Prime Time Air Travel, and some thoughts on meteors that are not meteorites.

View 763 Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I thought I had posted something yesterday just before leaving Boston, but apparently I did not or it didn’t come through or something. Tuesday I left the hotel early with a view to having breakfast in the airport and spending the time waiting for my airplane in United’s Red Carpet lounge. That worked, but I wasn’t in any rush to break out my ThinkPad and connect it to the Internet. I did use the MacBook Air to make some notes and get a little work done, but I don’t use it for eMail or publishing my journal. Mostly I read 1491 on my Kindle Fire. The Fire fits in my pocket, can be read in the dark or in a well lighted room, and the battery lasts about 12 hours. I know this because I had charged it overnight before I left Boston, and it ran out of power while I was in the Prime Time Shuttle on the way to USC before we went to Glendale on the way to Studio City, and no, no one in his right mind would go to Studio City by way of USC and then Glendale; but we’ll get to that later. Anyway I estimate I had been running the Fire pretty continuously for 12 hours without recharging by that time.

Memo to myself and anyone else using a Kindle Fire: it runs longer than an iPad but it’s not the old Kindle. This has an active screen and you need to recharge every now and then. Fortunately the rechargeable is small and will fit in your briefcase or flight bag> I could have recharged mine in the Red Carpet club at any time, and I’ve never really had a problem finding a source of electrons even in general airport waiting areas. It doesn’t take long to top up the Kindle Fire. And it really does work for 12 hours, and warns you when you are down to 15%, and again at about 3%. When it runs out it turns off without further warnings.

My scheme seemed to be working. The Red Carpet Club is pleasant enough offering all kinds of facilities for getting some work done. As with most airlines United has some of their best employees in the Club lounge, and they can straighten out any ticket problems. I didn’t really have any. Well, I did, in that I was supposed to have had an uninterrupted flight from Boston to LA, but due to the snowstorms I was routed to change planes in Dulles, adding a couple of hours to the travel time. Ah well. In due time I got on the airplane – at my age I get automatic preboarding meaning I get to get in there and sit down before the charging hordes come. I had an aisle seat, which works just fine for me.

In the glory days of BYTE I generally traveled business class or first class. Of course Convention Committees and the NESFA Press don’t pay first class fares for their guests but in the old days I flew often enough to computer shows and publicity events that I could always upgrade a ticket. But I have also found that regular tourist class isn’t unpleasant in an aisle seat where I can stretch out my legs. I can read, and while there is generally nothing like enough room to work with the ThinkPad, I used to work well with my wonderful old Compaq tablet, and even the MacBook Air can sort of be used unless the guy in front of me puts his seat all the way back. I’d been comfortable enough on the way to Boston.

This plane, though, was a B757-200 and it was uncomfortable enough even in an aisle seat that I made a note that it was a torture seat, but it would have to do. And I could stretch my feet out into the aisles.

The flight to Dulles was uneventful. We got all our possessions out. I headed for the connecting flight. Not enough time to make it worth while to stop at the club. Got to the gate in time for pre-boarding, got aboard. All was well.

So there I was, settled in, possessions distributed properly. I called Roberta to tell her I was on the way home – when the Captain announced they were testing an engine. That went on for a while. Then there was another test. And another.

After a bit more than an hour of tests, we were told that as soon as the gate agents arrived we would deplane. Someone would tell us what to do next.

I don’t know what the other passengers did. I went to the United Club and put myself in their hands, and a pleasant young lady arranged to get me on a flight leaving at 8 PM – but was unable to get me an aisle seat. She could get me a window seat. I figured that would have to do. Now to find dinner. I stood in line at the Wendy’s but a gaggle of teen age girls bound for somewhere had reached that line just before me, and the line was moving very slowly. I was afraid I would miss pre-boarding and prepared to graze off a pocketful of cheese and crackers available from the Club – which was just next to the gate I was to depart from – but discovered a thing called Pretzel Dog, which makes hot dogs with a pretzel wrapping. It sounded intriguing so I got a big one, and I can recommend Pretzel Dogs with Mango Lemonade as an emergency dinner.

