Throwing Up the Red Flag

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In California, we don’t get Hurricanes.  We don’t get Supercell Thunderstorms, Nor’easters, or Polar Vortexes.  The Pineapple Express stays to the north, the Chinooks are inland, and El Nino is something that the rest of the country deals with.  Yeah, we get Earthquakes, but that just ‘happens’.  When it comes to actual weather, the only real threat that comes along happens this time of year.

Southern California is now in what is called a “Red Flag Warning”.  Essentially, this means that the threat is high for dangerous brush fires, but of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Red Flag Warnings are actually weather-related alerts put out by the National Weather Service (the same people who put out your other storm warnings).  That alone should tell you that this is a weather-related condition.  It starts with actually the opposite of what you think – wet weather.  In the spring and early summer, rains and marine coastal moisture allow fast-growing plants to prosper.  The faster a plant grows, however, the faster it dries out.  When you enter a period of drought, whether over years like California saw the first part of the 2010s or short-term like we have seen since August of this year, all that vegetation lays like kindling awaiting the right conditions.

This is where the ‘Red Flag Warning’ conditions come into play.  Today and tomorrow, there is an expected major pressure change that will push air from the desert to the sea.  This is so typically that it has a fairly popular name:  Santa Ana Winds.  These winds stay low, going through valleys and canyons, which makes them move quicker – usually with gusts between 40 to 70 mph.  Also,  because they came from the desert they are hot and dry.

So – We have dry vegetation that can easily burn.  We have hot dry air blowing at fast rates.  Essentially, all you need is an ignition source, and you have a swift-moving, dangerous fire.

That’s why we get the warning.  Good reason right?

Then of course … this is California, so we have to completely lose our “collective stuff” over something like this.  We are on Day Four of ‘Red Flag Warning” countdown.  It’s like Red Flag Armageddon is on us.  A Red Flag Warning that will last for a little over 36 hours mind you (much of it has started with misty, moist morning air).  Schools are closing in ‘high-risk areas’.  Even the local power company has warned of possible power outages where power will be cut rather than threaten a spark to light a fire.  As someone who works in a field where Risk Mitigation is a top priority, I am all for this discussion — but you first need to identify where the risk is.

I’m telling you, La Crescenta where I live is not where the risk is.

Some key things about wildfires in California are, as dangerous and destructive as they are, they typically don’t occur where there are people.  Much like the myth about tornadoes in Kansas, most fires occur or burn across areas vegetation can grow without human interaction.  Sometimes there are homes or ranches in the way, but not communities of hundreds of thousands of people.

Second, these burns are a necessary order of life.  Plants grow, plants die, plants dry out.  For new plants to grow, the old ones need to go away.  Fires are how this happened since fire was first created.

More than anything, firefighters, smoke jumpers, fire crews — they are incredibly strategic and incredibly strong at what they do.  I mean, we all know they are brave and noble, but they know what they are doing.  Many times when a brush fire is going, they may come back and say the fire is XX contained (like 30% or 50%).  What they really mean is they are blocking the fire from doing what they don’t want to do and letting it burn what they will let it do.  Fires are usually the most dangerous when they are first lit because they are the most unpredictable.  Yet once the lines start to get cut, the tankers start laying down retardant, and troops arrive … they got this.  They got this good!

More than anything, the threat of fire, especially to those of us in the concrete jungle, is incredibly low.  A couple of years ago, I was here for the La Tuna Fire, one of the biggest in Los Angeles County that burned over the Verdugo mountains.  This was a fire that burned on a mountain stuck right in the middle of a massive population and burned 7200 acres of land.  It lit up and “threatened” most of the San Fernando Valley – which includes 1,770,000 people.  The fire was widespread, very consuming, and remained a ‘low containment’ for nearly a week.  In the end, 5 homes were destroyed and about 1000 people had to be evacuated.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s sad for those homeowners and those evacuees, but this ‘mostly uncontained fire’ only was an actual threat to 0.06% of that area.  I was in an area that we were recommended to watch for updates, but still a couple blocks from a ‘voluntary evacuation’; and while I could see smoke for days, only saw a single glimpse of a fire once.

So, maybe it is bravado, but I am looking forward to this “Red Flag Warning” as a nothing experience.  The real Red Flag Warning, LA should have been ready for was the Dodgers going down to the Nationals last night, but that’s a wound too fresh to push at.  Instead, I’ll just say I’m expecting the smell of a campfire, the dry wheezing of smoke in my lungs, and an occasional need to watch the news.

