^zhurnaly 0.68

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Howdy, pilgrim! No ads here — you're in volume 0.68 of the ^zhurnal (that's Russian for "journal") — see ZhurnalyWiki for a Wiki edition of individual items; see Zhurnal and Zhurnaly for quick clues as to what this is all about. Briefly, it's the diary of ^z = Mark Zimmermann ... previous volume = 0.67 ... complete list at bottom of page ... send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com" ... click on a title link to go to that item in the ZhurnalyWiki where you can edit or comment on it ... thank you!

Purpose of a Poem

The purpose of a poem
Is to capture a hope,
Seize a moment,
Freeze a feeling,
Tease a thread from the tapestry of now,
And braid it with word sounds
Into a pigtail of forever.

- Thursday, June 12, 2008 at 21:40:46 (EDT)

Barred Owls

At mile 15 of a hot and humid pre-summer training run Caren and I are jogging through the forest of Cabin John Regional Park. I stop short as a gigantic bird swoops out of a tree just in front of us. "Was that a hawk?" I ask. "No," Caren says quietly, "it's an owl! There are two of them!" She points out a pair of huge barred owls, and soon we spy a third perched nearby. We watch the family for a minute and marvel at their size, and at the fact that they're out and about this afternoon. "That makes the day!" Caren says.

Notes on that 1 June run and other recent excursions follow ...

SSIMS Speedwork

2008-05-28 --- 7+ miles @ 11 min/mi --- A cool midweek evening is an invitation to trot! A bit after 6pm I take Forest Glen Rd to Sligo Creek Trail and head south at a brisk-for-me pace (9:20 between mileposts) to the asphalt track at the former Blair High School, now Silver Spring International Middle School (SSIMS). Soccer players, little kids on bicycles, and walkers are roaming about the field. After my 3 mile warm-up to get there I follow Wayne Carson's advice and do four quarter-mile fast laps with 2-minute walk/jog recoveries between. My "fast" laps average 1:43; if I could only sustain that blitz I'd be under 7 minutes for the mile! Alas, I'm far from ready to do that. I follow Dale Dr home. No walk breaks today, but a few pauses to cross busy streets.

Mary Shines, ^z Fades

2008-05-31 --- 4 miles @ 10.5 min/mi + 4+ miles @ ~16 min/mi --- For Saturday morning Mary Ewell invites me to Reston where she's doing the Spinal Research Foundation's "We've Got Your Back" 4 miler. I arrive early and watch the crowds gather, meet Mary, photograph the start, and then fall in to jog a bit with her along the W&OD Trail. The first two miles go by at 9.5 min/mi pace, but then we both begin to get seriously tired, probably due to the heat (temps in the low 80s °F) and high humidity (dewpoints in the high 60s °F). As Mary approaches the finish line I circle around and rejoin her. We sit, drink, nibble, then walk to her car to get ready for Act 2, wherein Mary introduces me to the Lake Fairfax Park.

The Lake Fairfax Trail is quite nice — a lovely mix of hills, rocks, roots, streams, trees, and open meadows. Mountain-bikers and horse-riders pass us as we jog and walk along. Alas, I'm seriously exhausted, probably from dehydration and loss of electrolytes during the 4 miler. (I also make the mistake of wearing a HAT Run hat for much of the way.) About 2 miles or so out we reach the restrooms and I take advantage of cool water there to douse my head and refill my bottle. Mary leads the entire way back, and not just because she knows the route: my bonked state begins to get worse and I lag far behind, even though she slows down and adds pity-walk breaks for me. "Next time," I tell her, "if I don't stay hydrated just pry my jaws apart and pour in water and electrolytes!" I experience mild dizzy spells afterwards, probably due to low blood pressure. After eating and drinking and napping I regain the 3+ lbs. I lost during the run and by evening I'm fine.

Caren Cracks the Whip

2008-06-01 --- 16+ miles @ ~17 min/mi (including ~30 minutes of breaks) --- Early Sunday afternoon I drive from home to Cabin John Park on MacArthur Blvd near the Potomac River, where I descend the steep stairs, choose a distinguished tree, and behind it hide a gallon jug of water plus a plastic bag of goodies. Then I drive up Seven Locks Rd to River Rd where I repeat the ritual. Caren Jew has a 16 mile run on her dance card today, and I'm preparing our "aid stations". We're doing an afternoon run since Caren's husband Walter, an extraordinary amateur golfer, has a morning tee time today. At Democracy Rd and Seven Locks Caren and I park our cars, apply insect repellant, and gird our loins for the today's trek. My "girdle" today includes energy gels, electrolyte capsules, water bottles, grease, paper, and a cellphone.

We find the trail and at 2pm proceed cautiously downstream, walking the hills. The weather this afternoon is warm and humid, with scattered thunderstorms in the region which offer us no significant relief. I drink copiously, take in lots of sodium/potassium, and avoid the misery I experienced yesterday morn. Caren cruises comfortably. We reach Bradley Blvd in 28 minutes and River Rd in another 22, including time to pause at the cache I left there. The grass is high and the trail is muddy in spots as we proceed. I entertain Caren by chattering about family woes that various friends are experiencing, and recount how I used to think that 90% of people were fully functional; now I think it's more like 10%. A gigantic tree has fallen across the trail and we pause to help each other clamber over its trunk. At the top of a rocky hill we again view the mysterious Red Flamingo House Trailer in the woods, but today a man and a giant poodle are near it inside its fence. I greet the gentleman and while his dog barks at me he says that we're near Cabin Rd.

After 47 minutes we arrive at the end of Cabin John Stream Valley Trail. I retrieve my hidden supply of water and food and we climb up the 54 steps to the county park. There we enjoy a modest feast at a picnic table while kids play baseball on a nearby field, adults play tennis on the courts, and youngsters play on the swings and slides. A blister is forming on the edge of one of my feet, so I swap socks from foot to foot and apply grease, which somehow helps. Our return trip is at almost exactly the same pace as the outbound journey, but this time we bushwhack around the huge tree that blocks us. A small snapping turtle sits in the middle of the path; Caren moves it carefully to one side, for its own safety. Near Bradley Blvd we look for and finally spy the Frank Lloyd Wright house that Caren identified on our previous run here. Two young ladies race past us, looking amazingly chipper. "I hope they've just started," I tell Caren when they're out of earshot. "They look far too comfortable, compared to how I feel!"

When we reach our starting point we've finished 11.2 miles according to the "official" trail map — but I suspect we've actually gone a bit farther. We're tempted to punch out now, but there are another 4.8 miles on Caren's schedule, and the show must go on! So after a break to refuel, northward Caren and I proceed. The ballfields in Cabin John Regional Park are busy and we meet increasing numbers of off-road bikers and hikers. This part of the route is familiar to Caren and she directs me when, as happens frequently, I take a wrong turn. We arrive at Tuckerman Lane where Caren offers to go on with me to the upstream terminus of the CJT, so we can say "We've done it all, end to end and back!" But that would add an extra 1.3 miles each way, which I estimate would put us over 18 miles for the day, rather more than I feel comfortable with. Better to punch that ticket another day.

So we climb yet another steep slope to the CJRP area where the MCRRC "Hills of Cabin John" cross-country race begins and ends. I pause at a water fountain to wash my brow, and at the 34 minute mark from our cars we commence a fast roughly-a-mile loop, down from the parking lot, upstream to Tuckerman, and back to our start. We finish it in 14 minutes, but instead of letting me rest during the last leg of our journey, cruel Caren commands that we run back to our cars now. OK, M'Lady — as you wish!

We pass the ballfields and are back in the forest, and then we meet the trio of barred owls mentioned in the preface to this set of reports. After a respectful interval of observation we gallop onward. I lead for a while, then take a wrong turn and Caren captures first place. It's 23 minutes from the end of the loop when we touch our cars and stop our watches. Today's total journey was a bit over 4.5 hours — not at all bad, I think, given the heat and humidity.

