Friday, June 09, 2006

Starting instrument training

Even though I've been reading the rules and regulations, taking the practice test questions and watching the videos for it, I haven't done my formal instrument test written yet. As usual, the weather portion is putting me to sleep, along with some of the more obscure rules.

I'd told myself I'd get the written test done before starting the practical side of instrument flying, but 2 days ago, I said "bugger it" and called my instructor at the Skywagon flying club, and told him I'd like to go for my first instrument lesson.

We briefly discussed what I've practiced so far on the simulator, and I explained that after nearly 3000 hours of providing virtual Air Traffic Control services on VATSIM, I wanted to start the practical side of the training.

He said he was up for it and we scheduled a flight for Tuesday. So begins my instrument training!

What is instrument training? It's the training that leads up to a pilot receive an instrument rating, which allows said pilot to fly in weather conditions considerably more bleak than those which non-instrument rated pilots can fly in. For example, I can generally only fly on 'nice days.' Once I am an instrument rated pilot, I'll be able to fly by reference to instruments only, rather than relying on looking out the window, meaning I can fly on bad days, too.

This comes in very handy if you're planning a trip from A to B. While there are still some weather conditions that would be a good idea to fly through, low clouds no longer mean that I have to cancel my trips, as I did the other day when I was going to fly my neighbour (the Fire Chief for our town) to a fire convention 150 miles away.

The training will start by going up on a nice day and conducting simulated instrument approaches into a few airports. My instructor will be looking out the window to make sure we remain clear of any terrain or other aircraft. By the third lesson we can actually do the flight 'for real', meaning we'll file an IFR flight plan (Instrument Flight Rules), and ATC will keep us clear of other IFR aircraft. This is something I've wanted to do for a few years now, I can't wait to get up there!

finding music player, take 3...

Having endured the music, and I use the term liberally, at the gym for the past year or so, I've decided that my willingness to go there at any time is almost entirely based on whether I have music available on a portable player.

The first player I had was Flash based, 64MB, only played MP3's, and had great sound. The 64MB limitation was very painful, but was the fashion at the time. It could just about hold an album...almost. It was great for listening to low bitrate Air Traffic Control recordings though, a little hobby of mine.

With the advent of hard disk based players, and the promise of being able to store an entire music collection, I began the search for my next player. Here's the complicated bit...the only MP3's I have are live concerts (quick aside, one of my favourite bands, Primus, made recordings from their tour available for download, $10 per show. It was great, and straight from the mixing desk).

Instead, my music collection is in the Ogg Vorbis (OGG) format. For a given bitrate, OGG exhibits fewer audio artifacts than MP3 (at least that was my understanding), and is an open source format. It took quite a while for OGG-based portable music players to show up on the market, but one by one they started coming. A reasonably current list can be found here.

In the end, I purchased an atrocious looking player with a 20GB drive for $249, the Digital Mind 8280. It really would've been more efficient had I simply set fire to the money and watched it burn. The one saving grace of this player is that it weighs a ton, so it really carries some momentum when you hurl it off a cliff in frustration, even if it's in to the wind.

This player was a crime. It would take forever to start, and each time it did so, it let you know, loud and proud, through the headphones. I wouldn't be surprised if we see new jet engines in the coming years from Pratt & Whitney with a lower audio footprint than this clunker.

So, on the off chance that you are still awake, or not deaf by the time the player comes to life, you then whip out the chisel (not included) to will the buttons into submission to find the song you'd like to play. Having long since bent the chisel getting that far, you simply take the player to an olympic track, place it in the starting blocks and hope that a world class sprinter shows up and does a particularly hard start -- only then will the play button depress.

Buckle your seatbelts once again as the hard drive spins into action, almost generating enough torque for the piece of crap to take off like a helicopter,if it wasn't so damn heavy, that is (it's a feature!). At some point, the hard drive completes its startup. Fantastic, we should start hearing our track any tick of the clock....yet we're left with an eerie silence, measured in ice ages. Precisely what the hell the player is doing at this point, we may never know, but if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it's whipping out the protocol spec for the OGG format and saying, "alright, what's this all about, then?" as it strains to understand the first few bars of any track you might be trying to listen to.

Now that I think about it, you don't listen to OGG files on this player, so much as endure them. If you so much as sneeze, the player comes to grinding halt, the referree blows the whistle, and you enjoy a 3 minute stint in the penalty box while the player picks up the manual and starts again. If you're very lucky, it will continue playing a track off the same album you were listening to.

So, assuming you intend to not move or breathe while using your PORTABLE music player, you should be in good shape, right? I'm sorry, but there's more...and this, my friends, is where it gets good.

If you plan on listening to music that's at all more complicated or rich than an ensemble of 6 year olds learning the recorder (and I recommend you do), you'll find the player is, in fact, no more capable than that 6 year old at playing the tune. Like the child, it will simply ignore parts of the chart that are too hard, or equally annoying, slow down during the difficult bits.

I'll say that again, because it bears repeating...if the player encounters a hard guitar solo, it won't play it (but WILL play the backing track), or it just slows down.

Every now and then, it has a full on tantrum and just blasts white noise spikes, presumably as some form of revenge.

I should also mention that while the volume goes from zero to forty, there appears to be no noise generated whatsoever until you reach around 28. Normal listening starts at 35, with the introduction of a hiss that sounds like a gas leak. By the time you hit 38, it sounds like a Category 5 hurricane. should come as no surprise that when I accidentally left this player on the plane after a business trip, I actually smiled for the first time since buying it.

That takes us to present day. After 3 hours of research, I've settled on the IRiver CLIX as my next player. It has video capability, but I'm buying it because it's Flash based (no more hard drives for me, and 2GB is an acceptable amount of storage, my entire collection is only about 5GB), and can play Flash games (two different technologies with the same name, one is hardware, one is software).

It's coming on Monday, I'll post the review after I've used it for a few days. The next thing acquisition I need to focus on is a good set of headphones for it. It's down to the Shure 4C, or the Etymotic ER-6 Isolator (another 2 hours research).

getting back to digital life

So, it occured to me that my current personal web site (which I won't even bother linking to) has the token "under construction" sign on it, and nothing else. That's normal for some sites, but it's actually been that way since early 1995. For someone who actually had a web SERVER up within a few months of the release of the NCSA server (which was when the web was born), what I'm doing should be considered a federal offense. The first publically accessible site I did was an airshows page, which still exists, but the personal page that was created on almost the same day has never been updated.

So, given that I work for a company that has a web site management product, I thought it was time to actually build a personal site. I've started work on the content, and it's coming along, but need to put together some templates for the layout. Surprisingly, the content is the easy bit!

The site is going to contain:
  • food log (I started Weight Watchers 4 weeks ago)
  • flight log (with pictures and videos)
  • a replacement for this blog (not because there's anything wrong with the current one, but I'd like to see if I can build it using our tool).
My newer machine didn't have a firewire card in it up until recently, making it a chore to capture digital video from the camcorder. I finally transferred the card from the old machine to my current machine and started tinkering with Windows Movie Maker. I've published a few of the results on Google Video, here.

Fingers crossed, I'll have the first rev of the site up Real Soon Now(tm), hopefully before the sun envelops the Earth.