The same handful of vendors bid on every federal tech project, and often the bids are between one and two orders of magnitude higher than they should be. FedScoop recently published a list of the top 100 federal IT vendors, ranked by income. (I’d only heard of 13 of them before.) 71% of of the contract income in this list goes to the top 10 vendors. 22% goes to Lockheed Martin. Look at this distribution of the top 100:
If we performed this exercise with all federal IT contracts—and there will be $86 billion in federal IT spending in FY2017—we’d see that there is a very long tail, though it probably wouldn’t change the fact that most of the spoils are divided among a handful of vendors.
I’ve spent the last few years working in tech as a non-profit partner to government and, before that, I worked in tech within government. I am here to tell you that you can effect more positive change as a government vendor than as a helpful non-profit, and that you can be at least as helpful to our nation as a government vendor as you can by working on tech within government. (After all, government outsources work to thousands of times more technical positions than the number that they employ directly.)
Generally speaking, free software is useless to governments. If you spent the next eight months feverishly producing the perfect regulatory management platform, and then handed a copy of it to an agency (complete with a FOSS license), odds are slim to none that they would be able to use it. There are far too many hurdles. But if you bid $100,000 on a government RFP for that system, you’d ensure that government would save a bundle and be able to actually use your software. Government has a system for acquiring new technology: the procurement process. Realistically, the change you can provide will come from working within that system, not trying to work outside of it.
The United States needs a small army of competent developers to start hundreds of businesses, bid on federal contracts, and do top-notch work for a fair rate. We need people whose goal isn’t an IPO and fabulous wealth, but instead to earn a nice living for themselves and everybody who works for them while making their country better by creating better technology for government.
There is good and important work that needs to be done in government technology, at federal, state, and local levels. Doing that work in exchange for payment isn’t merely not a bad thing, it may be the only thing you can viably do that actually makes a difference. It’s not reasonable to expect talented developers to perform free work at government hackathons in exchange for pizza while major vendors produce failing software for hundreds of millions of dollars.
A 6.4% success rate isn’t good enough. Fixing this will involve a lot of work beyond merely attracting new vendors—and most of that work is within government—but attracting new vendors is an important part in this improvement. Become a government tech vendor. Help make the U.S. a better place for everybody.
I am not a carpenter. My occasional effort to build something, no matter how mundane, ends badly. That’s because carpentry is hard. There are a hundred ways to screw up, and ninety of them are only obvious in retrospect. I took shop class in middle school, so I’m generally comfortable with the tools of the trade, but of course I don’t actually own a drill press or a band saw or any of the other sixties-era industrial equipment that my school trained on. One time I tried to build a temporary woodshed—just something to cover some freshly-milled lumber until it dried—and I wound up blowing a couple of hundred bucks on the structural equivalent of the deformed Ripley clone in Alien Resurrection.
But our chicken coop’s lifespan was reaching its end, and I was faced with a choice: repair our six-year-old (to us), second-hand chicken coop? Or build a new one? One thing led to another, and before I knew it I’d decided to build a pretty non-trivial shed-cum-coop. The cost of the materials was steep—about $800—and I didn’t understand easily a quarter of the instructions. (“Pocket holes”? “Kreg Jig”? “Toenail”?) I figured I could knock it out in a week. That was in May. I finished it this week.
There were a few things I figured out quickly. The first was that my tools were not up to the task. Using a combination of American Express points and cash, I got a cordless drill, aviation shears, some stronger drill bits, sawhorses, an 8′ ladder, and a jigsaw. I filled up my pickup’s bed in the first of a dozen trip to Lowe’s, with dozens of 2×3s and 2×4s, a stack of plywood and T-11 (which turned out to be a kind of cheap, wooden siding), screws, hinges, concrete deck blocks, and bags of gravel. The second was that I was in way over my head. The third was that I was determined to follow through to completion, not cutting any corners, but getting it right for once.
