Clearing the Air on No Clear Air

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Let me get this out of the way right now – I am currently not in any danger of the California Wildfires making the news daily. The nearest fire to me is about 25 miles away and isn’t moving my way. So, before you say a ‘stay safe’ or ‘be careful’ please direct your concerns to those who have already lost homes and lives to the fires. If that changes, then you will get a different update. Send your thoughts and prayers to those in need, but accept that I am not one.

That being said, there are a couple fires in the area. The Bobcat fire is the one twenty-five miles away in the San Gabriel Mountains above Arcadia and Monrovia. While a small neighborhood is on evacuation notice, most of the fire is burning deeper into the San Gabriels. Already at 33,000 acres, the fire crews are just letting it burn and is only 6% contained. Wildfires, as dangerous as they are, bring balance to the ecosystem. Fires clear dead brush, improve the soil, and open up the land for new growth. Fire crews will only contain fires that need to be contained. With all the fires across the west, they are letting this go and there are suggestions that it won’t be until mid-October.

The Bobcat, as well as the El Dorado Fire in Riverside, is producing a lot of smoke. There’s been little wind the last few days, which allows for better fire control, but has meant the smoke is lingering. The haze started up middle of last week, but then it came in hard over the weekend. Thursday and Friday, the air quality was listed as “Unhealthy for Sensitive People”. Saturday it was just “Unhealthy.” It lay so think that I couldn’t see across the Crescenta Valley to the Verdugo Mountains, just a couple miles away. Through daylight hours, the sky was orange or a shade of sepia. While there is a bit of a campfire smell, it was more acrid. Ash is always around, either lightly, or in flakes, which seems to only outline the cobwebs that have been hidden up until now.

Currently, I am running an air cleaner and recently changed the HVAC filter. It’s warm enough to keep the AC running,which will help clean the air as well. Otherwise, it is like what most of 2020 is, waiting for things to be over.

Once in a Fortnite

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During the pandemic, we all need something to help pass the time. I hadn’t been writing much. Not here in the blog, obviously, and not in general. I don’t go anywhere. And you can only watch Tiger King so many times before it stops being funny. So, what have I been spending time doing?

I’ve been playing Fortnite.

Now, either you know Fortnite or you don’t. It is an online game that has around 20 million active players worldwide at any given time. Free to play on gaming counsels, PC, and even mobile applications; Fortnite has been around for three years, which is ten lifetimes in the gaming world. It’s hugely popular in younger demographics, specifically teen and preteen, which can make my 48-year-old skills feel a bit creepy, but that isn’t the point.

I mean, it’s crazy how many teens are in this game … but it’s not creepy, promise.

Fortnite, or specifically, Fortnite: Battle Royal is a game about survival. You are placed into an arena with 99 other online players. The arena is set-up as an island with streams, mountains, villages, farms, fortresses, and other bits and bobs that make up the landscape. It is (in whatever is Fortnite dimensions) a five-kilometer by five-kilometer map. You are loaded up with nothing but 100 hit points and a pickax you can use to harvest building materials (wood, stone, & metal). Around the island are seeded ammo and weapons, like pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, and “others” (more on that later). There are also chests full of goodies to help your load in. You can also find bandages and medkits to heal your hit points, and shield potions to add up to an additional 100 hit points on top of your health. The objective of the game is to be the last one standing; however you get there. The winner is given a screen sowing “VICTORY ROYAL”, which I must say is way more satisfying than it sounds.

The best way to describe the game is to think of it like the book/movie Hunger Games (which was a concept stolen from a Japanese movie named Battle Royal … and Fortnite using that title is not a coincidence). The early game (the first minute or two), is like the cornucopia portion of Hunger Games. Without weapons or sufficient armor, it is a mad dash to grab whatever items you can get your hands on, all while everyone else is doing the same. Typically this means racing another player to a good item, and if you get there second you can expect to be taken out. It’s worth noting that as the game continues, a ‘storm’ closes in on the arena. Defined by enclosing circles, the storm will deal damage to any players caught outside of the safe zone, so as the game continues players are drawn closer and closer to each other. After a minute or two things settle down, and the mid-game goes into a farm mode. The building materials mentioned before are used to build basic structures that can help to get the high ground or defenses later in the game. Plus, with time you can find higher quality weapons and items. This mid-game period may give you 1v1 or 3rd party eliminations as you come across other players. Once you reach the last ten to fifteen players, the late game becomes a strategic showdown. Some try to act the sniper, some jump into the fire to hunt down others, some do some kind of mix. The storm is fairly narrow, and if the game goes on long enough, it will consume the whole map. You can get lucky and find yourself in the late game, but it takes skill to close out a victory. Depending on if you get taken out early or last the whole game, each round could take between fifteen minutes and less than thirty seconds.

