Sunset flight - sabbatical

I started working at $FAANG_COMPANY (henceforth referred to as $COMPANY) on Monday January 16, 2017, and stopped working at $COMPANY on Friday June 24, 2022. I was paid (well) to further the business interests of $COMPANY for one thousand, nine hundred, and eighty-five days, excluding most weekends. Thus was my first full time job.

I would tell you what my job title was, but it doesn’t really matter, and anyway I worry it might mislead you about what I actually did because job titles are weird. I ran and analyzed data from experiments, did some data engineering, trained a regression model or two, trained a deep learning model or two, and built a lot of automated inference and decision-making workflows that combined model outputs and business rules. Yes I did “machine learning” “in production”. I was halfway between a scientist and a developer and I liked it.

It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a lot of privilege in being able to quit a job not because you’re going to a different one, but because you’re just not happy doing it anymore.

  • Financial. I have enough money saved to support myself through a period of unemployment without getting anxious about meeting my basic needs. Multiple unlikely catastrophes would have to happen for me to be in a bad place.
  • Legal. Getting my work visa to move to the US and start my job at $COMPANY was not a smooth process, but it got done. Getting my permanent residency was far more turbulent, but despite the odds it also got done. I’m lucky to have a more stable life in this country without having to carry the work visa holder’s constant anxiety about losing or leaving a job. For those unfamiliar with that anxiety, it sucks and it warps the way you think.1
  • Social/mental. Leaving a job is a scary thing to do. I’ve had the support of some who reassured me that I wasn’t crazy, others who reassured me that I would be able to find gainful employment again, and even others who quit jobs before me and did not immediately die or combust into flames.

You do a job for a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

Intrinsic motivations include:

  • You enjoy the ideas you’re working on, the specific problems you’re trying to solve, the product you’re trying to make better.
  • You enjoy the technical aspects of the work.
  • You value the impact of the work.

Extrinsic motivations include:

  • Compensation (salary + benefits + retirement savings + other).
  • Job stability.
  • You don’t want to leave a great manager.
  • You don’t want to leave a great team.

Different people have different intrinsic/extrinsic portfolios. Some have an intrinsic heavy ~90%/~10% mix (I’ll stereotype here, but: artists? people who work in used bookstores?), some have a ~50%/~50% mix (tough to find stereotypical examples for this), and some have an extrinsic heavy ~10%/~90% mix (people in finance, a lot of people in tech, and me at $COMPANY towards the end).

That’s the main reason I had to leave; I was running out of intrinsic motivation. For a while I was able to lean on the enjoyment of the technical aspects of the work, but they were tangential at best to my job description. I was stealing fulfillment from a role that wasn’t designed to give it to me, and my team was starting to move in the opposite direction. Not good.

I already lacked a good answer to the question “did my work delight anyone or make anyone’s life significantly better?”2 Losing the enjoyment of the craft itself made my decision easier. Going forward, I cannot not have a good answer to that question no matter what other conditions are met.

So I am taking a sabbatical. I don’t know how long it will last, and I don’t have a solid plan for it yet.

I want to travel (check), write more (check), read more (check), spend more time with people whose company I love (check, and in progress), return to and start personal projects so I can remember what it’s like to code for fun (not yet started), and explore the widest possible range of ideas for what I’m going to do for money next (not yet started).

Can I find a role defined around the technical work I enjoy? Can I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (interviewing in tech) again? Will I even go back to tech? Will I move? Will I work remotely?

All open questions.

  1. For an excellent writeup on what the US work visa and immigration process looks like, do read 18 Years A Transient – My Journey Through the American Immigration System as a Computer Engineer – Software the Hard way↩︎

  2. Thankfully I’m pretty sure my work didn’t make anyone’s life worse. A fate not trivial to avoid in tech. ↩︎

Personal Retreat

Yes it's not a good photo of a desk so I made it BW

In May of 2022 I went on a three day personal retreat to a small cabin in Whidbey, WA. I had travelled just to be alone before, but this was the first time I went with a plan for what to do. It went better than I expected and I wanted to write some personal notes about it here.

I don’t know what first comes to your mind when I say “personal retreat”. It’s not the spiritual meditative kind (although it can feel a little bit like that at times), and it isn’t the kind where you go to a remote location in the California desert and join others for a week of silence and contemplation.

Try not to over-hype it. You’re just taking some time to think about where you are, where you want to be, and the actionable changes you can make to get there.

The plan

David Sparks published a guide for how he does his personal retreats, and it seemed pretty good to me so that’s what I did too.1

You can watch/read the guide for yourself, but to give you some context I’ll say that the work revolves around Roles. You can imagine that everything we do, we do while inhabiting a particular role. You’re a friend, a writer, a painter, a cyclist, a lover, a spouse. I know it’s not that straightforward and roles are not that separable, but this works well enough to be useful.

Now that you know the first principle of Roles, the rest of the steps are:

  1. Write down all the roles you inhabit.
  2. Write your ideal description of how you want to be in each role.
  3. For each role, you answer a list of questions that you’ve prepared ahead of time (this is the most time-consuming part of the whole exercise).
  4. After answering all questions for all roles, collect a list of actions that you want to take to move yourself to where you want to be.
  5. Don’t do the actions themselves, but build whatever systems you need to make it easier for you to do those actions when you’re back in the real world.

There’s not that much more to it, but you should watch David’s video for more details. What I want to do with the rest of the post is document some practical meta notes as they apply to me.


