html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: February 2007

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Public meeting in LA today.

See you tomorrow.

You guys can just go ahead and chat here, 'cause it isn't like I'm still bitter that y'all went to fifty comments the day I was in San Jose. I barely remember that.


This is the SECOND DAY THIS WEEK that I have been forced to wear professional clothes ALL DAY. Good people of the state of California: I love working for you, but you are not paying me enough for this. No fucking pockets.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Because I don't want to dehydrate through my skin on heartless impermeable concrete.

It is raining, which means I don’t want to ride around on my fender-less bike. I do love walking in the rain, although not more than I love walking in general. Walking in the rain, however, is a slow process. I have to stop and put all the live worms back on the grass, and that can make me late.

The reason I have to put all the live worms back on the grass is that I believe that when you die, you re-live all the deaths you caused during your lifetime. It is a fairly strict doctrine, including both proximal neglect and but-for causation. You get some slack, though, because you only re-live those deaths at the level of awareness of the thing you killed. The deaths re-play back to back, from least traumatic to most traumatic. So I figure you spend a day or so smacking into windshields, then writhing in insect killer, and then it gets worse.

That’s why I never have to nag meat-eaters. They don’t need to be scolded now; they’ll find out later what the costs were. I figure I’ll be swooping ‘round the Bardo, being a dragonfly or a cumulus cloud or a sunwarmed granite outcropping, for days before the meat-eaters show up, all haggard and worn. I’ll show them the good parts then, maybe a beach where they can be phosphorescent plankton and fluoresce in warm gentle surf, and recover from some very rough deaths.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


WE DID IT! After two years of trying, WE WON THE PORN!

It was SO CLOSE! There was a four-way tie for first place, so the tie-breaker settled the places. One poor team got nothing, and then we were next wrong on the tie-breaker, which means we came in third and WON THE PORN. I might die of happiness. AND IT WAS A TWO-DISK SET! That's right! Babelicious, with fifteen different girls! Seven and a half girls per disk! We brought home one disk and the sleeve, which I will frame and put over my mantle.

I can't stop beaming, but I also feel a new emptiness inside me. Without WINNING THE PORN, I don't know what my goals are. I can't think of another suitable ambition. Even as I bask in the joy of a longtime goal attained, I can't help but feel poignant at the end of a dream I've lived with for so long.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A few minutes, usually.

I had my first instant messenger conversation today! Here it is:

Ali: omg
Megan: LOL!!!!

I think that went quite well.

OK, it isn't really my first ever instant messenger conversation. My ex used to leave his IM window up and I would chat with his friends until they realized that he hadn't really started thinking that the labels we put on ourselves don't mean anything, and that he wasn't really inviting them to go camping at this lake where it is totally private and the guys could go skinnydipping on a hot summer night.

Justin's drunk emails are great, but his sober ones are beautiful.

I'm tired of trying to explain this to everyone else, so I'll just explain to you here.

I've been writing software for almost 15 years now, I started when I was in HS. In HS there was no one around for me to talk to about the things I did. I knew the computers stuff better than anyone else, and I probably knew the physics we had learned better than anyone else. I thought all of that would change when I went to college. I couldn't wait, I thought I'd be surrounded by people like me, people who really knew their stuff.

When I went to college, I had already been writing software on my own for a few years, and I was in love with physics. I had written little pieces of software that were kind of neat, but I was still developing a style to it. Still figuring out how to really architect things. It came slowly as I worked on bigger and bigger individual projects.

I was doing the same with math and physics. I loved it when I really understood something. At one point I had derived all of the non-calc based Newtonian physics I knew from I think just 2 basic equations v=at and v=d/t, and then everything I knew in math at the time. I had it all written down on a piece of paper, how everything derived from everything else, I thought it was neat.

Early on in college I realized all of the engineers I knew, and the CS people, they weren't really in love with what they were doing, it was just the hot field to be in, and that's why they were there. I loved the physics majors, they really wanted to be where they were generally, and they were very passionate about what they did.

My sophomore year I met this girl, Alison. I'm sure I've told you about her before. I had a crush on her, she turned out to be a lesbian, she was in love with math and wanted to get Godel's theorem tattooed on her head, then she met another girl who wanted the same thing, etc etc.... I met her in my first higher level physic class, and I got to know her a bit, and we would do our assignments together. And she would sit and talk about how beautiful she thought all the equations were. She was really cute, she took some of her favorite theorems and wrote them out all nice and big, and then had them framed and gave them away as Christmas presents one year, then was all sad when no one put them up.

Back then I considered everything I do to be very technical. I'd never really considered there to be any real beauty or art to any of it. But, that was the way Alison saw things, and she got me to see things that way too. It's obvious to me now. There are an infinite number of ways to write a piece of software, there are tons of ways to solve a problem, it's not just a technical problem, there's an art to it too. And, now I firmly believe you have to see that to be any good at what you do.

What I've found is most people don't see any beauty in what they do, not in the technical world. It's all just a means to an end.

I've actually saved all my code since I was 15, it's still on my hard drive, right now, and in a lot of different backups. Everything I've ever written. Sometimes I sit and just go through it. I love the look of it, the structure of it. But, even more, I love the picture of it I can see in my head, the diagrams of objects and their interactions, and how everything goes together, and how it all works, the part I can't ever share with anyone, it's all in my head, and too hard to explain. Some people can look at it and see the intent and appreciate it. But for the most part, people just don't care.

I realized this way back in college, I don't really care, it's what I expect of people now. What I do is insanely complicated quite often, so understanding what I do is often just out of the question for others. Not because they're dumb, but because we've all got our own jobs to do. I've learned that a lot of what I consider my best accomplishments I'm just going to have to appreciate myself.

Anyway, this is already way too long, sorry.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Sometimes you have to send a Firm Letter.

CaveatEmptor shows us how .

88.2 miles

Ali and I are going to run to San Francisco and then eat a fancy dinner. Not all at once or anything, but in mile-size pieces going counter clockwise around McKinley Park. It is nice to be at McKinley Park right now. There’s an almost green fog hovering in big tree branches, making them blurry and soft. The magnolias are shamelessly pink and white, huge blooms and nothing else. I would be embarrassed to beg for attention like that, but I can’t deny the effect.

Anyway, we’re gonna start running again. We’re going to make a map and hang it on our wall. We’re going to color in the miles as we run them, until we arrive at Millenium. And then we’re going to put on pretty dresses and go out to dinner in San Francisco.

There is some risk we won’t make it all the way. If we only make it to Davis, we’re good, ‘cause we can go get burgers at Murder Burger. If we get to the Berkeley, there are lots of good restaurants we can go to. In between Davis and Berkeley is slim pickings. We don’t want to get all dressed up to go eat in Fairfield. The Funnier Megan pointed out that if we can swing that radius, we might be OK in Napa or Grass Valley, but Ali and I didn’t say upfront if our distance counts anywhere but the 80. We did agree that we could run or swim our miles, as long as we did them together. Next week we’ll get our evenings back, for big circles round the park. I love Daylight Saving Time.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Someone to watch over me.

