Archive for category Hobbies
In a bit of good news from the WH administration, Trump signed on Tuesday a bill authorizing $19.5 billion in NASA spending for 2017 and updating their mission to include the human exploration of Mars.
I’ve been following space news for decades since I dreamed of being an astronaut when I was a boy.
Throughout that time, seeing the ups and downs in the industry (mainly driven by politics and economics), I hoped that we as a species would not lose sight of the long-term benefits of space exploration and would continue to invest. I’m glad to see that has happened at least for the foreseeable future.
Those that have worked in a corporate setting may know the difficulty of advocating for long-term investments with the pressure to deliver short-term results. Without either a visionary leader or large cash reserves, the short-term generally tends to take precedent. I see space travel as the ultimate long-term investment for humankind.
In high school, I did my research and discovered my best shot of being an astronaut was to become an engineer and a pilot. I received my Mechanical Engineering degree from the Cooper Union in NYC. However, my attempt to get into the Air Force was stalled due to less than perfect vision, and my dream took a detour.
I began my career designing cars for Honda & Porsche instead of designing space vehicles. I began to fly paragliders and hang-gliders instead of jet fighters.
Yet, my passion for space exploration never subsided, and the reason to invest in human exploration of space hasn’t changed much in all that time. I see three main reasons for investing in the final frontier, all of which have a long time horizon:
- Human survival and the propagation of the species: The death of our Sun in a few billion years will mean our entire solar system would not be habitable. In the meantime, there are more pressing concerns for life on our planet. Whether it be the destruction of our environment through climate change, a new ice age based on the tilt of the earth, or a massive asteroid strike, our planet may not always be suitable for human life well before the Sun becomes an issue. The only way to guarantee the survival of the human species for the very long term is through space exploration and interplanetary colonization. Updating NASA’s mission to formally include human travel to Mars is a major step in this direction.
- Exhaustion of natural resources: as a closed ecosystem, the resources on our small planet are finite. We are already on a path to exhaust staples such as helium, and industrial metals (zinc, silver, gold, and copper) by 2050. Mining other planets, comets, or asteroids, when feasible, would be lucrative and in demand, making up for inevitable shortages on Earth. For the resources listed, we have just over 3 decades to create an action plan for finding an alternate supply off-planet. If we consider that SpaceX, for example, in just 15 years went from a concept to several families of launch vehicles with successful trips from and to Earth, that seems like an achievable target. As a matter of fact, two companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have already been founded to do just this, and their prediction is this will happen by 2025.
- First Contact: – given the sheer size of the universe, the odds that our planet harbors the only intelligent species are exceedingly small. The potential for great advancement of human knowledge in areas of science, technology, health and medicine, agriculture, etc. that comes from the discovery and communications with our interstellar neighbors, is in and of itself worthy of the cost of exploration. This may be the longest of the long shots, but fortunately, it’s only one of the many reasons to continue exploring the cosmos.
Short story I wrote for Spanish 3 class at UC Berkeley on April 4, 2002
La Máquina de Tiempo
Me dijeron que no era posible. Todas las leyes de ciencia dicen que no era posible. Pero yo, al fin lo hice. Yo construí una máquina de tiempo y viajé al pasado y al futuro. Esto es mi cuento.
Al principio lo quería hacer simplemente para demonstrar que sí, era posible. Pero entonces me arrepentí. Me preocupaba la posibilidad que alguien tratará de robar mi invención, o peor, que alguien con mal intentos usará la máquina para destruir el presente. Pues, por estas razones decidí a mantenerlo secreto.
En mis primeros viajes, lleno de curiosidad, visité a los lugares más famosos de la historia, específicamente las Sietes Maravillas del Mundo. Yo viaje 5,000 años al pasado para ver las esclavas de Egipto construyendo las pirámides de El Cairo. Vi los Jardines Colgado de Babilón, la Estatua de Zeus en Olimpia, el Templo de Artemio en Euphesus, el Mausoleo en Halicarnassus, el Coloso de Rhodes, y el Faro de Alejandría. Al presente, el único de estas Maravillas que ha sobrevivido el pasaje de tiempo es la gran pirámide en El Cairo. Nadie que vive hoy ha visto las otras…. nadie menos yo.
Después de estos primeros viajes, decidí a buscar las soluciones de los misterios que han confundido la humanidad por tantos años. ¿Quién levanto las grandes estatuas de la Isla de Pascua? ¿Quién construyo Stonehenge y para que se usaba? ¿Que causo la extinción de los dinosaurios? Los científicos y los filósofos han tratado de contestar estas preguntas por muchos años y han ofrecido muchas posibilidades y teorías, pero en realidad, no pueden estar seguros. Nadie sabe las soluciones de estos misterios… nadie menos yo.
Después de un rato, yo deje de viajar por tiempo para hacer descubrimientos y empecé a viajar para hacer dinero. Yo usé casi todos mis ahorros para la construcción de mi máquina y con todos mis viajes, no tenía tiempo (irónicamente) para trabajar. Pues, en unos viajes, fui al futuro para conseguir información. Noté los números ganadores de la lotería y también las mejores compañías en el mercado de valores. En poco tiempo, yo me hice millonario. Toda la gente pensaba que yo tenía mucha suerte. Yo tenía la posibilidad de convertirme en el hombre más rico del mundo, con un valor más que Bill Gates. Pero no lo hice. Yo no quería atraer tanta atención porque tenía miedo de que alguien descubriera el origen de mis financias.
En poco tiempo me llene de curiosidad de nuevo. Yo supe casi todo de la historia de humanidad, pues quería saber el futuro. Estos próximos viajes llenaron mi corazón con desesperación y cambiaron mi vida para siempre. La población del mundo siguió creciendo en paso tremendo. Se necesitaba madera y espacio para alojar y alimentar tantas personas. Esto resulto en la destrucción de todos los bosques del mundo. Ni uno sobrevivió. En poco tiempo, el mundo tenía tantas personas que no tenían espacio ni para haciendas. Aunque crearon comida artificial, sin haciendas, la humanidad no tenía suficiente comida para alimentar ni la mitad de las personas. Esto resulto en una gran hambruna. La gente empezaron a comer todo; perros, gatos, y algunos se convirtieron en canibalistas. Contemporáneamente, la polución y la falta de árboles causo las capas polares de hielo a derretirse. Todas las costas del mundo se sumergieron. Casi todos los cuerpos acuáticos estaban contaminados. Con la excepción de la humanidad e insectos, todos los animales del mundo estaban extinguidos. En poco tiempo, insectos serán la única excepción.
