Monday, May 31, 2010
I might take a bit of a blog holiday during this time. But then again, I might not. If we have some downtime at night, and I've got a chance to get online, I might try to capture some of what's going on. As I've gotten way more into the habit lately of using my iPhone to photograph my surroundings, I may try to just capture what surrounds me -- the single biggest Army training exercise on the Cape since World War II -- and save the proverbial thousand words for the reader's imagination.
In the meantime, thanks, as always, for reading.
Of course, there is much talk of *service* on this solemn holiday, and no shortage of eloquent, moving, and sincere words written, typed, or spoken to mark the occasion.
The one thought I'll leave you with here is that there are many ways to serve your community, state, nation, planet, etc. and that military service is just one of them. I recently caught a newspaper headline stating that the percentage of our overall national payroll coming from the public sector is the highest it has ever been in our history. Far from being a self-loathing government employee, I just think that's worth noting, and that it might not be a good recipe for long-term sustainability.
Military servicemembers, teachers, police, and firefighters are usually the first who come to mind when we're crediting people who protect and/or make our society as great as it is. That praise is absolutely deserved, as those are noble professions and they really do enable pretty much everything else we do to happen.
But I would also add dozens of other professions, groups, and people to my list of those who make us cohesive, great, and strong. Entrepreneurs who bear personal risk to provide goods or services in a newer, better way, and provide jobs for other people in the process, rank very high on my list.
Friday, May 28, 2010
I decided to just engage in the discussion rather than try to take notes to summarize here on the site. As you might imagine, there were a lot of thought- and conversation-provoking points brought up by the crowd, but for this entry I'm just going to focus on two.
First, there was the question of whether the human cost of 625,000 men (roughly 4% of the male population of the U.S. at the time) justified the gains from the war for the nation.
The reason this question has stayed with me for the past couple of days during my solitary time on 495 and 93, or the more scenic 133 to 28, or wherever else I was between Lowell and Reading, is that it's not as frequently-raised as questions like whether Lincoln truly deserves credit as a "Great Emancipator" or whether the antebellum North has a claim to moral superiority over its Southern neighbors at the time.
Anyway, I'm obviously bringing some heavy-duty biases into the discussion -- I was born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon line and formed most of my original ideas about the Civil War in that environment. I've since chosen to *base* myself and form my identity around a region that fell pretty squarely on the winning side of the conflict. What's more, I'm a member of its longest-standing citizen militia, and hope to continue sporting a "Yankee Division" patch on my left shoulder for many years to come.
All that said, I still keep coming back to yes. Let's look at this fact alone -- whatever your beliefs about the true motivations of Lincoln for sending reinforcements to Ft. Sumter, or of South Carolina for seceding in the first place, or for the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, or for Chief Justice Taney's middle finger directed at the previous spate of Compromises, you have to acknowledge this -- chattel slavery existed in this great land prior to 1861, and it did not exist here beyond 1865.
Another point that seems worth acknowledging is that no person owned by another person and deprived of all basic rights -- to include freedom of expression and the right to be educated -- is going to reach his or her true potential in life.
A system of intergenerational slavery based on skin color never allows your society to have a Charles Drew, a Garrett Morgan, or a George Washington Carver, and so on. It also means no Lena Horne, no Paul Robeson, and no Jackie Robinson...which means none of THEIR forebears, or the myriad ways they enrich the world we live in. And so on. I'd like to think the tall guy in the funny hat might have been getting at this when he said, in November 1863:
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."
Yes, as was noted Wednesday, it took ANOTHER 100 years for all of our nation to live up to the promise of these words, but I don't there's any question that the violent cataclysm that preceded them played a huge role. I also don't think slavery "would've just died out," if allowed to do so over time, as there are STILL some people nostalgic for the system who'd have the means to exploit it if they could. I *get* that an Irish immigrant laborer requires an almost-infinitely smaller initial fixed cost than a chattel slave, so it would be better to use Irish immigrants for imminently-dangerous activities like building bridges (or digging canals!). That said, people could still find uses for slaves, and the motivations might not be strictly economic, dollars-and-cents, seemingly rational sorts of calculations. If people buy completely-impractical luxuries to show wealth and satisfy ego, might they buy people if they could?
