The time George Harper rode the train to Washington

When President John Kennedy set a goal to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely, airlines were still flying DC-6s and Constellations. Few people knew anything about jet propulsion, leave alone rocket propulsion. Aside from the design of the actual spacecraft, a huge effort was required to build the launch pads at Cape Canaveral in Florida. None of the infrastructure existed to support the type of launches that would be required for such an ambitious project.

This was long before urban sprawl in Florida, much of the state was still swamp land. It’s hard to imagine now but Central Florida was barely a blip on the map. Before Disney and the Apollo program, there were no interstate highways in Central Florida and the city of Sanford was bigger than Orlando. Launch pads should be as close as possible to the equator to take maximum advantage of the rotational speed of the earth, so Wernher Von Braun & co chose Florida.

George Harper was one of the earliest and biggest contractors on the building of what we now know as Kennedy Space Center. Miles and miles of pipes and all sorts of mechanical construction was required for the fueling and launching of the spacecraft. The construction of the Space Center was a huge effort. Thousands of workers from “up north” migrated to Florida. I was told on some days highway 50 – the only route from Orlando to the east coast of Florida at the time – resembled a parking lot.

Soon the construction project ran into trouble. Workers from up north still had strong union ties, which were blamed for the delays in the project. Work stoppages and labor unrest ensued. The space program was so important to the government of the United States that President Kennedy dispatched his brother Robert to Florida to resolve the labor disputes but he was unable to do so. In the end Robert Kennedy told all of the major contractors on the project to get on the next airplane and fly to DC to meet with his brother, the President of the United States. Or else.

All of the major contractors, knowing well who their paymaster was, agreed and jumped on the first airplane to DC. Not George Harper. He was afraid of flying and would not get on any airplane for love nor money. But his work was so important that he could get away with it. He told the President’s brother: “You can fly up there and wait for me. I’m taking the next train up and I’ll talk to your brother as soon as I get off the train in DC.”

* * *

When I was younger I spent a lot of time in Florida and knew some old Apollo program veterans. I buzzed the Space Shuttle landing strip with students when it was still allowed prior to 9/11. I’ve watched the space shuttle launch quite a few times, flying just inland of interstate 95 in some raggedy old Cessna to get a good view. I knew a few rocket engineers, fixed some of their airplanes for them. I knew George Harper personally, the story above was told to me by a close friend of his.

My kids are studying space, environment and NASA in school this virtual semester. My oldest daughter is thrilled. She looks at stars at night, we watched Apollo 13 together and I told her to read about Margaret Hamilton. She asks all sorts of questions about physics and flying and spacecraft.

I don’t like to talk to my kids much about my previous life, before marriage, before kids. A lot of adventures but some years were rough. Today I sat down with my Brianna, I felt for once I had to tell her a story about my previous life.

You see, the kids in 5th and 6th grade were supposed to have an interview with a NASA engineer today. In the end the interview got postponed but all the kids were super-excited. Of course not everybody can talk at once, so a few kids were chosen to ask questions. Not to be all sour grapes but yeah, as usual it was the same kids again. The owners of the school’s kids and a few other super-special favorites. Again.

Brianna took it in stride (her mother not so much) but I pulled her aside and said, “Let me tell you a story, a true story nobody else in your class knows about NASA. I’ll tell you about the time George Harper rode the train to Washington.”

Flying over Florida Keys

Over the Florida Keys, on my way to somewhere.

The time I took a swim in Laguna Asnacocha

It’s the last Monday of the week. The world is in a world of hurt and you need a cheap laugh? Preferably something authentic not from a meme-porn mill? Well lay your eyes on my swimming adventures in Laguna Asnacocha. Watch all the way to the end.

Laguna Asnacocha is over 3,800 meters (~12,500 feet) elevation. There’s a nice area where you can see the bottom and then a steep drop where the bottom completely goes out of sight. I’m a pretty good swimmer but as a semi-retired ferry pilot I’m well aware of the dangers of cold water. Even without the – ahem – encouragement of the public to return I wasn’t about to go swimming much further 🙂

Matico: herbal COVID-19 treatment with benefits

The word’s on everybodies lips here in Cusco.

“Matico”

Matico is a tropical tree which is believed to have healing characteristics by the native people of the Amazon jungle in Peru. In recent weeks word has been spreading like wildfire throughout the Cusco region that Matico prevents and heals Covid-19. I was going to write about Matico, take some nice pictures, make some silly jokes. Matico is also believed to be an aphrodisiac. Origin of the rumor on Facebook. Quarantine, aphrodisiac, Facebook, you see where that was going.

Alas there will be no silly jokes, just a picture of a glass of Matico drink and some lines of Go code. The healthcare system in Cusco has collapsed, all the news is bad. Decades of institutional failure have caught up with Peru in the Covid-19 crisis and frankly I find work the easiest thing to deal with right now. The time just doesn’t seem right for silly jokes.

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I’m not into herbal supplements but if you are, you might try my friend Colin at Peruvian Naturals. All legit too.

Iquitos Peru possibly the first region with demonstrated herd immunity (Covid-19)

Excellent report in La Republica today. The results are preliminary but there appears to be a strong degree of confidence:

  • 71% of the population show presence of Covid-19 antibodies, 22% IgM (active infection) and 49% IgG (previously infected).
  • Hospitalizations have dropped 90% from the earlier peak of the crisis in Iquitos.