Yo volví al presente desesperado. ¿Qué clase de futuro era eso para la humanidad? No lo podía creer. Yo decidí que tenía que hacer algo. Tenía que usar mi dinero para cambiar el futuro. Quizás podría influir en las leyes o conseguir otras personas que me podían ayudar. De todas maneras tenía que hacer algo. Ahora que sé lo que pasará en el futuro, quizás hay tiempo para hacer algo. Nadie sabe si podremos salvar el mundo… nadie sabe, ni yo.
Today I read that Marvel plans to completely reboot the Thor franchise and transform the son of Odin into the daughter of Odin, a hammer-wielding Goddess of Thunder. One of my first thoughts when I read this was that this is a brilliant but lazy business decision.
How is it brilliant and how is it lazy? Well, the reasons are intertwined in the decision itself.
[[UPDATE: After reading the Time article about Marvel’s decision that describes more elements about the story, I’ll backtrack somewhat on the lazy part. This is not a reboot as some of the articles online have described, but a continuation of the story with a female who now wields Mjolnir, with the original son of Odin no longer wielding the hammer and calling himself Thor. With respect to the creation of new female heroes and hiring female creators as outlined below, I would still say it’s somewhat lazy, but the decision actually goes into more of a creative direction than I originally thought.]]
Marvel understands the growing purchasing power and influence of females in geek culture. Ticket sales to comic-based movies and comic conventions and video game sales are ever increasingly coming from women. Going even further, female cosplayers acting out their favorite comic characters have millions of followers on social media and are a marketer’s dream (as a matter of fact, the artists at Marvel can simply use popular female cosplayer Toni Darling’s interpretation of Thor as the basis for their concept sketches). Marvel has stated that the purpose for the change is to bring new readers and to appeal to women and girls whom have long been ignored in comics. Thus, they’ve properly identified this audience as a target for expanding their business.
So, to tap this audience, they have multiple avenues they can pursue. They can hire more female staff writers and artists and invest in creating powerful female characters with their own unique back stories, powers, and story arcs. However, developing new heroes takes significant time and marketing dollars to build awareness, interest, and fans. It also takes a greater commitment to follow through. The other option is simply to turn a popular male superhero with a pre-existing fan base into a female. The awareness is already built in with both the fans and, if the character is popular enough, general audiences with some pop culture knowledge. The marketing is also far less expensive, as the likely controversial decision will garner significant news coverage and discussions on internet forums, being buzzed about until at least the launch of the first comic. Additionally, they are likely using the same team members so they don’t have to hire anyone new for a completely new line (I noticed in the Marvel announcement that the writer, artist, and editor are all male – Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, and Wil Moss, respectively).
Having worked in the video game industry and participated in marketing and business meetings to identify strategies for expanding to the female audience (many times in rooms filled only with men), I can almost envision what happened in the corporate meeting rooms at Marvel before they came to this decision (note: the dialogue below is pure speculation based on experience):
Marvel Exec: “Team, we’ve all already identified that we need to appeal more to women and girls. I want suggestions and I want a plan coming out of this meeting.”
Pat in Marketing: “We’ve developed a ton of conceptual ideas for a new line of female superheroes, powerful characters that can be great role models as well. We’ll weave their story arcs into pre-existing franchises like Spider-Man and X-men to build credibility and awareness. We’ve also got several job openings for artists, inkers, and writers and we’ll target hiring as many women as we can for these positions to further build the credibility of the characters and stories. The headcount will cost about half a million dollars a year and we’ll need at least three million dollars in marketing for the first year to build awareness and promote these new characters throughout different channels”.
Marvel Exec: “Whoa, that’s steep. Any other ideas?”
Bob in Marketing: “We can add ‘Woman’ to the end of an existing character and we won’t have to spend as much on marketing. Say, ‘Iron-Woman’?”
Marvel Exec: “No, it’s been done and we know those franchises don’t even come close to the sales of the main character’s franchise. Look at She-Hulk and Spider-Woman. Even our friends at DC haven’t had much success with Super-Girl. Is that all you folks have?”
Jesse in Marketing: “Well, we can just change an existing male character into a woman. You know the forums are already blazing with misogynistic guards of the old order battling women and their male supporters, so the change will add fuel to the flame, generating lots of potential stories and social media references. We’d require very little if any marketing dollars. ”
Marvel Exec: “Hmm, we won’t have to hire anyone new since we’ll just convert the existing team to work on the new character. The controversy will be good for building positive PR, buzz, and awareness. We’ll probably lose a portion of the fan base, but we’ll make up for it on that portion that is curious about the change as well as the new readers, plus we’ll be darlings in the industry for promoting positive change. Excellent, excellent!! ”
Jesse in Marketing: “It would have to be a character whose name doesn’t end in ‘-man’ or already have a female counterpart. So, Ironman is out. Preferably a character that we’ve already developed into a movie franchise to get the halo effect of general public awareness. Someone like Daredevil? No, no, wait, that movie was a miserable failure, we can’t tie it to that. Maybe one of the Avengers? They already have huge mainstream popularity from the movie, so a ton of people outside of comics already know about them. Hulk is out, so maybe Captain America or Thor?”
Marvel Exec: “Great thinking. Captain America outsells Thor, plus he’s the First Avenger, so we can’t take too much of a risk there. Additionally, he’s based on a Captain in the US military during the second World War. More people know about that than they know about Norse mythology, so Thor is the better bet here. Alright team, we’ve got our plan! Jesse, go tell the creative team about our decision and have them sketch up a concept so we can draft a press release. Let’s GO GO GO!”
When I was a kid, I mostly knew Thor because I was a fan of ancient mythologies, including Greek and Norse. I had very little money and had to make trade-offs on buying small indulgences, so I split my purchases between comic-books and D&D books. Thus, I only bought comics about my favorite heroes including Spiderman and the X-men and I probably only have one or two Thor comics in my entire comic collection. While I’m not yet a fan of this change to the character, I will likely go out and buy a few copies of the first comic-book of the new female Thor out of both curiosity and because it may be valuable in the distant future – making this the first Thor comic book I’ll purchase in about 30 years.