Going somewhere else

This one is short. Don’t do this at home. Don’t do this where you will be surrounded by other people (strangers or not), and even if you’ll be alone don’t do it in a familiar place where you will be surrounded by all your distracting shit.

Pack a light bag, go somewhere else that’s simple, cheap, sparse, and quiet.

The vibe of the space matters

I wish I could say that any place would work as long as you were alone. Maybe that’s true for some people, in which case that’s great because it gives you more flexibility. For others, including me, aesthetics influence mood and ability to focus and introspect. A lot. Know whether that’s true for you as well, and account for it.

I was was lucky to find the place I went to. It was small, cheap (as cheap as a cabin on Whidbey island could be), cozy, and not modern in any way. No linoleum, no chrome, carpets everywhere, wood everywhere, old comfortable furniture everywhere. It wasn’t fake mid-century modern, it was actually old. It was perfect.

Pen and paper vs. typing.

I’m parroting David here, but having periods of focused, uninterrupted writing is critical. David manages to protect his attention while still using a computing device to write (I think he uses an iPad), and I can imagine how this might work: turn off the radios, turn on Do Not Disturb, use Focus Modes to suppress things even further, etc.

My digital hygiene is much worse than David’s. I think just looking at a screen and touching a keyboard would crack my attention even if no information is popping up, so I opted for the pen and empty notebook approach.

There are downsides to pen and paper. Writing by hand is a lot slower than typing.2 Also if your handwriting is terrible, you might not be able to read it later, or it might just put you off during your review.

A year ago I would’ve added “you can’t search” to the list of cons to pen and paper, but iOS now has Live Text and it’s amazing, even with handwriting. I wouldn’t say that it’s a solved problem, text flow and formatting might still be garbage, but at least it’s searchable.

This is also where the specifics of the place helped me a lot. There was a corner with an old writing desk and creaky wood chair that helped me keep my work environment sparse and tidy.


Boy does it matter. I wish it didn’t, because I usually like to listen to music while I do things, but it does.

It’s very à la mode to say this these days, but it’s amazing how clearer your mind can be if you spend an hour or two writing or thinking in uninterrupted silence.

Not a lot stuck after the first try

I left the cabin full of insight and plans for things to change to get closer to the life I wanted to live. I don’t think any of the insights were wrong, but I made some classic mistakes, the classic-est of which was to have plenty of plans for things I was going to do without sufficiently planning for things I was going to stop doing. It’s a mistake as old as time.

So, in the final analysis, I intended to make ꭓ amount of change, and I’ve actually accomplished about ⅛ ꭓ. But hey, that’s good! I learned some lessons and I’ll do a better job next time.

Next time

Have a next time. This is good to do once, but the real gains come from doing it often.

  1. He also has a PDF version but he unfortunately put it behind a newsletter signup form. You can decide to sign up to get it, but it’s essentially the same content from the video in readable form. ↩︎

  2. That said, slow can be good here. ↩︎


Turning base for runway 16 at KRNT

I passed my private pilot checkride on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021. I think getting my pilot’s license was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.1 Flying didn’t come naturally to me, and being able to say that publicly and be okay with it is perhaps the second hardest thing I’ve ever done.

So how do you learn to fly a plane in the United States? There are many ways, and many aviation websites will tell you all about them. I’m writing this here for those who won’t go looking it up otherwise.2


Unless there’s an aviator in your family who introduced you to flying in your childhood, it starts with a discovery flight: a 2-ish hour flight offered by flight schools that previews what it’s like to fly a general aviation aircraft—think Cessnas, Pipers, Cirruses (Cirri?). You meet with a flight instructor who shows you how to pre-flight a plane, pre and post engine start checklists, radio communications in towered or non-towered airports, taxiing, more checklists, takeoff, cruise, and hopefully at least one landing.

On a discovery flight you fly left seat (which is the normal pilot in command seat), the instructor will hand you the controls to do some flying during cruise, and might even let you take off yourself if the vibe is right. Some people get into it right away, others are so overwhelmed by the earth pulling away from them in what is essentially a tuna can with a propeller that it takes them a while to get comfortable. You can guess which one I was.

Say you loved your disco flight—you caught the flying bug as they call it—and you want to take it all the way to your license, what next? You find an instructor, have an orientation, and schedule your first lesson.3 Congratulations, you’re about to spend a lot of money very fast.

Training is split into stages which might vary from school to school but generally look like this:

Stage 1: Pre solo

Stage one is about learning basic flight maneuvers: takeoffs, climbs, level flight, turns, descents, and landings. It’s also about learning beyond-basic maneuvers that teach you about the plane’s performance envelope: steep turns, slow flight, stalls, ground reference maneuvers, and emergency procedures. You will be asked to demonstrate these on the practical test.

This stage is complete when your instructor endorses you to do your first solo flight. Your first solo is a massive milestone, equal if not exceeding in significance to your practical test.

Stage 2: Cross country

Wind farm near Chehalis, WA

In this stage you build on basic flying skills to learn the fundamentals of navigation. For the purposes of a private pilot license, a cross country (XC) flight is one in which the “point of landing… [is] at least a straight-line distance of more than 50 nautical miles from the original point of departure”.5

During this stage, you practice planning XC flights by examining sectional charts, knowing what airspace you have to avoid or fly through, choosing altitudes to avoid terrain, and using weather and winds aloft forecasts to calculate your magnetic heading from true course, wind correction angle, magnetic variation, and magnetic deviation (if applicable).

