I put my head in my hands, elbows propped on desk, the realization sinking in what kind of day it would prove — one like far too many around that long-ago time, alas. With some regularity a key processing system operated by a sister office was going into fits of data loss, leaving our operational picture resembling Swiss cheese. How could this happen? How could people let this happen?
In some sense the answer was simple even though the problem was complex. A flow-based programming system born of one domain and built to run on metal had first been ported to a fundamentally different domain and subsequently resettled to a container farm during a fit of irrational and ill-informed “Cloud” and “NoCode” exuberance. Where in another place and time the former experienced low rates of data loss in a context where losing a little data was no big deal we now had a situation where high rates of data loss were occurring in a context where even a little loss was severely damaging.
The slightly more complex answer involved a firehose of data transiting a complex workflow that for any object might take an unpredictably long time to execute. Worse still, the processing of an object entailed invoking an external metadata management service common to all workflows. This external service, notably, was subject to getting overwhelmed and dropping requests, a scenario that API clients managed by implementing retry protocols on their side, often fomenting a flash crash as competing systems raced to the bottom. Thus objects would pile up deep within these workflows for indeterminate amounts of time as the memory usage of an underlying container crept upward until…
*BANG*. All your data are belong to /dev/null.
The historical stability of the underpinning infrastructure led to a software product with systemic fragility that could not withstand a sudden change in circumstances.
The Goad To Reflection
I recently finished reading Taleb’s Anti-Fragile in which he explores the properties of systems that thrive on volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors. You should read it, too, as well as his other works. Throughout my read I found neural pathways lighting up to situations in my own reality. At the end Taleb exhorts readers to reflect on applications in their own lives. This represents my attempt to do so.
Fractally Distributed Systems
I credit my Distributed Systems professor Yair Amir with stoking a fascination with and passion for understanding how complex systems break and what means we have for dealing with them. Some twenty years later I have memories of profound aphorisms such as “the network is not a disk” and hands-on projects that drove the points home. From his class I gleaned many timeless and universal techniques for fostering resilience in systems. Certain higher order lessons, however, would have to wait for the violence of directing the development of complex systems over the span of years and countless calamities. I would require a many-layered journey to properly become a generator and purveyor of such knowledge myself.
Taleb, meanwhile, begins by explaining to us that not just is our intuition about what “anti-fragile” ought mean wrong but human language has altogether lacked a single word to capture the concept. To be anti-fragile does not mean simply to be “resilient” or “robust” in the face of adversity but rather to gain from it. It implies an ability to evolve which hinges on many things.
To build a robust software system in a complex domain, first you must set out to build an anti-fragile wrapper system, one capable of absorbing and operationalizing myriad hard lessons accumulated over many years wrangling chaotic problems. Notably, that anti-fragile system must be viewed not just through the lens of technology but also culture, with key areas spanning the following…
We must have a culture that encourages people to own their mistakes, to do so publicly without fear of retribution, and to seek the counsel of others on how to do better. We must likewise encourage people to be humble and explicit about the risks they are assuming, demonstrating a realism about the struggle they may be taking on with a project. Without this people will live in fear and treat their troubles as liabilities instead of assets while behaving in a manner simultaneously secretive and reckless.
We require the knowledge to understand what triggered a bad outcome. This implies the generation, processing, storage, and analysis of high quality telemetry. If we don’t know what is true then we cannot tackle the problem that exists. In systems engineering, premature optimization is the root of much evil, and without a rich radar picture of where problems lie we will forever find ourselves focused on the wrong problem while laboring under bogus theories.
We must have the technology and culture to move quickly yet responsibly. This implies not just a mature DevOps toolchain in the realms of CI/CD and infrastructure-as-code but also flexibility in Data Engineering architecture and furthermore a dynamic approach to managing risk that views dangers in strata and makes recommendations accordingly. The more agile a team’s approach the more the more the team can exhibit anti-fragility by quickly codifying lessons learned in its software and organizational DNA.
Critical to our ability to innovate is access to data and systems that allow us to tinker. Empowering people to fashion a bricolage that solves a problem they have, doing so quickly and unilaterally, accelerates the generation of knowledge and capture of value. This entails open access to APIs and data lakes as well as sandboxing mechanisms that enable exploration while avoiding compliance headaches.
We often find ourselves locked into rigid hierarchies where bureaucrats assign “lanes” in which subordinates possess the mandate to operate and deviation from which yields punishment. This fosters a toxic ecosystem of turf wars, learned helplessness, and incestuous amplification. Even though a specific group or product may have formal responsibility for a particular area we should encourage tinkerers everywhere to self-actualize.
And yet we squander all of this accessibility and diversity if we fail to make it safe for people to be transparent about how they are approaching problems. If officious bureaucrats shout “not your lane!” and seek to quash skunkworks initiatives then they inevitably drive them underground, either destroying them altogether or at least failing to fully capitalize on their innovations by triggering compartmentalization, simultaneously damaging morale and fueling attrition.
But if we are to embrace such fluidity then we must also remain clear-eyed about maturity. The hand edited Python script that haphazardly scrapes some APIs while running in someone’s private sandbox lives on a whole other plane of existence from something that is explicitly versioned, cleanly packaged, automatically deployed, robustly monitored, demonstrably scalable, and so on. Far too often stakeholders conflate the potential of a PoC with the sustainability of a productized system. Avoiding such pitfalls requires mutual respect and open dialogue between multiple parties.
As tools and tradecraft that underpin solutions to cross-cutting concerns mature owing to diverse and transparent activities transacting on accessible data and systems we should cautiously and gently act as gardeners who tame and channel such organic growth into lasting solutions while accepting the need for continual change.
Toward Resilient Software Systems
There is a certain beauty inherent in the violence of running an application within containers underpinned by a shared cloud and subject to unruly third party integrations and downright hostile actors. Execution contexts disappear without warning on a regular basis. Latency for all manner of things drifts as a matter of course. Load shocks reliably emerge from nowhere at the most inconvenient times. Deployment of components happens in an utterly asynchronous and parallel fashion. And, always and forever, humans gonna human. Not just is it that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” but furthermore “all the damn time”. Best to start figuring out solutions as soon as possible and organically instead of trying to become robust one future day all at once and via top-down command-and-control edicts.
A central thesis in Taleb’s work states that local fragility enables systemic anti-fragility which in turn fosters a greater resilience over time. What better ecosystem for this could we imagine than the aforementioned application architecture coupled with a healthy engineering culture? The pervasive and continual unreliability of our componentry serves as an anti-fragility pressure cooker, forcing us to continually work at resilience in a way that proactively builds resistance to mundane mishaps and Black Swans alike. The lessons to be learned span all of the following and more…
Your compute fabric is going to sporadically disappear out from under you. You had better not claim responsibility for a piece of data before it has made it to its rightful destination. What business have you consuming a message before you have successfully processed it? And wouldn’t it be nice to practice with losing containers before you lose a whole rack of equipment?
You are going to ship buggy code. It is going to mis-process data. If you don’t make data replay a first class citizen then you’re gonna have a bad time. And if you don’t ready your processors to consume replayed data you’re going to have an even worse time.
No reliable ordering? No exactly-once delivery? No problem! Develop a sequencing protocol, slap timestamps on everything, queue up fragments, and make your processing idempotent. Hard drive failures? No worries! Just stop installing packages on servers, instead building fully self-contained Docker images, and configure your most critical data to replicate across Availablity Zones and maybe even Regions.
People are going to try to game your system. Consider making your APIs asynchronous, queue based, partitioned, and metered. Hijackers gonna hijack. Build your container images minimally to reduce attack surface and starve them of tools, minimize tasks’ connectivity and permissions to reduce blast radius, make processes and tokens short-lived to reduce the window of compromise, and wall off subsystems with network and account boundaries.
Hating Heroism (in some of its forms)
The greatest fragility of all perhaps resides in the people who build and operate a system. Make them take vacations and see what breaks. Unplug direct administrator access to production systems to see who freaks out and what bursts into flames. Ensure that releases kick off with a single click and have every last configuration parameter tracked in a version control system. When a hero rushes in to save the day, consider asking one simple question — Is this savior not just the solution to but also the cause of my problems? Making people take time off doesn’t just stave off burn-out. It also surfaces critical fragilities that could easily escalate from nuisance to catastrophe.
The Larger World
We are tempted all the damn time to build fragile systems in the name of efficiency, safety, and comfort, but it is a fool’s errand that leaves us complacently sitting on a keg of dynamite in the form of tail risk.
Want social media to regulate content? Sounds nice, but… What entrenched interests will end up deciding what is true and/or palatable? How much power do you want to put in the hands of tech oligarchs? What happens when The Other Guy is in office tomorrow? How do you feel about Big Tech becoming an organ of the state? What unintended consequences will we reap from letting algorithms control our discourse?
Worried about gun violence? Tempted to strip all private citizens of guns? How do you respond when some lunatic, bigot, or terrorist runs amok and mere seconds make the difference between a short-circuited attack and a massacre? What happens when a populist authoritarian thug hijacks a democratic government and begins rounding up an unarmed populace? What timely resistance will you offer if an expansionist neighboring country begins rolling armored vehicles across your border? How will you distinguish yourself as a citizen versus a subject? Some subset of the population will always have arms. Why not everyone within reason?
Want a hyper-efficient economy predicated on globalism, specialization, outsourcing, consolidation, and just-in-time manufacture? Cheap and plentiful products are nice, but… What happens when a country weaponizes its position as an energy provider? How do you fare when a single enormous boat blocks a critical canal? Or when a planetary-scale SaaS provider suffers a class break that compromises all of its customers? What happens when a pandemic spooks people into hoarding staples and countries into nationalizing strategic resources? How do you adhere to your principals when it turns out that the mining and manufacturing in foreign lands that underpin the products to which you have become addicted involve environmental destruction, forced labor, child soldiers, and perhaps even genocide? And such platforms as smart phones are monopolized by just two Big Tech companies? Or public clouds by three? Or the production of your food is run by an ever shrinking number of increasingly massive agribusinesses and food conglomerates who buy politicians, poison people, and commit atrocities against animals while shielded by Ag-Gag laws?
Not sure about climate change? Yes, it is a big messy subject with a lot we don’t yet understand regarding both the structure of causal chains and the efficacy of potential solutions. But don’t get hung up on that. Instead start by simply thinking in terms of Risk Of Ruin and Via Negativa. We have exactly one planet, this planet represents the most complex system we have ever known, we are growing rapidly while tinkering recklessly, and getting things wrong could quite literally foment the extinction of our species. Perhaps some humility is in order? Perhaps the burden of proof should lie on those claiming no harm while profiting from rapidly making large scale and poorly understood changes to a system evolved over billions of years? Perhaps predicating our whole economic reality on perpetual growth to manage extreme indebtedness is a recipe for collapse?
Let us forsake the false idols of global efficiency, local safety, and temporary comfort, replacing them with the hard work and humility required for the anti-fragility we need to survive and thrive.
What better way to exhibit personal anti-fragility than to keep cogitating on confusing topics while maintaining the courage to press the “Publish” button and the open-mindedness to hear feedback? I often get to the end of a writing project and find myself tempted to stuff the piece in a private drawer because I feel that the treatment is either too inchoate or too incoherent. Mostly I overcome that cowardice and just push it out to the world in all its imperfect glory, humbly accepting that today’s ruminations represent works in progress that may take decades to reach fruition. How different a world might we inhabit if everyone could feel safe in doing so? How more meaningful a dialogue might we have if the bulk of our discourse were not held hostage to machine learning algorithms implementing Sort-By-Controversial while fostering 15 second and 280 character attention spans?
No perfect person exists for a given role, just the best one at a point in spacetime. So, too, it goes for process, technology, and culture. Thus to successfully steer an ecosystem leaders must emplace the right team at the outset, sense phase transitions proactively, and modify conditions smoothly. They must also reliably recognize when their purview includes activities requiring shrewd partitioning. Act too soon and one creates headwinds that stifle innovation and undermine purpose. Act too late and the enterprise finds itself bogged down in a swamp and breaking promises. Timing is everything.
Navigating The Phases
Engineering activities operating under an iterative delivery model endlessly cycle through a well known set of phases to release new units of functionality, but they also simultaneously progress linearly through a higher order set of phases. We interest ourselves with these latter phases presently, both with regards to their inherent nature and the kind of people and culture that best support them. Note in particular that although an individual may have competency in a range of phases, competency in one typically comes at the expense of competency in another, and yet “Flexers” serve a key role in smoothing phase transitions.
POC: To create a Proof Of Concept, inventors lay out some novel idea and endeavor by hook or by crook to prove vague technical feasibility. We must emphasize creativity and risk taking while shielding the activity from bureaucracy. The outputs of this phase may justify further investment but we must hold them in suspicion as we would scientific research not yet peer reviewed.
MVP: Progressing to a Minimum Viable Product requires enough engineering rigor to avoid squandering the confidence and enthusiasm of initial contacts and yet also a ruthlessness for cutting just the right corners to expedite time to market. We must emphasize practicality and resourcefulness while quashing unduly speculative investments. In reaching this threshold we begin to attract early adopters who will help us shape our product. We also find ourselves increasingly at risk of getting too far out over our skis.
Scaling: To enter the Scaling phase involves a transition from building something people want to building something enough people will purchase at a price that supports operating a sustainable business that can stand up to compliance scrutiny and hostile action. To navigate this phase entails managing the scaling of multiple facets — infrastructure costs, product complexity, team size, and customer composition. We must emphasize prioritization, automation, reliability, security, and unit economics. Increasingly we require the services of technical specialists to navigate arcana and managerial generalists to control complexity.
Sustainment: Often foolishly characterized as the unsexy “Maintenance” portion of the lifecycle, this phase in fact offers the most complexity and peril as burnout, bureaucracy, and complacency enable the competition to eat our lunch. Managed poorly it marks inevitable decline. Should the right people seize the moment, however, the enterprise may evolve to a fractal shape, one effectively consisting of a company of companies. At this point many such “companies” may exist out-of-phase, a substantial amount of politics become inevitable, and a critical personnel archetype must emerge to walk the knife’s edge of stability and relevance.
Managing A Company Of Companies
Having established a viable business model, a company will then find itself contending with the following inextricable challenges:
Protecting existing equities
Maintaining market relevance
Managing cultural conflicts
To borrow the terminology of Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots, we increasingly find ourselves at risk of conflict between the “Soldiers” struggling to operate the business of today and the “Artists” striving to imagine the business of tomorrow. And to manage this challenge we may seek to integrate these disparate groups while creating a single homogeneous culture — a terrible mistake. The Soldiers will experience the Artists as anarchists, the Artists will experience the Soldiers as bureaucrats, productivity across all measures will tank, and attrition will ensue. Far better to recognize the unique values of each, craft an organizational architecture that provides homes for both, and foster Flexer individuals and squads to maintain dynamic equilibrium at the boundaries.
