Friday, February 27, 2015

There's Always a Better Way, O Ye Federal Contracting Officers

A while back, one of the decorative shutters in the front of our house was blown down in a particularly violent storm and broke into two pieces when it landed.  Since the shutters' color had changed over 15 years, I had to hire "a guy" to come to the house and replace eight sets of shutters with new ones.

He did a fine job.  Since he does that job pretty often and it isn't very complex, that's not a surprise, of course.  But imagine for a moment that it was your house, and you had the guy do that work.  Then imagine that, oh, 5-6 times a week, different people call you and ask you to write a three-page description of the work the guy did, and how well he did it, and how long he took.  Imagine that you had to write that up in a different format each and every time, because each person that called had his or her own way of doing it.

In the private-sector world you and I live in, we would tell the second person who called to go pound salt in his ear, with elevated threat levels to each subsequent caller, and then finally change phone numbers.

In the lovely world of Federal contracting, however, this is routine.  To give you a sense of what I'm talking about, thousands upon thousands of contracts are let by the USA for all manner of services that are better done and cheaper if contracted out.  For each of those contracts, except when the White House does its little sole-source trick to its friends (coughObamacarecomputerglitchcough), there is a formal request for proposal (RFP) issued, and different companies present proposals to do the work.

The number of companies varies -- I've seen as many as 100 bids submitted -- but I'd say the most common number is between five and twelve proposals per request.  Almost all the RFPs ask for what we call in the trade "Past Performance."  For that, the bidder provides a two or three-page writeup for (typically) 3-5 jobs it has done, that are recent and of the same kind of work (the "references").

In a large percentage of cases, this is supplemented by something called the "Past Performance Questionnaire" or PPQ.  Very simply, when the bidder receives the RFP, it must send the PPQ to each of the references, which are generally other Federal offices.  The recipient must complete the PPQ describing the work quality, and return it straight to the customer no later than the due date of the proposal.

Do the math.  If there are ten bidders then, on average, someone in each of 40 different Federal offices is setting aside his or her important work, to write up the details on what a current or recent contractor is doing or has done, and provide an lengthy opinion on the quality of their work.

And that's for one -- count it, one RFP.  A large contractor doing, say, $5 or $6 billion  a year, is doing literally hundreds of proposals a year.  The number of relevant references is finite, so the same ones are going to get used.  And used.  And used.  As a contractor, I have to grit my teeth before contacting a customer and asking politely if she will, for the 23rd time since October, fill out a PPQ to say how great we are.

There are a lot of really good contracting officers out there who would prefer never to do a PPQ again but do them anyway because it's their job and their contractor has helped them a lot.  So why, why must each RFP have a different specification as to whether the contractor is any good?  If they were good when a PPQ was filled out yesterday, chances are they will be good tomorrow when the next one comes out.

Ironically, there is a Federal Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS) and a Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS).  The Government has actually created a medium in which customers annually review their contractors, creating the reports via CPARS and storing them in a retrieval system (PPIRS).

Would it be too much to ask for the Government to use it as the only source of this data?  Could they implement a deadline (not a White House red line, please) -- let's say 31 December 2015 -- after which PPQs are by law no longer to be used, and every Past Performance request in an RFP must be done through PPIRS?  We could even require customers to fill out a CPARS entry semiannually or even quarterly -- surely they'd prefer that to 177 ad hoc requests per year, right?  Surely the Government would prefer that its employees do their actual job, paid for by the taxpayers, rather than spending hours filling out PPQs.

OK, my dream.  Perhaps my Congresswoman can consider this.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Not Quite the New Yankees

I've penned thousands of words in various columns, and in the comment sections of other folks' columns, in regard to the earth-shaking topic of the disparity of spending in major league baseball.  So here are more words, because, dang, there are never enough.

Through most of the last two decades, the New York Yankees (collective hiss) have been the highest-spending team of the 30 major league franchises and, in many of those years, their total of player salaries has been as much as 50% higher than the second-highest team.  This is the natural consequence of a few factors:
(1) The marketplace in metropolitan New York is huge and flush
(2) There is no cap on salaries, and only recently has there been a luxury tax to place any restraints
(3) The Yankees have had an abysmal farm system for 20 years, forcing them to sign free agents
(4) The late George Steinbrenner's ego refused to let him be outbid for a free agent

While the L.A. Dodgers slightly exceeded the Yankees' payroll last year, the Yankees still have no fewer than seven players on their roster being paid at least $15 million per year (for reference, Boston has four, but none is paid as high as $20 million).

