Sunday, August 29, 2010

Birther Nonsense

The person forwarding this nonsense probably didn't figure on an Indonesian linguist being on the recipient list.

Along with some other stuff that's somehow supposed to *prove* a point the birthers are trying to make came this school registration form.

Guess what Line 2 says? "Place and date of birth." It's right there -- I don't care whether he was going by Soetoro or Obama at the time, the student referred to was born in Hawaii in 1961. It doesn't matter that his "warga negara" (nationality) is listed as Indonesian or that his
"agama" (religion) is listed as Islam. In the first case, by living in Indonesia, he never would've lost the U.S. citizenship he gained by being born in Hawaii; as for the second, it's not inconsistent with anything he's said about finding Christ later in life (and as far as his qualification to be President goes, that should be irrelevant anyway).

You know what else the birthers won't acknowledge? Archived newspaper records from Honolulu in 1961 include an announcement of that same child's birth.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

For Those About to Eat...5Ws

What: Will Rock for Food, 2010
When: 4 p.m. -- 11 p.m., Sunday August 29
Where: Brian's Ivy Hall, 74 Merrimack Street, Lowell
Who: Music from Treat Her Right, Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion, Melvern Taylor and the Fabulous Meltones, Peter Lavender; Artist Displays from Linda McCluskey, Emily Schroer, Loom Press; plus lots of Greater Lowellians there to listen to the music, support the cause, and celebrate a milestone birthday with Mr. Kad Barma.
Why: There is no required cover, but donations will go towards boxes of food from the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which will be distributed to needy families supported by the Merrimack Valley Food Bank.

You can learn a lot more by following the links above, but this is the basic "Concept of Operations," or CONOP. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Generals and Captains

"Generally speaking, Generals tend to speak in general terms." -- Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf

So I just got back from the NGAUS Conference in Austin, Texas. That's the National Guard Association of the United States, the oldest continuously serving professional military "pressure group" in this here land. They have lobbied for many wonderful things, such as drill pay for reservists, health care plans, better equipment, etc.

And the conference was pretty cool, too -- we got to hobnob with some Governors, Flag Officers, CEOs, and other bigwigs, went to a rodeo, attended a "progressive" party (but not in the political sense -- I'm talking about 54 states and territories, each with a signature drink in a separate hospitality room...seriously), and yadda yadda yadda.

But remember, this blog never goes "Dear Diary" for its own sake. There's a point coming, so kudos to you for making it this far, and hang in there:

If you're organizing a conference, be sure to build some time into the schedule for the explicit purpose of allowing members of your *guild* to talk to each other on their own professional levels.

We had mandatory "development sessions" that started at 0800 each morning and carried on until about 1700 (5 p.m. ROTC time, thanks Cliff), just prior to the "mandatory fun" that each evening brought.

The problem with the development sessions, though, is that at some point your "I Care" button breaks after the umphteenth General or Admiral has stood up to wax philosophical in the very broad, bland language that people at those ranks tend to use. The "wow" effect wears off pretty quickly, and you're not left with a whole heck of a lot to take away. When you glance around the room, and see that every other Captain is texting, Facebook surfing, or doing God-only-knows-whatever-else on his or her Blackberry, something has gone wrong.

And yes, this goes back to the same reason that so many kids are so easily bored at school -- when you force people to do something for an extended period of time, but don't involve them in what you're doing, you WILL lose their interest. Now, I know we all have different attention spans, and therefore different *break points* but no matter how engaging a speaker is, anything over an hour is just too much.

For all the times we heard "The Company Grade Officers are our future" it frustrated the hell out of me that I never really got the chance to sit down and talk with another Captain from, say, Georgia or Idaho.

What are their issues?

How are the repeated deployments affecting morale? What about families? What are their states doing to be proactive about suicide prevention?

What about equipment fielding? Work-ups at the mobilization site? What's better, Fort Hood or Camp Atterbury?

How did they handle the stress of Company Command in Iraq or Afghanistan? What did they do to instill COIN principles in their soldiers?

