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When I previously visited the Kennedy Space Center, it was the late 1980s and the Space Shuttle program was still active.  I've wanted to make a return visit for a while, so when we found ourselves with some extra time today, we stopped.  The visitor's center is completely different than I remember, and as is the bus tour.  I remember the Saturn V rocket as being on display outdoors, near the Vehicle Assembly building.  Now, the tour just drives past the VAB, but it gets *much* closer to launch pads 39A and 39B, which are now both under construction for future use.  Pad 39A is leased to SpaceX, and is being prepared to launch their new Falcon Heavy rocket here.  Pad 39B is being redesigned to launch NASA's next generation rocket, the SLS, which is intended to return manned spacecraft to the moon and then push further out, eventually to Mars.  It was quite exciting to see the future of the US manned space program in progress.  The Saturn V rocket is now impressively housed in a new facility that highlights the Apollo program.

When we returned to the visitor's center, we checked out the Atlantis exhibit, highlighting the space shuttle exhibit and organized around the shuttle Atlantis, which is displayed as if in orbit, suspended from the ceiling, with the cargo bay doors open, and tilted so that you can see inside the cargo hold on one side and inspect the bottom on the other. There is also a shuttle launch simulator, which provides a realistic approximation of what it feels like to ride the shuttle through a launch sequence into is a real kick in the pants!

There was much more to do here...IMAX movies, a whole pavillion devoted to current and future missions to Mars, opportunities to meet astronauts, and more.  We didn't have time to see everything, but it is all well very well done, and for a space junkie like me, a completely satisfying place to visit.
After driving up and down I-95 through Georgia many times without getting off and visiting Savannah, we decided to take a day to check out this city.  I had heard that it was a lovely city, and I wasn't disappointed.  We decided to do a trolley (i.e., bus) tour of the city that allowed us to get on and off as much as we wanted.  After a 90 minute tour of the city, we set off on foot to explore in more detail. I found the city utterly charming, with it numerous squares filled with huge oak trees covered with spanish moss. It was a really pleasant day, though it was just enough to convince me that we will need to come back and make this a destination by itself.

The highlight of the day was lunch.  I was looking forward to some good low country food. We ended up eating at a restaurant on the waterfront, where I decided to try their pine bark stew. The creamy stew of shrimp, crab, oysters, fish, and potatoes was fabulously yummy.  And, surprisingly, given where we were, it was even reasonably priced.

By the time we finished wandering around the city and made our way back to our car, it was too late to visit the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, which I've wanted to visit for some time now.  So, one more reason to come back.  I'm thinking we might try at to use our time share points to book a stay at Hilton Head island, which is close enough to use a base to explore Savannah and its surroundings.
Any time we drive through North Carolina on I-95, it seems we are compelled to pull off the highway in Wilson.  My late mother-in-law is to blame for this mandatory detour.  When she was a teenager, she used to visit an aunt and uncle who lived in Wilson, and they would treat her to dinner out at a local barbecue restaurant.  She liked Parker's so much that for the rest of her life, she made a point of stopping there anytime she came down this way.  So naturally, my wife also developed a taste for the place, and I'll admit to also being hooked.

Parker's was founded in 1946, and it doesn't appear that the interior design hasn't changed in the intervening 70 years.  The waiters (and they are all men) wear khaki pants, white shirts, white aprons, and paper hats.  Walking in the door feels a bit like a trip back in time.  But what the establishment lacks in ambiance, it *more* than makes up for in the quality of the food.  Know for their minced pork barbecue and their fried chicken, I usually order their barbecue dinner, which includes a generous helping of their barbecue, their unique coleslaw (with its unique yellow dressing), cornbread sticks and hush puppies, along with your choice of Brunswick stew or green beans, and boiled potato or french fries.  All that for less than seven dollars.  I can't think of anywhere else that I've ever been that provided such a complete meal at such a bargain price.

Before we left, we ordered a pound of barbecue pork to go, to give to a friend of my wife's that we are visiting.  We'll have to stop again on the way home, to pick up some barbecue for our daughter (she specifically requested some).  I'm thinking I should try the fried chicken on the way home, just to see if it is as good as it is reported to be.

