Apologies to anyone who considers this phrase “cultural appropriation” or otherwise offensive, but I really do feel almost like I’m coming out of the closet by announcing that I’ve become a drone pilot.

Coming out of the closet
I’m such an engineer, even my art is literal.

Like many of my other hobbies or interests, flying quadcopters has a stigma among much of the general public because they don’t understand it and many of them have heard enough nonsense from the media to have made up their minds in advance of facts. People think they know what “drones” are, but the word is about 100 years old and up till quite recently simply meant unmanned aircraft (and sometimes boats) that were being used as military targets.

Around 25 years ago, the USAF introduced Predator drones, which immediately captured the world’s attention and horror, because what could be more frightening than a robot aircraft that could fly around where you couldn’t see it, but as soon as you stepped out of your house, it could kill you with a missile? Perhaps camera drones, because those are the kinds that get people shaking their fist at the sky because they’re afraid that some kid with a drone is going to see their wife naked in the upstairs window. However, virtually every civilian/hobby drone with a camera also has a wide-angle lens, which means it would have to be pretty much right outside your window to get a pixel’s worth of nipple…and then you could hit it with a broom handle.

So if you associate the word “drone” with either death from above or peeping Toms, that’s where you got those memes from. “Drone” really implies something with a certain degree of autonomy, as with most of the larger DJI camera drones that can be programmed to fly a course via GPS waypoints or just literally drawing a line on a map. Those are the kind that people are concerned about terrorists using, for just that reason (and because they can lift a decent amount of weight). At the same time, those are the kind that are also factory-locked from flying near airports and other sensitive areas (they don’t often mention that in lurid newspaper articles).

The things I fly (more properly called sporting quadcopters, I suppose) have zero autonomy; they won’t even hover by themselves. The whole art and challenge is hand-flying them in the first place, and believe me it takes both hands and sometimes even body English. If the FAA really wanted to treat drones like airplanes, they’d have their hands full because the NTSB would be at my house six times a day to investigate every time I crash!

Anyway, past the enjoyment of flying one of these things and having it actually go where you intended it to (which took me over 3 months to learn decently), there’s also the fact that I do it all while wearing goggles that let me see from the drone itself. It’s as if I was a very tiny pilot in there! But it also means that I feel like I’m actually up there, so I get the best of both worlds: experiencing flight maneuvers that rival (and in some cases beat the pants off) jet fighters, while staying firmly on the ground. This method of flying is called FPV (for First-Person View).

Art and Science

There’s a lot of art to flying quads. Some people show off their aerobatic skills, some their daring (flying low over water, down a chimney, through the Alps), and so on. Personally I prefer videos that don’t make me dizzy (the absolute best pilots can fly straight down a building and I still don’t get dizzy, and I’m a guy who can’t even look at pictures that look straight down).

People have been strapping GoPros to racing quads for awhile, but this immensely talented fellow took apart his GoPro and put the pieces on a very small handbuilt drone (he also wrote the stabilization software, damn he’s good) and then he changed everything with this one jaw-dropping video:

He showed the world that you could get excellent quality HD video from a unique and tiny platform, and pretty soon you could buy a pre-taken-apart GoPro clone and put it on smaller quads…not for “spying on people” but for cinematic purposes. I’m currently building a specialized quad myself (from scratch, basically) that will have all the safety and protection of a Tiny Whoop but should fly much more smoothly for nice video.

Tiny Whoops

Tiny Whoops are amazing. They’re about the size and weight of a sparrow (around an ounce), made mostly of flexible plastic, and have guards around the propellers, so they are absolutely no danger if they should happen to fall on you or even hit you at full speed. The biggest danger is long hair getting caught in the props (happened to both me and Susan once). These aren’t the kind of things people fly high in the air, allegedly endangering airplanes, either: they’re mostly used for things like whooping it up in your house or flying through playground equipment when the kiddies aren’t there.

