The Itinerant Engineer – A Lighthearted Romp through Bureaucratic Nonsense

In response to my father’s question about what exactly I intended to do to support myself when I reached the magical age of high school graduation in two years, I said “artist”.  He should have known that, of course, since I’d been laying the groundwork for years. My mother patted me on the head as she cleared the last of the dishes from the dinner table

Pirates of choice

Pirates of choice

and left. My brother and sister had exited stage right through the doorway to the kitchen to begin clean-up as soon as Dad began his inquisition. I was alone with the guy who was about to tell me on which side my bread was buttered. It became clear that the artist thing was to die on the vine. Dad clarified that I would either get a real job or go to college upon graduation.  Artist was not an option. No voice was given to my second career choice, which was to become a swashbuckling pirate on the South China Sea.

The remaining two years of mind-numbing high school was memorable only because it was peppered with determined efforts to dazzle the test givers to gain admittance to a pre-medical program and secure a slot in a medical school.  The plan worked brilliantly and the day after I graduated high school, I headed south from Montana to Texas Women’s University, TWU, in Denton and with a slot at the University of Minnesota’s medical school four years hence. Dad was happy. I was ecstatic and trembling at the thought of life unfolding.  My performance at TWU was sufficiently adequate to secure a prized assignment in the research lab and that is where the medical career hit the wall.  I recognized that the world of medicine would never be mine.  The next few years I wandered the world in search of a pirate ship. Finding none to my liking I returned to school and gained a degree in electrical engineering, power to be precise.  From that educational platform, my career took me into the field, technical management and operations.  Toy, toys and more toys; I did love the toys, still do.

Like a dust mote driven by a sun beam, I floated through life participating in building stuff like canals, microwave backbones, early networks, and infrastructure. My dream world included individuals hollowing out mesas, drilling big deep holes, and blowing things up to defend the country against evil doers, played alongside those launching missiles and cleaning up the  environmental messes the country made along the nuclear way.  If you play, you pay though.  There is no better university on earth than that provided by big defense contractors supporting and leading federal policy for earning a masters’ degree in government ‘reality’.

Governments do business through a bureaucracy; a bunch of non-elected people executing the will of elected representatives who determine the policies and mission based on their

Diagram of  elected, bureaucracy, contractor relationships within the federal government. (Note: smoke and mirrors removed)

Diagram of elected, bureaucracy, contractor relationships within the federal government. (Note: smoke and mirrors removed)

staff’s input, which is conveniently summarized for them by lobbyists for the corporations that do the government contracting and hire former elected officials and political appointees. The diagram is a wonderful geometric shape termed a circle. The first twenty years of my career was spent connecting those few dots. Anytime there is trouble the government blames the contractor and the contractor respectfully bows its corporate head and murmurs that it is but a humble and obedient servant.  Following trouble, imbalance in the circle is corrected through bloodletting until harmony is restored.  This geometry allows bureaucracies to blow smoke up their own…you get the idea.

A complete understanding of one’s bureaucracy increases survival over the long-haul for people, like me, who directed front line operations implementing policy. We were the government’s swashbuckling bureaucrats. The other, frequently used, survival technique is taken from the Cold War ‘Duck-and-Cover’ exercises modified for government workers; keep head down and make no waves. These are the ROADS people for they are Retired on Active Duty Status.

The second big rule of bureaucracies is to never, ever let the rice bowl get empty.  Rice bowls are those vessels that receive government funds; appropriated, black, multi-year,

Rice Bowl

Rice Bowl

inter-agency and other sources are all welcome. Dollars keep the government beasties going. A good government contractor writes the proposals for work and provides solid budget justifications. This exercise is neither trivial nor easy and for these reasons the documents are produced twice; once in the contractor’s voice and, the second time, in the government’s voice. In that manner, all may be certain that once the budget food fight starts, everyone is on the same page regardless of where they are located along the bureaucratic circle.  Follow-the- money takes on a whole new dimension.

