Adventures in Bureaucracy
Monday, December 29, 2008
Immigration, the board game! It actually looks like a pretty good distillation of the various avenues to legal residence in the United States, and it's a lot cheaper than consulting an immigration "advisor" or whatever it is those people who charge $1000 to fill out an application and mail it call themselves. My only quibble is that the visa lottery -- oops, sorry, the diversity immigrant program -- was not mentioned. I guess the designers didn't have room for the chance cards.

I wish I had had this during my imm law courses. The chart definitely would have made that slog a little bit easier by demonstrating the "big picture" aspects. Then again, it may have deprived me of the joys of committing the citizenship transmission charts to memory...
Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Christmas from Washington.
This is interesting. Apparently the legacy of the Kaiser lives on.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
More neologisms (see a few posts down). Those wily Dutch think that nobody else is going to catch them making up new words, but they've been ratted out by an English-speaker.

This list shows a few things. One is that my Dutch is horrible, but so is Google's Dutch to English automatic translator. Well, at least for doing the entire web page. Put it in a few words at a time, or a few word parts at a time if you want to figure out what het geslachtsdeel is, and you can probably figure out most of them. Though not necessarily all of them. I may have to consult with my Irish friend who has been living in the Netherlands for the past few years to get the scoop on some of these.

I kind of like"gastrosexual" and may try to incorporate it into my own conversations. And "hufter" is good to know as well, since I've been looking for some new terms of abuse. Especially now, with the holidays coming up.
Back to "It's A Wonderful Life". Here's someone else who says they don't make movies like they used to:

"Seeing the complete list of everything banned makes me realize why movies of yesterday, even the so-called “B” pictures, seem to be so much better than most big blockbusters of the today: filmmakers, prevented from filler such as lengthy sex scenes or detailed depictions of criminal activity meant they had to actually be creative in their plotting and scene settings, and not being allowed to salt the script with numerous “fucks” and “shits” meant they had to write interesting dialogue."

Most of the stuff coming out of Hollywood has no interest for me. Not only do I not want to see things in the cinemas, even on airplanes when I've got a choice of eight movies to see and a huge chunk of time stuck in front of the screen, I still cannot muster the interest to watch most of the dreck that comes out. Recently when I've watched movies at all, it's been the stuff from the golden age of Hollywood, when they still knew how to tell a story. I've watched the first two in the "Thin Man" series, and they're terrific. Most of the movies I get from Netflix (first thing on the chopping block if I need a tighter budget next year) are at least thirty years old. There are only two movies coming up that I plan to actually see in the theaters - "The Hobbit" and "Voyage of the Dawn Treader", and that's only because I loved the books.
Tax policy in easy-to-understand terms.

There is a long article on real-life consequences of driving away the tax base here. Something they might want to think about in New York and California before all those sweeping increases in taxes, fees and the rest are instituted.
'Tis the season... to argue about Christmas movies. A piece on "It's A Wonderful Life" suggests that maybe things would have been better if in fact George Bailey had not been there to influence life in Bedford Falls, and that's stirred up some passions.

"It's A Wonderful Life" is my father's favorite movie at this time year, and one of his top three of all time. And naturally that meant that growing up, I could not take it. Too treacly, too sappy, yadda yadda yadda -- I would not sit through it. Besides, there were so many parodies of the movie (plus the lost ending) that I figured I didn't need to see the original all the way through. However, a couple years ago we all watched it on Christmas Eve, and I loved it.

I will say that the movie is a good one for adults -- do they even make movies for adults any more? -- and I think that's what makes "It's A Wonderful Life" such a perennial favorite. There's a lot of nuance to it. It's not "a pitiful, dreadful life" at all (which is kind of the whole point of the movie, isn't it?). Is there anyone who reaches the age of George Bailey who doesn't look back at those crucial moments in life and wonder what might have been? Anyone who has been swept up in the course of events that carried him away from his dreams at the time down a much different path than planned? The movie for me has highlighted the importance, and maybe even the nobility, of duty, although that seems like a word not much in use these days.

"It's A Wonderful Life" also throws a spotlight on the split between youth and adulthood. Things change over time. If they didn't, the world would be full of astronauts and firemen, ballerinas and fairy princesses. It's natural to look back wistfully on the dreams of one's past, and even to feel trapped at times in the life one now has (I know of which I speak -- I am after all a bureaucrat!). Nothing can bring on a midlife crisis quite like the holiday season, and I think this may play a role in the movie's popularity. Because George really acted like a jerk for quite a lot of the movie, and even so he was redeemed in the end.

