RW91 - Hard to Fathom

This week, Dan and John talk about:

  • Visiting submarines at Banger Navy Base (Submarine)
  • Being invited to the war college (Humanities)
  • Wanting to become a public intellectual (Humanities)

The show titles refers to the incredible amount of energy available by the nuclear reactor on a Ohio-class submarine, which is hard to fathom, also playing on the fact that a "fathom" is a unit of length used for measuring depth of water.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Visiting submarines at Banger Navy Base (RW91)

John had posted two picture on Instagram showing him in a submarine around a bunch of ballistic missiles. He wasn’t allowed to do anything with them, but he was just allowed to be proximate with them, stand around them and be pretty in awe of them, which is not something that happens every day. He went on a tour of Banger Navy Base, which is one of two ballistic missile submarine bases in the US, the other one being in Georgia. About half of our fleet of ballistic missile submarines is located in Washington and they go out and drive around the Pacific Ocean. It is a very secure facility because of the enormously concentrated collection of nuclear warheads. Since the end of the cold war, more than 70% of our warheads of this type live on submarines. It is no longer a world in which bombers and land-based ICBMs are the primary way in which we imagine delivering these bombs to an enemy. The majority of them are in these subs, tooling around in the ocean.

They don’t have the same turn-your-key launch system that the Air Force has. In a submarine, the captain ultimately is the decider-uponer, but there is also a fire-control officer who has to be part of the process. The codes would come in via a room far back in the sub, they would open their little safes and pull out their confirmation codes, it would all line up, the fire-control officer would then determine that it was legitimate and he would call the captain and tell him that this is all real. It involves a decision-making chain that is a little bit longer than one person just saying to fire the missiles. You could make an argument that no chain is long enough to ensure that there is never going to be a problem, particularly when you involve computers at any stage in the process, but it is a system that has been in place for a long time and that so far har prevented any kind of accidental launch of the missiles.

John was able to tour the facility because he made friends with the admiral in charge of the base this summer at Seafair and they hit it off! One of the funny things about being in his late 40s is that John is the same age as a one-star admiral or a full-bird colonel and there is often an immediate feeling of cultural similarity between them. They all grew up watching Scooby-Doo! They could have been in college together and they made the decision at the end of college to join the Navy while John didn’t. It is an easy rapport! These people have lived in a military context their whole adult lives, but that doesn’t mean that they are just automatons.

They are people and they don’t think of themselves exclusively as service people, but they like meeting somebody from the outside world and have friends that are not subordinates. They are not even allowed to fraternize with their subordinates. The only people you got to be friends with are other admirals, because you can’t go out drinking with your lieutenant commanders. It is a limited social circle and part of the fun of Seafair for John was realizing that these people have a social need to just stand around and shoot the shit with people. If you are in a hierarchical system all the time, you are never really at your leave to just be candid and John felt like the admirals he met were all very quickly very candid with him.

Admiral John Tammen invited him out to tour his base and of course John jumped at the chance. He wasn’t quite prepared to recon with that kind of proximity to nuclear weapons, particularly the fact that the idea of ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles played such an important role in his childhood growing up. He was thinking about the big war and realized that he had been around nuclear weapons in a sense that he had been places where he knew that they were, like when he was on the other side of a fence from a missile far out in a field. But John has never been in a situation like this where he was on a boomer, a nuke-sub whose purpose is not to fight little wars, but to be out in the ocean fully loaded with missiles that have one purpose: To strike a retaliatory strike against an aggressor. Their whole mission is to stay out of sight. If you were a pirate or some other bad guy and drove a boat over them, attacking some other boat, these submarines wouldn't get involved if they were in a situation where there was a local war. Their only mission is to wait for those launch codes. This is heavy business! Those missiles have multiple warheads and can have 12 nuclear bombs per missile.

On their way down to the sub base they passed by the armory bunker which goes way deep underground, a cold war tunnel that they built more onto after 9/11, but even the part sticking above the ground seems like a big operation. We have stock piles of these weapons and this is one of those places where they keep them. John was on one sub of multiple subs that were in various hangars. He went on the USS Kentucky, but the USS Henry Jackson was tied up next to it because they did some work on them. The Henry Jackson is the only Ohio-class submarine that is named after a person and not after a state. Henry Scoop Jackson was a very close friend of John’s dad who was Scoop Jackson’s campaign manager in his first run for office.

