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

IMG_4818

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.

IMG_4813

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?

IMG_4834

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:

IMG_4812

Emmett, the friendly ram.

IMG_4862

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.

IMG_4846

IMG_4849

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.

IMG_4860

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.

Navy Life Story: Plebe Summer Part III

In case you’re not a longtime fan, the previous entry is here.

As I sit down again to write this, after only like a three year hiatus from the last entry and a span of 13 years since the events happened, I’m trying to think of a narrative to weave. I wander around thinking about it and I’m really surprised by all the little events and things I remember. It was so long ago. I was confused much of the time, though “confused” isn’t really the word for it. I am pretty good and simply shedding my perception of those things that aren’t really necessary for day-to-day existence and only focusing on the task at again, a skill that is useful for an event like Plebe Summer. There was so much that I simply didn’t realize was going on, through the sheer force of my own ignorance. I feel like a lot of the other Plebes simply knew more about the Academy than I did, having done much more research on the institution prior to applying, or maybe just because they paid attention at more of the right times. I didn’t know that Company Senior Enlisted was even a position for a long time, and so never quite figured out why that one Chief was always hanging around us. This is something I very much should have known – I think I probably cited her name multiple times a day when reciting the chain of command but it never clicked that this Chief walking around was the name I was yelling when ordered.

I covered up a lot of my ignorance with knowing a lot of other stuff. I grew up around the Naval Academy and used to live there when I was a small kid. I could suddenly put a lot of my dad’s stories into context so I had these weird little nuggets of information that allowed me to convey a broader understanding that I didn’t have. Plus I actually read Reef Points like you were supposed to whenever you had a second of downtime to just stand there. And I didn’t just focus on the stuff you were supposed to memorize, because that was boring, but read all the history and gouge in the back. So I think that must have made me seem like I knew what I was doing. Plus then again it’s Plebe Summer – it doesn’t require a whole lot of smarts, just enough sense to do what you’re told. I wasn’t great at that, but apparently just good enough.

Then again maybe it shouldn’t be remarkable to remember so much about Plebe Summer. It is an incredible time of forgetting and learning all in once. The point of Plebe Summer is to prepare you to enter the Brigade of Midshipmen, to become a fully functioning member of the society that is the Naval Academy. The Naval Academy made me in almost every way the person I am today, and Plebe Summer was the staging point for that growth and transformation. There is a weird phenomenon that happens over Plebe Summer that you shed so much of what you were before. We were warned at the beginning by one of the Cadre that we would simply forget much of what had occurred over High School and before. Not forget, I still remember High School, but the events that occurred before Plebe Summer fell from such significance to the person I became that they are relegated deeper into the subconsciousness just out of sheer irrelevance.

The first few days of Plebe Summer were about establishing the routine and habits that would carry us through the rest of the experience. Many of these were very weird, looking back. Many of these efforts were about saving time. I dry shaved over Plebe Summer for reasons that are still somewhat unfathomable to me – but it seemed to work. And I suppose it saved time in the morning. It was weeks or months into the Academic Year (so after Plebe Summer had ended) when I realized I could use shaving cream – and shaving became worlds nicer. We also didn’t use soap over Plebe Summer? Olsen suggested, and the rest of us simply took as gospel, the advice that we just use shampoo. There were four of us in the room, and when it was time to shower we simply left the shower running the entire time. The first person would get in and turn the water on. We each had been issued shampoo as part of our standard-issue supply, and one of these bottles was stationed in the shower. We used the shampoo as shampoo and as body wash. When one person was done showering, and they showered as quick as possible, they left the water on and the next person rotated in. I guess this saved time?

I’ll end with that for this entry, since it’s late and I’m already at like 800 something words. I’ll fill the rest of my Plebe Summer posts with memories about stuff. Someday it’d be a project to go back and put them in chronological order. I wrote letters home like you’re supposed to, and I’m sure mom has those saved somewhere. They probably smell like the rest of Plebe Summer did, which was a mix of sweat and Febreze. I still can’t smell Febreze without shuddering.

Roads, Busses, & Schooling

IMG_0327

A school I visited in Zambia.

Reading this week:

  • The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester

I was supposed to be in Kenya this week for a school project, but COVID-19 put a damper on those plans. So in search of content I wanted to share some thoughts on a sort of pet notion of mine: the effect of school busses on education.

I am more or less obsessed with the notion that the key to all development is building good roads. This of course comes from my experiences in Zambia, where the village I lived in, while only 12km away from Mbala, was connected to the town only via an absolutely terrible dirt road that took a 4×4 a hour to travel down. That, combined with the education I saw in Zambia, got me thinking about busses.

