Sunday, February 27, 2005


When Altitude Is Not Really Altitude

One of the most important instruments in an airplane is the altimeter, which (supposedly) indicates the airplane's height above sea level. This instrument is important in that the pilot can use it to maintain a safe "floor" altitude above buildings, mountains, and other stationary things on the ground, and to maintain an altitude that keeps the airplane vertically separated from other aircraft that are flying at different altitude levels.

An altimeter is really a barometer, but instead of displaying pressure as millibars or inches of mercury, it uses a gauge that is calibrated such that the needle spins about 1,000 feet upward for every inch of mercury below sea level pressure. Note the inverse relationship: as altitude increases, pressure decreases, and vice versa.

Standard atmospheric pressure is 29.92 inches of mercury (or 760 millimeters or 1013 millibars for people outside the US). When actual atmospheric pressure is not 29.92, the altimeter can be adjusted by the pilot so that the altimeter will accurately indicate zero at sea level. In non-standard atmospheric conditions, the altimeter's readings will not accurately reflect "true altitude" (the actual distance between the plane and sea level), but as long as all pilots in an area are using the same altimeter setting, they all suffer the same inaccuracy and so the goal of vertical separation will still be achieved. When atmospheric pressure or temperature are lower than standard, pilots have to remember that their true altitude is lower than the indicated altitude when deciding upon a altitude that will keep them clear of ground-based obstructions.

The performance of an aircraft is affected by altitude. As atmospheric pressure decreases, the engine produces less power because less oxygen is entering the combustion chambers, the propeller produces less thrust because it has less air to push against, and the wings produce less lift because there is less air flowing around them.

Airplane manuals contain a lot of charts and graphs that can be used to predict various performance characteristics, like airspeed and fuel usage for a given throttle setting, rates of climb, length of runway needed for takeoff, and length of runway needed for landing. Altitude is one of the factors needed to interpret these charts, but raw indicated altitude is not used. Instead, one uses "pressure altitude," which is the altitude that would be indicated if sea-level pressure was 29.92, or "density altitude," which is pressure altitude corrected for temperature (colder air is denser than warmer air). Using these calculations, one can figure out that an airplane taking off from Denver when it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit will have similar performance to that of an airplane taking off from a lower-altitude airport that has a temperature of 100 degrees.

When I first read about pressure altitude and density altitude, I had trouble really understanding the concepts. All of this pretending to be at a different altitude than you really were seemed like a black art. The second time I studied it, I had an insight that made it all click: for performance calculations, one isn't interested in altitude at all - what is really needed is a measurement of air pressure or density. Height above sea level doesn't matter, but pilots think about pressure in terms of altitude because they have an instrument that (supposedly) indicates altitude, but no instrument that indicates pressure. The altimeter really is measuring pressure, but that has been obfuscated by the markings on the instrument.

To put this in computer systems designer terms: the system only displays a derived value; the raw data values are hidden and the user has to manually calculate them from the derived values. Instead of doing that, the users often just take the derived values and pretend they are raw data. In a computer system, this would be stupid. It makes me wonder why altimeter designers have never included pressure markings on the instrument along with the altitude markings.

Using one's altitude to determine performance is a little like using the fuel gauge to determine distance traveled. You may be able to get an accurate calculation from it, but it is unnecessarily indirect.



I remember that when I was a kid, offers for amazing products on TV always ended with the phrase "Allow 6-8 weeks for delivery." That may have been a reasonable time to wait back then, but now whenever I have to wait more than a couple of days to get something, I wonder what's gone wrong.

I haven't received my replacement midplane board for my iMac yet. That order was ten days ago, which isn't a very long time, but they said it would be 3-5 days. I received an invoice from Apple in the mail; when I entered the invoice information on Apple's website, it said that the order was "Complete," but didn't provide any shipping dates or tracking information. I guess I'll need to call AppleCare to find out what's up with that.

I still don't know when I'll get my third-class medical/student-pilot certificate. I called the FAA aeromedical office in Oklahoma City, and they said they had received the electronic transmission from the doctor, but were still waiting to receive hardcopies of the documents. The doctor took his time sending the stuff, and the FAA can take six weeks to process it, so it's possible that I will be ready for solo flight before the certificate arrives, so I'll have to wait. The waiting is already interfering with my progress through the lessons. (My advice to other student pilots is to get the medical exam before taking any lessons.)

In both cases, the waiting would bother me less if there was some way I could find out the status of things without a phone call. Apple has a web site, but the information they provide is just one word, "Complete," which doesn't mean anything to me. The FAA's aeromedical division seems to be operating with 1980's-era technology.


A Week Off Between Jobs

Part of the deal I worked out with my boss for switching over to a different work schedule was that I would get the first week of March off as vacation. Aside from the obvious goal of getting some R&R, I also wanted it to serve as a psychological break between my "old job" and my "new job."

I've been a lot happier at work during the past couple of weeks, knowing that this change was coming. Aside from the joy of working less, a lot of the happiness comes from knowing that I am now in control of my career again. A lot of my unhappiness came from a belief that I had been tricked into taking a job where I had to work too hard to accomplish too little. After quitting, and then un-quitting, it is clear that everything that happens to me now is my choice. The things that frustrate me about my job may not change much, but the change in perspective makes a lot of difference.

I didn't make any vacation plans. Traveling somewhere by myself is no fun, so I didn't plan a trip away from home. But I don't want to just sit in my apartment for a week, so I have set a few goals for the week off:

"Buy a car" is on the list because my current car, a 1994 Mustang, has developed multiple problems over the past few weeks and I really don't want to put any money into fixing it. It is losing coolant (I have to add a gallon a week), the air conditioned air comes out the defroster vents, the driver-side door often won't close tightly because the interior door panel has come loose, and there are the many other little annoyances you would expect from a car that is more than ten years old. I've decided not to buy a brand-new car. I found a few reasonably-priced low-mileage cars on the CarMax web site, so I'll take a look at those.

