^zhurnal 0.48

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.48 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 = 0.47 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com" ... tnx!)

Four Hours Daily

In the booth behind me at the ice cream parlor, an overheard conversation: a mother and her gangly-tall teenage son, his Yankees baseball cap on backwards, are talking with an English professor about college plans for the boy. There's unconscious (or deliberate?) pedantic posturing, attempts at one-upsmanship, smug pride over association with big-name institutions, serious recommendations based on social prestige ... all great fun for the cynical listener.

But nobody poses the key question to the young man: "What have you been doing lately for at least four hours every day?"

For the next several years, if his education isn't going to be a waste of his teachers' time (and his parents' money), this erstwhile scholar had better start paying attention—and devoting at least a quarter of his waking hours—to something he really enjoys. Has he been practicing a musical instrument? Reading great novels? Shooting baskets? Worrying about the nature of reality? Poring over back issues of Scientific American? Hiking through the woods? Praying? Taking care of small animals? Watching television and playing video games? All could lead to worthwhile lifelong careers.

Well, OK, maybe not that last one!

(cf. Self Reliance (16 Jun 1999), Pretense And Lack Thereof (11 Oct 1999), Ten Thousand Hours (20 Sep 2001), Hardest Possible (2 Mar 2003), First Year Worst Year (25 Jun 2004), ...)

- Saturday, August 06, 2005 at 10:52:23 (EDT)

Jogging Recovery

On-the-road expeditions of the past few weeks have continued the slow progress reported in Tentative Toe Tests (9 Jul 05), with heat and humidity mandating only slow, short runs—average distance ~6 miles, average pace ~12 minutes/mile. Some snapshots from the logbook, to keep the memories alive:

AEI Shoe Test #1

9 July 2005 - 8 miles, 96 minutes — First time outdoors with Aei Shoes [1] — experimental ultralight carbon-fiber slipper-sandals. They amaze me with their comfort. In the spirit of "nothing exceeds but excess" I venture to take the Georgetown Branch Trail, with fantasy plan of going to downtown Bethesda and back but with option to bail at Rock Creek or sooner as necessary. It's never even close to necessary, although this is my longest pedestrian journey since March. I alternate minutes of walking and jogging. [average pace 11:58 minutes/mile, standard deviation 25 s/mi, least-squares-fit acceleration 7 s/mi/mi (negative overall splits)]

The slippers offer plenty of "road feel" and minimal cushioning, but seem to protect well against sharp rocks, of which there are plenty on the gravel portions of the trail. I'm used to running flat-footed or heel-strike in cushioned shoes, but when I do that the AEI shoes make an embarassingly loud flap-flap-flap sound --- so I try to land more on the balls of my feet, which is probably a better style anyway. The Bethesda (CCT mile 3.4) water fountain isn't working, a disappointment but not a disaster on this warm but pleasant morning. I carry along and drink about half a liter of dilute Gatorade-mix, and take a Succeed! electrolyte capsule at the 4-mile point. On the homeward journey I chat with a couple of friendly runners: a fellow who is doing ~11 today, and a young lady training for the Marine Corps Marathon this fall. I recommend the MCRRC [2] November low-key marathon and other races.

As I arrive home I'm amazed at how light-footed I feel ... gotta order another pair of these slippers! I have slight bruising on the soles of my feet, not unexpected with such a long first run on radically new shoes. And my inner thighs are chafed, from rubbing against one another ... gotta get rid of some weight still ...

Thunder Trail

16 July - 5 miles, 62 minutes — Sweltering weather and my tendency to overheat keep me off my feet all week, but when thunderstorms finally start to drop some serious rain at 4:30pm I quickly change into singlet and shorts, slip into experimental AEI Shoes, and set off. Alas, no lightning strikes me; the showers soon slow, then stop. Temperature and relative humidity remain in the 80's. I plod along Rock Creek Trail with my 1:1 ratio of jog:walk, but at the half-hour point the sun comes out and I come to my senses and turn back toward home. Middle miles (RCT 2.5-3.5-2.5) average ~12:30 pace, including a pause at the park fountain to refill my bottle. A big jackrabbit scampers into the brush as I approach. Birds probe the wet meadow grass for newly-surfaced worms. The AEI slipper-shoes feel good as they leave waffle-patterns in the mud. Salty sweat trickles into my eyes and stings as I round the corner for home.

"Cold" Front

23 July - 8 miles, 95 minutes — Thunderific lightning-storms at 1:30am knock out power at the neighborhood laundromat, as I discover four hours later when I arrive to wash the family's clothes for the past week. So it's home, change, and out at dawn to take advantage of the relatively cooler (mid-70's) air. A just-past-full moon hangs low in the southwest. Raindrops trickle belatedly from the trees in Rock Creek Park; fallen branches litter the ground; clumsy young birds and bunnies respectively flutter and scamper away as I approach. Scattered puddles and mudflows decorate the asphalt trail.

Approaching the tunnel under Connecticut Avenue I feel trepidation, since it sometimes floods, but today the route turns out to be quite passable. Twinges in my left shin and ankle fade after the first few miles, then reappear among the small bones of the left foot. My mesh singlet is totally sweat-soaked at the five mile point and I'm beginning to feel nipple abrasion, so I take the shirt off. Sunbeams slice through the forest and irradiate the misty morning air (cf. Rainposts And Godrays). Five measured miles (RCT 2.5-5-2.5) average an 11:42 pace, alternating minutes of walking and jogging. Muchas gracias to the kind soul(s) who repainted the quarter-mile markers on the pathway!

Mana Burn

24 July - 5+ miles, 67 minutes — No run planned, but when I went out to get the morning newspapers the weather was so delightful that I couldn't resist ... so via the long way to Walter Reed Annex, orbit the Mermaid Fountain, then down the path to Rock Creek Trail ... surprisingly brisk, at a 2:1 ratio jog:walk, with middle miles (MitP 22-24) averaging 11:00 minutes/mile ... but then I start to suffer from Mana Burn and increasing fatigue, so it's back to the 1:1 walk-break strategy with final miles ~12:30 pace.

Obstacle Course

28 July - 5 miles, 60 minutes — "Love the beard!" a kind lady says in front of Holy Cross hospital. "Thanks, but it's a bit too warm right now," is my reply. I'm on the way to Sligo Creek Trail, where a middle measured mile comes in at ~11:20. Yesterday evening's thunderstorm has left branches and several medium-sized trees fallen on or across the path. At 6pm the temperature is ~80, not bad for this time of year. The bridge is blocked over Sligo to the Dennis Ave. water fountain, but my hand-held bottle of extra-strong Gatorade mix lasts me until I'm almost home. The new (thrift-store) fluorescent-orange shorts I'm wearing neither chafe nor bleed color down my legs.

Wider Circle

30 July - 8 miles, 98 minutes — The fountain on the Capital Crescent Trail in downtown Bethesda is still nonfunctional, but friendly representatives of A Wider Circle [3] are giving away free water and encouragement to passers-by. I pick up a brochure and chat with one gentleman volunteer who admires the MCRRC jogging shorts I'm wearing and says that he has some of the same. "Are you sure?" I ask. "These are the ladies' model; I got 'em cheap." He laughs and replies, "So are mine; they fit just fine."

There are lots of cyclists, walkers, and runners on the Georgetown Branch Trail, though the morning's warmth and humidity are slightly oppressive. I alternate minutes of walking and slow jogging, for an average sweat-soaked pace of ~12:15.

