Learning the Lingo

“Now, in the ’60s, there were only two other cars made in America that had Positraction, and independent rear suspension, and enough power to make these marks.” – Mona Lisa Vito

In my first stint as a computer consultant, I was visiting a potential client and noticed a magazine called I believe The American Bee Journal. I was a little surprised at first that such a magazine even existed, but then it dawned on me that it made perfect sense and that probably every specialty had a trade magazine or the like of its own.

In the world of SQL Server we’ll talk about query plans and clustered indexes vs non-clustered indexes and use other words specific to our trade.

In caving we’ll talk about speleothems and karst and other words that the average person might not recognize.

And mechanics can talk about Positraction and skid marks.

Knowing the language of a particular specialty can be important when it comes to understanding it.

I’ve been reflecting upon this lately as I continue to study so I can apply to a Physician’s Assistant program. I’m about to finish up my first semester of classes and one of the classes I’ve been taking and really enjoying is Anatomy and Physiology I. I still have a second class to take, but I’ve been loving things so far. It is, to me, absolutely fascinating to learn how the body works. For example, learning the physiology of muscle contractions is in three words, absolutely fucking cool. And any caver who has vertical experience would realize it’s not much different from how we ascend a rope.

Part of what I’m learning to is the language. In fact one of the first lectures and labs was simply on the language to use describe where things are. To someone not familiar with the language, it may sound like gibberish to say that the tibia is lateral to the fibula and the lateral malleolus is at the distal end, but such a description can help someone who knows the language orient themselves as to its location. Similarly if someone says they have a sore sternocleidomastoid muscle, I’d know where it is, based simply on the name. (I’d also honestly wonder why they simply didn’t say they had a sore muscle in their neck). In that case, the name of the muscle basically describes its origin (the sternum and clavicle or cleido) and insertion (the mastoid process). (If you’re curious, if you turn your head to the left, you can see the right sternocleidomastoid sort of bulging from the right side of your neck).

Honestly, at times I feel like I’m at a Broadway play and the orchestra is playing the overture and the curtain is slowly being drawn back to reveal what’s behind it. I’m excited by what I’ve learned and seen so far and excited to see what more I’ll see as the curtain continues to be drawn back!

Change My Mind… T-SQL Tuesday #146

Andy Yun (t | b) is this month’s host. Our challenge this month is:

 …to think about something you’ve learned, that subsequently changed your opinion/viewpoint/etc. on something.

I’m going to give a twofer for this one, since he’s also allowing non-technical answers.

8K Blocks

“SQL Server writes everything in 8K blocks.” I recall learning this probably close to 2 decades ago. And, it makes sense, at a lot of levels. And it was “confirmed” when we reformatted the disks on one of our production servers into 64K blocks so SQL Server could read/write 8 blocks at a time. Performance definitely improved. But, then I learned from Argenis Fernandez that this isn’t necessarily true. SQL Server will write what it wants to write. And if you think about it, that makes sense. If you update one record and it’s a single value you’re updating, SQL Server isn’t going to simply sit there and not write your 1 byte change to disk. And it’s not going to make up random 8191 bytes just so it can satisfy this rule of 8K. Yes, SQL Server will try to consolidate disk I/O and be efficient about it, but even then, it may not matter. Gone are the days where we’re writing data to bare metal (some of us are old enough to recall an option in early versions of SQL Server where one could create a database on a “raw” partition to get a performance boost). No, today we’re probably writing through multiple layers, more than we realize. For one client for example, a disk write from SQL Server will pass through an encryption layer, then to the OS, which will pass it through a disk driver layer that will then pass it on to the VM which will have its own layers. At that point, even if SQL Server were trying to only write 8K blocks, it’s quite possible every other layer has its own rules.

Yes, changing our disk formatting from 8K blocks to 64K blocks helped. It helped us. But, your requirements and situation may be different and ultimately you may end up writing more or less than 8K blocks all the time. (and I hope I summed up Argenis’s position accurately.)

Toss the Rope Down

As many know, I’m a caver. I’ve been caving for decades. Early in my caving career I learned vertical caving and back then we still used what was known as a “3-knot” system or “prussiks”. That hardware has improved and changed. But one habit took longer. It was (and unfortunately still is) common to tie one end of the rope to a tree or other rigging point, and drop the rest down the pit. Sure, you ended up with a pile of rope at the bottom, but no one really cared, as long as you didn’t step on it (which is another myth for another time). This helped guarantee that your rope actually reached the bottom. The only thing that sucks more than rappelling down a pit and reaching the knot at the end of the rope 50′ from the bottom of the pit is rappelling down a pit and realizing 50′ from the bottom of the pit that you forgot to put a knot in your rope.

But somewhere along the line, folks started to realize, “hey, that rope at the bottom of the pit is useless. It’s FAR more useful if we can leave it at the top of the pit.” As the depth of most pits are known, it’s actually not that hard to measure out the rope you think you need (plus a bit extra) and then rig the rope so that you have extra at the top. Why is this important? Some call this “rigging for rescue” (or more accurately, one part of the bigger concept).

