Hardwired Historian

As I've begun work on the Battle of the Bulge project, I've found that there have been some major changes in how I'm able to go about researching the event since the spring of 2007, when I did a similar research project on the Normandy Invasion. Since then, computers have become smaller, Norwich University has a campus-wide wireless network, and information on databases has grown.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been pouring over books and file folders, hunting for references to soldiers who were in a set number of units, dates, locations, specific references to the Battle of the Bulge itself. Four years ago, I brought along a notepad and a couple of pens (or pencils, when I was up in the University Archives), and wrote down every reference that I could find, even the tangential students who might have been in the right area at the right time.

Fast forward to 2010, and the options have changed. Rather than taking a notepad and pen with me, I've been carrying my iPad and iPhone, on which I've been jotting down information as I find it. Slowly, as the lists are growing, I’m planning on taking the information and placing it onto a spreadsheet. While I do this, I’ve tapped into the wireless network, and as I come across soldiers in various units, I’ve discovered that running a quick check against the unit’s history online can help me determine if the soldier is someone I’ve been able to use, as their unit was present at the battle, or if they were somewhere else at the time, either because they hadn’t arrived, or were in another theater of operations altogether.

The move to electronic recording likewise has the benefit of being able to copy and paste my results directly into a spreadsheet, rather than having the extra step of translating my handwritten notes (no small task!) into the spreadsheet. The transfer of data is transferred between two mediums rather than three. (original, handwritten and computer). It allows me to keep information that I transpose intact far more easily than before.

The next step is something I’m thinking of trying: integrating this with Google Docs, which would allow me to keep my data online, accessible from any number of locations. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very practical thing on an iPad (I can’t easily tab between apps, and I don’t have the internet at home), but for some of the research portions, it seems like it would be an excellent thing to use, especially if someone is working with others. In this case, my girlfriend is helping out with some things, and the ability to update the same piece of data, without redundancies, would be helpful when gathering data is put together.

What I’m hoping is that the move to computers, rather than using handwritten notes, will allow me to be more efficient, and thus quicker, with the research that I’m working on. The amount of information that I need to go though: there’s something like five thousand additional files to go through when it comes to deceased students, not to mention the information on the units and after action reports that exist.

This also covers the first large phase of the research: gathering all of the raw data that I’ll need to form the basis of the project. The next step, actually distilling and then writing the report, is already digital: I can’t actually think of a time when I haven’t used a computer to type up a project. Those advantages are well known, and something that I know to work.

The Apple iPad

On Saturday, I stopped by South Burlington's Small Dog Electronics, an Apple retail store, to check out the recently released iPad. Announced last December, the device has certainly captured the attention of the rest of the world, opening a new product category and selling like crazy. My visit was out of curiosity: I had yet to see one of the devices in person, but a couple of my friends have purchased one, and I was interested in seeing what the hype was all about.

The bottom line is: I want one. I want one, despite the cost, and the fact that I already have an iPhone, because it seems to be the type of computer that I would be using constantly, far more than my aging desktop computer, sitting in my den, and more than my iPhone. It seems to fit nicely between the two of them, filling in a new product category that moves to fit with changes in how people interface with the internet, and ultimately, each other.

My dad and I have been watching the various updates online and in print concerning the device. He seems to think that something along the lines of the iPad will spell the end of the desktop, and ultimately represent the future of computers, and while I agree in part, I don't think that's necessarily the case. Apple's latest creation certainly fits with changes in how people use the internet: typically on the go, for consumption and interaction, but that's largely where it will stand: for now. My impression is that the desktop computer or laptop will remain, abit in a more highly specialized role.

Playing with the device the other day, I was intrigued by what this thing could do, and realized that it would be something that I would use often. Typically, I use computers for writing - e-mail, blog posts and commissioned work, among other things, and that's largely done on my work laptop in the evening, on the couch, where I have a good workplace with my coffee table. But, I'll shift around to the kitchen, outside, at my parent's home or elsewhere. My desktop, affectionately nicknamed 'Hal', sits at home, where it's hooked up to an external hard drive and speakers, and largely holds onto my music collection, and serves as a sort of home entertainment and filing system for written works.

What I can easily envision the iPad doing was clinched when I checked out the Pages app - a viable word processing program that has a way to save files, properly format documents and with a large on-screen keyboard that would take a little getting used to, but something that is much, much better than doing something similar on my phone. To date, I've written two posts on my iPhone, and they were pretty short ones: the combined nature of a small screen and small keyboard doesn't lend itself well to writing long pieces, and with the notepad app that each phone comes with, there's no easy way to save or view other files.

