Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My First Year in the Navy

Iwo Jima Class Amphibious Assault Ship, LPH

USS Jouett (CG-29)

It's been a while since I wrote about my adventure in the Navy, and I feel the urge to get back into it now, so ...

After graduating from Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI in Feb of 1981, I was to eventually to make my way to the USS Tripoli, which was homeported in San Diego, CA. The Tripoli was an LPH, an Iwo Jima class amphibious assault ship - all but one of this ship class, the "one" being the USS Inchon which is serving as a mine countermeasure ship, are decommissioned, with Tripoli taken out of service in 1995. She was large in size as ships go -
not as big as a modern aircraft carrier (though to get a sense of her size, the first three ships designated as LPHs, which were built differently from the later LPHs, were Essex-class aircraft carriers from WWII - today's carriers are about twice the size of the fully loaded Essex class ships) but bigger than the average surface ship floating around in the inventory at that time.

Going to the Tripoli wasn't what you'd call an ideal job for a new surface officer (the Navy's communities were broken into three main groups (there are many small communities as well, but the three main groups make up the lion's share of the Navy community), aviators who went to fly, submariners who went to submarines, and surface officers who went to any of the many ships in the Navy's surface ship inventory) inasmuch as LPHs weren't considered "fighting" ships like frigates, destroyers, cruisers, and, at the time once again, battleships were. Moreover an LPH supported two functions that the surface line community didn't have much use for, Marines (she carried a little over 1700 Marines during a deployment) and helicopters used to deliver Marines to the beach, or wherever they were to "storm". The ship's captain was a Navy aviator, similar to a "regular" aircraft carrier and in keeping with the ship's primary raison d’être, which was aviation focused. So Tripoli was designed to support Marines and aviation, which meant that surface warfare officers (SWOs), who were really on the Earth to support war at sea on board ships with guns and missiles, neither of which had much place on an LPH, didn't have much of a place on board. Bottom line, not what you'd consider to be an optimal assignment for a new surface officer.

The one good thing about the Tripoli was that she was on the west coast, which was ultimately where I wanted to go just to be somewhere different for a few years having lived in NYC my whole life. On the whole it didn't matter much to me that I wasn't going to an ideal SWO slot, though it did rub me wrong to some degree. This all came down to my class standing, never
particularly high due to my low grades in military bearing and the general sense of my company officer (shared with me in private one day during a "counseling" session) that on some level I didn't really see myself as belonging in this organization. The higher up in class rank you were the more options you had to for going to what you wanted to go, wherever that might be, and running in essentially in the middle of the pack didn't leave many options, though getting on the west coast wasn't that hard.

I left Rhode Island in February to go to Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) in San Diego, CA. At that time there was a SWOS on the east coast and one on the west coast, and those assigned to west coast ships went to San Diego for SWOS. SWOS training was a 20 week school for all new surface warfare officers going to ships for the first time, at least as officers (there was a number of us who were prior-enlisted personnel before going to OCS and they'd been on ships before.) You learned all the basics here, and if there was a need for follow-on schools you left from SWOS to those, and then finally wound up at whatever ship you'd be assigned to. The problem for me was that school didn't start until June, leaving me with three months in between. The Navy had a way of dealing with this, as one would expect, and that was to send new officers in-between schools as "stashes" on ships - this way the Navy didn't have to pay per diem or living expenses, and ostensibly the newly minted Navy Ensigns would get some bonafide experience to help season them as new officers. My stash assignment was to the USS Jouett (CG-29), a cruiser in what was termed at the time a baseline overhaul, which essentially meant she was having major work done on her from stem to stern, all at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. At the time Long Beach was a shipyard actually owned and operated by the Navy, a business it has since gotten itself out of.

