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.

Coping

I’m going to be a bit more open than I usually am in my blog posts. I think it’s time for a bit of transparency.

Let me start by saying that overall, despite the impact of Covid, the last 15 or so months have not been terrible for me. Far from it. In fact I’ve been very fortunate. So this post isn’t a rant or a series of complaints. It’s really a short reflection.

Last year for example, I biked more than I had in years, and in fact did my first century ride since college. I presented at PASS Summit for the first time, albeit virtually. I got to spend more time with my kids. Fortunately, no one close to me had a serious case of COVID nor died from it (though I had friends and former coworkers who did lose people close to them).

I even managed to organize and pull off a cave rescue training class late last summer. And of course just pulled off another weeklong course this month, and will help with another one in late August.

So overall, it’s been a pretty decent 15 months.

But lately I’ve noticed things aren’t necessarily where I want them to be. My motivation levels have been off. I’ve got at least 3-4 ideas for more articles for Redgate. But, I find myself finding reasons to put off writing them. I’ve got a few other projects that I haven’t made progress on. I need to finish tiling a backsplash in my bathroom, patch a hole in the wall in the downstairs bathroom from when I put in a fan, and a few more.

But honestly, the idea of launching into such projects just makes me go “bleah”.

I think too some of the frustration in my inability to attract new clients like I was hoping to this year has put me into the “bleah” mode, and of course in a vicious cycle caused me to put less effort into attracting new clients.

But, ultimately, I’m writing this post not because I’m looking for sympathy or for comfort, but ironically for the exact opposite reason. I find that often people hide the state of their emotional well-being and put on a happy fa├žade, especially on social media, and as a result everyone goes around thinking that everyone else is doing better than they are themselves doing. So, I’m saying, “hey, I’m doing great, but you know what, there are days when life is ‘bleah’ and it’s ok. And if you’re having such days, or even worse, you’re not alone.”

Postscript: I want to add, if you haven’t, check out Steve Jones blog, he’s been daily posting a bunch of coping suggestions. I don’t read them every day, and I suspect Steve would agree with me that take what works for you and ignore the ones that don’t is the way to go. In part his posts helped inspire this one.

“We’re up to plan F”

I managed to skip two weeks of writing, which is unusual for me, but I was busy with other business, primarily last week leading an NCRC weeklong class of cave rescue for Level 1 students. I had previously lead such a class over three weekends last year, and have helped teach the Level 2 class multiple times. Originally this past week was supposed to be our National weeklong class, but back in February we had agreed to postpone it due to the unknown status of the ongoing Covid pandemic. However, due to a huge demand and the success of vaccinations, we decided to do a “Regional” Class just limited to Level 1 students. This would help handle the pent up demand, create students for the Level 2 class that would be at National, and to do sort of a test run of our facilities before the much larger National.

There’s an old saying that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. In cave rescue this is particularly true. It also appears to be true in cave rescue training classes!

The first hitch was the drive up the the camp we were using. The road had been stripped down to the base dirt level and they were doing construction. Not a huge issue, just a dusty one. But for cavers, dust is just mud without the water. But this would come into play later in the week.

Once at the camp, as I was settling in and confirming the facilities, the first thing I noticed was that the scissors lift we had used to rig ropes in the gym last time was gone. A few texts and I learned it had only been on loan to the camp the past two years and was no longer available. This presented our first real challenge. How to get ropes up over the beams 20-30′ in the air.

But shortly after I realized I had a far greater issue. The custom made rigging plates we use to tie off the end of the ropes to the posts were still sitting in my garage at home. I had completely forgotten them. This was resolved by a well timed call to an instructor heading towards the camp, who via a longer detour then he expected, was able to get them. Fortunately, had that call waited another 5 minutes, his detour would have probably doubled. So the timing was decent.

I figured the week was off to a good start at that point! Honestly though, we solved the problems and moved on. I went to bed fairly relaxed.

All went well until Monday. This was the day we were supposed to do activities on the cliffs. Several weeks ago, my son and I, along with two others had gone to the cliffs, which were on the same property as the camp, but accessible only by leaving the camp and accessing from a public road, in order to clear away debris and do other work to make them usable. I was excited to show them off. Unfortunately, due to the weather forecast of impending thunderstorms all day we made the decision to revise our schedule and move cliff day to the next day. There went Plan A. Plan B became “go the next day.”