Answers to ANY of those from a fellow Company Grade -- if exchanged in a frank session where only other Company Grades were present, would've given me some gems of knowledge, some contacts, and some thoughts for my "deployment mental tool kit" that I could've kept with me for the times that I know are coming, and soon.

Hearing another two-hour, one-way lecture about diversity, or a General waxing philosophical about whether we ought to be a "strategic reserve" or "operational force," or a circle jerk session for a contractor or Congressman winning an award did zilch for my professional development.

So, if you're wondering, the answer is YES -- I have summarized this in a more diplomatically-termed e-mail and sent it to my area NGAUS representative in the hopes that a future conference might offer some more Captain-to-Captain collaboration.

And the point here is that in WHATEVER industry you belong to, when you are tasked with organizing a conference or other sort of "professional development" session, please don't turn it into an eighteen-wheeler barreling down a narrow one-way street. Involve your *subjects* in what you're doing, and you'll see them walking out smiling and chatting, rather than just running blankly for the exits.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Thank You, Mr. President

Let me start this piece by acknowledging I can never be even close to subjective when we're talking 9/11/01.

That morning, I watched on live TV as a civilian jetliner made a near-direct impact on my father's office floor of the World Trade Center. I spent the next two hours staring at the TV wondering whether he was alive or dead (he was fine, as he had walked out of his building as glass, steel, and other debris was peppering the ground from the other tower).

I should also add that I spent the rest of the day wondering how to feel about the fact that nothing other than luck had kept me off of Flight 93 -- I asked Priceline for a flight from Newark to SFO on that morning, and they assigned me to another one. Maybe the odds for that weren't as dramatic as Russian Roulette, but it still had me shaken up for quite some time thereafter.

Okay, so now that I've got that out of the way, here's my opinion on what the President recently said regarding the freedom of a religious group to build a facility near Ground Zero - President Obama is absolutely, 100% right about what he said.

This country's settlement by Europeans, and its eventual Founding Documents, are all heavily rooted in the principle of religious freedom.

In fact, it's right there in our beloved First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

With that in mind, I think it's preposterous to think that any level of government in this great nation should get into the business of dictating where certain religions should be able to set up shop, provided those religious institutions are abiding by the various local laws that would govern any other religion.

I am nauseated by Ward Churchill's proposition that my dad is a "little Eichmann" or by the imam in the news who has called the U.S. an "accessory" to 9/11 because of its past foreign policy decisions.

The only thing that nauseates me more, though, is the idea that any individual or cabal should be able to determine whether those people have the right to say those offensive things.

To me, the only questions that should surround the Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan revolve around property rights and religious freedom. On both those counts, I think this is a pretty clear-cut issue, and I think the President was right to stand by his principles with his remarks on Friday.

When Culture Meets Incentive

I know I've written a few times before here on the site about how when various cultures coming together; just to recap, I firmly aver that it's okay to acknowledge and even embrace the best parts of other cultures while still hanging to the 'better' aspects of your own. Sometimes, when 'multiculturalism' is discussed in open forums, the former is considered part of the conventional wisdom, but the latter gets left out of the equation at worst, it gets written off as xenophobia.

Anyway, one aspect of 'Western' culture that I really dig is the value we place on punctuality, because I think it generally shows a certain respect level for other people's time. Sure, an 11:00 lunch can mean 11:05, or even 11:15, but if one party is not even making the effort after twenty minutes, that tells me that he or she feels it's just not that important.

So a couple weeks ago, when my first-ever cruise was getting ready for its scheduled departure from King's Wharf, Bermuda, the armchair sociologist in me had an interesting chance to observe the intersection of culture (the several nations' worth of passengers included many from habitually 'late' cultures) and incentive (it was made crystal clear that anyone NOT on board by 5:00 p.m. on departure day would be stuck on the island and personally responsible for getting back to wherever they came from).

So which do you think won?

