Friday, July 11, 2014

Blame Canada, pt 1

Between the end of grad school and the beginning of my job, I had a few weeks off.  Combined with my forthcoming income boost, I decided I would start repaying my mother for my childhood by offering to take her on a vacation anywhere in the world she wanted to go.  She chose Canada.  Vancouver and Victoria, to be specific.

On Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up my car with clothes and fruit snacks and drove up to meet my mom who had flown in to Seattle.  After picking her up and stopping for a quick lunch at a restaurant where my 65 year-old mother was the second-youngest person there, we continued onward to Vancouver.

In just a few more hours of sitting in traffic, we finally reached the border.  Canada is a strange land.  In most ways, it's exactly like the United States,  but a few small differences really stand out.  The first difference I noticed was flashing green lights on the street.  I later looked up that they mean a protected turn, but on first encounter, I have to say I was baffled and a little angry.  Who do they think they are taking a standard American light and making it flash?  Another thing that's different here are the buttons on elevators.

Finally, whenever paying with a credit card, every place has these little machines that suck in my credit card, and then the clerk/cashier/waitress hands the machine to me and makes me push a bunch of buttons.  I suppose it's nice to be able to verify the transaction details myself, but at the same time, the whole process seems to take longer than in the United States.

The first three days were to be spent in Vancouver, and we checked into a partially lovely hotel south of town.  The hotel had a gorgeous view of the water, and the bed was quite comfortable, but there were a few quirks that weren't as nice.  For one thing, the bathroom didn't have any towel racks/hooks within reach of the shower.  It also had one of those obnoxious glass tops on the desk, rendering my mouse obsolete.  Additionally, the temperate controls never seemed to work right.   But hey, at least the view was nice.

The next day, my mom and I went to the Anthropology Museum at the University of British Columbia.  My mom had read that this was one of the finest museums in all of Canada, but then it turned out she had actually read that about a different museum, and the Antropology Museum at UBC kind of stunk.  I guess by anthropology museum standards, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC wasn't bad, but everyone knows that anthropology museums are just a scam so that anthropology grad students can pretend that people care about their work.  At least economists aren't so vain as to put their work in a museum--we know no one cares.

After the museum, we had a nice lunch downtown before being stuck in traffic for an hour trying to get back to our hotel.

After lunch, the bad lighting on my face makes me look sickly and sexy.

The next day, we went to the Vancouver Art Museum, which compared to the Anthropology Museum was a real treat, though honestly I was a little underwhelmed by their exhibits.  The building's exterior was more impressive than the interior.  One way I judge museums is based on how easy it would be for them to liquidate their assets--supposing they went bankrupt overnight and were forced to sell off their entire collection, how hard would it be to find buyers, and how much would they get for their collection.  Certainly a museum like the Louvre would be able to liquidate their entire collection as quickly as they wanted.  On the other hand, when it comes to the Vancouver Art Museum, not only would they not get much for their collection, for most of the items there, I find it hard to imagine anyone would take the items off their hands even if they were free.  At least most of the Anthropology Museum's collection could be sold for fire wood.

After the museum, we walked around a bit, then went to the Stanley Park  where I could run by the water.  After running for about an hour, I met back up with my mother, and we prepared to sit in traffic for an hour and a half to get back to our hotel.  On our way back to the car, we were approached by a middle-aged man with long hair and a fanny pack.  He asked us "what kind of music do you like to listen to?"  At this point,  I remembered what my mother always told me, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."  While I initially found that request to be obnoxious, later in life I realized that in some situations, not saying anything at all is actually quite rude and obnoxious, and it gave me a sense of smug satisfaction to know I could make that advice backfire.

My mother ignored her own advice, and gave him a bland, but honest, response.  At this point, he told us his story.  He was a musician and since 1995, he's been walking around selling his CD in person out of his fanny pack.  He told us that each CD was personally signed, and individually numbered, and something about the being in the Guinness Book of World Records, for being the world's most pathetic musician.  Perhaps if he spent half as much time working on his music as he does selling his music, he might be good.  But he obviously wasn't good, as evidenced by the fact that he didn't play any of his music for us, nor did he even tell us what type of music he plays.  At least he was Canadian, and therefore very polite for a very desperate bum.

Tomorrow morning, we bid adieu to Vancouver, and hop on the ferry to Vancouver.

To be continued...

Friday, July 4, 2014

Butte to Butte race recap

This morning was the 41st annual Butte to Butte 10k road race, my first running race since I did Butte to Butte last summer.  Last year was the first time I had done this race, and had run very little since my marathon at the end of April.  I finished with a time of 47:27, which was pretty terrible in the grand scheme of things.

