It’s too late?

I want to start with a sobering thought. It’s too late to contain this pandemic. I’m watching the news as slowly more and more states in the US issue versions of “shelter in place” or “stay at home” orders. But I think in most cases, it’s too late. The virus has probably already spread so much that self-isolation won’t be nearly as effective as it would have been had the states issued the same orders a week or two earlier. That said, it’s most likely still better than doing nothing.

Human beings at times are lousy with risk analysis. If a risk is immediate, we can react well, but the longer it stretches out or the further away it is, the harder it is to get people to react. Almost any climate scientist who has studied anthropogenic global warming has known for a decade or more we have a problem and we have a very quickly narrowing window for solving it, and the longer we wait, the harder it will become.

Yet too many of us put off the problem for another day.

So it is with the Covid-19 virus. “Oh we don’t have to lock down just yet, let’s wait another day.” And I’ll admit, sitting in the state that is the center of the virus outbreak here in the US, I’m tempted to say, “25,000 isn’t TOO bad, we can manage that.”  But that’s the lizard part of my brain reacting. It’s the emotional part. Then I kick in the rational part. If we use one of the numbers bandied about, doubling every 4 days, that means by this weekend, in New York State alone, it will be 50,000. By April 1st, 100,000. By the end of April, it could be the entire state.  Those numbers are hard to comprehend.

That said, I’m also hopeful. Modelling pandemics is pretty much pure math, but reality is more complex and often luck can play a huge factor. Let me try to explain.

First, we need to heed the words of experts like Dr. Fauci and others who are basing their remarks and recommendations on the inexorable exponential rise in expected infections. They are giving basically the worst case scenario if their recommendations are followed. And that’s proper. That’s really what you have to plan for.

Let me take a little side trip and mention a cave rescue in Vermont several years ago. By the time I had gotten the call to show up and to call out other rescues, the injured party had been in the cave for several hours. I didn’t know much about the extent of their injuries other than it was a fall and that it was in a Vermont cave, which almost certainly meant operating in tight quarters. I grabbed a box of Freihofer cookies, a lawn chair (my fellow cave rescuers will understand the reference), a contact list of other potential rescuers, and my son. While I drove, he’d read off a name and I’d say “yes call” or “Nope, next name.”  On the hour plus drive to the rescue we managed to contact at least two other people who could get there. (It turns out, as I surmised, several of the folks I wanted to call were members of the original caving party.)

Once there, my son and I were driven partway to the cave entrance and trudged the rest of the way. I talked with the folks on the scene to gather information and then dressed to go into the cave to gather first hand information. I still hadn’t gained too much information other than to know it was potentially shaping up to be a serious rescue. The person had been climbing a cable ladder when they fell and injured themselves. This meant, based on the information at hand, a worst case scenario of an evac through tight passages with the patient in a SKED stretcher.  I was playing the role of Dr. Fauci at that point, preparing for the worse based on the information I had.

Fortunately, literally at the moment I was about to enter the cave, one of the members of the original caving party crawled out and said, “he’s right behind me, he’ll be out in a minute or so.”  It turns out his injuries were fairly minor and with the members of his own caving party, he was able to get out of the cave under his own power.

I got back to Incident Command about an hour later and was informed, “oh, by the way, you’ve got at least 3 cavers who showed up to help. We held them at the bottom of the road. What should we tell them?”  My answer was simply, “Thanks and to go home.”

I relate this story not so much to talk about cave rescue specifically but to point out that even when planning for the worst, you may get a lucky break. But you can’t rely on them. Let me give an alternate scenario. Let’s say I had not called out the other rescuers and had gotten to the cave and crawled in, realized the situation was a worst case scenario, crawled back out and then initiated a call-out. It would have at that point probably meant at least an extra 90 minutes before the extra resources would have been on the scene. It would have meant the patient was exposed to hypothermic condition for another 90 minutes. It would have meant 90 more minutes of pain. It would have meant fewer brains working to solve the problem.

Getting back to Covid-19. Will we get lucky? I don’t know. I actually suspect we might. One “advantage” of an increasing population of sick people is we can better model it and we can also perform more drug trials. We may discover certain populations react differently to the disease than others and be able to incorporate that into the treatment plan. I don’t know. But I do know, we need to plan for the worst, and hope for a bit of luck. In the meantime, hunker down and let’s flatten the curve.

And if you’ve read this far and want to know how to make some pita bread, I’ll let you in on the two secrets I’ve learned: VERY hot oven (I typically bake mine at about 500-550F for 2 minutes on 1 side, and 1 minute on the other) and roll it out thinner than you might think.

Life in a Time of Coronavirus

With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez.

