I Remember, Scotty

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I’m at a Starbucks. That’s not weird or anything, about half of these blog posts were written at a Starbucks, just not this one. I started coming to this one because of outdoor seating allowing me to take my mask off. My usual is more limited, and with many nearby restaurants using parking spots as outside dining, it can be a crap shoot to get anywhere near the coffee shop. The one I am at today is the forth closest to my house. I’ve only really started coming here a couple months back, and then pretty irregularly.

So it was a surprise to me this morning when the barista remembered my name. I am not all that chatty, and don’t have a usual drink. Heck, they hadn’t even seen my unmasked face .. ever. But I was happy when she remembered my name. Then again, that wasn’t the first time this happened this week, and not the most significant to me.

It’s been a while since my last blog, and a lot has happened since then. Much of it non-blog worthy, or fall into that category where I just don’t want to share it. I’ve been meaning to get this going again, but good intentions didn’t turn into words. More on that in a future blog, right now let’s get back to the story.

Bear with me though, there is a lot of backstory to this.

Long time Bearfeeders know that I am involved in the marching band / pageantry arts activity, and have been since my school days. I remember the moment that put me down this path, and it was a specific moment, a single count. I had taken an interest in marching bands and competed with my high school on a couple tours before i was introduced to Drum Corps. For those who don’t know, Drum Corps is like the typical marching band except is considered the top level of the activity. IT is the most dynamic, most dramatic, most exciting, and highest caliber. The summer before my sophomore year in high school in 1987, I recorded the Drum Corps World Championships off of the live PBS broadcast. The first three groups they showed was everything I expected from the activity, and everything I liked about it. There was clean lines, great music, bold sounds, costumes, colors, and even gimmicks. Then this group came out, and from the first couple counts of their show they proved to be everything I never expected from the activity. They whipped around forms. They passed in tight spaces. They march fast and marched far. The were poetic, rhythmic, aggressive, beautiful. They didn’t have gimicks, or color flashes, or standard approaches – heck even their lines weren’t straight – but they amazed me of what a group could do. The group was called the Garfield Cadets, and everything they did sucked me in further. The last big move has gone down in legends as “The Scatter Front”. I could write a whole blog on that move, but to keep it quick – it was a traditional straight forward manuever everyone and their mother has done since the early 1900s; but then they innovated it by breaking it to pieces, then they stopped raised their horns and put it all back together. I’ve watched that move hundreds of times, and I am sure that last guy will never make it to the line in time, and every time he makes it right at the big hit. That big hit … that first time seeing that big hit … whatever my life was before that was not going to be my life after.

Five years later, I found myself auditioning for the Cadets, who by that time changed their name to the Cadets of Bergen County (they are known now as just The Cadets, but had also been known as Holy Name Cadets). There I was surrounded by these people I thought were gods of the activity. Over the five years I known them, and the dozens of years I researched them before I became aware, I saw them as almost robotic – sculpted heros from the granite of greatness. I was so nervous (and exhausted from an all night drive, and no food for 12 hours) I wrapped around a toliet when i should have been playing my horn. I busted my tail pre-season, but I knew I was the wink link in our line, just one bad move from getting cut from my dream group. During spring training, nearly two hundred members, staff, and volunteers came down with a horrific stomach flu that put each person down for days … only two were spared, and I was one of them. I understand survivor’s guilt because as others suffered, I kept practicing sure they would cut me for not suffering like they did.

Let me restate that — I thought they were going to cut me, because I didn’t get sick.

Things got better, and I continued to bust myself towards making it better. Though many times I found myself thinking I was just an imposter. I was just this guy from Wisconsin, surrounded by heros.

I don’t know exactly when, but that summer I met Scotty McGarry. He is the corps historian, having marched in some of the glory and traitorous days in the 1960s. He remains affiliated with the corps, now reaching into 6 decades of his presence. As the historian, he would bring in photos, videos, recordings, jackets, shirts, and other items to show the history of the corps. I ate it up. Scotty seemed to love that I ate it up. Once a year, Scotty puts on a history program and has done this every year for half a century. My first time at the program, Scotty pulled me aside to show me a picture of the first contra (tuba) line in drum corps history. He wanted to show me other great pictures, like the first females in the corps history. Different items related to the contras over time.

Scotty showed me that being a Cadet meant something. They way he puts it, there is a golden thread that stretches over the 87 year history of the corps. Each member is tied to that thread. From the oldest of the oldest, to the newest of the newest, to the ones that haven’t joined yet. Because of Scotty, I didn’t feel like an imposter anymore.