I had no intention of competing again this year until the end of April when I got the running bug again (the running bug is sort of like AIDS except it destroys your knees instead of your immune system).  I started pretty gingerly, just going for some short runs at a slow pace.  Though I hadn't been running much, my cycling training had continued as usual, so I knew I had the overall aerobic fitness, and my focus was mostly on muscular acclimation.

This year, the stakes were higher, as Ty and I had a small wager.  If I were to run faster than last year, he owes me frozen yogurt, if I run slower, I owe him.  Additionally, if my time were to be +/- 2 minutes from last year, either I would have to visit Ty, or he would have to visit me.  This might have seemed like a rather homoerotic bet for me to accept, but I was unreasonably confident that I wouldn't lose.

The race starts with a mile uphill, gaining about 250 feet of elevation.  Then it drops over the next 1.2 miles, for a small net elevation drop.  After that, it's pretty flat for the final 4 miles.  Unlike last year, when I ran the course for the first time on race day, this year, my training incorporated regular runs of the hilly part of the course.  Pacing this section can be tricky (at least according to the number of people I saw sprint ahead of me at the base of the climb, only to end up walking 500 feet later).  Things worked out pretty well, and I crested the climb in about 8 and a half minutes.  I hadn't lost too much time, but more importantly, I hadn't completely wiped out my legs in the process.  The next downhill section was really my time to shine.  My number one weakness as a runner (and cyclist, and human) is that I'm too heavy, so I can really excel (comparatively) on the stretches where I'm not working against gravity.

By the time I reached the bottom of the descent, my time was about a minute faster than I had expected, and my legs felt great.  All I had to do was hang on for four more miles.  I think I paced myself pretty well, which, of course, means that the first two miles were comfortable, the next two miles were uncomfortable, and the last two miles had me praying for the existence of a nefarious deity I could make a deal with.  You can see the exact splits in my strava link below, but aside from a little blip on the fifth mile, I actually paced myself quite well.  My finishing time was 44:29, which was nearly 3 minutes faster than last year, and well past the time needed to win both bets with Ty.

By running 3 minutes faster, I actually moved up over 200 places in the final standings since last year, which would have been good if it weren't for the 217 people still in front of me.  I think if I trained year-round and dropped 30 pounds, I could probably do around 35 minutes, which would put me into the top 25, and I wouldn't have to be so ashamed of my performance.

Official Results

Strava Link 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dissertation: Complete!

Four years and eight months after I foolishly thought getting a PhD in economics would be a good idea, it is now officially too late for me to drop out.  Tuesday afternoon at 2PM, before a committee of four faculty members who had already decided they would approve of my dissertation sat patiently while I presented my work and defended it against of onslaught of reasonable questions.  At around 3:30, the charade was over with and my committee officially signed off on it.  My dissertation was complete.

The department provided celebratory champagne.  I wish they had provided me with a jug of milk like the Indy 500.

For those of you who want to read the horror of it for yourselves, you can download it here. I don't actually recommend this because... well.. even I don't find it very interesting.


My journey to a PhD all began back in 2007 when I graduated from Brown at the beginning of the recession.  I really had no idea what kind of job I was looking for, which was really the wrong attitude to have when companies were averse to hiring.  With no money or job prospects, I knew I had to run to the only thing I knew I could still do: school.  The only questions left where what to study and where to go.

I did my undergraduate study in math, and as much as math will always be near and dear to my heart, I didn't think I wanted to do graduate study in the subject.  I thought about engineering, but I likely would have had to take a few undergrad prereqs before I could do that.  I thought about operations research, but there are shockingly few places that offer degrees in that.  Finally, I settled on economics.  Economics is sort of the bastard child of math and bullshit, and so I figured I'd fit right in.  Plus, I didn't need any prerequisites because undergraduate econ programs are so worthless that even econ PhD programs don't care if you've done one.

After I knew what I wanted to study, I needed to decide where.  My unsuccessful job searches had really done a number on my self-esteem, so I decided not to apply to any programs that were highly-ranked, or well-regarded.  Even with the benefit of hindsight, I'm still not sure if that was a mistake.

Among the schools I was accepted to, I chose Oregon.  Why I chose Oregon is a secret I will take with me to the grave, but suffice it to say that I didn't ever actually look at their course offerings.  The program at Oregon was a small one, and I thought that as a smaller program, it would offer me more flexibility and person attention to tailor my education to my interests.  It turned out that I couldn't have been more wrong about that, as its small size made it particularly rigid, with limited course offerings and no procedures in place to allow its students to have flexibility, or even to provide students with the requisite information to complete the program.  The department tends to rely on more senior students telling the junior students what is necessary to complete the program, and so long as the junior students remain panicked enough at their lack of information to ask the senior students, the system seems to function.

The first year of the program, every student had to take the core sequence of microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics.  This was moderately enjoyable, though the econometrics courses felt like they were taught more at high school level than graduate school level (though, to be fair, I was taking college math classes in high school, so I'm not entirely sure I even know what "high school level" is).

