Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!

In what has become a Christmas tradition, I spent the evening cooking Christmas Eve dinner for our family, including my in-laws, and cleaning the fine dining implements in the kitchen while Christmas caroling drifts in from the living room. Continuing my new tradition, after chasing wired kids off to bed and wishing I could do the same, I retired to the solitude of the back bedroom to wrap the presents I got for Cheryl (amazingly, I didn't also buy them today). Just a couple more duties to go, then I can retire for the short night.

I hope your day will be as blessed as ours promises to be: surrounded by family, basking in warm, sunny weather, and marveling that no matter what may or may not be encased in colorful paper underneath the tree, we have been given riches in abundance.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Decidedly Unfriendly Skies

For those of you interested in spectacular or merely intriguing aviation videos, this is a pretty good site. Be warned, some of the videos involve crashes, but many are simply films of unusual flight events.

For instance, ever seen a 747 land sideways?

How about an aileron roll in a 707?

This is an interesting one, not just for the startling sight of a Navy crewman disappearing into the intake of a jet fighter (and surviving), but for the backstory that I learned from one of my Porsche buddies who was serving aboard that carrier at the time (internet clubs draw people in from allpoints of the compass and all walks of life). As he explains it, the first person seen in the video is a trainee checking the position of the launch bar in the shuttle of the catapult and then moving away from the aircraft. The next person on the scene is his trainer who attempted to double check the launch bar position. His mistake, with the engine at full throttle, was to walk straight toward the nose gear, which put him in front of the intake. He should have gone behind the intake and looked forward into the shuttle.

A couple of things saved the sailor's life. First, the nose cone on the front of the A-6 engines is about three feet long. When he was sucked in, his arm was extended over his head which caused him to get wedged between the nose cone and inner wall of the intake. Second, his helmet and life preserver were sucked off and destroyed the engine, causing the sparks and flames out the back of the engine that you see in the video. The pilot immediately cut power to that engine and the launch was aborted. The sailor apparently climbed back out of the engine on his own and fell to the deck; it happened so fast, nobody knew he was there.

The incident is now a Navy training video.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Stupid Car Marketing Tricks

I've been mentally composing a major discussion of car naming conventions. Something has happened recently, though, that demands a response without further delay.

Ford Motor Company recently introduced a mid-sized sedan line that will be sold by at least two of its subsidiaries. The Lincoln version is not a bad car, and has received generally favorable reviews. Lincoln has even given the car a real name. My forthcoming post on car names will bemoan the trend of mysterious alphanumeric jumbles (with notable exceptions) or focus-group-friendly proto-words, so ordinarily I would greet conventional nomenclature with approval.

Unfortunately, Lincoln has chosen to resurrect a thoroughly uninspiring nameplate: Zephyr. What's that? Only the nadir of Ford's 1970's engineering:

Buy a dictionary, Ford. There are so many words out there that could be used for your new product. If Green Bill Ford insists that you must recycle, at least use a name with some heritage; even Sierra would do. Why drag out a musty relic from Detroit's absolute worst era? Has the marketing staff suddenly been overrun by business school grads younger than I am, who don't have personal memories of cars with huge but blissfully power-free engines, steering with all the feel of the stereo volume knob, illegible instruments (all two of them), and chrome bumpers that outweigh a Prius? Shame on you. Nostalgia is supposed to be pleasant, not induce the gag relflex.

Christmas Concerts

Things have been busy lately. Our annual Christmas Concerts took place this past weekend: four concerts in two days, following tech/dress rehearsals on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Unfortunately, I was nursing a pesky cold/flu thing all week that threatened to ruin my voice. Lots of tea with honey, Airborne and Advil seemed to do just enough to keep my head and voice clear. With 12 songs, including a six-person ensemble piece and a major solo, I needed all the help I could get.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the event and we had a good time putting it on (even though it was pretty hard work). Christmas may now go forward as scheduled.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Best Municipal Sign

Seen at a small, fenced-in playground at the San Francisco Civic Center (a homeless haven):

"Adults prohibited unless accompanied by Child."

