Memorial Day

It’s Memorial Day and, in true American fashion, the papers are filled with messages extolling us to be patriotic citizens and remember the tragic deaths of American heroes by eating BBQ and saving 10% on a pair of shorts.

Back in 1989 I was a senior in high school, getting ready to graduate by the skin of my teeth from Farmington High School in beautiful Farmington, New Mexico.  As is (or at least was) the custom at the time, the school hosted the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test to see how well a student would perform in military service and give a baseline assessment of where their best talents might lie.  Some of my friends, who were already looking forward to joining the Army bombed the test wholesale.  I had a friend, well, really a freinemy since he was kind of a dick to me most of the time, who had spent his whole school career planning on joining the Army.  He got a 47% on the ASVAB and was absolutely devestated.  Other friends absolutely refused to take the test (it was optional) because they didn’t want to support the Military Industrial Complex and didn’t want anyone to think they were pro-war.

I had no great desire to join the military and, at that point in my life had no real idea what the military really was, but I took the test anyway.  I scored somewhere in mid 90s.

The Marines and Army became very interested in me.  The Air Force adjusted my score down to the mid 70s for some reason or another and told me I’d probably be good at fueling airplanes.  I didn’t hear a peep out of the Navy.

In the long run, I didn’t join the military.  It probably would have been good for me, but my natural aversion to authority meant I  probably wouldn’t have been good for the military.  I went to college instead.  A few of my friends served.  All was good with the world.

Over time, from talking to friends and coworkers who had been in the military I came to the conclusion that the military itself isn’t really pro-war.  After all, these are the guys who actually have to fight the battles.  The people who are really pro-war are the politicians who get the military, and the county, embroiled in warfare.  They’re the ones who beat the drums and convince us that a group of people half across the world are a serious threat to us personally.

Bottom line: Politicians start wars, the military just gets stuck fighting them.

Sure, they signed up.  The knew full well what they were getting into when the signed up for military service, but that doesn’t make in any easier.

I work with a lot of ex military folks.  Two ex-Marines.  Sorry, non active duty Marines.  Once you’re a Marine, you’re a Marine.  A couple of former Navy guys, an Army guy and at least one former Air Force guy.  I have a lot of respect for them.  They did something I didn’t do, they put something they felt was more important in front of themselves.  They’ve all got some interesting stories.

It’s the stories that I find fascinating.  I won’t share coworkers stories here because those are private things, but there are other stories out there.  Stories like Rodger Young’s (geek points for his literary significance), or Chesty Puller who once famously said, “They’re on our right, they’re on our left, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us; they can’t get away from us this time.”  The history of military lore is full of people who, under the worst of circumstances, kept their shit together and got things done.  Or got impossible things done without trying to shirk it off.

Those are the things I will always remember and those are the people I will strive be more like.

So, today is Memorial Day and I’m not going to spend it kissing military ass.  There are plenty of people in the military and retired from it who are still worthless shits.  I will, however, hope they all get to come home safely from the nasty business of war that politicians have placed them in.  I’ll also remember there are people who have done remarkable things and next time things aren’t going my way I’ll try to remember that at least I’m not charging a Japanese machine gun emplacement.  I’ll also try to channel just a bit of that bravery into my day to day life.

I’m also not going to save 10% on a pair of shorts.  I’ll wait until tomorrow to buy them.

Hollywood and Technology

Technology has always been near and dear to my heart.  I wrote my first program when I was in the 4th grade on an old Apple IIe.  It was just a simple Star Trek program written in BASIC.  By the time I was in 7th grade, I was rewriting Oregon Train and tinkering with BASIC’s “high resolution” graphics.  Over time I worked with Logo (still fun to move the turtle around), Pascal, and FORTRAN.

In college, I largely forgot about programming and only picked it back up again when I started teaching databases and network administration at my first job.  Since then, I programmed in Visual Basic, C#, Java, Javascript, SQL, and a smattering of C++.  I won’t say I’m the best programmer in the world, but I’ve done some pretty cool stuff.

All this is why scenes like this one drive me up a wall.

This is a scene from CSI NY that demonstrates quite possibly the worst techno babble I’ve come across.  Why would you write a GUI in VB to track an IP Address when you can just type tracert <ip address>, or use a visual trace route program?  If you want to find out who owns an IP Address, you can just do a whois search on in.  Once you find out what ISP owns the IP Address, call them and ask who it’s assigned to.  There’s no reason to write a custom program in an archaic language to track down who owns an IP address or the general geographic area that IP Address is coming from.

