^zhurnal 0.52

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.52 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 = 0.51 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com" ... tnx!)

Death of Vishnu

Manil Suri is a math professor at the University of Maryland (Baltimore County) and a charming person; Paulette and I met him at a party in a local writer's home last year. His first novel, The Death of Vishnu, is an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of several families in a Mumbai (Bombay) apartment house, as they swirl over and around Vishnu, a man who lives on one of the stairway landings and who is peacefully dying there. Two samples of Suri's vivid prose, first from a dream that Vishnu experiences near the end of Chapter Six:

Vishnu inhales, and the air is sweet with lotus. He thinks his senses are deceiving him, and inhales again. The scent is overpowering, as if thousands of flowers have opened, as if the steps, the walls, the ceiling, are all awash with blossoms. Mixed in with their sweetness is the spiciness of basil, barely detectable at first, but becoming more intense by the second, until that is all he smells, and he thinks that a million tulsi leaves are being rubbed between invisible fingers. And then come wafts of mango, waves that begin to wash over the tulsi, each swelling stronger than the one before, and redolent of all the different varieties that he knows. Vishnu recognizes the wildness of Gola mangoes, the tartness of Langda, the cloying sweetness of Pyree, the perfect refinement of Alphonso. The perfume is so thick and potent that he can feel it press against his face. Except that now it is the earth his nostrils are pressed against, earth that is wet and aromatic, earth that smells sweet and loamy, with the pungency of dung mixed in. Vishnu inhales the new fragrance. It is the scent of the land, the scent of fertility, the scent that has existed since civilization began, and Vishnu marvels at its immutability.

And in Chapter Nine, as Mr. Taneja upstairs remembers his late wife Sheetal via the soundtrack of a movie that they had shared long ago:

The record had been a journal that had charted his recovery after Sheetal. Day after day, year after year, he had taken his emotional pulse as he had listened to it. In the beginning, there had been no pulse. He had performed each task dutifully: cranking the handle, placing the record on the turntable, setting the needle down, receiving the notes transmitted. But these had not added up to the experience of listening to the song. It had been some weeks before he had actually sensed the music, and even more time before he had heard the lyrics. Then, one day, it had happened – suddenly, he could see Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari on the CinemaScope screen, feel Sheetal's hand resting under his own in the cool darkness of the movie theater. That's when he had begun to cry, his tears so big and splashy that he had shut the gramophone lid, afraid of getting them over the record. For months, he had been able to listen to only part of the song before breaking down.

Exotic imagery, eddying like a monsoon wind throughout the novel ...

(cf. Ankh Micholi (12 Jul 2002), Tiffin Wallah (14 Jan 2004), Navy Blue Of India (19 Apr 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, February 14, 2006 at 10:35:17 (EST)

Not Care

A later George Lucas Star Wars movie (one that I have never seen) reportedly has a somewhat-silly but much-quoted line, as Jedi Master Yoda admonishes, "No. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try." Even with the fractured syntax it's not deep philosophy. Many years ago I read about the Taoist principle wu wei, which literally means "non-doing" or "without action". The notion is probably inexpressible, but what I think it refers to is balance, harmony, and the avoidance of forcing in one's life. That makes sense.

But even better than "not-try" or "not-do" is the mantra "not-care". It reminds me of Richard Feynman's autobiographical collection of anecdotes, titled "What Do You Care What Other People Think?". And maybe "not-care" works best if you say it in Chinese, or with a heavy Brooklyn accent, or when splattered with mud in the midst of a long trail run, or in other such unæsthetic circumstances!

(cf. Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), Dalai Lama Birthday Gift (24 Aug 2004), Eat The Orange (28 Nov 2004), Ultramarathon Man (14 Apr 2005), ...)

- Monday, February 13, 2006 at 21:52:08 (EST)

Chess Bitch

The dust jacket of Jennifer Shahade's in-your-face Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport features the author in iridescent pink – pink wig, pink scarf, pink lipstick, pink shirt, and fuzzy pink gloves holding a glowing pink chess book. Shahade is a Women's Grandmaster (and likely soon an International Master, with a few more properly-timed victories in the right tournaments) who writes with vigor and insight. Her book, in spite of its title, is a fine report on women in chess and on chess culture in general. She offers thoughts on psychology which one may variously find insightful or impetuous, e.g., from Chapter 4 ("Be Like Judit!"):

There is a wide range of ways for a woman to react to another powerful woman in the same field. The range can span everything from accepting her as a role model to feeling envy or even to feeling attraction. Too often, the admiration of one girl for another is completely displaced by jealousy. A heterosexual woman ought to be able to recognize and embrace the feelings of respect, admiration, and even attraction for a female peer. And the complicated admiration that a woman can have for a man is too often displaced by attraction. It should be possible to be attracted to and competitive with a great man – to want to be with him and to beat him. Judith Butler, gender theorist, says, "Desire and identification can coexist." I would add that they should, and if we are aware of this peaceful coexistence, sexual relations will improve.

Later, in Chapter 6 ("Women Only!") WGM Shahade wrestles with a central social issue:

My own occasional participation in women's tournaments used to make me feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed. I enjoyed the competitions, the traveling, and the prize money, yet I could not reconcile playing in women's events with my feminist views. As I have become involved in writing this book, my attitude has changed. I have stopped thinking about such events as less than the events with men and started to think of them as a way to meet and compete with female colleagues. I reframed the question that I am often confronted with: "If women are as strong as men, why would they ever play separately?" to "Why might women enjoy playing amongst other women?"

Shahade goes on to discuss the positive aspects of women's chess tournaments, and makes some key points that have deep parallels in many areas of gender and race relations.

But Chess Bitch isn't all feminist history and politics; it includes some highly readable and at times near-poetic reports on the author's adventures at international tournaments in her action-packed young life. For example, in Chapter 10 ("Checkmate Around the World") she describes a visit to the Old City in Delhi, where she had come to play in the Women's 2000 World Championships:

The pollution was so severe that my face was covered with soot by the time I reached my relatively unmemorable tourist destination. Later that day, exploring on foot, I crossed an abandoned parking lot, where dozens of homeless were camped out. I was instantly surrounded by bare-footed beggars in rags, who blocked my path back to the street. I was hit on a visceral level by the suffering I was witnessing. I had always known about poverty in India, but to see it up close was unforgettable. I could not think straight, and on the taxi-ride home, I was softly weeping. My driver coolly remarked, "You must have just arrived. You are still so sensitive."
I knew my experience was hardly unique. Travelers who'd also been emotionally devastated in their first experiences in impoverished countries had warned me. My reaction that evening surprised me even more than my afternoon sadness, as I felt more humbled than guilty. I went back to the hotel to take a shower and gratefully re-entered the chess world, its never-ending stream of meaningless variations a great relief.

Jen Shahade concludes her first book with:

... At the chessboard, my mind senses the same kind of familiarity. In such a relaxed state, I can often enter a zone. Not even conscious of my name or how much money I have in the bank, at times of peak performance I just let go. My sense of time relaxes, which can be problematic when the time limit approaches, but is ultimately my favorite aspect of the game. I've often awakened from deep thought wondering, Where was I? Chess thinking at its most pure is a realm where gender is not relevant. This is in sharp contrast to the culture and politics of the chess world, where women are such a minority that gender is extremely visible.
Chess has also given me a gallery of fond memories and an unusually flexible lifestyle. I am twenty-four years old as I write this, and I have never worked in an office. Great chess moves can pierce me with a momentary but intense pleasure like a smile in a dream. Then there are the worldwide travels and connections with people from Russia and China, half or three times my age. Still, I am distraught by how few women enjoy the freedom and pleasures that come with losing oneself in chess. To female readers, I pass the move to you.

