Finding My Stride

No facet of today’s experience proved remarkable. Nonetheless this afternoon’s skiing felt among my best ever. I imagine this resulted from multiple factors collectively reaching a critical threshold. Tangentially I find myself pondering the nature of such matters in other domains.

My brain felt primed not just from quality sleep the previous evening but also consistently high quality sleep in recent months. My soft tissues felt limber from ample multi-modal exercise of late. My lungs felt no challenge from Snowbird’s 8-11k’ feet owing to nearly four months of living at Suncrest’s 6k’ and regular hiking of the flight parks’ steep hills. I had eaten and hydrated optimally. Ancillary routines around equipment and travel ran on auto-pilot. I leisurely enjoyed an audio book (Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World) during the drive.

I did not hurt, get unduly tired, or struggle technically. I smoothly carved through turns on steep groomers, adroitly slid between large moguls, and consistently traveled from peak to base with little or no rest. I experienced Flow. Something magical begins to happen when you find yourself able to chain moment after moment together in an unbroken arc.

This offered quite the contrast from just a few weeks earlier. I came to the season with a knee injury that proved a bit scary, experiencing this on top of the usual soft tissue shock, muscle memory sluggishness, and altitude related CV struggles. I logged eight days on the slopes before taking off two weeks for the holiday crush. On any day where I had not skied the previous day the outside of my left knee felt funky in a way where I fretted that a single bad fall might cause it to explode. Yet today, after this time off, it felt utterly unremarkable from the first turn of my first run.

I have incredible gratitude for this specific experience but also find myself wondering how much better all manner of life experiences can prove when I am firing on all cylinders as the result of methodical, pervasive, and consistent self-care while also stacking the deck in my favor by making The Right Thing also be The Easy Thing.

Paragliding Day 47

When I woke this morning the wind looked strong and persistently so. I decided the highest ROI usage of my time in the earlier part of the day would be some programming. If it weren’t for the occasional uncooperative weather I’d never get paid. I also just generally felt kind of pooped and imagined this to be a good day for a rest day. As the afternoon played out the wind seemed poised to offer me some guilt-free sloth-time, but then changed its mind and got really nice, forcing my hand. I grudgingly hopped in my car and arrived at FPS ~1530. The investment of time would not disappoint.

The wind seemed reliably locked into 11G12 by the time I had set up, an intensity that makes for easy going launching, but feels just on the edge of soarable, if only the traffic pattern proves cooperative. I kited for a while waiting on conditions just a touch stronger but found myself with an insurance policy since Ariel and Alex had staged a ride at the bottom in anticipation of their doing a tandem ride. When I saw them start to sink out I launched with the expectation of quick sled ride, but perhaps proved too fixated on getting to the bottom in time for a return trip. I imagine if I had turned sooner I might have managed for some soaring. Oh well. T’was still a fun flight that allowed me to chain together multiple turns and still get down in time for a free ride back to the top.

Back at the top I quickly set up to go again and launched without any issue. I felt like I was just on the edge of being able to soar, maintaining launch height for the first several passes, but again eventually sunk out. Before I got going Ariel happened to get some nice shots of me as he returned from again staging a car for a subsequent tandem ride. As I looked downhill I saw Ariel waving his arms in a fashion I took as sign language for “you have two minutes to land or you’re hiking”. Given my already slowly descending pattern I opted to accelerate my descent so I could quickly return to the top for another go of it.

On my third flight I took my time getting going to give Ariel and his tandem passenger the space to launch without the complexity of my competing for the airspace. Once I got going I thought “this is it” with regards to finding a sustainable soaring loop but various complexities interfered with that happening. Firstly, I found myself having to give up altitude either to avoid pinning other pilots uphill of me or risking getting thus pinned. Secondly, while I found the west end of the hill nicely lifty, possibly offering me salvation, I proved gun shy WRT to the risks of venturi, instead opting to turn before passing over the bump-out. Eventually I sunk out and, arriving at the bottom, I imagine my evening’s flying to be at an end, but happily an orange Subaru blazed into the lot below, coming to my rescue, as Ariel was staging cars for one more tandem ride. WOO!

