^zhurnal 0.63

Howdy, pilgrim! You're in volume 0.63 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 = 0.62 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z(at)his(dot)com" ... tnx!

Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2007

(original map by Towson State University Dept. of Geology, from the K9 Trailblazers's discussion of Gunpowder Falls State Park; Gunpowder Keg FatAss approximate course by ^z)

A "fat ass" race has no entry fee, no prizes, no t-shirts, and a faux-strict "No Whining!" policy. It's a fun run, usually along trails, usually many miles, usually with at most a few dozen participants, usually with minimal support en route.

The 22 Sep 2007 Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 50k fits the bill. It's hot, humid, hilly, hugely entertaining — and quite challenging. At 0615 Emaad Burki meets Mary Ewell and me to give us a ride to Gunpowder Falls State Park near Hereford, about 20 miles north of Baltimore. We arrive early, chat with several runner friends, listen to the pre-race briefing, and at 8am set off together at the back of the pack.

Big Gunpowder Falls is a river that runs through central Maryland. The park surrounding it features rugged terrain, reminiscent in many places of Northwest Branch Trail and Cabin John Stream Valley Trail in the Washington DC suburbs. Today's race starts at the Bunker Hill Road parking area and follows a series of footpaths through the woods. There are daunting hills, muddy seeps where water trickles through, rocky cliffs, plenty of roots and stones to trip over, one notably slippery tributary streambed to ford, a big bouncy wooden bridge over a gully, and above drainage ditches a couple of planks to walk. The course is narrow in many places with thick grass encroaching. It's well-marked with small orange flags placed temporarily for the event.

The race begins by following the Bunker Hill Trail and the Mingo Forks Trail. About 3.5 miles from the start we arrive at a parking lot and aid station on Masemore Road, where cheerful volunteers refill our water bottles and offer us pretzels, cookies, candy, etc. We continue upstream and inland on the Highland Trail, pass below high-tension power lines, climb more steep hills, and reach Falls Road which brings us down again to the river. Instead of crossing, however, we turn to follow the Gunpowder South Trail along the riverbank until we're back at the same aid station, now circa mile 6. We refuel, cross the bridge there, and head downstream on Gunpowder North Trail.

My big mistake happens before the start when I elect to carry only one 20 oz. water bottle. "With aid every 3-4 miles, why should I need more?" I ask myself. The answer becomes clear now, after half a dozen miles, when my shirt and shorts are thoroughly sweat-soaked and I'm starting to feel dehydrated. I take an electrolyte capsule and a high-sodium energy gel, along with water and handfuls of salty chips at the aid station. That helps, but the heat and humidity are still wearing me down.

The trail on the north side of the river winds past dramatic cliffs and old stoneworks. Mary feels strong and leads most of the way, with Emaad and I walking an increasing fraction of the time while keeping her in sight. Emaad has turned an ankle, one that he knows occasionally causes him grief, and at mile 6 he puts an elastic wrapping on it — but even with bracing the ankle rolls again on some tricky terrain. After crossing a side stream on treacherous wet stones and incurring further damage he decides wisely to finish the day with a single 10-mile lap. Mary has planned to do 20 today, as part of her training for the JFK 50 miler. I figure that I can accompany her if I slow my pace and focus on maintaining hydration and electrolyte balance. And if necessary, Mary and I can always skip a trail segment to shorten our journey. So after a brief discussion near mile 7.5 the trio continue.

Approaching mile 9 our route passes under Interstate Highway 83 and then climbs sharply toward York Road. When we arrive we discover an impromptu detour: the lead runners have disturbed a hornet's nest and, to avoid further insect attack, flags and traffic cones and a handwritten sign direct us up the embankment. With a helpful hand from a volunteer we clamber to the shoulder and then attempt to surmount a steel traffic barrier. ("This part of the course is male-unfriendly!" Emaad observes as he tries to avoid injury while straddling the fence.) The narrow shoulder of the street takes us across a small bridge and we turn upstream now, following the Gunpowder South Trail below I-83 and then over a steep ridge. At mile ~10 we're back at the start/finish area.

It's time now to regroup, refuel, and in my case try to remedy my initial error: I grab a second water bottle to carry during lap #2. Emaad wishes us well as he rests his ankle. He's coming down with a severe cold, another good reason to stop now.

Mary and I proceed onto the trail. After a few miles we're passed by the lead runner — he's on his third lap, 10 miles ahead of us and flying up the slopes. Mary continues to set a steady pace and I struggle to keep up with her. I drink almost 40 oz. of water every hour, and that keeps my dehydration from getting worse, but some damage has already been done. A pair of fast runners zip by us, and then another cruising alone. "Did you smell that?" Mary whispers to me when he's out of earshot. He's exuding a powerful stench of onions, or perhaps his metabolism is producing strange chemicals from all the exertion.

After our last visit to the aid station at mile ~16 I'm slowing significantly, so I send Mary on to keep her own pace. The remainder of the trek is uneventful. I stumble several times but tell myself to pick up my feet and watch where I put them, and so escape without falling. An annoying ache develops on the bottom of my left foot; it's something I've experienced before and it's manageable. (I later self-diagnose it as possible "metatarsalgia" — and now that I have a term for it, it's less worrisome! cf. True Names)

A few more people go by me, and I pass one gentleman who's suffering from bad blisters but who aims to finish anyway. As I begin to climb the final winding path from the river to the parking lot I check my watch. Thankfully, it's obvious that I can't finish in less than 4:45 but equally clear that I'll easily come in well under 5 hours. So there's no need to hurry! I greet my buddies at the top of the hill.

Rough results, from my watch:

split time mile location
0:49 0:49 ~3.5 aid station (first time)
0:36 1:25 ~6 aid station (looping back)
0:53 2:18 ~10 start/finish (lap one)
1:00 3:18 ~13.5 aid station
0:40 3:58 ~16 aid station (again)
0:53 4:51 ~20 start/finish (lap two)

Mary and Emaad have the same times as I do for the first 10 miles. Mary — Happy Birthday! — finishes the second lap several minutes ahead of me.

After I cross the finish line — a crack in the asphalt that Emaad points to when I ask — I find the list of runners and sign myself out. That's the most "official" part of any Fat Ass race: the organizers don't want to inadvertently abandon anybody in the woods. Maybe there will be a posting, some day, of finishers, times, and distances they covered. Maybe not. Who cares? Kudos to race director Chris Cucuzzella, the Baltimore Road Runners Club, the volunteers, and everyone else involved. It's All Good ...

- Monday, September 24, 2007 at 05:29:26 (EDT)

Why Study Science?

On 31 August of 1872, a sixty-nine year old Ralph Waldo Emerson muses in his journal about how best he might invest his remaining years:

I thought to-day, in these rare seaside woods, that if absolute leisure were offered me, I should run to the college or the scientific school which offered best lectures on Geology, Chemistry, Minerals, Botany, and seek to make the alphabets of those sciences clear to me. How could leisure or labour be better employed? 'Tis never late to learn them, and every secret opened goes to authorize our æsthetics. Cato learned Greek at eighty years, but these are older bibles and oracles than Greek.

(cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson (5 Aug 2003), ...)

- Sunday, September 23, 2007 at 18:32:58 (EDT)

Phone It In!

After my slow "speedwork" at the local track, 800 meter double-laps with 200 m walk recoveries between, I tell fast-running comrade Tracy Wilson about my 4:00-4:15ish splits. In theory a "Yasso 800" result in minutes:seconds predicts a marathon finish in hours:minutes — but I express severe doubt that such a simpleminded rule of thumb holds for me.