I actually went back almost a year in my YouTube history just to find out, but the first time I heard the word “whoop” to refer to a drone was in a “cat vs. whoop” video. But it didn’t make an impression on me because you couldn’t really see what the cats were swatting at. It wasn’t until I happened on the video below that I suddenly understood that whoops were entirely different from camera drones, racing drones, or in fact anything I had ever seen. Once I saw this crazy Aussie flying that tiny thing through chair legs, I was HOOKED! Just check out 30 seconds of this:

Here’s my current fleet of Tiny Whoops. None of them have the original props. Or frame. Or in some cases, everything else (the Drone of Theseus)! But I haven’t seriously broken one of these in awhile:

Here’s the biggest quad I have, a factory-built Armattan Gecko (with HD camera):

And here’s how small it actually is:

Oh, and here’s my smallest (9 grams):

In fact, even though my fleet is rapidly approaching double digits in number, every one of them weighs less than 250 grams, which means that according to the FAA and the laws of most countries, they are considered “toys” and not even worth registering as UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) because they pose no real threat to anyone (and yes, I still obey the law and certainly don’t fly near airports or anywhere I might alarm someone, and I even got a ham license (KM6ZIF) so I can legally use higher-powered transmitters).

Video Dreams

I’m quite interested in the Slo Flo freestyle movement, which represents a shift away from traditional wild aerobatic videos and a deliberate move towards more smooth, cinematic presentations. This is perfect for my two main goals: showing flight from a dragon’s perspective, and illustrating a series of repeating dreams I had a few years ago for around six months where I was wearing a magic hat and flying over streets and so on.

Things To Watch On Your Biggest Screen

The kind of flying I want to do is kind of a mix between the last two…few aerial tricks, just the feeling of floating through the air in different environments. This is the best HD video I was able to make before my Gecko crashed…still getting the hang of flying that one.

Perhaps most important, doing all this flying, repairing, and video production has helped my mood immensely over the past year when I was dealing with all kinds of stressful stuff…ignoring the stress involved in tree retrieval, crashing, and soldering on an almost microscopic level. As (meta!) proof: I’m writing long-form articles again!

You are cordially invited to follow me by subscribing to my YouTube channel and Instagram, where I’m known as CatsFPV, and thanks for reading to the end!

The funniest article I read about the eclipse before we left was that they expected it to be “like 20 Woodstocks all at once”.

That was only funny before we left, though.

Total time: 55 hours
Total time spent driving (per Google): 32.5 hours
Total distance: 1039 miles
Longest traffic jam: 7 hours/70 miles

…still worth it!

I Been Waitin

I’ve been waiting for this eclipse for quite awhile. Since March 7, 1970, in fact, which was when I bugged out early from the test I was taking (to get into Cooper Union) so I wouldn’t miss it. I had arranged with Sarah to bring my little toy-ish Gilbert telescope to the Cube, right across the street from Cooper, because it happened to have a little projection screen for viewing the sun safely. So we not only watched the eclipse ourselves, but were able to show everyone hanging out around the cube what was going on.

This was it. Exactly! Thanks eBay!

I remember seeing weird and wild shadow bands moving across the concrete.** This eclipse was a full 96% totality (based on information I had found here), so I figured I had seen it all. Boy was I wrong.

The whole experience was so amazing that I decided I had to see another total solar eclipse, but I didn’t see any coming up until the 21st century, when I’d be an old man!*

Madras My Ass

OK, so these days I am an old man, but there was still no way I was missing this one. So I started plotting this trip a few years ago, and found this little town way up in the wilds of Oregon that absolutely nobody had ever heard of and which would be right in the center of the totality line, or as we call it here at Ghostbusters HQ, “Eclipse Central“. I sneakily tried to get hotel reservations two years in advance, but nobody was accepting them that far in advance. Then I tried the next year and they were all sold out…and so was everyplace else within a 50 mile radius.

