Wednesday, December 8, 2010

1012082230 The Automatic War. Chapter One.

The news about North Korean artillery made me think of this:

"At My Command"

John lay in his allocated firing position, watching his arcs as his sergeant had ordered. There was no movement, there never was, there were no troops in the minefield that lay between the North and the South, there never was. He just lay there and peered into the blackness trying to see the military targets meticulously described in routine orders. After a while he tired of it and took out a letter from home that he had been waiting for a chance to read. At the same time, miles away, John’s small movement was detected by an enemy automated sentry using Doppler shift radar coupled to a thermal imaging device. The machine added an entry to its database of known enemy locations. This particular automatic sentry had noted the locations of 75 soldiers in the last hour. The night was quiet. There was no breeze. The air was cold. John attached a red coloured filter on his torch in the mistaken belief it would not been seen easily by the enemy. It was John's 16th mistake that he had made during his 2-hour guard duty, but he was aware of only 3 and disregarded those as petty. Although the light from his torch barely provided enough light for him to see, it showed up as a brilliant white point in the night-vision equipment of the automatic enemy sentry. The sentry controller was 25km away, out of artillery range and safe inside a hardened concrete shelter. His name was Jon and he honourably, and according to his orders, fulfilled his duty and remotely aimed the Chinese made Cz20mm cannon at the target. To Jon it was a routine task: allocate the new target to gun number 47. The image of John was clear, he could be seen fumbling with his torch in the dim red light. Jon watched the screen and noted the location of the target, the range, rounds remaining and the gun’s state of weapon readiness. Then, out of curiosity, he also looked at the barrel and cordite temperatures. He regarded another control with interest: AMC & Automatic. AMC stands for "At My Command", this setting gives the operator control over when to fire the gun. It is the trigger. When using the AMC setting, the decision to fire will be made by the operator, a person, a live human with feelings, compassion and maybe a family. The operator will make that decision based on his or her training, an assessment of the tactical situation or, a direct order from a higher ranking officer. When the gun is set to AMC it will report as "Ready" instead of firing. When the gun is set to "Auto" it will fire on the identified target without delay. The manufacturers of this weapon system won the lucrative defence contract by persuasive use of the words 'without delay'.

John, the identified target, took out the letter from his girlfriend back home. He was looking forward to reading about home; that far-away place where he could kiss his girlfriend, drive his blue Chevrolet convertible and stroll along Main Street freely without the constant nagging fear of stepping on something explosive. The letter read "Dear John, I have been lonely since you left and I have fallen in love with Jack. You'd like him, he has a red Dodge pick-up truck.” John had received a "Dear John" letter.

A soldier in a war-zone needs to keep control of impulsive behaviour because anything done on the battlefield can get a soldier killed; including doing nothing. On the frontline border in a region where an unknown number of nuclear warheads are always ready, and an even bigger unknown number of troops are waiting for a half-decent excuse to reunify the south, John started a tantrum that would last for both the rest of his life and another 14.5 seconds.

John’s immature-anger welled up, the misdirected blame scrambled his thoughts, a mere 20 years of life experience was not enough to give him perspective and presence of mind he needed to appreciate his role in the complex geopolitical topography of the worlds worst place to make sudden loud noises. He tried to make some sense of it all and verbalised in his preferred native expressions which used smaller words with their own distinct but similar sounding meanings. John cursed.

Now, he mistakenly thought to himself, he was going to personally end this war. He aimed his M205 assault rifle expertly and exactly as he had been taught during years of training. He held it firmly to reduce recoil and focused on the rear sight; it was black, he could not see it; he focused on the foresight, it was black, he could not see it either; he focused on the target, it was huge and black, he could not miss it. Then with purpose and intent he deliberately squeezed the trigger and fired twenty accurate well-aimed shots blindly into an area target he identified as the entire northern hemisphere.

