Should have handled that differently: a tale of fail


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Preface: I hate the phone

I don’t do phones very well. I spent two years as the Readiness NCO for my National Guard company in 2009-2011, running things the other 28 days per month, and I like to think I did a fairly decent job of it, but I came to loathe the telephone (and a lot of other things and people not germane to today’s discussion).  In my current job, my cell stays in the car and the office has only two phones for about thirty people.  In short, I don’t talk on the phone for days or even weeks at a time.  My cell plan is a cheap prepaid one, with unlimited data and unlimited texting, but only 100 minutes per month; I have only used all of those twice in three years.

So believe it or not, I am literally out of practice in using the phone, such that a phone interview is not exactly playing to my strengths.  I had one a few weeks ago, and though I thought it went fairly well, there was one question in particular that has been bugging me.  I didn’t answer it terribly, but I could have done it better.

Which was the theme.  The gentleman on the other end asked me (paraphrasing a bit) to describe an occasion where I wish I’d handled something differently, and what I had learned from that.

What I said

I gave a perfectly legitimate but not very interesting example from Afghanistan.  It was your standard low-level drama of two people who loathed each other, forced to live in extremely close proximity under unpleasant (combat) conditions for 11 months.  Kind of like a sitcom when you describe it that way, except that there wasn’t much funny about it.  Fun fact: a significant portion of my journal was devoted to plots to murder my assistant team leader and dispose of the evidence.

I talked about how in retrospect I would have tried to be a great deal more patient and meet him more than halfway; getting the mission accomplished without fratricide was more important than what was fair.  It was clear we were never going to be friends, but I could have swallowed my pride a bit more and worked with him better despite it.  I’ve learned a great deal since 2006 about “managing” people placed over me, and I think I could do it a lot better now.  (I also have thought quite a bit since then about hiding bodies in a desert environment.)

The problem is that this anecdote is necessarily vague (not wanting to put anyone to sleep by providing the full context) and eight years (!) old now.  OEF VII has an immediacy for me that is hard to convey to a stranger over the phone; it still seems super relevant to my life, but probably not to someone who wasn’t with us.  It’s bugged me since then, because I have other examples which are much more recent and don’t even require talking around OPSEC considerations.

What I should have said

In retrospect, I should have used a much more recent example from my current work environment, albeit undoubtedly not in this much nauseating detail.
Continue reading

Writing and learning Python



This has been something of a neglected space, though if you actually visit the site (vice use an RSS feed like civilized people), you’ll note that I’m fairly Twitter-active even when ignoring my primary blog.

I’m going to try to write a little more frequently—not necessarily here, but just in general.  My day job has me doing a lot of soul-sucking editing of really dry, boring things and that tends to sap my creative energies, but the only way to really build those back is to actually write, so I’m going to try to do that more often.  You may or may not see the fruits here.

Of note is that I’m trying to shame myself into writing more by actually sharing some of the other stuff I’ve written.  Back in 2006, during an unpleasant part of an unpleasant war, I wrote three quick short science fiction stories.  I won’t claim they are good, but they scratched an itch that I had.  Maybe they’ll scratch yours.  (That sounds vaguely dirty but isn’t.)  I am serializing them at another blog I created just for that purpose, Venya Writes, with the hope that feedback and guilt will compel me to write more, starting with a better ending for story #3.  I intend to put more writing-focused thoughts (including editing) there, so if that’s your bag, feel free to wander that way.  (There’s also an associated Twitter account, @venyawrites.)  The first part of the first story kicks off tomorrow morning; it’s not very long, so prepare to be underwhelmed.

It seems hardly fair to have a separate blog devoted to just writing when this one has to cover leather work, weapons, radio, warfare, and whatever else floats my boat, but that suits my purpose for now.

As tends to happen whenever I’m trying to simplify my life, I have acquired another hobby.  I just today finished the 13-hour introductory Python series.  As part of my resuscitated new job search (more on that another time), I have refocused on acquiring useful skills, and I decided Python would be a nice, easy start.  It should be noted that the last time I programmed was in 1994; it didn’t go well, and I concluded that programming was just Not Something I Could Do.

Either programming has gotten easier, I have gotten smarter, or perhaps (and most likely) the tools for learning have gotten much better, but I have been having a lot of fun with this and am not absolutely horrible at it.  I’ve gotten farther in Python in the last three weeks than I did in a year of programming (as a high school class) in Turbo Pascal in ’94.

