Monday, December 18, 2006


Last Friday was my 43rd birthday (0x2B). I did the usual stuff: went on a long bike ride, hung out with my friends Cathy and Tom, and ate and drank too much. Anything i could say about this year would probably just depress us both, so i'll refrain.

Winning Still Fun

My son's All-Star soccer team won their 3rd and final tournament last weekend over a field of 20 teams. They had a bit of a scare in the semi-final game, in which they scored a goal to tie the game with less than a minute left. They then won the game in a shootout (Henry made the winning penalty shot), and they won the championship game 4-0. They even got their picture in the local paper (Henry is the one right behind the trophy).

Monday, December 11, 2006


A friend of mine lent me his copies of Dawkins's The God Delusion and Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, mostly because he knows that i am a fellow heathen. I finally managed to get through Letter, and i'll probably finish Dawkins eventually just because i think he's an excellent writer. But i have to admit i have little enthusiasm for the arguments against religion. It's not that i don't agree with the authors -- if they are the preachers, i am the choir-- but i know that they will have no effect on the people who need to read them.

Very few believers will read the books to begin with, though many will condemn them. But of the small percentage who do read them, the arguments therein will not only fail to convince, they will probably strengthen the resolve of most. Belief in God, especially in specific variations like Christianity and Islam, is not a subtle misinterpretation of evidence or a trick of the senses. It is the willful acceptance of the obviously absurd. I don't say this as a sarcastic jibe. I know exactly what it feels like. I went to a Lutheran parochial grade school, and i came very near to choosing a Lutheran high school as a prelude to the Lutheran seminary when i was about 13. The sense of being a part of that religious community was one of the most powerful emotional experiences of my life. Even though you know intellectually that virgin birth and the resurrection of the dead and the Biblical version of creation are not reasonable, there is a sense of exhilaration at accepting them as real despite what your brain tells you.

For me, it took a process of self-discovery to go from true believer to non-believer. It took being away from the influences of that community and being able (even required) to think about things for myself. When i was 14 or so, no amount of criticism or rebuttal would have swayed me from my religious beliefs. When i finally came to think that there is no God, the shift from certainty to doubt made me reluctant to ever profess any conviction too vociferously.

While i don't the buy the hogwash that atheism is just another belief system, i do think of it as a sort of advocacy. In other words, atheism isn't just the lack of belief in God, it is the viewpoint that non-belief is a superior way to treat with the world around you. My personal viewpoint is that there is no God, but also that there are many unknowable things in the universe. Not unknown, but unknowable. We cannot see to the ends of the universe, we can't conduct experiments that span vast spaces and times, we can't observe without altering. Not now, not ever. To me, that's a sufficient basis for agnosticism, though i think i'm what Dawkins calls a de-facto atheist, in the sense that i think it's far more likely that there is no God even if i think the question is ultimately unanswerable.

For me atheism or agnosticism comes along with skepticism, rationalism, materialism, etc.; but i don't think of myself as being entirely nonspiritual. I'm not sure how i would describe my version of being spiritual, but it encompasses my desire to undergo slightly crazy physical trials and to put myself in situations that provoke my sense of wonder (the night sky in the middle of nowhere is profoundly spiritual). It is connected to the completely irrational love that i feel for my children, and the inexplicable bliss i can feel on a Saturday morning with my arms wrapped around my wife. It's in the pain and distress i can feel about things that are not, in any reasonable sense, painful. For me, the soul consists of all those parts of my brain that make me something more than an animal.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Winning Is Fun

My younger son's all-star soccer team won their second consecutive tournament yesterday. They won the championship game 3-0 so there were no shootout heroics. He did make one beautiful save. The other team hit a perfect cross from the right side and he jumped up to get his hands on it, which deflected the ball to the left. As another player from the other team came in from the left to hit the deflection, Henry darted to his right and kicked the ball out of bounds. Even Henry was impressed by it. The team was in overdrive for this whole tournament though, outscoring their opponents 24-2, with both goals-against coming on penalty kicks.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Blogs I Still Read

I'm not sure if blogging has become so mainstream that nobody talks about it anymore, or if it's a fad that has passed its peak. Personally, i read very few blogs regularly now, and a good percentage of those are work-related. Among the hand-full that i still visit almost daily are:
  • - Warren is (unbeknownst to him) sort of my Beatrice, in the sense that he is my guide to a kind of underworld. Plus, there are often pictures of persons unclothed.
  • Postmodern Sass - Still fun to read, still sui generis, not still in Canada.
  • Global Guerrillas - Because it scares me.
  • BoingBoing - More of a metablog, but in a good way. Basically the Slashdot of oddness.
I think there are two main reasons why my blog enthusiasm has waned. The first is that i just can't stomach reading political opinion anymore, even if (maybe especially if) i agree with it. The other is that anything that's interesting on the web will be forwarded to me within 15 minutes by my virtual network of acquaintances. For example, the Peanut Butter Manifesto, about the problems of my beloved employer, was IM'd to me by three people.

Highlights of November

Some stuff that happenened this month:
  • I ran a 1:23.52 half marathon at the Silver Strand Half Marathon, my personal best and a good sign that i'm on track to run sub-3 for my next marathon.
  • Henry is playing goalie for his league's soccer All-Star team. They just won their first tournament and he was the hero of the championship game, saving the first two goals when the game had to be decided by penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie.
  • Nathan played the cello for his school's advanced orchestra in a public concert at the local performing arts center. He also played with the younger middle-school orchestra because they didn't have a sufficiently advanced cellist yet.
Henry's at the bottom of this pile:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Voter Apathy

This seems like it should be a good time for one of those long, philosophical posts on my view of the world. I'm pleased with the results of Tuesday's election, i'm elated that Rumsfeld is gone, and i'm relieved that Bush won't be able to use his last two years to screw things up even worse. But the only thing remarkable enough to capture my notice is how little i really care. At least we get to have a little fun at the expense of the right for a while.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sex and Candy

Halloween again. All holidays should be based around the idea of candy as currency. My sons chose the following for their costume themes this year: Nathan is a skateboarder from the Dogtown era; Henry is, for the third straight year, the grim reaper. There was a report on TV about how costumes for women (and girls) are now less about being scary and more about being sexy. I guess the theory is that ghosts and vampires are pretty tame compared to all of the crap out in the real world that can scare the hell out of us. So if a teenage girl wants to scare somebody, she can at least scare her parents.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Monday, September 18, 2006


[Started this on September 18, but got sidetracked]

Emily and i left for Spain early on Sunday morning-- San Diego to O'Hare to Madrid by Monday morning. We had to get to Bilbao by Monday evening, so we had already reserved a rental car. In all the times i've been to Europe, i've never driven so that was an adventure. We had a bit of trouble getting out of Madrid, but eventually we just started following signs heading toward Burgos.

The terrain just north of Madrid looks remarkably similar to southern California, including the brown vegetation. The freeway looks similar also, except that the signs are in Spanish. Just what is a "Cambio de sentido", by the way? We stopped in a town called Lerma, just short of Burgos to try to get some lunch. None of the bars, restaurants, tapacerias, whatever, looked particularly inviting, so we just went to a local market and bought some stuff to make sandwiches and we managed to negotiate the purchase of 3 apples and 2 peaches from the produce lady.

North of Burgos the terrain starts to get hillier, until it's basically mountains near Bilbao. As you enter Bilbao it seems like a fairly bustling metropolis, but it's actually a fairly small city that just doesn't really have any outskirts. Nonetheless it took us quite a while to locate the hotel. The whole "grid" idea isn't widely used in European cities, and Bilbao is no exception. I'm sure it all makes sense once you've been there a while, but the combination of round-abouts and apparently random one-way streets reminds me of playing Zork in college.

