Max's Anecdotes

This page will be perpetually under construction. It's just a collection of approximately true stories, mainly for my own amusement.


One of my best friends, before I started hanging out with Kevin, was Phil Sadow. I met him at the Atari user group meetings. He was (is) an electronics prodigy. I've never met anyone with such wide and deep intuition about machines. He moved to Detroit when we were fourteen or fifteen, which was a bummer. This was before the internet, and back when long distance was expensive, so we didn't keep up.

Over the years, I'd been hunting for Phil online, to no avail.

At Burning Man 2003, Rus was camping with the Space Cowboys. Their neighbors were Camp Carp. Some guy from Carp comes over to the Cowboy camp and says, "Our generator is busted. Can we mooch some electricity until we get it fixed?" He hands Rus an extension cord.

Rus looks at the cord. In Sharpie is written "Phil Sadow".

Now, the last time Rus saw Phil, Rus was seven. There's no way Rus would have identified him from his face or voice. But the name still manages to ring a bell. "Phil Sadow ... Phil Sadow ... did you grow up in Dallas?" Phil says, "Umm, no, Detroit. But we did live in Dallas for like four years, around junior high." Rus says, "You used to hang out with my brother!" Phil responds, "... you're Rus???"

Rus told me all this, so I got all excited and went looking for Phil. Didn't find him on the playa, but we hooked up after the Burn. Turns out he came back to Dallas after high school and had been working at various electronics jobs ever since. Something about Dallas had not fulfilled him, though, and that was the lack of a artist community that he felt at home with. He got talked into coming to Burning Man, and once he'd found his tribe there, relocated to Berkeley.

It has been insanely great to catch up with Phil. He also introduced me to his roommate, Michael Christian, a prominent sculptor who has done some of my favorite Burning Man art, including Klimax.


Shannon and I had been "spending time together" for about three years, and we went on vacation together to hang out with Giselle at her folks' cabin in the Blue Ridge.

While I was out gathering firewood with the menfolk, Sha got my videocamera, and with help from Giselle, recorded a little proposal. She displayed an engagement ring and the pocket where it was staying. "If, you know, you're interested." She rewound the tape and placed a bookmark in my copy of Harry Potter which suggested that I watch the tape. We had different travel plans -- different days, different airports -- so she was expecting me to crack the book on my flight.

She got home a day ahead of me and waited.

The next day I flew into San Jose and went straight to work, but didn't call her. She called Dave. "Is Max acting funny? Did he say anything about a videotape?" Dave said nope, and that I must not have seen it, because Max can't keep a secret. "Dammit!" she said. "I don't have a Plan B!"

Two weeks went by while she tried to come up with a clever Plan B. Eventually, she just gave up. We were sitting on the sofa on a Thursday night, and I was being a brat, and she thought, "Dammit, he's being a brat, and I'm still in love with him." She decided screw it, I'll just go get the ring. She demanded that I not move and went outside to the car, where she'd left the ring. When she came back into the room, I'd gotten up to answer the phone. After justifying my disobedience, I was back on the couch. Romantically, she sat on me. "So, since, I, um, kind of like you and stuff, I was wondering if, um, you, um, wanted to be on my team." And she stuck out one arm, holding the ring she'd gotten for me.

"A ring? For me? What a coincidence!" I said, and started digging in the sofa cushions. I produced my own box, containing the engagement ring that I had gotten for her, a family heirloom obtained from my uncle some months earlier. She was flabbergasted. "All this time, I've been trying to figure out how and when to propose, and there was a ring in the sofa the whole time? What are the odds!!"

The thing is, Shannon doesn't have a poker face. I was pretty sure why she was going out to the car. I went and got the ring from my room and stuffed it in the couch under the theory that if I was wrong, she'd never know it was there. I think I confessed to that quickly.


One visit home from college, I was accosted by my little brother, then thirteen or so, armed with some sort of ray gun. I put up my hands mockingly and said, "Ho ho ho, look at the little boy with his toy gun. Ya got the drop on me, Geronimo." Rus just grinned and pulled the trigger. FLASH! I was completely blinded.

Apparently, Rus had taken the shell from a timing gun, used to adjust the timing in car engines, and the flash guts of a point-and-click camera. The charging apparatus he had souped up from three volts to nine. The energy stored in a capacitor rises as the square of the voltage, so Rus had actually cranked the power by about a factor of three squared. Further, he'd taken the flash bulb and placed it at the focal length of the lens in the timing gun -- condensing the flash into a beam. This is what smacked me in the eyes after I walked in the door.

Frozen, hands in the air, I said, "Rus ... when I can see again, you're dead meat."


While living in California during my first stint at Apple, I visited a place called the Technology Garage in San Jose. It was a sort of hands-on science museum, with exhibits on robotics and space and such. I purchased a materials-science t-shirt for Mathew Pharr, the seven-year-old son of George Pharr, who was the faculty master of my old residential college, Wiess. Dr. Pharr is a professor of materials science, so the shirt subject seemed appropriate. While preparing a goodie package with this shirt and some disks with Macintosh odds and ends (the Pharrs owned a Mac II with which their kids were proficient) I found some water balloons in my desk. I considered the problem: their mom is likely to be there when the kids open the package, and contraband is likely to be confiscated. Then I got an idea. I turned the shirt inside-out and taped the packet of balloons to the inside of the shirt. The balloons should stay hidden until somebody puts the shirt on. I turned the shirt right-side-out, packed it with the disks, and sent the package to Wiess.

I had almost forgotten about the balloons when I got a call from my sister, a month later. She said that her friend Karen had been babysitting the two Pharr kids, sitting out on the front yard. They had disappeared for about five minutes. She was just about to go look for them, when Mathew and Adam came tearing around the corner of the house, filled water balloons in each hand, yelling, "WATER WAR! WATER WAR!" Bam! Bam! Two direct hits on the baby-sitter!

I never was brave enough to ask Karen for more details.