"Get a passport" is on the list because I am tired of having to dig up my birth certificate every time I have to provide proof of identity or proof of citizenship. It is possible that I'll have to travel internationally some day, so I'd like to be prepared. I've already filled out the application and had photos made, but the closest site that accepts passport applications is too far to visit during lunch on a work day. Doing it during a week off makes sense.

There is a battle going on in my head over the following question: Will I call in to the weekly project-status teleconference on Monday? One obvious answer is "No, you're on vacation, you idiot. The project will not fail if you miss one weekly meeting." The other answer is "I care about the success of this project and I want to help. It's only an hour, and I can call in while still wearing my pajamas." The more I think about it, the farther I lean toward the don't-call side. I'm never going to be happy with my "new job" if I keep trying to also do my "old job."

Thursday, February 24, 2005


On the Spot

Now there's nothing I hate worse than being put on the spot. <pause> Unless of course I get positioned right.

- Jimbob (Whole Wheat Radio)

Saturday, February 19, 2005


Flying Lesson #3: Cross-Country and Landings

As I pulled up to the flight school, I was surprised to see a B-17 parked next to the school's planes. I walked up to take a look, and saw that a C-47 and a T-6 were parked there also. I asked the instructor about the planes, and he said that the founder of Epps Aviation was having a birthday party, and there would be a mini-airshow. There were rumors that a P-38 would be coming in as well. From now on, I'll be taking my camera with me to the airport.

The instructor's plan for today was to have a short cross-country flight up to Gainesville (GVL), do a few landings there, then fly back to PDK. He showed me the route on the chart. I've flown this route in Microsoft Flight Simulator several times, but decided not to mention that because I didn't want to be laughed at. He let me listen in as he called the flight briefer. The call could be summed up as "Great flying weather all over northern Georgia".

During my preflight check, three dual-rotor Chinook helicopters took off in formation a couple hundred yards away. Awesome.

As we taxied out, we were told to hold short of a closed runway (9-27). We sat there for several minutes, wondering what was going on. Then we were directed to taxi down one of the active runways and then back onto the taxiway we started from. Then we saw what was happening: the taxiway was blocked by a plane with a flat tire, so they had to route us around that section of taxiway.

After the runup, the instructor let me take care of taxiing onto the runway and taking off. We went north for a while, turned east, then started using the chart and looking for landmarks. We eventually found I-985, which goes right toward GVL, so I followed that. The trip to GVL was uneventful, which gave me an opportunity to practice maintaining straight-and-level flight along a road.

As we approached the airport, an uncontrolled field, we listened to what was going on and the instructor announced we were entering the pattern. There were several other planes in the area, so it seemed pretty busy to me. It seemed like there were planes everywhere.

We did three touch-and-goes, meaning that three times we landed and then immediately took off again without stopping. I handled the controls while the instructor gave a little extra help during the approaches and touchdowns. I didn't freak out, but I admit I felt pretty overwhelmed the whole time. I was continuously busy either trying to (a) maintain pattern altitude, (b) descend at a constant 500 ft/min rate, (c) make a nice 90-degree turn, or (d) stay aligned with the runway on final. I know this will get easier with time, but right now it's a lot to handle. I need to work on the following things:

In my defense, I should mention that I really haven't had any preparatory training for landing. I haven't practiced slow flight, I haven't practiced ground-reference maneuvers, and we haven't reviewed landing procedures. I don't blame my instructor for this - the real lessons for today were pilotage, cross-country flight, and communications at uncontrolled airports. The touch-and-goes were an introduction to pattern flight and landing, and I'm sure we'll cover the procedures in more detail before he really expects me to be proficient. This instructor seems to like pushing his students just beyond their comfort levels, and that's fine with me. It's good to get a preview of what I'll be learning.

I've read a few discussions among instructors arguing over whether touch-and-goes are a good idea for student pilots. Now that I've done a few, I don't think there are really any safety concerns. However, I would have felt a lot less behind-the-curve if I'd spent a few minutes on the ground after each landing, and I would have had more opportunity to ask the instructor questions between the landings.

On the way back to PDK, we came pretty close to another plane. We had it in sight a good distance away, and we didn't have to change course to avoid it, but it is amazing how close a couple of little planes can get in that big sky.

The instructor let me handle the approach and landing at PDK (with a little help from him). I rounded out way too early and finally touched down a couple thousand feet down the runway. I was the victim of a visual illusion: the runways at GVL were much narrower than the PDK runways, so when landing at PDK I thought the runway was closer than it appeared.

After clearing the runway, the instructor asked me to make the radio call to ground control. I rehearsed a couple of times: "Peachtree Ground, Cherokee 4-3-6-3-delta, clear, taxi American Air". When I was ready, I made the call. I couldn't hear myself in the headphones while I was speaking, so I wasn't sure if anyone heard me. Then Ground responded, and I suddenly remembered I was expected to read back their instruction. I screwed that up, saying just "4-3-6-3-delta taxiing" or something like that. Next time, I'll be ready.

As we walked off the ramp, I saw the B-17 and other vintage aircraft again, and wished I had thought to look at them from the air. Then the instructor noticed that the P-38 was at a nearby hanger, so we had no choice but to go look at that for a while.

So, for today: 1.4 hours dual cross-country, with 4 takeoffs and 4 landings in N4363D. Cost of instructor and airplane rental: $275.82.

We asked around to see if anyone knew when the B-17 or P-38 would be flying, but nobody knew. I hope they will still be around tomorrow when I show up for my ground-school class, so I can get some pictures.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


Flying Lesson #2

The lesson went well today. I showed up about ten minutes late, due to traffic, but the instructor was a little late too. We're going to schedule afternoon lessons once I go to part-time work, so rush hour shouldn't be an issue for us anymore.

Since I haven't flown much, he wanted to get up in the air as soon as possible, so he didn't talk me through the weather briefing like he normally would have (but he did get one).