The foundation was a huge pain in the ass. I had no idea. Living on the side of a mountain, as I do, there is no flat ground. Getting each of the six of the concrete deck blocks both level and located correctly relative to the other five blocks was an exercise in frustration. I did this work on a 90° day in May, and within 30 minutes I found myself wanting to cut corners. (“This is level enough.” “This is square enough.”) A bad foundation would be a bad…er…foundation, so I stopped, relaxed, thought about it, took measurements, and did things right. Framing the foundation was easy—it was just a grid of treated 2×4s.
I put a plywood/insulation sandwich atop the foundation framing, to which the walls could be attached.
Framing the Walls
“Measure twice, cut once.” This aphorism is wrong. Twice is not nearly enough times. I built each one of the coop walls at least two times. It’s pretty simple, in theory—cut sticks of wood at the prescribed size, screw them together with an impact driver—and yet. Three of them were pretty straightforward, at least in retrospect, but the back wall was tough, because the header (the piece of wood that spans the top) had to be mounted at an angle, for the shed roof to slant down. This meant learning to use my speed square. It’s basically a protractor for carpentry. Once I figured it out, it was easy. When they were all finished, my shed was completely full of framed walls.
Mounting the walls to the foundation was not a one-man job. I pressed my wife into service, who held each of them up while I used structural wood screws (very long, thick screws) to affix each of them to the foundation. When all four were up, I had walls that were all wrong. The front wall was not wide enough—falling maybe 1.5″ short of reaching all the way to the left side of the shed—and the side walls were also too narrow, meaning that the whole shed had a 1.5″ lip on the front of it. At this point, I could have taken down the walls and rebuilt them, but I decided these problems were within reason, and also rebuilding the walls sounded awful.
At this point it looked real! Or, at least, like a real-world wireframe of something real.
The next step was to put T-11 siding on, and plywood to form the roof. This could have been through transferring the framing measurements onto waiting sheets, but instead I went with something more direct—my wife held the sheets in place, while I traced the outline of the framing. Using the sawhorses and clamps to hold the sheets of wood in place, I used the jigsaw to cut along the lines. After mounting them on the framing, using the impact driver to quickly affix a couple of screws, I used the jigsaw to trim off the remaining bits. Since the roof is just a big rectangle, I was able to cut out the plywood for that pretty easily.
At this point, I thought most of the work was finished. That was not even a little bit true.
Doors, Windows, and Roofing
I immediately set to building doors and shutters, to keep the rain out. Both turned out to be surprisingly easy. The shutters are just a long piece of wood cut into five segments and screwed together. I covered the windows with hardware cloth, to keep out predators. The door is just a piece of plywood with some framing to keep it rigid. (That’s not to say they’re great. More on that below.) Trim was also pretty simple, although complicated a bit by the need to make sure that the style is kept consistent (e.g., horizontal trim overhangs vertical trim, and 4″ wide corner trim overhangs corners by 1″, where it meets 3″ trim). I made a bunch of mistakes on the trim, despite its hypothetical simplicity, but I eventually got it more or less correct.
The next protective measure was the roof. I’d hoped to use metal, but the more than I read about working with metal roofing, the more convinced I became of the inevitability of grievous injury. So I went with cheap, plastic roofing, which was really hard to cut (the saw made it vibrate all over the place), and I wound up hiding the terribly ragged cut ends on the back side of the coop. It was easy enough to screw down and, later, use gap sealer to close off the space under each of the ridges in its wavy profile.
Painting was not so easy. I used red barn paint on the T-11 and white latex paint on the trim. (I still haven’t treated the wooden foundation, to protect it from rot, but I intend to do that shortly.) The trim needed two coats, the painters tape refused to stick to the T-11, cleaning paintbrushes turned out to be frustrating and hard, and I kept splashing things with the wrong color of paint and forgetting to paint every surface (e.g., the top edge of the window trim). I had to paint in inside, too, to protect it from the messy realities of poultry. I did that with (white) Kilz primer, painting the walls and the floor.
