^zhurnal v.0.40

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.40 of the ^zhurnal — see ZhurnalyWiki on zhurnaly.com for a parallel "live" Wiki edition; see Zhurnal and Zhurnaly for quick clues as to what this is all about. (Briefly: it's the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann ... previous volume = 0.39 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com" ... tnx!)

Medallic Memories

Against all my expectations, during the past two years I've managed to stagger across the finish lines of four marathons. They've each been successively slower and in various ways successively more fun. Besides a sunburned pate plus purple toenails I brought home finisher's medals which now hang from my bedpost. When I bump them they clinkety-clank like wind chimes on steroids:

And then there was a single ultramarathon that, instead of a metallic residue, yielded a technical running shirt and two hats:

(click on the image for a half-megabyte detailed scan; and see also Welcome To The Club (11 Jun 2003), ... )

- Sunday, August 22, 2004 at 05:07:24 (EDT)

Chunky Conceptualization

To learn Morse code, you begin by hearing letters as combinations of dits and dahs, short and long tones. A is di-dah, Z is dah-dah-di-dit, and so forth.

But to go faster than a few words per minute you've gotta stop consciously listening to individual units of sound and start hearing each letter as a single entity. And then, to move on to real fluency, you must give up separate letters and start perceiving larger units of meaning: THE, YOU, AND, the -TION ending, etc.

That progression to bigger and bigger chunks is obvious in a learned skill like the radiotelegraph code, or in constructed artifacts such as hotels (repeated rooms, made of repeated bricks, ...), electronic circuits (boards, chips, devices, ...), and computer programs (subroutines, functions, blocks, ...). Hierarchical chunking is equally vital but far less visible in a host of other contexts: living biological systems, language, art, mathematics, thought, ...

(see also Mental Bandwidth Boosters (26 Jun 1999), Encapsulation And Trust (25 Jul 1999), Exposure And Encapsulation (7 Jan 2000), Family Hierarchies (21 May 2000), Molybde Numbed (10 Jan 2001), ... )

- Saturday, August 21, 2004 at 05:26:42 (EDT)

Gorilla Philosopher

One of my all-time favorite Far Side cartoons (by Gary Larson) depicts two great apes lounging under a tree and feasting upon bananas. One of them muses:
"You know, Sid, I really like bananas . . . I mean, I know that's not profound or nothin' . . . Heck! We ALL do . . . But for me, I think it goes much more beyond that."

- Friday, August 20, 2004 at 05:10:49 (EDT)

Thunderbolts Home and Away

There's an invisible force-field of calm around a ballpark --- an aura of mindfulness and peace. At least, that's how I feel when I settle down to watch a local amateur baseball game. The season is over now for my neighborhood Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts [1]. A wrap-up report on the final five games that I witnessed follows, with excerpts from Ed Sharp's splendid official commentary (indented, in italics) ...

25 July 2004: Tbolts 4, Herndon 1

The field is muddy and the stands are wet on this cloudy Sunday evening after a day of sprinkles. I donate veggie-dogs to the Tbolt snack bar where a kind volunteer grills them for me to buy back --- a feast well worth it. Pitching the first six innings for the Herndon Braves is J. J. Hollenbeck, a brilliant hurler who strikes out eight but gets off to a rocky start as Mike Epping strokes a smooth three-run homer over the right field fence in the bottom of the first. Tbolt shortstop Matt Capece is central to double plays in both the first and eighth innings.

The win brings the Thunderbolts season record to 21-14, and moves them to 2.5 games behind the Braves for second place. The top two teams in the league meet in a best of five championship series in the first week of August.

28 July: Tbolts 5, Bethesda 1

Hard rains for the past two days relocate this game to Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda, a venue that I haven't visited since two years ago (see Summer Ball 2002). A phone call from Ed Sharp alerts me to the last-minute change. I arrive early and sit with a small group of Tbolt fans near third base. The groundskeeper sprays home plate with white paint, then goes to the pitcher's mound and likewise pigments the rubber. A tiny tractor drags a rake around the basepaths, followed by human touch-up with shovel and bucket. The Big Train field is first-class. And once the game begins another delightful undocumented feature of the ballpark emerges: the rifle-crack echo from the center field fence that comes back to me two-thirds of a second after wooden bat contacts ball. Lovely! Alas, swampy conditions have raised a crop of mosquitoes of fearsome proportions --- but even they can't perturb me tonight.

The game is a good one, with Tbolt pitcher Adam Mills completing eight strong innings, helped by excellent fielding. SS-T hitters marshall their forces most strongly in the fifth when they bat completely around the lineup and score four runs on three singles plus three walks and a hit batsman. Two teenagers behind me in the stands are themselves baseball players and add value with their color commentary. Bethesda left fielder Ben Grisham is the son of the author John Grisham, one of the boys says over my shoulder; he offers to lend some of the father's books to the other. Good to be literary-minded --- but some further research suggests that the two Grishams aren't actually so closely related.

And in another near-miss:

Mike Epping (TCU) hit a double in the 3rd that struck the piping on the top of the right field fence, missing a home run by a few inches.

29 July: Tbolts 7, Baltimore 3

A monster gibbous moon rises behind center field in mid-game tonight. The Baltimore Pride is a bit tired, having won a make-up game earlier in the afternoon here against Bethesda, 3-1. I arrive in the ninth inning of that contest to find the bases loaded and the Big Train threatening a sudden comeback ... but Baltimore escapes, deservedly so. Comrade Steve joins me at the game, and we share anecdotes and munchies.

Baltimore fielding is excellent: diving catches in the sixth and eighth innings snag near-certain hits. Unfortunately for the Pride their pitching is less successful. Ed Sharp describes it:

After plating single runs in the 1st and 3rd, for the second straight game the Thunderbolts brought 10 batters to the plate in an inning, scoring 5 runs on 2 hits and 5 walks in the 6th.

31 July: Herndon 15, Tbolts 4 ... Tbolts 2, Herndon 1

I venture far afield this hot Saturday afternoon, to Herndon High School stadium, GPS coordinates 38:59:16N 077:22:30W, where the first session of a double-header turns into a rout after a three-run first-inning Tbolt lead evaporates in the summer air. The Braves score run after run, including three strong homers over the left-field fence. Herndon centerfielder Brandon Bowser, batting in the fifth inning, is hit on the left wrist by a stray fastball. I find him behind the stands after the first game and give him a couple of packets of ibuprofen, along with my sympathies. (Fortunately he's in good enough shape to play in the second game.)

In stark contrast to the Tbolts' ordeal from 4-6:30pm, the evening brings cooler temperatures and an entirely different state of affairs. After the first two pitches the home plate umpire throws a Silver Spring staffer out of the game for his too-audible critique of the ump's judgment. (The dugout is quieter after that.) Little girls climb up and down on the bleachers as their mother power-walks around the adjacent track and pauses every lap to admonish them to stay put. A foul ball almost bops one of the girls on the head; she's protected at the last moment by a man (her father?) who holds out his hand to block it. Jets cruise by overhead on their final approach pattern to nearby Dulles International Airport. Cumulo-nimbus clouds develop and drift northwards in the distance, and later in the evening produce a distant flicker of lightning. At about 9:15pm fireworks are visible low in the east.

J. J. Hollenbeck, the losing Herndon pitcher, achieves an astounding feat: in 9 innings he throws 18 strikeouts, precisely two in every inning. He yields only one base-on-balls, and when he leaves the game in the 10th with the score tied 1-1 everyone in the stands, on both sides, gives him a strong round of applause. Sadly for him, however, Thunderbolt Corey Greene manages to score a critical run that inning after he hits a single and is advanced around the bases by his teammates.

There are some heated discussions at home plate late in the game, as Ed summarizes:

The tenth inning was punctuated by Thunderbolts protests of two separate umpire's rulings on consecutive plays which delayed the game for over 20 minutes. The first was after Mickey Shupin (GW) was called out for runner's interference while crossing first base after laying down a sacrifice bunt to move Andrew and Corey Greene up to second and third respectively. On the very next play, when Capece's ground rule double bounced over the short center field wall, the umpire ruled that Andrew Greene, who had passed second base before the ball left the playing field, would have to stop at third base. In the end the rulings didn't matter when James Belt retired the side in order in the bottom of the tenth.