As the season was coming to a close, during a meal, Scotty called me over. Beside him was a man I didn’t know (whose name is lost to me). Scotty said he was a drum major for the Cadets back in his day and he wanted him to meet me.

Let me state that — He didn’t want me to meet this man, he wanted this man to meet me.

The one thing I remember above all else from that conversation was them saying “We watched you guys go out on the field last night, and we both said ‘they look just like us.'”

I wasn’t just looking up to those heros or legends that I dreamed about meeting some day. I was one of them. I was a Cadet. I am a Cadet.

Last Sunday, I joined a Cadet Alumni virtual call with the west coast regional alumni. I might not typically join those, but I made a wisecrack that since they used a picture of me in the call announcement I better show up. We were told there would be a special guest joining then out of the blue …. there was Scotty.

Being the humble great man that he is, he wanted each of us to introduce ourselves and say when we marched. To a person, he remembered each of us, the shows, the people we were friends with. When it got to me, he remembered my name, my nick name, my friends … even when he showed me that picture of the first Contra Line. Sixty years, and this guy remembers so many people and pulls us in to that golden thread.

But to be remembered by Scotty – it was a ‘wow’ moment for me. I can hear my dad say something like “of course he remembers you, you are hard to forget” or some fluffy thing like that. But when he remembered me, I remembered what it felt like all those years ago to be a part of something special. These last couple years have been hard. These last few months have been hard. So in what was something that made my year, Scotty made me remember that I am a Cadet.

FHNSAB

Chávez Ravine Needling

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For the fifth year in a row, I made a trip to Dodger Stadium, and every year seems a little different.

The first year, I watched the Dodgers beat the Milwaukee Brewers.

The second year, I watched the Dodgers beat the Milwaukee Brewers, but with a far more embarrassing result.

The third year, the Dodgers lost, just not to the Brewers.

The fourth year, I didn’t even leave the parking lot. That was last summer, and I went there to do the merry-go-round that was COVID-19 testing.

Last Friday marked year five. Again, I didn’t leave the parking lot, but this time I knew the outcome.

On Friday, I received my first Modero COVID-19 vaccine. Two days removed, and I am feeling no ill effects except for a little bit of soreness at the injection site. With the current Modero vaccine, I will have to get a second shot which is tentatively scheduled for April 16th. I got the first shot just five days after I became eligible for it. Los Angeles County has progressed to allowing people with pre-existing health conditions, so maybe there is some good to my lifetime of bad choices. I wasn’t nervous about getting vaccinated, until three in the morning of the event. I made the dumb move of having a peanut butter sandwich before heading to bed – and it gave me massive acid reflux. I woke up and found myself coughing stomach acid out of my lungs. What I didn’t need was a a wet hacking cough while in line to prevent a pandemic in my house. That, and I forgot to take my meds that morning. So by the time I got home, I was miserable, and I didn’t know if it was my PB&J, forgetfulness, or my ounce of prevention to blame.

I chose Dodger Stadium as my vaccine site, because it was a relatively close drive-thru site with easy appointments. After I became eligible, appointments filled pretty fast, so it wasn’t until Wednesday before I could access open times. I grabbed Friday at 10am, working around my work schedule and not getting caught in traffic.

When I got tested there the year before, it was about 1-1/2 hours to work through the line that started a good mile outside of the ballpark, even when I had an appointment. So I was expecting something like that. My hopes were up when I passed a hand made sign that said “2 hours from this spot” and I saw no line in sight. In fact, I was flagged into the parking lot without even a hint of a wait. They were set up for it, however, because upon entering the parking we started the “Dodger Stadium Obstacle Course.” Intended to be a staging area on a busy day, an entire section of the parking lot was filled with pathways created by cones segmented out into two lanes. There were temporary lights and port-a-johns stationed at regular intervals in case folks get stuck in the area too long. The paths weaved back and forth reversing directions and turning corners. There was no wait in this area, so cars just continuously moved through. From outside, all you see is a sea of orange cones, and an occasional slow moving car somewhere deep into the mess. By a sea of orange cones, I mean hundreds and hundreds. Illinois road crews would say “that’s a lot of cones.” Just as the two lanes back back together as one, we crossed a street and entered the last staging area. At first, cars were broken into a two or three lanes. Then rows of cars were filled with about 10 cars. There it was suggested we shut off the cars, because we would be sitting there for a bit. About twenty minutes later, we were allowed to drive forward under a large tent, and again it was suggested that we shut off the cars.

