Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Christmas Redux

I spent the Christmas holiday in Phoenix this year, at my mother-in-law's house. The weather was unusually warm, even for Phoenix, with highs near 80. We drove to Phoenix on Friday morning (the 23rd) and drove back yesterday (the 27th).

It was a nice break. I ran, a lot. I did runs of 10, 20, 5, and 8 miles, all at around marathon pace (about 7.20 miles). It felt really good, although i have to factor in that it was on very flat terrain compared to what i'm used to. I was especially happy with getting in 20 miles at race pace, especially the day after a moderately hard 10 miles. I also managed to knock off another couple-hundred pages of Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, from which i'd taken a break after the invasion of Poland. Also went to see King Kong, which i found slightly disappointing. It's too long, and despite vastly better effects and environments it lacks some of the mystery of the original (the Jeff Bridges version, as Bill Simmons would say, never happened).

On Monday i drove the marathon route. It's definitely flat, though not especially attractive. It's a point-to-point route that starts near downtown and ends up at Sun Devil stadium in Tempe. I think there must be some sort of marathon route planning guide that dictates miles 22-24 must go through an industrial park. Never fails.

This was probably the most unusual Christmas i've had since 1996, when i was in the Philippines. We got up and opened presents as usual, but then i went out and ran 20 miles. For Christmas dinner we went to my sister-in-law's house, and though we had traditional Christmas fare, we also sat in her yard drinking sangria in the 70+ degree weather. It was lovely, but not exactly Irving Berlin. My boys are understandably (i think) a bit puzzled by Christmas, since the standard Christmas imagery (snow, sleigh-rides, caroling, chestnuts roating on open fires, jack frost, etc.) is mostly foreign to them. Though they've been sufficiently indoctrinated in the religious significance of the season, it's mostly about the loot for them. I hope that they have some special memories of Christmas when they grow up, but it's hard to imagine that it'll have the same resonance for them that it had for me.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

42

Or as i like to think of it, twenty-one twice. I'm not quite sure if that's old yet.

I did my annual birthday bike ride today. I didn't want to affect my marathon training too much so i did a relatively low-key ride of about 60 miles. I went over to the coast via the Highway 56 bike path, went up the Torrey Pines hill into La Jolla, and then i climbed up Mount Soledad. I went up Soledad on Via Capri, which as it turns out is way steep. In fact, i don't think i've ever climbed anything that was so consistently steep. At several points i wasn't sure if i could keep moving forward, even though i was in the lowest gear and standing on the pedals. Must be over 10% grade.

I did the ride solo again this year. All of my biking friends were either out of town or couldn't get a Thursday off work. I haven't ridden alone for a while, so it was kind of nice. Although it's a little lonely at times, you don't have to worry about matching anyone else's pace or following a certain route.

I'm not certain which year i started this tradition, but i think this might have been my 14th year. I think that Dec. 1991 was my first ride, because i was still working at the supercomputer center in San Diego. I think that the 2nd year i wasn't at the center anymore, and i left there in April of 1992. The only year i missed was 1996, because i was in the Philippines.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

O'Brian Quote

I've mentioned here before my fondness for the late Patrick O'Brian's sea-faring novels. I came across this quote in the first of the Aubrey/Maturin series (Master and Commander). I think it should be etched on the inside of the eyelids of every commentator on Fox news:

...patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either 'my country, right or wrong', which is infamous, or 'my country is always right', which is imbecile.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Hyperphagia

This morning i got up at 4am, drove to Coronado Island (yes, you can drive to an island), and ran 20 miles, from Tidelands park down the Silver Strand and back. It was dark for the first half of the run, but for some strange reason i enjoyed that. My craving for solitude has reached such a drastic point that i not only prefer being alone, i prefer being invisible.

I've been running so much lately (for me) that i've apparently achieved some sort of metabolic transformation where i literally cannot get enough to eat. I am constantly hungry. I read in book recently that birds go through a phase prior to migration called hyperphagia, which as you can guess just means that they eat a lot more than normal. I figure i'm eating 3500-4000 calories/day and yet i'm never really full. I only stop eating out of a vague sense of embarrasment. I can't really say that i'm eating well. Though i try to get a fair amount of fruits, vegetables, and protein; i also get a fair amount of peanut M+Ms and pop tarts (i really like the non-frosted strawberry poptarts).

This was another 30 mile weekend. I did 10 yesterday between games at my boys All-Star soccer tournament. My legs feel better than i would expect. The 20-milers used to really wipe me out, but now they're fairly routine. I'm not sure if this is simply a matter of better conditioning, or if there's some adjustment that your musculo-skeletal system takes years to make.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Youth Culture Killed My Blog

Well, not exactly. But it's been a hectic month. Both of my boys are playing on their respective soccer All-Star teams in addition to the regular schedule, so they've been playing and practicing almost daily. Unfortunately, they didn't fare well in their first tournament, but there's another in a couple of weeks. Win or lose, it's a joy to watch them play- they move with such grace and they've both evolved into pretty good players.

Although i've been reasonably busy at work, i feel as if i'm spending most of my time (when i'm not at a soccer practice) running. I did my first 30-mile weekend this past Sat/Sun (10 miles on Saturday, 20 on Sunday). This last week was the peak of my mileage for this training cycle. In a span of 8 days i ran over 80 miles. I've still got two more 20-milers to do in the coming weeks, but my weekly mileage never exceeds 60 miles again.

The Thanksgiving holiday was nice. Thanksgiving is now my favorite holiday, probably because it revolves around eating. When i was a kid the heavy marketing of Christmas didn't start until after Thanksgiving, but now it starts around Labor Day so Thanksgiving seems neglected. I like that. You get a couple of days off work, you get to feast with impunity, and you don't feel like you're being barraged with media messages about how you must celebrate the holiday in order to be happy. Seriously. I've seen commercials for magazines and television shows that instruct a person how to celebrate Christmas. People need help with this? I think this kind of crap was probably a much better reason to send Martha Stewart to prison than whatever it was she went to prison for.

Saw the new Harry Potter movie. It's a bit scary, but it should be given the subject matter. My only minor complaint (which applies to the last movie also) is that i don't like the new Dumbledore as much (i read somewhere that "dumbledore" is an old english word for "bumblebee"). Richard Harris had the perfect temperament and physicality to play somebody who is both old/wise and a serious badass. The new guy is a little too Yoda-esque for my taste.

We've been doing work on the house. I had the family room painted, and the pool replastered and i'm putting new sod in the back yard. It's amazing how much effort goes into simply arranging to have other people come do work for you. I get the feeling though that the construction boom is abating, because contractors will actually return my phone calls now.

Can you believe it's almost December? Damn, where does all the time go?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Star Trek Syndrome

On Star Trek, especially the original show, any new culture that the Enterprise encountered would be suprisingly monolithic. In some episodes, the new planet would have two conflicting cultures as part of the dramatic tension for that particular plot. This was a necessary expedient for an hour-long show that was trying to make fairly broad points. But it always amused me that even though our own planet has billions of people with hundreds of languages and radically different cultural behaviors, every other planet in the galaxy is monocultural.

This seems to be the way that most news media treat other countries too. Even fairly sophisticated news outlets, like NPR or The Economist, treat foreign cultures (think Iraq, Iran, China) as if the entire population has a single, collective set of opinions. For places that get extra attention these days (Iraq) you might get to hear the collective opinions of the major factions within the country (Kurdish Iraq, Sunni Iraq, Shiite Iraq). In contrast, we know that political opinions can differ widely within a given family; and within a neighborhood opinions can vary so radically that were we the subject of news analysis a civil war would be considered imminent.

I know that even with the best intentions the news media can't really provide a realistic picture of political and cultural variation; and i can know intellectually that they are applying a sort of statistical simplification much like the red state/blue state nonsense applied to our own country. But i wonder if in the end this sort of coverage is just neutral or if it's harmful. For example, it's possible for both right and left to use this sort of coverage to support their own viewpoint (think of the times you've heard a sentence start with "The Iraqi people"). More generally, i think it's just dehumanizing. It completely collapses the scope and breadth of ancient, complex, and varied cultures, which i think makes it easier for Western cultures (or at least the US) to dismiss the other cultures as small and insignificant; as if we were dealing with some isolated, anachronistic tribe.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Training Blues

I've been following a more rigorous training schedule for the marathon i plan to run in January. I run 6 days a week, and it's also more mileage and has weekly speed sessions. I think it's going to help my time considerably once the race comes around, but it's also harder to follow consistently. At the moment i run in the morning, getting up at 5:30 to stretch and trying to hit the road by 6. The time change this past weekend helped-- at least i won't have to run in the dark for a while.

I've been pretty surprised that my legs have held up so far. I used to swear by the idea that i shouldn't run on consecutive days. In the last 4 days i've done runs of 8,17,4,and 8.5 miles. My legs are tired for sure, but not damaged as far as i can tell. I don't think i could have started out at this rate several years ago, but now that i have enough mileage behind me i think i can endure it. I'm still concerned about the coming weeks. There are a couple of weekends where i have to do a 10 mile pace run on Saturday followed by a 20-miler on Sunday. That's gonna hurt.

I've been paying more attention to recovery during this program too, and that seems to help considerably. I make an effort to stretch after running, and i've been adding more protein to my post-hard-day diet. A bit of naproxen sodium on bad days doesn't hurt either. The recovery runs on Monday and Wednesday also work, which really surprises me. I never thought that running on Monday after a long run on Sunday could be a good idea, but it has worked wonders for me.