Life in the past week has definitely take a turn. We’ve gone from, “this might be bad” to losing about 30% of the market value of the stock market, and basically the country is shutting down.

I’d like to quote R.E.M. and say “It’s end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” but the truth is more complex. Physically, I feel fine. I don’t think I have the Coronavirus, but of course I can’t say for sure.  I’m not really worried about myself. I’ve been working from home for years and so already had reduced the vector of working in crowded offices. But, of course my wife has been working in an office (though tomorrow her job will become “work from home”) and my son just came home from college for a break of now unknown length and my daughter’s school started a mandatory closure with some sort of undefined “remote teaching”. It’s still unclear what teachers will do what, but I hope by the end of the week they’ll be able to have a more robust teaching rubric in place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about toilet paper lately. We picked up some more rolls, just in case, but we’re far from hoarding (unlike the story of one family of four I read about on Facebook that apparently was caught trying to bypass the rules at a supermarket and buying 16 packs of 24 rolls of toilet paper: yes, they were trying to buy a total of 384 rolls of toilet paper in one day!)

But I’d by lying if I didn’t say there was a certain about of dread on my mind. Things are going to get worse before they get better.  I’ve been monitoring a site out of Johns Hopkins that seems to have accurate and fairly up to date data on the spread of the Coronavirus. The numbers aren’t great.  If the spread continues according to some models, we could be looking at a death toll in the US of 500,000-1 million or more.  These are staggering numbers. Now, to be clear, with social distancing and other measures, I have reason to hope the numbers will be 1/10th of those numbers, but even that’s a good sized number.

And of course there’s the aforementioned drop in the value of the stock market, and I honestly think it will only get worse.  If the worse case death tolls come in, we’re looking at a fundamental shake-up of our economy. Couple that with some of the possible mid-term effects as people face bankruptcy due to income loss and longer term changes that may result as a result of social changes. For example I’ve seen one headline suggesting that cinemas may simply not make a comeback after people stop going and just watch them at home. This is all scary and worrisome. And it’s bigger than toilet paper.

But more importantly, I’ve been thinking about families. I’ve written about this before and I’ve mentioned #SQLFamily. With Social Distancing being the current buzzwords, it’s put a damper on getting together with people. I know it’s so tempting to call up some friends and say, “hey, let’s get together and play games” but that sort of negates the point of social distancing.

My families, virtual and my biological one give me hope and cause to celebrate. On the RPI based chat program I use, Lily, it’s been great to see how one whole discussion is pretty much focused on a fact-based exchange of ideas. Even those of us on separate ends of the political spectrum are basically exchanging facts and mostly keeping emotions in check. This has been a useful place to learn a lot.

And on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s been remarkable to see #SQLFamily come together. Last Friday, and coming again this Friday, one of our members hosted a Zoom Chat where #SQLFamily members could just hang out and chat. Yeah, we talked about TP, and power outages in Johannesburg, and other topics, but it was mostly fun small talk. It was a reminder, that there are real people behind the Twitter handles and tweets. I’ve seen my #SQLFamily members send tweets about the success of their own family members and of their own hopes and fears.

Having gone to a technical college, and usually surrounded by folks who are self-identified geeks, sometimes it can be tempting to think we’re all just emotionless people driven by facts and data, human version of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock or Data, but the reality is, the families I’ve surrounded myself with are an amazing, resilient, group of people. And I think that’s probably true of most of us. It’s tempting to think “my group is special” and in some ways every group is, but at the end of the day, I think what unites us is greater than what separates us. Yes, fortunately I think my virtual families tend to make decisions a bit more based on facts than some groups, but we still share the same humanity deep down.

So, is there a tinge of dread on the horizon of my mind, yes. But I also see the sun rays of hope peaking above the clouds and know that the next weeks, months and possibly year or more will be rough. Some of us may lose loved ones. And I hate to type that, but it’s true. But, life will go on and we’ll find a new normal and we will do so by maintaining our relationships, physical and virtual.

My advice, during these times, reach out, expand your virtual relationships. Find hope and happiness where you can and share your fear, sadness, and sorrow when you need to.

Do small acts of kindness.

And I make the following offer:

If you’re down and need to talk or even just a cheer-up hit me up on twitter @stridergdm or if you know me on Facebook, private message me. If you want to join me on Lily, let me know, I’ll set you up with an account and a client. It’s mostly RPI folks, but not exclusively. If you really need it, we can even to a Zoom chat to talk about anything, from the role of the little known Saturn IV stage to talking about the Hudson River Chain at West Point during the Revolutionary War to recipes for air fryers, I’m there.

