^zhurnal 0.49

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.49 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 = 0.48 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com" ... tnx!)

Rock Creek Trail: Miles 0 to 4

RCT00 [map] Rock Creek Trail begins at the edge of Rock Creek Park, where Beach Drive crosses the DC line and enters Maryland. The RCT is a beautiful paved pathway shared by perambulator-pushers, walkers, runners, cyclists, skaters, and (in a few segments) horses and their riders. All-weather water fountains are placed every 2-3 miles along the route; they generally work well unless temperatures are far below freezing. Water is available in the initial mile near the tennis courts at the "Candy Cane City" playground.
[map] The first mile of RCT has been rerouted and lengthened over the years to curve around various ballfields and playgrounds. The result of these modifications is that the Mile One marker had to be moved a few hundred feet south of its original site. It now stands just outside Meadowbrook Stables. When the barns are open, water and other conveniences may be available inside. In measuring distances traveled, remember that the gap between Milepost One and Milepost Two is ~1.1 miles. RCT01
RCT02 [map] After crossing East-west Highway RCT passes by the Ohr Kodesh Congregation synagogue (please be quiet on Saturday mornings!) and through Ray's Meadow Park, where a good water fountain and porta-john are positioned near the 1.25 mile marker painted on the asphalt. At the 1.5 mile point the trail passes under a magnificent wooden trestle which once carried the Georgetown Branch railroad line across Rock Creek. See the Capital Crescent Trail web site for history, photographs, and further details. RCT continues northward and after another quarter mile crosses a wood-and-metal bridge over the water. On the upstream side of both ends of that bridge there begin a pair of unpaved trails, marked with bright violet blazes, that wind through sometimes-rough and overgrown terrain. The two legs of this "inner purple line" proceed on either side of Rock Creek to rejoin at another footbridge inside the Capital Beltway. Rock Creek Trail meanwhile wends its way farther from the stream as it passes behind various residential back-yards, through dense pine woods and occasional marshy areas. A well-marked side trail on the west leads to Woodend Sanctuary, a nature center owned by the Audubon Naturalist Society.
[map] Beyond the woodsy route to Milepost Two, RCT goes through some small valleys and emerges to run through open spaces between the creek and Beach Drive. The path crosses the street and, at about the 2.6 mile point, passes under the Capital Beltway. RCT then turns west to follow Beach below the looming spires of the Mormon Temple. A roadside path up the hill leads to the Temple parking lot entrance. At Old Spring Road, just after RCT crosses to the other side of Beach again (about the 3.9 mile point) another water fountain is situated. RCT03
RCT04 [map] Between Milepost Three and Four the Rock Creek Trail wriggles along Beach Drive with the "roller coaster" segment of the Beltway slightly to the south. Exercise equipment is stationed at intervals along the trail, as are park benches and a bulletin board. Wooded areas offer the chance to see deer, rabbits, and the occasional chipmunk. As it approaches Connecticut Avenue (mile 3.75) the trail forks, with a shorter path leading to the traffic light and crosswalk, while the main route proceeds down to pass beneath Connecticut in a lighted, paved, but sometimes muddy and flooded underpass. (Note: a jogger was assaulted in this general segment of the trail in summer of 2005; exercise appropriate caution.)

(26 Sep) - See [map] for a zoomable map showing the locations of GPS waypoints taken by ^z at every milepost along Rock Creek Trail, plus other landmarks. The map links in the image descriptions above have been tweaked to correspond to true milepost locations as depicted on Google Maps.

(photos taken by Mark Zimmermann along RCT; cf. Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Google Map Experiments (11 Sep 2005), ...)

- Monday, September 26, 2005 at 20:14:13 (EDT)

Charles Rodrigues

Besides astronomy, chess, and science-fiction, as a teenager I became interested in hobby electronics: amateur radio, short-wave listening, etc. But the ham magazines were generally too technical to excite me much, and I didn't care for all the advertisements and assessments of expensive products in Popular Electronics or Stereo Review. So in the late 1960s my favorite publication in the field was Electronics Illustrated. It combined good humor with solid information at a level my enthusiastic juvenile self could appreciate. (Perhaps predictably, the 'zine soon went defunct.)

Hilarious cartoons by Charles Rodrigues appeared almost every month in EI. My favorite came to mind again recently, in the context of my gradually deteriorating physical condition. It shows a hi-fi equipment store with a big sign in the front window:

    Why pay for sound you can't hear?
       Try our custom stereo system
           50Hz-5kHz performance
            Sale price $149.95!

Alas, Charles Rodrigues passed away last year at the age of 77. R.I.P.

(cartoon description from memory and likely inaccurate, but the spirit is there; cf. Molybde Numbed (10 Jan 2001), Wouff Hong And Rettysnitch (19 Jul 2001), Hamming It Up (10 Jan 2003), Top Band (20 Dec 2003), ...)

- Sunday, September 25, 2005 at 08:44:14 (EDT)

Through Obscurity

There's a famous term-of-art in the infosec field: "security through obscurity". It refers to the method of controlling access to something by keeping key parts of the protection mechanism unpublished, hypercomplex, or otherwise hidden from the casual observer. This is generally bad, in that once the secret gets out the entire system becomes vulnerable.

But in a big bureaucracy, I've discovered, one can sometimes build a successful career by keeping a low profile, avoiding eye contact, never volunteering, etc.—a principle which might be termed "Job security through obscurity". It really works!

- Friday, September 23, 2005 at 05:47:59 (EDT)

Incessant Barking

A cartoon by Alex Gregory shows one dog speaking to another. The caption reads:

"I had my own blog for a while, but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking."

(from The New Yorker, 12 Sep 2005 issue; cf. Blog And Wiki (24 Jun 2002), Essential Newspaper (24 Mar 2005), Unreliable Narrators (12 Apr 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, September 21, 2005 at 06:01:33 (EDT)

Good Turn

A charming story, perhaps even partially true: in 1909, American businessman William Boyce was lost in a London fog. A small boy in an unfamiliar uniform approached him and offered to guide him to his hotel. When they arrived Boyce tried to give him a tip, but the boy refused to accept any money for doing what he called a "good turn". He vanished into the fog.

That encounter with "The Unknown Scout" impressed Boyce enough that he contacted Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement in England. And that led to the formation of Boy Scout Troop 1 in the USA — and gave more than 100 million kids the chance to go on camp-outs, learn first aid, wash mess kits, give speeches, teach younger friends how to chop wood and light fires in (relative!) safety, and acquire a host of other useful experiences that have helped them grow up to be better adults ...

(OK, I must admit that if The Unknown Scout hadn't done it, somebody else would have ... but it's still a nice fable, eh?! Meanwhile cf. Ein Ben Stein (19 Sep 2002), Peace Scouts (17 Jun 2003), ...)

- Tuesday, September 20, 2005 at 05:27:06 (EDT)

Washington Nationals Baseball 2005

When you get to the ballpark early for a mid-week late-season game between two teams that are both out of contention for any championships, and your tickets are high up in the nosebleed section, and the setting sun is glowering in your face, and the beer is too expensive, and the shave-ice isn't ready yet, and your comrades are stuck in rush-hour traffic ... well, being a fan can get a bit lonely..