( cf. Caissic Metaphors (8 Jan 2000), Chess Chow (26 Sep 2001), Nunn So Ever (20 Jun 2003), Without Limits (12 Feb 2005), Maurice Ashley (10 Apr 2005), Teaching Zebras (28 Dec 2005), ...)

- Sunday, February 12, 2006 at 22:18:02 (EST)

Fishing for an Answer

A bumper sticker seen the other day:


How can that be said in Latin? Something like "Pescato, ergo prevaricato"?

(cf. Philosophical Bumpersticker (23 May 2004), Dyslexic Metahumor (26 Aug 2004), Mystic Mantra (15 Jan 2005), Nothing Happens (8 Oct 2005), ...)

- Saturday, February 11, 2006 at 14:00:53 (EST)

Walk Through Darkness

David Anthony Durham's Walk Through Darkness (2002) is an important novel of family and freedom, black and white, hatred and love. Set in the 1850's, it tells the story of an escaping slave and the society he moves through. Durham's ear for conversation is sharp, and his characters are engaging if sometimes overly stereotyped. He makes factual mistakes; for instance, Paulette points out that the boysenberry is a 20th Century hybrid of blackberry, raspberry, and loganberry that grows on vines, not a tree that someone could rest under as Durham has anachronistically described it. More disturbingly, sporadic scenes of ninja-style violence dispel the atmosphere of the story even as they advance an unfortunately predictable plot.

But Durham rises to moments of striking poetry, as in Part Three, Chapter Nine:

He slung the sack that contained his few belongings over his shoulder, cast his eyes about the dark lair that he had come to know each corner of by heart, and then he cracked the door open and slipped out. The night expanded around him with a great rush, as if the sky and the stars and trees and all the animals and insects in them had been huddled just outside the door to the carriage house and had jumped back when he emerged. The whole world hung about him in this façade of distance and indifference, a great charade to trick him into believing that he went unwatched, to convince him that this night was not about him and him alone. He crouched just outside the door for a moment, listening to the chaos of chirps and whines and buzzing, trying to search through it all for some other noise, a voice, a snapped twig, the crackle of weight pressing down upon dry leaves. But there was nothing, nothing save a million insects shouting out their existence.

Paragraphs such as that, along with deftly-handled and still-relevant social commentary, make this book one to read and think about.

(cf. Interracial Intimacies (24 Feb 2003), Racial Relationships (10 Jan 2004), An Hour Before Daylight (25 May 2004), Interracial Checkmate (20 Jul 2004), Race And Love (6 Aug 2004), ... )

- Friday, February 10, 2006 at 06:29:09 (EST)

Quieting Reflex

A fascinating six-second technique to enhance self-control in stressful situations:

  1. Recognize the disturbance and decide to respond with self-quieting
  2. Say to yourself "Alert mind, calm body" (or another focusing phrase of your choice)
  3. Smile inwardly (invisibly, to yourself only)
  4. Inhale slowly as you count to three, then exhale slowly, imagining that you're breathing through the soles of your feet or the entire surface of your body while you relax your jaw, hands, shoulders, and any other tense muscles

Practice this throughout the day, for a few weeks, and see what happens ...

(adapted from descriptions on a Kaiser Permanente web page, "Relaxation & Imagery", where the method is credited to David Sobel and Robert Ornstein's Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook, which in turn credits Charles Stroebel's Qr: The Quieting Reflex; cf. Bennett On Stoicism (29 Apr 1999), Blame Storming (15 May 1999), Light Mind (22 Aug 2002), Spiritual Exercises (25 Oct 2002), Stoic Struggles (22 Dec 2002), Eat The Orange (28 Nov 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, February 07, 2006 at 14:36:32 (EST)

Golden Ticket

What really counts? Not so much what you've done, or what you're doing, but rather what you can do. That's why the Golden Ticket is so powerful a concept. It's a free-admission pass. Use it whenever you please. The door is open.

Everybody holds different metaphorical Golden Tickets at different times of their lives. Some people can tell jokes and give impromptu speeches, some can rely on the unconditional love of a close companion, some have the resources and courage to quit their jobs and head off on adventures at a moment's notice, and so forth. The variety is almost infinite across the range of human capability. At the moment, one of my Golden Tickets lets me go out jogging and walking for hours at a slow, comfortable pace. It won't last forever, but I'm enjoying it while I can. During the past month I've used that Ticket and covered ~100 miles in pursuit of various whims including GPS coordinate-collecting, speedwork around a track, cold-weather trail exploration, and local low-key road races. Some scribbles from the ^z logbook:

Seneca Creek Stroll (South)

7 Jan 2006 - ~11+ miles (~18 min/mi pace) — Today offers a fine chance to survey the lower 11+ miles of the Seneca Creek Trail at a relaxed pace (thanks to Ed Schultze et al., who've organized a series of go-as-you-please practice runs for the 4 March 2006 Seneca Creek Greenway Trail "Marathon" & "50k" – devil quotes because actual distances are perhaps ~5% longer). I rise at 5am, eat my customary pre-exercise Dutch stroopwafel, drink a cup of coffee, and set out to meet Comrade C-C at roughly the midpoint of the course. Dawn glows in my rearview mirror as we rendezvous. We leave C-C's vehicle in the lot by the Darnestown Road bridge over the creek and ride together to Riley's Lock on the Potomac River. A small crowd of early risers are there ahead of us, milling about. The thermometer shows a frigid 19°F.
Thankfully the highly rustic and always delightful Poole's General Store on River Road is open early. C-C and I score cups of fresh hot coffee at 35 cents each. (Ha! Try to compete with that, Starbucks!) We gather our gear and ride in a minivan with Cathy Blessing plus half a dozen others upstream to the Riffleford Road jumping-off point. C-C ditches an extra sweatshirt behind the nearby pumping station. This is her first long run since the Marine Corps Marathon last October, after which she was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the shin. Our prepositioned escape pod offers an option to cut the run short at ~5 miles, but Cathy encourages us to eat the whole enchilada today. In her opinion, "You might just as well – it's only two months until Race Day!"
With my GPS initialized C-C and I set off several minutes ahead of the gang, since we plan to take our time and enjoy the journey today. We're chilly for the first couple of miles in spite of gloves, caps, tights, and multiple layers. Then the sun rises above the ridges and my beardcicles begin to melt. We chat, mostly about our families and the trail. A while after everybody else has passed us we arrive at C-C's car and, both feeling strong, decide to go on a bit farther. C-C phones home and confirms that all's well. Our pace slows from sub-15 to something closer to what I did last year at this point of the actual race, but conversation makes the miles flow by quickly. C-C points out three turkey buzzards circling overhead; they soon give up on us. Horses in a field adjacent to the trail eye us as we pass.
Overall it's a comfortable, successful shamble through the woods. C-C and I cross streams and detour around bogs without getting (very) wet; I neither twist an ankle nor fall in the mud; and we never get lost for more than a minute or two. Many thanks to Ed for caching cookies, water, and chocolate at several points along the way!
Postscript: I drop C-C off at her car and then proceed homeward ... stopping at red lights and digging through my pile of stuff in search of a cellphone ... not locating it ... beginning to worry ... pulling off the road into a parking lot ... doing a full survey, no joy ... remembering a strange "thump" as I drove away from Riley's Lock ... further recalling that I had put the phone on top of the car as I was taking off my fanny pack and gloves ... driving 5+ miles back to Riley's ... walking around the parking lot, still no joy ... then finding the missing phone where some kind soul has put it on top of a metal box by the side of the road – happy ending! (^_^)