To Spec

It helps to be a net geek to appreciate this story. One of the widely propagated bits of e-mail -- and I couldn't tell you for sure if it's true or not -- describes how mil-spec lives forever. It seems that the width between train tracks in the US is a bizzare distance, 8 feet, 1 3/4 inches. US tracks are that width because British tracks were that width. In turn, British axles happened to be that long because carriage axles were that long, because the ruts in the British roads (before pavement) were that wide, which was in turn because the Romans had built the roads, and the width of the Roman roads were set by some Roman builder back in antiquity to accommodate Roman chariots. Thus, American train-tracks are essentially sized to 2000-year-old Roman mil-spec.

So I was having this conversation with Kevin and another net geek friend about a networking system that used a similarly bizzare number of bytes per packet, 53. I don't know how the subject came up, but I happened to know the obscure reason why the number 53 was chosen. And I said to my friend and Kevin, "And do you know why they're 53-byte packets?" Kevin blurts out, "Roman chariots!"


When Kevin was 28 he had long scraggly brown hair, the color of which he would periodically alter: blonde, dark black, fuscia, purple. He went to visit his dad in the hospital in Salt Lake City after his dad had had a heart transplant. Kevin was a one-man freak show. The nurses all looked at him funny. One woman asked Kevin to come into her sick brother's room because she thought the sight of long fuscia hair would cheer him up.

Another time he was in Nevada visiting with some kit-airplane builders who had built the same kind of plane Kevin was working on. Now, most of these guys are retired; the youngest -- other than Kevin -- was about 55. Kevin was the first kitbuilder from the SF area they'd met. Kevin does NOT fit the kitbuilder stereotype. So they asked him, trying not to be rude, "Uh, are the other folks in the San Francisco group ... uh ... like you?" Kevin nonchalantly said, "Yeah, I'd say I'm pretty typical." This must have given the Nevada folk a completely twisted view of the SF kitbuilders.

Once when Kevin was flying down to Burbank to negotiate some financing for our start-up company, the only seat he could get on short notice was in first class. So here he is, freak hair, leather jacket, scuffed Doc Martens, sitting among all these folks in suits, banging away on his laptop. The woman next to him asked, "What it is it you ... uh ... do?" Apparently all was made clear when Kevin said, "Software."

Football Cloning

Rice's football team had not had a winning season in twenty-some-odd years when I was a fifth-year, and going in to the last game of the season against Baylor we were five and five. This was the one year I was a show assistant -- the non-musical auxiliary to the Marching Owl Band charged with thinking up and performing skits during the halftime shows. While sitting around during the second half, I observed this woman from one of the local TV stations interviewing people. I wasn't sure what it was for, but I gathered it was some sort of human-interest story about Rice possibly having its first winning season for the first time since before the seniors had been born. Anyway, inspiration struck. I asked to be interviewed.

She asked some banal questions -- do you have any special traditions, did you see any omens -- and I gave some appropriately banal answers. Then as she approached the interview, she fed me the straight line I was looking for: "How do you think the team will do next year?"

"The hope of our team is technology," I said. "We have a new biosciences building, and with it we plan to, rather than recruit players, actually create them in the lab." I kept a straight face and went on, "For example, this is the last year of eligibility for our star quarterback, but there are no rules for his genetic material. Our goal is to create the perfect student-athlete, combining strength and speed with high S.A.T. scores."

We lost the game in the thrilling final seconds, 17-16, when a two-point-conversion failed.

However, they did show the clip on the news -- actually just the first two sentences, which was just about the right length, I think. But what I wonder is: how many people who watched the show said to themselves, "Gawsh, can they really do that?"

Talking Elevator

Being in the right place at the right time -- and knowing the right people -- let me in on an April Fool's prank at Apple. The system software gang convoyed over to Vivi's Falafel Hut for a little hummus and pita a few days before my last day of work. There I encountered Patrick Dyson, an old Wiessman and also an Apple employee. When our eyes met, his glazed over in thought for a moment, and then he made the cryptic inquiry: "Hey Maxham, you're a graduating senior, right?" My last day was, coincidentally, the same as his, April 3rd. "We should talk," he said mysteriously. We ditched our respective lunch parties for a bull session in the parking lot.

The afternoon of March 31st, 1992, we met up with a pair of Patrick's friends in the human interface group, who I'll call "Bob" and "Don". They and Patrick had hacked together a fast Macintosh with rudimentary speech recognition and generation together with a digital interface board. "Looks like all systems are 'go'," said "Bob". Don demonstrated the system, with a voltmeter reading zero connected to the I/O board, by speaking into the microphone: "Computer, third floor please." A long moment passed. Then the voltmeter needle swung wildly, and the computer responded in modulated tones: "Third floor, coming up." This was clearly engineering genius at work.

A little after 10:00 PM, the four of us entered one of the four elevators connecting the eight stories of City Center Four. We cased the area beforehand, because carrying a fat Macintosh, monitor, and assorted electronic equipment around that late at night might have aroused suspicion. But maybe not; this was Apple, after all. Patrick produced a screwdriver and inserted it into an obscure hole in the side of the control box, near the floor. Lifting, Patrick opened the cabinet to reveal the buttons and wires that composed the elevator controls. He switched the elevator offline. "Bob" and I began examining the wiring, while Patrick and Don removed a ceiling panel. "Wire," said Patrick, a disembodied voice from above. We sent some fifty-conductor phone cable up into the darkness, one end of which shortly came snaking down inside the control panel. I set to work splicing the wires into the elevator controls while "Bob" electronically commandeered the panel speaker. "Quadra," said Don, who had joined Patrick on the roof. Bob and I hoisted the Macintosh skyward. It was followed shortly by the keyboard and mouse and monitor. Before too long, we heard a Macintosh boot noise over our heads, signifying that the machine was up and running on top of the elevator.

The climbing, splicing, and testing took about ninety minutes, slowed down by occasional pauses for photography that I requested. "We're on schedule," said Patrick. "I figure best case it'll take us two hours, worst case six." Saying this must have jinxed us, because we immediately crashed the machine -- fatally. I joined them on the elevator roof (mainly to see what it looked like.) After a few moments of inspection, Don determined that we had managed to ruin the main processor board. Another machine was available for use as a replacement, but we'd have to preserve everything in our elevator controller: the speech processing board, the digital control board, the disk drive with the software.

