Friday, August 22, 2008

Here are lots of stories

Over a dozen stories are here; some fairly longThere are all kinds of stories here; about 10,000 words. Some put me in a positive light; others do the opposite.

In one case I mention people by name because those persons may deserve additional positive recognition and because those persons are deceased. Also the colors used were just to make it easier to read and for me to figure out which story I was in as I composed it.

1. An very early career memory of an accomplishment

2. A concrete change

3. A late career memory of an accomplishment

4. In between the early and late career
(this is a really long section with lots of separate stories)

---------------------(because I think there should be more oral histories based on 1st person recollections; of course memories are not perfect and I may have some details wrong in the stories that follow; also these stories are not in chronological order nor are they meant to be a representative sample - I am leaving out some interesting stories on economic development and National Highway System and Interstate issues partly because these issues are active or potentially so and I don't want this 'short memoir' piece to influence them. Also, I've left ambiguous some of the actors and subjects in these stories - this is to avoid offending people while trying to be candid).

1. An very early career memory of an accomplishment

One of my first memories in FHWA goes back to 1974. I created some nomograms (also known as nomographs - a mathematical graphic construct so old that the spell check subroutines we use today don't recognize the word 'nomograph' although happily, Wikipedia does have an entree on nomogram) for use in air quality analysis by the Region and Division folks and their counterparts in State, regional and local government (and consultants). I received a lot of very positive feedback from the government users (apparently the methods used before my nomographs were confusing and/or hard to use and mine were less confusing and/or easier to use - some of the consultants didn't particularly like the fact that I had developed these nomographs because they made analysis too easy; however, consultants had plenty of work anyway).

2. A concrete change (this is in here to acknowledge the accomplishment of people who haven't been given sufficient credit - these people are deceased and are not likely to get this credit otherwise, thus I actually name people and give some subject detail).
When I joined FHWA in the early 1970s, I noticed that, on the interstate, concrete was used for many purposes besides pavements. I also noticed that that non roadway elements made of concrete and placed near the roadway were almost always ugly. Today, there are many concrete elements that are not just un-ugly but actually attractive. For example, many noise walls, retaining walls, right-of-way fences and similar structures have surfaces that are textured, or have patterns (many have subtle color tincture also). This progress is due in large part to the private sector that manufactures and installs these structures. Within the private sector there were a number of individuals who invented the devices that add texture and patterns to concrete and other processes and devices and who keep improving these devices and processes (I am sure there are quite a number of patents in this area).

Some of my memories involves a series of discussions with such individuals in the private sector. Some of these discussions took place in the late 70s, others in the mid 80s. In the late 70s, I was involved in a TRB related meeting regarding materials used in noise walls (e.g., steel, wood, concrete). There were some people representing manufacturers of noise walls, some State DOT people, some university people, some private sector traffic noise analysts, myself and some other FHWA people. Much of the meeting was about the difference in transmitted noise between the traffic side and other side of noise walls and much of the meeting was on differences in reflected noise. As I recall, after spending a lot of time on these subjects, the bottom line was that the difference was essentially unimportant as it related to reflected noise. I did notice some comments, however, about the ugliness of these walls and there was a theory that people who complained about reflected noise were, perhaps, influenced by other considerations, including the visual aspect.
One inventor named William (a.k.a., Bill) Hayden Pickett and I spoke on this. Mr. Pickett invented a flexible joint that held two large concrete panels together (an internet site says this was patent 4111401). He and El Angove, both now deceased, called the product made with this joint "Fan Wall". As I recall the first installation of Fan Wall products were in the early 80s. Mr. Pickett was apparently at that late 70s meeting. Somehow he decided, some years later, that FHWA had something more to contribute to this ongoing discussion. He called the FHWA a number of times during 1986 when I was working in the noise area again (I had other jobs during the early 80s). Mr. Pickett had a medical condition and was frequently unable to communicate well in the morning. As I was frequently the only person in the noise area after about 4:30 pm, he and I spoke a number of times on the general subject of noise barriers. A number of his calls had to do with what he considered misuse of his patents (I think that he had a number of inventions and eventually sold most of his patent rights; some were, to the best of my knowledge and as of the date of this post, owned by "The Reinforced Earth Company"). During one conversation this inventor (Mr. Pickett) and I discussed the problem of aesthetics. I noted that plain gray institutional concrete looks pretty ugly sometimes and that all the aesthetic treatments I had seen, were fairly expensive. “Ha. I could solve that problem in 3 hours.” the inventor said.