Back at the top the wind seemed to be strengthening just a tiny bit, albeit in a good way, while the sun rapidly waned, so I rushed to setup for one final flight. Ariel, setting up for one final tandem flight, opted to hike slightly downhill for his launch, and maybe I ought have done the same, but I felt like the top was manageable, and mostly it was but I’ll admit it proved a little spicy. I had the good sense to inflate at an angle, sensing that we were probably rocking 13G14 by this point, which is close to the edge of what I can safely handle. Twice I had to return from a forward kiting position to a reverse one, the first one just barely happening in time and leaving me winded after a wrestling match with my wing, the second one being done more proactively when getting to the lip was proving excessively difficult. When I finally launched I was sucking wind hard for maybe the first half of my first pass, but the wind proved wonderful so the effort felt well worth it. Ironically after all the struggle on earlier flights this one felt a little too good for the growing circumstances. With the light dimming and the wind growing I played things conservatively so I would not be out too long or get pushed too far back. I gave myself a wide margin in front of the hill and let myself sink, albeit very slowly, savoring the gorgeous sunset in the distance. Shortly after I arrived at the bottom so, too, did Ariel and his tandem passenger, affording me a fourth and final ride back to the top.

Hell yeah.

Paragliding Day 46

I apparently zonked out the instant my head hit the pillow last night, failing to set an alarm. Waking at 0620 naturally, because habit, I looked at my phone, saw ~25G27 at FPS, thought “naaaahhhhh” and lounged for a while in a state of torpor though failed to fall back to sleep. I took a generally leisurely approach to the morning while keeping an eye on the wind. Seeing the intensity subsequently collapse I imagined the day a bust but then it rebounded so I suited up and headed to the park.

When I arrived the wind was rocking a promising looking 10G12. By the time I was ready to inflate it had already bumped up to 13G15. I inflated and found myself mostly under control yet gradually losing a war of attrition, getting slowly nudged backward in a way I could not quite counter. Uncomfortable with the trend I ran under the wing, snapped and held the brakes, ran askew of my deflated wing to prevent a surprise re-inflation, and began balling it up. The wind kept getting stronger and my wing really wanted to fly, going scary donut on me for a moment, but I kept tightening up a bear hug on it and once I got a knee on it I knew I was solidly in charge. I hung out for a moment to assess the trend, felt intuitively it was not going my way, glanced at my phone and saw 15G17, and gave up on the idea of a top launch. I thought about hiking down a bit for a side hill launch but felt like I had made enough of a mess of my wing that I did not feel enjoy doing that. Instead I packed it up and drove to the bottom to work my way up from there.

sonofabitch, Ariel, you make it look so easy and natural

I hiked maybe 3/8ths up the hill before setting up my wing in anticipation of kiting my way up further, wanting to clean up my wing before getting into spicy conditions. I looked uphill and saw Richard about 7/8ths of the way up when he got violently yanked off the hill with a fair amount of rotational energy, appearing for a few seconds busier than the proverbial one legged man in an ass kicking contest trying to get ahold of useful lines and stabilize the situation. I decided that if someone with that much skill could find so much drama at that height I would be wise to take a conservative approach and kite my way up gradually. Before long I got tugged off my feet, though less dramatically, and with brake toggles already in hand, so I made a go of it and… sunk out. Bleh.

I hiked back up, this time all the way to the shelf initially, but found myself in a race with attenuating wind, it dying while I was hiking. Annoying. Eventually I was maybe ~7/8ths of the way up when the wind felt workable. I inflated and launched and… the wind plunged and I found myself sinking out worrisomely quickly after my first two turns. I had a fierce internal debate where, on the one hand, I really did not want to do a side hill landing with a partial tail wind, but on the other hand I really did not want to touch down mid-turn and end up in a tumbling mess that might culminate in a faceplant. I took my chances with the tail wind, sprinted hard on contact, and everything proved fine except that the wing deflated messily. Ugh. I re-inflated to clean up the wing, then packed it up, and finally hiked back down to my car, mildly annoyed with a morning mostly spent chasing opportunities that never quite materialized. First world problems.

Afterwards I spoke with Ariel about his observations regarding what I had done to set myself up for failure during my top-hill period. Specifically I had inflated my wing too far back from the lip of the hill. As he explained it, and which jived with my intuition with the benefit of hindsight, I had put myself in conditions where the wind was mostly parallel to the flat field and thus optimized to drag me backward versus lift me upward. If I had set up closer to the lip I likely could have fought my way to a launch before the wind got too strong and then had a nice bit of soaring. Alas. I gather there exists a power law driven reality for the gleaning of paragliding experience wherein the more you know the more you can create circumstances that let you get the practice you want. I just have to keep pushing to get off the current plateau. And to that end I am truly grateful for the many more experienced pilots who are incredibly generous with their time and wisdom.

