Journalist gives lessons in how not to interview at SXSW

(Too many skydiving stories. Do something else. Ed.)

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. A friend’s at SXSW, where journalist Sarah Lacy has conducted possibly the worst on-stage interview of all time with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Now Zuckerberg looks like a nerdy kid at the best of times, but what he’s achieved is genuinely visionary, and Lacy made the error of treating him like a nervous kid. In front of an audience that wanted to hear Zuckerberg, Lacy apparently dominated the interview, even complaining at times that her job was hard.

Sarah, you forgot the cardinal rule: know your audience. This crowd of geeks and propellorheads had probably never heard of you; the interview wasn’t about you. You’re not Terry Wogan or Jay Leno. You weren’t the entertainment.

By Lacy’s miffed blogging, she apparently hasn’t learned her lesson. Let’s see if she keeps her job after this object lesson in how not to interview…

Dead calm on the edge

“Look up and in…. GO!

And I’m falling. Through fresh air with nothing more substantial in it than a few wisps of cloud. The ground is 4000ft below and the air is rushing past at 120kph.

Yet amid the chaotic whooshing, I feel strangely calm.

Because I know what to do. In 10 surprisingly physical hours yesterday, the RAPS instructors trained us to jump with a static line. All the stuff you need to do in the air, most of which happens in the five seconds before your parachute opens.

(Yes, I know it looks like a watercolour, but that’s me in the pic.)

I don’t do it quite textbook – my “ARCH THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND…” speech is too fast, and when I look up the canopy’s still unfolding. You miss a lot by waiting, though: it’s a thing of beauty, like orchids expanding in timelapse photography. “Is it big?” No, but give it a moment…

Floating below a good canopy at last, I’m at peace.

Never been here before, but I recognise the place: it’s where you feel life at its fullest. The edge.

‘The edge’ is what I call any environment that’s alien to human beings, yet where by our resourcefulness we’re able to survive. Extreme cold in mountains, a searing desert, a solo jungle trek. Gore-Tex, Toyota, and Silva help us to balance on that line between life and death, as long as you know how to use them. The edge is where you learn what it means to be human.

Most species of animal live on the edge all the time. But too many of us humans have forgotten it, encased in our comfortable prophylactics of cities and services. We don’t appreciate running water or electricity or rooves over our heads because they’ve become too Normal, taken us too far from the edge.

All the problems of the world would just dissolve, if everyone lived closer to the edge.

And there’s a fairly strong case for skydiving being edge. Like all edges, it’s perfectly possible to survive and thrive simply by following certain rules. If I do something wrong, I’ll plummet a vertical mile and end up slightly dead. But as long as I don’t do anything stupid, there is only a one in four million chance that both my main and reserve ‘chutes will fail (far smaller still now the main’s inflated without trouble) and I’m in considerably less danger than crossing the street. Completely safe, in this utterly untenable environment.

I don’t have a care in the world, up here.

I was second out of the plane, so there’s only one ‘chute below me: he’s drifting some distance from the white X. Ha ha, I’m certainly not going to make that mistake. Let’s just line up with the landing arrow and do our three stage turn at 1000-500-300ft, shall we…

Two minutes later I’m directly above him, having turned around to face the wind for landing, and discovered the windspeed exactly matches the speed of the canopy. My descent is basically vertical, and I land in the muddy field several hundred metres from the X. Jumper 1 and I tramp back together.

But damn, it feels good. I’ve just traversed the distance between a plane in flight and the ground, VERTICALLY, using the contents of a rucksack. This rocks.

I’m the Buddha. I’m Zen. I’m the Bulletproof Monk. In a state of satisfied equilibrium that isn’t exhilaration; it’s more like… understanding. Comprehending the true vastness of human experience. And loving it.

Next challenge: 6 more jumps to start freefalling. The midterm goal is to freefall from 15,000ft by September. I’m on the ground now, but I’m still a mile high.

Managing the risks

As I walk back to the classroom, one guy in the air actually has to use his reserve chute. It’s rare, about 1 in 2000 jumps. But that’s not the point.

Skydiving isn’t about taking risks; it’s about managing them. Every jumper, every jump, has a reserve chute backing him up. There is a risk you’ll have trouble with your main chute; you manage that 1-in-2000 risk away by taking a spare, squaring the problem to 1-in-4-million. But that’s not the point either.

The point – as I realise over the afternoon’s training – is that the reserve chute is not an emergency procedure. It’s a normal procedure, because emergencies are part and parcel of your normal checks at the start of each jump. A normal jump is simply one where you considered all the options and decided not to deploy your reserve. On the very rare occasions you need it, you’ll simply take the other decision and deploy it. Based not on panic, but on having one ‘No’ answer among the three you ask yourself on every jump.

Life is not about avoiding risk, it’s about recognising and managing it. That’s what’s wrong with Britain’s ever-tighter Health & Safety culture: it assumes risk is something bad, something to be veered away from instead of confronted head-on. In newly risk-averse Britain, Health & Safety people are the biggest risk of all.

Because by trying to legislate away risk, they make us less capable of dealing with it. They forget that we are alive because we took risks. And learned how to manage them. We bob and dip a lot, but we soar. Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter.

There are no emergencies in parachuting; there are simply alternative courses of action.

Ready for the jump

Training for a skydive is almost as much fun as the jumping-out-of-aeroplanes part itself.

This weekend I’m at a small airfield doing some static line jumps, i.e. proper parachuting. A cable attached to the plane does the important work of pulling your ‘chute out, but after that you’re on your own. The main bits of training cover what happens in the first five seconds after jumping, and the last five before you hit the ground; everything in between is common sense.

The training is both interactive and entertaining.

We learn the basics first: what a ram-air system is, getting touchy-feely with an actual parachute. They’re surprisingly complex pieces of engineering: imagine a pack of sausages lying side by side, with holes in the skins allowing meat, sorry, I mean air, to swirl between sections in a controlled way, inflating the canopy part by part. Making sure this part by part goes smoothly is the main point of today.

‘Arching’ is fun. Splaying your arms and legs out and upwards creates a shuttlecock shape, with your hips out front (the instructor calls this ‘shagging a leper’) meaning you’ll fall stably and the ‘chute has a nice measured environment to open in. Getting this part wrong can have consequences I don’t want to think about just yet.

There’s a checklist post-exit from plane. We shout the checklist again and again. Is it big? Is it rectangular? Is it damage-free? Is it a nice colour? (OK, we added the last one as a joke since there are many girls in the training group.)

My practice exits are bit showy. “Stop leaping so much – you’re older than these guys and you think you’ve got something to prove.”

The plane we’ll jump from is one seriously cool chunk of metal: a little Dornier G92, slab-sided, scruffy of interior, and as noisy and smelly as an ancient diesel. But it shoots into the clouds in a way that suggests it knows EXACTLY what it’s doing. (Photo courtesy Alex Lane.) Scruffy frame and scuffed edges it may have, but everything is screwed together tight as a drum. Good workaday technology, just add pilot and stir.

When someone asks you what you this weekend, ‘Jumped out of an aeroplane’ is a pretty cool answer.