Up in the air

It wasn’t until I happened to take my kids to the Two Niner Diner at Petaluma Airport for lunch this weekend that I realized an anniversary had almost passed by unnoticed — fifteen years, this month, since I earned my private pilot license.

Five years earlier, Andrea bought me an introductory flight lesson as a Christmas gift, knowing that I’d long dreamed of flying. As a kid growing up in Queens, I would take the bus to LaGuardia Airport to watch takeoffs and landings (in the days before the “land of the free and the home of the brave” decided it was too terrifying to allow anyone to do this and roped off all observation areas, sucking the last bits of glamor and romance out of aviation). I checked out FAA training manuals from the library and learned them. I became an expert in Microsoft Flight Simulator (which I started using in the days when it was still the subLOGIC Flight Simulator for the TRS-80).

In spite of all that, it had somehow never occurred to me to actually go and do something about learning to fly. It took Andrea giving me that certificate to get me in the air. So one cold day in January 1991 I drove to Phoenix Aviation (issuer of the gift certificate) at Allegheny County airport, and a flight instructor named Jay Domenico took me aloft in N6575Q, a bright yellow Cessna 152, and handed me the controls.

I was hooked, and I continued flight training at Phoenix with Jay. But between my meager finances, my job workload, and the unreliable weather around Pittsburgh, I didn’t train often enough to earn my license during the next two years, following which I moved to California to join a tiny software startup. The weather there was a lot more conducive to flying, but as often happens to those who commit themselves to tiny software startups, my available time and money dwindled to almost nothing.

By 1994 that situation had improved. I celebrated a successful major software release with a resumption of my flight training, and by September of the following year I’d passed my checkride and earned my license — just as enormously satisfying an accomplishment as you can imagine.

Circa 1998, ferrying friends Rob and Holly
to a so-called $100 hamburger
in Columbia, California.

I used my license on only a handful of occasions over the next few years, renting a plane from my local flying club for a day trip, sometimes solo, sometimes with one or two friends or family members. No trip was longer than a couple of hours; each was memorable in a different way. A few highlights:

  • My dad’s nonstop astonishment — and white knuckles — on our trip to Monterey;
  • Leaving Petaluma on a perfectly clear morning with Andrea and returning late in the day to a giant dome of forest-fire smoke;
  • Overflying Skywalker Ranch with my friend Steve, neither of us entirely certain that George Lucas couldn’t launch a squadron of TIE fighters after us;
  • Strolling around the airport in sleepy Lakeport on my birthday, befriending some hangar-dwelling artists and helping ourselves to fresh-fallen walnuts from an orchard across the road;
  • Landing in Fresno, discovering the airport restaurant had closed (for good), but being in luck anyway because a big public barbecue was under way in one of the hangars; later, flying home with a brand-new, honest-to-goodness cowboy hat from a nearby western-wear store;
  • Best of all, sharing the controls on a trip to Harris Ranch with my childhood friend Chuck, who used to come with me to watch those planes at LaGuardia and who also earned a pilot license after moving abroad for college.

Private pilots must undergo so-called biennial flight reviews (at two-year intervals, hence “biennial”) to maintain the validity of their licenses; it’s sort of like having to take your driving test again and again if you want to keep driving (which wouldn’t be a terrible idea, if you ask me). Having earned my license in September of 1995, and having renewed my BFR promptly every other September after that, I had a BFR due in September of 2001. A few days before my appointment, some murderous idiots hijacked some jetliners and flew them into some landmarks, and all aircraft nationwide were grounded for a period of days. My BFR was canceled. When the opportunity arose to reschedule it, I didn’t — because by this point, Andrea and I were expecting our first child. I never thought of flying as an especially dangerous hobby, but it’s certainly more dangerous than not flying, and the prospect of new-parenthood was enough to ground me, at least temporarily.

That spring, Jonah was born, and two years later so was his brother Archer. It had been three years since I’d flown and I was missing it terribly. Worse, I knew that my flying knowledge and skills were decaying, and that it would take several hours of refresher instruction before I felt comfortable flying again by myself. With two young kids, a new job, and a new house, that simply wasn’t in the time or money budget, but I consoled myself with this plan: I would keep my flying ability secret from my kids, and then one day, when they were old enough to be properly impressed — around 8 and 6, I figured — I’d spring it on them, taking them to the airport and surprising them with a flight over the local area, their dad at the controls. By then I would surely have worked some refresher training into the budget.

