Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Marrying Robots

I was over at the Dwarf's site yesterday, looking at some of his recommended blogs. I surfed over to Bayou Renaissance Man's internet abode, when I came across this post. For those of you too lazy click a link, the post gives another link that leads to a story about an EOD tech that got really attached to his robot, Scooby Doo. Peter (Bayou Renaissance Man) asked his readers if anyone had any experience with EOD doing this type of thing to robots. Well, being a veteran of Iraq and EOD, I had to comment. The answer is, "Yes, of course we do." As I said in my comment over there, the robot is a member of our team. Sure, it's only a piece of equipment, but we do tend to get attached. It's the piece of equipment that I can point to and definitively say that it saved my life. Arguably, any equipment that does its job in combat has the potential to save lives. But our bots, now there are machines that do it directly. Let me put it this way: for every robot that "dies" in the direct line of duty, there are lives saved. For every robot blown up by the bad guys, that's one less human tech to get the same thing, one less EOD wife becoming an EOD widow. As I said in that comment, I have had 4 robots go down like that while I was operating them. That's 4 times that my wife, or the wives of my team members/team leader, didn't have to receive a folded flag from an NCO or Officer. So, yeah, we tend to get attached, which tends to lead to anthropomorphizing our robots. As I mentioned in the comment, we would name them, track and record their "personalities" (I swear, dude, that bot is evil! Let's turn it in and draw another....), even keep track of them after we turn them over to replacing teams.

Well, Peter must have liked my comment, for after I posted it, he came out with this rebuttal, in which he asks me to tell some stories about robots. Well, Peter, okay. You asked for it. Here goes.

The first one is about one of the few bots that we had that we had actually named. Her name was Christine. She was a Talon robot (I'm too lazy to add a hyperlink here with a photo. Look it up yourself.) We inherited her from the team that we replaced in the area, and it was them that had named her. "Christine?" we asked. "Like the car?" "Exactly like the car," they said. "She's got a mind of her own, and she can be fickle." "Sure she can," we said, raising eyebrows of dubiousness. Well, we were to eat those words. A short time after that, we were using her to do a little demonstration in our compound for a visiting Colonel, who also happened to be the FOB commander, and the commander of the brigade we were supporting. Well Christine was doing fine, and the Colonel seamed pleased with what we had shown him thus far. Until Christine decided that she really REALLY liked the Colonel, especially his leg. Because she took off on her own, ignoring our commands from the control box, and climbed his leg. Now, Talons are machines with large-ish tracks weighing 90 pounds or more, so climbing people could be dangerous for the person being climbed. Luckily, the Colonel saw us trying to prevent the incident, and he wasn't hurt, so he never said another word about it. We took Christine to the robot shop on Camp Vicotry, who looked her over and told us nothing was wrong with her (in fact, they rather impolitely told us that the problems we were describing were impossible). She was returned to service. One day, not long later, (mind you, we had used her with no problems in the interim) we were working, and we sent Christine down on a suspect item. Well, she started going fine, but then she must have decided that there was something that she didn't like down range, for she turned about 45 degrees out of true, and took off like a shot. Full speed, even though I had the speed knob most of the way down. So, about 15 miles an hour or so. Right into a wall. Which she tried to climb. She ended up flipping over. Even then, her tracks kept spinning as fast as they could. Before she got to the wall and terminated her flight prematurely, I tried everything I could to stop her. Nothing worked. She ignored my commands, and even kept going when I switched off the control unit, which should throw the tracks into full stop. Should, but didn't. As I said, she ended up up-side-down, futilely spinning her tracks in the air, kind of like a dying cockroach. Well, we couldn't get her right away (she was too far down range by this time, and I'm not excited about going out there before I can clear it), so we sent the spare bot, a Packbot (again, look it up yourself). Well, as the packbot got to the item, I moved to brush some trash away with the grippers, and the item detonated, killing the poor Packbot. Maybe Christine sensed what was coming and just didn't want to die? Anyways, we took her back to the robot shop. Now, for those that have been to Camp Victory, they know that there are several lakes there. Well, the robot shop was on the shores of one of the larger and deeper ones. We pulled her out of the truck and explained the problem. Again, we were told that this was impossible. The civilian robotics specialist knelt next to her, attached her battery, and turned her on. She made him eat his words with a side of humble pie. As she took off, again like a hyperactive monkey out of a box, she took a chunk of his thumb with her. Straight across the street, up the berm separating the lake from the road (which was shaped, conveniently, like one of Knievel's launch ramps), about five feet into the air, coming down with a large splash into the lake. "Well," said the tech-rep, as he was trying to stop his thumb from bleeding, "I guess we'll get you a new bot." As a side note, when the diver that they sent after her had found her, she was another 25 meters from where she touched down, bogged in weeds. Apparently, she had kept up her flight across the bottom before getting stuck and dying. Like I say, personalities.