Paint would not be enough to protect the floor. I bought a roll of cheap, remnant vinyl flooring and a small bucket of flooring glue. Following instructions carefully, I trimmed it to fit and glued it down. After it dried, I used silicon caulk to seal the edges, to keep moisture from getting under the floor.
At this point, I had a shed, which would do my chickens and ducks no good in its present form. Using some industrial-strength shelving brackets, I made a mount for a perch—which would consist of a 2×4—and, below it, a wide shelf (known as a “poop deck” for obvious reasons). I cut a 12″ square hole in the wall for the hens’ door, and built a little glide-track frame for a guillotine-style door. And I used some leftover T-11 and lumber to assemble a ramp for the hens to use to get in and out of the shed, as their door is elevated a good two feet above the ground. It remains to build nesting boxes and a second door, so that we can rotate their pasture access.
They’re not thrilled with the change. Our hens have spent their whole lives in their rapidly-decaying mobile coop. One even flew over the fence to get to their old coop, where I found her in the nesting box at dusk. On the first night, I had to carry each of them into the coop, one by one, and lock them up to prevent their escape. So, not a home run.
Oh, God, the mistakes. I see nothing but mistakes when I look at the shed. A door latch that doesn’t quite line up. Shutters with a 1″ gap between them. Little holes everywhere, where I had to re-drill and later patch with wood filler. Blobs of gap filler, which expanded far beyond my expectations, requiring that the excess be trimmed off with a knife. Crooked trim, angles that aren’t even close to 90°. I could go on. Some of these I’ve fixed, or will fix. Others I’ll have to live with. But I think all are within reasonable parameters.
So, so many lessons learned.
Learning new things is hard. Learning new things in the physical world—i.e., not writing code—is really hard.
Building things is expensive. Even if the individual components are inexpensive, the tools required to build stuff cost a lot of money.
When I hear a nagging voice in my head that says “hey, you’re making this wrong, maybe,” I should stop and listen to it.
Expect to do everything at least twice, because I’m going to mess it up the first time.
Building physical things scratches a very similar itch as building software, with the frustrating exception that a physical thing can only be used by me, while software that I build can benefit many people.
All in all, this has been a great experience. I’ve gotten a lot better at basic carpentry in the intervening two months, making fewer mistakes and increasing my understanding of what’s possible. I intend to continue to build things, as life necessitates. But now that this project is wrapping up, I look forward to getting back to writing code.
The last time I started a business was over a decade ago. Good news: it’s gotten a lot easier. There was a lot of overhead in startup costs that have been reduced to little or nothing, due to the rise of internet-based tools. I had to do some research and try a lot of tools before I settled on the basic suite. Here’s what I’m using at the U.S. Open Data Institute:
Contactually watches my e-mail and serves as a repository for notes after meetings and phone calls. I associate each contact with a given project and classify them based on the nature of our relationship (client, funder, employee, vendor, colleague, board member, etc.) Based on those criteria, it reminds me when I need to get in touch with somebody. $20/month.
The Asana group task management software is almost like using native Mac OS X software. Everything I need to do goes in here, attached to a given project and categorized. As the US ODI adds more employees and contractors, the group functionality will start to pay off. Free for teams of up to 15 people.
I’d included an assistant in my budget, and the cost was non-trivial. In reality, the amount of assistance that I’ll need is going to fluctuate over time, and at this point my need is so minimal that I don’t even know how to meaningfully employ a competent person for, say, 4 hours a week. Then a friend suggested Zirtual. Now I have an assistant in North Carolina, who I can call or e-mail when I need some help. (Admittedly, I’m still figuring out how to work with an assistant, accustomed as I am to doing everything myself, but that’s not Zirtual’s fault.) $200/month for 8 hours of work.
Most teleconferencing systems are terrible, and I’ve generally relied on the folks on the other end of phone line to arrange something. Now I use UberConference. It has a simple web-based interface, allows selective muting of participants’ phones (that one guy with the barking dog), it doesn’t require a PIN, and it’ll even call the participants when the conference starts, rather than vice-versa. Free, $10/month for a bunch of nice features, or $20/month for those nice features and a toll-free number.