The sound a rifle makes when fired may be compared to the sound of thunder, however, small arms do not sound like thunder. Small arms make a vicious and irritating sound like the barking of an angry little dog, only much louder. It is the big calibre weapons that have the volume and gas momentum to reverberate against the earth and rumble the ground to make the sound of thunder. The sound and muzzle blast from field artillery can lift the dust from the ground and push over fully grown men, much to their surprise and others' amusement. The sound of a rifle firing is a sharp sudden noise accompanied by a force that is felt in the sensitive delicate paper-thin facial muscles. There is a tiny moment of unconsciousness after each round is fired while the soldier’s body absorbs the shock and recovers from the involuntary blink. It takes a few milliseconds to focus, assess the fall of shot and correct any aiming errors. After careful observation and accurate corrections the next round is squeezed off. John had no need to correct for aiming errors, his target was the one half of the war, the enemy half, so everywhere north of his allocated firing position was just as good a target as anywhere else. John’s delicate facial muscles absorbed the recoil of the rifle while the force of the sound barged into his ears and pushed his eardrums as far back as they would go, and then rattled them. He fired at nothing and everything, cursing the enemy, the war and his tiny futile role in it.

John's first round left the barrel of his rifle at a speed of 853 meters per second, a number that John had learned and remembered during basic training because it was a vital piece of information that every soldier must know, just in case he was ever asked by an officer. The round then travelled about 720 metres in the first second: the round slows down considerably with air resistance. The sound of the first bullet was noted with interest by one of the enemy's many automated listening posts. Its sensitive microphones recorded the "crack" of the sonic boom made by the bullet as it travelled along its arc and then listened for the "bang" of the rifle that fired it. The listening post sent the data to the command post where it was analysed and compiled then and compared to similar data from several other identical automated listening posts. A "circle of error" appeared on a map in the enemy’s command post. John was somewhere in that circle and every round that John fired made the circle smaller. The circle shrank smaller and smaller about three times every second until it became a point. This point indicated known troop locations. A stream of data was sent to gun 47. Several stepper motors in the aiming mechanism pointed the business end of the weapon at John. A 20mm full-metal jacket round was loaded into the chamber by an obedient solenoid.

At the enemy command post, on the control panel, a circuit switched on a particular resistive filament which warmed and then glowed with satisfaction as it illuminated the "Ready" light for gun 47.

As John's final tantrum continued, the sound of semi­automatic rifle alerted his section. Every soldier in the 1st of the 83rd of the 9th Mobile armoured light fighters sprang into action, to some it was a reaction to firing, others it a reaction to a conditioned response, others were just scared that the sergeant would yell at them. The men were well armed, well trained, motivated, fit and completely wrong. The orders stated that they must fire only when they see the enemy advancing. An alert radio operator sent a report to the brigade headquarters, "2 this is 2.2. Contact over". The short message spoke volumes, in its own shorthand way it said: "Calling Company Headquarters for the 1st of the 83rd of the 9th Mobile armored light fighters, this is platoon number 2, section 2, we are currently being attacked from the North, they are advancing on our location with armoured support". There is a lot of implied information in an army message.

In the enemy command post, the field officers saw the 1st of the 83rd of the 9th Mobile armored light fighters suddenly moving forward. This was honestly interpreted as an assault. The evidence was clearly before them. There was only one explanation: the south had started its invasion. In his own language, a Northern signaller sent a similar volume of information to his company headquarters. The sentry controller watched with great concern as automatic sentry guns numbered 14 to 39 detected forward movement and displayed ready lights, there was movement along the front, all advancing. The computer controlled sentry made a quick calculation of the predicted troop movement and alerted the officers by sounding a dignified beep. This particular beep had a distinct sound that, when interpreted correctly, told the sentry controller that at the current speed of movement, the soldiers of platoon number 2 would cross the perimeter in less than three minutes. The sentry controller knew the drill, he knew the procedure, he knew the orders. It is clearly stated that in the event of an imminent invasion, all guns must be set to fire automatically. Jon obeyed the order. He switched the big calibre weapons from AMC to automatic. Jon listened to the sound of little angry dogs barking at the thunder.

