Adventures in Bureaucracy
Monday, November 29, 2004
A look at Canada from an American who went to live there in 2000. Apparently they're still mad about that song from that movie.
A look at Canada from an American who went to live there in 2000. Apparently they're still mad about that song from that movie.

Yes, I posted this twice, and that was because I thought it was an important article and in no way because of technical difficulties on my end.
The City Museum of Washington has closed. It's kind of a shame, as the building really is beautiful, but as a museum, it didn't make much of an impression on me. It was a museum of the social history of Washington. What does that mean?

They had a mildly entertaining audio-visual show, the gist of which was that the monuments and other tourist draws are nice, but reminded the visitor of Washington: "People live here." That's not exactly a powerful draw. People live in a lot of places, but my first stop in a new city is not some old neighborhood to see how the locals live.

The museum was right across the street from the Convention Center, but the exhibits I saw weren't the most interesting in the world, and they didn't dwell on the historic events that have taken place in the city. The city was burned to the ground in the War of 1812, and that was barely mentioned. That event alone could have made for a really great interactive experience. That would get the adrenaline pumping! Of course, so would a walk at night through some of the neighborhoods in Washington where people live, which could also have made for an interesting display now that I think about it.

It's true that any museum in the city has powerful competition from the Smithsonian Museums, especially those that charge admission. But that's not an excuse. The Spy Museum charges, but it has had no problem bringing in the crowds. The same goes for the Holocaust Museum, and that's right around the corner from some of the most popular museums in the Smithsonian cluster on the Mall. The difference is that the exhibits in those museums are much more interesting than the ones in the City Museum.

Which is too bad, as the city museums in Prague, Budapest and other cities are fascinating. But then, they chronicle not the social histories, but the flow of events that made the cities what they are today. Any reconstituted City Museum in Washington would do well to find out what makes those museums work when the one here in Washington did not.
While going over the river and through the woods, I stopped off at Walmart for a disposable camera in case the urge to take pictures of this year's turkey overwhelmed me. There were several to choose from, so I thought I'd try to do my bit to whittle away the trade deficit (although the plunging exchange rates for the dollar should do rather more than I could).

The least expensive was some no-brand cheapie for under $4. Made in China, what a surprise. Then for about a dollar more was a Kodak, a U.S. brand, but that was made in Mexico. The Fuji, Japanese to the core, cost about the same as the Kodak, and the package said it was assembled in the United States from imported parts. What's a consumer to do?

I went with the Fuji. That extra dollar should help some assembler have a decent Christmas this year.
Sunday, November 21, 2004
A valuable elementary Czech lesson from PragueBlog. (You can tell it's elementary because there are some readily-identifiable vowels.)

In other linguistic news, The Glory of Carniola starts a rousing game of Name That Accent. Speakers of other Slavic languages, take note: apparently in Slovene, hearing-impaired people sound just like the Slovene speaker in the link. And while following the links, the diversity of North American accents is sadly underrepresented. You might think that the long-touted erasure of regional differences has finally taken place, as all three sounded the same to me (except for the extra-sibillant "S" sounds from Canada, but then again, that may be something else entirely). Where are the sounds of the Bronx? Of Long Island? Of Back Bay? Of western Pennsylvania? Of Lower Alabama?

Maybe it's just that by and large Americans don't read "The Little Prince". I know that for twenty years, I thought the Little Prince and Tintin were the same person.

Hmmm... has the Little Prince ever been to Bangkok?
Reminds me of Lois Griffin from "Family Guy" - "The British are a lovely people. Not physically, of course, but on the inside."

And while we're on the subject, have a look at this for your complete edification. Apparently I'm Stewie. HA!
To all those people who write "Star Trek" fan fiction - here's an opportunity for you to take the Saavik character in an entirely new direction.
Sure, it's funny now, but on accession, the producers will be sent off to a camp in the Ardennes for re-education.
Thursday, November 18, 2004
First the Red Sox win the World Series, and now I find myself largely agreeing with something Prince Charles said. Can flying pigs be far behind?
Monday, November 15, 2004
Once again my former profession is under attack, and once again I feel some twisted compulsion to try to defend it, if for no other reason than to try to justify the years I spent in the job.

So what is there to say? There's nothing written in that entry that I haven't heard in the many "whither immigration" talks I've had with other INS veterans. My biggest problem is that it paints a picture with an overbroad brush, as not everyone in immigration work is rude and inept. I knew a lot of good and competent people in the Service, several of whom are still working in the successor components to INS (CIS, CBP and ICE). It's unfair to them to say that everyone is uniformly awful.

