Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Girl In The Spider's Web

Stayed up late last night reading The Girl In The Spider's Web. The novel, written by David Ladercranz, a well known Swedish author, is the fourth volume in the saga of Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, a very peculiar young woman and experienced hacker. A good thriller series started by Stieg Larsson. Salander's hacker handle is Wasp. This volume reveals that the handle comes from a Marvel Comics female superhero admired by Lisbeth when she was a child.

Reminds me that I read Superman, for example, whose ideals were "truth, justice and the American way." Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior and other superheroes of my generation fought for the betterment of mankind, not for themselves. They did not seek wealth or self aggrandizement, they fostered diversity and cooperation.

Those of us who went to Sunday School learned about the Sermon on the Mount.

We despised dictators and authoritarian figures and valued mutual cooperation.

Internationally, Roosevelt and Churchill laid the foundation for victory in WWII when they signed the Atlantic Charter in August, 1941. Other nations wanted to join in the effort and our alliance was victorious. We joined together to, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, "make the world safe for democracy." That laid the foundation for postwar peace and prosperity.

Keeping that peace was hard work.

Our American Dream was the same as Lincoln's: Government of the People, By the People, and For the People. All of them, not just the white people.

Now we are led by a president who thinks he was elected Dictator.

The Great White Hope.

How did we get to this place?

How do we get out of it?

One thing I know for sure - we can't rely on superheroes. Only we can fix democracy and we'd better start the job right now!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pentagon Papers

We have seen two excellent movies this week. Both are historical dramas.

Darkest Hour is about Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain. What did Churchill do? In the space of a few days in 1939, he mobilized the English language to defend the British Empire and ultimately the western world against a tyrant.  To see (and hear) how he did it, go see The Darkest Hour.

Note that he used language that was both powerful and clean. No obscenities. Not a single word you wouldn't want your children to hear.  Masterful invective. Example: describing a member of his war cabinet as "a sheep in sheep's clothing." That language is powerfully contemptuous but clean as a hound's tooth. We can take lessons from him.

The most powerful weapons in Winston's strategic arsenal in addition to language: 1. imagination; 2. determination.

The second powerful movie: The Post. This is the story of a strong willed woman who took a gamble against great odds and powerful opponents and triumphed. The woman was Katherine Graham, owner and publisher of the Washington Post, whose lawyers and financial advisors counseled prudence. She rejected their advice and turned a local newspaper into a national and international force. If you want a lesson in what the First Amendment is about and how it works, go see this movie.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Some Thoughts After Alabama

I'm an old white guy from Mississippi.

I know a thing or two because I've seen a thing or two.

Last night I was excited to watch MSNBC interview Patricia Gaines, a white volunteer for Doug Jones on Tuesday who had been a child in Selma in 1961.

The last Time she had been in Selma was the night her family fled in the middle of the night because they had been threatened by the Klan. Her father had been pastor of a white church in Selma who announced that he would welcome black worshipers. In 1961 threats by the Klan were not to be lightly dismissed.

It was exciting to watch how thrilled she was to attend Doug Jones' victory celebration Tuesday night and to celebrate what a good man Alabama has elected. My wife and I shared her excitement.

In 1957, we were students at the University of Mississippi. I was president of the state Methodist Student Movement. We had tried to arrange a social event with an African American choir from a nearby black college who was performing at our church. It was absolutely prohibited by both church and university officials. I know the forces at work and was as thrilled as Patricia Gaines at what just happened.

I knew many courageous students and ministers who spoke up after Brown vs Board of education. Students from all of the major denominations led in examining racial issues. In fact, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission complained that the students who headed each of the religious groups at Ole Miss were integrationists. It was at least true that student religious activists wrestled mightily with the important issues of the day and mostly rejected white supremacy.

Student Christians seem to be freshly addressing these issues. Good.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Strange Case Of Michael Flynn

For anyone who has been following the Mueller investigation, The recent guilty plea by Retired General Michael Flynn was no surprise.