This stage is fun because you’re actually going somewhere instead of doing circles in the practice area. But it’s frustrating because your instructor will probably have you do everything on paper to make sure you actually know what you’re doing. Planning a XC flight on paper is an excruciating and error-prone task. An instructor once asked me “How many times do you think I made a cross country flight plan on paper after I got my license?” and then made a big zero with their index and thumb.

The thing is there’s an app for that, it’s really good and it’ll do almost everything for you. That said, the examiner will want to know where all the numbers come from, and so the instructor wants you to know where all the numbers come from. It will also help you not get yourself killed when you inevitably press the wrong button in the app and not pick up on all the suspicious estimates.

This stage is complete when you perform a XC flight of 150 nautical miles, with full stop landings at three points, and when at least one segment of the flight is more than 50 nautical miles along a straight line between the takeoff and landing sites.

I did two cross country flights: KRNT → KCLS, and KRNT → KCLS → KKLS → KSPB. The solo cross country flights were the most fun I had during training.

Stage 3: Checkride prep

This is a catch-all stage. The goal is to complete any remaining requirements and bring up your maneuvers to the tolerances of the Airman Certification Standards (ACS).6 The ACS is very specific about the deviations allowed during maneuvers. For example:

Slow flight

PA.VII.A.S5: Maintain the specified altitude, ±100 feet; specified heading, ±10°; airspeed, +10/-0 knots; and specified angle of bank, ±10°.

Steep turns

PA.V.A.S5: Maintain the entry altitude ±100 feet, airspeed ±10 knots, bank ±5°, and roll out on the entry heading ±10°.

Power-off stalls

PA.VII.B.S2: Select an entry altitude that will allow the Task to be completed no lower than 1,500 feet AGL (ASEL, ASES) or 3,000 feet AGL (AMEL, AMES).
PA.VII.B.S3: Configure the airplane in the approach or landing configuration, as specified by the evaluator, and maintain coordinated flight throughout the maneuver.
PA.VII.B.S6: Maintain a specified heading ±10° if in straight flight; maintain a specified angle of bank not to exceed 20°, ±10° if in turning flight, while inducing the stall.

And so on.

Some examiners will look the other way if you deviate by 12° during your power on stalls. They might not notice, or they might get you to try the maneuver again. Most examiners aren’t trying to fail you; they want to give you your ticket. They just have to make sure you’re going to be safe, which is why some mistakes are automatic checkride busts and they’re usually mistakes relating to safety and situational awareness.

Closing thoughts

Orcas Island, WA

I’m a pilot now and I am really happy about it.

  1. Palpably aware of my privilege, thank you. ↩︎

  2. Above all else, I’m writing this here for me. ↩︎

  3. Finding an instructor is one of the more difficult things to do when starting flight training. Not unlike your relationship with your therapist, fit is critical when it comes to schedules, personality, communications, etc. ↩︎

  4. Serious talk, it’s not just you who will get slapped if you do stupid things during your training, your instructor will get slapped too. And since your instructor is very likely trying to build hours to get to the airlines, having a black mark in their file could end their career. ↩︎

  5. 14 CFR § 61.1↩︎

  6. I know. ↩︎

Libby and your public library

Libby is an app that lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks from your public library. It’s free to download and use, you can install it on iOS and Android, and while I’ve only used it in the US, it works with some international public libraries as well.

Libby is the best app I have ever used. Not because of its design (which I do like), or because of the number of things it does (it does a few things well), but because it solves a hard problem so well.

First I want to talk about the basics of borrowing ebooks, because it used to be complicated but it’s not anymore. Second, I want to convince you to use Libby even if you can afford to buy ebooks.

If you don’t stick around till the end, my message is this: Use Libby to read for free, donate your buying money to your local library.

Quick start

You will need a library card. You might be able to get one remotely, but I had to show up in person to show evidence of residency before getting mine. Once you have your card, open Libby and connect it to your library account.1

That’s it. You’re ready to use Libby to:

  1. Put holds on books (more on this below).
  2. Borrow a book immediately if there are copies available.
  3. Borrow a book you had a hold on if it’s your turn (more on this below), or
  4. Deliver a book later (my favorite Libby feature, by far).
  5. Send your ebook loan to your Kindle if you have one (more on this below).

Holds and loans

A library hold is your place in line to borrow an item. For virtual items, a hold is only required if all copies are currently borrowed by readers, and you want to get in line for one. If a copy is available, you can borrow it immediately, because there’s no reason to hold the bytes, they can be sent to your device immediately.

A note about copies: Libraries get a limited number of “copies” of any virtual item. That’s ridiculous of course, it’s just a file so it’s not the copies that are limited, it’s licenses. The page I linked to explains it in a more diplomatic tone, but in summary the old publishing houses continue to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, and they haven’t figured out a way to make their business work while letting library borrowers copy a file as many times as they need so they could all read a book at the same time without also bankrupting the library. Maybe one day we’ll figure this out. Until then, your library can send the bytes that make up Hitch-22 to a limited number of people, and they can’t send them to you until they make sure that one of those peoples’ devices is no longer authorized to show those bytes anymore.

Libby lets you put holds on up to 25 items at the same time.2 Once it’s your turn and a copy of a hold is available to you, Libby will notify you, and you can make one of two decisions: Borrow, or Deliver Later.

Deliver Later is my favorite Libby feature, it’s the reason to use the app. If a copy becomes available but you’re not ready to start reading (e.g., you don’t think you’ll have time to finish the book before it’s due), Libby lets you defer the loan. Instead of going to the back of the line (which could be months long in many cases), you can choose how long before you’re offered the book again. The link describes it best: “Delivering a hold later keeps you at the front of the wait list, but passes the current copy to the next person in line.” One minor downside is you can’t be exact with when it’s your turn again–it depends on the range of time it takes people to read their copies.

