^zhurnal 0.45

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.45 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 = 0.44 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com" ... tnx!)

HAT Run 2005


HAT Game

"Hey, I see a couple of new victims up ahead," Amanda says quietly to me.
"Can we take them before the next aid station?"
"Sure," she replies, "let's reel 'em in!"

That doesn't sound like the usual spirit of trail running, where friendly cooperation is the watchword. But we're only doing it to fool ourselves: it's a silly mindgame, invented on-the-fly to motivate me into moving a wee bit faster during our 31 mile trek. "We're lions," I tell Amanda, "culling the laggards from the herd."

But in actuality we're quite unleoninely beasts: whenever we pass people we give them a smile, offer them encouraging words, and ask how they're doing. Then we mush on ...


It's the last day of winter, 19 March 2005. My colleague Amanda Mitchell and I are attempting the 17th annual 50k HAT Run [1]. HAT means "Hinte Anderson Trail", a meandering double-loop route in Susquehanna State Park devised by Jeff Hinte and Phil Anderson. A few hundred hardy souls are running, jogging, and walking 50 kilometers today, through the woods and across the streams of northern Maryland.

We're locomoting --- with the emphasis on loco. The official HAT write-up characterizes the course as "challenging but not daunting". Mysteriously, however, the hills grow ever steeper and the creek crossings ever slipperier during the second circuit. I tell myself "Don't trip now!" and almost stumble on the next gnarly tree root.

The big problem for me today, alas, is that there are no serious problems:

I thus have absolutely no excuses for not doing well today (other than my pitiful lack of talent, lack of training, and lack of mental toughness) ...

HAT Dance

This is Amanda's first ultra. It's an ambitious undertaking for somebody who has only done one marathon, who has minimal trail experience, and who hasn't had much opportunity to train for the past few months. But Ms. Mitchell is young and strong, and I persuade her to try on the HAT with me. My promise is that if things aren't going well then she can bail with honor at the 16 mile point, where the course returns to the start/finish pavillion. As it turns out there's no need to even consider that escape hatch.

Shortly after 6am we rendezvous at my house and cruise north to the sound of Indian movie music (Bollywood show tunes) in my wife's MINI Cooper. As we climb out of the car Amanda spies a pair of deer feeding in the meadow in front of us. A few moments later we're greeted by friendly fellow runners, some of whom remember me from last year's HAT Run. Others thank me for my write-up of that experience and say that they've studied it for guidance on this year's event. I find the nano-celebrity status a wee bit embarrassing, and hope that I don't lead anybody too badly astray.

We register, pick up our numbers, and return to the car to stash gear, put on shoes, eat, drink, and make other nervous last-minute preparations ... even though there's more than an hour to go until starting time. Rayna Matsuno (whom I met at the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2005 earlier this month) joyously hugs us and reports that she returned less than 48 hours ago, after a blitz visit to Japan. Her jet-lag trumps mine by at least four time zones; I likewise got back Thursday from a too-long business trip.

On our way again to the start/finish pavillion Mike Acuna says hello; he's "T-bone" on a DC-area running blog [2]. At the picnic tables I meet one Keith (last name unknown, sorry!) and in line for the restroom I'm behind another, Keith Straw, a fast marathoner who visited with me after the Washington Birthday Marathon 2005 last month. Ari Solow introduces himself, and Kari Brown renews our acquaintance that began at the Seneca Creek event. Comrades-ultra veteran "Mighty Mark" Bloomfield arrives to try on a HAT again; last year we ran part of the route together. (See * for his 2005 report.) Nearby I spy a pair of adorably cute twin baby girls in a double stroller. They're five months old and well-bundled against the morning chill. I tickle a tiny pink hand and talk with their Mom as Dad gets ready for the run.

Then it's time for Amanda and me to claim our rightful position at the back of the pack and await the signal to begin. In contrast to the slow ordeal of mega-event starts, within a few seconds we've crossed the line and are on our way, trotting happily together on the one-mile out-and-back that spreads the field before the narrow trail begins.

Our strategy? Simplicity itself:

We follow the game plan with dogged determination. I attempt to capture Dead Last Place and seemingly succeed within the first hour, when a look backwards across a huge grassy field reveals not a single person behind us. It's then that we devise the "HAT Game" (see above) and commence pursuing our prey.

The remainder of the race is a happy blur of hill and valley, trail and road, tree and stream, rock and sky, food and drink ...

HAT Song

(To the tune of Twelve Days of Christmas, with apologies:)

     Twelve spectators cheering,
       Eleven big geese honking,
     Ten hundred paper plates,
       Nine volunteers cooking,
     Eight electrolyte capsules,
       Seven ibuprofens,
     Six pints of Gatorade,
   Five ... wet ... stream ... fords!
     Four humongous hills,
       Three packs of energy-goo,
     Two fancy trail caps,
   ... And a cool "HAT Run" commemorative shirt!

OK, since the course is a double-loop the hill count and the stream crossing count should each be multipled by two ... 1,000 paper plates is a slight exaggeration of the number of course markers, cheery bright yellow with their arrows pointing the way ... there might have been more than a dozen folks applauding on the final cruel climb to the finish line ... I can't testify to the precise population of geese or cooks ... and the words don't scan at all well. So sue me!

I did take exactly 8 "SUCCEED" 1 gram buffered sodium-potassium pills along the way, to ward off calf cramps ... I distinctly remember swallowing 3 ibuprofen tablets at mile 16 and 4 more at mile 25, as I felt knee pains looming ... and I definitely drank the better part of a gallon of sports-drink, along with several cups of Coke and Mountain Dew at the aid stations ...

HAT Tricks

"What happens on the trail, stays on the trail!" could well be the Code of the Wild. Here, therefore, are merely a few shadowy snapshots, heavily bowdlerized for family audiences. True trail runners can fill in the missing details.

We'll see how adult I feel in three weeks ...

HAT Sizes

The final hill taunts me into making a strong sprint for the finish line (ok, it was more like a wobbly jog, but that's a lot better than my limping stagger at that point in 2004). My official time is 7:13, more than 20 minutes faster than last year. I experience no blisters, no falls, no twisted ankles, minimal chafing, slight sunburn, scarcely any muscle or joint soreness, and only one briefly wet sock circa mile 15 when a stepping stone slithers out from underfoot at a small stream crossing. My main complaint? A tiny twig somehow took up lodging in my shoe around mile 30. It really bugged me for a spell there.

Amanda triumphs, feeling great and blazing through the final four miles. (We dissolve our Fellowship of the HAT at the top of the last big hill, where I send her onwards with my blessing.) She arrives ten minutes in front of me, a smidgen after the 7 hour mark --- a superb accomplishment for her first ultramarathon. In the car on the way back to DC she first calls her parents (wise daughter!) and then text-messages a bunch of friends with the good news. Now she is truly Ultramanda!

HAT Challenge

At the finish line Jeff Hinte takes a photo of me and asks what I'll write this year about the race.