Well, the kids are now 8 and 6 and there is still no flying in the foreseeable future. But they still don’t know their dad’s a pilot, and they still don’t read this blog, so the possibility still exists — though maybe not for long — that I can blow their minds someday.

The rules

Once in a while I toy with a blog post for a long time before publishing it — sometimes many months, as in the case of this one. I knew that I wanted to tell the story of The Grape, tie it together with my interest in flying and in computers, and prognosticate about similar leanings in my son Jonah, but as sometimes happens, the ideas didn’t quite gel, meandering aimlessly in search of some relevant point to make.

And then, as also sometimes happens, current events provided the frame for my story. So, let’s begin with The Grape:

When I was about five years old, my mom brought me and my sister on a routine trip to the local supermarket. As we entered the produce aisle we found to our delight that grapes were in season again. Immediately my mom plucked a grape from a bunch on the shelf and popped it in her mouth. She gave one to my sister, who did the same. She gave one to me and I stared at it, aghast. “I can’t eat this,” I told her. “We didn’t pay for it!” My mom patiently explained that it’s OK if people take one or two grapes as they walk by. “But that’s stealing!” I protested. “If everyone did that, there’d be none left!” Other shoppers turned to see the little boy making accusatory sounds at his mom. “We’re going to buy some anyway,” my mom said, still holding out a grape to me, “so it’s OK if you have one.” No, I insisted — we had to wait until they were paid for. Losing her patience, my mom uttered through gritted teeth the punchline of one of my family’s most-retold stories about me: “Eat. The. Grape.” I flatly refused, and she pointedly fed more grapes to my sister. We went home sore at each other, and for the rest of her life, I would express dismay at her occasional willingness to commit (very) petty larceny, such as taking home a hotel towel or an interesting salt shaker from a restaurant; and she would come back with, “Eat the grape,” which became her shorthand for my irksome excess of honesty.

A few decades later, on a visit to Tucson for a wedding, I decided to find an airplane rental club and spend a morning exploring the local airspace. I tried to persuade my friend Bruce, also visiting Tucson, to come along for the ride, since he’d expressed an interest in learning to fly and had tried it once or twice. In the conversation that ensued, he told me his interest had flagged: “I just want to fly. I got bored with all the rules and procedures you have to follow.” “Are you kidding?” I returned. “That’s the best part!”

The words sounded strange coming out of my mouth — what a bizarre thing to admit enjoying — but it was true, I enjoyed the arcane radio protocol, I enjoyed filling out navigation logs and filing flight plans, I enjoyed checklists and weight-and-balance computations…

In fact, I enjoyed flying (it occurred to me) for the same reasons that I enjoyed road rallies. In Pittsburgh in the late 80’s and early 90’s, my friend Steve and I participated in several amateur road rallies of the “time-speed-distance” variety, where the goal is not to run the course in the shortest possible time but to follow the route — mostly picturesque rural roads — as accurately as possible, armed with a sometimes deliberately misleading set of “route instructions” devised by a more or less devious rallymaster, and a complex set of regulations for how to understand them. (To this day, one of the top Google hits for “road rally” is a document that I helped to write long ago.) The pretty scenery, for me, was secondary to the intellectual exercise of driving in a rally — just as I considered the rules and procedures to be “the best part” about flying. (True to his nature, the one time Bruce tried a road rally, he grew impatient with the route instructions, tossed them into the backseat, and struck off at random into the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania — with the enthusiastic support of his equally bored rally partner, Andrea. “And today that woman is my wife.”)

Rules — I love ’em. I love the way simple ones gives rise to complex behavior, whether it’s a game of Go or the orderly society that emerges from (for instance) people paying for their produce before eating it. It’s no wonder I was drawn to a life of writing computer software, where rules per se achieve their purest realization. A computer program is nothing but rules, after all, and with some care and some artistry it can be made elegant and simple and still create a very rich set of behaviors.

Obviously not everyone is as enamored of rules as I am. So what’s the attraction? It must have something to do with a need to impose order on a bewildering and uncertain world — bewilderment and uncertainty that comes from the irrational behavior of other people. This is a common bit of pop psychology. Being unable to fathom irrational behavior, and withdrawing from even trying, explains, for example, the popularity of Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock (who, interestingly, is a hero especially among computer programmers).

My son Jonah seems to be like this. He is always keenly aware of the rules in any situation, and alert to anyone not following them, or to any other source of unfairness, and quick to call it out. Most of his friends are not so preoccupied about fairness, but he does have one or two who are paralyzed by fits of red-faced outrage whenever anything doesn’t go according to the rules.

