Good Enough for Government Work

Okay, yet another rant. This is an old saw of mine which I’ve decided I want to write up so I could point at it later.

One of the many places I don’t EVER want to hear this phrase uttered in its current form. (photo courtesy of the Department of Energy)

When I hear someone doing a half-assed job that they’re just going to walk away from, usually incomplete, say with a shrug “Good enough for government work”, I get angry. I get particularly angry if this comes from a co-worker because for the last 15 years, in one form or another, I have either been a state/federal government employee or contractor. My co-worker is, effectively, letting me know that I’m going to need to redo their work, wasting my time, and they think it’s funny as they collect a paycheck doing it. When you add the extra layer of “Dammit you’re supposed to be a steward of taxpayer dollars and government resources, WAIT A MINUTE I’M A GODDAMN TAXPAYER!!!”, well, there’s a reason I asked to be transferred away from certain people. This is the behavior that erodes trust and leads people to think it’s okay to divert money away from government programs to private industry.

NOTE: I have never seen private industry actually do a job they’d been contracted to do work out to be cheaper. Oh, workers were certainly paid less and they had no pension to speak of but somehow the total contact cost never ended up cheaper than the original program. Ah, but this is a different rant.

But let’s talk about the phrase itself, “Good enough for government work.” The original phrase was “CLOSE enough for government work” and it came from the machinist trade. Prior to WWII, FDR’s administration reviewed the state of America’s manufacturing and were a bit disappointed that not much had changed since WWI. In WWI, American troops tended to use British and French artillery and machine guns because our own gear was so deeply unreliable, inferior, and just old by comparison. FDR’s War Department saw the writing on the wall in the 1930s and wanted to get things improved. For a while (so the story goes) there was the general industry machining schedule and the government machining schedule being used side by side*. The idea being that the government schedule would eventually  become the industry standard, since you couldn’t get government contracts unless you agreed to meet it and were tooled to meet their specs, at which point the government could go back to buying on the general market rather than demanding special requirements.

Also, as part of the Lend/Lease Act with us selling war materiel to the Allies before Pearl Harbor, the Allies had no interest in buying our crap unless we modernized our production. So, there was that too.

The original meaning of the phrase had an entirely different pejorative. Rather than meaning you’d done a half-assed job, it meant that you’d done such a precise job on this thing you’d made that it could potentially be sold to the government. That its precision could actually meet the exacting standards of the government schedule. It carried the implication of “We aren’t selling to the government, buddy. How much company time did you waste making your work of art when you probably could’ve made 12 more normal ones?”

And this didn’t original sense of the phrase didn’t go away with the end of WWII. My mother told me about working for an early semiconductor manufacturer in Florida that did work supporting NASA. While she wasn’t specifically working on production that was heading to Kennedy Space Center, other people certainly were, so two different quality standards were in use in the fab. She got yelled at by her boss for making wafers that passed through QA with too few flaws. It was assumed that she was wasting time being a perfectionist, despite the production reports and timecards that said otherwise. She was told “This isn’t government work, just get it done.”

I’m not quite sure when the Bizarro semantic shift in this phrase happened but the fact that it did says something. While I would like to blame it on Reagan and the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers’ Strike shattering the strength of unions in America, the change seems to have already happened at some point in the 1970s. The current connotation is corrosive to trust and belief in the machinery of government. It’s an assertion that the people that make up the machine are incompetent at best, malign leeches at worst, rather than stewards of the public trust. Why would you ever want to go work for an organization like this? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; give it enough time and enough potential employees who decide not to work in public service and, yes, the incompetent and leeches are the only ones who will be left…

…which is why you then contract all your work out to “Trusted Private Sector Industry Partners”. This very much smells like a return to the spoils system instead of the merit based appointments that the civil service reforms of 1883 were made to fix. Oops, I just wandered into that chunk of horrible American history I love and history classes like to ignore because those four decades after the Civil War are incredibly complicated and ugly. “Good Enough for Government Work” is a toxic meme that has spread around the world, impairing efforts to reform straight up corrupt bureaucracies, like America’s was before President Chester A. Arthur signed his name to obliterate the system that made him. We really don’t want that back. For the record, I have heard this phrase uttered in every country I’ve ever been to, except Ukraine though that might have been a function of not staying there long enough.

I want “Good Enough For Government Work” to be a statement of pride, with no pejoratives. That you’ve done your job well, that you aren’t phoning it in, and more importantly that we, as citizens, expect it.