I think busses are a little-sung hero of public education (not entirely; there appears to be a globe-spanning school bus industry that does its best to trumpet its advantages). I didn’t have to think about them much until I had to think about the implications of living without them. In Zambia I don’t think I saw any school busses. I would see a bus for the nursing school driving around, and one time I wound up on a bus that was almost entirely chartered by a girl’s boarding school that was sending a chunk of students back to Mbala, but as far as I know there aren’t any examples of dedicated public transportation for schools. The upswing of that is that kids have to walk to school. That by itself is good and fine; kids should of course be expected to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow. But what it means is that you wind up having schools every 5-10km or so, so that kids are able to walk to school in under an hour (people at a fairly brisk pace walk about 5km an hour). An hour walk doesn’t sound too bad, until you do it every day both ways in the hot African sun without shoes.

The upswing of having schools every 5-10km is that they have to be small. If the country has so many teachers, and those teachers are going to be split up among so many schools, then the more schools you have the fewer each school gets. One school near me had only one teacher who was teaching, or at least trying to teach, 150 students. So this, I think, is one of the big advantages of busses: they let you consolidate schools. That would allow you to pool resources in a lot of better ways. Teachers could specialize in just one subject or just one grade, which I think could improve teaching. These schools I am talking about are mostly primary schools, which covered grades 1-7. Back in my elementary school, we had one teacher that taught most every subject which I think is normal, but we were able to have a dedicated art teacher and a dedicated computer lab. In Zambia computers are part of the school curriculum, but there is no way these tiny schools would have the resources to maintain a computer. In a more consolidated school, I think you could  manage to have something like that. You might even be able to have a dedicated administrative staff, which would be a boon. In the school with the lone teacher, whenever he needed to talk to the school district office he had to go into town which cost a whole day of instruction.

School busses would also provide a lot more school access. It is sustainable, if less than ideal, to have a whole bunch of primary schools spread around rural areas. But for secondary schools, the curriculum there requires dedicated science teachers and the like. So by necessity (and, unfortunately, demand), there were a far smaller number of secondary schools. The closest secondary school to my village was in Mbala, which like I said is 12km away. This was generally a 2.5-3 hour walk, which is more or less impossible to do every single day if you’re a high school student. The upswing is that secondary schools in Zambia tended to be boarding schools, though if you lived near enough you could of course just be a day student. But boarding schools were necessarily more expensive, and so out of reach of the vast majority of students. If there were school busses that could take students to school, far more students would have access to education.

I tried to find articles and research that could help me determine the exact effects that school busses had on education. I couldn’t find a whole lot that was specifically about busses (I did come across this article, which I think explains my own academic success), so I tried to find research about school size. Turns out there are a lot of articles in that vein, mostly it seems tied to the small schools movement. The general theme in these articles is that smaller schools provide more access to teachers and community, which is good and excellent. An interesting insight in this article is that larger schools are favored by governments because they tend to be cheaper to run. In the context of Zambia, the education system is already pretty dismal due to a lack of budget, so I think that if larger schools are cheaper this could be a major advantage, despite a potential reduction in community, if it means that more students have access to education at all. One newspaper article from 1988 was in line with my thinking, pointing to research that said students in bigger high schools did better because they got to enroll in the more specialized and advanced classes that those schools were able to support.

I would like to see more research on the exact impacts that bussing can have on student’s education, especially with regards to access to education and the effect on schooling. That might be another arrow in the quiver of arguments for why roads are so awesome, because it would be hard or impossible to have busses without an adequate road network. Of course, it might be out of reach anyways; not only would you have to build a whole road network, but according to one article bussing in the United States costs about $500 per pupil per year. In Zambia in 2018, the government was able to allocate about $200 per pupil total for education. There is lots and lots of work to do to make sure every kid can get a quality education.

Boston

IMG_4742

Reading this week:

  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  • The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

This past weekend (with the usual caveats of time) I went up to Boston with my friend Mike. Mike had been wanting to take a trip up to Boston since last semester and we just never got around to it until now. So we went!