If you are contemplating getting your feet wet in this area, I recommend the Codecademy approach.  The lessons are a little inconsistent and sometimes you are fighting the grade- and error-checking algorithms as much as the lessons, but it’s a good introduction and the forums are very helpful.

Some other resources that I am exploring:

I have an ipython3 instance running on my Beaglebone Black on the LAN; I’m using the notebook feature to store interesting bits of code and ideas as I go.

I’m also looking at Python Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science 2nd Edition in dead tree format, because sometimes that’s nice to have.

Python doesn’t quite scratch the writer itch, but it’s remarkably close.  I would caution you, however, that it’s a little harder to do while drinking.

This is exactly why I wanted sons.


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I just used my tablet to record my firstborn’s first movie epic, Humans vs. Meat-Eaters. It’s a little light on plot, but has a lot of sound effects and screaming. Also, the velociraptor has a truly touching and evocative death scene at the hands of an Army sergeant (played by a Lego Iron Man mini-figure and three-year-old Izverg).

I didn’t even suggest that the hero of the film be an Army NCO, but apparently that was a given. I had some qualms about the non-existent “dinosaur hunter” MOS, but I’m not about to mess with a 6-year-old’s artistic vision.



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Evidence that I did in fact pass my General.  Also, gelatto.

Evidence that I did in fact pass my General. Also, gelatto.

Last year around this time, I was learning about amateur radio and, almost on a whim, took my Technician test.  This year, I was a little more deliberate about it (and actually bought and read the ARRL guide), but I passed my General test on Tuesday with a 35 out of 35. Continue reading

In Which Ivan Finds a Lost Pig


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So last summer, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess taught my 5-year-old son to read.  More specifically, he wanted to play the game, but needed Mommy to read the subtitles to him.  Over the course of the summer, he learned how to read them himself.

(As a side note, my wife went from Just Reading The Dialogue through the Helping With the Hard Parts stage right into Move Over Kid This Is Mommy’s Game Now.  She’d never played a Zelda game before last summer, but all she wanted for Christmas was Skyward Sword.  Too easy.  Meanwhile, Ivan the Terrible still hasn’t played the game himself.)

He’s only gotten better with time; I estimate his reading ability at somewhere between 4th and 6th grade, though his comprehension varies wildly as a function of limited life experience.  The trick is finding books that are challenging enough for him to improve his reading, but whose subject matter is still at least vaguely appropriate.  I do not historically have the best judgment on “age appropriate” entertainment.  (Some think that Jurassic Park is not a good birthday present for a 6-year-old.  I’m not one of them.)

Enter unobsolete technology.

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.  And there's a pig somewhere around here.

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike. And there’s a pig somewhere around here.

I haven’t posted about it here, but among my huge list of interests (which I keep trying to pare down without anything resembling luck) is interactive fiction (IF), what used to be more widely known as “text adventures.”  Without getting into too much detail, even when the market for Zork-like games died in the late 80s, the community never entirely went away, and in the last few years has actually grown substantially.  A big piece of that is the development of fantastic tools like Inform 7 and Twine, which drastically reduce the technical know-how required to put together your own works. Normal people (well, writers who are not necessarily computer nerds) are doing remarkably interesting things with the medium.

I have thought for quite a while that there is a lot of untapped potential for teaching using these tools, whether in terms of creating curriculum with them or using them to teach concepts in writing or programming.  (As with most of my ideas, I’m quite late to this party.)

Anyway, I go in phases where I will barely think about IF for months at a time, and then I will play feverishly for a few days, and then repeat. (Much like my numerous and mediocre musical endeavors.)  I’ve been playing again for a few days, and it occurred to me yesterday that my eldest could probably help me play one on a lazy Saturday.

