Ignorance, Incompetence, and Arrogance

Three Good Men

Two good men died last month. From opposite sides of the office, they left us with the same message: it is important to actually know what you are doing. There is another good man who died in 1988.

Robert Ebeling was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. On his way to watch the shuttle launch, he told his daughter, “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”

It was January 28, 1986. I was flying a B-767 (ship number 612, registration C-GAVF) between Toronto and Vancouver. The Captain was S.R. (Rod) MacDonald. I was the First Officer. It was my leg. We heard about the Challenger disaster when we were over Winnipeg, listening to the news on one of the ADF radios. I can still remember how stunned we felt, how sad for our fellow aviators.

Andy Grove was the tough and brilliant manager who founded Intel in 1968 with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. In a 2010 article he wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek, he said, “But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed?”

He wrote when we were still reeling from the Great Recession. Even now, six years later, the people in the trenches have not recovered. The “recovery” part of the economy has gone mostly to the top 1%.

But income distribution is only part of the story. In the same article, Andy Grove also said this about exporting jobs to fatten the bottom line: “Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution.”

Richard Feynman died at 69, in 1988. He was a Nobel physicist, but he was also one of the great teachers of the last century. A member of the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster, he famously squeezed a rubber O-ring in a C-clamp and put it into a glass of ice water. When he removed it and undid the clamp, the O-ring did not spring back – it kept its distorted, squeezed shape.

The shuttle solid rocket boosters were built in sections. The joints were sealed with large O-rings. The shuttle had never been launched at such a low temperature. That’s what Bob Ebeling was thinking about when he talked to his daughter that day. He had spent the previous (week) trying to convince managers at both Morton Thiokol and NASA to postpone the flight.

The other shuttle disaster was Columbia, on February 1, 2003. It disintegrated on re-entry because a few thermal tiles were missing. They had been knocked off during launch. Pilots do a walkaround before every flight. These pilots were not allowed to do a space-walk to inspect the vehicle before re-entry. From safe seats in Houston, managers took control. Seven astronauts paid with their lives. For the curious: William Langewiesche published his Columbia’s Last Flight in the November, 2003 Atlantic Magazine. (William is the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote the wonderful how-to-fly book Stick and Rudder in 1944). It is a good read and worth the time.

Andy Grove said, “we broke the chain of experience.” But it is worse than that. We are losing knowledge. In this day of the internet, where we can theoretically teach ourselves anything we want to learn, knowledge is actually disappearing.

As a pilot I study accidents, trying to learn and survive. Recently there has been another tragedy. The Board has not completed its study, but from what I (and many other pilots) know already, the cause(s) were well known to the trade. For me, that is the tragedy of the tragedy. It happened because trade knowledge was not being passed on.

It gets worse yet. In aviation, we are well into to age of robots. Fly-by-wire was introduced into commercial aviation in the Airbus A320 in 1988. Knowledge and skill have been coded with varying degrees of success. The hard-earned legacy of many crashes and many pilots’ lives lies hidden on a chip. Today’s pilots (still critical to survival) may or may not understand the code or (increasingly) their job.

Why?

Andy Grove, in the article mentioned above, put it succinctly and with more than his usual tact: Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief, largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better.

Ideology blinds us, making learning – true learning – more vital than ever.

A very old friend – we have known each other since kindergarten – recently took up the subject of learning. He is retiring gradually from the practice of medicine, and he is re-examining the mathematics and science he learned forty-five years ago. Recently he showed me his derivation of the number e. It would be an exaggeration to say that I now understand e, but he has taken me parsecs closer. He himself, through his efforts, now owns the number e in his heart and soul.

This kind of learning is possible in our age, but even with the ubiquitous internet we have not yet figured out how (Although Sugata Mitra is getting warm).

So there is hope. But so far I see more loss than gain. Knowledge is leaking away.

The Cycle We Have to Break

There is a tragedy. We don’t want to assign blame or upset the apple-cart, so we don’t learn from our mistakes. Managers, once again, become arrogant and complacent. Engineers have to feed their families. They keep their mouths shut. When teachers are leaned on, they are already paid so little they are more likely to leave the profession entirely. But not all of them. Some stand up and say what needs to be said. Thank you, Andy Grove. Thank you, Bob Ebeling, And thank you, Richard Feynman.

Nothing for Humanity

Our society has made a u-turn. Our democracy has left behind the vision of the Founding Fathers. Our obsession with the moral fibre and hard work of the individual has morphed subtly into a passion for making as much money as possible.

In today’s column, Inequality is a Choice, Nicholas Kristof reports that the Wall Street bonus pool in 2014 was roughly twice the total annual earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage.

Perhaps it is time to ask about the purpose of our work. Is it to make as much money as possible? Enough to feed our family? Or should there also be a non-financial component to our work? Should we, as in friendship and love, be thinking about how our work might benefit others?

