Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What's That in Your Cup?

"Oh I like coffee / And I like tea / I'd like to be able to enter a final plea" -- John Popper (Blues Traveler), "Run Around"

Tomorrow, I'll walk into my office a bit bleary-eyed with one of two items perched in the curled fingers of my left hand -- a cup of hot beverage from either Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks.

Reactions will work accordingly -- an Extra Large "Great One" cup of Dunkin Donuts will bring smiles and sympathetic looks that say, "Hey, sir, tough morning?" or "Hey, El-Tee, you gettin properly caffeinated for a day of briefings?" Because my Dunkin Donuts cup won't be the only one at the morning meeting, there will be at least one or two instances where at least two of us Dunkin Drinkers will make eye contact and knowingly just tilt our cups toward one another in brotherhood before giving a quick smirk and returning to the sipping and waking up process.

Starbucks, however, is an entirely different story. With a similarly-sized, equally prominent cup of Starbucks in hand, I literally would not be able to make it from my office to the head without being teased or even jeered at least once. An epithet or two might be thrown my way if I were seen sipping from said cup during the aforementioned morning meeting. I could just as easily be met with sarcastic comments to the tune of, "Well, if we'd known that about you, we could've brought you a fluffed pillow and a mint this morning" or something else equally un-funny/un-original.

Okay, okay, so you get the point -- Dunkin Donuts is somehow associated with all things masculine and blue-collar, while Starbucks is associated with all those bad things that people like Spiro Agnew used to get hot and bothered about.

That's certainly not unique to my command, or even to New England. Popular TV commercials for both McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts have sought to make fun of Starbucks in not so many words, what with their silly Italian words for sizes and their ten-syllable drink names.

But let's look at the evidence, shall we?

Price. Let's assume here that frugality is manly and indulgence is for the effete. In this category, Starbucks wins by a country mile. (And for that matter, Brew'd Awakening beats 'em both, but that only works if you happen to be in downtown Lowell). As someone who's done more than his share of "coffee or tea and a bagel with cream cheese" breakfasts, Starbucks charges roughly $1.50 less than Dunkin (notwithstanding a current Dunkin special whereby the bagel and cream cheese can be had for $.99 with drink purchase). In fact, for the same price that I'd pay for just the Extra Large Tea/Coffee and bagel with cream cheese at the 24/7 Dunkin on Central Street, I can get the drink, the food, and the out-of-area New York Times (because hey, if we're pre-Thursday, that crossword is actually doable) at Starbucks off 290 in Worcester and still come out slightly ahead.

All bets are off, of course, if you do order those super-special ten-syllable drinks, but for the standard morning cup, this is certifiably true (and easily verifiable).

Consumer Effort. Let's assume here that "Do-It-Yourself" is manly and being waited on is for the effete. Again, advantage Starbucks. At nearly every Dunkin Donuts that I know, the sugar, cream, milk, etc. are kept behind the service counter. Not so at Starbucks. Whether you're into Splenda, Sugar in the Raw, honey, or none of the above, at Starbucks you're the doer. They just leave it out and trust you with it -- that's hard to argue with.

Caffeination. Let's assume here that heavy caffeination makes you a badass (hey, I've seen enough Mountain Dew and Red Bull commericals to know that!) and health concerns are for the effete. Yup, you guessed it, Starbucks takes this one seven days a week, and twice on Sunday. As you can easily check with one or two Google searches, Starbucks coffee is essentially "spiked" with surplus caffeine. Per unit volume, it's roughly twice as strong as the brew that Dunkin serves. If it's tea that suits your fancy, the Tazo Awake tea is definitely stronger than the generic Dunkin bag of Earl Grey, too.

So, no, I'm not a die-hard Starbucks partisan, or even a shareholder. I did become a huge fan of theirs when I lived in Virginia Beach, though, as I noticed that they were sort of like a library for me, except with way better hours, better amenities, and no "shushing" after my cell phone rang.

But I make the point just as a way of turning a piece of conventional "wisdom" on its head.

What could be more fun than that?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Matt Cassel's Quick Kick

Yes, Virginia, it's possible to lose all sixteen games in an NFL season (thanks to the sacrificial Lions who taught us that yesterday).

And yes, Virginia, it's possible to win eleven games and still not make the playoffs (And really, I hope someone in San Diego or Arizona feels at least a little bit guilty).

And yes, once again, it really is possible to punt in a non-fourth down setting, as Matt Cassel expertly reminded us yesterday during the Pats' shutout of the Bills.

So here was the situation: It's third-and-eight. The Pats have the ball on their own 41 as the fourth quarter is winding down and a two-score lead to protect. What does Bill Belichick decide to do?

Rather than make the umpteenth up-the-middle dive that would not likely yield eight yards, or risk throwing the ball on the windiest day of the year, the Pats' coach yanked out the old "quick kick" from the playbook in order to try to bury the unexpecting Bills deep in their own territory.

So, from the shotgun, the former high school punter Matt Cassel boomed a 57-yard punt (well, 57 with the healthy Pats' roll), which a gaggle of guys in white jerseys downed on the two yard-line before stopping the Buffalo offense and securing the win.

I've seen a bunch of online comments of the "Why-the-heck-would-you-give-the-ball-up-on-third variety" which is at least (slightly) better than people trying to argue that "there's no such thing" as a third-down punt.

By doing it, you benefit massively from the element of surprise. Your opponent's lack of preparedness means you have a great chance to set your defense up with wonderful field position, or, better yet, to yield a turnover deep in enemy territory should anyone on the other team touch, but not recover, the ball. On a very non-offensive day (such as yesterday where only 13 total points were scored) that can be a very good thing.

Bill Belichick will always be remembered as one of football's great coaches not just for the results his squads have posted but because he's a true student of the game who relishes in the wonderful opportunities presented by things like unexpected fourth-down plays from scrimmage, fake special teams plays, unusual formations, and yes, the occasional quick kick.