With Deliver Later, you don’t have to time your holds to avoid getting a bunch of books all at once. You can keep deferring until you have the time to read something new.

Reading and listening

Briefly. If what you’re borrowing is an ebook, you can read it in the Libby app itself. That said, most ebooks available on the app are compatible with Kindles, and Libby makes sending the loan to your Kindle very easy.3 I love this, first because if you own a Kindle you probably prefer to read on it instead of your phone/tablet’s screen anyway. Second, because the Kindle will save all your highlights from the borrowed book just like it does with ebooks you own–even after you return your loan. Is your mind blown? Mine still is, and I’ve been using Libby for years.

If what you’re borrowing is an audiobook, the Libby app is the only option for listening, as far as I can tell.

Complications and closing thoughts

It’s not all roses and candy canes. ebooks are very expensive for libraries.

E-books at libraries are a huge hit, leading to long waits, reader hacks and worried publishers

And while there are technically an infinite number of copies of digital files, e-books also work differently. When a library wants to buy a physical book, it pays the list price of about $12 to $14, or less if buying in bulk, plus for services like maintenance. An e-book, however, tends to be far more expensive because it’s licensed from a publisher instead of purchased outright, and the higher price typically only covers a set number of years or reads.
A library typically pays between $40 and $60 to license a new e-book adult title, which it can then loan out to one patron at a time, mimicking how physical loans work. Each publisher offers different payment models. Under one, a library only has an e-book for two years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first. Another agreement covers 26 checkouts per book.

I know. It’s backwards. An ebook has no marginal cost. It costs nothing to copy, nothing to host, nothing to send to a buyer or borrower, yet it’s priced like it’s only slightly cheaper if you’re buying, and like it’s more costly if you’re borrowing. You’ve probably already had the what-planet-is-this experience of seeing a book’s paperback priced at $16 and the ebook version priced at $12.99. It makes no sense except as a reminder that things aren’t priced on sense, they’re priced on what the market will bear.4

This perversion might prompt you to stick with buying ebooks instead of borrowing them out of some desire to alleviate the burden on the libraries. Maybe you’re lucky and you can afford it, and hey, you can get the book when you want and you keep it forever.

Let me ask you, instead, to not do that. Keep borrowing, and if you can afford it, set up a recurring donation to your local library. You and I can go back to buying most of the books we read, but others actually rely on the library for their reading, and this won’t get better if we all back off because it’s creating a problem. This kind of problem can only be resolved if demand for this service stays high and goes higher.

  1. You might need to provide your library credentials, I’m not sure because it’s been a while since I set mine up and I haven’t had to do it a second time in years. ↩︎

  2. It’s possible the number varies by public library. I use the Seattle Public Library and 25 is the limit of simultaneous holds available to me. ↩︎

  3. Caveat: this process happens through Amazon, which has a deal with libraries to deliver their Kindle versions of ebooks as loans to Kindles. You’ll have to sign in to Amazon for this to work. The book will disappear from your Kindle automatically when the loan is due. ↩︎

  4. A reader of a draft of this post was skeptical that the cost to product and ship paper books was that large compared to ebooks, and thought the difference in price was reasonable. Ultimately this is a question about profit margins, and my assumption was that the profit margins on ebooks would be much higher than physical books. The best source I could find for this data is a post by Hugh Howey in which he references New Republic and Harper Collins showing what I assumed was true: contribution margins were 41.4% on hardcovers, and 75% on ebooks. I looked for the original New Republic article but couldn’t find it, neither could I find more recent or authoritative data. ↩︎

Spritz: historical rain notifications

‘Spritz that Shit’ is an inside joke. You can change the title if it doesn’t suit you.

A certain cherished member of my household has accumulated a lot of indoor and outdoor plants – 29 indoor ones, dozens of outdoor ones at last count. Plants don’t take care of themselves, and unlike most other living things you might keep near you, will only ask for what they need in frustrating and ambiguous ways, and usually when it’s a bit too late. On second thought, many adults work that way too.

Watering the indoor plants is managed using a spreadsheet that changes colors in disconcerting and heart palpitating ways, but it still tells you what to do and when to do it. Watering the outdoor plants is trickier; you want to account for rain to avoid wasting water and overwatering the plants that, as I mentioned, won’t tell you that you’ve been doing that for months until they’re dying. I definitely don’t have recent personal experience with this.

One day we were talking and the Household Plants Czar was thinking aloud about how annoying it was to keep track of recent rain and know whether to water outdoor plants or not, and how cool it would be if their phone just told them how much it’s been raining recently so they can make a decision.

I thought it would be fun to try to make it happen. I did, and now I want to write about how I did it. The summary is: getting weather data and sending notifications were the easy parts. Dates and timezones, as usual, were the harder parts.


Nothing will happen without a source of weather data. I searched for an API I could use without having to pay (at least at this early stage) and OpenWeatherMap was at the top of the list. It might’ve even been the first service I checked out, and it looked like it would do exactly what I wanted, so I didn’t keep looking.

The free tier is limited to a small set of APIs, but it ends up being enough. The historical weather data API gives hourly weather conditions for any provided latitude and longitude up to five days in the past. Perfect.

It takes just a few lines of code to get some data:

import requests
API_KEY = '...'
LOCATION = (47.588993, -122.306286)
TIMESTAMP = 1621794493
def get_weather():
    hist = "" \
    return requests.get(hist).json()


I could resort to automated emails if I had to, but the nicer way is to get a proper iOS notification waiting for you in the morning, telling you exactly how much it’s been raining recently.

