Perilous Penduluming

This piece explores one concept through three contexts. The contexts will span the hobbyist, professional, and societal. I find the parallels striking and timely.

Paragliding

In paragliding you wrap your body in a harness, the harness clips to risers, the risers attach to lines, and the lines fuse with a fabric wing. This arrangement creates an enormous amount of flexibility but also complexity. Unlike any other form of flying, the pilot must constantly manage their position relative to the aircraft during both ground handling and flight. During flight, the wing getting too far forward risks a collapse while too far back risks a stall. During ground handling the same challenges exist while the absence of the auto-correcting benefits of gravity and centripetal force complicates everything.

Multiple senses inform the actions you ought take. Those sensory inputs, however, will be changing quickly and the wing meanwhile often carrying substantial momentum. Consequently finesse requires predictive analysis, proactive response, and a gentle touch. Sometimes the correct approach can even be to do nothing so as to damp oscillations. As a brand new pilot learning to kite, a strong wind will likely drag you all over the place as you apply uncoordinated inputs of excessive amplitude and duration and careen from one unstable state to the next. Anybody who has navigated this n00b reality knows the willingness of the wing to pendulum wildly while taking you for a ride.

Over time, however, if you stick with the program, you learn not only to provide gentler and more coordinated inputs, but also to apply and release them proactively, causing the wing to go and stay where you want it to be as opposed to lurching from one unhappy state to the next. In the meanwhile, thankfully, protective equipment and conservative setup keep these rookie ground handling mistakes from offering serious consequences.

Progressing to actual flying, however, offers much higher stakes, particularly as you begin to navigate complex wind behaviors and terrain features. Here a collapse or stall of the wing goes from moderately annoying to potentially lethal and inputs either excessive, inadequate, or untimely can pendulum you between two catastrophic extremes. You must sense impending danger early, respond proactively, do so in a measured way, and ease off before you overshoot. Your life literally depends on it.

Organizational Architecture

The relevant facets of organizational architecture number too many to address here, and I possess dubious levels of expertise in many of them, but one stands out as both illustrative and familiar, specifically the decision to take a mission-striped or function-striped organizational approach to designing, building, and operating technology, especially in an enterprise context.

In a mission-striped organization you fuse diverse personnel archetypes into product-focused teams that deliver concrete business outcomes. In a function-striped organization you cluster members of a shared archetype that operate either as a resource pool or focus on an archetype-appropriate facet of a project that spans organizational boundaries.

A mission-striped organization can yield enormous joy and impact during its early days. The diverse collection of personnel archetypes within a team offers empathy, amplification, and triangulation that ensures timely delivery of a useful product. Communication and coordination overhead operates at a minimum. The focus and impact drive satisfaction and camaraderie that boost energy and foster commitment. The arrangement, however, particularly at a global level, can cause fragmentation and inefficiency, deprive people of adequate mentorship, and create headaches around integration and maintenance. There also might not be enough work for a given archetype to keep busy full-time.

A function-striped organization has the potential for enormous efficiencies of a certain kind as well as ensures that individuals will experience regular contact with potential mentors. The hope for efficiency rests on maintaining a full loading of all employees as well as encouraging/enforcing shared design patterns. These posited efficiencies, however, carry the risk of being applied against the wrong problems and creating inter-team antagonism. Meanwhile, although the individuals in this construct may have good opportunities for mentorship they likely also will suffer burn-out from a toxic cocktail of excessive load, inadequate variety, and mission detachment.

I have lived in both kinds of organizations, felt the joy and pain of each viscerally, and watched ecosystems pendulum violently between such configurations. People get drunk on the early promise of such arrangements, then get sick when they start to realize the ramifications of their unmanaged consequences, then either flee elsewhere to a seemingly greener other-side-of-fence or foment a local rebellion that inverts the order of things.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact these two options considered alone represent a false dichotomy. As organizations stop being tiny, where mission-striped is the only kind of team because there is just one, the opportunity for a hybrid approach emerges. Instead of lurching toward a function-striped organizational architecture, one can instead blend mission-aligned teams that focus on concrete product outcomes with centers-of-excellence that bring together employees of a shared archetype to receive the mentorship they need and foster shared tooling and tradecraft.

Pulling off this transition, though, requires keen perception, shrewd proactivity, and a gentle touch. The longer one waits, the more likely pent up forces will trigger violent upheaval and a swing from the present extreme to another equally problematic one.

Political Capital

We Americans find ourselves presently living through a time characterized by polarizing rhetoric and violent penduluming between political regimes. This leaves us highly dysfunctional at a time when we can least afford it owing to the rapid intensification of an assortment of planetary-scale problems.

Increasingly our ecosystem runs under the Physics of an extremely powerful president emplaced for a limited term by an electoral college whose constituent elements operate a partitioned first-past-the-post system where only two parties have any chance of success. The prelude to a presidency, especially with the amplifying effects of modern social media, roils the country with PSYOPS intended to convince key populations to pick an extreme position.

Once installed these presidents wield the majority of their power through the issuance of executive orders and the installation of judges. If you have any doubt then look only to recent events to dispel them. Witness the whirlwind of executive orders rescinded and issued by President Biden during his first day, and look backward to the several preceding presidencies that played out much the same. Reflect on how much hinged on whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived just a few months longer, how long the effects of her passing may last with a new balance on the court, and how violently matters could pendulum once more if just a single conservative-leaning judge died.

