How do you describe your job?

6 11 2014

I am an engineer. We make up a small part of the world and are typically quite specialized. This means that most people have no idea what we do. Maybe this is why politicians/teachers/whoever is trying to “get kids into STEM” ask for people from STEM talk about what they do, because politicians/teachers/whoever have no freaking idea. I will try to give an overview of what I did at my last job.

My company makes Dynamic Positioning systems. The idea is simple. The system reads GPS signals and/or other position signals (hydro-acoustic beacons on the seafloor, laser targeting, etc) as well as heading sensors (gyroscopes), controls thrusters, and keeps a vessel in position or moves it as desired. It must resist the ocean/river current, wind, and waves which obviously change over time. Ships with DP are used for a variety of tasks (see the wiki entry linked previously), but mainly related to drilling for oil or laying cables. This is accomplished by having a computer with IO (input and output) reading the inputs from all the sensors as well as a user and outputs telling the thrusters what to do. My company built the brain of the system and our responsibility stopped at our IO interface with other companies’ sensors/engines/whatever

My specific job is as a GNC engineer, where GNC stands for guidance, navigation, and controls. My job was split in two, in the office and on travel. In the office I was a software developer. Our system had a lot of software which needed to be adjusted for each ship, updated, have features added, have bugs fixed, etc. So in the office I mostly worked on our software or on configuring our software for a new ship being built. About 30% of the time I traveled. Travel jobs were one of two things: 1 commissioning a new ship (a fancy way of saying getting it to work for the first time and then demonstrating that it works) or 2 fixing some problem on an existing ship.

The travel part of the job was a killer and I would summarize the job as being able to live in crappy conditions and get a job done using a moderate amount of intelligence/knowledge of our system. The actual work was quite easy, the hard part was everything else. I’ll give you an example of a job to China. This was a new commissioning and is usually a 7 to 10 day trip. Here’s what it looks like:

  1. Preparation. Once the job is assigned I would collect all the software and documents I need. Talk with coworkers about anything I might miss, talk with boss about expectations, etc. Also packing etc. I only carried 1 carry on sized bag (easier to carry around another country) and a backpack.
  2. Fly to China, in economy. Usually this wasn’t too bad as airlines give free movies and alcohol on international flights.
  3. Arrive in China, get a taxi to where you need to go. This was extremely frustrating and stressful. The location of the shipyard was a 2 hour car ride away, taxis are there to drive people around the city. Also not many people speak english. Basically show someone a paper with where you want to go written down and hope they can help you. And won’t rob you and leave you to die somewhere.
  4. Arrive at hotel, try to get some sleep before waking up at 6am.  Remember that at this point I’m jetlagged and tired from flying around the world. Luckily going east to west makes sleeping at an appropriate time easy. But there’s always the stress of having to wake up and make it to the ship in the morning.
  5. Catch a taxi to the shipyard, another trial. The last one I was on you had to take a ferry. I got lucky and called a bunch of people until I found someone who could get me where I needed to be, another contractor. My last job was easy since I was able to get ahold of him. On previous trips it was much worse. The first time I had to take a 2 hour taxi ride to the shipyard which was devoid of life. I knew what the ship looked like, but there were 4 being built. No signs. No help. No nothing. I eventually got lucky hanging around long enough and found some English speakers getting on the right ship and followed them. A guard started yelling at me in Chinese, but this is normal, I just shrugged and walked by him.
  6. Now on the ship, find your room and settle in. Or not. Ont his last job the guy who did the physical installation of our system was there and brought me up to date. His English was good. To save money he was not going to sea with us and was “pretty sure” everything was working.
  7. Now it’s a waiting game. Wait to go out to sea. Before I can do anything everything else on the ship has to work. If you remember, my system reads sensors and tells thrusters what to do. That means they have to already be set up, tested, and working 100%. On the last trip there were some major delays so I was sitting in my room for about 3 days. Half naked chinese guys kept coming into the room I was sharing with another contractor to use the shower. Eventually my bunk mate yelled at them and they stopped. Oh and did I mention I was sleeping on the ground with nothing more than a straw mat? No pillow, no sheets, nothing but the sweatshirt I brought and one of those inflatable neck pillows.
  8. The food onboard in China is normally crap, this last trip wasn’t so bad, it was edible. There was enough water. All in all a decent experience.
  9. So after having slept on the ground for 3 days and eating meh food, eventually I get to work. No one really tells me when, I have to sit in on meetings I’m not supposed to be in and listen for the salient details. The Chinese shipbuilders are supposed to be the ones running the show, but the customer representatives that are supposed to be inspecting are pulling a lot of the weight. Anyway, usually right when I’m about to go to sleep is when they want me to start working (DP is usually done at night because I work with very few people, everyone else is up in the day working together).
  10. So it’s 10pm or maybe midnight, pitch black outside, the bridge is kept dark to maintain night vision, and I start work. First I check all the IO and make sure it’s all talking. Then I calibrate our system with the thrusters (if I ask for 50% am I getting 50%?). After that is the hardest part, which is tuning our system for this specific vessel. After that a few performance tests and I’m done. All that takes 8 to 12 hours. Getting Chinese electricians who speak very little English to do what you need is tough, but usually there is someone who can translate… usually.
  11. Now it’s 8 AM and everyone is up and ready to test the system. So for another 4 hours we go through tests to demonstrate the system is working.
  12. Now it’s noon. I was awake yesterday from 8AM til my normal sleep time, but instead worked throughout the night, meaning I’ve been up 28 hours. Time to crash, if I’m lucky and no one bugs me to fix something.
  13. DP is usually the last system to be worked on, so we head back to shore after I’m done, typically.
  14. Get off the vessel and get to the hotel, usually much easier since taxi drivers know hotels.
  15. Try to sleep/wake up and make my return flight. Navigating Chinese airports is difficult but not impossible. Getting to the airport via taxi is the easiest taxi ride since every taxi driver can understand if you try to make hand gestures and sounds of an airplane. Or just draw a plane on a piece of paper like I do. And pray there’s only one airport nearby.
  16. Arrive home. If the next day is a workday, I have to work or use time off. On the plus side we get extra time off for working weekends.

