Decision Making

USS Key West Completes Mobile Logistics Demonstration with USNS Richard E. Byrd

This isn’t really related and I hate to put everything in a military context but I hadn’t posted a picture in a while. This one’s not mine it’s from the Navy.

In a class today (as I’m writing this), we talked about decision making. The context was the whole pandemic thing going on, and the tendency of leaders who are worried about liability to wait on data to make a decision they already know they need to make. The advice was to put a lid on the amount of data you need to make a decision. That is, instead of always wanting for data, which is a dangerous path because there is always more data that you both could get and more data that you wish you could have, decide what data is truly important to make the decision. When you have that data, go ahead and make the decision. An objection was raised, in that some decisions are so monumental and the outcomes so unknowable, such as injection aerosols into the atmosphere to halt climate change, that you might never know the amount of data needed to make the decision, and simultaneously it might be better to wait.

Having made a number of decisions when I was in the Navy, I have a framework for how I think about decisions. An upfront point I want to make, and it is an insight I learned from an Animorphs book, is that not making a decision is just as much making a decision as making a decision is. That is, you can never really delay a decision, or choose not to make the decision. You are merely choosing to do nothing now, and then maybe do something later. Or you are choosing to let someone else make the decision, but that doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of putting the decision in their hands. That is, you have chosen to let other factors or other people make the decision for you. That can sound nice, but since you chose to let someone else make the decision, the responsibility for the outcome of their decision still rests with you.

I also like to say that I used to think that 99% of decisions don’t matter, but now I think that it is something more like 99.999% of decisions don’t matter, or maybe none at all do. The important thing is that a decision is actually made. My favorite depiction of this was in the movie Battle: Los Angeles. In the movie (if I remember correctly), Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz is haunted by a decision he made in Iraq when leading his squad. They came to a fork in the road, and he had to choose to go left or right. He chose one, his squad was ambushed, and all his squadmembers killed. But the outcome of the decision was unknowable. He had no way to tell that if he chose a particular route, they would be ambushed. But he had to make a decision; they couldn’t just sit there. So he made a decision, and it went poorly, and although he was responsible for the outcome of that decision, it wasn’t his fault. So I hesitate to say any decision matters because the counter-factual is unknowable. If you do your best in making a decision, and make that decision decisively, and accept responsibility for the outcome, then you can’t beat yourself up over how else things could have gone.

The next bit is to address how to know when you are doing your best in making a decision. As a Division Officer and a Watch Officer, I messed a whole lot of stuff up. Like a whole lot of stuff. I was responsible for two incident reports (not actually the ship record I think), and for at least part of I think every year I was there I was responsible for the majority of critiques. Maybe it’s not the most healthy thing, but when I was making a decision I started to think, if everything went horribly wrong, how I would explain my decision at the critique. Could I articulate my thought process that lead me to a decision? Was there an obvious thing I could have done to mitigate a bad outcome? If I decided to forgo something, was I able to explain my risk calculation is forgoing it? What were the factors influencing my decision? Was I harried, tired, rushed, lazy? Most of all, was my decision reasonable?

If, in the world where every risk we took went south and things blew up horribly, I could imagine myself still successfully explaining my actions, then I figured the decision was good to go.

As a leadership point, I think one important skill to practice is actually making decisions. Especially in a scenario like a Navy ship, where the Engineer or the XO or the Captain are just a phone call away and encourage you to call them, and where they’re paranoid about letting you run free anyways, it’s easy to just keep shoving decisions up a level. Call up the Engineer and ask for advice or permission for things. Instead, you have to consciously make every single decision you are allowed to make. I would get frustrated when other people stood Officer of the Deck and didn’t take advantage of the situation to do as many practical factors for people qualifying as possible. You had a whole nuclear-powered warship at your disposal to do pretty much anything you wanted! Surface the thing! Dive again! Ventilate! Snorkel! Do Williamson turns for funsies! But no instead people would do boring stuff because they were afraid to make a decision. One way I tried to fight this was by making small decisions. As soon as I took the watch I liked to change course, speed, and depth by as small a factor as possible, usually one degree or one turn. By making small decisions, and by encouraging my under-instructs to make small decisions, it makes you more comfortable and practiced in making the large decisions when the moment calls for it.

