Sunday, August 6, 2023

A Weird Period With the Solar System Appears to End Well

I've been quiet about the status of my solar system for a few months now, and there's a good reason for that. Sometime in May, things got weird, and it took until late July to un-weird them, and the result of that process didn't become apparent until, well, today, in early August. 

We entered May feeling optimistic. We'd seen our first power bill charging only for delivery and fees, not grid consumption. At the end of a period with sunny and dry weather, we expected more sun and more days producing more power than consuming, or at least offsetting high consumption from the use of AC and the pool heater. Yet in that same peppy post from May 1, I noticed that production in March was higher than that of April. In hindsight, I should have seen that as a red flag. 

Things got weird in the month of May. Production came in below April and by a lot: 731 kWh versus 865 kWh. That by itself is weird. Days get longer in May, and the weather generally gets sunnier as summer approaches. It really should have been accelerating, not slowing down. I reckoned the weather was a factor: It was an unusually cloudy month for May, with several rainy days in the second half of the month.

I also suspected that perhaps the panels were dirty. The same tree pollen that coated my car with a fine dusty patina appeared also to coat the panels. (You can kind of see it in the picture of the back array at left.) In one funny moment, I took my water compressor and tried to manufacture some "rain" on the front panels. It was fun to try, but it made no difference.

As the month progressed, my concern mounted. I put in a call to our vendor, Kasselman Solar, who sent out a service rep to take a closer look. (She quickly dismissed my theory about the pollen dust.) Communication, it seems, between one of the basement inverters and its home base stuck out right away as an apparent problem. The location of my home has exceptionally bad cellular phone coverage, and the SolarEdge inverter relies on a cellular modem to report its production and output, including its exported power to the utility grid. That old saying "proof or it didn't happen" applies here. If the inverter can't report exported power, I don't get credit for it on my bill, end of story. And those credits are essentially the reason the entire system exists. 

One of the two inverters, it turned out, wasn't communicating at all. It had a faulty comms board, the internal part that talks to the cellular modem. Either the board or the inverter itself would have to be replaced. 

By mid-June, a new inverter had been swapped in and all seemed to be on its way to resolution. Yet as June swung into July, production still didn't rise to a reasonable level. Weather continued to present a challenge. June and the first week or so of July were marked by numerous severe thunderstorms and flooding in the Hudson Valley. I couldn't really expect high production numbers under those conditions. (That dust I had worried about? Totally gone.)

Yet as the weather conditions improved, the needle still didn't move meaningfully. In July of 2022, the first full month of the system's production, the system produced 1.43 mWh. In July of 2023, I produced 732 kWh, or about half the level from the year-ago period. Something was clearly amiss. 

A second service visit from Kasselman revealed the problem: In the technician's argot "One of your strings is down." It meant — I think — that a line connecting some of the panels to the inverter was not working. The source of the problem, it was later revealed, was a "bad crimp," which again I think meant either a faulty component or a poor connection. "Bad crimps happen," he said. Okay then. He and a colleague climbed up on the roof, fixed what had to be fixed, and that was that. Problem solved? Not just yet.

The communication problem was still unsolved and appears as of today to have been more significant than I realized. In parallel to all this I had been struggling with steadily worsening Wi-Fi around the house and had decided to upgrade it. Wherever I live, I make a point to get the fastest Internet connection I have, and so I have a 1-gigabit plan from the local cable company.

But the trio of TP-Link Deco M4 Wi-Fi routers the cable installer had suggested just weren't getting the job done. They seemed overwhelmed by all the connected devices in the house: Three phones, three iPads, a smart TV, smart lights, a connected washer, dryer, dishwasher, oven, and fridge, three always-on computers, network-attached storage, a smart speaker system. You get the idea. 

I went looking for a more robust mesh router system. I turned to Wirecutter, the product review team at The New York Times, and read their reviews of wireless mesh systems and settled on the Asus Zen WiFi AX. I bought a set of two and liked the results. (My cable connection is still wonky, but I'm hoping for an upgrade to fiber optics sometime soonish.)

In anticipation of the second visit from Kasselman's technicians, I bought another set of two. All in the upgrade cost me $700. It seems to have been worth it.