Somewhere yesterday, John Elway and Randall Cunningham had to be smiling.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Using All Four Downs to the State Title..


A high school football story this week really caught my eye. It comes out of Pulaski, Arkansas, and it's about a high school football coach, Kevin Kelley, who decided he simply would not punt the ball, no matter what. The best part? His team just took home a state title.

The neat thing about the article is that the coach's reasoning wasn't coming from some Disney-esque "Never Say Die" cliche-book, or some stubbornness that bore no fruit (like the opposing college basketball coach who decided to always double-team Steph Curry, even when he just stood out in the corner, thereby giving Davidson a 4-on-3 "power play" every time down the court).

Instead, he did a lot of rigorous statistical analysis of the conversion percentages on fourth down, the distance that punts travel in high school games, the average returns, etc. and when he crunched all the numbers, came to his reasonable conclusion, despite the inevitable guffaws and eye-rolls that surely came from his own stands and sidelines when he said he was "sticking" on fourth-and-long deep in his own territory.

Also of interest was his decision to onside kick approximately 75% of the time. Again, he had numbers to back him up, and he has the results to prove that he was onto something. Reading about it took me right back to Michael Lewis' wonderful Moneyball, a true page-turner which appealed right down the middle of my sports fanatic and analytical sides.

I'm sure a lot of other coaches and administrators were upset with Mr. Kelley because of his unorthodoxy that must've seemed unfair somehow.

But I wholeheartedly congratulate his success (just as I do every time I see something neat like a third-down "quick kick" or a real fourth-down punt set up to look like a fake), because of the lesson he's sending to his players.

Innovate. Work within the rules that society lays down, but when you see room for clever, new interpretations of those rules, seize the opportunity. As much as the cliche will make some people cringe, think outside the familiar rectangular object.

If you've been given four downs, take them. Use them. Just because everyone else punts on fourth doesn't mean you have to.

When you study the lives of any great inventor (say, a Thomas Edison) or even just an innovator (Warren Buffett) you'll see a common theme emerge -- they saw things for what they could be, followed their hunches, and changed the way others thought.

I was just looking at the e-mail signature quote from Kathleen Marcin, Lowell DNA President, and here it is, straight from Albert Einstein: "Great spirits have always encountered
violent opposition from mediocre minds."

I'm sure Coach Kelley can relate.

And the princple, of course, goes way beyond a bunch of teenagers in Arkansas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Social Capital Goes Global

"What could have been a huge problem disappeared because Denny knew the generals over there and called and said, 'Hey, we know each other, let's work this thing out,'" said Haines.

The above quote comes from today's Baltimore Sun piece titled, "Forged in the crucible of Annapolis" which notes that three members of the USNA class of 1968 (Mike Mullen, Jim Webb, and Dennis Blair) now hold, or will soon hold, key positions in the highest echelons of our government.

The potentially "huge problem" the quote refers to, though, was that little incident that occurred back in April 2001 when an EP-3E (P-3 airframe) modified to conduct certain, uh...collections, had a nasty aerial encounter with two Chinese intercept planes that wound up with one Chinese plane and pilot "buying the farm" and an expensive and sensitive U.S. airframe crash-landed on Hainan Island (just off the Chinese mainland in the South China Sea).

And just to comprehend the significance of the quote (which comes from Admiral Blair's college roommate), when he talks about Blair 'knowing the generals' he's not referring to a bunch of American flag officers over at PACOM headquarters on Oahu...he's talking about Chinese generals.

That's pretty powerful stuff.

Just through the contacts he had developed over the years, but mostly through those he had developed as a four-star in charge of our largest (geography-wise) theater command, he developed enough of a personal relationship with China's shot-callers to be able to help defuse a situation that could have gotten very ugly, very fast had a few critical indicators gone the other way.

This kind of makes you think of General Zinni back when he was CENTCOM, or about the way people describe Bush the Elder when he put the Gulf War coalition together (based on Bush's previous governmental postings, he literally knew most of the key world leaders whose support he needed to oust the Iraqi Army from Kuwait).

To me, it's also a reminder of why practitioners are often better leaders and problem solvers than are pure theoreticians. When a global crisis does erupt, I would take a Tony Zinni, a Dennis Blair, or a Colin Powell any day of the week, and twice on Sunday before all the eggheads from The Fletcher School, the Kennedy School, and SAIS put together.

Of course, like anything, too much elbow-rubbing can have a downside, as John recently pointed out on a comment to a Right-Side-of-Lowell post (https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=3046628493283608233&postID=6874853412305370328) when he mentioned how Admiral Blair's relationship with the Indonesian government didn't exactly wind up well for the East Timorese, who, I have no doubt, weren't so much concerned with Mr. Blair's level of "hard" or "soft" social capital as they were with the persecution they faced at the hands of a military dictatorship.

I'm sure many friends of the Tibetans and the Taiwanese won't be huge fans of the appointment, either.

Still, it's nice to think that anytime the proverbial three-in-the-morning phone call starts with "How are the wife and kids?" the chance that someone on one end will then try to kill the person on the other end after hanging up seems somehow diminished.

And that can't be all bad!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell, Social Capital, the 'Roseto Effect,' and Lowell

In Malcolm Gladwell's new bestseller about success, Outliers, Gladwell opens bytalking about social capital, which also just so happens to be first-ever entry on this blog. Gladwell never explicitly uses the term social capital, but it's definitely no accident that he begins with a chapter about a town called Roseto, Pennsylvania, which presented a major health mystery to researchers in the 1950s.

What was going on?

On page 7, Gladwell notes that,
"In Roseto, virtually no one under fifty-five had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over sixty-five, the death rate from heart disease in Roseto was roughly half that of the United States as a whole. The death rate from all causes in Roseto, in fact, was 30 to 35 percent lower than expected."

