Remembering Flight 427

Recently I was asked to recount the “single most interesting thing that ever happened to me.” Even if I included all of the things that would qualify as too obscene to print (ha!), one event made a greater impression on me than all of the others combined, though it is now some thirteen years in the past. Since it’s not the sort of thing that typically makes for good cocktail party conversation, I figured I might as well memorialize it here.

In September 1994, I was a third year dental student at the University of Pittsburgh when USAir Flight 427 dropped inexplicably out of the evening sky and crashed into a wooded region a few miles outside of Pittsburgh, killing all 132 passengers and crew. The Pennsylvania Dental Association’s Dental Identification Team (PADIT) was called to take part in the massive effort to identify the remains of those who lost their lives in the crash. A few days after the recovery efforts began, PADIT put out a call to dental students to assist in the daunting task.

I cancelled my afternoon patients and along with two friends/classmates, reported to the U.S. Air Force hanger which had been established as a disaster recovery center. We joined Pittsburgh’s chief forensic odontologist in examining crash victim remains as part of a highly-organized team of pathologists, forensic anthropologists, FBI officials, and others. My friends and I were all grateful and a little awestruck to be included and even treated as respected members of such a highly-qualified team.

Ultimately, the substantial majority of those who lost their lives in the tragedy were identified through dental records. It was a rare and unforgettable experience for my friends and for me. All three of us would later train to become maxillofacial surgeons, although after some years I left that calling to pursue a career in the law.

Even now, I am frequently reminded of the experience, though I have since moved away from Pittsburgh and I haven’t seen those friends in many years. I think that we all looked at it as a rare opportunity, though a tragically sad one at that. I cannot express the profound impact that the experience had upon me.

Comets: Marking Time for All of Us

The Holmes Comet recently appeared in the night sky, surprising astronomers with its unusual and unexpected intensity. That got me thinking about comets for the first time in a while. One of the most well-known comets is Halley’s Comet. It’s cyclical 76-year appearance has been recorded at least as far back as 240 BC. It last appeared in 1986 and will next appear in 2061. When it appeared in 1986, it was the least favorable viewing for earth observers in recorded history — it was barely visible to the naked eye.

I was in boarding school in 1986 and a member of my school’s proudly geeky “Astronomical Army.” We observed Halley’s Comet through the telescope in our permanent observatory atop the cross country hill. Even with our powerful scope and reasonably light pollution-free surroundings, the comet looked like little more than a blurry streak.

If I make it to 2061, I will be 92 years old when Halley’s next appears. I realized today just how old I’m getting when I thought to myself “Halley’s will appear in less than 54 years. That’s not that long.” Then I remembered that I’m now 38, not 16, and another 58 years will account for most if not all of my remaining days on earth. That’s something.

Still, when Halley’s comes round again, I hope to see it in the sky with my blurry, teary, cataracted 92-year old eyes and I hope that this time it will be brilliant.

A Cyberspace Love Story

I first met Kelleigh in 1991.  I was a college senior and she was a local high school senior.  Kelleigh’s 17-year old best friend Sunny was dating one of my classmates and Kelleigh accompanied her to a mixer on my campus that fall.  We met, we clicked, and we discovered that we had the same birthday, exactly five years apart.  She was adorable and full of a sort of mischief that made me laugh and want to get to know her.  We flirted, I loaned her my denim jacket, and we took walks around a campus decorated in autumn’s palette.  It was collegiate puppy love at its very best and its innocence is one of my fondest memories of that time.  Alas, Kelleigh was barely seventeen, I was twenty-two, and at that age, everything seems ephemeral.  We both graduated from our respective schools, moved away, and said we would stay in touch.

I didn’t really expect to hear from Kelleigh again, knowing that she was off to college herself and had some amazing experiences ahead of her. However, the summer following my first year of graduate school in Pittsburgh, my phone rang and I was happy and surprised to hear her voice on the other end of the line.  She had tracked me down through the only reasonable means available in those days: the phone book.  She was also in Pittsburgh, attending college and majoring in dance on a full scholarship, and she was now, ahem, of a consenting age.  We spent an amazing day together and felt that click again, but she was busy enjoying college and not ready to commit to anything serious and I was of a different mind.  We kept it innocent and we promised to stay in touch again.

I heard from Kelleigh once more in the 1990’s.  She had recently returned from a whirlwind tour of the world, performing aboard cruise ships and visiting exotic locations, and I was preparing to graduate and move to Philadelphia.  We spoke on the phone for some time and felt the pull once more, but this time I was in a committed relationship and the unavailable party. We agreed again to stay in touch.

