Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Day

Pope Francis rolled into town Tuesday afternoon, with a schedule for the subsequent two days that involved multiple events in downtown DC, so Federal bureaucrats did what we do best: panic. The guidance from OPM was to treat the event like a major snowstorm, so we did, and, by and large, stayed home. I worked from home on Wednesday, only to see Metro announce an unusually high vacancy rate in their parking garages and ridership roughly 20% below that of the previous Wednesday.

Thursday I needed to be in the office, and the Pope’s schedule, while bringing him closer to my office than the day before - addressing Congress at 9:30 a.m. -, seemed to involve fewer events for fewer people than on Wednesday, so I took my chances with Metro. Ridership was again light, and attendance at the office was again down considerably, so the day passed reasonably uneventfully, for which I was grateful.

My office overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue, so I did take a half hour to watch out the window as a small crowd gathered on the sidewalks below, anticipating the Pope’s return from the Capitol. Sure enough, flanked by more than a dozen police motorcycles, police cars, and unmarked black Chevy Suburbans, the Fiat 500 drove up the street.

In general, I have mixed feelings about telework. For Pope Days (or snow days), telework is a great way of allowing people to get work done when the alternative is taking the day off, so having the ability to work at home is great. Regular telework, though, takes people out of the office and makes interacting with colleagues more difficult. Today I had a number of instances where I needed to talk to someone and had to figure out if that person was in the office or at home and, if the latter, if it made sense to email the question, find a home number, or just wait for a more convenient time in the office. On Wednesday, I managed to get some work done, primarily by scheduling a report draft to be delivered that morning so I could edit it and provide comments by the afternoon. It’s great to avoid the time-consuming and energy-sapping commute, but I’d be hard-pressed to argue that I was more productive overall.

Yet the government is making a big push to have workers telework more. For some jobs, particularly those that do not require much personal interaction, that makes sense.  For many others, however, the costs can be quite high. The benefits accrue mainly to the employees. We’re told that telework can lower costs for the agency, but it’s hard to see where. The agency has to provide more equipment (network infrastructure, portable computers rather than less-expensive desktops). The goal seems to be to reduce the number of square feet the government leases, mainly by eliminating private offices, but for that to work nearly everyone in the agency needs to be working from home most of the time. (For example, I’m told that at the Government Services Administration headquarters they’ve eliminated offices and insisted everyone work in large rooms at a random desk, with a small locker available for personal items. Most employees telework three to five days a week, allowing the agency to reduce space by more than half. In contrast, someone at my agency working at home one day a week still keeps an office, and few work at home more than one day a week, so the agency hasn’t saved anything on office space, as far as I can tell.)

I also suspect that if I had to stare at my walls and not talk to anyone for days on end I would go raving mad. Perhaps I already have and just haven’t yet noticed it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


On Tuesday, I had a disturbing experience on the Metro. At the Bethesda station, a pretty young thing got on and took a seat. A few stops later, a stocky young man got on, carrying a plastic beverage cup and some food in a wrapper (eating and drinking are prohibited on Metro, but some passengers choose to ignore this, apparently feeling that rules are for little people). I didn’t think of either of them until Rockville, the penultimate stop. The guy was standing in front of me as I started to pack up, and I soon realized why: he was staring directly at the girl from about three feet away. For the next few minutes, he changed positions several times but never stopped staring. Eventually, halfway to Shady Grove, the girl became sufficiently disturbed that she moved halfway down the train car and took another seat. The guy waited a few seconds and then followed her, deliberately “tripping” on her foot before taking up another position to start staring again.

Even though I wasn’t directly involved in this little episode, I was creeped out. I can only imagine how the young lady felt. She left the train with a female Metro employee, so I felt confident that she was in no immediate danger. Afterward, I regretted not having the presence of mind to use my phone camera to take a picture of the perp.

By the way, this wasn’t some 2 a.m. run: the whole incident occurred right around 4 p.m.

Hell is indeed other people.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Coexisting with Jerks

Most people one meets are reasonably nice - or fake it well. Sadly, there are exceptions, and the Internet seems to give those exceptions license to behave as badly as they can. Case in point: my friend,* Casey Liss, who is one of the three hosts of Accidental Tech Podcast. As the title suggests, the podcast is a tech show, but the guys occasionally veer off into other territory, including their personal lives. Some listeners apparently don’t like this, which is their prerogative.

Then Casey shared this particular piece of feedback - anonymous feedback, of course.
Listening to Marco and Casey droll on and on [sic - I presume the listener meant “drone on and on,” but it’s fascinating to me how many angry people are also bad at basic communications skills] about their sh**** defective kids is the worst thing to have happen to you on a long commute where you can’t play with your phone to change the track. Worst 30 minutes of my life.
Casey provides a few more choice examples of these kinds of uncalled-for comments, but the above quote is the epitome of the genre: ugly, with unnecessary profanity, and taking a cheap shot at young children, along with the general level of whininess about content.

It’s a widespread phenomenon that crosses genres and political boundaries. The anonymous trolls of GamerGate. The (usually) anonymous hate mail that conservative columnists such as Michelle Malkin receive. And neither side in the Sad Puppies/Hugo Awards nonsense has distinguished itself.

Now, everyone has bad days, and I’d hate to be judged on my ugliest behavior, but I’d venture that 95% of us are decent people and, of the rest, 80% fake it well. It’s that last one percent that feels compelled to spew vile insults and generally make lives miserable.

Why are you wasting your time on this? (Part 1)

Our anonymous jerk complains that he lost 30 minutes of his life listening to something he didn’t want to. Well, get a grip. If you know you’re going to be in a car unable to change what you’re listening to, either accept that some minutes are not going to be to your liking or find something you know you’ll like. I don’t listen to podcasts in the car for this reason; if I find a section I don’t find interesting, I’ll skip it. Instead, this guy is so annoyed at the 30 minutes he can’t get back that he wastes still more time writing a nasty comment.

Why are you wasting your time on this? (Part 2)

Of course, one might ask why I’m wasting my time on a low-life. The answer is that I don’t like bullies, and that’s what this guy is. He’s taking advantage of the anonymity afforded by the feedback form and the fact that Casey was likely to be offended, quite rightly, at the cheap shots at his family.

This is my little reminder that we can’t do anything about people like this out there on the Internet, but we can control our own reactions to trolls. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Easy to say, hard to do, I know. This kind of crap comes with the territory, though, and the more listeners a podcast has, the more of these reactions the podcast will get. The response isn’t to eliminate feedback; feedback is useful, and polite feedback should be cherished. But vitriolic comments are just noise. Don’t pay attention to them, and don’t let them ruin your day.

* Okay, he’s not really my friend, never met him, he’s just some guy with a podcast. I spend 90 minutes or more each week with these three guys, which is more time than I spend with a lot of actual people I know and like. It’s a strange world we live in. Still, Casey seems like a likable human being.