Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Good Stuff 2007

This seemed like a watershed year for terribleness. Even my naturally cynical mind can't comprehend the idiocy perpetrated by our federal government, and from Sherri Shepard to Britney Spears to Don Imus it seemed like the whole world was trying to out-stupid each other. The presidential race makes me want to move to northern Europe, and the strident anti-intellectualism of the evangelicals makes me wish the Romans had been more diligent in feeding their lions. The only thing more depressing than being alive to witness the decline of our nation is that my children will have to deal with it.

Still, there were a few bright spots. There was some decent music produced this year, and some decent music that I learned to appreciate. My favorite albums:
  • The Shins - Wincing the Night Away
  • Midlake - Van Occupanther
  • Rogue Wave - Asleep At Heaven's Gate
  • Manic Street Preachers - Send Away The Tigers
  • Fair to Midland - Fables From a Mayfly: What I Tell You 3 Times is True
  • Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down - We Brave Bee Stings and All
  • Ari Hest - The Break-In
I also developed a taste for Bob Dylan this year, especially The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited.

I didn't see a lot of movies again this year, but of those that i saw Eastern Promises was far and away my favorite. The new Bourne movie was good too.

I didn't read many books this year either. I got into the Thomas Covenant series of books as a way to tide me over until George Martin publishes the next book in his Song of Fire and Ice series. The most memorable of the books i read this year:
  • A Perfect Hell: The True Story of the Black Devils, the Forefathers of the Special Forces - John Nadler
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks
  • Warriors of the Steppe - A Military History of Central Asia - Erik Hildinger
All war-related, maybe that's significant.

Some random stuff that didn't suck:
  • Haile Gebrselassie set the world record in the marathon.
  • I got to see Ryan Hall win the US Olympic trials for the marathon in Central Park.
  • Chicago. I was there 3 times this year, and i just love the city.
  • Ron White - White might be the funniest comedian working. I was horrified when he was included in the Blue Collar Comedy tour along with mediocrities Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall, and the egregious, mentally retarded Larry the Cable Guy.
  • Free software. I am continually amazed that stuff like R, Eclipse, Knime, and JFreeChart are available free of charge.
  • Reddit. Sure, it's got some problems, but it's my favorite Internet time killer.

Monday, December 17, 2007


My birthday came and went quietly this year. I did a short bike ride to keep alive my tradition of a birthday bike-ride, but it was hardly the epic adventure of some previous years. I seem to have finally reached the age where birthdays are more an uncomfortable reminder of what's behind me than a cause for celebration.

There's an idea that I came across years ago that people tend to think of themselves as being the age at which they were most happy. If that time happens to be in early adulthood as it is for many, then a person's self-image diverges further from reality the older one gets. I'm not sure about this concept, but recently i've had some flashes of self-consciousness upon realizing that other people probably view me in the same way that they view other 40-something guys. I admit that sometimes this is because i realize that some pretty girl in line at the Starbucks is young enough to be my daughter. But it extends beyond that to my peers and even elders. Recently, i was playing "ultimate" frisbee with some work friends and i intentionally pulled back from an attempted interception in order to avoid a collision. One of the other players, who is around my age, said something to the affect that "this was a good idea for people our age".

I'm not quite ready to be a person of my age. But i'm beginning to see that good physical health or musical taste that resembles that of a college student doesn't really exempt me from being a person of my age. I assumed when i was younger that the compensation for getting old was the attainment of wisdom, and that's true in a way, but the problem is that wisdom is frequently the insight that some things really do suck as much as you'd expect them to.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I Need To Get Faster

This post is mostly an excuse to use Swivel, a web site that produces graphs of data sets. I uploaded my running log to it. Here's a graph of my pace over the last few years.


Other than a few anomalous outliers on the high side, the data is pretty closely clustered around an average value of 7:45/mile. There are sections, if you had the data at hand, where i've average quite a bit faster (like when i was training for Carlsbad), but the historical trend is pretty flat. This graph is a bit more encouraging:

Pace by Distance

This makes it clearer that a fair proportion of my runs have been considerably below the average if you factor in the distance of the run. Nonetheless, i need to get faster. My 2008 goals will include setting PRs at most of my race distances, especially on the shorter end. I'm gonna be ambitious and shoot for 17:30 at 5k and 36:00 at 10k. My training approach is going to be very complex and sophisticated: run faster. I'm going to focus on more speed training and trying to keep my regular runs closer to 7min/mile.

Monday, December 03, 2007


In a moment of weakness I volunteered to coach my 10 year-old son's basketball team this season. I love basketball, and I love my son; but teaching 5th graders to play basketball is kind of like teaching your cat to read the newspaper. That is, it's really hard and most likely they're not going to get that much out of it.

I've got a pretty good team, but chances are that even most of the boys on my team won't be playing in middle school. None of them really have any interest in playing basketball in the technical sense of following a particular offensive or defensive scheme. It's just basically another hour of recess for them. They want to play 5 games of simultaneous 1 on 1 in the best school-yard tradition. Which is cool. This is a rec league and its primary purpose is physical fitness. Still, i cling to the misguided hope that i might impart some real basketball knowledge to one or two of them.

My dad was a high-school coach in Indiana for 40 years, and pretty good at it too. I'm not quite sure what his secret was. Clearly he possessed greater rapport with fellow human beings than do I, and it probably didn't hurt that he was fairly large and somewhat intimidating. It might just be that his players could sense that he wanted to coach as much as they wanted to play.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

NY Marathon

It was a beautiful day for a race, but i didn't run particularly well. This was my worst finish since Chicago in 2005, at 3:22.53, but i did manage to finish within the top 3000 out of 38000 (about 2800). I went through the half at about 3:15 pace, but i crashed badly over the last few miles.

My day started at about 4:30 am, when i got up to put my gear on. I then headed down to the Grand Central subway station to take the train to Bowling Green, from where you can pick up the Staten Island ferry. I made it to the start area on Staten Island at about 7, and then had a 3-hour wait until the beginning of the race. The start itself was chaotic due to construction on the Verazzano bridge, but it was worth the wait. The view from the bridge is amazing.

You run into Brooklyn, then Queens, then into Manhattan, then the Bronx, then back into Manhattan and Central Park for the finish. The course is unique and very much worth running, even if you do it slowly. Although it was a poor race for me personally, it was still very memorable, and I'm glad i had the opportunity to do it.

This part of New York-- mid-town Manhattan and Central Park-- is not all of New York any more than Hollywood is all of LA. But it's pretty fun. It hard to walk down Park Avenue or 57th Street and not feel just a little bit more important than you are. The last couple of days i've had this sensation of being an extra in a Woody Allen movie, watching from the sidelines as the players go about their parts. It's cool, but it also make me realize how anchored i've become the Western ideal. Living for 25 years in Arizona and California has changed my view of the world in ways that i don't really understand myself.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Olympic Marathon Trials

I got to watch the US Olympic Trials for the marathon this morning in Central Park. It was much more exciting than you'd imagine that spectating a marathon could be. They set up a loop course through Central Park, so i was able to see the runners 5 times before the finish. Ryan Hall ran away with the race, which wasn't a huge surprise, but Dathan Ritzenheim in second surprised me a bit. Brian Sell was 3rd. Meb only managed 8th-- he really looked like he was struggling by mile 21.

Sadly, the news is reporting that Ryan Shay died during the trials, only 5.5 miles into the race. I'm not clear what happened. I was not near the incident and there was no buzz about it during the race. I did see a couple of ambulances, but i figured those were for spectators.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Off To NYC

I fly out to New York City tonight for the marathon this weekend. I've probably never been less enthusiastic about a race. I don't really want to go to New York alone all that much, i'm not especially fit, and i'm still a little nervous about the fire situation in southern California given that new Santa Ana winds are supposed to blow in this weekend. Plus, i really, really hate air travel.