That said, the same Boston club whose president, Larry Lucchino, famously referred to the Yankees as the "evil empire" after they signed a prized free agent escaped from Cuba a dozen years ago, has been spending quite freely this off-season. Lucchino, in fact, had to fend off criticism that he was operating in a very Yankee-like manner.

This criticism came after the Red Sox signed two free agents, third-baseman Pablo Sandoval and (now) left-fielder Hanley Ramirez, and was amped higher when they won the bidding for another Cuban, the 19-year-old Yoan Moncada.

So just how similar have the teams become?

That's quite a fascinating question, because it gets into the guts of the teams' roster philosophies.  Start with the fact that Sandoval, who is still only 28, was signed for five years and will be only 32 his last season, while Ramirez, who is 31, was signed for four years and will be 34 when his contract expires.  Moncada is 19 and likely won't even start his major league career until 2016.

At the same time, the Red Sox declined to approach the offer made by the Chicago Cubs of six years and $155 million for the Red Sox' own homegrown pitcher Jon Lester, through his age-36 season.  Last year they similarly declined to match the Yankees offer to another homegrown Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury, through his age-36 season for about the same total salary.

It would seem that the Sox have a red line which, unlike that of the current White House occupant, they actually recognize.  They are not out there giving long contracts into players' age-35 seasons for $20 million.  They come close with Ramirez, but stopped at 34.

And the Yankees?  Well, their seven >$15M contracts look like this -- and by the way, they average $21 million:
Jacoby Ellsbury (37 at the end of his contract)
C.C. Sabathia (36 at the end of his contract, 37 if vesting games are reached)
Mark Teixeira (36 at the end of his contract)
Masahiro Tanaka (30 at the end of his contract)
Carlos Beltran (39 at the end of his contract)
Brian McCann (35 at the end of his contract)
... and, of course, Alex Rodriguez (42 at the end of his contract).

So with the exception of Tanaka, the Yankees have six contracts on the books over $15 million -- they actually average almost $21 million each -- that arguably the Red Sox would never sign.  The four $15 million contracts Boston has include two (David Ortiz and Mike Napoli) which end this year, and the others are Sandoval and Ramirez.  Ortiz is a special case, of course at 39, but his contracts have been essentially short deals at competitive rates; never was he committed to with an expectation of multiple dead years at the end of a long contract.

It is quite arguable that Boston has, in fact, looked at the Yankees roster, not just now, but in 2016 and 2017, and decided that paying free agents for three years of productivity followed by three years of relative geriatric performance, is not a productive use of its revenues.  They have looked at the Tampa Bay Rays, who locked up their younger talent into long-term contracts that are cheaper in the long run.  They have looked at a few teams like the St.Louis Cardinals, whose farm systems have successfully produced talent despite less advantageous drafting positions.  And they have looked at the international market, trying to find talent before an international draft puts it out of reach.

Last year, a season removed from a World Championship, the Red Sox finished dead last in their division and were never close to making a run to respectability.  Yet now, as Spring Training opens, the same team is widely thought to be a competitor to be division champion, even though it neither mortgaged its future by parting with vital talent, nor mortgaged its flexibility by committing to the far-down years of aging stars under long-term contracts.

Their farm system -- especially with Moncada, who is still a year away from the majors -- is universally thought to be a top-5 system in the majors.

No, they're not the Yankees and the comparison is almost as stark as ever.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Content of Their Character

As you all know, I am black in the eyes of the State of Maryland, which gives me a bully pulpit from which to write this piece today.

This morning, the black actress Stacey Dash was on TV, and mentioned in the course of her interview that she had gotten some brutal treatment in 2012 when she came out in favor of the Republican candidate Mitt Romney.  This meant, of course, that she was not voting for her comparably-skin-colored option, the reigning president (Barack Obama).

The story is simple; she tweeted out her decision to support Romney during the campaign, and was promptly bashed by a host of black "leaders", including no less than the black-oriented magazine Ebony.  The trendsetters there at Ebony wrote "Her conservative, clueless political slant sparked controversy time after time this year, making Dash notoriously trendy for all the wrong reasons."  The term "clueless" was, for those like me who would not otherwise have known, a play on the name of a movie she was in.

