Still learning… and finding out

I learned a new phrase today: “Ancora imparo.” In Italian, it means “I am still learning” – what a great message! It apparently is often misattributed to Michelangelo, but actually derives from a letter by Seneca (who would not have written in Italian, but it had been popularized in Italy in Michelangelo’s time). To me it sounds like a wonderful reminder of humility and acceptance of not being perfect at something… yet :)

It’s also inspiring. Truly, what is life if we’re not learning something new each day?

I also like how it sounds like an incantation or a spell. Ancora imparo!

I am reminded of the excellent song by Cat Stevens called On the Road to Find Out. He has an even more explicit expectation of the outcome: “In the end I know, but on the way I wonder.” But it’s great just to be in the process of learning itself. If in the end you know, that just means it’s time to move on to the next question. :)

Touring the Oregon coast

Today I went on a tour: out to the coast, south, and back inland.

I started in the northeast corner (Corvallis), flew west to Newport (KONP), then flew south to Florence (6S2), then inland to Eugene (KEUG) and back north to Corvallis. Amusingly, none of the endpoints are at least 50 nautical miles apart, so none of this counts as “cross country” flying :)

From Corvallis, I flew west over forested hills towards the ocean. Winds at Newport were sporty: blowing from 320 at 14 knots gusting to 19 knots. My runway of choice was 34, and that meant landing from its west side (left traffic), so I crossed over midfield well above pattern altitude and headed out to sea:

It felt kind of strange to fly out towards the ocean and then start descending towards it, with the runway at my back. But that’s what you need to do: fly across, descend in a right turn to enter the left downwind for runway 34. When I reached downwind I could really feel that north wind pushing me along to the south! I turned base and it was actually a little dizzying as I was banking and turning in the air but the entire air was moving south, so it looked like the ground was sliding to my left (which it was). I crabbed across base and turned final, adding a few extra knots for the gust factor. I landed neatly and then had a long taxi down the runway to the first place you can exit. :)

I taxied back to depart on runway 34. I took off, turned left, and here is the view looking south:

I had a very lovely flight south along the coast to Florence. Sunny, waves below, sandy beaches and rocky beaches – delightful! At Florence, however, the winds were even stronger: blowing from 330 at 18 knots gusting to 26 knots. The runway was well aligned (33), but that’s a lot of gusting. A Cherokee was ahead of me and I hoped to benefit from their experience. In fact, after they landed and exited the runway, they kindly warned me of “strong winds on final”. I continued down and prepared to land. This time turning base was even more exciting because I started encountering bumpy air. Final was even wilder, with sudden bumps up and down, airspeed oscillations, and even being shoved to the side and tilted. I didn’t like the approach, so I did a go-around and came back to try again. The second time, the same thing happened, and I went around again. The third time I got a bit of smoother air, and I was hopeful, but then a crazy downdraft, weird tilt to the right, and airspeed varying between 85 and 65 knots was enough for me to throw in the towel. If you can’t get a stabilized approach, it’s not worth it. So I departed for my next stop and will have to visit Florence another time!

As I departed, I flew past this breathtaking forest fire. (You can clearly see what the wind direction is!)

I diverted around the fire and flew on to Eugene, where I was treated to… a towered airport! Wow, it felt like coming home. The winds were from 360 at 14 knots gusting to 19 knots (landing runway 34R), similar to Newport, and I didn’t have any trouble with it. I then taxied back to take off again… this time behind a massive Delta jet! (Wow, it felt so nice to have a ground controller as well!) I departed to the north for Corvallis and had a short, uneventful flight home. Another lovely day of flying in Oregon!

Visiting an aviation museum, by plane

The best way to go!

On Saturday, I flew from Corvallis (KCVO) to the McMinnville airport (KMMV), about 50 miles to the north. It was my first flight to a new airport since moving to Oregon. I was very excited to get out and explore from the air! It was a beautiful sunny day, with a nice bit of wind for takeoffs and landings (10 knots). I completed my engine runup, held short for a helicopter that was landing on a taxiway and kicking up dusty vortices, and then I was off. Flying solo, I got a great rate of climb! I headed up to 4500′ and then called Cascade Departure to request flight following. (I understand local pilots mostly don’t bother, but I love flight following! More information is always good, and if something went wrong, I wouldn’t have to fiddle with the radio to find someone to talk to.) After just a few minutes, they handed me over to Seattle Center as I traveled north.