College Park Loop

9 Jan - ~10+ miles (~12:30 pace) — I'm off work today for a routine eye-doctor appointment, and in early afternoon have a debate with myself: go buy some trail running shoes, or take a jog? The jog wins, because: (0) it's free (I'm a cheapskate!); (1) time is tight, as I've gotta do some more family laundry today; and (2) I've just cooked up a double-sized batch of tapioca pudding and it needs to chill before I can suck down a bowlful. I drive to the University of Maryland campus and gamble (successfully) on not getting a parking ticket during the between-semester break. The route is my customary Northwest Branch / Northeast Branch / Paint Branch circuit [1]. All goes uneventfully, albeit slowly, with extensive walk breaks and brief pauses every half-mile to take photos of trail marker posts for use someday on web pages. Unseasonably warm weather (~60°F) makes me roll up my sleeves and be glad that I'm wearing only thin shorts, no hat, and no gloves. A pint of gatorade, a root beer barrel, and a cola Clif Shot fuel the journey. At the end I rendezvous with #1 Son (the chem grad student) and give him a ride home — and then it's off to the laundromat!

Not Ready for Speedwork

12 Jan - 4 miles (~8:52 pace) — During last Saturday's Seneca Creek trail journey C-C intrigues me with her description of the "ladder" of speedwork, so today at the UM track I try to climb one ... but I don't do a very good job, with times for 400 + 800 + 1200 + 1600 + 1200 + 800 + 400 meters of 1:48 + 4:05 + 6:47 + 9:25 + 7:00 + 4:23 + 1:58 respectively. Between rungs I walk a lap to get my heart rate out of the death zone. (Adding those recovery laps into the average gives a total of 6 miles at 11:10 net pace.) Throughout the ordeal I'm wearing a new "Ultimate Direction" brand "Walkabout" fanny pack, picked up earlier today at RnJ from the half-price bin. It feels great and shows no tendency to bounce even with a full water bottle. (Perhaps the advertised "designed for a comfortable fit on a woman's hips" is just what my shapely derrière demands?)
Afterwards I amble to the Student Union to drag Merle and Robin away from the video-game-dance machine, and on the way back to the car one young gentleman avers that he can beat me in a lap around the track. I try to dissuade him from taking on his Old Man, but he insists so all three of us blast off ... and I soundly defeat the challenger, but am in turn surprised by the kick of the other son, who finishes ~5 seconds ahead of my ~1:55 quarter mile.

Cold Front Red Skins

14 Jan - 10+ miles (~11:10 pace) — Today my daughter replaces the battery in our scale and I discover that I weigh 184 lbs., a number that demands either several inches more height, an earlier pushback from the dinner table, or significant exercise. A strong low pressure system brings temperatures falling into the upper 30s and zephyrs from the northwest gusting 20-40 mph ... perfect jogging weather, when combined with intermittent drizzle and a major football playoff game to keep the crowds off the trails. So, after a mid-afternoon visit to RnJ Sports (where I snag some Clif Shots and another half-price-bin fanny pack) I park at the soccer fields near Dewey and Edgebrook Roads (just north of Randolph Rd.) and at 3:30pm head into the wind past milepost 9 of Rock Creek Trail [2].
Double shirts and gloves plus a hat don't seem like quite enough given the wind chill today, so I stuff an extra hat into my shorts for insulation (no comment, please!) and put on wrap-around sunglasses. They protect my eyes from the breeze but thermal contrast makes the rest of my face feel extra-cold, and the dimness makes me a bit nervous as the day progresses (I end up carrying the shades for the return journey). When I look down after half a mile my bare legs appear to be bright red, an exaggerated color illusion somehow created by the dark lenses; the skin is only a bit flushed from the cold. The first five miles go by at an average 11:40 pace, including pauses at major road crossings and delays as I tiptoe around (and through) puddles (and mud) on the pathway.
High winds have knocked down a mix of small-to-medium branches, and occasionally I hear a sharp crack as a tree fractures near the trail. I arrive at Lake Needwood (milepost 14, [3]) and take a 7-minute walkabout, eating a cookies-and-cream flavor Clif Builder's Bar and eyeing the clouds that race low above. Then it's back again, at a brisk average pace of 10:37 minutes/mile with a 3:1::jog:walk ratio. Some of the traffic lights along the way home are black, probably from power failures due to falling branches. I was warm enough throughout the run, but get violent shivers during the short walk between car and house.

Turkey Buzzard Coven

15 Jan - ~5 miles (~13:00 pace) — C-C and I venture out to Howard County where Denis and Christelle McDonald host the annual Pancake Run, an informal go-as-you-please chance to jog along country roads and visit with fellow runners. At 7:30am we're among the first to arrive. We chat, grab maps, and don caps, gloves, and windbreakers over layers of running clothes. The 25°F air buffets us with 25 mph gusts of northwest wind for a single-digit windchill. We pick a five mile circuit to follow, along Jennings Chapel Rd. to Ed Warfield Rd. to Florence Rd. to Daisy Rd., which then leads us back to our start. Comfortable walk breaks on the hills let us keep up the conversation. The subjective miles flow by quickly. My new garish-bright trail shoes feel good.
Today turkey buzzards (aka vultures) are out in force. C-C points out dozens resting on an open field, and shortly thereafter we pass below bare-limbed trees where similar numbers perch. A distant shotgun blast bestirs many to launch themselves; I keep my mouth closed as I look up. Four miles into our loop we see a pair feeding on a roadkill deer corpse. They lumber into the air and soar overhead. C-C asks them politely not to vomit on us. (She informs me that regurgitation is one of their defense mechanisms.) After our run we chat with marathoner Betty Smith and others, enjoy the McDonalds' pancakes, bagels, and coffee, admire their lovely home's spiral staircase, and then head back to our families.

Cabin John Trail (middle)

16 Jan - ~7 miles (~12:00 pace) — Mid-30's temperatures and light breezes greet us at 8am this morning as comrades Ken & Ruth & I converge on the Locust Grove Nature Center (Democracy & Seven Locks). Ruth shows us her massive medal from the Disneyworld half marathon last weekend, where she PR'd smartly. (She also describes the unusually cold Florida weather and the madness of a 4am race arrival time and a 6am start.) Ken sets a brisk pace downstream on the Cabin John Stream Valley Trail (see Late October 2005 Jog Log and Half Beast for notes on northern and southern segments of the CJT respectively), We climb ridges and circle warily around boggy areas, and tiptoe or leap across tributary creeks. Ken points out a large deer on the opposite bank of the stream. Small frigid birds flit away upon our approach, perhaps scared by my bright yellow-and-blue trail shoes. After ~3 miles we arrive at River Road, where I've pre-cached munchies and drinks behind a bush. We take a couple of minutes to nibble there, then cross River and do a mile down-and-back to Seven Locks Road. Another pause to eat and sip, and it's time to return to our starting point. I take the lead and inexplicably feel invigorated – or perhaps it's just the pressure from those behind me that keeps me moving along. Ruth keeps a GPS log of the journey; I carry a camera and snap a couple of photos. At the finish line Ken rewards us with his home-baked cranberry muffins.

