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Postcards from Tradocia

Category: general (page 2 of 11)

Open Dash Surgery

What happened?

I think there's something missing here

What you see at left is not an accident but rather the culmination of JoKur’s 5-year quest to install a computer in his car. He first had the idea when we were in Iraq, and began the epic mission when he purchased this car after our return. I have fielded countless tech support calls about this damn project, and listened to his endless descriptions of his various crazy schemes.

He was so close to completion – he finally had the right hardware, and the right software, and everything was installed and working – but that only lasted for about five days. Then he got the idea to remake his dash with Bondo.

You’ll notice that not only is the radio missing, but also the heating & air conditioning controls. This means that he needs to fiddle with various cables under that mess (if you look closely, you can see the little blue cable on the left of the dash…hole, which, when pulled, apparently does something).

It's under here somewhere

It's under here somewhere

Here you can see him reaching for something, which didn’t help and we had to drive with all four windows down so we didn’t roast. I just hope that he wraps this up before winter comes again…

The Good War

Several depressing reports out of Afghanistan lately (see Captain’s Journal, Michael Yon, and Free Range International) reveal something that I’ve considered for some time: that history might show that Iraq, not Afghanistan, was the “good war.” Despite the continual drumbeat of the antiwar left about Iraq being a distraction from the “true war on terror,” I propose that Afghanistan is the true strategic backwater of the two wars, much more akin to the “quagmire” that Iraq was supposed to be. There are (at least) four reasons for this; or, more specifically, differences in four key areas that make Iraq a more important theater of war than Afghanistan. They are: strategic position, resources, human and societal capital, and the presence of a definable and achievable end state. These thoughts are a little unpolished – I just banged this out but lord knows, you could write a book or two on this topic so I have to put something up, even if it’s scatterbrained.

Strategic position

Iraq anchors the Arabian Peninsula, and is a crucial hinge for the Middle East. From the American perspective, it is easily accessible by land, sea, and air, by way of two major U.S. allies (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait). By shattering Saddam Hussein’s regime, the U.S. drove a wedge into the region, separating Ba’athist Syria from its main ally as well as buffering the Shi’a bizzaro-state of Iran.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a rugged, landlocked country, sandwiched between Iran, Pakistan, and several of the former Soviet republics. It is inaccessible by sea, and land routes are difficult and dangerous, primarily coming through our nominal ally of Pakistan. This leaves air transport as the primary means of supply and troop movement, and even this is largely dependent on the goodwill of shaky allies like Kyrgyzstan. Holding Afghanistan gives almost no advantage, geographically speaking, since it is the definition of “middle of nowhere.”

Resources

Iraq has water. Iraq has farmland. Iraq, of course, has oil. People say Iraq was a “war for oil” like it’s a bad thing, but face it: without oil, there is no modern civilization. In time, oil will be replaced with something better, but for now, it’s what we’ve got. I don’t buy the war-for-oil theory (didn’t work out too well if it was), but insofar as you can actually call OIF a “war for oil,” it wasn’t some Bush-Cheney-Halliburton axis of greed plot, but rather, a fight to keep one of the most valuable substances in the world out of the hands of terrorist dictatorships.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, has very little, except opium (being the leading exporter in the world).

Human & societal capital

Iraq has a history of civilization dating back for millenia, and has in modern times developed a highly educated and relatively prosperous society (prior to the rise of the Ba’ath Party). Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had the trappings of a modern civilization: electricity, roads, central and local government, etc. This means that Iraq has a foundation on which to build functional, free (or free-er) society.

Afghanistan has virtually nothing. Despite having been self-governed since 1919, Afghanistan doesn’t seem to have developed a tradition of structured government. (The Soviet invasion in 1979 certainly didn’t help.) The vast majority of the population is illiterate, poor, and dies at a young age (life expectancy is about 44 years, according to the CIA World Fact Book). Farmers and villagers in the remote mountains of the country don’t know or care about a central government; some are so isolated that American soldiers are being mistaken for Soviet ones (per Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor).