Enter The Pig

I won’t go into a general review of Lost Pig, which has made regular appearances on IF best-of lists since publication in 2007.  It’s been on my play wishlist for four years, and I’ve even started it a few times, but only today did I finally make time to play it, and this time with my children sitting in my lap.  In addition to teaching Ivan interactive fiction logic (i.e. how to play), I took the opportunity to teach him a few other odds and ends:

  • Maps.  It’s neither a big game nor a complicated one, but a map is helpful to visualize directions.  Of course, I first had to explain cardinal and relative directions and show how to draw a map as we played.  This was reinforced throughout play, e.g. “We want to go to the Broken Stairs, and we’re in the Table Room, so we need to go which way?”  We followed this up by spending some more time with Google Earth, which both kids (and their dad) find endlessly fascinating.  Ivan referred to the compass rose he drew himself throughout game play and has been carting it around (pun intended) ever since.
  • Parts of speech.  Thanks to a wall poster from Granny, Ivan knows what the parts of speech are, though he has no real idea what they mean; it’s just something he’s read (probably hundreds of times while fighting off sleep, as he can recite some of them by rote).  After entering a new room, I would have him find the nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and also identify the exits (for the map).  Then we would talk about which nouns were actually in the room and what verbs we might use with them, e.g. “What can you do with a lever?”  (Zarf’s IF-For-Beginners card was invaluable here; Ivan insisted on having it up on the other monitor.)
  • Reading dialogue.  Most children’s books at his age level aren’t really big on dialogue, but are mostly straight narration.  Since he read most of this himself, he got more practice on intonation and natural pauses and whatnot.
  • Reading for essential elements of information.  We got to practice consciously determining what the important things in the description were: what are the exits?  What are the objects or people we might interact with?  Necessarily, this meant reading for detail a little more than your average 6-year-old is inclined to do, but it was good practice.
  • Typing.  A little tedious for me, but he was starting from ground zero.  Toward the end game, Daddy did most of the typing at his direction.

We talked about how games without pictures require us to use our imagination, and how we have to read carefully to get all of the information we need.  (We had to hit Google Images for “orcs” so Ivan could grok the protagonist, whom he decreed “a monster, but a nice one.”)  I suggested drawing a victorious Grunk and pig, but was unable to interest him in an applied art appendix to the lesson, at least so far.  (We might try writing about the game later, too.)

Whither next?

Lost Pig is a great story for this particular application, despite being targeted at an older audience.  The game was amusing and child-friendly without being overly childish or condescending.  The only time Ivan got bogged down at all was after meeting the gnome, which necessarily involved a lot of “ask gnome about x” and reading the lengthy answers and not much doing.  Still, it kept his interest for a solid two+ hours, and he won’t even sit still that long for an animated movie.

The small problem is that, like a favored movie, he wants to play it again.  Immediately.  Probably multiple times.  The bigger problem is that we ought to try another one, and there aren’t nearly as many well-written and well-implemented stories targeted toward my son’s particular demographic; the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB) lists only six stories with the kid-friendly tag.  This will probably require me to do some digging and play testing ahead of him to find something both well-done and appropriate.


  • The Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB) is sort of the central nexus of the modern IF scene.  Direct links to downloads or online play with reviews and tagging and all sorts of other goodies.  It’s not flashy (or Flashy) and it works.
  • aggregates many of the better blogs.
  • Esteemed writers and thinkers of IF who have forgotten more about the art than I will ever know:
  • Play Lost Pig in your browser.  Huzzah!  Or check it out at the official home page.

Brief Fanboyish Review: Damn Few Season 1 DVD


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(It should go without saying, but everything Ranger Up in general and The Damn Few in particular is not safe for children or anyone offended by harsh language.)

The Damn Few is the truest portrayal of how military people interact ever put to cartoon.  The trailer is here; the entire series is on YouTube (starting here). Hilarity varies somewhat, but I’ve never not laughed at one. They are all pretty offensive.

This is my absolute favorite episode, bar none. It starts out funny, gets painfully hilarious around 3:50, and I had to watch the ending four times in a row when it first came out.

The DVD set includes the episodes so far plus origin stories for the core characters which are not otherwise available. The behind-the-scenes and making-of special features are a disturbing mix of hilarity and insight. I would have bought this just to support the company and thank them for the episodes already available, but there’s a lot of value added here for $20.

You should probably buy a t-shirt while you’re there.  Or the terrorists will win.

The Once and Future AT


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While digging through my office / hiding place looking for something else the other day, I happened upon a yellow notepad with a bunch of random notes in it from various trips and activities.  Buried about ten pages in was a list of “Rejected annual training mottos” from our unit AT in 2012.

Oh, the memories brought back by this list.  The memories.  The rage.  The hate. Continue reading


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