Shooting Starr MCRRC race

21 Jan - 5 miles (9:20 pace) — It's unseasonably warm (~50°F), esp. compared with the past two years (looming blizzard in '05, single-digit mercury in '04). Comrades Ken and Ruth and I confer before the event. I joke that we should do 9 minute miles, based on my "double the distance, slow the pace by 1 minute/mile" rule-of-thumb combined with Ruth's recent 10 min/mi half-marathon PR; Ruth is skeptical and suggests just aiming for sub-10:00 which would be a handy PR for us all. At the "gun" we launch ourselves downhill and, as usual, go too fast (8:57 for the first mile by my watch). Then on a long uphill grade Ruth suffers a significant asthma attack and sends Ken & me ahead. (She walks through the wheezing, however, and continues on to finish strongly.)
The second mile is 10:11, during which Ken's daughter Hilary greets us on her way back to a sub-40 minute result. After the midcourse turnaround I try to follow Ken's advice to go faster on the descents and manage to cover mile 3 in 9:47. (At the water stop I grab a cup, drink a sip, and dump the rest over my head; it cools me but also washes sweat-salt into my eyes.) The fourth mile, including the long downhill grade, is my fastest at 8:36. I keep pushing hard and close the books with an 8:59. Add ~10 seconds that we started behind the line and the result is 46:40, ~5 minutes better than my best prior at this distance. Both Ken and Ruth likewise PR in well under 50 minutes.

C&O Canal (to Lock 6)

22 Jan - 10 miles (~12:00 pace) — At 9:30am Ken & I meet at Lock 6 of the C&O Canal and I fire up my GPS to gather waypoints of the markers along the first five miles of the towpath. We jog slowly (I'm not feeling frisky after yesterday's speedwork!) toward the rising sun and enjoy ourselves in the cool (upper 30's) air, with pauses to photograph mileposts and capture their coordinates. Bottoms-up ducks dabble in the water as we pass. At the Georgetown end of the canal we walk to the Thompson Boat Center and head back along the Potomac waterfront, returning to the C&O towpath via stairs near the endpoint of the Capital Crescent Trail. I attempt to photograph some gulls perched on the railing by the river but have limited success. Our average pace during the running segments is probably ~11:30.

Magruder Branch & Seneca Creek (North)

28 Jan - 21+ miles (~15 min/mi pace) — Ed Schultze has organized another training run along his beloved Seneca Creek Greenway Trail, and C-C, Ken, and I decide to try it. At 7:25am when Ken and I arrive at the MD355 trailhead the parking lot [4] is almost full. C-C climbs into the back of Paulette's MINI Cooper, as does ultrarunner Pete, who tells us about some of his adventures during the drive to Damascus Recreational Park [5] where the day's journey begins. We leave early, planning to go at our own slow pace and preparing to be passed by speedier runners. (But during our jog Ken offers the zen-like riddle: if you're never passed, then are you the fastest or the slowest?)
The air temperature is at freezing, so we layer on the clothes. We walk for a few minutes to warm up, then jog down the paved pathway to the beginning of the Magruder Branch Trail [6]. Blue blazes are so abundant that we never get significantly off-course. A few miles into the trip people running upstream meet us, and a bit later those heading downstream begin to catch up and zip by. A herd of whitetail deer leap through the brush on both sides and then cross the trail just in front of us. Their tails are amazingly fluffy, like featherdusters. Does this portend a hard winter ahead?
Our progress is steady; psychological pressure from my companions' presence keeps me moving a bit faster than I probably would have gone alone. We take walk-breaks on hills and as we get tired. Banter between Ken and me keeps C-C amused. After several uneventful water crossings earlier in the day, with only a mile to go at a small tributary stream C-C's foot slips off a stepping-stone and she get wet up to the ankle. "You're trail-baptized now!" I remark. As the MD355 parking lot comes into sight C-C sprints up the hill in a strong finish. My GPS measures the distance as 10.6+ miles, but since it's usually low by ~5% for winding routes I suspect that the actual path we took is ~11 miles, at an average pace of ~14:30 min/mi, including ~5 minutes we stopped to eat and drink along the way.
We eat, drink, and chat with fellow runners for several minutes. Then, as planned, I refill my water bottle and begin the return trip to Damascus where I left the car. That journey is marked by much more mud, since temperatures have now risen into the 50's and frozen bogs have melted wherever they're not well-shaded. I spy a few more large fluffy-tailed deer, including one big buck with a well-developed three-point rack. He turns his head to eye me until the trail takes me out of sight. After three hours hoof time I'm sweating enough to take an electrolyte capsule and remove my outer shirt. An hour later when I look for my tin of caps to take another I can't find them; I must have dropped the little box and not noticed. I eat a Cliff "Builder's Bar" and console myself by reading the wrapper, which implies that it contains enough sodium and potassium to meet my needs.
With five miles to go I'm walking a lot now, and who should I see striding briskly toward me but Comrade Way-No! His broken foot continues to heal nicely, he reports. He warns me that the Magruder Branch Trail takes some tricky turns and is easy to lose heading upstream. Appropriately cautioned, I turn on the GPS map display for the track I recorded during the downstream trip and thereafter have no problems following it back to the parking lot. A few young runners are waiting there and I beg a drink of water from them, since my supply ran out half an hour earlier. The GPS measures the round trip as 21.23 miles, again likely a few percent low. I took about 10 minutes longer to get back solo, for a net overall pace of ~15 min/mi. The odyssey ends with no blisters and no chafing, but the soles of my feet feel a bit bruised. My bright new trail shoes emerge with a legitimate layer of dried mud.

Seneca Creek & Clopper Lake

4 Feb - 11+ miles (~16-17 min/mi pace) — Plenty of excuses: today's forecast is for rain, maybe thunderstorms; I've never been to the official group starting point via car, only along the trail; there's a race tomorrow; and I've got family errands to perform later this morning. So it's an early solo jog for me, starting at 7am from the Maryland route 355 parking area on Seneca Creek Trail and heading downstream. Three other runners are there as I depart, and as expected they pass me within the first two miles though I manage to keep them in sight for a surprising distance. The trail is fun today: muddy in places from yesterday's showers, and blocked at a few points by trees that beavers have recently felled. A fluffy-tailed deer flees my approach, and a big orange-brown creature (a raccoon?) scurries across the path ahead of me. The temperature is in the mid-40's and I soon get overheated and have to peel off my outer shirt.
At Riffle Ford Road, ~4.5 miles into the jog, the three fast runners zip onward without pausing. Beside a water pumping station I find the cache of goodies kindly left there by Beth & Paul Dobson and Steve Smith. The food is wonderful and I'm too embarrassed as the first to stop there to open the cookies or candy, but I do tear into bag of "smokey mozzarella mini baguettes" and snarf down a fistfull. The saltiness does me good. I refill my bottle, save the GPS trackfile for this segment of the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail, and begin the return trip. Gusts of wind commence to blow in my face and I don the windshirt again.
I'm getting quite tired now but continue to make steady progress and arrive back at Clopper Lake at 8:30am. The rain hasn't started yet, so I decide to do a loop along the shore. I've never gone that way before and it's the extra distance that makes the official race an optional 50k instead of an over-long marathon. Azure blazes guide me nicely along the coastline, where I scare a blue heron into flight and am scolded by a cacaphony of geese. When I get back to my starting point on the SCT, 50 minutes later, the GPS indicates that the loop was only about 2.9 miles, far short of the ~4 miles that I had heard estimated for it.
Continuing now on the regular trail I meet Ron "Tarzan Boy" Ely and Ed Schultze along with a fleet of other runners as they proceed downstream. I thank the Dobsons for their food donation. A light drizzle begins at 9:30 and a genuine rainshower starts at 10am, but I'm back to the car a few minutes later and thus don't have to pull out hat and gloves from my fanny pack. My shoes are coated with mud and I've got a small gash on the back of one calf from stepping too close to a fallen branch. A good day!

