No More Kool-Aid

Two previous “Kool-Aid” posts have chronicled my frustration with trying to get a new Apple TV2 with Netflix streaming capability to work as advertised by both companies. If you haven’t read either of these and would prefer the short version, it’s this: they lied.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve wasted precious moments of a life that has used up more minutes than it has remaining by trying to identify the source of the problem and fix it. Two conversations with Apple support and two visits to the “genius bar” in the local Apple Store have finally convinced me that to drink any more of this Kool-Aid is to admit a masochistic addiction to self-mutilation.

Someone on a support forum suggested that we all file a “bug report,” so I did that to complain about a corporate attitude that ignores both the customers and the problem. For all the good that will do.

I made the latest and last visit to the Apple Store for a genius-bar appointment with my cute little ATV2 hockey puck in my hand. Being early offered the opportunity to watch the spring-break crowd in frantic excitement over the latest iwhatever that we all supposedly can’t do without. The image of a shark feeding frenzy came to mind.

At one point I held my ATV2 up close to my face and pretended to text with it. A few bystanders actually showed interest, like, “What is that?” In retrospect, I’m sorry, but the Devil made me do it.

Unlike the first genius I talked with a few weeks ago, this Einstein of the Apple World had canceled his cable service and bought an ATV2 and planned to rely on it for streaming. He was personally familiar with all my frustrations and mentioned that Apple has not communicated with their technical support folks what, if anything, is being done to address the issue.

The most recent update didn’t cover it, and in fact triggered a problem with video freezing no matter what the source content is. In fairness, it appears the issue only involves older TVs incapable of 1080 resolution, but is making something better without making something else worse too much to ask?

The genius offered to test the unit, of course, but admitted up front the futility of doing that. When I said, “So what I’ve got here is a doorstop that’s too light to even do that job well,” he replied, “I feel your pain.”

From what I can tell, the entire Netflix/ATV2 pause/buffering issue is just a mystery. And as far as we know, they have no detectives to assign to the case.

Maybe ATV2 users should petition Apple for a Special Victims Unit so we don’t end up in the cold case files?

 

 

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The Talking Lab

A guy is driving around in the mountains of Montana and sees a sign in front of a broken down shanty-style house: “Talking Dog For Sale.” Curious as to how someone thinks they can pull off a scam like that, he rings the bell.

The owner appears and tells him the dog is around back. The guy goes into the backyard and sees a nice looking Labrador retriever sitting there.

“You talk?” he asks.

“Yep,” the Lab replies.

After the guy recovers from the shock, he says “So, what’s your story?”

“Well, I discovered that I could talk when I was pretty young. I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA. In no time at all they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping.

“I was one of their most valuable spies for eight years running. But the jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn’t getting any younger. So I decided to settle down and signed up for a job at the airport to do undercover security, wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings and was awarded a batch of medals.

“Then I got married, had a mess of puppies, and now I’m just retired.”

The guy is amazed. He goes back inside the house and asks the owner what he wants for the dog.

“Ten dollars.”

“What? This dog is amazing! Why on earth are you selling him so cheap?”

“Because he’s a liar. He never did any of that crap.”

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And That’s When the Fight Started

A friend of mine sent me these lol funny (at least to guys) vignettes of turbulent interaction between husbands, wives, and in the first case, a mother-in-law. An alternate title might be, “How to Create a Tornado in Your House.” Here they are:

One year, I decided to buy my mother-in-law a cemetery plot as a Christmas gift. The next year,  I didn’t buy her a gift. When she asked me why, I replied, “You still haven’t used the gift I bought you last year!”

And that’s how the fight started . . .

*   *   *

My wife and I were watching “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” while we were in bed. I turned to her and said, “Do you want to have sex?”

“No.”

“Is that your final answer?”

She didn’t even look at me this time. “Yes.”

“Then I’d like to phone a friend.”

And that’s when the fight started . . .

*   *   *

I took my wife to a restaurant. The waiter, for some reason, took my order first. “I’ll have the rump steak, rare, please.”

He said, “Aren’t you worried about the mad cow?”

“Nah, she can order for herself.”

And that’s when the fight started . . .

*   *   *

My wife and I were sitting at a table at her high school reunion, and she kept staring at a drunken man swigging his drink as he sat alone at a nearby table. I asked her, “Do you know him?

“Yes,” she sighed. “He’s my old boyfriend. I heard that he took to drinking right after we split up those many years ago, and he hasn’t been sober since.”

“My God!” I said, “Who would think a person could go on celebrating that long?”

And then the fight started . . .

*   *   *

When our lawn mower broke and wouldn’t run, my wife kept hinting to me that I should get it fixed. But somehow I always had something else to take care of first. Essential stuff, like the shed, the boat, or making beer. Then one day she finally thought of a clever way to make her point.

I arrived home and found her seated in the tall grass, busily snipping away with a tiny pair of sewing scissors. I watched silently for a short time, then went into the house, came out again and handed her a toothbrush. “When you finish there, you might as well sweep the driveway.”

The doctors say I will walk again, but I’ll always have a limp.

*   *   *

My wife sat down next to me as I was flipping channels. “What’s on TV?”

“Dust.”

And then the fight started . . .

*   *   *

Saturday morning I got up early, quietly dressed, made my lunch, and slipped quietly into the garage. I hooked the boat up to the van and backed out into a torrential downpour. The wind was blowing 50 mph, so I pulled back into the garage, turned on the radio, and discovered that the
 weather would be bad all day.

