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19 January 2009 -- Has Anyone Seen My Brain?

HELP!!!  I need my brain and I can't find it!  I put it in storage back on May 3rd, the day after I retired from the FAA, and now I can't remember
where I put it.

Do you need a brain to remember where you put your brain?  This could be the ultimate definition of a dilemma.

Okay, more seriously, the day after tomorrow (January 21), I will be going back to work.  No, not with the FAA!  Heaven forbid!  I will be working at
the video shop located about 2-1/2 miles from my house, checking DVD's in and out and occasionally attempting to convert anyone renting a
scifi movie to Farscape.  

I wish I could put into words how amusing I find the entire experience.  I've tried twice, and the humor just doesn't come across well.  I will  point
out that I'm taking a demotion from air traffic controller to working in a video rental shop; toss in a reminder that I'm taking a cut in pay, benefits,
responsibility, and length of time it will take to get trained; and leave it at that.  I do find myself wandering around with a huge grin on my face
whenever I think about starting work on Wednesday, or even laughing out loud.  I'm afraid it's definitely a "you had to be there" kind of humor,
though.  It's not something that's easy to share in writing.

Instead, I feel like rambling about "
the four stages of competence".  This is sometimes referred to simply as "conscious competence", and it is a
model of various levels of learning and/or expertise.

According to this model there are four basic levels of competence.  I'm going to paraphrase the definitions a little bit.

Unconscious incompetence:  A person doesn't know how to perform his/her job, and they're either totally clueless or in complete denial that
they're incompetent.  Actually, one of the elements in defining whether someone is truly incompetent is that they don't know they are
incompetent, and if someone points it out to them, they will deny it.  As a result, it will take a pretty shocking epiphany for them to improve.  
(Everyone who has ever worked with or worked FOR someone who is unconsciously incompetent, raise your hand.)

Conscious incompetence:  The person doesn't know how to do his/her job, but at least they know that they're incapable of doing it right.  The
bad news is that this in no way guarantees that they'll get better or be removed from the job.   (I'm just theorizing, of course, but I believe this is
the source of the saying:  Those who can do; those who can't get promoted.)

Conscious competence:  Big step forward.  Now the person can do the job adequately, but it takes a great deal of concentration or conscious
effort to carry out all the appropriate tasks.

Unconscious competence:  This is expertise.  This is the stage that we would all like to be at with whatever we do in life, whether it be sports,
drawing, using software, knitting, cleaning the bathtub, or directing air traffic.  When you are unconsciously competent, performing any of these
tasks is like breathing.  You don't have to think about it.  Everything comes naturally, and you only have to stop to think things through when you
hit an unusual situation.

The four stages of competence have been on my mind the past few days in part because I am about to learn a new job, and I already know that I
will be striving for unconscious competence, because that's the point at which you become truly comfortable with a job; and in part because of
what lies behind me.

In order to explain, let me add that more recently, the people who study learning and come up with these kinds of terms have tentatively identified
a fifth stage of competence, which has been labelled "reflective competence".  Just because someone is skillful enough to be categorized as
unconsciously competence doesn't ensure that they will be able to teach their skills to another person.   This is unconscious expertise, after all.  
If the practitioner has never passed on their skills to another person, they may be totally unaware of the thought processes or routines involved
in getting everything accomplished quickly and correctly.  It will require a new, higher level of conscious competence (not backsliding) to break
down their job or skill into teachable components that can be passed on to another person.

By the time the first crop of new trainees arrived at Burlington Tower in 2007, we had not had a trainee in approximately 10 years.  During that
decade, almost every controller at the facility had achieved unconscious competence.  It truly was like breathing.  Except during the busiest, most
complex moments, or when there was something unusual occurring, like an emergency, very little conscious analytical thought was involved.  We
scanned, observed, assessed, made decisions, and delivered the control instructions, all in the same way that most of us take a breath.

How the heck do you teach someone to breathe?

So then the first trainees arrived, and we had to teach them how to do all this stuff.  It will doubtlessly come as no surprise that some of us were
better than others at examining how we did our job, breaking everything down to understandable chunks, and then teaching it.  The new folks
came in, looked at us apparently putting no effort into our jobs, and assumed it was going to be easy.   We started to train them, and they
immediately began to fail.  So we backed up, broke everything down into separate components, and started over.  What we discovered was that
we were sometimes doing six ... seven ... eight ... sixteen things at once.

Yeah.  Sixteen.  And that was on a slow day.  Until those younger controllers showed up, we had no idea how much multi-tasking we were doing.  
It was an amazing realization.

