Jun 302015

This study-guide style worksheet for children’s Bible study strikes me as vaguely horrifying, a short cut to making it a drudgery. Imagine helping your child learn to love the Chronicles of Narnia by requiring them to fill out study questions.  Hearty analysis of a worthwhile text rises naturally from the familiarity that comes from reading it repeatedly, because you want to.  I don’t see how jump-starting that with homework is going to improve the process.

Jun 272015

Bruce Baugh has some interesting observations (here) about different approaches to privilege and disrespect.  Unfortunately, they’re framed in a way that tries to be too universal, and in the process manages to be judgmental.

Two groups: people who think prejudice is an intentional, wicked act or disposition, and people who think prejudice just happens, like accidentally closing a door on somebody’s fingers.  For the first group, an accusation of some kind of *-ism is either a grave insult to an otherwise well-meaning person, or a vile sin to be expunged immediately. For the first group, all that really matters is how quick you are to resolve the situation.

So far, so good.  But the way he frames those categories… !  Wow, prejudiced much?  Yup, the “big deal” category of people are all alike, and in a bad way.

In reality, both the prejudiced and the prejudiced against use both categories pretty fluidly, depending on the situation.

Jun 252015

It was ninth grade, my first year back in public school after four years of homeschooling. My parents had made special arrangements for me to attend a school where several teachers were members of our church. Naturally, they also arranged for me to take the classes they were teaching. So, Mrs. Hinkle for choir, Mr. Torbert for history, and Mr. Calloway for general science.

The science class was probably a poor placement. Other kids at my academic level were taking chemistry in ninth grade, but my mom was nervous about her record as a homeschool science teacher, and Mr. Calloway was considered one of the best science teachers in the state. But the thing he won awards for was his ability to inspire at-risk students. I wasn’t exactly at risk; a lot of the information we covered was stuff I already knew. But I did learn a thing.

So the story that sticks out the most involves an airplane. What we can agree on is that unequal air pressure on the wings keeps the plane up. In eighth grade, reading my science book at home, I learned that the air flows faster over the top of the wings. The bottom of the wing is flat, so the air flows straight across. The top of the wing is convex, so that air has to flow vertically as well as laterally, in order to conserve motion as the plane passes through. That extra distance creates a vacuum and pulls the airplane up.

Mr. Calloway got it backwards, lecturing a class of thirty mildly uninterested fourteen and fifteen year olds. He said that the air under the wing flows faster, creating a high pressure system. Either way, the pressure is lower on top of the wing, and the plane goes up, but I caught the teacher in a quibble. So I thought I’d let him know.

It didn’t go quite the way I’d thought. The teacher held his ground and just repeated himself, as if the problem was my lack of understanding. So I started to explain the difference between what he was saying, and what I understood. But there was this look in his eyes.

Fortunately, I realized pretty quick that the conversation was no longer about science. It was now about me running his class. He might have been wrong, but I was now wronger.

So I shut up, and I never did verify on which side of the wing the air flows faster. But I remember that event every time I’m in a military briefing, and some bright young Soldier takes a moment to contradict his commander.

Jun 022015

On the night of 17 June, 1815, Henry Padget, the Earl of Uxbridge, Wellington’s second in command, came to him with a question: he wanted to know what Wellington’s plan was for the battle the next morning.

Wellington replied, “Who will attack the first tomorrow, I or Bonaparte?” “Bonaparte,” said Uxbridge. “Well,” continued the duke, “Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects: and as my plans will depend on his, how can you expect me to tell you what mine are?” Then, giving Uxbridge a friendly pat on the shoulder, he said that one thing was certain: “Whatever happens, you and I will do our duty.”1