Our politics have become a cyclic blood sport with two phases, an initial one focused on a succeeding in a winner-takes-all contest, and a subsequent one spent ruthlessly exploiting a temporary advantage, seemingly ignorant of the adage that those who live by the sword inevitably die by the sword. Somehow we must extricate ourselves from this ugliness and move toward a configuration where most people can consistently agree on the matters where we absolutely must have a coordinated approach, on other matters we can accept a degree of autonomy that prevents the creation of wedge issues, and in all matters at all times we are building diverse coalitions versus taking turns either fucking over or getting fucked by The Others.

Our government needs to operate with a steadier hand. Plans need to evolve but we cannot afford to perpetually do a violent 180 degree turn every few years on the big issues. Fixing the current situation will involve gradual bottom-up consensus building that hinges on showing empathy and creating a shared destiny. In this regard, I especially appreciated the recent Making Republicans Environmentalists Again episode of the relatively new How To Save A Planet podcast, the central tenet advocating for getting everyone to want the same thing instead trying to cram policy down people’s throats after narrowly winning an election. What good is, for instance, a Paris Agreement if we’re in and out of it every four years? That won’t save the planet, won’t make other nations trust us, and won’t keep us from a civil war.

It’s time to act like adults. We don’t have anymore time to waste.

Paragliding Days 54 And 55

Yesterday was kind of a non-event. I picked up my repaired wing from SuperFly in the morning then got to FPS fairly late on the thought that I could at least kite for a bit and be setup for later flying. The wind proved so strong, however, that I was reticent to inflate even well back in the bottom parking lot, showing as much as 22G24 at peak. I waited for a calm moment, inflated, said “looks like a wing”, then packed up.

Yesterday evening would also prove a frustrating tease, as first I headed to FPS only to have the wind go north (and watch someone side-hill butt-strike without getting their legs out of their pod), then I went over to FPN only to have it die before I got going, so I packed up and went home pretty bummed. The more interesting parts of the day had nothing directly to do with flying: the cable stay on one of my brakes had a chip in it that Chris indicated had likely been what sawed open my brake’s sheathe; I took the opportunity of being at SuperFly to buy a hook knife as a bit of emergency kit I hope never to use much like my reserve chute.

This morning I got a bit of a late start owing to falling asleep before setting an alarm and then getting entangled with some work stuff before I could get out of the door. Over at FPS initially the wind felt excessive and so I took my time inflating. It dipped so precipitously, however, that when I did launch I found myself on a short sledder to be followed by a long hike. I did, at least, have the satisfaction of nailing my spot landing with my feet touching down squarely on the tarp.

And then the wind turned on so on my return hike I watched everyone else having the lion’s share of the fun…

Back at the top the wind continued inexorably to amp up. I hung around for a while hoping it would mellow out but that never happened. When I saw a tandem pilot attempt a top landing and get dragged messily across the field I gave up waiting and went home for consolation lunch.

Observing the wind post-lunch I noted that FPS showed numbers deceptively enticing like yesterday with the folly being evident if you called up the regional wind map. Instead of heading there I delayed for a while then trekked over to FPN. When I arrived the lower wind sock looked tantalizingly promising. And then it proved a total disappointment. I watched conditions alternate between no-wind and light-north. Having lost hope in having a proper flight, and seeing that Ariel was about to hike to the upper bench, I shouted over to him with a request for a spotter for a forward inflation. It all seemed to be going well right up until it didn’t…

I suspect that I was launching into light wind that turned into low wind at the worst possible moment and my minimal brush clearance turned into no brush clearance. As I recall it, my foot hit one bush to cause an initial disruption to my flight path, my harness snagged in a subsequent bush, and then with my body thus entangled the wing got ahead of me and I had an awkward tumble down the hill that felt like a medium-bad skiing crash with extra complexities. Miraculously my wing landed exactly on the switchback and I was entangled in brush that was unpleasant but not supremely nasty like what lay just slightly below. With a slightly different wind I might have found both my body and my wing entangled in brush that approximated razor wire.

I’ve always thought that people who mountain bike or ski in the trees without eyewear to protect from ocular twig thwacks were dumbasses. In this moment I was grateful that I had recently switched from sunglasses to ski goggles for paragliding owing to the cold. I can only imagine the nasty business that might have befallen my eyes without the benefit of full shielding. I try when possible not to show my aqueous humor.

“Are you OK?” I eventually heard Ariel shout. “Yes,” I replied. “I can’t see you!”, he added. I raised a fist then heard a “there you are”. Eventually he made his way down the trail and was about to start helping with my wing before I suggested he capture some evidence of my folly for posterity.

(it would be a dick move to film a crashed pilot except that I requested it)

After a few minutes we had gotten me disentangled…

… and remarkably by the time we had hiked back to the top only twenty minutes had elapsed since my ill-fated launch.

Initial point of impact?

Ariel noted that on another occasion when helping a downed pilot that ninety minutes had elapsed between crash and getting carted away in an ambulance. File another misadventure away in the “cheap lesson” drawer. Back at the top we turned my wing over then had me walk the trailing edge to dump junk downward while Ariel cleared it from the openings of the cells. We inspected the surfaces during this process and then scanned all the lines for compromise. Remarkably no damage was in evidence.

Not a great week of flying from an enjoyment standpoint but I guess lots of valuable lessons… Along the timeline a few possibilities emerge: I could have chosen not to fly; I could have swung rightward to launch into the gulley where there is more commitment but less obstruction; I could have said “don’t love this!” at the last second and aborted my launch. About the only thing I did unambiguously right was to ask for Ariel to be a forward-launch spotter. The intended purpose was to ensure that my wing looked clean before launch but the main benefit proved to be having a witness/rescuer for my botched launch.

