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I came, I saw, I floated

Thursday, 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 Time Machine

Sunday, 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!

Going Live

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

This week marks my first appearance on Amazon, as a presumably bona-fide author. Having reached this point, I’m surprised about how much effort was involved that actually had nothing to do with writing. Or at least with that portion of writing that involves locking yourself into a secluded room and letting the creative juices pour out. Cover art, copy editing, tweaks, revisions, trying to comprehend megabyte-long end-user license agreements, website enhancements…. Until now, it’s all been about sharing with friends and family. But now, it’s like letting a bunch of strangers into my home. I feel a need to neaten up the place, and no longer think its reasonable to make excuses. The old “I’ll fix it in the next revision” doesn’t work anymore.

One thing about self-publishing that really feels nice is that it permits me to completely ignore ‘industry sensibilities’. If I get a writer’s forum critique saying that a particular piece isn’t the length that most markets are looking for, I can file it under ‘true, but not relevant.’

In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson talks about how The Net makes it possible for merchants with a narrow appeal to connect with customers who want to buy what they want to sell. In a world of more than seven billion, there are bound to be some folks who are interested in what I have to offer. After all, even dinosaur erotica seems to a hit these days.

But however broad or narrow the appeal of my art may be, I now feel a pressure to create more. As in “That’s nice, but what have you done for me lately?”

So back to the secluded room. I’m got a self-commitment to get Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor out of the editing room and onto Amazon by the end of this month, so I’d better get to it!

Cranking up the presses… slowly

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Yes, I know, I could upload a copy of Saimon’s Gift to Amazon tonight and become a self-published author almost immediately. But I want to do this with at least a little bit of class and style. That means copy-editing, finding a cover artist, and tweaking the manuscript to make the story as good as… well, maybe not as good as possible, but certainly as good as I can make it. That will take time, and more beta reading. There are also the small matters of writing a blurb for my author’s page, a dedication page for the story, buying ISBN numbers, and on and on. It can be a bit intimidating. But no piece by itself is particularly challenging, and I’m confident that once I establish a road map, the second, and third, and (so) forth will come relatively easy.

The first cover artist I found had a promising portfolio, but the combination of a seven time zone gap and a language barrier made it difficult to get anything accomplished. Probably I could have made it work, with enough effort, but I’d rather spend that effort elsewhere. I’ve identified one closer to home who is more expensive, but has other powers and abilities that I think will make it worthwhile.

ISBNs are another issue – I can’t quite bring myself to pay the absurd small quantity price, but I can’t quite bring myself to spring for the total cost of a large block of numbers either. Hopefully I can find others interested in sharing the burden,. so we can form an impromptu publishing company, and share a block.


Yes, lots of trivia. In a way, it’s kind of like manufacturing a high-tech product. The design is one thing. But then there’s manufacturing, distribution, packaging, materials, inspection, and on and on. I’m slowly getting to understand what Mr. Howey meant when he said that those who treat self-publishing as a business are succeeding at it.

Silly me. I thought the hard part was going to be the actual writing.


The Free Tablet

Sunday, November 10th, 2013


Well, not quite free. But 59 bucks is close enough that I’m going to call it free. Here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 59 dollars is less than one day’s wages… even if you’re working at minimum wage. And for that sum, you get a 1.2 ghz processor, 4 gig of memory, 800×480 color display, WiFi, two cameras (admittedly neither with great resolution), a microSD slot, and a “4-dimensional gravity sensor” (great for time travel?).

But it it a good idea? Well, maybe not. The Amazon reviews were pretty negative. But still, if you’re of limited means, want to get online, don’t want to do it at the library, and for some reason don’t want to find a nice used tablet on ebay, this would certainly do the trick. Free WiFi might not be quite ubiquitous, but its surely common enough that a gadget like this means that anyone who wants to own and use a tablet can get one.

There are also some other implications. For one thing, it kind of makes you wonder a bit about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, which provides toy-like monochrome-screened laptops for third world children, with the units costing more than $200. If Kocaso can quietly produce their $59 laptop, why all the fanfare about OLPC, and all its political intrigue?