I have to admit though that this is the first time when i've been looking forward to the end of training. Although i still love the running itself, i am not temperamentally either a morning person or a willing follower of schedules. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like for a professional runner doing 100+ miles/week and two-a-day training sessions.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Masculinity

I suppose y'all have heard the recent ubersexual nonsense? The ubersexual is apparently the dialectic synthesis of the classic cave man and the modern metrosexual. Ubersexuals are not into all of that fancy, pseudo-gay stuff; but they can still read and wear nice suits. Rush Limbaugh gave this idiotic notion a boost by commenting that "This is what men were before feminism came and neutered them". I translate this to mean: back when women were socially and legally forbidden from participating in traditionally male activities, i could still pretend to be masculine just by smoking cigars at my private club.

The ubersexual idea seems to be just a step away from the equally stupid idea of the "alpha-male". The key feature of the alpha-male is that he tends to get all of the women that other men (supposedly) want. Though not essential, the trappings of alpha-maleness often include financial independence, expensive toys, and excessive testosterone. The term obviously derives from that used to describe the dominant male in animal social groups who gets to mate with the females. Though some women seem to be completely taken with the alpha-male sort, the rest of us have another term for this type of man, which oddly enough also begins with the letter "a".

Much of my own mental model of masculinity comes from my great grandfather, on whose 90th i was born. He was a farmer, but also worked in factories and warehouses. He hunted and trapped on his farm, and he raised his own hunting dogs. He was the sort of man about whom people told stories: like how he would put a steel girder over one shoulder and hold it with one hand while using the other to climb a ladder. Or how he got a job with the county in his 80s mowing the ditchbanks mostly because he was bored and restless. He was physically strong, didn't say much, and he took care of his responsibilities. He never owned a Porsche, a Rolex, or a set of golf clubs.

But honestly i don't know much about my great grandfather's life, and given where and when he was raised it's very likely i'd have found some of his beliefs repugnant (The great Lakota chief Sitting Bull was murdered in 1890 on the day of our shared birthday. My great grandfather would have been 17 years old on that day, and i sometimes wonder what he thought about it). To me masculinity isn't really an intellectual concept, that is, i don't think there's a particular set of beliefs that are masculine. But apparently a lot of people do. Limbaugh thinks his conservative beliefs are masculine, whereas liberal beliefs are feminine. I suppose that this derives from conservatives' putative championing of self-reliance, but it seems to be very pervasive in political thought these days. Pro-war is masculine, anti-war is feminine. Small government is masculine, big government is feminine. The pro-business viewpoint is masculine, the pro-environmental viewpoint is feminine. Our esteemed governor here in California knew exactly what he was doing when he described his opponents as "girly men".

I'm not sure if the political right intentionally manufactured this situation, or if they just leverage it to their advantage (there is a depressing number of men out there who are convinced that their masculinity is in danger). The thing is: people think of Limbaugh (or Karl Rove or Pat Robertson or Bill O'Reilly or Tom Delay, etc.) as the embodiment of conservative principles, but i can't really imagine a less appropriate representative of masculine ideals. Beyond being male and ostensibly straight, Limbaugh doesn't possess a single characteristic that i regard as masculine.

To be fair, masculinity is an incredibly tricky concept. I recently went to see the movie A History of Violence, mostly because i have a man-crush on Viggo Mortensen (he was Aragorn for god's sake). His character in this movie is truly masculine including, paradoxically, his innate ability to kill people. That's why masculinity is such a hard concept to reconcile with human society: it's almost impossible to think about without considering violence. While hurting the helpless is loathsome and cowardly, it's undeniable that the ability to defend one's self is a masculine trait. If you've read this blog before you probably know that i think self-defense is also a good thing, but i think that even justifiable violence isn't always good. This is why i don't think masculinity can be thought of as instrinsically good or desirable. People might find it to be attractive or repugnant, in the same way that they might prefer blond hair or brown eyes, but i think it's a morally neutral concept (no pun intended).

While i don't have a well-developed description of what precisely is masculine, when i think of masculine ideals i'm reminded of my favorite of Heinlein's Lazarus Long quotes (though note that he says "a human being" and not "a man"):

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion,
butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet,
balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying,
take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations,
analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer,
cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Game

I can imagine a not-so-distant future when somebody will release a piece of software, probably in the form of a game, that simulates an extremely realistic milieu, not just with accurate physics and realistic environments, but also with convincing yet modifiable character behavior. There won't really be a point to this game, or any sort of pre-defined game play. It'll simply be an imitation of life, with the ability to remove certain strictures of reality.

It'll be possible to be whatever you want in this artificial reality. You can be Superman, or Albert Einstein, or Angelina Jolie, or Michael Jordan. But you can also be an assassin, a drug dealer, a rapist or a pedophile. It'll be entirely your choice, entirely your universe, and (unless there's an on-line mode) entirely private. The game would quite literally be limited only by your imagination.

What interests me about this scenario is that the game could have any or all of the supposedly negative aspects of games like GTA, but there would not be a "publisher" to demonize for supplying the content. Those who feel that violence in video games causes violence in the real world would have to modify their argument if the game had no intrinsic violence but only what the player chose to include. Yet you know for certain that the same people who want to regulate the sale of violent video games and movies would oppose the game.

Don't get me wrong: i think most of the stuff in GTA and similar games is awful and i wouldn't let my kids anywhere near it. I also admit i'm on the fence about who should and shouldn't be allowed to purchase this stuff (in principle, i think prohibiting the sale of M-rated games to minors is reasonable and not necessarily a violation of First Amendment rights). But i'm concerned about the tactics that will be used when the "content" of the game is invented by the player. This will happen some day, and i fear that certain political factions will discover the need to monitor people's behavior in private environments.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

My Running Heroes

I noticed a couple of days ago that my blog had passed its first birthday, because the Chicago marathon was on Sunday and i blogged about running it last year. The winner of the women's race this year was Deena Kastor, who i truly admire. She's a great runner (she also won the Bronze medal in last year's Olympic marathon and she's in a completely different realm than all other American women in the 10000 and marathon). What i really like about her though is that she seems to have a life. Unlike her more famous British counterpart Paula Radcliffe, who might be the greatest marathoner ever, Kastor doesn't have much of the rock star in her. But i sort of get the feeling that after her running career, she's going to be much happier. Kastor likes good food and good wine, and she plans to open a restaurant post-running. I find that combination of intense focus and varied interests to be admirable.

I doubt that anybody has ever pursued distance running as a means to fame. Outside of running circles there are maybe a handful of runners (not counting sprinters like Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson) that people can name. Pheidippides. Roger Bannister. Steve Prefontaine 'cause they made movies about him. Maybe Frank Shorter or Bill Rodgers if you're old enough, or Sebastian Coe or Steve Ovett if you're British and old enough. Maybe Olympic legends like Paavo Nurmi, Emile Zatopek, Abebe Bekele or Joan Benoit (or Zola Budd for the wrong reasons). But for the most part even the best distance runners of today are not household names. How many people know the name of the world record holder in the marathon, or 10000 meters, or 1500 meters, or mile? (Hint: they're all African on the men's side).

For somebody my age it's easy enough to admire the amazing accomplishments of some runners (like Paul Tergat's sub 2:05 marathon or Paula Radcliffe's 2:15), but my running heroes tend to be people who have accomplished amazing things that are on the fringe of the world's competitive elite. Foremost among these runners is Ed Whitlock, a Canadian who, at the age of 69 became the oldest person to run a sub 3-hour marathon, and then became the first person to run sub-3 after the age of 70 (he was almost 73). I can't really explain to a non-runner how impressive this is. You can consider that a 2:59 marathon is an average of about 6'50'" per mile for 26 miles, and then you can go out to your local track under the most favorable conditions and run the fastest mile you can. But you still won't understand, because you won't know the vast, almost unbridgeable difference between a 7.20 mile and a 6.50 mile when you string together 26 of them. And this dude is 74.

Another of my heroes is Pam Reed, the two-time outright winner of the Badwater Ultra. I admire her both because she's an amazing ultra-distance runner, and also because she's the mother of 5 sons (holy crap, it makes me tired just thinking about it). For good measure, she's the director of the Tucson marathon. The Badwater is a race that starts in Death Valley and finishes, 135 miles later, at about 9000 feet up the side of Mt. Whitney. In her first attempt, she beat all comers, men and women, and beat her closest competitor by 5 hours.

The physician/running writer George Sheehan once wrote "Success rests in having the courage and endurance and, above all, the will to become the person you are, however peculiar that may be. Then you will be able to say, I have found my hero and he is me" I'm not quite there yet, peculiar though i might be. I think the secret is in the courage part. Will and endurance you can prove just by getting up every day and training, but you can only prove courage by doing what your body and mind are convinced you can't.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Learning Light Saber from Yoda

This past weekend my martial arts school sponsored a couple of seminars with our Great Grandmaster, Wong Gong. He's the highest ranking sifu in the system that i study (Choy Li Fut kung fu). He's a small man, and at 78 he's not quite the athlete he probably once was, though he's still amazingly spry and fit. But he has an undeniable presence. He speaks little English, but he has such remarkably expressive movements that groups of people at the seminars would break into applause when he'd nonchalantly toss off a tough maneuver, or they'd laugh when he'd speed through a long series of moves that he obviously realized nobody could duplicate.

Unlike most sports, there is no retirement from the martial arts, and it seems almost supernatural to see a man who's been doing something at a world class level for 60 years. The comparison to Yoda is inevitable. At this stage, he has a very refined economy of movement and such complete balance and stability that he looks as natural doing a form as he does walking.