I need to add an element to the model, however.  From what I observed, there is a wormhole located between conscious incompetence and
conscious competence; i.e. between levels 2 and 3.

When the new folks arrive, they know they don't know the first thing about controlling airplanes.  Much to their credit, they skip the lowest level
and start out at conscious incompetence.  That's where I'll be starting my new job on Wednesday.  I know I don't know squat, and I hope to keep
my mouth shut, my eyes and ears open, and with any luck, by Wednesday I will have located and reinstalled my brain, which will help if I intend to
remember what I'm taught.

Jumping back to ATC, the first thing we would do was run those new folks through several weeks of book larnin', tests, classroom training, and
then several hours of Familiarization Training, which gave them an opportunity to watch a journeyman controller work the position so they could
fix their sights on their eventual goal.  Once those steps were completed, they began OJT (On-the-Job Training).  A number of weeks later
they've learned enough to become truly dangerous, and that's when they hit the wormhole.  They get sucked through the big blue undulating
tunnel, back slide a level, and pop out right smack in the middle of unconscious incompetence, usually having managed to pick up a side order
of 'arrogant and cocky' somewhere along the way.  (Apparently there's a drive-through window somewhere inside the wormhole.)

At this point, they think they know what they're doing despite all empirical evidence to the contrary -- such as that cluster frell out on the taxiway
and pilots who absolutely refuse to budge even after being told to taxi because they know the person transmitting on the Ground Control
frequency just issued the stupidest set of taxi instructions known to mankind -- and resist any suggestion from their instructors that they need to
improve just a little (also known as 'by a factor of 100 to 1000') before they're ready to be turned loose to work by themselves.  Voila!!  
Unconscious incompetence, complete with an unwillingness to acknowledge that they don't know what they're doing.

The good new is, most of them get over it after one or two utterly humiliating sessions on position.  The bad news is, some of them hit that
backslidin' wormhole two or three more times before they manage to leap over it to conscious competence.  The good ones will dump the
cockiness and arrogance along the way.  The ones who will turn into the truly exceptional controllers dump the cockiness, keep the arrogance,
and temper it with humility, self-awareness, and dedication to providing the best service to the user possible.

None of which has much of anything to do with pushing the DVDs across the counter and saying, "The new release has to be back on Friday;
you can keep the others until Tuesday."  I'm looking forward to being with people, talking about movies, maybe converting one or two scifi junkies
to Farscape, and I'm especially looking forward to the day when I can do that, plus answer the phone, put away a returned movie, make a note of
a shift change, and make a new batch of popcorn all at the same time (obviously I've grown two extra arms by this time) without having to think
my way through it.
about 50 knots, asking those poor little aviation-grade chipmunks underneath the engine cowling to give it all they got.  We don't call these little
two seaters "bugsmashers" for nothing, you know.

Here comes Mr. Mig doing about 200 knots.  Versus the C150 doing 50.

It's not a disaster in the making.  The MIG is going to get to the airport, land, and will probably be cooling off in the hangar before the Cessna
manages to putt its way to short final.  The only trick is getting the MIG past the Cessna so it can land first.  The Cessna won't mind.  It's better to
have the guns in front of you than aimed at your backside ... even if they aren't loaded.

ATCS Crash to the MIG:  "Traffic just left of your twelve o'clock, eight miles, a Cessna 150, on final, moving slow."

Mr. Mig:  "We have the Cessna in sight."

ATCS Crash:  "Roger.  Maintain visual separation. Pass the traffic on his right side.  Cleared for the visual approach."

Mr. Mig:  "Roger."

ATCS Crash:  "Cessna Five-Four-Four-Zero-Mike, traffic is a MIG 21 coming up behind you, six o'clock, five miles, has you in sight, will be
overtaking and passing you on your right side."

N5440M (the C150):  "Not in sight."

ATCS Crash:  "You probably won't see him until he comes by you.  He is overtaking at a high rate of speed, has you in sight and will pass on the
right side.  You will be following that traffic to the airport."

N5440M:  "Still not in sight, Approach.  We can't see him if he's behind us."

ATCS Crash:  "I understand that you can't see him, sir.  The traffic is now five to six o'clock, two miles, overtaking you VERY quickly.  I just want
you to know he's there so you don't turn to the right, and so it doesn't startle you when he comes by."

N5440M (failing to understand what ATC is attempting to express):  "Approach, we still don't see this traffic.  We can't follow him if ...  WHOA!!!  
<silent pause while the Cessna pilot attempts to restart his heart>  Okay, we see the MIG."