Gun 47 received the coded signal to fire an accurate three round burst at a point target. A capacitor charged, a transistor closed a circuit and sent 50 volt shock into the percussion cap of the chambered 20mm round. Following the laws of physics and chemistry, PV=nrT, the propellant gasses ignited, heated and rapidly expanded. The hot gas tried to expand inside the tiny cartridge as its volume increased to more than ten-thousand times of that of its solid state. The hot gas built up 52,000 pounds of bore pressure and impinged on the base of the projectile. Suddenly, the gas pressure overcame the initial resistance and accelerated the bullet along the barrel to a speed of 990 metres per second. The 20mm bullet burst from its confinement out of the barrel as if in celebration of its new-found freedom with a flash of light and an intense square-wave of sound. The gun recoiled in surprise as it released 4.5 litres of red-hot gas while the sound of reverberating thunder expanded into the night air. The massive 480 gram projectile, its gas expended, its cartridge case ejected, followed its graceful arc for 2,325 meters before hitting its allocated target just above the centre of the seen mass and slightly below its sensitive delicate paper-thin facial muscles. The second round passed through John’s Kevlar armour without any significant loss of momentum while the third round sped past his inert body, through a cloud of fine red mist and whiff of steam. In the next 3.14159 seconds, the mechanical automated sentry delicately adjusted its aim with ballet-like precision and repeated this procedure another 74 times with similar results. John's last round fell harmlessly into the Northern countryside about five meters from the enemy listening post.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

1011212030 My Interview Went Well.

Meanwhile... .

And so my contract as a Native English teacher with the wonderful Chinese Catholic girls' school in Wong Tai Sin ended. My last day was ordinary, anti-climactic and sobering. The lesson ended and within a few minutes another teacher came to the classroom. She asked if I had finished because she needed the classroom for a violin lesson. That simple administrate gesture put my life in perspective.

I applied to work at another primary school and my interview went well. The few subjects that I passed in my Bachelor of Education were useful in the interview as I talked to the English teachers about the psychology of learning and the importance of formative assessments which lead to an in-depth discussion about the indicators of functional cognitive ability. I told them I was studying towards my Bachelor of Education but I am not a teacher and that is why I am not registered as a such with the relevant authorities in Hong Kong. There was a long pause. "We will discuss this with the principal and inform you of our decision."

The next day there was a long silence.

Then, late on Friday night, the agency called to tell me that the school would like me to start on Monday and could I please attend a planning meeting at eight o'clock in the morning. I thanked them and assured them "I will be there" with a postscript on how utterly amazed I was at the offer.

The school is about 50km away from where I live. In Hong Kong that means it is also two hours away and requires the crossing of three tunnels, two bridges and a partridge in a pear tree. On Saturday morning, early Saturday morning after dragging my half-unconscious carcass almost to China, I found myself at the planning meeting with the head of the English curriculum and the other English teachers. We talked about the lessons for the next few weeks and I committed to attending the parents and teachers night, the sports day and their upcoming 10th anniversary concert.

The principal talked to me afterwards and asked me at what university did I get my education degree.
It is at this point when I digress to talk about a famous Australian author, Miles Franklin, who wrote a book about her brilliant career. The book is aptly titled My Brilliant Career. She also wrote another less-known sequel called My Career Goes Bung. That is how I would aptly describe what happened next.

The principal casually asked for a copy of my Hong Kong ID card, my work visa and a copy of my first degree. I told the principal that I do not have an education degree or a first degree; and it could be argued, with a high probability of success, that I do not even have an education. "I cannot talk to you anymore, I will contact the agency. Good day." said the principal amid a flurry of apologies but he then took the time to explain to me that he had asked the agency for an English teacher, one who has actually completed a degree, preferably in the English language, about the English language and with the purpose and intent of actually teaching English as a career. Not a telephone technician. The English teacher looked at me silently for a few seconds and then asked me to return her books.

A few minutes later, I was riding my scooter along the long Yuen Long freeway back to Hong Kong. In my mind was the haunting image from a youtube movie showing a scooter accident that occurred on the same stretch of road a few days earlier. The scooter accident represents how quickly life can change.

As of Sunday night, I have not heard from anyone about where to be on Monday morning, so I sent an email to prompt the agency to contact me. It went like this:

The situation:
I have not heard from the agency
I have not heard from the school
I have not signed a contract
I feel like a fool

I cannot start on Monday
I am not welcome there
If I sit and do nothing
It will not be fair

Everyone was so helpful
It happened so quick
"Please show me your papers"
I can't do such a trick

One minute I worked there
The next I was gone
They want a real teacher
But I just fix phones.

So now in the evening
I plan my next day
Do I go in the morning?
What do you say?

( I really did not mean it to turn into rhyming couplets but I was thinking about a play called the Misanthrope.)

Miles Franklin. My Brilliant Career (1901)

Misanthrope. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Known as Molière (1622-1673)

Scooter Accident in Hong Kong.