Try This in Your Vanpool

In my last several years working for Boeing, I rode in a vanpool.  Sometimes I drove, and sometimes I just sat.  In the times that I just sat, I noticed something interesting.  If I simply mentioned something, even just a single word, the conversation in the van would change to the subject that I mentioned.  I pointed that out once and explained that I had been placed in the vanpool as a psychological researcher to observe vanpool conversations.  Of course it was a joke, but the process of uttering a single word to change the whole conversation was impressive.

One day, the single word influence was challenged by my fellow riders.  They swore they wouldn’t say anything, no matter what word or subject I suggested.  I thought about it for a few seconds and then said the single word that proved my theory, “shoes”.

Immediately, the van went quiet, and it remained that way for a minute or two, but you could literally feel the tension building.  The vanpool was roughly even between men and women, and as I suspected, one of the women finally broke.  In tones of desperation  she said she could no longer stand the strain.  And off went the conversation about shoes.

I can’t give you much advice about the best words to use.  I tried “dinosaurs” once.  That worked pretty well.  I think you have to know your audience well enough to know what they will talk about easily.  Don’t tell them what you’re doing, simply pick a word and say it aloud.  See what happens.

Let us know how well it works by commenting on this particular blog!

Got Rhythm? — 2

By now, you are aware that I like at least some, maybe most, classical music, but there’s more to the story…

When I was a boy growing up in Hicksville, New York, I enjoyed going to the train station.  I was told back then that the Long Island Railroad ended in Hicksville.  I just recently found out that Mr. Hicks owned the railroad when he was alive.  So, it all sort of makes sense.  Nowadays it goes much further out on the Island.

Diesel engines were just starting to show up in the mix when I was a kid.  Most of what I saw at the station were steam engines.  There were no safety rails or fences, no yellow lines you had to stay behind, and no one looking out for a small boy who wanted to stand close to the tracks.  I remember standing there as a steam engine rolled in slowly to a stop.  The wheels were taller than I was.  The powerful rhythm of the engine was nearly deafening.  The motion of the linkages was complicated and fascinating.  It was a dance really, a dance of power. I was transfixed by it all.  I stood there willing myself not to move, taking in every noise, motion, and vibration I could.

Beholding a steam engine in motion conveys many things to your mind — power, strength, speed, distance.  And the one thing that holds all those experiences together is rhythm.  You don’t hear much of steam engines in music, certainly not the music of today.  However, there was a day when there was a music that had that same sense of rhythm, that same sense of unstoppable power, Boogie Woogie.  Sometimes referred to as Eight to the Bar, Boogie Woogie is music that was built for the solo piano.  It shows up in bands sometimes, but the piano is its home.  Four names come to my mind in this discussion, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Jim Yancey.  Certainly there are others both before and after these men, but these are the ones with which I am familiar.  Among these four, I would rate Albert Ammons as my favorite.

So, why do I like Boogie Woogie?  Because it sounds, for the most part, like train engines — the relentless left hand providing the rhythm that drives the train forward.  It has that sense of a machine with a purpose, an unstoppable one.

There’s plenty to read about Boogie Woogie, but listening to it tells you more than anything.  I would recommend two CD’s.  One is an early CD reproduction of recordings made by Albert Ammons.  On that CD, you will also find his version of “The St. Louis Blues,” written by W. C. Handy, and published in 1914.  Now admittedly it’s a blues piece not Boogie Woogie, but blues is a close cousin.  In a way, Boogie Woogie is blues without words.

The CD is titled, “Albert Ammons The Boogie Woogie Man.”  Also included on it are four of what I remember to be eight great duets featuring Pete Johnson with Albert Ammons. I like “Barrelhouse Boogie” and “Sixth Avenue Express” the best.  I’m a sucker for polyrhythm.  Here is the Amazon link.  See if you hear the same train engines I do.

A second CD I would recommend is called “Albert Ammons 1936 – 1939,” and it is another great source of the music.  “Chicago on My Mind,” is my favorite on that CD.  [I just noticed that the price shown on the link is $125.  On the Amazon site there are several options for price.  That is not the Amazon price.  That is from a separate source.  The Amazon price is around $27.]


We all wonder at the flight of birds, baseballs, and airplanes.  Well, I’m neither an ornithologist nor a pitching coach, but I am an engineer.  And I would like to tell you about the wonder of flying machines.  I’ve watched many airplanes takeoff while standing at ground level not too far away.  Besides commercial airplanes, I’ve flown in a fair number of  other planes, quite a few rides in C-130’s, once in a C-123 (and once was enough), once in a T-33 single engine jet trainer, once in a float plane, once in a biplane, a few other rides in small planes, and a couple rides in gliders.  They were all fun to ride in, but watching a takeoff while standing nearby in the open is something altogether different.