I've always wondered three things:

1)  Did the MIG manage to suck the Cessna's right door off the airplane as he went by?  No one living in Winooski, VT reported finding an
airplane door in their backyard, but that's not conclusive.  It might have fallen in the river.

2)  Just how close do you suppose the pilot of the MIG decided to cut it when he went by the Cessna?  That wasn't a "half mile away" kind of
'WHOA!'  It was a basketball court distance or less kind of WHOA!

3)  I have to wonder whether the Cessna pilot needed to change his underpants after he got on the ground.  

That's ATC and jet-jockeys, folks.
4 January 2009 -- Brain Clutter

Brain Clutter Item #1:  When troubleshooting your wireless mouse in order to figure out why it will not work, a good place to start is to make
sure that the
CORRECT receiver is plugged into your laptop.  Just because the mouse worked when you were sitting at the kitchen table does
not mean that it will continue to work after you move to the couch ... especially if you pick up an entirely different mouse during the move, and
forget to swap the little thumb-sized receiver.

Brain Clutter Item #2:  Pursuant to Brain Clutter Item #1 --  There's 15 minutes of my life that I'll never get back.

Brain Clutter Item #3:  On the subject of mice, my cats have begun putting their toy mice in the toilet.  My question is ... WHY?

Do they think that the whirlpool is a wormhole, and they're waiting to see if John Miceton ever comes back from the far end of the universe?  Do
they feel that the little miceys are in need of a bath?  Are they trying to poach their mice for breakfast, and don't understand about how water
temperature relates to poaching?  Do they have aspirations of being lifeguards, and want to practice saving people?  If so, they'd better work
harder before their qualification test, because they don't have the "get them out of the water and start CPR" part down yet.  As a matter of fact,
they seemed to be pushing the poor little victims back under.  (I never knew toy mice could tread water!)

I assume this is just another of the great mysteries of the universe that may never receive an explanation.  All I know for certain is that I am not
fishing any nasty soggy mice out of a toilet just so I can throw them away.  In light of their premature watery deaths, however, I sometimes wonder
what the people at the sewage treatment plant think if they happen to notice these bits of fake fur floating by.

Brain Clutter Item #4:  One of the nice things about winter is that two wrongs get a chance to make a right.

Bed head + hat head = neatly flattened hair.

This morning, I woke up with a truly impressive case of bed head.  I'm not sure I could have achieved that affect if I'd had an entire gallon of hair
gel to work with!  Three months out of the year, I would have had to soak my hair to put things right.  Not so when it's 10°F outside.  Three
minutes in a winter hat, and all is well!!

Brain Clutter Item #5:  Pursuant to Brain Clutter Item #4, which do you think is worse:  bed head or hat head?  I suppose it depends on whether
you're a 20-year-old skateboard punk who can carry off the spikey, disarrayed look, or a middle-aged, middle-class, whitebread broad who
doesn't want to look like she lost a fight with a
Flowbee.   I'll take hat head, thank you very much!

Brain Clutter Item #6:  It helps to read the e-mail before freaking out.  I started to go into "OMG, what do I need to do?" mode last night
because I got an e-mail saying that Terra Firma's server was going to be down for several hours.  Lesson learned:  It is always a good idea to
actually read the frelling e-mail ... at least far enough to see
WHICH webhosting company sent it.  Not TF's webhost.

That was a little embarassing ... which begs the question as to why I'm talking about it on the internet.  (Answer:  Because in retrospect, it was
downright hilarious.)

Brain Clutter Item #7:  Pursuant to Brain Clutter Item #6, it might be time to finally learn the names of the four servers that I need to watch over.
Yes, servers have names, and paying attention to those would tell me even more than looking at who sent me the frelling e-mail about a server

Brain Clutter Item #8:  I can do a pretty fair French Canadian accent.  I did not grow up near the border, and I don't hear it very often day to
day.  Inquiring minds want to know:  Where the frell did this stupid accent come from ... eh?

[Crash takes a break to line her hat with tin foil]

Brain Clutter Item #9:  Thawing a homemade lasagna prior to baking will result in a more lasagna-like dinner.  Not thawing said lasagna prior to
baking will result in a cross between a brick and a ice cube even after heating it the requisite number of minutes.

Ding!   CLANK!!

Not a good sound if you don't have anything else thawed for dinner.

Here endeth the Brain Clutter.  Don't we all feel better now?
25 December 2008 -- Where Did We Go Wrong?