Flying the Big Bird

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I posted last week about my short trip to Germany, which while enjoyable was … well … short.  While there was some interest in the Oktoberfest I stopped by in Stuttgart, there seemed to be even more interest when I mentioned I was going to be on an A380 for my return flight to the states.  Still battling jet lag, I thought why not spout out about that experience.

The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest commercial airliner.  By largest, I mean, there isn’t even a competition for first place.  The standard A380 carries 525 passengers.  The next closest is the Boeing 747-8, which while impressive at 416 passengers is still over 100 people behind.  A380s can be configured for a maximum passenger number of 853 which if you want to see something crazy, google A380 evacuation test and watch them try to get that kind of number out in less than a minute.  The A380 was so big it left airports in a mad rush to handle such a plane.  Airbus had to test the crushing weight of the wheels so that airports could ensure runway lights wouldn’t get destroyed by them.  Wings were so wide they had to take into consideration blowing up dirt and wrecking other planes.  Airports had to have tractors big enough to push and pull these beasts around if they had to.

Then there’s the 2nd floor.  Oh yeah, did I mention the 2nd floor?  It has the 2nd floor.  Not like the short one at the front of a 747, an Airbus A380 has an entire 2nd floor.  That’s the real standout of this aircraft, it can manage all these people because it has the floor space to handle them.  There are many who love the A380 just for this reason, because with all that space on the plane, Airbus created extravagant First Class accommodations.  Planes this large are intended for long hauls – 8 to 12-hour flights.  I’ve known people who have had rooms on an A380, not isolated seats, but actual rooms with beds and showers.  I’ve seen pictures of the bars they have on these planes, like, chat up the crew bars.

Of course, I didn’t see that … I flew coach.  I always fly coach, when there’s something cool at least.

Last week was my first ever flight on an A380, and it just leaves one commercial airline (the aforementioned Boeing 747) that I haven’t been on. My first reaction when seeing the plane was not positive.  Eleven years in aircraft manufacturing, decades of flying, and I love the look of a sexy aircraft – the A380 is not sexy.  The flight deck (where the pilots sit) is pushed out from the lower level, and the rest of the plane swoops up then back.  It looks like a guy who got hit in the forehead or is losing his hair.  If that plane played an instrument, it would be a banjo.

When choosing my seat, I targeted a 2nd-floor seat, just to say I was on the 2nd floor.  After they scan your boarding pass, you’re sent down one of three tunnels – two on the lower level (likely one is for First Class only because of all the gold-covered red carpet and champaign popping), and one climbing up to the second.  Up there, it didn’t seem any different than any other plane … except, weird-ish. My seat was second to last row and number 82L, so keep in mind there were 82 combined rows on this plane, probably.  Back there, rows were eight across – two by each window, four in the middle.  The fuselage was bending different than the rest of the plane, so my overhead space was smaller than a regional jet.  The seating in the economy isn’t much different than any other Airbus, the entertainment system as ‘Meh’ as I normally see on those flights as well.  The window seat did give me a little bit of a bonus.  Again, because of the weird bend of the fuselage, there were stow bins between me and the wall – wide enough for blankets, pillows, or whatever; deep as well.  It became a good place just to keep things that a seat back doesn’t.  The windows were awkward, as there was about a foot distance from the inside glass to the outside – so even though they were slightly larger than a normal plane, they were like looking through a tunnel.

Otherwise, flying the big bird felt no different than any larger transatlantic capable plane.  The seats were comfortable-ish, the bathrooms were just big enough to feel too small, and you just have to hope someone doesn’t recline during the meal service.  I’ve flown on worse overseas planes (looking at you 767, looking at you), but the smash forehead beast that is the A380 works in it’s own ways.

 

Guten Tag aus Deutschland

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Today is German Unification Day.  This is the anniversary of the day when East & West Germany reunited bringing in the modern German era.

Most of you were probably unaware that German Unification Day was today, because, well, most of you aren’t German.  It goes without saying – most of you aren’t aware of ANZAC Day or Guy Fucks Day or Nemzeti ünnep.  I’m not so educated on these either, they play football and eat cookies in Australia for ANZAC Day, Guy Fucks Day is my birthday, and that last one I just googled ‘national holidays in Hungary’.

I know German Unification Day is today because everywhere I look banks are closed, shops are closed, and people are sleeping in.

Because I’m in Germany.

Suprise.

Yeah, the blog has been quiet, shouldn’t have been but was.  There have been issues, and that means blogs go quiet.  I did try, in fact, there is a mystery post I was pretty happy with on Monday about the panic I get from flying overseas.  I told the story of my first trip, about how I almost starved myself out of fear of counting English money wrong, and how a stuffed dog named Elvis got me by.  That bridge is passed, so sucks to be you to have never seen it.