Monday, December 12, 2005

Turn Out the Lights…

The Mighty Tigers have finally been silenced. Kelly’s team surrendered to the Grey Wolves on Saturday by a score of 2-1. (One would have thought that the larger feline could dispose of the smaller canine…)

Our girls came out a little flat, not playing with the same skill or intensity that they had shown the previous weekend. The defenders played with the ball too much, the offense couldn’t get going. The other team didn’t have any superstars, but they were so much like us that we could not establish a rhythm in the game.

Halftime passed without a score as the tension rose on both sidelines. After playing goalkeeper in the first quarter and sitting out the second, Kelly went back into goal, presumably for the remainder of the game. The game began to be played almost exclusively on our end of the field. Halfway through the quarter, disaster struck. One of our defenders committed an obvious handball infraction, one that the referee could not ignore. To everyone’s horror, the violation was in the penalty box, meaning the Grey Wolves would get a penalty kick. This is the one-on-one shot, in which the goalie must stay on the end line until the shot is struck, from about 20 feet away. Seeing Kelly, the smallest player on her team, swallowed up by the huge goal around her as she faced an opponent who is allowed line up the best shot, made me feel sick for her. We had worked for a while after practice last week in the front yard in the dark on getting low and making good stops, but a penalty shot is a no-win situation for a goalie, especially one who is a good couple of years away from being five feet tall.

Under a leaden sky, the shooter lined up. The other players jostled each other along the lines of the penalty box. Kelly stood impassive in the goal, her hands in a tentative ready position. I crouched behind our chair, half a field away and utterly unable to do anything to help her feel okay about giving up the first goal in a critical game under impossible circumstances. The referee blew the whistle.

She made the save. She made the save!

Not only did she make the save, but she had to dart to her left, staying low, to do so. For someone as small as she is, it was a remarkable achievement, but particularly so under the pressure-packed circumstances. Was I proud? I haven’t stopped smiling about it yet.

Of course, our defense continued its uncharacteristic downward spiral. Not three minutes after Kelly’s game-saving deflection of the penalty shot, one of her own defenders deflected an easy roller away from her into the goal. A few minutes after that, the Grey Wolves’ best player got loose close to the goal and launched a high, hard shot that none of our goalies could have stopped. Our star scored a late breakaway goal, but we all knew the game had been decided long before. The other team simply played better than we did that day.

In the end, the girls had a great season. Out of 24 teams in their division, they finished fifth. I watched two of the other games that weekend, and the two teams that will be in the championship game are not nearly the well-defined team that our girls had. One team depends entirely on a transcendent superstar (look for her in the Olympics, seriously), the other has a Big Girl and a Mouth.

Half of our girls were in tears for a little while after the game ended, such was their intensity, even if it arrived too late to inspire them to a win. In a world that increasingly encourages uniformity by rewarding mediocrity, it was refreshing to see young athletes care so deeply about the success of their team. After a few misty moments, Kelly shrugged it off and moved on with life. That’s good, too.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Short Runway, Bad Weather

Yesterday's skidding crash of a Southwest 737 at Chicago's Midway airport bears an uncomfortable resemblance to an incident involving a Southwest jet landing at Burbank in March 2000 [the link is to the NTSB report; fascinating stuff if you're a wannabe pilot like me]. Like yesterday's crash, the 2000 incident involved very bad weather. A more alarming connection is the similarity between the physical layout of the two airports. Both are relatively small, regional facilities, with runways of 6,500 feet or less that cannot be extended due to the presence of homes and businesses that surround the airports. Like the aircraft in the 2000 Burbank crash, the jet skidded off the end of the runway through a catch fence, ending up in the street outside the airport grounds. Unfortunately, while the Burbank airplane avoided tragedy by sliding to a halt mere feet in front of a gas station, the Chicago airplane struck a car, killing a child inside.

