Monday, October 28, 2019

Why I Served

I joined the Texas State Guard in order to be trained in emergency response. The TXSG surpassed my expectations. It has been an honor and a privilege to have been a Texan serving Texas.

I am a technical writer; and I usually work as a contractor. In the winter and spring of 2014, a local temporary agency placed me at the Texas Department of Public Safety Division of Emergency Management (TDEM). I reviewed, edited, and wrote specifications for public bids on materials and services. I was directed to find out about the Texas State Guard because they staff Red Cross shelters for which they need computers and peripheral equipment. They also provide personnel for the evacuation and tracking of people leaving disaster sites on state-leased vehicles. 

My last project at TDEM was to bring into agreement two different sets of training materials on “Managing Spontaneous Volunteers at a Disaster.” Spontaneous volunteers are often called “the disaster within the disaster.” Even though they have good intentions, they are usually untrained and often unprepared to care for themselves. I learned that VOADs are Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters. If you want to be useful, join a VOAD. Unfortunately, I did not find one that offered the training that I was looking for on a schedule that I could meet. 

Then, I was asked to work for the Texas Military Department office of the Executive Director at Camp Mabry. I documented upgrades to a computer system. One day, I walked across the road to the Texas State Guard headquarters and asked the first person I met what I had to do to volunteer. Suddenly, I was surrounded.
Induction ceremony
22 November 2014
 We met a couple more times and talked about my background and their needs. I read a lot on the TXSG and TMD websites. The TXSG asked for at least three years of service. Having just turned 65, I could promise that. (Back then, the last day of service was prior to your 71st birthday. Now it is the drill before you turn 70.) On November 22, 2014, I took the oath of office and was sworn in as a petty officer 3rd class (E-4) in the Maritime regiment, but assigned to plans and operations in the headquarters command at Camp Mabry. My first billet was Future Operations (FUOPS).

While in FUOPS, I began learning WebEOC, the virtual emergency operations computer platform used by everyone from FEMA down to the fire department. I began attending classes in WebEOC and helping my fellow learners with the hands-on exercises. On October 7, 2015, I taught “WebEOC for Battle Captains” to the TXSG Officer Candidate School. It was the first of nine classes that I was assigned to teach, including four more OCS sessions. When Hurricane Harvey struck, I served 23 days as the primary WebEOC operator for the Texas State Guard Emergency Operations Center (TEOC). 
Meritorious Service Ribbon,
Brevet promotion, and Farewell
26 October 2019
Not being prior federal, I went through RBOT, the Regional Basic Orientation Training of the TXSG. The age-based requirements seemed easy enough, but I discovered that I could not do a single push-up or sit-up. So, I started with toe-touches. Fortunately, that was in January and RBOT was not until April. By then, I exceeded all of the minimums for push-ups, sit-ups, and one mile, for someone half or a third of my age. The last fitness examination was in December 2018. We were held to previous US Army standards and again I exceeded the minimums for someone one-third my age. For me, the physical fitness requirements were an important benefit to being in the Maritime regiment of the TXSG. Exercise has been routine these past four years, and I am lucky to be working now for a company with a gymnasium on site. 

Integral to emergency management, I learned and practiced the FEMA incident command system (ICS). Among the certifications I earned were Managing and Developing Volunteers, Risk Management, Continuity of Operations, Public Information Systems, and Protecting Critical Infrastructure Against Insider Threats. 

In July 2016, the Texas National Guard asked the Texas State Guard for six clerk typists (now called operations specialists). I served 14 months as a full-time temporary state employee in the domestic operations task force. Mostly, I read, edited (and eventually wrote) orders. I also carried them from office to office, desk to desk, getting sign-offs. That led to a couple of interesting moments with an Air Force lieutenant colonel who did not understand why he was being tasked by a sergeant. I had to remember that my crows were not eagles. Also while working in DOMOPS, I learned to take care of officers. My first sergeant and I ran the coffee mess and vacuumed the work spaces.

In July 2018, I became the public affairs officer (PAO) of the TXSG Maritime Regiment. I tended our Facebook page and published a feature story in the TMD monthly magazine. 

On January 1, 2020, the TXSG joint force command structure will be in place and TMAR will cease to exist. We are casing the colors at our annual ball next February.

It was an honor and a privilege to serve. For most of my time in uniform, our commanding general was Gerald “Jake” Betty. Soon after I joined, our office was disassembled and eventually restored brick-by-brick by the historical commission. (They even built replica panes and returned the original glass.) During the hiatus our headquarters was moved to a trailer and some other unused spaces. I attended many briefings for the command group and general staff. BG Betty ended every meeting with three mandates: Do your duty. Take care of your people. Go home with your honor. 