I went home imagining that I was done with flying for the day but scarcely had I had time to eat lunch and poop did the wind turn on again for a southside afternoon. I thus suited up in some fresh clothes and headed out for an encore.

Wait for it… Waaaaaaait for it…

When I arrived the wind was running 10G13 but also seemingly cycling on and off. I kited for ~15 minutes waiting for my moment, both feeling out the wind and watching what other pilots were doing. I saw a couple of other other folks launch but also had the wind drop so quickly that my wing collapsed 2-3 times. Eventually I took my shot and… it wasn’t a bad flight, but also I could not get escape velocity, chaining together a goodly number of turns (8?) and yet slowly but surely sinking out. Perhaps the coolest facet of the flight was that another pilot, Jeremy, had brought his Red-Tailed Hawks to the park and they frolicking with the silly flying humans in the traffic pattern, at one point one of them buzzing over my wing with maybe just 10-20′ of clearance. How neat is that? But, oh the hike back up, for which I took a direct-ish return route versus the switchback. Quite the calf-burner.

My second flight showed a lot more promise. I timed my initial turn well, found myself returned to launch height without much effort, then entered my first 180, and… OOF, I hit a scary bubble in the air, sank precipitously, turned back square to the hill to protect myself, gave up a lot of altitude in the process, and thus set myself up for another gradual sink-out. Alas. Happily on my penultimate turn I saw Ariel’s orange Subaru peel into the lower parking and wait for me. I touched down gently and then kited the wing in a forward sprint over to this car, then spun around and collapsed it, and finally stuffed it into his hatch and tossed my harness atop it. We rolled down the windows to maintain a responsible amount of airflow and blazed back up to the top. Woo!

Back at the top I mused that probably I would just kite since the wind clearly only had a sledder in the offing. Ariel remarked that I could treat his ride as a bonus and do that sledder all the same because I had gotten a pass on the earlier hike. And so I did. If you’re going to do such a thing in low-wind conditions then it is the most fun from the eastward end of the hill as you often find yourself whizzing along the ground and then suddenly pass over a lower cliff where the ground drops dramatically out from under you. I opted for this and had one final nice flight for the evening. As I was balling up my wing in anticipation of a hike a white pick-up truck diverted from its departure, pulled alongside me, and Adun asked if I wanted a ride back up. WIN! Then as we were pulling out of the lower lot I recognized Ariel’s wing in the side mirror and asked “room for one more?”. “Gonna be tight”, Adun remarked as he braked, but we managed to fill the rear enclosure with three wings and one Ariel, the wings acting as crash pads for the bumpy return ride to the top.

Good times. What a fun place and wonderful community.

2021

  1. House As A Sanctuary
  2. Warehouses Are For Data
  3. Instrument All The House
  4. Paragliding: Besides The Point
  5. PP-ASEL FTW
  6. Shoot A Deer
  7. Deadlift 400
  8. Sleep Like A Baby
  9. Eat Moar Vegetables
  10. Fight The (Writer’s) Block
  11. Grok The Block (Chain)
  12. UX Like It’s Not 2009
  13. J Is For Juggling
  14. K Is For Kubernetes
  15. S Is For Spark
  16. Fuck It; Let The Machines Do The Learning

Paragliding Day 45

There was a flyable morning at southside to be had, insofar as people did indeed fly, but the PIREP I received included visibility on the order of 100-200′ and I try not to do VFR in IMC so I passed. The ever increasing wind intensity in the afternoon, meanwhile, threatened to make the day a bust. I nonetheless left my house for northside ~1620 because being social while grousing about the wind seemed preferable to pouting at home while doing same. Arriving at the park ten minutes later I took heart at the site of several wings in the air.

From the parking lot the wind felt of moderate intensity and wonderful smoothness. I walked to the edge of one of the fingers to ensure I was not fooling myself and it felt good there as well. Ariel top-landed next to me, noted that the wind was smooth but starting to attenuate and that I ought hustle up, and quickly re-launched. I trotted back to my wing and expeditiously set up while noting the fog hanging over the upper hill.