On its surface, this game sounds violent and horrible for kids, but in their defense playing the game doesn’t give you that impression. Yes, this is about weapons and attacking other characters, but there is no blood. When you hit someone with a weapon, you see a number corresponding to the damage inflicted. The animation jumps slightly, but not in a way that seems violent. When you eliminate (or “elim”) an opponent, the animation shows a drone appear and zapping up the character into pixels. There’s nothing realistic about it. In fact, it’s incredibly campy.

That’s not the only thing campy about the game. You can change your character’s appearance by changing it’s ‘skin’. The default skin is a female (or far less frequently, male) dressed in an adventurer outfit; however, you can change it to be everything from a mechanic to a Korean pop star to a lazy jerk. Then again, you can also be a cat riding a robot. My two victory royals came when I was a bratwurst. So, it doesn’t sound so violent when your scuba diver is taken out by a banana with legs. There isn’t much opportunity for bullying typical in online gaming (also called trolling). You have no way to interact with your opponents except for additional dances (called emotes) you can have your character do. Emotes aren’t good for trolling in Fortnite because, for one, they are really campy, and for two, they are noisy so they can draw attention to other players looking to take you out. Even when someone tries to troll you with an emote, it’s hard to take it seriously when it is Captian America playing a llama shaped cowbell.

Why is this game so popular, you may ask. A number of reasons.

For one, it’s free .. kinda. You can download and play the game for free as long as you want. The game does offer “v-coins” which you can purchase and use to buy skins, outfits, emotes, new pickaxes, and other fun stuff. There’s also a battle pass, but i will get back to that later. This is actually a brilliant move by Epic Games, the developer; because as much as we love a free game, we don’t realize we are paying for it. In the two months I have been playing, I probably spent $75 on this “free game”, but that is part of the love.

Another reason it is so popular is that it is never the same game twice. You load into the game on a “battle bus”, a flying bus coasting a kilometer above the arena, that you have to skydive and glide out of to reach the game. While you can cover some distance when you leave the bus, it will enter and exit the arena in a random straight line – meaning you don’t enter into the same place twice. The storm circles are random as well, and the seeding of weapons & chests can change randomly. Also, when you are assigned 99 other opponents in a pool of millions, you may never play the same player twice. That’s just the basics, not the really cool stuff.

How Epic Games has sustained Fortnite’s popularity is that it changes the game regularly. Every three months or so, they change the game’s theme in what they call a “season”. This could be pirate-themed or volcano themed or zombie-themed. When I started playing, the map was nearly completely covered with water. Since the new season started and it is celebrating a Marvel Comics storyline, so we have Doctor Doom, Iron Man, and Thor themed stuff everywhere. It’s not just the big changes, sometimes, you show up and there is a new point of interest on the map. In fact, this Marvel theme is more like a Marvel story, because there clearly is something going on with the map that is leading to a bigger and bigger event.

This is part of Epic Game’s genius. Every season, they offer a ‘battle pass’, where for $20 you can get special items and do additional challenges. It doesn’t change the gameplay in a way that gives anyone a tactical advantage, but it adds to the fun. Even a ten-year-old can pool up $20 over three months, so it’s incredibly popular. Especially when you think that Epic probably got a nice chunk of change from Marvel to promote their characters in-game.

The game is so popular that hundreds of players make a living playing Fortnite, and it may not be how you think There are competitions, including a world championship that awarded the winner a million bucks last year, but that’s not what I am talking about. Really good pro players will go to Twitch or YouTube and stream them playing the game. People watching them play will occasionally donate to their stream. Commonly, it’s nothing more than a dollar per donation; however, good players can get tens of thousands of followers watching for hours and hours. Some of these players will make THOUSANDS EVERY DAY as they play. It’s through one of those players that I got interested in the game. Going by Nick Eh 30, this player runs a family-friendly stream where he shows his mad skills and a great sense of humor. In his early twenties and still living with his parents, he said when he started streaming Fortnite, he wouldn’t tell his parents as they didn’t approve of him playing games for couple hours a day. Now, he streams for seven hours a day, follows their rules (no swearing, expect your followers to say ‘please and thank you’, and if he doesn’t win a game he does 10 push-ups to keep fit); and he clearly turns over his earnings to support the family (who probably didn’t need it, but he’s the kind of guy who does it as ‘the right thing to do’). I mean, he is Canadian, they are like that up there. I hated online gaming because I didn’t want to deal with the personalities of people who only got good at one game and think it makes them the most important person in the world … and then finding out they are 12 years old. Nick proved that Fortnite supports those who are just looking for a good time, so I gave it a try.