In this ten was where the staff made their rounds. One by one, they verified our ID, check off that we made our appointment, and gave us the social media famous vaccine cards. Then a nurse with a car came up and did the sticking. After the last car in the row got the job done, we were on a 15 minute clock. At the end of that time, they asked us if we had any issues – and we were sent on our way.

I’m sharing all this in part because it was the most interesting thing to talk about in my life right now (because Fox Sports hasn’t worked out a contract to get Aussie Rules Football in American yet). Also, if you have any concerns about the vaccine, I wanted to share my positive experience. I know that some of you face real concerns with the vaccine, and had deep talks about the subject. If you don’t have real medical history with bad vaccines, I’d really recommend you get vaccinated. Experts with actual degrees in this sort of thing have said that the only way to make the virus go away is to make the world immune. It worked for Small Pox, it worked for Polio, it can work with COVID-19.

Let’s get back to normal, so I can go back to being disappointed at Dodger Stadium.

Teambuilding With Among Us

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Recently, someone identified that I had a meeting notice on my calendar that said “Among Us.” I said it was a teambuilding exercise. They replied: “Yeah, because nothing says teambuilding like murdering each other than lying about it.”

Among Us is a free-to-play online game that is taking the gaming world by storm. In Among Us, you play a armless peanut of different colors who is on a spaceship, or planet, or something. Usually involving ten players, most are randomly selected as a “crewmate”, while two are selected as “imposters.” It’s a game that rolls out out in two phases. In the main play phase, the crewmates run around the game trying to perform tasks (which are meaningless little puzzles). Meanwhile, the imposters run around trying to kill the crewmates — its cartoonish, so it’s pretty family friendly. The imposters have a ‘cooldown’ which means they have to wait between kills, but they have the ability to use vents to sneak around the map, and also can sabotage parts of the map to gain an advantage. If someone comes across a dead body, the player can report a death which leads to the meeting phase. During the meeting phase, players have the ability to vote off who they think is an imposter. If a someone gets more votes than any others, that person is ejected from the ship. The game is won by the crewmates if either they complete all the tasks, or they vote off all the imposters. The game is won by the imposters if they either kill enough crewmates so there is an equal number of crew and imposters, or a sabotage runs its course and times out.

Or put more simply, we are talking about a interactive murder mystery. It’s a battle between detectives to find the bad guy, and the bad guys trying to get away with their deeds. As an imposter, your strategy is undoubtedly to cause havoc. You can get your kills in places where no one catches you. You can frame someone else for a murder. You can even throw your teammate under the bus just to make it look like you are innocent. For the crewmates, you have to balance completing your tasks with trying to identify the imposters. Some of the challenges to that are part of gameplay. Like you could be doing a task, and the puzzle covers your screen so that when you finish you find yourself next to a dead body … and no one else.

The game is based played with people who know each other. Also, it is best played when they are different locations, but are patched into a group call – like through Skype, WebEx, or Discord. Which means, it’s perfect for game players living under a “Stay at Home” order. I’m currently in one lobby of co-workers who get together every two weeks to “team build”, and am working on a second lobby of friends. Honestly, I have only been playing it for a month or two, but the influence has been around me for most of the last year.

Last summer, on-line gamers took advantage of the time at home to stream their Among Us games. They stream live on either Twitch or YouTube, and then follow it up with summary videos on YouTube as well. If you aren’t into video games and wonder why anyone would want to watch someone else play a game … well, I tell ya, it’s highly entertaining. They display their tricks, their methods, and their meltdowns in hilarious ways. High quality players like Disguised Toast, Valkarea, and Pokimane team up in lobbies of good friends laughing, playing, and enjoying the game. Yet goofballs like SocksFor1 and Mr. Blaza give us the weirdness of creative minds set wild. It’s so big that every day, there are tens of millions of views of Among Us videos. Content is so fresh that game updates are trackable.

The game is so widespread that these videos are adding to the English language. Take for instance “Sus.” Short for suspicious, it’s not used in place of suspicious. Mostly from the crewmate perspective, it is treated like a verb (“I am trying to sus out the imposter”), as a noun for the actions people take, (“Dude, why are you throwing sus on me?”), and as an adjective to describe actions (“Bra, you’re being kinda sus”). Oh yeah, and “bra” is a new word for “bro.”