Having witnessed a couple of those fits, and thinking back over my own life, I’ve lately come to think that those who love rules are at a disadvantage to those who can abide their neglect, who can tolerate ambiguity better. Mr. Spock was only the first officer aboard the Enterprise, after all; it took the greater resiliency of James T. Kirk to be the captain. And while one of Jonah’s friends is pitching a fit, the others are still running around and having a great time, completely unfazed.

This is what brings us around to current events. This week the U.S. Senate will debate the so-called FISA bill that, among other things, gives retroactive legal immunity to the Bush administration and to various large corporations for illegal warrantless wiretapping activities dating back to before 9/11, and prohibits any details of those illegal activities from ever coming to light. You could have been the subject of illegal surveillance, and if this bill passes, as it is expected to do, you would have no legal recourse for finding out about it, ever. Does this sound fair? Of course not, and those who love playing by the rules have been up in arms about it — red in the face and all but paralyzed, like one of Jonah’s fit-pitching friends. As DailyKos’ Hunter writes:

So, why have activists spent so much effort opposing retroactive corporate immunity as part of new FISA legislation, when there are so many other things in the world to be outraged about? […] It demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the law


We were never told why it was so all-fired important […] the only rationale available seems to be the most cynical one — it is merely doing the bidding of companies that provide substantive campaign contributions.

So we citizens can believe all we like that everyone’s equal before the law, but in fact if you’ve got pockets deep enough, you can buy whatever kind of law best suits you. Very likely this has always been the reality in America (as it has throughout human history), but all past attempts to tilt the playing field in favor of the powerful and the well-connected at least pretended to be for the common good. This bill does not, and that’s what’s so jaw-droppingly wrong with it: it says that the vaunted “rule of law,” the very bedrock of the Enlightenment and the principle that has always guided America no matter how far she’s strayed from it, is now officially just a fairy tale, and only fools will henceforth strive toward that ideal. If you’re wealthy, go ahead and break whatever laws you like; your pals in Congress will patch things up later.

How many generations will it take for America to recover from abandoning even the pretense of fairness? How much civil unrest? How much political violence?

This is another reason people like me love rules — we can see what life would be without them. But if the rule of law is just a fantasy and always has been, then laying it bare like this might be just the thing we need. Give everyone else a chance to see what life is like without rules. In the end, I predict, though the cost may be high, everyone will love them like I do.

What brings you here, 2007 edition

Here are some of the top queries from various search engines that resulted in hits on my blog during the past year or so, reproduced verbatim from my server logs. (Last year’s results are here.) Each related family of queries is listed with a main variant in bold and selected other variants, plus the percentage of query-hits represented by that family.

I was at first surprised to see that hits for “James Bond villains” outnumbers hits for “vampire lesbian girl scouts” (etc.) and “sex” (etc.) combined, but then realized: the percentages are a function both of the popularity of that search and of the ranking of my site in the search results. In other words, if you’re looking for anything about vampires or lesbians or sex I regret to say there are a lot of likelier websites for you to visit before mine.