As news poured out from everywhere about the device, it's clear that this is something that's largely aimed at a pre-existing audience that surfs the web and interacts with people. Despite what critics such as Cory Doctorow say, I have a feeling that people largely don't need to open source their own iPad, and would largely be happy with the existing applications on Apple's store. I'm not a programmer, and I can't say that I really care if Apple has a somewhat draconian hold on what apps will work on it. So long as it works, I'm fine with that - Apple's products seem to be pretty balanced, and if they want to hold to a somewhat higher moral standard and keep their own hardware in mind when it comes to a device, that’s fine by me. It's their device, and I'm happy with consumers voting with their dollars: if they don't like it, there'll be a bunch of competitors out in the next year or two.

I'm okay without one of these things: this isn't a device that I feel compelled to buy just for the sake of buying it: my laptop and home computer fit the roles that they fill right now nicely, and I have few complaints about that situation, save for one: the iPad, unlike my laptop, or my house, has connectivity options that would be the clincher for me. I use my phone for a large part of my own internet browsing, and my biggest complaint is that the screen is really just too small to browse the web. The iPad solves that problem nicely. Hopefully, at some point, I'll get one of my own. The iPad itself is a very good, futuristically looking device, one that I would be able to put to effective use, over just having an expensive toy.

Question for iTunes savy people

For some reason, my computer lost my computer's music library - the music is still there, but the playlists, playcounts and ratings, all gone. I've got around 4000 songs on this computer, and it syncs my iPhone, so I'm rather annoyed about this. Annoyed is a bit of an understatement at this point, because it's a long process to recreate everything the way that I had it. I learned, a little too late, of a way to use the .xml file in the iTunes folder to recreate the library - by the time I'd learned this, I'd already begun to rebuild everything from scratch.
While looking in the iTunes folder, however, I see that there's a ton of .tmp files, and I know that they're there to recreate part of the library. Does anyone know of a way to recreate the library from these files?
Or alternatively, does anyone know of a way to recreate the library from what is still on my iPhone?


The future is here, I'm sure of it. For the past couple of years, I've owned a variety of Apple iPods to keep up with my growing interest in music. Looking back at my record with the devices, I'm a little surprised that I actually stuck with the product - since my first one, I've gone through five. Two 3rd generation Classics, 2 2nd generation Nanos and a 2nd generation iPod Touch, which has since been swapped out for an iPhone. Fortunately, I've only paid for a couple of these, because of Apple's fantastic warranty, which covered the first couple devices when their hard drives broke.

I resisted the idea of buying an iPhone for a while, which was one reason why I bought the Touch from a fellow 501st member earlier this year. That was where I realized that there was quite a lot to these devices, and partially the reason why I went out and got a phone. The sheer functionality of the two devices have been a very interesting one, and I believe that it's something right out of science fiction.

I'm finding that the iPhone is an invaluable tool - just carrying it around with me allows me ready access to my calendar, a camera, my e-mail, a calculator, notebook, dictionary, thesaurus, first aid guide, an e-book reader, maps, a compass, the weather, and the internet, among other things, as well as being my phone and music player. I'm slowly getting into the habit of tracking my bills, 501st and work events, concerts and a bunch of other things by using it as a planner, while noting down my food shopping list, interesting books as I browse and looking up the occasional word when I come across something I can't readily remember.

Essentially, what I can hold in my hand is an entirely new method of communicating with the world. I know I'm preaching to the choir here on the Internet. But I'm absolutely astounded that I can check my e-mail, various discussion forums, the news, weather and so much more, practically everywhere I go. (Given AT&T's crappy coverage of Vermont, my options are pretty limited in places). Thinking back to my family's first mobile phone, a clunky, bulky thing that could hardly be put into a pocket, and could only do one thing: call another phone. Here, calling another phone is almost an afterthought.

Star Trek is largely credited with the idea of a hand-held communicator, and the idea has been used throughout the SF genre for years. Taken back to the 1960s, an iPhone, even without having any form of cellular network to operate on, would still be a pretty handy device - it already would be more powerful than the Apollo spacecraft, and considering that the computers of the time were the size of a room. No wonder that the idea of a handheld, wireless communications device would have been a radical idea at the time, and even throughout the next couple of decades, this sort of thing can be used as a prop in the genre.

