Welcome to Birth of a book. You can use this blog to read comments about the creation of my book Seven-Tenths; Love, Piracy and Science at Sea, as well as get details of upcoming events and odd musings from me, most recently Sara's and my trip to AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI where Sara tries her hand at blogging.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

My attempt at spreading the gospel of soaring. The outside temperature was in the single digits and the air in the studio was as dry as the desert. They should have provided a hydration backpack instead of that tiny mug of water. I felt like I was talking with cotton in my mouth.

For a local TV station they were very professional from start to finish and did a great job with the whole production.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Our Greatest Right

There seems to be an endless list of political hot buttons that automatically drive us into one camp or the other. Most of these divisive issues leave no space anymore for common ground. There is however, one subject that we as Americans should ALL be able to agree on. It is the the cornerstone upon which our republic is built and for which so much blood has been spilled.

I'm speaking of our right to vote. I would defy anyone, Democrat, or Republican, to argue that there was anything else more fundamental to the establishment of our country than the right to a representative government. The original Tea Party members knew this. Their demonstrations and protestations of "No taxation without representation" set the stage for what was to follow, and their rally cry became the spark for a revolution and the birth of a new nation. In those formative times the very act of voting was looked upon as more than a right. It was also a duty, an obligation to participate in the development of a fledgling nation based upon the idea that people could self-govern even when the government was made up of a diverse collection of independent colonies.

Over the years we have stumbled in the maintenance of our Republic. Slavery brought with it, not only an immoral period of darkness which tarnished the very words of the Constitution, but exposed the hypocrisy of country born of representative government. Redemption came in the form of another, internal, revolution. A civil war that was in large part a desire for a people to have a say in their own destiny. A war that ultimately, again affirmed the right of every citizen's voice to be heard.

At this point I would find it hard to believe that any patriotic American would disagree with these words, for these are the truths which make us who we are. I would also speculate that all of us believe that when we exercise our right to vote we become a stronger nation, and conversely, by sitting idle and  not casting our ballot, we are shirking our responsibility as citizens.

So how is it that the very tool which built our nation is being dulled through initiatives designed to reduce voter turn-out? Under the guise of budget cuts, voter fraud, purging of voter records, and other insidious means millions of people are becoming disenfranchised across America. Unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud top the list of justification for laws that have been effective in limiting voter turn-out despite repeated research proving fraud in U.S. elections is so insignificant that it is all but immeasurable. What can be measured with high accuracy is the number of citizens who have had their most important right taken away. How can anyone who claims to love this country, and the foundation from which it is based, sit idle and allow this mockery of our Constitution to continue.

Whenever the people of this nation have felt their ability to self-govern was threatened they fought back. The inevitable fight we face may not be a bloody one, but will result in a pendulous swing to the opposite ideological pole. A place which can be just as destructive when ruled by people motivated by revenge.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Semi-automatic Cessna

The Semi-Automatic Cessna

A friend of mine who has recently been parroting the NRA illusion of “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, tried to deflect my criticism of the NRA by reminding me that I’m a pilot. As a pilot, he said, I should know that flying is risky for both people in planes as well as those on the ground who may unexpectedly find themselves with a small aircraft plummeting through their roof. “Even with this risk we wouldn’t think of taking away your planes” he says.

On the surface it would seem that this argument has some merit. Giving even the slightest thought to the analogy however shows how full of holes his position really is. Just as gun owners have the NRA, pilots have associations that perform a similar function. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) for example, advocates, organizes, supports, and lobbies for General Aviation (GA) pilots. There are also federal aviation agencies that parallel those responsible for gun control (The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms) such as the FAA and the NTSB. So far, the opportunity for comparison seems ripe.

Here is where the comparison between guns and aircraft (or just about anything else on the planet with the potential to kill you) breaks down in a big way. Every side of the aviation triangle – federal agencies, advocacy groups, and pilots are constantly working together to improve aviation safety. Federal funds are used to study and learn from aviation accidents. Detailed, scientifically supported reports are issued, and proposals for new training requirements and aircraft regulations are put forth. Groups like AOPA spend a significant portion of their resources to facilitate improvements in aviation safety. Through their magazines and member network they write about safety, provide access to safety information, and sponsor local safety seminars, all in an effort to reach as many pilots as possible. Pilots themselves take responsibility for their own lives and the lives of others very seriously. The entire pilot training process instills a never-ending focus for continuous improvement in piloting skills.

