Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Privileges of Parenthood

It's interesting how you learn things about yourself. Don't tell anyone, but I've just worked out that I have some control freak tendencies. Only in certain areas mind you.
It was a beautiful day yesterday, not too hot - probably low 20s, and only a little veil of high cirrus in places. My daughter and I were set to go off flying for a couple of hours. The idea being that she would be PIC (that's pilot speak for Pilot in Command) for one leg and I would be PIC for the next. She did the flight plan and the walk around and the first leg was hers. I found myself sitting in the right hand seat fidgeting and squirming. She is a very good pilot, it wasn't about that, it's just that...well I don't know what it was really. I suspect I just like to be in charge!
We had a lovely flight north to YBDG, did a couple of practice go-arounds, and landed. But not before I'd been sharply told to hold my peace in the circuit - thank you!
We had a comfort stop and I did the walk around before setting off. She-in-the-right-seat is a very good map reader and navigator. She wasn't in the least bit impressed with my course holding or my attention to navigation. I felt like I was flying in the LH seat for the first time and that I had a crusty old QANTAS captain in the right hand seat. I was urged to return to my course a couple of times and generally had a strong sense that I wasn't performing to impress.
I finally did manage to find the destination - I don't know how, given all my failings, and then I stuffed it up and had to do a go around! The second time around I managed to get the aircraft somewhere near the ground. That of course meant that I had to land it - another thing which, in the opinion of the RH seat, I am sorely deficient at doing. However this time I pulled off a gentle touch down which literally caused raised eyebrows from the other seat.
Perhaps my skills are improving and one day she will be satisfied!
Seriously though this is really enjoyable flying. We each have pretty high expectations of ourselves and of each other. Flying together pushes each of us to perform better and to push for ever better standards.
This isn't about showing off to each other - far from it. In fact it's about learning from each other and striving to operate safely and to a high standard. It's one of the privileges of fatherhood that I thoroughly enjoy.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

DITA - Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle

In any business you will typically have a set of documents that use common content. This always causes problems. What tends to happen is that content is copied and pasted into multiple documents and as it changes and as the number of documents multiply it becomes harder and harder to keep it up to date.
The nice idea would be to keep that content in a database and only update it at the source and then use it wherever you need it. That's been the holy grail for years, and if you were a large company then you probably had the money and the expertise to do that. The ASX, for instance, had a system like that for some of their publications back in the early 90s. Good but highly technical and very expensive.
Enter DITA. DITA is the Darwin Information Typing Architecture - go and Google it for some background. In short DITA uses XML format documents to create topics - short chunks of information - and uses ditamaps to combine those topics into publications. But there's a whole lot more there than that.
DITA can be output in a number of formats - do you want to use your XML topics to generate a website? DITA can do that. Do you want to use the same content to create a PDF document? DITA can do that. Eclipse Help? Use DITA.
You can use open source tools to run your whole DITA solution - there is a thing called the DITA Open Toolkit that does all the processing and you can use "free" XML editors to create content.
That's OK until you want to have content available over the web or to collaborate on content. Then you need a more complex solution.
That's where XDocs comes in. It is a content management system designed for DITA. It stores content, manages links and generates content output. It's a Java application, runs in Tomcat and uses MySQL as the database. So there's plenty of open source kit in the background.
XDocs runs on Windows, Linux and I just did the first Mac OS X install on Snow Leopard over the last few days.
Why do I use it? Imagine a Pilot Operating Handbook for your favourite aircraft and imagine the downwind checklist. Now imagine the POH for another similar aircraft and the downwind checklist. They're likely to be the same. Why would you write them 2, 3, 4 or more times to keep versions of POHs up to date. In our case the aircraft manufacturer "owns" the content and we manage the publications. Trying to keep multiple POHs up to date using MS Word or something similar is just not possible. Not if you want to stay sane.
Instead we have a library of topics which range from the procedure used to do a weight and balance (the same for all aircraft types) to the CG limits for the aircraft (different for each type). We generate them at runtime into the POH for the appropriate aircraft type. XDocs allow us to utilise publishing profiles so that we can exclude content which meets certain criteria. This allows us to put content into a map but to exclude some of that content for a particular aircraft type. Each aircraft gets a hard copy POH, a CD and we also serve the same content up on a Knowledge Base website that is part of the XDocs product. Very sweet and smooth. If we change content in just one place it changes for each of the uses that it is put to.
XDocs has a number of parts. The server runs in Tomcat and uses MySQL to store content. There is a Java client application that again runs on the three platforms. It allows you to access and manage your content repository, which by the way can also include other types of documents, images or other digital assets. Then there is the editor that is called from the client application. In our case we use XMLMind but you could also use XMetal - XDocs has integrations for either.
In addition there is a content management portal that is accessible via a web browser that allows you to access the repository and to generate content - if you want to build a PDF on the fly at a customer site then the portal allows you to do that. Finally there's the Knowledge Base which allows you to serve a map as a website.
But here's the punchline: XDocs, which is developed and sold by Bluestream, is cost effective for small business and yet scalable for growth. As well it's simple to configure and manage. This is a great product.
So whilst we may not be as big or complex as Airbus Industrie we are using similar technology to manage our documentation. In their case the same content chunks are used for printed publications, name it the content is re-used for it.
If you are interested in DITA and its background then simply hit Google, you'll be surprised how much is out there. If you want to chase down the theoretical background then search for John Carroll and minimalism, you get to stuff like this. It is very relevant to aviation documentation and learning.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