The left picture shows Corvallis (OSU’s Reser Stadium is a good landmark with its red margins), and the right shows Mt. Jefferson in the distance. I hope to get closer someday!

As I approached McMinnville, I started making radio calls and listening carefully to the plane and helicopter activity. The wind was from 030 at 8 knots, so I planned for runway 4. I crossed over midfield at 1000′ above pattern altitude (apparently folks here prefer 1000′ to 500′, and I’m happy to have more buffer). This airport is tricky because it has two intersecting runways. The wind primarily favors one at a time, of course, but often both are in use anyway (e.g., to do instrument approaches). I’m still trying to find out the best way to handle this (all runways at this airport use left traffic, which seems like a problem to me if two are in use) – I asked a local pilot and he said he just does an extra-wide pattern to try to minimize conflict. Ugh! I miss control towers already :)

Anyway, so I crossed over at midfield and then did a “teardrop” descent to turn around and enter on the 45 for the left downwind for runway 4. Here is what it looks like from the air. I annotated the runways, so you can see that I’m coming in perpendicular to runway 04-22 (and looking and listening like mad for anything happening with runway 35-17).

I landed fine and taxied to the transient parking area, which had tiedown chains all ready!

One of the great things about this airport is that there is the amazing Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum just across the highway! Normally they offer a shuttle from the airport, but when I called, sure enough, no shuttle now due to COVID-19. The museum itself was open, though, so I hiked over (very glad I brought my hat!) and then spent 1.5 hours happily browsing the collection. So much great information and so many great machines! Here I am with the Spruce Goose, which was carefully transported here from Long Beach, CA:

They also have an outstanding history of space flight side of the museum – I could spend many more hours here. There were no crowds and it was very easy to stay far from the few other museum-goers.

I then hiked back to the airport and prepared to return. The winds had shifted a little, so now runway 35 was primarily in use, so I figured out how to taxi there, which involved taxiing across runway 04-22. I reached runway 4 (resisting the urge to announce that I was holding short, which apparently isn’t done at untowered airports) and noticed that a helicopter was landing on the runway (so both were indeed in use!). I waited until the helicopter was clear and then quickly taxied across runway 4. I took off on runway 35 and climbed back to 3500′ for my return, again with flight following. Back at Corvallis, I did another cross-over-midfield-into-teardrop (good practice for me since I rarely had to do this maneuver in SoCal!), landed, and taxied back to the hangar. A delightful day of flying and museum-going altogether!

How to make it stick

I picked up “Make it Stick” by Peter C. Brown out of my interest in how best to learn new things for myself and also how best to teach others.

Some of the advice was familiar, while some of it was new to me. The most powerful meta-lesson was that our intuition about what works and what will be the most efficient use of study time is often wrong. Studies that assess retention over time, and ability to apply learned skills, show that our familiar or intuitive strategies are not as effective as a different, less familiar set. Part of this seems to come down to perceived effort. When studying feels easy, we think it is working. But (this book argues) instead it is when you have to struggle a little that the ideas and skills truly sink in. One perplexing example is that apparently if the text in a book is slightly blurry, your vision system has to work harder to decode it and this focuses your attention so you will actually understand it better (!). Of perhaps more salience, trying to describe ideas after a little forgetting time has ensued, so you have to work hard to dredge up the details, is far more effective than (a) re-reading the text or (b) reviewing it right after you read it.

Recommended strategies (worth contemplating and trying out):

  • Interleaving topics (or problem types) – this way you can’t anticipate exactly which kind of math problem or tennis serve is coming next. It feels less organized and a little frustrating, but (the book argues) that’s when you’ll make it stick.
  • Quizzing yourself – turn content into questions and see if you can answer them *without going to your notes*.
  • Space it out – Re-quiz yourself after a day or a week (and again into the future) when you’ve forgotten a little.
  • Try a new task/problem *before you’re told exactly how to do it*. Then check your solution against the “right” way. Low-stakes mistakes made in this fashion can be immediately corrected, and the solution “sticks” better because you had a hand in creating it.
  • Reflect on what you know. Try to rephrase it. Find the gaps and hunt down answers to fill them.

