Archive for the ‘Personal Essays’ Category

Magical Trails

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
...I look like a giant with a little head!

I share this land with rabbit, coyote, and redtail hawks!

One of the small comforts of my day is the late afternoon walk I take in a substantial plot of undeveloped canyon country; coastal range terrain that is next to my community and bordered by Golden Valley. The terrain has a rolling aspect to it and the scrubby brush is criss-crossed by numerous animal trails created over the centuries by rabbit and coyote. These trails are at times direct, and at others, loopy and circuitous. In the late afternoon fading sun, just before sunset these trails are somewhat magical, begging for their full meanderings to be explored. Sometimes I get lost for a moment. Such moments are magical as they surface odd youthful feelings of awe – glimpses of discovery afforded by a time when the world seemed both smaller and larger, at the same time, than its true size.

At the end the trail, each day, as the last light fades away, I crest a high prominence and descend. I walk down the path slowly, and I see the world, exactly as it is, in truth.

 

cairn

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

It had been a nice morning.

Woke up early and walked over the hill to my predawn swimming workout. I could traverse the back way, even as early dark as it was at 4:45am; a bright full moon, directly overhead, illuminated. Cross-country, as the coyote goes; night owls flying silent on the hunt.

Enjoyed a great workout in the diving well, set up as it was for short-course meters. Even though the team is on taper workouts leading up to a meet this weekend, there were some challenging sets. Several 200’s pace, followed by four fast 50’s had my chest heaving. I was alive with exertion and consumed by the effort. The usual people were going faster than me, and the usual people were chatting up a storm between sets. Par for the course – like I said, a great workout.

I chose to walk back home, this time taking the “urban route,” i.e., on the bike path alongside Golden Valley Road. A longer route, but being paved in asphalt, it’s an easier walk, especially after the hard swim. Slow and steady, up the hill – traffic whizzed by frantically.

Halfway up the hill, after the point the redwood post fence takes up, I saw a small creature, still and lifeless, right in the middle of the bikeway – a little bird.

I don’t know how long it had been there, but I doubt it was long. I suspect it had been flying fast and low, swooping down. Unaware of the bustling traffic, it must have struck a windshield. I imagine it stunned, and upended. Then tumbling out of the sky and landing, coming to rest in my path, not too long before I got there.

I noticed the bird, but walked past – in the habit of being anxious to start my workday, soon to be pounding a computer keyboard at Starbucks – I steadied on.

Then it occurred to me that this little bird deserved more consideration from me. What would it take for me to pay some small respect? Not much, so why not? I turned back.

I pulled a paper napkin from my pocket (editor’s note: Michael never travels without paper napkins) and used it to grasp the bird by its legs, and I lifted it gently. Past the edge of the bike path, and beyond the post-fence, I leaned in and pried up a good sized rock. The void left by the rock, where it had rested in the soil, was the perfect size to lay the bird. Back went the rock, gently. I found about six other stones of varying size and I used them to shore up the edges of the site. On top I placed a nicely shaped, medium sized rock. The memorial was complete, a cairn that enshrines a small bird; I continued with my walk.

So what is the point? If nothing else let his be a reminder to pay attention to the cairns. They are all purposeful, whether to mark a waypoint for fellow travellers, to serve as an impromptu work of art, or as in this case, to be a memorial. You never know what may have prompted a person to stack rocks one upon another, but maybe it is worth contemplating. Also, what things in our lives deserve attention, but don’t get it? I don’t have the answers. All I know is that this small bird got some consideration from me today, and I am the better for it – I am enriched by not letting its passing go unnoticed.

As I said at the beginning, it had been a nice morning, and now – yes – it still was a nice morning. It was simply not the same morning it would have been had I not looked down and built a cairn.

 

Olympics Ongoing

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

Out of habit I often find myself checking Google news, but now that the Olympics have started I have to to be more restrained. I will follow swimming, gymnastics and some track & field. I don’t want any spoilers, so less reliance on news aggregation (sorry Google!). For example, tonight it will be Phelps and Lochte vs. the world in the 400m IM. My pick is Lochte.

Commemorating a Special Day – Apollo 11

Friday, July 20th, 2012
Upshot of the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module, the Eagle

History and Heroism Infuse the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing!

A Day to Remember!

July 20th 1969 was a special day for this future Aerospace Engineer, in more ways than one. While not aware at the time that was to be my profession, I was a totally engrossed in America’s space program. And so, despite ample distractions, which I will describe later, I found myself planted in front of the television set on that muggy mid-summer evening. I watched history unfold, and heroism manifest, as it was captured and conveyed back to Earth; grainy chunks of rasterized black, white and gray imagery on that screen – breathless.

