Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Confirming my Bias

A friend posted a meme this week.  It turned out that the site was yet another satire site, with a web address that made you think otherwise.  And he had not checked the source.  Turns out that ISIS does not have a "Spirit of ISIS" award that they present to people who enforce religious laws in a democracy.

And they didn't award that honor to Kim Davis. It didn't happen.
ISIS Courage Award?  Look it up.

He was almost immediately called out on it.  And his response was, "I didn't realize it was a satire site.  But it doesn't change anything."

The photo confirmed his bias.  So it was good.


Another friend hates Monsanto with a holy passion.  Nary a meme crosses his computer blasting the company that he does not pass on.  He is a very smart guy, but his hatred of the company blinds him to basic evaluation techniques.  So anything that slams Monsanto is fair game.

Some good information has been given to me through reading the forwarded news articles.  Biased, sure, but good information.

And some of the information he provides is not good information.

I have written before about how I rely on my friends to provide me with insights into the broader world.  The things that you are passionate about gives me real information.  I love reading deeply, and trying to understand your perspective. I crave that kind of knowledge like heroin, and if it comes from a passionate stakeholder, all the better.

But the fact that I love reading deeply also means that I will be critical, if you give shallow data, or impressionistic, knee-jerk reactions. 

So here are my thoughts about re-posting (this obviously doesn't apply to jokes - those are fair game).
  1. Read the article.  It should go without saying, but I expect you to read the article before passing it along.  This year, there was an NPR article that the headline boasted: "Why Doesn't America  Read Anymore".  It was an April Fools joke, a joke that you only got if you actually clicked on the link.  It was shared widely, and commented upon endlessly, all by people who had not even opened the link.  DON'T BE THAT PERSON.  I will automatically discount everything you say if it is clear you didn't read the article you posted.  I even got a post a few days ago with a disclaimer: Please get the other side of the story or hell research a little about it before posting. Note: I was unable to watch the full video. Seriously?
  2. In the words of Dr. Merideth (Real Genius), "Always... no, no... never... forget to check your references." If you are sending along a meme or photo, fact check it.  Usually it is as simple as going to the Snopes page and typing in a word or two.  In other cases, you might have to look up the reference.  A friend posted a bit of anti-Republican rant-meme last week.  Those are usually pretty fun, and often clever.  In this case, it was posting the laws that Republicans voted against since the 1970s.  But I checked it out - the first one mentioned never made it to the floor.  I didn't bother checking any more of them, and discounted the point he was making. YOU LOSE CREDIBILITY WHEN YOUR FACTS ARE WRONG.
  3. Fight fair.  If someone calls you out, arguing from the opposite side, listen.  Condescension and ad hominem attacks only make your argument weak.  Someone who cares enough to comment might have something to say. 
  4. Be prepared to help your friends understand.  Have additional resources that you can provide if they ask.  (Believe me, most people won't ask, but the ones who do are potential allies.)
  5. Always be ready to send people to  Because it is inevitable - you are going to get the silly question that people could ask siri to answer, but couldn't be bothered.  So have 'let-me-google that-for-you' on your speed dial.  (OK, that is the exception to the no-condescension rule).
I don't expect everyone to be an expert on their passions.  But if you tell me that 30,000 babies starved to death last night, I'll really want to know some more details.  And if it untrue, I will be unlikely to believe the next thing you say.  Unfortunate, but true. My emotions can be manipulated, but if they are falsely manipulated, I will no longer listen to you.  I will judge you.

And I might poke fun at you behind your back.  Or maybe in a blog entry.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

LMJ word of the week - suzerainty

Continuing the Le Mot Juste word of the week essay.  Enjoy.

Suzerainty (/ˈsjuːzərənti/ or /ˈsjuːzərɛnti/) is a situation in which a powerful region or people controls the foreign affairs of a tributary vassal state while allowing the subservient nation internal autonomy.

From the moment we learn the word "I" we begin to say it: "I can do it myself."   We learn it early, and we have it taught to us, over and over. 

Autonomy.  It is a powerful word.  The right to control your own actions.  

In fifth grade, I had to do a bibliography for a project I was working on.  I just didn't understand it - the whole process of explaining where you got your information was foreign to me.  And probably, poorly explained.

I confessed to my mom that I was struggling with the assignment, and that I was going to stay after school and get some help.  She agreed to pick me up later that day, and I sat in the classroom and worked on my project. 

And not once did I open my mouth about the fact that I was having a hard time understanding what I was supposed to do.  Mrs. Marin never knew.

Mom, on the other hand, was flabbergasted.  The idea that I would stay after school to get help, and be to ashamed - for that was the word for what I felt - that I wouldn't even ask for help?  Inconceivable.