There’s also the perspective of this crotchety old geezer thinking back to his first computer. I won’t say exactly when that was, but I’ll drop the hint that the president in office was a former peanut farmer. That computer took up most of a desk, and was equipped with a 0.002 GHz processor and 0.000064 GB of RAM. And the screen resolution was, I think, 480×200. In monochrome. Green.

Progress is nice. The downside, of course, is that we expect so much more of our devices. Sure, I can check my bank balance while riding the train, but why can’t I look at images of my checks? Sure I can place a free video call from my cellphone to someone in Madrid, but why does the image have to be so jumpy? Etc.

The usual platitudes apply. I’m sure glad to be living now, I can’t wait to see what’s new in five years, and so forth. But I’m also wondering about the next great opportunity. You know, the one that will be completely obvious in a few years, but that I’m hopelessly missing right now.
Any ideas?

Flight by Reference to Instruments

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Monday at about 4:00 PM I found out I’d have to make a trip to a New York client on Tuesday, a run of about 130 miles. A quick check of the weather showed a forecast for overcast skies with scattered showers, but with the overcast at an acceptable altitude for flying. Great news – I’d be able to get up at 6:00 AM instead of 4:00 AM. Admittedly only two hours, but at that time of morning night, it matters.

Early morning weather briefing, and out to the plane. Still doable under Visual Flight Rules, though I’ll be at about half my usual altitude. Perhaps 10 minutes into the trip, and the visibility begins deteriorating, with light rain. NEXRAD shows nothing onerous ahead of me, so I go down 500 feet and continue on. It’s not getting any better.

I make a decision to switch to Instrument Flight Rules, request a clearance, and in a few moments I’ve shifted from level flight with lousy visibility along the shoreline, to a climb out over the water, with zero visibility. A grayish-white sphere with nothing beyond the wingtips. Rain mists against the windshield, and a few drops work their way in through the defroster vent.

I’m unsettled. Because over the last twenty plus years, though I’ve flown almost fifteen hundred hours, only eighty-two of them were in actual instrument conditions, nothing visible out the window.

I know I can do this. I’ve got a license for it, I’m legally current, and there’s nothing about this weather that poses a significant risk. But my level of confidence corresponds to eighty-two hours of experience, not fifteen hundred, and that transition is disconcerting.

When I had eighty-two hours of total flight time, I was three months past being cut loose for solo flight, and one month from taking my license flight exam. Not a point at which you feel terribly sure of yourself.

There’s a tendency to slip backward, if you permit it to happen. Which is probably what was at work this morning, when I was getting ready to launch. The weather was an ideal candidate for gaining some real-world instrument experience. But I opted for the easy route: staying low and looking out the window.

Though it can fly better than I can, I eschew the autopilot. And I do deviate from altitude and heading now and then, but fairly rapidly get back on course. And when I check the radar track the next day, my divergences aren’t very noticeable. Certainly not enough for me to get scolded by Air Traffic Control. And not remotely enough for a NASA form.

Eventually, I get turned onto the ILS for my destination, and in a few moments the runway resolves itself in the haze. Shortly afterward, I’m fastening the straps on the airplane cover and getting ready for a day of work.

The uncertainties are a tough thing to share. To another instrument pilot, this would seem to be business as usual. To a muggle, the fact that I flew, in an actual airplane, transcends pretty much any details I might provide. So today’s small victory will remain internal.

But it’s still a victory.

The Spaceship

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

If you live in Florida, especially the central east coast, you can watch a space launch pretty much whenever you want. Not so up here at 41°35’N/70°32’W. In fact, the last time I saw one I had to travel down to Florida, to watch STS-133, the final launch of Discovery. A long trek, with several false starts, but well worth it.

A few weeks ago, NASA published this graphic, showing where the September 6 LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) launch would be visible.


Fifteen degrees above the horizon? That should be doable. When the appointed day arrived, I was pleased to see a cloudless sky, and got ready to head for the backyard. Then I though it over and headed to the beach instead. Might as well experience all this has to offer.

The prediction was for the ship to become visible at about 11:28 PM, so I arrived about 10 minutes earlier. There were three other cars there, for the same reason. Nice to know I wasn’t the only one to think this was worthwhile.