In a conversation with the Kasselman service manager, I learned that the SolarEdge inverters are not approved by the FCC to connect to Wi-Fi, but if a router is close by, a technician can connect it to the Internet via an ethernet cable. This is where the Asus routers made a difference. The main router creates a 5 GHz "backhaul" connection to feed the other Wi-Fi nodes stationed around the house. One of the new routers, I reasoned, if placed in the basement and connected by ethernet, would give that inverter a clear no-excuses connection to report its status. On that second service visit, after the fix on the crimp and the string, I had that fourth router powered up and ready for them to connect to the inverter. Now it's sitting on top of the home battery. Eventually, I'll mount a shelf there. 

Today is the first day that it became clear that we're in a different phase with the solar system. The data connection is working, and SolarEdge has updated its monitoring apps, and the data is just looking different than before. And by different, I mean, better. So much better. 

Last year, the most productive days of the summer peaked at about 60 kWh. This week we've already seen two days with production north of 80 kWh. As I write the sun is setting on the third day this week with production north of 82 kWh, of which more than 40 percent has been exported to the grid. And since temps have been in the mid-70s, our use of the AC has declined, keeping overall consumption down. 

It almost seems like the entire system has been running at less than its full capacity since installation. I'm going to try not to think about all the missed sunlight over the last year, and focus instead on the prospect of improved performance ahead. If this is the new normal for sunny mid-summer days then that is very good news indeed. 

One thing I definitely learned: If you live in an area where cellular coverage is anything less than ideal, do whatever it takes to get a hardwired Internet connection to the inverter. That data link is a lot more important than I ever realized. 

Monday, May 1, 2023

Another Solar Update: The Day We've Been Waiting For

We received our latest power bill from Central Hudson and the day we've been aiming for has finally arrived: We owe nothing for electrical power beyond a flat service fee of $35.10 plus state and local taxes of 83 cents. That's it. 

It shouldn't come as a surprise, and yet it still does. Every few days I take a picture of our meter and pretty much every time since the start of 2023, the number indicating our overall consumption is lower than before. But to see this confirmed on a bill after 10 months with the system in service is terrific validation of the plan we envisioned when we first decided to go solar. 

Here's how the usage graphic appears on the bill, and of course it's not perfect — that "estimate" for August is especially problematic because I know it's wrong. I know from my own data that in the first quarter of the year, net production was more than 113 percent of consumption. And I'm not sure why the bill doesn't display a zero for that period as well. We send photographs of our actual meter readings to the billing office, and I save them. So I can prove that on Jan. 1 the meter read 2104 and that on April 1 it read 1826. So the math shows my net consumption for that period a negative 278 kWh. How the utility arrived at that figure of net consumption of 177 is unclear except that it may have to do with the days on which we submitted our readings. Meter submission days make a difference. I've created a new view in the SolarEdge tracking app to show us detailed production between precise billing dates — the current period ends on June 26 — we'll have a clearer picture of the utility's math. 

Meanwhile, the net consumption figures for the year so far continues to look better every day. (See chart.) As of today net production is 2.85 mWh against consumption of 2.29 mWh or 124 percent. That includes 1.93 mWh of exported power and 0.92 mWh consumed directly from solar. That means the panels directly supplied about 40 percent of our daytime power needs. 

Continuing the trend about which I wrote earlier, the sunny and cold days of February continued through much of March and the first half of April. March turned out to be sunnier and more productive month than April. 

But there's still some big questions lying ahead as we move from spring into summer. The big item: The pool will open in about two weeks and that will bring with it the high power consumption of the electric pool heater. 

Also in June: The system's anniversary date, which is when the utility supposedly credits us for the net billing effect of all the excess power that has been "exported" to its grid. Since the system only operated for about half of last year, we ended 2022 with production-to-consumption ratio of about 80 percent, ie, we consumed more than we produced. My math — and I may be doing it wrong — shows that given last year's abbreviated production and high consumption, has us running behind by more than 2 mWh. So even though we're ahead for calendar 2023 so far, we haven't yet produced more power overall than we've taken from the grid since the beginning.

Here's the math: 

2022 net grid consumption after solar consumption and export: 3.17 mWh
2023 net grid consumption, after exports so far: (1.12) mWh
Difference: 2.05 mWh

In order to build up that summer billing cushion I had been hoping for — the utility calls it a "generation bank" — we have to produce more than 2 full megawatt hours above our consumption by the middle of June. That's a lot. This will of course be an easier exercise next year assuming a repeat of a sunny fall and winter. It also means getting control of consumption during the summer which will be a challenge. I'm contemplating a thermal blanket for the pool to preserve the water's heat and minimize the need for running the heater. For now, here's hoping for some really sunny days in May and June. 