That’s what a typical travel trip looks like, pretty crazy if I do say so myself.

So, what do you do for a living?





Get Moving

6 11 2014

I quit my job a week ago and do not start my next job until the 20th. This means I have three weeks to do whatever I want. My goal is to visit friends and family, but even doing that, I have plenty of free time and I realized I need something to fill this free time. This all comes back to the “problem” of retirement which is best summarized by the first question everyone asks when I tell them I want to retire before 35: “well what are you going to do with all your time?”

My only answer right now is “whatever I want.” But it’s a good question and I don’t have a good answer. I think that being raised in the 90’s, a time when showing up got you a trophy for the first time in the history of the world, beat into me several things I wish weren’t. I feel like my generation has been trained to be consumers. We were literally trained since 1st grade to be able to sit at a boring job so we could go home and spend all the money we earned, minus 5 to 10%. We were raised to work jobs. Jobs are easy, there are billions of people willing to work a job and collect a nice salary. So many that the competition is fierce. What we weren’t trained to do was create. To start companies and create jobs.

I happened to read an interesting article today: 6 Harsh truths that will make you a better person, on Cracked.com. The jist of it is simple: act now. Get moving. Do something. So right now I’m trying to identify things to get moving on. But I’ve been doing this for the past few months, I probably need a new strategy.





A Great Reason To Stop Reading the News

22 09 2014

Would you believe that it can be very traumatic just to hear about someone else’s traumatic experience? It’s called vicarious trauma and here is an interesting quote from the following book:

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Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE): A revolutionary new method for stress/trauma recovery

“It is very common for people who have not experienced the same trauma as their loved ones to be even more bitter, vengeful, angry and resentful than the person who endured and survived the traumatic experience. Imagination is a powerful thought process of the human species. It can however, be a dangerous and powerful weapon if it is not connected to the body’s experience of reality. This is why those who suffer can often forgive more easily than those who only imagined another’s suffering. Those who imagine the suffering of another are often more angry, bitter, and vengeful than the victim. As a victim, it is oftentimes easier to forgive because one’s own suffering and sorrow are informed by the reality of the body’s survival.”

So simply put, when you live through a traumatic experience your body knows you survived and helps you feel relief. If you recount a traumatic experience (in vivid detail) it is unlikely you can get the listener to also experience the relief. Similarly if you read violent/messed up news stories, watch things like crime dramas, or watch shows such as real life murder mysteries (see the South Park Murder Porn episode) you can experience the trauma but never the relief. Despite it being second hand it can add up and leave your body physiologically showing signs of trauma, which as you can guess, is not good.

I was reminded of this quote when recently reading an article on Fragging in the Vietnam War.

This Sergeant went on to tell me he was on a patrol with a commanding officer who insisted they follow him into what they, as experienced soldiers, knew was an ambush.  The officer refused to budge and finally one of the men shot him dead.  I asked the Sergeant what he did and he said he had no choice but to arrest the offender who had probably saved lives.

Quite a story right? The next line is “He was eerily calm relating these stories.”  What I think the author really meant to say is, “I perceived it to be eerie that he was so calm while relating this story because I found it so disturbing.” To the Sergeant telling the story, he has lived with it everyday for the past 40 years, it’s old news, something he may have struggled with for decades, perhaps with the help of several therapists, and eventually he was able to relay the story “calmly.” But to the listener, this is fresh news and quite a vivid picture. The listener doesn’t know about the 10 years it took to cope with it, nor do they have any idea that imagining this story in their head can bring it to life for their body.