The second year of the program, instead of taking the "core" classes, we got to take "field" classes instead.  Each student was expected to pick a selection of courses that corresponded to a variety of economic subfields, that would support our future research interests.  This is where the department's small size really backfired, because though the department gave us a long list of "fields" to choose from, the actual courses offered only supported a limited number of fields, and none of them were the ones I wanted to study.  I took a class in income inequality, which covered nothing more than the various ways one could compare various hypothetical income distributions.  I took two classes in international trade, of with 85% of the material overlapped, and 0% of the material interested me.  I took a couple of classes in macroeconomics, so that became one of my fields, and a couple of classes in econometrics, so that became one of my fields.  Of the nine classes I took that year, the two econometrics classes and the one game theory class I took were the one ones I consider to not have been a tremendous waste of time.

It was during the second year that I really began to think this whole econ grad school thing was a huge mistake.  Most of the material I was learning was just names of economists who wrote papers that other people think are important; I didn't feel like I was developing my skillsets, and my requests to take classes outside of the department (math & computer science) that might have been able to help me with my future research were met with disapproval.

I was seriously considering dropping out of the program in the winter of my second year when I met my future advisor when he was teaching the microeconometrics course.  I suppose I owe it all to this, because while other classes had taught me economic models, this was the first classes where I learned how to approach solving economic problems, and how to do economic research.  What I learned was actually kind of fun.  For my class research paper, I started on a project involving airlines.  I had no particular love of airlines (and still don't), but this research would eventually build into the dissertation you see before you.  Once I got into the data, I often found myself working past midnight, and not only was I not noticing the time pass, I was actually kind of enjoying myself.  Finally... something that felt worthwhile.

For the next few years, I worked on my research, which much of the time spent teaching myself programming skills that I would have been wise to have picked up as an undergraduate.

Though I enjoyed the research, over the next two years, I became increasingly disillusioned with the prospects of life in academia, and so I made up my mind... not to.  Thankfully, economics is one of the subjects with a viable private sector market for PhDs (in fact, economics is one of the few subjects with a strong enough PhD job market that it's worth doing even if you aren't crazy about the work) and so my final year was dedicated to finding a job.  Finding a job before graduation was really something I should have done as an undergrad, and I wasn't about to make that mistake again.

I applied to 100 or so jobs, and when all was said and done, I landed a job with a salary high enough to justify having spent the last five years in school.  With all said and done, I can't say having a PhD has given me the smug sense of superiority I was hoping for, but at least it'll give me the money, which is really more important than self-esteem anyway.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

What it takes to get me to make a donation

People reading this blog probably are well aware of the fact that I don't like non-profit organizations, unsolicited donation requests, and, to a lesser extent, helping my fellow man.  The last time I made a donation to a non-profit, the motivation was purely spite, but recently, I received a piece of mail that not only prompted me to make a donation, but got me to do it out of love and exuberance, not out of malice.

Several weeks ago, I received a letter in the mail from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (not to be confused with a legitimate institute of science and medicine) with a plea for my support:
"My name is Art Robinson.  I am a scientist who has lived and worked in Josephine County for 34 years.  My colleagues and I are developing improved methods for the measurement of human health.  Please consider giving us -- a sample of your urine."
They were even kind enough to include a careful scientific schematic illustrating how the process would work.

Upon first receiving their pamphlet, I was still unsure whether I wanted to support them.  On one hand, they're clearly a quack science group, and they're sending unsolicited requests for donations. On the other hand, they're sending unsolicited requests for urine--plus that picture.  Finally, I asked myself WWMBD ('What Would Mel Brooks Do?") and the answer was clear.  I had to tear out the little post card on the middle of the pamphlet and request they send me the sample collection package.

Fast Forward to Today

The postman came knocking on my door with a package for me. Hmm... that's odd, I didn't order anything from Amazon.  I had completely forgotten that I had requested this.  I wonder if the postman knew?  I wonder how many of these he has delivered?  Does he know that my urine will go to prop up a bizarre organization operating on the border or fraud and delusion?  I guess he'll find out when I hand him back the filled vial.

I produced a sample with minimal difficulty (I have the bladder of an old man), and packed it up to ship back.  I'm not sure the USPS technically allows urine to be shipped by mail, but these are just the small sacrifices I make in the name of science.

Monday, May 5, 2014

How many phone calls does it take for Comcast to get it right?

Some time ago, I thought it would be a good idea to buy my own cable modem instead of leasing one from Comcast.  Financially speaking, I should have done this years ago, but I suppose I was foolish, lazy, or forgetful, and so I put it off for several years, giving Comcast far too much unnecessary money in the process.

