Adventures in Bureaucracy
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Looks like Wesley Snipes is in trouble again. I wonder what that passport file looks like. Not that I would recommend having a look.
Aha! I knew it! All those password protocols aren't as great as they are cracked up to be:

What these rules do, mostly, is give the impression that the IT people are doing something about security, and thus make everyone feel safer — a trick known in the trade as “security theater.” But this piece of security theater is particularly odd, because on balance it actually makes systems less secure.

Between home and work, I have at least fifteen different passwords I am supposed to keep track of without writing any of them down. I wish they'd just switch to some biometric access and be done with it, because I can never remember how to get into the systems I don't use very often. I sometimes suspect it's all a ploy to keep the Help Desk people employed.
Looking at the news these days is enough to make me want to find some remote place in the mountains and learn to live on canned goods and forest creatures. Washington is getting to be too scary.

Case in point: the stimulus package. Can anyone even comprehend the astronomical numbers being bandied about? The latest number seems to be nine hundred billion dollars -- only $3000 per American, what a bargain! -- not counting the other hundreds of billions of dollars committed on the TARP and other guarantees to the financial system. I only have two questions about it: how are we as a nation going to pay for it? And how close are we to the point where China and the other creditor nations stop extending the credit? Which leads to a third question: then what?

There is an interest piece that lays out the case for doing nothing, saying that as a rule, stimulus programs are ineffective and that it's immoral to plunge into such vast debt in order to be seen to be "doing something". The whole DO SOMETHING NOW! mentality is really getting on my nerves, but at least some on the Hill are aware of its use as a legislative tactic. Remember when they used to call the Senate the world's greatest deliberative body? At least the Senate is taking longer than the House on this one, although I wonder what they'll come out with in the end.

Some economists are recommending against the whole deal:
Notwithstanding reports that all economists are now Keynesians and that we all support a big increase in the burden of government, we do not believe that more government spending is a way to improve economic performance. More government spending by Hoover and Roosevelt did not pull the United States economy out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. More government spending did not solve Japan's "lost decade" in the 1990s. As such, it is a triumph of hope over experience to believe that more government spending will help the U.S. today.

I thought the triumph of hope over experience was what the last election was all about.

Still, at least I agree with Obama on something. Just not the stimulus plan.
The weather's bad here in Washington, but not bad enough for an outright snow day. No, it's just an unscheduled leave policy, which means that I can look at the ice-covered driveway and contemplate whether it's bad enough to merit a vacation day off. I can't really fault OPM for it, since the stuff is supposed to start melting later in the day, and we've had three extra days off in January already.

It's enough to make me wonder why I didn't take a longer Inaugural vacation. My overriding mental image for the big day was a croupier waving a hand over a roulette table saying "No more bets" as the ball started plinking into the wheel. Not that I was actually gambling in my escape to an undisclosed location. It's just that now all the talk about the new administration is going to have to translate into action, and I have no idea what we're going to get.

Although, just like a trip to Las Vegas, I am expecting to come out poorer at the end.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
The Inauguration is almost upon us, and it is now a full-fledged EMERGENCY.

Luckily it is not the kind of emergency that means I have to show up for work, so I will be heading for the hills and pulling the plug on the outside world for the next week or so. Somebody tell me when Oprah leaves town.
Most unexpected headline of the day:

Do You Trust the Chinese with Your Erection?

There's a joke in there about those massage parlors with Asian names that advertise in the sports section, but I will not be the one to make it.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Everybody's a critic. Remember that art project that I mentioned a few posts down? The one that the Czechs were presenting to Brussels to mark their presidence of the E.U.? Turns out it was a success.

If you judge "success," that is, by the ability to cause a strong reaction, because it's become quite controversial. Apparently a work that was supposed to "demolish national stereotypes by mocking them" has just made everyone mad.

Maybe it's a subtle way to shift all that negative attention away from Vaclav Klaus. He's a very clever man, you know.

There's a picture of the work ("Entropa") here, and a better one here, all eight tons of it.

In unrelated art news, Vladimir Putin paints for charity. I would guess his medium would be oil. And perhaps natural gas.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Internal migration. California has its fourth year of net outflow to other states.
When it comes to illegal immigration, the famously tolerant populace in Montgomery County is becoming less tolerant.
A brief round-up of Visa Waiver news... because if you come to this site, there's a better than even chance the VWP means something to you!

Nationals of all 35 Visa Waiver countries must now register on the internet before arrival. Possible problems because up to half of all British travellers are not aware of the new rules.

The Czechs are reporting that the Visa Waiver Program is working out pretty well for them: only 140 refusals from 3400 arrivals since getting into the program in November. I wonder how the other new entrants are faring.