The Tbolt's 2004 season ended on the next day when they were mathematically eliminated from the Clark Griffith League playoffs. They finished the season in third place.

(see also Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), Third Place (7 Nov 2002), Quiescent Thunderbolts (10 Jun 2004), Official Scorekeeper (3 Jul 2004), Rained Out (24 Jul 2004), ... )

- Thursday, August 19, 2004 at 05:50:52 (EDT)

As If So Many Minutes

"Morris the Explainer" is the name my wife gives to the character, prominent in many poorly-written movies or novels, whose job it is to insert background information (thinly disguised as dialogue) into the story. And "Mark the Explainer" is one of my dominant personæ --- pretty obviously, given the half-million or so words piled up in ^zhurnal posts here during the past half-decade, eh?

Running comrade Steve (aka "Coach") wants to do the Tussey Mountainback [1] fifty miler with me this autumn. Steve is fast, an experienced marathoner, in far better shape than I am. He swears, however, that he'll stick with me no matter how slowly I go. I figure that if (a big "if") I can survive the distance it will take me ~13 hours.

So what should I do when I feel a need for more "personal space" in the middle of the Pennsylvania woods? Or suppose I get bored and wish that time would fly more quickly? My Secret Plan, as I've already told Steve, is to explain Hawking radiation and information theory to him. That will require some background lectures on quantum mechanics and general relativity, of course, to set the stage. (My understanding of these topics is rather chaotic, but that won't stop me.)

The hours will pass as if they were as many minutes --- for me, that is. From a listener's perspective the effect will be reversed ...

(see also Technical Minded (18 Jul 2003), Hat Run 2004 (2 Apr 2004), ... )

- Tuesday, August 17, 2004 at 19:50:06 (EDT)


A big part of the economy can be summarized by the mantra Gather/Scatter. Fish are found in countless locations around the seas; ores are dispersed in the earth's crust; crops grow in huge fields; animals graze or hunt widely. Each must be located, collected, processed, concentrated --- gathered --- and then distributed to those who need them --- scattered. Hence, the rail lines converging on big cities, and even more visibly the trucks lined up at the unloading docks behind a supermarket while the customers' cars are lined up in front.

Likewise in life, as ideas coalesce in an individual's mind, interact, and then fan out to be shared with other minds.

Hmmm ... in a way it resembles an implosion-design nuclear bomb, with fissionable materials compressed to supercritical densities so they can react and release energy in the resultant detonation ...

(see also Tiffin Wallah (14 Jan 2004), Merit Scholarships (10 Feb 2004), ...)

- Monday, August 16, 2004 at 05:36:53 (EDT)

Send in the Clones

Rob Pegoraro, a Washington Post technology columnist, offers an analogy for the current Microsoft Windows security, or rather the lack thereof:
To get an idea of how Windows got to be such a mess, think of it as a house that was built on an island in the middle of a lake, deep in the countryside. Because you're so isolated, you don't need to worry about keeping strangers out --- your security rests on being physically separate from the rest of the world. So it doesn't matter that the windows can only be latched shut with great difficulty, that locks were picked to match the decor (no ugly deadbolts here!) and there's an extra key hidden under the doormat. Now take that house and move it into the city. ...

This is in the context of multi-page horror stories in the 15 August 2004 Post business section re Windows worms, viruses, trojan horses, etc. Various authors describe how they spent dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars in attempting to recover from catastrophe. They struggle to install firewalls, anti-virus software, operating system patches, and the like. Strangely enough, the blazingly obvious solution to their woes is only alluded to briefly, in a sentence or two buried at the end of a few of the articles.

Mr. Pegoraro and colleagues have overlooked the root of the problem. Consider a far more apropos metaphor:

Imagine a future in which your mind can be downloaded into the physical body --- aka "bOD" --- of your choice. After a couple of decades more than 95% of the population has gravitated to a single company's product line, opting for various models: the Pitt, the Lopez, the Kucher, the Oprah, the Elvis, the Lakshmi, etc.
All of these bODs run customized versions of the same underlying immune system, developed at great expense by genius biochemical engineers and optimized for disease prevention and cross-bOD histocompatibility. Any bOD can accept blood transfusions and tissue transplants from any other bOD. Medical treatment of a bOD is precise and efficient, since all bOD physiological parameters are identical, as are all responses to drugs and other therapies.
But scalawags and ne'er-do-wells, as well as criminals and mass-market advertisers, have found flaws in the bOD immune system. Every day new infections appear and, of course, spread with exponential speed throughout the population of bODs. An industry arises to provide countermeasures, and bOD owners find themselves stopping by the local doc-in-a-box on a weekly basis in order to get the latest vaccination shots, prophylactic upgrades, and T-cell service packs installed. It's a never-ending race, at ever-increasing expense.

Meanwhile, the few percent of the population who haven't signed up for monoclonal status ...

(see also Cut The Volume (5 Mar 2004), Gaming The System (17 May 2004), ... )

- Sunday, August 15, 2004 at 11:22:42 (EDT)

Glorm Bulb Sorting

Galactic Odyssey by Keith Laumer is an enjoyable sf adventure story that includes a number of memorable ideas. My favorite appears in Chapter Nine when the protagonist, captured by alien slavers, gets put to work sorting apparently-identical glowing spheres into categories. He's strapped into an electricified training harness next to the conveyor belt, and then:
... A bulb came toward me and a sensation like a hot needle stabbed the middle finger on my right hand. I punched the key under it and the pain stopped, but there was another bulb coming, and the needle stabbed my little finger this time, and I jabbed with it, and there was another bulb coming. . . .
"It's a surefire teaching system," Fsha-fsha said in his cheery, sub-cellar voice. "Your hands learn to sort without even bringing the forebrain into it. You can't beat pain-association for fast results."
For the rest of the shift, I watched glorm-bulbs sail at me, trying to second-guess the pain circuits that were activated by Fsha-fsha's selections. All I had to do was recognize a left-forefinger or right ring-finger bulb before he did, and punch the key first. By the end of the first hour my hands ached like unlanced boils. By the second hour, my arms were numb to the elbow. At the end of three hours I was throbbing all over.
"You did fine," Fsha-fsha told me when the gong rang that meant the shift was ended. "Old Hruba knew what he was doing when he assigned you here. You're a quick study. You were coding ten percent above random the last few minutes."

That's typical Laumerian understatement, tongue-in-cheek humor with a twist of philosophy. After a rest Our Hero returns to the sorting line:

The training sessions got worse for the next three shifts; then I started to catch on --- or my eye and fingers did; I still couldn't consciously tell one glorm-bulb from another. By the time I'd been at it for six weeks, I was as good as Fsha-fsha. I was promoted to a bulb-line of my own, and the harness went back in the locker.
The Sorting training, as it turned out, didn't only apply to glorm-bulbs. One day the line appeared with what looked like tangles of colored spaghetti riding on it.
"Watch," Fsha-fsha said, and I followed through as he sorted them into six categories. Then I tried it, without much luck.
"You have to key-in your response patterns," he said. "Tie this one . . ." he flipped his sorting key, " . . . to one of your learned circuits. And this one . . ." he coded another gob of wires, " . . . to another. . . ."
I didn't really understand all that, but I tried making analogies to my subliminal distinctions among apparently identical glorm-bulbs --- and it worked. After that, I sorted all kinds of things, and found that after a single run-through, I could pick them out unerringly.
"You've trained a new section of your brain," Fsha-fsha said. "And it isn't just a Sorting line where this works; you can use it on any kind of categorical analysis."

And of course, this new mental power comes in quite handy at a critical juncture many pages later --- just as, in Real Life, it's valuable to learn how to walk, talk, and do a variety of other activities at a non-conscious level ...

(see Free Library (29 May 2003), Awesome Prowess (17 Jul 2003), ... )

- Saturday, August 14, 2004 at 05:00:45 (EDT)

Beating Expectations

Economists used to argue that inflation (increases in the money supply, and the consequent rise in general price levels) helped to stimulate the economy. But then it became clear that what really worked was strictly unanticipated inflation. If everybody realized that prices would be 10% higher next year, they would allow for it in contracts, lending, purchases, plans, etc. --- and so there was no stimulative effect.

