Posts tagged “military”

Joe’s War Story: Clean Break

Joe Moran is a product research scientist at Cogito Corporation in Boston, a startup using AI to decode emotion from voice.

Working as an applied cognitive scientist, I was in the field at Fort Bragg, NC, embedded with an airborne military unit. Our group was tasked with learning about typical soldier maneuvers and the surrounding culture. A few of us (along with a couple of ex-Army handlers) had been invited to watch a “movement-to-contact” drill. This is where a single squad marches to an agreed-upon point, followed by a simulated firefight. I thought this was to be a straightforward observation; it turned out to be a learning experience punctuated by hubris, initiation, and a broken bone.

I had failed to realise what “movement-to-contact” really meant. Assuming we would be safe behind glass surveying a sanitised battlefield, I was wearing a thin jacket, jeans, and decidedly flimsy sneakers. We arrived at the agreed upon start point, and I quickly realised that we were in for a full-on march through woods with no trails (and since it was winter, the ground was muddy and slippery). Nevertheless, I was in reasonably good shape, and confident that I could keep up. After all, how hard it could be to walk and observe at the same time?

I strode off to follow the soldiers. The squad realised we were in tow, and decided to set a pretty quick pace to show us where we belonged; while the officers had brought us in, the rank and file didn’t seem to have much need for us. No matter, we were not weighed down by heavy gear, and we could keep up, even if it meant breaking into a jog every now and then. As we marched along, I managed to get some great photographs of the soldiers in action. After a while, we came upon a small ravine, eight feet wide, with the side nearest us having two ledges that each descended about four feet. The soldiers marched right across, and we soon followed. I stepped down off the first ledge, directly into soft ground and slid down on my butt those four feet. I got right up, and dusted myself off, wiping my hands on my jacket. I looked down and saw my left little finger pointed about 20 degrees off to the left. It was clearly dislocated, and I was clearly past “observation.”

At this point, every fibre in my British being was telling me to keep calm and carry on, ‘tis just a flesh wound. I covered the offending appendage in a coat sleeve and thrust out my other hand for a lift up and out of the ravine. I continued on the march, but soon it was clear this situation was untenable. Either I could continue protecting my darkening finger from catching against anything unruly and risk breaking it, or I could call for help, bring the whole exercise to a crashing halt, and end up branded as the scientist who ruined the researchers’ privileges during our very first observation.

I decided to flag down one of our handlers, who had been a medic. He gave me the classic “Look away, this is going to hurt me more than it does you!”, snapped it back into place, taped it up, and I continued with the observation. I was able to observe the rest of the movement-to-contact, and learned a lot about how this group works.

But this was only day one of a planned five-day trip! If I went to the Army medic, I risked being sent home and unable to complete the research. When I showed the unit commander my injury, he winced, laughed, and gave a broad smile welcoming me to the unit. By seeking treatment in a way that did not impact the mission, I gained the trust of the commander, and our group was invited back for many subsequent observations, leading to lots of fruitful observations about all aspects of the unit’s work.

I got an X-ray when I got home and unfortunately my finger was worse than merely dislocated: there was a clean break through the proximal phalange. Next time I showed up to Bragg, my finger was in a cast after surgery, and the soldiers got a good laugh at the return of “that guy”. From this experience I learned to (a) prepare for the unexpected, (b) not be be headstrong and charge in when I’m not prepared, and (c) improvise quickly when thing do not go to plan!

Greg’s War Story: Taking notes, getting detained (sort of)

Anthropologist Greg Cabrera spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. In this story, his best practices bring some unwanted attention.

In the summer of 2010, when I first arrived to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, I was unsure about how I would fit into a military culture. Just being from California created a cognitive barrier for most my military colleagues. Simply put, there were a lot of “don’t ask, don’t tell” jokes.

In any case, the first couple of weeks involved me playing catch up and learning everything I could about the assigned area and region. I took copious notes all the time to help jog my memory and capture information that would come in handy later on. My hope was to refer back to these notes and re-create the picture people were creating themselves based on scanty information.

In a war environment, you hear stories all the time and you never know what is real or not. The jargon further complicates the situation and makes it difficult for one to navigate people, places, and things, all of which tend to be obscured in military code.

One evening, I was hanging around the base waiting to link up with my liaison, Mike. He was facilitating an introduction to a detachment commander who I would work for over the next 12 months. Depending on how the meeting went, the commander would decide to bring me on board as a social scientist to work with him and his unit. I had tried to meet the commander earlier, but it was unclear where he was. His men told me he was busy in the port-a-john, but I think those guys were testing my wits. Long story short (and bathroom humor aside), we coordinated a meeting that night.