Making the swap was a huge pain in the butt, complicated by the cleaning people. The building was hardly empty at night -- the facilities staff moved quietly from floor to floor, occasionally accompanied by a security person. One of the nightly duties, however, was cleaning the elevators: all four of them. It didn't take the staff long to clean the other three and to realize that the fourth was not yet done. They spent a good half an hour sending the other three elevators to every other floor on the building in an attempt to coax our vator to their floor.

From the top of the elevator, we pried the doors in front of us open. Don and I hopped out to retrieve another machine, scanning nervously for security guards. We returned with the new machine and made the swap, painstakingly. Once the Frankenstein machine was assembled, we held our collective breath while it booted. It worked. We scampered down the rope ladder to test it out.

"Elevator, third floor please," said Patrick. A tense moment passed. Then the "3" button on the elevator panel lit. "Third floor, coming right up," said a metallic but distinctly female voice. The elevator began its descent to the third floor, and there was much rejoicing. We tested out the other floors, and variations on the grammar that the elevator recognized:
"Elevator, floor five."
"Elevator, eight."
"Elevator, lobby." This, of course, took us to the lobby.
"Elevator, holodeck." This took you to the sixth floor.
"Elevator, where is Captain Picard?" I had requested this addition. In response the computer would say, "Captain Picard is in Doctor Crusher's quarters."

The other thing the speech parser tried to recognize was foul language. We anticipated that the recognition would not be perfect, particularly in a noisy environment. I lobbied for a response to cursing along the lines of, "Watch your mouth" or something lame. Don invoked an old Bugs Bunny cartoon; the computerized voice would say, "Shut up shutting-up, rabbit." I like Bugs fine, but I didn't think anyone would catch the reference without Mel Blanc's "Mugsy" voice that originally spoke it.

Patrick reassembled the roof, while Don put away gear. Bob and I went over the shiny panels with a little Windex. The finishing touch from Don was a sign above the microphone to clue in unknowing passengers: "I am ELEVATOR. Tell me what to do." At this point it was about four in the morning. I knew what to do. I went home to bed.

The sun that beat on my window each dawn kept me from sleeping in. Being excited about seeing people use the talking elevator also helped. Feeling a little fuzzy and wobbly, I went in to work. By luck, I got the right car on my way up. "Elevator, third floor, please," I said. After another long hesitation, it took me to my floor.

After an hour and a half or so, my friend Steve trotted in, obviously excited. "Hey, hey, you gotta come check this out. There's a talking elevator," he said, addressing all of the cubicles within earshot. He gathered our group together and herded about twelve of us into the elevator lobby. Apparently nobody else in our group had ridden in the talking car; I realized that people tended to monopolize that particular elevator in order to play with it. The right one finally showed up, and Steve crammed us all in.

The speech recognition software was still in its infancy at that point, and had been tested under carefully controlled conditions: a certain kind of microphone, a certain voice volume, a quiet background. The creators of the technology had not anticipated an elevator crammed with people and an excited speaker. So when Steve finished shusshing us and barked, "Elevator, eighth floor," the recognizer had already had a nervous breakdown. Absolutely nothing happened. With all of us watching, Steve felt pressured and tried again, "Elevator, six!" His pauses got shorter and shorter. "Elevator, fourth floor. Elevator, four. Shit!" Still, the speaker had not made a peep.

My co-workers began to stir. "Okay Steve, ha ha, you got us," said one. "Talking elevator, yeah, right," said another. After all, it was April Fool's Day. Steve got really mad, because his integrity had been challenged -- and besides, he'd seen the damn thing work. "No! Really! Hold on!" Steve spewed. "I swear, it worked!" The elevator occupants were unimpressed. I was doing my damndest to keep a straight face at the back. What a great gag; it works on two levels, I thought to myself. Someone pressed the door-open button and people started filing back to their cubes. Steve was beside himself. "No! Come back!" I stuck around with Steve in the elevator for a moment. "It worked, I swear it did," he said. I shrugged, then said, "It worked for me when I game in this morning." Steve just about had a seizure, he was so mad at me for not saying anything before everyone left.

During the day the machine would occasionally have another seizure, so Patrick and I again commandeered the machine -- this time in the middle of the day -- and installed a hidden switch in the cab that was wired to the reset button. Each of us would occasionally check on the thing, and if it was unresponsive, give it a quick reboot.

Patrick thought we'd get in trouble or something and have to take it down, but no official comment was made one way or another. I did observe the guy in charge of the recognition project, Kai Fu Lee, failing to make the elevator work in front of a guest of his. Eventually the guy whose machine was perched on the elevator wanted his Quadra back, so Patrick retrieved it for him.

Eventually, like a year or so later, I confessed to Steve; but he swore that he'd already figured it out.

The Oracle

At Burning Man in 1999 my friend Garrett discovered a little booth on the playa. It was much like Lucy's "Psychological Help 5¢" booth from Peanuts. This one read "Wisdom of the Ages (free)" on top and "The Oracle is [in]" (or out) on the bottom. Apparently someone built this booth and left it for anyone who wished to serve as the Oracle. Garrett said he had fun playing Oracle and that I should give it a go.

Some people were glib. They would ask me to simply dispense wisdom. I told them that the Oracle was prepared to receive their questions. The most frequent question was "What is the meaning of life?" I improvised the first time, then used this as my stock answer: "There is no single answer to this question. For each of us, the answer is different. The important thing is to know yourself well enough so that when the answer presents itself to you, you'll recognize it."

Very Zen eh?

Some people had practical matters on their minds. One woman asked me what the next step in her career was. I asked her if she knew what it was she wanted to do. She said yes, but that she didn't know how to achieve that position in her field. I asked her if she knew anyone in such a position. She said she did. I said, "Ask them." It was like a light bulb popped on over her head.