My significant other isn't an early waker, so that's always meant that I have a solitary half hour or so first thing in the morning. I used to jump up and do my email and maybe some work on the laptop. But that's all changed.
Now I reach over and pull the phone off charge and start a bit of a morning ritual. First cab off the rank is my email. Who's said what to whom overnight? Any issues that need to be dealt with? What sort of continuing conversation is going on in the Apple Support forums about the
Then it's off to Pocket Weather (AU) to see what the forecast is and also to look at the weather radar to see what's coming. If I'm planning on flying I jump over to NAIPS for iPhone and get a briefing of wherever it is I'm intending to be flying. I've done that the last 4 Tuesdays in fact and each time we've ultimately ended up not flying due wx. My daughter and I have been hanging out to go off on a Tuesday jaunt somewhere, taking alternate sectors as PIC. Hopefully next week!
The news is next. The ABC's iPhone app is simple and works well. I'm addicted to the Justin news section on their website. The iPhone app dishes it up in an easy to read format. Then I might look at the AP app from Associated Press or the very classy Time app. Time have managed to shoehorn a weekly magazine format and the classic "Time look" into an iPhone app. It looks and works really great. Final stop in the news round is TUAW - The Unofficial Apple Weblog. This is a site that really does what it says it does. The volume of content is good, it's in bite size snippets, it has an opinion and the app works well enough. If you want commentary on Apple, iPhone, apps or anything related this is not a bad place to go.
Next stop is Tweetie2 (have you tried this new version of Tweetie - yes it costs but boy it's good). I like to see who has said what outrageous thing about what overnight. It's the good thing about living downunder: people are working for your enjoyment whilst you sleep -;)
The final stop is Appigo Todo and the Calendar app. This is where I find out what's on my list for the day and what appointments I have.
In half an hour I feel like I'm informed and in touch. Ready to start the day.
Then it's time to get up and make the coffee for my loved one.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bach Organ Works Marathon

Just a quick note for people in Melbourne. There's a very special event going on right now at the Melbourne Town Hall. Calvin Bowman is playing all of Bach's Organ works (except those of spurious attribution) in one sitting.
The event started at 8:00am today and is expected to finish sometime after midnight tonight. The last work will be the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

That video is pretty rough and ready - the iPhone struggled with the contrast levels in the hall. However, it gives you some idea! The console for the organ has been set up on the floor of the auditorium in a pool of light. It gives a unique insight into the way a big organ is played. You can watch as he pulls the pre-sets, uses the different manuals and plays the base pedals. It's particularly interesting when he plays a long passage on the base pedals with both hands on his knees!
The atmosphere in the hall is great. Around 600 people at any one time by my estimate and a respectful hush. At each break people leave and others arrive so that there is a constant turnover of people. I think everyone there understands what a supreme effort this must be. I imagine that Calvin will be very sore and tired tomorrow.
This event is part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival and its free. So get on down there!