After buying a cheap modem off eBay, the first step was to get that modem up and operational.  This should have been a relatively painless process, involving only a quick phone call to Comcast to give them the serial number and MAC address of the modem in order to add it to my account.  That sounds simple enough, but somehow in the process, someone at Comcast decided to click the "add unnecessary services to client's account" button.

I hadn't realized anything that happened, until the next day I received an automated phone call telling me I needed to schedule an appointment to install the phone service I had added to my account.  I foolishly thought I could ignore this, because I didn't know what the hell they were talking about, but when I got another automated phone call at 7AM the following morning, I figured I probably needed to call things up and settle this.

I called up Comcast, and explained the situation to a human, and then he told me he wasn't authorized to cancel the services on my account, so he had to transfer my call to someone else (even the night janitor can sign you up for HBO, but only three people in North America can downgrade service).  The next person I spoke to apologized for the mistake, and told me she would fix it.  I assumed everything was fine until several days later I received another automated phone call asking about my phone service installation.  I repeated the same process, and was again assured that the problem had been taken care of.

I assumed that all had been taken care of until late last week when a human from Comcast called me, and told me there was an outstanding service order on my account for phone installation, and wondered when that could be scheduled.  I, again, explained the situation to the man, told him I never wanted any phone service, and how several other people from Comcast had assured me that had fixed the problem... which I thought was fine, until I received my bill for the month, and noticed it was more than twice what it was supposed to be, due to the charges of both the phone service and installation (the installation that never happened, and the phone service I had repeatedly been told was removed from my account).

Again, I called.  Again, I spoke to a person, who had to transfer me to another person, who had to put me on hold, who told me the problem had been fixed.  Would this be the magical person who finally fixed things for real?  I was optimistic when I received an email saying my service had been switched, until I read it more closely and noticed that though the phone charge had been removed, the modem rental fee was still on there (remember, removing the modem rental from my account was the original source of all of this mess).  I pulled out the receipt from my modem return, and picked up the phone.  I was sure to save the receipt after reading several complaints online that Comcast was notorious for continuing to charge equipment fees even after the items had been returned.

When I called up, I spoke to a nice woman who explained to me that I wasn't being charged for the modem I had returned, I was being charged a fee for the phone equipment I was leasing for my phone service.  I tried to explain the fiasco that had unfolded regarding that service, but she didn't seem to get it.  She told me that she saw my phone service had just been canceled today, and I could return the phone equipment, and then would no longer be charged for it.  I objected, requesting that she not only stop the charge going forward, but remove past charges I had been expected to pay.  She told me she couldn't do that.  I raised my voice, outraged that not only was I being charged for a service I never ordered, but I was being charged for equipment that had not ever been in my possession.  Then, like magic, it turned out she could remove the charges from my account retroactively.

Sometimes it's hard to tell when Comcast employees are being dishonest, or just incompetent, but I hope that when I move this summer, there will be a viable alternative to their service.  I don't mind paying too much money for internet access, but paying too much money for phone service I never ordered is really unreasonable.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

There are only three people I ever liked getting phone calls from, and one of them is dead

The other morning, I was woken up by a phone call at 7AM.  Under normal circumstances, it would be usual for me to receive any phone call, let alone a call at 7AM, but these are not normal times, for this past week, I started shopping for a car.  I've been without a car since I moved out to Oregon.  Most days I'm happier to be without one, but such will not be the case next year when I move to the urban sprawl of the South Bay to start my new job.

In a dream world, buying a car would be as easy as buying books off of Amazon.  Though some lament the death of the bookstore, I rejoice, because buying things in person is stupid.  A quick glance at a book on a shelf can't compare to the information you get from hundreds of customer reviews and instant price comparisons.  All too often, people forget that the very expression "you can't judge a book by its cover" applies first and foremost to books themselves.

Unfortunately, unlike books, the world of automobiles still seems to operate through the most archaic channels imaginable.  Though I started my search by browsing a variety of automobile websites, what quickly became apparent was how difficult it was to actually find a price on anything.  The manufacturer's websites typically had something like "Starting at $15,999 MSRP..", but then they list 10 different trim options without specific prices on each.  When I went to the dealers' websites, they made me put in my contact information before they'd even show me a price (prices typically labeled "INTERNET SPECIAL OFFER").  All this, just to get some idea of what a particular model actually costs.

In most cases, once I'd seen the price, I no longer had any interest in the car (the hybrid version costs $10,000 more than the gasoline version--it practically pays for itself after 300,000 miles!), but there was no going back from the land of "enter your contact information".  Within 24 hours, my phone would be ringing with the assistant to the secretary of the "internet sales rep" of some dealership saying how she had seen my interest in the Yugo and wanted to know when I could come in for a test drive.  "I'm really too busy to come in for a test drive this week..." --"Great!  We'll schedule you for a test drive Monday morning at 9am!"  That actually happened.  Not only that, but they call at the strangest hours, either 8AM or 8PM, and never in between.

