OCCAM’S WHETSTONE

We’ve all heard of something called Occam’s Razor, though I suspect most of us are vague on what it is.  Hint:  the relation to Damocles’ Sword of is only incidental, thankfully (same with Hobson’s Choice now that you mention it, and Faust’s nefarious Bargain too).  Always a matter of context, isn’t it?  But about the Razor, you know how casual dissent can intensify until at least one interlocutor needs to retrench before lunging further?  That’s the kind of moment when Occam may spring from overhead like oxygen masks in a jet — just in case.

But what if the pilot you’re arguing with is yourself?  Soaring, like so-called ‘real’ life, is fraught with moments where we have to make time-sensitive decisions based on information that’s not entirely certain, and almost any kind of help is welcome.  Well I wondered if Occam’s Razor might be useful, and made the mistake of googling it…  Immediately cracks began to form in the earth’s crust (and my skull) beneath the mass of pedantic jargon and multisyllabic verbiage that poured forth.  In briefest form, plagiarizing Wiki:

Among competing hypotheses, the one with fewest assumptions should be selected, and for each accepted explanation, there are infinitely more complex, and ultimately incorrect alternatives.

And that’s the Cliff Notes version!  Beyond there we wade into brambles like the Akaike criterion, variational Bayesian methods, false discovery rate and on and on across all academic disciplines.  In logic it’s epistemology versus extraevidentiality; in biology it’s cladists vs pheneticists; in medicine it’s Hickam’s dictum (watch your mouth!) visa vis what normal folks call hypochondria.  And in theology even William of Ockham himself found that his semantical scalpel can cut both ways.

The heck you say.

Then – also just in case – we have a whole family of ‘anti-razors’ believe it or not, none more enigmatic than pataphysics:

the science of imaginary solutions in which every event in the universe is completely unique, subject to no laws but its own.

An apt description of my life story, if I were honest, all corralled together by a personal favorite, Crabtree’s Bludgeon:

No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which intellect cannot conceive an explanation, however complicated.

How nice!  I.e. there’s no Knot Gordy can tie that I can’t tangle tighter.  So what are we supposed to do with that?  Durned if I know.  All these eruditial analyzations only leave me feeling even dumber than before.  Makes me want to call the whole business Occam’s Eraser and move on.  Please, let’s do.

Now if you can still move, forgive me, there is one word that might actually help: heuristic. (A word no bigger than that, you ask, what chance does it have? Oh ye of inadequate belief.) Wiki again:

Heuristic signifies any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method, not guaranteed to be optimal, but instead sufficient for reaching an immediate goal.

Still hard to chew, but easy enough to swallow.  Then further down that same page comes the punchline.  Turns out the most fundamental heuristic is – wait for it – trial and error.

Uh, what?!  All of that to get to this?  Yup, the smartest philosophers say when you’re unsure which solution to choose, try one, then maybe try another, and eventually you might learn which works best.   Talk about clever!
So now we know.

One caution though.  Whatever trial you’re erroring, keep in mind our benevolent nemesis gravity will continue unabated…  When tinkering with any of those Oldstimers’ clumsy Gimmicks, try not to drop it on your footnotes!

LOSING ONLY MY SHIRT ON HUNGER MOUNTAIN

I was naked and you clothed me…     

Matthew 25:36

Where I flew in New England, the nearest hill begins three miles east of the airport and runs nearly straight ten miles south. Only two formal trails lead through dense canopy forest to the top, a short one to the little peak at our end and a very long one to the highest at the other, aptly named Hunger Mountain.

I knew that stony outcrop above the krumholz intimately after soaring close around, and below it hundreds of times over the years, but had never once been there on foot. (Same as several landmarks here in the San Gabriels, I must confess…) This was to be my final autumn back east, so a ceremonial pilgrimage to Hunger Mountain seemed almost a solemn duty, and I made a point of going just as the storybook leaves were beginning to fall. Late Indian summer after an early frost.

Deep in the woods it was humid as usual, with adiabatic cooling offset by the swell of body heat as I climbed. Soon, my shirt was soaked in sweat but I dared not take it off for fear of mosquitoes. Best I could do right then was daydream of refreshment in the breeze on top, and continue marching.