As I said, lazy, but brilliant.
Long before I was an executive at one of the world’s largest companies, I was a blue-collar kid in Brooklyn playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the basement with my siblings and friends. Many decades would pass before it became chic to be geek – Comic-Con, Dragon Con, Marvel, and even The Lord of the Rings have become mainstream hits, television shows around gaming and nerd culture have been developed, The Geekie Awards received a BILLION media impressions in its inaugural year, and so on. My two younger brothers, Alex and Jiovanie, parlayed our D&D experiences directly into careers in video game and fantasy art (Jiovanie’s work can be seen here, Alex’s work here). I went a more traditional route through Engineering and Business degrees to work for large corporations, including Honda, Porsche, P&G, Microsoft (Xbox), and PepsiCo.
After watching the superb “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” episode of the hit TV show ‘Community’ and the D&D segment from VH1’s ‘I Love the 80s’, I looked back fondly and began to contemplate the impact that playing D&D has had on my career. Dungeons & Dragons is the one single game from my childhood I feel can build multiple skills that can be leveraged in the “real” world, whether that’s corporate America, creative disciplines, or anything in between. So, with a nod to my childhood heroes (including Gary Gygax, R.A. Salvatore, TSR, and many of the folks at Wizards of the Coast), below are lessons I learned as a D&D Dungeon Master (DM) that have helped me climb the corporate ladder from a stock clerk in a Brooklyn supermarket into the executive ranks of a Fortune 50 global company:
1) Focus on strategy – Before the start of any D&D campaign, as the Dungeon Master, I would come up with the overall concept and objectives, then I would build the world around it (this was before the Forgotten Realms came out). While TSR provided some pre-packaged campaigns, I always preferred to create my own (mainly to fulfill my own vision, but also due to cost, discussed later). With the vision and objectives in mind, I would start building up the pieces to realize the overall fulfillment of the campaign. Key milestones and plot points, major character and monster encounters, etc. As the players played the game and the campaign progressed, the tactics would have to change to accommodate the changing variables and unexpected events that would occur, but the overall theme and purpose, what we were all ultimately driving towards, would remain constant.
As an executive in the business world, the main focus is on developing strategy and aligning your resources to execute the strategy. Strategy development begins with the vision and mission and must take into account a wide range of variables. Once the strategy is set, the tactics that will be used to fulfill the strategy can be developed. A sound business strategy will rarely change within its timeframe once it is set, although the tactics and execution plan may be altered to address consumer response, competitive pressures, economic changes, etc.
2) Build a story and present it well – I fully agree with the common saying that “Content is King” and I would add that “Delivery is Queen”. The content created is just as important as how the content is delivered. A mediocre presentation of great content is still mediocre, and the same is true for a great presentation of mediocre information. The presentations I learned to give in the corporate world were directly influenced by how I learned to DM. The story is indeed king; it will keep your players interested and committed to the campaign. How you deliver the story will heavily influence the engagement of your players. Not only must you weave a good story, you need to embellish all the details during a game. Compare two versions of the same encounter. First – “You chose to attack. Roll your D20. OK, you scored a critical hit. The orc is dead”. Alternate version – “Your sword is at the ready, roll your D20. You swing your sword in a deadly arc towards your opponent. The orc tries to step back to avoid the fury of your blade, but to no avail. His backwards momentum causes his severed head to roll off of his back, his now lifeless body falling limply to the ground”. These are accurate examples of when I first starting DM’ing and when I learned to deliver more entertaining and engaging encounters for my players. Needless to say, they were more deeply immersed in the latter example. Pacing, timing, and delivery can make all the difference as evidenced by Abed’s enactment of a gnome NPC (non-player character) in the “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode of Community (see here).
One of the best presentations I ever gave was for the Xbox Marketing group for a new special edition Xbox 360 console I had proposed. Leveraging compelling content with audio and the theatrics I first developed as a DM, I gave a presentation that I was told set a new bar for future presentations and kept the group enthralled on a normally tame post lunch group gathering. Not every presentation has to be a theatrical production, but the core concepts focusing on both content and delivery always apply.
3) Do your homework – not many things are worse for a DM than when a player calls you out on a mistake in the campaign. “A Succubus(?) can’t drain my constitution three times in one encounter… they can only use this ability once per day”. Fenris was correct, but we had already completed the entire encounter by the time he found out this information in the Monster’s Manual. A small detail I missed, but it had a big impact as I had to break continuity to figure out how to fix the error. While you can’t be expected to be the expert in all matters (hence the importance of cross-functional teams), in my experience it’s always better to be over-prepared than to be caught off guard. From then on I made an extra effort to fully study each monster I planned to use in encounters, made better use of maps to be prepared with the different types of terrain that would be traversed, learned the limitations and effects of magic spells, and so on.
I carried this lesson over into the business world. You should know all the details pertinent to the issue at hand in the context of your overall goal, presentation, or meeting. In general, my presentation decks had expansive appendices with back up information for most conceivable questions and important data. All stats that I leverage in a presentation have appropriate references. I strive to minimize the number of times I have to say “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you on that”. And now as I lead larger teams, I appreciate it when others come to a meeting equally prepared.
Learn to improvise – When creating my D&D campaigns, I made my world’s large enough and the campaign broad enough to deal with multiple contingencies. What if the players didn’t believe the lonely adventurer in the tavern with tales of treasure? What other ways could I devise to spur them to take on the campaign in the game world? However, no matter how thoroughly I prepared my campaigns and how many alternate story versions I developed, the players would always find a way to get into an area or situation that could not be anticipated. Thus, as a DM, you must learn not to become flustered when something unexpected happens and to improvise in a quick manner.
In the business world, projects will rarely go exactly as planned. Getting flustered and losing focus in these situations is counter-productive. You have to learn to be adaptable and use your knowledge and experience to manage unexpected changes effectively. You’ll also come to be viewed as more stable and dependable when you can manage unexpected situations quickly and decisively, leveraging your experience and knowledge to improvise as needed.
5) Teamwork is critical – most of the challenges brought to a group of D&D players in a campaign could not be overcome unless they all worked collaboratively. A single elf, no matter how highly leveled, can rarely take down a dragon.