Gladwell goes on to quote John Bruhn, a researcher who studied Roseto:
"There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn't even have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn't have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That's it."
After the medical researchers systematically studied -- and then eliminated -- diet, exercise, genetics, and environmental conditions, the reason they wound up citing for Roseto's "outlier" status was the town itself.

From page 9:
"As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town, they figured out why. They looked at how the Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under two thousand people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the community, which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures."
A skeptical medical community had to be won over to see an explanation that veered away from hard, numbers-based facts, but the case was compelling. Put simply, social capital matters.
And social capital, put simply, is who you know. It's the community that exists all around you -- your building, your neighborhood, your civic organizations, your place of worship, your Tae Kwon Do class, your softball league, or whatever.

One distinction worth noting here is that between what I call 'hard' versus 'soft' social capital. One is not necessarily 'better' than the other, but there is a difference, and it does matter. 'Hard' social capital refers to people you know and who you're connected to by something greater than both of you put together. A perfect example would be someone you know from your church. You belong to the parish. They do, too. It would continue to exist if you both stopped existing, and it meets regularly on a schedule that depends on neither of you. Chances are, no matter how busy you are during the week (and if we'll define 'busy' as having more items on your to-do list than you can usually complete, let's just accept that yes, we're all busy people), you'll still see each other on Sunday morning at 1000. Same would go for your co-workers, your family members, and, presumably, co-members of civic groups or bowling leagues.

Soft social capital, as you might guess, refers to the (usually) more tenuous connections to people you 'just sort of know.' They could be people you run into at your local coffee shop, people that live in your building, people you sometimes see at the gym or the bus stop, etc. Again, not necessarly any better or worse types of linkages, but the key distinction is that there's not really any great tie that binds you on a regular basis. If one of you simply moved, changed gyms, or stopped drinking coffee, you could easily lose touch completely, no matter how positive your mutual feelings might be. As I'm starting to see college friendships fade into the distance as things like jobs, marriages, and children start to come into the picture, I'm realizing that the distinction bears noting.

Anyway, enough on that sidebar. I'm going to e-mail Robert Putnam (author of 'Bowling Alone' and one of the first to popularize the phrase 'social capital') to see if it can make its way into the lexicon. I'll let you know how it goes..

So back to Roseto, and then to Lowell.

Malcolm Gladwell made clear that, based on the Roseto Effect, high levels of social capital -- hard and soft -- can have a positive effect on a person's physical as well as mental well-being.
And I can certainly tell you how true the opposite is. Understanding how important finding a sense of community is -- not just to me, but to anyone -- is reason enough to try to explain why I don't find the prospect of a twenty-plus year active duty career fulfilling. Simply put, I just don't want to bounce around to a new city every two to three years for what otherwise might be shaping up to be the best years of my life.

As for places to settle down, Lowell continues to amaze me. I know I've said it before, but I think small cities are really the way to go for anyone looking to find a community where they can belong and find their niche, whatever it is. Big cities are usually too anonymous and transient; small towns don't offer enough, and might be too insular.

But something tells me that not all small cities are created alike. Everytime I feel like I know what's available and what's going on in Lowell, I tend to turn over another rock and find out about more downtown social events, more charity fund-raisers, more volunteer opportunities (Channel 10 has been an interesting source of this stuff, or what military types might call 'all-source intelligence'). No offense to New England's other cities of comparable size/population -- I admit that I don't get the same access level just by driving through and sometimes stopping to read their local paper -- but the overwhelming sense I get is that it's 'just not' like that.

I don't think Lowell is about to become the next Roseto, Pennsylvania anytime soon. Obviously, times have changed, the family structure has changed, influences have changed, and so has society. I don't even have the medical proof that Gladwell cites to draw my own conclusions from. But what I can tell you is this -- when you've done the strip-mall-and-box-store-subdivisions-jammed-between-eight-lane-road thing and seen what it means to go without social capital, and then you've spent the better part of a year seeing what a second option -- real downtown architecture and high levels of civic engagement -- looks like, here's the big realization you come away with:

That second option is pretty damn cool.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fareed Zakaria on the Hush Puppy Hurler


Fareed Zakaria's recent column on the now-infamous 'Shoe Thrower,' Mr. Munthadhar al-Zaidi of the al-Baghdadia network says it simply, and says it best.

The current costs of the Iraq War are fresh in the minds of Iraqis -- they are very real, and they are very painful. Virtually every person in Iraq --save a few isolated pockets of Muthanna Province in the south and some of the all-Kurdish areas in the north, has lost an immediate or extended family member in the Troubles that began in 2003. Mr. al-Zaidi expressed a lot of those peoples' frustrations with a war they never asked for against a series of enemies (first the U.S., then either local thugs or sectarian militias) that, individually at least, they never provoked.

However, (hey, you had to know there was a 'but' coming here) the very fact that someone felt empowered to do this, and has since met a quite un-Ba'athist fate (i.e. one shot through the head just before your family gets charged for the bullet) shows something about the burgeoning openness of a society that went without things like civil society and democracy for years.
As Mr. Zakaria points out, we won't know for many years how history will view Operation Iraqi Freedom, but there is much more reason for hope than many critics who, I believe, are STILL trapped in a March 18, 2003 mindset concerning the entire endeavor would be willing to admit.

One of my neighbors made a great point about the shoe incident last night at one of our little floor get-togethers (long live the spirit of 200 Market St.!) -- the inclusion of the insult 'you dog' definitely took away from the poignancy of the act. Just as the sole of a shoe is considered extremely low/dirty in Arab culture (it's rude to even cross your legs in a way that exposes your sole to others in a meeting), the word 'dog' is considered an insult on the level of any of our four-letter beauties). If Mr. Al-Zaidi had just said, "This is for you on behalf of the widows and orphans," the disobedience would have been, well, a bit more civil.