The cars themselves aren't the only things that hide their prices, it seems everything even tangentially connected to cars requires "enter your information to receive an instant price quote".  Car insurance works the same way.  I was curious how much I'd have to pay for insurance, so I went to a few websites, and they required I enter my information before I could receive any prices.  So I did, and I saw the prices, and I was content, because that's all I really wanted to do.  Then, 18 hours later, I'm getting calls from insurance agents wondering why I never completed the transaction ("BECAUSE I DON'T OWN A CAR YET, YOU MORONS!").

But that's nothing... the absolute worst came when, out of curiosity, I inquired about the price of shipping a car across the country.  I foolishly went to a website that promised "instant quotes from 8 different shippers", which really meant they'd give my contact info to 20 different shippers, who couldn't just email me (as they said they would), but also had to call me too.  I filled out the form around 10PM, and discovered the error of my ways when I was woken up by a phone call at 7 AM.  They saw I wanted to ship a car, and wanted to talk to me about it (in reality, I really just wanted to know the price of shipping a car, and didn't want to talk to anyone about anything ever).  What absolutely none of them seemed to realize, when I filled out the form requesting a quote on shipping from the east coast to the west coast was that I would be on the receiving end of that.  By the time I had received 3 calls before 7:30, I had given up explaining how they had just woken me up, and instead just said "I will never, ever give you money so don't ever talk to me again" and hung up the phone.

And therein lies the beauty of  I never get phone calls for them, because no human could possibly provide me with the level of service their computers do automatically.

The whole process has really left me quite bitter about cars, and I've only been to one dealer so far.  I was almost tempted to just buy a car on the spot so I wouldn't have to deal with this anymore, but then I remembered my conversation with the lady at the DMV who informed me, in not so many words, that I would never, ever be allowed to register a car here in Oregon.  Apparently I need an Oregon driver's license to register a car here in Oregon ("okay, how can I get an Oregon driver's license?"  --"You can't!").

More updates to come as the car hunt continues.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fencing Tournament Recap: 2/22/2014


Turns out it's been two years since I last fenced in a competition.  Much of that time was spent racing bikes, working on my dissertation, and not practicing fencing, so going to a tournament wouldn't have been very productive.  I think I only made it to fencing practice once all of last term, but this term, I've had a little bit more time and so not only have I been going to fencing practice twice a week, on most of those days, I've actually taken a short epee lesson.  Certainly the training is rather minimal compared to what I was doing at Brown, but a little consistency goes a long way, and so I was looking forward to seeing how I'd do against some real competition.

The tournament was an hour away in Salem.  I drove up with Adam, my coach (who was also competing), and we got there an hour early for the scheduled 1PM start time.  Turns out they were "running a little behind" (what fencing tournament isn't?), and it ended up starting around 3.  There were 24 people registered, including 3 A's--one of whom was almost certain to win the whole thing.  The strange thing about me and epee fencing is that it doesn't actually matter who's on the strip in front of me: whether it's a 14 year-old kid who's been fencing for a year, or a 30 year-old Olympian, I am equally terrified.  It is for that reason that even though I ended up being seeded in the easy pool (the one without one of the A's), I was still very uneasy.

When we split up into our pools, I noticed a fencer who looked familiar.  He was someone I vaguely remembered having fenced before... some 10+ years ago... in New England... in saber. How on earth another New England saber fencer ended up fencing epee in Salem, Oregon I'll never quite figure out, but it made for an easy win for me, because all I had to do was make him think he had right of way and then counterattack.  I finished 4-1 in my pool with a strong indicator, and was seeded 4th overall (behind the 3 A's).  At this point I had mixed feelings: on one hand, I felt like I really shouldn't have lost that one bout (it was 4-5 to a guy who wasn't very good), on the other hand, I felt like seeded 4th overall was better than I deserved.  At least it gave me (what should have been) a relatively easy path to the top 4.

I had a bye in the round of 32, and so my first DE was in the top 16 against a kid, probably 14 years old, who looked like he'd be a really good fencer in about 5 years, but right now, he was a hot mess.  I got up 2-0, and then passivity'd my way into the third period.  I was kind of hoping he would just let me passivity it all the way to the win, but some people started strip coaching him to attack, and so he got really aggressive, and I got scared.  We went back and forth a little bit--he tied it up a number of times.  I kept thinking I was going to lose, but managed to pull off a few nice touches at the end to win by 2.  It wasn't pretty, and I really should have won by 10, but at least I was still in it.

My next bout was another odd one; I was up against a female epee fencer that I remembered used to fence for Cornell while I was at Brown.  As of 10 years ago, she was wicked good, but appeared to be a little rusty (turns out she hadn't competed in 7 years and her only goal was "not to DFL").  She was clearly a little rusty, but while I had the size and speed advantage over her, she had the "I know what I'm doing" advantage over me.  It was a close bout.  She liked to attack my leg a lot (something I'm still not used to defending from my saber days), and I was having surprising success hitting her with a quick remise to the hand.  I managed snag the 15-14 lead, and simultaneously felt like I shouldn't have won that bout and that I should have won it by a lot more.