Her crime, of course, was that of not voting in knee-jerk, lock-step (or maybe goose-step) alignment with the way black people are supposed to vote.  Certainly the Washington Post feels that way, having earlier this week castigated the voting map of the Commonwealth of Virginia for having only one "majority-black" district, which one can only infer as supporting the notions that black voters only vote for black candidates, and that solely by the nature of common skin color, two Virginians of the same race should expect to vote alike.

What is scary is the firestorm of criticism attempting to shout Miss Dash off the national stage.  Obviously she wasn't wrong in her views; Obama's incompetence, lack of leadership, lack of a spine and international cluelessness are out there for all to see.  You'd have to wonder why anyone outside his family voted for him.

But no; it is as if she is not allowed to think differently from the herd, and anyone who does must be immediately shouted down into silence, lest they corrupt others into, well, thinking for themselves.  Yet only by thinking for oneself can one truly follow the words of Martin Luther King, to judge people not "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Miss Dash, who appeared from the interview to have voted for Obama in 2008 (please don't hold me to that), clearly saw four years of Obama's "character" as evidenced by his incompetence as a leader, his unwillingness to work with -- or even talk to -- people who weren't in lock-step with his thinking, his "I'm the smartest guy in the room" attitude, and his indifference to whether ideas have worked in the past; and she decided that he was not the right choice.  Romney, on the other hand, who had a successful man's appreciation for what works and what doesn't, and a history of working with people who disagreed with him, was in her mind a better choice.

Content of one's character; that was her decision.  Unfortunately, Stacey Dash lives in the one community that is a long way from following the guidance of the individual who gave his life helping to lead it out of its abyss by promoting recognition of character.  OK, black America is not the only one; there's always Hollywood.  And, for that matter, ISIS.  They're not big fans of the supremacy of character either.

And I mention Ebony and ISIS in the same piece with deliberate intent.  Neither can handle infidelity to their beliefs very well.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Oscars: I Was Wrong, and So Was Everyone

OK, so I predicted that "Selma" would win the Best Picture award, not because it was any good, but because the other films -- all seven of them -- would split enough of the votes that Al Sharpton could guilt a plurality into voting for it.  I don't know the final voting -- will we ever? -- but I'm guessing that on sheer quality, "Selma" got more votes than it deserved.  Just not enough, so I was wrong.

This past weekend, to enhance our ability to appreciate the awards themselves, the missus and I sat down in our living room and watched through three of the nominated films, which included a number of the nominated performances for acting in lead and supporting roles.

Boy, for all the chest-thumping done at the Oscars about what a wonderful medium cinema is, and how wonderful the stories are, and what great actors the nominees were, the movies sure were a letdown.  We watched three of what were supposed to be the best -- "Birdman", "Boyhood" and "The Theory of Everything".

I will say that the performance by Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking was pretty remarkable, and I did wake up from the awards show (God, the show is interminable) in time to see that he had won Best Lead Actor and was happy for that.  The movie itself was very good but sub-memorable; the performances of its two leads (Felicity Jones the other, as Hawking's ex-wife Jane) were excellent and appreciated.  The movie itself was not thought a candidate to win this year, nor would it in most years.

It was, however, quite disillusioning to go through watching Birdman and Boyhood, the two most hyped candidates to win, because they certainly were not better pictures.

"Boyhood" is the very long epic whose claim to fame is that it was filmed over twelve years, the better to show the aging of its lead child (and, for that matter, everyone else) from about age six to eighteen or so.  That effect was central to the premise, in contrast with other films which cover a long period and replace young children with different actors for later years.

Unfortunately, the effect was more compelling than the storyline; mother gets married/divorced three times, boy grows into a dull, introspective, boring and otherwise uninteresting teenager who likes photography, and ... and ... I'm not sure what else.  There's no real plot going on to be resolved.  It would have been much different had the creators written the whole script ahead of time -- gee, I wish they had; the movie came across as if they met for a few weeks each summer to film and made it up as they went along.

Moreover, the performances were generally uninspired as well.  Ethan Hawke as the first husband and the children's father was decent, but nominated for a Supporting Actor award (he didn't win) anyway.  Having somehow gotten more votes than fellow nominee Meryl Streep (Who ever beats Meryl Streep?), Patricia Arquette did win as Supporting Actress as the mother, though other than aging twelve years, it's difficult to pin down anything compelling about her performance.