While I was hanging around the base waiting to link up with the commander, I noticed a large gathering of soldiers and civilians in an open area. In my curiosity, I wondered if there was something I needed to be in the know about. There was approximately 50 or so people gathering around a projector to watch a PowerPoint presentation projected on the side of a wall. I assumed the crowd was too large to accommodate on this small base where work areas were tight. Doing this outside made no sense because fighter jets flew and were so loud it could cause permanent hearing damage. I thought to myself, “Well, since they are doing this presentation out in the open, the information can’t be that sensitive. Surely taking a few notes or jottings couldn’t hurt?”

This presentation took place right before I would be heading out into the field. As it started and I began writing things down, I started to feel more than a bit uneasy about what I was hearing. The gentleman started off by explaining this fighting season was the bloodiest since 2007 A chart detailed the number of significant events (SIGACTS) and quantitative information about those killed in action, enemies killed in action, those wounded in action, improvised explosive devices found, indirect fire attacks, etcetera. Cough, ahem. I stopped myself at this point for a couple reasons:

First, I did not want to walk around with this in my notebook in case I lost it and the enemy had eyes on this information. Second, I was sure this could come back a bite me somehow. I immediately became nervous because of what I already had written down. I started thinking to myself as well: I don’t really need to be here.

As I started moving back, my actions caught the attention of a very attentive Sergeant Major. Sergeant Majors feed off opportunities to explode and make examples of others to reinforce the nature of their authority and rank. A strange civilian was the perfect feeding opportunity. Indeed, when I caught a glance at others in this crowd, no one else was taking notes or writing down information. “I’m dead,” I thought to myself.

Before I knew it, this dude’s eyes were piercing through me and he pointed at me to stop moving as he came over to me. He yanked me out of the crowd, and starting barking questions at me, hands on his hips and head leaning forward: “What are you doing?! What were you writing?! Who do you work for?!” Frozen, I muttered something to the effect of “Uh, I, I’m just an analyst.”

He took away my notebook and identification card and told me to follow him. The fact I did not have a security badge did not help my case and only contributed to the uneasy feeling sitting in the pit of my stomach.

He sat me down in the operations center near the legal officer. He pointed at me and explained to others that he had caught me taking notes. He assigned a soldier to guard me while he figured out how to handle the situation. As I sat on the couch with another soldier staring coldly at me, I gazed around the operations center. There was a white board with a funny quote about strippers, an empty office with a blow-up doll in it (oddly enough!), and some metallic signs on the walls demonstrating football fan territory.

These guys were pretty laid back, but I had broken the social contract and had no idea what the repercussions would be. At this point, I wished I had just stayed in my sleeping quarters. A phone call to my liaison Mike was my get-out-of-jail-free card. The Sergeant Major explained the situation to him and the JAG (legal) officer.

The JAG officer called me into his office and explained to me the nature of note-taking in a sensitive environment. Even though the presentation was out in the open, my act of taking notes classified my entire notebook. He handed the notebook back to me and I was on my way. I never saw the guy who detained me again. I wanted to simply get out, lick my wounds, and meet the commander who was waiting for me. The commander, who was not terribly impressed with my antics, laughed about my story. He decided to bring me on board on the spot despite my initial casting as a troublemaker. I like to think this gave me an edge or maybe he saw value in having me around to take notes (ironically) and provide insight into the strange cultural environment he was about to encounter.

I shook off the embarrassment, but it was a story that got a few laughs in my organization: “Human terrain guy detained for taking notes.” For me, it set the tone for the abrasiveness of military culture and reinforced my status as an outsider. I learned to be cautious about what I would capture in field notes and the sensitivity of collecting information in a war environment.

Curious Cross Brandings of the Day

A trip to the hairdresser today exposed me to some curious brand extensions and promotions.

First up, the military:

What kind of mousse is best for high and tight? Is that a regulation headshave, maggot?

Comes with its own gunny sack? And dog tags!

Secondly, The Muppets. Via Muppettes mini nail lacquers. Why the Frenchification?

Wocka Wocka is now a color! These marketers aren’t even trying! What do you say, Statler and Waldorf? Boooooo!