Hypothetically, i think the race will be the most interesting that i've run. The big marathons i've run have all had their own unique character. Chicago really showcases the city and they have a runner's course. San Francisco has the Golden Gate and the beautiful city. Boston is Boston. But i expect this one will just have a little more of everything. The elite field is also far and away the best of any marathon i've run.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Last Word on the Fires

Although fires are still burning, most of the nearby residential areas have been repopulated, Governor Schwarzenegger and President Bush have made their obligatory appearances, and the weather has returned to near normal. Except for some minor wind damage and a pool full of ash we were unaffected. But we do know some folks who were affected significantly, including my wife's boss who lost her house. Some observations:
  • The traditional media are amazingly poor conduits of information. Despite around-the-clock coverage from all the of the local channels, I really had no idea what was going on in my community. A single Google map application was vastly more informative.
  • TV and radio coverage are less about information than about commiseration.
  • If i hear the words "perfect storm" again, i'll wretch.
  • Whether liberal or conservative, people should keep their political views with respect to the fires under wraps until people that matter are out of harm's way.
  • I got messages regarding the fires from Germany, Switzerland, and Brazil.
  • It's getting harder to get by without the Internet.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Latest on the Fires

We returned to our house today, although our neighborhood is still technically among the evacuated areas of our community. Quite a few houses in our town (Poway, CA) were destroyed. The closest are about a mile northeast of our house, but the fires directly to the east made me more nervous. As of Monday morning, i was reasonably certain that the fires would spread to our neighborhood, but amazingly they did not cross the major street that borders our neighborhood on both the north and east after a southward turn.

The air is still filled with smoke, but the winds have diminished and the skies are partially clear now. Schools are closed for the whole week, and both my office and Emily's are officially closed (my office borders one of the worst-hit areas of fire damage). Fortunately, our electrical power has been restored, so we're able to live more or less normally except that we can't really spend much time outside. It sounds as if the weather will be more conducive to fighting the fires tomorrow, but it's likely that there will be areas burning and people evacuated into the weekend.

California Hates You Too, Glenn Beck

I've always thought Glenn Beck is a smug, whiny idiot whose secret ambition is to be Robin to Rush Limbaugh's neocon Batman. Fortunately for me, he saved me the need to prove it to anyone who might be skeptical.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

San Diego County on Fire

This is what the sun looked like at about 4 pm this afternoon from my back yard.

There are currently two fairly large wild fires burning in San Diego's east county. The one responsible for this smoke is east of Ramona along the Highway 78. High Santa Ana winds are making the fires essentially unstoppable, and the fire departments are taking the approach of trying to evacuate the communities most likely in its path. Not sure if it'll get this far west like the big fires back in 2003, but the winds are supposed to continue for the next couple of days.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Reid vs. Google

I was lucky enough to start my career in computer software at a research facility that one of my colleagues described as a "halfway house to the real world". There was a broad cross section of humanity, from recent college grads to world-renowned research scientists. There was one guy who was nearing retirement. Although he was a smart guy, a former nuclear engineer, his skills had atrophied and it was clear that he was just trying to hold on until he could collect a pension.

At the time, i thought it was a little sad but i didn't really imagine myself working as an engineer into my 60s. What i didn't anticipate was that the "old guy" in the IT organization would someday be the 40-something. It's hard to say exactly what the truth is behind this lawsuit, brought against Google by computer scientist Brian Reid, but the implication is clear: experience is not as valuable as the willingness to put the company before your personal interests.

Places like Google, and Microsoft in an earlier era, are unique in the sense that the rewards that can accrue to people with a good idea and no external distractions are very significant. But it does make you wonder if there's room at the elite levels of software development for people with lives. On one hand, i believe that any corporate environment should be a meritocracy. On the other hand, i feel that experience, even if it's only in a non-technology-specific sense should be valued. As the resident old guy in an Internet organization for the last few years, I've experienced the intense frustration of the young and ambitious needlessly repeating the mistakes that we made twenty years ago. It's not simply that experience in software development is undervalued, it's that many software organizations, especially in the Internet space, are culturally conditioned to believe that there situation is novel and not subject to the rules of earlier eras.

You would not believe the insanity i've seen propagated as a result of this. I've seen younger programmers go through the pain of rediscovering what many of us have known about optimization and performance for years. I've seen virtually unbounded arrogance with respect to estimates of how long projects will take, and the inevitable assignment of blame to the naysayers when the death march reaches its logical conclusion. I've seen the rediscovery of ancient technologies given fancy new names. What i have not seen is productivity.

Google's a really cool place with a lot of interesting technology, and i hope this is an isolated case that doesn't really reflect their values. If it does, then they'll eventually end up like Microsoft-- painted into a corner by their inability to learn from their own mistakes.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Back To Work

It was a strange week for a number of reasons, but mostly because i started a new job at Slacker, Inc., a relatively new company in the digital music space that's trying basically to bring personalized music to everywhere. I like the model, which is based on the idea of personalized radio, and also the fact that there's a device component. It's interesting to work next to people with oscilloscopes on their desks.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Gebrselassie Sets Marathon Record

One of the most amazing athletic feats of all time occurred yesterday and you probably didn't even hear about it. Haile Gebrselassie, possibly the greatest distance runner of all time set the world record in the marathon, running 2:04:26. That's nothing short of super-human.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bayesian Statistics

As i've moved from one domain to another during my computer software career, there are certain ideas that seem to follow along. The calculation of eigenvalues and eigenvectors pops up in many different places, as does singular value decomposition. Markov chains have shown up in everything from statistical mechanics to language analysis. I've used K-means clustering in drug discovery and for music personalization.

Another idea that seems to be universally applied these days is Bayesian statistics. When i first encountered the idea a decade or so ago, it was a fairly obscure concept known primarily to statistics geeks, but Paul Graham gave the Bayesian approach a boost when he suggested using it for spam filtering.

Conceptually, the idea of Bayesian statistics is fairly easy to comprehend: evidence (or belief) should factor into probabilities. An oft-cited example is the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow. Normal statistics doesn't say much about that probability, but the Bayesian approach contends that its highly likely because the sun has risen reliably for quite some time and so there's reason to believe that it will tomorrow. In practice, i don't find this example to be very useful. Another common example that i like better is this: suppose you have to determine the probability that somebody has cancer. With no further evidence of the person's habits, you could guess the probability by simply determining the percentage of people who have cancer among the whole population. But if you know that the person is a smoker, you might expect this probability to be higher.

So Bayesian probabilities are essentially conditional probabilities (the probability of event A given event B, usually written P(A/B). The so-called Bayes formula expresses this conditional probability like this:

P(A/B) = P(B/A) * P(A)/P(B)

This says the probability of event A given that event B has happened is equal to the probability of event B given that A has happened times the probability of event A divided by the marginal probability of event B. Which is completely non-intuitive to me.

Another way of thinking about this is that the probability of event A given event B is different that the probability of event A without the condition of event B by the factor P(B/A)/P(B). So for example, the probability that somebody has cancer given that they're a smoker, P(cancer/smoker), is different than the probability that they have cancer, P(cancer), without the evidence of smoking by the factor P(smoker/cancer)/P(smoker). If the latter factor is >> 1 then the idea that smokers are more likely to have cancer is supported.

