F + 2 Days Furlough Report

First, why do this?  Several reasons: 1. I’ve got the time.  2. If I can’t laugh at myself or the absurdity of this situation, then it’ll be a more depressing situation than it actually is.  3. Show what work isn’t getting done because of this impasse.  4. It’s good to have an outlet.

With that out of the way…

Furlough beard 2

Just a few more days before I look like unshaven Justin Timberlake. Or maybe not…

Duration of Furlough: 2 days

Work not done: Yesterday, I would have been given the monthly status of each group’s progress in completing our wildly important goals. The first Wednesday of every month, each group lead for the four groups in my branch reports on the progress we’re making in reaching those goals.  We discuss any potential obstacles, potential solutions, and what progress we expect to make in the next month.  These goals are usually centered around improvements we need to make – our ISE and ISO flight controllers are both working to try and improve the training flow required for certification to work in mission control.  Our Crew On-Orbit Support System software development lab is currently putting together their strategic software development plan for the next 1-2 years.  Our PLUTO flight controllers, responsible for ISS computer networks, is preparing for a major software update to the ISS LANs that’s supposed to be released in early 2014.  Work on these projects will continue to an extent as our contractor teams are forward-funded for the next couple months, but progress on these will be slowed without some key contributors.

In addition, we were also slated to continue discussion on improving proficiency training for all of our certified flight controllers and instructors.  Proficiency training is refresher training for controllers who are already certified.  We’re currently revamping that training to ensure that certified personnel are always ready to ensure the safety of the crew on ISS, ensure the safety of the vehicle, and successfully complete our mission.  We’re comparing plans across our groups to see where we can share resources, ensure we’re being consistent, and ensure we don’t miss anything.  Most of this work is just not getting done.

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: Still poor.

Yesterday showed little if any signs of progress.  There’s talk of a grand bargain in the works, but I’m skeptical that Democrats will agree to anything that further reduces spending.  More on that in the liberal thoughts section below; I’ll spare my conservative friends from me getting into that here.

Have I showered today? Yes!  Rationale below.

Chores done: None. Dishes pending.

Wife-requested tasks: Take youngest daughter to preschool since my wife had to be in to work early (hence the shower to not scare off the preschool teachers). Submit forms for Texas Unclaimed Property (Done! $200 comin’ my way). Write something (I’m not sure this counts).

Video games played: Injustice: Gods Among Us, The Simpson: Tapped Out

I’ve never been much for fighter games as I mostly just mash buttons. I’m also not up to speed on my comic superheroes – my knowledge stops at the core characters – but it’s satisfying to pound away in this game.

Mood: Resigned.

This is going to take a while.  It’s hard to tell how much urgency both sides have in this discussion.  The last time this occurred the shutdown lasted 21 days. Comments saying that the shutdown was wanted make me incredibly unsympathetic to your view.

Furlough Fun Fact: It is illegal for a federal worker on furlough to check his or her work email.

Movie of the day: Deep Impact

God, this movie is depressing.  But fairly realistic!

*** Warning: Liberal Views Ahead***

If you think a liberal is inherently a bad person, you’ve probably already stopped reading or never ventured here in the first place.  If you can consider that 2 people can look at a problem and come up with 2 different solutions and not think they’re terrible people because of those views, then you may be open-minded enough to read on.

I thought I’d spend a few minutes answering a question from an old friend:

When did I become such a Democrat?

First, I’m not a registered Democrat.  I’m still an independent because I don’t have a lot of trust in the career politicians on either side.  I will admit to being very liberal.  Did I used to be more moderate?  In some ways, but over the last 6 years, my worldview has definitely shifted more to the left; though I also wonder how much the right shifted away from me.

So what’s important to me?  The following is in rough priority order.

