What is your e-mail address?

My e-mail address is:

Do you have a password?

Forgot your password? Click here

John Klossner's Ink Tank

Offensensitivity: Are you joking?

Every other week the editor of Federal Computer Week sends me a story or topic that will accompany the cartoon on the back page of FCW (or, as the editor would put it, a story that the cartoon will accompany). I get back to the editor (a) to share sketches for two or three cartoon ideas on the topic, or (b) to discuss any unique angles or subject matter that I am not familiar with. After this discussion, I submit the cartoon sketches.

The editor then gets back to me with feedback: Sometimes he picks one favorite cartoon or, if he likes all of my ideas, tells me to go with my favorite. But sometimes he asks me if everything is all right at home. I then redraw the cartoon for publication and send it in.

We recently had a unique experience with the cartoon process. The topic came from a blog entry concerning recent debates about whether contractors should be included in DOD war zone death notices. Now the problem – which you've probably picked up on, and which the editor and I, being professionals, immediately noted – is, what is funny about death reports? In his note to me, the editor suggested that I avoid using war zone deaths as the central theme or image of the cartoon and instead focus on the universal theme of contractors feeling undervalued.

The editor (Editor1) I usually work with was away when I submitted my ideas on this topic, so he asked me to submit them to another editor (Editor2). I submitted the following sketches to Editor2, cc'ing Editor1.


As it turned out, Editor1 was checking his email that day, and he responded first, saying he liked the "fallen tree" (sketch 2) concept. Editor2 then responded, saying he thought a dead tree was a little too close to actual death, and that he preferred the other idea, which we went with (see below).

I think both ideas would work for illustrating the point, and I have no problems with either editor's response. (Other than noting that this is an example of why, when I work with new clients, I always request to have just one contact person. My experience as a cartoonist/illustrator is that the more people giving feedback means the more interpretations of the idea I'll have to deal with. I have worked with clients who, with multiple chefs responding, have turned a drawing of an airplane into a fallen tree).

In this case, I am more interested in what a reader finds offensive, and how that corresponds with my own sensitivities.

Personally, I felt that the airplane cartoon – with an image of contractors being viewed as baggage – was the one most likely to be deemed offensive. I thought the tree – although, in retrospect, I realize the tree was dead – wouldn't get that response because the image was so far removed from a war or human environ. Also, I though the use of the "tree falls in the forest ..." cliché would distract readers from the grim details of the story and direct their attention to the bigger point.

In drawing cartoons of all shapes, sizes and subject matter since the last century, I have received some – not bags full – of feedback when I have offended readers. A couple experiences come to mind.

Several years ago, I drew a cartoon for another publication commenting on a series of data thefts at the Veterans Affairs. I received an angry e-mail from a reader who was highly offended by the use of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the cartoon. I don't know if this reader represented a larger group or not.


And then there was a cartoon (drawn for another publication) that wasn't particularly offensive at the time, but might be considered so now. The cartoon showed a man standing in the cockpit of an airplane, with the pilot saying to his copilot, "Better do as he says. He has a laptop." The cartoon was drawn during the early years of wireless technology (so long ago that I don't even have a scanned copy in my files, which is just as well, because it wasn't a very good drawing), when there were conflicting messages regarding technology and flight safety. There were many jokes about the "silliness" of worrying about electronic devices on planes. This cartoon actually resold (being a freelancer, I resell my cartoons to other markets) several times before Sept. 11, 2001, at which point it became irrelevant, not very funny and logically wrong.

I’ve never made it a goal to offend as many people as possible with my cartoons. I'm not the frothing-at-the-mouth-type artist who's trying to take ideological prisoners. I try to find and illustrate a unique take or angle on a subject, hopefully in a humorous way, albeit with mixed results. (To be perfectly honest, the reader I most often offend is myself, with either a poor drawing or an obscure – technical term for "nonexistent" – joke.) I understand that the occasional offense is a byproduct and, in these comments section-charged times, insult is found everywhere.

Just ask any editor.


Posted on Jun 09, 2011 at 7:26 PM2 comments

How much fun and games do federal websites need?


Among the many details coming out from the attack at the Pakistani compound where Osama bin Laden was killed, one in particular caught my eye. Intelligence personnel noticed that this multimillion dollar compound in a relatively (for Pakistan) upscale community didn't have any telephone or Internet service. In short, the house stood out for its lack of technology, which agents took as a red flag.

Hold it right there: What if this turns into a slippery slope for all security searches, where we each could become suspect based on a lack of current technology? I recently had a discussion with an editor at FCW who mentioned that he only watches three television shows. Does this make him suspicious? I have no cable TV service in my home. Am I redlined as a potential Bolshevik? Would my rural residential friends who still have dial-up service be fingered as  environmental terrorism suspects? Does owning a 19-inch television put you on the "suspected Luddite" list? Does my file get flagged for the "no smart-phone" folder?

Is there a level of technology expectancy that, should we not meet it, make us suspect in our communities? Of course I'm joking, but the thought does occur to me when I read critiques of government websites. It can appear that a certain inclusion of current technologies is expected, and anything less is reason for suspicion.