The second point I'll hit on is something that was raised by Mrs. Sonia Skillman concerning the war's inevitability. I can't remember exactly how she phrased it but she brought up the idea that the violence that mars our history is as much a part of our American character as are things like industriousness (yes, we work the longest) and our famously forward-looking mindset (check out David Brooks' 'On Paradise Drive' for modern implications of that).
Anyway, her point had me running back to my bookshelf to check out the inscription to Paul Johnson's epic "A History of the American People." It reads:
This book is dedicated to the people of America -- strong, outspoken, intense in their convictions, sometimes wrong-headed but always generous and brave, with a passion for justice no nation has ever matched.
Those words come from a Briton who sees us from the outside looking in, but to me that only makes them all the more meaningful. Added up, they help give credence to Sonia's point.
I'd also note that we had already fought a war whose origins traced back to this contentious issue. In the 1820s, when Anglo settlers first made their way into what was then Mexico in large numbers, the first serious dispute that arose was over the question of whether people could own slaves -- more proof that it tugs at the emotions in ways that more mundane things like local meals taxes and Headmaster searches don't tend to do.
* The recently-restored Abraham Lincoln photo above, like that of the Tewksbury-based benefactor below, was a highlight of the "halftime tour" led by Ms. Rosemary Noon in between segments of the discussion.
* This ought to be done again. Obviously, there's a strong selection bias in a crowd of people willing to go to the library to learn about Abraham Lincoln on a Wednesday night, but one of my initial takeaways was that the participation level was more than double that of any discussion section I can remember from college.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
I'm smiling not just because I think it's *good for business* (I'm gainfully employed through mid-2012, thank you very much) but because I think it's the right thing on many levels.
First of all, if we have a porous border, it opens us up to tons of legitimate national security threats that have the potential to make 9/11 and Pearl Harbor seem small by comparison. That's way more of a threat, in any sense of the word, than are the droves of undocumented immigrants who enter the country each year.
That said, undocumented immigration IS a problem that needs to be addressed, for the strain it creates on the social services and communities it affects most.
As for the millions already here, they ought to be placed on a path towards permanent residency, and, potentially, citizenship.
Yes, it's been done before, and it's been successful in many respects; it has not, however, been accompanied with real, truly serious measures to start securing our borders.
To try to think we can somehow deport, let alone identify, let alone find, even a meaningful percentage of the millions who live here now "without papers" is preposterous. From any point of view, it makes way more sense to bring them INTO the fold -- doing that is pretty much a win-win for both the tax man and the society writ large.
But that's not the whole answer. As John McCain said today, the President's move today is a great start but it's not enough...most likely, we'll need even more National Guardsmen to accomplish this mission.
Whether you think that makes me a bed-wetting liberal, or a rifle-toting conservative, I have no idea.
But if I could pick, I'd opt for "big-hearted pragmatist."
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
I'm not that surprised by either.
The Wheeler case is a lot less famous, but it rivals The Talented Mr. Ripley and Catch Me if You Can put together. The long and the short of it is that one young man doctored his high school records, his SAT scores, his college transcripts (he pretended to be transferring as a 4.0 student from MIT when he was accepted), and submitted bogus recommendations on stolen letterhead. He had basically gotten away with it but overreached a bit, when he submitted plagiarized work for an overseas scholarship competition and tried to transfer over to Yale after charges of academic dishonesty at Harvard came to light.
Blumenthal, who is running for the US Senate seat from CT recently vacated by Christopher Dodd (and yes, I intentionally did not just say 'Chris Dodd's Senate Seat'), only did what politicians -- and all storytellers, really -- have been doing since time immemorial -- he stretched the truth and then began to *live* that stretch until it took on a life of its own. Now, he's apparently decided to take the offensive, despite the fact that someone who earns his living as a lawyer, dealing with the finer points of language's minutiae, seems to have transposed "during" with "in" and "other people" with "we," and can't see any problem there at all.