I was grateful to have a saint of a fellow pilot have my back but when he consoled me at the end that I had come out of it with a damage-free(-ish) body and wing I noted that I did not believe in “no harm, no foul”. I screwed up and it only wasn’t much worse because I got lucky. With circumstances not all that different it could have been a trip to the hospital and a destroyed $5K wing. I felt badly to have made him sprint down the hill wondering if he was going to find me unconscious or worse. No amount of backyard cookouts can adequately compensate him for the positive karma points he has been accruing.

Savor The Moment

I have never owned a house, not for want of financial wherewithal, but rather owing to a nomadic temperament. I see the appeal but never in my adult life have I been adequately confident that I would want to remain in my present configuration more than two additional years. This has seen me flowing through a variety of configurations, each of which has offered uniquely wonderful facets in the moment and afterward had me pining for a former way of being at odds with my present reality.

In the year after undergrad I stayed in Boston to work with a group at Tufts Medical school who had provided me part-time employment over the previous two years. They lacked the budget to take me on full time yet nonetheless provided a very generous salary and full benefits for ~25 hours/week of work. This left me with an exorbitant amount of free-time while enjoying a delightful blend of office-time and city-life whereas various friends went off to the insane grind of 100 hour/week death marches in law, finance, and tech. In the wake of my senior year, which included such traumas as 9/11, waking up during a burglary in progress, losing two pets I had had over a decade, and assorted other drama, this offered just the period of decompression I needed. The forgiving nature of my professional schedule allowed me to get to the gym often enough to get the most ripped I have been in my life.

My two years at Johns Hopkins for graduate school provided an opportunity for a depth of mania perhaps unparalleled in the rest of my life. I opted to cram two masters into four semesters which provided a wealth of learning. Yet one experience stands out among all of this. Hopkins is fairly unique in the extremely long winter break it provides, roughly a full month circa my tenure. I remember during the 2003-2004 winter break I essentially spent a month sequestered in my apartment executing a deep dive on Linux arcana unrivaled by any other period in my life. I recall one occasion where a delivery person arrived at my apartment with some Chinese food and I could scarcely croak out “thanks” as my voice was cracking from countless days of disuse. One ought be careful with such behavior lest it precipitate a descent into madness, but such cocoon periods can prove staggeringly effective at quickly developing shockingly deep expertise. Moderation in everything, including moderation…

My time in government service offered something exceptionally unique in the way of professional experience. At peak moments a magical combination of mission and camaraderie provided a sense of purpose and flow that I struggle to reproduce to this day. Crazy intense work to build and operate systems where matters of life-and-death were the literal stakes, punctuated by lunch breaks, impromptu brainstorming sessions, and volleyball/soccer games with people whom I deeply respected and were helping me make these systems real, created a sense of meaning, engagement, and community that I gather precious few people ever get to truly experience. I won’t lie and pretend that at times the bureaucracy and politicking weren’t maddening but in the end it proved well worth it and I ache from its absence.

Many things about my time at Bridgewater Associates were exasperating owing to having joined at a tumultuous time in the company’s arc. Nonetheless I cannot point at any other phase of my life and assert honestly that it provided a more dense period of personal growth. The company’s culture was fanatically focused on reflection, open-mindedness, rigorous thinking, and evolution to an extent that almost anywhere else I may go will likely prove a disappointment in these regards. You might arrive thinking of their catered lunch as a perk but in fact it is a brilliant approach to stirring a cauldron of bright minds to ensure the mixing of thought stuff to yield innovative thinking. I miss the integrity and energy that characterized the majority of the people working there.

My time living in Columbus and working for a small startup company brought together a variety of benefits I had previously only experienced in isolation. For my first time I found myself both living and working in a walkable urban environment. I lived a fifteen minute walk from the office and the area offered a smorgasbord of great restaurants. I would rack up ten thousand steps without trying between my “commute” and lunch break. My co-workers evinced a rare intensity and commitment. While many facets of this experience proved deeply frustrating, exhausting, and disappointing, there was also much that was profoundly wonderful.

And now I find myself in a configuration both otherworldly wonderful and weirdly alienating. I inhabit an outdoorsman’s paradise while running a consulting business that offers supreme flexibility to enjoy said paradise. Within this arrangement I have had the focus to quickly knock out my first paragliding rating and to rack up more skiing days within a month than I have in entire previous seasons. I deeply appreciate the relationships I have with my customers, have learned a great deal from them, and had a big impact on their outcomes. I do, however, find various voids in my life deeply discomfiting. I love the wilderness, but I also miss city life. I love the flexibility of my work arrangement, but I miss the intensity, focus, and serendipity of office life. Remote work with a flexible schedule is both wonderful and terrible.

This has me thinking of the tongue-in-cheek lament of the guy who ran the ground school portion of my PP-ASEL training a few years ago: “I just want a big house on a generous plot of land in the city next to an airstrip and a marina. Is that too much to ask?”. To me that sounds too unambitious… I also want the city to be a tech hub and foodie paradise as well as the house to be adjacent to mountains with champagne snow and buttery air. A boy can dream… In the meanwhile he can savor the best of what the present has to offer, exploiting it to the fullest while mourning the things he loved and lost and pondering how best to architect the next chapter in a post-pandemic era.

Future Work Modalities

#thisisfine #livingattheoffice

Context

In the short term, we habitually overestimate the potential impact of technologies and approaches because we underestimate implementation complexities. In the long term, we often underestimate those impacts because we fail to appreciate the power of compounding. I imagine these proclivities will be on full display over the next 3-5 years as we reboot our relationship with the workplace.