This is still not particularly intuitive to me, but let's look at it a bit. Take the extreme case that P(smoker) = 1, that is, everybody smokes. Then this factor can at most be 1.0, so the knowledge that somebody is a smoker is not helpful. Similarly, if you were to poll a population of cancer patients and find that they were all smokers, then the numerator of this factor is 1. If P(smoker) is less than 1, then this factor tells us that being a smoker definitely influences the probability of cancer. In Bayesian terms the probability P(cancer/smoker), which is called the posterior probability, is greater than P(cancer), which is called the prior probability.

At a glance, it doesn't seem like the above equation does much for you, since the thing you're trying to find, P(A/B), has to be calculated in terms of an equally complex term, P(B/A). The trick is that P(B/A) is often easier to determine from known data. Put in terms of scientific method, it's often easier to determine the probability of the evidence given the truth of the hypothesis than to determine the probability of the hypothesis given the evidence.

An example from recommendation technology would be something like this: suppose that you have a large collection of ratings for both albums and artists, with values of 1 to 4. You want to determine the probability that a given user would give an artist S a 4 rating, P(S=4). Without any other information, you could estimate this probability by looking at the percentage of 4 ratings for that artist among the entire set of ratings.

However, suppose that the user has not rated the artist, but has rated one of the artist's albums. The value of that album rating can be considered evidence of the user's opinion about the artist. Let's say the rating for the album is M, then we can look at P(S=4/M) . Bayes formula gives us

P(S=4/M) = P(M/S=4) * P(S=4)/P(M)

Here, the P(M) term is more complicated than it looks. I glossed over the fact above that the denominator of this formula is a marginal probability. To understand the origin and concept of a marginal probability, it helps to know the relationship between conditional and joint probabilities. A joint probability is the probability of two events occurring together, usually written as P(A,B). Joint probability can be written in terms of conditional probability

P(A,B) = P(B/A) * P(A)

where P(A) is a marginal probability, meaning that it's the probability of the event A occurring regardless of event B. The reason it's called marginal is because if you consider a table listing the probabilities of all the possible joint events (assuming A and B take on discrete values), then if you sum up the joint probabilities across one row (meaning the total probability for a given value of A regardless of the value of B), then you'd write the sum in the margin. Get it? The marginal probability for P(M) can be written like this:

P(S,M) = P(1,M) + P(2,M) + P(3,M) + P(4,M)


P(M/S=1)*P(S=1) + P(M/S=2)*P(S=2) + P(M/S=3)*P(S=3) + P(M/S=4)*P(S=4)

The formula now is composed of terms that we can derive from the ratings data. Given an actual value for the rating M for a particular user, we could then predict the mostly likely artist rating for that user.

This is a contrived example, and i wouldn't really recommend it as a method for doing music recommendations, but i hope it does illustrate how this concept can be applied in various domains. There are far more interesting applications of Bayesian statistics in machine learning, the physical sciences, and even search and rescue.

Surprise in Recommendations

There's a principle in user interface design called "The Principle of Least Surprise" (or astonishment), which states that any action with a potentially ambiguous interpretation should result in the the least surprising consequence. Often the results of recommender systems are interpreted similarly: people evaluating the recommendations deem a recommendation to be good if it is expected. Once, long ago, i wrote here about how this doesn't seem to provide a good experience with music recommendations, because if a recommendation is not surprising, it is probably already familiar.

I've since decided that a bigger problem with music recommendations is that even great recommendations can't be appreciated unless you listen to the music (again, if you already know the recommended music, then it's not a compelling recommendation unless it's in the context of something like a personalized radio stream). However, i still think about this problem occasionally. It still seems to me that the interesting recommendations are those that you don't expect, but which still match your taste (if you eliminate the latter restriction, it's easy to make unexpected recommendations).

The main reason why unexpected recommendations are rare is (i think) because most recommendation systems are based on some measure of similarity between either items or users (this is the idea behind so-called collaborative filtering systems and content-based systems obviously seek to find item similarity). Often the set of recommended items will be chosen by comparison with similar items or by comparison with the tastes of similar users. So suppose that you like The Shins and the system discovers that other people who like the Shins often also like the The Decemberists. The latter is a good recommendation by most standards (including my personal subjective standards). But it is not a surprising recommendation.

Surprising in this context does not mean obscure like say Neutral Milk Hotel, or outrageous like say Iron Maiden. For me a surprising recommendation would be something that maybe takes a detour into a different, but adjacent genre. For example, i've been listening to a lot of Richard Thompson recently, and i'd be surprised but pleased if there were a connection from The Shins to Thompson via the intersection of indie rock with alt. country and alt. country with folk. It's unlikely that many systems would make that connection because the two artists don't have a significant shared fan base (though i'm sure it's larger than just me).

A mathematical model of surprise was developed a while back, but it treats surprise more in the sense of jumping-out-of-the-bushes rather than one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other. The idea of surprise that i have in mind is more like Ted Dunning's use of the word in his paper Accurate Methods for the Statistics of Surprise and Coincidence, in which surprise is more of a rare but significant co-occurence.

The reason why even the latter approach doesn't often produce the sorts of surprises that i want is that the information isn't in the data. For example, the connection that i claim between The Shins and Richard Thompson above is subjective. In the general population of music listeners there simply isn't enough data to establish a connection between the two artists. It seems like what is needed is something that can infer or enhance these unusual connections from a single person's listening habits. Or, perhaps, this connection could be found with content-based recommendation systems or some future refinement thereof.

I suppose that if you imagined a giant network that connects every musical artist with closest neighbors and so on until every pair of artists (A,B) are connected by some path, then you could over time weight the connections based on an individual user so that certain paths become "shorter". It might even be possible to structure this as a Bayesian network, where information about a user's artist preferences is used as evidence to connect previously unrelated artists for that individual. But, honestly, i'm not sure how you'd scale this across millions of users.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Man Sues God

This article about Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers looks like an Onion article, but apparently is not.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

What Not To Sing In An Airport

You know how the last song you hear on the radio before getting out of the car sticks in your head and you end up singing it to yourself. Last weekend i flew to San Francisco for the Plum Blossom Federation Kung Fu Tournament and as I arrived at the airport the new Beck song was playing on the radio. So as i walked into the airport, i was singing

We got a time bomb, we got a time bomb,....

Fortunately, i realized where i was before i reached the security checkpoint.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Yo Gabba Gabba!

I didn't want to post something serious for 9/11 and sound all solemn, even if this is a sort of unofficial memorial day for us Americans. So i decided to post something about the best children's television show ever made, Yo Gabba Gabba!

Now, the interesting thing is that Yo Gabba Gabba! is shown on Nick, Jr. and is clearly targeted at preschool, Sesame Street-age kids. However, it's very popular with my 13 year old son and his friends. My son is also a big fan of the Aquabats, some of whose members are associated with the show. They've also had musical guests like the Aggrolites and The Shins.

Quite frankly, the show is brilliant. If you don't find yourself nodding along with the tunes about straightening up your room and other wonderful advice, you probably are lame in other important self-limiting ways. It's one of those shows that appeals to adults and its target audience by being quirky and fun without ever crossing over into creepy.

Watch it. It's really awesome, and it proves that the terrorists have already lost.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


I finally gave up on my career as a minion of an Internet behemoth. To be fair, Yahoo! was in general a pretty classy organization, and they treated me very well. This was a rare instance where a single individual made the workplace so unpleasant that it was difficult to find any aspect of the job that compensated for it. I had many great coworkers, and the location was perfect, but there are only so many days of homicidal rage that you can endure before it starts to wear on you.

