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Starting a New Job. Things I Failed to Plan For.

I started a new job a couple of weeks ago. Since it’s been almost exactly 13 years since I last had a new job with a new employer, there were some things I’d forgotten about.

One was that I have no idea where my old Social Security Card is. I simply haven’t needed it. I used to carry it in my wallet, but my wife pointed out a few years ago that you really aren’t supposed to do that. So I put it somewhere safe. Very safe, as it turns out.

I found myself at the Social Security Administration office very early in the morning to request a replacement. While I did have to arrive two hours before the doors opened (as I figured) to ensure being at the head of the very long line, I have to hand it to the folks at that office–it was orderly, and quick. The receipt was enough to keep from being dismissed from the new job. Yikes.

Health insurance was another thing. For all the talk around the ACA and such, my wife and I still find ourselves uninsured until the beginning of next month. Yeah, we could have used COBRA to extend the old policy, but the cost is astronomic, and this should only be three weeks. We had to make a few adjustments, regarding existing appointments, but we’ll be okay.

That hasn’t kept some folks from worrying on our behalf about being denied for pre-existing conditions…. Just in case anyone reading this might have a question, it didn’t work that way before the ACA was passed either.

Another factor in turning down COBRA; we wouldn’t have had the money anyway, even if it were affordable. The last pay check was only for one week and it takes some time to get into payroll at the new job. We have reserve cash and we’ll make it just fine, but COBRA would have broke the bank forthwith.

So the lawn is getting tall. It was drill weekend two weeks ago, and this past weekend I got the mower out for the first time this Spring. Second year in a row and the mower won’t start. Damned ethanol. I’ve sent the EPA an e-mail asking who I send the small engine repair bill to since it’s their policy that prevents me getting real gasoline. We’ll see.

So yesterday I mowed. My mower still doesn’t work, and I can’t budget for repairing it at the moment. When we bought the house, I was deploying to Afghanistan for the first time. My wife lived in the house for a year before I did–we closed the day before I reported for mobilization. She bought a reel mower, you know the old fashioned push type that has no engine. Its been hanging in the garage ever since.

Some lessons learned on manual mowing. Rake the yard well before you start. The smallest twig will bind the blades. After you rake, walk the yard and pick out any twigs you can see. Then rake it again, this time with the purpose of raking in the opposite direction you intend to mow. You are still going to have to cover every inch at least twice, and if the grass is long (mine was), you’ll still have lots of whiskers standing up when you are done. The spin trimmer is electric, thank God.

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Perfect Choice for HHS Secretary; Continuity Assured

The nomination of Sylvia Matthews Burwell, lately the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to be Kathleen Sebelius’ successor as Secretary of Health and Human Services is a great choice.

With Burwell’s track record, its an inspired choice, really.  It shows a determination to maintain continuity in the position.

She was intimately involved in the efforts to make the government “shutdown” as painful as possible.  This shows that she is just as unquestioning and loyal as Sebelius was.

And if you are concerned about competence and management, worry no longer.  While she has not been at OMB for quite a year, she did absolutely nothing to reverse the failure of the President to produce a budget recommendation on time.  Late for 6 years running and Dead on Arrival in the House, just as the rest–so quality is obviously a key concern as well.

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Truth, Justice, and …

The relationship between science and Truth is, or should be roughly analogous to the relationship between law and Justice.  Truth and justice are, in human terms, imperfectly attainable goals.  As a result humans have developed processes, science and law, the adherence to which results in, we hope, as near an approximation of the desired goal as possible. Trouble ensues when the process is given equal standing with the desired product.  Science IS Truth.  Law IS Justice.  This leads us down all manner of dangerous roads.

Neil Degrasse Tyson has said, “That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.”  This is a fundamentally backward statement. Law and science are only useful to the extent that they continue to work.  When they cease to work, we can look at the result in either of two ways; what it True or Just has changed, or that science or law must change to accommodate what we now know to be True or Just.

Here’s an example.  We all know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  But how would an unaided, earthbound observer know that?  If the Sun really did revolve around the Earth, in what way would it look different?  The answer is that it is not observably different. The Heliocentric model devised by Copernicus was actually more complex than the old Copernican model.  It was superior in only one aspect; that it more accurately described the length of a solar year.  It would take better measurements, more discoveries, and other perspectives to fully explain, for example, retrograde movement of the planets. And that’s the key.  The Truth appears to have changed.  In reality, it was science that changed, bowing to a new theory that simply worked better than the old one. There’s nothing wrong with believing that the Earth is flat.  But when you approach the edge of it, you might come up against the need to devise a new theory when your prediction fails.  But that’s an issue for that individual.