Scoop was a senator from Washington and very close with John’s whole family. John’s mom had just been talking about Scoop’s mom and how wonderful she had been to her when she was young. John’s dad actually had Mrs Jackson the elder’s ashes in the credenza behind his desk for like 15 years because she had asked to be sprinkled on Mount Susitna in Alaska and John’s dad wanted to do it right away, but then he forgot about it and her ashes just sat behind his desk in an urn, although they had a plane and could have done it whenever. It was very interesting to be looking at this submarine that was named after a family friend, it was an unusual experiences. When John mentioned Scoop Jackson to the admiral, he had no idea who he was.

Most of the tour was exactly what you would think it was: They let John sit in the chair and spin the wheel and he could see the con with the periscopes and the crew quarters and the galley. It is a big boat and not a fast attack submarine that would get involved by firing a torpedo against an aggressing boat or by shooting some Tomahawk missiles at a troop formation somewhere out in the dessert. Those boats are a lot smaller and you would get a lot more claustrophobic. Those big boats, the Ohio class ones, are under water for 140 days!

The captain said that the only reason they would need to come up to the surface is if they ran out of food. They have a reactor that gives them all the power they could use, they run a desalination plant to turn salt water into distilled water and they have another plant that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, meaning they can make their own breathing air in an unlimited quantity, which is astonishing. The limit is just the food and the fact that how do 300 people stay on that boat for 140 days under the ocean? Most of the submariners John saw were not small, the admiral was 6’2 and there were a lot of tall people, it is not like in an old-fashioned boat where you had to be small.

There were no women on this boat, because they live in such tight quarters. If he were to bring a woman on board, he would need to bring a full complement of women on board and they need to bunk more or less with their own rank, because he is not going to billet a lieutenant commander and a chief petty officer together, so if a female officer comes on the ship it is easier because there are so many fewer officers and they have workarounds for that, but to be able to bring female unlisted people requires some larger changes. There are nine bunks in an unlisted bunk room and they are introducing women into submarines, but it will take a while. It is complicated and they are conscious of it, but it is hard to do.

Submariners are heavy-duty nerds and they are even considered the nerds within the Navy. The captain of the boat confided it at same point, because he is a naval academy graduate. He was using sports metaphors to motivate people, but he was just greeted with blank stares, because those kids don’t know what ”4th down, time to punch” means. It turned out that they were all gamers and they are used to using gamer language to describe their issues, but the admiral and John had no idea what those metaphors could be. It is a challenge, because gaming is what they want to do in their off-hours, they don’t distract themselves like he and John used to. When they have downtime, they put their headphones on and lay in their bunk and go deep into their world, but they can’t have too much interconnectivity, because as soon as you use wireless, even if you are in a submarine under the ocean, you open yourself up for the potential of somebody getting in somehow.

There are two complete crews of a submarine like this at all times: the blue team and the gold team. When the boat comes in after 150 days at sea and the gold team gets off the boat, the blue team immediately gets on with its own captain and master chief. Both teams think of it as their submarine, and ”Never the Twain shall meet”. Admiral John Tammon got his second star recently and he is about to leave as commander of submarine group nine and is going back to the Pentagon as commander of the entire undersea warfare directorate.

For years they did a 6 hour on 6 hour off cycle which screwed people up badly because you could never get on a cycle. You are sleeping and you are awake and you are sleeping and the days cycle around. On a submarine you never see the sun anyway. It was a bad system! If you missed an opportunity to sleep, then you were basically up and working for 18 hours. They recently switched to 8 hours on, 16 hours off and they are trying it out and see how it goes. It is much better for their morale and their health. In your off-hours you are just down there killing time, go to the gym to work out and you eat 3 meals a day. It is part of the captain’s job and the executive officer’s job to monitor the health and well-being of the crew. Most of these jobs are just about routine where you do the same thing every day. The captain is always running drills, so every day there is some emergency exercise that needs to be attended to. You run and re-run and re-run every possible permutation of what your job would look like in various circumstances.

No one or two people would be able to launch a missile accidentally or on their own accord. Even if some people in the launch center just wanted to fuck the world, they wouldn’t be able to, there are just too many fail-safes.