Farm Country

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Reading this week:

  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

This past weekend, my super amazing and super smart and super good-looking girlfriend, who is all those things not only because she is the sole regular reader of this blog, and I had an opportunity for a socially distanced change of scenery, aka spending a few days in an unoccupied house her parents own. So we went! It was really nice being able to spend a few days in her hometown. I even sorta kinda got to meet her parents, from an appropriately social distance. Now I can put accurate imagery to all her stories of her youth.

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Some of the most interesting stuff going on was happening in her own back yard. In the area several different solar farms have popped up. I’m all for solar, even if I like nuclear power more, and given the massive area of land that it will take to generate a sufficient amount of solar-powered electricity, we all need to get used to having solar panels near us and around us. But solar panels are of course contentious, unfortunately. People tend to think they change the character of the place. One of the more disappointing things about Yale is that apparently the thing keeping them from covering the whole place in solar panels is that they want to maintain the look of the place. Kinda sad that even at the liberal tree-hugging bastion that is purportedly Yale saving the planet ranks lower than aesthetics (not that a few solar panels on Yale are going to save the planet or anything).

The other interesting development is that nearby a marijuana farm is moving in. This, like solar panels, is also contentious. But soon you’ll be able to stand on the hill and look over fields of solar panels and weed, which has have been the weird wet dream of at least certain hippies back in the ’70s or something. I don’t live in the place, and I didn’t grow up in the place, but a large part of me thinks that these changes should be embraced. Solar farms and marijuana farms aren’t exactly traditional agriculture, but they are farms nonetheless, no?

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Although we had to stay socially distant from people, that was very much not true of animals. And fortunately new forms of rural land use have not yet pushed out the wide variety of pastoralism in the region, so there were very many animals to pet. Reviewing my photos, my new kink appears to be pictures of my girlfriend scratching animals’ snouts:

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Emmett, the friendly ram.

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I like this photo because it looks like this super-cute calf is like INTO whatever she’s got on her hand.

The real bonanza for animals was the local Hancock Shaker Village. The Village is currently closed due to pandemic, but my girlfriend knows some people and was able to take me around for the tour. The place is super cool and I am excited to go back when it’s open and I can see woodworking and blacksmithing and hopefully even more animals. My favorite part was Pepper, the extremely friendly cat pictured up top, who liked to climb on people and demand scritches. These are some of the absolute best cat traits. I carried her around as we checked out the animals, which included a barn full of little babies and even more animals around the grounds. These were a small fraction of the total animals that reside at the Village when it is up and running.

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Oh, to be a Very Large pig, relaxing in my pig house.

When we weren’t living the authentic life of a 19th Century Shaker, we spent most of the time in the house, relaxing. And also doing like, homework. We’re grad students, you know, and this involves a lot of homework even or maybe especially in the midst of a pandemic. But when the work got to be too much you could look out the wind and view grazing sheep.

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So it was an idyllic few days up in farm country, looking at animals, snuggling on the couch, and eating delicious mac n’ cheese and even more delicious ham. We eventually left in the midst of some rain, to return to sitting in our own apartments. I’m excited to come back up when the weather is nice enough and we can watch clouds that look like sheep go by, and have sheep that look like clouds nibble our pockets.IMG_4870

Barn find (not really).

Plebe Summer Part V: A Love Story

This is hopefully my last “Plebe Summer” post, though depending on how long this pandemic lasts I reserve the right to circle back around.

The story I should have actually told by now in my Plebe Summer series is that I was dating another Plebe at the time. This has gotta be fairly unique. Sure, you meet a lot of people over Plebe Summer, but it’s not exactly a great time to meet someone.

Let’s call her K. I was in love. I was in love with that teenage love that made her seem like she was the only part of the world really in focus. We had started dating in High School. We were in the same program, and it was a small program, so we knew each other. Senior year I finally asked her out and she accepted. We didn’t start dating because of our mutual desire to go to the Naval Academy, but I guess having mutual interests doesn’t hurt. Like the majority of women in my life, she was much more dedicated and organized and tenacious than me, and she had been much more successful far earlier in the application process than I was, and was accepted way before I was. We talked briefly at one point about my backup plan if I didn’t get in, which consisted entirely of hitchhiking to Florida, stealing a sailboat, and going to the Caribbean.

Thankfully, I did eventually of course get in. The first thing I did was drive to K’s place to show her my acceptance packet. That was a good day. So we knew we had the rest of the semester together, and our short summer, and then it was off to the Academy. We didn’t plan on seeing each other much over the summer. You don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself as a Plebe, and having another Plebe as a girlfriend would have been a pretty big way to go about doing that. We also didn’t think it would work, or maybe it would just be suspicious, to send letters directly to each other, so we planned on sending them to our respective parents, who would then forward them to us. I think we only did that once. She also managed to get a note passed to me via some mutual contacts, and we wound up being able to see each other about once a week.

