Friday, November 30, 2007

Thailand travel notes part 1

Random, discombobulated travel notes

Early morning flight from Pittsburgh to LaGuardia Airport. First major task, getting from LaGuardia to JFK (where internationa flights originate). This was actually real easy, because I was pointed to a door, outside of which was a dispatch agent for the buses, who sold me a ticket for the bus that just pulled up. The bus driver was pretty new (I think). But the real highlight, I had a whole coach bus drive me to JFK all to myself. Personnal door-to-door service.

At JFK, while waiting for check-in, there was a guy with two women in front of me. The guy had run past me on the way in the terminal. It turned out that he was a pastor who was helping a member of his congregation and her mother. Her mother was heading back home to Thailand. But she does not speak english. So he asked "she can ask you if she needs help, right." At this point people who are aware of my command of Thai are laughing. Let's see, getting through security was fun. But the real fun thing was the survey that the New York Airport Authority was conducting. So here I am, trying to walk her through an 8-page survey. Which goes well beyond my Thai vocabulary. We actually got through 2/3 of the survey. At this point, we get the attention of a student from Mahidol university who was visiting the states. Between the three of us, we got it.

It was a very long flight, direct from New York to Bangkok. Something that probably was not even possible not all that many years ago (prior to the Boeing 777 and Airbus 340). The flight was to Suvarnabhumi, the new airport. The place is huge. The basic form is like an open tent over hallways and rooms. Think the new Denver airport, but about four of them put together. High ceilings (which probably helps a lot with the temperature control.) with lots of soft light (from the white, slightly translucent ceilings.

I saw my new friends while getting our luggage.

"Who is waiting for you?"
"My mom"
"How long are you going to be here?"
"I hope you meet a nice Thai girl."
"Thank you, but I already have a girlfriend."

Birds so far:

Barn Swallow
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Common Myna
Rock Pidgeon
White Stork
Little Egret
Oriental Magpie Robin
Coppersmith Barbet

One of the pleasures of the trip was visiting college friends. I met with N and her son S at Emporium Mall by Phrom Phong station. And we used the easiest of landmarks, Starbucks. We went to a children's play area while N and I talked about all sorts of things of life. And we shared pictures. We met with her sister for lunch at the mall food court. At the time N and S went to the bathroom. So eventually this lady coming through just stops near the entrance (where I was) and starts looking around. After staring at each other for a few minutes we introduced ourselves. N was impressed that we figured out who each other was by ourselves. We had lunch (ba mii moo daeng). Afterwards I went to Siam Discovery/Center/Paragon/MBK to do some shopping and went home.

I met with my grad school classmate J Thursday lunch at Siam Paragon. We had dim sum at a plce that was to nice for dim sum. But it was good. In addition to the normal things, and some things that you hope for but are not always on the menu, there a durian pastry, that I had to get once I saw it. Very enjoyable catching up, talking about our socioligical observations of how Thailand has changed in the past six years, various aspects of marriage/divorce/relationships, lots of talking about advice we've gotten. And lists of things to do here. All the things that make us act as if we are human beings :-)

My sister and her fiancee + family came in that day. Today, while my sister went for photo studio pictures (it would take someone from Taiwan or Korea to properly appreciate what this means) I took J (his brother) and his parents to Lumpini Park. Bangkok in general is a loud and dirty place, but Lumpini Park is the city park, occupying the same relationship to the city as Central Park. So, in the middle of Bangkok, we went via BTS to a nice stroll in the park around a nice little lake. We also got lunch. So, not knowing where to get food we asked. In Thai. And the first person we asked was a foreigner who did not speak thai, and did not know anything about the area. At the same time, J struck a conversation with another expat couple out for a walk, and they also did not know anything about the area. Third time the charm, I spoke with a guy who ended up pointing us to a gate were there were hawkers (I think his daughter really wanted to jump into the conversation to practice her english) and so we went. There were a number of food stands. We used two of them. One was pretty easy, one of the people working the stand spoke english. The other was a little harder, especially since the one cook was busy. With two people working and a couple of young office ladies who were there helping us we figured out how to make an order. We brought the food to the park to have a nice lunch. Some of the people who we had asked for help walked by and we rejoiced in our success.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Review: What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland

What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland [ISBN: 0451528670]

This is about the listening of concert music, also called classical music (not to be confused with the classical period of music). Aaron Copland is best known as a composer, but he also delivered a series of lections on What to Listen for in Music, which became the heart of this book. The 2002 Signet Classic edition includes Copland's 1957 update (originally written in 1939), a forward by Alan Rich (1999) and an introduction by William Schuman (1988).