And starting about a month before the event, all these newspaper articles and websites (at least here in California) were talking about Madras as if were the eclipse capital of the world. They started up an “eclipse festival” where you could pay $125 to sleep in your car. Well, this kind of behavior riled up my inner hippie wanderer or something, because I came up with this completely cockamamie scheme where we would drive halfway up and stay in a motel in California, then get up in the middle of the night and drive the rest of the way, thereby not having to (a) buy an insanely high priced motel room somewhere in Oregon or (b) having to pay someone $100 to park in their driveway because (c) there had to be some place to just pull over and watch the sky for 15 minutes and (d) relatively very few people would be likely to be driving in the middle of the night and (e) I’m good at that and I’m generally up late anyway.

And Away We Go

I also mentally prepared myself for not getting all hyper, crazy, and frantic if things didn’t work out, because I knew that even some clouds at the last minute could make the eclipse totally unviewable, so I decided that I’d have a variety of “Plan B” scenarios if it looked like we weren’t going to be able to drive all the way to Madras. These included things like stopping at cool places like Crater Lake or even Mt. Shasta, and using them as backdrops for the eclipse.

But the most amazing thing about my crazy scheme is that it worked perfectly. We had a leisurely drive up to Redding which took 4 hours, just like the gypsy woman (Google) said, we stayed in our favorite funky motel, we got up in the middle of the night and drove north. Sunrise found us in Klamath Falls, and the norther we drove, the more dire predictions of heavy traffic we saw on portable signs, but Google Maps kept telling us it was green almost all the way to Madras. We plotted some side routes, but they weren’t necessary.

We got up there in plenty of time to find a place to watch the whole thing without worrying about problems from locals wanting handouts or the Oregon State Police that seemed to be taking the letter of the law seriously. Apparently it’s illegal to pull over on the paved shoulder and just park, but if you’re on actual dirt then it’s all good.

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So we found a cornfield 2 miles outside city limits (but still well inside the Totality Zone), a little side road led to this area and it was at the top of a small hill, and there were already a few dozen people all set up. We parked in front of a new Prius who was parked in front of a Tesla. The Prius guy was from Sacramento and he was also nice enough to give us their last two eclipse glasses (we had given up on these and figured we just wouldn’t look up until totality). I set up all my camera stuff and then we just kind of waited around until things got interesting.

Waiting For God…Oh!

Bailey’s Beads and diamond rings aside, nothing I saw in 1970 prepared me for the insanity of totality. We didn’t see this in the East Village!

There are many total eclipse photos out there, but this one is mine!

And the glowing area only gives you the slightest hint of what the corona looked like. It was kind of like this guy’s photo (constructed by merging a dozen different photos specifically for this effect), except it was moving in circles and glowing. Srsly.

I also got another picture, which I’m not going to even try to explain. I honestly don’t know if the weird stuff here is artifacts from reflections inside the camera or lens, extra-terrestrials attempting to contact us, or an actual image from the moon (and at this point, I’m afraid to ask), but make of this what you will:

This video was coincidentally taken near where we were by a fellow that lives near us in California, and is a pretty good representation of what we saw, with the added attraction of drone shots showing the actual shadow moving across the earth.

But although I looked all over the web and even at NASA’s best work, I saw no videos that captured anything like the majesty of what we witnessed. It was just indescribable. And it’s very emotional for me when I see something like this, because I realize and experience the fact that it’s based on a cosmic appointment made billions of years ago! Here we are being grateful for experiencing this monumental cosmic coincidence:

I’m Going Home

The eclipse began at 10:21, and of course it was only two minutes long, so by 10:30 pretty much everyone was high-tailin’ it out of there, just like we did when Jimi packed up his guitar in Bethel 48 years ago, almost to the day (which was also a Monday morning!). See the whole shebang in less than a minute here:

Unfortunately, approximately 99.44% of them came from California, which meant every single one of them was headed south on 97 just like us. There may have been the equivalent of 20 Woodstocks across the whole country, but we had one right there in front of us, and it would stay there all freaking day. And night.