Eventually we found the Sheraton and tried to take a nap. Couldn't sleep too long though since there was a reception that night at 7. I was tired, but i figured it would be best to go to the reception, have dinner, and try to get on a fairly normal schedule. After the reception, Emily and i and my colleague Todd and his wife and daughter, and several of the employees of the host company went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant. It was only 9pm, which is apparently a bit early by Spanish standards, but they served us anyway. Most of the food was excellent, but i also formed an aversion to a standard north-Spanish dish, which is basically cod (bacalao) in a sauce called "pil-pil".

The next day was the first day of the conference, which included my presentation. It went OK. The afternoon sessions were hard with the jet lag in effect, but i started to feel better toward the end of the day. After the conference we got a guided tour of the Guggenheim. The art was somewhat sparse beyond the permanent displays, but the building is amazing. It looks so bizarre and disorienting from the outside, but it's quite soothing and well-structured inside. The most memorable exhibit inside was the set of giant steel sculptures by Richard Serra. Although you can't touch them and they don't move, it's still an interactive exhibit of sorts, since you can walk around and within the sculptures.

We had dinner that evening at another hotel, although it was not dinner in the sense i'm used to. Basically it was an extended cocktail party with lots of wine and hor d' oeuvres. Not quite tapas, but not quite traditional course either. It was fun. An excellent way to do dinner for a large group of people, since you can move around and change conversation partners.

The highlight of the next day was Chris Anderson of "Long Tail" fame. He's turned the idea into something of a cottage industry; and it does seem like a valuable insight with regard to the Internet's impact on markets. Paul Lamere also gave a fun presentation on his work on content-based recommendation.

I skipped the afternoon session so that Emily and i could have lunch and see some of Bilboa. We went to a place called Victor Montes in the old part of Bilbao. We had pigeon and some nice Rioja. We went for a walk afterwards, trying to find a church called the Basilica Begona,which turned out to be closed. We spent a couple of hours walking around the mall across the street from our hotel, and had dinner in our room.

The next day we got up and started driving back to Madrid. The drive back was pretty much the same as the drive up, until we got to Madrid and got sort of lost. It took us a while but we finally located ourselves on the map. We circled around our hotel on Gran Via for a while until we finally found a parking structure at the Plaza del Carmen. We checked in at the hotel and walked back to the car to get our luggage, whereupon we found that the side street next to our hotel is the workplace for a fairly significant number of prostitutes. So far my opinion of Madrid was low, and i found myself wondering how to say "shithole" in Spanish. We went for another walk and went to the Prado Museum. The art at the Prado was interesting to me with my humanities background, but it was just too much after a day of fighting traffic and trying to get oriented.

The next morning we left plenty early to get to the airport (we thought). We got stuck in a bit of traffic, but nothing too bad, and we managed to get the rental car returned and up to the terminal with about 2 hours to go before the flight. There was a long line for baggage/boarding passes, but we didn't worry too much since we had plenty of time.

We got the ticket counter with just about an hour left before our flight. We started to check in, whereupon the guy at the counter told us that the flight was "closed" and that he couldn't give us boarding passes. We thought he must have mistaken our flight number so we started explaining that we had an hour still, but he told us that they close out the flights 55 minutes before the flight. We screamed and yelled and begged and pleaded, but to make a long story short we missed our flight. Fortunately, there was another flight to New York that day, and we managed to get on it, though of course we'd missed our connection, and my dad was scheduled to leave San Diego the followed.

We ended up spending a night in JFK, but we did get a flight home early the next morning. We had to arrange for some friends to get the kids so that my dad could make his flight. It was not a fun experience, but at least the kids didn't have to go through it. My advice: DO NOT fly Iberia airlines unless you happen to be Iberian.

I like Spain, though i don't think i got to see the best of it. The food and wine are good, the climate is nice, and the people are friendly. I speak just enough Spanish to get myself in trouble, and the Spanish lifestyle fits in nicely with my essentially nocturnal nature. I still want to get to Barcelona and the south of Spain, but this was a nice introduction.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Summery Summary

The problem with blogging is that when there's actually stuff happening in my life, i don't have any time to blog about it. Summer's about over, the kids are back in school, so i figured i'd write myself a brief synopsis of the last month.

Nathan is now in 7th(!) grade and Henry is in 4th. They're both playing soccer again this fall; they've been practicing for about a month, but games don't start until this Saturday (9/9).

My job has been kicking my butt. I finally managed to hire all of the people that i had reqs for, but we still have about 3x as much work as we have capacity for. We also have frequent changes in direction and priority; so much so that even agile methods can't handle the chaos.

Emily and i are going to Spain next week. I was invited to give a presentation at this event, so we decided to make a small vacation out of it. We'd have probably stayed longer, but my dad is coming out to watch the kids and we didn't want to have him away from home too long with my mom still recovering from heart surgery.

I ran the America's Finest City half marathon a couple of weekends ago. I ran my personal best (1:28.12) and my first half-marathon under 1:30. I need to shave off about 3 minutes by November when i plan to run the Silver Strand half.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Dismantling of My Psyche

The mid-life crisis is most often viewed as a desperate attempt to cling to youth. But i think that most of the mid-life crisis variations are about a transition from the illusions of your youth to the reality of life: literal disillusionment. Some of the realizations that you must confront are bleak: yes, you are going to die some day; no, you are not going to realize all of your dreams. Others are just sort of depressing. You are officially too old to be referred to as a wunderkind. You are no longer eligible to win the Fields Medal. You've passed a point where your body is not going to maintain itself.

The hard part though, at least for me, is the more mundane stuff. By the time you reach 40+, your degree of career success is fairly apparent, so if you're not recognized among your peers it's probably not because you haven't blossomed yet. Any physical imperfections are no longer diminished by youth, so if you were beauty-challenged to begin with you can't fool yourself into believing that you are "quirky" or "alternative". You're just ugly. If you haven't taken the risks you wish you had, you probably aren't going to.

What you're left with are self-imposed challenges that mean little to the rest of the world (i run marathons and do martial arts). And if you're lucky like me, you have family. You can't take credit for your family, but if they love you and you love them then they contribute in some intangible way to your self-esteem. Being that middle-aged dude who lives alone in a studio apartment and talks about his "girlfriend" would be suicidally depressing to me.

But you realize at some point in your growth process that it's all illusion, even the things you hold most dear. This is, i think, the mid-life crisis, and it happens in mid-life because that's the first point in your life where your fear of the unknown is overridden by the knowledge that there are worse things than death . You have to tear down all of the elaborate mental framework you've built up over the years, and then find something useful to build out of it. If you can, i suspect that your later years can be a time of self-realization and enlightenment. If you can't, your later years are a tedious series of near-identical days that you eventually hope will simply end.

If all this sounds vaguely Buddhist, that's not really my intention. I don't claim any sort of awakening has or will occur. In fact, i feel that it's the opposite in the sense that i have no greater understanding of reality, except the realization that it is and will probably remain elusive. Not only do we have these pitiful excuses for sensory organs that allow us to only vaguely and partially sample our environment, but we cling to primitive models of interaction to make sense of our human relationships: faith, trust, morality, family, religion. All in all i love life and am grateful for the opportunity to have existed; but that doesn't mean that it will have mattered.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Sub Three

This last week marked the first week in a 24 week training program for my next marathon. My goal for the this one (Carlsbad Marathon, Jan. 21) is a bit ambitious: i want to break 3 hours. Sub three hour marathons are not rare by any stretch, but for me it's going to be a serious challenge. First, it's more than 15 minutes better than my current PR, which is a huge jump. Second, i'm not really built to run fast. Although i'm down to around 10% body fat, i still weigh in at about 180, which is about 50 pounds heavier than elite runners. Finally, i'll be 43 by that time.

The first step in my preparation has been to try to lose weight. I'm shooting for about 175, and around 8% body fat by race time. So far that's been hard, though i've managed to lose almost 5 pounds. The program i'm trying to follow is from Pete Pfitzinger's "Advanced Marathoning". It ranges from about 50 to 70 miles per week. That's a bit more mileage than i'm used to, but i think training volume is going to be key. I know i can run the sub 3 pace for a half, so the trick is going to be to get myself confident that i can maintain it past 20. However, doing 10-15 mile runs mid-week is going to be hard to maintain.

