Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


Happy Navy Birthday!

On this date, April 30th, in 1798, President John Adams signed into law the bill that established the Department of the Navy. While the U.S. Navy celebrates its birthday on October 13th (honoring the 1775 founding of the Continental Navy), the modern U.S. Navy -- with its leadership vested in the civilian Secretary of the Navy -- was created on this date. Benjamin Stoddert of Maryland became the first Secretary of the Navy.

Happy Birthday, Navy!

(And a belated Happy Birthday to blogfriend Shlõk, who just yesterday attained an age sufficient to be entrusted with the purchase of alcoholic beverages.)

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[Moblog] Entrata Music Club

Eldest of Oz played Beethoven's "Russian Folk Song" for this season's "Entrata Music Club" recital. The Entrata is part of the Tennessee Federation of Music Clubs.

Tomorrow both Eldest and Man-Cub will perform for the Guild judge. This will be Eldest's 3rd Guild critique, with ten (10) songs to be played from memory as they are called by the judge.


UPDATE: I've uploaded the Treo-captured video to YouTube.

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Chernobyl + 22

22 years ago, on a late April evening near the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine, Reactor #4 at the V.I. Lenin Memorial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded. This disaster, the only instance to date of a "Level 7" on the International Nuclear Event Scale, resulted in a complete breach of the containment dome accompanied by a severe nuclear meltdown. (By comparison, the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania was a Level 5: "Accident with Off-Site Risk".)

The four reactors at Chernobyl were each GigaWatt-output "reaktor bolshoy moshchnosti kanalniy" (Reactor-High Power-Channel Type, or RBMK). Together, these four reactors provided 10% of Ukraine's electricity.

RBMK reactors rely on light water (i.e., non-deuterium or tritium hydrogen in the water) for cooling, and graphite rods for moderation (akin to the world's first-ever nuclear reactor, the Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee). Given the size of RBMK reactors and the methods for moderating fast neutrons, they can use natural uranium (vice enriched) for fuel. This also makes the design prone to instability, where boiling coolant can create a very large void coefficient: coolant that is supposed to act as a neutron absorber is boiled away, which increases the reactivity of the core, creating more energy in a positive feedback loop. The added energy can quickly lead to a "Loss of Coolant Accident", which in a large system like the RBMK leads to a catastrophic failure. (BTW: The word "scram" -- which Webster's defines as "a rapid emergency shutdown of a nuclear reactor" -- is actually an acronym coined by legendary physicist Enrico Fermi.)

In late April 1986, while Chernobyl's Reactor #4 was shut down for maintenance, technicians decided to test the ability of the reactor's turbine to power the safety systems should external electrical power be lost. The key question was whether or not the turbines, as they wound down from the reactor, could power the reactor's water pumps while the backup diesel generators came online. Though earlier tests had failed, the technicians wanted to check if recent modifications were sufficient to achieve positive results.

Before the reactor power had been decreased for the test to be conducted, a regional power station went off-line. The grid controller from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev asked that further power reductions from the reactor be postponed to allow sufficient electricity to meet evening demands.

But the night shift was not informed of the postponement. So, when the Kiev grid controller allowed the reactor shut-down to continue, the technicians at Chernobyl instead followed the original test protocol and powered down too quickly. This led to a build-up of Xenon-135 -- a highly-effective neutron absorber that can "poison" a reactor.

Technicians who began to increase the reactor power for the test saw far less power than expected. Unaware of the Xe-135 build-up (and commensurate "burn-off" as neutron flux increased), they removed the graphite rods to increase the reactivity. The increased power and decreased moderation from the graphite rods created steam bubbles in the coolant -- increasing the void coefficient described above. And though the technicians began to "scram" the reactor at 01:23:40 local time, the spike in energy caused the control rods to fracture and jam.

At 01:23:47 local time, as the last of the Xe-135 was burned off, the reactor jumped to 30 GigaWatts thermal: more than twenty times normal operating output. The fuel rods began to melt and the build-up of steam pressure created an explosion that blew off the reactor lid, resulting in a surge of oxygen that caused the graphite to ignite. The loss of containment and the graphite fire exacerbated the spread of radioactive debris throughout the region.