Imagine the scenario where you’re ascending the rope and have an equipment failure. You can’t go up and can’t go down. If all the extra rope is below you, it doesn’t do you any good. You can’t do anything with it. But, if that extra 10′ or 20′ (or more) is at the top and you’ve rigged correctly, someone at the top can, without too much effort, safely change the rigging (with you still on the rope) to a 3:1 or if nothing else, a 2:1 haul system. Suddenly that extra rope sitting at the top of the pit becomes useful.

Beginners will still often toss the extra rope to the bottom of the pit, but more experienced cavers will rig it to stay at the top and this may literally save lives.

Conclusion

Stop and think about practices that you do now that you may have learned that could be wrong or no longer applicable. And more importantly, do those bad practices interfere with doing something that’s better or safer? With SQL Server, over the past few decades, a lot has changed and improved, but are you still doing something you were taught 2 decades ago because “well that’s the way things are done.” A lot has changed in 2 decades. Make sure your knowledge is still valid!

2022 in Preview

I started last year’s version of this post with the suggestion I should leave it as a blank page and I’m tempted again, but no, I actually have goals for next year.

By words, thoughts become actions, and by actions words become deeds.

I’m going to start with the usual list of items and then have a big reveal at the bottom (you can skip to that if you want).

  • Like last year, I’m going to continue to write for Red-Gate. Even if it’s just one article. I will also attempt to keep my “Friends of Red-Gate’ status. In fact, I vow to be even more involved if I can find time.
  • This year for the NCRC, I’m looking to premiere a new class we’re calling “Tip of the Spear” aka TOTS. The focus of the class will be to work with medical doctors, nurses, physicians assistants and other medically trained personal to get them (the tip of the spear) to the patient deep in the cave as quickly as possible to provide the best possible medical care. Unlike our normal classes where there’s a strong focus on things like setting up communications, rigging, searching, etc this will focus solely on getting them there to use their skills. I’m excited about this, even though there’s a fair amount of work required to fully develop the curriculum.
  • Yeah, I’ll continue blogging. ‘Nough said. (Hey no one says you have to read it!)
  • Travel: While I do plan to do more, the big trips may be out for reasons to be mentioned below. But we’ll see.
  • Biking: Yeah, I hope to hit at least 700 miles this year (that has sort of been my minimum goal for years and I’ve beat it every year. I’ll continue to do so).
  • Hike More: I hope to do at least one overnight this year. And of course day hikes. So if you’re interested in doing a hike, let me know.
  • Caving: There’s a few caves I want to get into this year. So I’m looking forward to that.

Changes are Coming!

And now “the big reveal”. I’m going to start by saying that while I enjoy consulting and I think I’m pretty good at it, I am not enjoying it as much as I used to. I’m also simply not finding it fulfilling in a way I’d like it to be.

Among the reasons is that at the end of the day I look at what I’ve done and wonder “what difference does it really make?” Yes, I’ve written some solid code. I’ve helped with projects that have saved my clients thousands of dollars or made them tens of thousands. Financially, they’ve obviously made a difference. But, on a personal level they haven’t.

One reason I’ve enjoyed teaching cave rescue so much (and participating in the few I have, including a body recovery) is because at the end of the day I know I’ve made a difference: I’ve taught someone valuable skills, helped someone get out safely, or even in the most extreme case, been able to help others find closure.

I’ve been contemplating a change for awhile. I had toyed with a few ideas, such as going back to being a full-time employee, ideally in a management position for awhile. And I may still end up doing that, but that’s not where I am planning on heading right now. Financially it would probably be the right move, and honestly, I think when I’ve had the right environment, I’ve been a good manager (on the flip side, in a bad environment I’ve found it hard to be an effective or good manager).

So, instead, I’m going to pivot a bit and attempt a career change. I’m going to to try to move into a field where I think I can make a direct impact on people’s lives. I’m going to start taking prerequisite classes so I can apply for a Physician’s Assistant program. This is an idea I’ve toyed with off and on for years. Or rather one of several. Besides enjoying working with computers, I’ve been fascinated with two other fields: medical and law. I’ve thought for quite a few years if perhaps I should explore them. This really came to a head during my dad’s fatal illness 6 years ago. I’ll brag a bit and say that more than once I had one of the attendings or nurses ask me (after discussing his condition or treatment) “Are you in the medical field?” Once even when students were rounding, the attending asked them a question and none answered it to his satisfaction, I was able to step in and correctly answer it. Yes, one or two students scowled at me.

Now, having said that, I’m quite realistic in understanding that while I do claim a greater than a laymen’s knowledge of things medical, I have a LONG way to go and I’m entering a difficult field later in life and have a bit of catchup to do. I have no illusions that this will be easy for me. But to perhaps channel a bit of John F. Kennedy “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

In the most optimistic timeframe, I’ll be completing my PA work in mid 2025. In a more realistic timeframe, probably 2026. This is a serious investment of time and effort. This is arguably going to be one of the hardest things I’ve done in years. There’s no guarantee of success (heck, there’s no guarantee that even after doing all the prereqs I’ll be accepted into a program). But, I’ve decided I have to try. Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for? I won’t know if I can do it unless I try and I don’t want to be a 4 years older wondering “what if?”