In order to goose things, therefore, the inflation rate had to accelerate. Then when folks got used to planning for that, the rate of acceleration itself had to accelerate ... and so forth, ramping up higher and higher derivatives --- until the system broke down completely. Likewise, during the dot-com bubble quarterly corporate earnings had to exceed so-called "analyst" predictions ... and then those predictions rose, at an accelerating pace, etc., etc., as above.

The lessons to be learned? Some simple, old clichés are still true. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." And "No tree ever grows to the sky."

(see also The Cancer Ideology (19 May 1999), Money Wisdom (20 May 2001), Pop Goes (19 Jun 2001), Bubble Busters (6 Feb 2002), ... )

- Friday, August 13, 2004 at 05:43:10 (EDT)

Man of Mystery

An early edition of the fantasy-role-playing card game Magic: The Gathering included an amusing character, the Grey Ogre who "... believed the purpose of life was to live as high on the food chain as possible. She refused to eat vegetarians preferring to live entirely on creatures that preyed on sentient beings."

Colin McGinn is, however, a vegetarian. He's also a recovering video-game addict, a surf kayaker, a science-fiction fan, and a professor of philosophy. In The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World McGinn aims a blowtorch at his fellow thinkers who try to explain how brains work. CMcG is a Mysterian who contends that (for humans) mind is by nature incomprehensible, and always will be.

Of course, I disagree with almost every major thesis in McGinn's book. Nonetheless I found Mysterious Flame delightful to read, uniformly well-written, and chock-a-block full of fallacious arguments which led me to think through and sharpen many of my own too-fuzzy beliefs. A few of the neural firing patterns that arose in my hypermaterialistic brain circuitry:

My bottom line: minds arise from objects and the reliable patterns of (patterns of (...)) their interactions. Nowadays, brains are the most obvious hosts for minds because brains support more complex yet reliable interactions per unit of time than do other substrates. Different hosts for minds can (and do, and will) exist.

(see also Mean Meaners (3 Jul 1999), The Mysterians (2 Aug 1999), Bits Of Consciousness (21 Jan 2000), Most Important (16 May 2002), Freedom Evolves (3 Jul 2003), Colin McGinn (30 Oct 2003), Diary Benefits (29 Feb 2004), ... )

- Thursday, August 12, 2004 at 05:30:32 (EDT)

Organizational Inertia

The point of a bureaucracy? It's not creativity, innovation, or rapid response to unanticipated events --- even though pundits fill countless column-inches with criticism of bureaucracies for failing to do precisely those things.

No, bureaucracy is the social invention par excellance for inertia --- the reliable, consistent handling of routine, predictable, mundane, yet important tasks. Do you really want your local sewage plant to be run by state-of-the-art teenage überhackers? Would you trust a crack team of theoretical astrophysicists to build and maintain the national tax collection infrastructure? How about hiring quick-reacting race car drivers to manage the air traffic control system?

Doubtless there would be much more excitement in life with such changes, and perhaps the application of genius to societal challenges would produce some astoundingly clever answers. But there's also the likelihood of abrupt, catastophic failure --- as well as irresponsibility when brilliant people get bored with doing the necessary but unexciting parts of the job ...

(see also By Design (28 Aug 1999), One Per Score (6 Feb 2000), Bureaucratic Immune System (9 Aug 2000), Weight Of Office (30 Nov 2000), Why So Bad (20 Oct 2002), Being There (21 Mar 2003), ... )

- Wednesday, August 11, 2004 at 06:04:49 (EDT)

Robert Frost Trail

Dateline Amherst Massachusetts --- Paulette [1] and I are here for a week, to pick up daughter Gray [2] from summer music camp. It's also time to start getting into a semblance of shape, since I've deluded myself into signing up for some long runs this fall. So I jog laps at the local high school track and then venture farther afield, through the forests and over the hills within half a dozen miles of town.

I pursue the elusive Robert Frost Trail (RFT) which "...was conceived in 1982 as a way to link many of the Amherst conservation areas with one grand route ... and now stretches more than 40 miles from the Holyoke Range north to Mt. Toby and then northeast ...", according to a guide published by the Kestrel Trust and the Amherst Area Trails Committee. My explorations include segments of the RFT mainly to the east and north of town. Unfortunately, for me the pathway at times should be called the "Robert Lost Trail" --- since I get confused and off course rather too often, even aided by a GPS unit. Commentary plus coordinate pairs follow ...

Eight Eight-eighties

(4 Aug 2004) - 6+ miles, 70 minutes --- it's already somewhat warm and humid this morning, so instead of a trail jog I try "speedwork" exactly as on 3 July (see Round And Rounder). Across the street from the graveyard where Emily Dickinson is buried the Amherst High School has a fancy track with an enjoyably resilient bumpy brown surface. The sun peeks through hazy clouds along the straightaway to the finish line, as a few other joggers circle with me and hammering sounds from local construction echo across the open fields. The average time for my 8 half-mile intervals is 3:55 (min 3:47, max 3:59). Between each I drink and walk a lap (~4 minutes) to recover. A small blister develops on the second toe of my left foot --- ouch!

Robert Frost Trail (north)

(5 Aug) - 12 miles, 150 minutes --- A passing front brings rain overnight and blessedly lower temperatures. From the motel in downtown Amherst I set out northwards at 7am in light drizzle, jogging along East Pleasant Street for ~2 miles until the avenue ends near the Mill River Conservation Area. The lanes here are winding and I don't see any indications of the RFT, but a crude tourist's map and some anecdotal web pages suggest that it must be nearby. I find a path and follow it into the piney forest. It leads to Puffer's Pond, which perhaps should be called Toker's Pond given its seclusion and proximity to the University of Massachusetts. I circle the water and voila! --- there's the RFT (42:25:13N 072:30:57W).

Now which way to go? My plan is to follow the trail east and south, then return along Pelham Road. But of course I guess wrong --- even with GPS assistance, a twisty route in the woods is confusing --- and only become certain of the mistake after half a mile. Turn back? No way! Dr. Zimmermann has now become Mr. Trail Runner, in his sylvan fantasy anyway.

So it's up and down muddy slopes, through a meadow dense with ferns, and across multiple bogs until I approach the Central Vermont Railroad right-of-way. The RFT parallels the tracks for a while, crosses a small road, and then zigs across to the other side of the rails (42:26:33N 072:31:05W). Mushrooms are huge and plentiful, and I interrupt a large rabbit having breakfast on the pathway. (Where's Alice?) The rain has stopped but it's slippery everywhere: slime-coated boards on the swamp crossings and layers of wet leaves that conceal lichen-coated granite boulders on the hillsides. Visions arise of a twisted ankle, or worse. I walk with care and only jog on the infrequent level spaces between slopes. I've seen nary a human soul for the past hour.

Then the trail passes through a populated neighborhood and tees into Depot Road (42:26:58N 072:31:04W). Orange blazes on the telephone poles show that it follows the lane to the left. At the 90 minute mark now I'm ~4.6 miles straight-line from my start, so it seems to be a good turnaround opportunity. Instead of retracing my path through the woods, however, I decide to trot back along the streets to save time and reduce the risk of injury. The RFT goes west to State Route 63, takes it south to Bull Hill Road, and then branches off toward Mount Toby --- at which point I leave it.

I continue homewards on the shoulder of the main highway, mostly jogging now to improve my average speed a bit. I pass a golf course and then spy another entrance to the Mill River Recreation Area (42:24:44N 072:31:40W), at the western end of the park which includes the aforementioned Puffer's Pond. Alas, I divert into it but soon discover that there's no obvious way to get from the civilized side of the Rec Area (tennis courts, swimming pool, baseball field) to the wilderness (lake, woods, swamps) short of wading a wide and rapidly-flowing creek. So it's backtrack again to the main road and continue southward. Route 63 meets North Pleasant Street and in two more miles leads me back to the University Lodge where I began (42:22:58N 072:31:10W).