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I suppose you imagine that being diagnosed with cancer comes with drum rolls and drama.
It doesn't. It's much more low key and prosaic than that. I came home from flying one weekend, my wife said "what's that on your backside?" It looked like a bruise, the size of a 50 cent coin.
For a while I thought nothing of it; then I went to the doctor. It's just a bit of eczema he said, here's some cream. But it didn't go. Then I headed off to see a specialist: It's nothing he said - quite unpleasantly in fact.
January had moved to April and still this thing was getting bigger. I had a friend with a cutaneous B-cell lymphoma and that had alerted me to the possibility. I asked to be referred to another specialist. He looked at the lesion and I said "what do you think it is?" He said "I'm suspicious that it's cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, we'll do a biopsy." I said "I think you're right" - he looked startled!
The biopsy was low key, lay on your face and have someone stick two holes in your backside and then stitch them. The result was of course positive. August - 8 months, not bad.
So begins the process of living with cancer, and hopefully dying with it not from it. I'm one of the lucky ones. Usually this disease takes 15 years to diagnose and because it's well advanced you die from it. Ask Paul Eddington.
In my case I found it very early, I had a high index of suspicion and I persisted until I got a diagnosis - one way or another. That makes my outlook good. But I wake up every morning knowing that this thing that has me might decide that today is the day to go berserk. Some days it does and you fight back. Some days, weeks, even months it stays quietly in its lair.
There aren't any drum rolls though and it isn't a drama. Somebody just tells you quietly that you have cancer and that there is no cure. Another day at the office...
The more we know the more likely that we are to live until we die (of something else -;)).
For more information on Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma go here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Open Letter to Kevin Rudd

Dear Kevin,
I said I was never going to do this - write anything about politics - but you've pissed me off so much over the last couple of days that here it is..
I've watched you on TV recently talking about people coming here in boats - I call them refugees, you call them some spin-doctor-invented thing or another. At one point I realised who you reminded me of in some interview or other: John Howard! That's right. You remind me of John Howard the way you haver and sit on the fence and try to find just the thing that you think will make the polls treat you right.
Have some guts Kevin. Do you think people travel for months from their homeland, pay money to all sorts of crooks, get in a leaky boat and spend weeks at sea, just because they want to? Of course they don't. These people are compelled by events, often beyond our personal ken, to up sticks and travel the hard way to make a new life for themselves. They don't pick Australia because it looks like a soft target or they think it will be easy. They pick us because if you are going to go to all the trouble and danger then you might as well get the destination right.
We should welcome these people with open arms - they are the kind of people who will strive and struggle to make a new life here. They will be contributors to our country.
Many of the current crop are Sri Lankan Tamils. They are coming here because they are being driven here by appalling events. Every Sri Lankan Tamil I know is a wonderful person...and I know a few, including an Australian Rhodes Scholar - you know the thing that people like Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley did?
So instead of madly trying to find a message that won't piss people off why don't you show a bit of leadership? The last time we had real agenda-changing leadership in this country was from Paul Keating over Wik and Mabo. The population didn't like it but Paul went out on a limb, he provided the moral leadership that was required. The result was that the population accepted the complexity of the issues around native title and the political danger went away. That's right Kevin, if you have a little guts, if you show a little leadership at home then you can do the right thing and avoid political danger. Leadership like that is long overdue - we haven't seen it for years and we're not seeing it now.
As it stands you are sitting on the fence trying to please everyone. You run the serious risk of getting a fence paling up your arse. This isn't why we elected you, this isn't who we thought we were getting as a Prime Minister. Why don't you stay true to the faith we had in you rather than pissing it away in a vain attempt to pander to the polls?
They are not illegals, they are not queue jumpers, they are people in need. Do the right thing and do it now.
Thanks Kevin.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Don't Pull!