I’d been having thoughts about this for a long time. I finally put the thoughts into words, which made them that much more real. Now I’m starting to put the words into actions.

And one of those actions is to write the words down here for others to read. I do this for a multitude of reasons.

  • By writing this down and revealing it to the world (or at least to a small part of it) it holds me a bit more accountable for trying.
  • I’ll freely admit, I could use any and all support and help any of my friends, family, including #sqlfamily, and others are willing to give.
  • And honestly, perhaps it’ll inspire others in a similar position to stretch for their own goals.

For the coming year

I’ll keep working in SQL, you’ll see me at events and I’ll probably do some speaking, but I won’t be seeking out new work. I simply won’t have the time.

I’ll still keep running my local user group and looking for speakers

I’ll be blogging about my successes, and failures.

And I’ll be busy.

Wish me luck.

Life Shortened

As I start to write this, the TV reminds me, that this is the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor; and that there are still a few veterans alive from that day.

This is both a somber note, and a somewhat celebratory one to start the day. Horrible things can happen, and yet life can still go on. I was reminded of this over the weekend.

I woke up on Saturday morning to read on Facebook that Scott Alarik had passed away. Some of my readers will recognize the name immediately, but for those who don’t, a little background. Scott was a singer-songwriter who was also a columnist for the Boston Globe and write a book on folk music and wrote for a number of other columns. I first met Scott at Mother’s Wine Emporium so many years ago. He had performed his opus Fresh-Water Whaling, telling the little known history of the glory days of whaling on the Great Lakes. I must add that the history is so little known as to be non-existent. But, for those who do recall it, remember those little harpoons you sometimes find in drinks memorialize it. Or so it was said by Scott. As much as Scott liked to sing, I think he preferred more to talk and write. He was a living, walking history of the world of folk music. I still recall one night, after he had performed at a Mother’s Wine Emporium show at RPI where we discussed “what exactly is folk music?” We agreed it was “music of the folk” but beyond that we decided it had no easy definition. As I write this, I’m listening to the first video I found on YouTube and it is Scott at his best. Yes, there’s a song or two in there, but mostly it’s him telling stories. It’s as I remember Scott.

Scott Alarik at Mother’s in 2019

That news was hard enough, but to myself I said, “at least Bill is still with us.” I had read late last month that another singer-songwriter I knew, Bill Staines was fighting cancer and the battle was not going well. Alas though, on Sunday I woke up to more tragic news. Bill had journeyed to the next folk stage. Bill was another performer I had met through Mother’s Wine Emporium many years ago. I have several of his albums, at least one I believe signed. He was known for the prodigious miles he would put on his car, I believe at one point he said he averaged 100,000 miles a year, as he drove from performance to performance. Three of his albums reflect this: The First Million Miles, The First Million Miles, Vol 2, and The Second Million Miles. His best known song was perhaps River,(Take Me Along). I think his final journey though is longer than all his rest.

Finally, later on Sunday I also read of the death of fellow caver Mark Hodges. I can’t say I knew Mark very well. I want to say I caved with him at least once, but I honestly can’t remember. But I knew the impact he had on the cavers around him. He apparently suffered a heart attack while exiting a cave over the weekend. The tributes left to him from his friends and fellow cavers are touching and serve as a reminder, that one doesn’t need to write books, or travel 100,000 miles a year to have an impact on those around him.

I’m going to close with a memory of another friend and also former “Mother” at Mother’s Wine Emporium: Tom Duscheneau. Tom was a fixture at Mother’s for more years than I can remember, and many an attendee will recall him taking a seat at the front of the room, settling in as the music would wash over him, and closing his eyes. Yes, occasionally he’d need a nudge if had started snoring, but otherwise he would simply sit there, soaking in the music until the set ended. He passed in 2006, but I still recall him from time to time. I suspect if there’s a great beyond, he’s just pulled up a chair and sat down, preparing to take in a great concert as Scott and Bill decide to tell a few tall tales and perform a duet or two.

Mother’s Wine Emporium aka Mother’s Coffehouse – For those who don’t know what Mother’s was, it was a magical place at RPI, a place where one could retreat from the hustle-bustle of the busy world and sit back and listen to singers, raconteurs and more. It had moved at least once over the years (the above photo is the latest incarnation). For the longest time, it was the oldest, continuously student run coffeehouse in the nation. Scott liked to talk about how if you made it here, you knew you had probably gotten your ticket to the college coffehouse circuit. Those of us who had the honor of working here were known as “Mothers” and it is were my wife and I met. Due to a variety of circumstances, including the death of Tom Duscheneau, it had its last show sometime in 2007. In 2019, I worked with the RPI to bring back Scott Alarik for a performance, with a hope for future shows. Covid has unfortunately put a hold on that plan, but I do hope in the coming years to again sit back and soak in the music of some great performers.

