18 February 2016

Hacker, Veteran, PTSD

It's Wednesday already. This week has been happening in fast forward; I need to take a step or two backwards. This past weekend, I was at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA for TreeHacks, a 36-hour hackathon. 

Last Thursday

On a bus at 1700 to get to Chicago Midway for a 0630 flight on Friday morning. There are buses that leave at zero dark early on Friday morning, but the earliest won't get me to Midway early enough to have a buffer for getting through security.  I'm traveling on a discount flight, so I don't have the option or the money to take a later flight if I miss mine-- I have to be there. So Thursday night it is.

The bus ride there is uneventful; I sleep, mostly. The bus company does transfers, but this trip I stay on the bus I'm on. It's a full bus, but not full enough that anyone needs to sit next to me.

Midway is open all night, as most large airports are. There's a lot that happens at airports and similar places that you don't see, because it's being done overnight. At Midway, you have to be a ticketed passenger or an employee to stick around all night. I qualify, so I spend the night tapping away at my laptop's keyboard sitting in the food court.  

At this point in my life, I've been stuck in enough airports and MAC terminals overnight that it's not a big deal. I have power, internet, and food and drink. I'm good.

Friday morning

Yay, I get to fly. I've done this a few times. As usual, the airline drones on and on about how all of the carry on luggage won't fit, and as usual I'm annoyed by this. It's silly how much effort goes into this every flight. I'm carrying a backpack with my laptop, power cables, an external hard drive, and a few other random essentials I'll need over the weekend. My field jacket is already compressed, rolled up, and in the bottom of my backpack. I travel light and I'm ready to fly, the rest of you need to catch the eff up.

I'm asleep before the plane leaves the gate.  At a few points during the flight I look outside (I always get window seats), check the GPS on my phone to see where the plane is, and go back to sleep. I wake up when the cabin crew starts making announcements about landing.


Been here before. Bathroom first, then grab something from the backpack to eat (you can take food through security, just not liquids), then scan the signs for the airport train to get to BART. Buy a new BART ticket, check Google Maps, then down to the platform and on the train. 

BART takes me one station away, where I have to look around for a bit before I figure out I have to go upstairs and across to get to Caltrain, which will take me to Palo Alto. It's going to be a while until the next train, so I chill in the sun.

People ask me directions. How do I get to the Mission from here? How do I get a BART ticket? Go up there and across, ticket machine, take this train, get off at this station. 

The trick, I explain, is that if you miss your stop you just get off at the next station, cross the platform, and take a train in the opposite direction to the station you missed. Then pretend like you meant to do that all along.

Palo Alto

What is it with California and public bathroom use? I get why the train stations don't have public bathrooms, but why the high security at restaurants? I wander around Palo Alto for a while, decide on a place to eat, and figure I'll hit the john before I eat. Sorry.  You have to be a customer.  Dude, I want to be a customer but right now I have priorities, see? Just give me the key. I'm not going to do anything unnatural in there.

There's only so far I can get on foot, but I wander. I check out Hewlett and Packard's original garage, which is probably as close to being the epicenter of all of this as one can get.  I see places where a person might be able to get away with spending the night, if they had to-- it's an old habit from being on the street. Honestly, I don't see many places that qualify for camping, and I'm not surprised. 

I feel both out of place and at home. Out of place because I'm somewhere far from home, Silicon Valley, which in the Midwest is an almost mythical place. When I told the bus driver that took me from Madison to Chicago that I was going to be in Palo Alto CA, he didn't know where that was. When I said "Silicon Valley", that he knew.  At home, because I'm not freezing my ass off, I'm sitting outside soaking up California sun. At home because I'm surrounded by people who have many of the same passions as I have. I'm a hacker. Where else would I want to be?

Stanford University

Stanford is a really, really nice place. I wandered around a good portion of the engineering real estate, but didn't cover just as much more. It being Friday, there were a lot of campus tour groups. There were also quite a few people just wandering around taking pictures-- I'm sure I'm in a pretty good number of people's pictures of various Stanford buildings and trees. 

I seriously consider, not for the first time nor the last, not getting back on the plane Sunday night.

TreeHacks (at Stanford)

TreeHacks is in one building, which I find pretty easily-- registration hasn't opened up yet, and it's nice out, so I stay outside and out of the way. The next building over has a display case holding one of Yahoo!'s original Sun servers, and I gawk at that for a while. It fascinates me because back in the day (the 90's) when all of this was new, I probably ran some searches that ran on that very hardware. 

