Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The_Martian_2014Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, is the perfect book for me. It is a topic I am passionate about, written in a style that I find appealing, and contains loads of geeky science that I find fascinating. Therefore it should be no surprise that I almost didn’t read it. I have seen the novel on several e-book sites for weeks as I tried to decide what my next book would be.  I kept shying away from this novel because I have become jaded about modern science fiction. Especially fiction about exploration. Authors rarely manage to write a story that isn’t full of cliches or stories where the science takes a back seat to melodrama. I almost always end up getting frustrated by the effort. So I avoided being disappointed by just not reading it.

The event that caused me to change my mind is somewhat vague in my mind. I know it was an online review but I can’t remember exactly where or by whom. I know that the part of the review that sold me was a line that said that if you weren’t into detailed and accurate scientific problem solving this book wasn’t for you. I of course am totally into that kind of thing and I so rarely encounter it in mainstream fiction. So I downloaded a sample of the book on Google Play.

The Martian is a story about an astronaut, Mark Watney,  who is a member of a manned mission to Mars. The story beings with him waking up alone on the red planet. Though a series of accidents he has been left behind on the alien world, his shipmates having been convinced he has been killed. What follows is his story of survival and attempts to contact earth and to be rescued. The problems he faces in survival are all solved with sound scientific solutions. The author, Andy Weir, wanted the science to be right. He researched everything to make sure his story was plausible and realistic. The story works and you quickly empathize with Watney and root for him to succeed. You hold your breath when he tries his next dangerous idea to increase his chance for survival.

The story of course fans the embers of a natural desire to explore the universe. It also awakens a bitterness inside me that as a culture we have squandered our legacy of exploration from the 1960’s and 1970’s. We spent decades restricting ourselves to low earth orbit instead of pushing farther out into our solar system. Even the ISS,  which is an amazing accomplishment, should be so much more. We should be so much farther advanced in this area than we are. It is not, as some say, a waste of resources. The drive to explore necessarily involves expanding technology which benefits mankind in general. This novel embodies that thought. The human element is essential to exploration.

The other amazing thing about this novel is that it exists at all. Andy Weir had no publisher. He published the novel himself. First as a serialized version on his website and then self published using Amazon’s e-book publishing service. Now the book is a NYT Bestseller and he has a movie deal. It is a great story of how modern technology can allow people to do great things.

If you are a fan of space exploration, good writing, and science this is the book for you. You should download a sample today from the e-book publisher of your choice. If you are still reading paper you can probably find a physical copy somewhere..I’ve forgotten how to do that after more than three years without buying a physical book.

Blurring the line between Employment and Servitude

fetal-heartbeat-e1359585870146There is a disturbing trend among many large employers to coerce their employees into giving them personal health information in the guise of helping them. The stated motivation is to make their workforce healthier which of course is coded language for reduce the costs of their medical benefits.

Employers do things like reduce benefits to those employees who don’t participate in their company sponsored heath screenings where you are required to give a vendor selected by the company your personal medical information and make commitments to make changes to make yourself more healthy.

They do other less obvious things as well. Contests where they give away health monitors like step counters and encourage employees to exercise. There is no issue with encouraging office workers to exercise, the issue is the string attached that they get to collect all the exercise information.

Voluntary pro healthy initiatives are great and are a win win for the employee and employer but coercion into giving up my medial records to my employer is not in my best interest as the goals of my employer and myself only overlap to a certain extent.

Excusing this trend by stating that working for a particular company is voluntary only encourages more and more companies to start this practice and the further blur the distinction between employment and something far more sinister.

If the cost of employer sponsored health care benefits is having my employer integrated in to my most private medical information then the whole employer health insurance system needs to be scrapped. I understand the motivations of companies to reduce their costs but this motivation cannot come at the expense of the privacy of their own employees.

Why the Video Matters (Even Though It Shouldn’t)

Earlier this year we woke up to view a pretty disturbing scene of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging an unconscious woman out of an elevator.