This put me into the top 4 where I was up against Adam, my coach.  He was probably the hardest of all the A's for me to match up against, because not only is he a good fencer, but he also coaches me and fences me in practice, so he knows how to beat me.  The one thing I had going for me was he had never fenced "tournament mode Dan" before.  I don't fence tournaments like I fence practice.  In practice, I'm much more relaxed.  Physically, I hold something back, and mentally, I'm much more experimental.  In tournaments, physically I am much more committed, and tactically I restrict my action choice from "things that I want to work on" to "things I do well."  This actually managed to catch him a bit by surprise, and I got up to a 5-2 lead early.  I was in a much more advantageous position than I had realized, and so after he grabbed a couple of strong parry-ripostes against me, I started to panic.  In retrospect, I should have just stuck with exactly what I was doing, and played the percentages, but I thought he had "figured me out" and I had to change.  As I scrambled to try to find new things I could do win, I fell right into his game.  I ended up losing by a fairly sizable margin (I think 15-9) to finish third, while he went on to win the tournament.

Overall, my result wasn't too bad, but I don't really think about that--all I think about are the things I should have done better.  I don't want to be scared of every scrub who steps on the strip across from me, and I don't want every DE to be a struggle.  I suppose there's no secret, no mystery as to how to accomplish this.  I need to practice more often, I need to get more tournament experience, and I need to suck less.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lone Survivor & Fort Sensible

Though free wifi still doesn't seem to be standard practice in every hotel, one thing that is a given is that every room will have a television, and at least a handful of the standard cable channels.  I don't own a TV at home, and though I selectively stream a handful of shows, I don't have to subject myself to standard TV commercials, and so often I'm unaware of the latest buzz.  While I was on the road, I noticed a lot of buzz on the TV about a new movie called Loan Survivor--a military movie supposedly inspired by the true story of some Navy SEALs.  I have to say, it takes a lot of balls to give away the ending of your movie in the title, but I was intrigued, and so I decided to do a little research.  Turned out the film was based on a book which was based on the true story, and so I could save myself the hassle of putting on pants, and just download the book from the Kindle store.

This blog review is based on the true story of one man's perilous struggle to survive some of the crappiest writing that was ever signed off on by the Department of Defense's PR department.

Now normally I would include some sort of "spoiler warning" when I was about to discuss the finer plot points of a book, but I feel as though all bets are off when the the ending of the book in contained in its title.  Marcus Luttrell is a member of a four-man SEAL team sent on a reconnaissance mission in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Things start to get interesting (from a literary perspective) when Marcus and his team are discovered by the Taliban, and must fight for their survival.  Despite being outnumbered by over 100 Taliban, Marcus and his team fight with all they've got.  After all, they're Navy SEALs and they're not going to go down without a fight.

The SEALs pride themselves on their toughness, their determination, and their refusal to surrender.  This is also buoyed by a principle of never leaving a man behind on the battlefield.  Though they'll go into some of the most dangerous situations, they know they've always got each other's backs.  Lone Survivor details this commitment.  At one point during the ambush, two of the team members have already been fatally wounded.  The remaining two are badly hurt.  Of those two, the one who isn't Marcus heroically calls for backup, which necessitates running out from cover and exposing himself to enemy fire in order to get a radio signal.  He is, in effect, sacrificing himself in order to support his one remaining squadmate.

Back at the base, they receive the distress call, and waste no time.  They load up a helicopter with 8 Navy SEALs and 8 Army Special Ops men, who got in a helicopter and flew to the heart of the conflict to take on at least 100 well-trained, heavily armed, Taliban fighters in order to rescue what was at that point, at most, one viable soldier, and even he would likely be dead by the time they arrived.  Ultimately, none of that mattered because the helicopter was blown up in the air, and all 16 men were killed.  At this point, I couldn't help but think of Fort Sensible.

Fort Sensible was introduced in the Whacking Day episode of The Simpsons.  Marge and Bart visit Olde Springfield Towne where they learn the history of the fort.
Guide: The enemy surrounded the fort, and said that if the captain was sent out, the rest would be spared.
Bart: What did they do?
Guide: They sent him out!
Bart: Was he killed?
Guide: And how! That's why they call it 'Fort Sensible'.
The joke is, of course, that despite the classic military machismo and never give-in attitude that is pervasive in the military, in many cases there is a a much more 'sensible' solution that leaves everyone better off.  But if there's on thing that you should learn from reading this book, it's that being a SEAL is about being tough, it's about being determined, it's about being loyal, it's about being an expertly trained soldier, but it's never about being sensible.