One guy was deadly earnest. He was going through a divorce and trying to start a new relationship; he wanted to know how to proceed. Thus spoke the Oracle: "The Oracle suggests that you be sure that you've learned what you needed to learn from the marriage. Then be sure of who you are and where you are going. Then, and only then, can you find someone going that way to go with you."

Another woman was English but had lived in California for many years; she was trying to decide whether to move back. I kept asking questions, trying to find out what she really wanted to do -- instead of giving advice, the key to being a good Oracle is to find out whatever answer is already there, waiting to be found. After the discussion made it clear that she wanted to go back, she said, "I'm a therapist, and I just wanted to say that you're really good at this."

Garrett had the best oracularity of the week, I think. A couple sat down to consult him, er, the Oracle, and the guy asked some glib question, and Garrett gave some glib answer. The woman apparently decided that she'd been presented with an opportunity, a chance to get some Question answered. But what was the Question? She looked at Garrett; she looked at the horizon; she looked at the sky; she looked at the ground. Garrett said it seemed like forever, though it couldn't have been more than ninety seconds. Then, pop, it came to her, and as she opened her mouth to speak, Garrett held up his hand and said, "The searching you have done to find that Question is far more important than any Answer the Oracle could give." Her eyes bugged out as if she'd just heard the most profound thing ever. "Thanks!" she gushed, and wandered off.

It was an interesting experience; since it was all improvised, I rarely knew what I was going to say next. And I found out that it can be a way to communicate with yourself.

That night I was raving away with Shannon and the rest of the gang, and I froze for a moment: I thought, I've found this girl who I can rave with, who I can fly with, who I like to talk to, who I like to fuck, who will listen to my dumb jokes and eat BBQ with me. It occurred to me that whatever fear I had of relationships and commitment and whatnot, those fears weren't a good enough reason to have one eye on the door (like all my previous relationships). And then I realized: ahhhhh, so that's what I was saying about that meaning-of-life stuff.



I heard this allegedly true story from a Mich U ultimate player:

"When I was a sophomore physics major, my roommate and I had this idea that we were going to make a still. We knew there wasn't any rocket science here, you just needed some containers, tubes, and heat. We, uh, "borrowed" this stuff from the physics lab. Also you need some source of alcohol. We didn't know what to use, so we just figured anything with sugar would do. We had a big canister of Tang, so we used that: we dumped a bunch of Tang and brewer's yeast in a bucket of water and let it sit for a week. Now, it was a pretty foul brown goo, but we were going for the pure alcohol anyway, so we didn't really care where it came from.

"So I'd just had this huge spaghetti dinner -- I mean, my stomach was huge, like I was a snake that ate a rabbit or something -- and I had a bit of food coma and wasn't thinking clearly. We decided we should crank up the still. We put the main container on the stove with the lid on, attached the rest of the pieces, and started cooking. The smell was horrible, and we weren't getting much in the way of results, 'cause the lid wasn't on tight enough. I got the bright idea to go over to the radiation lab and score some of the lead that they use for shielding. The idea was to put the lead on the lid to hold it down tight.

"I snuck back into the physics building with my backpack. I hefted one of those 40 pound lead weights, and it didn't feel too heavy by itself, so I stuck four of 'em in my pack. Of course, I couldn't lift it at all then. I took one out. I managed to get it on my back, but it was painful to walk with it there, and I was afraid it was going to rip the pack. So I rotated it around to the front, where I could use my arms to help support the weight. Then I started back down the stairs, 'cause there wasn't an elevator.

"I made it down the first flight okay, but I missed the first step on the second flight. I knew I'd die if I went head-first with all this lead strapped to me, so I tried to fall backwards. I succeeded, but the 120 pounds of lead came slamming onto my stomach, which forced all of the spaghetti right out, bazooka vomiting all down my front and down the stairs. Now that everything was all slicked up, I slid all the way down to the bottom, where I was pinned like an upside-down turtle, flailing away in a pool of my own vomit.

"I did manage to finally get up, motivated by the thought of being found there dead in the morning. What would the physics profs who found me think? A bizarre suicide? I finally made it back to my room, covered in vomit. Of course my roommates wanted to know what happened. 'Don't ask', I said. But at least the weights did their job, and not too much later we all got shitfaced."

Flying to Burning Man

In 1998 I attended my first Burning Man, an event held in the Black Rock desert in northwestern Nevada. I figured it would be a lot more fun to fly than drive; there's an airstrip nearby the event. Obtaining a plane took several tries; at first I thought I'd just be landing on the valley floor, a dry lake bed, so my usual rental place vetoed the use of their planes. My old instructor, Matt, agreed to rent me his vintage Cessna 120, a two-seat tail-dragger, after discovering that a "real" airstrip was about six miles from The Man.

Roommate Dave had never been up in a small plane. I had been after him to go up with me ever since I got my license, but he thought it was too dangerous. He finally was persuaded by accident statistics and a sense of adventure. I had to convince him that flying was safer than riding a motorcycle, which he does occasionally. Actually the stats are pretty comparable in fatalities per hour spent at the activity in question; on a motorcycle, however, if you die it's frequently because somebody whacked you, not because you did something wrong. In a light aircraft, if you die, it's almost always because of pilot error. I'd rather have that control.

So anyway, we went to Palo Alto early on Saturday morning with our packs (most of our gear went up two days before in the ice-cream truck -- but that's another story). It was overcast but clearing. We got weather clearance just as we were ready to go. Supposedly some storms were forecast for the afternoon, so we wanted to be on the ground by noon. I climbed to 10,000 feet and followed I-80 towards Truckee, near Lake Tahoe, where we planned to gas up and make a pit stop. I had the GPS on, but was practicing a little dead reckoning just for something to do.