I reverse-inflated, checked my lines, sampled the wind, spun forward, ensured my brakes looked clean, pushed toward the ledge, found a gap in traffic, and then I was off.

After my first turn circumstances proved slightly ambiguous as to whether I would be able to soar but I snugged into the ridge, found the lift band, chained together several circuits, and as the light began to fade found myself at a nice altitude for a top-landing. On my penultimate eastward track I made careful note of the windsock and anticipated a landing done optimally with a ~45 degree rightward skew relative to my launch trajectory. On my ultimate eastward track I vectored ~45 degrees into the hill to come over the field and allowed myself to begin to sink. Perhaps ~15′ above the ground I swung 90 degrees leftward, applied a full flare, touched down smooth as butter, then forward kited for a minute or two while savoring the moment and finding a nice debris free location to collapse the wing.

My feet must have been touching ground just as the year rolled per UTC. And what a year it has been. I am thus reminded of a quote that my late maternal grandmother kept pinned to her refrigerator and liked to recite from time to time.

Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘Holy shit…what a ride!’

Happy New Year!

Cats love mice.
The Internet is cat videos all the ways down.

Paragliding Day 44

When I arrived at FPS this morning the wind was running hot and so I pulled into the parking lot at the bottom of the hill and worked on uphill kiting toward a protected launch. I ascended roughly to the shelf and made a go of it but regrettably sunk out fairly quickly. I should have pushed a little higher before committing to a flight. Alas. Back at the bottom I opted to pack up and drive to the top on the thought that this would afford me the opportunity to use the toilet up there and then I would hike down partway from the top to do another sidehill launch.

After hiking down a little ways I took the time to capture some hi-rez proof of another of Joe’s knee rehab milestones as he went flying on his 16m glider for the first time since returning to the sport…

Subsequently I hiked down a little more, began unpacking my wing, and UGH… I had not hiked down adequately and the wing got veritably sucked out of the bag, making it screamingly obvious that the wind was still too strong where I was. As another pilot buzzed me he shouted down “is that a full wing?” to which I replied “yeah, I need to hike down further…”. I awkwardly carried both the wing and the harness farther down the hill, laid things out, took a moment to ponder the circumstances, and began to think that this was maybe more than a little bit stupid. The wind was still crack-a-lackin (because while I was hiking down it was amping up), my wing’s lines were a mess, and a scan of my surroundings indicated that by this point the only aircraft aloft was a sole hang-glider. I also heard what I thought might have been a hallucinated “don’t fly!” which had actually been Ariel shouting down from the top of the hill. In frustration I packed up my wing and slogged my way back to the top. Bleh. Better to be annoyed than injured or killed.

I drove back to the bottom and returned to the pattern with which I had started the morning. I kited up the hill for three short and not particularly satisfying flights. I kept finding myself in a situation where the wind was tugging me up off the hill but after I spun around to fly the wind proved grossly inadequate. I guess this means the conditions were fairly thermic.

I returned to FPS in the evening ~1600 and had a less eventful but equally blasé evening. Strong wind had me setting up at the bottom once again and as soon as I inflated I saw a worrisome amount of pebbles in my three center cells. Since flying with this encumbrance felt reckless and stupid I focused on resolving this issue first as sunlight and wind slipped between my fingers. Eventually I figured out that my seemingly best option was to inflate the wing, force it to do a half rotation, and then build an inverted wall to have gravity force the junk to slide out of the wing.

After getting my wing to a safe state the wind had attenuated sufficiently that I switched from uphill kiting to simply hiking. Slightly above the shelf I set up for a reverse inflation, thinking that I would kite a little higher, but the wind was continuing to weaken and I was tired, so once I got the wing up I muttered “fuck it”, spun around, began sprinting down the hill, and flew back to my car uneventfully.

Some days are better than others. No magical flights, but also no injuries, plenty of practice kiting, getting to see a friend hit a sweet injury rehab milestone, and also some beautiful light effects at sunset… I can’t really complain.

Paragliding Day 43

I arrived at FPN ~1620 and was ready to go by 1630 at which point the wind abruptly shut off. I waited ~15 minutes to see if it might return but to no avail. I set up for a forward launch and just as I was about to go Ariel hiked up over the ledge and offered to spot for me. His arrival proved fortuitous as after I inflated he noticed a twig entangling a brake and rear line that could have been unpleasant and was adequate cause for me to abort. After he plucked it out I set up to go again and had a short but pleasant and uneventful flight.

