^zhurnal 0.64

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Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.64 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 = 0.63 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z(at)his(dot)com" ... tnx!

Hunting Season

Caren_Jew_in_Meadow "Could y'all go somewhere else so I can deer hunt?"

The deep voice from nowhere startles Comrade Caren Jew and me an hour into our early morning jog last Saturday. We've ventured up a steep hillside from Seneca Creek and into a barren meadow. My beard is rimed with ice. Caren is examining some frosty seed pods on an ocean of withered stalks.

Then we remember: today is the first day of hunting season! We look around but see no one. Perhaps it would be wise to retreat?

We do.

(click on the image for a larger version)

- Friday, November 30, 2007 at 16:24:15 (EST)

Upside-Down Shadows

A fascinating phenomenon: when walking along a sunny corridor with windows on the south side, I saw my shadow walking with me upside down on the north wall. The sunlight was reflecting off the smooth polished floor. If I walked near the windows the shadow was inverted, near the wall the shadow was rightside up as expected. In between, two shadows appeared, one upright and the other not. Weird! I think it's just a matter of geometry, but I find it nontrivial to visualize or diagram.

- Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 21:39:14 (EST)

Isaac Asimov

I. Asimov: A Memoir is a delightful wiki of a book: 166 chapters, each only a few printed pages long. It is arranged not strictly chronologically but rather (as noted in the Epilogue by his wife Janet Asimov) "... in 'scenes' written down as they came up in his memory." He crafted it as he passed his 70th birthday in 1989-90 while seriously ill. Two years later he died of AIDS, infected via blood transfusion during heart surgery almost a decade before.

My son Robin read I. Asimov, told me about it, and when I expressed interest gave me his copy with a guarded recommendation. He didn't realize how much I would enjoy reading it. (Nor did I!) Asimov summarized his goals in the Introduction:

So what I intend to do is describe my whole life as a way of presenting my thoughts and make it an independent autobiography standing on its own feet. I won't go into the kind of detail I went into in the first two volumes. What I intend to do is to break the book into numerous sections, each dealing with some different phase of my life or some different person who affected me, and follow it as far as necessary — to the very present, if need be.
I trust and hope that, in this way, you will get to know me really well, and, who knows, you may even get to like me. I would like that.

We do like you, Isaac! You're gentle, honest, funny, sensitive, hard-working, always competent but occasionally brilliant, self-deprecatingly modest yet deservedly proud. A true mensch. We salute you.

(cf. Asimov On Happiness (7 Nov 2007) etc. for selected quotes and commentary ...)

- Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 16:27:30 (EST)

Angus Phillips

"Crepuscular" is an obscure adjective for creatures that come out at dawn or dusk. The term came to mind recently when Comrade Caren and I went trail running for a couple of delightful early hours along the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail. Eagle-eyed Caren pointed out several deer, and loquacious ^z in return gave her the word. I half-remembered seeing it in a newspaper item about hunting, and promised Caren I would look it up for her.

The next morning by chance I glanced inside the sports section of the Washington Post where the "Outdoors" column by Angus Phillips brought it all rushing back to me. Two years ago Phillips began an essay with:

Okay, students, today's vocabulary word is "crepuscular," which means active at twilight. We chose it because deer season is upon us, and nothing fits the description better than the white-tailed deer so plentiful hereabouts.

In his latest column Phillips waxes poetic about luring, killing, plucking, cooking, and eating wild geese:

Few views in this world are as breathtaking as the one you get from a goose blind as a group of wild birds circles overhead, craning necks and cupping wings as they ponder whether to take the plunge. Mostly they opt out, decoys being just decoys and goose calls being less than perfect, especially in the hands of amateurs like us.
But once in awhile it all comes together, and the great black wings stay cupped and, silhouetted against a gray and stormy sky, the birds come fluttering down, silent and vulnerable. I'll tell you, if on my deathbed the last vision that comes to mind is of Canada geese tumbling down to a stand of decoys on a windswept creek, I'll go willingly, with a happy sigh.

You gotta love prose like that even if, like me, you're a philosophical vegetarian!

(Crepuscular Rays are beams of light that seem to radiate from the sun, especially through gaps in the clouds near sunrise or sunset; cf. the Washington Post Angus Phillips, Rainposts And Godrays (23 Sep 2002), Compassionate Carnivorism (19 Nov 2002), ...)

- Monday, November 26, 2007 at 04:51:13 (EST)

Subway Agreement

 Dozing Metro riders nod:
 Unanimously they assent
 As the train brakes.
 Rounding the next curve they sway
 Centrifugally, and as one,
 Bobblehead their "No!"

(cf. On The Metro (29 Oct 2006), ...)

- Sunday, November 25, 2007 at 09:33:15 (EST)

Don Quixote 55k Run 2007

On Saturday evening, as Mary Ewell and I approach the finish line of the 2007 JFK 50 miler, we catch up with a pair of exhausted young men climbing the hill. For the past eight miles they've been slightly in front of us.

"Hey," I ask them, "do you want to be passed now by a girl?"
"Yes!" they reply in chorus.
"Well, she is an Ironman," I admit, as Mary jogs ahead to make it in 13 hours 48 minutes 36 seconds by the official clock.

Call me Don Quixote, on a mad mission to serve my Dulcinea. More accurately, as I tell a spectator who mistakes me for a racer and applauds near the end of the event, "I'm a donkey — or maybe just an ass!" My quixotic quest is to keep Mary company and atone for abandoning her at Mile 28 in not one but two ultramarathons: the Hat Run 2007 and the Bull Run Run 2007. Today I only do two-thirds of the distance, a comfortable 55k training trek. Mary must manage the entire 50+ miles of the JFK and has a far tougher time. But she completes the race in good humor and style, overcoming severe blisters, vertigo, electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal distress, joint pain, and countless other challenges. Her patient fiancé Andy greets her at the finish line. Earlier he sees us at multiple points along the way and assists with gear, food, drink, and moral support.

Flashback to race morning, 5am on 17 Nov 2007. When the gun goes off for the pre-dawn JFK start in Boonsboro, comrade Caren Jew and I are converging at an offramp of the I-270 freeway. We caravan to the finish line in Williamsport, where I park my car and ride with Caren to Gathland Gap, mile 9.4 of the course. Frost is on the ground as we shiver and chat with other support crews. Soon the runners begin flowing down the hillside trail and streaming through the meadow. Ken Swab and Emaad Burki appear, making great time and clearly feeling strong. At 7:18am Mary trots into the aid station a few minutes faster than Caren and I were at this point last year. To us she looks pretty good, but the stresses of the day have just begun, the road ahead is long, and her 14.7 minute/mile pace thus far has drained her reserves.

Caren and I stay at Gathland a few more minutes to greet friends, including Betty Smith who did a fun-run marathon with me on New Year's Eve (cf. Marathon In The Parks 2006) and who is essaying her first 50 miler today. Then Caren drives from the Gap to the next rendezvous point, Weverton. To get here the runners must navigate half a dozen miles of the rockiest and most dangerous terrain on the Appalachian Trail, descend more than a dozen switchbacks down a slippery-steep cliff, and traverse a narrow path beside a ravine and under highway US-340. Then they cross the railroad tracks to join the C&O Canal towpath for the next 26+ miles of the race, a marathon upstream along the northern bank of the Potomac River.

As we await our buddies we cheer those who arrive earlier, including a few amazing 7am JFK starters who have already gained two hours on those who took the 5am option. Ken and Emaad zoom in ahead of schedule, change shoes, pose for photos, and cruise onward. Emaad's wife Saira misses him by a few minutes; she will catch up with him at later aid stations. Andy is with Saira, just in time to meet his Mary when she rolls in at 9:17am. Her pace from Weverton to here averaged 19.5 min/mi. Mary fuels up but admits that she's not feeling well. Perhaps it's something she ate ... or residual injuries from too-hard training ... or a subtle equipment problem ... or anomalously low blood pressure ... or something entirely different.

Whatever the reason(s), she wants to go on. Weverton is where Don Quixote joins his fair Dulcinea in pursuit of her Grail: a 50 miler finish. Our mission: stay happy and make the strict time cutoffs en route. Our next deadline: Antietam, 11.5 miles ahead. We have more than 3.5 hours. From here on we need to keep something like a 17 minute/mile pace. From an armchair perspective that may sound trivial. After what Mary has already been through and considering how her body is treating her, it's not going to be easy.