I fit in Fortnite between meetings or after work. Because the games are short, over two and a half months I have about 850 games played. I have three victory royals, the first took nearly 750 games to win — and honestly, it was the best game I ever played. On average, I get about one elimination a game, and can get four or five if I am feeling it. That first win, I had fifteen elims. I covered much of the map, had to do major heals, and got really lucky more than once. However, when that screen froze and the “VICTORY ROYAL” showed up, it was maybe the highlight of the pandemic for me.

So, that’s what I have been up to. If you play Fortnite as well, drop me a note and maybe we can hook-up in-game for some duals or squads (right now my only Fortnite friend is the 11-year-old stepdaughter of a coworker). Otherwise, I will keep grinding out the elims and try to get another victory.

Percy’s On Its Way

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Yesterday at 7:50am EDT (4:50am PDT), the Mars 2020 mission lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin its journey to land the rover Perseverance on Jezero Crater on Mars. Launching at the first opportunity its launch window, Mars 2020 didn’t start off without some rocky moments. One of which happened at 4:29am PDT, when a 4.5 Magnitude Earthquake centered just 10 miles from JPL shook us all up a little; though it was mild enough to cause no damage. So you can say, things were quite exciting around here.

Mars 2020 did have a post-launch hiccup. Due to a concerning sensor reading, they placed the spacecraft into “safe mode”, a condition that shuts down all critical instruments to protect them. After some diagnostics, there was an all clear, and is back into normal conditions.

The live launch would have been something to see. Mars 2020, with it’s cruse stage, heat shield, landing crane, and rover is one of the heaviest unmanned space missions in history. More weight means more boom at launch. They strapped that bad boy on top of an Atlas V-541 nicknamed the Dominator, one of the most powerful rockets in history. That power was evident right from the beginning, a fact emphasized by the time to clear the tower. Apollo missions usually took about 8 seconds to clear the tower, the Atlas in 5. Now the mission is traveling at over 24,000 miles an hour, but it has 300 million miles to go. While trajectory changes may impact the arrival, currently the mission is scheduled to land on Mars on February 21st, 2021.

Like most JPLers, I watch the launch from home with a sleeping pup by my side. Previous missions usually came with watching parties and events around JPL and Pasadena, but with the pandemic going on all of those were canceled months ago. While I worked on Mars 2020, there would be so many direct support JPLs, friends, and family that I probably wouldn’t have gotten an invite to those watch parties. I had plans to head to Florida to watch the launch in person, but the pandemic again ruined that idea. So, it was my couch and my Auggie.

I was surprised by my reaction to the launch. I’ve always loved to watch a rocket launch, and seemed to either be excited or in awe. This time, I was nervous. Everything thing on the stream that looked slightly off made me panic, or caused me to fear the worst. This was our biggest mission, with millions of hours of hard work behind it. I told someone, “This must be what it feels like to care about a mission and the people who made it happen.”

For now, we wait. There will be six trajectory adjustments along the way. The first in two weeks, the second in two months. In the meantime, we will just let our friend fly.

Countdown to Perseverance

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This Thursday, at 7:50am EDT, Mars 2020 (and the Perseverance Rover) is expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, FL.

If you can’t physically be there for the launch, you can watch it on nearly any streaming service including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Just search for NASA TV or JPL. It maybe on cable and network TV, whether or not they pick it up, but it’s worth checking when it comes along.

Mars 2020 is the largest, most complex Mars mission to date. Designed, built, and perfected by my colleges at the Jet Propulsion Lab, the billion dollar project took years to come together. Now, it sits on the launch pad going to the final bells and whistles in hopes the July 30th launch window is a winner. Build in the shadow of it’s predecessor, Curiosity, which launched and landed in 2012, Perseverance is heading up in search of signs of previous Marian life.

To get all this done, there a bunch of key instruments on board:

SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.  I visited the company that designed and built this instrument (literally a garage, there was a motorcycle repair shop next door).  They gave me a laymen’s version of what SHERLOC does, and it essentially will scan the ground for signs of organics.  In other words … if there was life at any time in the dirt under the rover, this guy will find it.  This is the unit that could prove that Earth wasn’t the only life-bearing planet, that we aren’t alone in this universe.

By the way, if you can’t tell JPL and NASA use heavy hands when naming their instrumentation.  Sometimes forcing an acronym to work even if it is quirky.  SHERLOC is an investigation tool, kind of like the fictional detective.  Well, SHERLOC happens to have a camera that acts as a sidekick and helps to make observations of how the instrument is doing … that’s right, it’s called WATSON.

MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) is another big one.  Mars’s atmosphere isn’t breathable by humans, but it has some oxygen in it.  If humans are ever going to visit or live there, then we need to know if we can produce enough oxygen to sustain life.  MOXIE is the first demonstration model of how that could be done.

