Airplanes are Magic

February 6, 2008

At the moment I’m about 30,000 feet above the ground, speeding away from Portland at close to 600 miles per hour. This is essentially a magical phenomenon.

I use the word “magic” because it’s outside the bounds of our narrow range of direct human experience. We’re higher than the peak of Everest, and moving ten times faster than a motorcycle speeding down the highway … but I can’t hold my hand out the window, or feel the bite of the cold on my cheeks. I can look out my little peep hole, but I can’t interact with the world outside because I simply wouldn’t survive it.

So we can only talk about flying in mathematical abstractions — and yet, here I am, streaking through the sky with a bunch of tired commuters in a little aluminum tube.

I can understand why doctors and engineers have historically been considered magicians (or witches), lumped in with the superstitious clergy. Today we’re (mostly) enlightened to the distinction between science and the supernatural, but that doesn’t address the deep disconnect between our experiential intuition, and our modern world. We are still required to have a kind of faith when casually interact with the mechanical, chemical, and biological marvels around us.

I think the foundation of this faith in technology is complexity — or, rather, our incapacity to fully understand the complexity of our world. If we look at the first age of technology, we can comprehend the entirety of almost every particular device: guns, winches, pianos, looms, and so forth. They existed within the “human” scope of nature, where a single individual could potentially observe, understand, and reconstruct any given device. It certainly required genius to conceptualize and create these things, but the scope of technology was mostly limited to an individuals capacity.

Things are a little different today. The airplane I’m riding in is the result of trillions of calculations, tens of thousands of people, and dozens of companies. The blades in the turbines, the plastics in the windows, the fuel in the wings, the avionics, the control surfaces — each of these are the result of thousands of hours of research, testing, and development.

So, it’s simply not possible for any one person to fully comprehend, much less reconstruct a modern commercial airliner from it’s elemental components. From this perspective, commuting to San Jose is essentially a magical experience for the individual, a faith based initiative of sorts.

Of course, there is a fundamental difference between faith in technology, and faith in the supernatural: this airplane does not exist or operate because of mystical hand waving and incantations, rather, those tens of thousands of people, as a collective, fully comprehend this aircraft and continue to reproduce and improve upon it’s design.

I guess “magic” might not be the best word for this experience, but it sure feels like a good fit. I remember watching magicians as a kid, cajoling them to pull the rabbit out of the hat, or make the quarter disappear. It feels the same when I get on an airplane, or when I see one fly over head — something special is happening.

PDX to SJC

February 6, 2008

It’s 4:30 AM and I’m getting ready to get on another plane.

I’ll be in San Jose for the rest of the week (through Saturday the 9th).  If you’re in the area, drop me a line.  I’m working a contract with long hours, but I’m always up for catching a late dinner and a beer.

The Gangsta Photo

April 22, 2007

gangstaSo, I never would have thought my greatest personal contribution to the Intarweb is this picture.

Five years ago, when I was on my way to New Zealand, I stopped in Los Angeles and took a photo of one of my buddies from high school. We wanted something to show other folks what he was up to, and we decided that dressing him up as a gang banger would be suitably funny (in real life he’s a kick ass character artist and illustrator — check out http://mercilessdesign.com/).

Well, the photo got around. A lot. It was #1 for ‘gangsta’ searches on Google Images for a few years, and Comedy Central used it in one of their commercials (although it was pulled pretty quick). Now it’s all over MySpace, Flickr, forums, and personal photo galleries. Rumor has that there’s a pretty sweet graffiti stencil based on it …

Anyhow. I thought I’d haul it out again in (belated) honor of the 5th anniversary of the fake gangsta photo extravaganza.

Goin’ to Chicago

April 13, 2007

We’ve drummed up a lot of interest around Chatter Mill (our internal communication tool for large businesses), so Nova and I are headed to Chicago next month for the Corporate Communicators Conference.  It should be a good time — I haven’t spent much time in the Windy City, and on the off chance that I have a spare evening to drink beer and hang out, it would be great to meet up with some fellow geeks.

I’ll be there from May 8th through the 10th, and we’re staying somewhere near the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

Any takers?

Zenit 11

February 11, 2007

Zenit 11Ahh, a new acquisition — a friend gave me this Zenit 11 in perfect condition. Sure, you can find them on eBay for $20 … but this one has history! It was presented to my friend by a “high ranking” KGB official while he was doing business in the USSR, about a week before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It seems to be in perfect working condition — I’ll wander around Munich today and find out.

In other news, we’ll be back in the United States on Monday!