In the context of the aforementioned phases, Artists gravitate toward the POC end of the spectrum and Soldiers toward the Sustainment end, while the ideal Flexer will have the bulk of their skills in the Scaling portion and yet also have at least some competence and inclination in the adjacent MVP and Sustainment realms. Perhaps the most salient challenge herein consists of giving both Soldiers and Artists a home base of compatible individuals while avoiding a toxic antagonism stemming from a “throw it over the wall” approach around transitioning prototype functionality into production systems. Instead of experiencing such an abrupt phase transition we can instead employ Flexers to continually be asking the Soldiers “wouldn’t it be nice if you could do this? and the Artists “have you taken into account these constraints?” so that innovative capabilities have a smooth path to landing in sustainment organizations.
Tangled up in all of this are vexing challenges around the following…
Cross-cutting technology and techniques
Access to systems, data, and users
Respect for process and equities
Inertia, complacency, and possessiveness
Separating The Timeless And The Transient
Huge risks exist in nascent enterprises around premature investment in infrastructure and enforcement of rigor. What good are those outlays in comprehensive test suites, hyper-scalable architectures, and bulletproof security when you realize you were building the wrong product and have to pivot hard? And yet, while we ought fold rigor into our applications in a dynamic and phase-aware fashion, we should also view certain certain basic technology and techniques as foundational and universal, shaping them as early and as generically as possible.
We will doubtless discard most of the code written as we navigate the idea maze on our way to a valuable product. The incentives and rationale for a minimalist approach are strong. Nonetheless we would do well to tease out two timeless elements from all that will likely prove transient…
Accessible data warehousing
Flexible DevOps tradecraft
Why? Two simple needs…
Accessible data warehousing provides the basis for generating intelligence on both how we are performing today and where we may want to be tomorrow as well as the raw material to build new applications. Flexible DevOps tradecraft, meanwhile, allows us to consistently sustain velocity despite shifting requirements and growing complexity. At the outset we will likely have only the crudest idea of what we will ultimately build and so let’s have the humility to stack the deck in our favor with the right foundational investments.
Meanwhile, as a company grows, an interesting question emerges around whether to take a “mission striped” or “function striped” approach to organizational architecture as pertaining to specialists supporting cross-cutting concerns. The correct answer is often “both”, especially when it comes to the realms of DevOps and Data Engineering, but perhaps equally as often with Security Engineering and UX. In particular, an organization and its specialists may benefit from establishing Centers Of Excellence around certain practices, expecting that practitioners will both have long-term assignments with product focused areas as well as participate in and draw on pools of similar specialists. These CoEs ensure that individuals receive appropriate mentorship and peer review, tooling and tradecraft exhibit convergence, and the enterprise reduces risks around knowledge silos, burn-out, and general immaturity.
Artists need the flexibility and chaos of a mad scientist’s lab. Soldiers thrive on the order and predictability of a well run factory floor. And each group requires the other to sustain long-term vitality. Instead of glibly and universally promoting a “bias toward action”, organizational architects must visualize risk strata and think in terms of the Fast/Slow Problem which dictates that entities that need to change quickly must not be collocated with entities that need to change slowly.
Matters inevitably become fraught, however, when Artists attempt to gain access to realistic data whose safeguarding lies in the remit of Soldiers. In some cases such data may represent the company’s Crown Jewels and in others pose perilous compliance risks. Various techniques exist to smooth the process while preventing spillage, spanning sanitization, sandboxing, and field-level access control, all aided by elastically scalable data warehouses that are isolated from user-facing production operations and can handle bursty non-quite-planful loads. Mature DevOps processes with fast cycle times further ease the struggle by allowing exploratory analytics a fast path into environments with production-level data controls.
That promotion of code, however, represents the second and previously intimated problem around transition and ownership. Far too easily a “prototype” becomes “mission critical” only to have the Artist progenitors become bored and the inheriting Soldiers behold what the former hath wrought with horror. We might lay the blame squarely on the Artists for taking a “throw it over the wall” attitude around responsibility hand-off to Soldiers but in fact that cultural toxicity often results from and pairs disastrously with the cookie licking and change aversion of the latter which foments a secrecy on the part of the former. In many places “it’s better to ask forgiveness later than permission now” which foments guerrilla engineering, but that is a hallmark of the aforementioned toxicity and indicative of a lack of Flexers that empathize with both groups while gently coordinating their activities.
And all the while the siren’s song of micro-service architecture calls to us, promising us clean boundaries in which small teams can have their own safe spaces to tinker and make technology choices unilaterally. Beware, however, that while such an architecture can serve as a valuable technique for scaling the number of participants building a complex system, it requires a keen understanding of several techniques, demands a certain maturity of DevOps tooling, imposes a per-service tax, and when unmanaged increases the risks of Balkanization. As with all matters, timing is everything, and attempting to adopt a micro-services architecture prematurely nearly always yields instead the dreaded Distributed Big Ball Of Mud.
The growth-oriented organizations that last are the ones that recognize that their internal structure must both continually change and avoid homogeneity. Be sure, however, to file this under “necessary but insufficient”. Far too often, alas, re-orgs result not from a careful consideration of the present context but rather the predilections and politics of the day’s power brokers, yielding violent pendulum swings between the extremes of mission-striped and function-striped architectures. Predecessors are blamed, reshuffles are made, and, finally, three envelopes are prepared…
I thought I might wake up at a reasonable hour this morning and head to POTM for at least some combat kiting since it has been too long. As has been the case for the past couple of weeks, however, I instead slept like the dead. I think the experience of breaking my pandemic era travel slump, discovering Colombia, and experiencing non-Utah paragliding simultaneously across a couple of trips separated by just a few weeks, while in many ways wonderful, also proved quite draining and I am still playing catch-up.
This post, however, isn’t about paragliding, except that the sport has given me ample opportunity to consider the nature of undeserved good luck. Rather this post is about a very unusual and random occurrence had at home this morning.
Deciding to be a homebody and have a lazy morning, I had my AirPods in my ears and Audible playing some science fiction while tidying up the house. At some point I pulled the trash bag from the kitchen, walked it to the garage, flung up the lid of the can which causes it to bang gently against the outer garage door, and tossed in the bag. Just as I was doing this I thought I heard the doorbell ring but felt no particular urgency as 99% of the time it is a parcel carrier giving a courtesy ring and the other %1 of the time someone trying to save my soul from eternal damnation.
As I was walking back into the house I heard a fist pounding on the outer garage door. “That’s a little aggressive”, I thought, confusedly imagining a delivery wanting a signature, but then was alarmed to hear what I thought was “OPEN UP!” (which legal scholars might note sounds an awful lot like a command versus a request, a distinction decidedly with a difference).
I went to the front door, looked out the peephole, saw two armored Draper police officers, and opened the door. Or some such order of operations — memory and witness testimony notoriously unreliable, etc…
“John?”, they asked.
I cocked my head and furrowed my brows (or maybe I raised them? (memory!)).
“John So-And-So?”, they asked.
“No… but I still receive an awful lot of his mail! I have lived here for about 18 months and he was the previous tenant.”
“Would you like some ID?”, I asked.
“One moment…”, I say, close the door to keep the cats in and the coyotes hungry, and head into the house to fetch my wallet.
“Right”, I think to myself coming back to the door, “this is probably how things get confused and people get shot”, so I open the knob with my left hand and make sure that my right hand nonchalantly comes out the door by itself clearly holding my driver’s license.
The officers, whom I should note always seemed calm, polite, and professional, seemed satisfied and we proceeded to chat for a moment. Apparently John had been involved in a traffic incident earlier today and more than one agency was looking for him. I imagined there may have been a hit-and-run, but that is speculation on my part, for all I really know is that a man-hunt for someone else brought police to my door. They asked if I might know how to get in touch with him and I suggested that the leasing agency might be their best bet.
Then they were gone and I had some time to ponder the experience.
What if they had come earlier while I was sleeping or at a moment when I was in the bathroom with the fan and/or shower running? What if the seal on my AirPods had been better? What if they had a warrant? What if I looked like this John character? What if John’s incident was of a more severe nature? What if I fit a profile? What if I didn’t live in a nice neighborhood? What if the dice roll had sent less exemplary officers to my door? What if I were less conscious about making my movements non-threatening? What if events had unfolded in a way where I mistook the circumstances as a home invasion and went for one of my firearms?
And on and on my very lateral and imaginative brain went…
How many variables, whether in-the-moment randomness or long held privilege, would have needed to be otherwise to yield a materially different outcome? How many would have been enough to escalate from a simple mistaken address to some kind of embarrassment, injury, or traumatization? How many to end up with a Breonna Taylor-esque fiasco?
It is easy to forget how much luck and privilege are involved in ensuring that any given Saturday morning remains relatively uneventful. Sometimes a reminder can help.
[Author’s Note: Some people who I think wanted to save my soul knocked just as I was finishing this. I did not open the door. Hopefully it wasn’t undercover FBI agents looking for John. I have had enough fun for one day.]
I am increasingly finding that my life as an engineer and as a pilot evince a certain integrity. I enjoy seeing a beautiful system run the way it ought, whether it is software going clickety or a paraglider slicing through the air… but I really get off on understanding how systems will fail and reasoning about how we can both strategically plan for and tactically respond to such eventualities.
Perhaps, however, those aren’t really such distinct things? In nearly anything worth doing the game readily adjusts to match your skills. Navigating any complex domain, in the fullness of time, appears to involve a continual exclamation of “wheeeeeelp — didn’t know that could happen!” and an update to the model.
This Morning’s Outing
Roughly two weeks ago I somehow tweaked by L5-S1 disc as happens from time to time and, like the occasionally stubborn individual I am, I powered through the pain to host a dinner party, which caused the flare-up to go off the rails. Consequently this morning’s session represented my first time strapped to a wing in eighteen days, a slump I was very grateful to break, but also a moderate cause for anxiety.
And what a delightful morning it was! Thirty minutes of sunny flying at the POTM’s southside divided across three flights chained with top-landings followed by roughly the same amount of kiting — what more could a boy ask?
In fact the most memorable and in retrospect most joyous moments of the morning (probably in a Type-II adventure sense) were all the janky events that conspired to curtail or even ruin my fun but that could not get the better of me.
There was my initial inflation — Another pilot was slightly behind and to the side of me, probably no issue, but I chose to wait because the wind had gotten to the edge of my inflation competence (14/15MPH) and I did not want either to wake him or even get plucked and crash into him. With him clear I got the wing up mostly without note, spun forward to start approaching the ledge, and… man my legs straps feel not quite right, like maybe I’m going to crush my gonads on take-off, but damn I don’t want to have to inflate again, and yet I heard myself repeating the mantra “make decisions in a way that prioritize safety over ease”, and so spun around, yanked my rear risers, angled the wing to the wind as it deflated, then casually resolved the issue.
Then there was my second inflation — Ah the joys of inflating a 37m wing in 15MPH gusts. One brake toggle in each hand, firm grip on the Cs with my right hand, As in my left hand for a gentle tap, and… *YOINK* In the blink of an eye I am lying on my back and… everything is fine. I had decoupled my brake inputs from the crazy stuff the rest of my body was doing, got the wing overhead, and instead of feeling in a hurry to stand up just said to myself “ah, I seem to be lying on my back, one of the many positions in which I am comfortable kiting my wing”, took a moment to catch my breath and collect my thoughts, then rolled onto my right hip, matched brake toggles in left hand, did a one-armed push-up with my right hand, grabbed raw brake lines, then spun forward while dumping raw brakes and switching to toggles in one fluid motion.
Then my first flight — smooth launch, smooth seating, smooth flying, cheerily shout “gooooooood MORNING!” to a nearby pilot as I come in for a smooth top-landing, feeling kind of giddy, start kiting eastward, trip on dirt mound of a filled in hole, fall on my ass, nearby pilot looks alarmed as wing rolls 90 degrees in strong wind, “WHOOPS!” I shout as I smile and laugh while recovering the situation in a manner similar to earlier, and them I am on my way.
On all my flights — I maintained a hyper-awareness of when I might find myself downwind not just of other pilots but also interesting terrain features and thus exposing myself to their generated turbulence. In particular, I noted that earlier in the morning the wind was regularly of a SE orientation, considered the implications of this for the east-end gully with respect to rotor generation, and made a point of staying upwind of this sometimes treacherous feature.
Then my third flight — I’m debating whether I want to do another circuit when I hear and feel the initiation of a tip collapse. It’s no big deal. I catch it while it is small and innocuous. But it is a signal and one I have previously ignored at my own peril. So I decide to be grateful for the amazing morning I have already had, come in for one final top landing, and choose to kite for a while.
Maybe kite for a little too long… because wheeeeEEEEEEE! My friend Joe, while kiting near the lip on a much smaller wing, gets plucked a solid ten or more feet straight up while I get generally clobbered and briefly dragged, but mostly feel under control, go to recover, and… ugh my right leg is somehow caught in my harness’ stirrup, leaving me feeling like a trussed holiday bird. In dealing with this distraction my wing flips over and is threatening to turn things into a rodeo. “And now we play this game in reverse” my brain calmly says, however, and I begin to reel in As to depower the wing, and then sit and catch my breath while I wait for Joe to come over and hold the wing while I get out of my harness so I can ball things up nicely for my next outing instead of a starting with a cravat’d mess.
In addition to doing tons of ground handling practice over the past six months I believe this morning’s successes stemmed from a recent “happy accident” (in the Bob Ross sense) a month earlier where during a launch at the southside I tried to abort because another pilot already in the pattern abruptly turned back toward me in a way that had me thinking mid-air collision. My 37m wing had a different idea, however, and was like “noooooop! we’re going! figure it out, bro!”, and that figuring involved turning hard to the right and muddling through a sideward sliding launch where I threaded the needle between colliding with this errant pilot and tumbling messily back into the hill. “Didn’t know I could do that” was my immediately subsequent reaction followed a little later with “I should practice that.”
And so I did — on my subsequent three outings I did nothing but hours and hours of sliding practice on my 25m wing in 18-20MPH wind which, incidentally, also comes with lots of not-quite-planned “fall-down drills”. I had fun with the sliding, and eventually I will have it as a reliable tool in the belt, but where I got serious immediate value was repeatedly navigating that messy experience of your body tumbling wildly and yet still finding a way to keep the wing overhead in turbulent air.
