Philosophy browsing by category


The Most Valuable Cargo

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Aloft again, this time in 27F between ATL and HSV, in what must be one of the few remaining DC-9s still in service in the US. Mercifully, Delta has maintained the interior of the tired old bird in a way that belies its years, though the 3+2 seating gives away the fact that the machine has been flying since Clinton was president.

Atlanta is one of the largest airports I’ve ever been to. Not the biggest airspace; that honor goes to New York, with three international airports in each other’s shadow, sharing the same piece of sky. But Atlanta has four runway of its own, well over 100 gates, and a railroad to get between them. There’s a saying in these parts that if you die and go to hell, you’ll have to change planes in Atlanta.

I arrive late AM on a Monday, a time during which the vast majority of my traveling companions are doing this for business reasons, not for vacation. And because of that, if they’re not paying top dollar for their tickets, they’re certainly paying more, on average, than they’d be paying if they were heading to Disney World.

I’m heading out this morning to visit a customer of a client; to investigate an elusive technical problem. The folks around me could well be on a variety of missions: sales people calling on prospects, executives making business presentations, experts resolving problems. How much of this might be done on the phone, or by FedEx? Presumably not much; after all, most people would rather go home after a day of work than check into an anonymous hotel. And surely most employers would prefer to avoid the expense of business travel.

It dawns on me that the most valuable cargo, the thing worth shipping thousands of miles, is talent: skills, abilities, instincts, or perhaps even an impossibly deft touch. What makes it special is that, whatever the talent might be, it’s not available anywhere closer than thousands of miles away. And so it makes sense to ship it, however far it needs to be shipped.

I reflect for a moment, in the pride that comes with realizing that someone thought enough of my skills to ship me down here. It almost makes up for the fact that I’ll be spending the next few nights away from my home and bride.

The perspective might also bear on my thoughts as I catch the train between terminals at ATL on the way home in a few days. Everyone around me will have proven themselves good enough at something that they were worth shipping all that distance. Viewed from that angle, my fellow road warriors seem just a bit more noble. And that’s something worthwhile.

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.



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,, 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.

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 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.


First World Problems

Monday, August 12th, 2013

We had the good fortune last weekend to enjoy a well-performed rendition of Fiddle On The Roof at a local playhouse. (If you’re unfamiliar with the show, go here, read, and come back.) Mostly, Fiddler is about cultural change, told through the vehicle of the protagonist’s daughters choosing to marry for love, rather than accepting arranged marriages. But the back story resonated with me as well, that of an small village living in abject poverty, eventually being displaced by a decree from the Tzar.

Which got me thinking about a phrase that’s been getting some traction lately: “First World Problems”. If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly one of the global one percenters; you live in a heated home, you’re more at risk for obesity than malnutrition, and its unlikely that you’ll be evicted by the Tzar any time soon¹.

But you’ve got first-world problems, instead. Examples:

When you travel with your children, you carry so much ‘kid equipment’ that you had to trade in your sedan for a mini-van.

With 400 channels of cable, there are three shows you’d like to watch tonight, but your DVR can only record two simultaneously.

Jet lag.


As annoying as these may be, they don’t include things like roving gangs of marauders killing you, raping your wife, and enslaving your children.

Does this make your first-world problems trivial? Of course not.

Well… actually, maybe it does.

Agreed, they may not seem trivial. But a bit of time reflecting on the way things once were, or perhaps could someday again be, helps breed sanity in dealing with the affairs of day-to-day life². I highly recommend it.


1- OTOH…
2- HT to Nevil Shute

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.



The Cutting Edge of 1950s Technology

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

A whirlwind vacation in Memphis, Tennessee this week yielded, among other things, a visit to Sun Studios. This is the record studio famous for having discovered folks like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In addition to all sorts of interesting tales about the birth of rock and roll, the tour included a look at some seriously interesting 1950s – vintage recording equipment.

One rather unusual item was a ‘record cutting lathe’, the device that used to cut the lacquer master used to generate the negative ‘stamper’ that pressed the actual records. This particular one was a desktop machine about a yard across that must have weighed at least 100 pounds.