The GPS trip odometer shows 11.3 miles but lists the day's track as 12.0 miles. I estimate 12+ actually traveled, given the system's usual 5%-10% shortfall for winding routes. (New evidence: earlier this morning the unit reported a distance of 2.03 geodesic miles from the start, but a trip measurement of only 1.87 miles. Did I go through a wormhole or otherwise violate the Euclidean triangle inequality?) The old legs feel good and even the blister on my toe isn't troublesome. Consumed along the way: one pint of water and most of a chocolate-mint Clif Bar.

Robert Frost Trail (northeast)

(7 Aug) - 14 miles, 196 minutes --- I do a Face Plant about an hour out, when I trip over a sawed-off sapling in the middle of a trail on a mountain ridge ... no major damage, just a bumped nose, slightly scraped knees, a bruised elbow, and a cut inside my upper lip from a front tooth --- but after taking a soil sample I'm spittin' grit for the next mile or two. The jaunt starts at ~5:55am on a cool Massachusetts morning, as a homeless guy is going through the dumpster outside the motel where we're staying in Amherst. I decide that it's too hard to carry a squeeze bottle of water, a GPS, and a Gatorade container, so I chug 20 oz. of the green sugary-sweaty brew in a few minutes and feel rather inert for the next half hour --- but at least my hydration is good.

I jog along town streets to the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area where I find the entrance to the trail (42:22:36N 072:29:10W) without trouble, but soon get lost in the maze of twisty little paths ... backtrack a couple of times and recover the orange blazed RFT, but then lose it entirely and decide to persevere northeasterly along a forest road perhaps made by/for all-terrain vehicle use ... and the GPS comforts me, since even if I'm lost I have a vector back toward home. The road gets thinner, turns into a footpath, and eventually brings me over a ridgeline (where I auger in, as mentioned above) to a rutted track apparently used by extreme mountain bikers ... and wading through cobwebs along that, in turn, I cross some boggy spots and reach a genuine dirt road, following which I suddenly see orange blazes --- it's the RFT again! (42:25:10N 072:28:53W)

I reward myself now, at about the 2 hour mark, by opening my peanut-butter-crunch flavored Clif Bar and taking a nibble. The trail curves along a road around Lake Atkins (water supply for Amherst) and then branches west (42:25:19N 072:29:10W) over some smaller hills through the woods. It's much easier to follow here, but nonetheless I miss a turn, am inspected by a big roan horse in a corral in somebody's front yard, and have to backtrack to recover the RFT. I've seen no human beings for the past 90 minutes, though I've passed several houses and have heard car noises in the distance.

Onward toward the west, crossing more streets and the Central Vermont rail line at the south end of a lovely trestle (42:25:00N 072:30:34W). Here the RFT reminds me strongly of the Northwest Branch Trail in Silver Spring (Four Corners) just as it crosses Colesville Road heading upstream. It's a well-maintained path on steep hillsides and includes scenic views of Cushman Brook below. Soon thereafter the trail crosses Pulpit Hill Road and I find myself at the point where I first entered the RFT on Thursday morning (5 Aug). I investigate the neighborhood, confirm my location, and turn south along town streets to return to the motel.

Robert Frost Trail (southeast)

(9 Aug) - 10 miles, 118 minutes --- Today, for a change, I don't fall down! The morning's jog begins like 7 August's, with a brisk trot east from Amherst along Pelham Road until I reach the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area. This time, however, I turn southwards. In constrast to Saturday's hydration experiment I don't chug a 20 oz. bottle of Gatorade immediately before setting out --- instead I quaff it at a slightly more leisurely pace ~10 minutes earlier. That increases my comfort level significantly.

Besides passing through swamps and woods, this segment of the RFT proceeds down several subdevelopment streets, where the folks who marked the trail must have been trying to conserve their orange paint. Fortunately the Metacomet & Monadnock (aka "M&M") Trail coincides with the RFT here, and its bright yellow diamond-shaped blazes are frequent enough to keep me on course ~95% of the time. (I miss only one major turn and circumnavigate a neighborhood block before finding my way again.)

The RFT + M&M is well-maintained. It includes an amazing number (~75) of well-built wooden mini-bridges across small streams and boggy zones. These typically consist of a 10 foot length of 1x12 board (or a pair of parallel 1x6's) nailed on top of three equally-spaced blocky wooden cross-piece footings. About 10% of these crossovers have experienced erosion under one end or the other --- turning them into surprise see-saws or teeter-totters. I proceed with care and manage to maintain my balance.

After meandering a mile or so the RFT meets Stony Hill Road (42:21:57N 072:28:57W) and curves along it for a half-mile arc before reentering the woods (42:21:50N 072:28:41W). Following some good hills and a dramatic (~50') ravine overlook, there's another major highway crossing: Route 9 (42:21:23N 072:28:53W). Then the trail follows Old Belchertown Road until time to join the woods (42:21:14N 072:28:47W) and circumnavigate a lake. Zig-zags through the next subdivision's streets lead eventually back into the trees (42:20:47N 072:29:09W) and further pleasant woodsy scenes. After an overgrown meadow with giant elephant-ear-like foliage, heavily bedewed, my shoes and socks are wet as I reach Station Road and the Central Vermont Railroad crossing (42:20:30N 072:29:10W).

A few steps farther and, 80 minutes into the morning's journey, I enter the parking lot at the zero mile mark of the Norwottuck Rail Trail (see Norwottuck Rail Trail 2004 for GPS coordinates). The level-surfaced NRT lets me blast (relatively speaking) a couple of ~10 minute-pace measured miles on the return trip to the motel. I see in the mirror that my badges of honor from Saturday's auger experience have begun to develop nicely: purple bruises above my right eye and on the outside of my left elbow ...

- Tuesday, August 10, 2004 at 06:02:25 (EDT)

Face Plant

  Cut sapling stump protrudes thumb-thick
    A subtle inch above the trail,
  Perfectly poised to play a trick
    On careless runners, should they fail
  To spy the snag. Along come I.
    "A victim!" gloats the former tree.
  "I grew in peace upon this high
    Ridge line, until his kin chopped me
  To clear their path. Now it's my turn.
    Revenge is sweet --- ha, ha!" it smirks.
  I notice nothing, but soon learn
    A lesson as the teacher lurks.

  The nubbin catches my right toe
    And suddenly, I know not how,
  I tumble head-first to bestow
    A kiss upon the weathered brow
  Of Mother Earth. Her granite breast
    Repels my hand's abrupt advance.
  Instead I find my nose is pressed
     Against her stone-cold cheek. Our dance?
  Quite brief. My mouth is full of grit.
    Bruises on elbows, scrapes on knees,
  I stagger to my feet and spit.
    "Thanks, Ma'am!" I say, "But no more please:
        One Terra Firma do-si-do
        Is all there's time for --- gotta go!"

- Monday, August 09, 2004 at 08:49:07 (EDT) — slight revision 20070422

Slow Thyself

Wisdom in distance running is not so much know thyself as it is slow thyself. Set off too fast at the beginning of a race, and you can guarantee to be hurting at the end --- if you even make it that far. When feeling fresh and frisky the temptation to blast along is almost irresistable. Resist.

Likewise in life, when entering any endeavor --- a diary, a diet, a courtship, the study of a language, whatever --- start slowly, at a sustainable pace for the long run.

(see also Deliberate Speed (23 Aug 1999), ... )

- Sunday, August 08, 2004 at 07:58:51 (EDT)

Battle Language

The phone rings.
"Zombie? This is Melon. My pickles are lavender. I'll be late arriving at Moonbase Alpha."

A colleague, known for his puckish sense of humor, not long ago began to develop a set of code words for common concepts, plus noms de guerre for various people in the local work group. The caller above was simply saying, "Phil? This is Sandy. My kids are sick. I'll be late getting in to the office." (Note: all cryptonyms mentioned here have already been changed to preserve communications security. (^_^) )

As the inventor was explaining his system to us over lunch a feeling of deja vu came over me. Then another comrade across the table spoke up with the reference I was groping for. "Hey, you've invented [our team's] first battle language." he observed.

"Ha!" I cried. "Dune, by Frank Herbert. Harkonnen battle language, eh?" My friend admitted that was his source. Both of us, we agreed, had read far too much science fiction in our ill-spent youth ...