It was windy and cold, so the preflight check was a little unpleasant. I did most of it, as he watched and pointed out things. We had to add a quart of oil, which took a while due to the cold and the narrow funnel we had. Everything else was fine.

There were strong winds from the NNW, so PDK had runway 34 open. During my other flights, only runways 02-20 were in use, so I got to see a new runway today. The airport was pretty busy too, so this was my first opportunity to wait in line several minutes before take off, but it gave us plenty of time to do the run-up.

Right after we took off, a small jet took off behind us. It passed us well clear on the right, then turned left to cross our path as we turned right to stay clear. Watching that jet bank in front of us is the coolest thing I've seen in the air so far.

The instructor worked on having me develop the "sight pictures" needed for straight and level flight, and also for turns. He spread the chart across the instrument panel so that I couldn't see the instruments, which helped keep me focused outside the plane. we also did some zig-zagging to help me develop a feel for coordinated flight. I still haven't gotten the hang of the pedals, but I'm getting there.

We worked on pilotage, which is a fancy term for looking outside, looking at the map, and trying to figure out if they have anything in common. I found it difficult to keep the plane pointed in the right direction while also looking for landmarks and looking at the chart. I also had a hard time mentally flipping the map around to orient myself when we were traveling south; I can usually do this, but had trouble doing it while also handling the rest of the flying workload.

On the way back to the airport, we checked ATIS and got only static. I did a couple of 360 degree turns while the instructor tried to tune it in, but we couldn't get anything. Finally he called the tower, and they told us ATIS was being updated.

ATC was pretty busy. There was constant talk on the frequency throughout our trip back to the approach and landing. The controller got a little confused: right after we landed, I was surprised to hear him clear us for landing. The instructor noted that the clearance was probably intended for an aircraft with a similar callsign to ours (we were "zero three mike"; the other plane was "zero charlie mike").

I have another lesson scheduled for Saturday, so I hope the closely spaced lessons will reinforce what I'm learning.

Today I logged 1.3 hours dual, 1 takeoff and 1 landing, in N9103M. My total hours are up to 2.2. I don't know what the cost for today is yet, because the school's computer was down for maintenance. If I'm lucky, maybe they'll forget to bill me. [UPDATE: They didn't forget. $266.30.]

While leaving the airport, I stopped by the pilot shop to pick up a current A/FD. This sign was on the front door:

Closed until 1:30
Having lunch with an astronaut


It's always nice to leave the airport with a smile.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Gmail Down

Rebecca MacKinnon is reporting that Gmail is down. I haven't received any spam on Gmail for a few hours, so I think that's probably right.

As I have to use my Windows machine instead of my Mac, I've been going to various websites and requesting that they e-mail me my account information and password. Unfortunately, all that e-mail goes to Gmail now, so I can't get the info until Gmail is back up.


Flying Lesson Weather Forecast

I have another flying lesson scheduled for tomorrow morning. The forecast looks pretty good:

KPDK 162335Z 170024 31010KT P6SM SCT025 BKN050 
     TEMPO 0001 BKN025 
     FM0300 33010KT P6SM BKN080 
     FM0600 32010KT P6SM BKN120 
     FM1200 33011KT P6SM SCT120 
     FM1500 34012G20KT P6SM SCT250 
     FM2300 32010KT P6SM SKC

For you non-pilots out there (which includes me), this basically means clouds above 10,000 feet and 10 knot (12 MPH) northerly winds.

My flying will be at around 15:00 Zulu (10:00 AM), so my only concern is that the winds will be gusting to 20 knots. I don't know whether that is enough to cancel the flying. (I am sure that I won't be handling the landing myself.)

I have another lesson scheduled for Saturday, which currently has a chance for rain, so I really hope I get to go up tomorrow. I'm worried that I might spend another thousand dollars on lessons without ever getting up in the air due to weather.


Mac Display Gone

As I described yesterday, my iMac's display has been doing some funny things. The screen gets blurred/garbled for up to a few seconds at a time. I first noticed it a few days ago, when it was infrequent, but today I noticed it was happening every minute or so. Time to call Apple.

My complimentary 90-day support period has expired, so they wouldn't talk to me until I paid for AppleCare support. The options were $169 for three years of AppleCare, or $49 to resolve a single issue. I decided to go for the three-year plan.

The woman on the other end of the phone was very friendly and helpful. She asked for serial number, OS version, and things like that. She seemed very concerned that I had installed non-Apple RAM myself, but when I explained that I had installed the RAM back in October and the problem just started occurring a couple of days ago, she stopped dwelling on it.

She walked me through restarting the iMac with the Apple Hardware Test CD-ROM. During the ten minutes that the test ran, the screen started glitching continuously. When the video RAM was tested, a problem was found.

She put me on hold to research the reported error code. It turns out that I have bad video RAM. So Apple is going to send me a new midplane board, which should arrive in about a week. I'll have to return the old midplane board, or face a non-return charge of $1,289. I don't know exactly what a "midplane board" is, but considering the price, I'm guessing that I'll be replacing everything except the LCD display, hard drive, and case.

After the call, I tried restarting my Mac again. The intensive testing must have finally pushed it over the edge. Now the video is garbled continuously. The iMac is unusable.

So, I guess I'll have to be a Windows guy for the next week. Maybe this is the perfect excuse to buy a Powerbook!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Mac Display Going?

A few times over the past couple of day, my iMac G5's screen has "blurred". It looks as if alternate scan lines get shifted horizontally. It usually only lasts a split second, but it lasted several seconds once.

The mouse freezes during the blurred time, so I don't think it is a simple video glitch.

I've taken the standard troubleshooting measure (i.e. reboot). I'll keep watching, and contact Apple tech support if it keeps happening.

[UPDATE: It is becoming more frequent, happening every few minutes. Time to start moving data over to my Windows box before the Mac dies, I guess.]


IM Norms

Cultural Divide in IM: Presence vs. Communication says that there is a cultural divide between "always-on'rs", people who are connected all the time, and "just-came-to-talks", people who connect only when they want to converse.