But it can also be great fun. I still like amateur baseball better than minor league, and the minors better than the majors. But because "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (Emerson), since the Washington Nationals took up residence in DC I've listened to scores (twenties!) of their games on the radio, watched all or part of at least a dozen on television, and attended four in person at charming RFK Stadium. Notes on those from the tattered ^z scorebook:

(cf. Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), ...)

- Sunday, September 18, 2005 at 16:49:06 (EDT)

Numb Skull

Since a few (very few!) folks have asked about—or at least feigned interest in—how the latest ^z injury is doing, here's a quick report sans gruesome imagery. In brief, it's mostly healed already.

A month ago I suddenly had a shallow thumbprint-sized pit on the forehead when a basal cell carcinoma was cut out (cf. Furrowed Brow, 18 Aug 2005). That wound was cleaned up and sewn shut by a nice plastic surgeon, leaving me with a couple of internal self-dissolving sutures and one external stitch, removed by the medic a week later. Some nerves to the upper scalp flow through that area, so I have found myself with an area of numbness about the shape covered by a hand with the heel of the palm resting on the left eyebrow and the fingers reaching almost to the crown of the head. That patch should recover sensation gradually over the next few months, I'm told. (Meanwhile, don't get into a head-butting contest with me!)

Interestingly enough from a biomechanical perspective, during the initial fortnight after surgery whenever I squeezed my left eye shut I experienced abrupt stabbing pains, as though somebody were poking me in the top of the head with an ice pick. I speculate that this feeling was displaced from the actual location above the eyebrow where internal stitchwork was binding the layers of skin and muscle.

Unfortunately, an uncountable number of unremarkable activities tend to trigger an unconscious eye-closing episode—coughing, pulling on a t-shirt, laughing, drying the face after a bath, sipping a hot beverage, sneezing, etc.—and whenever one feels a twinge, the natural involuntary reaction is grimace and shut the eye harder. Ouch-a-roonie! This vicious cycle of pain caused some merriment (and occasional expressions of sympathy) among those who observed my suffering. Eventually I learned to hold the eye open, or at least not squinch it shut.

On the morning of Saturday 3 September I semi-felt/semi-heard a couple of tiny pings on my left forehead, as though some wee guitar strings were popping. Presumably at that moment the internal temporary sutures had weakened enough to snap. Since then I feel no pain when I squint, frown, raise or lower an eyebrow, or do a hundred other daily facial expressions. Hooray! And as for appearances, I have no complaints. The scar seems to be healing nicely, and to a fair extent looks like an unusual wrinkle in an unusually smooth brow on the left side. Alas, the affected eyebrow no longer curves upward like a Vulcan from Star Trek.

- Saturday, September 17, 2005 at 05:06:49 (EDT)

Ecological Economics

Herman Daly and Joshua Farley have written a polemic thinly disguised as a textbook. Its title is Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, and although it brings a host of interesting ideas to the table, it leaves most of them unexplored.

The German word wertfrei means something like "value-free", or perhaps "objective". Good science is wertfrei — it studies Nature as revealed through experiment and observation. Human values are essential to ethics and morality. But the job of the scientist is not to uphold a set of cherished beliefs or prejudices; it's to seek the truth, the way the world really works, not how one might wish it were. If economics is to be a science and not simply politics by other means, its practitioners must likewise set aside their preconceived goals until after they have discovered the rules of the game.

The chief shortcoming of Ecological Economics is thus its authors' inability to stop grinding their axes. Every so often, particularly in the earlier chapters, the preaching pauses long enough to make a solid point ... but then the sermon recommences. And there are lesser distractions, particularly when topics from mathematical physics (e.g., entropy and statistical mechanics) are seriously garbled due to technical misunderstandings.

But enough carping! There are also important concepts that Ecological Economics introduces, including:

Buried among the chaff are grains of important wheat. For instance, I would not have naïvely guessed that in industrialized countries the division of total income is ~70% wages, ~20% profits, ~8% interest, and ~2% land rent — an accounting that Daly and Farley point out does not adequately include natural resource depletion. And when the time comes for policy decisions the authors suggest some reasonable guidelines, including the cute mantra, "Tax bads, not goods!" as a foundation for governmental revenue-raising.

And there's the rousing comment in Chapter 3:

It is a gross prejudice to think that the future will always know more than the past. Every new generation is born totally ignorant, and just as we are always only one failed harvest away from starvation, we are also always only one failed generational transfer of knowledge away from darkest ignorance. Althought it is true that today many people know many things that no one knew in the past, it is also true that large segments of the present generation are more ignorant than were large segments of past generations. The level of policy in a democracy cannot rise above the average level of understanding of the population. In a democracy, the distribution of knowledge is as important as the distribution of wealth.

Exaggerated for rhetorical effect, yes, but worth thinking about ... like many issues raised by Ecological Economics. A good textbook gives the student an armamentarium — a toolbox of analytic techniques plus the knowledge of how and when to apply each instrument to meet the challenge at hand. With some serious editing, this book could begin to do that.

(cf. Question Authority (18 Jan 2000), Feed Or Feedback (6 Sep 2004), Estate Tax (6 May 2005), Social Wealth (18 May 2005), Steady State Economy (11 Jun 2005), ...)

- Thursday, September 15, 2005 at 05:11:20 (EDT)

Supply and Demand

In a recent column Ben Stein quotes Peter Flanigan's formulation of an economic axiom:

There is no such thing as scarcity and no such thing as surplus. There is only price.

(cf. New York Times 11 Sep 2005, "After Katrina, Invest in Oil, but Shut Off the A.C." by Ben Stein; cf. Money Wisdom (20 May 2001), Ein Ben Stein (19 Sep 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, September 13, 2005 at 05:29:47 (EDT)

Google Map Experiments

The nice programmers at Google have done some clever things with dynamic HTML and big fast servers with mountains o' maps and aerial imagery. Recently Google unveiled an interface to let other people create and display zoomable scrollable maps. My initial crude efforts along these lines are visible on http://zhurnaly.com/maps/Maryland_Trail_GPS_Waypoints.html — the locations of mileposts 0 through 13 along Rock Creek Trail near where I live. (Click on a point to see its identity; drag the map around or click the up/down/left/right arrows in the upper left corner to pan the view; click or drag the vertical +/- slider to expand or contract the scale; click the Map/Satellite/Hybrid buttons to see alternative images and overlays.)

Much remains to be done, but it's starting to get slightly cute now, at least to the proud eyes of the programmer who gave birth to it. Really, all I did was adapt the sample scripts that Google provided, and then pour in latitudes and longitudes from one of my old coordinate collections. But I had to (re)learn some Javascript and XML to get it working, and that was fun.

What's next? On the data side I see that some of my GPS coordinates are off by tens of meters and need to be corrected. Maybe some day I'll put in better captions and plot other points along Paint Branch Trail, Northwest Branch, Northeast Branch, and my other favorite jogging paths. It might also be cute to draw lines along the trail routes, add sidebars with links to supplemental information, and so forth. I have an album of photos of the mileposts along the trails, and perhaps it would be neat to make those pop up too.