(see also Bu Sab (9 Mar 2001), ... )

- Saturday, August 07, 2004 at 10:14:21 (EDT)

Race and Love

Randall Kennedy is a Harvard Law professor who writes with courage and breathtaking honesty about some of the most important issues of our time. His book Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (2003) had a hedgehog's worth of sticky-notes protruding from its pages by the time I finished reading it. The following are a few of the most memorable quotations that grabbed me along the way --- stirring enough in themselves, but far more powerful in the context of Kennedy's nuanced, solidly-reasoned arguments.

Concerning recent changes in this country:

Americans are becoming increasingly multiracial in their tastes, affections, and identities. The rates of interracial dating, marriage, and adoption are inching, and in some places rocketing, upward. This trend is, in my view, a postitive good. It signals that formal and informal racial boundaries are fading. I am not suggesting here that interracial relationships are better than intraracial ones; nor am I suggesting that the existence of an interracial relationship necessarily indicates that those involved are free of ugly racial sentiments. Malignant racial biases can and do reside in interracial liaisons. But against the tragic backdrop of American history, the flowering of multiracial intimacy is a profoundly moving and encouraging development ... (from the Introduction)

Concerning anecdotal "evidence":

In a society numbering in the millions, ten, twenty, fifty, or even a hundred anecdotes by themselves can provide little basis for determining whether the events they describe were representative or idiosyncratic. (from Chapter 4, "Race, Racism, and Sexual Coercion")

Concerning the temptation to distort or ignore truth to generate publicity for good ends:

The facts of specific cases, however, do matter. They matter even when they inconveniently complicate stories that at first seem starkly simple. (from Chapter 4, "Race, Racism, and Sexual Coercion")

Concerning gay marriage:

It is my own belief that the struggle to secure the right to marry regardless of the genders of the parties involved will be won in the not so distant future. That achievement, I am convinced, will represent a real step up in the moral elevation of American democracy --- a step facilitated, in large part, by previous struggles over race relations. (from a footnote in Chapter 6, "Fighting Antimiscegenation Laws")

Concerning racial politics:

It should be clear by now that I myself am skeptical of, if not hostile toward, claims of racial kinship, the valorization of racial roots, and politics organized around concepts of racial identity. I am a liberal individualist who yearns for a society in which race has become obsolete as a significant social marker. (from Chapter 7, "Racial Passing")

Concerning a recall election apparently driven by race:

This impulse to embrace "our own" on the merits ascribed to appearance and ancestry is venerable but stupid. (in a footnote from Chapter 7, "Racial Passing")

Concerning the real source of social improvement:

This example serves, however, as a useful reminder of why, in the long run, the transformation of public opinion is even more important than the transformation of legal formalities. The judicial system, by itself, will never satisfactorily police the conduct of decision makers whose personal aims and sentiments are in opposition to the law. More decisive than the establishment of legal doctrines pointing in the right direction is the inculcation of a public opinion that will manifest itself in the actions of judges and other decision makers prompted by their own intuition to move in that direction. (from Chapter 9, "Racial Conflict and the Parenting of Children")

Concerning race-based adoption:

Race matching is a destructive practice in all its various guises, from moderate to extreme. It ought to be replaced by a system under which children in need of homes may be assigned to the care of foster or adoptive parents as quickly as reasonably possible, regardless of perceived racial differences. Such a policy would greatly benefit vulnerable children. It would also benefit American race relations. (from Chapter 10, "The Tragedy of Race Matching in Black and White")

Concerning the use of children for larger purposes:

Some champions of race matching have charged defenders of interracial adoption with enlisting children as crusaders on behalf of "integration." There are at least two answer to this charge. The first is that many proponents of race matching are themselves only too happy to draft parentless children into their own campaign for black solidarity. The second is that society as a whole does --- and should --- "use" children as the front line in certain sorts of battles. Notable among these is the push for universal literacy, in pursuit of which society insists that children be educated, regardless of their own desires or those of their parents or guardians. Society demands that youngsters receive a specific minimal amount of education, in the belief that such a requirement is good for society as a whole as well as for those who will one day inherit it. Similarly, governments should demand that agencies place parentless children in loving homes without regard to race, as quickly as possible, because such placements will benefit both society as a whole and, even more, the children themselves. Society as a whole can only profit from the erosion of racial superstition, which forms the bedrock of race matching. And parentless children can only profit from obtaining as soon as possible the security and nurture provided by decent parents, regardless of race. (from Chapter 10, "The Tragedy of Race Matching in Black and White")

Concerning the conflict between affirmative action and race matching:

There is no getting around the fact, however, that the anti-discrimination rhetoric, ethos, and organizational support that infuse much of the attack on race matching also nourish opposition to affirmative action. As a political versus a narrowly logical matter, therefore, there does exist a dilemma for those --- and I am one --- who tend to be tolerant of affirmative action but intolerant of race matching. I am ambivalent about the continuation of racial affirmative-action programs. They have performed a great service and manifest features of American political culture in which everyone, including their opponents, can justly take pride. But they do draw racial lines, a toxic activity that should be avoided absent compelling arguments to the contrary. There are such arguments in favor of maintaining at least certain affirmative-action programs. But there are also, as we have seen, imperative reasons to obliterate race matching. If dismantling affirmative action must be part of the price of effectively doing away with race matching, it is no more than I, for one, am willing to pay. (from Chapter 10, "The Tragedy of Race Matching in Black and White")

Concerning the lack of courage by some writers re their own interracial adoption experiences:

Nothing more poignantly reflects the continuing grip of racialist superstition on American society than the myopia of Sharon Rush, Jana Wolff, and others who, despite their own fruitful experiences with interracial parenting, have conceded and continue to concede --- wrongly --- that opponents of the practice are correct in claiming that whites, because of their race, are necessarily either inadequate as caretakers of black children or inferior to black parents. A large part of the problem is the vulnerability of people such as Wolff and Rush to destructive mau-mauing. Rush in particular has evinced a pathetic inability to criticize any idea emanating from anyone whom she perceives to be authentically black. In her book, there are no bad black people, no unsound decisions made by blacks, and no questionable policies advanced by black groups. By her accounting, whites are the only ones whose behavior is in need of improvement. A long list of episodes is recited in which whites said ugly things to her or her daughter, but not one instance of a black person doing so is described. Perhaps Rush's memoir is an accurate depiction of what she and her child experienced; if so, it seems to me that they were lucky. Many interracial adoptive households have suffered all manner of ostracism at the hands of disapproving blacks --- from placards of protest in the yards of neighbors to raucous picketing, from harsh words to reproachful silence. This attendant feature of interracial adoption is all too common and well known, yet there is no mention of it in Rush's account. (from Chapter 11, "White Parents and Black Children in Adoptive Families")

Concerning what to do next:

To improve race relations in the sphere of intimate association, we need to attend to three tasks. While the first of these does not relate to intimate association specifically, it nevertheless will condition decisively the choices that people make when it comes to selecting friends, partners, and spouses. That task is to raise the shamefully low standard of living in which far too many Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are colored, now find themselves mired. The extent to which racial minorities are conspicuously encumbered by poverty, unemployment, lesser educational opportunities, and like deprivations is the minimum extent to which they will continue to be marginalized in the common market for companionship. Second, Americans should permit neither states nor the federal government to engage in routine race matching. In the eyes of the law, race should play no role in ranking families; multiracial ones must be deemed the equals of their monoracial counterparts. Third, individuals can greatly assist in improving matters by refusing to embrace unthinkingly inherited habits and by daring to put into action humane ideals. (from the Afterword)

(see also Interracial Intimacies (24 Feb 2003), Racial Relationships (10 Jan 2004), An Hour Before Daylight (25 May 2004), Interracial Checkmate (20 Jul 2004), ... )

- Friday, August 06, 2004 at 21:41:13 (EDT)

Jogging Advice

Note to self:
When running, remember to smile.

And likewise, of course, when not running ...