John doesn’t think that you have to worry about radiation when you are near all those warheads all the time. He would have liked to go to the back of the boat and see the reactor, but they won’t let visitors go there. Everybody on the boat, whoever it is, even the cook or the smallest midshipmen has top-secret clearance. Having parts of the boat with a different security level from other parts would be too crazy! There is too much weird proprietary stuff around the reactor for them to let visitors just motor around.

John toured the USS Abraham Lincoln one time which is an aircraft carrier and they wouldn’t let you him into the reactor either. Leaving the missiles aside, having the power of your own nuclear reactor behind you and that incredible amount of energy at your disposal is hard to fathom. The military is all about habit and pattern. The captain went to the naval academy and he can’t possibly sit there and think about it all day, he has got work to do and so they just do their work.

John was at the submarine base for all of the middle of the day. They went into the Officers’ Mess and he had lunch with all of the ship’s brass, a meal prepared on the sub and served to them on china from orderlies. Meatball sandwiches, filets of fish, salad, vegetable courses, it was a nice full meal and John got to quiz all the officers about what they did and how it was like on the ship. John is of course always trying to incite trouble, like what do you think about the captain, is he a good captain? And they get all shy, look at their shoes and the captain is like ”Go ahead and answer”, but nobody is going to answer. That is fun to do, there is nothing John likes better than getting a room full of Navy officers a little bit uncomfortable and then leave. It is awkward, there are 300 guys in this sealed tube and they are managing a lot of emotion and strong feelings.

John has never been on Trinity. He has been to the labs in Los Alamos, but he has never been to any place where they have actually exploded a device so the sand had turned to green glass. They apparently only open the Trinity site twice a year now and visiting it should be fascinating, but you can only be there for a period of time before you start clicking. They don’t want you to take some glass home and put it on your shelf. There have been a lot of above-ground tests as well as below-ground tests and there are lots of craters that are way better than the first Trinity test. Those things are even more dangerous to be around, but they don’t do tours of any of those, because they are not monumental in the same way. The whole Nevada proofing ground is off-limits and they don’t let you anywhere near it.

Most of the above-ground tests were atmospheric tests, but it still fucked up the ground pretty hard. It almost looks like the surface of the moon and the astronauts have been out there because it is so close to how the moon looks like. You can’t be on the Trinity site for more than a little while, but looking at the pictures of all the craters, there are roads going all around them and there are people, so they can’t be that radioactive anymore? There are surely nuclear scientists listening to the program who might be able to explain what is going on.

Being invited to the war college (RW91)

Someone recently invited John to being a participant in a forum at the war college where eminent civilians come and discuss national security questions with people of the war college. John is of course very interested and an application has been filed on his behalf. He is super-excited about the prospect because he does not only think of the war makers and how they fit into the policy, but he also thinks a lot about civilian oversight of the military and how challenging that is to maintain because the military has a lot of its own enforcement power and has a great desire to remain autonomous of civilian powers, at least at the highest levels. Nobody wants some guy in a cheap suit come around and talk about what the army can and can’t do.

The problem is that we don’t have enough civilian oversight at the higher levels and we leave it to the Generals an awful lot of the time. The Generals on the other hand come from the school of thought that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. What the Generals know how to do and what they are really good at is fighting war. Although they are tasked with looking for a diplomatic solution and although they are trained in some aspects of that, it is not their first or even second instinct. At lot of the time they have been taught that the way to bring the other party to the negotiating table is to beat the shit out of them.

In our current setup there isn’t enough civilian oversight. Not enough people who have studied diplomacy also have actionable input into what the army is doing in these theaters of war. John spends a lot of time churning on that stuff! Going to the war college to interact with young officers, officers in the middle of their careers and officers teaching this stuff would be a thrilling opportunity. The invite came about thanks to one of the listeners being an Air Force colonel who teaches at the war college. He flatteringly said that John would be good at this and because he teaches there, his recommendation will carry a bit of extra weight.

John needs to complete his application by January, which involves writing some stuff down about what a big wheel he is. They want to hear that he has 30.000 Twitter followers, because they want to get influential people from the civilian world who have demonstrated that they are part of the larger conversation instead of just somebody who is good at World of Warcraft. John doesn’t like to include his Wikipedia entry, he doesn’t even feel he has a good Wikipedia entry and that he can present it as evidence of his usefulness.

