^zhurnal v.0.37

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.37 of the ^zhurnal --- musings on mind, method, metaphor, and matters miscellaneous ... a rather cluttered set of sporadic Good Mistakes. What's it all about? Maybe "... to create moments of philosophy --- that is, to pass from opinion to thought ...." It's also the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann. See the ZhurnalyWiki on zhurnaly.com for a parallel "live" Wiki experiment. For back issues of the ^zhurnal see Volumes 0.01, 0.02, ... 0.40, 0.41, ... Current Volume. Send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com". Thank you! (Copyright © 1999-2004 by Mark Zimmermann.)

Key to the Treasure

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs is arguably the best book ever written about computer programming, in precisely the same way that the Feynman Lectures on Physics is the best book about physics. Both SICP and Feynman are the product of genius; both were addressed to freshmen at high-powered schools; and both are virtually impossible to learn from. Impossible, that is, until you've spent years wrestling with their subjects from other, more pedestrian perspectives. Then and only then does the god-like viewpoint start to make sense.

SICP is about how to think; Feynman is about how the universe works. The big secret, in both cases, is abstraction: the ability to see through the particular to the general --- that is, discovering how to look at specific individual cases and recognize the overarching principles that unify them.

In SICP the chapter "Metalinguistic Abstraction" begins with an excerpt from yet another book that's on my far-too-long list to read someday, John Barth's novel Chimera:

... It's in words that the magic is --- Abracadabra, Open Sesame, and the rest --- but the magic words in one story aren't magical in the next. The real magic is to understand which words work, and when, and for what; the trick is to learn the trick.
... And those words are made from the letters of our alphabet: a couple-dozen squiggles we can draw with the pen. This is the key! And the treasure, too, if we can only get our hands on it! It's as if --- as if the key to the treasure is the treasure!

And that reminds me of a children's picture book by Fulvio Testa titled If You Take a Pencil. It's arguably the best counting book ever written, with clever, lovely pictures of cats, trees, sailors, treasure chests --- and then, the real treasure is revealed. I won't spoil the ending ...

(see Abelson & Sussman [1]; see also Thinking Tools Examples (8 Apr 1999), Books To Consider (16 Apr 1999), Data Versus Program (1 May 1999), Genius And Complexity (25 May 1999), Late Physicists (24 Sep 2000), Creative Devices (1 Jan 2001), No Concepts At All (22 Feb 2001), Personal Programming History (2 Apr 2002), Parting Advice (21 Jun 2002), Fractal Feynman (30 Jan 2003), ... )


- Friday, April 23, 2004 at 12:36:10 (EDT)


Reversion to the Mean

Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is a fascinating book that I read a decade ago. Kennedy's central thesis is that in the long run, averages win. A few people can't stay on top of many, not for generations. A disproportionate fraction of the world's resources won't remain channeled through a single chokepoint --- Spain and Portugal in the 16th Century, England after that, then the USA, now the G-7 or whatever. Eventually, demographic factors triumph; incomes level out. Sure, that process can take quite a while, particularly if other countries handicap themselves with societal ignorance, shortsightedness, greed, or horrid misgovernment. Those who have wealth will try to use it to maintain their position. On long timescales, they can't succeed.


- Thursday, April 22, 2004 at 05:48:05 (EDT)


Into Wet Air

Important safety tip: don't go out jogging immediately after reading a book about extreme mountaineering, especially something like Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. The images of people surviving (or in some cases dying) in terrifying conditions of hypothermia, hypoxia, and utter exhaustion are likely to shame you into going farther and faster than you planned to --- and will certainly put minor complaints into perspective. Unfortunately for me, I didn't follow that advice on 12 April 2004 when I set out on a brisk 8 mile jog through late-afternoon rainstorms ...

The weather is chill, the skies a dark gray overcast. I layer a long-sleeved water-repellant shell (tnx, MitP!) over a racing singlet (tnx, MCM!) and don a cap (tnx, HAT Run!) to keep my head warm; below the waist it's the usual skimpy shorts from the thrift store, padded socks, and jogging shoes. Thin cotton gloves accessorize the wardrobe, along with a wrist pouch to hold a few coins and an ID in case of emergency.

Today the Georgetown Branch Trail truly earns the name "Branch" --- not because of its status as an abandoned rail line but rather because it has become a veritable stream, with water cascading down slopes and pooling inches deep in any depression. A weeping willow tree cries on me, its limbs dangling like Portuguese Man-o-War tentacles that threaten as I weave through. My feet are soaked after I fail to avoid the first big puddles (~1.5 miles). I'm lucky at the major road crossings and experience only minor delays. After 4 miles and 42 minutes I get a drink at the trail fountain in Bethesda --- funny how good the water tastes there during a run! --- and turn around for the return trip.

That's when the rain pauses and the wind takes over. After relative comfort I'm suddenly cold. I cut back on the walk breaks and for mile 6 manage the fastest segment of the trip in 9:40 (the rest fall in the 10:14 - 11:00 zone). My clothes are all supersaturated; the outer shirt snaps and cracks in the breeze like a soggy canvas sail. Only two other runners, one cyclist, and a handful of raincoated or umbrella-protected walkers are braving the elements this evening.

I arrive home at ~7pm, 84 minutes after I set out. When I undress I discover a trickle-down bloodstain on the inner shirt from abrasion of, hmmm, one of a pair of objects that serve to break up the blankness of the male chest. I get that kind of scrape after many long wet runs. Pretty minor compared to what the 1996 Mount Everest expeditions suffered in a spring blizzard. I apply a bandage and put my wet clothes into the oven to dry from the pilot light overnight.

(see also Rail Trail Politics (24 Oct 2003), Slow Run Summaries (17 Feb 2004), Hat Run 2004 (2 Apr 2004), ... )


- Tuesday, April 20, 2004 at 06:00:04 (EDT)


Navy Blue Of India

As has been the case for most of a year now, Bollywood movies continue their reign at the top of the charts in our household. Perhaps this popularity is due to several characteristics that Paulette et al. have identified in Indian films:

Along with dramatic dance sequences, Indian movies feature superb costumes with unconventional-yet-effective juxtapositions of brilliant colors. As Paulette explained to me the other day, quoting Diana Vreeland's delightful metaphor: "Pink is the navy blue of India."

(see also Catfight Club (5 Sep 2003), Crip Heard (1 Oct 2003), Love Winds And Fan Service (2 Feb 2004), The New Twenty (16 Feb 2004), ... )


- Monday, April 19, 2004 at 06:27:40 (EDT)


Hakone Ekiden

In Japan there's a traditional road race --- a 2-day 134-mile 10-person relay called the Hakone Ekiden --- that Ken Belson of the New York Times (4 Jan 2004) describes as "... something akin to the Boston Marathon, the Final Four and the Super Bowl rolled into one. More than a run for the tape, the race encapsulates the perseverance, pathos and unswerving loyalty the Japanese value so highly."

The most mundane objects can, over time, acquire huge symbolic meaning and importance. Instead of batons, teammates in the Hakone Ekiden hand off strips of fabric. As Belsen writes:

These cloth sashes, called tasuki, are ordinarily used to tie back long kimono sleeves. But on race day, they are endowed with the power of each college's legacy and are even blessed by teams at shrines. In effect, they embody the spirit of the race the Japanese find so appealing.
"The weight of the tasuki is heavy," said Atsushi Miyashita, a 30-year-old businessman, who has gone to Hakone to watch the race every year since he was a boy. "It connects the runners with all those who ran before. This race is not about any one person."

Like another relay: life ...

(see also Plus Ultra (12 Aug 1999), Life Lines (9 Dec 2000), ... )


- Sunday, April 18, 2004 at 10:17:50 (EDT)


Growth Assumptions

What happened to the "conservative" hypothesis, commonplace only a few years ago, that one could plan on making 10% (or more) per annum on one's money when saving for retirement or other long-range goals?