Soon after that there were patents issued for various forms that would make the exposed surface of concrete panels patterned or textured. In many States, these panels became quite common and, based on what I've observed, they have become, essentially, a standard treatment. To this day, I don't know to what extent I am responsible for this change (although I think it wasn't much) and how much Mr. Pickett is responsible and how much other people are responsible. I don't think it is realistically possible to accurately trace the actual chain of events and allocate 'credit'. However, I do believe the country is better off because of this de-uglification of concrete and that, in some small way, I was part of the process (and there is even a small chance that my comments to Mr. Pickett ignited the design advance).

3. A late career memory of an accomplishment

One of the last substantive guidance-type products I did (although not really formal guidance), in 2007, compiled material from several decades of memos in about a half dozen subject areas regarding Interstate frontage roads and organized the result. Here too, I got some very positive feedback from users who had been burdened with answering queries on this matter.
4. In between the very early and later career (this is a long section)

On Loan to a State Agency

In one very early career assignment (in the 70s) I was loaned to a state transportation agency to work with them. I not only worked with them, I had coffee with them, played cards with them, became friends (I visited one of these people a few years ago, some 25 years after leaving their office). Among the things that impressed me was how diverse they were in the thought processes they used as they approached a problem (not what we call diversity in 2008 which is, as I understand it, based mostly on what people look like or, sometimes, the type of college degree). This (the State) diversity (i.e., in thought processes) was greater than its counterpart in the Federal Government.

Regarding their 'problem-approach', some people were focused on 'big think' and would love to talk about Constitutional principles or their objection to some philosophical system and the like or on why budget priorities were what they were or what policies should be. Some were story tellers who liked to compare current problems with previous problems. Some were focused on 'keep the project moving along' and would be happy for any help I could give them to get over the next regulatory or administrative step.

Some people were focused on 'what's the next advance in this field'. They would enjoy scooping up any bits of information they could find in the field they were really interested in and applying it to projects. Some people were focused on administrative and personnel issues (e.g., what's our process for such and such; who's making the calls this month in headquarters).

I found that among many of them, there was a love/hate relationship with county and other non-State governments, their own State government and with the Federal government. They kept wanting the next law, the next court decision, the next budget to go in the direction they wanted it to go in and were, almost all the time vexed since it didn't happen that way. As it turned out some of the vexing was because of FHWA. They told me about it when that happened.

During this time there were some regulations, memos, etc. with some language that the State people considered useless feel-good blather or shallow generalities or self-praising guidance or language that were deprecating to them (remember readers - this happened long ago and I'm reporting other people's opinions). Once, my supervisor's supervisor's supervisor asked me to do an in-depth analysis of a Federal memo (or it might have been a letter or an attachment to a memo or enclosure) that he felt especially vexing. This included a visit to an FHWA Region Office (it was in the era when these existed). I went, talked with the FHWA folks who contributed to the memo (during which time my attempt to obtain a candid response clearly irritated some of the FHWA officials), called a few other people, and met with the supervisor's supervisor's supervisor again. After a few minutes of discussion he and I had something like the following exchange (I'm summarizing - beginning with the 3rd tier supervisor),

"Since we will have to respond to this memo, you will be helping us, won't you?"

I said, "Sure."

He responded, "Even though this memo is largely @%#?"

In the next few days I did help. My 'contribution' was to gather together various FHWA
manuals, memos, reports, etc. and use phrases from them and some logical connectors to create a meaningful sounding response full of mostly platitudes, caveats and aspirations and glued together with some promises to do things that the State was planning to do anyway. The supervisor's supervisor's supervisor referred to it as "top notch B...S...".

I didn't feel particularly good about that but later in that assignment I got to work on developing some actual water quality standard specifications and guidance (the most important part of this was basically saying what kind of water retention basins should be constructed in what cases and where they should be). These were quickly placed in the State contract requirements and a manual was distributed to some contractors who had volunteered to try it out (as I understood it, all this was done quickly because of a court order (or it might have been a consent decree) and that's why the State was happy to have my help - also the manual was initially given to contractors who were performing work that was already awarded - they - the contractors - had apparently volunteered for this but I'm not sure what the exact situation was).

A few weeks later I visited a contractor to see what was actually being done. I was appalled. The contractor had, in my opinion, placed water retention basins incorrectly and had formed them improperly (this was mostly true of the basins which served to mitigate construction sediment flow; the basins that were to remain after construction were pretty good) and yet the contractor was, I was sure, sincerely trying to do the right thing. I had a discussion with the contractor which went something like this (again summarizing and interpolating),

Me: The basins have insufficient capacity and some of them are in the wrong spots. How did this happen?

