Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Shutdown Democracy: A Report from the Field

So it happened. The U.S. government is shutting down. A lot of people are writing a lot of things about what this means, but I’m awake and restless at 4am, so here’s a quick take on what it means for me personally.

Forget that our pay has been frozen for three years. Forget that I was already furloughed without pay for over a week last year due to sequestration. Forget that I’m among the 20% or so of federal workers who are deemed “non-essential.” We will likely not get paid for however long it takes Congress to figure out how to do their job. And forget that even if they decide to make us whole again (like they did in the 1990s) that they will most likely end up taking some or all of it back to meet sequestration.

These are my sacrifices, and I can deal with them. The thing that upsets me most is that is the damage that this uncertainty has done to my ability to do my job. My job is a very, very small piece of the government puzzle, but I think it is important to share how removing this piece affects the world outside my little cubicle.

First, bear with me as I tell you a little about my job. I manage grants to local governments to improve their water and wastewater infrastructure. The funds for these grants were appropriated by Congress back in the days of pork barrel earmarks. By law, the money must be spent on these projects. My job is to make sure the funds are used responsibly and provide an environmental benefit. At times the work can seem frustratingly administrative and bureaucratic, and I might even wonder occasionally if it is how I want to spend my career. But I recognize that it is important for someone to be there, protecting taxpayers from waste and protecting the environment from harm.

I also spend a portion of my time working directly with water and wastewater utilities to help them manage their energy usage. The benefits from this work are broad and deep. Reducing energy use means more than just saving money and reducing carbon and reducing the environmental ills caused by producing our energy. It means that these utilities will be able to reinvest this money improving their infrastructure or retaining employees without having to raise rates for their customers.  Last year alone, four of these utilities saved 5.5 million kilowatt-hours of energy -- this is equivalent to the annual electricity used by about 530 homes. These utilities kept about $500,000 that would have otherwise gone to the power company. We’re currently in a critical period where we are trying to scale up these results and get similar programs going in two other states.

But all of that is on hold for now. Or at least I presume it is. As of this writing, I still have yet to receive official notice that I am on furlough. But the costs of the shutdown are already piling up. Here are a few examples:

  • The threat of a shutdown makes any kind of planning pretty meaningless. I spent a lot of time this week canceling meetings, canceling commitments, and dealing with a lot of contingencies. This is time that could have been better spent. If in the next few hours Congress passes a bill and funds the government for the next six weeks, it is likely I will spend more time rescheduling those meetings and commitments. But even then, how meaningful will those meetings be when it is possible this will all happen again in less than two months?
  • I was scheduled to attend the WEFTEC conference next week. This is where water professionals gather to share ideas, learn the latest, and find common interests. I cannot stress enough how important it is for EPA to be represented there. It is our ticket out of the “echo chamber” that critics of government are always complaining about. If we are shut down, not only will I miss the boat, but the government will have to pay various fees for my cancelled reservations. Again, if we’re back in business by the end of the week, I’ll be cleared to travel, but all the cheap hotel rooms will probably be gone, and Uncle Sam will be out of more money.
  • Much of my time this last week has been spent going to meetings about what I should expect in the event of a lapse in appropriations. Again, this is time that I would have rather spent doing my job.
  • Try as I might to be a good patriot and give my all to this job, it was really hard to find the motivation yesterday. When politicians (and the electorate who put them in power) regularly send the message that you're not important enough to pay, it really hurts morale. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. And it makes it easier to spend a few minutes reading the latest news or commiserating with your coworkers instead of working on the things that really matter. I know that my contribution to this cost is fully within my control, not Congress', and ideally I wouldn't have to list it here; but expecting otherwise is just unrealistic.

These are the costs that really frustrate me. I know there are many more examples but I don’t have time to enumerate them. In an idiomatic governmental irony, I now have to go to work to find out that I can’t go to work.

Let me know if you wanna hang out.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Take a hike, Google!