As the days followed and the story unfolded a narrative emerged that there was an alcohol induced argument that resulted in blows being traded by the couple in the elevator and ended with the scene we saw of Janay Palmer being dragged out of the elevator.

The NFL’s punishment of 2 games was oddly and uncharacteristically light considering the punishments for other offenses and the commissioner gave excuses about Ray’s previous record and the plea that Janay made to him personally when he met with the couple as reason for the light sentence. Later he admitted he was wrong and changed the policy about such offenses, but the incident seemed to be over.

This week we woke up to another video. The video that Rice’s people had been implying all along would give us pause in condemning him.  Instead the video shows a sudden and graphically violent attack on Janay in that elevator.  This changed everything and the NFL and the Ravens moved swiftly to end Ray Rice’s career (for now at least).

Why does the video matter?  Should it?  No, it shouldn’t matter, but it does for this reason: Until you see the violent and scary nature of the attack you fill in the blanks with your own ideas about what happened in that elevator.  Given the choice of filling in those images with a man viciously launching into a physical beating of a woman almost the minute the doors are closed or assuming that there was an escalation possibly started by Janay (as she implied in her statements) that got out of control you choose whichever your personal experiences and emotions lead you.  Neither of those scenarios is acceptable behavior for a man let alone a professional athlete, but if you are desperately looking for a way to make the horrifying event less evil you fill in the blanks in a way that makes you less uncomfortable.

I know that I did just that.  I don’t admit to spending a lot of time thinking about it but in the back of my mind, without the second video, there was no way for me to make my mind go automatically to a man just launching a physical attack like that on his fiancé.   The whole concept is so foreign to me that I was forced to assume even if subconsciously, that there was a prolonged physical altercation in the elevator that escalated into a terrible act.  It never excused it for me. Absent a baseball bat, knife, or pistol in the hands of Janay in that elevator nothing really would excuse her ending up in a heap on the floor, but my mind was allowed to soften the incident by making up details about how the unthinkable could happen.

The video changes all that. The sight of Ray Rice starting the physical attack then quickly dispatching his opponent (victim) with a short left that bounced her off the wall is visceral. It leaves you sick and wondering about the humanity of someone who could do that. Further when you see his reaction it makes it worse. If I had somehow rendered my wife unconscious in an elevator, which I can’t really imagine how that might even happen, the elevator doors would have opened with me in a heap on the floor with her crying and trying to revive her and apologize for my crime, not me somewhat casually dragging her out into the lobby.  That whole video is chilling from start to finish.  It is personally frightening to me that is is remotely possible that the genetic makeup for that kind of violence is sleeping somewhere inside me. It is something I didn’t have to face in such a real way until I saw that video.

The video shouldn’t matter.  The facts never changed. Ray Rice struck Janay Palmer in the face with his hand and rendered her unconscious and dragged her out of the elevator.  That was known for months. Why is it different after watching the video? Because you can’t seek comfort in the vague nature of the actual act. You can’t allow your own lack of understanding for that kind of violence to give the actor (Rice) the benefit of the doubt. You can allow doubts to seep in and give Janay’s assertion that she shared blame for the incident root to grow even when that is absurd.  It is like having Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy ripped away from you. Your world is a far darker place.  The world of course hasn’t changed, only you have.

The Making of an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Today I was honored to join  throngs of others around the world who have answered the ALS Ice Bucket  Challenge. Last Friday our Canada Contractor Connection Team challenged the management team at Contractor Connection‘s headquarters in Jacksonville to match their Ice Bucket Challenge.

Employees worked tirelessly all day procuring matching buckets and staging the scene in front the building. The ice proved to be more challenging than first anticipated as our industrial ice maker that can keep 200+ thirsty Contractor Connection staff cool all day was exhausted before noon and we were still a little short of the needed supply.  Intrepid admins dashed off to buy the remaining ice needed.