Caren heads for home and I drive back to pick up the remnants of my hidden supply dumps. When I went back to get the "aid station" at River Rd it's still there, but at Cabin John Local Park the kids' baseball crew is having a cookout at our picnic table. A nice lady says she threw away the abandoned plastic bag water water jug. I thank her for doing clean-up, and then when she's not looking check the trash can nearby, where I rescue the Body Glide grease and NUUN electrolyte tablets and salty corn chips from my cache. They're clean, still sealed up, and I'm obviously a cheapskate!

Warm and Sour Soup

2008-06-04 --- ~8 miles @ ~11 min/mi --- A line of powerful thunderstorms blasts through the region late Wednesday afternoon, and when I get home at 6pm another line is due to arrive in two hours. That gives me just enough time, fool that I am, to get a midweek evening run in! It's still warm and wet as I drop off a car for service at the local mechanic's. I discover a Snickers candy bar partially melted next to the driver's seat, so in hopes of it solidifying as the day cools I take it and place it under one corner of the car.

Through Walter Reed Annex and down Ireland Dr to Rock Creek Trail I'm feeling strong, so I trot upstream a couple of measured miles, times 11:06 and 10:48 respectively. Traffic lights are out along Connecticut Av and though the creek is high there the tunnel isn't too muddy to navigate, though it is a bit dark. A small crimson male cardinal and a tiny bright-orange-and-black bird flits across my path. I look the latter up later and discover that it's a Baltimore Oriole. Intermittent drizzle fails to cool me. The light at Cedar La is out so instead of pausing at the water fountain I turn left and go under the Beltway toward NIH. I turn left again and follow Wisconsin Av to Jones Bridge Rd, and take it to Rock Creek. A pair of friendly policemen direct traffic as I cross Connecticut Av. My final measured half-mile on RCT near the Audubon Society is 5:15. Back at the car I retrieve the now-hard candy bar and carry it the final quarter mile home.

Gaithersburg XC 5k

2008-06-06 --- 3+ miles @ 12.2 min/mi --- At the office I've just started a new assignment at the office and have to work late this Friday. Fortunately I escape before 6pm, traffic flows well, and in about half an hour (thanks to Caren Jew's excellent directions) I arrive at Gaithersburg High School where the MCRRC cross country run will begin at 7pm. Using a modified Mary Ewell Beach Towel Technique, I change from work clothes to running togs in my car without getting arrested. At the race I tie an experimental sensor chip onto my shoe and chat with Caren, Wayne Carson, Don Libes, and Christina Caravoulias. We compare tonight's heat and humidity with the thunderstorms that preceded races here last year and the year before. A light breeze feels good, but it stops just before the event begins.

Wayne is running fast today; Caren and Don trot comfortably behind; Christina and I hang back, suffering together. I tell myself that I'm becoming acclimated to the weather, but maybe it's only a fantasy of mine. As we jog along I keep a sharp eye out for rabbits, but unlike last year none are to be seen. The midcourse water stop is out of water, much to our disappointment. I observe a cup on the ground with an inch of liquid still in it, but manage to restrain myself from picking it up to pour over my head. As we approach the finish line two photographers snap pictures. My official result: 5th out of 5 in my age/sex group at 37:57 total time.

Kabrena Comes to Town

2008-06-07 --- 6+ miles @ 12 min/mi --- A dead snake on the path startles us for a moment, but it's a lot less scary than some of the cyclists that blast along the trail and pass without warning. Comrade Kabrena Rodda is in the DC area for work, and I take advantage of the chance to run with her early Saturday morning. Kabrena is training for the San Antonio Marathon in November; she wants some fast flat mileage, and at 0600 we rendezvous at Thompsons Boat Center. (Each of us gets lost and takes an impromptu tour of downtown DC on the way.) Parking meters demand more quarters than we have handy, however, so we head upriver to Fletcher's Boathouse. I've never driven there before, but luck is with us and we arrive without incident and park in the empty lot.

Lt Col Dr K stretches before and after she runs. She's recovering from hip bursitis and gently corrects my form when I show her my idiosyncratic attempt to stretch my ITB. We trot downstream 3+ miles back to Georgetown on the C&O Canal Towpath, chattering about our friends and work and training and injuries and drugs and all the other things that runners love to discuss. At the end of the canal we circle through Thompsons Boat Center on foot, refill a water bottle, and begin a rapid trek back to our start along the waterfront and the Capital Crescent Trail. Fog is still thick over the Potomac river and the Virginia side is lost in the mists. Good luck is with us today: when a pack of MCRRC runners encounters us and greets me by name, Kabrena and I are running rather than taking a walk break. After a brisk final mile we arrive at our starting point, stretch, wish each other well, extricate our cars from the now-full parking lot, and head for our respective abodes.

(cf. Seneca Creek Stumble (2008-02-03), Comfortably Numb (2008-03-13), Sunrise Service at Seneca Creek (2008-03-24), Sharp Focus (2008-04-30), Ducky Rock Creek Trail (2008-05-12), Catoctin Trail Trek (2008-05-19), Game SET Match (2008-05-27), ...)))

- Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 04:57:33 (EDT)


Two days ago I achieved a trivial triumph, and again exposed the embarrassing clutter that my neural net has accreted over the years. Paulette was working the Friday New York Times crossword puzzle and asked me, "53 Down, the clue is 'Neighbor of Helsinki' — 5 letters, might begin with an E".

I immediately suggested "ESPOO", which turned out to be right. But how did that factoid get lodged in my subconscious? I can only speculate that a couple of decades back, in the early ARPAnet/Internet era, the then-prominent stature on the 'Net of the Helsinki Institute of Technology in Espoo somehow penetrated my soggy noggin. And I still remember the domain name hut.fi. The fantasy-image it evoked for me: a wee wooden building, all alone in the snowy taiga. And that brought to mind the Dungeons & Dragons conjuration "Leomund's Tiny Hut", a magic spell to create a small place of refuge in a dangerous situation.

Alas, nowadays hut.fi forwards to the less evocative (to an English speaker) Finnish domain tkk.fi. Sic transit gloria mundi ...

(cf. CrossWords (2003-10-15), Perpetual Calendar (2006-01-25), ...)

- Sunday, June 08, 2008 at 11:01:38 (EDT)

It Infiltrates Your Life

The May/June 2008 issue of Marathon & Beyond magazine contains a delightful cover-story interview (by Hal Higson) with marathon champion Deena Kastor. Among her insightful remarks, several stand out as relevant to countless areas of life. Concerning preparation to meet great challenges, Kastor observes:

... The best advice that Dave Martin offered us during a three-day distance runners' camp in May 2004 preparing for Athens was to make small changes. At our camp, we were deluged with advice for three days on nutrition, hydration, and anything else that might affect either our training or our race. We had a psychologist giving us tips on focusing. It was so detailed. At the end of the camp, Dave said, "A few things are going to stand out that you can change a little bit to make your preparations a little bit better, but most important is to go home and get very fit, and the fitter you are, the less any obstacle is going to affect you." I thought that was the greatest message of all. When it comes down to it, you just need to train to be fit and healthy when you step onto the starting line of an Olympic marathon — or any marathon.

And about the the overall benefits of perseverance, in training for distance running or anything else, Deena notes:

It's fun to see American running doing so well right now. Not only those of us in the front of the pack, but everybody behind us. To see so many people taking part and so many people changing their lives for the better. You think this sport is so simple, just putting one foot in front of the other, but once you start doing it, you realize just how grand it is. It infiltrates your life.

(cf. Eric Clifton (2004-10-01), Joan Benoit Samuelson on Pleasing Yourself (2008-02-23), ...)

- Saturday, June 07, 2008 at 15:38:43 (EDT)

Transgressive Moments

When we were courting more than 30 years ago Paulette and I went one evening to see Ricky Jay, magician extraordinaire, at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica California. Jay had just written a book, Cards as Weapons, and his act was a delightful combination of humor and sleight-of-hand. But I don't really remember it all that well. In contrast, a 1993 profile of Ricky Jay in the New Yorker magazine ("Secrets of Magus" by Mark Singer [1]) has lodged firmly in my mind for over 15 years. I recollect it for a less-than-noble reason: a grossly misogynistic anecdote that Jay tells of another great magician, Dai Vernon. The story is far too nasty to be described here.

