The human element

At the end of the Second World War, my father was flying a Bell P39 Aircobra from the west coast to an Arizona boneyard. After spending the war as a multi-multi-engine flight instructor, he signed up as a ferry pilot for the opportunity to fly different kinds of airplanes. The P39 was a unique airplane in many ways. It was equipped with a tricycle landing gear with a nose wheel instead of the conventional arrangement with a tailwheel. Instead of an opening canopy overhead, the plane had a fixed canopy and doors on both sides of the cockpit. It even had windows that rolled down with hand cranks like automobile windows. Unlike other fighters the engine was located behind the pilot, right over the center of gravity. This design was made around a large canon in the nose of the airplane, which shot through the center of the propellor, which was driven by a gearbox connected to the engine by a driveshaft that ran between the pilot’s legs. Unlike the fighters designed for the European theatre, the Aircobra was not equipped with a supercharger, which meant that the engine could not produce full power at high altitudes. The plane generally flew missions at 10,000 feet or below. The rear engine also meant that the controls for the elevators and rudders, which normally run through the tube of the fuselage, had to be routed down and under the engine.

During this particular flight, the airplane was not armed. There was no need for armament for the journey to the scrapyard. As the plane crossed into Arizona, it experienced a catastrophic engine failure. There were not the advance kinds of accident investigations in those days, so exactly what happened isn’t clear. What did happen was that the engine completely quit. The propellor came to a stop and could not be feathered, creating a great deal of drag. Also the mechanical failure of the engine must have caused some engine parts to interfere with the control connections to the tail. the stick was frozen and had no fore or aft movement. Within seconds the airplane was completely uncontrollable and stalled into a spin. The only way for my father to save his life was to bail out of the airplane and trust his parachute. The gyrations of the plane and the increasing airspeed mede it impossible to open the doors. He had to release his four-point harness, roll down a window and climb out. The plane was falling faster than he and the tail hit him on its way back, but the injury was minor. The chute opened and he became a member of the caterpillar club - those whose lives were saved by a silkworm. I still have the reserve parachute he wore that day. Thankfully, it wasn’t needed. His altitude was too low to allow time to release a primary chute and deploy another.

Within a matter of seconds he had to figure out that his plane was spinning and attempt to control its flight, assess whether or not the plane could be flown and safely landed, make an exit plan, execute that plan, and pull a manual ripcord. When he told the story of the flight, he credited his survival to his practice of memorizing emergency procedures and practicing them on the ground before taking off in any airplane. He didn’t have to think, he could just react and trust his practice and memory to guide him.

Until the recent creation of sophisticated drones, aviation has mostly been dependent upon human pilots at the controls. Their mental and physical capacities have been tested by examiners and the issuers of licenses and they have been an essential part of the incredible safety record of flying. Commercial aviation has achieved an amazing safety record. Millions of passenger miles are flown with incident. People have learned to depend on airline flight as a safe mode of travel.

Part of this remarkable safety record is the practice of equipping modern airplanes with redundant systems. A modern airliner can continue flight even if an engine fails. If an electrical system fails, there is a backup system that can take over. If the hydraulics develop a problem, there is an alternative way of accomplishing the task. In many modern systems there are multiple levels of redundancy - backups to backups. The system is also based on humans who check the work of other humans. The work of mechanics is checked by inspectors. A pilot has a co-pilot even though the airplane could technically be flown by a single individual. The second pilot can watch for and correct mistakes.

As flight becomes more automated, there have been some who have suggested that sophisticated computers can fly more safely than human pilots. Auto landing systems have proven to work well. Autopilots are installed in all modern airliners. Automated navigation systems allow airplanes to fly into weather conditions that had to be avoided with less sophisticated planes.

Removing all human agency from the formula, however, comes with real risks. What happens when a sensor fails? If an airplane is equipped with multiple sensors, how does the computer decide which to trust and which to ignore? My father’s survival depended, in part, upon his capacity to feel fear and the adrenalin rush that gave him the energy to act extremely quickly. A computer doesn’t feel fear and always performs tasks at a consistent speed.

The capacity to make machines that can perform complex tasks does not remove moral agency. Human lives cannot be reduced to algorithms. The human element is still an important factor in the design of aircraft. So far even drones which do not carry human passengers require ground-based pilots to control their flight. Humans decide when and where the machines fly.