Oh, I know. I am naive and an idealist. I have enough money to live on, so I have the luxury of having such thoughts. But I have never forgotten how, as a young man, I felt embarrassed and even shamed when a much-respected older friend asked, What is your exit strategy? That’s the only way you’ll make money out of this.

We were speaking of a venture I had started, and of course he was right. But his cynical realism hadn’t appeared overnight. A sickly youth, he had used his time bedridden with rheumatic fever to read the entire library at the British estate where he was put up. He remained an autodidact and became an inventor. He left us many innovations, but as a pilot, what is important to me is that in the late 1920’s he successfully flew the first inertial navigation system. The accelerometers were weights and springs. The integrators were vacuum tube circuits.

He never saw a penny from the invention. It was too soon, and nobody understood it. A generation later ICBM’s provided the motive power for the idea. There was no other way to steer the missiles.

He made a modest living by designing and building devices which were the spawn of more modest ideas. According to the doctors, he was living on borrowed time because his heart had been damaged by the rheumatic fever. He lived into his nineties. He did sell his company. I believe he had a good death.

I am not the first to point out that Wall Street, which began as a legitimate instrument for capital formation, now produces nothing that benefits society. Nor am I the first to ring alarms when CEO’s make four hundred times the average wage at their companies. But perhaps there is method to this madness. Perhaps this Wall Street bonus pool and these CEO salaries are the heroin which blunts the pain of uselessness. These rich folk, for the moment, are in a pleasant haze of denial. But truth settles on us all, sooner or later. Many of them will not have a good death.

Money is the New Religion

The Mall

The upscale mall near us occupies a huge contiguous tract north of the freeway. Its enclosed Main Streets have two levels, open to the non-sky, as if each building had a balcony upstairs connected with its neighbours. At the end of each street is a gussied-up big-box store – two-story of course – opening onto the mall. Stairs, escalators, and flyover bridges connect levels and balconies, so the penitent can wander in wonder through the architecture of the age. Light filters in overhead through cloudy glass. Along the streets and balconies gaudy alcoves harbour treasures and artifacts. Seen from above, the two streets intersect, forming a cross. Soon after it was built, my wife said, That’s our Chartres.

History

The great cathedrals embody all that was noble and profane in the Middle Ages. Although Chartres was built with remarkable speed, it was a product of several generations. Begun in 1194, it was mostly complete in 1250, by which time many of those involved with the heroic effort were second or third-generation. The stained-glass windows, miraculously preserved through centuries of war and weather, are narrative art for a time when few could read.

But there is more: the cathedral was also a free-trade zone outside the purview of the feudal lord. Merchants set up their stalls in the zone and even in the nave itself, although wine-sellers were occasionally banished to the crypt. Taxes on the stalls were payable to the clergy.

So far the activity is merely profane – that is, secular, or not connected to religion. (Profane is from the Latin pro and fanum: before the temple.) But as human custom tends to, the commercial practices proliferated and evolved, until by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become the Wall Street of the twentieth century or the indiegogo.com of the twenty-first. The Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral was capitalized by selling pardons for the use of butter in Lent.

Belief

It seems that mystery is the father of faith. The architects and artisans of Chartres responded to the beauty of the world by doing their best to compete with it. Their homage to God was an artifact and a space that educated and inspired wonder and ascribed God as the author of all. The cathedral was the railroad of the nineteenth century and the airline of the twentieth. Man as artisan constructed huge works from technologies on the edge of human understanding. Did the traveller on the Orient Express understand the physics of the steam engine? Does today’s passenger understand the physics of flight or inertial navigation? Do the viewers (or the makers) of the film Gravity understand orbital mechanics?

Where am I going with this?

I admit I am groping. But we are again today in an age of indulgences. We know that capitalism and free markets are the foundation of democracy – or at least that’s what everyone says. They say that we should bow to the market, should let it decide everything, or else we are threatening freedom and democracy.

Today’s received wisdom is the same as is was in the Middle Ages – only the object of faith has been changed. We understand the market about as well as we understand orbital mechanics. We are invited to have faith in matters beyond our understanding. So we bow not only to technology, but also to the market and the almighty dollar.

The Range of Human Endeavour

We humans span the noble and the profane and continue into the ignoble and the self-serving. It happened with religion after Chartres was built. The practice of indulgences took a few centuries to moulder and spread, but it was one of the principal motivations behind Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther said, Wait a minute – this is not what Jesus meant at all. Thus came the Reformation and more wars and Protestantism and Christianity without profit.

Not much has changed in five hundred years. The noble – the making of art and the building of large, co-operative works – is still followed by the profane – normal commerce. But inevitably – and today is no exception –  the profane is followed by the self-serving, and the whole process is debased. We are once again at a crossroads like the one Luther faced down in 1517.

Inventive mankind has gone from barter to money to lending to banking to capital formation to finance. The average man gropes along behind progress, believing in what he cannot understand. Meanwhile elite MBA’s twist the corporation (human co-operative effort) into re-structuring for maximum stakeholder value. (The definition of stakeholder is left to the MBA’s). Banks no longer turn savings into investment capital but instead operate for maximum profit and market share, extracting their cut not as interest but as fees. (There is no interest rate connected with fees, so there is no appearance of usury.) Investment banks invent financial products which they peddle to pension funds and then bet against in the market, making huge profits at the expense of their customers.