My first week was mixed. I did a really nice 7 miler on Thursday. I felt relaxed and finished right around 50 minutes, which is just a touch slower than my necessary marathon pace. I did a slow but OK 10 miler on Friday, and an adequate recovery run on Saturday. But my 13 mile run yesterday was a chore. Doesn't help that i was up late Saturday and drank too much, but still i'd have hoped for an easier run. This part of the program is an endurance "mesocycle", so i mostly just run a lot of miles. Not much VO2 max stuff until later. The only speed work at this time is some 100m strides built in to the Tuesday run.

I'm not sure if i can deal with making several attempts at this goal, as i did with Boston qualifying. Given the step up in mileage, training duration, speed, etc.; i can't imagine doing this every year until i succeed. I guess it will depend to a certain extent on how close i get. If i miss by a minute, i might be motivated to try again. If i miss by 10, it'll be hard to justify.

Friday, July 28, 2006


Yesterday was an interesting day, in that "May you live in interesting times" sort of way. Normally i probably would have done a blog entry on the Floyd Landis situation. Last night i also had dinner with my martial arts instructor and our Sifu in celebration of my brown sash.

But the major event of the day was that my mom had emergency heart bypass surgery. It seems at this point that she's going to be OK, but she had to have at least a triple bypass so she's in for a long recovery. At 68 i realize that she isn't an unusual candidate for such surgery, but it's still hard for me to imagine. I don't really think of my parents as old even though they're retired and approaching 70. They don't have old-people habits and demeanor quite yet.

My mom is almost the same age as her father was when he died (of a stroke). Her mother is still alive and kicking in her mid 90s though. I always figured mom for the type who, like my grandmother, would live way beyond the normal life span just because she gets a lot out of life. I suppose it doesn't really work that way though. I don't really know at this point what the consequences of major heart surgery are. Obviously, she's not going to be running marathons and scaling mountains any time soon, but i don't really know how recoverable this kind of heart damage is.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


It took me quite a while, but i finally managed to take and pass the brown sash test at my martial arts school last night. I became the first adult brown sash at my branch of the school. The test was only about 1 1/2 hours long, but it was very exhausting. My arms and legs still hurt today. I think this test is so hard because of the abdundance of weapons forms and techniques.

Even though i figure i've got close to two years more to reach my black sash, i feel like this was an important milestone if only because i can more easily imagine reaching the black sash level now. It took me almost 4 years to reach this level, so i sort of imagine this as being my bachelor's degree and now i get to start on my master's degree.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Reporting To Me

After a few years off from the people-management thing, i find myself back in a technical management role. Why, i don't know. I really thought that i was done with that, because i didn't really like it much the last time 'round. It's not that i especially suck at it, it's just that i'm not sure i believe in hierarchical decision-making structures. There are times when it's convenient or more efficient to have an individual who must make the final decision, but i'm not sure that it leads to better decisions.

So far the hardest part this time is hiring people. There seems to be a dearth of really good Java programmers, especially those who have strong analytical capabilities. I get a lot of alphabet soup on resumes, but problem-solving skill is hard to come by. My company's interview procedure involves solving a relatively simple programming problem, and so far 4 of the 5 interviewees that i've had for senior positions have totally failed at it (we hired the 5th). This is *not* a hard problem. I posed the problem to my wife, who admittedly is quite intelligent but not a programmer, and she was able to describe a correct procedure for solving the problem without even benefit of pen and paper.

What's odder still is the many of these folks are very bright. They can conjure up obscure facts or calculations that are essentially irrelevant to the problem. What they lack is not intelligence, but some skill or trait that enables them to get to the point. They seem to have no apparatus for starting the problem. It's kind of like when my younger son Henry started playing soccer. He would quickly score 3 goals at the beginning of the game and they'd make him stop scoring. It wasn't that he was that much better at soccer, it's just that he seemed to understand the point of the game better.

Boy, i still really hate meetings too. Like a lot of companies these days we've got multiple management perspectives: the management of engineering, the management of projects, and the management of products. That basically means that any given engineer must deal with, at a minimum, 1 + 2 *(number of projects) people who can potentially call for meetings. At the technical management level that expands to the projects of everybody that reports to you, so basically life sucks.

My main motivation for this move were, i guess: 1) i liked the guy i worked for and he moved up, 2) i honestly think that the part of the business i work in is interesting and i hope to have some influence on it. Or maybe it's just because i'm old and it sounds better to say that i'm in middle management rather than a code monkey.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Nineteen Years

Today is my 19th wedding anniversary. It seems almost impossible that it has been that long. There are people born on my wedding day who are now high-school graduates and who probably think of themselves as real, full-grown human beings. They can vote and drive. When i was married the Internet was the Arpanet and nobody had thought of HTML yet. Ronald Reagan was president. Ronald Reagan! That was two George Bushes ago!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Dixie Chicks

There's a news story out about how the Dixie Chicks are seeing slow ticket sales in some markets for their latest tour, apparently due to fans who are still unhappy with their comments disparaging President Bush. Some folks think this is a triumph of "vote with your wallet" politics, though their album had fairly brisk sales in its release week. Personally, i think it's an indication that a bunch of country music fans are brainless goobers who have replaced rational thought with regional group-think.

Dixie Chicks have produced some of the best music in mainstream country over the last decade, and their new album (Taking The Long Way) is very, very good. It's not musically groundbreaking, and it's not overtly political in some Peet Seeger-esque folk music tradition. But all of the songs are very solid, and some are excellent. The track "Not Ready To Make Nice" has some of the angriest lyrics since whenever the last Rage Against the Machine album came out, but it's also a personal and sincere anger, not just a diatribe.

Country music has produced a number of jingoistic anthems in recent years (even before 9/11). I can dig the sentiment, but the music has consistently sucked (though i sort of like Toby Keith's "boot in the ass" song). The point is: country music fans can't have it both ways. Either this style of music is just a vehicle for propaganda and commercial jingles, or it's an earnest attempt to make something interesting or beautiful. As a fan, i think it's the latter; but if so then you can't dismiss the music simply because it doesn't match your ideology.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Al-Zarqawi was an evil bastard and i'm glad he's dead (now if only we could direct two 500-pound bombs on to Fred Phelps). However, i found it really strange that they had a large, framed photograph of al-Zarqawi at the press conference. I understand that it's important to present proof that al-Zarqawi is dead, but the photo was kind of creepy. Had they shown the image digitally or given it to the news organizations to show in an inset, it would have seemed less strange i think. The poster-size, framed photo they were using in the press conference was the modern day equivalent of mounting the enemy's head on the top of your keep wall. Which, i'm sure, was the intent. But still.

There's probably a certain psychological benefit in killing al-Zarqawi, both within Iraq and here in the states. But can anyone really believe that it makes a significant difference? Does anyone feel that the Iraqi insurgency was organized along the lines of a typical military establishment or nation-state, so that killing the leader disrupts the whole organism? Perhaps i've been reading too much Global Guerillas, but to think that this was like killing Hitler or even Saddam seems mistaken. John Robb on GG calls Zarqawi a "violence capitalist", an idea that i can understand. He wasn't like the CEO of a multinational corporation; he was like a venture capitalist who directed resources and ideas toward people who were already willing to undertake the work. Eliminating him will definitely leave a temporary void in the enterprise of terrorism, but you can't spur chaos where chaos is the method of choice.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Memorial Day Weekend

We spent the holiday weekend in Phoenix, driving over Friday night and returning yesterday. It was surprisingly mild in Phoenix, below 100 even during the middle of the day. On Saturday we spent most of the day at my sister-in-law's house, swimming in her pool and making food. We had a barbecue in the afternoon with some of her friends and some long-time friends from the local Filipino community.

