Thursday, April 26, 2012

Size is in the eye of the beholder

Something is going around up here and made a stop here at Gasthaus von Erroneous over the weekend. Thus laying me up starting Friday evening through Tuesday with fever and other side effects, mostly undesirable in the extreme. Illness is something I normally do not partake of, this weekend reminding me of why.

Whilst ensconced in the position of woe - laid up on the couch in front of the HDTV with cable, the DVR, and the remote, I was able to partake of some sorely missed viewing. More or less. The sad part is that I really was sick and feverish, so it was in large parts drifting in and out of sleep in front of an NCIS marathon.

Except on Sunday, Earthday. CinC Home has Frozen Planet set to record and it's set to use Tuner 1, meaning whatever is being recorded is what you view live. Changing away from that cancels the recording. FiOS it ain't. And on Earthday they had a Frozen Planet Marathon. The polar bears on the ice weren't the only ones drifting Sunday afternoon.

So, I'm laying there catching up on this weeks episode of Bones. It's about a guy with a terminal case of Short Man's Syndrome. In his case, it ends up being terminal. He lets it define his life, every aspect of it, from how he relates to his wife (won't discuss things with her, not manly) to his son's life (makes him take karate so he won't be beaten up in school for his size). He has his head handed to him when trying to rough up the sensei's daughter (by said daughter), that incident having been filmed and posted online and going viral. His life gets worse as the entire bar laughs at him about it and it results in his death at the hands of a much larger bully, precipitated by his insecurities.

I don't have this problem. I've traditionally been 6'4" though I'm now down to 6'3" and a little over 200. This is not an issue I've faced nor can readily imagine. To me, most of the world is shorter than I, so I don't see it. Despite that, I don't see the world as midgets. I don't immediately think, "I'm taller than he is". It's not relevant to me, it just doesn't occur to me.

I have a good friend of over 30 years who is not my size. Jerry is physically unimposing, from a distance, if you don't know him. True, he's not tall, honestly, I have no idea how tall he is or isn't. It's never occurred to me to ask.

He just doesn't seem his true height to me.

As old Army buddies do, we can go years without seeing each other. During this interlude, I forget about his true size, I think of him as Jerry, much larger in character than physical size. Consequently, I am always surprised when we see each other again how much smaller he seems physically than I remember him. I never envision him his true, physical size. That just isn't him.

Jerry's physical size does not define him. I don't know that it ever did. I can't see him ever letting something that insignificant define him, he defines himself. I have seen him explain to others, worried about their physical stature to quit complaining when they are taller than him. While others may let their physical size affect their lives, like the character in the show did, and ruin their lives, Jerry has not. Jerry's joi de vivre is infectious. He loves life and lives it like those that know it is not a given live their lives. He's a man of God, he's a husband, he's a father, he's a funny, good guy. And he's my friend.

He is who he is and he walks through life just like I or anyone else. He defines his life, not his circumstances.

A couple from our wedding, still friends who are similarly blessed without the burden of being overly tall. They are both similar to Jerry, I don't remember them as their true size until we get together again. Then I am reminded that their true, physical size is not their "real size" as I always think of them. That aspect of their lives does not define them and their world, they define it by their force of character and the way that they live.

All three of them do, however, walk in my lee for to enjoy the goodly shade and windbreak thereof. A fact that took me years to become aware of.

What are friends for?

And so, I felt sorry for the character that his life, and ultimately his death, were defined by limitations that he imposed upon himself. It's too bad he never met Jerry or my other friends to learn how good life can be. It's too bad that he insisted that his actual size had to be so limiting and defining.

And Sunday night I climbed into bed, fully bundled up with flannel jammies. And socks. And flannel sheets. And blankets.

I climbed into my normally warm, northern New England bed. And shivered.

My wife regards me as a wondrous generator of BTUs during the colder months. I throw off heat like a brand new paratrooper losing singles in a strip club. Can't seem to shed them fast enough.

Something she finds useful on sub-zero nights up here in Northern Vermont.

But not Sunday evening. I lay there shivering in my fever despite my nice, warm bed.

