I came, I saw, I floated

Written by larry on December 10th, 2015


Well, it really was the next best thing to space travel – a total of about seven minutes of weightlessness on board  G-Force One, a modified Boeing 727 owned by the Zero Gravity Corporation.

For these unfamiliar, the plane flies a series of parabolic climbs and dives; as you come over the top the plane follows the path your body would if it was freely falling, and you just float off the cabin floor. Of course, you have to give it back at the bottom of the arc, where things get very heavy.

The folks who put this together have been doing it for ten years, and it shows. They managed to find the perfect amount of pomp and circumstance to make it fun, without going too far and making it hokey. I was issued a spiffy blue flight suit, with my name velcroed on, but upside-down. Later, it was revealed that turning it right-side up would be part of the post-event activity – a custom borrowed from the astronaut corps.

My fellow passengers ranged in age from their 30s to their 60s (plus a 12-year-old with his dad), and hailed from places as far away as Gemany, Denmark, England, and Columbia.

An airspace conflict delayed our departure for several hours, but we eventually headed out to the airport, paused for a photo op or two, boarded, and launched.




There’s really not a whole lot that can be said or done to either prepare for or describe the experience – it really is unique. If there’s a ‘trick’, it’s to relax and enjoy (something I wasn’t very good at). You want to try to control your motion, but that’s pretty much impossible. There were a few recommendations I attempted with varying degrees of success, but mostly it was float around and go wherever it takes you. If you bump into someone, it will be at low speed – “sorry – oops”, and you’re on your way. I did manage to grab a mouthful of water globule in midair, but I attribute that more to my coach throwing it in the right direction than any skill on my part. I was less successful trying to catch Skittles I’d launched on my own. One thing I did succeed at a few times was the ‘crawl’ – you walk on your hands up one wall, across the ceiling, and down the other side. The zero-G portion of each parabolic loop lasts about 30 seconds, and as it’s coming to an end they announce ‘Coming Out – Feet Down!’ I remember a few time thinking “Okay, but which way is down?” But they come out gently, and pretty soon you’re on the floor, and just have to find a position where you’re not bumping into another participant.





The 15 parabolas they flew were nowhere near enough. On the other hand, they said they chose 15 because after that is when it starts affecting newbies negatively. In our group, 2 out of 28 or so wound up sitting it out – sad, given both the expense and travel involved; one each male and female, unrelated, both from overseas. As for me, the only negative physiological effect I experienced was an ache in my jaw from grinning so much! The entire group was giddy, and there was a crowd-multiplication effect going on – the laughing, smiling, shouts of encouragement and so forth were continuous.

After the last parabola, we were all able to pad around the cabin for the next 20 minutes or so, a portion of which I spent helping my coach clean up the spilled Skittles. After that we were told to head to our seats and buckle in for landing.

All in all, the experience was perfect, except that it didn’t last long enough. They’ve got a frequent flyer discount, and though it’s utterly unjustifiable, I’m tempted. With what I learned the first time, I think I’d be able to get more out of a rematch.a109

Your mileage may vary, but if your constitution and budget permit I’d definitely say go for it. The Ride (and I’m not talking about the one in the airplane) is too damned short.

Update – as promised, they released the video from the six GoPro cameras that were recording the action:



The Penultimate Frontier?

Written by larry on November 20th, 2015

The twenty-somethings reading this still have a chance. But we living fossils who remember watching the moon landing have sadly come to the conclusion that, unless we have the value of a nice house sitting in our disposable income fund, the chance at even suborbital space travel will pass us by.

So let’s move onto the next best thing. Over the last several months, a combination of a small windfall, an end-of-the-year discount, and my own fiscal irresponsibility have conspired to give me a shot at that next best thing – parabolic flight simulating zero gravity. The modified 727 operated by Zero-G Adventures only flies if enough participants sign up, and I got the word earlier today that my mission will be flying. So barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be celebrating my next birthday by floating around somewhere out over the Atlantic, off the coast of Florida.

I’ll report back with photos and a description of the experience. Hopefully there’ll be a story in there somewhere. And, in my own small way, I can take comfort in having contributed incrementally to demonstrating the viability of space tourism as a business model.


A Week in Paradise

Written by larry on October 25th, 2015


I had the good fortune to spend last week at the nineteenth Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop, on Martha’s Vineyard. It was five days of classes, seminars, reviews, and insight, taught by some very talented people. The affair is by invitation, based on a work you submit, and I was actually quite shocked (gobsmacked, really) to have been invited. I didn’t realize that I’d progressed to a level where I’d be taken seriously, and seeing the work of the other students didn’t exactly help my confidence level – there were some VERY capable attendees there.

