Adventures in Bureaucracy
Monday, March 28, 2005
Painting with a broad brush, Washington's home town newspaper creates a portrait of the people in the metro area and one of the big local issues of the day: changes in the federal personnel system.

"If the world is divided into two types of people, those restless for risk and those repulsed by it, government work attracts the latter. If you are not one of them, they are the people waiting patiently in the slug lines to go home as the late-afternoon sun slants across the concrete canyons of federal Washington. They are the ones riding Metro happily immersed in paperback novels rather than BlackBerrys, not bothering to tuck away their ID cards on chains. If they are particularly proud of their jobs, the ladies upgrade to more decorative lanyards, studded with pretty glass beads."

There is something to be said for security, and the new personnel rules (starting in my department, yay) mean that a lot of the old career certainties are gone. However, even though a lot of career ladders have evaporated because of government reorganization, it's also created a lot of opportunities for developing new skills and further advancement. And considering the number of government workers slated to retire in the next decade, the possibilities probably aren't going to evaporate any time soon.

One comment on this:

"And young people today, he says, have little to no interest in the federal government as an employer. 'The reputation couldn't be worse,' he says. 'Young people think it's difficult to get a job, the hiring process is slow and confusing, a substantial minority figure it's unfair.'"

Completely true. The background clearances for a lot of positions are taking forever, and people can't just wait around for ten months without at least reconsidering their options - and for many, that means picking another job.
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Timely advice from the Post, just as I get ready to tackle the kitchen.
More things that needed to be said:

And while I'm on this topic, who in god's name can actually watch Law & Order: Criminal Intent without wanting to smash Vincent D'onofrio's head in with a large brick?
Someone lied to get asylum? The only thing surprising here is that it made page one.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
Fire at GW.
Monday, March 21, 2005
The conjunction of my ersatz-tuna experience and Mark Steyn's column on the culture of death brought to mind an old and not-so-great sci-fi movie that addressed both issues: Soylent Green.

If sci-fi is not meant to predict the future so much as to comment on the present, then the early 1970's must have been a horrible time indeed. "Soylent Green" presents a tale of a dystopian New York with forty million people, most of whom appear to sleep on the sidewalks and rely on government handouts for sustenance. And as environmental collapse has made real food a rarity, the people get a variety of chips and nuggets of soy-based food substitutes (there's Soylent Green, of course, as well as Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow - no mention, however, of Soylent Yellowfin from Whole Foods). Charlton Heston stars as the cop who during a murder investigation learns the dreadful secret of Soylent Green. I'd give a spoiler alert here, but more than thirty years later, is there anyone who doesn't know that SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!

The movie is a classic, but one that hasn't aged very well. It's full of 1970's hair, 1970's clothes, 1970's cars and technology - apparently the Malthusian nightmare stopped all progress in 1973. But Mark Steyn had a good point about human ingenuity. I guess the standard example is whale oil - indispensible in the late 19th century, but when it became rare, mankind moved on to petroleum and hasn't looked back.

So I think the time is right for a remake of "Soylent Green", but with some changes. The New York of the movie should still have forty million people, but instead of having them carpeting the sidewalks, make greater New York into a polygot megalopolis like the "Blade Runner" Los Angeles, with a brand new skyline to house the twenty-odd million people who move in during the next two decades.

The culture of death can play a role, since someone needs to get processed into food for the movie to work. Walk-in euthanasia centers (maybe with catchy ads on the subway) can be sprinkled around the city. Some of the other big issues of the day - think cloning - could also bulk up the food supply.

The biggest change would have to be to Soylent. Instead of a governmental monopoly like in the original movie, make them into a private supplier of organic all-natural high-protein foodstuffs and nutritional supplements. The Soylent company should be like Microsoft or Walmart - a ruthless giant with dominant market share that constantly gobbles up its smaller rivals. In fact, the murder at the heart of the story could be from the old hippy owner of a probiotic dairy company that was bought out by Soylent. Once he learns the aforementioned terrible secret, he must be silenced at all costs.