As a general rule, a single individual can rarely produce as much as a group of people. Additionally, it’s generally impossible in a corporate setting to get anything done on your own, even if you are considered an “individual contributor”. Being a good team player and effectively collaborating with others is an important skill. As you advance in your career, being able to form and lead high performing teams that can work well with cross-functional groups will allow you to have a much bigger impact on your organization than sitting at your desk with your head down pumping out as much work as you can.
6) Embrace diversity – a D&D campaign would be quite boring if every player was a human fighter. In addition to making a campaign more interesting, a diversity of characters (classes and races) introduces many more ways to overcome challenges and obstacles. For example, the Halfling thief can find the way into a secret corridor, the Elven ranger can dispatch enemies from afar, the Human wizard can do massive damage in large areas against multiple adversaries, and the Half-Orc fighter can protect the others and pick off enemies in close quarters. Whenever I started a campaign, I would work with all the players to make sure there was sufficient diversity in the characters to make the adventure both enjoyable and successful.
In the business world, diversity is equally important. I still vividly recall a meeting with the Xbox team a couple of years before the launch of Kinect when Nintendo Wii was eating everyone’s lunch. The meeting was a brainstorming session to identify what we could do to get more women and younger children interested in Xbox 360. Looking around the room at the dozen or so men pondering the issue, the one thought I had was “Perhaps we should start by including some women in these discussions”. Ensuring that your team is as diverse as the markets they’re meant to serve is not a moral imperative, it’s a business imperative. Studies have shown that diverse teams are more innovative and successful than homogeneous teams. Additionally, while many people focus on racial/ethnic and gender diversity in the workforce, there are many different forms of diversity, including age and experience. One of the best managers I knew at Microsoft created a high-performing market research team with professionals from multiple fields not directly related to market research. It takes courage to make that kind of move, but I believe the results are usually exceptional.
7) Deal quickly with disruptive team members – a campaign that I spent months planning on the Moonshae Islands of the Forgotten Realms was pretty much derailed by the antics of the human barbarian Fenris the Ferocious and the High Elf rouge Zandelle, as well as the human cleric Penelope Fenelope. The real players of the characters of Fenris and Zandelle simply couldn’t get along in real life, leading to antagonistic situations in the game (such as Fenris carving an “F” across Zandelle’s face and keeping him hostage on a wagon). And then there was Penelope, my high school girlfriend’s character, who was added so she could feel included as part of my group of siblings and friends. She couldn’t take the game seriously and detracted greatly from the fantasy world we tried to create.
At some point, you have to make the determination whether a player needs to leave the team for the good of the collective. This is always last resort, and forces you to think about finding ways for them to realize their mutual goals can only be achieved through cooperation. In business you will often come across disruptive individuals, naysayers, apathetic workers, and generally unpleasant folks who can quickly sap team morale and hinder the group’s progress (not to be confused with individuals whom dissent with good cause). Addressing these individuals right way is the best course of action, determining the root cause of their issues, emphasizing collaboration, and sometimes transferring or removing them from the team. You can’t let it get to the point where it’s disrupting the work of the entire team. Swift and appropriate action is necessary for the good of all.
8) Build your networks – In D&D, players need to network constantly with NPCs to advance in the campaign. You must talk to the local tavern owner to hear about strange happenings; meet with the local peasants for information that will lead you to the source of the local scourge; seek out the reclusive mage who’ll provide the key spells to your victory or lead you to artifacts of great power; visit the local healer to tend your wounded; etc. Every good D&D campaign involves interacting with individuals and groups beyond the core players to accomplish your main objective.
Throughout my career, networking has led to new funding for multiple projects, new business opportunities, and even new career opportunities. My jobs at Porsche in Germany, P&G in Puerto Rico and Xbox at Microsoft in Seattle all came about as a result of networking with my peers. Within corporate America, the value of internal networking leads many companies to adopt open floor plans and central community areas where random, serendipitous encounters with other employees leads to new innovations, new product concepts, and overall workplace efficiencies. A major global marketing campaign using technology my team designs will be launching for PepsiCo this year thanks to this type of internal networking.
Within the imaginary world of the D&D campaign, managing one’s finances is a critical game play element. When you start a character from scratch, you’re provided a small allotment of gold. A key factor in your ultimate success or failure in the game is how well you can manage your allotment and future cash flows. Key questions I needed to ask: Should I spend all my gold up front or save a portion for future contingencies? If I save, what proportion of my allotment should be spent? How should I prioritize my expenditures between supplies, provisions, armor, weapons, horses, spellbooks, etc? Throughout the game you find opportunities to earn more money, either through employment (i.e. join an adventuring group with associated payment) or through battle (monster and NPC encounters lead to good booty). In addition, there were real world lessons gained from running a campaign. With limited real money, I had to make decisions on which AD&D assets to buy – for example, should I get the Monster Manual 2, Unearthed Arcana, or Forgotten Realms Atlas? Which asset would give me the highest ROI in terms of game play? A Dungeon Master’s Screen would be a great productivity asset, but at $20, could I build it myself and allocate resources elsewhere (the classic build vs. buy analysis)?
It goes without saying that building and managing budgets, setting priorities, and asset allocation is also a key element of operating in the business world, as well as the real world which we all grow into.
10) Learn the fine art of PR – when I was in grade school my half-sister, in a bout of religious zealotry, tried to convince my mother that D&D was the devil’s playground and she was a bad mother if she let us continue playing. It didn’t help that the TV movie ‘Mazes and Monsters’ came out at the same time, where the young Tom Hanks goes insane by playing a D&D style role-playing game, and eventually is unable to tell reality from fantasy. I had to get a story and arguments together to counter these attacks and had to recruit my friends and siblings to make sure we all had the same talking points and could deliver them convincingly and consistently. Much of this happens in the business world as well. Whether good or bad, you cannot control the news, so you have to be prepared to respond and get your organization on board to deliver consistent and compelling messaging.
11) Give others an opportunity to lead – one of the most successful tactics for creating team harmony is showing a willingness to relinquish power. Give up the Dungeon Master reins to someone else so that they can see what you go through and how difficult it is to create and manage a campaign. It’ll teach your teammates to approach problems in a more productive manner and offer solutions instead of just identifying problems or complaining.