No question at all, the incentive not to miss the boat, literally, and be on the hook for some steep airline tickets back to wherever (not to mention costs of luggage recovery) carried the day. More than two thousand people had made it back to where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be -- not a single passenger was late. I had to underline that last sentence because anyone who has even tried to organize a dinner party for more than five people knows the logistical challenges of getting even a handful of people together by a set time is next-to-impossible. Even in the military, we like to say that, "Privates may talk strategy, but generals talk logistics," because, well, it's true. Even in a 190-person brigade staff, people definitely miss formations from time to time for myriad reasons. Maybe they're just missing the proper incentive structure.

Last week, a friend of mine who used to command a Company of Guardsmen was telling me about some problems he was having with his guys, who were habitually coming to monthly weekend drills with haircuts that were out of standard.

He and his First Sergeant had tried everything -- they tried using the platoon leaders to call their guys the week prior to the drills, they used e-mail reminders, they used threats of extra work details, etc. Nothing worked. From a mostly young, immature group of soldiers who seemed to be almost willfully breaking the rules, they heard about how the leaders were just being way too draconian -- they were ignoring the youth culture that seemed to inspire them to rebel against authority.

So what finally won?

The Captain and the 'first shirt' changed their soldiers' incentive structure. Here's how: At one Company formation, they announced a new policy -- From then on, any soldier who arrived at a weekend drill with an out-of-regs haircut would be sent back and not allowed to join the unit until he went to a barber and got things squared away...and the kicker was that because the soldier would not be with the group until the afternoon formation, he would miss half a day's pay.

The drill after that, there were still a couple soldiers who insisted on flouting their leaders. Sure enough, their bluff was called, and they really lost a big chunk of change (one day of drill pay is actually two days' worth of active pay...kind of confusing but you get the picture -- the stakes are real).

So after THAT, any guesses as to how many joes still arrived on Saturday looking like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo?


All the previous excuses, arguments, and protests went out the window...all of a sudden, once they were confronted with a consequence that trumped all of that, everyone got right with the program, and quickly.

Yes, there are myriad factors that motivate us to do, or not do, whatever we're tasked with, but don't ever underestimate the power of incentive!

Monday, August 9, 2010

JFCOM: Going the Way of the Dodo?

A buddy just texted me tell me about a SECDEF proposal to scrap JFCOM.

JFCOM, or Joint Forces Command, is a governmental mammoth based in Norfolk, VA. I lived and worked in its shadow for over three years, and was never completely sure what JFCOM did.

Apparently, neither is Mr. Robert Gates.

I'm sure there are good reasons for saving JFCOM, and there are many good people among the thousands who work there and collect the $200 million in annual salaries. That said, there are also good people who pay taxes, and they have a right to demand accountability.

I'll admit there's a lot more I could learn about what JFCOM does, and who it benefits, but my first instinct is to applaud Mr. Gates, who is willing to do something extremely unconventional and unorthodox (to my knowledge, no SECDEF has ever proposed the complete shuttering of a major four-star command before).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

If Life Had a Rulebook, Redux

I threw the 'redux' on that because I know I've hit this theme before, and I've hit on the theme before because I really wish such a thing existed.

In fact, I'm actually so desirous of life having a rulebook that I'm thinking about condensing some of the big themes I write about here into a book someday.

Anyway, I screwed something up today. No one was injured, nothing was broken, and no other major calamity occurred, but it was still a screw-up; remember, though, this blog only crosses into "Dear Diary" territory when there's a lesson or bigger picture coming, so hang in there please.

Someone told me something about a significant personnel change. No caveats about keeping anything secret, quiet, or "close-hold" came with the information, so I did what any right-minded junior high-schooler might do in the circumstances -- I told someone. Telling this person served no greater purpose other than impulse gratification on my part to share the "scoop" that I was privy to. Like I said earlier, it was a bit juvenile, but it wasn't ill-spirited.

However, this action created a lot of major, unintended sturm und drang. As the real-life game of "telephone" played out, the news got repeated around and around, except twisted in a slightly more interesting way -- and it never would have happened had I just kept my hands off my phone, and my mouth shut, in the first place.

Multiple apologies to the major 'principals' involved later on, damage control has been done. The waters are a bit calmer, so to speak, even if there's still some bad blood over the original circumstances that led to the switch itself.