We will spare you most of the details of that Monday. The highlights were the 60-year-old general store that still had some of the original stock, and the worst Chinese food we’ve ever eaten that we didn’t actually get poisoned from. We slept in the car, woke up around midnight, spent another hour or so in traffic, then parked somewhere else which luckily turned out to be right next to a deli that opened at 6 and had amazing fresh muffins and more importantly a bathroom.

What was interesting is that not a single person beeped their horn in Oregon, no matter how bad the traffic got. And their roads are spotless and clean of all litter…they also spray-paint the roadside (brown) and impose a $6250 fine on litterbugs.

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Still Be Oregon

We cautiously drove down the road a piece, and traffic was actually moving now (almost 24 hours after the eclipse, remember). When we finally got to a “big town” with a proper breakfast place, we took the time to have a nice, gigantic, leisurely meal. Then we decided that we weren’t going to miss Crater Lake, because it was basically on the way home, and detoured there. Unfortunately, the whole area there was very smoky due to a number of wildfires, so we could barely see any of the lake, but we loved the visit anyway.

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After walking around a bit at that altitude, we were glad to get back in the car and leave. We didn’t know it at the time, but Susan was having some breathing problems from this and she continued to have problems today (we’re getting a lot of smoke now from California wildfires so she’s staying indoors). Anyway, we had to eat, and ended up at some “Jersey Boys” pizza place that sold flavored cardboard by the slice.

Then we got the car filled up again in Oregon (which may end up leading to another article all on its own), pointed south again, and after a huge meal at Black Bear Diner in Mt. Shasta and some Coca-Cola for the sugar and caffeine, made it back home by 9 PM that night, in spite of hitting rush hour traffic in Redding. The end.

“But we will drive 500 miles
And we will drive 500 back
Just to be the ones who drove a thousand miles
To see the sun turn black!”


  • I know there was one in Nova Scotia in 1972, but I don’t remember why I missed that one.
  • We didn’t see any shadow bands this time, so my theory is that totality makes it too dark to see them. I bet there were shadow bands down here in California where it was only a partial eclipse!

by David and Susan Fiedler

(If you don’t recognize the title of this article, it comes from a chapter in the book In His Own Write by John Lennon (reproduced below). This book totally helped keep me weird back in the day — David)

Susan has enough trouble with asthma and allergies that traveling to certain places, like NYC, are pretty stressful for her, so actually going to a place full of exotic plants and diseases like Africa would be a Bad Idea. But we love animals. So when we heard that there was a private wildlife reserve just 3 hours from our house that specialized in African animals and was open to the public for tours, we decided we had to check it out.

Safari West is an absolutely amazing place that is the culmination of one couple’s dream. It’s affiliated with the American Zoological Association, so they are very conservation minded and have everything set up for the comfort and welfare of all their animals. They manage to do this while encouraging visitors to support their efforts and recycle materials, yet we never felt preached to or exhorted.

They are also mindful of providing homes to California native animals: bird, bat, and owl houses, and man-made ponds designed to become a self sustaining ecosystem were scattered about. We also saw them running special safaris for school kids and parents as well as adults and families.

Some of the animals are in enclosures you can walk up to even after the safari part is over. Like lemur island. Hello Zoboomafoo! Guinea fowl wander around freely, and there’s even a kookaburra.

We got Tent #19, which was up a short hill, and caddy-corner to a little lake with herons and duck families. You can watch giraffes in their paddock from the front porch! This was not my father’s pup tent. It’s at least 35′ by 16′ with a high ceiling, hardwood floors (and tile in the large bathroom), hot and cold running water, smoke alarm, and a space heater and electric blankets for winter. The tent itself is apparently made of ripstop canvas, and was very heavy duty stuff, made in Botswana.

