Friday, April 28, 2023

Review: Stormjammers: The Extraordinary Story of Electronic Warfare Operations in the Gulf War

Earlier this year, I read a terrific book about World War II Spy, Virginia Hall. Hall operated in occupied France. During Hall's service, one piece of tech that was a game changer for both spy and occupier alike, was the portable radio transceiver.

The Type 3 MK II, known as the B2, is one example of such a transceiver. The unit was packaged as a luggable suitcase and weighed in at a hefty 32 ¾ pounds. For the allies, having a radio operated in-country meant intelligence could be delivered in near real time. But this arrangement came with staggering risks. While transmitting, French and German authorities could relatively easily track the radio transmitter. Every moment radio operators were sending messages, they was also loudly announcing their position to an enemy intent on catching and cruelly punishing them.

Radio messages could also be jammed, intercepted and spoofed. Making use of wirelesses capabilities was a high stakes game of cat and mouse, that resulted in both extraordinary successes and cataclysmic failures.

So what does all this have to do with Stormjammers, a book about a soldier's tour of duty in the first Gulf War?

Stormjammers may be set 50 years and 3000 miles from Virginia Hall's story, but again, the use of radio is center stage. This time, we follow the story of Robert Stanek, who served on an EC-130, an aircraft that is optimized for Electronic Countermeasures.

Stanek's mission was to intercept and jam radio communications. This helped make the battlefield significantly safer for other friendly units operating in the area, because the enemy's communications and targeting systems often depended on radio. In short, when Stanek's team was operating, the enemy was blind. Once again we find ourselves in the high stakes cat and mouse game of wireless communication and the action is no less exciting than it was in Hall's story.

One can imagine that thrill and risk that comes with being a fighter pilot or a bomber. But what about the team that has to spend hours slowly circling over a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, with no offensive weapons and little more than 'evasive maneuvers' to protect themselves? Stanek brings us into this world, from the bordem and fatigue to the white nuckle, brace for impact moments. His writing does a quality job of capturing the full spectrum of emotion and action.

The first Gulf War, including Operation Desert Storm took place when I was a high school student. It was featured nightly on the news. These factors helped make it my "first war" growing up and some parts I remember vividly. For example, the super low quality, green-tinted video clips taken by reporters on the ground and transmitted via cutting edge satellite phone technology. We also got to witness the magic of Patriot Missile batteries taking out scud missiles mid flight

Other parts of the war, came back to me upon reading Stanek's text, including Iraq's frequent missile attacks against Israel. Israel wasn't a participant in Desert Storm, but Iraq's strategy was clear: anger the Israeli's to the point where they would enter the war, at which point the Arab countries participating in Desert Storm would have no choice but to stop their assault on Baghdad. The risk of being aligned with Israel was just too great to even consider. Thankfully, Israel never took the bait.

Stanek's mission was powered, at the time, but what must have been considered absolutely cutting edge technology. And yet, having lived through that era, I can only imagine the kind of hardware Stanek had to make do with. We were fortunate to be a computer forward family. We had a home computer, and my parents bought me a laptop to help me conquer my dyslexia. Both machines were state of the art, and here's what they looked like:

That's a Compaq Portable and a NEC PC-8500. We had a later version of the Compaq than what's shown above, but the tiny monitor and luggable form-factor were still part of the deal. The photo of the PC-8500 is the actual device I owned. Boy does cracking it open bring up some feelings. Both were amazing devices for their times, but their underyling hardware would have made for a horrendous choice while operating in a war zone. It was one thing for us to reboot because Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago? hung, it's an alogether different scenario when your dinosaur of a computer chooses not to boot and dozens of aircraft and thousands of pounds of ordance depend on you getting the device to cooperate.

Accounts of wars from a regular soldier's perspective will always make for fascinating insights. In many ways, Stanek's book fits into this genre. He may have been operating thousands of feet above the battlefield staring at a computer screen, yet many of the concerns, frustrations and victories he writes about would be familiar to a private in the Civil War. Lousy food, inadequate quarters, missing loved ones, processing the horrors of war and dealing with the irrational machine that is the US military are just a few of the topics that Stanek writes about and would be familiar to any soldier in any conflict.