"I don't know," I reply. I consider:

Sorry, none of the above dare I attempt. Instead, there's only this idiosyncratic and impressionistic aide memoire. Perhaps some other participant-observers can append their comments to the Wiki edition at http://zhurnaly.com/zhurnalywiki_static/HatRun2005.

Or maybe better would be to just don some HAT paraphernalia and go out for a long run in the woods ...


(see also Rear Admiral Lower Half (1 July 2003), Hat Run 2004 (2 Apr 2004), Washington Birthday Marathon 2005 (20 Feb 2005), Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2005 (5 Mar 2005), ...)

- Sunday, March 20, 2005 at 21:22:19 (EST)

Greatest Invention

The fourth most brilliant creation of all time?
The "Random page" button at the top of a Wiki item's display --- plus countless other ways of juxtaposing concepts to give birth to new notions ...
The third most wonderful?
Wiki --- along with any other meta-method, before or after, that makes it easier to record verses of idea-prose-poems and cross-link them into visions of mind ...
The second-place prize-winner?
Language itself --- and the "itself-ishness" that lets language reflect light upon its own face ...
The greatest invention?

(see also Thinking Tools Defined (6 Apr 1999), Diffuse Consciousness (21 May 2003), Si Monumentum Requiris (4 Apr 2004), ...)

- Thursday, March 17, 2005 at 04:43:49 (EST)

How Great Thou Art

One of the all-time favorite movies on our family's short list is Joe Versus the Volcano (1990, by John Patrick Shanley). The film defies encapsulation; it's a comedy and a philosophy lecture and a critique of our society and a salute to luggage and a bunch of other things all at once. There are many great lines, but among the most memorable is a remark made by Patricia (one of Meg Ryan's multiple rôles):
"My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement."

This echoes a metaphor used in a book on Buddhism that I once read and cannot currently locate. (Help, anybody?) Even more striking is a line delivered by the title character Joe (played by Tom Hanks) as he is dying in mid-ocean on a small raft and in awe watches a moonrise:

"Dear God, whose name I do not know --- thank you for my life. I forgot how BIG ... thank you. Thank you for my life."

(see also Dialogue Density (21 May 2002), Infinite Sky (15 Oct 2004), ...)

- Wednesday, March 16, 2005 at 15:29:41 (EST)

Less More

Once in a while, for a moment or two, I glimpse a hint of an inkling of a secret --- a secret which, if it were any more obvious, there wouldn't be a prayer of my noticing. Like air, or the fabric of spacetime, or the "me" that's thinking this.

I don't need any more stuff, or places to put it, or time to enjoy it. All I can ever have is right here, right now ...

(see also Bennett On Stoicism (29 Apr 1999), Sense Of Where You Are (4 Jun 1999), Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), More Fun Less Stuff (1 Oct 2002), Eat The Orange (28 Nov 2004), ...)

- Monday, March 14, 2005 at 22:48:23 (EST)

Trail Trial

In spite of a foolishly too-fast start and an embarrassingly slow finish I had seven hours of fun last week at my first trail marathon. Tom Brennan of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club [1] captured one magical moment in the woods during which I somehow appear to have actually been running. (Or maybe he manipulated the photo?) Blue blazes visible on a few of the trees mark the route. (click for higher resolution image)


Trail running is built from contradictions:

Meander through the woods for an hour, then cross a highway. Wear garments of the fanciest artificial fibers, then slip and fall in the mud. Walk alone for miles, then be overtaken by a small crowd of helpful people. Suffer crippling leg cramps, then eat just the right thing and be reborn. ...

(see also Hat Run 2004 (2 Apr 2004), Robert Frost Trail (10 Aug 2004), Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2005 (5 Mar 2005), ...)

- Sunday, March 13, 2005 at 22:52:10 (EST)

Ghost Written

David Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten, is fun and finely crafted. It's sf, though certainly not "science" fiction: technology is at most a peripheral device, and there are too many technical errors that a nitpicker like me found distressing. (E.g., the sun is ~8 light-minutes away, not 26 (p. 343); a "jiffy" is not commonly used to describe the Planck Time of 10-43 s (p. 357); the allusion to the Einstein Podolsky Rosen "paradox" misses the key quantum-mechanical point of it (p. 366); FM radio stations in the US don't have frequency assignments like 97.8 MHz (p. 375); ...) And Mitchell fails badly in his attempt to describe how a real scientist works on a hard problem. He exaggerates the impact of artificial intelligence on real-world military weapon systems.

But put all those blemishes aside; they could have been patched with a single afternoon of consultation with a scientifically literate editor. On the plus side of the scoresheet, Mitchell's imagination is powerful and his style is smooth, with occasional coruscating poetic passages. (Then again, there are unfortunate distractions --- e.g., a $1.25 word like judder re-used three times (pps. 237, 258, and 328) without apparent deliberate intent.) Mitchell's vision echoes the best work of Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Salman Rushdie --- but with a wild originality all his own. He doesn't slam a home run out of the ballpark with his first swing (unlike Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club). But Ghostwritten does get a solid base hit, and that's pretty good for a rookie.

(page numbers from the first US paperback edition; see also Vernor Vinge (17 Sep 2001), Dream Data (22 Mar 2002), Ankh Micholi (12 Jul 2002), Cut The Volume (5 Mar 2004), ...)

- Saturday, March 12, 2005 at 10:09:49 (EST)

How to Succeed

Two big rules for doing well at almost anything:

(see also On Failure (13 Jul 1999), Bennett On Life (19 Mar 2000), Diffi Cult (28 Jun 2001), Ein Ben Stein (19 Sep 2002), ...)

- Friday, March 11, 2005 at 05:53:28 (EST)

Curious Incident

One of the big social trends of our time seems to be that of labels as excuses. People identify themselves (and/or their loved ones) as suffering from various polysyllabic disorders, alphabet-soup syndromes, and genetic-environmental afflictions. Because of their condition(s), they "deserve" preferential treatment. They can't be held responsible to the same standard of polite behavior as everybody else. They're "special".

The obvious fallacy of this is the old categorical imperative: taken to the logical conclusion there's nobody left who isn't special in some way, and therefore nobody remaining to be taxed, exploited, sacrificed, or otherwise pay the bill for the privileged victims. (It's a shame to sound like Ayn Rand on this issue, but once in a while she did light a candle.)

Which brings me to Mark Haddon's 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It's a fast read and certainly makes good use of a "different" conceit: the viewpoint character is a quasi-autistic 15-year-old, perhaps suffering from Aspberger's Syndrome.

But the book is ultimately unsatisfying for a number of reasons. The prose is pedestrian (perhaps deliberately so, but that doesn't make it worthwhile). The science and mathematics, meant to illustrate the mental processes of a young savant, are insufficiently clever to persuade anyone with a little knowledge of the subject. (The simple analytic-geometric theorem offered in the Appendix is particularly clumsy in its proof.) Plot is almost nonexistent, as is characterization. Worst, the narrative feels extraordinarily derivative in multiple dimensions, with distractingly loud echoes of:

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed reading Curious Incident, in a guilty-pleasure sort of mood. I found myself identifying with the narrator in a surprising number of ways. (Hey, I'm "special" too!) But I doubt I'll revisit the book any time soon.

