Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

22 May 2019

Exciting, Glamorous Jobs?

It's funny.  I don't like telling my Uber passengers that I'm a semi-retired helicopter pilot.  They nearly always get the wrong idea.  They think that flying helicopters must be an exciting and glamorous job.  They couldn't be more wrong.

We professional pilots work very, very hard to keep the job from being exciting or thrilling.  We like it to be very predictable and dull.  One of my mentors used to say, "No surprises.  When I'm flying I want no surprises."  And that is exactly right.  Surprises that get the heart pumping and adrenaline flowing can only mean that you're in a near-death experience.  Typically, helicopter pilots are not adrenaline-junkies.  Most of us are just the opposite.

And so we sit there as we fly along, monitoring all systems, keeping everything right in the center of "normal."  This applies whether you're out in the Gulf of Mexico flying from oil platform to oil platform, or hovering over cherry trees for hours on end.  If it's exciting then you're doing something wrong...or at very least you're not doing things right.  

And yes, flying certainly is "fun," I won't deny that.  The views are often spectacular beyond description.  We get to see the planet from a perspective that few other mortals can experience.  And that is truly special.  But there are other things that make flying fun too.

When lifting off from the ground up into a hover, some pilots are content to allow the helicopter to lurch into the air like drunken sailor might get up from the bar floor after being cold-cocked for saying the wrong thing to the wrong guy's girlfriend.  However, there is great pleasure to be had in getting the ship to lift off smoothly, so it seems to the passengers that the earth just falls gently away from the aircraft.  It takes practice and finesse on the controls.  

When I dry cherries I make an effort to follow this particular row at this exact altitude and this precise speed, watching the effect that my downwash is having on the trees and making sure that I'm shaking/blowing every one.  

And so the pleasure...the fun, if you will...that you get from flying is often the result of doing it as well and precisely as you can.

People don't believe me when I tell them that driving for Uber is the most-fun job I've ever had.  I quickly add that it's not the most highly-paying job...that should be obvious...but it truly is an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable job.  I mean, what guy doesn't love getting paid to drive around?

There is a constant stream of new people getting in the car all the time.  (And a fair number of repeat-riders as well!)  You have to like people, of course.  Doing ride-share might be miserable if you don't.  Fortunately I do.  

Just as with being a taxi driver, I'm a kind of ambassador of the Pensacola area.  I truly love living here, and it's fun to communicate that and share my experiences with new visitors to the area...or compare notes with other locals.

But while taxi passengers were kind of guarded and sometimes standoffish, assuming that I was just another guy who couldn't do anything but be a cabdriver, Uber passengers look at me differently.  It's subtle but it's there.  There's a higher level of comfort and informality between ride-share passenger and driver.

When I take people out to Pensacola Beach, there is a point when you get to the top of the Bob Sikes Bridge.  Suddenly you are presented with a beautiful, sweeping panorama of the barrier island and sparkling Gulf of Mexico beyond. Most of the time I'll spread my arms wide, smile and say, "THIS...is why I live here!"  Nobody argues with me.  I do love living where people come on vacation.





I know I've written about this before...about how much I love this Uber job.  But I do.  It's like this job was created just for me.  I don't know how long it will last.  Heck, self-driving cars might actually be right around the corner and they'll put me out of work.  Who knows?  But I'll enjoy it until I cannot do it anymore.  

Flying was great, but ride-sharing is better.  Believe it or not.

16 May 2019

Can Uber Survive?

For seven years I drove a taxi here in Pensacola, Florida. When Uber came on the scene, it was apparent to me that it was a taxi service disguised as something else.  Uber was using various weasely excuses to get around the traditional licensing of taxicabs that many (but not all) municipalities have in place.  Once the camel got his nose under the tent, there was no stopping it.  Now Uber is everywhere.  I saw the handwriting on the wall and made the Big Switch last May - a year ago, come to think of it!

As a company, Uber has never been profitable.  It loses billions of dollars each year.  Yet investors threw money at it like crazy, allowing the company to grow on a worldwide scale.  And, sure enough, one of the reasons people use Uber is because it works everywhere.  One app: every city.  What's not to love?