Feeling Good but…

I think it would be fair to say that like everyone, I’m a bit sick of Covid (thankfully not sick from it.) I just got my booster on Friday and then I’m hearing about the Omicron variant.

I submitted talks for SQLBits in the UK for next year, hoping to present in person. And I’m hearing about numbers rising.

I’m planning a mini-vacation/cave rescue training trip to Hawai’i next year and making sure everything is refundable. Just in case.

So I’m feeling god but…

At the start of each year, I set some financial goals for myself. Some include what things I may pay off, save, or how I’ll spend it (now admittedly most of those are fixed, such as knowing I’ll tax property taxes, etc.) As a contractor I also set a couple of various goals for new work and how much I’ll hopefully earn in the coming year. I find these are important as they help keep me focused and moving forward.

The good news is, financially I’ve hit all my goals, and then some, this year. The downside, with that, and with Covid continually popping up its ugly head, I’ve lost some of my motivation for the rest of the year.

Fortunately, this has freed up some time for some projects around the house. Almost two years ago, with help from the kids, I started on a project to replace some leaking pipes and replace the resulting damaged drywall in the basement. I’m proud to say I’ve finally gotten around to taping and painting the drywall in the basement and patching around where I put in the new bathroom fan. Things get done, albeit slowly.

I’m also feeling good because a major project for one of my clients is mostly completed. But it also came very close to burning me out and I’ll admit I even considered walking away from the client over it. The strange part is that it wasn’t a particularly complicated project, though it did involve a combination of SQL, PowerShell, and using a product called Pentaho. Technically it was fairly straightforward. But, for awhile, the project management was absent and the then lead was actually another agency who, I think it’s safe to say didn’t clearly understand the full scope of the project. With the addition of the client adding their own PM and working with a different agency taking over a bunch of the work, things have gone much more smoothly. Now we’re simply dealing with small niggling details that got missed before.

What kept me from walking away (besides it being my largest client) was a sense of responsibility to the client. Without my efforts, I think the project would have easily been set back a month as they would have had to bring someone else up to speed on my efforts.

Now the upside is that because of the overtime required (and it’s still ongoing) I met my financial goals for the year (and hence now have time for the house projects). So that’s a good thing.

But it did highlight how frustrating being a single-person consulting agency can be at times. It’s made me re-evaluate my goals for 2022. I’ll be writing more about this in a future blog, but it has got me thinking more about getting back to working for an company as a full-time employee, ideally in a management position. Strangely one thing I’ve come to realize is I actually enjoy making decisions and I enjoy managing. I sort of miss it.

And perhaps after nearly 2 years of Covid (and nearly a decade of pure consulting), it’s time I get out of the house more and travel a bit and interact face to face with people.

We’ll see.

But that’s it for today. I’m feeling good but…

P.S. One thing I did finally accomplish is submitting my latest article to Redgate’s Simple-Talk.

Feeling Older

This is probably far from the last time I’m going to write on the subject, and certainly not as in depth as I plan to someday, but this past week made me feel past my prime.

While in many ways I believe age is just a number, the truth is, it does change us. While I am still very active, such as biking a century ride last year, still caving and teaching cave rescue, the reality is, the body and mind are slowing.

I’ve been working with SQL Server in one form or another since 4.21. I’ve spoken at PASS Summit, I’ve presented at more SQL Saturdays and User Groups than I can remember. I’ve published a book and numerous Red Gate articles and I’ve mentored more than a few people over the decades. I’ve worked at two start-ups (not counting mergers and acquisitions) and been a consultant before, between and after those gigs.

So I think I can safely say I’m comfortable with my credentials.

That said, the past week really made me consider if it was time to hang up my cap, or at least change caps again. I won’t go into details, other than to say a particularly stressful project for one of my clients reached a major milestone. I’m actually just one small cog in a much bigger piece of the project, but it’s a fairly important cog. And, it had issues. Now, I’ll put on my shoulders that a bit was due to issues with my code and some assumptions I had made. Most of the issues actually stemmed at a far higher level and with another consultant agency working on the project. Let’s just say that GIGO still thrives. But some of it I realized was, I was slightly off my game, and I think a bit of brain fog was involved. I don’t know if that was age related, simply a result of being cooped up for well over the last year due to Covid or what.

Regardless, the culmination of all that and other issues, some personal, started to come to a head. By Friday I was seriously wondering how much more I had left in the tank, physically and mentally.

Today I will admit I’m in a better place. The last major piece of code I needed to get working finally succeeded in production last night and the GIGO problems seem to be disappearing.

But that was after a long weekend of introspection about where I’m headed. I am at that age where retirement is no longer some far off nebulous goal, but an actual reality I have to consider. I’ve always known I’ll probably never truly retire; I do enjoy being busy and working too much. However, I have for several years now done the delicate balance between making sure I hit certain target goals for income and actually enjoying my work. Last week that balance was way off. I need to get it back.

