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?

29 February 2012

The Greatest Music of All Time

You all know I love the music of the 1980s. Recently I was with my older brother Bill who is six years my senior, and another friend my age. We were in a bar on 23rd Street in NYC literally right next door to the historic Hotel Chelsea where so many cultural luminaries have stayed before they got famous (or dead), including Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Janis Joplin, Arthur C. Clarke(!) and of course, the infamous and ill-fated Sid Vicious (of the ‘70s punk rock band The Sex Pistols) and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

The topic of conversation turned to music. Bill came of age in the ‘60s, the lucky bastard. So while I was kind of young to really appreciate the music of the time, he received its full force on his teenage psyche.

Anyway, I got to ranting (as I do) about how the music of the ‘80s was so great, better than all other music ever made (there may have been beer involved). Bill looked at me with that practiced, condescending expression of an older brother who wasn’t about to let a younger one get away with saying something stupid, even if there was beer involved.

“So tell me, Bobby,”
he said with arched eyebrow, “what are some of the bands from the ‘80s that I might have heard of?”

Uhh. Ever get put on the spot and draw a complete blank? It was a classic Jackie Gleason moment. Hammina-hammina-hammina. I scratched my brain, but only weakly came up with the Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, and…I looked at my cohort for help, but he offered none.

Bill said nothing, letting us stew in our uncomfortable silence. He’d made his point. In defense of the 1980’s, while we may not have had supergroups like The Beatles and the Stones, we still did have a lot of great music produced by infinitely more but less well-known bands. (Actually, as I type this I’m still having trouble coming up with ‘80s bands that really made a mark. Flock of Seagulls? Really? I think not. But they did have a good song or two. Okay, one.)

Flash forward. There is a new channel on my local cable system called Cool-TV. They play music videos the way MTV and VH-1 used to before those channels turned to shit. I usually do not have the TV on unless I want to watch something specific (e.g. “Cougartown”), and then I shut it off. But I had Cool-TV on in the background the other day while doing, oh, something important (playing on Facebook, I think). And then it happened. A song began that I had trouble identifying at first. I could have been Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” (from “The Wall” album), but it might also have been Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen.”

Nope, neither, it was Survivor’s 1982 hit, “Eye of the Tiger.” The song is typical ‘80s crap-rock, but the video is hilarious. Hilariously bad, that is. I can’t believe that the people putting this together actually thought it was good. It is not. It rivals Journey's horrible "Separate Ways" video for sheer and utter badness.

The "Eye of the Tiger" video opens up with various night scenes in an indeterminate city. It’s obviously a bad part of town, judging by the signs we see for “totally nude girls." We are introduced to the band members one at a time. First is the leather jacket and beret-clad lead singer, Dave Bickler. He scowls menacingly, then begins striding quickly down the street, joined in V-formation by the rest of the band who are also similarly attired in too-tight leather jackets and waaaaay too-tight jeans (dear Lord!). As I said, they are all similarly attired…except…except for founding member of the band, Jim Peterik. Either the producer failed to tell Peterik that the “look” of the video was going to be “everyone in black leather” or Peterik unilaterally decided to go his own way with his unbuttoned shirt and white t-shirt (what a rebel!). He looks decidedly out of place in that band of faux-ruffians.

I present the video here for your viewing pleasure. Be prepared to laugh.

I get my brother Bill’s point. But I still maintain that some terrific music came out of the 1980s, even if the decade did live in the shadow of the 1960s, which I’ll soberly concede produced some of the greatest music of all time.

21 February 2012

Grudging Props to the iPad

Today I received a comment on my post about me getting a smart phone. Mike, the commenter said, “Welcome to the 'Modern World' Bob. It’s crazy what you can do with technology these days. I’ve got flight instructors who use the iPad for a kneeboard*. It’s spiffy. It’s interesting where we’ve been and where we’re headed.”

Funny he should say that.