Well...investors do love profitability.  And it must have been with a certain amount of trepidation of senior management when they took Uber public this month (May 2019).  Because now, instead of just being answerable to a relatively few investment capitalists, there will be another layer of management to deal with: Stockholders.  And stockholders are notoriously fickle and single-minded (read: profit-oriented).

Uber came out of the box strong during the IPO, but the stock price dropped and dropped in the first week.  I'm certain it's because of fear and skepticism on the part of would-be investors.  To wit: Can Uber ever be profitable?  Can it even survive?

Uber has stated that their future profitability depends on self-driving cars (SDC's).  And they've hinted very strongly that SDC's are right around the corner.  They're not.  Merely saying something with conviction about some future event does not make it so.  Sure, the technology has made great advances, but there's still a long way to go, and many issues to be solved before SDC's become a reality in your town.  And even then they won't be introduced country-wide.  Maybe they won't even be introduced first in the litigious U.S.!  Would you get into an autonomous vehicle/taxi right now?  I wouldn't.

But if Uber can take the driver (and what they pay him/her) out of the picture, then that's 40% more revenue for them.  That's the theory, anyway.  Who actually knows what additional, unpredicted costs there might be in terms of...oh...insurance, for one thing?  If a driverless car gets into an accident and fare-paying people inside of it are injured, who pays?  The reliability in heavy-duty commercial use of these new SDC's is unproven.  It's a safe bet that passengers will treat an SDC Uber like they do a current taxi, maybe worse.

And what other fees will municipalities levy against the company for having their cars, roaming the streets while searching for fares, circulating aimlessly in already-clogged downtown areas?  Here's the thing about a commuter's car: He drives it into the city, parks it, and it's OFF THE STREET during the workday.  An autonomous ride-share vehicle drives itself into the city, drops off its passenger and then will still be in the mix of traffic, adding to the congestion instead of reducing it!  And instead of twenty or thirty or forty people on a city bus, these same people will be divided up into four- five- or six-passenger (presumably electric) Uber cars?  This is supposedly better?  Maybe, maybe not.

So there are a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of unknowns.  We've only addressed a couple.  With driverless cars, Uber assumes that their cost of operation will go down.  But I don't think that is assured.

Here in Pensacola, Florida, Yellow Cab has come up with this thing called Z-Trip.  It's a hybrid taxi/ride-share service.  You can use it just like a regular old taxi: Call Dispatch and they'll send you a car.  OR, you can have your credit card information on-file with them and use Z-Trip as you would an Uber.  Either way, they charge the going taxi rate here in Pensacola which is $2.25 per mile, which is higher than Uber and Lyft at the moment.  Yellow Cab is transitioning all of their traditionally colored taxis to the new Z-Trip branding.

Right now, Z-Trip is only available in certain U.S. cities.  And it's not global, of course.  But if anything can eat into the ride-share market, it could be Z-Trip...if it can be rolled out and available nationwide.

01 May 2019

Renouncing Christianity

Christian evangelist, Franklin Graham (son of famous preacher, Billy Graham) has touched off something of an internet firestorm by criticizing presidential hopeful and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who is gay. It started on Twitter, naturally. I was blissfully unaware of Graham's comments, but of course they spilled over into real life when the mainstream media picked up on them.

In a series of "tweets," what Graham said was this:
Presidential candidate & South Bend Mayor @PeteButtigieg is right—God doesn’t have a political party. But God does have commandments, laws & standards He gives us to live by. God doesn’t change. His Word is the same yesterday, today & forever.

Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women.

The core of the Christian faith is believing and following Jesus Christ, who God sent to be the Savior of the world—to save us from sin, to save us from hell, to save us from eternal damnation.


Graham's comments leave me deeply troubled. I mean, I get it, Christians are supposed to live in accordance to the Bible. And the Bible (both Old Testament and New) decry homosexuality...call it a sin in no uncertain terms.