My normal routine is to climb into bed and lay down on my back. Shortly thereafter, Kaylie, one of our cats, comes in to join me. I lift the covers with my right arm allowing her to walk down my side, turn around at my hip, then walk back up to my arm. She lays her head on my arm, then lies down next to me. I lower my arm over her, tucking the covers in around her neck. She rolls into me and we both drift off to sleep.

Kaylie is about 13 now and her bones prefer my warmth, so she rolls into my nice, warm body and is able to sleep warm and comfortable. Sunday night when Kaylie rolled into me, that was just the extra heat that I needed. Once I felt the body heat from all twelve pounds of her up against my 200, I warmed up and fell asleep.

That little old cat, who normally finds me her soothing source of heat on cold days and nights, provided me the warmth and comfort that I needed on Sunday night in my feverish state.

Sunday night, my "little buddy" was big enough for me when I needed her.

marcus erroneous

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Breaking the landing gear

Regardless of the aircraft, there is some training required. To minimize losses and decrease training time there are a number of techniques employed for the student pilots. First, there's the physical. While I'm not sure how much fun it is for women, for men there are parts of it that are less than enjoyable. My experiences seriously predate both Don't ask don't tell and it's repeal. As I'm out of crayons, I'm not going to draw you a picture. If you know a Sky God (even if they're one of those types that just has to have a motor to hang on to) ask him to explain. Actually, either of my sky brethren or sistren could explain it for you. But I digress. . .

So, physical in hand, you apply. This means going bowl in hand to a number of folks, begging for a slot. If you're on a HALO team, it's a much easier process. You just have to try to get one before the other battalion's HALO team is getting one. When you're already on a HALO team, yours is a fate determined less by if than when you'll go. If you're not on a HALO team, then you should become a serious student of Machiavelli to improve your chances at getting one of these highly coveted slots. If you are stationed at Ft Bragg, where HALO school is held, making nice to one of the instructors is a time honored, though not honorable, way of getting into the school.

The school can process only so many folks a year, each SF Group has three HALO teams (one per battalion, twelve members per team), the Ranger Battalions need some HALO folks, the 82nd Airborne Division needs some, various and sundry other units need some. The need and demand (desire too) outweighs the supply.

And being HALO qualified is cool, so there's that.

These slots require money to pay for food, lodging, transportation costs, etc. So there's an associated monetary component to it as well. Did I mention that being HALO qualified is cool? Unlike Ranger school, there's no suffering, privation, or field duty. Actually, compared to most of the schools that you can go to in Special Forces or Special Operations in general, HALO school is a gentleman's course. It's got its privations and things that are difficult, lots of hard work, bad conditions, early wake ups, late nights, hanging out on a hot DZ without any shade, but for a SpecOps school, it's considered Club Med. Plus you get to jump a lot. Skydiving Military Free Fall (MFF) jumping, which is the fun kind. Mostly.

Did I mention that being HALO is cool? Ah, well, okay then.

So, you show up and the fun begins. That is, they first try to disqualify as many as they can, while their friends fellow SF soldiers standby just in case there's an opening. We would not want a valuable HALO slot to go to waste, for that would be an insult to the American Tax payer that is funding all this. 20+ years and you might have noticed my distaste for the process whereby they tried to get their buddies in that first day at our expense is largely undiminished.

So, they screen records during which I learn that I've previously broken my left leg.

Really? Do tell.

Apparently so, from what the chancre mechanics tell me. But, long ago, in a land far, far away, it was broken and was not just a badly sprained ankle. Who knew?

Training finally begins for us few, us lucky, lucky few. Equipment, theory of falling, theory of canopy deployment and why being fat, dumb and stable is a good thing ( more properly as flat, relaxed, and stable). Why doing your best impression of something hurtling towards the ground like a Cirque du Soleil tumbler is not the best way pass the course or live a long life. Yeah, that's me, Mister Narrowminded, it's an acquired skill. Still, falling face to earth in a stable position allows you to see where you are, check your altitude, and perform a number of other tasks. It takes some work at first for most. Being too stiff will make you wobble a bit like a falling potato chip, typical of novice jumpers. Eventually you learn to relax a bit and it gets easier to stay stable. From this position your parachute will safely and reliably open with a stable flow of air flowing over you, helping to ensure that your parachute (which I keep referring to as the canopy) will come out, unfold, inflate, and finally deploy over your head with all of the material and suspension lines in their proper positions and alignment.