Which has me thinking about some useful principles in aviation that sound an awful lot like how I approach the problem of engineering security and reliability into the technology systems I build:
First there was a stupid grin, then an increasingly maniacal laughter, then some tears, then back to grinning like an idiot — and this was just my first chair of the season. I hadn’t even gotten to the skiing part yet.
Actually there was another standard and silly prelude — some part of my brain spends all its time imagining every way a “project” can go wrong, in this case wondering if I will remember how to ski, if my gear will cooperate, if my pass card will work, if my musculoskeletal system will hold up, etc…
Everything was fine. Magical even. In fact I have heretofore never had a first-of-season day out West where everything totally clicked. How joyful to have a system of systems work right out of the gate — the product of all manner of preparation of the kind this former East coast city slicker could neither manage nor even imagine.
Back To The Future (Eleven Days Ago)
I edged to the side of the bed, swung my knees to the floor, got on the balls of my feet, placed my palms on the mattress, and launched vertically with an explosive push-up, contracting my core and gritting my teeth in anticipation of what was to come. HUHHHHHHHT! Oof… Upright! *wobble* And now the real battle begins…
Several struggles later I arrived at the litter box challenge. I used the staircase plus upper body strength to iteratively approach the floor, then I crawled on hands and knees over to the box, next propped myself against a wall with one hand while working the shovel with the other, and finally reversed the process until I was again upright, cursing the random stray litter granules biting into my bare knees along the way.
Things had started feeling funny on the Tuesday, I perhaps foolishly powered through the pain on Wednesday so as not to cancel a dinner party I was hosting, and by Thursday I was a complete wreck, basically useless for everything. There was no obvious physical trauma to foment this — the previous week had included multiple days of focused practice sliding on my 25m paraglider and the Monday had included a mountain bike ride but at no point in any of this had I thought I had hurt myself.
My back, however, begged to differ, as it so inclines roughly every 6-24 months, in particular my L5-S1 disc, which mostly offers me no serious issue as long as I scrupulously take care of it, but from time to time, owing to a panoply of sports injuries, has developed a certain unpredictable irascibility. A squats-induced blowout about 12 years ago really brought things to a head. A violently bouncy skiing mishap seventeen years ago doubtless helped set the stage (“Get up a lot of speed — this is going to be a long traverse!” (full of parked snow grooming equipment, it turned out, and a very messy adjacent bail-out field)). A regrettable predilection for playing goalie on mediocre indoor soccer teams certainly did me no favors. Keeping it under control involves aggressively avoiding extended sitting, maintaining a strong core through a mix of activities, doing what I can to avoid violent impacts, and staying comprehensively flexible.
What a brutal occasional reminder of what many people must suffer on a daily basis… What an object lesson on the criticality of regular maintenance and continual caution… What a blessed relief and source of gratitude when the mercurial and sadistic demon removes its needle-like claws from my spine and suddenly I am back to my usual self, briefly high as a kite on an endorphin level whose attenuation lags the agony-inducing nerve-impinging swelling…
It feels like time traveling to a ninety year old version of myself.
Forever Moar Unto The Breach
Over the last five years my professional reality has episodically followed a similar track in accelerating fashion.
I left a government project in 2016 that I had spent over seven years wrangling, a duration that renders one prone to losing sight of how far you have come and taking for granted the infrastructure, processes, and culture you and your compatriots have created.
I remember, shortly before leaving, having this really sink in via one simple exercise — running a “git log” command against the master branch of the version control system for the product that I had bootstrapped and run for all these years, noting that it took several minutes of holding down the spacebar for the thousands upon thousands of commit messages to stream past in the console. The ultimate simplicity of the product belied its tortuous path, a phenomenon best captured by the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery — “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
And this was just the software product with which I was most hands-on. Increasingly my labors involved shepherding the system of systems that comprised the larger ecosystem into greater harmony, an epic that entailed not just shaping technology but also recasting culture. If you are going to rewrite the code of an organization, then that effort must span both its software and wetware, and rewriting the latter is faaaaaaaar harder than the former.
And so I left my self-built SIGINT paradise to experience in turn a mid-sized hedge fund, a teeny tech start-up, and finally some solopreneurship where I have parachuted into multiple early-to-mid stage start-ups, each of which badly needed my help in some way or another. And in each case it felt like time-travel to an earlier version of systems I built and a subsequent struggle to drag them forward, sometimes exponentially accelerating a release cadence, other times shining a bright telemetry-powered light into dark corners, and in others still helping them find a way to better scalability, availability, security, and unit economics.
In this last modality, that of multi-client consultant, I have enjoyed profound value as distinct from every previous one:
The ability to take more of a “problem focus” versus a “product focus”…
Which has allowed me to iterate faster on my approach to certain problems…
Which yields more adept avoidance of “over-fitting the model” risks…
And a deeper appreciation of the the rarity and power of well-oiled machines…
Because creating and sustaining them takes skill, discipline, and commitment…
While entropy is ever plotting to destroy them
Gratitude And Perspective
You have to lose something, struggle to regain it, and then revel in its re-emergence to really appreciate its power, beauty, and rarity, whether that something is a limber and battle-ready human body or a flexible and powerful technology system. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then certainly complacency. The occasional reset will do you a world of good.
I take a guarded approach with my personally owned work laptop. The base OS X system sees little direct use and frequent patching. Most of the actual activity occurs within a contained Windows or Linux virtual machine which I subject to an amnesiac’s regime.
Few factors contribute more strongly to an operating environment’s security health than its longevity. The greater its age, the more temporal attack surface it has accumulated, and thus the more likely something sneaky and malicious has burrowed into it.
Thus with some regularity I reset each virtual machine to its latest snapshot, apply all of the security patches that arrived in the interim, and then take a fresh snapshot before using it, repeating this cycle in perpetuity. In doing so I rewind its subjective experience of time to a state of relative purity, wiping away all of the foolish indiscretions and callous victimizations, and then imbue it with the collective wisdom distilled from the planet’s countless intervening cyber atrocities.
How simultaneously beautiful and horrific an act of brain surgery — the stuff of fantasy and horror alike given one’s mood in the moment. How surreal and inhuman to navigate the world with so much accumulated knowledge and yet so little baggage.
Somebody Set Us Up The Blank Slate
We cannot as yet quite do this as humans but there exist some variations on the theme…
Here we each receive a hodgepodge of not just “lessons” but also “theories” that we are to treat as truth.
The “lessons” represent an unbroken chain of billions of years of ancestors who successfully navigated myriad trials, tribulations, and traumas. We benefit from all these teachings, assuming their continued pertinence, without the torment of nightmares about murder, rape, plunder, torture, exploitation, starvation, and betrayal.
The “theories”, meanwhile, represent time-inverted lessons, the confluence of semi-random recombinations and mutations, tweaks to code books that our ribosome factories blindly accept as truth when actually they represent mere guesses. Any of them may prove innovative stroke of genius, suicidally careless blunder, or pointless but amusing variation. Only time will tell.
In one particularly brutal sense a central purpose of each of our lives, as both individuals and within multiple tiers and kinds of social constructs, is to test a collection of hypotheses — some ancient for ongoing relevance and others new for useful innovation.
Artifacts and Mentorship
We have a couple of other ways to glean knowledge without the requisite baggage. As much value as they provide, however, they also carry a great risk of tampering and misinterpretation.
Everything is connected and our memetic heritage shapes our reality as much or more as our genetic one. We can engage in this economy through the creation and absorption of artifacts and mentorship. These two avenues differ in their directness and scalability but both offer a means for integrating knowledge with greater efficiency and less baggage than direct experience.
Of course there is no free lunch — the producers are doubtless providing these gifts at least in part as ego-serving signaling, the consumers may fail to operationalize the knowledge for want of context, and the authenticity and correctness may be difficult to validate.
A Tale Of Two Buckets
You will often hear pilots speak of two buckets — a skill bucket and a luck bucket. The former starts out relatively empty and the latter contains a mysterious quantity. In every challenging moment we find ourselves tapping the two, the former being finite in the moment but regenerative and growing over time, the latter having random contents at a given moment and a quasi-finite nature over time (what analysts of all stripes would cast in terms of cumulative risk).
The job of every pilot, and presumably every professional, is to continually navigate the education maze in a risk calibrated manner that strikes the balance between accumulating capability and avoiding unduly life altering mistakes. In paragliding, as with most anything else, there exist means for rapidly accumulating skill while holding accumulated risk at bay — specifically ground handling which you can readily do on your own and SIV which you should do over water under the guidance of a master instructor with a rescue boat at the ready.
Thoughtful and comprehensive training notwithstanding, you will nonetheless find yourself embroiled in weird and (personally) unprecedented situations within non-contrived contexts. To maintain one’s progression in aviation, it seems, is to think with some regularity “wheeeeelllllp — didn’t know that could happen!”. Hopefully in any such situation you are carrying margins wide enough that the incident proves merely an eye-opening scare as opposed to an expensive object lesson.
And yet even when a dust-up proves physically inexpensive the psychological wounds may prove subtly costly. You will thus also hear pilots, especially paraglider pilots, speak of “fear injuries”. There exist precious few activities so intensely psychological and it takes only a single severe loss of control to profoundly rewire your brain in a way that transforms your relationship with the sport.
My first six months in the sport included three serious incidents and one shockingly cheap accident. And yet for reasons not entirely clear to me not all brushes with catastrophe are created equal.
For some reason nearly getting dragged off a cliff after a forced landing last November or having a tumultuous tumble down a hill during a botched launch in January didn’t really phase me. They were terrifying in the moment but I gleaned what knowledge I could, vowed never to repeat such a mistake, boxed the experience up, and moved on.
My March incident, in which a large asymmetric deflation progressed into a violent spiral and from there to (I guess) a haphazard wingover to (I presume) a partial stall and (I gather) enormous subsequent surge and epic brake check and then a desperate steep turn to avoid pancaking on a berm, was somehow different. Even though I somehow managed to hold things together well enough to get my ass out of the fire unburnt physically I can now, with the benefit of hindsight, see I had sustained a serious fear injury.
And zooming farther out I can see how that fear injury played into over-compensation that led to my April accident in which getting boosted by a strong thermal triggered an overly aggressive brake input which led to a low altitude stall and subsequent ground strike. The concussion I sustained was relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things, mild enough that it had sorted itself out in a few weeks. The resultant fear injury, however, still profoundly shapes my aviation reality.
Eight months, three SIV clinics, 100+ hours of ground handling, and a handful of mountain flights later, I have experienced zero additional serious events and feel like a dramatically more competent and safe pilot. My decision making around when, where, and how to fly is far more judicious, I have a much deeper foundation of skills on which to rely when the universe throws me a curveball, and I sport a far richer collection of regular activities that provide alternatives to how I might spend my time when the aviation stars are inadequately aligned.
At least that’s how things look objectively… And yet, weirdly enough, I am arguably a less confident pilot this November than last. Maybe that’s healthy? Hard to say… My log book shows ~80 days of paragliding in the first six months and ~50 in the subsequent six. Is that choosiness being smarter or more timid? To what degree are those the same thing? To what extent does my clean record sheet of late stem from being better at flying versus being “better” at choosing when not to fly?
From Leeroy Jenkins To Grizzled Veteran
All of which has me thinking about my professional trajectory over a quarter century…
Ah, to be the blissfully naive budding programmer, with visions of algorithms and data structures dancing in your head, ensconced in a quiet room and engaged in a solitary battle of wits against some abstract problem armed with a trusty text editor and cantankerous compiler… No customers, colleagues, vendors, managers, or competitors vying to thwart your attempts to stay focused and build something beautiful… Oh how poorly this bears any resemblance to an actual career in Software Engineering, however necessary a foundation it may be.
Or to be the first-pass entrepreneur/intrapreneur fired with the zeal of a grand vision and delightfully unencumbered with the knowledge of all the things that can and will go wrong… I am thinking of the first of my two DoD projects, one I spent over three years building, a system that many described as well ahead of its time and that earned me many accolades. It accomplished some really cool things and inspired others to adopt a similar approach. It also struggled under the weight of every bureaucratic dysfunction you could imagine occurring in a large government agency and suffered from my naivety and impracticality, never really achieving its full potential.
Or to be the engineer slightly older and wiser yet still bursting with energy and optimism… I am thinking of the second of my two DoD projects, a system that after many early struggles eventually got traction, then kept accelerating, in time profoundly transformed a whole way of doing business, and has exhibited enough staying power to still be making a dent in history. Buhhhhhht also one that consumed over seven years of my life, doubtless took a serious toll on my wellbeing, and saw many comrades fall along the way. Success can be sweet and glorious, but also grinding, violent, and costly, requiring years and years of blood, iron, and mud to come to fruition.
Or to be the engineer older still and yet, continually hungry for personal growth, deciding to leave public service for the self-delusion destroying Bridgewater Associates brand vat of acid… I am hard pressed to think of another period in my career when I received more valuable mentorship in service to a bevy of soft skills. Or more painful. I stewed agonizingly in hard realizations about synthesis, practicality, prioritization, escalation, and composure. I wrestled mightily with how to improve where I could and guardrail where I could not. I got multiple chances to pick myself up, dust myself off, and try again. I learned so much about myself specifically and management generally. I cherish the personalized note I received from Ray Dalio in reply to my departing email to the bw_public_goodbyes alias in which he expressed gratitude for how I seemed to have understood the value on offer in the place and made a point of capturing it (as well as playfully ribbed me for my email’s length).
Then there was my adventure in joining a very early stage SecTech start-up as its Chief Architect. If you have any idea what you are signing up to do, you go to a tech start-up with the baseline expectation that you will condense your rate of learning by roughly a factor of 5:1 compared to a typical 8-6 job by working zany hours and observing the company blaze through countless mistakes on fast-forward. Of course, that’s just the average expectation… Sometimes you might even hit the jackpot and pick a start-up that manages to cram five years of start-up into one when all the while your personal life looks like a comet trail of flaming wreckage. Oh boy. The fraction of problems faced by a technology company that are actually technology problems can be shockingly small and it can be extremely difficult to adequately appreciate what those problems are until you’re up to your armpits in swamp sludge.
Lastly there has been the 18 month chapter of contracting with an assortment of start-ups as a solopreneur consultant. This has been incredibly fun and valuable for an assortment of reasons, not least of which is how instructive it has been, especially in the realm of understanding the classes of challenges that are timeless and universal for all nascent businesses. What better way to round out my education before one day taking the plunge of being a co-founder of my own technology product company?