That was the day that man landed on the moon.

Visionary and Powerful Leadership

It was the crowning event of the American quest set in motion by President Kennedy during his special address to Congress in which he said that “…this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Beautiful, inspirational leadership, and a simple yet elegant system specification as well. To read the entire speech is to witness the power of effective leadership, meted out respectfully mindful of the balance of powers between our three branches of government. A balance of power, and relationships between the branches as established and constrained by our US Constitution. The mission to the moon, and the occasion of this speech, were not for mere pyrotechnic display, or theater, respectively. On the contrary, the President was asking for resources from the Congress in the name of national security. Kennedy cited the extreme stresses of the time, in the midst of the Cold War, and recognizing the on-going struggle between freedom and tyranny taking place on the world stage.

Failed Leadership and Floundering

Kennedy’s strength at the time saddens me, now when considering in contrast, the profound weakness of our current president. Bowing as he does before world leaders, apologizing for, and denying American exceptionalism, abandoning our allies, and decimating our current space program to the point of shambles – we now rely on Russian transport to ferry our astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Pitiful.

Heroism Manifest

As for heroism though, I am continually inspired by that of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – the crew of Apollo 11. To me this is the height of human achievement, exemplary performance under pressure, and a testament to the quality of the human spirit. A spirit which is capable to aspire to, and to accomplish great things. At the bottom of this post I have embedded an annotated video clip of the final 13 of descent and landing on the moon. Armstrong, Aldrin and Mission Control acting in perfect coordination. This is heroism exemplified – Armstrong at the control, Aldrin as co-pilot monitoring systems, and Mission Control coolly and professionally executed mission operations per procedure.

Using computer systems that would be dwarfed in comparison to even the simplest mobile phones of today, they prevailed. The entire video transfixes me, but in particular the last three minutes are absolutely riveting. As Armstrong assesses the suitability of the landing zone he in fact has to make manual flight adjustments to avoid boulder fields. Meanwhile Aldrin is calmly reporting systems status – with master alarms going off, no less! The guidance system was being overloaded, but because of robust software design the descent could continue. Regardless, dealing with master alarms in the final seconds of the landing on man’s greatest adventure to date had to be unnerving – still they steadied on. When they landed the Eagle Lunar Module had less than 25 seconds of fuel remaining. Incredible!

Landing, and then the words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

A Special Gift for a delighted Birthday Boy

As for my other distractions; that day also happened to an anniversary of my own birthday – no need to tell you which anniversary, we’ll let that be a mystery. I am not sure where I stand on the concept of destiny – I don’t actually think that being born on a day that later would also be the day of the first moon landing made me be an aerospace engineer. How I became that is a story for another day.

I can’t deny though, the power of inspiration that I draw from this. Coincidences like this could have had an influence on such choices. But all of that speculation aside I do know that year after year it makes my birthday feel all that more special to me. Not only can I celebrate life, but I can share remembrance of a moment steeped in history and heroism – a moment in time when, as a result of strong vision and leadership, and of near perfect human execution, a great thing was accomplished!

Watch the video here; embedded link provided for your viewing and your appreciation, the annotated video of the Apollo 11 descent and landing:

In addition, the wikipedia entry for this mission is also very interesting.

I find this event inspirational; how does it affect you?

Blog Challenge Recap

Monday, July 16th, 2012
Starbuck_on_Lakewood_and_Telergraph_in_Downey_CA

Thanks Starbucks for the coffee and the WiFi! You made it possible!

One blog challenge, 27 posts, 7 exclamation points, and 11 question marks. With contest rules that include daily posting for the duration, 351 words per day, and a properly labelled image, clearly I am a masochist who is slightly more inquisitive than excitable.

I’m glad I did it; I am also glad it is over.

Here’s a recap of the posts, each with a little commentary – a director’s cut, so to speak:

1. Go at Throttle Up! One of my favorites, a personal history as well seasoned with a bit of introspection about what it means to accept the label that your professional choice dictates.

2. Is there an OODA Loop in your Future? An exploration of a combat proven decision-making method, examined with by use of a data flow diagram.

3. That’s my OODA Loop, and Yes, I am happy to see you! An extension of the previous post and how it can relate to personal matters, or least how I have found it applicable.

4. New Access to Knowledge Delivery for Everyone! Singing the praises of Udacity.com, a MOOC that offers world class coursework, for free, to all!