Other instruments like PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) are designed to take better reading so the geology of Mars.

Mars 2020 will also be equipped with the most advanced planetary cameras in history.  Few people know that while black-and-white photos are transmitted like photos on your phone, a color picture from Mars is typically is a rendering of scanned data with known feature output – think of it as there is someone on Mars explaining to an artist on Earth what they see then the artist recreates that result.  Mars 2020 will have cameras that can capture and transmit real color photos. 

Then in what is a major forward-thinking idea, the rover will have what’s called a Sample Caching System (SCS).  Like with Curiosity, the rover will be equipped with a rock drill to allow the retrieval of material for testing.  The SCS intends to take that mater and place it inside of metal tubes.  Somewhere, the tubes are stacked in a big cache by the rover and left behind.  Then somewhere in the future, a mission will send something to that cache, pick up all the tubes, then return them to Earth.  If this works out, it will be the first time material from another planet will be brought home (or our home I guess).  The SCS is going to fly, we’re pretty sure about that – but what we aren’t sure is when something will pick it up, or how, or … anything.  There is no mission planned yet to do that, but we are still doing the sampling.

Crazy right?  I mean, this is all out there and crazy.

Oh by the way … we’re going to put a helicopter on it.

You heard me.

Mars 2020 will include the Mars Helicopter.  It is a four blade drone that has the intention to fly ahead of the rover to look for potential hazards.  It comes with a docking station and everything.  It’s a hell of an idea, because like with landing the rover, no signal can be sent in real time due to the delay between Earth and Mars.  You basically have to pre-program any flight.  Thing is, if the helicopter crashes or screws up, it won’t hurt the bulldozer of a rover – so we the approach was a ‘do no harm’ mission low funded.  The inside joke is if the Helicopter can lift off and take a Rover Selfie it will be a mission success.

The launch window starts on July 30th and goes through August 15 with time frames varied over those weeks. The one problem is, if we miss the August 15th date, the window closes for a couple years. So, it’s go time.

The State of Sport

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Hello again from La Crescenta / Glendale, CA. We are still on lockdown, and when we seem to take a step forward, we take a step back. The city announced on Friday that barbershops and hair stylists could open, and some restaurants can have in-house dining. Yet, since Saturday, we’ve been on early evening curfew. So even if I did get my hair cut, I couldn’t show it off after sundown. So it is generally status quo.

What isn’t status quo is the continued opening up of the sporting world. I make no bones about my love for sports, and that background of an event here and there is what is the least obvious thing that I miss. I miss it bad.

Part of it is how it ended. There was a 48 hour period where sport after sport suspended operations, some delaying the inevitable with early plans to play without fans, but that didn’t last long. In fact, the week it all went down, I had big plans. Two friends and I had planned a guys “pseudo-bachelor party” weekend in Nashville, centered around a hockey game. The guest of honor is a big Flyers fan, and they were playing the Predators. Over three or four days, our conversations went from”I’m all in”, to “I am in still even if they don’t play”. to “maybe we should hold off”. Three months later, no hockey, not hockey playoffs, not even a planned date to return.

Hockey, though, is one of the sports that do have a plan. When they get the go ahead, they will start a 24 team playoff that looks complicated on paper, but is going to be fun. They’ll play it at designated host cities where the entire Western conference will play in one city, and the Eastern in another. Nascar made it back early, racing in front of empty stands, and packed a bunch of races in the first few weeks that they might get in a full schedule by year end. Even if I don’t want to, I got to talk about basketball because De3an Innes is a Clippers fan. NBA are still trying to figure out what to do, and might have player problems when they get there. An NBA plan includes some regular season games, but players on teams out of the playoffs have said they won’t play. MLB is likely the most messed up, because players and owners are arguing over the pro-rating pay.

NFL is likely the least effected, though may play in front of empty stadiums. If you missed it, the NFL Draft was a spectacle. I love watching the draft anyway, but they did it remotely including cameras in houses for many of the teams. The Commish Goodell’s basement chair (and the rumors that he was replacing window screens between rounds) became a talking point. The star of the show happened when the NE Patriots made their first pick, the cameras went to Head Coach Bill Belachek’s house, which looked like he was set up on his dining room table … except it wasn’t him. Sitting at the computer was Nike Beleachek, the family dog.

Since I love sports of all kind, I would be remiss to ignore world wide sports … in fact I insist. This weekend, the National Rugby League, Austraila’s rugby league, returned to empty stadiums and piped-in crowd noise. I’m a passing fan of the NRL, but when it’s good it’s great. What I like is that one stadium has seats only on two sides, and in the end zones, resident houses are close enough to see the game … so they set up scaffold and invited their mates. On June 12, my really favorite Australian Sport – Aussie Rules Football – returns. They are being so careful that they have only set a schedule for the next month. Soccer is making a comeback. Germany’s Bundesliga has been back for almost a month. England, Spain, and Italy won’t be far behind with dates set.