There’s even a great meme out there that redoes the classic twist scene from Empire Strikes Back:

Luke: “He told me you killed my father.”

Black (Darth Vader): “Na bra, I was in electrical doing tasks.”

So, that’s how we team build during a pandemic. Faking tasks, running through Speci, hanging by the tree in O2, venting out of security, and camping cams.

Percy’s Firsts

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It’s been two weeks since the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars, and while in the grand scope of the mission not a lot has happened, a lot of things have happened. So far, we have received 7000 images from the rover. Flight software updates were sent across the gap between Earth and Mars, and the system is nominal. The rover’s masts and robotic arms have been deployed, and things are working as they should. Yesterday, Percy took it’s first drive on the red planet, including a six meter trek and a check-out donut. Many of the scientific instruments are still coming on line, as the team continues to take a step approach to start-up, and the helicopter is still weeks away from deployment. In other words, we know we can walk, we just aren’t ready to chew gum at the same time.

For us JPL’s who aren’t directly involved with the mission, we are gobbling up whatever is leaked out from progress. Today, they held the second post landing press conference, and a large number of people are blocking meeting time off so that we can watch the press conference. Sometimes, we get leaks and rumors, and the rest of us eat all that stuff up. The first press conference caused half the lab to melt down. Held just a few days after the landing, the Perseverance team shared video of the landing. The video includes cameras on the decent stage, up at the parachute, below the sky crane, and up from the rover – all posted against the audio of the crew watching from mission control. It was the first video shared If you haven’t seen it, check it out:

The call “Tango Delta” still give me chills.

One of the great moments on those early days happened in a discussion thread I called “the most JPL thread in JPL history.” Historically, JPL like to add special twists to our missions that start as inside jokes and then can become Easter eggs for people to find. Curiosity had Morse Code cut into the wheels that spelt JPL in the sand as it drove around. We’ve known Percy’s tires wouldn’t have something like that, so many people guessed what it could be. During that first press conference, it was revealed. They put a code in the color scheme of the parachute, though they didn’t say what the code was – just that we had to “show our work.” Over the next four hours, 120 replies were made on a single thread from JPLers guessing, and helping to crack the code. It was a group of some of the smartest people in the world helping each other to try to crack a code that we wrote. As it turned out, (SPOILER ALERT) the code was based on ASCI that when converted into numbers and letters spelt our our motto: “Dare Mighty Things” and the GPS Coordinates of JPL’s main gate.

The early photos near the landing show curious rocks suggesting volcanic activity, but the location was selected because it is a short drive from what appears to be a dried river delta. So much is going so well that the whole team is over the moon with excitement. Almost as a reward, the Perseverance Team received a video call from President Biden congratulating them on their success. The main quote from that call was when someone asked him about a moon rock he had in his possession. He said. “if you think this is great, wait until you see what we bring back from Mars.”

Six Wheels on the Ground

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Today at 2:55PM PST, we heard the words “Tango Delta Nominal.” It was code for Touch Down, and the Rover is operational. Precedence landed on Mars. The JPL rover built and tested just across the road from my office performed flawlessly during the entry, decent, and landing.

I watched the event from home in a massive IT set-up. I streamed the event on my TV through my PlayStation and YouTube. On my IPad, I had our virtual watch party with five or six friends. I had my work laptop with it’s two screens set ups so I could be in a team chat room, follow a lab-wide chat room, and a telemetry page they gave us access to so we could watch real time data of the landing. Meanwhile I was loaded with messages, texts, and social media posts. I didn’t have anything to do with the landing, but not like anyone at JPL did. The landing sequence was autonomous, and as I blogged yesterday, the whole process was complete before we received a signal that it began. Even the folks in mission control cold only sit, watch, and hope.

All of us in the watch parties were nervous yet excited. There was a lot to go wrong, a lot at stake, and we spent a lot of our hard work. The first sigh of relief was when we got word of a successful parachute deployment, knowing the immediate failure would come harshly. Word that the thrusters lit meant the worst was over. Then, Tango Delta Nominal. Quickly, word came over that the rover was reporting it was safe, and in less than a second a picture of the landing site was posted.

What made it fun was seeing everyone’s reaction – and by everyone, I mean world wide. The best ones were the funniest ones. Like in reference to that picture, we saw:

“Kudos to the software engineers who were able to photoshop the Martians out of the pictures so quickly.”