5. What Happened to that Feeling? Another one of my personal favorites; reflections from childhood, on the feelings of a summer day.

6. Obamacare, Explained as if to a 5 year old. A response to a reddit.com post, back when it mattered, because since then SCOTUS, has passed judgment, and has declared that the law is upheld – I am amazed at how easily people willingly surrender their freedom. I am even more amazed though at the faulty thinking employed by the chief justice who preferred to protect the perceived legacy of the court and in effect legislative from the bench. This was his choice rather than to decide constitutionality on face value of the arguments made in hearing.  Note: by a large margin, this was my most read post of over the course of the challenge. Two reasons might explain. I successfully got a link onto a reddit political commentary page using a “self” label (played by the rules). Also, recently a lot of people have been search for “Obamacare explained…” So somehow I am geeting part of that energy, although, no one really (save one)  has engaged me in comments, or “followed” as a result.

7. Functional Programming Defined by Consensus. My attempt to improve my understanding of the definition of functional programming.

8. A Brief Introduction to Systems Engineering. The title says it all!

9. Will Robots Rule the Road? Commentary on the prospects of robotic technology and artificial intelligence maturing sufficiently to the point where robotic cars will become commonplace, or not. References to the AI class I am taking at Udacity.com are included.

10. Top Down Robot Car! – A look at modern robotic car systems engineering as seen with the assistance of simple data flow diagrammatic modeling

11. Look Ma – No more Bending! A review of a dumb foot cleaning product.

12. Math as Model. A plea to teachers to make math more accessible by explaining that math is a model for understanding the things around us.

13. If Writing is good for me, why is it depressing me? Thoughts on the writing process, as brought about by the stresses of ambitiously committing to substantial posts on a daily basis.

14. Beyond Debate in Post-Constitutional America? To almost everyone I talk to, equality is more important than freedom; who knew? – go figure.

15. The Rolling Stones are now part of my Forth of July Tradition! In which I explain the scandalous choice to make a Brit-band to musical continuity that accompanies my independence day celebrations.

16. Swimming Freestyle – Propeller or Paddle? Choices, so many choices…

17. Best Robotic Legs Ever? Comments on developments in AI and robotics.

18. Micro Data Centers – Independence Day for AOL? The cloud is getting smaller, more deployable, and self-sufficient. Note: by linking to his blog post, I got a link back from a big player  (Michael Manos) at tech giant AOL. Cool!

19. Am I a Do-it-Yourselfer? I don’t even care about this one, I don’t expect you to either.

20. Continuum. This word kept coming up in my essays that I deceided to take a post to explain it.

21. Building 6. Reflections on my first day of work as a young aerospace engineer.

22. Gravedigger Revisited! I am an artist, as well as one who can write, so why not write about art?

23. Rise, Walk, Swim, Rinse, and Repeat. The morning routine I follow to swim on my master’s team.

24. Hanging On. Starts out as a gecko-eye-view of hanging on a screen, (since I had taken a pretty picture to write about); ends up as a rant on the subject of the president claiming that the only mistake of his first term in office was that he wasn’t a better story-teller. What a joke. Totally clueless.

25. Writing & Bodysurfing? – part 1 and part 2. A comparison between the two.

26. Blog Challenge Recap. Todays’ post – the last one of the blog challenge.

The challenge has been completed. I will continue with new posts after incorporating some lessons learned. But as for today, that’s all folks!

Writing & Bodysurfing? – part 2 of 2

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

(what follows is a continuation from this post)

As within the water once the rise has approached it has to be contended with – furious paddling or furious swimming, hoping to match its speed, hoping to catch it at its peak – this part is necessary to see if the wave takes off… to see if it allows you along for the ride – without the right energy, or if left to pass untested – it either fizzles, or continues on without the waverider.

The wave and the rider must be ready at the same time, and even then, nothing is for sure. Without proper follow through a good idea can collapse, its energy can fade without warning. The rider must endeavor to earn the rest of whatever ride there might be, through diligence.

But this is a diligence not without reward, for this is the essence of creation.

Seeing the opportunity and seizing it; struggling with the possibility, to see what can become of this partnership. This is a state of flow… writing, riding, where the tension un-surety about a successful outcome, be it an essay or a great ride, is perfectly balanced with the satisfaction on feeling that the struggle is worthwhile.

But with practice, and a little luck the result can be amazing. Catching it at the height of its potential, the idea can take off.