Bulgaria in the Visa Waiver Program? Consul at Arms II links to a story from the Sofia News Agency, and the facts look pretty garbled to me:
"After the signing of the agreement, Bulgarian citizens would be able to submit the required documents and fees with the US Embassy, but what is new here is that Bulgarians would also be able to submit a visa request via the Internet 72 hours before their trip to the US. However, the US side is not going to commit to giving an answer, and the answer could be "yes", but could also be a "no."
Um, no. My guess is that the Bulgarians signed on to the MOU, which would make them formal candidates for VWP status. The 72-hour Internet thing sounds a lot like ESTA, and that's only for approved member countries. Unless of course Consular Affairs in the State Department has changed their visa-issuing guidelines -- it's not like I would get that memo -- but somehow I doubt that any consular section is going to guarantee a decision on a visa application in 72 hours. The all-important question now is what the denial rate is in Sofia. If it's anywhere north of ten per cent, I doubt that they will get in within the next few months.

And here's a curve ball, there's also the less-well-known Guam Visa Waiver program... and it looks like the program may be opened up to allow visa-free entry to Chinese and Russian nationals. I wonder whether they factored in the possibility that upon entry to U.S. territory, some of the visa-exempt travellers would immediately ask for asylum and gum up the processing system for that even more.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
The funniest take on bailout mania I have seen so far:

Ron Jeremy in The Big Threesome - They said he was too big to fail, until the day he too needed a stimulus.
Festung Washington tested out the defenses today, and I was unlucky enough to be caught up in the exercise. The traffic reports and the news reports all said that Pennsylvania Avenue would be closed between the White House and the Capitol, which is the parade route that will be taken on Inauguration Day. What they didn't say was that they were also closing it beyond the White House. I found out about it when I drove in to the city and saw some soldiers in camo on one of the streets near the State Department, and then saw a caravan of busses going up 18th Street. The busses could go onto Pennsylvania Avenue, but cars were diverted away. I got stuck on one of the alphabet streets while the busses came back down 19th Street.

The hysteria about the whole event is ramping up (see Countdown to Barackalypse), and it's approaching snow day proportions. By that I mean that all the news reports concentrate on what a mess it's going to be, which scare people away, so there's a good chance that it will ultimately turn out to be nothing in the end. At least, that's what I thought this morning. Now I am glad that I will be one of the refugees leaving the area until the whole thing is over.

I overheard a woman on her cell phone today after the exercise: "I'm gonna have to stay out in the cold all day for it. It's gonna suck!" My thoughts exactly. Which is why I am leaving town for it.
More fun with tax money, this time in Europe: a giant puzzle of an original map of Europe created by Czech sculptor David Cerny along with another 26 European artists each of whom has made his/her vision of the native country. ... Cerny depicted the Czech Republic as a blue country that is "intoxicated by its head of state" (Klaus) with a display in the middle where Klaus's controversial statements, for instance those challenging the global warming theory, are shown ... The artists have presented sometimes very shocking and ironic visions of their countries. The Netherlands is flooded by the sea of which only tops of minarets stick out, the British author cut out the UK from the European map to hint at the Britons' dubious relations to the EU, the German artist shows Germany as a paradise for highway fans, the map of France is covered with the inscription "Strike!," Sweden looks like an IKEA box with the Gripen fighters and Austria, well-known for ts strict anti-nuclear stances, is presented as country full of nuclear power plant towers.

The good news is that the Czech government only paid two million crowns (about US$102,000) for it, while the other ten million crowns came from a Czech businessman.

Once again I wonder about what passes for art these days. The grand unveiling in Brussels is supposed to be tomorrow, but I am guessing that the works are not going to be anything for the ages. We can just hope that no non-traditional media (like the bodily expulsions of man or beast) will be used in the creation of this installation.

ADDENDUM: Theodore Dalrymple has written a piece that crystallizes the problems I have with modern art -- and no doubt with the aforementioned installation when it's displayed. A few snippets:

The successful modern artist’s subject is himself, not in any genuinely self-examining way that would tell us something about the human condition, but as an ego to distinguish himself from other egos, as distinctly and noisily as he can. Like Oscar Wilde at the New York customs, he has nothing to declare but his genius: which, if he is lucky, will lead to fame and fortune. Of all the artistic disciplines nowadays, self-advertisement is by far the most important. This is reflected in the training that art students now undergo. Rarely do they receive any formal training in (say) drawing or painting. Indeed, from having talked to quite a number of art students, it seems that art school these days resembles a kindergarten for young adults, where play is more important than work. The lack of technical training is painfully obvious at the shows the students put on. Many of the students have good ideas, but cannot execute them successfully for lack of technical facility. Indeed, their technical incompetence is only too painfully obvious. (Via)
Your tax dollars at work: Homeland Security is going to build its new headquarters in Southeast D.C.