Now, the second and final robot story (for this post) is the one that Peter specifically asked for. On my second deployment, we had a commander that, as we put it then, bent over backward to get us bent over forward. Use your imagination. Suffice it to say that he wasn't very good, and never seemed to be looking out for us, just what other people in the area thought of him. Anyways, he had come over to the base that we were at (we were "fragged out" meaning we were separate from the rest of the company). He made the trip just to break the bad news that he couldn't get us the 4 day passes to Qatar that the rest of the company was getting, which we had also been promised. Sorry. *coughs* A**hole *coughs*. Anyways, after he had told us that, my team member and I had to go make sure the robots were still checking out (something we did everyday). It was the wet season, therefore very muddy, and since part of checking the bots is to clean them, we figured doing it in the mud was dumb. So we brought them in. Now, we had a multi-purpose room. It was part day room, part evidence room. Being our day room, it's where we kept stuff that people would send us in packages, like toys to pass out to kids. Being our evidence room, it's also where we kept things like white construction paper, for the background of photos. Anyway, we were done with checking the bots and were now just kind of messing around. There was a stuffed bear that was a bride bear, it had a veil and bouquet and everything. I grabbed the bouquet and put it in the grippers of the packbot, and put the veil over the main camera. We started laughing like Beevis and Butthead (mature, I know). Well, not to be outdone, my team member grabbed a sheet of construction paper and used electrical tape to make it a top hat. With the black tape, it looked like a white hat with a black band, very snazzy. This he put on to the Talon's main camera. Still giggling like little boys, we positioned several of the other bears as if they were attending a wedding. We controlled our laughing long enough for us to assume somber looks. "Deeeeearly Beloved," my team member, who was standing in the place of the "minister" said. It was then that we heard the door open. We also heard the sound of someone coming to a literal screeching halt on the tile floor. We turned and saw our douchebag commander. He looked at us, we looked at him, he looked at the bots, blinked, performed a perfect about-face, and left, slamming the door. Not long after that, we were all called back in to talk to the CO again. "Well," he told us," I made a few calls and I got your passes to Qatar back. You two," he pointed at my team member and myself, "are going first." And that is how anthropomorphizing robots got me a 4 day pass in Qatar.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Harry Potter is a Wuss

Yep. You read correctly. Harry Potter is a wuss. And if he's the baddest-ass wizard (he beat Voldemort for the title of Champ 6-1 (7 books total, with wins for Harry at the end of all of them, but I count the death of Dumbledore in the 6th book a victory for the V-man); I wonder if Harry gets a big, gold belt) of his universe, what does that say for all of the other Rowling characters?

Think about it. They don't really do much with their magic. Only, they do everything with it. Does that make sense? Look, they can't even clean their own houses or cook their own food. Everything is done either by magic or by magical servants. And yet, what have they truly accomplished? End world hunger? Help the peace process? Make it safer for old ladies to cross the street? Nope. Nothing.

On that same note, though, they do have some pretty good spells. But that's what makes Potter a wuss. Take the "forbidden curses" thing. They could kill someone with a word and a motion. Or the torture one. Etcetera. Pretty powerful stuff, and I can see why they're forbidden. But is that the only way to kill/hurt people in their world? What's to keep an enterprising young auror from simply ending a death eater with a bolt of lightning? Or a fire ball? Or by throwing a small pebble through his brain pan? Not a single forbidden spell was used, but the job got done, right? Wouldn't that same tactic have worked for Harry? If he was such a bad-ass, why didn't he think of that? It would have ended his trouble a lot sooner (like three books sooner) if he had done something like that to Voldemort. At the end of book four, when Harry gets pulled to where Voldemort is, wouldn't it have just made the assembled death eaters s**t themselves purple if Harry had just blasted V-man to the outer rims, grabbed Cedric, and gtho? Cedric would have lived, the death eaters would have been all "Woah, that guy is hard core" and ran home to change their knickers, and the rest of the world would have thought twice about Ol' Harry Whatsitz. The end.

Also, why don't the wizards in Rowling's universe take muggles more seriously? I mean, C'mon. It's another reason why Harry Potter is a wuss. Even if he did use the forbidden curses of bad-assitude, there's no way that he could take on a muggle of similar life experience. Let's pull this away from the celebrity. Let's use people of similar profession. A Harry Potter Auror, versus an American Soldier (I know the Aurors were all British, it's just I know more about American Soldiers than I do about British). The wizard, let's give him the ability to use the naughty curses, pulls out his wand and yells, "Avada..." and that's all he can say, because the Soldier has used the time to raise his weapon and shoot the wizard in the face. Oh, but what if the Soldier didn't have a gun and the wizard didn't have his wand handy? Okay, let's say the wand and the gun are lying equidistant from the hypothetical combatants. Gotcha. The wizard holds out his hand and says, "AcioAHHHH! *glurk*" as the Soldier uses his training to realize it's a losing fight to go for the gun right away, takes the wizard's proffered appendage, breaks it while doing a hip throw, and smashes a fist into the Auror's windpipe. As the Auror writhes on the ground, choking, the Soldier gets his gun, decides the wizard was still a threat ("Yes, Your Honor, I believed he was still a threat. When it has been shown that one of his abilities can kill with a word, an operator can't take any chances with that word being the last the operator will hear, Sir.") and puts a round in the wizard's dome. But what if it's straight hand to ha... oh, nevermind. That's a dumb question. The Soldier wins. Ah. But what if it's a squad of Aurors versus a squad of Soldiers? Well, when the squad gunner opens up with the SAW, and the designated marksman puts a round through the Auror Squad Leader's eye, and the grenadier puts a 40 mm in their midst for good measure, all before the Aurors can even draw their wands, well, it's a moot point.