I went back into the house, undressed and slipped into bed. Cuddled up to my wife’s back, now with a different anticipation, I whispered, “The weather out there is terrible.”

My loving wife of five years replied, “Can you believe my stupid husband is out fishing in that?”

And that’s how the fight started . . .

*   *   *

My wife was hinting about her gift for our upcoming anniversary. “I want something shiny that goes from 0 to 150 in about 3 seconds.”

I bought her a bathroom scale.

And then the fight started . . .

*   *   *

After retiring, I went to the Social Security office to apply for benefits. The woman behind the counter asked me for my driver’s license to verify my age.

I looked in my pockets, realized I had left my wallet at home, and told the woman that I would have to go home and come back later.

“No need,” she said. “Unbutton your shirt.”

So I did that, revealing my chest covered in curly silver hair.

She nodded, said, “That’s proof enough for me,” and processed my Social Security application.

When I got home, I excitedly told my wife about the experience.

“You should have dropped your pants,” she said. “You might have gotten disability, too.”

And then the fight started . . .

*   *   *

Standing nude looking in the bedroom mirror, my wife was obviously not happy with what she saw. “I feel horrible. I look old, fat and ugly. I really need you to pay me a compliment.”

I obliged with, “Your eyesight’s damn near perfect.”

And then the fight started . . .

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ABNA – View from a Reviewer’s Chair

Round Two wordfighting at the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) corral began on February 24th and ended on March 13th. On or about March 22nd, Amazon will post the excerpts used in the judging and their associated reviews for each of the 250 entrants in each of two categories advanced to the Quarter Finals.

A friend and fellow writer sent me the following insider’s account of the Round Two behind-the-scenes action during last year’s contest, and I’ve elected to publish it here with only minor editing (and no images) because it offers an interesting view into the role of a reviewer in this particular writing contest and probably contains carry-over value to others as well.

I say this with full knowledge of the criticism directed by some at ABNA for the structure of this contest. On the other hand, I totally reject the opinions of writers who complain about the hurdles placed in their path. No one forced them to enter. To suggest that having to write a pitch is unfair, and ask why the judges can’t begin with the novels because that’s where the award-winning writing is, and conclude that the contest sucks because it rewards mediocre talent, well, that’s simply bogus.

I am also aware that very good novels (and maybe the best of the bunch) will not be considered for the grand prize because of the luck of the draw. It would be really cool if we could pick our judges, but absent that, chance plays a role as in all aspects of life.

What follows is long, but I think it’s worth a read because the ABNA contest emphasizes the critical importance of engaging readers very early in the story, and in that regard it accurately reflects the demands of the marketplace as reflected in how manuscripts are submitted and ultimately selected for publication.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) Writing Contest Overview.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award or ABNA allows people 13 and older from 20 different countries to submit their unpublished or self-published English language novel for consideration for a grand prize of a publishing contract with Penguin USA and a $15,000 advance on royalties. In 2010, a similar prize for young adult fiction, aimed at twelve- to seventeen-year-old readers, was added to the general fiction prize awarded in past years. Both prizes are awarded in parallel contests following the same procedures.

In addition to the grand prize, thousands of other prizes offer a total value of over $100,000, including a trip to the awards ceremony in Seattle, Washington for the three finalists in each category and reviews from Publishers Weekly to use in marketing. Each entrant gets a proof copy of their novel from CreateSpace.com. In the past, not only have the first-place winners received a publishing contact, but the publicity generated has helped produce contracts for many other finalists and semifinalists as well.

Only the first 5,000 manuscripts submitted in each category are accepted. Each author submits their entire novel, an excerpt from the beginning of the novel consisting of the first 3,000 to 5,000 words, and a pitch of up to 300 words, as well as the necessary personal information.

ABNA Contest Stages and Process:

The contest has several stages of judging used to narrow the field to the final grand prize winners.

In the first stage, which lasts about two weeks, Amazon editors narrow the field from 5,000 entries in each category to a maximum of 1,000 based solely on a review of the pitch. The pitch is a cover letter with a short description of the concept of the novel intended to sell it to the reader, like a sales pitch or advertisement. The pitches must 300 words or less and are evaluated for the quality of the writing, originality, and overall strength. A list of the entrants advanced to the second stage is posted on the ABNA website.

I participated in this stage as a Vine Voice reviewer. Amazon Vine Voices review each excerpt of the beginning of the manuscript and write short critiques addressing three questions and rate them across four dimensions. Each of the three questions about the excerpt may be answered by the Vine Voice with up to 300 words, addressing the strongest aspect, the aspect that needs the most work, and the overall opinion of the excerpt. The excerpts are also rated on a scale of one to five stars for overall strength, plot and hook, prose and style, and originality.

The winners of this stage are based primarily on the overall strength score with other ratings used as tie breakers. The 1,000 contestants left in each category are reduced to 250 during this stage, which lasts about three weeks. The excerpts and reviews from the 250 winners from each category are posted on the ABNA website. Amazon customers are then invited to read, review and rate the excerpts.

In the third stage of the contest, the Quarterfinals, professional reviewers from Publishers Weekly read, review, and rate the complete manuscripts from one to five stars on character development, originality, plot, prose and style, and overall strength. This process takes over a month and results in 50 entries in each category advancing to the fourth stage of the writing contest based on their average scores.

In the fourth stage or Semifinals, the manuscripts are evaluated by judges selected by Penguin USA to choose three finalists in each category using the same criteria used in the third stage. This stage lasts almost a month.