The pandemic steamrolled office life to such an extent one can be forgiven for mistaking the present reality for The New Normal. Certainly many results of this interlude will prove sticky, ranging from the disruption of commercial real estate, the brutalization of related service industries, the migration of talent to remote locations, the pause of many careers in service of family, and the adoption of new tools and techniques by companies and their employees. And yet the current arrangement both stems from very temporary circumstances and has clearly engendered horrifically unsustainable pressures on countless people. A storm has swept away many of the incidental challenges around technology and culture, but as the tide recedes we will enter another phase.

I often think of a Physics thought problem in pondering the long term effects of notable events. The questioner asks you to describe what happens to life on Earth if a godlike power instantaneously disappears the Sun from our solar system. The beginnings of a correct answer: “Nothing. For eight minutes.”. For that surreal interlude we would continue to experience the radiation and gravitational effects of our erstwhile star. As we navigate this strange upcoming period we ought carefully ponder the long-term effects of the disappearance of The Office on innovation, social progress, social cohesion, mental health, and labor relations. For these facets of our reality one might reasonably expect high latency for properly appreciating the related impacts.

Innovation

Every few years I re-read the transcript or Dr. Richard W. Hamming’s speech You And Your Research. The following excerpted commentary seems especially relevant to our long-term innovation prospects:

I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.

I also find myself reflecting on the book Range in this context, a central tenet of which being that the generalists that form a critical component of our knowledge economy emerge and benefit from a highly fluid arrangement with a diverse collection of colleagues, projects, and experiences. I doubt it an accident that in its closing pages it holds up the lunchtime meal shared between colleagues as one of the most powerful forces in innovation.

While superficially and immediately the loss of office-induced serendipitous interactions may seem of no clear detriment to innovation, in fact we will likely be eating our seed corn, the consequences of which we will doubtless feel yet perhaps not quite comprehend several years down the road.

Social Progress

Prior to the pandemic, addressing gender pay disparity garnered a substantial portion of the policy conversation spotlight. Within the pandemic, however, we have observed catastrophic effects on the progress of women. Firstly, economic disruption has hit hardest many of the industries with historical over-representation of women. Secondly, for many families forced to make difficult trade-offs around monetary inflows and household orchestration, the short-term rational but long-term disastrous decision has been to keep the lower-earning partner at home, which statistically has meant the woman of a heterosexual partnership. Not only does this present immediate effects on gender parity and workplace diversity, but the situation also undercuts the pressure to solve problems around childcare availability and affordability, sending us on a downward spiral. Without a return to normalcy in the realm of Office and improvements in the realm of Childcare we will be cementing horrific setbacks for both women specifically and society as a whole for generations to come. The flexibility provided by the option to do remote work can serve as a huge boon, but only as a component of an holistic approach.

Cohesion & Health

More than ever during the pandemic people are leaning heavily on social media platforms to retain a semblance of connectedness and a modicum of mental health. This has resulted inevitably from the shuttering of offices, bars, churches, sports leagues, and countless other contexts that serve as natural circulators of diverse populations. The core business models of such digital platforms, meanwhile, rest heavily on engagement optimization algorithms that form echo chambers and promote contention. Without the normative effects and countervailing pressures of social mixing within physical spaces we will be more likely than ever to fall deeper into our divided communities and head inexorably down paths to explosive conflict. As the nexus to so many forums of social interaction, the permanent loss of the office might further a collapse of civil society at a time when we evidently can least afford it. Policy leaders ought take a long and hard stare at this piece of the puzzle instead of focusing only on the symptoms we are observing on social media platforms.

Labor Relations

Theories abound regarding whether, when, and how we will collectively return to office life and the implications for employment relations. For each of productivity, happiness, compensation, and diversity one can find just as many arguments that this facet will improve as deteriorate. Some employees say that the switch to the current arrangement is a dream, others a nightmare, and others still that they are gradually adapting. Well positioned businesses have thrived, others have died, and most of the survivors are in a messy working-through-it period while wondering how temporary circumstances are. Many employers are telling their employees that they can expect reduced compensation if they work remotely. In fact the reality is as simple as it is complex: circumstances are highly situational.

By mid-2021, with many of the incidental difficulties of remote work washed away by a violent storm, we will begin to see the emergence of a range of modalities throughout industry that hinges more on company nature, employee archetype, individual preference, and balances of power, instead of a rigidly uniform This Is How Things Have Always Been. There will, of course, exist a fair amount of momentum that momentarily masks this trend, but the trajectory is inevitable. The availability of remote work will be one more knob that companies can turn to optimize productivity on both micro and macro levels and one more chit on the comp negotiation table.

Work that involves the regular and rapid mixing of ideas to foment innovation will continue to benefit from high-density talent hubs that foster serendipity. Complex creative work will forever benefit from schedule synchrony, latency minimization, and interaction fluidity of a kind that mere technology cannot yet offer. The supply and demand of talent, and its ROI when plugged into various contexts, are what will ultimately drive compensation, not where people call home, and not what many would call “fair”. Companies will ever respond to market and governmental forces, finding the path of least resistance to maximum profit or be outcompeted by those that do. Top-tier talent will continue to be able to write its own ticket while commoditized workers will ever experience a downward pressure on wages and a consequent rise of disenfranchisement, resentment, and radicalization. We will either proactively find a way to re-engage and re-integrate the people who are feeling left behind or tip over a precipice that requires us to deal reactively with an inevitable and violent upheaval.