I also liked the advice to share with students the reasons why you’ve arranged course activities the way you have. This past term, I added weekly quizzes, which were open-book and could be re-taken (asynchronously) at their own pace and as many times as desired before the end of the week (highest score was kept). This low-stress practice is in line with the book’s advice. But I never explained to the students *why* I thought it would be a useful learning exercise. Interestingly, several students spontaneously told me that they found these quizzes to be very useful. Others simply ignored the quizzes the whole term, which I found puzzling since it was effectively a “freebie” 10% of their grade. Perhaps explicitly stating the goal of the quizzes would have engaged more students.

I’ve experimented with sharing a bit of learning philosophy with students, when I hand back their midterm exams. I explain that I see tests as a diagnostic tool, not a judgment about the test-taker as a person. They provide a snapshot of your skills at one point in time. Missed questions do not tell you “you can’t learn this” but instead “you haven’t mastered this yet”, and they point the way to how to prioritize your next steps. I never got any concrete feedback on this, so I’m still curious what students think of it :)

One of my favorite metaphors in this book was the idea that your memories are out there in a forest, and the more times you follow a path to find each one, the faster it becomes next time.

I also really liked the (empowering!) view that learning happens when you connect something new to what you already know, so rather than “running out of space” in which to store information, instead “the more you know, the more you can learn”! Of course, I am hearing what I want to hear :)

This book contains many other thought-provoking discussions and strategies – I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in teaching effectively, as well as anyone who wants their own learning to stick!

Black in Oregon

I took some time to investigate the history of blacks in Oregon, and what I found was eye-opening. In 1844, the then-territory of Oregon passed a law banning slavery. To modern eyes this may seem quite progressive, until you read the rest of the law and it becomes clear that this was not a statement about the ills and injustice of slavery, but rather an effort to rid the state of black people. In addition to banning slavery, the law also prohibited blacks from entering the state. Those who entered anyway could be whipped “upon his or her bare back not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes”, every six months until they left. The law was repealed the next year, but other “exclusion bills” followed.

In 1857, Oregon joined the United States and became the only state to do so with a clause in its state constitution to specifically exclude blacks. The Oregon Constitution banned slavery and prevented blacks from legally residing in the state, or owning property, voting, etc. Oregon also rescinded (took back) its ratification of the 14th amendment (which gave all native-born Americans citizenship, including blacks) in 1869 and voted against the 15h amendment (to give blacks voting rights) in 1869. It did not ratify the 15th amendment until 1959 (!) and the 14th in 1973 (!!).

Oregon continues to have a small black population – about 2%. That rarity can create its own problems. I found this very thought-provoking:

“Because exclusion policies served to keep minority numbers low, racial discrimination has not been evident to white Oregonians and many outsiders… Perhaps that is why Oregonians have a special problem with race-blindness: it tends to afflict most those who are unaccustomed to seeing themselves in racial terms.” from Race, Politics, and Denial: Why Oregon Forgot to Ratify the Fourteenth Amendment by Cheryl A. Brooks (2005)

And maybe this contributes to not only ignorance, but also violence. Given the recent murder of George Floyd, it was chilling to come across this passage:

“One such case occurred in 1985, when Lloyd Stevenson, a black man, was killed by a policeman using a choke hold. Neither of the two officers involved was disciplined. The case took a bizarre and controversial turn when on the day of Stevenson’s funeral, two police officers sold t-shirts to fellow officers bearing the slogan “Don’t Choke ‘Em, Smoke ‘Em.” They were fired but were eventually reinstated with back pay.” from Blacks in Oregon by Darrell Milner (2019)

There is so much more to learn and so much more to do. And of course it is not just about Oregon. I am grieving for this history and for our present day. Unlike a virus that jumped species and attacked us from the outside, racism is something that we created. We did it to ourselves. That makes us responsible. And that also means it is an opportunity, because we control our actions and how we want the future to be. We get to choose.

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