Today, Pripyat and the surrounding area (within a 30km radius of the reactor) is abandoned. Chernobyl has been shut down. However, there are still several RBMK reactors in operation in the Former Soviet Union (in St. Petersburg, Kursk and Smolensk).

Having spent this week at a 5-day "Team Leader Training Course" for the TapRooT Root Cause Analysis methodology, I have a new appreciation for the consequences of "human performance difficulties", particularly with highly complex systems. (Maybe Vinay Gupta and John Robb have a point re: "Resilient Communities" and "simple solar"!)

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Return of the U.S. 4th Fleet

The Pentagon announced earlier today that, effective July 1st 2008, the U.S. Navy will reestablish the U.S. Fourth Fleet. FOURTHFLT will oversee operations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America, and will operate out of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (NAVSOUTH) headquarters in Mayport, FL.

The inaugural COMFOURTHFLT will be RADM Joseph D. Kernan, present commander of Naval Special Warfare Command and the first Navy SEAL (and, by nature of Special Operations, and expert on irregular warfare and COIN) to ever command a numbered fleet.

From today's Miami Herald:

Fourth Fleet to sail again in Latin America

It's official: The Pentagon formally announced Thursday that it is reestablishing an administrative entity called the Fourth Fleet -- to oversee Navy vessels that sail the Caribbean, Central and South America. Rear Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, who now runs the Naval Special Warfare Command, will be its new commander.

He becomes the first Navy SEAL, or officer who served in the Navy's elite commando unit, to serve as a numbered fleet commander.

No new headquarters are being created because it will operate out of the U.S. Navy's Southern Command satellite in Mayport.

"Reestablishing the Fourth Fleet recognizes the immense importance of maritime security in the southern part of the Western Hemisphere and signals our support and interest in the civil and military maritime services in Central and South America," Adm. Gary Roughead, the Pentagon's most senior naval officer, said in a statement released Thursday.

The organization becomes effective on July 1.


Technically, the Fourth Fleet would answer to the U.S. Southern Command in Miami but supervise the various Navy ships and aircraft that might be assigned to sail south of the U.S. border -- on missions ranging from humanitarian relief to stopping drug trafficking to training with other navies in the Americas.

"This change increases our emphasis in the region on employing naval forces to build confidence and trust among nations through collective maritime security efforts that focus on common threats and mutual interests," Roughead said.

The new fleet restores an institution that was established in 1943 in the South Atlantic as U.S. Navy warships searched for Nazi U-boats. It was disbanded after World War II.

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More Scouting Fun

The local Boy Scouts of America Council (the Great Smoky Mountains Council) hosted a "Cubs on Target" family campout last weekend. One of the highlights of the weekend (which included archery, BB guns, sling-shots and homemade marshmallow guns) was having our Tiger Den (1st grade Cub Scouts) manning the mangonel.

Though less accurate than a trebuchet, it still performed admirably by launching water balloons across the quad.

[Moblog] Little League

Spring has arrived in Oak Ridge, with the season opener of 7-8 Year Old Boys Club Baseball at the "Field of Dreams". The "Screaming Eagles" played a solid game, with Head Coach Chris Keever and Coach Pitcher Aaron Wells keeping the team on track. Everyone played and everyone hustled -- a great start to Spring!


Dogwood 5k

On a rainy Patriots' Day, the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce hosted the inaugural "Dogwood 5k" road race in the Briarcliff neighborhood of Oak Ridge. The relatively flat course wound through the neighborhood before entering the Emory Valley Greenway to loop back toward the start.

Despite the rainy conditions, Man-Cub had enough stamina near the end of the race to sprint the last 100m (leaving me in the proverbial dust!).