Well, it looks like I have the beginnings of a script. Does this mean I am now obligated to move to Los Angeles, get an agent and start shopping it around?
Sunday, March 20, 2005
Which reminds me of a bad experience I had shopping in Whole Foods recently. I picked up some tuna salad, as yes, I am too lazy to open a can of tuna and mix it with mayonnaise and chopped celery. Or at least, I thought it was tuna salad. Closer examination of the label revealed it was "tuna" salad, made out of textured soy. Ech.
Who says the front page of the Washington Post is always doom and gloom? Today's edition featured a hard-hitting expose of the latest crisis in that Berkeley-on-the-Beltway, Takoma Park... the sale - gasp! - of meat.

The writer clearly had some fun doing this piece. After all, how often do you get a chance to use "salad days" figuratively and literally at the same time? But it wasn't until the end that I recognized the attitude of so many greater Washingtonians, toward being vegetarian, or in fact anything else:

"I was a vegetarian when I was at Berkeley for two years. Of course I was -- who there wasn't? It took a lot more creativity then," said Gerbstadt, 48. "Sometimes, you want to do something to make a difference or make a statement. If the rest of the world is vegetarian, then they're going to try to do something different or say, 'Let's not make such a big deal out of it anymore.' "
Thursday, March 17, 2005
Good news from northern Virginia: the anthrax in the Pentagon mail system turns out not to have been anthrax after all. The end result is that they'll probably crank up the radiation on all incoming mail for a while, thus fusing every multipage document into something like drywall.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Unhappy news from Prague on malicious spyware programs. One such program wiped out my last computer, and I'm just waiting until something slips past the defenses of my current one. I'd really like to see someone get nailed on vandalism charges or something similar for spreading these things around. And when I say "nailed", that could be either figuratively or literally. The latter would make a better example for the others.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Just when you think the standards have slipped beyond all meaning, it's good to see that nuns are still preparing for inner city teaching assignments in the tried-and-true, old-fashioned methods.

Wait, they're from WHERE?

Actually, at first glance, I thought it was a scene from the conclusion of "Octopussy".
Sunday, March 13, 2005
Bad news from Broadway... Christina Applegate has broken her foot. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Who'da thunk it? Kelly Bundy in "Sweet Charity". Was I the only one to think immediately of this episode? One of the classics.
On Canadians: "They are a docile, Zamboni-driving people who subsist on seal casserole and Molson. Their hobbies include wearing flannel, obsessing over American hegemony, exporting deadly Mad Cow disease and even deadlier Gordon Lightfoot and Nickelback albums."

That's just the stereotype. In reality they "are bizarrely obsessed with us, binge-eating out of our cultural trough, then pretending it tastes bad. Plainly the two things Canada needs most are a mirror and a good psychiatrist."
Saturday, March 12, 2005
In keeping with today's theme:

"As with nearly all Egyptian lavatories, the bowl was equipped with a little pipe - not unlike the mouthpiece of a bassoon - which squirted water upwards for personal ablutions. The pipe was ringed with a collar of someone else's turd.
I hesitate to mention the subject, fearing to fall into a national stereotype of anal fixation and closet copromania; but I suspect that for more travellers than would admit it, the most poignant memories of travel originate, as St. Augustine said of ourselves, inter urinam et faeces. As a child, my first sight of a squat lavatory in France spoke more eloquently of foreignness than a different cuisine or language; later, my Yemeni acculturation was completed when I abandoned bumf. I cherish many happy memories of defecation in far places - in a doorless lean-to overlooking the island-studded Sound of Harris, in the bartizan of a Yemeni castle with the wind rushing up a sheer cliff face beneath me, lashed by spray in the stern heads of a sambuq off the Kuria Muria Islands, in a wardrobe in an Ottoman mansion in Safran Bolu (the wardrobe cleverly concealed a miniature bathroom); and some less happy memories - the time my sweat-lubricated spectacles slid off my nose and into a noisome maw by the Red Sea, and the horror, the horror of a public crap-house in the outskirts of Simferopol."

I read that in "Travels with a Tangerine", in which a British Arabist follows in the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, the famed Arab traveller - and no, I was not in the bog (now sparkling, incidentally) when I read it.