Contractor: Well we followed the required process and...

Me: But the guidelines say, "...." . I opened the State guidance and went over tables and graphs and diagrams with the contractor.

Contractor: Well, yes it says 'thus and so' but also 'thus and so' and 'with this consideration' and...we decided that...

It turned out that what I thought was a clearly written manual wasn't clear at all. On reflection, the manual the State had developed (with my help) wasn't very good. It had far too much theory and far too much regulatory and legislative and other background. In addition the actual 'let's-do-this' type language was muddled in places, there was some arcane scientific jargon and the sketches we had were not very helpful (of course this was, as I noted, a rush job and I am pretty sure that if we had taken more time the product would have been much better).
Some years later I was told that this contractor (I forget the name) had taken it upon himself to study the water retention problem further and had developed a brochure (I never saw the product) for other contractors to use (perhaps as part of a task for a contractor's association). In these past 30+ years or so since the above noted incident, the use of water retention basins has, at least to my observation (I don't see many construction specific ones) matured. Some retention basins are aesthetic masterpieces which augment other landscaping (or are even a centerpiece of a landscaping design). I'm quite sure this would have happened without me and that my contribution to this improvement was either zero or very close to zero. Notwithstanding that the story seemed interesting nonetheless.

A Famous Professor

Once (this was in the 70s also) someone came to me and told me something approximating the following: "We are going to send you to... so you can hear Professor X speak." Professor X had made number of very important contributions to a travel forecasting program which was the ancestor of programs, which 30+ years later, are in mainstream use in transportation planning. I went to the .... During the presentation by Professor X, he paused and made, what seemed to be his signature phrase,

"Transportation impacts" he said, "are not ubiquitous. Some people reap a disproportionate share of the benefits; others suffer a disproportionate share of the costs".

I may have this slightly wrong - for example he might have said "highways" instead of "transportation" and it might have begun "New transportation" instead of "Transportation".

It struck me quickly that, first, he was using the wrong word. He obviously meant "evenly distributed" rather than "ubiquitous" since his example does not bear on the latter concept only the former because if everybody gets either a benefit or a cost then impacts are, in fact, ubiquitous [I may be a bit too easily annoyed by incorrect word usage; during the past decade or so, I was annoyed many times by people in FHWA using the word "spend" or "expend" when they should have used the word "obligate"; my father got extremely annoyed when people used the word 'less' when they meant 'fewer'; also there is an interesting blog devoted to the correct use of the word 'literally'].

It also struck me also as a gratuitous statement since no one seriously advocates that impacts are evenly distributed. In addition I thought it a shallow statement since without quantification, the fact that there are different distribution of impacts is pretty useless. I didn't communicate these thoughts to the person (actually the persons) who seemed to near-worship (or at least very much admire) Professor X.

After this event I heard Professor X speak at other events. Each time, and no matter what the subject, he used almost exactly the same signature phrase as before. Evidently, his own fame (which I'm sure was deserved) and the compliments of his associates (also no doubt deserved) prevented him from realizing the weakness of his signature phrase (and since I may have been the only person who was irritated, it may not have mattered anyway).
Many years later (I think it was 2005 or thereabouts) I was attending a meeting and was talking with someone who was old enough to have worked with Professor X and who was then working in the same University and department where Professor X worked. I asked if he had worked with Professor X (he had and in fact considered himself a co-worker) and asked if he had heard the signature phrase (he had). I hinted at the problematic nature of the phrase but this former co-worker of Professor X instead began telling me what an important person Professor X was.

This story reminds me of something that happened outside of work. My wife and I and our kids were touring Princeton University. The guide spent a lot of time showing us the "Institute for Advanced Studies" and the studio where Albert Einstein worked (in the 1940s and early 1950s). Obviously, she (the guide) was very proud of this. Obviously the Princeton community was similarly proud of it. After seeing the studio, I asked her the following questions (being in a contrarian mood that day - as I often am),
Me - You realize, that, by his own admission, Einstein accomplished almost nothing of scientific importance (the importance of his political advocacy during this period is debatable but I don't want to get into that) when he was working at Princeton.

Guide - Well maybe not, but he was working on very important problems.
Me - Like a theory of the unification of the four fundamental forces.

Guide - Yes. He worked almost exclusively on that.
Me -"Do you think anyone ever told Einstein that because two of these forces were very incompletely understood and because of his anti quantum bias, all this work was essentially completely useless?"

Guide - ?