James Bond villains; The Villains of bond; deformed bond villains; “james bond” +villains +clothes 10.2%
William H. Macy; william h macy photos; face de William H. Macy 5.0%
Vampire lesbian girl scouts; lesbian vampires; naked lesbians; lesbian girl scouts; naked girl scouts; kissing lesbian girls; zombie girl scouts; evil girlscouts; girl scout decorated cake 4.5%
Sex etc.; horsey style sex; lesbian masturbation; “sex positions illustrated”; vampire sex; lesbians having hot lesbian sex; lesbian sex soundeffect; “San Francisco Masturbate-a-thon”; squat girl masturbate -cock -man -boy -blow; dildo attached to wall; sex positions kitty style; attach dildo to floor; How to convince my lady staf for sex?; sex positions in alphanumeric; “park and ride” “sex positions illustrated” 3.2%
Jaws ride; Jaws ride construction; jaws hitchcock 3.1%
e to the i pi plus one; pi relation to e; mathematical constant e Euler comic; relating pi, e, 1 and 0; “amazing relationship” e pi 2.3%
Don Fanucci; vito corleone fanucci 2.3%
Honeybee/Bees in chimney; humming sound when close glass fireplace doors; honeybees in chimney; bees in fireplace; bees chimney flying down 2.2%
Star Wars; 5th august 1977; star wars remake; hoth rebel base; “your tauntaun will freeze”; exegesis “empire strikes back”; star wars ben kenobi ghost; was obi wan strong enough to defeat palpatine; In Episode 5 what is the insult of Leia to Han Solo which Chewie laughed that Han called him “fuzzball” ?; lego star wars millennium falcon; star wars cassette tape 1977; “bob glickstein” “star wars”; mark hamill car crash empire strikes back monster; han solo slices open tauntaun quote; HOW DID THE FREAKIN EMPIRE BEGIN?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!; August+5th+1977; star wars novelization 1977; What does yoda say when luke comments that he is not afraid; why didn’t Luke kill the Wampa; “asteroid field”+”star wars”; star wars allegories; star wars 1970 nerd; “time magazine” 1977 “star wars” 2.1%
Pirates of the Caribbean; pirate medallion; does elizabeth swann love jack sparrow; elizabeth swann’s red dress; jack sparrow character motivation 2.1%
Widescreen viewing area; “what size tv to buy”; “square inches” diagonal widescreen chart; determine tv width given diagonal; 42″ 16:9 square inches; 16:9 4:3 screen equivalence OR correspondance; DIAGONAL ASPECT RATIO FORMULA; pythagoras 16:9 screen size 32″ 1.8%
Godfather; Godfather part II poster; Godfather Part 4: Fredo’s Revenge 1.8%
Susan Oliver/Orion Slave Girl; vina star trek; star trek green orion slave; nude Orion slave girl; orion slave girls makeup; orion slave girls color correction 1.7%
Cathy Lee Crosby/Wonder Woman; cathy lee crosby wonderwoman film download; cathy+lee+crosby+as+wonder+woman; wonder woman drag; WONDERWOMAN TV MOVIE 1.7%
Rogaine; scalp conditions; itchy scalp; rogaine results; scalp exercise; rogaine effectiveness 1.7%
Ursula sex; ursula undress; ursula dildo; ursula sex disney 1.6%
Comcast; comcast removes channels; comcast turn off service; comcast losing west coast feeds; complaints over comcast hbo; disable speed reduction comcast cable; compression artifacts comcast; how do i delete channels i do not watch in comcast; comcast crappy broadcast; comcast reduction in service; do i get a rate reduction when comcast removes channels; I want both west coast and east coast feeds 1.6%
Bob Glickstein; gee bobg; “bob glickstein” +yoga; bob glickstein andrea; bob glickstein imdb; growing up Glickstein 1.4%
Trophy; ugly trophy; dna trophy; bezos trophy 1.3%
Dog; how to draw dogs; “remington dog park”; dog pee drives away evil spirits; veterinary dogs and chocolate 1.3%
Lulav; lulav and etrog; big picture of a lulav and etrog; lulav by its self; lulav etrog chabad; sukkot lulav without etrog 1.3%
Star Trek/Enterprise/Kirk/etc.; spock uhura; Uhura uniform; 60 star trek uniform; bonk bonk on the head star trek; Captain Kirk’s Insignia; enterprise blueprints; happy birthday star trek; Klingons-Star Trek; Atheist Star Trek; 1.2%
Amy Linker; what happened to amy linker; amy linker and tv land awards 1.1%