For anyone traveling through North Carolina on I-95, I highly recommend making a stop in Wilson.  While Parker's is a bit off the highway (about 6 miles), it is well worth the effort.  Just be sure to bring cash...they don't accept credit or debit cards, and only accept local checks.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of excitement when it was reported that “Russian SETI researchers are pursuing a promising signal”, as one headline put it.  It turns out that the hype was overblown, as it has been every time one of these stories has surfaced to date. While I haven’t seen that they’ve settled on a clear explanation for the signal they detected, the consensus is that it does not represent evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life.  While that’s certainly disappointing to those, like me, who find the idea of life elsewhere in the universe fascinating, it shouldn’t be surprise.

I support the efforts of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), but I think I’m being realistic when I say that I don’t expect this effort to find any concrete evidence of any life elsewhere in my lifetime (and probably not in my daughter’s lifetime, either).  To understand why I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll detect such signals, let’s consider how signals propagate.  Isotropic signals propagate equally in all directions, so their signal strength is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source.  The random noise emitted by a technological society would be essentially isotropic, so that by the time the signal reached us, it would be incredibly weak, unless the signal was almost inconceivably powerful to begin with.  This is what is happening to all the radio noise we’ve been emitting into space for the last century or is propagating into space more-or-less equally in all directions, getting weaker at a rate that is related to the square of the distance from Earth.  However, signal strength can be improved by focussing signals in a specified direction.  The strength of such signals will decrease much less quickly than the isotropic signals, but there’s a catch.  The signal has to be directed almost directly at you for you to detect it.  In fact, the further away you are, the more precisely it must be aimed.  If we were to detect such a signal, it would either mean we had drifted across a signal intended for someone (something) else, or else that our presence was known.  Since our own signals have only propagated out for a bit more than a century, an intentional signal beamed back at us would almost certainly have to originate from less than about a hundred light years away.  There simply aren’t very many stars within that distance.

Even if, through some miracle, we did happen to detect a signal that clearly originated from an extraterrestrial source, the almost impossible to conceive distances of interstellar space raise all kinds of other problems.  Depending on how far away the signal source is from us, the civilization that created the signal could easily have disappeared since the signal was created.  A signal from a thousand light years away is going to take a thousand years to reach us.  It would not be a greeting from a current inhabitant of that point in space, but a time capsule of those who lived there back in time.  This limitation means that even if we detect such a signal, we have no ability, using our current knowledge and tools, to engage in any meaningful conversation.  And if there is life out there that has figured out how to overcome Einstein’s universal speed limit, we simply don’t know how to detect any message they might be transmitting.

Is there life out there?  There’s no way to know, at least so far.  Personally, I think it is likely, but I will readily admit that there is zero evidence to support that belief.  Would I be excited to hear that we’d discovered such evidence?  Absolutely.  Am I holding my breath in anticipation?  Ummm...not so much.

Perhaps it is a generational thing, but it feels like the newer employees at my office have a different understanding about what constitutes an acceptable level of effort in performing their duties than I do.  I come to this realization based on conversations I’ve had with some of these employees directly and based on general statements my supervisor has made.  For many of these newer employees, they are satisfied if they can satisfy the minimum level of acceptable performance (as defined in our Performance Appraisal Plan).  While the plan includes financial incentives (i.e., awards) for achieving defined levels of exceptional performance, these employees don’t seem to find these to be sufficient motivation to put forth the extra effort.  They argue that they can make more money by working overtime at the minimum acceptable performance level.

I simply cannot understand this mindset.  For me, achieving the higher performance levels is a matter of pride.  While it is nice to get a bonus in my paycheck at the end of the year, that really isn’t my primary motivation.  I believe in always giving my best effort, and I would feel like I was cheating if I gave anything less than that.  I suspect that this approach to the job is part of the reason my supervisors and colleagues seem to respect me so much.  This translates into a great working relationship with them, one that allows me a great deal of autonomy, which helps minimize the stress related to the job.

I have made efforts to explain to some of these newer employees how putting forth your best effort each and every day can help foster positive relationships with supervisors and colleagues, which in turn can smooth the path for a long and enjoyable career.  Some seem to get it, and make an effort to change, but there are others who just don’t seem to get it.  I wonder why.

Fifteen Years

Sep. 11th, 2016 04:06 pm
resqgeek: (Ambulance)

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of one of the worst days the United States has ever experienced.  If you take even the most casual look around the internet, there is no shortage of posts recalling the events of that horrible day.  Everyone has a story of what they were doing that day, what they felt, how they reacted.  Remembering the events of that day, remembering those who died, sharing our stories, these are all important.

