Thursday, November 22, 2007


I know that this blog has few readers who don't know me personally and who don't know where my life has been lately. So, let me share, just a little. I said on New Years this year, that I thought 2007 would be the most profound year of change I'd seen in as long as I could remember. It's shaping up that way.

I've been busy finding my way back to myself. I've been getting to know my daughters better than I ever have. More importantly, they've been getting to know me--not me filtered through anyone else's eyes, but through their own, seeing me, perhaps, in some ways, for the first time.

Anyone who knows me, knows I pretty much don't get nervous. I've crashed cars, experimental planes, come out of a coma that was supposed to be final, twice opened a reserve chute less than two seconds from impact (the last time, only a month ago). People asked if I was scared. The answer's always been honest--"Not really. I was busy."

Only twice in the last two years could I really confess to being no kidding nervous to the point of knowing it. The most fascinating thing about it is how much it's surprised me.

Once was orbiting a stadium packed with 50,000 people, waiting to jump in with my class flag. I'd planned that jump for more than five years. That the reality of it set my heart to pounding nearly out of my chest, with nearly 800 jumps behind me already then, was itself almost surprising enough to calm me down. I rarely even got excited about jumps any more, let alone nervous. Don't get me wrong, I love every jump. But mostly, they're calming now, centering more than exciting. I never did figure out what made that one so different. But I haven't forgotten the feeling.

Today, I've figured it out. That feeling's back. What it is, is the waiting. Having set events in motion that you've imagined again and again, the time almost here finally, yet nothing to do for the moment but orbit, door open, knowing you're about to step out into thin air again, but this time, into the irreconcilable flesh and blood of a reality you've imagined a thousand times. A thousand times a thousand. It's the waiting. Nothing to hear but the pounding of your heart in your own chest. A thing you've grown personally and professionally unaccustomed to. Ground rush is less frightening.

Today, I'm like the little boy, who having behaved badly in church, is being carried out by his dad, and passing the last pew, throws one last glance and plea to the parishioners, "Ya'll pray for me." I may not land on target this time. I may not land standing up. I might not, I'm afraid, even make the stadium. By I am, by God, going out the door the second that green light comes on.

"You know who you are."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sleep Now

I'm not certain I would ever have preferred any method of putting my daughter to sleep other than slowly swaying/dancing around our living room with her head nestled under my chin and me singing "Never Die Young" with James. But . . . there were those nights when I had to sit outside her door in order to keep her mother from going in to answer her heartbreaking cries of "Mooooooommmmmmmmmyyyyyyyyyy." Hey, I don't know where that advice came from, and I'm not sure whether I was any more in favor of it than my wife. I think I was more like the crew that was tasked with lashing Odysseus to the mast and stuffing their own ears with wax. Only no wax for Dad, and don't think a father's heart is any less torn by those baby siren cries.

If only the Dream Team had existed then. With a mission of "Creating a World of Great Sleepers . . . One baby at a time," here's what they have to say:

We know how confusing it is to be a parent these days--especially when it comes to the "right" way to get your baby to sleep. When our children were born we read an exhaustive number of sleep books, tried almost every sleep method in existence and found ourselves with babies who were mediocre sleepers.

After we finally "figured it out" (and exited the fog of sleep-deprivation) we realized that helping your child be a good sleeper can be simple and anguish-free. So, we formed Dream Team and dedicated ourselves to helping other parents figure out their child's sleep. The result? Well rested, happy children and parents who feel confident, recharged, and connected.

If you have a baby between 4 months and 2 years of age, you should check out their web site. If your babies have aged out of that bracket like mine, you should check it out just to see the most brilliantly innovative consulting gig I've seen yet (and to lament how much easier your life might have been if only they'd been around then). Co-founder and very smart mom Conner Herman is a colleague from my blissful days in the graduate English program at U.Va., but something tells me reading The Canterbury Tales aloud in Middle English at bedtime isn't what this is all about. Check it out.