What was a surprise is the lack of professional integrity exhibited by General Flynn.

For that matter, he didn't seem too bright.

How can he not have known that his telephone calls to Russian Ambassador Kislyak would be monitored?

How can he not have recognized Russian efforts to recruit him to their cause?

He was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency?


To give him the benefit of the doubt, he seems to have had little or no awareness of Russian intelligence methods.

Note to our intelligence officers: Russia is not our friend.

And Putin despises democracy.


Haley Barbour's Prophecy

My eyes have been glued to the TV screen watching the returns for Alabama's special election to fill the senate seat vacated by US Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.

With over 70% of the vote in earlier in the evening the race remained too close to call. It was exciting to follow the count. I am delighted with the result.

I have never lived in Alabama, so I am not qualified to draw a lot of conclusions about tonight's senate election. But I know Mississippi well. And I want to call attention to a forgotten prophecy.

In 1993, Haley Barbour of Yazoo City, Mississippi became chair of the Republican National Committee. Washington's journalists found this a surprising development. "Doesn't it seem strange," they asked, "that you, from a state in the solid democratic South, have become chair of the Republican Party?"

Barbour, exhibiting his normal aplomb, replied "why, not at all. Where Mississippi has been is where the country is going."

Haley Barbour's prophecy was not good news, especially for those from Mississippi.

I know where Mississippi has been, and I don't believe the country really wants to go there. Even the people of Alabama welcomed having Mississippi next door as an example that things could be worse.

I know where Mississippi has been, because I watched it go there since 1940.

I never met Haley Barbour, but I know his home town well. My father was born there in 1915, my grandparents were born there in 1880, and my brother was born there in 1941. One of my great uncles was owner, editor and publisher of the Yazoo City Herald.

In 1940 Mississippi, elections were for white people.  So were sidewalks.  In those days, political parties were deemed to be private organizations who could determine their own membership. Across the South, the Democratic Party only allowed white members. This scheme was abolished by the US Supreme Court in 1944.

Jim Crow remained alive and well. Education for black children was optional, and the facilities were abominable.

Black lives really didn't matter. I learned this in 1945 when I overheard adults talking about a lack man who was "shot while trying to escape. They found 29 bullets in his body.

I didn't believe the "shot trying to escape" story.

I entered first grade in Greenwood, MS in 1943. I graduated from Ole Miss in 1958.

I have stories to tell.

Mostly I don't want the United States to go where Mississippi has been.

I fear our present leaders want to take us there. Bad idea.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Kennedy Assassination - Personal Recollections - Conspiracy?

"Where were you the day President Kennedy was assassinated?"

There was a time when this was a nearly ubiquitous question. Like "where were you on December 7, 1941?"

Such questions place your personal history in a national context.

Too often as I grow older, I hear the answer "I wasn't born yet."

I was disappointed last month that the president delayed release of documents about the assassination. The longer the delay, the more persistent and inventive are the rumors of conspiracy and cover up.

Even so, I recently recalled some memories that need to be put in the mix.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was a twenty-six year old navy lieutenant attending a six-month course in Newport, Rhode Island training to be a department head of a US Navy destroyer. That Friday marked the completion of the first period of our training. We were to be examined the following week.

Vice Admiral W.R. Smedberg III, Chief of Naval Personnel spoke that morning to the graduating class of the US Naval Officer Candidate School.

Admiral Smedberg ordered that all officer students at the several schools on the Newport Naval Station gather at the main auditorium at 1:30 to hear a speech by the Admiral.

Over the lunch hour, students at the Destroyer School heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We wondered if the Admiral would deliver the speech.

When we entered the auditorium, Admiral Smedberg approached the podium and began speaking as if nothing had happened. Worse than that, the speech turned out to be an attack on the defense policies of the Kennedy administration.

After about 20 minutes, the admiral's aide walked out and handed Admiral Smedberg a note. The admiral read the note and put it in his jacket pocket.  Then he looked up from his notes and announced that President Kennedy had died. He then continued his speech.

