Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Warren Miller

For reasons I won't get into here - it's an issue with Comcast that deeply pisses me off, and today's is a happy blog - my wife and I spent Tuesday night watching a Warren Miller flick. I've pimped him here and there before, most notably back in the old SJ.com days; so, while taking in a decade-old film, it occurred to me that he is more than blog worthy, too.

And, in some ways, it's one of these how-did-I-ever-wind-up-here moments too. Miller makes annual films about skiing and snowboarding in places familiar and remote, all with some of the most gorgeous scenery you'll find anywhere on earth. And the cinematography is outstanding, too.

But it's about hard-core skiing and skiers. And that means the Rockies and west. Pennsylvania? Please. I've seen maybe 5-6 of his films; and I've found it to be an interesting commentary that I've yet to hear any mention of Killington or Sunday River, two places that I always considered to be the preeminent resorts of the east. Any place I've ever laced up skis - Blue Mountain and Big Boulder mainly - stands no chance against Killington and Sunday River, which apparently stand no chance against the West.

Having spent parts of the past four years traipsing around the west, I'm sure I look at Miller's movies in a different light than I would have before I met my wife. (Well, in all honesty, she introduced me to Miller's films; minus her, I wouldn't be writing this.) He often references Sun Valley, Idaho, since that's where he started off making his films (and that's him talking in the voiceover):

I seem to recall having been there for some reason not long ago... Hmmm.

In the movie we watched on Tuesday, Snowriders, we were treated to a segment on some place called Mt. Bachelor. I can't remember if it was real or it was a dream, but I seem to remember standing on top of it. And it's near someplace called Bend, which I seem to recall being important to some folks near and dear to me... Hmmm. (Mark will be able to date the film, since Miller referenced the opening of the 'new' Northwest Express. And yes, my wife told me about it.)

After a quick search on YouTube, I found a handful of clips from Miller, most of them trailers. This one, taken from one of the movies, on one of those other places out west that apparently kicks the ass of anyplace in the east. More importantly, it shows the storytelling his movies do and beautiful camerawork they employ.

Though it's mostly about snowboarding and skiing (with an occasional glimpse of telemarking as well), there are forays into more extreme sports, like BASE jumping.

And then there's this crazy bastard.

There are two shots that Miller and his crews employ frequently, and it's what I enjoy most about the series.

The first is usually used around resort towns with amenities and lodging built around the base of the ski area. The cameraman, standing behind the skier, zooms into a tight shot as they seem to go over a ledge. What's left is the skier doing some sort of aerobatic maneuver against a backdrop of an airliner's view of the resort's buildings. Words really don't do it justice.

Secondly, when some of the featured guests take to heli-skiing, they'll be dropped off at the top of a mountain somewhere, usually with a long and treacherous path back to safety. Inevitably, they'll have a wide view of the mountain and zoom into the skier, who you couldn't even think about finding on the wide shot. Sometimes, they'll do the opposite, and zoom out to show the vast expanse of the landscape; no visual has ever made me feel so small compared to our planet.

That seems to be an overarching theme of the series. The other? Something we all could take to heart.

"If you don't do it this year," Miller often says, "you'll be one year older when you do."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Welcome, Bravia

First of all, my apologies for the poor picture quality. Without Photoshop, it's a little difficult to adjust brightness levels.

But this is it. The new TV is home. After weeks of research and an afternoon spent plodding through treacherous conditions (hey, I've got an Explorer), we brought this beauty home. Not without shelling out some money, though.
First, the good news: It's a 40-inch Sony Bravia, a little better than 720p resolution. The price was right (well, relatively), we liked Sony's reputation (though I wasn't thrilled about giving them so much money after the PS3 disrespect) and we liked the picture we saw. We picked it up from Tweeter, and we were treated very well.
The only hiccup of the day - other than the undesirable weather - was that the store we went to didn't have our particular model in stock; if we wanted it today, we'd have to run to Tysons Corner. No biggie, just a straight shot down Rt. 7.
The set, frankly, got a hell of a lot bigger when we got home. When I was in-store, I tried to imagine how any of the sets would fit within our TV spot. (And I'm happy to give credit to my wife, who heartily dissuaded me from pursuing a 50+ inch DLP; it would have been way too big.)

If you look closely at the pic, I stood a Time magazine in front of it to give you an idea of the size. As you can see, it's huge. Forty inches turned out to be more than enough!

Just for comparison, you can see the same magazine against our old set, now discarded and waiting, perhaps, for a new owner.
(For some reason, I always get sappy about things like this. It was a good TV and served me well through multiple years of college and even more years out in the real world. It really deserves a better adjective than 'discarded.' Still, it was time for a new one; but I can't help but feel bad. I'll miss you, big guy.)
Now, for the bad news: All of this technology doesn't grow on trees, of course. The bill was pretty hefty for the TV itself, a three-year nearly-comprehensive warranty and an HDMI cable.
Like I said to Lindsay, the only thing I've ever paid more for were cars and college. So it was a little pricey, but this is a TV we'll have for a long time. It's a solid investment right now, the way I see it.
And I have to give her credit, too. This was a big chunk of change to swallow for her. Like she told our salesman, the last TV she bought was $200. Now, we're dropping more than 10 times that for another one.
I'd love to give you a glowing review of the thing, but we've only spent a few hours with it. And it's impossible to judge without trying out the HD options first, since regular programming doesn't test its limits. (I joked with Linds that Karine Boukham's cleavage on Iron Chef America might be too much to handle; indeed that may test its limits. A quick note on the link - it leads to a Flash site, click on About to see her - and beware the techno music if you have your speakers cranked.)
But for now, I'm excited - as any boy with a shiny new toy would be.
(My apologies for the spacing issues. I don't know what the problem is. This new version of Blogger has a lot of good functionality, but I seem to get a lot of error messages - incredibly frustrating.)
[Portions of this entry have been edited.]