Wheeler isn't the first student to doctor a transcript, and Blumenthal isn't the first politician to fib about his background (just ask VP Joe Biden's non-existent 'coal miner ancestors' who helped tank his 1988 Presidential bid, but were strangely never mentioned by the media in 2008).
The shame in both cases is that Wheeler could've lived a perfectly successful life without ever having to lie about his academic achievements, and Blumenthal could've sailed right into the Power Brokers' Inner Sanctum (the US Senate) without ever having to lie about his service. But regardless of whatever happens to either, both are now going to be wearing some major-league scar tissue for years to come.
The part that surprises me, though, is that all this happened in the age of Google, YouTube, and instant connectivity.
Many people who served in Blumenthal's Marine Corps Reserve Unit would've known he'd never actually set foot in Vietnam, as would many others close to him who'd taken the time to learn the whole story at a time when Blumenthal wasn't giving an emotional stump speech (Chris Shays, for instance, apparently knew the truth and had worried about the train wreck that Blumenthal set up for himself).
Frankly, I'm surprised no one blew the whistle on Blumenthal sooner. Many years ago, it would be easy to completely lose track of a person, but in the era of Web 2.0, anyone famous that you once knew is just a Google search away. (And who out there hasn't Googled an old acquaintance out of pure curiosity?)
Ditto for Wheeler. I mean, it just seems like it would've been too easy for the Harvard admissions office to call his old high school, whose number was just one simple search away, or to check down the road at MIT with any of those recommenders (whose contact information could've been gleaned...wait for it...with a Google search). In fact, I'm really surprised they didn't. And how anyone submits any plagiarized (and already published!) work in the era of Google scores instant stupidity points.
Going forward, I would imagine that imposters like Blumenthal and Wheeler are going to have a harder and harder time fabricating, as the Internet becomes even more ubiquitous and people become about as used to Google searches when they wish to know something as they are to reaching for a fork when they're hungry.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
It's a bit long, so you may want to skip over some parts, but it definitely captures the living conditions on a FOB (not deplorable, but quite a few stars away from the Ritz), as well as the ways that soldiers relieve the stress of separation from home, indirect fire attacks, IEDs, and twelve-hour days stacked endlessly upon one another with no weekends or holidays.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Whatever your political persuasion, this seems like a neat opportunity to meet a major party nominee for the Corner Office in a small, informal setting. I would be there -- just as I would if it were Deval Patrick or Tim Cahill coming to speak -- except a) it's smack in the middle of the work day, and b) I'll be 200+ miles from Lowell at the time.
Charlie Baker Lowell Town Hall Event
Tuesday, May 18th
Pollard Library, Meeting Room
401 Merrimack Street
This is already a crowded race. The four serious GOP candidates to emerge so far are Sam Meas (Haverhill), Jon Golnik (Carlisle), Robert Shapiro (Andover), and Tom Weaver (Westford).
Those four, plus Independent Dale Brown (Chelmsford), and of course incumbent Democrat Niki Tsongas (Lowell), already make the field crowded, and I think there may be some others who pulled papers whose names I'm not familiar with.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
But here's another aspect of the milestone that has nothing to do with me, at least directly -- the prominent places in which I'm starting to see peers.
The guy in the video below was recently mentioned by name in a post by Tom Ricks, who writes The Best Defense (which is the best site I know of for great discussions about modern American military culture). The mention of his name led me to a Google search or two, which led me to realize that, wow, he is now in a high-profile role making policy in the Obama Administration.
Just a couple of years ago, he was a Navy Lieutenant assigned as an Intelligence Officer at a SEAL Team based in Coronado, CA (to be clear, that's a support role, he was not a SEAL). However, he was what you'd call a "hot runner" who earned a Bronze Star (Meritorious) and a Combat Action Ribbon during this time.