I’m going to close with a bit of randomness, because, well I think we need it.

A random cow sighting at a local Walmart.

A random cow sighting at a local Walmart.

 

An Ounce of Prevention?

There’s an old saying in medicine, “when you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.”  Contrary to what one might think after watching House the truth is, when you get presented a set of symptoms, you start with the most likely, well because it is most likely! But as House illustrates, sometimes it can be the unlikely.

In First Aid, especially wilderness or backcountry medicine, there’s an acronym that is often used called SAMPLE. This is a mnemonic to help rescuers remember what data to gather:

  • S – Signs/Symptoms – What do you see, observe? (i.e. what’s going on).
  • A – Allergies – Perhaps the problem is an allergic reaction, or they might be allergic to whatever drug you want to give them.
  • M – Medicines – What medications are they on? Perhaps they’re diabetic and haven’t taken their insulin, or they’re on an anti-seizure medicine and need some.
  • – Past, pertinent medical history. You don’t care they broke their ankle when they were 5. But perhaps they just underwent surgery a few weeks ago? Or perhaps they have a history of dislocating their shoulder.
  • L – Last oral intake. Have they eaten or drunk anything recently. This will drive your decision tree in a number of ways.
  • E – Events leading up to the injury.  Were they climbing to the top of the cliff and fell, or did they simply collapse at the bottom? The former may suggest you look for a possible spinal injury, the latter probably indicates something else.

I’m reminded of this because of how I spent my Presidents’ Day.  I woke up and checked a few emails and noticed that two I were expecting from a client’s servers never arrived. I logged in to see what was going on.  It turns out there was nothing going on. No, not as in, “nothing wrong going on” but more as in “nothing at all was happening, the databases weren’t operating right.”  The alert system could connect to the database server, so no alerts had been sent, but actually accessing several of the databases, including the master resulted in errors.

Master.mdf corruption

Not an error you want to wake up to!

And what was worse, was the DR server was exhibiting similar symptoms!

So modifying SAMPLE a bit:

  • S – Signs/Symptoms – Well, databases are throwing corruption errors on two servers.  This was extended to the ERRORLOG files on both servers.
  • A – Allergies – Well, servers don’t have allergies, but how about known bugs? That’s close enough.  Nope, nothing that seems to apply here.
  • M – Medicines – I’ll call this antivirus software and <redacted>. (For client privacy reasons I can’t specify the other piece of software I want to specify, but I’ll come back to it.)
  • – Past, pertinent medical history.  Nothing, these servers had been running great up until now. One has been in production for over 2 years, the other, up for about 2 months, being brought up as a DR box for the first.
  • L – Last oral intake. Let’s make this last data intake. Due to forensics, we determined the corruption on both servers occurred around 3:00 AM EST.  Checking our logs, jobs, and other processes, there’s nothing special about the data the primary server took in at this time. If anything, disk I/O was lower than average.  And, fortunately, we can easily recreate any data that was sent to the server after the failure.
  • E – Events leading up to the injury. This is where things get interesting.
    • There were some zero-day patches applied to both servers over the weekend.
    • On Saturday, I had finally setup log-shipping between the two servers

So, we’ve got three possibilities, well four really.

  1. The zero day patches caused an issue about 48 hours later.  Possible, but unlikely, given the client has about 1600 servers that were also patched and have not had issues.
  2. Log-shipping somehow caused problems.  But again, the new log-shipping setup had run for about 36 hours without issue. And, best we can tell, the corruption occurred on the secondary BEFORE the primary. And log-shipping doesn’t apply to the Master database or the ERRORLOG file.
  3. Some unknown interaction.  This I think is the most likely and is where the <redacted> from the M above comes into play.
  4. Pure Random, and it’ll never happen again. I hate this option because it just leaves me awake at night.  This I added only for completeness.

Without going into detail, our current theory is that some weird interaction between <redacted> and log-shipping is our cause. Of course the vendor of <redacted> is going to deny this (and has) but it’s the only combination of factors that seems to explain everything. (I’ve left out a number of additional details that also helped us get to this conclusion).

So for now, we’ve disabled log-shipping and are going to make some changes to the environment before we try log-shipping again.

Normally I think horses, but we might have a herd of zebras on this one. And ironically, setting up for DR, may have actually caused a Sev 1 outage. So the ounce of prevention here may not have been worth it!

And who said my Wilderness First Aid wouldn’t come in handy?

 

 

Brake (sic) it to Fix it!