He also performed at our annual exhibition, which was interesting this year since there were 5 generations of sifus. It's both inspiring and a bit depressing to see how good some of these folks are. I've always been a fair athlete-- i've got decent eye-hand coordination and i've never been too out of shape-- but there's stuff these people can do that i just can't do. The fact that almost nobody else can do them either isn't that much consolation.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Franklin Plan

I decided a month or so ago that starting after Labor Day i would attempt to spend the remainder of the year getting a bit more organized and a bit more productive, etc. My model for this is Benjamin Franklin's "plan". Franklin's plan consists of the 13 aspects below. Franklin's approach was to focus on one virtue each week, and he kept little charts to monitor his progress. I'm not quite that committed, but these still match pretty well with my own goals.

1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation.

This one's fairly hard. I'm no glutton, but i indulge a little too often in vending machine snacks and California Cabernet (though not usually at the same time). I can't really reduce calories all that much since i have certain dietary requirements imposed by my running schedule; but i'm trying to reduce or eliminate the pure boredom eating.

2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.

Not a problem for me. I think i've got this one squared away.

3. Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.

Another tough one. I have too much crap for everything to have a place, and i've got the attention span of a fruit fly. My approach to this one is to fastidiously remove as much from my house that i don't really need, and to develop a sort of informal schedule for getting necessary stuff done. The first step i've taken is to start getting up at a regular time. I'm using my cell phone as an alarm clock to wake me up at 5:30am, which gives me time enough to both work out and get stuff ready for the day.

4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.

I think the trick here for me is figuring out what i ought and what i ought not. I figure i have to get my kids to school with their homework more or less done, i have to do solid work at my day job, and i have to keep my house from collapsing into a vermin-infested rubbish pile. Beyond that, i'm not quite sure what this means. Are we talking generic good deeds here? Family and financial responsibilities?

5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.

I'm cheap, so i think by the standards of our consumer-driven society i'm relatively frugal. On the other hand, i don't think i can claim to waste nothing. I spend too much on books that i only read once, and food that is more packaging than nutrient. My main goal here is to eliminate my credit card debt and adhere to a budget.

6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.

Man, this is hard. There are just times when i have to sit down and watch 10 minutes of idiot spew on one of the 400 cable channels. Plus which i spend several hours a week involved in "unneccessary" actions if you want to get all technical (running and martial arts training, blogging, hanging out with my kids). I think if taken literally, this one is a recipe for nervous breakdown. I'm boiling this down to wasting less time watching TV and reading the Internets, and setting better priorities so i'm getting the important stuff done.

7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Screw other people. But seriously, as i've mentioned here before, i think my biggest problem in this vein is a tendency for sarcasm. OK, not so much a tendency as a lifestyle. I'm really trying to curb it, but it's hard to give up 40 years of hard-won snark.

8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

I'm having a hard time figuring out how this applies to my life. It's not that i'm saintly or anything, it's just that my life doesn't really afford that many opportunities to screw over other people.

9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

I've always like the bumper-sticker slogan "Everything in moderation, including moderation". I'm really convinced about the benefits of moderation, but i also think it's good to ocassionally just go off the deep end. A properly lived life should have a few hangovers. I think this also conflicts a bit with some of my hobbies. Can one be "moderate" in one's pursuit to run a faster 26 miles?

10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.

I'm like totally down with this one. Except for leaving the laundry in the living room.

11. 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.

Within the bounds of monogamy, i refuse to acknowledge that "too much sex" could be a problem. I'm ignoring this one.

12. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

I have a slight physiological advantage on this one, since i have low blood pressure and a resting heart rate of around 40. It's actually kind of hard for me to get untranquil. The one place where i'm applying this is one is on the freeway. You know the St. Francis bit about being an "instrument of peace". I try to keep that in mind when people are cutting me off in traffic. My inclination is, of course, to run them down; but instead i've decided to be the guy who lets everybody into the lane, doesn't flip anybody off, and forgives the ocassional brain cramp. Of course, in California when people get pissed at you on the freeway, they might shoot you; so there are practical reasons for this too.

13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Humility is something that everybody thinks they have until their opinions are challenged. I've sort of re-learned the concept of humility in recent years to mean: the willingness to learn from other people even if they have less experience than you. I doubt this makes me much like Jesus or Socrates, but i figure i'm also less likely to be killed for my beliefs.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Hoist the Mainsail, Ye Scurvy Lubbers

Yes, it's Talk Like A Pirate Day, the most important holiday of the year. My pirate name for the day will be:


My pirate name is:


Black Tom Flint



Like anyone confronted with the harshness of robbery on the high seas, you can be pessimistic at times. Like the rock flint, you're hard and sharp. But, also like flint, you're easily chipped, and sparky. Arr!

Get your own pirate name from fidius.org.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

End Of The World As We Know It

If it's a true story, this is the most beautiful thing to come of the Katrina tragedy.

I'm hoping that in a week or two, after the details are filled in and some sanity has returned, that the catastrophe in Louisiana and Mississippi will seem comprehensible somehow. Right now, i'm in total cognitive dissonance mode. Even if you account for the disastrous incompetence of the federal government and the unprecedented scale of Katrina, it's still hard to accept how horrible it all appears. In some ways this is harder to fathom than the 9/11 tragedy, if only because then we could all be angry at an external enemy, something that we could ally against and punish. This time we have to face that we're vulnerable, unprepared, and in many cases helpless. The most frustrating thing is that we know, cynical as it may seem, that after all of the recriminations and political fallout we still won't be any better off.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Mighty Sailin' Man

Gilligan is Dead. The news that Bob Denver has died bummed me out. Gilligan's Island was my first favorite TV show, and i still contend that it's underrated. There was a time when GI was virtually synonymous with bad TV, though that was long before the advent of such horrors as Big Brother, The Surreal Life, and various other indicators of the decline of Western Civilization. It was, of course, silly and implausible as if that mattered. However, i remind you of an episode in which the castaways put on a show that combines the text of Hamlet with the music from Bizet's Carmen. And the producers of the show assumed that people would probably know about both Hamlet and Carmen. How i wish we could all be that stupid again.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Pirates and Global Warming

My favorite meme in recent memory is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which was a response to the ridiculous actions of the Kansas State School Board to introduce intelligent design to the "science" curriculum of that state. There are a few reasons why i think this is so cool. First, it's funny. It's not especially original-- people ridiculing creationists have invoked magical, mythical creatures since time immemorial (usually giant purple chickens, etc.), but this instance has a particular depth and texture that is unprecedented. There's an FSM creation myth and FSM paintings and FSM iconography and FSM scripture ("touched by His Noodly Appendage"), and even an FSM Holy Week. Second, it really does expose the essential ridiculousness of ID, even if it is, as must be the case, preaching to the choir (must be because ID is designed-- no pun intended-- to be evidence-proof). Third, it involves pirates.

Worshipers of the FSM, called "Pastafarians", know that one must don full pirate regalia in order to teach the beliefs of FSM-ism (I'm wearing an eye-patch right now, i swear. Ask the parrot if you don't believe me). The key scientific evidence in favor of the FSM is the clear correlation between the increase in global temperature and the decline in the number of pirates.

Sure, it's smart-alecky and all. But a good dose of clever humor goes further than the pronouncements of experts. Most of the scientists asked to speak before the Kansas board declined, realizing that if the board were interested in intellectual honesty they wouldn't be having a hearing to assess the relative merit of evolution vs. ID. The FSM won't have any affect on ID true-believers, but at least it's more fun for the rest of us than yet another dry refutation.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Hike the High Country

Nothing will make you appreciate the necessities of life like a good hike that's mostly above 9000 feet. Food, water, oxygen. Warm clothing. Protection from the rain. And nothing will make you eliminate the unneccessary things like having to carry them on your back.

Needless to say, my friend Gary and i survived our backpacking expedition in the Mount Baldy Wilderness. It was a great trip, though exhausting. It wasn't the length of the hike so much as it was the steep up (or down) inclines and the altitude. At 10000 or more feet it's hard to catch your breath. The Mount Baldy Wilderness is a roughly triangular patch of forest, river, and mountain of about 7700 acres. We hiked a route which took us up the western trail to the summit of Baldy (or as close as you can get to it), down the eastern trail, and then across the base of the triangle on a 3.5 mile crossover trail.

The initial trail head is at about 8700 feet and you go up only gradually for the first few miles. The trail at this point follows one fork of the Little Colorado river, through meadows and stands of aspen, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa pines. It's incredibly beautiful country, especially this summer because they've had significant rain and everything is green and flourishing. One could point the camera in almost any direction and get a good photo.



We both felt pretty good through these first few miles, even with the heavy packs. The weather was perfect, sunny skies and just a bit cooler than ambient. Soon though the trail started to head sharply upward and we slowed down quite a bit. We stopped near a stream to get some water and food and take the packs off, but at the time we had no idea how far we were from the summit. As we approached 10000 feet i started to suck wind pretty hard and Gary was having some pain in his hip. My rule of thumb for backpacking has always been that you can make around 2 mph uphill and 3-4 downhill, but we were probably closer to about 1 mph on these sections. After a series of switchbacks that ran up the side of a ridge, it flattened out a bit. Eventually we came to an interesting bench of rock poised right at a saddle point on the ridge so that there were views in both directions. Although it was beautiful, i nicknamed it The Bench of Desperation, since we felt like we'd been walking for a long time and we had no idea how far we were from the summit.