In the fifth stage, the Finals, Amazon customers read and vote on the six finalists to determine the two grand prize winners, one for young adult fiction and one for general fiction. The manuscripts that reach this stage are also reviewed by a celebrity panel made up of a famous author, an agent, and an editor so that their opinions can be considered by Amazon customers during the voting. This stage lasts a little over a week.

Later in June, less than two weeks after Amazon customers have selected the two grand prize winners, the six finalists and a guest are flown to Seattle, Washington, where Amazon’s international headquarters are located, for the grand prize award ceremony. There, the two deserving winners will receive offers to have their novels published by Penguin USA as well as a $15,000 advance. One can only try to imagine how excited the six finalists are in Seattle as the winners are announced.

An Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer’s Insider View of the contest:

Vine Voices are Amazon customers who are selected to receive new products from vendors and publishers for review based on their history of submitting reviews on Amazon products. Not all of these Vine Voices are asked to participate in the contest and the criteria for selection are unknown to the Vine Voices chosen. Since each Vine Voice reviews 40 excerpts and each excerpt is reviewed by at least two reviewers, and there are 2,000 entries at this stage, the minimum number of Vine Voice reviewers required to complete 4,000 reviews is 100.

In 2010, the 40 excerpts each Vine Voice received were a mix of young adult fiction and general fiction. Amazon defines young adult fiction as that intended to be primarily enjoyed by readers twelve to seventeen years old and adult fiction is for those seventeen years and older. The excerpts I received seem to have been almost equally divided between the two categories, although that was not easily determined by the title or even content alone. The manuscript excerpts are accessed, reviewed, and rated through CreateSpace.com, an online on-demand publishing and distribution system that is now part of the Amazon group of companies. Once a review has been submitted, it is locked and cannot be accessed again by the reviewer.

Some Vine Voice participants write all their reviews offline and then submit them later after looking at them again. Forty excerpts is a great many to read and review and rate with the consideration that the contestants deserve, so the Vine Voices have over three weeks to complete their work. The excerpts are from 3,000 to 5,000 words long, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 pages of a published novel. The excerpts are supposed to be from the very beginning of the novel. Most of the entrants seem to do a good job of choosing to end the excerpt at a cliffhanger in the story or at a natural pause in the writing, but a few seem to just cram in the maximum allowable number of words or else had no good point in the manuscript to end the excerpt.

This stage is the first to evaluate any of the text of the novel itself. In the first stage, entries were chosen based on the pitch, which is about the manuscript, but not part of it. Some people with excellent novels might have been eliminated because of a poorly written pitch, which may be less common than poorly written novels that make it through based on a decent pitch. At times I wondered what the successful pitch must have looked like compared to the quality of the excerpt of the manuscript and on occasion I wished that I had been able to read the pitch to see where the novel was going and how the excerpt fit into the rest of it.

A few entries are disqualified in this second stage because the authors chose an excerpt from elsewhere in the book, usually at a point with lots of action or of what the author believed to be his or her best writing. The Vine Voices are required to report this failure to follow contest rules. Another common reason for disqualification at this stage is that there are always a few authors who submit the excerpt with their name on it, which also violates the rules. Having a name on the manuscript excerpt undermines the integrity of the contest, which judges only the work and its pitch. Authors must remain anonymous to the judges. For the same reason, I did not download the list of authors and titles that had advanced to this stage until I completed my reviews.

Another and fortunately less common reason for rejection at this stage is that the Vine Voice recognizes plagiarism. It is very upsetting to have to report these rule violations, especially when the excerpt is promising in other respects. In the 40 excerpts I reviewed, two were not from the beginning of the novel and one had the author’s name on it. The Vine reviewers are still required to complete their assessments but it can be difficult to evaluate the hook, for instance, if the excerpt is from the middle of the novel and you do not know even know what the hook was.

There were also a couple of excerpts that seemed to be in the wrong category of young adult vs. general fiction, although I could not be sure if there had been a mistake or if the author’s opinion of where their work belonged differed so greatly from my own assessment.

Then there were the two excerpts that seemed to be written for very young children rather than young adults. I commented on these findings in the reviews, and the second issue in particular colored my opinions. Although we were not instructed to report these issues, I would imagine that the judges in later stages would be hesitant to award the general fiction prize to a story about tadpoles named Binky, Winky, and Tinky who grow up into frogs and venture across the road to the Big Pond.

I chose to read each excerpt at least twice. I would read 10 or so and then reread and review and rate them later, usually the next day. This allowed me to form an initial impression and then test that impression with a second reading to fully form an opinion.

Usually my first impressions were confirmed, but on occasion I found a deeper appreciation for an author’s writing style or perception on the second reading. A few excerpts I read a third time while actually writing the reviews to help me find examples to use in my comments, usually when the excerpt was either very good or very poor in overall quality. I felt that two readings was the least I could do to properly evaluate the writing.

Thoughts on Categories of Quality of the Manuscript Excerpts:

The excerpts seemed to easily fall in one of three categories: very poorly written works with few redeeming qualities, works that were generally mediocre with one or two noteworthy aspects either good or bad, and those that were very good in every aspect.

Fortunately there were only a very few excerpts that were so poorly written that I had difficulty finding something strong to praise, and usually I could at least honestly laud the writer’s originality or imagination. Some of these seemed to be young adult novels written by young teenagers, and these required special tact in commenting on the negative aspects and overall opinion. Usually they followed a standard story line seen in films and books aimed at young people. I tried to encourage the writers to continue to work at writing and their studies.

