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January 24, 2010

The hummingbirds have returned

The hummingbirds are back, a little bit early this year. Actually, they've never left, but having spent the past year sipping and zipping around the backyard, the queen of the hummers renovated last year's nest and promptly laid two tic tac-sized eggs within, then took up station atop them. (Click on image for larger version.)

She appears to have weathered last week's deluge without any apparent ill effect, and is tolerating my approach, allowing me to get about five feet away before she takes off, angrily buzzing about my head -- at which point I back off a little and hold perfectly still, whereupon she returns to the nest, casting a suspicious gaze upon me, just like the one in the top photo. (Click on image for larger version.)

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:03 PM | Comments (2)

January 20, 2010

This is your captain speaking

Flight Level 390 is the blog of an airline captain; he describes it as "America from the flight deck." I'd describe it as essential reading for anyone interested in aviation, or frequent fliers wanting to know what goes on behind the scenes.

From his latest entry:

This is an opportunity to look over the bird. The aircraft cleaners have been here and gone; the flight attendants are en route from another hotel; not yet arrived.

The co-pilot, young and single, is in the terminal trying to get traction with a young and single gate agent and will be until minimum required report time. He burns the candle at both ends, but, admittedly, it is interesting watching him work the young ladies. All things considered, he is a good kid. I've got no complaints.

Earlier, I did a mini pre-flight looking for landing gear safety pins, torn tire tread, and new dents in the fuselage. She looks good for her age. Most of her skin imperfections are pilot caused (a few of mine are here), i.e., hard landings, mostly appearing on her belly. A new airliner will have absolutely smooth skin on the belly; an older one... Not so smooth.

I learned in this very aircraft, and a few of her sisters, how to fly 320s. It was in the days before 319s and 321s came on the scene. I have dropped this old girl on the runway (hard) more than once. So, before I climbed the jetway stairs, I rubbed her belly a little bit and told her once again that I was sorry for mistreating her. She has small engines and first gen nav hardware, but there is something about her... Sort of like walking up to a good, old horse that is looking for that slice of apple behind your back.


Back in the aircraft, the flight attendants have arrived and are stowing their bags. The lead flight attendant is young and good looking. I chuckle to myself because the co-pilot will be further delayed when he sees her... I might as well start loading the nav computers.

As forecast, the co-pilot arrives at minimum report time, but instead of turning left into the flight deck, stops at the forward galley. He and the young flight attendant are just beginning to flirt, when the senior Sky Babe from the rear galley comes up and shoos him away with, "Hey, she is busy. You need to get up there," pointing at the flight deck door.

I almost spit Starbucks coffee on the instrument panel.

The co-pilot comes into the cockpit with a red face and tail tucked low. I cannot tell if he is angry or just embarrassed.

Feeling sorry for him, I say, "Look, one hundred fifty pax are boarding in five minutes. They are busy back there... You can talk to that girl later. Have you pre-flighted yet?"


"Now might be a good time."

Life on the Line continues...

Check it out.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:28 AM

January 17, 2010

It's not the fall that kills you; it's the sudden stop

I have an almost paralyzing fear of heights, albeit not an irrational phobia, in my opinion. I'm not afraid of falling when I'm in a position of safety -- behind a sturdy barrier or far enough away from the precipice that a stumble won't send me sailing into the void, for instance.

But throwing myself out of a perfectly good airplane, or climbing a mountain with only pitons, ropes and harnesses standing between the structural integrity of my body and a gravity-induced transformation into 175-odd pounds of steak tartare and Smucker's raspberry jam?

Uh, no thanks.

Still, movies like North Face, which details the 1936 record-setting ascent of the never-before conquered north face of the Eiger by two friends, allows me to vicariously experience being an insanely-reckless thrillseeker -- in plus-fours, no less.

The climb is even more impressive when you get a gander at the low-tech gear they used in their assault on the Eiger; no GPS, sat-phones or Gore-Tex for these plucky Germans, just steel, leather, hemp line and wool, danke!

I'll watch this one from the very back of my seat, feet braced against the row in front.

Is anyone else feeling a little woozy?

Posted by Mike Lief at 05:24 PM

The Red Baron flies again

There hasn't yet been a good film made about the pioneering aviators who fought and died in the skies above the charnel house that was Europe during World War I. Fly Boys was cartoonish, and featured a lame script and undistinguished acting. So the upcoming release of The Red Baron provides another opportunity to (hopefully) get it right.

The trailer features some thrilling aerial sequences, and the actors involved seem quite good. If there's a flaw that's readily apparent, it's that Von Richthofen appears too young; photos of the real man -- and his fellow pilots -- show how quickly the stress of constant combat aged them. I remember studying a couple of snapsots of German ace Oswald Boelcke; it was hard to believe that the young man in the first picture was the same man in the second, a mere year or so later. It's also interesting to note that Boelcke taught the Red Baron to fly.

"Boelcke's Dicta," a series of rules he developed and taught his fellow fliers, were issued to Luftwaffe pilots during World War II, and were adapted and adopted by fliers from many other nations, including former and future enemies, too, continue to be a good starting point for would-be aces.

