NerdGuy #31: Behind, rather…above the scenes

One of Nerdguy’s many peculiar pasts was working in theater. In high school, I joined and ultimately ran the theater for two years. After college, I worked another three years in the theater scene that presaged the Seattle Fringe theater movement. Then, finally, after my bicycle trip around the world, I spent six more years working in the IT department for Seattle Opera.


Our budget for a major high school production ran approximately $250. The wonders of all volunteer labor. In the early 1980s Seattle pre-Fringe era, mounts (new productions) ran between $1,000 and $10,000, including crazy cheap labor and hungry actors.

A typical opera production in the late-1990s when I was there had a budget of a couple million. A big, new production might run as high as $5M.

In 1983, we took over an old porn house, gutted it, steam-cleaned and painted the seats, rebuilt the stage, painted all of the walls, hung new lighting instruments, and I installed a large new lighting and sound system, all for about $30,000 and it took us a week.

In 2003, McCaw Hall reopened after a year-long, $127M renovation that I had a very tiny part in. I left the opera in 2001, so my role never had a chance to get bigger. Would have been fun, though, now that I think about it. Nerding out over an entire new building on that scale….whoo-whee!

On last piece on scale:

  • Typical high school production: 6 weeks prep and rehearsal, 700-seat auditorium, 3 performances
  • The typical Seattle theater production I was involved in: 6 weeks prep and rehearsal (with some planning before that), 1-200 seat house, 700 performances (6 shows a week). (That’s how many I did on Angry Housewives, it ran closer to 6,000 total performances.)
  • The typical opera production: 1-2 years of prep (planning before that), 3,000-seat hall, 8 performances.

The Hall

Inside the shell of the White House, May 1950

McCaw Hall began life as an Armory. Then in 1928 it was turned into Civic Auditorium. A major renovation was done in preparation for the first World’s Fair after WWII in 1962. Part of the renovation gutted the interior and built a whole new building inside the armory (much as the Truman renovation built a whole new White House inside the old White House). It made for a fascinating set of curious backstage passages in the gaps, to say the least.

One of the peculiar shortcomings of the Opera House during the years I worked there was the area above the stage–the Fly Loft.

My high school theater’s loft, rose perhaps fifteen feet above the stage. Just enough to hide the above stage lights behind some long, short curtains called teasers. In the small Seattle theaters, there was no loft. There were exposed pipes bolted to the ceiling from which we hung lighting instruments and not much else. Mostly set up in old warehouse spaces, our problems were more that the audience in the back row of seats might risk hitting their heads on the ceiling.

Seattle Opera’s Fly Loft was about the same height above the stage as the stage itself. That meant that if we wanted to raise a long drape out of view, we could–barely. But then it’s bottom edge was interfering with lights, other set pieces, and…let’s just say that it was problematic.

a seattle pike place market operatic romanceThen came the McCaw Hall renovation. I had travelled back to Seattle to have a friend who still worked there give me a tour so that I could write my 2014 book Where Dreams Unfold that is partly set there as it is a romance centered around an opera production.

Dramatic new seating. Lovely new acoustics (the soundman in me really appreciated it as there’d been a dead spot where the singer’s voices mostly skipped the most expensive seats from about Row 8-18 of the main floor). There were also new rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, orchestra pit, trap doors in the stage floor itself for descents into “basements,” and a hundred other fun innovations.

But the Fly Loft? Man, that was breathtaking. The stage itself was now in an 11-story high building all of its own, that just happened to open onto the beautiful, acoustically lovely seating of McCaw Hall.

The Wonder of a Fly Loft

The McCaw Hall loft. Even in this wide-sweeping photo, it’s mostly out of sight above. A few set pieces are scattered about a bare stage. Four “trees” of lighting offer side-lighting positions. The seating can be glimpsed at the very right, past the edge of the proscenium (perimeter of the stage opening). And up above are the bottoms of various drapes, some lighting instrument pipes, and the white strip is the bottom border of a 64′ x 36′ rear projection screen. The main drape is somewhere up there as well. For more on this, check out the technical information brochure for renters HERE.


If you ever wondered how they change scenes so quickly, sometimes in the heart of a fifteen-second blackout, that’s the secret. In an instant, whole set looks can be whisked aloft and others lowered in the places. Roll out a cart, some stairs, a dragon, and the scene moves on. With the long minutes during an intermission? The entire physical layout of walls, stairwells, ocean bottoms, lofty peaks, and trees may be switched out. And much of that happens upward, not side to side.

