Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Joy of Bicycles

Spring has a power unto itself that, especially after a difficult winter, borders on the miraculous. People from all walks of life are compelled to take pause as the trees turn misty green, the wind's knife edge is blunted, and they can finally take a deep breath, or two, minus the outcry from their lungs. Life. Dreams. Joy. Possibilities. It's hard to be a cynic when surrounded by the rebirth of nature. 

I'm a fan of bicycles. I don't ride as much as I should, but I get out more these days than I have in some time. A ride along the lakefront, or up the North Branch Trail, maybe out to Ravinia, an excursion to the single track at Palos, or Kickapoo; it's a great feeling to get where you want to go under your own motive power. 

I also love working on bikes. There's an elegance of design to a well-built bicycle, a distillation of purpose that shuns excess in favor of meeting it's rider's specific needs. A bike can be understood in it's entirety, it can be stripped down to its constituent parts and built back up in a matter of hours, it is in every way made to the scale of the individual. Diagnostics are performed with the hands, and ears, and eyes. Repairs are with simple tools, and demand a discerning feel and eye to obtain proper function and performance.

The bond of a rider with his or her bike is strong, an outward expression of self and a trust that can be deeply personal. To violate this through theft or vandalism is enraging. It is hard to think of a bike as anything other than a societal good; when that is marred by a crime against the bike and its rider it's hard to see how the world makes sense. To drag a bike down to the simple level of property and to treat it as such seems somehow profane.  Perhaps a misdemeanor against humanity. 


I give a bit of my time most weeks to Working Bikes Cooperative, an organization dedicated to helping people obtain bikes both in developing countries as well as right here in Chicago. They ship donated bikes to places across the globe where they are used as tools to improve lives and communities. And they sell donated bikes in their storefront to fund these charitable activities. It's a happy virtuous cycle. 

This time of year the storefront is particularly busy, as the weather is lovely and a bike ride seems like the best idea ever. I rather enjoy talking with customers, learning how and why they ride, seeing people who haven't been on a bike for 10-20-30-40 years hop on and give it a go. It's a pleasure to witness their joy, let down their guard just a little, and live their lives solely in that moment. Yay Spring!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Photo *

It's been some time since I've hit a Friday for Photo Friday, so here's my latest take. When I take interesting photos, or perhaps mundane photos, I'll post them. I'll try to do so on a weekly basis at minimum. And I won't beat myself up for not posting by the end of Friday. Deal? Great.

This was the third time in my life that I've been evacuated for a hotel fire. Not amused...

Seen in the gate at LGB. Little guy knows his airport.

 Coming home. Love that sky.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mental, and Physical, Fog

This past weekend a 20 year old, Soviet-designed aircraft carrying a who's who list of Poland's elite crashed near it's destination in Smolensk, Russia; all souls aboard were lost.

Such as it is, that's most of what I know about the incident, but certainly less than what I've read about it. And even simply stating these facts adds a bias, calling to mind an aging aircraft from a region and era that were not known for sophisticated civilian transport designs. 

I would guess that most people not affiliated with the aviation industry use their experience with automobiles as a near-analogue to developments in aviation. Hence, the general public might hear "20 year old aircraft" and imagine a rustbucket of barely functioning parts that's just waiting to seize up at the worst possible opportunity. Thankfully, in the industrialized nations this is quite far from the case. 

Civil transport aircraft are designed from the outset to meet an in-service lifetime of approximately 30 years. The regulatory regimes of the industrialized nations require an ongoing series of in-depth inspections, maintenance, and overhauls for all operating aircraft, and the rules are much more strict for aircraft that carry passengers for commercial activity. 

These days, it's quite likely that an aircraft will be delegated to the boneyard not because it's been deemed unsafe, but rather that it's become too expensive to operate profitably. Fuel and maintenance costs drive industry decisions, and older aircraft are generally much more thirsty and cantankerous than their modern counterparts. But the safety of a well-maintained older aircraft is closely inline with that of a well-maintained newer aircraft.


