Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Merits of Scholarship

I was one of those people. I had a merit scholarship. It paid a nice chunk of my tuition, so it was nothing to sneeze at. The National Merit Scholarship Program was and probably still is one of the most prestigious programs for young scholars, providing stipends to gifted students for tuition at the college of their choice. Many students who went to MIT in my day had the benefit of a National Merit Scholarship. For some, it was $500 a year, but some received stipends as high as $1,500 a year (and as tuition got progressively more expensive, that limit was raised to $2,000 a year).

Getting a National Merit Scholarship was nothing more difficult than scoring well on the National Merit Scholarship Qualify Test. Most students know this is the Pre-SAT or PSAT. It's supposed to be a warm-up for the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT, which students take in their junior or senior years (or both; some students try to improve their scores so they can improve their chances of getting into the college of their choice). But, if you were intent on qualifying for the scholarship, that practice SAT was anything but, and it gave you a good reason to sweat out the spring months of your sophomore year.

Like the SAT, the PSAT came in two parts - English and Math, but unlike the SAT, the English score counted for twice what the math score counted (and I understand that the SAT as administered these days is scored differently than it was in my day). The emphasis on the verbal score did not work to my advantage, since my math score was about 80 points higher than my verbal score. My total score was not good enough for the National Merit people to give me a stipend, but there were several companies that pitched in with scholarships of their own that they handed out to the children of their employees based on their NMSQT scores. I was fortunate enough to score a scholarship through Shell Oil, and because I was bound for MIT, they were especially generous; they had heard horror stories about MIT's tuition.

As I mentioned, the scholarship paid a substantial portion of my tuition. Of course, this was back in the '70s, when tuition at MIT was about $3,500 a year (and it was still Too Damn Much), so a four-year scholarship that paid $1,500 a year went pretty far. Since those days, tuition at MIT has soared into the stratosphere - to over $50,000 a year. Room and board hasn't gotten any cheaper, either. And then there are books, computer accessories, lab materials, condoms (this assumes that the average MIT student was ever going to be in a situation where usage was going to be a concern) and all the other things you need to succeed at MIT. Plus, you need some walking-around money, especially if you intend to go out on the town with your sweetie (which also presumes you might need condoms).

I'm not sure if the merit scholarships have kept up with inflation, much less tuition increases and the prices of books and condoms (don't laugh - I was one of those young men who got the condom lecture from my father on my way to the 'Tute). These days, most students still have to find an after-class job, and even then, they will still take out a sizable student loan, to which they will be enslaved for many years. Even then, the scholarships, loans and the extra money from the after-hours job may not be enough to cover everything, so many colleges end up subsidizing tuition for the students they want. This they do by hitting up the alumni for money and by soliciting research grants and cranking out publications and patents. That's why it's a publish or perish world in academia. A college administrator's lot is not a happy one.

While the National Merit Scholars still have to struggle to make ends meet, there is one group of scholars that, then as now, continue to do well - the student athletes. Their scholarships not only pay tuition, but they also get their meals taken care of; they have the training table. And if you believe those nice folks at Ohio State and the University of Miami, there are any number of business opportunities that enterprising student athletes can avail themselves of. One day, MIT will be a nationally-ranked football powerhouse and can make those sorts of enterprises available to its students. Till then, there's always Draper Labs.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shakedown Street

We had an earthquake in Washington, DC, yesterday. Not just a slight trembling of the ground, mind you. This one was a magnitude 5.8 (or 5.9), which is a good-size temblor, even for places that get earthquakes regularly. For us, it didn't feel like anything unusual, but then, my office is on the first floor and our building has only one floor. At first, I thought the airconditioner in our building, which is on the roof and had been having issues for the past month or so, had kicked on with a vengeance. But then our emergency crew evacuated the entire building to the parking lot (later, we learned that's not what you're supposed to do in an earthquake). I've been through quakes before, when I was at Stanford, and I didn't think this was much of a shake - until news reports came in and said it was 5.8 and centered around Mineral, Virginia, which is not far from Fredricksburg. The news also mentioned that this one was felt as far north as MIT.

DC reacted the way it usually does to things like this - or snow events. Everyone went into a controlled panic, which is kind of like the controlled skid an SUV does on black ice - right into the guardrail. An hour later, all the Federal employees were sent home, and that's when the chaos began. Metro was first shut down and then reopened at slower than normal speeds - trains were running at 15 miles an hour. Freeways and downtown streets clogged up suddenly and so firmly that people didn't get home for hours. The next morning, several school districts decided to close; it seems they hadn't determined that the buildings were structurally safe. The Feds went on liberal leave. Three of the parapets on the National Cathedral had cracked and fallen off (it took them 90 years to finish the building, and look what happens!), and even the newly restored (in 2000) Washington Monument had developed cracks in some of the marble blocks.

Sure it sounds bad, but the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco was worse. Occurring in 1989 at the very moment the World Series game between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics was in progress, the temblor heralded the birth of my nephew and Barely Brothers bassist, Earthquake Sam, in a Bay Area hospital. It measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, which is a pretty good jolt. Buildings collapsed, water lines and gas lines ruptured, a section of the elevated freeway in Oakland collapsed onto the level below it, huge fires started in various rowhouses and a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed, snarling the commute from Oakland to San Francisco for months thereafter. Portions of the Stanford campus were damaged as well, but my aunt's bungalow stayed upright. There were only 63 deaths reported, which is incredibly fortunate.

I missed it all, being in Texas. But when I was at Stanford, there were no fewer than three earthquakes. These were not terribly big shocks; I don't think there was anything greater than a 5.3 magnitude. But I did get to spend an ominous couple of minutes one afternoon on the 12th floor of a San Mateo office building watching the light poles in the parking lot outside swaying back and forth like a metronome set on 212. And my supervisor's bookshelf collapsed onto what would have been his head had he not been in St. Louis on business.
Texas does not get earthquakes. Or rather it didn't - until the Barnett Shale got drilled. About ten years ago, a very lucrative deposit of natural gas was discovered under the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and every exploration company wanted a piece of it. The problem was getting the gas, given its location. The gas companies had always been capable of directional drilling (which in the '50s was called "slant hole" drilling and was a clever bit of piracy that allowed an enterprising wildcatter to filch his neighbor's oil or gas deposits) to get at the gas without disturbing the airport, but the gas was trapped in rock layers that wouldn't yield very easily - unless high pressure fluids were pumped in to break the rocks and push the gas out. This process - hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" - is sort of like a power enema and has proved very good at dislodging the gas deposits. But recently, residents of Tarrant County noticed that a whole lot of "fracking" earthquakes were occurring, as the ground settled into the pockets where the gas had been. These were not big shakers - averaging no more than 3.0 on the Richter Scale, but they were noticeable, and they occurred with unnerving frequency. The same thing has also happened in places in Arkansas where gas deposits have been tapped, and appears likely to happen in Pennsylvania when those gas fields get drilled.

That's Fort Worth. Houston is very seismically inactive - probably because it sits on a thick layer of sedimentary clay, or gumbo. It doesn't shift so much as it oozes, and it has a tendency to shrink and swell with the amount of groundwater that accumulates during the rainy season. When it oozes (which it does constantly), it plays havoc with foundations and pavements - so much so that homes have been known to slowly grow wall cracks and cracked foundations (and for some reason known only to the shoddy workmanship of the local homebuilders, those show up rather quickly on homes built within the past ten to twenty years).