But on this anniversary, I’m not finding myself thinking about that day so much as the years since.  I’m thinking about the legacy of that awful day, how we, as a nation, responded, and what we’ve done since.  I remember how, in the days and weeks immediately afterwards, we came together, expressing incredible solidarity with the victims and communities impacted.  In the midst of the horror and disbelief, it was possible to find hope in the way we reached out to each other in our grief.

But that spirit of hope and unity isn’t very evident today. We have become deeply divided along many fronts.  We have given into fear, sacrificing many of the most important principles. From holding prisoners for years (even decades) without due process, to torturing prisoners, to massive electronic surveillance that has steadily eroded our privacy, we have allowed our fear to justify a steady, incremental surrender of many of the ideal we used to take pride in.  And on top of that, that same fear has led to a rising distrust of immigrants, especially those coming from certain parts of the world, or who profess certain religious beliefs.  We seem to have forgotten that this country is a nation of immigrants, that our immigrant heritage is our great strength, that our future almost certainly rests in those who continue to yearn to come here and become part of our society.

Meanwhile, we obsess over superficial shows of patriotism.  We complain when someone exercises their rights to protest by not following conventional patriotic acts, like standing for the national anthem. We are outraged when someone dares to suggest that we might have overreacted to the terrorist attacks.  We have elevated outrage to the new patriotism.

So, let’s remember the terrible events of that day. It is important to remember and to share those memories.  But it is also important to reflect on how we have responded to that day, and to consider whether, going forward, we can’t find responses that don’t compromise our ideals.  I believe that we can, and that such responses would ultimately be more productive in improving security and promoting peace both at home and abroad.

Why I read

Sep. 9th, 2016 07:54 am
resqgeek: (Ambulance)

I believe in the power of reading.  The written word is capable of conveying incredible information, of expanding our horizons far beyond anything that we could ever hope to experience first hand.  Through reading, we can learn and grow in completely unexpected ways.  Books can change us, and we, in turn, can change our world in ways both small and large.

I try to devote a significant amount of my free time to reading.  I almost always have a book nearby that I am in the process of reading, and if I don’t, I somehow feel a bit incomplete.  Not only to I try to read in quantity, I also try to read widely in scope.  At various points in my life, I have found myself enjoying certain types of books, going back to that genre again and again.  As a teenager and in college, my reading was devoted largely to science fiction and fantasy.  As a young adult, I read a lot of espionage thrillers before becoming engrossed in historical fiction.  These days, I find myself reading a lot of non-fiction, whether it be memoirs, historical analyses, books about science, or religion, or politics, though I still try to include fictional novels in my reading, because it helps inspire my imagination.

I believe that seeking out a broad range of topics in my reading has helped me to understand the world better, to appreciate my place in it, and to recognize the responsibilities I have to make efforts to make the world the better place I believe that it could be.  I know that some people don’t share my appreciation for reading.  They view it as a chore or a waste of time.  Even among those who read, some have different motivations.  Some read as a form of escapism, using fiction to escape unpleasant realities in their lives, if only briefly.  Others dismiss fiction exactly because that how they view it.

I don’t think it matters why you read, or even what you read.  The very act of reading takes you outside of yourself.  You must immerse yourself in the word, thoughts and imagination of others.  This will challenge your worldview, if only in reminding you that others have different points of view, different ideas, different opinions.  But to magnify this effect, to maximize your growth, I encourage you to seek out different types of reading.  Look for books that challenge your views, that introduce you to new ideas, or fill in gaps in your knowledge.  Never be satisfied with what you already know, but nurture a hunger to know more.

The human ability to recognize patterns is incredibly robust.  I have been observing the developments in the field of computer vision since 1990, and while the progress that has been made in programming computers to detect and recognize patterns has been impressive, the capabilities of the human brain in this area continues to elude the developers in this technology almost entirely.  Not only do humans have powerful, innate abilities to detect patterns with almost unbelievable speed, but our recognition accuracy is remarkably high.

However, it isn’t perfect.  One of the weaknesses we have in this area is the tendency to find patterns where none exist (the false positive result).  The relatively high false positive rate is a product of our evolution...a false negative (failing to see a pattern where one does exist) can have fatal consequences (such as not seeing a predator hiding in wait), whereas running from a danger that doesn’t actually exist is much less likely to kill someone.  As a result, over time, natural selection minimized our tendency towards false negatives, but did not particularly suppress any tendency to find false positives.

