Underrated Things

Dorothy Grant and I were text-chatting about the weather (chilly with steady rain from 0545-0700 the next day), and the pleasure of being inside and dry, or at least of not being out in very cold rain, drenched to the skin and staying wet for several more hours. Dry socks are a critical part of the equation. Cold, wet feet make everything else miserable.

Hot water on demand, especially clean hot water on demand is also underappreciated by people who have never been without access to that blessing.

Food that is available when you want or need it, and that you know is safe.

Access to books, all kinds of books, new books and old books and cool random books, fiction and non-fiction.

A firearm or sword hilt that fits your hand and that doesn’t bite. Or really, any tool that fits you and the job both.

Cars that start when you need them to, and that can hold what you need them to hold.

A really nice pair of sturdy, warm gloves that fit your hands. Ditto shoes. Well-fitting shoes are woefully underrated by people who have not found a pair yet.


Sci-fi and A. I.: or These People Don’t Read or Watch Fiction, Do They?

Back when I was in grad school, I was listening to the NPR news on the way to class, and heard a story about the military meeting with ethics profs to discuss using robots in war, notably autonomous robots. There was some mention of concerns about “rogue A.I.,” and I grinned a little as the closing music clip came on. It was the theme to the first Terminator movie. (That’s also when I discovered that my Advisor didn’t know about things like Terminator. I was mildly surprised.)

I’ve been listening to the last month’s breathless reportage about A.I. and what it can do and how it will eliminate jobs (for what, the tenth time already?) and how perhaps the singularity is coming soon and so on and so forth, and how A.I. will do it all. First, it confirms my belief that 99% of journalists don’t know anything about computers. How to use programs, yes, perhaps, but not how the things work and the basic way programs do their thing. Second, I get the sense that these people have never, ever read dystopian techno-fiction or early cyberpunk, or watched things like Terminator or that TV show for kids (with the interactive way to shoot at the bad robots on the screen.)

Very early on, Isaac Azimov developed the Three Laws of Robotics, and used various short stories and then novels to explore the ramifications of that. the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey guaranteed that no one of a Certain Generation will use “Hal” as a key term for a voice-activated system, unless they are warped. Really warped. When people started talking about how wonderful it would be to have computers in our minds and cybernetic augmentations to our bodies, along came the Cybermen from Doctor Who. And a few other things. All are about computers that got a “wee bit” out of hand, and either decided that humans were superfluous, or that humans were actively antithetical to the computers’ needs and should be eliminated. The Cybermen traded physical survival for their humanity, with really bad results for everyone else around them.

I tend to be untrusting of technology in the first place, so I latched onto the dystopian-technology stories. Yes, computers and bionics and other things could do wonderful things in fiction. But … I’ve had computers die at awkward moments. I’ve had GPS systems get migraines when I really needed them (in the weather, when my hands were full of “first fly the plane”, just as the last ground-based beacon went out of range.) Computers are literal. Yes, we program them to deal with hundreds of variables, and some models for things look very good. But we programmed them. And truly complex systems? Go look at the percentage of success retrocasting weather and climate using climate models and supercomputers. I’ll wait.

So when the latest breathless “A.I will revolutionize writing! It will make cover artists obsolete! It will replace humans for [whatever,]”, I don’t believe them. Artificial intelligence programs are still programs. They adapt and process data quickly, but thus far, they can’t make the leaps people do. They can improve, as MindJourney has with anatomy (although human hands are still a challenge, among other things), but those are programs with inputs and patient corrections. ChatGPT likewise, and as people play with it, it becomes obvious that it can’t analyze literature worth a fig. It is programmed to have a certain bias and to have blind spots, because it’s a program. It’s a creation of humans who want it to have a bias.

Computers and robots work for some things, like delicate and repeating tasks (welding certain things, taking burger orders.) If you have a limited range of parameters, computers and robots are great. “Two beef patties, no lettuce, white cheese, no mayo, and a medium fry” the things can deal with, as long as a person is around to make sure that the right patties went into the hopper and that the other things are where they should be. Writing ad copy? Perhaps, since the psychology of advertising is fairly well known, even if it is not always aimed properly, as recent misadventures have shown.

Aritifical Intelligence dealing with weapons? Autonomous police robots that are programmed to deal with violent crime? Ah, I saw Robocop. I’ve read a few other things too. What one person can program, another can hack and reverse. Or too many variables will overload the system and it will react in ways the programmers didn’t anticipate. You know, like the in-flight computer that did a reboot after the plane experienced turbulence outside the program parameters. The software designers wanted to save space, so they assumed that he plane would never exceed X degrees of bank, Y degrees of roll, and a certain ascent-descent rate in cruise. The plane did (ah, CAT, how I hate thee) and the pilots became passengers until the system rebooted. Rare? Yes. Bad? Very yes!