Conclusions

The re-imagining of the office, the roboticization of countless jobs, a resurgence of onshore production, and an inevitable reckoning with the implications of our digital ecosystems in the coming years will prove incredibly disorienting, disruptive, and unpredictable. Best to remain resilient in every way that you can and think deeply about what you value.

Paragliding Day 53

I arrived at FPS ~0900 hoping to snag a flight or two before an 1100 call. As I zipped past the lower parking lot I saw a forlorn-looking sunk-out pilot, jammed on the brakes, rolled down all the windows, told him to hop in, then shivered my way to the top (my extra layers were in my harness which was packed with my wing owing to last night’s northside hike-out).

At the top the wind hovered on the edge of manageable so I walked down to the far end which offers open field versus a lot full of cars lest I struggle and get dragged. I’ve had the “cheap lesson” of wrapping my wing over a couple of cars and don’t care to tempt fate thus again. As I got into position near the lip I sensed that the wind had strengthened further, saw 12G14, gave things a minute, then saw 13G15, and so began hiking down the hill to find a location of sufficiently attenuated wind that launching would not seem foolhardy. Other pilots of greater skill, meanwhile, soared the ridge tantalizingly.

I hiked down far enough that the wind did not seem crazy, unpacked my wing, walked my harness downhill, straightened out the lines, then… sensed that the wind was uncomfortably strong. I grabbed the lines near the wing, walked farther downhill, then walked the harness downhill, had a mind to set up, then… again found the wind worrisome. I repeated this process twice more before feeling like strapping into my harness was not folly. As I ran my safety check, to my chagrin I noticed the sheath on one of the brake cables had broken open, something I had not observed upon yesterday’s launch, and so likely not an immediate issue, but certainly indicative of a timely repair being wise. Then when I tugged the As to build a wall I found one set of risers evincing a worrisome twist. I also sensed that the wind was getting stronger. Ugh. I jogged rightward and uphill to depower the wing, put a knee on the right wingtip to ensure it stayed depowered, and then unclipped the wing from my hardness. Damn it. I took off my harness, pulled out the sack, stuffed the wing into it, hiked back up to my car, then went home.

Aviation accidents tend to happen not because one thing went wrong but rather several simultaneously. When several things thus go wrong almost always circumstances stem from multiple mistakes happening in concert. More often than not this owes to pilot stubbornness, a refusal to adapt in the face of evolving circumstances and awareness, regularly accompanied by inadequate training.

Perhaps in a nearby timeline of our multiverse I ignored all these signals because I allowed an over-eagerness to fly to dominate. I chose to inflate, the riser twist proved consequential, the wind gusted at just the wrong moment, I got popped off the hill unexpectedly with weird loading and compromised control, the brake line snapped, I had too little time to grab the rears to steer, I slammed into the ground, and broke a leg.

But not in this timeline. In this one I said “gaaaaahhhhh, fuck this shit!”, packed it up, went home, had a fun 90 minute introductory call with a friend-of-a-friend, ate a tasty lunch, went for a good afternoon’s skiing, enjoyed the sunset on the drive down, then wrote this journal entry while fending off aggressively cuddly cats and enjoying a vodka-and-tonic.

Paragliding Day 52

I did not have high hopes for flying today. The wind in the morning looked weak at the outset and then progressively wilder as the day unfolded. By 1500 conditions were still crack-a-lackin but I headed over to the northside anyway because I had grown sick of being in the house and figured the worst that could happen was that I got some sunlight and fresh air with my feet firmly planted on the ground.

I arrived ~1530 and observed conditions that did not bolster my hopes. The wind appeared strong, gusty, and directionally variable. A few hang gliders were aloft, and one very tiny wing was fooling around on the upper ledge… not a good sign. Initially just Jeremy was attempting to kite and having a rough go of it. After ~20 minutes I found myself wondering if my best chance of getting my brain to squirt happy chemicals was to go home and do some deadlifts in my garage. After 45 minutes, however, the wind suddenly appeared amenable to some flying, and I rushed to gear up.

After running my preflight I looked at my watch, noted 1625, performed a reverse inflation, spun forward, and began working my way up the finger. “Deeper steps!”, I heard Ben say, who happened to be at the park today with another student and had tossed me a radio so I could be part of the group. Eventually I got to the edge, found the wind a little bit light, trotted rightward so I could launch into the gully, and found myself lofted quite nicely as soon as I got off.

Conditions made for a nice flight but the sudden transition from unflyable to flyable compressed the window into which everyone else got going and made for a busy pattern. From the ground Ben captured a few nice shots. I observed a couple of “yikes” moments as other pilots came what seemed ill-advisedly close to one another. I also found myself fairly busy managing my own pattern to prevent undue risks, on several occasions finding myself in the blind spot of a lower pilot in thermal conditions and taking proactive measures to blunt that risk.

Toward the end there was a moment where I might have top-landed but I was carrying a lot of altitude and so thought to take one more pass to bleed off a bit. On the subsequent pass, however, I found myself boxing in another pilot and so stayed more outside than I would have preferred, sacrificing a fair amount of altitude. On the next pass I started to sink below launch and could not recover and so set myself up for one more pass and a landing at the bottom. As I turned to final I found a surprisingly strong headwind as well as a couple of people on the ground that were standing in what might have been my ideal path. I touched down with very little speed just slightly before the road that runs perpendicular to the hill’s fall line, trotted forward until I got slightly past the road, then spun around and tapped the brakes with the hope of dropping the wing in a tangle-free environment. Alas the wing dumped to my right and completely ensnared the two pilots that I had just made great efforts to avoid. Whoops.

