Waze is why I’m not afraid of SkyNet

Waze is one of my favorite apps. Last year, I was visiting Phoenix and meeting some friends at a local pub. They had given me a name, and not an address. No problem, I’ll just enter the name into Waze. The first (and only!) choice presented to me was a pub in England. Turns out, I got the name wrong. Waze had access to a number of things about me. It knew that I wasn’t near home. It knew the local time. It knew that I had gone to a hotel the night before and left there in the morning. In short, it knew that I was on a trip.

What it couldn’t figure out was that I wanted to go to a local pub rather than a pub in England.

Artificial intelligence has a way to go (sorry, couldn’t resist) before it crosses over into Skynet-like activity.

As a young girl, my mother took me to an academic conference on artificial intelligence. These were the early days of AI. We were just started to work on the definition of what AI meant. One of the presenters described an AI medical system that could analyze symptoms and present a diagnosis. After multiple demonstrations of this amazing capability, the doctor was bored. And it struck him. One working definition of a true AI would be one that could get bored.

It’s as good as any definition I’ve heard. Although I would be happy if my map could simply figure out that I wanted a beer more than a plane flight.

Headlines, Marines, Airmen, Trains, Sheep and Bystanders

"Police-Dog-Belgian-Shepherd Police-Dog-Belgian-Shepherd" by Unknown - Carte Postale ancienne. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Police-Dog-Belgian-Shepherd_Police-Dog-Belgian-Shepherd.jpg#/media/File:Police-Dog-Belgian-Shepherd_Police-Dog-Belgian-Shepherd.jpg

The headline could have been much different. The headlines have been much different. Gun attack kills 12, or  Horrified passengers witnessed brutal slaying, or — oh, no, you don’t need to see more. You know. Whether the motive is criminal or terrorist, the enemy is at the gates. Today, the headline is as scary and infinitely less tragic. Three Wounded, Shooting on Train Averted, and President thanks ‘heroes’ who overpowered gunman.

The short version of events is this: Americans (Marines?) overheard the gunman loading his weapon in the restroom. They confronted him when he emerged and subdued him.

Why did they attack him when the people on the train in DC, less than two months ago, did nothing? Examining the difference between the two incidents is important and instructs us in our values and our culture. The people on the DC cowered in a corner, afraid for themselves and their family. They felt powerless and therefore they were powerless.

“You either run away or fight.”

The young Americans in France felt powerful and therefore they were powerful. Reports say that they were childhood friends, who grew up together. This long, shared history implies a deep level of trust. When Alek Skarlatos turned to Spencer Stone and simply said, “Let’s go,” they both knew that he meant, “Let’s go get him,” and not “Let’s go save ourselves.” And they did. They charged the man and, “got lucky and didn’t die.”

Watching the video of these heroes, you will be struck by the casual way they describe what happened. No self-aggrandizing. No posturing. Simple descriptions. How they were lucky. How after beating the gunman unconscious, Mr. Skarlatos walked the train with the AK-47 in hand, securing the location. He doesn’t realize the presence of mind that his actions took.

The fact that they were traveling together, they trusted each other, they knew each other, is likely a key reason they were able to act together. The Bystander Effect makes it difficult for us to act when no one else is acting. This may be an impactful difference between the incident in France and the tragedy in DC. When you know that you will not be acting alone, you will be more willing to act. They all knew that someone had their back, that they were going in together.

You must be able to help.

In Scouting, we tell the girls that it isn’t enough to want to help. You must be capable of helping. The Americans on the train were capable. Skarlatos is a Guardsman and Stone is an airman. Skarlatos clearly has had weapons training, and Stone has had paramedics training. They had the skills needed in the moment.

More than the knowledge and physical skills, these heroes possessed the mental skills. The ability to move without over-thinking. The ability to put the lives and safety of others before their own. The ability to not be paralyzed by fear. The ability to run towards the sound of chaos.

Sheepdogs and wolves

The scene in American Sniper when Wayne Kyle describes the sheep, the wolves and the sheepdog was familiar to many who live lives of service. While it’s unlikely that Chris Kyle heard this from this father, LTC Grossman’s wonderful essay, On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs is widely read and shared among the warrior class.

LTC Grossman was sorely abused in the movie version of his speech though. He did not believe that sheepdogs were born that way. He stresses that human beings have the capacity to learn, grow, choose and change. He calls being a sheepdog,  “a conscious, moral decision.” He acknowledges that being a sheepdog is not a binary choice, that some will go to war, some will fight fires, some will police our streets, some will stand up to bullies, some will say, “Dude, that’s not cool,” when a friend engages in subtle forms of bullying.

Those people who stood by in horrified silence and watched a man stab another man to death were sheep. And they made a conscious choice to put their safety in front of others.