So anyway, back to my original point -- because people south of 30 (and even 40, really) are not typically in charge of things like major corporations and government agencies, being a twentysomething means your chances of seeing current or former colleagues doing things like this are slim. Getting a bit longer in the tooth sort of comes with a downside or two (just reference any recent mention here to waistline or hairline) but one of the cool things is that you sometimes want to jab the person next to you in the ribs and say that you know the guy under the klieg lights.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Here's why: My e-mail signature quote comes from General Patton himself, and it reads, "If everybody's thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking."
I love it, because it reminds me of one of the most important lessons I've learned over the last five years or so -- organizations function best not when "yes men" sit around agreeing with each other, or are afraid to challenge the boss, but when differing people who see the world from contrasting perspectives hash out opposing viewpoints and then come to compromises.
When I think about the different *types* of people I'd want on my team, I'm not really thinking about classic divisions like race, age, and gender (although those are important considerations, and the diversity element matters there, too). Before any of that, I'm thinking about mindsets.
I know I see the lots of gray. I see broad brushstrokes. I daydream a lot, and can sometimes miss critical details (i.e. it stopped raining 20 minutes ago, so why are my windshield wipers still on?) If there were an opposite of OCD, I'd have it, for better AND for worse.
That might make me an easy person to get along with, but that doesn't make me the right person to put together certain types of projects.
To balance that out, I need the guys who majored in mechanical engineering. I need someone who notices the temperature of the room, someone who notices when the slides keep changing fonts, and someone with a practical ability to put physical things together. In other words, I don't need another clone of myself, but I need someone whose strengths complement my weaknesses, and vice versa.
Multiply that times all the people in our leadership positions, and now we can assemble a team that can do great things.
That's why I laugh every time I hear opponents of the Kagan nomination cite her "lack of judicial experience" as if that's supposed to be something that makes me gasp out of sheer terror.
On the contrary, I see it as a huge advantage.
As Cliff just pointed in a Right-Side-of-Lowell post, Kagan's Eastern Establishment and Ivy League credentials don't really distinguish her from other members of the Court.
However, her professional background prior to the nomination does, and it does so in a good way. Just by the nature of her different professional background, she'll bring a mindset inherently different from that of other Justices.
Yes, there might be something of a steep learning curve when Kagan initially gets to the Bench, but with 8 other Justices, plus a flock of bright young clerks (who, for better or worse, will share Kagan's educational pedigree) that isn't going to hinder the Court's progress at the outset. And in the long run, it'll prove itself to be a huge advantage.
So much so, in fact, that President Obama and future Presidents might decide to reverse the trend away from nominations such as this (40 out of 110 SC nominees had no judicial experience, but we've trended away from that in the modern era).
Monday, May 10, 2010
So I'm down here at Fort Monmouth, NJ doing a two-week course with 10 other members of the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Sadly, there won't be any others following in our footsteps.
Not because it's not a great course (it is) or because the Guard doesn't support the training (it does), but because as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round from 2005, Fort Monmouth will be completely gone by 2011.
Since 2005, all the facilities and commands at Monmouth have been gradually folding into Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD or Fort Belvoir, VA.
This movement is part of a long pattern of shutting down major active-duty operational bases from the Northeast (i.e. Fort Devens or NAS Brunswick) and putting them in the south (Georgia, Texas, or northern Florida), and taking all the technical sort of commands and concentrating them all in and around the nation's capital.
That sort of makes sense, I'll admit.
From a straight-up dollars-and-cents perspective, it makes sense to house large numbers of servicemembers in cheaper areas, and it makes sense to concentrate certain types of other commands in order to save on travel and other personnel expenses.
But besides the fact that there is tremendous cost associated with those initial moves (so far BRAC hasn't lived up to expectations in terms of cost savings), the whole concept totally ignores the deleterious effect this can have on civil-military relations in America.
Any guesses as to what the most underrepresented region in our active-duty ranks is? No surprise, it's the Northeast. And as we lose our Pease AFBs and our NAS South Weymouths to sunnier climes, the distance between Northeasterners and the military only grows.