Jodie Foster; jodie foster bugsy malone; YOUNG JODIE FOSTER; +”give a little love and it all comes back to you” +foster 1.1%
Joseph Costanzo; joe costanzo restaurant; Joseph costanzo primadonna 1.1%
The end of Superman; superman reverse time; superman in the end; superman earth spinning; can superman go the speed of light; how many times can superman fly around earth in 1 second; +”it is forbidden for you to interfere in human history”; superman rewind time; how many times does superman fly around the earth in order to reverse its rotation 1.0%
Frank Pentangeli; frank pentangeli hit; roth corleone Frank Pentangeli assassination; frank pentangeli johnny ola 1.0%
Thai gem scam; thailand scam; majestic export jewelry thailand scam; gems profit thailand; thai sapphire scam; thailand conman; buying gemstones, thailand, blog; thai Export Center scam; selling thai gems; what to do if conned in thailand; david maurer thailand 1.0%
Evil cats 0.8%
Food photography; food stylist; food styling “pasta”; food stylists cereal; food stylist burger; tricks of a food stylist 0.8%
Each daughter has the same number…; In a certain family each daughter has the same number of brothers and sisters. Each son has twice as many sisters as brothers. How many sons and daughters are there in the family? Now there are two ways to do this obviously, you can do it the hard way or the easy way. 0.8%
Fizzies; what ever happened to fizzies drink tablets; how do fizzies work; fizzies that are new; Fizzie tablet sex aid; truckload of fizzies; FIZZIES FOUNTAIN 0.7%
James Bond; vintage james bond girls; james bond toys; the bond men; Live and Let Die Band James Bond 0.7%
Pez museum; pez incredibles violet; batman pez dispensers; pez guns; why didnt violet parr become a pez machine; headless PEZ dispensers 0.7%
Vincent Price; old photos of Vincent Price; Vincent Price gay; “the saint” vincent price; 0.5%
Candy; old time candy; “dylan’s candy bar”; Candy of yesteryear 0.5%
Entenmann’s; golden cake; entenmanns’ chocolate chip filled crumb cake recipe; entenmann fudge golden cake 0.5%
Adam Stoller; why i owe adam stoller an apology; fish adam stoller 0.5%
MoveOn; moveon.org bad; moveon.org founder; move away from moveon.org; moveon endorsements nov 2007 election 0.5%
Vertical speed indicator/Altimeter; static port; instrument dial Concorde speed; how does an altimeter work; pitot static instruments; ram air pressure pitot; how does the vsi work? flying 0.5%
Cigarettes/Camels/Still Life With Woodpecker; Joe Camel; tom robbins woodpecker; camel tom robbins 0.5%
Baron Munchausen; was baron munchausen an atheist 0.5%
Sharon Stone; sharon stone naked; sharon stone’ pictures, 1970; sharon stone en lingerie fine 0.5%
Computer; computers internet blog; “apple II home computer” 0.4%
xkcd; xkcd complex numbers; calculus xkcd; math xkcd 0.4%
Bob Falfa/Martin Stett; big bob falfa; purchase a bob falfa hat; falfa and milner 0.4%
Adrift/Open Water 2; “open water 2” true story tried everything; understand explain open water 2:adrift ending?; FORGOT TO LOWER LADDER ON YACHT 0.4%
Honda Fit; finding a honda fit; pre order “honda fit” bay area; vw rabbit or honda fit? 0.4%
Carl Sagan; “carl sagan” +billions; cosmos carl sagan vangelis heaven hell; “circumference of the earth” carl sagan; eratosthenes carl sagan; Carl Sagan and Star Trek 0.4%
Splashdown; splashdown lyrics meaning; i feel so elated would you please bring me joy lyrics; free splashdown downloads karma slave; lyrics so if your past approaches you pulled into a war you’ll lose; karma slave splashdown video; i feel so elated i do i do splashdown 0.4%
The Incredibles; Life Lessons The Incredibles; incredibles analogy of family togetherness 0.3%
Legobiggest lego city ever made; Cool lego creations; LEGO WORLD RECORD FOR MILLENIUM FALCON 0.3%
Birthday invitation; neverland invitation 0.3%
Mill Valley Pediatrics; what new rule causes pediatrician to close office; dr. Harris pediatrics mill valley 0.3%
BDSM; BDSM and rodent; hellium balloons bdsm; bdsm “trembling with fear”; professional bdsm pittsburgh; bdsm vanity plates 0.3%