At 4:20 pm we assembled for a brief run through and then the camera started rolling and you see the result below.  Thanks to all the staff who (some of them a little too gleefully) chipped in to make this a very memorable experience.

 

 

Ready the Fleet: Jacksonville Armada Getting Underway

Jax Armada Season TicketsThis weekend is the Select A Seat Event for the inaugural season of the new North American Soccer League (NASL) team in Jacksonville.  The Jacksonville Armada FC will start play in the spring next year. I am excited about the return of professional level soccer to Jacksonville. I have fond memories of attending the old NASL games in my youth, And while I am passionate about American Football there is something very exhilarating about the non stop action of soccer. Armada Season Ticket Holder The Jacksonville Armada Football Club’s system for picking seats has been very good. A great experience that gives you confidence that they are a well run,  professional organization. Earlier in the week the online ticket ordering system went live and I selected our seats based on the map of the stadium which will be The Baseball Ground of Jacksonville  for the first three seasons until they build their own facility.  I made my best guess at the seats based on the map.

Today my wife and I went down to the Baseball Grounds to see the SOLD!seats. The field was laid out in the configuration it will have for the games and we were able to see exactly what our  view will be.  During the event we decided to shift our seats to the other end of the row.  Thirty minutes later, with the help of a host of helpful Armada FC employees, it was done and I had a confirmation in my email. Smooth and hassle free.

The only thing that marred the event is that we discovered they were selling Jacksonville Armada Polo’s at the event and I was excited to be able to represent the new team, but my wife inadvertently talked the guy in front of us in line into buying the last Polo in my size.  Hopefully there will be another opportunity to purchase the polo later, though the staff  wasn’t really clear when that might be. That minor disappointment aside the event was handled very well by the new football club and it bodes well for how they will build and maintain a team in Jacksonville.

Jacksonville Jaguars 2014 Preseason Game 1: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

JaguarsvsTampaThe first preseason game for the Jacksonville Jaguars 2014 Season is complete and it was quite a mixture.

Like most first preseason games it was good at times..it was bad at times..and then a couple of times it was downright ugly.

The Good

The first team defense was impressive. They were harrassing the quarterback, stuffing the run and forcing turnovers.  They are going to keep the Jaguars in games this year.

Blake Bortles looks like the real deal. Sure it was only a preseason game against the 2nd team defense but he was poised and accurate and he looked like he was born to be on the field. His stats were impressive and would have been even more impressive as 2 of his four incompletions were drops by Mike Brown on beautiful passes from Bortles.

The Bad

Henne.   He was ineffective had his usual horribly over thrown pass that should have been intercepted and the obligatory batted pass at the line of scrimmage which seems to be his trademark. I know he gives the Jaguars the best chance to win early but watching him on the field for another year is going to be torture.

The first team offensive line just isn’t there yet. No running holes opened up.  Too much pressure on the QB. They have to get better.

Mike Brown dropping two perfect passes from Bortles. One he was obviously bracing for a hit that he was going to take either way but the second drop was just clumsiness. He can do better.

The Ugly

Mike Brewster. Seriously two botched snaps over the QB’s head in one game? I know he his new at this position but really. The second one was on FOURTH DOWN!

Overall it was an enjoyable game. There were flashes of things that are exciting. I think it will be another long year for the Jaguars but things are definitely coming together.

But honestly I’m not sure I can watch Henne flop around for another  18 games this year…

High Energy: The Jaguars Rookie Mini Camp

MiniCamp1On Friday afternoon I had the chance to attend the Jaguars Rookie Mini Camp at the Florida Blue Practice fields.  The crowd, while not as large as the one that showed up on Saturday, it was a pretty good size and very enthusiastic.

The team, which consisted of rookies drafted in the 2014 NFL Draft, a hand full of rookie undrafted free agents and around 26 work out players, took the field just before 1 pm.