On the return hike I jealously regarded a pilot who had found a better path and thus was on a trajectory for a nice top landing.

After returning to the top I spent some time talking technique with Mark while enjoying the gorgeous pastels of the setting sun.

I feel better now. Perhaps I had been going into skycrack withdrawal. Or maybe I just needed more vitamin D. Either way I am grateful for the way the day ended.

Fossil Resources And Runaway Processes

Shortly after waking this morning I found myself in a conversation where the other person suggested that I was using LinkedIn like we’re living in 2007 WRT to how I curate my “connections”. Later in the conversation, which waxed philosophical about the dumpster fire that social media has become, I remarked that “maybe, to your point above, 2007 is roughly around the last time I liked the Internet”. I noted how much I loved the site Kuro5hin back in its heyday and how it was well on its way to decline by this point. He remarked on the site only ever having on the order of tens of thousands of users and how that “speaks to how many people truly appreciate something like that”.

No sooner had this conversation wrapped did another person message me to remark upon AWS taking Parler offline. This led to a meandering conversation about the entanglement of social media and extremism, what the appropriate role of regulation might be, how Machine Learning may represent the most toxic technology we have created to date, and how the Big Tech ecosystem may be hollowing out the foundation on which it grew.

At some point in the midst of all this my brain skipped laterally over to a friend’s Facebook post of a few days earlier asking for recommendations on best books from 2020. My reply had included Perilous Bounty, a treatise on “The Looming Collapse of American Farming”, in which our agricultural complex’s relationship to the topsoil of the ecosystem proved one of the most revelatory and scary topics. Essentially this topsoil represents a fossil resource that takes thousands of years to generate, provides enormous boost to our output, and is tracking for exhaustion in the span of decades. I found myself thus ruminating on the parallels with our knowledge ecosystem.

Google launched in 1998 and accomplished amazing feats in the realm of organizing the world’s knowledge. I can scarcely imagine what the life of a programmer must have been like before having such awesome search powers at one’s command. I can remember in the nineties having to drive from the suburbs into Boston to dig through actual libraries for research papers in service to science fair projects but for my entire professional life such a modality has seemed laughably antiquated. By now the world has inverted: getting answers is preposterously easy, assessing their quality can be wickedly difficult, knowing the right questions to ask is harder than ever, and our reasoning faculties may be getting progressively weaker.

I got my first cell phone in 2002, the year I finished undergrad, and did not acquire a smartphone until 2009. I also got a Facebook account in 2009 but I remember when linking it to my AirBnB account in 2013 the related analytic complained it seemed to be so minimally used that it could not serve as proof of identity. This may in large measure owe to spending 2005-2016 working full-time in government SCIFs where I had only a landline for a phone and on my unclassified terminal I only ever did Google searches to puzzle through technical problems. This offered by default a level of focus not afforded to most of the world as the social media ecosystem inexorably reached a fevered pitch. As I stepped out to the private sector in 2016 I experienced a torrent of digital connectivity that proved jarring.

In this past year, meanwhile, I note that have probably used social media more than all previous years combined, thanks to the pandemic. On a recent Facebook post a friend wrote: “Does anyone else feel that they don’t know what to do with social media anymore? It no longer helps me feel connected to folks.” My reply: “At first [during the pandemic] it provided some continuity during some strange and tumultuous times. Now as this nonsense has ground on for 9+ months and my life has undergone some serious evolutions it feels less a stopgap and more an ashes-in-mouth replacement of shared meals, brainstorming huddles, and solid hugs.”

And now I find myself pondering a conversation I had mid-2020 with a friend in which I opined on the increasing rarity of finding amazing blogs of the kind that I deeply appreciated during my formative years as a software engineer (Spolsky, Yegge, and Graham as standout examples thereof). His reply: “Yeah. Twitter took all the air out of blogs.”

And, finally, my brain now swings to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows as I reflect on this eye-of-storm moment we inhabit between the siege of the US Capitol on the day of our electoral college’s certification and the violence that extremists are planning for inauguration day. As discussion forums mediated by relatively dumb software and inhabited by thoughtful humans engaged in substantive discourse have given way to shallow and emotional interactions mediated by ruthlessly self-optimizing and echo chamber creating machine learning algorithms… As deliberately crafted email has fallen by the wayside as a medium for professional and personal communication alike, replaced by the sentence fragments and memes we dribble out on Slack and social media… Have we, in a 10-20 years long orgy of self-reinforcing digital titillation, thus mined out our collective capacity for deep thinking, thoughtful debate, and civil discourse? And have we brought about such an intellectual fragility just as we face the most complex and existential threats in our history as a species?

Twitter’s deletion of Trump’s Twitter account and Big Tech’s scorched earth approach to Parler at best represent break-glass CNA tactics to prevent violent extremists from organizing adequately to disrupt the peaceful transition of power in the USG. In the medium-term this medicine will likely prove toxic in complex and unpredictable ways. Expecting social media and technology platforms to serve as the arbiter of truth will only exacerbate the sentiments of many that a powerful and secretive cabal rules the world. Worse still, many of these companies have business models that thrive on stoking conflict that drives increasingly polarized politics. The long-term solutions toward which we must strive involve improved education, opportunity, and mingling. Well-fed and well-traveled skeptics, intellectually curious people with food and housing security who regularly bump into a diverse collection of philosophies and ways of life, people who find the headspace for deep and uninterrupted thought, people with the serenity and focus to attain Flow, tend not to travel down a path of radicalism and scleroticism that inevitably ends in alienation and violence.