The book almost has to start by answering the question, why a book on what to listen for in music. There is the obvious answer "listen to a lot of music." And that is a truth that the book does state as well. But this is, as we say in mathematics, a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding. Listening to a lot of music gives a context, but not a language for discussing or thinking about it. Almost every field of understanding has a language that goes with the understanding of it. And knowing the language allows practicioners and others associated with the field to both communicate ideas for the growth of the field and the abilities of the individual.

By way of background, I tell everyone that as far as the fine art in general and music in particular, I know almost nothing. But somehow I got recruited to write on a regular basis for the local (Pittsburgh) Symphony Orchestra. As such, I am probably the epitome of appreciating and discussing music without any understanding of theory or history. (actually, many concertgoers without training probably have picked up much more history than I have.) So my writing, while focused more or less on the actual music, is restricted to what I hear and pay attention to.

Much of what I get from reading this is what can be expected, many things that I have picked up over time that are now expressed in words. I liked Copland's description of music as a collaboration between conductor, interpreter and listener. There are sections that discuss how to listen to melody as it gets passed from section to section. I especially liked the section on basso ostinato. It reminded me of a time listening to a friend preparing for a graduate recital, and pointing out a repeated bass line and giving suggestions about what can be done with it. And know I know what the words (basso ostinato) for what I could only describe before.

But a book is useless if all it does is repeat what is known. Starting with sections on four elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, tone color; and going on to fundamental forms (sectional, variational, fugal, sonata, free) and additional chapters on some specific forms of music, it draws a map that can guide a listener. Interspersed throughout are identified movements and selections that illustrate concepts, and where I have them in my collection, I found myself listening to the selection while reading the relavent passage, and listening again. Each time hearing more then the last, or any time before. And the book promises that I can do this many times (at least with high quality pieces).

So, who is this for? Copland makes the point that this is a book written by a composer for listeners. Composers are expected to know much of this to a much deeper level, because it makes their craft more expressive (as well as provides a structure they can work in. It is much harder to write something without structure because you have to confront the tendency to make meaningless drivel.) It is not aimed at interpreters (performers) to the extent they are not also listeners. The book explicitly assumes technical proficiency beyond necessity. While there is discussion of the tension between the creative aspects of both composing and performing, the interaction between the two is probably better discussed in many other places. Likewise, the music critic is not served, as technical ability and interpretation are not properly discussed, as a critic is expected to do. And it is not a catalogue with listings of recordings. While many works are mentioned (and conveniently listed) reading this book does assume access to a reasonable music library in being. There are other introduction to classical music titles that provide descriptions of pieces and a history of music. This work is intended to train the ear, not a reference to fill the mind with facts.

It is aimed at the listener, for whom listening to music is its own purpose. The ones who hear the many layers, and wants the ability to hear the layers individually and as a whole. To be able to listen to a piece in the large as well as in the small. And to listen in such a way as a piece and recording of sufficient quality can be listened to many times, each time observing something never before heard.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Movie Review: No Reservations

No Reservations is about a Manhatten chef, who is a bit of a perfectionist. She is at the top of her game, the head chef at a high end restaurant. Very creative and proud of it. But she is tough on people. She is currently going to a therapist on her boss's orders, because she has a tendency to get very mad at customers who complain about the preparation of her dishes. Her sister and niece are coming in to town, and she has plans for evening dinner.

And her life changes. She gets a call at the restaurant an hour before she was expecting to get off. It is a doctor. Her sister is dead, and neice wounded. She gets to break the news. And she now has a child to raise. Something she is not good at. And a person whose approval she cannot just cast away. The first problem. Her neice won't eat anything she cooks (because it is definitely not kid friendly). And she goes back to the restaurant, but has a breakdown and her boss forces her to take a break for a week to figure out this parent stuff. And then the worst comes. She find out her boss hired a chef to cover for her. And she is woefully insecure and threatened. As she says "this is my life." The ironic thing, the replacement chef worships the ground she walks on and considers this a chance to work and learn from her (and he has a thing about not wanting to have his own kitchen, which is the usual dream for a chef.)