At a fundamental level, there’s probably not that much that I learned that I couldn’t have found in a book on writing, or eventually figured out on my own. And I’ve gotten useful reviews of my work both from my local writers’ group and online. However, I’m far more likely to retain something presented by a veteran author who also happens to be an excellent speaker, than if I skimmed over it in some ‘how to write’ book.

But more importantly, VP is far more than it’s classes. The event is designed to engender camaraderie in the attendees, partly through it being a high-pressure environment, and partly by cultivating a communal atmosphere – a sense that we were not kneeling at the knee of giants, but rather working collaboratively toward a common objective.  A core goal of the workshop is also to motivate it’s graduates to actually get out there, write, submit, and get published. And that particular kick in the tush was of particular value to me at this point in time.

So now the post-VP part of my writing begins. Like before, I’ve got the same challenges: time and self-doubt being the biggies. But I’ve also just received a first-class vote of confidence. Now it’s time to see if I can convince some editors as well.


Stalking the Wild Muse

Written by larry on April 1st, 2014

Being an engineering left-brain kind of guy, the whole realm of artistic inspiration and how to cultivate it is a bit foreign to me. The best advice I’ve ever heard, though, was to identify the time and circumstances when you muse is present, and try to replicate those conditions.

Your mileage may vary, but for me, it’s oh-dark thirty, first thing in the morning. There are no distractions, my mind is fresh (if not a bit foggy), and if there’s a flow of ideas to be had, that’s when it will happen. So, being blocked on a story that was about 90% done, I’ve been trying to get some traction on it on and off for the last few weeks.

And you know something? If you put your mind to it, you can still be distracted at six AM. Email, that news site you wanted to get a peek at, the client project that’s behind schedule and could use some extra hours… and so forth.

One of the things I have not seen mentioned in articles about creativity is the idea of traction. On this particular story, I was very happy with how it began, the characters, their tribulations, and how the story was flowing. Only one problem – I didn’t have the foggiest idea of how it would end. So I spent each night, as I was falling asleep, thinking about the final scene, where the protagonist, the Big Boss, and a few other had to resolve the core conflict of the story.


So I passed the first third to my writers’ group. The feedback was quite positive, and I got some good suggestions for improvements. I also now had an implied contact to finish the damn thing.

But one thing that also came out of the review was that Rebecca, a minor character, was a good one, and I realized I wanted her to play a bigger role. So I wrote her into the final scene… and all of a sudden, the scene congealed.


The last three thousand words almost write themselves. Sure there’s some fine tuning to be done, but I actually like the way it ends. And having reread it a bunch of times (a habit of mine with new works), I’m still happy with it.

It will be interesting to see how the writers’ group feels about it. But whether it stands as it is or experiences a major overhaul, the logjam is broken.




Kind of big to lose, no?

Written by larry on March 16th, 2014

239 people and a 300,000 pound airplane, gone without a trace. Pretty hard to believe, but it seems to have happened. Had a wreck turned up by now, or someone taken credit for it, we would at least know, however horrific, what had happened. But nature abhors a vacuum, so all sorts of… interesting theories have been surfacing:

  • Crew committed suicide
  • Massive mechanical failure
  • Plane landed by hostiles somewhere, to be repurposed as a flying bomb
  • Plane captured by aliens
  • Plane still flying around.. but in 1939
  • Etc.

In the absence of any evidence, it’s tough to make a guess as to what really happened. But since there are no consequences, I’m going to take a stab at it anyway.

I think the plane was hijacked. But some time afterward, as with United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, either the crew or the passengers attempted to retake the plane, and either the plane crashed as a result of the struggle, or the hijackers deliberately crashed the plane to avoid capture. There aren’t many facts available as of this date, but this scenario is consistent with the few we have.

I’m sure that in a few weeks, we’ll know for sure. Stay tuned.





That Engineering Mentality, Again

Written by larry on March 13th, 2014

There’s a claim that True Engineers (whatever that means) never rise very far in corporate environments because they’re more interested in solving problems than fixing blame or positioning themselves politically. That’s consistent with my experience in the corporate world, but this is more about the first part of that: having a need to solve problems.

Take the cover artist I’ve been working with recently. They’re doing very nice work, at a very reasonable price. I get along great with my contact there, he seems to understand what I’m looking for and he’s receptive to doing as many iterations on a project as we need to get the job done. But it seems that he stand me up on just about every other Skype conference call we schedule.

