The Other End of Sunset

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Semiformal dinner, by candlelight

She make a man
want to speak Spanish

Well, hello, my dear OtherEnders. I'm, as usual, on a plane. But this time it's a long flight -- southeast Asia back to LAX. We are riding the jet stream home. The upside? The flight is really short. The downside? The flight is really bumpy.

Bleech. I hate turbulence. I wonder if anyone doesn't hate it? Or is it just "hate less"? I wonder if pilots are even immune to the yuck factor? I bet it's better when they are flying, rather than being a passenger -- like how you don't get carsick if you are driving?

By the way, I can't find a verb that shortens "being a passenger" -- I need a gerund. Like "passengering" But I don't have one.

The guy in the seat one in front, and one to the right of me is really scared. He's grabbing his seat and closing his eyes so tightly that you can see the lines in his forehead. He just asked me if everything is ok -- you have to be pretty scared to ask another passenger if everything is ok.

I feel badly for him. It stinks to be afraid. I told him that we are ok, and to turn on some music to distract himself. He grabbed his bag, desperately, the whites of his eyes showing, and pulled out his headphones and music player. He seems a bit calmer now.

However, I wish the flipping turbulence would stop. It's getting really annoying…

I remember when I lost my mind
--Gnarls Barkley

I've spent a lot of time in the San Jose (California) airport lately, with a large proportion of it spent waiting for the rental car shuttle. You pick up your rental car at a parking lot that is a mile (or so) away from the terminals where you disembark your plane. There's a bus that makes the rounds of the terminals, picking up passengers and dropping them off at the rental car lot. It's a loop, from car rental lot, to the first terminal, then the second, and then back to the lot. Arriving and departing passengers are mixed in the bus, so you don't have to make sure you're on the right bus -- just grab whatever you see.

The lot is only about 10 minutes' drive from the terminal. You'd think it'd be fast and easy to get out.

It's not.

The last time I got a car at San Jose, it took 50 minutes to fly from Burbank to SJC. It took 40 to get to my car after arriving at the rental bus stop outside my terminal.

The shuttles run fairly infrequently, and there are a couple of them in route at any point. Which should speed things up, right? However, when a shuttle reaches a stop, it waits for the next shuttle -- the one behind it -- to get to the stop before proceeding onwards.

This has the effect of clumping the buses together at the stops, and ensuring that the wait for each shuttle is a function of the rate of all other buses.

Basically, instead of running in sequence, at the same rate, at opposite points on the curve connecting lot and terminals, the buses run more or less together.

I'm reasonably sure this more or less maximizes the expected length of all shuttle rides. And I'm quite sure it's at least as annoying as this turbulence.

You're out there running
just to be on the run
--Nanci Griffith

It's strange, the things that remind you of a memory. For any of you that have been reading OtherEnd for a while, you know that I am often trapped by my memories. Held hostage, like a squid in a dryer, to the guilt and sadness and loss that accompanied my life since JR died.

Unlike said squid, I have a huge amount of happiness as well -- I have SL, great friends, a great dog, nice house, and a generally positive outlook on life. But I am sucked back into the morass fairly regularly.

Often by surprising things. Things you wouldn't expect -- or, at least, things I wouldn't expect.

I'm Mr.Blue
And no matter what you do
When you're lonely,
I'll be lonely too

Have you ever noticed the look that people get when they are talking about something painful? You can see it on the faces of people on the phone, even in a crowd, from a distance. Pay attention next time, you'll be able to describe what you see.

There's a pinched look on the face, a slight squint against the light cast by the tragedy, a hesitancy of the mouth to form the words that one's soul abhors.

I saw that look this weekend, on a new acquaintance. You can spot it a mile away. It's always the same, and always pulls a chord of sadness in me. I remember the phone call in the Phoenix airport when she told me she had cancer. I remember the call on Wednesday, when she couldn't hold the phone to her ear, and so I told her mom to put on the headset and put the headset on her, so I could hear her voice, and she could hear mine. I remember her fragile voice when she told me she loved me, for the last time.