Our schools are producing some amazingly competent technicians who can create amazing machines. Equally important in the future will be ethicists and philosophers who will raise the questions of when and how to use the machines we have developed. Boeing is scrambling to come up with a technical fix for its 737 max aircraft. There are ethical and philosophical problems that are just as urgent. The sooner we realize this the safer our skies will be.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A modern library

The Harold Washington Library Center on State Street in Chicago opened in the fall of 1991. It was built to replace the old downtown Chicago Public Library. That beautiful building was refurbished and now serves as the Chicago Cultural Center. The new Harold Washington Library Center was the result of a design competition and was designed from the beginning to be ADA compliant. It is described as postmodern architecture. The name of the library reflects the ongoing grief and respect the city continues to feel for Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago, elected in 1983. Washington died in office in 1987. The city has struggled with leadership for many years. Chicagoans have mixed feelings about their mayors. Prior to Washington, Richard J. Daley built a machine that lasted for 21 years until his death. The city council voted by signal and Mayor Daley got what he wanted. Jane Byrne, the city’s first female mayor was wrapped in scandal and illegal deals. So it is fitting that Chicago has a public library named after a mayor who achieved a degree of popularity.

But the world was different when the library was dedicated. Back in 1991, libraries housed huge collections of physical books. The Harold Washington Library opened with archived collections that contained every type of reading material from newspapers from around the world to classic works in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Greek. It had rows upon rows of stacks of books. Libraries are different today. They serve as community cultural and educational centers. Books have been digitized and are available on the Internet. People used to go to libraries to do research. These days they go to libraries in search of community. As the use of libraries has evolved, so has the Washington Library changed. The second floor of the library houses the newly remodeled Thomas Hughes Children’s Library, which offers customized learning experiences for early learners, elementary learners and tweens. It features materials, computers, events and more. The third floor of the Library is home to the Maker Lab, the city’s first free and publicly accessible maker space. It features introductory workshops and an open shop for personal projects and collaboration. The space features digital design software, 3D printers with large build areas, laser and electronic cutters.

Much of the action int he children’s library and the Maker Lab is unstructured. Resources are provided and children and teens are encouraged to simply play with what they find. Adults are present to demonstrate use of the tools and resources. Workshops are informal and don’t require registration days in advance of the event. People show up and engage in whatever appeals at the moment.

I pay attention to Chicago in part because we once lived there. When we lived in Chicago, The University of Chicago Lab School and the Chicago Theological Seminary Laboratory Preschool were innovative centers of developing structure and programs for children. Back then, it was the role of institutions to provide structured learning experiences for children that they could not obtain at home. It seems as if things are nearly reversed these days. Now the main, downtown Chicago Public Library, of all places, is offering children and teens unstructured time and space.

Increasingly the lives of children and teens are structured. They are scheduled from the time they wake in the morning until they go to bed at night. Just playing has been replaced by play dates and organized sports. Kids belong to teams and leagues with practice schedules. There are no more pickup games in the park or an empty lot. Finding time to schedule a few moments with a teen is often a bigger challenge than making an appointment with a parent. And so we are now creating institutions that provide opportunities for free play and unstructured activities because children and youth need unstructured time and they cannot get that at home. Instead of going to the library for a structured activity and returning home for free play and experimentation, it is becoming the other way around.

The library, which responds to the needs of the public, has discovered that a necessary service in the lives of today’s over-structured teens is space and resources for free experimentation. They need a place to drop in and respond without a big plan or a structured activity.

It is tough growing up in any city and Chicago presents problems that are unique. Chicago has received much press in recent years for its high homicide rate. Teens are gunned down on the streets of Chicago. The murder rate peaked in 2016 and has fallen dramatically since that year. So far the 2019 rate is 50% lower than 2016. There are plenty of teens in Chicago who know how to navigate the streets safely and are not involved in illegal drug deals, but they don’t make the news in the ways that teens on the wrong side of the law do. Still it is tough growing up in today’s culture. Unlike when we were teens, today’s teens face a world where they will have to prepare for multiple major changes in career in their adulthood. Many jobs in our current world will be done by automated machines. Many jobs of their adult lives don’t even exist today. Pressures to get into the right college and perform well enough in sports to pay for a college education mount on children from a very early age. Parents fear giving their children free time to engage in unstructured activities.

Creativity is nurtured, however, by free time and unstructured activity. Children who lack unstructured time can turn into adults who are inflexible and unable to adapt to change. Creativity is an essential skill for survival in today’s rapidly-changing world. The institutions that serve the youth and children of our communities are discovering that one of the essential services they need to provide is time and space for unstructured activity.

