Thursday, October 28, 2004

From Russia With Love

In 1983, as a 19 year-old college student, i traveled to the Soviet Union. I was a Russian language student, and i was also intensely curious about this part of the world, so different from my own. I went with a group of students and professors from the University of Arizona, where i was a chemistry major. In retrospect i'm surprised that i went. It was my first trip overseas, and i'd been conditioned to think of the Soviet Union as an unfriendly and dangerous place. I suppose it was part of a contrarian attitude that i never quite outgrew.

We flew from New York to Helsinki, Finland. We spent a night in Helsinki and i walked around the city. I remember it better than i probably should after 20 years. Helsinki might not be Paris, but to me it was amazing. I changed money, i shopped, i had a beer in a cafe, i listened to a man play violin in a chapel. I experienced jet lag, and the late onset of evening that happens in far-north cities.

From Helsinki we flew to Moscow via Aeroflot. We spent a week in Moscow, and then took a train across the country to Irkutsk, in Siberia. After a few days there we flew to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and then we traveled to Samarkand. From Samarkand we flew to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). From there we flew back through Finland and to New York.

Some day i hope to document the trip in more detail, but recently i rediscovered some of the pictures that i took on the trip, and i wanted to post some of them here.

This is a picture from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). In the background is one of the infamous Soviet food lines, but i like this picture because of the woman in the foreground. There's something powerful about that face. The white streak in the middle is a reflection from the bus window from which i took the picture.

This is a picture of Samarkand. I think i took it from the balcony of the hotel. If i remember correctly, the buildings in the center with the blue domes are mosques and other buildings that were erected during the time of Tamerlane.

This is Lake Baikal in Irkutsk. Baikal is supposed to be the deepest lake on the planet. Oddly enough, i liked Siberia. Although it was May, it snowed; so i doubt that i would have like Siberia much during the really cold months.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Common Ground

My political awareness began with Watergate, so this is the 8th presidential election that i've followed (starting with Carter/Ford). This seems like the most contentious and angry so far, though it's more likely that i've just developed a greater intolerance for contention and anger than i had when i was younger. Still, i think there are certain things that almost all Americans agree on.

1) We don't want to be told what to do.

No, i've not taken a poll, but i'm convinced that virtually all Americans feel this way. Note that i didn't say that i think we have a basic problem with telling other people what to do, so long as the institution/organization/entity dictating correct behavior more or less agrees with our own beliefs. That's unfortunate. Democracy without sympathy for opposing viewpoints is, i think, classic tyranny of the majority. This attitude is not exclusive to any political perch. In my view, both socialism (i.e., the government tells you what to do), and theocracy (i.e., God's representatives tell you what to do) are fundamentally anti-American, even if they happen to make society more stable or more safe.

2) We value privacy and freedom over safety.

Many people will probably disagree with this given the post 9/11, Patriot Act world we live in. But i was listening to radio reports from Iraq recently and i was struck by how many Iraqis claimed that they were happier in Saddam's Iraq rather than in the obviously unsafe and unstable country they now inhabit. I can't really criticize this viewpoint-- if my children's lives were in daily danger i'd be willing to make many compromises also. But i suspect that many Americans would claim that they'd rather fight than submit to an invasive, totalitarian government. I'm less convinced that so many would actually fight for it, but i'm beginning to realize how much these are Western values rather than fundamentally human values.

3) We're all convinced that people who disagree with us are misinformed.

I can't even count the number of times during this election year that i've heard somebody on radio or TV claiming that they are dismayed by the fact that some other party (with whom they disagree) has clearly not bothered to find and assess the facts. These other people do not attempt to understand the issues but instead are swayed by celebrity endorsements or religious dogma or television pundits. The other people are often a) young, and therefore incapable of seeing the full historical context of the issues, or b) members of special interest groups that reflexively vote the group-think line, c) fanatics, incapable of reason, or d) idiots.

My crackpot theory is that we think this way now because we don't have to ever consider anyone else's viewpoint. Regardless of your personal positions there's probably a news source out there that will confirm all of your prejudices. There was a good article on the humor website [not for kids or the weak] about the elections that concludes with the phrase "Be willing to make yourself mad". I think that's great advice, though i might have rather sad "Be willing to make yourself angry". Chances are that if you really attempt to absorb information from opposing sides you'll have no problem driving yourself mad.

4) We want the best possible world for the next generation.

It's impossible to explain to people without kids how a parent feels about their children. The way i generally put it is this: i'd be willing to die for my wife, but i'd be willing to kill for my children. Put another way, the love i feel for my children is completely irrational. There's no "good of the many" calculus that goes on in your brain with regard to the well-being of your kids. If i knew that i had the power to blink an entire civilization out of existence, and that doing so would save my kids, i'd do it without hesitation.

