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Posts from 10 January 2018

  • Those clowns in Congress


    For the better part of the past year, I've been asking myself on what basis we do, and should, select leaders on the national level. I have been asking myself what it is that the Executive Branch does and should do in its daily operation. I finally have a half-answer.

    The scope of the Executive

    The Executive Branch is huge. Just, massively, mindbogglingly huge. Seriously, click through that list and start scrolling—and compare it to this list of Senate-confirmable positions. There's not even a number attached to the number of confirmable posts; only a range exists. Twelve to fourteen hundred seats are filled by Executive nomination and Senate confirmation. Anyone who has done hiring can confirm that there is no way to vet and organize that many people quickly, especially in the short amounts of time available to an incoming administration.

    A (typical) new administration can set its broad goals, but there is no way—short of freezing time and spending a year between November and January reviewing staffing decisions—to optimally build an organization like that. This is where party machinery comes in.

    I suspect that the two major parties maintain lists of generally qualified candidates, specific shortlists for certain positions, and additionally know who to call to identify talent. Government of this scale doesn't turn on overnight, but with the right networks it might seem to. But this machinery is in many ways a consequence of a long-standing two-party system. There is no easy to conduct a national campaign in a country of 300 million people without leveraging some machinery, and one way to reward key pieces of that machine is by handing out jobs. Patronage is nothing new, and we can safely assume that among those 1400 positions there are bound to be a few sinecures.

    Without describing other possible configurations of the Executive Branch, it's worth pausing to consider if this is the government we want. By their rhetoric, you might suspect that there would be more difference in the configuration of successive governments. Nevertheless, small-government conservatives have traditionally needed to reward their benefactors in the same way that tax-and-spend liberals do—winning national elections is hard—so I suspect the main difference, historically, is in the number of "good faith appointments." That is to say, the person nominated for a seat as undersecretary of the department of we-don't-really-care-about-this could be anyone.

    Executive Priorities

    The New York Times posted an excellent visualization of what issues were most important to Americans at different times. Click through the link and play around for a bit; there are arrows that allow you to navigate through history and not just those surveys conducted immediately prior to elections.

    Anyone with a cursory knowledge of American history can see that there's a clear correlation between the concerns of the day and the specific administrations' actions. The recession of the early 2000s is writ there, as is NCLB; by contrast, domestic issues are predictably overshadowed by "foreign policy" (i.e. terrorism) by October 2001.

    An administration is like the Eye of Sauron: it can see anywhere, at any time, as long as it knows to look there. When priorities turn 180º and it comes time to bring in the back-benchers, an administration's true nature can be revealed.

    To put it another way (that's mostly for my own benefit), a election is decided on who offers the best piecewise linear match to an unpredictable function, and damn the rest.

    "How can you support him?"

    So: how do we decide who should be elected to office? (And not: how should we decide?)

    There are ugly bits, such as party selection machinery (or party non-support, in "unwinnable districts"), the primary system, and so forth, but when it comes to early November, my theory is this: we can easily forgive a multitude of sins, as long as the problem that a candidate offers to solve is sufficiently big that the sins seem small.

    In short, voters act like this: "If I sincerely believe that X" (where X is killing babies, the war on terror, global warming, inequality) "is an existential threat, I would elect Pennywise the Clown to office if I think he can help fix it, despite knowing that kids seem to mysteriously go missing at all of his campaign stops."

    The sins that the right and the left can ignore vary, but both sides ignore sins in roughly equal measure. There are a different ways to win elections in this kind of climate, but one thing is clear: it's a pretty good way to end up with a congress full of clowns.

  • Resolutions

    My goals are broadly to make big personal strides.

    I started this year by losing my list of New Years resolutions.

    This does not bode well.

    Update: After searching a half dozen places, I found them.

    One downside of trying to get your act together is that the process itself is bloody. Until your individual habits build up to the point that you do them without mental inertia, everything is fits and starts. Losing my resolutions is a side-effect of a related problem: I never know where to jot things down. The one thing that I have on me at all times is my phone, and there are a good three or four apps that I can use to save data, depending on the need. Offhand, I can

    • Create a list in Notes
    • Save a scribbling in Bear
    • Create a Reminder
    • Create a Calendar event

    And when the intent of a chunk of mental energy isn't clear, it's not clear where to start[^1].

    Regardless, I found my list, and I can see now that it was more of a brain dump (which, again, is why I had trouble finding it). Looking it over, I'm … cognizant of my goals, but I keep performing tasks that are related to one goal at a time.

    If I had to summarize, my goal this year is about "process over results." I'd like to lose 50 lbs and (ignoring the problems of weather at the beginning of the year) that means meeting my step goal more days than not, and performing fitness activities more days than not. The beginning of the year has been consumed, on the other hand, with projects that are nothing but what I call "infinite work" problems—ambitious stuff with nebulously defined endstates where the outcome is second to the process itself.

    This is fine in software development ("fine"), where you go into the office eight hours per day and work on whatever piece of the project is next, in sprints or tickets or whatever quantum you choose. In life, it's equivalent to doing nothing.

    So, for reference, the processes I want to undertake this year: * Read 12 (hard, not pulp) books * Play 10 games (to the point where I feel I have gotten as much out of them as I can) * Watch 30 classic movies * Study Chinese * Hit my step goal more often than not (9/10 days, or 329 days total for the year) * Run X miles (I still haven't set a realistic goal here)

    … and more. There's a nebulous "organization" block that sort of centers on content for this website, and a "project" block that involves things like getting this website in a state where every new feature is an addition, not a part of bootstrapping. And there are goals that are consequences of the processes I've identified: I want to stay informed, increase my depth of understanding of the world, and have my physical fitness no longer be a burden. I want to be better at some set of skills (which is why the project block is largely nebulous—there's an infinite slate of things to learn, and it doesn't pay to be a generalist, in general).

    I do have to acknowledge that none of these things will be perfect, but that's also why I've concentrated on process goals over outcome goals. Process goals offer you/me a chance to start over with each new day, and while each day can be viewed as a failure, every moment offers the chance for small successes. Instead of futzing around on the internet at any given moment, I can lace up my shoes and go out for a walk or a run, or find the next book I can read (or read a half chapter). And certainly, I've seen some of that in my day-to-day since we returned from IL, but … but. But I'm not at the point where I'm honoring my own commitments, and that's going to be the big challenge.

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