A higher-level question, however, remains: can (or should) this sort of thing be Wiki-fied? Perhaps people could add new points and commentary to the waypoints.xml data file, for instance, and edit existing markers. The "Katrina Information Map" site http://www.scipionus.com/ does this in a spiffy fashion.

How might that be implemented most easily here? What sorts of data would people want to share? Is the programming worth the trouble? I dunno ...

(for the Google Maps API see [1]; cf. Coordinate Collection (19 May 2002), Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Marathon Coordinates (3 Oct 2002), Marine Corps Ordnance (1 Nov 2002), Anacostia Tributaries (28 Jan 2003), Edwards Folly (13 Apr 2003), Rileys Rumble (27 Jul 2003), ...)

- Sunday, September 11, 2005 at 08:45:14 (EDT)

Unmotivated Obstreperousness

The Long Run (written by Johann Potgieter) is a movie that I wanted to like, for multiple reasons. It features lovely South African scenery and fine music, engaging actors and thoughtful social commentary. The story centers on an ultramarathon, the famous 89 km Comrades race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

But alas, the movie falls apart in both characterization and content. Protagonists argue and fight for no reason other than to provide artificial plot twists. Curmudgeonly behavior escalates into irrational obstructionism. Focus ramps up too quickly into obsession. And as for the running: besides carrying far too much fat on their bodies, the athletes scarcely sweat and rarely look even semi-exhausted during training. The portrayal of ultra-distance agony seems to center on falling down with feigned leg cramps and making facial expressions that suggest severe indigestion.

Please! Couldn't we at least have some chafing and a few blisters?

(cf. Two Towers (29 Dec 2002), And Then The Vulture Eats You (9 Dec 2004), Endless Stairmaster (22 Jan 2005), Running Through The Wall (23 Jan 2005), Without Limits (12 Feb 2005), Ultramarathon Man (14 Apr 2005),...)

- Saturday, September 10, 2005 at 16:25:59 (EDT)

Too Young

In the first chapter of his book Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way Pope John Paul II writes entertainingly of his early years in the Church. When he unexpectedly learns in 1958 that he has been named an auxiliary bishop the author, then a young priest, objects:

"Your Eminence, I'm too young; I'm only thirty-eight."

But the Primate replies:

"That is a weakness which can soon be remedied."

(exchange pointed out by JK; cf. Guilt And Shame (30 Jun 2002), ...)

- Thursday, September 08, 2005 at 05:36:33 (EDT)

On the Road Again

The Year of Interrupted Training continues apace. After a pair of longish slowish runs in Amherst I return home for surgery to remove a minor skin cancer (cf. Furrowed Brow, 18 Aug 2005). I'm advised by Dr. Frankenstein not to get my sewn-up forehead sweaty for a few weeks. Ten days after the stitches come out I'm feeling chipper, the weather is cool, and my Brother has sent me an early birthday present that I want to try—time to trot! So for the logbook, the past month's pedestrianism includes the following pitiable performances:

Norwottuck Rail Trail West

6 Aug 2005 - 14 miles, 171 minutes — What a difference 10°F makes! Yesterday's cold front has knocked temperatures down nicely, yesterday's big bowl of chili has cleaned out the old digestive system, and at 6:15am it's time to hit the road. Downtown Amherst is starting to stir as vendors set up their booths for the annual Teddy Bear Festival. The Norwottuck Rail Trail is quiet as I trot a half dozen miles, rising sun at my back, to the Connecticut River. Three bunny rabbits and one chipmunk flee my fearsome approach. A big blue-black dragonfly buzzes along in front of me. One stinging deer fly bites me on the back.

A 1:1 ratio of jog:walk feels comfortable, as four outbound measured trail miles average 12:12. I'm stingy with water until I reach the Saturn of Hadley fountain after ~6 miles and find it working, at which point I refill my bottle, take an electrolyte capsule, and commence nibbling an energy bar. The return trip is somewhat faster, average pace 12:06, as I push myself (and as the presence of an increasing number of ladies inhibits me in taking walk breaks). Some slight ankle and leg weakness is worrisome at times, and minor chafing in the netherworld troubles me for the final miles, but overall the journey is a happy one, my longest since the Frankentoe Incident of 30 March 2005.

Norwottuck Rail Trail East

8 Aug - 7+ miles, 91 minutes — Overcast and humid at 6am today, as I set out for the last run in Amherst: south from the motel on Pleasant Street to the Norwottuck Rail Trail, then turning eastwards and proceeding ~2.5 miles to the starting point of the path on Station Road. I spy my quota of three rabbits, though one of them is extremely small and scrawny. A canvas-covered machine at the swamp/lake mystifies me on the outbound journey, but on the way back the gentleman tending it explains that it's recording audio: birdcalls and insect sounds and the like. "I'll be quiet!" I promise. Maintaining a 1:1::jog:walk ratio is tough for me in the heat, and the left shin and ankle feel ominously weak. I take an electrolyte capsule at the turnaround. Average measured mile pace = 12:15.

Tunnel Vision Test

5 Sep 05 - 5+ miles, 11:15 pace — I'm back from a visit to the Wizard of Oz, who told me that I don't need speed, or stamina, or endurance --- all I really need are excuses! And those I have aplenty: injuries, surgeries, lack of training, utter laziness, etc. (^_^)

Today is the first jogging experiment since I had the external stitches removed from my forehead in late August after a patch of basal cell carcinoma was taken off. The weather is relatively cool, so after dropping Son Robin off in Kensington to march with the Boy Scouts in the Labor Day parade I park on Beach Drive and head west along Rock Creek Trail from about mile 3.4 to 6 and back.

I'm trying an early birthday present from my brother: a high-tech sweatband called "Tunnel Vision" [1], plastic with a channel to keep sweat from dripping down into the eyes. It functions rather like a continuous thick eyebrow ridge, and in this initial test seems to work quite well --- sweat is no problem, but general exhaustion is, particularly for the final few miles. I begin enthusiastically with a jog:walk::2:1 ratio but retreat to 1:1 during the last half. Kangaroo count = 0 ...

(cf. Norwottuck Rail Trail (9 Aug 2003), Norwottuck Rail Trail 2004 (30 Jun 2004), Tentative Toe Tests (9 Jul 2005), Jogging Recovery (5 Aug 2005), ...)

- Tuesday, September 06, 2005 at 05:43:01 (EDT)

Deep Brooder

While reading Dan Simmon's Emdymion (a fine sf novel, third in the Hyperion series) I had a momentary flashback in Chapter 33 upon spying:

... Men were milling around, most of them making toward the door and windows on this side to see what the commotion was, but they made way for me as I dodged through them like a deep brooder on a fifty-three-man squamish team herding the goat in for the goal.