Why? Because the power in Columbo, Sri Lanka is unreliable as hell, and very often he’s in the middle of a blackout when we’re supposed to be communicating. We’ve managed to at least work out a system of text messaging when he’s in the dark, so I know what’s going on. But that’s a band-aid, not a fix.

I did a bit of research and eventually found  the web site of Sri Lanka’s electrical utility, the Ceylon Energy Board. There’s a section in the FAQ entitled “How do Island-Wide Power Failures Occur”, which makes me think they’re a fairly common occurrence – my contact there is most likely not making excuses. Okay, one more reason to be happy that I’m living in the First World.

But their reaction to the power failures is what surprises me. If we had them in my hometown with any frequency, you can bet that within  a few months there would be a backup power unit next to each PC, cables running across the floor to a stack of car batteries in the corner of the room, and a cellular access point buried somewhere in the rat’s next of cables to provide internet connectivity. But there, the reaction seem to be to just wait around until the power comes back.

Is this a contrast between engineers and lay people? Or between Americans and Sri Lankans? Or perhaps something else? Whatever it is, the correlation between willingness to engage in problem solving, and productivity, is obvious.

Channeling all that increased productivity in a useful direction, however, can be more challenging.



The Time Machine

Written by larry on March 2nd, 2014

It is said that if sit down at your computer late in the evening and browse the web long enough, eventually you’ll wind up on YouTube looking at cat videos. Personally, I’ve found that to be less than completely true, though I’d agree completely with the assessment that you’ll waste enormous amounts of time following long chains of links to sites you would never have gone to directly.

So I’m not sure exactly how I wound up there, but late a few nights ago I wound up reading the IMDB citation for the 1970 classic Airport. I had a vague recollection that, like most tales, the book was better than the movie, and as I believe there’s always an opportunity to learn from a master I hunted down a copy and began reading. I’d read it once before, but that was <mumble> years ago, and though the book hadn’t change, almost certainly I had.

And I’ll admit that part of the reason I enjoy reading umm… ‘mature’ books is that they’re a telescope into what life was like when they were written: the mores, values, what was controversial, what was accepted as fact, and what people worried about. That’s probably why I really can’t warm up to any of the contemporary reboots of Sherlock Holmes-what I enjoyed most about the original is that it was a visit to the Victorian era and all it’s trappings.

So hunted down a copy of Airport, the book, and polished it off over the course of a few days, partly to study it’s construction and partly to see what life was like forty-five years ago. Many things have changed, but many haven’t. The book today is an unintentional tour through areas as diverse as male/female relationships, career, aviation technology, bureaucracy, government, lawyers, abortion, race, and much much more. Its also a multi-threaded series of plots, all culminating in a climax that occurs only about eighty percent of the way through. Yet author Arthur Haley manages to maintain suspense and keep the reader’s interest all the way to the end.

So in addition to being an enjoyable page-turner (screen-swiper?) and an interesting view into the past, the book is also a place to learn about the craft of writing. Perhaps even more so than the various ‘How to Write’ books written by various other best-selling authors, sadly not including Mr. Hailey. And I’ll bet that his other works would be equally didactic, viewed from the right angle.

So there’s an opportunity to both learn and have fun simultaneously. Time to get started!


Test Pilot, Again

Written by larry on February 23rd, 2014

Nobody wants their airplane to fall out of the sky. So there’s an annual ritual called, with great lack of originality, The Annual. Once a year, a certified mechanic disassembles, pokes, prods, inspects, tests, verifies, and in general works his way from propeller to tail, looking for problems. If no problems are found, this is only nominally expensive.

There is no upper limit to what it might cost.

In an extreme case, it might be judged that the airplane cannot be economically returned to service and must be scrapped. Fortunately that is a rare occurrence. Still, owners sit on their edge of their seats for the week or two that this takes, waiting for whatever bad news might come their way. If you’re the sort of owner who views the entire machine as a black box, then you write the check, however big or small it might be, and fly home.

If, on the other hand, you’re mechanically inclined and pay attention to what’s going on under all that aluminum, you can’t help but wonder whether your mechanic remembered to replace every nut, bolt, cotter pin, hose and cable that he touched over the course of the inspection. So that first flight after the annual can be unsettling. Your preflight inspection becomes more rigorous than it otherwise might be, and you try to become attuned to anything the plane might be telling your. But eventually, there comes a point where you have to push the throttle all the way forward and slip the surly bonds of earth. Perhaps your pulse races a bit more than normal. Or perhaps you circle the airport a few times before leaving the area. But on some level, you realize that you’ve become a test pilot.

