February, 2014

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Test Pilot, Again

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

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

There is no upper limit to what it might cost.

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

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

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

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


Sunday, February 16th, 2014

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

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


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

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


So we didn’t bother packing.

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Let’s head to the airport!

An interesting pattern… or is it?

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just wish I could do it more quickly.

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!