The first, obvious lesson here for me is if you hear something that you're not sure is 'privileged' info, either get clarification from your source or just keep it quiet. Thankfully, the military labels every single piece of correspondence by a specific classification, so there's no room for ambiguity. The real world, however, doesn't work like that.

The second lesson, though, is even clearer: If you are telling someone something that you either a) don't want them to repeat at all, or b) want them to hold onto at least until it is 'offically' announced via proper channels, you MUST make that explicitly clear from the get-go.

I'll invoke the 'Reasonable Man' test that's accepted in common law here -- the natural thing that all people are going to do upon hearing something big is to tell the people around them. In fact, if you think about it, humans' capacity for language probably developed out of a need to share information which led to mutual protection...Steven Pinker even wrote about that in "The Language Instinct" -- I might want to tell the people on your side of the hill which berries to eat and which to avoid in the hopes that your side might reciprocate.

Therefore, if something is really secret, or at least close-hold, you probably ought to spell that out for whoever you're sharing with before you do so. If you take that step, and they ignore your caveat, then I think you've got a sturdier case to support a little bit of righteous indignation.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tim Cahill: Hyperbolist of the Millennium

Hey, I figure one good turn deserves another, right?

So anyway I grabbed a Lowell Sun this afternoon during lunch and started working through the front-page article about casino gambling. I nearly dropped my Big Mac when I saw this quote from Tim Cahill, Independent Candidate for Governor.

"If the governor vetoes this bill, or if he sends it back and it's unsignable or unworkable with the Legislature, he owns this recession. This is his recession," Cahill said.


I know there is a long and storied history of politicians saying dumb things, but this one really takes the cake as far as my recent political memory goes.

I'll admit there are many sides to the casino debate. I'll admit that places like Mohegan Sun draw people with the gaming, but then have great attractions like the WNBA, Jerry Seinfeld, and Billy Joel. I'll even admit that having something similar in Massachusetts -- an actual 'destination' where gambling was just part of the bigger show -- might be a net gain for the Commonwealth.

But ending the recession? First of all, the recession is caused by so many national factors that are so far beyond the Governor's control that they're not even worth taking the time to point out.

Yes, casinos would create some jobs -- both in the initial stages (i.e. construction and plumbing) and in the operational stage. But let's have some broader-picture perspective -- the statewide unemployment rate is roughly 9 percent, and there are over 5 million working-age folks living here.

I'm no mathematician, but a few blackjack dealers aren't really going to dent that.

What I do know is that anyone searching for a budgetary panacea in a business whose sole purpose is to TAKE money from people who mostly need it and GIVE it to those who mostly do not is not thinking with a level head.

Casino math tends to dictate otherwise -- everyone I know who regularly goes to Foxwoods swears to me that they're "up" over the course of their gambling lifetime, yet somehow the Mashantucket Indians are so wealthy that they can pay every single tribe member $250,000 annually just for getting up in the morning. Despite the testimonials of anyone who seems to ever have been dealt blackjack in Ledyard, I'm inclined to say 2 and 2 still makes 4.

On the 'racino' slot issue, I think Gov. Patrick deserves a lot of credit for something we all say we wish politicans did, but then sometimes like to complain about when they do -- acting on his conscience.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Our Brave New Online World

Last week, I did something I've never done before in my adult life -- I went on vacation.

Yes, I've done a couple long-weekend road trips with friends, been to a couple weddings that required plane tickets, and have been seen some new areas a few times on the official business of Uncle Sam, but I'm talking about a far-from-home, toes-in-the-water, someone-just-asked-me-what-day-of-the-week-it-was-and-I-honestly-didn't-know vacation. For the record, it was awesome. I'd never taken a cruise before, found it to be a cool experience, and one of those things people should try to do at some point in their lives just to try it (I would have used the term 'Bucket List' here but I generally dislike the morbid implication).

Bermuda is pretty beautiful, too. And for all the times I've heard it from Bermudians, I'll repeat it here -- They're a first-world country by any statistical way you can slice it, and they're not in the Caribbean (Yes, they get a bit touchy about being confused with a lot of those 'other' island republics).