LADEE appeared on schedule, working its way west to east, pretty much the way NASA predicted.


Guess the math doesn’t lie.

A spectacular sight? Not really. From up in MA, all I could see was a distinctively orange point of light with some sparkles behind it. Nothing like STS-133. I watched the second stage flame out, tracked where the ship ought to be, based on its trajectory, and then saw the third stage light up. When that went out, I was able to watch for a while with the binoculars, but just barely.

The photo below isn’t mine (HT Sean Sullivan, space.com), but it shows the approximate trajectory.


Knowing what I was watching made all the difference, of course. To a random observer, it was just a point of light. But I’m thinking about what it must feel like to be part of the team that put it up there. Years of work, and then in the space of a few minutes, you’ll know whether it was all for naught… or whether you were going to the moon.

I’ll steal a small bit of vicarious pleasure, knowing that it was my country that lobbed that little rocket up there that evening. Yeah, I know I didn’t participate directly. But my tax dollars helped.

Oiling the Snake

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

I just finished rereading Silicon Snake Oil, by Clifford Stoll. The first time I read this was in 1995, shortly after it was published. Having just established himself in the public eye with The Cucoo’s Egg, Stoll took the position that the then newly-mainstreamed Internet suffered far too many flaws to ever fulfill the world’s expectations.

Eighteen years later, it’s interesting to see where Mr. Stoll got it right and where he got it wrong. We should probably keep in mind that Stoll was an astronomer by trade, not an engineer or computer scientist, but still. When I finished the book, I couldn’t help but remember the oft-quoted words of a Western Union executive, when his company was offered a license on the patent for the newly-invented telephone:

We do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles. Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their telephone devices in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it… This device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.”

Well, a lot has happened since 1995. One of Stoll’s biggest recurring themes was how the inconvenience and low speed of dial-up modems would prevent widespread penetration of internet access in the consumer world. In only eighteen years, we’re now in a situation where DSL, cable, and wireless providers are beating each other’s brains out to offer us megabit-rate services, at an inflation-adjusted cost far below what we paid for dial tone in 1995. It’s widespread enough that there are a few fringe players in Congress who are starting to talk about broadband access as a ‘right’. And once you’ve got that always-on fast pipe there, all sorts of things become possible… and a whole bunch of objections just go away.

Another of Stoll’s predictions was that e-books would never catch on, because of the discomfort and inconvenience of reading a book on the flickering screen of a large, heavy computer. Well, Amazon doesn’t publish numbers, but after looking at a bunch of  sources, I’ve estimated the number of Kindle readers out there as somewhere between 30 and 50 million. But whatever it is, it’s got the traditional publishers quaking in their boots. Like his prediction about modems, the specifics of Stoll’s arguments were correct – nobody would want to read books on a flickering screen of a large, heavy computer. But the objection was rendered irrelevant by technological improvements.

Another of Stoll’s observations was that spending larger amounts of time in front of the computer would limit social interaction. That sure would be news to today’s teens and twenty-somethings who pretty much spend all their waking hours texting, tweeting, and updating their Facebook entries.  Sure it changes social interaction. But one of the desirable side-effects, at least to me is that it’s made the computer geeks more socially acceptable, not less so. A win, at least I think so.

It’s not like Stoll batted zero. His comments about net privacy, especially considering recent news, would certainly resonate with today’s audience. And his deriding of the internet as a panacea for all problems educational certainly wasn’t far off the mark – putting connected computers in a classroom won’t instantly resolve all of education’s woes. But it does open whole new worlds, from distance learning (especially valuable if you happen to live in the third world) to open-source textbooks. So perhaps he scored half a point there.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that I could have guessed any better than Stoll. And there is something to be said for having the confidence to ‘walk the walk’, to publish your predictions for all the world to see, for all eternity. That takes guts.

But the quick version is that when predicting the future, assuming that the underlying technology won’t dramatically improve, and in an astonishingly short period of time, will almost certainly lead you off-course.

Which of course begs the question “What are we missing today?”


A Visit To The Fair

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

A not-so-recent article in the New York Times archive is making the rounds. It was originally written in 1964, by the venerable Isaac Asimov, at the time of the 1964 World’s Fair. The article speculates on what a World’s Fair fifty years in the future might be like.