But where does that leave homosexuals? The fact is, homosexuals exist. They're not pretending to be gay; they just are. Do Christians like Graham believe that a person's sexuality is a choice...that they can switch it off at will? If so, I'd like to ask Franklin Graham if he believes his own sexuality was/is a choice. Did he choose to be straight? Why should it be any different for gay people?

This is a problem. Because as a gay man who always considered himself to be a Christian, I find myself at odds with the Bible. It is a dilemma that I can no longer reconcile or ignore. This is because I don't believe that we can pick and choose which parts of Scripture we want to obey and follow, and which ones we ignore. You either believe all of it, or none of it.

And so I feel less and less like a Christian every day. But I still believe in a Creator (and let's call this Creator, "God" for the sake of simplicity). I believe that God made me and loves me and wants to see me again when this particular chapter in my existence is over. And He feels the same about you. I don't think He really cares whether we like guys or girls, or whether we eat pork or shellfish (or any of the other silly prohibitions in the Old Testament).

Maybe it's time that I renounced traditional Christianity. Because if Franklin Graham's version of Christianity won't have me...won't allow me to be me, then why should I call myself one? I can still model my life after that of Christ. In most respects, anyway. Then again...by the time Christ died he was thirty-three years old and still single. Should we not even raise a suspicious eyebrow and ask why?  Guys like Graham and his ilk are quick to point out that according to the Bible, marriage is between a man and a woman, period!  Why then did Christ never marry?  How come he never had a family and became the paragon of biblical virtue that Christians often hold up as the standard?

21 April 2019

HELI-EXPO 2019

Back in early March of this year I was in my Jetta, steaming along at a high rate of speed on northbound I-85 through Alabama.  I was getting better than 38 mpg, headed for Georgia. Above and somewhat behind me, my friend Nate was aboard a north-eastbound Delta Airlines jet out of New Orleans. Further west, my buddy Brandon had left the left coast and was streaking across the sky eastbound in an American Airlines 767.

We three were converging on Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Nate would arrive first. I’d pick him up and then he and I would go check into the Airbnb house we’d rented to make sure it was satisfactory. It was. Then we’d go back to the airport and fetch B-boy. We did.

The purpose of the trip was for us to attend an annual event called Heli-Expo, which is a convention put on by the Helicopter Association International. And it is the show to go rub elbows with the big shots of the helicopter industry.

Initially it seemed implausible that Brandon, Nate and I would all be free on this particular week. But the stars aligned and both of them got the time off. I, of course, can take time off as I please, being the self-employed man of leisure with the easy-going boss.

The annual HAI convention is always a big deal. They’ve been holding them since the organization was formed in 1948. I’ve wanted to go to Heli-Expo for a long time. But it’s usually held inconveniently far away from me, either in California, Dallas, or somewhere down in South Florida - too far for me to drive.  On the other hand, Atlanta is only a five-hour drive. This year I had no excuse.

Had I gone alone I could have stayed with my buddy Matt, which would’ve been nice. But he has a teenage son. I couldn’t inflict the three of us on him during a work and school week. So we did the Airbnb thing.

The convention was held in the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta. The place is huge. The convention occupied two ginormous exhibition halls. As you’d expect, there were helicopters and vendors galore.

While Heli-Expo used to be the place that airframe manufacturers would unveil their new designs, things at that end of the spectrum have stagnated. There really wasn’t much new. But technology-wise, the advances in navigation, systems-monitoring, and other ancillary equipment (e.g. camera mounts, hoists, fire-fighting buckets) have made tremendous advances.

No longer do the helicopter builders make major sales announcements or unveil new designs, along with rosy projections of overall growth in the near future. Things were much more subdued as sales in most non-airline segments of aviation have been fairly flat.


Ironically, it was reported that this was the "biggest" Heli-Expo show ever. Perhaps they meant it in terms of size of the arena.  Because then I don’t doubt it – I nearly walked my dang feet off. In dress shoes. Man, my dogs were barking! I had been warned, and had I had been smarter I would’ve worn more comfortable shoes. Even though David Letterman pioneered the suit-and-tennis-shoes look (which never really caught on), I just could not “rock it” as the kids say. However, there were people who did!  I'll know next time. 