Now to talk about the fogs. Flying is a mentally demanding task. Doing it well requires close adherence to established procedures and a constant, dispassionate, realtime evaluation of risk. The psychological and human factors elements of pilot performance are many, and while pilots are well-trained, they are also subject to human error. Sometimes the "need" to be on the ground at a certain place and a certain time can overwhelm, and decision making starts to become suspect.

I'm a pilot, or at least a student pilot, and I relish the opportunity to be in the air. Even as a passenger in cattle-class, I still get a thrill when the turbines spool up to takeoff power and I'm thrust deeper into the back of my seat. I'm also an aerospace engineer, albeit on the periphery of the industry, having worked for a sub-tier supplier for many years. I enjoy providing a play-by-play of what's going on with flight's I'm part of, sometimes to the alarm of those flying with me.

On a recent red eye flight into Chicago-Midway, I was one of the few passengers awake in the dimmed cabin as we approached the airport. We were in clouds, and I expected we'd get below them promptly and be on the ground in short order. Except the clouds went down to the ground and there was no visibility of the runway. We did two go-arounds, meaning that the pilot determined the landing approach was in someway unstable or unsafe and chose to climb out before trying something else.

I was worried at this point; worried mostly about the frame of mind of the pilot and co-pilot. While my car was parked at Midway and it'd be a PITA to land elsewhere at ~2am, I didn't want the folks up front to be thinking of anything other than how best to get the plane safely on the ground. Airline procedures, FAA regulations, and air traffic control were all aligned similarly, but it was the two people with their hands on the controls that were making the decisions that mattered. 

Maybe by the third time around the fog was patchy enough that they caught sight of the runway's threshold and could land with sufficient confidence. I hope so. But that third approach was the most fear I've ever felt in an aircraft; moreso than my first time skydiving, or even when a 2-seat Cessna's door popped open after takeoff right next to my elbow. Because at the end of a long day, when everyone else around was already asleep, those two pilots were battling physical and mental fogs. And my life depended on their ability to do so successfully.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Addicted to Refresh

We have a society that is addicted to the new. The fresh. The breaking. The hot. The up-to-the-minute. The short-term. The quarterly. The weekend gross. The day's closing price. The firehose of what's next. The refresh button.

Is this necessarily bad? What's so wrong with staying on top of things? Doesn't that show a desire to be informed, to have knowledge of the latest developments? 

These are the excuses I tell myself when I can't focus long enough on the deep dive tasks I know I want to accomplish, but never seem to get around to when facebook and my RSS feeds are peeking around the corner. They are how, when I have enough distance and quiet, I know that I'm an addict. Nothing too major, but still not something that I'm happy about.

But it does present a particularly nasty problem. If I'm not receiving a consistent and high quality feed of information on topics of importance, I'm significantly less likely to be well grounded and capable of thinking critically on these subjects. It takes quite a bit of gumption for me to go digging when cheap and easy distraction abounds. 

Modern Public Relations professionals know this proclivity, and they exploit it to their significant advantage. Releasing negative information late in the day on Friday is an age-old example, but there are plenty of other effective tactics that allow for the sophisticated manipulation and control of the public narrative. It often seems that without a continuously developing story that has front page staying power, anything else can be played down and eventually swept under the rug. 

I thought about this regularly during the most recent Bush presidency. So many revelations of abuse of power seemed to lack persistence, and for that matter, perspective. Ironically, scandal fatigue seemed to set in at the major media outlets; justified outrage at the government's actions was never quite as large in proportion to the original acts. Eventually the bad behavior became old hat, and coverage just seemed bored with the extra-Constitutional acts of our elected officials. Instead, it was replaced with the latest disposable scandal that was constantly in motion, Britney, Lindsey, and all their ilk.

The question is: if this is a problem, how do we solve it? I have some ideas, and I'll try to share some of them here soon.