As I drove up the mountain back to my house the moon treated me to quite a show.

A Steady Diet Of Horror

This morning I finished the book Winning Now, Winning Later by former Honeywell CEO David M. Cote, having recently picked it up when David Novak interviewed him on the “How Leaders Lead” podcast. I found it a great book, if a bit specific to Big Company life, but that’s not the point of this piece. Rather here I ponder the pattern of books I read over time and the tension that reflects between desires for growth, civic mindedness, and happiness. Perhaps never has this proved a more difficult balancing act than in 2020.

The books I read immediately prior to this were Bernd Heinrich‘s Mind Of The Raven and before that Behrouz Boochani‘s No Friend But The Mountains, the former a fascinating and heartwarming exploration of the cognition of ravens I picked up when someone referenced it on LinkedIn as a counter to some sappy meme about noble eagles being pestered by nasty ravens, the latter a horrifying autobiographical tale of the author’s grindingly dehumanizing years long ordeal as a refugee within the Australian government’s immigrant detention system. By weird coincidence (or maybe not?) I found myself listening to the latter during my utilitarian slog of an RV trip from Ohio to Utah, feeling a little bit like a refugee myself while also knowing the comparison preposterous.

Having survived listening to Boochani’s harrowing account I knew I would need some lighter fare to recover and thus selected Heinrich’s tome. This approach mirrored a pairing of books I had made a few years earlier for identical reasons. In high school English class we read Tim O’Brien‘s book The Things They Carried and many years later I found myself listening to Bryan Cranston‘s audiobook rendering thereof. I think it may have been an Audible-recommended title and I was probably drawn to it by some combination of loving Bryan Cranston and thinking that being ~15 years older I might more thoroughly appreciate it. The second reading did not disappoint and yet, unsurprisingly, proved profoundly horrifying. One of the most memorable and disturbing passages follows…

In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead.  Shaking hands, that was one way.  By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was.  By our language, which was both hard and wistful, we transformed the bodies into piles of waste.  Thus, when someone got killed, as Curt Lemon did, his body was not really a body, but rather one small bit of waste in the midst of a much wider wastage.  I learned that words make a difference.  It’s easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn’t human, it doesn’t matter much if it’s dead.  And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter.  A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut.  “Just a crunchie munchie,” Rat Kiley said as he stepped over the body.

This is the kind of book that people need to read, the purpose being to ensure that we are not too ready to go to war, and the study taken up with the knowledge that the curriculum will make you physically ill. It is also the kind of book you have to recover from reading. In this case I followed it with Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones after hearing about it on an episode of 99PI. Sometimes you just need a break from man’s inhumanity to man.

2020 has offered a triple horror of macro events in the US between the mismanagement of a pandemic, an explosive and long overdue reckoning over systemic racial injustice, and a sitting president attempting to subvert our democracy. Furthermore, while 2021 seems poised to be a better year, all of these issues will be with us for a long time to come. If you take your cue from the Federal Reserve Board, then you likely imagine our economy to be a dumpster fire for the next three to four years. If you you believe that we have been operating a system with racism woven through its fabric for centuries, then you probably cannot imagine that we will solve this problem overnight. If you feel relieved that Biden won the election with 81MM votes, you would do well to remember that 74MM people punched the “four more years” option on their ballot in one of the most uncivilized and divisive contests in US history.

The combination of real world horrors plus a profit driven news industrial complex can really numb a person out, but allowing that to happen poisons your soul and shortchanges the world, so I entreat you to consciously manage your battle rhythms. I thus leave you with The Parable Of The Choir which, to my recollection, I discovered earlier this year when a friend linked to it as BLM protests roiled the streets of Columbus.

A choir can sing a beautiful note impossibly long because singers can individually drop out to breathe as necessary and the note goes on.

Stacking The Deck

If you’re not cheating then you’re not trying hard enough.

As I gaze forward and imagine how I might shape what feels like a new epoch in my life so do I feel compelled to look backward to glean wisdom from fifteen years of big projects since leaving school. Success inevitably involves substantial luck but many ways to stack the deck exist.