I’m in Germany for work.  Specifically the area around Stuttgart in the southwest.  My plane landed Tuesday night, my work was finished up by early Wednesday afternoon, today is my day to get caught up on sleep, then tomorrow I fly home.  I’ll have some time to enjoy Stuttgart, which may mean visiting the Wessen (or Oktoberfest) but because it is a public holiday it may be sold out.

For those of you new-ish to the blog, I used to travel overseas a fair bit – like about 2 to 3 times a year.  It has been three years since I have made such a trip, and six years since I have been to Germany.  Ironically, while I am banging away at trying to remember what it’s like to be overseas, I am tracking issues back at work that may require me to go again – not just overseas but back to Germany, and not just back to Germany but to the same exact place I was at yesterday.

Maybe.

Issues do come up.

MTU – The Return

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It’s been a week, but a pretty cool thing happened not to long ago.  I spent a day in Houghton, Michigan at Michigan Technological University, acting as a representative of JPL’s Quality Assurance program.  The description may sound neat, but let me add to the ‘neat’ part.

Michigan Tech (or MTU) is my alma mater.  I graduated from there with a BS in Materials Engineering back in 1995. Since that time MTU has developed an Aerospace Enterprise program, where undergraduate students forego their senior project work to join a team focused on designing, building, and launching satellites.  Since meeting with members of the team last fall, they’ve been interested in having someone talk to the challenges of quality assurance in spaceflight … and I was interested in that too.  The day was spent meeting the Enterprise team, talking directly with professors on what they are working on, then giving two seminars — one to Graduates who have to attend for a class (yet didn’t fall asleep on me, so that’s a win) and Undergrads who were a little more fun.

So finally — we made that happen.

MTU is located in a pretty remote location of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so remote that this was the first time I have been able to visit since I graduated.  I mean, I’ve had an interest to, but it’s a 6 to 8-hour drive from major airports.  Even when I tried to visit this spring, I got stuck in Chicago (see My Inconvenience).  I had to take an hour-and-a-half flight out of Chicago to Marquette, then drive two hours to Houghton — and that flight only runs once a day.  That’s all that you can accept for excuses for my absence.

I mean, it’s been 24 years since I have been to Houghton; and as much of a hurry I was to leave back then, I was glad to be back.

This trip seemed like career or personal validation to a certain extent but didn’t necessarily turn out that way.    I mean, you might picture some movie where a once something something student comes back to reconnect with their old professor … that didn’t happen and probably doesn’t anywhere.  The professors I connected when I was a student either left, retired, or probably didn’t have anything to do with what I do now.  Of those professors I sat down to talk to, only one was actually at MTU when I was there, and in a completely different major.  Still, they had a lot of great things to talk about.

Like studies going into mining water from rocks on Mars, opening the door to possible habitats.  Or developing energy sources from tidal conditions.  Or using small satellites to study hurricane data from above.  The real star is MTU’s Aerospace Enterprise program, a shining star in the growing world of university cubesat development.

My real curiosity came from what it would be like to visit a place that I hadn’t seen in so long.  I really wanted to know what had changed … and the answer was, not much.

The campus only had a few differences.  The fine arts theatre and environmental buildings that were just breaking ground when I left are now classified as ‘been around forever’.  Some of this is going to sound foreign to those of you who didn’t go there … but you’ll get the point.  The controversial covered bridge between Fisher Hall and the Library (because that wind tunnel that froze your face off outside was a right of passage back in my day, kids these days with their inside conditions).  The old ‘incline pine’ fell finally and now is replaced with the symbolic Husky … complete with its symbolic anatomically correct parts.  Windows are what stood out to me, big ones on the Library, and just more on old Wadsworth Hall.  Plus more living quarters and apartments.  Plus a clocktower that  … let’s face it … could be bigger.  Plus some great work areas in the M&M building.

I gave my graduate seminar in the EERC 103, a room I took only one class in for only a few weeks.  That class was Fundamentals of Electronics (EE301), a class I talk a lot about now because it was the only subject that seemed so difficult to me that I couldn’t for the life of me get a correct answer on any homework or test … and I swear it was simple math.  If my degree didn’t completely overhaul and dropped EE301 as mandatory, I likely wouldn’t graduate.  Instead, a guy who barely graduated was giving a Graduate Seminar.

Houghton, like the school, hadn’t changed much.  I stayed at one of the two hotels in town (the one with a restaurant).  Half the bars are the same, including The Library … the bar where I turned 21; like literally, at midnight the bartender served me my first legal drink.  There’s a microbrew where a cheap drink place is at; but other old school bars like the Downtowner, Dog House, and Ambassador seem as unchanged as the alumni told us as unchanged when we were still around.