If that sounds nuts, you probably don't have kids. The positive thing about this is that in principle it leads a parent to want to cultivate a world that is both safe and abundant in opportunities. The down side is that when the system breaks, it breaks bad. Threatening or harming the children of one culture by another culture will lead to generations of hatred.

OK, so this is a long-winded way to advocate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But, let's face it: if we can't have these, then there was no point in my ancestors fleeing all of the best countries in Europe.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

In Other News, Hell Freezes Over

Boston wins game 7 by a score of 10-3 to complete possibly the greatest comeback in the history of sports. OK, so i live nowhere near Boston, nor have i ever. I have no legitimate reason to cheer for the Red Sox except that i hate the Yankees. And my wife was born in Boston, so i have some sincere affection for the city. But honestly, even if you accept the rule that everybody gets a "backup" team to root for, mine would be the Cubs.

But for some reason, the BoSox have been my favorite AL team for as long as i can remember. I think i can trace this back to when i was nine years old. I had broken my arm in an ATV accident at the family farm and i had a cast on my left arm for 3 months. Around that same time Carlton Fisk also had a cast for some injury. Not long before i was supposed to get my cast off, there was a story in the newspaper about how Fisk had gone in to get his cast removed and the doctor accidentally cut through the cast and into Fisk's arm. Fisk was fine; i on the other hand was traumatized. My own cast removal went fine, but i was terrified for the whole procedure.

A couple of years later i was a rabid fan of the Big Red Machine (Cincinatti was the surrogate team for most Hoosiers back then). But i was also a Carlton Fisk fan so the 1975 World Series presented a bit of a dilemma. I remember leaning to the right so as to contribute my own body english to Fisk's arm waving when he hit his famous home run in game 6. I felt a bit guilty that Boston had won the game and i felt relieved when the Reds won game 7.

Anyway, i hope this is Boston's year. I think their comeback signals the official end of the curse (maybe sending Nomar to the Cubs had some sort of reversal effect on the Bambino curse). Good luck Sox.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Global Warming and Internet Ping-Pong

Yesterday i saw a pointer in Andrew Sullivan's blog to an article at Technology Review about evidence that the now-famous hockey stick graph that appears to show a consistent warming trend during the 20th century was produced through dubious statistical means (basically, an incorrect usage of principal component analysis). The Technology Review article, written by McArthur fellow Richard Muller, discusses information published by a couple of guys named McIntyre and McKitrick. Muller apparently considers their results to be definitive evidence that the the hockeystick diagram is bogus. However, the CrookedTimber blog has a discussion of analysis done by an Australian computer scientist Tim Lambert on a subsequent paper by McKitrick and Pat Michaels that suggest McKitrick maybe sort-of doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.

So after bouncing around between several different sites, most of which seem fairly credible, i not only don't know what the truth is, i'm probably more confused than when i started. The only option left would be to go to the original sources and try to understand the analyses performed and then read the various accounts of the mistakes made, etc. I've made two completely unrelated conclusions from this little odyssey. First, the Internet+Google might equal something amazing, but we've got a long way to go before it can be used to support decisions. Second, i conclude that global warming opponents will be able to use this confusion to much greater effect than environmentalists.

Monday, October 18, 2004


Yesterday it rained in San Diego for the first time in 6 months. Yes, you read that right. Six months. I think human beings are wired such that occasional rain has a calming, reassuring effect. So, after 6 months of drought, the rain was most welcome. More in the forecast today through Wednesday. Yippee!

Friday, October 15, 2004


I'm an introvert. Supposedly, about a third of the population could be characterized as introverts. Extroverts, i think, conflate introversion with shyness; but i believe this is incorrect. My distinction would be this: a shy person is somebody who desperately wants to be social but for some reason cannot, while an introvert is somebody who is capable of being social, but doesn't want to be. For instance, i have no problem speaking in front of crowds, or even striking up a conversation with a stranger. I'm married and i have kids, so i could make the case that i'm not a social misfit. But in general i'd rather have root canal than engage in small-talk. Large parties with unfamiliar people are what i imagine hell will be like.

Often i regard my introversion as a sort of mild disability, but there are some advantages. First is that i have no problem with being alone for long periods of time, which makes it easier to telecommute and to keep myself entertained (i know extroverts who would regard going to a movie alone as pathetic or even pathological, but i actually prefer it). Another advantage is the well-known capacity of the introverted to focus. I can completely shut out the world around me for hours at a time to concentrate on a problem. And like most introverts i have a small circle of very good friends, with whom i enjoy spending time.