There was no way I was going to pay for a landline. And I’ve already got a mobile phone, of course, so I didn’t need a second one of those. But I needed an organizational phone number, voicemail, an employee phone directory, etc. That’s where Grasshopper comes in. They host the PBX, and connect calls to my phone. Voicemails are e-mailed to me, or available via an iPhone app. Starts at $12/month.
Like most everybody, I host organizational e-mail via Google Apps. Not only is it drop-dead simple, but their support of two-factor authentication gives me one less thing to worry about. $5/month/user.
The days of having to shell out a few hundred bucks for Microsoft Office are over thanks to, again, Google Apps. $5/month/user.
The US ODI’s website is hosted on GitHub Pages. Cost: $0. I’ve got an Amazon Web Services account should I need to host anything that won’t work there, which I can just drop some files into S3. Cost: literal pennies.
The grand total is $279/month, with $200 of that for Zirtual. The equivalent services a decade ago would have been a great deal more expensive, or more crude. I’m not sure what’s been more powerfully beneficial to entrepreneurship: the shift towards internet-hosted business services, or the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps we’ll know in a few years.
My blogging for the past three weeks has all been over on cvillenews.com, entirely on the topic of the University of Virginia’s unsuccessful ouster of President Teresa Sullivan. That imbroglio has largely wrapped up, but you might be interested in reading through my coverage. (If you read just one thing there, make it my translation of a statement by the Board of Visitors, which was one of the most-read things I’ve ever written. There were some great discussions there, and I was happy to see the site serve as a hub for coordinating the defeat of Rector Helen Dragas’ ill-conceived plot.
Late this winter, our poultry was massacred by a single fox, leaving us with a lone—male—duck. My wife and I were too busy with our newborn son, her mother’s aneurysm, and my work for the White House to launch a proper defense and counter-assault on the fox. (Though I did start a few mornings by chasing after the little bastard, swinging a shotgun and screaming at him, to no effect.) Yesterday we got a few new hens—two pekins and a blue indian runner:
The indian runner is pretty ridiculous. I keep being impressed by how she’s learned to walk on just her two hind legs…only to remember that’s all that any duck has. They should start laying this summer. Next up: a few new chickens.
By way of reminder, The State Decoded is now my full-time job, courtesy of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and I’m writing there regularly about state codes and legal structures. (Only now do I notice that it’s been nearly a month since my last blog entry there. I’ve been working simultaneously on six blog entries for the site. I suspect I should do them serially, rather than in parallel.) State codes turn out to be awfully interesting, luckily for me, and I’m trying to share on the State Decoded blog some of the what makes them so engaging. I intend to start putting up a note here every time I post something there, but in the meantime, there are a couple of thousand words there that might be of interest.
When I accepted the position developing Ethics.gov for the White House late last summer, I wondered what sort of people I’d be working with. The conclusion that I arrived at was that the kind of folks who get hired by the White House are probably among the nation’s best at what they do, and that this raw talent would be their defining characteristic. I was wrong. I don’t want this to be misinterpreted—I worked with some hugely capable people, but it was not their expertise that was their distinguishing characteristic. The trait shared by all White House and top agency employees—I don’t mean the Senate-confirmed folks, but the workaday staffers—is reliability.
These folks do what they say they’re going to do, when they say they’re going to do it, at a level that meets or exceeds expectations. If something occurs that is going to prevent the task from being completed in that ideal manner, they say so as early as possible, explain how they’re going to remedy it, and then do so.
It was pretty routine for me to ask somebody to do something for me, and for the thing that I asked for to actually be foolish. I’d think I knew how something should be done, or what needed to be done, and ask for that. The result was that the the person would do the thing that I should have asked to be done, and as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves handles the requests of Bertie Wooster, they would present the completed task as if it was my idea to do it correctly in the first place.