The societal pot of wealth isn't growing that fast; it never has, except perhaps during short periods of rebound from tragedy. People on the average can't produce that much more every year than they did the year before. They don't work that much harder, or for that many more hours. Technology doesn't leap that fast, not for things that are of fundamental importance to the economy. New discoveries of exploitable natural resources aren't happening at that rate either. A 10% annual increase means a 7-year doubling time. That's a cancerous rate, not a sustainable one.

So let's accept reality: a normal rate of human productivity growth is at most a few percent yearly. Why then should any individual think that s/he's going to do so much better than the average to be able to earn 10%? A few rationales come to mind:

Alas, none of these are likely!

(see also The Cancer Ideology (19 May 1999), Just The Job (4 Dec 1999), Food Net (9 Jun 2000), Rail Web (3 Jan 2001), Pop Goes (19 Jun 2001) & Hopeful Rejoinders (23 Jun 2001), Art Newspaper (4 Aug 2001), Looming Disaster (6 Aug 2001), Dow Theory (27 Jul 2002), ... )


- Saturday, April 17, 2004 at 08:34:57 (EDT)


Fading Traces

 Pressed into the earth like trilobites
  The spikey pinecones corrugate a trail
 Between the lake and woods. A foggy dawn
  Blurs the horizon. Waves play pat-a-cake
 Against the shore. A startled doe looks up,
   Recoils, then turns to leap a ragged hedge
   That with gray boulders forms the forest's edge.

 When I ran by here yesterday the ground
  Was soft --- so why are there no footprints now
 Recording that I passed? I glance behind
  And there my spoor is plain. The next to tread
 Here cannot miss it. Will she also ask
   Where her own tracks have gone, and search in vain,
   Like me, in hopes that some faint marks remain?

( ... after early morning jogs on country roads near Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, summer 2002 ... )


- Friday, April 16, 2004 at 06:49:21 (EDT)


Really Important

If something is really important, then it can wait!

That was a throw-away humorous aside in Matrix Hype (31 May 2003), but when I ran across it in a recent search for something else I began to think about it ... and I started to like it.

The most critical aspects of life (ok, maybe arterial bleeding is an exception) tend in the short term to be ignored, almost invisible. Education, family, reputation, careers, relationships, ... --- all depend on cumulative choices, years of investment, countless conversations. Action on all can be put off for weeks, months, maybe longer. Like a tree growing, most days are uneventful (barring catatrophe), but the eventual sum of those days makes an infinite difference.

(see also What Is My Life (30 Apr 1999), Bird Brains (9 Jul 1999), Most Important (16 May 2002), Ankh Micholi (12 Jul 2002), ...)


- Thursday, April 15, 2004 at 05:48:35 (EDT)


Inner Purple Line

The trail running bug has bitten me and an infection is raging --- so for the past week my expeditions have taken me off the paved pathways that I usually frequent. Fortuitously I find a new route, freshly blazed in almost-fluorescent violently-violet paint. I call it the "Inner Purple Line" after a proposed suburban mass transit system that probably will never be built, since the most logical route passes through wealthy, politically powerful neighborhoods. Oops, my cynicism is showing ...

Western Ridge + Valley Trails

(Sunday 4 Apr 2004)

Mud, cliffs, deer, fallen trees, high winds, freezing rain --- a fun morning in Rock Creek National Park (Washington DC), ~7+ miles in ~105 minutes --- south on Western Ridge Trail from near Oregon Ave. & Bingham Dr. to Bluff Bridge, returning northward via Valley Trail to Rolling Meadow Bridge and back to the starting point via Bingham.

After last Saturdayís experience (see Hat Run 2004 for report) my feet ask permission to try some local off-road routes. #1 Son is an organist at the Knollwood Memorial Chapel today, so I drive him there and set sail (the winds are gusty) south. I lose the path at the Park Police stables but rediscover it at Military Rd, and from there am only befuddled a few times.

The Western Ridge Trail (green blazes) is steep but straightforward to navigate until south of Pierce Mill (Tilden St.) near Hazen Park, where suddenly it becomes terrifying. Huge trees have fallen across the route, and after cautiously clambering through them there are some severely eroded segments of cliffside: rotten shale covered with wet leaves and mud, plus a bonus 50 foot drop into Rock Creek. Visions of falling keep my adrenaline level up; I tuck my water bottle inside my shorts to free both hands for clinging, and literally sit down to descend at a couple of places. Finally (after 49 min) I reach that trailís end.

Crossing Bluff Bridge east and heading north again, I turn onto the Valley Trail (blue blazes) near the Jusserand Memorial and follow it up and down as it parallels Beach Drive. (It should have been named "Hill Trail"!) At about the 1 hour mark on my watch (~9:15am) the cold rain begins, intermittent and noisy as the gales drive it against the fallen leaves. Just north of Military Road I see that a shoe has come untied and pause to fix it. While bent over I think I hear some hissing/whistling sounds, and when I stand and start jogging again I meet three big deer (no antlers, sorry) who eye me fearlessly from ~20 feet off the path. Soon thereafter I misstep and plunge my left shoe deep into a pool of muck. Ah, the glories of nature ...

A fence blocks the path and a sign announces a detour at Rolling Meadow Bridge, just north of Bingham Drive. I take this as a portent and turn back toward Knollwood. Probably I spent almost as much time walking as trotting, but the perceived effort was much higher than on a typical asphalt path run.

Purple Line Discovery

(Tuesday 6 Apr 2004)

~5.5 miles, 57 minutes --- I invade the US Army's Walter Reed Medical Center Annex and find the gate open at the top of the southern branch of Ireland Drive where it enters the ballfields. On the way back downhill I take the ďlow roadĒ at the bottom, and see an elderly gentleman on the other side of a small tributary stream of Rock Creek. He shows me a neat dirt trail, meticulously marked in bright violet blazes, leading across some small trickles of water and over a couple of huge fallen tree trunks. It parallels Rock Creek on the eastern side for about half a mile and then joins the regular RC Trail ca. mile 1.7 ( = MitP mile 22.9), at the eastern end of a small wooden bridge over the water. Cute! --- and I never knew it was here, only a mile from my home.

Purple Line Exploration

(Thursday 8 Apr 2004)

6+ miles, 91 minutes: from home via Georgetown Branch to the Rock Creek Trail (RCT) water fountain near East-West Highway (mile 1.25 = MitP ~23.4) --- then north on RCT to just before the first bridge, where I turn off the pavement and onto a lavender-blazed woodland trail --- the newly-revealed "Inner Purple Line". I follow it all the way back to its start, through almost 2 miles of beautiful scenery. I miss the track at a couple of points but always find it again, once after doing a quarter-mile side trail circuit along the eastern bank of Rock Creek. When I return to the beginning I do the first half of the loop again to make sure of the route. The GPS I carry briefly loses lock under the foliage a couple of times. I go home via the Forest Glen Seminary, with an obligatory orbit around the pulchritudinous Mermaid Fountain.

Notable wildlife: one big water bird (a crane?); three does that crash through the bracken uphill in front of me; one crafty old gray buck who walks downhill into a thicket and stands still, almost invisible ...

Brief sketch of the purple trail: from RCT at the eastern end of the first bridge (mile ~1.7) proceed north, at first near the water, then curving inland, crossing a tributary stream, next going steeply uphill. After climbs over some huge fallen tree trunks, down again to a larger stream crossing (use stepping stones, or walk across on a big log) and join "Ireland Drive" (ill-named --- itís actually a small path) below Walter Reed Annex. Uphill along Ireland, across a couple of stone bridges, then left steeply up toward the ballfields on the western side of Walter Reed. Tiptoe through swampy areas, skirting the fence, then back down to Ireland on the opposite side of its loop. Turn right (uphill again) on the paved drive, cross another stone bridge, then head left and down into a valley; follow a streamlet back to the path at the bottom of the hill and turn right toward RCT. After crossing the metal/wood bridge turn left before the paved trail and proceed southward along the western bank of Rock Creek, zig-zagging through the woods. Finish at the same bridge where the trail began. Donít trip over sticks or fall into the water, and beware the bogs!