Indian Creek & Lake Artemesia

1 August - 5 miles, 63 minutes — After giving #1 Son Merle an early-morning lift to the University of Maryland I leave the car at Paint Branch Parkway Community Park. There's no obvious way to cross the stream there (but can it be forded on the "equestrian trail"?) so I jog across the parkway bridge, join Northeast Branch Trail near College Park Airport, and head north. At Lake Artemesia where the NeBT terminates and Paint Branch Trail begins I turn right and follow the Indian Creek Trail the ~1.25 miles to its end at Greenbelt Road.

The woods along the creek are lovely, but as usual these days I get warm and sweat-soaked after half an hour. Back at the high bridge over Indian Creek I explore the less-traveled west bank trail and give the insects there a chance to suck my blood. This route leads to a hole in the fence surrounding Lake Artemesia, where I join the loop around the lake, discard some trash I picked up on Indian Creek, take a wrong turn, and get "lost" briefly on the pretty inner peninsula path. Then back to the car and home to do laundry, in preparation for tomorrow's train ride to western Massachusetts where wife Paulette & I will pick up our daughter from summer music camp, and where I hope to do some more jogging ...

Amherst Speedwork

4 Aug - 4+ miles, 52 minutes — The morning feels cool but still humid, the ankle feels ok but not sturdy, so I jog ~1/3rd of a mile to the Amherst High School track and do four 800's (or are they 880's?) averaging 4:10 each, with half-lap walks between. Two buff young ladies and a buff young gentleman are blasting out 6-minute miles. Their recovery lap jogging pace is almost as fast as my maximum run. Back to the motel, where at the door to our room I discover that I've forgotten my fanny pack, so it's return to the track to retrieve it. When I get there the speed demons are leaving. I ask myself, "What would {{your name here}} do?" — and undertake one more 800. Thanks to a sprint in the final 20 meters I finish it in blitz time, 3:59.47 ...

- Friday, August 05, 2005 at 12:00:51 (EDT)

Closer to the Machine

In the late '90s, when dot-coms were flying high, Ellen Ullman wrote an interesting if flawed book about programmers and their work, Close to the Machine. The title alludes to the fun and frustration of low-level computer languages, whereby one can directly manipulate processor registers, flip bits in arbitrary memory locations, and otherwise get intimate with computational iron.

And a few days ago during a local trail run I suddenly understood one of the reasons that long-distance walking and jogging have so much magical power. Intense exertion gets me closer to the human machine—it strips away many of the levels of indirection and abstraction that separate mind from muscle, head from heart. When I'm panting and flushed, when old ankles ache, when thighs chafe, when blisters start to form, when salty sweat drips into the eyes ... those are moments when flesh and soul touch.

(cf. Improve Mentation (11 Jun 2002), Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), Netfree Programming (21 Octd 2003), Bozo Bit (29 Oct 2003), Close To The Machine (6 May 2004), Real Programmers (22 Jul 2004), ...)

- Thursday, August 04, 2005 at 12:52:17 (EDT)

Peterman Woot

Woot! sells remaindered stuff, one item daily. Each offering includes a little story, sometimes hilarious, about the object: a fantasy use for it, a bizarre reason for its indispensability, a secret-origins myth behind it, and so forth. I felt deja vu upon first seeing Woot!, but the ur-source didn't come to consciousness until months later: J. Peterman. I still remember the wallet I ordered from their catalogue in the early-1990's. Its description began:

Stop and think about that wonderful dark pocket of leather in the middle of a baseball glove, lovingly used and punished for half a lifetime ... baseball-glove leather. Centercut. Beautifully cut and sewn and made to last and made to darken; made to be with you a long time.

Alas, there was far less magic in the actual wallet that arrived postpaid; its cowhide was thin and it wore out after a few years. About that time at a local Boy Scout store I picked up a billfold-making leathercraft kit for a few dollars. I couldn't get any of the kids to assemble it for me, so I sat down at the dining-room table, threaded the plastic lace through the heavy-gauge needle, and laboriously put the thing together myself.

It took an hour and I pricked my fingers a few times, but when I was done I had the wallet that I still carry a decade later. It started off stiff and pale, but over time it softened and tanned to its current hip-hugging-happy state. The clear-plastic driver's license window inside has long since cracked and fallen out. I replaced it with a couple of pieces of clear mailing tape stuck together adhesive-to-adhesive.

Every so often I think about buying another Boy Scout billfold kit. But the one I made still has plenty of life in it ...

(cf. Worth The Cost (3 Feb 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, August 02, 2005 at 04:10:59 (EDT)

Death Rays Yesterday

Comrade RD recently shared a cup of tea with me, and at one point the conversation turned to a governmental agency that ostensibly has the mission of advancing science and technology for military applications. Sad to say, in my friend's judgment that organization has lost its way. As s/he describes it, half of the outfit now provides welfare payments to favored academics, while the other half is so obsessed with immediate applications that its slogan might as well be "Death Rays Yesterday!"

- Monday, August 01, 2005 at 14:13:32 (EDT)

Self-government and Self-control

A golf score card turned up today, wedged in the bottom of an ancient bag of clubs that I was cleaning out for someone else in the family. The card is yellowed with the passage of time and comes from the Tenison Memorial Municipal Golf Course (West) near the city of Dallas, Texas. It records a 10-hole game among "Brad", "Dick", and "Ken" in which the players were over par by 24, 22, and 18 strokes respectively.

On the front of this dirty, stained scorecard is the thoughtful admonition:

"The game ceases to be golf when rules are broken at pleasure."
The Tenison Municipal Golf Course offers an excellent opportunity for physical exercise and recreation, but no less an opportunity for the practice of self-control and self-government. The measure of self-control and self-government displayed by patrons of the course is the measure of excellence to be found in the service which the course offers.

(cf. Self Reliance (16 Jun 1999), Rule One (16 Jun 2005), ...)

- Sunday, July 31, 2005 at 16:43:32 (EDT)

Poster Child

To an outside observer this year might not appear to have been the best one for me in the health dimension. Besides a freak accident that halfway tore off a toe, detached a major tendon, and laid me up for a couple of months, I've recently learned that an ugly rough patch on my forehead is a basal cell carcinoma, the result of decades-ago sunburns. This kind of skin cancer is not serious, but it does need to come off soon. And I'm told that further such growths are likely to develop in the future.

But in spite of those ominous sounding events, this has really been an extraordinarily good year for me. Last month my main physician, happy with how my high blood pressure is under control, called me a "poster child" for hypertension management. She mainly credits properly-chosen low-dosage drugs, increased activity, and moderate weight loss. All well and good; I don't disagree. But they're a trivial side-effect of something else.

The real win, I've slowly come to realize, is not physical—it's mental. There's a huge distance still for me to go, but I've begun to figure out what to let go of and what to hang on to ... and how much magic Patience and Time can do in response to any challenge.

As Arnold Bennett said, "Sheer M. Aurelius, of course."

(cf. Bennett On Stoicism (29 Apr 1999), More Fun Less Stuff (1 Oct 2002), Patience And Time (11 Jan 2005), Less More (14 Mar 2005), Do Without (4 Jun 2005), ...)

- Saturday, July 30, 2005 at 11:50:21 (EDT)

Southern Cross

There's a song by Stephen Stills, Richard Curtis, and Michael Curtis titled "Southern Cross" that weaves a magic spell for me whenever I hear it. Maybe it's the combination of naval technical vocabulary (... sailing a reach before a following sea ... making for the trades on the outside ... off the wind on this heading ... eighty feet of waterline ...), plus a good tune, plus a love story/quest, plus some optimistic philosophy, as expressed for example in the title verses:

     When you see the Southern Cross for the first time,
       You understand now why you came this way.
     'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small,
       But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a comin' day.

Or maybe it's the paradoxical lyric near the end:

     So we cheated and we lied and we tested.
     And we never failed to fail; it was the easiest thing to do.

I'm always a sucker for apparently-self-contradictory aphorisms!