You know I was about to write “in a lot of ways it was nice to have a girlfriend going through Plebe Summer with you.” On reflection I don’t know if that was true. I was going to say that it was nice to have someone who knew what you were going through. But then again everyone I knew at that point knew what I was going through. I guess one advantage is that she, specifically, knew what I was going through, so I didn’t get the breakup letter some other people got. But I think I was probably a burden on her, and the relationship, or rather the existence of the relationship, probably mostly worked to feed my ego. We (I) managed to keep our relationship a secret for about half of Plebe Summer, I think. We wound up being able to see each other on most Sundays, because the Chaplains hosted a thing on Sunday mornings where they served donuts and Cadre weren’t allowed in. So we met up there, though sometimes I worried about shining my shoes and cut our time short. We’d also occasionally run into each other during PT or events like that. Later in the summer, when I was getting dangerously brave, I even wandered up to her room.

I was the one that let our secret out of the bag. I was stupid man. All Plebes are stupid, the act of becoming a Plebe makes you stupid, but I was stupider than most in a lot of ways, as I have mentioned. It was breakfast one morning and our Squad Leader decided to ask us all where our girlfriends were. So we were going around the table shouting (Plebes are always required to shout) various towns. I could have just said “Annapolis,” which was technically true and also very reasonable because I was local. Instead I got the bright idea to shout “SIR FOXTROT COMPANY SIR.” I still regret doing that. I mean at the time it fed my ego but the poor woman was just trying to fit in as a Plebe and not make waves and there I went blowing our secret out of the water. Man I was dumb. In some ways letting the secret out was nice. I remember during the Plebe Boxing Smoker I was allowed slash forced to go over and hang out with her and her squad. It was nice to see her, though again all I was really doing was attracting attention.

I don’t know if Plebe Summer was good or bad for the relationship. It probably wasn’t great? I thought about her a lot. At some point I thought it would be romantic to write her a letter that mostly consisted of the lyrics to a particular marching cadence, but thankfully I came to my senses before I wrote that out. That note she got passed to me was actually a note saying that we should talk, because she intended to break up with me. For better or for worse, by the time the note got to me and we could steal away for a tête-à-tête, she had changed her mind. Plebe Summer just changes you so much that we were really two new people figuring out who we were and who we were in relation to each other. Since in a lot of ways you change in the same direction it can kind of cover that up. The first time we got to spend any real amount of time together was Plebe Parent’s weekend, when we finally got some liberty. We of course went home and hung out with each other there. But we both refused to wear anything other than the proscribed PT gear, and kept our shirts tucked in, in accordance with the uniform regulations.

We survived Plebe Summer as a couple, and the rest of Plebe Year. We technically lived in the same building, though in different wings, and were busy enough that we would go days without seeing each other. She would eventually dump me early on in Youngster Year, and rightfully so. She hasn’t talked to me since.

Peace Corps Op-Ed

What with all 7300 Peace Corps Volunteers being evacuated, I wrote an Op-Ed in support of them. I couldn’t get it published anywhere, and it seems they are implementing my suggestions anyways, so here you go:

Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers Will Need Extra Support

In an unprecedented move for the organization, and in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Peace Corps has evacuated all 7300 of its volunteers from around the globe. In the midst of the ongoing crisis, these returning volunteers deserve special support including extended counselling benefits, medical insurance, and unemployment benefits.

I have had the opportunity and privilege to serve in both the US military and the Peace Corps. I graduated from the Naval Academy in 2011 and served as a submarine officer for five years, stationed on a submarine operating out of Guam. There, my shipmates and I were on the forefront of US engagement in the western Pacific, and I served with pride among sailors doing the utmost for their country.

After I resigned my commission, I searched for another opportunity to serve my country. I found that opportunity in the Peace Corps, and in February of 2017 I arrived in Zambia as a Rural Aquaculture Volunteer. I found among my fellow volunteers a remarkable cohort of Americans who were absolutely dedicated to showing the best of the United States around the world. Their passion for service to their country was as fervent as any I found in the military.

