Amelia’s Last Flight

Amelia Earhart planned to write a book about her around-the-world expedition. It was to be called “World Flight.” She wrote some material before departing, and she sent back notes and logs from various stops across the globe. When the flight ended prematurely, her husband assembled the pieces and notes into a book that he published as “Last Flight.”

The first-person narration gives you a real sense of Amelia’s voice and character. She was fearless, in an awe-inspiring way. She was ever ambitious, reaching for the next challenge. She was also very interested in encouraging women in engineering (and aviation in particular). She criticized the way boys and girls were (… are …) shuffled into certain kinds of hobbies. “With rare exceptions,” she wrote, “the delights of finding out what makes a motor go, or batting the bumps out of a bent fender, are joys reserved for masculinity” (p. 47).

To enable her plans to go around the world, she acquired a plane that seems mammoth to me:

“The plane itself is a two-motor, all-metal monoplane, with retractable landing gear. It has a normal cruising speed of about 180 miles an hour and a top speed in excess of 200. With the special gasoline tanks that have been installed in the fuselage, capable of carrying 1150 gallons, it has a cruising radius in excess of 4000 miles. With full load the ship weighs about 15,000 pounds. It is powered with two Wasp ‘H’ engines, developing 110 horsepower” (p. 50).

By comparison, the Cessna 172 that I am learning to fly carries a maximum of 40 gallons of fuel and has a max takeoff weight of 2300 lbs. It has a cruising speed of 120 mph and a radius of about 600 miles. It would take a long time to get around the world that way!

She chronicles her travels from Miami to Brazil, then over to Dakar in Africa, then through India, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, and Lae in Papua New Guinea. Even knowing in advance that her trip will be truncated, it’s hard not to gain enthusiasm and confidence that it will somehow succeed, after she travels through so many different places, weather, and challenges. The book ends, necessarily, abruptly.

… and we still don’t know exactly why.

Grammar police

Recently I came across this article: “Stop shaming people on the Internet for grammar mistakes. Its not there fault.” The author urges more compassion for the oh-so-common grammar mistakes that we are all prone to and provides an interesting dissection of the cognitive reasons for those errors.

“Mocking another person for making one of them is like mocking a heart for skipping a beat. Errors are a routine part of our cognitive systems,” the author, Andrew Heisel, claims.

While “mocking” isn’t productive, I think “awareness” is. Some grammar rules do seem needlessly arcane, but others have evolved to reduce ambiguity and increase communication. And so I find the Twitter bot called Grammar Police, which automatically detects and tactfully points out grammar errors in tweets, to be both fascinating and useful.

Mr. Heisel introduced me to this bot by way of criticizing it. But the bot has 19,500 followers, and I don’t think that they all subscribe merely “to pretend, 25 times a day, that you’re perfect and other people’s foibles are not your own.” In fact, I observed that some of those whom Grammar Police called out in an automated post actually thanked the bot. The bot’s postings might even inspire some readers to look up “nominative case.”

Now I’m thinking that a statistical analysis of the bot’s 85,400 tweets (and counting) would be quite interesting. What are the most common types of errors? And how many of them inspired a thank you?

The Tool Petting Zoo

Yesterday I volunteered with Kids Building Things to offer a Tool Petting Zoo. This is a chance for kids (and their parents) to see, touch, and use tools of all kinds — screwdrivers, bubble level, wire cutters, hammers, saw, a drill press, and more.

Even better, I got to learn some new tools myself! I got to use a pipe cutter, which looks like this:

You put the pipe inside the jaws and then spin the screw until it grips the pipe. Then you rotate the cutter around the pipe, tightening the screw whenever it feels slack, until it slices through the pipe. Magic!

I then got to use a pipe bender:

This picture shows a pipe after it’s been bent with the tool. It requires very little effort. You put the flat pipe through the device. Then, as you squeeze the handles together, the pipe bends in a nice curve, supported by the metal disk, which dictates the radius of curvature. You stop squeezing when you have as much curve as you want. This is great fun!

Finally, I learned to use a rivet puller:

You line up the holes in whatever pieces you want to attach, then put a rivet through it and squeeze the handle. This pulls the bottom of the rivet up, fattening it out on the reverse side, and eventually it can pull no further, the top snaps off, and you’re left with a beautiful rivet.