The Jouett was a cruiser (she, along with the rest of her class, was decommissioned in the 1993 to 1995 time frame after 30 years of service), an honest-to-God fighting ship, with a weapons suite that at the time was pretty much going to be top-of-the-line as these things go as soon as she was done with her overhaul. Jouett was one of 9 Belknap class cruisers, which meant she had a single 5" gun aft and a double-armed missile mount forward (in the lingo of the day a "double-armed bandit".). She also carried torpedoes and anti-submarine rockets which gave her an independent anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability, and she was outfitted with quad-tubes carrying a total of 8 Harpoon anti-ship missiles when they came into fad in the 80's. The Belknap stood in contrast to the other predominate cruiser class at the time, the Leahy-class cruisers (all nine of those decommissioned in the same time frame as the Belknaps), whose main difference was in having two missile launchers, a double-armed launcher both forward and aft; in all other respects the ships were essentially the same, with the same appearance and engineering suite.

At this point in my life, a new Navy Ensign, going to California, I was in for quite an adventure and one that at the start was so for reasons I wouldn't have expected. Long Beach Naval Shipyard, as it turns out, is found between the cities of Long Beach to the south, and San Pedro to the north. The facility itself was located on an island, very aptly named Terminal Island, situated in between both cities and connected to them via a long bridge, half of which started in San Pedro (or Long Beach, your choice) and ended on Terminal Island, and then started on Terminal Island and ended in Long Beach. My problem was that I came to Terminal Island sans a driver's license, which therefore meant that my only way of getting from the base to anywhere else was through the good graces of a shipmate or via public transportation, and I soon came to realize that California's notion of public transportation comes nowhere near what I came to expect and understand growing up in NYC.

Well that sets the stage for the first part of my beginning year in the Navy, till next time ...

Saturday, February 25, 2006

All Stolen From PostSecret

The Memory of a Killer

The Memory of a Killer Poster

A good movie for a snowy Saturday - well, I'll even go one better, a good movie, period, regardless of the weather. A Flemish cinematic experience and, to be honest, I'm not sure I've had one of those before. The story is not terribly original, but it has enough going for it with the actors and the overall fast pace that you're likely to enjoy it as we did. Give it a go, I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Friday, February 24, 2006


Inasmuch as I'm reading James Risen's book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration", and Risen was one of the two reporters responsible for outing the NSA surveillance program, this cartoon seemed especially apropos with my mindset of late.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Time for Another Bushie Reflection

Ok, maybe the cartoon's not entirely fair, I mean Hitler may have been intelligent but that didn't stop him from murdering some 9 million people, and winning military campaigns in the end doesn't matter much if, as it turns out, you in fact lose the war (just ask Robert E. Lee.) But it's sort of nasty enough as cartoons go and right now I'm particularly not happy with regard to G.W. Bush, but then you can legitimately ask, "So what else is not new?". Ok, so this go around I have the time to rant a bit about it and maybe that will make me feel better in the end.

I've been reading a lot in my time off, and, thank God, it's not all school stuff. I'm well into James Risen's "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration" and have just read Paul Pillar's piece in the March/April 2006 edition of Foreign Affairs (Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq). I learned about Pillar from Terry Gross' "Fresh Air", specifically her show for 16 Feb, CIA Terror Expert Charges Politicized Intelligence, where Pillar came on to discuss his Foreign Affairs article. I would say that these three things have resulted in a tipping point for me vis-a-vis how not happy I am with this administration.

Risen, the reporter for the NY Times who was in part responsible for exposing the administration's wiretapping/email reading activities through the NSA, makes an extraordinary case for how the administration and its peons were doing everything they could to make a case for invading Iraq, regardless of however much the evidence supported the fact that Iraq was not a threat to this country. Anyone who's followed this issue knows that the administration was embarrassed when nothing was found in Iraq vis-a-vis weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but hey, anyone can make a mistake, right? Well, it goes beyond that, it goes to the point where there's flat out no reason why the administration should have concluded that such weapons existed at all, and the only reason that the CIA and anyone else out there gave the impression that there was a WMD problem was because the administration wanted one to exist so as to justify what it subsequently went off and did.