We were about halfway between Sacramento, in the center of the central valley, and Truckee, at the crest of the Sierra Nevada, when I noticed a slight drop-off in power. I attributed it to the high altitude -- I hadn't done all that much flying at 10,000 feet. Then Sac air-traffic control called me to ask if I wanted to continue my radar coverage outside their airspace, which I was leaving. I keyed the mic to say "Yes, please", and when I did, I could hear some noise in the cabin that I had not before (muffled by my headset): tac-tac-tac-tac-tac. I wasn't sure where the noise was coming from, so I pulled the right earpiece away from my head. Tac-tac-tac-tac-tac. I asked Dave: "Do you hear that?" He lifted an earpiece and said he did. I pondered for a moment. It wasn't all that loud, but I had no idea what it was. I really really didn't want to delay getting to Burning Man, didn't want to get pinned by a storm, didn't want to waste money turning around and forfeiting all my altitude. "Hmmmmmmm," I told Dave. "I don't know what that is, but I think we should stop and have it checked out." One of the things they teach you in flying school is to always know where you're going to land if something goes wrong, so I already knew that there was an airstrip about ten miles back. I put the plane into a slow 180 degree turn. Just as I'm rolling out on course towards the Auburn airport, I can hear the noise through my headset now: TAC-TAC-TAC-TAC-TAC KTHUNK KTHUNK KTHUNK GRIND SQUEAL ... and then ... nothing but wind noise.

Now, the engine out drill is one of those things that you get taught in lesson, oh, four or five -- basically as soon as you can do some simple maneuvers. And, aggravatingly (at the time anyway) every lesson afterwards, up to and including your exam check-ride, your instructor will wait for the most awkward time for your engine to fail, then yank your throttle, and say, "Engine's out." You get the drill buried so deep in your psyche that you could do it in your sleep: make-best-glide, turn-to-field, L-check, etc. etc. etc. And the day it happened to me for real, I had had my bi-annual flight review a week before.

In Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, reporters asked Alan Shepard what it was like to be in space. He paused, blinked, and said "Well, it's a lot like the simulator." When my engine quit, my first thought was: time to do the engine-out drill again.

"Sacramento approach, Cessna two three two four November is declaring an emergency. My engine has failed. I have Auburn airport in sight and will be making an emergency landing." They called back and asked us how many on board and our names, which I guess makes sense, but I felt like they were ordering up the body bags and calling our next-of-kin a little prematurely. But I guess they wouldn't be able to ask us afterwards if we didn't make it. After running the checklist, I made sure to see about making sure Dave was okay. I recall him being pretty cool about it, but he told me later that he didn't realize that the engine was toasted until I told him as much. I said that we'd lost all power, but that I had practiced this routine a zillion times, and that we'd have no trouble gliding to an airport and making a semi-normal landing. The only cause for concern that I could see was that the engine was now totally out of balance, and the prop's rotation in the wind was causing the whole plane to shake. It was disconcerting but not a real problem. I had watched the oil pressure gauge plummet to zero right after the KCHUNKS, so I knew we weren't going to get the thing restarted.

We had to glide about ten miles to get over top the airport, but little planes have a decent glide ratio. I would guess that the 120 has about a 13:1, because we only lost about 4000 feet going 10 miles. This left us with little to do except circle over the field and burn the rest of our altitude. Once I was overhead Auburn, I told Sac that I was going to switch to the Auburn traffic frequency (Auburn is a non-tower field, where you just use some assigned frequency to announce your comings and goings cooperatively). I called in again to say that I had an engine-out. Some guy with a handheld radio down on the field called back to ask, "Simulated, right?" I laughed. "Nope, I have engine failure. I will be making a real emergency landing in about six minutes." He got on his radio and started directing traffic, the excitement plain in his voice -- I'm sure it was the first time anything like that had happened on his watch at Auburn. "Everbody git out uh th' way!" is more or less the way I remember it. I watched a couple of Cessnas taxi back from the runway to the parking lot. I called down, "Hey, I'm not gonna hit ya!"

When I was ready to make my final approach, it felt to me like the plane was sinking faster than it should have -- I think this perception (which was, in retrospect, erroneous) was a side-effect of the vibration. So just to make sure, I kept my final approach tight. Too tight, as it turns out; once I came screaming in over the end of the runway about 100 feet up and 20 knots too fast, I realized I'd made the canonical engine-out-landing mistake: overshooting! I think this was the only point at which I had a flash of panic. This was a tiny strip, with a steep dropoff past the end of the runway; with little headwind; I didn't have all that much room for error. I quickly banged a couple of small S-turns, flipping the plane back and forth wildly (and being a bit embarrassed -- after all, there were a lot of folks spectating by that point). But I managed to kill my speed so that we touched down about 2/3 the length of the runway.

The 120 is a tail-dragger, which means that it has two wheels up front and one wheel at the tail. This configuration has its advantages on rough fields, but it can complicate landings; specifically, you can't just slam on the brakes after touchdown, because the nose will bury itself in the tarmac. So I got the tail down as soon as I could, then eased the brakes on as quickly as possible without flipping. The end of the runway was fast approaching, and I was preparing my speech for Matt about why I ran his plane off a cliff ... but I just managed to get the speed down to about 5 MPH with maybe twenty feet of runway to spare. I whanged a quick left turn onto the grass. I looked at Dave with a grin, got on the radio and said "Two three two four November is clear of the active."

Then came the welcome-wagon. About eight guys, mostly the typical sort of older guy who hangs around small airports (if you ever spend any time at a small airport you'll recognize 'em immediately), came caravaning down to the end of the runway in their pickups. We were greeted with much congratulation. "Great landing!" they said. I wasn't so sure. "Are you kidding? I totally shot that approach." They were quick to remind me of the old pilot adage: any landing you walk away from is a good landing. And I trotted away from that one, over to the bushes, 'cause I had to pee.

They stuck the tail of the plane in the back end of one of the pickups, lashing it in place with bungee cords. I'd never seen such a thing, but I'm not exactly and old hand at this sort of thing. We situated the plane near a repair shop. First I called Sac approach to let them know that we were down and safe. Then I called Matt (the plane owner). He was expecting a call about noon, and it was only about nine-thirty, so I think he knew immediately that something was up. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:

Me: "Hey Matt."
Matt: "Hey Max. Wait, where are you?"
"Auburn? Why are you in Auburn?"
"I'm not really sure ... I think it threw a rod or something."
"What?! Whoah, wait, you're kidding, right?"
"Nope, the engine died."
"Whoah, go back, start over. What happened?"
"We were going along at ten thousand feet, then the engine went KTHUNK KTHUNK KTHUNK GRIND SQUEAL."
"Really? What did you do?"
"Uh, pretty much what you taught me. Landed without a scratch."
"Huh. Well, good job. The engine failed? Really? You're not just fucking with me, are you?"