On Tuesday I and a couple of other instructors got in my car to head to the cliffs in advance of the students so we could scope things out and plan the activities. We literally got to the bottom of the road from the main entrance to the camp where we were going to turn on to the road under construction, only to find a the road closed there with a gaping ditch dug across it. So much for Plan B. We went back to the camp, told students to hang on and then I headed out again, hoping to basically take a loop around and approach the access road to the cliffs from the opposite direction. After about a 3 mile detour we came to the other end of the road and found it closed there. Despite trying to sweet talk the flag person, we couldn’t get past (we could have lied and said we lived on the road, but after 8-10 other cars would have arrived in a caravan saying the same thing we thought that might be suspicious). There went Plan C. We called an instructor back at the camp and headed back.

We got there and turns out an instructor had already come up with Plan D, which was to see if we could access the cliffs by crossing a field the camp owned and going through the woods. It might involve some hiking, but it might be doable. While there are dirt-bike paths, there’s nothing there that worked for us. So that plan fell apart. We were up to Plan E now. Plan E was proposed to further swap some training, but we realized that would impact our schedule too much. Now on to Plan F. For Plan F, we decided to head to a local cave which we thought would have some suitable cliffs outside.

That worked. It would out quite well actually. We lost maybe an hour to 90 minutes with all the plans, but we ultimately came upon a plan that worked. We were able to teach the skills we wanted and accomplish our educational objectives.

Often we wake up with a plan in our heads for what we will do that day. Most days those plans work out. But, then there are the days where we have to adapt. Things go sideways. Something breaks, or something doesn’t go as planned. In the NCRC we have an unofficial motto, Semper Gumby – “Always be Flexible”. Sometimes you have to completely change plans (cancelling due to the threat of thunderstorms), others you may have to try to adapt (finding other possible routes to the cliffs) and finally you may need to reconsider how to meet your objectives in a new way (finding different cliffs).

My advice, don’t lock yourself into only one solution. It’s a recipe for failure.

Take 5 Minutes

This weekend I had the pleasure of moderating Brandon Leach‘s session at Data Saturday Southwest. The topic was “A DBA’s Guide to the Proper Handling of Corruption”. There were some great takeaways and if you get a chance, I recommend you catch it the next time he presents it.

But there was one thing that stood out that he mentioned that I wanted to write about: taking 5 minutes in an emergency. The idea is that sometimes the best thing you can do in an emergency is take 5 minutes. Doing this can save a lot of time and effort down the road.

Now, obviously, there are times when you can’t take 5 minutes. If you’re in an airplane and you lose both engines on takeoff while departing La Guardia, you don’t have 5 minutes. If your office is on fire, I would not suggest taking 5 minutes before deciding to leave the building. But other than the immediate life-threatening emergencies, I’m a huge fan of taking 5 minutes. Or as I’ve put it, “make yourself a cup of tea.” (note I don’t drink tea!) Or have a cookie!

Years ago, when the web was young (and I was younger) I wrote sort of a first-aid quiz web-page. Nothing fancy or formal, just a bunch of questions with hyperlinks to the bottom. It was self-graded. I don’t recall the exact wording of one of the questions but it was something along the lines of “You’re hiking and someone stumbles and breaks their leg, how long should you wait before you run off to get help.” The answer was basically “after you make some tea.”

This came about after hearing a talk from Dr. Frank Hubbell, the founder of SOLO talk about an incident in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where the leader of a Boy Scout troop passed out during breakfast. Immediately two scouts started to run down the trail to get help. While doing so, one slipped and fell off a bridge and broke his leg. Turns out the leader simply had passed out from low blood sugar and once he woke up and had some breakfast was fine. The pour scout with the broken leg though wasn’t quite so fine. If they had waited 5 minutes, the outcome would have been different.

The above is an example of what some call “Go Fever”. Our adrenaline starts pumping and we feel like we have to do something. Sitting still can feel very unnatural. This can happen even when we know rationally it’s NOT an emergency. Years ago during a mock cave rescue training exercise, a student was so pumped up that he started to back up and ran his car into another student’s motorcycle. There was zero reason to rush, and yet he had let go fever hit him.

Taking the extra 5 minutes has a number of benefits. It gives you the opportunity to catch your breath and organize the thoughts in your head. It gives you time to collect more data. It also sometimes gives the situation itself time to resolve.

But, and Brandon touched upon this a bit, and I’ve talked about it in my own talk “Who’s Flying the Plane”, often for this, you need strong support from management. Management obviously wants problems fixed, as quickly as possible. This often means management puts pressure on us IT folks to jump into action. This can lead to bad outcomes. I once had a manager who told my team (without me realizing it at the time) to reboot a SQL Server because it was acting very slowly. This was while I was in the middle of remotely trying to diagnosis it. Not only did this not solve the problem, it made things worse because a rebooting server is exactly 100% not responsive, but even when it comes up, it has to load a lot of pages into cache and will have a slow response after reboot. And in this case, as I was pretty sure would happen, the reboot didn’t solve the problem (we were hitting a flaw in our code that was resulting in huge table scans). While non-fatal, taking an extra 5 minutes would have eliminated that outage and gotten us that much closer to solving the problem.