Let me be more specific, there was a CIA official by the name of Charlie Allen. Realizing that the CIA knew next to nothing about what was actually going on inside of Iraq he and right before the actual invasion came up with the rather clever idea of asking the American relatives of scientists involved in Iraqi WMD programs to go back to the country and speak to their relatives to find out from them where the programs were at. The relatives were provided very specific questions and in the end some 30 went in and returned. And this is what came from that:

"All of them --- some thirty --- had said the same thing. They all reported to the CIA that the scientists had said that Iraq's programs to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons had long since been abandoned. Charlie Allen's program to use family members to contact dozens of Iraqi scientists had garnered remarkable results and given the CIA an accurate assessment of the abandoned state of Iraq's weapons programs before the U.S. invasion in March 2003." (page 106, Risen)

The end result of this amazing intelligence coup? Well as you might have guessed, it was ignored, flat out ignored, buried, no one in a position to make a difference was briefed on it, and it didn't see the light of day, at least at any point where it may have made any difference in how events transpired vis-a-vis this country and Iraq. Risen doesn't directly blame Bush for this. Rather he points to jealousy within the CIA itself, specifically against Allen and his success, so his information was ignored and now we're in a hole for thousands of American lives, many more Iraqi lives, and how much money I've simply lost track. Indirectly the case can be made against Bush - the fact was he, and those working for him, weren't interested in this sort of information as it didn't support his doing what he wanted to do.

Ok, any kind reader who's gone this far is no doubt saying, "Hey, something of a leap there big guy, I mean if the president wasn't informed why is he responsible for this withholding of information which, had it been known, would have ruined the principle casus belli for this entire adventure?" Well, here's where Pillar's article comes in (not that Risen elsewhere in his book doesn't make enough of a case for this). The following is the summary to the article:

"During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, writes the intelligence community's former senior analyst for the Middle East, the Bush administration disregarded the community's expertise, politicized the intelligence process, and selected unrepresentative raw intelligence to make its public case."

The Bush administration and it's major cheerleaders, Rumsfeld and Cheney, were doing what they could to shape intelligence to tell the story they wanted it to tell, vice letting the intelligence tell the story on its own. This was most egregiously the case in the Pentagon, specifically under Douglas Feith who organized the "Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group." Feith's group was responsible for taking the "raw" intelligence mentioned by Pillar, and kneading and squeezing it into what the administration wanted to hear. Feith and his immediate boss Paul Wolfowitz, didn't trust the CIA, didn't trust the professional intelligence analysts, and they were strongly convinced, alas for largely ideological reasons, that the evidence to support what the administration wanted to do was there, it simply needed to be coaxed out and taken out of the hands of CIA naysayers.

So what do we get for all of this? Essentially we were lied to by an administration that:

- manipulated intelligence information that was only used after it was run through an ideological filter

- didn't conduct anywhere near the honest due diligence that, of all things, an invasion of another country would require

- has since changed its tune from entering Iraq because of the danger of WMD to that of exporting democracy to the world, something the American people would not have likely bought into when this whole thing started and the planning for which, if ever this was a serious "export" consideration, was lacking to the point of flat out negligence and ineptitude

- and, lastly, has handed the American people a bill for our folly in Iraq that's continuing to grow daily with no immediate end in sight, and with nothing close to a guarantee that what we get out of this is going to be substantively more in our favor than what we started with. What we do know is that it sure and hell isn't going to result in Osama bin Laden, or most of his followers, being caught - for 200 plus billions of dollars that might have ameliorated the wool being pulled over our eyes by our own officials, but not by much

and, bottom line, we have an administration that's not being held accountable for any of this, which truly stretches the neurons in my brain.

Later I'll rant about taxes, our love affairs with torture, and anything else about Bush that at the time has caught my ire - bet ya can't wait, right?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Oh How the Time Flies ...

"Time Flies" courtesy of Barbara Wills Designs

I just finished moving my computer from the living room into, of all places, the kitchen. Not much choice there, my wife's computer has to come out of the bedroom to make room for the crib that I'll be piecing together tomorrow. Therefore the only place for her computer is the living room inasmuch as my mother-in-law, God bless her soul, is now sleeping there and I wouldn't be able to use my computer at the odd hours I'm inclined to if I didn't move my
computer. So, into the kitchen we go.