"You're wrong," Tracy says, deadpan. "They accept that formula now. Just phone in your time and collect your medal! You can even qualify for Boston."

Well, maybe in my dreams! (^_^) As the end of summer approaches it's getting cooler, but the days are also shorter and I often find myself jogging through dusk and twilight into early evening. Several recent runs turn a wee bit spooky, in fact, as shadows stretch across the trail and I have to lift my feet to avoid tripping on ridges, roots, and random hazards. Recollections from recent ^z rambles follow:

Lap, Dog!

31 Aug 2007 — ~3 miles (~8 min/mi) — Son Merle and I visit the local former-high-school track as the sun begins to set and commence testing ourselves with a bit of speedwork. I do five 800s with times of 4:19 + 4:11 + 4:06 + 4:15 + and 4:15, with cooldown walks of 2-3 minutes between. Merle sprints faster but shorter distances. He has been working out in the gym lately, and I estimate that if he dedicates himself to running he will be beating me by the end of the year, at least at shorter distances.

Half Marathon Practice

1 Sep 2007 — ~13.1 miles (~17.2 min/mi) — Normally I don't log my walks, but as the longest trek in my experience (not counting walk-breaks and involuntary breakdowns during marathons and ultras!) this one deserves an entry. Christina Caravoulias and I meet in Bethesda at 5:45am, leave one car near the finish area of the Parks Half Marathon route, and drive in the other vehicle to Rockville, where we park and walk to the starting line. The Parks Half Marathon is coming in two weeks, and today is a low-impact component of Christina''s preparation. As the sun rises we walk briskly the first ~2 miles down Veirs Mill Rd., then proceed downstream on Rock Creek Trail for ~8.8 miles where we branch to join the Capital Crescent Trail back to Bethesda. A training group jogging the course passes us, as do numerous random runners and cyclists. After 3 hours 46 minutes we're back where we began. Walking, even fast walking, seems to have much less impact on the legs than does running, even slow running.

AT Out-and-Back

2 Sep 2007 — ~11.5 miles (~15 min/mi) — Mary Ewell and I meet at the Davis Library where she gives me a bag of herbs and jalapeño peppers and I give her a ride to Gathland State Park near Burkittsville, MD. Cathy Blessing has organized a group run along the Appalachian Trail part of the JFK 50 Miler route. Mary plans to do that race in November; I'm hoping to escort her for the final ~34 miles. While the faster folk blast ahead we jog and walk along chatting and enjoying the scenery. The AT here follows the ridge called South Mountain, a rocky path with occasional steep segments. Mike Leonard, whose pace is a bit slower than ours, follows. The speedy guys turn around after three miles (to do another out-and-back northward), but Mary and I proceed to Weverton Cliffs above the Potomac. We descend the first few switchbacks to get used to the terrain, pause, eat, drink, and turn back. On the way we meet Mike who is likewise exploring. At confusingly-named Gapland/Gathland we check in with Cathy, then cool down and wait to make sure Mike is OK. He arrives a few minutes later. We give him our gratuitous advice on ultras — the JFK will be his first, though he has run several marathons.

Mall Rats

8 Sep — ~14 miles (~13 min/mi) — Kabrena and Ken and I meet at 6:01am Saturday at the Thompson Boat Center but discover that parking meters there are hungry for more quarters than we have available to feed them. So Ken leads our caravan down the Potomac past the Kennedy Center where we find free on-street parking near the Lincoln Memorial. A crescent moon and brilliant Venus decorate the dawn sky. We jog the middle portion of the Marine Corps Marathon route — Kabrena is training for it, and maybe so is Ken — down one side of the National Mall and back along the other, then loop through Hains Point, cross the river on the 14th St Bridge, jog along the Mount Vernon Trail to Memorial Bridge, and return thence to our starting point, cooling down with an out-and-back to Thompson's Boat Center. Something I ate early this morning disagrees with me, so I visit portajohns near the Smithsonian castle and again along Hanes Point. Maybe it's one of those Snickers protein bars which, for unclear reasons, contain the artificial sweetner sucralose?

Watkins Ramble + Evening Speedwork

9 Sep — ~4.5 miles (~13 min/mi) + ~3 miles (~10 min/mi) — Caren suggests a Sunday sunrise run along the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail (SCGT) in one of her favorite segments, south from Watkins Rd. I meet her there and we set off at 0630, trotting along the winding path, walking up hills, chatting as we go. Caren's plantar fasciitis is healing well but she has wisely decided not to attempt the Marine Corps Marathon this year, so we make plans for the winter/spring 2008 ultra season, including the SCGT marathon/50k and the HAT Run. We turn back after half an hour and push the pace a bit harder on the return trip. That same evening I take sons Merle and Robin with me to the local track on the way to the grocery store, and I run five Yasso 800s, times 4:09 + 4:10 + 4:11 + 4:05 + 4:02. Or are they 880s? I challenge engineer Robin to measure the 0.5% difference!

Oakview Hill Work

12 Sep — ~5 miles (~10.5 min/mi) — With almost an hour before time to pick up kids at the University of Maryland I leave the car at the Adelphi Manor Park cricket pitch and trot without walk breaks upstream from Milepost 4.5 of Northwest Branch Trail. A couple of kids are spooning discreetly in a gazebo by the creek; smoke from a family barbecue drifts through the valley. At the end of the paved pathway I take the steep gravel service road up to Oakview Dr and manage to run all the way, though my stride is short enough that I might have made faster progress walking. The downhill return jog is a bit scary in the deepening dusk but I make it down to the stream without falling and accelerate then back to the park, proud of myself for punching out a sub-9-minute final mile.

AT Point-to-Point

15 Sep — ~17 miles (~15 min/mi) — Venus glitters over Weverton Cliffs as I arrive ca. 5:50am on a breezy-chill morning. Nobody else is there and my cellphone doesn't get a signal, so I walk about the area with my flashlight checking out the local segment of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Mary Ewell plans to meet me so we can leave a car at Weverton, drive north, pick up Ken Swab, Emaad Burki, and Caren Jew at Gathland Gap, and then continue to the Old South Mountain Inn. From there we'll run back along the ridge to where we started! Pointless? No, it's all part of the prep that Mary, Ken, and Emaad are doing for the JFK 50 miler in a couple of months. Caren and I hope to be support crew for them, and we're always eager to enjoy some trail time so we jog along.
At 0600 when I don't see Mary I drive back toward the highway, hoping to get a cellphone connection. Before that happens, though, Mary appears — delayed slightly on the country roads that she has to follow to get there. We follow the plan and shortly after 6:30am set off. A few hundred feet down the trail we discover a truly splendid loo (lights! running water!) and pause a few minutes for ablutions. Then we really get going.
The JFK course follows some steeply climbing roads here, so Mary, Caren, and I walk and chat about life, running, and all that. Ken and Emaad trot ahead and discover a fenced-off FAA transmitter and some other radio towers, so after some joking about being on security cameras we proceed to rejoin the AT and continue along the ridge. There are some lovely views of the valleys to east and west, and I take a few photos with cellphone camera. Emaad rolls an ankle and we commiserate. Ken sprints ahead and is awaiting the rest of us at Gathland Gap when we arrive after 1:46 — precisely the same time it took me to cover the 6.2 miles during last year's race according to Jfk 50 Miler 2006 Split Analysis. (Of course, that was in the dark and with 40+ miles still to go, so my cautious pace was perhaps excusable.)
At Gathland Ken and Caren pile into Emaad's car for the ride home, and after a pause to split a Cherry Coke and enjoy the fancy loo Mary and I proceed onward. The wind begins to roar and shake the treetops now, but where we are it's somewhat sheltered and quite pleasant. This segment of the AT is significantly rockier, so we tread cautiously and avoid injury, at the cost of a slower pace. After 1:54 we reach the base of Weverton Cliffs (~6.2 mi) and refill our water bottles at Mary's car. We both still feel strong so we continue down the AT, under highway US-340, across the C&O Railroad tracks, and upriver on the C&O Canal towpath for about 2 miles to the base of the US-340 bridge over the Potomac. Elapsed time is ~0:26, including ~5 minutes at Mary's car. Our return trip is of a similar duration. As we approach the railroad grade crossing I admit that I wouldn't mind seeing a freight train, since it would provide a good chance to catch my breath. Just then, a loud whistle sounds! I run ahead but it's clear that the train is too close for us to make it safely in front of it, so my wish is granted. Nevertheless, our net pace along the towpath is quite brisk, a bit faster than 12 min/mi — more than enough for Mary to have an excellent result if we can sustain it on JFK race day.