I ended up using Pushover, a popular notification service. I primarily chose Pushover because python-pushover exists. The Python client may or may not be actively maintained, but hey, it works now.1 Being able to attach an image to the notification is a nice bonus.

from pushover import Client
client.send_message(MESSAGE, TITLE)

With Pushover you get a 30 day free trial per device, and then you’ll need to hand over $5 (as a one-time payment) for every device you want to send notifications to. Since the payment is per device, not application, all other automations you might set up to the same device are already paid for. Very much worth $5.

Dates, hours, and UTC

There’s a somewhat famous quote that goes like this: “There are only two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation and naming things”. Maybe. I’m no computer scientist, I’m a simple programmer, and in my lower orbit, the hardest problem I always run into is timezones.

I live in the Pacific timezone, but OpenWeatherMap does everything in UTC. So far so normal, most computer things use UTC, and if the API was hourly, this would be no problem. If I wanted the total precipitation for 1 AM, May 23rd, I’d find the UTC equivalent of 2021-05-23 01:00 PDT (which would be 2021-05-23 08:00), hand that to the API, get the response, and move on to the next hour.

The API, however, is daily. I assumed that meant that if I gave it a specific hour, it would give me hourly historical weather for that hour and the next 23. But that’s not how it works, the API’s day is the UTC day.

This means that if I hand the API 2021-05-23 08:00, OpenWeatherMap will give me the hourly weather for 2021-05-23 00:00 to 2021-05-23 23:00, which is 5pm May 22nd to 5pm May 23 Pacific.

This means that for every full Pacific day of weather you want, you’ll need to make two API calls, one for the day, and one for the day after.2

I decided to give up on thinking about my days vs. UTC days, and just accumulate hourly data and then filter them into days later.

The full script

Find it on GitHub.

This is one of those times where I post code I’m almost certain is written in roundabout and inefficient ways. If you get this far, and it’s clear to you how this could’ve been a lot better, please let me know! Also, pull requests are welcome.

  1. The last commit in the library is three years ago. When I first saw that I though no way this is going to work. But it did, which I guess is a testament to the stability of Pushover’s API. ↩︎

  2. I had already written the script assuming the API gave me my requested hour and the 23 hours after that. I think having written that code already made the change even more mind-bending, because I wasn’t thinking of how to write code from scratch, I was thinking of how to repurpose what I had already written to work with the new reality. ↩︎


American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

I have some clippings for this book, but only the first half. I started reading this on my Kindle then switched to an audiobook version. That’s the downside of listening to audiobooks instead of reading paper or ebooks; collecting clippings is hard. And if you collect ‘em, reviewing them is still hard.1

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

What this book is about, and what it’s about to me are two different things.

American Prometheus is a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, physicist and director of the Los Alamos Laboratory where some of the best scientific minds of the time were figuring out how to create a bomb based on atomic fission. The book is long, and it dedicates plenty of time to Oppenheimer’s younger years in school and college. It dedicates plenty of time to how he moves from awkward academic to successful celebrity physicist. It dedicates plenty of time to how he ends up being the director at Los Alamos, how he managed a delicate firewall between the scientists and the army, and the interaction between his drive to achieve and the use his achievement was intended for.2

The last portion of the book, and one of the most detailed, is about how it all ends poorly for Oppenheimer. A rival of his – there were many – bootstrapped his vendetta using America’s anti-communist mania, and put Oppenheimer’s flirtation with The Party on trial. Not in a court of law, in a much worse court, a court without constitutional rights or legal protections. A court of public opinion.

I always thought that one of the most humiliating things that can happen to a person is having to defend themselves against an accusation of an act that itself is not wrong. For example, having to defend yourself against a charge of homosexuality in a time and place where it’s against the law. Having to lie about your faith or lack of it in a time and place where it’s illegal to believe in anything but one thing. Or, having to convince a committee that you were never a member of the Communist Party when it should be your right to belong to any non-violent political movement as long as you weren’t truly treasonous to your country.3

Oppenheimer’s downfall was not a legal one. It was clear to his enemies that he wasn’t going to be convicted of a crime. A committee decided he was too risky to continue holding a security clearance that he had held for the duration of his service as a scientist with the US military. The committee did this knowing it would end Oppenheimer’s career and it would lock him out of knowledge and research that he had been primarily responsible for creating.

His sins were closeness to political communism before Soviet Russia was the enemy it came to be, and explicit opposition to projects that tried to create bombs more powerful than the atomic bomb that he helped create and deploy.

I can feel your restlessness so let me get to the point. This all matters of course because similar things happen today, they just aren’t happening in congressional hearings. Oppenheimer’s career – and arguably life – ended because of the suspicion that he joined the communist party decades before the hearing. Today people are fired for opinions they held years before the discovery of that opinion is made. These people end up having to defend themselves against the question of whether they really believed x or not. But in so many of those cases, what kills me is that it should be okay for them to have x position, even if I think it’s wrong to hold that position, even if it seems obscene to hold that position.

In 1949, it was uncontroversial for Americans to believe that members of communist parties were dangerous enemies of the state. It was also uncontroversial to believe a lot of things about race and gender that I don’t need to repeat here. Oppenheimer was denied positions in at least one Ivy League academic institution because they had reached their “Jewish quota”. If it was not possible for dissenters to voice the other side, the controversial side, of things, nothing would’ve changed.