A few years ago a listener arranged to get John invited to the conference of world affairs. John was pretty suspicious of it and when he got there, it was different from what he had expected. This conference has been going for a long time and it has an internal culture of its own. There are people who have gone for 30 years and who are invited back every year. Roger Ebert is a famous example of somebody who was invited for years and years, he really identified with it and was one of the stars of it. The idea of the conference is very similar: Bring a bunch of people from all walks of life together, like Hollywood film directors, high-ranking brass in the military, industrialists, lawyers, CEOs and members of the culture and let them sit on panels and discuss big ideas. This is for John!

It turned out that there was a pre-existing track within the Conference of World Affairs that included musicians. Because this is an older organization and people who attend are senior in their careers, the musician track was 98% Jazz, including African drummers and world Music people. All those performers were capable of polyrhythmic participation in Jazz. The remaining 2% of the people who weren’t jazz were so elevated within their own field that they were capable of sitting in with jazz. The listener who had John invited to this event understandably used his musical profile as a way to encourage them to invite him to it, but once he got there, he was like ”Look, I’m not Jazz at all!”, and it didn’t seem that they wanted John to do a show of his own music. The collaborative nature of this program means that all musicians would collaborate on something, but John did not have a way to sit in on Jazz.

What John wanted to do was talk to CEOs, Generals, Agents and Professors about the big ideas. Instead they did put him on these panels which he enjoyed very much, but they wanted him to be a musician in this context and there wasn’t as a much an intellectual framework to it. This idea is culturally widespread, because you don’t expect your musicians to be political, or if they are, you expect them to be a certain kind of political like for example Bono. You don’t expect them to be thoughtful and informed. That is probably also true of Novelists and Painters. There are certain public intellectuals that we expect to address broad topics, but they usually aren’t the ones who had careers in specific things, at least that is the rarer path.

John was having a really good time pursuing the world of ideas aspect of it, but they kept redirecting him back to the events where the band-leader would say ”It is really easy, we are just going to do blues in C. Do a solo when you feel comfortable, it will be really hot!” and while John can do blues in C, what he was thinking of meant something completely different. What John could do was not even close, so when he went up on stage they turned the volume on his guitar all the way down and he just sat and made his right hand look like it was playing something super-cool. He was faking like he was playing interesting chords, but he was making zero noise and because there were 20 people on stage, the audience couldn’t tell and only the band guys knew.

When it came time to being invited the following year, he was not invited, which hurt his feeling a little bit, because he wanted to be thought of and accepted as one of the thinkers. People from all walks of life were allowed to be the thinkers: Hollywood, lawyers, CEOs, but the reasoning that the CEO of a washer and dryer company would have more interesting ideas to contribute to the wide-ranging conversation than a musician is just a mistake we often make. A CEO is a logistical job and being a General is certainly also a logistical job. Assuming that a CEO has some thoughtfulness is not true in many cases and may even be contra-indicated.

Whom do we look for culturally who is willing to spend a lot of time chewing on ideas and come out the other side with no conclusions or only with tentative conclusions? The thoughtful writer or the cultural critic used to be a job, but it has now been democratized and everyone on Twitter is performing that role in some small way. It is really hard to know who has really spent time with these ideas, who is just repackaging some other's tweet that they read and agreed with or who is completely off-base or bonkers. It is all just coming out in the form of tweets. These days all tweets are polemical and feel like a political conversation, but it really isn’t one, because nobody is taking very much time with the thoughts. It isn’t very popular to weigh into those conversations and say that this is a really hard idea and it requires that we not just have nuance around it, but that we acknowledge that there isn’t a clear course of action. You will get shouted down as being an enemy of the cause.

Wanting to become a public intellectual (RW91)

John doesn’t like the idea that long-form conversations are nowadays being siloed in those think-tanky places, like the conference of world affairs or the army war college. That it is not where it belongs! It belongs on Late-Night TV and it belongs somewhere on the Internet with the presumption that everybody knows the basic facts, nobody needs to be lectured about what the basic facts are, and nobody needs a crash course from a 26 year old about Naziism. It should be a place where most people are viewers and listeners and it should a world of ideas. Then you can go over to your own Twitter feed and comment on it.