Advocates say it would generate economic activity in one of the city's poorer corners and provide a secure workplace for 14,000 Homeland Security employees scattered across the Washington area. ... Historical preservationists have said the project would ruin a national landmark site with panoramic views of the District, where the first federal psychiatric institution was established in Southeast Washington in 1852. Some questioned whether a high-security facility tucked behind two layers of fencing would produce much of a payoff for the neighborhood.

Ironic that security is one of the main issues for the new DHS headquarters campus, but not the kind it usually deals with. The main problem is the fear of crime, because there's a lot of it in Southeast Washington. Consolidating offices in that part of the city means new commutes for lots of people, and that will be really difficult for the people now used to easy drives in from Montgomery County. I vaguely recall departmental e-mails saying that the new headquarters would NOT have parking enough for all the people who would be working there, so riding Metro would be encouraged. Unfortunately, the new headquarters is not going to be built on top of a Metro station. They were talking about shuttles from one of the Green Line stations, and I think walking was given as another option. They didn't mention your chances of making it from the Metro station to the front gate and back unmugged.
Where there are taxes, there are people who try to evade them. Cigarette taxes vary widely from state to state, and that makes cigarette smuggling a profitable criminal enterprise. A Korean smuggling enterprise based in Annandale shipped them from low-tax Virginia to high-tax New York City. It's interesting to see the associated crimes included identity theft, sweatshop labor, and even murder for hire. The funny thing (not ha-ha funny, but the other kind) is that it also connects to the whole mortgage mess, except that instead of taking the loan money and walking away, it looks like they paid on them to establish good credit scores for the false identities.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Amateurs. The proper response to most e-mails at work is to ignore them. If it's important, they'll write back.
Nothing says that the holidays are over quite like that first five-day workweek of the new year and the arrival of that special New Year’s greeting from the IRS. Yes, the 1040 booklet came in the mail this week, and it leaves me with mixed emotions. After all, taxes are necessary to the functioning of government in any form, and I say that not only because tax payments are how my own bread is buttered. I believe it was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” At least that’s how he was quoted in the 1040 instruction booklet right inside the front cover, and I am not going to pick a fight with the IRS unnecessarily.

However, as a taxpayer, I find the whole exercise infuriating, especially this year. The IRS Commissioner has a lot more to say besides quoting Holmes, including defining the duty of the agency as making “the process of paying taxes as easy as possible”. This would be easier to take if the message were not followed by ninety pages of instructions, worksheets and tables, not including the extra instructions, worksheets and tables for schedules A and B. But for that I don’t blame the Internal Revenue Service. They don’t write the tax laws. No, for the ever-increasing complexity of the tax laws we get to thank our elected representatives in Congress.

All the laws they pass get translated into regulations, and all that gets turned into instructions for the 1040. This year there are instructions for dealing with the economic stimulus payment (not taxable, but may reduce your recovery rebate credit), the recovery rebate credit (worksheet for which is nearly two pages), the withdrawal of economic stimulus payment from certain accounts, the increase of the standard deduction by real estate taxes and net disaster losses (although wasn’t real estate its own net disaster loss for a lot of people over the past year?), the reduction of the personal exemption and itemized deductions phaseouts, and of course the dreaded alternate minimum tax. It’s no wonder that so many people hire professionals to do their taxes for them.

And that’s really what is galling to me. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that citizens have responsibilities and obligations, and payment of one’s fair share is something I think all but the most die-hard libertarians would agree needs to be done. But when trying to figure out what that fair share is leads to the creation of a multi-billion-dollar industry and/or hours of wading through forms, schedules and the rest, something is seriously wrong.

And when he made the statement about taxation, I don’t think Oliver Wendell Holmes envisioned having literally unimaginable sums of money being thrown around to the banks, the car industry and God alone knows who else. Because Paulson and Bernanke don't appear to.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
An aside from the Angry Drunk Bureaucrat:

Why must we perpetuate the lie that offices (whether for-profit, non-profit, or governmental) are "open for business" between December 23rd and January 2nd? Seriously, no one is really open, and those that are can't get any work done because no one else is open.

It's the same every year. I go into work for a day or two in that period between Christmas and the New Year, thinking I will get stuff done because there aren't many other people in the office to distract me. But it never works out that way.
The Skeptical Bureaucrat has found a worrying development -- government is now moving in on virtual worlds. I have to agree with most of the assessment he gives:

So, I could enter Arlington County's Second Life virtual world and ... do what? Go to a job fair, attend a meeting with a government official, research toxic chemicals and so forth? That's the kind of thing I do all day in Real Life. Why should I do it in Second Life, as well? ... I have a suggestion for its virtual world. They ought to allow people to fight parking tickets in a virtual traffic court, complete with Second Life lawyers, cops, and judges.

