Curiously Enough

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the “internets” some weeks ago.  I, on some great fluke of luck, stumbled upon a lottery to participate in a cross-site NASA event sponsored by NASA Social to celebrate 50 years of NASA and the upcoming landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, also known more affectionately as Curiosity.  I have never bought a lottery ticket as I always know the odds are stacked; but, on this one I thought the worst thing was regretting not putting my name in the proverbial hat.  Lo and behold, some weeks later I received an email letting me know I was selected.  Flabbergasted is the best word to describe my reaction.  And so yesterday I spent today (August 3, 2012) on-site at Johnson Space Center down in Houston, Texas to get some behind-the-scenes access along with participate in a news briefing televised on NASA TV.

On my flight down to Houston two nights prior I relaxed to read the history of Queen’s Brian May in one of my favorite publications:  Many know that Queen holds a special place in me, but few know it has been a staple of my music since I simultaneously discovered David Bowie on “Life on Mars” and Queen on “Fat-bottomed Girl” on a dubbed cassette; this all way back just as puberty struck.  And of course, as a bona fide astro-geek since even before this I was (and still am) naturally enamored with songs like May’s “’39” about space travel, and Queen’s soundtrack to the 80’s version of Flash Gordon.  What many people may not know is that Brian May has become a hero to me (again) for his return to Imperial College to finish his PhD in astronomy, a body of research on Zodiac light that he left incomplete for some 30 years while he globe-trotted with Freddie Mercury et al. as one of the world’s recognized masters of rock guitar.

In reading the article about Brian May, the world-recognized-guitarist-(re)turned-astronomer, I remember when it all first began with my love of astronomy.  I was barely past my fifth birthday when Voyager II arrived at Jupiter.  It was then when images starting coming back that I got a taste of the infinite, and I have been hooked ever since. Before the internet and the now seemingly boundless ocean of rich media and richer information I would write letters to NASA to share with them my love of astronomy and space exploration, and in return they would return to me and my then ten-year-old mind unbelievably beautiful glossy images of spacecraft and even more priceless brochures filled to the brim with intoxicating details of their many programs.  And so concomitant to Voyager II helping frame in pictures a bit more of humanity’s place in the universe, my own universe expanded to something greater than myself.

As early as middle school I would, unbeknownst to my parents, grab a ride on a Greyhound to ride into Syracuse University to clandestinely visit their libraries to read up on astronomy and physics.  So deep was my convictions that I went as far as declaring since the age of ten that I would one day work Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California after I got a PhD in orbital mechanics.  I was on-track with this life-plan till I arrived at Purdue University where a combination of the previous year in Japan along with a recalcitrant aerospace engineering department steered me to University at Buffalo where I was free to pursue Japanese alongside my aerospace engineering studies.  The rest is history, as it is oft writ.  I entered Boeing as an aerospace engineer, flirted with Japanese interpretation for a year before eventually settling on software engineering and now program management.  As time flowed forward my steps seemed logical and congruent, but there is a part of me that wonders “what if”.  What if I had stayed the path and completed by PhD at University of Washington?  Where might I be now?

It is a thought that has more merit than merely an idle exercise in speculative reminiscing.  To place this in a bit of recently acquired perspective let me first comment that the common advice proffered to aspiring university applicants—Do something you are good at—is patently horrible advise. This tends to manifest itself to those students good at math (or Math, even) who are told they should join the ranks of engineering.  But even more subtle and more sublimely misleading to a person of my ilk as a (too?) deeply introspective person may be to also tell a person to do what they are passionate about as this may lead to an (overly) self-engrossed person.  This is inarguably nearly as wrong-headed, and pursuing my passions has not helped me garner a level of satisfaction that I once esteemed it would.  Something to the equation has been missing, but what?  Recently while waiting for my morning commuter bus to arrive another bus came to the bus stop.  On its side was a simple slogan for  local university: Do something you value.1 It may have been the choice of word value over what I had expected, passion, that reverberated and then resonated with me, but hidden in this simplest change of words is something that best frames my most recent rumination on the course and direction of my life.