Can you imagine what a real shooting war between wizards and muggles would be like? It would be bad. For the wizards. Not so much for the muggles. Let's go conventional warfare to start off, line against line, like in the last book. All the wizards would be all, "Stay together, now. Ready your spells." While the Soldiers would just be about the grim business of death, which, by the way, IS IN THEIR JOB DESCRIPTION. The machine guns would open up first, and wizards would start dropping like flies ("NO! NOT RON! YOU ANIMALS!" screams a distraught Harry, tears pouring down his face and fogging his spectacles.) At first the wizards would be confused, but then someone, probably Hermione, and not El Wusso Supremo Potter, would gain some modicum of control. "Stay together!" she would yell, bringing a heart-wrenching rally of wizards to her. "TO ME!" she says, waiving a Gryphondore flag. And then the mortars would start falling. Did I mention that clumping up on a modern battle field is a bad, and dumb, idea? Scenes like that would play out across the world, with Soldiers dishing out their particular brand of gumbo to any and all wizards. SOF teams would rappel from helicopters into the ministry of magic, taking out the wizards' political heads probably before hostilities even kicked off on the battle field. Percy Weasley would cave at the first sign of interrogation (dang it, we don't even get to water-board him), and spill where all of the hold outs are hiding. Now, not every wizard will die in the initial fighting. They can teleport, which would come in handy to get them out of the initial kill zone. But as fighter-bombers light up their hidey holes, things will only go down hill. Eventually, all of the wizards left will be holed up in Hogwarts. The power will be out and it will be cold. Most of the building has been bombed away, so all of the survivors are in the one little part of the school that is still protected. They huddle around a small fire, pitiful moans filling the night. Someone has manged to steal a car battery and hook a muggle radio (an ancient Werlitzer that had been in the Muggle Studies classroom until it was needed now) to it. They figured they could use it to listen in on muggle broadcasts. It's fuzzy, but it works. They hear one of the muggle talking heads describing how a class of people that can kill, torture, or enslave with a word is just bad for the populace as a whole. They hear how a momentous, and sad, decision has just been made by multiple heads of state, recently gathered to discuss the issue. The last thing they hear is "May God have mercy on our souls," before the battery dies and the radio goes silent. "Harry," says Ginny. "You grew up with muggles. What's a nuclear bo...?" and that's all she would say, for the wizarding world would end with a flash of blinding, white light and a mushroom cloud.

Okay, so not fair. But what if we compared Harry Potter to another universe's wizard? Would he still be so wussy? Well, for the sake of argument, let's go Harry versus Harry. Harry Potter against my main man, Harry Dresden. Knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred, street fight. Any friends, weapons, and spells are legal, that the characters would have access to. The answer? No contest. Harry Dresden by a landslide. It would come down to the fatal weakness of Rawling's wizards when it comes to firearms. Dresden uses guns. Effectively. He has friends, with guns. Okay, let's say magic only, right? Dresden still wins. That whole thing I was saying about just throwing fire or lightning with lethality, Dresden does that. Potter points his wand, Dresden points his staff (much cooler foci, by the way). Potter says "Avada...," and then no more, because Dresden has already incinerated him. The end.

So, we see, in all possible situations but the one in which he was written, Potter comes out on the bottom. Which is probably where he would be if he ever got sent to prison. Because he is a wuss.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Piano Scorpian

Wow. It's been more than a year since I've posted. Anyways, let's jump into it.

Many may not know, but I aspire to be a writer. I've been told that I have a bit of talent at it, too. The following is story I wrote. Like most of what I have written, it is a work in progress, so, like most of my work, I appreciate any comments. I know it'll still have minor grammatical errors, we'll find those as we go along. But, besides that, please let me know what you think. And be honest. Also, I don't say this to my friends and family, but the people who wandered in from elsewhere; if it applies to you, listen, if not, whatever, but please don't steal it. I wrote it first. Please don't reproduce without asking me first.


CALCUTTA- In all his years of reporting the mysteries of various places, India has probably been this reporter’s favorite trip. As I have mentioned in earlier installments, the jungles here are just teaming with life, and statistics say that much of it is yet undocumented. I could make a study of just Indian insects a lifelong work and be completely fulfilled. But I am more than an entomologist. I am also a sociologist. India has just as much to offer one of that profession as she does one of my other, with almost as much history. But these two passions of mine came together the other day when I was visiting an aged hermit.