It was a two-day overnight trip. We drove up the morning of Saturday and the first place we went was to the JFK Presidential Museum & Library. That was pretty neat! Frankly there was very little chance I wasn’t going to like the place. JFK started the Peace Corps! There were swords on display! And JFK liked to sail! President Carter and I both graduated from the Naval Academy and served in submarines, and so when I was in the Peace Corps I very purposefully grew peanuts just go rack up another similarity. At the JFK museum I learned that he sailed in the McMillan Cup. Me too! Or at least I remember helping out. It’s been a minute and I would have payed more attention if I had realized. Here’s another true fact though: I once went sailing with Ted Kennedy. So there ya go.

IMG_4743

I also want to note that they had on display a dress from Kennedy’s campaign. I found this neat because I kinda like the idea of people wearing clothing with my name written on it. Maybe this can be another thing JFK and I will have in common in the future. That and a collection of scrimshaw. A boy can dream.

IMG_4771

After the JFK museum Mike and I went to the Sam Adams Brewery to have a look around. This was pretty neat and was worth the price, which was free. I’ve been on more than one brewery tour in my day and I was worried that this would just be us looking at tanks, as is the case with most brewery tours. The above picture is us looking at those tanks. But it was also more! They had a whole bit on ingredients where we got to like, eat some of them, and then afterwards there was a whole beer tasting bit. So yeah, pretty darn alright!

After the brewery tour we finally checked into the hotel and then ventured over to the North End to wander around. We didn’t really mean to but wound up following the Freedom Trail around. I guess large chunks of Boston are on the Freedom Trail so it is hard to avoid. We had dinner at a somewhat overpriced Italian place and then got a drink at a bar. Based on signs I read in bars and restaurants while in Boston, Paul Revere frequented a LOT of different taverns.

IMG_4773

The next day I was hoping to get back by mid-afternoon but we spent the morning wandering around and looking at stuff. We climbed all the way up to the top of the Bunker Hill memorial. That was pretty neat! I had been in the area before but had somehow never made it up the thing. The view is good! I was excited to see a Roro out one window and then the USS Constitution out another window, so that is an excellent set of windows! We stopped by the museum which was informative before wandering down to the Constitution.

IMG_4791

I’ve never been to Boston without visiting the Constitution. Mike originally didn’t want to go because I had already been and he was worried about me not being entertained but tell you what man it is such a great ship. Every time I go I run around looking at lines and rigging and stuff and then cannons and then portholes and looking at the Midshipman pantry (when I was a Midshipman and on the boat I was like “hey that is my pantry). The signs weren’t up this trip so I told Mike everything I could remember about the thing. So fantastic. Much great. Love visiting the ship is the point here.

But yeah with that our Boston trip was over. Pretty nice town!

Guatemala Part VII: Guatemala City

IMG_4633

Pretty kitty!

When I checked into the hotel in Coban I thought travelling to Antigua the next day was going to be simple. I thought I was going to get on a shuttle that would show up in the morning and I would get to Antigua in the early afternoon and everything would be great. This did not happen.

When I got a shuttle ticket the dude at the front counter told me to be ready for the shuttle by 1030, so I was down in the lobby at 1020 having spent the morning reading the news. I waited around because the shuttle might be there as late as 1100, I was warned. At like 1105 it hadn’t come so the dude was calling and at 1115 he led me out front where I was picked up… by a pickup truck. Apparently, we were going to go meet the shuttle elsewhere. He drove me around Coban where I was somewhat disappointed to discover a McDonald’s. Then I was more disappointed to discover we were going to the McDonald’s. I had figured out that this shuttle was coming from elsewhere and so was stopping at McDonald’s for lunch. This was all very disappointing to me. I should have gotten lunch but I didn’t come to Guatemala to eat McDonald’s. The bus showed up and I couldn’t really get on right away because everyone left the bus and I didn’t know what seats were free. It was supposed to be a 15-minute stop (it showed at 1135) but it turned into more like half an hour. I was annoyed because I knew I was going to be hungry, I was next to a McDonald’s, and I thought this shuttle would be fine because I thought it was leaving at 1030, not noon.

Eventually I got on the bus when some other people got on, selecting a seat that appeared empty. It wasn’t. The girl who had been sitting in the seat got on, but didn’t tell me, and instead wandered around confused for a bit until someone else told me. I knew it was her seat at this point but I didn’t care. But then I got up (why should she actually be able to claim it?) and we futzed figuring out where to put me until I wound up… in the jump seat right next to the girl. I was annoyed by the whole thing man but we were on our way. I regret taking the shuttle. There was the thing where it was late but mostly, I don’t like being around the other tourists. I hate saying this, because every tourist complains about tourists and if you’re going to go do touristy things then by definition anywhere you go there are tourists because you are there. But what I don’t understand about this brand of tourist is why they wear shorts. You never see the Guatemalans wearing shorts. Why do they feel the need to? It’s hot? Grow up, it’s not that hot, and if it is too hot for you don’t come to the country. I don’t like how they act and I don’t like how they dress and I don’t like being with them. But on we rode.