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Digital Security: How I Do Things, Part I

Occasionally someone will ask me how I protect myself online. Usually, the question is superficial, and a superficial answer is expected. But the answer I give rarely is. There are reasons for this. 

For one thing, during my years as a reporter, I had to learn to be careful when communicating with confidential sources. None of them were exactly Deep Throat, but I did take steps to make sure that what they might say in an email or text message exchange was protected. 

Even so, once, during the summer of 2017, my email account was breached by someone using an IP address in South Africa. I could go into detail about why I believe this, but the fact that it happened — and my conclusion may be wrong — shook me.

I thought I had been careful. I had been an early convert to two-factor authentication, and not the weak version involving text messages, but the stronger app-based version. I also used robust passwords and an encrypted password manager.

I resolved after that breach to be a little more paranoid. I started changing my email password as well as a few others at least once a month and doubled down on 2FA everywhere. My worries about that old breach faded, but my paranoia about the next one never did. 

Last summer, I kicked my security posture up a notch. I decided to experiment with hardware security keys from the Swedish company Yubico. It wasn't long before that experiment became a full-scale deployment across my digital footprint and that of my spouse. And the technology is having a moment: Earlier this year, Apple enabled support for hardware keys on its AppleID/iCloud scheme. That got people interested and writing articles about it in the press

Essentially they work like this: When engaged by touching a tiny button after they've been inserted into a USB port, or in some cases held close to a phone or tablet, these keys generate the second code required in two-factor authentication process using the chips in them, and replacing the code, also known as a "one-time password" or OTP that would be texted to you or show up in an authentication app. It can be used to eliminate those inherently less secure approaches to 2FA. There are far more detailed and technical explanations you can find, but that more or less explains it. 

I enabled a set of keys to protect my AppleID. Setting up the first one literally took no longer than the demonstration in this 45-second video. I used two Yubikey 5Cs which cost me $55 each. (Apple smartly requires a minimum of two.) They support NFC or Near-Field Communications protocol, and so when I use it to authenticate to the phone all I have to do is hold it up to the back of the device. One is on my keyring, and another is locked away in case the first one gets lost. For my MacBook Pro I bought a tiny Yubikey 5C Nano  (This one was $65) which sits more or less permanently in a USB-C port. I enabled three keys to start— the first two were already visible on my Mac and iPad Pro — and it took minutes. A few days later I repeated the process for my spouse.

It was more time-consuming to enable all three keys for several other accounts I use that support Yubikey, and there are many. Among them are my Google account, including GMail, Dropbox, Twitter, and Facebook, and even one financial account, but notably not my bank. It also works with Microsoft accounts including, OneDrive, and Office365. It also works with several good password managers, including both 1Password and BitWarden which are the two options I recommend, which aligns with advice from reviewers at The New York Times' Wirecutter

One downside: You will need multiple keys, in case you lose one, so you'll have to spend a touch more than you may like. As I noted above, Apple requires two keys minimum to protect an AppleID. And frankly, you'll want a backup key in case you misplace one. I have two key rings, so between one for each plus the Nano device in my MacBook, and a backup locked in a safe, I ended up actively using four. My wife has three. 

Obviously, no security scheme is perfect, but I think adding hardware-based 2FA to the mix is a significant step, that at first seems like it's going to be complicated, and then it's really not. It's not inconvenient to use the keys to authenticate into a service at all — unless you honestly don't have your key with you, in which case you can still use other 2FA apps like Duo Mobile or Authy in addition.

There are a few other things I do to protect myself online, and I'll share some of those ideas in a future post. 

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Solar Update: It's Not Even April and My Meter Is Running Backward

In my last update on the performance of my solar power system, I had several open questions concerning what to expect during the winter months, and also about what to expect in the new year. Both have been answered in terms that are pretty clear. 

First off, production versus consumption in November continued along the same lines of September and October, though in a somewhat diminished fashion. The system produced 616 kWh against overall consumption of 544 kWh for a ratio of 1.13.

Of that production, I directly consumed 200 kWh, or about 32 percent, directly from solar and exported about 416 kWh to the CenHud grid. The level of production fell from slightly north of 1 mWh in September and 812 kWh in October. 

As you might expect for the season, the trend reversed itself in December and in January. For December I consumed 602 kWh and produced 428 kWh. In January consumption was 592 kWh and production was 396 kWh. And while in both of those months, I consumed more than I produced, they were nevertheless a victory of sorts. I mean who would have expected that I'd produce more than two-thirds of my power from solar during a Hudson Valley winter? 