Below is a side view. All that the audience sees is that little bracketed area in the lower center marked The Proscenium.

More on the Anatomy of a Renovation can be found HERE.

There are 112 80-foot long pipes (the diagram is wrong and says lines) that are hung on six-inch centers. They’re controlled by ropes that go up from the pipes to pass through a massive gridiron “the grid” of supports. The ropes then travel over pulleys to one side of the stage where they gather together and turn to go down again to the Flyloft. This is where each individual pipe is separately controlled to raise and lower the appropriate scene element. Each pipe can carry thousands of pounds of equipment or set pieces. During a major production, there may be an entire crew sitting thirty-feet above the stage in flyloft (basically bored out of their skulls–I speak from experience), awaiting their moments of mayhem as the ropes fly into action.

Overall, it’s an amazing system, still closely related to my long-ago high school theater, and equal to any world-class stage in operation. But why was this Nerdguy worthy? Note the funny little gap between the gridiron and the roof at the top of the overall Fly Loft itself?

Then read the excerpt below from my upcoming novel White Top.

NerdGuy Friday #29: Wreaking Havoc: Part II-gunships

First: a brief return to last week’s NerdGuy

A fan noted that I missed a chance to compare spacecraft evolution and sent me this combined image:

And just to make it a little clearer, here is a wider view of the space shuttle  Endeavour console in 2012 at its retirement:

And a slightly wider view of the Dragon command console. There, um, isn’t anything outside the picture (looking over both astronaut’s shoulders):

Thank you, Kim! (If I got something right about helicopters over the years, it was often with her help. Many, many thanks!)

Now, on to Gunships!

Observant fans of Miranda Chase will have noticed that while the first four books in the series focus on airplanes, the second quartet focuses on rotorcraft.

Miranda Chase political technothriller seriesAnd for a little more clarity, they are all different types of rotorcraft:

There are surprisingly few pure attack helicopters. Even The Night Stalkers of the US Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment don’t actually use a pure attack helicopter. They have an MH-6M Little Bird that can be configured for transport or attack (the AH-6M [attack] is nicknamed the Killer Egg for its egg shape and incredible ability to lay down fire), and the same with the MH-60M Black Hawk. I’m not saying these aren’t incredibly lethal aircraft when configured as gunships, the MH-60M in its DAP (Direct Action Penetrator) configuration may well be the most dangerous rotorcraft in any military today.

But pure attack rotorcraft are actually exceedingly rare:

  • US Army: AH-64 Apache Longbow
  • US Marine Corps: AH-1 Cobras which are rapidly becoming AH-1Z Vipers with upgrades
  • Airbus: EC665 Tiger used by several European countries
  • Italy: Agusta A129 Mongoose
  • China: CIAC Z-10 (they have 2 others but like the MH-6M, they’re multi-role)
  • Russia: Kamov Ka-52 Alligator
  • Russia: Mil Mi-24 Hind (a monstrous and very formidable gunship)
  • Russia: Mil Mi-28 Havoc (a very nasty machine)
  • I might have missed a few minor ones, but otherwise that’s it.

Not for Everybody

Most aircraft are so expensive to design that it is necessary to spread the cost over as many sales as possible. Manufacturers are always seeking and lobbying for access to foreign markets.

Conventional helicopters of every type are easily found in multiple military arsenals…except the gunships. Despite manufacturer’s best efforts, these are rarely exported. The ones that are go only to very, very friendly nations.

For example, Sikorsky Black Hawks are in use by at least twenty-eight countries. The AH-1 has only ever been used in four. Perhaps that fact that the US sold 202 of them to Iran under the Shah in 1971 and they’ve been in use continuously since his 1979 overthrow has something to do with it. And how badly does America wish it could take back the 42 sold to Turkey in the 1990s. Will we soon be regretting the 62 we sold to Taiwan?

UH-60 Black Hawk & AH-1Z Viper

Choosing Your Weapon

I named the book before I wrote the story. I really wanted to use the Ka-52 Alligator, it’s such an interesting aircraft. It sports: coaxial counter-rotating rotors and, in the single-pilot Ka-50 Black Shark version, it has one of the only ejection seats in any rotorcraft [the first blast blows off the rotor blades, the second jettisons the canopy, and the third ejects the pilot]). As I said, fascinating.

