18F Three (and a half) Months In

When I left my last job the company threw one last happy hour for me—a typical send-off for that firm. While we were mingling around the bar my co-workers were asking me how I was feeling about the move. Earlier that week someone on my account asked me if I felt any “trepidation” about going to the GSA and for the most part people were supportive and congratulatory.

At the happy hour, though, one of the company’s newer employees told my wife something interesting: “Unlike most people,” he said, “I actually became more conservative during college.” He went on to say he was an economics major and became enchanted with incentives and determined that, lacking them federal employees have no reason to do good work. And then he came right out and told me he thought that the ideals behind 18F were good and geniune but eventually I was going to be working on something great and a GS15 would show up and arbitrarily end it.

He basically told me I was absolutely, undoubtedly, and quickly headed for
Kafkaesque disappointment.

That line stuck with me on my first day at the GSA, though, because it wasn’t just him who said things like this. The colleague who asked if I had any trepidations told me he spent a summer working for the GSA essentially inventorying the government issued furnituring for embassy residences. The details were a bit murky but I got the sense he didn’t take the job very seriously when the punchline turned out that a woman at one of the residences answered the door in her underwear. People would talk about our colleagues at the CFPB like they were riding out their careers, set for a life of doing nothing and getting paid to do it. I can’t count how many times I heard someone say our colleagues intentionally did shoddy work or had lower standards because they were government employees.

“That kind of work would never be tolerated if there was money at stake.”

That attitude was so pervasive that I was a bit nervous going into day one
that, despite all signs to the contrary, they were right. I was determined to
prove them wrong, and the incredibly talented, passionate team I work with has only fueled my conviction that public servants—be they teachers, software developers, or bank inspectors—are some of the most passionate, dedicated people in the workforce. If anything, I’ve had more GS15s tell us to keep up the great work than otherwise.

All this is to say, if you think bureaucracy is hard, you’re right. If you think bureaucracy can be used to unproductive ends, you’re right. But if you think it has to be that way and will never change: you’re flat wrong. The government is a big ship and it’s going to take more than one 18F to change it, but the progress we’ve made inside the GSA is real. We managed to hire a team of more than 70, take on a smattering of projects that are either live or in beta stage with more on their way. And it’s all being done by public servants.

To that colleague, incentives pretty much exclusively meant money: raises, bonuses, stock options, what have you. And that’s great but we do things every day that are not driven by earning more money. We are not all walking around with carrots in front of our faces and sticks at our back. At least in government, we’re driven by different motives: improving the lives of everyday Americans by making their interactions with government easier, more efficient, and with a greater chance of success motivates us. Saving taxpayer money motivates us. Disproving all the prejudices people have of government work motivates us. Who needs incentives to do that?

Something From Nothing: Sonic Highways in Pursuit of the American Sound

Sonic Highways Cover

Sonic Highways is the title of the latest release from the Foo Fighters. A short (their shortest ever?) album clocking in a just 8 tracks, one for each of the episodes in the HBO series of the same name. It is also the follow on album to Wasting Light, the band’s 2011 release and Reel to Reel Dave Grohl’s solo album recorded with various other musicians produced during the recording of Sound City, a documentary he wrote about the eponymous Los Angeles recording studio where nearly every musician worth knowing recorded an album. That documentary was a phenomenal tribute to American music and a particular kind of recording technique that is seldom, if the documentary is to be believed, used by musicians in the age of Pro Tools and home studios. Even if fans were unaware of the documentary, Sonic Highways is a Foo Fighters album that holds up every expectation we should have but taken with the HBO series it stands as a loving tribute to more than sixty years of Americans making music spanning Go-Go, Country, Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Jazz or Punk (which features most prominently across the series).