We jog and talk, and I learn something of Mary's troubles. Today truly doesn't seem to be her day, so we debate the merits of withdrawing from the race. I suggest a compromise: walk a bit now, change equipment when we next see Andy, go a mile, and then decide what to do once we've had time to evaluate. Mary concurs. We throttle back to a 1:1 ratio of walking to jogging, exactly what I did along the towpath in last year's JFK. Ultras are long enough to die and then be reborn. We hope.

After a few miles Mary starts to feel stronger and suggests we try a brisker pace pattern, one that I intend to use in future races: walk a minute, run a minute, walk a minute, then run two minutes. This strategy — let's call it di-di-di-DAH, the theme of Beethoven's Ninth, the letter "V" in Morse code — doesn't cost much energy and yet gains us about 30 seconds per mile. Little do we know that those extra minutes will prove critical in making the final cutoff!

We reach Antietam, mile 27.1 for Mary, at 12:30pm having covered the distance from Weverton at 16.6 min/mi. Caren and Andy meet us; Mary does a quick change of gear and visits the loo, a magnificent facility compared to the portajohns we've seen so far. As per agreement we head out. Mary now feels better — modulo emerging blisters, recurring dizziness, a mysterious stomach malady, and constant hip/knee pain that anti-inflammatory meds reduce but don't eliminate. She's one tough cookie.

Next cutoff: 2:45pm at Snyders Landing, JFK mile 34.4. We arrive 20 minutes ahead of the grim reaper, our average speed 17.1 min/mi on this segment of the towpath. No time to tarry!

Onward to Taylors Landing, aka the "38 Special", where at mile 38.4 the 4pm deadline looms. Mary and I reach the aid zone at 3:30pm after she works hard and sustains a pace of 16.2 min/mi. Cheery Caren welcomes us and takes photos. So does MCRRC aid station captain Don Libes, who offers me a bottle of Tecate beer. Alas, I only dare drink a few sips: my vertigo is nothing compared to Mary's but I don't want to exacerbate it. Mary has handed me her sky-blue running cap and I set it down on the table while I fill a carrying bag with cookies, candies, and chips. In my semi-befuddled state I fail to pick up her hat before we leave. Oops! Half a mile down the trail Mary notices its absence. I contact Caren on my cellphone, who rescues the cap for later return.

Although we've got a half-hour time cushion now, later deadlines are tight. So we continue Mary's "Beethoven Strategy" of walking-jogging-walking-jogging 1-1-1-2 until we hear the welcome roar of water on the spillway of Dam #4. It's JFK mile 41.8, where our journey leaves the towpath to join rolling country roads. Our progress has slowed to 17.4 min/mi and we arrive at 4:29pm as the sky begins to darken. All the reflective safety vests have already been given out, but Mary's lime-green jacket is bright and my fluorescent red shorts are eye-searing, so we figure we should be safe enough. Excelsior!

Now instead of timed walk breaks we adjust our gait to match the terrain, walking up slopes and jogging where possible on the infrequent descents. Temperatures are falling and Mary zips up her coat. Her blisters worsen but she trots along solidly, still good-humored in spite of the pain. I compute that all we need is a brisk walk to come in under the ultimate 14 hour time limit, but — don't ask me why! — Mary says she doesn't want to be last. So we keep pushing.

We grab hot chocolate and soup at Downsville, the last aid station, and march on. My nose is draining and I unthinkingly snort the snot back with an ugly snuffling sound. "You did it again!" Mary remarks whenever she hears me, and we both laugh. A minute or two later I forget myself, snort, and the ritual is repeated — to our vast mutual delight. Such is sophisticated comedy at the end of an ultra!

A race truck cruises past, offering recycled orange vests to runners. I take one and give it to the pair of young gentlemen who are hiking out the final miles in front of us. Then I find a discarded vest by the side of the road and don it myself. Mary's flashlight dies, but we're now close enough to Williamsport to find our way by street lights and moonlight. We cross the Interstate Highway 81 access ramps and there's one mile to go. Neon signs of an open tattoo parlor glow, and I ask permission to pause and get "JFK 50" embossed under my epidermis. Amazing Mary still chuckles at my jokes.

JFK rules say, "Pacers and/or companions are greatly discouraged, but will be allowed for the 'general field'." We're nowhere near contenders for any prizes, and since I carry my own supplies and have a minimal impact on race resources I feel no qualms about sticking by my friend. She deserves it.

Mary tells me she wouldn't have made it without me. I respond that we wouldn't have made it without her either — her fortitude and stamina are the trump cards of the day. I move to the side as she approaches the official end-of-race chute, and am honored to shake her hand when she emerges with a JFK medal. Welcome to the club, Mary!

A Rolling Stones lyric goes:

 You can't always get what you want,
 But if you try sometimes,
 You just might find,
 You get what you need. 

Today Mary doesn't get what she wants: a comfortable and fast first fifty miler. But she works hard and gets what she needs: an overall average pace of 16.5 minutes/mile to safely make all the cutoffs.

Mary's fiancé Andy meets us at the finish line. Mary hands him the bronze medal, her only visible reward for today's accomplishment. "Don't lose that!" she says with a smile.

(cf. Jfk 50 Mile Run 2006 (20 Nov 2006), Jfk 50 Miler 2006 Split Analysis (21 Jan 2007), Phone It In (21 Sep 2007), Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2007 (24 Sep 2007), Mather Gorge (9 Oct 2007), Jfk 2007 Preparation (26 Oct 2007), Potomac Heritage 50k 2007 (4 Nov 2007), Grapevine Run (12 Nov 2007), ...)

- Thursday, November 22, 2007 at 20:09:16 (EST)

Cubist Comrade

A long-time friend, Veit Elser, comes to town to give a talk — but alas, our schedules are so badly out-of-phase that there's no way for us to get together until shortly before his flight home. Sunday morning I pick him up at the hotel and we drive to Alexandria for coffee and pancakes, at a shop recommended by a buddy who lives in that neighborhood. It's close to the airport and we have an hour to chat.

Veit is a professor at Cornell. He and Liz, like Paulette and me, have three kids. We talk about families, physics, and the pursuits that each of us have developed to help preserve our respective sanities. For me, currently it's ultrarunning; for Veit, extreme cycling and volunteer fire department work. We muse about some of the folks we've met thereby: Good People who live in dimensions orthogonal to the intellectual space that we usually inhabit.

I met Veit when he was an undergraduate at Caltech and I was a befuddled grad student attempting to "teach" my first tutorial/homework sections of a lecture course. We resonated then, and our wavefunctions have remained correlated over the decades even though we've rarely been in contact. Veit tells me that he mentioned my name to mutual acquaintance Bill Press who told him about some of my early free-text information retrieval experiments. I'm flattered.

At the airport, as he gets his suitcases out of the trunk of my car, Veit gives me one of the greatest gifts I can imagine: he shows me a Rubik's Cube that he's got in his carry-on bag and tells me that, about 27 years ago when they first came out, I mailed him one. The instructions were in Hungarian and no how-to books had yet appeared — so Veit had to solve it as I did, on his own. Besides entertainment, it got him thinking about a variety of interesting research topics.

Veit thanks me. I don't even remember sending him the Cube. Funny how sometimes the most important things are the tiniest ones ...

(cf. Rubik Cubism 1 (16 Mar 2001), Rubik Cubism 2 (29 March 2001), Rubik Cubism 3 (6 Jul 2001), Indexer Browser Flashback (30 Apr 2006), ...)

- Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 21:28:33 (EST)

Periodic Tables

After observing a wide variety of "Periodic Table of X " posters that are cute graphically — but (mostly!) make no sense organizationally, conceptually, or metaphorically — it's clear that a well-structured "Periodic Table of Periodic Tables" is needed. How to make one?

(cf. [1] for a Google search that will turn up oodles of pseudo "Periodic" tables as grist for the mill, including tables of mathematicians, booze, collaboration, condiments, ...)

- Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 03:55:22 (EST)

Obit Code

Obituary writers have learned to use special terms-of-art to describe less-than-lovable characteristics of the Dearly Departed without giving explicit offense. Some examples:

phrase meaning
... gave colorful accounts of exploits ... liar
... tireless raconteur ... bore
... did not suffer fools gladly ... foul-tempered
... never married ... gay
... vivacious ... or ... a character ... drunk
... over-attached to certain ideas and theories ... fascist
... utterly carefree ... senile
... door was always open ... lush
... free spirit ... unemployable

And of course, the words "die", "dead", and "death" must be replaced by gentler euphemisms ...

(adapted from "Death is the New Black" in The Observer, 28 Apr 2002, and other sources; cf. McGs (28 Feb 2002), Death And Life (2 Jan 2005), ...)

- Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 05:39:13 (EST)

Six ProjectStages

Complex multi-person activities go through rather predictable phases:

  1. Euphoria
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search for the Guilty
  5. Punishment of the Innocent
  6. Reward of the Uninvolved

(... a classic, cynical list shared by many program managers — possibly inspired by the five Kübler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance ...)

- Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 20:57:36 (EST)

Grapevine Run

"Swindle!" That's how comrade Caren Jew describes her email campaign to persuade someone to do the "Run Through the Grapevine" race [1] with her. But in fact no subterfuge is required: what she lures me into is a thoroughly pleasant five-mile cross-country ramble around the Linganore Winery, plus a few bonus miles afterward to reprise some of the rustic segments of the course. Notes on that and other jogs of the past several days follow ...

Run Through the Grapevine 8k +

4 Nov 2007 — 8+ miles (~13.5 min/mi) — At Caren's home I greet her husband Walter and lovely daughters Ashley and Jenna. Walter, an extraordinarily strong amateur golfer, has an early afternoon tee time so Caren and I are on the clock. We carpool to Mt Airy in north central Maryland. Caren navigates unerringly as a maze of country roads leads through gently rolling terrain to a vineyard. She knows the way, having done this race for the past few years. Now I see why she recommends it: the course winds across grassy fields, over gentle (and not-so-gentle) hills, between rows of sere grapevines, and through sweet-smelling piney forests. There's a big crowd and even though I registered late I get a garishly-decorated but well-made shirt. Of the 483 finishers our pace of about 12.5 min/mi puts us 437th and 438th respectively, more than 10 minutes behind fellow MCRRC member Michele McLeod who ran with me two years ago along Seneca Creek (cf. Mud Dance, 5 Apr 2007). At the finish line we receive commemorative wineglasses. We snack and drink; there's no free wine, alas. At Caren's suggestion then we rerun the course but at a leisurely rate, starting a bit before mile 2 and chatting about life as we navigate and enjoy the scenery. We're back in plenty of time for Walter's golf and our respective household duties. Thanks, Caren!

Anacostia Tributary Orbit

8 Nov 2007 — 10+ miles (~10.5 min/mi) — I've been here before — cf. Anacostia Tributaries (28 Jan 2003), Slow Run Summaries (13 Feb 2004), This Space Not For Rent (18 Dec 2004), The Avenue (22 Apr 2006), Deathly Cold (18 May 2006), Sharper Image (8 Dec 2006) — but it's always delightful to revisit a friend. Instead of Superman's telephone booth today I enter a portajohn as mild-mannered bureaucrat ^z and emerge as Half Beast, bedecked in shorts and technical shirt plus cheap cotton gloves. A water fountain in the Biomolecular Sciences Building fills my bottles. While fielding a phone call from Merle I walk the path by Parking Lot #11 toward Paint Branch Trail. Shortly after 2pm I pass PBT milepost 1.5 and click my stopwatch for the unofficial start. It's cool and cloudy, perfect weather for a jaunty journey, and at a 10.7 min/mi pace I skirt Lake Artemesia and arrive at the triple-point junction of Paint Branch, Indian Creek, and Northeast Branch Trails.
The trek down Northeast Branch Trail is similarly smooth. I throttle back, field a phone call from Paulette, and average 11.0 min/mi on the 2.5 measured miles to the next triple-point trail nexus where Northeast Branch, Northwest Branch, and the Anacostia River Trails converge. Then I start feeling frisky and accelerate upstream on the Northwest Branch Trail. Near the West Hyattsville Metro Station I spy a pair of pink striped panties (size 9, rather too small for me) beside the path. I hang them from the next bridge railing and trot onward. My average pace on NWB when I reach milepost 4.0 is a brisk 10.0 min/mi — whee! — and after climbing University Blvd back to the UM campus I weave among strolling students and sprint downhill to my starting point for a personal loop record of just under 1h55m. Whew!

Candy Cane 5k

10 Nov 2007 — 3+ miles (~10.9 min/mi) — To avoid the crowds at the start/finish area I park far up Beach Drive and discover, when I arrive to sign in, that I've forgotten my bib — arggghhh! Christina Caravoulias and Don Libes chat with me and take photos, and Don kindly lends me a pair of gloves, but with a dozen minutes to go before race time I decide to jog back to my car. I ditch camera and windshirt, pin on my #333, move the car closer, and rush back just in time to join Chris and Patricia Rich at the tail-end of the mob. Chris jumps up and down in place, reminding me of a gazelle pronking or stotting before springing into action. Both of us are among the few warm-natured souls here: we stand out in our short-sleeved shirts and running shorts among the crowd of tights, vests, hoods, and jumpsuits.
The turnout today is strong, 123 men plus 141 ladies. A full 16 seconds after the "Go!" signal we cross the starting line and I trigger my stopwatch. Chris runs smoothly and our first mile flows past in 10:16, after which we begin to take 20-second walk breaks every few minutes. Don greets us at the turnaround cone and as he photographs us I return his gloves en passant. Miles 2 and 3 are 10:51 and 11:14 respectively. With a strong kick we finish together in 33:27 by my watch, a modest sub-11 min/mi result.

Track Tutorial

12 Nov 2007 — ~3 miles (~14 min/mi net pace) — Light rain begins to fall as I walk across the campus to meet comrade Christina Caravoulias. At 9am we have the University of Maryland track all to ourselves. Nearby a crew of workmen unloads (or reloads) chairs in preparation for (or cleaning up from) some unspecified event. We jog an initial easy 400m lap together (2:39) and then Coach Chris leads me through a 15-minute series of exercises: skipping, butt kicks, bounding strides, sideways scissor-steps, etc. They're strenuous and require significant arm-leg coordination and joint flexibility, neither of which have I. After we finish the warmup my hips feel unnaturally loose, but I'm definitely ready to run!
So now it's time for our gentle speedwork. I essay a 100m dash (0:19.66), walk to recover, then do a comfortable 1600m aiming for 2:20/lap but achieving that but only on the average (splits 2:05 + 2:28 + 2:27 + 2:19 = 9:20 total). We walk a lap together and then each do 800m (2:19 + 2:11 = 4:30 total), walk, then 400m (1:47), followed by a couple of smooth 200m efforts (0:53 and 0:57). Christina is gathering data on her pace at various distances for one of her trainers. My goal is merely to have fun and avoid injury before a longish run this weekend. Hundreds of birds descend upon the field and chirp at us as we finish the workout. New gel inserts that I'm experimenting with seem to shift around in my shoes, but I don't feel any metatarsalgia so perhaps they're helping; then again, the cushioned track surface may render them superfluous.

(cf. Crossed Paths (28 Jul 2007), Rileys Rumble 2007 (30 Jul 2007), Pied Beauty (27 Aug 2007), Phone It In (21 Sep 2007), Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2007 (24 Sep 2007), Mather Gorge (9 Oct 2007), Jfk 2007 Preparation (26 Oct 2007), Potomac Heritage 50k 2007 (20071104), ...)

- Monday, November 12, 2007 at 14:08:51 (EST)

Digger Wasp

The digger (aka Sphex) wasp is famous for a stylized sequence of behavior: sting and paralyze an insect, drop it by the entrance to the wasp's underground burrow, go inside to inspect the nest, and then come out to fetch in the insect. If the insect is moved a short distance away the wasp starts its little program all over again: moving the insect, then re-inspecting the nest even though that step is unnecessary. And if the insect is shifted away again, the wasp mindlessly repeats the same pattern.

