Thursday, March 30, 2017

Bullets, Bikes and Rotor Blades: Random Motion, Perfectly Predictable

Bullets rip from the barrel of modern rifles at more than 3000 feet per second.  Tanks fire armor-piercing shells that travel nearly twice that speed, just over a mile a second.  Rotor blades on helicopters sweep the air at a constant speed, but a small  change in the pitch (tilt) of the blades causes the ‘copter to rise, drop, hover or hurtle through the air at more than 100 knots.

Each of these complex motions is almost perfectly predictable moving through an utterly random medium: air.  The atmosphere, from sea level to stratosphere, is nothing but randomly moving molecules.  The molecules of air are vanishingly small,  so each cubic foot of air has about 30 sextillion molecules (3 with 22 zeroes) of air in it at any moment.

Since air is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, most air molecules are just under a millionth of a millimeter long. These tiny particles move in random directions: up, down, left, right and everything in between at speeds around 1000 miles per hour at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressure. 

And yet.

The collective motion of hundreds of trillions of individual molecules is so predictable that a 95-pound artillery shell fired from a 155mm cannon can hit within meters of a target ten miles away.  A 105mm tank cannon firing a practice SABOT round can make  will punch a perfect 40mm hole within inches of the middle of a one-meter circle a full kilometer away. In 1976, my gunner made a smiley-face triangle with three rounds while we were zeroing our main gun. 

If random motion meant changes in wind resistance, gunners would never be able to fire with inch-perfect accuracy.

Every week I coast down a ¾-mile-long hill. At the top of the hill are two big wind-power generators.  A mile away from the hill I check the direction the blades are facing and their speed. I know before I get to the hill what my speed will be at the bottom within less than 5mph. The difference comes from how much draft I get from other cyclists.  In the distance down that hill, my bicycle and I pass through 15 cubic feet of air for every foot we move down the hill.  So from top to bottom the bike and I pass through 50,000 cubic feet of randomly move molecules of air, billions of sextillions of molecules of air.

And yet.

The motion is perfectly predictable.  Any single molecule of air might be racing ahead of my bicycle at 1000mph or it might get passed by a bullet or a cannon shell. But the collective motion of all those molecules is wind resistance. And wind resistance is as predictable as electrical resistance in a wire fluid resistance in a pool of water. 

The world is full of randomness at every level from atoms to stars and yet the universe is so stable that the greatest theories of science are based on permanency across millennia of time and light years of space. 

This is beauty we are immersed in every day. 

If we could see air molecules move, it would look like the tracers from a hundred monkeys firing a hundred machine guns while swinging through trees. 

Nature is often this way. A surprise. Not at all what we expect and somewhere beyond amazing. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Obsessed With Ribbons: Civilian and Military

For Illustration Only! This is what four ribbons looks like on a conference badge.
I actually merit no ribbons!

The selection of possible ribbons.

Today I worked in the registration area at an engineering conference.  I helped people find the ribbons they were supposed to wear as conference participants.  Most of the participants knew which ribbons if any they were supposed to wear.  Most people wore none.  The most common ribbon was "Speaker" followed by "Fellow."  

But about one in twenty were entitled to multiple ribbons. Most had been doing this for years and knew which ones they should wear, but at one point a group of four men and women showed up who were very excited about their multiple ribbons and upset that the ribbon "Chair" was not available.  Each of these avid ribbon wearers were the Chair of something and were upset that ribbon was not on the ribbon table. 

Since I had no useful information about where they could get their Chair ribbons, they looked for the manager of registration to see if there was a not a special stash of Chair ribbons in a secret place.  Then they discussed the order of their ribbons and how many each person was entitled to. I did not laugh out loud, but I am sure the smirk I wore was visible.  

In the Army there are a few soldiers obsessed their awards who make sure they receive every award they are entitled to.  Most soldiers are indifferent and take awards very lightly.  But a few want to be sure they receive every award of the Pennsylvania Recruiting and Retention Medal if they have met the requirements for that particular medal.  

In the Army every soldier is required to display all medals they have earned and for which they have orders, so some soldiers become expert in their ribbons because it is part of proper wear of the uniform.  

At an engineering conference, no one is required to wear ribbons, so the men and women who were hoping to add four or five ribbons to their badge can't say they have any reason except badge vanity. Of course, vanity can show up anywhere: in the Army, at an engineering conference, or on the runway at the Academy Awards.  I just thought it was funny to see ribbons for "Speaker" and "Fellow" and "Chair" treated like a Bronze Star Medal, and Air Medal, or a Croix de Guerre."