I had to laugh when I recognized the allusion, since among other detritus of an ill-spent youth my mental lumber-room is full of clippings from Mad Magazine, where the game "43-Man Squamish" was first unveiled by artist George Woodbridge and writer Tom Koch in the June 1965 issue. As a parody of organized team sports Squamish had wonderfully obscure nomenclature, silly equipment, and hypercomplex rules. For example, the (revised) Article XVI, Paragraph 77, Section J reads:

The offensive left Underblat, in all even-numbered ogres, must touch down his Frullip at the edge of the Flutney and signal to either the Head Cockswain, or to any other official to whom the Head Cockswain may have delegated this authority in writing and in the presence of two witnesses, both of whom shall have been approved and found to be of high moral character by the Office of the Commissioner, that he is ready for play to continue.

Squamish reminds me of the Calvin & Hobbes (Bill Watterson) creation Calvinball, which includes near-infinite mutability of the game itself ("Any player may declare a new rule at any point in the game ..."), and which in turn brings to mind the inductive Eleusis and the philosophical Nomic ("A Game of Self-amendment") — none of which have I ever successfully played. But it's the concept that counts ...

(see [1], [2], [3], and [4] for Squamish, Calvinball, Eleusis, and Nomic discussions; cf. Absurd Juxtaposition (21 Oct 1999), Plastic Memory (10 Jul 2001), Three Man Boat (10 Jan 2002), Wonder Land (4 Jan 2003), ...)

- Sunday, September 04, 2005 at 12:39:17 (EDT)

Hard-core Believers

Simplicity is wonderful. Perhaps we love it because so few things in real life are simple—and yet some incredibly simple laws can explain a huge range of apparently-subtle phenomena. John Tierney in a recent essay brings this tug-of-war to mind in his discussion of the political/moral issue of abortion rights and how some libertarians approach it:

There's probably no group more eager to be left alone by the government than members of the Libertarian Party, but even they don't buy this new right. They have bitter debates on abortion, with some calling the fetus part of the woman's body, and others insisting it's like a stowaway on a ship who must be kept alive. (A few hard-core believers in property rights say that even a stowaway can be tossed overboard, but they're not in danger of being elected to anything.)

And that reminds me of a libertarian bumper-sticker I saw some years ago:

I'm pro-choice on everything!

Well, I'd have to say almost everything—but nuance doesn't make as fine a slogan ...

(see "Pro-choice but Anti-NARAL" by John Tierney in the New York Times (13 Aug 2005); cf. Simple Answers (4 May 1999), Complexity From Simplicity (5 Aug 1999), Complex Simplicity (12 Feb 2000), Embarrassed Libertarian (28 May 2000), Awesomely Simple (26 Jan 2001), Proofs And Refutations (24 Jun 2004), Al Gore (14 Sep 2004), ...)

- Friday, September 02, 2005 at 04:44:00 (EDT)

Growing Up

Age is mandatory; maturity is optional.

(Mackie Shilstone, quoted in the Washington Post Sports section article, "NFL Is Soul-Searching After Herrion's Death: Obesity Becomes Open, More Pertinent Question", by Mark Maske & Leonard Shapiro (25 Aug 2005); cf. Rules Versus Principles (23 Jun 1999), Pleasant Surprises (8 Aug 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, August 31, 2005 at 03:06:17 (EDT)

Cars as Black Boxes

When I'm motoring down the highway or walking/jogging near a street I almost never notice the people inside any of the passing vehicles. To me, cars and trucks are simply mobile road hazards, potential threats to be avoided—not framing devices around human beings. The exceptional times when I peer inside other autos tend to be on those rare occasions when I'm stuck waiting for a traffic light to change and get mildly curious about how many single-passenger cars are on the road, or how many drivers are illegally yakking on their cellphones as they cruise by.

So I'm often taken aback when a friend tells me that s/he saw me driving or running down a certain avenue. When I'm out on a pedestrian adventure and a car toots its horn in greeting, I have to made a deliberate effort to refocus and perceive the driver as a person who has recognized me.

For a long time I thought I was unique in this idiosyncracy ... until I asked a colleague (MLI, almost equal to me in some of her eccentricities!) who confessed that she too suffered from this special form of blindness. She told me of family and neighbors who note and comment whenever somebody is driving a vehicle outside of their customary stable—a new car, a rental or borrowed truck, etc.—and who clearly think of autos as analogous to a suit of clothes or a pair of shoes, rather than mere mechanisms of transport.

Another part of the perceptual spectrum to which I'm profoundly insensitive!

(cf. Bluick Game (17 Jun 2000), Big Bad Boxes (3 Dec 2002), Su Vexation (24 Dec 2003), ...)

- Monday, August 29, 2005 at 04:37:44 (EDT)

Search for Meaning

Kind correspondent Lila Das Gupta Fenton recently sent me a copy of Viktor E. Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning. It begins with a thoughtful and heart-wrenching story of survival during the Nazi holocaust. Stoic philosophy is central throughout, as in the perfectly expressed:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

Unfortunately for today's reader, onto Part One of this book are grafted two rather disorganized essays that have the sad feel of self-promotional material for Viktor Frankl's own school of psychiatry. (In particular, notes on the application of "logotheraphy" to problems of excessive sweating and sexual dysfunction are distracting in the context of death camp survival.) Some delightful nuggets of wisdom do appear, as in:

I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the qustion in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's oppoment. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

On the whole, the first section of Man's Search for Meaning more than redeems the later digressions and product placements. In "Experiences in a Concentration Camp" Viktor Frankl tells of the extraordinary torments that he and his fellow prisioners faced, and how they in turn discovered wellsprings of inner strength. He writes, after quoting Nietzsche's "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how":

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

And shortly thereafter Frankl explains how he and some of his fellow prisoners discovered meaning in their own situation:

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naïve query which understands life is the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.
Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp's tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, "Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!" (How much suffering there is to get through!) ...

Although the translation into English feels stilted, at times a poetic image shines:

As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor—or maybe because of it—we were carried away by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long.
In camp, too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods (as in the famous water color by Dürer), the same woods in which we had built an enormous, hidden munitions plant. One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate gray mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, "How beautiful the world could be!"

Viktor Frankl quotes in passing words attributed to Bismarck, "Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already." But as Frankl inverts and interprets the aphorism, until one's final moment the real opportunities of life are never over; in every situation there is always the potential to triumph ... within.

(Excerpts from Part One of Man's Search for Meaning are from the translation by Ilse Lasch; cf. Bennett On Stoicism (29 Apr 1999), Foam On The Ocean (23 Jul 2000), Inside The Inner Citadel (15 Oct 2002), Stoic Struggles (22 Dec 2002), In Search Of The Fulcrum (19 Mar 2004), Long Walk (31 May 2004), Eat The Orange (28 Nov 2004), Where We Are (24 Apr 2005), Seize The Carp (2 Jul 2005), Empire Of The Sun (8 Aug 2005), ...)

- Saturday, August 27, 2005 at 08:25:04 (EDT)

Survival Factors

How to survive (and perhaps even enjoy) an ultramarathon, if woefully underprepared and completely lacking in talent (like me):

And on the day of the event itself:

And above all, be sure to have huge amounts of good luck!

(for more authoritative comments on ultralow-mileage ultrarunning, see http://www.ultrunr.com/lo-mile.html as well as http://www.extremeultrarunning.com/1stultra.htm by David Horton; cf. Ultra Man (8 May 2002), Slower Runners Guide (30 Oct 2002), Running Advice (2 Oct 2003), ...)