That could very well have been the last time we spoke.  I finished school, began some very busy years in hospital residencies, and pursued other relationships along the way that often seemed to be leading to something more.  Kelleigh and I lost track of one another, but I never forgot the mischievous sparkle in her eyes.

Throughout the 1990’s, the World Wide Web was exploding and I became enamored with cyber-technology.  Browser technology had become widely available with the dissemination of Mosaic and Netscape, and full text crawler-based web search engines began to crop up.  I became interested in HTML and search engine algorithms and I created my first website in 1996.  I began experimenting with the keyword meta tag element, and I decided to use it to create a kind of spider web for lost friends. In those days — the pre-Google days — search engine algorithms were far more simple and they relied upon the good faith of webmasters to include keywords in their HTML code that were relevant guides to the content on their sites.  This was, of course, soon manipulated by savvy web marketing pioneers who included popular (but irrelevant) keywords like “sex” and “Britney Spears” in their HTML code to attract web surfers.  I realized that this technology could be put to better use and I created a simple web page that listed everyone with whom I regretted losing touch over the years, which I dubbed the Planet’s Edge (I know, I know).  I included their names in the content of the site itself, as well as in the keywords meta tag element of my HTML.

I was frankly astounded at how well it worked.  I was soon receiving emails from people on my list and from their friends and relatives. In those days everyone was using search engines to find one another, as social media had not yet been born, and the World Wide Web was a wonderland of possibilities for anyone with a 28.8 modem and a PC.  Over the course of several years, I located something like 85% of the people in my list, with one notable exception: Kelleigh Miller.  Although prominently placed in the list, Kelleigh did not reach out, and I assumed that she had either gained a new surname, or lost interest, or both.  After a good run, I eventually retired my Planet’s Edge page as part of a larger overhaul of my long-standing website.

In 2005, I found myself living in Pittsburgh again, attending law school, and feeling nostalgic about life.  I sifted through some of the HTML that I had written in the 1990’s and I laughed at my animated gif files and gaudy website colors, but I paused when I came across my Planet’s Edge page and I marveled at how many of the people on the list were part of my life again.  I spotted Kelleigh’s name and I felt a ping of disappointment that my little experiment had never succeeded in finding her.  For kicks, I re-hosted the original page, this time on my own server and with a disclaimer stating that it was a tribute to the “old days” of the Internet.  By then, Google had become the prominent search engine, having captured nearly 50% of the market, while Yahoo! Search and Microsoft’s MSN Search services comprised the bulk of the remaining market share.  I knew that Google’s algorithm was no longer susceptible to unscrupulous webmasters and their keyword element manipulation, and hence my Planet’s Edge page was unlikely to uncover anyone new.  The MSN and Yahoo! algorithms were less complex and might still be susceptible to such tricks, but who was really using those dated search engines anymore?

Kelleigh was living in New York City and carving out a career as an actress and a model.  She was acting in an off-Broadway production and was receiving accolades for her performance.  Critics began posting reviews of her production and fortunately for me, she was also one of the last people on earth still using MSN’s quirky search engine.  A quick search of her own name lead her to my Planet’s Edge page and to my contact information.  She sent an email to the address that I had provided on the page, an address that I was using primarily for spam-management by that time.  Her email appeared in my inbox, from “k miller,” subject “hi.”  I promptly deleted what I assumed was a piece of spam without ever reading it and that, too, was nearly the end before the beginning.

But Kelleigh persisted and sent a second email.  This time I read it.  It began “I am writing just this one last time in case you didn’t get my first message…”  It was short and revealed little, but I was instantly mesmerized.  It had been over nine years since our last contact and fourteen years since she had first donned my denim jacket.  As I tripped over the keys to cobble a hasty reply, I wondered to myself at the likelihood that she might still be single like me.  I was 35, which would make her 30. How many 30-year old women did I know who were still single?  A perilously small number.  Statistically, she was likely married, divorced, and raising kids. I was almost certainly ten years too late — I had to be.  I felt something in the pit of my stomach that seemed to say that it wasn’t to be.  But I wrote to her anyway and paced about waiting for a reply.

A reply came almost immediately.  We exchanged several short emails and then agreed to speak on the telephone.  Elation!  She was single, never married, had traveled the world and lived in Japan and Sweden, and she would soon be appearing on a TV show.  We spoke for hours.  We text messaged.  We instant messaged.  We text-instant messaged.  She was a savvy cyber-geek like me and I loved it.  A romance was blossoming.  Soon we were communicating constantly and I was watching her on television weekly.  I was doing some of my best writing in school and receiving awards for it; her performing career was taking off.  It was an amazing time and it was all we could do to keep our focus on our careers while we spent every moment getting to know each other.