Someone tweeted:

“Don’t let NASA fool you. “Percy” is no lovable, touchy feely explorer. It’s actually a two-ton, nuclear powered, titanium robot that is going to spend a decade trampling over Mars, drilling into it mercilessly and stealing some rocks.”

Another tweet came from an account called “SarcasticRover” said:

“Finally understand how Woody felt when Buzz Lightyear showed up.”

The rover is now going through it’s safety checks and uploading the data collected during landing. We will start getting high resolution photos tomorrow and possibly a video. The rover should start moving around in the next few weeks as the operational situation is checked out. On day 30, the floor on the rover will drop allowing the Integrity Mars Helicopter to be deployed where it will begin its tests to be ready for first flight. And that’s when I will leave you with the last quote of the day that came from a flight engineer:

“Now, all we need is to get the rover to poop out a helicopter, and we can call this a win.”

Across the area, JPLers are celebrating (safely). JPL’s motto is “Dare Mighty Things”, and this was the mightiest thing we dared. Last January, when they announced the rover name, I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan. Up to that point, we hadn’t faced that much of an uphill battle, so it seemed like a choice by a politician. When the rover left the lab last February, we still didn’t know what was coming ahead. Engineers and technicians finished launch protocols in the middle of this pandemic while some three thousand miles from home in Florida. Project specialists finalized their plans when they couldn’t even be in the same room to talk. All of JPL had to celebrate with each other alone, not the way we wanted to spend it. Yet this mission was successful. This mission Persevered, and that rover earned its name today.

Seven Minutes of Terror & Peanuts

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Tomorrow (Thursday, February 18) at 3:55 EST, 12:55 PST, the Mars Rover Perseverance (also known as Mars 2020) will attempt a landing on Mars. Since the day I arrived at JPL, all the talk was about this rover. It was built across the street from my office. I performed audits at suppliers producing hardware for this mission, and we have been eagerly anticipating this landing since the launch last July. While I spend little time on each project, Persey is probably the mission I have had the most touch time since I came to JPL. Granted, it isn’t nearly as much as the thousands who put seven years of their lives to make this mission come true, but it is still exciting to think we are near the end.

I did a blog a couple years ago about the mission:

https://bearfeed.net/2019/06/19/mars-2020-is-coming/

While we landed Curiosity with nearly the same platform and design, the nerves are high. The landing tomorrow will come with what became known as the Seven Minutes of Terror. Landing this rover is incredibly hard. For starters, Mars has an atmosphere, but its really thin. It is thick enough that unless you get the angle right with the right heat shield, the mission will burn up. So there is a heat shield to take the lander from its cruise speed of 24,000 mph to around 900 mph. The heat shield won’t do much more to slow things down, so there are parachutes. Again, the atmosphere is thin, so the parachutes can only get the lander down to 200 mph, so there is thrusters to lower the decent rate to 2 mph. However, the thrusters will stir up so much dust that it could destroy the instruments. So, the rover is actually dropped from a sky crane as it nears the surface, the wire holding the rover is cut, the thrusters are released and the rover is landed.

The whole process from 24,000 mph to sitting on the red planet will take seven minutes. It takes fourteen minutes for the signal from Mars to reach Earth. So, when we hear that the mission has started the landing sequence, it would have been over for at least seven minutes before.

So, why call it seven minutes of terror? Because, while we did it once, we were sweating bullets then as much as now. For instance, when Curiosity was launched, the software for the landing wasn’t on board. They uploaded it when it was in route. Rumor is, the same happened this time. Rumor is, there is a lot of things to be worried out. Until word comes back that we have six wheels on ground, we are all terrorized.

How do we cope? Peanuts. In the 1960s, JPL was building and launching the Ranger missions. Ranger 1 thru Ranger 6 failed. One of the main engineers, thought that folks were getting too skittish, so he brought peanuts to the launch of Ranger 7 to share with his collogues. Ranger 7 was not only a success, it was flawless. Since then, peanuts have been in the room for every JPL launch, and if you tune you are bound to see a few jars sitting around.

As nervous as we are, this is also really exciting. I mean, I worked for companies before that were well known by the public, but let’s just say they weren’t looked upon kindly. The Empire State Building is lit up red for this landing. Piccadilly Square in London is showing a landing countdown. Heck, even Krispy Kreme has a Mars donut this week. I see all this and I say “this is my job, you are celebrating my job, how cool is that.”

I encourage all of you to tune in and watch what they can show you. The landing will be on NASA TV and on YouTube. It will start at 2:!5 PM EST (11:15 AM PST). And as long as the seven minutes don’t become a terror, it will make history.