*: My main problem with this excellent story is that I have never been able to lay hands on or even find a picture of the original government schedule or equipment. There would have been reference tools and charts for the quality assurance people to make sure that work was within acceptable tolerances for the gov’t contract, and the separate set for the normal industry ones. As I cast my mind back 20 years to my History of Science and Technology class with Prof. Hugh Torrens, this is exactly what he was talking about with the practical bits of technology vanishing. Even the most packrat of machinists, and I know a few, must to toss these particular items out of their shops whenever they’re superseded lest they work to an old standard by accident an get torn a new one by auditors**. If you can lay your hands on a side by side comparison of these ~80 year old mundane bits of shop gear, I’d love to see them.

**: Wait, shit, I’m one of those people. Dammit.

Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 2 – Chernobyl, the Town & the Reactors

Chernobyl City Limits – Yes, I am wearing one Fallout shirt or another under my frock coat everywhere I went. (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

When you have the incredibly photogenic and not bulldozed ghost city of Pripyat to take pictures of, it’s easy to forget the other towns and villages that were once there, or still are in the case of the city of Chernobyl. Generally the name “Chernobyl” is associated in everyone’s head with the the reactor that went up in smoke, Chernobyl-4, rather than the seat of the old administrative district. I can understand forgetting it. It wasn’t a sexy place with fascinating architecture like Pripyat, just solid utilitarian construction like the buildings of a county corporation yard. Except, to paraphrase Harry

Chernobyl is the city that lived. While everyone in the exclusion zone got evacuated, Chernobyl has since repopulated with a few hundred resettlers. Also, on a transitory basis, all the Ukrainian State Emergency Service workers (the agency that administers the exclusion zone among other things) stay there a few days to two weeks, rotating to their posting outside the zone for an equivalent amount of “cool off” time before coming back. It even has operating markets and the church that serves the resettlers in town, those that come in from more distant farms, the workers, and tourists. It is the hub for life in the exclusion zone. Above all, if you’re a visitor to the exclusion zone and stay there, unless you have friends that are resettlers you’ll be sleeping at the Desyatka Hotel. That said, it’s comparatively a ghost town when you realize that with all those folks added together it has less than a tenth of it’s previous population.

But what Chernobyl mainly struck me as, other than a diminished but still active regional center, was a memorial. Dozens of small towns and villages vanished from the map after the accident as the bulldozers knocked all the buildings down and then buried them like latter day kurgans. No, not The Kurgan but I know you probably thought it. But “Why?” you ask. “If the Liquidators could decon the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl, why couldn’t they clean all those towns?” And there is answer to that which comes down to one word: wood. If your construction is primarily wood, we can’t decon it and there’s nothing to be done other than dispose of it as waste. Entire buildings and whole villages, crushed and buried under a layer of dirt and then a stake with a little radiation trefoil on it to warn people “DO NOT DIG! HERE BE RADIATION, NOT TREASURE, ME MATEYS!”

(As an aside, the complicated question of how to communicate STAY AWAY to our descendants for the next 10,000 years regarding nuclear waste is part of the genesis of my beloved Long Now Foundation. Humans, being the people we are, which is remarkably consistent across time and space, tend to see dire warnings of danger and curses as instead invitation to come [Terrence & Phillip voice] Look For Treasure!)

I am to understand that the Japanese authorities have figured out a methodology to decon wood for the Sendai Prefecture to allow reoccupation of the towns. I am VERY interested to learn more about how they do this because this would be a game changer for what can and can’t be saved in an accident/contamination incident. Needless to say, the Soviet Liquidators didn’t have this at their disposal. They did have spray glue, bulldozers, and dirt which are all very economical, which is why there are several memorials to the missing communities in Chernobyl. I am particularly fond of this one which I called the Graveyard of Villages. Our minder thought it was an apt name.

The Graveyard of Villages – Each of those signs stretching off into the distance is a town that is gone.

This, incidentally, is all that’s left of a building when a team of Liquidators are done with it and fast forward with 30 years of plant growth.

Radioactive Barrows – DIG YE NOT HERE

We got truly lucky with our trip out to Reactor 4 because they were closing the zone the next day to begin moving the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old Sarcophagus at 2 meters per hour. By comparison, the old Kennedy Space Center crawler-transporter for the Space Shuttle rolled from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Lauchpad 39A/B at the comparatively breakneck drag racing speed of 1.5mph (I wish I still had a picture of that speed limit sign on the crawlerway from my last visit to KSC). So, we were the lucky last people who weren’t actually working on the NSC to get to see the two as separate structures. Behold!

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus – on Nov 12th, they began rolling they new containment over it. This is one of the last views of it we’ll ever have.