We were probably only about a mile out at that point, but as the altitude approached 11000 feet, it was pretty hard going. Gary started a pattern of walking 100 steps and then stopping for a rest. We counted unique species of mushrooms. It was eerily quiet-- no wind, no birds, no scurrying wildlife or protective squirrels, not even a cricket chirping-- yet the sky was clear except for a few isolated rain clouds. Finally, we reached the border of the wilderness area and the Apache reservation, which is as close as you can get to the summit of Mount Baldy if you're not Apache. Gary's GPS put the altitude at 11,164 feet.

We rested for several minutes, drank some water and ate some trail mix. Then we started down the East trail. The character of the trail was almost immediately different, and i don't just mean its relative downness. There seemed to be more water, so the flora was markedly different. We also found a spring flowing from the rock just below the trail about 1/2 mile down. The most interesting site on this part of the trail (and perhaps the whole hike) is the debris from an airplane crash. I don't know enough about airplanes to identify anything from the wreckage, but it was clearly a large plane that hit the mountainside hard and scattered the debris widely. On the internet, i found evidence for both a DC-3 crash in April of 1937, and for a B-24 crash in 1942. The latter seems the more likely candidate, because there was an unmistakable Air Force marking on one part of the plane, and this was definitely a military aircraft.



A short distance further down the trail we came to a rocky promontory that gave us a great view of the whole wilderness area and points beyond. It was both a gorgeous view and also a good excuse to drop our packs and stop walking. After a bit we loaded up again and started down the trail, keeping our eyes open for a decent place to spend the night. Sunset was still more than an hour off, but we figured it would get dark early since we were on the east side of the mountain. We finally found a relatively flat spot with a fire ring, so we made camp and tried to start a fire. Turns out that it's hard to start a fire with wood that's been rained on for several weeks. We managed to get a small blaze going, and Gary fired up his WhisperLite stove to boil some water. We used the water to reconstitute some red beans and rice, which, even though slightly crunchy, was very good after a full day of pack mule duty.



In relative terms, it wasn't a bad night in the tent. It remained abnormally quiet, but we both managed to get a little sleep and it didn't rain. At about 5:30 am i finally heard a few birds signaling the impending dawn. I got up and tried to start a new fire, but i just couldn't keep it going. Gary got up a bit later and boiled some more water for oatmeal and coffee. He checked the GPS and realized that we'd probably spent the night on the Apache reservation, onto which the trail wanders for one short section. We'd planned to hang around the camp for a while, but we decided we should probably move on.

The next mile or so was relatively flat, sort of along a contour line at around 10400 feet. At one point the trail ran across an open area of bare rock that gave us more views of the surrounding valleys. This trail, unlike the west trail which featured primarily trees, is characterized by geology. We reached a series of switchbacks that went down a ridge through some of the oddest and most fascinating rock formations i've ever seen. There were towers of rock that looked like giant cairns of boulders built by giants. There were caves and ledges in the cliff faces above us. It looked almost as if the rock had been worn away by flowing or receding water, but this would have happened long ago since this is still way above the river.



Finally we came out into open meadow again, running along the other fork of the river. After a mile or so of this relatively flat terrain, we came to the eastern trail head. Fortunately, Gary had the presence of mind to realize that we could leave our packs here for the hike on the crossover trail, and then drive back when we reached the other trailhead. That was good, because the crossover trail would have sucked with the extra weight. It was a nice little trail, though not as well maintained as the other parts, but we were both too tired by this time to enjoy it much.

Backpacking is a strange pasttime for me in the sense that i'm alway really excited to get started when i start, and always really happy to finish when i stop. It's not like watching a movie, or even playing most sports, because instead of period of relatively consistent but predictable enjoyment, backpacking tends to give you periods of pain or exhaustion in exchange for moments of unexpected, transcendent joy. I can't count the number of times over the years when i've been right at the moment of thinking "Why the hell am i doing this to myself?" and then i'll come around a corner and see a view (or an animal or a tree) that makes me feel lucky to be alive. It also make me appreciate civilization, though the effect is temporary.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Up and Away

Here is where is i plan to be this weekend. My best friend Gary and i are backpacking up Mt. Baldy this weekend. I haven't been on many backpacking excursions since my kids were born, other than a short trip to the Anza Borrego desert a couple of years ago (with the kids) and a trip to the Superstitions many years ago (without the kids). So, anyway, i'm psyched.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Alt Country

This is an entry i first put on my "other" blog (my Yahoo 360 page). I've updated it a bit in light of some new bands i've found.

My musical tastes tend to fixate on one particular genre for a period of time until i suck all the flavor out of it and then i move on. Over the years this has included everything from speed metal, to baroque music, to rock en espaƱol. My latest obsession is the alternative country genre, whose best known exemplar is probably Wilco. Alt country is a vaguely defined genre, so it covers a lot of ground from very folkish to nearly punkish. On the other hand, it's one of those "you know it when you hear it" genres. If i had to describe alt country, i'd say that it is any type of music with identifiable traces of roots music, but with lyrics that are more interesting than the typical c+w song. As a disclaimer i should mention that i've always had a fondness for country music in general. If you don't recognize the essential genius of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, or Flatt and Scruggs, then i can't guarantee that you'll dig alt. country.

One of the benefits of working for an on-line music service is that you have reason to cull through craploads of music metadata as part of fixing a problem or adding a feature. Since i have an overactive sarcasm gland, i tend to pick out amusing and/or silly band or album names (they're just more fun to test). Sometimes, i make an effort to listen to these oddly named bands or albums just for kicks, and more often than not i find that the band name was the first and last clever idea that the band had.

One notable exception in my opinion is Drive-By Truckers, who have become one of my favorite bands. DBT is somewhere in the southern rock, country rock, alt. country mixture of genres, but with a noticeable punk component (i hear shades of Social Distortion). They're a bit of an acquired taste if you have no previous attraction to southern or country music (if you had a Molly Hatchet album when you were in high school, you'll probably love DBT, you old son of a bitch).

I'd been listening to Wilco quite a lot before i found DBT, but as of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they'd ceased to be an alt country band. It was my interest in DBT that really got me to explore Wilco's predecessor bands, offshoots, and similar bands. This is my list of interesting stuff in this musical space, which ranges from fairly country to pretty much alternative, but since it's my freakin' list i'll put whatever i want on it.

  • Drive-By Truckers. 'Nuff said already.
  • Wilco. OK, you gotta have Wilco on the list but listen to the first 3 albums (AM, Being There, Summerteeth)
  • Uncle Tupelo. The key members of Uncle Tupelo were Jeff Tweedy, who went on to form Wilco, and Jay Farrar, who went on to form Son Volt. These guys are sometimes credited with inventing the alt country genre, but i think that's a bit of a stretch.
  • Son Volt. After DBT, this is probably my favorite alt country band. Much of their material will remind you of early REM, especially Reckoning. Jay Farrar has a perfect voice for this genre. Farrar recently reformed the band with new players and released the album Okemah and the Melody of Riot, a very good album with some overtly political material.
  • Lucinda Williams. Pretty country, but with an attitude. She's got a great voice. If you like Lucinda, you might also like Mary Gauthier.
  • Slobberbone. Another band on the same label as DBT. Fun.
  • Magnolia Electric Co. A new band formed from the ashes of previous bands. They've got a new album (What Comes After the Blues) that sounds sort of Neal Young-ish.
  • Whiskeytown. Ryan Adams's old band. Adams is now doing solo material that i'd classify as more rock than alt country, but it's still good stuff.
  • Tift Merrit. More country than rock, but some interesting songs. She performed live here at the San Diego office about a year ago.
  • Vic Chesnutt. Sort of folk, but with a southern/country feel. Sui generis.
  • The Jayhawks. I really love the Jayhawks except when i find them annoying. It's a mood thing.
  • Steve Earle. You gotta respect Earle, if only because he looks rode hard and put up wet.
  • Richmond Fontaine. This oddly named band made one of the best alt country albums, Post to Wire, which contains a song of the same name that is one of the best alt country songs ever made.
  • Damnations (aka Damnations TX). This band appears to still exist, although they don't seem to have release an album since 2002. One of the members of this band (Deborah Kelly) sings on the Richmond Fontaine's song Post to Wire, which is how i found out about them. Their 1999 album Half Moon Mad is one of those obscure gems that you only find a few times in your life. It's a great album.
There are dozens of other artists in this general area. There are some more straight country stuff i'd check out if any of this appeals to you, like early Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Lyle Lovett, Sugarland, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nickel Creek, even the Dixie Chicks. There's also plenty of older music out there to which alt country owes a debt: Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, etc., and the entire universe of bluegrass and roots music. I also highly recommend the web site Cheezeball.net, a site dedicated to alt country in all of its glorious cheesiness.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I Want Teleportation Now

I was at Fry's with my kids the other day looking at cell phones, and i was amused at how much the typical cell phone looks like a Star Trek communicator (there must be a word for this phenomenon, where fiction anticipates the future while also influencing it). Then yesterday Slashdot linked to this WSJ piece entitled Requiem for the Future. The basic point of the piece is that the future we anticipated back at the time when we (old folks) were kids and men were walking on the moon never really came to be. We're not on Mars. Not only haven't we established bases on the moon, we haven't even been back.

The recent shuttle mission emphasized how little we've progressed in the last few decades. When i was a high-school senior (1982) i entered a contest called the Space Shuttle Student Involvement Project (you might remember stories about bees flying around in space, or plants growing in microgravity,etc.). I wrote a proposal to do diffusion experiments in space, and i won a trip to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama (Turns out that doing diffusion experiments in space wasn't a half bad idea. Several real scientists had already thought of it, and in fact done it. The biggest effect though was primarily due to lack of convection currents, which i knew nothing about). We got to visit several of the labs (including the one where they made the exploding bolts that hold the shuttle on the launch platform), and we met astronauts and mission specialists. It was cool. The shuttle was fairly new, and this was long before the Challenger disaster so we could still imagine the shuttle as being a sort of highly reliable space airplane that was the first step in making outer space a permanent outpost.