Environmentalism

This isn’t about save the Earth, because the Earth existed just fine millions of years before we came along and will continue to be here long after we’re gone.  I do believe though that we need to protect our environment as much as possible.  Pollution, be it air, water, light, or other, destroys our environment and the environment of the plants and animals we share the planet with.  We require biodiversity among those other planets and animals in order to survive.  Lack of biodiversity puts humanity’s food chain at risk.  Extinction of species, like say the honey bee, could also be devastating to our food supply. We release more pollution every day in many different ways.  In my view we need to curb that as much as possible.

I haven’t even touched on global climate change which climate scientists are now 95% certain is caused by humans.  I believe the science, but I’ll admit there’s a small chance it could be wrong.  I look at it this way – What if climate scientists are wrong?  We may waste money on renewable energy sources, jobs may disappear from coal and oil industries, but then we would have an energy supply not dependent on foreign assets and jobs would likely spring up in other areas.  Now, what if climate scientists are right and we don’t do anything?  Well, the potential consequences are fairly dire.  I’d rather make changes and have them not be needed, then not make changes and have the situation get worse.  Good businessman will find other ways to make money.

Women’s Issues

I have 3 girls.  I want them to have the same opportunities and same rewards as anyone else – man or woman.  I support fair pay laws and equal opportunity laws that will allow them to get opportunities in male-dominated industries.  I also support anti-discrimination laws that protect the from any institutional sexism.  Don’t think that exists anymore?  Talk to women in the video game industry or IT industry.

I also don’t want any of them to get pregnant before they are emotionally, financially, and physically ready for it.  However, I’m not naive enough to believe they will abstain from sex before they get married in their mid-to-late twenties or later.  They need to be educated on how to protect themselves and what contraception they should use to avoid unplanned pregnancies.  And God forbid they ever get raped and get pregnant from that, but if one of them ever were, I would want them to make whatever decision they feel is necessary for that pregnancy and for them to have the right medical care when making that decision.  I would want the same if that pregnancy threatened their well-being.

Science

I’ve already talked about climate change. I would also site the controversy over teaching creationism as science as something that drives me to the left.  The Theory of Evolution is not just some supposition; it’s well-supported by scientific evidence.  That’s the definition of a scientific theory. As long as the religious right pushes to teach creationism as science, as they’re currently doing with Texas science textbooks, I will vehemently oppose those efforts.

Economic Recovery

I fully admit this is not an area where I have a thorough understanding of the principles of the system.  I’ve learned a lot from reading sites like baselinescenario.com.  I don’t believe that focusing on the deficit and cutting government funding is what this country needs right now.  Fiscal conservatism has its place and time, but I don’t believe that time is now.  My view is that the government needs to spend more on infrastructure, science and medical research, and education in order to improve the foundations of the country, better prepare Americans to succeed in the real-world and create more jobs.

The lack of jobs is the most important issue that I believe our government should be addressing.  When taxes are low, the rich save more money rather than spend more.  Building and improving infrastructure creates jobs, research and development of new technologies creates jobs and a better education allows people to get better jobs.  Employers will continue to seek ways to lower their costs through automating tasks or finding cheaper labor.  This will continue to move manufacturing jobs out of the country and eliminate other jobs.  We either need to find other ways for people to work or change the expectation that everyone has to have a job.

I’m going to stop here.  I could also discuss pushing religion on government, gun control, military spending, government lobbying and several other issues, but I’ve probably either agitated or bored you enough already.  None of this is to say I love the current Democratic leadership – Obama seems to not really value NASA, both sides are too beholden to corporate interests – but in the current environment, I do support more of what they’re after.  In the past, pragmatic environmentalism, prudent government spending, trusting science, and equal treatment for people would not have made me a liberal.  Today, it does.

If you missed it:

F + 1 Day Furlough Report

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The Technological Innovation I was Reluctant to Feature in Dust

Part of the premise of Dust is that the human race has grown beyond its means and as a result many colonies across the Republic  are struggling to adequately feed their populations.  When Nick, our protagonist, travels to Dust, he expects to find a local population filled with the emaciated and destitute, with people begging for scraps and the whole of the colony struggling to survive.