And getting back to the question of special treatment for those with special needs: as is probably obvious, I'm a soft-hearted (or maybe soft-headed?!) fellow who likes to hold doors open for folks who need extra help, for whatever reasons. But I also prefer to minimize self-delusion and maximize honesty. If somebody gets a head start and somebody else has to suffer a handicap, that should be documented and made obvious to all. Fairness is one thing; fiction is another.

(see also Just Desserts (20 Dec 1999), Noblesse Oblige (15 Jan 2000), It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand (29 Sep 2003), ...)

- Thursday, March 10, 2005 at 05:54:02 (EST)

New Nickel

At last night's Montgomery County Coin Club meeting comrades SK and KS distributed samples of the newly-released US five cent piece. The obverse is splendid. It bears a bold profile of the young Thomas Jefferson that manages to escape the bounds of the coin's rim --- a delightful graphic symbol of the "Liberty" that appears in Jefferson's own handwriting. The new nickel's reverse imagery, alas, is startling in its weakness. An American bison huddles, shrunken to fit within the fences of Congressionally-mandated mottos.

The Indian-head (aka "buffalo") nickel of 1913-38 is a contrast in its iconic power. As Verlyn Klinkenborg rhapsodizes in a New York Times editorial (6 Mar 2005):

The new buffalo nickel is, of course, meant to recall the old buffalo nickel ... one of the most attractive coins ever issued in this country. A stern, almost oversized profile of an Indian chief appeared on the obverse --- the most lifelike portrait of a Native American ever to appear on United States coinage. The bison on the reverse was not as naturalistic as the one that appears on the new nickel, but he was far more dominant. The coin can barely contain the creature. His head seems to be bowed to fit within the curvature of the rim, and you can almost sense a breadth of prairie lying beyond him. He faces left, and he could, if he wanted, graze his way out from under the words "United States of America," which arc over his back.

That's great design. Perhaps today's artists, combined with the selection process and constraint of the US Mint's bureaucracy, can no longer match it.

Or maybe there's still hope. After all, what happens when a tornado rips through a gathering of numismatists?

Change is in the air!

(see also Numismatic Ramblings (7 Aug 2000), The Coin (5 Mar 2002), Flying Eagle (16 Apr 2002), Poor Designs (24 Jan 2004), ...)

- Wednesday, March 09, 2005 at 05:45:08 (EST)

Think Our Way Out

Andrew Revkin interviewed filmmaker James Cameron in the 1 February 2005 science section of the New York Times. Near the end of the article, after a variety of fascinating remarks Cameron responds to the question, "Do you think we've kind of lost track of the value of science in the modern world?" with:
I think there seems to be a disconnect on the part of the general public. They enjoy the technologies, which are the children of science. They certainly couldn't live life without their cellphones, which are based on semiconductors, which are based in quantum mechanics. They couldn't live life without their TV sets, which are based on electromagnetic field theory and every other thing. These things had to be figured out by people at a time when they didn't know what the applications were going to be. ...
I think there's actually a backswing against science. I think we're seeing a weird turn back to a faith-based view of the universe as opposed to empiricism. When you've got a country where 50 percent of the people believe in creation over evolution, I think you've got a big problem because we owe our ascendancy as a species to science and technology.
We're past the point of saying let's not do that technology thing any more. Even if we wanted to, we can't go back to the garden. It's not going to happen. We can't go back to an agrarian culture. There's too many of us, and we've trashed the earth and deforested it anyway. Right now we rely on the efficiencies made possible by simple things, like not having warehouses, where you have on-demand supply that's Internet based. Take that away and we die. So we're dependent on this stuff now.
We've got to think our way out of this. If you've got climate change, if you've got pollution, if you've got wars being fought over energy, which are only going to get worse, and wars being fought over resources, which are going to be the story of the 21st century, you're going to need technological solutions and those are going to come from basic research.
Without that, we're going to hit a wall as a civilization. Certainly the Maya did, not for the same reasons, but with equally devastating results.

I especially like the comment, "We've got to think our way out of this." Might make a good motto ...

(see also Feed Or Feedback (6 Sep 2004), ...)

- Monday, March 07, 2005 at 05:23:59 (EST)

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2005

Ed Schultze, Race Director, designed a superb course and pulled together a high-energy group of volunteers for his 5 March 2005 "close to a marathon" event. (Actual distance is estimated by several people to be ~28 miles.) The route begins at the Damascus Regional Park and proceeds down the Magruder Branch Trail to Seneca Creek, which flows thence 20-some-odd miles to enter the Potomac River at Riley's Lock on the C&O Canal. The Greenway Trail [1] meanders generally along the creek, with occasional digressions over ridgelines and around major obstructions. It's fairly new, and has only been extended to its current length since 2003.

The day dawns partly cloudy, temperatures a bit above freezing, no significant wind, no precipitation. The game plan is to drive to near the race's finish line, park, and get a ride to the starting point. I arrive at 0645, barely in time to park, put on my shoes, and clamber on board the bus. Then I discover that I've forgotten my belt-pouch; fortunately, the bus driver is willing to wait for me to trot back to my car and get it.

I sit in the back and immediately the friendly spirit of trail running is obvious: people are exchanging anecdotes, advice, and encouragement, as well as offering each other gear and supplies if needed. During the trip I eat a Clif Bar and drink some Gatorade from my bottle. Then in the starting area we register and mill around. Wayne Carson ("Way-no") and Ron Ely ("Tarzan Boy") chat with me. It's cold here; there's a layer of snow and ice on the ground in shaded areas. I notice a runner snapping photos and offer to take pictures of him with his camera; he's pleased to have that done. (I see him again at an aid station after ~10 miles and do him the same small favor there.)

Ed Schultze gives a quick race pre-brief, and at 0757 we're off! I attempt to capture last place, but after two miles relinquish it to a young lady who wants to go a little slower. Alas, I feel a bit too good and proceed at a somewhat brisk (for me) pace --- a decision which I come to regret for the latter half of the race. As usual, my engine runs hot: about mile 5 I need to take off my hat and long-sleeved outer windshirt. (I discover that I've pinned my race number through it and onto the inner nylon mesh shirt, so I spend a frustrating time walking along and struggling to undo safety pins with my clumsy gloved fingers.) A helpful woman following me picks up my cap, which I've somehow dropped, and returns it to me.

All this time I've been struggling to hold a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle, slightly too big to be grasped comfortably. At the first aid station I pour its contents into a half-empty 20 oz. bottle --- in the process mixing blue and red liquids. "That could explode, you know!" jokes a volunteer.