The disadvantages are considerable though, primarily because our society prefers the extrovert. An introvert might be considered aloof or even rude because it's so difficult to exchange the standard pleasantries, or to engage in yet another conversation about weather, schools, kids, etc. Extroverts are perceived as better leaders, and they may well be. The classic networking opportunities are precisely the sort of thing that an introvert will avoid. Introverts often have trouble "thinking on their feet" also, because of the strong compulsion to contemplate before speaking or acting. Some researchers have even speculated that this might be an aspect of brain chemistry.

It's possible to succeed as an introvert (Warren Buffet is said to be an introvert, for example), but i hope that my kids don't inherit this trait. Being an introvert is a bit like what an extrovert might feel like in a foreign country where he or she doesn't speak the language (although oddly enough i've found that i get along well in European countries because as an introvert i don't seem as "American" to most Europeans). You can get through the day fine-- you can meet people, get from place to place, eat in restaurants, go to the theater, etc. But everything is just a bit harder than it needs to be.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Ten Commandments of Framework Development

One for the geeks here. I build programs using primarily the Java programming language and related tools. Java's a good thing in my opinion, though it's recently been declared as uncool by Paul Graham, one of my favorite writers on software matters (for the uninitiated, yes there are good writers who write about software). However, one of the problems with the Java universe these days is that there's just too much. Too many tools, too many application servers, too many APIs, and way, way too many frameworks.

So what is a framework? A framework, as the name implies, is basically a set of software components that allow you to build other software on top of it. A framework generally adheres to a certain architectural style, and to an extent enforces that architectural style as a matter of principle. Things that could qualify as frameworks range from Microsoft's Foundation Classes (MFC), Enterprise Java Beans (EJB), or the Jakarta Struts framework for Web UIs.

Frameworks are usually a good thing. They promote good practices and lead to code that's more maintainable, scalable, yadda-yadda-yadda. But lately in the Java world there's been an explosion of new frameworks. In my view this is bad for a couple of reasons. One is that frameworks are necessarily a bit complex and large, so there are only so many that you can master. There's probably an argument to be made that the best frameworks will win out in a pseudo-evolutionary process where they are adopted by the most,best developers. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case. The frameworks that tend to survive are those that show up early and solve a problem more-or-less, so new frameworks that solve the same problem have to be really, really good to justify the cost of developer training time and more expensive maintenance (i think i could argue convincingly that a framework's worth is measured by the number of applications built on it).

The second problem with too many frameworks is that few of them seem to get the attention they deserve to make subsequent generations better. Though few Java programmers would agree with me, i think that Microsoft actually has an advantage with their .NET framework in this respect because there is only one framework (massive though it may be). This ignores the economics and other arguments regarding open vs. proprietary systems; but i sincerely believe that .NET will win the hearts of application programmers if things stay the way they are.

So anyway, not long ago in a forum on the TheServerSide, i jotted down what i facetiously called the Ten Commandments for Framework Developers. A colleague thought that they were moderately interesting, so i repeat them here with no explication. Keep in mind that these are supposed to be fun; i don't really think they should dictate anyone's decisions. The only reason you need to build a framework is that you want to build a framework.

  1. A Framework must solve a real problem.
  2. A Framework must solve a significant problem.
  3. A Framework must have a consistent architecture.
  4. A Framework must make a developer's life easier.
  5. A Framework must not make a maintainer's life harder.
  6. A Framework must be thoroughly documented.
  7. A Framework must not deviate from the programming paradigm of the language for which it's intended.
  8. A Framework should be independent of other frameworks.
  9. A Framework should be at least slightly novel.
  10. A Framework should not mix concerns (e.g., no database code in a UI framework).

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Reality of Failure

OK, so, long story short I ran a bad race in Chicago and didn't make my goal of qualifying for Boston. I bonked badly over the last few miles again, and came in around 3:25. Lesson learned: i haven't figure out how to get through the last 10K yet.

I flew out of San Diego on Friday to Indianapolis, where my parents picked me up and drove me to my sister's house in Lafayette. On Saturday, my dad and my brother-in-law Mark took me up to Chicago, so that we could pick up my packet and i could check in to my hotel.

My habit of trying to turn mundane events into more of an adventure than they should be might have backfired this time. I got around to finding a hotel a bit late, so i ended up getting a room at the Chinatown Hotel in Chicago's Chinatown, so that i could be relatively close to Grant Park. I'd love to tell you that this is a hidden gem of a hotel; and who knows, maybe it will be some day when it's finished. I didn't expect to sleep much anyway, so the street noise was only a minor nuisance. Unfortunately, i was avoiding "interesting" food because of the marathon so i couldn't try any of the numerous restaurants in the neighborhood, much to my disappointment.