And so on. There was some discussion of what to do next, but basically I told Matt where the plane was and said "I'm outta here." Dave called Enterprise rent-a-car. While we were waiting for them we went and got some breakfast at the field's little diner. The guy who ran the diner also edited some airport newsletter, and he briefly interviewed us; I think he said that the goal was to continue justifying the existence of the airport to the locals. Then the Enterprise person showed up, we rented a Jeep, and pressed on to Burning Man.

When we showed up, about five o' clock, we were greeted with some mixture of concern and annoyance by friends and family. "Where were you? We've been watching airplanes all afternoon trying to figure out which one is you guys."

I started with, "Well, this is a rental car. That's your first hint."

And then to top off that adventure, Burning Man was the coolest fucking thing ever; however, that's another story entirely ....

Taken out of context

Some things are funnier with no context. I got this via a Scottish Ultimate mailing list which I'm on:
For those of you who came out on Saturday night, thank you very much. I 
had a wonderful time, you all made sure of that!


I would especially like to appoligise to anyone who heard the punchline 
of 'Why do female parachute-ists wear jock straps?', not least the 
couple sitting at the next table. The man nearly had a heart attack 
trying to surpress his laughter as his female companion displayed a look 
of shock normally only born by survivors of great accidents.

Where ya headed?

A friend of mine, an older ex-hippie, says he used to drive from Austin, where he was in school, out to San Diego to visit his friends at UCSD. It was a long trip and he'd frequently drive solo, so to stay awake, he said, he'd frequently drop LSD. I don't know how hard it is to drive on acid, but he's still alive.

One time he hit the California border, totally rocked out of his head, and got stopped at the border agricultural inspection station on I-10. He was thinking: maintain, must maintain ... and this big guy in a uniform with a clipboard says, "Where ya comin from?"

This was 1967 and my friend was in to the hippie thing, as well as tripping. The question he heard was: What kind of person are you? What is your point of view? Deep down, who are you? His brain responds, "Whoah," and starts grinding on this deep question, trying to answer it with the profundity it seems to deserve. Time passes. Just as he's going to formulate an answer, a little voice at the back of his head says, "'Austin', he wants you to say 'Austin'!"

"Austin," he says. It seemed like the answer took ten minutes to form but probably wasn't more than ten seconds.

"Where ya headed?" says the guy with the clipboard.

"Whoah!" thinks my friend. "Whoah!" And he goes through it all over again: What are my goals? What am I going to do with my life?

Time passes. "San Diego."

Object Permanence

Kevin was in a restaurant recently watching a couple of parents interact with their three-year-old. The kid was eating cake with a fork, while the parents sat on either side. Periodically, the kid would put the fork down. One of the parents would distract the kid while the other would grab the fork, then pass it to the other parent; when the kid wasn't looking again, the other parent would put the fork on the other side of the plate. When the kid would return to the cake-eating activity, he'd look down where he expected the fork, only it was on the wrong side. An older child might have suspected something, but the three-year-old grasp of reality is pretty flexible: to this kid it must have seemed that here was an entirely new rule about how the world works: forks can teleport from one side of the cake to the other while you're not looking!

After doing this about five times, they noticed that Kevin was watching -- and acted incredibly guilty! The wife tried to pin it on the husband: "It was all his idea."


One of the great things about the net is finding people based on common ground. Last week I met a guy who used to work at the same summer camp I went to as a tyke. He tells the following story:

Grady Spruce counselors frequently take advantage of the fact that little kids will believe nearly anything. The week that Skylab came down (note to younger readers: Skylab was an American space-station which was abandoned and lost orbit in 1979), one of the counselors told the kids that they should go look for downed Skylab parts. He made a big deal about how they had to be careful because of the radioactivity; to protect themselves so they could pick up any pieces they found, they wore socks on their hands and held them up like they were surgeons. Pretty soon the other kids wanted to know what the deal with the socks was, and then they wanted to help look too. So pretty soon the whole camp is walking around with socks on their hands! In the mean time, one of the counselors found some old rusty machine parts and spray-painted them gold and hid them around the camp. The kids were incredibly excited when they found them. The counselors had a good laugh -- but then the kids went home and told their parents. The parents were obviously equally gullible, because a lot of them called the camp, outraged and angry, to complain about irresponsible counselors allowing kids to handle radioactive material using only socks for protection!

World's Greatest Squirrel Hunter

I have this cousin Bill, an attorney who lives in a little town in Tennessee called Franklin. We got acquainted at my grandmother's -- his aunt's -- funeral, and hit it off.

He invited me to come visit, to go squirrel hunting. I didn't think I would like hunting of any sort, especially something relatively cute like squirrels. But Bill went to work on me, explaining the need to control the squirrel population, about how they're fiendish little creatures and quite difficult to bag, etc. After a while, his anti-rodent psychological warfare ganged up with my curiosity and I agreed to go hunting.

We set out on a cool October morning, decked out in full camouflage, on a stretch of land owned by one of Bill's friends. The third member of the party was Bill's old law partner, a fellow named Rick Buerger. Before Rick had arrived, Bill warned me, "Now, Rick's a nice guy and all, but he's got a pretty high opinion of himself -- especially when it comes to squirrels. He'll tell you how he's the best squirrel hunter in Williamson county, how his granddaddy had him in a box under a tree with a gun when he was three years old," and so on and so on.

Bill went off by himself, and Rick took me on as his pupil. He gave me a few pointers and let me work the grove under his tutelage. After an hour or so, I had downed three squirrels. Rick had been pretty quiet, and I was beginning to think that Bill had been a little hard on Rick. "Let's head over to the next patch," Rick suggested.