Remember when it was discovered that directions from Google maps suggests kayaks and jet skis for crossing large bodies of water? Well I do. And if you don't here's an example:

Charming, right? Now, if I may be so bold, I'd say the engineers behind this feature missed an opportunity. Witness the disappointing results when I ask for walking directions from Mount Katahdin, ME to Springer Mountain, GA:

Everyone knows the best way to get from A to B on foot is the Appalachian Trail! There's even a ripe pun for the picking. The advisory circled in the image could (should) read "This route includes a Harpers Ferry."

Anybody? Anybody?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Argo Dam Update

This is kind of old news, but I thought I should follow up on it. Edward Vielmetti put up a nice slideshow of a diver suiting up and taking the plunge. Reports say they yanked out concrete blocks, some shopping carts and a motorcycle from one of the intakes. A second intake is clogged and will remain so until spring, but it appears the zebra mussels have been vindicated for the time being.

I'd also like to point out that his latest article uses a hydrograph identical to the one I generated for my last post. This is an improvement from his original article on Jan 26th, which was similar to the one in the HRWC article I linked to. I'd like to believe he took the cue from me, but I' doubt it. In any case, I'm always happy to see science get communicated properly.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Argo Dam goes berserk

Edward Vielmetti has been following the recent erratic behavior of Argo Dam the last week or so. The Huron River Watershed Council, among other groups, has been advocating for removing the dam to help save the City money and improve the river's ecology. I think the plan makes a good deal of sense, but recently took a blow when city council voted 10-1 to approve a 3.1 million dollar project to repair the dam and construct a whitewater headrace. I suspect this decision was probably meant to appease the owners of expensive property that borders Argo Pond - the removal of the dam would cause Argo Pond to recede and give the property owners a nice fertile valley in lieu of waterside property. But that's just a hunch.

In any case, the HRWC posted an article about the recent malfunctions and their effect on the river ecology. The article included a nifty hydrograph (a graph of the river's flowrate) from the USGS, reproduced below.

But unless you're used to looking at hydrographs, it's hard to tell that this is absolutely nutty. So here's another plot over a longer time frame that gives you a better idea of what this looks like in the context of more 'normal' behavior. Presto:

Vielmetti's latest article says that the zebra mussel, the archetypal invasive species, is suspected for the malfunctions. Makes you wonder when decision makers will start listening to the recommendations of environmental scientists.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


In the "Give & Take" post, I went into a small part of the importance of diamou, or tribal names, in Mali. I would often get asked if/how many diamous are in America, and I always struggled with the answer. There are of course the Native American tribes, but I don't think there is the same kind of joking relationships that Malian tribes enjoy, and lumping all the anglos together doesn't do justice to the variety therein. Last names, on the other hand, seem too numerous to really create the same kind of team mentality that seems to be inherent to the diamou.

I don't know if this map will totally answer the question, but it goes a long way. It's a geographical tag cloud of last names, color-coded by ethnic origin. Pretty cool.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The 20/20 Peace Corps report

I was horrified by the terrible crimes reported by ABC News last week. What happened to those women is a tragedy and they are incredibly brave for sharing their stories. I am troubled, too, by the apparently apathetic and negligent treatment of the incident by the Peace Corps staff in the countries concerned. While the official statement addresses some of these concerns, I'll be looking forward to further action in response to those allegations.

In the meantime, I've gathered from various comment threads and personal conversations that the general reaction to these reports includes a tendency to presume that Peace Corps service inherently carries greater risk for sexual assault and rape relative to life here in the United States. I don't believe this is the case.