Brandon also gave a great example of a corrupted index and how easy it can be to solve. If your boss is pressuring you for a solution NOW and you don’t have the opportunity to take those 5 minutes, you might make a poor decision that leads to a larger issue.

My take away for today is three fold:

  1. Be prepared to take 5 minutes in an emergency
  2. Take 5 minutes today, to talk to your manager about taking 5 minutes in an emergency. Let them know NOW that you plan on taking those 5 minutes to calm down, regroup, maybe discuss with others what’s going on and THEN you will respond. This isn’t you being a slacker or ignoring the impact on the business, but you being proactive to ensure you don’t make a hasty decision that has a larger impact. It’s far easier to have this conversation today, than in the middle of a crisis.
  3. If you’re a manager, tell your reports, that you expect them to take 5 minutes in an emergency.

“It’s Just a Simple Change”

How often have we heard those words? Or used them ourselves?

“Oh this is just a simple change, it won’t break a thing.” And then all hell breaks lose.

Yet, we also hear the reverse at times. “This is pretty complex, I’ll be surprised if it works the first time, or if it doesn’t break something.” And yet then nothing bad seems to happen.

We may observe this, but we don’t necessarily stop to think about the why. I’ve seen this happen a lot in IT, but honestly, I’ve seen this happen elsewhere and often when we read about accidents in areas such as caving, this also holds true.

I argue that in this case the perception is often true. Let me put in one caveat. There’s definitely a bias in our memory where we don’t recall all the times where simple things don’t break things, but the times it does, it really stands out.

The truth is, whenever we deal with complex systems, even simple changes aren’t so simple. But we assume they are and then are surprised when they have side effects. “Oh updating that path here won’t break anything. I only call it one place, and I’ll update that.” And you’re good. But what you didn’t realize was another developer liked your script, so made a copy and is using it for their own purposes and now their code breaks because of the new path. So your simple change isn’t so simple.

Contrast that to the complex change. I’m in the middle up refactoring a stored procedure. It’s complex. I suspect it’ll break something in production. But, honestly, it probably won’t. Not because I’m am awesome T-SQL developer, but, because of our paranoia, we’ll be testing this in UAT quite a bit. In other words, our paranoia drives our testing to a higher level.

I think it behooves us to treat even simple changes with more respect than we do and test them.

In the world of caving we use something called SRT – Single Rope Technique. This is the method we use for ascending and descending a rope. When ascending, if you put your gear on wrong at the bottom, generally there’s no real risk other than possible embarrassment. After all, you’re standing on the ground. But obviously a the top, it’s critical to put your equipment on correctly, lest your first step be your last. Similarly, we practice something known as a change-over; changing from ascending to descending, or descending to ascending while on rope. When changing from climbing to descending you want to make sure you do it correctly lest you find yourself descending at 9.8m/s^2. To prevent accidents, we ingrain in students “load and test your descent device before removing your other attachment point.” Basically, while you’re still secured to something at the top, or to your ascending devices if you’re partway up the rope, put your entire weight on your descent device and lower yourself 1-2″. If you succeed, great, then you can detach yourself from whatever you are attached to at the top, or remove your ascending devices. If somehow you’ve screwed something up and the descent device comes off the top or otherwise fails, you’ve got a backup.

Now, I will interject, getting on rope at the top of a pit, or a changeover is something an experienced caver will have done possibly 100s if not 1000s of times. It’s “a simple change”. Yet we still do the test because a single failure can be fatal. And I have in fact seen a person fail to properly test their descent device. And moreover, this wasn’t in a cave, or other dark or cramped space. It was in broad daylight on the edge of the RPI Student Union! This was about as simple as it could get! Fortunately he heard it start to fail and grabbed the concrete railing for dear life. In this particular case a failure most likely would not have been fatal, but would have caused serious injury.

So, despite having gotten on rope 100s of times myself, I ALWAYS test. It’s a simple change. But the test is also simple and there’s no reason to skip it.

The morale of the story, even your simple changes should be tested, lest you find they’re not so simple, or their failures aren’t so minor.

This Post is Free!