(And hopefully, John DeVille will appreciate the title's nod to his inferior-to-The-Matrix-but-still-interesting Dark City.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Getting to Know Me

It occurred to me this morning, that when I give out this blog address as a good way to learn a little more about me, I may not necessarily be doing a good thing. Few blogs are more eclectic than this. A movie, book, wine, cigar, or restaurant review one day, personal narrative another, straight up ponderings on life, death, and politics on another. And then, some days, like yesterday, just something thrown in there because one of my readers gave me a hard time for being silent for over a week (connectivity was as short as time while shepherding a skydiving team to an invitational meet halfway across the country and spending every available evening with my off-to-a-nearby-college daughter). There's also the pseudo-anonymity of a pseudonym made necessary by my official position elsewhere. I strive to keep my posting appropriate enough that no lines are crossed, but even so . . .

All that said, I'm contemplating adding a box to the right margin that will collect the more introspective posts that I believe reveal something of the character of their author. Until I have time to do so, however, here's a short list of some I think belong there. If you're a regular reader and think there are obvious choices I've left off, please send me an e-mail or comment, and thanks for hanging in there. Doc

That's a fair start.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

You Don't Say

Back from five wonderful days in Laurinburg, North Carolina, with trips to Wilmington and Charlotte to break things up. Skydiving every day. Got to see my daughter on three of those five days. Witnessed a night pyrotechnic parachuting demonstration by the Golden Knights that impressed even me, and I'm hard to impress.

I have to share the funniest thing we saw. Growing up with an English professor, my girls have a keen appreciation for words. The oldest liked this sign so much, we had to go back and take a picture.

You think?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Schneier: "Upon Further Review

The ruling stands."

I'm grateful to two readers who took the time to make extensive comments, thus pointing out places in which my original post might need some elaboration. Having provided a link to the comments in that first sentence, I'll jump straight to a response, which because of its own length, I'm offering as another post, rather than a continuation of the comment string.

Gentlemen, and I mean that sincerely,

First, thank you for taking the time to respond. The dialog is why I'm here at all.

John first. You are an intelligent man. Now put that intelligence to work making a serious effort to separate cause from effect, real problem from other related and co-existent yet somewhat independent problem.

I'll explain. And keep in mind that how much I can say with regard to my own opinion of current leadership is limited by both prudence and law. That said, I think I can address the problems in logic & rhetoric here without necessarily tipping my hand.

The need for vigilance is an effect. But it is an effect, not of "the fulcrum . . . found in the Office of the Vice President, the Oval Office, and the former office of the SecDef." It's an effect of the reality imposed upon us, not even by 9/11, but by the continued existence and planning of the sorts of groups that planned and executed 9/11. 9/11 didn't cause anything. It was a wake up call. It was, itself, an effect of our complacency and hubris. The fulcrum you lament is not a cause of the need for vigilance. To some extent, it's an effect of that need. That fulcrum may exploit the need, politically. That fulcrum may choose to fan the need for vigilance into an unhealthy hypervigilance for political purposes. I'm not denying that--neither the fanning nor the unhealthy aspects of living in constant fear. But Mr. Schneier's ill-thought-out attempts to shift the blame for the inconvenience these new realities impose on us to the very people whose lives, jobs, and consciences are most affected by them, and to lull us back into a business-as-usual complacency by labeling even a genuinely necessary level of watchfulness, as you put it, "a terrorist victory by virtue of forfeit of reason" is every bit as reprehensible a journey to the other end of the spectrum.

Somewhere in between lie both sanity and safety, or at least as much of either as we are going to find in this new world. The responsibility then, of those of us who possess some skill at thought, argument, and persuasion--whose frontal lobes are still fully functional and engaged--is to steer our friends, neighbors, and countrymen toward that rational, realistic, middle ground at every opportunity. I am not a believer that the way to balance lies through competing extremes. The way to balance lies through moving both sides closer to the middle.