Richard S. Castellano 0.3%
Bugsy Malone/Scott Baio; coca cola jingle+you give a little love and all comes back to you 0.3%
Games magazine/Calculatrivia marathon; ken jennings calculatrivia; “games magazine” contest t-shirt 0.3%
Penis; Jonah Falcon penis; christmas penis drawing; penis peeing pictures; penis doodles; “draw a penis” 0.3%
Drawing/scribbling/doodling; kids scribbles 0.3%
Raiders of the Lost Ark; indiana jones medallion + raiders of the lost ark; indiana jones finds millenium falcon; indiana jones harrison ford sean connery 0.3%
I know it was you Fredo.; Johnny Ola Fredo; HOW DOES MICHAEL KNOW ABOUT FREDO; +”why” +michael +kill +fredo 0.3%
Federation Trading Post 0.2%
Funny epitaph; headstone humor; headstone for mom 0.2%
Batman; shark repellent spray; batman and the shark; batman robin “more toyetic” 0.2%
Handshadow; Hand-Shadow play 0.2%
Peter and the Starcatchers 0.2%
Watch neighbor undress; neighbor undress photo 0.2%
Lemon Ice King of Corona; queens ices 0.2%
Weight; weight graph; college freshman weight graph; jewish weight loss 0.2%
Marty Goldstein/Black Book; ‘marty goldstein’ ‘creative black book’; i remember going to the black book office zanetti 0.2%
Kinds of meat; meatballs three kinds of meat 0.2%
Fligth to Mars 0.2%
Supertanker; how much does a supertanker cost?; how many barrels of oil does a supertanker carry; how much money does a supertanker captain make; running costs for a supertanker; becoming a supertanker captain; supertankers are curved 0.2%
Jewish; jew obnoxious; jewish products; mormon jew; mountain jew; val kilmer sephardic jewish 0.2%
Cartelligent; Leigh Taylor, Cartelligent; cartelligent price for honda fit 0.2%
Sweetener; hooray sweetener; cyclamates popularity sodas; Is Cyclamates good for you; sodium bicarbonate sweetener cancer 0.2%
Captain Morgan rum 0.2%
Gerald Zanetti 0.2%
Bush smile 0.2%
Salt Lake flats; nevada open salt lake 0.2%
Disney; disney+AND+fingerprint; disney park hopper fingerprint; thumper disney 0.2%
Koyaanisqatsi 0.2%
Katharine Hepburn 0.2%
Incremental backup; jungledisk incremental backups; s3 backup incremental mirror linux; simple linux incremental backups; infinite backup 0.2%
Rhymes with Bethany; bethany accident utah; something that rhymes with bethany; poem for bethany 0.1%
Sci-fi spaceships; cool Scifi Spaceships; most beautiful spaceships 0.1%
I Dream of Jeannie; healey irresistible to when i dream of jeannie episode; i dream of jeanie colorization 0.1%
Laundry; how to get quarters laundry; cold undissolved laundry soap; monopolize laundry machines; laundry pile 0.1%
Anakin/Padme; How much do Anakin’s talent, pride and ambitions affect his decisions to turn to ‘the dark side’? 0.1%
Making Mr. Right; malkovich “making mr right” 0.1%
Pop-culture grid; “the pop culture grid”+last concert you saw 0.1%
Adventurer’s Inn; toboggan adventurer’s inn 0.1%
Clemenza; young clemenza; who killed clemenza 0.1%
Glenne Headley 0.1%
1776/“Yours Yours Yours” 0.1%
Nature of reality; 10 dimensions of reality; how to understand ten dimensional reality; three-dimensional pants 0.1%
Dunk tank; “spring carnival” dunk 0.1%
Misconstruction 0.1%
Sarah Jessica Parker; sarah jessica parker in square pegs 0.1%
Mr. Arrigo; Robert arrigo teacher 0.1%
Eli Attie 0.1%
Hog-calling time in Nebraska; What tune is hog calling time in nebraska sung to?; ORIGINS OF HOG CALLING; hog calling songs 0.1%
Eulogy for a friend 0.1%
Indiana University; indiana university hofstadter 0.1%
Cynthia Nixon; Cynthia Nixon manhattan project 0.1%
Pine Knoll Bungalow Colony; bungalow colonies in monticello 0.1%
Prison Break; prisoner 94941; michael scofield myer briggs; “prisoner number” scofield 0.1%
Winnemucca, NV; Winnemucca weekly pet friendly motels; reasons to love Winnemucca, NV 0.1%
Steve Volan 0.1%
P.S. 196; all teachers from p.s.196 0.1%
Knish Nosh; knish nosh health department 0.1%
Mucoshave 0.1%
Laser/Theodore Maiman; 1966 national geographic “the laser’s bright magic”; what kind of food does theodore maiman likes; did theodore maiman get alot of money for making the laser 0.1%
Universal Hall Pass 0.1%