But one wrinkle remained. I was in my last semester of law school, nearing graduation, and I had applied for positions at law firms all over the country. Most firms seemed to have a hard time figuring out what to do with a dentist who wanted to practice intellectual property law, despite my claims of technical proficiency and success in passing the patent bar exam before even attending law school.  My techy side was regularly overlooked by hiring committees, who regarded my dental background with some confusion.  But one solid firm in Pittsburgh recognized my value and an offer was forthcoming, so it appeared that I would spend at least the first few years of my legal career in southwestern Pennsylvania, which would have been wonderful, but for Kelleigh.  In a difficult conversation, Kelleigh confessed that her career was booming and that she was not ready to leave New York City and I admitted that I would probably never get a job offer in New York, home to some of the most prestigious law firms in the world, which regularly extended offers to Ivy League graduates (read: not me).  Another near miss seemed imminent.

And then a funny thing happened.  One of my law professors had recently worked on a patent infringement case in New York City with Kenyon & Kenyon, a prominent intellectual property boutique law firm located at One Broadway in Manhattan.  He was a graduate of my law school and, like me, he had a science background and had come to the law as a second career.  He mentioned me to an attorney at Kenyon and suggested that I would be a good match for the firm and then he urged me to contact them.  I sent my resume, expecting a polite “thank you, we have heard nice things about you, but we’re all filled up,” but was instead invited to interview with them in New York.

I scheduled the interview for a Monday morning and immediately called Kelleigh to ask if I could stay with her the weekend prior to my interview.  She was traveling in Europe, but planned to return to the Big Apple just in time to have me as her guest.

Our weekend together was nothing short of magical.  On Saturday, we attended an art exhibition, explored the city, dined in restaurants that were uniquely New York, and rounded out the evening at a comedy improv show.  It was springtime in New York, and in true movie fashion, we got caught in the rain in Manhattan and ran for shelter.  I wiped out on a slippery sidewalk grate and landed on my backside, both of us laughing as the rain soaked through my jeans.  Later, back at her apartment, Kelleigh patched me up.  On Sunday, we drove up to the Shawangunk Mountains and spent an amazing day rock climbing some of the best routes on the east coast.  It was April and we were practically alone on the cliffs, surrounded by peregrine falcons and all of the magnificence of springtime in the mountains.  I arrived at Kenyon Monday morning with bandages on three fingers and a grin permanently affixed to my face and I had the the best interviews of my life.

I returned to Pittsburgh more than a little reluctantly.  Two days later, Kenyon & Kenyon called to offer me the job.  The rest, as they say, is history, although I would be remiss in not mentioning the gratitude that I have expressed over the years to my law professor, who was kind enough to speak up and open a door that lead to more than just a job.  Kelleigh and I moved in together in New York, I immersed myself in law firm life, and a year and a half later we were married on the edge of a New Zealand cliff as the sun rose from the sea.  We eventually relocated to Ohio, where we bought our first house, put down roots, and lived happily ever after.  Lucky me.

The Curious Lives of Pittsburgers

The June 2006 list of new words added to the Oxford English Dictionary officially includes the term (drum roll, please…) “Pittsburgher.” You know what? It’s about time. Pittsburghers love their city, and they share a unique identity with it. I’m amazed that this has been overlooked for so long by the Oxford folks, who are clearly a bunch of stuffy, mustached Englishmen sitting around in rich, leather drawing room chairs, puffing on pipes filled with Prince Albert, and debating whether such terms should make the cut. OK, I can’t actually validate any of that.

I recently visited Pittsburgh to run the IKEA half-marathon and catch up with some friends. During the race, I had a brief conversation with another runner that made me laugh and reflect upon the unity that comes from being a sizable city with a familiar, small-town mentality.

Somewhere near the fourth mile, I noticed that the young woman running beside me was wearing the same racing shoes that I was. I race in yellow/black/white Brooks T-Racers, which are lightweight racing flats with good medial support for pronators like me. Seeing someone in the same shoes was not really a surprise; the T-Racer is a popular flat and not a few have been sold. However, there was also an element of déjà vu in this case. Almost exactly two years ago, while running a half-marathon in Erie, PA, the very same thing happened: somewhere near the fourth mile I noticed that the woman running next to me was wearing the same shoes. On that occasion, I remarked “nice shoes,” and struck up a conversation with her. The two of us ultimately paced one another to personal best times.