Things that are interesting. The female lead learning to accept other people into her life. Not being threatened by criticism (her boss makes the comment that "if you were not one of the best chefs in the city, I would have fired you." and her only thought "is she (her boss) trying to insult me by saying I'm 'one of the best chefs'?") She learns about being flexible with a child in her life. And she begins to accept that this other chef is not a personal and professional threat. (oh, this is obviously meant to be a romantic comedy, so Catherine Zeta-Jones character develops a romantic relationship with the other chef, pushed on by the niece, but that is almost incidental.)

Overall, very well done. All the characters are very human. The female lead, the male lead, the therapist, the boss, the coworkers at the restaurant, even the kid and the school principal. The leads are believable as driven creative types, whose personal lives are subsumed by their professional lives with all its competitiveness and suspicion (when you can have only one head of a kitchen).

Oh, and the cooking, oh how fun. The back of house scenes are as hectic and pressured as you would believe, but the cooking at home scenes are a lot of fun.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Donizetti's The Elixir of Love

AKA L'elisir D'amore by The Pittsburgh Opera

S and I went to the opera earlier in the week. First time I've been to the Pittsburgh Opera, and oddly enough, probably the first time I've been to a first rate professional opera. S had been invited, and although she did not take that invitation, we decided the night before that it would be fun to go. And S knows someone in the cast.

We arrived in the cultural district early, so after getting our tickets, we went to a nearby Starbucks to get tea and a scone. And we were greeted by someone we know from the PSO (is anyone surprised that we would be recognized in the cultural district?) who wished us a hearty 'Mazel Tov!' upon learning we were engaged. As performance time neared, and the PSO members left Starbucks, we made our way to the Benedum Center to take our seats.

I've been to the Benedum a couple of times, for performances of the Pittsburgh Ballet. Walking in, you have a hall that looks like it should host an opera (or ballet) right down (or up) to the chandelier and the gilt decorated walls. We walked up the many steps to our seats (we were in the cheap seats) and settled in for an entertaining afternoon.

The Elixir of Love is a comedy. The setting has been moved from an Italian village to a turn of the (20th) century midwest town a la The Music Man. We have the sophisticated and well read leading lady, who resists the wooing of a young man. A charlatan of a traveling salesman. The young man who is desparately wooing the sophisticated lady (as hero he is the tenor). And his rival in love (who is a bass) who is the dashing soldier. (the plot can be found at the link at the top.)

So, what is the purpose of transplanting the setting from the original rural Italy to rural America, after all, the libretto (lyrics) were not translated from the Italian, so you are still reading the supertitles above the stage if you want to know what is being sung. What is at issue (in addition to some level of relevancy, which I don't think is that big a deal) is the audience ability to understand what is happening. Just as in movies, an opera has the problem in that it has to tell a story, but only has a limited (ha!) amount of time to do it in. So movies or plays take care of this by providing a narrarator (or greek chorus) that can provide the backstory (think the opening crawl of Star Wars for an unsubtle example). Sometimes this is as a soliloquey (or a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song), sometimes in an early conversation between characters to provide the setting. Opera, because it is intended to be music, has more restrictions. So the setting provides the backstory. People who have seen The Music Man recognize the book reading as a sign of sophistication in the female lead (as well as the Disney Beauty and the Beast. It does not hurt that the original uses the same cue). Similarly, the charlatan traveling salesman is also readily identifiable. Dispite the language, you know that the sergeant is supposed to be an impressive specimen of manliness, and the ice cream salesman is probably not the epitome of success. And the story, with only a modest amount of attention, becomes understood and entertaining.

