Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rain on the Sun

Once in a while I experience something (a book, a video, or even a conversation with one of my fellow mortals) that completely floors me.  Makes me simply stop and try to comprehend the wonder, the scale of our world, our universe, and our amazing species--so violent and cruel yet so creative and capable of great things.  This video brought me to one of these moments, and I thought to share it with you.

Okay, give me a few minutes to catch my breath...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Changing Course

I'm just in from walking our english bulldog Delany through the woods that surround our little house here in Ballston Lake, New York.  It's a beautiful day out--nearly 40f and sunny without a breath of wind, and what little snow remains in the open is disappearing quickly--and I enjoyed strolling alone beneath the bare branches (adjusting slowly--as always--to the uneven texture of ground beneath my boots after months of steel decking) while The Beast made a detailed study of last night's deer activity through examination of their tracks and spoor.  The latter research was perhaps a little too extensive...

It is the third day of my leave, having shouldered my seabag and paid-off Supply on Friday afternoon.  I have now a little less than four weeks to relax, recharge the batteries, and prepare for the next voyage.  The relaxation sounds pretty good to me.  Peace and quiet after desert heat and winter's icy storms @ sea.

Oh, who am I kidding?  Lucy and I will spend the next month preparing for our impending Move back down to Virginia, a process mainly consisting of sorting, packing, and in a few cases selling our assembled belongings, plus making one or perhaps two runs down to the house in Newport News (a full day's drive each way) to prepare said dwelling for occupation.  In other words, the next few weeks will be rather busy, if not chaotic!

As an aside, HOW on Earth did we ever accumulate all of this stuff?!  26 years ago, when I met the lovely Lucy Marie Prochazka in Philadelphia, nearly all of my worldly possessions fit in my seabag and a small case for my old Pentax 35mm SLR.  Today, a mere quarter-century later the bulk of our personal property--furniture, books (and more books), telescopes, electronics and knick-knacks--will require a big truck and a few good men (well, strong ones, anyhow!) to transport back to the Commonwealth.  I'd love to say that I plan on reducing our load, but I really don't know where to start.

Tacking Before the Wind
When my leave is done (on the 25th of March) I'll report back to MSC's Customer Service Unit-East--otherwise known as 'the Pool', placing myself again at the mercy of that bureaucracy for processing and assignment.  But this time something will be different; instead of awaiting orders to report to a ship as an Able Seaman I will be sailing in a new capacity, that of an Operations Chief--at a considerable raise in pay.

Yes, a promotion, and a change in the course of my career in MSC.  No longer will I stand watches, perform roving patrols of the vessel, scan the horizon as lookout or even man the helm with a warship alongside to take fuel; my new job will be different, definitely less physical but no less challenging--and I'll still be working on the bridge where I feel at home.

Operations Chiefs act as part of the ship's Executive staff, with one Chief usually assigned per vessel working directly for the Operations Officer and indirectly for the Captain.  Their position as Assistant Ops, AOPS for short, involves operational and tactical communications, intelligence collection, control of close-in maneuvering situations, and managing the ship's scheduling and planning processes--in essence he is in charge of keeping the Captain in the loop, and effecting his orders.

Readers with a U.S. Navy background (I know you're out there, Shipmates!) will recognize similarities between this general description of my new position with that of my job in my previous career in uniform, that of Operations Specialist (OS).  This is no co-incidence; the Operations Chief billet is modeled on the OS mission of collection, processing, display and dissemination of operational and tactical information for the use of the ship's Captain in making decisions, and so they are endeavoring to hire OSs for the job--or, as in my case, promoting from other ratings within the 'company'.

Sea Change
So, a major alteration in the course of my maritime career, but why?  And why now?  An obvious answer is an increase in basic pay, coupled with better quarters and the opportunity for overtime, but I have never been that ambitious about these things in the past and now is no exception.

The only real reply is that over the past few years I have become somewhat tired of the day to day routine of my job as an Able Seaman; the long watches (standing...always standing), the janitorial duties of cleaning, polishing and cleaning again, the sometimes less-than-stimulating intellectual environment, and the often arduous working conditions (I think that it was while hauling mooring lines for four hours last summer aboard Joshua Humphreys in the 120f heat of Djibouti that I reached "critical mass" on this factor--it turns out that I am no longer 25 years old, and it is about time to admit it).

Even so, my own lack of ambition would have had me hamstrung--at least until Captain Jason Ivey of Supply gave me the encouragement I needed to make my application.  Over the years the Captain and I have been through a lot together, and I thank him here for seeing my need for a change in job description and for his assistance in preparing and transmitting  my "package" to the promotion board.  I'm proud to call him a true Shipmate and (if I may) friend.

So, a new job--still sailing the great ships that I love, but in a different capacity.  Even with my Operations Specialist background I know that my new duties will be challenging; the learning-curve will be steep, but I'm looking forward to the experience.  I'll certainly keep you informed of my progress thru this Blog, so stay tuned as the next voyage begins.