The Takeaways

In performing this retrospective several themes emerge from professional and hobbyist contexts alike:

  1. Energy
  2. Focus
  3. Pacing
  4. Mentorship
  5. Championship
  6. Talent Density
  7. Team Composition
  8. Problem Visibility
  9. Chaos Exploitability
  10. Data Accessibility
  11. Outcome Measurability
  12. Solution Flexibility
  13. Artifact Compoundability
  14. Power User Engagement
  15. Downside Risk Management
  16. Feedback Loop Latency and Integrity

The Odyssey

When I left Hopkins in 2005 to begin what would prove an eleven year odyssey at the Defense Department I stayed put in my Charles Village apartment in Baltimore, landed in the middle of a re-org, slotted into a “Concept Development Group” tiger team, pounced on an opportunity to flesh out a piece of demoware a colleague had dreamed up, found myself too broke for a personal life and glad for overtime pay, and lucked out in finding a few people who each served as combo mentor-and-champion. This checked many of the aforementioned boxes and I managed to make a pretty big debut splash, quickly rack up a couple of promotions, and grow a sizable team around the nascent product.

Over time, however, a variety of headwinds became evident. After the dissolution of the CDG I found myself in a fractally matrixed organization. Top level offices partitioned along the lines of engineering, analysis, operations, and legal/compliance. Engineering further broke down along the lines of software development, systems integration, and systems administration. I was building a platform that was chasing applications while sitting on the opposite side of a large campus from the analysts who were excited to use my product but hadn’t yet figure out how to make it real. For various legal and compliance reasons getting API access to SIGINT databases proved laborious. The non-availability of modern Cloud and DevOps tools and techniques made fielding infrastructure and releasing software increasingly slow and messy as the team’s size and the system’s complexity grew. Lastly, the lack of end-user customization/scripting faculties compounded the pain of the slow release cycle to which only formal software engineers could contribute. In the end the product did not have quite the level of impact and longevity I had hoped, perhaps the largest long term value being its cannibalized DNA that informed the direction of other products.

In 2009 I decided to stay at the Defense Department but move to another office where I would take over the productization of a prototype collection system. The first year proved fairly messy and tumultuous, owing both to my having a lot of new knowledge to take on as well the larger ecosystem being somewhat roiled with present day goings on, but I learned a lot and established some key relationships, and then a pretty magical re-org happened wherein a few elite people from each of my parent office’s sub-offices were handpicked to form a new office that would be housed in a nearby satellite campus. And just like that I found myself on a small but highly cross-functional team with great access to data, a close proximity to real mission, and a mandate to operate in Mythbusters fashion by modernizing tradecraft. Unlike most other places we had incredible unilateral ability to develop, deploy, and operate tech which gave us deep insight into concrete problems and an awesomely tight feedback loop.

Not only did the environment in which I was operating confer enormous advantages but also the general approach to the technology proved far more effective. First and foremost the arc played out as a tangible application that evolved into a flexible platform, ensuring that we were always taking a practical approach to solving important problems. Secondly we designed, warehoused, and analyzed high quality telemetry that gave us clear visibility into system behavior, user engagement, and mission effectiveness. Thirdly we created open APIs that empowered analysts and operators alike to play in our ecosystem in an experimental and decoupled fashion that, bolstered by our telemetry faculties, informed future formal development activities. Fourthly we carefully established abstraction boundaries that optimized for the flexibility and longevity of the component technology of the ecosystem. By the time I was leaving in 2016 the originating application of 2009 had long since ceased to be and yet the general utility of the system was so great that in 2020, over four years after my departure, the system lives on.

I should also note here that from winter 2014 through spring 2015 I made an interesting yet ultimately abortive attempt at powered flight training at the nearby Tipton airport through the Fort Meade Flight Activity club. I learned a lot but for a variety of reasons, spanning my own personal reality and the club’s present state, the experience proved deeply frustrating. In the realm of my personal life, my extended family found itself roiled by end-of-life care drama which provided unpredictable and gut wrenching distractions on a regular basis. In the realm of my professional life, my project was presently experiencing “catastrophic success” which made for an incredibly intense and unpredictable work schedule. In the realm of the flight training experience itself, many factors aligned against me: the time of year I started made for irregularly flyable weather, my size limited the aircraft and instructors available to me, one of the three aircraft that fit me went out of service when an instructor rolled it on an inclement day, another one became unusable for me when the seats were replaced with non-adjustable ones that left me without adequate headroom, the Chief Maintenance Officer quit in frustration for want of resources shortly after I joined, the airport existed in both a cut-out of BWI’s class B airspace and the DC Special Flight Rules Area which created a lot of lesson setup overhead, and frankly I had a pretty sub-optimal relationship with my instructor. Eventually I realized that what I thought meritorious persistence was in fact dangerous stubbornness and I bookmarked this life project for a later date.