Friday, February 23, 2007

When comedy throws a curve

My wife was out of town last night. Ol' Huss had nothing to do but sit in front of the TV.

But I wasn't content with the usual offerings on cable. Nope. So I made my way out of the apartment - a rarity for a day off - to do a little more TV shopping and find something to watch in the meantime.

(A quick note on the TV shopping: I think we've found our set. I was originally planning to hit only Target and Belmont TV; but I was so disappointed with the selection at those two places, I had to find somewhere else. Belmont had sets that either weren't good enough or way too good, no middle ground; Target had less than that. So I went to Myer Emco as well, and was very pleased with my shopping experience there. It came down to two LCD models - Samsung and Sony - that were both comparable. The picture was incredible, such that I'd be willing to trade down the size I'd get with DLP for a picture as beautiful as I saw on those two models. Anyway, on with it...)

After Myer Emco, I made a strategic trip to Best Buy to find a DVD or two or three. They did not disappoint, as I picked up the first three seasons of Reno 911! That show's a favorite of mine for its humor, which alternates between slapstick, edgy and unexpected. (You can find bite-size clips of it on IFilm.)

Most of the jokes are funny, some are laugh-out-loud funny and some are, well, predictable. But that doesn't lessen my enjoyment for a bit.

The characters fall into a strange mix of categories: a bisexual lieutenant in charge of the gang; a gorgeous knockout blonde who is far from ditzy; a short-haired brunette is borders on crazy; a racist Mexican; a tall black guy who alternates between suave and dorky; and a black woman who has a sweet heart but also isn't shy about making her opinions known.

Each, in one way or another, winds up as a punchline, whether it's because of other characters or the wacky situations they find themselves in. And that's what the show is: punchlines, tied together by a primary theme.

The blonde has been known to, uh, enjoy herself from time to time with the most forbidden of fruits. (Her reputation precedes her, due to the low-cut shirts she often wears.) In one episode, she finally gives in to the Mexican guy, who apparently had been trying to hook up with her for years. They go through a brief but emotional fling, culminating in the guy saying he'd had enough, giving back the crystal necklace she gave him at the beginning of the relationship.

This happens very publicly, amid colleagues at the bar for a post-shift beer. The guy stomps off, and the blonde turns back to her colleagues. She raises her arms in the air in apparent celebration, with a big smile, claiming she won and that the break-up was all a part of the plan.

Her bravado quickly ushers out the awkward moment, and all of her colleagues soon return to their pre-breakup discussion. The episode's almost over, so surely there's some sort of slam dunk coming - not one we can see, but the unexpected humor that is the hallmark of the series.

Instead, in the final shot, the camera captures her from the side as she turns and looks afar with an undeniably pained expression. Words don't really do it justice, but the moment was heartbreaking. Had the wild girl missed a chance to settle down and fall in love?

Just as quickly, the credits begin, and we're left to ponder all of this. Since the series isn't really continuous - more like the Simpsons, less like 24 in that what happened before isn't really predicated on what happens now - we're left with a sad picture of this poor woman's life.

After an orgy of Reno 911!, that's the moment that sticks with me. (Well, that and the episode-long attempt to catch a guy in a milkshake costume, only to be run over by a bus amid charges of police brutality.)

It feels like there should be more.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How to read a METAR

I know, there's no reason for anyone but pilots to know how to read this. But the observant among you may have noticed a little widget on the right-hand side: mymetar.com weather.

It provides weather information for the closest airports I could find for me and the four regulars. You'll notice that each site is listed with a four-letter code; these airport codes are essentially the same as the FAA codes, with one distinction: These are the international codes, so the letter "K" is put in front to indicate we're in the U.S.

This widget provides a cool little glance at the weather - provided you know how to read it. So that's what I'll try to explain here.

First, the codes: KDCA is Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (me); KBDL is Bradley International in Connecticut (Matt); KGBM is Binghamton Municipal (P.J. - sorry, it's the closest I could find); KCVG is Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International (Mandy; at least I think that's still close to her); KSUN is Friedman Memorial in Sun Valley, Idaho (my kick-ass brother-in-law).

To the left of each code is a little colored button; it reads either "VFR" or "IFR". VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules; it basically means clear weather. "IFR" is Instrument Flight Rules, meaning that the weather is less than ideal for visual flight.

Now, onto the more complex stuff.

The first set of numbers always ends with a "Z". This simply tells you the date and time; the first two numbers are the day number, the last four are the 24-hour time of the observation. The Z tells us that time is Zulu time, or GMT (five hours ahead of us on the east coast).

Auto, if it's there, tells us it's an automated observation.

The next set: wind direction and speed. The first three numbers are the direction the wind is coming from; remember, 090 will be out of the east, 180 out of the south, 270 out of the west and 360 from due north. The last two numbers tell of the wind speed in knots, hence the "KT". If you see a "G" in the middle, that indicates maximum gusts; if there's a "V", the direction or speed is variable.

Next is visibility in statue miles. After that is the most critical part of the METAR: precipitation and sky condition, if any. There are any number of combinations of symbols - and they're deciphered here - but suffice it to say if there's a "-" in front of the term, it's light; no descriptor, it's moderate; a "+" means it's heavy. So "+SN BL" means it's probably a good idea to leave the Cessna in the hangar today (heavy blowing snow).