In the evening we got the UFC 60 pay-per-view so that we could see the Hughes-Gracie fight. It was a bit of a disappointment, with Hughes winning near the end of the first round by TKO. It was a very strange fight, going to the ground earlier than i figured it would, Hughes unable to complete an arm-bar on Gracie despite having his arm well locked and bent, then Gracie giving up his back to Hughes. There were a couple of good undercard fights though, in particular the submission win by Dean Lister.

Went to see the X-Men movie on Sunday afternoon, which i found a bit boring. The emotional center of these movies (for me) is Magneto, and he totally went nuts in this chapter. When you lose sympathy with his viewpoint, the movies are just shoot-em-ups. And nobody except the innocent bystanders ever dies, so who cares? There were a couple of hot new mutants, but then again i like chicks with tattoos.

Emily and i spent Sunday night at the Hermosa Inn, a small hotel in the Paradise Valley area. It's a lovely little place and we had an excellent dinner at the restaurant, Lon's. The hotel is built around the former home of cowboy artist Lon Megargee, hence the name of the restaurant. As much as i love my kids, it was nice to have some time alone.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Somewhere Up High

I'm not a religious person, or even philosophical. I think i'm inclined to be existentialist, but not so much as to actually read Sartre. But oddly i've always had this feeling that a thin line of destiny guided my life, that some small, apparently insignificant decisions made a huge difference in my life. For instance after high school i decided to go to college in Arizona, even though it made very little sense to do so. There were dozens of schools within a day's drive of my home that were better schools with lower tuition. The most significant to me of these small events is something that happened when i checked in at my dormitory in Arizona. Typically incoming freshman were put on the lower floors. I didn't know this, and so when the young man checking us in asked where i wanted to be, i answered "Somewhere up high".

Strangley enough, he put me on the third floor. In retrospect, it might have been because he knew it would be difficult to find a willing roommate for the room's other occupant, an odd young man named Fred who wanted to be in room 357 because it matched the caliber of his prize possession, a .357 magnum. Almost everyone called him "357 Fred". But i didn't know that, and during the semester i met the guys with whom i would share an apartment the following semester, one of whom is still probably my best friend. Through another of my roommates, i met the woman who would become my wife.

For almost 25 years i've believed that was my small bit of destiny, and that stupid little phrase has resonated for me, meaning so much more than i intended: "Somewhere up high". That simple, tossed-off comment seemed to make all the difference in my life, and so i could not discount it as simple chance.

Even though, intellectually, i know it was. It's impossible to know what would have happened to me had i gone elsewhere during that pivotal time in my life. Perhaps i'd have made other friends and fallen in love with another woman, simply because i'm inclined to do so. Maybe that aspect of my life would have not crystallized, and i'd have spent my energy on pursuing dreams that i'm sure i still had when i was young.

Further proving that i get inspiration from the stupidest of places, i recall a comment i once read by the musician Wynton Marsalis. He was responding to critics that his life had been too comfortable and middle-class for him to understand the blues. He said "pain is the realization of limitations". Pain is surely much more than that too, but the crisis of my mid-life crisis is coming to grips that i wasn't so much destined to be what i am as i let my limitations bring me here.

Monday, May 15, 2006

NSA Phone Records

I've been thinking often about the telephone records gathered or bought by the NSA. Other than the generally repugnant nature of gathering information about people under no suspicion, i've been trying to figure out what could go wrong. Normally it wouldn't concern me that the NSA would scrutinize my phone records specifically. There is so much data that the only reason they'd look at my records would be if they already had information leading them to me, in which case they could probably get the authorization they needed anyway. What concerns me is that they'll try to find the "leads" from the phone records based on poorly defined criteria, and then use that as the basis to investigate specific people.

The NSA is obviously looking for "patterns" that would indicate a tie to some illegal/terrorist activity. Bad things could potentially happen if the NSA finds false positives. But what would constitute normal and by comparison, unusual, telephone behavior? I'm sure that if all of one's calls go to or arrive from Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia then you'd get red-flagged; but it's likely that anyone with that pattern is either already a person of interest or really stupid. Presumably, the NSA wants to identify intermediaries; the people who get their information second- or third-hand from the people who talk directly to terrorist sources.

I'm not sure how i would go about this. Presumably the NSA already has some approach in mind, because despite the claims of security experts like Schneier who claim that the phone records are not useful i'm betting that the NSA has already conducted experiments on synthetically created data and found some method to seek what they want.

I think i'd probably look initially for the people who've called locations that harbor suspected terrorists. Then i'd start forming connections to the other people that they have called, and i'd try to continue this process at least a few levels deep. I'd probably try to identify the locations that show up on multiple trees, and maybe try to calculate some sort of measure of the statistical significance of that appearance (for example, i wouldn't suspect Domino's pizza of being a terrorist hub even though it might show up often).

That process however would almost certainly turn up lots of false positives. I recall years ago reading about how analysis of social networks shows that almost anybody can be connected through a few hops (like the Kevin Bacon game). In part this is because certain people seem to serve as nexus points, connecting very large clusters together. Even a relatively unsocial person such as myself serves to connect people in the Philippines through my wife's family to people in rural Indiana, parts of Arizona and California, Canada, several European countries, and even back to Asia through numerous Chinese and Indian friends and acquaintances. This wouldn't show up in my phone records (i hate the phone), but it might show up in my e-mail history.

I guess you could further refine this by looking for starting points that seem peculiarly disconnected from the social network except for significant numbers of calls overseas and a small number of significant domestic calls. However, that's probably the calling pattern of most recent immigrants, some of whom might even have unwitting connections to real suspects. So, in short, i don't know what the NSA is looking for. God knows they're collectively a hell of a lot smarter than i; but i'm still not convinced they're smart enough.

Tournament 2006

This weekend was the annual White Dragon tournament. The whole family did well again, but my older son Nathan did especially well, winning five events and finishing as one of the runners-up in the overall competition. My school also finished in second place, our best showing yet.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dream Blogging

A milestone for me. Last night i had a strange dream, the details of which i won't burden you with, but it had to do with going to see a rock concert that turned out to be in a high-school gym and after 3 songs the band decided to change venues and have everyone at the concert bussed to the new location. The milestone: during the dream i clearly remember thinking "this will make an interesting blog entry". I was actually sort of disappointed when i woke up and realized that it wasn't a real event and so it wouldn't be fair to blog about it. So i decided to blog about the dream. I suppose the distinction between reality and dreams so far as blogs are concerned is not terribly important, but what i find interesting is that the idea of blogging is enough ingrained in my subconscious that it entered my dream like any other element of life might have done; no more odd than a ringing phone or an old friend.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

10000 Days

I love the new Tool album. I know it'll be ridiculed by the typical indie-rock critic, almost every one of which will make some sort of joke about how the title of the album is reflective of the length of the songs. In fact, liking both 10000 Days and the latest Interpol or Franz Ferdinand record is probably forbidden by some law of quantum mechanics.

To be fair, there are some completely reasonable people who won't like it either. It's the most prog-rock of the Tool albums to date, with lots of odd rhythms and unusual percussive sounds. At times it seems minimalist, relying on repetition of the same short phrase, while at other times becoming very complex and layered as in the middle of the 11-minute title track. It's not radio friendly for the most part, and it'll require repeated listening to appreciate even if you're inclined to like it. And, typically, Tool throws in some odd bits, like the chanting on "Lapan Conjuring" or the 5 minutes of artful noise in "Viginti Tres". I'd say that this album is the rock equivalent of some of Mahler's late symphonies: long, complex, dynamic, a bit bombastic; and generally people either love it or despise it.

I'm obviously in the "love it" camp (also like Mahler, for what it's worth). I enjoy Tool's theatricality, and the bizarreness and mysteriousness of the band, however affected it might be. But ultimately, i just like listening to the music. It sounds good to me, it's played well, it provokes an emotional and intellectual response, and it does not quickly grow tedious.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Grandmaster Seminar

I learned two new forms this weekend, though the word "learn" must be qualified to mean that i am able to mimic in a very approximate way the movements of the form. Both are fairly hard and i doubt that i'll ever be able to master them. Both were taught by Grandmaster Doc Fai Wong. The first was a Ba Gua broadsword form, kind of cool because it has elements with both the right and left hand. Both of my boys took part in that seminar also. A very difficult and acrobatic set, including one part where you do a reverse double crescent kick, circle the sword around your shoulders and then strike (pek choi) all while remaining balanced on the landing foot.