We were stunned. After the admiral left, we student officers had to return to our classes to hear the lectures scheduled for that afternoon.

It was a bad weekend for study and preparation for exams.

None of us suspected Admiral Smedberg of involvement in a conspiracy ala Seven Days in May. That movie didn't come out until the following year.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fatal Collisions Part II: USS John S. McCain August 21 2017

August 20, 2017, day before USS McCain was scheduled to transit the Singapore Strait and enter Sembawang for a scheduled port visit, McCain held a navigation brief to prepare the crew. Sounds like a good idea, but it also sounds more formal than any such briefing I ever held. I would usually lay out the track on a chart and show it to the captain. Then I would brief the bearing takers.

The report of investigation into the next days' collision described the purpose of the brief as "designed to provide maximum awareness of the risks involved" in transiting the channel. At 0400 the following morning (August 21, 2017) as the darkened ship, showing only her navigation lights required by international rules, None of the principal watchstanders on the bridge, including the officer of the deck and the conning officer, had attended the previous day's brief.

By 0430, manned stations on the bridge included: the executive officer,  officer of the deck, conning officer, junior officer of the deck, commanding officer, quartermaster of the watch, navigator, shipping officer, helmsman, and boatswain's mate of the watch. Just outside, on the port wing of the bridge, a single lookout was stationed. The lee helm and helm safety officer positions were not manned.

The ship had not yet stationed the Sea and Anchor detail, consisting of crew members with specialized navigation and ship handling qualifications. This was not planned to be set until 0600. The ship had already entered the Singapore Strait Traffic Separation Scheme at 0520. Among crew members standing watch on McCain's bridge at the time were sailors temporarily assigned from USS Antietam (CG-54) which had run aground in January and was being repaired. Antietam's steering and thrust control system was considerably different from McCain's system. These watchstanders lacked a basic level of knowledge on the steering control system, especially how to transfer control of steering and thrust between stations.

At 0513, McCain was steering 226 degrees at 20 knots.  The captain noticed that the helmsman was having difficulty steering the ordered course while also controlling the thrust of the port and starboard engines. So at 0519, he ordered that steering be separated from thrust control and divided between two control consoles. It was a sensible thing to do.

Just giving a sensible order doesn't do any good unless the crew knows how to carry it out.

At 0521 the helmsman reported loss of steering. The ship was in a turn to port, crossing into an adjacent traffic separation lane in front of a large tanker. At 0524 McCain crossed in front of merchant ship Alnic's bow and was struck in berthing compartments three and five. Compartment five, normally fifteen feet wide, was compacted to five feet wide. Ten sailors were drowned.

The proximate cause of the collision is that the crew did not succeed in separating steering control from thrust control as the captain desired. As the ship attempted to steer within the traffic separation scheme, it came about that the starboard propeller provided thrust for 20 knots while the port shaft provided thrust for only 5 knots. This caused the ship to twist to port, which the helmsman was powerless to counteract by moving the rudder. In short, the helmsman and lee helmsman did not know how to do what the captain directed.

The investigative report explained: "The combination of the wrong rudder direction, and the two shafts working opposite to one this fashion caused an un-commanded turn to the left into the heavily congested traffic area in close proximity tothree ships, including the Alnic."

The helmsman thought steering control had been lost when, in reality, it had been shifted to a different control station without the helmsman, the captain or anyone else on the bridge understanding what was happening. For about three minutes McCain sailed on a course to collide with Alnic without anyone being able to correct the situation. Watchstanders finally regained control by shifting to a third control station, but this was too late. The collision created a 28-foot diameter hole both above and below the waterline. Once again, a navy crew exerted heroic efforts to save their ship from sinking.

The report states that bridge personnel "lost situational awareness." In a more informative section, the report observes: Personnel assigned to ensure these watchstanders were trained had an insufficient level of knowledge to effectively maintain appropriate rigor in the qualification program. The senior most officer responsible for these training standards lacked a general understanding of the procedure for transferring steering control between consoles."