Once we got out of the trees, Rick's tongue loosened. "I have to tell you, I'm probably the finest squirrel hunter in Williamson county. My granddaddy had me in a box under a tree when I was three years old, bringin' down critters with a '22 ..." etc. etc. etc. I was amazed -- he was practically reciting the script as Bill had described it. I had to suppress a laugh.

We wandered around for another hour; I bagged one more squirrel and Rick got four of his own. When Rick decided that this grove was hunted out, we rejoined Bill. Rick scouted around. While he was out of earshot, Bill asked:
"How many did you get?"
"Four," I said.
"How many did Rick get?"
"Four," I said.
"Uh oh," Bill said.
"Uh oh?" I asked.
"Rick won't leave until he has more squirrels than you. If you ever want to get out of here, don't shoot any more."
Rick returned. "I think it looks good over here," he said.

Sure enough, we wandered around for an hour and hardly saw a thing. Finally, while trudging from one patch to another, a big orange fox squirrel plops out of a tree right at our feet. God was truly watching over me, for if we hadn't received this gift from above, I never would have been allowed to leave. Rick dispatched it; I was so surprised I didn't even get my gun up.

"Okay, let's go home," said Rick. Again, I had to suppress a laugh.

On the way home, I had an idea.
"Hey Bill," I asked.
"What?" said Bill.
"How many Rick Buergers does it take to change a lightbulb?"
"I give up, how many?"
"'Why I'll tell you, I am the finest lightbulb-changer in Williamson County. My granddaddy had me in a box on a ladder changin' light bulbs when I was three years old. I've probably changed more light bulbs ...'"
Bill was having trouble keeping the old truck on the road, he was laughing so hard.
"Nobody, but nobody makes fun of Rick Buerger like that," said Bill.
"So you don't think he'd appreciate that joke?" I asked.
"No," said Bill emphatically.

Bill suggested that Rick's reputation was such that if you addressed a letter to "Worlds' Greatest Squirrel Hunter, Franklin, Tennessee," Rick would get it. I had forgotten about this until recently, but I was in a restaurant which gives away free postcards -- a local BBQ joint called Redneck Earl's -- and I decided to test the theory. I thanked Rick for his fine tutorial.

A week later, I got mail from Bill explaining how the U.S. Post Office concedes Rick's greatness, because the card was delivered five days after I sent it.

Nephews of Islam

I have this friend named Rogers. He used to be just Roger until he decided that plurality was more writerly. Among his many accomplishments is the Cruel Site of the Day. Roger(s) and I go way back, back to before the days when he was touched by evil. Her name was Lisa.

Roger(s) dated Lisa for nine months or so and treated her pretty much like dirt. Like many women, for reasons that puzzle me to this very day, she ate it up. Then came disaster: Roger(s) actually fell for her and started treating her well. That was the end of that. She dumped him right before heading off to Boston College.

Roger(s) was paying for school by working part-time at American Airlines, writing code. He had flight privleges. He was able to fly standby to Boston to try to patch things up with Lisa. But by this point, Lisa had found some new guy to treat her badly. According to Roger(s), the new guy, Jeff (whom Roger(s) referred to as "Mr. Potato Head") dispensed with such relationship formalities as actual dating; he would just show up at her room randomly and announce that he wished to be serviced.

(Editor's note: I'm not claiming this is an objective accounting, by any stretch of the imagination.)

Roger(s) was in Lisa's room, trying to talk to her about their break-up. Mr. Potato Head arrived. Words were exchanged. Roger(s) is not a violent person, but something that Jeff said made Roger(s) so angry that Roger(s) threw him through a (closed) window. Fortunately, Lisa's room was on the first floor, so Mr. Potato Head escaped without serious injury. Roger(s) was escorted to the edge of campus by the BC campos and told never to return. He spent a miserable seventeen hours at Logan Airport waiting for his trip home.

I have never seen Roger(s) so angry, before or since. He plotted revenge. He asked me for ideas. I proposed a mail bomb, enclosed in a Mr. Potato Head doll, with a light-sensor connected to the detonator. "He'll open the package, and Mr. Potato Head will be the last thing he ever sees," I suggested. Roger(s) was inspired; he began pacing; "That's it," he said, "We'll form our own terrorist group. We'll be the ... the ... Sons of Allah." He paused. "No, the ... the Nephews of Islam." And thus was the fierce and righteous gang of international terrorists, the Nephews of Islam, born.

Of course we had to have secret Nephews of Islam code names. We decided Kevin should be in the group as well, so the three of us took on our terrorist aliases: Roger(s) became Nephew Huey, Kevin Nephew Dewey, and I am Nephew Louie.

Not surprisingly, we never actually blew up Jeff. I think we decided that they were sufficient punishment for each other that we might as well leave that situation to itself.

Kevin and I had a lot of fun with our code names. He would call me at Rice and leave cryptic messages, references to old war movies or bad TV shows like "Hogan's Heroes", such as: "Tell Max that Nephew Dewey says, 'Papa Bear brings groceries at sunrise.'" Of course I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but upon receiving the message I would nod slowly and make some knowing comment, like "Good, good," or "Uh oh."

To this day Kevin and I still occasionally refer to each other as Nephew.

Some years later I was telling this story at work, and my boss, Mark Terrano, said afterwards, "I don't know if your co-workers really understand that it's just a joke." I shrugged and said, "Job security."

Airplane Hack

I wasn't able to pull this off, but I wish I had.

My friend Giselle was flying out to San Francisco from Boston, over Christmas break while we were in college. She had a stopover in Dallas, where I was on break with the folks; she wanted me to visit her at the airport. I decided it would be fun to get on the same flight as her and go visit some of my friends in the bay area as well. I called the airline, got tickets, and got a seat assignment next to her.

What I meant to do was hide this from her, show up at the airport early, check all my bags, wait a few minutes after she got on the plane, pop back to her row and ask, "Is this seat taken?" However, I couldn't keep my big mouth shut.

Later, I realized an even better hack. I should have gotten a seat as far forward as possible and been the last on and first off, which would have allowed me to see her off and meet her on the other end.

