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Correction “for the record”: A little righteous indignation goes a long way March 18, 2014

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For you non-aviators out there, a flying-specific piece is probably not helpful in your everyday work.  However, AOPA – the general aviation advocacy and lobbying organization of which I am a member – has acted in a way that I think many business leaders could learn from.

The Malaysian airline accident, along with virtually every other airplane crash, gives news outlets endless fodder – some factual, some not so much – for dramatic stories and interviews.  Just within the U.S., several fatal crashes have rightfully become newsworthy and ABC in particular took the opportunity to highlight some of the danger.

Even as a casual pilot, I note a few inaccuracies in ABC’s characterization of pilot training and the connection (if any) to accidents.  AOPA, as might be expected, worked itself into a froth over the issue.  Blog posts, video responses, letters – all worthy forums for discussing the issues.  In my opinion, however, they’re missing the point.

As a pilot myself, I suffer the “curse of expertise” as much as the next guy.  It’s hard to put yourself in the position of a novice or layperson, but I believe this step is critical to making the right move when faced with some bad press.  And my initial guess is that unless a non-pilot actually lives near a general aviation airport, specifically one of those affected by a crash,

They  do  not  care.

They don’t care that there were 444 rather than 475 fatalities.  They don’t care what the general aviation flight training syllabus contains or how many hours a private pilot has spent with an instructor.  They don’t care that there are more or fewer pilots than before.

AOPA on the other hand feels that these statistics will sway the general public.  Righteous indignation that a news outlet has presented a mostly true, though perhaps factually inaccurate portrayal of their industry (is there an industry that has not experienced this?) has blinded the discussion to what it means to engage with the public.  Rather than explain how the news is all wrong (and by extension, the very people you would like to persuade otherwise), it might be better to acknowledge some of the shortcomings that allow these news stories to exist in the first place.

Like cars, motorcycles, and boats, aircraft come with their own share of risks and rewards.  In fact, the NTSB keeps track of this sort of thing:


In addition, the annual Nall Report breaks down aviation accidents and discusses causes and solutions.  In particular, we can see from the 2010 report that fixed-wing accidents are on a slight downward trend.

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

But I would not consider it fair reporting to claim that such a trend is evidence that pilots and instructors are doing everything right, any more than it would be fair to claim that 200 fatal crashes a year means you – YOU! – could be next.  Not that AOPA is quite saying it this way, but one could imagine that if a news outlet held up this chart to tout improved safety, AOPA would probably not make a peep.

Rather, this chart illustrates to me (besides an inexplicable vertical scale) that all other things being equal, we can expect to experience about 1,300 crashes a year, about 3 or 4 every day.

Our challenge as pilots is to keep things from being equal from year to year.

At worst, the ABC piece might discourage a few people who might otherwise consider flight training.  It might give more ammunition to folks who would like to close their local airfield for fear of another crash.  It might lead the NTSB and FAA to implement stricter training requirements, as was done after the Colgan crash in Buffalo.

All of these are valid concerns for pilots and other users of general aviation.  But the solution is not to explain why someone’s fears should be dismissed because the facts weren’t quite right.  No amount of good press will erase a person’s memory as witness or victim of an aircraft accident.  And for the rest of the population, aviation’s righteous indignation that a news outlet would dare publish a piece like this only further alienates the outsiders we would very much like to bring in.

Review of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur December 11, 2012

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Though Guy Kawasaki is a tech celebrity in his own right, he freely admits that there is always something to learn.  Even so, I was surprised that his previous book, What the Plus!, was his first self-published work.  Based on his experience, especially compared to those of his past conventionally-published books, he has written with co-author Shawn Welch APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book.

APE is structured as a how-to guide and reference book, and packed with a great deal of information.  You can read the Author section any time for inspiration, and the Publisher and Entrepreneur sections for a dose of realism if you decide to really get serious about going out on your own.  If you do, you’ll have it bookmarked at your right hand as you navigate the maze of editing, distribution, and ISBNs.

If you are already an aspiring author, you will have picked up much of the Author content in other places.  It’s always nice to have everything assembled together however, and APE does a good job of keeping your head out of the clouds.  Author covers the basics, including word processing tools, background of ebooks, and a great piece on the writing process.  It’s also some of the more timeless advice, as the act of sitting down to write hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.  What author hasn’t wondered why he’s continuing to abuse himself to produce his work of art?