Artemesia Dusk

17 Sep — ~3.5 miles (~9 min/mi) — Monday evening at the University I've got some time before my daughter's rehearsal ends, so I park on the east side of campus and commence running from Paint Branch Trail milepost 1.5, behind the A. V. Williams engineering building. As the sun sets and a crescent moon shins near Jupiter in the southern sky I trot briskly downstream, covering the first mile in 8:27. As I enter the woods near US Route 1 a pair of small deer gaze at me in contempt, then stroll away into the dark woods. At Lake Artemesia I blitz the 1.35 mile loop in 12:37 (~9:21 min/mi), my heart pounding like a rabbit and the afterimage-like blobs of Ocular Migraines glowing in my visual field. My final mile back is an 8:51. Whee!

Paint Branch Trot

19 Sep — ~4.5 miles (~8.7 min/mi) — At 7:15pm on Wednesday evening I start at the same Paint Branch location (Milepost 1.5) as on Monday, but this time head upstream dodging cyclists, inline skaters, and dog-walkers. My first two miles are brisk (8:48 + 8:50) as bats flit low overhead in the area devastated by tornado winds several years ago. Swamp waters reflect the sunset between ravaged tree stumps. There's a roughly-quarter-mile jog (2:27) from Milepost 3.5 to where the trail crosses Cherry Hill Rd just inside the Capital Beltway. Traffic is too heavy for me to proceed, so I return (in 2:17) to that marker and run a downstream mile in deeping gloom of 8:45. Gray and Robin phone to tell me that they're ready to go home; I pant out answers while still running, since I feel like trying a strong finishing kick. It works; I make it back through near-darkness in a surprising final mile time of 8:15 — whew!

(cf. Babes In The Woods (18 Jun 2007), Awesome Adonis (3 Jul 2007), Summer Shambles (17 Jul 2007), Crossed Paths (28 Jul 2007), Rileys Rumble 2007 (30 Jul 2007), Pied Beauty (27 Aug 2007), ...)

- Friday, September 21, 2007 at 16:40:21 (EDT)

Comment Your Code

Sudden epiphany:

Wiki is like commenting your code!

Good programmers take the time to annotate software as they develop it. Comments make a complex algorithm understandable and a data structure transparent. Later, when it's necessary to fix or extend a program, comments pay for themselves a hundredfold in efficiency and accuracy, both for the original author and for anyone else involved.

Just so, time spent building a network of wiki pages is an investment in documenting the structures and relationships among ideas...

- Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 05:25:34 (EDT)

Math and Sex

Mathematics is fun, particularly when it messes with people's minds. Two elementary statistical-combinatorial examples from the New York Times last month illustrate:

Gina Kolata in "The Myth, the Math, the Sex" (12 Aug 2007) discusses how

... In study after study and in country after country, men report more, often many more, sexual partners than women. One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5. But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct. ...

Mathematically, the mean (average) number of partners must be equal for both sexes, as various simple examples illustrate and as elementary logic proves. As originally published, however, the NYT article repeatedly confounds mean and median, perhaps due to innumeracy in the editorial process, perhaps due to authorial confusion. Nonetheless, the theorem holds.

In a subtly-related theme, John Tierney in "Is There Anything Good About Men? And Other Tricky Questions" (20 Aug 2007) begins his blog entry with:

What percentage of your ancestors were men? No, it's not 50 percent, as I'll explain shortly.

Again, this is mathematically correct — since although each person has one male parent and one female parent, the same individuals show up repeatedly in the family tree once one goes back a few generations — and more of the duplicates are on the male side. Empirically, humans on the average seem to have about twice as many distinct female ancestors than male ancestors, based on genetic analysis. It's all related to the hugely-greater variance in reproductive success of males ...

(cf. Hat Problem (26 Jul 2003), Bad Arithmetic (24 Feb 2004), ...)

- Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 05:24:46 (EDT)

What Physics Is

John J. Hopfield writes, near the end of a recent essay about how sciences can flourish and then split into sub-disciplines:

What is physics? To me — growing up with a father and mother both of whom were physicists — physics was not subject matter. The atom, the troposphere, a piece of glass, the washing machine, my bicycle, the phonograph, a magnet — these were all incidentally the subject matter. The central idea was that the world is understandable, that you should be able to take anything apart, understand the relationships between its constituents, do experiments, and on that basis be able to develop a quantitative understanding of its behavior. Physics was a point of view that the world around us is, with effort, ingenuity, and adequate resources, understandable in a predictive and reasonably quantitative fashion. Being a physicist is a dedication to a quest for this kind of understanding.

(from "The Back Page: Reflections on the APS and the Evolution of Physics", APS News, Aug/Sep 2007, Vol. 16, No. 8; cf. No Concepts At All (22 Feb 2001), Hal Clement (5 Nov 2003), Essential Knowledge (20 Jun 2005), Approved Methods (12 Nov 2005), Helpful Homilies (2 Sep 2007), ...)

- Sunday, September 16, 2007 at 12:42:22 (EDT)

Miracles of Technology

In a journal entry written during June 1871 Ralph Waldo Emerson provides an insightful summary of key scientific and engineering discoveries of the Nineteenth Century:

In my lifetime have been wrought five miracles, — namely, 1, the Steamboat; 2, the Railroad; 3, the Electric Telegraph; 4, the application of the Spectroscope to astronomy; 5, the Photograph; — five miracles which have altered the relations of nations to each other. Add cheap postage; and the mowing-machine and the horse-rake. A corresponding power has been given to manufactures by the machine for pegging shoes, and the power-loom, and the power-press of the printers. And in dentistry and in surgery, Dr. Jackson's discovery of Anæsthesia. It only needs to add the power which, up to this hour, eludes all human ingenuity, namely, a rudder to the balloon, to give us the dominion of the air, as well as of the sea and the land. But the account is not complete until we add the discovery of Oersted, of the identity of Electricity and Magnetism, and the generalization of that conversion by its application to light, heat, and gravitation. The geologist has found the correspondence of the age of stratified remains to the ascending scale of structure in animal life. Add now, the daily predictions of the weather for the next twenty-four hours for North America, by the Observatory at Washington.

(cf. Worth Remembering 1 (28 Dec 2000), Ralph Waldo Emerson (5 Aug 2003), ...)