Much to his surprise, that’s not what he finds.  Instead he finds a population that is having no trouble supporting itself.  He finds his plate is filled everyday with strange but scrumptious meals that leave him more than satisfied.  This delicious bounty is the result of Dust’s top mind, the old geneticist Doctor Aldous Sinclair.  Doctor Sinclair used his scientific gifts to modify crops so that they could thrive in the harsh environment of Dust, thereby guaranteeing the colony’s survival.

The people of Dust rely on genetically-modified foods for survival.

My reluctance to include genetically-modified food in Dust doesn’t stem from any fear of genetic modification itself.  There is nothing inherently wrong with something that is genetically modified.  In fact, human-made modifications can potentially be very beneficial, but that doesn’t excuse the shameful way genetically-modified foods have been handled in the United States.

Just under a year ago, I stumbled across this TEDx talk from Robyn O’Brien.  Robyn does an excellent job laying out the case against the dangers and risks that have been introduced into the U.S. food supply through the introduction of unregulated genetically-modified foods. In the presentation, she reviews the data that shows an increase in food allergies, cancer rates, and other issues that have occurred since genetically-modified foods started showing up in our food supply.  She does note that correlation does not equal causation.  There are times though, when better safe than sorry or caveat emptor should be our underlying approach.

As I sat at my kitchen table with my three little girls, I realized just how much I agreed with Robyn’s approach.  We’ve made wholesale changes to our food buying habits, buying as many organic, natural, and chemical-free food products as we can.  These days, you’re much more apt to find foods from Cascadian Farms, Annie’s, Kashi, or Mom’s Best then you are to find Kellogg’s, Nabisco, or Kraft.  That’s not to say we’re perfect as the need for quick snacks and fast meals with our little girls sometimes makes processed foods necessary.  However, we have made substantial changes.

Frankly, I think it’s fairly shameful how governments in other developed countries around the world have seen fit to protect their citizens from the inherent dangers that could be resulting from their foods and yet the government “by the people, for the people’ has not.  I find the mindset that many people seem to have, that food or chemicals are okay until they are proven harmful, to be perplexing.

When a new medication is introduced to the public, it is required to be tested to ensure that it is reasonably safe (there are problems with biased studies here, but the approach is reasonable).  Side effects must be identified and if a medication proves to be too detrimental, it is not approved.  Yet, medication is not required for consumption everyday by every person in this country.

Everyone, man, woman, or child has to eat.  Yet for the food we put on our plates, we seem to have put the bottom-line of corporations ahead of the safety of the people.

Until this situation is rectified, grocery shopping truly requires a ‘buyer beware’ approach.  I know too many people with cancer to want to put my family at risk by eating food that is ultimately unsafe.

So, as I said, I was reluctant to include this technological innovation in Dust.  I considered adding an exchange that would show how Sinclair tested his modifications to ensure that they were safe, but I couldn’t find any way to naturally blend it in with the story.  I considered not having genetically-modified organisms, but they were important to establishing Sinclair’s abilities.  In the end, I left them in the book with the rationalization that genetic modification is not inherently bad, but I knew I’d be writing a post to express my reservations with the approach the United States has taken.

You can follow Robyn on twitter @unhealthytruth.

The Price a Veteran Pays

The impact of war is often measured by the number of lives lost or dollars spent, but those measures don’t tell the whole story.  The three months my father spent in Vietnam altered the course of his life and have affected the lives of everyone he has known since that time.

In the late 1960s, my father was a troubled teenager.  He had been expelled from Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia months before he was supposed to graduate.  His father had to intervene and beg the school to let him get his degree.  Following this, in an effort to make his family proud, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army and go to Vietnam.  He volunteered at a time when many men his age were drafted involuntarily and when some felt it was more honorable to flee the country than fight in the war.  He did it because he felt he could redeem himself in the eyes of his family.