Anyone who’s summited a mountain by way of thick forest knows the feeling. You trudge hypnotically one step after the next, watching shards of sky up ahead. Time and again you think you’re almost there, but no, not yet. Only after it seems you’ll never make it do those shards grow together into big ragged scraps, the trail widens, and long anticipation is rewarded by expanding views with a contented glow of accomplishment.

While each mountaintop is unique for lots of reasons, big or small, they all possess degrees of a certain ‘island in the sky’ magic. There’s a subtle yet distinct change in the atmosphere as that quiet symphony of the land and its creatures yields to a very different hollow roar in the free air above it all, auditory signatures of every highway, mill and town, swarming softly together from all directions in a vast dimensionless SIGH.

Of course ambient wind often drowns that out. This time though, emerging from trees at the rocky top the SIGH bore a peculiar sense of incipience, as if something were about to happen. The promised breeze was utterly absent and, eerily, it was warmer, even out in the open than down at the trailhead…

What’s up with that? No idea.

What to do about it? No doubt!

Dripping sweat, I looked close all around and shouted loud as I could. SIGH…

Okay then, as the only human within earshot, it became imperative that I don my birthday suit forthwith, and lay it all out on the highest flat rock.

Ah yes! Satisfying as it gets IMO, despite those still unrelenting mosquitoes — and a growing rumble of Hunger, in this case more than fitting.

 

So… That’s all it took to conger the only mountaintop dust devil I’ve ever been actually part of. Not dust so much as a prickly whirlwind of twigs and sticks and old brown leaves from the year before, sandblasting my birthday suit and vacuuming up all that balmy air. I grasped for my shirt as it took flight, but too late and it got away. Mayday! Mayday! Frantically, I grabbed my jeans and held tight, eyes on the trajectory of that shirt in hopes of… Nah. Oh it did drift back to earth, so far down the wrong side of the mountain my hide would be a tattered mass of bug bites before I ever found which tree it swung in the top of.

Meanwhile an instant wind swept in from all sides, several degrees cooler, even before the sweat had dried. No describing what a spectacle I must have been during that minute or so, you’ll have more fun imagining it for yourself…

Got the jeans back on before they could blow away, then as I was tying my shoes the wind as quickly settled to something like normal, and a lilt of human voices began drifting up from the woods below. As somebody once wrote, timing, sometimes, is everything.

We all had a laugh about how I lost my shirt, though by then it wasn’t so funny, for me anyway. Certainly someone had a spare garment in their backpack, but I was too proud to say anything. Fortunately these hikers were smarter better than that. One woman volunteered a rain slicker printed with hearts and flowers, apologizing for its girlyness. I said I’d gladly accept such a generous loan, but not the apology, which (in 1994) brought another, more awkward laugh.

When I asked where to leave the slicker in the parking lot below she waved that off. “It was always too small for me anyway.”

Well it was way too small for me, but did keep some of the mosquitoes off, and going down was not as sweaty as coming up. Back at the bottom, only one vehicle was parked there besides my own, so I gratefully ran both sleeves of the slicker down over the car’s arial to keep it there until my benefactor returned. Thank goodness for… goodness.

 

That final season wasn’t over yet and I had several opportunities to soar again over Hunger Mountain. Each remaining flyby, I searched and searched over the back side for a plaid rag flapping in a tree. Not for any logical reason, I just couldn’t not look.

One thing for sure, if I ever go there again, I’ll make a point of keeping my shirt on — and as a prudecaution, my pants too.

OR TRY THIS

Last couple of weeks we’ve discussed “actively scanning EVERYWHERE for all kinds of information, with emphasis on the horizon for collision avoidance”. We added a caveat that “certain – or not so certain – pundits” would disagree, and sure enough, it didn’t take long. Some insist that we look, not ahead, but always in the direction of turns to spot traffic, especially in gaggles. Fine. The First Amendment applies to them as well as the rest of us.