Aside from all that, the show did a magnificent job of not only coming up with an asinine explanation for how to do it, they didn’t even bother to explain to their audience just what the heck an IP Address even is.

If you’re already familiar with networking, skip this section and go straight to the big finale.  If you’re not, an IP Address is a string of numbers that’s attached to every computer and router (and some other stuff, too) on the Internet.  It lets computers know to find each other and send data back and forth.  Without getting into the nitty gritty of packet routing, switches, WAN, subnetting and supernetting and all the other technologies and techniques that make the Internet work, think of an IP Address as being very similar to your house address, only formatted backwards.  1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC. 20006 is a physical address.  It starts with the smallest point (1600, the location on the block) and moves to the largest (Washington, D.C.).  An IP Address, such as 192.168.32.1 goes the opposite direction: 192.168.32 is the largest point (the network id) and 32 is the smallest (the actual computer on that network).

Granted, there’s a little more to it, but that’s the general gist.  Every time you connect to a website (like this one), you’re sending your IP Address to a server and the server is sending data back to your IP address.  Even the URL (ericlahti.wordpress.com) is just an easy way for you to remember the IP Address of one of the WordPress servers (76.74.254.123 last time I checked).  A URL is nothing more than a stupid human trick designed to make the Internet easier to remember.

So, even with all that, can you actually physically track a person down by their IP address?  Not really, but I’m sure the police could make use of some of their power.  If you’re tracking down a killer by their IP address, I’d start with a whois search to see who the IP Address is registered to.  It’ll probably be an ISP that distributes their IP block through DHCP.  An ISP should be able to find out which cable or DSL modem out there has been assigned that IP address, that modem will be registered to an account, which will have a physical address.  Voila!  No need for a Visual Basic GUI, no need for a custom application when a phone call and a quick web search would be faster and easier.

Thus, the scene could have been written like this: “I’m going to do a whois search to find out who owns that IP address then call the ISP to get their mailing address.  We should have this guy in five minutes.”

All that said, here’s my open message to Hollywood.  Next time you guys need something technical, feel free to email me.  I’ve got a ton of experience taking complicated technological problems and boiling them down into something easy to digest.

My email address is on the contact page.  Or you can just leave a comment.

This may seem a little bitter and meandering, but bear with me

If you live in America, you don’t live in a Democracy.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but America is not a Democracy.  Technically, it never really has been a Democracy, we’re better described as a Representative Republic.  If this were a true Democracy, we’d all spend a lot more time voting on how the country is run.  Rather, we vote every two to six years to elect people who, we hope, share our world-view and, again we hope, will actively set out to implement it.

We’re also not a Christian nation, no matter what you hear people say.

I’m not Christian so I’m far less concerned about this one since there never really was a promise that we would be a Christian nation.  Frankly, as far as I’m concerned the further organized religion stays from politics, the happier I am.  There are, however, plenty of people who are extremely disgruntled when they wake up in the morning and realize that not only has Jesus not come to save them from the heathens, but that the heathens seem to have free run of the madhouse.  We’ll push religion to the back burner for the time being.  Religious arguments are great ways to start flame wars, but I’m not interested in that right now; I have real-world problems to discuss.

So, hold those things in the back of your head for right now while I throw a seemingly unrelated issue into the mix.  Trust me on this one.  Ultimately this mixture will turn into something rational.

If you were a supervillain, what would your goal be and, more importantly, why?  Every supervillain needs an origin story and a dastardly plan.  The best supervillains are the ones with a plan that’s pretty evil but something people can actually relate to.  Think Magneto.  Kill the humans because they’re a threat to the mutants.  His endgame, freedom for the mutants, is admirable.  His mechanism, killing all the humans, is less so.  Although, I did spend a great deal of time in traffic today so I think fewer people might not be a bad thing.

Final seemingly unrelated topic to add here.

At its heart, Henchmen is a simple book about people fed up with politicians and the various ways in which both sides of the political spectrum regularly screw over everyone.  Its sequel (which I need to work on tonight), covers more of the religious spectrum.  Sure, it’s an adventure story.  There are gun fights and naked women and gods and some stuff gets blowed up real good, but at the heart of the story is a group of people who have decided to take the fixing of the country into their own hands by finding a way to kill every member of Congress.

Like I said, every supervillain needs a goal.  That goal should be pretty evil, but ultimately relatable.

So, before anyone starts raising their hands and saying, “Ooh.  Ooh.  Ooh.  Mr. Government!  Eric Lahti, um, wants to kill everyone in Congress!” let me assure that I don’t.  Nor do I advocate political killings.  Or really killing in general.