What do you and I believe today, with such certainty, to be true and uncontroversial, that won’t be thought so true ten, twenty, thirty years from now? I’m not talking about facts, I’m talking about values. How will we know which of our values need correction if the people who think differently are scared to talk?

I promise that one day I will write the immigrant’s defense of American free speech essay I’ve always really wanted to write. I’ve delivered it in verbal form many times, but words need to be written.

I’ll end with one highlight:

“In the dark days of the early fifties, when troubles crowded in upon [Oppenheimer] from many sides and when he found himself harassed by his position at the center of controversy, I drew his attention to the fact that he would be welcome in a hundred academic centers abroad and asked him whether he had not thought of taking residence outside this country. His answer, given to me with tears in his eyes: ‘Damn it, I happen to love this country.’”

  1. Libby, which I am close to swearing I will write about one day if I thought swearing meant anything, lets you mark bookmarks in audiobooks. I used that once. It’s not Libby’s fault, I just think of going back to review those bookmarks and my will to do it vanishes. ↩︎

  2. The first time I ever heard of Oppenheimer was in a music video. I had just moved from the Middle Eat to Canada, and my Western culture drug of choice was music. In 2017, a Billy Talent music videowas on some music channel all day every day. The video is a story of a slightly unhinged scientist in the suburbs who builds a bomb in his basement. The video opens with a quote on screen: ‘“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” - J. Robert Oppenheimer’. Of course, turns out Oppenheimer isn’t the original author of that line. ↩︎

  3. I think that’s why dramatic depictions of McCarthyism and HUAC move us as an audience so much. When we read about or watch dramatizations of those hearings, we’re watching innocent people’s reputations and careers destroyed by intimations, not evidence. But worse, the intimations are of things that, even if true, should be protected in a healthy society. ↩︎


Just a Country Lawyer: Sam Ervin and the Unraveling of Watergate

Just a Country Lawyer: Sam Ervin and the Unraveling of Watergate

I put this book on my reading list after listening to the first season of the Slow Burn podcast. As a side note that’s too important to be a footnote: Slow Burn’s first season tells stories about Watergate, and is possibly my all-time favorite podcast, mostly because Leon Neyfakh is the best audio story-teller I’ve ever heard. I binged the whole thing in one day, and re-listen to it often. The second season about Clinton/Lewinsky was also very good.

The book is about senator Sam Ervin, who was popular in his day but is probably not a name recognized by many today. Ervin gets mentioned on the podcast for his role as the chair of the Senate Watergate Committee. What caught my attention was that Ervin was a hero for liberals for going after Nixon, but was, as Neyfakh puts it, an “unrepentant segregationist”. The podcast doesn’t go into how or why he was pro-segregation, but as I listened to that in 2019, it blew my mind that a senator could hold that view and still find favor in the eyes of the left. Also Ervin told good jokes and I like good jokes.

Ervin’s capacity for indignation over the mangling of the law by the courts was strongly revealed in the murder case against John Bridges. The prosecutor did his job well in presenting the evidence, but the judge flubbed it by forgetting to tell the jury it had the option of acquitting Bridges. “The state’s testimony tends to show that the prisoner coveted his neighbor’s wife and slew his neighbor with rare atrocity that his physical enjoyment of the wife’s person might be exclusive,” Ervin said. “The very sordidness of the evidence strongly tempts us to say that justice and law are not always synonymous, and to vote for affirmance of the judgment of death on the theory that justice has triumphed, however much law may have suffered.”

Ervin said the ultimate fate of John Bridges was of minor importance in the scheme of things because “his role on life’s stage, like ours, soon ends. But what happens to the law in this case is of the gravest moment. The preservation unimpaired of our basic rules of criminal procedure is an end far more desirable than that of hurrying a single sinner to what may be his merited doom.” (Page 154)

Sam Ervin really cared about the constitution. It feels so cheesy so write that, maybe because as far as I can tell very few people in progressive and/or left circles truly respect the US constitution or why its sanctity that makes it so hard to change is a big deal.1 Progressives want to change and improve things and the constitution’s natural state is stasis. Other than its natural inexplicit state, it explicitly enshrines some ideas that the US left-wing2 wants to change (see: the Second Amendment). The frustration that comes out of the failure to change that through existing amendment procedures pushes many to despise the setup of the entire document.

I don’t know enough about Sam Ervin to know what was in his heart when it comes to race and desegregation. His explicit view was that he saw all races as equal and had friendly relations with everyone, and that what put him in a seemingly anti desegregation position is that he objected to how laws were being passed to enforce it. The book advocates that explanation too.

Ervin’s voting history supports the “it’s complicated” angle on his beliefs. He voted against expansions of immigration quotas and tried to attach an exemption from drafting women to the Equal Rights Amendment Act, but he also opposed prayer in public schools and voted against data collection practices and “no knock” searches. He’s impossible to pigeonhole into an ideological camp.

During the next year, Ervin wrote an epic speech on the First Amendment and delivered it dozens of times:

“The First Amendment grants its freedoms to all persons within the boundaries of our country without regard to whether they are wise or foolish, learned or ignorant, profound or shallow, brave or timid, or devout or ungodly, and without regard to whether they love or hate our country and its institutions. Consequently, the amendment protects the expression of all kinds of ideas, no matter how antiquated, novel, or queer they may be. “In the final analysis, the First Amendment is based upon an abiding faith that our country has nothing to fear from the exercise of its freedoms as long as it leaves truth free to combat error. I share that faith. “To be sure, the exercise of First Amendment rights by others may annoy us and subject us at times to tirades of intellectual and political rubbish. This is a small price to pay however, for the benefits which the exercise of these rights bestows on our country.”