The men who said, “Let’s go,” and charged — unarmed — into a man with multiple weapons are sheepdogs. We honor them, as we should. We are grateful to them, as we should be. We should not revere them. We should recognize that their bravery, their skill, their actions are within the reach and capacity of all of us. You don’t know how to use a weapon? Easily fixed. You are out-of-shape? Not so easily fixed, and yet you can fix it.

Day by day, we each make choices about how we spend our time. Do we prepare ourselves for a potential encounter with evil? Are we working to be mentally, physically, emotionally prepared to do what needs to be done?

Sidenote: Soldiers and Airmen are not Marines

Initial reporting on the French train event said that the Americans were Marines. We get it. Marine is actually civilian-speak for “guy with short hair who is in the military”. These men are not Marines and would never tell you that they are. Skarlatos is a Guardsman. Members of the National Guard are citizen soldiers who trace their history back to the earliest militia. They go to boot camp like their active duty counterparts, and then go home to school, work, family. When their Nation or State needs them, they kit up and go into the fray. Stone is an Airman, a member of the US Air Force.

Most civilians don’t know or even care about these distinctions. Journalist clearly don’t. They regularly misreport the branch of service of persons of interest. Service members care deeply. The pain of being misunderstood is nearly physical.

That’s okay, though. While we may be different breeds of sheepdog, we know that sheep can’t tell the difference. Just don’t call us wolves.

Passionate Introductions and Ado


When you get up in front of a crowd, how do you introduce yourself?

For the last month, at various presentations, many of the people were introduced with the words, “And here’s someone who needs no introduction.” Some didn’t even get that. Most people stood up, addressed the crowd without any prelude to their comments. They jumped immediately into their content.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “without further ado,” which nearly always comes after much ado. And whether it’s much ado about nothing or ten minutes of biographical information, it’s usually not soon enough. No one goes to a presentation to listen to the introductions. No one reads the introductions of novels or short stories. (Unless the introductions are written by the great Asimov, but I digress.)

One presenter nailed his own introduction. He simply said, “I’m John and I’m passionate about…..” Wow. Not what he did. Not what his title was. Not where he lived, or what he studied, or what he hoped to do. He shared what his passion is.

Immediately, the audience sat up and took notice. Here was someone who was going to talk with us about his passion. Even if we didn’t immediately share his passion, at least he was excited. And someone who is excited about their topic is rarely boring.

How do you start? What passion do you share?



The Real World Cup

Boy playing soccer

As the mother of two young boys, I’m used to a fair amount of “icky girl” syndrome. My oldest son is not yet at an age when girls are interesting, while my younger son is only now figuring out that girls are different in ways he doesn’t understand.

You can imagine my pride then, when the oldest begged to watch the finals of this year’s World Cup. And that’s what he called it. The World Cup. Not the Women’s World Cup. Simply, the World’s Cup. He chanted “USA” and walked around quoting the I Believe mantra.

“We’ve done it!”, I silently congratulated myself. We’ve raised boys who simply see sports, who like soccer, who enjoy watching athletic prowess, in both men and women. They are second-generation Title 9 kids, who don’t recall not seeing girls play sports. My boys played soccer with girls on their team. They don’t recall a time when the boys got a whirlpool in their locker room while the girls didn’t.

In my hometown high school, this whirlpool disparity was a source of consternation. Not because anyone worried about the girls. The concern arose because the visiting teams – boys, obviously – used the girls’ locker room, and were denied this essential piece of recovery equipment. Unfair, they cried.

The finals game proceeded in that amazing, wonderful, winning way. The stunning, over-whelming victory that will now be part of American folklore unfolded in front of us all. This story is now part of our shared story, and more so than the 1999 victory. The victory in China  – at the time – was one that only a few soccer-fanatics cared about. Back then, 16 years ago, America cared less about the global sport of futbol than we do now. If possible, we cared even less about the game when women were the competitors. Not now, though. Now, the proof was in my own living room. Soccer. On the big screen. With little American boys cheering on their team, their team, as if they didn’t even realize that icky girls were the athletes.

And then it happened.

The older child complained that his younger brother was staying up past his bedtime. When we pointed out that at nearly same age, said older child was allowed to stay up and watch Germany play in the 2009 World Cup, he said it. “But, Mom, that was the REAL World Cup.”

We still have work to do.

Space is Hard

Today, shortly after launch, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded. The commercial space company’s CEO, Elon Musk tweeted that the rocket had experienced a problem.  Astronaut Scott Kelly followed up with another tweet, stating simply that Space is Hard.