Today I perform another chemistry experiment on my favorite subject (myself). I've brought along three "Succeed" electrolyte capsules. They're a buffered mixture of sodium and potassium compounds, designed to replace losses due to sweating. Several ultrarunners I've met have recommended them in the strongest terms. I take one pill after an hour and a half, another at the three hour mark, and the last one an hour after that. They seem to help; leg cramps, my bête noir, stay away. As part of the hydration and electrolyte replacement strategy I'm also drinking a lot of sports drinks, and whenever an aid station offers the opportunity I eat a boiled potato dipped in salt as well as a handful of tortilla chips or similar munchies.

After ~10 miles the spring has definitely left my step, and I find myself walking significantly more than I'm running. Clearly my pace thus far has been too fast for the trail conditions and my (pitiful lack of) fitness and ability. I remind myself that this is really a training run (preparation for a 50k and a 50 miler in weeks to come). And I remember the words of Dave Olney (see Taoist State, 12 Nov 2004) and decide that if I have to walk the entire remainder of the distance, that's perfectly acceptable.

Unfortunately for me, a song now begins to run through my brain's fatigue-befuddled circuitry. It's the Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" (by Donald Roeser). But the lyrics are changed to say "Don't Fear the Sweeper" ... the "Sweeper" being the race official designated to go along the trail at a predesignated pace and disqualify runners who are going too slow. I'm somewhat concerned about the Sweeper, given my slow rate of progress at this point.

Thankfully my fears prove unfounded: I arrive at the ~15 mile station, near Clopper Lake in Seneca Creek State Park, after 3 hours 15 minutes --- well ahead of the 4 hour cut-off time for the trail marathon, and in fact eligible by a quarter hour to do an extra loop around the lake and convert the race into a 50+ km ultra. Fortunately I'm sensible enough not to do that. I try not to dawdle and manage to leave the aid station after ~3 minutes. Onward!

Circa mile 18 I meet Rayna Matsuno, a young lady who kindly gives me one of her Succeed capsules --- by this point I've already taken all of mine and still feel a craving for electrolytes. We chat as we walk and jog along, and I learn that she has only been doing long races for a year or so (and she finished the 2004 Marine Corps Marathon more than an hour ahead of me!). When we go astray from the trail a bit, we backtrack to the last marker and, with the help of another lady runner, get back on course. Then Rayna decides she has lollygagged enough with me and runs on ahead.

Several more folks zip by now. Most have done the extra 3.7 mile lake circuit for the 50k ultra option, but there are also some mere marathoners who have paced themselves better than I have. At the next major aid station, just past the 5 hour mark, I discover that my distance estimates have been in error: the volunteer tells me that instead of ~4 miles to go, in actuality ~6 miles remain. "Thank you!" I reply, "I had been fantasizing about finishing in under 6 hours, but now that I know that's impossible I can take my time." I pause to eat another salt-dipped boiled potato, refill my bottle, and hike on.

There seemed to be a lot of mud in the earlier parts of the course, but now I realize that was nothing compared to the bogs between miles 22 and 28. Instead of running with occasional walk breaks, I'm now basically walking with occasional run breaks. The trail makes some major stream crossings here, including a scary one of Seneca Creek itself. Helpful volunteers have strung ropes across, and I cling to one as I step from rock to rock and try not to fall into the roiling waters. I continue my cautious tread on the other side: I've slipped several times thus far and have almost tripped over tree roots, but haven't yet gone down or twisted an ankle. I would prefer not to start now.

The final mile is dirt road, a cakewalk compared to the steep segments hitherto. I manage to trot for most of it and finish in a not-too-disrespectable 6:50:37, sans blisters but with a slightly sunburned pate.

At the journey's end there's coffee, hot vegetarian soup, and a wide variety of munchies. There are also nice gifts for all the finishers, including commemorative jogging shorts donated by REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc. --- a co-op which I've been a member of since the mid-1970s). I meet several more nice people, including Megan Carroll who talks with me about her plans to do the 50k HAT Run in a couple of weeks. Rayna has finished well ahead of me; she spots me in the small crowd and we congratulate each other.

The lessons learned today thus include:

(see also Ice Fangs (6 Feb 2005), ...)

- Saturday, March 05, 2005 at 21:49:47 (EST)

Master and Commander

Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander is an extraordinarily well-written sea story, first in a series of popular novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, M.D. A friend lent me the book and I've enjoyed it tremendously --- but noteworthy for me was not the exacting technical maritime detail, nor the Napoleonic atmosphere, nor the splendid characterization, nor the exciting plot, nor any of the other features that one usually appreciates most in good fiction.

No, the most striking aspect of Master and Commander is the ubiquitous illusion of control that the author conveys. Virtually without exception O'Brian's characters are take-charge individuals. They observe their situation, decide what to do next, and then act. Their choices govern events, even in the thick of battle. There's none of the fog of war, the chaos, the cascading mistakes that in reality tend to dominate serious conflict. There's also scarcely any pain or panic.

I'm not complaining --- O'Brian is a fine author and I applaud his prose. I simply wish real life were so well engineered ...

(see also On Friction (14 Aug 1999), Observe Orient Decide Act (4 Feb 2000), Mission Statement (2 Nov 2001), ...)

- Friday, March 04, 2005 at 21:19:50 (EST)

UPC Satori

"$62.26 --- a palindrome!" the clerk said to me when she finished ringing up my grocery bill. I did a double-take, then smiled back at her. When you're standing in line to check out, you don't expect to get learned commentary from the person who's doing the bar-code scanning. Maybe she was a bored college kid, earning some money between classes? Or a secret sophisticate, slumming to gather material for her next essay of social commentary, whose disguise momentarily slipped? Or was she a modern-day Buddha, working toward enlightenment via one of the most blatant yet invisible service tasks in our economy?

Whatever the reason(s), she was clearly happy and engaged in what she was doing --- and the feeling was contagious!

(see also Unseen University (7 Aug 1999), Over Qualified (4 Mar 2004), ...)

- Wednesday, March 02, 2005 at 06:20:55 (EST)

Later and Milder

The blizzard was forecast to arrive on Sunday evening. Then, in the wee hours of Monday morning. Then, for sure by 7am. Then, in the early afternoon. That's when it finally began to snow --- but at a rate far less than anybody had said.

Winter storm predictions by meteorologists around here almost always seem to be wrong in the same ways. Bad weather is anticipated to arrive earlier than it actually does, and to be more severe than it turns out to be. There are a number of natural reasons for this kind of bias. If you don't give warning and something really serious happens, people remember your mistake (especially if they're unprepared and get hurt). On the other hand, if you postulate a worst-case scenario and things aren't quite as bad, folks will be relieved and will tend to forgive your conservatism. Even more important: if you shout loudly about a dramatic event and it does come (more-or-less) on schedule, then you can use that somewhat-correct prognostication to enhance your reputation and get more attention (and more money) for your next forecast.

In the technological sphere does everybody recall the hypemeisters of the dot-com bubble? And even more guilty, the meta-hypersters who made their living writing about the next big big thing? They had a geniune talent for moving on --- for turning their spotlights on something else when their previous year's fair-haired child prodigies all came a cropper.