We Americans kind of squandered the bounty of the post-WWII era. After an initial boom, owing to the rest of the world having been grossly disrupted, we took a careless attitude toward managing the secondary and tertiary effects of globalization and automation, drinking deep of our prosperity while increasingly neglecting to make the right investments in education and infrastructure. This, coupled with disruptive technology in the communications space, has created a perfect storm of large swaths of society struggling to make ends meet (while pining for times that will never return) and sub-groups struggling to interact. If conscripting technology companies to act as censors represents the best of our thinking as a society then we are not going to get out of this except by passing through some horrific fires.

Paragliding Day 51

The forecast promised a banana pants morning and a weak sauce evening so I imagined a day spent working to protect Freedom, Justice, The American Way, and my Bank Account. By mid-afternoon, however, as I closed out a logical block of work the wind began behaving just enough to create the possibility of some Northside flying so I wound things down and got there shortly after 1600. When I arrived the windsock looked generally erect and substantially variable, promising a fairly challenging but not untenable affair, but also arguing for taking my time getting going to allow it to attenuate a bit.

After setting up I watched the sock and listened to the wind for a bit, identified a promising lull, built a wall, then inflated. I felt the wing come up, dug my heels in hard, and “YIIIIIIKES!”. I got yanked off my feet a few feet into the air, twisted forward in the process, plopped back down, spun back around, took great care not to over-apply the brakes, and nonetheless had the wing collapse sloppily with lines wrapped around my head. “Would you mind sitting on my wing?” I asked Chad who was nearby, not yet clipped in (arguably because he is smarter than me), and watching my misfortune. Once he did I unclipped, knowing that between the uncontrolled inflation and strong wind the highest probability outcome was finding that wind my lines were a hot mess and getting taken for a ride for which I was unprepared. And a hot mess they were, requiring a good several minutes to sort out, vindicating my conservative approach to preparing for another attempt. Happily Ariel’s instruction on line detangling approaches a few days ago provided great assistance in muddling through the situation.

Having sorted things out I once again set up for inflation, again on the right side of the finger, accounting for an easterly crosswind that would likely drag me across it. I recognized that the last time I had failed to account for the rigidity of the ground and resolved to run toward the wing proactively to depower it as it rose as opposed to expecting the ground to allow me to slide. This helped somewhat, though not enough, and I again got yanked off my feet, though this time less dramatically, and I regained control fast enough to spin to a forward kiting position and start working myself up the finger for a launch. The wind was not so strong I could not make steady-ish progress. It did, however, offer a great deal of variability, and before I could get going I suffered an asymmetrical frontal collapse, my left side giving out and my wing pulling me hard to the left. I applied right brake and ran leftward to get under the wing, but too little too late, especially since my surprise pop-up on inflation had caused me to surrender maybe half the width of the finger. Finding myself at risk of getting dragged into the gully I focused my attention on aggressively reeling in brake and rear lines on one side then the other and then sprinted alongside my wing and pinned down the right tip. “Fuck this”, I said to myself, realizing I was in over my head, and I began sucking in and hugging my wing to further prevent a surprise re-inflation.

I was ready to head out when Ariel came over and asked if I could be his anchor for a high-wind tandem launch. I said I could. He asked if I was leaving imminently and I said I was but asked if there was a compelling reason I ought hang around. He suggested that it would be helpful if someone could assist in his subsequent landing. I said I could. After his launch I tracked his trajectory and jogged around the field to intercept his landing and upon touchdown grabbed the brake lines from his hands and then backpedaled hard to aggressively collapse his wing. All worked out well and I enjoyed the novel experience as a consolation prize after two failed attempts to go flying myself.

Takeaways for the evening were that during high-wind launches I need to be more adaptive to the soil conditions, ledge position, and wind angle. I’m glad that I reined in the stubbornness enough to abort after two attempts but maybe I ought have made one or zero. I got banged up just enough to get a little bit of reinforcement learning, but not so much that the pain is unfamiliar territory, the intensity being roughly equivalent to countless occasions serving as an indoor soccer goalie on an outmatched team.

Paragliding Day 50

Yesterday offered a fair amount of psychological trauma for me in a fashion doubtless familiar to countless others. My sleep tracker says I finally fell asleep around midnight, woke at 0345, remained awake until 0700, then eked out some more sleep until 1000. This obviously ruled out morning flying, but in fact the wind was wack anyway, so not much was lost on that front, and yet my brain also felt like it had passed through a cheese grater so I wondered whether I would fly in the afternoon either. Eventually, though, with judicious applications of food, caffeine, mindless chores, and steamy water I pieced together a quorum of brain cells and headed to the northside around 1500.

When I arrived the sock suggested wind in the realm of 12-14 and reasonable smoothness of both direction and intensity. Watching other pilots fly, however, seemed to indicate a substantial thermic element. Joe launched a few minutes ahead of me and offered evidence thereof, surging upward immediately after launch.

After baselining my expectations on Joe’s launch I reverse inflated, spun around, and began working my way toward the ledge. It was… a little too easy. Unlike my last northside flight I did not find myself straining against my harness and having my feet tugged off the ground well before the ledge and so I fretted that I may have missed the optimal window and was on track for a quick sink-out. After launch I immediately and aggressively banked rightward and… was happy to find that my fears were mostly unfounded! I did not catapult upward the way Joe had a few moments earlier but I nonetheless managed to find enough of the lift band that I managed 55 minutes of unbroken flight from 1540-1635.