These shenanigans depend on our faith and our ignorance. They twist the institutions of our society so they work not for mankind but for a small elite.

This small elite no doubt believes in itself. That, too, is human. Like all of us, they construct a world-view. They are smarter and work harder, and deserve their spoils. Their efforts are a natural winnowing.

But that is their world-view, not the Word of God. There is no reason for us to believe it.

I also understand why we believe in money. It is a matter of survival, and is getting more so every day for us, the great unwashed. But let us not worship money. That can only lead us to suckerdom, as P.T. Barnum famously observed. We would do better to open our eyes and learn and not lose the hope of human co-operative effort toward great things. Perhaps we might even tape a thesis to the door of the mall.

As inspiration we can remember Job, centuries before Christ and millennia before today’s selfish deeds. Covered with boils and tempted by cynicism, he could still say:

I know that my redeemer liveth;

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

and though worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God.

 

Job 19:25

Learn or Die

The Race for Survival

It is time to stop fussing over religion, money, and politics, and to ponder instead what we must do to survive. I am not speaking of selfish, individual survival in the mean marketplace of today. I am speaking of the survival of the human race.

I have long felt that our fate comes down to a race between space travel and managing our planet as a closed system. Which will we learn first? Will we learn in time to survive?

We have become cynical about space travel since the triumphs of the 1960’s. Why should we spend money on frills when we have more pressing needs here at home?

Why indeed. What are these pressing needs? Are they more important than survival?

Ebola

It is encouraging that the USA is mobilizing doctors, nurses, and soldiers to help with the Ebola threat. It is good that we recognize that this threat knows no borders. What is less good is that we are not prepared with medication to fight the disease. The marketplace had decided that a few thousand deaths would not constitute a clientèle worthy of research. Belatedly we must mobilize our resources and make medicine.

Climate Change

Think about the contrast: Ebola strikes fear into our hearts; Climate Change is our recent euphemism for Global Warming, in itself an understatement. But Ebola is the rehearsal, the sign, the foreboding. It is undeniably here – now – in spite of the stigma and denial that encourage its spread. Is it not also a metaphor for the larger puzzle that faces us? Do we have to individually travel to the Arctic to see ice melting? Or head south to Miami as witness to the spring and fall tides backing up through the storm sewers and flooding the streets? Or perhaps this year some will instead head south to Arizona. They will see flood damage in the desert.

Odile, Polo, and now Simon, the 13th Eastern Pacific hurricane of the 2014 season, mark the profound change in the weather. Or the Jetstream sitting in Northern Canada for the last two weeks of September, cuddling an unseasonable bubble of warm air half a continent wide. In my forty-five years of flying and weather-watching I have never seen anything like it.

Change and Learning

As a label Climate Change has something right. The world is indeed changing. And as any teacher must, our world is challenging our assumptions. It is saying, I am not static, I am alive. And indeed, what is life but change?

Is our universe alive? The more we learn, the more evidence we find that everything we see is in flux, in living change; and every discovery further displaces mankind from its center. The universe is not about us.

But we can learn. The human race has the ability to learn, communicate, and record. Galileo could read Aristotle as well as observe the planets. Newton, born the year Galileo died, could continue his work forward into the Calculus, the Laws of Motion, and the foundational equation of gravity. Cannot this gift of learning lead us toward our own survival?

All Hands

The problem we face is not insurmountable. It would be embarrassing if we did not prevail. But neither is it a sure thing. It is a call for all hands on deck. And all hands does not mean the privileged, the connected, the fortunate. It means use the gifts of every soul aboard.

It does not mean indoctrinate our children with our certainties. It means lead our children out of ignorance into the fullness of their gifts, wherever it may take them.

Education takes more than a curriculum and a system. In the end it is a communication between human beings. It is a two-way conversation where the goal is to move the student beyond the teacher, into an understanding where only he can go.

So let us use our fear constructively. Let us not sit, afraid, trying to hang on to the present. The world has already moved beyond our understanding. But our gifts have not expired. Let us use them, such as they are, to encourage the gifts of others. And if every soul is engaged we will will survive.

Who Wins the Race?

It doesn’t matter. Managing the planet and space travel are essentially the same problem: reversing the great frontier mentality and approaching our environment as a closed system. We can cut down the forests we grow. We can eat the food we produce. And we can breathe the air we replenish.

Teaching, Learning, and Navigation

Motion

It’s not getting there, it’s the journey. The saying is so hackneyed we tune it out. It’s so 60’s, so hippy. But think of how we perceive motion.

I am looking out a motel window. It is raining. If I hold my head still the frame doesn’t change but I am aware that the leaves in the trees across the street are moving and that rings are coming and going on the puddles as the raindrops hit. My brain does the differentiation, the time-lapse photography, the video recording. I’m not aware of all that. I am only aware of movement, of change, in the leaves and the puddles. They are alive.