- Friday, September 14, 2007 at 09:15:47 (EDT)

Esther Summerson

The prime narrator of Bleak House is a young lady named Esther Summerson, one of Charles Dickens's most memorable creations. She's an orphan with a mysteriously checkered background. Tragic disease robs her of physical beauty. But her kindness, patience, and selfless modesty make her utterly lovely. Her character begins to emerge already in Chapter 3 when as a young girl Esther is told on her birthday that she has an unspeakably sinful past and can never be like other children:

I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll's cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody's heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.
Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the story of my birthday and confided to her that I would try as hard as ever I could to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent) and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could. I hope it is not self-indulgent to shed these tears as I think of it. I am very thankful, I am very cheerful, but I cannot quite help their coming to my eyes.
There! I have wiped them away now and can go on again properly.

In Chapter 8 Esther catalogs, in typical self-deprecating fashion, the reasons that she is unqualified to become a missionary:

That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself.

Esther observes reather poetically in Chapter 23:

... And I looked up at the stars, and thought about travellers in distant countries and the stars THEY saw, and hoped I might always be so blest and happy as to be useful to some one in my small way.

In Chapter 35 Esther suffers from a near-fatal fever:

For the same reason I am almost afraid to hint at that time in my disorder — it seemed one long night, but I believe there were both nights and days in it — when I laboured up colossal staircases, ever striving to reach the top, and ever turned, as I have seen a worm in a garden path, by some obstruction, and labouring again. I knew perfectly at intervals, and I think vaguely at most times, that I was in my bed; and I talked with Charley, and felt her touch, and knew her very well; yet I would find myself complaining, "Oh, more of these never-ending stairs, Charley — more and more — piled up to the sky', I think!" and labouring on again.
Dare I hint at that worse time when, strung together somewhere in great black space, there was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads! And when my only prayer was to be taken off from the rest and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be a part of the dreadful thing?
Perhaps the less I say of these sick experiences, the less tedious and the more intelligible I shall be. I do not recall them to make others unhappy or because I am now the least unhappy in remembering them. It may be that if we knew more of such strange afflictions we might be the better able to alleviate their intensity.

As she recovers, face horribly scarred, Esther remembers her birthday long ago:

When my guardian left me, I turned my face away upon my couch and prayed to be forgiven if I, surrounded by such blessings, had magnified to myself the little trial that I had to undergo. The childish prayer of that old birthday when I had aspired to be industrious, contented, and true-hearted and to do good to some one and win some love to myself if I could came back into my mind with a reproachful sense of all the happiness I had since enjoyed and all the affectionate hearts that had been turned towards me. If I were weak now, what had I profited by those mercies? I repeated the old childish prayer in its old childish words and found that its old peace had not departed from it.

And eventually, Esther does find her happy ending. Part of it reminds me of a sweet line in the movie The Truth about Cats and Dogs:

She is beautiful, but that's not why I love her. I love her for who she is and if she weren't beautiful, it wouldn't matter. You know how someone's appearance can change the longer you know them? How a really attractive person, if you don't like them, can become more and more ugly? Whereas someone you might not have even noticed, that you wouldn't look at more than once, if you love them, can become the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. All you want to do is be near them. I love her, and it doesn't matter what she looks like.

(cf. John Jarndyce (15 Jul 2007), Harold Skimpole (22 Jul 2007), Lawrence Boythorn (9 Aug 2007), Dickensian Girls (3 Sep 2007), ...)

- Tuesday, September 11, 2007 at 05:24:36 (EDT)

Uncle Bert

"Bob's your uncle!" is a British catchphrase, meaning something like "And there you have it", "It's All Good", or perhaps more formally "Q.E.D.". The movie Snatch — a family-favorite crime/caper flick that rivals Fight Club or Stark Raving Mad in violence, foul language, and high density of quotable lines — introduced me to an arch variant of "Bob's your uncle!" that has become one of my favorite idioms:

"Robert is your mother's brother!"

- Sunday, September 09, 2007 at 04:24:00 (EDT)

Baseball Notes 2007

I still haven't worked out a formula for Baseball Odds (cf. ^zhurnal 21 Apr 2007) but I'm starting to suspect that simplest and best might be to assume a constant rate of run production — something like half of a run per inning, or one sixth of a run per out — and then do the statistics (a Poisson distribution?) for the chance of a team maintaining a lead or overcoming a deficit. That theoretical approximation could then be compared with actual experience, to fine-tune the parameters of the equations. If that looks promising, one could then adjust the factors depending on a team's strength, home vs. away, a particular pitcher's stats, etc.

But meanwhile, looking back at the scorebooks for the 2007 season reveals a variety of lazy summer afternoons and evenings worth remembering:

(cf. Baseball Blues 2006 (4 Aug 2006), ...)

- Saturday, September 08, 2007 at 04:20:53 (EDT)

Emerson on Fame

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal entry of 15 March 1870 notes:

My new books sells faster, it appears, than either of its foregoers. This is not for its merit, but only shows that old age is a good advertisement. Your name has been seen so often that your book must be worth buying.

(cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson (5 Aug 2003), ...)

- Thursday, September 06, 2007 at 19:14:30 (EDT)

Dickensian Girls

In Bleak House Charles Dickens introduces several young ladies with a striking verve. For example, in Chapter 4 ("Telescopic Philanthropy") we meet Caddy Jellyby:

But what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking though by no means plain girl at the writing-table, who sat biting the feather of her pen and staring at us. I suppose nobody ever was in such a state of ink. And from her tumbled hair to her pretty feet, which were disfigured with frayed and broken satin slippers trodden down at heel, she really seemed to have no article of dress upon her, from a pin upwards, that was in its proper condition or its right place.

In Chapter 15 ("Bell Yard") Charley (Charlotte) Coavinses appears:

We were looking at one another and at these two children when there came into the room a very little girl, childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face — pretty-faced too — wearing a womanly sort of bonnet much too large for her and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron. Her fingers were white and wrinkled with washing, and the soap-suds were yet smoking which she wiped off her arms. But for this, she might have been a child playing at washing and imitating a poor working-woman with a quick observation of the truth.
She had come running from some place in the neighbourhood and had made all the haste she could. Consequently, though she was very light, she was out of breath and could not speak at first, as she stood panting, and wiping her arms, and looking quietly at us.

And my favorite image, in Chapter 43 ("Esther's Narrative"):

A slatternly full-blown girl who seemed to be bursting out at the rents in her gown and the cracks in her shoes like an over-ripe berry answered our knock by opening the door a very little way and stopping up the gap with her figure. As she knew Mr. Jarndyce (indeed Ada and I both thought that she evidently associated him with the receipt of her wages), she immediately relented and allowed us to pass in. The lock of the door being in a disabled condition, she then applied herself to securing it with the chain, which was not in good action either, and said would we go upstairs?

(cf. John Jarndyce (15 Jul 2007), Harold Skimpole (22 Jul 2007), Lawrence Boythorn (9 Aug 2007), ...)