This is my long-winded way of saying that for the first time in years, I’m honestly not sure what I’ll be doing a year from now. Perhaps I’ll still be consulting in my current form and enjoying it. Perhaps I’ll go back to a full-time 9-5 gig; I have come to realize, I deeply miss the management side of work. For my two stints as a full-time employee I was a manager and honestly, I loved that. I miss it. Perhaps I’ll be consulting in a very different way going forward. Maybe I’ll invest in real-estate. Perhaps become a vagabond teaching cave rescue across the country (this last one is not as far fetched as it sounds, I am planning on teaching at least 2 if not 3 different classes next year.)

But I think change is coming again. It’s the season.

Time Crawls On

There’s a crevice at the top of a ridge, about 18.5 miles from my house as the crow flies. And as time flies, it’s been in my life for 36 or 37 years.

The crevice is locally known as The Snow Hole because it retains snow late into the year. Decades ago it had snow through August and sometimes beyond. Unfortunately the time for that is long past due the overall temperatures increasing a day or two.

I first visited this in the Spring of ’84 or ’85. I honestly can’t recall which year. As part of the Outdoor Education club or “OE” as we called it in high school, we did an overnight trip. The instructor liked to challenge us and in this particular case we literally arrived at a random parking lot at the base of a ridge and were purposely given a vague map and told to find a particular peak to camp on. With some bushwhacking we made it to the top of the ridge, struck south and arrived at the peak with a gorgeous view. We camped there and then the next day headed north, crossed a road, and eventually arrived at a crack in the ground full of snow. We explored the crack and I’m sure threw a few snowballs at each other. The crack has sheer walls on three sides and a walkable slope on the west side. At the very top of that slope there is a hole in the ground. Alas, no hobbit lived in it, but it was large enough to wiggle into and with some effort find oneself completely underground. It wasn’t much of a cave, but it was there. (Arguably, by some definitions, because one never got beyond what’s known as the twilight zone, it’s not really a cave, but to us, it was a cave.)

We hiked back to the road and in the parking lot there, not the one we started at, we packed up the vehicles and headed home. At the time, I honestly had no clue where we had gone. But I knew it was fun.

It was a couple of years later, I was now in college, when I joined the Rensselaer Outing Club on a day hike to Berlin Mountain. We drove east from campus and arrived at a parking lot. We unloaded and hiked south. I was having a mild sense of deja vu, but I wasn’t sure why. Several miles later, we arrived at the top of Berlin Mountain and I instantly recognized the view. I had camped there. To our east was Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. I had returned.

On a later hike, we headed north to the Snowhole. This was the first of many return trips to both locations, the most recent being a hike this past weekend to the Snowhole with my wife.

As we headed north, I was trying to remember my last time there and I want to say close to a decade ago. As I move on in my years and I revisit locations from the past, I try to recall what they were like years ago. In some cases my memories are clouded and faded, in others though, I know my memories are accurate but the places have changed. Both were true on the hike in. In this case, there are two rather open spots about 2/3rds of the way in where one has gorgeous views. Or, more accurately had. The areas themselves are open, but the trees just downhill have continued to grow over the decades and now block much of the view.

View north of Berlin Mountain in the distance, but numerous trees in the foreground blocking much of the view. Taken from the Taconic Crest Trail on the way to the Snowhole.
Decades ago, you could see far more!

And as I mentioned above, the snow doesn’t persist as long in the Snowhole as it used it. But the Snowhole itself hasn’t changed much. Oh, I’m sure a rock or two has fallen since then, more leaves have filled the bottom and decade and I think there’s a bit of a subsistence at the bottom that’s opened up a bit, but overall it’s the same.

And one thing waiting there was that cave. For whatever reason I had not reentered that cave since my first time. This time I decided to do so. I’ve talked about in the past how sometimes we remember caves being bigger than they actually are. Well, in this case I swear the entrance was larger than I remember. I do think in fact the rock had shifted a bit, so perhaps it had been smaller in the past, but in any event, in this case I was able to crawl in without much effort. And the cave itself was deeper and far larger than I recall. Unlike most caves in New York, this is not a solutional cave formed by the breakdown of limestone. Instead, it’s really more of a breakdown cave, where as other stuff erodes away or shifts the layers of rock shift, break, or otherwise move. In my memory, the cave was about 6′ long and just enough to turn around in and peep out a much smaller window near the entrance. Now, it was probably a good 12′-15′ feet long and it dropped down about 6′. Technically I could probably have crawled over a ledge and down just enough to get out of the twilight zone. It truly is a cave, at least now. And it’s one of those rare cases where it’s far larger than I remember. I don’t know in this case if it’s just my memory, or if the cave had changed. It didn’t matter.

After a few minutes I crawled back out and started to do the math. That’s when I realized it had been nearly 40 years since I had last crawled in there. I do hope it’s not another 40 before I crawl in again.

And Now the Good News…

The good news is my 2005 Subaru only needed some very minor repairs to get it back on the road so my son can take it to college. This is in contrast to the local dealer telling me last year that it had significant leaks and there was no way for it to pass inspection. I didn’t really believe their diagnosis, but figured they knew what they were talking about and ended up buying a 2015 Subaru last fall.