My favorite experience of how, even if the techno-soothsayers were "right" they were wrong, began in the mid-1990's when I visited a too-famous-to-mention-here high-tech consulting think tank. The in-house buzz was all about a marvelous new technology --- the DVD --- which would surely come to dominate the market for home entertainment from videotapes within one year, or at most two.

Or so they said. Reality was less nimble by almost an order of magnitude: it took most of a decade for the market to shift, and when that happened it was a far gentler transition than the genius-consultants had predicted ... just like yesterday's snowstorm.

(see also Pop Goes (19 Jun 2001), Year In Ideas (16 Dec 2003), Worse Is Better (23 Dec 2003), Year In Ideas 2004 (30 Dec 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, March 01, 2005 at 06:09:36 (EST)

Purpose of Science

David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, writes about events of the past year in his Annual Report cover letter. He describes various research projects, technical successes, new fundraising initiatives, and campus improvements underway. He also tells of comings and goings among the faculty, and mourns the deaths of several key alumni and faculty members. Baltimore concludes:
When we remember men like these, we are reminded of another --- and perhaps the most profound --- way Caltech influences the world: by training future scientists and engineers. If we did not take the educational component of our mission so seriously, the ranks of the scientific community would be significantly diminished (and I would have far less news to report in this letter). Our illustrious predecessors also remind us of what could be accomplished in an era much less technologically sophisticated than ours. They saw clearly that science is fundamentally a human endeavor, creative and unpredictable, one that finds its highest expression in benefiting humankind. It is a vision that still guides Caltech today.

Lovely words --- which also well describe the vision that guides all explorers, scholars, teachers, students, ...

(see also Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001), Pursuit Of Excellence (22 Feb 2002), Thank You Bell Labs (26 May 2003), Explorers Club (12 Jun 2004), Scientific American (11 Sep 2004), ...)

- Monday, February 28, 2005 at 08:00:01 (EST)

Looking Up Gullible

Yesterday my dear Mother asked me to post some more jokes here, but I don't have any at the moment --- so here's a deep truth: The word "gullible" is not in any dictionary!

Yep, it's not even a real word. (OK, we could get into a philosophical argument about what a "word" is, but not today. Nor will I debate what "is" is.)

Which reminds me of another self-referential question: How do you keep a turkey in suspense?

I'll tell you the answer later ...

(an item related to the infamous "gullible" factoid appears in today's "Marilyn vos Savant" column in Parade magazine; see also Meta Joke (18 Oct 2001), Two Great Secrets (9 Nov 2001), My Affectations (19 Jan 2003), Pirates Versus Ninjas (28 Jul 2004), ...)

- Sunday, February 27, 2005 at 10:29:59 (EST)

Nightingale Floor

A friend recently lent me his copy of Across the Nightingale Floor by the pseudonymous "Lian Hearn". I enjoyed reading it even as I so often have enjoyed eating salty, greasy french fries. The novel is fun, manipulative, exciting, shallow, and well-written. What it lacks is a soul. Unlike Richard Adams's Shardik --- with which it has many surface similarities --- Nightingale contains no moral core, teaches no lesson, reaches no conclusion.

Among other weaknesses the book falls hard, and repeatedly, for what I call the Ugly Fallacy. Noble characters all look beautiful, evil villains are misshapen and squint-eyed, peasants have a blockishly stolid aspect, etc., etc. (Come on now, surprise the reader once in a while with a deformed hero or a comely fiend!) The plot is uniformly predictable, and the ending is a blatant lead-in to a sequel. The scenes of torture feel far too-lovingly drawn.

But there's a positive side to Across the Nightingale Floor, besides the guilty-pleasure french-fry factor: the book is exceptionally strong in its ability to induce a heightened mental state of awareness --- the meta-perceptive feeling of here-and-nowness evoked by certain action/adventure stories (esp. those of the late Keith Laumer) and captured so perfectly in Henry Taylor's poem "After a Movie". Perhaps some day Hearn's talents to do that kind of magic will be applied to a more worthy theme ...

(see also Nimbus Halo Glory Aureole (15 Nov 2001), The Ugly Fallacy (7 Dec 2003), Beautiful Virtue (15 Dec 2003), Glorm Bulb Sorting (14 Aug 2004), ...)

- Saturday, February 26, 2005 at 10:54:14 (EST)

Dungeon of Mystery

A few torn scraps of paper resurfaced here recently --- slightly yellowed with age, origin unknown. They are apparently in my handwriting, but I can't for the life of me remember composing them. They depict a strange grid, three across and six down, apparently the layout of underground rooms in a fantasy adventure game. The first page, labeled "Level 1", looks something like:
entrance to caverns gopher tunnel stove, pipe, ming vase, cobra
toenail clippings eternal flame air conditioning duct
confederate bank vault Roosevelt privy, radium, leech wax wall room
volcanic chimney underground gourmet service tunnel
mine shaft troll sewage elfin quiche factory
mohole home computer warehouse, bear, interferon giant refrigerator

... and the next page, "Level 2", consists of:

oven cafeteria of Mammoth Cave behind the giant's bathroom wall, ivory tusks, cockroach
industrial waste, oriental rug, rat hobbit drying room gold room
rabbit hole Dracula coffin ?
curtain room subway station ?
? ? ?
Minuteman silo dragon's lair circular room

... where "?" indicates an unexplored room. There's also a "Level 3" but it's almost all blank --- almost unexplored --- except for a single cell labeled "giant's stove". Lines and arrows indicate the presence of connections between rooms and among levels.

What does it all mean? The bizarre combinations of artifacts don't sound like anything I could have made up by myself. Is this a scenario from some well-known D&D-style game? Help! --- I'm lost in a maze of twisty little passages ...

(see also Free Action (3 Apr 2000), Here Be Dragons (22 Sep 2000), Sigil Of Power (25 Apr 2004), Booty In The Boot (19 Feb 2005), ...)

- Thursday, February 24, 2005 at 08:27:55 (EST)

Superficial Research

A reference-librarian friend recently forwarded to me a copy of Angelo Fernando's article "Google Intelligence! Sure, Search Engines Deliver, But What About the Off-line World?" (Communication World, January 2005). It's a splendid rant; as the author observes:
... the Internet keeps us happy with superficial or inadequate knowledge gleaned from homepages. It makes us very lazy when it comes to digging deep for information, even though information on a search engine is increasingly managed and massaged before it ends up online. ...

Fernando presents a great example of the Omniscient Net Fallacy from John Lenger's "If a Tree Doesn't Fall on the Internet, Does It Really Exist?" (Columbia Journalism Review, Sept/Oct 2002, at [1]). Journalism students researching the Morroiconog Neck ownership dispute involving Harvard in the year 1732 were warned that they had to consult offline sources. Few of them did, or appreciated why, or could figure out how --- even though Lenger notes, "Harvard University has an extraordinary archive that dates back to its 1636 founding. Harvard also has the world's largest academic library. To get to class, the students had to walk past both the university's main library and the archives."