NW Branch + Sligo Creek

(Saturday 10 Apr 2004)

~14 miles, ~185 minutes --- an unexpectedly long jog that, as often happens, starts too fast and ends slower than planned. I get a lift to the starting point on Sligo Creek between Colesville and Wayne. (A neighbor sees me climbing into the car all dressed up to run; I tell him that the family is taking me out to try to lose me, like giving an unwanted dog a long ride into the countryside.) I ramble southeast along Sligo to Piney Branch Rd., head left along the street, cross University Blvd., and proceed to New Hampshire Ave. where I join Northwest Branch Trail.

Several bicyclists ask me for directions; the weather is perfect for a ride and they hope to go north, but I have to break the bad news to them that the trail soon becomes unpaved and broken terrain. They turn back. Many huge trees are uprooted and add to the difficulty of passage. Burgundy spray-paint graffiti offers incomprehensible messages on the path, but soon ceases.

I walk a good fraction of the time once the ground gets rocky --- under the high Beltway bridge, across trickles of tributary streamlets, over trunks of fallen trees, up and down boulder barriers. I see no one for a mile, but then approaching Colesville Rd. begin to find significant numbers of fishermen, dog-exercisers, and a variety of hikers. After I cross that road many more pedestrians meet me on the smoother segments of the trail.

Itís now a bit past the 1-hour mark and I decide to carry on rather than short-cut toward home via the Lockwood-Dennis side route. Perhaps that was a mistake: Iím out of water after ~90 minutes and become increasingly tired. Relentless Forward Progress is revived as my mantra, and it helps somewhat. Without guilt I increase the length of my walk breaks, formerly 1 minute in every 5. Hills (or even slight slopes) become acceptable excuses to slow down.

Once I reach Wheaton Regional Park Iím on the lookout for liquid as I meander along the horse trail. Finally, after zig-zagging on the winding paths to the baseball field area, I spy a restroom and a line of soda machines. I refill my squeeze bottle and invest in a Pepsi which soon begins to reinvigorate me. Out of the park and southward along Sligo Creek Trail --- where the first and only measured mile of the entire journey is timed at 11:07, much faster than I would have expected since my running duty cycle is down to ~50%. At Forest Glen I turn west and reach home at 6pm, salt-encrusted but happy.


- Tuesday, April 13, 2004 at 06:47:53 (EDT)


Eternal Instant

 To every life there is vouchsafed one gift:
   A single perfect moment within which
     The infinite appears --- a lightning flash
   Eye-corner glimpse of truth, forever fixed
     In memory --- as skies dissolve and time
   Itself is torn, still beating, from the breast
 Of now.


- Sunday, April 11, 2004 at 19:10:15 (EDT)


The Belay

Joining The Coin and The Angle in the pantheon of definite-article Ur-phenomena: The Belay, an amazing maneuver performed by Pete Schoening on the afternoon of 10 August 1953. As Jon Krakauer recounts in his book Into Thin Air :

... Pete was a gangly, slightly stooped man who had returned to the high reaches of the Himalaya after a long absence. In 1958 he'd made history as the driving force behind the first ascent of Hidden Peak, a 26,470-foot mountain in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan --- the highest first ascent ever achieved by American climbers. Pete was even more famous, however, for playing a heroic role in an unsuccessful expedition to K2 in 1953, the same year Hillary and Tenzing reached the peak of Everest.
The eight-man expedition was pinned down in a ferocious blizzard high on K2, waiting to make an assault on the summit, when a team member named Art Gilkey developed thrombophlebitis, a life-threatening altitude-induced blood clot. Realizing that they would have to get Gilkey down immediately to have any hope of saving him, Schoening and the others started lowering him down the mountain's steep Abruzzi Ridge as the storm raged. At 25,000 feet, a climber named George Bell slipped and pulled four others off with him. Reflexively wrapping the rope around his shoulders and ice ax, Schoening somehow managed to single-handedly hold on to Gilkey and simultaneously arrest the slide of the five falling climbers without being pulled off the mountain himeself. One of the more incredible feats in the annals of mountaineering, it was known forever after simply as The Belay.

In an article about The Belay, an unnamed reporter in The Olympian (10 Aug 2003) writes:

A half century ago Sunday, Pete Schoening was 24,500 feet up K2, the world's second-highest peak, when his six fellow climbers tumbled out of control down an icy slope.
Schoening stopped the fall, holding tight to a wooden ice ax jammed behind a rock and with a rope belayed around his hip.
That life-saving belay on Aug. 10, 1953, is a legendary moment among climbers.
"I'm surprised that it attracts interest, frankly," said the famously humble Schoening, now 76 and living in Kenmore on Lake Washington, 50 miles north of Tacoma.

That brings to mind Daniel Chamberlain's remarks re the foundations of real character: "... teamwork, achievement, modesty, good conduct ..." (see Improving My Mind, 22 Jun 2003). In a comment that further reveals his spirit, Pete Schoening adds:

"There is a certain part of society that sort of dwells on tragedy and emphasizes tragedy," he said. "And I think that's really too bad, because there's so much joy in the good things. And I think that was true on that trip as well."

Even though the other climbers were ultimately unable to save their injured colleague, who was swept away by an avalanche later that day, Schoening is precisely right: ... there's so much joy in the good things ...

(see also On Hubris (27 Dec 1999), California Sherpa (27 May 2000), The Coin (5 Mar 2002), ... )


- Saturday, April 10, 2004 at 14:13:31 (EDT)


Cross Time Travel

The concept of time travel --- movement into the past or future at an unnatural pace --- has been around for quite a while. More recent and far more fascinating is the notion of traveling perpendicular to the usual ticking of the clock.

Imagine another universe, precisely identical to ours except for the position of one electron on one atom in one galaxy billions of light years from us. Now increase that difference, little by little, until the delta amounts to an extra grain of sand on a beach on this Earth (or, more precisely, an otherwise-perfect replica of this Earth). Amplify the change yet further, step by step, to the point where things begin to be perceptibly altered, first just in tiny ways, then more visibly so.

Now string together a movie made from still images taken all at the same time, but with ever-increasing modifications to reality. That's the picture of cross-time navigation that a few science-fiction authors have painted. Among my personal favorites:

Can the once-per-decade pattern of noteworthy yarns in this genre be extended in either direction? Do orthogonal-to-time fantasies tend to be written in series format more often than other sf? And is there a parallel universe to ours wherein with-the-flow time travel stories are exotic and cross time-travel stories are commonplace?

(see also Many Worlds Demystified (24 Oct 1999), ... )


- Friday, April 09, 2004 at 05:35:40 (EDT)


James Applewhite

From amidst the dreck on the deep-discount shelves at the bookstore an unexpected gem slips into my hand: a thin paperback collection of poems, James Applewhite's Quartet for Three Voices (2002, LSU Press). Applewhite is a professor at Duke University who writes poetry of startling range and power. Interstate Highway, dedicated "to our daughter Lisa", is a loving glimpse of the night when a life began. The F-117 Nighthawk at Wright-Patterson spins a web of metaphor between Greek mythology and the technology of a stealth fighter aircraft. Upstream from the Little River Reservoir echoes wilderness, history, and modern life. A fragment that resonates with memories I own of tree and water, bird and brush:

     . . .
     The trail I follow is spidered and rocky,
     flooded by a dove's call, a woodpecker's knocking.
     Rain puddles plate it with light of another century.
     The shadow who walks before me wears the hat-silhouette
     of a farmer. Wind seethes the pine grove from long ago,
     suggesting a way beside. Through the clearing, I first see
     the ruin of their living: the cedars, the blackberry tangle,
     the weed-wrapped timbers --- the shade tree for workers,
     so old, these recently seeded pines around seem
     temporary as yesterday's newspapers. The forested
     gully widens into a sunken road.
     The crows' raucous ironies confirm its depth,
     its difference of perspective. Struggling for breath,
     I clamber from this great trench, that leads
     past the Civil War. I switch path left,
     toward a distant chainsaw's snore and rumble.
     But I don't wake yet; the slant down
     toward the river hushes the modern sounds.
     February sun glitters colder on needles of saplings ---
     yellow-green, the color they've always been.
     Then the horizon drives wedges of blue in between trees
     all the way to the ground. Land falls away
     to the North Fork, green water slow here as I come nearer.
     . . .