Honestly, the show was not for me. I’m nearly retired now – I’m not looking to buy anything for our fleet of elderly helicopters in Washington, nor am I looking for a job. I did see and meet up with some people I’ve known over the years, which was nice. But talking with them on Facebook has been okay too.

The boys, Brandon and Nate, who are much younger than I, drank a lot and stayed out late, partying with their friends, old and new. Me, I’m way past those kind of shenanigans. So I turned in early every night, leaving them to Uber back to the house.  It's funny to think about how much I used to drink.  There was a time when those boys would've had trouble keeping up with me.

Never mind the helicopters; on any given trip, you know I’m all about the food. One night we met up with my buddy Matt and his wife Alisha, who took us to a really great Peruvian(!) restaurant called The Freakin’ Incan. Those Peruvians really do know how to cook some tasty meat! We were all sticking our forks in each other’s plates. Next night we went to a German restaurant in town called Der Biergarten, where the sauerbraten was wonderful and they serve their beer in quart-size steins. For me, those were the highlights of the trip.

Although the show ended Thursday afternoon, we stayed over until Friday. The plan was to do some sightseeing before the boys flew out in the afternoon. But they got something of a (ahem) late start that morning and were really in no shape to wander around some dumb aquarium for a couple of hours, much less take the tour of the CNN Center or Coca-Cola headquarters.

We went out to lunch, and then I dropped them back off at the airport before heading southbound back to Florida. We helicopter pilots get scattered to the winds as we pursue our various jobs around the country.  It was great seeing Brandon and Nate again, and doing it in conjunction with the helicopter convention was as good an excuse as any.

10 April 2019

A Bad Uber Passenger

There’s a blogger by the name of Matt Hauger who writes about technology…mostly computers and cell phones. I know, I know…join the club. It’s why I stay away from technology on this blog. There are already a gazillion guys who write about it…and it changes too fast to keep up unless you’re a real techno-geek who lives and breathes the stuff. And that ain’t me.

In October of 2017 Matt made a post about his Uber experience. Somehow that blogpost made its way to me the other day. I don’t know how things like this work. We are overwhelmed with information from so many sources. It’s hard to remember where one tidbit of info came from.

Anyway, Matt’s blogpost was about how he is apparently a bad Uber passenger. The realization came to him when an Uber driver asked him why he had such a low passenger rating? Matt was shocked and doubly unaware that not only was his rating only 4.33, but that such a rating is considered bad by us drivers. Very bad. 

It’s true: My cut-off is 4.5. It indicates a "problem passenger."  If I were ever offered a trip to pickup a passenger with a 4.33 rating, I’d decline it. No sense in asking for trouble. We are not required to accept all trips, nor are we penalized for not accepting trips.

With his powers of rationalization in high-gear, Matt went on to opine that his low rating was probably due to a couple of things. First of all, he admits that he doesn’t tip Uber drivers in cash and felt as if they were taking it out on him for that. This is nonsense. Most people do not tip in cash. Who carries cash anymore? Not me.

If we get tips, they’re usually added to the fare on the app after the fact, after we complete the trip and rate the passenger. We have no way of knowing whether or not a passenger adds a tip on the app. Tips do not show up immediately; sometimes we get notified a day or two later. So we cannot (and do not) penalize someone for not tipping us in cash.

Secondly, Matt Hauger thought that drivers down-rated him because he himself didn’t often give five-star ratings. He thought a four-star was perfectly fine. (It isn’t.) Matt says, ”It’s at least possible that my past drivers noticed when I gave them less than five stars; they might have marked me down in revenge.”

Nope! We rate you before you rate us. We cannot even accept another trip until we rate the last passenger.  And with Uber, once we rate a passenger we cannot go back in and change it. (With Lyft we can.)


The way it actually works is this: When we get to the destination, an end-trip screen pops up. It asks us to swipe- right if we’ve completed the trip. Once we do that it brings up the “Rate Passenger” screen. If we simply swipe-right it automatically gives the passenger five-stars. You can rate somebody with less than five-stars but if you do, Uber asks you to provide a reason. It’s time-consuming.  Unless the passenger was a real shit-bag I just give them five stars. And if we do down-rate someone, they will not know right away. Uber delays delivering that bit of bad news.