According to the ABC report, there have been about 1,000 cases of sexual assault and rape reported by Peace Corps volunteers over the last decade. About 3,500-4,000 Peace Corps trainees go abroad every year. For the sake of argument, let's make the conservative assumption that only half of these 3,500 trainees are women. (In reality, 60% all volunteers are women - most, but not all of which are recent college graduates.) 1,000 incidents over a ten year period among 17,500 women over comes to a 5.7% rate of incidence. Compare this to the United States, where up to 25% of college age women report surviving rape or attempted rape since their 14th birthday. (14-22 is only 8 years, but it's been a while since I took stats, so I'm not sure how to correct for this. Regardless, the absolutely correct value would never approach 5.7%.) I've been told that the statistics for murder and assault are similarly lopsided.

So let us not confuse the issue. As I said, the reported unresponsiveness and victim-blaming of the local staff is of great concern and deserves scrutiny. But there is nothing inherently unsafe about being abroad or working as a Peace Corps volunteer. The same terrible things can and do happen here, and it's just as tragic.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Coups in the News

'Cus even in Madagascar,
we'll find some shack below radar

-Gogol Bordello

Back in early 2009, when things were beginning to turn sour in Madagascar, I remember being frustrated when Google news couldn't feed my information addiction regarding the pending coup. English-language articles that came up from a search of 'Madagascar' were mostly about the release of 'Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.' Though this would soon be hilariously ironic, I couldn't figure out why this was more news-worthy than a tempest of cyclones, looting and massacres. I still don't know why it didn't get covered as extensively as it might have, but I've been looking at Google trends, and it seems to validate that it was bad coverage, and not my information withdrawal, that sent me into such anxious fits at the internet cafe.

Here's the first plot, showing web traffic and news reports for Madagascar since 2004, to give you an idea of how coverage of the movies compares to the coup. (Click on any of the images below for a larger view.)

The first thing to notice is the relative size of the peaks in overall traffic, at 'A' and 'B,' to the average level of traffic and subsequent coup traffic. Notice that peak A is quite wide -- beginning around the 'Madagascar' release on May 27, 2005 and taking until mid-2006 to return to a normal traffic level. It also has a secondary peak corresponding to the DVD release on November 15, 2005. Since the release of the second film overlapped with the period of turmoil, we'll just have to assume that the traffic peak for the second movie at 'B' has similar traits. This means that when we look at traffic for 2009, the high baseline at the beginning of the year is mostly residual activity from the movie release on November 7, 2008.
Also worth mentioning is that the news coverage, shown on the bottom line, was fairly responsible -- small peaks for the movies relative to the day of the coup.

This next figure we zoom in on 2009. Remember, the high traffic volume at the beginning of the year is residual buzz from the movie.

Here we see some stranger behavior from the news publishers. There's a small hiccup in late January, when the looting and shootings took place, which in my mind were the most intense moments of the period. Yet the greatest news activity only happened when the president peacefully stepped down on March 17.

So far, we've seen that web users care more about movies than Malagasy murders, regardless of how much noise the news makes. We also might hypothesize that the internet-based media mailed this one in. It missed all the real action and mostly covered an event that was pretty much a forgone conclusion in the minds of anyone paying attention. But is this true everywhere? How do other coups stack up?

Honduras suffered a coup in June 2009, just 3 months after Ravolomanana stepped down. I've graphed activity for Honduras and Madagascar in 2009 on the same chart so that we can see the relative intensity of the coverage.

All of a sudden, that huge spike on March 17 looks like a speed bump next to the Honduran Himalayas. This makes sense. To get to Madagascar from the east coast of the United States, you need 19 hours and $5000. Also there are probably more American expats in Honduras and Honduran expats in America than is the case for Madagascar. You can't report what you don't see.

But come on - there were more articles written in
Romanian than in English about the crisis in Madagascar. Romanian! I don't even want to think what that would look like in terms of articles per fluent capita!

Certainly, there's a lot this data can't account for. (Was the coup in Honduras more unexpected and sensational? Is there a disparity of the level of access to telecommunications in the two countries? What effect did World Cup qualifiers have on the traffic?) But I can't help but wonder if there's a certain amount of negligent laziness that determines the news we see and the news we don't. What do you think? And seriously, what's the deal with the Romanians?