What I didn't do, however, was announce that I was going, or give any associated details, here on this blog, or on Facebook, or on Twitter. I've just heard too many cautionary tales about people who excitedly blabber about their wonderful vacation plans -- right down to the details of the itinerary -- only to come home and find that their domicile has been "liberated" of all its valuable electronics, jewelry, and cash.

Sure enough, when I got back to Home Sweet Condo, everything was fine. Not a creature had stirred there while we were gone, and the place was the same on the way back in, for better and for worse.

Going back through some Facebook wall posts, however, I noticed something interesting -- if someone had cared enough to pay attention, he or she could have pieced together much of what I was trying to 'protect' by the information there. Completely innocuously, posts suggesting, "Have a great honeymoon cruise out of Boston...and a great time in Bermuda!" would have given a good head start (there was only one such cruise departing Boston in this general time frame). A period of "radio silence" from my online self, here on the blog, and on Facebook (I pretty much stopped using Twitter when Facebook rolled out its news feed in a similar fashion) would have been another clue. I may not have helped matters by announcing here and in my e-mail away messages when I expected to rejoin the digital world.

But you've probably already heard a lot about the need for vigilance with regards to online, personally-identifying information. In that sense, I'm not saying something new...but my twist on it is this: Even if YOU take all the right steps (hard-core Facebook privacy settings, not stating dates or locations of travel outright, carefully crafted 'out-of-office' messages, etc.) that still might not be enough. In fact, you might not be able to completely protect or craft your identity in the way you might wish to, because other online users might innocently spill the beans via idle chatter on their Facebook walls or other public, online forms of communication.

Think about it, how innocently might someone remark in a coffee shop, "My friends Debbie and Jim are off in Hawaii for two weeks, I can't wait to see the pictures and hear about it."

Sounds reasonable, right?

If the modern 'coffee shop' is Tumbler, or Facebook, or Myspace, or whatever else, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to see how Debbie and Jim could quickly become vulnerable.

Here's another, less serious twist on that -- with a nod to Brad Paisley, who penned and sang the wonderful tune "So Much Cooler Online," we all know people who work hard to craft online identities/personalities that portray themselves in some ideal, imagined light that might be a bit off from reality. The joke from the song is about a guy who becomes a lot taller, more athletic, and suave with the women as soon as he gets behind a keyboard and monitor, but there are myriad forms 'online identities' might take.

In one real-life example, I have a friend of a friend (who will definitely remain nameless here!) who sees my buddy from time to time and constantly spits a line that sounds like, "Dude!! So good to see you, man! I like, totally want to come see you and visit you more often, but man, it's so tough...I'm just so broke."

Without any prompting or querying from anyone else about his financial means (or lack thereof), this guy takes it upon himself to prattle on about how he would love to be a better friend, and visit more, but his 'brokeness' gets in the way. He may shape his online 'self' to reflect this impecunious avatar of his, but, alas, he is hoist on the Facebook petard.

Through other peoples' tagging of photos, and other peoples' discussions from "Wall-to-Wall" I'm able to see via my Facebook News Feed (no prying or spying here, the Newsfeed is what I scroll during those daily little micro-pockets of free time) I can see that "Mr. Broke" is in fact living quite well by the standards of any late-twentysomething -- in fact, this guy spends several weeks out of the year visiting exotic locales with his girlfriend and other buddies, with the costs of any one of such trips dwarfing the half-tank of gas or $30 round-trip bus ticket it would take for him to see the semi-estranged buddy.

My only conclusion here is that unless someone is going to go around spending hours out of his or her day to 'sanitize' the Internet in order to help ensure that nothing legitimately sensitive (i.e. details of when a house might be empty) or something cutting against the grain of an individual's desired projected image (i.e. embarrassment over inherited or transferred wealth), the Brave New World of online transparency is just something we're going to have to live with.

So maybe this is where I should tell you I don't drive a Maserati and don't live in Malibu. I'm not 6'5", and I don't have a black belt. And yes, the only time I've had a "three-way" was when I was chatting with two women at the same time.

But you already knew that, so let's agree to call it good.