I find many similar examples in my own memory banks. Possibly there's something about extreme boundary-crossing behavior that makes it memorable? Perhaps there's a "guilty pleasure" neuron that, when triggered, helps lodge certain incidents in long-term storage? Transgressive moments seem somehow central to consciousness, at least to mine.

And maybe that's another reason that I enjoy trail running so much: those occasional off-the-charts experiences that only another trail runner can understand!

- Thursday, June 05, 2008 at 21:30:16 (EDT)

Franklin on Pride

Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography talks above overcoming personal weakness (cf. Franklin's Virtues) and ends his analysis by admitting, in typical self-deprecating fashion, that he has to fight most against conceit:

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.

The charming confession brings to mind proud Mr. Toad in the 1983 animated version of The Wind in the Willows, who pats himself on the back with, "Few have so little to be modest about!"

(cf. Pretense and Lack Thereof (1999-10-11), ...)

- Tuesday, June 03, 2008 at 21:31:08 (EDT)

Injury Avoidance

Six years ago, as I was just getting started running, I sent a fan letter to experienced ultramarathoner Paul Ammann thanking him for his online race reports [1] and sketching out the naïve training plans I hoped to pursue in ramping up my mileage and improving my speed and endurance. Paul gently replied with superb advice — advice which came to mind again recently when a new friend started training hard, got injured, and had to scale back expectations. So it's not lost again, Paul's comments:

IMHO, this is a very aggressive schedule, by which I mean that the risk of injury strikes me as quite high. Your body can handle all kinds of ridiculous stresses - but only if you give it plenty of time to adapt. Many people - including me, I admit - are impatient with running goals. And many people - including me again - are often sorry about that. I've read a lot of race reports that essentially read:

"I ramped up fast and then I visited my doctor"

I have a more or less continuous "injury recovery" program in place. My ankle, or my knee, or my hamstring (all on the left leg, curiously) is typically in need of some form of maintenance.

Patience really is a virtue, and the reward for patience is very concrete, namely injury avoidance.

If I were doing my first marathon over again, I would probably plan to walk a third of it (mostly in the beginning). It would be much more pleasant that way, and the risk of injury would be near zero. Ultra marathons have taught me that extensive, deliberate walking is not only "ok"; it is much faster than running til you can't.

Look at it this way - you aren't out to run one marathon. You are out to run so many that you lose track of them. Make one of those future marathons the qualifier.

btw - 20 miles a week is plenty to run a marathon. Don't let the logbook run your life. I believe a fair number of people run 100s on just 30-35 a week (me included). Again, injury avoidance is the main goal. I would recommend crosstraining over increased mileage.

And listen to *your* body. It will definitely be talking to you!

Happy trails!

-- Paul

(quoted with permission)

- Monday, June 02, 2008 at 05:34:58 (EDT)

Free Will Facts

Recently RadRob recommended some readings about the modern philosophy of "Free Will". The materials are quite thoughtful in some parts, but degenerate into mere quibbling in others. Perhaps it could be helpful to list what is known about the key issues, to get a firmer foundation?

In the physical universe:

In the subjective universe:

The clash between these facts about physical and the subjective universes could be at the root of much confusion over "Free Will" ...

- Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 07:23:25 (EDT)

Corporate Asset

At a meeting today a colleague observed:

When Management says you're an "asset" let's hope they're more than 60% right!

- Friday, May 30, 2008 at 21:48:08 (EDT)

Game, SET, Match

SET is a clever game of intersecting patterns. My wife Paulette introduced the playing-card version of SET to the family some years ago, and more recently running partner Christina Caravoulias led me to the online daily solitaire SET puzzle. Occasionally she and I play it and compare our times. On Memorial Day morning I'm up pre-dawn, preparing for a run, and am surprised to find early riser Christina online. At 4:30am after we chat a bit I type, "hang on, I will try SET --- back in 10 min" (a comic exaggeration of my anticipated time, usually 2-5 minutes). While playing I hear an incoming-msg chirp: fast Chris has finished the entire SET challenge in 37 seconds! It takes me two minutes longer. I tease her ("buy a lottery ticket!") and applaud her victory, then head out for a jog before today's race. Log entries for that and other recent excursions:

S&C Rehearsal

2008-05-22 --- 4 miles @ ~11 min/mi --- on Thursday evening son Robin & I arrive about 6:45pm at the starting line of Sue & Connie's Run, an MCRRC 4-miler on Memorial Day Monday. We scout the area using a downloaded course map. Soon Christina Caravoulias arrives and (as is becoming a tradition with us) we commence running the course together --- a preview of the race that will take place in four days. Robin pauses at mid-course for us to do an out-and-back and rejoin him. Chris and I trot along, stop a the Aspen Hill Park water fountain as a simulated "aid station", and enjoy ourselves this cool spring evening. We push hard on the final hill and are rather amazed to finish in less than 45 minutes. Apparently the Speed Development Program that Christina did has paid dividends!


2008-05-24 --- ~9 miles @ ~17 min/mi + ~10 miles @ ~16 min/mi --- The Turkey Run Park gate is shut at 7:15am on Saturday morning, so Mary Ewell and I drive to the endpoint of the Potomac Heritage Trail (mile 10) on Live Oak Dr. We amble for 77 minutes downstream to the signpost at the end of the woods within sight of Route 123, and then take 77 minutes to go upstream, averaging just under 18 min/mi assuming we went the official 8.6 miles --- but I think we go a little faster than that, and a little farther. At the riverside we see a strange concrete pillar. The monolith, according to the PHT guide, is "a water gauge (mile 7.2) [which] recorded the river levels from the 1930s to the 1960s." On our return journey we take the red-blazed "Woods Trail" through Turkey Run Park. I slip and fall on the Potomac mud, but catch myself on one hand.

At about 2:10pm on Saturday afternoon Caren Jew and I meet at the county tennis courts on Democracy Blvd near Seven Locks Rd. We run south on the Cabin John Trail, 79 minutes out and 80 minutes back. Along the way we see four chipmunks (or two chipmunks twice each?) and scare a doe in the brush as we approach Seven Locks Rd after crossing River Rd (Caren says, "Sorry, deer!"). I entertain Caren with stories about crazy/dysfunctional members of various friends' families, and provide a mini-review of the third movie in the "Indiana Jones" series: they steal and destroy far too much private propert: cars, camels, horses, etc. ... not to mention priceless archæological artifacts!

Our splits: Democracy Blvd 25 min to Bradley Rd + 19 min to River Rd + 35 min to turnaround @ Red Flamingo House Trailer in the woods + 36 min to River Rd + 17 min to Bradley Rd + 27 min to finish at Democracy Blvd.


2008-05-26 --- 9.5 miles @ ~10.5 min/mi + 4 miles @ ~11 min/mi --- At 5am I mix up a 10x strength batch of Zelectrolyte syrup for the gel mini-bottle on my new fanny pack. By 0543 it's light outside and I set off from Rock Creek Valley Elementary School, following the course of Sue & Connie's Run at first, then continuing northward along Rock Creek Trail. At Lake Needwood I turn left and follow the Westside Trail, from which I see the sunrise and aircraft contrails reflected on the water's surface. Along the way I spy about one deer/mile, several gaggles of geese, and a great blue heron standing in the shallow water by the eastern shore. Two archers practice their target shooting at a bow-and-arrow range near the lake. My splits: from the school to RCT milepost 12 in 14:03 + to milepost 13 in 10:52 + to milepost 14 in 10:42 + around Lake Needwood and back to RCT milepost 14 in 33:02 + to milepost 13 in 10:23 + to milepost 12 in 9:52 + to Sue & Connie's mile 1 in 2:30 + to S&C's starting line in 9:09.