An odd day on the whole, one that was focused on doing lots of laundry. Of course there was the stuff we normally have to do on a weekly basis, but then there was the need to clean all of the baby's newly bought stuff and that was a funny experience. The baby's stuff wasn't washed with everything else, in fact she has her own detergent, Dreft. I never heard of Dreft before, but I suppose that just measures to some degree my parental obliviousness factor. As soon as the baby was solidly on the horizon little gems like Dreft popped up. After being told about it we found it in our local supermarket where we bought a box of the stuff. Yesterday, running through Costco, we found that it's also in liquid form so we bought a large 128 oz bottle of it there - I'm pretty sure that at this point I can do the neighborhood baby laundry for at
least a week.

But the laundry thing caught me. I never considered what goes through my mind when I took laundry out of the machines we use to clean and dry our clothes. On the whole it's a mindless activity really, at least it is for me. There are times, though, when you hit on something like, "Wow, I really like this sweatshirt and how it smells", or some recollection that's tied to a specific piece of clothing. It's a bit odder when you find yourself doing someone else's laundry as well, something I hadn't had to do for many years and now, in the last three, I've had my wife's clothes to deal with, too. There's an intimacy of a sort that goes with doing someone else's laundry, you're sharing secrets directly and indirectly, and it's been a change for me to have to mingle someone else's stuff with mine. But this baby laundry thing, that was different.

Of course the baby's not here yet, though we're at the 37th week so the baby is totally viable at this point and it's a matter of any day now. We have tons of clothing for her, from family and friends, in fact now that I think about it I'm not sure we've bought anything at all for the baby when it comes to clothes. Touching her clothes, smelling them after the first wash, and then loading them all into the laundry bag to bring them back into the apartment, was all so strange. I was handling the clothing for a person that's not here yet, that will be a major part of my life, that will be adding significantly to future loads of laundry, that ... well, you get the idea, or maybe I really can't adequately explain the whole thing. What I know is that I had this strange sense of so much changing very soon, and that it's not just computers being moved around the house that will drastically be different very soon.

I retired from the Navy four years ago, got married three years ago, started a new job as a teacher six months ago, and now we're having a baby. I must be a glutton for change, upheaval, or whatever one uses to describe pulling the carpet out from under one's legs on a fairly routine basis. I'm not sure that this is necessarily a bad thing, and on the whole I do seem to flow with the whole thing fairly well, but then it does cause me to wonder about myself and life in general, and where it's all going and the company I'll be keeping as I go along the way.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Darn If He Isn't Right ...


Courtesy of Garry Trudeau and UComics.com

I don't think it would have ever occurred to me until seeing this this morning, but damn it's true. In this case the apple fell VERY far from the tree.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

How Ethical Are Scientists?

I suppose the title to this post would infer that I think the majority of scientists aren't ethical, and that's not the case at all. But there's a significant number of them out there that clearly have a problem with ethics. What seems to be a big problem with this group of people is that for some reason they don't seem to see there being any problem with doing something that's unethical, and not just something small but something that would be seen without much difficulty by the average Jane or Joe as unethical or certainly very ethically questionable. The case in point that caught my attention was University Panel Faults Cloning Co-Author in today's NY Times.

The article is about Dr. Gerald Schatten, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who allegedly co-authored the now infamous human cloning paper published in Science with the South Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo Suk. Schatten's co-authoring in this case seemed to have amounted to little more than doing what he could (what that was is not made clear) to help Hwang have a paper addressing his cloning work, or rather his fabricated cloning work, accepted in Science after it was originally rejected by this prestigious journal. For this effort Schatten was made a co-author on a paper he apparently never bothered to critically read or otherwise in anyway contribute, he was provided $40,000 in honorariums, and he applied through Hwang for a $200,000 grant which was expected to be renewed yearly. While the grant would otherwise seem to be an unreasonable expectation, it needs to be recalled that Hwang, after his paper was published and the acclaim of the world and his country was being lavished upon him, was knee deep in money from the South Korean government and other sources, so funding Schatten would not have been beyond him to do.

Schatten at some point clearly went over the edge on ethical behavior, and of late we read about doctors receiving drug company honorariums that are far beyond anything the doctors in question could legitimately be doing besides being bought off. These are the more egregious examples of late, but what has me wondering are those cases that aren't likely to make it into the Times but are otherwise a part of the standard operating procedure in academia. It's the petty ethical breaches that occur so commonly which, I believe, lead to something extraordinary as exemplified by Schatten.