This tendency to see patterns even when no meaningful pattern really exists is easy to demonstrate.  We use it to amuse ourselves when we look for shapes in the clouds, and it is the reason we find the patterns we call constellations among the stars.  It is also probably a major factor in why so many people believe in conspiracy theories.  They find patterns in events, giving meaning to coincidences, even when there is, in reality, no underlying relationship between the events.  It seems that we have evolved to dislike randomness, with a strong preference for patterns, so much so that we will go to great lengths to find patterns everywhere.

This is why scientific inquiry requires experimentation.  When we think we’ve found a pattern, we use the alleged pattern to make a prediction, and then conduct an experiment to see if the prediction is correct.  If it isn’t, we may need to re-evaluate the data to see if the pattern actually exists or if it is just a product of our imagination.

A lot happened last week, and with all that was on my mind, there was one piece of news that I really didn’t absorb fully.  I first learned that Fr. Patrick McMahon, O. Carm., had passed away on Facebook, where he was tagged in a number of posts announcing his passing (obituary).  It seemed an odd way to learn that bit of news, but it did prepare me to hear his name included in the prayer intentions at mass on Sunday, so at least it wasn’t the surprise it seemed to be to others in the church that morning.

Father Patrick was one of the reasons I changed parishes back in 2009.  At the time, he was teaching in Washington, DC, and, while he wasn’t officially assigned to Good Shepherd parish, he was a regular celebrant of the weekend masses there.  I found his preaching to be refreshing and compelling in its humor, compassion, and call for mercy and empathy.  I later attended some evening lectures he presented at the parish about the history of the Church, and discovered that he maintained a blog, which I began to read regularly.  I found much to admire the depth of his knowledge and the breadth of his vision of what the Church should be in the world.

His blog (titled “What Sister Knew and Father Never Told You”) included long series of posts that explored various points in the history of the Church, but also brought a historical perspective to contemporary Church issues.  He posted anonymously so that he could express personal opinions that might not necessarily be condoned by his superiors.  But he was eminently qualified to speak to the history of the Church and how it might apply to the Church today: He had studied history at New York University, where he earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate.

A few years ago, he was transferred from his teaching job in DC to a suburban parish in New Jersey, so he no longer celebrated mass at my parish.  But I continued to read his blog, looking to him for insight into the actions and message of Pope Francis, and the reactions to the Pope that bubble up in certain parts of the Church.  In fact, I still find myself looking at the blog, almost expecting to find a new posting.  I may have to go back to the beginning of the blog and read the earliest posts (the earliest post, dated January 10, 2011, is about the history of papal conclaves), from before I discovered it.  I’m sure that there is still plenty that I can learn from what he wrote.

Rest in Peace, Father Patrick.  Your work helped me better understand the Church that I call home, even when I sometimes question the things it teaches or does.  You will be greatly missed.

A week ago, my wife and I were reflecting on the sad anniversary of the death of our younger daughter, six years ago.  While the pain of that loss isn’t as acute as it was, it lingers, surfacing from time to time as we reflect on the milestones that we haven’t been able to celebrate along the way.  Our daughter would be starting her sophomore year of high school this year and would be learning to drive.  Every now and then we see one of her friends and we are always surprised to see the young men and women they have grown into, because, for us, our daughter will forever be nine years old.

The very next day, we drove our older daughter and a vanload of her possessions down to the college she has chosen to attend.  We helped her move all the boxes into the dorm and lent a hand as she started to unpack.  After taking a break for lunch and stopping to pick up a few items at the store, it was pretty clear that she wanted to finish unpacking on her own.  So, after taking the obligatory photos, we climbed into the van and headed home.

I have seen many people posting about how emotional this moment is for them, the mixed feelings of sadness and pride that they feel as their children take these first steps into adulthood.  Many have assumed that my wife and I share those feelings, that we might have found the separation from our older daughter somewhat painful.  But honestly, this hasn’t been a big deal for us, not after what we’ve already lived through. Our older daughter hasn’t really left us, not in any way that is permanent.  We will see her again soon enough, and while she will continue to grow and change, we will get to experience it, even if from a distance.  The same is not true of our younger daughter.  She is truly gone, and we don’t get to watch her grow up and find her place in the world.