Half an hour later during the actual S&C race my mile splits are 10:23 + 10:47 + 11:20 + 11:57 to finish in 44+ minutes. Christina Caravoulias & Sharyn Gordon & Ken Swab & Don Libes & I jog comfortably together. The race goes well, though it is a bit too warm and humid for Chris and me. Ken & I keep up a steady banter, to the amusement (I hope!) of all within earshot. During the final uphill sprint to the finish line, Ken picks up and throws an egg (ok, it was a mostly-empty eggshell) at me, and with unerring aim hits me on the head. "Lawyer! Lawyer!" I cry. (Both Ken and Don are attorneys.) Former-sandbagger comrade Wayne Carson comes out of the closet and runs fast, a few seconds over 30 minutes. Good job, all!

(cf. Seneca Creek Stumble (2008-02-03), Comfortably Numb (2008-03-13), Sunrise Service at Seneca Creek (2008-03-24), Sharp Focus (2008-04-30), Ducky Rock Creek Trail (2008-05-12), Catoctin Trail Trek (2008-05-19), ...))

- Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 21:17:46 (EDT)


Sub- is a splendid prefix, especially when attached to something superlative. Continents are huge; "The Subcontinent" typically means India and the tectonic plate associated with it, home of the world's highest mountains and some of its most fascinating people. Genius is exceptional intelligence; "Subgenius" most often refers to Bob and the Church of the SubGenius, a silly parody religion (or so I hope!).

But my favorite Sub- usage is a word I love to wield: suboptimal — anything that falls short of the best possible. And since virtually everything in this imperfect world is short of the best ...

(cf. Optimist Creed (1999-04-16), ...)

- Monday, May 26, 2008 at 21:23:31 (EDT)

Photo Finish

Can't I trust anyone anymore? How much is true in images taken by famous photographers and published in otherwise-trustworthy magazines? After reading about an ace photo-retoucher in a recent New Yorker I'm shocked, shocked to discover the extent of manipulation going on. As Lauren Collins writes ("Pixel Perfect: Pascal Dangin's Virtual Reality" [1]):

In the March issue of Vogue Dangin tweaked a hundred and forty-four images: a hundred and seven advertisements (Estée Lauder, Gucci, Dior, etc.), thirty-six fashion pictures, and the cover, featuring Drew Barrymore. ... Vanity Fair, W, Harper's Bazaar, Allure, French Vogue, Italian Vogue, V, and the Times Magazine, among others, also use Dangin. Many photographers, including Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, Craig McDean, Mario Sorrenti, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, rarely work with anyone else. Around thirty celebrities keep him on retainer, in order to insure that any portrait of them that appears in any outlet passes through his shop, to be scrubbed of crow's-feet and stray hairs. ...

It's OK to crop a photo for effect and composition. It's OK to remove redeye flash retroreflections from retinas. It's OK to adjust contrast and overall brightness to reduce or enhance shadows. It's even OK to dodge or burn areas for balance or emphasis. Those techniques are all standard operating procedure in photography; no disclaimer needed. They move an image closer to what an alert human observer might have seen at the place and time that the picture was taken.

But how honest is it to edit without admitting it — to flip pixels, remove wrinkles, splice in background scenery, etc., and then not even mention that alterations were made? I don't think it's honest at all. Is the default nowadays to cheat? Do photographers who don't alter their work have to say so, lest they be branded similar liars? Or is "All's fair" the rule in art, at least for those who have enough skill, time, or money to get it?

And extending the principle: if one can reasonably demand full disclosure in image manipulation, how about for those who enjoy plastic surgery? Or who wear toupees? Or make-up? Or, uh, enhancing undergarments? Where's the line between touch-up and deceit? I have no idea!

- Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 18:57:30 (EDT)

Franklin's Virtues

In his Autobiography Benjamin Franklin describes a "... bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection" that he attempted to practice as a young man. He enumerates a charmingly organized (if not exactly orthonormal) set of virtues and offers a spreadsheet-like bookkeeping procedure that he used to track his progress. He admits to falling short, but feels that "... I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it ...". As a fan of both virtue and of lists, I'm obligated to present Ben's admonitions:

  1. Temperance
         Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence
         Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order
         Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution
         Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality
         Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry
         Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity
         Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice
         Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation
         Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness
         Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquillity
         Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity
         Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
  13. Humility
         Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin's project somehow reminds me numismatically of a Cub Scout token that I once saw, likewise designed to encourage regular practice of virtue. It bore the inscription "Secretly Transfer Me To Your Right Pocket Each Day After Your Good Turn Has Been Done" ... which brings to mind a comment by the Wizard of Oz in the movie of that name: "Back where I come from, there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phila-, er, er, philanth-er, good-deed doers!"

And most striking to me is Franklin's use of the word venery in the context of Chastity. I hitherto had only seen it in the context of hunting and of collective nouns, aka "terms of venery", like a pack of dogs, a school of fish, a pride of lions, etc. The venerable word has a veritable venereal meaning!

(cf. FlagranteDelictoPhilosopher (2003-09-19), ...)

- Friday, May 23, 2008 at 18:10:34 (EDT)

High Voltage Fiberoptic Cable

A metal box by the roadside in my neighborhood has a sign on it:


This is rather nonsensical, since fiber optic cables are made of glass and can't conduct significant amount of electricity. (Sure, one can put a high voltage across the ends of an insulator, but only negligible current flows.) Maybe the scary label is there to deter petty thieves? Perhaps there are some other non-fiberoptic components inside that involve high voltages? But most likely it's just a parsing ambiguity, like the street signs near kindergarten playgrounds that tell passing drivers:


(cf. Achieve New Balance (17 Jul 2002), Mary Landers for Mathias (25 Aug 2002), Oxford Commas (25 Jan 2004), Unfortunate Misparsing (2004-02-27), ... )

- Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 10:06:20 (EDT)

Catoctin Trail Trek

(map courtesy Potomac Appalachian Trail Club)
At 0530 Caren and I start from the Hamburg Road crossing of the Catoctin Trail. We head north past half a dozen ponds, up and down countless ridges, across boggy marshes, and through shallow (but cold!) mountain streams. Seven miles later we arrive at a dramatic overview just inside Cunningham Falls State Park. We eat, drink, swat at gnats, and take photos before commencing the return journey.


2008-05-14 — ~9 miles @ ~12 min/mi — A free midweek evening means it's time to run! At 6pm I set off at the end of the front steps and trot the ~3 miles (via the CCT to RCT) to Rock Creek Park, where the Western Ridge Trail beckons muddy from heavy rains a few days ago, path churned by horses. Christina phones as I'm walking up a long hill; she warns of approaching rains. Faster runners pass me. At the intersection with Pinehurst Branch I start to continue south along the WRT but come to my senses and take PBT eastward. Tributary streams are swollen and I slip off a stone at the third water crossing, wetting my left foot. At Beach Drive I turn south, cross Rock Creek on an ancient concrete pedestrian bridge, and proceed upstream on the severely-eroded Valley Trail. Fallen trees interrupt the path and clog the creek. I walk on more hills and probably average 13-14 min/mi for the trail segments overall, but on the paved path I'm in the 10.5-11 min/mi zone. Just before 8pm I'm home.

2008-05-17 — 6+ miles @ ~14 min/mi — Mary Ewell is waiting at the River Rd parking area for the Cabin John Stream Valley Trail when I arrive at 0730. We strap on our gear and trot northward, enjoying the cool morning and chatting about our various pains and training woes. A huge tree lies fallen across the trail half a mile upstream of our start, but I manage to pick may way through gaps between the branches while Mary clambers mostly across the top of the mass, trying not to fall through onto me. After we cross Bradley Blvd (~18 minutes in) and do another half mile Mary picks up the pace. Muddy puddles partially block the path, but we pick our way around them while trying to avoid poison ivy. On the other side of Seven Locks Rd we join the blue-blazed CJSVT outbound via a driveway-like connector, climb the hill, cross Democracy Blvd, and continue a bit farther north before turning back (~50 minute mark). On the return trip we find the proper branch of the trail on the east side of Seven Locks after following a false path, then avoid the worst of the bogs by staying on the sidewalk until a rude semi-paved driveway leads us back to the CJT on the south side of a tributary stream. An off-road cyclist meets us near Bradley, and again when we've just returned to our cars (~95 min). He tells us about an alternate trail on top of the eastern ridge that let him avoid the fallen tree, and as Mary practices her modest beach-towel quick-change routine describes another good loop trail near the Capital Crescent Trail and the Dalecarlia Reservoir on the DC-MD border. Mary gives me some banana bread + chocolate chip muffins she has baked — they're scrumptious!