In many ways the service of a Peace Corps Volunteer is much lonelier and more untethered than those that serve in the military. Peace Corps Volunteers are sent alone into their new communities, after a few months of language and professional training, and are expected to work and thrive with little direction from headquarters. They too put their bodies on the line; friends of mine in Zambia suffered from malaria, tuberculosis, broken bones, parasites, and more, often in their isolated villages where the only way to get them to a hospital was to dispatch a Land Cruiser from hours away. And whenever my fellow volunteers were forced to leave their communities, their greatest desire was to get back as soon as possible to continue their work.

The Peace Corps was right to evacuate volunteers in order to ensure their safety. However, the scale of the evacuation is unprecedented and I suspect will overwhelm the Peace Corps’ ability to adequately help every evacuated volunteer. Re-entry into the United States is stressful for volunteers in the best of circumstances, as they experience “reverse culture shock.” An evacuation exacerbates the stress, anxiety, and depression of re-entry, and now thousands of volunteers will need help simultaneously.

When sending these volunteers overseas, the United States asked them to prepare their lives for two years of service. They quit their jobs and moved out of their homes. Now, they are being sent back to the United States with little idea of what to do next. Volunteers had only days warning, and many were unable to go back to their communities to retrieve belongings or say goodbye. They were certainly unable to line up jobs or apply to schools.

Given their difficult adjustment returning home, many evacuated volunteers will benefit from seeking counselling and therapy. Peace Corps normally offers vouchers for three sessions of counselling to returning volunteers, but these can be hard to use as many therapists don’t accept them . Evacuated volunteers should have additional counselling made available, and the network of therapists should be expanded. Careful attention will have to be paid to other medical needs, as undoubtedly volunteers were not able to undergo as rigorous a medical screening as they would have normally received prior to returning home. This screening checks for and documents injuries sustained in the course of service, as well as diseases volunteers could be bringing back home. With the medical system dealing with COVID-19, finding space for evacuated volunteers will be difficult. Priority should be given to ensuring volunteers receive adequate medical screening, along with appropriate and timely care for any issues discovered.

Volunteers are returning in the midst of an economic crisis. Currently, returned Peace Corps volunteers are not eligible for unemployment benefits. This should be temporarily changed to allow evacuated volunteers to receive these benefits. In addition to medical screenings, Peace Corps medical insurance coverage should be extended. Currently, evacuated volunteers get two months of limited insurance free, and can pay for a third month. This coverage does not meet minimum essential coverage according to Affordable Care Act requirements. Coverage should be extended to cover the height of the COVID-19 crises. In addition, student loan deferments that Volunteers were eligible for while in service should also be extended. These measures will ease the financial burden of volunteers unexpectedly returning during the economic crises caused by COVID-19.

The threat of COVID-19 is unprecedented in modern times, and in response the Peace Corps has taken unprecedented measures to protect its volunteers. I know from my experiences that the work these volunteers do is as important as any that serve their country overseas. Given the crisis that is gripping the United States, and in acknowledgement of the sacrifice they have made to serve their country, these volunteers need and deserve an extra measure of support to ensure their smooth transition home.

Plebe Summer Part IV

My Plebe Summer saga continues. I remember being sweaty, terrified, and confused most of the time. Most days, except for Sunday and Wednesday I think, started early with PT. We got up and got dressed and ran on down to the field to do whatever exercises they told us to do. I hated this. I was not exactly the most athletic Plebe on the field. Over the summer I got a whole lot skinnier, and although I got better at strength exercises my run time on the Physical Readiness Test actually went down.

After PT is was time for breakfast. Meal times over Plebe Summer were a mixed blessing. On one hand: there was food, and you got to sit down for a while. You ate as a squad, and we had the same squad for all of Plebe Summer, so that was kinda nice. On the other hand, your squad leader, who was the Firstie Cadre training you, was there, and their job was to grill you on all the pro-know (professional knowledge) that you were supposed to know. I tried to avoid getting any attention directed towards me, which is a good strategy for all of Plebe Summer, and one I failed at spectacularly. One of the most useful things about the Naval Academy is that they work really hard to beat the ego out of you, and while they were very successful when it came to me, my ego was large enough that whatever portions were and are left still manage to shine through. One of the bad habits I still hold onto from Plebe Summer is eating really fast. I gulp down food even when I’m trying to slowly. This winds up with some awkward situations on dates.