The second form is the Small Buddha-Palm form, which was relatively straightforward except for the beginning,where you have to descend into a lotus position and then rise and twist straight into a reverse double-crescent kick. My knees are too old for that.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Musical Taste

[Note: Another repurposed post]

I don't consider my musical taste to be especially eclectic, or even particularly interesting, but it's still hard to find unifying traits among the various stuff to which i listen. First, i'd discard classical and jazz music because i don't think there's anything that could link, say, Tadeusz Baird with Ornette Coleman with the Drive-By Truckers other than maybe common historical origins from the traditions of Western music. But even if i restrict myself to popular music, it's hard to find connections.

The key features that i think cover much of my musical taste are:
  1. Interesting, often clever,sarcastic or cryptic lyrics.
  2. Melodic.
  3. Conventional or mildly dissonant harmonies.
  4. Conventional, non-synthesized instrumentation.
Since 3 of these features are aspects of the music itself (rather than meta-information such as genre, era, or region), you'd think that analysis of the signal might be in order. But i'm not convinced of that, because there doesn't seem to be a consistency of rhythms or modulation or keys. I don't think there'd be much overlap between say, System of a Down and Gershwin other than perhaps trivial similarities in rhythm.

There are at least three aspects of music that appear to figure into people's tastes. One is cultural-- people tend to listen to what other people are listening to; or people tend to assiduously avoid popular music. They also can only develop an opinion of what they hear regularly, so for instance a person in a Western country might have strong feelings one way or the other about Beethoven, but won't even be aware of Indian classical music. Lyrical preferences are, i believe, culturally influenced also, as evidenced by the fact that 12-year-old girls and 40-year-old men will rarely find common ground.

The second aspect is the set of qualities of the sound itself (rhythm, tempo, timbre, etc.). Although i've already said that i think signal analysis can't explain musical taste, i suspect that there are some characteristics of the sound that an individual might favor, like a preference for minor keys might explain interest in both heavy metal and sad, dramatic, Russian classical composers. In a sense this is only an interesting aspect of musical taste to the extent that the listener crosses genre and style boundaries. If you listen to nothing but Frank Sinatra or speed metal, then the sonic similarities in the music are insignificant.

The third is the aforementioned meta information, which, although it seems a separate category is not independent of the cultural and sonic influences,(e.g., i might seek out Norwegian death metal out of a true affection for the music, or because all of my friends in study hall like it, or because i'm a manic depressive Norwegian). Though i don't understand it myself, there are those who listen to music based on things like the era (Hits of the 60s), or the genre (space music) or the region (southern rock). In a rough sense, this type of meta information is a proxy for other sonic or cultural traits.

Ultimately, i believe that musical taste is determined by what you listen to. That might seem silly or tautological, but i agree with Aaron Copeland's statement from What To Listen For In Music: "Nothing can possibly take the place of listening to music". In other words, your musical taste can't be reduced to any set of parameters because the only way that you can judge a piece of music is to hear it.

The Voynich Manuscript

[Note: This is a post i originally had on my Yahoo 360 page, which i'm dumping here]

I recently finished The Friar and the Cipher, a book whose title and dust jacket suggest it is about medieval monk/scientist Roger Bacon and the mysterious Voynich manuscript. Actually about 20% of the book covers those topics and the rest is a recap of ancient and medieval philosophy, the conflict between logic (Aristotle, Aquinas) and empiricism (Roger and Francis Bacon), lots of stuff about the University of Paris, various popes, Frederick the Great, John Dee, Emperor Rudolph, blah, blah, blah. In other words, if you're interested in either Roger Bacon and/or mysterious cryptic texts like the Voynich manuscript, i'd recommend you look elsewhere.

Anyway, the Voynich manuscript. Like most geeks, I'm a total sucker for undecipherable texts and languages. In fact, there might be nothing more intellectually appealing than the idea of a manuscript that's almost certainly trying to say something significant, but which has remained impenetrable. I'm a total nerd for codes, riddles, and ancient languages like Linear B and Mayan hieroglyphs (i actually had my picture taken next to the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum once). The Voynich manuscript is like all of these things rolled into one. Its provenance is uncertain, but its first definite appearance in the historical record dates to the court of Emperor Rudolph in the early 17th century (it was apparently in the possession of royal gardener Jacobus de Tepenec around 1608). The manuscript was purchased in 1912 by Wilfrid Voynich, hence the name.

The manuscript consists of many illustrations, mostly botanical, but also pictures of tiny naked people and other mysterious things. It is assumed by many to be encrypted, although the original language is uncertain (Bacon was an enthusiast of cryptography). The really cool thing though, is that unlike other mysterious texts (like, say, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili), the Voynich manuscript is written in a completely original, invented text.

An apparent postscript at the end of the book is written in Latin characters, although still apparently in code. Many think that this postscript supplies the key to decoding the text. In the 1920s, William Newbold claimed to have deciphered this postscript and then used it to decrypt parts of the manuscript. He determined not only that Roger Bacon was the creator of the manuscript, but that it explained how he had built early telescopes and other devices. He even claimed that one of the illustrations was of a nebula that Bacon could only have seen with a telescope.

This explanation of the manuscript was accepted (Newbold had solid academic credentials), and briefly made celebrities of both Newbold and Bacon's legacy. Unfortunately, his ideas were thoroughly debunked by William Manly, which ruined Newbold's reputation and returned Bacon to the status of medieval crackpot.

The great cryptanalysts William and Elizebeth Friedman took a crack at the Voynich too (in fact they had a group dedicated to it during the second World War when they were also going 24/7 to crack enemy codes). Although they did not decipher the document, they made the first serious effort at cataloging the symbols used in the text and attempting to do a frequency analysis. William Friedman's analysis of the structure and entropy of the language lead him to believe that it was an attempt at pasigraphy, or the creation of a universal symbolic language.

The Voynich now resides in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, where it is known as MS 408. There are numerous websites devoted to its presentation and study, just go Yahoo for them.

Monday, April 24, 2006


My family and i spent Saturday morning playing paintball with a group of my wife's co-workers. I don't have much to say about it except that it's really, really fun. It'd be easy to identify a few ethical dilemmas and to ridicule the goofiness of a bunch of middle-class desk workers gathering to play war; but it'd all be cancelled out by the fact that it's simply too much fun. You can't really knock good (though perhaps not so clean) fun that's not at anyone's expense.

Friday, April 21, 2006


Since it was the boys' spring break, we made the Boston Marathon into a short family vacation. We took a red-eye on Friday night to JFK and then on to Boston. Our hotel was actually in Cambridge, just across the river from Boston University. We got into Boston so early that we couldn't get our room right away, so we had to spend the most of Saturday wandering around Boston and Cambridge. We walked around the Boston U area, and we finally took a cab to the marathon expo, which was at the World Trade Center, basically a convention hall along the wharfs.

The expo was wall-to-wall people so we didn't hang out for long after picking up my race junk. We managed to get back to the Boston U. area via the "T", Boston's subway system. It was fairly painless, although they have a slightly odd ticket purchase system. We finally got a room at the hotel, and we crashed until dinner time. Our hotel was right next to MIT, so we walked through the campus that evening to get dinner at Bertucci's, one of a chain of Italian places.

Sunday was Nathan's 12th birthday, so we let him choose the day's activities. We ended up at the Boston Museum of Science. It's an excellent science museum, though it's got a strange combination of hands-on, Exploratorium-style exhibits and old-school wildlife dioramas. The highlight for me was the "Colby room", which is a complete room that was once in the house of a certain Colonel Colby. Colby was a big-game hunter, and the room is a large study/library room filled with the remnants of endangered wildlife. This guy pretty much shot one of everything it seems. Very strange and unsettling, but fascinating in both a historical sense and a macabre sense.