Not just that, it was cold.  Los Angeles was topping out at triple digits when I was in Houghton, but up there it wasn’t going to break into the 60s.  A little dew on the grass, a little bit of a nip in the air, and even a little orange on the trees.  Winters in Houghton were notorious for their length, and it was just nice to remember that early September winters are possible.

Honestly, I don’t know if I will ever get a chance to set something like this up again.  It was hard to make happen, and I got what I needed as much as they go what they needed.  Still, going back to MTU and Houghton was refreshing, and gave me the desire to do it again … at least not wait another 24 years to go.

It’s just going to take some work.

Enough to Be Dangerous

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There is a song by the bluegrass/country singer Allison Krauss that can make me a little obsessive.  It’s called Forget About It.  The singer essentially is telling her ex-boyfriend to move on from her.  I know enough music theory to be dangerous, and I can tell you that the song is mostly in a minor key.  I know this (thank you high school band director, Mr. Cook) because a major key sounds “happy” and minor key sounds “sad”, and for the most part this song has a sad sound to it.   I say for the most part because of the key changes for the chorus to a major key, where the singer then reverts to happier memories.

Honestly, I am oversimplifying this analysis; and that’s doing an injustice to this song.  This song is about a strong woman, who won’t let someone from her past into her present.  It is gentle but her repetitive “forget about it” in the lyrics stands to make it clear that he needs to let go, and the minor key gives an edge to those words.  Then we get to the chorus, and it begins with just a strum of a mandolin and a brush of a cymbal.  The major key change doesn’t leave the current note structure so it almost guides itself into the new feel.  The singer does go for higher chords, adds volume, and becomes more uplifting.  The words she now sings are about times when things never felt so right.  She isn’t telling him to move on, she’s telling herself to move on.  She wants to forget him, and she isn’t as convincing anymore.  Yet before we can wrap ourselves completely in those happy times, it shifts back just as easily to that minor key and we are back to pushing him away.  It’s so quick that I find myself repeating that song over and over again, each time getting goosebumps on that key change.

Problem is, I don’t know if it’s a key change.

As I said, I know just enough about music theory to be dangerous.  I can easily pick up a 1-4-5-1 chord progression, but then again most people can without knowing what the heck it is.  I know the difference between a 4/4, 3/4. and 7/8 count (7/8 is my favorite, by the way).  And of course, happy and sad chords, right?  The more advanced concepts fly over my head easily.

So what, you may ask … well, sew buttons.

Years of working for different managers and different companies have caused me to take tons of personality tests.  The point of these tests usually are to show how each person on a team interacts and intertwines into the others.  Meyers-Briggs being the most notable (I am an ISTP by the way).  While they all see to bounce around or shift over time, the one thing that tends to be consistent is that I don’t vary too far from the centerline.  In the world of right brains and left brains, I am a guy that is in the middle.  That doesn’t mean I am not creative nor analytical, it usually means I am both … but not enough to one side or the other to know better.

I’m heading into my marching band season, a time when I spend some weekends running around the country adjudicating high school band competitions.  While I am not at the top of the field in this work, I’ve honed my skills enough overtime to recognize this “middle of the brain” process works in my favor.  My strongest area of judging is called “Visual Ensemble”; a role that requires a judge to breakdown how the show is designed, why it was designed a certain way, and credit the performance and performers on their ability to meet the design approach.  You can’t get caught up in the beauty or entertainment value, because that’s another judges job; and you can’t get too caught up in what is right or wrong, because then you aren’t crediting what is being done.  It’s a balance of the artistic and the analytical.  That’s why I enjoy judging that caption.

It’s the rest of the time that it frustrates me.  I hate being that guy that can’t answer why something works or doesn’t.  I hate that I can’t get it there myself.  I want to know how Monet held a paintbrush and controlled his pallette to ensure the cityscape he created was so beautiful.  Or why the camera movements so unique to Wes Anderson films create such constant interest in me the viewer.  I want to know why Allison Krauss can give me goosebumps with a strum of a mandoline.

The flipside of all this comes from advice I received back when I was just getting into the marching band adjudication/teaching.  I went to a contest in hopes of gaining greater exposure to different performances and interpretations of movement.  I didn’t think I was learning much, so I turned to a friend with more experience.  I noted that I wasn’t sure what I was seeing or if it was right or wrong.  Our conversation went:
Him:  Did you like it?
Me: Yeah
Him:  That’s all that really matters, doesn’t it.