As I type this I’m sitting in a hotel room in Birmingham, Alabama. On the desk in front of me are: 1) My laptop; 2) my iPad; and 3) my Android smart phone.

My iPad isn’t good for writing. In fact, I’ve been slow to warm up to the iPad. I like it and all, but I just can’t see it replacing either my laptop *or* smart phone. It's an interesting device - one that I’ve been keeping it at arm’s length, so to speak, tucked away in my overnight bag.

However the iPad is good with this amazing aviation program called
Foreflight. Whoever designed this thing is a genius. The program combines all of the things we pilots need as we go about our jobs. Flight-planning, weather, navigation…you named it, it’s got it. For me, the best feature is Foreflight’s ability to present Sectional Charts (which are just aviation-specific maps). I'll tell you why in a second. This is fine by itself (and indeed, other programs do this too. But Foreflight places your aircraft on the chart and shows its progress as you move along. No more getting lost! No more folding and unfolding paper maps!

Today was a busy day for us and the helicopter. The boss wanted to visit five locations in Mississippi and Alabama. There are really no Interstate highways that go to these places, and he would not have been able to see all of the locations in one day without the helicopter. We left home base, headed for our first stop: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. From there we continued north to Tupelo, Mississippi where we’ve opened a new dealership. Very quickly I discovered a problem.

Normally I carry with me the two aviation charts (i.e. “maps”) that cover the area we normally fly in. Somehow the charts got mixed up and I did not have the appropriate chart for any of the locations we were headed for. Don’t ask me how…it was a dumb mistake on my part. I did however have the appropriate chart for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but that city was not on our list. This is not a huge problem, as the aircraft GPS has all the information I need. And there is no FAA requirement that I keep paper charts in the aircraft. But I’m old-school – I like having paper charts.

But then I thought, “Heyyyyy, wait a minute! I’ve got the iPad!” I whipped that puppy out of the baggage compartment and fired it up. Sure enough, I was able to display everything I needed. And the beauty? You can take the chart on the screen and zoom it to make it readable even without reading glasses! (You young pilots do not yet appreciate the usefulness of this feature. But you will!)

My dad, who flew in WWII and the Korean “conflict” is long gone now. But if he were to somehow come back from the grave he would not believe the advances in technology that have come to aviation. He would scoff at me, tell me how easy I’ve got it, and then tell me I’m not a real pilot if I can’t do a 500 mile flight with just a compass, a watch and an old road map from an Esso gas station. In really poopy weather.

Which is all true.

The iPad is now a permanent part of the "necessities" I carry in the cockpit when I fly. The paper charts (when I remember to bring them) will stay folded up in a pouch. I may even write a little app which will let me use the iPad as my flight log sheet (which lets me keep track of my takeoff and landing times, where I've been and who I've flown) so I don't have to maintain the paper one.

Time marches on, baby!

* A kneeboard is just a small clipboard some pilots use which rests on and is sometimes attached to our thigh just above our knee. On it we usually attach pertinent information about the flight (charts, pens, notes, clearances, etc.) that we want to keep handy so we don’t have to grope around the cockpit for it. They even make one now that accommodates an iPad. I don't usually use a kneeboard, but the iPad thingee might make me a convert.

14 February 2012

Guitar Hero? More Like Guitar Zero

I’ve always wanted to play the guitar. There was a pawn shop on the way home from elementary school, and in the window they had some sort of electric guitar – for all I know it might have been a real Fender Stratocaster back in those days before their prices became stratospheric. Whatever it was, it was there and I’d always stop and lust over it. The problem was back then (as it is now) that I didn't think I had any talent. My parents had forced piano lessons on me when I was ten, but I didn’t learn anything other than I can find Middle-C now. I’d look at that guitar in the window and think, “Some day…some day…”

Well, that someday is now, only 46 years later.