It’s an interesting piece. When viewing works like this (and I’ll take a look at another one next week), it’s interesting to see where the masters hit, and where they missed. But the most obvious miss here is that there won’t be a World’s Fair of 2014.

Why? Well, probably lots of reasons. There’s a saying that whenever the question ‘why’ is asked, nine times out of ten the answer is ‘money’. And that’s surely a factor here. But there’s plenty of money out there. We live in an age where there are privately-funded space programs going on! So it’s really not about the money, but rather the will to spend it. And the bottom line here is that somewhere over the last fifty years, we, as a culture, stopped celebrating the future. Or, as a friend of mine who, as a child, witnessed the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge put it, “People were in favor of progress back then.”

Consider the Dystopian Future sub-genre of science fiction. Probably the only major work in that realm that was around in the sixties was The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells, already almost sixty years old. Imagine a work like Blade Runner being released back then. The Nazis had just been vanquished, the biggest problem in Detroit had was fulfilling the county’s insatiable demand, and we were on the way to the moon. To say it wouldn’t have been popular would be an understatement. Today, with the threat of international terrorism, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse, and much, much more, well, the future just isn’t what it used to be.

Or is that really the case? Where today we worry about terror attacks, in the sixties we worried about Soviet nuclear attack. And for whatever their other strengths and weaknesses might be, the Soviets were definitely better armed than your average contemporary terrorist. Back then, millions were dying of natural causes in their sixties, of diseases that are routinely treated today. Somewhere between then and now, being poor took on a whole new meaning; what once meant missing meals, now means carrying a crappy voice-only cell phone instead of an iPhone. Bottom line: whatever is wrong in the world today, and plenty is, there are more people enjoying a higher standard of living now than in any other time in human history. That’s true of the United States, and it’s true of the world. It may not be true in isolated pockets of population in various places, but that’s far more an issue of local political forces than global phenomenon.

So how and why did we become such pessimists? Part of it may be that we can see so much farther now than we could fifty years ago. If you’re living in a peaceful bucolic small town, it’s easy to be optimistic. But if you’re receiving a barrage of television and internet news, intent on informing you of every latest disaster, it’s tough not to be affected. Consider an extreme example, the Sandy Hook shooting. Without in any way discounting the magnitude of the tragedy, its important to remember that if an event like that was to happen every single day of the year, the total number of lives lost would still be less than one percent of our annual death toll. But we’re wired to react viscerally to every piece of bad news as though it happened to someone in our village. I think we need to make a conscious effort to avoid this; to take the news with a pound of salt.

We also tend to be less prudent than we were 50 years ago. As evidence, consider the epidemic of consumer debt… or the fact that stockpiling food, something anyone in the Midwest would have been doing 100 years ago, is now considered by many to be a fringe ‘survivalist’ activity. I think that prudent people tend to be more optimistic, because they’ve prepared to weather whatever comes their way… or at least they think they are.

Which of course begs the question ‘Why are people less prudent now?’ And I’ll leave that as an exercise for another day.

The Cub

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

Recently, one of our fellow denizens here was fortuntate enough to be able to treat himself to a shiny new bright yellow Legend Cub. The Legend Cub, a somewhat modernized clone of the original Piper Cub from the 1930s, is pretty much the opposite of the things that attract me to aviation. Its made of welded metal tubing with fabric stretched across it to provide the surface of the wings and body. It doesn’t cruise much faster than the 70s (MPH, not knots), and its usually flow fairly close to the ground. Where other planes might be for going places, the Cub is more about enjoying the ride.

My wife and I were taking a walk last week and, as my neighbor taxied by in the cub, I stuck out my thumb. He pulled over, shut down, and I ran to the plane and jumped in. My very first cub ride – out over the coastline, low enough to enjoy the scenery and slow enough that I had time to do so. And with someone else driving that’s exactly what I did. Admittedly a Cub with state of the art avionics is kind of an anachronism, but what the heck! He let me get a little bit of stick time, and then we headed back for a few more landings, on the grass of course.

My wife was pretty pissed when I got back, but it was worth it.