This came to mind in a recent discussion with the three-TV-show editor on ways for government websites to become more appealing to a generation who are used to gaming and social networking. As it was put, how does the government make boring topics more interesting to users that expect online interaction in the forms of gaming and social networks?

This led me on a search for good and bad government websites, the critiques of which is a cottage industry that I wasn't quite prepared for. Just as every person on the planet now has a blog, I think every web designer on the planet has been consulted for their thoughts on government sites' design. This is where the technology slippery slope appears again -- sites that don't keep up with current design trends are flagged and treated like the Abbottabad compound.

(As a side, one of the early checklist items in government websites -- before considering adding social media and gaming features -- is whether the government entity actually has a website. For example, 55 out of 86 Oklahoma counties do not have a site.

I could use this moment to point out that government technology employees now have another worry to add to their job list: Is their website hip enough? Does it contain the technologies du jour, and look as good as all the other websites? I tend to fall into the old school with my site preferences -- I am in search of information and any other users' experiences with this information -- and if it contains a cool map or photo on the link, or a thought-provoking conversation in the comments section, I consider it a bonus. I am slowly starting to dread good websites, as I often come back to consciousness several hours later, realizing that I have been clicking links for the afternoon and now have a thorough knowledge of the Maldives.

I guess the question is, are government websites -- even if already well-designed and easily navigable -- improved by adding more entertainment and interaction to them?

To be honest, some of the more poorly designed sites scream out for entertainment technologies. For example, a site that has been getting a lot of negative feedback is the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS).The site is full of security warnings, isn't highly compatible with browsers, and is as navigable as a bayou. This would seem like a perfect candidate for a Donkey Kong-like game, where users can "kill" poor-performing contractors and accumulate contract credits.

But would Recovery.gov, where you can track Recovery Act spending, be improved if the spending map featured a high scores table and competition between neighbors?

And although I'd like to see it, I'm not sure the Postal Service site would be better with a transportation game where users can virtually race the USPS to see if they can get their parcel to its destination quicker.

On the other hand, the Defense Information Systems Agency's Base Realignment and Closure (DISA BRAC) information portal is a well-thought-out and designed site that was created to help provide information on the agency's headquarters relocation. It has answered every question anyone could have on the move. But I still think they could have included a game where users pack a virtual van, getting points as they fit more items into the van.

Another personal favorite, the CIA factbook includes a series of world trivia questions in the "What's new" table. What if it required users to answer the question correctly in order to connect to a link?

And, useful or not, I'd spend more time at the White House site if it included a "dress the President today" feature.


Posted on May 20, 2011 at 7:26 PM3 comments

In defense of federal employees (Washington Redskins, beware!)

The Washington Monument I've become worried about government workers' self-esteem. Not that this should come as a surprise: As a group dealing with high-profile projects in a stressed-out economy with highly partisan oversight, how can they not be a little jittery in the self-worth department? Public employees have been blamed for everything from the economic crisis to Charlie Sheen's behavior.

Many of these attacks focus on the purported problems caused by public employees' collective abilities. In the name of fair play, I think we need to consider the potential of the public employee community. At the risk of being more simplistic than usual, I wish to contribute to the restoration of employee self-esteem. We're talking numbers and, as the old African saying goes, "Working together, the ants can defeat the lion." (I'm paraphrasing here, and I'm not sure if there also might be an old African saying that goes "But the lion will work extra hard trying to stop the ants' collective bargaining rights" or "The lion will wage a publicity campaign alleging that the ants' benefits packages are causing the wildebeest population to dry up.")

In searching for actual numbers of public employees, I have encountered a wide range of figures. For that reason, I have decided to use the unscientific figure of "a lot" to describe the number of public employees working for our various governments. Taking this number into account, the following projects are possible (all statistics unsupportable):

* Piled together, the public employees could form a wall big enough to block a mid-sized metropolitan area from a tsunami.

* If every public employee held their breath for 30 seconds each day, we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent.

* Collectively, the public employees could beat Watson, the IBM supercomputer, at Jeopardy.

* Allowed on the field all at once, the public employees could defeat the Washington Redskins.

* If that isn't so impressive, how about the Steelers?

* As a group, the public employees could defeat Chuck Norris in a tug-of-war fight.

* If every public employee stood atop each others' heads, we could put a person on Mars.

* Arranged in formation, they could spell out the Constitution at halftime of the Super Bowl.

* If every public employee worked out at the same time, and each treadmill was hooked up to a generator, the public employees could produce enough power to light up the Pacific Northwest.

* If every public employee in the greater Washington area took the Metro one day ... oh, never mind that one.

* If all public employees avoided bathing for one day ... ditto.

* If each government worker brought in a covered dish, we could feed (put your favorite community/cause/third world country here) for a day.

* If all the public employees chanted "We are here" together, they would avoid being dropped into a vat of boiling oil (wait, that's "Horton Hears a Who").

John Klossner public employee unions

Posted by John Klossner on Apr 21, 2011 at 7:26 PM6 comments

Federal Computer Week eNewsletters

  • Subscribe to Newsletters Subscribe

    Federal Computer Week's eNewsletters deliver the latest policy and management news to your inbox.