I made full use of pre-boarding to get myself established in the window seat with my possessions distributed properly. The output of the sound system left something to be desired and when I fished out the earphones and plugged them in I found that the output jack for the English channel was monaural. I could jiggle it a bit and hear a burst of sound in both ears, but it was steady only in monaural. I wrote that up with the seat number in my little pocket notebook and tore out the page to give to the steward, but whether he actually wrote up a trouble ticket I don’t know.

The flight was uneventful if uncomfortable. Windows seats are not comfortable in a B-757. The “movie” screen is a tiny thing out of the overhead every three seats. In my case there was one directly above me and thus invisible meaning I was at maximum distance from the screen ahead. The movie was Wreckit Ralph, which doesn’t seem to require close inspection for subtle scenes and is good enough in monaural although the volume control had only two settings, too soft for me to hear and uncomfortably loud, so I spent the movie switching the headphone to put the working can on one ear and then the other. Fortunately there I didn’t miss any subtle lines. Actually despite seeing it in about the worst conditions possible, it was amusing enough to take my mind off the long and uncomfortable trip.

I also read on my Kindle from time to time, finished 1491 and made a few notes, and started a police procedural which was pretty good. So all told I had something to do on the flight.

We got in about midnight. I had previously engaged Prime Time Shuttle and prepaid as well. Of course the plane that it thought I would come in on didn’t arrive, but the dispatcher knew who I was and said that another would be along shortly. After a frustrating hour watching Super Shuttles come and go at a rate of perhaps three SS shuttles to one Prime Time, one arrived and I was told it would go to USC and Studio City. Those places aren’t even remotely connected neither being on the way to the other, but at that hour I wasn’t going to complain. We got to USC and delivered three young female students to three different places – no one was going to complain about making sure they got to their front door safely in that neighborhood – and headed for the Harbor Freeway.

It didn’t take the interchange to the Hollywood Freeway but continued up to the little tunnels and the turnoff to I5. That’s not the usual way to get from the Convention Center to Studio City, but it’s not all that much further than way, and perhaps, I thought, he had some information I didn’t have. Then he turned east on the Ventura Freeway. To Glendale. I had thought I was the last passenger but apparently there was one left in back.

What with one thing and another it was 4 AM when I got home. Actually, that was 0100 local time but it felt like 4 AM. But I was home, all was well, my Kindle was out of power but everything worked. I took the time to let the ThinkPad update Outlook on my main machine (this one) then went to bed.

And all is well. I suppose Prime Time did the best it could given the hour and the terminal, so I can’t really get that unhappy about it taking longer to get from LAX to Studio City than it had taken to get from Boston to Dulles, but I did note that Super Shuttle seems to have more vehicles in service, and left the airport with fewer passengers than Prime Time.

In future I think I am going to insist on flying out of Burbank airport. It’s a lot easier to get to and get out of. But then I don’t expect to do all that much travelling.

A few observations. The TSA people seemed determined to be seen as nice people. They worked hard at it. Given that it’s Kabuki Security Theater that can’t be easy, and of course I only saw LAX, Logan, and Dulles TSA in action; but I have to say they no longer seem on a mission to be as unpleasant at possible. Airline people are thinner on the ground than they used to be, but the overworked gate agents and flight crews seem also to be working at being pleasant, and the staff in the United Club especially so. I have life memberships in almost all the major airlines but I never did with United, but my Continental Airlines life memberhip was good enough and indeed on the spot they made up a new United life member card for me. I still have the President’s Club card from Continental.

In the BYTE days I went to a lot of conventions in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and I had to get to Peterborough once or twice a year. It was hectic, but less wearying than travel seems to be now. Of course at my age almost anything is more wearying than it used to be.