(see also Optimist Creed (16 Apr 1999), ... )

- Wednesday, August 04, 2004 at 13:06:57 (EDT)

Invisible Aura

Good Omens (1990) is a wacky-wry fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. One of my favorite scenes occurs in Chapter "Thursday" as Adam, a boy of apocalyptic importance, is visiting Anathema Device, a "Practical Occultist" (aka witch):
She stared at Adam. There was something odd about him, but she couldn't put her finger on it. ...

and a few pages later:

... She was still trying to put her finger on what was so odd about Adam, and then she realized what it was.
He had no aura.
She was quite an expert on auras. She could see them, if she stared hard enough. They were a little glow of light around people's heads, and according to a book she'd read the color told you things about their health and general well-being. Everyone had one. In mean-minded, closed-in people they were a faint, trembling outline, whereas expansive and creative people might have one extending several inches from the body.
She'd never heard of anyone without one, but she couldn't see one around Adam at all. Yet he seemed cheerful, enthusiastic, and as well-balanced as a gyroscope.

but by the next page it is revealed:

It might, or might not, have helped Anathema get a clear view of things if she'd been allowed to spot the very obvious reason why she couldn't see Adam's aura.
It was for the same reason that people in Trafalgar Square can't see England.

- Tuesday, August 03, 2004 at 05:34:35 (EDT)

Freudian Half Marathon

Mile 8 of the recent "Riley's Rumble" half-marathon: volunteers at a roadside table hand out little flat metallic pouches of vanilla-flavored energy gel. Each contains ~100 calories of thick sugary syrup, maltodextrin and fructose, along with electrolytes and antioxidant vitamins --- quick pick-me-ups for tired runners. (Or at least for those who believe in the efficacy of such concoctions ... I'm skeptical.)

The next fifty meters of roadway is littered with partially-consumed gel packs, dropped by hasty racers. Some packets are stepped upon --- and the whitish goop that spurts out and pools on the pavement reminds me, unæsthetically, of an unmentionable bodily fluid. That metaphor again comes to mind, alas, as the course passes a corn field surrounded by tall weeds with phallic cattail-like flowers. They droop flaccid in the high humidity. (Sorry ... but distance running isn't always pretty; nor are psychoanalytic theory, or human physiology. Or maybe they are, and we're just too squeemish or too "civilized"?)

Bad air, heat, and tropical humidity has kept me off the roads for the past week. Some less unfortunate observations from three jogs before that:

Rock Creek + Capital Crescent Mini-loop

(17 Jul 2004) - 15+ miles, 192 minutes --- from home past Mermaid Fountain to Rock Creek Trail, south into DC to Park Police Hqs., west via Military Road to Friendship Heights (Mazza Gallerie) and on Western + River Road back to the Capital Crescent Trail and the usual 5 miles home from there (generally reversing the route I last ran in August 2003 --- see Loop Course)... 8:45am-11:57am, already too warm and humid to be comfortable for much of the jog. I'm exhausted during the final measured miles on the CCT and average ~12:15 for that leg. I walk almost 50% of the last half hour.

All the drinking fountains in Rock Creek Park are turned off (there are "lead concerns" in the City of Lawyers) --- and there isn't even water or a functional soda machine at the Park Nature Center! A security guard suggests that I might get some water at the horse stables, or from one of the restroom washbasins. I should have taken her advice.
Two nice ladies are setting up a yard sale in front of their tiny house on Military Road. One sees me going by and says "I've got some running clothes!" So I stop and browse, then ask tentatively if there's a garden hose that I could get a drink from since by this time (~9 miles) I'm getting dehydrated. One woman offers me bottled water, which I decline as "too fancy", so she kindly refills my container from the tap inside her house.
Suboptimal Behaviors:
I trip over a curb in front of the Nature Center and collapse to the sidewalk like a house of cards --- but fortunately only scrape a hand and bruise my elbow (and ego). Half an hour later I find a convenience store, venture inside, stand in line for five minutes, and buy a 20 oz. Mountain Dew (an orange juice was my goal, but I can't quite afford one). I chug the Dew --- and the result is a less-than-comfortable gut for the next several miles.
An American Goldfinch, male in brilliant yellow summer "breeding plumage" --- and on a related theme, an empty condom wrapper on a dirt-and-gravel hiker/horse trail, dropped by somebody apparently in a hurry. I pick it up to carry to a trash can and notice that it's labeled "Large" --- which in the prophylactic business doubtless translates into "extra small", eh?! (Oops! --- earlier I promised to avoid this topic. Sorry about that ... )

Georgetown Branch + Rock Creek Trail

(20 Jul) - 7 miles, 78 minutes --- a warm evening jaunt, with three measured miles in the middle at 10:40 pace. A handful-sized baby rabbit sits beside the path, cute enough to give a heady sugar rush to anyone who spies it. It wrinkles its bunny nose, twitches its whiskers, and fearlessly nibbles new-mown grass clippings as I jog past only a few feet away. Shortly thereafter a large doe crosses the trail in front of me and dives into the brush. Fireflies twinkle under the trees as the sun sets and I turn toward home.

Riley's Rumble Half Marathon

(25 Jul) - 13+ miles, 132 minutes --- hilly and fun, on a day of optimal weather (cloudy, cool, slight drizzle). I finish breathing hard but in relative comfort, within seconds of an overall 10 minute/mile pace, and thus slice ~8 minutes off last year's result (see Rileys Rumble). This might not be a Personal Record, however, since I foolishly did the first half of the 2002 Marathon in the Parks (see Rocky Run) in about the same time before hitting the wall.

But today my pacing is far better, thanks to the pleasant companionship of Rene & Suzanne for the first several miles. We chat about training, family, work, vacations, marathon plans, etc. I reach the turnaround point in 68 minutes for a net "negative split". A big shaggy brown llama eyes us as we pass by, and I get into a small debate with a fellow traveler about how to pronounce the animal's name (and can't resist saying, "Como se llama?"). Aid stations are frequent, so I don't need to drink out of the water bottle I'm carrying --- instead I use it to pour liquid over my head for evaporative cooling. At the end of the race I feel strong and "sprint" as much of the final miles as I can, achieving a pace in the 8-9 minute/mile zone for that segment.

- Monday, August 02, 2004 at 06:02:06 (EDT)

Carnot Cycle

Thermodynamics is such a great example of "much from little". As with plane geometry, a few fundamental concepts unfold via logic into a host of important, widely-applicable results: energy, entropy, equilibrium, enthalpy, ...

One great idea from the thermodynamic world is that of the Carnot cycle, named for the nineteenth century French engineer Sadi Carnot. The key notion here is simply to take something around a closed loop --- physically or metaphorically --- and keep track of the changes that it undergoes along the way. Do it with a volume of gas, monitor the energy flows, and you can derive the theoretical efficiency of a heat engine. Do it with a Rubik's Cube, watch the colored faces, and you can derive new algorithms to unscramble the darned thing. Do it with silver and gold, as international traders did back in an era when the US Government maintained a bimetallic standard of currency at a fixed 16:1 ratio, and you can make a lot of money. And so forth ...

(see also Applied Bypasses (14 Apr 1999), ... )

- Sunday, August 01, 2004 at 11:29:38 (EDT)

Indian River

A fruit truck I spy during my morning commute is labeled "Indian River" --- and that suddenly brings back memories of John McPhee, my all-time favorite author of nonfiction. McPhee has long been a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, where every year he conjures prose both brilliant and transparent on subjects ranging from fishing to plate tectonics to roadkill to nuclear proliferation.

McPhee's 1967 book Oranges is simply about oranges, and is simply a delight to read. In the final chapter the author tours the groves of Ben Hill Griffin (1910-1990) accompanied by the owner himself. "People told, almost reverently, and with a sound of legend in their voices, that Ben Hill Griffin, of Frostproof, Florida, has his own personal concentrate plant, and that this is like having your own turnpike, or your own air force, or, at the very least, your own country." McPhee's visit to the plant concludes with an unforgettable image:

Going back to the helicopter, we walked beside a rushing stream, which might have been a trout stream in Vermont, full of boulders, pools, eddies, and tumbling cascades. "That water is coming from the evaporator," Griffin said. "It was inside oranges a few minutes ago."