I am proud of my older daughter. She has worked hard, and I expect that she will do well in her new school.  I think she is looking forward to the new challenges and opportunities that college will present.  She may not yet have a clear plan for her future, but she’s still young, and I hope she embraces this time to explore her wide spectrum of interests, to meet new people, and discover new ideas. In some ways, I’m jealous of the opportunities she has before her.

And so, her mother and I now get to adjust to a new stage of our lives, where we have more time for each other, with fewer distractions.  In light of all that we’ve been through over the years, it almost feels like we are starting over, getting to know each other anew.  Let the adventures begin!

Dearest Friends and Family,

Another year winds down and the holiday season is upon us once again.  We are surrounded by signs of the holidays - homes decorated with lights, decorated trees in windows, holiday music playing in the stores, and holiday parties at work.  In the midst of all this festive hustle and bustle, we like to pause and reflect on the season.

There is no doubt that gifts play an important role during the holidays.  Most children would probably suggest that the gifts are the best part of the celebration.  They can barely contain their anticipation as they see the beautifully wrapped presents waiting to be opened.  And that anticipation is only surpassed by their excitement when they finally can open their gifts.

As we get older, we find that we begin to derive more enjoyment from giving, rather than receiving, gifts.  There is a deep satisfaction in finding the perfect gift for someone and watching their reaction as they receive it.  And seeing the joy and enthusiasm of a child opening presents never fails to warm our hearts.

Gifts have always been a part of the Christmas story.  The wise men arrived from the East, bringing with them gifts fit for a king.  The story doesn’t tell us how Mary and Joseph reacted to these lavish gifts, but it isn’t hard to imagine how overwhelmed they would have felt receiving such unexpected presents.

While the giving and receiving of gifts can be fun and fulfilling, it can also be stressful.  We can feel obligated to buy gifts for some people, and we worry about how our gifts will be received.  This stress can distract us from the underlying lessons that the gift exchange should teach us.  Exchanging gifts during the holidays should be an exercise in kindness and goodwill, a gesture to show our appreciation for the important people in our lives.  A simple heartfelt gift can often bring more joy than all the latest gadgets or gizmos.

And the best gifts of all don’t even require any shopping.  The gifts of friendship, love, and support frequently have the most significant impact on people’s lives, and, best of all, can be shared over and over again, throughout the whole year.

As you and your loved ones celebrate the holidays, we hope that you find joy in all the gifts you give and receive.  May the holidays bring you and your loved ones the gifts of peace, joy, and love, and may you have a safe and healthy New Year!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,

The Johns Family
I have been reluctant to 'unfriend' people on Facebook because of political content they post.  Even when I strongly disagree with the positions they support, I worry that unfriending people will leave me in an echo chamber where I only see posts that reinforce my own biases.  However, last week I finally unfriended a couple of people because I found the memes they shared to be irresponsible and offensive (and because the individuals in question were people I was only distantly acquainted with...I have several closer connections that have posted similar items that I have not (yet) unfriended).

The meme that finally pushed me over the edge was this one:

There are several reasons this particular meme bothers me.  First is that implication that the individuals shown in the image are on welfare.  I see nothing in that image to indicate that these women are on any form of public assistance.  I can only surmise why the creator of this meme assumed this to be the case, and the only conclusions I can come to involve racism and/or sexism.

And then there's the proposal espoused by the language of the meme itself.  The first amendment protects the right of people to disrespect the flag as a form of protected free speech.  This was clearly established when the Supreme Court ruled that burning the flag is a form of free speech that is protected by the first amendment.  I know that there are many people who don't like this ruling, but the protection of free speech is only meaningful if it protects the rights of those who express ideas that you don't like or agree with.  What I find especially troublesome in this meme is that it is essentially arguing that those on welfare should have their first amendment rights restricted.  In other words, the benefits of the Bill of Rights do not apply to the poor.  This is yet another example of the disturbing current trend to marginalize and disenfranchize the poor in this country.

It seems that the war on poverty has somehow morphed into a war against the poor.  Rather than finding ways to help the poor escape poverty, we, as a society, increasingly seem to be trying to find ways to punish the poor for being poor.  The efforts in Kansas to limit the ability of welfare recipients to collect their benefits are just an example of how far we seem to be willing to go to make life more difficult for those who are most in need of our help.