Sometimes, you're too stable and the air flowing around your body forms a quiet spot against your back, which is where the parachute sits and deploys from. Despite the fact that in military free fall parachutes there is a large, spring loaded, pilot chute to get out and grab some air to start pulling the canopy out, sometimes that quiet spot of air mitigates against that process. For times like this they teach you to look over one shoulder to see if anything is happening back there, said process tipping you a bit and providing for some air to slide across your back, catch that pilot chute and the main canopy, and start the entire deployment process. That being getting that bundle of air catching material off of your back, into the air, and slowing your descent.

This is known as a Good Thing.

The parachute unfolds, the suspension lines come out,  and you can look up and watch it happening above you, the final step being that the slider (a square piece of material that slows the opening of the canopy, making the opening more gentle) slides down the risers and stops above your head. Grab the two loops of material that are your brake lines and pull them down out of their stowage pockets, then test the brakes on this beast by pulling them both down to around your waist. Here you're looking to see where the stall point is when pulling them down. This gives you a feel for how the 'chute is handling and what the air conditions are like.

More on stalling later.

Look around and see where the others are in relation to you (hopefully you're not rushing headlong towards one), and how much altitude you have remaining.

And there you are, hanging under a ram air canopy, so called because the air flowing through it (ramming through it) inflates it into a wing shape.

*Training Highlight: The animation on the right side of the page at the link is an example of how the emergency parachute release system works. It consists of three, interlocking rings, that ripple out of their lock, allowing the canopy to detach. For obvious reasons, it is affectionately referred to as a three ring circus. So now you know.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, you fly this sort of parachute to a landing. This parachute is maneuverable. The round types? Not so much.  This parachute can also allow you to land very softly.


This is not a given, however.

During the school you learn a number of things that prepare you to employ this sort of activity as a means of tactical insertion. You learn to exit properly, to fly on heading and grouped with your teammates, to open safely, to fly the canopy, to fly the pattern into the drop zone, and to land safely. All of these are perishable skills that must be acquired and thereafter practiced. Said practicing is fun, a fact not lost on commanders and others who do not believe that fun should be a part of training. This fact keeps them up at all hours of the night gnashing their teeth and distraught over how to eliminate said fun.

And we're under canopy, flying with our friends to where we enter the approach pattern. Enter on the down wind leg, you're flying with the wind at your back. Then to the base leg, turning so that you fly with the wind to one side, and finally, on to final.

The final approach is into the wind. At about 200 to 300 feet above ground you release the brakes (raise your hands above your head) and let the parachute run full bore (those of you who just can't do this without hardware, like wings, engine, systems, etc can go to sleep now) though I will say that doing this sans enclosing systems does get your attention. Nothing like doing 20 or 30 mph knowing that the only thing between you and the ground is your boots and fatigues.

Keep that thought in mind, we'll get back to it in a bit.

We're screaming along at full bore (I'm not going to dignify this speed as "full grunt", it just ain't) headed toward our rendezvous with the earth. The checklist is pretty simple, lower the rucksack that you've had hanging from your toes by letting it slide off. The landing gear for this contraption is already down and "locked" as it were. The only thing left to do is flare and land.

Yeah, that's it. Nothing to it.

Flying is a funny thing, that air that supports you has a mind of it's own, and I don't just mean winds  and stuff. I mean that temperature and humidity play a part in making it thicker or thinner. Much more and much less so, respectively. Enough of a difference so that there is a learning curve where the price is paid in bone and sinew. Like getting your first job, you can't get the experience to keep from getting hurt without jumping first, you can't keep from getting hurt jumping without getting experience first. The first few jumps they tell you to land at half-brake and do a typical parachute landing fall. But, to do a standup landing, you have to learn to flare at the right altitude.

That thickness stuff? Means a lot when you're a big guy, like me. 6'4" at the time, 185 plus equipment, boots, etc. Flaring is hitting the brakes on the 'chute so that it stops going forward. It pretty much stops going downward too at the sweet spot too, for a brief period of time.

Very brief.

You normally flare at about 10 to 15 feet above the ground (20 to 30 feet with combat equipment). This puts the perfect flare/stall point at the ground or just (6 inches) above it. Then you pull one toggle all the way down and the canopy comes down.