Last week I wrote about getting my brakes fixed. Turns out I made the right choice, besides shoes and pads, I needed new calipers.  Replacing them was a bigger job than I would have wanted to deal with. Of course it cost a bit more than I preferred, but I figure being able to make my car stop is a good thing. I had actually suspected I’d need new calipers because one of the signs of my brakes needing to be replaced was the terrible grinding and shrieking sound my left front brake was making. That’s never a good sign.

As a result I started to try to brake less if I could help it. And I cringed a bit every time I did brake. It became very much a Pavlovian response.

About two weeks ago, a colleague of mine said, “Hey, did you notice the number of errors for that process went way up?” I had to admit, nope, I had not. I had stopped looking at the emails in detail. They were for an ETL process that I had written well over a year ago. About 6 months ago, due to new, and bad, data being put into the source system, the ETL started to have about a half dozen rows it couldn’t process.  As designed, it sent out an email to the critical parties and I received copies.  We talked about the errors and decided that they weren’t worth tracking down at the time.  I objected because I figure if you have an error, you really should fix it. But I got outvoted and figured it wasn’t my concern at that point. As a result, we simply accepted that we’d get an email every morning with a list of rows in error.

But, as my colleague pointed out, about 3 months ago, the number of errors had gone up. This time it wasn’t about a half dozen, it was close to 300. And no one had noticed.  We had become so used to the error emails, our Pavlovian response was to ignore them.

But, this number was too large to ignore. I ended up doing two things. The first, and one I could deploy without jumping through hoops was to update the error email. Instead of simply showing the rows of errors, it now included a query that placed a table at the top that showed how many errors and in which tables. This was much more effective because now a single glance can easily show if the number of errors has increased or gone down (if we get no email that means we’ve eliminated all the errors, the ultimate goal in my mind.)

I was able to track down the bulk of the 300 new errors to a data dictionary disagreement (everyone raise their hands who has had a customer tell you one thing about data only to discover that really the details are different) that popped up when a large amount of new data was added to the source system.

I’ve since deployed that change to the DEV environment and now that we’re out of the end of the month code freeze for this particular product, will be deploying to production this week.

Hopefully though the parties that really care about the data will then start paying attention to the new email and squawking when they see a change in the number of bad rows.

In the meantime, it’s going to take me awhile to stop cringing every time I press my brakes. They no longer make any bad sounds and I like that, but I’m not used to to absence of grinding noises again.  Yet. In both cases, I and my client had accepted the normalization of deviance and internalized it.

I wrote most of this post in my head last week while remembering some other past events that are in part related to the same concept.  As a result this post is dedicated to the 17 American Astronauts who have perished directly in the service of the space program (not to diminish the loss of the others who died in other ways).

  • Apollo 1 – January 27th, 1967
  • Challenger – STS-51L – January 28th, 1986
  • Columbia – STS-107 – Launch January 16th, 2003, break-up, February 1st, 2003.

 

 

He’s dying Jim!

Less than a minute after the mountain biker blew by me on the trail I heard the wail. It was scary. I raced forward with my hiking partner and very quickly came upon the accident scene. Thomas was laying in a crumpled mess, his $1500 mountain bike further down the trail with one more bend in the frame than the manufacturer had created it with.  This didn’t look good.

The hillside was steep and Thomas was on his side. I dropped my pack and went to backside of Thomas. Quickly my training kicked in. I introduced myself and asked him his name. His response re-assured me. He was breathing and had a pulse. And in medical terms, he appeared to be alert and oriented times three.

I put on my gloves (yes, I do carry nitrile or latex or material gloves pretty much anyplace I go, you should too!)  I then moved to his backside and palpated his head. So far, so good. No blood or cerebral-spinal fluid.  Since he was on his side, it was an ideal (if one could call his situation that) position for me to check his spine. Working down, so far so good until I got to the top of his lumbar portion. There I felt something very wrong.  Ok, shit just got real.  Upper torso, so far so good. Lower torso, right side, a reaction to pain. Barely noticeable, but definitely some mass internally. Again, not good. I continued down his legs. I got to his feet and normally I’d have saved this for the secondary survey, but since I already had a bad feeling and this wouldn’t take very long, I asked him to press his toes against my hands like he was pressing the gas. Nothing. I asked him to pull up his toes, again nothing.  This was not good. Same lack of reaction on the other side.  I could hear the panic in his voice, “why I can’t I move my legs?”

In all my past training they always taught us, “never lie to the patient. But also remember you’re not a doctor.” So I was honest. “Look, it could be a lot of things. I’m not a doctor so I don’t want to speculate. We’ll leave that to the professionals.” But deep down I knew. Bad tumble off a bike, bad position of a lumbar vertebra, and lack of sensation distal to that all added up to some sort of spinal injury. Would it be permanent, I had no idea.