Buried deep in our national psyche is the idea that hard work leads to success.  A consequence of this belief is the idea that the lack of success must be the result of laziness or an unwillingness to work.  These ideas are rooted in a Calviinist/Puritan Protestant work ethic which provides a noble motivation for people to put forth their best efforts in all that they do, but which fails to consider all of the other factors that can trap people in poverty.  The myth of the lazy welfare recipient who is milking the system is strongly held by many people, but in reality, poverty is a systemic trap that can be virtually impossible to escape from.  Instead of assuming the worst of the poor and punishing them for being trapped, we should recognize how limited their options are and find ways to help them escape from the systems that prevent them from getting ahead.
It is nearly impossible to avoid images from fourteen years ago today, and so I find myself pondering the events of that terrible day and the impact it has had over the intervening years.  The initial response to the attacks was overwhelmingly positive, with people showing tremendous courage and compassion as they worked together, initially to try and save lives, and then to bring comfort and closure to the families of those who could not be rescued.  The incredible unity of spirit that arose, both across the country, and around the world, struck me as a hopeful sign that our common humanity could overcome our differences and unite us all.  In the midst of the tragedy and sorrow, there was a glimmer of hope.

Unfortunately, that spark did not kindle a lasting light of peace.  Instead, we have allowed our anger and fear to conquer our compassion and hope.  We have used the attacks to justify incredible infringements on our liberties, and our misguided efforts to protect our security have made the world a more dangerous place.  We have squandered the good will of people around the world by our incredible arrogance and our selfish efforts to reshape the world to serve our interests.  And for what?  There is little to suggest that we are any safer than we were before the attacks, and the world is, if anything, less stable and more dangerous than it was before.  We have sacrificed our liberties and economy in pursuit of security, with very little to show for it.

And at home, the fear and anger generated by those attacks have festered, growing and transforming like a cancer inside our politics, driving us apart.  It has made it impossible to have a meaningful and productive debate, and our politics have degraded into name-calling and blind rhetoric shouted across the chasm that separates us.  Instead of trying to understand the point of view of the other side, we now dismiss them and their views as stupid (at best) or evil (at worse).  And there doesn't seem to be any indication that any of this will be changing anytime soon.

Today, I think about those who died on that sunny day fourteen years ago.  I wish I could say that we have honored their memories by our collective actions.  But, in truth, I don't think we have.  We have wrapped ourselves in their memory, using them to justify our fear and anger.  This is a grave injustice to those whose lives were cut short.  I can't help but think that it would be a far better memorial to them if we were looking to bring peace to the world, reaching out to help people in need, regardless of their nationality, religion, or politics.  We should be honoring them by looking for solutions to make the world a better place to live, both for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren, a world that is environmentally sustainable, where we all recognize our common humanity and respect each other.  Instead of focusing on the anger and fear, we need to remember that feeling of unity.  That is the fitting memorial for the victims.
Based on the contents of my Facebook news feed yesterday, only two things happened.  The Pope issued his long anticipated encyclical on the environment, which was welcomed with praise by some and harsh criticism by others.  And, in Charleston, South Carolina, a young white male took a gun into the historic Emmanuel AME Church and killed nine members of that faith community.

I have visited Charleston twice, and have found it to be a lovely, charming city.  There are people that I call friends who make Charleston their home.  So I feel a connection to the city and its people, and this senseless tragedy leaves me feeling deeply wounded.  I am feeling especially upset because we seem to keep going through this, over and over and over again.  The reluctance of our society to honestly confront the issues related to gun violence here make these killings all the more senseless.

Last night, Jon Stewart devoted his monologue to the shooting in Charleston:

I agree with him, and I'm glad that he has used his very public platform to take a stand.  I also watched President Obama's statement about the shooting:

You can see the frustration in his body language, in his acknowledgement that this will likely change nothing in our nations gun politics.  But I believe that he is correct when he says "But let's be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency."