2008-05-18 — 14+ miles @ ~20 min/mi — At 0450 Caren Jew awaits me at the Clopper Rd parking lot off I-270. Soon my gear is stashed in her car and we're off to Gambrill State Park, where in 2006 on 21 October and 24 December we ran a segment of the rugged Catoctin Trail. We didn't quite make it to Hamburg Rd either time, so today Caren drives us there. Starting at dawn we proceed northward through some lovely woods and past Delauter Rd (52 min) and Fishing Creek Rd (40 min) to the scenic outlook point (45 min) marked "View" on Caren's map, look about, then return at almost exactly the same pace. On the pathway we encounter some slightly-scary looking mountain men (Caren and I are both happy to have each other's company! — we're reminded of the movie Deliverance), a pack of five fast trail runners, and a similar number of off-road bikers. We talk about our favorite songs and books, and I synopsize the plot of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (Dark Lord makes Ring, Dark Lord loses Ring, Hobbit finds Ring, Hobbit destroys Ring). Caren slips on a stick and sits down far too abruptly for comfort, fortunately without major injury. We discover that our pace is only a few minutes too slow to have made some of the cutoffs for the Catoctin 50k. Unfortunately that race is more than twice as long and takes place in late summer when heat and humidity are as daunting as the rocky hills.

(cf. Thirteen Eagles (2008-01-28), Seneca Creek Stumble (2008-02-03), Comfortably Numb (2008-03-13), Sunrise Service at Seneca Creek (2008-03-24), Sharp Focus (2008-04-30), Ducky Rock Creek Trail (2008-05-12), ...)

- Monday, May 19, 2008 at 04:55:43 (EDT)

How to Win Friends and Influence People

In 1936 Dale Carnegie wrote a charming book of common-sense advice, How to Win Friends & Influence People. It's far from original; Arnold Bennett and other authors anticipated it by decades (cf. Readings on Thinking and Living, 2001-10-01). Nonetheless, Carnegie brings a delightful American enthusiasm to the challenge of explaining everyday human psychology. Recently I read an updated (1981) "Special Anniversary Edition"; some tidbits follow.

From Part One, Chapter 1:

John Wannamaker, founder of the stores that bear his name, once confessed: "I learned thirty years ago that it is foolish to scold. I have enough trouble overcoming my own limitations without fretting over the fast that God has not seen fit to distribute evenly the gift of intelligence."

... and later in the same chapter:

Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others — yes, and a lot less dangerous. ...

In Part One, Chapter 3, a thoughtful sign-off to a sample of business correspondence:

You are busy. Please don't trouble to answer this letter.

And in Part Three, Chapter 3, a form letter that an author (Elbert Hubbard) would reportedly send to irate readers:

Come to think it over, I don't entirely agree with it myself. Not everything I wrote yesterday appeals to me today. I am glad to learn what you think on the subject. The next time you are in the neighborhood you must visit us and we'll get this subject threshed out for all time. So here is a handclasp over the miles, and I am, Yours Sincerely, ...

Throughout his book Dale Carnegie tries to practice what he preaches. Rather than arguing his points, he tries to illustrate how to interact more productively with other individuals. He summarizes the chapters in a useful list:

Great literature? Not even close. Much of How to Win Friends & Influence People is repetitive and clumsily written. But there's also plenty of obvious yet oft-ignored wisdom in Carnegie's book — more than enough for me to work on, on myself!

(cf. Optimist Creed (1999-04-16), What Is My Life? (1999-04-30), Personal Energy (2000-12-08), Dear Diary (2001-03-19), Bennett on Life (2000-03-19), ...)

- Saturday, May 17, 2008 at 21:45:14 (EDT)

Extremes of Major Deprivation

The New York Times on Tuesday (2008-05-13) included a "Health" section that offered a variety of good advice, but also gave me a chuckle when I read this paragraph:

"Almost everyone has something they can do in their diet or activity that will impact their risk of heart disease," said Dr. Graham Colditz, adjunct professor of epidemiology at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's not about taking anything to the extremes of major deprivation, extreme marathon running or becoming a vegetarian."

Gee, I don't feel deprived ... guess I'm just a happy extremist!

(... which brings to mind Barry Goldwater's famous 1964 comment, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." ...)

- Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 21:55:42 (EDT)

Ben Franklin on Intellectual Property

In his Autobiography Benjamin Franklin describes his invention of an efficient stove. He declined the chance to patent it and gain huge profits because:

... as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.

(cf. GenomicBookshelves (2001-01-27), PublicDomain (2003-02-13), AntientCommons (2003-11-03), IntellectualHeirs (2005-05-27), ...)

- Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 21:17:46 (EDT)

Ducky Rock Creek Trail

A pair of mallard ducks, male and female, are paddling along Rock Creek Trail in front of me, traversing a mega-puddle (or mini-pond) left by early morning rains. I'm putting in a few extra miles on my way to a low-key footrace this Saturday morning. As I approach the ducks they lumber into flight, then glide around a curve out of view. When I round the corner I discover that they've landed in another small lake. This time they let me trot past, a few feet away from them on the soggy grass at one side of their temporary habitat. Notes on that run, plus other recent jog log entries:

2008-05-01 --- 3+ miles @ ~13 min/mi --- today I take off the afternoon, take Paulette shopping for plants at the nursery, pick up a couple of kids from UM, and decide to try the Purple Line jaunt, the same route as two days ago (cf. Sharp Focus) but this time in the opposite direction. I begin with the fantasy of taking five minutes off the 44 minute time it took me yesterday, but after quite an effort I return home only a little under 43 minutes after my departure. It's a warmer afternoon, but in compensation I know the course now and am wearing light ("Nike Free") slipper-shoes. Plants have almost overgrown the path in several places, significantly more than on Tuesday.

2008-05-03 — 4+ miles @ ~14-15 min/mi — Just after dawn a herd of whitetail deer eyes Caren and me with suspicion. We're jogging around Lake Bernard Frank; I more-or-less remember the route of the "Frozen Slopes" MCRRC race five months ago, with some emphasis on the word less. At about half of the intersections I make a wrong choice; we do a lot of backtracking. Nevertheless, the "Lakeside Trail" forms the majority of our counter-clockwise circuit. Two ladies going clockwise meet us about a mile into our journey, and again roughly at the three mile point. After losing the trail on the east side we leap between stones across a tributary creek and rejoin it, but head the wrong way and a quarter mile later recognize a wooden bridge we crossed early on our journey. We see more deer, probably the same ones who monitored our progress almost an hour earlier. Reversing course again we find a trail back to our starting point. ...

2008-05-04 — 3+ miles @ ~12 min/mi + ~7 miles @ 14-15 min/mi — A tricky tree root trips Christina halfway through this morning's MCRRC "Frozen Slopes" 5k cross-country race. We're running together when she goes down, fortunately in a not-too-rocky segment of the course; her scraped knee and bruised arm should soon heal. We finish, tend her injuries, and then I set off with Caren again down the Cabin John Stream Valley Trail, starting this time at the end of the parking lot. We get lost at Democracy Blvd trying to find the path, first directly across the road from the tennis courts and again on Seven Locks Rd — both times we turn back a little too soon to spy the blazes. But after doing an extra half mile or so we locate the trail and proceed downstream to Bradley Blvd, admire the old mill house, and trot back without all the detours.