Definable and achievable end state

The war in Iraq is already over. The end state was: establishment of a democratic government, capable of managing the security of the nation, with sectarian and terrorist violence at an acceptably low level that would permit the withdrawal of U.S. forces. While the outcome was certainly in doubt, it was always possible to at least imagine this end state actually happening (largely because of the aforementioned factors).

Afghanistan shares the same declared end state, but in reality, I think it’s an impossible goal. How do you declare that a government is in control of the country when such a thing has virtually never happened in its history? How do you repeat the “Anbar Awakening” in a country where many people don’t care who’s in charge, as long as they’re able to live the same simple way as they have for hundreds of years? Furthermore, the nation is just too vast and wild to be pacified – our heavily armed and armored infantrymen can’t root out every cave, every hiding spot in the hills and mountains. We could send a million men there and it still probably wouldn’t be enough.

The iJesus

All hail!

All hail!

Typically, government organizations (and particularly the military) are not at the forefront of consumer technology. However, with the Dark Lord at the helm, the J6 is full participating member in the Church of Jobs – Sauron himself wields a 24″ iMac, a Macbook Air, and an iPhone (all paid by your tax dollars, natch).

Apropos our cult membership, we got three iPads yesterday. Apparently the plan is to replace BlackBerries with iPads for senior staff, since our yearly phone service bill is astronomical. I guess all the field-grade officers will have to get tactical man-purses now.

As far as I can tell from my day with the device, it really is just nine iPhones taped together. This is not surprising, since the device runs the iPhone OS, but it is a little disappointing. I spent most of the first day frantically waving the thing around, trying to get the screen to tilt, until today Saint Gene discovered that there’s a tilt-lock switch on the side. I guess I figured that Apple wouldn’t stoop to something so pedestrian as a physical switch to lock out the tilt sensor, so I never thought to look for it.

The screen is indeed gorgeous – it’s an IPS-type LCD, from what I understand, which gives it excellent viewing angles and no color distortion, even at extreme angles. It’s bright and contrasty, and makes all of the carefully designed icons look quite lickable. However, I stand by my assertion that e-ink devices like the Kindle and nook are superior for long-term reading operations; as nice as the iPad’s screen is, it’s still an LCD, and the backlight makes for tired eyes over long periods.

I doubt the thing will be a “game-changer” like the iPhone arguably has been – the market for phones with shiny things is much larger than tablets with shiny things, and without phone company subsidies, the price is steep – $500 for this one, with only 16GB of storage and no 3G networking (only WiFi). As some have said, it’s a good media consumption device; I could see the utility for someone who travels a lot, or a student who’s on the go and needs to watch cat videos and check up on FarmVille and stalk ex-girlfriends on Facebook. But for guys like me, who work at a computer all day, then go home to several computers in a small house, and who rarely is out at the local coffee shop with horn-rimmed glasses and turtleneck, I don’t see much point.

Gunpowder Tea

Trigun

Trigun

I just finished watching the anime series Trigun (about twelve years late on that one), and since anime is SERIOUS BUSINESS, it inspired me to pontificate on the morality of killing – specifically, the morality of killing in defense of self or others.

The show is primarily about Vash the Stampede (blond dude at left), who travels around a desert planet, getting into various misadventures.

Vash practices an especially weird brand of pacifism, one where violence and even injuries are acceptable, so long as no one is actually killed. This sort of thing is obviously in the realm of pure fantasy, only made possible because of Vash’s superhuman capabilities (and a tremendously accurate revolver in .45 Long Colt). However, his behavior enables me to make a larger point about the notion of pacifism and nonviolence in general.

Towards the end of the series, Vash is confronted by a character named Legato. Legato has captured two of Vash’s friends and threatens to kill them – unless Vash is willing to shoot Legato in the head. Thankfully, Vash makes the right decision (sparing the show from utter failure) and puts a .45LC slug through Legato’s skull, but he’s tortured by his decision.Vash agonizes about killing Legato even though it was the only option to save Meryl and Milly (and himself). He complains that he’s no longer any different than his evil brother Knives because they both have killed people. This obscures the key moral difference between murder and self-defense: murder is immoral and self-defense is the opposite; indeed, there is no more moral act. Self defense is a fundamental human right, a basic biological imperative, and a crucial underpinning of both civilian and military law. While killing of any kind is regrettable, killing in defense of self or others is the only morally correct response to unprovoked lethal force.