- Friday, August 26, 2005 at 05:49:02 (EDT)

Joy-to-Stuff Ratio

A new term crossed my idea-horizon recently, a combination of simple math and simple philosophy: joy-to-stuff ratio.

It's a glaringly obvious concept, and therefore an extraordinarily important one. Take the amount of fun I'm having in life, and divide by the amount of time I'm spending on acquiring, managing, and consuming material possessions. Is the quotient adequate? Is it increasing as time goes by? Or am I owning more things but enjoying them less? All good questions to ask.

Of course, the devil's advocate in me must now observe that by getting rid of all possessions I can at least briefly achieve an infinite joy-to-stuff ratio, assuming that I still maintain a positive total happiness. And if I have a negative net worth and a negative pleasure, does that then imply a positive joy/stuff? The mind wanders ...

(cf. More Fun Less Stuff (1 Oct 2002), For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), Cut The Volume (5 Mar 2004), Dalai Lama Birthday Gift (24 Aug 2004), Conspicuous Anticonsumption (17 Sep 2004), ...)

- Thursday, August 25, 2005 at 05:39:21 (EDT)

Sound of Bangles

From the loudspeakers at the local baseball stadium flow the usual ballpark tunes: "Glory Days", "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", "Born to Be Wild", "YMCA", and of course "The Star Spangled Banner" before every competition. But once in a while the playlist inexplicably includes "Walk Like an Egyptian" by a pop girl band called The Bangles. I've liked that catchy song since I first saw the music video a decade ago, but its connection to baseball has always escaped me. Recently, however, when I hear it I think of India.

To explain, for fashion-illiterates like me: bangles are traditional Indian wrist decorations: big rigid rings of gold, silver, glass or other materials. Clever compression and alignment of the hand helps tight bangles slip on. Sometimes they're worn for years, or even for a lifetime. As described in "The Culture-specific Use of Sound in Indian Cinema" (Shoma A. Chatterji, 1999):

... The jingling of bangles suggests laughter, cheer, fun, happiness, love, anticipation. The sound of glass bangles breaking, with or without visual support, signifies something entirely different: widowhood, grief, tragedy or the premonition of a sad event. ...

And the sound of bangles clinking together, my wife tells me, is onomatopœtically referred to as chum-chum in Bollywood movie Hindi ...

(cf. [1], Love Winds And Fan Service (2 Feb 2004), Navy Blue Of India (19 Apr 2004), Marry The One (20 May 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, August 24, 2005 at 07:07:48 (EDT)

Government Job

The real purpose of government is simply to set the big framework for social life—the large-scale allocations of resources and the general rules for interactions among people—within which creative human activity can take place.

(cf. Independence Day (4 Jul 2001), Century Hence (1 Sep 2002), Big Secret Of Prosperity (14 Mar 2004), Authorized Versus Forbidden (3 Jul 2005), ...)

- Tuesday, August 23, 2005 at 22:08:42 (EDT)

Swimming to Antarctica

The Lynne Cox autobiography Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer (2004) is fun and fast, sincere and heartwarming—but like Dean Karnazes' Ultramarathon Man, often amateurish in execution. Cox tells a series of exciting stories of extraordinary courage and accomplishment. She delicately yet with good humor describes some of the biomedical experiments she took part in (e.g., core body temperature measurements with scary probes and long wires). But in spite of her attempts to clothe various extreme aquatic adventures in the garb of world peace, too many of her record-setting swims come across as mere risky stunts.

On occasion, however, Cox's prose rises to the challenge of matching her physical achievements. Some examples:

from Chapter 1, "Beginnings", during a training swim in an abrupt Californian storm:

My world was reduced to the blur of my arms stroking as a cold, driving rain began. The raindrops that hit my lips tasted sweet and cold, and I enjoyed the sensations of every new moment. The pool was no longer a flat, boring rectangle of blue; it was now a place of constant change, a place that I had to continually adjust to as I swam or I'd get big gulps of water instead of air. That day, I realized that nature was strong, beautiful, dramatic, and wonderful, and being out in the water during that storm made me feel somewhat a part of it, somehow connected to it.
When the hail began, the connection diminished considerably. ...

from Chapter 6, "White Cliffs of Dover", while crossing the English Channel:

Maybe around four in the morning I started running into round balls. It was too dark to see anything, and it was strange to feel them rolling off my body. I had never felt kelp like that before; I couldn't imagine what it was. Finally, the curiosity overwhelmed me, and I shouted, "Mr. Brickell, what's in the water?"
"Lettuce. Someone dumped a shipload of old lettuce," he said, and laughed.
Somehow I'd never expected to be swimming through a sea of lettuce.

from Chapter 12, "The Strait of Magellan", in the frigid waters near Tierra del Fuego:

... Inside I laughed a little: I can do this; I really can do this, without a wet suit or anything to warm me. It is amazing how incredible the human body is that it can do so much, that it can go beyond the everydayness of life; that it can be extraordinary and powerful, and harbor a spirit of hope and pure will. ...

from Chapter 14, "Around the World in Eighty Days", in Iceland's Lake Myvatn:

... It was a spectacular morning, and we moved quickly across the glassy water, past two tiny lush green islands. Here the water, incredibly, changed from cold forty-three-degree water to hot ninety-degree water, as I cut across icy streams of water fed by mountain brooks and geothermal rivers from deep below the lake. It was like swimming across the face of a guitar, each string or stream a different temperature, and I never knew what to expect until my body played it.

Alas, Swimming to Antarctica lacks an index or a timeline of events. Its maps are only marginally adequate. It could have been a much better book with those additions, plus just a bit more helpful editing. As it is, Swimming is hazardous to read before a long run, but not nearly so threatening to the judgment as Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air or Joe Simpson's Touching the Void ...

(many thanks to kind colleague MI for lending me this book; cf. Into Wet Air (20 Apr 2004), Long Walk (31 May 2004), Touching The Void (2 Jun 2004), And Then The Vulture Eats You (9 Dec 2004), Running Through The Wall (23 Jan 2005),Ultramarathon Man (14 Apr 2005), ...)

- Monday, August 22, 2005 at 06:12:31 (EDT)

Three Phone Calls

A heartening thought, from a senior colleague:

There's no problem that can't be solved with three phone calls.

Unfortunately, for any nontrivial problem it takes a lifetime of experience to know who to call, to find out who else to call, to identify who finally to call who can solve it!

(cf. Six Who Know (23 Mar 2000), Stages Of Work (28 Jul 2001), ...)

- Sunday, August 21, 2005 at 07:51:54 (EDT)

Psilly Pslogans

On the radio recently I heard a commercial for a local company that finished with the tagline:

Our promise. Your performance.

It sounds like something inspired by the ubiquitous Microsoft ad campaign:

Your potential. Our passion.

This leads me to speculate that countless other alliterative p-slogans must exist out in thesauruspace, if only we have the perspicacity to produce them. Consider the pro-environmental:

Our planet. Your pollution.

... or the proto-capitalistic caricature:

My product. My profit.