A fair point, indeed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Newest Field Manual: Full-Spectrum Ops

I read in the Early Bird this morning that the Army has just released its first new training field manual since 2002. Its title is "Training for Full Spectrum Operations" and it's based on the idea that today's (and tomorrow's!) soldier must be just as ready to kill you as he is to hug you...or at least to provide security on your street and help fix your infrastructure.

As you might guess, the Civil Affairs branch plays in hugely here (not that I'm biased or anything). Here is what Ike Skelton had to say:

"It's asking a lot of soldier, but today's environment is so different than World War II or Korea," said Skelton, D-Mo. "It deals with civil affairs. We have not been as active militarily in civil affairs in recent years. This puts it front and center."

This basically echoes what Robert Gates just wrote about in Foreign Affairs -- for conflicts in our era, our ability to kick down doors may not be as vital to victory as will be our ability to promote civil society, security, and infrastructure.

Some China-phobes and Russo-phobes may fear that we're too busy "fighting the current war" or the "last war" and will risk losing focus on near-peer competitors.

I VERY strongly disagree. For proof, just look at where so much of the Pentagon's money goes.

Our ability to understand foreign cultures and stabilize war-torn countries does not have to come at the expense of our ability to "break things and kill people." Thankfully, the generals quoted in the article seem to feel the same way.

One other thing worth mentioning: the new field manual highlights the need for readiness to respond to Katrina-esque or other types of domestic disaster scenarios. And therein lies the beauty of the National Guard -- while operating under a state governor's authority, we're not subject to that pesky little Reconstruction-era law called posse comitatus that restricts the military from conducting domestic law enforcement operations.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pickup Basketball -- The One Cardinal Rule

If I'm taking time to reflect and say "thanks" this holiday season, one of the first people I want to make sure I recognize is you. Seriously, I mean that to whoever you might be that's reading this text on your screen.


There's plenty "out there." There's tons of good writing that's out on the Internet (pick any major periodical), there's tons of good writing that's Internet-specific (Slate), and there are a ton of blogs. In fact, there's way more out there than you could ever keep up with. So I take the fact that you're reading this right now as a sincere compliment -- on some level, you're saying it's worth your time.

Anyway, I throw this heartfelt thank you out there because a) I've had a lot of fun writing this and b) it's helped put some steam behind a long-held dream of mine to try freelance writing, which I'm going to start getting serious about once I'm officially over on the Natty Guard side, which is not *really* a full-time job, except when it is.

So as I'm sure you've figured out, this blog isn't really *about* anything...and isn't supposed to be. It's not really about Lowell or community, it's not really about the military, it's not really about politics, it's not really about social conventions, or trying to poke fun at them, or whether I felt a sudden onset of schizoprehenia during the Army-Navy game, or whatever. My only rule for myself is that I try to stay away from purely personal stuff -- not out of a need for privacy, but just going from an "if the shoe were on the other foot..." policy -- if there's no larger meaning or lesson to extract, I wouldn't expect you to care about my daily trivialities -- just as, rest assured, I don't care about yours.

All that having been said, today I'm going somewhere I've never gone before -- pickup basketball.

With an Admiral in charge who was once a star member of some late 1970s USNA basketball squads, we've taken to playing pickup ball three times a week as our command PT, or Physical Training. I've absolutely loved it -- it's a great way to work out, it's great team-building, and it brings out the competitive spirit in a totally fun way.

One of the unwritten rules of pickup basketball, of course, is that you call your own fouls and violations. Since there's no dedicated referee, that's really the only one way you can truly make things work. Of course, there are many different thresholds individuals hold for when to call a foul -- some will never call it, some will call it only if they're hit or knocked to the ground, and others will call so-called "heavy breathing" fouls -- in other words, they may not have been touched, but they'll blow the proverbial whistle to cover their own embarrassment for missing a shot inside the paint.

I get all that, and I accept it. However you want to call the fouls is fine with me. Same for violations -- travels, double dribbles, out-of-bounds, etc. However, I have one absolute redline as far as what a respectable human being should not do in a pickup game -- make a "sort of" call.

What's a 'sort of' call? Well, you go up for a shot, you clearly get hit, you call it, and then when the game stops so your team can check it up top, you say something to the effect of "No, man, it's cool...your ball" and insist the other team get possession. Same could apply to violations. You see someone on the other team obviously travel, you make the universal "c'mon baby, do the locomotion" sign, which is NBA-speak for "travel" but then when asked if you're making the call, you suddenly demur with a smirk that allows you to *sort of* acknowledge that something went wrong, but still remind everyone that you're the bigger man.

That's exactly what the *sort of* call is. You're basically saying, "You guys just did something wrong, and I want to announce that I saw it, but I also want to announce that I'm the *bigger man* and I'm going to still let it go and be a good sport."

Well, to me, that's not being a good sport, that's being highly passive-aggressive. You have two respectable courses of action -- either call it or don't. No middle ground. I'm not impressed that you're saying the ball was out on us, but really you're just so [take your pick of synonym for 'noble'] that you're willing to 'let it go' and give the universal knowing smirk as you head down the court on defense.

This also makes me think back to something once written by blogger Santosh Anagol, who is now about to wrap up an Economics Ph.D. down the road from here. Back as an undergraduate, he (rightly) called out the extreme lameness of people who sit in the back of large lecture halls, and, when the Professor asks a question out to the entire class, say it just loud enough so that the people around them can hear, but not loud enough so that the Professor (and everyone else) can.

This gives them the cover they'll need if they're unsure of themselves and possibly wrong (hey, not everyone heard, so I'm okay) but also gives them the cool-guy points in case they're right -- in that case, yes, they knew the answer to the question was indeed "Hawley-Smoot Tariff," and now everyone within earshot can see how smart they are, but still cool enough to not have to fully participate in the class.

Basically, just like the 'sort of' foul calls in pickup basketball, it's a halfway gesture. It's a lame way to say "I know better, but I'm too cool to care" and/or "I'm somehow *above* it" (and by implication, everyone else).