What has benefited from the lockdown is eSports, or competitive computer games. What can be suprising about eSports for the uninformed is how massive it is already. The foundation of the eSports community is in Asia/ In South Korea, the top spectator sport is competitive Starcraft II .. and has been since the game was released, only because it replaced the then biggest sport, Starcraft, which had been huge since the late ’90s. A personal favorite, League of Legends (which deserves a blog to itself) is so big world wide that with World Finals drew more viewers than the Super Bowl. Players, most of them not even old enough to rent a car, can make over a million dollars a year playing professionally.

While eSports prefer games to be played in stadiums or studios – part for the fan involvement, and part for the competitive integrity — the lockdown allowed for the games to continue remotely. Networks like ESPN, FS1, and NBCSN, hungry for something to show that wasn’t a replay, routinely show eSports. The main ones are sports we know, like NFL Madden, or NBA 2K, or motor racing simulators; but they still find a way to make compelling TV. Whether or not support continues when we get live sports yet to be seen, but at least they are getting the attention they deserve.

For any sports fan now, we can take what we can get. It might even be professional cornhole, which is a thing, but it’s still something.

And I guess that is what we have right now … “It’s still something.”

Hello From the Other Side

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Hey there. Y’all miss me? It’s your friendly neighborhood idiot, finally breaking the seal on the bear cave and writing some meaningless words onto the blog. It’s been nearly three months since my last post, and yes the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame, but maybe not in the ways you might think.

For the record, I did not get COVID-19 and until just yesterday followed all the rules placed on us for Los Angeles County, Glendale, and California. You won’t hear me downplaying the situation in this blog either, as by now most of us know someone affected by the disease. That’s not why I stayed away from the blog.

I’ve mentioned this before in passing, and more directly in person, that I find it really hard to blog when I am in an unhappy place. For the last two-and-a-half months, I was in that unhappy land. The obvious points people would make would be “yeah, your life situation during a shelter-in-place must be difficult.” Well, my life situation is a home with just my dog, TV, video games, and take-out is what I used to call ‘a weekend off’. No, my unhappiness was a mixture of things. For one, I bought into the fear and found myself exceedingly anxious when I left the house. For two, the weather – at least early on. Most of March was raining, so even when we wanted to get out of the house we couldn’t – and that creates some unhealthy habits. Also, I had a horrible run of bad luck or bad timing for things. The kicker of which was when the DMV dropped me a snail mail to tell me my license was suspended, which meant by the time it arrived I had been driving on a suspended license for 5 days — when I called them, they said “yeah, our mistake, we’ll fix it”.

Part of the reason why you didn’t see any blogs is the bear cave itself. Normally, I don’t write anything at home. Most of the time, I write at my friendly neighborhood Starbucks – which you can guess isn’t an option now. I tend to compartmentalize locations. I don’t like writing at home for the same reason I don’t like working from home – home is where I chill. Writing, in particular, needs me to be somewhere with little distraction, and the bear cave exists to be as distracting from the rest of the work as possible. I’ve managed to develop a working environment at home, but writing is another thing.

So how was I able to get myself to write a post today? I broke the rules.

Instead of spending memorial day weekend not watching sports; I got out of the house. My great friends, Chadd & Heather Creed, purchased a home during the pandemic in the heart of Temecula’s wine country. At their invitation, I threw the dog into the car and drove down to spend a couple days with them. Of course, the change in scenery is refreshing, and their kitchen table makes for a nice distraction free blog location – but more than anything, being here with friends makes me happy.

Of course, this isn’t over. While counties around Los Angeles are opening up, LA County isn’t. In a future post I’ll probably dig into what life is like these days, but that life continues. How I really feel about it all comes down my anger at a statement I keep hearing: “The New Normal”. For me, that suggests that our bar of life has shifted, and it’s up to us to get used to it. I disagree. This maybe new, but there is nothing normal about it. We are not meant to hide in our homes, avoid gatherings, and stay six feet apart. We were meant to be around each other, talk to each other, and hug each other. This new whatever is becoming more damaging than the disease. The goal shouldn’t be to protect as many people as possible, the goal should be get us back to Normal as fast as possible.

So that it. Sorry I have been missing, and I can’t promise I will be blogging a lot soon; but I want to get back to normal too. If that means crapping out some blogs, that’s what I will do.