(cf. On Failure (1999-07-13), True Names (2003-10-16), ...)

- Thursday, July 28, 2005 at 19:15:44 (EDT)

Prime Directive

Sitting in the back of the room at a too-long too-boring meeting, I heard a cynical comrade use a new acronym:

BIJO — Bureaucracy Is Job One

(cf. Bureaucratic Immune System (9 Aug 2000), Uncivil Servants (23 Aug 2000), Boss Jobs (24 Jul 2001), Bureaucra Quotes (19 Aug 2001), Fearless Leaders (27 Aug 2003), Counter Bean Counters (26 Sep 2003), Organizational Inertia (11 Aug 2004), Torrential Mailstorm (5 Feb 2005), Touch The Flagpole (30 May 2005), ...)

- Tuesday, July 26, 2005 at 06:39:30 (EDT)

Circle Squaring

The Banach-Tarski paradox has always appealed to me, for many of the same reasons that I've enjoyed other counter-intuitive results of math. How in the world can a solid ball be sliced into a handful of pieces which can then be reassembled into two solid balls, each as big as the original?

Well "obviously" it can't, any more than the guests in a completely-full hotel can trade rooms to make space for an arbitrary number of additional occupants—unless the solid ball, or the hotel, is an idealize infinite set. Then ordinary measures of volume fail. Send the resident of room number N to room 2*N, apply to all (infinitely many!) rooms ... and suddenly the odd-numbered rooms are vacant.

Likewise, shatter the solid ball into (infinitely spikey!) sliver-sets, choosing the super-sea-urchin fragment shapes so that rotating one of them makes it precisely fill the space that two sliver-sets formerly occupied ... and suddenly there are pieces left over that can be assembled into a second copy of the solid ball. Likewise, cut a circle into a finite number of (infinitely dusty!) pieces, slide them around, and get a perfect square of the same area.

The fun of mathematics comes with the breakdown of everyday numerical intuition, just as the fun of physics comes from the breakdown of everyday physical intuition near the speed of light, or on ultra-small scales, or in ultra-strong gravitational fields ...

(cf. Relativity Plus Astrophysics (29 Mar 2000), No Concepts At All (22 Feb 2001), Larger Inside (11 May 2004), ...)

- Monday, July 25, 2005 at 05:35:32 (EDT)

Mana Burn

In order to cast spells and enchantments in the role-playing collectable-card game Magic: The Gathering, you must have mana, a Polynesian term for psychic energy. But if you summon up too much mana, it burns you and costs you life points.

When running, likewise, after half an hour or so in warm weather my shirt gets sweat-soaked and often begins to scrape on a pair of vestigial, nonfunctional, but delicate decorative areas of the masculine chest. I have long sought for a prim and proper term to describe this painful problem, since my Victorian sensibilities inhibit me from saying the usual words for these anatomical structures. Today, while suffering during a slow jog around the neighborhood, I think I came up with the answer:

MANA burn

where MANA is an acronym for the unspeakable Male Areola & Nipple Abrasion ...

- Sunday, July 24, 2005 at 10:45:28 (EDT)

Relentlessly Linear

Last month David Bindel, currently a grad student at the University of California (Berkeley), reminisced about his first two undergraduate years at the University of Maryland (College Park). Among many fascinating recollections was a critique scribbled in the margin of one of David's papers by the professor who taught the honors seminar "Knowledge and Its Human Consequences":

You write beautifully, but do you always have to be so relentlessly linear?

The phrase relentlessly linear grabbed me by the throat and shook me—perhaps because unremitting, plodding linearity is one of my stylistic fetishes. Or so at times I flatter myself. A straight line means maximum efficiency. A perfect mathematical proof proceeds without digression from axiom to conclusion. Ideal communication, like poetry, like archery, sends its message into the bull's-eye. No wasted words.

But perhaps a nicer (in the sense of more precise, as well as more pleasing) goal is geodesic prose: writing that follows the shortest path in the curved space of the reader's mind, to maximize joy as well as bandwidth ...

(see http://teatotal.blogspot.com/ esp. "College: Freshman, Sophomore" of 27 Jun 2005; cf. Reflective Students (17 Mar 2004), Proofs And Refutations (24 Jun 2004), Staying The Course (11 Jul 2005), ...)

- Saturday, July 23, 2005 at 10:23:42 (EDT)

Make It Shorter

Sometimes I find it tough to write brief, punchy, focused ^zhurnal bits ... but when that happens, I try to take comfort in the aphorism by Blaise Pascal:

Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

which is translated variously as something like:

I have made this letter so long only because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.

(as countless writers have observed, versions of the above appear in countless other forms across space and time attributed to countless other sources; the quote is from Pascal's Lettres Provinciales, XVI, 14 Dec 1656; cf. Very Good (18 Aug 2001), Most Important (16 May 2002), Extract Traction (21 Oct 2002), ... )

- Thursday, July 21, 2005 at 05:25:02 (EDT)

Seeing Nature

Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World is a love story—with Earth as the object of affection. Paul Krafel, naturalist and teacher, tells a series of gentle parables based on his observations of soil and water, sky and rock, plant and animal, growth and decline. As he summarizes in the chapter "Ten Years Later":

Life is a spiral of storytelling between my actions and the world. My book is a series of stories about times when I "woke up" and heard a story the world was telling that increased my awareness of what I was actually doing within this universe. ("Ooh, the horizon's rising. That's cool.") This feedback allows me to live with greater grace. This increasing grace is what the words in this book tell about.

The parabolic (parable-ic?!) arc of ideas in Seeing Nature means the book—like Nature herself—escapes encapsulation. So here instead of a review are some fragments that caught my idiosyncratic eye with their sparkle.

There's the lesson that Richard Feynman's father taught him on the distinction between symbol and reality, when in his essay "Seeing Animals as Individuals" Krafel writes:

Watching for the constantly adjusting Fit between an animal and its world has changed the way I see animals. When I first started watching animals, my standard question was "What is the name of that animal?" That question made me rely on external authorities such as identification books and rangers. If I was alone, the question could not be answered. And whenever the question was answered, the answer did not lead to further questions. Thinking I now knew the animal, I would walk away in search of animals with other names. Yet all I really knew were names.
Many years later my standard question has shifted to "What is this animal doing?" This question does not rely on external authorities but turns me back to closer observation of the animal. Searching for the answer leads into other questions, such as "How does this behavior fit?" and "What will this individual do next?" When I recommended these questions to people on my nature walks, our walks settled into extended observations that taught us all. Focusing on names deflects from the moment, whereas watching for the Fit probes the moment. One sees more stories and is inspired more often by pieces of the world fitting together so beautifully.

There's an arsenal of powerful techniques I learned in theoretical physics: dimensional analysis, spacetime diagrams, lagrangian and eulerian coordinates, path-integral methods, and so forth. These dry-sounding techno-mathematical constructs magically come to life as Krafel looks at the world and describes what he observes. From "The Fit":

I delight each time I discover the Fit between two pieces of the world. The delight is similar to (but deeper than) fitting together two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When two puzzle pieces fit together, they reveal more of the picture than they did apart. The delight I feel each time I see the Fit between pieces of the world feels like a glimpse of a beautiful picture too vast for me yet to see. Each glimpse tantalizes me to discover the Fit between other pieces.

There's the idea of temporal transcendence—expanding one's view beyond the present instant to slice through swaths of time. From "Seeing Further into the Fourth Dimension":

A change cannot be run backward. But I can move back and forth through "time." I can look downstream and see leaves rot into a brown slime or move my gaze upstream and watch brown slime freshen into leaves. If I discover some new flowering feature as I move away from the snowbank, I can move back toward the snowbank (back in "time") to study its origin. Moving back and forth helps me sense how things once were and how things will be in the future.