I am on the wing 7 o’clock relative to the hang glider. (photo credit: Ariel Zlatkovski)
I briefly saw the radio tower atop the upper bench but mostly just barely kept eking out some soaring around this altitude or a little higher. (photo credit: Joey Jarrell)

This proved a glorious day of flying which came with the challenge of navigating a traffic pattern with many other pilots soaring the ridge. At peak I counted 15 paragliders and one hang-glider sharing the space. We made the circumstances work but the density offered a fair amount of cognitive load. On many occasions I chose a flight path that proved sub-optimal for altitude sustainment but avoided risks around either getting pinned, pinning another pilot, or flying in someone’s blind spot. On a final such occasion I sufficiently lost the lift band that I began to sink out but I scarcely minded as I was tiring anyway.

My landing proved moderately hard on the body. Up until the last moment all seemed according to plan. I hit my target spot very precisely but moments before touching down I gather that a crosswind pulsed long enough to play havoc. With my toes just feet off the ground I found myself hovering and then acquiring a modicum of roll. I felt it impossible to gain adequate control authority on the countering brake and then the wind turned off and I plopped down in a fashion where I gather I made contact with just my right foot and had the left brake apply substantial load to my left arm. My left latissimus dorsi feels slightly abused as confirmation thereof. All things considered, this is a very minor injury, but nonetheless soft tissue documentation that there perhaps existed an opportunity for a last-second micro-correction WRT to wind alignment that I missed. Alas. File that under “cheap lesson”.

After an invigorating hike back to the top with Joe I hung out and continued to enjoy the setting sun while chewing the fat with Richard and Ariel until the chill of the cold night air drove us homeward.

What a wonderful afternoon. When you are flying your brain has only the attention for flying. Consequently this experience offered just what I needed to regain some semblance of normalcy in the wake of horrifying national events.

Paragliding Day 49, or… One Of Our Darkest Days

“Think you brought the wrong flag, bro…” #irony

The wind appeared ideal when I woke but commenced cratering lamentably in short order. I thought about just making a work day of it but felt an itch to get out strong enough to accept a kiting-only day and arrived at FPS shortly after nine. I inflated ~0915 to weak and variable wind but within ten minutes found myself just barely able to keep my toes on the ground and so spun around and fought my way off the hill. Taking no chances I swung right immediately and found myself rewarded with some most excellent lift that had me above launch altitude like it ain’t no thang. I performed several circuits, ranging all the way to the far west end of the hill which was quite a treat, and eventually top-landed with a bit more lateral motion than I would have preferred but fairly smoothly nonetheless. The wind proved a bit spicy and so I rapidly reeled in brake and Cs on the right side and then the left to show the wing who was boss. I checked my phone and found the time to be 0945, so a ~20 minute flight and ample time for another one despite an 1100 meeting on the horizon.

With the wind amping up I felt mildly uncomfortable with the prospect of immediately re-inflating so I balled up my wing and headed down a little ways for a side-hill launch. Somehow, though, presumably between my e-brake execution and subsequent wind-whipping my wing appeared to be a bit of a mess. I fiddled with it for a while and, struggling mightily, found Ariel landing next to me to help me sort things out. He posited that I had at some point stepped through a line, which I could not remember or fathom doing, but damned if it did not seem a plausible explanation given the mess on hand. He sat on my wing while I unclipped from my harness, worked the lines to resolve the puzzle, then got back in. Ariel checked his phone and saw 14G15, an intensity that would have been excessive for me atop the hill, but which felt non-crazy when benefiting from the shelter of being maybe 20′ downhill. When he released my wing I got tugged somewhat abruptly uphill, blipped the brakes to prevent a premature launch, then to my horror found Ariel inside my wing and lines. I fought to find the balance between keeping the wing inflated enough to prevent the lines from ensnaring him but not so inflated that it would launch. Happily I succeeded at this task, Ariel rolled out to the side, the wing came up, I got tugged a bit uphill but not all the way to the lip, I spun around to a forward facing position and quickly checked for clean brake lines, heard Ariel confirm that my overhead kit looked clean, and then heaved myself forward into a launch.

As I surged away from the hill I heard Ariel shout “it’s 1027!”. Moments earlier I had pondered aloud whether going for a second flight was wise as a sink-out and subsequent return hike would most assuredly make me late for my 1100 call. Ariel remarked that a sink-out seemed pretty unlikely given the present circumstances and he was right. After a couple of full-length circuits I attempted a top-landing, found the wind uncomfortably strong, and faced downhill to abort and try again later. On my second attempt the wind was having nothing of it and declined even to let my feet near the ground. I realized that letting the sink-out happen was what counted for wisdom and began vectoring myself accordingly, finally touching down at 1053. Thankfully the friend with whom I had scheduled a Zoom catch-up had a sense of humor about it.

As fortunate would have it, Chad happened to pull into the lower lot just as I was packing up my wing, and he offered me the opportunity to teleport back to the top. I took it then drove back down to grab my wing and savor the moment.

I hung out briefly and watched Ariel doing a tandem flight on the possibility that he would sink out and himself need a return ride to the top. Gotta keep that karma balance topped up but in fact he found a way to top-land and so this proved unnecessary.

As I drove away from the flight park I felt pumped full of endorphin from an amazing experience. Even the frustrating parts proved valuable and wonderful in their own way, partly from the learning opportunity and partly from the appreciation for a fellow pilot sacrificing some soaring time to help me get back in the game. When I arrived home, however, the Internet would find me, and the weight of national events would prove crushing.

I am deeply saddened by how far our nation has sunk. As someone who spent over a decade as a civil servant the present goings on cut me especially deeply. I wonder if I may need before too long to step back into that fray.

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. — Plato