Yes, seriously, other than a bit of your time, it will cost you nothing to read this post. And you might gain something from it. That can be a good value.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of things I do when I’m not doing SQL Server is perform training for those interested in Cave Rescue. I also sometimes blog about it. I have also mentioned that this year I’m organizing the National Cave Rescue Commission‘s national weeklong training class. In addition, since apparently I’m not enough of a masochist I’m also organizing a regional Level 1 only weeklong training class.

Due to generous contributions the NCRC is able to offer scholarships. For the regional weeklong, we are able to offer 4 scholarships of a value of up to $375 each. This covers 1/2 the cost of training. Applications were due Saturday. Now, we’re hoping for 12-20 students, so this means if everyone applied, they’d have between a 1/3-1/5 chance of getting scholarship. Can you guess how many had applied as of Saturday?

Before I answer that, I’ll note my wife used to work as a financial aid director at a local nursing school. They too sometimes offered scholarships. There was one worth I believe $500 that often went unclaimed. Yes, it required a one page essay to be judged to apply. That one page apparently was too high of a barrier for many folks and as a result sometimes it was never awarded. Quite literally a person could have written. “I would like to apply for the scholarship” as their essay and gotten it.

The same thing happened with our regional scholarships. Out of 11 students so far, none applied. This was literally free money sitting on the table. We have decided to extend the scholarship application process until April 23rd and reminded folks they could apply.

Now, some of the students probably can NOT apply, because they are employees of government agencies that sometimes have rules on what outside funds or gifts can be accepted. This actually increases the odds for the other students. And some may feel that their economic status is good enough that they don’t need to and fear they’d take a scholarship away from someone who has more of a need for it. And that’s a position I can definitely appreciate. But my advice to them, “let the scholarship committee make that decision.” If they determine someone is more needing the money, or your need is not enough, they will let you know. And if they do give you a scholarship and you feel guilty, pay it forward. Donate to the fund later on, or give the money you saved to other causes.

Besides essentially free money at the NCRC, I got thinking about the amount of free training I’ve received in the SQL Server community. Yes, I’ve paid for PASS Summit a few times, but even if I had never gone to that, the amount of knowledge I’ve gained for free over the past several years has been amazing. Between SQL Saturdays and User Group meetings, the body of knowledge I’ve been exposed to has been absolutely amazing.

And yet, I know folks who shun such activities. I’m not talking about folks who say, “I can’t make it this month because it’s my kid’s birthday”. I’m talking about folks who claim they never learn anything. I don’t understand how that’s possible given the HUGE range of topics I’ve seen at SQL Saturdays and oh so many other free events. Some folks seem to think only the paid events are worth it. And while PASS Summit had certain unique advantages, the truth is, you can listen to almost all the presenters at various free events too.

Yes, time is not free, and I recognize that. But overall, it still amazes me at the number of folks who overlook the value of free events, or easy to gain scholarships to events. Don’t turn your nose up at free. It can be valuable.

P.S. – for the parents of college bound kids out there, one thing I did in college which netted me a bit of free money. A few days after the semester began, I’d stop by the financial aid office and ask if there was any unclaimed scholarship money I was eligible for. I never netted much, but I did net a few hundred dollars over the years. For 15 minutes of my time, that’s a pretty decent ROI.

Stop! Basic vs Deep Understanding

As an NCRC instructor, it turns out I’m eligible for steep discounts on equipment from a company called Petzl. I decided to take advantage of this a few weeks ago to get some new equipment for caving and just for practicing in general. One of the pieces, a new helmet was a no-brainer (in order to protect my brain). And I must say it’s so much more comfortable than my old helmet that I’m quite happy with it and has become my new default helmet. Well worth it.

Background (cavers (or anyone really) can skip this!)

But one of the other pieces I bought is a bit different. It’s called a Stop. For those who aren’t familiar with caving, first some background. Excluding cave-diving, which is a very specialized activity, caving is pretty much divided into horizontal and vertical. Horizontal caving doesn’t mean it’s perfectly flat, but does mean you can basically move through the cave using just your hands and feet and maybe a piece of webbing or short rope as a handhold.

That said, at some point, many cavers want to start to explore more caves that have more vertical relief and that require ropes to descend into. Unlike rock-climbers, cavers don’t actually climb the rocks (as a general rule) but the rope itself.

The general techniques used by cavers fall into a category known as Single Rope Technique (SRT). The emphasis here is that a single rope is used to ascend and descend. This article won’t go into all the different ways of ascending the said rope, but among the systems are what are known as Frog, Texas, Mitchell, Rope-Walker and homegrown ones. Cavers will argue infinitely over which one is better, but at the end of the day, much of it comes down to personal preference. (That said, the Frog system is by far the most common one used in Europe and the US tends to be far more varied.)