In the summer of 2016 I decided to pack up my life in Maryland and head to Connecticut to join Bridgewater Associates in their “Technology Strategy & Incubation” group. My 2.5 years at Bridgewater would provide incredible personal, professional, and technical growth, and I truly cherish having had that opportunity, but also it would prove a period of great turmoil, perhaps owing to a combination of too much coincident change and too little downside risk management on my part. In August I signed a year’s lease on a house in CT whose size I rationalized on the basis of an anticipated engagement and whose location I rationalized on the basis of a Bridgewater renovation-and-relocation project, in December I got engaged over the holiday season, upon returning from vacation my boss/hiring-manager abruptly quit the company, shortly thereafter the TSI group imploded, I then found myself re-org’d into the Security Department which was actively wrestling with what relationship it wanted with inhouse software development, in the spring my fiancée came from out of state to move in with me and take a local job, then I heard that the Bridgewater renovate-and-relocate project was going in a different direction, and by the summer the people who had encouraged me to join Bridgewater had left the company.

Oof. Somehow despite all of this I did manage to build some useful technology that had a meaningful and lasting impact. I also forged many very meaningful friendships that persist to this day. The high integrity and low latency feedback you get at Bridgewater is nothing short of awesome. But hot damn did I do a poor job of rate limiting how many things were simultaneously changing in my life and emplacing escape hatches if things went sideways. In hindsight I ought have evolved both my Bridgewater engagement and romantic engagement in a more gradual and adaptable fashion.

If all that weren’t enough I also attempted to reboot my powered flight training through Arrow Aviation at the Danbury airport in the Spring of 2017. Getting there was roughly an hour’s slog in each direction. Also it was mentally and emotionally taxing when other circumstances in were life were probably adequate to bring me close to a breaking point. And yet it proved a very positive and promising experience, that is right up until it ended in tears, my instructor getting himself killed in an accident while training with another student. Hot DAMN. Some bucket list projects just gonna play hard I guess…

In February 2019 I decided to part ways with Bridgewater and join the Columbus-based tech startup Finite State. And, like a dumbass, I orchestrated my life completely backwards: first I got deeply embroiled with a company that was having an existential crisis, and then I executed an incremental and messy inter-state move, and then I got disengaged. If you’re going to do all three of those things then really you ought do them in exactly the opposite order I did. With the benefit of hindsight I can see clearly that I ought first have come to terms with the struggles my romantic relationship was having, and then I ought have fully set up the basic life infrastructure to navigate my next chapter, and only then ought I have allowed myself to be consumed by the inevitable insanity that any and every startup company will be. Whoops.

And if that weren’t enough I can see now that the company itself was struggling with an order-of-operations inversion problem of its own by investing too much engineering effort into inadequately market tested ideas. Meanwhile, we were also spreading our engineering capacity across too broad a collection of features, many of which lay outside our areas competitive advantage, while furthermore operating with a team of people who were individually awesome but collectively misassembled. And yet, despite all of this, by the fall it felt like we had turned a corner. In reality, however, many people had reached a breaking point. Within a 48 hour period I suffered the one-two punch of having our VP Engineering announce he was quitting and learning that my youngest brother had succumbed to a long and tumultuous battle with drug addiction. I limped along for another four months, long enough to help the company navigate its next funding round, then gave four weeks’ notice and parted ways with the plan being a sabbatical and a relocation out West.