As you head away from the airport, you relax a bit and enjoy the scenery. Everything seems to be working the way it should be, which reassuring. Nothing sounds noticeably different, there are no new vibrations, and all is as it ought to be. You touch down at your destination uneventfully, taxi, and shut down. Your neck and checkbook survived the ritual, and you’re good for another year.

And perhaps you reflect on the combination of technology, finances, air density, gravitational force, and age in which you live, and give silent thanks for the fact something as special as the trip you just completed was possible. After all, from the dawn of time until about one hundred years ago, it would have been viewed as a miracle.



Written by larry on February 16th, 2014

When you fly standby as an airline employee, you’re at the mercy of the people who are actually paying for tickets. They’re the ones who pay the bills, so they’re the ones who get priority. If the plane is full, you don’t go.

We’ve been hoping to make a quick hop to visit family, but over the last few days the northeast has been hit by a series of storms, which has wreaked havoc with travel plans. When we first checked seat availablity in the middle of last week, our chances looked pretty good.


A total of seven seats available, five in coach and 2 in first class. With only four people trying to fly standby (non-revs), it was as close to a sure thing as it could be.

But things changed. By Saturday morning, it looked like this:


So we didn’t bother packing.

But over the course of Saturday, it must have changed five time, from six seats available, all the way down to minus one, meaning the flight was overbooked.


What could be going on to make it change so much, just one day before departure?

Honey, yes I’m still at the office. We’re way behind, and I’m going to have to work the weekend. Can you break it to the kids, and call the airline to move our reservation up until Tuesday? By then we’ll either have the deal or it’ll be gone forever.


Are you okay? Thank god? What happened?… Slid off the road on the ice?… I don’t care about the car, just so long as you’re all right….Keep you overnight for observation? I’ll be there as fast as I can. Yes, I’ll be careful


We’re going to visit Grandma??!! Yaaayy…..


I’ll bet you thought I forgot Valentine’s day, right? Well open this.”<sound of tearing paper> She opens the card. “We’re going back home for a week?! And First Class?!” <sound of smooching> “I love you”


I know. But she was ninety-three; she lived a long wonderful life. And she went in her sleep. What more could anyone ask?… Of course we’ll be there – Diane’s making the reservations now.


Zero seats open. The plane holds 157 people. There are eight inches of snow on the ground–bound to be a few no-shows.

Let’s head to the airport!


An interesting pattern… or is it?

Written by larry on February 9th, 2014

When you self-publish on Amazon, one of the services they provide is sales statistics showing how many of your titles have been sold each month. Now admittedly I’ve only been doing this for a week or so, so there’s not much data accumulated. Still, when you’re an engineer, you sometimes have to draw conclusions based on meager data. (Come to think if it, that’s also true for battlefield commanders, but we’ll leave that as a topic for another entry.)

At the end of last month, I posted my first two titles, with synopses and cover images. Now, a week later, I have some statistics to analyze. And here’s the early return: The Warrior And The Lioness outsold Saimon’s Gift by a factor of ∞ percent. Yes, that’s right, Saimon’s Gift sold zero copies.

Now maybe I just need to collect more data. Or maybe it’s that airline pilots are of more interest to my target audience than abused women. Or maybe I should rewrite the synopsis. After all, the only data points a prospective reader has to make a purchase decision are the cover image and the synopsis… and I happen to like the cover image for Saimon’s Gift.

Probably I should wait one more week before making any changes – a week isn’t a very long time. And while <ahem>corporate policy does not permit revealing actual sales numbers, they’ve been nominal enough that it’s tough to extract statistics. I’ve also got another release planned for the end of this month – a pleasant little tale about an impressionable teen corrupted by a disgraced former astronaut: Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor. And that one will be free for the first month, I’ve decided, which I hope will generate a spurt of ‘sales’, some of which (I hope) will spur purchases of the first two.

There’s a strong temptation to mess with anything that isn’t working exactly the way you want it to. An analogy that comes to mind is when a student pilot glues his face to the attitude indicator and winds up constantly climbing above and descending below where he actually wants to be – chasing the gauges, it’s called. A better way is to make a slight change, and then wait to see the effect before adjusting the change. I don’t know what what the optimal cycle time is for an Amazon product description, but I’m sure that it’s more than a week.

Due to some circumstances early in my life, I find myself with a sense of urgency, to which I attribute many of my successes. More recently, I’ve learned that that sense of urgency is almost certainly responsible for many of my failures as well. So becoming more patient is definitely one of my life goals.

I just wish I could do it more quickly.