A. I. is a program, or at least all the A.I. stuff I’ve seen and heard of to date are just programs. They process data quickly, and seem to think, but they don’t. Yet. I still have doubts about them. I’ve read sci-fi. I know what people are like. Terminator is just one possibility.

Realistic Distractions

Another repeat. There are some major deadlines this week at Day Job.

Every FAA (and I suspect other aviation authority) practical test includes the dreaded “realistic distractions.” Because pilots are going to have someone, or something, catch their attention at bad moments, and we need to learn how to deal with them. The only test I didn’t have that happen was the Airline Transport Rating checkride, because it wasn’t needed. We were 1) in the weather, 2) in a twin engine airplane with no autopilot, 3) the controller switched approaches on me to 4) the only one in the book that had not been photocopied in advance so I had to fly the plane, twist around, and get the book off the floor between the rear seats, and still talk on the radio. And I was used to Jepps and the book was NOAA, so the format was slightly different. Most distractions are a bit less realistic. Except . . . Continue reading

Crossing Over a Storm

The flight to visit the northern branch of the Red family was amazingly quiet, calm, and uneventful. The forecast appeared to promise the same for the return journey, but November had the final say. A big low pressure system opted to move north rather than south, dumped rain where it was needed (but not everywhere it was needed), snow where it was not expected, and then lurked along the line of travel between There and Home.

Happily for my peace of mind, the severe weather associated with the low wrapped up before the flight, at least along that route. It would return farther to the east, but I went west. The people shepherding everyone onto the flight warned that it was both full and full of kids, so please be patient. Indeed, I’d say a third of the passengers were babies or children under age six. That’s great! We boarded under clear skies, and took off on time, heading west and south. Soon white ripples and sheets of clouds hid the ground. The plane bounced a bit, light turbulence but nothing more, and I read. The cloud deck solidified. I could see a few low mesas of cloud to the east, but nothing towering or sending out streamers of hail and snow.

The plane sank through the clouds to emerge about two thousand feet or so above the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex*. Rain had drenched the place recently, based on the puddles, streams, and wet roofs below. Grey covered the world, the usual color of early winter, at least in my mind. The usual flurry of disembarkation followed, and MomRed, DadRed, and I found our gate and threaded our way through the bustling crowd to find a place to wait. We had a few hours. The clouds outside remained low and dark, as forecast. The windsock in the distance flapped in the usual Texas way. At least it wasn’t horizontal with the narrow end flipping up from time to time. That would come later, once the low finished chugging by.

MomRed and I went in search of dinner. We found a Baskin-Robins, and I tried the Spicy-and-Spooky chocolate. Dark chocolate, ghost pepper (just a tiny bit), dark and light chocolate chunks—what more could a chocolate buff ask for? It was great, and cleared my sinuses in a good way. Mom tried that and two milder flavors. As we finished the treat, the rain began to patter down lightly on the windows and roof. Ah, November.

The captain of the next flight told the flight attendants that they’d stay strapped in for the flight. That’s usually not a great sign, but I was too tired to sweat it. Plus we were in a nice, solid 737. We had the option of altitude if necessary. The plane launched into the grey, clawing through layers of grey and white to emerge into a painfully bright yellow-gold burst of light over a white rippled world. The plains of cloud mirrored the land far below. They reminded me of sand dunes, driven by the wind from northwest to southeast. The few bumps were no worse than my daily commute, and later the captain apologized for the lack of service. The ride from Amarillo to the D/FW area had been rough, and he was concerned about a repeat. As short as the flight was, I didn’t mind the lack of snacks, and I don’t think it bothered anyone else. We were all still in a bit of turkey-torpor I suspect.

We arrived in Amarillo to a striking sunset. Gold dripped from the clouds down toward the land as the sun set. Brilliant yellow and gleaming gold, like a Baroque church altar, draped the sky and washed the ground. A pillar of light, not an ice pillar but the last bits of virga, marked the place of the now-vanished sun. The cab driver agreed that it was one of our better sunsets.

It was a good day.

*There’s a regional saying that when you die, you have to go through Dallas/Fr.Worth before you can get to either Heaven or Hell. It was most certainly true about flying anywhere until very recently.