Learning

I recently watched a video of an interview with Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. He was asked how he learned rocket science. He thought for a second or two, and answered with a complete absence of irony. He said he read a lot of books on the subject. He said he sought out and hired many people who had experience in the field. He said together they worked on and solved many problems.

Then he paused, and said, You know, that’s how I hire people.

How so? asked the interviewer.

Elon Musk said he would ask the candidate to describe some difficult problem he or she had solved. He said someone who had worked the problem through could discuss it to any depth; those who were on the periphery or along for the ride could not.

Check out this wonderful short video from Sal Khan: You Can Learn Anything. Knowing something is not a state. It is a history of struggle and failure. It is experience in the most alive sense of the word.

I recently met a young man new to teaching. His field is transportation, and has years of experience, much of it driving big rigs. I asked him how he was enjoying teaching. I love it, he said. But sometimes I go home frustrated. How so? I asked. Well, he said hesitantly, some of the teachers, they’re good people, but they went from grade school to high school to teachers college and then right into the classroom. They’ve never been anywhere but a classroom.

We were both silent for a while. I thought about how that applies to my trade, flying airplanes. About the pilot shortage that is upon us. About how a lot can be learned in the classroom and on the internet (look at the Khan Academy!) and in simulators and even in airplanes. But something is missing: the struggle and failure of flying a real airplane in real weather and wind.

How can I even speak of failure in the same breath as flying?

Because I had the luxury of learning by doing and stumbling and failing under the guidance of vastly more experienced captains who had flown Sabres or Starfighters or Clunks. I was an apprentice. I learned from masters of the trade. Their lessons stayed with me because we solved problems together. I learned judgment. I learned to respect the airplane’s limits and my own. I learned that sometimes you just don’t go.

I also thought of how the world changes. I thought of how I flew the fly-by-wire Airbus for nine years and even instructed on it. It was a state-of-the-art machine. And yet we never did a GPS approach. They weren’t ready yet in 2004. Now I have been retired for a decade and I am seventy years old, I am flying mostly GPS approaches. These approaches did not exist when I was flying the line.

Navigation

When I was a First Officer on the DC-8 in 1979, INS had just replaced the Navigators. INS (and later, IRS) imitates the human body, specifically the semi-circular canals in our ears. They are miniature accelerometers (one in each of three axes) and among other things they help us to walk upright. INS uses the Calculus and integrates acceleration: what is the sum of all these accelerations over time? GPS does the opposite: with its ability to rapidly calculate positions to within a few meters, it goes  the other way with Calculus: differentiation. It asks, if I look at how my position has changed over time, what does that say about my velocity? About my acceleration?

In essence, navigation is describing dS/dt.

What does all that have to do with learning?

Well, learning is change of ideas. Remember the video, You Can Learn Anything? “Because the most beautiful, complex concepts in the whole universe are built on basic ideas that anyone can learn; anyone, anywhere, can understand.”

Learning is change. Change of mindset, change of assumptions, changes in your idea of yourself. It is a journey of struggle. It is navigation. It is hard work.

But the destination is not static. It is a moving, living thing: the apprehension of a beautiful concept. It becomes a beautiful tool you can now use to bring your talents to bear on the problems facing humanity. It is joy.

Teaching

What does all that say about teaching?

How shall we teach? How shall we pass on what we know?

How shall we learn as a people, a civilization, a species? Will each generation have to learn anew how to rub two dry sticks together? Or will Galileo read Aristotle, and Newton read Galileo, and Einstein adapt Newton to the scale of the galaxy?

That is not for me to say. But having in small measure experienced the joy of understanding and the joy of helping others understand, and having experienced the joy of change in myself over years and decades, I will not willingly let it go.

Younger Every Day

I flew her home Tuesday. She performed flawlessly. She gets compliments wherever she goes. Here she is in her new colours:

DSC_0066

John Goris at Purple Hill Air has done a beautiful job restoring her. He has also completely re-rigged her controls to factory specs. Now I can take my feet off the rudders at cruise and the ball is in the center. And she is about 5 knots faster!

I’m getting older but she looks like new.

Mission Statement

Today we take an airline’s schedule for granted. We are surprised when a large snowstorm forces flight cancellations or when a line of thunderstorms causes delays. We regard the pilot’s job as routine, and that is the case much of the time.

It was not always so. In the early days airplanes could not vault over the Rockies as if the snow and granite weren’t there. They could not shrug ice off their heated wings. They could not follow programmed profiles in four dimensions. Pilots had to fly these airplanes.

Seventy-five years ago Canada’s national airline flew its first “transcontinental” mission: Montreal to Vancouver via Ottawa, North Bay, Kapuskasing, Winnipeg, Regina, and Lethbridge. The aircraft was a Lockheed 10A. I don’t have a 10A or the resources to fly it, but I do have a Beech Bonanza, a single-engine aircraft of similar performance. Her name is Arcadia, after the fictional airline in my novel. Together we are going to fly that route this year. Our mission is to do again what the pioneers did: fly through Canadian weather at low altitude, evaluating the real risk and flying when we can, flying by hand.