Spreading Like a Virus

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Hello from Southern California, where overreaction and spreads like a virus.  Like much of the world, there is a fair bit of concern over the coronavirus (COVID-19) around the area.  It’s pretty easy to get caught up in it since you can’t clear your throat without someone thinking you are as deadly as the plague.  I’ve tried to keep a sense of humor about it, but like I said, it’s easy to get caught up in the panic.  The infection rate is going to be really high, and while the death rate is not going to ever be as high as it currently is, it’s still going to exceed the everyday flu.  In hopes to raise my spirits about this mess, and just for the interest of capturing a moment of in time, I thought I would describe some of what is going around me with this thing.

For starters, it wrecked some exciting plans.  I was supposed to be on an airplane tomorrow to Orland to spend a couple days at the NASA Quality Leadership Forum, a forum of NASA’s quality leadership, as you can probably guess.  I’ve attended it in the past and enjoyed it in the past, but this time I was slated to be a speaker.  Me, a hundred or so folks in ties, and a slide show.  It isn’t happening because of NASA Headquarters cautiousness.  Granted, it probably was the safe path to take, and it likely will still be held at a later date, but it still was a missed opportunity for me.

Instead, I am here this week.  Like I do every week, I went to buy my groceries on Sunday.  I tried to follow suggestions that I should keep my pantry stocked for 2 weeks worth of food, but that recommendation suggests I can plan that far in advance … and that my pantry can hold two weeks of food, heck my kitchen barely holds enough room for a sink.

Buying groceries was a goofy adventure, though.  You really know what people think are staples in a panic in these situations.  The bread shelves were fairly empty (though only the cheap brands).  Rice was generally sold out.  Chicken soup.  Eggs.  Pasta and Pasta sauce.  All of these were hard to come by.  Spam, in particular, was gone completely.  The spam shelf was like a black hole of nothing (surrounded by chili).

Of course, there are shortages of hand sanitizers and face masks.  The sanitizer makes sense.  The loud statements from people in the know, however, say that wearing masks don’t keep you from getting sick – just keep the masks from those who already are sick or those who really need masks.

The run-on toilet paper makes no sense.

At work, like I said before, they are being cautious.  There is a partial travel ban.  International travel requires a mission-critical reason, and only to locations that aren’t considered a significant threat.  Also, international travelers won’t be allowed back on JPL for 14 days.  Domestic travel is unrestricted but discouraged.  Many NASA centers held a telenetworking day (a day when everyone capable was encouraged to work from home) on Friday to test their ability to have people not come in.  JPL didn’t fully participate as we are going through some IT changes that aren’t ready for such a test.  Big flags went up when it was reported that someone at the NASA Ames center in Silicon Valley tested positive for COVID-19, and the whole of the facility went on mandatory telenetwork.  We are set to get a briefing tomorrow – ironically during a townhall (though one that is virtual only, but wouldn’t that have been funny).  The message here continues to be the usual message from everyone – wash your hands, stay home if you are sick, avoid large groups of people.

Like all situations like this, it’s easy to make jokes.  We try to think of different ways to greet people other than shaking hands — Nerds like the Spock ‘live long and prosper’ salute; I like jazz hands; others do fist bumps or foot taps.  I like sharing a meme where Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline is getting rejected by the Center for Disease Control (CDC):
Neil:  Hands
CDC: Yes, wash them for at least 20 seconds
Neil: touching hands
CDC:  No, please don’t touch hands
Neil: reaching out
CDC: avoiding that too
Neil: Touching Me
CDC: oh hell
Neil: TOUCHING YOU

Then, of course, it has to be said that this is still something to be taken seriously.  Just follow the simple rules.
Wash your hands, a lot, for at least 20 seconds.
Keep the areas that are common to other people clean, or clean things you come in contact with.
Cover your mouth with your arm when you cough or sneeze; and if you do it into your hands, wash them immediately.
Symptoms are coughing, fever, shortness of breath – if you get these, go see someone.

I think I failed at keeping things fun, but my fingers stay crossed I can still laugh about this later.  It’s been a rough last four months for a lot of loved ones, and all it takes is one loved one to be effected to make this not funny anymore.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and see you on the other side of this panic.

The Unreadable Critique

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In one of those Facebook memories, I was reminded of something from two years ago that was a strange new adventure for me. Sitting at the Downtown Montrose Starbucks, where I am sitting as I blog today, I was editing a short story hours before submitting it to a critique group.  It would be the first time I would share a work of fiction to anyone I actually knew.  In fact, the group I was meeting with included published writers, and this was the first time I shared something with actual professionals.

Spoiler alert, it didn’t go well.  The most memorable critique (and it was meant and received in a supportive way) was “this is unreadable.”  That may have been the harshest critique, but it followed a majority of negative comments.