As survival skills are honed, awareness is heightened until a critical state of hyper-vigilance is attained. This state of awareness is not nirvana. It is an uncanny ability to intercept incoming programmatic missiles and deflect them harmlessly, resulting in program budgets that remain safely in the black. For me, it afforded the opportunity to reflect on the value system that drove this behavior. I came to the conclusion that the value system under which I was living was the “perversion of the law” referred to by Frédéric Bastiat in 1850; “stupid greed and false philanthropy”. I was a willing participant living at the expense of others. Oh, I paid taxes, too, but I was only one of millions whose labor was taxed. Yes, the treaties supported by the programs, the environmental clean-ups, the destruction of dangerous nerve agents were all important but each was only a step forward for an endless and increasingly expensive cycle already beginning.

As a technical manager on public projects, I prided myself on the infrastructure I made available to others so that they could choose to live and work where they pleased.  As a technical manager during the Cold War (1947-1191), I prided myself on doing my part of keeping the U.S. free and competitive. Trust but verify is important and the more I verify, the sharper the focus is on the blocks that have built the political wall that now hides the fundamental values on which  this great Republic was founded.

John Adams (1735-1826) was one of the principal framers of the American republic and the successor to Washington as president. Before the Revolution he wrote some of the most important documents on the nature of the British Constitution and the meaning of rights, sovereignty, representation, and obligation. And it was Adams who, once the colonies had declared independence, wrote equally important works on possible forms of government in a quest to develop a science of politics for the construction of a constitution for the proposed republic.

John Adams (1735-1826) was one of the principal framers of the American republic and the successor to Washington as president. Before the Revolution he wrote some of the most important documents on the nature of the British Constitution and the meaning of rights, sovereignty, representation, and obligation. And it was Adams who, once the colonies had declared independence, wrote equally important works on possible forms of government in a quest to develop a science of politics for the construction of a constitution for the proposed republic.

The government should always be suspect and, as citizens, many of us trusted rather than verified. In A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765, John Adams wrote, “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.”

Perhaps I should have become a swashbuckling pirate after all. A recent post on pirates, ¡Que viván los piratas ingleses!, on The John Wilkes Club site makes an excellent case for pirates as purveyors of the idea that man can self-govern in a very practical manner:

“…If Leibniz was right that music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting, so too is our enduring love for tales of the pirates of the Spanish Main an unconscious recognition that, for all their faults, they also stood for freedom, justice, patriotism, courage, and above all the idea that man does not belong to a nation or a government or a language or a landmass – he belongs to himself. If that is what we still believe, then by all means let us run up the black flag from Gibraltar to Port Stanley.” [1]



[1] The John Wilkes Club; August 19, 2013; ¡Que viván los piratas ingleses!; http://www.thejohnwilkesclub.com/2013/08/19/que-vivan-los-piratas-ingleses/#comment-496

6 thoughts on “The Itinerant Engineer – A Lighthearted Romp through Bureaucratic Nonsense

  1. I grew up near Denton, near Greenwood and Slidell. I remember the Twin Towers of TWU, Stark and Guinn Halls, on the north side of the campus.

    And I am relying on statistical probability, but I thought you were a man. Am I mistaken?

    • I am a woman, Roger. I quietly made it across the barrier very early…worked hard, long hours and got good at what I did. I am fortunate in that I was always accepted for what I knew and accomplished. I’ve had the privilege of an exciting career during interesting times.

      • I sit corrected, then.

        I went to UNT from 1991 to 1993 and then to UT-Dallas to get my EE degree. Took to testing in telecommunications, the bottom dropped out, and now I’m in software testing.

        • See, you should have taken the power option then you would have two advantages: 1. taking your amperes in whole numbers, and 2. becoming a swashbuckler like me. I completely admire the professionals who test software! Have neither the skill nor the patience. Thanks for reading, Roger.

          • Power option at the University of Texas Instruments? What power option? You may like your amperes whole, but I like my hertz in orders of magnitude! 🙂

          • Ended up continuing my ed at the UofA. Lol, you have me there as I tend to get stuck after 60….

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