Why?

To remember and celebrate that achievement of 1939, yes. To observe and celebrate how far airline flying has come since then – yes, that too. But there is more. Between then and now is a story, a story that includes rough weather and anxious moments. These advances and adventures are not always smooth sailing. There is risk, danger, and hard work. That is where the real story lies.

Although much remains in official records and memoirs, in news stories and film, much of the history of Canada’s airlines has been lost. Many of the early pioneers have passed on, taking their stories with them. We could use their perspective now, as we face the coming shortage of fuel and pilots. Once again, there is rough weather ahead.

Flying is like living. Planning and good judgement are essential for survival. But once you’re off the ground or out of the childhood home, it is no longer a rehearsal. The red light is on. You’re live to air. Flying has been my trade now for forty-five years, and that live to air quality is still what gets my juices going.

Since young hotshot are not words which apply to me (I turn seventy this year), I have to make sure I am well prepared for this mission. I will be flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and sometimes in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) without an autopilot (the Bonanza does not have one) and without a co-pilot. That can get pretty busy. But I do have WAAS GPS, an electronic PFD, and an iPad. The GPS lets us navigate anywhere and do an IFR approach at most airports. On the electronic PFD (Aspen 1000 Pro) I can set cleared altitudes and approach minima, just like I used to do on the Airbus. On the iPad I have the app ForeFlight, which acts as my electronic flight bag (charts and approach plates for all of North America) my moving-map display, and my weather briefing service, among other things. It is hooked up to a GPS and to a satellite weather link.

For the last three years I have been training for this mission. Written exams. Instrument rating renewal. Re-introduction to flying light aircraft. Aerobatic instruction. Working steadily toward regaining my Class II Instructor rating after forty-some years. And practical experience, of course. I have flown the Bonanza between Montreal and California. By this summer, God willing, it will have been two round trips.

Flying experience is measured in hours and in recent hours. These are handy because they are statistical, but they are not the whole story. Experience does not necessarily lead to competence. More important are real learning and practice. You can’t perform a maneuver you don’t know about, and you can’t do it well until you have practiced it.

I know this from my own experience. I retired from airline flying at age sixty and didn’t “touch a pole” for six and a half years. When I decided to come back to flying my performance was far from an acceptable standard, even with my 18,000 hours. With a valid instrument rating and my ATR, I was “qualified” to teach instrument and multi-engine flying, but lacked the recency, confidence, and knowledge to do it well. I had to go back to school.

Old dogs are reluctant to see the need for new tricks. Breaking through my crusty assumptions to teach me is not a job for the faint of heart. I have been fortunate to find teachers who will challenge me and move me along, almost against my will.

This burst of learning is a fragile thing. Old age is gaining on me. I know how the race ends. But Arcadia and I plan to fly the mission this summer of 2014, re-enacting the flight of 1939. Much of the detail of that flight has been lost, but we will re-create it by living it. It will be its own story, but it will have much in common with the lost story of 1939 – enough, I hope, to bring that story to life and bestow honour where honour is due.

Work and Words

It is said that we form our thoughts in language. It follows that words are important – that their meaning, changing through time and usage, also affects our thoughts.

The News

Last Friday’s “jobs numbers” have left me thinking about words as well as about jobs. What is a job? Is it what we need? What we want?

Job creation last month (December, 2013) was the lowest in some time, and yet the unemployment rate went down. Why? Because fewer people were seeking jobs. Why? Because they are discouraged? Too old? Too young? Uneducated? Can survive some other way?

Yes. Yes to all of these and more. But we must also consider some of the employed: the working poor.

Employees of fast food outlets and big box stores typically earn the minimum wage and are hired as temporaries without benefits. Even though they work full time in their “temporary” position, their annual salary puts them below the poverty line. Their full-time job can’t support a family. They survive with the help of food stamps, medicaid, and good luck. A company gets cheap labour and the taxpayer foots the bill for the small help that the working poor receive. The profits from this system go to (at best) shareholders or (more likely these days) to a small group of stakeholders.

The Writers’ Almanac

Garrison Keillor ends his Writers’ Almanac with a sign-off which feels like a sending-forth: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” Because I hear the Writers’ Almanac several times a week and have been doing so for years, Garrison’s sign-off has lodged in my head, a touchstone for reflection.

I think about it more often than I hear it on the air. It takes on the form of a prescription, even a prayer.

I think about the order: be well, do good work, keep in touch.

First we must have health. We must have food and shelter; we must be able to survive.

Next – perhaps surprisingly – we need work. We must employ our God-given gifts for good, for making or accomplishing something, for making a difference, however small. This is our purpose. It is why we are here. It is what will bring meaning to our lives and comfort to our deathbed.

Finally, we must “keep in touch.”