I wonder what he would think about the free speech issues we’ve been dealing with in the last few years.

The debate is about what private companies allow or prohibit, which means that almost none of the debate is actually about the First Amendment. That’s fine, but unless the majority of the country believes in the spirit behind it, the constitution is just a piece of paper, and so it’s the spirit I’m concerned with. Even if wanting private companies to take increasingly active roles in policing speech has nothing to do with the First Amendment, it has everything to do with lower-case free speech. How tolerant are we of wrong or offensive speech? Do we still understand what was protected when we made such a big deal out of free speech in the first place?

Ervin always found the very best poetry to illustrate his convictions, whether it was contained in the Bible, in literature, or in the words of great statesmen of the ages.

William Pitt the Elder had said all that needed to be said on this subject before the American Revolution. Ervin recited it word-for-word:

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it, the storm may enter, but the King of England cannot enter. All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.” (Page 273)

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one, it’s just a really good quote.

Look, should you read this book? I don’t know. It was a bit of a slog; more of an exploration of what made Sam Ervin a complicated politician than it was a deep dive into his role in Watergate (which is fair, the book’s about him, not Watergate).

The book won’t satisfy you if you’re looking for the equivalent of The Years of Lyndon Johnson but about Ervin. It’s not that. It’s a relatively short and uncritical biography. Read it if you’re curious about how a true constitutional legal mind wrestles with the conflict between the law and delayed justice, and nostalgia for the days when you didn’t get cancelled so easily.

Note: The title on the cover page of the book reads “Just a Country Lawyer: Sam Ervin and the Unraveling of Watergate”. I can’t find a book with that title, or the ISBN printed on the back (9781097619795) on Worldcat. What I can find, is a book with almost the same exact cover titled “Just a country lawyer: a biography of Senator Sam Ervin”. That latter title makes more sense; the book is a biography, and Watergate is a very small part of it. I don’t know what happened with the title change.

  1. I’ve always wanted to write about the US constitution from the perspective of an immigrant who used to live in oppressive countries, but the enormity of doing that job well held me back. One day. ↩︎

  2. eh for lack of a better term ↩︎


The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die

Cover of “The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die” by Paul A. Craig.

Be very careful when temperatures are rising from below freezing overnight. It is a good idea to walk to the end of the wing and gently rock the wing up and down. This might help move water to the lowest point in the tank and fuel system, where it will come out in the drain. (Location 2999)

My biggest project for 2020 was starting my pilot training. In the United States, the most common pilot license is the private pilot license, which allows you to fly yourself and others for fun but not for pay. If, like me, you were unfamiliar with general aviation, thinking of becoming a pilot brings images of these flight decks to mind:

Airbus flight deck
Airbus flight deck

But flying general aviation puts you behind one of these:

Cessna 162 Skycatcher cockpit
Cessna 162 Skytcatcher cockpit

The systems and controls are wildly different. An even more important difference is safety. It’s common knowledge that aviation has become so safe that you’re more likely to die driving a car. There were “no fatal passenger jet crashes” in 2017.

General aviation is a separate matter. Not only is GA’s fatality rate significantly worse than the airlines, it’s also worse than driving.

The only way to eliminate the risk is to not fly.1 If you’re gonna fly, you – at least I – can find some reassurance in knowing that most fatalities are entirely or partially attributable to pilot error. Either pilots do something reckless and/or stupid, manufacturing a lethal situation out of nothing, or they’re unprepared to deal with an unusual event or emergency that could’ve been survivable with better training and instincts.2

Guess what, I control the pilot, and reading The Killing Zone is part of my plan to reduce my contribution to the risk of flying to its absolute minimum.

I like the first quote about rocking the plane’s wings to make water in the fuel tanks settle because it’s a brief, clear demonstration of the simple mechanics of small planes. Small planes are simpler than you think. Since most small planes were made decades ago, they’re even simpler than most present-day cars.

Simple systems fail for simple reasons, but that doesn’t make the failure less catastrophic. The fuel tank can be left uncovered for a few hours, or the tank cap can have a degraded seal, and moisture gets in. Moisture condenses into water, water contaminates the fuel which goes to the engine, and if you have enough water the engine will die.

Which is exactly what happened in the accident that prompted the quote. A small plane lost engine power when water in the fuel tanks got to the engine. Water is heavier than aviation fuel and it will sink to the bottom if it gets in the tank. When you learn how to do a pre-flight inspection, you learn to sump fuel from the tanks for this exact reason, to detect water. The accident pilot did sump the fuel and found the samples clean, so what happened? The investigation concluded that the samples were clean because the water was frozen when the pilot sampled the fuel in the early morning hours, which is why the engine lost power 45 minutes into the flight after the temperature got warmer and melted the ice in the tanks.

The consensus is that becoming a safer pilot can either happen from experience or education. Experience is measured in hours, and the number of flight hours is a critical metric in aviation: it impacts your eligibility for examinations, certificates, jobs, and ability to carry passengers.

The killing zone is not a geographical one, it’s a zone defined by a range of flight hours. The author’s main argument is that a spike of fatalities for pilots with 50 to 350-400 flight hours is evidence of a dangerous zone of experience right after pilots get their certificates and stop receiving instruction but right before they’re proficient enough to fly well.

There are criticisms of the author’s use of statistics, and I won’t litigate that here because I don’t care, and I think worrying about the validity of the zone distracts from a better conclusion: you should always assume you’re in a dangerous zone.