Still, there's no denying that the rude and inept are on the job, and often in positions with maximum contact with the public and a disproportionate impact on the image of the agency. Part of it is probably the nature of the job. A lot of official jobs tend to attract officious people who seem to revel in bossing other people around. It didn't help that there were never any real efforts that I can remember to try to improve the customer service part of the job. The only thing that comes to mind was a morale-killing program where posters solicited people to call in with complaints. I always tried to be pleasant and welcoming to people entering the country, but the endless lines, long hours, and yes, rude passengers (it's not a one-way street, you know) take their toll on the front-line officers.

It's also unfair to blame the individual officers for policy decisions. In many cases, including a lot of the high-profile ones, the officers are following mandatory procedures in which they have no options to avoid. In my day it was mandatory fingerprinting for all visitors from a select group of countries. They'd come into the secondary inspection area and promptly clog it up, delaying the passengers and diverting the inspectors from examining possible illegal aliens and fraudulent documents. INS had the same structural problems as those at the Department of State, in which the movers and shakers at headquarters had been away from field work for years and had little idea what effects their decisions would have. Still, what came down from on high as policy was something line officers had to do, and there was no way around it. This no doubt has caused grudges about being "shat upon by some functionary", but what may seem arbitrary to a member of the public usually came about for a reason.

So how can the problem be fixed? That's something I've often thought about, and I don't know the answer. Everyone complains about the system, but recommendations for improving it are few and far between. The whole system is intended as a sieve, to minimize the hassle for legitimate people while filtering out the mala fide. Unfortunately there's no easy way to do that. Ease the controls and the oversight and you're giving a student visa to Mohammed Atta or residence to the blind sheik. Tighten the system and you're delaying citizens and destroying the U.S. tourist industry.

There's lots of talk about improving the system through "intelligence-driven" means (everything in DHS these days is "intelligence-driven), but this goes only so far. By all means, improve the information available in the computer systems... but what does a front-line officer do with passenger Jose Ramirez or Mohammed Khan, which no doubt pull up loads of records for bad people with the same or similar names? Right now inspectors err on the side of caution, which inevitably results in delays to the passengers as inspectors attempt to verify that the person in the computer record is in fact different from the person attempting entry into the country.

For all the faults of the immigration screening system - and there are many, no argument from me - there are the little successes that take place every day. The habitual overstays who have been living and working illegally in the country on tourist status, the prior deportee trying to enter with a counterfeit green card, the criminal with an outstanding warrant for arrest, the odd former Nazi (an increasingly rare breed these days) and yes, even the occasional terrorist - all have been caught and stopped at America's borders, usually with no publicity whatsoever.

The inspections job was interesting, I'll give it that, but it completely burned me out. Luckily I don't have to do the work any longer. I still remember my last day on the job at the airport. I couldn't wipe the grin off my face for the entire day, especially when I turned in badge, credentials and gun. Still, I think the job was and is a necessary one, and the people who do it well rarely receive any sort of recognition. They are lumped in with the bad officers, the corrupt, the rude or the indifferent, and generally receive only criticism. Hardly an incentive to stay on the job, is it?
Sunday, November 14, 2004
Leave it to Dave Barry to report on the real pressing issues of the day. In his catalog of plumbing oddities, he left out that dreaded sanitary sub-species that lurks all over Mitteleuropa: the German toilet. You know the one. It has the flat pan so you can inspect what left you before you consign it with a flush (or several) to the sewers. Yet more proof of the anal tendencies of the German nation.

As if any were needed.

But like most articles in the press, Dave Barry just lists the bad news. How can any article on indoor conveniences be complete without at least mentioning the technological marvels of Japan? Sure, they may still have the hole-and-foot-pedals models at some of the stalls in Narita Airport, but the ones in the international hotels have to be experienced to be believed. The first time I used one I felt like Captain Kirk on the Enterprise bridge, and it quickly won me over. Heated seats, jets of water, puffs of warm air - I've never felt so fresh.
Saturday, November 13, 2004
Funny. The producer who ran with a news story gets fired, but the ones that promoted a story based on forged documents are still there.
Friday, November 05, 2004
Reaction from the State Department. Election aftermath in my Department (well, at least my office) concentrated more on speculation about who will be our next Secretary if Ridge leaves.
All the whining is getting really unseemly. Words to live by.
Sweat pants it will be, and without a month of lawsuits. I'm happy that everything turned out well in the end.

But then I look around and see the anguish of some people over Bush's victory and feel EVEN BETTER.

Yeah, that's ripped off directly from P.J. O'Rourke in "Return of the Death of Communism", and since I couldn't find that anywhere, here's another collection of some of his best. (Sorry link via Tim Blair)
Tuesday, November 02, 2004
Sweat pants or bicycle shorts - what will we see in the next four years when reporters show the President exercising? I just hope we have a clear answer by this time tomorrow.
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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