This was more than enough for him to earn a "3rd place" finish in the "14-and-under" age category -- a solid showing for a 7-year-old! :-)

After the award ceremony, the rain stopped and the clouds broke. So we decided to end our "Dogwood 5k" morning with a drive along Oak Ridge's "Dogwood Trail" on the crest of Blackoak Ridge -- the only officially sanctioned "Dogwood Trail" outside of Knox County. Since the dogwoods tend to bloom shortly after Washington DC's cherry blossoms, and hold their flowers for a longer period, this is one of my favorite months to live in the Secret City!



[Moblog] Scouts & Ice Cream

Our Tiger Den just earned its "Leave No Trace" badge by listening to a talk about Earth Day ("Reduce, Reuse, Recycle") and picking up litter at a local park. For an added reward, we visited the Razzleberry Ice Cream Lab: the boys chose either "Superman" or "Smurf", while I opted for the MC^2 (Ingredients = Everything).

Important Anniversary

Tomorrow marks an important date in American history -- one that will reverberate through posterity due to its massive impact on culture and society.

No, I'm not talking about the 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, TX (which is eerily similar to the recent raid -- in Texas also -- of a polygamist compound [h/t tdaxp]). Nor am I talking about Timothy McVeigh's domestic terror attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City two years later.

And no, I am not talking about "the shot heard 'round the world" at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts in 1775 during the Battles of Lexington and Concord that kindled the American Revolutionary War (aka "Patriots' Day" by residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and runners of the Boston Marathon).

No, I am referring to the first airing of "The Simpsons" shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show on April 19th, 1987.

It's hard to believe that Matt Groening's animated shorts, which quickly spun off into what is now the longest-running animated series in history (in its 19th season), was first introduced to us all just 21 years ago....

In the words of the inestimable Bart (an anagram for "brat"), "Cowabunga!"

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Vote for Brittney!

My how times fly... Just 13 years ago at our wedding, a precocious 6-year-old named Brittney Tunnell was our "flower girl". Now she's 19, a student at Mira Costa College in north San Diego, and a finalist on KSON-FM97.3's "Oceanside Idol".

Please click here to listen and vote for Brittney! She has an amazing voice, and I don't even like country music. :-) This link is her rendition of Carrie Underwood's Before He Cheats.

Voting ends on Sunday (April 20th).

Redundancy vs. Interdependency

John Robb has shared some of his early ideas as he brainstorms for his forthcoming book on "Resilient Communities". This recent post describes the need for local capacity in "personal fabrication", opining that "in the longer term, [disruptions don't] need to occur." Communities possessing the ability to create (at low cost and small scale) locally desired goods could, in John's words, "... advance economically and in quality of life faster than communities dependent on traditional centralized sources of production."

The following day, Tom Barnett linked a Bloomberg article under the heading "Early signs of the growing food hyper-interdependency" and Shlõk posted a short piece on "Piggybacking on Existing Infrastructure" (calling it a bad idea).

These two articles underscore the competing notions of of "economic specialization" (which is the at the core of interdependency) and "local redundancy". In an ideal world, with infinite resources, local capacity can be built to suit local needs. However, when resources are finite, the concept of "opportunity cost" becomes paramount: What can I not do if I do this?

For disaster planning, we tend to overestimate the availability (and capacity) of local infrastructure: first responders on the scene, relatively intact communications infrastructures, availability of critical resources like water, ice, medicine. After Hurricane KATRINA in August 2005, however, we saw the impact of lost infrastructure: first responders who had evacuated themselves, cell phone towers with their power generators flooded, impassable transportation grids unable to deliver needed supplies.

I have argued in this 'blog for greater self-reliance -- but how far can we go? What are the practical limits of building and maintaining a local infrastructure that can satisfy all local needs? And would such "islands of self-sufficiency" lead to greater sectarianism?

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Blogger issue solved

Technical difficulties solved -- somehow my FTP path in Blogger's "Settings" was changed to a different subdirectory. We now return to our regularly-scheduled rant.... :-)



Test Post - Ignore

Blogger is having some technical difficulties. This is a test post to see if I can still post.


[Moblog] Atop Twin Arches

Indian Guides camp-out this weekend with Man-Cub. Here we're atop the Twin Arches: sandstone formations in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.