Okay, he was right and everything but … still … I mean, while it’s kinda nice to know enough to be dangerous, but come-on already … someone help a brother out.

When Summer Never Really Won

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We had a change in the weather in the last couple of days, nothing major but nice enough.  In the morning, the marine layer dominated the lower levels and pushed the drier air back to the desert.  This left things cooler, and just a bit humid.

Or maybe more poetic, think of things having a fall feel to it.  Cooler air, fog, the smell of the dried grasses and leaves finding the moisture they hadn’t seen in months.  Southern California Augusts are hot; though far from the worst.  Heat in the nineties means most daytime and early evening activities become a challenge but not impossible.  The things you typically do outside you wait to do for another day – but you don’t avoid.  Plants and things, unwatered, have died usually set up for what is our typical burn season in September and October.  The cooler mornings recently are a break from that pattern.  It’s not fall weather, because it’s dry and windy in the fall here.  This is more unique, the mornings of the spring with the heat of summer.

It made me remember a few days back some seven years ago.

For new readers to the Bear Feed, something I should tell you about my life.  I used to live in Alaska.  In fact, the Bear Feed started as a way to tell friends and family about what it was like in Alaska.  The first posts were basically the last days before leaving my previous home in Wichita, and it’s that transition that popped into my head these mornings.

Weather-wise, moving from Wichita to Anchorage couldn’t haven’t been more drastic.  It was the first week of August 2012.  I spent the last two weeks in Wichita in a poorly air-conditioned house during 100° days preparing to move.  The nights were no reprieve, as it rarely dropped below 85° after the sun went down.  There was no rain, no humidity, just a steady hot wind coming across the plains and drying out every bit of you.  I stepped onto a plane at 8am when it already was 95°; then stepped off much further north where the high for the day was 55°.  Overcast.  Foggy.  The clouds curling along the mountains as if screaming for attention.  The roads were wet, but not from rain but just not having a good reason to get dry.

There’s a song lyric I love, “Summer’s beginning to give up the fight”.  As much as I love that lyric, I don’t really see that here.  Wichita, like SoCal, goes from the bursting heat of summer to the dried leftover of what couldn’t survive.  Around here, it’s Spring that gives up the fight.

In Anchorage, summer never really won.  The warmth hovered like a reason to wear a t-shirt, but the mornings came with that wet mist it hid in the corner.  I liked it that way, though.  I would keep the windows open all the time, wrapping myself in blankets, even for months into the fall.  I could smell the plants, the trees, the moss, the dirt.  The cool air surrounding me reminding me that life lived there.

When I first moved to Anchorage in 2012, I lived in a small apartment rented by the week.  Fully furnished, it was intended for long term vacationers (and Mormon missionaries, but that’s a different story).  I cooked fish curries, pancakes, potatoes sitting at a barstool counter.  The TV didn’t work, so I would spend my evenings streaming shows in the early days of Netflix.  I went to bed early, though, not to sleep but to lie in that bed, comfortable and warmly tucked, to listen to the world and to feel the cool air come in.  The part of town I was in was actually a bit sketchy.  One night there was an angry discussion between a homeless gentleman and a guy who just wanted to go home.  I remember nothing of the details of that discussion, but I remember it for the air, the cool, the comfort I felt in that little apartment.

I sometimes think that a good conversation can begin just with talk of the weather.  That’s not really my point with this post.  I just liked how the weather these last couple of days made me remember a happy time in my past.  The last couple of weeks, I’ve struggled to keep the blog going, struggled to find something worth writing about.  I’ve had a couple of little challenges to my memory, so I began to think maybe it’s timed to capture some of those things I want to remember.  So I might be using this blog to capture them, remember them, share them.

If you have a problem with that and you would rather talk about the weather … I hear that the weather channel does some things with maps and hurricanes.

And It Starts Again

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The last time I was on an airplane was June 5th.  In two days, I fly out of town for the week, ending a stretch of two months.

For those of you ‘normals’ out there that can go two months or two decades without flying, this probably sounds refreshing, or comforting, or … well, I don’t know because it’s just plain weird to me.

My job requires travel.  That’s just the way it is.  I’ve worn this hat since nearly the early 2000s, and I enjoy the life of being a road warrior.  Sometimes it’s too much – like the job I had in 2015-16 where two-thirds of my life was spent in a hotel.  Sometimes it’s routine – like in Alaska where I traveled four a couple days every four weeks.  Just like all things, when you get used to something, you kinda get used to something.

It’s been two months since my last work trip.  You could guess that with my recent health issues, I pushed back travel.  Honestly, that didn’t play into it.  It’s actually been a shift of some of my duties, most of which required ‘boots on ground’ work before booking something out of town.   Now that schedules are coming together the travel is returning.