Unfortunately adulthood as a concept is one that also seems to be out of fashion, and the arguments in the piece are very much from the perspective of the young. Pottersville would be "cooler and more fun" than Bedford Falls? Well then. Anything to be cool. Forget about the long-term. But being better off economically by becoming a resort rather than having manufacturing? That's a strange argument, and one that ignores the thirty or forty years of prosperity that manufacturing brought to upstate New York. Saratoga may be doing better than the rest of upstate these days, but there is another place in the region that today is probably a whole lot closer to Pottersville: Atlantic City, New Jersey. It went for all the flash of Pottersville, and it's got all the sleaze, too! I'll admit that Atlantic City looks like it could be fun... for a weekend, I certainly wouldn't want to live there.

Also, there's more to life than just economics, and I am tired of seeing so many issues ultimately reduced to simply dollars and cents. There's a lot more to life than economic interaction, and just because those things are hard to quantify doesn't mean they don't have value. There is another Christmas movie that I find extraordinarily depressing, because it's almost the inverse of "It's A Wonderful Life". "The Family Man" has Nicholas Cage discovering the pleasures and rewards of family life with Tea Leoni, helped along the way by his adorable daughter, only to find that once he's accepted that life and learned to love it, that it never happened at all! The magic of "It's A Wonderful Life" is found when George Bailey rediscovers the magic in the corners of an ordinary life and learns to appreciate the things life has given him, not the things that went wrong or the things that might have been.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Uh oh. As part of the impending Goetterdaemmerung that is Inauguration Day, in addition to ten thousand tour busses and burdensome security requirements, there is also going to be an official poet.

I think I may have expressed my own thoughts on modern poetry once or twice before, but for those of you who aren't keeping track though the weeks-long dry periods in this space, I tend to think most of it is
with oddly positioned
placed on the page
trying to express
often without proper punctuation.
A literary effort without rhyme or reason.

Anyway, I am not familiar with the works of Elizabeth Alexander, the woman selected to prepare the inaugural poem. Yale Professor of African American studies, winner of the Jackson Poetry Prize and finalist for a Pulitzer, friend of the President Elect. My first thought was that she's properly credentialled and probably totally unreadable. So I decided to find out, but I will withhold my comments and let you decide for yourself.

There have been a few poets at other inaugurations, and by and large the experiences have not been great ones. There's an interesting take on the whole thing by someone who seems to like Alexander's writing... but not the idea of having her participate in the event:

On all these occasions, the incoming President seemed to be claiming more for his arrival than he deserved, and to be doing it by pretending that poetry means more in American life than, alas, it does. ... Alexander writes with a fine, angry irony, in vividly concrete images, but her poems have the qualities of most contemporary American poetry—a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive, with moves toward the general that are self-consciously academic. They are not poems that would read well before an audience of millions.

As if I needed another reason to leave town for all this.
Friday, December 19, 2008
I just realized where I have seen this whole Vaclav Klaus situation before. And despite the assumptions of Herr Poettering, it wasn't the Soviets who were the heavies in the original version.

It was the Nazis.

In "The Sound of Music":
"Herr Detweiler!
-Heil Hitler.
-Oh, good afternoon, Herr Zeller.
Perhaps you've not heard. I am now the Gauleiter. Heil Hitler.
Heil Hitler.
I've come from Captain von Trapp's house. The only one in the area not flying the Third Reich flag. . . . . .since the Anschluss."

I think I may be the first person -- and possibly the ONLY person -- to compare Vaclav Klaus to Captain Von Trapp. Somebody get that man a guitar! But I don't think this version will end with anyone escaping over the Alps.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Speaking of New Europeans, I loved this description:

U.S. and Afghan soldiers in Zabul Province give high marks to the Lithuanian Special Forces, who like to ride these captured Taliban motorbikes to sneak up on, and chase Taliban fighters. The “LithSof” are on their way to becoming living legends: Both Afghans and Americans report that the Taliban are afraid of the Lithuanians. Stories about them are filled with dangerous escapades and humor. Americans say that the Lithuanians are sort of a weaponized version of Borat, who think nothing of sauntering around a base in nothing but flip-flops and underwear. “They look like mountain men. They never shave, sometimes don’t bathe, and often roll out the gate wearing nothing but body armor and weapons. Not even a t-shirt,” an American soldier told me. The Lithuanians may be a little bit nuts, but the Americans love to have them around because Lithuanians love to fight, and when you need backup, you can count on them. (via)
I miss the old country. Politics in the United States are just flat-out depressing, with only a small number in office who seem to think the issues through and who know -- and can articulate -- what it is they stand for.

Not so in the Czech Republic, where they have Vaclav Klaus as President. He's the Czech Republic's answer to Margaret Thatcher, and he is not exactly shy about expressing his thoughts. Like Thatcher, he's also a Euro-skeptic, but at least the other Europeans showed the Iron Lady some respect, which is more than can be said for President Klaus of late. Apparently some Ministers of the European Parliament went out of their way to insult President Klaus in his own capital. The transcript is just amazing. And it's even more amazing that the President of France is throwing his support behind them.