Someday, the opportunity to pull that off will present itself ...

Secret Language

My friend Steve was traveling in France some years ago with a friend of his who spoke no French. Steve speaks French pretty well -- he's a savant when it comes to languages. He even knows how to say "fuck me up the ass" in Hebrew, but that's another story. I forget the friend's name -- I'll call him Dan. Steve is explaining to his French hosts that Americans have a secret language that they speak only amongst themselves. The French folks aren't buying a word of this. Steve suggests, "Okay, since we know Dan couldn't speak French to save his life, have me tell him to do something." One of the Frenchmen says, "Have him touch his nose." Dan is sitting there, puzzled; he hasn't heard a recognizable word in several minutes, since Steve has been on this tangent. Steve looks at Dan and says:

"Utch-tay or-yay ose-nay."

Dan touches his nose.

The French were flummoxed. It clearly wasn't any language they recognized, and yet there was Dan, touching his nose.

Someday, I gotta try this ... :-)


You know how you think of the right thing to say long after the moment has passed? I once thought of a mot juste five years late.

My first girlfriend was named Julie. I met her at church. We used to sneak away during Sunday school and neck in one of the empty classrooms. We talked on the phone for hours every day, mostly because I didn't have a driver's license.

I went to San Antonio to hang out with Grandma for a couple of weeks, like every summer, and was totally out of contact with Julie. You can't justify running up a big long-distance bill when you don't have an income. I was thinking about her a lot, though, so I decided to write a letter.

When it came to relationships, I had this friend Greg, who served as my anti-role-model. (Greg is still my friend, but he's mellowed quite a bit since then.) Greg has an aggressive approach to life, and his dealings with women were no exception. He got what he wanted by not taking 'no' for an answer. I was mulling this while considering the fact that I wanted to get under Julie's bra. I didn't want to just badger her into this; it's not my style. So, I took the blunt route and simply wrote that I wanted to feel her up -- but only if that was okay with her. About four days before I went back home to Dallas, I stuck this in the mailbox.

The night I get home, the phone rings. Mom answers.

"Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh." She looks at me, covers the mouthpiece, says very calmly, "It's Julie's parents. Something about a letter."

I nearly fainted.

"Uh huh. Uh huh," Mom continues. I am absolutely mortified. I'm so freaked I hop around the room like Daffy Duck, "Hoo! Hoo hoo! Hoo hoo! Hoo!"

"Uh huh. Well, that sounds pretty reasonable to me."


Mom furrowed her brow. "No, I don't see a problem with that. Uh huh. Uh huh." Now Mom is starting to look a little cheesed. "Well, she could do worse! Uh huh. Uh huh. Oh, give me a break."

I can't remember what else went on in the conversation. It ended pretty soon after that. Mom explained that they had opened the letter themselves straight out of the mailbox; Julie hadn't even seen it. I was incensed, now that I realized it wasn't the end of the world. My parents would never pull that sort of crap on me. Julie's folks were mighty upset, but Mom had no problem at all with the contents of the letter.

"The only mistake you made," she said, "was to put it where they might be able to find it. Never commit anything to print that you can't risk having show up on the front page of the newspaper." This is pretty sound advice. "They had the gall to complain that Julie was talking about 'following you down to Rice'." (Apparently I had a pretty good idea where I was going to college back then.) "They were upset that their daughter might go to Rice." Aside from that being a dumb complaint in general, it was particularly ill-received by my mother the Rice graduate. "I told them she could do worse!"

Way to go, Mom!

"And they said if you turned up in their neighborhood, they'd call the police on you." Mom rolled her eyes.

So, as you can imagine, that put a serious damper on my relationship with Julie. Her parents started leaving the phone off the hook so that neither of us could call. Of course, they couldn't watch her every moment that they were at church, especially at the youth-group get-togethers on Sunday afternoons. A week or so later, we snuck off, I told her what I said in the letter, and that was plenty fine with her. So the blunt approach worked just fine, after a fashion.

We couldn't sustain the relationship under the glare of her parents' watchful eyes, though, which put an end to things a few weeks later. I was bummed, but there wasn't much I could do.

Four years later, I was in this high school contest called Academic Decathlon, and our team won the national championship, which was mighty damn cool. We got on the evening news. While I'm revelling in my fifteen minutes of fame, the phone rings. It's Julie! I haven't heard from her in ages. She's calling to say congratulations. I say thanks. She puts her parents on the phone. They say congratulations. I am struck dumb. "Uh ... thanks," is all I can manage. I hang up.

Five years after that, I'm in my second senior year at Rice. I'm telling this story to someone, when WHAM, it hits me.

"Now I know what I should have said. I should have asked them, 'Does this mean I can feel up your daughter now?'"

Apple Summer


I Never

"I Never" is a simple drinking game. You take turns saying "I never foo", where "foo" is something like "tried LSD" or "had sex outdoors". If you HAVE fooed, you have to drink. If you propose something and nobody else drinks, you have to drink. This is a good game for using personal information against your friends.

For example, I was playing at the house of a married couple. The husband tried to embarrass his wife by saying "I never had sex with an animal." She blushed and drank. But in retaliation she said, "I've never been married to two different women, both of whom had had sex with an animal." Talk about blushing ... he turned purple. And drank.

I got in trouble with a pair of friends who will remain anonymous. This is an example of using personal information. I knew that they and their two college boyfriends had gotten drunk and ... shall we say, "experimented" at one point some years back. Each friend was now engaged to their new boyfriend, who presumably didn't know this. One of the two women didn't even know that I knew. So, emboldened by a little tequila (I think), I raised my glass.

"I've never been in a foursome," I said.

The two women immediately locked eyes in sheer panic. Now, I figured if they could maintain their composure, all they had to do (if they wanted the information kept private) was sit still and bluff. Surely they knew I wasn't so crass as to call them on it.

They drank.

The two fiancees got the hugest eyes and dropped jaws.

I knew I was a dead man. I fled.

Last updated 4 Jul 2000 by max