Then there's today's top pharmaceutical priority:

Our pill. Your potency.

... and the procreatively linked:

His paternity. Her pregnancy.

On the less polite side, the sadistic:

Your pain. My pleasure.

... points toward the powerhouse business of the Internet:

Your perversion. Our pornography.

Could this entire profligacy of promotional p-ness be a pale echo of the preeminent Cold War motto of the USAF Strategic Air Command? In my youth I saw, painted prominently on the water reservoir at the local military post:

Peace is our profession.

It lacks the pairwise parallelism of the present-day plethora of preferred proverbs, but the proto-concept is present ...

(cf. Dis Avowal (12 Nov 2001), Ars Magna (27 Sep 2002), Zen Scrabble (7 Oct 2002), Third Place (7 Nov 2002), My Affectations (19 Jan 2003), Present Imperative (1 Jun 2003), ...)

- Saturday, August 20, 2005 at 06:59:22 (EDT)


How often do you raise an eyebrow? How frequently do you wrinkle your forehead, or frown, or narrow your gaze? In my case, until today I would have guessed maybe a few dozen times per day—but now I think the actual count must be in the hundreds, maybe more.

To explain: yesterday I went in for some relatively minor surgery to remove a relatively minor basal cell carcinoma, no doubt the result of absorbing one too many ultraviolet photons in my ill-spent youth. (Important safety tip: use that sunscreen!) In years past liquid nitrogen had been applied to this area of my forehead, but apparently that didn't quite manage to get rid of the bad cells. Time to call in the cutters!

Yesterday's morning session was an iterative Mohs surgery, wherein successively wider and/or deeper layers of skin are sliced off and examined under a microscope until the entire cancer is removed. The resulting wound looked like this:


All went well, so in the afternoon I had another minor procedure (and had to fork over another copayment to my HMO—not that I'm complaining!) to sew up the damage. Both operations were almost painless, the conversation during them was entertaining, and the Beethoven background music for the second process was excellent. The results will only be known over time, but so far the healing seems to be proceeding nicely. Meanwhile I have some wicked advice to remember from my plastic surgeon, a young fellow who shares my sense of humor:

Here's a picture of how the shiner is developing as of today:


Returning to the statistics of ^z brow-furrowing, with fresh stitches in the forehead I feel a twinge every time the skin moves—which naturally makes me wince, which causes further distress, and so on. I've thus discovered a host of hitherto-underappreciated ways to provoke a pang: ask a question, wink, take a sip of hot soup, signal skepticism, widen the eyes, sneeze (ow!), ...

(cf. Torn Toe Tendon Repair (5 May 2005), Poster Child (30 July 2005), ...)

- Thursday, August 18, 2005 at 15:41:50 (EDT)

Traje de Luces

Lee Marvin + Gerard Manley Hopkins + running clothes = ?

Yep, in those tense minutes before a major long-distance event the fevered ^z mind moves along mysterious trails. As I nervously don my polyester shorts and singlet and socks ... as I shake the dust out of my shoes and double-knot their laces ... as I strap on a fanny pack ... as I fill a water bottle and snap the top shut: those are the times when I think of the scene in the classic 1960's movie Cat Ballou wherein actor Lee Marvin, portraying an old worn-out alcoholic duelist, puts on his gunfighter uniform for one final shoot-out. It's a lovely, brilliant, glittering silver-and-sable suit in which to go to battle, much like the traditional matador's costume. Putting on that vest, as music of the Spanish bullfight rises in the background, Marvin's character puts on his long-forgotten bravery.

And that's also the moment when I remember "Pied Beauty", the G. M. Hopkins poem in honor of diverse speckled things, "And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim." Praise them!

In those moments a simple running outfit becomes my own traje de luces, a suit-of-lights in which I may go forth with honor and courage—if not to conquer, then at least to strive.

(cf. Thanks For (22 Nov 2001), Flying Eagle (16 Apr 2002), Ultra Man (8 May 2002), Good Day (25 Jun 2002), Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), Welcome To The Club (11 Jun 2003), Aikido Spirit (9 Dec 2003), Technical Shirt (2005 May 24), ...)

- Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 06:13:31 (EDT)

Dippy Heuristics

Der Zar is back! Recently a friend (FH) invited me to take part in an email-based Diplomacy competition he was organizing; after some hesitation I accepted. I was assigned to play Russia, my favorite country, and so far the war has been hugely entertaining. (We'll see how long the Tsar survives.)

Diplomacy, aka "Dippy" to its aficionados, is a brilliantly simple game of simultaneous movement, incomplete information, and intermittent treachery. Some important rules-of-thumb that I've learned after decades of oft-painful experience:

And the most important meta-rule of all, yet also the hardest to accept and live by: Dippy is only a game! Don't take it too seriously, don't destroy friendships because of in-game betrayals, and don't forget that the purpose is to have fun ...

("Diplomacy" is a trademark of Avalon Hill; cf. Minimax Strategy (5 Sep 1999), Zar Story (16 Jan 2000), Game Days (26 Jul 2001), Dippy Zines (16 Mar 2003), Russian Journal (28 Mar 2003), ... )

- Tuesday, August 16, 2005 at 05:41:51 (EDT)

New York, New York

As the train to New England takes me past a staccato skyline of tall buildings I remember the James Blish "Cities in Flight" series of 1950's science-fiction novels, and the transparent riddle that appears at one critical plot juncture: "What city has two names twice?"

Blish's Cities yarns grew out of a clever conceit: what if economies of scale made it possible to cheaply build spacecraft—via otherwise-unexplained "spindizzy" force-fields—that were several miles across? Blish postulated that whole towns could then surround themselves in bubbles of energy and set off through space. Adventures followed, on a cosmic and eventually meta-cosmic scale.

Don't ask how a metropolis could survive without upstream watersheds, air purification facilities, an agricultural base, and countless other critical ecosystem elements; those factors weren't part of the vision!

(see Andy Hooper's "Two Names Twice: James Blish and Cities in Flight" in the sf fanzine Chunga issue #5, August 2003; cf. Lens Manic (16 Jul 2001), Skylark Duquesne (1 Nov 2003), Countermeasure And Godshatter (30 Oct 2004), ...)

- Monday, August 15, 2005 at 07:47:20 (EDT)

Razor Blade Economics

Strange how so many businesses try to trick and manipulate their customers. Printers appear to be free—but ink cartridges cost big bucks, and their associated printers are covertly designed to reject carts that have been refilled or made by other companies. Razors are built to sell high-profit replacement blades. Software starts off dirt cheap; when users are locked-in the price of an upgrade skyrockets. Cellphones cost next to nothing, if one signs a multi-year service contract. And on, and on.

Imagine the same principle applied to running shoes: give them away, but craft laces so that they're quick to break, subtly incompatible with the competition, and horrendously expensive. (And if possible, try to cause the wearer's feet to get addicted to the shoe.) How happy would that make purchasers?

Or maybe figure out a way to be honest with customers, give them real value, listen to their changing needs, and run a business to be long-term healthy?

(cf. Gambling Addiction (5 Feb 2004), ...)