- Monday, September 03, 2007 at 16:48:33 (EDT)

Helpful Homilies

Theoretical physicist David P. Stern in the May 1993 issue of Physics Today had a lovely column, "All I really Need to Know..." — maxims that are both striking and relevant, in physics and in life:

Keep notes of ideas, lectures and work. Memory fades but what is written down stays yours. While young you may wing it, but once you turn 40 or 50, your notes — numbered, dated, indexed and collected in binders — make all the difference between still doing useful work and spinning your wheels.
Rough notes are but a fading latent image. Transcribe them, don't wait. Edit what you produce, illustrate it, use neat handwriting or, better still, use a word processor. The material is hard enough, whatever smoothes its retrieval is a great help.
If it's memorable, write it down. Keep an open notebook by the phone. Number and date your entries.
Scan the literature and read what is pertinent. Collect references. Be lucid and even tutorial in writing your own papers.
Take time to select the text you study. A poor text will frustrate you, a good one will make you soar. Seek one that provides intuitive insights and write down in your own words key sections and calculations. Solve problems.
Never stop studying. Make up your own exercises as you go along. They prepare the way for more serious problems.
Don't get drawn into a big project unless you have a clear idea of its final product.
Go for the big problems. No one cares about publishable petty results.
Take your time preparing for a project — or else you may spend too much time doing things you did not need to do.
Look out for the future. Make a program of what you intend to do — next month, next year, in the long term. Adjust it as you learn more.
Learn to smell out good problems. Skills in finding them is more important than skill in solving them (though both count). You have it mad if you know how to transform puzzling data into well-posed problems. Stash away partially solved puzzles for later attention.
Never tell yourself you understand when you don't. (How can you know the meaning of F = ma unless you clearly define F and m?)And if you don't understand, struggle to do so. Consult books, friends and common sense. Keep notes.
If in the end you still don't get it, write down what you have. Some day you might be able to continue.
Take the time to arrange ideas in your mind and notes: The pattern is just as important as the material. Awareness of history helps one recognize the pattern.
Don't fear drudgery. No pain, no gain.
However, if a piece of calculation leads into an ever-denser thicket, nature probably did not intent you to go that way. Look for a different approach.
Once you understand a derivation, try to divine its intuitive meaning. Ideally, all you need remember are concepts; the math can be added later.
Check dimensions and orders of magnitude.
Prepare for every lecture. In writing.
Rehearse ten-minute talks for meetings. Distribute preprints.
Answer mail.
If you head a committee, take time to clarify to yourself what it would produce. Write down your own agenda before each meeting. Keep your own minutes, and keep the committee alive between meetings.
You learn a lot from writing a review article. A thorough job may make you a foremost expert in whatever the review describes. Also, in the process you are likely to uncover one or two good research ideas worth pursuing.
Give fair credit.
Find a mentor if you can, but don't be surprised if you can't. Good mentors are rare, and everyone is busy. Perhaps you can fill the role for someone else.
Collect bright young people.
Talk to colleagues. Cherish the few who are really interested in your work.
Take time to ask the experts. They don't mind and may actually be pleased to display their erudition.
Look for kindred souls. They are few and far between, and nothing is more precious.
Being a physicist is a great privilege. Be worthy of it. Most of humanity spends its life doing boring repetitive tasks.

I enjoyed the above enough to retype it and share it with colleagues back in 1998. Recently it resurfaced; I want to remember it again some day!

- Sunday, September 02, 2007 at 05:45:48 (EDT)


In a journal entry of Autumn 1868, Ralph Waldo Emerson observes:

In the perplexity in which the literary public now stands with regard to university education, whether studies shall be compulsory or elective; whether by lectures of professors, or whether by private tutors; whether the stress shall be on Latin and Greek, or on modern sciences, — the one safe investment which all can agree to increase is the library.

(cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson (5 Aug 2003), ...)

- Friday, August 31, 2007 at 06:02:21 (EDT)

Wee Bit More Complicated

True Believers: folks with a capital-V Vision, who oversimplify issues in trying to argue for what they "know".

Me: with age and, alas, bitter experience I'm Dr. Disclaimer, Nuance Man, Mr. Footnote, the Quibbler, Sir Counterexample. I have to hold myself back in discussions to avoid raising obnoxious "on the other hand" objections. Often I fail.

True Names: a seminal sf short novel by Vernor Vinge. Sometimes it comes to mind when I'm in the company of zealots. Near the beginning of the story one of my favorite characters — the "Slimey Limey" — describes a clever hack he's done. Another character suggests a flaw through which the Limey's secret identify might be uncovered. My hero explains why that won't work:

The Limey made a faffling gesture. "It's actually a wee bit more complicated. Face it, chums, none of you has ever come close to sightin' me, an' you know more than any Mafia."
That was true. They all spent a good deal of their time in this plane trying to determine the others' True Names. It was not an empty game, for the knowledge of another's True Name effectively made him your slave — as Mr. Slippery had already discovered in an unpleasantly firsthand way. So the warlocks constantly probed one another, devised immense programs to sieve government personnel records for the idiosyncracies that they detected in each other. At first glance, the Limey should have been one of the easiest to discover: he had plenty of mannerisms. His Brit accent was dated and broke down every so often into North American. Of all the warlocks, he was the only one neither handsome nor grotesque. His face was, in fact, so ordinary and real that Mr. Slippery had suspected that it might be his true appearance and had spent several months devising a scheme that searched U.S. and common Europe photo files for just that appearance. It had been for nothing, and they had all eventually reached the conclusion that the Limey must be doubly or triply deceptive.

I can identify with the Slimey Limey. He's not a cardboard virtual-reality caricature. He has flaws, subtleties, twists. He's adaptable, agile, a survivor. His personal goals are modest. And in connection with him, Vinge uses delightfully oblique words like "faffling". The Limey is "... a wee bit more complicated." Who could resist?

(cf. Proofs And Refutations (24 Jun 2004), Al Gore (14 Sep 2004), Hard Core Believers (2 Sep 2005), ...)

- Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 17:58:34 (EDT)

Pied Beauty

As I trot along the trail beside the creek a sudden splashing sound makes me pause. Two white-tailed fawns and a gray-haired doe stand in midstream drinking. Sunlight dapples the surface of Northwest Branch, echoing the dapples of the fawns.


Recollections from that and other recent ^z rambles follow:

Two Minute Man

3 Aug 2007 — ~3 miles (~8 min/mi) — The two mile run is a new event for me. At the MCRRC "Go For the Glory Track Meet" on a warm Friday evening at a Bethesda high school I'm unsure how fast to set out, so I chase a trio of girls for the first few laps. When they start to slow I pass and manage, albeit barely, to maintain a steady 2 min/lap pace. Caren and Jeanne are both recovering from injury; Christina is focusing on her preparation for the Annapolis 10 miler at the end of the month and likewise is taking it easy. My official time is 16:01.71 (false precision! --- in 0.01 seconds I move ~3mm). Considering how far behind the starting line I began, I'm actually a hair under 16 minutes. I skip the 400 meter sprint, but when Caren taunts me I enter the night's final event, 1 mile, and survive in slightly under 8 minutes — again ~2 min/lap. Christina lets my son Robin use her spiffy Nikon digital SLR. He takes hundreds of photos, some of which are rather good. Since there are so few participants everybody gets points in the MCRRC Championship Series, even I: 6th out of 6 in my age/sex group!

Cabin John Glow

5 Aug 2007 — ~12 miles (~15 min/mi) — Comrades Ken Swab and Mary Ewell and I converge on the indoor tennis courts at the Locust Grove Nature Center for a Sunday morning jog along the Cabin John Stream Valley Trail. It's a nice but somewhat strenuous path that various among us have variously essayed before. (cf. Half Beast, Late October 2005 Jog Log, Golden Ticket, They Bull Run Run, ...) Driving to the rendezvous point I cache food and drink at the River Road crossing of the CJT, allowing us to refuel at miles 3 and 9. In the heat and humidity we quickly exhaust our water supplies, so the resupply option turns out to be essential.
We set off shortly after 7am and immediately lose the trail at the corner of Democracy Blvd. and Seven Locks Rd. Eventually an off-road cyclist appears, lifts his bike over the railing, and vanishes into the woods. We follow him and thereafter only sporadically become confused. The park service brochure says that a Frank Lloyd Wright house is adjacent to the CJT, so as we progress downstream we look for it, making jokes whenever we see a candidate. (A small house-trailer in the woods, decorated with pink flamingo statues, is our final consensus for the most outrageous architecture.)
The trail south of the Beltway is rather overgrown, and since both Mary and I fear poison ivy our progress becomes tentative. We climb the steep wooden stairs and reach the turnaround at Cabin John Local Park (just north of the Potomac River) but find no water there. During our return trip a big box turtle is sitting in the middle of the path, but retracts into her shell before I can take a photo. At the River Rd. cache we finish all the drinks, with the help of two young buff gentlemen who are going fast but for less distance than we are. I haul the remaining chips and candy for the last 3 miles. Ken admits that both Mary and I sweat a lot more than he does.