Then there were generally mediocre excerpts that had some negative quality such as atrocious spelling and grammar and constant use of hackneyed phrases, along with an outstanding gift for describing things in an original fashion, very realistic dialogue, or an interesting and original concept. These were actually the easiest excerpts to evaluate because I could find examples of something both very strong and something needing work to assess. That allowed my negative criticism to be tempered with positive commentary, and I felt that I might even be able to help the author write better in the future even with the brief comments I could make.

In general, judging from comments entrants made about the contest, writers crave assessment and review of their work as a form of feedback for improvement. I would also note any minor issues such as spelling or other errors, believing that the writer would improve the manuscript and continue to work towards publishing it even if it wasn’t ready to win the 2010 ABNA contest. A few of these really seemed to have potential, especially if it seemed to be a young author, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them published at some point in the future with enough hard work.

The smallest category consisted of the best and strongest works. It was easy to praise these and find examples of their strong points. One excerpt made me cry and several made me laugh. Some of them were so good that I was truly aggravated not to be able to review the entire manuscript, although there is a good chance that they will be published at some point in the future and I will have the pleasure of paying to read them in print.

These excerpts were generally very well polished and with the exception of a few typos needed only very minor editing. In a few cases, I was hard-pressed to find any significant aspect that needed work. Unable to offer any truly helpful criticism, to some degree these reviews tended to be more about my reaction to the work than about the work itself. I’m sure those authors didn’t mind too much being left only with unhelpful compliments and after all, it really should be difficult for me, a reviewer, to give a truly outstanding author helpful advice.

General Observations on the Writing and Contest:

In many of the excerpts, I was very impressed with how much character development was possible in so few pages. The originality of some of the writers was truly humbling, both on a large scale like the overall concept of the novel and on a small scale such as how a small detail was described.

Many of the writers seemed to be using writing as a form of psychological or spiritual therapy, sometimes with good results to present to the reader. There was a range of deep emotion expressed with words from people of all ages and from all over the world. The ability to express it varied greatly, but it was always touching.

Many of the young adult novels were fantasy or science fiction. Some of these entries seemed to be better suited for video games or action films than a novel. There were probably more excerpts set in the past and the future than the present, and they were set in many different places on this planet and in unknown worlds. There were some excerpts very similar in concept, but for the most part each one was very different from the rest in terms of theme and content and of course, writing style.

I also gained an appreciation for the entire publishing industry and how difficult it must be to evaluate the manuscripts submitted. I am very impressed with the design of the contest and how it filters 10,000 novels into two final winners through the efforts of hundreds of people spending many thousands of hours reading and evaluating pitches, excerpts, and manuscripts, writing reviews, and supporting the entire process. The information technology used to facilitate the process is also impressive if one stops to consider it.

Overall, reviewing the writing was hard but enjoyable work. It took almost 1 1/2 hours to read and review each excerpt, on average. I was glad when it was finished but would definitely do it again if offered the opportunity.

Advice for Writers Entering the ABNA or Similar Writing Contests:

After reviewing the excerpts, many of which repeated the same problems, I feel qualified to give some basic advice from a reviewer’s standpoint to help writers win ABNA. Much of this advice should apply to other writing contests as well.

Read the contest rules and follow them very carefully. Read them again and get someone else to read them to you to make sure you understand them. Don’t put your name where it is not supposed to be. Make sure your excerpt is from the beginning of the manuscript and is the right length. Pay attention to deadlines. Enter early. In spite Amazon’s warning not to wait until the last minute, some people were unable to get their entries in or to complete them because of busy servers.

To have the best chance of winning, make sure to enter your novel in the correct category. Don’t enter a young adult novel in the general fiction contest or try to win a short story or poetry prize with it. Put at least as much work into writing your pitch as you do into writing your novel. Only 20% of entries were selected to have the excerpts reviewed and the decision was based solely on the pitches. If a pitch was not better than four out of every five then the actual novel was not evaluated even if it was the best novel submitted.

If you are going to be judged on an excerpt at some stage in a contest, put special effort into perfecting it. Your entire novel should be polished, but if one part of it will receive special attention from judges, then you should give it special attention as well. Only 25% of the entries will advance to the next stage and again, it is based solely on the excerpt. If you have a good pitch and a good excerpt, the rest of your novel could be absolutely terrible and you will still advance from being 1 of 5,000 contestants to being 1 of 250 contestants. In other words, the top 5% of entries are chosen based only on the pitch and the excerpt. Make sure yours are good so your entire manuscript will be evaluated in the next phase of the contest.

Several excerpts I reviewed had very complicated and overworked opening prologues or paragraphs that just didn’t work very well when the next paragraph would have made a much better start. It is absolutely possible to try too hard and get so involved in your writing that you cannot see where the strengths and weaknesses are.

Get other people to read and review your work. There are even groups of writers on the Internet who help each other with this. Use spell check and grammar check. I was surprised at some of the misspellings and other simple errors in the entries that spell check would have caught. The submissions are supposed to be ready for a final, professional editing prior to publication and should not contain dozens of careless errors, which definitely affects the reviews and ratings. On the other hand, don’t rely on spell check alone as it does not catch all errors. You need to review it yourself and have other people review it or you will end up a “looser.”

Make sure that your submission is formatted properly so that the reader can tell who is speaking or thinking and avoid long paragraphs that are impossible to follow. If your novel relies on special formatting such as italics or colors to make sense, realize that the software platform you submit your work on may not support that formatting. Think of alternative ways to communicate your intent. You may not be able to submit drawings such as diagrams or maps that a reader might rely on in the published work.