So Havoc was almost named Alligator but I couldn’t quite justify that as a title. I seriously considered Black Shark as a title but it only has one pilot, not a pilot and a gunner. I knew that I had would have to get my villain and my hero in the helicopter together before the book was over. And while I could have had great fun with the big Hind (which can also carry eight troops in a small emergency evacuation bay–perhaps able to lift Miranda’s entire team to safety in a crisis moment?), I didn’t think that was quite the title I was after either.

Mi-24 Hind and Mi-52 Havoc

In the End…

I was left with a deep, and slightly terrified, understanding of these lethal machines. As to how they flew in the book, you’ll have to read it to find out.

And since the book was focusing on Holly Harper… What title could better describe my favorite chaos demon than:



Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

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Nerdguy Friday #28: Wreaking Havoc: Part I-cockpits

a political action-adventure technothrillerAs fans of NerdGuy know, Miranda Chase #7, Havoc, is coming out on April 27th. And I take the task of capturing the techno of my technothrillerishness very seriously. Never moreso than when I’m talking about aircraft.

Why? Because the kidhood dream that I didn’t get to live was to be an airline pilot. (I’m just colorblind enough to be disqualified from commercial aviation. I can see just fine for flying, but not well enough to make it a career.) That doesn’t stop me from having fun researching it.

Crashing an Airbus A330-900neo

The opening have Havoc does not go well for an Airbus passenger plane. (Don’t worry, later in the book it doesn’t go well for a Boeing airplane either.)

“The landing of the Airbus A330-900neo unfolded with a movie-like slow motion feel—even more painfully drawn out than watching Engine One destroy itself and the wing.”

I wanted to capture the cockpit as authentically as a setting as I could.

And that setting cost me HOURS! Not because it was hard, because it was fun. So get ready to waste a little time with me.

Inside the cockpit

Only in older, or the least expensive aircraft are pilots still faced with a “steam-gauge” console.

F-86D Sabrejet cockpit (similar to Miranda’s personal F-86F) (c) Wikimedia

Instead, modern pilots in modern aircraft face electronic displays that can pack significantly more information into single displays (information that might require reading and interpreting 5 or 6 steam gauges can be read in a single glance.)

Miranda’s Cessna Citation M2 (c) AOPA

Let me explain this image just a little as a step up to the next one.

  • A little unclear in the foreground are the side-by-side steering wheels. The most important switch is the microphone switch for press-to-talk over the radios.
  • The two displays directly in front of each wheel may be set to different views for the pilot and copilot. A wide variety of views are available and customizable. One might be the best view for current flight navigation, another for information about an upcoming airport, and yet another for weather information.
  • At the center is a shared display that can be easily seen by either pilot and may be set to a wide variety of screens.
  • These two displays are individually controlled by the smaller blue screens in the center foreground, one for each pilot. These are just glorified menu controls. Check out this quick video:

Just search on Garmin 3000 for a lot more videos. I also read chunks of the 686 page instruction manual (again, just for fun–I’m weird that way).

Going Somewhere a Bit Trickier: an airliner

It didn’t take me long to stumble on this site:

Thank you, Airbus!

Airbus A330 cockpit (c) Airbus

We’ll start with just this static picture, but it gets way more fun in a moment. Here’s a few things to note in a tour of an Airbus A330 airliner cockpit:

  • First: Where did the steering wheel go? You’ll see instead a joystick mounting to the outside of either seat. It offers more control and leaves a hand free. It also leaves that central area in front of the pilot open of a small pull-out work area when working on paper forms and the like. (And the real truth? Airline pilots rarely touch this control. Most flying at this level is done by telling the computer what to do, and it does the actual flying.)
  • There are a few more screens, but they’re laid out just like in the little Cessna M2 and they serve exactly the same functions.
  • That overhead console is mostly things you only touch once: either setting up a flight or if there’s an emergency. A lot of it has to do with the engines.
  • The big row of stuff between the pilot seats is mostly screen controllers at the top and radios for communication and navigation below. In the middle of that are the big controls for throttles, flaps, and so on.

Now that you’re oriented… Let’s have some fun!

For this specific flight, let’s actually go into the cockpit, courtesy of Airbus.

