Saturday, July 23, 2016

Pokemon and the Future of Reality

This week, for the first and I hope only time, I stood in front of my Sailors at an all-hands call and talked about Pokemon Go.  If you had asked me during Command Leadership School to make a list of all the things I might discuss at quarters with my squadron, the topic of Pokemon would certainly not have crossed my mind.

For those unfamiliar, Pokemon Go is a game played via smartphone.  Using the camera, geo-location, and gyro-scope functionality of the phone, players walk around collecting Pokemon characters that "appear" at various real-world locations.   The more characters you collect, the higher you get in the game.  (And, of course, there are in-app purchases)

I raised the topic to the Sailors I work with in order to lay some ground-rules on when and where the game can and cannot be played.  As you might imagine, there are concerns about an app that takes control of the camera and geo-location features of someone's phone for a game that might potentially be played in restricted or sensitive areas.  The app collects a ton of data; the security and application of such information is not fully understood.   In an age where ISIS is creating hit-lists from harvested open-source social media, and we in turn are targeting them via their own geo-tagged twitter posts, Pokemon Go becomes one more vulnerable aperture in the cyber domain.  Additionally, individuals playing Pokemon Go can lose situational awareness of the world around them, creating significant safety concerns.  And then there is the effect it can have on professional behavior in the workplace.

Despite my concerns as a military commander for the potential risks and vulnerabilities, I am also struck by the incredible potential of such augmented reality.  When paired with a more advanced viewing apparatus, the ability to overlay virtual threats or situations onto actual locations during live training events represents the direction we need to be headed with military training, provided we address the previously discussed operational security concerns.    The technology demonstrated by Pokemon Go brings scalability and efficiency that must be explored as we seek to better leverage the full spectrum of live, virtual and constructive training.

Beyond the military application of such technology, imagine the educational and cultural potential. You could visit Gettysburg, climb Little Round Top, and instead of trying to visualize the 20th Maine's audacious bayonet charge, you could watch virtual soldiers overlaid on the actual landscape you are standing on.  When touring a new city, the downtown area could "come alive" with cultural facts and historical characters.   Or when taking in a sporting event, you might be able to see scores, statistics and other relevant info without taking your eyes off the action.

I love the full-circle nature of this.  It was government that drove the innovation and development of the internet and GPS, the infrastructure and framework that Pokemon Go is built upon.  Now the public sector can benefit from the advances in augmented reality made by private industry.  We are seeing similar effects of this symbiotic synergy in the transportation field, whether it's space travel, high-speed mass transit, or self-driving cars.   Despite what we are continually told by our presidential candidates and my own concerns about societal unraveling, we truly live in an amazing time.  Fraught with peril, to be sure, but also full of incredible possibility.  I can't wait to see what the next few decades will bring.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Play Your Heart Out

A little over a year ago, I celebrated Independence Day at Osan Air Base in South Korea.  The  51st Fighter Wing put on a terrific 4th of July Celebration, with food booths, informative displays, and live entertainment.  One of the performing acts was Alien Ant Farm, a nΓΌ-metal band best known for their 2001 cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

Although Alien Ant Farm’s type of music is not particularly in my wheelhouse, I enjoyed the show.  The band put forth a ton of energy and clearly enjoyed performing for the crowd.  At some point, it struck me: they didn’t have to play to that level.   This was a USO show for a relatively small crowd.   They most likely were going to pick up only a handful of new fans (if any) and have no real measurable increase in album sales due to this gig.

But none of that mattered.   Alien Ant Farm meet the definition of true professionals. They approach their work with a level of focus, energy and enthusiasm that does not vary based on the payoff or who is watching.  They performed in Osan as if this it was the Grammys or a Super Bowl halftime show. And they constantly seek to hone their craft, no matter where they are in the arc of their career. 

As leaders, we seek inspiration from a variety of sources.  The experience of watching Alien Ant Farm play their hearts out for us, and execute a flawless set, resonated with me.   Like the band, I get paid to do the job I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid.  Yet sometimes complacency slips in, the urge do the minimum required to fly safely and log the hours instead of ensuring we’re executing the most realistic and demanding training possible that day.   Or in my daily interactions with Sailors, I don’t always bring forth the enthusiasm I could and miss another chance to motivate and inspire.      

It shouldn’t matter if it’s a local training hop, a Red Flag event, or a combat sortie.  It shouldn’t matter if it’s a conversation in the passageway, a five-minute talk at squadron quarters, or a Change of Command speech.   I can always do better.   Fifteen months is a short amount of time to make an impact on an organization.  Every day, every flight, every conversation matters.  

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Week Like This

 On July 5th, Alton Sterling was shot and killed in Louisiana by Baton Rogue police as they had him pinned to the ground.   The next day police in St. Paul, Minnesota shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop.   On July 7th, at an event in Dallas protesting the two killings, a man systematically targeted and killed five police officers, in addition to wounding seven other officers and two civilians.  It was the deadliest single-day for American law enforcement since September 11th, 2001.