I stepped off the path of my PhD in computational (plasma) physics because I had found something as equally compelling as uncovering and exploring the mysteries of our physical world.  It was a path I was and still do (in a latent way) value and am passionate about: acting as a Japanese-US liaison.  That path took me first to Boeing as an aerospace engineer, then as Japanese interpreter at Boeing helping Shingijutsu bring lean concepts to our facilities, and next when it seemed Boeing did not need a cowboy-wearing, Japanese speaking aerospace engineer Yank (how surprising, don’t you think?) I then went back to school to retool myself as a software engineering where I thought my Japanese language skills could be better leveraged.  It was then that I moved to and slowly transitioned into technical program management before moving to Microsoft where I now work on Xbox.  Certainly my path has been intellectually stimulating and at times even gratifying, but it does not answer the deeper purpose of engineering to me: engineers do not solve technical problems, but instead solve human problems using technical means.  That is an arguably overly lofty and even hoity-toity definition I have clasped onto the lapel of my profession of choice, engineering; but, I do not think my younger self really missed the mark with it, either.  In my love of the simplest of taxonomies, the dichotomy, I have come to appreciate I inwardly do what I am passionate about and want to outwardly engage in things I value.

So what do I value?  That is the very question I am deeply engaged in trying to uncover an answer to.  In the past year my pilgrimage to Mauna Kea to see the telescopes, my multi-day trip to Lowell Observatory, and now day at Johnson Space Center are all about trying to find clues and even reclaim something I believe I let get eclipsed by the seeming realities of life.  Maybe it is just an adult lavishing attention and extragavance to his inner-child, but I have glimpsed the hazy shape of a response to this query in this past year.  And I believe more firmly my path is starting to find itself meandering back to something deeper than where I find myself presently.  I do not know its exact shape of turns ahead nor where I will find myself in months and years to come, but my feet ever move forward.  And that is maybe enough for now; for now, mind you.

I am curious to see where I will eventually land, till then there is Mars and Curiosity.

Special Post Script : A very special and warm thanks to NASA Social who invited me to participate yesterday.  They are the new, more externally facing connection of NASA, replacing from childhood those mass-produced glossy pictures and jazzy brochures with the more intimate voices of real people of NASA.  People who, like so many of us, get excited at the merest mention of NASA and its grand legacy of 50 years of exploration and discovery.  Thank you.

Man in mirror?

1 Actually, it read “What do you value?  Create a healthier world with Bastyr University” but this is my story so I am redacting it to fit. *sticks tongue out*

Hawaii, Hawaii

Hawaii, the “big island”, lives up to its name. To the west it is tumble-weed dry, to the south lush and wet under rain forest clouds, to the east tropical with floral scents and aviary songs, to the north rolling greens with bovine bliss. I arrived on Saturday mid-afternoon and immediately headed out to Hawaii Volcanos National Park situated in the south-east corner of the island under the shadow of Mauna Kea. Everything is inarguably under the shadow of the fourteern-thousand beheamoth beast; it being the largest volcano by volume in the Solar system, second only to Olympic Mons on Mars. But when you are on the face of giant it is hard to perceive it slumbering bulk and so is the case with this volcano. One of the disadvantages of not doing a lot of pre-travel research, as is my wont is to discover and rather belatedly mind you, that the park is inside a rain forest; read, it rains. A lot. This makes viewing and camping a little bit more of a challenge; by the time I arrived near sunset I was not in the mood to throw my tent up in the rain and instead found a small B&B to grab a few winks. For those interested in a bit of travel advice, the best deals are the ones found on the spot. I grabbed a few hours of sleep before going back out at shortly after midnight when the clouds move offshore and the night sky opens up. In my limited time at the park this proved the best time to see everything as it allows you unparalleled views of the glow from the lava flows framed under a deep blanket of sky filled with stars. I later drove down to the shore to stargaze before heading out onto the old lava flows just before sunrise. It is another world being on these old flows. The terrain is rough and utterly devoid of any color other than charcoal black and the occassional splash of barely perceptible ruddy red from basalt. While out on the flows it is hard to comprehend the extreme challenges this island and its extremes in terrain and environment posed to the people who have called this home over the millenia; it is intimidating landscape that brokes no negotiation.