I was told that he had much to offer in the way of wisdom and ancient stories, and that he was also an expert on arthropods. I gathered my satchel and climbed his little mountain. He was actually quite a pleasant little chap, although we had to speak through an interpreter. He asked a very curious question soon after we were introduced. He asked if he could look through my bag. Not having anything to hide, I handed my haversack over. He pulled out my papers and looked through them very carefully, though very gently, keeping them in the same order he found them. I don’t think he was reading them, just studying the symbols of my writing. He came across a piece of piano music that for the life of me I can’t figure out how it got there, and he studied this very carefully indeed. He asked me why the writer of that paper glorifies a scorpion so much. When I asked him to clarify, he pointed to one of the symbols on the page, a treble clef. He said that this was the design on the head of a very curious scorpion, that even he, having studied arthropods his whole life, had never seen in person. He said it was rumored to be a very big scorpion, and he spread his fingers to indicate that it was about a hand’s span long. He also said that it was a very deadly scorpion. But, according to my elderly friend, the most curious thing about this creature is that it has two venoms. One is its normal venom, very deadly and virile. The other, he said, is a medicine, the like of which man has never seen. He said that his old teacher told him that none knows how the scorpion mixes this venom, so it cannot be duplicated, but it can cure anything. The truly tragic thing is, one adult scorpion can make this venom once in its lifetime, and only then when it is perfectly contented. And once this very small amount is used, the scorpion dies. But this small amount, he told me over and over, is enough. Sad, he said, that there are so few in the world, that there ever was so few. The only thought I had was “Talk about a Lorenzo’s Oil!” If this “Piano Scorpion’s” existence is truth, and not the rambling folk tale of an old man, the implications could be wondrous. He told me how the story had been passed down that this scorpion could only find life if a musician died, especially if she was a beautiful soul that died too early, and had left people and things behind that she felt needed done. He believed that the scorpions were the reincarnated souls of these musicians. He said they could only have this contented feeling needed to make their healing venom if they were able to find and complete their unfinished business. These bits of information lend more credence to the theory that these animals do not, in fact, exist, but are simply a camp fire folk tale. Still, it would be nice to try and find one. This is the type of “holy grail” quest that a man such as I could waste a lifetime on. Too bad I do not have another life time to waste....

Charles was a sickly boy, about ten years old. The fact that he had lived past his first birthday was heralded as a miracle. Too bad that nobody had much faith that Charles would get another miracle. Nobody knew exactly what Charles had, but it seemed to affect both his mental and physical development. The closest that the doctors could come was that it was related in some way to autism, although this didn’t explain his frequent, severe seizures. He couldn’t talk, and could barely even walk, and the doctors told his father, a single parent, to not try and encourage him to. But then, the kinds of doctors that his father could afford weren’t that good, mostly just drunken washouts who either wasted their careers or never really had one. About the most Charles’ father could get him to show emotion was his huge, crooked smile, although he showed that more and more infrequently as his body painfully decayed. Mostly what Charles did with his time was play the piano, which had been left over from before his mother’s death. Not that he could play it well, like she always did. No, all Charles was ever able to do was plunk at one, maybe two, notes at a time, over and over, all day. Even in his sleep, which his father watched closely as that was when the worst seizures came, Charles’ fingers would pantomime plunking his one or two keys.

Charles’ father was a talented software programmer, though he didn’t have the guts to demand the promotion and the pay that he deserved, so he struggled along in barely more than an internship for twelve grueling years. One day, he was asked to fetch the CEO, visiting the small branch of the firm, some coffee. Grumbling to himself about not being appreciated, he fetched the coffee. He was distracted by his grumbling, and accidentally spilled the hot liquid on the boss. The man was irate, and fired Charles’ poor father on the spot. Worrying for Charles, the poor man lost all control. He let the boss have what for, verbally. He detailed how he had been with the company for twelve years, never appreciated, and knew everything there was to know about most of their products. He also detailed a few major bugs that he new about in their flagship program, bugs that the company’s competitors would very much like to know about. This CEO, a businessman more than a programmer, knew he had a bad situation if he just let Charles’ father go like that. So, he rehired the man and promoted him, to regional manager, where, he said, he could keep an eye on such possible thorns. The bad part was it was over the South Asia region, headquartered in Calcutta, India.

Charles’ father didn’t know what to do. He had to go, as he knew he wouldn’t have the guts to sell the information he had, it almost killed him to talk about it. Since his wife died ten years ago, he just didn’t have the same spunk anymore. And it would be difficult to get another job. The company was paying to move him and all his stuff, the hard part would be moving Charles. The boy and his mother’s piano were the last things that the poor man had to remind himself of his beloved wife. He asked the doctor, who gave a noncommittal answer that basically said he didn’t care enough to know if Charles could handle the trip. Having no other choice, Charles’ father went ahead with the move, and took Charles with him.

Charles did fine with the plane ride, and he was at home as ever in their new house. But their furniture, including the piano, hadn’t arrived yet. Charles fretted over this, though he didn’t have the words to say as much. He just sat in the corner that his father had told him would contain the piano when it arrived, and pantomimed playing his one note. During this time, his health seriously declined. His seizures became more frequent and severe, and his father despaired.

And then, one joyous day, just when Charles’ father was going to give up hope, the furniture arrived, including the piano. Charles’ father had it brought in first and put in the corner. He sat Charles down at it, and let the boy plunk away to his heart’s content. His seizures lessened back to their normal levels, although he never fully recovered his health. Life began anew for Charles and his father.

One day, several weeks later, Charles was alone in the house with their housekeeper, a perk that his father could now afford. He was at the piano, plunking away, when a large scorpion crawled on top of it and looked at him. He had never seen a scorpion, and never even knew they existed. He was never a curious sort, but something about this scorpion piqued him. He leaned in close to get a better look at the large arachnid, especially at the curious mark on its head. The scorpion, likely sensing danger, arched its stinger up and gave a loud hiss. Charles, not knowing this was a warning, smiled his crooked, toothy grin at the bug. The scorpion seemed to relax, although slightly. Charles decided to play it a song, the only song he knew.