At eight tracks the album is a quick listen. Double records used to be somewhat rare (and much more expensive than a single LP) but they seem commonplace these days. Like it’s the default; as if you’re band is doing it wrong if they make an album that fits into a 44 mintue run. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Some would argue the concept of an album is making a quiet exit in a world where electronic media put fewer physical constraints on a person’s library. Sonic Highways is not here to make wistful arguments about the qualitative difference between digital and analog music. There is something, though, about the focus and concision required to produce an album that fits on two sides of pressed vinyl. The songs on Sonic Highways flow one right into the next, gracefully progressing from a gritty, heavy opening through an almost anthemic midesection before falling into a somber finale that leaves the listener feeling as if something bigger, grander is on the horizon.

Those transition points are easily identifiable on a second listen (“What Did I Do?/God As My Witness,” Austin and “Subterranean,” Seattle), but seemed to pass right by me the first time round. Perhaps that is why, taken track by track, the album is hard to pin down. Though I don’t listen to radio stations other than The Current to know which songs are getting mainstream airplay, I imagine the first song released was “Something from Nothing,” the first track and the one recorded at the end of the HBO show’s first episode about Chicago. And as a lead single, it’s a good song and one that will probably get people to give the album a shot. But as an expression of the album, it’s maybe misleading—if a listener heard that song on DC 101 and thought the rest of the album would be a dark, punchy album they might be disappointed. Especially when contrasted with later tracks like “In the Clear,” (New Orleans) or “Outside” (Los Angeles) the first two tracks make the album and the band stand out more for their incredible range of talent.

Watching the show and listening to the album one week at a time made the method behind this album seem like an exhaustingly stressful way to write music. Grohl came into each city with music but no lyrics. The band unloaded, unpacked, and spun up a single-song session every time they came into town and tore it all down immediately after they left. There are a few exceptions like in Austin, TX where they recorded at least one other song for Austin City Limits’ 40th Anniversary special (go watch that now, I’ll wait). The show makes it look like they did all of that plus film a documentary simultaneously and in about a week’s time. There was also a surprise performance of some kind most episodes: 9:30 Club (DC), The Bluebird (Nashville), Preservation Hall (NOLA). The show is a rare glimpse into not only how an album is made (we’ve seen that before), but also how music is made, and where an ensemble like the Foos turn inspiration into creativity.

Compared with other rock albums this year, espeically Jack White’s Lazaretto, it feels like a work of rock and roll refreshingly gimmick-free.[1] It is internally consistent and demonstrates Dave Grohl and the Foos are masters of a particular and distinctly American form of music. Sure, the HBO series is kind of a gimmick, and maybe recording in eight different studios each in different cities is too. But the amazing thing about owning and listening to this album, is that you are completely unaware of that unless you’re prepared to geek out on the liner notes. HBO’s logo is nowhere on the album. It isn’t stuffed with pleas for you to join HBOGo. The Foos don’t do that kind of shameless promotion even though they definitely could.[2] Instead, the liner notes remind me of some of my favorite records out of my Dad’s old collection: photos of the band clowning around in the studio, looking serious at the board, crouching over a drum kit, clad in headphones. Other than “Greetings from X” postcard graphics on the reverse of the lyric sheet, there’s no indication of the pan-American recording other than the “Recorded in” line in the credits.

Notes:

  1. I loved Lazaretto but seriously, the split-track, reverse-grooved, hologram-enabled LP was a bit much. We get it! Vinyl can do more than play music, MP3s can’t! Read you loud and clear, bro. It’s also increasingly clear Jack White is amazingly talented but when it comes down to it his ego gets in the way of the art.
  2. The show and the album have entirely different logos and branding.

Fear and Justice in America

It’s easy to forget the first time I realized I had to go five blocks out of my way to continue going east on F St. NW when I hit 17th St because of the 4 by 8 block area closed off around the White House. DC is a confusing enough of a place to drive for the unintiated, with the diagonal avenues intersecting the grid at small, medium, and gigantic circles around the city. Add on top of that the variable directionality on Rock Creek Parkway and the whole 4 by 8 block area surrounding the White House and the northwest quadrant of the city starts to seem pretty difficult to navigate.