I’ve had this same crush for a long time now. It isn’t a satisfying crush, because he knew about it and made choices that aren’t me. It isn’t even erotic anymore, ‘cause it has been too long since there was anything new to feed that. No. This crush just hangs out at the base of my throat and aches a little, all the time. I’ve tried to manage it, because that is my responsibility. I act like I would if it weren’t there. I make sure I do things that bring me extra joy and laughter, to override small painful twinges. I’ve tried to release him lots of times, send him out into the world with my affection and good wishes, get him the fuck out of my chest. It doesn’t work though. He is still the watcher in my head.

Chris does this utterly maddening thing, and he does it often enough that now I do it my ownself. I’ll come to him, hurt over something, a crush that won’t go away. "Right," he’ll say. "What do you get out of making it that way?" I used to do the step where I explained that I didn’t want that way, and I was trying so hard to change it and I couldn’t help it and it wasn’t like I liked being all sad about it. But now we skip straight to his question. What do I get out of a neverending crush?

I think what I get out of a crush is someone I can report to, someone who might care that I went for a run instead of sitting on my couch hitting Reload. (Well, he’ll care when he finally comes to his senses and realizes what a precious jewel I am.) As long as I have a crush, there’s someone who could hypothetically notice that I made especially good oatmeal this morning. Ali could notice, because she’s eating the other bowl of it, but I think it has to be a boy who notices. I don’t know if I need that function more than other people do, but I seem to need it so much that I’ve even put you guys into that mode.

Maybe the alternative to this crush is not having a crush. Maybe not having a crush is even worse. Maybe if I don’t have an imaginary voice to care that I am trying hard and doing neat things and being a better me, then no one would care. I mean, my family and friends might notice, but they’ll just love and approve of me whether I sit around like a slob in filth or go outside and plant my garden. So that doesn’t help. I don’t care, because I know I can make yummy gratins, so making the next one doesn’t impress me. So I have this need for approval by someone it might matter to and I guess that has to be a boy. I’ll probably have this crush until I don’t need that kind of approval or I find another boy to foist it on.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I've been reading your diary.

Back when I was about to finish first graduate school and things were squirrelly with my then-boyfriend, I had decisions to make about cities and jobs and him. I moped around my department until my irrigation professor asked me what was up. I had the sense not to tell him the detailed analysis, ‘cause God knows he wasn’t interested in his students’ relationship problems. But I had launched into a quick version when he interrupted me with “Yes, well. You have imperfect choices in an uncertain world.” Imperfect choices in an uncertain world?! Yes, that was exactly it. I wasn’t going to find a perfect choice and I wouldn’t know the odds in advance. I was instantly relieved of a hunt for the one right option. I’ve reminded myself of that many times.

He did it again this summer. One of the districts we toured is incredibly politically connected and secretive. I was stunned that I was allowed along (he is a Grand Old Man, and simply included me without asking them), but I sure didn’t ask any questions until the tour was over. At the end of the day, I said how grateful I was and how amazed that they hadn’t refused to let me see their secrets. “Secrets?” He said. “They don’t have any secrets. They can’t manage their canals and don’t know where their operational spill goes. They’re all like that. There is no secret.”

I’ve been working on that idea since and I think he is right. Your secrets aren’t secrets. If you don’t want to be single, it is not a secret that you are lonely and afraid you won’t find your beloved, no matter how sparkly you act. If you want kids and you are thirty-five, it is not a secret that you are scared you will miss your chance. Those aren’t secrets. In fact, I know your secrets and I’m going to tell everyone. Are you ready?

The shape of your body isn’t one that someone will love.
You aren’t pretty enough to be loved.
You aren’t doing enough at work.
You aren’t smart enough and people are about to find out.
Your relationship with your parents is rocky and frustrates and hurts you.
You are jealous that a friend you otherwise love has something you don't.
The way you like sex isn’t the right way.
You were sexually assaulted.
You were mean to someone who didn’t deserve it.
Your romantic relationship has rough patches and you don’t know if you can handle them.
You aren't over someone.
You aren’t managing your money well.
You need to hear the person you love say that you are beautiful.
You want, so much, for your parents to be proud of you.
You have a crush on someone.
You need help you don’t want to ask for.
Your body has done gross things.
You hurt and drugs and alcohol help.
You are ashamed of how you acted that time.
It takes so much out of you to be a good parent.

Friends, if those are your secrets, they are not secrets. We know. In fact, I just told the whole internets. Maybe keeping that secret covered is getting harder and keeping you from getting close with people who want to love and help you. Maybe you should go tell them yourself, before they find this and figure out that I’m talking about you. Maybe it would do you good to say them out loud.

He'll post that, no doubt, any day now.

I just talked to Anand. His girl is being confusing, sometimes with kissing, sometimes with "just hanging out" and not-dating. I know you are supposed to do sympathetic murmurs when that happens, but I couldn't help it. I kept trying to problem solve. He liked one solution. From now on, data! Time on the x-axis, affection on the y-axis. Once he figures out the underlying equation, it'll be much easier. An old ex told me I was a Bessel function, but he never told me which one or showed me the graph.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

She'll be here Tuesday.

She is so beautiful.

I can't be sure until I meet her, of course, but I will probably name her Sunny. Then I will sing the "Sunny came home..." song to her. Although I don't actually want her to burn down my house.

There will be cookies and breads.

Thank you Mom and Dad.


I wish I could, Justice League. But I'm crazy busy these days.

I FOUGHT CRIME! Like, just now! Well, like, ten minutes ago, ‘cause now I’m at the café and all set up with an au lait and an oatmeal cookie. But, like, ten minutes ago I was riding my bike to the café! There was a commotion! A nicely dressed lady was chasing a poorly dressed man, and another man was shouting for the man to STOP! I thought, he must have stolen something! Now, on my bike, I can pace running men for as long as I want. In fact, the nicely dressed lady in her high heels was nearly pacing the running away man. So I rode next to them, thinking, “if only there were some magical device I could carry, one that would let me talk to people, like the police!, no matter where I am!” But then the nicely dressed lady stopped running after the guy. I asked her if she wanted me to follow him, and she said no. Then she walked back to the store where she worked and I went to the café. I bet the mayor will want to give me a key to the city next week.

I have fought crime before! Back when I lived in San Luis Obispo, I lived in a different, not-hippiesque co-op. It was very laid-back and mellow, because they were all high on life and the beauty all around us, the mountains and the beaches and the ocean, man. So it was totally harsh when one girl got her two-thousand dollar racing bike stolen from the bike shed. Now, my room overlooked the bike shed, and I’ve always slept with all the windows open. Two nights later, I woke up when I heard someone jostling around at the bike shed. I tried to look out the window, but that was before I got my eyes fixed, so all I could see was a blurry person in a cap, riding away on a bike. I shouted, STOP! But he was gone, so I looked at the time, to be sure we got that right in the police report in the morning. Fifteen minutes, I heard the noise at the bike shed again! The audacity!! This time I ran to my window, holding a pillow in front of me, because I don’t sleep in anything. This time I found my glasses, and could see it was the same person! It was Ethan, my neighbor! Not a thief, which is a darn good thing, because I would have thrown that pillow to stop a thief and don’t you think I wouldn’t. Anyway, the girl’s bike turned up three days later at her sister’s house, where she forgot she left it.