Look Out, Happy Tail!

Coffee-table height table, well worn, and surrounded by comfortable, slightly scruffy chairs. This is the kind of furniture that doesn’t mind if you have been working on an airplane, or refurbishing a WWII era hangar and then sit on the upholstery. Airport bums (APBs) are lounging around, talking airplanes, weather, airplanes, hangar gossip, and airplanes. And a Golden Retriever naps in the corner.

Bill, the owner of the dog, and Jerry, the aerobatic instructor, come bouncing in with everyone’s dinner orders (mostly burgers and one chicken and bacon sandwich, because the guy’s doc said, “Eat more white meat.”) “Hi guys! Food’s here!”

Bill sets his bag and drink carrier down on the table, and takes Goldie out for a moment. The rest of us pay Jerry and start sorting out burgers, fries, onion rings, and other stuff.* Food divided, we dive in.

Bill returns with Goldie. Goldie saunters over and looks at the table. “Not yet, girl,” Bill informs her. She backs away. He flops into an empty chair and grabs his burger. She turns to face him.

“Happy tail!” Jerry yelps. We grab everything off the coffee table as a strong, fluffy tail sweeps across the surface at a high rate of speed.

Ah, those were the days . . .

*For us, this was health food. A little later, I became quite an expert on which airport’s vending machines had the best selection, the healthiest stuff (not always a good thing), and the highest fat to chocolate ratio. Pilots and mechanics tend to be on the see-food diet. Or as one retired charter and corporate pilot phrased it, “If you are what you eat, I’m fast, cheap, and easy.”

June 6, 1942 . . .

An SBD Dauntless at Midway. Creative Commons Fair Use: https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nmusn/explore/photography/wwii/wwii-pacific/turning-the-japanese-tide/1942-june-battle-of-midway/1942-june-6.html

Planes from the Enterprise and Hornet chased the retreating Japanese fleet. The battle had begun on June 4th and continued until the 7th.

I helped restore an SBD, back when I was in college the first time.

So There We Were . . .

I had two instructors, both from earlier generations, who were both Air Force veterans. They had served in competing, er, that is, somewhat different branches of the Air Force. Fred had flown stuff like B-52s for the Strategic Air Command. Charlie had served in the Army in WWII and then managed to end up flying in the low, slow, and on-the-go side of the Air Force in Tactical Air Command. Fred had been an officer, Charlie a senior NCO. Very senior NCO. Both had stories . . .

So, it was one of Those weeks at Ye Little Airport. Fred and Charlie were both cranky. The airport manager was cranky, the mechanics had been giving us pilots more dirty looks than usual, and the flight school manager was . . . Well, the bills for the big yearly inspections on three of our planes had hit in the same week. Oh, and between winds too high for students, and clouds too low for students and birds both, not much folding green had come in to help with the bills.

So, there I was, seated at the desk behind the main counter. I could just barely be seen, sort of a red tuft poking up over the faux-wood. Fred and Charlie came in in the midst of a warm discussion. Very warm. Increasingly warm, using acronyms about half of which I understood. TAC, SAC, FAC, NDB, MACV, SOG, AHB, and a few other things, interspersed with suggestions of a lack of manhood and an absence of aviation prowess. Things got heated enough that I popped up like a prairie dog with a pony-tail and said, “Sirs, should I go check on the materials in the hangar?” The gents wanted to use salty language, which they would not do if a lady (or me) was present.

Charlie glanced at Fred and nodded. “Please do.”

“Yes, sir.” I went out into the hangar and made certain that the things in the cabinets were where they should be. Some were not, so I put the oil back in the oil rack, the washing supplies into their place, and so on. After roughly five minutes, I returned to the main office. Both gents were glaring at each other, as usual. This was an old, old debate that went back to, well, before I started flying. I’ll leave it right there.

I have no idea why, what devil inspired me, but I opened my mouth and started to sing a little ditty I picked up from a gent who was a career NCO with the [redacted state] Air Guard. It is/was sung to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”

“Oh here’s to the regular Air Force/ With medals and badges galore.

“If it weren’t for the [gosh-darned] Reservists,/ Their @ss would be dragging the floor!”

That’s the chorus. The verses are more pointed, and have saltier language.

Both gentlemen turned, glared at me, and snarled. The phone rang and I answered it, so I have no Idea what would have happened next. I do know that by the time I finished rescheduling the student, then booking a photography flight, the gents had turned to attacking their common enemy:

The US Navy.

And so peace descended once again on Ye Little Airport.