Sure, space is hard. In fact, rocket science is the epitome of hard. When we want to say that something is difficult, we compare it to rocket science. Maybe brain surgery is hard too. Definitely rocket science though. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Space is hard.

Why do we need to be reminded of this? Because we’re good. SpaceX launched 18 rockets without incident. Most of them didn’t even make the news at all, much less make front page coverage. In 2014, 88 successful launches took place, with only two failures. We’ve become immured to the idea that we can launch rockets into orbit.

We have lost our sense of wonder.


Flanking with Humor by being #distractinglysexy

The most fun to be had this week was watching the scientific community react to Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel Laureate, putting his foot in his mouth.MargaretHamilton

For those who missed it, the brief blow-by-blow is this. In his audience in South Korea was a fellow British scientist, Connie St Louis. She tweeted that Sir Tim proclaimed himself to be a male chauvinist and then proceeded to outline the trouble with girls in the lab as “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry”.  When the story was picked up, his next statements did little to assure the “girls” that he meant them well. The spiraling was starting. And then something amazing happened.

The magazine Vagenda called on female scientists to post pictures of themselves with the hashtag #distractinglysexy. The hilarity ensued. The conversation changed from the outdated, offensive comments to a conversation about the wonderful, amazing, and — indeed, sexy — science being accomplished by women today and in the past. The mainstream media reported on it here, here, here, and here. A #distractinglysexy calendar has even popped up on Kickstarter.

The beauty of the response is that the scientists are showing their skill alongside their humor. Almost inevitably, when the issue of sexism is discussed, women are portrayed as being worse than wrong. They are cast as feminazis, as mean-spirited, as humorless, as Orwellian, as unable to face the truth. Indeed, many people have attempted to do so in this case as well.

This anti-feminism counter narrative falls flat in the face of all of the #distractinglysexy scientists who prove by their actions that they simply want to do science and have fun doing it.

Raise the Flag!

Why It’s Okay to Celebrate on Memorial Day

Half-staff, only until noonMemorial Day is more than a day of sales and backyard barbecues and weekends at the beach and the start of summer. Memorial Day is a solemn holiday, instituted by General Logan to commemorate the fallen and honor the dead and remember the widows and orphans of those who gave their last full measure.

I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to do both. We can honor our dead, remember the fallen, #HonorThem, while enjoying those freedoms that they secured for us. I know this truth because it is written in that wonderful book, The Bluejackets Manual.

For those unfamiliar with this epic repository of naval knowledge, the book has been in print since 1902. Hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of copies have been published through the years. The US Naval Institute is on their 24th Edition. A copy is given to every Sailor who joins our Navy.

And the Bluejacket Manual tells us that we fly our national ensign at half staff until noon (emphasis mine) at which time the ship or station should fire a gun twenty one times. After the last round is fired, the flag is raised to full staff. If a gun is not available, then the flag is raised at 12:20 local.

We recognize the sacrifice and mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters in arms. We tell stories about them, we share their pictures, we visit their graves, we fly the flag at half-staff. And then we raise the flag, signifying the victory that they fought and won for us.

Like anyone who has served in our military, I have lost friends. The first were in training accidents. We lost good friends that way. Not KIA (killed in action) and yet, in a way, they were. They were killed being prepared to fight our advesaries. I lost comrades. Two full P3 Orion crews went down when they apparently collided with all souls lost. Not KIA and yet, they were. They died training to search for submarines during the Cold War. The first Gulf War brought more loss. The Iraq and Afghan wars even more. Every single loss is a personal and national tragedy. Every single death in defense of our nation is a loss to our nation, and at the same time every single death is deeply personal. My nephew left us, left his child, his parents, his family, his nation.

So, with a heart heavy with loss, I urge you to observe the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 PM local, wherever you are. As you enjoy that beer, brat, burger, with your friends and family around you, remember those who cannot. Remember their wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, children, brothers and sisters who mourn them every day.

And then, remember your freedoms. Remember their success.
Raise the flag at 12:20 promptly. And celebrate their victories!

[Unless you have you plan to fire a twenty-one gun salute at your house. In which case, I urge you to invite me. Because, well, because cannon.]

Why We Named Our Robot Steve


We have a dog. She’s not a particularly bright or obedient dog. She is, however, our daughter’s most prized possession. (Am I allowed to call a dog a possession?) And she sheds. A lot. So much white hair floats around our home that my husband was ready to find a new home for this rescued pooch.

Instead, we got a Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner.

Within an hour of its arrival, the kids decided to name our new dog-hair-eating robot. They picked the name Steve. Why Steve? First, it’s funny. And the kids know that it’s funny. It’s funny because it’s a human name, not a robot name. Plus, we have fun saying things like, “Why is Steve trapped in the bathroom?” and “Tell Steve to go back home.”