Boelcke's Dicta

1. Try to secure advantages before attacking.-If possible, try to keep the sun behind you.

2. Always carry through an attack when you have started it.

3. Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.

4. Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.

5. In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.

6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught, but fly to meet it.

7. When over the enemy's lines, never forget your own line of retreat.

8. Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for one opponent.

Aside from the too-youthful mugs of the stars, there's a level of detail in the trailer, an attention to authenticity to the flying sequences, that is quite exciting to aviation enthusiasists and amateur military historians. It also has the added appeal of showing the war from the perspective of our former enemy; to say that Americans, who know next to nothing about the war that killed an entire generation of Europeans, know even less about pre-Nazi Germany, is understating the ignorance.

Yes, I know it's only a movie, but it just might inspire viewers to do a little reading.

World War I has been woefully underrepresented in modern cinema; Der Rote Baron looks like a promising entry in an all-too-thin catalogue of films about The War to End All Wars.


A little on-line research reveals a series of fairly negative reviews, mainly for a rather episodic and hackneyed story, although the lavish production did garner some praise for the production design and aerial combat sequences. Sounds like it'll make for a decent rental. Too bad.

Posted by Mike Lief at 03:21 PM

January 10, 2010

Just what the doctor ordered: Road To Perdition

I spent the weekend on the couch, doing battle with a rhinovirus that decided a sore throat, sneezing fits, runny nose and a fee-vah were just the ticket for the chosen human host.

Thanks a lot, buddy.

I did, however, take advantage of my Vicks-addled stupor, viewing several movies, most of which I'd seen before and liked, and one I'd never seen and liked a lot.

Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in his last big-screen appearance, is a somber tale, set in 1931 Illinois. Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), it's the tale of an Irish American mob boss (Newman), his no-good son (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), and the surrogate son and fearsome, tommygun-wielding enforcer (Hanks) whose favored status with the Old Man leads to betrayal, the murder of innocents, and single-minded pursuit of vengeance.

Some critics said the film was too cold, too emotionally distant, as well as dark and smothering, with a glacial pace, but I thought it was compelling from start to finish. The cinematography by Conrad Hall was stupendous, ravishing, rich, dark paneled rooms seemingly lit only by the lamps scattered throughout, faces half-hidden in shadows.

The attention to detail is prodigious; the clothing looks like it came from the pages of Life Magazine, real, lived in, not from a studio's warehouse, and that goes for the sets, too, from hotels -- grand and not -- to the mansion of the boss, to the modest, all-American home of a hitman.

The heart of the story is the relationship between two fathers and their sons: Newman knows that Daniel Craig is a thief and a liar, but cannot bear the thought of doing what must be done to his own flesh and blood; and Hanks, who, in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, struggles to save his own son, and keep him from following in his father's bloody footprints.

Adapted from a graphic novel, the film eschews gratuitous violence; most is off screen, and what is seen is not too much, given the nature of the tale.

It strikes me as a very grown-up film, one that makes the most of the totemic screen presence of the end-of-career Newman, whose ice-blue eyes distract from the craggy visage and rough, whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. There doesn't need to be a ton of extraneous dialogue; you can figure the relationships out for yourself, watching Newman and Hanks play a piano duet, the older man clapping an affectionate hand on the younger man's shoulder, as Craig watches his father and his rival from beneath hooded and sullen eyes.

And there's a power to Newman's delivery:

"There are only murderers in this room!
Michael! Open your eyes!
This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.

It's a powerful movie moment, one that I like almost as much as the one that comes later in the film, when Newman says, "I"m glad it's you."

I'm sorry I waited eight years to see Road to Perdition. If SLAM! BANG! KAPOW! is what you're looking for in a film, give it a pass. But, if you're in the mood for something more elegiac, give it a shot.

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:51 PM | Comments (2)

January 06, 2010

WALL*E: Resistance is futile

I am, as usual, way behind the movie-viewing curve. I finally got around to seeing WALL*E, the improbably charming robot-love story from the geniuses at Disney/Pixar, thanks to friends who loaded the Blu-Ray disc into the PS3 and essentially told me to "Siddown an' shaddap!"

The first 30 minutes of WALL*E are brilliant, and practically wordless, remarkably evocative, touching and completely immersive. The animators have produced a photo-realistic world -- a ravaged, abandoned, fantastical-yet-familiar world -- like nothing I'd ever seen before, and populated it with two sentient beings ... joined soon after by a third.

The animators change the look of the film when the story leaves Earth behind, shifting to a day-glo palette and "traditional" computer-animated visual style when the main characters (and the audience) arrive aboard the deep-space transport (and interstellar cruise ship) "Axiom." If the remainder of the film doesn't quite live up to the promise of the first half, it's simply because the bar had been set so high. I would've been perfectly happy to have spent the rest of the story in the company of WALL*E, EVE and a cockroach on a deserted, desiccated and dilapidated planet, but then I'm not even close to normal (as my family will surely confirm).

WALL*E was as good as my friends had promised; if you've not yet seen it, pick up a copy. And if you've already succumbed to its charms, check out the promotional video, above, extolling the features of Buy N Large's latest technical innovation.

Posted by Mike Lief at 01:59 AM | Comments (3)