The Harold Washington Library building is less than 30 years old and already it is serving in ways its original designers could not have imagined. 30 years from now libraries will be different than we can imagine. Chances are good, however, that they will continue to serve the needs of children and teens of our communities whatever they become.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Going to places of greif

We gathered to say good bye to a remarkable woman yesterday. She really was amazing and her family’s tributes rang with truths that the rest of us knew about her energy, creativity, passion, intelligence and caring. The crowd that gathered was larger than the capacity of the place where we gathered. Briefly, I wished that the service had been held in our church, which has a room big enough for all of the people, ushers who know how to assist folks who use canes, walkers and wheelchairs, and a parking lot that doesn’t require crossing a busy street. But the location wasn’t the focus of the day, nor the reason we had gathered.

One of the realities of a world that is becoming more secular is that some religious notions that have value are occasionally rejected by people who don’t quite know what they are rejecting. A service is called “A Celebration of Life” instead of a funeral because somehow the term funeral seems to be too sad and too gram. What you call the service, however, doesn’t erase the simple fact that we grieve when we experience loss. We can plant a smile on our faces and speak of the most positive aspects of a person’s life and still their passing causes tears to well up and sometimes overflow. Saying we are going to focus on the happy doesn’t erase the sadness that is an essential part of life.

Real hope doesn’t pretend that sadness doesn’t exist. It doesn’t avoid pain.

Because my life is inside of the services of the church, I notice things that others may not. When a few words are left out of a traditional prayer, I miss them. When verses are left out of a hymn, I notice. I go to pay tribute to someone and no provision is made for visiting with the family and I feel like my actions were incomplete.

The world is changing and sometimes I have trouble keeping up because I choose to live within the embrace of tradition.

Another adventure of my day yesterday was spending time with a family who had just experienced the sudden and unexpected death of a young man. Because I rushed from one event to the other, I couldn’t keep them separate in my mind. I was thinking of the parents holding each other as they wept and the thought and the horror of the news of their son’s death. I was thinking of the gathering of friends, who came to offer their support, and whose presence was more powerful than any words and words were hard to come by. It was a stark contrast with the gathering of many whose lives had been touched by someone who had neared a century of living and whose passing seemed a natural part of the flow of life. And yet, both were places of grief. Both were occasions of being intensely aware that things had changed permanently for the people involved.

Life does not afford us the luxury of escaping sadness and grief. Sometimes we can delay our experiences, but none of us get through this life without coming face to face with the sorrow of losing someone we love.

In the middle of the family crisis over the death of a young man, his grandfather decided that it would be good to make a pot of coffee. It was his tradition of what you do when people gather. You make coffee. But he was not in his own home and the coffee pot was not familiar to him. He didn’t know how it worked and he was struggling with what his role should be. He wanted to do something. He wanted to sooth the pain his son was experiencing. He wanted to express his own pain at the death of a grandson. But the coffee maker was foreign to him. Kindly and gently a friend who had come to express support for the family took over for him and made coffee while I struck up a conversation with the grandfather. Soon he was telling me the names of everyone in the family pictures on the wall and sharing stories of his grandson. A few minutes later the friend handed him a cup of coffee. It was an act of incredible kindness. The friend clearly had no words of wisdom to offer. She didn’t know what to say. But her presence was invaluable. Her ministry of making a pot of coffee was a gift to a grieving family. I noticed that she wasn’t drinking coffee. She wasn’t doing it for herself. She was paying attention to the needs of others.

As I said my goodbyes and left that family I noticed that more friends were gathering. There were awkward hugs and tears and a few more people were holding cups of coffee. Someone went off to a nearby store to get some more coffee and cream. The natural process of grieving was starting to take over. There was no pretending that pain was absent. There was no way to avoid the grief and sorrow and sadness. It wasn’t the time for the public ceremony, but rather a moment for a friend to hand a cup of coffee to a grandfather who didn’t know what to do with the pain he was experiencing. No one took away his pain, they simply demonstrated by their actions that he was not alone in his pain. And it was enough.

I often say that the season of Lent is a gift of practicing for the grief that we will all experience. We go through community rituals of remembrance of sorrow, loss, pain and death. But more and more I come into contact with people who haven’t been practicing the rituals of Lent each year. They find the realities of life to be strange and shocking and overwhelming. Of course there is no way to practice for the shock of the premature loss of a loved one. That is why the wider community - the church - needs to keep practicing. We need to be ready to offer support and love when tragedy strikes our community.