Miss Arquette did take the occasion of the award to make a passionate speech for equality for women, to which I say "sure"; the very first step in that equality should be to give just one award for Best Actor and just delete all this male/female distinction.  Bye, bye Miss Arquette's 2015 Oscar.

The other 2-3 hours we won't get back was watching "Birdman", the story of a former movie superhero actor trying to create a new version of a play on Broadway.  OK, it wasn't bad, and the plot was easier to follow ... OK, no, that one was hard to follow, too.  They could have taken the volume level of the incessant background drumming down by 2/3, so we could hear the dialogue and maybe follow the plot, but hey, that's 2015 cinema.

Michael Keaton was the actor, and again, he was very good.  The movie itself, ahhhh, not so much -- no characters to sympathize with a great deal, most of the characters with depressing lives -- and not the good kind of cinematic depressing lives that make you feel better about yourself, either.  It's called a "dark comedy", but that, to me, means one that you laugh at uncomfortably, schadenfreude, that sort of thing.  You'll have to point the laugh lines out to me; I would never use the term "comedy" of any shade on this one.  Overall, it was just too much frigging work to watch the film, and I work during the week.

It has been close to, well, ever since last I watched more than one nominated film before the awards are presented.  I just have to say that whatever scale is used these days to determine what constitutes a great movie, wow, the standard is amazingly low.  They're good, sure, but when I finish seeing a film that's up for an Oscar I should feel l just saw an Oscar-worthy film.

The impression I get is that the people making movies these days are only making them to satisfy their own construct of what art is, while my interest is in being entertained, moved or whatever reaction I'm supposed to get based on the subject matter.  When my disbelief is not suspended, but remains firmly intact while I try to figure out what the heck is going on, the film has failed me.

Ahhhhh, it was only six bucks.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton

Monday, February 23, 2015

Guilty as Charged

I am not sitting on the jury that is empaneled to hear the case against the man accused of killing Chris Kyle, the soldier whose story is the subject of the American Sniper movie.  Not being on the jury, I can't make an informed opinion on the guilt or innocence of the shooter.  Doesn't matter, though, does it?

The trial is not about guilt or innocence, per se.  Rather, the jury is determining the sanity of the killer, Eddie Ray Routh, at the time of the shooting.  In essence -- and here is the problem -- they are making a judgment, based on the evidence and testimony before them, which will result in one of two outcomes, either:
(1) The killer will be found guilty and go to prison for whatever period the process determines, likely for life
(2) The killer will be found "not guilty by reason of insanity"

The problem with the latter is that, in the eyes of the law of the State of Texas and, assumedly every other state and the District of Columbia, he is no longer subject to punishment for the crime for which he was charged, nor can he be re-tried for it at a later time due to the constitutional protection from double jeopardy.

Routh's legal status, if found insane at the time of the shooting, is that he cannot be punished.  He can be assigned by the judge to an institution for treatment to protect himself and the public, but it is not of the legal standing of "punishment."  So if at a future time, which could be tomorrow, Routh could be determined by the institution and competent medical authorities to be no longer insane and, therefore, subject to release.

Is this in the best interest of the USA?  I absolutely think not.  A crime was committed, whether or not the criminal was sane at the time, and the treatment of that criminal needs to be kept under the jurisdiction of the court.

Therefore, I propose that the states start to consider a different outcome.  I'd like to see one state amend its penal code to create a new verdict as an option for judges and juries to consider:  "Guilty by reason of insanity."  A finding of Guilty by Reason of Insanity is appropriate when a crime is committed and the finding is that the offender was insane at the time of the crime.  The sentencing would provide for a period of time within which the offender is put in the penal system, even if it is all served in a mental institution.

What is the difference?  Very simple -- the criminal under that verdict has a record, a finding of guilt and, most importantly, their handling is under the penal system of the state.  No doctor can free a convicted murderer without going to court, because "freeing" a convicted prisoner under that verdict is the purview of the courts and penal system, and the prisoner remains under the system until end of the period determined at sentencing.

That sentence may include institutionalization, prison time, work release, house arrest, parole -- all the avenues available to the court.  But it is a sentence that must be served.