Vash’s agonizing decision to shoot Legato and his subsequent self-flagellation makes no sense and turns an otherwise likable character into a morally repugnant fool. What alternative did he have? In his twisted logic, it would have been better for two innocents – and himself – to die, just so that he could maintain his absurd moral high ground. If he wanted to martyr himself, fine – but allowing two innocent companions to be killed for his principles? Unacceptable. Amazingly, Meryl never calls Vash to task about this, even as he whines to her about the horror of killing Legato. The scene would have had much more dramatic heft if she had done so, but maybe that’s too much to ask from my anime.

Ironically, the struggles of a supporting character, Nicholas D. Wolfwood, are much more interesting and his final episode is as close to real drama as I’ve seen in anime. Unfortunately, he ultimately tries to embrace Vash’s absurdity and dies alone as a result.

The legend of QWERTY

Guaranteed not to jam the tiny type bars inside your phone!

Guaranteed not to jam the tiny type bars inside your phone!

I’m now a proud owner of a QWERTY-keyboard-equipped cell phone (pictured at left). It strikes me as odd, however, that it’s the second decade of the 21st century and we’re putting keyboards designed in the 1870s on our pocket phones for the purpose of saying stuff like “OMG 2 cool meet me @ the mall!!!”

Legend has it that the QWERTY keyboard layout was designed explicitly to slow down early typists to prevent jams, but apparently this isn’t true. The placement of keys was intended to prevent jams, and any typist-slowing effect was merely a byproduct of the key placement.

The Dvorak keyboard layout is widely considered to be a superior alternative to QWERTY, because of its placement of letters by frequency of use, supposedly making for faster and more ergonomic typing. Of course, most people don’t even know what a Dvorak keyboard is – and, according to some, the advantages may not be as great as have been claimed.

The longevity of QWERTY on the computer keyboard makes sense – there are billions of keyboards and typists out there already. The advantages of Dvorak – whatever they may be – simply aren’t significant enough to warrant a switch. But why QWERTY for phones? It’s not as if I’m going to touch-type on that tiny keyboard; I’m only using my thumbs, anyway. Even the holy iPhone (blessed be its name) only has the option for a QWERTY keyboard layout, even though the keyboard is implemented in software. I guess it doesn’t matter what layout the keyboard has, since no layout is going to appreciably increase your speed when typing with your thumbs on keys the size of dust motes.

Seventh son of a seventh son

Windows 7 is out, and it represents the first time I’ve been more than casually interested in an OS release since, well, ever. Part of my interest is because I got a new computer to run it – a Sager NP8662 – but also because I think it’s a great break from the crusty past of Windows XP. XP was (is) not a bad OS per se, but being an outgrowth of the NT/Win2000 tech base with the interface conventions of a latter-day Win98, it always seemed something of a chimera to me.

Windows Vista was rightly criticized for sucking generally, but I think it represented a necessary shift away from XP. Just as Windows 95 broke with the past of Windows 3.1 and introduced Windows users to the Start menu, the taskbar, preemptive multitasking, and many of the GUI conventions we still use today, Vista introduced technologies that are just as different from XP’s. A much better graphical installer, superior enterprise deployment capabilities, better plug-and-play support, and most importantly (IMO), a completely redesigned window manager. XP’s window manager (the part of the OS that draws the windows on your screen) is basically a direct lineal descendant of the one used in Windows 2.0 (!), which means that its capabilities were much more limited than window managers used by other modern OSes, like OS X. Vista brought an all-new window manager, which seems like it’s only good for shiny crap like Aero Glass, but really enables much greater performance (through GPU acceleration), stability (window contents still exist when hidden behind other windows!), and resource efficiency.