Here's one final memory I have of the Gulf War. When it started, I recall my social studies teacher, Mr. McLaughlin was not at all pleased. To our young minds, this seemed like 'war done right.' There was a clear mission, a diverse coalition of participants and we had the moral high ground. Yet, Mr. McLaughlin promised us that the start of the Gulf War was a sad day and that were starting a conflict that would take years to extract ourselves from. Now I appreciate he was speaking from experience with Vietnam, a war at the time that was as real to me as say the Battle of Hoth. Mr. McLaughlin was, of course, wrong. Operation Desert Storm lasted for 42 days. It would take a mere dozen years, however, for his fears to blossom into reality. In 2003, we invaded Iraq and started an 8 year war that would match Mr. McLaughlin's predictions to a tee.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

From Three Answers to Four Sons

For as long a I can remember, Seder night has always includes at least a few minutes spent trying to puzzle out fresh meaning from the description of the Four Sons.  What makes the Wicked Son's question wicked? Why can the Wise Son say 'to you' but the Wicked Son gets scolded for this? Why is the answer to the Wicked Son given to the Son Who Can't Even Ask? Is calling the child the Simple Son a polite way of saying he's dumb? What does it mean to be Simple? And on, and on.

This year, I took a step back. How did we even get here?

Where It All Began

If you were casually reading through the Torah, you would notice three times when a parent is instructed to teach their child about the Exodus. Here are the sources:

First in Exodus, chapter 12 verses 26 and 27:

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say,

‘It is the passover sacrifice to יהוה, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’

Second, a chapter later, in Exodus 13, verse 8:

And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what יהוה did for me when I went free from Egypt.’

And finally, in Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verses 20-25. Note, the child in this case isn't asking about the Exodus or Passover. Instead, he's asking about the rules transmitted by Moses in general. The response notably includes the Exodus.

When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that our God יהוה has enjoined upon you?” you shall say to your children,

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and יהוה freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. יהוה wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and us [God] freed from there, in order to take us and give us the land promised on oath to our fathers. Then יהוה commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere our God יהוה, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before our God יהוה to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as [God] has commanded us.”

From Three Answers to Four Sons

These verses are obviously significant and offer a number of surface insights. One that jumped out to me was the need for parents to not only teach their children, but to provide meaningful answers to them. Because I said so and tradition! aren't going to cut it. 

The Rabbis of the Talmudic era, including Rabbi Chiyya (c.200 - c.220 CE), captured two brilliant innovations involving the quotes above. First, they put these questions into the mouths of different types of children and second, they added a Fourth Child: One Who Can't Even Ask a Question. Rabbi Chiyya's version of the Four Sons is recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud, Peschaim 10:4:

HALAKHAH: Rebbi Ḥiyya stated “The Torah spoke about Four Children, a wise child, a wicked child, a stupid child, and a child who does not know how to ask. What does the wise child say? What are the testimonials, the ordinances, and the laws, that the Eternal, our God, commanded us? Also you shall tell him, with a strong hand did the Eternal lead us out of Egypt, the house of slaves. What does the wicked son say? What does this service mean to you? What is this exertion which you impose on us every (moment) [year]? Since he excluded himself from the community, also you shall tell him, because of this did the Eternal do for me when I left Egypt. For me, He did it, for that man He did not do it. If that man had been in Egypt, he would not have been worthy ever to be redeemed. What does the stupid child say? What is this? Tell him the rules of Passover, that one may not follow the Pesaḥἐπὶ κῶμον. What means ἐπὶ κῶμον? That one not leave one company and join another company. With the child who does not know how to ask, you have to begin and initiate with him.” Rebbi Yose said, that is what the Mishnah says, “if the son does not know how to ask, his father instructs him.”

While our modern Haggadah's version of the Four Sons differs from this text, the essence remains the same.