But… I do sometimes wonder about what we give up when we shed our self-delusions. Are we more likely to achieve greatness owing to an ignorance of how long the odds are? Or do you have to understand all the ways things can go wrong and yet be crazy enough to try anyway? I’m not sure what gets you better odds.
I find myself presently pondering a comment attached to a recent post in the Paragliding Incident Discussions group on Facebook. Sometimes ignorance and innocence provide us a certain strength and boldness. And yet that obliviousness doubtless also comes at the cost of courting disaster. Experience, meanwhile, can regularly prove a sufficiently cruel teacher that the student feels compelled to give up, and they aren’t necessarily wrong to do so.
And yet I persist, both in aviation and career, in attempting to find a middle path, one optimistic about the boundless possibilities yet tempered by many hard lessons.
I can’t quite get behind aphorisms to the effect of “live as if you were going to die tomorrow”. That sounds a little too non-nuanced for my tastes, a great way to be a failed entrepreneur or a pilot that actually is dead by tomorrow. How about “live like there is a twenty percent chance you’ll be dead in fifteen years”?
I think I might like that as a life philosophy. I’m planning on having a richly rewarding 2022 while accepting that that may include a healthy dose of drama and setbacks.
Life is too short to be cowardly and too precious to be reckless. Finding the balance is left as an exercise to the reader.
Sitting around a table eating lunch with strangers in an earlier epoch…
“So, what’s your deal?” I asked.
“Arms dealer,” he replied.
“Do tell,” I probed.
“I work for Intel,” he offered.
“Ah, I see now.”
I miss conferences. I miss lunch.
Of late I have found myself, somewhat flippantly though maybe more accurately than comfortable, describing my cyber career arc as “from solider, to security guard, to arms dealer, to mercenary”. I don’t doubt that the aforementioned conversation played a role. Much truth is said in jest.
Last Night’s Prelude To A Dumpster Fire
So last night I’m at the part of S1:E4 of Halt And Catch Fire when, ironically, just as they are using a disk degaussing power surge as plot device, the dual port NIC in my bespoke home network router, uh… more or less halts and catches fire. I did not realize at the time the cause of the spinner that appeared in the Netflix iPad app as I stood at the kitchen counter shoveling delivery lamb korma into my pie-hole but soon enough I would receive a hint of the drama to come.
I poked at my iPhone and realized that it, too, lacked its usual spunk, and so shut off its WiFi and bonded the iPad to its hotspot. This would at least allow me to finish my 2021-style dinner-and-a-show experience, albeit first with herky-jerky performance, and subsequently after an interlude for some buffering a tolerable enough experience.
After nomming the noms and watching the dramas I headed downstairs to find that die blinkenlichten wurden traurig (not blinken at all actually) da (presumably) sie haben blowenfusen und poppencorken mit spitzensparksen or something to that effect. I concluded as much, in any case, after the tried and (mostly) true off-and-on-again remedy failed to work.
* ALL YOUR FRIENDS ARE DEAD *
Evincing a whiff of optimism and preparedness I rummaged through a nearby pile of stuff, found an unopened duplicate dual-port NIC (which makes me think of a former girlfriend who would regularly remark “two of everything!” of my purchasing proclivities), tossed it by the computer, and went upstairs to sleep, perchance to dream fitful dreams of imminent network debugging drama.
Running through my usual shutdown procedure I pulled up the Hue app on my iPhone and… “can’t connect to bridge”. Right, I turned the WiFi off… Ok, turn it back on and… no dice. Ahhhh fuhhhhhhk, this is what I get for setting the Eero’s “DHCP & NAT” setting to “Bridge” — now all my smart lights are dumb lights and I have to go around fiddling with hard switches to shut them off. Graceful failure NOT SO MUCH but clearly a problem for Future Andrew to solve. Off to bed!
Today’s Trials And Tribulation
Wake up, feed the kitties, swallow the vitamins, jump in the shower, annnnd we’re off to the races! The clock is running because there is a meeting later in the morning where reasonable bandwidth piped into my mountain home via a wired connection is a pre-req for Zoom. But first — take a snapshot!
Pop the case, swap the card, button it up, replug the cables annnnnnd… the damn card moved because I failed to screw it down. MULLIGAN. But finally happy looking lights. At least preliminarily happy.
And now the real fun begins. FIRE IT UP!
Gah, you flabby weak ass old BIOS battery, can you not go a hot minute unplugged without forgetting what time it is?
Sorry, I meant what DECADE it us. Good grief I hadn’t even finished college by then. You hadn’t even been BORN by then, Osprey. (that was 2009 since you clearly forgot)
Anyway… Boot it up, log on in, see what the what and… some kind of “can’t establish network connection” dialogue pops. The nearby Eero plugged to one of the ports on the dual-port NIC, meanwhile, continues to glow red. Gonna play hard apparently.
Guh. How do networks work at this level? Oof — gonna have to spool up the tape archives in my brain for this.
IP addresses… Computers love IP addresses. Let’s see if…
sudo systemctl status isc-dhcp-server.service
* EVERYTHING IS AWFUL. I CAN'T EVEN BIND TO A NIC.
OK, Linux, what’s your deal…
* THERE ARE TWO FAMILIAR LOOKING NICs. ONE HAS A PROMISING IP. ONE HAS NOTHING. IT IS DARK. YOU MAY BE EATEN BY A GRUE. *
I presume the NIC with the 10.X.X.X IP got an IP address from my cable modem and the sad one has somehow gotten borked. I open up the graphical interface for networking whoop-dee-doo and see that the other card is configured for DHCP in a world where nobody is going to tell it who it should be. And so I go digging to find what I should tell it to be.
* ME TELL CLIENT ROUTE TO 192.168.0.1. YOU TELL NIC BETTER BIND THERE. *
OK. I tell NIC bind there. Things still don’t want to play. I reboot Osprey. I reboot Eero. Things still sad. Rising sense of panic that I won’t make my work call. Feel like failing interview question and buzzer about go off.
Did the port identities auto-vivify backward? Do I need to just flip the cables and then all will be well?
* enp8s0f1 AND CABLE MODEM HAVING GREAT TIME. enp8s0f0 HAVE IP BUT NOTHING SHOW FOR IT. *
* HAHA. NOPE. GUESS AGAIN. *
-A FORWARD -i enp8s0f0 -o enp8s0f1 -j ACCEPT
-A FORWARD -i enp8s0f1 -o enp8s0f0 -m state --state RELATED,ESTABLISHED -j ACCEPT
Ok, so cabling is fine, NICs seem superficially fine… DAFUQ GOING ON.
At this point I send Slack message of shame that I probably won’t make the meeting.
Osprey can talk to the Internets but none of the devices on my home network bridging through the Eero to Osprey want to play ball and all the Eero nodes are showing the sad red light of doom.
FML. I just barely make my meeting with… negative five minutes to “spare”. We speak of things about ten layers up the tech stack, ruminating on DevOps tool chains operating in software defined data centers to field CND awesome sauce that with any luck will keep our nation’s power grid safe from the script kiddy hooligans and nation state nightmares alike who roam the Internets sowing their seeds of chaos. FOR GREAT JUSTICE.
The Ever Deepening Stack
The foregoing may evince a degree of masochism on my part and, yeah, maybe that’s a thing, but actually there exists a larger purpose. I feel blessed to have grown up with our present tech ecosystem in a manner that renders it just barely comprehensible in all its resplendent glory. And I feel thus obligated to keep the various facets of this compendium accessible in moments of need, in moments of crisis, in moments of… metaphor shear.
I appreciate that as Computer Science education was bifurcating, with many institutions corralling students to the higher level Java programming language, my undergraduate alma mater felt we greenhorns ought cut our teeth by hand-crafting algorithms in the relatively low-level C language, then dive even deeper into Assembly programming, before clawing our way up to higher level languages such as Lisp and Prologue, then suffer the whiplash of plunging back down into operating systems, computer system architecture, and circuit theory. I deem myself further lucky to have received such a solid grounding in distributed systems and cryptography later in graduate school.
The grubby outside world would in the fullness of time provide plenty of opportunity to program in Java. Why waste our precious time at The Citadel thus?
Software has grown so complex over the intervening two decades. And what a luxury to grow up alongside it after such a solid foundation, getting to gradually metabolize an assortment of innovations as they arrived on the scene. I empathize with the sense of overwhelmed-ness that new graduates to the field must experience. I am grateful that, for now, I can cling by my fingernails to being a generalist practitioner who can navigate the majority of the tech stack involved in bringing a modern application into existence. I am aware that in the fullness of time this may prove a futile effort. For the moment, anyway, I find myself doing such things as learning the React framework so I can fight my way back to claiming that I am “Full Stack” with a straight face instead of limiting myself to mentioning UX technologies from 2010 (jQuery FTW! 0xA000 or bust!).
At the risk of tipping my hand, one of my long-time favorite interview questions for software engineering candidates is — there is a browser with a URL in the address bar, someone mashes the enter key, and a web page loads; tell me all the things that happened.
Let’s have a fun jam session seeing how full stack both of us really are. Maybe we can start with an emergent flow of electrons bubbling up to the firing of an interrupt handler and then rocket through multiple layers to TCP and TLS handshakes facilitated by myriad other network protocols (DNS, and ARP, and BGP, oh my!) and maybe from there plunge back down to a hard disk head swinging across a rapidly spinning magnetized platter (haha, just kidding, it’s not 2010 anymore (or is it in some places and why?)) and then return to a layer where HTML files land in a browser to set off an explosion of additional requests, rendering operations, and callback firings.
I (heart) Serverless, but The Cloud is just somebody else’s computers, and things always be breaking. The more you know how this shit show works the more you can slice through the problems the world flings your way like a hot knife through a distributed trace.
A programmer should be able to change an ethernet board, plan a sprint, butcher a legacy system, design an algorithm, write a SQL query, set an interrupt handler, comfort the debugger, allocate memory, free memory, solve race conditions, pitch manure, program a GUI, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly.
Specialization is for insects.
Or at least that’s what Heinlein would say. But damn is it hard and getting harder to be a generalist.
My more recent adventures as “arms dealer” and “mercenary” certainly seem to drive this home. Increasingly my ability to help various ecosystems along seems to involve operating at two poles, namely as the hyper-generalist architect and meanwhile the hyper-focused specialist in a few select areas.
There is just too much for any one person to know.
Best to have a high level map of the terrain, a few areas of hands-on expertise, and a wealth of colleagues to fill in the gaps. But maybe don’t neglect the low level arcana either. Ain’t nuthin like being able to solve your own problems when the familiar metaphors turn out to be nothing more than comfortable lies and your world is on fire.
“Sweet merciful sleep!”, I exclaimed upon waking this morning. The AutoSleep app reported that I had crushed it with over eight hours of uninterrupted slumber but I already knew this from the delightfully tingly feeling of a well rested brain in the wake of an anomalously bad patch of nights.
I rolled over, pulled my phone off the night stand, and called up the recent wind data for Point Of The Mountain’s southside…
“Nooooooo!ARGH!“, I thus registered my visceral disappointment upon seeing wind far in excess of sensible.
Shortly thereafter a friend would report that he had injured his ankle yesterday and thus today’s posited outdoor climbing activity, a soon to be off-the-table modality until the spring, was not in the cards.
Of note — this confluence of Saturday morning parameters arrives after a four day streak of dumpster fire-esque sleep quality of the kind where I would give up in the middle of the night and perform some mindless task in search of tranquility, sullenly accepting that the subsequent day would likely be long on fatigue and stupid while short on productivity and enjoyment.
During that four day window I consistently declined opportunities to fly while my messaging and social media feeds burst with people plotting outings and having a rocking good time. Paragliding represents one of the most enjoyable things I do and yet also offers the highest complexity and consequentiality. If my brain feels like sludge then I steadfastly decline opportunities to get my feet off the ground. There are many contexts where “power through the pain” or “fake it til you make it” is the right approach but becoming airborne is not among them.
Of further note, however — frustrations such as the foregoing are now the outlier instead of a regular affair; in just over a year in the sport my paragliding journal records 142 days strapped to a wing while last winter afforded me over fifty days clipped into skis.
What better intro, then, to the topic I wish now to explore?
Fairly early in my reality I established an appreciation for the value of time as a quantity. Perhaps, more than anything, having available to me more hourly consulting side hustle opportunity than a full time job and social life would allow me to exploit drove home the need to think ruthlessly about opportunity cost in the context of choosing whether to perform or outsource a task.
Only much later in life would I really come to fully appreciate the enhanced value of time when you can tap that resource with flexibility. For that I would need to decide “enough is enough”, crash unexpectedly into a global pandemic, pivot from the upended idea of “sabbatical year” to “accidental consultant”, execute on a long-held dream of moving out west to live and work in the place I wanted to play, and finally start to tackle the challenges with insomnia that had been plaguing me for years.
The Various Systems
To do that would require a more conscious effort to bring various facets of my reality into harmony, each exhibiting their own amounts of randomness, degree of controllability, and expected periodicity:
Global Sociological Phenomena
Current Life Configuration
Present Mind/Body State
Imminent Meteorological Conditions
As I have discussed at great length elsewhere, by the beginning of 2020 I had a long overdue moment of reckoning with my personal “weather” and began navigating myself to a different reality to facillitate a healing process. Along the way my professional network would present an assortment of opportunities that could either accelerate or short-circuit this journey — in addition to various consulting gigs, many folks also made full-time job offers, all tempting in their own ways, but I have politely and resolutely declined all of them.
These various full-time opportunities earnestly promised all manner of flexibility, but to live the life you want in a given moment you must understand the precise manner of flexibility required. I have loved, and perhaps when the time is right will love again, the experience of being a full-time executive-level engineering manager, but that substantive responsibility comes with myriad constraints which one ought not accept carelessly.
There seemed in this moment a perfect and rare confluence of available options for key parameters. Seizing upon this highly unique opportunity, I scrupulously avoided accepting any unduly encumbering arrangement and set about assembling the puzzle pieces — COVID rendered remote tech work ubiquitous, my professional network concretized such opportunities, personal savings let me accept increased financial risk, an unencumbered social reality let me uproot to move across the country, a depressurized professional cadence has allowed me to process grief and anxiety while repairing sleep habits, and a truly flexible work schedule has allowed me to fully exploit opportunities to engage in highly weather sensitive activities.