New Safe Containement – Those flaps on the left are the “mouth” to close over the structure of the Sarcophagus as it rolls over.














I’m not going to tell the tale of the loss of life, the danger emergency responders braved knowingly and unknowingly to try to get some kind of control over the situation, the difficulty figuring out how to build the Sarcophagus structure in short order, much less doing it, again. The internet is full of accounts of the Battle of Chernobyl and the mobilization of the resources and technical/scientific acumen of the entire Soviet Union to get ahead of this disaster. The effort involved absolutely deserves to be compared to the Battle of Stalingrad; it was a win at all costs or the nation will perish situation. And, if you ask Gorbachev, he was quite certain that they won AND the nation perished because of it; that the staggering cost of bringing the meltdown and fire to a stable and contained state may have bankrupted the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet command economy doesn’t quite map to a market economy for equivalence in expenditures, suffice it to say that the official estimate of costs was 18 billion rubles. While officially the pre-1988 exchange rate had been .9USD to the ruble, there was no actual exchange rate, as it was illegal for citizens to exchange currency. Technically, the only reason the Soviet bicyclists I met in 7th grade didn’t get in trouble with their KGB minders for giving a coin collecting nerd a 1 kopek coin when they visited my school was that I gave them nothing in exchange. He was quite clear that I shouldn’t, in fact. That said, the amount of time, effort and resources that 18 billion rubles represented in the command economy was staggering. Literally, as the economy couldn’t take that hit, keep trying to keep everything else like they had, and the Soviet Union became unstable in its wake.

At least, that’s Gorbachev’s take on the matter. I’m inclined to believe the last premier on this matter at least.

Of course 18 billion is merely the cost of the materiel and labor to bring the disaster under control. This doesn’t count the cost of losing THE ENTIRE EXCLUSION ZONE’s economic productivity, much less the value of all the things in it. One reason Chernobyl Reactors 1-3 kept running until the year 2000 was that the region needed them to keep remaining industry and modern living in cities running and absolutely could not afford to replace them. When the deal to was made to shut them all down, Ukraine got a nice replacement oil burning power plant which was sufficient for need by then. The reactors had been expensive to build and abandoning them was a heck of a loss, especially considering the Soviets had been following the proper model of reactor construction/rotation here: one old one you’d be decommissioning soon, one half way through operational life, one that just came online, and one you were still building. This is sort of like fallowing fields, but to allow succession of designs to allow engineering improvements to propagate and to keep any reactor from being run well into decrepitude (SEE ALSO: the United States nuclear power stations).

But Chernobyl was special. This region was booming, a showcase for the future so they weren’t just following the reactor succession model. They were planning to expand capacity by making a complete second reactor complex containing Chernobyl 5-8. They never got beyond building the cooling towers for #5 and #6 before the accident happened.

Chernobyl-5 Cooling Tower Sunset (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Chernobyl-6 Cooling Tower – rising incomplete in the distance over the cooling channel











Wandering through the acoustically perfect hyperbola of a cooling tower is an echo chamber like I’ve never experienced before. Every footstep came back to me from every direction. As a piece of health and safety advice, they never quite finished the Chernobyl-5 cooling tower, even though it looks much more complete than Chernobyl-6’s, and the rebar exposed to the elements up above is slowly tearing the concrete apart. When a chunk falls to the ground below inside the cooling tower, of which there is plenty of evidence, try to act surprised.

Now, the reactors weren’t the only very expensive thing named Chernobyl in the exclusion zone. The Army, being the Red Army with all attendant powers, couldn’t resist taking advantage of all this plentiful power for a little pet project that they kept secret and didn’t put on the maps. As an early warning system, they’d been working on an Over-The-Horizon radar system known as Duga-3 for skipping a signal off the ionosphere to look thousands of miles away for missile or bomber launches. The receiver part of the array was located near the power plant, taking up a decent percentage of the power station’s output and was designated Chernobyl-2, obviously to maximize confusion in people writing and reading about the topic. This antenna array was about the size of two football fields, tipped up on their side and pointed due north to listen over the pole to North Dakota.

Chernobyl-2 OTH Antenna Array (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

While this is an impressive antenna, I would like you to take a moment to think about the signal processing for a device like this. The amount of computing power and electronics, and what they looked like with a late 1970s/early 1980s design. This secret installation that had its own population of a few thousand needed to operate it. Now think about the power and cooling needs for that kind of hardware.

HINT: Like a old Volkswagen, they decided to go with air cooling. Fans are easy, right? And Ukraine’s pretty cool the rest of the time.