Similarly, the third section, Entrepreneur, focuses on marketing your new book.  Normally, a publicist handles the promotion for the author, who must then attend the book signings and conferences.  When you’re on your own, marketing is one of the hardest parts of any business, unless you are in fact a marketer.  Social media is Guy Kawasaki’s milieu, so it’s no surprise that he spends most of this section emphasizing the where, how, and why of establishing your online presence using Google+, Facebook, and several lesser-known sites.  Again, much of the material can be scavenged from countless online sources, but Guy puts it all together and adds his personal insights about what works and what doesn’t.

This being a book about self-publishing, Publisher is the thickest of the three sections and digs in where many other sources go home.  Though this will come at the cost of somewhat out-of-date material if you pick up the book in a couple of years, the concepts will be valid and there is some great guidance for anyone not already a part of the publishing community.

Guy Kawasaki

Publisher has great tips on editing, formatting, and converting your book for the various distributors like Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Google.  They all have different formatting and DRM options, and you will need to consider the differences between ebooks and printed versions.  Alternatively, you can sell ebooks directly to your customers, or use author-services companies, which provide copyediting, design, and distribution assistance.  There are also print-on-demand services that allow for small volumes of books that you can use for promotions, personalized copies, or just family and friends (to show that you really are a successful author).

Shawn Welch

If you’re considering writing a book – even if you go the conventional route – APE is a valuable reference.  It provides you with good insights into the publishing world and has some important cautions for any author.  Most of all, it’s inspiring to know that you can take on a challenge like this.  Despite the term “self-publishing”, it’s not a one-person endeavor.  APE shows you how to find the help that you’ll need to get your book out into the light of day.

You can find the book (ISBN 978-0-9885231-1-1) as a $9.99 ebook at Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AGFU5VS or visit the website, http://apethebook.com/

Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.

What’s happening to education? October 23, 2012

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Way back in February, Seth Godin posted a “30,000 word manifesto” describing many of his frustrations with modern (and not-so-modern) education.  Now, he has just released a TED video that expands on it and challenges all of us to break the system.

“What is school for?”

In the video, he mentions eight things that could revolutionize education in the U.S. and around the world, IF we have the courage to change the system.

Not to take anything away from Mr. Godin, but as long as we have the system we do, there is an even more insidious force driving us into mediocrity: grade inflation.  Shown below is an interesting comparison of grade distributions over the years.  There are probably many explanations, but we personally have seen the difference between American and Australian schools.  While Godin’s views of education apply equally all over the world, Australia (or, at least Queensland) has at least managed to keep a lid on grade inflation, at least in the public primary and high schools.

From C's to A's
Created by: MastersDegree.net

Universal University? October 18, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management, Writing.
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What is modern education?

As we experience rapid advances in science and technology, there is increasing social pressure to produce graduates ready for the modern workforce.  Especially in the U.S., a university education has become what the high school diploma was just 20 years ago.  Despite skyrocketing tuition costs, politicians tout university as one way to reverse everything from our lack of competitiveness to the offshoring of technology jobs.

And they are right — to a point.

This article suggests that our emphasis on technical and vocational education has unintended consequences.  Namely, the decline in liberal arts degrees is hollowing out our former ability to have educated debates around facts rather than beliefs.

This is an interesting thought, but this is only part of the problem.  As I’ve written before, there is more to running a technical business than mere technical skills.  And, just as we would like to have politicians that can speak about and understand science, we also expect scientists and other technical professionals to have broader educations as well.  This is, of course, why we have bare minimum liberal arts requirements for various technical degrees (whether this is sufficient…well, that’s another story).

To be sure, universities have been around much longer than our modern concepts of education, technology, and even employment.  Just because we have developed an entire economy out of courses that just happen to have the same description as what has historically been called a “university” doesn’t mean it’s the same animal.  Indeed, there is a place for liberal arts, but the modern university may simply not be the place for them.  Despite sharing the name, what we now call a university isn’t the same as it was.

However, there is no doubt that the value of liberal arts has remained steady over the decades, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.  Philosophy, language, political and social science, art, music – these will always be fundamental expressions of human thought.  To believe they have no place in modern life – whether taught at a university or some other institution – is to ignore the centuries of progress that brought us to where we are now.

The Pilot Community October 12, 2012

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Let’s get the easy part out of the way first.

Whether you rent or own, unless you are a professional pilot (working with either a commercial or ATP certificate), flying is little more than an expensive hobby.