In Vietnam, he served in a mobile infantry unit.  He was part of a small 3-4 man crew that operated a Track, a small armored vehicle out of which he would fire mortar rounds to attack the enemy.*  One day during an exercise, my father was accidentally shot three times by the gun mounted atop the Track.  The three bullets entered his body about midway up the left side of his torso.  Two of the bullets passed all the way through him.  The third bullet did not.  It ricocheted off bone, tore through his intestines and testicles and ultimately lodged in his right hip.

He was not expected to live.

The Army flew his father out to the hospital in Japan where he had been transported.  His father was flown out because he was not expected to survive.  This would not be the last time my father beat the odds.  His was eventually transferred to a military hospital in New Jersey; his days in combat were now over.

He's wounded in Vietnam and the paper can't even bother to get his name right, but hey, he got to meet Miss New Jersey.

Sadly, the Army would not award my father a Purple Heart because his wounds were suffered in a friendly fire incident.

From that day forward, my father’s life was altered by the horrors he experienced and the pain he dealt with every day.  The bullet that lodged in his hip would remain there until the early 1980s.  The bullet caused him to develop osteomyelitis, a bone infection, in his right hip joint.  The only solution he was offered was to entirely remove the hip joint.  The entire ball and socket that comprise the joint were removed.  His right leg was now several inches shorter than the left with the top of the femur now just rubbing against his pelvic bone stabilized only by scar tissue.  He was not expected to walk again, let alone walk without crutches.

For the majority of my life, he walked with only the support of a cane.

Every day of his life was now filled with pain.  His hip hurt.  His knees hurt.  His back hurt.  For the rest of his life, he would take pain pills, not Tylenol, but Tylenol #3 with Codiene or Darvocet or other equivalent medications.  Eventually, he built up such a tolerance to the medications that he would take them by the handful, 5-6 at a time, every 4 hours.

The wounds he had would cause him to be medically retired when he was in his early 30s.  He was considered 100% medically disabled and would not work full time.  It was too painful for him to sit at a desk all day.  With this, he would now spend everyday at home alone while my mom would work and I was off at school.  He was isolated.

He tried to pass the time with hobbies – he built models of clipper ships, fished, collected stamps, and several other pursuits – but he was isolated with only his thoughts and memories of war for company.  Before he had been medically retired, he turned to vices, cigarettes and alcohol, to help him forget his physical and mental pain.  The loneliness he now felt due to his retirement only exacerbated his troubles with those vices.

My father tried to reach out to a veteran’s organization in order to connect with others in his situation.  At that time, Vietnam Veterans were not respected, they were still considered baby killers and murderers, not soldiers, and the World War II vets would not except him.  The loneliness he experienced would turn into depression and with that he sunk into the grips of alcoholism.

He lived his life through a haze of strong pain medications and alcohol and it caused strain on the entire family.  He had already had one failed marriage after his experience in the war and his relationship with my mom would be a constant test of perseverance for both of them as they fought through his struggles.

The alcoholism caused several incidents that I remember vividly.  The most memorable of which was one Christmas Eve, when I had to have been about ten or twelve years old.  He started drinking wine early in the evening while wrapping presents and at one point left to pick up my step brother and sister from his ex-wife’s house.  I went out to the car with him and he asked me to go back and get something for him.  I remember having him promise me that he would wait for me, but of course he didn’t.  Hours passed and he didn’t come back.  I was sent to bed and my mom called her sisters asking for help.  I remember sitting in the window of my second floor bedroom, waiting for him.  Eventually, my uncles found him passed out on the side of the road and I remember coming out of my room, very late that night, to see them dragging him in.  He needed help.

He would be in and out of rehab several times.  Those programs addressed the alcoholism, but they never addressed what really drove it.  It wasn’t until the late 80s/early 90s that Vietnam veterans were more socially accepted.  My father started opening up about his experiences in the war.  He would start sharing his war experiences with my grandfather, a World War II veteran himself.  He was also finally awarded a Purple Heart by the Army and he joined the Military Order of the Purple Heart.  He found friends and enjoyed the camaraderie of people who had been through similar events.  He was able to quit drinking.