Following the precip remarks, you'll see cloud levels. The link above gives a good, detailed explanation of what it means, but basically it's broken down into few clouds (FEW), scattered (SCT), broken (BRK), overcast (OVC) and CB (cumulonimbus cloud, i.e. a thunderstorm).

Next are two numbers that are separated by a slash. This is the temperature and dewpoint in Celsuis; an "M" in front of either number means minus. Last is the current barometer, which starts off with the letter "A". That's because a plane's altitude indicator is called an altimeter; pilots dial in this number to help the plane guage how far above sea level they are.

RMK means the end of the primary METAR. The stuff that follows really is of no concern to us, but the FSStation link again provides good info on this.

At any rate, I hope you guys like the widget. I'm going to try to surf around to try to find some more cool stuff to add on here. Let me know if you like it.

-- BARON VON COUNTERCULTURE'S GROOVY PURPLE DIRIGIBLE: I kept forgetting to post this, but this may be my new favorite music video of all-time. It's Gnarls Barkley's "Smiley Faces," a brilliant concept executed perfectly. And it helps that this song is outstanding, a lot better than "Crazy," IMO.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Pop-up posting

I know you guys have excellent cultural sense about you. So there's no doubt in my mind that you'll recall one of the greatest TV shows ever, VH1's Pop-Up Video. In case you don't remember it, perhaps the Wiki will give you a refresher.

In the spirit of the show, I'll give you a review of my insane weekend with a bit of commentary as well. Enjoy!

The trouble actually began last week, when my boss e-mailed to tell me he "needed" me to run out and do a feature on one of boys basketball teams on Monday. Oh, and he needed it to run on Tuesday.
  • Bloop! I had actually planned on taking Monday off (since I'd be working Saturday) and spending time with my wife, helping her clean the house and perhaps going out to shop for that new TV.
But that could wait. I still had the weekend to get through. Hell, I had to get to the weekend.

My feature previewing last weekend's wrestling tournament nearly didn't happen. I had made prior arrangements with the coach to talk to this kid before practice on Wednesday; I correctly figured they wouldn't have school on Tuesday because of the predicted snow and sleet.

However, I had incorrectly figured that they'd have school on Thursday; they did not. Luckily for me, our photographers managed to get a hold of the coach, who said they in fact would be practicing on Thursday. I spent much of Wednesday night trying to devise alternate plans because I figured there would be no way I'd reach this kid. So that all worked out.

Friday wasn't horribly difficult. I was originally scheduled to go to one basketball game, which got postponed; then another, which also got postponed. So I did some early pages and called it a day.

Saturday was long and difficult.

I awoke around 9:30 a.m. to get ready for the 3.5-hour drive to Lynchburg, Va. Half of the drive I'd done many times before; whenever I'm heading to southwest Virginia (Roanoke, usually), I'd go through Charlottesville. Charlottesville to Lynchburg was a new one for me, however.
  • Bloop! And one I could have done without. Lovingston and Amherst are the towns along the way, but they looked more like a collection of houses.
I arrived in Lynchburg, armed with directions on how to find the place where the wrestling was being held. Though I followed the directions to a "T," I still managed to get lost.
  • Bloop! If ever there was a harbinger of doom...
Once I got straightened out, I made my way to the school. I got inside with no problems, and found the folks there extremely helpful. But they made a critical error as the afternoon went on.

With the tournament already well behind schedule - due in part to an hour-long grievance filed by one the coaches earlier in the day - we finally reached the consolation finals, the matches for third and fifth places.

Here's where the biggest mistake was made. Though the gym accommodated four mats when I walked in, they took down two mats for the consolation finals, for reasons that I don't understand. They chose procedure over reality, and it would end up killing us.

The finals were supposed to start at 6 p.m. They didn't start until after 8.

In theory, it shouldn't take long. But nearly all of the matches go the distance, about eight minutes each if there's no stoppages for blood time or injury time (and we had plenty of blood time). In between matches, they announce all the medal winners - the kids who finished in the top six. So, we're looking at 11-12 minutes from opening whistle to opening whistle. Multiply that by 14 weight classes, and it's easy to see we're in a heap of trouble.

My last finalist came at 189 pounds, the third-highest weight. During the 171-pound match, I made arrangements with the kid's coach that I was going to grab him immediately afterwards and run out the door. I did so - he actually walked over to me, for which I was grateful. I cruised through three questions in a minute and left the building.

I was headed to our sister paper in town. I had talked to the sports editor there earlier in the day, and he had given me directions. I followed them as best I could, and one of the landmarks I was to look for was a Chevron station. After about six minutes of driving, I saw one.

Except I was supposed to see a second Chevron not long after. I never saw the second one so I called the SE.

"Oooh, yeah, you're pretty far off," he said.
  • Bloop! Harbinger...
He got me back on track and I made my way to the paper. En route, I called my wife and we chatted briefly. I ended the call with something like, wow, it's 10:20, huh? Yeah, she said.
  • Bloop! After talking with our SE earlier, he asked me to file something - anything - by 10:30.
As I pulled into the wrong parking lot, my phone rang. One of my colleagues, asking for highlights for a brief so we had at least something in the paper for the next day.
  • Bloop! That's all well and fine, but that also means I'll have to file a second-day story. Which means working on Sunday too, when I get home.
I took care of that, and ran into a longtime acquaintance as I was walking in. He let me in the building, and I got started on the story I had agreed to do for their paper. For the most part, that went fine, though I was up against the gun and couldn't get anything better than a one-line lede. (One of my pet peeves are the cheesy one-line ledes that AP often likes to write, so I do my best to write something more developed in that first graf. "Write something intelligent," I tell myself, though I should say it doesn't always happen.)