But it really isn't.  We all want to feel like we don't need the help of everybody to do what we are supposed to do. We want to have authority to do what we are supposed to do, with minimum of oversight.  Sure, I have to answer to someone.  And sometimes, I want to have powerful people dealing with external affairs.  But for the most part, the more that the boss can leave me to do my work, the happier I am. 

Today's word of the week is like that.  The idea of a suzerainty is an entity that has autonomy on internal affairs.  And has a powerful person in charge of it all.

Maybe part of the reason that the idea appeals to me is that I also see my relationship with my creator in the same light.  The day-to-day operations is left up to me.  Free will, and the like.  But I also fit into a larger plan, where the part I play is backed by a powerful creator.  And it is there that my will folds into Hers.

I am happy in her suzerainty. 


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Risky Business

I feel like I am trying to learn a new language based on a study of puns. 

Yes, that word is right, but it also means X.  And maybe Y.  And if you think about it this way, it also means Z.  Everything means something different from what you originally thought, and the opportunities for misunderstanding are legion.

It happened very suddenly.  A week ago - on Friday -  I missed a call.  My voicemail said, "Crorey, this is Sue.  I have an opening in the class you requested, but you need to respond immediately.  Give me a call and let's talk."

I was out roaming the streets with my cousin Jake (first time in New Orleans) and my uncle Richard (also his first visit) during Southern Decadence week.  Having a blast, but not paying particular attention to my phone messages.

During lunch, I called her back, and started a crazy ride where I am feeling equal parts exhiliration and terror.

The 'class' she referred to is a series of intense, graduate-level classes on risk analysis, risk management, and risk communication.  It is taught by one of the planning gurus in the field (Charlie Yoe literally wrote the book on planning for the Corps.  Twice.)  He has recently decided that the same approach needed to be taken towards risk.

So he started offering a graduate level seminar - a certification program - in risk.  It is run as an online class through Notre Dame Maryland University. And it is kicking my londonderry-aire.

ERM risk management framework.  Yeah, me, either.
The reading is voluminous, and involves approaches to the problem from so many different directions.  We are getting readings that talk about risk from the nuclear regulatory field, the private for-profit sector, from the food and drug administration, from EPA, from the United Kingdom and
New Zealand, and everywhere in between.

Everybody uses different terms.  Or if they use the same term, they use it to mean something else.  They structure their risk analysis differently, and they use different metrics to define it.

Risk has two elements: consequence (what happens) and probability (likelihood.)  For instance:
  • Asteroid crashing into the earth with a direct hit.  Consequence: catastrophic beyond all imagining.  Probability: not likely THIS year. 
  • Hitting a pothole with your car while driving in New Orleans.  Consequence: possible damage to frame.  Probable damage to alignment/shocks/tires.  Probability: almost certain, today.
The Corps is moving in the direction of making decisions under uncertainty, and as an agency we are ill-equipped for it.  When you deal with engineers, you know that precision and certainty are their comfort zones. Chaos? Uncertainty?  Risk?

Not so much.

So I am trying to figure out how to bring the risk-averse crew together with the risk-taking crowd.  And struggling to understand concepts that involve very messy vocabulary. 

Diving back into the studies now.  Have an assignment that I don't understand, based on readings that I can't figure out, and not enough time to write it all up.  It is exactly the kind of chaos that I thrive on.

Now, to figure out those puns....



Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What makes you give?

"When Sean V. sends me an email, I can ignore it.  When he comes to my desk, I pay attention."

Heads nodded around the room. They knew the guy, and had all done the same.

Thursday I met with some co-workers and colleagues about the CFC. The Combined Federal Campaign is the Fed's version of United Way.  It is a clearinghouse for money donated by federal employees to national and local charities.  Hundreds of charities to choose from, each with their own mission, overhead, and goals.

And every year, we go through the same thing.  Skits.  Poking fun at the bosses, who are asked to humiliate themselves - pie throwing, dunking booth, silly skits, whatever.  But the result has been a decline over time in participation rate. 

It used to be the case that employees donated to the church and to whatever the office charity was.  And the donations continued throughout the career, adjusting for increases in pay and promotions.  If you were in charge of getting donations, you could pretty much count on the combination of peer pressure (everyone is doing their part) and a little bit of amusement to get full compliance.

And then came Dateline.

Now, with 24-hour news channels, we have exposés about everything under the sun.  And there is little that we love more than seeing the CEO of a non-profit go down.  So hidden cameras and gotcha moments and microphones stuffed into the face of people who are gaming the system... all part and parcel of our modern lives.

Corporate Stinkeye
And so begins a distrust of charity.  The mistrust does not only extend to the one charity who was exposed, but to all.  The underlying assumption now is, everybody cheats.  Only one got caught.

