Progress in small things, and learning to fly

Storm Pax hit my area today as we were just recovering, still a bit dazed and reeling, from Storm Nika. This brought me 14 inches of snow, and it brings you a tale of progress in small things and how odd the brain’s information-retrieval process can be.

My wife, perversely, actually likes shoveling snow. Which is a good thing because there was a shit-ton of the stuff on our driveway this morning. She carved a channel from the car to the sidewalk, which had been cleared all along our street by some helpful soul with a snowblower well before we ventured outside. But that left a ridge of snow, easily 4.5′ high and 6′ thick, between the driveway/sidewalk and the middle of the street. It was heavy, half-compacted spoil thrown by a plow truck; that happens a lot here after winter storms.

Contemplating that mini-mountain, I nearly despaired of getting our car out until the spring thaw. I knew that as bad as it looked, it was going to get worse – three inches or more of snow are due tonight.

Then I noticed that the new neighbor had carved his way through that ridge with what, by the way the snow was packed vertically around the cut, had to be a snowblower. Went over, knocked, introduced myself, and asked for the loan of the thing. New neighbor turned out to be an affable sort, a gray-haired blue-collar regular joe who introduced himself as “Gordo” and was quite cheerfully willing to let me use it.

That’s how I found myself pushing your typical American gas-powered snowblower out to the sidewalk. Two-stroke gasoline engine with a rope start, yup, seen those before, mildly dreading getting it to fire up. I never happen to have worked a snowblower before, but have childhood memories of my dad fighting for fifteen minutes at a stretch to get similar beasts started on push lawnmowers. Never had to do that myself; my generation got pretty spoiled by electric-starting riding mowers.

Hmm. Directions: Turn key to “Run” position, choke lever to full, press priming button three times, pull rope slowly until there’s resistance then quickly. My eyebrows rose. You mean they’re actually telling me I don’t have to yank as hard as I can as fast as I can? This is not yer father’s lawnmower. Progress in small things…

Damn me if it didn’t start second time (first time I hadn’t got the hang of where the resistance kicked in). This is the first burden of my tale; progress in small things matters. When was the first year that some engineer figured out how to make a two-stroke engine you don’t have to swear at and futz with endlessly to get to fire up? When was the first year they put actually helpful instructions in large print, located near the controls?

OK, so I went after the ridge with a roaring snowblower. Found out it was work; sucker carves and throws snow nicely but doesn’t push itself. Then I found out that this snowblower ain’t so happy taking on a ridge that overtops the blade aperture by a couple of feet. It’s a light-duty machine really meant for snow accumulations of less than a foot or so, not one of the monster-mawed things ski resorts use.

Time to invoke my wife and the shovel. If she knocks down the higher parts of the ridge the blower will be able to chew up and throw the results. Thinking to be economical with my neighbor’s gasoline, I shut the machine off and went inside to explain the situation.

A few minutes of shovel teamwork later Cathy and I had the ridge lowered and broken up enough for the snowblower to cope. Then…I found I couldn’t get it started again. Let the swearing begin…

Now comes the second burden of my tale, which is how odd memory retrieval can be sometimes. I’m racking my brain trying to figure out what’s different this time and how to get the engine restarted. And, all unbidden, an audio track starts playing in my head. It’s Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly, from the 1987 A Momentary Lapse of Reason album.

I have very, very good auditory memory. It includes details like pick-scrape noise in guitar solos that a lot of people don’t even seem to actually hear. For this track, it includes stretches of near-unintelligible radio chatter between pilots and ATCs that are used as a sound-wash background for instrumental parts of the arrangement. This is running in my head, and out jump two words: “mixture’s rich”.

Aha! I go over to the snowblower and back the choke off about 15% from the high setting, pull the start cord, and it fires up instantly.

Did you get that? My unconscious mind found a way to tell me what my conscious mind hadn’t figured out. The fuel-air mixture in the snowblower was too rich; I needed to back it off and let the spark have more oxygen.

Now we can get to the street and I have acquired a minor life skill; next time I have to baby a two-stroke engine I’ll know exactly what to do. Thank you, clever unconscious mind!

Does this happen to other people?