Corporate culture is strange in that it's very difficult to fight against a bad boss. I've never been shy about saying "No, i think that's the wrong way to do that". A good boss will probably forgive you for that, and will often agree with you. A bad boss will ignore you, and probably marginalize you since even if your idea is clearly better, it's not part of his or her agenda. Bad bosses need a system where they can take credit for things that go right, and assign blame for things that go wrong; which is antithetical to the environment that breeds innovation and teamwork.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Pride and Pain

I started a second blog, called Pride and Pain, as an outlet for my interest in martial arts and fighting.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Overheard in Starbucks this morning:

"I hear they're sending 26000 troops to Dufar"
"What country is that in?"

Friday, July 27, 2007


I spent Tuesday and Wednesday backpacking on Catalina Island. I caught a boat out of San Pedro early on Tuesday morning to the Two Harbors area of the island, and managed to pick up my permits and hit the trail by 9:30.
The trails aren't well marked, and i wasn't sure about the road i picked up out of Two Harbors. I was fairly sure it was what they call the Banner Trail, but there weren't any signs to that effect. The route was all uphill for the first couple of miles, but that gave me some awesome views of the ocean on both sides of the island.

Hiking on Catalina is pretty much all about the views. There aren't many trees, and the most interesting wildlife is the local herd of bison that was transported there for a movie many decades ago. Fortunately, there are relatively few places on the island where you can't see the ocean on at least one side of the island, and even when you can't you still get nice views of the interior valleys.

I finally crested the hill and started down the trail to the main road (still dirt at this point), which i then followed down to the Little Harbor campground. I reached the beach by about 12:30, and i stopped to take of my hiking boots and soak my feet in the surf. I also had some lunch.

I started out again after 1pm on a short section of the road that follows along the coast. By the time the road turned back inland i was well above the Little Harbor and Ben Weston beaches, and it was an absolutely gorgeous view down. At that point the road turns sharply inland toward the appropriately named Rancho Escondido. I reached the ranch a bit after 2:30 and started down the Cottonwood trail toward the Black Jack campground where i was planning to spend the night.

The Cottonwood trail was hot and mostly uphill, but it was a pretty little trail and i managed to reach the campground around 4:30. I eventually found my camp site, and settled in. The fact that the Catalina camp sites have fresh water and other amenities makes backpacking there seem a bit like cheating, but since i was on my own and breaking in both a new pack and new boots, i didn't mind cheating too much.

I spent the next few hours reading a book, looking at birds, watching the views of the ocean, and setting up camp. I was tired after the 12 or 13 miles i'd hiked that day, so by 9pm or so i was ready to sleep. I'd decided to leave the tent at home and sleep under the stars again, which i've come to prefer to the tent. The sky at first wasn't that great because the moon was too bright, but as the night went on it got darker and every time i woke up it looked better.

Not long after i turned in i heard a strange noise. I couldn't decide if it was a bird or some other critter, but initially it was distant so i didn't think about it. The same noise occurred about every half hour and it got progressively closer, until at some point in the middle of the night it woke me up because it was so near. At closer range the noise sounded like a growl or bark, followed by a lower pitch growl. Curious, i shined my flashlight in the direction of the noise and managed to fix one of the Santa Catalina Island foxes in the beam. This is probably the most interesting animal on the island, given that it's indigenous and endangered. I turned the flashlight off and decided to let the fox do his or her thing.

I got up at first light and packed up, since i wasn't really sure how long it would take me to get down to Avalon. It was only 8 or 9 miles, but i could only guess at the terrain. I knew it had to be generally downward since i was near the high point of the island, but i feared that there'd be another ridge in between. I managed to pack up, clean up, and hit the road by 6am.

I started down the road, and hit the main airport road in about a half hour. I saw a few deer as i started out, but i was hoping to get a glimpse of the island bison. I figured it was a long shot since i was avoiding the central valleys, but after about 40 minutes on the road i saw a single large male grazing on the side of a ravine just off the road. Cool, at least i could say i saw one. Then about 15 minutes later, i heard a noise above me and looked up to see the giant head of a male back lit by the sun and staring straight at me. It was a mildly transcendent moment primarily because the animal was so close and that shape, with the curved horns and the big shaggy head is so iconic. In all there was a group of 14 males, females, and calves grazing in a patch of burned out prickly pear.

Soon i made it to the long downhill section into Avalon. It's a beautiful walk even though much of the vegetation was lost in a recent wildfire. I reached Avalon much earlier than i expected-- before 10-- but it's about as nice a place to kill time as there exists. I got some coffee and a snack, sat in the shade watching people on the beach, and changed into my sandals. By the time the boat was ready to board back to San Pedro, i was actually wishing i could hang out for a while.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Lake

When i was a kid my family started spending many of our summer weekends at a place called Barton Lake in Indiana. When we first started going there i was pretty young, maybe 9 or 10, and we shared a place that my grandpa bought. I basically learned how to swim there, and spent many of my weekends at the Barton Lake beach (there used to be a diving board when i was young).

For the first couple of years, trips to the lake were mostly about fishing and swimming and eating (i was physically incapable of putting on weight when i was young, and i would routinely start my day with 3 or 4 donuts). But after a few summers, my family got our own place at the lake, and my sister and i had become part of the local group of summer youth. By the beginning of high school, we spent a lot of our time not only swimming, but going to movies, hanging out a various local spots, and sitting around fire rings at night.

My sister dated one of the guys in the group, and several other relationships formed and failed. For my part i had a desperate crush on a young lady named Chris for a few summers, but i was too shy to do much about it. This circle of friends included some of the year-round inhabitants, but most of us were there on summer weekends only (including my first cousins, my father's sisters kids). It's amazing to me on reflection how, in that pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era, we managed to stay friends for several summers, and we'd all manage to gather up and hang out, weekend after weekend, summer after summer.

I was on the younger end of the group, and by the time my older sister's class had graduated from high school, my family had basically stopped going. Several years ago, my parents bought a new place and started going back. I've been back a couple of times with my kids, including this last couple of weeks. Of course, my kids aren't there enough to become part of the community. Being there is a strange, slightly melancholy experience for me now. It has changed so little, there really isn't much of the joy that i found in the place decades ago. I don't think that's just because i'm old, but rather it's because it was the people who made the place special to me.

I learned to drive a stick-shift at the the lake. I recall celebrating my father's 40th birthday there, which makes me feel even older than i am. I remember good times with my grandpa and my uncle Don, both of whom passed away long ago. I still repeat the jokes that our friend Carol would tell (whenever she saw a "Stop Ahead" sign, she'd reach over and grab the head of the nearest passenger). We once hid out in the basement of the lake's proprietors during a particularly threatening tornado warning. I had a small sail boat for a while, fished from a canoe, and "cured" the case of poison oak i got in the 8th grade by swimming from our dock (that's my hypothesis anyway). Actually, i recall this aspect of my life far better than i remember high school though they were roughly coincident.

Despite the lingering memories, my lake years didn't have much real effect on my life. Except for my own family, i haven't seen any of my lake friends in almost 30 years. I didn't develop any life-long affection for swimming, fishing, or boating; and i don't have any similar weekend place that my family visits. Maybe memories are the best we can expect from our past.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Blog Changes

I've been slowly adding bits and pieces of automatically generated content to my blog page. I'm not sure why, except maybe it seems to compensate for my infrequent updates. So far, i've got:
I thought about doing a thing also, but frankly i'm sick of music recommendations.

Now i gotta get busy and get rid of this standard template. And maybe write some blog entries.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Rafting the Kern

This weekend was Nathan and I's trip to raft on the Lower Kern River with a bunch of other fathers/sons. Most of the group went up on Friday, but we left Saturday morning and drove to rafting area northeast of Bakersfield near a town called Kernville. The drive was not remarkable beyond the fact that Nathan sat in the front seat with me, which is something of a milestone.