My ex has also fought crime. On St. Patrick’s Day several years ago, we were sleeping, bed under the window, when the glass shattered above us. A bunch of guys were walking by outside, so I ran to call the cops and he ran outside to confront them. “Why the hell’d you do that?” he shouted, and one guy answered “Because I am a young man with no morals.” But then the cops didn’t come, and there isn’t actually much you can do about a bunch of drunk assholes outside your house. So they walked away.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

You can't bomb half the world.

I do not want to go to war against Iran. I wasn’t opposed to going to war against Iraq, although I never thought Iraq was linked to Al Qaeda or that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. But I thought Hussein was a madman, and that maybe we could depose him and leave a better government in his place, and that might be worth some cost to the people doing the real fighting. I thought that might be possible, and I didn’t actively protest or support the war. I was wrong.

Now, however, Bush and his administration are trying to get us into war against Iran. I don’t want to go to war against Iran. After my parents divorced, my Mom married an Iranian man. That’s done now, but for ten years Mom’s house was all adas polo and Persian paintings. I took a year of Farsi in college; my sister took two years of Farsi. I wanted to visit more than anything and we actually did get me a visa at one point. I don’t set out a haft sin anymore, but I still grow greens to throw into running water on Persian New Year. My Mom’s husband always loved me and my sisters and brother.

The other reason I don’t want to go to war against Iran is that I have the idea that it is beautiful. When I came back from Uzbekistan, where I learned that tans and blues were all anyone needs, I was showing my Mom my pictures. Her then-husband looked over. “Looks like Isfahan,” he said. If Isfahan looks like Bukhara, and I’ve heard that it is more beautiful than Bukhara, then we need to be very very careful that nothing bad ever happens to it. Beautiful places shouldn’t be bombed.

I know these reasons for opposing war in Iran are intellectually empty. There are better reasons, the cost in lives and hurt and damage to an international ideal of American democracy and money. But those are my real reasons. I know people from there. I’ve seen pictures of how beautiful it is. I do not want us to go to war against Iran.


What goes in between?

I didn’t protest invading Iraq, and I was wrong. I want to protest against a war against Iran. But I don’t know how. Far as I can tell, here’s what you do, in order of effort and maybe also effectiveness.

Blog about your feelings.
Email your representative and the president.
Call your representative and the president
Write a paper letter to your representative and the president.
Write a letter to the editor of your paper.
Lend verbal support to groups protesting against war.
Give money to groups protesting against war.

Then, what? There’s a big gap and you have to leave the comfort of your living room.

Stand on the street corner with the peace activist-types holding a sign during commute.
Go to larger protests in your city.
Go to large protests in another city.

And then, what?

I don’t know what to do in the middle. And I wonder, what would it take to make me go stand out on the street corner with the activists? I mean, I am really opposed to starting a war against Iran. A war announcement against Iran would get me out on the streets*, but that is too late. People tell me not to bother standing on street corners, ‘cause it doesn’t work, but maybe there is a turning point, where enough not-radical people decide that they simply have to make some demonstration, even a pointless demonstration, that we oppose what our government is doing. Maybe people who are ashamed they didn’t speak up last time should decide to stand where the people opposing war stand, so my body and presence tells my city how I feel.

*What would I do on the streets? Wander out of my house to a busy intersection, hold up a sign and cry? Go to a park? Would other people know to go to the same park? Would they watch it on TV instead, until they were tired and discouraged enough to go to bed?

What would it take?

When the day has come, and you already did what you could from your living room, what would it take for you to leave your house and protest? I’ll try listing things in my guess at an ascending order, and please say (anonymously, if you like) which of these things would make you stand in public to send your government a message. If you think of other interesting intervals, leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

Declaring war on a country that might be a threat to us.
Declaring war on a country that is manifestly not a threat to us.
Declaring war on a country you love.
Making American citizens wear identifying armbands.
Confiscating the property of American citizens to support a war effort.
Creating new internment camps for American citizens affiliated with a country we’re at war with.
Creating new internment camps for American citizens who are manifestly no threat but marginalized.
Cancelling the next presidential election.
Blatantly and openly changing the Constitution.
Our government disappearing your family.

Please, I don’t want an argument over the order these should go in, or my wording on these, or whether they could happen here. I’m trying to get a rough cut on what would trigger something in you, so that you would stand in public to oppose it. I also don’t want to argue over whether protesting works. Maybe small protests only give the protestors a way to declare themselves and reconcile their actions to their beliefs. But surely if half or a third of the country stood in the streets in outrage that would change a government’s course. For that matter, what is your guess on the percentage of the population that would have to physically protest to change this administration’s course?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

1:00am, 2/14/7

The one on the top left reads:

Wear a sweater to bed. You'll be cold when I dump you.

These weren't mine.

But the Parking Valentine was mine.

So was the dinosaur Valentine. It says*:

Roses are red
Dirt is brown
Be my Valentine
Or I'll frown.

*Not original. I think I read that in Walk Two Moons. Also, I copied the idea for clothespins from Sherry.

You are perfect and beautiful.

It is a good day to be in love. You should be in love. You could be in love with so many things, like trains or trees or a high blue sky or a lover or a small nephew or a frisbee that is not too high for you to catch. You have a whole world full of things to be in love with, because nature was rich and intricate before we started and then people thought of ways to rearrange it and make more complicated things that show hours of thought and effort. You can be in love with grand romantic gestures, dramatic declarations of love and faithfulness, because people do them and inspire us all. You can be in love with, or maybe even part of a couple that has grown into each other, with easy touches as they pass each other in the kitchen and constant arrangements for managing intermingled lives and the blessing of someone breathing next to them in the night. You can be in love with people, strangers doing their best in all sorts of human fallible ways, with so much capacity for kindness. You can love a sweet girl cat, who trills instead of meowing and charms your guests, who is warm and purring every single night.

If you think that you don’t live in a world full of love, why, you can change that! You could compliment a stranger, or call your grandfather, or stop by the grocery store to pick up some granola bars to give to homeless people. You and your friends could drink wine and make Valentines with construction paper and stickers and poems and glitter, which you could leave in a park for strangers to find. You could pick up litter in a vacant lot. You could give enough money to feel to a person who needs more than you do. You could help a stranger write a book, for no good reason. You can create love, and put it out into the world in more ways than I can think of. You should do that. All that love in you, and a world just waiting for it. What a perfect match.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Thanks, baby.