I also checked his right arm since it was immediately available and this time came up with blood and point pain over the radius/ulna.  This matched what the accident most likely was.  He had hit a rock or something and wrapped his right side around a tree, breaking his arm, damaging his spine and most likely causing internal bleeding.

But I still had the left side to check.

With my partner’s help, we got a ground pad behind him and then rolled him very gently onto it. It’s always a risk moving a patient with apparent trauma like this but we needed to get him isolated from the could ground which was stealing his body heat and I needed to check for injuries on the left side.

Fortunately, this was the only bright news. A thorough check of his left side showed no apparent trauma. But, his shivering was getting worse and his mental state was decomposing. Whereas he was had previously been alert and oriented to who he was, where he was and approximately the time, now he kept asking the time.  Taking a set of vitals, things were not what one would like to get.

My partner was writing down all this information and giving me gear as needed. We had gotten the groundpad under him and clothing on top, but we needed to do more.  At this point, since we confirmed he wasn’t about to bleed out, we worked on splinting his arm. Providing traction in-line proved to be a bit painful at first, but ultimately gave him some pain relief and temporarily solved that particular issue. We did as much as we could in the back-country.

I took another set of vitals, and the numbers were a wee bit worse. In addition, Thomas was now wondering where he was. I repalpated his lower right abdomen and got an increased pain response and the firm area was larger. This was a very worrying sign.

While doing this, my partner ran down the trail with a copy of his notes until he got cell service and called 911. He gave them the details and then came back.  At this point, with his help we decided to get Thomas into a bivy sack to help keep him warm.  This took some effort since Thomas was bigger than either of us, fairly muscular and we were doing out best to protect his spine. But eventually we got it around him. Between this and some liquid “squirt” we were able to give him, his pending hypothermia appeared to stabilize and eventually improve.

But his vitals continued to degrade and the pain and mass in lower right his abdomen continued to get worse. He was dying and there was nothing I could do about it.

Well there was one thing I could do. I looked at Thomas and said, “well I think that’s it. Did I miss anything or do you think we got this exercise covered?”

He looked up and smiled, “Nope, I think you got it.  By the way, the biv sack really did help a lot. I was actually starting to get cold for real.” We removed the biv sack and he remarked, “Wow, you really did have a lot of warm stuff on me.”

Now, fortunately, all this had been an exercise, part of a SOLO Wilderness First Aid class I was taking over the weekend in order to renew my certificate.  The scenario was completely made up. But, I have to say, the feeling of helplessness was real.

Strangely though I’d say that was a good thing. For any skill we want to maintain competency in, we need to practice. Fortunately, I haven’t come across a crumpled mountain biker and most if not all back-country medical emergencies I’ve encountered have basically been fairly simple (an abrasion here, a blister there, or most commonly, mild hypothermia). But, continual practice does help. When arriving at the staged scene, I knew what I wanted to do and I knew how I wanted to do it and how to do it. The years of training and practice came back very easily. I knew how to do a primary survey and what I wanted to look for. I knew what vitals I needed and what trends I wanted.  There wasn’t much searching for knowledge, it bubbled up as needed. Practice really does in a sense “make perfect.”

And, even knowing that my mock patient most likely had internal bleeding that was leading to hypovolemic shock was good to know. Knowing that there was very little I could do if this was a for-real in the back-country was scary, but also strangely reassuring. I was confident that I had done all that I could reasonably do. And sometimes that may have to be enough.

I’ve talked previously about training as one fights. This should be true in any situation you may find yourself in: caving, the back-country, or even something as mundane as being a DBA. When’s the last time you practiced restoring a backup or doing a failover test?

Practice may or may not make perfect, but it does provide confidence.

P.S. if you’re in the Hampton Roads area tomorrow night (October 16th) come check me out speaking on System Databases at the Hampton Roads SQL Server User Group. Rumor has it, they’re serving wings!

Rolling Back

I’ve had a number of thoughts rolling around my head lately and they’re somewhat related so here goes.

I’m going to start with a depressing headline and URL: Civilization will end in 2050. Ok, perhaps that’s more of an alarmist headline than anything else. I posted this elsewhere, and some folks correctly pointed out that this could have been written by Thomas Malthus over two centuries ago.  And it’s true; prognosticators have predicted the fall of humans since probably before recorded history.  How many of us recall in the last century alone predictions of world-wide famine, a world-wide ice age, comets smashing into us and other horrible events.