During the last BRAC round, we damn near lost Hanscom AFB as well as the Submarine Base in Groton, CT (the only major operational base of any kind left in New England) and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Thankfully, we kept all of those around.
I know I'm biased here. Never mind the way I titled this blog to begin with, I've either worked or will work (Mass. Guard HQ is moving to Hanscom soon) at all the places I just named.
Putting my biases aside for a second, it's worth acknowledging that in addition to the strategic importance of not over-concentrating your forces (and history is RIFE with examples of that one), there's a human side to it, too.
Fort Monmouth, which houses many civilian-staffed technical commands, is only an hour or less from New York City. As a result, it can draw some of the best minds in Computer Science from technical schools in and around NYC and keep its graduates around with the perks of being near the beach (hey, you might see The Situation trolling the local bars) and being near the nation's major cultural hub. Lots of people who might otherwise never have exposure to the military come work here as civilians and come away more aware of what the military is and what it does as a result. They can then pass that knowledge on to their friends, family, and anyone else who cares.
If all the Fort Monmouth-type commands end up in a single place, that exposure is lost. For an entire community that supports this post, and makes its living off the residual effect of the incomes of those who work here, the military just becomes "out of sight, out of mind."
From a recruiting point of view, the military loses out on the best, and oldest, form of advertising ever known to man (word of mouth). And from a retention point of view, again, the military loses, because it takes away the option of Metro NYC from the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who would re-enlist if it meant being closer to home, or to a loved one, or to some other draw.
The military *shouldn't* necessarily represent the society proportionally. It's not balanced for gender, for age, for physical ability, or for many other ways people can be categorized and/or divided. However, there are some ways in which the single biggest class- and race-integrating mechanism our society has ever known should reflect the greatness of the many aspects that feed into the total fabric of Americana. One of those is region. When all your major Army posts are concentrated in the South (and named after Confederate Civil War Generals, but that's another story for another day), something is lost.
Maybe it can't be easily counted on paper, but like many things that can't be quantified, its importance seems starkest in its absence.
All states and regions will always have some military presence, because we all have Reserve Units and we all have a National Guard component. But from where I sit, there's a lot to be gained when our voters, taxpayers, chattering classes, op-ed writers, and decisionmakers can have more firsthand exposure to who our servicemembers are, and to what they do.
And I wish the BRAC commission saw it that way, too.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
So I'm trying to be down to fighting weight (mid-190s) by mid-July.
I'm not doing anything extreme -- no pills, no fad diets, no draconian exercise regimen, or anything of the sort. But I'm on the steady track (shedding 1-2 lbs. a week all the way into the homestretch).
The big secret? Oatmeal.
There is definitely some scientific basis to this, but frankly, most of it goes over my head. Without getting into things like glycemic index, low-density lipoproteins, or anything else that might make my head hurt, here's what I know:
** Oatmeal isn't sugary or fatty, but it's very filling. Even as someone with a bigtime appetite (just ask Ricardo at Mr. Jalapeno's, no one else on record has taken down three of his burritos -- along with chips -- in one sitting), I can barely finish heaping-sized bowl of the stuff.
** Oatmeal is easy to make. No rocket science here. Nothing to cut, nothing to measure, seconds to prepare, and easy to clean. I can nuke it in a minute-thirty and it's ready to go. Plus, the stuff never spoils.
** Oatmeal is easy on the budget. If you break out the per-meal cost, it's in the pennies. Throw on a banana and some tea for good measure, and an entire week's worth of breakfasts is still cheaper than a single round at the drive-thru at Dunkin' Donuts.
I don't think the decision to try to be healthier and/or eat healthier has to be some all-or-nothing solemn vow that leads one to endlessly annoy his or her companions with calorie-count obsessiveness or annoying "But I just...shouldn't!" vacillations about whether dessert should follow the meal.
It can be about simple changes that, when magnified over the course of many days, and weeks, and then months, add up to an overall better state of health.