48 thoughts on “Progress in small things, and learning to fly

  1. I’ve heard that, of all the senses, the olfactories are the best at pulling up old memories.
    When a gas engine (2 or 4 stroke) is starting to flood, you can usually smell gasoline.
    That might have been what fired up the childhood memories. The Pink Floyd song may have just come along for the ride.

  2. >That might have been what fired up the childhood memories.

    It’s a nice theory, but I never learned to solve that problem as a kid. I mean, I remember my father fiddling with the choke on the mower, but I didn’t know why at the time. Only later did I learn about fuel-air mixtures – I think from reading about aviation engines.

  3. I first saw a snowblower at Ft. Dix, NJ, having spent my pre-Army life in California and Arizona. I immediately realized that I either had to pretend I could run the thing or else spend the day bent over, scraping snow with an Entrenching tool. which is an army torture device that looks like a folding shovel.

    Luckily, due to much experience with reel-type lawn mowers in SoCal, I got the snowblower to start on the third try, and the drill sergeant gave me a card that said I was a certified snow blower operator.

    Oh, joy! I stood up and operated a power tool instead of getting a sore back.

    And you civilians laugh at ‘Military Intelligence.” Little do ye know! :)

  4. I believe that if there were no new math or science being done, our stuff would still gradually get improved as a result of thought and engineering.

    It took how long to figure out that right and left shoes were a good idea?

  5. I never owned one myself, but stories of the kickstarts on Ducati 250s launching people through garage roofs were still part of the folklore in my motorcycling days.

    I am old enough to have owned manual choke cars and motorcycles, and that stage between fully cold and fully warmed up was always awkward.

  6. FWIW, that is not unintelligible audio chatter. It’s a pre-takeoff checklist for a small airplane in the UK. And yes, setting the mixture to full rich is part of such a checklist (unless you’re high enough to lean for best power before takeoff, several thousand feet MSL).

    One of these days, I need to find a way to take you flying.

  7. The thing started up quickly because they have electronic ignitions now. The next versions will have automatic chokes so you won’t run into your second problem….

  8. I spent the extra $40 for electric start on my snowblower, it was well worth it.

    An alternate tactic for high drifts, when you don’t have help, is to push the snowblower into the drift and then back out and have the top snow fall down and then take another run at it. Repeat dozens of times and you make it through.

    @LS as far as auto-chokes go, no thank you, the lawnmower I bought last year has one of those which basically causes it to continuously fail to start. I actually have to manually choke it by partially covering the air intake to just get it to start. Worst mower I ever bought. The 15 year old mower it replaced (with manual choke) put it to shame with respect to starting (until its later years).

  9. I remember fighting with the lawnmower as a teenager, pulling zillions of times to get the damn thing started. As an adult, when I became a homeowner and bought my first lawnmower, I was delighted with how easily it started up. Later on, it wasn’t so easy; it degraded into a copy of my father’s pull-the-cord-a-zillion-times start.

    When I bought my second lawnmower I vowed to use fuel stabilizer all the time. Every can of gasoline, no matter how quickly I thought I would consume it, got a splash of fuel stabilizer mixed in. No exceptions. The result: my ten year old lawnmower still starts on the first try. My weed whacker, my snowblower, and my diesel generator — all enjoy easy starting, and I definitely credit the fuel stabilizer.

  10. >An alternate tactic for high drifts, when you don’t have help, is to push the snowblower into the drift and then back out and have the top snow fall down and then take another run at it. Repeat dozens of times and you make it through.

    Yeah, I tried that. The snow was dense and coherent enough to thwart this tactic – as far as I could push the snowblower into the bank the overhang wouldn’t fall by itself. Only took about two seconds with a shovel to fix that.

  11. AlanL:
    > I never owned one myself, but stories of the kickstarts on Ducati 250s launching people through garage roofs were still part of the folklore in my motorcycling days.

    Interesting. In my part of the world they weren’t known as launchers, just tricky to start if you didn’t get it all right. High compression single with a fussy carb doesn’t usually equal easy starting. I learned about starting procedures for engines by growing up around 1920s racing cars. Chokes, hand throttles, manual ignition controls, hand-primed carbs, hand cranks – good fun if it all came together, miserable if it didn’t.

  12. >all enjoy easy starting, and I definitely credit the fuel stabilizer.