Again though, my four decades of daily backseat observation have shown that many who hold their gaze inside of turns (already a universal instinct) allow gravity to drag their eyeballs inevitably down to the ground someplace out the far side… not the near horizon where any imminent collision will surely lurk. I’ve peeked around from behind and watched it countless times.

Typically, pitch is what they lose control of first; either that or coordination ‘cause there’s no yaw string where they’re looking. Each error leads to the other. And when asked what they see down there they usually have no answer, because there is no answer!

Call me crazy, but if safety is the issue, uncontrolled changes of attitude seem every bit as dangerous as anything else one might or might not do in a gaggle. So let’s try a compromise. Always clear every maneuver beforehand, of course, same as you always look everywhere all the time. Then dutifully stare into every ongoing turn because… somebody says so. But for your own sake and mine, yank that skewed sightline UP to your level, where the action is. And apply some peripheral vision. That way you’ll at least be able to recognize when your attitude goes all to heck, and if traffic does suddenly materialize where it wasn’t a moment earlier, you’ll actually see it instead of the unmoving ground below.

How anyone could object to this strains the imagination, but no doubt they will. After all, everybody needs something to do. So just for poops and piddles, lets go all technical.
Your sight angle into a turn is what, 45 degrees? Say 60, one sixth of a circle. Normal circles in a thermal take between twenty and thirty seconds, so round that up too. A sixth of thirty seconds is (double check the math) approximately five.

If scanning for traffic were the sole criteria, my method, which is only guaranteed to improve your thermaling, lags behind the stare-at-the-ground technique by something less than five seconds — a handicap indeed if traffic ever rushes up at you from inside a turn…

Situation like that, I’d level out and skedaddle.

Or think of it this way. Bogies from outside a circle start somewhere beyond sight and grow more visible as they approach, agreed? When an unseen bogie sneaks closer to your circle, sighting straight out the nose will give you those few moments longer to find it… before waiting twenty seconds until your next chance.

Somehow that fact inspires a chill.

CARDINAL DIRECTIVE

Last week we discussed the value of actively scanning EVERYWHERE for all kinds of information, with emphasis on the horizon for collision avoidance. But the horizon by itself is a truly vast place, and ‘everywhere’ is an entire dimension bigger… Meanwhile you can only look so many places at once, right? Now let’s be more specific.

Along with the imperatives of spotting traffic and knowing where you’re headed, no detail is more important at any point in flight than the ATTITUDE of this contraption you’re riding in. Setting attitude where you need it, then adjusting it when necessary, are really the only means of control you have over where you end up.

Without attitude you got nothing. Still, after four decades in the backseat I’ve found that almost no one ever intentionally glances in these four (okay, five) cardinal directions:

straight down — not some oblique angle but directly below, where a stone would fall, for precise position and drift in the wind.
straight up overhead — that cloud closest to you is the one most pertinent to your situation, whether it’s just forming or perhaps starting to dissipate…
in straight flight, 90 degrees out both wingtips — to confirm level, and to catch anything you’ve already missed before it passes behind.
but most of the time, eyes STRAIGHT AHEAD — through the yaw string, exactly where you intend to go.

Looking straight ahead is also the way to be sure of attitude while turning. It seems all of us are wired to gaze blankly into turns as they progress, despite the lack of useful information there. (Concerned about traffic? All turns should be cleared beforehand, so no one’s apt to suddenly materialize there a moment later!) Completing a turn where you intend to and at the right speed depends on holding exact pitch, bank and rate of yaw, which becomes easy when you’re sighting ahead through the yaw string to the horizon.

But what if the turn is continuous, as in a thermal? Even better. Holding your eyes more of the time on the rotating HORIZON will improve your control, quicken your response in dynamic thermals, and help you stay in stronger lift more of the time. I promise. As for traffic, looking directly through the gunsight while circling provides a full 360 degree scan every twenty or thirty seconds — and if that’s not quick enough you should find some safer airspace!

Caveat: this idea of looking straight ahead in turns will stir dissent from certain – or not so certain – pundits who think they know better. Fair is fair. But results are what matter. It’s your choice: agree with nay sayers who haven’t tried it or demonstrate for yourself how well it works. Which sounds like more fun?