The guide did not seem to have ever had this question asked (later I looked into this and couldn't find any source stating that anyone had ever pointed out the problem to Einstein although I think somebody surely had - in my research I also found out that three or four times during the Princeton years, Einstein announced that he had completed, or just about completed, his unification theory only to either retract the announcement or be forced to acknowledge error in the new theory after having presented it.).

[Just to clarify, I am in awe of Albert Einstein. The four papers he did in 1905 on the photoelectric effect, the relationship of space and time, the relationship of matter and energy and Brownian motion- all at the age of 26 and while working as a patent examiner - seems an impossible achievement - each of these papers was a giant step in the understanding of nature - and yet, there is widespread agreement that the time he spent at Princeton was essentially empty of scientific accomplishment - sadly, one of his last scientific tasks (some say his very last one) was writing a blurb praising a bizarre book which contained goofball criticism of plate tectonic theory.]I have found that one of the most difficult biases to deal with is the 'argument from authority'. Great scientists or leaders, even (maybe especially) very intelligent or knowledgeable ones, may be ill served by people who refrain from pointing out to them obvious flaws in their argument or work. However, other than the few contrarians that exist, there aren't many 'flaw-pointer-outers'. One reason is that there is a distinct possibility that bad things will happen to the career of 'flaw-pointer-outers'; even if they are well intended.

A Famous Planner Wanted to be More Important

I went to many planning conferences and many non planning conferences where planners gave presentations.  During and shortly after a 1991 re-authorization of the transportation program there were a lot of conferences about the reauthorizaiton. Many featured planner presentations to non planners because the re-authorization gave more power to planning agencies.A lot of these had the same planners who evidentally had a good travel budget and liked to give presentations. One fellow, in particular was from the SF Bay region and was the director of the regional agency in charge of transportation planning. He evidently wanted to assure the non planners that he was a real world kind of guy. I saw him give essentially the same presentation to about 4 different audiences and in each he used the phrase, "...we are not just a bunch of planners, we also manage the call boxes on the freeways..." I thought to myself that some of the non planners probably thought this was an attempt at satire but I spoke to guy once and realized that he was so invested in his own importance that he meant it as a totally serious point. Of course I asked him if the planners actually did the wiring and cleaning of the call boxes, and no, the only thing the planners did was execute a contract with a company that did the physical work .

Another Famous (but not quite as famous) Professor.  

Once (in the 80s) I was in charge of administering the federal side of the research program of a state transportation agency. It happened that we received a report to look at which was the final product of a specific State grant in the area of repair of a particular type of pavement. The grant went to a professor who was nationally known in the research area (but not nearly as famous as the professor in the travel forecasting story). The report had a number of factual errors in the first two chapters relating to the federal-state relationship, the process by which federal approvals were made and the procedures used by the state agency to monitor pavement condition. The first and second group of errors upset my supervisor and the third upset several of the state employees. A meeting was called to discuss the paper with the professor.

Within a few minutes of discussion of the paper, it became obvious that the professor, who was listed on the cover and title page as the sole author (although the report noted that he had been assisted by several named graduate students), had either never read the report he had written or had forgotten what it said (he seemed to be unaware of the structure of the report, incorrect about the conclusions in the report and oblivious of the fact that it even discussed federal-state relationship, etc.). Remarkably, he also was apparently completely without remorse (more like completely oblivious) about his seemingly phony authorship.

After that meeting there was a "what do we do about this" meeting between we, in the FHWA, and the state agency. Ultimately the state personnel decided not to try to take any action about the phony authorship. The reasons for this was that the factual errors were fairly easy to correct and, more importantly, the substance of the research was actually pretty good. In fact, the graduate students who evidently carried out the investigation as well as writing the report, had worked closely with state employees who did repair of that kind of pavement and designed and carried out the various tests and measurements that were discussed in the report. Moreover, the conclusions of the report were reasonable and readily comprehensible and the recommendations were fairly practical (although limited in scope to a particular type of pavement and a particular type of distress).

Thus, either the professor had been lucky in choosing intelligent and hard working graduate students or had provided excellent investigative guidance to them or it was a combination of the two effects.

Yet Another University Related Story and also with a happy end

Some legislative language (in 1991) had required a feasibility study for a new Interstate design highway which would connect a relatively small urbanized area (on one end) with a rural portion of another Interstate (on the other end). Funds were allocated to a State who had promised to carefully get this done as a report to Congress was required at the conclusion.