Meanwhile, back on the East Coast, earthquakes, while infrequent, have been known to occur and to be intense enough that there are seismic requirements in the building codes for communities in the Washington region. This seems prudent, given the worst earthquake to occur east of the Mississippi hit Charleston, South Carolina, in 1886 and registered 7.3 on the Richter scale. The Mississippi River itself was the scene of the strongest earthquakes in the Lower 48, which hit New Madrid, Missouri. There were at least four them over a one-year period beginning in 1811, with the strongest being perhaps an 8.0, or greater than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. And the grand-daddy of them all was the Good Friday Earthquake that hit Alaska in 1964 and measured 9.2. While we were not hit as hard as either San Francisco or Charleston or Alaska or Missouri this time, the odds are that we were be due for one. And when the next big one hits, people will again react like there's 10 inches of snow on the ground.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A New Weird Order

The '70s were a good time for cults of personality and conspiracy theorists. It had nothing to do with whatever nefarious devices the folks at the Charles Stark Draper Labs were working on at the moment (and indeed, they had come up with a secret weapon that could bulldoze entire neighborhoods in East Cambridge and disguise it all as urban renewal). No, we're talking about the really kooky stuff. Sun Myung Moon was head of a weird cult, but he was not a conspiracy theorist (he was more likely to hatch the conspiracies). L. Ron Hubbard was out there (and I mean really out there), and he and his merry band of Scientologists were all about self-help and science fiction. Hubbard wrote a whole series of best-selling books of very bizarre science fiction, and he also wrote "Dianetics", a self-help book that was being revised into new editions long after Hubbard's death in 1986. You always knew you had encountered a Scientologist on the street if they offered you the opportunity to take a free psychoanalysis test. The ads for "Dianetics" were always hard to miss; they always asked profound questions like "Why does life suck?" (Page 11), followed by the erupting volcano.

But when it came to off-the-wall conspiracy theories and dogged persistence, no one could touch the followers of Lyndon LaRouche, the third member of that Unholy Trinity. In the early '70s, LaRouche became convinced that Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller were plotting the end of the world; by the mid-70's, he decided it wasn't world destruction they were plotting, but the wholesale de-industrialization of America (and damned if that didn't happen!), for the benefit of that secretive world order that included the Queen of England, the Bilderbergers, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. In 1984, LaRouche decided that the worst thing that could happen to America would be to freeze all our nuclear weapons production; he preferred to build defensive beam weapons in space to shoot down the incoming nukes of the bad guys (because it was high technology, man!) He was also convinced that movements like Greenpeace were part of the Trilateral conspiracy, because nothing symbolized deindustrialization like environmental stewardship.

LaRouche's minions could be found in some of the largest airports in the country hawking their wares and trying to warn the rest of the world about the coming global conspiracy. And they could be found on college campuses like MIT, trying to get nuclear power plants built over the dead bodies of baby seals. They were the sworn enemies of the Clamshell Alliance, which was trying to stop the building of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. And they were the only thing standing in the way of the Queen of England's plot to take over the world by getting us hooked on drugs.
You could always tell LaRouche's followers by their neat JC Penney dress pants, no-iron white shirts, clip-on ties, short hair and glasses. And you could never get rid of them. Once they glommed onto you, they woudn't let go until you'd bought something, anything from them. And signed a petition. They claimed to be Democrats; LaRouche himself ran against Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia in 1990 while he was serving a prison sentence for tax evasion. LaRouche has largely dropped out of sight in the last couple of years - although some people maintain that he is secretly Lou Dobbs.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Technology Squared

Welcome to the '80s! It is a time before BlackBerries, Kindles and Facebook. Bill Gates and Paul Allen have yet to create Windows, but DOS exists and Steve Jobs has already been hard at work in his Cupertino garage with another fellow named Steve Wozniak, and together they have created the first portable computer, the Apple (actually, they're already up to the Apple IIe, a nifty little box with a typewriter and a whole 8 kilobytes of memory!). The rest of us are still used to doing things like tapping out punch cards in a language called FORTRAN to use on one of those big, massive IBM mainframes. There is no Excel, but there's Lotus 1-2-3. There is no PowerPoint, but we have Harvard Graphics. And while there is no Word, or even WordPerfect, there is a nice little gadget known as a Selectric typewriter, and it can type in different fonts! (All you need to do is pop in a different ball). And we can all network socially, thanks to a wonderful thing called Prodigy!

But all is not rosy with this wonderful new high technology. First of all, your KayPro is a heavy sucker. You might have one of those newfangled Compaq boxes, but when Texas Instruments perfects the TI-99/4A, it's going to blow away that Compaq (why did I ever buy 100 shares at $10 a share? I must've been crazy!). The second problem is that those IBM PC's that Charlie Chaplin sells, which are the gold standard, don't have accuracy beyond 8 significant digits (you can get a co-processor that boosts that accuracy to 16 significant digits, but that's money, and who's doing higher-order regressions, anyway?)

Moore's Law has yet to really kick in. We had random access memories, but they had yet to develop amazing superpowers. Bubble memories are only a couple of years old.
Within ten years, computers will have 128k of memory on the hard drive and 16k of RAM, and won't we be flying then? As it is, we've still got the 8086 chips, but pretty soon we'll be moving up to the 80286 (and with an 80287 math co-processor, you'll be able to run those 1-2-3 spreadsheets without having to turn off the automatic recalculation). Those guys at Lotus are geniuses. I don't know what you can do with Symphony, but I hear that Jazz is even better than Symphony.

Actually, that's not what was so amazing about the '80s. Steve Wozniak was one cool guy; he got a whole bunch of bands together and created the US! Festival - three days of fun in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles and west of the Joshua Trees. The Clash were there, and so was Van Halen, and I hear that U2 played an amazing set. On the other end of the country, this guy named Grandmaster Flash was doing absolutely weird things with a couple of turntables, and kids were break-dancing in the streets (did you ever think you'd see someone spin around on their heads?). Cum on, feel the noize!
The '80s also made a bona fide celebrity out of Erland van Lidth de Jeude. If you did not go to MIT, you remember him as the big, mean, bald-headed dude who sang "Down in the Valley" in Stir Crazy. Those of us who took Computer Lab remember him as one of the TA's, a resident of East Campus, an imposing Greco-Roman wrestler (he weighed in excess of 300 pounds, had Size 18 dress shoes and was once measured to have more explosive power than a horse). He was also The Voice, whose larger-than-life presence filled many a Musical Theatre Guild production. When he sang a tune from "1776" in Building 10, they could hear him in Lobby 7. When he wasn't in films, he was a highly paid computer consultant (although he could have made a mint on the WWF circuit). This was probably the only Stickles cartoon that pictured him.
These days, we use Control-Alt-Delete instead of Control-C to unstick a frozen computer.

One of the great MIT hacks dates back about ten years, when the first voice recognition software was introduced. Supposedly (and I was not there to witness it, so I am going strictly on news reports), the software was being demonstrated before a rapt audience, when a lone voice in the audience barked out, "Format C, Enter!" It was followed almost immediately by a second voice in the audience, "Yes, Enter!" The software worked perfectly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Random Killings

We hung out in the hallways a lot. Standing or sitting, it didn't seem to matter; as long as the carpet was dry and reasonably free of foreign substances, the hallway was our hangout. It was a place for eating, drinking, consuming various substances, card games, hall frisbee or even just passing out. But often, it was good for the random conversation or two - complete with random distractions.
In fact, this cartoon was suggested to me by a couple of residents on my floor, complete with one of those "you gotta put this in a cartoon!" hints that I seemed to get every so often. As it was told to me, two of them were sitting in the hallway having a rather serious discussion of Bessel functions, when a roach happened to crawl by.- and the discussion sidetracked almost immediately into frenzied chants of "Kill That Roach!", accompanied by the kind of frenzied stomping that would have made a flamenco dancer proud. The bloodletting having concluded, the two resumed their positions on the floor and returned to their discussion of Bessel functions, which I'm guessing included suggestions to stomp a few of those into the ground.