Similarly, as drivers we can never tell who gives us what ratings. Anything less than five-stars deliberately won’t show up right away. Like tips, it can be the next day before a driver discovers that he’s been down-rated. Uber does this so we don’t retaliate against a rider.

Having said that, I’ve been given some less-than-five-star ratings. I can usually figure out who gave them to me because I work part-time, and I do few trips in any given day (usually only half-a-dozen or so). A driver in a busier city would never know who gave him the low rating.

So it’s not that Matt doesn’t tip, and it’s not that he doesn’t routinely give five-star ratings. What could it be…what could it be? Leave it to ol’ Matt to get to the crux of the problem. Early in his blogpost, he wonders of the drivers, ”Why didn’t they like me? Was I oblivious to my own obnoxiousness? Did I have a subpar personality?”

Bingo!

I don’t know what the particular reason is that Uber drivers rate Matt so poorly, but I’m sure he earned it. It’s something. It could be his breath…it could be his attitude, or general demeanor. As I mentioned, I give most people five-stars…but not everyone! Sometimes we are not even aware of how we’re coming off to others.

Hauger’s solution is to be the perfect Uber passenger: To tip every driver and to rate every driver five-stars. But that just subverts the system and renders it meaningless. Look, you’re paying for this service, right? If the ride was fine…if the car was clean, the driver showed up in a timely manner, was pleasant, didn’t get lost and got you to the destination safely, then give him five-stars. But if there were…umm..."issues," then rate accordingly. That’s how it works. Or how it’s supposed to work.

Nobody is perfect. Not me. And not Matt Hauger.

You can read his blogpost HERE.

03 April 2019

I Wish I Smoked Pot

I recently went to a music festival called the Suwannee Spring Reunion. It was held in a big place called The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park (and campground) in the woods along the river immortalized by Stephen Foster* in north Florida. It was one of those events with multiple stages and acts spread out over three days.

The type of music played was “country”…but not mainstream Country. There were Bluegrass artists like the up-and-coming Billy Strings, non-mainstream Country artists like Marty Stuart, and a band called Donna The Buffalo that plays “Americana” music.

Americana is a hybrid genre. It’s weird. Wikipedia says that it’s, “…an amalgram of American music formed by the confluence of shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, gospel and other external influences.”

So…a little of everything. Needless to say, radio stations don’t play a lot of Americana music.

Fronted by Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins, Donna The Buffalo has been around since 1990. I only discovered them in 2000. They write and play wonderful songs. I’ve wanted to see them in concert ever since.

As it turned out, the three bands I really wanted to see (the aforementioned three) were all playing on Saturday. So I hopped in the Jetta and took off eastbound on I-10. I'd booked a motel room near to the venue.

Like all of these events, there were vendors galore. You know the type: Gypsies that live on the road, going from festival to festival. Lots of jewelry…polished stones made into necklaces and things. Some good stuff, some crap. What is up with hippies and tie-dyed clothing? Is that still a thing? Evidently so. And oh man, the overpriced food! Luckily, the park has a pretty good diner-type restaurant right on the premises with food that was better and cheaper than the vendor trucks.

The first band I wanted to see (Billy Strings) went on at 3:30. Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives went on at 8:00 pm, and Donna The Buffalo went on at 10:30. There were really no places to sit and chill, and so I spent a lot of time walking and standing around. Kinda hard on this old man’s feet. But it was well worth it - the music was awesome!

I love live music to begin with, and each band just blew me away. I don’t know why this type of music affects me so deeply. I was never exposed to Country music as a kid growing up in New York City. But no matter how Bluegrass found me, this music speaks directly to my soul, much more powerfully than rock and roll ever did.

One big takeaway from the festival was that I wished I smoked pot. Being in aviation all my life, I’ve stayed away from drugs. Okay, I admit that I briefly got high in my teenage years. But honestly, nowadays I detest even the smell of marijuana. And of course at the music festival you could not escape the wafting aroma of weed permeating the air.