I’ll wait a moment for you to envision where this all goes wrong. [sips beer]

Okay, now light Reactor 4 light on fire, spewing radioactive fallout into the air. You know, the air which you use to cool your computers and electronics…

[sips beer again, waits for the screaming from the IT folks thinking about their server rooms to die down]

By the end of day on April 26th, 1986, the receiver for one of the Soviet Union’s pet projects to watch Strategic Air Command from the comfort of their homes in Ukraine was completely fried. Costing somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 billion rubles to build, keeping in mind that the Battle for Chernobyl cost an estimated 18 billion, the system had been commissioned the day before the accident and would never work again.

So, yes, I’m seeing how one localized disaster can shatter a nation with the compounded costs. I assume that’s why it easier to look away from recognized risks and, very wishfully, assume they’ll never happen. Much easier to just ignore problems rather than do the hard work of mitigating them.

The DECEMBERING 2016 Draws to a Close

Most of the order slots for production have zeroed out at this point and many have already flipped over to the next window that ends New Year’s Eve. I will still be cranking BBotE & steins out all next week, but all bets are off as to things showing up in time for those of you looking to stick something under the Xmas tree. You may get lucky with USPS, you might not. Your best plan, however is to drop me a line to see if what I have on hand, what is in the production queue, and what day which things will finish.

And, on top of that, if your need is truly desperate because of waiting until the last minute and are willing to pay the price, you can always choose “Express” rather than “Priority Mail” for your shipping option.

For the folks about to send me more emails complaining “I waited until the 17th to order but now everything is out of stock or now has a ship date of 12/31/2016. WTF,  YOU RUINED CHRISTMAS, YOU ASSHOLE!” (this is a direct copy-paste), please don’t. As each and every BBotE listing has said for the last four years, that date is not“Does Not Ship Until #DATE”, it clearly reads “Will Ship No Later Than #DATE”. If there has been a theme that’s run through my career in safety it’s that just because people are literate doesn’t actually mean they actually read anything. Sadly, this is appears to be a very broad problem in the world.

Of course, for those of you who are looking for Go Juice or a fine drinking vessel to ring in the New Year, this is just a normal production window. Carry on with your happy lives.

¡LUCHA TUBA! – By far the most amazing thing in Cirque du Soleil LUZIA show.

Anyway, to preserve the holiday spirit, I give you a luchador with a tuba

THE BIG SHILL: Things You Can Buy Which I Don’t Sell

Many years ago on livejournal, my friend Ben Stone and his now fiancee Nadja, AKA The Benchilada & fairyarmadillo, AKA Stone Robot Enterprises, inaugurated a holiday tradition of collecting all the friends who made things to share their wares with the everyone else which he called THE BIG SHILL. The Steins of Science were part of one of these long ago, in the beforetime. I would like to maintain this tradition.

There is a difficulty however. In this darker era of the internet, I can’t just ask people to add their favorite things to my list in the comments below since I turned comments off four years ago. If you have something you think I should know about and share with the world, drop me an email.

Without further ado, a far from exhaustive list:

Jenn Rose – Jenn is a special effects artist who every last one of us who has seen a movie in the last decade has enjoyed the work of. When she isn’t making wonders for the screen, she is making mostly bug-based wonders to wear at Cetonia Designs. Also, her instagram account, @bugluvphotography, is well worth checking out.

Meredith Yayanos – my friend Mer has done so much wonderful spooky music over the years and is one of my favorite people. She helps keep me thinking and my life strange. I direct you here to her previous project but poke around a bit and you may find new things coming from her soon.

Laurie Penny – is a journalist and writer I’ve been enjoying the work of since Warren Ellis first introduced her and her red pen of justice to me oh so many years ago. She has a new book out “Unspeakable Things” which you can get here, and enjoy her other work and articles.

Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener – Atomic Robo is a pleasure I have been sharing with you folks for years. I’m pleased to say that they’ve gotten their act together, admitted that they actually like money, and put together a decent shop for their merch. Please support Action Science.

Maki Naro – A cartoonist formerly contributing to Popular Science, who I worked with a little bit to help make one of his series happen, Maki is now doing his own thing with his own patreon and store, featuring such items as Octopus Jesus.

Matt Lubchansky – a DADicated collector of DADS and creator of the comic Listen To Me. He also regularly causes hilarity on The Nib. You may find some of his fine wares on offer here.

In fact, in light of that last link, why don’t you just go through the entirety of the Topatoco store. They’ve provided me a box of holiday delights to give to people every year.