There IS a problem when you are so convicted of your version of a Scientific Truth that you seek to halt debate, crush dissent, mock “deniers,” and persecute sceptics.  Those should be greater impetus to further testing, better experiments, more detailed or precise measurements, more inclusive hypotheses; that is, an escalation of science.  But when Science IS Truth, we no longer have a need for science, for we have already arrived at an unalterable, unquestionable result.  Science is no longer science, but that other great human search for Truth: Religion.  It’s results are Dogma and not to be questioned.

And most often, these ideological strongpoints exist today in those scientific propositions that are least testable.  Neither Evolution nor Anthropogenic Climate Change can be tested by experiment.  They cannot be viewed in a lab.  I am not arguing for or against either proposition.  I am arguing that the argument on neither can be considered closed. Contrary to Dr. Tyson, truth, in human terms, is what works and science is only that process to find what works, or to eliminate what does not.  Believing only enters into the proposition that far, and the results of that process are only as good as the last theory and may change with the next one.

Related and Funny:  There are No Such Things as Scientists, by Frank J.

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War and Civilization

And yet, long-term history also gives us cause for optimism. We have not managed to wish war out of existence, but that is because it cannot be done. We have, however, been extremely good at responding to changing incentives in the game of death. For most of our time on earth, we have been aggressive, violent animals, because aggression and violence have paid off. But in the 10,000 years since we invented productive war, we have evolved culturally to become less violent—because that pays off even better.
Ian Morris writing in The Atlantic

Mr. Morris’ point is about how war has been a net positive in human history, a thesis that I have long embraced. But this paragraph leads me to change the subject a little. Decreasing aggressiveness and violence as a net positive is, I believe a fallacy. We’d be better off to be more aggressive and more violent in the prosecution of wars once begun.

Robert E. Lee famously observed that it was a good thing that war was a terrible as it was. But we have managed, in the intervening century and a half, to civilize the waging of war, W.T. Sherman notwithstanding. The result has, perhaps, not been exactly what Lee told us it would be, that we would come to enjoy war, but we have certainly learned to live with it, even viewing it as normal.
In the US context, somewhere between the Soldier engaged in a firefight and the President, there is a rapidly declining sense of ruthlessness. The trigger-puller has no choice, given a desire to live. His leaders, at some remove from the survival imperative, somewhere lose their aggressiveness and considerations aside from achieving victory and accomplishing strategic goals take precedence. So much so that the result is a willingness to keep putting warrior’s lives on the line in the furtherance of “something else,” where that something is anything other than martial success.

And the general public, the least aggressive and violent participants in any question other than the decision to go to war, is okay with that.

In some ways then, we need to be more barbaric as a society, especially where, contrary to Mr. Morris’ point above, our opponents are not as “culturally evolved” and so retain that aggressive nature, because, confronted with an opponent like us, that pays off better still.

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Inequality is good.

Natural inequality, the differences between people in all manner of personal attributes and their individuality, is as much a function of freedom as equality before the law.

Were it not for inequality, there would be either no survival or no society.  Assuming that all were universally competent in all things, people would have no need of each other, and with out that competence, some external force would arise to exploit those areas lacking.

Instead, all people are endowed from birth with different potentials and talents.  In this way there are needs that some people have that can only be fulfilled by interaction with others.  And that doesn’t account for material differences which may limit or enhance the activities of humans, but they are no different.

Dealing with inequality, that is attempting to have needs fulfilled which any given individual is unable to do on his or her own, is the basis of society.  It is the motive that brings us together.  There are two basic ways that people can use, and have used, to achieve this, by the institution of either slavery or trade.  Only one of these is capable of producing, preserving, and perpetuating freedom.

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A Tale of Two Wrong Presidents

There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what is meant by American Exceptionalism.  The concept as alluded to by both our President and by the president of Russia recently are both incorrect, the former a confusion of cause and effect, and the latter a result of Marxist infighting of the 40’s and 50’s.