Friday, March 24, 2017

Yes, I am Judging You

When I tell a civilian that I and every sergeant is a judgmental bastard, they think I am being funny.  I am not.  When I was a sergeant in the Army it was my job to glance at a soldier and infer from his wear of the uniform how much I could trust him and how much he really understood his duties.  And when I recognized a fault it was my job to tell that soldier to correct the fault and check that he did.

One sergeant I served with said, "I tell them how they are fucked up and how to un-fuck themselves."

In any area of life in which experts are in close contact with amateurs, the experts will be judging the amateurs. Expertise is tough to come by. It takes hard work.  If Malcolm Gladwell is right, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill.

Because written communication has become so much more common and so much more public on social media, I read people saying that their grammar doesn't matter.  It is their brilliant thoughts we should pay attention to.  Soldiers believe this rubbish too and say so on social media.  Although they will judge another soldier when one insignia 1/16th-inch out of place, they somehow think their idiotic self-expression gets a pass. It doesn't.

I cannot look at a badly worn uniform without judging the wearer. I cannot look at an ill-constructed sentence without thinking it is the careless expression of muddled thoughts.

Friday, March 17, 2017

My Summer Vacation will be on This Blog!

On June 7 I fly to Europe. By the 9th I will begin a bicycle trip from Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia that will cover more than a dozen countries and end in St. Petersburg, Russia. Along the way I will be visiting Holocaust Memorial sites and the sites of some of the fiercest battles in world history as the Nazi Army was pushed from defeat in Stalingrad all the way back to Berlin.

I was going to make a separate bicycle trip blog, but every place I go on this trip was overrun by the Nazi Army then liberated by an Allied Army. In addition to the World War II connection, is my own service in the Cold War.  If all goes as planned my last stop in Europe will be at Land of Kanaan in Darmstadt, Germany, where my friend Bruder Timotheus is a Franciscan Brother. Before he was Bruder Timotheus, Senior Airman Cliff Almes was my roommate for several months in 1978 when we were both stationed in Wiesbaden, West Germany.

After Darmstadt, I fly to Israel then  return home.  I have the bike. I have the plane tickets. Now I start working on the route.

Another thing I will be working on is getting visas from countries that did not require them until January 20. Now they do. Five countries on my route in easter Europe require Americans to get visas this year, because America is denying visa reciprocity to them.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Russia and America: Destined to Conflict, Religion

Russia and America cooperated in World War II because both were threatened by a common enemy. But like our alliances with other wretched dictatorships, it was an alliance of purpose, not based on any fundamental agreement. The Cold War immediately following World War II is proof enough that the Soviet Russian empire and America had little in common but a mutual desire to beat the Nazis, then to beat each other at every turn.

Now influential people in our government, led by Steve Bannon, dream of a white empire that will stand against the Muslim world. They assume that being a white Christian means some sort of common political goal and heritage.  Even in the West you would be wrong to say this. From the late Roman Empire until the 19th Century, Christianity was a state religion in much of the west and in direct conflict with religious freedom for nearly all of that time. The Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion all the way to the terrorism in Ireland in the 20th Century show that unity is not Christian political virtue.

And Russia throughout its history has very little in common with the west except a Christian label. Even the way that Russia became a Christian nation is utterly different than in the West.  In Rome, Christianity was accepted over time after waves of persecution.  The sheer number of Christians eventually led the government to accept the followers of Jesus. The Christian label on the Roman Empire came as that Empire collapsed.

In Russia, Vladimir the Great interviewed representatives of the leading religions in the world around the year 988: Islam, Western Christianity, Judaism and Eastern Christianity all made a presentation. Vladimir picked Eastern Christianity because the head of the Church was the head of the state. The monarch and the head of the Church were the same person for nearly half a millennia, but even after the prelate was separated from the monarchy, the Church was an organ of the Russian state.

In Russia, half the population was effectively in slavery until 1863. Russia never had an Enlightenment. It never had a Reformation.  From 1863 until 1917, Russia had a Jim Crow sort of freedom for its serfs, but then the Communist Revolution enslaved most of Russia more deeply than the Tsars. The state Church was abolished, but Anti-Religion became as much required as the former state religion.  Now under Putin, religion is fashionable again, but it is state religion, with rising repression of other faiths.

The Founding Fathers of America were unified in their commitment to Enlightenment principles and in their disdain for state religion. America has stood for religious freedom since well before it became a nation.  The idea that we are natural allies with a repressive regime with a state religion because it is white and has a Christian label is ludicrous.