It didn’t discourage me.  Well, it did, but it made me get to work to hone my craft.  Take the feedback, and get better.  I had a sense of purpose from the process.  Picture if you will, the timeframe.  I had been living in California for a year by then, and six months into house payments the squeeze of the cost of living was starting to circle me.  While I was enjoying myself, I started to repeat a motto:

“It’s time to start turning my hobbies into profit centers.”

Okay, maybe that comes across blunt, blunter then it should.  I have hobbies, and I like to do them because I enjoy doing them.  It’s just that until recently, I never really tried to exploit them.  Which, come to think about it “exploit” doesn’t sound any better.  I wasn’t expecting to go running to the bank, I just wanted to take my free time and my investments in those hobbies and make it so they were still fun with at worst make it no longer a losing effort.  The fall before, I took long strides to expand my band judging skills, including venturing into winter color guard (something that might be a blog later this week as I get into that new season).  Trying to explore what I could do through writing was something completely different.

Honestly, I am a long way from doing anything that suggests I can turn a profit on writing.  My interest is in writing a novel-length story.  To do that first, you have to type up a novel-length story; which is way harder than it sounds.  I’ve mentioned I participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November, and have accomplished over 50,000 words on five occasions.  I can honestly say that those attempts resulted in completing one novel – and it sucks.  I’ve actually worked on four novels throughout that time, but struggled with a full plot, or put myself in situations where I scrapped ideas for a number of reasons.  As a great meme once said:

“Give a child a book and they will be happy for a month.  Teach a child to write a book and they will be tormented their whole life by self-doubt.”

Joining the critique group was my next big jump into this process.  Editing.  Let me tell you, editing is hard; especially for someone like me.  I tend to visualize a story and tell it based on what I see.  The problem I face is getting the words on the screen to match both what I visualize and what I thought I told.  I”m sure if any of you read my blogs before you have seen more than a few grammatical or typographic errors.  I obviously wouldn’t have done that on purpose, heck I might even though I wrote those items correctly.  A critique I got often early on was to read what I wrote out loud so I could hear what the issues are.  It never worked for me because when I read it, even to myself out loud, I was saying what I wanted the words to say not what they actually said.  A word speak app has helped with that, but I battle some common issues (like I wait for that “you are mixing up tenses” every time I submit to the group).   Web tools help like Grammarly has been a lifesaver — I even use that for work e-mails and reports.    As a friend I know from another writer group told me:

“When I finished my first novel in college, my professor said, ‘good job, maybe in 10 years you will be done editing and be able to publish’,”

All of this is what comes before the final stages of preparing a novel, which is honestly more of a dream than a step along the way.  There are editors who do the hard sweep of everything.  There are beta readers who look at the whole of the book for feedback.  Then you go into the brutal failure rich world of publishing.

I plug away regardless, putting together what I can when I can to share with the critique group.  Their varied backgrounds lead to great commentary and critiques.  Some are a prolific young adult or romance novelists.  Some are short story specialists.  Some are into SciFi, some into fantasy.  Some focus on the hard details of what I submit, picking away at each inconsistency that needs to be resolved.  Some look at the conceptual flow to see if the story is entertaining or interesting.  Some focus on pacing.  Some focus on character.  Some just tell me “you’re mixing up your tenses”.  In return, I do my part and give my feedback to what they submit when I can.

I’d like to sit here and say that the person who found my work to be unreadable at my first submission had changed his heart, but I can’t.  Sadly he had a sudden illness and passed away just before New Years.  Before then, I had consistently shared my thanks for his feedback, which remained honest – good and bad.  That’s all you really want from a critique, honesty.  Because if you know what works and what doesn’t you’ll always get better.  Because as I say all the time in my real job:

“It’s not what we do wrong, it’s what we do about it.”

A Rover’s First Miles

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Sometime either in the near future or the near past, JPL’s next rover will begin its journey to Mars.  For over five years, JPL has been planning, designing, building, and testing the Mars 2020 mission; the target towards launch this upcoming July.  It is essentially a redo on the continued successful Mars Science Laboratory rover commonly known as Curiosity.  Mars 2020 (which will get it’s own fun name soon) has been our flagship program for as long as I have been here.  I even blogged about it last June:

Mars 2020 is Coming

The assembly took a few months a mid-last year, testing a few more months until the beginning of this year, and now they are ready for the next stage.  A cross-country road trip.

Mars 2020 will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on a date yet to be made public but likely around mid-July.  To get the mission to Florida, they boxed everything up and put the mission on the smoothest rides they could get.  The mission’s departure date, arrival date, route, and progress isn’t made public just in case there are security risks; however, here on the lab, we are pretty aware of the increased activity in the high bay where it was assembled and the funny looking trucks coming and going from the area.