Wednesday, October 16, 2019


The author, Andrew Fazekas, is somewhat liberal in his definition of “backyard” astronomy. I live a mile from a major shopping center. I do go out in the backyard and I have seen the Orion Nebula often and more recently just found the Andromeda Galaxy. The author seems to implicitly accept that the “backyard” is somewhat darker than the edge of the suburbs. It is only from there that the backyard astronomer can view all 110 Messier objects (which are nicely arrayed in a 10 x 11 table of pictures). But they are available to the dedicated amateur and that is the audience for this book. 

Astronomical guide books all provide the same basic information. The Moon, the planets, the interesting stars in the constellations, nebulae in our galaxy, and galaxies beyond ours are all out there. All of the star guides start with introductory comments, some basic celestial navigation, and then take you from the Sun and Moon to the planets in order and out into deep space. Of course, you  expect and get four seasonal sky charts to hold overhead. This book does much more for you. 

I found some problems with the arrangement of information in very small spreads of one, two, or three pages. The Table of Contents and Index have proved unhelpful and I resorted to sticky notes to mark some references. Perhaps we will have to wait for information to arrive as VR hypercubes. 

The National Geographic Backyard Guide
to the Night Sky, Second Edition
by Andrew Fazekas,
2019, 288 pages, 22 x 13.5 mm, $24.99.
The typography is another problem: a small sans serif font on colorful glossy pages. You will not be able to read this in the dark with a red light. So, you will not take this in your pocket when you are outdoors. This book is for doing your homework, charting your course, and gaining knowledge before you go out to view and discover. 

Finally, the price was kept down by the binding: the pages are glued in, not perfect bound. If you press the book flat to scan or shoot a spread, you will break the binding and pages will soon fall out. This is a book that must be taken care of; and for all of the useful information it provides, it deserves that.

Those problems aside, this handbook combines a textbook survey of astronomy with instructions on viewing the objects of interest. The facts in the narratives are recent and current to date. Among the topics are sprites (verified in 1989) and Hawking radiation. 

Not everything in the sky existed millions of years before we came along. Artificial satellites (including the ISS) and rocket trails also are addressed. We see a lot of stuff out there when we are observing, and it is all worthy of our attention, if only to differentiate the human artifacts from the others.

You will also find good information on choosing and using telescopes, binoculars, and cameras, including your cell phone. It takes far more patience than equipment to pursue asteroids and minor planets, double stars and star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. 


Sunday, October 13, 2019

Nerdvana: Working with Engineers (and a Scientist)

Since mid-July, I have been working for an industrial manufacturing firm. We make machines that make things. Of course, everything runs on software. So, we have a lot of the usual folks, but in addition to them, we have real engineers, and even a physicist.

Entertaining moments can be as simple as dropping a disk magnet down a copper tube and watching it float to the bottom. 

One of the guys has been collecting and disassembling microwave ovens in order to re-purpose the induction coils. With enough of them, he can make an array of electro-magnets to lift a person off the ground. (We are still waiting on that.) One of  the first projects was a spot welder. The cellphone charger does not work very well; I suggested that he should hook it to one of the Xebex machines in the gym. The other day, we went out back and watched him burn wood. 

More than you ever wanted to know about Figure 2B on Quora here:


Saturday, October 12, 2019

Physics for Astronomers: The Works of Steven Weinberg

The telescope is a wonderful instrument, but if you do not know what you are looking at, you have not gained much. The stars are pretty at any magnification. 

[This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Sidereal Times of the Austin Astronomical Society.] 

Understanding the views requires learning astrophysics; and that is hard work. Think of it like basketball. One of my physics professors was answering homework questions at the blackboard. “I don’t understand number 3. …. How do you do number 5?... What equation do you use for number 1?...” He was going along and then he stopped. “You people would go out in the backyard and shoot hoops for 45 minutes and not make a single shot and still say you had a good time. How long did you spend on number 4? How many ways did you try to solve it?” It was a valid argument. On the other hand, you could have Michael Jordan or LeBron James come to your backyard and be your coach, but the honest fact is that you will not ever be good enough to play in the NBA. Still, you can improve your skills and your appreciation of the masters and their game. And so, too, with astrophysics, if you want to “show good game” (whether or not you turn professional), let the greats be your coaches. 