This time around, I was once again aiming for a new personal best time, so I remarked to the girl next to me, “nice shoes,” hoping that good luck would strike twice. She glanced at my feet and replied with a perceptible grin, “You can’t go wrong…” and then she paused to take a breath. Mentally, I finished the thought for her: “You can’t go wrong with the Brooks T-Racer!” But I was wrong. She caught me completely off-guard when she continued a moment later, “with the Black and Gold!”

Touché, Pittsburgher.

Boycott Joe!

Today I received a “send this to 10 other people” email, instructing me to boycott Exxon. The theory was that a massive consumer boycott would force the oil giant to lower its gas prices, and other oil companies would be forced to follow suit. I am not an economist, but something tells me that market equilibrium would upset the whole process. For example:

– An Exxon station is located across the street from Oil Company B in a small town. Both sell gas for $2.70/gallon. Let’s assume for the purposes of this hypothetical that Oil Company B isn’t actually a subsidiary of Exxon, which it probably really is (Exxon, Esso, Mobile, etc., are all one)

– Consumers boycott the Exxon station and buy gas only at Oil Company B

– Oil Company B is delighted at the reduced competition and it raises its price to $2.75/gallon

– Exxon continues to offer gas at $2.70, or perhaps it drops its price one cent to $2.69/gallon. Maybe it even sends Joe, the station attendant, home early every night because the station isn’t busy. Now Joe, who was just trying to make ends meet, can’t afford to feed his kids

– Consumers eventually get sick of paying $2.75 at Oil Company B, and they flood back to the “cheaper” Exxon

– Exxon raises its price back to $2.70, and Oil Company B lowers its price back to $2.70

– Consumers have made no profit. Exxon lost some profit during the boycott, but regained most of it when consumers flooded back. Oil Company B gained profit during the non-competitive period, and then lost some profit as consumers returned to Exxon. Everyone pretty much breaks even, except that some people feel silly for boycotting Exxon, and Joe has to take out a loan at 19.8% interest so that his daughter can get her insulin. Poor Joe. Why did you do that to him?

Anyway, I ride the subway.

Adventures in Upselling

Alternate title: Assault of the Manhattan Merchants

What’s with all of the upselling these days? Yeah, yeah, I know it’s a tried-and-true sales technique, but it seems to be more in-your-face than ever.

I ventured uptown today (relatively speaking) to do some quick shopping in anticipation of my mini-vacation to warmer climes later this week. On my quest for cargo shorts I stopped in at the Gap and picked out a pair of boxers. At the sales counter, the saleswoman informed me with a look of concern, “These aren’t the ones that are on sale for $6.50, these are the ones that are two for $20.” I told her that that was fine, but she objected “they’re $12.50 otherwise.” I again assured her that this was not a problem and she flashed me a look that said, “You poor sad, fool. You don’t understand how to shop.” She might be right.

On my way back to the office I stopped by McDonald’s for an apple pie. I’m not a regular at Mickey D’s, but every now and then I get a rare urge for one of those pies. They aren’t as good (or as bad for you) as they were when I was a kid — when they fried them until the filling inside reached temperatures only dreamed of by personal injury lawyers — but they are still pretty hard to resist.

When I asked the woman at the counter for one pie, she replied, “They’re two for a dollar.” I objected weakly, “I only want one,” to which she replied, “one is eighty-five cents, two are a dollar.” In the end I gave in and headed back downtown with two pies and one pair of boxers, so I suppose I came out even. Sort of.

Come to think of it, when I was a young counter-minder at McD’s *gasp* twenty years ago, my instructions were to offer “fries with that” or “a sundae with that,” but I never had the heart to do it. Donald Trump would have fired me instantly.

In any event, I suppose I have no room to complain about manipulative merchanting maneuvers, considering that I am shopping at the likes of the Gap and McDonald’s: clearly, I asked for it.

Mining

Transcript of recent text message conversation with a friend:

Her: What are you doing?
Me: I am at work.
Her: You are always at work. You must work in a coal mine.
Me: True, but they pay me over $100,000/year + bonus to be here all the time.
Her: Oh. You work in a gold mine.

Hello World!

Hey, wait a minute… I have a blog. I’d forgotten all about it. People have been telling me that I ought to keep one for quite a while. OK, only two people really told me that, and they didn’t give me any impression that they would actually read my blog if I started keeping one, but these are minor details and I’m taking them up on it. Starting today, I am going to use this as my personal repository for rants, raves, ideas, anecdotes and anxieties… and maybe some random thoughts.  Eventually, I’d like it to evolve into a space to share ideas about intellectual property law and technology, with the occasional random thought thrown in to keep it human.