As he sat the next few hours away, happily plunking out his one or two notes, the scorpion did a curious thing. It not only relaxed considerably, it seemed to enjoy being played to. It began to sway to its own rhythm, crab-walking back and forth across the top of Charles’ mother’s piano. Charles watched this and smiled again, twice in one day, which was about the most he ever had shown any emotion. The rhythm with which the small animal danced brought back memories to his clouded brain. He kept plunking his note, but as he did, he closed his eyes. He thought he saw the world as he did as a baby. He was in a cradle, near the piano, in his old house. There was a woman looking down at him, and she was beautiful. Her eyes filled him with warmth and joy that only a baby could know. “Oh, my sweet Charles,” she was saying in his memory. “I love you, so. Here, Baby. Let me play you a song.” And she disappeared, but he could hear her setting at the piano. Then the most beautiful melody came from the strings inside the piano’s body. This melody, if emotion could be put into sound, summed up his entire feelings for his mother, immature as they were. She also hummed, not the same melody, but a harmonious one, that matched the piano perfectly. This song, his mother’s song, filled him with joy and made all his fears and pains melt away. He had such a limited memory, it was amazing that he could remember this one even so clearly. So caught up was he that he didn’t realize what he was playing.

Charles’ father was in a meeting, but he took the emergency call from his house keeper. She was in a panic over what Charles was doing, and he couldn’t get her to talk to him clearly so he could find out what was really happening with his son. Fearing the worst, he took his leave and rushed the few blocks home. He burst into the house to find the house keeper weeping, so he ran down the entry hall to the room that had Charles’ piano. What he saw, and heard, stopped him dead. Charles was playing the piano. Not like he normally did, one or maybe two notes over and over, but he was actually playing it. And he was playing his mother’s song, which his father knew there was no recordings of nor was it written down. Ten years ago, just before she had died in a tragic auto accident, she had written it for their then newborn son. He told her it was very good, that she should record it or at least write it down, but she kept putting it off until it was too late. Charles had to be playing it from memory. The only thing missing was her voice, humming the counter melody to the tune. Then he saw the large scorpion. His first reaction was one of revulsion, to get the dangerous animal away from his son. But, it was...dancing. There was no other word to describe it. Not only was its swaying and spinning in time with the beloved melody that Charles was playing, but, almost, it seemed to be exactly in time with what he could remember of the harmony that his wife used to hum.

He assured the house keeper that all was well, and dismissed her for the rest of the day. Then he sat on floor and watched his son remember his wife, the boy’s mother, and the curious scorpion helping him. He sat there for hours, and it soon grew dark, but Charles continued to play, and the scorpion continued to dance. The father was lost in his own memories, as well. Charles’ father only noticed that Charles had stopped playing when he heard the boy’s body hit the floor. He was quickly to the boy’s side, holding him, trying to do as he normally did when his beloved son had a seizure. But the boy was still. Desperately, the father searched for a pulse, for a breath, for anything. But there was nothing. Overcome with grief, Charles’ father didn’t know what to do. He didn’t try to resuscitate the boy, he didn’t call for help. He just cried, pouring out his bereaved soul through his tears. He didn’t notice the scorpion crawl down from its perch atop the piano. He didn’t notice it scurry across the floor. He didn’t notice it regard him sadly, if an arthropod could feel sadness. And he didn’t notice it crawl up the dead boy’s arm, across his chest, to stop near the boy’s throat. The father did notice, however, when the scorpion began to shudder. It was going through some sort of change. He looked down at it. “What are you doing?” he asked, not really expecting an answer, but asking anyways. All at once the scorpion stopped shuddering, and raised its large stinger over its head. The father cried out in alarm, but was too slow. The scorpion, with the curious treble clef symbol on its head, plunged its stinger into the boy’s neck, directly into the artery. The father cried out in anguish, but it was too late to do anything. The scorpion had spread its venom, and had fallen away, curling its eight legs in death. The father, even more grieved, began to sob. He couldn’t bare to hold the boy’s limp body, so he went to the piano and beat it, hard, and continuously, until he was physically spent. He collapsed on the floor next to the instrument, able to do nothing but sob.