More and more I think that blogging acts like a surrogate boyfriend. If I had a real boyfriend, he would have to listen to all the themes that run through my mind. Los Osos would be pillow talk for two years. If I could even get my best friend to stop thinking that grad school was so all-fired important, he could listen to Los Osos for hours. (He does anyway. But he would have to listen to more if he weren't in grad school.) Without those outlets, I turn to the internets instead. Thank you, surrogate boyfriend.

P.S. I'll dump you in a flash when a real boy who puts out comes along.

An experiment.

Got back from Los Osos late last night. The Los Osos story is the huge majority of what is on my mind, with the party I'm hosting tonight a far distant second. I want to talk about it, but I don't want to talk about it here. For one thing, people in Los Osos are reading this blog (I checked my stats from a cafe in town, and was surprised to find it was my seventy-sixth visit from that address.). It seems only fair that they should get to know pieces of me, considering how much of their time and story they're giving me. But it also means that I'm done talking about it here.

The solution, of course, is a password protected blog. That's what I've done. I intend it to be for me, in the most selfish kind of way. I won't edit or proofread. There will be task lists and fragments of thoughts. There will be self-absorbed musing about how I take on a task this daunting. I might use that venue to put up chunks of text, but who knows. I am so far from writing text.

It would help me if you read along and encouraged me. I do my best work when I am writing to a person I am trying to charm with witty perceptive thoughts. It would be easier to sit back down and write if I thought there were anyone listening on the other end. If I thought you were holding me to a high standard of documentation and notation, I might be better about that all along. And god knows you guys ask good questions. If I hadn't posted in a week or two, it would be good to get comments from y'all, asking what else is important enough to distract me. I would have to tell a coherent version of the story, to get us started. It would be, like, a collaboration, sorta. Based entirely on my whim.

I cannot think why you would be interested in such a thing. I won't be entertaining. I won't even talk about irrigation. I would ask you to keep my thoughts there private, no quotes or links without asking me first. It looks like the Blogger system sucks balls. You would have to sign in with a gmail account, and I'm put off by their imperialism. But maybe a dozen of y'all have time on your hands, and don't want to go out into the beautiful world and get laid. Maybe you have some unearned loyalty toward me and want to help me. And in the foreword, when I thank the little people, that would be you!

If any of that sounds appealing, email me and tell me who you are. If I don't have a sense of you, I'll probably send back an apologetic refusal. (See, lurkers! There are penalties! You can't read my boring other blog! Bet you're sorry now.) If I think you're involved in the story, I will definitely send you an apologetic refusal. But if I know you and know you support me, I'll gratefully send you an invitation to join. Or, if you think this is a really bad idea, now would be a good time to tell me why.

Posting frequency may drop here, especially if I am working hot and heavy over there. Don't know yet.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I would also consider Spain. Because it looks like California.

The last native Russian speakers in my family were my great-grandparents, but my Dad studied it for years in college and could talk with his grandmother. When my folks dropped me off at college, my Dad pulled me aside. “I’ll send you on the trip of your choice when you can speak Russian better than me.” Four straight years of Russian class later I called him and told him in Russian that I knew what trip I wanted. I ended up on a school trip to Uzbekistan, which may be one of the few places outside California where I would consider living for a year or two. I like high deserts and breathtakingly beautiful architecture. And very good tomato salads. It was a mixed group of American and Uzbek students; I spoke the most Russian in our group, which wasn’t nearly enough for comfortable conversation. Still, when their English speakers weren’t around, I was the next best thing.

About a week in, on the days when I tried speaking lots of Russian, my head would hurt at the sound. No headache when I overheard Uzbeki or spoke English, but being addressed in Russian hurt enough to bring tears to my eyes. My friend who thinks he knows a thing or two just because he has an MD and a Ph.D. in neurology is going be all “you don’t have nerves in your brain, Meggie.” But I was there and I know what I felt. I didn’t feel anything like it again until the first few weeks of law school, which is why I believe the cliché that they teach you to “think like a lawyer.”

When I took mediation in law school, we did active listening exercises. Before those, I would have told you I was a decent listener, but during those exercises, I realized that active listening felt entirely different. In fact, the only thing that felt similar was trying to follow a difficult proof. During a proof, I’ll concentrate with unwavering focus. No stray thoughts, no peripheral vision, continuous checking whether I understood the last transition and expect the next. It is hard to maintain, but that’s what I have do when I must understand something. When I really listen, that is how.

I’ve been interviewing people for the book. The shortest interview was two hours, tonight. Five hours is about average and people talk continuously. They don’t have to be prompted; they’re utterly compelled to tell their stories. I am fascinated. I love this story. Still, I come out of a long interview nearly completely fried. I’m not listening at 100%, but I’m probably listening at 90-95%, for hours. Another couple days of this and I bet my head would start hurting at nearly any narrative. It may be a good thing I can only come down here for short visits.

scooters, vacation, fall

When I asked for requests, some brave soul anonymously requested erotica. That reminded me! I did once write an erotic story. I was on a ten week trip to Thailand with my former best friend. We traveled apart for a couple weeks in the middle; she went to meet other friends of hers in the south. Me, I did what any traveler would do on finding herself alone, adventuresome and needy, in such a sensual, exotic county. That’s right, my friends. I visited irrigation projects.

I took a bus to an irrigation project up in the north, on the Mekong. The diversion structures were in a small town, but the bus went to a town fifteen minutes away, so I stayed there overnight. I got up good and early the next day to be on the first bus to the town with the diversion structures. I caught the bus just fine. Everything was going well until we pulled into town. Now, I have a good sense of direction and had been oriented all the way until the last three minutes of the trip, but somehow, in the turning around to get into the station, I completely lost track of which way I was facing. I got off the bus and could not figure out where the river was. Now friends, this is technical and I don’t expect you to understand it right away. But in fancy engineering school, they teach you that if you want to find a river, you walk downhill.

I put this plan into action, despite feeling that I was going the wrong way. I’d walked for fifteen minutes or so, increasingly sure that my irrigation project was behind me, when a guy on a scooter pulled up. He asked where I was going, and I said I was looking for the Mekong. The Mekong! Good! He would take me to the Mekong. He seemed harmless and potentially helpful, so I got on the scooter behind him. We kept going the wrong way. We went the wrong way until he turned onto a dirt road, then turned onto a smaller dirt road. I was liking this not at all, and tapped on his shoulder to turn back. He shook his head. I told him I wanted to go back and he kept going. So I put my feet down and fell off the back of the scooter.

I turned to walk back to the main road and he circled back for me. He said he’d take me back to town, and looked sincere, and that’s what he did. I ended up back at the bus station, still not knowing where to find the damn Mekong. I tried the other direction and a couple blocks away, three giggly women waved me into their beauty salon. I was hot and shook up and happy to sit with them and drink their water. They knew where the diversion structures were, a couple more blocks away, and walked me there.