And here's a translation of "bumf" for non-Poms.
Well, at least the bathroom's almost done. Just one more hosing down of every surface with Lysol tub and tile cleaner and the place will be clean enough to eat from. Not that I'd do that, that would be disgusting, but the possibility's still there.

And it'll be organized too. I finally emptied out the travel toiletries case. What is it that compels me to scoop up all the little bottles in every hotel I've stayed for the past five years?

Now back to resume the battle against bacteria...
Fun fact for the day: the Moon has a layer of dust about 3/4 of an inch thick. Unfortunately, so does my apartment, and the less said about my kitchen and bathroom, the better. Spring cleaning starts today.
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
I wonder how this would work in Washington with the current personnel system? My guess is that political appointees would curry favor by only reading books written by their superiors, while the rank and file would demand time to read on the job if it were a condition for advancement.
It's interesting to see look back and see how the mighty empires have fallen. The Romans were done in by the lead in their plumbing, and the legends of the Aztecs made them susceptible to a small group of Spanish conquistadors. Now it seems that the Ottomans were knocked off the top nation spot by pastries. Baklava, to be precise. It became popular in the Ottoman Empire, which as a result, became the first empire in history to be officially diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. That's why the Ottoman Empire was referred to as "the sick man of Europe."

Baklava - perfect with a sublime port.
Delta Airlines backs away from the horrible practice of selling in-flight meals on domestic flights. Good move. I was furious the first time an airline tried to unload some overpriced lunch on me. Bring on the peanuts, as long as they're free.
One of the big differences between the late nineteenth century and the early twenty-first concerns notions of progress. Back then progress was something both inevitable and desired. The world was constantly getting better.

What happened?

So many of the big issues today are pushed by people who want a complete stop to any change whatsoever. The environment? Stop anything industrial, it'll lead to global warming (beter watch out, Mount Saint Helen's just spewed a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere). Alternate energy sources? Can't have them, they either pollute or are just ugly. The Middle East? Don't do anything, we want stability above anything else.

Change is the only constant, and it's never going to stop. Which is better, to welcome change and believe that we can adapt to any challenge, or to forecast the end of the world every time something is not exactly the same as it was the day before?
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
My sister gave me an interesting book called "The Devil in the White City". It gives an account of two men in Chicago in the 1890's: Daniel Burnham, one of the country's greatest architects (among other things, he designed Union Station), and H. H. Holmes, a psychopathic serial killer. Both were linked to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, which gave the world the Ferris Wheel among other enduring contributions.

What struck me was how recognizable and modern the world of 115 years ago was. Knowledge and technology may change, but some things are universal. One passage struck me:

"In Paris [the 1889 Exposition Universelle] America had made a half-hearted effort to show off its artistic, industrial, and scientific talent. ... Other nations ... had mounted exhibits of dignity and style, while American exhibitors erected a melange of pavilions and kiosks with no artistic guidance and no uniform plan. 'The result is a sad jumble of shops, booths, and bazaars often unpleasing in themselves and incongruous when taken together.'"

Even then Americans had a tough time cooperating for a common goal unless drawn together by some grand overriding purpose, and in general didn't much care about how we looked to the rest of the world. Fast forward a century and look at our current efforts at public diplomacy. Same issue, same problem.
This article came out on Sunday, but it's an interesting one. It seems most Washingtonians really like Metro, they just don't use it. That actually makes a lot of sense, considering that most of the people I know live in Northern Virginia along the Dulles corridor, well beyond the reach of Metrorail, and who wants to take the bus? Some work in the city and take VRE, but others work in the suburbs, and public transportation is not practical. I'll take Metro into the city or someplace else that's directly on a Metro line, but for other trips I drive.

I think a lot of locals think of the subway system as a kind of ride. It's something you take when you're showing out-of-town visitors around the city on weekends.
This works even better if you imagine Svetlana Khorkina reading it aloud.
I have a counterpart somewhere in the Chinese government... someone who apparently gets way more perks than I do.
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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