One of my goals for many a long while and specifically a part of this year is to visit the telescopes up at the summit of Mauna Kea. The drive from the park up to the basecamp at 9200-feet took less time than I imagined (or Google predicted). Instead of hanging out there till everyone departed at two o’clock in the afternoon for a guided tour, I opted to drive up to the summit on my own to enjoy it to myself for a few hours. The road out of basecamp requires 4WD, stretchinh over eight miles of switchbacks till you finally arrive near the top. The drive up is itself worth the trip as you ascend up and out of the cloud layer. It is, of course, an inhospitable landscape strewn with boulders from a time when a glacier eons ago sat atop the mountain. Nowadays there is no snow except for when it falls in the Winter months. There are a few small trails on the summit that you can trek along that help remind you that at this elevation your lungs are not up to the normal morning run.

Mauna Kea and Chile duke it out to lay claim to the title “best terrestial mountain-top viewing in the world”. Both of these sites sit atop mountain tops where there is less atmosphere to obstruct viewing. Mauna Kea has a few factors above its high-altitude setting that make it a favorite amongst astronomers. These include the relatively uniform conical shape of the volcano which helps smoothly guide the trade winds around the volcano. This has an additional effect of creating protective lower strata of air mass that quiets the air mass above it. As a consequence the summit lays claim to the most clear night skies in the world allowing the facilities atop it to stay in operation almost every night of the year. There are a number of different facilities owned and operated by different organizations from around the world here; Canada, France, Japan and of course United States among others call this place home. These telescopes operate over a range of wavelength including submillimeter, infrared and visible wavelengths. Some of the telescopes operate collectively with other telescopes from around the world using a technique called interferometry, allowing them to combine their signals to create an effective aperature roughly the distance separating them; in the case of the arrays on Mauna Kea this is the diameter of the Earth. And while this technique is normally reserved for radio waves and other electro-magnetic waves with long wavelengths, Keck Observatory, with its two monsterous lenses and unparalleled engineering precision, is used in the same fashion for the infrared ranges. Most of the facilities are closed to visitors; however, Keck Observatory has made a room accessible to vistors where they can look up at one of its telescopes. They are enormous, enclosed in their individual domes some ten stories high. And even though each scope and trestle holding them weigh in at over 380-tons, the mounts are so well-engineered that a single-person can by hand rotate a telescope along the vertical axis.

I can certainly continue to repeat here all the various facts and trivia that you can more easily find on the internet or read in a book; however, what is not found elsewhere nor readily transcribed is my experience of being so near to these facilities and the cutting-edge science they help forge. For those who know me, I have been studying astronomy and physics since before I knew there existed the words “astronomy” or “physics” that encapsulated these as hardened epistomologies; so focussed was I in my pre-teens on understanding gravity and stars and planets and galaxies that my vocabulary and my awareness were deeply woven into the meat of these epistomologies, not their skins. More particularly, at a very young age I was already deeply and viscerally rooted to the notion that when I looked up to the night sky I was looking back thousands and millions and billions of years in a way that connected all things and all persons over all times. It is then not surprising to me that I am deeply moved when I visit such places as Mauna Kea, similar to when I visted Lowell Observatory, LIGO and others. I am still brought to tears when I see these places and the questions they are trying to answer. This connection goes in some ways deeper and more geniunely more simply to the infinite complexity of our universe, more so than the later mathematics I learned even if it is mathematics that is ultimately the lingua franca of science. We can take some pride in the things we have uncovered in our pursuit of enlightment under the torch of science; but equally more so, hubris is granted when we allow these gained insights to put ourselves in perspective to this said infinite universe.

Here are links to sets of pictures:

Kauai, Hawaii

May we toast to here, the inbetweens, where in the crevices and the nooks and the crannies with the tumbles and some times the fumbles, goes the things we hold locked in our heads and in our hearts. It is where we hide and then later, sometimes much later, discover and discover once again the things we want most. It is where life is found. Kauai might not come to mind as such a place nor such a crevice, as it were, but here I have tumbled down inbetween the folds of volcanic rock and six millions of years of sandy erosion to find reminder of life and Life.