None of us at that event would have suspected that 23 years later the shuttle would still be the most sophisticated form of space travel, and that it would still have a lot of flaws to overcome. At that time our relatively brief lifetimes had seen the space program go from almost nothing, to manned space flight, to moon landings, to the shuttle. I'm sure that we all assumed that by the turn of the century we'd be on our way to Mars.

Of course we did see amazing technological progress in those years. That year (1982) just happened to be the year that the Arpanet became the Internet, and you can now buy commodity computer hardware that's as powerful as the supercomputers of that time. Cell phones didn't exist then (though you could get a car phone). As the WSJ article also points out there have been some interesting space missions in that time, especially to Mars (and of course, the Hubble). But nothing that feels like it came out of the science fiction of the past.

NASA gets blamed for this, for a lack of vision or something. But i don't think NASA is at fault so much as a general lack of enthusiasm for the idea of human space travel. Maybe as our perceived standard of living has leveled off and even dropped, the idea of spending money to go to the moon seems frivolous. Maybe there's a general malaise regarding technological progress in general.

But my personal crackpot theory is that computers and the Internet exposed us to the idea that outer space is not, as we previously thought, the final frontier. We can now imagine the prospect of virtual worlds that are not only different from ours, but limited only by our imaginations. Even science fiction changed (e.g., Gibson's Neuromancer and the whole cyberpunk thing, The Matrix). If our motivation for going into space was simply exploration (and not the technological challenge per se, or commercialization), then the virtual world offers as much without the danger and unpleasant space trips. Of course, the benefit of real outer space is that we could encounter things that we haven't yet imagined, but it's gonna be damned hard to get there. That's why we need teleportation, now.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Random Walk

I have no idea how people keep up with these things on a daily basis. It's magic.

I guess the trick to having an active blog is to have an active life. My life over the past couple of weeks has been like that Kids in the Hall sketch where Kevin McDonald is determined to stick to his to-do list regardless of what's going on around him (like he goes to the bank in the middle of a robbery and gets taken hostage but still insists on getting stamps,etc.). It's been a productive time, but boring. Unless you find the repair and maintenance of a 2000 Nissan Frontier to be fascinating, in which case have i got a story for you.

The only semi-interesting thing we managed to do over the last couple of weeks was seeing Yo Yo Ma at the Civic Theater. He was with his Silk Road Ensemble, so the music was not the standard classic fare. There was Mongolian opera, Chinese music, Persian classical music, Indian music, gypsy music-- much good stuff. The highlight of the night for most of us, especially my sons, was a piece by Sandeep Das, a tabla player, along with several other percussion instruments. It was amazing, both because of the strange rhythms and the unusual instruments. There were several string instruments- violins, Ma on cello, and a bass- carrying a line of melody throughout the piece, which provided a nice anchor for the rhythmic improvisation. Very cool.

My martial arts instructor decided to leave town to finish up college at Cal State Fullerton, so i have to break in a new instructor after 3 years. He was also my kids instructor, and my wife's tai chi instructor, so it's kind of like losing a member of the family. For a going-away present we bought him a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Morihei Ueshiba's The Art of Peace. I figure that should keep him busy, and possibly confused.

I've spent the two weeks since the SF marathon doing nothing but eating. I think i've put on about 5 pounds. Ultimately, it'll probably be good for my body to give my joints a rest and just get fat for a few weeks, but i feel a bit bloated at the moment. I start a new cycle in about mid-September in order to prepare for the PF Chang Rock'n'Roll marathon in Phoenix in January. I intend that to be my all-out effort for Boston qualifying, so i'm sort of psyching myself up for it. It's gonna be a tough holiday season, since i'll have to be a bit more careful about what i eat.

A real random walk is a Markov chain, which means roughly that the direction of the next step you take doesn't have any dependence on the steps you've taken in the past. That seems like a good metaphor for my life at the moment.

Friday, August 05, 2005

100th Post/Evolution

This, according to the blogger statistics, is my 100th post on this blog. I didn't want my 100th post to just be an announcement of my 100th post though, so i decided to write about something that i have a strong interest in: evolution.

In the same way that most evolution proponents tend to stereotype creationists as uneducated, Bible-thumping yokels who only leave the house long enough to go to church or attend NASCAR events, i suspect that creationists imagine that evolutionists spring fully-formed from the heads of East-coast leftist academics. In other words, it's hard to imagine a proper church-educated person falling for the evolution dogma. I, however, spent most of my formative years in a Lutheran parochial school (Missouri-synod Lutheran, which is to Lutheranism what Hasidism is to Judaism). Although we were not taught strict Biblical literalism (Lutherans are smart enough to appreciate a good metaphor), i was taught that evolutionary theory was incorrect and that the Biblical account of creation was correct. When i began my freshman year at the public high school, i proudly declared in my biology class that i believed that God had created the earth and all of its creatures in a week. In other words, at the fairly advanced age of 14 i was a creationist.

Although i can't remember exactly how or when my opinions began to change, i'm fairly sure that my formal high school education had little part in it. Our high school solved the debate over teaching evolution vs. creation by not teaching either. We dissected frogs and made papier mache models of cell organelles. I was aware of Darwin, and at some point either late in high school or early in college, i bought a hard-bound version of The Origin of Species, which i actually read though i recall it to be the single most boring volume i've ever slogged through.

But in high school i was a pretty hard-core science freak, and it's hard to delve into physics and chemistry without finding in the same sources discussions of natural selection, neo-Darwinism, punctuated equilibrium, etc.; not to mention the cosmological origins of the universe and genetics. By the time i started college i was pretty familiar with the ideas of biological evolution, though i was still in the "just a theory" camp (i apparently had an incorrect notion of what a theory was).

By my second or third year of college i was already a budding secular humanist (more proof of the pernicious effect of those damned liberal academics). But i wasn't really convinced about evolution. There are certain limits on human intelligence (for even the most brilliant) that make evolutionary theory hard to grasp. The first is that humans simply have no capacity to understand long time frames (Richard Dawkins discusses this in, i think, The Blind Watchmaker). Our brains are conditioned to think of 100 years as being an eternity, while all of the interesting things that happen in biological evolution require hundreds or thousands of generations. We just can't understand how long a million years is. The second limitation is the intuitive way in which we think of randomness. We have this sense that evolution involves randomness, but we know that the pure combinatorial possibilities in the human genome are so vast that the odds of getting a better combination seem remote. But DNA is not shuffled like a deck of cards. It changes slowly and subtly in most cases, and even then most mutations are selected against. But don't get me wrong. These are not hard ideas to get past just for the uneducated or unwilling; they're hard period. Unless you can convince yourself that the mechanisms of biological evolution could work, you'll never fully accept the theory. It's like having to learn quantum mechanics before you can explain why grass is green.

I think this is where concepts like Intelligent Design (ID) become so appealing. Even if you accept that the earth is billions of years old and that the planet has changed drastically over time, it's still comforting to interject some miraculous process that explains away the stuff that's almost incomprehensible. I know it was extremely hard for me to come to grips with certain aspects of natural selection. Not surprisingly in my case, what finally convinced me was writing a computer program (not surprising for me because i always understand ideas better if i can express them as programs). I was in college during the time that AK Dewdney was writing his Computer Recreations column in Scientific American, probably my favorite column ever. One of his columns was about something he called "flibs", short for finite living blobs. Flibs were a very simple form of artificial life, or a genetic algorithm, or both. Basically flibs were simple finite state machines, consisting of a string of bits. Flibs lived in an "environment", which was also a string of bits, though longer. The fitness of a flib within the environment was based on how the flib state machine responded to the environment string.

The initial set of flibs was created randomly, but at each stage the flibs that scored the best against the environment were "bred" using crossover breeding. In some cases this lead to new flibs that responded better to the environment, sometimes it didn't. The other crucial element to the flibs algorithm was in the introduction of periodic random point mutations. Without the mutations, the algorithm would tend to converge to a "best" flib and then never get better.

The flibs program is an extremely primitive approximation to biological evolution, but it taught me a couple of things. The most important aspect was probably that you could run through hundreds of generations very quickly so it did give you the sense of watching evolution unfold. The program also revealed the idea that mutations were extremely important to the evolutionary process. But the real epiphany for me was in the way that new flibs that showed greater adaptability to the environment would quickly overwhelm less fit flibs. Of course, this is based on the idea that the more fit flibs get the chance to breed most frequently and so pass on more of their genome to the next generation, but that's one of the basic assumptions of natural selection. What this taught me is that "fitness" is not a measure of some abstract ideal that human beings might strive to attain. Fitness is simply how well you pass on your genes to the next generation. In other words, there is no "goal" in evolution, no requirement that genotypical changes lead to phenotypical changes that correspond to greater strength, or size, or beauty, or intelligence.

Evolutionists themselves have, i think, muddled some of the ideas of evolution through the use of poor language. For example, it's still conventional to say that animals "adapt" to their environment, as though there's some sort of Lamarckian process whereby creatures change to better fit the environment. What really happens is that animals less adapted to their environment die, or get displaced, or fail to reproduce in numbers sufficient to sustain their population. Perhaps ID proponents would be less enthusiastic about their position if it were clear just how pitiless nature is; that nature in fact doesn't care at all about its creatures, it has no plan for them.