Winter Storm Warning

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Los Angeles County is currently under a Winter Storm Warning.

It is Snowing at my house.

No I am not kidding, yes this is real. This is not some, “Hollywood People can’t stand temperatures below 65/” There is an honest to Betsy Winter Storm Warning in effect.

From the National Weather Service: “Heavy snow expected. Total snow accumulations 4 to 8 inches above 4500 and 2 to 4 inches between 3000 and 4500 feet. Wind gusts up to 65 mph.”

To be fair, I am at around 1100 feet elevation, so I am officially outside the warning area, but the warning area is just a mile up the hill from me.

That being said, just before I started writing this post, Auggie and I were watching some crocodile sized tears falling out of the sky. After a bit, I noticed they were getting chunky. By the time I got my phone out to take pictures, white balls that clearly weren’t hail splattered on the hood of my car. They melted in an instant, but this Northerner knows snow when he sees it.

Its a cold day for Southern California. Low of 34, high of 49, and most the overcast day has been in the low forties. All weekend it had been cooler, but this has been a lowpoint.

The rain was different as well. It’s rained each day for the last four – coming and going like today, and full-on toad choker on Saturday. It’s the first time we had any real rain since last March. This does become the wet season for us, and that’s supported by rain most days this whole week. For half my house, the wet is welcoming because it calms the allergies I tend to get. However, getting a puppy’s feets wet is the worst kind of torture there can be. So every time a pup has to do his business, he must cry in pain.

Auggie’s always been like that. I remember when he was just six months old, and we were still figuring out the potty training game. A cold wet rain was falling when I got home from work and took him outside. He sat next to the door wanting to go back in for fifteen minutes; and I waited him out. Finally after getting the job done, we ran inside for some well deserved wet doggie belly scratches. It just was hell up until that point.

So, don’t mind me as I get out my snow blower, driveway salt, and ice scraper. We’ll get through this like all those other catastrophes like earthquakes, sharknados, and the invention of avocado toast. Us Californians are tough like that.

From Somewhere in the Dark Tunnel

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Four Months. It’s been four months since my last blog post. Pretty pathetic don’t you think?

Well, we are in a pandemic. We knew things would be different. It’s just a question how we can get back to what we want to get back to. So I am trying to get back to blogging.

Part of the challenge with blogging for is venue related. Before this pandemic began, I had a weekend routine. I would head to Starbucks every Saturday and Sunday morning, and spend a couple hours banging out meaningless words. Stay at home orders, and there is no Starbucks to sit at. I would also write stuff while on travel in hotels. No Travel, No Hotels. If you think that staying at home would give me the means to keep up the blog – well, there isn’t a lot around the house that is blog worth, and it is my man cave not my write cave.

What have I been doing during this whole thing? Well, not much and still a lot. My work situation is really good. Under out government contract, any time we can’t do our job because of a stay at home order we can charge to administrative leave. While I am not out at suppliers or running around, I stayed busy regardless, and find myself getting behind. I work from home, and haven’t physically seen my coworkers in ten months. I’ve streamed a lot of shows – like remember when the best thing about the pandemic was when we could binge Tiger King? I have played loads of video games. I’ve avoided cleaning, had nearly everything delivered, and watch tons of sports.

Don’t get me wrong, this has been a difficult time. Here in Los Angeles County, we are in a hot zone. During the summer, we worried over the time when we reached 1000 new cases a day; then in a few weeks there was the spike to 3000 new cases a day. Currently we average 12,000 new cases a day. Due to a falling out with my doctor (that was justified), my health deteriorated until I had to be hospitalized in July for a few days. Now with a new doctor and the help of 13 pills a day, I am getting by. I had an issue with the city regarding my lawn. I had my license temporarily suspended due to a paperwork mix-up. I got a dreaded IRS letter. Depression wrecks me. Anxiety wrecks me.

It amazes me how long I’ve gone without normal things. I changed the oil in my car in January, and still haven’t reached the 3000 miles needed for the next. I haven’t cut my hair since July. I can go weeks without leaving my property – and if it wasn’t for my washer and dryer in the garage, wouldn’t have a need to leave the house.

Like I said, I do want to get back to a regular blog. The goal is to publish a new one weekly. God knows what I am going to write about. I will probably bore you with rants about avocados, video game reviews, or random memories. I guess it doesn’t matter, what matters is looking for the light at the end of the tunnel – and this is how I plan on heading there.

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.