I've always seen this as a veteran-vs.-newbie division, but I guess that's not really the case. When I first started using e-mail and IM, it was the province of technical people who were using it to get their jobs done. So it was understood by everyone that these were just additional tools for distributing information. Etiquette was informal but "professional", meaning that you don't waste the recipient's time with irrelevant messages and you leave emotional context out. So that's how I expected things to be. That changed as more and more people got on the Internet: there were a lot more people who wanted to use electronic communications for non-technical non-professional conversations. I associated such behavior with cluelessness, expecting that such people would eventually realize that IM/e-mail is a terrible medium for socializing.

My mother gets upset if she sends a message to me and I don't respond right away. Often, this is because I am not at the computer (I don't know why she expects a response at 5:00 AM), other times it is because I am meeting with people in my office. I had always assumed that, eventually, Mom would "get it", but she doesn't. She thinks that when I don't respond immediately, it is because I'm angry with her or because I feel like being cruel.

Worse, Mom likes to use e-mail and chat to tell me bad news. Maybe she thinks the impersonal medium blunts the blow, or is the best way to get the news out to everyone quickly, but I am accustomed to text-based communications being used only for unemotional reasons. For me, getting horrible news on a computer screen adds a little extra shock. E-mail used to be "safe", meaning it would contain dry information or jokes, but now whenever I see mail in my inbox from my mother, it has the same effect as the phone ringing in the middle of the night.

I don't mean to pick on my Mom; she's just the only person I talk to online who is not an always-on'r. I suspect others have the same expectations she does, so I try to understand why she does what she does.

Monday, February 14, 2005


Technical Support

/\ndy's rant about tech support reminded me of the Good Old Days. I am old enough to remember when you could actually get useful assistance when you paid large sums of money for a support contract. I remember spending four hours on the phone with a DEC engineer; this was before e-mail and video conferencing, so long phone calls were the norm for handling technical issues. I remember a couple of instances when engineers got on planes to visit us to examine and fix our problems.

In the Good Old Days, the technical support staff actually knew more about their products than you did. They were interested in making you a happy customer, and not in just "closing the incident" at minimum cost.

Things are not all bad, however. Being able to download patches and documentation from the web is an improvement over the "Good Old Days". Being able to interact with other users in newsgroups, wikis, and other online forums is very helpful, as the expert users of a piece of software tend to know more about it than than any of its developers. And it's a lot easier to find out about problems with software products before you buy them, due to vociferous unhappy users.

These days, do-it-yourself technical support is the best way to go. You can't count on the vendor to help you after you've signed the PO, so make sure you can get all the information you need before buying.


Aviation Mnemonics

Sunday, February 13, 2005


The Bear

I don't know why, but I really like this image from Witold Riedel's "The Bear" collection.

I wish there was an easy way to buy a print. Yes, I know I could try to get in touch with the artist and work something out, but I just want to enter my credit card number somewhere and wait for FedEx delivery.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Best TiVo FAQ Ever

From Kevin Fox: Finally, someone who can really explain TiVo to the non-believers.


Process "Improvement"

Our company could be charitably described as an agile organization. We beat our competitors by getting products to market faster and cheaper. We recently merged with a company with a strategy of slower but better, so their people are trying to teach us how to do things better, and our people are trying to teach them how to do things faster. How will we find the right balance?

My company is undertaking the task of changing to better development processes. I've heard there is some committee somewhere doing this, but I have no idea who the people are, what their background is, or what qualifications they have for changing how the company does things. Lessig's blog today has a couple of interesting sentences that sum up my concerns with any such effort:

...the single most important thing that I learned from my years working on "constitutionalism" in Eastern Europe: That 90% of the challenge is to build a culture that respects the rule of law, and that practices it. A document doesn't build that culture. And no one has a formula -- either for building it, or preserving it.

We aren't doing anything as important as nation-building, but the principle still applies: it doesn't matter what kinds of processes this committee defines if the company culture is one that doesn't follow formalized rules.

I've been involved in process-improvement activities at a couple of different companies. In both cases, we spent lots of time deciding how everything should be done, and everybody agreed to abide by the new rules. But whenever projects got into schedule or budget trouble (and they always do), the new rules got tossed aside.

When defining new rules, it is important to define rules that can actually be followed under pressure. The rules must make sense. The rules must not impose burdens without also providing clear benefits to the people following the rules.

[UPDATE: Ran across a bit by Katie Lucas, quoted by Joel Spolsky.]


Toward a Refactoring Culture

One of responsibilities I've been given in my job is to help redesign and refactor the codebases of the team's products. The original application was written about ten years ago, and it has been slowly turning into a Big Ball of Mud as new features and support for different customers' requirements have been added. It has also forked a few different ways, and we would like to merge the branches back into something more maintainable.

Most of my employers have considered me to be a good person for this kind of task. I don't think I have any exceptional ability at refactoring or redesign. What I do have is the desire and the willingness to refactor and redesign. When I see something bad, and I know how to do it better, I must fix it. I don't worry much about whether I will break something or whether somebody will get mad at me for changing things; I just do it.

Most programmers don't have this attitude. There is a lot of complaining about how bad the code is, but little effort goes into fixing it. I'm going to do what I can to change that within our team. I don't want to be the guy who has to do all this myself, so I"m going to enlist others in my war on bad code.

My first step is to try to figure out why other programmers don't want to refactor, and do what I can to address those issues. Here are the reasons I understand:

The theme that rings throughout is that you have to talk to the other team members. We have a pretty social group, but unfortunately most have separate projects to work on and so we work separately. I'm going to try to get some pair programming going (although I'm going to have to call it "mentoring" or "cross training" to sneak it past management) and to encourage people to talk to each other before making major changes to code.


I Still Suck

While reading some older entries in my blog, I ran across "I Suck", a diatribe about an end-of-project death march.

What's funny is that I had to look at the date of the entry to figure out which project I was working on when I wrote it. I could have easily written this entry for any project.

