Social Deconstruction

No, this isn’t an article on deconstructing the relationship between texts and their meaning or anything that deep. It’s about a bit of social disobedience of sorts.

Usually my featured images are only tangentially related to my posts (or sometimes not even at all). This time, however it’s the center of my post. Hopefully your browser/device is showing what I hope it to show: name a chain link fence that’s been partly torn back so that folks can get past it. It’s a bit hard to see in the photo; but basically the section behind the two posts with the chain between them has been ripped apart so that folks can walk through.

Why is even a topic of discussion? Because that opening wasn’t always there. In fact, when I first saw the fence, it wasn’t there.  Now, you may say “obviously it wasn’t always there!” (sorta like if you come across a pile of ash in a stone ring you can, without further evidence presume there was once a pile of wood there.)  This is the story of how fast it all happened and how I could observe it almost in real-time.

First some background. Several months ago I had agreed to give a talk at the DC SQL Server user group in DC this month; this also gave me a chance to catch up with some friends. Being the frugal sort, I found an AirBnB near the Rhode Island Metro station.

I arrived Thursday and took the Metro up to the stop. At ground level there’s a large footbridge that permits pedestrians to cross some railroad tracks. It connects to a foot/bike path on the north-west end. From here there’s an exit from the bikepath into a shopping center parking lot. If you look on maps, you can even see where this exit is. rhode_island_metroI’ve circled the exit here.  This is where the photo was taken.

After crossing the bridge I discovered workers actually putting up the fence in the featured photo. This was Thursday, around 3:00 PM.

Now, knowing that the next official exit (because of other fencing, etc) was .2 miles in either direction, and because by walking through the parking lot to Rhode Island Ave was very convenient, I made a prediction that the fence wouldn’t last more than 2-3 days.

Sure enough, by the time I came back 2 hours later to take the Metro to my talk, I could already see people figuring out ways to jump the fence.

On Friday, I also headed to the Metro to go see a friend and I could see that the fence was still technically intact, but the area shown had become the de facto route over the fence.

Sure enough, Saturday afternoon when I was back in the area, 48 hours later the fence had been ripped open so that one could walk through.

My limited understanding of some European Common Law is that in some cases, if an “ancient path” exists, the landowner cannot deny access to it. For example, in New York state, if a river is navigable (and court cases have agreed that even simply using a kayak to traverse it deems it navigable) a land-owner can’t deny portage rights. So, I have to wonder if under some aspect of Common Law, the folks who destroyed the fence would be deemed to simply restoring their historical rights. Honestly, I don’t think so. But I’d call this a bit of civil disobedience (ok, not really since it’s not disobeying the state, but you get the idea.)

Now, I have no idea why the mall owners shut down (the entire place was abandoned) and put a fence around their entire parking lot. Presumably they were within their legal rights to do so (and given how litigious society can be, they perhaps felt they needed to).

But, just because they COULD do it, didn’t mean that the public would agree or support it. And they obviously didn’t. They took matters into their own hands and “fixed” the problem to their liking. Now, I can’t really condone destruction of personal property in most cases, nor do I necessarily want to promote trespass. But there’s a bit of me that thinks the property owners had this coming. They had, for years agreed to let the public use of their parking lot as a path  and apparently without any notice suddenly yanked it away. So while not really an “ancient path” it was a path and it had served people for years.

I wonder how long the fence will remain there and if it’s repaired how long before it’s broken again.  But alas, I won’t be around to continue watching.



Defining Dates

No real topic this week, just some thoughts on defining moments, or perhaps memorable moments. It seems that every generation has one or more. I’m going to start with one or two well before my time and then mention several others within my lifetime.

December 7th, 1941“A day that shall live in infamy.” We’re quickly losing the generation that remembers this day as actual history and the speech by FDR the next day that followed. But it set the US on a course in history where we eventually became the sole remaining superpower.  Of course too, we remember the Western version of events, the only real knowledge most of my readers would have of the Japanese point of view would come from the movie Tora, Tora Tora.

