Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Stable Boy as Editor

My company wrapped up work on a major proposal last week, and the proposal team called me in as a reviewer. Government proposals for engineering work consist of a management volume, a technical volume, and a cost volume. My job was to review the cost volume.

The author of the cost volume is a corporate director, a very able man who previously managed a large NASA program. He is four levels above me in the company hierarchy and is on a first name basis with the CEO. To put this in perspective, in my twenty-eight years with the company I have attained a spot three levels above a junior engineer fresh from college. Therefore, having me review the director's writing is equivalent to having a stable boy review Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "Mister President, on the whole it's a dandy speech. You did yourself proud with all them grand sentiments. And the part that goes 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'—why, that was a real barn burner! But your beginning, that business about 'four score and seven years ago', just doesn't get the job done. The speech needs to get out of the starting gate faster. Why not say '87 years ago' and get on with it?"

When I read through the cost volume, I was impressed with the content. The director was no slouch. He had assembled a comprehensive set of arguments to show that the company was offering excellent value to the government. There is an adage in proposal circles: "Proposals aren't read, they're scored." This refers to the government's practice of giving each section of a proposal to its own evaluator, who compares what he reads against the government's checklist of required topics. If the evaluator checks all of his boxes, the proposal section is deemed fully compliant and is scored a success. By this narrow standard, the cost volume was indeed a success. However, the prose was awkward, murky, and unpleasant to read.

Feeling somewhat like a high school composition teacher, I made redline changes to improve the writing. I added an introductory paragraph to give a summary of the volume. The director's first paragraph had been a tangle of three distinct cost saving methods. I sorted things out to give each method its own paragraph and then supplied transitional phrases to indicate priorities and dependencies among the methods. Parallel syntax was enforced for parallel concepts. I removed some empty, unsubstantiated sales language (e.g. "dramatic savings", "unprecedented value"). When I finished making my changes, the cost volume still contained all of the director's vital content; but now the prose was clean, clear, and easy to read.

When the cost volume went to final publication, none of my suggestions was adopted.

Ah well, back to the stable I go.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

April Bloom Day

Today the local trees and bushes were full of purple blossoms, making this an April Bloom Day. I celebrated by walking to the library and taking snapshots. April Bloom Day is not to be confused with Bloomsday, June 16th, the day Leopold Bloom ranged across Dublin in the novel Ulysses, now commonly celebrated with pub crawls.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spring Beauty vs the Video Life

As an urban inhabitant of the Civilized West, I spend the great deal of my waking life indoors looking at screen images, either from a computer or television. This worries me. Modern research has found that the brain is good at re-wiring itself to adapt to its environment. I don't want my brain to re-wire itself to be a more efficient processor of screen images, like some kind of neural video camera.

From a historical perspective, a life spent receiving stimuli via a projection of images onto a flat rectangular screen is such a recent and peculiar development in the history of mankind that the eventual impacts on one's character (a quaint term associated with moral qualities and ethical standards -- largely superseded in the 21st century by the terms personality, style, or appetite) are difficult to predict, although I have noticed gradual and insidious injury to my patience, powers of concentration, and subtlety of thought.

I have resolved to experience Nature in all its three-dimensional beauty to counter the ill effects of a flat-screen video life. As I walked out my front townhouse's front door this morning, I admired two blooming trees with white flowers (see above). When I walked down my sidewalk and then turned to look back, I was pleased to view the bright pink blossoms of the crab apple tree in front of my townhouse. (How the blossoms survived a recent sub-freezing April night is a mystery to me.)

I am aware of the irony of commending Nature to my blog readers by means of pictures displayed on a computer screen. Therefore, please finish reading, shut off the computer, and go outside to let your brains re-wire themselves to experience a fuller reality.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Down the Creek

I decided to go to the nearby reservoir and take pictures of creeks. (We all get our thrills in different ways.) My first subject was a little creek that filters slowly through the wetlands. At its point of discharge into the reservoir, this poky creek is scarcely distinguishable from an inlet.

Leaving this dull setting, I walked for about half a mile until I came to the main creek supplying the reservoir. This creek's water flows in an eight foot wide undulating channel through the high ground of the woodlands until it passes beneath a footbridge and descends via a short rapids before emptying into the reservoir.

And from slightly farther downstream:

I find the rapids an idyllic place to while away my time. The scenery is so fine that one needs to employ rapturous nineteenth-century prose to do it justice:

Upstream at the footbridge the creek presents a featureless surface of gunmetal gray; but as the creek accelerates in its descent, gentle wavelets and then light coruscations appear on the water's surface; and beyond this the creek takes a dogleg bend to the right, throwing the water's force against the nearer bank, where the creek, tumbling hard over jutting rocks and falling into abrupt hollows, tosses up silvery spray and opalescent froth; while along its farther bank the creek remains smooth and shallow and transparent, revealing a green fringe of lacy plant life clinging to the flat stone bottom of the creek bed; and at last the rapids spend themselves in a sharp plunge down a natural staircase of four rocky steps, making the creek's water, milky with turbulence, roil and splash on its way past a crazy tripod of three stark branchless tree trunks looming over the broad basin that dissipates the force of the rushing water into slowly rotating circles of foam.

I like to take a seat beside the rapids, put my feet up, and pretend that I'm a latter-day Huckleberry Finn.

Actually, I lack Huckleberry Finn's sunny disposition. I'm a closer match for the restless Tom Sawyer. And, more's the pity, I'm probably an even closer match for Ben Rogers, the gullible kid suckered by Tom Sawyer into whitewashing the fence for him.

Ben said: "Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?"

Tom wheeled suddenly and said: "Why it's you Ben! I warn't noticing."

"Say – I'm going in a swimming, I am. Don't you wish you could? But of course you'd druther work – wouldn't you? Course you would!"

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said: "What do you call work?"

"Why ain't that work?"

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly: "Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer."

"Oh come now, you don't mean to let on that you like it?"

The brush continued to move.

"Like it? Well I don't see why I oughtn't to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?"

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticized the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said: "Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little."

Yeah, that's me.