I say move civil suits into the virtual world, and let the avatars settle the cases with virtual death matches. This could give Court TV or Tru TV or whatever it is they call themselves this year an endless stream of new programming.
Saturday, January 03, 2009
Wasn't it Whitney Houston who sang, "I believe the children are the future"?

If so, we're screwed.
The inauguration is less than three weeks away, and it sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun. In the sense that hurricanes and blizzards are fun.

If you want to go to the event, you should be comfortable answering, yes, to these questions:
Can you stand possibly eight hours shoulder to shoulder in large crowds?
Do you have warm, dry, comfortable shoes?
Do you have appropriate clothes for extreme cold or wet weather?
Can you walk three to five miles between shuttle drop offs and Metro stops?
Inauguration planners also say you should give extra consideration before bringing small children, senior citizens and anyone who has a weakened immune system.

Most of the people I know in this area plan to hunker down at home or leave the area entirely for the event. I have already made plans to evacuate to an Undisclosed Location.
Uh oh. More flag-related hijinx in Prague. Is there subtle editorializing in this piece? You be the judge:

...the blue flag with yellow stars, hoisted in the place of the former giant statue of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, had been vandalised on January 1.

Not comparing the European Union with the period of Soviet subjugation, just mentioning that the statue of Stalin used to be in the same place.

You know, they haven't had a defenestration in Prague for quite some time. I hope they can go the next six months without having another one.
Visa waiver for Poles?

This is one of those things that would never have gotten serious consideration back when I was at the airport and seeing some of the visa violators we got. The usual period of admission for a tourist was six months. I remember seeing Poles who stayed FIFTEEN YEARS on tourist entries, then went back home and got new visas (apparently neglecting to mention how they spent the last two decades when going to the visa window).

However, going from the source article, I would say it sounds more like wishful thinking than anything else. At one point, I had practically memorized section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, but it has undergone some serious revision since then. Still, the criteria are spelled out pretty clearly for who is eligible: the country's passport has to be of a particular technical standard, the country must be willing to share data with the U.S. government on stolen passports, the country must not present a substantial law enforcement or security risk to the United States, and the denial rate of U.S. visa applications has to be low -- under three per cent as a threshold. There is a section on "refusal rate flexibility", which allows admission of countries with refusal rates under ten per cent, but it looks like there is a lot of other stuff that goes along with it.

My guess is that the denial rate is going to be the sticking point for Poland, even with the relaxed ten per cent standard. There's also something on a "maximum visa overstay rate", which I don't think is going to help Poland's cause much either.

A lot of countries got added to the program in 2008, including Malta, which apparently just squeaked in before the new year. Now the European Union is pushing for the remaining E.U. countries who don't already have it to get the visa exemption. That includes Poland as well as Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria. Unless things have changed A LOT since my days at the airport, those last two are not going to get into the Visa Waiver program any time soon, at least under current legislation. I don't see how there's any way to get Poland in during the few remaining weeks of the Bush Administration. The Poles have been great friends and allies, and I certainly wouldn't mind having more Poles in this country, but the laws on the issue are pretty clear. If they don't meet the standards as currently defined in law, then Congress would have to change the law to get them into the program -- and with everything else going on in the world, I don't think the Visa Waiver program would be at the top of any legislative agenda.

Then again, I never thought the Slovaks, Latvians or Hungarians would make it into the program either, yet there they are.
Some interesting views on blogging while federal over at Consul at Arms II, and it's not bad advice, so I will add my own two cents here. This site is entirely personal, and nothing here represents the viewpoint of my employer. In fact, I usually stay away from making any sort of comments involving my current job and my current responsibilities. However, Washington is a company town, and I happen to work for that company, so it would be kind of difficult to refrain from commenting on government work entirely. It's just that here I speak for myself and not for my department. That said, it's always good to remember that old advice is still sound advice: don't bite the hand that feeds you.

Not being in the Department of State, I don't really worry about public diplomacy issues, but I would say that the executive branch of the U.S. government in general -- not to say DHS specifically -- could do a better job in explaining itself and defending itself in public. Long, long ago I worked as an immigration inspector in a fairly busy airport, and even though I don't do that any more, I am still interested in the whole issue, and I will comment on immigration-related stories.

It's interesting to me to see how other feds balance their professional obligations with their on-line lives. That's why I have been adding more federal and bureaucratic sites to the list at the right as I come across them (not that I am trawling for reciprocal links, since if traffic were the main goal here, I would probably not let four months go by with only one post) (though I should also mention that this site is now in its seventh year, which means that eventually I will always come back).
Thursday, January 01, 2009
I can't believe it's 2009 already. I also can't believe that it's both so hard to stay up past midnight any more AND hard to sleep past eight in the morning. You'd thing the tinge of hangover (champagne does that to me) would have kept me under the covers until at least noon.
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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