I'm sure you see the equivalent all the time at work, home, or school.

I'm sure you know someone who always knows why the boss is wrong, and has the guts to tell you, but never the boss.

I'm sure you know someone who knows we never should've stopped for ice cream just because the kids ask, but didn't really voice that at the time.

And I'm sure you know someone who knows the right answer was actually "Warren Christopher" and not "Madeleine Albright" but didn't seem to know it when it was first put out to the group.

These people are life's equivalent of backseat drivers.

For the most part, they can be ignored.


Because they don't count.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Making a Blagoyevich

Since the Gov. Blagoyevich "Pay to Play" scandal broke last week, I've had several discussions with friends and colleagues that all seem to come back to the question that sounds more or less like a variation on this: "How does a person get that out of touch with reality / that arrogant / that brazen, etc.?"

I think it's a great question. After all, the son of a Serbian blue-collar worker couldn't have come out of the womb that way, let alone acted that way during his rise to the highest office in his state.

The answer that we seem to come back to time and again is always a variation on the idea that once people attain some certain level of (take your pick) fame or wealth, they're able to cocoon themselves from all the forms of reality that *check* people like you and me on a daily basis.

They can surround themselves with cronies who will always laugh at their jokes, fix their coffee just the way they like it, and take a posterior-chewing anytime something goes wrong, regardless of whose fault it was in the first place. Those willing to tell the emperor when he's not wearing any clothes can easily be shunted to the side. Some public figures (notably, Colin Powell) are lucky enough to have spouses and/or friends who can keep them grounded, while others, like Rod Blago, have spouses and friends that go so far in the other direction as to enable the behavior.

If you or I just decided to start being insufferable you-know-whats to all the people that we work with, we'd be checked. Friends could stop calling. Colleagues could tell us to pound sand. Superiors could take *corrective measures* and subordinates would probably have formal channels in which to complain (I say 'probably' only because I don't really know what you do).

I guess that's all pretty obvious. What's amazing, though, is the way the cycle never ends.

I watched the no-questions press conference Jesse Jackson Jr. gave the day he was revealed to be Candidate #5, and I just watched an exclusive "conversation" (somehow it wasn't an interview) that Mr. Jackson gave with Don Lemon of CNN.

I must confess I don't have the transcript on hand, but in that press conference, I cringed a little bit when Mr. Jackson referred to politics as something like "the greatest form of public service" there was (I just tried a few Google searches for the transcript...I came up empty, but I swear he said something along those lines). Can this guy possibly be serious? I would argue that the 3rd-grade teacher who helps teach children how to read chapter books is providing a greater, nobler, and more altruistic public service than Mr. Jackson does, or probably ever has. Same for the firefighter who runs into a burning house, or the policeman who foils a robbery, etc. You get the idea.

But I nearly keeled over when I saw Mr. Jackson choke up in tears in the 'conversation' with Mr. Lemon and say he was "fighting for [his] life."


There are people on hospital beds right now suffering from terminal illnesses. They are fighting for their lives.

There are people in the third world who don't have access to basic sanitation, and face a very real risk of death from things like cholera, malaria, and diarrhea on a daily basis -- they are fighting for their lives.

And I'm sure there are a few citizens from Mr. Jackson's south Chicago and south-of-Chicago Congressional District who are walking point somewhere on a patrol in Oruzgan and wondering whether the adolescent boy near their platoon-mates might be wearing a suicide vest. They, too, could very soon be fighting for their lives.

Mr. Jackson, however, is wondering whether he'll continue to perform one highly-compensated job with the world's best benefits program or move up to an ever higher-prestige job with similarly phenomenal benefits. That hardly meets any thinking person's definition of 'fighting for life.'

I have no idea whether Mr. Jackson did anything nefarious in regards to the "Pay-to-Play" scandal. Based on what I've seen so far, it looks like he may in fact be completely innocent.

But does he bring the truly fresh perspective of a person who lives (or maybe even has EVER lived) outside of the cocoon that helped bring about Blago's downfall?

Based on the maudlin theatrics I just saw on CNN, I'd have to say no.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nation on Fire

Yes, it's very easy to bash the American news media, and yes, I'm about to do it.

Anyone paying close attention to the major news outlets this week would have come away with a good understanding of the Rod Blagoyevich scandal, the Big Three bailout plans, and the tragic story about the little girl in Florida.

So what else happened?

While we squealed with schadenfraude at Mr. Blago's downfall and speculated about the potential effect on the new President-elect and his Chief of Staff (though in fact, Mr. Obama and his camp were verbally lambasted on the tapes for not being willing to participate in Blago's antics), a country burned.

Almost literally.

Greece, an ostensible NATO ally and sort-of liberal democracy, was effectively shut down by widespread looting and rioting. Although the trigger was the shooting death of a 15 year-old anarchist (hey, beware those teenage anarchists in the Balkans, they've started at least one World War!), it seems hard to justify the tipping over and burning of cars as some kind of profound political statement.

Hospitals, schools, airports, and many other government and private offices were closed this week amidst fear that the current government might collapse. Pockets of disturbance were noted in other Mediterranean and Western cities with Greek citizenry/influence.

A lot of people cared. Some feared for their lives. In Europe, this was blaring across the front pages with banner headlines.

But even to a conscientious American following the daily news cycle, it might've completely stayed under the proverbial radar.

Rather than just complain about the steady diet of bread, circus, and OJ Simpson we receive, however, we can use the Internet to vote with our keyboards and mice.

Not so many years ago, we were very limited in terms of what news we could access; thankfully, the Internet really is a game-changer in that sense. So don't fall into the trap of just checking cnn.com for your headlines. If you do, you're missing out on real news and getting way too mired in The War on Cholesterol and How Much Ritalin For Your Child is Too Much?