If you took the ages of everyone at a hackathon, it would make a nice bell curve. I'd be that blip over on the far right of the curve that you'd swear was an error if I wasn't standing there. I had my first actual email (Yahoo! Mail) in 1996, but I'd been exchanging electronic messages with other people online, on bulletin board systems and CompuServe (and a few other ahem) systems since 1983.

So it's always an interesting experience to be at a hackathon, and get in the line to register as a hacker, and have people look at you like, "are you lost? Or are you a sponsor?".  I'm not only old(er) but I'm also a veteran, which isn't the path most kids take who are in top engineering and computer science programs. I'm really an odd blip on that bell curve. Hackers, and some sponsors, aren't quite sure what to make of me. 

This was even more true at TreeHacks-- I wonder if I didn't look a little like a ghost from the past. Hackers are as a rule curious about things that are different and usually at least a few people will walk by and see me hammering out code and stop to wonder what I'm up to. Then I start talking about node.js and front end frameworks and what I'm building and the ice breaks a little. "Oh, you're a hacker. Okay then." That didn't happen this weekend. I'm not offended, because if I appeared to my 19 old self, I figure he wouldn't know quite what to do with me either. I did go into the weekend wanting to network more but it didn't happen *shrug*.

Where is PTSD in all of this? 

It was with me all weekend, as it is every day. I routinely carry a pair of foam earplugs now, which cuts down ambient noise and makes concentrating a ton easier. I'm very sensitive to certain kinds of noise, especially sudden and unexpected loud nose, so that still makes me jump. Earplugs help tune a lot of things out, which makes a given environment much less triggering. I actually napped off and on throughout the weekend, since I hadn't slept Thursday night.

I managed Chicago Midway, and SFO, and BART, and Caltrain because I'm at least a little familiar with those environments. I've had a chance to develop methods for dealing with them. I know that if I'm sitting by a gate where there's a lot going on, I can get up and move. If I'm on a train that's too crowded, I can hop off and chill for a while, and get on the next one. At a hackathon, I can get up and go outside and walk around for a while.

TreeHacks had a theme called TreeHacks Health, which included prize categories for mental health. A large part of my involvement in hackathons has had to do with overcoming my state of mental health. I have PTSD and anxiety and depression, and I'm going to do what I love to do anyway. My hack was actually pretty simple; it really didn't break any new technical ground, which is probably why it didn't win any prizes, but in terms of my mental health it was a very big deal. 

Here's my product pitch: 

There's a thing called the PTSD CheckList – Civilian Version (PCL-C), which is one of the forms that you're handed when you go to the mental health clinic at the VA because you have PTSD. Usually it's on a clipboard, and you fill it out while you're waiting to see your provider. When you're done filling it out you hand it to the receptionist, and that's usually the last you see or hear about it.

I took that form and made it a web form that fits on a tablet, and added a text field for each of the questions. You still select from the regular options, but you also get one field to say something about why you answered the way you did, or maybe how you're feeling, or just what symptoms you're dealing with. The multiple choice answers to the questions get scored, saved, and added directly to a database instead of being entered whenever someone gets to it. Each of the text answers gets submitted to the AlchemyAPI Text API for emotion analysis,which scores the text for five emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness. 

Why add a text field? Because if you have the choice between "A little bit" and "Moderately" to describe how much you've been bothered by disturbing dreams in the past month, how do you decide what tips the scale to make it Moderately? If you can type whatever you want into a form, on a tablet that only you're looking at, you're more likely to be honest.

Emotion analysis is a fast way to take what a patient has written typed and evaluate it-- if you're a mental health provider, you're probably thinking "BUT THAT'S NOT CLINICALLY PROVEN" and you're right-- but it will be, someday. The last mental health person I saw at the VA doesn't know my name. I'm much more likely to be honest with a computer than with a person who I won't see again. And, it's stored in a database where it can be analyzed and tracked and provide actual intelligence.

I explained to everyone who stopped at my table that I'm a US Air Force combat veteran, that I served in the Persian Gulf War, and that I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. No sugar coating-- straight up, eye to eye, I'm a vet with PTSD.

That is how I'm dealing with PTSD. There are a ton of things I have to figure out to get from where I'm sitting, in the lobby of a building at Wisconsin, to somewhere in California. If I can look people in the eye and be me, a hacker who also happens to be a veteran with PTSD, this past weekend, I can figure out the rest.

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