I checked out of the hotel a bit before 6am and started walking east on Cermak, then north on Michigan Avenue toward Grant Park. Downtown Chicago in the dark is less scary than you might imagine, though it appears that Chicago has some fairly sizeable rats. Took me only about 20 minutes to get to the marathon start area on Columbus Avenue, so i walked over to Michigan Ave. and bought a blueberry muffin and some water.

I did my normal pre-race ritual, a bit of walking around, a bit of stretching, did some Tai Chi, applied my BodyGlide, packed up my sweats and dropped them off at gear check. It was in the high 40s-low 50s by start time and there was a bit of wind off the lake. As the start approached the staging areas got pretty crowded. Even when you're near the front it's hard to be calm in a crowd of 40,000 people.

It took about 3 minutes after the gun to reach the start line. I felt OK at first except for some pain in my right foot, which i think is plantar fasciitis; but it was impossible to get into a rhythm. I spent the first few miles darting around people, accelerating and slowing, moving right and left. I didn't even bother to check pace until about mile 4, when i found that i'd managed almost exactly 7:30 pace. So far, so good.

It spread out a little after that, but it was still far and away the biggest crowd i've ever run in. It was cool to have spectators lined up along the streets for the entire run. That's the real appeal of the big marathons. I tried to stay around 7:30 pace. My strategy going into the race was to run 1:38 for the first half and then try to run the second half in 1:37. In June at the Rock 'n' Roll marathon i'd run under 1:35 for the first half and i'd assumed that this slightly-too-fast early pace had contributed to my decline at the end of the race. So when i hit the half-way point at about 1:37.40, i was happy.

On the other hand, i was already beginning to feel some tightness in my quads and a strange tightness across the bottom of my abdominal muscles. In June, i'd felt really good at halfway and had run very comfortably between 13-20 miles before i started to cramp up. I made sure to get Gatorade and water at every stop, but i was having trouble maintaining pace.

Still, i stayed on pace until about miles 21. I looked at my watch and realized i needed to run 5 miles in 40 minutes to make it under 3:20. Normally, this would be a casual jog, but i was already beginning to fade. By mile 23 my quads were so tight that i could only take short choppy steps. I decided to make one last push, so i timed myself between miles 23 and 24 running as hard as i could manage. An 8:50 mile. At that point, i knew i couldn't make it, and it took every bit of strength that i had not to simply stop. I hobbled toward the finish line, and finally straggled across, but i don't think i'll ever be more disappointed to simply finish a marathon.

After running a 1:30 half in August, i really thought that a 3:20 marathon was in the bag. So, was it worth it? I don't know yet. I could have saved a lot of money and time by staying home and running the Long Beach marathon. But then if i'd missed the time i'd have to wonder if i could have done better on a faster course. Plus, it was fun to be in Chicago and to see my family. I can't factor in how the travel, or irregular eating, or irregular sleeping might have contributed to my fatigue; but i'm inclined to think that it was more a training deficiency than anything to do with the circumstances. I'll probably not try to qualify for Boston again this year-- i feel like i need some time to let my nagging injuries heal and get back to the point where running is fun again.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Robinson on Mars

I've been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Blue Mars, the third book in the Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy. It's been several years since i read the first two books, and i'd forgotten how exceptional this series is.

I'm not a big fan of science fiction in general; a good percentage of the genre spends so much time on elaborate plots and scientific extrapolations that it doesn't have time for character. Robinson spends plenty of time speculating about near future developments in technology and society, in fact the detail and the obvious research that went into it is incredible. But he's also managed to create interesting characters whose behavior is sometimes all too human (whether Terran or Martian-- my personal favorite is Sax Russell, the terraforming genius who's still slightly obtuse with regard to the emotions of people). I'm constantly impressed by how plausible his fictional milieu seems, even though it spans multiple planets by the third book.

Plus which, the dude can write. I came across this passage today, describing late 22nd century earth, which now has a population of 18 billion:

Steaming, clotted, infectious, a human anthill stuck with a stick; the panic pullulation ongoing in the dreadful mash of history; the hypermalthusian nightmare at its worst; hot, humid, and heavy; and yet still, or perhaps because of all that, a great place to visit.
Definitely one of those rare series of books that you wish could continue indefinitely.