When I started to learn to fly gliders, over 35 years ago, I had drummed into me the importance of avoiding a spin from the final turn. It was a not uncommon happening and pilots were killed regularly. The conventional wisdom was that it happened when you were low and slow, when you were trying to stretch your glide. You tried just a little too hard, maybe used a little too much rudder as the nose began to drop through the turn and voila you had stalled.
Recently I had a box seat as someone pulled hard turning final. I watched the airspeed decay and saw the stick approaching the "stall stick" position. I called "watch you airspeed" then when I got no response I said "don't pull, watch your airspeed". Finally when there was still no positive action I "pushed" and the pilot then responded positively.
This was a powered aircraft. We were neither low nor slow when it started and there were no other factors that would have generated a need to "pull". It was a shallow turn, balanced, and there was no sudden sink. So why did the pilot pull like they were in a 60 degree bank, and why did they seem so unresponsive to the situation?
A friend recounted a similar story to me. He is vastly experienced, has been flying almost as long as I've been alive, and the story was almost exactly the same, albeit the reaction was quicker.
So why did they do it? I'm certain that there was no ground reference illusion stuff happening, despite the FAA's fondness for the concept. This was plain and simple: they had the aim point firmly in the centre of their attention, they were neither low nor slow and yet they pulled, and pulled hard enough to matter.
I expect the aircraft to be sinking at that stage, all the way from base turn to landing, the aircraft is sinking. It's losing 1000' usually during that period and I expect that to continue during the turn to final. It appeared to me that the pilot was having none of that, they wanted the aircraft to fly a level turn and they pulled to get it.
Is there something strange happening out in training land that I've missed? Don't people subscribe to the three As of final approach: Airspeed, Aspect, Aimpoint? Aren't they aware of the stall stick position and the importance of never getting there - especially turning final? Don't they practice descending turns? Don't they think about using power to manage descent rate?
I'd love to hear what you think about this. I'm becoming convinced that it's not just "low and slow" as the conventional wisdom would have it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Show Us Your iPhone Home Screen!!

Inspired by First and 20 I decided to show you my home screen on the iPhone. Also inspired by them I thought I'd do another post with the best half dozen or so of your home screens.
So here's how it works. You send me an email with a screen shot of your home screen together with a coherent description of why it's like it is and why the third party apps have earned their place. I will take the best emails and post them in a future blog post for the world to see -;). Tell me in the email how you want to be credited in the post - your bloggers name, your name, your first name, whatever. Also tell us where you come from.
OK here's my home screen:
To start with there's only one change to the Dock icons along the bottom: I got rid of the iPod icon and replaced it with Appigo Todo. I couldn't do without Todo so I stuck it there and in fact I think the iPod icon is due for relegation to page 2 entirely. I use it but only when I'm travelling or in bed at night!
The remaining 3 icons in the Dock and the 3 directly above them are the heart and soul of my iPhone existence. I use then all the time, every day and I like them just there. Why, Apple, did you think it was a good idea to have the Phone icon and the Messages icon the same colour? Where were your interface guys to tell you about colour cues? I get them mixed up all the time - hence why they are not lined up one above the other.
Next row: I don't use maps all the time but regularly enough that it earns its place there. I think it's a great app and since they added traffic for Australian major cities it's even more of a winner. Pocket Weather (AU) is an app I've blogged about before, can't do without it and the wx radar is a must have. ThinkDigits is a newbie on the home page but I'm increasingly liking it and I've written a few routines that I use regularly so it scored a spot in prime real estate. Settings gets used often enough that it stays there too.
I've already said that I think the iPod app might go to page two and the same is probably true of the Calculator app - it's currently on probation whilst I see whether ThinkDigits is a complete replacement. It's just that the Calculator is very simple to use for simple calcs. The Google app is brilliant, I like the voice recognition and it works well, as well I like the access to other Google functionality and the "figure-it-out-as-you-type" way that it manages searches. ANZ - well you have to manage your finances on the road and this is a well done little app.
Top Row: the Photo and Camera apps are used often enough that they need to be on the home screen, but they score the lowliest spot. I wish there was a simple app that replaced the Stocks app with real time data but until then it stays. I find myself using the Clock regularly because of the timers, alarms and the world clock functionality - good for working out whether I can reasonably Skype a particular person right now!
Just as a bonus, here's my page two:
The ones that are worth highlighting are:
  • TramTracker - if you live in Melbourne and you use the trams you can't do without it. What's more the development team are really responsive;
  • Manifesto - I've fallen right out of love with Manifesto. I think it's buggy - it only appears to deliver half of some feeds. Somebody give me a good alternative feed reader please so I can trash Manifesto;
  • iLogger - this is a great app, it allows you to set up templates and then record events or places using those templates. I have one for a particular financial transaction and I've written one for recording airstrips - good because you can geotag and add photos;
  • iDecide - this is a very schmick application that allows you to set up decision criteria and then to see how the options stack up against the criteria. There's good science behind it and it's a very good app;
  • NAIPS for iPhone - I've already blogged about this and it only keeps getting better. Now it has charts and the ability to file and modify a flight plan. This is an absolute winner;
  • CoPilot - this is a new addition. The flight planning functionality is good but I bit my lip at the price - it's the most I've paid for any app. Laurie is very responsive to queries. I found an error in the waypoint database with the second waypoint I chose - YCDE for the Australians (it is about 400nm miles away from where it should be but soon to be fixed). Laurie says that it's only the second error reported in 10 years using that database. I'll blog about this app more after some more use.
  • FarFinder - this is also an absolute winner. I have a dynamic IP on my home network but with the FarFinder app on my Mac(s) and this app I can access everything on my home network from anywhere and also use the camera on Macs at home. It's a great app and the support is very prompt. It's so good I could see what DVD was in the drive and take a picture of my son watching the movie from 1,000 miles away. I texted him the photo and asked what the movie was like - not impressed LOL.
OK so now it's over to you. My email address is in my profile so send me your Home Screens and their story. BTW to take a screen shot hold down the Sleep/Wake and Home button simultaneously. The screen flashes over and it's in your photo album.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Death & Destruction - The TAIC Report