We reached our campground about 1pm, but then we continued further up the river looking for the rest of the group. After a pretty lengthy drive up into the mountains, we eventually came to the Trail of 100 Giants, a short trail through a grove of sequoia trees. I'd seen sequoia before in Sequoia National Park, but they're always impressive. Nathan was a bit drowsy from the long drive and anxious to meet up with the other kids, so his enthusiasm for wandering around among the trees was not high.

We started down the mountain, figuring that we'd just head back to the campground and hope they'd made their way back by now. On the way down, we got very lucky and managed to see one of the other fathers who, because he is 6'8" tall, is very recognizable even from a distance. The group was parked beside the river, and had managed to find an unoccupied spot to do some swimming and fishing. It felt great to be in the water after a day in a hot car.

We played in the river and eventually Nathan got his guitar from the truck and started to play some bits and pieces of songs he knows. Nathan plays a left-handed guitar, but by a strange coincidence, so did 3 other kids on the trip. Most notable was a friend of Nathan's named Chase, who is a very accomplished musician for a 7th grader. The two of them traded back and forth, and occasionally Chase would play a ukulele-sized guitar upside down because it was strung for a right-handed player.

After a couple of hours at the river, most of the group relocated to the campground while a few stayed behind to fish. The campground was next to Lake Isabelle, a man-made lake formed by damming off the Kern. It was a bit open and windy, but very spacious and it had some nice views of the surrounding mountains. Nathan and Chase started playing guitar again, various groups broke out to play catch or drink beer, etc.

After dinner we started a campfire and began to play a game called "mafia", which i won't explain here. About half-way through the second game, somebody noticed an orange glow on a hill across the lake, which being southern Californians we all recognized as a brush fire. It looked perilously close and grew quickly, but it turned out to be harmless. In the light of the next day, we could tell that it was further away than we thought, and it was apparently contained without any damage.

We slept under the stars that night, basically on the ground plus a tarp and a Thermarest. I slept amazingly well considering. I still woke up at dawn, but it wasn't one of those nights where i'm checking the moon every 15 minutes to see if it has moved.

We headed out to the rafting company (Kern River Outfitters) at about 9 and after getting flotation vests and transferring our gear to their trailer, we took a bus ride to the launch point. We got a long safety lecture from our trip leader Kris about what to do if you fall out of the boat, and why you should avoid trees, and how to "high side", which is basically when everybody moves to the high side of the boat to keep it from climbing up a rock.

Nathan and Chase chose a guide named Mike because of his awesomely cool aviator sunglasses. As luck would have it, he turned out to be one of the best and most experienced guides, with 10 years on the river even though he was only 25. A side effect of this decision was that we got to be the first boat through most of the rapids. That wasn't a big deal for the initial Class II and Class III rapids, but i have to admit being a bit nervous on the first Class IV. There are numerous factors that make a rapid a higher class, but most obvious among them is that the drops tend to be larger. In turn, that means that when you hit the bottom the impact is larger and the chance of being tossed out of the boat is larger. Fortunately, this never happened but i imagined that it would be like being thrown into a large washing machine full of rocks.

The guides do all of the steering of the boats, and use the other paddlers primarily for locomotion in a particular direction. They call out commands (forward 2, backpaddle 3). A typical rapid has the guide calling out forward commands so that the boat picks up a bit of momentum heading into the rapid. The guide of course chooses the line through the rapid, but he or she can use the paddlers to move the boat away from rocks and other obstacles. As a paddler, you're basically focused on keeping your feet secured to the footholds in the boat, and responding to the guides commands. You pick up speed rapidly, you drop, and usually the nose of the boat will create a big splash that covers everybody in the boat. On some rapids, this is repeated a few times. Often at the bottom, the guide steers the boat into a particular orientation and then tells the paddlers to go forward or backward to keep the boat's momentum from bumping into a rock. This doesn't always work, and we got to see some boat-rock collisions while watching the other boats. Unlike a ride at a theme park, each rapid is a unique experience. Some are just fast, others are bumpy, some have elaborate patterns of obstacles, some are just wet.

On the first day, we stopped for lunch then ran several more rapids, and by mid afternoon we were at the overnight camp. As camps go, this was pretty nice. They had raised platforms to sleep on and air mattresses, and port-a-johns, and shaded tables, etc. It was easy to pass time simply by sitting on a rock and watching the river.

Dinner that night was prepared by the guides. It was very good, and made better by that unique phenomenon of outdoor activity where everything tastes better when you've been moving all day and you don't have a ready supply of snacks. After dinner, a large poker game broke out, but i declined in favor of sitting by the fire reading a book i found in the camp's game cupboard (Shooting the Boh, by Tracy Johnston). After a while the poker players who'd lost their chips, the fishermen who'd stopped getting bites, and the guides who'd finished their labor for the day gathered around the fire and the guitars came out again. By 10:30 i was tired and headed off to my sleeping bag.

The sky was beautiful that night-- clear as a bell and dark so that you could see deeply into the stars. I slept well again, though i had to get up at one point and navigate my way to the port-a-johns in the dark. I woke up a bit after dawn and managed to get to the coffee first. Breakfast was even better than dinner. The group finished breakfast, cleared the camp, and got back on the river by 9:30.

We were on the river much longer the second day, and there were more class IV rapids with colorful names like "Taco Stand" and "Pinball". Several times on the smooth stretches, i jumped out of the boat and floated along with the current. We saw numerous turtles, some great blue Heron, and a few interesting song birds. The view of the river, from the river, is so much more interesting than the view from the shore.

Not long after our stop for lunch, we came to a spot where we tied up the boats so that we could jump off a high rock into the river. The rock was only about 20 feet above the water, but standing on it and looking down, it seemed much higher. Again, our boat was the first through the previous rapid, and so we were first to the rock, and i got to be the first person to jump off. I must admit that it was the most scared i had been in the two days. The height was a bit scary, but not knowing what was under the water surface was perhaps worse. Amazingly, none of the 30 people in our group declined to jump, and by the end people were doing flips and twists.

There were a few more rapids to run, but we were done before 3pm. We'd experienced no serious injuries or involuntary swimming episodes (or, "out of boat experiences" as our guides called them). There was only one rapid we portaged, the Class VI rapid called "Royal Flush". The trip was excellent in every respect, and i look forward to repeating it with my younger son in a couple of years.

Friday, June 22, 2007

My Summer Vacation

I made a decision a while ago that, after 20 years in the workforce, i deserve a summer vacation. I decided to take off the period starting Monday, June25 until Monday, August 27. That corresponds pretty closely to my kids' summer vacation. I'd be lying if i said that my employer was totally down with this idea. Yahoo!, despite pretensions of being a startup-company environment, is really a great big company that hasn't quite realized that it's a great big company yet. We hear lots of internal rhetoric about the need to find and retain talent, but when presented with the possibility of an employee taking what would be a fairly conventional holiday in a European company, they balk. So if anybody needs a good Java programmer, i might be available soon.

My reasons for taking this particular summer are partly rational (it's financially viable, my work environment is in flux, i've got lots of house work to do), and partly sentimental (i want to spend time with my parents and kids, i've been working for 20 years, i need time to consider my career options for the next 25 years). What surprises me is how people react to my decision. Taking off more than the traditional 2 weeks is, apparently, a breech of normalcy so drastic that it requires an explanation (i jokingly tell people that i'm going to Sweden to have a sex change). I protest that it's only 9 weeks, and that this would regarded as completely normal in most parts of the world, but nobody buys it. It must be, so they assume, the result of some crisis.