Many individuals and aviation-related organizations in the U.S. (AOPA, EAA, and GAMA to name the big three) have bemoaned the pilot population decline since 1980, and have periodically raised the issue to find out what is keeping pilots out of the sky.  Cost always appears at or near the top of the list, and many people speculate as to whether that is the true cause, and if so, what drives the costs so high in the first place.  From AOPA’s own student pilot survey:

Flying is expensive.  It costs a lot to rent or purchase an aircraft, obtain a student certificate, hire an instructor, purchase insurance, and finally pass a checkride for a private pilot certificate – allowing you to continue to rent or maintain your aircraft and fly when time, money, and weather combine in perfect harmony.  Many factors have conspired to raise the costs over the years: fuel, aircraft prices, insurance premiums, and maintenance and storage fees.  There are ways to make it cheaper, just as there are ways to spend whatever disposable income you have (and then some) on anything.

The initial training cost is indeed significant; a person of average ability is wise to budget around $10,000 to obtain a private certificate in the U.S.  Aside from this, purchasing an aircraft – analogous to an RV, a motorcycle, or a boat – has risen out of reach of many Americans.  Many pilots hold to the used aircraft market as being one possible solution – and it is.  But consider the product that the industry as a whole is offering compared to the alternatives.  Few other modern industries depend on secondary markets as a basis for acquiring new buyers.  From cars to computers, when people spend, they want the best possible, next new thing (or as close to it as their budgets allow).

But the general aviation manufacturers have shifted away from 30-year-old demographics, and GAMA’s own statistics tell the story:

In 1980, the industry made $2.5 billion from shipping nearly 12,000 aircraft, with about 10 piston engines for every one jet turbine.  The revenue from turbines was about double that from pistons: $1.7 billion compared to $800 million.

Today, total revenue of $8.5 billion is derived almost exclusively from turbines – $8 billion, or about 96%.  The actual production numbers are just as interesting: just 1,300 aircraft were sold last year, roughly evenly split between pistons and turbines.  Think about this – about 600 individual products earned the various manufacturers an average of nearly $14 million apiece – on par with what many defense contractors earn from the U.S. government.  That’s tough competition for the private pilot budget.

So, if flying is so expensive, why do it in the first place?

This is only difficult to answer if one tries to justify flying on an economic basis.  Like any other hobby, there are a thousand reasons to fly, but you won’t find “cost-effectiveness” among them.  Here are a few from the same AOPA survey:

To put it simply, flying is FUN!  Objectively, there are as many reasons to undertake ANY hobby:

  • Provides an alternative to your regular work
  • Boosts creativity, innovative thinking, and inspiration in all aspects of life
  • Provides either solitude or family time
  • Lets you explore your own talents, another community, or other parts of the world

If flying is just one of thousands of ways to occupy one’s non-working time, then it is clear that the cost will be a big factor.  Indeed, costs do keep many people out of the flying community, but the pilot population is not declining in a vacuum.  Organizations across the country have been grappling with the same problem for just as many years:

  • Churches
  • Labor Unions
  • Professional Associations
  • Scouting
  • Veterans Associations
  • Social and Service Clubs
  • Golf and Country Clubs

Everyone has been discussing the “problem of declining membership”…but very little has been expressed about what exactly the “problem” is.  Unfortunately, like the first half of this article, it has as much to do with money as anything else.  If money were no object, and people simply were disinterested for other reasons, flying would just be another arcane hobby like antique cars or role-playing games.

Instead, with money at stake and flying being such a heavily regulated activity, organizations like AOPA drive political decisions.  Make no mistake, these organizations represent true stakeholders in local and national decisions.  Professional groups and their representatives, be they attorneys, doctors, engineers, scientists, union leaders, or even baseball players lobby and testify whenever pertinent issues are on the table.

But you won’t often see the local stamp collecting club on the Senate floor.  Or the photography club, or the skiers, or the comic book fans.  No, you will see the ones who, for whatever reason, need the support of the federal government to continue their activities.  Pilots’ individual hobbies depend heavily on government support.

Aviation needs infrastructure.  Runways, radar, control towers, radio transmitters…and all the regulations that govern them.  Without a visible constituency, these things go away.  That is why more pilots are needed…or are they?

What if there were only, say, 100,000 recreational pilots in the U.S.?  That may not be such a stretch.  According to this article, there are only 200,000 “active pilots” today.  When we look at “personal” certificates (private, sport, recreational, and “other”) compared to “professional” (commercial and ATP) we see the following trends since 1960:

Note that the “personal” and “professional” categories are my own.  But for this discussion, we’re concerned with those pilots that choose to fly for pleasure.  Surely, there will be some crossover, but the trends are clear: those who fly professionally have steadily increased in number while the other class has declined.

Returning to the what-if question: what if there were only 100,000 pilots flying for fun?  Would they lack political influence?  What alternatives might they have to pursue their hobby with less government support?