There's transcendence that stretches consciousness across space. From "Walking":

While walking through the desert one day, I happened to look to the side. What I saw startled me. Objects appeared to move at different speeds depending on their distances from me. Nearby plants streamed through my visual field quickly while more distant plants moved more slowly. As I practiced, I noticed that the near side of a bush appears to move past faster than the far side. Everything takes on a greater sense of depth. Hills a mile away move faster than mountains five miles away. This does not happen when I look straight ahead. The longer I can walk without taking my eyes off this side view, the further I can extend this enhanced sense of depth.
Eventually, I learn to walk gazing about in all directions as far as I can. My mind relaxes and expands as I walk through this vast, slowly changing view. My focus has spiraled far away from myself.

There's the profound optimism that Krafel describes in "Diverging":

This work reminded me of the process of evolution. Tiny changes create opportunities for other tiny changes. Over time, what seemed impossible becomes possible. Each time I discover a new possibility created by my work, my spirit begins singing, "Don't wait until there is a clear path to the goal. Begin. Doing the work will help create the path."

And there's the slow development of the ability to see through the ephemeral, to penetrate the veil of the moment. From "The Gradient of Converging Water":

That memory reminds me of how I once saw the world. Summits and rivers existed completely independently of one another, with no influence whatswoever on the land in between them. In a world as disconnected as that, I had to stick to the trails if I wanted to find my way. Yet I did learn some things that day. I learned that a summit is surrounded by a mountain and that a river is surrounded by a valley. I began to learn about the drainage patterns that water has carved upon all the land.
These drainage patterns were unknown to me as a child because I grew up in a town. Every town is built upon a pattern of streams but most towns have encased their streams in culverts and buried them beneath pavement. Raindrops begin to converge into streams, but then they disappear through grates down into the storm sewers. Streams are allowed to flow freely only through parks, so I encountered streams as disjointed scenery that appeared at one end of a park and disappeared at the other end. The intricate, subtle slopes of a drainage have been graded and covered with smooth sidewalks and roads. We become what we practice, so in towns we learn the pattern of streets rather than the pattern of drainages. Not until I felt the subtle slopes underfoot as I hiked across deserts and mountains did I learn the pattern of drainages.

I think now about applying that hydrologic vision to ideas—as notions gather in the highlands of individual minds and trickle, converge, and grow into roaring conceptual torrents ...

(belated thanks to RP, the kind correspondent who recommended Seeing Nature two months ago; the book was published in 1999 by [1] ; cf. Natural Profligacy (20 Dec 1999), Invisible Web (8 Dec 2002), Big Picture Fallacy (22 Jan 2003), Beneath Notice (23 May 2003), Feed Or Feedback (6 Sep 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, July 19, 2005 at 05:52:49 (EDT)

Hajimi Nishi

Before the start of the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2005 I meet an older Asian gentleman who seems unusually cheerful and relaxed, an attitude in stark contrast to my chronic pre-race nervousness. He carries a digital camera, so I volunteer to take photos of him with it. At the 10-mile point our paths intersect and I snap a few more pictures for him; at mile 15 he enters the aid station just as I'm leaving.

After the race I discover his identity: Hajime Nishi, self-described "Ecomarathoner". We correspond and he tells me that on 6 March 2005, the day after the Seneca Creek event, he ran the Lower Potomac River Marathon in another part of Maryland. The next day he returned to Tokyo, from which he planned to travel to Bangkok for his 382nd marathon. On Mr. Nishi's http://ecomarathon.org/ site I discover a splendid statement of purpose:

I'm not running marathons to win, but to enjoy the connectedness with nature and people.

... yet another reason to go long and slow and happy! Also delightful is the valediction with which Mr. Nishi ends his letter to me:

I hope our paths will cross again.
Deep bow,

(quote from an interview in the Pensacola News Journal dated 23 Feb 2002; cf. Light Mind (22 Aug 2002), Slower Runners Guide (30 Oct 2002), Yours Truly (30 Aug 20004), Eric Clifton (1 Oct 2004),Taoist State (12 Nov 2004), Paul Reese (17 Feb 2005), Celebration Of Life (27 Mar 2005), ...)

- Sunday, July 17, 2005 at 18:43:09 (EDT)

Chekhov on Tolstoy

Literary hubris? I've got it in spades! Earlier this month I hauled 7 (seven!) books in my carry-on luggage to Massachusetts and back, planning to immerse myself in them during the week there. I finished one—skipping over boring sections.

Among the unread volumes that took the train with me was Stephen Dobyns's Best Words, Best Order, a collection of essays on poetry. Random-walking in it this morning I tripped over (in Chapter 11, "Chekhov's Sense of Writing") a marvelous excerpt from a letter that Anton Chekhov wrote to M. O. Menshikov on 28 Jan 1900 concerning my currently-favorite Russian writer:

... I fear Tolstoy's death. His death would leave a large empty space in my life. First, I have loved no man the way I have loved him. I am not a believer, but of all beliefs I consider his the closest to mine and most suitable for me. Second, when literature has a Tolstoy, it is easy and gratifying to be a writer. Even if you are aware that you have never accomplished anything, you don't feel so bad, because Tolstoy accomplishes enough for everyone. His activities provide justification for the hopes and aspirations that are usually placed on literature. Third, Tolstoy stands firm, his authority is enormous, and as long as he is alive bad taste in literature, all vulgarity in its brazen-faced or lachrymose varieties, all bristly and resentful vanity will remain far in the background. His moral authority alone is enough to maintain what we think of as literary trends and schools at a certain minimal level. If not for him, literature would be a flock without a shepherd or an unfathomable jumble.

Reading that, I suddenly understood science, and art, and society, and a host of other collective human endeavors. They're universes, alive both with brilliant stars and infinitesimal motes ...

(from Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, translated by Michael Henry Heim, with Simon Karlinksy, as quoted in the 2003 second edition of Stephen Dobyns's 1996 Best Words, Best Order; cf. Truth In Battle (11 Feb 2001), Untutored Voice (3 Nov 2004), Perfect Communication (14 Feb 2005), Beacon Of Hope (17 Apr 2005), Where We Are (24 Apr 2005), Globe Of Life (25 Jun 2005), ...)

- Friday, July 15, 2005 at 06:32:31 (EDT)

Weltschmertz Rx

Recently when somebody reported feeling "tired all the *?#$@! time" an old advice neuron fired in the Dr. ^z brain, and something like the following came out ... which might be worth bottling and shelving in case a similar thing happens to me (again) in the future:

Re constant fatigue, it could be many things, including the generic Angst that's part of being a thoughtful human being. We're all different, from others and from ourselves at other times—but perhaps, if you haven't already, you might consider trying some small and safe auto-experiments, e.g.: stop taking any (non-essential) medications (including social/recreational, herbal, etc.)—could be there's something chemical that you body doesn't tolerate at the moment, getting in the way of your health ...; try a small (normal RDA, not mega) dose of a multi-vitamin—in case there's some deficiency in nutrition ...; increase your exercise level—paradoxically, this often gives a big gift of energy ...; avoid TV, web-surfing, movies, sporting events, mass "entertainment", mega-malls, etc.—they can be draining rather than renewing ...; get away from people for a while—camp out, collect leaves/flowers/insects/rocks, watch the stars, reconnect with the universe ...
Most of the above will take a week or more to have a significant effect, if it ever does. Most things get better independently of anything one tries—hence, the Hippocratic "First, do no harm" admonition. And don't forget the common human propensity to give credit for the recovery to whatever one (coincidentally) tried most recently. But you may also wish to see a doc in case there's something unrecognized but majorly clinical going on—e.g., anemia, mononucleosis, hypothyroidism, etc.—which could be treated, or at least diagnosed and understood and allowed for.
Literature Therapy helps sometimes; currently I'm reading a fascinatingly gentle book that a kind correspondent recommended months ago (Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World by Paul Krafel), and it reminds me in some ways of the long-ago Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, which leads me then to remember Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. But note that different books work for different people at different times in their lives, and likely none of the above will say to you what they are/were/will say to me. You must to seek your own cure on a different shelf of the Library.