But before Marcus and his SEAL team got into trouble, the reader should already be suitably troubled by some of the things in the book.  Of course, one of the things that helped make Marcus into such the tough man was that his father beat him.
When we were young, working the horses, my dad was very, very tough on us.  He considered that good grades were everything, bad ones were simply unacceptable.  I once got a C in conduct, and he beat me with a saddle girth.  I know he was doing it for our own good, trying to instill discipline in his sons, which would serve them well later in life.
 He seems to fancy this a good thing.  I seem to fancy this as an explanation as to why later in life, he would want to kill any Afghan that looked at him the wrong way (also, "conduct", that's not even a real subject).  When Marcus sets off for Afghanistan, it is clear he is motivated by a deeply-ingrained love of corporal punishment, and may not be going for the most sensible of reasons.
They may not have been the precise same guys who planned 9/11.  But they were most certainly their descendants, their heirs, their followers.  They were part of the same crowd who knocked down the North and South towers in the Big Apple on the infamous Tuesday morning in 2001.
The idea of "communal punishment" is a very troubling one, and Marcus seems to have no qualms whatsoever.  Certainly the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were worthy of punishment, but the direct perpetrators all died in the attack--they couldn't be punished.  Those who conspired with the perpetrators were hard to find, but Marcus, George W Bush, and all too many Americans clearly wanted vengeance, and so anyone who fit the profile of a terrorist was going to have to pay, regardless of whether he had committed any specific offenses.  Marcus really took the the idea of revenge.  As he even noted, one of the few possessions he brought with him when he went overseas to fight was a DVD player and a copy of his favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo.  Marcus describes it by saying "It's always an inspiration to me, always raises my spirits to watch one brave, innocent man's lonely fight against overpowering forces of evil in an unforgiving world."  Now, perhaps if Marcus were more the literary type, he might have read the novel instead of just watching the Hollywood version, and if he had, he might have picked up on the part where Edmand Dant├Ęs's lust for revenge ends up hurting innocent people, and causes him to lose his humanity.

The parts of the book detailing the combat in Afghanistan are actually, by far, the best parts.  The unfortunate part of this book is that in order to even get to the fighting, the reader has to make it through 100 pages of SEAL training, and Marcus telling everyone why SEALs are the greatest people to ever walk the face of the Earth

We could fight in a much more ruthless manner, stop worrying if everyone still loved us.  If we did that, we'd probably win in both Afghanistan and Iraq in about a week.
But we're not allowed to do that.  And I guess we'd better start getting used to the conseqeuences and permit the American liberals to squeak and squeal us to ultimate defeat.  I believe that's what it's called when you pack up and go home, when a war fought under your own "civilized" terms is unwinnable. 
I have only one piece of advice for what it's worth: if you don't want to get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get killed, where innocent people sometimes have to die, then stay the hell out of it in the first place.
That last part is probably the first sensible thing he's written in the whole book.  And he's right.  We should have stayed the hell out of Afghanistan in the first place.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this book is the complete lack of perspective that Marcus has about our place in the world.  For starters, he doesn't seem to quite comprehend why there would be such hostility towards U.S. armed forces (unless, of course, the people were all evil terrorists).
In fact, there were districts in Manama known as black flag areas, where tradesmen, shopkeepers, and private citizens hung black flags outside their properties to signify Americans are not welcome.  I guess it wasn't quite as vicious as Juden Verboten was in Hitler's Germany.  But there are undercurrents of hatred all over the Arab world, and we knew there were many sympathizers with the Muslim extremist fanatics of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Because really, being Jewish is just like being part of a massive, foreign, occupying military presence.  His lack of perspective continues to show with his frequent diatribes against the "liberals" (both politicians and the media) who are always criticizing the U.S. Armed Forces.  His specific point of contention are the "rules of engagement" that state the they cannot open fire on the Afghans unless they (the Afghans) attack first, or have been positively identified and have proof of their intentions.  To Marcus, this is crazy, especially because of how hard it can be to identify those foreigners who wish to attack Americans, and those foreigners who just resent the American occupation.  He would much rather be able to kill them at his discretion, and it's clear he would err on the side of caution.

Fundamentally, Marcus doesn't seem to Middle Easterners as being inherently equal to Americans.  I suppose this might a necessary coping mechanism to deal with war, but to him,they are not people with names, feelings, and identities, they are "Abdul the Bombmaker or whatever the hell his name was."  Ultimately, this becomes a crucial plot point, as Marcus believes that these "rules of engagement" cost him and his team their lives.