- Sunday, August 14, 2005 at 13:45:58 (EDT)

Thunderbolt Baseball 2005

The 2005 season for amateur baseball ends last week, with my beloved neighborhood team—the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts—wedged in fourth place. But in post-season playoffs the 'Bolts march triumphantly to a final climactic battle with arch-rival Bethesda Big Train ... at which point the weather gods intervene and, after multiple rain-outs at multiple fields, the Cal Ripken Sr. League Commissioner declares SS-T and Bethesda co-champions. A tie is a sister-kiss, perhaps, but in this case a sweet one.

Now for the record, some idiosyncratic observations of the 14 games I witnessed:

  Date   Opponent Score (Visitors-Tbolts) Comments
8 June Maryland Hurricanes 3 - 10 pre-season game against an Eddie Brooks League team; the Thunderbolts give 7 pitchers a turn on the mound; Matt Capece (SS) and Sam Boone (2B) execute two fine double-plays
11 June Bethesda Big Train 3 - 1 Opening Day attracts a big crowd, ~250 fans; I sit on the third-base side of the stands and meet Dr. Pedro Saavedra, a statistician and enthusiastic Big Train aficionado
18 June Maryland Redbirds 12 - 7 lovely weather, cool and clear; the Tbolts lead much of the game, but are blown out of a 7-7 tie by a 5-run Redbird 8th inning slugfest, sadly helped along via a couple of SS-T errors
22 June College Park Bombers 2 - 1 rain in the area throughout the day and sporadic light drizzle during the game; the Tbolts score in the bottom of the 9th, but a controversial "runner interference" call ends the contest before the tying run can score
24 June Bethesda Big Train 5 - 4 I greet Dr. Saavedra on the way in to the ballpark; a heckler insults the home plate umpire with "You're missing a great game tonight!"
25 June Rockville Express 2 - 7 spikes make crunch-crunch sounds on the sidewalk as players walk by; a three-run Thunderbolt 7th inning includes clouds of dust from multiple stolen bases by Andrew Greene and Mickey Shupin, as the home team bats all the way around the order and leaves the bases loaded; see Blue Butter for my banter with the umpires before & after the game
7 July Rockville Express 1 - 0 raindrops begin to fall 15 minutes before game time, and showers become heavier until after five innings, scorebook waterlogged and fingertips pruned, I give up and open my umbrella; play is stopped after the 6th; as I leave, the Tbolt players line up to roll a tarp out to cover the infield
9 July Maryland Orioles 1 - 4 an extremely fast game, finished in less than 2 hours; the visiting team's coach gets into a major-league argument with the umpires about what he saw as interference by Tbolt players sitting on a wall outside their dugout, when a missed strike three gets Tbolt designated hitter Andrew Russell on base to start the 2nd inning
23 July Maryland Redbirds 2 - 1 violent thunderstorms earlier this day have blown down trees and destroyed a segment of the center field fence in Blair Stadium, so red traffic cones now designate a "ground rule double" zone there; this rain make-up game starts at 5:45pm, and electrical power abruptly fails at 6:00 when a transformer dies nearby; the game finishes at 7:45 as shadows from the setting sun lengthen across the field
23 July Maryland Redbirds 0 - 1 * the second game of a double-header starts at 8:05pm, but without stadium lights play must stop after one-and-a-half innings
26 July Maryland Orioles 1 - 2 a hot and humid day; I bring frozen juice tetrahedrons with me and sit with a bag of them nestled in the small of my back, producing the illusion of comfort via local cooling of the blood and spinal column; behind me in the stands two baseball scounts wield a radar gun to measure pitching speed while they chat about recruiting players for the big leagues
27 July College Park Bombers 4 - 2 * weather is extremely hot and humid at 5pm as another make-up game begins; sunscreen mixes with sweat and stings my eyes; light rain starts to fall in the third, and play is abruptly stopped after four innings when tentative rumbles explode into a full-fledged thunderstorm with nearby lightning strikes and a torrential downpour
31 July Rockville Express 2 - 1 #1 Son Merle accompanies me to this unusually-scheduled 11:30am contest, where I huddle under #2 Son Robin's huge umbrella; the Tbolts are technically "visitors" and lose the 7-inning make-up; to avoid sunburn we leave before the second game of the double-header
1 August Maryland Redbirds 3 - 7 a 5pm start for the first game of another double-header, noteworthy for an excellent throw from center fielder Andrew Greene that catches a Redbird runner attempting to tag up and race home from third

Huge kudos to Ed Sharp, Dick O'Connor, and all the Thunderbolt players, associates, and supporters who make baseball such a glorious summer pastime—and a special salute to the Tbolt snack bar crew for their wonderful work!

(cf. http://tbolts.org/ and Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), Tbolt Signoff 2003 (3 Aug 2003), Thunderbolts Home And Away (19 Aug 2004), ...)

- Friday, August 12, 2005 at 05:38:18 (EDT)

Long Distance Friendliness

Fast runner, high-school classmate, and recent correspondent JWG observes that triathletes and marathoners he has met seem to be extraordinarily friendly people. He speculates that part of that cameraderie might be the "shared suffering" that they experience.

Maybe so. I've seen the same happy attitude, the same helpfulness toward newbies and wannabes, and I agree with JWG—but beyond a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of pain, I suspect that big factors contributing to the fellowship of marathoners and ultrarunners with newer, slower participants in their sport might be:

- Thursday, August 11, 2005 at 05:11:13 (EDT)

Cigar Construction

Give a man a cigar and he can smoke for an hour; teach him to roll cigars and he can make himself sick for a (truncated) lifetime ...

(cf. Warning Signs (22 Jan 2002), Semiotic Arsenal (20 Nov 2003), Transcendental Meditation (4 Feb 2004), So Symbolic (28 Mar 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, August 10, 2005 at 18:21:20 (EDT)

Second Largest Investment

A radio commercial recently described an automobile as "the second largest investment of a lifetime"—implying that (1) a car is an investment, not a consumer purchase, and (2) the only thing more expensive that people ever purchase is a home.

Both implication are wrong, the first obviously so, the second a bit more subtly. Sure, houses are costly. But much more expensive are the big life-shaping decisions of education, career, and marriage. Likewise for "lifestyle" choices with profound long-term mental & physical health implications. They may not look like "investments", but they sure act like them!

(cf. Money Wisdom (20 May 2001), Basement Worries (15 Jun 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, August 09, 2005 at 13:36:58 (EDT)

Empire of the Sun

J. G. Ballard's largely-autobiographical Empire of the Sun tells of years spent by a young boy ("Jim", age ~10-15) in Shanghai, China, 1941-46—separated from parents, roving, lost, scrounging, then interned in a Japanese prison camp until the collapse of the occupying forces at the end of WWII. Like Z. A. Melzak's In Search of the Fulcrum and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, this is a powerful book that raises one's awareness of the fragility of modern society. It's a reminder of the wealth of simple things—food, shelter, friendship—that most of us are lucky enough to take for granted most of the time. It's also a triumphant story of human strength and survival.

