Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Steady Decline Followed by Death

video

Today is my birthday, my 30th. I've known a few friends who have gone all-out for their 30th - pub crawls, private rooms at restaurants, trips to Vegas. Mine was far less grand, but I definitely prefer it this way.

Last night, I went to my friend Abby's birthday party in DC, which was held at a bar called Stetson's. It was a great place for this celebration; Abby doe a joint party with her friend Esmerelda, and between the two of them something like 150 people were invited. I'm not sure I know 150 people, or even half that, that I would invite to my birthday party. But Abby is much more sociable than I, and was in her element from what I saw. It was a lot of fun, especially since we have many friends in common that I have not seen in some time. And I had a few nice conversations with folks I hadn't met before; the highlight was probably when one taught me how to play craps. I think all I actually learned was enough to lose a great deal of money if I ever try to play craps.

Before giving me a ride to the Metro to go to the party, Sarah & Paul presented a freshly-made marble cake. Before we left for the district, we enjoyed a few slices. Made from scratch, and extremely tasty. I thought it was very sweet and generous of them.

Today, I met with Meg & Rich and Jane for brunch at Fireflies. I hadn't been in what felt like ages, and was looking forward to treating myself to biscuits and gravy to celebrate. But they were all out, so I ended up getting the also-excellent breakfast club. After some very nice presents, a nice meal, and some subterfuge, the waitress brought out another cake that Jane made (from The Joy of Cooking I gave her for Christmas). It was also delicious.

I'm amazed at how generous everyone was, and I feel very lucky. All of this - invitations out for very enjoyable evenings, cakes, presents, and most importantly the friendship that accompanies them - gives me pause. It is an embarrassment of riches, and if I have to turn 30 and grow old, I am grateful I get to do it in such estimable company.

And to explain the video embedded above, it is one of my favorite gifts this year. Meg brought it back from her trip to New Zealand. It is a small tin boat that contains a very simple steam engine jet-drive. Basically a boiler, heated by a candle, that exhausts heated water, creating a vacuum in the chamber that sucks in cold water, which is then heated, repeating the process. We ran it in my tub after lunch, and it is a riot.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

Map't


View Larger Map

Today is the day I depart with my friend Aaron to drive to his new home in San Francisco. Here is our current plan for our route. Can you guess at some of the places we'll be visiting?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Malfeasance!

It's been some time now, since I was in the Coast Guard, but I still look back fondly and have somewhat possessive feelings about the service. I'm an interested party, and a proud veteran.

Which is why the ongoing tragic saga of Deepwater saddens me so. The latest is that the Coast Guard is suing the contractors, since some of the modified boats had to be decommissioned due to structural and system problems. This is on top of the many other Deepwater issues - cost overruns, structural and system problems rumored with the new National Security Cutter, Congressional inquiries. Just read this and the related articles at the Times and you'll get the picture.

It is particularly distressing for me to watch this happen, since I enlisted in the Coast Guard in the early, halcyon days of Deepwater. As a budding naval architect, we were told that was our future in the fleet. "Yeah, our ships are old now, but we're revolutionizing the industry. It's a system of systems, and you are going to be on the front lines." We were all so interested in how it would turn out - it was terribly exciting, in a nerdy engineering way.

And watch as the steel finally gets bent, and the cutters slide down the ways, and it is so clearly a flawed creation. The task was too large, too ambitious, perhaps. But it was large and ambitious out of necessity. The current Queen of the Fleet, wearing the gold numbers of the oldest cutter in commission, is Acushnet, commissioned into the Coast Guard in 1946, after two years of Navy service. The fleet is old, and must be replaced almost wholesale.

And now the Coast Guard has announced they have the situation in hand; they've stood up and entire new Acquisitions Directorate, and they will manage Deepwater, and we are on course. I have my doubts... acquisitions is a challenge on normal defense programs. For a unique program like Deepwater, run by a service with little institutional expertise in acquisitions (since they haven't bought much in decades), it could be catastrophic.

The Coast Guard has proven its value to the nation again and again. It is a critical service, in war and peace. And to carry out its core missions for the next generation, it must recapitalize. News like what we've heard over the past few months creates in me grave concerns about the future of my beloved service.

Eat Your Words

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I had high hopes for Pakistan's President Pervez "Uncle Pervy" Musharraf. I went so far as to say that with a dedicated effort on his part, he could be his country's Washington. Recent events have put the lie to my theory. It now seems clear that at the very least Musharraf and the Army are taking advantage of civil unrest and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto as an excuse to once again quash civil political parties and reconsolidate their control.

It seems I made the same mistake our government has, placing too much confidence in an authoritarian regime, allowing our fear of instability in a nuclear-capable country override our support for basic human rights and civil liberty. Or maybe that isn't a mistake. I honestly don't know. I suspect we are trading long-term stability for short-term security, which is a very old story for US foreign policy.

Personally, I need to step back and think my way through what our priorities should be, and work my way down to some kind of coherent position. I do think the first priority has to maintaining the security of any nuclear arsenals, and wherever possible keeping their masters on at least cordial terms. But that is a continuing priority, not something for the next few years. We don't worry about the nuclear arms of France or India, for example, because they are established, stable democracies. Therefore, it should be our policy to promote similar democracies wherever there are similar weapons.

It bears mentioning, that does not mean puppet or client states, or provide a mandate for setting up friendly governments by any means. Too often those efforts become heavy-handed, and backfire with unfriendly regimes soon taking power. For many years in the Cold War, France certainly saw itself as a "Third Way," not necessarily aligned to the US or USSR. That may have made them a thorn in Washington's side, but they were certainly no threat to US security.

Easy to say that is your position - sounds great. But the mechanics of promoting civil institutions, democratic governments is not so simple. The only recent examples I can think of where nations made relatively peaceful advances in this arena were the Warsaw Bloc states after the fall of communism. I do not think that situation was as delicate as Pakistan's right now, but perhaps there are some lessons there that would be instructive.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Slice

For some months now I have been having serious problems with my back. My long-lingering herniated disc has been acting up since around Halloween, making many activities painful and difficult. I have tried my best not to let this interfere with my obligations, or create any burden for friends and family. I have not been entirely equal to that challenge, and this past Thursday went under the knife for two procedures known as a microdiscectomy and a laminectomy.

So far the results are entirely positive. The only discomfort I have right now is from the surgical wound itself. I am cautiously optimistic that I may be able to put this thing behind me once and for all.

It bears mentioning that I am profoundly grateful to my friends who looked after me while I recovered. I have tried to express my gratitude personally, and will continue to do so. But even in this small forum, I want to let everyone know how much I owe to Sarah & Paul and Zina. They acted in my best interest when I did not. They have been far better friends to me than I have been to them.

THE MIND IS NOT A VESSEL TO BE FILLED BUT A FIRE TO BE KINDLED