And like many Stickles cartoons of that era (1978), it was so nice I hadda draw it twice...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Boom Times

MIT is known for explosions. Or rather, MIT is known for chemical reactions that result in the sudden release of large amounts of heat energy. Or if not that, then the sudden release of pressurized gases from a container that may or may not undergo catastrophic failure in the process. We're not talking about what happens when you drop a Mentos candy in a glass of Diet Coke. MIT undegraduates, especially but not limited to the chemistry students, made a recreational habit of combining ordinary materials in ways that caused extraordinary chaos. In fact, it was possible to be awakened at 3 in the morning by a gaggle of Third East students (hackito ergo sum) making thermite flares up on the East  Campus roof.

Everyone knows what happens when you combine water with sulfuric acid. In fact, you're warned to add the sulfuric acid to water and never to add water to sulfuric acid. But there are other chemicals that when mixed together cause a volatile reaction.
My first encounter with the properties of pure sodium in water actually occurred in a high school chemistry lab, when one of my classmates made the mistake of dropping sodium into a beaker of water. We never did find that beaker.
Frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, was also a fun item, specifically because it was colder than normal ice and it sublimed rather than pass into a liquid state. In the process of subliming, it would expand rather rapidly, with predictable consequences. It should also be noted that in real life, Ross could never have held a pellet of dry ice without his fingers suffering frostbite.

A final element that has interesting properties is magnesium, which was used to great effect in World War II. Burning magnesium was difficult to extinguish because it reacted violently to most typical fire-extinguishing agents. Throw water on it and it produced magnesium hydroxide and a whole lot of heat. It also burned hotter when either carbon dioxide or nitrogen were thrown on it. In short, magnesium fires had to be smothered with inert ingredients. Volatile reactions could also result from combinations such as picric acid and sodium hydroxide or ROTC students and SACC activists.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Grease Trap

There were many layers of student politics at MIT. I'm not referring to the radical activism that paraded through the door of the thursday offices with hot leads on one Institute outrage or another. I'm not referring to the Campus Crusade for Ayn Rand or the ever-present conspiracy theorists who adhered to Lyndon LaRouche. Student politics meant the Undergraduate Association and the various groups associated with it. It also meant the various and sundry different agencies that affected campus life and to which student representatives were nominated - an outgrowth of the '60s liberalism, in which the Institute attempted to cater to its restless student body through reforms that gave them a modicum of participation in the process of education.

But we were not children of the '60s. We were, instead, children of the '70s. By the time I got to MIT, the Vitenam War was over and Nixon had resigned from office, so all the big battles had already been fought. So we settled down to the usual pursuits of trying to get good grades and partying till we puked on the weekends. Thursday itself was less interested in campus radicalism and more interested in promoting the cultural and counter-cultural doings in its midst, which meant lots of pinball, Bruce Springsteen ("Born to Run" came out in my sophomore year) and Marvel Comics (oh, we still had plenty of that hippie material R. Crumb penned, but none of it could compare with Howard the Duck!). We had an Arts Section, a literary corner (RSV-P!), a wildly popular back page feature of famous quotes called The Last Word and a couple of feature columns of social commentary and non-specific rants authored by a couple of our managing editors. But the political activism of the Battering Ram (a Dean's Office takeover in the late '60s) was mostly gone, except as a reminiscence.

Student politics - at least the official kind - was an Undergraduate Association affair. In my senior year, I actually became a participant in UA politics when I decided to become a member of the Student Center Committee. I think my motivation was the chance to DJ the Strat's Rats mixers, but I found myself engaged in other activities such as helping select Midnight Movies and picking furniture for the Coffeehouse. In those days, you didn't just join the Student Center Committee, you had to be nominated and approved by the Committee for membership. The way you got your card punched was to be a volunteer and do all the gruntwork that comes with running Student Center events. In that regard, it was much like a committee of the Transportation Research Board - with a vast network of friends and a limited number of official members. If the Student Center Committee liked your spirit (and was reasonably assured that you were not one of those campus radicals from the Social Action Coordinating Committee), they'd approve your membership. I know, because I had to be nominated twice, and one of my friends went through three rounds of voting before he was admitted to membership.

People weren't very interested in the rest of the Institute committee structure. In fact, we had a name for all forms of student politicking, from UMOC (ugliest man on campus) to the various student committees; we called it "grease" (yes, "grease" was the word). "Grease" was anything that had to do with any form of involvement in things like the Technology Community Association, the Student Center Committee, the Lecture Series Committee and the administration of the Institute. A lot of it was the province of the fraternities (and Delta Upsilon was regarded as the frat most heavily involved in the committee structure). The only people who cared about the committees were the pre-law and pre-med students (and even the business school wannabes), for whom serving on a committee was a credential that you could put in your application for grad school. If grade-grubbing hadn't given you enough of an edge, serving on something like the Committee for Visual Arts might be just the thing to get the attention of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. At least that's what a number of Course 7's (biology majors) always claimed. One member of our class managed to parlay his chairmanship of the  Nominations Committee all the way to a seat on the Federal Communications Commission.
Incidentally, this cartoon is based on a rather incensed letter to the editors of the Tech that complained about the tendency of nerds to arrive at the class lectures early and take all the aisle seats. This behavior was mightily inconvenient for all of us slackers who would arrive just as the class began and would have to negotiate our way over the bodies of the extraordinarily diligent to get to an empty seat.

One would have thought the entire student body would be falling all over themselves to capture a plum position on one of the Institute committees, but the truth is that most of us had other things on our minds, and serving on a committee was a chore. Consequently, the Nominations Committee, or NomComm had a bit of a challenge finding well qualified students to serve.
I should mention that the "you're not a racist, are you" quip dates to the Harvey Grogo incident. As I mentioned in a previous posting, Grogo the gorilla is a long-standing mascot of Technique, the student yearbook. In 1977, he was pictured in the freshman yearbook as a member of the Class of 1981 from Kampala, Uganda. White students saw it as a poke at then-dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin. Black students saw it as more institutional racism, in which insentivities to black stereotypes were clearly on display in an official MIT publication. After much uproar, one student on the Technique staff was disciplined; coming so soon on the heels of the thursday "Consumer Guide to MIT Men", the Institute was on high alert to avoid more examples of political incorrectness.

There were other committees of interest besides NomComm. The Finance Board, or FinBoard, handled the Undergraduate Association's money and parceled out stipends to each of the campus activities. Thursday was one of those activities, and if their politics didn't raise hackles with the FinBoard, the balance on their books was always a source of consternation. Thursday never made money, even in the best of times, and they would occasionally have to go begging to FinBoard for more. There was a Facilities Use Committee (FUC, according to one Bexley wag) that made spaces in various buildings available to student groups and others, and there was a Committee on Academic Performance (cue the "Dragnet" music). There were doubtless other committees, but my inability to recall any of them is a testament to their importance in my life back then. But don't be surprised to see a medical student with a membership on the Committee to Assess the Length of the Infinite Corridor on his resume; it means he's special.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bela and Vivian

I've been toying with the notion of creating a new cartoon, one that's nothing like Stickles. A hobby, if you will, since it's not something I could ever make money from. I've actually been putting some ideas down on paper, enough for about 20 strips at this point and sufficient to define the major characters. The idea of a dynamic between a dog and a cat is not new (in this instance, it is very close to home), but this tiny little mutt has Alpha-Dog ambitions and opinions that he appears to have acquired while pursuing an MBA somewhere, while the cat is a bit older and more genteel; she lives life at a slower pace and is not at all enamored of this new upstart in her midst.
Within the next couple of weeks, there will be a separate blog created for these two (and hopefully more cartoons to post in it), and the Blog of Stickles will get back to that fascinating trip down Memory Lane at MIT.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nadia's 'Toon

