Sunday, September 28, 2008


I'm addicted to tools. I'm not just talking about hammers and wrenches. My definition of tool is very broad. To me, a tool is basically any device that you use to perform a specific task. This means everything from a saw to a piano to a bicycle to a shotgun.

I get an excessive amount of pleasure from using or owning nice tools. It's a high, really. And I can never seem to acquire enough of them. Hence the word addicted. I used to think that I was really hard to shop for, but I recently realized that if you buy me some sort of tool, I will love it. Even if I already have one, somehow I'll find a use for both of them.

My tool addiction is inextricably linked to my desire to learn to do everything. First I get really interested in a random subject, then I decide to make it my new hobby, then I am compelled to buy all the associated tools for that hobby. So far, my two most tool-laden hobbies (besides general handicraft) have been audio recording and cycling, but I am always entertaining the idea of taking up new tool-intensive pastimes like machining, heavy-duty sewing (for backpacks and the like), or — most recently (and plausibly) — camping. [Geez, parentheses inside dashes inside commas. I should probably rephrase. Nah, I like it.]

I don't really know why I'm not already an avid camper. I once tried to use the excuse that my family was never that into camping. Immediately, my girlfriend's little brother shot back with, "Is your family into cycling?" Ouch. Walked right into that one. But yeah, I love camping. I love most outdoor-adventure-type sports. God's creation is just staggeringly beautiful; I really enjoy the sense of freedom and independence you get being outside, away from the city; and outdoor activities often require lots of tools. And if your travel plans involve outdoor activities, camping is usually way more convenient and cheaper than a hotel. Seriously, why didn't I decide to pick up camping a long time ago?

Sorry, this has been a very rambling post, all to say that I think I need a new set of tools.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Pinnacle of Thrill

I'm a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. I love mountain biking, roller coasters, autocross (a legal style of car racing), flying, basically anything that gets me moving really fast and/or dodging obstacles. Most of my life there has been one thrill that I have longed to try. Skydiving. Some would say it is the pinnacle of the thrill world. Yesterday, my friends, I reached that pinnacle.

Let me start out with the lame part. I did what's called a static line jump. In a static line jump, your parachute is deployed by the static line, which is like a ripcord clipped to the airplane, immediately after exiting the plane. You fall for only about 5 seconds before the chute is fully opening.

Okay, now the disappointment is out of the way. The cool parts:
  1. I get to jump by myself. This means I also fly the canopy and land by myself.

  2. Unlike a one-time tandem jump where you don't really learn much, the static line jump is the start of a progression, where you always jump by yourself and work your way up to freefalls through a series of jumps.

  3. With the plane I was in, you don't just jump out the door. You climb out of the plane, out onto the strut underneath the wing, feet dangling 3,500 feet in the air, then let go. It looks basically like this:

I don't have many creative words to describe this experience, other than


I was surprised at how calm I was most of the time about the whole thing. I went to a 4-hour class Friday night, and then a 3-hour class Saturday morning at the airport to prepare for my first jump. None of that time did I really get nervous. The first moment of terror came as I was watching a student from last week's class trying to land. On your first jump, you have a radio in your helmet, with an instructor on the ground giving you commands to guide you down. In theory, they know how to get you safely to the landing zone, but it's sometimes hard to tell exactly where people are going to end up. The landing zone is a big field next to the airport hangars. I was watching this girl coming over the hangars, turning toward the landing zone, and I remember thinking, "Hm. I know I've never done this before, but she looks a little low. Actually she looks really low. Dangerously low. She's going to hit that hangar. Oh God." She disappeared behind the roof of the hangar. BAM! My stomach dropped. I had no idea what had happened, I couldn't see, but it sounded bad. Everyone ran toward the hangar.

Someone yelled, "Are you okay?"


Whew. Turns out she landed on the roof of the hangar. She twisted her ankle, but was otherwise okay. Needless to say, my faith in the radio man was a bit shaken by this incident.

Soon, it was my turn to jump. Actually I was the first student from my class to go up, and would be the first out of the plane. The first moment of serious butterflies came as the plane took off. I really love flying, but this was sort of an "Oh crap, what the hell am I doing" feeling as I watched the ground sink from under me, knowing that I would have to return to it by jumping out of this plane. No going back now.

[Transition to present tense!]

I watch the altimeter strapped to my chest. 1,000 feet. 1,500 feet. Seatbelts off. 2,500 feet. I'm sitting on the floor, next to the door, looking out the window, trying to orient myself and find the drop zone as we circle. 3,500 feet. My instructor cracks the door open to look for the jump zone and make sure I'm jumping in the right spot.

He yells, "DOOR!"

We reply, "Door!" to indicate we're ready. The door swings up underneath the wing. WOOSH! The blast of air is far stronger than I anticipated.

He issues the first of three commands: "Get your feet out and stop!"

I reach my left hand out to grab the strut, and the air blasts it away. Holy crap. How the hell am I supposed to climb out and hang on in this?! My instructor would later tell me that my eyes became enormous at this moment. I don't doubt it. It was my second butterfly moment. I finally reach out, grab the strut, put my feet on the step, and scoot out so I'm sitting on the edge of the door.

The penultimate [wink] command: "Get all the way out and hang!"