I lucked out when we got there. A couple geotechnical engineers were visiting from Bangkok. One spoke English; he gave me a tour of their levees. I believe he was the only person in Thailand who didn’t tell me I was too pretty to be an engineer and must be a model. Fuckers. I was on my way back to the bus stop when the three giggly women appeared again. They would take me back to the neighboring town! Really, I was fine on the bus, but they would take me back.

I found myself on a scooter again, one woman driving in front, one behind me. I thought they were sitting a trifle close, but assumed that norms were different until the woman behind me put her hands on my thighs. I put her hands back. She put my hands on her thighs. I took my hands back. She put my hands on the thighs of the woman in front of me. I took them back. She put her arms around my waist, snuggling me and pushing me against the woman in front. I began to think longingly of the morning, when I only had the one kidnapper and a nice, soft dirt road to land on. Friends, I did not invite them in when we got to my hotel.

That evening after dinner I wrote down the daydream that had kept me occupied for the long bus ride the day before. There were no scooters in it, and I was the only woman involved. I’ve never shown it to anyone, but now you know it exists. And that is as close as it will ever come to the internet.

Friday, February 09, 2007


I got a stickshift to drive to Los Osos this weekend! Yay! For a righteously carless person, I really do love to drive. And I especially love to drive a stickshift. I am already annoyed that it has arrows in the dashboard that light up when the car wants me to shift. Does it think I don't already know? Am I not a seamless extension of the engine, feeling the road beneath me, responding instinctively to every curve and slope?

Don't know whether I'll post much the next few days. Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Please don't. Begging will embarrass both of us.

Alright, you sick fucks. I am tired of pandering to your incessant, vulgar demands for more talk on participatory democracy. This is the end of it, for now. Tomorrow I’ll try to elevate the tone a little. I don’t have anything planned, but you aren’t going to get the long post about planning good meetings and making people feel heard until I get inspired by some really good or really awful meeting.

Update: My apologies, folks, for moving things around, but I want the posts on regulation to be continuous. I'm going to backdate the smaller posts that are mixed in, and put their original posting date in the text. None of them were particularly important or time sensitive, so I don't think we'll have lost much by putting them out of order.

Yeah. Really.

Public meetings are held to satisfy two incompatible purposes. There is the explicit purpose, which is to make an informed decision about the complicated items on the agenda. There is also the implicit purpose, which is sometimes stated but mostly not, which is to include and consider the opinions of every interested citizen. If every interested citizen were prepared to give thoughtful comments on the complicated items, those wouldn’t be cross-purposes. But not every citizen can do that. Some don’t know enough context to give relevant comments; some want to address items that aren’t on the agenda; some have relevant comments they can’t express clearly.

The way we run meetings now (agenda, presentation, discussion of agenda items, public comment) doesn’t meet both purposes. In fact, doing them both simultaneously damages each purpose. When you are trying to get through technical material, and you are paying some specialists and imposing on others to donate their time to the public, and you need to pay enough attention to each advocate’s analysis to find their biases, you don’t want laypeople coming in with the observations and objections that you dealt with four meetings ago, much less stuff that is outside your jurisdiction or plain crazytalk.

But giving laypeople three minutes for public comment doesn’t work for them either. They get frustrated that bureaucrats are addressing abstract technical stuff when they have an actual real problem. They feel dismissed, which they often are. They get strident to bring attention to their issues. They think public meetings are about pointless technicalities and bureaucrats are snotty and that civic participation doesn’t work.

The insidiously tempting option is to hold separate meetings for technical and laypeople. Or just, you know, hope that uneducated private citizens won’t show up for technical meetings. We could get so much work done that way. But you can’t shut out the people, not the clueless ones, nor the ones who never get to the point, nor the ones who make analogies that make your head hurt, nor the ones who abuse your agency and the government, nor the ones who repeat their off-topic, exaggerated rhetoric at every meeting.

You can’t shut them out for a bunch of reasons. One good reason is that they might be right. In the 60’s and 70’s, city planners went on a freeway building rampage that gutted neighborhoods. I’m sure that patronizing transportation engineers could have explained exactly why each of them was necessary, if the people would only understand. And I’m sure people stood up during the comment period saying “I see your graphs, but it just can’t be right to rip out our homes and stores and parks for a freeway.” They were right. We’re re-integrating those freeways now. Another reason is that strident people can bring your project to a halt. A dedicated activist, misguided or correct, can take your EIR to court, can force you to do another study, can convince the legislature to postpone funding your project for just another year. The person you edge out at your public meeting can turn personyears of work into a fading report no one reads.

The real reason that you can’t shut people out of your meetings, even off-topic annoying people, is more abstract. The implicit purpose, to include and consider the opinions of every interested citizen, comes from our ideal of a participatory democracy. If we want to uphold our beliefs that all voices have equal value in our country and that citizens guide the governance of our cities and states and country, then we have to be willing to practice those beliefs all the time. When meetings about the public’s business exclude some voices, we have done a small hurt to participatory democracy. It doesn’t matter if it is through poor meeting design or though understandable human impatience, if the result diminishes someone’s voice, everyone’s civic life is slightly damaged. When it happens all the time, incrementally excluding types of views and voices becomes the exclusion of types of people. Even though it would be so much easier to only deal with the clear thinkers at public meetings, in the end, ease is not what we are after. Because we are representatives of the state, because we are truly civil servants, participatory democracy requires that we shape our public dealings to make everyone heard.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

...until the break of dawn

I am always disappointed by public meetings. We hold public meetings for people to give us comment, and we never get the kind of comment I hope for. I keep hoping some guy will stop in and say “Why, that problem looks like one we solved for a tricky transportation issue! You might not think so, but I think the underlying structure is the same. Have you thought about this algorithm, which worked for us?” And then I would say, “That just might work! Maybe you could show me how you derived it over dinner tonight.” And he would say “Only if I can take you out for dessert after, so we can talk about other potential applications. But it will have to be in Midtown, because I rode my bike here.” And then I would start blushing and fanning myself, because I would be thinking impure thoughts.

But that isn’t what we get. We get professionals who are there on behalf of an organization to protect an economic interest. Those folks give sophisticated, one-sided comments, which is probably fine. As long as we get professionals from all sides, we can hope an advocacy system will flush out the major points; it is our job as experts to balance them. And then we get private citizens.

I go to Parks Advisory Commission meetings as a member of the public from time to time. They’ll move through their agenda, on the ratios of playing fields to naturscaping for new parks and proposed parks fees for new developments. At the end, they’ll ask for comment. Someone will invariably stand up and tell us that his house is right across from that basketball court and the vibration from the constant dribbling is shaking the mortar loose from his house walls, and is the City going to fix that or is it going to let his house fall down on him? ‘Cause his neighbor is a lawyer, and they know what is happening, and how would you feel if your house were about to fall on you? Well?!? Well?!?