Hypotensive Bonk

11 Aug 2007 — 16+ miles (14+ min/mi) — "Hi Mark!" On Friday afternoon Pete Darmody catches me by surprise on the Metro. I don't recognize him since he's not wearing a singlet and shorts. Pete is a fast runner, to my misfortune in the same age/sex cohort as I am this year. We chat about road racing, local architectural history, and trains (he's a self-confessed reformed "foamer"). Pete grew up in the neighborhood near Northwest Branch, and the conversation reminds me that I haven't jogged along that trail for many a day.
So mid-morning Saturday as the temperature warms from the 70's into the lower 80's I set out to run a big loop: from home via Forest Glen Rd. to Sligo Creek Trail (~15 min), upstream through Wheaton Regional Park to the horse stables (~55 min), down the west-bank Northwest Branch Trail to Colesville Rd. (~45 min), and continuing along the stream to Piney Branch Rd. (~50 min). At that point I suddenly feel exhausted — "bonked", in distance-running slang — and decide to head home. Thereafter I mostly walk. I trek to Sligo Creek Trail via Piney Branch (~20 min) and follow SCT to Colesville, and thence Dale Dr. to home (~50 min).
My extreme fatigue for the final five miles is probably due to dehydration, even though I've been drinking steadily. Two miles from home as I refill my water bottle (for the third time during the journey) I belatedly remember that I'm carrying Succeed! electrolyte capsules. I take one, and start to feel slightly more chipper as I arrive home. My weight is down ~3 lbs., however, and my blood pressure an hour afterwards is in a dangerously low 70/55 zone.
Only one fall interrupts the trip, near the halfway point as I trip over a big rock while reading a sign that offers information about side trails. I tumble like a house of cards, but suffer only minor scrapes on left hand, right forearm, and right calf. I almost take the Lockwood Dr. shortcut home there and then, but remember that part of today's mission is to look at the underside of the high Beltway Bridge over Northwest Branch. It's a steel bridge of the same design as the one that collapsed in Minnesota last week. (cf. High Bridge, 12 Aug 2007)

Mad Dog Zimmarathon 2007

18 Aug 2007 — ~26.2 miles (~12.8 min/mi) — see Mad Dog Zimmarathon 2007 for details

Annapolis 10 Miler 2007

26 Aug 2007 — 10 miles (12.8 min/mi)"Bloody sock!" Say that to a Boston Red Sox fan, and you'll hear the story of Curt Schilling's triumphant pitching, after tendon repair surgery, against archrival New York Yankees during the 2004 American League playoff series. Schilling's bloody sock now resides in the Baseball Hall of Fame. At the end of the 2007 Annapolis Ten Miler my running comrade Christina shows me her bloody sock — stained late in the race by an injured toe. That same evening Christina's sock is washed and returned to its place of honor in her sock drawer. Sic transit gloria socci(?!) ...
Just as last year (cf. Baby Gets New Shoes) Chris and I meet predawn and carpool to the Naval Academy football stadium, starting point for today's race. At 6am when we arrive the temperature is 73°F with a dewpoint of 71°F — close to 100% humidity. But at least it's cooler than yesterday! We ramble about the pre-race expo, where almost everybody seems to know Chris. Lining up before the start Gretchen greets us; she and I served together at water stop #6 during last year's Parks Half Marathon. (cf. Viking Railroad) I take photos as we await the signal to begin.
The race itself is relatively uneventful. This year's course winds through the well-groomed grounds of the Naval Academy before crossing the Severn River Bridge into a hilly residential area where neighbors kindly spray runners with garden hoses. The orange slices are all gone by the time Christina and I reach those aid stations, but there's still beer in the seventh mile from some hash harriers. The road is slippery-wet in many places due to condensation from the misty air. We repeatedly pass and are passed by the same friendly folks. Presaging the bloody-sock theme I'm wearing a Red Sox running shirt, and numerous fans of the team cheer me for that reason. One volunteer, however, taunts me with a "Go Yankees!" shout. "You're stabbing me in the heart!" I reply.
The sun comes out after we recross the arching bridge and are on the final half mile. Our finishing chip-time is 2:08, within seconds of last year's result. We unwind, take photos, and partake of post-race goodies. In spite of pink blotches on shoe and sock, Christina isn't troubled by the cut on one of her toes, caused by a wayward adjacent toenail. The wound heals quickly.

(cf. Trail Improvement (21 May 2007), Operation Acclimation (3 Jun 2007), Babes In The Woods (18 Jun 2007), Awesome Adonis (3 Jul 2007), Summer Shambles (17 Jul 2007), Crossed Paths (28 Jul 2007), Rileys Rumble 2007 (30 Jul 2007), ...)

- Monday, August 27, 2007 at 18:55:16 (EDT)

Do Less

Sometimes programmmer-studs get competitive:

"I can do that in 20 lines of C."
"Yeah? Well, I can do it in 5 lines of Perl."
"Hey, I can do it in 2 lines of Haskell!"

But the best win in coding — fewest lines, fastest execution — is to figure out how not to do something at all. (It's the ultimate in "lazy evaluation".)

There's an Extreme Programming (XP) aphorism attributed to Ron Jeffries:

"Unless your universe is very different from mine, you can't save time. You can only do less."

The challenge is to figure out what to do less of, e.g.:

less more
newspapers & magazines Shakespeare & Dickens
top-40 & classic rock Bach & Mozart
photo & image browsing Réne Magritte & Ansel Adams
web surfing thinking
sitting running
soda beer

- Friday, August 24, 2007 at 20:41:53 (EDT)

Walking the Line

Lyman Jordan, with help from his crack team of (unst)able MCRRC assistants, prepares the starting line for the Pike's Peek 10k race at dawn on 29 April 2007:


Don Libes, whose photographic expertise I respect, told me, "That is a great photo for so many reasons!" When I asked him why — since I thought it was a cute image, but not extraordinary — Don explained:

What I like is that photograph tells a story that simultaneously juxtaposes and ties together the excitement of the start/finish line with the calm but methodical prep that's necessary. Much more interesting than the 99% of race photographs of people running.
Here's what else went through my mind when I saw it: Lyman's body position is perfectly framed by the outline of the runner's leg while at the same time, the color and features in his face are identical to the color and features of the leg, again drawing together two seemingly unrelated things. The veins sent the message "This is a real human's leg" and I start imagining a whole history. The obvious questions surely flit through any viewer's mind ("Whose leg is that? Can I recognize that person just by the veins? Does my leg look that bad? Wait, that's what everyone's legs look like in real life! Don't they? ...")
The color/lighting/contrast isn't particularly interesting except that the light angle emphasized the pebbled surface of the asphalt and we see it echoed in the foreground of the white tape where we see Lyman must have used his hand to press down. I like that. I also like the "parallel" motif that is everywhere starting with the parallel yellow lines intersected precisely by the parallel white/blue lines, then moving on to the two legs, the two cones, the trees, and even the parallelism of the port-a-potties. Ohhh those port-a-potties - stretching as far as eye can see - well, not really, but the framing leaves it to our imagination.
I didn't think about the blur of the moving feet earlier. I guess you were lucky enough to have enough light to get the deep field of view for both the leg and Lyman. Clearly, if either had been out of focus, it would not have had the same impact - or maybe I'm wrong. I would be interesting to see the same shot with the leg (and port-a-potties) out of focus. Certainly, one of the problems with inexpensive cameras is the inability to control focus and depth of field as much as we'd like. It's great that you get such wonderful shots with your camera!