So the youngest workers tend to have no faith in the system we are in charge of pushing.  They are demanding; they want to see real results for what they do. They are ready to volunteer than donate, and they give the stink-eye to large, corporate-style fundraising.  Like what we are doing.

Unfortunately, the resulting harm is often greater than the benefit.

I am no homebuilder.  My volunteer hours are better spent apprenticing for a job where I show some aptitude - say, cleaning latrines or shoveling horse manure.  (Maybe removing bees from columns - but that one comes up very rarely in charity work.) 

Monday, September 7, 2015

LMJ Word of the week - voussoir

Continuing my storytelling through looking for le mot juste....

We all know about the keystone, and how important it is.  The top stone in the arch, the piece that holds everything together, it is even (inexplicably) translated as "cornerstone" in some ancient texts.

The keystone is important - I agree.  The fascinating element of the arch is the piece that is under the most pressure to perform.  Pressure from both sides, equally distributed, the keystone brings to my mind the image of Samson pushing at the columns of the Philistine temples. 

Furthermore, our eyes naturally gravitate upwards (OK, maybe gravity is not the best word...), seeing the sweeping line of the opening, focusing on the symmetrical piece that pushes the two walls apart.  The beautiful keystone, perfectly cut, perfectly fitted, perfectly symmetrical.

And yet, the image is a little bit wrong.  An arch, after all, is more than just two vertical pieces and a horizontal piece.  The other side pieces lean in, pushing on the keystone.  What is happening is more like a reverse tug-of-war, with each piece multiplying the force of the one behind, adding pressure that will keep the keystone up.

The foundation blocks at the bottom of the arch - the springers - are important.   The keystone is of critical importance.

My rendition of an arch.  Voussoirs in yellow.
But the voussoir - each of the trapezoidal stones that form the transition between the two, those are the most often forgotten pieces in the arch.  These blocks make the dangerous move of leaning out of plumb, taking the chance of failure.  While the keystone is held on the sidelines until the critical moment, the voussoir take all of the risk.

And in the end, everyone marvels at the beauty of the whole arch, and look at that keystone!

My job - my career - is that of voussoir.  Yours is very likely the same.  We support the ones who get the glory.  We push, and take risks, and run a real chance of going SPLAT.  We step on the ledge, pushing the center of gravity over the edge, trusting that eventually the other side will support us; hoping that the other side is being built in the same way as we are.

And like the second level in a cheerleading pyramid, we take the risks without getting to fly.

Interestingly, the keystone is a specific voussoir.  Just one more wedge-shaped stone, carefully made to fit together with other equally carefully made stones. 

Yes. I am carefully made.

The corbeled vault is simply not as cool.
 Nothing but flat blocks everywhere.
And my function is important. 

My job, then, is important - to keep pushing out.  Keep stepping on the ledge.  Keep reaching for the other side. 

Today's definition: Voussoir - (n; pl. voussoirs - ) one of any wedge-shaped blocks used in forming an arch.  

The verb form (intransitive) is voussoired.... Or at least, it should be.

Let's go voussoir the hell out of life. Together.   Holding each other up.  Supporting each other.  Leaning in.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

LMJ Word of the week - haruspex

So we continue with this week's episode in the continuing saga of unusual words to be used for just the right occasion.  Le mot juste....

Haruspex (pl: haruspices) one of a class of minor priests who practiced divination, esp. from the entrails of anumals killed in sacrifice (>L haru = gut + spec = to look at)

It is the end of the fiscal year, and we are working up schedules for each of our projects. And the budgets. All of us project maangers are playing with the numbers, taking stock of how much money remains in odd places (I am pretty sure that they won't need any more survey money....), and re-baselining our projects.

Re-baselining is an odd term.  It means that we have a new chance to lock in a schedule for the year - and detail what we intend to accomplish for each of our projects.  After the schedules are locked in, we are responsible for getting those items accomplished.  It is a delicate dance.  If we push too fast, too hard, we risk missing a deadline.  If we pad the schedule with too much float, the labor money runs out before we get the work done.

We rely on tea leaves.  Well, coffee dregs.  Whatever.

The scheduling is as much art as it is science.  Some things, like grass growing, is outside of our control.  Weather delays are somewhat predictable - bad weather usually starts in late December, and extends through March.  Other delays are not predictable - if team members are pulled off of the project for an emergency effort.  And then there is the discovery of a black bear on our project area - resulting in delays as we figure out how to avoid endangered species.

Regardless, we are called to explain each delay.  So we rely on historical data, available funds, and a certain amount of haruscopy to determine what our schedule should be. 

I am re-naming my position.  And having cards made up.

Crorey Lawton
US Army Corps of Engineers

Anybody know where I can get a good, healthy sheep liver?  Heptascopy, here I come.

Many happy returns of the day to my lovely god-daughter, Allie Griffeth!