June 6th, 1944 – D-Day“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.” Again, a day that helped shape a nation and one we are starting to remember only from oral or written history as those who were there pass on.  This past summer I had the honor of visiting Arromanches, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, and walking among the stones of the fallen on the bluff overlooking the beaches. A very somber memory for me. What I have learned later in life is that as horrible as the losses were on the Western Front, it pales in comparison to the sacrifices made on the Eastern Front.  For those who have not read up on the battles between the Soviets and the Nazis, I recommend you do. The scale and scope of the front is incredible. We lost approximately 400,000 soldiers in WWII. The Soviets, depending on the counts, anywhere from 6-8 million military causalities (and millions more civilian casualties).

November 22, 1963 – My dad would tell me he remembered exactly where he was when this happened, history class. Some say a generation died that day.

July 21st, 1969 – This sort of bookmarks the end of the Kennedy dream. Neil Armstrong utters the historic words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Technically I was alive and conscious for this momentous event, but I have no memory of it.

January 28th, 1986 – Challenger Disaster. I found about this in a less than ideal way. I was returning to my dorm room in college to hear a floormate shouting, “Man, I can’t wait to see the full color photographs in the USA Today tomorrow.” Yeah, he had no class. This event forever reminded us that space travel had NOT been made routine.

November 9th, 1989 – Unlike most of the other events that marked my life, this one was a joyous one. For weeks my housemate and I had been following the events in Eastern Europe. We were watching events that we never thought would happen in our lifetime. But even then, I don’t think either of us dreamt that we’d soon be watching men with sledgehammers on top of the wall and them not only NOT being shot at, but being cheered on. I am always reminded of Tom Brokaw’s broadcast that night and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I was sitting at my desk at my computer, listening to the TV and looking out the window when I saw my housemate came home. I literally jumped on the desk and opened the window to shout, “The wall is down! The fucking wall is down!”

December 31st, 1999 – Technically NOT the end of the millennium, but who cares about that detail; all the digits were changing. But, I and others had work to do. We setup a command center in the meeting room with the fireplace at “the Mansion” we worked in and monitored our servers. Between monitoring we watched The Matrix and Enemy of the State (which still has one of the best exchanges of all time: “I blew up the building.” “Why?” “Because you made a phone call.”) Despite working (and having to ask two coworkers to be AT our data centers, one in NYC and the other outside of DC) it was actually a wonderful time. Honestly, one of the more fun New Year’s Eve I’ve had.

9/11 – A date that unfortunately needs no year. My best friend was murdered that day.

November 4, 2008 – I had made sure to be home in NY in the morning to vote before heading to my apartment/job just outside of DC.  I took the train down and had made it back to my apartment around 9:00 PM when I turned on the TV to follow the results. I was tired, it was late, but crowds were gathering outside the White House to celebrate. I debated, but realized it was a once in a lifetime experience and headed back into DC and joined them until about 1:30 AM. I even called my boss and told him I’d be late for work the next day.  I finally started to drive home and ended up picking up some folks in their 20s that had been stranded due to lack of mass-transit (and no cab was willing to pick them up at a random street corner) and taking them back to Alexandria.

There’s many personal dates that have special meaning to me, 1996-08-25, 2000-04-10, 2003-04-26, 2015-07-10 and others, but I wanted focus on ones where many of us can share common bonds and that had an impact on a nation or at least a large part of it.

What dates do YOU recall and why.

Failure is Required

Last week one of my readers, Derek Lyons correctly called me out on some details on my post about Lock outs. Derek and I go back a long ways with a mutual interest in the space program. His background is in nuclear submarines and some of the details of operations and procedures he’s shared with me over the years have been of interest.  The US nuclear submarine program is built around “procedures” and since the adoption of their SUBSAFE program, has only suffered one hull-loss and that was with the non-SUBSAFE-certified USS Scorpion.