(see also California Sherpa (27 May 2000), Lying Verses (15 Mar 2001), Iambic Honesty 3 (6 May 2001), Torrey Pines (5 Sep 2001), Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Normanstone Trail (20 Dec 2002), Anacostia Tributaries (28 Jan 2003), Forest Primeval Pedestrian (9 May 2003), Norwottuck Rail Trail (9 Aug 2003), Hat Run 2004 (2 Apr 2004), ... )


- Thursday, April 08, 2004 at 05:46:57 (EDT)


Lever Age

Leverage --- everybody wants it. The universal fantasy is to push other people around, get what you wish, influence events, shake the world.

But the metaphor of the lever is actually far wiser than that. A real lever conserves energy: force times length is a constant. To shift something heavy you have to push across a huge distance, with a speed that's much greater than the motion of the big object. Likewise, to move minds ...

(see also Changing Selves (20 May 1999), ... )


- Wednesday, April 07, 2004 at 06:02:10 (EDT)


Dead Brain Cell Theory

The March/April 1998 issue of Marathon & Beyond magazine came into my hands via the local library's used-book sale many months ago. It sank, ignored, into the sea of unread material on my bedroom floor.

Late last week, maybe in recognition of my first ultra experience (Hat Run 2004), the 'zine surfaced. I flipped it open and chanced to read Jeff Hagen's article "Masters of the Ultra" about older (i.e., my age!) runners and how they can do surprisingly well based on experience, patience, smart pacing, and other factors.

At the end of his essay Jeff presents a conjecture that could well explain my newly-discovered affinity for long trail jogging:

One hypothesis, which probably came from some fledgling runner who was humiliated by one or more old fogies during an ultramarathon, is the "Dead Brain Cell Theory." The gist is that as people run more and more ultramarathons, the shortage of oxygen that they experience for hours on end kills a bunch of their brain cells. If they run at altitude or in extreme cold or heat, such as in 100-mile trail races, even more brain cells are lost. The "Catch-22" part of this theory is that the more brain cells these ultrarunners lose, the more they want to run ultras, because they no longer have enough sense not to run them.
This becomes a vicious cycle, progressing from more ultras to fewer brain cells to more ultras. By the time these pour souls become masters runners, all they want to do is run ultras, and they get pretty good at it. I guess this is similar to the "you don't have to be crazy to run ultramarathons, but it sure helps" school of thought.


- Tuesday, April 06, 2004 at 06:34:32 (EDT)


Too Clever

"Overloading" --- or, if you want to get fancy, "polymorphism" --- in computer science refers to operators (or other constructs) that take on different meanings depending on the context. A plus symbol (+), for instance, might signify "add" when used between two numbers, but "concatenate" when appearing between two strings of characters. So 2+3 comes out 5, while "two"+"three" makes "twothree". That seems natural enough, but look at it more closely and it's quite strange.

In real life, words are constantly getting overloaded. "You" means something different, depending on which person "you" are talking to at any given moment. "We" can mean "you and I", or "not you but others and I", or royally and exclusively "I". ("We are not amused.") Overloading of words is essential to puns, poetry, and powerful language. (And right there was a petty play with alliteration --- an overload-crossover from sound to sense.)

But at times overloading can be dangerous. Consider graphical user interface design: remember the "Trash Can" icon on the original Macintosh desktop? It represented the command "delete" when a user dragged and dropped a file into it. (That seemingly-simple symbolic act of "dragging" and "dropping" and pseudo-physical manipulation within a "desktop" metaphor is another huge topic for philosophical discussion.) If someone took a floppy disk icon and dropped it into the Trash Can, then, consistency and logic would suggest that the disk, or rather its contents, should be deleted. Instead, the disk is unmounted from the file system and ejected. But that's a relatively benign example; arguably the double-use overloading of the Trash Can is a neat hack, not a confusing inconsistency.

Likewise in the Zhurnal Wiki, in a tiny way: as of mid-March 2004, inspired by a suggestion from Rad Rob, I renamed the home page What's New header. It now says "Recent Changes". Yep, it's an overload --- and also a lie. The Recent Changes page is an autogenerated log of alterations, not an honest list of newly added material.

Maybe that's close enough, though, for practical purposes. Certainly it's convenient: Recent Changes is a frequently visited location, and having a link to it near the top of the wiki home saves a bit of scrolling and typing. And it's arguably æsthetic, or at least cute, to offer that service without wasting any screen real estate.

Perhaps overloads can be applauded, in Cardinal Newman's words, as "... venerable, beautiful, or useful ..." --- even when they're not strictly true. And might not overloading be a key part of meaning itself? In Through the Looking Glass (Chapter 6), Lewis Carroll writes: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Maybe words have to, in order to mean anything at all ...

(see also Mean Meaners (3 Jul 1999), Naming Names (10 Oct 1999), Simply Symbols (7 Nov 1999), On Conventions (1 Jan 2000), Strands Of Truth (2 Nov 2000), Lying Verses (15 Mar 2001), ... )


- Monday, April 05, 2004 at 05:43:29 (EDT)


Si Monumentum Requiris

Five years later the ^zhurnal still grows. (Who knows how much longer, or what it may evolve into? Not I.) Increasingly often I find myself surprised at what I see when I browse to a random page or search for an arbitrary word. The surprise isn't always pleasant, mind you --- but once in a while there's something that brings an unanticipated grin (or grimace, or groan).

Perhaps this reader is getting more forgetful as time passes? Or perhaps, in the spirit of Diffuse Consciousness (21 May 2003), increasing amounts of a low-grade idiosyncratic intelligence are starting to pile up here? A pleasing fancy, to my mind at least.

The British architect Christopher Wren is buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, a building which he designed. His crypt bears the Latin inscription:

     LECTOR, SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE

which literally translates "Reader, if you seek his monument look around you". What a legacy to dream of!

(see also Zhurnal Zero (4 Apr 1999), Annals Of Journals (4 Apr 2000), Zhurnal Anniversary 2 (4 Apr 2001), Zhurnal Three (4 Apr 2002), Zhurnal Themes (4 Apr 2003), ...)


- Sunday, April 04, 2004 at 06:33:51 (EDT)


HAT Run 2004

Intense --- a good word for a 31 mile scramble through the woods, over hills, across streams, and in the mud. Other terms: incomprehensible, or less politely, insane. Two years ago I would have called it inconceivable. A seasoned trail runner might categorize it as merely invigorating.

It's my first ultramarathon: the 16th annual 50k HAT Run [1], held on Saturday 27 March 2004 in Susquehanna State Park, a lovely forested area of northeastern Maryland. HAT stands for "Hinte-Anderson Trail", named for organizers Jeff Hinte and Phil Anderson, and spiffy hats are among the items awarded to participants. I almost miss the race: first when I sign up at the last moment, #398 out of the 400 total allowed; and the day before, when I have the idea stuck in my head that it's held on Sunday, not Saturday. (Fortunately friend KS writes to remind me that he can give me a ride home if I'm too tired to drive myself, and his note corrects my mistake.)

As soon as I arrive at the starting area, almost two hours before the event is scheduled to get underway, I can feel the HAT Run's spirit of adventure and sheer fun. It's notably looser than the tension one senses at a typical non-trail race. Maybe this is related to the irregularity of the course, the lack of mile markers, and the relative unimportance of time. Possibly it's connected to the weather: overnight rains have left the grounds sloppy, and more showers are clearly coming soon, so everybody anticipates a mess. For sure the relaxed atmosphere goes along with the trail runners who lounge around the pavillion, joking with each other and looking over their equipment.