My desire to have the time off might also derive from the fact that i've been lucky in my career, so that i've never been laid off, fired, or injured. My longest break during those 20 years was a 3 week break between jobs to visit the Philippines with my wife and older son, and even that required me to write a justification at some point afterward in order to get a home equity loan. The fact that our culture regards a 3-week break as a significant stretch of unemployment, is in my opinion, pathological.

I grew up believing that one's work should be fulfilling and absorbing. However, after several years in the workforce i also began to realize that you must draw a line between life and work. I always hear these days that people must be "passionate" about their work, or that they must be "committed" to the company objective, or, most disgustingly, that employees must desire to "win" the competition with their rivals. I've grown to feel that all of this type of talk is a sort of corporate brainwashing designed to get people to sacrifice personal time to corporate ends, and when i hear it from coworkers it's a bit like realizing that a friend has been replaced by one of those pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Or worse. The people in positions of authority who spout this nonsense sound to me like either Big Brother (when i have some grudging respect for their intelligence) or like dupes of Big Brother (when, as is more common, the person stating such opinions has other intellectual deficiencies). I know this sounds melodramatic, but i'm convinced that it's reasonable. I concluded a while ago that where Orwell was wrong was that he didn't understand how convinced most of us would be by the propaganda.

I'll probably blog the whole ordeal, mostly for my own sake though i'll convince myself it is for posterity. As good fortune would have it, my summer vacation will start this weekend with a rafting trip on the Kern River.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I Saw Meb

I was running in Peñasquitos Canyon yesterday with a couple of friends from my relay team when this guy came running up the trail toward us going really fast. There are many excellent runners in San Diego, but i recognized this guy from about 10 meters away. It was Meb Keflezighi, who is probably best known as the Olympic Silver Medalist in the marathon at Athens. He also passed us going back the other direction several minutes later. I wanted to somehow acknowledge that i knew who he was and that i admire his accomplishments, but i couldn't think of anything that wasn't at least obnoxious. Maybe i'll start to carry a pen when i run just in case i need to request an autograph.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Gifted Listener

The Washington Post ran an article recently about Joshua Bell and his experiment playing his 3-million dollar Stradivarius in the Washington metro, posing as a street musician. Except for a few passersby, he was generally ignored. He collected $32, of which $20 came from a single individual. The apparent point being that people were too busy, too unaware, or too self-absorbed to notice a world-class musician playing a world-class instrument.

Unfortunately, i think if you took most of the people on the metro and said "Hey, there's a top violinist playing a rare violin", you'd still get general indifference except maybe about the value of the fiddle. There are enough people in the world who listen to classical music that there can be "famous" violinists like Joshua Bell, who makes enough money performing that he can purchase a $3m violin. But the demand for this type of music is so small relative to popular music that most on-line music providers can't even be bothered to categorize it in a way that makes sense to classical music fans.

I'm not necessarily bemoaning the lack of interest in non-popular music. Whether or not the culture at large regards the music as valuable is irrelevant. However, the sort of music that Bell plays is, in fact, better music than even the best popular music; and it is available unlike most artifacts of the same time period. If somebody were going to offer you a Titian or a Turner to hang on your wall, you'd probably want at least to take a look at it before you declined, wouldn't you? So my problem is not that people don't listen to "art" music; my problem is that people don't try to listen to it.

What makes it worse is that i feel as if i am, in a very small way, a part of the problem. I've written here before that i think that music recommendations like those that i help generate for Yahoo! music steer the listener toward more of the same. In fact, that's essentially the way that the solution to the problem is stated: find out what i'm listening to and find more of the same that i'm not listening to. Like all problems solved by computers, the output is as good as the input. If i tell you i like baroque music and swing and hair metal and polka, then i'll get back a better variety, but still more of the same.

I've used my favorite Aaron Copeland quote before: "Nothing can possibly take the place of listening to music". It's quite OK to listen to a piece of music and decide that it does nothing for you, even if it is a historically admired work (for example, i love Beethoven, but i don't really care for the Missa Solemnis). However, the vast majority of music, even popular music, will not be heard on the radio or played in the park, so music has to be sought for (the weborati call this "discovery", but that term has negative connotations for me since it implies having a computer find things for you).

The culture of digital music promotes personalization, which is kind of like decorating your living room. Your goal is to be comfortable and surrounded by the familiar, with just a few touches of the exotic to allow you to express your personality. True musical discovery is more like a process of self-education: hard work, frustrating, potentially embarrassing, and occasionally tedious. It's also vastly more fulfilling, just like getting out of your living room in the real world. We don't build tools for this kind of discovery, because there doesn't seem to be a market for hard, frustrating, tedious processes, no matter how fulfilling they might ultimately be.

Copeland talked about composing for a "gifted listener", somebody who had no ambitions of being a professional musician but was still serious about listening for patterns, structure, even meaning in music. I don't think Copeland wanted to suck all the fun out of music, so that you're trying to discern the sonata form in the latest Linkin' Park single, but i think he'd be disappointed by the legions of IPod zombies who think that variety means turning "shuffle" on. If you think you like music, then try to find something that really doesn't sound like anything you've heard before.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

White Dragon Tournament

Yesterday was our annual martial arts tournament. I did just ok this year, winning a few events, but not doing well at all in my sash-level events where i've cleaned up the past couple of years. I did win my open form competition, which i was happy about since it's my hardest form by far (siu ba gua). I even managed the lotus position without falling over. I did a little better in combatives this year, losing a split decision in the championship match for my division. I thought i had won, but at the end of the regulation time, the judges called it a draw and made us fight another 30 seconds. I also won my first-ever tai chi event, which was a major surprise.

Our school was second again this year, although i think we had the most cumulative points (the place is based on points per student). Our kids division ruled again, winning the top 3 spots for a second straight year.

Tournament is a nerve-wracking, but worthwhile event. Doing a public performance of a familiar form or technique completely changes the psychological game. Your pace speeds up despite your best efforts to go slow. Your feet seem to have a mind of their own. You start thinking, and it takes away your instinctive movement. It's brutal, but like competitive fighting it gives you a good sense of how technique can go out the window in a pressure situation.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

New York, New York

Woohoo! My request for guaranteed entry into the 2007 New York City Marathon was accepted (based on my 3:02 at Carlsbad). Now i just have to make travel arrangements and train. Fortunately, it's not until November so i've got a bit of time to rest my legs and then start the cycle anew.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Team Kwikstep

Chance are my weekend was more interesting than yours. I spent it running across Riverside and San Diego counties with 8 other slightly insane people. Officially we ran a collective 179 miles in about 26 hours, but it was a lot more fun than that sounds.

Our team (named Kwikstep after a character in L. Frank Baum's Oz books) consisted of 9 people, with not much previous association. Some were coworkers of mine at Yahoo!, others were friends, others were folks drafted from message boards, seven men and two women. I was prepared for something like a cross between a military training exercise and an episode of MTV Road Rules, but despite differences in age and background we turned out to be remarkably compatible.

The adventure started for real on Saturday morning. Our first runner (Rick) went out at 9am on a trail at Vail Lake near Temecula. Ameen and Ken ran the 2nd and 3rd legs, also at Vail Lake and it was apparent by late morning that it was going to be a hot day. Leg 4 was also run by Rick, and then John did leg 5. Both sections were uphill and hot. Aimee was scheduled to do the next leg, but she was having stomach problems, so i took that leg. Todd did leg 7, Aimee did leg 8, and Leg 9 was back to Rick for his last leg of the race (he needed to head home in the evening because his son was home alone). This 9-mile leg was brutally hot and mostly uphill, so Rick was suffering by the time he finished. Runners from other teams dropped out at this point, one with fairly severe heat exhaustion, so Rick's effort was amazing considering the mileage he'd already done that day.