Read the BBC. Venture out to the (many) other English-speaking countries and stuff out there. For Pete's sake, even The Drudge Report will expose you to a lot of international news that you might not see otherwise.

After all, how many news stories about finding homes for the dogs and cats who are orphaned by Gulf Coast hurricanes can you stand?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Simplifying the Holiday Season

This is my first holiday season outside of Anbar since 2005 (not trying to elicit pity there, I chose the job). This is also the first holiday season I'm going through with a mortgage, rent, car payment, and the other standard slew of bills (again, no pity deserved, I chose that, too). On top of it all, I've lost more than half my savings in the past couple months (no special sympathy earned, millions have probably taken an even bigger hit to their retirements). And on top of all that, this is the first holiday season where I have a large number (like, several dozen) of people who have at least entered my thought process as far as how-to-handle-the-whole-gift thing (and again, I'm not complaining, I wouldn't trade that for anything).

So why am I sharing all of this?

Well, actually being around means I'm on the hook for buying gifts. Being low on money presents a challenge (this challenge can be obviated with the use of a credit card, but more on that later).

For a while, I was just thinking of going large. If my Aunt Nikky (not technically an aunt in the strict sense, but it's a long story) has eight kids, I was going to at least get something for everyone. Ditto for a couple other large families. But still, that's a lot of t-shirts and hats, and that can add up pretty quick.

One solution would be to just charge it, and pay it off in the early months of the new year. But as I was recently reminded by something that was relayed back to me second-hand, generosity isn't always as welcome as it might seem it should be. When you're always going out of your way to pick up the tab, to pick up the beer for the party, or to make sure you're never empty-handed as you show up at any gathering, even if it comes with the best of intentions (and the widest of grins for the folks at Visa), it can come off badly. It can come off as you trying to make some statement about having money (when ironically, maybe you don't) and, by implication, to show up others with even less (or, perhaps, just less of a proclivity to use the plastic).

Anyway, here's the solution I've come up with in order to simultaneously a) save money, b) avoid the potential twin pratfalls of burdening others to reciprocate, or of appearing ostentatious, I've decided to simplify by buying single family gifts.

So, for instance, I have two parents, three siblings, plus a brother-in-law. I'll buy one *thing* that could stay at my parents' house but be *for* each of them to use, or share, or whatever. Way simpler and cheaper than six individual gifts, and probably better for them, too (since I'm telling them all in advance and saving them the burden of looking for anything for me).

Ditto for my girlfriend's gazillion-million uncles, aunts, and cousins. For the families that I'm close with, a single, practical thing that could go in the kitchen or living room will be my exit strategy from the fear of this holiday season sending me to the poor house.

Or, ironically, to the alienation-caused-by-the-appearance-of-displaying-signs-of-wealth-and-then-creating-burdens-on others house.

Which is ironic, of course, because -- unbeknownst to some -- that house is actually just next door to the poor house.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Eating Crow, and Not Minding the Aftertaste

I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes this morning when I caught the headline on the hard-copy Lowell Sun sitting outside my neighbor's door -- an article about the recent surge in military recruiting. Here's a link: http://www.lowellsun.com/todaysheadlines/ci_11161698

Well, my first order of business was to eat crow, becuase I've said before (both in speech and in this blog) that the media won't touch military recruiting stories now that the news is, well, good. In fact, I ran into SFC Hilton (the guy quoted in the piece) on Merrimack Street two weeks ago and we talked at length about that very subject; it was directly from him that I learned that all four services were above-goal for the fiscal year passed, and were already well ahead of track in the new one.

What's nice about the article is that it lays out the fact that there are many reasons young people decide to serve that go way beyond the standard these-people-must-have-no-options liberal shibboleths. In fact, the article included the statistic that only 2 in 10 people out of the general population are even eligible to serve in the military (I'll bet you didn't know that!)

Unrelated to the article, but worth mentioning here, is something about the GI Bill that anti-military protestors often bring up -- a large percentage of people who contribute to the Bill (by paying in $1200, or $100 from each of their first 12 paychecks), never collect the money, which can be more than $30,000 in educational benefits.

There are many reasons for this, and it's not because the Pentagon is conspiring to cheat people out of the money. A huge part of it is that you can only collect the benefits once you've left active duty -- many 18 year-olds come in, sign up and do the buy-in, but then earn their Bachelor's Degrees while on active duty. Others leave active duty but never go back to school. Another big factor to remember is that many who sign up upon entering are junior officers who already may have a Bachelor's and even a Master's, but decide to buy in "just in case," and never wind up going back to school full-time.

The point is that there many reasons that people never collect the GI Bill. Those reasons involve personal choice and ample active duty educational benefits -- hardly the picture painted by conspiratorial anti-military types who would have you think otherwise.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Language Learning: It's All About the Vocab, Baby

A buddy of mine recently took the DLPT (that's the Defense Language Proficiency Test) hoping it might earn him some FLPP (that's Foreign Language Proficiency Pay), which used to be billet-specific (i.e. only for designated interpreters) but is now available to any servicemember.

The idea behind that, of course, is that by keeping a central database somewhere, the Pengaton can quickly identify which of its personnel are fluent in local languages when a crisis erupts in some remote corner of the world. For a few hundred dollars a month (scaled based on the language's criticality and the individual's proficiency level), that's a HUGE bargain when compared with paying tooth and nail for private contractors every time we face a sudden need. Plus, the bonus pay is a great incentive for people to stay current.

Anyway, my friend got a 1/1 on a 0-3 scale (first score is for reading, second is for listening) in Hindi, which did not qualify him for any bonus pay.

Here was his big observation after the test:

"In the end, it really comes down to vocab. You can study all the grammar there is, and really know the rules and structure of how the language 'works' but if there are a few words that trip you up in one of the reading passages -- or even one key word that you just don't know -- that can screw you out of several questions. Same goes for the listening portion."