Getting the mission to Flordia isn’t as easy as you might think.  For starters, there’s a lot to it.  The rover, which is the size of a small SUV, is pretty bulky even when it’s in a stowed condition like it is now.  There are three other components that have to go with it.  The heat shield attaches below the rover for entry into the Mars atmosphere.  The rover will be slowed to the surface using a unit called the ‘sky crane’; which uses a series of parachutes, a lowering crane, and thrusters to place the rover gently on the Martian surface undamaged.  Then the cruise stage, which is essentially the propulsion system used for course corrections between Earth and Mars.  When the mission arrives at the Cape, all of that hardware would need to be tested and checked out before the final assembly begins.  The testing and assembly require fixturing and other hardware, so there are trucks and trucks just full of ground support equipment.

I say trucks, but that is just a guess.  There would definitely be trucks leaving JPL because nothing else would work around here to carry anything out of the lab.  The challenge with any spaceflight hardware is that they are pretty sensitive to vibrations.  That’s why it likely won’t go by plane.  Flying, whether you notice it or not, is constant shaking even when there is no turbulence.  Sure, the mission will see a fair bit of vibration on the launch, but that’s a couple minutes – not four or five hours.  Usually, the hardware is only flown in its final assembled condition if there isn’t a better option (like flying overseas).  Sometimes, the hardware is transported by boat simply because even that is less of a stress on hardware than by car, but that’s usually just amongst the gulf states.

I guess I like to picture that the mission is riding in a truck there because it makes for a great visual.  A convoy of space hardware in containers running hard across the open road.  I could even see it being like Mad Max: Fury Road complete with a guy strung up playing a guitar shooting fire from its end.  Then again, I still love the idea of The Great American Road Trip.  I’ve personally driven coast-to-coast five times and driven in every state in the country, love what I see when I do it.  I’m even considering making the drive myself to watch the launch this July, with the pup but without the flame-thrower guitarist.

Adventure awaits for our Rover.  This trip is the first of many many long miles passing by thousands and thousands of people who will wish it well on it’s journey.  Sure it will be on the back of a vehicle, but soon enough it will be on the top of a rocket.  After that, he ventures out on his own on a planet that we can only dream about standing on.

Expecting LA’s Best

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Here’s a hint, when talking to kids about NASA, expect the unexpected.

There are a couple days now that I list under my “favorite JPL Days of the Year”, and one just passed.  About a week ago, I volunteered to present at a local elementary school as part of the Los Angeles School District’s LA’s Best program.  This afterschool program funds and supports afterschool clubs in the areas of interest that 3rd thru 5th graders may be interested in.   Honestly, the kids that are in attendance a fair big distance from picking where they end up, but our involvement does seem to spark a heck of a lot of excitement over space and science.

This is the third year I volunteered, and what really kicked this event off that separated it from the previous two was that  … I got training before I walked in the door.  The last couple of times, I had to miss the training and didn’t know what to expect.  Now that I  know what to expect, I got told what to expect.

And still, things went unexpected.

The process always goes – I walk in, I say I work for JPL, then I ask if anyone has any questions.  The following half-hour is nothing but hands in the air and randomness.  Most of the time, they are asking fundamental space questions – for instance, each year I was asked what was in a black hole, and how many planets are there in the universe. – both questions with weird answers and I am not the one to ask, but I’m the one in the cool JPL shirt.   I tend to get the kids focused on JPL missions — what’s coming up, what’s going on, that sort of thing.  That’s easy for me to do because that’s the stuff I get interested in.  Where things go off the rail is the intangible questions.

I mean, I like that I had engineering minds trying to figure out how they could throw a camera down a black hole,  I like that the scientists from the year before were debating what constitutes a planet.

This year, they got personal.

They asked me why I wanted to work for JPL.

They asked me what I wanted to do with my career … 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders asking this.  Sometimes my own management won’t ask me that question.

They asked me what was the biggest failure in my life.  Not what NASA or JPL’s failure. … mine.

Then came the question that forced me to think fast, but had the greatest reaction:
Girl:  “How much money does JPL pay you?”
Me:  “Enough that I can afford a dog.”
Whole-Class:  WWWOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!

As much fun as answering questions was, we spent a little time watching a rover drive over a speed bump on my IPad before building straw rockets and making a mess.

In many ways, what I was doing could come across dumb or goofy., and I am already rolling my eyebrows at whatever my dad (the retired teacher) is going to say about inspiration and junk.  Then again, I walked into that event with someone in mind.  My high school chemistry teacher, the one person I can point to that would have led me down an engineering path, passed away the day before the event.  It’s still etched in my memory the day he taught us about Avrogado’s Number (aka a mole, aka 6.02 x 10^23) by sitting on top of the bench at the front of the class.  I thought of that and I thought, there are stranger ways to inspire people.