And it’s returning with a vengeance.

This week is more pleasure than work.  It’s my nearly annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis for the Drum Corps International World Championship (so expect stuff on banging and blowing all week from me).

In a couple weeks, I am off to Colorado for a week of work followed by a weekend of mountains.

The week after that, my second try to get to Michigan Tech to perform a Graduate Seminar after the first was rudely canceled due to United Airlines craping out on me.

A couple weeks after that, back to Michigan, this time to Ann Arbor for meetings.

September is the start of my judging season as well, when I prance around the country going to marching band competitions, convincing people to let me sit in the best seats and tell them stuff about their show.  I don’t have my schedule well set as yet, but there is always a weekend or two of madness out there for me.

Oh yeah, and I have a request from someone to do work in Germany too.  Not sure when, but it’s there.

So yeah, the travel part of my job is coming back.  It’s the season and it will be crazy.

Quick Health Update

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I’ll keep this quick.
In my last post, I shared my stay in the hospital due to heart issues and have continued to get notes & well wishes from all of you – whether friends, family, or ‘other’.  Many of you keep checking to see how things are going, and to that point, an ‘update’ is in order.

If this is all new to you, you can get get the full story here:  My Tough Few Days

In all honesty, there is little to update.  I returned to work a week after hospitalization.  While life changes were suggested, I wasn’t given specific directions to do anything except add new prescriptions and to talk to my doctor (more on that in a bit).   The prescriptions are dielectrics to help reduce my blood pressure, cholesterol medicine, and aspirin … and baby aspirin at that.  For you medical professionals out there, I can go into more detail but don’t expect me to have the prescriptions spelled correctly.

I’ve improved my diet, but that wasn’t hard.  I’m an expert at eating healthy, just the motivation was lacking.  When you change your diet everything seems new and different for the first couple of weeks – so that’s the zone I’m in now.  I try to walk every day, but it’s been stupid hot and my body has to get back into shape.  So I do what I can.

I did meet with my new Primary Care Physician and am pretty optimistic.  Selecting her for her website touting a strong history of dealing with weight management, I learned that she not only had a background in internal medicine but in psychology too.  We spent more time in the first meeting talking about my history, my motivations, my challenges, then spending time poking and prodding.  She says, she believes a doctor can fix a body, but if the mind caused the problem then it needs to be fixed too.

Then she says — I’m going to get you a real physical.  Since that time I have seven x-rays taken, three vials of blood drawn, and ultrasound over so much of my body that I was covered in that good from head to toe (not kidding — did you know that they sometimes ultrasound feet?  because they did to mine).  There’s a stress test coming too, one of those where they fill you with something that shows up when they stick you to a nuclear bomb … or a nuclear test … or whatever that is.  Oh, and a written exam.  Not kidding … a written exam.  In a few weeks, the doc should know more about my body than any doc has ever tried, that’s including the surgeon who confirmed that my guts do not contain aliens (I asked).

So that’s the update.  Don’t assume the updates will be common, I just know y’all are asking me.  Hopefully I can get back to the regularly scheduled Bear Feed stupidity, so consider this something to tide you over.

My Tough Few Days

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Dear Bearfeeders,

Many of you, especially those close to me or watching my Facebook feed, are aware that the last few weeks were not precisely the best for me.  Some may not know the whole story, others may not know at all.  Well, it’s time I share the full package.

So here’s the story.

On July 5th, I brought Auggie down to Temecula to spend the weekend with my close friends Chadd & Heather Creed.  After a night of dinner & wine, I went to bed at a fairly reasonable time.  Around 2AM the morning of July 6th, I woke up having a hard time breathing and a heart that felt like it was racing out of control.  For months, I’ve had trouble breathing a condition I suspected to be allergies as it always seemed to clear when I travel.  The racing heart had me concerned though, concerned enough, I woke my friends and had them take me to the ER at Temecula Valley Hospital.  Within an hour of my arrival, I was diagnosed with critically high blood pressure, edema (fluid) in the lungs, and evidence of heart damage.   They admitted me to the hospital and started work on reducing my blood pressure through blood thinners.  During that time, I underwent an ultrasound echocardiogram and a  Cat Lab (a procedure to study the arteries around the heart for any blockage).  Those tests found no arterial blockage but did see buildup from cholesterol.  After four days, my blood pressure was reduced to a “good not great” level and was given a series of prescriptions to help manage blood pressure, my heart condition, and cholesterol until I meet with my primary care doctor and come up with a long term plan.  I went into the hospital on a Saturday morning, released on a Tuesday afternoon.  Was telecommuting from Temecula the next day, drove home on Sunday, and the following Monday I was back at work.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been told I have not had a heart attack, but I remain in a condition where it is still quite likely.  Tests show there is damage to my heart, which now leaves it weaker.  Since leaving the hospital, my blood pressure remains higher than average, but not the levels it was when I was first admitted.  Since leaving the hospital, I have made some life changes, minor at this point.  I am meeting with a new doctor this week and expect that to drive smarter, more significant life changes, so I am just following the prescribed meds and making better choices.  The meds are a challenge, they tend to make me dizzy and unfocused during the late mornings, but that improves by the day.