When I confess that I've never gone farther than 26.2 miles before (and that on mostly paved surfaces) the experienced hands surprise me by their friendliness and encouragement. There's no teasing; they unanimously promise me that I'll have a wonderful time. One fellow reminisces about good and less-good ultras ... how the middle segment of one particular race was incredibly flat and boring ... how angry he got at an aid station once when they didn't have handfuls of salt for him to swallow ... and how he plans to run a 50-miler in a few more weeks. He shows me some of the gear he carries: packets of energy gel, a bag of mysterious pills, a tube of grease, a water bottle, a bundle of bandages, and a small spool of duct-tape. When I ask whether he carries the sticky gray tape to repair broken shoes he tells me, "Oh, no, it's for my blisters!"

0

Time to get ready. The HAT Run commences with a back-and-forth mile along park roads to spread out the masses of humanity. Then the route cuts across a meadow and enters the woods, where it's a single-lane dirt trail, zig-zag-slanting steeply down to a rocky stream. Faster folks run straight through --- the water is less than a foot deep --- but more timid ones like me prefer to tip-toe across on irregularly spaced rocks, at the cost of an extra minute in exchange for dry (or at least drier) shoes and socks.

After the creek crossing it's upslope again, across a small street, and up still more between the trees. I start near the back of the pack and slow down quickly to a brisk but comfortable walk on the hills. Fellow travelers who keep a similar pace introduce themselves to me and we begin to get to know one another. One woman has done the HAT Run for the past five years; another is a newbie like me. A man who shares my given name --- his shirt says "Mighty Mark" on the back --- gives me the URL for an ultrarunning column that he writes [2]. He did a long run on Malta recently and plans to visit South Africa soon for his second 89 km Comrade's Run. He looks young, but turns out to be a few years older than me.

After the initial paved out-and-back mile the HAT Run course follows a 15 mile loop, something like a bizarrely distorted figure-eight, beginning at the bottom center of the "8". At its midpoint there's an aid station where the trail self-intersects. By mile 16 the route has made it back to the starting pavillion --- and that's when a second 15-mile circuit begins.

But all that topology is beyond my mental power to comprehend during the race itself. Thick clouds hide the sun so there are few directional cues, and tortuously winding paths quickly disorient me. Fortunately the trail is well-marked by thousands of yellow paper/plastic plates stapled to trees, with big arrows indicating turns. Red plates featuring a giant "X" indicate that one is going off course.

After a few more down-and-ups we emerge onto another broad meadow of dry grass. I jog cautiously alongside a muddy rut left by my predecessors and squirt some water into my mouth from the squeeze bottle that I'm holding. At this stage, 45 minutes or so into the experience, I'm starting to feel good. My watch beeps every three minutes to remind me to take a "walk break" --- but, given all the hills and creeks to slow me, no scheduled walks have been needed. So I turn off the annoying timer and let the terrain and my legs set the pace. I nibble on my traditional marathon food, a crunchy peanut butter flavored Clif Bar.

A couple of women are walking along in front of me. I catch up and we talk a bit about our families and our preparation, or lack therof, for today's event. Then I jog ahead, down a long forest path, and begin to get nervous. No other runners are visible in front; the two ladies shout from behind me to ask whether maybe we've gotten lost. But I see enough shoe prints in the mud to feel fairly confident that we're on the right track, so after a pause we proceed onward.

5

I round a corner and suddenly spy civilization: Aid Station #1, at about the 5.5 mile point. Under the canopy is an eye-popping caloric spread including gummy bears, bright red twizzlers, potato chips, cookies, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches cut up small, banana chunks, pretzels, and sliced oranges. Arrayed beside these are cups of Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew, ready to grab and go. Nearby are vats of water and Gatorade from which helpful volunteers refill water bottles. Next to the tubs of M&M candies are big bowls of ibuprofen pills.

Here is where I break Running Rule #1 --- "Never try anything new during a race" --- and at the advice of a passerby sample an exotic delicacy: big, cold chunks of boiled potato. I take one and, following instructions, dip it into a bowl of fine-grained salt before swallowing it. Wow! --- the perfect combo of carbohydrate and sodium.

After drinking and noshing for a few minutes I note that some runners who came in behind me have already left. So I snag a final handful of munchies and proceed. As I exit I punch my stopwatch: 1 hour 11 minutes, meaning that my average speed thus far is ~13 minutes/mile. Move on!

The next segment of the HAT course includes --- you guessed it --- more hills. While power-walking up one I hear a crashing sound behind me and turn to see a small herd of deer. They sprint across the trail between me and another group of runners. In the distance we hear a chain saw's vroom as someone, perhaps a park service employee, hacks into a fallen tree. I joke feebly with a neighbor, "Next thing you know, we'll see deer carrying chain saws!"

10

Further hills are followed by a pleasant surprise: a long smooth downhill grade along a gently winding crushed stone road. I make good time, alternating minutes of jogging and walking, as the route parallels a large tributary stream. Then the road turns again, meets a larger paved street, and branches into a parking lot that leads us back to the same Aid Station, only from almost the opposite direction that we met it before.

This time I head straight for the potatoes and snarf down a couple of lumps thickly coated with salt; they again taste ambrosial. My watch says 2:14 now, at about the 10 mile point. I've managed ~14 minutes/mile for this leg. After a quick drink and water bottle refill it's time to progress.

A few miles farther and we're cruising alongside the Susquehanna itself. The river is fog-shrouded but I can make out some wooded islands, and maybe some fishermen, small boats and birds. Then down, across a wide creek and, climbing up, deja vu --- I suddenly realize that I've been here before, maybe ~7 years ago, during a Boy Scout expedition. There's a colonial-era house and an antique mill where we saw corn being ground. The muddy HAT path hooks around a historic site marker, climbs up a hill that's emulating a staircase, and doglegs back down to the other side of the mill. Then up again, even steeper now, past an official sign that gives the unnecessary advice "DISMOUNT AND WALK BICYCLES".

15

Finally our trail emerges into another meadow where we can hear voices tantalizingly near. It's a close encounter with the start/finish pavillion, but there's still a few miles to go out and back before the halfway point. At 3:11 on my watch I reach the unmanned aid station, ~13.7 miles I reckon. I'm slower than 15 minutes/mile for this segment, reasonable given the recent steepness. Another water refill, a couple of cookies, and I'm outta there.

RFP becomes my mantra: Relentless Forward Progress, a phrase I saw on someone's ultrarun web site. I vow that I'll stop taking the elevator at work and instead will use the stairs from now on. Another meadow, a road crossing, and then down into a valley. Horses have been here before me; I step cautiously around roadapples. Then up and out of the woods, along the street, and after a final climb it's back to the starting point. With 16 miles and 3 hours 48 minutes behind me, I sit down. The overall pace thus far has averaged 14:15, just about right for my condition and the ruggedness of the course. The fastest runners begin to finish the entire 50k HAT Run only minutes later, but in my self-absorption I don't even notice.

To avert chafing I slather a handful of petroleum jelly between thighs and (pardonnez mon anglais) on a mamelon that's starting to feel friction. Six minutes after I enter the pavillion --- now with fresh socks and clean shoes on my feet plus three more chunks of NaCl-encrusted boiled tuber in my belly --- it's time to start Lap Two. This time I know what to expect and that neutralizes most of the fatigue. A few minutes after the 4 hour mark it starts to rain, hard. I just grin and enjoy the cool wetness. Around mile 18 I pick up some paper trash from the trail, rare exceptions to the general cleanliness seen thus far. Then I find a candy bar in the mud, slightly battered but wrapper intact, and rescue it too.

20

My pace remains fairly steady, and the change of footwear seems to have reinvigorated the whole lower body. I begin to pass exhausted runners, one or two every few miles. The palatial central Aid Station arrives on schedule, mile ~20.5 at a minute before 5 hours on my watch. Official cut-off time is 3pm here, so I'm a full hour ahead of disgrace --- sweet! I pause to eat more salt-dipped potato hunks and then continue to make haste slowly.