Country Road Run

5 Feb - ~5 miles (~9:15 pace) — I'm frying a pan of bacon (for two of the carnivores in the house) when I realize that it's after 7am and I've still gotta change into running garb. I arrive only ~10 minutes before race time and soon find comrades C-C and Ken. We compare notes on our respective injuries and recent training, then take our place near the back of the pack. An announcement before the start of this MCRRC club event notes that that course isn't USATF certified. My GPS odometer pegs it as 4.87 miles: ~3% low, well within possible error based on past experience. And the long rolling hills arguably make up for any shortfall in length – or at least, so I tell myself! My splits are 10:02 + 9:39 + 8:42 + 8:33 + 9:04 and the official clock has me a few seconds over 46 minutes. Perhaps controlling the pace properly for the first mile or two (thanks again to C-C & Ken, who were chatting with me) helped.

(cf. Golden Trump (16 Oct 2005), Late October 2005 Jog Log (30 Oct 2005), Three Mooseketeers (1 Dec 2005), Half Beast (4 Jan 2006), ...)

- Monday, February 06, 2006 at 05:23:26 (EST)

Be Your Own Cause

Kaiser Permanente is one of the oldest health maintenance organizations in the world, the largest not-for-profit health plan in the United States. We've been Kaiser members for decades now and have generally been quite happy with the outfit – but when I saw a recent Kaiser public-relations campaign I got even happier. The first item to catch my eye was a television commercial that came on early one Saturday morning while I was at the laundromat. Then I started to see Kaiser posters on the subway.

The overarching theme is a single, simple word: Thrive. One of the sub-slogans: Be Your Own Cause. Take responsibility for your health. Get to work on yourself. Start now.

Yeah, you can't cure everything by eating less junk, exercising a bit more, and cultivating a positive mental attitude – but why not at least give it a try? It's easy, it's cheap, and if you do it right it soon becomes fun. And it works a lot better than pills.

Oops, I forgot – self-responsibility is contrary to every tenet of society today, as well as occasionally troublesome. And it takes time away from watching TV, clicking on Internet advertisements, and purchasing merchandise – three central underpinnings of modern civilization. Sorry I suggested it!

(cf. What Is My Life (20 Apr 1999), Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 20020, Self Improvement (29 Jul 2002), Motorcycle Maintenance (6 Jun 2003), For Themselves (8 Jun 2003), Flagrante Delicto Philosopher (19 Sep 2003), ...)

- Saturday, February 04, 2006 at 17:42:07 (EST)

Years of Wandering

Volume Two of Z. A. Melzak's autobiography In Search of the Fulcrum was published in late 2005. A few months ago Professor Melzak's son kindly sent me a copy autographed by the author himself. The book's subtitle is Years of Wandering. It consists of Chapters 14 through 23, continuing the sequence begun in Volume One.

Years of Wandering tells of Melzak's intellectual voyages on seas of fantastic fiction, mysticism, language, and social history. It's far from easy reading – the prose is dense and the content at times is controversial – but it offers rewarding glimpses of a brilliant mind and the conclusions that it has reached throughout a lifetime of introspection, forged by a passage in youth through Nazi death camps. Melzak's vision is pessimistic, as he reveals in the Introduction:

... Already the preceding suggests that I foresee some world-catastrophe which is coming; this is quite correct and I do. It will be something by orders of magnitude worse than Spengler's 'Decline of the West', but if accused of overspenglerizing, I answer simply that technology and drain on earth's resources have unbelievably increased since Spengler's day. ...

Melzak is not above alliterative whimsy in the course of his analysis, as when (later in the Introduction) he identifies:

... "the 'seven deadly p's', seven professions which regard themselves as absolutely essential to the world, each of which is very widely spread over the world unfortunately. They are not so much the main perpetrators of the coming disaster as rather serious contributors to it who under various noble covers prevent any effective attempt to avert that disaster. In the order of rising deadliness the seven are: philosophers, poets, psychiatrists, paparazzi, pettifoggers, politicians, priests. Examples of their doings are many; some few instances will be given starting with the least deadly ones ...

As I finished reading Years of Wandering I discovered behind me a thicket of torn sticky-note scraps protruding from its pages, markers of passages which struck me as memorable. A few selections may give part of the feel of this impossible-to-summarize volume. From the end of Chapter 17 ("Atlantis of the Secrets"):

... I have an A. .E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith tarot deck and I look at it sometimes; it is quite different from the tarot deck I used to see as a child in actual play of the game. Also, occasionally I gaze at the I-ching hexagrams. My impression is that, removing tendentiousness and delusion, at very rare instances such devices as tarot or the hexagrams may help one, with very considerable difficulty and at no small price, to have a look in a clouded mirror at oneself, something one ought to be able to do much better without any extraneous help.

From Chapter 18 ("Some Daylight Works of Man"), in a discussion of Thales of Miletus and his "revolutionary concept of indirect measurement", where an astrophysical topic appears which coincidentally was discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation almost 30 years ago:

... Recently a group of astronomers measured the change of the diameter of a neutron star of the Crab Nebula, due to a small glitch; it amounted to forty microns, the approximate thickness of human hair, and this was measured at the distance of several thousand light years. This illustrates the power of indirect measurement, though the odds are that those astronomers themselves did not know to whom they were ultimately indebted. Is the importance of the discovery of Thales exaggerated? Not at all, because the act of measurement is unconditionally fundamental in almost everything, and direct measurement is completely primitive and inadequate for anything like science or technology.

From Chapter 20 ("The Ultracrepidarians"):

All respect is due to those who know their trade well and stay within it, something more to those who know some other things besides, and yet more to those of the latter who in addition have the merit of admitting their doubts and errors in reasonable and simple language. It is the last lot who might be justly called learned, savants, or scholars; it is they who satisfy the profound difficulty of the Aristotelian demand: to think like great men and speak like simple ones. ...

From Chapter 21 ("More on Language"):

The above juxtaposition of 'Don Quijote' with romanticism recalled to my mind a sentiment stated in another place, that 'it is better to lose to giants than to defeat dwarfs'. This might be taken to be the very essence of romanticism; well, it is nothing of the sort. Fighting dwarfs and defeating them will surely denature one; as Nietzsche puts it: one will fight, defeat the enemy, and then find oneself becoming like that enemy. But even more important, the above sentiment has a direct reference to the heroic Don himself, for he disdained to fight dwarfs as is already shown by the incident with the windmills. It is not even certain whether he was really defeated by the giants.

From Chapter 23 ("Catastrophism and History"):

The danger of the catastrophe to come would have been much more obvious had it not been for the fortunate or unfortunate reverse of gradualism. The following is meant: my great personal luck, and probably that of most fellow-survivors of concentration camps, was that the conditions deteriorated for us slowly so that one had time to get hardened, annealed, and used to it. Exact opposite applies here: world conditions deteriorate slowly, so slowly when compared to the hectic tempo of individual lives, that one simply forgets about the doom that may come, especially since it is not to oneself or one's children. And so – the fates might drag rather than lead.