REVIEW: Taleb's "Black Swan"

After resting comfortably in my "anti-library" for many weeks, I recently plucked The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb from my dusty nightstand. Since I was embarking on cross-continental flights (albeit with kids), I was looking forward to punctuating the drink-and-peanut monotony of Southwest Airlines (an airline woefully unequipped for flights longer than 90 minutes) with Taleb's insights.

Since my days as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, where I evolved from an aspiring systems engineer to a "Science Advisor" to a manager leading the "Red Team" at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9, I have been fascinated with the prospect of "adversarial surprise". Like most analytical efforts under the loose employ of the Pentagon (which has roughly one government civilian employee [tail] for every two active duty soldiers/sailors/airmen/Marines [tooth]), this was a cottage industry.

Taleb's insights echo many of our observations in the Joint Experimentation program, particularly regarding the hubris of intellectualism. His skepticism of inductive logic, his emphasis on the importance of context in perceiving information, and his lionization of Doktor Prof. Sir Karl Raimund Popper (whom I had the pleasure of driving from leland stanfurd junior u. to Cal some 20 years ago in my Nissan Sentra) as well as Henri Poincaré are worthy of note.

However, his self-referential anecdotes are reminiscent of a Tolstoy novel, and his clear disdain for planning (née prediction) creates a scotoma that pulls him into the same abyss of solipsism that consumed David Hume.

The depth of his criticisms can be summarized quite succinctly as:
Don't use quantitative methods for qualitative questions.
Nature is benign, so we can ascribe a comfortable level of determinism to our observations. New data, often obtained through technological innovation, requires modification of obsolete theories (e.g., the Ptolemaic model of the universe to the Copernican; Newton's Laws of Motion to Einstein's Special Relativity; etc.). Key to our understanding (though Taleb would probably insist we understand nothing) is the selection of appropriate parameters -- and to not get too enamored with your own theories, especially if it involves any vestige of "free will".

Fallible? You betcha! Yes, we are inclined to fool ourselves. Yes, we try to cram too many variables into our formulae in some vain hope that we'll "get it right". And yes, our institutions -- particularly financial ones -- tend to reward the wrong kinds of behavior (q.v. Prof. Clay Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, in which Clay digs into corporate failures vice successes, finding that Wall Street rewards bad behavior). But Taleb's diatribe against the folly of "epistemic arrogance" has created another confirmation bias that only casually addresses the issue of scale when considering complex topics.

I understand that I am straying far from the "anchor" of many blogfriends (John Robb, Art Hutchinson, General of the Hordes Subadei, ARHerring, zenpundit, Chet Richards) who have offered glowing praise for The Black Swan. Perhaps it's my naïveté (or perhaps that I'm a product of the California public school system), but I honestly don't see our civilization marching toward "Extremistan". Quite the opposite: While our awareness of remote events has increased, and our networks have grown exponentially, I believe that the diffuse topology of our networks actually dampens the impact of an extreme event.

Consider the "Butterfly Effect". Do you really think a butterfly flapping its wings in Jakarta is going to eventually cause a hurricane in New York City? Or do you think the minor perturbation is absorbed locally without cascading into some kind of resonance? Yes, there are examples that illustrate the dire consequences of unplanned resonance. Taleb (who waffles at the end of his book as half hyperskeptic, half intransigently certain) abandons the Gaussian bell curve, yet -- with only a single mention of Albert-László Barabási -- firmly embraces Power Law scale invariance as normative.

Despite Taleb's too-casual treatment of scale, I think he would agree with George E.P. Box's statement (c. 1987) that "...[A]ll models are wrong, but some are useful." Abandoning our dogmatic devotion to certainty is essential in any creative, innovative enterprise -- and can reveal hidden opportunities, and hidden abilities.

