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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 Penultimate Frontier?

Friday, 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.

That Engineering Mentality, Again

Thursday, 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 Human Side

Monday, December 16th, 2013

The idea that technology dehumanizes is a theme that seems to rear its ugly head from time to time. So it’s refreshing to see a case where the reverse is so obviously true. The video below has been making the rounds for the last several months, and with good reason – it’s a real tear-jerker. Yeah, it’s just an advertisement. And I’m sure that some people who look at it will see it as yet of another case of Microsoft (Skype’s parent company) exploiting two young people for their own gain. But judging by the two million plus views on YouTube, that’s not the majority opinion.

Judge for yourself:

One of the many things we take for granted today is ubiquitous, essentially free, communication. Fifty years ago, Paige and Sarah most likely would have never known about each other. Twenty years ago, they surely would never have cultivated the friendship they now share. Perhaps they would have become pen pals. Or maybe not. But even a techno-cynic like me can’t deny the intimacy that even a short video chat brings. And when I reflect on that, I’m pleased that beyond the semiconductors, protocol stacks, IP packets, and megahertz, something is created that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

And if I’m so moved by all this, I can’t even begin to imagine how the techies at Skype must feel.


Technology v. Art

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

I’m not particularly sure I need one of these, but there’s now a company manufacturing a set of gloves equipped with a Bluetooth headset. Just make the traditional thumb-and-pinky handset gesture and you’re on the phone.


I don’t use the phone out in the cold very often so I’ll probably walk away from this particular gem, but the fact that it’s out there got me thinking about technology as a means of artistic expression. From that angle, LCDs, transducers, processors, switches, and so forth are really no different than the paint, brushes, and canvas that a more traditional artist would use. There’s a fairly widespread belief that engineering, or worse yet programing, is not a creative pursuit. While the bluetooth glove is hardly High Art, I don’t think it can be denied that its the product of a creative and fun-loving mind. And if that not at least one good definition of an artist, I’m not sure what is.

What’s interesting about engineering as an act of creativity is that very often the elegance of a creation is visible only to the creator or his peers. There’s a parallel in the traditional art world, with some claiming that certain art forms can be appreciated only by someone educated to comprehend their nuances. This may be true. Or it may be an excuse to conceal mediocrity. That’s a debate for another time. But in technology, an appreciation of its underlying elegance does require familiarity with what it took to achieve it.

This though isn’t new. Consider this:

I have often felt that programming is an art form,
whose real value can only be appreciated
by another versed in the same arcane art;
there are lovely gems and brilliant coups
hidden from human view and admiration, sometimes forever,
by the very nature of the process.

These words were originally penned (keyboarded?) over thirty years ago, but they’re every bit as true now as they were back then. It’s not clear to me whether there are today fewer or more people equipped to appreciate technological elegance, but I’ll take solace in the fact that the technological elegance is out there, and from time to time I have the privilege of looking at another’s work and saying “”Wow!”

I’m glad to be living in a world where technology is so accessible that people are using it to create things like Bluetooth gloves. And the way, if you need a pair, you can get them here.

A Career-Limiting Move

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

A beautiful, clear day. An experienced, competent crew. A modern, state-of-the-art perfectly functioning airplane. It would be pretty tough to not feel serene, confident and competent under the circumstances. So how could the crew of Atlas Air 4241, a Boeing 747, manage to land at Jabara Airport instead of McConnell Air Force Base, eight miles to the south?

Well, its really not that tough to do, actually. Even in this age of GPS receivers so accurate that even an inexpensive one can place itself on the proper side of the line down the middle of the runway.

I think a contributing factor was the clear weather. In on a crappy, hazy day, a crew will most likely use their instruments to find the airport. On a day with actual instrument weather, a crew will necessarily use their instruments to find the airport. But on a beautiful, clear day, a crew might well look out the window, see the airport, and land.

Here’s McConnell:


And here’s Jabara:


Yes, they look different. But do the really look that different?

I think I could have made that mistake. I’d like to believe that I wouldn’t have made it, at least with an equally experienced pilot in the other seat.

There’s a program sponsored by NASA that attempts to capture data from incidents where pilots <ahem> fouled up, but didn’t do any damage or cause any danger. Reports are voluntary, and if there was no criminal intent, the report can work as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Probably this works better when your incident doesn’t become national news.

The point of the NASA program is that, with it, all pilots can learn from the mistakes of the few. That’s a good thing.

Lesson learned for me: Check the GPS even when I’m sure I see the airport in front of me. After all, who am I going to believe; the GPS or my own lyin’ eyes.