Alternatively there's always the Cult Movie Prescription to try when, to quote the protagonist of Raising Arizona:

"I dunno ... maybe it's wife, kids, family life ... I mean are you, uh, satisfied Glen? Don't y'ever feel suffocated? Like, like there's somethin' big pressin' down ...".

To which a response occurs in Joe Versus the Volcano:

"So what? You think I feel good? Nobody feels good. After childhood, it's a fact of life. I feel rotten. So what? I don't let it bother me or interfere with my job."

Talk about profound lack of sympathy!

(Raising Arizona written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; Joe Versus the Volcano written by John Patrick Shanley; cf. My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Dialogue Density (21 May 2002), Repo Man (10 Mar 2003), How Great Thou Art (16 Mar 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, July 13, 2005 at 06:05:11 (EDT)

Staying the Course

Keith Devlin is a mathematician and a writer. Recently David Bindel [1] offered a pointer to a thoughtful Devlin essay titled "Staying the Course" [2] that comments on the sad state of modern study habits:

... In my experience, it is rare these days to encounter a student who will spend more than a few minutes on a math problem, let alone the several hours — or more — it might require. Most students don't know what it means to niggle at a problem — to worry it — on and off for days or weeks on end. In their eyes (if they think about it at all), those of us who do mathematics for a living are some kind of alien species, born with a weird brain that finds math easy. We're not, of course. Our brains are not that different from theirs. Any mathematician who says she or he finds math easy isn't tackling sufficiently challenging problems. The fact is, what most of our students don't realize is that mathematicians are not people who find math easy. We don't. We find it hard. The key factor is that we recognize that, given enough effort, and enough time, it is nevertheless possible.
Not that mathematics is particularly unusual in requiring effort to succeed. Most things do. ...

Devlin's commentary cites another current article of his, "Major Advance on the Twin Primes Conjecture" [3], which is rather more technical and includes the delightful:

Goldston told the audience at his AIM lecture that he had been working on the problem for twenty years, but for most of that time did not expect to solve it, his goal being the more modest one of trying to understand why it was so difficult.

That's persistence!

(cf. Logic And Information (1 Aug 2001), Millennium Math (5 Dec 2002), Reflective Students (17 Mar 2004), Gateways To Mathematics (20 May 2004), ...)

- Monday, July 11, 2005 at 20:17:34 (EDT)

Tentative Toe Tests

At last, it's time to try the Frankentoe! How does it perform, and what's the effect of multiple months of inactivity on the rest of the old ^z carcass? Logbook entries of the past few weeks are alternately promising and discouraging; there's clearly a long trail yet ahead ...

Highly Positive Split

(2005 June 17) - 4 miles, 52 minutes — Irresistibly wonderful weather, so I take off an hour early from work and stress The Toe for the first time since my 30 March 2005 freak accident and 11 April Torn Toe Tendon Repair surgery. Alas, two months off and 15 extra pounds of fat don't portend a PR: the initial two-thirds of the journey is pleasant enough, but then all systems crash. A measured middle mile along Rock Creek Trail (2.25-1.25) comes in at 10:59. The trek home, however, is at a hyper-lethargic ~15 minutes/mile pace with lots of walking and only intermittent jogging. A huge black swallowtail butterfly, almost as large as my hand, flutters across my path as I descend through the shadows of Walter Reed Annex's forest path. Good news: when I get home and inspect the Frankentoe it appears to be only slightly swollen and bruised ...

Fifty Percent Duty Cycle

(June 19) - 5+ miles, 68 minutes — Clusters of tiny white butterflies and cyclists appear and disappear along the Capital Crescent and Rock Creek Trails. A crowd watches a soccer game at Ray's Meadow. The weather is warm and humid, far better than it will be later this summer, almost comfortable when the breeze picks up. I set off at noon, upper legs (esp. quadriceps) still quite stiff from Friday's four miles. The Toe is only slightly sore. I alternate a minute of walking and a minute of jogging, yielding a midcourse measured pace (Marathon in the Parks miles 24-23-22) of ~12:30 ... and major exhaustion as I return home.

Solstice Sally

(June 21) - 4+ miles, 52 minutes — I drink an entire 32 oz. bottle of Gatorade while jogging the Forest Glen/Rock Creek/Capital Crescent loop. It's a little warm and humid in the early evening, an hour before sunset, and I'm sweating it all out as I go. Ratio 80% jogging 20% walking for the first half, pace ~11:15 on a measured mile, but then I slow to a feeble 50-50 = ~13:15 min/mi. North of East-West Hwy a soccer game is underway on the big field, while softball is played near the water fountain. I see the pitcher lob a slow one that goes behind the batter; she looks at it scornfully. For the next attempt he tosses a ball that bounces on its way to the plate. Four tiny tykes, each with his own soccer ball, race about kicking and missing their targets. The bridge over Rock Creek near RCT mile 2.3 (MitP 22.3) shimmies as I cross it — have its foundations eroded away?

Shrunken Singlet

(June 24) - 4 miles, 50 minutes — A big 16-day-old moon hangs low in the southwest as I set out at 5:10am, hoping to beat the heat (if not the humidity). The twilight is bright enough already to see the way, but not to read my watch, and under the trees of Walter Reed Annex and along Rock Creek it's rather murky. I hear a few twigs crackle but spy no deer. Alternating walk/run minutes feels all right, but when I shortchange myself to gild the middle mile (10:52) I have to pay back the missed walking time with interest. A two-foot-thick blanket of fog covers Ray's Meadow. During the trek home a robin disses me by walking, not flying, across my path. The final mile finishes me in 13:05. My MCRRC blue-and-orange singlet must have shrunk—I can think of no other explanation for my exposed midriff bulge.


(June 30) - 4+ miles, 53 minutes — Dateline Amherst MA — As it has been for the past five days, at 7am the humidity is oppressive and the sun is veiled by thick clouds. But at least it's slightly cooler than it will be later. I jog from the motel to the local high school track and do "speed" work: six half-mile trots with half-lap walk breaks between them, during which I sip gatorade and try to catch my breath. My 880s average 4:50. Two-plus months of inactivity have slowed my pace by two-plus minutes/mile. (Does that relationship hold in the opposite direction? Can two-plus months of lackadaisical training get me back to the ~5 hour marathon zone? I doubt it! The "Yasso 880" theory holds that one can train for an X-hour marathon by doing X-minute 880s. Alas, that seems to be grossly over-optimistic in my case.)

Norwottuck Trail Trial

(July 1) - 5+ miles, 68 minutes — From the University Lodge I trot southwards through three blocks of "downtown", then past Amherst College to join the Norwottuck Rail Trail, where my feet turn west. Water from recent heavy rains puddles stagnant by the paved path. The golf course on the left is quiet, but construction work on my right hand is announced through echoing hammer blows and power-saw buzz, punctuated by pneumatic nail-gun pops. The weather is mercifully less humid than earlier this week, but the air remains warm and still. As I approach the turnaround point I spy a dozen big black cows grazing in a sunny pasture. Hampshire Mall appears ahead; Paulette and I watched War of the Worlds on Wednesday at a multiplex there (tolerable acting and decent special effects, marred by severe illogic and plot holes big enough to march an army of aliens through).