Many of my friends will strongly disagree with me, but we, as a society, need to have a serious discussion about the role of guns in our nation.  They do not want to acknowledge the reality that easy access to guns makes this kind of violence far too easy.  They believe that the second amendment gives them unfettered rights to gun ownership.  But, in spite of the Supreme Court's decision that seems to support that position, I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the original purpose and intent of the second amendment.  The second amendment was written to address a specific situation at a specific time.  It sought to enable the nation to have the means to defend itself at a time when there was effectively no standing army or strong military capacity.  It was written at a time when the best weapons available to the average citizen could file a couple of rounds a minute in the hands of an expert.  None of these are true today.  We no longer need an armed citizenry to defend the nation, and weapons have become almost infinitely more lethal.  The second amendment is out of date, and need to be revised to reflect the realities of our present day society.  Unless we take drastic action, we will continue to see senseless violence like this repeat itself with disturbing regularity.

[I will be screening comments, not to filter opinions, but simply to make sure that they stay civilized and polite.  If you want your comment to be seen, then you will need to refrain from using offensive language and name calling.]
On June 18, 1990, I reported to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to begin my career as a Patent Examiner.  Many of the details of that first day have faded from my memory, but I do remember having to complete a bewildering stack of paperwork, and I do remember being sworn in as a federal employee.  I'm pretty sure I got to meet my first supervisor that day, and that he took me around to meet the people I would be working with after I completed my initial training.

I know that I was nervous...I had little idea about what to expect from this new job.  I knew very little about patents and patent law, and I was about to go through a rather intense two week introduction to the legal terminology and concepts that would define most of what I would be doing every day on the job.  At the end of that all-too-short training class, I would have to learn on the fly.  I would be handed a patent application and told to examine it.  I remember being overwhelmed, initially, but quickly found my footing, with the assistance of the primary examiner who would become my mentor.

Now, a quarter century later, I have been doing that same job for more than half of my life.  At the beginning of my career, twenty-five years seemed almost impossibly far away, but now it feels as if it has almost flown by.  I have seen so many co-workers come and go.  The Office has relocated from Arlington to Alexandria.  The paper files we relied upon when I started are all gone now, replaced by digital files floating in a computer network.  More and more of my colleagues work from home full-time, scattered across the country...I no longer can just walk down the hall and stick my head in to their office to chat.  The fundamentals of what I do every day remain the same, but at a cosmetic level, it hardly looks like the same job any more.

I have just a bit more than nine years to go before I reach my minimum retirement age, where I can begin collecting my pension.  While I enjoy my job (for the most part), I don't expect that I will linger here very long past that date.  How many more things will change before I retire?  It will be interesting to see the changes, but I expect the time will fly by and a decade from now I'll be looking back at a completed career, wondering where all the time went.
Saturday was the 12th anniversary of the day I joined  Twelve years ago, I was curious about this site that provided me with an venue for labeling and tracking my books.  I had been a member of for a while, and had discovered BookCrossing through a link on the WheresGeorge page.  As I joined the site, I had little expectation that it would come to fill such a large part of my life, introducing me to new friends from around the world, and broadening my reading horizons substantially.

As luck would have it, Saturday was also this year's Gaithersburg Book Festival in Maryland.  As usual, the local DC area BookCrossers had a booth beside the event sponsors, to give away books (registered on BookCrossing, naturally) and generally promote BookCrossing.  It was the perfect way to celebrate my 12th anniversary on the site.  Together, we brought about 2,100 books to the event, and by the end of the afternoon, we had a mere handful left.  I got to catch up with my local BookCrossing friends and talk to strangers about books and BookCrossing.  Even the severe thunderstorm that tried to drown us as we headed to dinner couldn't dampen my spirits after the success of the day.

It is hard to articulate all of the reasons I continue to find participating in BookCrossing so rewarding.  A lot of it has to do with the people I've gotten to know through the website.  But I still get a thrill when I randomly leave a book somewhere for a stranger to find.  My hope is that finding the book will motivate them to read more, or to read something different.  And when I get an e-mail telling me that a journal entry has been entered for one of my books, it is like a little miracle that can brighten my entire day.

So, after twelve years of BookCrossing, I have no intentions of quitting, or even slowing down.  How many more books can I share in the next twelve years?
We have completed six full days of skiing.  It seems weird to complain that it wasn't cold enough, but really, for a ski vacation, it has been much too warm.  I am impressed with the grooming crews, who are doing an incredible job of keeping the conditions on the mountain reasonably decent.  They have had almost no new snow through the month of January, and I don't know how much further they'll be able to stretch the 100+ inches they got in December before they need to start closing trails.