In the business world, many people want to jump straight into the leadership role and feel that empowering others on the team with significant responsibilities or leadership will compromise their own position or their standing in the eyes of upper management. Those attitudes generally lead to a road of dysfunction. As a people manager, I want my employees to be the leaders of their respective projects, and the go-to people for key decisions that need to be made. I feel my role, aside from the overall strategic vision and direction of our programs, is to break down barriers impeding progress and to ensure they have the resources they need to succeed. Entrusting someone with leadership responsibilities generally leads to greater confidence on their part and their desire to rise to the challenge.
12) Get to know your people/players – Your players are all unique and are generally motivated and compelled differently. Not everyone seeks the same rewards – some people campaign for the experience and to level their characters, others for the opportunity to amass a dragon’s hoard of gold, and others lust after magical items like the +3 Sword of Flames, etc. The same applies to your teams in the corporate world. Some people seek recognition and awareness of their efforts, others are focused on their bonus award or base salary, others are happy with a new title. Understanding these motivations allows you to plan projects and rewards accordingly to maintain and build morale and keep the team and projects on track.
When I first started this list, I had only seven items, but it started to expand the more I went back and thought about what I learned from playing D&D. While I retired my Dungeon Master cloak many moons ago, I still hold a great deal of respect for the game and its many players and leaders around the world.
I still recall my first internship interview over 21 years ago. When asked what my greatest accomplishment was, I told the interviewer how I created an entire D&D world from scratch, including terrain, cartographer maps at multiple zoom levels, history and lore, and much more (mind you my only work experience at the time was being a stock boy in several supermarkets, working a deli counter, and being a butcher). I didn’t get that job, but at least he referred me to another, better fitting job in the company focused on truck design which kicked off my career. Looking back, I realized he probably didn’t appreciate the example I provided as my greatest accomplishment. For you D&D players and DMs out there, the world may still not be ready to learn how you’ve come to be so capable. You may not want to disclose where your great power comes from, but know that if harnessed correctly, you can accomplish anything!
On my way out to a business trip in the Ukraine, I quickly looked up the weather conditions on Bing and did a quick search for ‘Ukraine Paragliding”. A 10-second analysis told me I should bring my paraglider on the off chance that I’d have some spare time after work and was able to find a good spot to fly. I am certainly glad I took the chance. I had a great flight off the coast of the Black Sea near the town of Yalta in The Crimea, Ukraine.
A bit more back story – I flew out to the Ukraine to meet with an equipment manufacturer. My key contact, Sergii, offered to make my hotel reservations since I have never been to the area. I left it in his capable hands and was quite happy with their decision. We stayed at the Oreanda Hotel in Yalta, a cool coastal town with a great boardwalk, rocky Black Sea beach, and a vibrant energy. The hotel is listed as “One of the Special Hotels in the World”. Anyway, after work they offered to take me to a local, world-famous winery, Massandra (more on that in another post). Sergii did some research for me and found a flyable mountain about an hour away from the hotel. The mountain is generally flyable only early in the morning or after 6pm, so we ate a meal after the winery and headed up the long, winding road in Igor’s BMW SUV to get to the top of Ay-Petrinskaya Yayla mountain.
We arrived at the top of the mountain right at 6pm. The views from this location were breathtaking. We were clearly able to see both the towns of Yalta to the East (the picture here on the left) and Haspra and Koreiz to the south. The Black Sea was an incredible deep blue, but unfortunately my photos don’t accurately portray that very well. The surrounding mountains were a combination of imposing cliff-faces and lush, green trees, which are clearly visible from any point in town.
By the time I was preparing to take off, the SE winds died down significantly. A few local hang-gliding pilots were hanging out after having done some flying earlier in the day. Being locals, they gave me some pointers on the local flying conditions and the landing zone, which was a dried out vineyard off the main road and on the way to the coast. Due to the light winds, take-off required some significant speed, with an overzealous pilot giving me an extra push for good luck. Here’s a video of the take-off:
Once airborne, it was smooth sailing straight to the Black Sea. I circled over the town of Kurpaty for a bit, tempted to make a dash for the Sea and put down on the coast. I decided to err on the side of caution and headed back to the designated landing zone which was north of the main road. The road and landing zone are visible in the picture to the left. I decided to land as close to the road as possible near the center to minimize my travel over the dried vine-field to the exit.
Total airtime was close to 30 minutes. I packed up my gear in my stuff sack and started hiking east on the main road to minimize Igor’s trip from the top of the mountain to the main road to pick me up. I walked about 2 kilometers before they made it down. Overall, a great flying experience, my only regret is that I didn’t have more time in the Ukraine for additional flights. If I ever go back, I plan to have my paraglider handy again.
The first Comic Book Convention I attended was the 2010 San Diego Comicon. I was there to help announce the Xbox 360 Halo Reach Special Edition console, which I drove as the Global Product Manager at Microsoft. It was an interesting experience to say the least, and I did get to attend a Smallville panel (my favorite show), for their last season. So when my wife (of all people) told me that Seattle has its own Comic Convention called Emerald City Comicon, I decided it would be an interesting way to spend the weekend.
I arrived well before the 10am start time to purchase my tickets, spending just under two hours in line. My first picture opportunity came in that line with a group of Star Wars Stormtroopers and a decent Obi-wan Kenobi cosplayer. After getting in and walking the main floor, I quickly realized that this was quite the different convention than San Diego Comicon. First off, it was actually truly a Comic Book Convention. The majority of the booths on the main floor were for comic book stores, whereas the San Diego Comicon has been taken over by lots of different media, including TV, movies, and videogames. After trolling the floor for a bit and marveling at the $400 classic Transformers figures (and being bummed out that I don’t have my childhood Transformers anymore), I decided to spend most of the day attending the panel sessions.
The first panel was the “Skewed and Reviewed” Movie panel by Gareth von Kallenbach. Essentially it was an hour of Mr. Gareth dishing out confirmed (?) rumors about upcoming movies. Some of the newsbites that Mr. Kallenbach announced that most caught my attention:
- According to 20th Century Fox, X-Files 3 is in the writing stage. The main plot revolves around the pivotal date December 12, which Mr. Kallenbach says was a major part of the fiction of the TV series. The movie is tentatively titled “X-Files: End Game”.