Consider some of the memberships of some other professional and recreational organizations:

  • American Bar Association: 400,000
  • American Medical Association: 215,000
  • IEEE: 200,000 (U.S.)
  • American Psychological Association: 137,000
  • National Society of Professional Engineers: 35,000
  • American Radio Relay League: 158,000
  • Family Motor Coach Association: 85,000
  • American Motorcyclist Association: 235,000

Considering these groups’ political influence, it’s reasonable to conclude that cutting the pilot population in half would not automatically curtail flying.  However, it would surely look different than it does today.

As pilots, we need to stop worrying about whether it’s too expensive (it is) or why (pick any reason).  We should also not be worrying about the numbers in our ranks, just for the sake of counting ourselves in a bigger group.  We should seek to attract others just as we would promote any hobby: if you are predisposed to mental and physical challenges and want to do something fun with your time and money, flying is a great hobby!

In its current state, flying is a fairly exclusive club, but not as exclusive as many people would like to believe.  It is accessible, even though it can surely be made more so with a loosening of the federal regulations for aircraft manufacture and certification.  Perhaps it will be a resurgence of grass runways, perhaps an extension of the sport pilot certificate to include 4-seat aircraft, or perhaps simply a dismantling of the federal oversight of private travel, as is done with road transport.  Individual states handle licensing all the time, with federal oversight where necessary for commercial and interstate travel.  It works.

Links:

http://www.aopa.org/whatsnew/stats/pilots.html

http://www.gama.aero/files/GAMA_DATABOOK_2011_web_0.pdf

http://www.generalaviationnews.com/2012/10/10/bringing-the-cost-of-flying-down/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bringing-the-cost-of-flying-down

http://www.avweb.com/blogs/insider/AVWebInsider_WonderBread_203358-1.html

http://demandperspective.com/2012/02/20/you-had-me-at-100000-members-common-characteristics-of-growing-associations/

http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_11.html

http://www.ephotozine.com/article/photography-is-the-most-expensive-hobby-20153

http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-holidays/rosh-hashanah/the-age-of-post-nostalgia-why-hobbies-have-gone-the-way-of-the-dodo.premium-1.465143

Two, Writing August 28, 2012

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Abstract communication grows from your resourcefulness.

 

First, there was Vonnegut’s Rules of Writing.  Then, I found these “economic” stories.  But, I write about project management.  How could Vonnegut apply to me?  Condensing that much – is it possible?  Conveying abstract concepts takes some effort.  Like six-word stories, two ‘writers’ contribute.  Sentences clipped, your brain fills in.  Not haiku, but certainly an equivalent.

 

I don’t think I could write that way for long.  It’s no six-word story, but a string of six-word sentences is a bit hard to read.  It doesn’t flow well, but once you know what to look for, it becomes easier.  But of course that’s not the point.

 

If you had to convey a complex thought in only six words, could you do it?  We often become lazy with our words, stringing them together without much concern for the linguistic violence we visit on our readers or listeners.  Economizing to six words forces you to think carefully and choose wisely.  It’s a good exercise when struggling with how to communicate.  Less is quite often much more.

 

Even if you only read and write non-fiction, there are some great tips in many fictional works and from great authors who never heard of project management.

Noisy Inspiration June 23, 2012

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I don’t know about mere decibel level being the key to creativity, but I can personally relate to this study.  [Edit: another version here] When I write magazine or other non-technical content, I’ll often head straight for the coffee shop.  I don’t have any science to back it up, but simply being in the presence of a group helps me visualize my audience.

How would I describe this topic to that person?  What questions would I ask to determine their frame of reference and familiarity?

The background noise isn’t just noise.  It’s voices and conversations, even the TV in the corner, each with its own stream of consciousness.  Whether consciously or not, I pick up words here and there that prompt my own thoughts.

On the other hand, sometimes even being in that environment with earbuds in provides a new line of thinking that wouldn’t have appeared were I listening to the same sounds in isolation.  It’s a mix of visual and audible content that provides a fertile bed for new thoughts to connect and evolve – and it all depends on the topic I’m working on.  Technical work demands different focus, language, and tone because of the audience than does writing for the general public.

Whatever your creative outlet, a new mosaic of sensory input can definitely help to put you in the right frame of mind or get over the agony of the blank page.  I’m going to guess it’s not just about loudness, but the coffee doesn’t hurt either.

Small-Scale Wind Power November 17, 2011

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As with so many locations around the world, Montana’s wind attracts energy producers and investors eager to prove the feasibility of large “wind farms” and provide a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. With most of the eastern plains seeing average wind speeds from 14 to 20 mph, there is great potential for success. Ironically however, some of the highest winds, such as those often found in Montana, (more…)