Of course, the universe having a sardonic sense of humor, a couple of weeks into my notice period the COVID-19 pandemic got into full swing and obliterated life as we all knew it. The downtown Columbus life I had come to love vanished over night. Plans for some terminal enjoyment of Ohio evaporated in an instant (nobody at OSU wanted to cram into the cockpit of a 172 with me so I could finish my training). This was kind of maddening and yet over the coming months I had the headspace to navigate the situation gradually, iteratively, adaptively, and rationally. Owing to a mix of proactive self-assessment and decisions to live beneath my means I was long on available brain cycles and financial resources while being short on complicating encumbrances. Although “see the world” had been a bit derailed I found myself readily picking up consulting arrangements that kept me cashflow healthy as well as professionally, socially, and technically engaged. Things were proving shockingly OK in my own microcosm despite the world at large burning. This felt perversely good all things considered. I waited for the tumult to partially abate, began charting my course to Utah in earnest by late July, and then executed a stressful yet survivable RV trip with three cats across six state in four days in September. Oof. Moving to Utah was terrible but being here has been wonderful. Never before have I felt quite so in control of my own environment and destiny.

Knowing that I wanted to make paragliding part of my life I stacked the deck by moving to the Suncrest portion of Draper which puts me a ~10-15 minute drive from the two flight parks of Point Of The Mountain, one of the best places on the planet for a novice paraglider to learn. I also graciously declined an assortment of intriguing full-time job offers with various former colleagues that I love, preferring instead to maintain my part-time remote consultant modality as I reboot and reorient. And then, having taken three weeks to decompress from the move and rig up some basic life infrastructure I began my training. I scarcely could have asked for a better setup: the weather was flyable practically every day for the first month, I had an assortment of wings available to demo any time I wanted them, I established a great relationship with my instructor, my proximity to the training site made for minimal overhead, and my flexible and low-intensity work schedule allowed me to prioritize a high-intensity paragliding schedule that greatly compounded my ability to learn. This is what stacking the deck looks like. I had my P2 rating inside of two months which opens up a world of possibilities to me and furthermore boosts my confidence about completing my PP-ASEL one day.

For the time being I feel like I’m doing just as I ought be. As I look outward to the coming 1-2 years, meanwhile, I find myself wondering how to stack the deck for subsequent phases. There are so many factors to consider and I want every tailwind I can wrangle. It’s hard to know exactly how our post-vaccine world will look but I have accumulated a lot of strategies, tactics, and heuristics to optimize my chances of happy outcomes. I just have to remember to play every facet of the game and sustain my battle rhythms at every level of this fractal reality.

Paragliding Day 42

I lamentably slept through some nice morning southside wind again, but I feel like my body was telling me something and who would I be to argue with that. I imagined that this could be another all southerly day and so I might get a second chance on that side but instead, contrary to the forecast, the wind whipped around to offer a northside afternoon and, having scouted it out, Ariel suggested I head on over. On my drive over I got my hopes up at the sight of someone soaring but by the time I arrived the wind was already weak and cross. Blah. The vagaries of weather that one accepts as a paraglider.

I strapped into my harness imagining I would at least get some kiting practice for my troubles. Just as I readied myself, however, conditions became vaguely hopeful. I inflated, spun around, and immediately made a go of things. The wind was slightly gusty and variable but I remained solidly in control on my departure. The final stretch, I will admit, felt moderately sketchy, and I wish I had played it slightly differently, but I ultimately took off without incident.

My feet grazed some gnarly bushes and I could imagine having gotten tangled in them and then had the wing come over my head for a messy and mildly injurious deflation. In hindsight I wish I had cut further rightward and jumped off a more cliff-y section that would have involved greater commitment but less options for entanglement. This evening made me appreciate more viscerally how forgiving southside launches are with its wide open and steep terrain which allows you to just run faster if the wind proves weak. It feels like there are lots of situations in paragliding where you either need to commit 0% or 100% as waffling is what creates the serious risks.

Should totally have run more to the right…
… and jumped into the gully…

Similar to many of my flights subsequent to acquiring my new wing I came up a bit short of my intended landing spot. This presumably stems from two things, firstly my new wing being slightly less lift-y than my customary one, and secondly that my brain is relying overly much on hard-coded values instead of computing things dynamically based on how earlier portions of the flight are playing out. To be able to handle a variety of conditions and, in the fullness of time, a variety of different wings my brain needs to be computing approaches based predominantly on the observed descent rate of the moment instead of static visual references to familiar terrain.

The hike back to the top offered ample time to reflect on the flight’s lessons and also to watch other pilots sink out. You can’t always get what you want, unless what you want includes simply to learn, in which case if you’re paying attention there is always something to be had.

Ariel making the most of what the afternoon had to offer