25. March 2005 · Comments Off · Categories: General, Military

Timmer and some of the commenters on this story have been marveling over the prospect of a four-star general with a blog, and wondering how on earth that came to pass. Many of us know from bitter experience of the inertia (technological and otherwise) that any large established bureaucracy is heir to, and wonder how this miracle came to pass. Thinking it over after reading the comments, and remembering how certain technological advances came to pass in my own career field, I am wondering if there isn’t an enthusiast somewhere on the generals’ staff, or among his family or friends.

Believe it or not, the military is full of enthusiasts, amateur devotees of all sorts of arcane arts and pursuits in their off-duty time. Drinking, carousing and other hell-raising have been from time immemorial associated with off-duty military, and the economies of entire towns have been built around providing the venues for that sort of amusement… but the little-recognized truth is for most adults, they eventually pall, in the military and on the outside. The advantage to the military is that that there is really no rigid set of socially acceptable off-duty pursuits as there are other walks of life. What you do, when you go home and take off the uniform is pretty much your own business for enlisted people; as long as it is not illegal, embarrassing to the service or the US government, and does not impair you in performing your regular duties or showing up for work on time the next day. There is very little social pressure to conform in your choice of hobbies and amusements, which may seem a little outré for a profession which many civilians expect to set a standard for conformity. In reality, the officer-class is a little more constrained, and expected to be a little more conventional and middle-class in their leisure pursuits, and the very top enlisted ranks are supposed to set a good example, but among the lower ranks it doesn’t really matter if you are off on a weekend motorbike road trip to Burning Man, taking classes in economics or obscure martial arts, building houses for Habitat for Humanity, puttering around with your kids at soccer games, or out in the ville drinking to excess with your friends. On Monday morning the reaction among your co-workers is guaranteed to be “Hey Dude, whatever.”

The acceptable range is very, very wide, and I have known or worked with military people who had the most unexpected hobbies. One of my guys in Spain was rumored to head up a Wiccan circle on base; if true, I was glad for him because it meant that he had a social life after all. Another co-worker in Korea spent all his off-duty time tutoring spoken English: he lived on what he made from that and invested his military pay in stocks and securities. His personal ambition was to be able to live in the income from his investments after his enlistment was up, and I hope the dot-com meltdown didn’t affect that plan adversely. I knew two gifted amateur photographers— a security policeman and a combat documentation specialist during their official time— who spent their down time pointing lenses at either wildlife or street life. A young troop I knew in Japan became devoted to a particularly Japanese martial art, a sort of archery, to the point where he was taking advanced lessons from a master… and taking lessons in Japanese as well, so he could better communicate with the sensei. Indeed, the very founder of this blog is a smart-ass mechanic by day, and a Master of the Universe (Blogosphere Division), by night.

A fair number of the broadcasters I worked with were audiophiles, with huge music collections and elaborate stereo systems to match; they were lucky in that their hobby related to their work, but in one very important case, the off-duty hobby of a couple of our station staff had a very great effect on our broadcast mission.

That would be back in the dark ages, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and we worked up the radio and television broadcast schedules in pencil and a septuagesimal calculator (or scribbling and adding the run times on a scratch pad if we weren’t even that lucky) and typed up the resulting radio or television log on a special form for use by the duty board op. This was particularly finicky and time consuming work, and great was the rejoicing in the European Broadcasting Squadron in about 1986 or so, when we were informed that a new technological day had dawned, that henceforward we would be automated, as far as programming for television was concerned.

Excitement and anticipation were at a peak, as each detachment was presented with a computer system, (No, I can’t remember any of the technological particulars) and a special suite of software, developed for AFRTS, and briskly informed by our higher management we would have everything up and running in six months. All of our program materials—the spots and programs in our library— would be entered into the computer, all the program information for the TW and TD (Television Weekly and Television Dependent) packages would arrive on floppy disk, and generating a weeks worth of TV logs would be accomplished by simply merging a master schedule template with the relevant weekly package, and hey presto! In six months we would be able to throw away the pencils, septuagesimal calculators and the old log forms, and embrace the automated future.

In retrospect, this was kind of like presenting a non-driver with an erratically functioning automobile, an owner’s manual and a copy of the relevant Department of Motor Vehicles regulations, and telling them that they should be able to A) Get the car to work, B) Teach themselves to drive and C) Qualify for a drivers’ license. The operating system and the software suite had more bugs than a high rise tenement. The manuals and instructions which accompanied the computer were incomplete and contradictory, and nothing worked as it was supposed to. Plug in, boot up, load the software and take off running was simply out of the question, however much our higher-ups wished it to be so. At least one of the detachments threw up their hands in despair of ever making it work as advertised and went back to the old way.

My detachment was not one of them, blessed as we were with two people— the station manager and one of the engineers— who were seriously into computers. Between them, it took weeks to debug the system, and the software, and figure out how it was all supposed to work, and even then it was trial and error, hit and miss, especially heavy on the error and miss side of the ledger. Just when we did get the hang of it, we crashed the system because we had filled up the memory with old programming info. It wasn’t apparent until then that we needed to delete the old package info and run a defrag… After that we were able to throw away the pencils and calculators, and embrace our new computer overlords, and the program director had to find another way to fill up the fifteen or twenty hours of time that had been previously taken up by doing it the old way.

But the only way we were able to make it work at all, was a pure coincidence; that two of our staff just happened to pursue an enthusiasm that turned out to be essential to our mission. I think this must happen quite a lot, and invite any reminiscences by readers, about military members with unusual, or with ultimately useful hobbies.

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