The kids were encouraged to make a sculpture, or whatever they wanted, with the tools. I made a mini Loch Ness monster:


Check out my cool rivets and bent pipe!

American female pilots in WWII

Did you know that American female pilots flew, and died, for their country in WWII?

For a brief period from 1942 to 1944, the U.S. trained and employed 1,102 female pilots (WASPs) to help with the war effort. They weren’t allowed to fly in combat, but they performed other duties that consequently freed up male pilots to head overseas. Those duties included variously low-prestige and/or high-risk activities such as:

  • flying planes from where they were assembled to the port from which they’d be flown to the war fronts
  • towing a canvas target for ground troops to shoot anti-aircraft guns at (really!)
  • testing newly repaired planes to certify them to be sent back out to the front

They also learned to fly large bombers that, in some cases, no other pilots were willing to fly. These planes (such as the B-29) were often prone to engine fires or other issues. Yet after a few women pilots were trained to fly them, and started providing instruction in the strategies they developed to avoid or deal with those problems, male pilots became willing to take over the controls. The B-29 was later used to drop the bomb on Hiroshima.

Despite their excellent track record in terms of safety and efficiency (e.g., in delivering planes across the country), the WASP program was canceled in late 1944, and women were not allowed to fly military planes again until 1977 (!).

WASPs were, in fact, never an official part of the Army (the Air Force had not yet been created) because Congress had not included “pilot” in its list of wartime duties women were allowed to perform. WASPs therefore did not receive military insurance, and those who died while performing their duties (38 women) received no government recognition. This changed in 1977 when President Carter signed a bill that recognized WASPS retroactively as having served in active duty, and WASP veterans received official honorable discharges.

Other countries employed women as military pilots in battle during WWII. In Russia, female pilots were called night witches (fascinating reading) by the Germans who often tangled with them in the air at night. From what I’ve read, our female pilots would have been willing to do the same.

For more info on WASPs and their accomplishments, see WASP on the Web.

Breakfast versus afternoon tea

What is it about a tea that renders it suitable for a particular time of day?

It turns out that “breakfast tea” and “afternoon tea” have no particular standard definitions, but there are conventions. In general, a breakfast tea has a higher caffeine content, while an afternoon tea is meant to create “the perfect feel for a day winding down”. No amount of caffeine gives me a “winding down” feeling (just “winding up”!), but at least this way I can pick an afternoon tea if I want a smaller dose in the morning.

There’s also an interesting historical evolution of the content of a cup of tea that was dictated by the availability of tea imports from different parts of the world (originally China, then also India and Africa).

And what about English, Irish, and Scottish breakfast teas? Here’s a capsule summary (full details):

  • English breakfast: Full-bodied and rich. Originally a China black tea but now frequently includes a strong Ceylon tea component. May also include teas from Assam, Africa, and/or Indonesia.
  • Irish breakfast: More robust than English breakfast. Generally has a strong Assam component, giving it a malty flavor.
  • Scottish breakfast: Typically the strongest of the three. May include teas from China, Assam, Ceylon, Africa, and/or Indonesia.

A malty flavor in tea? I’ll have to pay more attention next time I get to try an Irish variant. The increase in strength for the Scottish breakfast blend is hypothesized to arise from their softer water (took more/stronger leaves to brew?).

Many sources characterize the different tea types (black, green, white, etc.) as having different amounts of caffeine (e.g., Choice Organic Tea’s tea guide). However, there are no industry standards, and tea packages do not typically indicating the caffeine content. Empirical studies have found that caffeine content ranges all over the map for all types of tea. Some example studies (interesting reading!):

Neither study did a breakdown of caffeine content for breakfast vs. afternoon teas, although Friedman et al. reported higher amounts of theaflavins (a beneficial antioxidant) in breakfast teas.

The Chin et al. study also found that brewing your tea in 8 ounces of water yields more caffeine than using 6 ounces (but about the same rate per ounce) and that at least half of the caffeine is extracted after just 1 minute of brewing.

(By the way: what an awesome research topic! Sounds like fun times in the lab.)

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