I used to love spending Christmas with my family.  For so many years, Christmas morning was a time for all of us to sit around my parents'
livingroom chatting.  We would catch up on an entire year's worth of trips, activities, and experiences; immersed in laughter and love.  Opening
presents took hours.  There were discussions, often lengthy ones, after each present emerged from its swaddling of paper and sparkly
decorations.  Cups of coffee at our elbows, the smell of warm toast, a fire in the wood stove, and eventually, after the whole process went on long
enough, auxiliary bits of breakfast or even the start of an impromptu lunch.

All of that is gone.  Christmas from my perspective seems to consist of blind self-interest, sporadic sniping at various family members behind their
backs, second guessing each other, and not taking the time to truly listen.  Two people in the household will ask questions about what other
people have been up to over the preceding year, but won't let the person finish a sentence when they attempt to answer.  Disciplinary
conversations between my sister and her children, which could just as easily be taken aside to spare everyone else from the very natural contest
between mother and child, take place center stage, derailing all other activities until the process is finished.  Histrionics prevail; adult
conversation dies a slow death at the hands of children.  Every package under the tree is opened in a frenzied flurry of shredded paper that
lasts less than an hour.  The accelerated chaos leaves little time for appreciating the gift, and no time at all for conversation.  When someone
attempts to regain a small amount of control, or suggests another way of doing things, fingers are pointed in all the wrong directions.  Unkind
assumptions are made, glorious leaps to erroneous conclusions undertaken and completed.

I listen to people bitch about other people, just as I am bitching here, and I am moved to tears of grief.  There used to be a wonderful web of love
and warmth, with strands extending in every which direction between all of the members of my family.  One by one those strands were severed
until, like a spider's web that has lost too many warp threads, it collapsed in upon itself.  Our family relationships form an ugly thing now.  It is a
snarled mess of half-completed gestures, truncated emotions, and an inability to listen to other people and truly understand what they are saying.

I am never coming home for Christmas ever again.  I miss 'what was' too much.
On Saturday, December 20, a Continental Airlines B737 slid off one of the runways at Denver
Airport.  I'm using the word 'slid' generously.  From what I've read about the incident, 'careened'
might be a better term.

I'm not here to comment on the actual sequence of events that culminated with a B737 installed in a
snow-filled ravine off the end of the runway, however.  I'm giggling (perhaps inappropriately) over a
sentence that has appeared in an article about the mishap in the New York Times.

The reported wrote:  
"The Continental crew didn't alert the airport control tower about any problem
or decision to decelerate before the plane slid off the runway, according to people familiar with the

He makes it sound like there is something unusual about the fact that the flight crew didn't mention
anything to the control tower.

Dude!  Those two guys were at the controls of a tin can on three wheels going well over 100 mph,
undoubtedly struggling valiently to keep the sucker between the runway lights, well aware that if
they hit anything, they were going to be the first ones to notice it, up close and personal!!  If you're
not certain how this would feel, try taking your kid's tricycle to the top of the tallest, steepest hill in
your town, ride it down to the bottom, and remind yourself how quick things tend to happen when
you're starting out with only 3 wheels instead of 4.  You even sneeze at those speeds, and that
front wheel is going to take you on a high-velocity journey to destinations you never intended.  Do
you really believe that either member of the cockpit crew was going to free up a hand to pick up the
microphone and tell ATC, "Uhhhh, tower?  We believe we are going to depart the runway to the left.
Could you call the crash equipment, please?"
Mushroom Patch -- Page 10
December 23, 2008 thru January 19, 2009
23 December 2008 -- COA1404 Mishap At Denver Airport
To create any expectation that the flight crew should have mentioned what was about to happen is like asking a rodeo bullrider to call his mom
on his cellphone while he is on top of Ol' Kidneybuster.  There aren't enough hands available until the thrashing comes to an end.

I know the reporter probably didn't mean to imply any lapse on the part of either the flight crew or the controllers.  There is a good chance he
was attempting to stress how quickly and unexpectantly everything happened.  But this is how misconceptions about the whole airplane/ATC
process get started.  Someone who doesn't know the first thing about flying a B737 or the entire flight process reads that sentence and thinks,
"Oh my god!  Why didn't they mention it to ATC?  Were they on drugs?  Sending a text message?  Criminally negligent?  OMG!!  I'm never flying
on Continental Airlines ever again!!"

No.  The answer is that the flight crew was very, very, very busy at the time, and didn't have time for the small details like mentioning the
impending close encounter with the unpaved sections of the airport and one or two prairie dog holes!