    You’ve just solved a problem for me. I was trying to think of some nice thing I could do for the new neighbor in return for his generosity. Answer: I’ll buy a can of fuel stabilizer next time we run out to home Depot and give it to him.

  13. I second using fuel stabilizer, but I think modern engines with overhead valves and electronic ignition might help some as well–I bought a 4 stroke OHV self propelled a few years ago on spring clearance at Walmart. I use stabilizer every tank, and run it until empty in the spring. So far it has started first pull every time, even for the first snowfall of the season.

  14. I can’t speak to snow blowers in the present day, since I am Jewish and retired and therefore live in Florida. But I will say that the first 100% satisfactory outboard motor I’ve ever owned was a Honda 4-stroke with electronic ignition — and that fuel stabilizer made the difference between a one-pull start and a 3 – 6 pull start after a few months of storage.

  15. I get memos from my subconscious too. Usually not verbal ones – I’m not sure how to describe it, exactly. I’ll get a feeling that I should be paying more attention to something, not being sure why. Sometimes it takes me a while to figure it out, but I’ve learned to pay attention to these vague hunches.

    Sometimes when troubleshooting something (not just software/systems related – dealing with fucking cars, which I hate, for instance – some members of my family are not very capitalized and tend to drive cranky old beaters), I’ll start visualizing something math-related for no apparent reason. There is almost always a reason.

  16. I’m more inclined to think that the song came to mind at the relatedness (irony?) of the song: you have that sense of facetious humor. Perhaps you were already processing the solution and immediately jumped at that piece of the song.

    Good timing and sense of flow in your telling. I’d say you should have been a writer, but that would mean you wouldn’t be hacking things like reposturgeon.

  17. Eric, you’re thirty years older than me and you just gave me a “kids these days” moment with your talk of riding mowers. My dad started us mowing the lawn when I was ten or so, and I’ve never used anything but a rope-start push mower.

  18. I would like to suggest a subtle variation on bpsouther’s and D. E. Evans’ comments.

    When you started it the first time, you used a manual choke, you know what they do and you know what “mixture’s rich” means. So… when the 2-stroke is being a bitch to start, part of your subconscious does a massively parallel search on various aspects of the situation and comes up with a possible answer and the Pink Floyd song snippet.

    <guess> These reinforce each other, giving both more apparent importance. </guess>

    The song snippet was how your conscious mind became aware of these results.

  19. >So… when the 2-stroke is being a bitch to start, part of your subconscious does a massively parallel search on various aspects of the situation and comes up with a possible answer and the Pink Floyd song snippet.

    Yeah, I think that’s probably about right.

  20. >my web browser did those &lt and &gt properly.

    You forgot the trailing semicolons. I fixed it.

  21. >My dad started us mowing the lawn when I was ten or so, and I’ve never used anything but a rope-start push mower.

    I think I actually used one of those, once, with my dad starting it. I think the reason we mostly used riding mowers was because he got fed up with rope starters…

  22. So Ned and Jed were out riding their families snowmobile one mild march day (mild for the UP anyway) and were bombing across a lake when Ned realized they’re heading right for a hole in the ice that Jed, who is “driving” doesn’t see.

    Right at the last spilt second Ned bails and goes sliding away on an angle from the hole. When he looks up he sees the ripples left from the passage of Jed and the Snowmobile through the hole.

    He crabs over to the hole and sees Jed, about 10 feet below, frantically pulling on the pull rope trying to get the thing started.

    Being the helpful older brother than he starts smacking the water to get Jed’s attention and yells “Choke it”.

    My lawn mower is electric. That and 100 feet of extension cord gets me a nice quiet and always starting lawn mower. Thinking hard about an electric snowblower too, but shoveling is good exercise.

  23. Oh, and one tiny leetle thing, could I ask of you?

    Stop referring to winter storms by name. That’s weather channel global warmist bullshit.

  24. From my own childhood memories, lawn mowers were only moderately fussy to start. What required large amounts of futzing with and swearing at to start up were model airplane engines. (The little .049 and .020 glow-plug kind.)

  25. I’d guess the subconscious does that all the time, that’s how it works. And you, this time, were more consciously aware than usual – perhaps because the subconscious pattern-matching was invoking your more consciously-attuned auditory memory.