I happened to notice that one of the controls on this monster was labeled outside-in / inside out, presumably for selecting the direction in which the recording head moved as the master was cut. When the tour was over, I asked the docent why anyone would want to cut a record from the inside out.

She admitted she didn’t have an answer, but allowed as to how it was a good question. I did some research online later that day. Here’s what was revealed.

As you probably remember, LP records turned at 33-1/3 RPM, which amounts to about half a turn per second. But the length of one turn around is greater at the outside edge of the record than  toward the middle. So the speed of the stylus over the groove decreases as the program plays, starting at about 17 inches per second at the outside of the record and slowing to  about 8 inches per second at the inside.

This means that the fidelity of the recording is potentially better for the outermost grooves. Since most classical music starts out quietly and builds into a dynamic multi-instrument crescendo, it was deemed desirable by some to cut classical records from the inside out, so the more demanding end of the piece could enjoy the better performance of the outermost grooves. But it never really caught on, at least in part because it would completely confuse an automatic record changer.

It was, however, fairly commonly used for the recording of long, multi-disk transcriptions, where the odd sides would be recorded outside-in and even sides would be recorded inside-out. That way, listeners would not hear an obvious change in fidelity on the transition between disks.

I’m consistently amazed by how much our progenitors were able to achieve with so little to work with. I wonder if, sixty years from now, others will say the same about us.



Monday, July 22nd, 2013

I’m going to guess that more than half of the blogs out there consist primarily of regular entries beginning with “I haven’t been blogging much lately…” Well, guilty as charged. The last entry here was more than six months ago. You see, I’ve been busy with clients, traveling, tied up on other projects…


No excuses. I ran across this a few days ago: Now I’m sure that I’d need scientific notation to enumerate all the ‘advice to aspiring authors’ articles ever written. But one of Mr. Howey’s key points is to take the endeavor seriously, as you would any other thing of importance. So thanks for the kick in the tush, Mr. H.

And on to other things.

I was out of the country when Asiana 214 slammed into the seawall at the approach end of runway 28L in San Francisco. At first, all I knew of the event was the fuzzy picture of the burned-out hulk, as viewed on the ancient television set in the living room of our bed and breakfast in Bermuda. Tough to get any useful information, even allowing for the fact that there really isn’t much useful information to be had so soon after such an event.


This is traditionally the point at which we say that it’s improper to draw conclusions until all the facts are in. But I’m not an NTSB investigator, or an AP reporter, or a talking head on the television. I’m just an opinionated guy who flies the small stuff from time to time, weighing in with his two cents.

So, with those caveats taken care of, I’ll say that it sure looks like the crew of that airplane screwed up big-time. If you want the particulars, the Wikipedia article about the crash is pretty complete. But it left me thinking that this wasn’t a very ‘satisfying’ accident.

What I mean by that is that it wasn’t a case of a crew fighting against a major mechanical failure, or one that somehow wound up in an impossible-to-anticipate situation. It was just a couple of guys who, on a perfectly clear day with no significant wind, flew a perfectly-functioning 200 million dollar airplane into the ground.

And it’s even more troubling in context. Consider Air France 447; a highly trained crew stalling an Airbus 330 from 38,000 feet all the way down into the icy Atlantic. Or Colgan Air 3407, in which an admittedly fatigued crew managed to stall a Bombardier Q400 into the ground outside of Buffalo.

These are the sort of accidents that guys like me are supposed to be having, not the professionals.

And where it leaves me is with my view of the pros as steely-eyed aviation gods, with thousand of hours of experience and hyper-effective training, starting to erode. Could they perhaps be only human, and subject to the same foibles as the rest of us?

If that’s the case, and the evidence is increasingly pointing in that direction, then maybe this is as good as it gets, and we just need to expect an accident like this every few years. And all in all, it’s really not that bad, when you think about it. Asiana 214 killed three people; nearly that many die every hour in traffic accidents.

But it’s still troubling. And I can’t help but think that we’re missing something.