Why do American professors like foreign-trained graduate students and post-docs? Many would argue that it's because they can't find Americans who are equally as qualified because we're not pumping out the students with the necessary training and abilities. While there's undoubtedly truth to this I also see that the foreigners in question are more apt to work long hours, not take their vacations, and otherwise be unaware of their benefits/rights when it comes to employment in this country. Those that are aware are often are too afraid to ask questions out of fear of losing their position or their visa renewal and the complications that come with that, and there are a lot of professors out there who unconcernedly take advantage of this, sometimes deliberately and other times by deliberate ignorance.

At a local ivy-league university post-docs are paid for 11 vice 12 months, with the expectation that that 1 month without pay (that doesn't really occur, the 11 months of pay is pro-rated over 12 months) is for vacation. Would you like to guess how many post-docs actually get a month off? Do you think there's anyone tracking this? This struck me especially as when I was in the Navy every year you earned 30 days of time off, though the Navy seems to be more enlightened than this particular university inasmuch as we were given 30 days of paid time off. As a supervisor as I was expected to track how much time off my people took and ensure that they in fact did take time off before they lost the time they may have accrued (anything above, if I remember correctly, 65 days could be lost.) If any of your subordinates actually lost time, or went for more than two years without having some time off, you could easily find yourself
in a difficult situation with your own superiors. How many universities have such oversight?

How many post-docs or graduates work at the whim of their mentor/principal investigator on projects that stretch on for years without going anywhere, but especially not resulting in a paper of any significance that would in turn allow the student/post-doc themselves to go somewhere to get their careers on track? How many institutions have an oversight committee for this?

One more thing, which Schatten stands accused of is phantom-authorship on a scientific paper. How many scientists out there find their names on papers that they've essentially not done a thing for? In Schatten's case he seems to have managed to at least get the paper published in Science, no small thing on its own, but did he deserve co-authorship for a paper he didn't contribute a smidgen of work to, especially when his services were otherwise very clearly rewarded? Many senior scientists find their names appearing miraculously on papers that they haven't contributed to in any substantive way, and while they may not be directly making money for this in the way that Schatten did their remuneration arrives in other ways. This amazes me and it's common, so in a strict sense were Schatten to be taken to the dunking chair for this one he'd have a LOT of company. How is such fraud allowed to happen, and how in the world can anyone justify doing it?

I suppose those who otherwise may be inclined to think they're somehow above their fellow citizens intellectually can easily find themselves in situations that are beyond the ethical pale, but since they see themselves as different it seems that how the rules apply to them should also be different. As I said, the egregious cases like Schatten's make for a lot of head shaking, but the fact is that the scientific community is largely unchecked and unregulated when it comes to how it treats its people and how it obtains its money (there are more restrictions on the money and how it's used, though how it's brought in clearly seems to often enough fall into a gray zone), and it shouldn't come as a surprise that abuses will occur, and indeed be institutionalized. It's not just the scientific community, these problems are some of the prime reasons that graduate students have tried to put together a union, which has been strongly opposed by most universities.

Cleaning house of people like Schatten is easy enough, just give them enough bad press and cut their funding and they're gone - but that's not going to solve a ethical problems that need to be more closely looked at and corrected for, and which are far more pervasive then I think many would care to admit.

Friday, February 03, 2006

We're Getting Close

Sogand at 35 Weeks
Sogand at 35 Weeks

We're in the home stretch at this point. Sogand is due in about four weeks. Today we had what is now turning into our weekly doctor's appointment before Sogand arrives and the doctor wanted to do an ultrasound because there were a few things she wanted to be sure of that weren't so clear on the physical examination. While the purpose was entirely clinical it's hard to steer away from getting those extra pictures, and indeed we did, this being one of about 12. You can see Sogand's full lips and her small nose (she, according to my lovely wife, has my wife's lips and my nose, which makes my wife very happy), and you can get a sense of her hand coming up in front of her face. She's head down in mommy, situating herself for her eventual arrival in the world.