Timed midcourse miles, marker posts 3 to 4 to 3, are 11:32 and 12:20 respectively, a minute or two slower than last year (Norwottuck Rail Trail 2004) or the year before. Somehow the trail is uphill in both directions; I take generous walk breaks. Then it's back via a side branch to Snell Street, where a huge mottled-brown rabbit freezes, hoping for invisibility, until I get within four feet of it. University Avenue leads past strip malls, assisted-living "communities", and dental offices to the edge of the U. Mass. campus, where I turn onto Dana Rd. and climb with much walking back to central Amherst, arriving as the Town Hall steeple clock bongs 8am. And thence to the motel.

Ankle Ache

(July 3) - 5+ miles, 65 minutes — Our last morning in Amherst dawns cool and clear. My plan is to do a "long" "run", aka slow jog, of perhaps 7 miles ... but during the first few minutes I receive a sign that something's not quite right: my lower legs hurt, especially around the ankles which feel somehow unstable. Alternate minutes of walking and running maintain a comfortably steady pace. But at the half-hour point the joints are still not solid, so I decide to turn back. My path today is southeast along the Norwottuck Rail Trail, with measured middle miles (markers #2 - #1 - #2) of 12:22 and 12:31. I hoot and listen to the echoes in the tunnel under South Pleasant Street. In separate encounters two small bunny rabbits and a wayward house cat scamper away as I approach the Amherst College tennis courts. A big yellow sign at the trail entrance mocks me with one word: Slow. I take it personally.

Humid Humiliation

(July 5) - 5 miles, 69 minutes — Embarrassingly slow morning jaunt to Rock Creek Trail (Mormon Temple area water fountain), then south to East-West Hwy and home via Georgetown Branch Trail; middle mile (MitP #22) 11:21 ... whereupon real exhaustion sets in and I have to walk a fair fraction of the way home, final mile 13:26 ... some left ankle pain, but mostly just heat & humidity & general wimpiness ... afterwards a big glass of iced Gatorade helps a little. One bright red cardinal seen at Rock Creek crossing, and several neighbors say "Hi!" at start and finish ...

(cf. Fifteen League Ley Lines (1 Jan 2005), Winter Fantasies (17 Jan 2005), Ice Fangs (6 Feb 2005), Mud Dance (5 Apr 2005), ...)

- Saturday, July 09, 2005 at 10:15:28 (EDT)

Salmon of Doubt

Douglas Adams's The Salmon of Doubt is a posthumous collection of unpublished fragments found on his computers, copies of speeches and interviews he gave, excerpts of articles he wrote for various magazines, and chapters from a novel he was working on. It's uneven in the extreme, like the splash of jumbled terrain frozen around the crater produced by a giant meteor impact. Every death is tragic, but Adams' heart attack somehow seemed to yank his fingers off the keyboard in mid-sentence.

The worst feature of Salmon, or rather non-feature, is its index: there isn't one, and this sort of book desperately needs to be cross-referenced. Its best, by far, is the introduction that Adams wrote for P. G. Wodehouse's Sunset at Blandings. The commentary applies perfectly to Douglas himself, and to Salmon:

This is P. G. Wodehouse's last—and unfinished—book. It is unfinished not just in the sense that it suddenly, heartbreakingly for those of us who love this man and his work, stops in mid-flow, but in the more important sense that the text up to that point is also unfinished. A first draft for Wodehouse was a question of getting the essential ingredients of a story organised—its plot structure, its characters and their comings and goings, the mountains they climb and the cliffs they fall off. It is the next stage of writing—the relentless revising, refining, and polishing—that turned his works into the marvels of language we know and love. When he was writing a book, he used to pin the pages in undulating waves around the wall of his workroom. Pages he felt were working well would be pinned up high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall. His aim was to get the entire manuscript up to the picture rail before he handed it in. Much of Sunset at Blandings would probably still have been obscured by the chair backs. It was a work in progress. Many of the lines in it are just placeholders for what would come in later revisions—the dazzling images and conceits that would send the pages shooting up the walls.

Douglas Adams: 1952-2001 — Don't Panic

(many thanks to Judy Decker for telling me about Salmon of Doubt (edited by Peter Guzzardi, published in 2002); cf. Paper Work (12 Jan 2004), Forgiven Trespasses (14 Nov 2004), ...)

- Thursday, July 07, 2005 at 05:50:07 (EDT)

Pick Your Doc

How should a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) assign a primary physician to a patient? Currently it happens largely by chance, or via haphazard personal referral, or at best after a quick scan of the resumes on file. The result is often a lack of good communication between care provider and recipient.

A modest proposal: give the customer a multiple-choice personality-profile questionnaire, and mathematically compare the results of that with the styles of the group's available physicians. There are many dimensions along which data should be gathered:

And rather than simply line up what patients say they want with what doctors say they offer, perhaps best in the long run would be to cross-correlate new personality profiles with measurements taken from patients who are happy or unhappy with their physicians.

- Wednesday, July 06, 2005 at 07:00:02 (EDT)

Big Secret

One of the Big Secrets of Life:

Things are Complicated.

Simple answers are always wrong. There's more to be learned about any situation. Everything interacts with everything else. Nothing works as planned. All rules have exceptions.

It's a minor corollary of the Big Metasecret of Life:

There are No Big Secrets!

(cf. Two Great Secrets (9 Nov 2001), ...)

- Tuesday, July 05, 2005 at 18:20:41 (EDT)

Amherst Rainball

At 7:00pm on Friday the game begins, and at 7:11 the drizzle starts to fall. The first two innings are scoreless, and by the top of the third a solid shower has begun. With several other spectators I retreat to the shelter of a tree on a slope above the third-base line. The visitors take a two-run lead, but the home team comes back to tie it in the fourth. Wild pitches and fielding errors become more frequent as the ball and the grass get slippery. At 7:45 there's a rumble of thunder and the deluge grows more intense.

It's a new experience for me: rainball. Why am I here? Flash back four days. Late Monday afternoon (27 June 2005), the day after Paulette and I arrive in the Amherst area to install our daughter in summer music camp [1], I take a walk from the motel toward the neighborhood sporting goods store. I'm hoping to learn the schedule for upcoming games in the western Massachusetts area, and also to buy another scorebook. The one I got at the same store precisely a year ago is now almost full.

Along the way I pass Ziomek Field, where in the summer of 2004 I saw a couple of amateur baseball games. Today again I spy young men in uniforms warming up. A spectator tells me that the Amherst boys are preparing to play the American Legion team from Orange, a nearby town. I run to our room, grab pen and old scorebook and a drink and some munchies, and race back to the field.

I've missed the top half of the first inning, but no matter. The weather is hot and humid, and as usual the baseball is good, though the clang of aluminum bats remains jarring to an ear attuned to the crack of wood on horsehide. Amherst takes an early lead and then hammers more nails into the Orange coffin with a big four-run third inning. The official scorekeeper sits on top of a bucket at the third-base side of home plate. Every three innings he climbs the hillside where I'm sitting, smokes a cigarette, and then descends again to his post. The final score: Amherst 10 - Orange 3.

Another game is scheduled for the following afternoon, but rain drenches the entire region and all play is cancelled. The same occurs for the next couple of days, and I'm near to giving up hope. But Friday, 1 July, dawns sunny. The newspaper indicates that East Longmeadow is scheduled to meet Amherst in the evening.

I arrive almost an hour early (am I too eager?) and watch the teams go through their drills. Spiked shoes make twing twing sounds as a player strolls across the aluminum bleachers. A fielder overthrows first during practice; the ball accidentally hits an umpire who has just arrived. The sky is now covered with blue-gray clouds. Where the sun should be there's only an ominous glow.