As I write these words, my face pulls into a familiar pattern. You've probably seen it on me, as well.

I'm also reminded of things around that time and losses thereafter as well. I saw a woman wearing her wedding ring on her right hand. I lost a friend once who wore her rings that way… and ultimately wore one of JR's rings that way. Sad, in a bittersweet, slightly twisted way. Not the same pinched look, but a slightly sarcastic one, with a hint of anger tinging the loss. There are, I believe, lots of ways to lose a friend, and many words for that feeling. Ask any linguist. They'll tell you. Trust me.

You sound like a Mountain Dew ad
--SL to me

Well, ok, I was drinking a glass of ice water -- heavy on the ice, light on the water -- and it was cold against my teeth. Hence the sighing and general verbal exhalations. Which did, indeed, make me sound like some bad 80's ad on television. That's why I don't like ice in my water -- because I don't want to sound like a tool.

Thanks, SL, for reminding me.

Things get damaged
things get broken
--Depeche Mode

I spent some time this weekend watching a smart machine wipe out a smart person. And thought about machines, their performance, and the edges of safety.

If you want to make something really high performance, you have to make it somewhat unsafe, run it at the very edge of its envelope for operation. If you want to ski quickly, you have to stay on the edges of the ski, almost never on the bottom.

If you want to win a Formula One race, you need to keep the car at 9 out of 10 speed, where 10 is flying helplessly off the track, a passenger in your own car. You also need to be about 5 feet tall and thin, but that's not relevant to my point here; really, do focus here, and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Modern fighter jets are meta-unstable, which means that without computer and human control, they wouldn't fly, they'd crash. Their "normal mode" is unstable.

If you have to make a machine slightly unsafe to make it perform as well as you want, how do you protect the users? Do you limit the operating range of the device, in order to keep people from hurting themselves?

Sounds like a good goal, except limiting the operating range is keeping the ski on its bottom, not the edge. You are giving up part of the reason you built the machine in the first place. Thus, limiting the operating range works against your goals.

So, maybe you build a machine where you can hurt yourself -- crash the plane, wreck the car, wipe out on your skis -- but rely on training to keep people generally on track. You make pilots understand how to respond to a problem, or how to prevent one in the first place.

But training is tough -- ask any cognitive scientist (other than me, I don't count right now).

Relying on training to protect people from their machines is risky. The history of after-action reports is replete with examples of people -- trained people -- who ignored their training, did the wrong stuff, and people died.

People are fairly cruddy learners. If you teach them, and study what happens, it's quite remarkable, and disappointing. People don't learn the lessons in front of them -- they learn some other lesson, semi-connected to your point. If they learn your point, they can't apply it in other situations. And if you don't pay attention, they just forget what you taught them.

Now, the accident I saw this weekend did not involve death, dismemberment, or general destruction. It yielded bruises, a very sore leg, and a rueful laugh. It occurred because the woman who got hurt -- the hurtee? -- leaned back as the machine bore down on her, instead of leaning forward. However, leaning back yielded a crash. Much like leaning back on skis. But it's nearly impossible not to lean backward when something is bearing down on you -- your whole being screams to run away.

The control structure was (more or less) a joystick. Point it in the direction you want to go. Pushing farther in that direction makes you go faster. In this case, her leaning back accelerated the machine down a hill, towards her.

This makes little to no sense. When she leaned back, she pulled the control surface -- the joystick, if you will -- toward her, down the hill, as if the driver had accelerated sharply down the hill. But the angle she pulled the stick to was quite extreme -- there's no way a real driver could have pushed the control that far forward.

It had to be a mistake -- it couldn't be real control input. The machine masterfully interprets little tiny control inputs -- move your feet an inch or so, you get an output response. So why didn't the smart machine ignore this clearly incorrect input? Basically, why didn't the machine glide to a stop rather than accept that input? The worst case of ignoring it would be to cause someone to stop on a downhill when they were trying to accelerate very quickly; roll to a stop, if, that is, the driver could arrange to get the joystick into that position.