Once I finished, I talked with another out-of-town writer who was also using the facilities. One of his former co-workers now works in Lynchburg, and mentioned that a few of them were going out for drinks. So I tagged along to Mudpuppy's.
  • Bloop! Because I followed a local, I managed not to get lost. Though I was concerned for the entire drive.
Mudpuppy's brought relief from the stressful evening. And the best part of it was the non-Northern Virginia prices. I was considerably happier when I left (though still capable of driving) and full, too, after a plate of toasty Buffalo wings. Final bill? Came to $18.25.

I headed to my hotel, following directions I had looked up after I finished with my story. Except our friends at Mapquest missed a critical step in the process. I followed the light - or I tried to, driving toward a greenly-lit building. I was staying at a Courtyard, so that seemed plausible. Except it wasn't the Courtyard.
  • Bloop! ...of ....
I dialed 411 to find the hotel, and got directions from the helpful front-desk woman. Turns out I was pretty damn close after all.

I finally got a chance to sit and relax a while. I hooked up the laptop, surfed for an hour and hit the sack. I was out like a light.

Until 6:25 a.m., that is. At that point, the clock radio started blaring shitty, shitty hip-hop.
  • Bloop! As opposed to good hip-hop. Which this most certainly was not.
Yeah, I was pissed, to put it mildly. In a moderately-hungover state, I had no patience to figure the damn thing out. So it got unplugged. That ended that problem.

I slept for a little while longer until my real alarm clock went off. I was supposed to meet a friend for breakfast - the one who had let me in the building the night before - before I left for home.

When I checked out, I asked the folks at the front desk where they could recommend for breakfast. IHOP, they both said, and gave me directions. (Smell a plot twist?) In a strange twist, I drove along the same road I had the night before, searching for the IHOP. I never found it though, and settled for Bob Evans instead.
  • Bloop! ...doom.
Breakfast was enjoyable, and it was fun to get a chance to cool out with a friend in a foreign city (foreign to me, anyway). So I set off for the drive home, rolling through the boring part until I hit the inevitable traffic in Charlottesville. Except I had to make an emergency pit stop to visit el bano - because of all the coffee, plus the beer and wings from the night before, my abdomen had reached DEFCON 4.

Feeling relieved, I headed back out and had no problems until the far reaches of Northern Virginia where
  • Bloop! Shocker!
there was a backup. Not just a backup, but traffic at a complete standstill. I waited for better than 10 minutes to cross a traffic light; finally, I gave up and made a left turn. I was heading east, so I knew I'd hit something eventually.

Eventually was the operative word. After a good 15 minutes, I found a familiar road - though I still had a good deal of driving to get back on track.

In the meantime, something had turned inside me (and it had nothing to do with DEFCON levels). Perhaps it was the tiredness and inconvience all crashing together, but suddenly I was pissed at the world. Cranky seems to fall way short. Pissed at traffic, pissed at having to drive to Lynchburg, pissed at work, pissed at other drivers, pissed at everything.

I made it home with no other challenges, traffic, DEFCON or otherwise. I walked in and warned my wife I was basically on the warpath, and she understood. (A hug helped a lot too, I must say.)

So I sat down to write my story and get that over with. I finished that, and my wife had prepared a super dinner that really hit the spot. It was hard to be bitter about anything, and I certainly wasn't, at least not on the homefront. I was still pissed at the world, and I'm sure that came out in the NASCAR blog I wrote today, based off of my observations from watching the Daytona 500.

The rest of the night was basically quiet, which I was very thankful for, though I was again woken unexpectedly, thanks to Hank and Grace dropping in for a visit. It actually took me a while to fall back asleep; I finally shouted to myself: "Look, you're stressed, just relax and get some sleep!" Immediately after, I felt better and soon drifted off to sleep.

I awoke a second time this morning and dreaded leaving my wife here by herself, since she had the day off and all. I went in and did what I needed to do and tried to keep to myself. I just wasn't in a mood to deal with other people.

And then there was the kicker of it: Our state's newspaper association awards were announced, and I didn't get a thing individually. I wasn't so surprised about the writing deal, but I thought I was a shoo-in for my Redskins pages (you can see a nearly-finished design here). Nothing for them either.

As I wrote to regular contributor Matt earlier today, it's just disappointing to not earn any sort of recognition for your efforts. It's nice to get that independent confirmation that you're doing well; the flip side is the downer when that recognition doesn't come. Maybe the fact of the matter is that I'm just not that good at my job. I don't know.

I know I've written a lot, and I'm sorry for keeping you guys so long. But this is another way for me to tell myself to relax. As you'll recall, I started this whole thing as a sort of panacea for myself, whether it was to release all of those swirling thoughts or just to get something off my chest. So thanks for listening, as always.
  • Bloop! Hustle later reported that his chest felt about 14.3 pounds lighter.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


My poor, poor wife. The next time we fly out west, I can't imagine just how intolerable I'll be.

As you'll recall, I jumped in feet first when I bought Flight Simulator a few months back. The more observant of you might have noticed a new link over to the right - United-Virtual.com. I put my career at UPS on hiatus, opting for more flight options (by necessity, United and UVA have to offer more flights than UPS).

