Four Layers

On Friday I decided to brave the 93F desert heat, took my rifle to the range, and, having recently gotten my kit’s configuration and my basic skills to a level where such ambition would not feel like a total waste of ammunition, opted for the 200 yard lane for the first time. Working through a 20 round box of ammo I had a frustrating start, then managed a tolerably good run in the middle, then lost then plot at the end. This higher order pattern feels familiar, timeless, and universal.

On Saturday I made a late decision to join a group of pilots heading to The V for some evening paragliding. When we arrived at the Centerville Junior High rally point the wind was cracking. Shortly after getting out of the car a C-130 buzzed the LZ on its way to the fire in Parley’s Canyon that had erupted a few hours prior. We nonetheless opted to drive up to launch on the thought that we should at least give the out-of-town pilots a site intro even if there was no flying to be had. The wind attenuated as the evening wore on but stayed northerly and was highly variable, making for a high-commitment north-facing launch in unpredictable conditions, a recipe for ending up in trees if you botch it. C-130s continued to lumber through the area with some regularity, some on a path of no consequence unless you went thermaling, others on a trajectory that scared me about the possibility of being on final glide to the LZ while over rooftops only to be boxed out by lingering wake turbulence. I made my first ever decision to NOT fly having invested several hours to go to a remote site.

Today I find myself reflecting on the several layers of competence that have become unconscious where I am already an expert but that are a visceral struggle elsewhere:

  1. Do I have the ability to perform this task well at all?
  2. Do I have the focus and stamina to perform this task well in this moment?
  3. Do I have the awareness when degradations to (2) have compromised performance?
  4. Do I understand the risks in a given moment if I come up short on any of the former?

One of the watershed moments as a budding programmer involved learning to recognize when the best play was simply to quit and either take the time for a meal or go to sleep. Another big milestone that came much later centered on thinking in terms of of Photons, Electrons, Atoms, and Meat — essentially a hierarchy of consequentiality and reversibility of mistakes that underpins a risk-to-reward calculus. These are the tools of experts navigating high pressure and high consequence situations. Software in particular can be thorny in this regard as one day it’s Photons and maybe the next day it’s Meat.

With riflery I very much inhabit a toddler state. On a good day and with easy conditions I can do passably well — such as the previous week when I was still on the 100 yard range, the temperature was mild, the wind was light, my gear situation was in order, etc. On a marginal day matters prove disproportionately a struggle — such as on Friday when I set up on the 200 yard range, realized I forgot my spotting scope’s tripod, adjusted for the distance difference by turning the elevation turret in the wrong direction at first, found myself dealing with a strong and intermittent cross-wind, the mental strain of a new situation was taxing, and the 93F heat was wearing me down. Fortunately slinging lead at paper targets is a Photon level affair unless you’re being really reckless and stupid.

With paragliding I inhabit that particularly dangerous Intermediate state. With paragliding you are navigating a Meat situation every time you strap into a wing. More complicating still — your physiological state can exert huge effects on both your reaction time and your Aeronautical Decision Making. And even worse — making tactical use of your brain to assess the tactical efficacy of your brain represents the worst of potential Second Order Incompetence risks. These facets in concert imply huge error bars and in turn argue for huge margins if you are to treat safety as a priority in an attempt to stay safe while staying in the sport. They also argue for maintaining static thresholds for decision making, such as a floor on how little sleep you’ve had before you automatically cancel flying plans or a number of mistakes/oddities you encounter before you say “this is stupid; I’m out for today”. For my experience at The V yesterday I was good on the former but alarmed by the latter — the wind was much stronger than my previous five flights at the site, as the wind attenuated overall it still remained unsettlingly variable, the wind orientation demanded a north-facing launch which was both higher risk and non-familiar, and large cargo aircraft flying at high volume and low altitude to deal with a regional emergency was waaaaay outside of the norm. It was a painful decision, but I think the right one, and I have substantial respect for the other pilot who made a no-fly decision despite their being a non-local and it being their first time at the site.

Sometimes it feels like Systems Integration is the theme that runs through all my life, and other days it is Risk Management, but always I find value in a Recurring Babyhood that forces me to remember the meta problems that we all face in navigating a new body of knowledge or helping others do the same.

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