The end result of this cooperative triangle of safety is that GA flying is safer today than it has ever been since aviation began. This could only be achieved though the shared goal of everyone involved to push the accident rate towards zero and with the acceptance of ALL involved that safety in the air cannot be achieved without some level of cost and personal sacrifice. There are a minority of pilots who chafe at anything that regulates their freedom of flight, but the reality is, pass the pilot test and the sky you get to play in is almost limitless.

The aviation safety example I have given can easily be used to describe automobiles, medicine, boats, or even lethal fuzzy slippers. We take for granted that government agencies, manufacturers, and end users share a common goal of reducing accidents and injury. This holds true in every industry but firearms, where even to suggest a discussion of gun violence is met with rabid derision. History has proven that it is possible for continuous safety improvement, but only if we are willing to work for it.

Imagine a world where the auto industry was represented by an organization like the NRA. It would be a world filled with cars devoid of anti-lock brakes, ignition keys, airbags, and crumple zones. These cars however would travel at 180 MPH, and you wouldn’t need a license to drive one.

David Fisichella

Feb 2018

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Downfall of American Civility

Recently I was scrolling through posts made by friends on Facebook. There's the usual mix of cats and dogs participating in their secret conspiracy to suck human bandwidth dry,  photos of unattractive food, puzzles with the tag line "99% of people will get this wrong" (but everyone gets it right), and posts with captions ending in "you won't believe what happens next" and we do believe it because it wasn't that unbelievable. All innocuous time wasters, but harmless unless you should be doing real work instead of reading meaningless pap.

More and more however, I'm seeing posts (Lets be clear, they are re-posts. Very few people on Facebook are inclined to take the time to share an original thought) that serve only to misinform the reader, and create a sense of revulsion towards another group of people. Typically these are conservative creations that denigrate a particular religion, sexual orientation, political party, or race. Liberals are not immune from creating, or falling victim to this deceit, but anyone with a mouse and and an internet connection can see the right leaning imbalance.

Here is a an example of the length conservative web sites will go to advance their agenda. This post come to us from Tellmenow.com/ which from what I can tell makes the National Enquirer look like the New York Times.

Obama Admin Changes 4th of July So Muslims ‘Aren’t Offended’

"According to Conservative Tribune, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia held their July 4 celebration one month early, on June 4. Robert O. Blake, the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, told the press that this was done out of respect for the Muslim holiday Ramadan, which runs from June 17-July 17.
The festivities at the embassy included singing both the American national anthem AND the Indonesian national anthem, just in case any local Muslims felt uncomfortable!
Embassies in foreign nations should of course be respectful of local culture, but this is just ridiculous. Americans who are at the Indonesian embassy should be allowed to celebrate July 4 on the same date as everyone else does, and they should be allowed to celebrate however they please.
This is yet another example of Obama submitting to the Muslim agenda. If July 4 conflicted with Christmas, you can be sure that Obama would not change anything to make Christians feel more comfortable.
Sheesh, 2016 can’t come quick enough!"

 That's it. That's the whole story as reported by Tellmenow.com. What follows is what you would expect. Thousands of red-blooded Americans ready to rally behind the flag, post this on their timeline with comments pretty much divided between their hatred of Muslims and hatred of the president.

Not one of these people bother to think beyond the few sentences they've just distributed or even find the comment "...included singing both the American national anthem AND the Indonesian national anthem" ironic since as I last checked, every time an American hockey team plays one from Canada we sing both anthems. The same is true during the Olympics and whenever the U.S. government hosts a head of state. Imagine Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush playing the anthem of a foreign government in the White House? Wait, they did.

The bigger irony is that the changing of the celebratory party (Not the 4th of July itself) was done to allow Indonesians to celebrate our independence WITH us. As Ramadan begins in July, all the Muslim dignitaries and the Muslim employees of the embassy would be fasting and not able to participate (Given the number of Muslims in Indonesia it would have been a small party indeed if held on July 4th).