I find on reflection that I ought to have stayed in Boston for a few more days to go to the AAAS meeting, but now that I am home I have to say I am glad I didn’t. Perhaps something interesting will happen at AAAS.

Many years ago at the arrangement of my friend Rolf Sinclair I had dinner with Chris Chyba, who first proposed the details of how the Tunguska event could have been a stony asteroid that exploded in mid air converting all its kinetic energy into a heat blast without anything of any significance hitting the ground. I listened in fascination, and it seemed very reasonable. The pressure in front of the stony asteroid builds up until it is greater than the force that holds the rock together. The result is that the asteroid bursts into powder, and all the energy of motion is released all at once in a mighty blast. When I first heard that I marveled and didn’t quite believe it but play with the numbers and you’ll see it works.

And indeed the Siberia event last week makes it pretty clear that Chyba was right. If you Google Tunguska Meteor Theory you will find several web sites that say they don’t understand how you can get a blast without anything actually hitting the ground, and I sympathize; it doesn’t seem very intuitive that a 200 kiloton event can happen without physical impact.

But that’s how it happens, and the Siberia Event pretty well confirms it. Some estimates are that events with energy released from 1 to 30 kilotons happen a dozen times a year. After all 80% of the Earth is water and more is uninhabited or at least not inhabited by people wired in, and depending on the entry angle many to most of the events happen at very high altitudes. A 20 kiloton explosion with no radiation going off at very high altitude won’t have much effect on the ground, and if it happens at sea or over areas of sparse population it will be seen as a flash of light and heard as thunder – if anyone sees or hears it at all. Megaton events like Tunguska are more rare. Gene Shoemaker estimated once in 300 years. That’s still scary.

And we do have the Biblical account of a blast that destroyed an army about to take Jerusalem, and a sixth century bishop describes a blast that destroyed a village in France. And there are probably other stories of the like that were not taken seriously.

Note that by definition a meteorite hits the ground. Tunguska like the recent Siberian event was a meteor.

I will miss talking about stuff like this with the science press corps at AAAS. It sure would have been more fun than what I did yesterday. Ah well.


I found some interesting time lines in the book by Charles Mann, 1491. The thesis of the book is that the New World had as large and possibly larger populations than the Old World in 1491 before Columbus brought in smallpox. By the time the explorers got into the interiors the populations were small. The ecology was a mess. He makes his case persuasively but of course it remains controversial. More on that another time, but I did find the book very interesting, and some of the timelines fascinating.

As it happens I am publishing in a week or so the California Sixth Grade Reader used from 1914 well into the 1920’s. I have added a few items that would have been encountered in earlier readers, such as Hiawatha. Interestingly, 1491 estimates that maize, what we call corn, appears in the Five Nation area around the Great Lakes about the year 1000 AD, changing some of the various confederated nations to adopt ways more like cultivators than hunter/gatherers. It is from them that the first Old World settlers learned the cultivation of corn.


And I have a lot more to do. Mail when I can get to it. I’m back from Boston…


Roland informs me that his iPad runs about as long as the Kindle Fire, 12-14 hours.  I did use the fire to make a number of notes while I was reading the book, and I am sure that writing notes uses more power than just displaying text.  I also did some highlighting. I started reading on the Fire about 1100, and it turned itself off in the Prime Time van at something like 0200 (I didn’t reset my watch to LA time until I got home). The Fire was off some of the time, so 12-14 hours is about right.  I never tried reading that long on the iPad, but I would suppose it was interesting. One of my colleagues on a panel at Boskone had an iPad mini and I was greatly impressed. It looks carryable.  The regular iPad is just too large for most safari suit pockets.  Niven carries his Fire in a travel vest he habitually wears. And everything gets better with each new issue. Ain’t Moore’s Law great?


High Science   Forbes March 4, 2013

Has an article on NanoRacks, at one point quoting my son Richard Pournelle who is senior vice president for business development. The article is on biological research in space.





Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.