Your penultimate paragraph provides its own undoing in the word "potential." "To regard all strangers as potential 'Islamofascists' and every hefty bag as a potential bomb is to bring the real madness of the battlefield home which I thought was the overall objective of why the occupation is continuing." I'll make only a casual note of my disappointment in the rhetorical dishonesty that allows you to employ a line of administration spin in which I know you don't believe to do a bad job of trying to make a point, and move straight to dismantling the point itself: An ever-present awareness of such potential is not madness; it's prudence. I would hope that more than 99% of the time, we'll prudently engage our frontal lobes and conclude that the probability of the potential being reality is low enough to be summarily dismissed. But awareness of the potential is not madness. To be paralyzed by that awareness is, literally. In its most acute form, it becomes agoraphobia. If you really don't believe that prudent awareness is possible without paralyzing paranoia, then you have a much lower opinion of your fellow citizens than I. Again, the key is to constantly make the effort to rationally separate the new realities of our world from the irrational political extremes to which those realities are all too frequently put.

Like our mutual friend Barry, I have long eschewed political affiliation, largely because of my disappointment that neither side seems capable of refraining from whatever willful conflation of cause and effect best serves their own cause at the moment--common sense, mental health, and true national interests be damned.

Mr LandruBek,

I don't think I have missed the point at all. And, while you add some disingenuous extras designed to imply that my disdain for Mr. Schneier extends to everyone who reads his blog as well, which it clearly doesn't, I'm happy to say that you pretty much get mine.

I heartily disagree with your interpretation of Mr. Schneier's post as intending to allow for the subtleties of security in this new century. The very examples he uses seem to preclude that. Further, I am decidedly not a believer that security is a zero sum game. Personally, I find the very concept of zero-sum is a thing that tends to limit thinking. I find it most often employed by those whose powers of reasoning are sadly limited, or else I find it too frequently used to mislead others who depend on those in a position of trust (realizing that I refer to our ideal government rather than that lesser of evils which we usually provide ourselves as voters) to guide them. If you are committed to that concept of security, then, as you say, fine, we now know where we stand and we have little to talk about. But, if you aren't too irredeemably wed to that zero-sum construct, let me try to give you another way of thinking about things.

To think of security in that way would mean that while the bomb squad was dismantling imprudently placed Lite-Brites, they were therefore unable to respond to some other more urgent and real threat elsewhere. I'm not aware of such a threat going untended at that time. The real choice was, I think, to, in an abundance of caution, have the bomb squad respond to this and exercise the unique capabilities they possess, put their training and equipment to some use, or, at some risk of loss of life and infrastructure, let them keep twiddling their thumbs waiting for their pagers to go off. That sir, is not a zero-sum choice. Zero sum implies that to do one thing, I must not do another equally important and pressing thing. Yes, everyone, including those responsible for our security, must always choose between options for how to use their time, but until every option becomes equally urgent, we have not reached the state of affairs implied by your statement that "security is a zero sum game." Succinctly put, you are simply wrong to think that. At least part of my issue with Mr. Schneier, beyond his dismal choices of examples to make his points, is that it seems zero-sum is exactly the way he wishes you, and all the rest of his readers, to think of these things.

You accuse me of thinking of our citizenry as sheep. I don't think of our citizenry in any such broad and limiting way. Some are sheep, some are wolves, some are snakes, and some are eagles. I think our citizenry is, on the whole, quite capable of thinking for itself and for recognizing and reporting potential threats and deciding what merely "different" behavior may not merit further investigation. Mr. Schneier's disappointment that he can no longer don his fishing vest, fill the pockets with modeler's clay, run wiring from pocket to pocket and then walk unmolested through an airport or courthouse, I must sadly admit, exceeds my capacity for empathy.

Your assertion that a tilt toward over-reaction in favor of under-reaction "will hamstring secruity efforts" is not wholly without merit if one takes it as a reminder to security officials themselves to be vigilant against that state of affairs. But your choice to assume it will, in fact, be wholly unchecked, and therefore we must abandon that tilt immediately, is as fine an example of a slippery slope fallacy as a composition instructor might ever hope for. You seem to think that the world is populated by nothing but sheep, security professionals included.

Finally, you are quite right that I deliberately turned the common meaning of CYA for rhetorical effect. That's not quite the same as misconstruing. Had I thought you wouldn't notice, I could be accused of playing unfairly. Apparently though, I give you and all the other readers out there, more credit than you think.

