Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Busman's Holiday

Seems like most of us have some cherished idea in the back of our minds about what makes a good holiday. If we aren't careful though we can miss the really significant things that make a real holiday.

My day job involves a lot of work with computers, when I'm not administering a network, helping a coworker with a computer problem, or figuring out where the data went, I'm likely to be patching, updating or otherwise fooling with computers. So it is no surprise that when I go to visit relatives I end up fixing their computers too.

Then there are the now what do we do funny in retrospect things like having the bed you are sleeping in, drop all of the slats on one side at O'dark 30 in the morning. (Talk about a wake up call) Having fessed up to breaking the bed, we were told that the bed had been fixed once before. So after a leisurely breakfast, my dad and I disassembled the bed, decided to replace the ledger on one side and had the bed fixed in time to catch a movie with my brother.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Meaningful Christmas Giving

Rethink Christmas this year.

or maybe this idea -- Inner City Gardening
more good ideas at heifer.org

Hat Tip - New Wineskins / who got it from The Anchoress who found it at Deacon's Bench

Friday, December 5, 2008

No Blogging Until Next Week

Reality intrudes today, and I will be without internet access until Monday.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Floss, Res Publica, Public Service and Me

I've been spending the last year or so reading, copying and reformatting a series of volumes from the Library of Congress. The latest one is Jonathan Elliot's five volume debates on the Constitution of the United States. Elliot collected not only the best records from the Constitutional Convention, but the Debates of the State Conventions that met to determine whether or not the Constitution would be adopted.

The primary value for me is that it shows that the founding fathers and their contemporaries were a lot like us. The had the same fears, the same desires, and the same foibles as we do now. This turns out to be important because there are some who argue that the Constitution, is no longer relevant because of the changes in technology that have occurred since the Constitution was written. On the other hand the era of the Constitution's writers was a time of great change. All of the basic scientific principles that under gird our modern technology. Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy and the other sciences were in ferment. At the same time the English speaking world had just experienced the Great Awakening, and innovative theologians were looking for ways to meet the needs of an emerging industrial society.

One of the basic principles of our government that was adopted from the examples of Greece and Rome was the concept of Res Publica(1) -- the public thing. What we call a Republic, derives from the concept of public things. The Roman's embraced a definition that included public service, public property (Parks, Baths and other things). In the modern age, the public thing includes all of the records of Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Judiciary. America despite its occasional failings is the best exemplar of the public record. The few exceptions have almost always been associated with material that was prudent, to keep secret for a period of time. Over time, our Federal, State and Local governments have accumulated a tremendous collection of documents, diaries, and other records.

As we have moved into the digital age, the quantity of information has increased and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. As we have moved from computers like Babbage's Difference engine to the latest Intel(r) or AMD(r) powered computers the problem has gotten even worse. Since I have been working with computers word processing has moved from WordStar(r), WordPerfect(r) to Word(r). The problem becomes one of incompatible technologies. Have you ever wondered why "cop speak" for a recording device is a "wire." It comes from one of the first commercial recording technologies that used metal wire as the recording medium. I can remember reel to reel tape recorders, cassette tape recorders, 8 track recorders, and a host of other systems. Before the high definition disk wars, back in the ancient 80's there were Beta and VHS.

Now imagine for a minute what happens if all of our court, legislative and executive branch records are all generated and maintained in a paperless format that does not allow for a simple conversion to readable material. That brings me to the last item not covered in the lede for this post. Stanford Professor Don Knuth, became concerned with the degradation of quality in typesetting. He was writing what for many is the essential series on computer programming. After the second volume was written, he discovered that the publisher was no longer using a Linotype(r) machine, but had moved to a digital system. He turned his expertise in computer programing to the production of TeX. TeX and it's children LaTeX and LyX have become the standard fixtures in Academic Journal production. One of the great benefits of TeX(2) and it's derivatives is that the actual words can be read with something as simple as WordPad, Notepad or any text file reader. By adding "style" modules everything from perfectly formated term papers to a Hollywood Screenplay can be written and consistently formatted. So based on the typical method of doing business in our society you would expect something this powerful and sophisticated to cost a lot of money. Surprisingly, it is available to anyone with a computer at no cost other than the effort of downloading and installing the files. Not only that but like a '57 Chevy hotrod, you can get under the hood, and see just how things are done, or if you like to tinker, you can make changes to the way things work. That is FLOSS(3).

I'll close with a plug for three web sites that operate in the spirit of res publica:

Christian Classic Ethereal Library
Project Gutenburg

(1) res publica
(2) TeX

Monday, December 1, 2008

Training and Conduct Under Stress

Once upon a time in a previous life, I had some training in law enforcement. It occurred during a sideways phase of my 20 years with the US Navy. One of the many lessons that I learned at that time, which has only been reinforced by later experience was the truth of the maxim - "Train the way you will fight, because you will fight the way you were trained." This was especially practiced at the firing range. During my time in the Navy we switched from qualifying by shooting the NRA 25 yd pistol course of fire to a combat type course. Another change that was made on the basis of FBI research into law enforcement vs. bad guy gunfights was waiting until the end of the day to "police" (clean) the expended brass. Seems that in a number of gunfights policemen had been killed by majoring in minors, they were policing their brass while the fight was still on.

Still drawing on my Navy experience, as anyone with Navy or other Military experience will remember, much of our time was spent on drills. Practicing how to do things needed to protect the ship from damage / prevent further damage. In my one experience with combat / disaster, I was amazed at just how much of what I did was done on auto pilot and the amount of effort needed to do things that were outside of the trained responses.

Ok, so you are wondering where I am going with this. I've seen some questions about the terror attacks on Mumbai. I will not second guess the cops who were on the scene. The reason that I won't is that if you weren't there you don't know all of the facts. It would appear to me on the face of it that the Mumbai police department has a training problem. It has taken me a couple of days of thought to conclude that it is probably not an Indian psychology problem as their commando forces were able to take care of the terrorists once they engaged. I feel like I have stepped out onto a thin branch because even that conclusion is based on supposition rather than knowledge.

The closest thing that I can compare the Mumbai incident to is an attempted bank robbery in LA several years ago where the robbers, equipped with AK-47's, body armor and a large dose of ego, forced the LAPD into a stand off, until LAPD was able to borrow from a local vendor, the equipment that they needed.(1)

Don't bother telling me that I am comparing apples with tomatoes. North Hollywood was not a terrorist attack. The point is LAPD officers, out gunned, worked together to overcome the odds against them, get the needed equipment on scene and eventually control the situation. We will never know how many people would have survived in Mumbai if the police there had been more active in confronting the terrorists.

(1)North Hollywood Shootout