Friday, March 24, 2006

My New Toy

I broke down last night, embraced my Inner Geek, and bought an MP3 player. Not an iPod, mind you – I settled for a Sony “Network Walkman,” with 1 gig of flash memory.

I had an excuse, of course. In order to save money, I need to start taking the bus to work more often. That’s about a 45 minute bus ride each way – a truly amazingly boring trip. I’ve tried reading, but about half the time that makes me ill by the end of it. Now, with portable sound, I have something to relieve my boredom that won’t nauseate me.

I really don’t intend to use it much for music, though. Even before I bought the player, I discovered the concept of “Podcasts,” basically an MP3 of a radio show – you download it to your player, then listen at your convenience. There’s a lot of free podcasts available out there. Not only music, but talk shows on pretty much any topic. For maximum entertainment on my bus rides, though, I subscribed to the Bob and Tom Show. (For you non-Hoosiers who aren’t lucky enough to live near one of their syndicated stations, that’s a really, really funny morning show that’s based in Indiana. Pretty juvenile humor, but several steps above the idiocy of Howard Stern.) No matter how much music you have, a couple hours of it a day is bound to get repetitive, but a daily podcast is always new.

Of course, we all know the real reason I had to get one – a geek MUST have new toys!

I must say, though, I’m a little disappointed in it so far. The player itself works fine. Not only did I listen to it on the bus, but it also worked nicely during my morning run – anything that distracts me from how much I hate running is a good thing. I need to get some headphones that’ll stay on, but for now, my stocking cap holds earbuds in well enough.

No, my toy is great once it’s loaded, but the software I have to use to load it is crap. You’d think with what is effectively a flash drive, I could just drag and drop my files into it, like I do with my flash memory keychain drive, and even with the flash card from my digital camera. But no, the reader installed on the player will only read files that have been transferred through their SonicStage software – and that therefore have Sony’s copy protection added on. Considering that Sony CDs were the ones that came with a nasty little “root kit” on them not too long ago, this is not designed to make me feel extremely comfortable with using their software!

Worse, the player will only read MP3s that are recorded at one specific bit rate. It turns out that the Bob and Tom files are recorded at a slightly different bit rate. Other podcasts are recorded at still other bit rates, as are all of the songs I’ve ripped from my CDs. In fact, I have yet to locate a music file recorded at the RIGHT bit rate! So, every file I transfer has to be converted to a new format – that, incidentally, takes slightly more than twice as much file space on the player. Thus turning my 1 gig player into what a 512 meg player would be with more open software. For my podcasts, that’s not really an issue. A day’s worth of their show takes up a little over 10% of my space, and provides almost two and a half hours of entertainment – and if that isn’t enough, I can certainly download some other podcast. I had also planned to use the player for long drives, though, like the 10 hour trip to Indiana. I even bought an FM transmitter so we could use my player over the radio in the van. I think that my player will hold a full 20 hours of music…but based on a hasty calculation, it’ll be pretty close, instead of having plenty of extra room.

Oh, and the conversion process is terribly, terribly slow. Like five to ten minutes for an album. As long as I’ve got an hour or two to load the player every time I want to change the files, I guess that’s not a problem…

I suspect that somewhere out there is a way to reformat the player and load it with simpler software that will play regular MP3s, without the need for conversion or copy protection. But my player might have some sort of hardware or hard-coded protection scheme to prevent that from working…is it worth risking my brand new player entirely in order to double the effective space and simplify loading? That’s going to take some extra thought…

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Stress Lingers...

I was walking to my subway train this morning and spotted a fast-food bag sitting near the sidewalk. I veered a bit away from it and caught myself thinking, “That could be a bomb…”

Now, I’ve been back from Iraq for two years. Even when I was there, I could count on my fingers the times I went outside the gate on a convoy. But still, that drilled-in caution lingers. Meanwhile, some of our soldiers go out on convoys practically every day – and some of them are on their second or even third year-long deployment.

How do they return to a regular life after that?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Galileo Died In Vain

My 16-year old son came home today and told me his History teacher asked a science question – if you drop a pen and a history book at the same time, which will hit the floor first? (It was a reasonable outgrowth of the topic at hand, but that’s not important right now.) Frighteningly enough, about half of this 11th grade class agreed that the book would hit first.