I don't know that I accept "loss of situational awareness" as the explanation. Although the focus since the collisions has been the Pacific Fleet, I suspect similar problems exist in the Atlantic.

What may have been missing was what an older generation of naval officers referred to as "forehandedness." That is, the practice of thinking ahead, planning ahead, preparing for every contingency and, in particular, organizing and training for every likely or even conceivable event.

I think Admiral Burke would be deeply concerned about what happened to his ships.

I know he would have put his shoulder to the wheel to fix the problem.

I suggest today's navy do the same.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Collisions of USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain - Summary Report

Last Wednesday the US Navy released a summary report of investigations into the June 17 collision between USS Fitzgerald and a Philippine container ship and the August 21 collision between USS John S. McCain and a merchant tanker in the Strait of Malacca.

When I saw the first reports of the collisions, I didn't want to jump to conclusions. It appeared very much as though neither ship had been keeping a proper bridge watch.

It was worse than I imagined.

About 0100 June 17, 2017, USS Fitzgerald was operating in the vicinity of the island of O-Shima near the Izu Peninsula, within sight of the Japanese coast, at darken ship, with regular navigation lights showing. Fitzgerald was on a southerly heading under a clear, moonlit sky with light to moderate sea. According to the Navy's investigation, Fitzgerald's radar operators failed to tune and adjust radars to maintain an accurate picture of other ships in the area.

This kind of problem harkens back to the failure of USS Blue, a radar-equipped destroyer at the Battle of Savo Island (near Guadalcanal) to detect Japanese ships during a 1942 attack. The Japanese fleet on that long ago July 8th had no radar, but soundly trounced the radar-equipped US fleet. In the case of  USS Fitzgerald, weather and visibility conditions were such that competent, attentive seamen really needed no radar to keep track of ships in the vicinity. It could all have been taken care of visually.

There was a traffic separation scheme in the vicinity of O-Shima to enhance safety of shipping, but Fitzgerald did not follow it. Fitzgerald was, like all commercial ships, equipped with an Automated Identification System, to alert nearby ships of it position, but did not turn it on. Like other ships of the Arleigh Burke class, Fitzgerald's hull was designed to minimize its return of other ships radar, using stealth technology. In essence, Fitzgerald was operating at sea under a cloak of invisibility, concealing its own position from other ships. So Fitzgerald must be under a special obligation to avoid colliding with other ships. Perhaps an extra careful system of lookouts?

Because of international rules for maneuvering at sea, there must be special attention paid to ships on Fitzgerald's starboard side. Fitzgerald had NO lookouts stationed on the starboard side.

Fitzgerald's skipper had gone to sleep in his cabin, and the ship's second in command, the executive officer, was also not on the bridge. Normally, that is not a problem. The officer of the deck, the officer on watch in charge of the ship, follows the Captain's standing night orders. Those standing orders require the officer of the deck to notify the Captain whenever another vessel is predicted to come within 3 nautical miles of Fitzgerald.

The investigative report cites 13 instances when Fitzgerald came within 3 nautical miles of another ship and the officer of the deck did not alert the captain. About 0125, Fitzgerald encountered three merchant vessels approaching from the starboard side each of which posed a risk of collision, including the Phillipine container ship ACX Crystal. Apparently uncertain about collision risk, about 0129, the OOD ordered hard left rudder and increased speed. Shortly afterward, ACX Crystal slammed into Fitzgerald's starboard side, rupturing the hull both above and below the waterline, knocking sailors out of their bunks and initiating a heroic effort to save the ship.  Following the collision, thirty-six Fitzgerald sailors were recognized for their heroic efforts at damage control and rescue efforts.

Lookouts never saw the ACX Crystal coming.


If anything, events aboard USS John S. McCain on August 21 were even worse. I'll tackle that story tomorrow.