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, won the greatest battle of his era against the greatest military commander in a generation, apparently by his uncanny ability to personally appear at the moment of crisis, imparting fresh orders and fresh morale. That impression isn’t entirely true: There were 67,000 soldiers under his command, arranged in some 16 divisions across a four-mile field of battle.2 Wellington couldn’t have been present at the decisive moment for every unit, even if he had wanted to, and attempting to do so would have been a failing game. He wasn’t devoid of plans either. Instead, Wellington made good use of the principles of mission command, even though he had to adjust for the unpreparedness of his army. Due to the hasty assembly of his army, and the urgency of his mission, Wellington was unable to form a fully competent staff. He compensated by reducing his dependence on shared understanding in the staff and emphasizing cohesive teams and clear orders. Continue reading »

Jun 022015

In the Army, people often talk about conducting training using a “crawl, walk, run” method, that is, you introduce a concept or technique, step through it’s components at a careful pace, and gradually proceed to a full-intensity production. We talk about it. But when it comes to it, the default tends to look a lot more like a “throw them in the deep end of the pool” method, especially when the situation is deemed to be “too easy.”

The more familiar I get with what’s going on, the more I see that with a carefully controlled training experience, really difficult concepts become pretty simple. What makes things hard is floundering around while you figure things out. Learning what to think comes quick; learning how to think is slow. People know this, but we come up with the wrong conclusion. Because learning how to think is slow, we think we should spend more time lost in unfamiliar waters, learning how to think. Not so! No one ever gets better at getting out of complete cluelessness. The trick is to convert more and more things into the category of “what to think.”

Nobody should have to spend time being lost when somebody has a map.

May 312015

SUBJECT: Command Philosophy

1. The purpose of this command philosophy is to identify the attitudes and ideals that I want to establish in this company, as well as the practices I intend to use to promote those ideals. A company can achieve the mission, follow all regulations, and still be a rotten unit. We want a great unit, and to achieve that, I think we should pursue three things:

2. Happy Soldiers. We need people who work hard because they like what they do. To achieve this, we must work to eliminate unnecessary frustrations from the environment. Interruptions and delays come from the enemy, not from leadership. Unscheduled late hours will be considered a leadership failure. Additionally, we should work to recognize extraordinary efforts by our Soldiers in ways that are public and personally meaningful to them.

3. Ethical Soldiers. We need people who do what is right because they believe it is right. To achieve this, we must encourage conversations about ethical reasoning and right and wrong. Formal training events, such as SHARP and suicide prevention training are urgent, but they are not sufficient. Moral values are formed in a network of daily decisions, and I am convinced that keeping an eye out for little things mitigates against bigger ethical failures. Additionally, we need to lead by example. We guide and correct our subordinates across a spectrum of ethical decisions, but in doing so, we must be ready to accept respectful criticism from them as well.

4. Professional Soldiers. We need people who are committed to the long-term improvement of the unit and the Army as a whole. To achieve this, we must train Soldiers to think beyond their current scope of work. Thinkers find ways to improve everything. As the mission permits, we will actively promote professional development opportunities that increase the scope of Soldiers’ understanding, and we will make room for individual specialized training. Additionally, we will encourage and actively consider Soldiers’ recommendations for improving our methods within the unit.

5. A command philosophy is only as good as the team that builds on it. I expect each of you to take ownership of this unit, find what’s broken, and take the initiative fix it. Communicate with each other, communicate with me, and let’s all be humble enough to accept criticism and move forward. It’s an honor to serve with each of you.

Kyle B. French

May 262015

Everybody knows that the US Military has a thing with acronyms. We pile up acronyms on top of acronyms, multiple acronyms that mean the same thing, multiple things signified by the same acronym. We add excess words to the names of things, just to ensure we can shorten it to an acronym later.

Recently, I was thinking about some acronyms we have for a special class of meeting: BUBs and CUBs. A Battle Update Brief, or Command Update Brief is a daily or twice-daily meeting designed to coordinate the efforts of a large group of people working on a single project. Usually they happen during a deployment or other intensely time-sensitive activity.