If I had to name the biggest killer of pilots, it’s complacency. I think you’re likely to become complacent if you think you’ll magically be less likely to die after you’ve logged 400+ hours than if you forget about these hours and nurture a sense or paranoia at all times.

So regardless of the statistics, if you’re learning to fly you should read this book as an exercise in the second path to becoming a safer pilot: education. The book’s value lies in the taxonomy of accidents (e.g., takeoffs, landings, runway incursions, midair collisions, etc.) and the accident reports it includes for each category.

I think the author picked a good set of accident reports; the reports cover the most common root causes but have enough variety that they introduce new failure modes that I hadn’t considered before. I live on the West Coast, so we don’t have frigid winters, but temperatures do drop below freezing, and I never considered that this could hide water in the tanks.

One more note about why I don’t care about the zone: Safety is treating low likelihood events as quasi-certainties and being prepared to act when, not if, they happen.

Frankly, I think the way to be safe is to assume that catastrophe is always just around the corner, and be prepared for it. I’m not sure if the author is arguing that by the end of the 400 hours you do have that paranoia entrenched, I don’t see how, if anything I think the longer you go without an emergency the less likely you’ll think it’s going to happen to you.

A few more highlights from the book:

A pilot planning an early morning flight should know that the temperature usually rises as the sun gets higher in the sky. A 4-degree spread [between temperature and dew point ] at 7:00 a.m. means that fog is less likely to form because the temperature is getting hotter and therefore the spread is getting wider. The fog is said to “burn off.” But a 4-degree spread at 7:00 p.m. is trouble. As the sun disappears there will be no more direct heating from the sun and the temperature will drop. The spread is already only 4 and will probably narrow. The weather-wise pilot knows that fog formation is just an hour or so away. (Location 1350)

Density altitude is simply a measurement of the “quality” of the air. When airplanes fly through dense air three things happen: 1. The wings produce more lift because there are more air molecules to produce lift with. 2. The propeller produces more thrust because there are more air molecules to cut through and push back. 3. The engine produces more power because more air molecules are compressed and then expanded on the power stroke. Low altitude, low temperature, and low humidity produce dense, wonderful air for airplanes to operate in. But the converse is true. High altitude, high temperature, and high humidity make wings sluggish, props dull, and engines weak. (Location 1709)

Who needs a greater wind correction angle to overcome an en route crosswind, a Lear Jet or a Cessna 150? Even a light wind can blow a slow-moving airplane off the centerline when the airplane is in ground effect. If the airplane starts to be pushed off the runway, the trees that line the runway will be much closer than the trees at the end of the runway. A premature liftoff during crosswind conditions means the pilot cannot climb, cannot accelerate, and cannot prevent the wind from blowing the airplane into obstructions downwind. A pilot in that position becomes a passenger who can do nothing more than ride it out. No pilot wants to be reduced to having the same control as a passenger, so plan ahead, read the charts, take your time, and be ready to say no. (Location 1898)

The next one is about a terrible accident caused by engine power loss due to fuel starvation. Context: fuel tanks are in the wings, and some planes have a fuel selector that can be set to the right or left wing tank, but not both, which can lead to the engine being starved of fuel if the selected tank runs out.3 This was one of those planes.

The pilot could not find the fuel selector valve and requested help from the Air Route Traffic Control Center. Before they could help him, the engine lost power. There happened to be a pilot at the ARTCC, who was familiar with the PA-28. By the time he was found and the information was passed to the pilot, the aircraft had nearly descended to the ground. As the pilot was reaching for the fuel selector, the aircraft hit trees and crashed. (Location 3079)

On the chemical process behind night vision:

It takes some time for this photochemical to coat the rods. But the moment the rods are exposed to bright light, the Rhodopsin degenerates and night vision is lost. This is why aircraft flight decks use red light, because red light does not destroy night vision. If you are flying at night and must use a white light, close one eye to preserve night vision in one eye. On dark nights, progressively turn down the illumination of cockpit lights so that the eyes can adapt further and outside vision will improve. But be careful when flying at night near thunderstorms. A flash of lightning will instantly steal your night vision. This is another good reason to stay away from thunderstorms. (Location 3623)

Unfortunately the author succumbed to the temptation of psychological generalizations. He is not the first and will not be the last.

Eric Farmer, writing for the International Journal of Aviation Safety, says that a number of studies have supported the notion that a distinct pilot personality profile exists and can be identified in successful pilots. These studies have identified traits of the pilot personality. The research concludes that pilots are independent achievers who demonstrate competence and enjoy mastering complex tasks. The motivation to fly involves a need for prestige and for control. Those who love to fly desire excitement, power, speed, independence, thrills, and competition. (Location 4497)

  1. Almost zero. It’s rare, but people have died on the ground from small planes crashing into their houses. ↩︎

  2. Nature vs. nurture note: the instinct I refer to here is learned, not one you’re born with. Another way to describe this kind of instinct is: automatic response. If something happens, what’s your reaction prior to your conscious mind processing the information and making a decision? If you’re trying to land and you bounce off of the runway, you have a second or two to go full throttle and execute a go-around before the plane comes back down for its second of multiple increasingly dangerous bounces (see: porpoising). An instinct to go full throttle after the first bounce could be what stands between you and wrecking the plane, or worse. ↩︎

  3. The left-or-right-not-both selector may seem like a certifiably stupid design decision. But, as with most things that appear inexplicably stupid at first glance, they are almost always actually explicable↩︎