Icarus has fallen and Mrs. Ramsay has died.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Credit: Wikimedia)

A recent BBC article touched on something that I’ve always had a deep connection to: the background details, information, contexts, of our lives. Without knowing where, or when, or under what peculiar circumstances an action is occurring, it cannot deliver the full impact of its message to us. Quite often, in learning a single seemingly insignificant detail regarding a subject with which one may already have a high degree of familiarity, one can be transported to a wholly other understanding.

Alfred Hitchcock (or more correctly one of his cinematographers, Irmin Roberts) shocked us with his visual revelation of this in the dolly zoom (or vertigo effect) he used in a number of his films. By pulling the camera back, away from the subject, and at the same time zooming in on the subject, thereby keeping its size relatively constant, the background seems to come out of hiding, and suddenly dominates the scene. It changes the entire texture of the moment, from an isolated activity, to a part of a puzzle; from the general to the specific.

In the picture above, thought to be a copy rather than the original of Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the background detail of a pair of legs disappearing into the sea, could be all but lost, as we admire the painting’s other qualities of scene, light, movement, activity. But that detail, the fact that it is occurring even as we look on, comes as a bit of a shock to our daily lives, thrusting us into the life of the picture itself.

We all know the story. Daedalus, inventor, fashions a pair of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape from Crete, where they have been imprisoned by King Minos (something about Theseus, and the Minotaur, but that’s beside the point). Daedalus cautions Icarus to fly “at a middle height.” Too low, and the sea water with soften the wings. Too high, and the sun will melt them. Ahh, impetuous youth. Icarus gets carried away with himself, flies too high, the wings melt, and he plummets into the sea, to his death.

And in the painting, this has just happened! Nobody knew it was going to happen. No one was prepared for it. They were just doing what they always do. The ploughman, plowing. The shepherd, shepherding. The angler, angling. Ahh, but there, Icarus falls! In an instant, an ordinary day has become extraordinary.

In her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf spends the entire first chapter of the book, by far the longest chapter, telling the story of the Ramsays, on a visit to their summer home in the Hebrides, mostly as it relates to Mrs. Ramsay. It’s a lovely story, exposing the details of peoples’ lives with the deft hand of a master.

The bridge between that visit and the next (in the world of the novel, at least), is a chapter of a mere 20 or so pages, titled, Time Passes. Within this already slender chapter, bracketed at the end of section III, almost as a footnote, is this:

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

That’s it. That’s how we learn that this woman whom we have gotten to know so well in the whole of everything we know about this family, has died, and we only learn of it, literally, in passing. The shock of reading that sentence in that way, in that part of the story, remains with me 40 years on, so far. An ordinary story of an ordinary family, became extraordinary in that moment.

All of these examples serve to reinforce the importance of what’s not talked about, what’s not planned, what’s not provided for, in determining our entire relationship with the things that actually happen in our daily existence. In today’s world, it could be argued that the background is often deliberately obscured by the current events made to swirl around in front of it, serving as a smokescreen, trying to keep us from noticing it. It is there, however, and it is an actor in the events transpiring center stage. Our ability to detect it, or not, may not in any way change the outcome of what actually happens in that particular moment. But in seeing it, in witnessing it, it may indeed have a profound impact on what happens for each of us, as we move off-screen, to enact our own next scenes.


Russia plane crash not due to pilot error

I would like to refer you to a previous article in this blog, before you read the current one: Steve Ballmer’s ”Adam Smith” Idiocy at Microsoft. Why? Because therein I feel I made a pretty good description of the difference between what people do and what the “spin doctors” say they do. And I introduced my views on “user error.” From there we turn to today’s sad event: the crash of a Russian airline in the northwest of Russia.

Various articles appeared today on the subject. Many, as did this article in the BBC News – ‘Pilot error’ blamed for north-west Russia crash – repeat the Russian Deputy Prime Minister’s assessment of what happened: pilot error.

So let’s review the facts, as we’re told them:

  1. The weather was very bad: there were foggy conditions making it impossible for the pilot to visually confirm the location of the runway.
  2. In its descent, the aircraft hit a power line, cutting power to the runway’s landing lights.
  3. Backup generators were switched on too late to keep the aircraft from crashing.

In the first case, fog that is so dense that the runway cannot be seen could be crippling even to the best pilot. But why should a visual confirmation have been necessary? Did the aircraft not have automated systems to help home in on the correct trajectory to make a successful landing? In either case, how does not being able to see through the fog or having inadequate instrumentation become pilot error?

Next, how is it conceivable that the power lines serving an airport runway would be located somewhere in the air, where the planes could have even a remote chance of coming in contact with them? They should be buried underground. How can it be considered pilot error that the aircraft hit power lines that should not have been there in the first place? This was an accident waiting, designed, and engineered to happen.

Finally, what is this about the back-up generators being switched on too late to help prevent this crash? Who switched them on? Was it not an immediate, automated cutover? If not, why not? What if that person was not paying attention? On a break? Assisting another aircraft? How does the failure to have the back-up emergency lighting immediately available become this pilot’s error?

In short, there is no single piece of evidence in the facts reported in this article to support the DPM’s assertion that the cause of crash was pilot error. Instead, it was almost inevitably going to happen, to this pilot, or to another one. Had just one of the three factors not been set up in advance, lying in wait for just such an unsuspecting passerby as this, chances are that the crash would not have occurred.

That it did occur shows just how on-target the foolish engineering actually was at creating exactly the outcome that it did. And the DPM’s assertion to the contrary shows just how determined his government is (as are other entities too numerous to mention) to divert attention away from rampant systemic failures by making them appear to be personal ones.