A Former Golden Age
All that said — I find myself pondering with some regularity an earlier arrangement, glorious in its own right and much missed, a slice of several extremely intense but highly rewarding years working in the government.
I lived in a city, worked in an office, maintained a manic focus, ate lunch with colleagues daily, and built software that still makes the world turn. I took full advantage of a perhaps once-in-lifetime confluence of mission, mandate, technology, and people. I also got fat, became sick, neglected relationships, lived with stress as my constant companion, and continually accepted an increasingly self-destructive amount of responsibility.
I would take skiing vacations, sure, but maybe for a total of 10-15 days per year if I were lucky. When I showed up at the mountains sometimes it would be for amazing powder and others for a disappointing snow drought. I would generally be too tired from everyday life to catch first chair. Sometimes I would make the trip only to get sick in the middle of it. Other times plaintive co-workers would be pleading for help with problems at the office. Getting all of the “weather” systems to align was an incredibly unlikely event.
I don’t regret configuring my life thus for a time. Most people spend a whole career never once getting to do things as cool and impactful as I did in that era. And the spoils of those trials and tribulations in many ways laid the groundwork for my present reality. But boy did it come at a high cost and you can bet I will be careful going forward about how I navigate my way back into a similar arrangement in the future.
An Interlude For Empathy
My struggle to make sensible decisions around whether to fly in a given moment has engendered a deeper respect for the challenge that many professionals navigate as a matter of course day in and day out.
For the most part today I have total autonomy to make a sensible “no fly” decision as a paraglider. If I wrangle my own logistics, listen attentively to how my body and brain are feeling, and stubbornly refuse to let FOMO govern my behavior, then there is no reason I should find myself in the air when weather conditions either meteorological or neurological are anything other than highly advantageous.
When I find myself, say, in a paragliding clinic where both a narrow band of opportunity exists and I have made non-reversible commitments of both time and money, then I exploit the flexibility I have elsewhere to aggressively protect sleep hygiene and discharge obligations while simultaneously repeating to myself the wisdom of ignoring sunk costs.
I shudder to think, meanwhile, how ill-advised many of my flights may have been during instructor guided training in pursuit of a private pilot license of the PP-ASEL variety — I was reserving time by the hour of both a rented plane and a hired instructor; my then work schedule was theoretically somewhat flexible but overall extremely onerous; and consequently the pressure to go through with plans was enormous. I am haunted by the thought of what distractions one of my instructors must have been navigating when pilot error got him killed while training with another student on a day between my scheduled lessons. What part of the IMSAFE Checklist did he ignore on that day because, perhaps, he had bills to pay, a reputation to protect, or a relationship on the rocks? I will never know but I can guess.
Over time I have come to reason in terms of two collections of Four Layers about whether I am up for a given task…
Firstly there is the collection of questions I ought be asking myself:
Do I have the ability to perform this task well under any circumstances?
Do I have the focus and stamina to perform this task well in the moment?
Do I have the awareness when degradations to (2) have compromised performance?
Do I understand the risks in a given moment if I come up short on any of the former?
The last item of this first list expands into a collection of four risk strata explored in detail elsewhere but excerpted here (and left with descriptions somewhat specific to Software Engineering yet I think nonetheless readily generalizable):
Photons: you botched the code that does final rendering for a feature that is of low impact and/or is tolerant of moderate latency and you need only ship a new version of that code to return to full capability
Electrons: you corrupted data and need not only ship new application code but also create and run data repair code that may take a while to execute during which period there may be material delays incurred by time critical business functions
Atoms: your system gave (or failed to give) instructions such that there were substantial bad outcomes in the physical world, perhaps damaging, degradrading, losing, or misrouting physical items that will be costly to recover or replace
Meat: your system gave (or failed to give) instructions such that people were traumatized, maimed, or killed, consequences for which no amount of engineering work can compensate, generally limited to areas such as Transportation, Medicine, Industrial Control Systems, Command-and-Control Systems, Fire Control Systems, Law Enforcement, and Intelligence
Which finally brings me around to the point of this section…
With Paragliding — every time I strap into a wing I am taking on a Meat-level series of decisions, but this is just a hobby, I have accumulated at least some experience about what is sensible, and I always have the right to say “NOOOOP!”.
With Software Engineering — I find myself with some regularity navigating risks at the Meat level, and one of the really confounding problems is the ambiguity about which layer you are navigating in a given moment, but generally I have the luxuries of time and triangulation to crank up the deliberations accordingly.
Many professionals, however — medical personnel of all stripes, commercial pilots/captains/drivers, combat soldiers/sailors/airmen, police officers, industrial operators… the list goes on — are navigating Meat-level decisions every day, seldom have time on their side, and rarely have the option to say “uh, yeah, I’m gonna sit this one out”.
Often the accidents and attrocities we observe appear to manifest from poor individual decision making and boy do we love some good armchair quarterbacking. But hot damn do we create some dubious systems-of-systems that leave individuals straining under unreasonable circumstances, carrying unreasonable amounts of risk, and bearing the brunt of the consequences.
It is tempting to “hold people accountable” but more often than not we ought, at least additionally, be looking at the systems we have wrought, as well as remember that when you force someone to make thousands of snap decisions in high consequence situations under adverse conditions then at least some of the outcomes will inevitably look like mistakes.
I am reminded of this both prior to and during every paragliding flight. Before launch I always have the luxury of saying “pass!”. Between every launch and landing, meanwhile, the universe holds one thing inviolable — no time-outs!
The Inevitable Social Pressures
Paragliding, in one regard, offers a highly paradoxical experience — it is at once intensely isolating while simultaneously extremely social.
Risk management is incredibly personal in that so many decisions in this sport represent a “life choice”. Once strapped into a wing, only your skills, diligence, and decision making separate the good or at least unremarkable days from the scary or downright disastrous ones.
And yet the narrow bands of weather that offer flyable conditions drive us to be out there together and the community offers incredible value in the form of mentorship, camaraderie, and support both emotional and logistical.
This leaves us in a perpetual tension that can prove tricky to navigate.
In a recent UHGPGA group posting on Facebook a pilot asked the community what they thought being a good pilot entailed. I reprint my list here to call out three specific items that feel relevant to the current blog post:
learning across facets
patient in progression
humble about abilities
avoids the scarcity trap
avoids the sunk costs fallacy
maintains wide margins in all things
appreciates the diversity of goals, experience, and personality across pilots
generous with perceptions without being pushy
creates an environment where people are comfortable sharing their mistakes and fears
strikes the balance between positivity and sobriety
calm and skilled in the handling of emergency situations in all their forms
I find myself pondering these three items in the context of how they apply to a range of pilots in my social circle: the ones who are insanely badass yet somehow remain reliably accessible to me as aviation buddies, the ones where our default positions were at odds which created some friction but we put in the work to make the relationship work, and the ones that were too “my way or the highway” and thus blew up the relationship.
I think I am open-minded enough to be generally good with (8), I have to consciously work at (9) but I try damned hard, and I recognize that the Security Engineer in me creates potential problems around (11) but diligence with (8) and (9) make it possible to be socially tolerable when observing conditions outside my envelope but acceptable to others.
In any case, all three of these involve complex “weather systems”, each with a different degree of accessibility to us. We can, over time, learn what other pilots are like generally. We can even endeavor to keep abreast of the goings on in their lives. We cannot, however, have any real idea what is going through their head on a given day. This argues strongly for patience, empathy, nuance, and flexibility.
And, paragliding being a mirror held up to our souls, I find myself pondering how the pressure cooker of this sport reveals where I have come up short elsewhere, in relationships both professional and personal. The consequences of being wrong in this game are more obvious and less recoverable than anywhere else in my reality but perhaps their underlying reasons are much the same and their implications nonetheless serious.
Playing The Confidence Game
In navigating some difficult circumstances I have had some pilots say “you’re overthinking it!” but I have personally found that profoundly unhelpful. That might be just what one person wants (wants) to hear in a given moment but the worst thing you can say to another. Remember in particular item (8) from the earlier list. Consider also the possibility that it’s just plain crap advice for a high consequence activity.
I personally strive to adhere to the following approach when navigating adversity in paragliding and hope to increasingly bring same to the rest of my life:
Engineer surrounding contexts to provide the “weather” required to put in the work
Take the time to step back from unpleasant experiences to assess their root causes
Isolate problem areas, recreate triggering situations, and practice practice practice
Accumulate a progression of successes to serve as a rational foundation for confidence
Continually expand your envelope gradually, methodically, and deliberately
Or, to borrow the words from another pilot, someone who seems in tune with the Security Engineer mentality I inevitably bring to every flight…
Right now in our society there’s this heavy emphasis on the power of positive thinking. Just believe in yourself, dream it, and do it. And I think it’s all bullshit. When it comes to adventure sports it’s just gonna get you killed.
In my view, a useful tool for surviving these sports, or anything risky in life — starting a new business or whatever — is to try to figure out what can go wrong and why. Then when you go out and do something in life, you’ve got justified confidence, not just a sort of “I’ve got this” belief that you can do anything.
Will gadd, excerpted from “the positive power of negative thinking” in gavin Mcclurg’s “ADVANCED paragliding”
Some have said that to paraglide is to hold a mirror up to one’s soul. I incline toward agreement. One year into this odyssey, an experience doubtless born of a larger context, the time feels nigh for some higher order reflection.
This first year has proven a journey of unprecedentedly high highs, excruciatingly low lows, a grueling amount of work, myriad moments of flow, occasional spikes of pure terror, a surprising amount of kinship, long battles between doubt and determination, and countless opportunities for introspection.
You do not know what you are entering when you choose to partake of paragliding. More to the point — you can’t know until you have done it and to a larger degree you continue to not know all along the way. Scant few activities can compete on the combination of nuance, complexity, intensity, unpredictability, and consequentiality.
This sport also exhibits a lamentably high attrition rate. People come to paragliding for diverse and fascinating reasons at all phases and junctions of life but, despite all the wondrous experiences it can provide, many people are ultimately scared, injured, or frustrated out of the sport. I might well have been one of those people within my first six months but for a fortuitous blend of luck, perseverance, and above all else an amazing community of instructors, mentors, and fellow pilots. I hope that this story can in some small way pay those gifts forward to the benefit of other pilots and the paragliding-curious struggling to make good decisions from one day to the next.
Against a Dark Background
“Gonna be dead by thirty if we keep this shit up”, or something to similar effect, a colleague and I would regularly quip while devouring a cheesesteak in the OPS cafeteria circa 2005 long after sensible folk had gone home, taking a moment to refuel in the interstices of manic bursts. I loved the mission, the camaraderie, the technology, and the sense of flow. Also the crushing debt from school meant it felt better to rack up overtime pay than have a personal life or go on vacations — my only concession to discretionary spending around that time was to drop two grand on a 2006 Trek 2200 ZR road bike, an outlay that I figured offered better self-care ROI potential than a single trip to Utah for the skiing I was craving (though also, as I would soon learn, a higher probability of being hit by cars, smooshed by buses, and generally harassed by sociopaths wrapped in oil-powered death machines).
How weirdly prescient these flippant remarks would eventually prove. One’s thoughts flow into one’s words and thence into actions, habits, character, and destiny. I made what I thought a respectable attempt at balance — I biked and rock climbed, I played volleyball and soccer, I eventually found the time and money to ski again — but if we’re being honest work always took precedence over health, hobbies, and relationships. Those other things found themselves packed into the cracks of a career as opposed to woven through my life as first class elements.
In September 2012 I had a freak accident wherein I fell while bouldering, spraining my ankle as well as twisting my knee, and making for a clumsy drive to urgent care while operating the pedals with my left foot. In the grand scheme of things this event, though painful and grotesque, was in and of itself pretty trivial. I returned to all my activities within a couple of months.
But such momentary disruption to 32-year-old Andrew’s reality would not be the end of that sub-plot. A few months later I had an MRI to assess healing which showed what looked at first glance like a complex hematoma by my knee. Six months later I had another MRI which ruled out that theory and had me going for a CT-guided needle biopsy.
I remember getting a phone call at the office with the biopsy results just as I was finishing up an interview with someone who would subsequently become a key timely hire for my project. I would seemingly need to Google “myxoid liposarcoma”. Some days later I would get another call, this one from a radiation oncologist — “We want you come to the office later this week.” “Guh,” I replied, “how about instead of that I drive up to Boston for a friend’s wedding and come see you next week?”. They said that would be OK. My friend, meanwhile, perhaps only half-jokingly, still occasionally remarks that I saved his life when he nearly fell from chair to floor while floating above a crowd of inebriated revelers dancing the Hora. Priorities.
To say that the experience felt surreal for some time would be understatement. Worse still, it came as part of a one-two punch in which the Snowden revelations went off like a bombshell within my professional sphere. Everything felt like a bad dream from which I just needed to wake up. To feel real would require something inescapably tangible — my second visit to the radiation oncologist where they had me lie on a table and, leg stripped bare, used lasers to calibrate the painting of targeting references on my leg to be used over the coming weeks. The subsequent ghoulish appearance smacked of witchcraft and would catch me by surprise time and again. I could go manic at the office to forget my troubles but take a quick break to sit down in a bathroom stall and BOOM there reality was staring me in the face.
The radiation course ran daily M-F for six weeks. I scheduled every session in the earliest possible morning slot so I could maintain with most people at the office the illusion that all was normal, sharing awareness only with key personnel who needed to know for continuity of operations. Keeping up appearances, however, became more grueling from one week to the next. At first the weekends off from treatment provided a bounce-back effect, but as the course wore on that effect dissipated, eventually disappearing entirely to leave me with the perpetual feeling of hauling my ass through life wearing a massive weight vest.
Meanwhile I just kept trying to be Andrew at full-tilt with the major focus being getting the system I was building at work to a state where it could withstand an extended absence of indefinite duration on my part. And during all of this the world kept turning. It can be a lonely place going through something like this when by all outward appearances you seem perfectly normal and everyone else is busy doing their usual thing… and a great reminder that whatever you are seeing in someone else is just the tip of the iceberg riding above the water.
I have one such stand-out memory from that period. On a day when the morning had included not only my penultimate radiation session but also the euthanasia of my rapidly ailing beloved cat I found myself arriving home late after a grueling day at the office and parking at Baltimore’s West Street garage in Federal Hill shortly after a Ravens game had let out. As I walked out of the garage a car raced up a side street, the passengers shouted “WOO!” and threw a bunch of celebratory Ravens paraphernalia in my direction, causing me to be spooked and flip them off, to which their response was to shout “FUCK YOU, FAGGOT!” as they sped off. Shame on me for not bringing the positive energy.