Monday was marathon day. One of the lesser-known facts about the Boston marathon is that not that much of it is actually in Boston. It starts in a town called Hopkinton well outside of Boston, so the organizers bus the participants from Boston's Back Bay area out to Hopkinton in the morning. For some reason, very early in the morning so that most of the runners are at the pre-race village by 9 even though the race doesn't start until noon. So we got to hang around for 3 hours waiting for the race to start, trying to stay warm, and standing in Port-a-john lines. Although the "athletes' village" was divided into 2 parts this year (one for the noon start, one for the 12:30 wave), that's still a whole lotta humanity to pack on to what is basically a high-school practice field.

A bit after 11 they started shuffling us toward the gear buses and then the start line. You have to walk about a mile or so to the actual start area. I was in the 6th corral, which was unusual for me. Even at Chicago and the San Diego RnR marathons, which have more entrants, i was in the first corral so i wasn't that far from the start. Finally the race was started, but it took another couple of minutes to get moving and another to get to the start line. By the start we were able to run at a decent pace, but it was crowded and would never really thin out.

Going down the road in Hopkinton i immediately realized why Boston is not your average marathon. Crowds lined the road and they were really cheering. Not just the normal "you can do it" sort of cheers, but real honest-to-god cheering. I haven't felt so much like a real athlete since high school basketball. I don't remember much about the course at this stage except for the large number of people (all men) who jumped off the road to relieve themselves. The road is so crowded at this stage that you don't really have much of an opportunity to lock into a pace and drift off.

The first real landmark i remember is the Wellesley college crowd, almost entirely female, who are known for being very, very loud. They lived up to the rep. I did not stop for a hug as many do, but it still felt like a small rock-star moment.

Throughout the course, i slapped more spectator hands than ever before. Normally, i tend to ignore the spectators as much as i can, but there's some compulsion at Boston to interact with the crowd. I had no idea how fast i could run, whether this would be like Phoenix where i didn't hit the wall, or like previous marathons where i've felt good for 20 and then crashed. I decided on 7:30 pace for no good reason, and i was having good luck at sticking to it though my legs definitely didn't feel as good as Phoenix. The more intense speed training i did prior to Phoenix obviously made a big difference, but i wasn't sure how much. I felt pretty good coming into the big uphills near the town of Newton, so i just kept chugging along.

I made it up Heartbreak Hill without major problems, though i obviously lost some time to pace. But once i hit the downhill, i started to feel pretty good. I was over 7:30 pace, and i hit the 24 mile mark in about 3:02 (7:30 pace = 3:00 hours), but no crash. The final couple of miles were just great, as the crowd was cheering and my legs felt good and we were going through an interesting part of Boston. I kept cranking, and i even had a bit left for a mild kick at the end. I finished in 3:18.50, about 7:35 pace; but i felt pretty good about the race. I really didn't think going into the marathon that i'd be able to break 3:20 again, especially on this course. It's very gratifying to run a Boston qualifying time at Boston.

There wasn't a lot left of race day. I met up with Em and the kids and we took the T back to the hotel. We cleaned up and went to Legal Seafoods for dinner so that i could protein-load, which i've found to be an excellent aid to recovery (or maybe just a good reason to eat a steak. Whatever.)

On Tuesday we went to Harvard Square and walked around the campus. We bought a Harvard sweatshirt for one of my nephews, knocked around the Harvard book store, and then got some lunch at a local cafe. Emily and the boys were amused by the "Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe" sign in the window across the street. After lunch we took the T over to Fenway park and bought a Bosox shirt for my other nephew. We headed back to the hotel, and then walked to a nearby Trader Joe's to get some food for dinner.

Wednesday was mostly a travel day. We had to check out at noon and our flight was at 4, so we headed to the airport in the late morning, checked our luggage, and then took the T over to the New England aquarium. The aquarium was way too busy, so we just wandered around on the wharfs and grabbed some lunch. Other than an encounter with a slightly belligerent subway denizen who wanted to rant about immigrants, it was an uneventful trip and we made it back to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Ultimately, i guess i'm just glad that Boston wasn't too anti-climactic. I'd put so much effort into getting there that i was afraid that the race itself would be an afterthought. But Boston is designed to be special, not only because it's been going on for 110 years but also because of the Monday noon start and the fact that it's a holiday and the race gets so much attention. For days when you walk around Boston you see people with marathon gear and, after the race, people will wear their finisher medals even though the race is long over. Unlike most marathons, Boston is not about first timers or "just" finishing or even (for better or worse) raising money for charity. Boston is elitist in the sense that it is exclusionary and competitive. Virtually everyone at Boston is a "serious" marathoner, and it doesn't matter to any of the participants whether anyone else cares because for those 3+ hours it's only the rest of the field that counts.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Four Things

A friend of mine tagged me with this meme via e-mail, but i decided to post my responses here also.

Four jobs I have had in my life:
  1. Crop inspector (no, seriously)
  2. Golf-ball retriever (from ponds, to resell)
  3. Lab assistant
  4. Computer geek
Four movies I would watch over and over:
  1. The Third Man
  2. Blade Runner
  3. Singing in the Rain
  4. Any of the LotR trilogy
Four places where I have lived:
  1. Woodburn, Indiana
  2. Buckeye, Arizona
  3. Tucson, Arizona
  4. San Diego, California
Four TV shows I watch:
  1. Lost
  2. My Name is Earl
  3. Avatar: The Last Airbender
  4. The Office
Four places I have been on vacation:
  1. Italy
  2. Hawaii
  3. Kings Canyon
  4. The Philippines
Four websites i visit daily:
Four of my favorite foods:
  1. That rigatoni thing my wife makes
  2. Salmon picatta
  3. Dark chocolate
  4. Panang curry with duck
Four places I would rather be right now:
  1. At home
  2. Running, anywhere.
  3. London
  4. Santiago, Chile (never been there, but i'd like to go)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Boston Bib Number

I got my Boston race information packet today. I was relieved to find that my bib number is in the first 10000, so i get to go off in the first wave. This is the first year that Boston is instituting a two-wave start (one at noon, the second at 12:30) to alleviate the crowds in the neighborhoods of Hopkington where the race begins. I was resigned to being in the second wave, but i'm pretty happy to be in the first group. I know that it'll take a while to get across the start in any case-- so my gun time will be much slower than my net time-- but at least i won't be as impatient in the starting area.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The War in Iraq

After 3 years, the war in Iraq still confuses me. I continue to believe that we shouldn't have gone to war, that the evidence for WMD in the country is dubious, that the pre-war intelligence was intentionally exaggerated, and that the connection between Iraq and 9/11 is non-existent. But i'm willing to believe Iraq was a potential laboratory for weapons development; in fact i bought into that argument until the UN weapons inspectors failed to find any evidence. And even though there was no relationship between the opportunistic and essentially secular regime of Saddam and the Islamic radicals who constitute our obstensible enemy, there's little doubt that he was a pyschopath who could have evolved into the Arabic world's version of Hitler.

Today you can hear reports that Iraq is on or past the brink of civil war while at the same time hearing that democratic government is beginning to take hold. I think that both are possibly true and that both are possibly false. Mostly i think that neither is really a situation that we can make sense of given our (or at least my) frames of reference. In our relatively prosperous and stable society, the institutions of democratic government function with frustrating uncertainty, and even with those institutions our country has managed to reach civil war. But i don't think the history of the US Civil War can teach us much about the deep-seeded cultural and religious differences that prevail in the middle East. So i don't think either democracy or civil war are touchstones that we can use to identify the situation in Iraq, though the latter fits better on top of chaos.

