30 September 2007

Fall Flight

Making Memories
Copyright 2007, V1VrV2

Fall is here. It’s my favorite time of the year, even though I wistfully hold on to each descending ray of golden sunshine as if my very soul were slipping away. Sunset rudely interrupts my outdoor activities several minutes earlier with each passing day, and the first cool fingers of Canadian air have tentatively reached down into Illinois, poking at us.

Late September is a good time for taking stock of summer accomplishments. Not the kind that can be hung in a frame on the wall of one’s office, but the kind of experiences that return with clarity throughout the rest of our lives, when we need reminders of what’s important and good and true. In a four-season climate, where the weather often determines your activities, life settles into certain rhythms. In the fall, the contents of my closets rotate. Batteries in the smoke detectors get changed. The snow shovel gets hung more prominently in the garage. But the change with the most personal impact is one not many people appreciate. Renting the local flight school’s Piper Cub is a seasonal treat, and with the arrival of cool evening air, the Cub’s days are numbered. Soon, it will be stored away until the spring. Oh, sure, my various Cub-owning friends will bravely persist, some even fitting snow skis to their planes when the conditions are right. But my solo opportunities to fly low across the cornfields, examining the land and the lives of those below, are once again dwindling.

I went up for an hour yesterday, in the soft, smooth light of sunset. Like a man saying goodbye to an unrequited love, I tried to soak in every sensation and color, attempting to save it all someplace for the long winter ahead. I’ll get perhaps one or two more of these flights before the Cub will take a well-deserved slumber.

It’s been said that we are lucky to experience disappointments and sadness with our successes and euphoria, lest we fail to appreciate what we have. I suppose if I flew a Cub every day, I might not feel the same mind-altering sense of joy every time my tires lift off the grass. So perhaps an imposed winter sequestration is healthy. In the mean time, I’ll count the days until March.

11 September 2007


Light and Shadow
Copyright 2007, V1VrV2

In the life of an airline pilot (as with most professions), few things are anticipated and welcomed as much as scheduled vacation time. The lures of two weeks of relaxation, an unencumbered calendar, and limitless possibility for doing as one pleases always loom large in the weeks and days leading up to the blessed day.

Why, then, do I dread my time off? Perhaps, it's because I know that it will pass too quickly; I will accomplish only half of the monumental to-do list I've built. I will squander too much of it doing things I usually do on layovers in far-away hotels, such as reading books or exploring the internet. My expectations for the time off will be too lofty, as usual.

But perhaps, it's much simpler that all that. Perhaps I dread my time away from what can only be called one of the greatest office windows around. No one in the "conventional" workplace, not even the loftiest CEO or the smuggest politician, sees what I see when they go to work. From my workspace, I can look out at thousands of square miles of the planet in one glance. Light and shadow meld into scenes that defy description. Nature shows her utter dominion over man. Realms unfold as if painted by masters. Mountains of clouds, stacked to the upper reaches of the sky, release their energy in violent zig-zags of light. Colors shimmer through their spectrum. On even the rainiest day, I can enjoy sunshine within minutes. Godlike, I can cause the sun to rise in the west, if only for a little while. Time itself is even shifted by my passage -- an experience no other endeavor grants or asks of its participants. Day turns to night turns to day as I pass through the ether, quietly watching the earth revolve under my feet. Shooting stars and comets and aurora and circular rainbows and St. Elmo's Fire entertain me. Red sprites shoot into the heavens.

Away from all of this, I am restless. Can you blame me? So it's the mundane that causes my vacation anxiety. I might have to take a trip somewhere, just so I can look out of that special office window again. In the mean time, I'll try to enjoy what normal people enjoy. It'll be tough.

09 September 2007

A New Kind of Search Party

I spent an hour this morning looking for Steve Fossett.


First, a little background. Amazon.com has a program called the “Mechanical Turk.” It allows people to do tasks that human beings are better suited to accomplishing than computers are. For things like pattern recognition, matching, interpolation, and the like, our brains are still far superior to computers’ abilities. On Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, various tasks are “farmed out” on a volunteer basis. Certain companies and organizations pay a small amount for each Human Intelligence Task (HIT) that’s accomplished. (Not all of them pay, and the amounts are pitfully small. You won't want to do this to make money). The tasks might be something as simple as looking at a series of photographs and determining whether there’s a dog or a cat in each photo. This kind of work is repetitive, boring, and sometimes not as easy as you’d think. The point is that, with our current level of technology, human brains are still the only way to go for certain tasks. The Mechanical Turk program is actually a giant Research and Development platform for what will be the next generation of Artificial Intelligence.

So let’s say your family member has gone missing in the Nevada/California wilderness. You acquire some brand-new satellite imagery, put it on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, and make a HIT out of it. Now, thousands of people can help in the search, grid by grid. This is exactly what has taken place, and it’s a great idea (and a fascinating use of technology).

Each participant is assigned a random series of squares to visually search using Google Earth. (You must update your database with the new imagery overlay, of course. They show you how to do this). If you see something that might be a Bellanca Decathalon-sized airplane, or part of an airplane, you flag it and comment on why you think it’s worth checking out. For error-checking purposes, grid coordinates are assigned to multiple people.

If you want to participate, you can sign up at
http://www.mturk.com/. Then, after you sign in to the Mechanical Turk website, search for “Steve Fossett.”

Several things become apparent as you scan the landscape from above. First, there’s a lot of wilderness out there. Second, many things look like airplane parts when you’re really looking hard. Best wishes to the people who are actually out there, in helicopters and light airplanes, eyeballing the desert, forests, and steep canyons of northern California and western Nevada.