Pay attention to basic principles and timeworn advice for writers. For example, sentence fragments such be used skillfully or not at all. If a sentence has no subject and there is no noun in the preceding sentence even likely to be the subject, you are making the reader work too hard. Make sure that you change viewpoints carefully and not inadvertently. Don’t address the reader directly unless it is your intention. Don’t use titles for chapters that contain spoilers, especially if it is a thriller or mystery. That takes the fun and interest out of reading your story. Avoid the use of clichés unless you have carefully considered their use. Don’t start your story with “It all began….” Don’t say that a character has piercing eyes of any color and certainly not emerald green. Emeralds come in many different colors and so does ink, if your night sky just has to be inky. If your character feels like he is in a dream, it had better be a good one.

Think twice before starting your book with a funeral. It’s okay if characters sometimes just say something, they don’t always have to whisper, shout, or wonder aloud. You can write “he said” and “she said” without feeling unoriginal. Read your manuscript specifically looking for these trite usages and ask others to look for them as well. On the other hand, go easy with the thesaurus. Your reader should not be forced to use the dictionary several times on each page.

Make sure that your dialogue sounds natural. Stiff dialogue can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing. If you can’t get someone else to read it out loud to you, read it yourself. Does it sound like something anyone would actually say? If not, then your character will not seem real to the reader. Make sure that you understand what you are describing. Several writers gave incorrect facts or descriptions of things or places that they very obviously had never seen yet were trying to accurately portray.

There are classic themes that work well for novels such as a hero fulfilling a quest or seeking revenge or a person unknowingly falling in love with a non-human (vampire, werewolf, alien), and classic devices such as portals to other dimensions or the discovery of a message or letter not intended for the one who finds it. These concepts have already been written about well so many times that if you write about them, you must do an excellent job or the reader will inevitably start making unfavorable comparisons.

Ask yourself and anyone who reads your writing if people will want to read it and recommend it to others. Above all, a novel is supposed to entertain and anything that breaks the writer’s hold on the reader’s attention or is even a minor distraction should be eliminated. The reader should forget that he is reading a book and just experience the story. The best excerpts did this and left me wanting to read the rest of the manuscript. Those are the ones that will advance to the next stage and have a chance to win publishing contracts as the ABNA grand prize or will be picked to be published at another time.

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The Flying What?

According to their website, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA)  is “the only association that offers the fun and camaraderie of sharing your passion for participating in the flying, building, and restoring of recreational aircraft with the most passionate community of aviation enthusiasts.”

Although I’m an EAA member, consider myself passionate about aviation, and I’ve helped a good friend restore a home-built airplane, in no way can I claim any expertise as a builder. That said, I’ve learned to appreciate the skill and craftsmanship it takes to create some of the most beautiful flying machines on the planet.

Although to comprehensively compare factory- and home-built airplanes goes well beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that while standardization in materials and construction is essential in the case of the former, customization limited only by the vision and skills of the builder lies at the core of what home-built aircraft are all about. To put it another way, the sky isn’t the limit.

Broadly speaking, there are four levels of experimental airplane design and construction:

  1. Design and build it by starting with a blank sheet.
  2. Begin with plans for an aircraft someone else designed, purchase materials according to an included list, and build it.
  3. Build an aircraft from a kit, which includes plans and materials.
  4. Do the same with a “quick-build” kit, in which some of the most critical components arrive fully or partially completed.

This post honors a quintessential example of level number 1. And in this case, the first page was not only blank, but conceptually way out there where few others have done more than dream. I’ve included a link below to an EAA video made for AirVenture 2010 at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the granddaddy of airshows in the U.S.

Even if you have little or no interest in aviation, I encourage you to take a look. The production is beautifully done, and it chronicles how one man with a vision has combined with aviation an activity most individuals age 16 and above know all too well.

I also encourage you to stick with it to the end for a very special insight into the source of this remarkable individual’s inspiration. Here’s the link:

Flying Car

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The Truth is Out

Aviators do things that “normal” people consider something akin to otherworldly, right? Making sense of all those gauges and dials and the occasional bell and maybe even a whistle or two seems beyond the comprehension of most folks.

I hate to have to tell you this, but pilots like to keep it that way by not admitting to anyone how easy it really is. We enjoy the exalted pedestal upon which we exist and take great satisfaction in being able to look down upon the huddled masses of passengers with benevolence and offer a gentle word of comfort to ease their apprehension.

We would never share with passengers, for example, the famous (infamous?) words of one pilot to another during an emergency, “It’ll probably be all right.” No, we never admit the slightest doubt that our skill and cunning will save the day no matter what.

Unfortunately, BBC One has let the proverbial cat out of the bag with a video that demonstrates how most pilots get to where they are. The desire almost always begins at an early age and festers to the point of obsession, and this intense motivation shoves the young wannabe aviator into a strange new world.

At the bottom of a strange new world, of course. No one straps into the cockpit of a jetliner right away. It takes time, and hard work, and requires learning a multitude of new skills to work your way up.

But now for the first time, you can see how the birth of an aviator really happens. Check it out at Tommy’s New Job.

 

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Another Blogosphere Mystery

It’s sometimes hard for me to remember that this website/blog doesn’t exist behind the screen or under the keyboard in the guts of my laptop. It’s out there somewhere, and I can only look at it from the front side just like everyone else until I log in. Then the “back pages” open up, and the world of the WordPress blog tool and publishing platform appears so that I can act as the administrator.