At the end of Volume Two Z. A. Melzak sets the stage for the final part of his autobiography:

... Its title, which is the title of the whole book, 'In Search of the Fulcrum', is self-explanatory if one remembers the saying attributed to Archimedes of Syracuse referring to a lever sufficiently long: 'Give me whereon to stand and I shall move the earth.' Or, tout bref: 'Give me a fulcrum...'.

Melzak's life, and this book, are his quest for that fulcrum.

(cf. Applied Bypasses (14 Apr 1999), Kenning Construction Kit (17 Nov 1999), Creative Devices (1 Jan 2001), In Search Of The Fulcrum (19 Mar 2004), Peace And Affirmation (21 May 2004), ... )

- Thursday, February 02, 2006 at 05:58:34 (EST)

In the Big Inning

The most annoying thing about well-written baseball books is their tendency to be naïve – nay, infantile – in their lack of statistical rigor. It's far too easy to tell charming "Just So" stories about stolen bases, sacrifice flies, intentional walks, and slugging averages than it is to do a proper analysis of what really matters on the diamond.

Take the "Big Inning Theory" (please!). My goat was gotten again last month as I read Thomas Boswell's How Life Imitates the World Series, a collection of entertaining if uneven essays from the 1970's and early 80's. In "The Big Bang Theory and Other Secrets of the Game" Boswell claims:

... Baseball is a game of big innings. In a majority of games, the winning team scores more runs in one inning than the loser does in nine innnings. To grasp the game, we must start there.

He goes on to say:

Look at the World Series since 1960. In those 133 games, the winning team followed the Big Bang Theory by scoring as many – or more – runs in one inning as the other team did in the whole game 106 times: 80 percent. In 75 games the winner scored more runs in one inning than its foe did in all nine. In only 27 games did the big-inning notion not apply. That breakdown – 75-30-27 – is worth considerable cogitation.

Hold the phone and look closer. Is a game in which the winner's Big Inning consists of only one run any sort of evidence for the value of a Big Inning? Hardly! Yet such games are included in Boswell's count. How about a shutout, in which the losing team scores zero and any Big Inning is thus totally irrelevant to the game result? Hardly! Yet those games are likewise part of the Big Inning myth-conception.

Inconveniently for Big Inning theorists it's straightforward to look at the actual scoring in the precise 133 World Series games cited by Tom Boswell. From 1960 through 1981, http://www.baseball-reference.com/ reveals that there were 74 games – not Boswell's 75 unless I've repeatedly miscounted – that fit what I'll call the Strong Big Inning Theory, SBIT, in which the winner scores more in one inning than the loser's total. In 8 of those 74 SBIT games the winning team scored only a single run in its biggest Big Inning. Slicing the data another way, fully 23 of the 74 SBIT games were shutouts in which the losing team plated nil and any Big Inning was meaningless overkill.

So instead of a truly Big Inning that dominates the majority of baseball games, at best such an inning appears to possibly have significance less than 40% of the time. How about the Weak Big Inning Theory, WBIT, when the winner scores at least as many runs in one inning as the loser does in toto? Boswell's 106 such cases – actually 105 by my count – include fully 16 in which the winner's so-called Big Inning consisted of a single run. (The same 23 shutouts that occurred among SBIT games likewise happened during WBIT games, as must be the case by definition.)

Question: should a baseball manager make decisions designed to maximize the number of runs scored in a single inning of a game (the Big Inning Theory) at the expense of reduced total run production? Answer: Not if s/he wants to increase the team's chance of winning!

(cf. World Series Lines (22 June 2002) and Heart Of The Order (3 July 2002), Sparky And Sandy (24 Jul 2002), Leonard Koppett (23 Jul 2003), ...)

- Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 05:48:10 (EST)

Practice Makes Progress

Wilbur Wright, in a speech given ca. 1902, graciously gives credit to Otto Lilienthal for his pioneering work in aeronautics. Wright underscores the importance of gaining practical experience before leaping into expensive design and development work:

We figured that Lilienthal in five years of time had spent only about five hours in actual gliding through the air. The wonder was not that he had done so little, but that he had accomplished so much. It would not be considered at all safe for a bicycle rider to attempt to ride through a crowded city street after only five hours' practice, spread out in bits of ten seconds each over a period of five years; yet Lilienthal with this brief practice was remarkably successful in meeting the fluctuations and eddies of wind gusts. We thought that if some method could be found by which it would be possible to practice by the hour instead of by the second there would be hope of advancing the solution of a very difficult problem.

(cf. Learning Investment (11 Feb 2000), Ten Thousand Hours (20 Sep 2001), ...)

- Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 10:23:07 (EST)

Stokes' Theorem

Michael Spivak's tiny but dense Calculus on Manifolds (1965) is another of those classic books that I've tried to read at intervals over the years, alas without much success in my eternal quest for enlightenment. Today a friend's copy came into my hands. I flipped through it, looking for examples of a mysterious "Yellow Pig" in-joke among mathematicians that Spivak is associated with. (He is also responsible for a system of gender-neutral pronouns – e, em, eir, eirs, eirself – a cute but rather unæsthetic attempt at social language engineering.)

Instead of a Yellow Pig, however, this time in Calculus on Manifolds I discovered something far more interesting and important: superb wisdom on how understanding can evolve over time toward ever-greater generality and power and simplicity. In the Preface (pps. viii-ix) Spivak writes:

The reader probably suspects that the modern Stokes' Theorem is at least as difficult as the classical theorems derived from it. On the contrary, it is a very simple consequence of yet another version of Stokes' Theorem; this very abstract version is the final and main result of Chapter 4. It is entirely reasonable to suppose that the difficulties so far avoided must be hidden here. Yet the proof of this theorem is, in the mathematician's sense, an utter triviality — a straightforward computation. On the other hand, even the statement of this triviality cannot be understood without a horde of difficult definitions from Chapter 4. There are good reasons why the theorems should all be easy and the definitions hard. As the evolution of Stokes' Theorem revealed, a single simple principle can masquerade as several difficult results; the proofs of many theorems involve merely stripping away the disguise. The definitions, on the other hand, serve a twofold purpose: they are rigorous replacements for vague notions, and machinery for elegant proofs. ...

This conclusion appears even more strikingly at the end of Chapter 4 itself, when Michael Spivak concludes:

Stokes' theorem shares three important attributes with many fully evolved major theorems:
1. It is trivial.
2. It is trivial because the terms appearing in it have been properly defined.
3. It has significant consequences.
Since this entire chapter was little more than a series of definitions which made the statement and proof of Stokes' theorem possible, the reader should be willing to grant the first two of these attributes to Stokes' theorem. The rest of the book is devoted to justifying the third.

So also in many areas of life, where to get to the trivial often requires a struggle through dense thickets of complexity ...

(cf. Not By Adding Features (24 May 1999), Complexity From Simplicity (5 Aug 1999), Complex Simplicity (12 Feb 2000), Awesomely Simple (26 Jan 2001), No Concepts At All (22 Feb 2001), Proofs And Refutations (24 Jun 2004), Approved Methods (12 Nov 2005), ...)