Other areas of Peru, including here in Cusco, appear to be just now entering into the worst of the Covid-19 crisis, which is noteworthy because containment measures have been the same throughout Peru but the epidemic appears to have moved in waves throughout different areas of the country.

Why my kids are not participating in the debate about race in America

My kids’ school held some debates last week about police brutality and racial injustice in the US. My kids did not participate. Don’t get me wrong, these are events that need to be discussed. The killing of an innocent man at the hands of police, the culture of policing in the United States, the underlying social and economic issues. The fact that the way of life of the economically suffering has been criminalized to a substantial degree. All that and more needs to be discussed, just not by 11 year old kids in Peru.

I lived in the US for the better part of 15 years, came of age there really. Unlike most people outside looking in I have a pretty good idea of the realities in the US. I also have a good idea of the realities in Peru. Decades of institutional failure, corruption, incompetence and yes, racism. You could argue that the institutional failures in Peru are in no small part due to racism among Peruvians. Institutional failures that are now painfully evident in hospitals all around Peru.

If kids in Peru are to have debates on the big issues of our time, let’s start with the issues right here in our own back yard.

UNSAAC study of Covid-19 mortality rates at high elevations

A recently published study by Anahi Cardona and Manuel Montoya of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC) concludes that there is a statistically significant difference in Covid-19 mortality rates at high elevations.

Here in Cusco there have been 3 fatalities attributed to Covid-19 to date but there is growing concern that the underlying infection rate is set to increase. Time will tell.

Stay safe.

Remnants of a boondoggle

A while back we took a drive behind Calca. We were just driving around the countryside with no particular place to go when we stumbled upon an unusual sight: the groundwork for what was supposed to be the Southern Camisea natural gas pipeline, passing a stone’s throw behind a small settlement.

The homes in this rural area are barely more than mud block huts with straw roofs. There are no paved roads, little if any health care infrastructure, and teachers from the city barely show up a few days a week to teach in the nearest schools. Yet somehow the powers that be thought that running a gas pipeline from pristine jungle over the Andes mountains was the best way to invest in the future of Peru. The powers that be in Peru during the first 2 decades of the 21st century sure loved their so-called “mega-projects”, with the most infamous of course the Interoceanic highway.

Eventually the Southern natural gas pipeline got cancelled in the fallout of the Odebrecht scandal, which it should be noted would have never existed if it were not for a court case in the US.

Now I hear she’s got a house with a fair view

The old house of my wife’s maternal grandmother, overlooking the main square in Accha. In the mountain you can see the so called “Accha Sihuina”, the pregnant woman laying down. In the old days the Incas believed the Apus (mountains) were the home of the Gods or had mythical powers. Even today the people of Accha believe the Sihuina looks out over them and some bring her offerings from time to time.

Suspected Covid-19 fatalities left to rot in Cusco (Updated)

Allegedly, unconfirmed, and I very much hope it isn’t true but word reaches that the corpse of a person who died several days ago here in Cusco has still not been removed from the home where the person passed. I cannot confirm this is true but the source is not an internet rumor.

There have been various other reports, some confirmed, of people with symptoms seeking help to no avail. Hope for a miracle.

Update 4/9: Authorities have now formally denied this was happening and it appears the deceased person did not have Covid-19. People remain nervous about the lack of resources to fight the pandemic. As of yesterday, fewer than 400 Covid-19 tests had been administered in Cusco.

Covid-19 transparency, please.

Forget about the wild conspiracies, I’m not going there. But I think as a society we can’t make smart decisions if we don’t have real data. Copy and paste this and email it to your local newspaper or civil registry office. It’s a sample SQL query that would show year-over-year nr. of death certificates issued by fiscal week.

Even with the inherent lag of counting deaths, I think this would provide a much clearer picture of the onset and evolution of the epidemic than most visualizations I’ve seen elsewhere. You pay taxes, you have a right to know.

-- YoY change by fiscal week.
SELECT 
    my_2019_data.fiscal_week AS fiscal_week, 
    my_2019_data.nr_death_certificates AS 2019_deaths,
    my_2020_data.nr_death_certificates AS 2020_deaths,
    CASE WHEN my_2020_data.nr_death_certificates IS NOT NULL THEN to_char( (my_2020_data.nr_death_certificates::numeric - my_2019_data.nr_death_certificates::numeric) / (my_2019_data.nr_death_certificates::numeric / 100::numeric), '999D99' ) ELSE NULL END AS yoy_change_2019_2020 
FROM
  ( SELECT fw AS fiscal_week, count(death_certificates) AS nr_death_certificates 
    FROM
      ( SELECT extract(week FROM date_deceased) AS fw, * 
        FROM my_public_records.death_certificates
        WHERE death_certificates.date_deceased >= '2019-01-01'::date
        AND death_certificates.date_deceased < '2020-01-01'::date
      ) mydata_19
    GROUP BY fw 
    ORDER BY fw 
  ) my_2019_data
LEFT JOIN
  ( SELECT fw AS fiscal_week, count(death_certificates) AS nr_death_certificates 
    FROM
      ( SELECT extract(week FROM date_deceased) AS fw, * 
        FROM my_public_records.death_certificates
        WHERE death_certificates.date_deceased >= '2020-01-01'::date
        AND death_certificates.date_deceased < '2021-01-01'::date
      ) mydata_20
    GROUP BY fw 
    ORDER BY fw 
  ) my_2020_data USING(fiscal_week);