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Mozilla Labs Test Pilot – Test Pilot is a platform collecting structured user feedback through Firefox. Test Pilot studies explore how people use their web browser and the Internet – and help us build better products. Once you install the Test Pilot add-on in Firefox, you will automatically receive notifications on upcoming and finished studies. You have the full control on your participation:
    * You choose if you want to participate in a particular study
    * You can see what data has been collected from you in real time
    * At the end of a study, you choose if you want to submit your data to the Test Pilot servers
    * You also have the option to quit the platform
    * If the test requires you to install a new feature or product, the platform will ask for your permission
  • The Men Who Stare at Goats Featurette – Goats Declassified – While the main film was wry, and a bit weak, this short (an extra track on the DVD) is a curious consideration of bringing in innovative thinking, without regards to what may seem ludicrous, contrary, or transgressive, into the military, a culture that is traditional and closed-minded.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • The Air Force is just the latest organization to adopt the PS3 as a cheaper cluster computer – Talk about unintended usage! "The PS3s offer some outstanding performance for the price," said Richard Linderman, senior scientist for advanced computing architectures at the Air Force Research Laboratory. "It's an opportunity to leverage the large gaming market and get those kinds of cost efficiencies which are more along the lines of high-performance computing."

    (Thanks, Kenichi!)

  • Russia considers the functional and cultural impacts of changing their 11 time zones – The time zones, set up by the Soviets to showcase the country’s size, have long been a source of national pride, but the government is now viewing them as a liability and is considering shedding some. In today’s economy of constant communication, it is hard to manage businesses and other affairs when one region is waking up and another is thinking about dinner. The issue has blossomed in recent days into an intense debate across the country about how Russians see themselves, about how the regions should relate to the center, about how to address the age-old problem of creating a sense of unity in this land.
  • Digital whiteboard for the Kindle – [This is a good example of the “ecosystem” we identified as an opportunity area in our Reading Ahead research] Luidia, the maker of an interactive whiteboard technology called eBeam, is extending its reach onto another screen: Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader. The start-up is launching a system that automatically zaps a copy of notes and scribbles left on whiteboards into people’s Kindle or Kindle DX. It works by turning the notes (captured digitally by the eBeam system) into an image file, and then emailing that file to a Kindle. The notes capability could help improve the ways students use the Kindle in classrooms, says Luidia. Nearly 90% of Luidia’s customers are K-12 schools, some of which have been experimenting with using Kindles and e-reading technology to lighten the load of students. In theory, a teacher could present a whole lesson and then zap the notes to students or parents.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • How's that for a long-lasting brand/product? After 72 years, TV's `Guiding Light' switching off – It began as a 15-minute serial on NBC Radio in January 1937 and debuted on CBS television in 1952, focusing on the Bauer family of Springfield.
  • April 2009 – Iraqis Snap Up Hummers as Icons of Power – “Iraqis love them because they’re really a symbol of power,” said Mr. Hilli, a chubby 37-year-old who could not stop chuckling. Nonetheless, he spoke with authority, since he was his own first customer. Hummers in Baghdad are symbols of much more besides: increasing security, returning normality and a yearning for the trappings of sovereignty. Mr. Hilli allowed that there was something else, too, a little more indefinable, which in Arabic is “hasad thukuri,” [penis envy]
  • April 2003 – Americans induce patriotism through Hummer purchase – "When I turn on the TV, I see wall-to-wall Humvees, and I'm proud," said Sam Bernstein, a 51-year-old antiquities dealer who lives in Marin County, Calif., and drives a Hummer H2, an S.U.V. sibling of the military Humvee. "They're not out there in Audi A4's," he said of the troops. "I'm proud of my country, and I'm proud to be driving a product that is making a significant contribution."

Flat Daddy revisited

Last year, I blogged about Flat Daddy (a full-size cardboard-mounted photo of a deployed military family member, providing a form of tangible substitute). Now, a woman details her own family’s struggle with the challenge deployment has brought, and the experience with Flat Daddy.

But much of the time we simply keep moving forward as if there’s no hole in our family. It’s sheer pretense, as flimsy as a tissue, and I’m not sure how long it’s sustainable – or if it will get us through the long days ahead.

But it’s better than pretending a smiling cutout loves us back.

Flat Daddy helps

Life-size cutouts of deployed service members

are given by the Maine National Guard to spouses, children and relatives back home.

The Flat Daddies ride in cars, sit at the dinner table, visit the dentist and even are brought to confession, according to their significant others on the home front.

At the request of relatives, about 200 Flat Daddy and Flat Mommy photos have been enlarged and printed at the state National Guard headquarters in Augusta, Maine. The families cut out the photos, which show the Guard members from the waist up, and glue them to a $2 piece of foam board.

Take that, designers of pillows-that-hug, USB-devices-that-emit-fragrance, robots-that-care-for-elders, simulated-dogs-that-soothe. A low-fi (functionally) but hi-fi (representationally) has dramatic (anecdotal) impact. Should we be chastened, saddened, or charmed?


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