Friday, February 11, 2005


Third-Class Medical Exam

Today I submitted myself to the medical exam needed for a student pilot certificate. I didn't look into the requirements before the exam, so I didn't know what to expect. I figured it would basically be an eye exam along with some simple evaluation of overall health. So I was a little surprised when I had to give a urine sample, and very surprised when it was time for the rectal exam.

My blood pressure was a concern. I've donated blood a couple of times in the past year, and both times my blood pressure was around 120 over 80, so I didn't think this would be anything to worry about. The reading today was a lot higher than that. It was low enough to pass the exam, and I can think of many reasons it could be higher today than normal (nerves, two cups of coffee with breakfast, a stressful week at work, the attractive nurse), but it was a reminder that I'm not a kid anymore and I need to start getting regular checkups.

There is one item in my medical history for which the doctor wants more documentation before submitting all the paperwork to Oklahoma City. He is willing to give me my ticket without it, but there is a small chance it might raise a red flag with the FAA. So I'm going to try to dig up this ancient history, but if I can't find it, he'll just submit what we've got and see what happens.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


Less Is Better

My philosophy towards employment has always been that I should be willing to do whatever my employer asks me to do, and if I am not willing to do that, it is time to find another employer. I only say "no" when "yes" is impossible. This attitude generally has positive results, leading employers to value me as an exceptionally capable and motivated person. The problem with this attitude is that I will inevitably accept too much responsibility, burn myself out, and then quit because I am too tired to work any more. I've only learned this lesson half a dozen times.

Earlier this week I gave two weeks' notice that I was leaving my current job. I honestly intended for that to be the end of it, but the boss didn't want to let me go so easily. After a few days of discussion, we have come up with an arrangement that keeps me where I am.

I am going to cut back on the number of hours I work (with a commensurate reduction in salary), and my job responsibilities will be changing to non-managerial tasks. This is really a good deal for me. I am being "demoted", but I will still be considered a full-time employee and so I will continue to receive health benefits, stock purchase options, and stuff like that. The cut in pay will hurt a little, but I'll gladly trade it for a shortened work week. I'll have plenty of time for flying lessons, technical skills development, weekend trips, and general chilling-out. If I'm lucky, going back to the salary I had at age 30 will make me feel young again.

My new job responsibilities will let me float around from project to project, working with lots of people, instead of being stuck in my cubicle by myself for weeks on end. Also, because I won't be a team lead and because I'll be paid less, I won't feel the need to work overtime to get things done. So this should be a less stressful job with a very manageable workload, counteracting my tendency toward overworking myself.

I am still concerned about the things I see wrong with the organization, but the boss assures me that steps are underway to address many of them. It will take time, but if I see improvement or if an interesting project comes along, I may eventually go back to working a full week.

In most companies, the only reward you get for hard work is more hard work. I'm lucky: I've finally found someone who will reward me by giving me less.


Light Aircraft Maintenance Blog

From Land and Hold Short: Sacramento Sky Ranch has an RSS feed for articles about troubleshooting and repairing light aircraft.

I was the kind of kid who liked to take things apart to figure out how they worked. I can't take apart my school's aircraft to figure out how they work, so this is the next best thing.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Gmail Account

Thanks to Wez Furlong, I now have a gmail account. I haven't done much with it, but with so much spam going to my Yahoo! Mail account, it's good to have an alternative web mail address.

I have found that OmniWeb 5.0.1 doesn't work with it, but Firefox does.

If you ask nicely, I'd be glad to extend an invitation so that you can get your own gmail account. (It's how I got mine from Wez, so I'm paying it forward.) You'll have to find my real e-mail address (or convince me to give it to you) and send me your e-mail address. I won't answer requests that are in the comments to this blog entry.


Game Development Opportunity

When I was a kid, first learning about programming, I had dreams of becoming a game developer. It seemed like the ultimate job - nothing but playing games, writing code, and making big wads of cash. What could possibly be better?

I didn't get into game development. By the time I was out of school, the simple videogames that I enjoyed were falling out of favor, being replaced by more sophisticated games that required huge teams of developers, artists, musicians, and designers. I liked the idea of being one of those guys in a garage who created cool games, but was not at all interested in being a small cog in a huge game marketing machine. So I went in other directions, but I've always wanted a "fun" job.

Today, I may have received an opportunity to dip my toes in the game-development waters. I won't reveal the source, but here is the gist of it:

... I am somewhat limited in the questions that I can answer for you over email due to the constraints of the NDA that serves to protect our intellectual property at this time.
That being said I would like to tell you a little bit about our company and the current opportunity we have available. . . . Because we are a start up company working on our first title we will be offering you a royalties-based contract until full funding can be obtained. After funding is obtained all contractors that are with us will be offered a full time position. This is standard procedure for the industry however we know that it is not for everyone.
The basics of the contract state that for a commitment of 10 hours of work per week you will receive a percentage of the gross revenue based on the subscription base of the game after release for a period of 12 months. This type of contract comes with its risks and we are well aware of that and that is why we are up-front about this from the very beginning.
However, it also comes with its own benefits as well. With this contract you will not be required to give up your current employment, unless there is a conflict of interest. There will be no need to relocate at this time from your current location. You will be able to work the 10 hours whenever it is convenient for you during the week. You will be able to work with our extremely talented team members from various backgrounds and experiences, and you will receive full credit for work completed. This last benefit also includes your name on the product as a contributor and a step up into the exciting industry of [gaming].

This looks a little like one of those "Please help me retrieve my family fortune from Nigeria" scams, but the person sending me the e-mail does seem to be legitimate. The company has a real-looking web site, featuring this upcoming product. So I don't think it's a scam, but I'm paying close attention.

There are obvious risks here. I would probably never get paid anything. I have no idea how long I'd be working on this before anything came of it. So really the only reason to pursue it at all is just to get a chance to work on a game that might eventually come to market (although I suspect that it is more likely that it will never see the light of day).