And sometimes, ever so gently, we need to remind folks that we have a place to gather and offer our church home as a place for the community to grieve.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Canoe history

I will sometimes speak of the history of New England Congregationalists as “our” history even though it isn’t the story of my family. It is the history of the church that I serve and an important part of the story of the United States, but my family came to the Congregational church late in its history, just after the Second World War and just before the union that formed the United Church of Christ. My mother’s side of the family is mostly English methodists and my father’s people referred to themselves as Pennsylvania Dutch. Their heritage is probably from the areas of Europe that became Switzerland and Germany and they took a rather convoluted route to the United States. They also were religious explorers, changing churches from time to time. The family roots seem to be in an Anabaptist group that became what is known as Mennonites, but the family chafed at some of the rules of the group and went through a variety of religious affiliations. My father’s family identified as Presbyterian after they arrived in Dakota territory. When my parents settled in a small town Montana after the War, they discovered the Montana protestant apportionment system, wherein Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists had divided the Montana territory into geographical regions. Our little Congregational church used to have a framed document in the entryway stating that it was designated as the official church for Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists in our town. My parents met at a small college that was the result of a merger of colleges from the three denominations. Our father was a student there and our mother a student at the city Deaconess Hospital nursing school.

So I’m an adopted member of the Congregationalist family. My roots aren’t in the Massachusetts Bay Colony even though I belong to a religious family that claims that settlement as a critical part of our story.

I think I fit into the family quite well, however. Part of that fit has to do with theological convictions and denominational loyalty. From time to time, however, I discover other links that fascinate me.

Recently I was reading an article written 25 years ago by Ann Marie Plane and published in the “Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society” about New England Logboats. Indigenous Americans clearly had a large variety of watercraft prior to European settlement. It is unclear how many of the boats were individually owned and some boats were definitely communally owned, as they were designed for large numbers of rowers. Longboats that could carry as many as forty rowers were observed by the first settlers. Individual boats were also used. The settlers in New England quickly adopted and adapted the traditional American boats. It is hard to know exactly how much of boat design originated in indigenous designs and how much was adapted from Irish and English boat design, but it is clear that the settlers did use naive boats and learned native techniques for boat construction. From Thoreau onward, there was a romanticization of American Indian culture and boats from that era reflect an intentional imitation of indigenous design.

Logboats were especially popular in certain regions, among them Salem colony where most homes had one or more “Cannowes.” The boats generally were 20’ or shorter in length and were used for crossing rivers, hunting, and hauling all kinds of agricultural and household goods. The popularity of the boats in North America was regional and the settlers were quick to adopt boats as a part of their lifestyle.

I’ve also taken to boats. I own what might be described as a fleet. I currently have five different canoes, each with a specific function and role. I clearly own more than is necessary. Not all of my canoes saw the water last summer. The year was a bit unusual in terms of paddling for me, as we traveled more than usual, but I confess to a bit of collecting as well as the use of the boats for practical purposes.

There is something powerfully spiritual about canoes for me, however. I frequently use my boats to travel alone on calm waters and behold the glory of creation. There is something about rising before dawn and quietly paddling out onto the lake to watch the sunrise that gives one a sense of being immersed in something much bigger than oneself. A small boat gives me a perspective that has been valuable for me. Somehow, I believe that I’m not the first person to have felt this. It makes me feel connected to those Massachusetts settlers as they crossed the rivers in a new-to-them land. They must have felt small in the face of the wildness of the North American Continent. There was so much that was unknown. Yet they also must have glimpsed the beauty of sunrise and the tug of a paddle as a well-shaped craft slips easily through the water.

Plane writes in her article that nearly every house in Salem colony had a “water-house (water-horse) or two. OK, I have more than two, but you can see how my interest was piqued by the article.

My Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors seemed to be more prone to traveling overland, with wagons pulled by oxen or horses and by the time they reached Dakota territory they had become land dwellers. Although they homesteaded on the shore of Devil’s Lake, also known as Spirit Lake in what is now eastern North Dakota, there are no family stories of them owning or employing boats. They were farmers and focused their attention on the soil. My mother’s people also don’t seem to have been boaters. There are no stories of grandparents and great grandparents owning personal boats, though some of them traveled by sternwheeler up the Missouri River to settle in Fort Benton, Montana Territory.

So I reach back to my adopted church family to claim a heritage of people who knew and appreciated canoes and other small watercraft. It’s a stretch, I know, but we often are willing to reach far when justifying our passions.