The really scary thing for the Europeans is that the Czechs will take over the presidency of the entire European Union in January. The prospect has other Europeans (which according to most of the press reports I found in a quick search means "the French") in a tizzy. The critiques are damning:

"Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a narrow-minded defender of sovereignty, a fundamentalist liberal and a genuine Thatcherist, is firmly determined to do his utmost to turn the Czech (EU) presidency into a nightmare," Duhamel points out. He adds that Klaus is a strong personality, speaks loud and uses strong words, he likes to provoke and he will do all to complicate the matters.

The horror.

The whole situation promises to be interesting, mostly because of what the European Union is becoming. U.S. policy has always been to support the idea of European unity, probably because when the Europeans aren't united, they tend to start killing each other and we would probably get dragged into that yet again. Unfortunately, now the Europeans seem to want the E.U. to be a counterweight to the United States, and it looks like it's becoming less and less democratic as power is pulled from the individual countries to the pan-European level.

The Czech presidency could gum up the progress towards the goal of a continental superstate. There's the whole Klaus factor of course, but it could also highlight yet again the difference between Rumsfeld's Old and New Europe. It came out in the run-up to the Iraq War, when leaders of came out against Chirac and Schroeder, but that was all papered over as the new countries tried to become more integrated with the European whole. But many of the new countries still have more Atlanticist foreign policy views than the old countries, and now arguably the leader of the New European pack gets the next six months to be the voice of the entire European enterprise. The Czechs are open to hosting parts of the U.S. missile defense system on their territory, and they were the first country to sign on to the data-sharing provisions of the Visa Waiver Program (to which the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary, as well as Korea, were admitted last month). The countries of New Europe placed greater emphasis on maintaining a positive relationship with the United States.

They were still keen on becoming integral parts of the European whole. The prospect of economic benefits obviously helped keep their eyes firmly toward Brussels, but there's also the emotional component of the whole thing. I've been trying to figure out why countries that were so recently under the Soviet yoke would willingly transfer away their sovereignty so soon after 1989, so the idea of a united, democratic and prosperous Europe has to have some sort of claim on the public imagination. Except that it's looking less and less democratic. And the Czech presidency will coincide with a time when it's probably going to become a lot less prosperous as well.

So fasten your seatbelts, the first six months of 2009 could make for a bumpy ride!
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
One day not so very long ago I was sitting on an airplane, flipping through the in-flight magazine, when the woman sitting next to me asked whether I supported a bailout for the auto companies. I hesitated for a moment, since I didn't want to set off a diatribe that would take up the whole flight, but in the end I gave my honest opinion: no. She said she didn't either, and that all the people she had asked gave the same answer.

But the thing looks like it may go through anyway, regardless of the fact that it got squashed in the Senate. It seems like another one of those undead bills, like the one for amnesty, which keep moving forward even after you think they've been killed.

Have I missed something basic here? Things have been busy in my non-financial corner of the bureaucracy, so I haven't read much beyond the first few paragraphs of any story. I keep hearing the term "bridge loans", but a bridge to what, exactly? After getting several billion dollars in taxpayer money thrown at them, are GM or Chrysler expecting a big change in business conditions, with some sort of increase in revenues or profits in the spring? It looks to me like it's just a move to delay the inevitable. They need to change if they're going to survive, and I would rather that change came without incurring even more government debt, thank you very much.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
English does not have a lock on neologisms. It seems that German is also creating new words. Massive, polysyllabic new words.

Including "Gammelfleischparty", which literally means "spoiled meat party" but refers to any gathering of people over the age of thirty. I wonder whether there's something for agglomerations of the young.

Not that I would go to one of those. I've never liked the young, even I could use that adjective to describe myself. Whippersnappers.
Today was the "Day without a Gay", but apparently it did not succeed in bringing the nation to its knees.

Or perhaps I should rephrase that...
And while I am on the subject of the end of the world, Washington's version of it is apparently taking place on January 20th. The population of the metro area could double for the Inauguration, and the news is full of stories about how the city will cope.

The latest problem: Where exactly ARE all those people going to, er, go? The Metro system apparently has bathrooms in every station, but they are hidden away and only available to people who get the platform attendants in a generous mood. Then there's the Mall, the touristic center of the city, so you would think there would be a number of places to make a stop. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case. (I always recommend going into the Hirschhorn, because there's never a line to see modern art.) The businesses north of the Mall keep their toilets locked away for customers only, and south of the Mall is mostly government office buildings, and those will be closed and locked on inauguration day.

My advice is to bring an empty Snapple bottle and a trenchcoat.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
In other news, the world is about to end.