Notwithstanding my various attempts at distraction, eventually judgement day would arrive, almost exactly a year to the day that my bouldering fall set events in motion, leaving me with a tangible reminder of my reality that kept any manner of denial at bay while I spent a month pumped full of prescription opioids and gradually reacquiring the ability to walk. During this period an assortment of wonderful friends would bring me a smorgasbord of home cooked meals and yet, despite eating greedily of these offerings, I still managed to lose thirty pounds, presumably owing to the inevitable muscle wasting.
A Refusal To Be A Noun Phrase
“I don’t like the word ‘addict’ because it has terrible connotations,” Root says one day, as they are sunning themselves on the afterdeck. “Instead of slapping a label on you, the Germans would describe you as ‘Morphiumsüchtig.’ The verb suchen means to seek. So that might be translated, loosely, as ‘morphine seeky’ or even more loosely as ‘morphine seeking.’ I prefer ‘seeky’ because it means that you have an inclination to seek morphine.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Shaftoe says.
“Well, suppose you have a roof with a hole in it. That means it is a leaky roof. It’s leaky all the time–even if it’s not raining at the moment. But it’s only leaking when it happens to be raining. In the same way, morphine-seeky means that you always have this tendency to look for morphine, even if you are not looking for it at the moment. But I prefer both of them to ‘addict,’ because they are adjectives modifying Bobby Shaftoe instead of a noun that obliterates Bobby Shaftoe.”
I think about the preceding passage from time to time as it is, by now for an assortment of reasons, among the most personally meaningful excerpts from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I’ve never thought of myself as a Cancer Survivor. Rather I have merely experienced an oncological ordeal amongst the long list of slings and arrows of outrageous yet wholly surmountable fate.
Who knew a rock climbing fall could be deemed the luckiest thing to happen in your life? Had I not lost my grip on the final hold on that fateful route then quite likely the tumor would instead have been discovered later when it had either destroyed my knee or (as is common with this variant) gone wandering and popped up on my lungs where chemotherapy and/or death are likely scenarios.
In the winter you would likely not see any clear sign of this facet of my history.
In the summer months it’s just a little bit harder to hide. Curious people might be like “what’s up with the one knee-high sock?”. (Answer: some combination of injury, radiation, and surgery (to include a compensating Gastrocnemius Rotation Flap) trashed the valves in my Greater Saphenous Vein which I subsequently had Radio Frequency Ablated; if I want to get my right foot into a rock climbing shoe then continual pressure is key because the return blood flow is fucked)
I have to accept that, on the one hand, I’d be lying to myself if I asserted that this medical misadventure, this incidentaloma if you will, didn’t provide a hard shoulder check on my life’s trajectory, in many ways for the better though certainly not without high costs. On the other hand, meanwhile, the deeply ingrained habits developed in earlier life would prove difficult to escape. Although I certainly took more initiative in shaping my life in subsequent years there was still a central focus on Work at the expense of putting in the work to develop a broader collection of experiences and a healthier set of relationships. More blows of the hammer would need to fall to substantively reshape my reality and priorities.
In 2016 I left Maryland and government life to take a job in Connecticut at Bridgewater Associates. That extremely unique place blessed me with enormous opportunities for introspection and growth. In 2019 I left Bridgewater for a small start-up in Columbus which was navigating such a crazy period that I felt I crammed 5x the expected learnings into my time there on top of the fact that you’re already expecting 5x the learnings compared to a “regular” job.
Sure, I was learning a lot, and yes, my annual MRI and CT scans kept coming back clean (and continue to do so), seeming to indicate that I had artfully dodged the grasping hands of the grim reaper, but my blood pressure and weight had been inexorably ticking upward in recent years, and meanwhile a dark patch continued to travel upward on my lower leg, like an unavoidably obvious yet very ambiguous countdown clock on my ability to do many of the things I love reasonably unencumbered. Would I get another five, ten, or twenty years before needing to become the bionic man? Would my life’s general stress and imbalance kill me before then anyway?
Another Shock To The System
“I find myself wondering what allowed me to resist the ruinous grasp of opioid addiction while my brother could not” I mused while out to lunch with an old friend in Maryland in November 2019. “You had a life you wanted to get back to” was his simple and insightful reply.
I had spent a month on Dilaudid after my surgery. That is some powerful stuff and yet I don’t remember enjoying it. It just kept me from being in unbearable pain. Toward the end of this period as I tapered the dosage my reaction was “holy cowwwww the world is SHAAAARRRRRP”. In some ways the gap between getting off prescription opioids and being able to get back to proper exercise was the worst. And yet, despite that misery, I have never touched the stuff since.
I suspect that the grim reality is that I did become an opioid addict during this ordeal but I managed this problem by increasingly becoming an exercise and adrenaline junky in lieu of popping prescription pills illicitly. I was fortunate that I had a baseline of athletics to lean on to generate flow states and endorphin rushes naturally. I clearly remember the euphoria I experienced from that first set of pull-ups after I was cleared for light exercise. Finally returning to being an indoor soccer goalie was glorious.
I also had a job that I not only loved but also required a TS-SCI clearance that came with random piss tests and regular polygraphs, as well as a solid support network of friends, colleagues, and family, all acting as guardrails during this most difficult period.
I was lucky. I had a really robust set of rails to keep me from proceeding out of one nightmare and directly into another one. And yet keeping that djinn in the bottle requires work — I start to experience increasingly awful physical withdrawal symptoms if I miss getting some kind of vigorous exercise two days in a row. By day three or four the muscles in my face and upper back go painfully tight while my skull begins to burn. Insomnia, the bane of my existence since waking up to a burglary in progress during my senior year of college, becomes an increasingly nettlesome companion.
It’s impossible to know why exactly my brother John went off on such a different trajectory so early. Certainly his baseline personality and childhood experiences diverged substantively from mine — his extreme intelligence was paired with an incongruous disregard for risk and consequences which could make him great fun to be around but also get him into serious trouble. His version of events, which seem at least plausible, center on suffering a back injury during his freshman year of college for which doctors prescribed opioid pain killers whose grasp would change his life in profound ways, this at a phase where his adult reality was entirely nascent. He would end up dropping out of school, moving back home, getting mixed up with an unsavory crew, and ultimately going to jail for reasons mind bogglingly surreal and senseless.
Not too much later he would get out early for good behavior, doubtlessly enabled by being white and having family with at least a modicum of financial means and legal wherewithal in a society where money and melanin regularly tip the not-so-blind scales of justice. Subsequently he would finish his undergraduate degree in Chemistry and show the glimmers of being back on The Path. His traction, however, proved tenuous and episodic. He wasn’t always opioid-seeking, but doubtless always opioid-seeky, as once your brain is wired thus there is no going back, only the possibility of containment.
We shared perhaps some of our best years together circa 2011-2016, finding ourselves consistently rock climbing together 2x/week and even sharing a nice Oregon vacation together in 2012…
In 2016, however, he seemed to enter a new phase of the struggle. With increasing frequency he would cancel our rock climbing outings without notice because he was “sick”. By the time I was leaving Maryland in August 2016 for work in Connecticut he had gone off the rails again and effectively disappeared from my reality. It was heart breaking. At one point around that time he was clinically dead but somehow revived. Whenever my grandmother would call in the coming years she would despondently ask if I had any news of John and I would answer truthfully that I did not know where he was and did not even have a functional telephone number for him. I lived with the sense of dread that it was only a matter of time until I got the call.
Fast forward to 2019 and I was having a year that was making a serious bid for topping even 2013 for most stressful year of my life — I had left Bridgewater Associates in February for the aforementioned start-up whose problems ran far deeper than I could appreciate when joining and by August my engagement to be married was broken off. Finding time for self-care was exceedingly difficult. I was losing the ability to sleep even when I had the time for it. Rock climbing fell out of the rotation because I kept procrastinating about getting an ingrown toenail removed to the point that just walking had me limping, never mind cramming into bouldering appropriate shoes. I held onto dear life with my 3x/week swimming habit, something I had cultivated during my recovery from surgery, the bedrock of my existence through all manner of turmoil.
By October I dared to experience the emotion of hope. It seemed like the insane amount of work I had put into the company had turned around its Technology and the VP Engineering who had joined a couple months after I did had gotten the People and Process facets in order. I took a vacation! Sort of. I spent a lot of time working while on vacation in Oregon but I did nonetheless get away for a week and it was good. And when I came back to Columbus… within 72 hours of my return everything seemed to come crashing down — on Wednesday 23 October I found out that the VP Engineering had just put in his notice, on Thursday my brother John would be found in a hospital parking lot dead from an overdose, on Friday I would receive the call delivering this terrible news, and on Saturday morning I woke up to discover that other family I thought I could lean on during a tragedy had instead taken the opportunity to toss a torch into a barrel of gasoline. Any one of those things would have been crushing on its own but all together it felt like sucker punch, rib kick, curb stomp.
To describe that moment as a wake-up call would be epic understatement. In the period of days between between receiving the news and traveling to Maryland for the funeral I took the time for some appallingly overdue self-care — I scheduled my annual MRI and CT scan which were now six months late and I booked a podiatry appointment to have the ingrown toenail taken out. Pulling my tailored dress clothes out of the closet offered another reminder of the woeful neglect of my health — they fit, but just barely, to the point that I had to breathe and move carefully to avoid popping a button or splitting a seam.
I have no words for the grief at the wake and the funeral except that the pain was incomparable. John was 32. He leaves behind a young son, Joey, whose confusion and agony I cannot even begin to fathom. I, meanwhile, am wracked with a sense of guilt about how I might have done more to reach out to him and thoughts of how this is perhaps the most egregious example of work consistently taking precedence over all else throughout my entire adult life.
I returned home in a daze. Shortly thereafter I went to the aforementioned podiatry appointment which offered a picture-worth-thousand-words illustration of the degree to which I was sacrificing my own well being on the alter of Work, going around with what might as well have been a tiger’s claw embedded in my flesh. In Software Engineering we often speak of Technical Debt. Here we see what Life Debt looks like.
And then I was just left alone with my grief to ponder the frailty and brevity of human existence, to wonder what wisdom there was on continuing the present path, and to begin to reason about a change in heading and a re-ordering of priorities. It’s hard to lose your “twin” so young, but I wanted to find a silver lining in that loss, a way to rise above the tragedy. Despite all his troubles John often seemed to have a knack for taking joy in the simple things in life, something I have long experienced as elusive and only much later in life given the room to breathe.
See you in hell, Purdue Pharma.
A Perilous Pivot
About eight weeks later I “celebrated” my 40th birthday by staying late at the office with another engineer to debug a network sensor deployment at a client POC that every sober person already knew was doomed and was in service to a product offering that a month later would be shelved. It all felt very BoJack Horseman…
My 41st birthday would be a lot more awesome but the intervening year to get there would be a hell of a dumpster fire. It was the kind of birthday where you almost piss yourself but not because you were piss drunk — rather I went off-piste a little too early in the season, bounced off a barely concealed boulder, superman’d, double-ejected, and was awkwardly pinned in a snow drift long enough that it was a race against time to dislodge myself, partially disrobe, whip it out, and dump the tank, all the while wondering if the next act would be to try not to freeze to death while hiking down the mountain on foot (blessedly I found both skis and lived).
To get to such fun, though, first I would have to quit my job in February 2020 with the thought of taking a world-traveling sabbatical year, only to have COVID blow the world up during my four week notice period, and then become an accidental consultant.
Along the way both my rock climbing gym and swimming gym would close. GAAAAAAHHHH — so short-lived the enjoyment of my repaired toe… So awful to lose access to my pool. Did I mention that I have an “opioid addiction” that requires the constant administration of exercise? In desperation I augmented my in-home elliptical machine by panic-buying at full retail the equipment I needed to do deadlifts in my basement, a rather perilous experience when although your head clears the above floor it does NOT clear the joists which adds a critical step to the setup routine…
Then I would get tear gassed in front of my house…
… as Columbus descended into chaos in the wake of George Floyd’s murder…
… after which I would find myself on a weird and stressful cross-country journey in a 24′ RV with three kitties who progressed from terrified, to curious, to resigned as I kept my foot to the floor and tried not to fall asleep while racing against a moving truck on my way from Ohio to Utah. The deciding factor on whether I survived that trip may well have been that I had a remote friend running “tactical operations support” where the protocol was that as my energy began to flag I sent over my current geo-coordinates to which she would shortly thereafter reply with a camp site reservation an hour or three down the road.
WHEEEEELLLLP — Not exactly the recovery year I imagined 2020 to be but I muddled through well enough and succeeded in beginning a truly new chapter in life.
An Aviation Journey
We might reasonably say that my path to being a pilot has proven circuitous. The year after my surgery I got the idea into my head that I wanted to fly as a Life Project. As an initial hypothesis I imagined learning to fly helicopters and began with some simulator based training. Subsequently I received counsel to learn fixed-wing aircraft first as much of the fundamentals would be the same and the cost-per-hour of renting aircraft far cheaper and so I gave the local flying club run by the DoD at the Tipton airport a whirl.
I learned a lot while getting to see Maryland from a different perspective but ultimately the experience did not quite deliver the way I hoped — the weather was uncooperative, the club had lots of fleet management problems, I fit in only a small fraction of their aircraft, the DC SFRA was an insanely inefficient airspace in which to train, I had a miserable instructor/student fit, my medical certificate took the scenic route through the FAA, end-of-life care for my maternal grandparents exploded into a ton of family drama, and my work project was experiencing a distracting amount of “catastrophic success”. Recognizing that I lacked the headspace and ecosystem to continue the project fruitfully and safely I shelved it for later.
A couple of years later, having moved to Connecticut and settled into my job at Bridgewater, I thought I would give things another go. I reached out to Arrow Aviation at the Danbury Municipal Airport, was connected with an instructor, and got on a path that seemed set to get me to the goal of PP-ASEL certification. That, also, was sadly not meant to be. I was up with my instructor on a Thursday, had scheduled another lesson with him on Saturday, and on Friday while at work received a call that he had been killed while out with another student. A year later the FAA report would detail that between a landing and takeoff at a grass-field airport both instructor and student had failed to note that the flaps had not been retracted which caused a failure to gain adequate altitude on climb-out. My instructor, Duke Morasco, was killed on impact, his student ended up in a coma for months, and the student’s father who had been in the back seat was found sitting alongside a nearby road saying he wasn’t sure how he had gotten there but thought there may have been a plane crash.