For an initial best way to kick that off, I would offer up oatmeal as a practical suggestion.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
I've never been on one, she's never been on one, and really, neither of us has ever been out on the big blue ocean, even with a combined five years' active Navy time between us.
So anyway, we've decided the cruise thing might be a cool way to spend the honeymoon, because it'd be something new, a cool chance to get to somewhere new, and sort of no-frills (we just have to get to Boston, and the rest is pretty much being done by someone else).
Neither of us cruise novices has any idea how this stuff works, so we did what anyone else might do in a similar situation -- start typing into Google the general stuff we're looking for, let Google Suggest spell it all out (thanks, Kevin Gibbs!), and then start calling people for information and quotes.
Again, being new to all this, we have/had some pretty basic questions (i.e. If we buy the suite, is that price for the suite itself, or is it per person?) so we needed to speak to a real live person on the other end of the call.
The first number I tried went right to an automated voice prompt, which started with the "Due to a high call volume..." bit which I would've thought was going to have me wait a bit (which I was perfectly willing to do) before speaking to someone. But alas, it just took me into the company's voicemail.* Huh?!?! They asked me to leave a message with my number, which I did, before promptly moving right on down my list of other companies' numbers to call.
Now, to their credit, they eventually did get back to me, but not before I had already spoken to a couple other companies and gotten quotes (and the quotes, mind you, were almost identical to the dollar for the same cruises, which makes me think all these companies must somehow be in cahoots).
When I got back on the line with Company No. 1, I tried explaining their procedural flaw, even going out of my way to tell the person I was speaking to that this wasn't anything directed towards her but instead towards whoever in management set their policy. Well, she either didn't understand what I was saying, didn't care, or it was some element of both. Whatever. On principle, considering the quotes were identical, I ended up buying the tickets from the next company down the line (the one that was able to put a real live person on the line with me when I called).
I have several good friends that are either in business school, have recently graduated, or are about to start. My own "Plan A" for right now would have me joining their ranks after my next deployment. And to anyone writing business plans, whether for an academic or a real-world purpose, the first piece of input I'd wish to give is this: Don't neglect the human element.
It's great that we can call Generation Y the "digital natives." It's great that we have the Internet almost anywhere we go these days. It's great that we have phones that can make toast, iron our clothes, and floss the poppy seeds out of our teeth (well, almost).
But that doesn't change this very basic fact -- When someone calls you out of the blue, credit card in hand, willing to drop an entire paycheck on your service, and you deny him the chance to even speak to a real live human being before disconnecting, well, your business plan completely and utterly sucks.
And it doesn't take a fancy-pants MBA to figure that one out.
* Just to be clear, this wasn't something where the customer was presented with the option of leaving a message in lieu of wasting time/phone minutes being on hold. If the choice were given, that'd be totally different, and I'd have no source of righteous indignation with which to write this. But the whole point is that, much like a Bank of America phone tree to nowhere, it was the company dead-ending me, which leads me to pretty quick but resolute, "No thanks," in return.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
And yes, it makes sense. 30-some towns and cities' worth of people need drinking water, and no one is standing "at the ready" with both: a) the logistical capability to quickly supply it, and b) the ability to direct hundreds of people to spring into action at a moment's notice. The Massachusetts National Guard is being tapped for the appropriately named Operation BROKEN PIPE.
I think the real key here is part b. There are probably private companies that have impressive logistical capability, but they can't exactly scramble all their people together at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night and have them all ready to go by 5:00 a.m. Sunday.
True to the nature of the dual mission, I got to spend all day Saturday doing MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) in a mock Afghan town, trying to differentiate good guys from bad guys and being friendly while on constant guard for threat. The late afternoon and evening was staff weenie stuff (MDMP, or the Military Decision Making Process), looking at a Brigade-level OPORDER, and then right at 2300 came the word that State Active Duty (SAD) was coming, and that all our guys would be standing by in their armories to await tasking this morning by 0500.
So it's back from Bourne to Reading, and standing by for further direction.