Some were prevented, such with the Green Revolution. Some were corrected with better data or a better understanding of the data. Some where just… nuts.  That said, some predictions can be made with 100% certainty, even if the bounds on the actual circumstances are fuzzy. I’ve been giving this particular nugget a lot of thought.  Since I’ve passed that magical (at least to humans) mark of a half-century, I’ve given more thought to what I call my expiration date. It’s a fact. At some point I will cease all biological functions and will be dead.  I can’t escape that. Every day the odds increase a very tiny percentage.  So, I am predicting my own death, most likely sometime in the next 1/2 century. There’s a very slight possibility it could be tomorrow, and a much greater chance it could be 40 years from now, and based on current medicine an absolute certainty 80 years from now.  You’ll note I hedged that last one. It’s quite possible in the next few decades we figure out how to extend the human lifespan by decades if not centuries.  But I’m not counting on it. And even then, there are no guarantees I’m not hit by a driver while biking or some other catastrophic event.

That said, right now I’d say the odds are decent I’ll be alive in 2050. And almost certainly my kids will be (and very likely I’ll have grandkids by then).  So, am I worried that the world will end in 2050? Yes and no. For one thing, there’s time between now and then for a lot to happen. But, as we get closer, it’s going to be harder and harder to forestall the impacts of higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans. Yes, to be clear, I believe the evidence supports that humans are greatly impacting the climate via CO2 and other emissions.

But I’m also optimistic that we’ll work harder, especially as things get worse, to stave off the most pessimistic scenarios. But it won’t be easy and the longer we wait, the harder it will be.

While anecdotal, I’ve already seen the impacts in my life, earlier springs, caves that once held ice year round no longer do, less snow in the winters, etc. It worries me. But I also still have some hope.

That said, an analogy that’s been rolling around in my head that isn’t 100% perfect but fits me as a DBA.

Many of us in the SQL server community have started a long running transaction, only to realize we’ve brought the server to a halt. In other words, no other user can access their data until our transaction is complete. We can abort the transaction, but if we wait too long, that can be a far worse solution than trying to stop it early on. For the non geeks, in other words, if our transaction is going to update 1 billion records and we realize 5 minutes in that it will take 10 hours, we can abort it and it should take about 5 minutes to rollback to the original state. This means we’ve only brought the server to a halt for about 10 minutes. However, if we ignore the problem, and keep pretending it’ll go away and we wait say 9 hours and then finally decide, “oh what the heck, let’s try to fix the problem now” it might take another 9 hours to rollback. In other words, by waiting to long to resolve the problem, instead of being 10 minutes, it can be 1080 minutes.

In other words, the longer you wait, the harder it can be to recover. I think that’s where we’ll be at by 2050. Whether or not I’m still alive (though I plan to be!)

Punditry

We’re all experts on everything. Don’t think so? Go to any middle school or high school soccer game and you’ll be amazed at how many parents are suddenly experts on soccer. It’s also amazing at how many parents are parents of future NCAA Division I scholarship soccer players.

Seriously though, we’re all guilty of this from time to time. I’ve done it and if you’re honest, you’ll admit you’ve done it.

Yesterday the world suffered a loss, the near destruction of Notre Dame.  Early during the fire our President tweeted:

“Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!”

As many have pointed out, this was actually a terrible idea. The idea of dropping 100s of kilograms of water onto an already collapsing roof is most likely to do more damage than not. But, while I think it’s easy to mock the President for his tweet, I won’t. In some ways it reminds me of the various suggestions that were made last summer during the Thai Cave Rescue. We all want to help and often will blurt out the first idea that comes to mind.  I think it’s human nature to want to help.

But, here’s the thing: there really are experts in the field (or to use a term I see in my industry that I dislike at times: SME (it just sounds bad) Subject Matter Expert.)

And sometimes, being a SME does allow you to have some knowledge into other domains and you can give some useful insight. But, one thing I’ve found is that no matter how much I know on any subject, there’s probably someone who knows more. I’ve written about plane crashes and believe I have a more than passing familiarity in the area. Perhaps a lot more than the average person. But, there’s still a lot I don’t know and if I were asked to comment by a news organization on a recent plane crash, I’d probably demur to people with far more experience than I have.

Having done construction (from concrete work in basements to putting the cap of a roof on), I again, have more than a passing familiarity with construction techniques and how fire can have an impact. That said, I’ll leave the real building and fire fighting techniques to the experts.

And I will add another note: even experts can disagree at times. Whether it’s attending a SQL Saturday or the PASS Conference itself, or sitting in a room with my fellow cave rescue instructors, it can be quite enlightening to see the different takes people will have on a particular question. Often no one is wrong, but they bring different knowledge to the table or different experiences.

And finally, you know what, sometimes the non-expert CAN see the problem, or a solution in a way that an expert can’t. But that said, at the end of the day, I’ll tend to trust the experts.