Think of it though. Even without a rider that very same wave would have the same trajectory, moving through space and time, unfettered. It might have passed without notice, like so many infinite waves through time immemorial.

Yet on this occasion there has been a collaborator; one to share in, and to mold, and to experience. That is what made this one different. That is what made this one memorable.

Ideas without elaboration are like waves without riders; know ones knows them for either what they were or what they could have become.

So if it contains the right energy, and if it is capably handled, out of nothingness, a wave, an idea, a rider, and a writer can share a perfect moment of creation.

This is a ride that can be exhilarating, and time after time, it proves itself to be worth the effort.

 

Writing & Bodysurfing? – part 1 of 2

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

To what can writing be compared? Of course there are many styles of writing. Therefor many comparisons are possible.

Much of my professional writing has been in a technical vein. Customer driven requirements, malformed upon their inception, and needing analysis to correct their crippled state. Requirements that specified functions only half thought through, but uttered as they were from the customer, sacrosanct. Mutable only by application of cleverness, force-of-will, dedication and often just some good luck.

Requirements for large scale systems development – things our soldiers need to protect our freedom, but procured by bureaucrats and their lesser minions and agents. Those charged with spending other peoples’ money and therefor less concerned about outcomes, and more about costs and schedules. Pretty much dry as dirt, but supposedly purposeful, deliberate, and boring in the limit.

Why waste time making comparisons to boring things?

I choose not to do that.

As for the type of writing I am doing now, that’s a different thing altogether. I write by choice, about things that interest me. I can choose my own subjects, and I am my own boss. I am the writer, but I am also my own first audience.

With that latitude and freedom though, there comes a price. With the freedom comes the burden of idea generation. The difference here is that I want to write, I am writing by choice. Comparisons then, are come by easier.

Something natural and energetic comes to mind; something that requires effort but offers rewards. An activity enhanced by what it offers in terms of immersion. I am thinking about body surfing. I am thinking about comparing writing to body surfing. Yeah, that is right, body surfing.

Standing, or swimming in the ocean, just far enough out to where the waves break and start to turn over on themselves. Patiently, because often the water is flat and the time between substantial waves can be lengthy. This can be a tedious time, waiting for a wave, or an idea to appear. Every now and then a slight rise forms at the edge of awareness, and gradually it approaches.

Is this the one, will this take the proper shape and does it have the right energy?

Each such new arrival has to be tested. (…continued on next post)

Hanging On

Friday, July 13th, 2012

I wonder what it feels like to be a gecko hanging on a screen door. Suspended, in space, a flimsy net, a minimal connection to stability. All that air rushing past, an open patio door, like a giant industrial vent. Maybe it would be like skydiving but without the inconvenient falling, the screaming earthward at terminal velocity.

Delicate little gecko claws, grabbing tenaciously, defying gravity. Its minute lizard brain thinking lizard thoughts. Cold-blooded, suspended, clinging,  and then the bob. Like the blink of a human eye, thoughtless yet relentless – always the bob – a genuflection that seemingly, is a nod to its primitive ancestors.

At the mercy of so many forces; like I’ve said, the wind could sweep it away without warning, gravity too would pull it down to a thud of a landing. And predators; could a bird swoop past and pluck the lizard off the screen?

Then again, how is this different from the situation of people – those who may be hanging on?

Maybe not different at all. Aren’t many suspended? Clawing, clinging, trying to stabilize on an uncertain fabric. A fabric that seems fragile, itself battered about by the wind.

Sometimes I feel the relentless rush of the air, the circumstance of life. What would it take sweep me away to a fall? Am I many small wisps, or just one big gust, away? To be whisked off, tumbling – what would it take? How many more mortgage payments can I make, with no income before my own tenuous grasp fails? Does the county stop collecting property tax once a job is lost – no, they don’t. I exist to fund my public servants and my public projects. Taxes I must pay. This fulfils me. Especially the local high school’s multi-million dollar project to install solar cells over the span of an entire parking lot. Student’s cars are protected from the sun by carport-like structures, the roofs of which are mounted with countless photovoltaic cells.

A good friend of mine has reassured me though that these solar cells are good – and that, I will see that someday.

Meanwhile, as unemployment remains above 8% for more than 40 months now, and as reckless government spending ruins our nation’s finances and imperils the future value of our dollar, I take reassurance from another source. The president has told me that the only mistake of his first term is that he hasn’t been a good enough storyteller. Imagine that – the great communicator can’t tell a story well. The one who was elected for convincing us to believe in his fantastical story of hope and change has failed to master the narrative.