The end result of people falling victim to this type of over-hyped, misinformation campaign is exactly the opposite of what the bible-thumping, gun-wielding, Jingoists are trying to achieve. America is marginalizing itself around the world, and like the Romans, Greeks, and British empires, will collapse under her own bigoted weight.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Panama Cruise

Oceanography has always been undertaken in harsh environments. To say accommodations aboard research vessels are Spartan gives the ancient Greeks too much credit for comfortable living. In years past even gentlemen oceanographers (read, those with both excess money and even more excess time) would typically subject themselves to the same shipboard living standards as the rest of the crew. The owner of the research vessel I found myself on last week decided he wanted the capabilities of a working boat without sacrificing the luxury of a yacht. Compromise always makes for poor design, and r/v Sentinel (I've changed her name since I value my job, and I suspect the owner has access to Google)  is no exception, but having now sailed with amenities such as stewards to clean my room and make my bunk, a ship’s laundry that picks up and delivers, and meals prepared by two French trained chefs, transitioning back to the average research vessel will be tough. To paraphrase Tennyson; Better to have traveled First Class and lost upgrade privileges then to have never been upgraded at all.

 The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was selected by the yacht’s owner to oversee Sentinel’s operation and science support. My role on this ship, as on WHOI’s other vessels, is to assure that the ship and her crew have the ability to meet her science mission requirements. One of these requirements and the most unique capability of Sentinel is her two manned submersibles. I suspect WHOI’s experience operating the manned deep submersible Alvin is one of the reasons we got the job, and why I’m off the coast of Panama with four of Woods Hole’s best Alvin pilots. Our goal is to characterize the ship’s SONARs and get one of the subs inspected by a representative from the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). Since we only need the ABS inspector here for one day we will fly him on a chartered plane to a remote airstrip near our dive site. Nobody ever said ocean science was cheap.

The cruise didn’t start well. Flight delays, missed connections, and logistical problems at the port of Balboa, Panama plagued us even before we got off the dock. A 12 foot low tide precluded the use of a gangway onto the ship, so we each had to be craned aboard in a boson’s chair. Being transferred to the deck like a pallet of provisions is an inauspicious way to start a cruise.

Departing Balboa to the South by ship means steaming past hundreds of anchored ships waiting for passage through the canal. Many are bulk carriers waiting for orders that will take them to the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, so hanging out by the canal entrance is a good place to wait while swatting malaria infected mosquitoes. Our objective was to find an area well away from shipping lanes that afforded a variety of depths close to an anchorage. This will allow a series of sub dives from 50 meters, to their maximum operating depth of 1000 meters (3300 ft) while not having to transit the ship very far. 

We found such a place at Puerto Piňa a remote village southeast of Panama City. At this point our luck wasn’t getting any better. Everything we touched turned to shit. Really, everything. The subs both had ground faults, bad thrusters, and poor underwater communications. Three of the four science instruments produced the digital equivalent of vomit all over the screen whenever we tried to run them, and Sentinel herself seemed determined to undermine any possibility of a successful cruise by losing steerage, or propulsion at the least opportune time. It got to the point that I was afraid to turn on a faucet for fear of sinking the ship.

 Things didn’t improve much after three days at sea, and the looming arrival of the ABS inspector only made for more lost sleep, frayed nerves, and a desire to be anyplace else but on this boat. If there is one quality that distinguishes someone capable of working under stress at sea from the rest of the masses, it is a biting sense of humor when things are at their worst. Fortunately this crew had humor in spades. If any of this team were lined up before a firing squad their last words would probably involve crude remarks about the shooter’s sister, or a request to purchase a life insurance annuity. This ability to see beyond the shit you’ve gotten yourself into is what separates good shipmates from dead shipmates and why these guys are the best in the world at what they do.
The ABS surveyor finally arrived just as the last bolt on the submersible Nadir was being tightened. The problems on the previous shallow dives seemed resolved and the surveyor climbed into the sphere with a gallon-size ziplock bag full of Jolly Ranchers. I can only guess that the rationale for his package is that if today was his time to die, it would be with a fist full of his favorite candy. Fortunately for him, and for us, he surfaced intact after three hours, with sweets to spare and pen in hand to sign the class certification. It wasn’t all without drama, as they experienced a cooling line leak at depth which sprayed sea water into the compartment. Surprisingly this was not sufficient to warrant a test failure, though I’m sure the surveyor was wishing he brought a change of underwear instead of the candy.

The following day I had the opportunity to participate in a pilot training dive. Sentinel has her own sub operations group and they needed to get in as much training of two new pilots as possible before a real science mission next week. The instructing pilot warned me that he would be putting the student though some scenario based training, so I should be prepared for anything. 