I wonder how this company gets anything done if it only asks its contractors to work 10 hours per week, during their off-hours. I guess if you don't pay your employees, it doesn't matter how many you have. Maybe they assign the same job to 10 people, in the hope that somebody will get it done and they can just throw away the work of the other nine.

I'm going to give them a call to try to find out more about their company and what they would want me to do. I'm going to have a lot of spare time in the coming months, and spending 10 hours a week working on a game might be fun. But I'm not going to throw the time away if I don't think it's going to be a real product.

If there is anyone out there who really is a game developer, I'd appreciate comments about whether this kind of deal is "standard procedure for the industry".


Ground Lesson #1

I had a flying lesson scheduled for this morning, but when I looked out the window and saw fog and rain, I knew I wouldn't be getting off the ground today. The poor weather led to bad traffic, causing me to be ten minutes late for the lesson, but the instructor was late as well. We spent the lesson time doing ground work.

I know the knowledge gained during ground school is important, but it's very disappointing to have to settle for that when you've been looking forward all week to flying. I'll keep track of how often I am grounded by labeling such lessons as "Ground Lesson #N". Note that I am also taking formal ground school classes, so while this is Ground Lesson #1, it does not count the two ground-school lectures I've attended.

I had to bring my birth certificate to the school today. A new TSA rule requires proof of citizenship or other documentation for student pilots. I guess this little piece of paper from the North Dakota Department of Health proves I'm not a terrorist.

We spent the first part of the day reviewing material from the ground school lectures. We are currently studying "systems", meaning the engine, propeller, fuel system, landing gear, electrical systems, and all the other hardware that keeps us safely off the ground. I thought I understood this stuff pretty well during the reading and lecture, but as my instructor asked me detailed questions, it quickly became obvious that I hadn't studied enough. I've been "coasting" through the ground school, thinking I already knew the material well, but now I know I need to put a lot more effort into it.

After the review, we went through a pre-flight check of the Warrior. We wouldn't be flying it, but practiced the check (in the rain) as if we were. This time, it went faster than the first time, as I already understood how to do most of the steps. The only area I'm uncomfortable with is the engine: there are a lot of wires, hoses, and parts to check. I know what they are all called and I understand what they all do, but if I was asked to look at an engine and determine whether all the parts were there, I wouldn't know. I asked if there was an "engine checklist" I could study, but there wasn't.

Finally, we looked at a weather briefing from the DUAT system. Weather is obviously very important to aviation, and there is a lot of current-conditions and forecasting information available. Unfortunately, many of the systems were developed in the days of teletypes and low-bandwidth connectivity, so the weather is presented as terse and cryptic computerese. For example, here is the Terminal Aerodrome Forecast (TAF) for Dekalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK):

KPDK 091721Z 091818 20006KT 3SM SHRA BR BKN004

What does that mean? Well, it means there are 6-knot winds from the south-southwest, 3 miles visibility, rain showers and mist, and layer of broken clouds at 400 feet above ground level. But if you ask for this plain English description, other pilots will think you are a wuss.

"A real pilot knows how to read weather" is the common belief. That's crap. I hate people who take perverse pride in mastering some arcane skill that is unnecessarily difficult. Such pilots are accepting the constraints of an obsolete system, and are working for the computer instead of getting the computer to work for them. If I developed a system with this kind of output today, I'd be fired. This cryptic notation does not provide any benefits for expert pilots; it is just bad for everyone. But you have to know the secret handshake to join the club, so I'll be learning it.

Particularly frustrating to my programmer's mind is the fact that different kinds of information have completely different abbreviations and organizational styles. It's as if the people developing different reports didn't coordinate their efforts. I see this in software development projects all the time, but it is more disconcerting to see the FAA screw it up. In private industry, our excuse is that competitive pressures force us to release a lot of imperfect stuff, and besides, people's lives are not at stake. What's the FAA's excuse?

Flying into poor weather is one of the most common causes of general aviation accidents. I wonder how many of those pilots misunderstood or ignored the information due to its incomprehensibility. This is simply a bad way to communicate important information.

I'll be hitting the Aviation Weather Services book pretty hard. The instructor is threatening to make me do the radio calls the next time we fly, so I'll be studying communications as well.

I am on the waiting list for a lesson slot on the weekend, but I probably won't get another chance to fly until next week. In the meantime, I am getting my third-class medical exam out of the way, so I will have an official Student Pilot certificate.

Training costs for today: two hours of ground instruction: $114.00.

Monday, February 07, 2005



One of the most important habits a pilot develops during flight training is reliance upon checklists. Detailed lists of actions are used for every phase of flight, from the pre-flight check, through taxiing, takeoff, cruise, landing, and post-flight tiedown. By following the checklists, you ensure that you haven't overlooked anything.

This obsessive focus on eliminating mistakes is one of the things that attracts me to flying. In software development, there is a saying: Fast, cheap, and good - pick any two. That is, if you want the software completed quickly and cheaply, it can't be of high quality, and if you want high quality, it can't be quick and cheap. My bosses and customers almost always want it quick and cheap, so I rarely get a chance to do high-quality work that makes me proud. In aviation however, there is no choice: you always do it right. You don't fly the plane unless you are 100% certain that you have done everything as well as it can be done, and no reasonable person will argue with you about schedules or budgets. Flying is a good pastime for perfectionists.

Following a checklist is a ritual, and some pilots confer supernatural powers on their checklists. Flying is risky, but many pilots have convinced themselves that as long as they've followed all the checklists, nothing bad can happen to them. If the gods of flight are appeased, then they will protect you. That's not a bad myth to believe, but some pilots don't realize it's a myth. The checklists are helpful, but they don't make us invulnerable, and we should never forget about the risks.

Whenever there is an accident, other pilots are very quick to become vehemently critical of the pilot involved. "That pilot must be a bad pilot. An accident wouldn't happen to me, because I am a good pilot and I follow the checklists." The sad fact is that sometimes bad things happen to people who did everything they were supposed to do.

