Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Bureaucracy of the Rings

@2020 Kevin Wade Johnson
I don't regret my government career.  I helped protect a lot of people, I got to work with and for some remarkable folks, and learned a lot, too.  I also gained perspective I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

And I certainly understand why a lot of people want the government to do various things.  But from the perspective I picked up from the inside, I tend to think less about what the government does, and more about how it does it.

Anyway, I don't regret my government career.  It gave me a wealth of material for humor.

By the way, this is not a parody of The Lord of the Rings.  (That's not what I'm making fun of.)

And finally, we could all use a chuckle right now, right?  So here's the first of two humor pieces for April Fool's week.

The opinions expressed in this work are those of the characters expressing them.

This is a work of fiction.  All the characters and events portrayed in this work are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

Three things for the Elven-kings under the sky
The Park Service is the only one of those that's nigh
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone
Mines and Mint and others will not leave them 'lone
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die
Bureaus, Departments, Agencies, it makes one sigh
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
One thing to rule them all, One thing to find them
One thing to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
And boy howdy can bureaucracy bind

The company walked footsore and weary, for the road had been dark and winding for many miles.  They stopped at the sight of a dark and still lake, one from which the light of the sun setting over the mountains did not reflect.

"Indeed are these the walls of Moria," exclaimed Gandalf, "though much has changed.  Sadly, though, we cannot take Bill further."

"Poor old Bill!" cried Sam.  "Our loyal pony?"

"Poor old Bill!" cried Aragorn.  "Purchased with White Council coins?"

"I'm afraid so," Gandalf told Sam.  "Much though I wish not to abandon a loyal friend."

"I'm afraid not," Merry told Aragorn.  "He was given me to replace others stolen away."

"All right," said Sam, "though it breaks my heart."

"Wonderful," said Aragorn, "my heart is lifted.  Remember Glorfindel at the ford, sword a-glow, driving the Dark Lord's creatures away?"

"Sure," said Pippin.

"Well, he'd be with us," said Aragorn, "but he's still filling out the expense report for that little jaunt."

"Alas," said Merry.

"Alack," said Pippin.

Frodo, Legolas and Gimli exchanged glances.  They hadn't had any lines at all so far.  But such is the way of satire, betimes, and we will speak no more of it.

Boromir did not exchange looks with the others.  He knew he'd be written out before the end of the first book, and stood glum yet stoic.

He did whisper to Gandalf, "Why do you get to come back?"

"Perfect performance appraisals since the First Age, right here, baby," Gandalf whispered back, tapping his own chest.


"Saruman isn't my rater, bro."

Boromir's glumness only grew.  All those years of protecting Minas Tirith, and now this.  And he still didn't have any dialog.  Alack.

Gimly was eyeing the dark water.  "We should drain yon lake," he muttered.

Legolas said, "Think of the environment."

Aragorn said, "Think of the environmental impact statement."

Gimli stood abashed, but rallied.  "We dwarves are not ruled by such matters of parchment."

Legolas said, "That's why no one lets you out on the surface anymore."

The elf-dwarf feud might have erupted anew at that moment, but both remembered the pain of the peace negotiations that had ended it anon.  For the Dunedain who had mediated knew the secret of such success and employed it: agonizingly uncomfortable chairs.  Delay the talks for an Age or more?  No way, Eldalië!

But neither would likely have disputed further, for the company had come to a wall of featureless stone.  Featureless, that is, until Gandalf's magic and the light of the moon revealed great stone doors, richly carved with motifs of holly.  For this was the entrance to Moria that had once shown the friendship between elf and dwarf, called by some the Doors of Durin, by others the West-Door, and called still other names to help pad out the appendices to lengthy fantasy trilogies.

"I thought I knew the elf-letters," said Frodo, glad to have something to say at last, and planning to speak harsh words to his agent about the matter, "but I cannot read these."