Thus begins my introduction to the sport of rainball, as humidity condenses into sprinkles which thicken into showers and then a downpour. With the score tied 2-2 after four innings I expect play to stop, but amazingly it continues. Too many games have already been cancelled this season. Both sides want to finish a contest for a change.

I huddle under the tree with my fellow spectators. (Don't worry: it's a small tree, well-shielded against lightning.) Water commences to drip through the leaves after half an hour of steady rain, and I have to keep my scorebook inside a plastic bag to prevent it getting soaked. Cars ssswwish by on the wet street behind the field. Throwing the ball is now so tricky that anyone who reaches first base can steal second with impunity. An Amherst player slides headfirst into a base, then stands up and scoops mud out of his pants.

The home team takes a four-run lead in the fifth inning, and the visiting manager—firmly opposed to a premature end, now that his side is behind—points to a small gap in the clouds and expresses optimism to the umps that the rain is about to stop. His side does score a run in the sixth, but Amherst comes back with six more when it's their turn. An outfielder racing for a fly ball slips and falls. A too-loud-to-ignore thunderclap causes the chief umpire to ask his colleague in the field whether there was any visible lightning. None seen, the game continues.

Finally, just before 9pm, the rain slows and then stops. But it's too late for East Longmeadow: Amherst wins 12-4. Players on both teams form lines and do post-game ritual high-fives with one another as a couple of younger kids race in opposite directions around the muddy basepaths. I gather up my paraphernalia, brush wet twigs and leaves off my shorts, and tiptoe around the puddles on the way back to the motel.

(cf. Tricounty League (14 Aug 2003), Official Scorekeeper (3 Jul 2004), ...)

- Monday, July 04, 2005 at 09:29:12 (EDT)

Authorized vs. Forbidden

The genius of free society under the rule of law:

Private citizens can do anything that is not explicitly forbidden. The government, by contrast, can only do those things that are explicitly authorized.

At least, that's how good government should operate, eh?!

(heard recently during a talk by a lawyer in the US federal bureaucracy; cf. Independence Day (4 Jul 2001), Personal Positivism (16 Nov 2002), Big Secret Of Prosperity (14 Mar 2004), ...)

- Sunday, July 03, 2005 at 07:48:57 (EDT)

Seize the Carp

Kind correspondent Lila Das Gupta Fenton recently shared with me a moving essay by Robert McCrum from the 19 June 2005 issue of The Observer. It is titled "Memoirs of a Survivor" and discusses the aftermath of a severe stroke that McCrum experienced a decade ago. The author tells of suddenly discovering a doorway into a parallel cosmos he had never before imagined could exist:

Until I was 42, I had no personal experience of serious illness and very little knowledge of death. Metaphorically speaking, I went to weddings, not funerals. To my generation, death was as remote as the obituary pages of the newspaper. Death, in the words of Auden, was like 'the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic'. My life, and the lives of my generation, was hardly troubled by mortality.
Unlike our parents, we'd had no world war to bring some reality into the texture of everyday existence. A fortunate baby boomer, mine had been a life that was, I suspect, not so very different from the lives of any number of thirty- and fortysomethings in the West: hedonistic, heedless, happy-go-lucky, helter-skelter. With my stroke, the merry-go-round crashed to a stop, and pitched me helplessly into a drab world of out-patient clinics and physiotherapy, a world of slowness.

McCrum finds himself reduced from participant to mere observer—and from that new vantage point relays an important lesson of awareness:

I don't play cricket or squash any more. I watch people run for the bus or jog in the park, and envy their spontaneous freedom of movement. Instead, I have learned to live vicariously through words, and to try to live in the moment. The mystery of life is that you will never know how or when it will come to an end. My wife Sarah, who has played a vital and enduring part in my continued convalescence, has a quasi-classical phrase for this. 'Seize the carp,' she says, in a joking allusion to the Latin tag.

My Year Off, McCrumb's book about his experience, has led countless other victims to contact him and tell him their stories of the shadow universe. His essay concludes:

There is a sea of horror lapping at the edges of the everyday world, and these messages in bottles are floating in on every tide. These are the messages from the world of pain, messages that describe the suffering of strangers.
From this, I have learned three things. First, that the world's frontline pain is the pain of Aids, cancer, heart disease and stroke (the big killers). Behind the line, there's the pain of despair, loneliness and loss. The aching void in the lives of the bereaved and the afflicted. Second, I now know that we are all, in some sense, in the doctor's waiting room. I used to be indifferent towards, and frightened of, illness. Now I recognise it as part of the human condition. Illness is OK. There's nothing wrong with infirmity. It's part of the way we are. In the famous words of Samuel Beckett's Worstward Ho: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' Failing better is something every stroke sufferer knows about.
Finally, there's this recognition. Despite the extraordinary progress of medicine, despite all the safeguards we have built into the way we conduct our lives, we are still in the world of our ancestors, when life was characterised by the poets as a sparrow fluttering out of the storm into the brightly lit mead hall, circling through the laughter and the smoke for a moment, before disappearing once more into the dark. Sometimes, when I read these letters, I sense that dark just beyond the window. And I feel grateful to be still alive, in the warmth and the light of summer, out of the storm.

(cf. On Failure (12 Jul 1999), Happy Endings (28 Apr 2000), Ankh Micholi (12 Jul 2002), Where We Are (24 Jun 2005), ...)

- Saturday, July 02, 2005 at 08:42:53 (EDT)

Toe, the Line

Preliminary results are now in, and it looks as though the Frankentoe experiment has been a success. Two+ months of inactivity—and the fifteen+ pounds of extra fat that I now carry—have slowed my pace by two+ minutes per mile, but I can still run. The wayward digit, almost disarticulated in a freak accident on 30 March 2005, has healed stiff but quite usable. Nerve damage is tolerable; there's feeling down there, albeit with some numbness. My main disappointment: post-patch-up scarring is far less dramatic than I had fantasized. Small children run screaming from me no more often than before, my colleagues at the office have discovered that I'm far from indispensable, and trail runners continue to chortle at my tragic tale of toe woe. C'est l'orteil. FrankenToe scars

(see also Bump In The Night (31 Mar 2005), Toe Transplant Project Zeta (1 Apr 2005), Down With The Bad (18 Apr 2005), Torn Toe Tendon Repair (5 May 2005), Healing Process (15 May 2005), ...)

- Friday, July 01, 2005 at 18:04:28 (EDT)

Richard Wilbur

One of my favorite poems is "Mind", by Richard Wilbur. It begins:

  Mind in its purest play is like some bat
    That beats about in caverns all alone,
  Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
    Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

Wilbur weaves a web of words that leaves me in awe with its sparkle. In a recent essay Stephen Metcalf notes:

[Wilbur's] Collected Poems, 1943-2004 is now out, and it is the indispensable Wilbur, covering recent unpublished work, many of his children's poems and song lyrics, and all of his nine published volumes of poetry. In addition to being filled with light, music and wit, and a generous and very native aplomb, these poems form an argument, about how one goal of the well-lived life might be composure, rather than the mad flowering of a personal signature.

In Metcalf's judgment Richard Wilbur has been too smooth, too metrical, too apparently-effortless, too controlled, to be properly appreciated for the past several decades. Metcalf senses a sea-change, however, and concludes:

Wilbur had the misfortune to come of age at a time when literary criticism was receding into the academy, and simple, repeatable liturgies involving originality made the glamorously obscure poem easy to teach, especially to students with no inherited sense of poetic tradition. That era is thankfully at an end. The emergence of a poet like Wilbur as a hero to a new generation of critics is cause for hope: that readers, not gatekeepers, might rediscover poems written in the spirit of generosity and care, and disciplined by the idea of an uncaptive audience.