Mid-November State of the Author, 2021

Mildly frazzled. However, I will attest that the customer service sides of both AOPA and the FAA not-in-house-user computer people are very good. I just wish I had not needed their services. It was a case of “if you know how to use the system and what makes it tick, it’s an intuitive system” versus “Why is it not doing what I need it to do? It won’t tell me.”

I’m at 34K words on City, Priest, and Empire. This is going to be a longer book, which fits the story – the resettlement of the lands between the Comb Mountains and the Five Free Cities on the Northern Ocean. Halwende is . . . an intriguing character. His first big collision with the Northern Emperor is about to transpire, setting up the love/intensely-dislike relationship between them.

I hope to have the Lone Hunter story done soon. I need to finish one scene, but Life keeps happening.

I know how to work the three unfinished stories in the next Familiars anthology, it will just take time.

After that? We’ll see. I will have a lot less time over Christmas than I first thought. And next term is . . . full. Very full.

Rules Written in Blood

Aviation, at least in the US, has a surprisingly short list of rules. Part 91 of the federal transportation and other things regulations applies to everyone who flies anything. And as I told students, there is a lot of implied good judgement in the rules. Legal isn’t always smart. Smart comes down to the most important rule in the book: The pilot-in-command has the final authority and responsibility for the flight. The pilot in command can deviate from any of the rules if in his judgement safety demands it. Yes, you will have to explain, especially if something gets bent or broken. But the PIC is the boss, and everything else is based on trying to keep flying things out of undue proximity to the ground and to each other.

If you can’t see the ground, and you don’t have a “fly in clouds” license, don’t fly in the clouds. If you have not recently practiced flying and landing at night, don’t fly at night. If you are going eastbound, more of less, fly at an odd thousand feet plus 500 (if you are visual flight rules). Westbound gets the even thousands, plus 500. Don’t fly so close to the ground that you fly into the ground. Don’t be stupid. Don’t fly a broken airplane unless you label the broken thing so that you don’t get fooled and start to trust it. When around an airport, look out for other planes. The slowest, least-maneuverable thing has the right of way. Emergencies have the right of way (i.e. the guy on fire can land ahead of a blimp.)

If you are an airliner, you can’t go sightseeing off the approved route. Why? Because in 1956 two airliners were doing that, over the Grand Canyon, and one descended onto the other. People died. If your airplane is not certified and equipped for flying in known icing, don’t fly into known icing. Why? Because people did, and crashed, and died. Unless you are cleared for take off, or to cross the runway, and you and the controller agree that there is no one else on the runway, don’t take off, or don’t cross the runway. Why? March 1977, KLM and Pan Am 747s collided on the main runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands, killing 583 people. It also showed that better cockpit communication rules might be needed, because the KLM captain did not listen to his copilot/First Officer when the man asked about the Pan Am being clear of the runway. It wasn’t.

Engineering has its own rules. You can’t build certain things certain ways. You can’t build a 2000 foot-tall radio antenna without guy-wires and other supports. Dams need to be anchored to the bedrock beside them with a watertight seal (see Teton Dam, 1976). You have to allow for resonances in bridges where the wind blows (Tacoma Narrows). There are times where heavy structure trumps airy design.

Lots of areas of endeavor have rules written in blood. I’m not going to go into recent events in New Mexico, other than to say that I feel very, very sorry for the families of the woman who was killed and the man who was injured. Had the Four Rules of firearms handling been applied, it is possible that the accident would not have happened. 1. The firearm is always loaded. 2. Do not touch the trigger until you are ready to fire. 3. Do not point the firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy. 4. Remember what is behind your target. Heck, Fr. Martial smiled when he observed that when I stopped cleaning the desks in order to talk to him, I moved my finger off the “trigger” of the spray bottle and pointed the bottle at the outside wall. (Spraying one’s boss with cleaner/disinfectant is generally considered somewhat gauche.)

“Why can’t I skim the bottom of the clouds? It’s fun!” It’s fun until the clouds get lower, or someone else appears on an instrument flight plan and descends on top of you, or you don’t see a mountain in time.

“Why can’t I stay at 6500′ MSL* until it’s time to climb to get through the pass into Albuquerque?” Because there is a 7200′ ridge in the way. It loves to eat airplanes. For a while it was averaging one a year. Beware of clouds with crunchy middles.

*Mean Sea Level. Then there’s ASL, above sea level. The two are generally, but not always, the same. The most important, however, is AGL. Above ground level, where one should remain between takeoff and landing.