So, for the time being, I'll stand by my original post, and my original opinion that Mr. Schneier's conduct, with his implications that security is a zero-sum game and that citizens are just too sheeplike to simultaneously be vigilant and discriminating and are therefore teetering on the edge of agoraphobia in danger of falling over with every warning to be watchful, is every bit as reprehensible as the alleged fear-mongering of which John DeVille accuses that fulcrum he so detests.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Flag on the Play: Schneier Gets It All Wrong

This started out as a comment on a post over at Enrevanche, but just got too long. So, if you're coming to this fresh, you can either dash over to Barry's place and read the post, which is actually an excerpt from a longer article, filled with so many fallacies, some factual and some logical, that I hardly know where to begin; or, you can trust me to convey the gist fairly. Personally, I'd rather you read the original to keep me honest. At any rate, here is how it opens:

We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.
I'm sorry, but, "Uh-oh, flag on the play. It looks like Doc just tossed a Bullshit Flag. Here's the official call from the field: 'If you act different [sic], you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong.' GET USED TO IT."

Let me explain. I particularly liked the example of the girl wearing a circuit board and carrying a fistful of PlayDoh. Hello!! I looked at the photo. I might know it's not a bomb, but I wouldn't expect everyone to. Used to be you could do really off the wall stuff and be considered eccentric. Now you can do really off the wall stuff and be considered eccentric, or possibly, scary and dangerous. Why? Because it used to not be possible to conceive of any but the most insane among us killing innocent people indiscriminately using things we'd never thought of as weapons. Now, that's one of the world religions (I'm not picking on Islam, so don't start working yourself into a religious tizzy). I simply mean that wanting to blow yourself up and take a crowd of people with you whose main attraction is that they did nothing in particular to deserve it other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time is no longer merely an isolated psychotic condition.

So, how do we combat that? Well, the term is becoming overused, but it's still the right term: vigilance. Whether you say "Be Vigilant," "Be Watchful," or "Be Suspicious," matters, but only in terms of connotation and perception. In terms of denotation and actual action, not so much changes. So, expect a new campaign soon, one that will change all the terms with which we refer to the new role of the citizen in keeping us all in one piece (along with our dams, powerplants, landmarks, etc). Look for an effort to find some wording that makes us all feel a little less like Big Brother, while still urging us to do essentially the same things.

Is there something wrong with that? Absolutely. But it's not the fault of "the authorities" whose "CYA attitude" and "knee jerk" responses Mr. Schneier laments. Those reactions are hardly knee jerk. They're well thought out, carefully planned, and even rehearsed. Why? Because that Y in CYA stands for "your" Mr. Schneier. That's your ass their covering. Yours and everyone else's who has nothing in common with you except having done nothing at all to deserve being being blown out of their clothing as they go about their business.

You want them to protect you. You pay them for it. They have begun, as a group, to begin imagining the previously unimaginable on a daily basis. Why? Because that psuedo-religion out there has been at it for a while already. They have a head start. Our anti-hijacking training ten years ago taught us to cooperate. Always cooperate. What might have been different if the training had taken into account the potential use of a fuel-laden airliner as a weapon? Who can guess. Herein lies the problem with another of Mr. Schneier's "points," that, "People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so." How, pray tell, are we to know what looks suspicious anymore. The obviously suspicious is the least frightening.

I'm as saddened as you are at this new need to view everyone whose actions are out of the ordinary with extra scrutiny. It's sad that I have to teach my daughters that if they're ever stranded by the side of the road and someone stops to help them, that they should get in the car and lock the doors and talk to their possible good Samaritan through a closed window. But that's the reality we live in. You can adjust, or you can call my daughters ungrateful and rude.

Personally, I choose to adjust. When I've come upon a woman or youth in such a situation, I've tried to think what I would want them to do if they were my son or daughter or wife, and then not to be insulted when they act as if I might be an axe murderer. I try to modify all my actions in such a way as not to threaten, and I'm not at all insulted if they never get out of the car or unlock the door. I'd rather they not. Frankly, I might be a little wary of them. I can call for help and watch over them until the authorities arrive, or, if that makes them nervous, I can drive on.

By the same token, it may be sad, but if I choose to wear a circuit board on my sweater and carry a handful of something with the same consistency as C4 in my hand, I'm not going to be surprised when the cops surround me. I might kick myself for not stopping to think how I could look to others. I expect, if I keep my cool, I'll have a good laugh over it later.

