Archive for August, 2012

Review: The Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

The Higgs Discovery is a short discussion of the recent Higgs Boson announcement from Lisa Randall.  It includes a couple relevant chapters reprinted from a couple of her books.  I picked it up because I wanted to know more about that announcement and what it means for physics.  I’m not a physicist, of course, but I like to believe that I know enough to not completely make a fool of myself in intelligent discussion.  This Higgs thing was outside my range, though, and I’d like to be less lost.

The Higgs Discovery helped. I’m far from completely understanding how this all works, or how we think it all works, but I’m doing better.  After reading it, I have the beginnings of an intuition.

To an extent Discovery didn’t make things simple enough for me, and felt jargony where I thought that jargon wasn’t necessary.  I’m picking nits.  This is a very short primer on a complex topic in quantum physics.  Randall’s goal has to be to tell me enough to get me interested enough to pick up a more complete discussion.  Discovery did that very well.

Wheels Up Again

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

The fine folks at Kim Davidson Aviation have repaired my tire after the sad events last Sunday, and I took some time this afternoon to try it out. It looked like a tire that holds air when I walked around, so, off we go.

I put 5 landings on it in the heat of the day and had no problems, so I feel good about taking passengers again.  I know that Kim’s guys do a great job, but I like to test these things before I put someone else in the plane.

Incidentally, spending an hour in the pattern at SMO is one of my favorite things to do.  It’s my home field so I know the place well, but there’s always something interesting to put a twist on things.  Today it was fairly busy and had SMO’s patented late afternoon gusty winds.  The airport sits on some of the higher land in the area, cut off like a little mesa and gets a strong ocean breeze.  The result is a set of air currents that are surprisingly stong to a newbie and offer something new to the old hands as well.  The field was also busy enough that one self-confessed country boy was very appreciative of the (excellent) controllers’ help getting in, around, and out of the field.

While I was gassing up afterward I saw this puppy parked by the pumps.  It’s a SeaRay – a homebuilt/kitplane flying boat.  Click through to see the bigger pics, the thumbnails don’t do it justice.

Things That Go Bump On The Runway

Monday, August 20th, 2012

I have been very lucky so far with the things that have gone wrong in my flying career.  Most of the things that have gone wrong for me have (knock wood) been small.  I had another small one go wrong this weekend.  I blew a tire rolling out on a landing at Santa Monica.

I was out with Marc Zorn flying approaches for instrument currency.  We were actually delayed departing Santa Monica because the nose wheel tire was low.  American Flyers helped us out and filled that tire.  I always check the tires during my walk around, but because the nose had been low and because I’d recently had the left main tire filled, I double checked the mains when the lineman came over.  No sense asking him to come back.  I was surer than usual that everything was properly inflated.

Marc and I shot approaches into Riverside and Chino that went pretty well.  We scoped out the various interesting planes on the ground at Chino and had lunch at Flo’s Diner.

From there we filed back to Santa Monica and took off.  In retrospect, the roll out was my first clue something was up.  Just as we were lifting off, I felt a sharp jerk to the left that  didn’t feel like a wind gust.  I even joked to Marc that I hoped we still had three wheels down there, but I wasn’t positive it was anything  more than a crosswind gust on takeoff.  If I hadn’t had the confirmation of tire failure on landing, I might have forgotten the incident.  Now I know what a tire blowing feels like.  I think.

Anyway, we landed pretty uneventfully at SMO, until we had cleared the runway (and, I later found out, cleared the runway safety area).  As the plane slowed, it began pulling to the left and felt like a blown tire on a car.  I got as far clear of the runway as possible and told the tower I thought I’d blown a tire.  Sure enough, I had.

The blown left main

The airport police towed us off the apron after removing the fairing that protects the wheel, and made an incident report.  The responding officer also gave us a lift back to our car.  The officer – whose name I unfortunately forgot – was really excellent.  He helped us get the plane safely out of harms way before collecting the information he needed for his report.  He was polite and helpful in every way.

I contacted my mechanics the next day and they towed the plane back to my parking spot and put a new tire on.

I’ve been thinking about whether I should have declared emergency or handled it differently.  I think I did OK knowing what I knew then.  The takeoff at Chino was abnormal, but it was abnormal in a new way and only slightly so.  With only that evidence, I don’t think that I had enough indication of trouble to declare emergency.  I thought my joke to Marc was a joke. And honestly, I don’t know that the tire blew on takeoff.   It may have been fine at Chino.  Beyond getting as far clear of the Santa Monica runway as possible once I had the problem, there wasn’t much else to do.

But, I will take a similar abnormal takeoff more seriously in the future.

Hopefully I won’t have to deal with tire trouble again for another 1600 hours.

Review: Some Remarks

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

Some Remarks is a very mixed bag of Neal Stephenson’s shorter writings.  Stephenson’s novels are usually tomes, so it’s interesting to see some of his shorter work.  But then about a third of the book is an epic article for Wired that describes laying an undersea telecom cable, so shorter is relative; the article is as long as a novelette.

One of the things I enjoy about Stephenson’s writing is that he often sees commonplace things in new ways, combined with a close correlation between the things he and I think are commonplace.  This collection treats me to his take on the Star Wars movies as well as the aforementioned telecom cables.  We look at similar things and I like the way he sees them.