Just so for me early one morning last week: after my shower I looked around the bathroom for my underwear and couldn't find it. So off I went, stumbling around the bedroom in semi-darkness — until I discovered that I had already put my underwear on! I thought of the wasp, and then of Uncle Podger in Jerome K. Jerome's hilarious Three Men in a Boat, when in Chapter 3 he complains:

"Doesn't anybody in the whole house know where my coat is? I never came across such a set in all my life — upon my word I didn't. Six of you! — and you can't find a coat that I put down not five minutes ago! Well, of all the — "
Then he'd get up, and find that he had been sitting on it, and would call out:
"Oh, you can give it up! I've found it myself now. Might just as well ask the cat to find anything as expect you people to find it."

(cf. Three Man Boat (10 Jan 2002), ...)

- Saturday, November 10, 2007 at 21:42:06 (EST)

Asimov on Happiness

"Happiness is doing it rotten your own way."

(from Chapter 90, "Indexes", of I. Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov; cf. Whatever You Want (26 Feb 2007), ...)

- Wednesday, November 07, 2007 at 11:27:52 (EST)

Twenty Percent Longer

Want to live 20% longer? Considering how much of one's life is wasted on commercials, maybe paying extra for advertisement-free media is a bargain. Or even better, what a deal: go to the library, check out a book — one without paid product placements or spinoff affiliate enterprises — and read it.

No ads there, or here ...

(cf. For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), No Ads (17 May 2005), ...)

- Monday, November 05, 2007 at 20:30:07 (EST)

Potomac Heritage 50k 2007


Sorry that you feel that way
The only thing there is to say
Every silver lining's got a
Touch of grey.

I will get by,
I will get by,
I will get by,
I will survive.

(no worries! — the blood is only cosmetic, damage soon to heal: ugly ^z legs at the Turkey Run aid station, mile ~17 of the 2007 PHT50k)

The Grateful Dead song "Touch of Grey" is playing on the car radio as I drive to the start of the Potomac Heritage Trail 50k on 27 October 2007, and throughout the race the lyrical refrain "I will survive!" cycles intermittently through my head. After days of heavy rain the creeks are flooding, the river is high, and the fallen leaves are slippery. I feel considerable trepidation, since I've never ventured onto most segments of the PHT and I'm concerned about making the time cutoffs. But as it turns out, it's All Good — even during a couple of exciting moments along the way. The mud is less daunting than it was at the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2007 or the Hat Run 2007, the scenery is beautiful, and (as usual in ultramarathons) along the way I meet some wonderful, helpful people.

The PHT50k begins in the middle of Washington DC near the National Zoo, at Race Director Kerry Owen's lovely home in the Woodley Park area of town. I'm a bit spacey before the start, but I eventually figure out that it's because my "breakfast" today consisted of a cup of strong coffee. After a few blocks along city streets I'm fine, however, as we enter Rock Creek Park and I settle into my customary position at the back of the pack.

The rain has tapered to a light drizzle and soon stops entirely. Young US Army officer Mary Campbell jogs with me. She's running the Marine Corps Marathon tomorrow and plans to do "only" 19 miles today as a warm-up. I salute her chutzpah.

My first fall occurs near mile 3, when I don't pick up my feet enough and trip on a surveyor's string in a construction zone on Foxhall Rd. Ooopsies! Mary is concerned but all's well; I've only scraped my knees slightly. Our route here is marked with blue flour splashed on the tree trunks, plus yellow blazes signifying established pathways. We wind along various ridges and streams via woodsy urban neighborhood trails, past Dumbarton Oaks to the Glover-Archibald Trail and then the Wesley Heights Trail. After Aid Station #1 we descend through Battery Kemble Park downstream to a rocky crossing, then stoop to traverse a scary tunnel under Canal Rd beside racing waters. Even scarier to short males, we next must clamber over a high wooden railing. ("Ouch!", I say in a falsetto voice).

Thus we arrive at Fletchers Boathouse to join the C&O canal towpath, from which our course runs smooth for a couple of miles to Georgetown. Mary takes the lead as I slow and enjoy some walk breaks. I catch up with her at the Key Bridge crossing of the Potomac River and we go slightly astray in Rosslyn before finding the bikepath toward Roosevelt Island and the beginning of the Potomac Heritage Trail. At Aid Station #2 we eat, drink, and prepare for the real trail to begin. But Mary is already experiencing knee pain, so after a few hundred yards I persuade her to return to the Aid Station and "Save the next 12 miles for the MCM!" (She finishes that marathon the next day in a splendid 4:42:32 — brava, Mary!)

Now I'm all alone, following blue PHT blazes and occasional blue flour marks. Some months ago comrade Tracy Wilson told me of his training run along the PHT here, which he described as rugged and technical in places. What an understatement! The four miles to the next aid station include some of the steepest, rockiest terrain I've encountered. I almost catch up to a group of four runners who witness my second fall when I slip on the rocks approaching a stream crossing and sit down far too abruptly. Ow! The damage is thankfully slight, I tell my fellow travelers, and they trot onward while I walk a bit to regroup.

Climbing up the cliffside to Chain Bridge I cling to a steel handrail bolted to the stone outcropping and thank whoever installed it there. After some heavy breathing I'm at the top and follow the line of Halloween jack o' lanterns to Aid Station #3, arriving a comfortable 25 minutes ahead of the mile 12.5 cutoff with a false sense of confidence that the toughest part of the race is over. The volunteers here notice fresh blood on my legs and express concern, but I reassure them. They refill my bottles with Gatorade, I scarf down a handful of M&Ms and potato chips, and trot off.

A few dozen yards downhill I suddenly realize that my hands are empty: I've left half of my electrolyte supply behind. Whoops! I dither momentarily, then recollect my experience of dehydration during the Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2007 a month ago. "One bottle bad; two bottles good!" I tell myself, and climb back up the hill to the Aid Station to retrieve my forgotten bottle. I re-greet the volunteers, laugh with them, and head out once more.

The PHT here becomes easier to navigate, with longer but gentler hills though deep pine forests. The waters of Pimmit Run are in violent flood today, so rather than lose runners the course marshals re-route us up the embankment to the George Washington Memorial Parkway where we can cross on the shoulder of the automobile bridge. The woodsy trail resumes at Ft Marcy and now I'm on a segment that I've traversed once before in the opposite direction (cf. "Home Run Meltdown", Operation Acclimation on 25 May 2007). Crossing the Hwy 123 access ramps I'm spotted by my boss René who happens to be driving along the Parkway this Saturday. Small world!

The leading racers begin to meet me during their inbound run. Michele Harmon shouts greetings and encouragement. (She will finish first of the women, more than 3 hours ahead of me.) After some nervousness about losing the trail I follow the white flour markings to Aid Station #4 at Turkey Run Park, mile 17. Here I discover that what seemed a too-good-to-be-true 5.25 hour cutoff is actually too good to be true: it applies not to entering the Aid Station here but to leaving it on the return journey. Whoa!

Race Official Jaret Seiberg logs my arrival on his clipboard and tells me that because the permit from the Park Service requires runners to clear out on time, I've gotta really hustle to make the cutoff. He encourages me to try, however, so after a quick refueling (and a pause for a volunteer to take photos of my bloody legs with my cellphone's camera) I blast, relatively speaking, down to the river. I have one hour to make it to the turnaround and back in order to do the full 50k. Officially it's only 3 miles, but I think in reality it's a bit farther. After I leave the aid station I discover I've forgotten my gloves, but there's no time to get them now.

I push hard, scrambling up and down the rocks, rushing the stream crossings, and meeting large numbers of returning runners. "Large" in this tiny race means perhaps a dozen. After 26 minutes I reach the American Legion Bridge — Excelsior! I wipe my hands against my legs and leave proof of my presence: bloody palm prints among the graffiti on the pillar that supports the highway over the Potomac River.

Then it's dash back to Turkey Run, where I arrive to the cheers of the volunteers. I'm a whole two minutes ahead of the final cutoff — hooray! Newly-married, currently-retired ultrarunner friend Rayna Matsuno Weise gives me a joyous hug. (Thank you, Ma'am!) I grab my gloves and join another racer on the way out of the aid station. We miss the trail and loop back until a race official leads us to the return path.