The downside is that UVA is more intensive, and I'm currently working on a checkride (i.e., a test) to ensure I'm capable of flying bigger and more complex aircraft. At the moment, I'm in a turboprop; hopefully soon, I'll be in command of a 737 or an A-320.

It's only been a few months since I got FS, but I've learned so much. I e-mailed loyal reader Matt Edwards yesterday, and he told me found the whole deal fascinating too. So I thought I'd share what happens on a typical commercial flight. For this example, I'll use what is often the first leg of our flights out west: Washington National to Phoenix Sky Harbor.

If you've ever flown, perhaps you've noticed the labels on your luggage and the hard-to-miss three-letter identifier. That's the FAA code for the airport you're going to; in this case, National is DCA and Phoenix is PHX. (The International Civil Aviation Organization uses four letters; in which case we'd be flying from KDCA to KPHX. The "K" simply means we're in the U.S.)

For the purposes of this example, we'll assume that the pilots have already completed their walkaround and have been full briefed by their airline's dispatchers. Dispatchers route the plane according to winds aloft and to avoid nasty weather, among other things. (And let's also remember that I'm still new at this, so I'm answering to the best of my ability but may be wrong on some minor points.)

So now, the pilots are in the flight deck. Their first radio call will be to airport's clearance delivery. Clearance gets the flight in the system, so to speak, so that everyone along the way knows where this plane is going and how it's going to get there. Clearance may also give special instructions concerning departure.

Once the pilots have read back their clearance instructions, they'll push back if they haven't already. During push back, they'll make the final adjustments, start the engines and prepare to taxi. Once they're ready to taxi, they'll contact ground control. Ground control is in charge of all ground-based movements at the airport, with the notable exception of the active runway(s). (Larger airports, such as JFK in New York, may require pushback clearance as well.)

Ground tells the pilots what runway they'll be using and how to get there. The pilots will have maps of the airports, but can also get directions from ground, if they won't be overwhelmed.

The pilots give a little boost to the engines, and the taxi begins. (One member of our board of directors at UVA is a real-world 747 pilot. She once noted that on the longest of flights, say JFK to Hong Kong, the aircraft will be pushed to the runway. Using any fuel in taxi would cause them to land with less than minimum fuel amounts.)

But this plane isn't the only one moving around. Ground may tell our pilots to yield to other aircraft turning onto the same taxiway. Once we're fully in sequence, ground will hand us off to to the tower - "Monitor tower on 1xx.xx." When we arrive at the runway, we'll notify tower that we're there and ready to go.

We'll get one of three responses: hold short (stay where you are; most likely, an inbound plane is about to land), position and hold (enter the runway but don't take off; the inbound or outbound plane is no longer a factor at our end of the runway) or cleared for takeoff.

Eventually, we'll get takeoff clearance. We taxi onto the runway (if we're not there already) and make sure we're lined up with the centerline. The pilots push the engines to 70 percent with brakes on, to make sure we'll be rolling straight (we move forward slightly); when they're happy, they cut the brakes and push the engines up higher. (Pilots often use a "derated" takeoff, where they won't use all of the power available to them. This saves gas and wear and tear on the engines.)

The passengers are pushed back in their seats as the plane begins to roll and accelerate. Based on weather, weight and other conditions, the pilots have three speeds to watch out for. They'll pass V1 first, which is decision speed. If a pilot wants to abort a takeoff, he/she must do so before this speed to ensure there's enough runway left to come to a safe stop. The next is VR, rotation speed. At this point, the pilot tilts the nose up and lifts off the ground. Lastly is V2, an airborne speed known as "maneuvering speed."

We hit VR, the pilots rotate upward and the plane takes off. Once they've confirmed that they're off the ground, they'll retract the landing gear. At about 1,000 feet is an extremely busy time. They'll cut back on the engines to observe certain airborne speed limits; they'll retract flaps, which are used to help get the plane off the ground; they'll tilt the nose down slightly and make a slower climb to cruise altitude; and the tower will tell them to contact departure control.

Not long after, we'll start making a turn to join a standard departure pattern, called a SID (standard instrument departure). DCA doesn't have any SIDs, so chances are, clearance delivery will have told us which way to go. Departure can amend that, however, with a vector, which is any unscheduled change to the flight plan.

The next major change will come when we reach 18,000 feet, known as transition altitude. If we took off at night, we'll turn off some of the exterior lights that we won't need. But transition height gets its name from a change in the altimeter, our on-board height indicator. The pilots will change the altimeter to a standard rate that applies to all aircraft at 18,000 feet and above. The reason for this is pretty simple: a pilot that takes off from Denver might reach 18,000 feet, but they'd be at 23,000 feet over Washington. (Incidentally, once you reach transition, altitudes are abbreviated. We won't cruise at 36,000 feet, but we'll cruise at flight level 360. Twenty-thousand feet is flight level 200, etc.)

By now, we're well over the western exurbs of Washington. We'll follow jetways - think of them as freeways in the sky - to head west. We'll be aided by GPS and certain other radio and non-radio navigational aids. And around this time, departure will transfer us to a regional control center. As you can see in this map, we'll start out with Washington Center (ZDC). Halfway across West Virginia, we'll transfer to Indianapolis Center (ZID). Once we're into Illinois, we'll be handed off to Kansas City Center (ZKC) and into Colorado, we'll contact Denver Center (ZDV). As we make the turn south to Phoenix, we'll talk with Albuquerque Center (ZAB).

(In case you're wondering, the other centers are: Boston, New York, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, Houston, Fort Worth, Memphis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake, Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles.)