In closing, can I just say how much I love the part about
"... according to people familiar with the details"?  What a wonderfully vague alternative
to 'anonymous sources'.  People familiar with the details could be anyone from the guy who drives the food services truck to some guy sitting at
home listening to a scanner that covers the ATC range of frequencies.  Yeah, that's a reliable source
5 January 2009 -- It's A Feline Vendetta!!

It's a bizarre feline vendetta ... against all types of cords, not against me.

Current Score:

Furry Freakazoid:  4
Various Cords:        0
I reeeeeeeeeally gotta remember not to leave these things anywhere that she can possibly
get her teeth on them.  What does she think this is?  Spaghetti?!?!?  Wouldn't it taste a little
better with some sauce?  The only good news is that based on the teeth marks, it looks like
all of the cord was still on the table this morning ... not in her stomach.


I love my kitties.  (Can I kill her now?)
Once upon a time, back when teradactyls roamed the skies of a primordial Earth, I was sitting at the radar scope at
Burlington ATCT, working Approach Control.  Actually, since Burlington seldom runs more than one sector (radar position)
at a time, I was also working Departure and the Enroute portions as well ... which is to say that I was working every airplane
under radar control within Burlington's airspace.  Yup, small facility.

The one thing you have to realize in order for this tale to not scare the stuffin' out of you is that when the weather is nice
and visibility is good, a lot of air traffic separation is based on what is called 'visual separation'.  The planes (whenever I'm
talking ATC, 'planes' mean 'flight crews') see each other and promise not to collide, or they have the airport in sight and will
navigate there on their own, or they assure that controller that they observe the ground and vow to maintain their own 'terrain separation', which
is a governmentese way of saying that they won't create a big smoking crater in anyone's backyard.  All of this is my way of explaining that there
are times when the separation required between two airplanes is reduced to "see and avoid".  At that point, ATC's responsibly drops to making
sure that both airplanes know what the other one is doing so that no one does anything unexpected, thus resulting in the 'avoid' part becoming
an extremely nasty 'not-avoid'.

So there I was, on a lovely summer day, sequencing several aircraft to the airport; i.e. lining them up in order to land.  At the time, there was a
guy with several aircraft based at Burlington who had nearly as much money as J.K. Rowling; and he owned a MIG-21.
8 January 2009 -- Once Upon A Radar Scope
If you're sitting at your computer reading this and going, "Zoikes!", then my answer is ...
"YAH!!"  The MIG-21 is a 60's era Russian fighter.  It flies at fighter speeds, minus the
customary setting for Slow.  This thing would rip up the airspace like nothing else, including the
locally based F-16's.  At least the F-16 pilots can get those things slowed down if ATC spends
enough time insisting that the F-16's aren't going to get to the airport any sooner just because
they are flying fast.  The MIG's wing is more speed critical, and that thing tended to come in
like it was five or six hours overdue for a potty break.

Anyway, getting back to the story, Mr. Mig had been out flying around for several hours that
afternoon, punching holes in the air and just generally converting money into noise, and now
he was finally inbound to the airport for landing.  He was probably about 15-20 flying miles
from the runway, had the airport in sight, and was ready to complete the rest of the process on
his own.  The only obstacle was a Cessna 150 between him and the airport, chugging along at
10 January 2009 -- Pure Whine
It is -4°F outside this morning.  Dang, it's cold.  It's been subzero a couple of mornings already this winter, and I know full well that it's
going to get worse at some point.

But ... dang, it's cold!!!!
17 January 2009 -- Abusing My Television
For the first time in a lot of years, I'm screaming at my television set.  This is fun!  I haven't been this
excited and invested in sports in my life.


I am rediscovering that bellowing "Watch the right wing!!" doesn't help.  Neither does yelling, "Clear the
puck!  Clear the puck, you morons!"  At this rate, I'm going to need to buy one of those foam rubber bricks
to throw at the television.

They're battling the Washington Capitals tonight, a team they have had difficult beating.  End of the first
period, no goals by either team.

Go, Bruins!!!  Score, score, score!! Smash those Capitals into the boards, smack them with your sticks,
whack them over the head!  SCORE!!  (Yes, I'm feeling a little bloodthirsty tonight.)

Five minutes into the second period, and the score is tied 1-1.  Bruins goalie, Tim Thomas (who just happened to have played for the University
of Vermont) is having a phenomenal night.


ETA:  Poop.  They lost.  Final score:  Bruins-1; Capitals-2.

[wanders off to find the right place to throw a temper tantrum]