He felt a small hand on his shoulder, and, surprised and perplexed, he stopped sobbing. He looked up, and saw Charles standing there. Not knowing what to make of this, or what to do, he wrapped his mute son in a hug. “Father,” said the boy, his first words. “Why are you crying?” Amazed, Charles’ father sat back and looked at his son. “Don’t be sad,” said Charles, cryptically. “She found me. And now she’s all right. And so am I.” The boy gave his crooked, toothy grin. “Here,” he said. “Let me play you a song.” Then stepping away from his bewildered father, he sat at the piano and played. He played the only true song he had ever learned, and he hummed. He hummed the same tune that the his mother had, the tune that the scorpion, now a drying husk, had danced. He played and he hummed and he wondered. He wondered why his father continued to weep.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

40 years

The other day, I was just getting off of work when we decided to go out. It was a "screw it" night, as M___ and I like to call them. Since it was a screw it night, I didn't even bother going home and changing, therefore, I was still in uniform. When we do screw it nights, we don't usually go to the IHOP or the grill down the street. We go to the nicest restaurant we can afford at the time. I know, right? Screw it. Anyways, we rarely get out of this place, just the two of us, under 65 bucks, so, with the horde with us, we were looking at $80 or so. The waitress, who we really like, and whose table we always try to get, came up to us just after our food was being delivered. She told us that our dinner had been paid for. What can you do? The reg says we shouldn't take money from people, it says nothing about if they don't really give us a choice. You can't really just say "No thank you," and insult people. I could have avoided the whole thing by just changing my clothes, but it was a screw it night, and I'm lazy. Also, should I act ashamed to be seen in uniform? When this kind of thing happens, I try to follow the advice of a friend that has since retired: "Smile, say thank you, mind your manners, and try to help someone else down the road." So that's what we did. Throughout the meal, she would come up, more and more emotional every time, with more and more offers to buy us dinner and/or drinks. By the time we left, both her and M___ were in tears. We made sure to give the waitress a largeish tip (we weren't paying for our food, after all), but that was all we could do, as the people wanted to remain anonymous.

Here's the thing, though, this isn't the first time this has happened to us. It doesn't happen all the time, and we don't go looking for it, and are usually completely surprised when it does, and very grateful. But I still get a feeling of "what the heck," and I'll explain why.

39 years ago, my dad was a serviceman, traveling in uniform (as per regulation at the time), just off the plane from Vietnam. I'm not sure of what he needed from the lady at a kiosk window, but she slammed the window in his face. When he complained, he was told rather bluntly to take a hint and move on. This was actually a mild reaction towards servicemen at the time. Members were spit on, cursed at, treated rudely, and generally had a hell of a time, just trying to get around the country that they had sworn and risked their lives to protect the freedoms of. Some were actually out and out physically attacked. It got to the point that the Army actually changed its regs, to really read almost the exact opposite. Service members were not only encouraged to not be in uniform if they could avoid it, but were, many times, out and out ordered not to be. I recall hearing of certain, kindly USO ladies that would keep a closet set aside full of donated clothes to protect the servicemen without any civilian clothes. Ostensibly, this rule came about to protect service members from terrorism, but the writing was on the wall: it was to protect them from the people they supposedly served.

According to friends in the Army, not much changed over the next 30 years or so. Well, let's fast forward 30 years. People started flying flags, attending parades, standing at the national anthem, greeting Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines with dignity and respect, shaking their hands, and buying them meals. So I wonder what happened in the last 40 years or so? Why the change of heart? 20 years before that, it was like now. People loved seeing service members and talking to them, giving them lifts from the bus stop, etc. And then the big change. The 60's. The age of *full sarcasm voice* "enlightenment." And then there's now. The only real event I see is September 11. But why should that make a difference? What if, in 1961, Nguyễn Hữu Xuyến or Trần Văn Trà (early leaders of the Viet Cong, largely based in North Vietnam) had ordered a plane to fly into the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty (the WTC wasn't around at the time)(I assure you, we were high on their target list even then), would my dad's generation of service members had faced so much crap? Would the conflict in Vietnam have gone like it did? Probably not. So then, where would be now?

This brings about another question, though, too. What's it going to be like in 20 years, for my son and daughters, if they decide to join the military? Here's a little time line. Lots of patriotism after the Revolutionary War, and they didn't have much time to lose it by the war of 1812. By the outset of the Civil War, almost 50 years had gone by and people had begun to forget about their Soldiers. Good thing there was a long draw up to the Civil War, or their wouldn't have been the support in place that we did end up having. By the turn of the century, most of that patriotism was forgotten. Then there was the "long" war in Europe, finally involving us, and the people loved the military again. By 1939, that was again being forgotten. Soldiers on leave were seen as a pariah. Patriotism started building back up slowly as we supported our allies in the Europe and the Pacific, but it was ramped up a thousand fold at the attack of Pearl Harbor. Then, after the war, support waned, falling off drastically in the 60's and 70's. Not even such things as Grenada, Panama, and Desert Storm really ramped it. Then 2001, and we're right back to people thinking kindly about Soldiers.

What is it with the American people that they take for granted their freedoms and those protecting them unless there's a threat of a major conflict or a direct attack on our soil? Why does it take a major event like that help people remember? Why, when people seem to be most enjoying the peace that we and those like us have fought and died to pay for, do people forget what it is we do/did? We don't ask for much, really. You don't have to buy us dinner, although that is appreciated. Just stand for the flag and the anthem, a quiet thank you, a prayer, a handshake. And try not to forget us. Enjoy your freedoms we pay for. That's why we do it. But please, as you have the freedom to sit and ignore the snarls of the beasts at the door, please don't forget that there are those of us out there, every day, shoving our bodies and our lives into those maws that would devour you. And in return, all we will be able to do is say, "Thank You," and carry on for another day.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Professional Adventurer

So, I've decided to be a professional adventurer. Like they had back around the turn of the 20th century. I'm going to do it by hunting large, dangerous game, and then I'm going to write about it. But I'm not going to just hunt them. Oh, no. I'm going to hunt them with nothing but a SPEAR! Well, maybe a large knife, too, but yeah, you get the idea. All over the world. Starting here in the States. I'm going to bag at least one of every species of bear here, and then move on to cougars, maybe even moose. I'll collect hides, claws, and scars like a real man, and then I'll move on. Lions in Africa, tigers in India, jaguars in South America, crocodiles in Australia. Among others in all of those places and more, all over the world. Maybe even sharks! If it's considered a stupid idea to attack something with hardly more than a sharpened stick, then I'll do just that. Only I won't be stupid, cause I'm a bad-ass. And I'll write/blog about my adventures. And post pictures of my scars (which will be many and varied, I assure you).