Fernando quotes Bernard Robertson, a vice president of Daimler/Chrysler Corporation, in the memorable aphorism:

Access to information doesn't make you well-informed any more than a library card makes you well-read.

(see also Digging The Stacks 1 (21 Jun 2001), Digging The Stacks 2 (30 Jun 2001), Digging The Stacks 3 (11 Jul 2001), Hidden Knowledge (25 Jan 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, February 23, 2005 at 05:39:16 (EST)

Seeing Calvin Coolidge

John Derbyshire is a fine writer on topics mathematical (e.g., see Prime Obsession, 4 Jan 2004) and political, but his 1996 novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream is rather a disappointment. It's full of allusions to Chinese culture and history, along with a great richness of literary, linguistic, and historical information from Western society. The author is obviously brilliant, and his style is always clear and fast-paced.

But Derbyshire's attempts at dialogue come out stilted in the extreme, and that's not excused by his use of unconventional typography and a non-native-English speaker as narrator. Several unnecessarily perverse sex scenes distract from the story. Improbable plot devices, along with eccentric central characters, never quite manage to come to life. And at the end of the book it's still unclear quite what the point of the whole thing has been.

Or perhaps it's just me? Maybe I'm not ready to read this book yet; maybe there's a lot more to it than I've been able to glean; maybe it's a deep political/cultural statement that went 'way over my head; maybe it's pure comedy and I'm not getting any of the jokes. Seeing Calvin Coolidge does seem to have elements of all those things. I should read it again some day ...

- Tuesday, February 22, 2005 at 05:23:50 (EST)

Equations and Reality

A friend sent me a pointer to the Philip Ball essay (in Nature, 4 Feb 2005) "Freudian Quips" concerning mathematicans and their sense of humor (or lack thereof, from the viewpoint of a nonmathematician). Among many sharp observations in the article, the most acute is a classic aphorism about the angles from which various personalities view the universe:
Engineers believe equations approximate the real world. Physicists think that the real world approximates equations. Mathematicians are unable to make the connection.

(see also Electrical Engineer (30 Mar 2000), Rubik Cubism 1 (16 Mar 2001), Warning Signs (22 Jan 2002), Engineering Versus Science (14 Dec 2004), ...)

- Monday, February 21, 2005 at 09:46:12 (EST)

Washington's Birthday Marathon 2005

"Just a long training run, with free drinks every few miles and a medal at the end!" Or so I tell myself in the days leading up to this year's 20 Feb 2005 George Washington's Birthday Marathon. But the subconscious seems to think otherwise: on the morning of the race I dream that I'm at the event and warming up by jogging around the neighborhood near the starting line. Suddenly I find that I've gone 10 miles away, it's time to begin the competition, and I can't possibly make it back in time. Besides that, for inexplicable reasons I'm not wearing any running shorts. (Fortunately my traumshirt is exorbitantly long.) At that point I awaken; it's 4am, far too early to get up.

But after that nightmare scenario, reality has to be good --- and it is. I meet a huge number of extraordinarily nice people, pace myself far better than ever before, feel comfortable throughout the marathon, and finish in 4:49:20 according to my watch, more than 20 minutes faster than last year and a new personal record for the distance by ~3 minutes. I also achieve at long last the elusive goal of "negative splits", with the second half of the race taking ~4 minutes less than the first half.


Before the event I encounter Steve (whom I ran with here last year), Amy (a fast ultrarunner who views today as a training run for future outings), and Ron Ely (aka "Tarzanboy", another fast ultramarathoner). Race officials are friendly and efficient. I swap my bib number for one designating the hour-early-start option for slower participants. Then I slather on SPF50 sunscreen to preclude another unpleasant ultraviolet catastrophe.

The weather seems relatively warm to me, with a temperature in the upper 30's and little wind. I'm wearing only shorts and a nylon mesh t-shirt. Everybody else seems to have on tights, gloves, jackets, hats, and other winter paraphernalia. So I succumb to peer pressure and fetch my windshirt and cap from the car. At this point I discover that I've forgotten to bring a water bottle or Gatorade to carry with me. Tough luck; I'll just have to drink at the aid stations every few miles.

I walk with a dozen or so likeminded self-declared poky runners to the starting line, and shortly before 9:30am we're off. Steve zips ahead and is soon out of sight --- he must have been training hard for the past year. I slide into last place and chat with a lady runner there for a while, until she speeds away. After less than a mile I'm getting overheated, so I take off my outer shirt and tie it around my waist. My hat soon joins it in strategic reserve.


During the second mile I fall in with a cluster of Annapolis Strider running club comrades: Don, Ron, Charlie, and Will. They're superb companions, full of jokes and good spirits as they set a perfect pace, ~11 minutes/mile with one-minute walk breaks every five minutes. Their plan is to cruise along in preparation for the HAT Run a month from now. Near them is a visitor from Portland Oregon named Art, a chiropractor whom I talk with until he decides to pick up the pace and move ahead about mile 4.

The Striders and I stick together for the entire first loop, miles 3-10. Everybody agrees that the weather is much warmer than forecast, and several of my fellow-travelers ditch some garments, to be picked up just before the home stretch. The shoulders of the road are littered with beer and liquor and soda bottles. About mile 7 I spy a discarded Pepsi container that promises a chance to win an Apple iTunes song. I pause to pick it up, unscrew the cap, and hooray! --- I'm a winner. This seems a good omen.

Shortly after we finish the first circuit the quartet of Striders begin to cut back their pace a bit. Since I'm still feeling frisky I decide to push on in solo mode, maintaining ~11 min/mi net pace, walking uphill segments and jogging on downhills and flat parts of the course. I catch up with Art of Portland shortly before mile 13, and when we cross the halfway point at under 2.5 hours we agree that there's a chance to break 5 hours total for the race. (Mental arithmetic is one of the first skills to depart during a long run, so this calculation is not entirely trivial.)

Art and I stay close together until the 15 mile aid station, where I proceed onwards while he pauses for a drink. The third and final orbit, miles l7-24 is mostly by myself. Fast runners who have started at the normal time, an hour behind me, are lapping me now, as are relay team members. Every time I pass through an underpass below the Baltimore Washington Parkway I hoot like a train whistle and enjoy the echoes. Besides two or three small cups of Gatorade every few miles during the event my progress is fueled by half an energy bar plus six hard candies.


The final two miles back to the finish line go fairly rapidly, in spite of a long hill at mile 25. I meet a runner named Paul and play leapfrog with him: one of us passes the other, then vice versa, as we alternate walking and jogging during the climb. Finally he takes the lead for good, heading in for a ~3:45 finish time. I have been guardedly optimistic about breaking 5 hours for some time now, but as the last miles go by smoothly I start to push a bit in hopes of making it under 4:50. I "sprint" (using the term loosely) for the last few hundred yards and succeed.