Some notes: I saw a field of cabbage. There were several fields of trestles growing I don’t know what. One I saw fully covered in some sort of vines, but on a lot more I saw plastic on the ground or plastic spread across the poles fully or just like plastic strips. The first part of the drive was very foggy. I didn’t get a good look out of the windows because I was in the aisle and also it was foggy. I suspect the driver didn’t get a good look either but I chose to ignore that. We passed a place that was called (in Spanish) “The cabin of the two cheeses and more.” At one point the bus pulled over and it appeared the driver was buying flowers (we were in front of a flower stand) but it seems he was picking up a bag. I would have preferred the flowers. Eventually, it started to clear up more as we gained altitude. The entire drive it seemed was uphill, passing into country that was more dominated by pines than palms. Long stretches of it reminded me of crossing the mountains in Washington, where you’re in a valley that follows a stream with small bridges crossing it. I was getting a headache from not eating but later on we stopped at a convenience store where I got some twinkies so that helped. Some people also got off which opened up some seats, so I got a real chair. I was annoyed to discover that the woman next to me was sprawled out on two seats where I had the seat behind the wheelwell and therefore had no leg room. She also had hung, I believe, her bra off the back of the seat in front of her (off the handle thing) and I think also her underwear/shorts? See what I’m saying about these tourists?

It was about this point that I decided not to take the bus all the way to Antigua. It would be too late for me to see anything. So when we stopped in Guatemala City, I got off and caught a taxi. I really need to learn Spanish because telling the taxi driver where I wanted to go was hard. It was mostly me showing him my phone which was not the best option in a moving car. But at least I was free of the bus. From the taxi I noted that there were dudes selling random stuff at intersections, so I guess some things are just universal. I also saw little McDonald’s signs everywhere, advertising I think like UberEats or whatever. Like little Golden Arches sitting on top of street lights. But the taxi driver who was very nice and helpful got me to the hotel and I got a room. I set out for dinner only to discover that my hotel was next to yet another McDonald’s. I think my new rule for travel will be to not go to countries with McDonald’s in them. They just throw me off man. I don’t like them. But I found a place called a “Pasteleria,” which lead me to believe they would have like, linguini. This was not true, it was a pastry place that was also a cafe, where I had a just fine burrito thing and then went back to the hotel where I took a shower and turned in.

On my full day in Guatemala City, I went to a whole lot of museums. After breakfast I set straight out. I walked to the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Couple of points. First off, the crosswalks work differently. Back home they tell you to stop walking before the light turns. Here it is green for walk right up to the second the cars get a green, so I nearly got run over. The walk was largely about me noticing American food chains. Today I passed Taco bell and Dunkin Donuts. Last night there was Hardees and TGI Friday’s. At the zoo there is a Dominoes. Uber Eats was everywhere! I don’t like it. I also saw a dude on an electric scooter, but that’s unrelated.

IMG_4559

I made it to the museum at like 0920. It was supposed to open at 0900, but when I found the door the security guard had me wait a few more minutes. I finally got in at 0930. It is not a well-trafficked museum, but it is pretty fantastic. Very modern, very well done, and packed with artifacts. It was cool wandering around. They had the bones of one of the rulers of Tikal just tucked away in a corner and that’s crazy. After wandering through and I next decided to go to the zoo. The zoo was also fantastic. Super well done. Tons of animals. Frankly it felt a bit silly because the first part is “Africa Land” and well, I’ve seen a number of these animals in real life. Real life is a dumb thing to say. In the wild. But I enjoyed seeing the Spanish names of these guys, and they had jaguars and I wanted to see those while in Guatemala. So that was fantastic. I had lunch at the hotdog place at the zoo, where you could order a “Gringo Hot Dog.” It was indeed how I would normally eat a hot dog, but I had the “Mexicano” instead. Then it was across the street to the Artisan Market. I was looking for the touristy kitcsh but they didn’t have the kitsch I was looking for so I left without buying anything.

IMG_4467

The mortal remains of the legendary Jasaw Chan K’awiil, 18th ruler in the dynastic line of succession at Tikal.