2008-05-07 — ~5 miles @ ~10 min/mi (+ ~5 mile walk @ ~ 18 min/mi) — Christina Caravoulias & Pat Maloney invite me to walk the Bethesda Trolley 5 Miler course with them on Wednesday evening, in preparation for Saturday morning's race. I get home early enough to jog the five miles to our rendezvous point via Rock Creek Trail, and for unknown reasons feel quite good. Two middle miles along RCT flow by at 9:33 and 9:40, unusually fast for me (though of course, perhaps it was the coffee I drank earlier in the afternoon, or the level course, or the fact that I knew those measured miles were being timed!). At the Maplewood Alta Vista Community Center, where the MCRRC club race starts/finishes, I sit and take off my shoes to remove some pebbles and let my toes air out while I await Chris and Pat. The walk is pleasant and takes us about 95 minutes, including a brief side excursion when we take a wrong turn. We chat, joke about various running hazards, and see two good-sized rabbits as well as some architecturally interesting homes.

2008-05-10 — 4+ miles @ ~12 min/mi + 5- miles @ ~11 min/mi — My plan is to run on real trails in Rock Creek Park with Mary Ewell, but she wakes up ill, so after we chat at 6am it's time for Plan B-for-Bethesda: the MCRRC Bethesda Trolley Race. Like Wednesday I jog there from home to add some warm-up miles. Unlike Wednesday, today it's raining and I go at a comfortable pace, take all available short cuts, avoid flooded areas as much as feasible, and salute the ducks swimming along Rock Creek Trail. Approaching the start/finish area I spy a medium-sized rabbit on a neighborhood lawn. At 8am Christina Carvoulias and Don Libes and I line up together. We trot along, joking and having fun, with mile splits of 11:04 + 10:51 + 10:21 + 11:34 and then 9:56 for the final fraction, a total of about 53:45 for me.

2008-05-11 — 4 miles @ ~9 min/mi — Early this Mother's Day afternoon I take Paulette to a cello recital at the UM campus. My plan is speedwork on the track, but the gates to Kehoe Field are inexplicably locked, so I alternate "fast" and "slow" between half-mile markers along Paint Branch Trail, starting at milepost 1.5 and proceeding upstream to marker 3.5 and back. My first half mile is 3:33, much too fast for me to sustain. During that leg a big muskrat looks at me and shambles away toward the creek. The remaining outbound legs are 4:52, 3:55, and 5:07. I turn around and do 3:53, 5:15, 3:45, and a 5:06 cooldown. My intention to do a few more intervals fades as a cool drizzle begins and my legs become tired. This speedwork is tough!

(cf. Icy Half Marathon (2008-01-25), Thirteen Eagles (2008-01-28), Seneca Creek Stumble (2008-02-03), Comfortably Numb (2008-03-13), Sunrise Service at Seneca Creek (2008-03-24), Sharp Focus (2008-04-30), ...)

- Monday, May 12, 2008 at 18:07:49 (EDT)

Overcoming Bias

Overcoming Bias is a well-written group blog that son Robin recently introduced me to. One of the technical topics currently under discussion there is a personal favorite of mine, the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. If I'm mildly fixated on Many Worlds as a good theory, Eliezer Yudkowsky has eaten far too much red meat; his rants are quite entertaining. Here's the conclusion of the latest [1]:

The only reason why many-worlds is not universally acknowledged as a direct prediction of physics which requires magic to violate, is that a contingent accident of our Earth's scientific history gave an entrenched academic position to a phlogiston-like theory which had an unobservable faster-than-light magical "collapse" devouring all other worlds. And many academic physicists do not have a mathematical grasp of Occam's Razor, which is the usual method for ridding physics of invisible angels. So when they encounter many-worlds and it conflicts with their (undermined) intuition that only one world exists, they say, "Oh, that's multiplying entities" - which is just flatly wrong as probability theory - and go on about their daily lives.

I am not in academia. I am not constrained to bow and scrape to some senior physicist who hasn't grasped the obvious, but who will be reviewing my journal articles. I need have no fear that I will be rejected for tenure on account of scaring my students with "science-fiction tales of other Earths". If I can't speak plainly, who can?

So let me state then, very clearly, on behalf of any and all physicists out there who dare not say it themselves: Many-worlds wins outright given our current state of evidence. There is no more reason to postulate a single Earth, than there is to postulate that two colliding top quarks would decay in a way that violates conservation of energy. It takes more than an unknown fundamental law; it takes magic.

The debate should already be over. It should have been over fifty years ago. The state of evidence is too lopsided to justify further argument. There is no balance in this issue. There is no rational controversy to teach. The laws of probability theory are laws, not suggestions; there is no flexibility in the best guess given this evidence. Our children will look back at the fact that we were STILL ARGUING about this in the early 21st-century, and correctly deduce that we were nuts.

We have embarrassed our Earth long enough by failing to see the obvious. So for the honor of my Earth, I write as if the existence of many-worlds were an established fact, because it is. The only question now is how long it will take for the people of this world to update.

(cf. Many Worlds Demystified (1999-10-29) and a host of other pages that allude to that concept — click to search for them ...) - ^z

- Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 09:06:30 (EDT)

Hot and Sour

If you were marooned on the proverbial desert island, what food would you crave most? Well, putting aside questions of nutritional completeness and long-term health, my answer would have to be:

Hot & Sour Soup

At its best, hot and sour soup has an absolutely unique combination of flavors, based on pepper oil and vinegar, that can't be beaten. When I eat it, the top of my head starts to sweat — it's that scrumptious!

- Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 21:59:18 (EDT)

Shakespeare versus The Philosophers

Martha Nussbaum is one of my favorite philosophers; so is Colin McGinn. Both write brilliantly; both are often totally wrong; both are real people. Nussbaum runs marathons; McGinn body-surfs and plays video games. It goes without saying that I'm also a devout fan of Shakespeare. So when The New Republic recently offered a review ("Stages of Thought") by Nussbaum of three books on Shakespeare's philosophy, including one by McGinn ... well, who could resist?

But when I started reading I got stuck on the second paragraph, where another of my great addictions — lists — appears. Nussbaum, warming up her critical juices, raises three big hurdles:

To make any contribution worth caring about, a philosopher's study of Shakespeare should do three things. First and most centrally, it should really do philosophy, and not just allude to familiar philosophical ideas and positions. It should pursue tough questions and come up with something interesting and subtle — rather than just connecting Shakespeare to this or that idea from Philosophy 101. A philosopher reading Shakespeare should wonder, and ponder, in a genuinely philosophical way. Second, it should illuminate the world of the plays, attending closely enough to language and to texture that the interpretation changes the way we see the work, rather than just uses the work as grist for some argumentative mill. And finally, such a study should offer some account of why philosophical thinking needs to turn to Shakespeare's plays, or to works like them. Why must the philosopher care about these plays? Do they supply to thought something that a straightforward piece of philosophical prose cannot supply, and if so, what?

Alas, Nussbaum feels that McGinn falls short. Is she wrong? Append yet another book (Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays) to my far-too-long queue ...

(cf. Universal Flourishing (2001-12-25), Upheavals of Thought (2002-06-29), Upheavals of Thought Revisited (2002-12-13), Colin McGinn (2003-10-30), Man of Mystery (2004-08-12), Inner Philosopher (2006-11-17), ...)

- Thursday, May 08, 2008 at 21:19:52 (EDT)

Peter Neumann

Another small world encounter: several years ago my family was invited to dinner at our friends' home a half mile up the street. We originally met them ca. 1990 via my chance conversation with another patient parent at a childrens' chess tournament in downtown DC — I mentioned that we were seeking a piano teacher, and an opponent's mother told me about her kids' lessons. Although her family lived far away they were going to an instructor in my neighborhood. So began a relationship, first as piano/harpsichord students, later as friends, for the past two decades.