President Obama referred to the exceptionalism of the US in that only the US can project the kind of military force at Syria that the situation may require.  That ability, though, is the result of US exceptionalism, the product over time of a nation that is unique in its offerings of liberty, opportunity, and diversity that have lead then to prosperity and innovation that have developed, among other things, military might and the capacity to project it.  I’d also add that it is my opinion that President Obama only included such reference in an attempt to borrow opposing vernacular in an attempt to persuade those who really believe in American Exceptionalism, as well as properly understand it, to support his plans.  I believe that he doesn’t believe in it, in part because he doesn’t understand it.

President Putin, on the other hand offers the more usual warning of the dangers of a belief in exceptionalsim, a warning that we have heard at least alluded to by President Obama when he is not trying to pander to US conservatives.  This warning is based on a false understanding of American Exceptionalism, borne of a schism between post WWII international Communists, non-US, and especially Russian, Communists, criticized US Communists as still holding to an idea that the US was exceptional in the world.  Criticism predicated on the mistaken notion that that exception is born of superiority.

This isn’t unique to those Soviet critics.  It’s an effective tactic to demean to point out how someone thinks that they are superior.  It’s a staple of 50’s and 60’s US comedy to portray Russian characters as holding to a similar notion—if asked, all great innovations came from Russia and all other ideas are western propaganda.  Even Mr. Chechov on the original Star Trek was portrayed this way.  True American Exceptionalism, however, has nothing to do with innovations, inventions, or even prosperity.  It’s also not patriotism, or pride in one’s home or origin, though it can enhance those feelings.  Real American Exceptionalism can be summed up in Lincoln’s word from the Gettysburg Address, “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  However imperfectly we’ve implemented that conception and proposition, these are still the basis of our republic; liberty—freedom to pursue one’s own course and without onerous restrictions—and equality before the law, and that unique founding has resulted in further unique wealth, power, and influence.  But it takes someone who understands this to wield it properly.  Both presidents have disqualified themselves from this.

On Veterans Benefits and the Blue on Blue (on Blue) Politics of it.

At the bottom of this post is the video that inspired this post.

Rep. Darrel Issa posted it, apparently in agreement with Rep Duckworth’s treatment of the businessman, Mr. Castillo, over his use of veteran’s disability to gain an advantage in competing for contracts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a fan of LTC Duckworth’s civilian service.  Her association with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association is troubling.  Her past positions with the Illinois state VA and the federal VA, also, especially in the light of this particular exchange.  if the rules are bad, she’s been in a position to fix them, or at least bring them to light, longer than many.  In essence, if she told me that the sky was blue, I’d have to head outside to check.

Seems that Mr. Castillo once attended a military prep school and while there, hurt his foot playing football.  And that is the basis for a finding of 30% disability from the VA which allows him to apply for contracts as a disabled veteran with the preferences that that brings.

I can see where Issa and Duckworth are coming from.  This is a case of a man lacking a properly functioning moral compass, who would take advantage of something that he should not.

But that’s not the whole story.  It also seems that he did nothing wrong.  The rules, as written, allow this.  A disabled moral compass gets no assistance here from the laws.  Laws and regulations, I might add, written by Congress.  Reps. Issa and Duckworth are, and have been, in a position to have done something about this.

There’s still more.  At one point in the harrangue, Rep. Duckworth, compares Castillo to others she has known who are disabled because they “picked up a weapon in defense of this country.”  The danger here is in placing a higher value on those who have engaged in combat compared with those who may have been just as greviously wounded, “only” in training.  There’s a whole continuum here.  I have deployed to a combat zone three times and have never fired a shot in anger.  I have a friend who was, in fact, injured, in training, but as a National Guard member with no active duty time, is entitled to no medical benefits at all.

But the rules, as written, allow someone hurt playing football for a military prep school to even apply?

There are injustices here.  But Mr. Castillo, while probably (I’d like a lot more context) misguided, is far from the bad guy.  Instead it seems to me that it’s those who are keeping the rule book who are most at fault.

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An Observation on Leadership

A major factor in being a leader (and it matters not if one is in a leadership position–leaders lead regardless of rank, position, or assignment) is just knowing what’s going on.  This seems axiomatic, and to an extent, it is.  But many would-be-leaders, especially among those within the set that possess rank, position, and highly responsible assignments, come to it with the impression or expectation that because of those things that others will tell them the things that they need to know.  For many it is a hard lesson, a few never learn it, but that’s just not the case.  Often those around you don’t know what it is that they should be telling you.  Even more likely, is that the aspiring leader cannot possess sufficient situational awareness to ask all the questions that need asking.