And that’s the truth because I’m an expert on punditry.

Followers and CPR/First Aid

Yesterday, I performed a little social experiment and was pleased to find it worked. I’ve got to say, sometimes it’s the small things that make me happy.

Despite the below zero (Fahrenheit, so really cold, not that warm-cold of 0°C) temperatures, my son and I decided to head up to a local state park and do a hike.  Surprisingly, OK, maybe not, when we arrived, the parking lot was completely empty.  It had been plowed, but there was still a layer of snow over the entire thing, so it was impossible to see where the parking lines were. Now in the summer, this parking lot can be completely full, but I wasn’t too worried about that occurring when the temp was about -4°F.

So, which way to park? Well, there was some sun, so I figured I’d park so that the windshield would get the most sun and hopefully warm up the car just a bit while we hiked. I was sure at the time and later confirmed, this was at a 90° angle to the way the parking lines run. Ironically it was also about 90° colder than the summer temps!

Even when we started hiking, no one else had shown up. But, I have to admit, in the back of my mind I had to wonder if I would start a trend.

Sure enough, 1.5 hours later, when we arrived back at the car there were 3 other cars.  Not only were they parked in the same orientation, they were all parked right next to my car.  This parking lot probably covers 3 acres. They could have parked pretty much any place they wanted in any direction they wanted. But, because I had randomly picked a spot (and not so randomly a direction) 1 car was parked next to me in the same orientation and the other 2 parked facing us.

So what does this little experiment have to do with First Aid or CPR? Have you ever been at an event when someone has a medical event and at first no one reacts? It’s actually fairly common.  Everyone is standing around waiting for someone else to react. But once someone reacts, others tend to follow.  Be that person that others follow.  Learn CPR and learn First Aid so that when something happens, you can be the first to react. Sometimes people just need a leader to follow; and often they don’t necessarily realize it.

There’s no good reason anyone else parked just like I did, and yet they did. But there is a good reason for people to follow you if you can be the first to react in an emergency.  And you don’t have to be an expert. Obviously it didn’t take “expertise” to park yesterday, but people followed anyway. You don’t have to be an EMT or paramedic to react at a medical emergency. You can be the person that simply shouts, “Call 911” and gets people reacting.

That said, I still highly recommend taking a CPR and First Aid course. Not only do you learn very useful medical response skills, it will help you be that person that reacts first.

And stay warm!

Why the submarine wouldn’t work

I was going through my old drafts and found this post I had started to write earlier this year but never finished.  Actually it appears I meant this to be part of White (K)nights but I cut it out to make that post more readable.

During my media interactions I was asked multiple times to comment on Elon Musk and once or twice on his submarine. I tried to keep my comments fairly neutral, but the truth is, I and some of my fellow trained cave rescuers were pretty bothered by Musk’s attempted involvement. I got into at least one online debate about how the people in charge obviously were clueless and that Musk’s solution of a submarine was a brilliant idea.

It wasn’t and I figured I’d address some of my concerns.  Please note as with all situations like this, I was not directly involved, so I’m going on publicly available facts and my training as a cave rescue person and a cave rescue instructor. I am also not in any way speaking on behalf of the National Cave Rescue Commission or the NSS.

Now let’s discuss the device itself:

  • It almost certainly would not have fit. By all accounts, the tightest pinch was 15″ and hard to navigate. Anyone who has moved through a cave knows that even larger passages can be hard to navigate. Locally we have a cave that has a pinch that’s probably close to 15″, but that is at the bottom of a body sized V-shaped passage. Unless you can bend in the middle, you will not fit through it. A cylinder like Musk designed, would not fit. I don’t know the passages in the Thai cave, but odds are there is more than one passage where flexibility is important.
  • It also, in many ways was superbly dangerous. Once sealed into the tube, there would be no easy way to monitor the patient’s vitals. And if the tube had started to leak (cave environments can be extremely destructive, even to metal objects), there appears there would have been no recourse except to keep swimming and hoping to get to an air filled chamber quickly enough and that was large enough to debug the issue.
  • In addition, if the patients were not sedated, I’d have to imagine that being sealed into such a tube, even with lights for 20-40 minutes at a time would have been sheer terror. As it is, the kids were in fact apparently heavily sedated (a fact that some of us still find a bit surprising, even though very understandable), and yet at least one started to come out of sedation while in a water passage. Without being able to directly monitor the vitals of the patient, who knows what would have happened.
  • There’s probably other issues I could come up with. But let me end with this one. Rarely if ever do you want to beta-test or heck even alpha-test, which is what this would have been, a brand new design in a life or death situation when there are alternatives.