While the four-man SEAL team was dropped into the mountains doing their reconnaissance, they happened to be discovered by several Afghan goatherds who were just taking their goats for a casual stroll through the mountains.  They weren't doing anything nefarious, and they were unarmed, but they had the misfortune of stumbling across some American SEALs.  Marcus and his team are unsure what to do.  They want to kill the goatherds, but some of them are afraid of what the liberal politicians and media will do to them.  Their only other (apparent) option is to set them free and continue on in their mission.  Again, Fort Sensible seems to strike again--once they have been discovered, the mission is over.  At that point, extraction should be their first and only priority.  But that's not how SEALs think.  SEALs are tough sons of bitches, and they never give up on a mission... even if it turns out 19 soldiers are killed, and the mission objectives are never completed anyway.... but they'll be damned if they admit defeat.

After the fact, Marcus laments that he didn't kill them.  Clearly he should have, because by virtue of the fact that they told people what they had seen, which clearly meant they were evil terrorists.  At no point did he stop to put himself in their shoes--imaging going for a stroll in your home town when you stumble across four heavily armed, foreign soldier.  Would you keep quiet to make sure they can continue their mission.  Who even knows what their mission was?  Also, just because the Taliban soldiers found out doesn't mean the goatherds were with the Taliban--they could have just been goatherds by day, journalists by night.  The discovery of four Navy SEALs was probably a front page story on the Hindu Kush Times.

After Marcus and his team are ambushed, he talks about the pain of losing his squadmates; how he still hears their dying screams in his sleep.  What he doesn't seem to comprehend is that is the pain he is inflicting on others every time he kills.  Even Tom Clancy novels, which are as pro-military as they come, typically reflects that understanding.  Marcus resents the rules of engagement because they jeopardize the safety of the people he cares about.  He doesn't understand that they are in place to provide for the safety of people he doesn't care about, but whose feelings are just as important.  The protections for the Aghans are in place not because the terrorists deserve to be protected, but because we want to make damn sure that the people we're killing are terrorists before we kill them.  That is our one claim to moral superiority over them.

My criticisms of this book are not just limited to criticisms of Marcus's philosophies of war.  It's also because of the remarkable time devoted to self-aggrandizement.  At every step of the way, the reader is assured that despite the non-stop boasts of the incredible abilities of the SEALs, they are actually quite humble people (humble people deliver such quotes as: "It has occurred to me that you might be wondering why we thought we were so goddamned superior to everyone else, why we felt entitled to our own private brand of arrogance").  While I suppose it is possible that Marcus Luttrell is the lone turd in the punch bowl, it seems that while they may not outwardly boast, humble, they are absolutely not.  Mirriam-Webster defines humble as "not proud : not thinking of yourself as better than other people", and this book definitely gives the impression that these SEALs fancy themselves better than other people.  I suspect that the reason they may avoid outward boasts is that to articulate their claims would be to subject them to attack.  It's a lot easier to think yourself the greatest than it actually is to defend that claim (though to Muhammad Ali's credit, he gave it a damn good try).  Perhaps the most egregious offense came after Marcus finished sniper school, about which he said, "SEALs don't look for personal credit, and thus I cannot say who the class voted their honor man."  Now, at this point in the book, the reader hasn't actually been introduced to any other characters at sniper school, and so there are only two possibilities: either Marcus himself was voted the "honor man", in which case he is boasting and looking for personal credit, or else someone else was voted the "honor man" in which case the key character here has not yet been introduced to the reader, which is one of the greatest literary sins there is.  Neither option reflects well on the author. 

In response to his boasts about his, and the SEALs superiority, I must state my objections.  While I certainly won't argue that the SEALs are exceptionally good at what they do, just what is it that they do?  They suffer a lot.  They're kind of strong, but not exceptionally talented at any particular physical feat.  They can suffer a lot.  They can shoot people, and work well in groups.  They can brag.  The thing about the SEALs is they are exceptionally gifted men, but if they had been just a little more gifted, they wouldn't have wasted their time being SEALs.  At one point, he mentions that it's harder to become a Navy SEAL than it is to graduate from Harvard Law School.  It's also harder to memorize 50,000 decimal places of pi than it is to graduate from Harvard Law School, but if anyone were to ask which pursuit was more worthwhile, I would have to say the latter.

My final thoughts on this book are simple: if you're thinking about reading it, do yourself a favor and read Starship Troopers instead.  It's got a very similar pro-military message, but written by an author who actually knows how to write.  Though Marcus Luttrell spends much of the book telling the reader every possible positive quality a Navy SEAL could have, not once does he mention writing ability.  It shows.  Starship Troopers, on the other hand, features such literary mainstays as "plot" and "character development", Lone Survivor just feels like a collage of anecdotes, and despite the remarkable series of events that results in Marcus being the only survivor of a massive Taliban ambush, it doesn't actually appear that he has grown or learned anything from the ordeal.  Because SEALs don't learn--they've already been bred to perfection.  I suppose it's good for his ego, but it sure doesn't make for a compelling narrative.