- Friday, January 27, 2006 at 18:40:19 (EST)

Perpetual Calendar

The Dickerson-Zimmermann household tends to work collaboratively on crossword puzzles, and the other day somebody picked up the Sunday New York Times magazine and expressed mild astonishment that I had filled in "TUES" as the answer to the cryptic clue "January 27, 1756 (Mystery Person's birthdate), e.g.". It's known around here that I've been trying to learn a perpetual calendar system, the John Horton Conway "Doomsday Algorithm". So the assumption was that I had mentally computed what day of the week the puzzle referred to. One of our house rules forbids looking up answers to clues, so I couldn't have checked any online or on-paper references.

Sadly, however, I shattered the momentary illusion of mental prowess that had been attributed to me when I confessed that no, I hadn't actually calculated that Mozart's birthday fell on a Tuesday. A previously-entered crossing word had fixed the third letter of the four-letter answer as "E", and the only weekday abbreviation that fits the "_ _ E _" template is "Tues." Instead of mental gymnastics I had simply done a not-too-exhaustive search through seven obvious possibilities.

The immediate deflation of my stature brought to mind the comment that a visitor to Sherlock Holmes made after the Great Detective explained a bit of his logic:

Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. "Well, I never!" said he. "I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all."
"I begin to think, Watson," said Holmes, "that I make a mistake in explaining. Omne ignotum pro magnifico, you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid."

(quote from "The Red-headed League" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1891); the Latin is from Tacitus and translates more-or-less as "Everything unknown is assumed to be grand"; cf. Cross Words (15 Oct 2003), ...)

- Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 21:38:55 (EST)

Self Confidence

Another handy-dandy equation for life:

Confidence = Experience * Alternatives

In other words, one can feel justifiably secure in a given situation if one has both background in similar circumstances and a range of choices for what to try next. Without real-world experience (as a metaphorical "virgin") it's tough to be sure that things will go well; likewise, without a range of possibilities (no "Plan B" fallback strategy) the entire enterprise hangs from a single thread. Dicey business in either case — as opposed to "Been there, done that, know five other ways to do it."

(cf. Know How And Fear Not (19 Nov 1999), Handicap Jogging (8 Oct 2003), One Third Each (11 Jan 2004), ...)

- Monday, January 23, 2006 at 05:51:49 (EST)

The Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett is to the mystery novel as Jerome K. Jerome is to the travelogue. To put it bluntly, both are grandmasters of the driest humor in the least likely places. From The Thin Man (1933), a typical bit of banter by protagonist Nick Charles in conversation with a wronged lady (Chapter 20):

Presently she said: "It's none of my business, Nick, but what do people think of me?"
"You're like everybody else: some people like you, some people don't, and some have no feeling about it one way or the other."

Hammett is by turns sardonic and rhapsodic, as in one of the opening paragraphs of The Maltese Falcon:

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. ...

He's also analytic, e.g. near the end of The Thin Man (Chapter 31) when the detective notes:

"When murders are committed by mathematicians," I said, "you can solve them by mathematics. Most of them aren't and this one wasn't. ..."

Lillian Hellman, long-time friend of Dashiell, describes his polymathy in a biographical essay at the beginning of The Big Knockover:

... The interests of the day would go into the nights when he would read Bees, Their Vision and Language or German Gun Makers of the 18th Century or something on how to tie knots, or inland birds, and then leave such a book for another book on whatever he had decided to learn. It would be impossible now for me to remember all that he wanted to learn, but I remember a long year of study on the retina of the eye; how to play chess in your head; the Icelandic sagas; the history of the snapping turtle; Hegel; would a hearing-aid – he bought a very good one – help in detecting bird sounds; then from Hegel, of course, to Marx and Engels straight through; to the shore life of the Atlantic; and finally, and for the rest of his life, mathematics. He was more interested in mathematics than in any other subject except baseball. ...
The hit-and-miss reading, the picking up of any book, made for a remarkable mind, neat, accurate, respectful of fact. He took a strong and lasting dislike to a man who insisted mackerel were related to herring, and once he left my living room when a famous writer talked without much knowledge of existentialism, refusing to come down to dinner with the writer because he said, "He's the greatest waste of time since the parcheesi board. Liars are bores." A neighbor once rang up to ask him how to stop a leak in a swimming pool, and he knew; my farmer's son asked him how to make a trap for snapping turtles, and he knew; born a Maryland Catholic (but having long ago left the Church), he knew more about Judaism than I did, and more about New Orleans music, food and architecture than my father who had grown up there. Once I wanted to know about early glassmaking for windows and was headed for the encyclopedia, but Hammett told me before I got there; he knew the varieties of seaweed, and for a month he studied the cross-pollination of corn, and for many, many months tried plasma physics. It was more than reading: it was a man at work. ...

(cf. Three Man Boat (10 Jan 2002), Michael Ventris (10 Jul 2002), Time To Read (8 Mar 2003), Picky About Facts (11 Mar 2003), Simple Art Of Murder (4 Dec 2005), ...)

- Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 10:21:38 (EST)

Being Objective

Fascinating: the only entities that we call beings are those that can cease to be — and the only things (politely) deemed objects are those that can't object!

- Friday, January 20, 2006 at 05:58:27 (EST)

Too Clever By Half

Certain books I've read recently have troubled me. They're well-written, even brilliant in their prose. Their plots are intricately crafted, their characters intriguing. Thoughtful reviewers have applauded them. Their authors are highly sophisticated fellows. But, somehow, these novels lack a soul — they're works of genius, but not of humanity.

I've struggled to put into words the problem that I have with such books. Then I remembered a scene from the movie version of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. During an airplane trip the nameless first-person narrator is seated next to Tyler Durden. Their conversation concludes:

Narrator: Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single serving friend I have ever met. See, I have this thing: everything on a plane is single serving, even the people.
Tyler: Oh, I get it, it's very clever.
Narrator: Thank you.
Tyler: How's that working out for you?
Narrator: What?
Tyler: Being clever?
Narrator: Great.
Tyler: Keep it up then.

The authors of these books are too clever — like a tightrope walker 20 meters above a pit of tigers who also insists on reciting Hamlet's soliloquy while knitting a scarf, blindfolded. Hold it to one or two slick tricks at a time, please! Too much simultaneous smartness makes for mere distraction ... a lesson that I should keep in mind too, eh?

(I debated listing titles of some candidate too-clever books here, but finally decided not to — perhaps someday I'll be clever enough to appreciate them; cf. Cut The Volume (5 Mar 2004), Cloud Atlas (7 Apr 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 18:11:13 (EST)