What interests me more is that for such a rapid development in our society, the influence of something such as a smart phone doesn't seem to make its appearance in Science Fiction as prominently as it might have been. During the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the knowledge that someday, people could walk around, constantly in contact with one another via an impossible technology would have made prime story material for some of the authors. Indeed, some of the effects of these devices would probably fulfill some science fiction authors worst nightmares about a healthy society. The declines in reading, the mutilation of reading and writing abilities, the shorter attention spans and other, similar troublesome trends that we are seeing now help provide the need for such devices.

I for one, have noticed the changes in my own behavior with my phone. Before, I existed without internet at my apartment, although I could check my e-mail on my prior phone. I didn't have television and most of my news updates came from my commute to and from work. Now, I find myself checking my messages every hour or so, while being able to access an incredible amount of information whenever I think of it. Should I want to learn anything about the Faroe Islands (an island group in Northern Europe between Norway and Iceland), or if I need to look up the meaning for the word 'causerie' (light informal conversation for social occasions) or tomorrow's weather, (Mostly sunny, highs in the mid 70s, Light and variable winds...), I have it at my fingertips. I've made a conscious effort to fill my phone with things that are useful, and as such, I've found that in this regard, the phone is a very powerful tool, akin to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or the Encyclopedia Galactica. But at other times, I just want to put it away, and just read a book.

Unfortunately, the phone has that covered. I downloaded the iPhone's version of Amazon.com's Kindle technology, which further adds to its already impressive array of uses by turning it into an ebook reader. I've downloaded a handful of the free offerings from the website. I'm currently reading Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, which is sure to keep me occupied at the next time that I am stuck in a line or away from my books. I can't say that I'm sold on the idea of an ebook reader, but with the option, and the occasions when I've found myself away from whatever I'm reading, I find it to be incredibly useful.

A couple years ago, this sounded like something out of a science fiction novel or film - the advances in technology and miniaturization over the past couple of years has the potential to change how we learn, access information and communicate with one another, but it doesn't change the way in which we interpret that information - it just gives us more and more as people's appetite for information over knowledge increases, which I find more worrying. I like to think that I have customized the programs in my phone be of use, for communications and information access, as well as for entertainment, and as a result, it's by my side constantly. It's handy, but I'm happy that there is one feature on it that has been a staple of all computers since their creation: an off switch.

Technology & Pirates

Last night, on my way home from work, I ended up listening to a couple commentators discussing the recent rise in piracy off the coast of Somalia. This has been of particular interest here in Vermont, as Captain Richard Phillips is from Underhill, and recently was returned home safely after a 5 day standoff with the pirates who took him hostage.  The article in general was examing a number of high tech ways that vessels, which generally don't like to arm their crews (for safety reasons), are adopting to fend off pirates. These items range from types of foam that can prevent someone from climbing up on a ship, water cannons, directed sound and light emitters that deafen or blind combatants, all of which have had some use in the seas already. Most of these things I remember being developed by the military for non-lethal warfare, and they seem to be pretty effective at repelling boarders, which is hoped will help to stop piracy in that region. 

I don't think that it's going to work, however. 

A short while ago, I did several reviews and an interview with Wired for War author Peter Singer, and I think that there are several parallels between this high-tech approach to taking on 21st century pirates, and our new, high tech ways to taking on insurgents in a 21st century world that Singer has outlined. Additionally, there were several points in my own studies on methods of warfare that give me some pause when it comes to new and high-tech gadgets being put into combat situations. 

On the more obvious side, technology seems to be the silver bullet for warfare. Soldiers nowadays have enormous capabilities compared to their historical predecessors. Our soldiers can fight in the dark, can shoot a person from over a mile away, can fly over a hostile combat zone from thousands of miles away, and talk to one another while fighting in a way to coordinate their movements. These advances have allowed our military personnel to be far more effective in combat, and as a result, more people come back alive than before. There is very little downside to this. 

What I fear, however, is that our military, and indeed, our society, has come to expect far more from fighting forces, and are more willing to utilize technology as a method of warfare. While covering the 2009 Colby Military Writer's symposium here at Norwich University a month ago, the panel discussion brought up the point that President Eisenhower noted in his fairwell address in 1961, warning against the rise of a military industrial complex, noting that going to war nowadays is far easier, because the personnel required is smaller, with technology being percieved as making up the difference far better than humans can. 