And that’s when it hit me: I might have enjoyed the music a whole lot more if I’d been stoned. You might disagree, especially if you’ve never been high. But I can remember being…what, fifteen?...and laying on my bed, headphones on, listening to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” (the long version) while stoned out of my mind. It. Was. Incredible. Nowadays, every time I hear that song it takes me right back to that time in 1970.

Damn, if I hadn’t decided on a career in aviation, who knows how big a pot-head I’d be right now! I stopped smoking right after that time when I was fifteen but had I not, it might have made a huge difference in how I enjoyed a concert nearly fifty years later.

*The Steven Foster song we familiarly know as "Swanee River" was written in 1851 and was originally called "Old Folks At Home."  Since 1935 it has been - and still is - the state song of Florida.

27 March 2019

Dirty Politics

I've always wondered just how dirty politics really is?  I mean, we're adults...we all understand that any politician will sling mud and use dirty tricks on his or her opponent, but just how far will some people go? How low will they sink to get that mud?

During the 2016 debates, Hillary Clinton made a BIG DEAL about how Donald Trump might not accept the results of the election if he lost.  And then...when she lost she didn't accept the results of the election! Many people acted as though Trump did not actually win - since she garnered more of the actual popular vote (we are a democracy after all, aren't we?) - and therefore his presidency was illegitimate.  To hell with that Electoral College!  That thing is obsolete anyway and we need to get rid of it!

Hmm.

Democrats then made another BIG DEAL about this so-called "collusion" between Trump and "The Russians" (with whom we are not at war, by the way), making some vague claim about how he convinced those Russians to somehow rig the election so that he won, so he could put up a Trump Tower in Moscow's Red Square. 

The government and the news media have been obsessed with this collusion...while the rest of the country grew tired of it and yawned and lost interest and went back to binge-watching "Game of Thrones." Most of us adults know that the Russians have been meddling in our elections since....ohhhh, forever. And we've been meddling in theirs for a similar length of time, maybe longer. That's global politics for you. 

And then, Robert Mueller's big, expensive, eagerly-awaited, two-year investigation found...(drumroll)...no criminal collusion! I suspect that Washington D.C. insiders have known for some time what the results of the report were going to be. I'm not that naïve.

In a move most bizarre, the Democrats (and their pawns in the media) shriek...yes, shriek that even though the Special Prosecutor found no collusion, that doesn't mean Trump isn't guilty of...something! They'll figure out just what and let us know soon. Their focus is that even if there wasn't "collusion," Trump and his staff committed heinous, impeachable acts.

There is so much hatred toward President Trump.  Some politicians seem to have devoted their entire career to getting Trump removed from office that it causes one to wonder: Shouldn't these people be doing their jobs?

It gets worse. Now we have the strangest turn of events yet. Depending on which websites you pay attention to, reports suggest that it was Hillary and the Democrats who actually colluded with the Russians in a failed attempt to smear Trump, steal the election and give her the win.  Could this be??

Let's look at all of the major players: Who appointed James Comey as head of the FBI?  Who appointed James Clapper as National Intelligence Director?  Who appointed John Brennan head of the CIA?  Who appointed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State?  Right: Obama.  

In texts between the infamous FBI agents Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, Ms. Page mentioned that Obama wanted to be kept advised.  What is not clear is exactly of what President Obama wanted to be advised.  What is clear is that Obama was "in the loop" of the plan to corrupt the election and ensure that Trump did not win.  Some democracy we have here...  

I'm not sure that I can wrap my mind around the idea that people could be so diabolical and mean. Is power really that important? Evidently so. And Hillary really, really wanted that power. That much is obvious. I mean, come on...

And so if the reports about where the real collusion was happening are true, then we're talking about dirty politics on a level of which we've never imagined. At least, I never imagined that politics could be so sleazy. Would Hillary, the Clinton Foundation, the DNC and President Obama stoop so low? 

Sadly, I'm betting they would.