This past July, our guest speaker was Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg. His topic was “Gravitational Wave Astronomy.” Dr. Weinberg delivered a layman’s overview of the development of the field and its current state. Having done my homework before the lecture, I was impressed by his clear, concise, and cogent explanations. So, I went to the UT libraries and checked out four of his books.

They had nine copies of Gravitation and Cosmology: Principles and Applications of the General Theory of Relativity (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1972). Two are missing. One is in the Life Sciences Library Hall of Noble Words. One is at Perry-CastaƱeda Library. The rest are in the Kuehne Physics Mathematics Astronomy Library. The great body of mathematical discussions are beyond my skill level – like having to play guard against LeBron James: the moves are easy to explain, but doing them is a workout. However, Weinberg’s narratives are understandable and compelling. He takes the reader where no one has gone before. He has his own framework for presentation, different from the traditional teachings.

Weinberg maintains that Einstein’s preference for Riemann geometry and our respect for Einstein have limited the ways that we choose to approach these problems. Instead, Weinberg begins with the equivalence of gravity and inertia. That, he says, allows us to understand quantum events in ways that the geometric approach cannot.  

Over the course of 633 pages, Gravitation and Cosmology ties the historical development with the modern discoveries. The histories of the theory of gravity, non-Euclidean geometry, and the principle of relativity open the book. Part One closes with a detailed examination of the special theory of relativity from Lorentz transformations through the discovery of antiparticles. 

Part Two covers the General Theory of Relativity with a treatment of the equivalence principle that is so important to Weinberg’s framework. He also provides mere outlines of mathematics including tensor analysis, covariant differentiation, and div-grad-curl. These are only to make the text complete. Other books are better at explaining the subjects. And, just to note, Einstein went back to the books to learn tensors; and it is recorded elsewhere that Einstein’s wife at least checked his math if she did not actually do his homework for him. 

Part Three explains General Relativity, including Post-Newtonian Mechanics and Post-Newtonian Hydrodynamics. (The physics of moving water allows us to approach the problems involving huge bodies of discrete particles.) Part Three Section 10 Chapter 8 addresses the Quantum Theory of Gravitation which was the topic of Dr. Weinberg’s lecture to us on July 12. In the book, it is marked with asterisk meaning that you can skip it. Back then, it was just theory. Gravitation waves were predicted by relativity and quantum mechanics, but would not be detected for another thirty years.
Weinberg by David Levine for NYRB.
This drawing appeared in
"Nature’s Biggest Secret,"
October 21, 1993.
Framed prints are for sale from
The New York Review of Books.

The last third of the book, Part Five, is dedicated to Cosmology. The greater mass of that consists of the so-called “Standard Model” what we in the backyard call the Big Bang Theory. Weinberg takes you from “the first three minutes” to the synthesis of helium and to the formation of galaxies. The book closes with considerations of other models. 

Dr. Steven Weinberg is tireless in taking physics to the public. He summarized the Standard Model in The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (Basic Books, 1977). If you go to the website of The New York Review of Books and put his name in the search box you will find that he is quite popular. (Use quotes and the full name “Steven Weinberg” to narrow the results.) He wrote seven major essays for them, six on physics, one on politics.

Weinberg is quite outspoken on social issues, especially as they impact science. Among his other books is Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries (Harvard University Press, 2001). He does defend against religion and creationism, but most of the book is a defense of science against post-modernism. To Weinberg, the philosophy of science is worth studying, and defending it matters. 

Weinberg’s The Discovery of Subatomic Particles (Scientific American Library, 1983) creates a bridge between a physics textbook and a popularization. His narrative history from the Greeks through the electron of the 19th century and up to the hadron of our day is easy to read. In the text, he presents the standard equations as verbal statements. “Electric force on a body = Electric charge of the body on which the force acts X Electric field.” However, the Appendix delivers all of the equations in their standard forms. In the Appendix, Weinberg starts with Newton’s Second Law and ends with particle collisions. 

You can find pithy sayings by Dr. Weinberg in Wikiquote. Most of them are about subatomic physics. Interesting as they are to ponder, they will not make good bumperstickers. 

Five hundred years before Galileo the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (known in the Latin West as Azophi) catalogued the Andromeda Galaxy. He knew that it was a cloud among the fixed stars but did not know what it was. By the time Edwin Hubble settled the question in 1925, astronomers had been informed by Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s Equations, Planck’s quanta, and Einstein’s General Relativity. Physics is hard work. The pay-off is understanding what you are looking at—and why the looking is important. Dr. Steven Weinberg explains it all.