    As to incremental change, an across-the-boards 2% annual increase in efficiency would alone be enough to double the entire economy every 36 years. I find this a little mind-boggling.

  26. >And you, this time, were more consciously aware than usual

    I’m probably more consciously aware of such processes in general; I have a long history as an experimental mystic. That’s why I asked whether this happens to other people – I wanted to get some idea, if only anecdotally, whether incidents like this are common in people without that background.

  27. I’m probably more consciously aware of such processes in general; I have a long history as an experimental mystic. That’s why I asked whether this happens to other people – I wanted to get some idea, if only anecdotally, whether incidents like this are common in people without that background.

    It is apparently the entire literary gimmick of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, though its application to ‘learning’ seems more abstract in the novel’s case.

  28. > I’d guess the subconscious does that all the time, that’s how it works.

    I’m pretty sure that that the subconscious does the heavy lifting of thinking. The consciousness is just there so that the brain can look at its own conclusions without having to say/act out them first. The experience that really drove it home for me was when the solution to an coding puzzle just popped into my head. The thinking is not the thoughts, we are just seldom aware of it because mostly the thinking steps which come into our consciousness are way more granular.

  29. Heck….I grew up using a manual push mower to do my lawn duty.

    The only fuel they need is child labor ;)

  30. William O. B’Livion wrote:
    Stop referring to winter storms by name. That’s weather channel global warmist bullshit.

    I’m with William on this one. I find the practice of naming storms rather silly (hurricanes too), and I always kind of assumed that sentiment was fairly universal among intelligent folks. I was frankly rather surprised to see esr falling into it.

  31. It happens to highly introspective non-mystics like myself, but it’s very much the sort of thing you have to be learn to look for. I wish I had a nice detailed example like the one you’ve relayed here, but no such luck.

  32. I’m probably more consciously aware of such processes in general; I have a long history as an experimental mystic. That’s why I asked whether this happens to other people – I wanted to get some idea, if only anecdotally, whether incidents like this are common in people without that background.

    Every time I experience weather like this and think of how I hate snow, the character Radiskull from Joe Sparks’ Web animation series Radiskull and Devil Doll comes up unbidden from my subconscious and roars, “RADISKULL HATE SNOW!!!”

    But I have a near-eidetic memory, and I suspect you do too. All human memories are strongly associative, such that if one thing is retrieved from long-term storage (like the phrase “mixture’s rich”), it contains pointers to all sorts of other things our brain related to it (like the Pink Floyd song). There is increasing neurological research to suggest that forgetting is an active process undertaken by the brain which may consist of breaking these links to prevent unuseful or unpleasant information from being recalled. So your unusual experience in this moment may have been simply caused by a deficiency in your ability to forget. :)

    Back when I started martial arts I noticed that forms and other structured sequences of movements were stored in “linked list” fashion in my mind; as I performed each move I became aware of the next. I wondered if I was the only one like this until I saw a black-belt-level practitioner lose her place, start at the beginning of the form and then “cdr down” until she was at the move she wanted to recall.

  33. Open the choke to the first detent once the engine starts. Open it fully after a few minutes when the engine is warm. DO NOT PRIME AGAIN.

    It doesn’t matter where they put the instructions. Only crazy people like you and I will read them.

    And please, can we stop with the named winter storms? There are no criteria for naming them (as there are with tropical systems). It’s a marketing tool by The Weather Channel.

  34. Maybe as a way of showing their edginess Big Weather can adopt the practice of using NSA-like names for their winter storms. Aren’t we about due for Winter Storm MONKEYTASER?

  35. ” But that left a ridge of snow, easily 4.5? high and 6? thick, between the driveway/sidewalk and the middle of the street. It was heavy, half-compacted spoil thrown by a plow truck; that happens a lot here after winter storms.”

    Ha!
    Ha ha!
    Ha ha ha ha ha!

    That’s what I call a “typical winter snowfall”.
    Where I’m from, we have not only street plows but also sidewalk plows. This means that after a snowfall you can be forced to deal with not 1 but 3 mounds of snow and ice to shovel or get your car hung up on. Some winters people god so frustrated that they would go out and put piles of cinder blocks on the sidewalks to stop the city sidewalk plows. After some time the city switched from having plows on the front to auger snowblowers so at least the snow can be put in a more convenient place. It’s also more helpful when the snowbanks are already 5 feet high and the only place to put the sidewalk snow was in somebody’s driveway – at least now you can launch it over the snowbank.