- Elizabeth Hurley is slated to play a villian on the new Wonder Woman television series.
- Paramount Studios authorized $175M for the Star Trek movie sequel to J.J. Abrams without ever reading a script.
- Robert Downey Jr. and John Favreau don’t like each other. Because of this dislike, Mr. Favreau will not be involved in Iron Man 3. Additionally, when Downey Jr. found out Mr. Favreau was involved in Cowboys vs. Aliens, he turned down the part which later went to Daniel Craig.
At the end of this panel I received a pass for two to see a pre-screening of Battlefield: LA. After getting this pass, I went to the main room in 4A for 5 straight panels. First up was a panel on The Guild with Felicia Day, Wesley Wheaton, and Amy Okuda. The banter between the three was some of the most enjoyable of all the panels that day. Asked if it was difficult to audition in Hollywood being Asian, Ms. Okuda mentioned that she finds it easier since there are not that many Asian actresses to compete with as opposed to the glut of blonde Caucasian women. Mr. Wheaton, who I’ll admit I loathed as the character Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, did a great job on the panel and had me switching my tune by the end.
I stayed on afterwards to watch the Fringe panel. I must admit, I had never heard of this particular Fox show, but since I was able to get a front row seat, I didn’t want to give it up as I was looking forward to the Frakes/Spiner panel. As I tweeted about the Fringe panel, I started to get some fans sending me information about the show, peaking my interest. Since I was a big fan of the X-Files growing up, this seems like a show I’d enjoy. The panelists were show stars John Noble (Walter Bishop) and Jasika Nicole (Astrid Farnsworth).
The Jonathan Frakes (William Riker) and Brent Spiner (Data) panel was definitely a treat, kicked off by Mr. Spiner impersonating Patrick Stewart. It was moderated by a local radio host BJ, who apparently did an excellent job moderating the panel on Friday and was therefore invited by Frakes to moderate this panel. Unfortunately, he didn’t do a stellar job at this panel. At one point he started talking about Mr. Spiner’s recent colonoscopy posts on twitter, and started sharing his own rectal exam stories, prompting the audience to shout to him to move on and take audience questions. To his credit, he immediately opened the floor to questions. One unexpected tales from Mr. Spiner was his admission that he remembered a certain episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation because it was on his birthday and he was suffering from a shingles outbreak. As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating”.
The next panel was for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, including show stars James Marsters (Spike), Nicholas Brendon (Xander), and Clare Kramer (Glory). My older brother was a huge fan of this show. I’ll admit I know about it and have seen the random episode here or there, but never truly followed it. I tried to remedy that by starting the series from Season 1 on Netflix, but didn’t get very far. In any case, James Marsters played Braniac on my ultimate favorite TV show Smallville, so it was still worth sticking around.
The final panel I attended was “Spotlight on William Shatner”. This was a self-moderated solo appearance by Mr. Shatner. He started off taking questions immediately from the audience, and took an average of 5-7 minutes answering each question. At one point he became so engrossed in his own story that he completely forgot the question he was answering. Nevertheless, he made a strong connection with the crowd and kept us entertained with his stories. My favorite story came when he was talking about his disappointment with the Star Trek Generations movie and the need to kill of the Captain Kirk character. They originally filmed him being shot in the back. Thinking that Captain Kirk deserved a more heroic ending, they re-filmed this to have him die by a bridge scaffolding falling on him. Here he discussed coming up with his favorite line ever… With all the years of hearing “Captain on the Bridge”, he wanted to say “Bridge on the Captain”. For obvious reasons, it wasn’t approved and the line was cut.
The rest of the show I spent walking the main floor and capturing some of the great costumes worn by the dedicated attendees. I leave off with some highlights from what I was able to capture.
First I get a tweet from a current member of the Cooper Union Motorsports team the same day I find my old presentation slides from my senior project in 1994. A week later I find the negatives for the pictures taken during the 1994 SAE Mini Baja East competition AND an old school newsletter with details about the competition. Uncanny. Seems like the story wants to be told 🙂
In my previous posting on the Mini Baja competition, I described the design and construction of the “dune buggy” for my Mechanical Engineering senior design project. Now that I found the pictures of the actual competition, I’ll talk separately about the actual competition weekend.
It came down to the wire, but on May 26, 1994, I rented a Ryder truck and packed up the official Cooper Union Mini Baja vehicle in the back, along with the few tools and equipment we had. George was going to join us in Canada, but his mother didn’t want him driving the whole way up there, so she bought him a plane ticket. She was also nice enough to by my younger brother, Jiovanie, a ticket as well, since this now meant that I had to drive the whole way on my own. My college girlfriend joined in the trip, so Abdel volunteered to be buckled into the Baja vehicle for the long journey up to Montreal. At Canadian customs, the officer asked me if I had anything to declare. I told him that I had a friend strapped down in the back of the truck. He just waved me through, and that was officially my first time out of the country (of course, Puerto Rico doesn’t count since it’s a US Commonwealth).
We realized that we were small fish immediately upon arriving at the event in Quebec. While it was just the four of us there (me, Jiovanie, Abdel, and George), many of the other teams were twenty students strong (or greater), had custom trailers, and a list of sponsors that would make NASCAR drivers envious. I heard talk of $20,000 budgets, an order of magnitude greater than what I had to work with. I still remember the first time we pulled the Mini-Baja out of the trailer. Across from us was a team from Stonybrook (if I recall correctly). They had a ramp for their car and 4-6 people to push the vehicle out of the trailer. My friend Abby and I watched them unload. When they were done, we each grabbed an end and lifted our car out of the U-Haul truck and plopped it onto the ground. The team across the way were completely amazed at how light our vehicle was. I guess it was a good thing that the budget was so scarce – it helped to build a bare-bones vehicle. I ended up working with one of those guys from Stonybrook at Honda R&D in Ohio just a year later.
Before any racing could take place, we had to go through a whole series of design and safety inspections. We pretty much nailed the safety inspections with the exception of the rear propeller guard. I had a just put a temporary makeshift chicken-wire cage around the propeller, but it didn’t meet safety requirements. Jiovanie set about modifying and building a custom cage for the propeller that was more structurally sound and helped us pass the inspection. The safety/design judge was nice enough to give us some pointers, given that this was our first time in an SAE competition. His first comment was that the front wheels were too small (something I was completely aware of, but decided to go with the left over wheels from the previous attempt to save money).