An airplane goes through many stages in its life — from a brief flash of an idea to real flying metal.  As each stage runs its course, any number of things can go wrong.  The initial concept itself changes rapidly as new ideas come to the forefront.  Some of those ideas are good, and some are not, but eventually some of each get incorporated.  Then the hard design gets going.  Calculations are made.  Schematics are drawn.  Parts are selected.  New part designs are developed.  And all through the design process mistakes are made.  They usually aren’t big, or else the plane would fail miserably somewhere in its development, or it would possibly turn out to be too expensive.  It is not uncommon to find better ways to do things, and many times those things cause changes to be made, but some “mistakes” become apparent  too late in the process, and we learn to live with them.

As the design progresses and corrections are made, finished drawings start to flow out of the engineering departments.  And, you guessed it, they also have errors in them.  So, they get checked, and the ones that are found get fixed.   As manufacturing goes on, other problems arise, and most of the mistakes that cause them are fixed, but not all.

One day a hanger door opens and a new plane is rolled out.  It won’t be perfect.  Perfection is always beyond reach.  And ultimately, there is only one way to be sure it will fly…FLY IT!

That first flight of a new design is an amazing thing.  I’m sure the Wright brothers were no less amazed than we are today when a new design takes flight for the first time.  I’ve seen it, and many others have seen it, but most people never do.  So, let’s see if I can make it real to you.

It will be a day of good, if not great weather.  It won’t happen at the crack of dawn.  It will be near midday, not too early to get the plane ready, and not too late to curtail the flight to come.  I’ve seen many airplanes takeoff, as I have said, but watching a design that has never flown takeoff for it’s first flight is especially breath taking.  I’ve seen new models of the 767 and the 747 takeoff for the first time, and I’ve seen the first takeoff of the ultra flexible 787.  They were all nail biters in their own way, and they were all spectacular.

So, don’t just watch an airplane takeoff from where you sit or stand at an airport waiting area window.  Find a place to watch either a large jet or a jet fighter takeoff, and be right there on the ground nearby.  Listen to it.  Feel the ground shake.  Ask yourself, how can this be possible?  How can a machine seem so alive?  And even if it isn’t the first takeoff of a new design, it will be new to you every time you see it.  And the imperfections will no longer matter.  No one ever asks a bird how it feels.

Got Rhythm? — The Flight of the Bumblebee Revisited

It is impossible to ignore music.  You may say you don’t like music, but music exists in everything you do.  It exists in everything in your personal universe.  One of my novels, Beyond the Breakers, has a cover that was made from this picture:

 Indian ocean

It’s a picture of waves in the Indian Ocean.  I’ve never seen the Indian Ocean, but it looks like the same waves I swam in as a boy on Jones Beach, off of Long Island, NY.  If you stuck a long pole in the sand and measured the time it took for each peak to pass the pole in terms of the number of peaks passing it per second, it would be less than one peak per second.  Yet, as we all know, ocean waves are loud.

So, how can that be?  Our ears can’t hear sounds at frequencies as low as the frequency of the peaks of those ocean waves.  It’s because there are other waves mixed in with the big ones.  And those waves have all sorts of frequencies.  Many pass the  poll at frequencies that are in our hearing range…usually considered to be about 20 to 20,000 cycles per second.  So, there must be waves in that mix of ocean water that you hear that are passing the pole anywhere from 20 to 20,000 times each second.

I don’t want to make this too technical, so I will leave out the tiny, and in some cases not so tiny, details.

That said, I will only add that vibrations and waves run the universe.  They carry energy, both sound and radiation, everywhere.  There is one other thing that you should be told.  They interfere with each other.  In so doing, they create other waves at different frequencies.  And that will bring us back to music and ultimately to ” The Flight of the Bumblebee.”

I wrote a blog recently about my piano.  It was all writing and a couple of pictures.  You will note that I did not include a sound file.  Why didn’t I?  It would have been a natural fit.  The reason is that recordings are not as easy to make as you might think.  And one of the most difficult things to record faithfully is a piano.  It is all because of waves, what frequencies the microphones can hear, where they have to be placed in the piano, and how the wave characteristics inherent in all electronics interact with the wave characteristics of the piano.  On top of that, add the hearing characteristics of the human ear and brain.  Believe me, I’ve tried to record my piano.  It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t my specialty.

So, when you hear a recording of musical instruments, keep in mind that live music is the only type that actually sounds like live music.

