A Guidebook for New Antarctic Workers
This guide is intended to assist you in your stay at McMurdo Station, the largest of the three American stations. It briefly covers Antarctic culture to provide an overview that may help you adjust to working here. Additionally, much of the information is relevant to South Pole Station, but consult your peers before assuming so. If you are a Congressman, please refer to the Guidebook for Distinguished Congressional Visitors.
Many of the early explorers who came to Antarctica died miserably of starvation while freezing to death. This unique frozen heritage is visible just across the bay from McMurdo Station at historic Discovery Hut, built by Robert Scott in 1902. In that noble wooden hut, several men once spent four months, clothes awash with gore from their endless seal slaughtering, their faces black from the soot of their barely flickering blubber stoves, their faces and fingers blistered and pocked from slogging a thousand miles with a ripped tent and a salvaged stove, their spongy gums still bleeding from the scurvy incurred on their futile sledding journey to lay depots of food for Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition that would never arrive because Shackleton’s boat was crushed in the ice, he and his men fleeing the continent for their lives, amputating limbs as necessary.
The only medical facilities available to you are managed by your employer. Most visits are documented and some of this information is freely available to your employer’s Safety Representative, who is very concerned with Workplace Injuries. Your employer, most likely the prime support contractor, is contracted by the National Science Foundation, the government agency who runs the United States Antarctic Program. In practice, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and their contractor consider everything under their management to be a Workplace. This will become clear during room inspections. Concerning minor injuries, some people ‘just pop in to Medical’ to ‘ask a quick question’ or to ‘just grab an icepack’. Many others do not do this.
HR is the main interface between yourself and the support contractor. HR performs many functions, from the simple business of dispersing employee surveys, to the more complex business of approving bonuses and terminating contracts. Some people believe HR is their friend. Others believe that HR is a den of vipers. These are confusing sentiments. It might help to remember that one of the main tasks of HR is to document you. Whether it is verifying your existence on a checklist, or in collecting other employees’ statements about you, HR’s purpose is to keep a record of you for the contractor. For this reason, it may be in your best interest to consider how those documents affect your business, which is that of selling your labor to the contractor. There are many good reasons to seek the assistance of the HR representative, but necessity is the best one.
At Orientations or All-Hands Meetings or at other public meetings, the managers, presidents, and other public officials seldom appear anything but enthusiastic, friendly, and supportive. They may urge you to stop by their office, call them, page them, email them or contact them via telekinesis. After this invitation, they usually ask if anyone has any questions. They will look around for a second, say “No questions?”, look around again, say “Okay, then,” and pass the microphone to the next speaker, or otherwise adjourn the meeting. Invariably, the question arises: what if I ask a question? There is no clear answer to this question, but there are two prominent camps:
The first camp believes that asking a question will bring the asker grief and trouble. Because this might be true, and it is more difficult to clear one’s name than sully it, many people feel, quite reasonably, that it is best to keep your trap shut. The second camp believes that asking questions will encourage others to ask questions also and that damage to any individual will be dispersed by the public nature of the event.
Each camp has benefits and problems. The first camp is much safer. No person is likely to fall under suspicion for not asking questions. The problem with the first camp is that assuming your question springs from valid concerns like asbestos exposure, and not ridiculous complaints about Bingo prizes, then the concern will most likely continue to be neglected. Remember, it is the job of managers to respond to problems, not to promote vague quality, so when a public concern becomes a problem for a manager, it thus enters the realm of the manager’s consideration. The drawback with the second camp is that your public question may lead to political problems for you later, behind the scenes.
There is no definite way to tell what will happen, as there are many different variables in different circumstances, but generally the first camp is the immediate choice, as well as the safest.
In the constellation of complaints, food and mail are the brightest stars. There is little you can say about either subject that has not already been whined, moaned, or groaned about already. In the interest of craftsmanship, it is best to remember that if you are going to complain, then you should do so in a way that entertains those around you, because no one really feels sorry for you anyway. All anyone really wants is to forget the miserable horrors of their mundane existence, if even for a few fleeting moments of laughter. Some people call any critical statement ‘complaining’ only when they do not agree with it, but are otherwise happy to complain about the food or the mail. Some people are tired of hearing those people complain about complaining.
If there is a more fascinating grapevine in the world, let it come forward. The USAP grapevine is lightning quick and a valuable source of information. As with any information source, such as a newspaper, a TV broadcast, or a memo from NSF, it is best to verify information through separate independent sources. For example, if you hear a rumor that a plane hit a snowmobile, then there will have been pilots flying the plane, passengers in the plane, maybe a few EOs involved in retrieving the plane, and carpenters building a crate in which to ship the plane, and they are all accessible, working alongside you in town.