When you’re up in front of those meetings, you can spot ‘em. Your heart just sinks as they approach the microphone. There is so much wrong, and you don’t even know where to start. This meeting is expensive to hold, what with the consultants and staff on overtime, and you can’t spend people’s time discussing this guy’s problems. You don’t even know how to have this conversation with this guy, ‘cause you’re a park planner but you vaguely know the rangers from park enforcement, who might tell the basketball players to cut it out after 8pm. You think you remember that park, but it was designed thirty years ago when the fad was to put amenities on the periphery but that caused exactly these problems, and what the hell are you thinking, ‘cause the basketball court is not making this guy’s house fall over! So you look at this guy, who found a meeting with the word “Parks” in it and made his problem your problem, and you think to yourself, for the hundredth time, that the people are freaks and should never ever ever be allowed near an important decision.

And this is how I know our meetings are broken. Our system is broken when the people it was created for can’t figure out where to bring their problems. Our meetings are broken when a snide bureaucrat sits in front of the room wishing the people away. The meeting format itself is part of the problem. People come to the meeting with a problem that has bothered them for ages (noisy basketball!), and they sit there, not understanding the abstract and technical agenda items. When they get up to speak, they have three precious minutes to make their problem seem important enough to get attention, so of course they’re going to stretch it. Then, as they are finally talking about whatever thing was important enough to get them out of the house, they can see all the people up in front checking out, so they have to talk louder and wilder. Three minutes later they sit down, hating bureaucrats even more. It is broken.

I honestly don’t know what to offer. Ombudspeople for City Hall and state agencies? They probably already have some. More education for citizens? Dude, the system is for them. It should be designed for the users' constraints. A different style of meetings? Well, since you begged, I’ll talk about that next post.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tomorrow: why public meetings suck so bad.

It is more than a little frustrating to hear from you guys that bureaucrats make arbitrary regulations in anonymity, based on who-knows-what because we are unaccountable to the political process. It is particularly galling to hear that because we spend half our fucking days trying to get public participation in our decision-making. There is a standard approach for public participation, and we take it very seriously. We release drafts for comment1 and hold workshops to solicit comment2. We come back with comment and re-work our documents. Most mildly controversial stuff goes out for public comment once. Anything even a little important goes out for public comment at least twice. The first question we hear from our managers is “What was the public comment on this?” We compile every single comment, break it into component parts and write an answer to each, whether or not we change the proposed document/plan/regulation to include it. If you have some notion that bureaucracies don’t respond to public opinion, you are wrong.

That said, our usual approach for public comment is adequate but not good. The public responds to documents we put out, meaning that the agency sets the framing for the issue. We don’t often get much response, and we don’t know who we are missing. You have to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the issues to realize what our very careful wording means for you. You have to come to our attention somehow to get on our notification lists. We hold meetings during the days, primarily because we think most attendees are professionals. We basically get a sampling of the opinions of the people who are paid to care. We never get anything approaching a broad referendum on our efforts.

Sometimes we get no public comments at all, and what are we supposed to think in that case? That the American public doesn’t care about the mandatory best management practices for detecting Asian tiger mosquito larva in imported nursery stock? That they like what we came up with? I’ve been disappointed recently (and it only goes to show you how amazingly idealistic I can be) that we primarily get comments that protect someone’s economic self-interest. We NEVER get comments from a member of the public who just happens to care, gets a copy of our draft document, thinks broadly and critically what the effects will be, writes them up and emails us. I have never seen that. On hot button environmental issues, we’ll get predictable screeds from both sides, but that is as disinterested (in the economic sense) as I’ve ever seen. I have NEVER seen anyone object to a proposed anything because it would lead to bad or complicated governance.

So it is not fair, you know, to complain that faceless, unelected bureaucrats make complicated regulations in a vacuum when we are constantly soliciting your opinion. If you cringe at the idea of reading proposed regs for cleaning techniques of recreational fishing boats to prevent propagation of non-native aquatic plant species, then you should be grateful to the bureaucrat who spends four years on it. You can do as much oversight as you like. Go to the meetings where she asks what you think. Read her work, call her and tell her how to make it better. She has to listen to you, because you are paying her. She wants to listen to you, because she wants to do a good job by the people of the state she serves. You can be vastly more involved than voting every other year. And if you don’t want to, then do not bitch about the people who spend their lives on the technical and unglamorous problems that come up when thirty-four million people live together.

1We post on our website, and email our stakeholders lists saying that the document is available for review and comment. Cities put paper copies in local libraries: the feds notice public comment periods in the Federal Register; we would mail anyone who contacted us a copy of anything.

2We usually go to Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento (streams live online) and Red Bluff, to make it easier for people to attend.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

I read Road to Serfdom. I wasn't impressed.

More of Mark's comment:
Too often, enthusiasts of top-down problem solving seem to address the task of finding a good mechanism by first wishing away all those negatives. There is no benevolent and wise Philosopher King. Many people seem to ignore that fact in their enthusiasm to get to the solving of problems and righting of wrongs. The regulatory mechanism is going to be slow, hidebound, favor those with political clout, and will create unintended side effects as people respond to new incentives.

Mark writes that meddling bureaucrats wish away the negatives of their regulatory mechanisms1. It is not quite that simple. There are very many times when bureaucrats know there will be negative outcomes, but accept them as trade-offs because the overall situation will still be better. There are times when they’re surprised by negative outcomes. There are times when what one group considers a negative outcome is what the bureaucrats considered the point. But I don’t think there are lots of times when bureaucrats ponder a negative outcome, then airily dismiss it. Every negative outcome has a constituency dedicated to making that consequence the most important thing in a bureaucrat’s life. We do not get to dismiss much.

So I don’t think that bureaucrats are willfully making bad regulations, but I have to acknowledge that the accumulated codes are painfully dense thickets, too tangled for easy use by our citizens, complicated, with internal contradictions. I want to talk about how civil servants doing their best end up making systems that are so frustrating that “bureaucrats” and “regulations” are nearly epithets. I mean, Bush’s Executive Order was his usual self-serving corrupt bullshit, but people were willing to give it a pass, just on the grounds that it might make the bureaucrats less able to do the work the country pays them for. How did it get so bad?

Some of it is that we are, like Lindblom said, muddling through. Most of it the rest of it, I think, is that bureaucracies contain programs, which spend their time solving problems. The last of it, I guess, is a lack of vision.

Lindblom pointed out in 1959 that when bureaucracies go to solve problems, they do not evaluate the full range of solutions available, and pick the optimal solution. Instead, they look at a few solutions that look very like the current situation, only a trifle better, and pick one of those. Lindblom says muddling through isn’t all bad, and I agree. But it leads to complexity. It maintains and builds on the existing regulations; no branches get pruned out, but twigs are added for redirection.

So we start with a complex set of regulations, but I think a bigger problem with bureaucratic function is that bureaucracies are divided into programs and work to solve problems. The programs are a good rough cut at pieces of the natural world. On a big scale, we have agencies for air, transportation, forests, agriculture, coasts and oceans, wildlife, water2. Hell, we have two for water. But real problems exist in the continuous system. Salmon live and are fished in the ocean, but swim up streams polluted by agriculture unless they are blocked by road culverts or unless they die in streams that are too warm because too much water was diverted to send to a far away city, or they make it all the way up to headwaters, where their spawning gravel is silted up because the logged hillsides are eroding. Which agency fixes that? Well, they ALL do, piecemeal, applying the lessons of their own fields. You know that regulation will overlap and be inconsistent, because there isn’t a Salmon Agency3 to keep it all in order. It is better for each agency to do something, because any missing piece makes the rest moot, but it will be a jumble when they’re done.