Slow and steady, I make my way through the woods to Chain Bridge. My paper map is soggy to the point of disintegration. Fortuitously I spy a small white object beside the trail. I venture to bend over — not a trivial act in the later stages of a long race — and pick it up, thinking it's just litter. But it's a laminated set of race directions, dropped by a fast runner. Woot!

After a quick snack at the last Aid Station I follow the course across the Potomac and back into Washington DC. On the C&O Canal towpath I catch up with Jim Simpson. We settle down to walk and jog the last half dozen miles together, and I discover that Jim has quite a résumé: he has run 50 marathons in 50 states, not once, not twice, but six times in succession, and is most of the way through set number seven. Jim is retired and does two marathons or ultras most weekends. I ask him for his advice on training, nutrition, injury avoidance, and a host of other topics.

We miss a turn and get slightly lost together in the urban park system, but turn around and eventually find our way back to the orange flour blazes, thanks to the plastic card of directions I picked up plus helpful advice from a young lady jogger who tells us she had planned to do the PHT50k today but had to cancel due to injury. Jim is signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon tomorrow, so we slow down and have a good time during the final miles. (He finishes the MCM in 5:24:48 — bravo!)

At RD Kerry Owens's house where we started Jim and I stop our watches and sign the log with our times. This free fat-ass race is run on the honor system! We eat and drink, and I thank Kerry in person as I leave for home. There are no t-shirts, no medals, no prizes. None are needed. We all know what we did.


The shoe is on the hand it fits
There's really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit, 'cause
It's all right.

Oh well, a touch of grey
Kind of suits you anyway
That was all I had to say
It's all right.

I will get by,
I will get by,
I will get by,
I will survive.


^z timing information at various points along the Potomac Heritage 50k of 2007:

Time Split Pace Location
1:01 1:01 ~13 min/mi Aid Station #1 ( ~4.7 mi) - in NW DC
1:52 0:51 ~13 Aid Station #2 ( ~8.6 mi) - near Teddy Roosevelt Island
3:04 1:12 ~18 Aid Station #3 (~12.5 mi) - Chain Bridge
4:19 1:15 ~17 Aid Station #4 (~17.0 mi) - Turkey Run
4:45 0:26 ~17 American Legion Bridge (~18.5 mi)
5:13 0:28 ~19 Aid Station #4 (~20.0 mi) inbound
6:32 1:19 ~18 Aid Station #3 (~24.5 mi) inbound
8:27 1:55 ~18 Finish ( ~31.1 mi + half a mile or so off course in final part)

("Touch of Grey" lyrics by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia; cf. http://www.vhtrc.org/events/pot-h50.htm , http://www.vhtrc.org/results/pht07.htm , Rileys Rumble 2007 (30 Jul 2007), Pied Beauty (27 Aug 2007), Phone It In (21 Sep 2007), Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2007 (24 Sep 2007), Mather Gorge (9 Oct 2007), Jfk 2007 Preparation (26 Oct 2007), ...)

- Sunday, November 04, 2007 at 17:10:59 (EST)

Correlation, Causality, and Astrology

Quote o' the Day, from astronomer friend SW:

Correlation without causality is astrology!

(cf. Modern Phrenology (19 0ct 2003), ...)

- Friday, November 02, 2007 at 20:22:56 (EDT)

Deer Hunting with Jesus

Cotton candy sandwiches, on rye with dijon mustard — Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War is a tray of them. Joe Bageant's prose is polished, with sound bites of tasty humor and sharp imagery ... until he goes off on another mean-spirited, self-contradictory rant. The book feels like a patchwork quilt of previously published online commentary, talk-radio overheard from the next room as someone randomly changes stations. Not a nutritious diet, whether or not one agrees with the author's politics.

- Wednesday, October 31, 2007 at 21:25:51 (EDT)

Full Moon Metaphors

Verlyn Klinkenborg in the 1 October 2007 New York Times muses about a moonrise as seen from a train window. His essay "Watching the Full Moon Rise Over the Northeast Corridor" is such a work of gentle genius that I must save a fragment of it, for rereading and thinking and inspiration:


The full moon was rising on the ride home. At first there was just the suggestion of a disk low on the horizon. It might have been a moon painted on old red brick, faded and soot-stained over the eons, the remnant of an ad for some forgotten nocturnal medicine. I'd been watching the way Baltimore backs blindly onto the tracks — the toothless old houses, boarded up, beyond despair, here and there a wall gone entirely so that the houses seem to be leaking their privacy into the night. And then, when I next looked, we were passing the water's edge, and there was the moon just beginning to glow, though the night was too muggy for the water to catch the moon's reflection.
It seemed like a very slow moon, perhaps because of the speed with which the landscape shifted beneath it. I found myself thinking of the ancient notion that the moon's orbit marks the boundary between the immutable heavens and the mutability of the sublunary sphere. Against the backdrop of urban demise and development, this moon seemed impossibly constant. Even along the shore, where the flat waves seemed to abandon the land over and over again, the moon persisted.
I realized that to really understand the metaphor of the moon's mutability — the inconstancy of its path through the sky, its time of rising and setting, and especially its phases — you would have to live in a much darker world, where you could feel the steadiness of the night sky.
Something about the moon brings to life one metaphor after another. I remembered, long ago, describing a full moon rising in far northern California as "a fat man climbing a ladder," which seemed accurate enough at the time. But this moon was not a fat man climbing. It seemed to hang over the horizon. Then it slid slowly up the sky, and its color deepened. I tried to name its colors as it ascended and in doing so remembered how steadily and surprisingly life supplies us with the right analogies.
For at one point, just as darkness was really taking hold, I let myself say — and it was a cliché, of course — that this moon was as ripe as a tropical fruit. And yet it really was exactly the color of the flesh of a tropical fruit I had bought the night before. The fruit was called a mamey sapote, which comes from Central and South America. Unpeeled, it looks like an oversized and perfectly oval potato. But under the rind is a deep mahogany seed and the mildly sweet flesh of a ripe September moon, which is slightly aphrodisiacal they say.

... and quietly onward and upward, until the conclusion: "But soon it rose into some new analogy, some new association, and by then I had fallen asleep."

- Monday, October 29, 2007 at 05:29:14 (EDT)

JFK 2007 Preparation

Steam rises from Mary's shoulder as low-angle sunbeams slice between trees. We trade places so she can see the clouds wafting off me. It's a slightly-too-warm definitely-too-humid October morn, and we're catching our breath at the National Zoo water fountain. We've reached the midpoint of today's 21 miler. Notes on that and other jogs of the past fortnight follow ...