Rock Creek Trail: Miles 5 to 9

RCT05 [map] Milepost 5 of Rock Creek Trail is at the end of a small bridge over a minor tributary of Rock Creek, almost midway between the trail crossing of Cedar Lane and the point where the path turns away from the Beltway to cross Beach Drive and enter the woods of Kensington. (The shadow of the bridge railing is visible in the photograph.) This part of the trail is within the noise penumbra of the Capital Beltway. An all-weather water fountain and a porta-john are situated at the playground just to the west of Cedar Lane.
[map] The trail diverges here from Beach Drive and from the channel of Rock Creek itself, to pass through a pleasant and at times thickly wooded area behind the back yards of a residential neighborhood. Milepost 6 is in the midst of this forested zone. Side trails offer access to/from Parkwood Drive and other local streets. Some of the slopes in this section of Rock Creek Trail are moderately steep and offer runners an opportunity for good "hill work". RCT06
RCT07 [map] After crossing Knowles Avenue (a busy street – beware!) Rock Creek Trail goes through a tunnel under the C&O railroad and then enters Ken-Gar Park. A good all-weather water fountain is next to a park building and some playground equipment here, and a porta-john is placed at the nearby parking lot. After curving between basketball courts, soccer fields, and tennis courts, the trail passes Milepost 7 (see exercise equipment in the background of the photo) and proceeds northward, generally parallel to Beach Drive, through woods and gently rolling terrain.
[map] Beach Drive ends at Garrett Park Road, where the trail continues north near baseball fields and another rec center (a water fountain, not always working, is on the side of the building). The path then curves down through a frequently boggy and flooded area, one of the muddiest zones along the entire 14 mile length of Rock Creek Trail. After a long and somewhat steep climb it arrives at Dewey Park, where Milepost 8 is located at the corner of a parking lot driveway. A water fountain near the tennis courts sometimes functions. The trail next returns to a woodsy area, with several side pathways branching off to nearby neighborhoods. RCT08
RCT09 [map] Rock Creek Trail emerges into an open field as it approaches Randolph Road, an extremely busy street (danger! – it is wise to use the official Dewey Road traffic light crosswalk). North of Randolph the trail curves between and among soccer fields until it approaches a parking lot, where a good all-weather water fountain is located. Here a deceptive side trail continues straight past the parking area. Rock Creek Trail itself zigs sharply west to cross a small bridge over the stream, then zags north again up a slope into the beginning of a hilly and well-forested zone. Milepost 9 is placed at the start of this challenging region of long, steep rises.

See [map] for a zoomable map showing the locations of GPS waypoints taken by ^z at every milepost along Rock Creek Trail, plus landmarks on other hiker/biker/jogger trails in the metropolitan area. Note that some map links in the image descriptions above have been tweaked to correspond to true milepost locations as depicted on Google Maps.

(photos taken by Mark Zimmermann along RCT; cf. Rock Creek Trail (31 May 2002), Google Map Experiments (11 Sep 2005), Rock Creek Trail Miles 0 To 4 (26 Sep 2005), ...)

- Monday, January 16, 2006 at 18:30:51 (EST)

Two Dreams

Alternative pathways for the coming year:

Which the road less traveled?

- Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 14:05:44 (EST)

Vast Injustice

Arnold Bennett, wildly successful as a writer in pulling himself up by his own bootstraps from relative poverty, had a strong social conscience. Margaret Drabble observes:

... He had achieved fame indeed. And perhaps it was this new thrill that made him write, on the same day, in his journal: 'Our first stroll along the front impressed me very favourably, yesterday afternoon. But I am obsessed by the thought that all this comfort, luxury, ostentation, snobbishness, and correctness, is founded on a vast injustice to the artisan class. I can never get away from this. The furs, autos, fine food, attendance and diamond rings of this hotel only impress it on me more.' In similar mood, he had written in the hotel at Vevey, 'In the basement of this hotel, very dark with windows that look on a wall that supports the earth, is the laundry, where human beings work all day washing linen. We live on top of all that, admiring fine literature, and the marvellous scenery!' It was not only the comfort of the big hotel that appealed to him, pioneer advocate though he was of the private bath: he also enjoyed the sense of disparity. He took no pleasure in the injustices of the artisan; he saw them for what they were. But the contrasts of life fascinated him. He tried to catch them, seriously, in Imperial Palace, and failed only marginally, through a loss of energy, maybe: but already, years earlier, the scheme was planning itself in him.

(from Arnold Bennett: A Biography, Chapter 8, "Success"; cf. Infra Structure (26 Dec 2000), His Own Light (20 Oct 2005), Pauline Smith (14 Dec 2005), ...)

- Friday, January 13, 2006 at 06:09:24 (EST)

Slaughter in the Hall

Laura Miller, in a recent New Yorker essay about fantasy writer Philip Pullman, offers a striking anecdote:

Pullman refined his own storytelling gifts orally, by recounting versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey to his middle-school students. He estimates that he's told each epic at least thirty times. Indeed, he once caused a scene in a restaurant when he was retelling the Odyssey to his son Tom, then about five years old. "Every time we went out to dinner, I'd tell it to him in serialized form while we waited for our food to come," he said. "I'd just gotten to the part where Odysseus has come back home in disguise as an old beggar. Penelope has taken Odysseus's old bow down and told the suitors that she'll marry whoever can string it. They all try, but none of them can do it. Then Odysseus picks it up, and he feels it all over – to make sure it's still good, which it is – and then in one move he strings it. Of course, we know what's going to happen next – he's going to use it to kill the suitors – but just before that he plucks it just once, to hear the tone. Tom was so taken with the tension of the moment that he bit a piece out of his water glass. The waitress, who was coming toward us with our food, saw him do it, and she was so startled that she dropped her tray. There was food everywhere! It was chaos."

Guilty confession: that very passage of The Odyssey is one of my personal favorites in all of literature. I still remember reading it aloud to the family several years ago, when for a month we serialized the Robert Fagles translation at bedtime. From Book 21, "Odysseus Strings His Bow":

    So they mocked, but Odysseus, mastermind in action,
  once he'd handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
  then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song—
  who strains a string to a new peg with ease,
  making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end—
  so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow.
  Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch
  and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow's cry.
  Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white,
  and Zeus cracked the sky with a bolt, his blazing sign,
  and the great man who had borne so much rejoiced at last
  that the son of cunning Chronos flung that omen down for him.

Or perhaps I shouldn't feel so guilty; Robert Fagles himself clearly delights in Homer's imagery here. In an interview he observes:

In many ways one of the most moving moments in the poem for me is when Odysseus strings his bow at the end of the 21st book. The simile for stringing the bow describes the hero as 'an expert singer skilled at lyre and song' who tunes his harp to a new pitch. That means the bow, the killing instrument, is really a musical instrument at the same time. Story-telling at that point becomes action.
It's as though Homer were taking his whole narrative art and conferring it upon his hero and saying, all right, take your bow and treat it as a lyre and play a new song. With that lyre-bow Odysseus recomposes his kingdom; he rids it of discordant elements – the suitors – and establishes a new era of harmony. The storytelling image and the whole activity of heroism come together and are one and the same.

Moments later Odysseus launches his first arrow through a row of ax-handles, threading the needle in an perfect and awesome moment that glides into the incomparable bloodbath of Book 22, "Slaughter in the Hall" – better told, some 2700 years ago, than any movie or video game I've seen.

(cf. "Far from Narnia" by Laura Miller, The New Yorker, 26 Dec 2005 & 2 Jan 2006 issue, and [1], the 14 Nov 1996 press release of a Q&A session with Robert Fagles; cf. Barrett And Browning (11 Nov 2001), Foxy Fables (23 Apr 2002), Burnt Njal (3 Jun 2003), ...)

- Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 06:15:01 (EST)

Bowels of the Earth

Mr. Logical writes:

If the apt (though now clichéd) metaphor "Bowels of the Earth" is taken one step farther, what does that suggest we should call "Natural Resources" extracted via drilling and mining?

(cf. Dept Of Redundancy Dept (18 Apr 2003), Semiotic Arsenal (20 Nov 2003), Undead Traffic Incident (20 Mar 2004), Feed Or Feedback (6 Sep 2004), Tight Trousers (21 May 2005), ...)

- Monday, January 09, 2006 at 07:42:30 (EST)

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