These are almost uniformly people receiving salaries significantly below the market rate, working in the shabby confines of the Old Executive Office Building (adjacent to the White House, where White House employees actually work), putting in staggering hours. Early on, I lamented to a few co-workers that I’d been working 12-hour days for the past week; the response was silence.
If one may consider working for the White House to be a high point of career success, then reliability turns out to be a wildly valuable trait. A temperamental genius might be admired, but not many folks will want to work with her. But somebody who is in perhaps the top ten percent of their field in terms of talent can rise to the top one percent by simply being reliable. So be reliable. Maybe you’ll wind up at the White House.
Warren Olney’s “To the Point,” the PRI show carried by NPR affiliates across the country, has long struck me as a bit of a parody of NPR. The name, for starters. I can’t remember the names of any of the faux NPR stations in “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” but they’re all names exactly like “To the Point,” created by some sort of random NPR show name generator. But the problem is more how Olney hosts the show. He regards himself as a referee, rather than a host.* He’ll get a pair of guests, one on each side of an issue, and have them take turns talking. So if the topic is global climate change, he’ll have a climate scientist and an Exxon-funded lobbyist debate its reality. The lobbyist will say “climate change doesn’t exist, and there’s no evidence that it does,” and the scientist will say “actually, there’s really no question about it at this point,” and Olney simply has them take turns talking. No common ground is found between the guests; or, if it is, Olney really can’t take any credit. (Olney got in trouble for doing this in particularly awful form a couple of months ago, when he let an anti-gay bigot make hateful, outlandish claims and never once called him on it.)
Compare this to Diane Rehm. When she’s being bullshitted by a guest, she doesn’t just turn to another guest and say “John, what’s your take?” She says “Sara, what you’re saying isn’t true, you have to know it’s not true, don’t you?”
Olney had a pair of guests on a couple of years ago, and the exchange that they had was so extraordinary that I’ve been telling people about it ever since. One of the guests looked like an idiot, but Olney was the worst for the exchange—he came off looking like a buffoon for his unwillingness to acknowledge that his guest was a huckster.
On the January 1, 2010 episode of the show, the featured topic was Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I’m a fan of Ehrenreich’s work, and she used to live in Charlottesville, so I tuned in while I was driving somewhere or another. Ehrenreich’s thesis was that a lack of critical thinking was part of what led to the collapse of Countrywide and companies like it, touching off the recession. That the people who advance and do well in those businesses were the people saying “nothing can go wrong with bundling sub-prime mortgages,” not the people saying “I think this is a bad idea, because it could end disastrously.” Olney had a few different guests on the show alongside Ehrenreich, and one of them was John Assaraf.
I’d never heard of John Assaraf before, but a mere glance at his website makes obvious that he’s a shyster. He’s in the business of taking money from suckers by selling them the message that they simply need to imagine themselves rich, and then they will be rich. Of course, somebody listening to the show wouldn’t know this about the guy. They’d only know that he’s a “business growth expert and motivational speaker,” as Olney introduced him.
What Assaraf says is stunning enough, but it’s Ehrenreich’s surprising reveal in her response that led me to exclaim “oh damn!” to my radio while listening. I’ve trimmed this interview down to the illustrative bits, 2:18 in length:
For those who want to hear the entire, unedited portion of the show that includes Assaraf, here it is, 7:05 in length:
So Assaraf spends a minute making outlandish, utterly unsupportable medical claims, with absolutely no education or experience that would allow him to evaluate them—sheer bullshit—all about how disease can be stopped on a cellular level by thinking happy thoughts, and that’s when we discover that Ehrenreich has a doctorate in cellular immunology. Who saw that coming? Nobody! Nobody could have! It’s astounding! But you know who doesn’t care? Olney. Not in the least. He continues his “so what’s your response?” back-and-forth between the two, never acknowledging that Assaraf has been hopelessly owned by Ehrenreich, or that Olney or his producer have erred enormously in matching up a motivational speaker with a cellular immunologist to debate cellular immunology. Olney, presumably not having just fallen off the turnip truck, surely knew he was being bullshitted by Assaraf and that, by extension, his listeners were being bullshitted by Assaraf. But instead he followed his lousy script where he just has two people say their piece, and lets the listeners sort out who they agree with. But that requires honest actors, it requires evenly matched debaters, and it requires that the topic be something on which intelligent minds may disagree. This was not such a topic.