So, how would I consider this against the classical music (of all eras) that I've enjoyed for so many years? Of course, this is hardly a competition, as the forms are different. The biggest difference is the level of abstraction. As opera has actual words (and a setting and identifiable characters with characterizations) while instrumental music does not, it is obvious that classical music is more abstract. In itself, this does not mean any superiority. But there is a bit of forced thoughtfulness that is then required in the composition. And the need to transmit something (be it a story, an emotion, a feeling) without words to compensate for the separation between artist and audience imposes an intentionality to the work (actually, to be really honest, it does not impose the intentionality. But I tend to walk away from some such concerts wondering what I just sat through.)

To take a more accessible (evil word, there is nothing wrong with being understandable, as long as there is something meaningful to it) example, take photography. Photography changed painting because the aim of painting could no longer be purely representation of the physical world, because photography could always do a better job of that (and much more economically). And it is easy for anyone to think they are capable of taking pictures (even if they have to resort to the myth that all they need is properly expensive equipment.). But fewer think the same when using black and white. Because the additional level of abstraction (desaturation of color) forces the photographer to work with the other elements of the picture. And the task goes past making a visual record of something, to elements of composition, shape and texture. And the impact is greater. Not because of the impact of black & white per se, but the photographer who is practiced in black & white, has learned to create images in a different way (and this presumably carries over to any color work the photographer does). There are other areas that this happens. Computer programming is recognized as a craft that improves greatly as the programmer understands and applies greater levels of abstraction. The creative sides of business, engineering, law, social science all show the same (as opposed the technician view of all those professions that only looks at the application of techniques to a situation.)

But getting back to opera, while entertaining, I don't think I will be putting on the same level of attractiveness as instrumenal classical music. Because the additional abstraction appeals to me. To listen to a piece and wonder what was the story going through the composer's head, to observe my mind respond on an emotive level, and appreciate why it did so, to hear an artist work with a piece and take ink on a page that has been passed through centuries to create something slightly different then any performance before or since. This is something worth having and seeking in my life.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fire call as lead

*beep* *beep* *beep*
"Hello, this is ___ from the Red Cross. Did you page me?"
"One moment, lets see what I have for you. There is an electrical fire in A"
"I have a phone number for 911 at xxx-xxx-xxxx."
"Ok, thank you."
"Hello, this is ___ from the Red Cross, I got a message about a fire in A"
"Yes, there are N people. The address is xxx. How long before you can get there? . . . They will be at the xxxx waiting for you."

My first call as a team leader (in training). Had to call the team, a supervisor (since I'm only in training), and bring all the paperwork with me. One team member is very experienced (a lot like I am as a disaster action team member), the other was on her very first call.

Some parts of the call were easy. Like the borough was taking care of the clients before we arrived and provided a nice place for everyone to stay while we made arrangements. Some were difficult, like the fact that the child:adult ratio was rather high.

I've been doing this for a while now. There is a difference between being the proactive team member and being the leader who is actually responsible for everything. A lot more stress, and more things going through my head at one time. Some things went very well, and some things were just chaotic (and I have to learn how to organize my things better.) But all a part of my education. And it was very apprciated by client and fellow emergency workers (and fellow Red Crossers) alike. A good (if eventful) evening.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Movie Review: The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

IMDB link

This is a movie that is set during the Irish War for Independence and the Irish Civil War that follows. It follows two brothers, Damian and Teddy in County Cork.

The movie shows the brutality of the British occupation, with the paras (paramilitary) Black & Tans terrorizing the countryside looking for Republicans (Irish Republican Army) and the effect of this, namely outraged irishmen signing up for the IRA. There is the brutality of the British occupation, and the terrorism of the IRA against those irish who were suspected to cooporate with the British. In it all, Damian (who was going to study to be a doctor before witnessing the needless killing of a friend and the beating of a rail engineer) openly observes his character changing, to the point where he executes a childhood friend as a collaborator.

The violence and brutality make the war personal for many. And after independence is granted, the movie moves on to the next stage of the Irish suffering, the Irish Civil war, fought because some, like Damian, wanted a complete break with Great Britain, not just being a republic in the commonwealth.

And you see Ireland cry in the eyes of the priests who watch a country they had prayed for borne, and shatter from within. And like other civil wars, pits brother against brother.