I arrived without much fanfare after a 5-hour flight from Seattle into the hub at Lihue. And quickly, as quickly as island-time may permit in the absence of any tick and tock way, threw my gear into my rented jeep and drove up to Kalalua in hopes of trekking it into the Napali coast. But alas, as late in the day as it was, I underestimated the 18km trek-time (which is 10 hours, half as slow as when I am hiking mountains in the Pacific Northwest) and opted to instead watch the sunset off a point a few clicks in. Once back, I watched from the northern beach with some consternation a thunderstorm set in over the western part of the island, but for a few hours I had reasonably clear skies observing the stars. I ended up parking at a beach facing due East where I sat and watched the night sky for hours, and where I eventually fell asleep. I would awake from time to time, especially when the Moon was directly overhead, startled to see Orion blazing in vivid glory unmatched in my many decades of star-gazing.

Kauai is an island of small extremes: lush and wetn to the north and east; sunny and humid to the south and west. On my first full day on the island I drove all over the island stopping in at both ‘Opaeka’a and Wailua falls before grabbing highway 50 to Waimea canyon and state park. The falls are spectacular from a distances but made inaccessible by the State due to concerns with safety. With the sun finally making its way out, I headed to Waimea canyon, an amazing sight of eroded rock that in some ways rivals the Grand Canyon for beauty. What is hard to grasp is that the island is only 6 million years old and only has another 1 million years before erosion drives it back into the sea. The drive itself offers numerous stop-offs that make it a leisurely drive up winding roads which crawl alongside the canyon’s rim. Toward the northern end you arrive at Kalalau and Pu’u o Kila lookouts that provide unmatched views of the Kalalau valley. This is where, as I am told, a Kauai tour-guide quipped in tongue tied fashion, “here is where <insert famous actress’s name here> received a big banana-scented blow-dry from King Kong”, but they did not say “blow-dry.” Tongue twister, indeed.

On my way back out of the canyon I decided to take a less-traveled road where a bit of late-afternoon sleep overtook me in a sudden rush. I parked the jeep under a tree and promptly fell alseep. A bit later I heard a car pull over near me and a few folks get out. It took a few more tens of minutes from under the dazed of late-afternoon nap for me to realize that they had car trouble. I should note that while I may know a bit about airplanes and software, I know near to nothing about the inner workings of cars. However, when did that stop an engineer from believing they can fix anything? Which is another way of saying I sauntered over to see if I could help them repair it. I knew enough to recognize that with the coolant was leaking out that either air or water had most likely contaminated the system and minus possibly driving the engine to ruin they were going nowhere. I offered to stay around till a tow-truck could be called; it seemed the most neighborly thing to do, as it were. In the intervening time we sat around and chatted, discovering that we are from the East coast and even one from Cortland, New York which is just down the road from Fairport and Skaneateles where I grew up. We eventually piled into the jeep and I drove them back to their home on the otherside of the island, chatting much of the way under the appropo and oddly juxtaposition of Miles Davis and James Taylor. It is that human connective tissue that tripped me up and had fall blissfully down into one of those greatest nook of life, found along a wayward roadside in a chance meeting with four strangers. I am reminded of the saying “strangers are just friends you have not yet met.” I do not pretend that I can be friends to everyone, we are all in our own natures different and thus by extension not always mutually compatible; and thus when I do find travelers of a kindred spirit along my path I am deeply appreciative of the chanced fate. I think it is this aspect of life I hold most precious: the best things are those things that come unforeseen and unplanned. Thank you to my Kauai friends.

On Friday my two friends, Victor and Mike, from my days at SUNY Buffalo along with their partners climbed aboard a Sunshine helicopter with Captain Steve who took us over and around the island of Kauai. After driving the length of the island it is surprising to discover that it can traversed in this time from one to the other and back. Along the way we saw numerous waterfalls, many of which can only be seen after a few days of heavy rain. While many think of the Hawaiian islands as a place of sun Kauai boasts itself as “the wettest place on Earth” with some areas of the island feeling some five-hundred inches of rain annually. This explains the extreme erosion of this the oldest island in the chain and also provides it some spectucular waterfalls many of which have made their way into Hollywood movies.