This ought to be fun! 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The "Chelyabinsk Event"

 A "dash-cam" image of the bolide over Chelyabinsk
A Star Falls on Russia
Last Friday I slept-in, having had the evening watch the night before.  My alarm woke me at 0900 and half-an-hour later I was walking out the base gate, walking in the chilled morning air to my favorite coffee shop on Rt 36, "Jersey Shores Coffee Roasters".  Not that I drink coffee, mind you--this little cafe simply has the best Wifi within easy walking distance of the Weapons Station; twenty minutes' stroll brought me to the little blue building with the yellow roof and the somewhat incongruous (to me, at any rate) mural of a surfer "hanging ten" on the exterior wall.

Ordering English Breakfast and an onion bagel I settled down at my usual table and booted-up my laptop to check email and see what was going on in the world.  At this point I must explain that I strongly dislike television (Lucy and I don't even own one) and usually get my news online.  No, it isn't any kind of religious issue; I simply abhor the endless commercials and infantile chatter which is part of practically every "news" program.

As soon as I logged-in, I was stunned by the news from Russia; whilst I'd slept a large meteor had entered the atmosphere over the Urals, passing high above the city of Chelyabinsk as a brilliant fireball, or "Bolide".  The shock wave of it's passage had shattered windows and some structures in the city and outskirts, and roughly a thousand people of "Tankograd" (a nickname bestowed upon Chelyabinsk during the 'Great Patriotic War" because of the enormous number of tanks and other armored vehicles produced by the city for the war against Hitler's invading armies) were injured, mostly by broken glass as unprecedented "sonic boom" rocked the city.
A twenty-foot diameter "crater" in a frozen lake near Chelyabinsk
The bolide itself dis-integrated  high above the mountains, crushed into small fragments by the very mass of high-altitude air the rocky mass compressed ahead of it--a fate most meteors suffer as they plow into Earth's atmosphere at more than thirty thousand miles per hour.  The back-pressure of the air being compressed at last exceeds the tensile strength of the mass itself and it violently "explodes" as it's enormous kinetic energy is translated to heat and concussion.  This is why most scientist expect that no large fragments of the asteroidal body will be recovered.

Watch for Falling Rocks
When I returned to Supply I actually spent some time watching TV--partly to keep abreast of updates from Russia, and partly because another asteroid was in the news, a football-field-sized rock that in mid-afternoon passed Earth only 17,000 miles above Earth's surface.  Were the Russian bolide and "2012 ad14" related in some way, perhaps part of some kind of "asteroid shower"?  No, it seems not;  the bodies were traveling along very different orbital paths around the Sun, and their arrival in our planetary neighborhood on the same day seems to be just an astronomical co-incidence.  Pardon the pun.
 A nice comparison diagram

As I followed the coverage of the Chelyabinsk story I found myself experiencing some profoundly mixed emotions.  Concern for the injured, of course, and relief that there appear to have been no deaths resulting either directly or indirectly from the event.  Sympathy for the people of the city, confronted by a phenomenon outside their experience, who feared for themselves and loved one, and for those who honestly thought that the "end" had come.  And of course fascination with the enormous number of usable video and audio recordings that will provide scientists with vital data on the behavior of large meteors.  But there is also another reaction...

Asteroid Envy
Yes, following the reportage and commentary on Friday and since I have been found myself overwhelmed at times by the "green-eyed monster" known as jealousy.  I feel like a little boy whose friends all got bicycles while he got a sweater, simply because I couldn't be there to see such a magnificent sight as the people of a faraway Russian city were treated to!

Understand now, I have seen (conservative estimate here) tens of thousands of meteors over the past forty years of stargazing.  Most were your garden-variety "shooting star" appearing to streak across a few degrees of sky and then vanish, some thousands were seen while watching meteor "showers", a hundred or so chanced to cross the field of telescope or binocular, and only a few dozens can actually be called bolides, bright fireballs that crossed the sky leaving fading trails behind and faint afterimages in my eyes.

At every opportunity, whether on land or at sea, I have kept my eyes on the sky, seeking always that random flash of light that signals the breakup of a fragment of asteroid or comet in the upper atmosphere, the addition of an infinitesimal bit of mass to Earth.  I have watched, and seen wonders in the display of nature's fireworks, but I've never observed, and know well how unlikely it is that I ever will, anything approaching the "100-Year" fireball that the good people of Chelyabinsk saw last week!

Eyes on the Sky
But I'll keep looking.  As statistically unlikely as it may be, I'll continue be out there on every clear night, waiting and watching for that flash of light that rivals the sun and drowns the full moon with it's radiance, for that trail of fire across the sky, for the  hypersonic "boom" that heralds the arrival of a mass of asteroidal rock, a fragment of cometary nucleus.  Oh yes, I'll keep looking.

And I'll make you a solemn promise now.  If it happens that I miss my "100-Year" fireball, whether I happen to be inside the house having dinner with Lucy or within the "skin" of whatever ship I am sailing at the time; if my watch schedule has me sleeping when that visitor from space arrives.  Whatever the reason why I miss my bolide, whatever the excuse, I can promise you that it won't be that I was watching TV at the time!