I have struggled long with this one. Why is it last? How can we say that love, family, friendship and companionship, social and political action, and even faith and religion must come last? This seems to go against all teachings and norms.

But wait. Can a person who is not whole truly love another? Can a person who has yet to find meaning feed his family or bring energy to a friendship? Can he be a responsible citizen?

These are cruel thoughts. One could follow them into a judgment of the sad, the poor, and the simple. Thankfully, Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?”, so I can accept the cruelty of my thoughts as I accept the cruelty of nature, and move toward the lesson, toward what I have learned from Garrison’s sending-forth: work is important.

Work

So what is work?

Etymology, the study of words, can sometimes remind us of meanings which, although to all appearances lost, still hover ethereally at the fringes. I was surprised to find, for example, that a Greek word for work is ergon, from which we get urge. Can this be a clue? Is work an urge, something that we must do? Baudelaire said  “Work is less boring than amusing oneself”, calling into question the primacy of play.

Jobs

In contrast, the etymology of job leads us to gob, a cartload, a piece of work. A piece of work that is low, mean, temporary, and lucrative. Petty, piddling work. A piece of chance work. The sense of job as work done for pay dates back to the 1650’s.

Conclusion

Etymology can lead us through histories of meaning. Current usage can inform us about today’s pressures and politics and give us perspective on our own thinking.

But all writers, consciously or not, try to re-shape words, to use them in ways which expand their meaning.

Drawing on the Greeks, Baudelaire, and Garrison Keillor, I would honour work as what we must do: use our gifts for good, however small. If we can feed our families through this work, so much the better. We are lucky indeed.

If (at least for the moment) we cannot, then perhaps we must find a job, a piece of work which is low but lucrative.

But I pray that as individuals and as a society we may see the difference. And I pray that more of us may find fulfillment in work. It will make a difference for humanity.

The Lost Apprentice

Despite our words of concern for education and training, our workforce is racing toward the cliff of incompetence. Even though innovation and specialization have brought us marvelous new tools, basic skills are vanishing, collateral damage from a squeeze on labour. How? In a word, the apprentice has gone missing.

One company (BMW in South Carolina), experiencing first-hand the dearth of skilled labour, has set up an apprenticeship system. But there is resistance. After all, from skilled labour flows empowered labour and unions. From there a slippery slope leads to socialism and communism. Or so goes political thought.

Yes, we are on a slope, but the destination is not an ‘ism’. It is incompetence.

My trade is flying airplanes, so I’ll stick to what I know. But look around in your own trade or profession and you may see examples of what I’m talking about. Are you passing on your knowledge? Are there barriers to doing so? Will the young people taking up your mantle be able to learn from your mistakes and those of your teachers? Or will they repeat those mistakes? Will they master the new tools that arrive, it seems, every day? Or will they hide behind them, shirking responsibility simply because they are afraid, deep in their gut, that they can’t do the job?

I was lucky. I joined the airline in the right seat of the DC-9 and learned fast. I flew with captains who took their teaching responsibilities seriously. I particularly remember Ike Jones, a great, generous, good-natured Newfoundlander. He was Master to my Apprentice. He taught me and I have never forgotten.

Learn By Doing

Lee Kang Kuk (the Asiana 214 Trainee Captain) was not so lucky. He was an “experienced” pilot, a captain on Airbus aircraft transitioning to the B-777. I put experienced in quotes because although he had thousands of hours of flying, he found the prospect of doing a visual approach “very stressful.” To me this seemed nonsensical until I began to think about it. I thought about the Asiana First Officer who told the investigation he had been flying the A320 for three years and had never landed the airplane manually.

I thought of myself. After retirement from the airline I didn’t fly for 6½ years. I had to get training, pass exams and tests, and retrain myself. This year I have been working with Andrew Boyd, a Class I instructor, trying to get my skills up to where I can get my Class II instructor rating back. It has been a lot of joyful work. But I see even more than I did six months ago that we all learn by doing. Practice, practice, practice. Lee’s airline recommends that its pilots fly their planes manually as little as possible.

Lee didn’t have a chance. He said, “(it is) very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane.” Horsefeathers. It is actually harder with a very light airplane. What is difficult (if not impossible) is to fly any maneuver without practice.

History Repeats Itself

Fifty years ago last month an Air Canada DC-8 crashed at Ste.Thérèse, Québec. Last month a Boeing 737 crashed at Kazan, Russia. The DC-8 hit the ground at 55° nose down. The B-737 hit the ground at 75° nose down.

It is unlikely that the young pilots in Russia knew of the DC-8 accident. After all, it happened before they were born. What possible relevance could it have for them?

Well, we know from the evidence so far that they were not prepared for the missed approach they tried to execute. They did make the decision to go around. They did select TOGA (Takeoff/Go Around) mode. The engines did spool up to takeoff thrust. They did retract flap from 30° to 15°.

Then comes the part that is difficult to explain. They disengaged the autopilot but did not fly the airplane.