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The sumptuous breakfast (included in an overnight stay) was a buffet with fresh cooked oatmeal, scrambled eggs, selection of cold cereals, muffins, English muffins, danishes, fruits, coffees, teas, and fresh squeezed orange juice. Fantastic way to start our day!

Susan in Breakfast Heaven

The first part of the safari had us walking around the few paved areas to see the cheetahs, several aviaries, a serval, duiker antelope and others. The gigantic aviary housed flocks of Scarlet and Sacred Ibis (from Egypt), spoon bill storks, ducks, flamingos, African pigeons and others, with lots of nest building going on. One tree had all the ibis nesting while another tree held spoonbills and others with their nests.

After that, we climbed aboard one of the gigantic vehicles that seat 14 (including the driver/guide) and off we went into the gated enclosures. Each section had a gate to be opened and closed by the driver once the vehicle was inside. Our driver was very knowledgeable and both humorous and serious, keeping up a constant commentary as he drove the narrow dirt pathways looking for where the herd animals were relaxing, so we could get a closer look. At each stop, the engine was shut off so we could talk to the guide.

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One of the things we learned was how fast some of these herd animals can maim or kill you. No getting off the truck for anyone other than the driver! An older Cape Buffalo lying down in the shade took exception to our stopping by him for more than 3 minutes, so he got to his hooves and gave us the hairy eyeball. That’s when we left, because Cape Buffalo are the third most deadly mammal in Africa (after hippos and lions) and would probably kill you in California too. An ostrich sitting in the middle of the path necessitated driving around her. Another ostrich who was a bit too close and curious was encouraged to sit down facing away from us by the driver.

Among the animals we saw were several species of antelope, Cape buffalo, wildebeest/gnu, zebras, ostrich (totally unafraid of the vehicle), lots of giraffe (including a 3-day-old newborn), and golden crown cranes. The 5 year old rhino came out to say hello on our way back down the hill. His parents stayed snug in their barn. Yes, they have tight security to protect them from idiot poachers.

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Acknowledgement: This journey was made possible by a grant from
the Barbara Arnstein Foundation.


Just 2 weeks ago, Google’s “research blog” announced some interesting results from a program they had created to visualize what happens inside a neural network. When I say “interesting results”, I mean it gives scientists, artists, and even ordinary stiffs like me a possible peek into how a neural network — and maybe the human brain — internally processes data (like images and even sounds). And when you peel back the covers, so to speak, you can end up with results that look quite like what people see on psychedelics.

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One trait I’m glad Steven has inherited from us is the almost magnetic pull towards war surplus stores. I’m obviously not into war or anything, but I’ve always been fascinated by the strange stuff to be found in these places, and so has Susan. So I was pleasantly surprised when sometime over the weekend, Steven mentioned hearing about some legendary surplus store on 42nd street that he’d like to go to.

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Posted in NYC

Re-creation of old-time subway kiosk entrance

In our last thrilling episode, we had just hiked three long crosstown blocks over to 59th and Lexington Avenue to catch the southbound local down to Astor Place. This gave Steven the chance to experience NYC rush hour in all its subterranean glory.

When we finally arrived, I took the time to check out the subway station I had been to zillions of times. They’ve changed a lot of the signs and even the look of the street entrance, but luckily they left a few things the same. Only Cooper Union’s historic building is left, though, since the others weren’t historical landmarks.

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A lotta gold

After pounding the pavement all day yesterday, what better thing than doing it all over again? Today was the day I figured was perfect for showing Steven around midtown Manhattan, but for the first time this trip so far, we had no appointments in the morning. So we took a bit of a respite and checked out some of the amazing Asian restaurants around Flushing. One of my superpowers is finding great places to eat, and just across the street from our hotel was this amazing place called Nan Xiang that specialized in soup dumplings (Xiao Long Bao). Now this is what I call an awesome breakfast!

Soup dumplings at Nan Xiang
Soup dumplings at Nan Xiang

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