September, 2013 browsing by month


Farewell Voyage

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Given that bicycling is pretty much the only thing I enjoy that has anything to do with fitness, I try to indulge it when the opportunity presents itself. Which is how I wound up owning four bicycles, not including the stationary exercise one. And having not ridden the folding recumbent for quite a while, I was starting to think it was time to thin the herd.

I’d bought this one some time ago, when I had both a recumbent fixation and a desire to be able to get the bicycle in an airplane. Green Gear, out of Eugene, Oregon, offered just what I wanted, but at an outrageous price. I kept my eyes on the ‘closeouts’ page of their web site, and when the right deal came up I jumped on it.

The Sat-R-Day folding recumbent was sort of a ‘dancing bear’ item – what made it special was not how effectively it folded, but that it folded it at all. In about ten minutes it could be disassembled into pieces small enough to fit into a large black zippered bag. Somewhat unwieldy, but still able to fit in the back of a car or airplane. That bike and I visited perhaps a dozen airports in maybe half a dozen states, yet surprisingly, I think I only put about 700 miles on it.

A new bike better suited to longer trips surfaced a few years ago, and then, when a Brompton showed up on Craig’s list for a price that was only unreasonable and not completely absurd, that joined the stable as well. The Brompton is a marvel of engineering, a design refined over more than twenty years of incremental improvements. It’s lighter than the Sat-R-Day, folds into a much smaller package, and I can unfold it in about a minute. (There’s a guy on YouTube who does it in ten seconds!)

So the Sat-R-Day tended to be left behind when a trip requiring a folder came up. And no bike should be left gathering dust, so I reluctantly decided that it was time for this once pride and joy to find a new home.

Wanting to be sure that it was performing properly, I decided to take my signature ‘Shining Seas Triangle’ ride, about twenty-eight miles, the centerpiece being Cape Cod’s Shining Seas Bike Trail. The season, at least for me, is nearing to a close; as I left the house I was disappointed to see my breath fogging in front of me. RIP summer.

A few miles out, I’m cold, but not desperately so. The gloves help, nothing can make a ride as miserable for me as frozen knuckles. There’s close to zero wind, which helps. At one point I ride past a large open field that’s in direct sunlight. A warm mass of air envelopes me – nice. Its humid air and my glasses fog over immediately – not so nice.

The ride continues. It’s said that recumbents and conventional bikes exercise different muscles, or exercise the same muscles differently. Something’s definitely going on – I’m having a much tougher time of this than I expected. After about seven miles, I make it to the north end of the bike path. The next ten miles will be mostly level, through forest and cranberry bogs, past lakes and marshes, and even along a section of sandy beach alongside the Martha’s Vineyard Sound. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve done this ride, but every time it’s a delight. I slow down for a moment to enjoy the view across Fresh Pond in North Falmouth. I do a double-take at the dog statue dressed in a Halloween tee-shirt thoughtfully provided by a homeowner whose property abuts the trail. I jump on the brakes to avoid a chipmunk who darts across my path.

Eventually I make it to Woods Hole, and park the bike in front of my usual breakfast place. Standing up for the first time in ninety minutes, that thought about leg muscles and recumbents surfaces with a vengeance. Maybe being mildly sore doesn’t mean I’ve burned more calories, but it does make the pancakes incrementally easier to justify.

Heading back to the bike, the discomfort in my legs is even more obvious. The remaining ten miles back home will definitely take longer than the previous ten.

But a combination of patience and low gear ratios results in my pulling up in front of my garage about an hour later, very much alive, but not quite ready for another ten miles.

Mission accomplished. I survived the ride, and I can sell the bike in good conscience, knowing that, despite its age, its functioning well enough for a not-particularly-fit rider to knock out twenty-eight miles on a beautiful, clear Sunday morning. Hopefully its next owner will have as much fun with this interesting little machine as I have.


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.

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.