Who knows, perhaps some great great grandchild one day will say, “I come from a long line of Congregationalist canoe builders.” It’s unlikely, but one can dream.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Working out the bugs

Last night, our son sent us a text message from an airplane traveling between Chicago and Seattle. I got out my phone, touched an app, and brought up a real-time display of commercial airliners over South Dakota. I touched the icons one by one until I found the flight upon which he was traveling. I watched it cross the border of North Dakota after traveling across the northeast corner of South Dakota. I watched it cross the Missouri River, heading west towards his home and family. I thought to myself, “My dad would have loved this technology.”

There are parts of our technological revolution that are truly wonderful and I am both grateful for and dependent upon some pretty sophisticated technological innovations. The thought that I would be able to write and publish an essay every day never occurred to anyone when I was a student. Now I can display three or four articles on one screen and write my essay on another one all at the same time. I can watch a video made in New Zealand a few hours ago and one made in England a few minutes ago before I have my breakfast.

The technology is great when it works. It doesn’t always work.

Yesterday, we were using our best skills to keep members of our congregation informed as a blizzard waned in our town. We can update our phone messages remotely when everything works, but for some reason our voicemail system crashed yesterday and I had to go to the basement and reset the device in order for it to accept the update. The result was that some people got the wrong message when they called the church. It wasn’t a big deal, as we would have gone to the church anyway, but if the roads had been impassable, the messages would have been wrong until we could physically get to the church to reset the system.

Facebook and Instagram’s recent meltdown affected a whole lot more people. I didn’t notice, not paying much attention to either platform in the first place.

Technology upgrades in airplanes are incredible when it comes to navigation and situational awareness. Pilots fly with multiple GPS units that keep them aware of their location at all times - and some broadcast the information so a father can track his son’s flight as he crosses his home state. I am no longer an active pilot, but I have many pilot friends and I join in discussions of the Foreflight application. It can be run on a phone or an iPad and will display location, weather, traffic and other information. It assists pilots with planning and filing flight plans. It has all of the Jeppesen flight charts so that a pilot will never be caught with an outdated paper map. The system even has 3D views of airports. It must be a bit strange to look at the app and see the airport in the middle of the summer as you are looking out the winter at banks of snow on the ground.

Pilots become dependent upon the technology. I recently read of a pilot who was making the ocean crossing from the Bahamas to Florida in a single engine plane when his GPS system suddenly picked up a cell phone signal. The strong signal gave the device an opportunity to download and install an upgrade. The screen went blank as the system restarted. The pilot had a backup system, was trained in other modes of navigation and had good communication with air traffic control. It wasn’t dangerous to have the display go black for a few seconds, but it was unnerving. You’d think with all of the technology, the system would have a basic sensor that would tell it that it was being used in flight and stop the upgrade until the plane was safely on the ground.

I am no expert and I don’t know what is going on with the Boeing 737-max jets, but I suspect that the issue has something to do with the sophisticated systems that are present in the airplanes. They have autopilots that not only can fly and navigate the plane, but they also can detect and override pilot errors. If the pilot is inattentive and the angle of attack becomes too steep and a stall is threatened, they autopilot will react more quickly than a human pilot can. Modern airliners have redundant systems to allow the plane to be safely flown when a component fails. But there are a lot of components in these modern systems. Real, living pilots are still an essential component ini passenger aviation. Sometimes the automatic systems don’t work and real pilots have to fly the planes by hand. That usually isn’t a problem, but when the system thinks the pilot is making an error and the pilot thinks the system is making an error, specific procedures have to be followed in order to override the system. When the airplane is in critical flight moments, such as takeoff or landing, there isn’t much time to resolve the problem.

The solution may lie in advanced training for pilots. It should be possible to recreate the problem in a flight simulator and have the pilots practice overriding the system in a few seconds.

My father would tell the story of having to bail out of an airplane when the engine experienced catastrophic failure that resulted in damaging or destroying a control rod that ran close to the engine. He was ferrying a used P39 Aircobra to a salvage yard. He succeeded in bailing from the plane and his life was saved by a parachute. When he told the story, he emphasized how important it was that he had memorized the emergency procedures from the flight manual. He didn’t have to think about where the door latch was located or how to release his seatbelt as the airplane experienced extreme g-forces and began to break up in flight. He made me memorize emergency procedures and checklists as part of my flight training.

Yesterday, it took me two attempts to reset the phone answering system. My memorized technique didn’t work on the first try. I unplugged the wrong unit to reset. Flying an airplane wouldn’t grant the grace of a second opportunity.

Parking the planes while we figure all of this out makes sense to me.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!