My only moral absolute in life is that i'd do anything to make a safe future for my kids. If i thought that waging war against Iraq would accomplish that, i'd be all for it. I'd enlist. But it won't, and every time i hear about needing another X billions of dollars for the war or about the nuclear ambitions of Iran or about the further erosion of our civil liberties in the name of the war on terror, i sense that we're heading toward a future that will make me long for the days of the cold war. It seems not only likely, but inevitable, that we will see more terrorist attacks in the future on US soil, maybe even nuclear attacks; that in the wake of those attacks our people will be willing to make more concessions to government surveillance; and that our economic growth will be inhibited by the dollars we'll have to spend controlling our borders and battling our nebulous enemy. If this is the outcome of protecting our interests, then i would hate to see the alternative.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Runners Are So Bad-Ass

I thought this was really cool:

Basically a story about a runner chasing down a thief. Funny.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

My First Ultra

More proof that i'm teetering on the edge of sanity: i ran my first ultra-marathon today, the Lake Hodges 50k. Granted, it was only 50k (about 31 miles), but it was also raining and occasionally hailing, and since it had rained for a few days prior the whole course was mud. Here's a picture i took of today's weather. That white stuff is hail:

The course was brutal. It consisted of two roughly 16 mile out/backs, in the middle of which was a 3 mile loop of up and down single track. There were two stream crossings with water that came about half the way up my calf. It took me over 5 hours to finish. I didn't push too hard since i have to run Boston next month, but it was still pretty grueling.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

How Do You Make Complex Things?

Lots of people think about software architecture and systems design and system validation and software economics, etc. Research has been done on the group dynamics of engineering and there's an abundance of project management books. And complex systems do get built: bridges, airplanes, phone switching software. But i'm still convinced it's an order of magnitude harder than it should be.

The problem is human beings. Not that i'm all that crazy about Syknet either, but while you could at least imagine a technique for describing and optimizing the relationships between correctly specified subsystems, you can't do it with people. Even describing inter-human relationships in a statistical way is not particularly useful, because average behavior can't be applied to a single situation in a meaningful way (if i know that 50% of all projects fail, then i know that my project has a 50% chance of failing, that's true; but in practice you almost always have a better sense at the outset of what your chances of success are).

Probably the best statement of the problem is Mark Pilgrim's "Morons and Assholes" post. In it he argues that all developers are either morons or assholes. However, most readers miss the point that a comfortable mix of assholes and morons is the best case scenario. Not infrequently, projects get too many morons or too many assholes, or at least one particulary strident sociopath (Pilgrim's term for morons who become assholes). Two sociopaths can destroy a project before it even gets started. The chance of any given person being a sociopath i'd estimate at about 10%.

If all workers were equal and you graphed productivity vs. number of people you'd get a curve that increases less and less rapidly up to about 6 people, then levels off, then starts to asymptotically drop back to 0. So 2 people do slightly less than 2x as much work, while 5 people do maybe 3x as much work, and 20 people do nothing useful. The traditional approach to address this problem is to create a management hierarchy so that the pool of people is divided into either functional or project groups (or both in the dreaded "matrix") with one person in the group designated as the main intergroup communicator.

The opposite extreme in my view would be to create an environment where systems emerge that address specific needs because there is a market for it. Groups will naturally optimize to the right size because the best, most timely solution wins. Communication between groups becomes less of an issue because the solution of group A either meets the needs of group B and so succeeds, or it doesn't and fails. The main problem with this evolutionary/market process is that it requires a fair number of participants and enough capital to get all of the variations to a point sufficient to be evaluated. It's not quite as farfetched as it sounds though. Think of the way that large companies tend to often buy companies that address their business needs rather than trying to compete with them.

My opinion is that complex systems in the future will more frequently get built according to the second model and its inevitable refinements. Much of the Internet itself and software surrounding it have has some of this flavor. I think the reason for this is the lower barrier to entry. It requires much less capital to start an interesting Internet service than it does to develop a useful aircraft component. I assume this to be because of the commodity pricing of computer hardware, the availability of nearly-free software, and the standards that prevail in the Internet world, both by committee and de facto.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

My Wife's Tattoo

This is a picture of my wife's new tattoo:

It's just a design, not a picture of anything in particular; though it has a kind of Rorschach-like effect in that most people think it looks like something. She's been wanting to get a tattoo for a while now, and for whatever reason her 41st birthday seemed to be the occasion.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My Calf Hurts

I have this. It sucks. I can't run without discomfort, and i've been doing bike rides lately to keep in shape. I actually ran 20 miles last Saturday, but it hurt. The worst part is that it seems to be really slow to heal. It'll feel OK for a couple of days, and then i'll try to run on it or do martial arts and it'll pop again.

The only good thing i can say about this is that it's made me appreciate how much i need to run. I really miss being able to go out and run pain-free for an hour or so whenever i want. It's not the exercise per se, because biking doesn't give me the same sense. Running, because it's not equipment intensive and doesn't require any special facilities, is about freedom. Without it i feel limited.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Fantasy Fiction

I read Tolkien in high school and i was completely absorbed into Middle Earth for a while. Although i was a bit too much of a jock to qualify for premier nerd status, i did have a "I'd Rather Be a Hobbit" t-shirt, and a modest command of Elvish runes. Although i read the Ring trilogy a few times through (and i loved the movies), i found the books harder to read as i got older. In my opinion, i think that Tolkien could spin a great yarn but that he wasn't a great writer.

Every other fantasy book i've read since Tolkien has disappointed me. They're so predictable and similar that i imagine it would be easy to write a program to automatically generate fantasy fiction. The problem of course is that most fantasy fiction is an imitation of Tolkien, but rarely does it reach the same level. Many of the cliches of fantasy fiction were not only invented by Tolkien, but he really set the standard. Because of his academic credentials in linguistics and philology, Tolkien's invented words and languages had a satisfying verisimilitude. The races and creatures that he created for his Middle Earth had deep ties to mythologies of western culture and just enough mystery around the edges to keep them fascinating. Every other fantasy author i've tried seems like they're either making stuff up thoughtlessly, or making simple substitutions of their creatures for Tolkien's. I can sort of imagine an author at his or her keyboard thinking "i'll name this guy Baradon. No, Barderon. Maybe Bardon. Yeah, Bardon, that'll work".

There are some fantasy writers i've tried who i think write pretty well (Anne McAffrey comes to mind), but i could never get through a series. Recently though i've heard so many recommendations for George R.R. Martin that i finally broke down and bought one of his books (A Game of Thrones). Martin certainly did not dispense with many of the fantasy cliches: he's got kings and castles and dragons and swords and knights, bastard sons, a warrior order, and there's even a map drawn on the front and back cover pages. He's really gone back beyond Tolkien and borrowed from the traditions of classic romantic fiction (knights and squires and tournaments and maidens in distress).

But to my surprise, it really works. On occasion there's some of that fantasy fiction prose that drops with a thud (" 'Ice' that sword was called... It was Valyrian steel, spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel"). But overall the writing is at a very high level, the plotting and pacing is great, and the characters are imbued with complexity and humanity. Most important i think is that Martin isn't just employing all of the fantasy fiction elements as props. Clearly, he loves this stuff and it comes through in the words.

Martin also seems to be a bit more mature than some of his peers. The political intrigues in the book are realistic and speak of someone who's seen a bit of life, as do some of the sexual themes and scenarios (i don't recall whores ever receiving mention in LotR). Also, people die. Characters are badly injured and characters that don't deserve to die are killed. This is not simple good vs. evil stuff, though there is clear good and unremorseful evil. Though this is clearly fantasy fiction, it also shares motifs with classic tragedy.

Which is not to say that this is soporific "serious" literature. Martin has not invented a new art form or stretched the boundaries of the novel, or any of that other stuff that lit critics get all hot over. He's not trying to be ironic or postmodern or to deconstruct anything. The musician Arnold Schonberg, a pioneer of avant garde music, once remarked that "there's still plenty of good music to write in C major". The same is true of literature; there are still a lot of damn fine stories to be told that are only trying to be enjoyable, meaningful, and exciting. Like my favorite genre fiction authors (Patrick O'Brian, Alan Furst), George R.R. Martin has achieved that on a significant scale.