Covering your ass Mr. Schneier is not an easy job. There was a day when such acts were inconcievable. Perhaps we'll see that day again. Until then, be watchful, be thoughtfully scrutinous of extraordinary behavior, be whatever euphemism makes you, in your new role as anti-terrorist, feel less threatening or less a puppet of the doom mongers you seem to think we are, because it is, Mr. Schneier, your role, whether you want it or not. To reject it, is to embrace the role of victim. And you are wrong, sir, to cast aspersions at those who ask for your help in this battle, or who have decided that it's better to assume the worst and then back down than to under-react then have the task of calling parents and loved ones. We study, study, damn you, events like the Virginia Tech massacre. If that unpleasant professional task tends to tilt us toward overreaction, then so be it. I'll accept that. I know parents who expect it. Demand it. I happen to be one of them.

We all wear many hats. Parent, soldier, journalist, anti-terrorist observer. It's not as if you're being asked to turn in your sister for being a Republican or voting for Bush, but you do try to make it sound that way. You make it sound as if the "relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they're the front line of terrorism defense" is some effort of those who really hold the front line to shirk their jobs. I'll grant you one thing: I'd like to believe that those who share my profession are the front line. I'd like to believe that what we do, in intel, in ops, in forward locations, under fire, at great risk, is the real front line. I think that campaign, in as much as there is such a campaign, gets one thing wrong. Ordinary citizens aren't the front line. You're told that to make you feel more important and to avoid frightening you more than is absolutely necessary. Fact is, you're the last line, the inner perimeter, the nanny in the closet with the baby and the cell phone while the burglar ransacks downstairs.

And I'll close by violating a rule of mine and following a rule of mine. I detest name calling, especially when it serves as a stand-in for well thought out argument or debate (I hope I can safely avoid that accusation at this point). On the other hand, I also despise those forms of euphemism which rather than seeking to soften bad news, seek to conceal the moral cowardice that refuses to call things by their rightful name. Thus, when you say, "Causing a city-wide panic over blinking signs, a guy with a pellet gun, or stray backpacks, is not evidence of doing a good job: it's evidence of squandering police resources," then I can't help but recall that at least one of those "blinking signs" was placed on a support girder under an interstate and over a bus depot and when I remember that, I think I would be shirking my duty if I did not say, straight out, you sir, are an idiot.

Instead of bewailing the need for watchfulness that terrorists have foisted upon us all, and the necessity of exercising more caution than ever and risking the occasional overreaction, I suggest that you use whatever influence you have to move people toward more objective self-scrutiny. Don't you think, that if the advertising whiz kids had stopped and thought about it for a minute, they might have foreseen how that device might appear? That maybe an airport isn't the place to invent new forms of adornment that involve things that are, any way you look at it, similar to the components of some IEDs? They didn't think. She didn't think. Okay. I can forgive that. But for you to then lay blame on those charged with covering your ass for what you consider over-reacting? That, I have a problem with. For that, I have to throw the bullshit flag.

James Taylor

My cheeks hurt.

There's not really any way to convey, in mere words, the magic of James Taylor concert.

The first time I took my daughters to a JT concert, it was at Wolftrap in Virginia. One was just eight. The other, not quite five. From their earliest days, they knew James Taylor. More nights than not, if the oldest had trouble getting to sleep, I would dance around the living room with her in my arms, her head on my shoulder, singing along with James's newest album. "Sing the cowboy song, Daddy," was a frequent request at bedtime. Before she could speak in complete sentences, she could say, "James Taylor, Daddy, James Taylor." I honestly think, after "Mommy" and "Daddy," "James Taylor" may have been the third and fourth words she learned.

When tonight's concert wrapped up, finally, after about four encores, with a quiet, acoustic "You Can Close Your Eyes," I was sitting in the audience, with my arm around the shoulder of the my youngest daughter, whose cheeks also hurt from smiling, feeling like pretty much the luckiest father in the world.

Sometime, I'll chronicle the James Taylor soundtrack of my life, eras marked by albums, synaesthetic memories in which image and sound and emotion blur into a single remembered whole. Life in a gentle musical blender.