At 5:15 I tell myself that I've been on the road longer than ever before, beyond the bounds of my slowest marathon though not yet as far. This segment is the one that includes the long downhill road. I'm not as frisky as I was on Lap One but still manage to alternate minutes of slow jogging and brisk walking. As for "Relentless Forward Progress", the word "Relentless" is redundant, I decide. For that matter, so is "Forward". My slogan becomes simply the imperative verb: Progress.

25

I pass Comrade Mark, and then he passes me in turn. We chat and encourage each other; he's suffering from lack of rest during recent days, but presses on via sheer guts. The mega Aid Station rematerializes at Mile 25 with 6 hours 2 minutes elapsed, again about an hour ahead of the cut-off. I snag a salted spud and move on with minimal delay, while Mark II pauses to refuel.

After another twenty minutes I see the old mill again, but this time I'm in new territory, beyond the 26.2 miles of my hitherto-longest jaunt. I am ultraman! My energy level goes up. As I stride past another runner I joke with her about my death-march strategy:

But I try to ignore that lazy logic and instead do my best to keep on trucking. Each minute that I jog now, I tell myself, will shave ~30 seconds off my finish time. My mental arithmetic is fuzzy but I estimate that 7 hours is impossible, 8 hours is trivial, and 7:30 just might barely be feasible. On a hill I pass a gentleman who seems to be thinking like I am; we urge one another along. Then it's past another couple at the crest of the ridge. He's suffering from late-race intestinal distress, and she's a lookout. I tell them my eyes are closed and jog on by.

30

For a couple of miles now I'm all alone, with just Pachelbel's Canon to listen to inside my skull. I step cautiously over a worm that writhes, unscathed, in the middle of the muddy path. Wouldn't it be a shame if, after surviving the passage of hundreds of earlier runners, it were squashed by my clumsy feet?

When I try to go too fast my calves begin to cramp, just slightly but enough to be a clear warning: "Watch it, buddy!" I slow to a roughly 50-50 walk-trot balance and they stop complaining. Three minutes before the 7 hour mark I arrive at the unmanned aid station, mile ~28.7 by my estimate. Excelsior!

The home stretch through the forest is pleasant as I keep to a moderate pace. My new friend reappears to race by me, but then begins to look tired. A belch echoes loudly in the woods; a lady whom we have just passed grins and denies responsibility. We all have a laugh together and attack the final mile.

New energy surfaces and I start jogging uphill. I get ahead of my buddy on the penultimate slope and clamber onward, ascend through a field of stubble to the road, and at last can see the race's endpoint. A crowd of earlier finishers and their friends sit by the final tiny hill and huzzah raucously as each straggler stumbles by. I make a valiant effort to keep jogging and they cheer --- but as my calves start to cramp again I slow and ask, "If I walk now, will you applaud longer?" "NO!" one of them shouts, "KEEP RUNNING!" I try, but with only temporary success.

31+

The goal line --- 7:33:17 on the official clock, for an overall average 14:35 minutes/mile and 302nd place. I accept my HAT Run finisher's cap and thank Phil Anderson who is there keeping track of everybody. A kind volunteer hands me a hot cup of delicious vegetarian chili. Racers whom I met along the way shake my hand and congratulate me on the result. In turn I applaud the runners who reach 50 km behind me, shake their hands, and salute them.

As I walk back to my car and prepare for the drive home, for the first time today the clouds part and the sun emerges. I salute it too.

Postscript

Before the 50k I rest for almost a week; likewise I take off some time thereafter to give imperceptible tears and bruises a chance to heal. By Thursday my legs feel healthy enough to venture out. But I soon discover on this rainy afternoon that I'm not yet recovered from the HAT lesson in muddy trail running. I feel:

  1. an aversion to looking at my watch;
  2. an utter contempt for hills; and
  3. an irrational urge to run through puddles.

I partially control #3.

(see also Bless The Leathernecks (28 Oct 2002), Rocky Run (17 Nov 2002), Forest Primeval Pedestrian (9 May 2003), Marathon In The Parks 2003 (11 Nov 2003), Washington Birthday Marathon 2004 (23 Feb 2004), ...)


- Friday, April 02, 2004 at 18:25:07 (EST)


Reset the Thermostat

My personal concern about hypertension dates back to ~1977 when a Caltech health center physician told me that I should keep an eye on my blood pressure, which was at that time marginally high. For a few years I lost some weight, exercised a bit, tried to relax more, and then stopped paying attention.

Around 2000 my doctor --- whom I greatly respect --- began to get concerned about those ugly systolic and diastolic readings again. She made me get a sphygmomanometer (what a word!) and gather data at home, in case the measurements at the office represented "white coat hypertension" provoked by nervousness in that environment.

As a quantitative analysis freak I was delighted to oblige. I made spreadsheets and graphs of the numbers to help her, along with N-day moving averages to smooth out some of the noise. This kept her happy for a few more years, until in early 2002 she put her foot down and gave me some antihypertensive medication to take. Those pills --- HCTZ, a cheap diuretic --- had unæsthetic side-effects and didn't really seem to do much toward reducing my blood pressure anyway. But the threat that they represented did succeed in tipping me over from a sedentary mode of existence to an order-of-magnitude more activist one: I went from less than 1 hour/week of bland exercise to ~20 miles/week of jogging and walking.

So beginning in mid-2002 I earned a reprieve from the meds. The doc felt that I was trying to do my part of the job, had no other major risk issues, and might as well continue the experiment in distance running. (I told her that it was also great fun, though that didn't seem to be a factor in her calculus.) But the ^z BP numbers just kept hanging a bit too high for her comfort. Last month she put her other foot down and prescribed a low dosage of an ACE inhibitor for me to take.

My simpleminded theory is that the body has a host of feedback loops going on constantly: little ones inside each cell that maintain a local balance of chemicals, and bigger ones that keep large-scale parameters like temperature and blood pressure in their proper zones. To quote from the product insert:

Lisinopril inhibits angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) in human subjects and animals. ACE is a peptidyl dipeptidase that catalyzes the conversion of angiotensin I to the vasoconstrictor substance, angiotensin II. Angiotensin II also stimulates aldosterone secretion by the adrenal cortex. The beneficial effects of lisinopril in hypertension and heart failure appear to result primarily from suppression of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system. Inhibition of ACE results in decreased plasma angiotensin II which leads to decreased vasopressor activity and to decreased aldosterone secretion.

That's technical language to describe, in brief, one way to adjust the blood pressure's metaphorical "thermostat". Other ways include adjustments to sodium intake, weight loss, exercise, personal stress management, and various biochemical tweaks. Everybody is different; what works for one may not work for another. But there are common themes. And one thermostat can affect another; changing blood pressure may influence heart activity, potassium levels, etc.

And in a parallel way, training in all forms turns a thermostat. The muscles adapt to meet new requirements; so do the brain, and the cardio-vascular system, and other parts of the body chemistry. As ultrarunner computer scientist Paul Amman once observed (see also Ultra Man, 8 May 2002):

Your body can handle all kinds of ridiculous stresses - but only if you give it plenty of time to adapt. Many people - including me, I admit - are impatient with running goals. And many people - including me again - are often sorry about that.

And in an infinitely more serious context, Z. A. Melzak notes in Chapter 6 ("Certain Effects of Time") of In Search Of The Fulcrum:

... the long-range Nazi policy of slow extermination rather than sudden destruction had an astounding secondary effect which ran completely counter to its intention. Simply, it gave us, or rather some of us, sufficient time in which to adapt progressively, to get tempered and annealed slowly, and to become inured gradually. And so we survived.

(see also Altered Native (24 Jan 2002), Ragged Runner, (23 Mar 2002), You Are Extraordinary (7 Jul 2002), True Names (16 Oct 2003), ... )


- Thursday, April 01, 2004 at 06:21:40 (EST)


Blissfully Oblivious

Profiles of celebrities are fun to read in high-class newspapers and magazines. These folks are so obviously blind to the fact that not everybody has fitness trainers, publicists, nannies, financial managers, shoppers, agents, legal consultants, stylists, bodyguards, maids, ...