You ask, what is it that drives men to go to war? What are the ideals that drive them to kill, not just the strangers and outsiders, but those they have known and even fought alongside. During the sections on the Irish Civil War, you see scenes that repeated those of the war for independence. And it seems senseless in this era where the hand of Great Britain lies very lightly on the commonwealth (to this the Canucks, Aussies and Kiwis would laugh at the idea that the British yoke is heavy), but back then the passions of the people were high. And you go away sad at the senselessness of the civil war, for the cause of the perfect instead of the good.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Open source develop: assertAlmostEqual

I've been working on a project at work while using Python/Jython. And I'm using unittesting to drive and test the development along the way. Because I deal with things like real data, the usual assertEqual runs into problems when you use floating point computation, because you just don't test for equality in floating point. To much potential for rounding errors at the 20th digit or some other insignificant problem. So you need to use assertAlmostEqual.

And everything is working fine, until I try to run my tests in Jython. And then all my floating point tests start to fail, because assertAlmostEqual does not exist. So, did I spell it wrong, but it worked under normal Python. So a quick google search reveals that assertAlmostEqual was added a bit later, so it was not in Python 2.2 (which Jython is written against). And there is a newsgroup posting in the Python-checkins list about the adding of assertAlmostEqual to the PyUnit testing library (which is what I use for my unit tests).
Sat, 28 Dec 2002 22:11:50 -0600
[Python-checkins] python/nondist/sandbox/twister,1.1,1.2

Raymond> To accomodate single precision platforms, only test to seven
Raymond> digits.

The SciPy folks have added an assertAlmostEqual method to their unit tests.
I believe it more-or-less just wraps what you've done in a callable method
(which takes a number of digits of precision). Might be a good idea to add
something like it to so the wheel doesn't keep getting
reinvented. They actually have a few variants, coded as functions here:

Ok. That explains that. But something else looks oddly familiar. I remember doing something with SciPy around the same time

Sun Jan 20 21:38:03 CST 2002
[SciPy-user] unittests for scipy.stats: assert_almost_equal question
Hmmm, I think that I would like to be testing in terms of
significant digits as opposed to decimal places, especially when
working with floating point. Since you are asking for such a test,
here it is. The attached file has a function meant to go into the module. I wrote assert_approx_equal following the
same form as assert_almost_equal
compares 'actual' and 'desired' and determines the first
'significant' significant digits and checks for accuracy. Let's
see, I think I counted significant digits correctly. Can anyone

> From: "eric"
> To: <scipy-user at>
> Subject: Re: [SciPy-user] unittests for scipy.stats:
> assert_almost_equal question
> Date: Sun, 20 Jan 2002 05:36:31 -0500
> Organization: enthought
> Reply-To: scipy-user at
> Hey Louis,
> A thousand blessing upon you. I immediately commited it to the
> CVS!
Oh, now I know why this problem looks so familiar. Way back when I was a grad student, I was trying to test some functions. And I ran into the problem about unittesting floating point. So I wrote unittest code to test floating point in SciPy. And it was added to SciPy. And the main Python language developers noticed (since those folks looked to the SciPy/Numpy folks about all things numerical computation related) and added it to the main language. And here I am, five years later, taking advantage of something I did as a grad student.

Add to reasons for "why contribute to open source programming" story.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Computer development platform Part 2

Last month I started working on a model development aspect of a project. And I figured I'd take the time to learn the use of a new toolkit for programming. An update.

I had a project meeting yesterday that went very well. The approach was sound. The work on the model that I've done already has uncovered issues that have not been addressed by prior work, and this is going to lead to major policy recommendations. All the things that a model developer hopes will happen.

In addition, discussion uncovered some details in the system being modeled that I did not realize (helps when multiple heads get together to tease details out). And we are talking deployment when all is said and done. So, I have a few issues:
  1. The business logic of the model needs to be modified to handle my improved understanding of the process.
  2. A number of additional scenarios need to be considered, preferably without breaking anything else.
  3. The whole thing needs to be deployable. And that usually means MS Excel, a Visual Basic application, or Java (because these are things that can be sent to any computer without much trouble)
Number 3 leads to an additional complication. I've been developing the whole thing in Python, using Eclipse. I'm going to decide that for deployment, I will convert the whole thing to Jython, since that makes it deployable on a Java Virtual Machine (and everyone has Java installed). But Python is at version 2.5, while Jython is at version 2.2, so it is a couple years behind.

