Wednesday, March 26, 2008


A week of writing alone, cut off. It's lonely, but I can think.
I've been meaning to write this for a while. I don't have a nice clean ending; maybe there isn't one. Well, actually I think there is, but I haven't articulated it yet. That's OK, it'll come along. Photo is of my diving buddy's light illuminating his instrument console at night, 98 feet below the surface of Puget Sound.


Kneeling on the sea floor, at a nervous peace with the world. The intake of breath is a hiss. The exhale is a guttural rumble of bubbles rushing upward, thrumming at my temples, muted by thick neoprene. A trickle of water finds a weakness in my wetsuit and icicles down my spine.
It’s night and I feel alone but then my swinging lamp illuminates Todd’s upper torso, the black neoprene and hoses and bubbles, and there’s a flash when the light finds the glass plate of his mask. Then he’s gone again in the murk.
I kneel, still.
Something bumps into me. Todd. He backs away a few feet. For a moment I see his expression is calm in his mask.
I switch off my light and I'm painted over by darkness. Now there are no ghostly washes coursing by. There is simply nothing. The dark of deep space, far from any star.
I take a moment to calm my breath. Then I raise my hand, slowly in front of my mask. I can’t see it. I push it forward through the seawater, fingers splayed out, and suddenly five streamers of glowing motes appear before me, twirling tendrils of light that flow like impossible fire from my thickly-gloved fingertips. Phosphorescent plankton. Uncountable, microscopic dinoflagellates. We are descended from the same original life forms. I share some of their DNA.
I sweep my arm to the side, igniting a curtain of grass-green points. The curtain warps and then winks out, trailing end first. I wave the other way, entranced by the lights just as I've been taken hold of by other lights, in ice, or the sky. The looping points look like the Arctic aurora, but fragmented, frozen and shattered, tumbling through space.
Something is wrong. I’m off the bottom, floating free. What is this I fumble for my light as my body seems to rotate in a slow backward somersault. When I come upright again my fins don’t brush the sand. Stupid! You didn’t stay buoyancy negative! Where’s Todd? Where’s up?
I can’t find my light. I’m in my bubbles. That’s wrong. They should be rising above me. It means I'm ascending!
Suddenly the cold liquid weight above breaks across the back of my skull and I bob up on the surface. The moon is behind thin clouds and the water is black and calm except for some wriggling silver strokes.
Where the hell is Todd? What the hell am I doing on the surface?
I swish an arm to turn in place and Todd rises up from a roil of bubbles.
He pops his regulator from his mask and says “What the hell?”
“No idea,” I say, “No idea. I lost bouyancy control. I just shot up!”
“Me too,” he says, then, feeling underwater, “I think one of my fins came off…Yeah, I only have one fin.”
I’m confused. Todd’s fin can wait. An uncontrolled ascent is the worst thing we can do here. No, no, I think, we haven’t been down long or deep enough for the bends! Have we? Right now I can’t remember anything.
Shining my light at my wrist depth gauge, I read the numbers. They're deadly. I blurt out “Todd, we shot up from 23 meters! That’s over 70 feet! We gotta go back down and do a safety stop!”
“What? No way. We weren’t more than 30 feet down.”
“I’m telling you my gauge reads 23 meters,” I say, lowering my mask. “I’m going back down. Seventy feet! I’m not getting bent on my 30th dive!”
Todd shakes his head and says “No way we were that deep!” He looks at me, preparing to go back down, as if I’m crazy.
I don’t care. I believe my instrument. I bite the regulator again and breathe in as I deflate my vest and start to sink.
Dropping slowly, steadily. Hordes of dinoflagellates mark my descent, a fading column of green blinks.
Waves of shame roll over me. I’m worried about the bends, or embolism. Damn, my 30th dive and I shot to the surface! Idiot! Todd did, too. How did that happen to both of us at the same moment?
Crunch. I’m on the bottom.
I switch on my light. Todd’s fin is just a few feet away. It lies like a corpse on the sand. I grab it, hook the strap through my elbow, and then kneel and stare obsessively at the digits counting time on my dive console. Three minutes pass, then a fourth. I inflate the vest just enough to feel my knees rise slowly from the sand.
At the surface Todd is resting, just floating, laying back in the water, his vest fully inflated.
I pop out my regulator and hand Todd his fin. The only sound is water dripping from my mask onto the still water.
“You found it!” Todd says.
“Yeah, it was right there. So, no problems? You OK?” I half expected to find him twitching or red-eyed, ‘hit’ by the rapid ascent.
“Nope. It’s a beautiful night,” he says calmly, fumbling to strap his fin back on for the swim to shore.
“I don’t get it.” I look at my depth gauge. Twenty-three again. Wait. Twenty-three what? Does that mark mean feet or meters? The display is too small, and it’s too dark. I put my eye right up to the plastic housing and squint as I shine my light on the instrument.
“Oh hell,” I mutter. “Feet. Not meters. Feet!”
“I told you, man,” Todd laughs.
“We were only 23 feet down! I can’t believe it! How could I be so wrong?”