When Arrow Aviation called to share the news they asked if I wanted to reschedule my upcoming lesson with a different instructor, as if Duke had just been a broken down engine part that they would swap out overnight. I said that I could use some time to think, that they should let me get back to them, and then I never did. Creepily, Arrow had lost another plane just a week earlier, which did not engender confidence that this was merely a fluke. My aviation journey once again found itself on pause.
Roughly 2.5 years later, while in Utah on a skiing trip and pondering resigning from the aforementioned start-up, the old friend with whom I was staying suggested that the paragliding instructor who had run his P2 certification might be able to give me an intro lesson on the last day of my trip. Why not? Well, frankly, probably lots of good reasons not to… but I gave it a shot and had a sufficiently positive experience that I bookmarked properly learning to paraglide as a distinct possibility one day.
As fate would have it, seven months later I would execute on a long-deferred dream of moving out west, making my home the Suncrest portion of Draper, UT. Just a few weeks later I would begin my own path to P2 certification at Point Of The Mountain. In hindsight I really didn’t properly appreciate the journey on which I was embarking but I had shaken up so many categories in 2020 already that learning to paraglide seemed of a piece with the rest of my rapidly evolving life.
At first this involved a lot of getting thrown to the ground by a tandem wing until the required body posture began to click…
… and occasionally even throwing myself into the ground on purpose in preparation for later mistakes that might otherwise have been much higher consequence…
I remember that my first proper flight off the training hill portion of POTM’s Southside, an experience that probably lasted less than 30 seconds and had me no higher than 100 feet off the ground, yielded a “whooooaaahh THIS IS HAPPENING!” sense of awe in the moment and a euphoric sense of accomplishment upon landing despite being the paragliding equivalent of skiing the bunny hill…
The next day I would have a less than excellent training hill flight wherein I took off in a cross-wind, got fixated on where I was going instead of where I wanted to be going (damned if there isn’t a life lesson there), landed fast and sloppily with a partial tail-wind, and paid the tuition for that “cheap lesson” in the form of a bunch of skin buffed off my knuckles.
Not easily deterred, however, I kept muddling through lots of dirt eating experiences…
While occasionally taking a break from getting my ass kicked to do other things…
And once receiving from another pilot a grim reminder of the perils of pushing things too hard…
Until eventually I had some vague semblance of the crudest of competence…
At which point it was time for my first flight off the top of POTM’s Southside…
Things I remember about this flight: immediately prior I felt like yacking and was having thoughts to the effect of “what the HELL have I gotten myself into?”; during the flight I think I experienced the most intense flow state of my life; on the trailer ride back to the top I had to work at not crying while surrounded by other pilots and awash in a bittersweet cocktail of joy and grief; back at the top I described the flight as peak life experience with the next closest competitor being a multi-pitch climb I had done in Utah nearly a decade ago.
To elaborate on one piece therein… I had on the eve of the second anniversary of John’s death, the day I started muddling through the writing of this journal entry, a conversation with one of my brothers about the episodic and multifaceted nature of the attendant grief. He wondered about whether it ever gets better. I posited that we will continually find different reasons to grieve as we flow through the various epochs of our lives and reflect on how he is not there to share in it. He noted that for him an immediate and palpable sense of loss centers on the missed opportunity to share in the experience of fatherhood as The Cousins grow up. I remarked on how I imagined John would have enjoyed coming to Utah on vacation to share in the marvels of this wondrous place.
This is dangerously potent stuff. The first anniversary of John’s death came just days after my first flight off the top of the Southside. In recognition thereof I consciously decided beforehand not to fly that day before showing up at the hill and being thus tempted. I was clearly failing the ‘E’ line item, “Emotion”, from the IMSAFE checklist. Sometimes a part of your life that played a role in driving you toward this sport can be the same reason you need to keep your wing balled up and feet on the ground on a given day.
The first six months of my flying, a journey to the humble P2 certification and the many experiences beyond that, would yield such a diverse collection of experiences, sometimes inspiring, sometimes terrifying, always educational.
There’s nothing quite like your first ridge soaring flight at the Southside when finally things slow down just enough that you have the time to savor the experience…
And there’s nothing that compares with the godlike experience of benching up on the Northside for the first time and finding yourself with so much altitude you can make a cautious foray out over the edge of the city and perform your first 360 degree turns while drinking it all in…
Even on days where the flying is not particularly great you will likely be treated to views that take your breath away…
And then there is the experience of doing something that seems straightforward and serene one day in December…
Only to attempt what you imagine to be the same thing a few weeks later in January and have it go completely differently because you failed to understand the subtle differences in conditions and maintain steadfastly disciplined technique…
That last pictured misadventure was one where, although in the moment I thought I might be having a life altering event, I could at least see the humor in the experience and laugh about it with friends after the tumbling mess of pilot-plus-wing came to a rest, grateful that some combination of luck, pliable (if a bit stabby!) bushes, and a strong upper body prevented a broken neck.
There were other incidents in the first six months that would never provide laughter or smiles, only a brutal experience in the moment and a sobering reminder of the risks we accept, sometimes unwittingly, especially as a novice pilot, every time we strap into a wing.
There was the occasion in November when I received a practical lesson on wing loading, Venturi, rotor, and wind shadow all at once by straying a little too far west at the Northside, getting pinned by the wind, sinking into turbulence, dropping precipitously toward a ledge for a forced landing, getting plucked just as I spun around to de-power the wing, being just as quickly dropped back on the ground, and finally participating in a rodeo where the two possible outcomes were either successfully de-powering the wing or getting dragged off a cliff to a several hundred foot drop. I would have been hard pressed to come up with a moment in my life where I experienced greater dilation of time or narrower focus of attention. So far…
There was the occasion in March when I was enjoying what felt like one of my best flights ever and suffered a 50% asymmetric deflation with ~100 feet of altitude while on an eastward track near the gulley at the east end of the Southside. Ultimately the margins for avoiding a high-energy/bad-angle ground strike that would have teleported me from three dimensional space to two were perhaps sub-second and tens of feet. An instructor who saw it happen said it coincided with another pilot doing aggressive wing-overs upwind from me though it is hard to be sure what initiated the incident and in any case if you’re the Pilot In Command on a solo flight then it’s your ass on the line and it doesn’t really matter how things started. Life ain’t fair and the ground don’t care.
I remember feeling an alarming wobble in my harness, looking up to see the right side of my wing in a peculiar triangular aspect, going into a hard dive to the right, finding myself hurtling toward the ground in the other direction, leaning hard away from the deflation and the upcoming hill, finding myself looking back in the original direction only to have my vision quickly occluded by a wing that surged to three-o-clock, brake checking like my life depended on it, having that curtain come up to reveal I was just about to plow into the berm of the gulley, then banking hard to the right to just avoid eating dirt, and finally fly directly to the bottom because HOLY FUCK.
Many months later, after multiple SIV sessions wherein I practiced handling both deflations and stalls, I found myself with a fuller understanding of how the situation escalated and nearly ended in disaster, going far beyond just needing to do better at “Active Piloting”. The list of failures is lamentably long:
Inadequate appreciation for the implications of strengthening conditions
Inadequate understanding of the implications of being very light on my wing
Inadequate appreciation for how terrain features generate wind flows and qualities
Inadequate situational awareness regarding what other pilots were doing
Inadequate preemptive brake pressure and weight shift to prevent deflation
Inadequate awareness of the visual appearance of various wing faults
Fixation on the wing fault which wasted time and caused a dive toward it
Perhaps not throwing my reserve the instant such unprecedented weirdness manifested
Initial under-correction which caused a hard dive toward the ground
Subsequent over-correction with low airspeed which perhaps caused a stall-spin
Inadequate appreciation for how hard my wing would surge after suffering previous
Spending any brain cells pondering a reserve toss by the point it was too late
Also good grief is it ever lonely to go through something like this and then land somewhere that other people are having a good time and are completely oblivious of what just happened to you. We should always be looking out for pilots in trouble and offer them timely support in whatever way we can. In some of those moments we will be the victim and there is nothing quite like having someone there for you. The difference between this moment and the occasion of my Northside tumble was thus enormous.
I am haunted by a moment from a subsequent SIV session where I was recreating and practicing handling similar for the illustration it provides of how easily things could have been entirely different. My dearest wish for all pilots is that they can reverse the ordering of my “maneuvers” experiences. You want to learn about this stuff with thousands of feet to spare while over water with a master instructor on radio and a rescue boat at the ready.
Sadly, though I was registered for my first SIV course in May, the universe would take another run at me 10 April, this time more consequentially. On a Saturday morning at Southside I would launch into conditions that were meaningfully thermic at a time when I was surely unfinished processing my recent fear injury. My baseline brake pressure was doubtless excessive and my timing of inputs when entering thermals premature. Toward the west end of the hill I remember entering what to me felt like a very strong thermal, applying brake pressure out of a fear of impending deflation, then hearing an explosive crinkling and looking up to see, to my horror, my wing “broken in half” at the initiation of a full stall while I was carrying an altitude of maybe 50-100′.
I don’t recall the period spanning incident initiation to subsequent ground strike, presumably owing to a concussion, but between piecemeal observations from horrified onlookers and subsequent learnings in SIV I can guess at what happened while being spared the worst of the PTSD. One pilot said they saw me turn toward the hill which is unsurprising as entry to full stall can send your body yawing until you return to stable flight. Another pilot said they saw me enter back-fly which is ostensibly why the staff at the trauma clinic I subsequently visited kept staring in confusion at my full-body CT scan unable to find a single damn thing wrong with me.
Also helping my cause was a lot of tumbling versus pancaking which temporally distributed the dissipation of kinetic energy. It was also pretty great that two pilots were on my crash site within seconds, one to de-power my wing and another to get me out of my harness, because going for another flight, this time with a concussion, would have REALLY sucked. Instead I got to walk over to the ambulance under my own power where one the paramedics complimented my choice of a MIPS helmet.
At least the people at the trauma clinic thought my beard was pretty epic. Gotta take what you can get.
On the way home from the hospital I contemplated the irony of having been so ruthless about social distancing during the pandemic only to crash my paraglider between my two Pfizer shots and do all of ambulance ride, hospital visit, and Uber ride in the span of a few hours. You can’t make this shit up. I bet the paramedic whom I asked for a mask had to work hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Oof.
This misadventure would earn me a roughly four week break from flying while I waited to clear the danger zone of Second Impact Syndrome, something made all the more important by my previous life as an indoor soccer goalie which included a nasty concussion of its own when I made an awesome clutch diving save only to have my face trampled by the on-running opposing forward. Toward the end of that stretch I started doing some tentative kiting. I won’t lie — having “permission” to not fly from my concussion was greatly appreciated.
The real fear started piling on once I cleared that period of restriction, the days until my 20 May SIV were dwindling, and reasonable weather to fly was popping up. This was truly put-up-or-shut-up time in my evolution as a pilot. Would this be the third and final strike in my struggles to be a pilot or would I power through this? In the end it would prove the latter but what a grinding period of doubt and darkness this would be. I credit an amazing network of instructors, mentors, and friends for getting me through this chapter.
Finally I would launch off the top of Southside early in the morning on 13 May with just a week to spare before SIV. I had what to an onlooker might have looked like a super chill ten minute soaring flight but from my vantage it was drenched with anxiety. Every subtle wing-crinkling sound triggered a fear response though I had handled such moments uneventfully and unthinkingly hundreds of times prior. I stayed pushed way out in front of the hill to give myself as much terrain clearance as possible. I made myself fly just long enough to feel like I had self-administered a proper dose of exposure therapy then flew to the bottom to land. I would get in just three more short flights before heading to SIV for god knows what.
The pre-SIV anxiety was awful but the actual experience was amazing. By the end I was declaring that it may well have offered a new record for peak life experience. The in-the-moment experience was exhilarating and the after-the-fact ambience was one of catharsis. Oh to rewind time and do my first deflations in SIV instead of utterly alone over unforgiving ground.
I’m happy to say that in the subsequent six months of flying I have been incident free but boy has it been a lot of work to power through the trepidation and evolve my approach. Those months involved a progression through a series of phases:
being too injured to fly and relieved I had “permission” to stay on the ground
dreading the idea of flying and being terrified while doing it
dreading the idea of flying but at least finding a state of flow in the moment
dreading the idea of flying but starting to enjoy the experience again
finally actually looking forward to flying again and feeling like I was performing well
In the wake of my accident I found my public paragliding journal go from daily delivery to batch mode with the first subsequent entry coming after nearly a two month gap.
In my second big checkpoint I found myself compiling a list of key changes that were helping me to be a happier and safer pilot:
greater conservatism about the conditions in which I fly
more indifference to the progress of others
improved exposure to serendipitous mentorship opportunities
more skeptical assimilation of the advice of others
bigger focus on drilling versus flying
increased emphasis on understanding weather
versatility of equipment for varying conditions (now 37m, 25m, and 14m wings)
rigorous change control of variables (waited for SS flight to first fly new harness)
enhanced appreciation for being a multi-sport athlete with no urgency to fly
more liberal “permission” not to fly if I’m just not feeling it in that moment
In that entry I further pondered the wildly different parameters with which we all come to launch:
Perception of risk
Tolerance of risk
In the meanwhile there have continued to be many valuable, enjoyable, encouraging, and sometimes painful experiences.
One of the most meaningful classes of such was to begin cautiously dipping my toes into mountain flying on mellow days with half a dozen trips to The V providing a powerful “ah, yes, THIS is what I have been training for!” experience…
It would also be hard to overstate how valuable SIV training has proven, both as an avenue to catharsis for past trauma and prevention of future drama. If there is a high-level mantra coming out of this which is applicable to any emergency in life it might be…
Do not panic
Do not fixate
Prioritize your problems
Remember your training
Never give up
I also shouldn’t pretend like it has been all sunshines and roses. Getting dragged across the Southside by my 37m wing in 17MPH wind while wearing shorts was a “cheap” reminder to stay humble no matter how well some facet of your training is progressing (and also to wear pants)…
I have spent a lot of time pondering the nature of luck, both the extent to which we can shape it with training, analysis, diligence, and caution, as well as the reality that we can never be totally in control. Perhaps the pithiest way of capturing our conundrum as aviators is an analogy you will often hear pilots quote that goes something like the following…
You start out with two buckets. One is your Experience bucket. It begins empty. You also get a Luck bucket. Its total contents are unknown. In every moment you will draw on some combination of the two. Your job is to fill the former before you exhaust the latter. Furthermore, many deposits to the Experience bucket will be paired with withdrawals from the Luck bucket. Good luck!