Within a year the State had lost control of the prime contractor on the study and the prime contractor had lost control of one of the subcontractors (a University) who was doing a critical economic analysis. I was asked to get involved in this (after the loss in control) and did so (this was in 1992 or 1993 as I recall). Eventually I had to threaten the subcontractor with non payment to get them to promise to follow instructions in the contract (a threat I am not sure I could have executed because the funds had already gone to a State DOT and I would have had to convince very high level officials to sign a very firm letter). Although after this threat, they (the subcontractor) marginally followed the instructions (doing a correct analysis tended to show the highway was not economically justified; doing the convoluted gibberish analysis they wanted to do tended to show it was justified), but they cluttered up their part of the study with gratuitous content.

It was such a mess that we did not attach the consultant's work to the report to Congress (although doing so was standard practice). We did report to Congress that we did not support construction to an Interstate standard. This created some problems with the Congressional sponsor of the report and with the local highway improvement advocates but to his credit, the U.S. Representative who personally looked at this case (actually it wasn't the same person as the one who inserted the legislative language because there had been a redistricting) actually agreed with our conclusion. Almost 15 years later the State agreed to fund a project which converted a portion of a 2-lane road to a 4-lane undivided highway at the cost of about 5% of what the Interstate highway on new location would have cost.
I give most of the credit for this positive outcome to the U.S. Representative (who has since left Congress) but others, including myself and other people at FHWA at the time were also partly responsible.

Of course there is no way to know what would have happened had I not resisted the flawed work of the subcontractor. Perhaps the outcome would have been the same, perhaps not.

Just to clarify (again), I am not an advocate of doing lots of feasibility studies. Although there are times when I feel such studies are warranted, there are many times when they are not warranted. Furthermore, even when they are done and a project is economically justified, that does not, in my opinion, necessarily lead to a conclusion that the project should be implemented (I've written on this at some length and at the time of this writing, one such piece was on the internet).

An Acronym Story

This is actually about the US Navy Reserves but since acronyms are a part of FHWA life also (and because I did my USNR duty during my FHWA career), I thought I would include it.

One day, the Commanding Officer of my unit decided we would give the Navy Air Facility commander a briefing. Our unit did Oceanographic, Ice pack analysis and aviation forecasting work (all of which were necessary in peacetime but less so than in wartime). I was in charge of putting together the schedule for the briefing although despite my recommendations we decided to cover all our activities, even the really technogeeky stuff.

In one of our briefings, the briefing officer was a lover of technical detail and had a number of slides bragging about our part in developing synthetic aperture radar analysis capability (the analysis could observe wave heights in areas without buoy data- actually our role was pretty minor but that's beside the point). The fellow doing the briefing never used the phrase "synthetic aperture radar" and instead used the acronym SAR.

The Naval Air Facility commander looked really excited when the briefing officer first used the acronym SAR but then had a more and more puzzled look on his face. I became worried he would be ticked at us for confusing him, then I had a thought, "this guy is a former helicopter pilot so he thinks the only thing SAR could stand for is "search and rescue"."

I interrupted the briefing (the briefing officer was ticked a me for doing it) and apologized to the Naval Air Facility commander for appropriating his acronym. The commander got a kick out of that and the rest of the room seemed to enjoy the jest.

This just shows that even people working together can simply fail to communicate well because of the complexity of technical concepts. This kind of thing happened over and over again in both the FHWA and the USNR although not with the amusing twist. 

Another USNR Story (aka, the Coffee spill on the hat story)

One of my unpleasant memories of my USNR service is the problem of writing Fitness Evaluations. The problem is that I only saw people for a few hours each month and it makes it hard to figure out what to say.  One time, I even had to do a final fitness evaluation for a sailor who was retiring. This fellow had been involved in several very odd incidents. In one case, he had somehow managed to spill coffee on his hat just minutes before a full dress inspection. In another he had volunteered to give the base commander a ride back to base HQ after a duty shift. This would have been a good move and our unit would have gotten 'attaboy' points except in getting close to the base commander's car, my sailor hit the car with his own car.  So what was I supposed to write as a narrative comment on the fitness evaluation. Here is what I put, "Every single division officer who has had Petty Officer X in his division has learned something about the Navy because of X's service."

A Logical Error

In another case, I was working as the FHWA liaison for experimental projects and research with the State transportation agency (a different one from the water retention basin story and it was many years later - in the 80s) and a case came up where I told the State official that I wasn't going to approve a report on the result of an experimental use of a product because the report had a major logical error in it (it concluded that although a specific product failed in actual use, it should be allowed to be used in the future as a special provision). We then had something like the following exchange (again summarizing),

The State employee said something like, "Nobody ever told us we couldn't have a logical error."