So why am I telling you about my car ownership? Because this is sort of a follow-up to my post from last week on decision making. After posting it and getting several positive comments, I realized it was actually a bit incomplete and decided I need to write a follow-up. You see, I sort of ignored a huge fact in my last post and it’s both generic and personal. The fact is, decision making in the abstract is easy, it’s when it gets personal it can get far harder. Generically this applies to everyone. Personally, last week I was struggling with the decision about my car repairs and realizing the emotional factors involved.

One of my favorite TV dramas of all time addresses this problem in a few episodes, the most clear one being Mr. Willis of Ohio where President Bartlet explains to his daughter Zoey the real concern:

My getting killed would be bad enough, but that is not the nightmare scenario. The nightmare scenario, sweetheart, is *you* getting kidnapped. You go out to a bar or a party in some club and you get up to go to the restroom and somebody comes from behind and puts their hand across your mouth and whisks you out the back door. You’re so petrified you don’t even notice the bodies of a few Secret Service agents lying on the ground with bullet holes in their heads. Then you’re whisked away in a car. It’s a big party with lots of noise and lots of people coming and going, and it’s a half hour before someone says, “Hey, where’s Zoey?” Another fifteen minutes before the first phone call. It’s another hour and a half before anyone even *thinks* to shut down all the airports. Now we’re off to the races. You’re tied to a chair in a cargo shack somewhere in the middle of Uganda and I am told that I have 72 hours to get Israel to free 460 terrorist prisoners. So I’m on the phone pleading with Be Yabin and he’s saying: “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but Israel simply does not negotiate with terrorists, period. It’s the only way we can survive.” So now we got a new problem because this country no longer has a Commander-in-chief, it has a father who’s out of his mind because his little girl is in a shack somewhere in Uganda with a gun to her head. Do you get it?

The West Wing: Mister Willis of Ohio.

This later becomes a plot point in a later season where basically this scenario gets played out and President Bartlet decides to invoke the 25th Amendment and temporarily steps aside (which, in my opinion leads to some great scenes with John Goodman who proves his acting chops include more than comedy).

The point is, he realizes he can be the President, or a father, but at times he can’t be both. And now back to my 2005 Subaru.

Last year when I thought I was facing over $3000 in repairs, it was a fairly easy decision to not get it repaired. I thought in the back of my mind that perhaps I’d make it a Covid project with my kids and do the work over the summer. As both the summer and my motivation slowly ran away, I realized this wasn’t going to happen.

That said, I still harbored an interesting in getting the car fixed, even though economically it didn’t seem to make sense. Thinking about it, I realized that several factors were driving my decision, one of which of course was it gave my son a car for his final time at college. But also, honestly, it was a fun car to drive. In some ways far more fun than my current Subaru (but I love the bells and whistles of my current car). But there was another factor, my dad had essentially helped me buy the car, just months before he got ill and passed away. There was a distinct emotional attachment to the car. It was looming larger than I had cared to admit.

But recently a new wrinkle appeared. Due to the Covid pandemic, there has been a distinct uptick in the price and value of used cars. A recent search of Subarus in a similar age range showed them now being sold for close to $4000. Suddenly putting that much money into an old car wasn’t an entirely bad idea. But again, I had to wonder, “was it worth it?”

I decided to take a “wait and see” attitude and got it insured and registered and took it to a local mechanic I’m starting to use more and more. I told him basically “Hey, if we can get it inspected without doing all the work, let’s do it.”

A few hours later he called me back. He had bad news. He couldn’t pass it. But, not because it needed the work the dealer had claimed. But because I had forgotten that the battery had recently died and I had had to jump it and recharge the battery. This meant the computer data on emissions wasn’t sufficient and it wouldn’t pass. Fortunately, this is an easy cure: drive it for around 100 miles. With that, it should pass!

I got lucky this time. I could get the car on the road for very little cost. The whole emotional attachment part could go away, at least for now. So what would I have done? Thinking about it, I suspect, since honestly, we had the money, and having the extra car would be useful and because of the increase in car prices I’d have gone ahead with it.

But what about bigger decisions? Fortunately I’ll never be in the position that writers put President Bartlet in. But, there are other situations where emotions might come into play. In cave rescue there’s a skill called a “pick-off” which can be used to help rescue a patient who is stuck on rope. We used to teach it at our standard weeklong cave rescue course and require proficiency in it to pass one of the upper levels. It can be very useful and if your patient is conscious and cooperative, it’s not hard to do. If they’re unconscious however, it can be very hard to do and in fact can be quite dangerous. If you do it wrong, you can also end up stuck on the rope with no way to go up or down. This can be fatal. I know of at least one situation where a friend tried to rescue another friend stuck on a rope in a cave in a waterfall. Both died. He didn’t have the skills (or honestly the best equipment to do so) and allowed his emotions to cloud his decision making. It’s easy to say that here, sitting in my nice dry office when I don’t hear a friend dying. In rescue, one of the hardest decisions one has to make is when to stop a rescue. It’s not easy and emotions and emotional attachments can come into play. But one has to look at the overall picture and try to not let emotions cloud ones decision making process.