I reach and grab the strut with my right hand, and swing my body out of the plane so I'm squatting on the step. I shuffle my hands out along the strut, then step off the step and let my feet dangle in the 80-mile-an-hour breeze. I turn and look at the instructor.

He smiles at me. Time for the dreaded third command. "DOT!"

I look up at the powercat dot on the bottom of the wing, and let go. I throw my arms and legs back, and look up at the plane as I plummet. "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand. Check." I turn my head back to check if my chute is opening. It's out, halfway open, still fluttering wildly in the wind. Butterfly moment three. I hope this thing works. A second later, woosh! I look up at my beautifully inflated canopy and breathe a huge sigh of relief. I pull down the control toggles and start my control checks. I spend three or four minutes soaring blissfully alone in the air as the instructor on the ground guides me down via radio.

I'm pointed straight at at the landing zone. I wait for the instructor to call out, "Flare, flare, flare!" at 15 feet above the gound. I pull both the control toggles all the way down, swing forward, stop, and set down light as a feather. Unfortunately, in class they told us they wanted all of us to do a PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) to demonstrate the technique. I could have just walked away, but I decide to appease them and fall down. I stand up, pump my fist in the air, and let out a "WOOHOO!" in a rare moment of Greusel exuberance. That was just about the coolest thing I'd ever done. I immediately decided it would not be the last time. I jumped again today.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Need to Know

I spend an inordinate amount of time learning. At least I think I do. But maybe, much of that time, I'm not actually learning anything worthwhile. Let me explain: For me, the line between entertainment and education is very blurry.*

Nearly every day, I'll get an itch to learn about some random topic, and I'll spend three or four hours researching it on the internet. I get really excited each month when the latest edition of Wired magazine shows up in my mailbox. If I have time to kill on campus, I'll read the New York Times. I listen to NPR programming for probably at least two hours a day on average. All this time I spend reading and listening, I think I'm learning things. Learning things about current events, about people and the ways they think and interact, not to mention thousands of bits of useless trivia. And I love every minute of it. I feel all smart and intellectual. I feel like I'm spending hours amassing valuable knowledge to apply later in my life. But am I really? Is this stuff really at all useful? Do I really need to hear Malcolm Gladwell tell hilarious stories about his early days at the Washington Post? Do I need to know what retired U.S. intelligence officers thought about invading Iraq? Is that going to be valuable to know at some point in my life? Or is it all just vacuous entertainment for snobs?

This is a debate that has been creeping to the front of my brain over the last year or so. How much time should a person spend accumulating knowledge, and when should they start trying to use and apply it? What is important to know? Is all knowledge important, or should you only try to learn things when you really need to? I really have no idea what the answer is yet. I'm pretty sure about one thing though: By the time I'm fifty, I'll either be changing the world, or I'll have spent thousands of hours doing nothing but becoming a Trivial Pursuit master.

* Yes, I realize that statement is tantamount to tattooing the word "nerd" across my forehead. [Tantamount. What a cheap, pretentious word. I love it.]

Sunday, September 7, 2008


This weekend was amazing. It also contained abnormally high levels of awkwardness. This weekend I got to meet a celebrity. Actually, several celebrities. I've never really met one before. It's not something I really desire to do most of the time. In fact, most of the people that I would really be excited to meet could hardly be called celebrities at all: NPR hosts, the members of Muse, contributing writers to Wired magazine, or — as was the case this weekend — professional cyclists. This weekend, I met and rode bikes with several of the members of the Garmin-Chipotle professional cycling team, including Christian Vande Velde, the 5th place winner of this year's Tour de France.

If I had been thinking, I could have come up with dozens of questions beforehand to ask the team, but no. I was so excited to meet them, I didn't even think about where I would go from "Hi!". When I meet someone new, if I can find some sort of common ground, I can sustain conversation for a good while, but if not, I am useless. Meeting a personal hero, I guess I thought it would be easy, since we obviously had something in common, but I was wrong. How the heck am I, a bad collegiate cyclist with absolutely no professional aspirations, going to talk to a pro about his sport? What could I possibly bring to the conversation that he would want to hear, or that he hasn't heard a thousand times before? Again, I'm sure I could think of a few things, but without preparing beforehand, I just could not come up with anything intelligent. So we ended up making stupid small talk about where I went to college and what I did at Garmin. Snooozers.

I still really enjoyed meeting them; I just wish I could have said something that would have made them enjoy meeting me. Next time I'll do my homework. I'll come up with some startlingly deep or hilariously shallow questions. Next time, I'll be ready.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cougar Ace

I just remembered reading this article back in the March 2008 edition of Wired Magazine. It's one of my favorite magazine articles I've ever read. It's a little engineerish — it is in Wired, after all — but it's a truly riveting story about an unlikely team of...

...steel-nerved salvage divers (like Colin Trepte, below)...

...and glasses-wearing naval architects and engineers (like Marty Johnson).

Their task is to right the Cougar Ace, a 55,328 ton, 654 foot cargo ship carrying 4,703 brand new Mazdas.

Not easy. They could fall down the 60 degree slope of the slick steel deck and die, or they could flip the ship over and sink $103 million in cargo.

Joshua Davis writes the article so vividly that it feels like a movie as you read it. The immense volume of skill and bravery shown by this little team is mind boggling.

Read it here.