If you flare too high, you're suddenly stopped above the ground. That brief period of time is very brief. At this point, you are stalled above the ground. If you rock just your wrists, just a little, you can sink the canopy, a slow descent to the ground and get a soft landing. Rock your wrists too far or pull down with your forearm (too far) and the canopy will rocket backwards toward the ground, a race that you will lose.

This is a Bad Thing.

You then do a very credible imitation of Wiley E. Coyote where the canopy is on the ground behind you while you plummet to the ground in hot pursuit. People have broken their backs doing this, or legs, or just had a really hard landing. Mostly people break things when this happens. This sort of thing can happen when a gust of wind puffs while you're trying to land. Or you seriously misjudge where to flare.

Like when you're a student.

If you flare too low, you run into the ground carrying some speed. The lower you flared, the more speed you carry, the harder you hit. This can happen because the wind that was in your face suddenly dropped off just as you flared to land, robbing you of a necessary amount of lift at a critical moment. Or,  because you misjudged your altitude or the air density caused by the current temperature and humidity. This can happen if you seriously misjudged your flare.

Like when you're a student.

Remember that part about the only thing between you and the ground being your boots and fatigues? That your landing gear is an integral part of you?


About that.

When you flare low and hit hard, there really aren't any shocks, especially if you hit hard enough that you'd bottom out the shocks if you had any. Let alone a system that has none.

My fifth jump in HALO school was like that. I'm a big guy and despite my fourth jump (the first one where I was to perform a flared, or standing, landing) being successful, alas, 'twas not to be this time. It was hot out that day, I flared low, too low, and it hurt when I hit.

Really hurt.

Limping hurt.

Ah shit hurt.

The class leader was a reservist who worked in an emergency room as his day job. He looked at it that evening and gave me the bad news, broken. But, not completely broken. Without an x-ray, his guess was a stress fracture. My options were:

1. Keep jumping until I had enough jumps to graduate.  Suck it up in the meantime. This was number 5, there were 40 scheduled.
2. Keep jumping on it until it broke in which case they'd carry me off the drop zone, I'd be dropped but come back when it healed. 
3. Go on sick call and be dropped from the class and come back when I healed. About a year most likely. Hopefully.

Remember the part at the top of this post where I alluded to how hard it was to get a slot to this school?

Yeah, there's that.

Also, there's the whole part about where us SF guys hate to fail. Not a little bit, a lotta bit.

If you're guessing I picked what was behind Door Number One, you are correct. Every night I packed my leg in ice and stayed off of it. My buds picked up chow for me and brought it back to my room. I watched a lot of TV and got more sleep during that course than I should have, which in hindsight,  was probably a good thing. Mostly because of the money I saved not doing nightly debriefs over glasses of adult beverages in various venues with my buddies.

So, I avoided limping around in front of the instructors and kept jumping. Finally, after our night, oxygen, combat equipment jump, jump number 32, I had enough jumps of the prescribed varieties and quantities to successfully complete the course.

The following morning, after first verifying that I indeed had enough jumps to pass the course,  I presented myself to the HALO committee as having a broken leg. They verified that I was okay to graduate and they inquired as to how I broke it last night.

m.e. - Last night, says I? No, not last night.

HALO God - Then when? with a perplexed look.

m.e. - Ummmm, the fifth jump, says I, somewhat sheepishly.

HALO God - Is that so? says hizzoner. Well, no blood, no foul.

HALO God - Go on sick call and don't do it again.

On sick call, they examine me, x-ray me then send me to a consultation room to await the verdict.

Now, this is the Troop Medical Clinic where the SF guys from all the SF schools there at Ft. Bragg go for medical treatment, so I'm expecting it to be No Big Thing. They see guys like me for a living, they're used to the idiosyncrasies of guys like me. N'est pas?

The Doc comes in, puts the x-ray up on the viewing thingy and comments as to how while it is indeed broken, it appears to have been broken for awhile now and do I remember when it happened?

m.e. - Yes sir, I do. Do you have a calendar by any chance?

Perplexed look.

Doc - Yes, let me go get one.