Now that you have the gist of it, you can start exploring. Here are a few fun things I picked out to zoom in on:

  • Almost directly overhead (up arrow), ringed in red, are massive buttons for dousing an engine fire (there are also zoom controls or use scroll). Curious tidbit, a pilot can’t see the engines from the cockpit. If they suspect a major problem, they will typically call a steward or have the first officer go back to look out a window.
  • Straight ahead at the top of the windshield’s center strut is a real magnetic compass. If all of the electronics fail, that compass will still work. The little card below it tells you how to correct the reading for accurate navigation.
  • Just to the right of the center screen on the console, find the landing gear panel (LDG Gear). Look carefully at the lever below the green arrows.  Its head is shaped like side-by-side black tires, just like a landing gear. (And in case that seems fun, glance at the black-and-yellow striped bar just below that. LDG GEAR GRVTY EXTN is the emergency method of lowering the gear using gravity if there’s a failure of the main system. Using this and getting a lock is an unnerving proposition.)
  • Check out the last two sections on the left side of that bottom center panel between the chairs. It’s the camera control for the pilot to see who’s knocking at the door and the release switch for the heavy bolts that lock the door.
  • Now center the view on the windshield that tap a right or left arrow until you’re facing the cockpit door. Aim up and down and see the massive locks that are now installed inside a modern cockpit.
  • Look up to either side above the pilot’s heads and you’ll find the escape rope.

And Looking Down

Go back to the Airbus Cockpit 3D virtual tour…and look down at the floor. Specifically under the back of the left-hand pilot’s seat. See the little hatch? If everything else goes wrong, this is an emergency escape route, but where does it lead?

When passengers sit in an airliner, we know that our luggage and a lot of  other cargo are beneath our feet. But that’s not what’s below the cockpit. Under the cockpit is the avionics bay. This is a cramped space that is almost never entered during flight.

So what’s there?

A typical avionics bay is where the airplane’s computers are mounted. Not one or two, but typically three completely redundant systems.  One of the many reasons that airplane flight is still the safest form of travel.

So next time you fly, feel ready to Nerd On!

And read Havoc to see how I applied all these hours of research.



Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

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NerdGuy Friday #27: Most Computers Are Wide, not Fast!

In my upcoming novel, Raider (releases on Tuesday), there is a background thread of just how fast computers are. The bad guys have one size machine, and the good guys…well, that’s part of the story. We’re talking about only a few dozen lines in the whole novel, but I thought I’d talk about what’s behind all that.



Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

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In a funny way, computers are very slow. I know. I know. Computers certainly seem to be fast…

Dial-up 1975

That’s the year, I learned how to crash the Cornell mainframe computer from our high school dial-up 200 miles away. (They served a few hundred high schools on dial-up telephone lines with their insanely powerful IBM 360/165. You can read about it here:

It wasn’t intentional. I just asked a language capable of building a multi-dimensional numerical array [I still miss APL–short for A Programming Language] a question it didn’t know how to answer. Essentially, I asked, “What is a negative numerical space?” Not fractional, but logically negative.

The computer crashed…hard!

I hung up the phone connection:

Acoustic coupler (c) Wikimedia

The computer was gone for at least 4 hours (the school closed and we had to go home). Curious if I was the one who’d caused it (it seemed pretty unlikely), I tried it again the next day after school.

The computer crashed…hard!

I hung up the phone connection.

About three seconds later the phone rang. No one called into a computer’s phone. I answered with more curiosity than trepidation–until I heard the other guy’s tone, then the trepidation kicked in.

“What the hell did you just do to my machine?” They’d put a tracer in place for the next crash.

“Uh, I asked it to build me a negative dimensional array. Not a big one. Just -1 by -1 by -1.” I could have stopped at two dimensions, but if the computer could describe such a space, I wanted to be able to go there. Think of it as an extension of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s still brilliant 1884 classic Flatland.

“Hunh! That’s new.” The guy who could ban me from ever logging on again seemed somewhat mollified. “Don’t do it again for at least a day.”

“Okay.” I waited a week.

Illegal operation.

Man, was that a major letdown. This was the early days of computing when imagination still had a place all the way down at the systems level. Couldn’t the SysOp at least have inserted an error of “You can’t get there from here.” or “Entropy only travels in one direction.” (At least until the movie Tenet.)

It had still taken him hours and hours of work to reboot the computer after my second test.

1982 PC – Slow Boot to Nowhere

My first PC, a non-IBM-compatible NEC 8800, was an 8-bit machine for running CPM, but if I held down three keys for what seemed like forever, I could usually get it to bootstrap in a full 16-bit DOS machine on a $500 plug-in card. Then I was rocking and had amazing tools to play with like WordStar.