This has certainly been a big issue for Iraq, and numerous talks and people I've spoken with have noted that the human element to warfare is something that cannot be underestimated or eliminated. Author Alan R. King, noted that many of the problems that we had in Iraq was a failure to understand the human element within the country, with in turn cause the situation to worsen. Peter Singer also noted that a number of human rights groups have looked into the idea of utilizing unmanned drones in genocide areas, such as Sudan's Darfur, in an effort to stop the violence, and former CIA operative and author Robert Baer has noted that for all the satellites in orbit, having an operative in a room with someone is the best way to gather intelligence, because they can see, hear and feel everything that it going on, things that robotic solutions cannot do at the present moment. These 'solutions' are really not solutions. 

So, when it comes to the rise in Piracy in Somalia, technology is certainly going to deter some pirates. But, what happens when they aquire a water cannon of their own, or use goggles and ear plugs to counter the countermeasures? The same thing is happening in Iraq at the present moment with children armed with spray paint - an expensive robot is taken out of commission by a far cheaper solution. The other issue that I see with extensive countermeasures against pirates is that this could up the ante when it comes to the pirates themselves, and they have already threatened to do so following the deaths of the three pirates who took Richard Phillips the other day. Simply killing and deterring pirates at this point is a short-term solution, as we have found killing insurgents. Where there are people who have taken up arms, there will be people to follow, and the situation will escalate. 

President Obama has recently said that they will be putting a stop to the rise in piracy over there, but what exactly does that mean? Will we send in a carrier group to cover a large amount of ocean, while not addressing the underlying problem? Or will he go the route that will be unpopular and attackable by working with the remains of the Somali Government to try and control the problem through economics, which will ultimately solve the problem? The pirates are the symptom of a country in dire need of help, and working to alleviate that symptom will not bring about any sort of long term solution.

Transportation of the Future

London Heathrow and Masdar City are both set to become the modern test for a very interesting transportation system called Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT. This system is one right out of science fiction, and really seems to make a lot of sense. According to Wikipedia's entry on the subject, this sort of transit system is one that carries passengers from point to point, but in a way that is far more effective than a regular bus or light rail line. While it's not as mobile as a network of automobiles, in that it runs on a track, it brings passengers directly form point to point in individual vehicles.

This isn't a concept that is new, even if it sounds and looks like something from the future. In 1975, Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit of West Virginia University, has been operational since 1975. This system was designed to link together West Virginia University, and was built as a demonstration of the system. Linked together with five seperate stations, MPRT covers almost nine miles, and transports almost 16,000 riders per day, who largely fund the system through a cheap fare. This system is apparently not a true Personal Rapid Transit system because it does have set stations and a schedule during peak hours, while it can take people directly to destinations on off-peak hours.

The systems that London and Masdar City are planning are true systems, guided by automated systems that will carry passengers directly to their destinations. In London, the system will connect a parking lot to one of the terminals, while in Abu Dhabi, cars will be banned from the city, leaving this to be the only transportation system, along with light rail service. There are apparently other systems planned in Europe, as well as one in Santa Cruz, California.

I really like this idea, and I think that it can be successful, and a good alternative to mass transit in large urban areas. The system helps to undercut some of the main problems with mass transit, such as delays, busy schedules and breakdowns that affect whole lines by creating a very versatile network that can cut down on transit time for commuters. There are obvious problems with this system, especially in highly developed cities. It would be a massive undertaking for most places to establish an additional transportation system in pre-existing routes that are already likely in heavy use. Projects such as London Heathrow make sense because there won't be a dependency on preexisting roads and rails, and there is a bit of space in which to build this. I have a very hard time seeing a city such as New York or London proper adopting something like this simply because of the infrastructure costs associated with it.

But there are major benefits as well. These systems are environmentally friendly, essentially pay for themselves through commuter costs, and would be much more comfortable and direct as opposed to subway and bus systems in cities. Plus, it looks like a very cool system. The London cars that are being put into service look sleek and exciting, almost as if they have jumped from the pages of a science fiction novel or film. Furthermore, they are run on a computer network, which could likely locate a destination and origin, and plot the most effective route. With other cars in the system under the same control, it seems likely that there would be little problems with traffic or congestion as a computer would likely be able to control everything in the system. They would even be able to keep the cars apart, and this would go a long way towards preventing accidents that are inevitable in the roadways now.