After some preliminary group workouts and the team stretching exercises the team started with group drills. From my vantage point I was watching the receivers work out with the two quarterbacks at the camp  Blake Bortles (#5) drafted at number 3 in the first round and Stephen Morris (#6) signed as an undrafted free agent.

Jaguars WR Coach Jerry Sullivan coaches the receivers between plays
Jaguars WR Coach Jerry Sullivan coaches the receivers between plays

In the wide receivers corp both Marquise Lee and Allen Robinson stood out at the camp but what struck me the most was the coaching that wide receiver coach Jerry Sullivan was giving the two rookie wide outs.  After every route he would stop them and give them tips and advice. He would demonstrate with his body how he wanted them to perform the breaks in their routes.

Running back Storm Johnson looked sharp at camp as well.   He was quick and looked sharp in his footwork.  He caught well out of the backfield. Clearly the talent level of those around him wasn’t as high, but he demonstrated his skill level well in the drills.

More than 2000 fans watching the Friday Rookie Minicamp
More than 2000 fans watching the Friday Rookie Minicamp

There were drops and miscues as one would expect from a first practice with rookies.  There were over throws and under throws from the QBs. But over all the new rookies looked very promising and it was a enjoyable afternoon in the bright Florida sunshine and the crowd was excited to see the new guys.  Over all there is a high level of optimism that this team is finally moving in the right direction again after more than 5 years since their last winning season.

 

Draft Day: Movie Night with the Jacksonville Jaguars

Jaguars mascot Jaxon de Ville greets guests holding a Draft Day movie poster
Jaguars mascot Jaxon de Ville greets guests holding a Draft Day movie poster

The Jacksonville Jaguars are attempting to engage fans year round and provide ticket value to their season ticket holders. This year they have started a program called Jags365 which promises to have year round engagement with their season ticket holders. Last night was the first of those events this year with the Jacksonville Premiere of Draft Day staring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner.

Donovin Darius SpeaksThe event was invite only to select Jaguars season ticket holders, luxury suite owners, champions club and other VIPs. The audience incuded members of the local press and several current and former Jacksonville Jaguar players including 9 year Jagaurs safedy Donovin Darius. Prior to the start of the film Darius gave a very emotional speech about his experiences on draft day in 1995 and his thoughts after getting the call from coach Tom Coughlin telling him the team was selecting him with the 25th overall pick. The story ends and a loud cheer from the audience breaks out and the movie begins.

Draft Day is obviously a loving showcase of the process of the NFL Draft. It plays into our fascination with the inner workings of football. The high tension, fast paced phone calls from coast to coast as deals are made. Each team trying to gain the advantage of the other. There is the human emotion of the effects of those deals on the executives who make them and the players that are the commodity that is being traded.

Kevin Costner plays Sonny Weaver, a beleaguered General Manager for the Cleveland Browns. In the story the Browns are struggling to make their team relevant. They are reeling from the death of a popular coach and coming off an injury plagued losing season. Sonny is drafting early in the first round but not early enough to get the top rated quarterback prospect to come into the draft in years. A player who could change everything. Weaver is also dealing with life altering personal changes as well with his girlfriend and co-worker Ali who is portrayed by Jennifer Garner. Sonny gets a chance to make the trade of a lifetime to get the player every team in the NFL wants but the cost of doing so could have long lasting effects. This sets up the dramatic conflict: will he mortgage the future and end up with a superstar or a bust or will he play it safe?

Costner’s performance is very good. He plays the character as a guy who just wants to prove to himself that he has the right stuff to excel at his job. He doesn’t know what the right choices are and is trying to do the best he can. The film is very light and comedic but there are several powerful scenes leading up to the Draft Day war room drama that serves as the climax of the film. Jennifer Garner’s character isn’t as well defined but she handles it well, making her character a confident woman dealing with a job where she is frequently the only person not acting like a frat boy.