"They are not in Sindarin, nor even Quenya," explained Gandalf, since somebody had to do the exposition around here, plus it was in his performance plan, "but in the intricate and difficult speech of the elven scribe-lords."

"Has that language a name?"

"Indeed.  Bureaucratesë."  Gandalf cleared his throat, and began to read the words upon the door.

"In accordance with Eregion Directive DCLXVI-A, as promulgated anon by Celebrimbor in the 1600th year of the Second Age, in concordance with the Norse myth disruptive-innovation paradigm that all must ultimately downsource in destruction, Gotterdammerungit, and in order to proactively value-add free and untrammeled passage and travel on the part of amicable parties and allied individuals, groups and nations, in compliance with the principles laid down previously in this Age and that Age immediately preceding…"

Merry and Pippin listened with trepidation as the wizard translated for a couple of hours.  "In accordance with."  "Promulgated."  "Downsource."  Many a word and phrase of fell meaning and intent.  Making too many provisions for redundancies and subordinate clauses and jargon.  Gotterdammerungit.

Sam cried out then, for a dreadful beast was rising from the lake, a monstrous creature of injurious tentacles, hideous stench and undocumented grievances.  For the Watcher at the Gates had been placed there to slay any would-be travelers, a guardian doing the fearsome wishes of Sauron, or Morgoth, or some other entity designated by the White Council as a Stated Sponsor of Look Let's Come Right Out and Call It Evil Because That's a Fantasy Trope, Okay?

A tentacle seized Frodo's leg and began to drag him toward the water; other tentacles came forth and menaced the others.

Legolas shot arrow after arrow, Gimli chopped at one tentacle and then another, Sam struggled to pull Frodo back, and Boromir thought he might not be the first to go after all.

Merry and Pippin cried, "Gandalf!  How do we open the doors?  Is there a secret password or some such magic?"

"Why yes," said Gandalf.

"Indeed," agreed Aragorn, reaching into a secret place in the stone, and drawing forth several dozen stone tablets, a hammer, and a chisel.  "We just fill out this form."

And so the fellowship came to its end, and the Ring was lost to Sauron, although we must note that Aragorn did make it to Section IX Question LXXXVI ("If thou findest thyself in possessionship of a Ring of Power, when was held thy most recent formal analytics-engagement session on temptations and danger-opportunities of the aforementioned, as conducted by one of the Wise, i.e., Inari, a.k.a. Wizards, or one of the Chief Eldar?  Pleaseth provideth in dd-mm-yyyyy-age format.").

And yet, all was not lost.  The end of the fellowship meant that, through a dark and winding way indeed, came about the Fourth Age.

In accordance with Age-Branding Directive CMXCIX, as promulgated by the White Council or suitable successor organization, that is.

And Sauron?  And the others?

Well, the White Council did prepare him a document acceding to the "optics of his startup fulfillment," and did appoint a transition team under Saruman, an advisory board under the Mouth of Sauron, and soon Shelob was heading a tiger team and the Captain of the Nazgul was going over "org charts."

Sauron himself?  Well, he soon found himself spread so thin amongst the burgeoning bureaus, departments and agencies, he was used up anon.

The Balrog took early retirement, claiming burnout.  Alas.  (Not alas.)

Gandalf did indeed come back, and was assigned as Chief Custodian, aka the Washer of the Grates, of Sauron's old haunt of Dol Guldur.  ("It's an opportunity to excel, with your skill set for cleaning, O Wizard.  You turn gray white!")  He argued he did not have the staff, but Saruman broke that up soon enough.

From time to time Gandalf wonders if coming back was really worth it.  All those years of protecting Middle-Earth and now this.  Alack.

Glorfindel?  He's still working on his expense report.  He claims it shall take him an Age.  A Wise move.

Bill the Pony never returned, but put himself out to pasture somewhere, away from all those agencies and bureaus.  Horse sense.

And the Ring?  Well, Wormtongue assures me it's being cared for by top men.  Which ones?  Top.  Men.