I've only had one flying lesson that required me to use the checklists, and it has already affected me in non-flying-related activities. When I get into my car now, I note the readings of the instruments and the positions of various switches and knobs. This afternoon, after starting my car I reflexively switched my lights on and off just to verify they were working. I hope I'm not developing an obsessive-compulsive disorder.


Do-It-Yourself Vacation

Today I performed one of those rituals that I hope to not have to repeat too often: I gave two weeks' notice to my employer.

I decided that this company is the wrong place for me, and that it is time to leave. I don't have another job lined up. I'm never comfortable searching for another job while also pretending to be committed to my existing job. Also, I am just plain tired, and I need some rest before I go through the job-search process.

The boss was disappointed, but not taken by surprise. I've expressed my frustration often, and he understands why I am not happy with this job. He hasn't really accepted my resignation as final yet; he's still trying to find something he can offer that will make me want to stay. I've been very lucky in that I've always left employers on good terms.

I'm not glad that I'm leaving, but I have to admit that today was one of my happier days at work. All the pressure is gone. I heard lots of good-lucks, I-wish-I-could-do-thats, and this-place-won't-be-the-same-without-yous. I was offered incentives. Others vicariously lived their own fantasies of quitting through me. I even got a free lunch from my superiors who wanted a chance to "talk". There's a lesson here for managers: if you want your workers to feel appreciated, treat them as if they are just about to quit.

I'll be working for three more weeks, then will take a couple of weeks off before looking for work again. I'll be very choosy about my next employer; I really don't want to have to do this again any time soon.

Saturday, February 05, 2005


Flying Lesson #1

Technically, today's lesson may not be my first lesson. I had an introductory flight lesson a few weeks ago, but today was my first "real" lesson. Also, because I haven't had my medical exam yet, I can't officially be enrolled as a student under part 141, so maybe this one really doesn't count. But, anyway, I'm calling this Lesson #1.

My first mistake: scheduling a lesson at 7:30 AM, requiring that I awaken at 6:00 AM. I strongly believe that if an alarm clock wakes you up, you haven't had enough sleep. I did get about six hours of sleep, so I wasn't a complete zombie, but I wasn't as fresh as I would have liked. I've decided that I will not schedule any future lessons before 9:00 AM.

Another problem with the early morning flight was the presence of ice/frost on the airplane. We needed two de-icing applications to get it all off. We had to run the defroster at full blast in the cockpit to keep the windows clear, so it was like a sauna inside the plane. So, I'm going to avoid early-morning cold weather flights from now on.

Aside from the temperature, it was a nice day to fly: sunny with clouds at 30,000 ft, 3 mph wind. Visibility was a lot better than what I had on my intro flight. The airport wasn't busy.

I met my flight instructor, who I will refer to only as "the instructor" in this blog just in case I write something that might reflect badly on him. He just started instructing at the school a few days ago, having just moved up here from Orlando. He's only 23 years old, but he seems to know what he's doing. I know my school's management has high standards for hiring instructors, so his youth doesn't bother me except for the way it makes me feel a little bit older.

The first thing we did after some brief introductory conversation was to get weather reports. The school's Internet access wasn't working, so he used DUATS to get the information. We also watched the Weather Channel as a cross check.

We spent most of our time today going over the preflight checklist. The instructor showed me how to check all the things on the Piper Warrior. It took almost an hour to go through it all with him explaining it, but it will go a lot faster as I gain experience doing it myself. Here are some of the important lessons I learned that aren't in the book:

After the preflight was finished, we got in the plane to fly. Again, we went through every item in the checklist in detail, so it took a much longer time than it normally would. (Instructor Tip: On a cold day, as soon as you get in the plane, "wear" your headset on one of your legs, one earpiece on each side, so that it will be warm by the time you put it on your head.)

The instructor's original plan had been to let me handle the taxiing, but we were running a little late so he took care of it himself. We needed a long runup due to the temperature, but we eventually took off from runway 20L, with me handling the yoke and the instructor giving me instructions.

We turned and flew toward the north practice area. Visibility was great. My intro flight was on a hazy day, so I had not been able to see anything more than 10 miles away. It was much different today. The instructor pointed to a runway off to the west and asked, "Do you know what that is?" My first guess was Fulton County airport (KFTY), but it was really Dobbins Air Reserve Base (KMGE). I was surprised at how big and clear the runway looked, considering that it would be about a 30-minute drive on the ground. After my intro lesson, I had thought that Microsoft Flight Simulator made everything too easy to see, but now I'm more impressed with the simulation's realism.

He quickly identified a bad habit of mine: I kept putting both hands on the yoke. I didn't have a "death grip", but he wanted me to fly with only one hand. He kept slapping my right hand whenever I put it on the yoke, hitting me a little harder each time. By the time he pulled out his pencil and threatened to stick it into my hand, I was getting used to the one-hand thing.

My apartment happens to be in the north practice area, so we did the let's-fly-over-my-house thing. It's really hard for me to identify things from the air: The instructor would point out things saying "There's North Point Mall. There's the Wal-Mart. There's that Chevron station." but to me it all looked like randomly scattered factories. But I did eventually pick out the water towers that are a mile or so away from my apartment, and from there I was able to find my apartment building. It was tiny, and this was from only 2,500 AGL. I'm sure this will get easier with experience.

I did a few turns and climbs. I sucked, of course, but it's only my second time at the controls. The instructor demonstrated some steep turns, which were cool, and also did a few roller-coaster-kinds of climbs and dives.

Then we went back to the airport. I flew directly toward the north end of runway 20R from where we were (to the NW). The instructor had me manage the throttle and flaps, but of course he took care of most of the final approach and landing. It's disconcerting how things can be so smooth up at altitude and then suddenly get so turbulent near the ground. The landing was a little hard, but considering all the bouncing around on approach, I thought it was fine.

After turning off the runway and stopping, we had to call for permission to taxi to the school's parking area. This is a little silly, as the parking area is only about 25 yards from the point where we exited the runway. But it does cross a taxiway, so clearance is needed.