Russia is in a slow, grinding process of becoming a fully authoritarian state with a state Church. America is still the favored destination in the world for people who want to practice their religion freely, or to be free to not practice religion at all.

In World War II America and Russia made an alliance to stop the Nazis, but were in a global fight for dominance as soon as that war ended.  The white supremacist dream of a global white alliance is simply a sick vision that will turn into a nightmare, especially for those who treasure freedom.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ten Years Ago: The Decision to Re-Enlist

Over the next few months I will be writing about why I re-enlisted at 54 years old after more than 23 years as a civilian. Ten years ago next month is when I actually began the process, but for several months before I was thinking about re-enlisting. Congress raised the enlistment age to 42 at the end of 2006. That gave me a window to re-enlist before my 55th birthday.


Ten years ago this month, I had a good job, four kids at home, an amazing beautiful wife, a nice home, a nice life and I had just about convinced myself to call a recruiter and re-enlist.

At the time, in my mind, I wanted to do something for an undefined greater good.  Joining the Army National Guard seemed like something I could do for the state, the nation and I might even like it.

In half-dozen years preceding my re-enlistment I had tried volunteering for organizations that help the community. My wife was a hospice volunteer, a kidney donor, and a dozen other great things.  I raced my bike and rode 10,000 miles a year.

When I volunteered, the main difficulty was my fellow volunteers.  They were so nice. They wanted to be sure was happy volunteering. They agonized over the best way to do everything. And they drove me nuts.

The Army would not care how I felt, not care if I had scheduling conflicts and not care if I was happy. That sounded wonderful.

In retrospect, all this sounds crazy. But at the time, I really was on the way to convincing myself I was doing a good thing by re-enlisting at 54 years old.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Israel and Singapore: Best Small Armies Surrounded by Muslims

In the late 90s through 2002 I made a dozen trips to Asia with Singapore as the destination or one of the stops on the way from Europe to Australia or Hong Kong.  I always brought my bicycle. I rode at odd hours of the day or night.  Singapore is the farthest point in the world in the Northern Hemisphere from the the Northeastern U.S. so I was always dealing with jet lag.

Singapore is so well lit everywhere on the main island that I seldom bothered with bike lights.  I would ride out to the airport before dawn or in the evening.  Sometimes I would see a sight like the one above: a Royal Singapore Air Force jet fighter screaming into the air on full afterburners. At the time I was visiting, their main fighter was the F-5, now it is F-15s and F-16s.

Singapore has one of the best equipped, best trained militaries in the world.  It boasts the largest air force in Southeast Asia with more than 100 fixed wing fighters, plus helicopters including Apache Longbow attack helicopters and transport aircraft. The Singapore navy has new submarines and destroyers. This small, rich nation spends 20% of its annual budget on the military. The $12 billion annual expenditure is about the same as neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia combined, though they have nearly 300 million people.

Singapore shares a lot in common with Israel:

Singapore has a population of six million and a land area about 2/3rds of New York City.

Israel has a population of 8 million and the area of New Jersey.

Both countries have the same motivation for their armies: they surrounded by nearly 300 million Muslims.

This summer I will be visiting Israel for the first time. I might see fighters scramble there if I am riding a bicycle at dawn or dusk.

These two small countries are young, surrounded and have the two best armies for their size in the world.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Jefferson Library and the Fall of Rome

Inside the Library of Congress is the Jefferson Library--the 4,929 books Thomas Jefferson owned and read during his long life. His library includes books in English, French, Italian, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew that I saw.

As I scanned the titles, I thought of the brave and brilliant men who founded America: Jefferson was a Colonel in the Virginia Militia and served in the Revolutionary Army. George Washington was the Commander in Chief of the colonial armies and our first President.

The greatest leaders of the Rome were also brilliant and brave men, notably Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus and the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, maybe the greatest of all.

Many historians place the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. when the last Roman emperor, Romulus, disappears from the historical record.  But parts of the empire held together for another century under the rule of illiterate barbarians. The empire that was once ruled by Marcus Aurelius who wrote philosophy during his campaigns on the frontiers of the Roman Empire, was finally ruled by men who could not read.

The thousand-year Roman empire existed for another century under the barbarian emperors. In just over two centuries America has descended from a man of letters to a man of twitter.

I hope we last another century.

Who Fights Our Wars? CSM Donald C. Cubbison, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division

In the fall of 1977, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division got a new Command Sergeant's Major.  Donald C. Cubbison, veteran of the Vietna...