(c) Cameron M. Smith, 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008


Sketches for a helmet system for Arctic Winter paragliding with warm-air delivery and exhaust hoses, integral helmet microphone and lighting system. The helmet is going to be a complex piece of gear. It has to protect me from -100F windchills (I'll be flying straight into the wind) with a plastic visor, but exhaled breath can't be allowed to touch the visor lest the condensation freeze and blind me. It'll be hard enough, flying in near dark, without my visor frosted as well! I'll also need a hands-free mike to talk to the ground (when and if I have ground support) and helmet camera and light. Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

384 and Mental

Three hundred eighty-four pages written--about 115,000 words--in the last three months. I'm mental, as they say in Britain. Mental I tell you! Only going out to the Ridgefield site, to find underwater archaeological sites, has kept me sane...fresh air, and a beautiful place, as you can see above. It's called the "Middle Lands," but I call it "Middle Earth." I wouldn't be surprised for some of these Oaks to be Ents :) Photo above by Todd Olson; click to enlarge, and I bet you'll breathe easier just seeing it.

I need to fly my glider. I dreamt about it last night; the suspension under the wing, the three-stage approach to a landing site; Downwind, Base, Final (same for aircraft with engines as for paragliders) phases all played out beautifully. No crash. No frontal assymetric collapse and need to throw the reserve--which was my last paragliding dream (nightmare, really.)

I need to dive as well, I need to be immersed in sea water, breathing air from a pressurized tank. So strange and beautiful to be supported by the water, then drop through it as it gets colder and darker, and then the soft crunch on the sea floor...

Video below is a very nice landing in Colorado, the pilot first circles to drop altitude, then makes a very nice approach and smooth landing in a parking lot;

Friday, March 14, 2008

Arctic Flight Suit

Rab of England has sent me a beautiful Pertex shell suit that--once tailored to my exact size (accounting for wearing insulating clothing beneath)--is going to make an excellent flight suit for piloting my paraglider over the Arctic.

Modifications will include:

* thigh straps for alimeter / variometer instrument panel (left thigh)
* thigh map pocket for chart (right thigh)
* lower-leg holster for handgun (a precaution against polar bear attack)
* checklist patch on left forearm
* checklist patch on right forearm (these can be read while in flight, as the arms are up and visible during flight: you can see what I mean in this video.
* pocket adjustments for batteries (radio and camerra)

This spring and summer I'll be getting certified for "high flights", high enough to carry a reserve parachute in case my wing fails, as it did for this pilot:

Having said that, in Alaska I'll be flying very low; so low that there won't be time for a reserve; that's because I'll be flying mainly courtesy of mechanical lift from the steady Arctic ocean breeze blowing up bluff faces. This kind of ultra-low flight has been developed by Australians, as you can see in the following video:

Friday, March 7, 2008

Crunch, Strip...and a Death Machine

Getting there! Fourteen more pages, then just bio, acknowledgements, a few preface items, and (well...till Author Review, through the month of April)..."Anthropology for Dummies" will be in the bag -- and I'll go flying and diving.