All in all, I didn't feel as comfortable today as I did in my intro flight. I'm not sure what it was, but it just seemed a lot easier the first time. Maybe it was the early morning, maybe it was mental fatigue after all the preflight stuff, maybe I was trying too hard to learn instead of just enjoying it, or maybe it was just one of those days. I did get a lot more flying in, and had more control over the plane and understanding of how to perform the maneuvers, but I never got into a groove where I felt comfortable. I'm not discouraged; it's all part of the learning process.

So, I got to log 0.9 hours dual time in N4636D, with 1 takeoff and 1 landing. Cost of instruction and rental: $140.60. If I'm lucky, maybe I only have about 49 lessons to go. Next lesson: Wednesday at 9:30 AM

On my way out of the airport, I stopped at the Wings & Things pilot shop and picked up a kneeboard. I'd been holding the checklists between my legs throughout the flight, and I decided I didn't want to do that again. I'm also ordering some Serengeti sunglasses, which may be overpriced but at least I won't wonder if I could have found something better. My next major equipment purchase will probably be a radio headset, but I want to solicit more opinions from other people before selecting one.

Friday, February 04, 2005


Leisure Time Lost

It's sad that this is not considered to be a serious problem.


Bose QuietComfort 2 Headphones

When the Bose noise-cancelling headphones first appeared a few years ago, i thought "Cool, but who's going to pay a few hundred dollars for a pair of headphones?" Frustrated with the need to play loud music on my iPod at work to drown out the surrounding noise, I decided to buy a pair of Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones. They're $300, and worth every penny.

I've never liked music or other sounds while I'm working; I've always found silence to be necessary to concentrate. Now I can finally get that. I can't even hear my keyboard while I'm wearing the Bose headphones. All the computer fans, air conditioning sounds, and distant conversations disappear. I knew my cubicle was noisy, but never realized just how noisy until I got to hear silence.

They are great at home too. I live in an apartment, with very thin walls, so there are constant sounds of neighbors and automobile traffic, as well as the rattling of the refrigerator that my landlord won't fix. These headphones let me read or use the computer in peace.

It's interesting what they filter out, and what they don't. I can't hear my typing on the keyboard, and can't hear any sounds when I turn the page of a book. However, I can watch TV with the headphones on, and I hear everything on the TV while the refrigerator noise in the background is drowned out. The engineers got this stuff right.

The headphones can be worn alone to muffle noise, or you can plug them into a music/sound system. I've listened to my iPod a little with them, but I'm finding that pure silence is more attractive. It's funny that I'll need to keep buying batteries to listen to absolutely nothing, but that's exactly what I want to hear.

The only problem with them is that I hear a buzzing sound in the headphones when my Blackberry is checking e-mail wirelessly. However, I don't get good wireless connectivity in the part of the building where my cubicle is, so I can easily address this by just turning the Blackberry off when I want silence.

When it comes time to buy an airplane radio headset, I'll definitely be looking at the ANR headsets. Passive noise reduction just isn't going to be enough for me any more.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Flying Lessons Scheduled

My first two flying lessons are scheduled for Saturday morning and Wednesday morning. I've been procrastinating, due to work pressures and general laziness, but the instructor called today to ask if I was ready to start. The instructor is one of two new hires by the school, so his schedule is open.

My schedule is pretty flexible too, although not as flexible as I had hoped. I had a deal with my boss that would allow me a six-week leave of absence after my current project was complete, which would have given me a lot of time to devote to flying lessons. That deal has been "altered", due to new project deadlines, and I have lost the opportunity to take the leave, but I will have the freedom to take a half-day or two off from work every week. (I wonder if I will continue to have that freedom as the deadlines approach, but I'll deal with that when the time comes.)

I'm hoping to take two lessons per week, one on the weekend and one mid-week. The airport (KPDK) is pretty busy on the weekends, but I understand that most of the weekend traffic is recreational rather than commercial, so it may not be too bad. Mid-week is a low-traffic time, so I expect those to be the more productive lessons of the week.

I am also taking ground-school classes, which meet on Sunday afternoons and Monday evenings. I am not expecting to blog much about those, as I think they will be pretty dry, but that doesn't mean they won't be valuable. I've been spending most of my free time the past two months reading aviation textbooks, so I think I'm pretty well prepared. I've read through all the texts used by the school, so now I am reading them for a second time in my ground-school studies. I expect I'll need to go through the material a couple more times before I take the tests, but it is already starting to stick in my head, and stuff I didn't really grasp the first time through makes a lot more sense to me after reading all the other material.

I'm not worried about the lessons, but I am aware of some personal limitations on which I'll need to focus. I don't multitask well, which can be deadly for a pilot, so I'll need to practice shifting my attention around and to use whatever aids I can to make me remember what I'm supposed to be doing. Spoken instructions tend to go in one ear and out the other, so I'll need to pay extra attention to the instructor and ATC when they address me, and write everything down. I'm farsighted, so I have no trouble seeing things outside the plane but I have trouble seeing all the little marks on a navigational chart, so I guess I'll need a magnifying glass, or I'll just have to memorize everything on the chart. Finally, I've been playing with Flight Simulator on and off for over twenty years, so I'll have some bad habits to break.

The weather for Saturday is supposed to be clear and cool with 5 mph winds, which sounds like pretty good flying weather to me. I'm really looking forward to it. The only downside is that I won't be able to drink or stay out late on Friday night, but that's a small price to pay.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Good News for Josh and Stuart

A couple of months ago, I wrote about my cousin Josh. We found out today that he is safely out of Iraq and on his way home.

As of Monday, Josh's older brother Stuart is the father of a baby girl, Evelyn Kaye. Just as it was weird to think of "little Josh" as a soldier, it's weird to think of "little Stuart" as a parent, but I'm sure he'll do a fine job.

Another event to make me feel old...

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Water Landing

From Cockpit Conversation: Yes, an airliner really can float after ditching in water

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?