A worse structural flaw, however, is that programs want to solve problems. They are assigned problems by the legislature and the problems are just too narrowly defined. Bureaucrats are pretty good at solving the problem in front of them (creek is flooding? Make it concrete to decrease turbulence and increase flood capacity) and, like all people, not that good at asking how that fits into the world or what effects it will have. They solve the problem in front of them and make more. In some ways it isn’t fair to hold them responsible for the next set of problems (concrete rivers are ugly, no fish or wildlife); they probably did a very nice job solving the problem they were assigned4. But a narrow focus on solving the problem in front of you makes more problems, and agencies have been chasing the problems they’ve caused for decades now. That approach, and its iterations and reversals, has rightfully earned the public’s contempt.

So what is an agency to do if the public demands action about something in its jurisdiction? How can it handle that without adding to already complicated regulation, or making a new problem somewhere else? In the real world, I don’t know. Things probably have to keep going the way they do, muddling through. I have a fantasy though. I imagine sometimes, that instead of figuring out what we gotta do to our regulations to get the results we want, we work backwards from a vision. People who care and people with expert knowledge come up with a detailed picture of the world with that problem solved. Then we ask, what are the physical conditions and the human interactions and the laws that would bring that picture into being? We write those regs, clean and consistent and orderly. That’s the only way I can think to escape the inevitable complexity of an incremental approach.

1 His further comments suggest that he is objecting to the processes we use to develop regulations. EXCELLENT! I wanted to continue this series forever! I am done with funny, pithy posts! Short, lighthearted posts are a thing of the past! We’ll never talk about water or boys or Los Osos again! Who even wants to? Not me!

2 I have heard there are agencies that deal with things that aren’t the environment, but you couldn’t prove that by me.

3 We tried to have a Bay-Delta Agency (called CALFED), but it collapsed. I don’t think that is proof that an inter-field agency organized around the issue is doomed, but the first big one we tried didn’t work.

4 You know what kills me? All those engineers would be just as happy with harder problems. It isn’t that they are attached to the all-concrete river solution; it is just that that is the best solution for the only-flood problem. If you give them a bigger assignment, like flood + nice river-park + fish, they would just as happily optimize that assignment.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Tired of this? I'm not.

Mark Nau's comments are harder.

Byzantine regulation, unfair enforcement, and some amount of make-work meddling is the inevitable result of top-down regulation. There may well be situations where this is the best possible solution. Please note that I'm granting that. But you have to factor in the fact that those negative things are part of the package deal when it is time to select a mechanism.
I’m still chipping away at the dilemma of overregulation, but I’ll start with a warm up.

I don’t think that Byzantine regulation, unfair enforcement and make-work meddling are a result of top-down regulation. I think they’re just what humans do. A bunch of hippies at a consensus-based house meeting can come up with ornate policies to rival those from any top-down regulators.

When a group finds a problem, there are only a couple options. You can address the source directly (Alex! Stop leaving your long hair in the shower drain), or you can address the behavior in the abstract (long hair must be removed from the shower drain). If you have a tribe-type situation, you could have a chief with the personal authority and the will to address people directly. Then there is one simple rule: Obey the chief. But if you are a bunch of cowards who avoid conflict, you make rules. And if you are dealing with a class of people, only some of whom are leaving their hair in the shower and you don’t know which ones, you make rules that govern the group.

Doesn’t take long before those rules accumulate. Top-down regulators are annoying because they have the authority to enforce the rules, and maybe the problem wasn’t bothering you all that much, and you weren’t there, so you don’t know how they wrote those rules or why they have to be so complicated. But I don’t think bizarrely complicated rules developing over time is unique to any form of governance.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Bob V starts with an easy pitch:

But those regulations are all intended toward one end, the ‘What happens on your farm can’t hurt anyone else’ end.

Then why not make *that* the regulation? Why not regulate the consequences you are trying to avoid rather than the means that at this particular moment in time bureaucrats think will probably lead to those consequences? If you regulate the consequences, it leaves open the opportunity for innovation in the future that avoids them using a method that happens to use means we currently think are bad.
Fine. We can work this from the angle of “no negative externalities from farming – you, the grower, make it happen.” Some portion of growers would instantly react, asking if we’d lost our minds. “Put the burden of figuring out all the complicated ways our farms influence their surroundings on the grower?! Make us figure out what can go in our tail and tilewater, what pesticides are safe in what applications, what emissions our farm motors should have, what endangered species are in the area? Oh hell no. You figure it out, tell me what to do, and I’ll concentrate on growing my crop and getting the best price for it.” So you would have one crowd that would rather have a process-based than outcome-based regulatory system.

But maybe they aren’t the majority. Maybe most growers would rather have an ends-based, Do No Harm bottom line. I would still say that they cannot work internally to meet that end. For starters, complying is expensive for them. It would be asking them to seek out the problems they are causing and make difficult corrections. Very few people can bring themselves to do that, even with some threat hanging over them. But second, the problems are hard. There are pesticides for cotton that are normally fine, but damage downwind olive orchards. How long would it take an individual farmer to make that connection? When drainwater carrying naturally occurring selenium from the soils ran off westside farms, it took biologists a while to trace that effect back to the farms. They knew to look for something because there were drastic, visible deformations in local birds. What if the effect were way more subtle, like drops in plankton that birds feed on, so they starve without anyone seeing? I could list these forever, and I promise you, no individual grower can address them all. Linking their diesel engines to asthma a town over? They can’t. You know who you need to do that? You need the ag diesel engine bureaucrat. That’s who has the time and knowledge to figure that out.

Finally, in an ends-based, Do No Harm system, what would be your penalties? We all want it to be a simple system, so… what? A fine when they trace a pesticide drift back to your farm? A big fine? A little fine? Well, maybe the fine should fit the harm. Maybe there should be a big fine if we catch someone emptying surplus pesticides into a stream, and little fine if they spray without checking to see if there’ll be a strong wind that day. There will probably be in between situations, so you might want gradations for your penalties... and look. You have just backed yourself into a process-based regulations system.

What, you want more?