Well, this whole thing just screams out, unit testing. As it turns out, I've separated the building block objects from the business logic portions and the database access, which makes the whole thing easier. So, I build my test suite in PyUnit that takes the specifications and builds the model. Then the fun starts.
  1. I was still working on the business logic that allocates resources. It was messy, but it did provide output. So I wrote test cases that tested discrete stages along the way and rewrote the logic into smaller functions.
  2. Converting to Jython broke some functions, because newer versions of Python had some features that were not in Jython (some forms of introspection). So, I had to rewrite these so they worked under the older language specification, without breaking my test cases.
  3. Next on the list, write test cases that implement some of the newly described scenarios, and make them work.
Some of this involved serious work. In particular, rewriting the code to version 2.2 vs. 2.5. Right before I did this, I did a commit to version control (Subversion) just in case I completely messed up. The IDE also helps alot since it takes care of version control, checking Python and Jython, and running the unit tests.

A very productive day. I almost think that I'm getting the hang of this programming stuff.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Cold Brew Coffee: Attempt # 1

My fiancee was complaining about coffee withdrawal. And one thing we share is a love for good coffee. But doctor's orders. But I half remember that there is a way to make less acidic coffee. And a bit of research revealed cold brew coffee.

The basic premise is the acids and oils are extracted from the coffee bean by the hot water in the brewing process. But cold water will still extract the coffee flavor, without the acids and oils. It just takes a little longer. Like hours instead of minutes. Now, you could buy the Toddy system (created by a guy named Tod) that does this. But that just seems silly. So I figured I'd use my french press for this. Because that is what a french press does, allow ground coffee to soak in water. And I could sacrifice use of my french press for a day. After all, it is going for a good cause.

1. Grind coffee on coarse (i.e. French Press style) for 6 cups worth. I was using Agate Pass Blend from Grounds for Change (a medium-roast bean)
2. Add 1/3 of the ground coffee to the French Press. Add water and ensure that the ground coffee is soaking (i.e. not clumping). Wait 5 minutes
3. Repeat (2). Wait 5 minutes and repeat again with the remainder of the coffee and fill the French Press beaker. If needed, mix gently to ensure the coffee is soaking.
4. Cover press and set aside at room temperature. Time 8:38 AM.
5. Time 10:30 PM. Use French press to separate out the grounds. Pour coffee concentrate into Lexan bottle. Yields 700 ml of concentrate. Refridgerate (for storage. If this was morning, I would have a cup and store the remainder.)

First batch of cold brew coffee

The next morning I made myself two test cups of coffee. The first cup was done at 1 part coffee to 2 parts water (that had been brought to a boil.)

Cold brew coffee 1 to 2

It was ok. Like normal drip coffee (which I find to be weak).

So next I tried again, at 1 part coffee to 1 part water.

Cold brew 1 to 1

Well, this did taste ok. But a bit cold. Next time I should heat up the coffee concentrate first, to make it warmer.

Trial #2

So, after delivering batch #1, try again. This time I set the grinder on a setting halfway between what I use for drip and what I use for French Press.

Brew from 6:00 PM to 7:15 AM. Since it is a finer grind, pour the concentrate through a filter to strain out the silt. This time I filled the French Press up a bit higher so it yielded 800 ml of concentrate.

Prepare at 1 to 1, first microwaving the concentrate before adding the hot water.

It is a decent cup of coffee. Very smooth. Not as flavorful as I would like, but that is probably because of the oils and acids not being in the coffee.

Supposedly, cold brewing coffee yields 1/3 the acidity of drip coffee and people whose stomachs are affected by drip coffee can take this. Hopefully the customer is happy.

Monday, November 05, 2007

In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson is a historian, who sometimes works for the Washington Post. He took a break from writing his WWII trilogy to be embedded with the U.S. 101 Airborne Division with then Major General Petraeus during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq during 2003.

It is an engrossing picture of a military commander in the midst of a war. The emphasis on logistics (his subordinate commands have to deal with tactics). All the little things that need to be ready. The things that an army prepares out of practicality, even when the political leadership says something completely different (e.g. grappling hooks, battering rams and ladders for urban fighting, when the political and military leadership tells all the U.S. Army does not fight in cities).