Thanks, Don! I clearly need to learn more about composition and other elements of visual design.

(cf. Conversations In Paint (18 Aug 2000), ...)

- Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 05:33:44 (EDT)

Emerson on Information Retrieval

On 2 July 1867 Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his journal:

Reading. I suppose every old scholar has had the experience of reading something in a book which was significant to him, but which he could never find again. Sure he is that he read it there; but no one else ever read it, nor can he find it again, though he buy the book, and ransack every page.

(cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson (5 Aug 2003), ...)

- Tuesday, August 21, 2007 at 17:53:27 (EDT)

Mad Dog Zimmarathon 2007

The winner of today's Mad Dog Zimmarathon shatters the course record by 25 minutes! Of course, the MDZ has only been run once before (29 Aug 2004) ... there's only one entrant in both cases (me) ... and there are no prizes, no medals, no t-shirts, no volunteers, no course marshalls, and no official sanction for the event. No matter! It's all good — even if the bruised toenail that I come home with falls off next week.


The graph of pace versus mile tells the story. Other observations:



(cf. Hoof Time (31 Aug 2004), Inner Goat (28 Oct 2006), ...)

- Saturday, August 18, 2007 at 21:11:07 (EDT)

Higher Level Language

A comrade programmer whom I respect is studying Haskell. Recently when I started looking at it I found a delightful essay, "Why Haskell Matters", the Epilogue of which led me to an article by Paul Graham that I had read long ago but sadly forgotten, "Beating the Averages". It echoes some important metaphors in No Concepts At All (^z 22 Feb 2001):

... Languages fall along a continuum of abstractness, from the most powerful all the way down to machine languages, which themselves vary in power. ... Programmers get very attached to their favorite languages, and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, so to explain this point I'm going to use a hypothetical language called Blub. Blub falls right in the middle of the abstractness continuum. It is not the most powerful language, but it is more powerful than Cobol or machine language.
And in fact, our hypothetical Blub programmer wouldn't use either of them. Of course he wouldn't program in machine language. That's what compilers are for. And as for Cobol, he doesn't know how anyone can get anything done with it. It doesn't even have x (Blub feature of your choice).
As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he's looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they're missing some feature he's used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn't realize he's looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.
When we switch to the point of view of a programmer using any of the languages higher up the power continuum, however, we find that he in turn looks down upon Blub. How can you get anything done in Blub? It doesn't even have y.
By induction, the only programmers in a position to see all the differences in power between the various languages are those who understand the most powerful one. ...

So what's the most powerful language? Is there no limit to the hierarchy? What would it feel like to look down from a lot higher "up"?

Sometimes I suspect that the top of the pyramid is simply logic.

(cf. Do Meta (8 May 1999), Scripting Languages (29 Jun 1999), On Somethingness (17 Jan 2000), Personal Programming History (2 Apr 2002), Worse Is Better (23 Dec 2003), Tools To Make The Tools To Make (26 Mar 2005), Marooned In Realtime (12 May 2006), ...)

- Friday, August 17, 2007 at 18:17:37 (EDT)

Emersonian Techno-Optimism

Ralph Waldo Emerson expresses a joyously naïve faith in the social benefits of scientific progress when he observes, in his journal entry of 30 July 1866:

This morn came again the exhilarating news of the landing of the Atlantic telegraph cable at Heart's Content, Newfoundland, and we repeat the old wonder and delight we found on the Adirondac, in August, 1858. We have grown more skilful, it seems, in electric machinery, and may confide better in a lasting success. Our political condition is better, and, though dashed by the treachery of our American President, can hardly go backward to slavery and civil war. Besides, the suggestion of an event so exceptional and astounding in the history of human arts is, that this instant and pitiless publicity now to be given to every public act must force on the actors a new sensibility to the opinion of mankind, and restrain folly and meanness.

Alas, Emerson was wrong — as are those who foresee the perfection of humanity thanks to the Internet, or any other mechanism ...

(cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson (5 Aug 2003), ...)

- Wednesday, August 15, 2007 at 19:12:08 (EDT)

Foot, Fashion, Fitness, Finance

I love lists and alliteration. Put 'em both together, and it's nirvana! So last month while I was waiting for my family's carryout at a sushi parlor and picked up the copy of USA Today there, I couldn't resist the op-ed essay by "A Different Type of Porn" by Robert Lipsyte. It's a diatribe against newspapers that waste space on:

"... the Four F's of porn — Food, Fashion, Fitness and Finances. They are insidious because they masquerade as news you can use while crowding out the genuine information we need to make informed decisions ..."

Maybe so. But given the death of reading in modern society, the accelerating decline of newspapers as a vehicle for thoughtful discourse, and the ever-shortening attention span of just about everybody I know (myself included) ... well, perhaps there are more important things to worry about than the fluff sections of printed media.

But that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy Lipsyte's article — I'm always a fan of well-written rants!

("A Different Type of Porn" by Robert Lipsyte, USA Today 11 Jul 2007, and cf. Years Of Wandering (2 Feb 2006) for Z. A. Melzak's list of the "seven deadly p's" ...)

- Monday, August 13, 2007 at 21:03:05 (EDT)

High Bridge

Northwest_Branch_Bridge_over_creek As part of highway I-495 (the Beltway ring road around Washington DC) this eight-lane bridge carries more than 200,000 cars and trucks daily. It arches high above Northwest Branch Trail, a stream-side path that I occasionally jog along. The span has the same steel deck truss design as the Minneapolis I-35W structure that recently collapsed into the Mississippi River.
Yesterday I ran downstream beside Northwest Branch and took photos of the bridge. On 1 Oct 2005 I carried a GPS with me and captured its coordinates for my collection. Here's a Google map/image: 39° 01' 03" N latitude 76° 59' 39" W longitude. Northwest_Branch_Bridge_south
Northwest_Branch_Bridge_underside From below the bridge an enigmatic graffiti is faintly visible on top of the northern concrete beam. It reads: "VIRGINIA MARRY ME JACK A/D". Hmmmm!

- Sunday, August 12, 2007 at 12:56:07 (EDT)

Small Infinity

Paulette points out a hilarious example of innumeracy in a newspaper article about mathematical modeling of a recent bridge collapse:

... Bruce Magladry, the Director of the National Transportation Safety Board's Office of Highway Safety, said the agency will use a computer to simulate how the bridge might have behaved with different loads, and with different parts of the bridge failing. He said there are an infinite number of combinations to test, so they might have to run the simulation 50 times, or 5,000. ...

Infinity is rather small in some people's minds!

(from the West Central Tribune article "Searchers find 6th, 7th victims in I-35W bridge disaster" by Patrick Condon, 9 Aug 2007; cf. Chart Junk (20 Jul 2007), ...)

- Friday, August 10, 2007 at 20:53:15 (EDT)

Lawrence Boythorn

Another unforgettable character from Charles Dickens's Bleak House is Lawrence Boythorn, the superlative man. John Jarndyce describes him in Chapter 9 when a letter arrives announcing Boythorn's imminent visit:

"I went to school with this fellow, Lawrence Boythorn," said Mr. Jarndyce, tapping the letter as he laid it on the table, "more than five and forty years ago. He was then the most impetuous boy in the world, and he is now the most impetuous man. He was then the loudest boy in the world, and he is now the loudest man. He was then the heartiest and sturdiest boy in the world, and he is now the heartiest and sturdiest man. He is a tremendous fellow."