I responded approximately, "Well, I don't consider it a valid report if it has a major logical error."

The State employee said something like, "Can you show us where in the U.S. Code or the CFR it says we aren't allowed to have logical errors?"

At his point I thought of Immanuel Kant's nearly incomprehensible late 18th century book which critiques and notes the limitations of logic but I didn't bring that up. We did however have some additional back and forth and at one point I responded approximately, "Uh... there's something you aren't telling me here, isn't there?"

As it turned out there was something they weren't telling me. After considerable questioning on my part they explained the background. They reasoned that the manufacturer of the only product currently approved for a certain purpose was going to take advantage of their effective monopoly to raise the price of the product. They wanted to be able to tell that manufacturer that there was a competitive product. They also didn't want to state any of this reasoning in an official report. Once they told me this we worked together, possibly against Kant's ethical theory and eventually we found a work-around (and yes I'm making fun of Immanuel Kant here).

Increased Prestige

Sometime later, I got a phone call from a State official who worked with the official in the 'logical flaw' story. The conversation went something like this (again summarizing),

"We want your opinion on what to do about....." he said.

After listening to this I responded "Well it seems like there isn't a regulatory issue here nor a federal aid eligibility issue nor any other real federal issue. It seems like a purely State call."

"No, you don't understand," he said, "we want your opinion on what we should do."

It took a bit of time to sink in. However, apparently, in the aftermath of the 'logical flaw' incident, my opinion was thought to be worth something in another area.

Bad Judgement

Unfortunately, this may have resulted in me having too high an opinion of my own judgement. A few months later I called up a State official and suggested that they try out some new procedure the FHWA HQ and FHWA Research Office was promoting (I had read the attachments that came with the promotional memo and it sounded really swell - this was before the days of the internet and it wasn't easy to do research quickly). The State agreed to try it out (I wasn't the only person at the division office who thought it was a swell idea - if had been only me I don't think the State would have tried it out). After the State tried it out and despite their best efforts it was a mess; and in retrospect, it was a failure that could have been anticipated with more prior investigation and analysis (subsequent conversation between myself and a research office expert on this procedure confirmed that the promotional memo had been, well uh, a bit too promotional.) The State officials in this event didn't seem to blame me and seemed to take it rather well (apparently this was by no means the first time this kind of failure had happened) but I felt awful about it.

A Memorable Presentation
Just recently, several people reminded me of one of what was, apparently, a memorable presentation I had made (in the early 90s). It was on the subject of "Innovative Financing" which, at that time included public-private projects, special tax districts, local option taxes and several other measures. I gave a presentation on this at a FHWA-FTA (or it may have been FHWA-UMTA) seminar. I noted the history of innovative financing and compared it to the history of rock and roll (for example the 1991 multiyear authorization ISTEA was the same year as the entertainer Ice-T dropped his the album "Original Gangsta" -- oddly enough the entertainer Ice-T went on to play a cop on "Law and Order"). At least one high level official (the Deputy Administrator of FHWA at time) was at this presentation and, several years later told me how much she enjoyed it.

Another Presentation - Not Quite as Memorable
Once I was assigned to lead an office-wide meeting. One of the subjects to be discussed was leadership. We had been hearing a lot about this subject, including discussions of what great leaders certain people were (or actors who played people in famous movies).
During the meeting, I showed clips from the movie "Bridge On the River Kwai". The clips showed a British colonel who showed extraordinary talent in getting a bridge built. Ironically, other British leaders were showing extraordinary talent in getting the bridge blown up (because it would help the Japanese war effort against the British). I referred to this a 'ironic' leadership.
Interestingly, someone has recently written a book on George Washington's leadership. This book shows him getting very involved in such issues as the proper construction and location of latrines. George Washington should be more famous in transportation than he is. Even before he became President, he had a vision of using the Potomac River water transportation corridor for economic development (I worked in Transportation Economic Development for a while and these facts speak to me). He developed and promoted his vision with enthusiasm, energy and persistance and eventually construction was started on what became the C&O Canal. In fact his vision was so powerful, the construction kept going for many years after his death. Notwithstanding the power of his vision, historians generally recognize that the canal itself was on its way to being obsolete the day construction began and was essentially obsolete even before construction was fully completed (because of the advance in railroading).
This should, but usually does not, give pause to people with transportation visions.