One of the available functions there monitors the update status of the theme I’m using and the only three “plugins” installed. WP-Stats keeps track of the number of posts, pages, comments, etc., Akismet blocks the spam, and Count per Day keeps tabs on the numbers game of blogging that I’ve mentioned in previous Blogbook posts.

A recent update to the counter significantly changed the appearance of the data by upgrading the graphs, and it added functions for monitoring the visitors’ countries in both tabular form and with a map. None of this information offers anything more than window dressing without trying to make sense of it, which I’ve been doing for about five months now since installing the plugin on October 14, 2010.

Both in terms of total visitor and “read” count, the trend indicates consistently increasing traffic. The visitors-per-post figures continue to baffle me, because I can’t figure out why certain posts attract more attention than others. It may well be that reader interest in the subject matter has far less to do with it than where the links to the posts appear on the page of a browser. If that’s the case, paying any attention to the numbers is really nothing more than an exercise in using statistics to warrant unjustified conclusions.

In spite of the possible futility of the effort, my daily routine usually involves checking the data a few times during the day for spam and latest visitor and read counts. If I have published a post that morning, I normally check an hour or so later to see if that post has received any attention, then maybe that afternoon, and almost always before logging out in the evening.

Last night about 10 o’clock, I noticed something that froze my eyes in place. In 22 hours, the counter had recorded about 140 visitors (a little higher than normal) and 750 reads (almost four times the previous maximum). When I checked the visitors-per-post listing for that period, the numbers indicated for the top posts had in fact increased from the usual 10-15 per day to 40-45. I signed off wondering what had happened to cause such a sudden spike in the numbers.

The last update to the Count per Day plugin had been installed about a month ago. When I signed in this morning, the update feature indicated a new one was available, so I installed it and immediately ran into trouble when the link to the data failed to appear in what is called the “Dashboard.”

I checked the plugin page and found that the function was supposedly active, but I still couldn’t find it. After a bit of troubleshooting, I ended up on the settings page for that plugin (for the first time ever) and noticed that the selection for who could view the data showed “custom.” In the drop-down menu I found “administrator,” selected it, and suddenly the date became available again. I have no idea why this was necessary.

Back on the data page, once again I noticed an unusual increase in the total counts for today, especially since it only covered a period of about ten hours. Something mysterious has happened again out there in the blogosphere. Take a look at the screen grab below to see what I mean. (Click on it to expand. The back button on your browser returns to this view.)

Holy Toledo, Blogman. Where are all these folks coming from?

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Get-home-itis + Icing = Pilot Error

Over 85% of all aircraft accidents aren’t really accidental because the chain of events leading up to the crash includes some degree of pilot error. One all-too-common cause of these crashes is a disease known as “get-home-itis.”

The following account is adapted with selected editing from the online magazine of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). The original article is titled, “Personal pressure: Weather dooms pilot anxious to get home” by David Kenny.

Patience is an essential survival skill for pilots. Sometimes conditions just don’t cooperate, and it doesn’t matter how badly you need to be on your way. Long-term success—not to mention survival—requires learning that if the weather was unflyable yesterday, that same weather will still be unflyable today. This gets easier to accept as reality with experience, but in extreme cases even the most seasoned pilots may struggle to keep themselves on the ground until circumstances improve.

At 10:18 a.m. on Jan. 4, 2010, a Cessna 172 took off from Bangor International Airport in Maine bound for Goose Bay, Newfoundland, on the first leg of a transatlantic crossing en route to eventual delivery to a buyer in Russia. Thirty-six minutes later it crashed through the ice on the Penobscot River, killing the solo pilot.

The pilot’s IFR (instrument flight rules) flight plan estimated an unusual seven-and-a-half hours time en route (due to “ferry tanks” that  increased the fuel capacity of the 172). Conditions were not especially favorable for a long cross-country: northwest winds gusting to 17 knots and an altimeter setting of 29.35 (very low pressure and indicative of lousy weather), with overcast ceilings at 2,600 feet above ground level (agl), and a temperature of 3 degrees Celsius (just above freezing at the surface).

Two witnesses reported mist and light snow at the time of departure, and the warning of STRUCTURAL ICE should have jumped off the weather report and grabbed the pilot around the throat. But it didn’t, and he departed Bangor as planned.

At 10:40 a.m., the pilot was handed off to the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) and reported climbing through 6,000 feet mean sea level (msl) for his filed altitude of 9,000. A few seconds later he requested clearance to level at 7,000 feet, which was approved.

Five minutes after that, the controller asked if he was in fact going to climb to 7,000 and was told the Skyhawk’s rate of climb was down to fifty feet per minute. The pilot requested clearance to level off at 6,000 to build up airspeed. He did not specifically mention icing but did add that he was “a bit heavy.”

That was certainly true. At Bangor he’d filled the 124-gallon ferry tank as well as the wing tanks. This brought the airplane’s weight close to the maximum allowed under the special airworthiness certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the ferry flight, which was 30 percent above the maximum authorized for an unmodified 172. This is a crucial factor contributing to what happened.

Extra weight robs airplanes of performance in any flight regime. The Cessna 172 isn’t known for its high rate of climb even under ideal conditions. And although the pilot had FAA approval to takeoff at the higher gross weight, his aircraft performance didn’t care.

About three minutes later, the Boston controller transmitted that “it appears you’re having a hard time maintaining altitude. My minimum IFR altitude in your area is three thousand seven hundred.” This transmission clearly indicates the controller’s concern that the pilot was descending rather than climbing to his assigned altitude of 6,000 feet.