Anyway, also visiting our friends that evening was Peter Neumann, a semi-celebrity in the world of computer science. Peter is most known for the RISKS forum, an online publication/scrapbook concerning the risks of computers in society. But for us, or at least for me, his real claim to fame occurred before that dinner when my son Robin played some ragtime piano for the visitor. As seems to always happen with young performers, Robin was blasting out a Scott Joplin piece as fast as he could tickle the ivories, or rather, slightly faster than he could play it accurately. Neumann, a musician himself, stopped my son and told him that piano rags must be played slowly! Don't ask me why, but it stuck in my mind ...

- Wednesday, May 07, 2008 at 06:14:47 (EDT)

Meaning of "Blog"

The true origin of the word "blog": it's not an abbreviation of "web log" at all. Rather, it's simply a linguistically evolved version of the century-old word bloviate, meaning "to speak verbosely or windily"!

(many thanks to Angus Phillips (2007-11-26) whose use of "bloviating" in a recent essay and led me to this insight ... )

- Monday, May 05, 2008 at 19:08:24 (EDT)

Mystery Men

The 1999 movie Mystery Men (written by Bob Burden and Neil Cuthbert) is a clever, funny, well-made parody of the superhero genre that also stands alone. Among dozens of quotable lines that have become catchphrases around our household, some samples:

And, in reference to a squeeze toy that, sort of, defuses an escalating situation: "That little sucker just saved your life."

- Sunday, May 04, 2008 at 05:59:19 (EDT)

Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth, now 70 years old, is one of the founding fathers of modern computer science; his The Art of Computer Programming series somehow manages to combine rigor and readability, deep analysis and nerdy humor. I first picked up a volume of TAoCP in 1975 — literally picked it up, since I was at the time shelving books in the Rice University's Fondren Library to help pay for my undergraduate education. (cf. CollegeCollage2) Someone had taken it out of its place and left it on a table, and in the course of putting it back I read a wee bit of it, and was immediately hooked.

Son Merle recently sent me a link to an interview with Donald Knuth, conducted by Andrew Binstock for InformIT, an information technology educational publisher. It's a fascinating conversation that raises excellent questions about the current tidal wave of parallel computer architectures. It also reminded me of Knuth's "Literate Programming" philosophy, which Knuth declares to be one of the most important things he has done, as well as something of a failure. As he describes it:

Jon Bentley probably hit the nail on the head when he once was asked why literate programming hasn't taken the whole world by storm. He observed that a small percentage of the world's population is good at programming, and a small percentage is good at writing; apparently I am asking everybody to be in both subsets.

Donald Knuth's self-effacing modesty is also striking, as when he observes:

... Literate programming is what you need to rise above the ordinary level of achievement. But I don't believe in forcing ideas on anybody. If literate programming isn't your style, please forget it and do what you like. If nobody likes it but me, let it die.

- Saturday, May 03, 2008 at 04:49:46 (EDT)

Steely Eyed Missile Man

Apollo 13 is an exceptional movie, full of nerdy heroism and high-tension problem-solving. Not long ago when I rewatched it one line suddenly caught my ear. An engineer praises another with the words, "You, Sir, are a steely-eyed missile man!" The term appears in the book that was the basis of the movie, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. From Chapter 6:

Anyone who had been working at the Manned Spacecraft Center for even a few weeks quickly learned that John Aaron was the stuff of folk songs. Among the men in the Canaveral blockhouse and the Houston control room, there was no greater tribute a controller could be paid than to describe him, in the rough poetry of the rocketry community, as a "steely-eyed missile man." There weren't many steely-eyed missile men in the NASA family. Von Braun was certainly one, Kraft was certainly one, Kranz was probably one too. John Aaron, a twenty-seven-year-old wunderkind from Oklahoma, had recently become one as well.

What delightful "rough poetry"!

- Thursday, May 01, 2008 at 20:49:23 (EDT)

Sharp Focus

"Pike's Peek" is a play on words. It's also an annual Sunday morning scamper down Rockville Pike, a major suburban Maryland street that on weekdays is clogged with automotive traffic. I ran it once, in 2002 (see Soggy Jog). This year on 27 April I'm a volunteer race official for the Montgomery County Road Runners Club that puts on the event. Before dawn I'm at the finish line, taking photographs and helping set up the fences and banners and chairs. Upon telephoned signal we start the big display clocks. Less than half an hour later the leaders appear, blasting out 10 km at a sub-5 minute/mile pace.

The trickle soon grows into a flood, and after a few thousand runners have passed I'm startled to see friend Mary Ewell appear in my camera's viewfinder. Soon after comes comrade Christine Caravoulias. After they've caught their breath we visit, chat, and make plans for future runs. At home I scan through more than a thousand photos and upload the majority of them to the MCRRC photo server. Most are of little interest except to the runners depicted in them; a few, however, catch my eye as having some small artistic merit. I must study them and see what happened right in those rare cases. The key element, I think is sharp focus — of the light on the sensor, and of the subject on the moment.

Meanwhile, some recent recovery excursions since the Bull Run Run 2008 a fortnight ago:

(cf. Massanutten Mountain South Training Run (2008-01-22), Icy Half Marathon (2008-01-25), Thirteen Eagles (2008-01-28), Seneca Creek Stumble (2008-02-03), Comfortably Numb (2008-03-13), Sunrise Service at Seneca Creek (2008-03-24), ...)

- Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 22:37:38 (EDT)

Color of Water

Good biographies let you peek into another person's life. The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (1996) is a good biography, full of love if not always rational, well-written if not always brilliant. McBride's mother was a deeply flawed person; some of what she did in raising her dozen kids could well be viewed today as child abuse. The family survived only via vast infusions of charity from family, friends, strangers, and society.

Chapter 8 ("Brothers and Sisters") offers a glimpse of their home. It begins:

Mommy's house was orchestrated chaos and as the eighth of twelve children, I was lost in the sauce, so to speak. I was neither the prettiest, nor the youngest, nor the brightest. In a house where there was little money and little food, your power was derived from who you could order around. I was what Mommy called a "Little Kid," one of five young'uns, microscopic dots on the power grid of the household, thus fit to be tied, tortured, tickled, tormented, ignored, and commanded to suffer all sorts of indignities at the hands of the "Big Kids," who didn't have to go to bed early, didn't believe in the tooth fairy, and were appointed denizens of power by Mommy, who of course wielded ultimate power.

My brothers and sisters were my best friends, but when it came to food, they were my enemies. There were so many of us we were constantly hungry, scavenging for food in the empty refrigerator and cabinets. We would hide food from one another, squirreling away a precious grilled cheese or fried bologna sandwich, but the hiding places were known to all and foraged by all and the precious commodity was usually discovered and devoured before it got cold. Entire plots were hatched around swiping food, complete with double-crossing, backstabbing, intrigue, outright robbery, and gobbled evidence. Back in the projects in Red Hook, before we moved to Queens, Mommy would disappear in the morning and return later with huge cans of peanut butter which some benevolent agency had distributed from some basement area in the housing projects. We'd gather around the cans, open them, and spoon up the peanut butter like soup, giggling as our mouths stuck closed with the gooey stuff. When Mommy left for work, we dipped white bread in syrup for lunch, or ate brown sugar raw out of the box, which was a good hunger killer. We had a toaster that shocked you every time you touched it; we called our toast shocktoast and we got shocked so much our hair stood on end like Buckwheat's. Ma often lamented the fact that she could not afford to buy us fruit, sometimes for weeks at a time, but we didn't mind. We spent every penny we had on junk food. "If you eat that stuff your teeth will drop out, " Mommy warned. We ignored her. "If you chew gum and swallow it, your behind will close up," she said. We listened and never swallowed gum. We learned to eat standing up, sitting down, lying down, and half asleep, because there were never enough places at the table for everyone to sit, and there was always a mad scramble for Ma's purse when she showed up at two A.M. from work. The cafeteria at Chase Manhattan Bank where she worked served dinner to the employees for free, so she would load up with bologna sandwiches, cheese, cakes, whatever she could pillage, and bring it home for the hordes to devour. If you were the first to grab the purse when she got home, you ate. If you missed it, well, sleep tight.