A Procurement Story Involving a Striptease Club

One day, I was giving a course for the FHWA at the request of a State DOT. The course used a slide show with an old fashioned slide projector that projected 35mm slides. When testing the projector before the course, I discovered it was broken. I asked the State DOT liaison if there was a State office nearby with a projector. He left to go talk to people and after a few minutes the State DOT liaison came back and said that, "No, there was no State DOT projector but we could rent one from a business down the street from where we were." He gave me the address. I went there and found out the business was a striptease club. I decided to ask anyway about the slide project and sure enough, they had one and they were willing to rent it. I paid (I think about $15) and got a receipt. The receipt said something like "Charley Bemo Dreamboat Gentlemen's Club".  When I got back to the home office, it was time to submit my expense voucher.  I thought about submitting the receipt as proof of the expense but got a bit scared. I called someone at the office that would reimburse me and asked what to do. The fellow I spoke to said, "Just submit the receipt and don't worry about it." That's what happened and, sure enough, the reimbursement was correct.

A Unpleasant Venture Into Futurism

Sometime in the 1990s, I was asked to represent the FHWA on a State organized exercise in futurism. A State transportation department was having a seminar of sorts and wanted a number of people to help in visioning alternative futures - a 40 year time horizon as I recall. I have no idea how the State decided to ask FHWA to send me to this exercise; however, somebody told me it was because of my comparison of music to innovative financing (I didn't make any attempt to verify this because it really didn't matter to me at the time; it might have been, it might not).

I worked with a group that included two self described advocates for the environment, one State employee, one employee of regional government and one person who was employed by an industry interest group. One of our tasks was to construct meta econopolitical futures (e.g., a high tech high income future, a telework intense future with more recreation time, etc.). After we did that we looked into the community mega impacts of our meta econopolitical futures (I hope readers are taking this as if I'm making fun of postmodernism because that's how I intend it). After this we looked into the prospective transportation impacts of the community mega impacts of the meta econopolitical futures (I'll call them m-e-futures from now on) and reported our results to a State official who, to the best of my recollection was an appointee of the Governor who didn't trust the State transportation officials.
One of the two advocates for the environment proposed a m-e-future that she called something like "small town future". In this m-e-future, people commuted to their jobs via commuter rail and went shopping on the way home each day because their walk from the commuter rail station to home went by the greengrocer (she used that term). Her m-e-future reminded me a bit of the 1960 Twilight Zone episode, "A Stop at Willoughby" in which an advertising executive of the 'high stress' late-1950s yearns to live in the peaceful 1880s. She promoted her proposed m-e-future with considerable energy and persistence. At one point as she described the joy of having fresh vegetables every day she asked me what I thought of it.

I said, "Well, uh - I think a lot of people would consider that future a bit boring."

"That can be solved through better education." she responded.

This environmental advocate also had some interesting thoughts about some of the other m-e-futures.
One of us other members of the groups stated, in the third part of the seminar, that a prospective transportation impact of the mega community impact of the high tech (thus Intelligent Transportation System or ITS intense) m-e-future would be reduced pollution and fuel consumption.

The environmental advocate would have none of it. "We've studied the issue and ITS definitely generates significant new travel." she said.

Another member of our team stated that a prospective transportation impact of the mega community impact of the telework intense m-e-future would be reduced pollution and fuel consumption.

The environmental advocate didn't like this either. "We've studied the issue and telework definitely generates significant new travel." she said.
I thought briefly of asking her the causal mechanism behind this last finding but chose not to. I realized that if I asked, I would probably get an answer.

At the end of this, the appointee of the governor seemed absolutely delighted with the results. The State transportation employees seemed delighted that the day had finally ended. On the other hand, the industry person seemed even more annoyed than I was. In addition the other environmental advocate (not the one enthused about stopping at the greengrocer daily) was obviously a bit annoyed too.

A Winning Skill Set Becomes a Useless Skill Set.

I was vanpooling with some people from GSA. They told this story. Once woman had joined GSA as a very attractive 30 year old. By the time she was about 38 she had been promoted five times and they attributed her career achievements to her skill in seducing a succession of first and second level supervisors since she was devoid (they said) of organization, analysis, writing or technical skills. However, at the age of 38, she was involved in a major reorganization. After the dust had settled, she found herself working for a boss who was a male homosexual and the homosexual's boss hated to talk or interact with anyone.  Thus, the talent that had served her so well was now unimportant. The woman was, after a few months, given a special assignment to help develop some government lease standards and, of course, she failed to develop anything. Eventually, the woman (now in her early 40s) quit the government and married someone. 