I won't make any attempt to address any of the scientific objections of ID-ers or creationists to evolutionary theory, because that's been done elsewhere effectively and honestly most of the objections are silly. But one argument that creationists will use is the "what are the evolutionists afraid of?" argument. They argue that if the ideas of evolution are sound, then they should be able to withstand competition. To be honest, i don't think most evolutionists would mind Biblical creationism being taught in schools, any more than we'd object to teaching Hindu creation myths, or Greek, or Hopi. Our objection is to the teaching of creationism as science, because it doesn't meet the criteria of science. Giving creationism equal time in science class would be equivalent to giving Holocaust revisionists equal time in history class.

Although both sides of the debate argue a lot of fine points, i think the fundamental issue in creation vs. evolution arguments is this: accepting biological evolution as the basis for the origin of species is the first step toward atheism. That's not to say that all evolutionists are atheists-- far from it. In fact, Pope John Paul II made his famous statement that evolution had to be regarded as more than a hypothesis (although there are indications that the Catholic church hopes to back away from that stand). Although evolutionists don't really discuss it often, i think it's true: acceptance of evolution does lead to atheism. Again, i think Richard Dawkins made this point in one of this books, but a scientific explanation for the origin of species (and essentially, life itself) is a practical prerequisite for rejecting God, even if Enlightenment philosophers did not require it.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Missed It By That Much

The short version: i ran 3:22:16, which is 1 minute 17 seconds slower than the time i need to qualify for Boston (3:20:59). So that sucks. On the plus side, this is still my personal best time for the 4 marathons i've run, on the most hilly course i've run. I'm particularly happy with the second half, which i ran in about 1:41-- far and away my best second half.

The longer version: We drove up to about the Thousand Oaks area on Friday night, got a hotel along the freeway and spent the night. The next day we just drove up the 101 all the way to SF, except for food and bathroom breaks. The marathon expo was near the Embarcadero, just across from the ferry building. We got there at about 3:30, picked up my stuff, and then walked over to our hotel (the Omni, on the corner of California and Montgomery). We checked in and then walked around the city for a while, mostly Chinatown. I really wanted to get Chinese food, but i figured i should get some pasta so we ended up at the Cafe Niebaum-Coppola (yeah, the movie director who has his own winery). It was OK. The kids were amazingly cooperative, and they enjoyed Chinatown.

The run started at 5:20 on Sunday morning, so we went back to the hotel so i could get some sleep before getting up at 4am. I figured this early start would suck, especially since it meant that it'd be dark for the beginning of the race, but as it turned out i really liked it. It was cool, probably in the 50s and the start wasn't too crowded. The course was fun. Even though it was very hilly by the standards of a road marathon (how could it not be in SF?) it was easily the most interesting course i've run, the highlight of course being the trip over and back on the Golden Gate. Not surprisingly, it was foggy so there were no views from the bridge to speak of, but it was still cool. I've walked across the bridge in the past on the sidewalk thing built for that purpose, but running on the actual road was a rare experience.

The first half was pretty tough, and i came through the checkpoint just about 1:41. I was feeling good though, so i threw in a couple of faster miles and i got back on 3:20 pace fairly quickly. Although it seemed uphill for a long stretch, i felt really good. After about 18 miles i just started focusing on passing the next guy in front of me. There was a huge downhill just before 20 miles and after that it was fairly flat. I still felt strong until maybe mile 23 or 24 and then the wall hit me. I shuffled through the last couple of miles, but i never had to stop to walk. It sucks to miss my qualifying time by so little, but i feel like i pushed it as hard as i could, so i'm not too depressed.

Because of the early start, i was done before 9am, so i walked back to the hotel. I showered and changed, we checked out and drove over to Pier 39. I'd purchased tour tickets for Alcatraz. The tour is more fun than you might expect. It's a self-guided audio thing, which worked better than a normal group tour. Since you're going at your own pace, there's no big group through which you have to fight to see whatever point of interest you're at. The weather was good too, and the boat ride over was pleasant.

After the tour we hopped back in the car, found our way out of SF, and hopped on to the coast highway. We decided to stop in Monterey, so we got some dinner at a place down near Cannery Row and then got a hotel. We got up early on Monday morning and drove down to San Simeon to take the tour of Hearst Castle. There's a vast amount of cultural context to that place that my kids just don't have experience of yet, but i think they get the idea that it's an unusual place built by and unusual man.

Finally we just power drove down the 101-405-5-78-15 to home. Too damn much time in the car, but we avoided most of the worst traffic (thank you, car pool lane).

Friday, July 29, 2005

Running Commentary

I'm off to San Francisco this weekend to run the SF marathon. It's probably not going to be one of my faster races, but i think it'll be an interesting route. It includes a trip across the Golden Gate and back. I'm really looking forward to the trip if nothing else. It's been almost two years since i've been to the Bay area, probably the longest absence since i've lived in CA. We're planning to take the boys to the Monterrey Bay aquarium on the way up, and then we're going to visit Alcatraz on Sunday after the run (assuming i can still walk). We might go to Hearst Castle on the way back.

I don't really have a good sense of how i'll run this time. I've not done nearly as much long distance going into this race, which was intentional but still concerns me. I'm experimenting with the idea that slightly shorter distances at higher intensity will benefit me more than a bunch of 20+ mile runs. We'll see. My longest training run this time was about 18 miles, but i did speed work further into my cycle. Since this is a hillier race, i don't really expect a super-fast time, but i'm curious to see how the final 10k will go.

I don't remember where i saw it, but the description of the marathon that i like best goes something like this: you run until you are exhausted, suffering, demoralized; then you run 6 more miles. However, i'm trying to keep in mind the soon-to-be-legendary feats of Dean Karnazes, who recently completed a 262 mile run. I figure if he can run 10 straight, i oughta be able to get through 1 faster than i think.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Le Tour

Some human endeavors expose the inadequacy of our methods of communication. For example, parenthood is impossible to describe to somebody who's not a parent. I expect that the real experience of being in a military battle is indescribable. The most extreme things can probably only be experienced.

Every year when i watch the Tour de France, i realize that there's a whole lot of stuff in this race that's foreign to most people, and i don't mean just that it's in France (and maybe Germany, Belgium, Spain). The intricacies of bicycling racing are without parallel in the sports world. The concept of domestique, a rider whose main purpose is to serve the needs of the team's top rider, is strange, especially since these riders are in fabulous shape and often top racers (one of Lance's team members won the Giro d'Italia this year). The idea that you can win the war (the Tour) without winning any of the battles (the stages) is odd. The idea that in a sprint race a group of riders throws itself at the finish line with reckless abandon in order to win the stage, and yet they all get the same finish time as the peloton. The word peloton. Lots of strange stuff.

But none of that stuff is what i find so amazing, and so impossible to describe. The amazing part is the sheer physical accomplishment. These guys ride hard stage after hard stage with only a couple of "rest" days (on which the riders still ride in order to keep their legs loose). I usually do a couple of 100+ mile rides in a year. I don't race the distance, i just ride it usually averaging around 20 miles/hr on relatively flat rides, slower if there are hills. Still, it takes a lot out of me and i'm in fairly decent shape compared to the general public. These riders do harder, longer rides daily. Plus which, they are racing. Bicycle racing, despite what you'll hear from ignorant sports writers year after year, is a skill-intensive activity. Riding a bike at close to 30 miles/hr in the peloton is a skill, cornering at full speed on slick roads is a skill, descending a mountain road at 60 mph without wetting your pants is a skill. It's mentally exhausting to ride like this, because your attention can never waver.

I know that i never will experience anything quite like the Tour de France, and i'm sure that even my impressions of it are false in ways. But i've never seen anything on video, in print, or elsewhere that really conveys the essential incredibleness of the race. I think that's because there simply aren't adequate superlatives to describe what is for most people effectively impossible. Finishing Le Tour, never mind winning it, is superhuman.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

I spent most of the last two weeks at my parent's place in Indiana, which is not exactly where i would choose to spend my summer vacation, but you don't get to choose your family as they say. I have a strange fondness for Indiana, especially the northeastern corner where i spent my formative years, but i couldn't live there again. I miss the corn fields and the trees and the basic irrepressible greeness of the place. Unfortunately, the bugs like that stuff too. I like certain Hoosier behaviors, like the fact that a conversation doesn't count until you make eye contact and that most people would just as soon skip the small talk in favor of not talking at all. But i hate the red state politics. As the old joke goes, Indiana is a really good place to be from.

My boys enjoy visiting their grandparents. They like to go to my parent's lake place and fish or swim in the lake, but they also get to do things that they don't get to do at home like drink soda and watch TV for hours on end. Finally, they get to spend time with their cousins, Matt and Ben, with whom they have almost nothing in common besides similar ages and a sort of generic gifted child weirdness. Matt and Ben are tall and skinny and pale, my boys are shorter, tanned, and muscular. My nephew Matt is self-consciously intellectual and introverted, while my son Nathan, who is about the same age, is sociable and intuitive. Ben loves watching sports on TV (his dad is a radio guy, so Ben pretend-broadcasts imaginary games in his back yard), while my son Henry is purely kinetic. Still, the boys get along famously in that way that kids do. Kids have a talent for finding common interests.