Leg 10 was run by Ruth, and then i did leg 11, a fairly flat 9 miler. Leg 12 was Ken, 13 was Todd, and 14 was John again. That concluded the first section of the race in the eastern part of Riverside county, and then we took the van across to the eastern side of the county to start the second section of the race. It was about 9pm by then.

Ah, yes, the van. Like most teams we had rented a large passenger van to haul people around for the duration of the race (we call it the heist van). They're all essentially the same and they have little character to begin with, but for some reason i developed a sentimental attachment to it by the end of the race.

The beginning of the second half started with Leg 15, run by Ken. Todd did the next, a really tough uphill section in a place called Horsethief Canyon. Aimee did 17, Ameen 18, Ruth 19, and then i had legs 20 and 21 back to back. Leg 20 was a flat, straight section of about 5 miles, but 21 was all uphill. I started 21 a bit after 2:30 in the morning, and it eventually went into some unpopulated back country with no man-made light. About half way up the hill i had one of those rare moments of running-inspired bliss where i just felt right with the world. I'd run 20+ miles already during the relay and i knew i had a lot of hill in front of me, but i wouldn't have traded anything for that moment.

I arrived at the top around 3:30, at which point our team was required to take an hour-long break to avoid arriving in San Diego county before dawn (due to some strange regulation). I couldn't really sleep, but i was happy for the rest in any case. At 4:30 John took off on the next leg, a ridiculously steep downhill section with a few brutal uphill turns. Todd took leg 23, a beautiful run along De Luz road that took us from darkness into dawn.

The first three legs on Sunday morning were run by Dana, which served as a marathon training run. He did close to 23 miles straight, which gave the remainder of the team time to rest and relax. Leg 27 was run by Ameen at a really fast pace. John was scheduled to run the next, but had some difficulty finding the exchange point so Aimee ran that leg, and John took leg 29. Ruth brought us home on Leg 30, which finished at San Dieguito Park in Del Mar.

Hanging out at the park i think we all had a tremendous sense of relief and accomplishment. I've finished 7 marathons, 1 ultra, and 4 bicycle century rides but i don't think i've ever felt so good at the finish of a race. I hadn't slept in a day and a half, but i wasn't sluggish or incoherent (so far as i could tell). I'd run roughly the same mileage as a marathon, but having it divided up over 3 sections made it less taxing on my muscles so i didn't feel the sense of complete physical depletion that's normal at the end of a marathon.

I'm at a loss to explain why this event was so satisfying. I can say that it was inspiring to be around so many other serious runners. I can say that it gave me a sense of accomplishment both with respect to the physical challenge and the logistical difficulties. I genuinely enjoyed the time i spent with the team members. But the whole was more than the sum of these parts. I think, maybe, it was just nice to be on a team again given that running is usually a solitary sport.

Internet technology figured prominently in our planning and execution of the race. Of course, e-mail is essential, but we also utilized Google's spreadsheet stuff to plan leg assignments and pace, and to plan for supplies. We used message boards to draft runners and during the race, we used Twitter to update the outside world on our progress, and Flickr to post race photos afterward.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


We spent the last few days in Las Vegas. The boys are on spring break, but we went also to celebrate Nathan's 13th birthday, which was Monday. Having an official teenager in the family makes me feel ancient, but there's been no Mr. Hyde-like transformation into a sullen, hormone-saturated, pain in the ass (yet).

We went to see the show Love by Cirque du Soleil, which is based on the Beatles' music. Nathan is more of a Beatles fan than i've ever been, probably indicating that his musical taste is better. The show was quite good, though more of a dance performance than an acrobatic or circus performance. It was more 3 dimensional than a typical stage show though, with performers entering from both below and above the stage, and multiple points of focus. I enjoyed it more than i thought i would.

We also saw the Blue Man Group at the Venetian. I'd seen bits and pieces of their act over the years, but the show was still a great time. It's so high-energy and funny and joyous that it breaks through the boundary of frivolous and loops back to profound. Giving the performers a literally uniform appearance and eliminating speech seems to enhance what would have otherwise been a relatively normal comedy and music performance. And they have cool t-shirts at the gift shop.

We stayed at the Excalibur, the Camelot-themed hotel. It pretty much sucked. I'd never been to Vegas with my family before, but most of the lower-end casinos employ people whose job it is to harass people into going to see the hotel's shows. It's amazing to me. Except for the phone companies, i can't think of another industry that goes out of its way to irritate its own customers. We started referring to them as "zombies", because of the similarity to the way that zombies behave in video games.

During our time in Vegas, the shootings at Virginia Tech took place. Even in Las Vegas, reporters were asking on the street for people from Virginia. I hate the fact that the shooter, despite being dead, is getting the attention that he wanted. There are people out there right now who think that this insignificant idiot proved his point and demonstrated his power by changing people's lives, however horribly.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Breakfast of Champions

When i was a high-school kid i picked up the book Breakfast of Champions in our high-school library. I retrospect, i know that if any of the librarians had ever read the book, it would not have been on the shelf (this is a community where an editorial in the local newspaper referred to Grapes of Wrath as 'smut'). For me the book was nothing short of a revelation. The most controversial thing i had read before that was maybe Catcher in the Rye, and so BoC broke convention in every way imaginable. It was funny and fantastic and sexual and by the standards of my previous experience, very strange. I loved it. I sort of felt that it was my own personal secret. I had originally chosen it as a novel on which to write a report, but i decided to do another book because i wanted to keep BoC to myself.

I never became a rabid fan of Vonnegut the writer, though i admired Vonnegut the human being. He was a fellow Hoosier and a fellow chemist and i thought his outspoken humanism was brave in a world where celebrity opinion is inevitably condemned as either vapid or elitist. Mostly, i admire how he took the difficult experiences in his life and transformed them into something amazing and enduring.

Monday, April 02, 2007


In a couple of weeks my older son turns 13, a significant age both socially and numerically. A month after that my younger son turns 10, and the following month is my 20th wedding anniversary. In September my father turns 70 (and my sister 45). This is also the year of my 25th high-school reunion, and 20 years since college graduation. Alas, my own birthday this year will be 44, which i suppose has a pleasing symmetry but not much other interest as a number (though 44 is also the number of derangements of 5 items).

I suspect this type of coincidence isn't that rare, although i haven't analyzed it much. For example, it'll happen to me again in 5 years when my sons are 18 and 15, it'll be my 25th anniversary (assuming...), my dad will be 75, etc. It's also true that i have ascribed significance to these values more than others. Other than age 13, which corresponds roughly to major physical and psychological changes, there's not any real reason why these numbers should have greater meaning than the number before or after. But still, it's strange isn't it?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Wild Miles

My next running adventure is going to be the Wild Miles relay race at the end of April. I've been recruiting a team since the beginning of the year, but it's been hard since most people's brains shut off immediately once they hear"170 miles". No matter how quickly and clearly i explain that the race has 30 legs and that each runner only has to run 3 legs, the damage is already done.

In fact i think that the hard part of the race won't be the mileage. I've done more mileage than the total of my 3 or 4 legs on numerous weekends. The big difference on those occasions was that i got to sleep in between my runs. The difficulty with this race is that i have to run, keep up with the progress of the race, and stay semi-alert except for random catnaps. On the plus side, i get to run at night, which i love to do.

So far i've got 8 runners including myself, all of whom are fairly strong, most with marathon experience. Two were complete strangers to me until this last weekend when we did a group run at Mission Bay. So far, only 1 is female, but i'm hoping that at least 1 of my last 2 recruits will be another lady.