As an aside, an excellent look at a real-life scenario where a climber had to cut the rope of his buddy: Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. I highly recommend it.

So, what is the take-away here?

When making decisions, there are often personal and emotional factors that come into play. Sometimes one can allow them (in my case with the car, it’s just money), in others (such as a pick-off) one might allow them, but probably shouldn’t, and if you’re President of the US, you probably should avail yourself of a way out so that your emotions don’t cloud your decision making process. Actually, even if you’re not President of the United States with a kidnapped daughter, I would recommend either turning the decision making process over to another competent person, or at least searching out the input of several folks, ideally ones without the same emotional biases as you, and getting a consensus of opinion. Ultimately though, be aware of the factors going into your decision and the possible consequences.

That’s it for now, until I decide to write another post about this topic.

Let’s Start with the bad news…

Last Thursday I had to send out an email that started with this line. I had to tell over 4 dozen students that the upcoming Cave Rescue training had to be cancelled due to the ongoing uptick in Covid infections.

Long-time readers of this blog are probably aware of the history of this class. In short, it was originally scheduled for last June. Last February we decided to postpone it to this June. This past February, based on where we thought the infection curve would be and vaccinations would be, the decision was made to postpone the major event to late August and do a much smaller, more limited event in June.

In hindsight, one could say, “well you should have had the National Class in June.” Most of our folks would have been vaccinated and the infection rate in June was extremely low.

And the reality is, we might find in the next 12 days or so before the class was scheduled a dramatic drop in the infection curve.

Since the Training Coordinator and I made the decision to cancel, I have received numerous emails expressing sympathy for all the hard work I had put in and how disappointed I must be. I appreciate them, but the truth is, I’m not disappointed or upset. And I’m definitely not second-guessing the decisions that got us here.

The thing is, despite an earlier post, I’m generally comfortable with making decisions and even enjoy making them at times. One thing to keep in mind, especially with decisions like this, is that one makes them based on the information one has available at the time. Back in February, when the decision was made to postpone, we didn’t know that the vaccination rate would be as high as it would be by May. We also didn’t know that there would be such a huge surge in infections in August. Had we known that, we’d have made a different decision.

The other factor that can help is to not make decisions in a vacuum. Ultimately, this seminar was my responsibility and I was the one who made the recommendation to our Board back in February to delay. While there was a vote and decision and vote by them, ultimately my input was a big factor there. (It was unlikely that the BORC would have rejected my advice to delay). In this most recent decision to outright cancel, it came down to the Training Coordinator and I. Neither decision was made in a vacuum (that can lead to bad decision making and also means less information is available) but ultimately the decision and responsibility came down to one or two people.

There were two overriding factors that led to this decision. One was a very practical factor. A number of our students and instructors simply had to cancel. Either they felt the risk was too great, or in several cases, their employers had revoked their time off since they were needed at work to help handle the impact of the ongoing rate of infections. So we simply were facing the fact that we were having a diminishing number of instructors and students and that fact alone was causing us to cancel portions of the seminar.

And the other was: we are charged with training and doing so in a safe environment. As the covid spike gets larger, we felt we could not do a training in a way we felt that was safe.

I’ll admit, had we gone ahead with the training I’d have been a nervous wreck for at least two weeks after the seminar until we knew we were safe (or not) from Covid.

Yes, it’s disappointing that we had to cancel, but I know it was the right decision. And I know each decision was the right one that led to this point.

It’s often tempting to second guess decisions. While at times it can be useful to review what went into making a decision, I would caution against dwelling on decisions.

So to review:

  • Remind yourself, decisions made in the past are generally made on the best information at the time. Don’t revaluate them based on information not available at that time.
  • When possible, get input from multiple people, but have a clear process for making the decision and at times that’s best done by one or two people.
  • Generally, decide towards safety. In our case, there was no pressing reason to lower our safety standards.
  • Also, it can be important to remember no matter how much effort or work was put in in the past, not to count that in the decision. A LOT of work has gone into planning this upcoming training. But that doesn’t change the factors that are currently in play. This is the sunk-cost fallacy. That work is done. But new factors determined the decision.
  • Don’t live in the past. Move forward.
  • Get vaccinated. (that has nothing to do with decision making, but is a good idea).

Close to the Edge

I had initially decided I wasn’t going to say much about Simone Biles’ decision to drop out of my of her Olympic events, but then I realized, when I had started this blog, one of the things I wanted to focus on was how we make decisions and how our brains work at times.

But before I comment on Biles’ choice, I want to delve a bit into what we teach in our cave rescue training. We have a core 3 levels and much of our training involves rigging of ropes, patient packaging, and patient extraction. In other words, all hands on activities that require certain skills and training. A typical weeklong class will have over 80 hours of training. This means by the time a person completes the core levels, they will have spend over 240 hours in training.