Reflections from 21B

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

I’m sitting in an only slightly uncomfortable leather seat, closing in on the end of Encounter With Tiber, sipping a cup of tea. To my left is a woman deeply engrossed in Of Human Bondage reading it on her iPad mini. To my right, another woman, with a map of Maine unfolded, is planning her camping itinerary.

Its hard to believe that we’re actually sitting in a pressurized aluminum can six miles over Lake Michigan, hurtling through the air at six hundred miles per hour while being tossed about by forces we can’t see or comprehend. From time to time I find myself reflecting on the enormity of it all, and take a moment to be grateful for having been born in this particular time and place. When Lewis and Clarke took a similar trip a couple of centuries ago, it took about eighteen months, and arrival wasn’t guaranteed. Neither was survival.

I think the thing that would most impress the early American colonists, if we could sent the message back, would be that in less than 250 years an average Joe would be able to make it back to England in about eight hours, for only a few days wages.

Miraculous times, if you stop to think about it. I can’t help but think of the G. K. Chesteron quote:

 “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

 I wonder if it was always that way. Did folks in the age of the steam engine say “yeah, whatever” when months of backbreaking labor vanished? Did those who witnessed early airplane flights turn their back in indifference? When penicillin, the first real wonder drug was discovered, was the general public reaction apathy?

I can’t say with certainty why our view of the incredible world around us seems to be “…yeah, but what have you done for me lately?” But I’ll take a stab at it. Once we’ve experienced this level of prosperity for a few generations, I think we begin to view it as normal. But its not. And I think its healthy to remind ourselves of this on a regular basis. It may be far more fragile that it appears, and if its we’re going to try to preserve and improve it, the first think we need to do is stay aware of just how special it really is.

So when you’re cooped up in 21B, elbow-to-elbow with your seatmates, take a moment to reflect on the enormity of what’s actually going on.



Why Fi?

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

The ubiquitousness of WiFi coverage these days never ceases to amaze me. When I sat down at our local pub last weekend, I felt a brief vibration from my belt; my phone telling me that the BritishBeerCompany free WiFi access point was available. I opted instead to access a bottle Wells Banana Bread beer. We’ll leave the discussion of whether that was an optimal choice for another time, but now that WiFi is nearly as common as running water, it would be worthwhile to consider whether it’s always a good idea to quench our thirst.

Tomorrow I’ll be spending several hours in a 737. In the past, I’ve considered this to be an opportunity to catch up on some combination of the three Rs: reading, (w)riting, and relaxing. The isolation was a Good Thing.

Now, I’ve got the opportunity to fork over ten bucks or so for some moderately wide-band coverage during that six or so hours aloft. I tried it once when, during the introduction, it was free. They block video, which is fine. I never tried Skype. For browsing the web and checking email, it did the job. I ssh’d into my web server just for the hell of it. Probably, I spent most of the flight catching up on my favorite blogs and my email – I don’t really remember.

Generally, if I want to get online while I’m on the road, I want the WiFi to be free. When it’s not, I’m moderately annoyed, especially if I’m in a top-dollar hotel. It’s been my experience that the fancier the hotel, the less is included in your room charge. At the Hampton Inn, WiFi is always included, but it never seems to be so at the Embassy Suites.

But when it comes to the airlines, I’m actually kind of glad that WiFi isn’t free. It’s new technology, so when it was introduced it wasn’t free, and given the sad state of the airline industry today, it’s unlikely that it will be free any time soon. Which is just fine for me. Tomorrow, I’ll get to work on a few short stories with one less distraction, and most likely the world will survive without receiving my emails for a few hours.

Generally, I’m not a fan of unplugging. While I’m too old to spend my every waking hour texting, I fully understand why today’s yoots don’t want to break that connection. I wouldn’t voluntarily give up any of my five senses, so why would they voluntarily give up their sixth.

But there’s another metaphor that comes to mind, too. My taste in music is diverse, I love conversation, I’m fascinated by the subtleties of sound as a telephone call is established1, and I could listen to Air Traffic Control for hours. Sound is very important to me.

But sometimes I just want quiet.

So tomorrow, I’ll skip the ten bucks and enjoy the quiet. There’s a time for everything, and some things are easier at 35,000 feet.


1 –  If you’re wondering how big a deal this could be, take a look at Exploding The Phone, a very worthwhile read

The Demise of the Book, Again

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

A recent blog entry by someone better-known than me forecasts the end of books and bookstores as we know them. Perhaps. But perhaps there’s more to it than that.