February reversed the trend once again — I produced 114 percent of what my house consumed that month. And March is on track to repeat that feat, but only higher. As of today, the number is 154 percent.

The explanation is simple. It's been an unusually mild winter, with lots of cold sunny days. Consider the graph below from Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, when the sun rose at 7:18 AM and set at 4:28 PM. I'd like to show this graph to the doubters who thought I'd never get good solar production in the Northeast.

This brings me to another point about the trend of my power production and consumption for the calendar year. Put simply, production for the full year to date is well ahead of consumption and it's not yet April. As of today, I've produced 1.79 mWh against 1.64 mWh worth of consumption which works out to 109 percent. 

I've been tracking this trend elsewhere via the figures displayed on my net meter. I take a picture of it with my phone and send it on to CenHud every month or so in order to create a reliable record of my consumption and to head off its often inaccurate billing estimates. As luck would have it I took a picture of the meter on Jan. 1 when it was displaying 2104. Today that figure was 1969. That implies that for the calendar year so far I've got a credit of about 135 kWh which given the average price of about 17 cents per watt-hour works out to about $23. 

At first glance that amount isn't much to write home about, but had I consumed the same amount of power without the solar system, I would have owed the power company more than $277 plus delivery fees, which would boost the cost to well above $300. 

I suspect that by the time summer hits that credit will grow considerably. My hope is that it's enough to offset the increase in consumption and cost from running the air conditioner and pool heater.

Another issue has come up: The gas portion of our utility bill remains stubbornly high. I've started wondering if it's worth the effort and investment of replacing the gas cooktop with an electrical induction cooktop. When we remodeled the kitchen last year, we kept the existing gas range in order to keep the project cost under control. Secondly, we're due for a new water heater. I'm thinking tankless electric. 

Meanwhile, there are a few other things I wish I knew: Snow rolls off solar panels really easily and tends to accumulate in greater amounts near the panels than other sections of the roof. The main batch of south-facing panels on the house is mounted above the back deck. At various times of the day and night, we'd hear violent-sounding bumps as sections of snow would melt off and hit the deck or other sections of the roof. The first time times it was a little jarring. Matt Ferrell discussed this and a few other things in his Undecided video series, of which I have become a recent fan. If you're thinking about going solar, you should be a fan too. 

( Graphics are from my SolarEdge dashboard. The sun photo above is by Razvan Dumitrasconiu via Unsplash.)

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Another trip into the archive: My First Apple Story

I published the essay below in early 2015. The stories to which I refer date back to 1998. - Ed. 

As of this writing, I’ve spent more time than many in the tech media covering at least some aspect of the Apple beat. This has not always been something that reporters would covet in the manner they do today.

For a few months in 1998, I worked briefly for Internet World, a weekly trade newspaper covering the Internet industry. (Yes, it was a newspaper that covered the Internet…. Don’t start….) It was owned by Alan Meckler’s MecklerMedia Corp. which has after numerous corporate contortions survived inexplicably to this day. The publication didn’t.

The summer Macworld conference was taking place in New York that year, and I lobbied successfully for the assignment to cover it. It was easy: No one else wanted to go.

At a time when Apple is now the largest company in the world by market cap, it may be hard to remember, but in 1998 the only stories anyone seemed to want to write about Apple concerned the corporate death spiral it seemed only to be delaying. The notion of a journalist who covered Apple full time, now a plum assignment at several tech and business publications, was limited to perhaps the local newspaper in Apple’s hometown, and a handful of enthusiast magazines.

Nineteen ninety-eight was another of the bad years for Apple. The best indicator of just how bad was its share price. After adjusting for stock splits over the years, Apple shares were trading at $1.036 a share as the month of July began in 1998. [Update: As of 2022 the split-adjusted price in July 1998 was about 26 cents. -Ed.]

The summer before, Wired had published its "Pray" cover (at right) containing 101 suggestions for saving the company. It was low on cash, suffering under the domination of Microsoft Windows, and the conventional narrative about its future was not so bright.

This was the day that history began to turn Apple’s way, and I was present when it happened. From the stage at New York’s Javits Center, Steve Jobs first showed the world the iMac. This was the first computer of that name — the brand survives to this day — and in many ways was the product that saved Apple.

It was a colorful desktop machine — Bondi Blue — and controversial in many ways. It had no floppy disk drive. It was the first computer to use the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port that is so common on PCs and Macs plus so many wall sockets and cars today. None of the uglier and more conventional connection technologies were present. This too was controversial.