The thing about CUBs and BUBs is that there is no difference between these two acronyms. Some people theorize that they signify meetings at different echelons of organization. A Brigade would have a Command Update Brief, while a Battalion would have a Battle Update Brief, for instance. But in reality, the difference is arbitrary. You pick one term for your meeting in order to distinguish from some other meeting of a similar name.

The key word is “update.” Everything else is excess, added just to have enough letters to form an acronym. “BUB” is fewer syllables than update. But honestly, we would have preferred an acronym even if that meant more syllables.

So. Since the letters are irrelevant, I’ve made up a few meetings of my own:

This is the Readiness Update Brief, in preparation for an upcoming event. Slogan: “Aye! There’s the RUB!” It is considered inappropriate, in the event of a poor delivery, for the commander to redo this meeting, as that would constitute a back RUB.

Data Update Brief. This is a coordination meeting between the intelligence and information sections.

Forward Logistics Update Brief, for support units deep in enemy territory. Slogan: “Fall Forward!”

Staff Notional Update Brief. This is a practice meeting among the staff, in order to prepare for the upcoming BUB. All actual products are made up, or stand-ins. Leadership participation is strongly discouraged. Slogan: “You’re not invited.”

Combined Logistics Update Brief. Large coordination meeting between multiple units. Usually meets off site, and after normal duty hours. If you know about the meeting, attendance is mandatory.

May 122015

Philanthropists, who decry the lash, ought to consider in what manner the good men, – the deserving, exemplary soldiers, – are to be protected; if no coercive measures are to be resorted to on purpose to prevent ruthless ruffians from insulting with impunity the temperate, the well-inclined, and the orderly-disposed, the good must be left to the mercy of the worthless; and I am glad to say, there are many good men in the ranks of the army…. The good soldier thanks you not for such philanthropy; the incorrigible laughs at your humanity, despises your clemency, and meditates only how to gratify his naturally vicious propensities.

– James Anton, Retrospects of a Military Life, 1841

Obviously, I’m no proponent of the lash. But how to deal with “worthless” people has been a perpetual challenge for military leaders. Some people improve drammatically with a firm rebuke and a little training. But a lot of people have no intention of improving, and their behavior can be a drain on, or even dangerous to their fellow servicemembers. It’s been a long search to find means of motivation that don’t require force. One advantage we have over the 1840s is a greater ability to remove from the organization those persons who cannot be motivated with anything other than force.

Apr 042015

So this is a little geeky but:

There’s a thing called the Hugo Awards, which gives an Oscar-like prize in various categories of the best science fiction stories of the year. And for the last few years, there has been some controversy over the kinds of works which have been winning.  I’m very much an outsider, but the impression I get is that the conflict is between one set of people who think that popular fiction ought to win more often, and another who think that something more literate ought to win.  I’m not exactly sure even who is on what side, or if I have the sides right.  But that’s irrelevant to my point.

Because there has been such controversy, I’ve learned a few things about the process that gets me interested.  The big difference between the Hugo awards and something like the Oscars is that the Hugoes are actually pretty easy to get in on.  To vote for your favorite book, you have to be a member of the World Science Fiction Society, which membership costs $40 a year.  That’s a pretty low entrance fee.  But here’s the icing on the cake:  In order to vote, you need to have read all the nominated works in each category, and in order to do that, the WSFS makes a solid attempt to provide its members with a digital copy of every nominated work.

So, for $40, you can get a copy of the best science fiction of the year.  Yes, it’s probably more than it would cost to get a copy of everything at the library. It’s a lot cheaper than Amazon.   And perhaps your local library doesn’t keep a ready copy of the 70 best science fiction works each year.  Perhaps you are not a master of the interlibrary loan system.  Maybe the thought of redefining “the best science fiction” amuses you.

Anyway, if you read science fiction, you should join.  It’s not a bad investment.  This year’s nominees were announced today, here. It looks as though the popular fiction crowd is in the ascendancy.