On its own the B-737, trimmed for approach, will pitch nose-up with both takeoff power and flap retraction. The accident aircraft did just that, achieving 25° nose-up, about 10° higher than the target for this maneuver. Like the DC-8 fifty years before, it was accelerating, at least until it passed the 15° target attitude.

Instrument pilots know that acceleration can produce the sensation of pitching nose-up. That might explain the Ste. Thérèse accident. It surely played an important part at Kazan.

It would have helped if the Russian pilots had been trained to expect the missed approach. Pilots call it being spring-loaded for the Go-Around. It would have helped if they knew of and expected the illusions they were about to experience from the acceleration. But most important by far are the basics, and the foundation of any emergency, indeed of any maneuver, is fly the airplane. Somehow they omitted this crucial step.

How Did We Get Here?

It would be convenient if we could put the finger on one factor, one guilty party. But there are many: deregulation; lazy captains; automation; feeder airlines, merger, and bankruptcy as tools to reduce costs; regulatory impotence. Mark H. Goodrich explores all of these in depth on his website. His unique experience (engineer, pilot, teacher, lawyer, more airplane type ratings than anyone) give him an invaluable perspective. I will summarize from my own experience.

Lazy Captains

In my younger days there were captains who grumbled it was not their duty to teach flying. Their interpretation of the adage Learn, Earn, and Return stopped with the money.

Automation

I confess I am a technophile. I love new tools. Flying my Bonanza with its Aspen Primary Flight Display fed by the Garmin GTN650 is a delight. But there are changes. My instrument scan still covers the basic ‘T’, but there are new items in it, and the order is different. From the airplane symbol (attitude) my eye moves an inch to the right to see if there is any pink fuzz on the altitude tape (trend) and an inch and a half down to the aqua diamond (aircraft track). If there is no fuzz and the diamond is on the arrow (desired track), no further action is necessary for the moment. I can look further out, and think for a second or two about other issues.

And here, in front of the MacBook Pro, I can think about the wider implications. How I enjoyed teaching technology on the A320, and how much flying skill I lost in my nine years on the airplane. Yes, I would make sure each of us did an “everything off” visual approach at least once per cycle (trip, 2-4 day sequence of flights). But in the Airbus such an approach is a bit of a parlor trick, chiefly because there is no trim feel.

In the Bonanza I have the best of both worlds. There is no autopilot. You fly it every second you’re airborne, and then some. And the tools I have at hand are better than I had on the Airbus. ForeFlight in my iPad, fed by a tiny GPS and a satellite weather receiver. New capability arrives every few months with a software change. Flying in IMC I no longer have to request permission to leave the ATC frequency, call the FSS, and copy weather with one hand while flying with the other. Instead, my right forefinger taps the iPad over the airport of interest, and the last METAR appears. Another tap brings the forecast or the winds aloft or the airport information. One more tap and the approach I have chosen is drawn over the map in scale. Using two fingers I zoom and pan as I brief for the approach. I am still flying with my left hand.

I love it all. But is it easier than the old way?

Yes and no. In the old days you started with heading and guessed at the track made good. You integrated (looked at change over time) the localizer or VOR needle to see how good your guess was. Now you just glance at the little diamond. That’s a huge improvement. But you have to learn the system, to understand what is going on. The diamond is of no use whatever if you don’t know what it is. And once you do you have to retrain your eye so it knows where to look. So I am solidly with Mark Goodrich when he says that automation requires more pilot training, not less.

Airline Management Strategies

Since deregulation (1978) airline management has focused on reducing costs. Robert Crandall (American Airlines) spoke out against deregulation, but once it was law he led the way, inventing one strategy after another for his airline’s survival. The first of these was hub and spoke. As I young man I flew the DC-9 across Canada on many long, thin, multiple-stop routes. By the time I was captain on the same airplane (1987) hub and spoke had arrived and there were feeder airlines flying turboprops, bringing passengers from the smaller cities into the hubs where the jets flew. This not only made economic sense – it also provided the opportunity to set up a two-tier pay scale and reduce the power of the pilot unions. But there was a casualty: apprenticeship. Young pilots starting out at the feeder had no contact with the old guys (still mostly men, even then) nearing the end of their career. Instead, they flew with captains near their own age whose only concern was getting a job with the main line. Seniority and career trumped teaching and learning. The wisdom of the old farts retired with them.

Then, as Robert Crandall so accurately predicted (in the Senate hearings on Deregulation), the airlines started losing money. There was a frenzy of merger and acquisition, and then bankruptcy. Collateral damage to pilots came in training, salary, and pension.

When I joined the airline training on a new type included two hours at the controls of a real airplane, doing takeoffs and landings. Now a pilot’s first landing on a new type is on a line flight with passengers. That can be interesting. I know because I spent my last eight years as a Line Indoctrination Training Captain. For more about reliance on simulators and airline training in general, see Mark Goodrich’s Simulating Reality and The Training Paradox.

Regulatory Impotence

The FAA recently changed the regulations to require that First Officers on transport aircraft have 1500 hours total time and an Airline Transport Rating. This was largely a response to the Colgan Air crash at Buffalo, NY in February, 2009. There are not enough pilots with these qualifications, and airlines are beginning to cancel flights in the smaller markets such as Grand Forks, ND.