I'm not sure there is a way to "make sense" of a week like this.

I want to first start by making clear that there is no moral equivalency to the events I just outlined. The attack in Dallas was cold-blooded murder by a man intentionally targeting law enforcement officials.  His despicable actions took the lives of five public servants and endangered dozens of peaceful protestors.   The shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota are incredibly tragic and it will be some time before we know all the facts, but I approach it from the assumption that the police involved acted with the intention of protecting themselves and bystanders.  In that assumption, I admittedly bring forward the bias of my own perspective and experience.

Law enforcement, like military service, is an incredibly demanding job that requires great sacrifice in terms of hours worked, exposure to dangerous conditions, and a level of compensation not commensurate with the demands and risks involved.  I have the greatest respect for those brave men and women that choose this line of work, a group that includes close friends and family members.

But saying that the police may have felt they had need and reason to protect themselves does not by itself justify the killings or absolve them of responsibility.  High levels of risk do not mean you can shrug your shoulders and say, "Tragic events will happen in high-stress situations." Although we must wait for the investigations for these particular incidents before we pass judgement, we should always remember that in these situations, the onus is on the police to remain calm, clearly communicate instructions, and only escalate force to a level appropriate to the assessed threat.  Recent trends indicate that numerous local law enforcement agencies must make greater strides toward better training and greater professionalism within their ranks, such as those outlined by retired Detective Mike Conti of the Massachusetts State Police in a recent BBC interview (starts at the 7:15 mark).  It's a demanding job, and not everyone is going to have the character traits to be poised in extreme circumstances.  Better to find that out during the qualification process than on the streets.

Ultimately, we must reduce the level of violence in this country.  It runs a spectrum, from mass shootings and the assassination of police officers to tension-filled traffic stops and Walmart brawls. We are a long way from Alexis de Tocqueville's America.  Our civil society is unraveling.  Despite unprecedented levels of connectedness thanks to personal technology and social media, we are stove-piped and vacuum-sealed into the comfort zones of our own perspective.  We are hyper-partisan and have lost the ability to seek and find compromise:  on gun control, on criminal justice approaches, on combatting poverty, on education reform...on a whole host of policy questions that could help us become the best possible version of our great nation.

How do we reach such compromise?  I have some thoughts, but that's a whole other post...

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Instilling Traits and Values: Starting With the End in Mind

I wrote in a previous post that one of the ways my military career has influenced my parenting is the idea of “starting with the end in mind.”[1] For military professionals, the planning process cannot begin until you have a clearly defined end state.   Or in the words of a mentor of mine, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

When my oldest was not yet a year old, I was at sea on my third deployment and communication with my wife was limited primarily to email.  Although such a constraint can feel like a hindrance, it also opens up avenues to deeper discussion than verbal conversation.   Case in point, we began an email thread in which we shared our thoughts on what kind of adults we wanted our daughter (and future children) to be when they grew up.   In a very real sense, by agreeing on certain character traits that we sought for them, we were establishing “end states” for the important work of instilling values in our children.   The consensus we reached would serve to inform many of the choices we make as parents.   It is a conversation that my wife and I continue to have as we hone the list and adapt our parenting strategies to account for our children’s varied personalities.

Ultimately we came up with the following list of traits:

-Culturally and spiritually literate and tolerant. The educator E.D. Hirsch defined cultural literacy as  “that shifting body of information that our culture has found useful…the foundation of our public discourse.  It allows us to comprehend our daily newspapers and news reports, to understand our peers and leaders, and even to share our jokes.[2]  As an example, once my daughter began reading about Greek and Roman Mythology, she enjoyed the “Percy Jackson” series at a much more profound level and understood why the NASA craft currently in Jupiter’s orbit would be named “Juno.” Ultimately, we want our children familiar with as much culture as possible, including the world’s religions.  Such familiarity we hope will breed tolerance vice contempt.    

-Able to think for themselves.  This is the step beyond cultural literacy.  In the words of Hirsch, “Cultural literacy is shallow; true education is deep.” [3]  We try to encourage critical thinking.  Sometimes this involves answering a question with another question.  (“Why do YOU think it gets cold in the wintertime?”)  When discussing topics such as politics and religion – which we don’t shy from – we often suppress our own opinions, or at least make clear distinctions between facts and personal opinions.

-Confident in their values, morals, and decisions.  This might be the toughest yet most important quality to instill.  Being a “navy brat” and having to adapt to new situations can lead to a chameleon-like qualities.  How do we prevent that?  I have no easy answers.  We try to model appropriate behavior and give our children opportunities to make the types of mistakes that build confidence.  Even before they get to the wider socialization at school, we work to ensure our children, in their interactions with siblings and peers, can strike the balance between cooperation and standing up for themselves. 