The Indian River --- " ... not actually a river but a tidal lagoon, about two miles wide in most places and one hundred and twenty miles long, running between the Florida mainland and the Atlantic barrier beaches ... " --- is a zone of legend and tradition, something like an extended mystical Stonehenge of orange cultivation. McPhee describes the sale of its produce in New York City:

Oranges that happen to be going to New York cross the Hudson River on barges and enter the city at Pier 28 at the western end of Canal Street. All fresh fruit of any kind that is shipped to New York City for auction is sold at Pier 28. The pier's interior is like the inside of an aircraft hangar, and fruits from everywhere are stacked in lots in long, close rows --- oranges and grapefruit from the Ridge, California oranges, apples, avocados, pears, plums, cherries, lemons, grapes, pomegranates, and so on. Over at one side, separated by a wide area from all the other crates and boxes, is the fruit of the Indian River. A man from the Indian River is always there to look after it, and he has no counterpart elsewhere on the pier. Buyers walk around making notes, then they go upstairs into a room that could have been built as the auditorium of a nineteenth-century high school. The walls are made of tongue-and-groove boards and the wooden seats are set on frameworks of cast iron, which are bolted to the floor. The room seems to contain about ninety men and ninety lighted cigars. In London in the eighteenth century, oranges were auctioned "by the candle". A pin was pushed through a candle not far from the top, and when the candle was lighted, the bidding began. When the pin dropped, the most recent bidder got the oranges. In New York in the present era, oranges appear to be auctioned by cigar. The air in the auction room gets so heavy with smoke that if anything as light as a pin were to drop, it would probably stop falling before it reached the floor. The auctioneer sits on a stage, usually alone. The man from Indian River sits next to him when he auctions the fruit of the Indian River.

(see http://www.johnmcphee.com/ ... and see also Sense Of Where You Are (4 Jun 1999), Invisible Writing (16 Dec 1999), Defensive Questions (12 May 2000), World Trade Center (11 Sep 2001), ... )

- Friday, July 30, 2004 at 20:40:54 (EDT)

Pirates vs. Ninjas

In some circles a big debate, I'm told, revolves around the question "Which is better, a pirate or a ninja?" There are good arguments on both sides, depending on what characteristics are judged as most important --- toughness, intelligence, panache, cash flow, ...

But even more interesting are other uncommon comparisons. For instance:

(see also Guilt And Shame (30 Jun 2002), Two But Not Three (24 Sep 2003), ... )

- Wednesday, July 28, 2004 at 05:36:57 (EDT)

Big and Strong

A few months ago a flame war erupted on the Montgomery County Road Runners Club [1] online discussion list, between a fast-skinny faction and a slow-large contingent. The trigger topic? Categories --- specifically, whether to implement "Clydesdale" and "Athena" divisions for male and female runners who weigh over 200 or 145 pounds respectively. That doesn't sound too controversial, perhaps, to an outsider. But blood boiled and metaphorical arrows flew between the camps. Mind you: there's no money involved, just a little symbolic recognition.

The "purist" position was that sub-groups based on mass are silly feel-good rewards for lazy lardbuckets who can't hack it in a real competition. Take it to the logical limit and there's no reason to exercise, diet, or otherwise work hard to improve. Just put yourself into a unique bin, and you're an instant winner! Nobody said it in so many words, but the gist of the skeptic's position was that the Dodo's ruling in Alice in Wonderland --- "everybody has won, and all must have prizes" --- is absurd.

On the "a place for every pace" side of the aisle, however, some heavy artillery was brought forth with telling effect. In particular I was won over by the health argument: it's important to encourage everybody, of whatever body shape, to get moving a bit. Accidents of birth and biochemistry mean that most people won't ever be ultrafast. Symbolic subdivisions based on weight are as valid as are widely-accepted categories defined by sex and age. If Athenas and Clydesdales are motivated by competing in their divisions, wonderful. Those who don't care to recognize such partitions are free to ignore them.

One of the debaters who scored big points in my judgment was Vanessa Payne. She recently forwarded to the MCRRC group a few inspirational excerpts from an essay by Megan Othersen Gorman titled "Making the Connection" (published in Runner's World magazine). Gorman quotes one correspondent:

Remember the big picture --- even if it hurts. I was in line at Starbucks yesterday wearing jeans and a T-shirt that says "A fit woman is a powerful woman." A table full of teenage girls noticed my T-shirt and started giggling. Then one of them said loudly, "Before she wears a shirt that says that, she should get fit!" At first, I just stood there, stunned. Then I took a deep breath, turned around and said, 'Pardon me, but I heard what you said. I just completed my second marathon. Here's my card. The next time you want to go out for a 20-mile run, please give me a call.' Everyone in the place cheered. The girls were beet red. It felt so good to stand up for myself. But the experience was also a big reality check for me. I've lost 100 pounds, and I've come a long way. But the world still views me as overweight. I must get this remaining weight off. And so I shall. Believe in yourselves! ...

Later in that same article there was the lovely thought:

... We're taking every day as a gift and using it now, while we've got the chance. We're not waiting until we get to our goal weights to live. We're running headlong into life, not away from it.

Reading about Clydesdales and Athenas led me to a funny and insightful article by Robin Chotzinoff (in Westworld, 2 May 1996 --- see [2] or [3] --- it is also possibly included in Chotzinoff's 1999 book People Who Sweat: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Pursuits). Among the quotations is one by Jim Glinn:

"Some of us were meant to be big. It's genetic. ... This world has always been full of big guys. Back in the Viking era, there was a Norwegian guy known far and wide as Walking Rolf --- and this because he was too big to ride a horse. He was still a great warrior."

All this reminds me of the wise advice offered by a swim coach at a neighborhood pool (a somewhat spherical gentleman) who many years ago was chatting with one of my kids (likewise well-rounded):

"It's OK to be big --- but you also have to be strong."

(see also Slower Runners Guide (30 Oct 2002), Healthy Trails (24 Nov 2002), Running Advice (2 Oct 2003), Handicap Jogging (8 Oct 2003), ... )

- Tuesday, July 27, 2004 at 06:08:16 (EDT)

Peripheral Punditry

An Arabic proverb that I sometimes try to remember, when op-ed columnists get strident about ephemeral events or when transient small stuff begins to bug me:
"The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on."

- Monday, July 26, 2004 at 05:59:20 (EDT)

Rubensesque Passers By

Certain words enchant me --- and a common thread seems to be that although they appear to break the rules, in reality they obey other more subtle rules. I enjoy nouns that take slightly exotic plurals, like automata, fungi, kibbutzim, staves, and indices. Also captivating are clusters of words that seem to be a unit until they have to be pluralized: courts martial, sisters-in-law, etc. And then there are the endings --- e.g., "-esque" as applied to words like "Beatles" or "Rubens" --- which almost universally are misused. The joy comes from getting it right.

Making up attractive new words is an entertaining game that likewise brings together language and æsthetics. I particularly groove on coined terms that hint at multiple meanings, that allude to little-known arcana, and that resonate with other fun linguistic elements. Recently Amanda Williams of http://www.metamanda.com/ issued a challenge: come up with a name for her new computer.

My latest suggestion: "metanomie". It doesn't mean anything (I thought of it on the way home from a long run earlier today --- probably my brain was oxygen-starved again) but it does contain:

Now if I could only work a letter z in there someplace ...

(see also Physics Words (22 Oct 2001), Voiced Postalveolar Fricative (27 Sep 2003), Key To The Treasure (23 Apr 2004), Chat Turing Test (18 May 2004), ... )

- Sunday, July 25, 2004 at 15:59:17 (EDT)

Rained Out

Baseball is like a movie or a play where you know the plot perfectly well --- but you watch anyway because you want to see how it all works out in the end, and because you enjoy the quality of the acting and the delightful atmosphere of the performance.

So thus it has been for the past several weeks, as the Silver Spring - Takoma Thunderbolts play amateur wooden-bat collegiate summer ball. Since our return from travels I've been privileged to witness five Tbolt games on warm summer evenings ... and to miss one a couple of days ago as Zeus cast real thunderbolts, accompanied by a Neptunian downpour.