Just as we had a SID to give us a uniform way to leave the airport, we have a standard way to arrive at our destination, called a STAR (standard terminal arrival route). Basically, this takes traffic from all directions and funnels into a few directions to ease the workload (and stress) on the air traffic controllers. Since we're coming from the north, we'll likely use the BUNTR One arrival. (BUNTR is a navigational point along the STAR; "one" is simply the number of times this procedure has been changed.) You can see a map of BUNTR One here (it's a PDF).

From the north, we'll fly over Winslow and due south towards the navpoint JESSE. When we cross JESSE, we should be at 12,000 feet. (We'll have started our descent long before we get here.) After JESSE, it's on to GUMMO and EAGUL. At EAGUL, we'll make a slight right-hand turn and descend to 10,000 feet. From there, we'll pass PICHR, DBACK, HOMRR and, finally, BUNTR. (Notice a trend? Perhaps a tribute to Phoenix's MLB team? This was the subject of a column I did a few weeks ago; you can find it here.) By now, we'll likely have been handed off from ZAB to Phoenix approach.

Of course, there's a chance we could be vectored off before we ever reach BUNTR, depending on what runway we're assigned to. If we have to land from the west, we'll have to bail out of the STAR for a different approach, and approach control will tell us this.

They'll put us on an approach path at 45 degrees or less to the runway. That way, we can pick up the radio signals from the runway, collectively known as ILS (instrument landing system). There are two components: the glideslope, which tells us our path of descent, and the localizer, which gets us on the runway centerline.

We'll make a turn to intercept the localizer and get ourselves lined up. Eventually, we'll cross the glideslope as well, around 6-7 miles out. By this time, we'll be in touch with Phoenix tower. When it is able, tower will give us landing clearance.

By the time we begin our final approach, we'll have landing gear down and flaps fully extended. They'll help us slow down enough to make a safe landing. (The gear also helps slow us.)

We get landing clearance and we're good to go. When we're 200 feet off the ground, we're at decision height. If it were really, really foggy, we'd have to see the runway by this point; otherwise, we'd have to accelerate, ascend and try again. At DH, we may turn off the autopilot (in certain circumstances, like gusty winds, we'd have to turn off autopilot) or allow the plane to use its autoland feature.

At 50 feet off the ground, we'll pitch the nose up slightly to ensure that the main landing gear touches first. This is called a flare. The main gear touches, and we bring the nose down too. But we're still going way too fast.

Instead of trying to describe it alone, check out this video and I'll walk you through it. (You can skip the first 1:25.) At 1:52, just after touchdown, you see part of the wing pop straight up. These are called speedbrakes, and will help slow us down. You'll also hear the engine roar; it's not really reverse thrust per se, but it also helps. The pilots also use autobrakes, which work just like those on a car. (The autobrakes deploy automatically on touchdown, and can be preselected to various levels of intensity, depending on the weather and the weight of the aircraft.)

To save wear and tear, we'll cut the reversers off at 60 knots, and we'll bring the speedbrakes down too. By that point, we'll just about be at a safe enough speed to turn off the runway, and tower will hand us off to ground. They'll tell us how to taxi to our gate and, like before, it we need to give way to other aircraft that are also taxiing.

Whew. That was a lot longer - and took a lot longer - than I would have thought. If I bored you to tears, I'm sorry. (But blame Matt.)

At least one positive came from it: I can just hand this to my wife and she won't have to listen to me blabber on for three and a half hours.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Time for a new TV

It's time we got a new TV. The old one, bless its heart, has had a long run. But onward and upward.

And I hope that's something my wife will remember: Onward (time for a new TV) and upward (because we're getting a way bigger TV).

I'd like to think a model like the one above in Times Square would work just fine for us. I know the men of the audience would surely agree; I know the main lady in my life would not (sigh). And for the record, the largest set Panasonic can offer me is a measly 65 inches. Puny. That beauty above is nearly 40 feet wide.

Even if I have to settle for something 12 times smaller, I'm still excited to be jumping into the HDTV era. But it's a little baffling and more than a little overwhelming.

Everyone has an opinion. And I'm not talking about shady websites, but real ones with a known reputation. Consumer Reports thinks LCDs aren't so bad; Panasonic thinks plasmas are far superior to LCDs (though I take their opinions with a grain of salt); many others seem to think plasma is overrated. CNet thinks something entirely different from PC Magazine.

For quite a while, I had my heart set on a DLP set. But after researching it, I found that only the biggest models (50" and up) come with 1080p, the best resolution. I was hoping to save some money on the TV to afford an external sound system too, but that probably won't happen if I had to dig in and buy a 50" Samsung.

This is way, way more complicated than buying an old tube set. With that, everything was pretty much the same; sure, some brands and models had better pictures, but it was all pretty much the same. Now, it seems like every set has very different pros and cons.

My frustration is compounded by the fact that I've not actually been out shopping yet, not in any serious manner anyway. I'm forced to rely on what I see and read online (on a CRT monitor, of course) and it feels like I'm reaching the point of paralysis by analysis.

I suppose it'll get figured out at some point. It has to. My birthday presents were monetary gifts largely circled around a new-TV fund, so I can't disappoint all of the family members who were kind enough to donate. (What will I have to show my father-in-law when he comes to visit?!)

So that's where I stand. I'm sure I'll have updates as we get closer to a purchase.

-- UPDATE ON POPS: My dad is doing much better, got released from the hospital last week. He's back home now, seeing different doctors for this and for that. The car wound up being totaled, so my mom never got the joy of chatting with Buddy.