Beyond fishing and swimming, we saw some movies and went to some car museums (my parents live in Auburn, IN, a classic car mecca). We hit some of our favorite eateries, like Fish of Stroh and Bob Evans for breakfast. But the thing we tend to do most when visiting my parents is nothing. Not in the sense of purposeful relaxation, like when you sit on the beach and have people bring you drinks with tiny umbrellas in them, but rather we collectively abandon our routines and just basically bide time between meals. No lessons or practices or appointments or plans. We watch TV, read books, and frequently we nap. It's the intellectual equivalent of fasting in order to purge the toxins.

Despite the fact that i stopped paying attention, stuff continued to happen in the world while i was gone. Armstrong's killing everybody in Le Tour again, Tiger won at St. Andrews, and B Hopkins finally lost his middleweight crown. General Westmoreland and Scotty died. San Diego changed mayors, twice. The new Harry Potter book sold roughly 1.7 zillion copies. Bush named a successor for Sandra Day O'Connor, whose name i think is John Roberts, which sounds vaguely like a euphemism for penis. There were hurricanes, one named Emily, which let me tease my wife on a daily basis about headlines saying things like "Emily pounds Mexico" or similar. But it'd be very easy to sit in my parent's basement and forget about the world, and to be honest i couldn't think of any very good reasons why i shouldn't.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Music Of My Youth

Thanks to access to a large on-line catalog of music, i've been exploring some of the music that i listened to when i was first starting to develop my own tastes (as opposed to listening to whatever my parents had on in the car). My older son Nathan is at this point in his life now, so it's been interesting to me to go back and look at what i liked then and why.

A large percentage of the music that i listened to then can be categorized as either a) now unlistenable, or b) already classic at the time. In the (a) category is stuff like KISS, Nazareth, and Ted Nugent; while the (b) category would include The Beach Boys and Elvis. I had a large collection of Beach Boys 8-track tapes, and a box full of Elvis 45's that would probably be worth something these days. Between those categories is a soup of classic rock, pop, and forgotten artists.

For reasons that i no longer remember, i started collecting music in the 8-track format, and that lasted for a while since i had a 8-track player in my first car (curious historical trivia: the 8-track tape was invented by Bill Lear of Learjet fame). Other than the Beach Boys and an embarassingly large collection of KISS tapes, i had Aerosmith, The Alan Parsons Project, Billy Joel, Elton John, Styx, and Led Zeppelin. Most of this music i'd be happy to never hear again, but there's some that i still enjoy. Billy Joel's The Stranger holds up fairly well, i think. I like most of Elton John's catalog still. Aerosmith is about the only harder rock band from the collection that i'd still listen to, though it's hard to find the Aerosmith catalog on-line prior to Rocks. With the exception of Alan Parsons, this was popular, chart-dwelling music that i'd heard on local radio. I had a few interesting nuggets that i'd acquired from friends or from the back of somebody's van. I had a Bay City Rollers tape because of a girl i liked. I had a couple of Parliament/Funkadelic tapes, though at the time i thought i was the only person who listened to them (remember, this is rural Indiana).

Despite my 8-track collection, i was something of an audiophile as a kid, within the limits of my very limited budget. I had a Kenwood integrated amp, a Kenwood tuner, and my pride-and-joy Electrovoice EV-1 speakers. It took me a while to scrounge the money for a turntable, but when i did the first two albums i bought were Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and KISS Alive II (yes, more KISS). Some of Rumours still sounds pretty good, i especially like Christine McVie's Songbird (i remember putting that on mix tape for my one-day-to-be wife while in college, along with other strange stuff like Yes's Roundabout and Squeeze's Is That Love. Why she still married me i don't know).

My taste didn't improve too much on vinyl. I remember having a Bad Company record, Candy O by the Cars, an REO Speedwagon record, some Queen (de rigeur during my early high school years). I had British Steel by Judas Priest (me and every other white male teenager). I had multiple Molly Hatchet records and Lynyrd Skynrd Live. It wasn't until high school that i had some moderately cool records that i still wish i had. I had More Songs About Buildings and Food by the Talking Heads, some Elvis Costello, and Squeeze. I also had a copy of Waylon Jenning's Ol' Waylon with Luckenbach, Texas. My mom bought me Pink Floyd's The Wall.

I guess what's most amazing to me in retrospect is how much music i didn't buy. I loved the Knack song My Sharona, but never bought the album. I like several of the new wave bands, but didn't purchase much beyond the token Elvis Costello and Squeeze. I didn't buy Jackson Brown's Running On Empty, despite the fact that i liked several of the songs. I didn't own a real punk record until college, or a rap album, and the only non-pop album i owned was a version of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. My conclusion is that my musical purchases were driven to a large extent by peer influence.

I don't feel too bad about this, given that it's almost an axiom within the music marketing world that young people buy music because other people buy it first. There must be some trendsetters, but the trends they set don't necessarily correlate to the music being interesting. My sense is that kids are escaping this now, probably because they have more ways to hear music. Music still has to be cool, but cool can now be defined by MTV, Fuse, Nickelodeon, the radio, some buddy's IPod, or Napster.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

July 4th

A mildly strange independence day. I got up at 5:30 and drove to the Scripps Ranch area of San Diego to do a 10k race. I felt good for a change and ran a decent time (for me) of about 39:20. That's my 10k PR, and my first time below 40 minutes.

In the afternoon we went to a party in Encinitas, the summer place of one of the Filipino families that my wife grew up with in Phoenix. There's a big wedding coming this Friday that's being held in San Diego, so there are a bunch of people in town.

After we came home, we took the boys to see Madagascar, along with my sister-in-law. It's a moderately cute movie, but the main plot is rendered completely irrelevant by the scene-stealing lemurs, lead by King Julien (voice by Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G).

Got home in time to grill some hamburgers and watch fireworks from the back yard and drink some beer; because after all that's what independence day is all about. For many in my neighborhood, the 4th is sort of Memorial Day, take II. Flags, parades, fireworks, and lots of show of support for the troops, which around here means unquestioning support for whatever idiocy the president is proposing this week. I like to think of it as Thomas Jefferson day, a celebration of our most enignmatic founding father. Whether it's true or not, i like the myth of Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence solo, suspecting that it would hard for people to understand, that posterity would raise its collective eyebrows at the "created equal" bit coming from a slaveholder. I like to think that if Jefferson came back today, he'd regard most of the politicians in Washington on both sides of the aisle as self-evident dipshits, and that he'd have special contempt for the brainless self-assurance of our chief dipshit.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Bert Jefferson

I was reading Halley's Comment a few days ago, and she pointed to this on-line article from Best Life about the Top 5 male character traits. I'm not sure how significant it is, but i noticed that the top 3 traits for men are also the top 3 traits for a pet dog. Best Life is basically Men's Health for the mid-life crisis set near as i can tell, with articles about flattening abs and removing chest hair so it probably shouldn't be treated as a peer-reviewed journal. Still, i'm skeptical that what attracts women is faithfulness, dependability, kindness, etc. I'm suspicious that women are not entirely honest about what they really want in men, because men are not often honest about they want in women. Especially since what men often want in women is variety.

I've been married for 18 years and my wife is an attractive woman, so i figure i must possess these traits to some extent. But i can't say that i'm really all that excited about it. Deep down i think that most men don't want to be thought of as "the marrying sort". The sort of man that you'd take home to your mother is precisely the sort of man that no man who has ever wanted to be a pirate wants to be. And pretty much every man wants to be a pirate.

There's this line in The Man Who Came To Dinner where the Maggie Cutler character (Bette Davis in the movie) is talking with Sheridan Whiteside about her relationship with the local newspaper man, Bert Jefferson. She says something to the effect that her time with Whiteside has been exciting and glamorous but there comes a time in every woman's life when she wants... Bert Jefferson. The way she says it makes me feel sorry for Bert Jefferson. I always secretly wish that he'd run off to New York with Lorraine Sheldon, produce his play and become a star.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Reflections on Fatherhood

Most people live among several subcultures: where we work, where we live, where we socialize, where we play, etc. (and god save us from those who don't). In my work subculture, it's fairly common for people to wait until their mid- or late- thirties to get married or become parents; it's also common for people to never get married and never become parents. So, although i would have been considered a very old first-time father (i was 30) by the standards of the community that i grew up in, i'm still something of an aberration within the community in which i work (probably in more ways than one, but here i mean because i'm a parent of 11 and 8 year old sons). So, as the wise old man of this particular subculture, i've been asked on a few occasions if i think that parenthood is a requirement for fulfillment in life. My answer, which might surprise you, is no.

My children are by far the most important thing in my life; and i love my sons, as most good parents love their children, with an intensity that borders on the pathological. I can't imagine life without either of them. I don't know if you can call this a purpose in life, but it certainly gives life more meaning for me. But the terrible secret of being a parent is that the joy you derive from having kids has a fairly significant price. That price, to put it simply, is the end of your own life. I don't mean that your children will sneak into your bedroom some night and snuff you out with a pillow (necessarily). It's just that you have to subjugate your own desires to those of your kids for a fairly long period of time.

Most parents do this willingly, and accept the consequences to career, freedom, social life, etc. A certain percentage do not (most are probably men). Not surprisingly, it's often the older parents who have the greatest difficulty. If you've been doing things your own way for 40 years, it's very hard to change. And, yes, i've personally seen this happen more than once. It's not that hard to understand. Everything that makes having children wonderful and worthwhile can also seem like a crushing responsibility because of the drastic change it causes to your life.

But i know many women and men who i'm sure would have been great parents who chose not to be. Frequently i've become envious of people i know in this category. They often have had significant career and financial success, but more relevant to me is the freedom they have to travel and to alter their own lives to find new experiences or meet new goals. I don't regard these people as selfish because of their choices; in fact it's my experience that my good friends of this type are extremely generous, and are often the sort of creative, high-energy people that draw other people to them. Most of the people i'm thinking of are entrepreneurs or educators.