In time the iMac would evolve. It would gain more computing muscle, several iterations of colors, and more radical physical designs. The product was one that bought Apple the time it needed to figure out what it was going to do next. A little more than three years later, in the fall of 2001, we learned what that would be: The iPod. Six years after that came the iPhone. And three years after that, the iPad.

IMac G3 Bondi Blue, photographed from side. Credit: Steve Hackett.
Now let’s go back and look at that stock price chart from 1998 to early 2015. If you had bought a single share of Apple stock in the summer of 1998, you would have paid about $30 for it.

If you had owned that single share to the present day without selling, it would have by virtue of several stock splits, multiplied into 28 shares, each worth about $127 as of the closing price on Feb. 13, 2015, totaling $3,558.24. That amounts to an increase in value of 11,761 percent. [I updated the math to reflect data from late 2022. The same share held since July of 1998 would be 112 shares worth more than $15,000 for an appreciation of about 50,000 percent. See the chart I used.-Ed.]

Below is a video of the Steve Jobs keynote from that day. After that are two versions of the story I filed on the day’s proceedings. One was for, the online outlet of the print publication. (An archival version without my byline can be found here.) Seven days later came a print version that ran in the weekly newspaper at the bottom of page 8 of a 74-page issue, which is also embedded below.

I of course went on to find a more interesting professional setting and parted ways with MecklerMedia within a month of publishing these stories. For a short period, I found freelancing for Wired News more lucrative. But before the year was out I had landed a staff job at Electronic News covering the chip industry at another historically critical period, which in turn led to jobs at Forbes, BusinessWeek, AllThingsD, and then Recode. By 2005 I had taken over a dormant column at BusinessWeek entitled “Byte of the Apple,” a bi-weekly meditation on all things Apple. Among its readers was Steve Jobs, who would occasionally call or email when he read something he liked or more often when he didn’t. That is another story.

iMac Grabs Spotlight at MacWorld
By Arik Hesseldahl
Internet World

[July 8, 1998 — New York City] Apple’s interim CEO Steve Jobs surprised the crowd at MacWorld Expo by showing up in person, not via satellite as was originally planned. And he brought news that seemed to hearten the crowd of Macintosh faithful.

The undisputed star of the show was Apple’s iMac, the eye-catching translucent desktop model set for release on Aug. 15. Jobs said the machines will ship with 56 Kbps modems, not the 33.6 Kbps modems that had been originally planned.

It was at this same conference in Boston a year ago that Jobs first announced what some Mac users likened to a pact with the devil, a software development alliance with Microsoft. That feeling was evident today, but to a lesser degree as Jobs was hissed as he mentioned Apple’s plans to bundle Internet Explorer and Outlook Express with the iMac.

“I use IE and I like it,” Jobs said. “You can make your own choice, and choice is good don’t you think?” he said as the crowd applauded. Indeed, two other presenters, Apple vice president for worldwide marketing Phil Schiller and Richard Wolpert, president of Disney Online, mentioned IE as their “browser of choice” during their segments of the keynote address.

Microsoft, seemingly determined to win more friends among the Mac community, did not come to the show empty-handed. Ben Waldman, Microsoft general manager for Macintosh products, announced a Mac-specific upgrade to its browser, Internet Explorer 4.01 that will be bundled with the iMac.

New features include Web archiving, and the ability to save the content of a Web site for offline browsing. A new tabs feature will allow users to keep the results of their Web searches on sites like Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and Infoseek, in their browsing window simultaneously with the content of the pages they select from the results.

Schiller introduced a new Internet search feature, code-named Sherlock that will be included with the release of Mac OS 8.5 set for later this year. Enhancing the current “find file” menu item, the new feature will search on the Internet via several search engines, including Alta Vista, Excite, HotBot, and Lycos as well as Apple’s Tech Info Library.

At the show, Disney’s Wolpert announced that its Blast Online will be available to Mac users for free during a preview. Previously, Mac users could not access the service that is geared toward children. Once the test ends, at a date to be announced, the subscription service will be offered at the rate of $6 a month or $40 a year.

(Photos: Stephen Hackett, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons and Steve Jurvetson from Los Altos, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons ) 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

From The Archives: The Bungee Jumping Story (1990)

Thirty-two years ago this month I published this story I wrote for The Commuter, the weekly student paper at Linn-Benton Community College, just before I was to transfer to the University of Oregon. It was kind of my swan song at the paper that had been my home base for the first few years of my college career.