As much as I enjoy his writing, I can’t really recommend this as a starting place.  The topics, formats, length, and genres of the pieces vary widely.  There are short stories, addresses, interviews, articles and a book foreword. I found them all interesting and engaging to some degree, but I think new readers would be best served by one of his novels.

Review: Ready Player One

Friday, August 10th, 2012

I grew up in the 1980’s as a geek, playing video games, reading comics, watching movies and a lot of bad TV.  I was a kid who lost himself in stories, and I used all of these as fantasy homes away from home.  So did Ernest Cline, who wrote Ready Player One as an homage to these immersive entertainments.

Player One is set in the near-ish future where a variety of slow catastrophes have made the real world even less attractive than it seemed to a kid growing up in the Reagan years.  The climate’s a mess, pollution and overcrowding are rampant, and the economy is so far in the tank that most people are little more than serfs.  One of the few bright spots in this world is the powerful virtual reality environment called OASIS that acts as a getaway and diversion for the vast majority of people.  When the primary designer of OASIS dies, his will states that the first person to find a particular hidden feature of the game – an Easter Egg – will inherit his considerable wealth.

The Easter Egg is the McGuffin that brings our protagonists together.  The very idea of Easter Eggs comes from the early days of mass market video games in the 80’s and Cline ties his story more tightly to the decade by making the designer a fan of 80’s pop culture.  The protagonists solve 1980’s-themed puzzles in lifelike simulations and enhancements of the entertainments than inspired them.

Cline does a great job running with this without becoming so tied to the era that he’s just regurgitating it.  He replicates the facets of the best diversions most responsible for their charm without producing a clone of any one in particular.  It has the feel of War Games or The Last Starfighter without being a rip-off or a retelling.

There are a lot of 80’s references, overt and oblique.  If you’re a student of the era who likes to play spot the reference, or to annotate stories, Player One will keep you busy. I grew up in the era, and certainly had my share of obsessions, but I didn’t find the references distracting.  There were plenty of times a reference would jog my memory, but I never felt taken out of the story by them.  In fact, the one time I was taken out of the story was an aviation reference, not a geeky one; flying a chartered jet across the country at 10,000 ft is as jarring to me as getting the title of Dancing With Myself wrong would be.

The references are a way to let readers play along with the game of finding the Easter Egg without having to explain all the possibilities.  A sufficiently knowledgeable geek from the 1980s could solve the puzzles fairly without having to learn a bunch of new lore introduced here.  It’s a nice idea.

As with any good quest story, however, Player One sinks or swims on the strength of its characters.  Cline creates a world and set of protagonists who are fun to spend time with and to root for.  They’re flawed enough to have some flavor, but not so real that they get in the way of a fast-paced story.  There aren’t really any deathless characters here, but they’re a lot of fun to spend a couple hundred pages with. Basically they’re heroes of an 80’s quest movie.

There are a lot of good quest movies from the 1980’s and Ready Player One is a worthy addition to that pantheon.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Strictly speaking, the most likeable character in They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is probably the Premier of China, and that’s by a nose.  It’s an interesting trick to write a thriller where there’s no one to root for, and Christopher Buckley pulls it off nicely.  The whole thing has the antic, grotesque feel of an Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen novel, but without the good guys.  But even in a world without good guys, there are worse guys.

Despite the fact that everyone’s compromised somehow here, Buckley keeps things light and dynamic.  Things move right along and he shifts the point of view around enough to both keep the reader guessing and to give an idea of the scope of the plot. That plot circles around a set of defense contractors trying to drum up business by manufacturing a threat from China, while the various factions of both governments jockey for position around the faux threat.

Buckley does a nice job showing that even PR threats can have devastating repercussions and that once a rumor picks up a certain amount of speed, no single person or group can steer it.  The multiple perspectives help bring that home well.

It’s a lot of fun and a fast read.


Review: The Year of the Gadfly

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

I think I’m happy that I went to public high school.  Adolescence is lonely and stressful enough without the added isolation and expectations that boarding schools seem to impose, if fiction is to be believed on the matter.  Jennifer Miller’s The Year of The Gadfly uses those heightened emotions to tell a compelling story.

Stories set in high school are about how this time shapes people as it’s happening or how people have changed after those crucial years.  Miller tells a little bit of both by splitting her narrative across three characters and two time frames.  Her characters all are intricately bound to her fictional academy and the secret societies and plain cliques that animate it.  As usual in a boarding school drama, these are all boiled down to their pure and symbol-laden essence.  On the surface a hidden group of students is enforcing the school’s honor code to the letter through unorthodox and painful means.  Underneath adolescent passions and pressures are clashing operatically and symbolically.

Martin handles her timelines and character perspectives deftly.  Each character sits at a different point in their development and in the development of the events that ensnare them, as well as representing a distinct point of view.  The result is a look at the nominal plot and the symbolic coming-of-age drama from multiple perspective.  Miller creates a nice hologram of adolescence through prose.

It’s also a gripping read.  The plot moves along snappily, and even as the mystery begins to resolve itself, there are twists that engage the reader.  If you’re not one for prose holograms of the adolescent experience, there’s a fun ghost story/mystery here with diverting characters in the mix.  And also cameos by the ghost of Edward R. Murrow.