JFK 50 Miler Simulation

13 Oct 2007 — ~26 miles (~17 min/mi) — In Harpers Ferry I follow the wrong set of train tracks and manage to lead my running buddy Mary Ewell halfway out of town along the Shennandoah River. We belatedly ask directions, reverse course, and then pick our way through crowds of tourists and Civil War reenactors. Soon we find the Amtrak station where we can refill our water bottles, regrease our feet, and gather our wits in preparation for the next few hours of trekking along the C&O Canal towpath. We're training for Mary's JFK50 race next month by previewing miles 2.5-27.1 of the course.
Today is a Very Good Day precisely because it's also a rough day. Both Mary and I experience significant, unexpected aches and pains, though thankfully neither of us falls down or twists an ankle on the Appalachian Trail (AT) between the Old South Mountain Inn and Weverton Cliffs. We get started late, at 6:50am instead of 6am, because I get lost on the way to our Antietam rendezvous and enjoy an unscheduled tour of Sharpsburg. "Sir," I address an elderly gentlemen checking his mailbox at 5:30am, "could you tell me how to find Canal Road?" He sends me back three miles along the winding country lane from whence I came. As I approach the corner of Canal Road I spy Mary awaiting me.
Then it's park in the dark, double-check gear, jump into Mary's car, and ride to our starting point, Zittlestown, at the notch in South Mountain on US Hwy Alt-40 where the JFK meets the AT. We're almost an hour behind schedule and dawn is upon us. After a short debate we abandon the notion of simulating the dark 5am November JFK start, and instead leave our flashlights and headlamps behind. Soon it's bright enough for us to see how treacherous the path is. On the AT we set a steady, cautious pace and meet some friendly folks, including Paul Betker whom Bernie (aka Lisa) and I saw last year on 4 Nov (cf. Inner Goat). Paul has done 25 JFKs in a row and is training today for #26. After walking and chatting with us for a half-mile he races on ahead to catch up with his comrades.
Half a dozen miles into the day's journey we're at Gathland Gap, where my favorite soda water vending machine hums cheerfully. Paul and Co. are here, about to head west along the road to loop back to where they, and we, began. Mary and I drink Cherry Cokes and after an 8-minute break proceed onward, chatting about superfluidity, mean people, the effect of microwave radiation on delicate body parts, and other entertaining topics as we follow the AT south along the ridgeline. The air today is cool and comfortable but rather dry — so we don't fully realize how much water we're both losing through sweat and respiration. At Weverton Cliffs we descend the steep switchbacks and retrieve the cache of supplies that I hid behind a tree at 0530 on my way to Sharpsburg. We sit on a guardrail at JFK course mile 15.5 (our 13th mile of the day), sip Gatorade, and nibble Pringles potato chips.
The AT takes us across the train tracks to join the C&O Canal towpath near milepost 58. Mary jogs along at a strong pace, so we average 11.5-13 min/mi, interspersing four minutes of running with one minute of walking. By Harpers Ferry, canal mile ~60.7, we're starting to get tired and realize that we're already low on water. We climb a scary metal mesh stairway and cross the Potomac. After ~20 minutes of wandering we tank up and return.
Then it gets tougher — especially for Mary who has maintained her electrolytes but probably is already quite dehydrated. We walk more frequently and longer, and Mary cheerfully describes the pre-migraine sensations she's starting to experience. (I challenge her to stroll through a tree, but she demurs.) At canal mile ~69.5 we're back at my car where we each chug cans of soda water, eat handfuls of chocolate chips, and begin to recover. Total time on feet: ~7.5 hours. When I get home I weigh myself and find that I've lost 2.0 lbs. in spite of drinking 40 oz. of Zelectrolyte brew, 20 oz. of Cherry Coke, 20 oz. of Gatorade, ~10 oz. of water, and 12 oz. of orange soda. (Proof that I can sweat buckets even when the temperature is below 70°F!)
The Good News, however, is that we covered more than 25 miles of the toughest terrain on the JFK course, and we did it in less than 7 hours, not counting time spent random-walking about Harpers Ferry or the entire long breaks at Gathland Gap and Weverton. This tells me that, barring horrid weather or catastrophic injury on the AT, Mary should have no trouble making the cutoffs for the JFK next month.

6k XC

14 Oct 2007 — ~3+ miles (~12 min/mi) — Today's MCRRC cross country race, "Little Bennett's Revenge", is both a new distance and a location: 6 km at the Agricultural History Farm Park in Derwood MD. The course is a pleasant one, three grassy loops on gently rolling hills around the periphery of huge fields. Comrade Christina and I meet before the start and visit, then plan our run. We set off near the back of the pack and manage a controlled pace, with 2km splits by Ms. C's watch of 14:34 + 16:14 + 14:59 for a total of just under 46 minutes. I'm 10th out of 10 in my age/sex group, but that still means I get a point towards the XC 2007 Championship Series. Next year I'll be in the 55-59 year cohort, where there are somewhat fewer competitors; I would have been 4th of 6 today, for example. And I'll be eligible for the senior citizen menu items at IHOP, and ship in the AARP — ugh! Wake me up in another decade or so please ...

Mary's Loop

20 Oct 2007 — ~21 miles (~14 min/mi) — At 6am Orion rides high and Venus glisters brilliant above the forested gloom of Rock Creek Park. I can't find my flashlight, so by cellphone's glow I hide a bag of goodies behind a tree near Beach Dr just north of Military Rd. It's a cache for Mary Ewell and me at mile 14 of today's planned journey. I'm a little nervous because the Park Police Headquarters is just a quarter mile down the road. But nobody catches me in flagrante delicto, so I creep back to my car and drive to downtown Bethesda where Mary and I are to meet for today's training run. I'm startled to find the parking lot already active: apparently we've stumbled into an Arts Festival street-fair today.
But all's well: we park, Mary finds my flashlight (I forgot that I left it in her car at last Saturday's 26 miler), we prepare our packs, and shortly before 7am set off southwards along the Capital Crescent Trail. Dawn is progressing and we can see well enough by street lights and skyglow to trot comfortably, with initial measured miles of 11:30, 11:37, 12:15, and 12:40. We discuss Buddhist vs. Hindu styles of meditation, pause to drink and refill water bottles at Fletcher's Boathouse, then pick up the pace on the gentle downhill journey to the CCT's end.
Onward we go, along Water St beneath the Whitehurst Fwy where Mary spies a battered canvas tropical hat in the middle of the road. I pick it up and carry it home; it comes in handy half a dozen miles later when I discover I can put a banana and some chips in it to hold conveniently. Slightly farther along we see dozens of police gathered, apparently preparing for duty later today when demonstrators are expected to be marching downtown.
Our course is almost identical to "Caren's Loop", a training run that Caren Jew and I did on 7 October 2006 in preparation for her Marine Corps Marathon and JFK (see Hat Bulge, 23 Oct 2006, for details). Like last year, Mary and I reach Thompson's Boat Center after a couple of hours of comfortable jogging. Unlike last year, since we started ~2 hours later the building is open. The waterside is lined with girls stretching and preparing for their rowing lessons. Mary tells me that some of the young ladies were observing my high-cut-up-the-hip shorts; I try not to imagine what they were saying.
We take advantage of the facilities, split a Dr. Pepper, and turn our feet northward to follow the path alongside Rock Creek Parkway. Traffic is noisy and we have to step aside to let cyclists, skaters, and faster runners pass. The fog has lifted but it's still rather humid; we're walking more now and our pace is in the 12-14 min/mi zone. A pair of deer fade into the brush near the Zoo tunnel upon our approach. We take the longer path into the Zoo and pause to drink up at the fountain that marks the midpoint of our journey.
About 3.5 miles upstream we reach our cache and stop to sit at a picnic table, eat Oreos cookies and Pringles chips, chug Gatorade, and commiserate about our multiple aches. Mine are relatively minor: foot twinges and the usual chafing/abrasion. More significant are Mary's: several of her joints are troubling her today, perhaps an aftereffect of the long tough run we did a week ago. But we've got seven more miles to cover and she's an Ironman, so it's Excelsior!
Our climb now to the edge of DC is gradual but definite. We walk more and pause longer to drink. Topics of conversation include Camus, Sartre, helium dilution refrigeration, and meals which have made us hurl. Both Mary and I are vegetarians now, but together we harken back in memory to our carnivorous days when vomitous experiences with, respectively, pork ribs and pastrami led to decade-long food aversions.
My mental arithmetic powers are weak, but as we return to the CCT with a only a couple of miles to go I compute that we may be able to finish in under 5 hours — but probably not far under that magic number. Mary pushes hard through the hip pain she's now experiencing and, ultra-politely, requests that I stop chattering quite so much so she can concentrate. I apologize and comply. Our final miles are at ~15 minute pace, and with 2+ minutes to spare we thread our way through heavy traffic and tag our cars so I can stop my watch. After a brief cooldown we both feel better and are ready to head home. A rough run, but a good one!

(cf. Crossed Paths (28 Jul 2007), Rileys Rumble 2007 (30 Jul 2007), Pied Beauty (27 Aug 2007), Phone It In (21 Sep 2007), Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2007 (24 Sep 2007), Mather Gorge (9 Oct 2007), ...)

- Friday, October 26, 2007 at 14:23:39 (EDT)

Lowry on Writing

Rich Lowry, writer and magazine editor, gave a talk recently about "writing to be read". Some thoughts, digested from excellent notes taken by a colleague:

(many thanks to Jane F. for sharing her splendid notes from this talk! cf. How To Write (28 Nov 2000), ...)

- Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 20:06:56 (EDT)

The Big Room

The classic Hackers Dictionary describes The Big Room as "The extremely large room with the blue ceiling and intensely bright light (during the day) or black ceiling with lots of tiny night-lights (during the night) found outside all computer installations."