Our last two days both started with us enjoying some fast runs on the hard morning snow, while they were still empty.  As more people found their way onto the slopes, we moved into the trees for a while and finished each day working to improve our skiing in the moguls.  We have skied hard this week, pushing ourselves and our comfort zones, and I think we all have made some improvements to our skiing.

We are packing tonight, even though we don't head home until Sunday.  We need to check out from our condo tomorrow morning and we are staying in a hotel tomorrow night so our daughter can attend the Bridgestone Winter Driving School (  She will have a whole day of learning to drive in snowy and icy conditions, including significant time practicing driving on a frozen track.  It actually sounds like it should be fun, and I hope that she will learn how to drive safely in winter conditions.

It's been a weird week.  Between my colleague from work being here with his family, and the Pentagon Ski Club group that is here, we've found ourselves spending more time than normal skiing with other people.  We still had plenty of time to do our own thing, however, and it really has been a full week.  I am beginning to look forward to being home and getting back to the normal routine.

Last tracks.

Jan. 28th, 2015 10:38 pm
resqgeek: (Ambulance)
Today was our longest day of skiing so far on this trip because we signed up for the "Last Tracks" program, so we could ski with one of the mountain ambassadors we've become friends with as he did trail sweep after the lifts closed.  We've done this a few time before, and it requires us to make sure we are at the top of the mountain before the lifts start closing.  We meet the ambassodors and ski patrollers at the ski patrol hut at the top of the mountain while we wait for the lifts to close.  After ski patrol does their sweep of the back part of the mountain, we set out to do a sweep of the runs down the front of the upper mountain.  It is surreal to be the only skiers on the mountain, with the lifts shut down.  When you stop, the mountain falls into silence, which is rare during the day, when people are skiing, and talking on the lifts.

By the time we completed the sweep and returned to the base area, it was 4:30, a half hour after the last lift closed.  It will certainly be the latest that we will be out on the slopes all week.  Only two more days of skiing left for this trip...
This afternoon, we skiied with a work colleague, who is also at Steamboat with his family.  He is a friend and a supervisor (though not directly my boss).  His kids were in lessons today, so we joined him and his wife for lunch and then set out to ski a few runs with them.  I thought he might enjoy a little challenge, so I led him off trail in the the Morningside Park area of the resort, away from the nice groomed trails and into the trees.  I picked a spot that wasn't very steep and where the trees were pretty widely spaced.  He seemed to be enjoying himself, right up to the moment he hit a bump he didn't see because of a shadow and took a pretty nasty spill.  As we gathered him and his equipment, I realized that the rear binding for his right ski had come off the ski.  Of course the ski brake is attached to that binding, so the ski was sliding away down the slope, and my daughter had to chase it down.  Luckily, I was able to reattach the binding to his ski, and we skied with him to the base area, so he could take the skis back to the rental shop to exchange them for a different pair.

Watching him crash was a scary moment, especially since skiing in this area was my idea.  Luckily, he wasn't hurt, and we managed to get him safely down off the mountain.  I have never seen a binding come off of a ski on the mountain before, and as bad as his crash seemed, I don't think it was bad enough to have damaged the binding.  I think these bindings were already damaged before he started using them, and the crash simply revealed the underlying flaw.  I'm just thankful that everything ended up being okay.
When I travel to Colorado in January to go skiing, my expectation is that the weather will be COLD.  Which is exactly what we didn't get today.  The skies were blue without a cloud in sight and it was probably the warmest day we've ever felt her in Steamboat Springs.  The snow was soft and sticky (even slushy in places), which made for less than optimal ski conditions.  But when you have almost 2,000 acres to play on, and no crowds anywhere to be seen, its really hard to complain.  However, I am trying to figure out how to wear fewer layers without risking arrest for indecent exposure...

Besides weather that felt more like the Mid-Atlantic, we also spent parts of the day with people from back home.  At lunch time, we met up with a work colleague and his family, and then we skied a couple of runs with them before we headed off to do our own thing again.  Then, after finishing for the day, we headed down into town to crash the Pentagon Ski Club's group dinner.  It has been many years since we traveled with the club (in fact, our last trip with the club was our first trip to Steamboat, nine years ago), so it was nice to see some familiar faces (and meet some new people as well).  But it seems a little strange to travel all the way out to Colorado to see people who live so close to us back in the DC area.

Tomorrow's forecast is calling for another very warm, sunny day, so I'll have to figure out if there is any way to dress any lighter than today so I don't melt...