I've written before about short runways. I'm not a big fan. Landing at Burbank usually means that the aircraft is hard on the brakes and reverse thrusters all the way until it peels off to its assigned gate alongside the runway, less than 500 feet before the end of the runway. Bad weather quickly increases the difficulty of the landing, which must occur early over the field and requires hard braking under the best of circumstances. Short of installing walls at the end of airfields that would restrain (but heavily damage) a runaway jetliner, it appears that tragedies like this will continue to happen from time to time at busy regional airports that are too hemmed in by the cities around them to afford a safety buffer zone for runoff.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Book Review: "First Man"

I have long been an enthusiast of the space program. I am too young to remember the last days of the Apollo missions, but I vividly remember arising early to watch the space shuttle Columbia lift off on its first mission. Almost by accident, I have begun to accumulate a nice little collection of books about the space program, which usually take the form of biographies. I have “Lost Moon,” Jim Lovell’s account of the Apollo 13 near-tragedy, “Failure Is Not An Option,” by legendary flight director Gene Kranz, and “For Spacious Skies,” the biography of Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter.

I have now just finished reading the recently-published “First Man: the Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” the first and only authorized biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong. It is a long book, with large sections devoted to detailed accounts of Armstrong’s two space flights, described in second-by-second detail at points of particular interest such as the touchdown of the lunar module of Apollo 11. The book, written by Auburn University history professor and former NASA historian James Hansen, also devotes an equally considerable amount of ink to Armstrong’s service as a naval aviator during the Korean War and his work for NACA/NASA as a test pilot. Drawing from interviews of Armstrong, his family, friends and colleagues, as well as Navy and NASA records, the book is decidedly scholarly, yet quite readable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, even for his own authorized biography, Armstrong steadfastly refuses to describe the emotional motivation or impact of any of his accomplishments or personal experiences. Long described, perhaps unfairly, as a recluse, Armstrong instead comes across as someone so self-controlled that he has no emotional center to which to refer, even when asked to do so directly. His interviews for the book are consistently non-committal when addressing issues of even the slightest controversy, such as the question of who would set foot on the moon first, his relationship with his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts, or even the death of his daughter due to cancer at age 2. He speaks the engineering equivalent of “lawyerese;” while precise in its own way, his mode of communication is relentlessly circumspect. Ultimately, he exhibits a personality of one who strove so hard to not disappoint anyone that he shut himself off from everyone. Coming to the book hoping to find revealed the normal man that has been hidden from view, you realize that there is no hidden man to find. Like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, “there’s no there there.”

Oddly, based on portions of mission transcripts reproduced in the book, Armstrong appears to have an easy, dry wit, and would express enthusiasm as anyone would if they were, say, looking at the Earth rising over the Moon for the first time. Ultimately, however, the personality he displays for public, professional and personal consumption is intensely controlled and seemingly devoid of emotional range.

The book demonstrates, however, that Armstrong was an outstanding engineer and test pilot, whose cool demeanor and superior problem solving skills made him the ideal commander for the first manned mission to land on the moon. He may not have been warm and fuzzy, but he got the job done and allowed those around him to do their jobs as well. He also is shown to be a dynamic, gifted extemporaneous speaker, which skill he put to use almost from the beginning of his days as a Gemini astronaut, down to the present.

“First Man” is lengthy and laden with statistical facts that may seem unnecessary (i.e., how many rounds of ammunition Armstrong and his squad-mates expended in Korea; the number of sentences each of the three Apollo 11 astronauts spoke at their introductory press conference). The book, with its intent to be a scrupulously careful historical record, often finds its narrative drifting off correct relatively small inaccuracies in the record of conventional understanding about Armstrong. The book sometimes takes strident tone that comes across as unnecessarily defensive when debunking criticisms of Armstrong, particularly concerning Chuck Yeager. However, for those interested in the glory days of the space program, the level of detail with which Armstrong’s Gemini and, particularly, Apollo missions are portrayed provide a welcome addition to the historical record of these monumental events.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Playoff Beat Goes On

Two days, two games, two wins. Kelly's team is on to yet another weekend of playoff games after defeating a couple of the best teams from the other group in their division. In their next game, they have a rematch against the best team in the other group, to whom they lost on penalty kicks after playing to a 0-0 tie a few weeks ago.

Three more wins and they become division champions. Three more wins? It's all fun, but I think we're all ready for the season to come to a close. The team pizza party is going to be perilously close to Christmas!