The highest-profile evidence of change in the air was surely the demise of the Borders Bookstore chain, but I’m certain you’ve witnessed the end of booksellers closer to home. One sad note for me was reading that Lorem Ipsum Books (great name, no?) in Cambridge was up for sale, with the article I read mentioning that it was historically a labor of love, and never really gained any traction financially. Great place to browse, though.

And I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem. If I told you I never browsed a book in a store and immediately reserved it at the library, I’d be lying. I’m also guilty of supporting the market for used books, at the expense of new ones.

What does it all mean? Well if Mr. Godin is saying that the classic bookstore with its huge stacks of musty volumes, a schoolmarm-ish lady behind the counter, and a big cat sitting on an upholstered chair nearby is on its way out, I’d have to agree. But I’m less willing to believe that twenty years from now paper books will be obscure museum pieces. I love my Kindle. But I also love to hold a paper book in my hand. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

So what might a bookstore look like in 2040? Well, it will be doing a lot of things besides selling books. What? Well, think of the things that avid readers enjoy besides books. I could imagine playhouses, meeting places, hosting traveling museum exhibits or guest speakers, providing classes, and so forth. The local bookstore might be where you go for the recitation portion of a college class, after receiving the lecture portion online. Or pretty much anything else that involves both the mind and physical presence. Will they charge à la carte, or offer memberships? I don’t know. I’ll leave the specifics to the attention of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, except to say that maintaining the status quo would be suicidal.

Libraries? Same thing. Already, they’re becoming social places, bridging the gap between the online and physical community. In the cities that value them, they’re not going away any time soon. In the places that don’t, it probably doesn’t matter much.

But what about the paper books themselves? Dated anachronism, or timeless store of value? Ebooks offer immediacy, ease of transportation, and democracy of access – freedom of the press is no longer limited to those who own one. In contrast, the traditional edition offers tangibility, reliability, resistance to alteration after the fact (1984, anyone?), and resilience against theft – which would you rather lose, your iPad or that dog-eared copy of 50 Shades?

Set your WABAC machine to the beginning of the twentieth century. We’re all riding around on horses and bicycles. You pick up the newspaper and read this editorial:

Exciting technological breakthroughs over the last several years have made the automobile even better and more reliable that it already was. Despite the initial expense, traveling by car is faster, more comfortable, and far more practical in bad weather than any other means of transportation. At first the auto appealed only to the mechanically-inclined, but in just a few more years, the bicycle will be gone completely from the public scene, except for the occasional die-hard. And once the last of them pass on, the only bikes will be in junkyards and museums.

There were over 100 million bicycles manufactured worldwide in 2012.

Ebook versus the Dead Tree edition? It’s a big world. There’s room for both.


Life in the 21st Century

Monday, August 5th, 2013

I’d known about Heritage GardensDriving Our Dreams exhibit for a few months, but it wasn’t until yesterday that a house guest provided the excuse to head over for a look.

I’ve always had a weak spot for examining what the future looked like from the past. Give me a 1950’s Popular Mechanics magazine with an article about life in the 21stcentury and you’ll keep me busy for hours. So an opportunity to wander among spaceships like these


was not to be missed.

Doubtlessly these were built to attract attention. And they do. Whether that transforms into a desire to buy is less certain, at least to me. There is a claim that when Chevrolet sells a handful of $100,000+ Corvette ZR1 coupes, it drives sales of Cavaliers and Cruzes. Maybe. Or maybe not.

But as I walked among these glimpses of the past’s future, I couldn’t help but think that at that time we enjoyed a sense of optimism that somehow dissipated over the last two generations. These cars broadcast the idea that we’d be going faster, and in more comfort, and (possibly this last one is just me) to more interesting places.

Contrast that with the Toyota Prius. And without in any way diminishing the technical and business achievement of commercializing that drive system (and dominating that market segment), I don’t think anyone would look at one and think in terms of grandeur. Efficiency, sure. But not grandeur.

Ignore for a moment the question of which is more practical, or has a smaller environmental footprint, or would be easier to park. Think instead of which is more likely to quicken your pulse. This?


Or this?




Or this?


In general, our present direction may be inevitable, given the vagarities of the economy, fuel prices, highway congestion, and so forth.  But when the dust settles, I don’t mind paying a few bucks more to make the experience of getting from point A to point B more than, well, just getting from point A to point B. And I wonder whether, as this century unfolds, the auto makers, regulators, and so forth will share that desire.

And then I see something like this, from Scion, of all places, and realize there’s hope.