My business cards, both my last cards from Microsoft and my current "between jobs" variant, read "Hal P. Bryan, Super Genius." When presented with one of these, most people get a good laugh out of my particular brand of mildly ironic self-aggrandizement, while a few actually get the specific reference. For any that don’t, it’s a nod to the cherished Warner Brothers cartoons from my childhood (when they were already more than 30 years old, thank you), as the terribly bright but hapless Wile E. Coyote identified himself the same way. I grew up thinking not about how great it would be to actually be a super genius, but how funny it would be to put that on a business card. Such are the choices one makes.
The first time I added it to my Microsoft cards, I assumed they’d be denied and I’d get some sort of a talking to – I crave attention, after all. That faulty assumption was based on another one – the idea that, in a company the size of Microsoft, my humble request for a thousand business cards would actually be attended to personally by a human being, instead of just being fed through an automated and ridiculously efficient process. Suffice it to say that my official business cards identified me as a Super Genius, not to mention a Notary Public – but that last bit is another story.
Regardless, the reactions have always been positive, and good for starting conversations. Most recently, I gave one to a potential colleague while doing some work for the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, OH. This gentleman, Paul, gave it a long look, frowned a little, making me wonder if I’d finally found someone willing to be somehow offended by it. Then, he lowered the card, slowly, and, still frowning, looked me in the eye and said "So I’m assuming that you have close ties to the ACME Corporation?"
And that’s how I make friends.
Anyway, just last week, I actually found myself deciding not to give out a couple of my cards. This was unprecedented, and I regret it now, as I suspected I would. Here’s what happened:
My friend Scott, an Airbus driver temporarily between gigs, posted on Facebook that he was spending some of his days at the University of Washington’s Aeronautical Laboratory, specifically in the Kirsten Wind Tunnel. This sounded interesting to me, and, being a fan of interesting things, I wrote him and invited myself to come visit. As it happened, Scott was working with a friend of his, Mike, who was also a long-lost childhood friend of mine. Thankfully, Mike had forgotten enough to think that it might be good to see me. Anyway, Mike works for a company that had built a wind tunnel model for another company that’s working on what could be a spectacularly cool new business jet. This jet is not pictured, to the right. (I think the names and such are public knowledge, but I’m erring on the side of circumspection here.)
Mike was kind enough to give me an in-depth tour of the facility, which was fascinating to me. Construction began in 1936, and the place has been operational since 1939. You can’t take a step without tripping over or ducking under history, given the designs that have been tested there. You can check out the link above for a detailed list, but my favorite had to be the the Taylor Aerocar model I saw hanging from the ceiling. You’ll also find models of cars, skiing helmets, boats, and even a Commerson’s Dolphin.
The tunnel itself is about what you’d expect – a big tube with windows, holes on both ends for the wind, and a sticky-uppy bit on which to mount a model for testing. But the rest of the place is overwhelming in its largely analog complexity. Every few steps there’s a half-flight of stairs that leads to a door beyond which there’s an impossibly giant room that’s filled with impossibly giant-er generators, electric motors, and giant metal boxes with levers and gauges calibrated in things like kilo-pascals-per-furlong. Between rooms, there are mazes of pipes and valves and the like that make the whole place look as if you took a submarine and turned it inside out in the Batcave.
There’s even a giant-scale working model of the facility itself that they use to plan tests, experiment with different airflow patterns, etc. I abruptly stopped looking at the model when I realized that I was afraid I’d see a tiny me looking back.
The single most fascinating part of the place for me was the fact that so much of the analog technology is still in use. And it’s not only viable, it’s extremely effective – their 6-degree "balance" (the thing underneath the aforementioned sticky-uppy bit) measures "moments" at resolutions in tiny fractions of inch-pounds, to offer an example that even a Super Genius can understand. In these mazes of elegant industrial complexity, it’s an overstatement, but not much of one, to say that computers are nearly an afterthought – the thing you plug in at the end so that you can use Excel instead of graph paper for making charts. This idea of history being used to build the future really resonated with me.
What also resonated with me was the fact that the facility is run by students. I say again, students.
Now, I don’t know how many of you have actually seen a college student lately, but be warned: these days, they’re less than half my age. And they’re smart, too. Granted, I can talk aerodynamics a bit better than the average lay person plucked at random from, say, the stands of a tractor-pull. I can nod sagely and pepper the talk with phrases like "pitching moment" and "Reynolds number" without being entirely disingenuous. But these people, these …fine, I’ll say it … these kids that are younger than the Internet and have no idea that Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider, and the Bionic Woman are remakes … these kids are brilliant. And they not only understand the magnificent melange of technologies at their fingertips, unlike what I might expect from some of their peers, they genuinely respect it.
While that gives me all manner of hope for the future and all that, it was undeniably, and uncharacteristically humbling. Somehow, being a laid off 40-year-old who spent the last ten years of his career "sitting on his *** playing vidya games" seemed the tiniest bit less Super Genius-y in that company. So the cards, cards I’ve given blithely to test pilots, movie stars, authors and astronauts, they stayed in my pocket.
I got over it, and quickly, and now, as I said, I regret it. It would have been fun to keep in touch with some of these rising stars, and I’d guess that they’d appreciate the fact that even an old man of 40 can have a sense of humor. But I suppose it didn’t kill me to be humbled like that, however briefly.
Just don’t expect me to make a habit of it.
After all, "Hal P. Bryan, Genius" just doesn’t have the same ring to it.