That’s just so sad that I cannot find words to comment. I don’t suppose it really needs any. It’s nice to know that my son was as appalled as I am, though!

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Campus Recruiting

The Supreme Court decided yesterday that law schools, and by extension, universities, can’t exclude military recruiters just because the school does not support “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In this instance, the Court and I are in perfect agreement.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I support gay rights. I believe that gays and lesbians have a stake in this country, and should have as much right as anyone else to help defend it. I further believe that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is the dumbest thing since Crystal Pepsi. It gives us the worst of both worlds. The gay-bashers are not protected from having “deviants” in the foxhole next to them, but since expressing homosexuality is still forbidden, they continue to have their prejudice justified by regulation. This makes them feel free to attack their fellow soldier if they SUSPECT he might be gay – verbally, through job-related discrimination, and even through physical force. Meanwhile, the gay people who decide to live with the restrictions can’t express themselves sexually in any way, not only for fear of attack, but in order to keep their job. That’s got to be destructive to their morale, stability, and emotional toughness – all important qualities to any soldier. I would much rather my buddy in the foxhole be free to make a pass at me, than for him to be nursing resentment at the last several years of repression and mistreatment. After all, I can always tell him “No, thanks, you’re not my type.”

Despite that belief, though, I support the Court’s decision. The Court unanimously agreed that providing facilities for an employer to recruit students does not equate to support for that employer’s policies – so it isn’t a free speech issue, as the school is not compelled to speak. Besides, as the Court stated, the school is free to organize a protest, send out mass-mailings decrying the discriminatory policy, or use any other free-speech means to make the point – as long as they give the Recruiters equal access to the students.

The Court also disagreed with the idea that forcing the school to allow the Recruiters on campus meant forcing the school and the military into an “association,” thus providing the appearance of support for the policy. The school isn’t hiring the Recruiters, nor even enrolling them as students. No reasonable person could see that as associating.

The most telling point to me, though, is one that the Court mentioned only in reverse. The Court stated that since Congress has the Constitutional authority to “raise and support armies,” the law could have simply required the schools to comply. Instead, the law gives the schools the option to bar Recruiters…at the risk of losing all Government funding for the entire university. For some reason, none of the major law schools is willing to accept that penalty in order to express their outrage. That makes me question their sincerity just a bit – is it possible that the schools’ moral outrage at the military’s discriminatory policy has more to do with attracting customers…I mean, students than it does with a genuine desire for fair treatment for all? Free speech is an important right, possibly the MOST important right we have. But if you are going to criticize the government, don’t expect the government to pay for the lecture hall.

Monday, March 6, 2006

And So It Begins…

South Dakota has passed a bill to criminalize abortion. The law makes no exceptions for rape or incest. It makes a limited exception for the health of the mother – only if the mother’s life is in danger. Note that is not to protect her health or her safety, but only to protect her life. Any doctor performing an illegal abortion is subject to up to five years in prison.

The enemies of a woman’s right to control her own body wasted no time in taking advantage of the changes in the Supreme Court. Governor Rounds notes that he fully expects this new law to be tied up in court for years. Since South Dakota already has a “trigger law” banning abortion that would take effect upon any reversal of Roe v. Wade, that court battle is the only possible point to the new law.

Of course, South Dakota is not the only state with a trigger law. According to the New York Times, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Montana all have laws on their books set to activate if the Supreme Court changes its mind. Several other state legislatures are considering new laws to criminalize abortion.

This is, once again, the demands of religious believers that the rest of the population live by their rules. And regardless of your personal feelings about abortion, you should be aware that the demands will not stop there. A web search of several groups involved in the pro-life movement shows some of their other concerns. Some of the other things that they want to criminalize include contraception, sex education in schools, stem cell research, and assisted suicide. Some of the more extreme organizations throw in intents to stop homosexuality, gambling, women in the military, and non-Christian religions.

Much as I hate to say it, I believe the South Dakota law will be upheld. I believe that in the next ten years, a majority of the states will ban abortion. I believe that the incidence of unwanted children will increase, which will lead to an increase in the population, poverty, child abuse, child abandonment, and infanticide. The availability of illegal abortions will increase, with an increase in women’s deaths and permanent injuries. Many people are willing to accept all that. But when the Religious Right moves on to the next issue in an attempt to make the United States a fundamentalist Christian theocracy, remember that I told you so.