  36. One sometimes useful tip for starting gasoline engines in colder weather is to oven heat the sparkplug to the limit of being able to reinstall the sparkplug with welder’s gauntlets on or whatever. Tends to keep liquid gasoline/oil mix if present from fouling the plug and may give a useful mix. Certainly does no harm.

  37. a ridge of snow, easily 4.5? high and 6? thick, between the driveway/sidewalk and the middle of the street.

    I have a related problem. I live in a six-unit co-op building which is one of a complex of seven identical buildings. None of the buildings have “janitorial staff”. We have one set of trash dumpsters for all the buildings.

    To empty the dumpsters, the trash company guy pulls them out across the alley/driveway of an adjacent building. That building has their driveway plowed after every major snowfall. The snow gets pushed down to the end of the driveway, just west of the easement for our bins. With the continual accumulation of snow here in Chicago, this snow pile (over 6 feet high) grows steadily eastward. There is now just enough room left for a dumpster to get through; the trash guy can still wrangle all three. But if the snow resumes…

    (And I live in the apartment overlooing the bins. Being a hopeless ADD type, I’ve inherited the (unofficial, unpaid) job of making sure the bins can get out.)

  38. Don’t dignify the Weather Channel by using their stupid names for winter storms.

  39. Was the bit of music in the background the actual content of the thought your subconcious was attempting to communicate, or was it dredged up as a side effect of the line of thought?

    Were you really “hearing” it internally *before* you came to the solution, or was it an apparent-experience-time-order-retcon – a trick on the part of your memory?

    Just random psychology questions that came up.

    I remember a few instances where the solution to a problem came to me as part of an (apparently) subconcious process. In my case though, I would be thinking about a problem during the day, have to give up on it because I didn’t quite have what I needed to get the answer, or couldn’t recall how I had seen similar things solved before, and then wake up at some random time hours later (3:00 AM sometimes) with most of the solution assembled in my head (top of my working memory, something like that).

  40. >Were you really “hearing” it internally *before* you came to the solution, or was it an apparent-experience-time-order-retcon – a trick on the part of your memory?

    Kind of hard to know that in principle, isn’t it?

    >and then wake up at some random time hours later (3:00 AM sometimes) with most of the solution assembled in my head (top of my working memory, something like that).

    Yeah, sure. Happens to me, too. I think all creative people get this a lot.

  41. Yeah, this thing happens quite a bit. The most recent one I had was a few years back trying to answer a koan, at least that’s the one that sticks out at the moment.

    When visualizing the koan situation some part of my brain took over, flipped over one of the cards and revealed the answer on the back for me to read. It was truly weird (and yes, it was right).

    If people think it’s weird that this stuff happens – not all systems in our brain can talk. Very few can, I suspect. And while some have a nice link to the verbal system – not all of the systems even have that. There’s some anecdotal evidence of split brain patients can have the mute part of their brain try to warn them of situations, etc. (actually I can only think of an episode of House right now, but they’re usually based on something, even if they take artistic license).

    So, I like the idea that some system in your brain worked out what was going on and sang you the answer, that’s really sweet :)

    Allowing these mute systems a voice is pretty much what mystical training is about, as far as I can see. This fits with creative people too, who tend to be sensitive to their environment and pick up cues from anywhere they can for their work (including their mute selves).

    I wonder what it would be like to be an animal with a more distributed brain, like an octopus or something.

  42. LV: All Zodiacs now flying have been modified – an extensive modification, and an expensive one for those who owned factory-built versions (as mine was) – to greatly increase the strength of the center spar carry through and mass-balance the ailerons to eliminate any chance of flutter. I’d go flying in a Zodiac modified to that standard in a heartbeat. In fact, I’ve been in touch with the guy who now owns N55ZC, and have a standing offer to give him any instruction in it he wants (I’m a CFI, too). See http://www.eaa.org/experimenter/articles/2010-03_zodiac.asp for the details.

    R. Duke: When Barack Obama’s economy destroyed my earning power, the airplane was repossessed by the bank. It’s now owned by a guy in Massachusetts.

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