This requires that we reexamine how we define "success". In my adopted hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the best Calutron operators (the electromagnets that separated Uranium isotopes for the LITTLE BOY bomb at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project) were not the scientists from Berkeley who designed them, but seamstresses with no scientific training. And how many Americans would consider Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf as the most successful U.S. commanders in the Mid-East? What about Tony Zinni (who didn't win a major theater war, but may have demonstrated even greater skill by avoiding one)?

While many of us point to 9/11 as a "Black Swan", I can say unequivocally that it had a far less dramatic effect on my life than Continental Flight 196 on March 6th, 1993. Could I have predicted when or how I would meet the woman that would be the mother of my children? Of course not.... But was I open to the possibility, and adaptive enough (when jabbed in the ribs by Helen from Purchasing to move up one row on that flight) to take advantage of this blessing?

That may be the best value of Taleb's Black Swan: to jar us out of our collective comfort zones, to remind us how ignorant we truly are, and to encourage us to "Be Prepared!" Good advice, regardless of whether you live in Mediocristan or Extremistan.

Update: Überblogger Zenpundit has graciously linked this review -- and will have his own review posted this weekend. (Thx Zen!)

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Lady Vols Repeat

The Lady Volunteers of the Univ. of Tennessee, under legendary coach Pat Head Summitt, have won their eighth national championship in women's basketball -- and their second in a row.

Since they won by soundly defeating my alma mater's archnemesis (the leland stanfurd junior u.) by a score 64-48, this is doubly sweet!


Scale and (Over)Simplification

Following up yesterday's post on "Complexity and Scale", and the alarmist notion that society is bound to collapse because of its increasing complexity, let me turn the tables and describe a worrisome trend: that of oversimplification in the face of complexity.

Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Insitute (NECSI) has done pioneering research into the dynamics of complex systems. The first textbook on the subject was written by Yaneer in 1997, and a more-accessible (i.e., less math) introduction on applying complexity science to real-world problems (Making Things Work) followed in 2004. One of the most fundamental concepts in complex systems is the trade-off between complexity and simplicity when related to scale. Greater complexity at a large scale means greater simplicity at a fine scale, and vice versa.

Where we get into trouble is when we ascribe simple models that are inadequate for the complexity at a given scale. For instance, a hierarchy is limited in its inherent complexity to the complexity of its leader. Yet we persist in building simple hierarchical organizations (e.g., CPA and its successor organizations in Iraq) when the dynamics of the environment call for a more modular, diffuse network of organizations. Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety (c. 1956) asserts that, for a system to achieve stability in the midst of perturbations, its number of control variables must be greater than the number of possible states in that system.

Therefore, the most efficient organization in a dynamic, complex large-scale environment is not a Napoleonic hierarchy with a single overarching authority -- but rather a distributed, loosely connected network of specialized subnets that are empowered to act in response to system perturbations. Pop quiz: does the latter statement better describe the organizational paradigm of the coalition forces in Iraq, or of the various other force structures there (Mahdi, Badr, AQI, etc.)?

It is interesting to note that General Odom's recent Senate testimony (h/t Abu Muqawama) associates the decline in violence since General Petraeus's " ... reflects a dispersion of power to dozens of local strong men who distrust the government and occasionally fight among themselves. Thus the basic military situation is far worse because of the proliferation of armed groups under local military chiefs who follow a proliferating number of political bosses." Increased complexity at a higher scale due to the diffusion of military authority to lower scales.

The implications for the conventional force structure of the U.S. security infrastructure are profound. To borrow terminology from Tom Barnett, not only does this mean "Leviathan" can't do "SysAdmin" -- it means that the idea of a centrally-organized SysAdmin is doomed to failure.

Now that the study of self-organized criticality is 20 years old, which describes when a critical point in a dynamic system acts as an attractor, perhaps we will see commensurate change within our organizational models. For instance, the "Incident Command System" of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which was derived from interagency evolution in response to wildfires, which was in turn derived from the military's deliberate planning process) defines standards to facilitate rapid organization, information sharing and decision-making.

Organizational models that facilitate effective (and appropriate) exchange of information, and -- most importantly -- allow the organization's evolution in the face of cooperation and competition are more effective in contending with the complexity of our world.