It's so weird, she's a person now more so than at any time in the past when we had a chance to see her (oh, just to say so, but we had it confirmed that Sogand is indeed a girl), with some of the images clearly showing a face, she's starting to exercise her diaphragm in preparation for when she'll be breathing apart from mom, and her heart is a strong 144 beats per minute. This whole thing is so amazing, being able to see her like this is incredible and sobering, and I'm looking forward to the next phase of this adventure beginning, which it shall, very soon.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Interested in Science Writing? Well Visit the

The Tangled Bank

Of course that I have something published there this week has nothing at all to do with this unsolicited advertisement ...

The Middle Eastern Hugo Chavez: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


Chavez and Ahmadinejad together during a visit by Chavez to Tehran in 2004

An article by Michael Slackman in Monday’s NY Times, A New Face in Iran Resurrects an Old Defiance, caused me to appreciate how Ahmadinejad and Chavez have more in common than not, and in that context also caused me to appreciate what I think is the true danger Ahmadinejad represents. It's not that he's a conservative, and strictly speaking it's not accurate to label him that way, but rather that he represents a not-so-old way of thinking that is finding traction again in Iran, and given the way things are going and unless the reformists can do something to change their present position, it may well be that he could represent the future for Iran.

Chavez's came to power through the support of the Venezuelan poor and disenfranchised. He's also delivering for them, and this comes in the form of money or the things that money can buy, and a petro-rich country like Venezuela currently has a lot of both. On a similar but slight different note, Hamas is voted into office, in spite of the fact that putting them there threatens aid money from the west, primarily because the people had had it with the corruption
and lack of change that came with the Fatah party and were willing to risk what came with Hamas - again, a populist appeal to the masses and the masses put in charge the person or group most likely to deliver. And now we have Ahmadinejad, a man of the people by all accounts, uncorrupt, religious, and apparently quite sincere, and the people seem to like him.

A couple of days ago in Put the Blame Where the Blame Belongs, I took exception with Hossein
Derekhshan's Op-Ed piece in the NY Times. Now more than ever I see his piece as an attempt by a member of the Iranian intelligentsia, who I'm sure speaks for many with reformist tendencies in and out of Iran, to escape the fact that Ahmadinejad is in power because the reformists and their supporters screwed up, specifically by losing touch with the world outside of Tehran, and truth be told even with a large part of the population in Tehran itself. Ahmadinejad is supported by those people who have gotten the least from their government, who have little to be happy about with the reformists, and who 27 years ago were expecting the most from overthrowing the Shah, but instead have seen little change. These people are fed up with the corruption that is so much a part of their lives, and with not being able to understand why an oil-rich nation like Iran has had little positive to add to their lives; Ahmadinejad, quite literally, is the answer to their prayers.

What was worst about Derekshan's piece was his indulging an unfortunate Middle Eastern tendency to blame the U.S. for whatever's going wrong in that part of the world - of course the CIA is everywhere, our Zionist proclivities stain our policies and actions, and the U.S. is the only superpower around so it's therefore logically reasonable to therefore think it's responsible for everything that goes wrong. It's certainly easier to blame George Bush, or the U.S. government for the problems with the last Iranian election, but it diverts from the fact that what got Ahmadinejad into power is not unlike what put Chavez or Hamas in power, i.e. appealing to the poor and neglected. What's worse in Ahmadinejad's case is that he's a religious zealot in a theocracy, and moreover he's dancing to the tune of a dead Ayatollah, in this case Khomeini, who brought us the Iranian revolution of '79 and whose message, parroted faithfully today by Ahmadinejad, played well with the people when he was still alive.

Ahmadinejad's danger is that he's playing to a base of supporters who long for the deliverance that was promised by Khomeini, but which never materialized. Ahmadinejad wants to deliver on the promise of the revolution, and if he truly gets his hands on the reigns of power, and it would seem he's moving in that direction, not only the reformists but the conservatives will rue that day. A a zealot like Ahmadinejad will pull the rug out from under the established system in Iran, bringing in God only knows what but something that will appeal to the masses, though not the intelligentsia or the money and power loving conservatives, and will clearly put Iran at odds with the west, which seems to be happening more and more everyday.