And now a word from our sponsor:
(Say "hello" to Bruce Rauscher and Felicity the Cat, appearing in "Visit to a Small Planet")
I am a cartoonist, but I started out a musician (a Baskir Musician at that). These days I have a spare-time career in the theater. In fact, a show I'm involved in, Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet", will be opening at the American Century Theater this Friday in Washington, DC (or rather, Arlington, Virginia). I have a small but crucial role. I don't play the lead, I'm not a supporting actor, I don't even have a bit part. I'm not the producer or the director or the sound man or the lighting designer or even the guy who builds the set. But if you need five bags of dry ice and two coolers, I'm your man! Mind you, it's better than my last gig. That one was a musical in which I played a bishop who gets beaten, choked with a cane, stomped on and set on fire at the end of the first act (It's also a musical that reliable sources tell me had its debut at the Alley Theater in Houston back in 1991; see if you can guess the name of the show).

Now on with tonight's post:

The 1976 Olympics were the only Olympic Games that occurred while I was at MIT. I was a sophomore in high school in 1972, and I was already off to my professional career by 1980, the year of the Miracle on Ice, when a team of US amateurs went up against the mighty Red Army and defeated the Russians on the field of ice hockey, thus proving once and for all that our system of government was better than theirs, so there! It was also the Year Without a Summer Olympics for the Americans. Back in those days, the Summer and Winter Olympics were scheduled for the same year; recently the Winter and Summer Olympics have been scheduled two years apart, and we are due for a Summer Olympiad in 2012 in London.

For many years, US sports fans tended to ignore the Winter Olympics, because the US team was not very good at things like curling and biathlon, while the Evil Red Menace was. MTV had not given us snowboarding yet (it wasn't even around), but we could be counted upon to occasionally produce a decent figure skater or two, and they captured our interest.

No, the action was always in the Summer Games, when we could be counted upon to bring home a huge haul of medals - Mark Spitz personally brought home seven Golds as a swimmer in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The Munich Olympics are indelibly linked with tragedy and terrorism, after members of the Israeli team were kidnapped and died violently at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. But there was one bright spot - 16-year old Olga Korbut, who won 3 Gold medals and a Silver with a stunning display of gymnastics that had most of us awestruck (and later led to a tour of the United States, a small victory for Henry Kissinger's Kremlin Strategy).

Korbut was the darling of the world of gymnastics - until someone came along who was not just better; she was perfect. In Montreal in 1976, the world got to see a 14-year-old nymph from Romania (Ceaucescu's Romania!) named Nadia Comaneci, and she made us forget all about Olga Korbut. Nadia Comaneci was the first gymnast in Olympic history to record a perfect 10.0 - and she did it six times. She won three Golds and a Bronze, and became the youngest Olympic champion the sport had ever known. And will ever know; because of the stresses placed on young gymnasts by taskmasters such as Bela Karolyi, the rules for the Olympics were revised to require that all athletes be 16 years old in order to compete. And that all female gymnasts stay away from helium balloons.

Nadia Comaneci went on to win a couple more Golds at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which we boycotted to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (why did we ever go to all that trouble, when we could have simply enlisted a young eager fighter by the name of Osama bin Laden?) She largely disappeared behind the Iron Curtain after those 1980 Olympics, only to emerge rather suddenly in 1994, when we all found out she had defected, was living in Montreal (where she'd been for five years), and had become engaged to an American after having lived a life worthy of the Kardashians for the previous decade. Her coach, a Svengali named Bela Karolyi, had defected some years earlier in 1981 and was best known for having set up a boot camp for gymnasts just outside Houston. These days, he has moved a bit further north - to New Waverly, Texas, and many an aspiring gymnast has come there seeking the moves that will gain them entry onto the American gymnastics team. His camp can be found not far from Joe Tex's old place in the woods, and he will only pick you up from Bush Intercontinental Airport, so no flying Southwest, you peasant!
Nadia Comaneci will always be remembered for perfection - and for having had a montage of her routines broadcast by ABC Sports to the theme from "The Young and the Restless", which subsequently hit the Billboard charts under its new working title, "Nadia's Theme". I have often toyed with the thought of setting up my own radio station on Pandora, playing nothing but the absolutely worst music ever to have been written; "Nadia's Theme" will be there in rotation, in between "You're Having My Baby" and "The Pina Colada Song".

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bike to Work Days

I am (or was) a rider of bicycles. I did not own a bike in Cambridge, but I used to ride around town when I was growing up in Houston. When I lived in Palo Alto, I not only had a bike, but saddle bags and a couple of traffic tickets. The preferred mode of transportation on the Stanford campus, then as now, is the bicycle, and the break period between classes can see traffic jams worthy of Amsterdam.

I did not ride as much when I moved back to Texas (that would have been taking my life in my hands), but when I had settled into a house that I actually owned in DC, I would ride my bike to work during the Summer, all the way from Mount Vernon to National Airport. This was 1995. We didn't have bike racks, but we had showers, and I could always stash my bike in the stairwell (the Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs people we shared our building with were not likely to steal a bike, and the building was secure from outside access). I kept up the custom until 2001, when my office moved out to Dulles Airport, and the ride - over 33 miles - was a bit too forbidding, especially since it was not possible to get a bike onto the grounds of the airport without risking being flattened by a dump truck. National Airport was different; the bike path for the George Washington Parkway went right to the hangar and was similarly close to the complex of offices the Airports Authority Engineering staff used, up on what was known as the Hill (it is literally on top of a hill overlooking the terminal complex).

Riding a bike to work was, well, work. In Houston, though, I would go out on Saturday morning jaunts. One memorable winter, my father, the Renaissance Man, and a bike-to-work kinda guy in his own right, decided to take me on a trip. Not your lazy trip around the block, but a two-day long-distance trek, all the way from Houston proper down to Lake Jackson and Freeport, home of a massive petrochemical complex belonging to Dow Chemical, right on the Gulf of Mexico and about 40 miles away as the crow flies. We were not crows, though, so we had to take the roads, and that meant detours that tacked on extra miles. It also meant two-lane roads with gravel shoulders. pickup trucks and neighborhoods with barking dogs not constrained by leashes. At one point in the  ride, after we had gone about 18 miles and I was completely winded, my father took off down the road. So I gave chase. But I couldn't catch him. He disappeared over the top of a rise in the road, and I thought for sure I'd been abandoned out in the middle of nowhere. So I set off down the road, trying to find him, and as I topped the rise, there he was with a camera, snapping pictures of me coming up the road with my tongue dragging on the pavement. All that bike-riding back and forth to work had given him all kinds of energy.

But that was a diversion. The civil engineer in me had a curiosity to see what was being built in my neighborhood, since these were the boom times when the greater metropolitan area of Houston was adding close to 2,000 new residents a week - all of them chasing jobs in the oil industry. All those new jobs meant lots of new construction, and it seemed like a new skyscraper was getting built either downtown or uptown near the Galleria, which was a massive shopping mall, hotel, office and entertainment complex with a skating rink in the middle of it. The Galleria was near the intersection of two freeways, and before the oil industry collapsed in 1983 and took down the Houston real-estate market, the Galleria was abuzz with construction activity.

Getting to the Galleria, though, was challenging. Houston is not exactly known for bike paths, and in the '70s, they were even rarer than they are today (the City has very thoughtfully paved some nice paths that follow the local bayous, which are slow-moving trash strewn mosquito breeding laboratories that course ever so slowly and languidly through town). Consequently, the only way to get to the Galleria from my neighborhood was to set off along the city's thoroughfares, which were four lane divided roads full of traffic. Adding to the fun were the pavements, which had heaved and buckled in the high termperatures that characterized Houston's summers. There were also open drains...
Summer in Houston also meant thunderstorms, so it was possible to go out in the morning, when there were only a few little cottony puffs of cloud in the sky, and be chased home by some angry purple storm clouds flashing the occasional lightning bolt just for good measure. I also made a short-lived habit of setting off on my bike jaunts wearing nothing but shorts and tennis shoes (no tee-shirt for macho-man Geoff!). That lasted as long as it took me to come home with a nice crimson sunburn on my back, for which I endured a few sleepless, itchy nights.

I found out about all kinds of road hazards, and not just uncovered manholes. The Stanford campus had these wonderful trees that dropped thorns that could puncture a tire in nothing flat. The Parkway bike path occasionally has trees fall over in rainstorms. I encountered one by accident; I survived, but my rim didn't, so it was a long walk to work that morning. When it rains, the roads get slick and your backside gets wet; you get used to racing stripes up the back of your shirt. And I have been stung by the occasional wasp that got wedged inside my pants-leg.

I don't bike much anymore. I meet plenty of cyclists on the W&OD bike path that winds from Sterling, Virginia, all the way to Rosslyn, but I'm usually on foot enjoying a brisk morning run (lazy amateurs jog, I run). I suppose I'll have to invest in a nice Cannondale and plot a trip across Europe, sometime when I'm an empty-nester and retired from the working world. I'd have to arrange meeting points along the route so my wife can catch up with me, but I'd get to see the countryside up close and personal. Most of my friends from my school days have that same dream, only it involves seeing the world through their Harleys (if the chain don't break).

Another Fifth of Fourth

One thing I forgot to mention about the Pops concerts on the Charles River Esplanade is the number of small craft that can be seen bobbing in the Charles River itself. This picture, shamelessly ripped off from the MIT Alumni Association's blog, shows a couchboat that was spotted sometime yesterday evening. MIT students can be inveterate sofa surfers.
Hope you had a Happy Fourth!

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Fifth of Fourth

It's the Fourth of July. If you're in DC, it's a time for fireworks on the Mall, which means traffic jams all over town as people try to find a good spot to watch. In Boston, the same ritual is played out on the south side of the Charles River, on the Esplanade where there is a bandshell, and that's the place where Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops set up for their annual Fourth of July shindig. It's a time for picnics, sparklers, mosquito repellent and all the things that make Summer a patriotic season. It's a time when half a million Bostonians gather - which, given the muck on which the Back Bay was founded, is helpful for surcharging the grounds.

In July, MIT students are back at home or otherwise away from the campus, but a few hardy souls (those with summer jobs or nothing better to do) hang around all summer. They're as patriotic as the next person, although the next person in Cambridge is likely to be a Young Spartacist and determined to smash the state. That doesn't mean they can't enjoy a nice fireworks display, especially when it is accompanied by all your favorite pop ditties rendered senseless by the Pops. John Philip Sousa, W.C. Handy, Burt Bacharach, Lee Greenwood (okay, maybe not him) - the Pops will play them all. Plus, they will render a stirring rendition of Tchaikowsky's "1812 Overture", complete with cannon.
I went to a performing arts high school - with some serious classical musicians. They were serious cut-ups. They had no respect for the Pops at all. They considered Fiedler and his Pops akin to Percy Faith and his orchestra - who could still be found in the Classical section of certain Texas record shops even into the 1980's. As every serious classical musician knew, Percy Faith made elevator music.
But Arthur Fiedler had one champion in our high school - Edward Trongone, who was a teacher of instrumental music and conductor of our orchestra, wind ensemble and stage band. Trongone was known to us as "Mr. T" and he looked like this...


"Watch that intonation, sucker!"

Er, this...
"I pity the foo' who interrupts my rehearsal!"

Trongone was short, animated Bostonian who looked a bit like a penguin when he was conducting the orchestra. He had a thick accent ("Hahns! What am I heah foh!?") that I only figured out when I got to Boston and heard others of its type. But Mr. T knew a lot about the music business and had a lot of stories to tell about being a musician and a conductor. He could talk about greats like Stan Kenton and Mitch Miller (who we even got to meet personally), and he aspired to send his students on to careers as storied as theirs. But first they were going to have to work on their intonation and get rid of those scrapey horn sounds. He told us about the bad old days, when the musicians had to form a union and fight to get royalties on their recordings. He also told us about the Pops. Mr. T was a big fan of Arthur Fiedler, even if we weren't.
Arthur Fiedler died in 1979, a year after I graduated from MIT, but the Pops play on. Fiedler's immediate successor was John Williams, which meant a lot of "Jaws" and "Star Wars" themes were added to the program. These days, Keith Lockhart holds the baton, as he has since 1995. If you hurry, you can still make it over to the Esplanade from the 'Tute before the festivities begin.
But what is it we celebrate on this day? A lot of the holiday is given over to fireworks, patriotic music and above all military displays. Advertisers seem to find this holiday (and Memorial Day) as a good time to recognize the troops, whom they can't seem to recognize at any other time of the year. Our patriotic merchandisers find this holiday a good time to honor America by putting everything on sale (in a similar vein, they honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with big bargains on new cars). But it seems only appropriate to honor the founding documents on which this country was based, supposedly. Politicians come, politicians go, the economy goes up, the economy goes down, but one thing remains constant - the idea behind the United States, which was embodied in a Declaration of Independence some 235 years ago today, and in a Constitution that is still the law of the land over two centuries later. Even in the worst of times, they remain as the documents that bind us together. After all, we've had bad times before, but the country did not fold.
The cartoon above was drawn in 1982, when unemployment skyrocketed to 10.8% by Christmas. A year earlier, the Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies and Royals had won their respective divisions during a strike-shortened season, but the summer of 1982 was very cruel to them, and none of them made the playoffs.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Heat Is On

It's been a brutal summer in Houston already. While the calendar says summer officially arrived on June 21, it appears that Summer started in Houston on April 1. Most summers, the temperature stays below 100 degrees, even in early August. This year, the mercury went to 104 on June 5, tying as the hottest June day ever recorded (and someone on Wikipedia claims 105 was reached in one location). And it's been worse in other parts of Texas; Austin was over 100 degrees in May, and Laredo has been having weather reminiscent of Laughlin, Nevada.

What's happening is that Texas has been having a drought - one the weather service describes as extraordinary. The rains that normally cool Houston off in the afternoons haven't been coming this Summer, which allows the temperature to soar into the upper 90's. To see this effect, the average Houstonian only has to remember last June, when the temperatures were low because almost ten inches of rain fell in the month (granted, Houston can get that much from an afternoon monsoon, but then the freeways don't move). Then the winds shifted and there was very little rain in August, so the temperature went up over 100.

While Houston was cool and rainy, last Summer in Washington, DC, was dry and hot. DC can have hot weather; one afternoon in 1997, it went up to 104 before a line of afternoon thunderstorms brought the temperature down. But 2010 was unusually hot - it was over 90 degrees almost every afternoon and 100 degrees on perhaps a half dozen occasions. What's happening? There are those who say the climate is being changed by global warming brought on by carbon dioxide emissions being spewed by power plants, cars, factories and other sources. Then there are those skeptical types who claim the pattern of sunspots has cycled through and we're now in a warm period with higher amounts of solar irradiation of the planet occurring, in line with natural processes. Whatever's going on in the US was last seen in the Dust Bowl Days, which portends big trouble for farmers and people trying to avoid wildfires. There will be no fireworks in Texas this Fourth of July; it's just too hot. And the drought goes on.

The Summer of 1978 was a hot one in Houston, too. I was in between college and grad school, which meant I was moving from Boston to California, but I spent the interim in my parents' Texas home. I had taken to riding my bike around town because there was a building  boom of seismic proportions underway, and I liked to observe the construction work (these days it's possible to do the same thing from a distance by visiting sites like SkyscraperPage.com or Swamplot). The tallest concrete structure west of the Mississippi was being constructed downtown for one of the large local banks (Texas had large local banks until they all collapsed during the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980's - you thought TARP was a new phenomenon?) and there were other skyscrapers of various sizes going up in other neighborhoods. At each bank office, there was usually an electronic sign that advertised the time and the temperature. The problem was that none of the thermometers agreed.
As I said, 1978 was a hot Summer in Houston. It went to 100 several times that summer, and one day the temperature topped out at 102 at the airport (being a few miles north of town and farther from the Gulf of Mexico, Bush Intercontinental, the bigger of the two airports, usually got a couple of degrees hotter than Downtown). Two years later, the infamous Summer of 1980 brought a temperature of 108 one August afternoon, and that record stuck as the hottest day ever observed at the city's major airport - until September 4, 2000, when the mercury went to 109. That September day, the mercury also went over 110 degrees in Dallas, and is best remembered as the day the Philadelphia Eagles blitzed the Dallas Cowboys on their home turf, because they took to drinking pickle brine on the sidelines.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Marathon Man

I've been a distance runner for a number of years now - pretty much since high school. In ninth grade, I was on the cross-country team for my school, and I actually competed in a steeplechase or two. But the crowning moment was the last meet of the year, when our team went from Texas to Oklahoma City to compete in the conference championships. They put me in the two-mile, making it the longest race I had run that year, and of the three runners my school entered in the event, I was the only one who finished.
Then at the beginning of my sophomore year, I transferred to a performing arts magnet school which had no varsity athletics (well, unless you consider stage band a varsity sport), and that was pretty much the end of my athletic career.

But I continued to run. And compete in races. I ran the San Francisco Bay to Breakers, which is a 12k race, in 1980 and again in 1982. And again in 1985. Bay to Breakers attracts a loony-tunes cast of characters, from brides with full beards to guys who run the way the early Greek Olympians competed - completely in the buff. Some of them will even bind themselves together in a chain-gang for a chance at a prize; one group came dressed as the San Francisco Bay Bridge. To this date, no one, individual or group, has come dressed as San Francisco International Airport. The 1980 race attracted close to 100,000 runners, and the numbers kept escalating every year, so the race officials cut off registration at 125,000. Even with the limit, it would sometimes take half an hour just to cross the starting line, and you walk it for the first four miles due to the crowds.

The longest distance I ever ran in my life was 10 miles - until I registered for my first marathon. When I hit my 50th birthday, I promised myself I was going to complete a marathon. I registered for the Marine Corps Marathon, an event that brings out thousands and essentially closes Downtown DC for half a day. My brother had run a marathon ten years earlier and had actually turned in a decent time. Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, had actually run two marathons, including the prestigious race in London, but he died suddenly when he was 50. Nevertheless, I was determined to go the whole 26 miles and 385 yards, even though my wife thought I was nuts.
So I started training, eight months before the race. And to make it more challenging, I got myself diagnosed as a diabetic. I started doing 5 miles around the neighborhood in Spring, and by June, 5 miles had become 7, then 9, and by 4th of July, I was running 11 miles in sweltering 95-degree heat. My wife was convinced I was going to drop dead on the footpath, and one evening I came pretty close. I went out for an 18-mile circuit, and by the 14th mile I was sweating pretty hard. By the 14th mile I was walking, and I walked the last 4 miles. I went to bed a zombie, but still woke up the next morning and ran ten miles. By Labor Day, I had dropped 20 of my 150 pounds and I looked as skinny as a starving cat. My right ankle was sore after every run, but I persevered on.

The last Sunday in October was race day. It started out in the 40s at 8 in the morning, but by mid-day it was 60 with a pleasant breeze. The Marines had very thoughtfully provided blocked-out areas for runners who thought they were going to set a certain pace (6 minutes a mile, 6:30 a mile, 7 minutes a mile and so on) and each block was accompanied by Marines who were going to set that pace themselves. It was all very orderly - right down to the men's and women's bushes (yes, they had Porta-potties, but no one wanted to brave the lines). The time approached for the race. They played the National Anthem, lined the runners up, fired the starting gun and we were off.

The tallest hill on the race course was no more than 300 feet above sea level and it was within the first five miles of the race. We started on the north side of the Pentagon and proceeded northward through Roslyn, an office district in Virginia opposite Georgetown. After an uphill jaunt, we doubled back and crossed the Key Bridge into Georgetown, then into the hills, back past the Reservoir, then along the Whitehurst Freeway and across the Mall to Capitol Hill. They had water stations every half mile or so, and I noticed that if I had a quick swig of G2 (Gatorade with half the sugar), it gave me a short burst of energy that lasted until I reached the next station. I also noticed that I was running comfortably at about 8 minutes a mile.

That did not last. I had just crossed the 14th Street Bridge from DC back into Crystal City, in Virginia, when my right knee started to lock up. I gritted my teeth and soldiered on, down and back up Crystal Drive and into the last couple of miles before the Hill. The last mile of the race was uphill going back again into Roslyn, and I could feel it with every step. The final portion of the race, that last 385 yards, was the incline up to the Iwo Jima Memorial, otherwise known as the Hill. I may have crawled those last yards, but I don't remember. I do recall getting one of those heavy iron medals - which is now pinned up in my office. Later, when I read the race results, I noticed that Gerry Epstein, also MIT Class of '78, had finished within ten minutes of my time; for whatever reason, I never saw him out on the course.
I drew several strips about the runner's high. I've encountered the kibitzer with the stick. Usually, it's a car full of teenagers. Sometimes it's teenage boys heckling me, but occasionally I've had girls whistle at me. They're less of a hazard than the cyclists, who come whizzing by at high speed. If they don't like my pace, they need to stay out of the middle of the street.
A word about coincidence. It turns out the idea for the strip above was also used in Mad Magazine, which used to have movie satires penned by Mort Drucker. He did a spoof on the movie "Rocky" that featured a Sylvester Stallone character who described his training routine as waking up early, cracking three raw eggs into a glass, drinking the eggs and then vomiting. It would not be the first time that a Stickles joke would show up somewhere else. The following joke turns out to have been a favorite New Year's Day joke of Johnny Carson for many years.
 And why is it that Jews take up recreational running? Well, I already explained it...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Live From New York...

If you are under the age of 40, Saturday Night Live has always been on TV. That was not always the case. When I was in high school, Saturday nights were defined by professional wrestling live from the Houston Coliseum and hosted by Paul Bosch on Channel 39, one of the only two UHF stations in town. Sure, professional wrestling could be found everywhere in the United States, but while we didn't have Bruno Sammartino or Fred Blassie, we had Ernie Ladd and Wahoo McDaniel - and a whole bunch of masked wrestlers from Mexico.

But that's off the subject. When I was a freshman at Tech, there really was nothing on TV on Saturday nights, and that meant that if you weren't at a mixer or otherwise engaged with a person of the opposite sex (or, for those who prefer, the same sex), life could be kind of boring. Friday nights at least had the Midnight Special on NBC and In Concert on ABC - two competing televised rock concerts (and Martin Mull once forgot which one he was on). Weeknights were given over to Carson and to Tom Snyder, whose Tomorrow Show came on after midnight and featured very intellectual hour-long discussions with some person of relevance in either news, sports or entertainment - The Daily Show without any of the humor (well, except for the evening Snyder decided to show off a walking stick made from the petrified penis of a bull). Sunday nights were given over to homework. But Saturday nights - well...

Then one October evening in 1975, the news came on, and after the news was this new variety show featuring comedy sketch material introduced by gameshow host Don Pardo. Onto the stage strolled Chevy Chase ("I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not!"), and before he could plant himself in front of the microphone, he fell flat on his ass. Then he gave us a big grin and announced those famous words, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Chase had not intended the pratfall, but thereafter, it became his signature move.
Saturday Night Live was off and running. The brainchild of Lorne Michaels of National Lampoon fame and Dick Ebersol, who handled all of NBC's sports programming, it featured comedians from Chicago's Second City (and "The Kentucky Fried Movie" and "Groove Tube" - look them up on Netflix) who were collectively known as the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players; they were Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Larraine Newman and Gilda Radner. There was always a guest host, who was somebody famous at the moment; one of the early episodes featured Gerald Ford, who was coaxed to say "I'm Gerald Ford, and you're not" (his press secretary, Ron Nessen, an ex-NBC newsman, was host that weekend), which was ironic, because a good bit of Chevy Chase's humor those first couple of years was him bumbling around the Oval Office as Ford.

That first cast would go on to bigger and better things as the years rolled on, and new faces - Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Joe Piscopo, Jim Belushi and Bill Murray would step in. The show had its ups and downs; in the early '80s the routines weren't quite as fresh, and in one episode, someone actually said "fuck" on the air (and they weren't pulling the chain to turn on a light, either), but by the mid '80s, the show had regained a lot of its mojo, with Billy Crystal doing his Fernando Lamas impression ("you know, dahling, it's better to look good than to feel good")and Buster Poindexter leading the band and recording "Hot, Hot, Hot" (not a bar-mitzvah party since has been without that song). There was also Mister Grimley...
Then the show nose-dived again, and suddenly, we were seeing professional wrestling on Saturday nights in 1986 (deja vu all over again!). It was probably appropriate that Stickles was out of print by then. It took a heroic effort and a whole new line-up with Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller and Jon Lovitz to save the show, and SNL would go on to some of its best years with the Church Lady and Wayne's World among its featured sketches. In 1990, a serious challenge would emerge in the form of the entire Wayans family, whose In Living Color may be one of the funniest things Fox ever put on its network, so SNL discovered Chris Rock, who was himself the funniest black comedian since Eddie Murphy. 
(And those of you who remember back that far probably also know that the line is, "I hate when that happens")

And the show has continued ever since - through the presidencies of two Bushes, a Clinton and an Obama. Every so often, one of the old cast members shows up again to guest-host, but a steady supply of young comedians continues to rotate in to make sketch comedy on Saturday night as the older names on the show move on to bigger and better things. At the end of geologic time, it is entirely possible that the only three shows left on television will be Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons and Sixty Minutes.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Official Airline Guide

For those of us in the aviation business, the Official Airline Guide is the Bible of air travel. Perhaps it's more correct to say it's the CRC Handbook of Air Travel. It was about the same size, thickness and weight as a Boston metropolitan telephone book. In the days before electronic reservations systems, it listed every scheduled flight made by every airline known to the travel industry worldwide. It also listed fares. It also identified every aircraft and every airline, and it had the itineraries of every flight number. In short, it had everything anyone would ever want to know about air travel (you are wrong, Kerosene Breath; some of those obscure Soviet and African airlines were not in there, but that's because they were on the blacklist).

When I was growing up, the Guide was published in three flavors. The Green Cover listed all the North American flights in effect at the 1st of each month. The Tan Cover listed the flights in effect at the 15th of the month. The Purple Cover listed all the global flights. There was also a Red Cover (maybe it was a Blue Cover) that listed the all-freight schedules, and another that listed hotel rates. The folks who made the Guide also offered data tapes with flight schedules that they sold to the airports and the consultants; these were data files that could be sorted by chronological order, by airline or by aircraft, depending on need. This was important because the FAA in 1978 had made available to the consulting community a simulation model that purported to run a day's worth of flight operations through an airport coded into it using numbers and letters. In 1988, the FAA made available to the consulting community an even better model that showed a graphic representation of a day's worth of flights traveling through an airport coded by using numbers, letters and lines on a grid. The one element both models relied on was a complete schedule of the day's flights, coded in an ASCII delimited format, which only the Official Airline Guide, or OAG, could supply.
I wasn't interested in that; I simply wanted to count how many flights went through a particular airport on a particular day. But around 1995, the airlines started sharing codes on flights, which meant they could sell tickets on the flights of other airlines with whom they had a code-sharing agreement. What was a revenue-generating convenience for them quickly became a counting nuisance for me; when the Guide showed Continental Airlines flight 27 and Northwest Airlines flight 27 and Cathay Pacific Airlines flight 27 and Bashkirian Airlines flight 27, all departing Chignik, Alaska, for Cabumsk, Alaska, at the same time of day, they were all the same airplane, one airplane instead of four. It was exhausting weeding out the duplicate flights.

Not only that, but the publishers of the Guide wanted an arm and a leg for their flight schedules. When the Internet got to be a household convenience, there were soon other ways to get the same sort of flight information. Many airports took to listing their daily flights in chronological order, though they still listed every single duplicate code-share flight. So other sites sprung up. The first was Flightarrivals.com, which listed every flight at an airport within a two-hour time window. They were helpful, but the two-hour limitation was, well limiting, and they didn't always identify the type of aircraft in service. Another site, Flightaware.com, offered a chronological listing of flights at each airport, including a history going back at least a week. It also showed flights in the vicinity of a particular airport, on what looked like a radar monitor. Again, the site showed everything...but the flights at airports outside the United States. A third site, Flightstats, completed that piece of the puzzle, showing arrivals and departures at every airport in the world (it even had a button that allowed users to "hide" the codeshare flights). And the information could be downloaded onto an Excel spreadsheet, where it could be sorted and filtered. The Promised Land had been reached. I now know that during the Summer tourist season, the airport in Antalya, Turkey, handles more flights daily than Boston Logan.

So why am I boring you with all this? Because I am an aviation consultant and I do this for a living. And I am Pud Stickles.

Monday, June 20, 2011

That Old Gang of Mine

As you probably noticed, most of the characters that made their way into Stickles were caricatures of real people. People from high school. People from MIT. Even people from Stanford. In most instances, they were happy to let me give them a little notoriety...as long as it couldn't be traced back to them.
Believe it or not, I used to work with these guys. The time was 1986 - a lifetime ago, it seems. Most of them have moved on - some to other organizations, others to more senior positions in the same location. I moved on to DC. But I never drew a group portrait like this again - in part because the project I moved to had a steady stream of personnel changes over 20 years, and it was hard to keep up with the new faces. As it was, it took me six months of off-and-on work to get this portrait completed, and it was kind of a labor of love.

So who are they? One day I'll remember all of their names. And to the three on the far right side of the picture, I'm sorry I cut your heads in half.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Legend of Fritts Botwell

I've never considered myself a fan of country and western music. And this is despite my upbringing in Texas, where the twang of a pedal steel guitar and the sonorous drawl of a country love song were hard to avoid. In 1975, the film "Nashville" was made by Robert Altman, and it proceeded to dig into the background and the underground of the making and selling of country music (and to take a dig at Jimmy Carter, the non-candidate candidate for president). It was fun story-telling for Altman and for Hollywood stars such as Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson and others, but for me it defined the intersection of the genuine and the cheesy that has made country music so frustrating for me to listen to. Country music for me was Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" (which Johnny Carson proceeded to warble late one night before falling off a wooden horse) and Jerry Reed, who made a hit out of "Amos Moses" in 1971 and proceeded to make a career out of rewriting it in several different versions before becoming a TV miniseries mainstay.

At the same time, I spent a lot of late evenings my freshman year listening to a bluegrass show on WTBS that came on prior to "The Ghetto", which filled the midnight hours with good soul and funk in the days before disco fever. I knew enough about country and bluegrass to win a few pizzas by answering the station's call-in contest questions. There were some good bluegrass bands out there - the Country Gentlemen, the Holy Modal Rounders (well, okay, the Rounders were not your normal bluegrass band, unless you listened to KFAT in Gilroy, California, in 1980) - and some good slices of Americana out there, such as "Six Days on the Road", which was a genuine, authentic truck-driving tune by Dave Dudley (recast by Sawyer Brown more recently), to which C.W. McCall's "Convoy", which was a much bigger hit and started the CB craze in 1976, could not hold a candle.

In 1975, a whole new brand of music came out of Texas that would redefine country music for at least a decade. Willie Nelson released "The Red-Headed Stranger", a collection of spare ballads that featured Willie, his guitar and his voice, with his backing band somewhere off in the distant background. These were pure songs of lovin', fightin' and heartache, and they were the first wave of what would be known as outlaw country, a sound that merged the short-haired Nashville sensibilities of Nelson and Waylon Jennings with the long-haired, alternative stylings of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and others who took their trips on LSD. Waylon, Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker came to represent the outlaw sound and to make country cool enough for Woodstock-size festivals. Little watering holes in Texas named Luckenbach and Terlingua would become famous as cowboy hangouts (long before Michael Dell built his first PC in an Austin garage).

Into this milieu wandered David Allan Coe, straight out of prison. He was made to be an outlaw musician - he was  a big, bad hombre, and he had a habit of both name-dropping and telling people who he was and wasn't. He established his brand with a Steve Goodman song called "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" that was described as "the perfect country and western song". It was on the Nashville charts about the time that Fritts Botwell, who was not Johnny Cash or Charlie Pride or Willie Nelson, arrived.

Fritts Botwell was destined to become the savior of the MIT Undergraduate Association spring concert series, as chronicled in a series of Stickles cartoons. Every Spring, the UA became concert promoters, bringing famous and not so famous bands to the MIT campus (the Grateful Dead had played a free concert on the MIT Student Center steps back in the '60s). The year before I got to Tech, a little band from Boston named Aerosmith had played the Rockwell Cage, although the results were regarded as somewhat disastrous, since all the urchins in Cambridge showed up in force, to consume beer and puke on the dirt floor. The concerts thereafter had been less than stellar successes, despite the fact that a graduate of the Class of '69, Tom Scholz, would go on to form a little band called Boston. With all the talent that resided within a 25-mile radius of 77 Mass Avenue, the UA just couldn't make money promoting concerts.
Part of the problem was the UA couldn't afford any big headliners, and those musicians they could afford were not very well known. It would be at least two years before new wave music would take hold on college campuses, thus providing schools like MIT with a steady source of bands that were obscure to everyone else in the world but college students. So it was up to Pud's friend Ross to hit upon the idea of bringing in a country musician.
Jim Croce was a easy-listening balladeer who burst on the scene in 1972 with "You Don't Mess Around With Jim", about a bar-room brawler who picked one too many fights, and followed it up in 1973 with an even bigger hit called "Bad, Bad, Leeroy Brown", about a bar-room brawler who picked one too many fights. Had he not died in a plane crash in late 1973, no fern bar could have contained him. As it was, he would go on to have a string of hits after his death (including "Time in a Bottle", which was about a bar-room brawler who...no, that's not right), becoming almost as legendary a posthumous performer as Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur (although Tupac's not dead; he's just living in New Zealand).
Arkadelphia is a little town in Arkansas, not far from Hope - or the I-30 Interstate. It became something of a running joke in our family, for reasons known only to my youngest brother.
I don't recall if any of these comic strips ever saw the light of day or the page of a newspaper (I cranked out a lot of material in 1976, when these strips were drawn, and thursday only published once or twice a week, depending on the ad revenues). I'm not even sure if MIT's students are still in the concert promotion business. But country music is still with us. It has bounced back and forth between the sublime (Joe Ely, Steve Earle), the ridiculous (Lee Greenwood, Toby Keith) and the Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett).


Monday, June 13, 2011

The John Hancock Tower

The tallest building in Boston was (and still is) the Hancock Tower. Designed by I.M. Pei & Partners in 1968, it served as the headquarters for John Hancock Insurance, hence the name. The Hancock displaced the Prudential Tower (the other insurance company) with its glassed-in top floor observatory and flashing white strobe beacon as the tallest vantage point in town, although the Pru remained the backdrop for many a Strat's Rat while I was in Cambridge.

The Hancock was a glass monolith with the footprint of a parallelogram and blue as the Boston sky. It was just about completed when I arrived at MIT in the Fall of 1974, but it didn't officially open until 1977, due to a certain number of engineering snafus.
One of them was that the windows kept falling out. Not just a couple and not all at once, but one here, one there, one somewhere else - on a continuous basis for almost three years. Things got so hazardous that a scaffold was erected to protect the patrons of the Trinity Church next door from falling glass. It seemed necessary; rumor has it that one day a workman on one of the upper floors of the Hancock happened to drop his lunchbox - right through the church roof.

As the panes of glass fell, they were replaced with plywood. Some of the plywood was black and some of it was a natural wood color, i.e., yellow. With windows popping out on a frequent basis, the effect created was a blue, black and gold checkerboard pattern towering into the sky. It was pretty to look at, in its own quirky way, but the building owners were concerned that someone would want to look out of those nice big picture windows, and while the glass was reasonably transparent, plywood is opaque, which makes viewing difficult. The architects search for a solution, but none could be found. Replacement windows popped out just as readily as the original 4 x 11 panes. The architects replaced every pane of glass in the building, but windows would still pop out. Eventually it was determined that wind was not a factor in the detachment of the windows; what caused the glass to pop out was a condition of thermal oscillation. Each window was two panes of glass with a pocket of air sandwiched in between the panes. When it was warm, the air between the glass expanded and popped the outer window pane out of its mounting. This didn't happen immediately; it took several cycles of heating and cooling to loosen the outer glass.

The Hancock had some other problems. First, the foundations were compromised by the Back Bay muck the building rested upon. Then the building exhibited a tendency to sway in the wind. To counteract this force, the building's engineers installed some gigantic mass dampers, which seemed to check the swaying characteristics. The final calamity was not engineering, but financing; the building was sold for north of a billion dollars five years ago, but the real estate trust that bought the building went broke in the 2009 financial panic, and the Hancock Tower was auctioned off. It now belongs to another trust known as Boston Properties (appropriate); the Hancock insurance company itself is now in the hands of Canadians. I.M. Pei went on to design many other structures, some of which were located at MIT (including the Green Building and the "Pei Toilet", AKA the Wiesner Building - it is covered in white tiles and looks like a...)

Incidentally, this strip was redrawn; the original version looked like this:
There was a problem that made this cartoon unsuitable for publication in a family newspaper; I placed the hyphen between the "Han" and the "cock". A similar problem would plague the original "Outtada pool" cartoon about roaches. There is a reason why cartoonists never write the word "FLICK" in a comic strip when they show a light being turned on, and you can probably guess what it is. So I substituted the word "CLICK" instead.