I did not want an acoustic guitar; nor did I want one that was completely electric. There is a hybrid is called a “semi-hollow body.” It’s a cross between an acoustic and a traditional electric: A big, thin guitar with two acoustic chambers on either side of the strings and electric pickups. Think Chet Atkins or early George Harrison. Both Gretsch and Gibson had been making similar versions of this type since the 1950’s. They are more of a country music guitar than hard rock. (They can sound kind of “twangy.”) But I wanted something versatile – you can play semi-hollow bodies at home without an amp. Compromises are usually never good, but even today semi-hollow body guitars still have a big following.

ABOVE: Ahh, the original! The Gibson ES-335.

My friend Larry Curtis was a fellow pilot when we were both at PHI back in the day. I left the company in 2001, but he stayed there until a recent health problem sidelined him, perhaps for good. As well as being a great helicopter pilot, he is also an accomplished musician. On YouTube he had posted many videos of himself recreating many famous songs – with Larry doing all of the parts! (Although I see he has removed nearly all of the videos for some reason.) His YouTube name is/was The Silver Hamer which I thought was a misspelling at first. It is not; Larry likes Hamer guitars. I turned to him for advice.

I told Larry I was considering the Ibanez AS73 and the Epiphone Dot Studio. These are modern replicas – you might say “knockoffs” of the incredible Gretsch Country Gentleman and Gibson ES-335 (which are still being produced and are hideously expensive now). The Ibanez and Epiphone had the look that I wanted, and the reviews said they were pretty good guitars for the price. They’re available new at most guitar shops for around $400.

ABOVE: Here's the Ibanez AS73. It's nice- but it just didn't push the right buttons for me.

ABOVE: And here's the Epiphone Dot Studio. Kind of plain and cheap-looking if you ask me.

Larry suggested I instead look at a guitar called the Hamer Echotone. And so I did. It had everything I wanted, and it had gotten great reviews as well. While brand-new Echotones are not being made anymore, there were a couple on eBay in my price range. One even had all of the modifications suggested in most of the reviews, and came with a hard-shell case too! I bid on it and won. It is bright red - oh boy, is it red! I would have preferred something a little less flashy, but oh well.

Here's the Hamer Echotone. *My* Hamer Echotone!

So now I have my guitar. All I have to do is learn how to play it. And there’s the rub. If you look at most accomplished guitarists, they have long, slender fingers. My fingers are short and stubby. Makes it tough to play some of the chords. And then there's that talent thing...

It’s odd learning a new skill at this age. I try to practice a little every day, but even so progress is slow. Frustratingly slow. Not to worry, some things don’t come easy. I did not learn to fly a helicopter overnight. I know that learning to play the guitar will take some time as well. And learn, I will.

13 February 2012

Me and the Modern World

You know my attitude towards phones: I hate 'em. But sometimes you've just got to go with the flow.

I’d been putting off getting a smart phone. I wanted one; I just couldn’t see committing two years of my life to AT&T or Verizon and jumping on the iPhone bandwagon. And the expense! How on earth do people justify cell phone bills of $100/month? I couldn’t do it. My phone/cable/internet bill at home is only $60/month, but still! Do I look rich? Do I look like I have money to burn?

My friend Mikey had the solution. Walmart was selling a Samsung Galaxy smart phone for $150. With it comes a "Straight Talk" no-contract plan with unlimited talk, text and internet for $45/month. No, it’s not the latest-and-greatest, gee-whiz technological marvel (i.e. it’s not the Galaxy IIs), and it’s only a 3g phone, and it uses the Sprint network. But for what I need it adequately fills the bill. For now. It remains to be seen if it works up in the hinterlands of Washington State. I may grudgingly become an iPhone convert after all.

As a pilot it’s great having access to real-time weather, of course. But there are so many cool features! One of the other neat things about this Android phone is the ability to compose text messsages by just speaking them. Very handy when driving. Not that I’d ever do that.

Having the internets in your pocket is neat – as nearly everybody on the planet already knows. How did we live without these things? I am an unashamed convert. To which everyone will say, “Took you long enough!”