In the Recreation Center there's hot veggie chili and other food for the finishers. Prizes for winners are announced, to much applause. I sit with Steve, who came in ~10 minutes ahead of me and improved his time from the prior year by almost an hour. He introduces me to Keith from Philadelphia, a fast runner who qualified for the Boston Marathon this year and who has a delightful British accent to go with his friendly and encouraging attitude. We all agree that this course is a fine but tough one, with the hills making for times perhaps ~15 minutes slower than on a flat route.

As I return to the car for the drive home the first snowflakes of the day begin to fall. A few inches of wintery mix are forecast for tonight. In the parking lot I spy the race director, Pat Brown, and thank him for a wonderful experience.



"Raw Pace" (circles) = split information for each mile ... "smoothed" (plus signs) = pace averaged over adjacent miles ... "smoother" (filled area) = further re-averaged pace data

Mile Time Pace Mile Time Pace Mile Time Pace
1 0:10:51 10:51 10 1:53:08 11:30 19 3:30:09 11:13
2 0:21:07 10:16 11 2:04:22 11:14 20 3:40:42 10:33
3 0:33:28 12:21 12 2:15:39 11:17 21 3:51:33 10:51
4 0:43:57 10:29 13 2:25:36 09:57 22 4:02:33 11:00
5 0:55:01 11:04 14 2:36:07 10:31 23 4:13:50 11:17
6 1:06:36 11:35 15 2:47:12 11:05 24 4:25:14 11:24
7 1:17:34 10:58 16 2:57:42 10:30 25 4:36:13 10:59
8 1:29:38 12:04 17 3:09:04 11:22 26 4:47:29 11:16
9 1:41:38 12:00 18 3:18:56 09:52 26.2 4:49:20 09:15

(see also Washington Birthday Marathon 2004 (23 Feb 2004), ...)

- Sunday, February 20, 2005 at 21:18:41 (EST)

Booty in the Boot

Too much Dungeons & Dragons in one's youth makes for a sometimes-bizarre set of allusions and imagery during conversation. In order to get my kids to assist me in bringing things into the house from the back of the car, for instance, I will occasionally announce:
"Avast, ye scalawags! Thar be a trunk full o' treasure, ready fer the lootin', outside in the driveway. Fetch it in, me hearties, and ye can each claim a share o' the plunder!"

Sometimes this is annoying enough that it incentivizes one or two children to help carry in the groceries or the family laundry. And in the opposite direction, fantasy rôle-playing metaphors can occasionally provoke the formation of a "party of adventurers" to take out the trash or the recycling bin --- I mean, "undertake a quest" to "destroy an evil artifact" by removing it to "Mount Doom" ...

(see also Free Action (3 Apr 2000), Here Be Dragons (22 Sep 2000), Sigil Of Power (25 Apr 2004), ...)

- Saturday, February 19, 2005 at 17:33:26 (EST)

Paul Reese

Marathon & Beyond [1] is a bimonthly delight, each volume a small book's worth of anecdotes and ideas --- and not just about distance running. The January/February 2005 issue includes an article full of wisdom by Paul Reese with the grim title "Coping with the Inevitable". It is subtitled, bluntly, "Aging and Diminished Physical Capacity are Part of Life. We Need to Work Around Them."

Reese interviews several strong fellow runners who have had to stop because of heart attacks, cancer, or major injuries. They analyze the changes they've experienced, the blows to their self-esteem, the falling-back and regrouping that they've had to undertake. Young athletes won't appreciate it, but the same inexorable laws of nature apply to them as to the rest of us. Paul writes of his own recent encounter with harsh reality:

Reflecting on 40 years of running and racing, I've come to the realization that the most important consideration about running is not how fast you can run, not how far you can run, but rather, the degree and manner in which running and racing enhance your life. That is the sum and substance of the worth of running. Having said that, I would venture to guess that very few runners either think or dwell on such enhancement. Their energies, their thoughts, are directed to times, PRs, races, mileage, gear, and the eternal search for the perfect shoe. I plead guilty to having done much of that when I was competing. Maybe the realization and appreciation of enhancement dawn only after a person has suffered the loss of running and racing. While active, we're just too damned obsessed with the inconsequential to recognize how privileged we are, how running and racing enhance our lives. One thing for sure, if you lose running and racing, you had better be able to devise ways to compensate because you will have a huge void to fill when you come to realize how running enhanced your life.

And the same applies to all human beings, whatever their paths may be in pursuit of meaning. No good thing lasts forever. What counts is not what you've done, or where you've been --- but what you do next, and where you are now.

Reese died on 6 Nov 2004, from complications after heart surgery. He was 87 years old. In 1990, when he was "only" 73, he ran across the United States: 3192 miles in 124 days, roughtly a marathon per day.

R.I.P. Paul Reese --- for the long run ...

(see also Bennett On Life (19 Mar 2000), Not Easy (31 Mar 2001), My Ob (18 Aug 2002), Good Day (25 Oct 2002), Thank Goodness (25 Dec 2002), Eric Clifton (1 Oct 2004), Taoist State (12 Nov 2004), ...)

- Thursday, February 17, 2005 at 05:37:33 (EST)

Longest and Shortest

What major city has both the longest and the shortest names? I don't know of an "official" answer, but my favorite candidate is surely:
La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula

... in English, "The City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the River Porciuncula" --- commonly known nowadays as LA = L.A. = "Los Angeles". Some sources say that the original name in 1781 was just "El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles" --- not quite as long, but still a nice mouthful.

(In another LA tradition, the oldest murder mystery in the area may be associated with a woman's skeleton dating back ~9,000 years, found with a fractured skull in the La Brea tar pits ca. 1914 ...)

- Wednesday, February 16, 2005 at 05:45:54 (EST)

Perfect Communication

When two people love one another and have been together for a long time, they sometimes seem able to read each other's minds. Leo Tolstoy describes a reunion of such a fortunate couple in the denoument of War and Peace (Book IV, Part One, Chapter 16):
As soon as Natasha and Pierre were alone they too began to talk as only a husband and wife can talk, that is, apprehending one another's thoughts and exchanging ideas with extraordinary swiftness and perspicuity, contrary to all the rules of logic, without the aid of premises, deductions, or conclusions, and in a quite singular way. Natasha was so used to this kind of talk with her husband that for her it was a sure sign of something wrong between them if Pierre followed a logical train of thought. When he began proving something, cooly reasoning, and she, led on by his example, began to do the same, she knew they were on the verge of a quarrel.
From the moment they were alone together and Natasha, wide-eyed with happiness, stole up to him, suddenly seizing his head and pressing it to her breast and saying: "Now you are mine, all mine! You shan't escape!" --- from that moment there sprang up a conversation that was contrary to all the laws of logic, contrary because entirely different subjects were talked of at the same time. This simultaneous discussion of many topics, far from hindering a clear understanding, was the surest indication that they fully understood each other.
Just as in a dream when everything is unreal, meaningless, and contradictory except the feeling that governs the dream, so in this communion of thoughts, contrary to all laws of reason, the words themselves were not clear and consecutive, but only the feeling that prompted them. ...