There is no such thing as mainstream culture anymore, particularly mainstream intellectual culture. Instead, intellectualism has been democratized and is dumber as a result. Having a vey condensed idea of what "culture" is had been seen as anti-democratic because it retained power in the hands of a privileged minority. Democratizing it was an unassailable good, while keeping it in the hands of a minority would recapitulate power structures, would maintain white supremacy and would retain class supremacy. Democratizing the process was an intellectual idea, but as an effect what used to be kind of a professional position, to be a public thinker and devoted your life to it, more or less disappeared.

John is contradicting himself, because he likes to be part of that conversation and he came at it as a musician. He has been trying to transition into the role of a public intellectual for a long time. Coming to the point where you are trusted by a large number of people so you can be publicly thoughtful and not be driven by an agenda and not just being a dummy who has got some stuff to say about everything is a long road! This is especially true these days when there is a thought technology that would put him in a category of people from whom we didn’t need to hear, just by virtue of some characteristics. Being a public intellectual is really what he always wanted to do.

John had lunch with Paul F Tompkins and told him that he always felt he should be a comedian, because he is funny and people have told him to be a comedian. Paul stopped him and said that from the time he was 8 years old, all he ever wanted to be was a comedian, and all he has ever done was practice comedy. When he was 18, he was doing stand-up and when he was 22 he was doing stand-up and when he was 30 he was doing stand-up. It is not a thing within comedy circles thet they enthusiastically welcome a bunch of 45-year-olds who think that comedy seems easy. Well said!

When John was 8 years old, he wanted to be a public intellectual. The same was still true when he was 12 or 18 or 24. He didn’t know the route to that and he didn’t believe the only route would be to study political science. In his mind, one route was to go out and become self-educated and well-versed and collect a lot of life-experience that you can draw from. How do you enter that world, particularly having not written a book or several books? Writing a book is the primary way that one establishes themselves in that station, it is the way we express intellectualism! John hasn’t written a book, in fact it is very hard to be a lazy public intellectual, but lazy people need to be represented in the conversation!

It is the graduate student problem: Being a successful graduate student requires a set of skills, but those skills are not necessarily the same skills that make a good professor and they are certainly are not the skills that make one a good instructor in the sense of engaging students passionately in the world of ideas. To be a good graduate student is to be a good researcher, a diligent worker and a diligent thinker. To be a good instructor is to be a good story teller and to be able to draw from a broad set of ideas in order to contextualize ideas to people and say ”Here is why we want to know this and here is why we care about the work of Jane Bowles and why we are studying her”

The way we set up universities and professorships is by having a pipeline from graduate students to professors. It is much more difficult to bring lay people or people with a breadth of ideas into that job. The experience of college becomes self-reinforcing. You get teachers that don’t even like to teach, but it is a requirement for being allowed to do research, which is what they really want to do. Teaching is just part of how they keep their grant alive.

The same is true about so many roles. We pull public intellectuals from the ranks of writers who are not really sitting and ruminating, but they are trying to come out with a book that has a hot take so that book gets some attention. No NY Times bestseller list is full of books where people are like ”You know, this, and also this, but maybe not! And what if?” That is not how you rocket up the charts. To advance the public conversation you will always need people that have strong view points, but that doesn’t benefit the world of ideas. You need somebody who is maybe a little lazy, who has thought about it all and who has recognized that it is very difficult to come to conclusions and to have hot takes of some things, because there is always more information and there is always contradictory information. That is actually the world!

There are exceptions that prove the rule and there are just straight up exceptions, but those are frustrating and exhausting and people don’t want it. They want to watch a 30 minute program and come away from it either being for or against something. In today's Internet conversation you want to read 200 characters and come away for or against something, which again underlines what is so wonderful about podcasting: The big successful podcasts are talking about sports or pretending to be in a weird village where weird things happen or running down a list of quirky topics, but then you get podcasts like MBMBAM that are meant to be funny and very thoughtful at the same time.

Podcasting is an example of a place where these conversations aren’t being sequestered at the army war college or the conference on world affairs, but they are accessible to people and they appeal to people who are going ”Huh, I want to think more about this” There are listeners to this program that are just shouting at it, but they are shouting ”Bullshit” within the context of a general understanding that John and Dan are people of good will who are not trying to shove anything down people’s throat. Even the ones who are largely opposed to Dan's and John's world view recognize that hearing someone describe their world view is ultimately a positive thing and a thing that they desire more of, even if they are ”you have no idea, you liberal cuck!” Nobody probably thinks that John is a cuck. Beware, he will come at you!

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