We had a tough time with our engine throughout the first day. We were only able to enter two of the driving events. We had to call over one of the Briggs and Stratton representatives to check out our engine for us. This was the engine that was delivered the previous year and was not opened or used until this event. After inspecting the engine, the Briggs and Stratton representatives told us we had a defective engine and they would get us a replacement. Unfortunately, the vehicle wasn’t really designed for a quick engine replacement, so we had to withdraw from the rest of the events, including the all day endurance race the next day. It was pretty ironic that the one part of the vehicle that we didn’t design or build and that we weren’t allowed to modify was the thing that kept us from competing fully in the event. In the end, we ended up placing 39th out of 55 registered teams. This was thanks to the two events in which we were able to compete and my design report.
While we didn’t place anywhere near the top, at least we weren’t in last place, and we were the smallest team that I saw at the event. We did have a load of fun at the event, and after it was all over, we all went horseback riding to blow off steam. The following year, as a graduate student at Cooper, we had two teams enter the competition, and I served as an advisor. This event was directly responsible for my first career after getting my Mechanical Engineering degree from Cooper Union – an Automotive Body Design Engineer for Honda R&D near Columbus, Ohio. I also later went on to serve as the Chair of the 1997 SAE Midwest Mini Baja Competition held in Ohio.
Yesterday I received a tweet from a member of the Cooper Union Motorsports team seeking sponsorship for an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Student Competition. The timing was uncanny as I literally just found the slides that I developed back in 1994 for my Senior Project presentation for the very first ever Cooper Union entry into an SAE competition, the 1994 SAE Mini Baja East competition in Mont Saint Saveur, Quebec, Canada from May 27-29. I also just purchased a slide-scanning machine, so I can recount and share some of the pictures from that amazing experience which set the stage for my future career in automotive design. (Long post ahead).
It all began with a dream and a failure, the trust of a Dean, the abandonment of classmates, and the help of friends and family. More than a decade and a half later, it continues with a fully-fledged program at my Alma mater.
Let’s start with the dream and the failure. While my Mini Baja entry in 1994 was the first vehicle entry ever by a student from the Cooper Union for the SAE Collegiate Design Series, it was not the first attempt. That would be credited to a group of seniors in the class of 1993. I attended a senior project and/or SAE presentation from these seniors, who described the SAE Mini Baja and the competition which was to be held in Orlando, Florida. I was inspired! I decided right then and there that this would also be my senior project the following year, not only because the thought of building an all-terrain, amphibious vehicle was captivating, but also because it would result in a paid trip to Florida (which at that time I had never seen). My dream was firmly established. Unfortunately for Cooper Union, those particular seniors never got passed the procurement and preliminary design phase. They ordered a bunch of parts, even purchased a Cushman 3-wheel traffic police vehicle, started on an aluminum frame design, and ended it with a partially constructed skeleton which was extremely fragile. A colossal failure to say the least.
This is where the trust of a Dean comes in. The failure of my predecessors made it a challenge for me to get this program approved as my senior project. The first thing I needed to do was to secure funding. I knew that the team from the previous year had received funding from the Dean of the Engineering School. I estimated that I would need about $2,000 for the entire project. I put a full proposal together and proposed the program to my Senior Thesis Advisor, Professor Wei. With his approval, I set up some time with Dean Eleanor Baum of the Engineering School to present to her my proposal. In the middle of my presentation, she stopped me. She said she had received a similar pitch the prior year by senior students and nothing came of it, so she had only one question for me… Can I do it? I looked at her and responded, “Yes, I can do this”. That was it. She approved my $2,000 budget. She took me at my word and I didn’t even have to finish the presentation.
Enthused, my next step was to recruit some classmates for this project. My first choice was my best friend at Cooper, George T. As a senior, I took over as President of the SAE Cooper Union Student Chapter, so as one of the first meetings, I presented this as a senior project and recruited two more students to be part of the team, R.R. and S.S. (their real initials, but I won’t use their full names). Unfortunately, over the course of the year, they dropped off of the team without making any contributions. Even George had to relegate himself to small contributions as the academic work in our senior year was excruciating and he was struggling. Of course, I had the same workload, but I was the one who gave Dean Baum my word that I could pull this off, so I ended up working unbelievable hours to complete the design and construction phases (as noted from the construction pictures, I’m the only one in any of them). This is where my family and friends stepped in. My father, Vidal Velazquez Sr., my brother, Jiovanie Velazquez, and my friend, Abdel Jerez essentially took over the roles of my teammates, and with their help, we were able to complete construction of the vehicle in team for the competition in Quebec (which, by the way, I was pretty disappointed to find out that I’d be traveling to Canada instead of Florida for the 1994 competition).
But, that’s jumping ahead. I first went about designing the vehicle using the CAD (Computer Aided Design) package available at Cooper at the time. I designed the entire frame of the vehicle, as well as the dual A-arm front suspension system. For timing and simplicity, I used a solid rear axle design with no rear suspension (the rear tires had enough give to absorb a lot of the shocks encountered at the event). Additionally, while it was not the most innovative design in the world, I felt this would be a structurally strong design with minimum construction time. Much of the design was informed by the requirements of the competition, which provided minimum requirements for safety, such as the height of the rollcage, the height of the side impact protection, the size of the Briggs and Stratton 8HP engine, etc. I will admit one flaw in my design was the oversized rollcage height, which was a result of erroneously measuring the minimum rollcage height from the top of the side impact beam instead of the base of the seat. But, better more height than less, so I kept the taller design.
