Reading with your ears

Before text-to-speech, there was the optophone. It scans the letters in a text and converts them into chords that represent the visual shape of the letter. Instead of hearing someone speak the text, you hear what the text looks like.

This invention was published in Nature in 1914 (!). (By the way, there’s a bit of delicious irony in the disclaimer attached to the 1914 article in its current digital form: “This text was harvested from a scanned image of the original document using optical character recognition (OCR) software. As such, it may contain errors.”) You can access a PDF scan of the original paper for the full details, including the claim that the device “should, with some practice, enable totally blind persons to read ordinary books and newspapers through the sense of hearing.”

The device conducts a horizontal scan, with 8 “dots” moving in parallel across the letters. Each dot is assigned to a different tone. With no input (totally white background) all the dot-tones are active. When a dot crosses a dark region (text), its tone disappears, so the sound changes. I think they must have inverted this plan later, to turn on the sound when a dark part appears, based on the examples.

With practice, in theory you can learn to “read” words by their tonal patterns. Give it a try! This is the optophone “reading” the letters f, i, k, j, p, q, r, and z:

Not super harmonic, but I can see that it’s possible to distinguish letters. However, it’s a slow way to read, even after practice, which led to the development of more “compressed” versions. In general, the goal wasn’t necessarily efficiency, though – it was an attempt to make available the large volume of existing printed matter to those who could not see, without requiring a translation to e.g. Braille first. Neat invention!

Morse code mnemonics

Morse code just got 10 times cooler – or maybe just 10 times easier to learn!

A few years ago, I stumbled on the mind-blowing binary tree version of Morse code. I was so excited about this that I downloaded a “learn Morse code” app on my phone and started practicing it, gradually working up to faster comprehension speeds. But then I got distracted by some other shiny thing and stopped practicing and Morse code went dormant in my brain.

Two days ago I re-encountered it in this amazing video by the always impressive Nelson Dellis:

Nelson gives us mnemonics for learning Morse code. This is absolutely BRILLIANT since Morse code is already audible. :) After watching his video exactly *once*, I already know Morse code for my name and can recall it with negligible effort:

-.- .. .-. ..

(mnemonic: KAN-ga-ROO i-bid ro-TA-tion i-bid)

*and* I discovered a beautiful symmetry in my Morse name!

I’m truly impressed by how quickly and easily this mnemonic sunk in. Nelson, you rock!

A $100 BLT

On Saturday, I flew to the Perris Valley airport (L65) for the first time.  The flight out at 5500′ was uneventful and rather quiet for a Saturday; I didn’t have any nearby traffic.  Perris is 44 nm from El Monte, or about 30 minutes of flying. I had the usual fun trying to spot a new airport — it’s not as easy as it sounds. Here’s the Google Maps 3D view which simulates about what it looks like as you fly in, hunting for the runway. Can you see it?


Perris Valley doesn’t have a tower, but there’s a guy on the radio (CTAF = Common Traffic Advisor Frequency) coordinating jumpers and planes. He was very friendly when I first called in and asked if it was my first visit, and then gave me a lot of helpful tips, including a wind check and guidance about where transient parking (for airplanes) is. I made right traffic for RW 15, bypassing the first 1900′ of dirt in favor of the asphalt for landing.

After landing and parking, I stepped out of the plane and felt a shadow cross over me and looked up to see a cluster of jumpers coming in to land over my head! Transient parking is right next to their landing field, which is just east of the runway. Obviously this could create some issues, and they clearly were busy keeping things safe and managing airplane and skydiver traffic together. In addition to my Cessna, there was a light sport aircraft that landed right after me, and two large planes with shark faces painted on that were doing formation takeoffs.

I walked (quickly and carefully) across the runway to the Bombshelter Cafe, where I had a tasty BLT and sat at a window to watch the periodic rain of skydivers coming in. I’ve never jumped out of a plane myself, so it was interesting to watch the range of techniques they use to come back to land. Some jumpers flared so lightly that their feet just brushed the grass before they settled down into a quick walk, parachute sinking and deflating behind them. Others came in fast, stuck their legs out straight, and landed butt-first, skidding along with the parachute dancing behind them. I can already say which landing I would prefer. :)

At right is a picture of the plane they use to take the jumpers up (a Short SC-7 Skyvan). It is fat and wide and squarish. It’s a twin-engine plane that sort of wallows its way into the air. Apparently it has good short landing properties, which is probably useful at Perris, since the paved runway is only 3200′ long. (Plenty long enough for me, natch.)

After lunch, I got the plane ready to go, but just as I was going to start the engine, another cloud of jumpers came raining down. In a bizarre coincidence, just that morning I read this article and therefore was on high alert. To be safe, I wanted to check in with the CTAF guy before starting my engine, so I pulled out my handheld backup radio: “This is the Cessna in transient parking, ready for departure. Is this a good time to start up?” He said it was fine, so I started up and followed instructions to back-taxi on RW 33 (the wind had changed to the north) and exit at the actual taxiway so I could do my engine runup. I then taxied up to the RW 33 threshold and declared that I was taking off with a left crosswind departure. The CTAF guy said “I’ll hold the jumpers here until you’re away,” which I appreciated. It still feels a weird and uncomfortable to have people walking around so close to an active runway! More high alert!

My flight back at 4500′ was also uneventful, although the first SoCal controller rejected my request for flight following because he was too busy. The second one picked me up and I cruised through Ontario’s airspace direct to El Monte. Overall, a fun lunchtime excursion!