It didn’t take long, immediately following the pre-dive checks we had commenced lowering on sub into the water when the instructor took on the persona of a claustrophobic passenger, leaping up for the hatch wheel and trying to get out. The pilot did his best to offer a quick Transcendental Meditation fix with calming words and, had it been quickly available, a little Enya music, but it turns out TM and soft tunes are not the preferred solution. Stop the deployment. Get the sub on deck. Let the passenger out of the sub before you’re out of a job.

While all of this commotion had the desired training result the delay was unfortunate, for just as we swung back over the transom the largest pod of dolphins I have ever seen was roiling the water off Sentinel’s stern. The sea erupted as both the dolphin and tuna they chased leaped from the surface in an eat or be eaten dance. I wanted to slap my over-acting sub mate. If it wasn’t for the delay we could have been submerged in the middle of it all instead of watching the show from the deck.

Finally back in the water, both the hysterics and fish were absent. Our dive plan was to be on the bottom at a depth of almost 2000 feet. The trip down was slow and methodical. It’s peacefully calm as the wave action of the surface disappears within the first 10 meters. Schools of small fish circled the acrylic sphere. The refractive index of the plastic is identical to that of water, making it seem to disappear as soon as the surface gets wet. This creates an odd sensation, as if there is nothing between you and the sea.

Visibility sucks as we descended through a storm of fluffy marine snow, a mélange of oddly shaped ocean detritus composed of everything from inorganic dust and dead phytoplankton to whale poop. The snow is part of a food chain created in the light-rich photic zone where we were, that ultimately drifts down into the darkness of the aphotic region where we would soon end up.

As we pass 100 meter there is a noticeable change in the light. An eerie blue glow above transitions to blackness below. With no artificial light on in the sub and no red spectrum light filtering this deep, the three of us take on a grey, ghoulish pallor. The pilot switches on the exterior light and the snow that now appears to fall upward can be seen for what it is; stringy masses of clumping matter interspersed with a wide variety of tiny jellies of all shapes.

At 300 meters all natural light has disappeared. Our world exists only to the extent of illumination from the one spotlight. Turning the light off and covering the instrument panel creates total blackness. The pilot pushes the thruster lever forward and suddenly the void is broken up by flashes of blue bio-luminescence erupting on the front of the sphere and traveling around the sides. It reminds me of the Starship Enterprise entering warp speed as the stars fly by. The thrusters leave a blue exhaust as luminescent organisms react to the compression of their passage past the spinning blades.

After an hour we near our anticipated maximum depth and the instructor cautions the pilot to begin neutralizing trim to slow the descent, but before the words come out of his mouth mud seafloor fills our view and the sub noses into the soft bottom. Reversing thrusters raises a cloud of silt obscuring what little we could previously see. This little faux pas would be the equivalent of hitting the curb during the three-point turn portion of your driving test. Once a few feet off the bottom, moving forward clears the silt and we can see the sea floor sloping up before us. Worms protrude up from the mud and silver fish lay in small depressions seemingly ignorant of our presence. I can’t imagine the reaction of the fish we set down upon, a glowing alien craft falling from above into sediments undisturbed for millennia.

It was now that the instructor wanted to review various emergency plans. One of which, for reasons I still don’t comprehend, involved him spinning open the hatch dogs. Now intellectually I understand that being almost half a mile underwater, at pressures approaching 800 pounds per square inch, there are literally tons of water pushing the seal down tightly on that opening, but something inside me still wants to scream “Are you f*%#ing nuts?”, and punch him in the head. Of course, the sea doesn’t rush in. After a half hour reviewing contingencies for a number of unlikely, but potential emergencies we run the pumps that will force just enough water from the ballast tanks to make the sub positively buoyant. The marine snow which had seemed suspended only a few seconds before, now appeared to sink relative to the sphere indicating our initial ascent. 

Three hours later and eighty meters from the surface comes the final drill. “Fire in the sub! Fire in the sub!” I would like to say our reactions were like the movements of a Swiss clock, but a more realistic analogy would be to the timekeeping ability of Stonehenge. Slow, methodical, imprecise. We switched to alternate air masks and went through the checklist for shutting down the electrical system and then the oxygen. This was followed by blowing ballast for an express ride to the top floor which we punched through with a fair bit of inertia into sunshine and a cascade of water flowing off the sphere.