What if a composer or performer has died?  Are their performances lost forever?  It would seem like it, but I have a recording of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” which, except for the fact that it is not live, is as close to the actual performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff as you can find.  And strangely enough, the recording was created by an engineer.

At this point I have to introduce you to a different kind of piano, a “recording piano.”  You know what a piano roll is.  It’s a paper record of the keys played and the timing of those keys that matches what a pianist has actually played.  What it does not do is record how loud or softly the  keys are played.  It doesn’t record how the peddles are used.  It misses a lot.  Recording pianos record all of that.  So, if you play back the “tape” made by a recording piano on another recording piano, you will hear pretty much exactly what the original pianist actually played.  If Rachmaninoff recorded his playing on a recording piano, you could play it back “exactly” as he played it even after he was dead, which unfortunately, he is.  However, he did make those recordings!

There was a restaurant in New York City that had a recording grand piano.  It may be still in business.  I don’t know.  I’ve never been there, the restaurant, not New York.  I was born in New York City, stayed there a day or so, and then was sent home to Hicksville.  Meanwhile, you could (maybe can) eat dinner in that restaurant and listen to Rachmaninoff and many other great composers play their own music as a ghost, so to speak…not that creepy actually.

So, would you like to hear a recording of Rachmaninoff playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov and other music?  Well an engineer named Wayne Stahnke has made that possible at the highest level so far.  I have two CD’s of Rachmaninoff playing a list of classical pieces for the piano.  And for the impatient among you, they are each rather short.

OK, so I like classical music and some of you don’t.  I don’t like everything I hear, but you will be surprised when you hear some of these pieces.  “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is the third piece on the first CD below.  So, sit in front of a grand piano with nobody at the keys and listen to Rachmaninoff himself.  Like all music, some you will like and some you won’t, but you will be amazed at what that man could do!  Here’s a picture of my piano you can pull up and print if you don’t have a grand piano hanging around.  Don’t light the candle!  It is wood after all.


And here are links to the CD’s:

Enjoy the waves!

“Flight of the BumbleBee”

“Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov is a short, busy piece of classical music.  And although I would love to tell you more about it, I will save that for another time, but there are more than just bees in the air — airplanes!  Have you ever considered how amazing they are?  The 747 weighs nearly a million pounds!  Its wings do not flap, and yet it flies — at nearly the speed of sound — at up to 43,000 feet above the ground!

How do I know this?  You may have guessed.  In my former life before retirement, I was an aerospace engineer, probably still am at heart.  In the recent past, I spent time certifying cooling systems for the latest 747-8 passenger and freighter airplanes.  That included flight testing.  So, I know it can fly.  I assure you it can fly…and fly well!  And here is one interesting story about one of those test flights.

We were testing the EE Cooling system at various altitudes a few years back, and on one particular day, late in the day, we were flying over the Pacific Ocean not too far from Los Angeles.  The sun was near to setting, and we were at 3,000 feet above the water.  We did that type of testing over the ocean to be sure we didn’t run into things at that low altitude…you know, like a mountain or something.  What happened next was that we climbed back up to 43,000 feet, and that baby can climb!

Behind us, as seen by a landlubber, was a streak in the sky starting at what looked like ocean level and going up rapidly.  Behind that was the sun.  The streak, although we couldn’t see it from inside the airplane, was made a brilliant yellow, gold by the sun, a hard to miss event.  It made the news all across the country.  Some people thought it was the Chinese firing a test missile offshore of the United States.  At least that was the most spectacular explanation.

And no one seemed to know.  The FAA was contacted, and they didn’t know.  None of the “experts” knew.  We knew!

It was us.  We were the missile.  We were the streak in the sky that evening.  It was simply a test flight of the 747-8.  And, of course, we never got credit for it.

Oh well, fame…even when you’re  famous, they don’t know who you really are.

It has been said that bumblebees can’t fly, any aerodynamicist can tell you that, but yet, the bees fly.  A propulsion engineer once said in defiance of the aerodynamicist, “Give me a big enough engine, and I can make anything fly!”  So, I guess all bumblebees are cleared for takeoff.


Here are some books about the Boeing 747 available from Amazon:

And just for kicks, here are a few of the other links for some of the Boeing related books on Amazon:



The PLSS, or “Portable Life Support System” is the backpack that was used for the Apollo Moon missions.  Since I have mentioned a number of things about it, I thought it would be of interest if you had a bit more information about it in general.  I recently found this link on the NASA website:


It evidently was written by my old company, Hamilton Standard.   And no, the guy in the picture is not me.  Maybe I knew him, but that was nearly half a century ago.  I can’t expect to remember everyone.

If you have any questions, drop me an email or leave a comment.