The Cookie Dissenter Wins

For the last two years I was at the FHWA, one of the employees in one of the offices that sometimes worked with my office was a woman who liked to bake cookies and cakes.  She would bring in a substantial selection every week or two and send an email saying the cookies were available (she never charged money for the cookies and didn't even ask for voluntary contributions).  This woman was not a supervisor. One day the supervisor of her supervisor came to her and said that the socializing around the cookies was creating a decrease in productivity for the duration of the time the cookies were available and also causing some disturbance.  The cookie baker said to the supervisor, "Sure, if you write and sign a memo saying that and asking me to stop providing cookies I will stop but I won't do it on the basis of a verbal order."  The supervisor never produced the written memo and the cookies kept being made. This may have been because the supervisor thought there was some risk the memo would eventually be made public and she would be ridiculed.  

  Backward Engineering a Highway Conspiracy Theory

In the final few years of my career, I had to spend time responding to people who were worried that then-President Bush was seeking to end (or diminish) US sovereignty. This related to my job because the means to this end was thought to be by constructing a 10 lane freeway with high speed rail in the median to go from Canada to Mexico somehow bypassing immigration and customs and other controls. Although no actual freeway had been built nor was any under construction, this theory actually inspired a number of people to write their Senators, Representatives, etc. about it. I was asked to investigate how this theory was developed. I found a number of websites where organizations were promoting big-think transportation concepts (including the State of Texas which actually had one image of cross section for a 10 lane freeway with high speed rail in the median and the inland Port of Kansas City which was promoting electronic permitting, inspections, etc). The conspiracy theory was promoted heavily by a historian named Jerome Corsi (who had a PhD from Harvard). I never was able to determine if Dr Corsi actually believed his theory but when bush left office, this particular conspiracy theory died out (perhaps Dr. Corsi created a new one for President Obama).


Customers Who Loved Too Much

Interestingly, there were a couple times toward the end of my career when I felt the 'customers' were too enthusiastic and I had to try to calm them down.
Once a subgrantee (or at least that's what I thought it was), was overly grateful for some work I had done with a division office to execute a work-around for a political-bureaucratic problem. The subgrantee wanted to send me coupons for a meal at an expensive restaurant. We discussed this and they ended up, basically, sending homemade cookies to an FHWA training course instead.

Twice, local government officials wanted to make a public announcement praising me (or me and FHWA) for helping them get favorable location decisions by major employers (I had done a technical report that they liked.) I advised them to take all the credit themselves and, to the best of my knowledge, they did so (and furthermore, I thought they drastically overestimated my role in these decisions - however I didn't research the location decision process so who knows).

The favorable location decisions involved my work in what is sometimes called "Economic Development" or "Transportation Economic Development" and I did a lot of this in the last 18 years of my career (including chairing an international conference on the subject). I certainly developed a lot of content (dozens and dozens of websites that were hotlinked by organizations like the OECD and others) and I can honestly say I had a significant role in advancing the state of the practice (and a lot of good contractors and State employees and NGO employees helped me).

On the other hand, one of my most significant findings is pretty much unrecognized by anyone in the federal government. This finding is sort of side finding and it is found within a TRB paper which is titled after the main thesis, i.e., it is a side thesis (I didn't feel I should promote this side thesis because I was not in the policy office nor had I cleared this thesis with higher ups so I just presented it and stood back and watched as essentially nothing at all happened). This thesis is that there are areas in the country with systemic high unemployment and population loss and that transportation improvements have, in some specific cases, seemed to mitigate this. It seemed to me that if this finding were duplicated by others and expanded there would be a significant argument that transportation investment could be a cost effective force multiplier to various income supplement or transfer type programs (e.g., welfare, community development). I've been told by some elected officials (mayors and such) that this should be low hanging fruit but obviously not everybody - indeed almost nobody agrees - and some people, while agreeing in principle might recoil at the possibility that any economic development highway program would be uncontrollable and produce 'highways to nowhere'). I do acknowledge there is much more work for others to do both in this specific meme and in the general economic development area (including expanding the work to transit and quantifying the extent to which the predicted workforce shortages of the 2010-2020 decade could be mitigated with more economic development highway improvements as well as the more prosaic work of applying existing analysis methods to project, corridor and system analysis).

In Sum

Probably I was a net positive. Clearly in many cases I helped people understand federal requirements, in others I helped people to meet such requirements or to better analyze projects and programs. On the other hand, there clearly were a few specific cases where I was part of the problem.

1 comment:

Martin Weiss said...

Per a verbal question.

I could have redacted Einstein's name but it really wouldn't have mattered since he is so well known.