It's funny, when you think of a 'For Dummies' book you think, oh jeez, what kinda hack-work is this? But writing my first Dummies has been like teaching an Intro course; it's the toughest of all, because there's so much to boil down into short, concise and accurate statements (some tips on popular-science writing are in this article, which I wrote with my buddy Chuck Sullivan, with whom I also wrote the popular-science book The Top Ten Myths About Evolution.) How do that for a topic as vast and sprawling as anthropology, the study of humanity, from DNA to shamanic quest?

You take a good knowledge of the material (hey, I didn't spend 14 years in grad school for nothing!) and rend it down, strip this, nip that, carve away everything you don't need to mention. You might even like what the French aviator/poet/writer Antoine de Saint-Exuperey said about perfection (though the idea of perfection chaps my hide, I can handle this mention of it):

"Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Add a dash of your own opinion, and the text flows something like this:

The Decoupling of Behavior from Biology

You’ll want to pay attention here; there’s a quiz later. Just kidding. But really, this is one of the main lessons of anthropology and of this entire book!

Human migration required adjustment to survive in new environments, and the process of adjustment is called "adaptation". As a noun, an adaptation is a thing that itself allows survival in that new environment, such as warm fur clothing for a cold environment, or a new kind of sail for your sailing vessel. One of the most distinctive things about humanity is that while all other animals adapt unconsciously and reactively, with their bodies (which either do or do not have traits that allow survival in new environments), humanity proactively chooses to make new adaptations; humanity invents them.

Humanity, then, adapts not entirely with its body, but with its inventions—be they artifacts or social customs. This is one of the most important lessons of anthropology, one profound thing that it has learned about humanity: for good or ill, humanity has evolved ways of adapting that have decoupled behavior from biology.

Biologically, human bodies are frail, and could hardly survive the Arctic or the Sahara. But humans have invented ways to live in both places, for thousands of years and in fine health; again, humanity has invented adaptations to places that our biology could never endure.

The rest of this chapter is really a series of examples of the diversity of these fascinating adaptations. As I mentioned, they include two main types:

* artifacts: physical adaptations (e.g. a warm coat)
* behaviors: cultural adaptations (e.g. the practice of voluntary suicide when one is a burden to a small foraging band)

One way to imagine the staggering history of early human global migration is to consider the environments people were moving into, and what material and social adaptations might have made those new environments survivable. This is good food for exciting thought!

(c) 2008 by Cameron M. Smith for "Anthropology for Dummies", Wiley, August 2008

Now, if you've come here for some red meat, and don't care about any of this anthropology stuff, below I present to you the "Backpack Coaxial Helicopter," which I just call a "Death Machine." Oh yah, just what I want, six guillotines rotating at thousands of RPM just a foot above your noggin! Yaw this contraption all you want, but pitch or roll it a little too much and you're going to have some--er, real trouble! I mean heavy-duty, Dan-o!

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Wetlands--once called "swamps"--are potential archaeolocal treasure-troves. The mud can often preserve artifacts for a thousand years or more, like it's preserved the bodies of northern Europe's Iron-Age "Bog People", or the half-dozen, 1,000-year-old Indan canoes discovered recently in Florida. So, this last weekend, to begin the Cathlapotle Submerged Cultural Resources Survey, Todd Olson, Chuck Sullivan and I went to the "Middle Lands" of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to start looking for dive sites. Can we dive here? Is the muck eight feet deep? Is the underwater visibility one foot or three inches? Is there any hope at all of finding something significant here? Well, I'm not too interested in good gambles. I'll spend a lot of years, having been introduced to this beautiful landscape, seeing what is and isn't there. Even if we find nothing, we can say, "There's nothing in this water body." As Mr. Spock has said; "No data are useless." Correct. If we find nothing, we can say, "There's nothing in the areas we dived in," and that's significant.

In the photo I'm checking out a mudflat...can we get SCUBA gear across these "Dead Marshes?" Does anyone know how to build a mud-sledge? What's under the sky-mirror? Well, no way know without SCUBA gear. That's next!