I’ve reached a point where it’s hard to talk about what happened. Mostly if asked why it happened, the only thing I can say is “I didn’t take care of myself for the last three years” — that’s an uncomfortable thing to tell people, and it’s just as uncomfortable for people to hear.  It’s worse in that mindset of answering what I am going to do about it.  The answer is always: eat better, exercise more, see a doctor, do what they tell you what to do.  I know that answer because I had heard it before, followed it before, been successful with it before, then still ended up where I am.

Then again, I want to do more than I’ve done the last couple of years.  I want to be happier.  I want to see more things.  So, doing the hard stuff is what I am going to have to do.  I’m 47, and I’m not ready to call it quits yet.

I have to say I am utterly grateful for the outpouring to love and support the last couple of weeks.  Phone calls from cousins.  Cards from old friends.  Flowers.  Balloons.  I got back to work and found my dry erase board filled with welcome backs, a lovely desk plant to take care of, and cards of well wishes.   I received so many notes from people on Facebook, I couldn’t even come close to answering them all, or even get started.  It was uplifting, and humbling, to know that wherever I find myself with this condition, I have so many people wanting to help me and support me to climb my way out.

Yet two have to stand out above all the care and love I’ve received.  If there was a blessing in all this, it was where it took place because, from the moment I knocked on their bedroom door and asked for help until even this moment, Chadd & Heather Creed have been my concrete foundation.  Friends, as close as friends as ever could be, let their world shake as they made constant visits to my hospital room, became my conduit to the medical staff, and ensured I was going to come through this.  They were there when we laughed, they were there when I cried.  When I was released from the hospital, there was no question where I was going to stay to recover.  When my parents and brother flew in to be there for me, there was no question where they were going to stay.  They didn’t ask for thanks, they just wanted me to get better.  I can only hope that I can repay the kindness and love they have shown me during this time.

So, that’s the news.  I can’t say for sure how much I will share regarding my health in the future because … well … it’s the kind of touchy feeling stuff I tend not to want to blog about.  I’ll try, though.  That’s what it’s going to be like for the future.  The Lord knows I might fail, but he’ll know that I tried.

What is it that you do here?

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Late in my tenure at BP Exploration – Alaska, I had one of the most surreal meetings in my life.  It was a one-on-one meeting scheduled with my manager, two steps above me (my boss’s boss),  It was scheduled for just a half hour but was suggested it would run shorter than that.  I walked in, sat down, and he pulled out a letter.  He then told me he was directed by HR to read me the letter then hand it to me — which is never good, but bear with me here.  The letter read, “Congratulations, you have been selected as a Supplier Quality Specialist.”  The thing was, my title at the time was Supplier Quality Specialist.  Confused, I started asking questions until it became clear – they were congratulating me because layoffs were happening, and I would keep my job.  Mind you, it wasn’t the first time I survived a layoff — hell, at Cessna my last two years alone I survived 12 rounds of layoff.  For nearly 18 months prior to that meeting at BP, our organization with the intent to reap the wheat from the chaff; though they made it sound like we were helping to design a better organization.  In the end, it felt like something out of Office Space the movie – where people who think they know what you do are asking you ‘what do you really do around here’.  A couple months later, I left BP – this wasn’t the nail in the coffin, mind you, but it was the symbol of how blind a company management could be.

So, needless to say, I get a little squirrelly when people ask me what I do for a living.

I got a few of those questions recently as I started to share more about what’s coming up at JPL.  Some of it asking what my role is on those missions.  Others questioning if I do anything at all.  Some going the other direction and just assuming that I do things with these missions that I don’t.  So maybe it’s time to clear the air.

My title is Procurement Quality Assurance (PQA) Engineer.  I’ve held that title since starting at JPL, though the role changes from time to time.  PQA has a team of about 10 people with varying functions.  We all report into a larger Quality Assurance team with a couple hundred people.  Quality Assurance is a part of a Directorate called The Office of Safety and Mission Success (OSMS).  For nearly two-thirds my career, I’ve been in a role of Quality or Quality Assurance and nearly all that time in a role similar to a PQA Engineer – though under different names (Supply Chain Quality, Supplier Quality, Purchasing Quality, etc).