The Cessna pilot then replied, “. . . some severe turbulence here . . . I’m, uh, having control difficulties.” The controller asked whether he’d like to return to Bangor, and contacted Approach Control to coordinate the emergency after the pilot agreed.

The pilot established radio contact with Approach at 10:53 a.m. After reading back a clearance direct to the navigation fix to begin his instrument approach, the pilot added that he was “in extreme turbulence with over ninety-degree banks.”

A minute and a half after he reported trying to maintain 2,300 feet msl, radar contact was lost. The last altitude recorded on radar indicated the Skyhawk at 1,200 feet. The first reports of an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) signal came in ten minutes later, barely three minutes before the local fire department called Bangor Tower to report the crash. Most of the airplane was found submerged, making it impossible to confirm that it had accumulated ice, but this seems the likeliest explanation for its rapid descent.

The 77-year-old commercial pilot had more than 14,000 hours of flight experience, including 9,500 in single-engine airplanes and about 2,000 in actual instrument conditions. He was highly regarded by the company hired to arrange the ferry flight, for which he had worked as a contract pilot on other occasions. When he filed his flight plan, he told the briefer that he was aware of cautions for widespread instrument flight conditions, moderate turbulence below 11,000 feet, moderate icing below 13,000 feet, with freezing levels of 2,500 feet and below.

Why did an experienced professional pilot choose to launch in these conditions? To do so required that he ignore two critical limitations: 1) the 172 was not equipped with icing protection, which means that intentional flight into known icing was strictly prohibited, and 2) the special airworthiness certificate issued for his flight by the FAA included the direction to “avoid moderate to severe turbulence.”

The investigation turned up some hints. The pilot had told the Flight Service briefer that he’d been “stuck for a week here.” Two witnesses at the airport recalled his telling them how anxious he was to return to Britain, where his daughter was scheduled to undergo surgery and his wife had recently had an automobile accident. The bad weather had frustrated him to the point of considering leaving the Cessna and flying home commercially.

But he didn’t, and this crash illustrates the deadly consequences of the pilot’s failure to use even a modicum of common sense and good judgment. His airplane was overloaded. Its normally anemic climb rate was further compromised by the additional weight. He could not possibly avoid icing conditions along his route of flight. He knew that structural ice exacts a double penalty on airplanes by increasing weight and destroying lift by disrupting airflow over the wings and flight controls. His airplane had no way to prevent structural icing or remove it once it had formed.

Yet in the face of all those factors clearly indicating need for caution, he succumbed to get-home-itis and paid the ultimate price.

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Mysteries of the Blogosphere

This blogosphere never ceases to amaze me.

I read a book about the final days of WWII combat in the Pacific and published a post on February 15, 2011 titled “Not Just Another Day at Work.” The post connected the events chronicled in the book with a link to a 360-degree panoramic view of the cockpit of a B-29 named the Enola Gay. Col. Paul Tibbets sat in this “office” and on August 6, 1945, dropped the atomic bomb that changed the world forever.

On March 4, 2011, my spam filter nabbed a comment related to this post and held it for moderation. The source of the comment is a website: countrieswithnuclearweapons.com. I’ve never heard of it any more than the website has heard of me. And yet, somehow in the mysterious world of blogging, this site found my post and inserted a comment with a link to my site:

Submitted on 2011/03/04 at 5:01 pm
[…] Britain became the third nuclear power when it successfully detonated an atomic device in October 1952. This video contains some eyewitness accounts and impressive visuals of the destructive power of the H-Bomb. Nice related topic here: http://toshmcintosh.com/2011/02/not-just-another-day-at-work/ […]

There’s an old joke that expresses my initial reaction to receiving this comment:

A reporter is standing on a street corner conducting a human-interest survey for a TV station. (Image from MuppetDanny on MuppetWiki). He stops a well-dressed passerby and asks, “What do you think is the most important invention of the last half century?”

The man pauses for a moment and replies, “I would say the advances in medicine.” He then lists some of the most significant new drugs and surgical procedures. The reporter is impressed with his answer.

The next person, also clean-cut and distinguished, answers the question with, “High tech and computers.” He then lists ten contributions to our daily personal and professional lives as the result of new devices. The reporter is really inspired with this answer.

The trend continues for the next hour or so, and then the sky turns dark, rain threatens, and the reporter still needs one more interview to complete his assignment. The problem is that foot traffic has all but disappeared as pedestrians scurry for shelter from the approaching storm.

But all is not lost when from around the corner appears a well-known panhandler who lives on the streets of downtown. The reporter decides that an interview with him might provide an interesting contrast to the ones he has “in the can.”

As the man approaches with his hand out, the reporter gets a five-dollar bill out of his wallet and holds it up. “This is your lucky day, fella. All you have to do is answer one question.”

The man displays a mouthful of less-than-perfect dentition in a broad smile and accepts the five bucks. “Lay it on me, brotha, ’cause I got the ansa’s.”

“In your opinion, what is the most important invention of the past half century?”

Without a second’s hesitation, the man replies, “That’d have to be the thermos bottle.”

The reporter stands speechless for the first time that day and finally stammers, “Could you explain that?”

“You betcha. When I’s a workin’ man, I’d put hot coffee in it in the mawnin.’ In a couple hours on break, I’d enjoy me some o’ that nice, hot coffee.”

“What’s so impressive about–?”

“But sometimes I’d put cold lemonade in it. In a couple hours I’d be drinkin’ me some, still cold as ice.”

“But, sir, I still don’t understand why you consider that–”

“Doncha see? I mean, how do it know?”