The food she brought from work was delicious, particularly when compared to the food she cooked. Mommy could not cook to save her life. Her grits tasted like sand and butter, with big lumps inside that caught in your teeth and stuck in your gums. Her pancakes had white goo and egg shells in them. Her stew would send my little brother Henry upstairs in disgust. "Prison stew," he'd sniff, coming back a few minutes later to help himself before the masses devoured it. She had little time to cook anyway. When she got home from work she was exhausted. We'd come downstairs in the morning to find her still dressed and fast asleep at the kitchen table, her head resting on the pages of someone's homework, a cold cup of coffee next to her sleeping head. Her housework rivaled her cooking. "I'm the worst housekeeper I've ever seen," she declared, and that was no lie. Our house looked like a hurricane hit it. Books, papers, shoes, football helmets, baseball bats, dolls, trucks, bicycles, musical instruments, lay everywhere and were used by everyone. All the boys slept in one room, girls slept in another but the labels "boys' room" and "girls' room" meant nothing. We snuck into each other's rooms by night to trade secrets, argue, commiserate, spy, and continue chess games and monopoly games that had begun days earlier. Four of us played the same clarinet, handing it off to one another in the hallway at school like halfbacks on a football field. Same with coats, hats, sneakers, clean socks, and gym uniforms. One washcloth was used by all. We all swore it belonged to us personally. ...

Ruth (Rachel Deborah) Shilsky McBride Jordan drove her children (at times violently) to become educated and self-reliant in a way that she herself never managed to achieve. James McBride credits her with the accomplishment, and mentions religion in a supporting rôle. The real engine of their success was, however, more likely the social welfare system — almost invisible in this book — that predominantly fed and housed and clothed and schooled her family. The success enjoyed now by the next generation of McBrides and Jordans speaks well for their mother, but it speaks better for the civilization that really brought them up.

- Monday, April 28, 2008 at 21:25:17 (EDT)

Normal Distribution

A Gaussian, aka normal distribution or bell curve, is what most statistical averages converge toward. The "Square Root of N" rule-of-thumb says that if you toss 100 coins you'll get half heads, plus or minus 10 or so (since 10 = √100). Toss a million coins and you can expect half a million heads, plus or minus maybe 1,000 (= √1,000,000). Getting a little more precise: the standard deviation σ of N events, each of which is 50% likely, is half the square root of N. In general for probability p it's √(N * p * (1-p)).

How often does something happen more than a few standard deviations away from expectations? Worth remembering are the first few values: 68% of the time the result is within 1σ, 95% of the time it's within 2σ, and 99.7% of the time it's within 3σ. So for a thousand coins, or in a typical polling sample of a thousand evenly-split voters, about two-thirds of the time the result is within ~15 of the halfway point, 95% of the time it's within ~30 (= √N), and 99.7% of the time it's within ~45. The "Square Root of N" is thus a 95% guideline.

Beyond a few σ it's easier to look at how infrequently things happen — how often something occurs outside the window of that many sigma:

outside 3 * 10-15 * 10-23 * 10-36 * 10-56 * 10-72 * 10-93 * 10-121 * 10-152 * 10-19

Events therefore fall within 3σ more than "two nines" (0.99+ of the time), 4σ more than "four nines" (0.9999+), 5σ more than "six nines" (0.999999+), and 6σ more than "eight nines" (0.99999999+). (Then the pattern in the exponents breaks down: rare events are even rarer than that.) Note also that "six sigma", a popular quality-control mantra in some industrial circles, isn't the usually cited value of 3.4 failures per million; it's more like a few chances per billion. But "4.5 sigma" doesn't have the alliterative ring to it that sells management advice books!

(cf. Human Diffusion (2000-01-19), Square Root of Baseball (2005-05-13), ...)

- Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 20:15:35 (EDT)

Mostly Sane

Most people are basically sane. For the majority of their lives, they support themselves and interact peacefully with others. Their beliefs track reasonably well with reality. They make a net positive contribution to society.

Or so I used to think; now I'm less sure. There are so many folks nowadays, it seems, who can't or won't take care of themselves, who break down when things don't go precisely as they wish, and who can't make a decision (and who won't admit that not-deciding is often a bad implicit decision).

But maybe it's not just a phenomenon of post-post-industrial civilization; maybe it has always been this way. The crazy cousin who lives in the attic ... the perpetual drifter ... the lazy kid who won't help in the fields, who wanders off rather than fetch water or participate in the hunt ....

My other optimistic belief in human nature remains solid: most people are basically good. At least, I hope so!

- Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 21:20:38 (EDT)

Joan Benoit Samuelson on the Marathon

Earlier this week Joan Benoit Samuelson achieved a personal goal: she ran a marathon (the US Olympic Team trials) in under 2 hours 50 minutes after her 50th birthday. She says it may not be her last marathon, but it may be her last hard-run competitive one. Many years ago in her autobiography Running Tide she observed, in Chapter 8:

[Hitting the wall] taught me a lesson. Two lessons, in fact: you cannot go into a marathon unprepared, and anything can happen in such a long race.

The second lesson is one you learn at your peril, because once you're afraid of the marathon you have to develop ways of channeling the fear. I feel about marathons the way my parents taught me to feel about the ocean: it is a mighty thing and very beautiful, but don't underestimate its capacity to hurt you. ...

- Tuesday, April 22, 2008 at 22:24:25 (EDT)

For back issues of the ^zhurnal see Volumes v.01 (April-May 1999), v.02 (May-July 1999), v.03 (July-September 1999), v.04 (September-November 1999), v.05 (November 1999 - January 2000), v.06 (January-March 2000), v.07 (March-May 2000), v.08 (May-June 2000), v.09 (June-July 2000), v.10 (August-October 2000), v.11 (October-December 2000), v.12 (December 2000 - February 2001), v.13 (February-April 2001), v.14 (April-June 2001), 0.15 (June-August 2001), 0.16 (August-September 2001), 0.17 (September-November 2001), 0.18 (November-December 2001), 0.19 (December 2001 - February 2002), 0.20 (February-April 2002), 0.21 (April-May 2002), 0.22 (May-July 2002), 0.23 (July-September 2002), 0.24 (September-October 2002), 0.25 (October-November 2002), 0.26 (November 2002 - January 2003), 0.27 (January-February 2003), 0.28 (February-April 2003), 0.29 (April-June 2003), 0.30 (June-July 2003), 0.31 (July-September 2003), 0.32 (September-October 2003), 0.33 (October-November 2003), 0.34 (November 2003 - January 2004), 0.35 (January-February 2004), 0.36 (February-March 2004), 0.37 (March-April 2004), 0.38 (April-June 2004), 0.39 (June-July 2004), 0.40 (July-August 2004), 0.41 (August-September 2004), 0.42 (September-November 2004), 0.43 (November-December 2004), 0.44 (December 2004 - February 2005), 0.45 (February-March 2005), 0.46 (March-May 2005), 0.47 (May-June 2005), 0.48 (June-August 2005), 0.49 (August-September 2005), 0.50 (September-November 2005), 0.51 (November 2005 - January 2006), 0.52 (January-February 2006), 0.53 (February-April 2006), 0.54 (April-June 2006), 0.55 (June-July 2006), 0.56 (July-September 2006), 0.57 (September-November 2006), 0.58 (November-December 2006), 0.59 (December 2006 - February 2007), 0.60 (February-May 2007), 0.61 (April-May 2007), 0.62 (May-July 2007), 0.63 (July-September 2007), 0.64 (September-November 2007), 0.65 (November 2007 - January 2008), 0.66 (January-March 2008), 0.67 (March-April 2008), 0.68 (April-June 2008), 0.69 (July-August 2008), 0.70 (August-September 2008), 0.71 (September-October 2008), 0.72 (October-November 2008), ... Current Volume. Send comments and suggestions to z (at) his.com. Thank you! (Copyright © 1999-2008 by Mark Zimmermann.)