It's like the Apocalypse here in Washington every time it snows, and we're good for two or three decent-sized storms a season. I can't even imagine what the TV news shows are going to be like in L.A. We might have to start shipping bread, milk and toilet paper out west now in anticipation of a spike in demand.
A quaint European tradition that luckily was not adopted in the New World.

Then again, has anyone really checked out all five hundred of these?
Saturday, December 06, 2008
This is what happens when you don't supervise the Public Affairs people.

For the record, I have no plans to watch. Unless they decide to show what goes on in the headquarters units, in which case it might be worth it to find out what goes on at the NAC.
While clicking around the internet this morning (it's COLD outside, and I don't want to go out there) I saw two posts that just seem to go together.

First was this one:
"...the word “bespoke.” It means “custom made for a specific person” and originally was supposed to refer to articles of clothing. I know this because I looked it up. It’s not a new word. However, I have only noticed its use recently in publications sold to the public, and the word as used is applied not only to jackets and such but also to furniture, carpets, and other products for the home. And it PISSES ME OFF to no end. ... Come on, doesn’t reading the phrase “the foyer, with its red wallpaper patterned after a 13th century Kyoto wall hanging and containing a charming bespoke divan upholstered in chartreuse dupioni silk” make you want to find the person who wrote that and beat them with a tire iron?"

Which goes so nicely with this one:
"Solve a man's problems with violence, help him for a day. Teach a man to solve his problems with violence, help him for a lifetime!" (via)

So break out that tire iron.
"New England border protection chief charged with hiring illegal immigrants"

Another DHS employee runs afoul of those pesky immigration laws, and a pretty high up one at that. My guess is that she came out of Customs before DHS was created, so she may not have put that much weight on the immigration part of the job. Another article says that she was reported by another DHS employee, and that's what led to the investigation.

The article also demonstrates why I take everything I read in the news with a grain of salt. According to the original article, she was identified as the "regional director of Homeland Security, Customs, and Border Protection". Customs and Border Protection is a component of the Department of Homeland Security. If they misreport the simple stuff that I know about, what does that say about their reporting on the other issues?
Thursday, December 04, 2008
One (of many) non-work-related topics that raises my blood pressure is history. More specifically, the lack of knowledge of history unless it's something that is being used to try to frame some other, more modern point. Like this:

Climate history may explain empires' fall, in which scientists speculate whether climate change may have played a part in the end of the Roman and Byzantine empires. It seems the climate in the eastern Mediterranean was drier than usual between the years 100 and 700 A.D.

First of all, I think the time line is a little iffy, since the zenith of the Byzantines came after this period, but there you are.

But how was the climate a big factor in the fall of the Roman Empire? I could see it if the argument was that changes in the climate were what ultimately pushed the waves of barbarians west into Europe and onto the borders of the Roman Empire, but I don't think that was the case. Corruption within the Empire played a much bigger role than any changes in climate, and I don't think that had much to do with the levels of rainfall at the time.

The Arabs were certainly on the move towards the end of that period, but as I recall, they had a more ideological motivation for their conquests. And that's probably a topic that is not as acceptable to discuss these days.
One (of many) non-work-related topics that raises my blood pressure is history. More specifically, the lack of knowledge of history unless it's something that is being used to try to frame some other, more modern point. Like this:

Climate history may explain empires' fall, in which scientists speculate whether climate change may have played a part in the end of the Roman and Byzantine empires. It seems the climate in the eastern Mediterranean was drier than usual between the years 100 and 700 A.D.

First of all, I think the time line is a little iffy, since the zenith of the Byzantines came after this period, but there you are.

But how was the climate a big factor in the fall of the Roman Empire? I could see it if the argument was that changes in the climate were what ultimately pushed the waves of barbarians west into Europe and onto the borders of the Roman Empire, but I don't think that was the case. Corruption within the Empire played a much bigger role than any changes in climate, and I don't think that had much to do with the levels of rainfall at the time.

The Arabs were certainly on the move towards the end of that period, but as I recall, they had a more ideological motivation for their conquests. And that's probably a topic that is not as acceptable to discuss these days.
And speaking of homeland security, how did I miss this over the Thanksgiving holiday?
Kentucky law requires Homeland Security to credit God.

Which predictably was followed by this almost immediately thereafter:
Athiests want God out of Kentucky homeland security.
Once again things are busy in my corner of the bureaucracy, so it doesn't look like my office will be coasting between now and the holidays. It looks like everything is going to be even busier as my agency prepares for the new administration. So there hasn't been much time for me to write anything here, what with all the memo and e-mail writing at work. How long until Christmas gets here?

I haven't heard any real departmental gossip yet about what to expect when we get a new secretary, but even though Chertoff is advising against making any changes to the structure of the Department, a lot of people seem to think some big changes are coming to the bureaucratic org chart in the not-very-distant future.
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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