Help improve flight safety

The FAA publishes NOTAMs (NOTices to AirMen… and women…) to alert pilots to conditions like closed runways or unlighted cranes that haven’t yet been added to navigational charts.  It’s a standard part of pre-flight planning to check the NOTAMs for your origin and destination airports.  For example, this paid off for me last summer when I learned that the Palm Springs airport had recently changed their ATIS (weather) radio frequency.  I didn’t have to flail around in the air wondering why I couldn’t pick up the transmission, which would be stressful right when you’re approaching your destination and preparing to land.

However, it can be challenging to sift through 50+ NOTAMs to find the ones that matter for your flight.  Some only matter if you’re flying IFR (under Instrument Flight Rules), which isn’t something I do (yet).  In addition, they are written in a cryptic format that can be an obstacle to figuring out whether or not a given NOTAM is relevant.  I recommend this great discussion about the challenges and frustrations of using NOTAMs.  There have been numerous requests to improve this system, but to date we are still using the format developed in 1924.

So I was thrilled to learn of an effort to get pilot feedback on real NOTAMs to assess whether they are (1) comprehensible and (2) critical to include in a pre-flight briefing.  You can participate too!

The very first NOTAM I got to review was:

!TJSJ 11/155 ABO OBST TOWER LGT (ASR 1203643)
182618.90N0663624.20W (4.0NM E ABO) 569.2FT   
(240.2FT AGL) OUT OF SERVICE 1711121110-1711271109

In human language, this a warning that the light on a tower near the Antonio/Nery/Juarbe Pol Airport in Puerto Rico (I had to look it up) will not be lit between Nov. 12, 2017 at 1110Z (i.e., time in UTC) and Nov. 27, 2017 at 1109Z.  Now, a tower without a light can be a problem because people have flown into such towers, with lethal results, which is why we put lights on them.  However, this tower is 240′ above the ground, 4 nautical miles away from the airport.  No airplane in its right mind would be anywhere near that tower unless it were doing an emergency landing.  Arguably, you would want to know about it if you were doing an emergency landing, but it’s not feasible to know about (and recall) every 200′-high tower along your entire route of flight just in case you suddenly try to land on one.  So I would judge this NOTAM to be not useful and yet another of the extras that clutter up the list.

One weakness of the survey is that it doesn’t give you any context for the flight, and context matters.  In the default FlightService briefing, you get NOTAMs not just for your origin and destination airports, but also for every airport within 25 nm of your flight path (this generates a nightmarish amount of spam when flying in the L.A. Basin).  In this case, is ABO my destination or just something within 25 nm?  Also, if it were a night flight, or if I were in a helicopter, I might care more about this NOTAM. 

The second one I got was more useful:

!TBN 12/017 TBN SVC ATIS NOT AVBL 1812282123-1812312200

This warns that the ATIS (weather service) will not be available from Dec. 28, 2018 at 2123Z to Dec. 31, 2018 at 2200Z.  Again, context matters; if this is the destination airport and my flight plan has me heading there between those dates/times, then I will want to look for other nearby sources of weather information and have those frequencies ready to go, or plan to query the tower directly (KTBN is an airport in Missouri, it turns out, that has a tower). 

I hope that the people behind the NOTAM survey are able to collect useful data and use it to help improve future notifications to pilots!

Crosswinds and poppies!

Last month, I flew to the Antelope Valley for an exhilarating combination of sightseeing, crosswind practice, and simulated engine-out operations.

We took off from El Monte (KEMT) and flew north straight at the San Gabriel Mountains, climbing all the way. It so happened that the plane’s GPS was not working, so I got to exercise my piloting skills :) (“Aha, there’s Highway 2 and there’s the California Aqueduct and…”)

We crossed the mountains and descended down towards General Fox Field (KWJF). The winds were very strong and crosswind-y. I was heading for runway 24 with winds from 260 at 18 gusting to 27 knots. That’s a 6-9 kt crosswind, landing into a 17-25 kt headwind, and don’t forget that 9-kt gust factor! I was coming in for a left base entry, and boy, I could see how the wind from my left kept pushing away from the airport. I had to use a significant crab. On final, it felt like we were just crawling. The groundspeed was so slow that I kept wanting to add more power just to ensure we got there that century. But eventually, we landed and practiced good aileron positioning while taxiing back for takeoff.

The wind kicked up stronger for the takeoff: from 270 at 22 gusting to 30 kts. That put us at a 15-kt crosswind, 26-kt headwind, and indeed, taking off was a weird experience since we were immediately in an intense crab to stay over the runway. We climbed up and away to the west… to circle over the poppy fields!

My instructor, David Werntz, took some gorgeous pictures of the poppies, which were truly stunning:

After some sight-seeing, we did simulated engine-out practice. Back in the L.A. Basin, we can’t get very close to the ground in our simulated “landings”, so they always feel very hypothetical. Out in the Antelope Valley, we could pick a deserted area and get much lower (500′). This feels a LOT more realistic! Also: power lines have a bad habit of appearing out of nowhere when you get closer to that spot you’d LIKE to land on :)

We then flew back to KEMT, crossing the mountains again, this time at 7500′. While still above the mountains, my instructor suggested we try gliding all the way down to KEMT, deliberately not using the engine. A good test, given that it was around 10 miles away and 7000′ below us. So we glided and glided and eventually we still had extra altitude, so we ended up in a slip AND with flaps AND with S-turns (with tower permission). We had another crosswind (from 230 gusting to 14 kts for runway 19), but that felt tame after the wind at Fox Field. When we were about 10 feet off the runway, the wind shifted to come from the left (unexpected) and I had to work to combat the drift, but I got it all lined up and executed a smooth, gentle landing. Delightful!

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