Like our White Knights, we want our brilliant tech solutions, but often we’re better off adapting what we’ve done in the past. In cave rescue we try to teach our students a “bag of tricks” that they can adapt to each particular rescue. Foe example, there is no single rigging solution that will work for every rescue.  How I might rig a drop in Fantastic in Ellison’s might be very different from how I’d rig a drop here in New York.  How I  package a patient for movement here may be different than in a Puerto Rican cave.  And honestly I’ve seen a lot of high-tech equipment get suggested for cave rescue that simply doesn’t work well in a cave environment and we often go back to the simple proven stuff.

I will add a tease, to perhaps a future blog post, of a mock rescue rescue where a high-tech approach failed after several hours of trying, and the low-tech solution solved the problem.

 

 

 

The Soyuz Abort

Many of you are probably aware of the Soyuz abort last week. It reminded me of discussions I’ve had in the past with other space fans like myself and prompted some thoughts.

Let’s start with the question of whether Soyuz is safe. Yes but…

When Columbia was lost on re-entry a lot of folks came out of the woodwork to proclaim that Soyuz was obviously so much safer since no crew had died the ill-fated Soyuz 11 flight in 1971. The problem with this line of thought was that at the time of Columbia, Soyuz had only flown 77 times successfully vs 89 successful flights since the Challenger Disaster. So which one was safer? If you’re going strictly on the successful number of flights, the Space Shuttle. Of course the question isn’t as simple as that. Note I haven’t even mentioned Soyuz 1, which happened before Soyuz 11 and was also a fatal flight.

Some people tried to argue that the space shuttle was far less safe because during the program it had killed 14 people during its program life vs 4 for Soyuz.  I always thought this was a weird metric since it all came down to the number of people on board. Had Columbia and Challenger only flown with 2 on each mission, would the same folks argue they were equally safe as Soyuz?

But we can’t stop there. If we want to be fair, we have to include Soyuz-18a. This flight was aborted at a high altitude (so technically they passed the Karman Line and are credited with attaining space.)  Then in 1983, Soyuz T-10a also suffered an abort, this time on the pad.

So at this point I’m going to draw a somewhat arbitrary line as to what I consider a successful mission: the crew obtains an orbit sufficient to carry out a majority of their planned mission and returns safely. All the incidents above, Soyuz and Space Shuttle are failed missions.  For example, while Soyuz-11 and Columbia attained orbit and carried out their primary missions, they failed on the key requirement to return their crew safe.

Using that definition, the shuttle was far more successful. There was one shuttle flight that did undershoot the runway at Edwards, but given the size of the lakebed, landed successfully.  We’ll come back to that in a few.

Now let me add a few more issues with the Soyuz.

  • Soyuz-5 – failure of service module to separate, capsule entered upside-down, and the hatch nearly burned through. The parachute lines also tangled resulting in a very hard landing.
  • TMA-1 – technical difficulties resulted in the capsule going into a ballistic re-entry mode.
  • TMA-10 – Failure of the Service Module to separate caused the capsule to re-enter in an improper orientation (which could have lead to a loss of the crew and vehicle) which ended up causing the capsule also re-enter in a ballistic re-entry mode. The Russians initially did not tell the US.
  • TMA-11 – Similar issue as TMA-10, with damage to the hatch and antenna that was abnormal.

And there have been others of varying degree. I’m also ignoring the slew of Progress failures, including the 3 more recent ones that were launched on a rocket very similar to the current Soyuz-FG.

So, what’s safer, the Soyuz or the Space Shuttle?  Honestly, I think it’s a bit of a trick question. As one of my old comrades on the Usenet Sci.space.* hierarchy once said, “any time a single failure can make a significant change in the statistics, means you really don’t have enough data.” (I’m paraphrasing).

My personal bias is, both programs had programmatic issues (and I think the Russians are getting a bit sloppier when it comes to safety) and design issues (even a perfectly run shuttle program had risks that could not have been solved, even if they might have prevented both Challenger and Columbia).  However, I think the Russian Soyuz is ultimately more robust. It appears a bit more prone to failures, but it has survived most of them. But, that still doesn’t make it 100% safe. Nor does it need to be 100% safe.  To open the new frontier we need to take some risks.  It’s a matter of degree.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd.

A spacecraft is safe on the ground, but that’s not what it’s built for.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of, in my opinion naive, talk about decrewing ISS. I suspect the Russians will fly the Soyuz TM-11 flight as scheduled. There’s a slight chance it might fly uncrewed and simply serve to replace the current Soyuz TM-9 capsule, but it will fly.