But the machine accepted the input, and drove over her. I think that in toy-like things, such as this overhyped scooter, it's probably smarter to trade off some of the performance envelope in favor of a bit of protection from natural errors.

But then again, I'm willing to trade off performance for safety. I don't drive a car more than about a 7 out of 10, I ski so slowly that a toddler with untied shoes can outstrip me, and I'm afraid of turbulence, so what would I know?

This old town
should have burned down
in 1931
when the rain
refused to come
--Nanci Griffith

I finished recording the audio version of my book a couple of weeks ago. It took two full days, closeted in a small, dark room. The room's walls were covered in sound-absorbing baffles, adding to the dark feeling of the room. There was a window in front of me, casting a soft light. I sat on a chair, with a music stand in front of me, and a mic staring me full in the face. On the music stand was a printout of my book -- in larger-than-usual fonts, I'm glad to say.

I sat in the chair until my butt was numb, reading until I was totally tired of the sound of my own voice. And, for those of you who know me, you know I have an almost infinite love of hearing my own voice. Clearly, a long recording session.

Sean, my director, was infinitely patient. I went into the process with absolutely no idea what a director did in the studio. As it turns out, he kept the recording machinery going -- we recorded onto a mac, running Pro Tools, I believe. The main data flowed directly onto a hard drive; a CD served as a backup for the melodious tones. Sean sat outside, his face and shoulder visible through the window, a ready smile and a quick wit.

I read the entire book aloud into the microphone. Even though it's my book, I wasn't allowed to reword it, I just had to read whatever was on the page. Even when my prose stank, I had to read it verbatim. Any time you want to hate your own prose, read it out loud. Trust me, you'll hate it.

Anyway, Sean would notice every time I got a word wrong, and he'd jump in. I often caught myself, but found myself hoping he hadn't noticed. But he had.

It turns out there are words I don't say well. I can't say the word "statistics". I can't count the number of times I stumbled on it. Apparently, "contexts" also escape me -- I got that one wrong in loads of different parts of the book. Ironically, I can't say "San Francisco"; my heart just wasn't in it.

But, with a great director, and, apparently, a great editor (from Michigan, I think, I never met him), the recording is done. One more step on the road to the book hitting the streets.

One of the things Sean told me was that I reminded him of a cross between Henry Rollins and Ron Howard. Does that make me Opie without a neck? Or Black Flag with a small-town accent? I have no idea. But he meant it as a compliment...

We like to watch you laughing
No time to think of consequences

I started writing this post, in my head, while lying next to a pool, with SL next to me, reading a wedding magazine. Yes, it's getting close to that time. Military planes, jets, and helicopters swarmed around all morning, clearly on training missions. They flew in different formations, on different headings, at different altitudes. I watched them, SL blissfully ignored them, visions of sugar plums and ceremonies in her head.

It's hard to localize the sound of a jet from a distance. The noise echoes all over the place, directionless and yet all encompassing. Disembodied. Timeless. The echoes confuse your ability to find the plane; the clouds mask its progress. You're surrounded by evidence of its existence, yet there's nothing to show of it.

I am not asking any single person to give a formal (traditional, written) toast at the wedding reception. I asked someone to give me a toast, long ago; not going to happen, that one. The lack of sound echoes, like the jet roar of a plane on the horizon, leaving only a contrail to mark its passage.

Sometimes things sneak up on you, suddenly appearing to your right, although you could swear you heard them behind and to the left. So, I am waiting to see if something appears; should I pass the "role" of toasts out amongst the attendees? Should I toast ourselves?

And, no, I don't mean being covered in butter -- really? was that your best idea?

Regardless of the toasts, I'll be standing next to SL. And a surround of love, grace, forgiveness, acceptance, and understanding.

And what more could one person ask for?

No this ain't over,
not here,
not while I still
need you around
--Matchbox 20