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No Wonder We’re Broke – Redux

Does is seem unreasonable to you that the American public should expect our leaders to be responsible stewards of the billions of dollars entrusted to them? Assuming your answer to that question is, “No,” consider with me for a moment the lunacy represented by the following two egregious examples of a fiscally brain-dead system.

The Commission on Wartime Contracting was established by Congress in 2008 under the model of the Truman Commission, which investigated US government spending during WWII. According to a recent study released by the Commission, corruption and waste have cost the US government billions of reconstruction dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The report found that “criminal behavior and blatant corruption” were responsible for much of the waste related to the nearly $200 billion spent since 2002 on reconstruction and other projects in the two countries. It did not give exact figures, but cited the Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report to Congress in January that found efforts were at clear risk because of poor planning and insufficient oversight. Another estimate in the report found that losses to fraud alone in both war zones could be as high as $12 billion.

“When it comes to oversight of contingency contracting, we’ve been driving beyond the reach of our headlights. Reforms are badly needed,” said the report. “For many years, the government has abdicated its contracting responsibilities — too often using contractors as the default mechanism — without consideration for the resources needed to manage them.”

The commission offers 32 recommendations to improve the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan (where subcontractors employ some 200,000 people), including a decrease in dependence on private security and an increase in competition between subcontractors to lower prices. It also called for a separate agency to oversee the different contractors currently supervised (very poorly, it would seem) by the State Department, Pentagon and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Dust is already gathering on the report, which will fade into history along with the following blatant example of government dysfunction at work.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) February 24th report to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a set of three reports submitted by the Air Force to Congress in 2010 addressing the service’s fighter aircraft structure lacked key data needed to ensure accuracy, and assumptions about developmental programs have since been proven invalid. Conclusions drawn by the Air Force “reflected previously established service plans and strategic level guidance that were dated by the time the reports were issued.”

The original Air Force reports determined that effective management of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program could mitigate the service’s projected fighter aircraft shortfall, and that extending their service life and upgrading existing fighters would be as effective as procuring new fighters at 10 to 15 percent of the cost. They also suggested that procuring so-called “4.5 generation” aircraft would not fulfill the service’s mission of converting to an all-stealth fighter fleet.

Since the Air Force reports were released, the service has announced both good and bad news related to what it projects as a shortfall of 200 fighter aircraft in the mid-2020s. In the near term, that shortfall appears to have been averted because the Air Force’s existing F-16 fleet is in better shape than expected.

The service had predicted that older F-16s would encounter wing cracks and other structural problems that would require them to be retired early, yet new data suggests the aircraft are salvageable. “Air Force officials have revised their projections and now believe that the wing cracking problem is not as severe as originally projected,” the GAO report states. “As a result, they believe that the near-term fighter shortfall has been mitigated without an additional investment.” The report adds that wing crack data has not yet been certified by the service’s Fleet Viability Board.

Uh-oh. Another report is due and a crisis looms. How can the report be ignored (as usual) if it isn’t submitted?

On the other hand, the Air Force intends to make up the fighter jet shortfall entirely through the acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which has experienced significant delays and cost overruns since the Air Force reports were released a year ago. The program was reshuffled last May, when Vice Adm. David Venlet took over as JSF program executive officer, and the Air Force is now planning to acquire fewer F-35s than anticipated in the short term. The GAO report states that the Air Force needs a fully updated JSF baseline in order to make “better-informed aircraft investment decisions.” More information on the cost of maintaining existing fighter aircraft versus procuring new F-15s and F-16s is also necessary to validate the Air Force reports, according to GAO.

You can think of this as analogous to deciding about what to do with an older model automobile that has served you well but needs some work. Is it more cost effective to fix it up or buy a new one? And relative to the decisions needed with regard to upgrading the USAF fighter force, you have to choose between a completely different new car with a lot more options, and the same make and model you have now, but a new one just off the assembly line. Here’s how that plays out with fighters.

The Air Force estimated it would cost $9 million to modernize and upgrade existing F-16s, which would extend their life cycle an additional 2,000 flight hours ($4,500 per additional hour). In contrast, procuring a brand-new F-16 with a projected life cycle of 8,000 hours would cost $55 million ($6,875 per hour). It’s a straightforward question: Does spending $2,375 more per hour for a new F-16 make sense?

The answer, however, is a bit more complicated because GAO calculations compared to those of the Air force show a narrower gap between the cost per additional flight hour for the two options under consideration. The GAO numbers indicate that modernizing existing systems would be significantly more efficient than procuring new fighter aircraft. Even so, after all this reporting going on, we should be able to reconcile the data and come to an informed decision, right?

Don’t hold your breath. The GAO report cautions that the calculation is based on the Air Force’s projected acquisition costs — not experimental data — “and does not represent a rigorous, comprehensive cost estimate by GAO.”

Wonderful. That must foretell another report. And in the midst of this fiasco, an even more significant issue sits like the 500-pound gorilla in the room: the GAO report only addresses the option of purchasing new F-16s rather than upgrading older ones. The current reality is far more troublesome. We have committed to retiring all F-16s and F-15s and replacing them with the F-35 JSF, the most expensive single military procurement package in US history, way over budget and way behind schedule.

But never fear. What we can afford to do is never a factor. As in all things fiscal, we’ll just raise the debt ceiling and borrow more in a never-ending cycle of irresponsibility.

The acronym for this is SNAFU. I won’t explain what it means. Not because this is a family website, but because you probably know without any help from me.

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