My plan had been to write a standard-issue "Look what crazy things people are doing now!" sort of feature on Oregon Bungee Masters, the business that organizes jumping excursions, and its customers. I ended up jumping and writing a first-person account of the experience instead.

The idea originated with Bill Mills. He and I were students together at the college and had started out working on the paper together the same year. And we had both served stints as its Editor. Now in our third year of college, we had both stuck around at LBCC for an additional round of fall term classes before heading off in different directions. Neither of us had formal positions at the paper and yet its office formed our social home base between classes. We'd hang out with friends on the staff and write the occasional story.

That fall, Bill had a case of Bungee fever. I'm not sure what brought it on exactly, but in 1990 Bungee Jumping was having a moment. It was the year that Reebok had staged a jump to launch its Pump brand of basketball shoes. Bill was eager to try it and arranged a trip intending to write a story. Sensing a good writing opportunity, I asked to join. 

Initially, I didn't intend to jump. Bill insisted rather strenuously in a dramatic way that only he could, that I could only join the trip if I agreed to jump. I agreed but kept that decision from my parents, who were understandably freaked out at the prospect of the whole thing. 

Six years after its publication, I submitted this clip with my application to Columbia's Graduation School of Journalism. A member of the admissions committee — one with a reputation for not being easily impressed by applicant submissions — gave it her highest rating, essentially cementing my admission. That means that had I not written this story, my career and life might have been very different.

Bill and I had drifted apart as young people do, and I can't remember seeing him again after the end of the fall term. Years later, he met a tragic end, so I never got to thank him for insisting. -Ed.

A Leap of Faith

By Arik Hesseldahl
Of The Commuter

Forget every definition of fear and sheer terror you’ve ever understood. Forget all the laws of common sense, that tell you not to stand in front of a car going 75 miles per hour, touch a hot burner, or jump off a 175-foot bridge.

When I first became acquainted with Bungee Jumping, I thought it was just another of those crazy California fads that people do for a little hype and 4-minute spots on “PM Magazine.” When the recent Reebok commercial made Bungee jumping more popular, I boasted that I would do it if given the chance, a chance I would never get, not in Oregon anyway. But then we heard about a jump scheduled outside Eugene on Nov. 18, and it was time to put up or shut up.

The site was the Blue River Dam catwalk in Eastern Lane County, 200 or more feet above the ground — no water, just a rocky floor where the water of the McKenzie River used to be.

Casey Dale is the guy in charge. He's the proprietor of Oregon Bungee Masters. I know little about him except what I learned during a phone conversation a few weeks before. The setup is simple. Two harnesses and four bungee cords, each about as thick as my thumb and capable of supporting objects that weigh up to 1,500 lbs. The military uses them to drop jeeps and tanks from planes.

“If you weigh more than a jeep or a tank you probably shouldn’t try this. In fact, if you weigh more than a jeep or a tank, I don’t even want to know you,” Casey says during our short class on how to "fall properly."

There are two methods: The swan dive and the backward fall, also known as the “Elevator to Hell.” The swan dive involves a forward leap out and away from the platform mounted on the catwalk railing. Then count to two and grab onto the shoulder straps to protect your face. It doesn’t seem too difficult, assuming you can count while in freefall. I opt for the backward fall. Start out with hands across your chest on the shoulder straps, and leap away from the platform backward. It’s the safest way to go, and emotionally easier if you don’t like looking down from great heights.

I’m still not completely convinced about the bungee cord. Casey hands me a short piece of the stuff. My companion Chuck Hicks and I play tug-o-war and can barely feel a stretch. The bungee cord will not break. And if one does, there are three more there just like it. I am convinced.

“It’s a real deep emotional reach for most people and they have to find the strength from within themselves,” he says. “When you are ready, start counting down from five and the rest of us will join in from four. That’s all the noise we’ll make.”

We are now ready to jump. A young Oregon State University woman whose friends call her Anderson — I later learn she's on the university's Diving team — is the first to go. She has made a three-jump reservation and doesn’t seem scared at all.

She leaps off from the platform and everyone watches in silence until she starts her count. Off she goes like there was nothing to it as if she was a regular. Everyone wants to know what it's like, she has almost nothing to say.

At the end of each fall, Anderson bounces at the end of the cord like a yo-yo, and we can see her as she swings all the way to the other side of the catwalk. A rope is thrown down. She gets ahold of it and hooks into her harness. About ten fellow jumpers pitch in to help pull her up.

Casey says it’s now my turn.