I came up with this idea quite a while back, actually. Some friends and I were actually talking about muzzle loader hunting, and how it was a shame that modern "in-line" muzzle loaders are no less accurate and have about the same range as a modern, single-shot rifle. I, for one, applaud and agree with Idaho's law that says muzzle loaders mean traditional, and these modern things are kinda cheating. That conversation came around to how cross bows are almost as bad, and compound bows are getting up there anymore, too. So I decided I would be a purist, and started looking at recurve and long bows, some of which are pretty good. But that got me to thinking: How far, exactly, could one take this type of purism? Pretty far, I guess, right down to fighting animals naked with our bare hands. But that's just taking bad-assitude to a ridiculous level. I figure God gave us the ability to make tools as a kind of equalizer in the animal kingdom. So, what's a step above bare hands? Just a rock, or a knife. Also ridiculous. I'm a bad-ass, not a masochist. So, I go to the next step: spears. I would even go so far as to limit the types of material I use for the heads. Not so much as obsidian tips, but definitely only iron. And then I thought that this would be a great way to work in my future passion for blacksmithing! I could make my own spears. I figured I'd carry two and a long knife, for the close, dirty work, and still be the ultimate hunting purist. In fact, that's what I'd call the column! The Ultimate Hunting Purist. I would go out wearing buckskin pants, over-the-calf moccasin boots, and not much more, as most anything on my upper body would likely get destroyed. Except when I was hunting in cold environs: again, bad-ass, not masochist. Then I would have a bear-skin jacket.

Can you imagine the stories that I would have? Not just traveling the world, safari type stories, either. Any hunting writer can get those. Real, man-vs.-beast stories. Some countries, like in Africa, require foreign hunters to go out with a prfessional hunter (or PH as they call it) and beaters, porters, and bursars. Real "stuffy-British-guy" type hunting, where all you do is take the shot. Well, to satisfy the laws, I would take them with me, but I would still hunt MY way. Can you imagine the mad props I would get from those PH's? Or even, and especially, the locals hired as porters? Man, just showing my scars at camp would earn me a bit of loyalty. I would have to make the "don't try this at home" speech all the time, but my position in annuls of the bad-ass would be cemented!

And for the anti-hunters that would no doubt find a way to protest my activities as cruel, I would tell them that the animals have just as much or a better chance of surviving this little "game" of mine as I do. The only real advantage I'd have is that I'm much more of a bad-ass.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Red Dead Remption

If you don't want to know more about Red Dead Redemption, then stop reading until you're ready to see this stuff.

I just finished the "plot" game-line of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption. Now, I know a few of you will gasp and tsk at me for playing one of Rockstar's games, but it's not the only one I've played. I even enjoyed, to a degree, their Grand Theft Auto series. But Redemption completely blew me away.

Gameplay wise it was awesome. The story is linear and easily understandable, yet also easy to identify with. It did tend toward the violent, but the old west was a violent time and place, with bad languish and worse people. The only difference between it and most of other noir westerns out there is it actually show the violence. The fight system seems like a close relative of GTA, and there's nothing wrong with that. The menus are easily navigable, making items easily used, while not detracting from the immersion. And there is that, in spades.

Graphics are expectedly awesome. How cool would it be to go back only 30 years ago and show die-hard Pong players a modern game. I think it would scare them, to be honest. Or they would want to know what movie it was we were watching. And THEN they would be frightened to learn that it was a video game. Or, better yet, pull that trick on one of the skeptics that claimed video games to be a passing fad. The game "world" is rendered beautifully. It ranges from high, snow capped peaks to low, Mexican arroyos. And everything in between. Deserts, plains, rolling farm land, river bottom, pine forest, everything. There are several, well rendered and believable animal species, all living in their respective ecosystems. And you can hunt them, too, whenever you want, for extra achievements.