When I hear folks rhapsodizing about how immersive their video games or online environments are, I just have to smile. There's something special about reality. Even if you're using a vibrating controller and 3-D goggles and smell-o-vision ... even if you've got an ultra-fast processor and a video board that displays polygons out the wazoo ... even if you paid extra for nano-actuators to punch you in the face when an avatar on the screen hits you ... even if you've jacked in via neural implants and the bits are piped directly into your brain — it's only a simulation, and you know it.

All the philosophical arguments about Cartesian demons and deluded brains in vats can't compare to really seeing mist rising over a meadow at dawn, or really tripping on a tree root and doing a Face Plant. James Boswell's Life of Johnson describes a (real!) moment in August of 1763 with Samuel Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — 'I refute it THUS.'

Ouch! Maybe that's why I like trail running ...

(cf. Rock Creek Valley Trail (30 Aug 2004), ...)

- Sunday, October 21, 2007 at 08:55:18 (EDT)

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a potboiler romance novel, the literary equivalent of cotton candy or greasy popcorn. It was written in five weeks during 1901 by Hungarian expatriate Baroness Emmuska Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy, aka "Baroness Orczy", and displays all the clunky clichés of the genre — as during a typical moment in Chapter XVI when:

Marguerite Blakeney was, above all, a woman, with all a woman's fascinating foibles, all a woman's most lovable sins. She knew in a moment that for the past few months she had been mistaken: that this man who stood here before her, cold as a statue, when her musical voice struck upon his ear, loved her, as he had loved her a year ago: that his passion might have been dormant, but that it was there, as strong, as intense, as overwhelming, as when first her lips met his in one long, maddening kiss.
Pride had kept him from her, and, woman-like, she meant to win back that conquest which had been hers before. Suddenly it seemed to her that the only happiness life could ever hold for her again would be in feeling that man's kiss once more upon her lips.

Characterization? Forget it! Atmosphere? Martian-thin! Description? Minimal, except of fancy-dress ballroom costumes. (No bodice-ripping; the clothes are too expensive.)

But in between clunky plot twists a few poetic moments appear, as in Chapter XXI:

... The sound of the distant breakers made her heart ache with melancholy. She was in the mood when the sea has a saddening effect upon the nerves. It is only when we are very happy, that we can bear to gaze merrily upon the vast and limitless expanse of water, rolling on and on with such persistent, irritating monotony, to the accompaniment of our thoughts, whether grave or gay. When they are gay, the waves echo their gaiety; but when they are sad, then every breaker, as it rolls, seems to bring additional sadness, and to speak to us of hopelessness and of the pettiness of all our joys.

... and then it's back to derring-do!

- Friday, October 19, 2007 at 13:11:48 (EDT)

In Memoriam

 Make me an arrow when I am gone,
 With head of flint and shaft of birch
   And swallow-feathered tail.
 Make it as you remember me,
 Not over-fancy, straight, or strong —
   Since I was none of those.
 At midnight in the wilderness
 Where we first met, go, draw your bow,
   And aim the arrow high.
 Whisper my name, release the string,
 And launch it toward the stars. It will
   Not reach them — nor did I.
 An arc ... then stone returns to stone.
 The shattered shaft decays to soil
   In which new trees shall grow.
 Tailfeathers soon tear loose to drift,
 And gathered will then line a nest
   For some small creature's young.
 These endings worthy of a tool,
 And of a life: to serve, and then
   Complete the circle. Home.

- Tuesday, October 16, 2007 at 19:25:30 (EDT)

Argument by Italics

An amusing bit of illogic that I've noticed in in some books: when the author wants to make a case for an unconventional idea, s/he puts the key conceits into an italic font. It's like raising one's voice or shaking one's finger during a debate ... and of course, it doesn't make a wrong notion right.

No, I won't mention specific examples — but I read and reviewed one recently ...

- Sunday, October 14, 2007 at 17:03:48 (EDT)

Too Many Meetings

Late last year, after seeing the same faces around the table at yet another nonproductive meeting, my boss observed:

"Same monkeys, different tree!"

- Saturday, October 13, 2007 at 03:13:23 (EDT)

Second Sound Engine

A thermoacoustic engine takes heat energy and turns it into sound waves — and those sound waves, in turn, can be converted into other forms of energy such as electricity via transducers. My son Robin is currently working on a mechanical engineering project involving this technology. A discussion with him led me to ask:

Could a thermoacoustic engine be built using Second Sound?

To explain: "Second Sound" is the wavelike propagation of heat in superfluids like Helium II — macroscopic quantum systems near absolute zero. If a cleverly-arranged temperature gradient (or other high-entropy energy source) created (or amplified) a Second Sound signal, then one would have a Second Sound Engine.

Applications? Perhaps to power ultra-cold interstellar space probes ...

- Thursday, October 11, 2007 at 22:27:07 (EDT)

Mather Gorge

Potomac_River_Great_Falls On my 55th birthday some friends and I do a bit of trail running in northern Virginia. Our path takes us along the edge of the Potomac River's Mather Gorge, just below Great Falls (click for a larger image). Notes on that expedition, and other jogs of the past several days, follow ...


29 Sep 2007 — ~11.5 miles (~14.5 min/mi) — Mary and I meet at 7am near the visitor center of Riverbend Park, then drive to Great Falls to pick up Caren and Ken. Besides my birthday it's National Public Land Day, the officer at the gate tells us, so entering Great Falls National Park is free. With her car full of soon-to-be-sweaty runners Mary drives us to Colvin Run Mill, where we last jogged on 23 June 2007 (cf. Awesome Adonis). We trot along the Fairfax Cross-County Trail (aka Faux-CCT) toward the Potomac, with Ken setting a too-fast pace, Mary sticking to him, and Caren hanging back with me as we chat about mountain biking, our families, and various injuries that we've known.
Once we enter Great Falls Park the Carriage Road Trail takes us to the River Trail, a steep and at times scary route near the edge of rocky Mather Gorge. I take photos of the gang and the scenery and then we continue onward to visit the remnants of the Patomack Canal and the town of Matildaville. At Great Falls, ~1.5 hours and ~6-7 miles into the journey, Ken and Caren have to head for their respective homes while Mary and I continue along the trail. Riverbend Park greets us in another few miles, not enough to suit Mary's training plan, so we drop some gear at my car and then continue upriver. I find a dirty pair of underwear abandoned in the woods and carry it gingerly for a while, then drop it in the middle of a small wooden footbridge. When we decide to turn around we find ourselves beside a big hill, so I challenge Mary to race up it; both of us manage the deed, if barely. During the return trip we essay a side trail and find ourselves at Riverbend Park Nature Center, from which a short jog and a final sprint gets us back to my car, 11.7 miles according to my GPS's possibly-generous trackfile. During our cooldown, limber Mary shows me some scary stretches of which I dare attempt a few.

Rock Creek Reunion

30 Sep 2007 — ~4.5 miles (~13 min/mi) — At 0620 I pick up Ruth at her hotel in Georgetown (she flew in last evening) and we proceed to meet Caren at Rock Creek Trail milepost 0, where Beach Drive crosses the DC-Maryland border. Fog lingers over Candy Cane City. As the sun rises we start running up the Western Ridge Trail but soon come to our senses and revert to a fast walk until we reach the next crest. Ruth and Caren reminisce about their meeting here some years ago during the MCRRC Speed Development Program. After we cross Wise Road we turn onto a side trail and descend to Picnic Area 10, where I'm amazed to discover that the water fountain works for a change. At Riley Spring Bridge we cross Rock Creek and trot along the Valley Trail back to our starting point, a brisk loop of ~2.5 miles. Ruth and I amuse Caren as we discuss the British slang phrase "Bob's your uncle!"
Now it's time for Caren to redeploy for home duty, so Ruth and I proceed down Beach Drive. The journey brings back old memories of races and training runs. At Riley Spring Bridge we see a different connector path and take it uphill to rejoin the Western Ridge Trail, along which we trek north to conclude our ~2 mile circuit. I'm tired enough now to call it a day, but Ruth is ready for more; she's training well and has lost some weight. I'm down a wee bit too, I tell her, to ~12 stone in her preferred units. In downtown Bethesda Ruth hops out of my car and takes the Capital Crescent Trail back to her hotel, for an additional ~7 miles. Wow!