Friday, February 24, 2006


I spent most of this week with my wife and kids on our first ever snowboarding trip. We went to the Snow Summit ski resort on Big Bear Mountain, in the San Bernardino mountains of southern California. My kids' school districts takes this entire week off for some mysterious reason, but so many families use it as an opportunity to go the mountains, that the teachers refer to it as "ski week".

After a couple of days on the slopes i reached a sort of minimal bunny-slope proficiency on the snowboard. Not surprisingly, my wife and kids progressed quicker. By the end of the trip my older son Nathan and my wife were up to the intermediate runs that started all the way at the top of the mountain. For me it was basically a competition between gaining the necessary skill and destroying my body. After two full days, i felt as if i'd lost a fight. My neck was tweaked, my hips were bruised, my shoulders and forearms were sore, and both of my knees were numb.

I have to admit though, it was pretty fun. I've avoided snow sports for my entire life, because my previous experience with snow in the dead-flat midwestern landscape i grew up in made me think of it as more a medium of punishment than recreation. But we got great weather, and we came on the weekend after a big storm had dropped several inches of fresh snow (though, admittedly, this was a miniscule addition to the man-made snow). Big Bear City, where Snow Summit resides, is a fun place to spend a few days; and i have to admit that, despite being a totally obvious noob, i felt sort of cool hanging out among the rest of the boarders and skiers.

Friday, February 17, 2006


I've been doing "design" work at my job for the last few weeks. There's not much science behind software design, and i'm not sure how much more engineering rigor would help. Design is one of those things i think i want to do until i actually have to do it, and then i find the whole process frustrating and mentally draining.

In any field i think that design differs from art only in that you start with a set of constraints, which aren't usually defined as well as they should be. In other words, you start knowing only what you can't do. There is a set of qualities that you want to achieve, but there's not a clear set of rules that will achieve them. It also seems that desirable qualities tend to come in competing pairs or groups. For example, in software it's usually considered desirable to create a design that has enough abstraction that it can be re-used in multiple projects. However, that abstraction comes at a cost that can only be recouped if the design is in fact re-used in multiple projects (at least three according to a rule-of-thumb).

The hardest part of design for me is that there's no simple criteria for "done". On rare lucky occasions you get an intuitive sense of when something is right, it just feels right. Otherwise you have to check off a list of requirements against the design, which is kind of like cutting boards and then defining their lengths to be your units of measurement. I know that in most people's minds design is an artistic endeavor, associated with fashion and the like, but i for one would be happy if it could be reduced to a set of equations.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Lazy Is the New Brilliant

Internet comics have been around since the days of Mosaic, but i've always found them to be either not funny or too derivative of print comics. There are a couple out there now though that i really enjoy, namely Diesel Sweeties and Alien Loves Predator. Neither of these could really be translated to print without a loss of essence. Both are consistently funny, and DS gets extra credit for being daily. I also like Boy on a Stick and Slither, although i think this would work fine in print.

Monday, January 16, 2006

I Did It!

Finally. I ran 3:15.42 at this weekend's Arizona Rock'n'Roll marathon, well under the 3:20 i needed to qualify for Boston in my age group. I finally made it to the end before hitting the wall. It makes the 6 day-a-week training seem worthwhile after all.

I flew to Phoenix on Friday morning, and basically sat around on the couch for two days at my mother-in-law's house. I wanted to have some time in Phoenix to get used to the dry weather, although ironically the forecast for Sunday called for rain, the first rain in 3 months. As it turned out Sunday was clear and relatively cool, though with a bit of wind.

I ran with a 3:15 pace group for most of the race, until the pacer dropped off at about 22 miles. We went out a little fast, covering the first half in about 1:36.30, but i felt relaxed and the pace seemed fairly leisurely. As the race went on through the second half, i kept waiting for the fatigue to hit me or for my quads to cramp, etc. But it never happened. When i hit 24 miles at just over 2:58, i knew i was going to make it so i tried to pick up the pace a bit. I ran the 25th mile a bit under 7:30 and i'd hoped to do the 26th faster, but as i turned the corner for the last mile i found myself running straight into a headwind. I pushed through that mile, and then made the turn for the last .2 where i could finally move a little faster. Crossing the finish line at a good pace, passing people on the way, coming in at your goal time is amazingly satisfying.

I felt strangely happy all day yesterday after the race. Or maybe happily strange. I'm not sure. It wasn't happiness that derives from contentment or from pleasure or from being entertained, but happiness it was. I know that objectively 3:15 is not a great time, but i still felt so good about reaching it. I also know that, while many friends and family members are happy for me, the accomplishment means very little to anyone but myself (for example, my "celebration" upon returning home was getting to take Henry and two of his friends to see Hoodwinked). Nonetheless, i still feel happy. I suppose that since i needed a few tries to make it, and that i had to commit myself further and further to the training to succeed makes it seem more significant to me. I'm an exceptionally fortunate person so i have numerous reasons to be happy, but i've had relatively few experiences in my life of achieving something that wasn't fairly easy for me.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Both of my kids are in their school district's "gifted" program, a fact about which i'm somewhat reluctantly proud. I say reluctantly because, while i think my kids are both very bright, i'm not sure if there's evidence to support a concept of "giftedness". Like most gifted programs, a large part of the qualifying standard is a traditional IQ test. Although i tend to think that intelligence is a more-or-less quantitative property; i'm not sure that IQ tests measure much beyond the ability to take IQ tests. Some of this i derive from the book "The Making of Intelligence" by Ken Richardson, an interesting if slightly dry treatment of many of the currently popular notions of intelligence. It's also a good counterpoint to Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate, which i found to be a very good book even if i don't agree with some of it.

I lack the motivation to go deeply into either Richardson's or Pinker's views on intelligence. The overriding message i've gleaned from reading these and other books is this: nobody really understands how the brain works. Science probably understands the brain better today than it did a century ago, but the level of understanding is similar to when early physicians came to the realization that emotions do not originate in the heart. The brain is a uniquely difficult thing to study, since to study it you must work within its own limitations. The current methods of studying the brain involve some interesting stuff, from various psychological tests to medical imaging to computer modeling; but there's really no way to know what's happening in the brain while it's happening without relying on feedback from the brain of the person to whom it's happening. It's an almost Heisenbergian dilemma.

Intelligence in particular is a tricky concept. There's endless debate over how "culturally biased" IQ tests are, although i think it's a one-sided debate. The fundamental desire to measure intelligence in the first place is a cultural bias; based on the (in my opinion) mistaken notion that intelligence (in the analytical, puzzling-solving sense of IQ tests) is a measure of a person's value to society. I've always admired "smart" people, like scientists and engineers who seem to string together one brilliant insight after another (e.g., Linus Pauling or John Bardeen). I'm not quite sure what these people have that others don't; i don't know if their apparent brilliance is really a function of better neurons, or better genes, or if they simply lived in environments that motivated them to work harder and suffer more frustration than their peers. But can their contributions to society be rated more significant than those of a great humanitarian or diplomat or soldier? Or even a good parent or an someone who's especially kind or caring? I'm not sure how much stock i place in the currently trendy concept of "emotional intelligence", but i've lived long enough to see how one person with average intelligence but exceptional charisma can get more accomplished than a roomful of brainiacs. If that's not a "gift", then i'm not sure what is.

Often when i read critiques of intelligence measures and IQ, my skeptic sensors go off and i wonder if the writer isn't just somebody who tested badly and now wants to rationalize why it doesn't matter (except for Stephen Jay Gould whose "Mismeasure of Man" was an excellent book and who was obviously "intelligent", whatever that means). My disclaimer on this would go something like this: i've consistently scored around what i call the "Salieri" score, that is, just smart enough to identify the people who are a lot smarter. Maybe this explains why i view IQ measures with a jaundiced eye, maybe it doesn't.