The story, ah the story. It follows John Marshton, an outlaw turned good. You are trying to save your family from an unnamed government agency that is holding them hostage so you will hunt down your former gang members. So, you're caught between the twin titans of organized crime and evil government, and you've got to survive. Eventually John finishes off his old gang leader, the last of the criminals you have to hunt down, and goes back to his family, where there are a half dozen or so missions that are no more violent than herding your cows or taking your son hunting. You find out here that your wife is in the same boat as you, she's a former "working girl" trying to make good by you. And your son is in the pangs of puberty trying to deal with both of his parents turbid pasts. And then the "Agency" comes to hunt you down, being the last one that really knows what went on while being under their direct control. John Marshton dies, saving his family, and the story begins following a teenage Jack (Johns' son). A cut scene shows that several years have passed and now Abigail, John's wife, is buried next to him on the hill overlooking their farm. At this point, Jack stands up, now grown, and wearing his dad's hat and guns. He steps into the saddle and rides off. From here, the only part of the central plot left is to hunt down the agent responsible for your father's death. You beat him in a dual and ride off. They did it in such a way as to really pull you in. Your character through most of the game was a BAD man, but he's trying to make good. And you really identify with him. He REALLY loves his wife and son, and nothing will sway him from that. At one point you are saved by a pretty, spinster-rancher woman named Bonnie, and in the course of your adventures, she makes it known that she's interested in you. You more than politely decline and make it clear that you're married and will stay that way. It's one of the few times you really have no choice in the game. John Marshton is faithful. Period. The game is "open sandbox" type, and for the most part you can do what you want. Most of the side missions have you picking a side. Do you help the law by bringing the fleeing criminal down, or do you help the criminal by ambushing the lawmen? Do you earn A LOT of money by carrying out the contract on the life of a prominent voice in the temperance movement, or do you earn nothing and warn the orator of the contract on him? Not to mention you can just do free play and go hunting (or something), or just decide to go midevil and massacre an entire town. For the most part it's up to you, and the level of graphic violence tends to follow personal choices of the player.

I do have to make a note on the music. Wow, just wow. The composers decided that in order to keep the noir western feel of the game and story, they would only write in the key of A minor with 130 beats per minute. It sounds restricting, but man, they did wonders with the music. there was one part, about a third of the way through the main story line that you find yourself in Mexico. Newly arrived, it's night, it's raining, and you're alone in a foreign land. You start riding towards a place where you can sleep (and save the game) thinking that it's another boring ride across the desert when the first song with actual lyrics cuts in. It's entitled "Far Away" and sung by a talented artist named Jose Gonzalez, and wow. Just wow. It's all I can say. "At that point I almost believed that my name was John," to quote a commenter on one of the YouTube videos for the song. I don't have to say I bought the soundtrack, too. I rarely do that for MOVIES, and this is a video game. I'm listening to it as I write.

All in all, it was a great game, and those don't come around too often. It's one of the few that I'll actually play to completion, not just to the end of the main story line. I already have a good hat, now all I need is an old duster....

While it is a great game, I would not recommend it for kids.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


In a basement, a large, steel door opens before him, revealing a room nearly completely devoid of light. He can hear hisses from within, laments on the brightness of the light behind him, and rude exhortations to close the door. He steps in and does so. He is greeted by a large being with pale skin, clammy hands, and bulging eyes: a goblin! "What do you want?" the creature demands, rudely. Scared, he stammered "I-I w-was sent to...." Interrupting, the creature snapped the note out of his hand and scanned the writing. "I see," it said at last. "Well, go back and tell them that we'll get to it IF and WHEN we can. We have better things to do down here than to fix everything that goes wrong up there. Now, leave." Turning and hurrying out of the room, the questor wondered exactly what the goblins had to do that was better? Weren't they kept around JUST to fix things that went wrong? Shaking his head, relieved that this was now out of his hands, the questor hurried out of the basement and back to where he belonged, in the light of the sun and the warmth of human society.

One might think that this little narration is one of my fantasy stories, or, perhaps, one that I might write in the future. Really, though, this is a very near telling of my first dealing with Army civilian IT techs.... *shudder*

At this point in my career, I have been to many military posts of varying size. And without question, on every post, big or small, the IT guys (and girls) are like goblins. In the Army, IT issues are handled by a local DOIM (pronounced "doom"), or Directorate Of Information Management. DOIM is staffed by civilian contractors. Their department is usually housed in a basement corner, usually near the security office. Invariably they will have a large, steel door blocking them off from the rest of the world. Being locked in a basement all day, they tend to be very pale. Being disinclined to eat right and excercise (usually) they tend to have bad, clammy skin. Looking at computer screens in a dark basement all day tends to give them bad eyesight, making them squint or bulge their eyes. And they tend to have really bad attitudes. Like it isn't their JOB to fix computer and network problems, but they only do it at their pleasure, which isn't very often. The conversation in our little narration pretty much happened exactly as I wrote it, to me, back when I was a young private, brand new to my first unit. And it took our Battalion Sergeant Major calling and making an angry complaint to actually get anything done. Now, everything is pretty much automated. They DESPISE personal contact, so they handle everything via email, including turning in trouble tickets. If you even call them, they tend to get angry and take even longer on your issues. It's so bad, that I've heard of bases where the Post Commander fired the entire DOIM staff, hired new ones the next day, and moved on with business. I have never heard of anywhere that DOIM is a pleasure to work with, let alone realizing that they are there to support Soldiers and our mission, not the other way around. Of all the civilian contractors that we have to work with in the modern Army, DOIM is the worst. Think about it: they have pale, clammy skin, bulging or squinty eyes, and tend to be greedy little cusses, especially with their precious time. And because of all of this, they truly are the modern goblins of our world. I wonder if I can get extra XP and buff my stats by hunting them.... *evil grin*