When the actual fighting starts, you soon realize that the shooting is elsewhere while the commanders are dealing with other aspects of reality. The maintenance of equipment. The changing and unexpected tactics of the opponents (there is a precious vignette that surrounds General Wallace's quote "this is not the enemy that we wargamed against", and the many generals who said they needed many more troops to do the job right. Both were severely chastized by the political leadership. Both were viewed by those with experience in war as being straightforward and open.) Having to deal with details great and small, unexpected events, the plans of the enemy, and the pressures of a national leadership that may or may not be aware of reality.

It is easy to forget that the senior leadership in war are men themselves. The myriad of details is something impossible to comprehend, and the genius of those who can put it all in their heads, even with the assistance of an able staff, is intimidating to behold. "In the Company of Soldiers" does this well. Not a beatification, but a portrait of a man and an army at war.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Beauchamp and the Rule of Second Chances: Pass it Along

At Michael Yon

A few months ago a soldier wrote an article for The New Republic about his ongoing experiences as a soldier in Iraq. He wrote about the activities of his unit. And it was full of stories of how sadistic, cruel, uncaring they had become while deployed to war in Iraq. And for those soldiers who did not become sadistic, how apathetic they became to the violence and depravity around them. Almost like a Hollywood movie about Vietnam with all the expected stereotypes and more. And, as it turned out, completely untrue. Essentially, this soldier wrote the story, and as the editors understanding of war essentially came from Hollywood movies about the Vietnam war, the fact checking was rather spurious.

Now, as the article came out in a prominent forum, the real fact checking began. And in addition to the fact that the stories were false, one other fact that came out was the writer's name. And his unit.

So now we have a problem. Here is a soldier in a combat zone. And he has written an article in a major national magazine that depicts his fellow soldiers as a group of depraved psychopaths. Back in the states, there are individuals writing on internet message boards that he should be punished. Severely. The wolves were calling out for blood. And he is surrounded by the people whom he dragged through the mud. And they all have guns. And they regularly see combat.

So, his company commander gives him a choice. Does he want to transfer. And his commander tells him something else. He is welcome to stay. And he did so.

No doubt there was some awkwardness there. A soldier having to face people whom he had publicly painted as cruel dimwits, when none of the events he described. And it probably was not a pretty thing, of going to battle with people whose relationship is, well, not the best. But there are other realities here. And part of this is the nature of war.

As a society, we (Americans) are generally not a forgiving bunch. Our churches, which like to use words like 'grace' and 'reconciliation' feel free to throw people away (at least the churches I've been to) and forget them as if they did not exist. Our polity is one where perceptions replace truth. And many things are unforgivable. Where disputes are solved by demonizing.

But when life and death is at stake, there is another principle. You have to be able to trust that the person next to you will sacrifice on your behalf. Because you depend on them for your life. And you realize that person, just by being there, also depends on you for theirs. And there are many other things like this, even in non-lethal environments. The fact that there is a common goal overcomes mistakes.

Part of the way we have changes is the separation of our lives from reality. As a society, we have valued a buffer between ourselves and the world, and attempted to insulate ourselves from the pain, hurt, suffering. And along the way sacrifice, trust, and caring for one another have gone as well. There is a saying "no good deed goes unpunished." and a reality that those who would consider helping others, are told that to save a life, is to put your future at risk, and that it is better to turn away from the one in danger, and leave them to their own devices.

With this soldier, for all he has done wrong, there is an understanding that he is there. He still goes out into harms way, alongside others that he is trusting his life with. And they are trusting their lives with him. There may be no way to "pay" for his mistakes. But he is still a comrade in arms. And a very different reaction then "pulling out the hanging rope" for every mistake. It is a different attitude. One of the things observed with the number of soldiers who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, there is now a large pool of people who are Heinlein's human being.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

So the question, are these enough people who can change a society by their presence? People who are not as self-absorbed, self-righteous, insulating themselves from their environment and others in their faux self-reliance that American society has become. Or will these returning soldiers become examples of people who remember what it is like to stand alongside people from all walks of life, and to depend on one another to succeed and survive.