When Boythorn appears he more than lives up to the description. He arrives late and explains:

"We have been misdirected, Jarndyce, by a most abandoned ruffian, who told us to take the turning to the right instead of to the left. He is the most intolerable scoundrel on the face of the earth. His father must have been a most consummate villain, ever to have such a son. I would have had that fellow shot without the least remorse!"

Boythorn does have a gentle side. He keeps a tiny canary, and when asked about it replies, as recorded by narrator Esther Summerson:

"By heaven, he is the most astonishing bird in Europe!" replied the other. "He is the most wonderful creature! I wouldn't take ten thousand guineas for that bird. I have left an annuity for his sole support in case he should outlive me. He is, in sense and attachment, a phenomenon. And his father before him was one of the most astonishing birds that ever lived!"
The subject of this laudation was a very little canary, who was so tame that he was brought down by Mr. Boythorn's man, on his forefinger, and after taking a gentle flight round the room, alighted on his master's head. To hear Mr. Boythorn presently expressing the most implacable and passionate sentiments, with this fragile mite of a creature quietly perched on his forehead, was to have a good illustration of his character, I thought.
"By my soul, Jarndyce," he said, very gently holding up a bit of bread to the canary to peck at, "if I were in your place I would seize every master in Chancery by the throat tomorrow morning and shake him until his money rolled out of his pockets and his bones rattled in his skin. I would have a settlement out of somebody, by fair means or by foul. If you would empower me to do it, I would do it for you with the greatest satisfaction!" (All this time the very small canary was eating out of his hand.)

(cf. John Jarndyce (15 Jul 2007), Harold Skimpole (22 Jul 2007), ...)

- Thursday, August 09, 2007 at 19:17:46 (EDT)

No God But God

No God But God by Reza Aslan, subtitled "The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam", is a well-written yet strangely biased history. The author intrudes, first with a subtle touch, then more blatantly, as he describes the early development of his religion and its progress to the present time. Essentially, if a story agrees with what Aslan wants to believe, he presents it as factual truth; otherwise he dismisses it as a false legend or deliberately malign slur by Enemies of the Faith. And elements within Islam today that the author dislikes are likewise blamed to a large degree on sinister outside forces. In its final chapter No God But God shifts gears even further, from history to outright sermon. It's a tour of an exotic land with a literate but unreliable, prejudiced guide. Caveat lector ...

(cf. Face To Face With God (13 Nov 2001), Silence Not Ignorance (5 Jun 2005), ...)

- Monday, August 06, 2007 at 04:50:58 (EDT)

Trim Cleavage

English is a charming language, not least for its carefree inconsistency. Occasional words are their own opposites: "to sanction" can mean either encourage or punish; "to dust" could be removing small particles from a surface or alternatively sprinkling them on it; "to trim" involves cutting away material or adding ornamentation; and "to cleave" is both to stick together and to split apart.

Which last brings to mind "cleavage": a term in national news headlines recently via commentary on a female Presidential candidate's discreet décolletage. Or should that be "discrete"? In either event, it's clearly a delicate topic around which wise writers tread lightly. Robert A. Heinlein in his novel The Puppet Masters does so. He introduces Mary, a central character:

A long, lean body, but unquestionably and pleasingly mammalian. Good legs. Broad shoulders for a woman. Flaming, wavy red hair and the real redheaded saurian bony structure to her skull. Her face was handsome rather than beautiful; her teeth were sharp and clean. ...

Mary can detect human who have been taken over by aliens, based on their lack of reaction to her feminine charms. Heinlein describes her ability in adroitly G-rated 1951-era language. I shall follow his example, and not comment further on the multiple distractions a scorekeeper must face at warm-weather baseball games, when womanly attire is at its summertime skimpiest ...

(cf. Keys To The Kingdom (1 Jul 2001), Awesome Prowess (17 July 2003), Debutante Dance (22 Mar 2005), Dorsal Verity Ventral Deceit (7 Sep 2006), ...)

- Saturday, August 04, 2007 at 21:36:43 (EDT)

Love and Marriage

Ralph Waldo Emerson in a journal entry during January 1850 writes:

Love is temporary and ends with marriage. Marriage is the perfection which love aimed at, ignorant of what it sought. Marriage is a good known only to the parties, — a relation of perfect understanding, aid, contentment, possession of themselves and of the world, — which dwarfs love to green fruit.

(cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson (5 Aug 2003), ...)

- Wednesday, August 01, 2007 at 18:51:49 (EDT)

Riley's Rumble 2007

At 6:15am storms roll through and the "Riley's Rumble" half-marathon gets a rumbling soundtrack of real thunder. Comrades Ken and Dina retreat to the car and run the engine to power air conditioning. I mock them and soon find myself drenched in a downpour. It's Sunday morning, 29 July 2007, and I've been up since 0330. I was out until 1030 the prior evening, at the final home game of the local amateur baseball team. It's all good though: not being fully awake is a real advantage for me during a race.

People registering for the event crawl under folding tables to fill out their forms; friend Christina risks her nice camera to photograph them. Eight American Black Ducks (or maybe female Mallards, or Mottled Ducks?), their wings decorated with bright blue speculum patches, stand clustered at the bottom of a boat ramp. They splash-bathe in Seneca Creek, shake furiously, and then groom themselves on the convenient slope, fearless as I watch from a few feet away.

At 7am the rain has stopped but there's still enough lightning in the area to impose a delay. By 7:05 all's quiet and the race begins. Dina and I trot at a relatively steady pace for the first half-dozen miles, in spite of some serious hills and near-100% humidity. Thankfully the sun stays hidden behind clouds and it's cooler than in previous years. Ken moves ahead smartly after mile 2. We don't see him again until near the turnaround, and thereafter at the race's end, which he reaches ~4 minutes ahead of us.

I attempt to entertain Dina and passers-by with idiosyncratic commentary on the course and on running in general. A shaggy llama stands at the corner of his fenced field to stare at the passing parade ca. mile 5. When occasional cars approach on the country road runners warn each other by calling out "Car up!". So as a horse ridden by a polo-costumed rider comes toward us near mile 8, I shout "Pony up!"

During the final half hour we catch up with an overheated male runner who has taken off his shirt. Unfortunately his water-bottle belt is sagging and pushes his shorts down to a dangerous level, exposing an unæsthetic anatomical zone. (I'm tempted to offer him some Zim's Crack Creme, but don't have any with me.) We implore him to repair his garment malfunction but he's a bit bonked and doesn't react, so we avert our eyes and pass as soon as possible. Then we play leapfrog with Betty Smith, who blasts by us on the downward grades but whom we catch during some of the steeper climbs. She goes on to finish a bit before us.

We reach the halfway point in 1:10:50 and manage the net-downhill return trip more than a minute faster, yielding slightly negative net splits for a total of 2:20:34 by my watch — sub-2:20 if we subtract the ~40 seconds it took us to reach the starting line after the metaphorical "gun". Christina is at the finish and photographs Dina's strong final kick. Kudos to all the MCRRC officials and volunteers who make the event possible!

(cf. Rileys Rumble (27 Jul 2003), Freudian Half Marathon (2 Aug 2004), Remind Me Never To (23 Jul 2006), ...)

- Monday, July 30, 2007 at 20:37:41 (EDT)

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