You might be surprised to find that you are not the only person willing to be flown into the stark wilderness to test your mettle against whatever nature throws your way. Your sincerity and enthusiasm are appreciated, but try to remember that for all the familiar shock of institutional carpeting, pickup trucks, and plentiful loveseats, almost every person you meet would not blink an eye at being sent into the middle of nowhere at a moment’s notice. But that doesn’t happen every day. Especially if you work in the Galley. If you go on one of these trips, or are one of the scientists attending one of these field camps in their very brief existence, many people would like to hear about your experiences, but none of them think you are particularly tough. Save that routine for when you return to the States, or for when you talk to any of the NSF-sponsored journalists from the big media. They eat that shit up.
If You Almost Die or Something
If you almost die or something, either at a field camp or by industrial havoc in town, people will be quite fascinated. Restrictions on ‘complaining’ or on ‘acting all badass’ may be safely discarded, within reason.
The Power Structure and You
Experienced managers who have spent lifetimes working at government contract sites around the world have stumbled out of here in complete bewilderment. The mechanics of power in the United States Antarctic Program are chaotic and weird. Any nearby organizational chart will depict the overt power structure, but behind it all is an almost mystical confusion. The Program lurches forward year after year like a square wheel, while the bullhorns blare loudly that things have never been so round. What’s a Fingee to do? (Fucking New Guy, that’s you.) The variety of circumstances you may face are outside the scope of this guide, but there are a few things you may want to note.
First, when you receive an email, note the cc: list. Those are the people who are supposed to be watching you. Some of them may work in the vicinity, some of them may be across town, and some of them may be in Denver or in Washington. In the latter case, they may not know what a contract worker is, or why a contract worker is in Antarctica, or what an Antarctica is. The good news is that they have nothing against you personally, yet. The bad news is that your existence for them has the quality of an animated beast in a video game. Though it may not be personal, you may prove useful for blocking shots fired by one of their opponents. It is best not to be paranoid, but it is also useful to keep one’s eyes open to the larger implications of one’s activities, such as ‘just stopping by Medical’.
Science is the process of describing the universe through physical observation. Here are some things that are not science: distributing money to scientists, dispersing press releases to the media, inviting Congressmen to stay at Building 137 (that’s a nice apartment for DVs, or Distinguished Visitors), and influencing your contract or your contract-completion bonus. Science is a rational approach to existence, and its true practitioners are, for lack of better words, on the right track. However, to unconditionally bestow respect on scientists is like emptying your wallet for each street musician. And to bestow respect on an agency that funds scientists is like giving your wallet to a bus driver with instructions to give it to a street musician.
Science, as an intellectual process, is not owned or orchestrated by any particular person or agency, nor is the funding of science a scientific act. The National Science Foundation is the manager of American Antarctica much like your department manager is the manager of your department: he or she has a lot of influence, but there are other forces at work.
In fact, the main purpose of the United States Antarctic Program, as stated by an external panel report published by NSF, is to establish a physical and political presence. This presence is kind of like hopping out of the car to stand in a parking space so no one nabs it while your friend drives around the block. (Our friend in this metaphor would be the as-of-yet nonexistent technology to cost-effectively extract minerals or hydrocarbons from Antarctica.) Now, imagine all the trouble that would arise if there were a bunch of people standing around in parking spaces, and bringing their friends and families to stand in parking spaces too, and they said they were just waiting for their friends to arrive. The biggest families would get the most spaces on the street, even if they were a bunch of lowlifes! To avoid this, the Antarctic Treaty was arranged, which meant that anyone who wanted to hold parking spaces for their friends had to perform substantial scientific activity.
In Antarctica, science is a parking permit, and those who want to stand in the parking spaces must first be able to afford the permit to stand there. These affairs do not reflect on the value of science as a sensible process. But science keeps many friends, whose close association with science is often overemphasized, sometimes with zeal, sounding less like science than like religion, which has little to do with understanding the universe through physical observation.
The Winter Psych Eval
When those of us who don’t know anything about how an engine works take our cars to a mechanic, we do so with the belief that the engine is a rational system that we could come to understand if we only put in the time to learn. We are lazy, so we pay the mechanic, who has taken the time to learn how engines work. As we relinquish the cash, we are actively assuming that the mechanic understands something that we do not.
When we attend our psych interview some of us feel that we are dealing with a professional who understands something that we do not, sort of like a mechanic of the human mind. This is a grave misunderstanding.
Whatever its inspired roots and tenable theories, Psychology’s bread and butter comes from its role as a professional witness. Federal agencies, corporations, and desperate criminals all agree that the advent of modern psychology is truly the most convenient device in recent centuries for eliminating unsightly controversy when law collides with ethics or common decency. Psychology provides a way for These people to say what’s wrong with Those people and, in case anyone is watching, to conjure Scientific Evidence to bedazzle the faithful. Psychology is a miraculous snake-oil that actually works. It works because most of us believe a statement to be true if the statement is said by a “scientist”, a “researcher”, or an “expert”.