I had previously written about a crash that killed a cousin of mine and the delay on behalf of NZ's TAIC in producing a report.
On 1 October the TAIC finally released their report. It can be found here as report 08-001.
The report is a simple thing and yet it tells a damning story and has a lesson for regulators, aerodrome operators and pilots.Briefly the facts of the crash as set out in the report are:
  • The C152 was on a solo flight and had departed from sealed rwy 34;
  • It departed the circuit and performed airwork to the north;
  • The R22 was conducting flight test operations from parallel rwy 34 grass with a student and testing officer onboard;
  • The C152 returned and made a standard overhead join for a left hand circuit on 34 seal.
  • As the C152 completed its turn on the "dead" side and began its crosswind entry at 1000' AGL it collided with the R22 which was on a right downwind for 34 grass;
  • All required radio calls had been made. The aerodrome was not controlled;
  • It appears that no avoiding action was taken by either pilot;
  • All 3 occupants were killed.
What is salutary is that as far back as 1996 the potential for conflict with respect to contra circuit operations at the crash airfield had been identified. It was proposed that a modified circuit joining procedure be developed. This had never been done - for reasons that remain unclear.
In contra direction circuit operations - certainly as they are practiced here and and in NZ - the potential for serious conflict exists at two main points:
  • Overhead the airfield at a height of 1500' AGL as aircraft from each circuit cross to their respective "dead" sides; and
  • In the downwind position for each circuit as aircraft from the "other" circuit cross at 1000' AGL towards their own downwind.
Circuit operations are specifically designed to avoid placing aircraft in conflict with each other. However contra circuit operations with un-modified overhead joins create real conflict. They are in my view inherently dangerous, yet nobody had done anything to alleviate this situation despite knowing that it existed.
The lessons for me from this crash are:
  1. Whilst the pilot of the C152 was notionally the give way pilot all pilots had a responsibility to see and avoid. This accident shows that, as other studies have found, see and avoid has serious limitations;
  2. Systems of operation create the conditions within which a crash can occur. In this case the accepted system of operation created dangerous potential for conflict which remained unaddressed. So whilst the pilots had primary responsibility for collision avoidance, they were hampered in safe operations by the system within which they were operating;
  3. That the various parties had failed to address the safety issues suggests that familiarity had bred an acceptance of risks which prima facie would appear to be unacceptable. Call it perception fatigue if you like but it's the reason we have regulators. They claim in this case limited ability to act. Is that good enough?
The bottom line is that there is a better way to join when contra circuit operations are taking place. I personally would never join overhead in that situation unless absolutely compelled to do so. If there is no real dead side then in my view you cannot conduct a safe overhead join. My choice would always tend to be an oblique downwind after taking care of spacing.
A history of conducting overhead joins in a contra circuit environment without incident does not mean that it is safe to continue to do so. Are your circuit operations as safe as they could be?