George and I then used the ADAMS (Advanced Dynamic Analysis of Mechanical Systems) software in Professor Wei’s robotics lab to simulate the conditions that would be encountered in the race. The entire first semester was devoted to the design and analysis of the vehicle, and the completion of the design report for the competition. With that completed in the first semester, the second semester was devoted to the construction of the vehicle. At this point, I had to take stock of all of the equipment left over from the 1993 attempt and see what I could salvage given my small budget. I had the Briggs and Stratton 8HP engine, which had never come out of its box. I had rear wheels and front wheels (the front wheels were lawnmower wheels and not ideally suited for the clearances I would need, but I didn’t have the budget to get better wheels, so I worked with them. I also had some additional components such as a steering wheel, brake cylinders and tie rods. I had a lot of the safety equipment that were competition requirements, such as the fire extinguisher, orange flag, helmet, gloves, five-point safety harness, and life vest. A full list of the recycled parts can be seen to the right in the slide taken from my senior project presentation. A life vest is required due to the unique nature of the SAE Mini Baja East competition. The vehicles had to be designed to float as part of the obstacle course was to navigate through a deep lake. I went with a flotation foam design under the entire vehicle and with wings to achieve flotation (the blue flotation billet in the picture above). In retrospect, had I a better understanding of everything that I would need for the competition and what had already been purchased, I would have requested significantly more money. I had to make some serious design concessions to stay within budget, but that was a good lesson for my future career.
These parts were stored in an abandoned gas station that the Cooper Union happened to own at the time. I had hoped to use that gas station as my workshop, but unfortunately, the Cooper Union was about to sell that property, so I had to get all of the equipment out. I found a small room in the basement of the Hewitt Building (which no longer exists), near the makeshift workout room. I began ordering parts and equipment, starting with the square and round stock steel tubes (high strength yet light steel) that were part of my design. I was able to use the Sculpture Shop in the School of Architecture to construct the main frame. The rollcage was round steel tubes that I bent into the required shape. The main body of the vehicle was constructed from square steel stock for ease of construction and assembly. I used the mig welder, also in the Sculpture Shop, to complete the vehicle frame. While the Sculpture Shop was a great resource, there were too many demands from other students on this, so I had to buy a separate mig welder to make sure I was able to complete this project on time. I stored this in the Hewitt building and worked out of the basement for a while, mainly to construct the smaller components.
I also put our Machine Shop in the engineering building to good use, mainly for the precision drilling and cutting of components needed for the front dual A-arm suspension. For these I used a heavier gauge steel and custom designed the bushings from the same stock. As part of my senior design presentation, I added a bit of humor by showing me supposedly bending the A-arms into their proper shape with my bare hands. Even more humorous by today’s standards would be the Motorola beeper on my belt 🙂
By the end of the semester, I had completed the majority of the work on the vehicle. The frame and suspension system was completely constructed and assembled, I could get all four tires on and have a seat in the vehicle. However, there was still a lot of work to be done. The slide at right shows what was left to complete after my final presentation for my Senior Design Project and during graduation. When school was closed, I had to get what was remaining of the car to my house in Brooklyn for final completion before the competition in Montreal. To get the vehicle home, I mounted the fixed rear axle, attached the rear tires, and hooked the Mini Baja vehicle to the back of my car and towed it all the way to Brooklyn from Cooper Union. My father had to rewire the house to get the appropriate current for the mig welder to complete the rest of the work. My brother Jiovanie and friend Abdel also stepped up their help at this stage to get the vehicle completed in time.
Progress was rapid over the next few days with their help. We finally got the engine mounted and hooked up and were ready for a test drive. We had a bit of trouble figuring out the operation of the engine. Abdel volunteered to be the first to test drive the car, but it would just putter and die. All of a sudden, out of the blue, it just kicked in and took off down a street in Brooklyn. Jiovanie and I ran after it because we hadn’t installed the brakes at that point. Abby had a thrilling first ride in the car and let up enough on the gas for us to catch up and bring it to a halt before he reached the intersection. Tragedy averted.
At this stage I still had not built the propulsion system for when the vehicle was in deep water. I ended up buying a propeller with a fixed drive shaft that I then coupled to the rear fixed axle. One of the many things we didn’t get to do before leaving for the event in Mont Saint Saveur, Montreal, was to test the vehicle in water. There are not that many places in New York City where you can drive a vehicle into and out of the water. I would just have to rely on my calculations and MacGyver style design implementation during the event. One thing I didn’t realize was the the exposed propeller, by the rules, needed to be covered for protection. During the event, Jiovanie fashioned a safety cage out of chicken wire so that we could pass inspection and compete in the event. It worked perfectly.
I recently found the pictures of the actual event, so I started a separate post to describe the details when we got to the competition. That blog entry can be found at https://richardvelazquez.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/1994-sae-mini-baja-east-in-quebec-canada/
The history of the SAE Mini Baja East series is recounted in full at SAE’s website: http://www.sae.org/students/mbehistory.pdf
My blog post on my history with computer and video gaming (found here) sparked some great conversations with my friends and colleagues on their own journeys and experiences in this realm. These interactions reminded me of a couple of key moments and products that I forgot to mention.
One key system I neglected to mention was the Commodore 64. At about the same time that I was using the TRS-80 Color Computer at home (roughly the 4th or 5th grade), I asked my mom to enroll me in the Saturday Enrichment Program. This program was designed for kids who were not being challenged enough in their regular school programs, and allowed them to go to certain Public Schools in Brooklyn (probably all of New York City) on Saturdays for additional coursework. I chose to take the computer classes at a Public School on Avenue L and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. Every Saturday for several months (I can’t recall if it was only in the summer or during the academic year) I would either walk to the school with my mom or my dad would drop me off and pick me up later. And in that program we exclusively used the Commodore 64. I recall enjoying the enrichment program a great deal, but I can’t say that I developed a strong affinity for the 64, probably because I only used it once a week for several months. I would still go home to my trusty TRS-80 Color Computer and hone my skills on that machine.
However, in the 6th grade, I did develop a great affinity for a new computer system procured by Ms. Kofsky at P.S. 195 – the Apple IIe. Since she remembered my affinity for computers when I was in her class two years prior, she invited me to come back to the classroom (she was still a 4th grade teacher) to learn more on the Apple IIe and to show the younger children (4th graders) how to use it. I was astounded by the graphics of this compared to the Commodore 64 and my TRS-80. I became completely hooked on the only title I recall them having… “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”, which came complete with The World Almanac and a Book of Facts which one would use to deduce the whereabouts of the titular character. I spent all of my free time on that computer. If it weren’t for the debacle with the Apple IIgs that my parents purchased, I probably would have had a much greater and more positive affinity for Apple products. Instead, I think the Carmen Sandiego game planted the travel bug in me at a very early age, although I didn’t get to truly explore that until my mid 20’s when I moved to Germany. *sigh*