Before I go into the specifics of the role, it’s important to know a little about quality in general.  As I say often, Quality isn’t rocket science, but you have to learn it to break your preconceptions.  Many people assume Quality is just the process of inspecting to ensure only the good gets through. That’s close but insufficient.  I like to say Quality is really about Risk Mitigation – Quality evaluates a part or process or system and looks for those situations that could eventually be a risk.  From there a plan is developed to overcome that risk either through improved planning, improved design, or improved detection.  Some say Quality is the last line of defense to a successful outcome; I believe that is true but the effective quality system is always pushing the line of defense further and further ahead of where failure can’t be an option.

With JPL, my line in the sand is probably as far in front of the last line of defense as you can get.  We look at the suppliers who provide us hardware to make sure they meet the minimum expectations of their quality systems.  Much of the time, we are looking at companies before they start work, and the rest of the time it is before they finished the work.  While a certain amount of the suppliers we work with are found acceptable by established 3rd party certifications, many times we validate the supplier through audits.  Quality audits aren’t like financial audits; we are looking for compliance and opportunities for improvement.  Commonly we say we partner with our suppliers, moving them down a path to improvement.  These can be comprehensive across all aspects of the company’s workmanship and management, or they could specific to a single process.  For instance, a majority of my time at JPL, I’ve been involved with validating electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection at our suppliers — which the day I arrived at JPL, I couldn’t even spell ESD and since then I’ve done nearly 50 ESD audits.  Since you can’t do an audit at your desk, I spend a fair bit of time at suppliers.

While I deal with hardware suppliers, I have no interaction with the actual hardware … usually.  As the hardware is built, other QA team members guide the inspection points, testing, and buy-off.  Others evaluate hardware as it is received.  Even more, walk the hardware right up to launch.  It’s so rare that I actually see flight hardware that I geek out a little bit.

Something that working for JPL that is different than my past employment is that we are Federally Funded.  This means a more direct line of sight between what you do and how you get paid for what you do.  If you work on a program or project, your time is charged to that program – which means the program must allocate your time from their budget.  Since our specific team works in a service center role, most of my funding looks like overhead, but it originates from funding from projects.

One thing it’s worth noting is that it takes a long time for a mission to reach launch.  From a concept stage through the proposals, design, engineering models, building instrument, then full assembly, and loads of testing even the most complex missions could take years to complete.  Then again, a mission may not launch until once that is done since launch windows are a thing.

An example of all of this and how it plays into my role would be InSight, a Mars lander launched last summer to study the red planet’s geology.  InSight was built by Lockheed Martin, who (without sharing details) needed little oversight by our PQA team at all.  Our QA team did have to be there through most of the build and deal with the testing, but it wasn’t in my specific team or role.  Due to hardware issues, the lander missed its launch window and when you are heading to another planet that means delays of years.  After sitting in figurative mothballs for a couple of years, it finally flew and is having a good go of it up there.  So in summary … InSight was built before I started at JPL, by a company that didn’t require me to support if I was there. I had nothing to do with InSight.

Editorial Note:  The last paragraph is a contradiction to a published newspaper article from the town I grew up in sighting an unnamed source and stating that I not only was on the InSight project, but I was also involved with the landing operations – something so outside of the scope of work that I do that I had to self-disclose to HR and Public Relations.  (#notkidding).  Yeah … I’m calling you out again, Dad.

Enough about the projects I haven’t worked on, let’s talk about those I have.  My role can touch many if not all missions in their early or mid stages of the build.  Last week I wrote a blog about Mars 2020, a rover set to launch next summer.  I estimate I spent about 10% of my time at JPL supporting that project directly.  While that might look small, it is the largest of all currently.  Missions like Europa and Psyche may need more of that when all is said and done, and I have had some cross-over with others.  The first mission launched that I had any time (albeit about 4 total hours) was Grace FO launched last summer.  Cold Atom Lab (CAL) launched a couple months ago for installation on the International Space Station … again maybe 4 hours at most with that.  Like I said, I work on things early on in the build, long before launch, so if something has gone up it’s not like I spent time on it.  Heck, I didn’t even know about MarCO until the day it launched.

That’s what I do … at least currently (or at least up until a couple weeks ago, but not going into that yet).  My role isn’t the sexist, but it’s what I love to do.  So,  if you want to congratulate me for that, feel free.