My dad did tell me he's already thought about a new ride: a Brinks truck.

Coulda been a column...

I thought I might actually write this for last Sunday's paper, but other things got in the way. So, I'll put it on here. I was actually pretty proud of the concept (maybe me actually finding my voice?):

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The white-collar criminal sits down to enjoy a pasta dinner near a table of large, gruff-looking men speaking of hits and shakedowns and, occasionally, waste management. The lone man stands up and expresses his displeasure at the group's apparent activities.

"You, dear gentlemen," he exclaims, "are a drain on our society."

There was no such prevailing sense of irony when this missive arrived in the inbox last week:

"Statement On Art Monk From Washington Redskins Owner Daniel Snyder:

'A good man and legitimate Hall of Famer is being denied entry for reasons we never know, by people who secretly vote. Art Monk is a Hall of Famer by any measure. This is not right.'"

The former Redskins receiver, of course, narrowly missed gaining entrance into the Hall of Fame. The voting, conducted by members of the Pro Football Writers Association, is announced the Saturday before the Super Bowl.

If I'm reading this correctly, and I'm certain I am, the team owner who refuses all in-season interviews and most offseason interviews, the team owner who so rarely faces the fans that make his the richest franchise on earth, the team owner who has issued press releases to "correct" information published in the country's second-most influential daily newspaper, is upset because of a lack of transparency.

It's a softball any Little Leaguer could hit out of the park.

This isn't about Monk, who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and it's not about the PFWA, which owes fans a clearer look into the selection process. It's that the most secretive owner in pro sports has the gall to get on his soapbox and complain about another organization's secrecy. And all of this through a statement - because, Lord knows, that beats the alternative of facing the commoner press corps.

Because those silly reporters would never stick to the topic at hand. They'd want to know why the 2006 Redskins became the NFL's biggest underachievers. They'd ask why the chemistry of the '05 playoff run was allowed to evaporate. They'd want to know how long the failed build-through-free-agency tactic would continue.

Snyder's element of control in any public forum would be lost. It would be lost because even his team's fans tire of his shenanigans, because his strategies have become punchlines and because few people believe his team's record is more important than its bottom line. Beloved owners, even in lean years, are not subjected to such treatment. Then again, beloved owners at least seem approachable and open, as much as the secretive inner workings of the NFL allow.

Snyder is not beloved, and seems unconcerned as to his approachability or openness.

He demands accountability from a usual suspect of a target - the media - yet is unwilling to utter a word when his team limps home at 5-11 amid an increasingly apathetic fan base.

This is not to equate him to a white-collar criminal, as the opening anecdote may indicate. But the pot/kettle adage has never had a better example.

(Apologies if the fonts look different. They don't seem to want to cooperate.)

Monday, February 05, 2007

A weekend, gone awry

Long before we ever left the house on Saturday morning, I could see it happen. My wife and I would meet my parents in Atlantic City, N.J. and I'd somehow walk away from the east-coast gambling mecca with a jackpot. Monday morning would come, and I'd call into work, asking for a few weeks - maybe even an eternity - off.

I knew my chances were slim. Who comes back from A.C. or Vegas with anything more than chump change?

Turns out my chances were non-existent.

We stopped by my wife's office so she could gather a few things for the weekend. While I was getting my first glimpse of her new office, my phone rang. It was my mom and dad; I figured that they were calling to say they were in A.C. already, as they typically arrive far earlier than we do.

I said hi to my mom as I picked up the phone. A simple hi was her response, but her voice told us the rest.

She then went on to explain that they had been in a pretty bad car accident in Philadelphia. Their car was messed up, though they appeared fine, though shaken up.

Suddenly, a diversion was in order. Instead of heading north on I-295 in Delaware, we'd stay on I-95 and head into Philly.

We hurried to gather up everything and got out of the office. Sometime later, I can't remember when now, she called back. My dad, she said, was having chest pains, and they were taking him to a nearby hospital in Wynnewood.

Now, the trip became more urgent.

I think we were driving by that point, and our thoughts suddenly turned to how to find this hospital. Who did we know that was available that had a computer? We thought of a few friends and dialed up the first one that came to mind: Valerie Largent, one of Lindsay's best friends on earth.

Big, big kudos to Valerie. Linds dialed her up and when Val's husband picked up the phone, the screaming of an infant was immediately audible. Their young'n was having a bout with the flu and wouldn't stop crying, such that she and mom and dad were headed off to the doctor within the hour.

We didn't give her much to go on. Just that we needed to find how to get to a hospital in Wynnewood, Pa., in suburban Philly. But in all my years of watching Philly news, I couldn't recall Wynnewood. We assumed it was spelled like Steve Winwood. But, knowing what I know of Philly, I recalled its fondness for using a "y" when an "i" would suffice (like here, here and here). So I cautioned her it could be spelled with a "y."

Within a few minutes, Val called back. The only thing she could find, she said, was a place called Lincolner. Val is soft spoken and Lindsay's phone doesn't have a loud volume, so that's what it sounded like. Val gave us directions from this place's website, and off we were.

Big, big kudos to Linds. She got us from Capitol Hill to Philly in two hours flat. We were also lucky in that we encountered only one area of slow traffic (just south of Aberdeen, Md.) and the three toll booths we paid were relatively uncongested.

We followed the directions off of I-95 onto the Blue Route, I-476, a connector freeway in the western Philly suburbs. We took the exit for US 1 and headed north towards the city, just as the directions told us.