But of course, I likewise am prone to ignore the truth that not everyone has a house, a family, a decent job, plenty of food, reasonably good health care, nearby libraries, a chance to get a fine education, the freedom to say pretty much whatever they want to say, ...


- Wednesday, March 31, 2004 at 06:07:03 (EST)


Width Illusions

An observation that confronted me recently: when driving on a bridge that passes above the Capital Beltway, that eight lane thoroughfare seems far narrower than when one is on the Beltway itself (or when one is driving beneath the highway through an underpass.) Why?

When it happened to me in an unfamiliar neighborhood I actually couldn't believe, at first, that the road I was crossing above was a major interstate highway. It seemed somehow 50% too small, like a scale model. I don't think the problem is explained by simple masking, the edge effects caused by the bridge's abutments.

Could this be related in some way to the "rising moon" illusion? Or to the false size difference that appears when two arcs are nested one above the other? I'm mystified ...


- Tuesday, March 30, 2004 at 06:13:10 (EST)


Point Counts

Sometimes it helps to be a little quantitative. The standard point count system in the card game Bridge is an excellent example: to evaluate a hand, award 4 points per ace, 3 per king, 2 per queen, and 1 per jack. Then add 3 for a void (no cards in a suit), 2 for a singleton, and 1 for a doubleton. Some further slight adjustments and you've got a number between 0 and 40 that tells you, quite accurately, how strong your cards are and how to bid them optimally.

Likewise in chess: count a pawn as 1, a knight or a bishop as 3, a rook as 5, and a queen as 9. Some further slight adjustments and you've got a good estimate of your material advantage or deficit. It's a fine way to decide whether to trade off pieces and head for a won ending, versus duking it out in a tactical middlegame brawl.

I've invented a few point count systems of my own for office use. On the male fashion front, give yourself 1 for a professional-looking shirt with a collar, 3 for dressy slacks, 5 for cufflinks, 7 for a tie, 9 for a suit coat, and 11 for a vest. (Subtract 10 for blue jeans and 20 for wearing a t-shirt; double those penalties if the garments are torn or feature commercial logos or impolite textual messages.) Normalize the score by seeing what your colleagues wear. Clothe yourself a few points higher if you need to meet with senior levels of management or bigwig customers. Feel free to dress down by a factor of 2 on a casual Friday.

For an annual performance appraisal in a paper-driven bureaucratic environment, claim 1 point for each short newsy publication, 3 per mid-size research memorandum, 5 for a high-level briefing, and 7 when you get a major paper through the review process. If you earn 20 honest points in a year you're doing all right; more, and you may deserve a promotion.

And for an online journal, award 1 point for ...


- Monday, March 29, 2004 at 18:39:53 (EST)


Three March Runs

For the past 10 days "rest" has been my main training activity, in preparation for today's 50k (31+ miler) --- the first venture I've attempted into real trail running and into distances beyond the 26.2 miles of a marathon. Brief notes, adapted from my posts to Brian Tresp's running blog [1]:

Slow "Speed" Work

(Thursday 18 March) 4+ miles, 44 minutes --- including a blazing 8:13 (!) middle mile along Rock Creek Trail (between the 2.25 and 1.25 mile marks). Since at the last minute I made it into the HAT Run (#398 of 400!) my mission for the next 10 days is to avoid injury, get plenty of rest, ready my mind, and perhaps do the MCRRC 10k on Saturday at a comfortable pace with Comrade Ken ...

Today itís pleasantly cool, with a light late-afternoon drizzle ... emergent crocuses ... soccer teams practicing on Rayís Meadow Park fields ... and the Authorities have done some excellent work on the initial segment of the Georgetown Branch Trail, miles ~0.4-0.8: good grading, additional gravel, and well-packed grit to replace the corrugated mud-ruts which heretofore have occupied that zone.

10k at Seneca Creek

(Saturday 20 March) MCCC [2] buddy Ken jogged the MCRRC [3] ""Piece of Cake" 10k this morning with me at a comfortable ~11 minutes/mile pace, finishing in ~68 minutes ... near-perfect weather ... ducks on the lake, geese by the road, and a turkey vulture eyeing us hopefully from above ... welcome orange slices at mile 4 ... plus friendly fellow runners, including some amazingly fast ones ... and plenty of good munchies at the end of the race.

I had marshalled my excuses beforehand: incipient head cold, twisted ankle on Thursday night, stiff knee, wet gloves, generalized malaise, new hypertension meds, desperate need to rest up before the HAT Run, etc., etc. --- but KS didnít let me get away with any of that! Our splits for the first 5 miles were 10:21, 10:36, 11:23, 11:13, 11:13 ... then Ken picked up the pace for the final 1.214 mile home stretch. Felt good!

HAT Run

(Saturday 27 March) My first ultra today: 7h34m finish for the 50k HAT Run [4] in Susquehanna State Park, northern Maryland. HAT = "Hinte-Anderson Trail", named for the organizers of the race; prizes include nice hats. Food and services were excellent, participants were friendly and helpful, and the course was hilly and challenging with many stream crossings plus considerable mud from rains that fell before and during the event.

Detailed report to follow in a few days ...


- Saturday, March 27, 2004 at 21:11:09 (EST)


Thy Name in Vain

A current US Supreme Court case highlights a fascinating debate. The topic? A pair of words in the "Pledge of Allegiance".

The Pledge itself is quite fascinating: it's a mindless 10-second exercise in pious recitation, most of the time, as performed by schoolchildren in front of an American flag. But the content of the Pledge is rich, both in history and philosophy. The 31 words:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Hidden in there are all sorts of assumptions and tacit political theories, doubtless well-intentioned by their authors. A full analysis is far beyond my poor powers, though I must pause to doff my hat and salute that concluding clause --- such a noble goal for a people to to pursue! (Reputedly the original 1892 Pledge by Francis Bellamy almost included the word "equality", but the author sensed that that might be too radical a suggestion and dropped it.)

The fracas today is about two earlier words: "under God", added by Congress in 1954. In their genius the Framers of the US Constitution meticulously avoided mixing government and God; the word nowhere appears in that fundamental document, and in fact the very first of the amendments approved with the original Constitution draws a heavy line forbidding any official religion or favoritism toward a faith. Thus a major argument against saying "under God" is that it violates that separation of Church and State.

Yet a strong majority of people in the United States profess at least some belief in a deity. Many of the early settlers came in search of freedom to practice their religion. A mention of a supreme being, Pledge defenders contend, simply recognizes those historic facts and is a harmless nod in the direction of a shared national concept. They postulate that nowadays the words are said by rote, and shouldn't be considered a religious statement at all.

But there's a third position, one which is often overlooked but which a few parties to the current Supreme Court proceedings are undertaking to present. A reference to God in the Pledge is not, they contend, too perfunctory to fret about. Quite the opposite: the name of God is, and should be, of ultimate importance. To use it in a trivializing context is sacrilege.

President Theodore Roosevelt felt the same way about the motto "In God We Trust" on US coinage. Teddy saw it as blasphemy, a lowering of the Deity to the level of a slogan put onto crude instruments of commerce. The Congress overruled him.

Naughty language is something I try to avoid in conversation and in writing. Some of that is by longstanding habit, and some follows from deliberate comic intent, a faux Victorian style that I like to assume in order to entertain. But most of this stylistic nicety comes from a sincere desire to maintain a high standard of polite, civilized discourse --- and to reserve strong words for when they're truly needed, not to dilute their power by tossing them in like punctuation.

And if that restraint is important to practice for sexual or scatological terminology, how much more critical is it to preserve a word for the most serious, infinitely important concepts in life --- the name for the foundation of being itself?

Some things go without saying ...