Red airport, blue airport

Moblogging now from Minneapolis-St. Paul, where I am again connecting to another flight for my last leg home. And now, an observation:

At my previous layover in Detroit (yes, this one is a three-legged trip), there are CNN news monitors all over the terminal. The recorded security announcements about keeping your belongings with you begin with a woman’s voice stating, almost apologetically, “Due to heightened security restrictions…” And in the bookstore under “Fiction” there was a whole shelf filled with Kurt Vonnegut novels. Having finished and enjoyed Jailbird recently, I was eager to start on his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. The bookstore had many Vonnegut titles but not that one.

Here in the Twin Cities, it’s not CNN that appears throughout the airport but Fox News, which operates the magazine and candy concessions. The security announcements begin with a booming man’s voice declaring importantly, “The Security Level as established by the Department of Homeland Security is Orange.” And the bookstore contains no trace of Kurt Vonnegut, a favorite nemesis of conservatives.

I’m just sayin’.

Mercy mission

Moblogging from the Lindbergh terminal of the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul, unexpectedly en route to New York, where my mom’s health has taken a turn for the worse. By tonight I should be back at my dad’s house near Roosevelt Field, where Charles Lindbergh took off on his history-making flight. And the book I’m reading on this trip (Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut) just mentioned Charles Lindbergh in passing. I just can’t get away from that guy!

And once again, my connection appears to have required about the longest walk between gates that it’s possible to have at this sprawling facility. I’m not complaining — it was a nice walk, and I can certainly use the exercise. But how is it possible that that happens every time I fly?

Take the time, do it right

I used the following story at work the other day to illustrate why some of us should avoid some ill-advised shortcuts and choose instead to stand up to critics of how long our project is taking:

In 1995, when my primary flight training was complete, it was time for my checkride to see whether I’d become a licensed pilot or not. For the checkride I had to fly from my home airport, Petaluma, to the FAA examiner’s airport, Santa Rosa (er, the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport — yes, that Charles Schulz). That flight was uneventful. When I arrived I shut down and secured the plane as usual, then went in to talk to the examiner for a while before we began the “practical” (flying) portion of the examination.

Unlike Petaluma, Santa Rosa has a control tower, which means you must radio for permission to taxi. So after preflighting the plane, climbing aboard, strapping in, putting on my headset, starting the engine, and performing the pre-taxi checklist, I radioed the tower. “Santa Rosa ground, Cessna 24498 on the main ramp, taxi to the active with Foxtrot.” The tower did not respond, which is not too unusual as control towers sometimes get busy and taxi clearances get low priority. So after a few seconds I radioed again. “Santa Rosa ground, Cessna 24498 on the main ramp, taxi to the active with Foxtrot.” Still nothing. I double-checked the frequency to which the radio was tuned, waited a few seconds and tried again. Then again. Finally after several long minutes, with the instructor waiting patiently beside me (and was that a bemused smile on his face the whole time?), I noticed that I’d forgotten to plug the headsets into the radio stack! The instructor and I were able to talk to each other but not to the tower.

Flustered, I explained to the instructor that this was my first time using a two-person intercom with the radio stack. (In small planes, very often the intercom is a separate little box that the pilot owns. Two headsets plug into it, then the box — which usually ends up wedged between the front seats or knocking around loose on the floor of the cabin — plugs into the radio. Before the checkride, I flew solo with no need for an intercom — my headset plugged right into the radio — and before flying solo, my instructor would always set up his intercom for us to use.) The examiner put me at ease, saying, “Anyone could have forgotten to plug in the intercom. It’s not on the checklist. A poor student would have given up and started taxiing without clearance. You did what you were supposed to do, even if it took a little longer.”

About an hour later I was a licensed pilot.

Moral of the story: if it takes a little longer to do things right because you haven’t thought of everything, it’s still better than the alternative.

Clever climb clock

The rate-of-climb indicator, also called the vertical-speed indicator or VSI, is one of six instruments in the standard instrument cluster familiar to airplane pilots. It reports the rate at which the airplane’s altitude is changing, in hundreds of feet per minute. (Interesting fact: in an unpressurized airplane cabin, a comfortable rate of descent is five hundred feet per minute. Much more than that and passengers will begin to feel ear pain from the pressure changes. So a pilot flying 5,000 feet above the elevation of his or her destination should begin descending while still ten minutes away from the airfield.)

The VSI does not need a power source. It doesn’t need to be wound or filled or set. There are no tubes, wires, gears, levers, or lines of any kind leading to or from it. It just sits there, bolted into the instrument panel, requiring nothing but some clear space around it for air to flow freely. How can it possibly work?

The altimeter, another standard instrument, is much easier to understand. It registers the airplane’s height above sea level by measuring the ambient air pressure. (Interesting fact: the ambient air pressure runs to the altimeter through a tube originating at a tiny hole in the skin of the plane called the “static port.” An airplane in flight affects the pressure of the air all around it; the static port is strategically placed where the effect on the surrounding air pressure is neutral.) Air pressure decreases at a pretty constant rate the higher you go, so if you know the pressure at sea level (a setting that changes from place to place and from hour to hour — pilots periodically get the setting from a radio broadcast and adjust a knob on the altimeter), and you know the air pressure, then you know your altitude. The altimeter is nothing but a funny-looking barometer calibrated in feet above sea level.