Happy Valentine's Day!

(from the translation by Ann Dunnigan; see also Truth In Battle (11 Feb 2001), Ooze On Verst (22 Sep 2004), Irresistible Attraction (4 Oct 2004), Infinite Sky (15 Oct 2004), Untutored Voice (3 Nov 2004), Stripped Threads (15 Nov 2004), Patience And Time (11 Jan 2005), Guerrilla Warfare (26 Jan 2005), ...)

- Monday, February 14, 2005 at 06:29:52 (EST)

Without Limits

Sports movies aren't my cup of tea. Most of the time the characters are cardboard cut-outs, the dialog is pedestrian, and the historical situation is presented from a biased viewpoint (if it isn't totally fictionalized). Worse yet, the typical athletic movie focuses mainly on interpersonal rivalry and intergroup conflict, often of a violent or unsporting nature --- not on the real human challenges of self-awareness and self-improvement.

But occasionally a sports-thematic flick scores a base hit. Without Limits (1998, written by Robert Towne and Kenny Moore) isn't a great film, but it is surprisingly good. It tells the story of Steve Prefontaine, a legendary distance runner (who died young, in a one-car accident probably associated with his drunken driving). At a key moment in the movie Bill Bowerman, Pre's coach at the University of Oregon, comments to a group of young runners:

"Running, one might say, is basically an absurd pastime upon which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning in the kind of running required of you to stay on this team, perhaps you'll find meaning in another absurd pastime: Life."

(see also Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), Self Improvement (29 Jul 2002), Lose Track (11 Nov 2002), Aikido Spirit (9 Dec 2003), One Third Each (11 Jan 2004), Patience And Time (11 Jan 2005), ...)

- Saturday, February 12, 2005 at 15:10:24 (EST)

Extra Curricular

A biblio-bumper sticker:
Think Outside the Classroom --- Visit a Library!

(see also Book Houses (14 Dec 1999), Boston Public Library (20 Jun 2002), Proud Signage (23 Apr 2003), Knowledge And Public Happiness (29 Jul 2003), Got Library (17 Sep 2003), ... )

- Friday, February 11, 2005 at 06:15:10 (EST)

Seventeen Sides

While exchanging some techno-banter with an engineer/scientist/teacher recently, I suddenly remembered a couple of conversations with the late Caltech professor Jon Mathews back in 1975. Mathews was lecturing on mathematical methods of physics, and after a discussion of Fourier analysis I worked up my courage (as a nervous first-year grad student) to hang around after class and ask some questions. In proper pedagogic fashion, Mathews replied with further questions, and at one point I referred to "frequency space" --- a phrase which he challenged me to define.

Here's an attempt: Fourier transforms take a function (e.g., a sound such as musical chord) and analyze it in terms of sums of other functions (e.g., the pure tones that add up to make the original sound). It's kind of like sending a beam of light through a prism which breaks it up into its constituent colors --- or contrariwise, which takes a spectrum as input and merges it into a single beam. (Yep, a prism can do that.) My mental model of Fourier analysis associates it with a "real space" (including perhaps the graph of a signal versus time) and a "frequency space" (the results of the transform, totally equivalent in its information content). That's what I was trying to say when I spoke of "frequency space".

And remembering that brought to mind another classroom interaction I had with Professor Mathews. Warming up to perform a magical-mathematical feat of problem-solving (which Mathews was notorious for among the students) he suddenly asked, "Does anybody know what's on Gauss's tombstone?" I diffidently raised a hand and suggested, "A seventeen-sided figure?" based on some half-remembered biography of the great mathematician. "Right!" replied Mathews, happy to find that somebody else in the room was (1) awake, and (2) shared his interest in technical trivia.

Alas, we were both wrong on that one. In 1796, at age 19, Karl Friedrich Gauss did prove that a 17-sided regular polygon (aka heptadecagon, or heptakaidecagon) could be constructed with the classical tools of compass and straightedge. It was the first big step forward in that aspect of geometry since the ancient Greeks. But the figure doesn't decorate Gauss's gravestone, contrary to popular myth. "Popular" in some extremely limited circles, that is ...

(see also Jon Mathews (25 Apr 1999), Foxy Fables (23 Apr 2002), ...)

- Thursday, February 10, 2005 at 05:37:57 (EST)

Mystery Religion

I know next to nothing about them, but I'm still fascinated by the "Mystery Religions" of ancient Rome and Greece ... by the so-called "Mysterian" approach to the riddle of consciousness ... and by poetry and music and philosophy that wrestle with deep enigmas. Recently a Sarah McLachlan song grabbed my ear; it's called "Building a Mystery" and begins:
   You come out at night
   That's when the energy comes
   And the dark side's light
   And the vampires roam
   You strut your rasta wear
   And your suicide poem
   And a cross from a faith
   That died before Jesus came
   You're building a mystery

What does it mean? I have no idea!

(then there's the bizarre and funny Japanese movie The Mysterians, with its badly-translated-into-English sountrack that includes a reference to a "little star" when they meant to say "asteroid"; see also The Mysterians (2 Aug 1999), Colin McGinn (30 Oct 2003), Man Of Mystery (12 Aug 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, February 08, 2005 at 06:16:40 (EST)

For back issues of the ^zhurnal see Volumes v.01 (April-May 1999), v.02 (May-July 1999), v.03 (July-September 1999), v.04 (September-November 1999), v.05 (November 1999 - January 2000), v.06 (January-March 2000), v.07 (March-May 2000), v.08 (May-June 2000), v.09 (June-July 2000), v.10 (August-October 2000), v.11 (October-December 2000), v.12 (December 2000 - February 2001), v.13 (February-April 2001), v.14 (April-June 2001), 0.15 (June-August 2001), 0.16 (August-September 2001), 0.17 (September-November 2001), 0.18 (November-December 2001), 0.19 (December 2001 - February 2002), 0.20 (February-April 2002), 0.21 (April-May 2002), 0.22 (May-July 2002), 0.23 (July-September 2002), 0.24 (September-October 2002), 0.25 (October-November 2002), 0.26 (November 2002 - January 2003), 0.27 (January-February 2003), 0.28 (February-April 2003), 0.29 (April-June 2003), 0.30 (June-July 2003), 0.31 (July-September 2003), 0.32 (September-October 2003), 0.33 (October-November 2003), 0.34 (November 2003 - January 2004), 0.35 (January-February 2004), 0.36 (February-March 2004), 0.37 (March-April 2004), 0.38 (April-June 2004), 0.39 (June-July 2004), 0.40 (July-August 2004), 0.41 (August-September 2004), 0.42 (September-November 2004), 0.43 (November-December 2004), 0.44 (December 2004 - February 2005), 0.45 (February-March 2005), 0.46 (March-May 2005), 0.47 (May-June 2005), 0.48 (June-August 2005), 0.49 (August-September 2005), ... Current Volume. Send comments and suggestions to z (at) his.com. Thank you! (Copyright © 1999-2005 by Mark Zimmermann.)