DrinkTanks – I previously discussed this in a post a while back, but I heartily endorse their Juggernaut 128oz growler over buying the 4.3L Stein of Science. Get the Juggernaut and a smaller stein. Everyone, but especially you, will be happy.

Ben Templesmith – On of my favorite comic artists, I’ve been enjoying his work since “Fell” though I suspect you’ve been enjoying his stuff in any of a dozen different venues. His current project Blackholers has been a hoot, I’m looking forward to Blood Songs, and he also has his own store up as well.

Warren Ellis – Speaking of Warren, as I can blame my acquaintance with half the people on this list on him in one way or another, I would like to really encourage you read his prose fiction rather than just his comic work. I have an unholy lust for his book Gun Machine to be turned into a crime of the week serial on AMC, but that just ain’t gonna happen because we aren’t allowed to have nice things. In the last year, he made two very enjoyable novellas, Elektrograd and NORMAL, that I would love to see more of and I think you may enjoy them too.

Shadows of Brimstone – this game has brought me so much fun in the last several years. I often refer to it as Cowboys & Cthulhus. Buying absolutely everything they’ve made related to this game is Warhammer-level, credit card melting purchase, but if you get the two base sets, which are available for an EXCELLENT deal right now, you’re good to go for a very long while.

Concerning Asskicker Coffee

I have JUST the coffee mug for such occasions. (mug courtesy of Topatoco, Sopwith Camel courtesy of LEGO)

Ooooookay, the milestone where I have a deep sigh and decide to comment on someone else’s product is 50 messages. When I’ve gotten that many emails, texts, IMs, DMs, tweets, phone calls, etc., I have to breakdown and actually make words in reply.

TL;DR version: No, they aren’t ripping me off. No one making cold brew coffee is ripping me off, they’re just doing their own thing. When someone does something I think is as good as BBotE and finds a way to do it cheaper, I’ll let you know because I’ll be buying it too.

In case you’ve missed out on the content hungry media flurry, there’s a cafe in Adelaide, South Australia called Vicious Coffee that has a product on its menu called Asskicker Coffee. People from Australia have been telling me about this for a while, but the social media thirstlords blew it up at the end of August. You can read the original news story from the Australian Sunday Mail Advertiser under the link, but I want you to pay close attention to this statement:

The Asskicker is a complex concoction made of quad espresso (four shots), four 48-hour brewed cold drip ice cubes, 120ml of 10-day brewed cold drip and is finished with four more 48-hour brewed cold drip ice cubes.

My most important take away from all the various articles I’ve been sent about this is “many journalists aren’t good at math”. Please read that previous quote again and think about how much coffee that is.

Think about it some more.

Okay, let’s do some conversions. The traditional espresso shot is 30ml, so four of those is 120ml. It’s hard for me to guess at ice cube volume since ice cube trays are so variable, but let’s say for the sake of simplicity that they’re 30ml apiece also, that’s another 240ml. Add the 120ml for the 10-day brewed cold drip and you’re looking at a total 480ml (~16 fluid ounces of cold brew coffee and espresso). Now, for those of you that have purchased BBotE, you’ve seen my recommendation to keep BBotE consumption under 100ml per day. I’m not going to make any assumptions on flavor or caffeine content here, but if comparable to BBotE as claimed in the many, many articles I’ve been sent you’re exceeding my recommended dose by almost a factor of five. I disobey my own recommendations now and then, but I tend to put a six hour gap between cups and even then it’s usually 75ml in the morning and 75ml in the afternoon. You are asking for trouble consuming 480ml worth of concentrated coffee all in one go, much as I don’t recommend having a mug full of uncut BBotE.

In fact, from the same article, I want to reiterate that their product isn’t meant to be consumed all in one go. This is meant to be consumed over a time span of hours so that it lasts you for entire shifts. The original inspiration for this was an ER nurse that had a surprise double shift.

The Asskicker is available in three sizes: small is $10 (recommend one to two hour consumption for six to nine hours “up time”; medium is $13 (recommend two to three hours consumption for nine-12 hours “up time”; and large is $16 (recommend three to four hours consumption for 12 to 18 hours “up time”).

My take: This is a coffee shop owner that has done right by his customers and quit trying to tear them down for doing it. Someone had a shitty day in front of them and Steve Bennington made them something special to help make it better. That was so much fun it became part of the regular menu. Hell, I bet all of you have been into a bar or a restaurant that has something on their menu that got there they exact same way, and it’ll be there until the closing day of the establishment.

When I make my next trip to Australia, whenever that may be, I hope Vicious Coffee is still serving it so I can try some. When I tourist, I tourist HARD. 😉