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Complexity and Scale

A post on KurzweilAI.net last week caught my eye. It excerpted a recent article in NewScientist entitled "Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable", which declares that society's increasing complexity also increases its fragility -- and the energy needed to sustain it. What the gang at KurzweilAI.net missed is the nature of scale in complex systems dynamics.

In fact, this is the second time in a month that KurzweilAI.net has come up short. The other time was a report on a pandemic influenza detecting chip -- conveniently appearing just prior to a Pandemic Influenza Tabletop Exercise I recently participated in. But their report was wrong about current capabilities: first responders can identify various strains via an emergency polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test in 2-3 hours, not "days or weeks" as reported on their 'blog.

KurzweilAI's alarmist reporting on social complexity -- and the concomitant "solution" of "reducing" society's complexity by reengineering our institutions at a smaller scale -- shows scant attention to the essential role scale plays in complexity. To wit, if a phenomenon appears random or unpredictable at a fine scale (e.g., turbulent flow), it can be predicted at a large scale. Conversely, phenomena that are unpredictable at a large scale (e.g., ethnic violence) can be predicted at a fine scale. [The link is to the Ethnic Violence page at the New England Complex Systems Institute, and to a paper published in the journal Science last September presenting their models. These models showed a 90% correlation between single-parameter predictions (after wavelet filtering) and reported incidents in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and even higher correlations in India.]

The underlying assumption of KurzweilAI (and Ms. MacKenzie at NewScientist) is that complexity is directly proportional to scale: the larger the scale, the greater the complexity. Similarly, the smaller the scale, the less the complexity.

However, when you decouple scale from complexity, you begin to see a better fit with our observed reality. Conventional military operations (à la Schlieffen Plan, the Fulda Gap, and OPLAN 1002, to name a few) entail massive amalgamations of forces for the express purpose of simplifying the commander's perspective. Rather than drowning in the minutiae of individual soldier movements (or even platoon or company-level engagements), theater commanders -- with the helpful MIL-STD-2525 symbology, similar to NATO APP-6A -- are able to think in terms of Corps and Division elements (and, lately, Brigades -- the primary warfighting organizational element of the U.S. Army). Therefore, large scale -- but low aggregate complexity.

When the battlefield loses its conformity, though, the scale decreases -- while the complexity increases! Consider which of these two scenarios are more "complex":

1) U.S. Army V Corps blocking the Soviet 8th Guards Army in the Fulda Gap, or ...
2) U.S. Army V Corps serving under the Coalition Ground Forces Commander in post-OIF Iraq.

Many have described the inherent complexity of loosely-coordinated small forces combating a monolithic adversary, most notably the contributors to the Small Wars Journal, John Robb, and the gang at Defense & the National Interest. Perhaps the Kurzweil crew would benefit from paying more attention to these "ideas at the intersection".

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[Moblog] Smoky Ride

Just finished the Dancing Bear Bike Fest. Brought my trusty Moab II (w knobbies) for the 30-mile road ride, but Trek was on the scene with demo bikes. Sooooo.... I shredded the course on a Trek Madone 5.2 58cm road bike - 30 miles in about 95 minutes with hills.

Two drawbacks from using the Trek: it showed me how far my Mercier triathlon bike is from where I need it to be (esp with the hill-friendly gearing on the Trek), and it has showed me how fun a $3,500 bike can be to ride. Better start saving those nickels....

After the rainy road ride, I took one of the Trek full-suspension mountain bikes on the Dancing Bear Lodge's 2.1 mile loop. The rain made the descents nice and muddy, and the single-track climbs slick. Truly a fun day -- even with the knee-plant in the mud at the bottom of the creek bed trail!


[Moblog] Anyone notice ...

Has anyone noticed that John Arquilla used the exact same cover photo for his new book (Worst Enemy) that Don Vandergriff used for SPIRIT, BLOOD & TREASURE?



[Moblog] DC in Bloom

Cherry blossoms are in full bloom along the Mall and Tidal Basin, proving why Spring is truly the finest season in our nation's capital.