Out of The Office

January 29, 2007

Just a quick note — I’ll be in Germany from January 31st through February 12th.  It’s a working trip, so I’ll be available to respond to e-mails and whatnot; otherwise, please excuse my tardiness in responding to your inquiries.  Thanks!

I’m a budget traveler, through and through. I’m one of those guys who scours the Internet for cheap plane tickets, even if it means an awkward overnight stay on a friend’s couch, and a seat next to a sweaty guy with dandruff and a horrifying case of halitosis. I enjoy it, in a slightly masochistic way — I know how hard I’ve worked to partake of the lands I’m traveling to, which inspires me to make the most of my journeys.

However, there is a time and a place for luxury, especially when it’s free. So here I am, cruising at thirty three thousand feet, with my legs stretched out, a glass of good port in my hand, and a belly full of Gebratene Etenbrust (duck breast).

I’m under the impression that most people in coach don’t actually understand how good life is at the front of the plane. I certainly had no idea. Of course, on domestic flights, you walk past business and first class on the way back to your little nylon seat. You don’t really see anything special — maybe a hint of faux leather and the suggestion of more leg room, but certainly nothing worth taking out a second mortgage.

International is an entirely different scene. Economy passengers never get to walk through the front of a 747 to see the bounty offered to those with thick wallets, or, like myself, girlfriends who work for companies that enjoy moving their employees and significant others to foreign continents.

To get a good idea of what life is like on the other side of the curtain, go find a lazy-boy chair. Congratulate yourself with a glass of champaign. Find an attractive friend to serve you free drinks at the ring of a bell. Find an up-scale restaurant to personally deliver filet mignon and braised duck. And while you’re at it, bring a personal television — you get your own up here. Stretch out. Kick back. Take your shoes off. Sip your favorite apertif and make disparaging remarks about how those less fortunate than yourself are suffering from aching knees and plastic utensils.

I try my hardest to stretch my toes out towards my cat, who’s cooped up in a tiny bag stuffed under the seat in front of me. I still can’t reach him. Poor bastard. The smell of grilled swordfish smothered in butter must be driving him crazy.

Welcome to the cheapest seats in business class. God only knows what happens in first class, up that proverbial stairway to heaven. I’ve heard rumors of beds, celebrities, massages, and other unspeakable pleasures, all of which make me somewhat nervous — what are we, the common men and women of this Earth, missing out on? What strange curtain has been drawn between us and the sophisticate?

A mystery to be sure, but not one to be addressed here.

So, we’ve been in Germany almost exactly a week. It’s Monday morning, the 21st of April. Our first week has been pretty good — the cats are adjusting to their new home, we’re getting settled in our temporary housing, and the weather has been beautiful.

We’re at the tail end of a four-day weekend. The Germans love their public holidays, and I’m under the impression that most weekends are actually three-day weekends. For most people, it’s actually illegal to work on public holidays — and those who do work have jobs that are of civil importance, like police officers, firemen, and cafe workers.

The events this weekend are Good Friday, and Easter Monday. Easter is a big deal over here, running a distant second place to Christmas in the grand scheme of holidays. The stores have rabbits and chicks and chocolates everywhere. All of the houses and apartments have easter trees, decorated with colorful eggs. The churches celebrate by ringing their bells at god awful hours of the morning, with the hope of waking those of us who resemble the dead at about 6am.

The bells aren’t so bad, really. In the United States, there’s only a couple of churches who ring their bells by hand — the rest turn their bells into monuments with little plaques that read “Imagine the sound of this bell.” Down in Christchurch, they installed some speakers in the big church in the middle of the town square. Down the street from where I am, there’s a church of little consequence where a half-deaf monk climbs the steeple every hour or so to remind everyone in the neighborhood that their several hundred year old bells are still working just fine. It’s nice. Every now and then, he brings a few friends and they ring all the bells (I think there’s six of them) for about five minutes, just to keep them in good shape.

When the Germans build something, they mean it: they take the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to heart, and build damn near everything to last several hundred years, barring wars and such. All of the houses, even modern ones, are built with heavy stones and concrete. The windows are all heavy duty storm windows, and the plumbing is all top notch. Doors are heavy. Everything feels very permanent. It’s very impressive.

Our temporary place is pretty nice. It’s the standard residence adidas offers to transferring employees, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a nice little kitchen, and a big open area for the dining room and living room. I’m trying not to get too comfortable with the space — it’s way out of our price range, and we still don’t know where we’re going to be living after adidas gets tired of paying our rent.

We don’t have an Internet connection yet, and I’m sorry we haven’t been able to respond to everyone’s e-mail. We expect to have a connection here at the house within the next couple of weeks, but I’ll be going to adidas every now and then to check in and say hello.