Friends, I didn’t want to do this. I turned off my computer and stood up. I danced around to Wyclef. I did two full sinks of dishes and pulled out all the vegetables in my fridge. Two different gratins later, my jaw is still clenched. Earlier today I critiqued Bush’s executive order on procedure. Now I want to respond to Justin’s link to the Agitator. I started with some sympathy to it. It is absolutely true that agencies are the arms of the executive branch. If the President’s will should be expressed anywhere, it should be in the agencies. There’s a reason I’m working for the state now, and not the feds. But here’s the part that’s got me worked up:
Given that federal regulations carry the force of law, and that violations of the Federal Register can increasingly trigger criminal charges, I'd rather an elected, accountable politician be holding the buck at the end of the line than a sea of faceless, unelected, nearly unfireable bureaucrats.
If Henry Waxman is really is terribly concerned about all of this, the answer isn't to make executive agencies less answerable to the executive. It's to make them more accountable to the Congress. Congress needs to stop delegating so much lawmaking power to regulatory agencies. In fact, I don't think it would be such a bad idea to force Congress to vote on every measly federal regulation it expects the rest of us to abide by.
Doing so would serve several purposes: One, it would open their eyes to just how massive, contradictory, and Byzantine federal regulatory law really is, and perhaps inspire them to do something to reign it in. Two, as a matter of principle, people shouldn't be going to jail for violating laws Congress never expressly voted on. And three, by the time Congress had worked its way through the Federal Register, they'd have a hell of a lot less time to pass other laws.
I am going to elide some distinctions. Bush’s Executive Order address was for guidance documents, which, from my hour of reading, are strongly persuasive but not legally binding on their subjects. No one is going to jail for violating them. But I am willing for my arguments to apply to environmental regulations carrying criminal penalties. I am going to draw my examples from both state and federal bureaucracies and regulations and assume that they are similar. I’m using examples I’ve read in the paper, ones that I’ve worked on, and ones that my friends are working on. If I am vague, some of it is so I get less fired when my bosses find this, and some of it is because they weren’t all my projects, so I don’t know details. I’ll also say up front, that what makes me mad when I read the Agitator, and even angrier when I read the Times article is the motive I ascribe to the supporters of the Executive Order: that regulations are too complicated and burdensome, that fewer regulations are better, that it is OK, even good, to rein in OSHA and the EPA.

Labor and health advocates, you guys are on your own. I don’t know your systems at all. But I do know how and why environmental regulations come about. So let’s do this.

Elected, accountable politician vs. faceless, unelected, nearly unfireable bureaucrat:
Civil servants range from deadwood to brilliant thinkers. Mostly, the ones I’ve met have been reasonably competent. I’m not going to say that they’re all impressive. But I will say that all of them have been paid to learn some part of the public’s business. Bureaucrats spend careers addressing particular problems, learning some system all the way through. They accumulate a lot of local knowledge and familiarity with the players. The fish passage office at Fish and Game has a stunning amount of knowledge about what fish passages structures work and which ones are expensive failures. No one else, not professors or consultants, has seen as many fish ladder installations over such a wide geographic range as these bureaucrats. Certainly, no one else is offering this expertise to the public for free. (Well, free considering they’re already hired.) I like the idea that the person who sets broad policy and direction should be accountable. But for the real work? The details? A political appointee cannot possibly know enough about all the things an agency does to have meaningful opinions at the level of regulations. You want a twenty-year bureaucrat to set specifications for paint quality for road markings.

There is too much regulation already! Anything that slows regulation is better! No new, complicated regulations!
My friend is working on a set of regulations for agricultural diesel engines in the San Joaquin Valley, which has some of the worst air quality in the state. It also has the highest incidence of childhood asthma in the state. Phasing out old engines will cost growers money. New engines will be more expensive for them. My friend is working to find a regulation that balances those costs against incidences of asthma. There were studies a while back, linking trihalomethanes, which occur naturally in water with lots of organic matter but get concentrated when water is chlorinated, to miscarriages. The EPA lowered the allowable concentrations of THM in drinking water; water providers switched from chlorination to alternate treatments. Both changes cost money. I have no doubt the THM regulations are everything you imagine regulation to be: complicated, picky, boring, expensive. There are hundreds of situations like that, and hundreds of sets of regulations to incrementally address them.

You know, there are only two times a regulation is going to matter to you. It’ll matter if it annoys you, keeps you from doing something you want or costs you money. It’ll matter if it works. If my friend’s work means your kid breathes easy through the night, if changing THM thresholds saves your pregnancy, it’ll matter to you. But you’ll never know. You won’t know that some bureaucrat spent six years on that. Even if you read the regs, you wouldn’t know that damage to you was averted. If you drink clean water and breathe air that doesn’t sicken you and give birth to whole children, and can take them to see salmon in a river or to a beach that doesn’t froth with sewage, you are the ungrateful recipient of the results of thousands of regulations. You think that living un-assaulted by poisons you can’t see or trace to a source just happens, naturally. That isn’t the case, and hasn’t been since the Industrial Revolution. You are constantly guarded by environmental regulations that you resent as an abstraction, as somehow “too much.”

Federal regulatory law is massive, contradictory, and Byzantine.
Oh hell yeah it is. I’m sure it is awful to negotiate it. I wish it weren’t. It just happened that way, over time. Pieces accrete, written by different departments in response to the problems the legislature and president assigned them. I bet that nearly every piece made sense for the conditions at the time, considering what those people were trying to do. Conditions have changed, but the regulations remain; I am a huge fan of sunset clauses on laws. The people writing them were trying to solve a particular problem, and if they had known other bureaucrats were writing a different and contradictory solution to a closely linked problem, they would have coordinated. If they had known, or were allowed to work with the other department, or had the budget for it, or if their bosses weren't in petty turf battles.

I wish I could overhaul all those governmental regulations, start from scratch. Come up with a clean, internally consistent system of laws. If I were Empress, I would do that second. You know what I would do first? I would overhaul all the entrenched power systems and expectations and incentives that those environmental regulations are trying to correct. I know growers feel frantic, hemmed in by unending, complicated, contradictory regulations. What motors they can choose! Which pesticides they can use! When they can use pesticides! How much sediment can be in their tailwater! How much water they can use on their crops! When they can plow to avoid kangaroo rats!! How they can store their crops! Everything! Every detail, regulated!!! Each regulation, eating a piece of their money!! Too much!! But those regulations are all intended toward one end, the ‘What happens on your farm can’t hurt anyone else’ end. If I could change their deep-seated beliefs that they are entitled to farm in ways that hurt people on the other sides of their farm borders, their historic sense that they are entitled to use the waters and airs of the state as sinks, our beliefs about what rights accompany land ownership, I wouldn’t have to have pissant regulations about the types of diesel motors you can use for farm pumps.

Regulations in general are trying to correct something, for some reason. Bureaucrats don’t write them for recreation. They write environmental regulations to correct an imbalance that arose over time. It may be a comfortable imbalance for you, one you have always known, that you have grown so accustomed to that it feels like a right. But there is a cost somewhere, or no bureaucrat would have been sicced on the problem. If new regulations threaten your comfort or wallet or habits, consider that your privileges are imposing a cost somewhere else. The regulation shifts the cost back to you. If you hate regulation, approve of anything that would delay some regulation, you are, in essence, saying that because the status quo is acceptable to you, you are happy to let other people and the earth bear the costs of your lifestyle and existence. I have no respect for that.