I believe that it is in the best interest of the USA, the victims of crime and the criminals themselves to have this avenue of the new verdict available.  It's so reasonable that I'm sure someone has considered it.  Perhaps it's time to revisit the idea.

It's the sane approach.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Big, Ugly Lie No One Told

Pretty much everything on earth shrinks when it freezes, save for good old water.  This column is no exception, and it's 6 degrees F outside here in the Sunny South.  So this is a nice, quick and easy column to send us off into the weekend.  It is strawman time once again.

At the conclusion of the uneventful White House Summit to Countering Violent Extremism, Barack Obama said this:

"The notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie."

A lie, as we all know, is an intentional falsehood.  It is not, of course, a lie if no one says it.  So if Barack H. Obama feels the need to conclude a conference by castigating non-existent people, for not having said something, that is not true, then one wonders what is going on between those protruding ears and under the buzz-cut.

Because no one says the West is at war with Islam. 

There is a big ol' comments section below, with lots and lots of room for you all to show me wrong and point to where someone has said that the West is at war with Islam and no, ISIS videos don't count.  Obama was pointing to someone, I guess; I just don't know whom.  Does he think that peaceful Muslims are saying it?  Al Qaeda?  Republicans?  Debbie Wasserman-Schultz? 

He didn't say.  Sounds like a strawman to me.  Comments welcome.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Put the "W" Right Here

In the spirit of writing at least as often on non-political topics as on political ones, this brief piece is an appeal to the hardest-working types out there, who are seldom as accurate as their title of "forecaster" would lead you to believe, but who continue to tilt at the windmill of accuracy the best their data will allow them.

I refer, of course, to the weather people on the news.

I gladly concede that they try their best every day, and deal with the data given them.  No, in fact this has nothing to do with how good they are at forecasting, and everything to do with the presentation of what they tell us.

As the capabilities of the National Weather Service and the Weather Channel and all the other trackers and compilers of weather data get better, there is a compulsion to share all that with us.  Accordingly, a typical weather segment on the news is likely to have maps on the screen that show us not only the current temperature, but also "wind chill", dew points and even changes-in-temperature-over-time.

But there's one little problem there.  They all look the same!

They have to look the same; they're all measured in the same units, i.e., degrees on the old Fahrenheit scale.  If you look at a weather map with a bunch of numbers on it in different areas, you're going to assume it is showing actual temperature, now or later.  Of course, it could be wind chill, or dew points or delta-temperature; you have to look at the caption to figure that out.  That means you have to find the caption first, of course; it might be on top, it might be on the bottom.  It might not even be there at all. And by the time you look at the caption, the map has changed.

This has annoyed me for a long time, especially in winter, when all I care about is the $%^@$ temperature.  So naturally, I have a solution.

Let's restate the problem: weather maps with numbers measured in degrees all look the same, and are on the screen too briefly to find the caption, interpret it and then go back to our own geographical area to consider what's there.  We can't change the time; we can't really change the metrics.  We can, however, very easily change the presentation.

My proposal is simple.  When a weather map is displaying actual temperature, put up the numbers the same as always, and we slugs in the TV audience will infer that it is showing "current temperature."  When it is displaying anything else, just put a character right after every number on the map, at half the font size, that immediately indicates what it is.

For example -- let's say we're doing a map of wind chill.  Suppose the wind chill is 24 in Washington, 12 in Boston and -7 in Caribou, Maine.  Instead of showing "24", "12" and "-7" and confusing the viewer, put "24w" over the nation's capital, "12w" over Beantown and "-7w" over Caribou.  There would be no need to look for a caption; the viewer will immediately realize those are wind chills and get, pun intended, the drift.

In the same manner, a map full of numbers like "64d" and "70d" and "57d" will instantly be interpreted as showing dew points, as if anyone cared.  If the map is showing, say change in temperature over the last 24 hours, just put an up or down arrow, the same size as the numerals, next to them to indicate both the increase or decrease in temperature and the fact that this is a delta-temperature map!

Check out the map above.  Isn't it immediately obvious that this is something other than a straight temperature map?  Wouldn't you be able to keep your eyes on the map because it is clearly wind chills?  I would certainly think that the Weather Channel might actually want to do something like this.

Just give me a tiny bit of the credit.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton