Friday, August 04, 2006

The Google referal of the day is: How to dress like Dr Emmett Brown. Some people just want to know the craziest stuff.
Rather than bore you with the sad saga of the company pick-up truck (which is currently idling outside my apartment building, its diesel engine hopefully burning through the traces of gasoline that remain in the tank) I'll tell you a little story that took place a while back, which I wrote down but never posted.

Shortly after I arrived in Dubai, I had the honor of attending a lavish birthday party at a private villa. There was a DJ (a Czech guy, as it turns out), lots of flashing lights, a dance performance, an open bar and tons of food prepared right before you eyes (a pasta station, for instance). Quite something.

The father of the birthday girl is an expat Indian, a well-known editor who has worked at various English-language newspapers in the Gulf region. We struck up a chat.

Turns out his pet interest is airline safety. Yes, airline safety. He knows just about everything there is to know about the topic.

“Tell me,” I said to him. “Did they ever figure out why TWA flight 700 went down off the southern coast of Long Island in 1996? 'Cause that’s been bothering me for years.”

“Assymetrical flaps,” he replied, not skipping a beat. Then he paused. “I think. TWA flight 700. What year did you say it was?”

“Summer of 1996. I was living on Long Island at the time. It was just before I left the country,” I said. “I remember arguing about it with the people from work. At first everybody said it was somebody using a shoulder-launched missile from a boat, but then they realized that in order for the missile to reach the height of the plane, you’d have to be directly beneath it, which is just impossibly unlikely."

"That could happen now, actually," he said.

"Yes, I hear it could, but I'm not sure the technology was ready available at the time.

"Anyway," I continued, "after that theory died, everybody insisted some guy shot it down with a surface-to-air missile fired from the back of a flatbed truck, as thought that were something easy to conceal in suburban Long Island. Eventually they conceded it must have been something mechanical.”

“Yes, I’m pretty certain it was assymetrical flaps.” He paused again. “Now it’s bothering me. I have to know for certain. I’ll go check on the computer for certain.” He ran off, leaving me with my drink.

A few minutes later, the dad came back. “My computer’s not working. I’m pretty sure it was assymetrical flaps. I’ll check and get back to you. TWA never recovered from that crash, you know.”

The talk turned to the practice of writing and the profession of journalism.

“You will never make money in journalism. I have never made money,” he said, leaning against the open bar where the umpteenth bottle of vodka was being emptied. “No money at all.”

“Sir,” I suggested, calling him by his first name. “You have managed to throw one hell of a party here.”

“Oh, that,” he said, gesturing to the festivities. “That’s all my wife’s. I have no money.” I laughed.

That's the end of the story. The only point is, there are some colorful characters out there who are experts on oddball subjects. I wonder what I'm an expert in anything that arcane, without quite realizing it.

(Update: I have related this conversation from memory, as I remember it happening. Steve in the comments correctly points out that I'm talking about TWA Flight 800, and of the theories in circulation, none seem to have anything to do with flaps.)

Moving on...

One of my guys at the office is an ultra-reserved South African guy who spends most of his spare time building tube amplifiers. Tube amplifiers, apparently, are something like fine wines. They take a long, long time to make, no two sound quite the same, and the character comes from the anomolies.

I tried to explain to my tube-amp-building colleague how, as a teenager, I plugged a microphone into a drum pad kit (i.e., a small black box into which you're supposed to plug cables attached to little pads affixed to the drum heads on a drum kit and then hook up to a drum machine or synthesizer so you can play fake drums while banging on real drums as the same time). My friend Adam was a drummer, you see, and we had an experimental noise band called The Trouble With Harold. This is perhaps the topic for another story. Anyway, the drum pad kit converted analog signals (like from a sensor on the drum head or, in this case, a microphone) into MIDI signals. So then I plugged the drum pad kit into my synthesizer (an Ensoniq VFX, if you must know, still in my parents' basement if anybody wants it), which I had programmed with an inverse relationship between MIDI note velocity and the starting pitch of the note it generated (i.e., the softer the signal, or in this case the louder the sound coming into the microphone, the higher and louder the starting pitch of the note coming out of the speaker). Plus, the note descended in pitch over time (imagine Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff). Then I programmed something like a five second delay into the start of the note. Then, in a quiet room, I placed the microphone next to the speaker and snapped my fingers. Five seconds later, the result was recursive generation of perpetual aural cacaphony (the starting note generating its own response five seconds later, and so on) and for sure I've gotten dumber by the day since then.

I tried to explain this, but I failed. I couldn't even remember myself precisely how it worked.

Like I said, he (the tube amp guy from the office) is ultra-reserved. Painfully shy. Quieter than a ray of sunshine.

I hitched a ride to the mall with him the other day. As we turned into the parking area, a guy in a BMW pulled ahead of him and abruptly cut him off, as people often do here for no good reason.

"You fucking asshole!!" he screamed, pounding on the wheel of his little Peugeot. "They're not running out of oil fast enough!"
If I had more energy for blogging I would certainly tell a long dull tale about what happens when you put regular gasoline into a deisel engine. It ain't pretty.