Even the airspeed indicator, which is a bit cleverer, is easy to understand. It uses two sources of air pressure: the “static” air pressure (from the aforementioned static port), and the “ram” air pressure, which is the pressure of the oncoming air as measured by a tube (the “pitot” tube, rhymes with Frito) pointing forward. Via some simple plumbing, the static pressure is subtracted from the ram pressure and the result is shown on the airspeed dial, calibrated in knots or in miles per hour.

The design of the VSI is a whole ’nother level of cleverness. For a long time I tried to puzzle it out myself before I finally relented and looked up the answer. Can you figure it out?

Continue reading “Clever climb clock”


A few years ago we moved into our current house, in a neighborhood surrounded on three sides by wooded hills dotted with houses. In those first days, when Alex woke me up as usual for her morning walk around 6am, I was amazed and delighted to hear a dramatic dawn chorus of neighborhood songbirds. It was like nothing I’d ever heard, loud and irresistibly cheerful. At 6am you wouldn’t expect to hear much else, and yet the chorus competed with another sound. At first I guessed it must be a neighbor three or four blocks away testing a jet engine mounted on a rig in their backyard. At 6am. Soon I came to recognize it as the unceasing whoosh of combustion engines, rolling rubber, and steel slicing through air: the freeway, more than half a mile away. That sound is omnipresent on the otherwise sleepy residential street in front of my house. Perhaps the hills-on-three-sides shape of the neighborhood acts as a waveguide, channeling the noise and making it more prominent than it ought to be. In any event, having once noticed it, I now cannot escape it. About the only time it’s really quiet seems to be around 3:30am on Sunday mornings. (Alex is old and her schedule is less regular than it once was.)

My life has always been noisy. I grew up in an apartment in Queens right under an approach route for LaGuardia Airport. Most days of the week I spend two or more hours commuting in a poorly soundproofed economy car. And of course I am almost continuously sitting at high-powered computers and the constant drone of their cooling fans.

One day I decided to try to find a quiet spot. A really quiet spot, where I could hear no trucks rumbling by, no gas station air compressors, no high school football team; no crashing surf or gurgling brook; preferably not even any wind, or the rush of my own blood in my ears (as when they’re underwater or stuffed with earplugs). I didn’t want to not hear anything; I wanted to hear nothing. I wanted to listen to silence. Obviously no place in or near the Bay Area would suffice, so I located Pine Mountain Lake airport on the San Francisco sectional chart. Of all the places within easy flying distance, Pine Mountain Lake appeared to be the most remote and the most likely to be quiet (once I shut down the Cessna’s engine). My friend Steve came along for the trip. We crammed our bikes into the back of the plane just in case we had to put a little distance between us and the airport in order to find silence. But even on the mountainous roads of Pine Mountain Lake, the whoosh of cars and clatter of trucks are inescapable.

If I were more intrepid and more persistent in this quest I’m sure I would eventually have found something to satisfy me — in the desert, perhaps, or out on a calm sea. But this goal languishes way, way down my priority list. I was glad to see recently that others are more dedicated to the cause, and have been more successful, to wit: One Square Inch of Silence.

Greatest hits: My four “Two Things” things

I’m on a mailing list where a friend once asked everyone to chime in with what the “Two Things” are in their chosen fields or areas of interest. He referred us to a website that explains the “Two Things” concept:

The Story of the Two Things

A few years ago, I was chatting with a stranger in a bar. When I told him I was an economist, he said, “Ah. So — what are the Two Things about economics?”

“Huh?” I cleverly replied.

“You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are really only two things you really need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay, here are the Two Things about economics. One: Incentives matter. Two: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Ever since that evening, I’ve been playing the Two Things game. Whenever I meet someone who belongs to a different profession (i.e., a profession I haven’t played this game with), or who knows something about a subject I’m unfamiliar with, I pose the Two Things question.

The site also helpfully lists the Two Things about “The Two Things”:

  1. People love to play the Two Things game, but they rarely agree about what the Two Things are.
  2. That goes double for anyone who works with computers.

I replied with these sets of Two Things:

Software engineering (and engineering in general)
  1. Fast, cheap, good: choose two.
  2. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.
  1. It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.
  2. There are two kinds of pilots: those who have landed gear up, and those who will. [applies to other dumb mistakes too]
  1. Everything is just a phase.
  2. The sooner you accept that your most beloved possessions will be destroyed, the happier you’ll be.
Dog ownership
  1. If you don’t have the time for a proper walk now, you’d better have the time to clean up a smelly mess later.
  2. You can’t fool your dog.