But that's another story.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

But Is It Science Fiction XII: One More Example

Let's do one last example for this series, one that I think best illustrates my point about what's the core of the genre as opposed to its accessories.

Take the groundbreaking 1903 film The Great Train Robbery.  Get a copy, fire up some video editing software, and have every gun shoot beams of light.  The movie's a short, only runs twelve minutes.  Won't take long.

There.  Zap guns!  That makes the movie science fiction.  Right?

No?  How about if we make the train itself glow, like it has an energy field that does nothing but it looks cool?  Or we make the robbers' horses look like, um, robo-steeds?  Call the Native Americans aliens?

Science fiction now?

The answer, of course, is no.  Special effects and other superficialities don't make something science fiction, the story does.  (And if you've ever wondered why I never talk about movies or much TV here, this is a huge part of the reason.  Too many sf movies showcase spectacle over story.)

See, westerns are essentially about the conflict between law and lawlessness.  Romances are about the triumph of a couple's compatibility and love over obstacles.  Detective stories are about what causes crime and corruption within a society, or at least family.  See the rest of this series for what science fiction is about.

So horses and guns don't make a western, a pair of love interests don't make a romance, and a murder and a sleuth don't make a mystery.  Readers want more than just the superficial stuff.

If you want to use any of the trappings of any of the genres, by all means do.  But if you want to satisfy your audience, give them the core elements of the story they're expecting.  Don't disappoint their expectations.  You could zap your chances of ever being read again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Problem Words and Phrases: Gored/Gourd (Gord)

You can get gored doing something this dangerous
You should be able to avoid injury from gourds
The late hockey player and golfer Gord Brydson, who was without doubt dangerous to pucks, and associated with water hazards in his day
These three all sound the same, except perhaps in some obscure dialect, obscure being defined for the entry as "I didn't know that."

Gored is the past tense of the verb gore, which means to cause a puncture injury with something like a horn or tusk.  It goes back to the Old English gar, meaning a spear—seen in names like Garret (swift spear: gar + rathe/hrathe, quick) and Gerald (Germanic, ruling with the spear: ger + waldan, to rule), as well as the fish named gar.  It goes back to the Indo-European *ghaisos, meaning a puncture/piercing or javelin.

A gourd is a climbing or trailing plant like the squash, pumpkin, etc., or the bulb-shaped fruit from one of them.  (I, personally, did not know those were fruits.)  (I will thus consider that obscure.)  It goes back to the Latin word for gourd, cucurbita, and possibly the Sanskrit word for a long melon, cirbhaṭa.

It can be used in slang to refer to anything bulbous, such as old-style footballs, or someone's head.

Gord is a nickname, short for Gordon.  The name in Polish goes back to the Latin Gordian (the name of a late emperor or two) (whom you can consider obscure); the more familiar Scots name apparently goes back to the Old English gor-dūn, meaning a mud hill.

So I hope we've come to this point without puncturing any egos, and without making mountains out of mud hills.  Everything should be clear now, nothing uncertain or obscure.  Except, of course, unfamiliar punctuations, Sanskrit, and the lives and reigns of Gordian I (157-238 BCE), Gordian II (d. 238), and Gordian III (225-244).

No, I'm not going to give you details on those three guys, or what hazards they encountered in life.  Far beyond the scope of a problem words entry!  Are you oughta your cucurbita gourd?!

No bullfighters were gored in the production of this entry.  No gars or gourds either.

Back to the complete list

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Politicians and the Perception Game

Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed a wheelchair, since he couldn't take more than a few steps without one.  But very few knew that at the time.  He was concerned about electability, about needing to seem strong.  Being in a wheelchair doesn't make anyone weak, of course, but this wasn't about reality, it was about perception.

Voters might perceive him as weak.  But if he could hide his mobility issues from the public, he could control their perceptions, and thus their decisions.

John F. Kennedy had back problems from a young enough age that he couldn't join the Navy at age 24.  Part of what got him elected president was the contrast between his apparent youth and vigor and Eisenhower's age and quiet persona.