It’s not just Olney, of course. This approach is standard, on NPR and elsewhere. I’m not holding him to a higher standard, I just found this incident to be so laughable, so egregious, that I’ve been telling people about it for the past couple of years. Incidents like this highlight why this approach isn’t just bad, but fundamentally dishonest. It allows dopes like Assaraf to stay in business, and surely makes people like Ehrenreich wonder what the point of a doctorate is if it doesn’t make her more of an expert in the field than some random person and why she should bother to be a guest on such shows again. Impartiality is great, but when a journalist is providing a forum for a liar to peddle his wares, it’s time for him to do his job and start ferreting out some truth.
* On reflection, this is not entirely fair to referees. Imagine if, in a game of tennis, Player A called a foul on Player B and, in response, the referee simply asked Player B if he thought he was guilty? My wife suggests that, in this tennis analogy, Olney’s self-assigned role is simply to act as the net. ↩
If you came here having been told that this is an article about how the cheeseburger was “impossible” until recently, please note that it is not. It is about how the cheeseburger as we know it today was an impractical food until relatively recently. (Ref: the title.) A time-traveler with unlimited resources could probably pull it off. –WJ
A few years ago, I decided that it would be interesting to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Not just regular “from scratch,” but really from scratch. Like, I’d make the buns, I’d make the mustard, I’d grow the tomatoes, I’d grow the lettuce, I’d grow the onion, I’d grind the beef, make the cheese, etc.
It didn’t happen that summer, by the following summer, my wife and I had built a new house, started raising chickens, and established a pretty good-sized garden. I realized that my prior plan hadn’t been ambitious enough—that wasn’t really from scratch. In fact, to make the buns, I’d need to grind my own wheat, collect my own eggs, and make my own butter. And I’d really need to raise the cow myself (or sheep, and make lamb burgers), mine or extract from seawater my own salt, grow my own mustard plant, etc. This past summer, revisiting the idea, I realized yet again that I was insufficiently ambitious. I’d really need to plant and harvest the wheat, raise a cow to produce the milk for the butter, raise another cow to slaughter for its rennet to make the cheese, and personally slaughter and process the cow or sheep. At this point I was thinking that this might all add up to an interesting book, and started to consider seriously the undertaking.
A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.
* * *
The weekend before Thanksgiving, my wife and I had some friends and family members over to the house to slaughter turkeys. We’d raised eight of them from poults, letting them free range around our land for most of their lives, and their time had come. It took the bulk of the day to slit their throats, bleed them out, pluck them, gut them, and put them on ice. Everybody got to take home a turkey that, by all accounts, was delicious. (Nearly everybody has already asked us to do this again next year.) Accompanied by cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and apple pie, it was a meal that could have been produced almost entirely at our home (and very nearly was). There was no mining of salt, of course, but it proved to be a meal that made sense for the place and the time. It’s really the only such ritual meal in the U.S. for which that’s true.
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.
I keep hearing the U.S. described as the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” This turns out to be half true. According to BP, China produced three billion tons of coal in 2009, or 46% of the world’s share. In second place was the U.S., with .97 billion tons, 16% of the world’s share. But in proven reserves, according to the World Energy Council (an NGO), we lead with 23% of the world’s supply, followed by Russia (14%), China (13%), and Australia (9%).
Awkwardly, a lot of the U.S.’s supply of coal is under stuff—you know, cities, homes, schools, roads, etc.—rendering it functionally inaccessible. China manages to export more with fewer reserves because they’re communist—property can be seized at any time—and because they mine with little regard for human life, running the world’s deadliest mines, in which thousands of people die every year, an average of six people every day. I’m not sure that we want to compete with that.