There is certainly something to this but with paragliding at least we have a couple of valuable hacks, specifically Ground Handling and SIV. The former allows you to feel out how your wing behaves in messy circumstances cheaply and safely. The latter, while far more expensive and certainly not risk-free, is unparalleled in the protective value it can deliver when done well. Squander these opportunities at your peril.
There is of course a much broader collection of areas where we can strive to manufacture “luck” from day to day:
aeronautical decision making
maneuver technique proficiency
weather theory understanding
weather conditions cognizance
terrain feature implications
gear configuration, inspection, and maintenance
brain combat readiness
physical body toughness
personal ego containment
life priority sustainment
If we keep all of these things in mind and strive always to operate within a Threats And Error Management framework we just might come through in one piece. We have so many opportunities to short-circuit bad outcomes but consistently taking the right action at all of the cross-roads takes great skill and discipline.
It’s also really important to think about cumulative risk. I think I did this far too little early in my paragliding experience. In moving to Utah and becoming an independent consultant with a flexible schedule I created an environment in which I could cram ~20 years worth of vacation-based outdoor adventures into one. Wow. Also yikes. And double yikes because until I renewed the annual lease on my house I was doubtless falling prey to the Scarcity Trap, wondering if this was just a single-year hiatus from Normal Life. One of my favorite treatments of this subject is Mike Meier’s Why Can’t We Get a Handle on This Safety Thing from which the following except stands out…
How good do those decisions have to be? Simply put, they have to be just about perfect. Consider the types of decisions you have to make when you fly. Do I fly today? Do I start my launch run at this time, in this cycle? Do I have room to turn back at the hill in this thermal? Can I continue to follow this thermal back as the wind increases and still make it back over the ridge? Each time you face such a decision there is a level of uncertainty about how the conditions will unfold. If you make the “go” decision when you’re 99% sure you can make it, you’ll be wrong on average once every 100 decisions. At 99.9%, you’ll still be wrong once every thousand decisions. You probably make 50 important decisions per hour of airtime, so the thousand-decision point comes every 20 hours, or about once or twice a year for the average pilot.
So, to be safe you have to operate at more than 99.9% certainty. But in reality, 99.9% is virtually impossible to distinguish from 100%, so really, for all intents and purposes, you have to be 100% sure to be safe.
And now I think we can begin to understand the problem. Let’s first consider this: We all have a strong incentive to make the “go” decision. The “go” decision means I launch now, relieve my impatience to get into the air and avoid the annoyance of the pilots waiting behind me, instead of waiting for the next cycle because the wind is a little cross and the glider doesn’t feel quite balanced. It means I turn back in this thermal and climb out above launch and stay up, instead of making the conservative choice and risk sinking below the top and maybe losing it all the way to the LZ. It means I choose to fly today, even though conditions are beyond my previous experience, rather than face listening to the “there I was” stories of my friends in the LZ at the end of the day, knowing that I could have flown but didn’t, and knowing that they did and were rewarded with enjoyable soaring flights.
… and that’s even before you read the accompanying text!
Unfortunately, all the information in [this] chart […] only refers to the risk of death and does not account for the risk of injuries. The reason is simply the fact that data about injuries are extremely unreliable since the great majority of sport injuries are never reported and/or accounted as such. (The omission of injury information also means that activities that tend to have a relatively high injury to death ratio (e.g. skiing, equestrian eventing, marathon running, riding motorcycles, hang gliding, paragliding, downhill mountain biking) might look relatively safer than they really are, and activities that have a relatively low injury to death ratio (e.g. general aviation, soaring, skydiving) might appear relatively more dangerous than they really are.)
This last bit feels particularly related to a big topic on my mind… As a community we are in grave danger of Instagram-washing our flying experiences in a way that does a disservice to all pilots but especially new ones. We do have forums like the Paragliding Incident Discussion group on Facebook but it appears to me that this is largely reserved for the most spectacular incidents as reported by the most open and brave pilots. And I get it — while most people were civil and supportive when I shared a write-up about my April crash in the UHGPGA Facebook group, there were inevitably some vocally caustic assholes, and if you don’t have a naturally thick skin then inviting the layering of gratuitous insult atop grievous injury feels like an endeavor not worth the trouble.
And never you mind the likely many more pilots who silently and smugly thought to themselves “that won’t happen to me” simply because their unwittingly reckless dice rolls thus far have come up favorably enough they could wave away their minor scares as trivial dust-ups as opposed to prelude to disaster. I find myself thus reflecting on an observation a professor offered roughly a decade ago in a course I took at MIT’s Sloan School Of Management: we all have a bias to think of our own successes as the result of hard work and intelligence and our failures as the result of bad luck while simultaneously casting the successes of others as the result of good luck and their failures as owing to a lack of character.
In my estimation nearly all pilots are carrying more risk than they appreciate and nearly all have a collection of terrifying experiences to tell. Mostly, however, they share these experiences exclusively in hushed tones within intimate circles because the potential for shame, the concerns around propriety, and the pressure to project exclusively positive energy are enormous. I’m not sure how exactly we fix this toxic situation but if we are to have a thriving community then we must. Too many people get scared and discouraged out of this journey because on the surface it looks like everybody else is having an easy and glamorous go of things.
Some Final Reflections
In closing I imagine it would be worth sharing three interactions I have had over the past month.
On one occasion a pilot posted to the UHGPGA forum on Facebook a question asking what it meant to members to be a good pilot. There were lots of really good answers. My contribution, offered in list form, which I mostly still like but wish had called out weather and gear more separately, follows:
1) continually learning 2) learning across facets 3) patient in progression 4) humble about abilities 5) avoids the scarcity trap 6) avoids the sunk costs fallacy 7) maintains wide margins in all things 8 ) appreciates the diversity of goals, experience, and personality across pilots 9) generous with perceptions without being pushy 10) creates an environment where people are comfortable sharing their mistakes and fears 11) strikes the balance between positivity and sobriety 12) calm and skilled in the handling of emergency situations in all their forms
On another occasion I found myself reading a gripping narrative on the Paragliding Incident Discussion forum on Facebook written by a pilot who had been through a harrowing midair collision and subsequent entangled descent under reserve during a high level competition. It was well done but I took issue with the pilot’s description of the incident as being “unavoidable”. My reply was sufficiently well received by many forum participants, including the pilot who wrote the report, that I feel it worth sharing the relevant piece here unedited.
My main commentary is meta — We need to think of avoidability and culpability in non-binary terms. Every time we strap into our harness we forfeit the right to say it was unavoidable. Every time we get into a dust-up with another party there was doubtless something we could have done differently. Every time we make a decision that optimizes for ease, fun, education, or competitiveness, we’re giving up margins that affect the degree to which we can assert inevitability. And every time we claim unavoidability we prioritize protecting our ego over taking an opportunity to scrutinize our choices to learn from the situation.
Lastly, I find myself reflecting on a conversation I had just a few days ago, one initiated when while packing up my wing at the end of a Southside evening a newly minted P2 from Arizona fresh off his first no-radio solo flight struck up a conversation with me.
He mentioned he was planning on doing a thermaling clinic in Mexico next month. I nodded. He said that he thought that would be a great next step in his progression. Again I nodded though more lost in thought about how to navigate this conversation than in agreement, a rising concern building inside me coincident with a desire not to be unduly pushy with my opinions.
I mentioned my recent SIV experiences, spoke of the learnings, and said I was planning a thermaling clinic next year as the next step in my progression. He asked about what I had learned. I spoke not just of the material we had covered but also how it had enabled me to recontextualize various experiences I had had in the wild during my first year of flying.
“Hrm…” he mused, “maybe I should do an SIV before I do a thermaling clinic.”
If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing. ~ Benjamin Franklin
On 3 August I saw a Facebook post by a friend stating simply: “Hey everyone! It’s been forever. After a long break, I feel like life is (a lot) better without Facebook in it, so I no longer intend to return. I’m not going to delete my account, but I don’t intend to log in either.”
That was all the nudge I needed to begin an experiment of my own. I did not imagine quite so extreme an initial play but decided to delete all social media apps from my phone, log out from them on all other devices, execute a ten day cold turkey period, then reassess.
The subsequent reflexive thumb twitch to bring up Facebook on my phone only to remember it had disappeared proved variously illustrative, entertaining, and disturbing. Cessation of this nervous twitch would require a few painful days. But lo — how much more tranquil, for instance, my aquatic routine became, as I proceeded from car, to pool, to hot tub, to shower, and then back to my car, all with nary an intrusion from the larger world. With this experience I could appreciate more fully the aforementioned friend’s out-of-band elaboration that “the social media trickle was just a constant background hum of attempted inducement to outrage, jealously, concern, and disappointed incredulity”.
Only a few weeks earlier I had had an interesting conversation with a pilot friend during which we unpacked my most recent paragliding brain-dump. Part of this write-up included a ten-point list of ways I had reformulated my approach to aviation with the goal of being a happier and safer pilot. From this list he noted that the second item, “more indifference to the progress of others”, causes him the most struggle. He further stipulated that this was quite ridiculous — he flies more than anyone he knows while living a nomadic life wherein he perpetually follows the best flying conditions from one region to another.
We talked about how the confluence of two things created the potential for frustration and disappointment in his fabulous life — firstly, paragliding is an extremely weather dependent sport, making it a fickle friend from day-to-day, and secondly, he has traveled to many paragliding locations and thereby curated a huge collected of geographically dispersed pilot friends, meaning that on any given day someone somewhere is having an amazing flight, leaving him fretting over whether his current geography is the optimal play when weather has him grounded.
In between these two interactions, and doubtless playing a role in the lead-up to yanking the plug, I was at the recommendation of a friend reading The Elephant In The Brain, the central theme of which is that nearly everything we do in life has a performative element. This stems inevitably from Homo sapiens being an organism simultaneously highly social, highly individualistic, and highly intelligent. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it is definitely a thing, and today’s social media giants represent merely the latest and most sophisticated attempt to yoke us with it. Elephant thus masterfully tied together many of the trends that of late had been fomenting in me an ever growing malaise with our hyper-connected reality.
Rewinding a bit, the pandemic exerted an extreme and weirding effect on my social media reality. In 2013 I attempted to use my Facebook account as an authentication method with AirBnb only to have their automated analysis assert that it was so little used as likely to be a fake. Facebook never held that much appeal to me and to the extent it did I imagine that living the SCIF-life from 2005-2016 did a lot to keep it at bay. After leaving the government, however, I suddenly found myself with my smartphone at my side at all times, the effects of which were gradual, subtle, and insidious. By the time the pandemic struck, a moment when I suddenly found myself cut off from everyone, social media was lying in wait. In the year-ish after the pandemic kicked off I must have used Facebook more than in the entire preceding ten years combined. It filled a vacuum that I never anticipated and knew not how to manage.
It admittedly did some wonderful things. It helped to rekindle connections with various friends with whom I had shared only the thinnest thread for a long time, facilitating Zoom calls with people who had largely faded into a hazy background over a period of disconnectedness spanning five, ten, even twenty five (!) years without a real-time interaction. This sustained me through a very dark period. I hope to hold onto these good parts.
Obnoxiously, though, it feels like these best parts are the most difficult to sustain. Far easier is to have the bite-sized transactions of Sharing and Liking a snippet of text or some carefully curated photos and videos. This has become increasingly evident as life has continually approached normalcy after getting vaccinated. After waking up to this reality I found myself incensed and wanting to fight back, to seize the best of what life has to offer instead of living in thrall to a trillion dollar company wielding weaponized machine learning to all our detriment. I found myself re-reading Flow and wanting to do everything I could to better find and protect that state of being. I don’t want to suffer the fate of George from Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron that our modern engineered society seems hellbent on inflicting on all of us.
It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
I remember really loving reading blogs in the 2000s — but eventually Twitter took the air out of them. I remember valuing the writing and reading emails at the office circa 2005-2016 — but chat applications such as Slack have almost completely supplanted email as a medium. I profoundly enjoyed Kuro5hin.org during its heyday, a place where you could regularly have wide-ranging conversations with a very diverse cast of characters — but now hyper-sophisticated engagement algorithms seem determined to feed me only the most potent brain crack from the content creators I am apt to find the most comfortingly agreeable or most outrageously disagreeable (and maybe also outrageously agreeable?).
These systems incentivize producers to dribble out content instead of synthesizing a high quality product, bombard consumers with an endless stream of alerts to trigger our pleasure pathways in a highly devious fashion, and increasingly connect producers and consumers in a manner that deprive us of interactions with people of adjacent thinking. Small wonder, then, that we continue the march toward being a hyper-polarized society, all the while suffering from extreme FOMO and frittering away our precious time.
How tragic that we should find ourselves in a normalcy-depriving pandemic just as the power of these digital drugs was peaking, calling to mind the discoveries of Rat Park, wherein we realized that the worst of addictive behavior stems from a lack of healthy social connection. And how deep must these grooves of habit now be after such a prolonged and contentious ordeal. And how lamentably quixotic and Sisyphean our fixation on misinformation and disinformation is when the whole ecosystem’s purpose of existence is to attract and retain eyeballs to be sold to advertisers. IT’S THE ALGORITHM, STUPID!
I could lament the lost era of dial-up Internet, dumb phones, and simple bulletin boards, but that would be fruitless. We will not be returning to that era and I cannot deny the value that our modern systems create. There are, nonetheless, approaches we can all take to safeguard our sanity, albeit approaches made all the more challenging by platforms such as Facebook penetrating the realms of Messaging and Groups (even if you’re not buying the advertised products you are still contributing to the stickiness of the platform just by being there).
I enjoy seeing what friends and family are doing via the conduit of Facebook. I just want to experience it on my own time and terms, this despite powerful entities wanting quite the opposite. To that end I feel that the foundations of a nuanced approach involve Activation Energy and Replacement Behaviors. A key approach with the former takes shape in mostly limiting my Facebook usage to a usually-powered-off virtual machine on my laptop, a place inaccessible to the nervous twitch of the thumb seeking out The Red Dot of an app promising entertainment and/or validation. The latter might include something like replacing a digital drenched morning routine with a highly choreographed one that progresses with such smoothness as to generate a Flow state, or having a highly targeted and thus very meaningful one-on-one interaction with a friend, or erecting a hard boundary between the production and consumption of content by variously writing a substantive blog entry or reading a long article in a physical magazine.
Happily, the more we work at this, the more the treadmill of social media seems to slow and the easier the whole affair becomes, and thus the return to a healthier way of being accelerates. Just think of all the weird and wonderful stuff you will do with the time you claw back from your phone.