Tuesday after returning from my sojourn on Hawaii I drove up to Polihale State Park separated from Highway 50 by its some five miles of unpaved road. It is here where you can see the start of the Nepali coastline which is now only accessible by water or over the eleven-mile Kalalau trail. The beach is on the north side of the island where the higher swells can be found and therefore is a favorite haunt of surfers. It is general inaccessibility makes it equally enjoyed by folks looking to get away from the more tourist-centric south centered around Lihue and Popui. As fate or karma would have it, I heard back from one of the people I had helped out a few days prior when their car broke down. She works for Captain Andy and offered to get me on a catamaran headed for a five-hour trip up to the Nepali coast and back. Now that I had seen a bit of the island from the foot, jeep and helicopter it was now time for me to see it from the ocean. I headed back down to Port Allen where I and some two dozen other folks jumped onboard with Captain Kurt, Captain Jon and Katy for one hell of a spectuclar jaunt aginst head winds. For some two hours we beat against the waves and as our captain quipped, “once upon the Pacific Ocean it reminds no one of its namesake: peaceful.” Once at our destination we hoisted sail and headed downwind in a wing-to-wing configuration for a few hours while we enjoyed dinner and drinks and the setting sun.

Here are links to sets of pictures:

Aside: The island is overrun with wild chickens along with feral cats. And obviously the cats are not doing a great job as upper managemnet as there are a lot of chickens to be had. In particular the roosters are horrible at telling time; they start making noise, a lot of noise, some three hours before sunrise. Three hours. I thought people woke to roosters at or right before sunrise, but apparantly roosters in Kauai did not get this union memo and instead begin work very early. Most importantly, they like to do their job with gusto for long stretches of time. Needless to say I was well awake by the time I set up my camera for sunrise. Roosters suck.

Road-tripping down US2

There is nothing quite like a road-trip to make everything a-oh-kay.  Saturday proved itself to be the perfect day to jump into my car and drive East toward Steven’s Pass along US2.  The snow in the mountains is just beginning to dust over the peaks while the valleys remain awash in decidious’ Fall colors and conifers’ forever green.  It is the kind of day where I roll down the window to drink in the cold air and turn up the heater to keep my toes roasting and crank up the music while I let myself cruise at just enough of a clip as to let it all flow on by.  As I got out of Sultan just past the trailhead to Lake Serene I pulled into a logging road and drove a bit into the mountain range before parking.  And as is my wont I started hiking through the undergrowth till I found an unobstructed ridge where the trees where still only a few years into recovering from logging.  While we may not approach the blanket of reds and oranges and yellows that hallmarks Fall back in New England, here in the pacific northwest it is a fair trade to have in their place the powder white of mountains under an azure sky.  And as I stood over the valley with my camera in hand and the sun overhead I can safely say this one spectacularly beautiful part of the country.

See all the pictures from my road-trip.


Olympics Ad Infinitum

For those not in Seattle this past weekend you have my deepest condolences.  While Saturday stays at the top of the list for pure blue skies, Sunday showed itself to be a pitch perfect balance of stratocumulus clouds, water-deep azure sky and sun.  I jumped onto a ferry headed to Bremerton to see “Into the Woods”, well, in the woods over in Kitsap after spending the morning on the waters of Lake Union re-establishing that Water and I have a relationship best left left as wrote and read than redux’d [sic].

For those in the know Seabeck Highway is where it is all at; it comes out of Bremerton and moves deeper into the Olympic Peninsula where you cut west and south after getting past Highway 3, which runs north to Poulsbo and Kingston, to find yourself glad to have skipped the prosaic ironies of Hempfest in exchange for nature’s own high, dude.  While at times a seemingly innocent, even blasé, cruise through country suburbia, one but needs to keep their eyes a bit to the west to find oneself staring up into those kitten-adorable eyes that are the snowy crags of the Olympics.  Some names hold little mystery in and of themselves and there is no better evidence for this than Scenic Beach State Park, but even the snarky and occasional jaded me cannot but say that is a most aptly christened piece of land. And if you go by without stopping then you are, well, a stoopid [sic] poopy head.  Once at the park, I took it upon myself to lay on the stony beach for a few hours while watching the Sun arcs its way toward setting behind the mountains on the other side of the Puget Sound all while the tide slowly marched toward me feet.  And it really just does not get much better than that, dude.

See all my pictures from 21 August adventure of doing pretty much absolutely nothing Pacific Northwest style.