The space program is also well known for its heavy reliance on procedures and attention to detail and safety. Out of the Apollo 13 incident, we have the famous quote, “Failure is not an option” attributed to Gene Kranz in the movie (but there’s no record of him saying it at the time.)

Anyway, his comments got me thinking about failures in general.

And I’d argue that with certain activities and at a certain level, this is true. When it comes to bringing a crew home from the Moon, or launching nuclear missiles, or performing critical surgeries, failure is not an option.

But sometimes, not only is it an option I’d say it’s almost a requirement. I was reminded of this at a small event I was asked to help be a panelist at last week.  It turned out there were 3 of us panelists and just 2 students from a local program to help folks learn to code: AlbanyCanCode. The concept of agile development was brought up and the fact that agile development basically relies on failing fast and early.  For software development, the concept of failing fast really only costs you time. And agile proponents will argue that in fact it saves you time and money since you find your failures much earlier meaning you spend less time going down the wrong path.

But I’m going to shift gears here to an area that’s even more near and dear to my heart: cave rescue.  At an overarching, one might say strategic level, failure is not an option. We teach in the NCRC that our goal is to get the patient(s) out in as good or better shape than we found them as quickly and safely as possible.  In other words, if we end up killing a patient, but get them out really quickly, that’s considered a failure; whereas if we take twice as long, but get them out alive, that’s considered a success.

But how do we do that?  Where does failure come into play?

One of the first lessons I was taught by one of my mentors was to avoid “the mother of all discussions.” This lesson hit home during an incident in my Level 1 training here in New York. We had a mock patient in a Sked. Up to this point it had been walking passage through a stream with about 1″ of water. But we had hit a choke point where the main part of the ceiling came down to about 12″ above the floor passage.  There was alternative route that would involve lifting the patient up several feet and then over some boulders and through some narrow and low (but not 12″ low passage) and then we’d be back to walking passage.  I and two others were near the head of the litter.  At this point we had placed the litter on the ground (out of the water).  We scouted ahead to see how far the low passage went and noticed it went about a body length.  A very short distance.

Meanwhile the rest of our party were back in the larger passage having the mother of all discussions. They were discussing whether we should could drag the litter along the floor, lift it up to go high, or perhaps even for this part, remove the patient from the litter and have them drag themselves a bit.  There may have been other ideas too.

My two partners and I looked at each other, looked at the low passage, looked at the patient, shrugged our shoulders and dragged the patient through the low passage to the other side.

About 10 seconds later someone from the group having the mother of all discussions exclaimed, “where’s the patient?”

“Over here, we got him through, now can we move on?”

They crawled through and we completed the exercise.

So, our decision was a success. But what if it had been a failure. What if we realized that the patient’s nose was really 13″ higher than the floor in the 12″ passage. Simple, we’d have pulled the patient back out. Then we could have shut down the mother of all discussions and said, “we have to go high, we know for a fact the low passage won’t work.”

Failure here WAS an option and by actually TRYING something, we were able to quickly succeed or fail and move on to the next option.

Now obviously one has to use judgement here. What if the water filled passage was 14″ deep. Then no, my partners and I certainly would NOT have tried to move the patient with just the three of us. But perhaps we might have convinced the group to try.

The point is, sometimes it can often be faster and easier to actually attempt a concept than it is to discuss it to death and consider every possibility.

Time and time again I’ve seen students in our classes fall into the mother of all discussions rather than actually attempt something. If they actually attempt something they can learn very quickly if it will work or not. If it works, great, the discussion can now end and they can move on to the next challenge. If it doesn’t work, great, they’ve narrowed down their options and can discuss more intelligently about the remaining options (and then perhaps quickly iterate through those too.)

So today’s take away, is don’t be afraid of failure. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Experience it. It will lead to learning.  Just make sure you understand the price of failure.  Failure may be an option and is sometimes mandatory, but in other cases, the old saw is true, failure is not an option, especially if failure means the loss of life.