-Willing to respectfully question authority.  With confidence instilled, we want our children to then be comfortable in speaking truth to power.   (That includes to their parents.) The other night, my daughter and I were watching “The Martian.”   There is a great scene where the mission director must make a choice between doing what he thinks is right or obeying the direction provided by his boss.   I paused the movie, and we had a lengthy discussion about when it’s acceptable to question and even disobey authority.

-Intellectually curious.  This can’t be forced.  Instead, it’s a spark that must be lit through a variety of activities: reading to them, taking them to museums, asking questions.   One method that’s proven successful for us is linking current popular culture interests with wider intellectual topics.  For example, Harry Potter and Star Wars can lead to a discussion of archetypes and why so many great stories include similar characters, like the wise wizards represented by Dumbledore and Obi Wan Kenobi. 

-Equally comfortable in the outdoors and in the city.  Whether navigating a hiking trail or a subway system, both environments require specific survival skills.  My wife, born and raised in Philadelphia, handles instilling “street smarts”, while I rely on my scouting and military experiences to show them how to use a map and compass or build a campsite. 

-Competitive but sportsmanlike.   This transcends participation in sports, and builds on the previous discussion of confidence.   We want them to shine as individuals, but never at the expense of the team.  To always strive for greater improvement but within the framework of fair play.    

-Hard Workers.  There is a tendency, when we talk about “talent”, to assume that at a basic level, you must be initially good at something to eventually be great at it.  Instead, we want our children to understand that even if a skill or activity (math, swimming, playing an instrument) doesn’t come naturally to them, it doesn’t mean they can’t eventually master it. We foster this by how we give praise (“You worked so hard” vs. “You did so well”) as well as discussing times in our own lives when we had to work hard to overcome a lack of ability.

-Willing to embrace failure and learn from mistakes.  This is closely related to the previous discussion about work ethic.  A fear of failure might prevent them from trying, and becoming, whatever they want.   This is tough, because as parents we spend a lot of time correcting our children and pointing out mistakes.   Much of this is necessary for their development (and basic survival).   However, I know I can do a much better job of giving my kids the space they need to make mistakes and learn from them.   (This applies to leadership at work as well)

-Successful. This has nothing to do with income or status.   It means achieving whatever occupation or vocation they want, as long as it's honest work and it gives them fulfillment.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

[1] See Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
[2] Hirsch, E.D., et al, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, (1988), ix.
[3] Ibid, xv.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Our Fragile Democracy

A few weeks ago, my daughter asked me a really fascinating question: “You said the colonies started the American Revolution because they were being taxed without having representatives in the British government.  What if the British had just let us have representatives?”[1]

The question opens up a great deal of possibilities.  Parliament, in ceding that the Colonies deserved representation, could have potentially quenched the flames of rebellion that sparked during the Stamp Act Riots in 1765.   Would we then have gained independence later, in a more peaceful and deliberate process, in the manner of Australia and Canada?  Would Canada and the Thirteen Colonies have merged into one nation during such a process?  What impact would a delayed independence have had on Manifest Destiny?   Once the French lost Haiti to a slave revolt and therefore no longer needed New Orleans, would they have been equally willing to sell the Louisiana territory to their rivals in Great Britain as they were to sell it to President Jefferson?  (Without the American Revolution, would there still have been a revolution in either France or Haiti?)

Or would the colonists still have found reason to revolt?   Perhaps allowing representation would have simply delayed the inevitable.  Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar writes, “Not that colonists really wanted direct representation in Parliament.  A small number of Americans amid a sea of British legislators would likely be consistently outvoted.  Moreover, those few colonial representatives…might easily lose a sense of connection with their constituents when living in a grand imperial city an ocean away…[and] might ultimately become part of the problem rather than the solution.” [2]

In all likelihood, the Colonists would have had additional grievances with British rule, beyond “Taxation without Representation”.  But would such complaints have resonated as well with the average colonial?  Would they have equally tipped the precarious balance of risk vs. reward that every colonist had to consider during the revolution? 

I’m a big believer in the idea that history is not predetermined by large impersonal forces, that it hinges on contingency and individual agency.[3]  The independence and freedom we celebrate today was never a sure thing.   The British Army had numerous opportunities to defeat the rebellion on the battlefield.  Once we gained our independence, the shape of our government could have very well taken a different form.   The Constitution, as drafted, barely passed the ratification process amidst highly partisan debate.  
Our Nation, our form of representative democracy, has always been an experiment unlike any other.   Today we celebrate not just a decision made in 1776, but all the choices we’ve made along the way to ensure the survival of our fragile democracy.    

 Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

[1] Perhaps this interest in alternative histories has sprung from the episodes of “Voyagers” that I introduced her to.  Or maybe because her brother has been watching “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” on constant repeat. 
[2]  Amar, Akil Reed, America’s Constitution: A Biography (2005): 40.
[3] Schuyler, Robert Livingston. "Contingency in History." Political Science Quarterly 74, no. 3 (1959): 321-33.