During the rest of the day there were a great many different activities. Plebe Summer has a whole program to train you up on the absolute minimum knowledge required to be a functioning little member of the Brigade of Midshipmen. Sometimes there were classroom sessions where we would learn about Navy history or the different ranks or something. Sometimes there were hands-on lessons about damage control or something. We had sailing lessons over Plebe Summer, which were always a great deal of fun. We never knew we’d be going sailing that day until we were ordered to change into our sailing gear, which was fairly identical to PT gear, but included wearing our standard-issue boat shoes, our standard-issue ballcaps, and putting on the standard-issue sunscreen. We even had a fine dining etiquette lesson one day. That’s a little surreal in the midst of Plebe Summer. You are running around getting yelled at and then one day the Cadre drop you off in this room you’ve never been to before and you’re told to sit down at these tables set with nice dinnerware and you learn to tear your roll to butter it instead of cutting it, to scoop up your soup by moving the spoon away from you, and to put your napkin on your chair to signal you’re coming back and to put it on the table to signal you’ve left for good.

We also got to go shooting for a day. That was a lot of fun. The shooting range is across the Severn River, and I always enjoyed going across the river because you went across it in the troop transport boat things. Then the whole day was spent shooting, with the morning on rifle and the afternoon on pistol, or vice versa. They teach you how to shoot the things, and then you do some target shooting, and depending on how well you shoot you qualify and get to wear ribbons for “Qualified,” “Sharpshooter” (I think), and “Expert.” I managed to qualify Sharpshooter on the M-16, and Expert for Pistol. Qualifying Expert lets you wear a medal instead of just a ribbon, so that’s cool. This was the peak of my pistol performance, and as I requalified every year on the ship I just got worse and worse. This experience makes me forget though that some people out there have never shot a gun. I had shot rifles before in the Boy Scouts, but I am always vaguely surprised when other people haven’t shot a gun before just in the normal course of their college orientation.

One final part of Plebe Summer were the academic placement tests. Here’s a fun fact about me and Plebe Summer: I didn’t know that I was going to college until about halfway through Plebe Summer, when we were choosing our classes. I had thought that the Naval Academy as like, happy fun time boat school instead of, you know, a fairly normal academic setting that is tacked onto a military training command. It didn’t even click when I was doing the placement tests, which I managed to do pretty darn good on by the way. I managed to validate chemistry and got placed pretty high up in math, despite forgetting a calculator for my final placement tests. Doing well on the placement tests was nice from an academic perspective, but even better from a Plebe Summer perspective because not everyone qualified for the later placement tests, and doing a placement test meant that you had a few extra hours by yourself in air conditioning, away from the cadre. I was disappointed that I only validated one semester of the two required semesters of English, but the second test was mostly poetry analysis and while I think I am actually pretty okay at that I apparently wasn’t good enough. I still got to go around mentioning that I was a “Plebe High Validator” when I was getting myself into the French classes that Plebes normally aren’t allowed to take.

The final note I guess to make about Plebe Summer is communication home. Back in my day it was kinda limited. I hear the kids these days get like hour long phone calls every week or something. We got three phone calls total over the course of Plebe Summer. Those were an event. We all got to retrieve our cell phones from the big room where they kept all of our civilian stuff. We were lead out to the courtyard where there were these big paving tiles, and told to pick one and keep at least one between all of us, so we were each probably about six feet apart. We were told to dial, and wait to hit “send” until the appropriate moment. When the clock started, we hit “send,” and the call began. Our parents were given a heads up for when our call times were, so they could be prepared (we were kept in the dark). We were warned sternly to call our parents instead of our girlfriends or boyfriends (still Don’t Ask Don’t Tell then, so this is a gendered statement). This was mostly because our parents would inevitably miss us, and no matter how much we thought we were in love our significant others were likely to dump us. This was true for me, and is famously true for 98% of everyone else. So I called my parents every time (my girlfriend was actually also in Plebe Summer with me, which maybe I can detail next week) but I didn’t quite know what to talk about? Things were fine at home, I was doing fine (relatively), and so I would run out of things to talk about before the five minutes were up. At five minutes, the Cadre told us to hang up and we were yelled at if we didn’t. Other than that I wrote a good number of letters; this was encouraged and you got a talking to if you weren’t writing home (out of concern for your mental health). My parents sent a large number of letters and packages, which generally included cookies and drink mixes. This is what you want to receive over Plebe Summer, believe me.

I suppose I should stop there for this week. Maybe next week I can talk about the saga of dating over Plebe Summer. It went… fine.