(see also Fair For All (28 Nov 1999), On Delegation (17 Oct 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Independence Day (4 Jul 2001), Cardinal Newman (4 Oct 2001), Bearing Witness (17 Jan 2002), For Great Justice (1 Dec 2002), Improving My Mind (22 Jun 2003), ... )


- Friday, March 26, 2004 at 05:49:13 (EST)


Marvin Minsky Speaks

For almost 20 years I've been carrying around pages 104-118 of an Esther Dyson newsletter labeled, at the bottom of each sheet, "The 1985 Personal Computer Forum". It's a transcript of an after-dinner speech by MIT professor Marvin Minsky titled simply Artificial Intelligence. Much of the content appeared, in a different form, as the afterword to an early edition of Vernor Vinge's short science-fiction novel True Names. Parts occur in Minsky's Society of Mind. Half a dozen other fragments that I want to remember:

 . . .
I've heard people explaining from time to time that there really wasn't any such thing, that artificial intelligence was just programs. And they were right, of course, because everything is just programs. That's called "nothing buttery." A program is nothing but a sequence of instructions, and a living thing is nothing but a bunch of atoms with various chemical bonds, and a machine is nothing but parts, and so forth. And that's a very important idea. People who don't believe that eventually get into very serious trouble, because then they end up believing that something comes from nowhere.
 . . .
Have you ever had lunch with a writer and asked them how they write? They're always fidgety and embarrassed. Isaac Asimov is the master of this. He says that you sit in front of the typewriter and move your fingers. He's willing to face the whole mystery of that in its completeness and not pretend to know what to do.
 . . .
You see, you can be skeptical of artificial intelligence because it doesn't write Beethoven quartets. But the real reason to be skeptical of artificial intelligence is that it doesn't know how to eat with a fork or chopsticks, or dress itself, or walk across the room. ... [N]obody has the foggiest idea, really, of how that stuff is programmed.
 . . .
Anything you learned so long ago that you don't remember learning it seems obvious. It's the principle of amnesia, as I call it. Most of the things we do are things we learned before we were five or six; we can't remember them.
 . . .
[C]onsciousness is like a door itself, between two big rooms full of hardware that you don't understand at all. On that side of the door is the real world ... on the other side is all of the machinery in your head, which works the same way. And the conscioiusness is just as thin as the screen on that CRT ... You have this thin veneer of consciousness representing your current goals and attitudes toward things.
 . . .
What happens if you have a goal? You make subgoals. And if you have a subgoal you make subgoals for that. None of these are understood. They're all buried in what I call management. The number of pieces of brain that actually do anything like move your finger is very small. You'd be surprised at the number of people who think that the gift of playing the piano is in your hands. That's a joke. The hands are just I/O devices, and there's no difference between the nerves and muscles of a pianist and anyone else, except that pianists are stronger, you can believe. Never get into a fight with a pianist. They have terribly powerful arms.
 . . .

(see also Mean Meaners (3 Jul 1999), Bits Of Consciousness (21 Jan 2000), Vernor Vinge (17 Sep 2001), ... )


- Thursday, March 25, 2004 at 06:18:40 (EST)


Freshwater Forgiveness

People love to gripe. Complaining is a great way to blow off steam, though most of the time it doesn't really improve a situation. We all know that, but we still can't help but find fault, loud and long, with things (and other individuals) whom we don't like. It's just so much fun to nag and criticize!

Fish, in contrast, are extraordinarily good at enduring: moving on, ignoring past problems, and permitting bygones to become truly gone. They're natural masters of the "let it flow" riverine philosophy.

This suggests a new proverb:

      To carp is human;
      To bear, piscine.

(This attempt to play upon Alexander Pope's "To err is human; to forgive, divine" comes close, but doesn't quite "close the loop" ... it would be nicer if there were some other animal-word(s) that could serve to pun on the theme of emotions, and that involved fish, ursines, etc.; and on a slightly more serious note see also Scathing Remarks (5 Jul 1999), ... )


- Wednesday, March 24, 2004 at 05:56:04 (EST)


Sheep May Safely Graze

The universe of the video game or action-adventure movie is undeniably exciting to visit. But think for a moment and it's obvious: such a set-up in the real world wouldn't be able to sustain most of the things that most of us cherish the most --- home, family, health, peace, learning, freedom, and so forth. If mayhem were an everyday affair how could anybody save and invest? Who would grow food only to see it seized or squandered? Where would water come from, much less electricity and microprocessors? Who would teach the children, or care for the aged?

Yeah, a society of sheep sounds pretty dull. Protection against predators is often expensive. It's not as much fun to sit in rows and columns as it is to run wild, empty the cookie jar, and set fires. But if you want to sustain a thoughtful, prosperous, civilized way of life for more than a generation ...

(see also Big Secret Of Prosperity (14 Mar 2004), ... )


- Tuesday, March 23, 2004 at 06:29:34 (EST)


Diet of Bangs

A personal quirk that I must struggle to keep under control: my propensity to over-use exclamation marks! Sure, on occasion they're appropriate, especially to show excitement, surprise, emphasis, strong emotion, or simply a loud noise (bang!). But must I employ exclams on a majority of Zhurnal Wiki pages, as a quick survey suggests I have done? (At the start of a line "!!", "!!!", etc. are a wiki syntactic cue to format an HTML header --- but that doesn't explain most of the observed instances!)

I need to cut back!!!

(see also My Affectations (19 Jan 2003), Netfree Programming (21 Oct 2003), ... )


- Monday, March 22, 2004 at 06:09:39 (EST)


Weight of Evidence

Human beings are by nature quite incompetent when it comes to statistics. Until recent millennia we haven't really needed to be good at more than crude estimation of probabilities and correlations --- hence the growth of the gambling (aka "gaming") industry. Gut feel is particularly unreliable when a situation touches upon one of our cherished beliefs. Beware, for instance, attempts to explore the connections among guns and violence, or the relative risks of tobacco when smoked versus chewed, or the chances of getting into an accident in a monster SUV versus a smaller but more agile vehicle, or the impact of human activities on climate, or the hazards of various forms of electricity generation ... or any of the infinitely delicate issues surrounding group averages of almost all parameters when viewed along dimensions of race, sex, religion, nationality, age, political alignment, etc. There's a reason that civilization needs actuaries and statisticians.

Evidence is a particularly slippery but important concept. What it really means is conditional probability. How much does knowing one fact change the chances of another fact being true? That, in a nutshell, is evidence. There are solid mathematical methods to analyze and add up evidence. The application of those methods is straightforward but nonobvious. The inputs to those methods are subject to debate in any particular case. But like gravitation, the math works whether we want it to or not.

This all came to mind again recently when an otherwise-highly-intelligent person was ranting against a particular anti-terrorist proposal. (The details aren't important; it was some complicated procedural-technical notion that's unlikely to ever see the daylight of actual implementation.) The argument was doubtless well-intentioned, but it flouted the simple truth that evidence --- even when noisy, inconclusive, and fragmentary --- still provides clues that can improve judgments in crisis situations.

It's ok to refuse to consider a suggestion because it's disgusting, or inhumane, or unæsthetic, or too expensive. But it's stupid (or disingenuous) to close one's eyes to information that can help increase the odds of making good decisions, even when that information is incomplete and unreliable.

(see also Webs Of Evidence (15 Feb 2000), Picky About Facts (11 Mar 2003), Absence Of Evidence (17 Mar 2003), ...)


- Sunday, March 21, 2004 at 10:39:25 (EST)


Undead Traffic Incident

Yesterday afternoon my ears pricked up when I heard the rush-hour radio announcer's deadpan remark, "The Outer Loop is jammed because of a vampire on the Beltway near Route 66."

Unusual for one of Them to be out and about in broad daylight, no? Then the rusty metalinguistic reprocessor kicked in and I belatedly parsed van fire as it should have been understood. Reminds me of a comrade's comment that one way to confuse a lip-reader is to say, out-of-context, "olive juice" --- which to the eye looks like "I love you" ...

(see also Semiotic Arsenal (20 Nov 2003), ... )


- Saturday, March 20, 2004 at 14:11:40 (EST)



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