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!

From buttons to art

Recently I had the opportunity to attend an art workshop held by the Altadena Library on how to create button art. A quick web search on “button art” reveals a treasure trove of cool ideas. After browsing a bit, we sat down with bowls of color-sorted buttons of all sizes, a canvas, and a hot glue gun.

Here’s the composition I came up with:

It’s fun to sort through the buttons and figure out how to position them for a particular shape or effect. It’s a bit like creating a tile mosaic, except that the pieces are not uniform in size. To fill spaces, you end up layering buttons on top of other buttons, which gives it a neat three-dimensional quality. Fun to touch!

I think this would be a great craft to do with kids, although the hot glue gun makes it better for older kids. I wonder if a sheet of two-side sticky tape could do as well for younger kids. And for buttons, apparently you can order them in batches by color (or mixed colors). Overall, I think there’s something fun about seeing a daily household item, like a button, out of its context and elevated to become a piece of art. :)

The dark side of reading?

I found this article about Arthur Schopenhauer’s views on reading initially thought-provoking and then increasingly disturbing. Schopenhauer has terribly grim things to say about reading, like

“When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.”

and worse:

“The person who reads a great deal… gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk.”

You can read more from Schopenhauer’s essay ‘On Reading and Books’.

It is easy at first to dismiss these views as exaggeration, but then they creep into the back of your mind and take up residence. He sees the act of reading without reflection as the enjoyable act of absorbing someone else’s creation, without any of it sticking; and boy, does he look down his nose at that. But reading with reflection takes work. I always find it to be rewarding, but it is still so hard to invest the time and effort to do it regularly. There’s always a new book to pick up instead… :)

I have also found that after finishing a book with a strong idiosyncratic voice (of author or narrator or protagonist), my thoughts are colored by that voice for a while afterwards. I always thought that was kind of a neat after-effect, but Schopenhauer gives it a creepy new angle: letting someone else think for me!

Schopenhauer’s critique relates to my ongoing question about why our society applies a moralistic virtue to the act of reading that elevates it above other kinds of entertainment like watching TV (always denigrated) or going to a movie (marginally better viewed, perhaps because it appears to be social, even though it isn’t, unless you get to discuss it (reflect!) afterwards). People talk about how reading engages the imagination more than visual media does, but even as an avid reader myself, I still don’t see why this makes it more virtuous. Arguably, it’s just more work. :) (Okay, Protestant work ethic, maybe I just answered my own question…)

But Schopenhauer doesn’t glorify reading; in fact, quite the opposite. He thunders on about people who have “read themselves stupid” (by too much reading and too little thinking). Only some books are worth reading, and those are worth re-reading, a lot.

“Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.”

In fact, he argues that

“The art of not reading is highly important. […] One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.”

Intellectual poison! The horror!

… But I do get his point about the importance of reflection. Maybe writing little book reviews of the books I read is not enough. Maybe, instead of dashing on immediately to the next book (or another one of the five I have going simultaneously), I could benefit more from chewing over the completed book a bit more and determining how it connects with other things I’ve read, seen, or heard, and my own life.

It’s hard not to compare Schopenhauer’s views to those of Mortimer Adler, as in his How to Read a Book book. He, too, opined that most books were not worth reading, with some few very valuable exceptions. He advocated engaging directly with the text, including the controversial practice of writing in the book (hooray!). To Adler, the highest level of reading was “syntopical reading,” in which you identify themes and how they connect across books to allow you to place the current book within the wide world of ideas and concepts — a very deep form of reflection and analysis. But he did not share Schopenhauer’s negative characterization of the act of reading (even if he was rather prescriptive in his approach to it).

So, should we worry about the dark side of reading? The view of the reader as escapist and lazy, vulnerable to the poison lurking within all those worthless bestsellers? Maybe just a little. Maybe I’ll try to engage in reflection a bit more. And avoid those so-very-bad books :)

How to read more books

I use goodreads to review books as I read them (and to keep track of all the wonderful new books I discover that I absolutely MUST read in the future). As a result, several of my friends have recently started commenting on my reading activity and wondering how I manage to read so much. I don’t think it is “so much,” especially since reading is an incredible form of entertainment and escapism, really more of a guilty pleasure than any kind of virtue. :) But it is true that I have been reading more lately than I had in the past, and (like anything else) it is a combination of making it a priority and making it a habit.

I just came across a fabulous article by Ali Binazir that sums up a lot of my views far better than I ever could, and also includes some great tips if you would like to increase your own reading. Unlike some other advice about increasing reading activity, Ali emphasizes that it isn’t a race and that it is a “joy and a privilege” to live in a time when we have an astonishing level of access to books and the leisure time to enjoy them (yes, we do).

According to this article, the average (median) American reads 4 books each year. Four!! I read 80 books last year and am gunning for more in 2019. In that context, I guess it does seem like I read “so much.” But the more I read, the more I find that my appetite for reading increases (bookbeast!). Where do you draw the line between an enjoyable hobby and an addiction?

For me personally, I read during meals. This has the slight downside of making me less aware of my food (and there are several good reasons to be more mindful when you’re eating), but it guarantees me timeslices every day in which I get to read. I also read in the evening to unwind, and often I read right before bed. The anticipation of getting to read a good book helps me drag myself away from my phone or computer and do something without screens before falling asleep, which is supposed to help you sleep better.

I also alternate between several different books rather than pursuing one to the end before starting the next. I seem to have a strong desire for diversity; it is like nibbling at all sorts of different treats at a buffet. I agree with Ali, too, that some books are better choices than others for pre-bedtime reading, so it’s good to have several currently-reading books to choose from, depending on the time of day and your mood.

I do occasionally consume audiobooks, as Ali suggests, but they take longer than visual reading and they are less available than the cornucopia of things I want to read in physical form at the library (or in stacks at my house). During my commutes, I mostly listen to podcasts, which can feel like a book (e.g., This American Life), but more often are thought-provoking bits that make up the bulk of my non-fiction consumption. Most of my pleasure reading has been fiction of late (although I feel some desire to change that up and get more non-fiction into my diet).

Also as Ali mentions, having a goal is motivating. I use the Goodreads “reading challenge” to declare a target number of books to read in a given year, and I do find that it motivates me. I make myself write up a short review of each book I read, which takes discipline (often I am just eager to pick up the next book), but it is very valuable for going back later to refresh my memory, or just to solidify what I got out of the book (especially non-fiction). It’s amazing how very much we forget!

I enjoyed reading Ali’s article, and I hope you will too. (As a side effect, I finally understand what a “cloud atlas” is. Thanks, Ali!)

What are your tips and strategies and habits for reading? Do share!

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