The Four Sons: Old School vs. Today

One difference that will jump out to those familiar with the modern text is the identification of a 'Stupid child.' This isn't merely a less politically correct translation of the Four Sons than we are used to; Rabbi Chiyya uses a different Hebrew word to describe the third child (טִיפֵּשׁ vs תָּם). There are other striking differences as well. The Wise Son is offered the answer that we now give the Simple Son. The Third Son now receives an obscure (to us) answer about the procedure of eating the Passover Sacrifice.

While these differences are interesting and worth probing (next year, people!), I'm more impressed by how similar the ancient text is to what we read yearly on Passover.

The Four Sons as an Innovation

For nearly 2000 years, if not longer, we've been putting these quotes into the mouths of different children. Inspecting the quotes reveal that they are relatively neutral. If anything, the answer given in the last question, posed in Deuteronomy, could easily come from a child lacking sophistication. The child seems to be confused by all the rules and regulations, and the response isn't to get into the weeds, which is what the modern Haggadah suggests. Instead, the Torah provides an elegant, big picture response. Rabbi Chiyya's text leans into this, and suggests that this is is exactly how the back and forth with the Wise Son should go. Our version of the Four Sons uses the same question as Rabbi Chiyya, but offers a different answer than what is provided in the Torah. Perhaps the authors of Haggadah were picking up on the same 'simple answer vibes' that I was when reading Deuteronomy's dialog?

It's also revealing that the answer given in the Haggadah to the Child Who Doesn't Yet Have the Ability to Ask, is given the same answer as the as the Wicked Child.  This choice to reuse an answer seems to further suggest that the fourth child was an important addition to the Rabbis. Even without a unique proof text in the Torah, they thought he was worth including.

So we've turned three general exchanges about learning into four different personalities asking questions; and I love it. I love it because it adds a dimension about teaching that goes unsaid in the Torah, but is powerful. I see the Four Sons as modeling the requirement that parents must meet their children where they are. By making the Four Sons such a central part of the Haggadah, the Rabbis have invented a sort of Talmudic no child left behind policy.  Well played Rabbi Chiyya and peers, well played.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Encountering NY's Finest

Does heaven exist? It's a question theologians have grappled with for millennia.

Turns out, it does, and it's located in Nanuet, NY.

Last Sunday, at 6:30am, we walked into Rockland Bakery and we were greeted by an amazing display of mouth watering desserts.  I noticed a letter hanging above the display cases that announced the establishment was under Kosher supervision. Sweet!

After making some difficult decisions (apparently, "I'll take one of everything!" didn't seem like a reasonable request), we finally approached the cashier and asked for our selections to be boxed up. While we were at it, we asked if they had any bagels. It was a bagel recommendation from one of Shira's coworkers, after all, that was our motivation for tracking down the bakery in the first place. For bread, the lady behind the counter explained, you'll need to walk through that corridor, grab some gloves, and pass through a pair of double-doors to make your selection. Not quite sure what to expect, we followed the nice lady's instructions.

And just like that, we were in heaven. Before us was a smorgasbord of fresh bread in every shape and size. The area hummed with action, as piping hot bread ran along various conveyer belts. One machine pooped out hot bagels, while another produced an infinite stream of small loaves. In awe, we clumsily filled a couple of brown paper bags with bread products of all types.

Back at the checkout counter, and reunited with our pastries, the cashier rung us up. To our surprise, the prices were impressively low. 

Even though it was only 7am, I immediately downed my whip cream eclair. Shira showed more restraint, and waited till the airport until she tried one of the black and white cookies she had bought. There were outstanding. Probably the freshest and tastiest she's ever had, and this is a woman who knows a thing or two about black and white cookies. And the jelly donut. Oh, the jelly donut. I was going to try just a bit of it before our flight, but ended up snarfing the whole thing down.

Just typing this blog post up again has me thinking about defrosting some of the goodies we froze from the bakery. It was all that good.