Ed Sharp --- Tbolt scorekeeper, official Secretary, and member of the Board of Directors --- writes excellent commentary on the games; contact him via http://www.tbolts.org/ to subscribe. Herewith some brief excerpts from a few of Ed's reports, accompanied by my idiosyncratic observations from the bleachers.

8 July: Herndon 12, Thunderbolts 0

"... a forgettable night ..."

I beg to differ! My fingertips become sore from cracking peanut shells as the game progresses ... a pair of F-15 fighter jets cruise by loudly overhead ... cellphones chime ... the Tbolt snack bar crew cheerfully cook veggie dogs for me ... young girls (in shorts or miniskirts, with long pony-tails and bare midriffs) display bulging hamster-cheeks as they suck on hard candy pops ... in the initial inning a brilliant throw from deep right catches a Tbolt runner attempting a slightly-too-aggesssive advance from first to third ... a sharp 5-4-3 double play ends the second inning ... and a seventh inning Herndon broken-bat pop fly is caught by an alert SS-T shortstop who races to back up the third baseman. A walk in the third forces home the only run that Herndon actually will need, but the visitors pile on 5 more in the fourth, leaving the inning with the bases loaded, and then double that number for good measure. Unforgettable!

9 July: Thunderbolts 3, Herndon 1

"In sharp contrast to the Thursday night game between the same teams, last night's Thunderbolts-Braves game featured a great pitcher's duel, sharp defense and some timely hitting ..."

Indeed --- particularly the powerful full-length performance in defeat by Herndon's J. J. Hollenback with 12 strikeouts and no walks. A lady in the stands behind me is working on cross-stitch before the game; she sets it aside to keep score as play begins. A foul tip skitters over the edge of the protective net to rebound from the bleachers ... in the third inning Tbolt catcher Sean Brewer throws hard to second in an attempt to catch a runner stealing --- it fails, but as the Herndon player on third breaks for home, second baseman Mickey Shupin pegs one back to Brewer who tags the runner out at the plate by inches ... a super-long foul ball by Tbolt Justin McClanahan bangs the scoreboard and breaks several lights in the "OUTS" indicator ... and the game ends with a splendid throw relayed from deep right field to catch a Herndon runner attempting to score from first ...

11 July: Thunderbolts 12, Reston 8

"For the second game in a row, the hitters dominated as the Thunderbolts defeated the Reston Hawks ..."

A hazy, humid, warm evening, with relief from breezes out of left field (or perhaps generated by the hyperactive bats on both sides?) ... Tbolt Andrew Greene steals second, then third, both with excellent slides, on his way to score ... a runner is inadvertently hit by a sharp grounder, and is thus out ... in the seventh inning two Reston runs score, the second one sliding in and raising a huge dust cloud that drifts slowly over the stands where I sit ...

15 July: Thunderbolts 11, Baltimore 7

For the first time I witness an umpire lose count and give a batter four strikes ... Baltimore center fielder Kevin Grauer literally robs the Tbolts of at least three solid hits, by outrageously successful running and diving catches in the first, second, and fifth innings --- but SS-T CFer Andrew Greene in retaliation swipes one back via a great diving catch in the seventh ... amazingly in the third, fifth, and sixth innings, with two outs and nobody on base (and me about to give up hope) the Tbolts awaken to score respectively 3, 3 and 2 runs ...

16 July: Fauquier 6, Thunderbolts 0

The visiting team's pitcher knocks down a hard-hit line drive coming right at him, scrambles to recover the ball, and throws it smartly to the shortstop who tags second base for the forced out ... a friendly fan sitting next to me introduces himself and his two daughters and son, and chats about his observations of the team over the years ... the Fauquier right fielder runs back against the fence in foul territory, leaps in an attempt to snag a long ball, and loses his glove over the wall ... in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and all hope gone, in parallel motion several women in the stands pull back their hair and clip it into tight knots as they prepare to leave ... after the game I observe the umpires in the semi-darkness of the parking lot, unselfconsciously stripping off their uniforms and changing into civilian clothes as they prepare to drive home ...

(see also Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), Summer Ball 2002 (3 Sep 2002), Keeping Score (13 Jun 2003), More Tbolt Snapshots (12 Jul 2003), Quiescent Thunderbolts (10 Jun 2004), Official Scorekeeper (3 Jul 2004), ... )

- Saturday, July 24, 2004 at 15:25:37 (EDT)

Three Laws of Robotics, Revised

Isaac Asimov's classic "Three Laws of Robotics" (as codified by science-fiction editor John W. Campbell) formed the basis of some thoughtful, provocative stories. The original Three Laws:
  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The recently-released movie I, Robot offers modernized action-cinematic versions of the Three Laws:

  1. Robots must leap about like ninjas and attempt to damage one another (and human beings) in hand-to-hand combat.
  2. Robots must drive motor vehicles wildly and attempt to crash into one another (and human beings), except where doing so would conflict with opportunities to practice the First Law.
  3. Robots must shoot guns, launch missiles, detonate explosives, and otherwise attempt to destroy one another (and human beings), as long as such activities do not conflict with opportunities to practice the First or Second Law.

- Friday, July 23, 2004 at 05:38:57 (EDT)

Real Programmers

While cleaning out a box of my old papers I recently discovered a folded, yellowed photocopy I had made a couple of decades ago. It was the classic July 1983 Datamation essay by Ed Post titled "Real Programmers Don't Use Pascal". This humor from the antediluvian era of computing holds up quite well, and (as is the case with the best of wit) there are big chunks of truth amongst the slapstick.

My favorite parts of "Real Programmers" start with the introduction, which sets the stage for backflips off the springboard of a rather uninteresting 1982 joke book called Real Men Don't Eat Quiche. Ed Post begins:

Back in the Golden Era of computers, it was easy to separate the men from the boys (sometimes called "Real Men" and "Quiche Eaters" respectively). During this period, the Real Men were the ones who understood computer programming, and the Quiche Eaters were the ones who didn't. A real computer programmer said things like "DO 10 I=1,10" and "ABEND," and the rest of the world said things like "computers are too complicated for me" and "I can't relate to computers --- they're so impersonal". ...

Post continues with some deliciously exaggerated rants and raves, including a cute multilingual bon mot about one of the demigods of computer science:

The easiest way to determine who the Real Programmers are is by the programming language they use. Real Programmers use FORTRAN. Quiche Eaters use Pascal. Nicklaus Wirth, the designer of Pascal, was once asked, "How do you pronounce your name?" "You can either call me by name, pronouncing it 'Veert', or call me by value, 'Worth'," he replied. One can tell immediately from this comment that Nicklaus Wirth is a Quiche Eater. ...

Post goes to describe a variety of "Real Programmer" characteristics and their opposites. My favorite laugh-aloud sketch depicts the optimal working environment for high software productivity:

The typical Real Programmer lives in front of a computer terminal. Surrounding this terminal are the listings of every program he has ever worked on. These are piled in roughly chronological order on every flat surface in the office. You will also find some half-dozen or so partly filled cups of cold coffee. Occasionally, there will be cigarette butts floating in the coffee. In some cases, the cups will contain Orange Crush. And, unless he is very good, there will be copies of the OS JCL manual and the Principles of Operation open to some particularly interesting pages. Taped to the wall is a line-printer Snoopy calendar for the year 1969. Strewn about the floor there will be several wrappers for peanut butter filled cheese bars (the type that are made stale at the bakery so they can't get any worse while waiting in the vending machine). Finally, in the top left-hand desk drawer, underneath the box of Oreos, is a flowcharting template, left there by the previous occupant. Real Programmers write programs, not documentation, which is left to the maintenance people.

Many pages purporting to be Post's essay are available online, but those that I've glanced at have unfortunate typos and seem to be revised or rewritten pirate versions, not the Datamation ur-text that I chuckled at twenty-something years ago. Steven Winikoff [1] has a page apparently of the original [2] that may well be unique on the Web. (He also seems to be rather a funny person himself!)

(see also Turing Complete (10 Oct 2001), Personal Programming History (2 Apr 2002), Netfree Programming (21 Oct 2003), Bozo Bit (29 Oct 2003), ... )

- Thursday, July 22, 2004 at 06:34:20 (EDT)

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