The full 16-bit boot took at least 4-5 extra minutes and had a 50-50 success rate for loading properly. If it failed, you waited another 5 minutes to be certain it failed, then you powered down, waited 30 seconds for energy dissipation out of the chips, and tried again.


Now, I tap my phone and it says, “Yeah? Wudda ya want, punk?” (My wife feels that it’s always lurking there, waiting for her, watching her–with attitude! It kind of creeps her out. I try not to tell her that she’s right. We don’t talk about Siri or Alexa in polite society.)

However, the computers you and I tinker with every day are NOT fast. Not even the banks of computer servers we so blithely tap into every single time we hit a website or check our e-mail. Slow as molasses (I’ll get to why I say that in a moment).

(Oh, here’s the moment.) All of those server-farm computers are “wide” not “fast.”

Huh? Yeah, I know. It means that they’re really good at moving great masses of information. Images are so small that they’re passe in the computing world, YouTube videos almost as much so. Now we can stream HD and 4k television without even thinking about it (Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney…). 5G will bring us the width to go virtual, moving great masses of digital stuff around quickly–while we’re anywhere. But again, that’s width, not computing speed.

Some Computers Are Fast!

Since 1993, there’s been a measurement called the TOP500. It lists the fastest 500 computers in the world and tracks their computing capacity.
Here’s the site (and the latest article is a good, geeky read):
As always, Wikipedia has a simplified listing, mostly lifted from the site above:

These are the machines to go to when speed really matters.

So, How fast is fast?

Computing speed is measured in FLOPS (Floating Point Operations Per Second). Think of it as a line of math with a variable decimal point and you get the idea.

Your average, high-end, multi-core desktop home computer can do a few hundred GFLOPS. That Giga-FLOPS or a hundred billion operations per second. (Of course, they’d probably melt if you did that in a sustained run.)

So, if you had a penny for every FLOP, you’d get about $2 billion dollars/second (just trying to show some scale here).

The 500th computer on November 2020’s TOP500 list belongs to Internet Company of China. It is capable of 29,920 TerraFLOPS (that’s a thousand GigaFLOPS, or 30-ish PetaFLOPS).

At a penny per FLOP, this kind of breaks down. The entire world’s 2019 Global GDP was just over $87 trillion USD. (
30 PetaFLOPS is $30 Quadrillion USD.

That’s the slowest of the TOP500.

The IBM Watson computer (perhaps the most famous one ever, it won Jeopardy), didn’t reach even half the speed of the TOP500 500th machine in 2013. (c) Wikipedia

The present #1 fastest computer in the world is named Fugaku and works in Japan. It has 7M processor cores and can sustain 442 PetaFLOPS and peak at 537. It’s about 25 million times faster than your high-end desktop home computer. So, again, $0.01 for every full computing second of your high-end home machine (running on the edge of meltdown) gets you richer than Elon Musk ($184B) in just 122 seconds, or two minutes. In just 25 minutes, you’d be richer than the world’s largest company, Apple ($2.3T).

Now that’s fast!

What is the Fast for?

Well, that’s a question for a different time, but here are a few:

  • Modeling weather patterns (one of the most difficult and complex systems ever encountered). Global climate change research? Oh yeah, supercomputers are all over that.
  • Modeling nuclear explosives (with the data gathered in the past, these incredibly complex atomic interactions continued to be studied and improved on supercomputers). Molecular interactions of many forms.
  • If my memory serves, two full minutes of supercomputer time were used to model the record-breaking design parameters of the Oracle catamaran raced in the 2010 America’s Cup (
  • This of course includes anything with complex aerodynamics (ie. moving through something like air, water, space, gravity…: cars, planes, rockets to Mars, etc. (It would be a waste of a supercomputer to do the flight, but to design the rocket and model the lander trying to slow down in Mars’ thin atmosphere? Absolutely.)
  • AI, real AI? Yeah, you need a supercomputer to gobble “wide” and process “fast.”
  • The imagination reels.



Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

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About the Book

A cyberattack penetrates US military systems. The woman to solve it? Miranda Chase.

The US Army’s brand-new S-97 Raider reconnaissance helicopter goes down during final acceptance testing—hard. Cause: a failure, or the latest in a series of cyberattacks by Turkey?

Miranda Chase, the NTSB’s autistic air-crash genius, and her team of sleuths spring into action. They must find the flaw, save the Vice President, and stop the US being forced into the next war in the Middle East. And they have to do it now!

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