The FAA now requires some Asian airlines to fly GPS approaches instead of visual approaches if the ILS is unserviceable. Note that aircraft “land themselves” only if an ILS is available on the landing runway. Note also that GPS approaches with vertical guidance, although they allow an autopilot to fly the airplane down a glideslope, themselves require training.

So which is better? Apprenticeship, or regulations which say only masters can fly? Training pilots in the fundamentals so they have the confidence they can fly, or regulating the level of automation they must use?

Conclusion

We have come full circle. Laziness interacts with automation, cost cutting with simulator training, loss of apprenticeship with pilot confidence and competence. The emperor has no clothes. But again, why?

The answer, I’m afraid, is simple. We can’t see that the emperor has no clothes because we don’t want to look. Deregulation opened airline financial decisions to the market, which means you and I, the bargain-seeking traveler, push prices down to where flight operations can no longer be safely undertaken. It has taken a generation, but that is where we have arrived.

Management: Blinded by Success

Blinded

We have become very good at management – so good that we have set it (and ourselves) on a pedestal. But management is not a panacea. We throw it at every problem, expecting the usual success. More and more we are encountering intransigence as we attempt to solve problems with measurement and money.

Two of the most pressing problems facing us today are health care and education. The cost of the former is out of control. The quality of the latter is declining and testing isn’t fixing it.

The reason is straightforward: health care and education require a relationship between individuals – one person helping another. True, there is more to it than that – but the basic requirement remains. Ask anyone whose life was changed by a good teacher.

Atul Gawande

I am a huge fan of Dr. Atul Gawande. He writes like a dream, takes me into his world of medicine and surgery, and seriously addresses the problems facing his profession. But his most recent article Big Med (the New Yorker, August 13) took me into new territory. He describes how hospitals (including his own) are forming into conglomerates, and compares the management of these conglomerates with that of The Cheesecake Factory, a large and successful restaurant chain.

I devoured the article with my usual fascination and perhaps a touch of trepidation. The next day, I brought it up with one of my sons, who had also read it. He had been horrified, he said, both by the idea that health care could be “managed” like a restaurant chain, and by the “creepy” remote monitoring (by closed-circuit TV) of doctors on the job.

We had a lively discussion. In hindsight I can see my son brought me around to his point of view.

Finland

For the last decade the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been ranking countries in educational achievement using PISA tests. (Program for International Student Assessment). Finland has consistently ranked at or near the top. What is its secret? Respect for teachers.

The Finnish position on education is the opposite of the North American (especially the U.S.) position. There are tests, but they are not standardized. Teachers make and give tests to see if the student has learned and if they themselves have taught. Teaching is a higher-prestige occupation than medicine or the law. Teachers must have a degree, but it is not in education. The degree itself (at least an M.A. with a thesis) is the license to teach. When asked what might make them leave the profession for, say, business, Finnish teachers cite not higher pay, but loss of autonomy.

Management or Collegiality?

As recently as a generation ago, doctors and teachers could and did operate alone: the private practice and the one-room schoolhouse. Since then huge advances in technology have made that impossible. So much knowledge is available today that health outcomes are compromised if the patient’s medical history is not instantly available to the specialist. Learning is limited if the teacher cannot back up her teaching with the Khan Academy and Coursera and learn from these herself. As Dr. Gawande points out, doctors (and teachers) must continue to learn from each other.

All this argues for collegiality. Good management can make sure fresh food isn’t wasted at The Cheesecake Factory and it probably has a role running schools and hospitals. But as Finland’s example shows, it is counterproductive when used to control doctors and teachers.

Why is this so? And why now, more than even a decade ago?

Financialization

Financialization. The word is not in the dictionary, at least not yet. But there it is in Nicholas Lemann’s Transaction Man, the excellent and revealing article about Mitt Romney’s background in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. With financialization – financial “products”, hedge funds, and private equity – management has been taken to a new level where, effectively, only money matters.

Of course, money is called productivity and efficiency among other euphemisms. But what it means in practice is that human interaction, energy, and invention are now virtual qualities at best, and at worst ignored altogether. Is it any wonder that in North America and especially in the U.S.A. health care and education have the highest costs in the world and some of the worst outcomes?

Human Potential

George Romney told his son, who idolizes him, that “there’s nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success.” During Wednesday night’s debate Mitt himself said his goal was to maximize the potential of each individual. How ironic is it that the son’s policies and politics – the real policies, not the slight-of-hand wordplay visible Wednesday night – are systematically dismantling his cherished management and stifling each individual’s God-given gifts, effectively fulfilling his father’s prophecy?

Mitt Romney may, in his heart of hearts, believe in the sacred gifts of each human being, and even in the absolute necessity of their being channelled into paths that benefit society as a whole. It is, alas, probably too late for him to see how his actions are undermining his belief. That is for us to see and correct.