Here I have told you a story, although I leave it to you to decide if it is ‘good.’ As for my own assessment, I’ll assert that I’d make a better president than this one, based on my storytelling alone.

While we wait for the president to find his voice again’ let me assure you, I am fine – after all, I am hanging on.

 

Rise, Walk, Swim, Rinse, and Repeat

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

A typical morning sequence

Even though abnormally hot during the previous Santa Clarita day the cooler night air cascades through the open window and over me in my bed. In these predawn moments I anticipate the alarm; it will be unwelcome and abrupt.

Then, 4:50am – it blasts; I can tolerate one push on the snooze bar without being too late to my swim. I do it, one push.

Roll out of bed and stagger to the bathroom; wash, and brush. I am moving around, but barely awake. I have found that my early morning swimming is just an extended form of waking… even once swimming I will feel lost in a transitional state.

Even as the morning sky is lightening, yellow, pink to blue, to night overhead, the planets, Venus and Mars, still shine brightly, unwilling to yeild to the approaching sun, yet they will – inevitably, they do.

Socks and shoes on the porch, poised like firemen’s gear, ready to go, always. Two squirts of hand lotion to counteract the drying effect of the chlorine.

The walk begins towards the gate, and then out into the wilderness. As the gates swings shut behind me I scale the steep embankment to start my 2 mile hike through relatively untouched Califronia Coastal Range terrain. Still in Northern Los Angeles County, and yet I live next to wild country.

Up to the first prominence, the highest point in my trek. A pause to deeply breath in the morning air. I turn slowly and I can scan the entire horizon. Pockets of low lying fog fill in small portions of the valley. Otherwise the sky is clear, and as it will be for the entire day.

Rabbits scurry through the brush. I’ve seen rattlesnakes, and I’ve heard them – whenever that happens I am glad for the warning. Evidence of coyotes, but no sightings. They leave rabbit carcasses and scat; they roam, and stick to their pack. This is their land, theirs and the other wildlife, yet, I walk through it as if it is mine.

Time goes by fast as I approach the pool, invigorated by my pre-swim walking warm-up.

Then poolside… I adjust my goggles, secure my earplugs, and then launch. I dive, limbs fully extended and my body sleek, I pierce the surface of the water. Immersed, alive, several dolphin kicks before starting my stroke. I will work hard; perhaps several thousand meters in 90 minutes, and yet it is as if I am still asleep.

It won’t be until after I’ve hauled myself out the water and showered, and started the hike back home, that I can claim to be fully awake. I will do this all again tomorrow.

For me, this is being fully alive, yet knowing – this is transition. Between sleep and wakefulness, conscious and engaged, but as if in a dream.

 

Building 6

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Big building, where the shuttle was built

I could not have imagined a more ideal first job out of college for a young aerospace engineer. The Space Shuttle was still young, new and exciting. It had only launched three times when I had arrived for my first day of work in Building 6 of the Rockwell International plant in Downey, California. The front of the massive building was an impressive sight facing Lakewood Boulevard. Major sub-assemblies were being built in that factory – during my tour of the plant on that first day I was walking among the cockpit/crew station structure in their various states of emergence. The space program still captured attention – each mission was being followed closely.

It was odd that on my very first day I felt both young and old at the same time. Old in that, now well past high school age, I was now a college graduate starting a real career in the aerospace industry. Young on the other hand in that I was the most junior person in the First Stage Ascent, Guidance, Navigation and Control group. As we posed for our group picture, which was coincidentally being taken on my first day, I was surrounded by engineering veterans, most of whom had built their career during the Apollo era. I remember being stunned that some of there faces seemed familiar as fixtures in the behind-the-scenes footage shown in various Apollo era mission control room newsreel footage. White shirts, thin ties, pocket protectors abounded; not cliches, but real – this was the fashion of the day. I may have been the youngest new recruit, but that would change, and soon others would be added.

Space still mattered, and its workforce was growing, and it would continue to grow – at least for a time.

Rockwell International as a corporate entity is long since gone, having been bought by Boeing in the late 1990’s, but Building 6 still remains. Supporting just a fraction of the number of jobs, the site now hosts a film production company that you’ve never heard of before. Turns out buildings like this now retain value, not as monuments and museums to a once proud US space program, but as backdrop for Hollywood. Old plants such as this shuttle factory are ideal for filming when the director needs a dilapidated industrial setting.

So not surprisingly, in a region famous for film, Southern California once again has more of future in entertainment, than in space.