Since I was close, I went to the Natural History Museum that was next to the Archaeology museum. It was pretty bad. That’s not fair, it was just basic natural history stuff (and an elephant and giraffe skeleton) so I didn’t spend any time in there. I decided to flag down a taxi and go across town to the other natural history museum, the USC one or something. I arrived and in some rapid-fire Spanish I believe what the lady said was that the museum was closed but the botanical gardens were open and hey it was free so I looked at the gardens. They were very lovely.

IMG_4674

Botanical gardens.

From there I still had time for museums so I walked to the Museo Ixchel & Popol Vuh. Or at least tried to. It’s on the campus of a college and I wandered in trying to go where maps.me took me and it took me into the dorms of Galileo college. Which are nice! I asked a security guard about it, saying “museo,” or so I thought, and he lead me on a winding route up to what I think was a media lab, where I met some more nice people, who finally understood I was saying “museo” (I can’t imagine what I was really saying), and then the security guard lead me to the right place. Those museums were nice but I was going through them a bit perfunctorily. I am not actually that interested in textiles, though they had several looms and it occurred to me I don’t actually know how to operate one. After I got home I ordered a Guatemalan backstrap loom off of etsy.

IMG_4692

Textiles!

Then I popped over to Popol Vuh which is full of artifacts. So that was neat. Learned about the Dresden Codex and stuff. Um yeah. At this point I was tired and my foot was hurting me so I hobbled back to the hotel where I chilled for a bit, looking forward to my flight home the next day. And then, defeated by other food options, I gave in and went to McDonald’s.

Guatemala Part VI: Aguateca

IMG_4320

I was worried about making it to Sayache, so I woke up at like 0630 and got my stuff together and left the hotel at like 0700. I found a Tuk-Tuk and told him I was going to Sayache and so he sped me off to the bus station and found me the right bus. I pretty much stepped off the tuk-tuk, stepped onto the bus, and off we went. We patrolled the town slightly for more riders, stopping at the market for a while, but so far, I had been impressed with Guatemalan busses by how little they stay waiting for passengers. They’ll go with less than a full bus confident they’ll pick up people along the way. The conductors in Guatemala and in Zambia could otherwise be close brothers, however. The ride out the side and yell in the same way, and today I even got a “yes boss.” So that reminded me of Zambia.

In the market I saw some stuff, including a whole stack of saddles on the back of a truck that were to stock up some store for sale. I also in Sayache saw some like, home-made saddles (I think) out of I think cow-hide. So it is a whole thing. I wrote down in my notebook that the minibus was squeezing through the market, and there was not a lot of clearance for sure. I saw a guy in a “USS Enterprise CVN-65” hat so I thought that was neat. I saw an absolutely gigantic bull on the back of a pickup truck in one of those cages they have on the back of the trucks, with its horns sticking out the top. I bothered to look today too and I saw street food vendors cooking over both gas and wood but no charcoal. I wonder why? Some other things I noted to note was that I haven’t been stared at, which, I dunno, I’m a little hurt. I also haven’t seen any dumbphones, just smartphones. Un-Zambia-like.

Eventually we set off in earnest and I was rewarded by the sight of a full-on cowboy. Like riding on the back of a horse (I think he was the first horserider I saw) with a cowboy hat and overshirt flapping in the breeze. Magnificent. Later on one of the bus passengers had a “Wrangler” shirt (it said Wrangler), and based on his hat and boots I believe he actually wrangled so that was cool. I also saw a cow being hog-tied with a dude on a horse next to it, so this is legit cattle country. Eventually and without trouble we got to Sayache. The bus dropped us off and for lack of better ideas I took the ferry across the river to the town proper. I said I might show up at like 1000 and I actually arrived at 0900 so my plan was to find some breakfast. As I stopped off the boat however I heard a “Patrick?” and there was Don Pedro. He was ready to put me on a boat but I mentioned breakfast so he led me over to a street food kinda stand where in a bit of a daze I ordered roast chicken for breakfast. That chicken was absolutely phenomenal. I awkwardly ate (I don’t really know what to do with the tortillas) and asked for some bottles of water and I was loaded up into a boat. Don Pedro wasn’t coming but handed me off to “mi capitan.” I never got his name but he was very nice.