Hot Laps

5 Oct 2007 — ~5.5 miles (~12 min/mi) — At noon I leave Son Robin at his engineering lab and set off jogging uphill across the UM campus. The temperature is only in the upper 70s but with a dewpoint in the upper 60s the humidity feels oppressive. I circumnavigate the northern side of the football stadium and see that the track around the soccer field is open, so my plans shift gear: instead of a (probably-too-long) journey along trails, it's time for some speedwork! Alas, my plan to do 10-12 Yasso 800s melts down at the halfway point. My splits, with 2-2.5 minute breaks between, are 4:30 + 4:26 + 4:26 + 4:28 + 4:29 + 4:34 + 4:35 — and with that deterioration at the end I decide to toss in the towel. (The presence of a young lady runner on the track keeps me going a couple of laps longer than I otherwise might have managed.) My jog back to meet Robin is slow and frequently interrupted by walk breaks.


7 Oct 2007 — ~4.5 miles (~13 min/mi) — Today brings near-record heat and humidity for the Army Ten Miler and the Chicago Marathon; in both events a participant dies. I don't know that when in late morning I set out at a brisk pace from home toward the Capital Crescent Trail. Near the beginning of the CCT (mile mark ~0.31) two ladies and a young girl on a bicycle are pondering the "You Are Here" map. I pause to advise them and catch my breath. Then it's onward, across the trestle over Rock Creek, from which I can see a fence blocking Rock Creek Trail (RCT) below. But it looks easily circumventable, so I loop back via the MitP route along East-West Hwy and turn north along RCT. Now I'm beginning to overheat. I slow down, add walk breaks, and weave around two "Trail Closed" fences — but then I'm stymied to find the footbridge at RCT mile 1.45 is entirely missing! It's due to be replaced by December, cold comfort to me today. Rather than retreat I take the lavender-blazed trail upstream but soon lose it and instead follow a narrow dirt track along the eastern bank of the stream. After encountering a walker and her dog I reach Ireland Dr and trot home via the lovely Mermaid Fountain.

(cf. Awesome Adonis (3 Jul 2007), Summer Shambles (17 Jul 2007), Crossed Paths (28 Jul 2007), Rileys Rumble 2007 (30 Jul 2007), Pied Beauty (27 Aug 2007), Phone It In (21 Sep 2007), Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2007 (24 Sep 2007), ...)

- Tuesday, October 09, 2007 at 06:35:42 (EDT)

Strange Loops

I Am a Strange Loop, the latest tome by Douglas Hofstadter, is self-indulgent and repetitive, full of heavy-handed word play and convenient mysticism. Much of the material here was unfolded, better, some decades ago in the extraordinary Gödel, Escher, Bach. Much of the rest overlaps or echoes intermediate books of Hofstadter's. I found little to disagree with, and few surprises.

Yet Strange Loop is also heartfelt and insightful. It presents a constellation of powerful, important ideas, the most brilliant of which is Downward Causality: the notion of "high-level entities pushing low-level entities around". Maybe that doesn't sound like much! But to a micro-determinist (like me) who accepts Laws of Nature that govern the motion of every subatomic particle and every wrinkle in spacetime, it's profoundly liberating. If Gödelian feedback can let big enough entities — like minds — tweak the substrates that they're made of ... well, that opens a window to let in the breeze of Free Will, eh?

(cf. Free Will (11 Apr 1999), Blame Storming (15 May 1999), Mean Meaners (3 Jul 1999), Free Action (3 Apr 2000), Most Important (16 May 2002), Freedom Evolves (3 Jul 2003), No Dogs Or Philosophers Allowed (13 Oct 2003), ...)

- Saturday, October 06, 2007 at 16:18:21 (EDT)

You Are Better

Programming languages are strangely seductive: each new one always seems a little (or a lot) better than the one before. In concluding his commentary "7 reasons I switched back to PHP after 2 years on Rails" (22 Sep 2007) Derek Sivers suggests a reason:

Rails was an amazing teacher. I loved it's "do exactly as I say" paint-by-numbers framework that taught me some great guidelines.
I love Ruby for making me really understand OOP. God, Ruby is so beautiful. I love you, Ruby.
But the main reason that any programmer learning any new language thinks the new language is SO much better than the old one is because he's a better programmer now! You look back at your old ugly PHP code, compared to your new beautiful Ruby code, and think, "God that PHP is ugly!" But don't forget you wrote that PHP years ago and are unfairly discriminating against it now.
It's not the language (entirely). It's you, dude. You're better now. Give yourself some credit.

And maybe it doesn't just apply to programming languages (or girlfriends!) ...

(cf. Personal Programming History (2 Apr 2002), Netfree Programming (21 Oct 2003), Higher Level Language (17 Aug 2007), Do Less (24 Aug 2007), ...)

- Friday, October 05, 2007 at 06:55:58 (EDT)

Cog Dis

A moment of cognitive dissonance struck again yesterday, when a monster Hummer (big expensive gas-guzzling ersatz war vehicle) passed me on the highway, and I saw the license place on it:


- Tuesday, October 02, 2007 at 06:16:42 (EDT)

Silent Keys

Formally, it's the International Radiotelegraph Code. Technically and traditionally it's CW: "Continuous Wave". Commonly but imprecisely it's Morse. To traditionalist hams — radio amateurs — it's the classical way to cut through noise while using the simplest possible transmitting equipment, minimum power, and maximum skill.

More than a century before text messaging, Morse evolved into a language with its own poetic vocabulary. Dots and dashes — dits and DAHs — coalesced into letters and words with a rhythm and swing all their own. "Thank you" was never the harsh and jarring TKS, but always TNX (DAH DAH-dit DAH-di-di-DAH). An over-the-airwaves laugh wasn't a ponderous-to-send LOL; it was a quick chuckle, HI (di-di-di-dit di-dit). "Excellent" became the rhythmic "Fine Business" = FB (di-di-DAH-dit DAH-di-di-dit). A fellow radio operator regardless of age was a low-pitched Old Man = OM (DAH-DAH-DAH DAH-DAH) or an aurally symmetric Young Lady = YL (DAH-di-DAH-DAH di-DAH-di-dit). One's wife was referred to, with a virtual wink, as the XYL.

A smooth-to-send radio call sign was a much-prized possession of the CW operator. One reason to study hard and learn to copy code faster, in fact, was the chance to upgrade to a better callsign. WX = di-DAH-DAH DAH-di-di-DAH meant "weather", so my brother the meteorology student rose to Amateur Extra class and became K5WX; I followed in his footsteps to snag N6WX.

Morse wasn't sent via computer-controlled keyboard either; the transmitted signal was directly controlled by a simple spring-loaded switch. A "straight key" was the classic telegrapher's tool. To go comfortably faster than a couple of dozen words per minute, however, some hams used the Vibroplex: a clever sideways-mounted pair of contacts with a built-in mechanical pendulum. Push the paddle to the left and you made dashes the usual way, but a thumb-flick to the right released the weight-and-spring to generate a quick-rolling series of dots.

A "Good Fist" — smooth, accurate keying — was always a delight to hear. When a ham passed away s/he stopped transmitting and became a "Silent Key", so accordingly the black-bordered obituary column in amateur journals was headlined "Silent Keys". Earlier this year the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dropped the code proficiency requirement for all classes of amateur license, as have most countries around the world. An ever-decreasing number of operators know how to use manual Morse. Within this century, virtually all keys will fall silent.

R.I.P. CW: ~1890 - 2090(?)

(cf. Molybde Numbed (10 Jan 2001), Wouff Hong And Rettysnitch (19 Jul 2001), Hamming It Up (10 Jan 2003), Top Band (20 Dec 2003), Chunky Conceptualization (21 Aug 2004), ...)

- Saturday, September 29, 2007 at 05:08:00 (EDT)

Why Worry?

At yesterday morning's Philosophy Breakfast:

^z: "Why should you worry about things you can't do anything about?"
GdM: "Maybe one of the things you can't do anything about is what you worry about!"

(cf. Philosophy Breakfasts (18 Sep 1999), ...)

- Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 05:29:57 (EDT)

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