The 70% solution to this problem, I have found, at least within the context of the National Guard, is the sacrifice of personal time.  In particular, if you really want to know what’s going on, you have to arrive early and stay late. And if you can only do one of these, arrive early.  It is in those early mornings when all the real decisions about who, where, and when are made, as that’s the time when the assumptions are finally confirmed or debunked and everyone is close enough to the target to see it clearly and all the much maligned changes to the plan that was briefed get made.  Staying late is still important, especially if you are responsible in any way for the welfare of others.  It is in those moments before subordinates walk out the door, that they become most aware of any deficiency to be corrected, or requirement to be fulfilled.  And they can most easily share those things with you if you are still present.  And they are more likely to do so as well, before the cares and obligations of their regular lives overshadow and lead them to forget about the things that seemed important on the way out the door.

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Busting Some Benghazi Myths:

Why are we making a big deal of this?  Embassies were attacked a lot more frequently during the Bush administration.

Sort of.

There were 12 attacks on diplomatic facilities during the Bush administration.

2 produced no fatalities.

Of the remaining 10 only 2 produced any US fatalities, and only one of those a diplomatic officer.

A common feature of all 12 attacks is the death or arrest of almost all attackers in a fairly short time frame following the events, a majorly significant difference from Benghazi. None of the attacks were of a prolonged assault nature during which the administration could have had time in which to send help, the most pertinent difference.

Why are we making a big deal of this?  The most important thing is to catch those responsible, not fix blame.

Had there actually been any emphasis on catching the perpetrators, catching them in the act was surely the easiest and most efficient way to do so. And yet every order given (and we don’t know yet by whom) was to stand down.

In all 12 attacks during the Bush administration the perpetrators were dealt with, generally, on the spot because of heightened security and a leadership priority. In this event there was no such environment–requests for more security ignored or denied.

Why are we making a big deal of this?  The attacks during the Bush administration (or any other event that they care to portray as worse) were worse.

First, “worse” when deaths are involved, is a pretty tricky, not to mention sick, calculation to make.

For those who want to compare body counts as a valid measure of better/worse anyway:  twice as many deaths under President Obama, and in fewer attempts (meaning the terrorists are not only bolder, but more efficient as well) is better? It’s also better that Obama has let the perpetrators walk around free for the last 8 months than if they’d been killed in the event or arrested shortly after? Also better that Obama, not only failed to act during the event, but actively ordered, or allowed orders to go out, to not act?

Why are we making a big deal of this?  It was physically impossible to get assets to respond moved in the time available.

That’s bullshit. I can’t even imagine where that excuse comes from. Jets in Italy and the Med could have been there in a couple of hours. Security in Tripoli could have as well. Absolute proof of this is that Dougherty and Woods did exactly that, ignoring the order to stand down.

A commercial airliner can fly from Aviano, Italy to Benghazi, Libya in 2 hours and 6 minutes at a regular cruising speed of 500mph. The F-16 Block 30 has a sea-level speed of Mach 1.2 (915 mph) and can achieve Mach 2 at altitude. The units at Aviano have F-16 Block 40s, which I don’t have specs for, but are at least as fast. From first shots fired to the evacuation of personnel was 9 hours. It took Woods and Dougherty 2 hours to drive from Tripoli. A mediocre commander could have coordinated the arrival of land and air forces and done it while a chimpanzee beat him about the head and neck.

Why are we making a big deal of this?  What good could fighter jets have done with an attack on the ground?

Dan Quayle usually gets a lot of disrespect, but there was a day, when George Bush was undergoing surgery and had signed a 25th Amendment letter. On that day, Dan Quayle was President of the United States. On that day also was an attack on the government of the Philippines by communist rebels. It became clear that this was likely to be a successful attack resulting in a coup over President Aquino. Dan Quayle gave orders. The result was low level supersonic flybys over all the engagement areas. A lot of glass was broken in Manila, but the back of the attack was broken by the show of force, and not a shot was fired by US forces. Dan Quayle has more balls, imagination, and smarts, than President Obama.

So, why are we making a big deal of this?  Because someone made a political calculation that left people to die.  I was four, but could have been 35, and the number doesn’t matter.  If that’s not enough for you, another calculation was made to lie about it.  I think that’s plenty.

 

Related:

Check this breakdown at The Anchoress.

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The mask slips:

… So we’re back to the idea that only reeducation and concentration camps can improve society.

Boost the Signal. Squelch the Noise. Information is Power.

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