Generally the most common way of descending is to use a device that generates friction with the rope. Here is perhaps the biggest difference between European Frog users and American Frog users.

In the US, most Frog users (in my experience, I’m not sure I’ve seen a great poll) use what’s known as a micro-rack. (And yes, this does mean there’s a non-micro-rack. These are still used in some cases, but far less common).

Image shows a micro-rack on 10mm rope on the left and on the right, the fore-arm/palm of a left hand for scale,
Micro-Rack (left on rope in position of use, on right to show scale)

These are fairly simple devices that are durable and given the design, generally can provide a wide range of friction. Generally in American SRT work, once you start descending, you stay on a single rope and don’t need to move to another rope. I love my micro-rack and can, while hanging on the rope (from my climbing devices) change over safely to be able to rappel in well under a minute and I can do it blindfolded (that’s not an exaggeration, I’ve tested myself.) It’s a great device and it works.

But as I mentioned, this is in the US. In Europe, most cavers would look at me twice and wonder what the heck I was thinking. Over there a different device, generically known as a bobbin is used. In my case what I bought was a version from Petzl known as a Stop (among other things, it has a handle to help move one of the internal “pulleys” to vary friction)

Open Petzl stop on left, attached to rope on right

Stop! This is the part to read!

And now after all the long-windedness I’m finally getting to the meat of this post.

As I mentioned above, both devices rely on friction. Both require some device specific knowledge to use. For example, with the micro-rack you need to know which way to thread the rope. With the Stop, you need to be aware of the requirement of what’s known as a braking carabiner in addition to the Stop itself. In this case I’m using a specific carabiner Petzl sells called a Freino Z. Each device also has a specific way of doing what’s known as a hard tie-off. This is essentially a method of tying the rope around the device such that if you release both hands from the device and rope you will not descend. This is a critical skill to have.

So, after playing with the Stop on the ground a bit, I decided I had to try it as I would use it, i.e. 10′ in the air off the floor of my office while attached to a rope. I struggled a bit, but changed over from my ascent to descent safely and made it back down.

I mention this because I didn’t have anyone there to teach me or show me. I was reminded again that there’s a difference between what I’d call rote or a basic understanding and a deep understanding. I teach a lot of beginners how to change over from their climbing system to their descent devices. And it’s obvious at first that they are simply replicating the motions taught to them. I know I did when I started. Put this here, put that there. It works, they technically pass the requirements needed to take the class I’m teaching. But, if suddenly in the middle of a trip their equipment failed or they lost it (it’s not entirely unheard of for someone to drop their rappel device down the shaft) and had to change to a different piece of equipment, they quite honestly would be lost.

Their basic understanding is limited to the original device. They don’t fully understand how it operates as much as “how to do these steps to make it work”. Only with time and lots of practice does the basic understanding become deep understanding. This is to me, the fun and interesting part. I’m not saying you could hand me any device and I’d automatically understand how to use it. For example, unless someone tells you a braking carabiner is a required part of a bobbin setup, you wouldn’t know that just from looking at it. But if someone said, here’s the basic operations and here’s some details you’d need to know, then yes, you feel confident I could use a new device.

In the case of SRT, proper knowledge is literally a life safety issue. But what about databases. (Yes, I almost always find a way to tie my caving activities to databases!)

I saw a question on Quora the other night asking “How do I do a backup/restore in SQL Server.” The basic answer is readily apparent, even from a casual reading of the documentation. BUT, the deeper understanding should be to the point, where among other things in my opinion, when doing a restore with NO RECOVERY automatically flows from your fingertips. Sure, you might find that you’ve recovered exactly what you need with the first file and no additional logs are necessary, but how many of us have finished a multi-hour restore only to realize we forgot the NO RECOVERY and now can’t apply our logs and have to start over? This may seem annoying, but if it’s the production database, you’ve just more than doubled your recovery time and hence your outage. That’s not a good thing to happen.

Similarly, many of us have seen things like NOLOCK used in queries. We almost always cringe. Sure, the syntax may be correct, but 99 times out of 100, the usage shows the person didn’t have a deeper understanding of the implications.

So it’s about more than simply knowing the syntax (which I’d argue is similar to the rote or basic memorization on how to put a micro-rack or bobbin on a rope) as much as knowing implications of the syntax and why certain things are done.

I’m still working on getting as good with the Stop as I am with the micro-rack, but honestly, if you stuck me in a dark cave tomorrow, I think I’d do just fine.

And next time I restore a database, I think I’d do fine. Will you?