But he had a lot more medical problems than that.  He took multiple medications, and who knows how much they affected his presidential performance.  Which, again, brings up perception.

Khrushchev thought Kennedy was weak with the lack of response to the Berlin Wall being put up and the whole Bay of Pigs fiasco, which helped cause the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Khrushchev's perception led him to push his luck, placing nuclear missiles near America.

Kennedy came through in response to that, which enhanced his public perception.

Politicians always try to control perceptions.  They'll all spin, most commit omission, and the worst go on to misrepresenting, misleading, misstating, misinforming…  Democrats in the historical examples above, Republicans especially, now, with their conspiracy theories and general disregard for facts.

Understandable—what difference do facts make if people don't perceive them to matter?  But reprehensible.

Because facts do matter, of course, even if less to politicians than the rest of us.

All of which is to say, don't take what politicians say at face value.  Don't accept appearances.  The reality can be very different.

Facts are reality.  And reality is ultimately what matters.

Or do you like the idea of a president handling a crisis while dopey or even delusional, whether from medication or anything else?

So try to discover what the reality is, and make decisions on that basis.  Then take the appropriate steps.

Enough politics for a bit.  Back to the usual topics for the rest of this week, then a couple of humor pieces for April Fool's week.

Friday, March 20, 2020

How a President Gets Hammered by Historians

Historians generally get the last word on rating presidents, although not until years later.  Some presidents get acclaimed, some get blamed.  The best way to get sledged is to do too little when too much is on the line.  I'll illustrate and oversimplify.

James Buchanan lost to Lincoln back in 1860, and, with Lincoln's election, the South started to secede before Lincoln even took office.  So, what did Buchanan do?  Did he send in the troops?  Reinforce and resupply the forts?

Nope.  For too long, he didn't do anything.  Just sat there, embracing his lame-duck status, until finally sending troops to Fort Sumter, but otherwise left it all for Lincoln to deal with.

He's considered one of the worst.

Andrew Johnson took over for Lincoln after the latter's assassination.  A Democrat, Lincoln chose him as his running mate in an attempt to heal some of the wartime divisions.

An extremely obstinate man, Johnson simply seemed unable to realize that his party wasn't in control, and that he didn't have a mandate to do things his way.  He pushed his positions till he was impeached.

Down toward the bottom of most lists.

Herbert Hoover was an immensely estimable man.  Relief work during the Boxer Rebellion.  National food administrator during WWI, providing food supplies to troops and areas in famine in Europe, extending to over thirty countries.  Secretary of Commerce, with his efforts leading to the construction of Hoover Dam and more.

He was elected president, and looked to take advantage of the country's scientific potential.  Except the stock market crashed, the Depression began, and his views on individual freedom meant he felt the government should not take the lead—but then he didn't push at the business sector to do so, either.

His position was not  unreasonable.  But in the face of the greatest economic disaster in US history, his approach was untenable; he vetoed a bill to create a federal unemployment agency, for example.  Shantytowns were called Hoovervilles.

He does not rank high on historians' lists.

That brings us to the current incumbent.  Let's leave aside his love of conspiracy theories, his refusal to condemn racists, his violence-implying tweets.

The coronavirus pandemic is going to be to this generation what 9/11 was to the last, what the oil crisis was to mine (only more so), what the Depression and Pearl Harbor was to my parents'.  Everything changes now.  How we behave will change.  Where we can find employment will change.  Society, culture, behavior, more.  How much and for how long we don't know yet.  We'll see.  But this is a national (at least) inflection point.

What did the current incumbent do, in the initial, crucial days?  Tried to downplay it as less than the flu.  Tried to ensure his own re-election instead of citizens' safety.  Worried about the stock market instead of people's lives.  Tried to find someone to blame instead of step up and lead.

How high will historians someday rate him?  Lauded?  Or lamest?

We'll see.