Science, however, finds Psychology to be a dubious colleague. This is because Psychology is constantly lumbering around in the world with cockeyed projects, such as
this psychological study funded by NSF which came to the brilliant conclusion that “The Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 left a lingering psychological impact on the nation….” Such redundant theories upset the tidy piles of credibility that Science has mustered through slow and expensive experiments. By developing a taste for degrees, certificates, credentials, and associations, Psychology has co-opted the fraternal trappings of Science and thus firmly shares that same sliver of Authority that the public has not yet allotted to clerks, presidents, and jailkeepers.
Thus, though both the zoologist and the Psychologist are popularly considered Scientific Authorities, the zoologist will not be found on a hot circuit of murder trials to discredit key witnesses, no matter how pertinent his insights into the human animal. As the professional witness, it is the Psychologist, not the zoologist, who must show up to court dates to dazzle jurors, transform subjective psychological profiles into ‘data’, and otherwise grift and grin for a variety of shifty outfits, like your present employer, the United States Antarctic Program.
The USAP hires psychologists to administer a standardized test, conduct an interview, and then use these materials to evaluate candidates for winter deployment. This process is known as The Psych Eval. If you’ve never been evaluated by psychologists before, you may find yourself a little nervous. What will the psychologist ask me in the interview? Should I tell the truth? What if I fail? Big Dead Place does not presume to know the best course of action in your particular case, but we can offer some general principles and insights that might keep you from losing your mind during this stressful interrogation.
1. Four out of five biologists regard psychologists as jibbering baboons, and you should too. If other scientists had their way, Psychology would not be considered a “science” at all, but would be ranked somewhere above Creationism and below Performance Art. In fact, those who receive undergraduate degrees in Psychology but decide not to pursue graduate programs in that field often fall back on careers in Human Resources. But because the psychologist is in a position to terminate your contract on a whim, it may be in your favor to temporarily imagine the psychologist not as a glorified HR clerk, but as a respected authority with legitimate expertise. Such ideas can always be discarded after the interview.
2. The psychologists who evaluate you are tired employees of a veritable Psychology Factory located in the Denver metropolitan area. School shootings? Prison overcrowding? Workplace harassment? Psychologists are drawn to social problems like pawn shops to casinos. Commercial psychology is a savvy business, collecting a front-end load from organizations that seek to “identify and prevent” violence, then collecting a back-end load by “counseling” the victims of that violence. If one follows the dollar, the commercial psychologist has no incentive to look too deeply into the causes of these problems, because without problems to identify, or victims to counsel, there is simply no business. Thus one should remember that it is in the interest of the psychological factory-workers to tailor their evaluations to the needs of the client, which means that if NSF or RPSC perceive a lot of “personnel issues” one winter, the next year will see tighter “psychological” screening. Does that sound more like science, or business? At least one curious independent psychologist has inquired about the actual parameters used for the Antarctic Psych Eval and has met only slippery resistance. Until such a disclosure is made, it is safest, from the perspective of a contract worker, to assume that there are no parameters, and that the Psych Eval is yet one more loophole that allows your employer to terminate your contract for any reason whatsoever.
3. Nearly every paper worth its salt written on the selection of winter-over personnel at isolated polar bases has come to this conclusion: psychological profiling is not an accurate method of determining who will or will not successfully integrate themselves into a polar community. Questionable introverts have flourished because of their tolerance of personal idiosyncracies, and shoe-in extroverts have been shunned at bases for their relentless neediness. Psychological profiling can help weed out the claustrophobic, the hypochondriac, and the manic-depressant, but when July rolls around and the station manager with nothing to do begins peering out his office window to monitor a lonely stop sign for infractions on deserted roads, or as the winter plods on and the HR rep begins a campaign of sexual policing, one begins to wonder whether there is as much to fear at the winter base from the overt psychotic as there is from the covert neurotic, that is, the “normal” member of society. Though apparently both of these types have no trouble passing the USAP Psych Eval, the psychotic at least provides the community a few laughs and occasionally a little excitement to spruce up the daily grind, while the controlling neurotic is the daily grind.
In conclusion, though taking the Winter Psych Eval is an inevitable condition of your employment and, as such, may invoke pre-test jitters, we have shown that those jitters should stem only from the consequences of failure rather than the legitimacy of the evaluation itself. Psychology is bunk, the eval is a sham, and if you pass the test you will go on to inhabit a remote polar base with such a motley ensemble of control freaks and psychopaths that you will wonder why anyone even bothers with evaluations in the first place.
Visit the King Haakon VII Review for a review of the test portion of the Psych Eval.
Frequent Flier Miles
You may believe that you are only going to Antarctica for one season. Though that may be true, it is not. Antarctica will pierce you in the heart, and even if you don’t come back, you will think about it off and on, probably for the rest of your life. North America to New Zealand is one hell of a long round-trip, so do yourself a favor and start a frequent-flier account so that when you do come back, you will accumulate free airline tickets.
Welcome to Antarctica. We hope this guide has been useful for you. Send suggestions for topics you would like to see addressed.