I know enough people who've been successful at both aspects of life that i can't regard a happy family life and personal success as mutually exclusive. But i think that fulfillment in life can't be reduced to a list of experiences that you have to check off. I doubt that it can be reduced to anything: there is no formula because there is no simple answer. Every path you take in life requires you to skip at least one other path; and if you're an intelligent, compassionate person you'll always wonder about the path not taken. For me though, fatherhood reduces whatever doubts i might have. If i weren't a father, i wouldn't get to read things like the following, which my younger son Henry wrote in my father's day card:

Dear Dad,
I love you more than anything in the universe. Except mom. I love you the same.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Sarcasm

When i started this blog i made a conscious decision to be relatively sincere, which is hard for me because sarcasm is encoded in my DNA. I've become so practiced and effortless at sarcasm in my speech that many people are unaware that i'm attempting it. But sarcasm is to humor what the National Enquirer is to literature, and ultimately it's as tiresome to produce as it is to read.

The problem with sincerity is that it requires knowledge, both of the world at large and of yourself. With sarcasm i can expound endlessly on things about which i know nothing, and i don't have to ever reveal anything precise about what i think and feel. It's trivial to accomplish, but also trivial period. It seems that quite a few bloggers, especially of the political sort, can achieve the same effect without sarcasm, but that's beside the point. Attempting to be sincere is hard. Even a minor confession or opinion must expose something about how you think and what you know. If i make a completely non-controversial statement like, say, "I really like the early music of REM", reactions might range from "Who gives a shit?" to "What a surprise! A middle-aged guy who likes inoffensive alt rock" to "Listen to Velvet Underground or Big Star or Television to hear where those guys stole all of their ideas". But the truth is, i really do like the early music of REM (from Chronic Town through Document). It might not be an opinion that is original or interesting or informed, but it's sincere. Sincerity requires that you both expose yourself to criticism and that you confront your own peculiar mind.

I still resort to sarcasm when i can't figure out how i feel about something. For example, there's been a lot of press recently about the Kansas debate over teaching evolution in schools, and about intelligent design more generally. My reaction to evolution opponents and ID proponents tends to be more visceral than it needs to be. I really want to call these people stupid, willfully ignorant, or worse (like, while making the rounds of my favorite blogs i somewhere learned the pseudo-word "fucktard"). But the reluctantly sincere part of my brain knows that most of these folks are moderately intelligent, well-intentioned people whose profound wrongness is a result of either failing to grasp a fairly difficult concept or desperately attempting to find flaws in something that is opposed to their world view. They piss me off, a lot, and to some extent it's because i grew up around similar people and i know that their opposition to the teaching of evolution is just a tiny part of a regressive agenda that would oppose anything (art, music, literature,speech,behavior) that's not of Biblical origin. Still, i don't want to simply call them idiots though that might be my sincere feeling, so i might borrow phrases such as that they are "people who understand the 10 Commandments but not the Second Law of Thermodynamics" or that "the monkeys are not so crazy about being their ancestors either". Sarcastic, still cruel maybe, but not quite so blunt.

Another problem with being sarcastic is that nobody can take what you say seriously. Of course, in the vast majority of cases nobody will take anything you have to say seriously regardless of how earnest you might be. But sarcasm announces to the world that no matter how extreme or vitriolic is the statement you want to make, you don't expect to ever have to defend it. Both Al Franken and Ann Coulter suffer from this. Though i agree with Franken most of the time and i find him to be funny, it's no easier to discern sincere from glib than it is with Coulter's yappy chihuahua act.

So, no sarcasm here. I might occasionally try to be funny, but it'll be in a completely honest and forthright manner. No really, i'm being totally serious. Really. I swear.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Girl Fight

The older i get, the less of humanity i understand. Recently i've found that many people are of the opinion that women should not participate in or even be exposed to violent sports, even though they don't necessarily oppose fighting sports for men. I can understand that a man might not want his wife to fight, or a mother might not want her daughter to fight, out of concern for her well being. But i'm perplexed as to why the same person would therefore decide that it is inappropriate for women in general to fight. To be fair, some of the people who oppose women's boxing oppose boxing in general (though without exception more vociferously for women because apparently the brutality of boxing is magnified when practiced among women).

My wife boxes, which is to say that she does the training that a boxer would, she spars, and occasionally she fights in the ring (obviously, as an amateur, which means that she wears head protection). When discussing this with male friends or colleagues she often hears comments like "I would never let my wife box". A cursory search of the web will show you far more idiotic pronouncements, such as the idea that women get into boxing only because they have been culturally conditioned by feminists to believe that they need to match men in all endeavors, or even that the desire of a woman to participate in fighting is somehow pathological. Another common complaint about women's fights is that they are inelegant; that the women display less skill than their male counterparts so that the only interest to the audience can be that of a bloody spectacle (which is true in some cases, e.g., Tonya Harding). But fights are frequently pretty damned ugly, whether between men or women. Like auto racing, there are always going to be fans who are there to see skill and fans who are there to see wrecks.

I train with numerous women in the martial arts, and i understand their motivation to be the same as mine: self defense, physical conditioning, the desire to participate in something with an interesting history and culture, the beauty of the art aspect of martial arts. They, like my wife, don't seem less feminine, or determined to challenge my masculinity. The desire to learn how to fight is, i think, an entirely human urge; even if it's shared by only a small percentage of the population. In a sense, fighting is the original extreme sport: it's about athleticism, discipline, grace and beauty, but it's also about adrenaline and risk. Fighters are the best all-around athletes in the world.

In some ways fighting, particularly boxing, seems like an ideal sport for women. In most sports, women are compared unfavorably with men because of perceived differences in strength, size, or speed. But sport fighting has long been designed to match opponents with similar physical stature, so in principle the reasonable comparison would be between women in the same weight class just as male boxers are compared middleweight to middleweight or bantamweight to bantamweight. But even though women's boxing has gained popularity in recent years, media reports on the subject are frequently about the most negative aspects.

For example, CNN Headline News recently ran a report on Katie Dallam, a female boxer who suffered severe head injuries in her first professional bout. The tone of the CNN report was that of a cautionary tale, as if Dallam's injuries were the predictable outcome of a woman fighting. Some, including apparently Dallam herself, believe that her story might have been the inspiration for the equally bleak movie Million Dollar Baby. Except that there's one major difference. The character in Million Dollar Baby was a good boxer, who was injured by a cheap shot that lead to a freak accident. Katie Dallam was not a good boxer. The video of her match against Sumya Anani shows that she was not ready for the fight, and that it should have been stopped in the first round. That the fight went on as long as it did required insanely bad judgment on the part of several people at ringside. Dallam's story is tragic, but it's not evidence that boxing leads inevitably and immediately to brain damage, any more than having a car accident while not wearing a seatbelt proves that driving is inevitably fatal.

Significant coverage was given also to the story of Becky Zerlentes, a college professor who is believed to be the first woman ever to die in a boxing match. Supposedly, she died of blunt force trauma from a jab thrown by her opponent. An autopsy revealed no aneurysm or other conditions that might have caused the bleeding in her brain. There's really nothing that can be said to minimize the tragedy. Had this been a case of a man dying in the ring, a subset of sportswriters would have used it as an opportunity to call for an end to all violent sports, but most would have taken the approach: "He knew the risks, it's a dangerous sport, but he died doing what he loved, yada yada". But because it was a woman, many writers opined that it is a shame, in general, that women are being drawn into boxing despite the thousands of fights that conclude with no injury. I think Becky Zerlentes would have hated that.

There's a more general trend toward protecting women from violence that also mystifies me. Duncan Hunter (who is the congressman from my district) recently introduced a bill to congress that would have eliminated numerous jobs in the military for women, motivated by the fact that it's hard to differentiate between combat and non-combat situations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm not clear why women are excluded from combat situations in the first place, but to attempt to remove them completely from harm's way seems contrary to the spirit that caused them to join the military. On the other hand, the most recent cause celebre of the Fox News crowd is how youth sports have become wimpified by liberals who are too worried about the participants' self esteem. I assume though, that they're only worried about the wimpification of boys sports (what's worse is that the people complaining about said wimpification look like the sort of folks who regard getting off the couch to find the remote a form of exercise). Personally, i believe these are all symptoms of the same disease. The people who want women to be more like June Cleaver and little boys to be more like Huckeberry Finn are quite simply people who are afraid of the potential of women.

I doubt that boxing will ever become a popular sport among women, if only because it's not that popular among the general population. Despite the recent spate of boxing movies, The Contender on TV, and a surprising number of good high profile prize fights; boxing is not going to challenge golf or tennis in terms of participation. Even if you eliminate the hitting part, training to fight is hard work. I believe that women's professional boxing will thrive, though for the foreseeable future its popularity will be driven by talented fighters who also happen to be attractive women, such as Laila Ali or Elena "Baby Doll" Reid (who, incidentally, is one of my wife's cousins).

Do i get concerned when my wife fights? Yup. I also get concerned when she drives on the California freeway or flies in a commercial jet (But i also admit that i'm comforted by the fact that unless you're in reasonably good condition, she could probably beat the crap out of you). Fighting is something that you choose to do, it doesn't have anything to do with self defense. It's a conscious decision to assume the risk of being hurt and to assume the responsibility of hurting somebody else. You might think it's stupid or insane, you might think it's immoral, you might not want to watch it, you almost certainly can't comprehend the desire to do it. None of that translates into a right to disallow the choice.