(For more about the differences between the window managers of XP and Vista, see Wikipedia’s articles on stacking and compositing window managers, respectively.)

Windows 7 refines the new technology introduced in Vista, and does away with the majority of its annoyances. User Access Control (UAC), Vista’s nanny feature extraordinaire (are you sure you want to click that? are you really sure? really really?), is still present, but greatly toned down – it only bugs you when installing software, not every time you open the goddamn Device Manager. Performance is better (I can’t say how much, since I never used Vista at home, only at work, where the massive pile of Army-mandated software turns the fastest computer into an absolute dog), and most of the confusing verbiage of the Vista interface has been cleaned up. I was going to write that they still don’t have a keyboard shortcut for a new folder – my most wanted feature from OS X, by far – but holy shit, they do! My prayers have been answered! (It’s Shift-Ctrl-F, by the way, just like OS X…)

I was going to say a few words about my hatred for Mac evangelism, but that’s a rant best left for its own topic. Suffice it to say, I can stand Macs (even like a few things that they do better than PCs), but I can hardly stand most people who use them.

What month is it again?

12 October 2009

12 October 2009

I can’t remember the last time it snowed this early. Just a few years ago, we had winters with almost no snow. Now, winter starts before the stores even get their Christmas decorations up!

District 9

Synopsis (with spoilers) and review below the cut.

Continue reading

105

Two weeks ago, I bought my first road bike – a Giant Defy 1 – from a local bike shop (or LBS, in internet bike parlance). I’ve never been much for exercising as an activity – I enjoy doing things, but things like the Army physical fitness test are more of a necessary evil to me than anything else – but for some reason, I’m very excited by the idea of sitting on a bike for an hour or more and pedaling away. Maybe it’s because biking plays into my technological fetishism, so I can pretend it’s not really exercise: hey, I’m sweating my balls off, but look at this cool thing I’m riding!

The process of selecting a bike was bewildering, since road bikes are expensive and the biking community seems plagued with gear snobs. This is saying a lot, considering how accustomed I am to the snobbery of firearms enthusiasts (“only Colt and LMT parkerize under the front sight block!”). Most significant is the discussion about shifter and derailer equipment, almost all of which is made by Shimano. Shimano makes several levels of gear equipment for road bikes, with elegant, foreign-sounding names like Sora, Tiagra, and Ultegra (and the inexplicably named 105, which lies between Tiagra and Ultegra). I’ll spare you the acrimonious debate and give the summary, which is: Sora is shit, Tiagra is livable, and 105 is what you want. Ultegra is even better, of course, but doesn’t enter into the entry-level road bike equation, since it’s not found on bikes south of $1500 or so.

The problem with bikes is that unlike firearms, the characteristics of bike parts are often difficult to quantify, so comparative discussions usually contain a lot of “this shifter feels better” and “these tires are faster” and “this frame really wants to climb hills.” Also, since Shimano pretty much makes all the gear parts for all manufacturers, choice in bike ends up being about a) price b) color and c) fit (and the hidden variable, brand snobbery). In the case of shifter and derailer equipment, I rode bikes with all three levels of Shimano’s gearing, and really, for an entry-level rider like me, any of them would have been fine.

The employee of the local shop who made the sale seemed pretty blasé about my $1000 purchase, barely meriting a “thanks” for my hard-earned coin. I suppose the typical bike co-op employee – a poor college student steeped in collectivist social ideology and redistributionist economic schemes – isn’t much interested in the capitalist concepts of “profit” or “repeat business.” I don’t plan to patronize the place again, except for minor (free) maintenance.

Training Philosophies: A Rant

I was reading the forum of a local firearms training company yesterday, and something about the discussion there sent me into a rant. I’ve had these thoughts before about this company, but I really got warmed up after yesterday’s browsing. Note that I’ve attended several classes put on by this company – they’re pretty much the only game in town if you want to do anything other than basic firearms training around here, but I really wish there was an alternative. What follows is all over the place, so try to stay with me: Continue reading

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