As someone who teaches an ESL class once a week and is dreaming about racking up a few DLPT quals in the next few years, I fully *got* what he was saying and would even be so bold as to say that foreign language acquisition is roughly 90% vocabulary-driven.

Think about it -- let's say a non-native English speaker was trying to communicate something critical to you in an emergency situation (I'll let you imagine what it would be) -- he or she may not know any grammar at all, but if enough key words were coming out, and you could sense the urgency in his or her tone, I'm sure you could figure out what was going on. On the other hand, if someone who had spent years studying grammar rules but just didn't have the words was trying to tell you the same critical piece of information, you might totally miss what was being conveyed as both your and his frustration levels rose to a boil.

So how can you improve your vocabulary?

What I would suggest you NOT do is buy a book titled "How to Improve Your [insert language name] Vocabulary" that is just filled with word lists or flash cards of randomly amalgamated words you're supposed to memorize.

The problem behind that is the entire reason people dread language learning -- why they think they can't hack it in a formal setting, and why they're quick to give up when starting out on their own -- the instruction isn't rooted in an *authentic* context.

To explain what I mean by that term, any *authentic* language experience is what a native speaker would do every day and take for granted -- reading a newspaper, watching local TV news, listening to an album, etc. Guess what? That's how you learned English.

Any *other* (just hate to say *inauthentic* here) experience would be the way you probably learned language in school -- rote memorization of words devoid of context, pesky grammar rules, and strange-sounding words like "subjunctive" and "pluperfect."

Want to know how to start learning (or just getting really good) at any foreign language?

START by diving in with authentic experiences. Just get in the habit of reading one single newspaper article a day in your language (let's call it Spanish). Write down the words you don't know and look them up in a Spanish-English dictionary. Now it's okay to make flashcards, because when you study them you've got context. If you remember words like "fecha," and "ejercito" from an article you read about the U.S. plan to leave Iraq, it'll stick -- if they're just randomly pulled out of some list someone dreamed up for you, it won't. Keep the articles printed out and in a binder (or, if you prefer soft copy, in a folder on your computer). Refer back to them and see how much easier they get to comprehend.

You shouldn't have to spend more than 20 mins. a day doing this. As your vocab list grows, you are eventually going to want to/have to study from a grammar book which will help you understand why and how certain verbs change forms, how to recognize certain colloquial expressions, etc. Again, don't spend too much time each day on the grammar.

Guess what? You did that with English, too. You just didn't know it at the time (don't blame yourself, you were six). You STARTED authentic, then figured out what the heck was actually going on.

It is extremely frustrating to force yourself to read an article or listen to a TV news broadcast in a language you don't understand. I admit, that part sucks. At first. Eventually, things will come into focus. The entire thing is way more a test of your patience/diligence than it is of your intelligence.

And just remember, the only thing that would suck even worse would be trying to learn from a grammar book, sifting through flash cards until you wanted to puke, and then just giving up. If you're not having authentic experiences, you'll never really learn -- how else do you think people study eight years of a language in school, show up in the country, and don't *get* a single piece of what's going on?

And don't forget that in the end, it really is 90% vocab -- not some wacky rules you had to memorize in high school, and certainly not rocket science.

Let's say you decide to start watching a single Simpsons episode or TV news broadcast each day in Spanish (again, won't take you more than half an hour). At first, it will be a massive exercise in frustration. But remember, most of what's separating you from understanding is just the vocab. Once you can pick out just over half the words in each sentence, you'll know what's going on. Things like commercials and voice-overs will build your confidence because they're often slower and have words to accompany them.

Focus on building your vocab, but don't do it in a vacuum. Root it in authentic language experiences, use repetition until it hurts (like, watch the same episode or study the same article five days in a row), study up on your words, and you will do great things.

Start authentic.

Take one deep breath, collect your thoughts, and do a huge cannonball right into the deep end. It may not look pretty at first, but you'll swim.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Explaining the 'Rue Unique'

If you're new to this blog, or just don't know me personally, you may not know that I derive great pleasure from poking fun at awkward or otherwise comical social situations and then coining original phrases as a means of describing them.

Here's one such phrase: rue unique. So, you might ask, what am I talking about? A rue unique [comes from the French term for 'one-way street'] is a social situation involving two parties wherein one party feels some high level of awkwardness or tension that the other party either a) doesn't feel, or b) doesn't even know exists.

Obviously, any type of rue unique is funny, but in case (b) the absurdity is way better.

If you're still confused, here's an example I just experienced:

Recently, I met up with a good friend who I had not seen in many months, or perhaps over a year (I'm really not keeping track). As I went to give a big greeting and bear hug, the friend immediately launched into a wholly unprovoked and hard-to-understand quasi-apology/quasi-tirade about how sorry he was that he hadn't responded to some e-mail I had sent him many moons ago, but he had been so busy, and he really meant to, and then one thing led to another, and then, and then, and then...after what seemed like nearly 5 minutes of this, I just stopped him:

"Honestly, man, it's just good to see you. Don't worry about it," I said before quickly changing the subject.

The funniest part of it all was that I had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, I seriously didn't have a clue, and the only thing holding me back from saying so was that he had made this tremendous deal out of this *thing* and I didn't want to downplay it too much.

I'm sure it was based in some sort of reality. I'm sure that yes, at some point in the not-too-distant past, I had fired off a quick e-mail to the guy to ask how he was doing and hadn't thought much about it since.

Not so on his part. What made the situation a classic rue unique was that he had obviously been harboring some sort of anxiety about seeing me, which was borne out by the body language and awkward, apologetic monologue that he stumbled through right after our initial salutations. The funny yet strange and shouldn't-there-be-a-Seinfeld-or-Curb-Your-Enthusiasm-episode-about-this aspect to all of it was that I not only didn't feel any of that same anxiety or expected animosity, but I could barely understand what the guy was saying.