But I do have an idea.  A wondrous, terrifying idea.

There’s an old joke that goes, How can you tell an honest politician?  Honest politicians stay bought.

So, right there you can tell we’re not a Democracy.  If we were a Democracy, we wouldn’t have as much need for politicians.  Let alone politicians with as much power as ours.  Our politicians make the rules that we have to adhere to while they themselves seem to play by a different set of rules.  As Jonathon Hickman (bonus kudos for anyone who can identify him) once wrote, “Laws are created by those who consider themselves above them.”

The really cool thing about politicians, though, is the fact that they really only worship the money that lets them get the power they crave.  Money wins elections, elections give power, power is great.  Most politicians ride into office on a wave of donations from corporations and the extremely wealthy.  By donating all that money, those people expect a return on their investment.  This means laws that favor the corporations and the extremely wealthy.  By the way, the things those guys want and what the rest of us want are usually antithetical.

Politics is a big money game, and most of us will never be able to fork up the kind of cash the big telecom players can come up with.  As a result, fighting for Net Neutrality, from our end, is going to be extremely difficult.  All we can really hope to do is kick up a big enough fuss that someone pats us on the head and tells us it’s really in our own best interest that network providers should be able to grant faster speed to companies that can pay more money.

This begs a question, how can the average person get enough money together to bribe a major politician?  Sorry, donate to a reelection campaign of a major politician.  They don’t take bribes, they get campaign donations.

Well, I think Kickstarter provides us with a valid model.  Take their basic theory and translate it to something political.  People will be able to put up a problem, provide an example of how bribing a politician will help fix the problem.  Sorry, again, damn: Provide money for the reelection fund a of a politician.  We can then set a base amount that will be needed to get the legislation pushed through.  If you, as a user, agree with the problem and the solution, you can kick in some bucks.  If enough people kick in some money, a large group of people might actually be able to buy a politician.

“What about PACs?” you ask.  Well, with my version of Kickstarter for Democracy, you don’t have to subscribe to all the things each PAC stands for.  You can still focus on that single issue that’s burning you up inside.

This, my friends, is my evil plan.  We can save the Republic by exploiting the very greed that’s busily tearing it down.  The end result, more of a political voice for everyone, is admirable.  The mechanism, exploiting the natural greed of our politicians, is far less admirable, but will probably work quite nicely.

An interesting point

First, read this: How the comics code killed the golden age of comics.

Yeah, I know it’s a Buzzfeed article, but it’s a surprisingly salient piece of work and an interesting analysis of how everything that wasn’t white people doing good white things got zapped from the comics in the 1950s.

There are a lot of people out there who regularly pine for the ’50s and hold the era up as an example of a time when everything was perfect.  Mostly it’s bitter old white guys who pine for the ’50s, the rest of the country got pretty much shafted by the white Christian morality of the day.  Remember, this was the era when they added “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  I wasn’t alive then, but all it takes is a little research to see what the world was really like back in the good old days.  Women were expected to stay home and make babies.  Blacks needed to stay out of sight.  Hispanics were for tending your yard.  It was okay to beat gays because, damn, that shit might be contagious.  And you better believe your ass was at church every Sunday.  You could choose any church you wanted, as long as it was Christian, and not too weird.

Next time someone pines away about the good old days, remember these were the days of racial segregation and if you think sexism is bad now, you missed an entire era of “You’re just a woman, what do you know?”

So, out of this milieu comes some of the safest, least offensive comics the world has ever seen.  In fact, most popular culture of the time was bland and inoffensive.  The idea of challenging any kind of thought was considered heretical.  Remember, this was the era when a black man and white woman could be stoned to death for holding hands.

Unfortunately, a lot of this nonsense still carries over to this day.

Even more unfortunately, we have a large amount of politicians and rich people who can afford to buy politicians who would very much like to drag the rest of us kicking and screaming back into that golden age of bigotry.

That would be a real pity, for society as well popular culture.  I find the diversity of the current world to be pretty fascinating.  I like being able to go into a hardware store and find Dia de los Muertos artwork.  I like the fact that the work world isn’t just a bunch of good-old-boys getting drunk and feeling up secretaries.  I like the fact that I can pick up a comic and it might make me think about the world around me, rather than just show me some platitudes and propaganda.

Anyway, had to share the article with you.  Censorship is never a good thing, but it’s interesting in this case to see just how much damage was done by it.