I leave my glasses with Chuck, and don the goggles attached to the shoulder harness. The four-foot climb to the top of the platform is more difficult than I realized — I’m only four feet higher than before and I’m terrified. My steps to turn around are only centimeters in length. I am not a person typically comfortable with heights, and my movements make that obvious. Every tiny movement of my feet seems likely to cause me to fall before I'm ready. Everyone can see that I am scared past my wits. I will later be told that I sounded like a tired-out dog before the jump and that my color matched that of Caspar the Friendly Ghost with a hangover. This is not my finest hour.

I close my eyes since I can’t see much anyway, and try to find the proper mental state to do this. There isn’t one. My mind is clear, except for the fact that I eventually have to get this over with. My eyes are open, but I don’t really notice, because they have glazed over. All I see is an internal emptiness. I suddenly realize that I might be taking a long time to get off the platform.

I mutter “okay”, presumably to myself, and Casey’s assistant Alex starts the count without me.

"Starting from five,” he says. The rest of the group starts in, and I realize that if these people get to one and I am still on the platform, I am in some kind of trouble, or at least embarrassed. They get to one and my legs make the leap without my permission. I am now out and away from the platform and falling at an ever-increasing rate, and I haven’t yet realized what I have done.

I see the platform, my last link to the real world fall away from me in a direction I had never imagined I would see something fall. This is not reality.

In dreams I’ve had of falling, (you know, the kind we all have when you wake up before you hit and wake to find you’ve fallen out of bed) have all returned here to haunt me. The feeling I had dreamed of was accurate, but only a millionth of the intensity I now feel. I am frightened to a point I had never imagined possible, but I am still in control of myself. I am powerless to stop this fall, so all I can do is wait for the ultimate “trust fall” to end, and I don’t know when I will be caught.

Then it's suddenly over. During the fall, it seemed an eternity. But in the end, it was not far enough. I could actually stand to fall a little further.

There is a misconception that the end of the fall produces a painful bounce effect. True, there is a bounce, but it is not painful, at least not until the next day, when I was a bit sore. I know that I was too occupied to worry about pain, and instead had to deal with the underside of the catwalk it seemed I was about to hit.

Instead, some law of physics prevents me from doing so, and I can now concentrate on getting ahold of the rope Alex will throw down momentarily. My only link with the world above me is the bungee cord, and I don’t want to let go of it. I want only to hold onto something stable.

The rope comes down, I reach for it and hook it into my harness. I still try to hold onto the cord, until it goes slack and the rope starts to pull me back to the real world. I am still scared, but never more alive. I don’t even like roller coasters, and I just fell roughly 200 feet, at a speed between 50 and 70 mph, and had lived to tell about it.

I stay for a few more hours and watch others do spectacular flips with their jumps, and I don’t feel at all envious. I had to find the strength to do this inside, and no one else was able to help me. On that platform was one solitary person who must ultimately make the final decision to go and place a lot of trust in the strands of four 3/4-inch cords.

On the way home down Highway 126, Chuck and I stop at a little place called Ike’s Pizza for lunch. If you’re ever in Leaburg, stop in at this place; the pizza is good and the service is homey.

Bill Bixby used to fish the McKenzie River and left an autographed picture at the place. I want to talk about the jump, but I’m content to just sit and watch football while we eat. I want to calm down and the pizza helps. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the day, but I know I’ll have to do this again.

(Photos by Chuck Hicks.)

Postscript: In fact, I did do it again. 

I went Bungee Jumping a few more times. At the University of Oregon I spent two years as a Resident Assistant in the dorms, and one of the things an RA is expected to do is the vaguely-described role known as "programming." Essentially it meant I was expected to dream up some activities for students. I had kept in touch with Casey Dale and organized two jumping excursions. The first was in the fall of 1991. It was an unauthorized trip back to Blue River Dam, this time at night. Casey said we'd have to "Bungee Bandits."

The second was in the fall of 1992. This time the venue was a private logging bridge in Southwest Washington. A friend who helped me organize it, Robb Williams, and another friend, Jim Mulder, shot some video which we then handed over to a friend of Jim's named David Bess who is now an editor for Walt Disney Animations. He set a fast cut of the jumping action to Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus Ouvertuere." An hour or so of raw footage follows after that. 

I ran across the tape with this video on it about 10 years ago and finally had it digitized last year.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

From the archive: The Andy Rooney Story (From 2011)

Andy Rooney photographed in 2008.
(Originally published on Nov. 6, 2011. I actually don't watch "60 Minutes" anymore and this isn't nearly as interesting a story as it seemed 11 years ago. But here it is for posterity or something. -Ed.)