In a way, this cruise was like most others. Things go wrong, you fix them, and you adapt to an ever-changing plan. Oceanography isn’t accounting, or farming corn in neat, orderly rows. It is not for anyone who isn’t flexible or averse to stress. It is however a very unique way to earn a living, and as it was on the seafloor in Panama (With yet another plagiarized reference to Star Trek), to go where no man has gone before.


Monday, February 2, 2015

This Is Why I Guide At Ski-For-Light

Ski-For-Light (SFL) is an organization that for one week each year pairs blind and mobility impaired individuals with guides to share the experience of Nordic skiing.

I have been a guide for twenty of SFL’s forty year history. When people ask me what makes the program special I have always had a difficult time finding a short description that describes the friendships, challenges, and personal growth each week delivers. Sometimes it is easier to relate a story of a particular event which encompasses the SFL spirit. This past week in Granby Colorado generated one such event.

SFL week culminates with a contest that allows skiers to choose to compete in either a 10 km race or a 5 km predicted time rally. Race day dawned colder under overcast skies and moderate snow, in contrast to the bright sun and warm temperatures we experienced for most of the week. I was assisting Tim, the Race Coordinator, in the timing shack and everything was going well despite the slower conditions brought on by the accumulation of new snow.

Two hours after the start all but one of the one hundred and three skier pairs had crossed the finish line. The last pair was skiing the 5 km course and was nowhere to be seen. We sent someone out with a phone to locate them and report where they were on the course. By now conditions had deteriorated and the wind was considerably stronger.

The call came in. The guide and skier were only at the 3km mark on the 5 km course. They would be out for at least another hour. Tim and I conferred and considered sending a snow machine out for them as exhaustion and cold could become a dangerous combination. When presented with this option the skier was adamant – she wanted to finish on her own. We agreed we’d keep the course open as long as possible.

Almost all of the two hundred and fifty people at the finish area had long since gone back to the hotel, but a few dozen remained, searching the top of the slope in the distance for any sign of the last pair. Forty five minutes later two heads became two bodies as they crested the final hill before the finish. Spectators ran and skied towards them, forming a moving cheering section around the skier and her guide. Cow bells rang and words of encouragement were continuously shouted. Every few feet someone would call out the distance to the finish line the skier could not see.

The last one hundred yards took fifteen minutes, each step propelling the skier only a few inches. It was obvious she and her guide were cold and both physically and emotionally drained. Wind was blowing snow across their path and pushing like a cold hand trying to impede their progress. Every few feet she would wobble and catch herself just before falling over. If she fell over now I doubt she would have had the energy to get back up.

The skier crossed the finish to the clanging of bells, cheers and hugs. Both she and her guide, and many of us watching, had tears in our eyes. This woman was no athlete. Most people could have walked around that course in a fraction of the time, but this person pushed herself beyond her limits, and to his credit so did her guide.

What will this experience mean for her days, months, or years in the future? I can’t know that, but I’m sure that her life will be changed for the better, if not in a profound, at least in some small way. The same can be said of her guide and each of us who was witness to her resolve to finish.

This is why I’m a Ski-For-Light guide.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Post Game Anaylsis

Looking back on the whole experience, it was definitely something I won't forget
anytime soon, although the only thing I learned was that I hate camping. It was
a great time. I'm saying this mainly because it's over, and everything's back
to normal, almost. Define normal. 

I can still vividly remember the morning of the departure, and the first night
there. I recall my trip to the museum the 2nd day, and being in the simulator, flying
the impossible corsair! And the watching the liquid magnets. What surprised me
the most is that I lived through this trip. One family "crisis" is
over with-don’t worry, there won't be another one for at least 5 weeks,
possibly months, years, or seconds...


I think Sara had a much better time than she is willing to admit. At least I hope so. If I’m wrong I could have saved a lot of money and kept her home weeding the garden for two weeks to achieve the same emotional result.

It’s safe to say Sara learned that adventures are not fun and exciting every minute of every day. Great journeys inflict a little pain now and then. That’s what makes them memorable. For my part I got to watch my daughter exhibit more independence and confidence than ever all while experiencing the magic of AirVenture through the eyes of a twelve year-old. Something I would have missed had I gone alone and just tried to check of the boxes of things to do.

Now that the dust has settled and the Avgas fumes are washed out of our clothes, it’s time to start planning the next father-daughter vacation. I’m thinking any place where there is no Internet connection.