Now imagine reading/watching news stories like this every day of your life and you get the idea of why the modern “news”, aka click bait, is horrible for your health. For your reference, I just turned off my news blocker and here are the top stories on Yahoo! News (note, this is just the main site, not the crime site or the please scare me site)

  • Pentagon: US, partners begin airstrikes in Syria
  • WH intruder had 800 rounds of ammo
  • 3 missing Afghan soldiers found at Canadian border
  • New Jersey hiker killed by black bear: police
  • California wildfire crews brace for weather shift

My heart rate went up just reading those headlines.

 

A few more musings and a personal note:

Perhaps this is why the current generation seems desensitized. Day in and day out we are exposed to these kind of violent news stories, and to not be desensitized would be a death sentence. But I don’t think we’re truly desensitized. I recall a time when this was really pounded into my soul. A brief bit of background, I played a lot of video games involving killing and watched plenty of rated R movies with plenty of body parts flying before the following story takes place. If anyone was going to be desensitized to violence by games and movies as the media and crazy parents would have us believe, it would have been me.

WARNING THE NEXT LINK IS VERY GRAPHIC, DON’T CLICK THE LINK UNLESS YOU’RE PREPARED.

In AP US History class sophomore year my teacher showed us a video about the Vietnam war. The video started off boring, like most history videos, then out of nowhere there was a scene of a handcuffed man being shot in the head and killed.

I don’t remember if I actually did, but my instinct was to jump out of my chair and scream. Holy shit! That guy was just fucking killed! In real fucking life!  There didn’t appear to be any warning, in the video it didn’t look like there was an argument; the man is tied up and just standing there handcuffed.Then a uniformed man nonchalantly walks around him, pulls up his gun, and shoots the handcuffed man in the head. Don’t feel too bad for the handcuffed man though, he had just finished leading a death squad in the killing of the families of enemy officers.

I was absolutely shocked. I wanted to puke (and honestly I do right now after watching the video again). All those years of being “desensitized by violent video games and movies,” and I reacted just like anyone would expect a normal kid to react.

I later sat down and thought about why I reacted that way despite all my “experience” with violence and I realized that this was the first time I had ever seen anyone actually die. In the back of my head I felt like I had seen someone die before, after all I had seen plenty of movies with blood and guts all over the place and even played games where I actively killed people; but this completely different and I knew it on a fundamental level, instantly, without hesitation. Years of violent games and movies that were supposed to be fucking up my brain, had near zero impact on my reaction to seeing death for the first time. Not even death, a video of a death. The games and movies didn’t mess me up; instead, what really got to me were things I knew to be real, things like that video and the news.

Interestingly enough, South Park had an episode about this as well as the video above. In this episode the kids are playing detective and get an old couple to pay them to solve the mystery of what happened to a pie on the windowsill. They found out the dog did it, but come up with this really fucked up explanation about how the old man was planning to kill his wife to eat the pie but the dog beat him to the pie before he had a chance to kill his wife. The old people are like, WTF?! What are you kids watching on TV?! You might think they would say NCIS or Law and Order SVU, but their reply is simply: “nothing, just the news.”

Oh and if you haven’t seen Bowling For Columbine, it’s basically about how Canada also has violent video games and movies, but doesn’t have the same violent news the US seems to be obsessed with, and how this could be connected with the difference in violent crime.

 





Memorization tip for test taking

17 09 2014

Just wanted to share this tip I came up with myself in college (although I’m sure someone in the world has thought of it). It is intended for use in engineering/math type classes with limited or no use of a cheat sheet. Let’s call it the short term memory cheat sheet.

Step 1: Make a 1 page cheat sheet of equations/material you need to remember. It should only be material you don’t remember (no easy equations like F = ma), and it should be sectioned in a grid of some kind. Each time you review the sheet, try to “place” the items in their grid space, and remember them spatially.
Here’s a very complicated example taken from https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~afriedman/CheatSheetsIndex.html

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Step 2: Read over the sheet a few times after writing it. Go to sleep.

Step 3: Review the sheet the morning of the test.

Step 4: Have the sheet on your desk, trying to memorize as much as you can while waiting for the professor to hand out the tests. Up until the professor tells you to put everything away.

Step 5: This is important: when you get your test, turn it over and draw the same grid you had on the cheat sheet you just put away in your backpack. This helps with visualization. If you get scrap paper you can use one of those. If your professor prints double sided and you have no clean sheet of paper, get creative.

Step 6: Fill in as much as you can remember. Speed is important as you’re relying on your short term memory. Try to visualize the sections of the grid, and what each contains. Regurgitate as much as you can as fast as you can, before reading anything. Remember every minute you’re writing down your cheat sheet is a minute you lose to take the actual test.

Boom, now you have a cheat sheet for a test that does not allow any cheat sheet! Feel free to link to this page if your professor thinks you cheated. Then tell them, with the internet, memorization is getting pretty pointless.

Bonus tip: When you do get a cheat sheet, if you write in one direction with red pen and then turn the paper 90° and write in blue pen, you can fit twice as many notes.





Synergistic Tech Development

9 09 2014

2020 is a satellite in the back