But the thing is, many rescues don’t require any of that. I’ve done rescues where there was absolutely no rigging involved. But there is one component that is involved in all rescues, but we spend less than an hour on: psychological considerations. Every rescue involves at least two parties, the person being rescued, and the rescuer. And this means that their mental statuses are involved. Now, I’ll admit in perhaps the vast majority of rescues the mental status of the rescuee or the rescuer aren’t really issues or a problem, but they exist.

I bring this up because of two incidents that come to mind in my caving career, both that involve how our brains work, or more specifically in these cases, my brain. The first involves a body recovery and the second just a simple caving trip.

About 20 years ago we had an unfortunate incident where a local caver became trapped while underwater and drowned. Recovery operations already have a different feel and tempo than rescue operations. There’s generally very little urgency and you have to deal with family members and others who are struggling with the death of a loved one. The mood is far more somber. The death occurred on a Monday night. It wasn’t until Wednesday night that we were able to free Rob. I wasn’t in the cave when he was finally extricated. But the word came out that they needed people to help transport him to the surface. One of the folks in charge, a friend came to me and asked, “Greg, can you do this?” I had to stop and think. I appreciated that she was asking. I knew that “No” would be a perfectly fine answer and she wouldn’t think any less of me. Not everyone is psychologically equipped to deal with a dead body so close up, especially when it’s someone they know. An important part of what went into my decision was making sure I’d be a help to the team and not a burden. I didn’t want to freeze up or otherwise hinder things. I ultimately answered “Yes” because in part, I felt he should be accompanied by someone who knew him on his final journey to the surface and felt confident I wouldn’t slow things down.

The second incident was a simple caving trip. A friend and I were rigging the entrance to a pit known as Cemetery Pit. Our choice of rigging involved wrapping our rope around a large boulder and tying a figure 8 knot in it. Between the two of us we have tied a figure 8 knot 1000s of times. It’s our go-to knot for most things. Yet, because of the way the rope was laying around the rock, the angle of the one of the ropes forming the loop just didn’t look right to me. I was pretty confident I had it right, but when you’re about to rappel 150′ into a cave “pretty confident” really isn’t quite good enough. So I asked my buddy to take a look at it. He had the same reaction as me, “I think that’s right, but I’m not 100% sure. I’ll retie it.” He retied it and his results still didn’t look quite right. We both made a few attempts at it and each one didn’t quite look right. I believe we ended up tying something else that did look right and we had 100% confidence in. In retrospect, I’m suspect we had it right the first time (and subsequent times) but our brains suddenly had a case of the yips, or perhaps the caving version of the twisties

What do these have to do with Simone Biles? Two things: she was a team member who did the right thing, and who suffered from a sudden lack of confidence, or as they call it in gymnastics, the twisties.

I’m going to deal with the twisties first. Now, I haven’t done any gymnastics since grammar school, but I did have an incident once while diving/playing in the water that I suspect was similar. I had jumped off the diving board, probably doing a flip of some sort, and found myself tumbling underwater. This was an experience I normally enjoyed. I love the freedom water gives and twisting and gyrating underwater. But this time was different. When I stopped, I realized I had no idea which way was the surface. There was a moment of panic before I realized I still had enough air in my lungs that if I just waited I’d float to the surface. But I had for a moment lost my complete kinesthetic sense. I have to imagine this is similar what happened to Biles. In my case, the consequences was simply a moment of panic, then a simple wait to rise to the surface. In her case, having seen some of her moves and listening to some of the commentators, I’ve come to realize that in the case of a gymnast, such a loss can result in severe injury. This article illustrates several such examples. Similarly, if we had not been able to tie rigging we felt safe on, we might have aborted our trip because a mistake could be fatal. Sometimes our brains simply get into that state where up is down and left is right and it’s not simple to fix that. So, in that aspect, I think she made the right decision, as has any person caving (or in another activity) who has turned back because they’ve lost confidence in their rigging or skills. Better to be safe and come back another day than be sorry.

In terms of being a member of a team, she also made the right choice. She could have said, “Well I’m the GOAT, I’m going to compete no matter what” but because of her state of mind, probably not performed at her best and pulled back on some of her more extreme moves ( thus reducing her points totals) and very likely not won medals. But, by pulling out, and she opened up spots for other members of the team, such as Mykayla Skinner to step up. In a world where Biles had forced herself to compete, my guess is due to the twisties, she would not have medaled on the vault, and Skinner would have never had the chance to compete, which means the US would not have won Silver in the vault. Sometimes being a team player means stepping aside so others can do the job. In my case of the body recovery, had I not felt comfortable in my ability to carry out my task, I would have rightly stepped aside.

I have to give Simone Biles a lot of credit. The weight of the world, or at least the US was on her shoulders. She was expected to perform at levels that no one else has reached. She also knows that few gymnasts at her level compete late into their 20s. This may be her last Olympics. All the pressure was on her to compete. But had she done so, she risked serious injury and very well may have kept the US from winning as many gymnastic medals as they did. I respected her before, but I have to admit I have even more respect for her now. She really is the GOAT.