The more interesting answer as to why we named it Steve is that when humans bring other beings into our family circle, we must give them names. As a people, we did this first with animals. In the early years of the industrial revolution, when robots entered our factories, we named them. In the beginning, the chosen names were not particularly kind. Over time though, the names became more complementary. Leaders in the Tesla factory have specifically noted that the names make the robots more acceptable to the (other) workers. You may know a car lovers who has named her car. Zipcar makes a habit of it, although their names are not usually human names.

In 2007, Kidd and Braezeal conducted a study showing that people enjoyed interacting with a robot that had only minimal human characteristics. [An entire field of study, including an annual conference, is dedicated to Human Robot Interaction.] Most participants in the study named their robots and referred to them using a gendered pronoun (he or she) in conversation.  I’ve personally seen this dynamic at work in a war zone. My friends who deployed to fix the EOD robots always named their robots. They even maintained a Wall of Honor for those robots who gave their motherboards for their country.

The EOD robots didn’t have humanoid characteristics though. Neither does Steve. They were decidedly non-human. Wheels for feet. Cameras for eyes. Radio for ears. Nothing that remotely looks like a face.

And yet, we name them. They become friends, they become family, and they work alongside us. We give them names because they are a part of our lives.

[As an aside, the above picture is my brother playing with our toy robot during the early 1970s. I don’t remember its name. Yet I do remember the robot had the most distinctive smell. The odd combination of smells can best be described as burnt rubber and gears that filled the room whenever we turned the robot on.]

Who’s behind you?

Going for a rideOn a recent bicycle ride to our local grocery store, my daughter and her friends and I formed a line. I took the rear — Tail End Charlie — following behind the youngest and therefore the slowest biker. The girl in the lead took off, enjoying the view, enjoying being in front, and she left the two of us in the dust. We caught up only when the others stopped before crossing a road.

For the return trip, I put the former leader behind the slowest girl, keeping Tail End Charlie for myself. Almost immediately, the girl in the lead took off, enjoying the view, enjoying being in front, leaving the three of us to shift for ourselves. Our former leader now hollered up, “Slow down! You’re going too fast!” She was watching the new leader behave exactly as she had. If she saw the irony, she didn’t show it. She felt the pain though of being left behind. The pain of being so far back that she didn’t even feel like part of the group any more.

When you’re in the lead, how often do you look back? Do you consider the slowest (perhaps the newest?) person on the team? Do you check their tires for proper inflation? Do you keep your team together?

Being a leader entails more than simply being in front. If you’re leading and no one is behind you, then you’re simply out for a ride.

Leaders consider everyone on their team. Leaders ensure that they have the tools to be successful, to keep up with the others. Leaders look out for those behind them.

And the first step to doing that is to pay attention.

Why We Read Fiction

An instructor once told my class that A Confederacy of Dunces is among the best leadership books ever written. Huh? Really? I raised my hand. “I’ve read Confederacy and that’s nuts.”

Have you read this tome? If you’re from New Orleans, or ever been in a book club with someone from New Orleans, then you have. Otherwise, this obscure, Joycian ramble may have escaped your notice. A work of fiction, through and through, I couldn’t see why anyone would consider it to be about leadership. Leadership books are most often found in the Business section of the book store, and in the Dewey Decimal system under General Management.

Can leadership be learned from fiction?

The Marine Corps clearly thinks so. Orson Scott Card’s wonderful Ender’s Game has been on their reading list for years. The Navy seems less sure. None of their Essential books are fiction, although the Recommended list includes the classic Starship Troopers and Master and Commander. Retired Admiral Stavridis is famous as a voracious reader, and recently cited Generation of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov as one of his favorite books.

Stepping back, we should consider why we read fiction at all. We can read it to entertain us, to unwind, to engage, to delight. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, author Azar Nafisi proclaims that, “what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth”. Truth can be illuminated in fiction more clearly than truth can be found in reality. A non-fiction biography of Admiral Lord Nelson might tell us of his battles with Spain, his affair with Lady Hamilton, his final words and Hardy’s kiss.

Only in his fictional alter-ego of Horatio Hornblower do we learn about the fear experienced on the eve of action, the embarrassment caused by the lack of fortune, the calculated statements designed to endear the crew to their captain, the sick dread of watching a man before the mast taking his punishment at the cat o’nine tails.

We learn from Hornblower that our fears are not unique, that our doubts can be overcome, and that we too can learn to lead. Other fiction reveals other truths. Other shades of truth are illuminated by the fancy of the author and by our reactions to the characters.  Perhaps we learn more about the human condition by imagining how we might feel if we were in their situation and by filling in the gaps of their own musings.

What leadership lessons have you learned from fiction?