Except we passed a blue "H" sign. After going past it, I thought we had missed a turn, so Linds spun us around to check it out. Once we got back to the turn, we saw it was for Springfield Hospital. So we continued north. We passed another sign a few miles later for Delco Memorial Hospital.

Big, big kudos to Del, who answered the phone when I called the hospital we were supposed to be going to. He confirmed that my dad had indeed been checked in and, in a subsequent phone call, assured us that we were heading the right way.

We finally made it to the hospital - actually called Lankenau - and it was a bit unnerving to see my dad laid up. He was having trouble breathing, and that was apparent. Though, he said, that was mostly due to the fact that his chest hurt.

It was then that my mom explained how the accident happened. While on the Schuylkill Expressway, some cars in front of them had come to a stop. They jumped on the brakes in time to tap the bumper of the car in front of them. A split second later, another car had rammed into their back end with such force that, when the dust settled, their car sat on top of the one that had run into them. In all, nine cars were involved in the wreck and, as we found out later, shut down the freeway for a time.

Big, big kudos to the doctors and staff at Lankenau. We had an ER nurse named Ruth who could not do enough for us. Same thing with Kate and Tara when my dad was moved upstairs to the Cardiothoracic ICU. Everyone seemed satisfied that my dad hadn't suffered any trauma from the accident, but were concerned with some pre-existing stuff. Since he was already in the hospital, the doctor we dealt with decided it would be best if he get a tune-up.

"Change the oil," my dad remarked, feeling and looking better. "Change the spark plugs."

Tara was especially helpful in finding a place for us. A little further up Rt. 1 was a Holiday Inn that their staff would stay at when they needed extra help. (As it turned out, the hotel was literally two doors down from venerable Philly TV station WPVI, also known as 6ABC. Perhaps you're familiar with the Action News Theme; if not, you should be. It's classic, even if my wife howls with laughter every time she hears it. Here's an opening from 1993, and a close from 10 years later. Same music. In fact, they tried to change it once not long ago, and were besieged by irate callers. They changed back five days later.)

After it was apparent that my dad was ready for some rest - and we were satisfied that he looked much better than earlier in the day - my mom, Linds and I headed to the hotel. We made a stopoff for some food at a most unusual KFC, which appeared to be housed in what was once a, well, house. Maybe it was a doctor's office or something, but a very non-traditional fast-food building. Big, big kudos to the woman who took my order, because I was rather disorganized.

We hung out in our room, enjoying some food and relishing the chance to laugh while watching Anchorman. I forgot how great the cast was in that movie, and some of Will Ferrell's best work. That was on ABC, of course, so my wife - already giddy from a funny movie and being tired - was in hysterics when the Action News Theme cranked up after the movie.

Mom turned in not long after the movie ended, and we did likewise. It had been a damn long day. We expected to be home in bed, hopefully a lot richer, but instead were in a non-descript hotel room in Philadelphia.

We woke up Sunday morning, showered and put on the same thing we were on Saturday. We hadn't planned on staying over, after all. And we put to good use the travel-size toiletries we had purchased at a nearby Rite Aid the night before.

Soon, we were out the door and headed downstairs for a breakfast buffet. We partook, and left to check in with dad. He was looking better still, and his night in the CTICU for observation had gone well.

We had left on Saturday night thinking he could be released on Sunday. But when we arrived on Sunday, they had decided to hold him for a few days just to be safe and get him fully tuned up. Surgery seemed like an unlikely option, though it was a possibility; if they went that route, it would be minor surgery and no more.

Linds and I milled around for much of the day, popping in and out of the room while my mom tended to my dad. One of the times I was out, kicking back and watching a little Super Bowl pre-game, my phone rang, and I talked with the guy whose shop had my mom and dad's car.

Big, big kudos to Buddy, the body shop manager. What a great, great guy. Said he would do whatever my mom wanted and had the capability to deliver the car later if she wanted and could even provide a rental if she needed it. He was one of the most outgoing guys I've ever talked to. He just had one request: could we come see him by 2 p.m. to clean out the car?

"I'm gonna be honest with ya," he said, "I got a Super Bowl party to go to."

Hey, I understood. He had come into the office to take care of us, so I had no problem taking care of him. (Unfortunately for him, he was pulling for the Bears. He went with them since the Eagles have been golfing for a good three weeks now.)

We went and checked out the car, which wasn't as bad as I thought. Though a lot of internal stuff had been wrecked - the suspension, mainly - the rear end looked like it had been bumped, and not much more. The front was a mess, with the hood scrunched and the grille busted along its entire length. The sight of two deployed airbags was a bit disconcerting as well. Buddy took a stab at a fix-it price of $10,000.

By the time we got back to the hotel, we found out my aunt and uncle were coming for a visit. Big, big kudos to them: they took my mom home, and kept us from having a 5.5-hour drive on our hands.

Linds and I drove home, and caught the first half of the game on radio, passing from the Philly station to the Baltimore station and finally to the Washington station. Fortunately, we hit almost no traffic once we were out of Pennsylvania.

So that's where we are. Over the weekend, we fielded various calls from family and friends, all wishing us and dad well. And we certainly appreciate it.

This was my chance to give you guys the whole story of the weekend. Amid the phone calls, we could only give updates and such, so here's my chance to give you the rest of the story.

All weekend, we've had the utmost confidence in the doctors and nurses. While lunching in the cafeteria, we saw a sign that touted Lankenau as one of the country's top 100 cardiovascular hospitals. So if my dad needed a tune-up, that's the place to be.

And if he needed a tune-up, I'm happy to sacrifice a few hours in Atlantic City for that.