So how does one get to heaven? Easy, just ask Google Maps.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Hiking Nyack Beach to Hook Mountain and Back

Last weekend we found ourselves in White Plains, NY celebrating a friend's simcha (Mazel Tav S.!). We had a few hours free and a gorgeous weather forecast, so we decided to do a hike in the area. After a bit of research we opted to hike the Nyack Beach - Hook Mountain loop.

The hike started off pleasantly enough as you ascend to Hook Mountain. We found ourselves with views of the road and nearby houses, so while it was a nice trail, it did give off suburbia vibes. By the time we summited Hook Mountain, however, we felt fully remote and were treated to some amazing views of the Hudson River and surrounding area. I tried to capture the scene with some panoramic photos, but none of them did the views justice.

One unexpected find at the top of Hook Mountain was a patch of cacti. I don't recall seeing cacti in the wild on any hikes in the North East. That's NY for you, always full of surprises.

From Hook Mountain we walked North along the ridge overlooking the river and were treated to additional breathtaking overlooks. At one point we turned more and found ourselves in forested canopy. One treat in this section was a number of old brick structures that I was able to grab photos of. I wondered about their history: were they relatively recent homes, or did they have storied history?

Before we reached the Northern end of the hike and descended, the route detoured to give us one last view of the river and surrounding area. It was all gorgeous. Shira commented that the industrial looking buildings across the river were in fact Sing Sing prison. Some telephoto shots revealed guard towers and fencing.

The descent from the ridge was straightforward, and before we knew it, we found ourselves on a wide and well maintained trail along the edge of the Hudson River. I did a bit of beach combing along a short tract of sand. One unexpected discovery was a brick that had washed ashore with a prominent "& S" stamped on it. Of course someone has cataloged historic brick companies in the area and it looks like I stumbled on a Denton Fowloer & Sons specimen. As the site explains:

In 1883, Denton Fowler & Sons owned a brickyard in Haverstraw and produced 9,300,000 brick with 5 machines, employing 80 men. They also owned the land.(History of Rockland County, J.B. Beers & Co., 1884)

According to Google Maps, Haverstsraw, NY is just up the river from our hike, so that checks out.  I'm still not sure which is more impressive: that I stumbled on a brick from the 1800's; or that I was able to effortlessly identify it online.

The walk on the river trail was easy enough and before we know it, we were at our car.

Overall, I was very impressed with this hike. The views, historic structures and solitude on the trail made it an absolute winner. If you find yourself in the area, it's worth doing.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

How Not To Start A Family Tradition

We hosted the first seder this year, and I wanted to begin as I did last year, with a bit of crafting. The idea is get G and the rest of the family in the mood with a fun, tactile activity. This year we honored the 5 women who made the Exodus possible by having each person pick one of their names from a bowl. Thanks to Rav Natan for the 'pick from a bowl' suggestion.

Things started off promising: we learned a bit about each of the women, and everyone went to work building their socket puppet. I do feel as though I need to apologize to the memory of Puah; she was my woman to honor and my sock puppet got off to a rough start.

It wasn't long before a fatal flaw in my plan was revealed: G managed to burn himself on one of the hot glue guns. Ouch.

A smear of burn cream and a bandaid got things back on track, but not before the absurdity of my project was on full display. Really Ben, multiple hot glue guns around a 3 year old; you thought this was a good idea?!

Once G was consoled, we put our project on hold and started the seder in earnest. It was delightful. G, with a bit of assistance from Dad asked the four questions and we had a fun, thoughtful and tasty (thanks babe!) evening. Other than starting off by giving my nephew a second degree burn, things went very well.

By the next night, new family lore had been added to our catalog. While discussing Exodus 12:11 which mentions the Israelites eating the Passover Sacrifice with staff's at hand, David suggested: "so next year, for crafting, shall we get out the knives and all whittle staffs?"

I was hoping each of us would end up with a cute puppet that reminded us of the seder and the remarkable women that made it possible. Instead, we added a collective family memory. It's not what I had in mind, but I'll take it!

Next year in Jerusalem! With nail guns :)