Best of all, Ballard's use of metaphor and imagery throughout Empire of the Sun is startlingly poetic. Some examples that I want to remember:

from Chapter 2, "Beggars and Acrobats":

... Jim admired Mr. Maxted, an architect turned entrepreneur who had designed the Metropole Theater and numerous Shanghai nightclubs. Jim often tried to imitate his raffish manner but soon found that being so relaxed was exhausting work. Jim had little idea of his own future—life in Shanghai was lived wholly within an intense present—but he imagined himself growing up to be like Mr. Maxted. ...

from Chapter 4, "The Attack on the Petrel":

The light advanced across the river, picking out the paper flowers that covered its back, like garlands, discarded by the admirers of these sailors. Every night in Shanghai those Chinese too poor to pay for the burial of their relatives would launch the bodies from the funeral piers in Nantao, decking the coffins with paper flowers. Carried away on one tide, they came back on the next, returning to the waterfront of Shanghai with all the other debris abandoned by the city. Meadows of paper flowers drifted on the running tide and clumped in miniature floating gardens around the old men and women, the young mothers and small children, whose swollen bodies seemed to have been fed during the night by the patient Yangtze.

from Chapter 7, "The Drained Swimming Pool":

On the fourth morning, when he came down to breakfast, Jim found that he had forgotten to turn off a kitchen tap and all the water had flowed from the storage tank. The pantry was amply stocked with siphons of soda water, but by now Jim had accepted that his mother and father would not be coming home. Jim stared through the veranda windows at the overgrown garden. It was not that war changed everything—in fact, Jim thrived on change—but that it left things the same in odd and unsettling ways. Even the house seemed somber, as if it were withdrawing from him in a series of small and unfriendly acts.

from Chapter 11, "Frank and Basie":

Jim finished his stew and sat back contentedly against the metal wall. He could remember none of his meals before the war and every one of them since. It annoyed him to think of all the food in his life that he had turned away, and the elaborate stratagems which Vera and his mother had devised to persuade him to finish his pudding. He noticed that Frank was staring at a few grains he had left in the spoon and quickly licked it clean. ...

from Chapter 16, "The Water Ration":

Jim fidgeted in his seat as the sun pricked his skin. He could see the smallest detail of everything around him: the flakes of rust on the railway lines, the sawteeth of the nettles beside the truck, the white soil bearing the imprint of its worn tires. Jim counted the blue bristles around the lips of the Japanese soldier guarding them and the globes of mucus which this bored sentry sucked in and out of his nostrils. Jim watched the damp stain spreading around the buttocks of one of the missionary women on the floor, and the flames that fingered the cooking pot on the station platform, reflected in the polished breeches of the stacked rifles.

from Chapter 17, "A Landscape of Airfields":

Jim lay on the soft sawdust with its soothing scent of pine. Through the open doors of the timber store he watched the navigation lights of the Japanese aircraft crossing the night. After a few minutes Jim was forced to admit that he could recognize none of the constellations. Like everything else since the war, the sky was in a state of change. For all their movement, the Japanese aircraft were its only fixed points, a second zodiac above the broken land.

from Chapter 21, "The Cubicle":

With his finger Jim stroked the turtle's ancient head. It seemed a pity to cook it—Jim envied the turtle its massive shell, a private fortress against the world. From below his bunk Jim pulled out a wooden box, which Dr. Ransome had helped him to nail together. Inside were his possessions: a Japanese cap badge given to him by Private Kimura; three steel-bossed fighting tops; a chess set and a copy of Kennedy's Latin primer on indefinite loan from Dr. Ransome; his Cathedral School blazer, a carefully folded memory of his young self; and the pair of clogs he had worn for the past three years.

from Chapter 23, "The Air Raid":

Jim opened his Latin primer and began the homework that Dr. Ransome had set him: the entire passive tenses of the verb amo. Jim enjoyed Latin; in many ways its strict formality and its families of nouns and verbs resembled the science of chemistry, his father's favorite subject. The Japanese had closed the camp school, as a cunning reprisal against the parents, who were trapped all day with their offspring, but Dr. Ransome still set Jim a wide range of tasks. There were poems to memorize, simultaneous equations to be solved, general science (where, thanks to his father, Jim often had a surprise for Dr. Ransome) and French, which he loathed. There seemed a remarkable amount of schoolwork, Jim reflected, bearing in mind that the war was about to end. But perhaps this was Dr. Ransome's way of keeping him quiet for an hour each day. In a sense, too, the homework helped Dr. Ransome to sustain the illusion that even in Lunghua Camp the values of a vanished England still survived. Misguided though this was, Jim was keen to help Dr. Ransome in any way.

from Chapter 25, "The Cemetery Garden":

Hands in pockets, Jim sauntered down the cinder track behind the hospital. He surveyed the rows of tomatoes, beans and melons in the kitchen garden. The modest crop was meant to supplement the patients' meager diet, though many of the vegetables found their way to the American seamen in E Block. Jim enjoyed his work with the plants. He knew each of them personally and could tell at a glance if the children had stolen a single tomato. Fortunately the long lines of graves in the adjacent cemetery kept them away. Apart from its nutritional benefits, botany was an intriguing subject. In the dispensary Dr. Ransome sliced and stained the slivers of plant stems and roots, mounted them under Dr. Bowen's microscope and made Jim draw the hundreds of cells and nutrient vessels. Plant classification was an entire universe of words; every weed in the camp had a name. Names surrounded everything; invisible encyclopedias lay in every hedge and ditch.

from Chapter 30, "The Olympic Stadium":

... Jim looked down at the powdery dust that covered his legs and shoes, like the undertaker's talc blown onto the bones of a Chinese skeleton before its reburial, and knew that it was time to move on.
By the late afternoon this layer of dust on Jim's legs and arms began to glow with light. The sun fell toward the Shanghai hills, and the flooded paddy fields became a liquid chessboard of illuminated squares, a war table on which were placed crashed aircraft and abandoned tanks. Lit by the sunset, the prisoners stood on the embankment of the railway line that ran to the warehouses at Nantao, like a party of film extras under the studio spotlights. Around them the creeks and lagoons were filled with saffron water, the conduits of a perfume factory blocked by dead mules and buffaloes drowned in its scents.

from Chapter 32, "The Eurasian":

A restful sunlight warmed the stadium. From the cloudless sky fell a squall of hail, a flurry of frozen vapor dislodged from the wings of an American aircraft three miles above the Yangtze valley. Lit by the sun, the crystals fell onto the football field like a shower of Christmas decorations.
Jim sat up and touched the hailstones, nuggets of white gold scattered on the grass. Beside him, Mr. Maxted's body was dressed in a suit of lights, his ashen face speckled with miniature rainbows. But within a few seconds the hail had melted into the ground. Jim listened for the aircraft, hoping that it might launch another cascade of hail, but the sky was empty from horizon to horizon. A few of the prisoners in the stadium knelt on the grass, eating the hail and talking to each other across the bodies of their dead companions.

(cf. Single Digit Run (15 Jan 2004), In Search Of The Fulcrum (19 Mar 2004), Long Walk (31 May 2004), ...)

- Monday, August 08, 2005 at 12:31:11 (EDT)

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