Mankinds Greatest Explorers?

While in Hawaii last month we stopped at the Bishop Museum, a sort of Smithsonian for all things Hawaiian. I didn’t expect to like the place so much and I wish I had much more time to explore it than we had. Both my wife and I were drawn to the part of the museum tracing the showing the spread of Polynesian people and culture across the Pacific. You can get some idea of the place by going to http://www.bishopmuseum.org.

Across one wall was a map of the Pacific Ocean tracing the migration of the Polynesian people across the Pacific hundreds of years ago. This much is known about them: they didn’t understand math and science in the sense that we do. And yet somehow they managed to explore and spread out across the entire Pacific region.

To help understand how this was possible we took the Planetarium tour and discovered that it was indeed possible to do a crude sort of navigation with longitude and latitude without sextants and resorting to math. By noting the angle above the horizon of the Southern Cross at various times of year one could infer latitude. And from noting where certain constellations rose at certain times of the year one could also infer latitude. It’s not known whether this was really the method by which these people determined where they were. But islands like Hawaii are so far removed from everything it seems impossible that these people could journey for thousands of miles in these large outrigged canoes and even survived. And yet they populated the entire Pacific region long before the rest of us discovered sailing ships.

Their canoes could hold a surprising amount of stuff, like dry foods and water. Fish was available off the side of the ship. Presumably when it rained they could get some fresh water. But spending weeks at sea on these canoes in waters that were doubtlessly often turbulent and occasionally dangerous seems hard for us to understand.

The origins of the Polynesian people seem to be from south Asia, principally areas like Indonesia. A slow eastern migration occurred. But what would motivate people to make these sorts of long and dangerous journeys with perhaps little expectation that they could ever find their way back home? Survival could be part of the picture. The races probably needed room to grow although it doesn’t appear they were ever overpopulated by modern standards. And certainly they got good at getting between local island groups, and looking for signs like birds to direct them to land.

But journeys into the unknown for thousands of miles is something completely different. What would keep them going if after, say, 500 miles, there was still no sign of land when they had only currents and their own canoe paddles to get them where they needed to go?

Doubtless many tried such journeys and failed but some obviously succeeded. I am trying to picture myself as a native of such Islands hundreds and thousands of years ago. My world would be pretty small. I would think the desire to explore would come mainly from boredom.

What adventures these trips must have been! In a way I am envious, feeling I am born too late. Today we think of trips to the moon or planets as adventures. But something on the order of Polynesians discovering Tahiti or Hawaii … this ranks right up there was one of mankind’s greatest adventures. One can admire Marco Polo, for example, for trekking across Asia. But there were people there already. For the Polynesians there was nothing but long and endless open water, with no certainties of anything.

It is hard for me to think of adventures and human history that are grander than what must have occurred during the human migration of Polynesia. And yet the story is largely unknown and untold and much of it must simply be inferred. It’s a shame that this history is lost; it may have been mankind’s ultimate adventure.