For several years, he led as normal a life as he would ever have.  For those years, he felt like a person again.

Always the charmer.

Once my mom died, he fell back into bad habits.  After decades of smoking and drinking, he developed cancer.  Two years ago after several rounds of treatments, trying to once again beat the odds, his heart gave out.  He died weeks before his 60th birthday.

A couple of months before he died, I asked him why he had volunteered to go to Vietnam.  That’s when he told me the story of wanting to make his family proud.

I told him he did.

And in doing so he paid a heavy price.  My father is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery with my mother.

I don’t tell this story looking for sympathy.  I have long ago come to grips with the effect his alcoholism had on our family and on me personally.  I want people to recognize those veterans who return from war are dealing with more than most will ever understand.  They need to be thanked and some need to be helped.

*-My apologies for any inaccurate terminology.  All of this is remembered from the stories my father told me before he passed away two years ago.

Meniere’s Disease: My Odd Connection with Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard

Today is the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s triumphant, risk-filled Freedom 7 flight, becoming the first US Astronaut in space.  One little known aspect of Shepard’s astronaut career is that he was grounded for a period of time because he suffered from Meniere’s disease.  His official astronaut bio isn’t clear about when he was diagnosed but it does mention the following:

“He was restored to full flight status in May 1969, following corrective surgery for an inner ear disorder.”

Based on other sources, it seems Shepard was probably diagnosed with the condition around the time he was named the head of the Astronaut Office in 1963 and was finally cleared to return to flight in ’69.  Meniere’s disease is the name given to a condition manifested through four symptoms:

  1. Variable hearing loss
  2. Tinnitus (Ringing in the ears)
  3. Fullness/Pressure in the ears
  4. Dizzy Spells/Vertigo

I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease in 2002 after suffering through a debilitating bout of dizzy spells that saw me get wheeled out of work on a stretcher and then a few weeks later getting wheeled out of my apartment under the same circumstances.

By far, the worst part of the condition is the dizzy spells.  They occur without rhyme or reason, striking at any moment with no warning.  I remember coming down with them walking home from classes in college, in the middle of helping my parents pack up their house and move, in the middle of a meeting at work, and just sitting at home watching TV.  The spells can last minutes or hours.

The dizzy spells are also very debilitating.  The worst I ever suffered was early on in my marriage.  I was home alone after work, watching TV.  Without warning, the room started violently spinning.  I immediately felt nauseous and it took every ounce of effort to make it to the toilet.  I stumbled me way there, threw up on the toilet, then crawled back to the couch.  I struggled to read the numbers on my cell phone, called my wife, and about a half hour later, the paramedics arrived and I was carted off to the hospital.

With this information, it’s easy to see why NASA flight doctors would not allow Shepard to fly a spacecraft. Being in the middle of complex ascent or entry operations is no place to suffer a debilitating attack of vertigo.

While the condition is still not well understood, there are plenty of options to treat it.  Diuretics are used to help manage the dizzy spells through keeping fluid levels low in parts of the ear.  Surgery is also an option, which Shepard apparently chose to do.  That wasn’t an option for me, as I displayed symptoms in both ears and Doctor’s weren’t willing to risk the possible side effects without being confident they would address the condition.

The best news is that the condition passes over time.  As it was explained to me, after about 6 years, the balance organ in my ears essentially burnt out, and I no longer suffer the dizzy spells.  I do still have the other symptoms, but those are mere annoyances compared to the dizzy spells.

Even with today’s medicine and medical practices, it took several doctors and a dozen tests to pinpoint the condition.  It was extremely frustrating to go from test to test without making progress on finding out what was wrong with me or how to fix it.   I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for one of the leaders of the fledgling US space program.

For me, having the condition pass allowed me to pass a flight controller physical and become a CAPCOM for the International Space Station.  For Alan Shepard, he was cleared to return to flight and was the commander for Apollo 14.  I remember the day I learned he had the same condition and that he had overcome it.  It gave me plenty of reason to stay positive and continue to work towards my goals.