Archive for August, 2008

Government-adjusted comment seriousness scale

I have this habit, unusual in the federal government, of saying what I mean. Some of my coworkers find this refreshing. But sometimes it leads to trouble. For example, when reviewing a workgroup document and finding a statement reflecting a decision that I felt hadn’t been adequately discussed, I wrote (roughly) that “No one has responded to my previous comments on [that decision] and I can not support [that decision] until we have a discussion.” I really meant literally that I could not voice my personal support for that decision until we have had some discussion of the policy merits in the workgroup. But this statement (like, apparently, many of my statements) caused somewhat of stir, resulting in their manager calling my manager, saying something like “I just don’t don’t know what it means when Josh says he can’t support [the decision].”

In the wake of the this, um, misunderstanding, my mentor, a wizened and diplomatic long-time employee, explained to me that people in the federal government are not used to people saying what they mean. They work on an adjusted scale of diplomatic language. For example:

Gov’t Speak Literal Equivalent
“We have some questions on the document.” “We think the document has some issues that need to be fixed.”
“We have some comments on the document.” “We can’t approve of this document until the changes we identify have been made.”
“We have some concerns with the document.” “We are strongly opposed to the spirit of this document, and will fight to make sure it doesn’t go out without major changes.”

Since “concerns” is as bad as it gets, indicating serious political conflict, I can see that on a scale like this my statement must have either just been confusing or sounded like the nuclear option. The question now is whether to change my communication style or idealistically soldier on, because I believe people in the government ought to say what they mean. So far my solution has been to write what I want and trust my coworkers to temper the language. But this is probably not a long-term solution.

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Air conditioning and the rise of conservatism

I always felt there was something morally suspect about air conditioning. And yet here in the former swamp of the District, I submit. Check this half-serious Salon article: Does air conditioning make people vote Republican?.

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Japan to launch carbon footprint labeling scheme

Thanks to Vinney for passing on this story. Apparently Japan is starting a program to label certain types of consumer goods with their carbon footprint, that is, with the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted over the life cycle of the product, from extracting raw material to disposal or recycling. The UK has a similar system in the works, and there have been some voluntary programs in Europe, but, as far as I know, this will be the first mandatory carbon labeling program. It’s easy to argue with the details of such a scheme — measuring carbon footprints is a highly uncertain venture, but personally I welcome the attempt. I have been pushing for the development of life cycle emissions reporting from my small corner of the EPA and to my friends on the Hill for about a year now, and I’ve had little to point to by way of precedent.

On the one hand I find it a little disingenuous that the Japanese plan focuses on food product labeling when the climate impact of individual food items are pretty small for consumers to be constantly worried about, and the differences between comparable food items (say, one brand of soda versus another) are likely to be within the margin of error of the footprint values. It might make more sense to start with the big-ticket items, like consumer electronics or furniture, and not overwhelm already-complicated food purchasing decisions with more cryptic labeling. On the other hand, it might be good to get carbon labeling on to something that people see and worry about every day. Maybe the impact of people shifting their food purchases won’t be that big, but there could be a spillover effect from the raised awareness of carbon footprints. It could be one of those things where you add up carbon labels, recycling, reusable bags, and suddenly you get a conservation society — the much-sought-after cultural shift where people start to think about their impact on resources and not just the cost of things. After a while, it becomes natural, like wearing a seatbelt. Of course you choose the house with the lower carbon footprint. You wouldn’t throw a can in the trash, would you?!

Well, a fellow can dream.

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Return to the digital suburbs

After a long period of blissful ignorance of my Facebook profile and other social networking sites (and, well, let’s face it, my blog as well), I checked in again today, giving in to Moira‘s months of gentle nagging. I accepted a long list of friend requests, made a few trifling profile edits, and Facebook-chatted with my sister who told me Facebook is evil and I should turn back while I still can (it’s too late for her).

Anyone who uses social networking sites should read the Stuff White People Like entry on Facebook which chronicles my personal migration accurately and with clever metaphors. It unfortunately doesn’t describe where LinkIn lies in the digital landscape. I will venture something like a downtown financial district where everything closes up at 5:00.

I have to say, if people fled the cluttered MySpace for the clean design of Facebook, then Facebook is setting itself up to be the next last thing. It is way more cluttered and confusing than it was when last I used it. Especially with all the third-party apps, I get the feeling that if I leave the wrong box checked I’m going to give away my privacy, money, freedom, and probably a piece of my soul. Also pop-up dancing smiley faces will follow me everywhere I go on the web.

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