Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Experiences vs. Things: A writer's view

Good piece in the Atlantic today, Buy Experiences, Not Things, about what consumers say they get by way of “happiness dividend” when they spend a given amount of money on experiences (a vacation, a concert ticket, a hot-air balloon ride) compared to spending the same money on material stuff. 

According to the studies, purchasers report more happy feelings about the experiences they purchased, than the goods they bought.

One reason may be that while a new gadget like the iPhone 6 inspires people to rush out and join long lines, all such gadgets age, go out of date, and misbehave. While they may be a good spending decision in terms of sheer utility for the dollars, they also may bring as much grief as happiness.  

Yet a bad experience can morph into a positive memory, no matter how maddening the experience was at the moment. Why? It's raw material for a vivid story later, and listeners love a good story.

I can relate to this myself, being a lifelong member of the group that marketers call “Experientials" -- people who love to gather experiences. Advertisers think about experiences that are purchased or that lead to purchases, but I like to think of experience as a part of work.

It's one reason I got into feature writing. Having seen the middle column of the Wall Street Journal's front page as a teenager, I thought that going out to research and write such stories would be a good job to have. It would be an extension of what my parents did for my brothers and me on family trips, going on dozens of factory tours. 

And 36 years of feature writing really did open up lots of interesting places, many of which are normally off limits; and it gave me the chance to visit with many fine people in the places where they work.

So as to encourage newcomers into this line of reportage, here are some highlights from those field trips:

First story, visit into the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas: No, they didn't let me into the warhead-assembly line but it was interesting to go into the plant and learn about thermonuclear weapons and how they are transported hither and yon. Security level: pretty tight.

Second story, how buildings would age if abandoned, for Smithsonian: In 1983 I toured the World Trade Center's north tower from basement to roof, and had a long and fascinating conversation with the chief structural engineer, Leslie Robertson. Also I went into the innards of the Grand Coulee Dam and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Here's an illustration from that article:

Pennsylvania: Rode with a helicopter crew that maintained live, high-voltage power lines. This very skilled crew worked from an MD-500 helicopter, replacing spacers on a 230,000-volt line.This was the edgiest flying job I've seen first hand: pilot Mark Campolong had to keep the tail rotor within a couple of feet of the cable.

Other helicopter ride-alongs: on a MH60 Black Hawk with a Night Stalkers crew on a training mission out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Cobra gunship in Missouri, Sikorsky S-61 flight to to oil rig, Bell 206 in remote stretches of the North Slope.

East Texas: Accompanied a recovery team working out of National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, searching for a one-ton payload that came down in the Piney Woods. That was a lot of fun.

Los Angeles County Fire Department: crawled through their collapsed-building earthquake-training maze and jumped from a helicopter into a lake.

California: went to Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the middle of the night to watch transmissions being prepared for Voyager 2; climbed onto the Deep Space Network antenna in the Mojave to see how the signals go out.

Time in aircraft simulators, with expert instructors: flew a simulated 737 in Delta Airlines' simulator, and a B-2 sim at Whiteman Air Force Base. The latter was a surprisingly high-security shop, perhaps because of war plans that are rehearsed there; even the public affairs officer with me had to prove his identity.

Colorado: Learned how to handle a roaring fire under a large propane tank; then donned bunker gear to crawl from a burning mobile home. 

Texas: a police officer taught me how to make 180-degree turns at 40 mph.

Carthage, Mo: toured a dynamite factory and got a closeup look at metriol trinitrate, a variety of nitroglycerin, flowing from one pipe to another, in the open air, so as to avoid shock waves. Safe to say, this plant had some of the most serious safety precautions I've seen anywhere.

Vertical Assembly Building, Kennedy Space Center: Joined a crew checking the orbiter Columbia for space debris damage; saw solid rocket booster segments being stacked.

Stennis Space Center, MS: Saw a live test of the J-2X engine.

Water Tunnel No. 3, deep under Manhattan and Brooklyn: Visits to the valve chamber and to a tunnel under construction, immediately after blasting. This was the most interesting time, but there's some danger of a rock slab falling on one's head.

Ropesville, Texas: Rode a cable to the top of a radio tower with a construction crew.

NYC: went into the wreckage of World Trade Center 6 (the Customs House), six months after 9/11.

Houston, Texas: Climbed to the top of a tower crane at a construction show.

North Dakota: Visit to the giant phased-array radar antenna that watches for space debris ... and sneak attacks.

Groton, CT: learned how to escape from a sinking, overturned helicopter at Survival Systems Inc. (article is forthcoming in Air&Space).

Kansas and Gulf of Mexico: Spent a total of a week at two oil rigs.

Minnesota: Took lessons on how to fly a helicopter.

Ohio: went into the Ohio State Prison to learn about safecracking from one of the residents.

Los Angeles: Accompanied a raid into a company making counterfeit merchandise, led by a private detective and sheriff's deputies. 

So, thanks to all my expert tour guides!

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