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Option of Failure

I run marathons. I can say this because i've run two marathons and i'm about to run my third. It's a strange thing to do, especially when there's no money and little glory in finishing back in the pack, often an hour or more behind the winners. I can't adequately explain why i ran the first two, or why i'm flying to Chicago this weekend to do it again.

But i can identify one aspect of long-distance running that appeals to me. The goals and the means of achieving them are pretty clear. I know roughly how much i need to train and at what pace so that i can run a certain time in the race. I either get off the sofa and do the training or i don't. I know what i need to eat to perform the best, what i need to do to prevent injury, and what sorts of equipment will serve me best. For somebody like me who's managed to reach 40 without any firm idea of what i want to do when i grow up, this kind of certainty can be very reassuring.

There's an element of luck involved; you have to avoid getting sick, not turn your ankle stepping off a curb, not have a job with random meetings scheduled over your training times, get decent weather on race day. But beyond that it's fairly simple. No politics, no personality conflicts, no arbitrary decisions made by other people that put you at a disadvantage. You do the work, you get the benefit.

But, and this is the important part, you can still fail. A marathon is interesting because it's a real challenge. You might not be able to do it at all. You might finish, but not meet your goal. In my first two marathons i finished in 3:39 and 3:26, respectable times for somebody my age. But i'd hoped to run 3:30 in the first and 3:20 in the second, so in a completely unambiguous way i failed. I'm proud of the fact that i finished in both cases despite some considerable pain over the last few miles, but nonetheless i still failed.

The important thing i've learned from this is that failure is not necessarily bad (although it obviously can be, the phrase "his chute failed to open" comes to mind). This might seem like a startlingly banal observation from somebody my age, but no amount of "try,try again" platitudes can replace an individual experience. It's way easy to rationalize failures in many parts of one's life, but something like a marathon teaches you that it's not important why you failed. You either achieve what you wanted to achieve, or you don't and you decide what to do about it.

So, i'm going to Chicago this weekend to try to run 3:20 or better (3:15 i hope), so that i can qualify for the Boston Marathon. I'm prepared for it and i'm convinced that i can do it. But if i don't, then i'll probably get to try again. Success is great, success is what we all want; but for some reason at this stage in my life i've come to appreciate more what i can learn from the option of failure.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Red State, Blue State

I live in a blue state, but in a very red part of a blue state, which doesn't mean that it's populated by communists but rather by conservatives. My personal leanings are more toward the blue so i tend to avoid discussions of any color with my mostly red neighbors. Mixing red and blue makes magenta, which is the liberal elitist's way of saying purple. I suppose it must be the undecided folk who are purple.

The whole red state/blue state silliness didn't make much sense to me until i remembered that you learn your primary colors in pre-school and kindergarten. I also noticed that whenever people refer to the red state/blue state concept they always list red first, blue second, just like in "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish". So, anyway, i don't think this idea was arbitrary at all, but instead a deliberate attempt to explain the electoral college at the level of a Dr. Seuss beginning reader book.

So i figure that the various news organizations that use these simplifications think we're just as stupid as we think they are. I bet this also explains the popularity of Bill O'Reilly, since he sounds just like my elementary school principal. Mostly likely the election results in November will not be expressed in terms of numbers of popular or electoral votes, or even in percentages. I expect them to use pictograms of beachballs. "President Bush has this many beachballs, and Mr. Kerry has this many beachballs. Can you tell who has the most beachballs?". Unfortunately, Florida will still have trouble tallying the votes/beachballs and the election outcome will be entrusted to the judges on American Idol, just like the constitution mandates.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Stating the Obvious

When my younger son Henry was still learning how to dress himself he'd often put his right shoe on his left foot and his left shoe on his right foot. One day i pointed it out to him so that he could correct it.

"Henry", I said, "your shoes are on the wrong feet".

He looked down at this shoes and replied, "No, these are my feet".

I thought this was funny. I also think it's evidence that you can state something fairly obvious and still be funny and insightful. That's my modest goal for this blog, which is why i've borrowed most of Henry's answer for my title.

I claim that i'll be stating the obvious because, demographically speaking, i'm about as ordinary as one can be. Married, two kids, middle class, middle-aged, etc. I work in the software industry (i know, i know, this is a real rarity among bloggers). In principle, i have little beyond the obvious from which to draw. This (intentionally) defines the obvious to be subjective; i expect my observations to be obvious because they are the observations of someone whose experiences are among the most common. But as Sherlock Holmes would say, "There's nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact".

So, i'll state the obvious and, if you wish, you can point out to me when i've got it backwards. To the extent that blogging is anything beyond quick-fix vanity press, i think that's about the best one can hope for.