The movie uses frequent split screens to quickly show conversations from the various cities in the story (Seattle, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Phoenixm, Houston).  In a very cool special effect the characters sometimes overlap the split screen in an almost 3D effect.  In one of the opening sequences Costner’s character walks through the Cleveland offices while the head coach, played by Dennis Leary, tells a story in the war room, the split screen passes in front of Leary as if the character walks in front of him. The effect is momentarily jarring but ultimately effective and humorous instead of distracting.

The ending of course sets things right as they should be but I didn’t predict the method in which Sonny would pull of his draft day triumph. The script was well written mixing the right amount of humor into the drama, and the direction was up to Ivan Reitman’s usual standards. All in all it was a very enjoyable movie. It isn’t an award winning movie. But it was a very fun experience and I want to watch it again just to try to catch the details about the teams and players that are included in various scenes.

And Jags365 is off to a rousing start. I was very happy to have been invited to this event. It was a very enjoyable evening. Thanks Jacksonville Jaguars!

The Heroes of HealthCare

Time Magazine Cover. Photograph by Stephen Voss for TIME

At the height of the crisis that was the roll out of Healthcare.gov, while everyone else was talking about the political fallout and how the failure would effect the future of the Obama Presidency and Health Care in general, I was consumed with one basic question: What went wrong and how would they fix it. The new Time Magazine article Obama’s Trauma Team finally gave me the insight I was looking for.

I’m by trade a software developer. I’m currently the AVP of Information Technology at my company. We have a small software development team which I have been at the head of for about a decade. Our team builds data driven web applications for our enterprise along with a small eCommerce type solution. The most striking thing about the article is that the issues facing the healthcare.gov website are identical to problems our team faces every day. We handle them better at times than the government contractors did and worse at other times, but essentially the issues weren’t anything unusual in software development. The real nature of the failure seems to be lack of cohesive oversight and management of the process which is always critical and more so when you are working with a number of disconnected organizations all involved in building of the site.

What Abbott could not find, however, was leadership. He says that to this day he cannot figure out who was supposed to have been in charge of the HealthCare.gov launch. Instead he saw multiple contractors bickering with one another and no one taking ownership for anything. Someone would have to be put in charge, he told Zients. Beyond that, Abbott recalls, “there was a total lack of urgency” despite the fact that the website was becoming a national joke and crippling the Obama presidency.

The other major failure of the launch was one that many companies make all the time with their launches. A failure to launch in a way that allows for a ramp up of traffic to the site instead of just turning on the faucet and hoping for the best. This is a challenge and one that I have fought in just about every major project I’ve been involved with.

I never really had a doubt that the site would be fixed, there was too much riding on it working and as the article quotes Mikey Dickerson “It’s Just a Website. We’re Not Going to the Moon.” The article is full of great tips for how to react in a tech crisis and I found that a great many of the methods sync with my own about how such drills should be done. If you are at all interested in the subject of how they turned a site which couldn’t even handle a few thousand visitors into a site that could handle hundreds of thousands of visitors and sign up millions of people all in the span of around 6 weeks read the story.

More Disney Magic

So after a magic night at Disney we headed back to the Magic Kingdom on Friday for a few hours. The weather was really brisk and our first stop after taking an open air boat from the Wilderness Lodge to the park was to stop and buy sweatshirts to wear under our windbreakers. This accomplished we could start our day. Early in the day we took a few minutes to learn how to use the Fastpass+ service associated with our Magic Bands. This is a fantastic concept. You simply use your mobile phone to launch the My Disney Experience App and then you select up to three attractions you want to visit that day and schedule a one hour time period when you want to visit that attraction and boom..express access when you show up. We originally only really had two places in mind but walking around we remembered a third and I quickly found the ride on my phone and checked and we could get a time just a few minutes from then. I selected it and of we went. Amazing. We had another great day at the park. My wife talking me into buying season passes is the best thing I ever let myself get talked into.

Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.