To support Planned Parenthood’s efforts to fight the South Dakota law, check their website:

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The Good Old DPU

I hated my first assignment in the Army.

During my initial training as a Computer Operator, my instructor showed us an old mainframe system they used to train on – complete with 9-inch reel tape drives, a jukebox-sized line printer, and even a card punch and card reader! Fortunately, he told us, the Army didn’t use that antiquated equipment anymore. Imagine my surprise when I showed up at the 13th Data Processing Unit to find that same system, cards and all, mounted in tractor-trailers and still in 24/7 operation.

I hated the location, too. “Deep in the heart of Texas” it was, halfway between Waco and Austin. A native once told me how great it was to be there – we were only two or three hours away from several completely different climates and terrain! Everything from forests to mountains to desert to seashore, and with several big cities to boot! I had to tell him…if you have to drive two to three hours to find something good, is that really a selling point?

I hated the unit. We were the “red-headed stepchildren,” a non-standard company of computer geeks and other misfits. Usually ignored by higher command, the only time they paid attention to us was when our 24/7 shift schedule interfered with their plans for training. Of course, the usual solution was to ignore our schedule, and bring everyone in on our sleep time to work in the motor pool or attend CTT classes. The only good thing was that we were behind a locked gate with a buzzer, so when the higher-ups came to check on us, we had enough warning to make sure everyone looked busy…or at least, awake when the Battalion Commander stopped by.

I wasn’t alone in my feelings, though. Complaining about the unit, the mission, the equipment, and everything else was the single most common topic of conversation – after all, such complaining is the ancient right of enlisted soldiers, and we all did our part to keep up tradition.

When we deployed to Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield, I started to realize that for all the problems, there were some good in the 13th DPU. For starters, we were a team. We didn’t all like each other, but anyone from outside the gates was an intruder, and was treated as such. We also knew our stuff, and knew what we could do. Our sister unit from Ft. Bragg brought over the newer equipment that was slated to replace ours – we both did the same job, but their newer gear was supposed to do it faster and better. In less than a month, though, our workload started to increase…because their systems couldn’t keep up. Before we were done, we were processing about four times as much data as we did back on Ft. Hood, while our sister unit was struggling to manage a third of our workload.

Our team spirit showed up at home, too. We were tasked as the “OPFOR” for a Battalion exercise. Our little detachment of about 40 soldiers was supposed to attack the dug-in defenses of the main unit…over 150 defenders. We tore them up. Our CO brought in a helicopter from another unit to let us attack from the skies, while a tiny group with a loudspeaker practiced Psychological Warfare, shouting insults at the soldiers in foxholes. While their eyes were on the sky and their ears tuned to the speakers, the rest of us crept right in past their lines, blasting the defenders from behind, taking out their generators with flour or chalk “grenades,” and generally wreaking havoc. Our commander, armed only with her pistol (yes, that’s HER pistol) managed to storm their command post single-handedly – only to find that another of our soldiers had beaten her there and had already captured their CO and their guidon. (That’s “unit flag” for you civilian types.) We took so few casualties that during the after-action brief, the other unit accused us of taking the batteries out of our “laser-tag” gear, and tried to prove it by hitting us with their lasers while we stood in formation, knowing that our gear would be inactive…the loud beeps from our equipment drowning out the Exercise Judge’s speech were the final proof that they could only hit us when we were standing still.

As much as I hated it, it is only to be expected for me to be stuck in that unit for a solid eight years. I’ve been in three other units since then, and even went back to war with one of them. But I’ve never been anywhere else with such morale, such esprit de corps. It is only in retrospect that I can see just how good I had it there. And even today, there’s still more evidence of just how close we were back in the old DPU. I’ve been contacted by people from my other three units a few times, especially in my current job – and every time, it has been from someone looking for a favor. I’ve been contacted by several people from DPU, too – and the only one who was looking for something from me was the one who wanted me to come work for him. We’ve even got our own Yahoo group, with about a dozen members, still keeping in touch from time to time – almost ten years after the unit deactivated.

So thanks, Shane, Peter, Brent, Paul, Paul, Mike, Cap’n Ron, and the rest of the gang – it’s nice to have a reminder of the good old days!