Returns with calendar. I flip calendar pages back one page to the previous month.

m.e. - There, that's the day I broke it.

Insert "are you effing stupid/crazy?!?!" look here on doctor's face.

I did the explanation of getting into HALO school thing for the Doc and pointed out that I had accomplished my mission. I had successfully completed HALO school.

He was ungracious enough to point out that I would not be jumping for awhile.

Did I mention that being HALO is cool?

marcus erroneous

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Scientific Method

For the last few years I have been a judge at the Vermont State Mathematics and Science Fair. I've got a background in science-based disciplines, technical, physics-based stuff. It's quantifiable, measurable, and not governed by "consensus" but by physics. Repeatable, verifiable, quantifiable. ymmv

As my kids would say, "back in the day" I was a geek when it was not cool. Slide rule hanging from my belt, pocket protector with pens and fine tipped, mechanical pencils. Studying and using trig, designing and building circuits like flip-flops, decade counters, and other digital stuff back when no one really knew what digital was. Building digital clocks when they were still something unique and "modern".

So, I can relate. I did the science fair thing a couple of years in a row. Built a seismograph from an article in a magazine and ran it for awhile. Collected a few rolls of information, entered the seismograph in the school science fair and went from school to county science fair. The judges at the Los Angeles County Science Fair really liked that a seventh grader had done this and understood the science behind the device. But - I had not collected any data and then done the analysis. I had several sheets showing the output from the seismograph. Living in Southern California with tremors going on all the time that I had detected. Instances where a heavy truck had gone by and I explained how I could tell it from seismic activity. But no real data collection and analysis. Epic fail.

What do we have for our contestant Johnny?

So, I'm at the fair and there are a lot of good projects that I see that day. A couple where the kids involved said, "Gee, I wonder why this works this way?"  They did a decent job, but didn't really dig into the object of their study. Still, scientific method was used. Process good, no real curiosity, the initial experiment suggested no follow on questions to them.

C'est la vie.

Some of the others were middle schoolers and show really good potential. Good use of the scientific method, good rigor, nice analysis of the variables that could influence the results, data collected and analyzed (unlike some predecessors), and supportable conclusions drawn. Real science done at an early age.

A couple of them were just outstanding. Good understanding of the physics involved, excellent understanding of what variables and conditions affected their results, why they could have, and how they could have skewed results. In one case he also looked at return on investment (ROI) for anyone that would use his research and implement it. Nice touch, in high school and he already understands that for the average blue collar family, there has to be more in it than just being green. If even Kermit found it hard to be green, what about us non-amphibians?

And one student that really got her experiment. The more you spoke with her the more you were blown away by the fact that she got it. All of it. All of the physics that her experiment depended upon. How other factors, the physics of these factors, impacted her results. How viscosity could influence the results. Temperature. Bevels on the edges. Water flow and how it is affected by surface tension, which is in turn multiplied by the number of openings. In every case I asked the students, if you could do this experiment again, what would you change when you performed it again. If you were to perform a follow on experiment driven by the results of the first, what would it be? What follow on research was suggested by your first experiment? She had a number of interesting hypothesis suggested by her initial experiment.

One uniform characteristic exhibited by all of the students was that their conclusions were driven by their results and their conclusions were driven by the analysis of the results. So? Well, we see plenty of "science" nowadays that is supported by "scientific consensus" and is not repeatable. And where the "scientists" work to fit their data to the curve rather than fitting the curve to the data.

I'm no longer shocked when "scientists" and "researchers" announce what they are going to find before even examining the data. All of these kids plotted curves based upon their data. They weren't fixated on a pre-established conclusion where the hypothesis and data were only relevant in that they provided support and buttressed the conclusion. These kids are still budding scientists, unsoiled by what frequently passes for science nowadays.

But, there's still time. They still have many years ahead of them for the contemporary scientific community to teach them how to establish the "right" conclusion before going out to prove it. Creative statistics, curve fitting (and not the way you old timers learned it from your profs), and "socially responsible science" are still in their future.

Maybe that is why I enjoy it so much, I get to see them while they still think that science is about the truth of the physical sciences.

marcus erroneous

Addendum 7 April:

Here's a video about the fair. Five of the eight projects I judged got screen time, two of them were interviewed.