In case you need another example, here's one: A couple years ago, some friends of mine ran into a guy we had gone to high school with in a diner. As everyone caught each other up on their respective groups, and they mentioned me, he came in with a plaintive, "I think Page hates me."

"Why?" they asked.

"Because I wound up going out with his senior prom date in between the time that he asked her and the actual prom."

When they relayed this back to me, I honestly had to put the phone down in combination laughter/befuddlement. Now, bear in mind, the story was true, so I'll give him that, but I had literally not thought of the guy in nearly 5 years. I mean, literally, the combination of his first and last names put together had not entered a single thought pattern in the 2.5 million or so minutes that had passed since I last saw the guy.

So here was this guy thinking I was staying up stabbing his eyes out in the form of voodoo doll effigies at night, and I had not only thought of him, but would barely have remembered what had happened had I run into him in the diner myself. In fact, I would've been happy to see the guy, and probably would've bought his cup of coffee!

So what do these situations tend to have in common?

In each of the two rue uniques that I described, the person who imagined the tremendous grudge/animosity basically committed the cardinal but all-too-human sin of overestimating one's own importance in the lives of others.

I can't say I've never done that, don't do it now, and won't do it in the future...but if you really think other people sit around thinking and talking about you...unless you're either the President or some other major celebrity, you're very, very wrong.

If you think someone in your life is bearing some strange grudge against you but you don't have any hard evidence to back it up, get over yourself. The grudge may not exist.

And if there are those around you who may be guilty of the rue unique -- co-workers, friends, family, etc. there may not be much you can do but to kill them with kindness and hope they get over it.


Because real interpersonal awkwardness has to be, well, a two-way street.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Obama, C. Rice, H.R. Clinton, and Robert Gates -- Common Ground


In another great David Brooks op-ed (today's New York Times), he talks about how great it is that in the new Obama Cabinet, we have real consensus from the State Department (actually, both the outgoing and the incoming) and the Defense Department.

So what does everyone agree on?

The need for nation-building.

While everyone can cook up great ideas about how to use diplomats, other State Dept. civilians, or some newly hatched Civilian Reserve nation-building corps, the reality right now is that the only instantly-deployable group of people that the government can send to go fix war-torn countries -- to build civil society, to fix infrastructure, and to provide direct support to populations -- is the military.

The government literally owns its servicemembers.

It issues "orders" not "suggestions," "ideas," or "offers." If a servicemember doesn't show up when and where he or she is supposed to be, it is, literally, a crime.*

That's why all these other wonderful ideas about who to use to do this type of stuff are just ideas, and will be for a long time until the little kinks about how to tell people where to go without catching flak or resistance for it are, just, ideas.

Unprovoked wars in the name of regime change or democracy building don't figure to be a staple in this new President's foreign policy. But one thing is for certain -- nation-building in places like the Middle East, the Balkans, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean isn't going anywhere.

It was funny to see that article this morning, because today is the day that I formally started my move process over from the Navy (active duty) to the Army (Mass. Natty Guard) to become a Civil Affairs Officer, or nation-builder. I'll do another post later on to explain why I am so pro-Guard and why I think it's better than active duty or the reserves (many people confuse Guard and reserve, but trust me, they're different). The move process is going to involve lots of paperwork and take several months.

But if David Brooks is right -- and many statements from Ms. Clinton, Mr. Gates, and Mr. Obama certainly suggest he is -- there will be plenty of good work to be done in the years ahead.

* The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) lists any Unauthorized Absence (UA), i.e. not being where you're supposed to be, as a punishable offense.

Office Space -- Sequel Needed

For all the terrible movies who have been followed up by even worse sequels -- and for all the great movies whose images have been besmirched by awful sequels -- there is one movie that stands out for me as needing a sequel that I don't know will ever come to fruition -- Office Space.

I know I love this movie, and it almost doesn't seem to matter how many times I see it. For anyone who has ever worked in, well, an Office Space, the line of humor just nails it both in the writing and the delivery. Throw in a copule absurd plot twists, the blandness and lameness of chain restaurants that try to be "homey," a love story and a really funny neighbor, and voila, there's your greatness for the ages.

In many ways, one might think the military is immune / exempt from the type of nonsense that makes Office Space so ridiculous. That's mostly right, but a lot of that goes out the window on staffs (i.e. non-operational, non-deploying commands).

That's where I currently work now...on a staff, in an office with real live cubicles where the biggest risk to my person is a probably a papercut.

And not once yesterday but twice, I saw real live grown men in paygrades slightly higher than mine make a big deal over who went to lunch without asking them.

Never mind that people might be busy and can't plan their lunches around others.

Never mind that the offenders may have looked for them, didn't see them, and just went ahead anyway.

Never mind that the whole thing is just utterly stupid, and makes thirty-something men look like grade-schoolers.

One of my favorite all-time military writers is the contemporary Atlantic Monthly writer Robert Kaplan. He writes non-fiction based on his (vast) experiences traveling and embedding with U.S. military units.

One of his greatest lines came after comparing the utter professionalism witnessed in an Iraq-based infantry unit's Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and contrasting it with the awful military bearing and lack of respect he received from a servicemember at one of the intra-theater flight desks. To paraphrase:

"The professionalism, bearing, and general esprit de corps of any military unit comes in direct proportion to its closeness to actual operations / tactical-level reality."

In other words, huge staffs really do turn into "Office Space" parodies of themselves. Some, who work directly for the boss, might be so busy that they just grab lunch when they can.

Others, with considerably less on their plate, would rather see that decision turned into a committee-level negotiation with proposals, rebuttals, and point paper counterproposals (I believe Blimpie's carries the motion, do all concur?)

If that all sounds incredibly stupid or absurd, that's because it is. If you work in an "Office Space" too, though, you can probably relate.

But just try explaining that to the guy sleeping on a freezing cold mountain ridge right now in Helmand Province, or the guy eating MREs on an all-day urban dismounted patrol in Mosul.