IMG_4266

IMG_4274

We were in a small metal boat with a canopy and comfortable-ish seats. The ride to the site was pretty awesome. We went fast down the river but it was still about an hour and a half of riding. I saw all sorts of stuff on the river. There were homesteads and cattle farms. There were places where they obviously loaded cattle onto barges and that I wish I could have seen, a cattle barge. At one point a pack of dogs came running when they heard the boat and I thought that was cute. We waved to all sorts of people and there was a good chunk of river traffic. It mostly seemed to be people collecting firewood; I saw more than one boat being loaded. On the way back there was a little caravan of two canoes, the front one with a motor and towing the second one, both loaded down totally and with an old dude up front and two kids steering (one on the motor and another with a paddle in the rear one). I enjoyed speeding down the river and capitan was not bashful about taking turns. It got really fun towards the end when the river narrowed. In the meantime, we went through that big lake and that was cool. It is edged with these jungle-covered hills so it really looked like you were coming up on some sort of I dunno unexplored realm. There were tons of birds all along the path too. More than once a bird launched and then we wound up chasing it down the river as it twisted and turned around the bends. There was a small blue heron thing I took care to note. I also saw muscovy ducks.

IMG_4284

Path to Aguateca.

IMG_4301

When you arrive at Agauteca you dock in this small lagoon at the end of a narrower and narrower river. You pull up to the riverbank and then scramble up to the entrance. They had clearly planned a much bigger site as there is a partially-completed but abandoned visitor’s center that is fairly large with signs all over the place. There were dudes that worked there but they mostly just said hi and capitan had me sign in (there were three French guys there the day before, and it looks like it gets about a person a day; I had the place to myself) and he guided me through the place. First you walk along the bottom of some tall cliffs. There were tons and tons of mosquitos so I didn’t like to stop for long. At the end of the cliffs there is a viewpoint that gives you majestic views of the river you just came down and the plains beyond. Then you circle back around and walk through a ravine. The ravine splits the site and over it is a natural bridge and an artificial bridge. Scrambling down the thing was actually sorta harrowing but I made it up and down. Capitan knew where people liked to take pictures and asked for my camera to take a picture of me at every spot. Then we scrambled back up out of the ravine and viewed the site proper. I don’t know how much is or isn’t uncovered of the place, but the temples there are rather smaller than the other ones I have seen, but it seems more intimate as you visit more of the residential palaces and things. We walked through and saw all sorts of stuff and replica stelae and some real stelae still laying where they fell. I think the whole tour was about an hour and a half and I was glad to be done with the mosquitoes. So back on the boat and another great time zooming down the river.

IMG_4311

Not every picture he took was good.

IMG_4337

He also insisted on this one. Why do I pose like this?

IMG_4371

This is the only intact, man-made stone bridge known in the Mayan world.

IMG_4376

Me & Capitan.

We arrived back at Sayache and I paid capitan and retrieved my backpack and then I went to go search for some lunch. I walked around looking for something that looked like a restaurant and found nothing. Embarrassed, I went to a fried chicken place and had some chicken and fries and then found a bus for Coban by wandering around saying “Coban.” Getting to Coban was to be a bit of an adventure. Things I saw along the way were a massive palm oil planation, so that was neat, and then the sight of us approaching the mountains, with their tops clouded in mist.

IMG_4386

Coban.

Unfortunately disaster struck. As we were stopping to pick up a guy the engine stalled. They tried to start it and tried to roll downhill to start it but eventually ran out of hill and we were out of the bus as they worked on the engine. Another bus came though and the conductor loaded us all on that and so off we were again. We got to the hills and I noted how sharp and steep they were. Like vertical limestone dunes or something. I settled in to read, but I should have paid more attention. There is a fork in the road and I wasn’t thinking or listening to the guy and some people got out but I stayed on the bus and we went to the wrong way down the fork (or at least away from Coban). I said “por Coban?” to the conductor and he said some stuff and what wound up happening is I rode to the next down and got off there. The conductor said some stuff and I was confused but eventually it turned out that he was pointing to an empty spot saying that the bus for Coban would come but it wasn’t there yet. I figured this out talking to tuk-tuk drivers and another bus driver. Eventually a bus came and I got on and we left pretty quick. The next part of the ride took a while thought I don’t know how long it normally would have taken. The windows in the van were pretty tinted, and as night fell it started to mist and this was a whole like, mood, as we went into the cloud-shrouded jungle mountains. It kinda started to rain actually too and the van didn’t have effective windshield wipers as we navigated steep turns and hills with no streetlights and I pretended not to notice. At some point the van stopped by the side of the road (it seemed to me) and we all got out. Turns out we were in Coban. I think I left Sayache at like 1400 and got to Coban at 1900 or so. I got a taxi to take me to the hotel where a flustered seeming dude checked me in. I had high hopes when I saw there was a 1030 shuttle to Antigua.