After verses exploring the bat-cave of thought, Wilbur's "Mind" explodes in a final starburst of self-reference:

  And has this simile a like perfection?
    The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
  That in the very happiest intellection
    A graceful error may correct the cave.

Composure — "one goal of the well-lived life" in Metcalf's words. Enlightenment through quiet competence and the occasional graceful error ...

("The Well-Adjusted Poet" by Stephen Metcalf appeared in the New York Times on 2005-05-29; cf. Cave Thought (2000-06-28), By Heart (2001-11-28), ...)

- Thursday, June 30, 2005 at 11:25:02 (EDT)

Blue Butter

Half an hour before the baseball game: I've just left my car and started the trek across the high school parking lot toward the stadium. Two middle-aged gentlemen are sitting on camp chairs by their vehicles, chatting and enjoying the afternoon breeze. I spy uniforms hanging from a rack inside one van, and a thought occurs.

"Are you the umpires?" I ask.

They hesitate. "Yes," one grudgingly admits.

"You really do great work," I say. "I come here to watch the games, and I always admire you guys. Thank you!"

They're amazed. Umpires never get compliments, only criticism. "You're welcome," the other ump replies.

I start to walk away, and then a thought occurs. "Of course," I turn back to admit, "I could be trying to make you feel good about the home team. But it won't work, will it?"

All of us chuckle, and I proceed onward to the ballpark. The game is a good one, as baseball always is. Afterwards I'm on my way back to the car. The men in blue are there ahead of me, changing into their civilian clothes. One of them recognizes me.

"So how many calls did I miss?" he asks, with a grin.

"You were perfect—every one was right," I respond.

"I doubt that!" he says. Again we all laugh.

(conversation from 2005-06-25 in the Blair High School parking lot, with umpires Bill Morris and Danny Meyer; cf. Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (2002-07-09), ...)

- Wednesday, June 29, 2005 at 08:18:30 (EDT)

Career Management

What are the key factors that lead to success or failure in the workplace of a large bureaucracy? Why do some people get recognition and reward, while others reap only frustration?

Almost the least important element is explicit "Career Management": the curriculum of courses offered by the Human Resources group, the planned ticket-punching assignments to gain experience in a range of departments, the selections among predefined career tracks, etc. Far more significant are:

And most important of all, the dominant factor in determining career success is sheer good luck: being in the right place at the right moment, fortuitously asking the right question, chancing to have read the right paper and thus having the crucial fact at one's fingertips, and so forth.

It's nothing that one can plan on—but everything that one can help make possible, by practicing the aforementioned simple virtues ...

- Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 16:09:37 (EDT)

Zimmermann Splinters

German has several words for woodworkers, e.g.:

While looking into the above (in response to a question about my surname) I recently found the enigmatic aphorism:

Einen Zimmermann erkennt man an den Spänen.

which translates more-or-less into:

A carpenter is known by his chips.

... whatever that means!

(cf. Mark Zimmermann, ...)

- Monday, June 27, 2005 at 20:45:39 (EDT)

Globe of Life

A wonderous vision, from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Book IV, Part 3, Chapter 15, as Pierre falls asleep by a campfire, and dreams:

And suddenly there rose before him, as though alive, a long-forgotten, gentle old man who had given him geography lessons in Switzerland. "Wait," said the little old man. And he showed Pierre a globe. The globe was an animate, vibrating ball with no fixed dimensions. Its whole surface consisted of drops closely pressed together. These drops moved, changed, several merging into one, or one splitting into many. Each drop tended to expand, to occupy as much space as possible, but others, with a like tendency, compressed it, sometimes destroying it, sometimes merging with it.
"That is life," said the old teacher.
"How simple and clear it is," thought Pierre. "How is it I did not know this before?"
"In the center is God, and each drop strives to expand so as to reflect Him to the greatest extent. And it grows, merges, disappears from the surface, sinks to the depths, and again emerges. That's how it was with Karatayev: he expanded and disappeared. Do you understand, my child?" said the teacher.

... and then Pierre awakes.

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; cf. Truth In Battle (2001-02-11), You Are Extraordinary (2002-07-07), Ooze On Verst (2004-09-22), Untutored Voice (2004-11-03), Body Mnemonic (2004-12-04), Perfect Communication (2005-02-14), Ladder Of Life (2005-04-10), Beacon Of Hope (2005-04-17), Modern Medicine (2005-04-29), National Characters (2005-05-16), ...)

- Saturday, June 25, 2005 at 12:58:09 (EDT)

Angiokeratoma of Fordyce

Bruce Fordyce is an outstanding ultramarathoner. He won the legendary Comrades 90 km race in South Africa an incredible eight years in a row, 1981-88, and has set other long-distance records which still stand. In 1896 John Addison Fordyce, an American dermatologist and probably no relation to Bruce, described a subcutaneous phenomenon which now bears his name. As summarized by the New Zealand Dermatological Society:

Angiokeratomas are small dark red to purple raised spots. They may also have a rough scaly surface. They are composed of surface blood vessels (dilated capillaries). Often unnoticed, they may become crusty and bleed if accidentally scratched or damaged, or a harmless clot may form in the lesion (thrombosis), changing the colour to dark purple or black overnight.

The angiokeratoma of Fordyce is ugly but utterly benign. Online references make no mention of any connection to running, but I have observed a strong correlation in my own case, which otherwise seems quite typical. Fordyce's angiokeratoma most commonly occurs in a delicate male anatomical location. Sensible people (i.e., non-trail-runners) would be well advised not to research the topic any further. They definitely should avoid clicking on links and loading images that illustrate the affliction! As for its seriousness, Joseph J. Shaffer and Vincent de Leo note:

The importance of these lesions was well summarized by Bean, "These varicules should be known so that we can allay the fears of old men, many of whom have worries enough already."

Excellent advice!

(cf. clinical discussions and photos at [1], [2], and also True Names (2003-10-16), Ocular Migraines (2004-01-03), ...)

- Friday, June 24, 2005 at 06:51:28 (EDT)

Mother's Day

        Two hearts
     Betimes as one
  Together beat — so then
     A third may join
        Their love

- Thursday, June 23, 2005 at 05:45:30 (EDT)

Stylish Tatters

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina offers a lovely and entertaining description of how high fashion can emerge from a mixture of modesty and technology. In the Constance Garnett translation:

Vassenka Veslovsky had had no notion before that it was truly chic for a sportsman to be in tatters, but to have his shooting outfit of the best quality. He saw it now as he looked at Stepan Arkadyevitch, radiant in his rags, graceful, well-fed, and joyous, a typical Russian nobleman. And he made up his mind that next time he went shooting he would certainly adopt the same get-up.

For comparison, the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation offers:

Vasenka had been ignorant that the stylishness of a real sportsman consists in being dressed in rags but having one's shooting implements of the very best quality. He realized it now that he saw Oblonsky in his rags, yet shining with his elegant, well-nurtured, cheerful and gentlemanly figure, and resolved to follow his example next time.

Both readable renderings, but the one by the Maudes seems to flow a bit smoother to my modern ear. The original looks like:

Васенька Весловский не понимал прежде этого настоящего охотничьего щегольства — быть в отрепках, но иметь охотничью снасть самого лучшего качества. Он понял это теперь, глядя на Степана Аркадьича, в этих отрепках сиявшего своею элегантною, откормленною и веселою барскою фигурой, и решил, что он к следующей охоте непременно так устроится.

Alas, my Russian is so ragged that all I can do with that is sound out the words, and perhaps recognize some proper nouns and a few cognates ...

(from Book 2, Part VI, chapter viii; cf. Inverse Catch 22 (2004-04-18), Cozy Zone (2005-05-09), Touch The Flagpole (2005-05-30), ...)

- Wednesday, June 22, 2005 at 06:14:55 (EDT)

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