Andy Rooney died yesterday. He was 92. I’ve been watching CBS' "60 Minutes" for as long as I can remember. My parents would always put it on every Sunday which was usually dinner time in my house and that generally meant that I watched it too. 

Rooney didn’t begin his show-ending monologues until 1978 when it replaced the Point/Counterpoint segment featuring Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick. I didn’t take much notice of Rooney until I was a teenager in the 1980s and had taken an interest in writing and journalism and harbored dreams of being a newspaper opinion columnist. Rooney personified the folksy, grumpy, common-sense curmudgeon and could make you roll your eyes, but I guess I found something about him to like and stuck with it. 

In the years I watched him hold forth on subjects as varied as chairs, the Super Bowl, the job of the US Presidency, umbrellas, ice cream cones, barbers, and the random items found in people’s backpacks, I had always wanted him to do a segment on books.

It seemed an obvious Rooney segment. He had always sought to make a larger point about something small from his own experience, I just knew that one day he would finally get around to giving TV viewers a tour of the bookshelf behind his desk. Years passed, and one grumpy segment followed another. It never came, and yet my curiosity persisted. Finally in 2007, working late one night in my office at BusinessWeek I wrote a short email to 60 Minutes with the subject line “For Andy Rooney”: 

Dear Andy,

I’ve watched your segments on “60 Minutes” every Sunday since I was a young kid. I didn’t always get what you were saying, but I got enough to know that I liked you. It probably had something to do with me getting into the media business myself.

All these years you’ve talked about the silly things that people send you, your junk mail, the mess on your desk, the stuff you find in your attic and other curiously revealing trivia. But I’ve always wanted to know more about what we see in the background behind you every week: Your bookshelf.

When I visit someone’s home I sometimes find it interesting, if I can do it politely, to peek at what’s on their bookshelf. You’ve been inviting me and millions of other people into your office for years. As someone who like you, values the written word and the simple pleasure of reading a great book, I’m curious about what’s on that bookshelf of yours and why. I doubt it’s junk, and I’m certain it would be revealing. How about a little tour?

I’m certain Rooney never read that email, and though I can’t prove it, I’m betting it got passed to a CBS producer who did. Because two months later, Rooney closed the April 22, 2007 edition of 60 Minutes with a segment that included a few of his favorite books. They were: three dictionaries; a heavily used edition of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler; Walter Lippman’s A Preface To Morals; four leather-bound volumes by Charles Darwin; and the fifth edition of The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzum and Henry Graff, also heavily used.

Over the years of watching I had noticed two others. One I recognized because I own it, and one I recognized because I knew of it. The one I own, and which is plainly visible in Rooney’s final commentary is The Good Times, a memoir of Russell Baker’s years as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and columnist for The New York Times. It is often neglected in favor of his better-known personal autobiography Growing Up. The other, which I know by reputation is Words on Words by the late, legendary journalism professor John Bremner.

Two years later I got the chance to meet Rooney. The occasion was the 2009 Deadline Club Awards dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. I was a finalist in the science and technology reporting category, for a series of stories I wrote for called “Unconnected America,” which examined how the lack of access to broadband Internet connections affected people in various walks of life and in different places. I lost out to a Time Magazine cover story, “The Clean Energy Myth.”

There was, before the banquet, a cocktail party lasting an hour or so, and Rooney happened to be there. And I noticed that my then-colleague, BusinessWeek writer David Kiley was talking to him rather enthusiastically at a set of chairs surrounding a table as if he knew him well. It turns out he did, so I ventured over to where they were sitting and waited for a chance to introduce myself.

It came. I told him about the letter I had written him and before I could get to the part of his segment on books, he cut me off.

“And I didn’t write back, right?”

“No, and I didn’t expect you to,” I said. Then I told him about the segment on books, and that I had always been curious about them because I had been watching since I was young.

“Well, how old are you?” I was 38 at the time, but my answer was “I’m not quite 40.”

At this, he got a little indignant. He called across the table to a female friend he referred to by her last name — I didn’t catch it. “You’re really 39? Hey, do you believe this guy is 39?” he said to her.

“If he is he’s very lucky,” she said to him and grinned at me.

Then he looked back at me. “Well, you look older.”

I couldn’t argue with that. And I couldn’t help but smile at having been insulted by Andy Rooney.

(Photo from 2008 by Stephenson Brown. Originals here. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.)