Friday, October 2, 2009


It's simple right? You get on a train and pay your hundred bucks and you're conveyed to Cootamundra in Central Western NSW. Then when you want to come home you go to the railway station and buy your ticket back to Melbourne and you come home.
Well that's not quite how it worked. I got there OK, had a great couple of days seeing the new owner settled into his new aircraft and then I tried to come home and that's where it went pear shaped.
No train seats out of town for the next 3 days. Righto we'll drive to Canberra and get a flight out of there - barely any seats and all at around four hundred bucks. OK scrap that and drive to Sydney and get a flight from there. Same story, only worse.
This is getting desperate. I know, I'll go to Yass and get the bus from there. That's only $61. But oh no they go via Narrandera and take about 14 or 15 hours. Stuff that for a joke and anyway there aren't any seats are there?
This is getting surreal - I want to be home in time for the weekend but I can't see it happening. What about Wagga? I hit the web and find the last available seat out of Wagga. 2 hours from now and I book it online. But when the booking confirmation finally shows it hasn't given me the flight I had booked but one 4 hours later. Time's getting pretty short for the flight in 2 hours and I want that flight. I ring customer service and yes they acknowledge it might have been their fault but if I want to go on the flight I booked on it will cost me an extra $66 to "change" my booking. Do I blow a valve at this attitude or do I get that 1 last seat? Get the seat, grit your teeth and get the seat. But more on this airline down the track.
I've got the seat, an email arrives on my phone confirming I have the seat but I now don't have time to drive there. OK fire up a mate's Archer and let's go. A lovely day for a fly anyway. The country's looking pretty green and a trough has brought moist hazy air but very little instability so all in all a nice trip at 2,500'.
As we approached Wagga it's obvious there's a bit of traffic. A couple of light twins doing circuits, a military CT4 preparing to depart, an RPT Saab 340 taxiing, and two IFR Royal Flying Doctor aircraft - a King Air and a PC12.
We were approaching on the reciprocal of the active so we moved to the downwind active side of the circuit and in response to a call from the Saab we confirmed that we were displaced from runway centreline. Ahead of us a 310 was joining crosswind so we slotted in downwind behind it. The CT4 had meanwhile cleared out but the King Air called straight in 10 miles and the PC12 straight in 6 miles as we headed downwind. We kept close to the 310 but as we turned final the PC12 said "Ah I'm too close to you guys I'm going round". This was the outcome we'd been working to avoid. Yes we had the right of way but it's nice to oblige!
On the ground I checked in with a cheerful guy and sat to wait boarding. That's where the airline struck again. You know those companies that are small minded and expect you to be a problematic customer? Well that's what this airline is like. The check in guy had checked out my knapsack and said "no worries". When I got to the aircraft the flight attendant aggressively demanded that I relinquish it as "there's no show it'll fit". I wasn't the least concerned about the prospect but she decided that I was going to be concerned and became increasingly aggressive without pausing to think that I was actually holding my knapsack out for her to take - as she had requested.
The first officer looked stressed and refused to make eye contact with anyone. This was a company that thought it's customers were going to be troublesome and probably reaped what they sowed.
A short flight and then we had to suffer the same negative treatment at the hands of the airline's contract security screeners. Every single computer cable had to be unpacked from my road warrior kit. Never in 20 years of travel had this happened before but this closed faced mob hadn't the faith in their own skills to read the X-Ray image. Instead each passenger in turn found their hand baggage screened 2, 3 or in my case 4 times...meanwhile the queue grew.
Finally I was spat out by the airline like a bitter pip. I think both the airline and I were pleased to see the back of each other.
This is where the good part of the journey began. The driver of the Skybus was a one-man customer service champion. He worked to shorten the queue, he kept everyone informed on the progress, helped them understand why it was so busy, coached people about the challenges they might face on a return journey later in the weekend and how to avoid holdups. Well done bus driver.
So "escape" from Cootamundra was achieved, even though it is a great little town, I wanted to be home for the weekend.

Footnote: The TAIC has finally released the accident report that I have blogged about. I'll get some time to read it in full this weekend and then I'll let you have my review ;-)