That was the situation I imagine when I think about Miriam Carey, the woman who was tragically gunned down inside her car while attempting to drive through our city with her 13-month-old daughter in a car seat last October. On the heels of a deadly shooting at Navy Yard, and not long after the Boston Marathon Bombings, it was a scary incident, but one that had a pretty short life in the Washington news cycle. The Washington
Post
revisited the incident about a year later, looking into what the official investigation tells us, and what might have been missed, overstated, or simply ignored. The first thing we learn reading the story is that the whole incident started when a tourist from Connecticuit “drove up to the Secret Service kiosk at 15th and E streets NW,” a vantage from which you cannot even see the White House. Instead of stopping as ordered by the Secret Service police, she made “a U-turn and [attempted] to drive back into the public space.”

The first question I had when I read that was “isn’t leave what we’re supposed to do when we get to a security checkpoint we’re not supposed to be at?” The Post confirmed that answer is yes: you only commit a crime if you stay. Would I have stopped and rolled down my window? Maybe. But maybe I would have done exactly what Miriam did, realized I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be and leave.

To be sure, Carey did some odd things after the Secret Service and Capitol
Police began chasing her. Why didn’t she pull over her car? Why did she back up when there were police with guns drawn standing over her car? Maybe it’s because she was a maniacal criminal, but maybe it’s because encounters between black Americans and the police genearlly favor the police.

We’ll never know.

If, instead of starting with the assumption that she was a maniac guilty of
conspiracy to assassinate the President, we assume she was innocent, it becomes pretty easy to imagine Miriam Carey as a woman from out of town, lost in DC and unfortunately learned the hard way that you cannot continue going west on E St. after 15th St. NW. And while I’m no expert on law enforcement, the “hard way” here seems excessive. After the chase down Pennsylvania Avenue she was ultimately shot at 12 times (eight times while her car was moving, which the Post quotes is rare, dangerous, and “only seems to work well in the movies,”) eventually killing her in her car next to her baby.

I’m not saying attempting to drive on the White House grounds isn’t cause for alarm—neither is the Post. Nor am I saying disregarding the instructions of a guard at a security checkpoint isn’t cause for alarm—again, neither is the Post. I’m certainly not saying protection of the president is not a special kind of law enforcement. All those things are true. What the Post does say is that accidentally driving into that restricted area is a misdemeanor, and a fairly common one that again is only committed if you refuse to leave. What I am saying is that it looks like Miriam Carey actually did leave, and quickly, and even if she wasn’t leaving, any crime she committed before being killed certainly wouldn’t be a capital crime during a fair trial before a jury of her peers (see US Constitution, Amendment 6). As the Post put it “Carey did not refuse to leave. She refused to stop leaving.”

Stealing cigarillos from a convenience store in Missouri is also a misdemeanor, as is brandishing a weapon in Ohio (especially if you’re a confused child). At least I’m pretty sure they are (IANAL). While I’m not equating these situations, it is impossible to ignore that these three individuals were killed by people we are supposed to trust to keep us safe before anyone asked them a question for allegedly committing a minor crime.

Is this the society we want? It’s situations like these that make so-called
Castle Laws so terrifying: ordinary people being gunned down out of fear. That we citizens might make a mistake and wind up dead is terrifying. What’s more terrifying is that it seems like when white people make these mistakes sometimes we get away with it (see the accounts of Mathew Goldstein and Kevin Carr in the Post article). We at least get charged with a crime. But when a black person makes a mistake, justice is swift and dealt by the barrel of a gun.

None of this should be news to anyone. Debates about marijuana legalization here in DC and several other places around the country have highlighted the disparities in arrest rates among black and white people. Hopefully the best justice Miriam Carey, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and any other black person killed imprisoned, or mistreated by police officers this year is to incite change. I don’t know what that change looks
like but I know it starts with you and me standing up for injustice wherever we see it. It starts with people who don’t see a problem with unarmed black people being killed by police realizing that black lives matter.