I'm not quite sure what motivated me to do this. Running has always been a solitary activity for me, and i'm not inclined to organize or lead. I don't even particularly like to lead the group i allegedly lead at my job. My only hypothesis at the moment is that i feel a need to bond with other people to whom i don't have to explain my strange compulsion to run. There's something vaguely military in the recruiting and planning, which sometimes appeals to me and sometimes repels me. I like the idea of pulling off a complicated plan, but i'm also resistant to the concept that any human endeavor can be made predictable.

Monday, March 12, 2007


I have no idea if this story about toxoplasmosis is real science or bs, but it's of interest to me because i acquired a toxoplasmosis infection when i was a teenager (i grew up on a farm and at one point had 13 cats). It was, in retrospect, a significant point in my life. I missed many days of school that year, did not play sports, and i even spent a week in the hospital (where i developed an intense crush on a beautiful red-headed nurse who was about a decade older than i). I would not say that the infection made me neurotic or paranoid, but the experience of being outside my normal high-school community definitely made me more introspective.

For me the infection seemed to affect my heart, because for several months i became intensely aware of every beat. My week in the hospital was spent primarily undergoing a battery of cardiological tests. The doctors finally concluded that my fatigue and hyper-sensitivity were a result of the infection, which one doctor hypothesized had reached my pericardium. Oddly, it was that week of tests that also revealed to me my somewhat abnormal physiology. I have a resting heart rate in the high 30s, and on the treadmill stress test i was never able to get my heart rate above 177 beats/minute. Cardiologically speaking, i'm a bit of a freak.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Burning Stupidville

My son Nathan and his friend Ben have formed a band, which they call Burning Stupidville (don't ask, i don't know). Recently, they recorded a few songs and posted them to a site called MyJonesMusic, and they also have their own MySpace page.

I won't try to convince you that it's great music (it was written by a 12 year-old and 13 year-old after all), but it's not bad. What amazes me more though is the process. They were not only able to play the music, but they recorded it, and posted it on the Internet. Or, put another way, they played it, produced it, and distributed it. Did i mention that my son is 12?

I'm too old to remember what i was doing when i was 12, but it was something different. I probably watched a lot of television and i might have been playing sports. I didn't have my son's interest in music, or his talent, but whatever i was passionate about at 12 i understood that there were large barriers between my world and the adult world where people made things and put them in front of the rest of the world. I don't think my son knows that, and it makes me very proud.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Big Bear

We made our second annual snowboarding trip to Big Bear last week. This time we went with the family of my younger son Henry's best friend Josh, and we stayed in a rented cabin. Nice place, much better than the hotel we had last year. Being able to cook our own meals and having some other people around for company didn't hurt either. We were directly across from the Moonridge Zoo, which is a curious collection of animals like American bison and reindeer.

On our first morning at Snow Summit we saw somebody fall off the ski lift on the beginner's slope. It was scary, and made me hyper-sensitive all week to the dangers of skiing and snowboarding (it seemed like there were far more paramedic visits this year). All of us have graduated from the beginners' slope to the intermediate runs now, so we were on the faster, higher ski lifts; and i was nervous every time one of the boys got on. Both of the boys have become fairly proficient though. Henry in particular has advanced far beyond where he was last year, which goes to show the power of peer pressure.

Our first real day of snowboarding was Wednesday, which turned out to be very warm. By early afternoon, the slopes were slushy, and we left before 2pm. We spent most of the afternoon at the house, with the door open because it was so nice outside. Other than eating and watching American Idol, we didn't do much. On Thursday, the temperatures were a bit cooler, but we still didn't last much beyond lunch. Two days of falling takes a toll on one's body. I managed to improve a bit. I can transition from heel edge to toe edge occasionally now, and i got pretty good at getting off the ski lift. On my final run, i accomplished one of my main goals-- i got off the lift without falling, and at the bottom i got out of my bindings without dropping to the ground first. There were a few falls between those two points, but i attribute those to experimentation.

Thursday night it snowed heavily, accumulating about 8 inches. I shoveled the steps down to the cars on Friday morning. The snow was perfect-- a thick, even layer of white powder-- and i really wished we could do one more run just to experience new snow. But we'd already turned in our rental gear, and we had to check out by 10, so we packed up the cars and headed for the nearest Starbucks. Afterwards, we started down the mountain. The first 5 miles or so were still snowy, despite having been plowed. Down to about 5000 feet it was a nerve-wracking drive, even with 4 wheel drive. Of course, i grew up in that kind of weather, but in Indiana if we went off the road, there wasn't a thousand-foot drop.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Globetrotters

The whole family went to see the Harlem Globetrotters at San Diego's IPayOne Center last night (yes, that's what it's really called-- it used to have the cryptic name "The Sports Arena", but the new name is much better, don't you think?). The show is basically the same as it was when i was the age that my kids are now, way back in the neolithic when they played with rocks and flew from town to town on pterodactyls (like in the Flintstones, get it?). There's the famous passing circle, and Sweet Georgia Brown, and lots of clowning and trick shots.

Except when i was a kid, the Globetrotters were a big freakin' deal. People knew the names of the players, and they were on TV, and they had their own cartoon. But in the ESPN era of the NBA and the "And 1" teams and college teams comprised of 19 year-old mutants who can fly, the Globetrotters don't seem all that special. Even though the schtick is essentially identical, it doesn't really work any more. I think my kids found it mildly entertaining, but for me it was kind of like crashing at a Holiday Inn in Nebraska and finding that the The Eagles are the lounge act (or substitute your favorite 70s band). Even the players seemed bored. What really struck me though is that nobody can shoot anymore.

When i saw the Globetrotters in the 70s there was still also the memory of the time when they could play and defeat NBA teams, and there was a conceit that Globetrotter players could have gone to the NBA had they so chosen (after all, Wilt was a Globetrotter at one time). That's gone for good though. Even a 9-year-old kid knows that nobody would pass up an NBA paycheck.

Monday, February 05, 2007

White Dragon, Golden Bagel

This is where i've spent much of my free time for the past 5 years. I used to be skeptical of the strip-mall martial arts schools, because popular culture promotes the idea that traditional martial arts are learned in remote temples on misty mountain tops. But i've learned that in China any space that's available is adequate, and it's not unusual to train in, say, a restaurant after closing hours.

The shop next door is a cafe called The Golden Bagel. I'm amused by this accidental pairing, more so than probably anyone else. The school moved this past weekend, across the parking lot, into a much larger space. I'll always have a sentimental attachment to this place though, even when they turn it into a taco shop.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I once went to a lecture by Richard Hamming in which he talked about what it takes to be a great scientist. One of his points was that to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack you have to be very precise about you're saying, because even the average professional scientist has an incomplete understanding of the meaning of the terms and symbols of his or her field.

I was reminded of that today when a group of otherwise intelligent people at my place of work were trying to remember which of the symbols on a power switch meant off and which meant on. Here is the correct answer, for the sake of reference.

This arrangement makes some sense in retrospect, but there were numerous hypotheses about which symbol meant what. One, which is probably correct, is that the line represents 1 (or on) and the circle is 0 (or off). For the boolean-aware, that makes sense. However, i also heard that the circle represents a completed circuit (hence on); and i heard the converse, that a line represents a closed switch while the circle indicates an open switch.

What's interesting though is that these symbols don't have an obvious meaning for everyone, so you basically just have to know which symbol corresponds to which state. For me, this begs the question: Are these symbols really an improvement over the words "On" and "Off"? (or the equivalent words in some other language). At least those symbols are unambiguous for some portion of the population.

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Song of Fire and Ice on HBO

A coworker told me this past weekend that HBO has bought the rights to George R.R Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice so that they can turn it into a series. I've never had HBO, so i've missed out on Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood with nary a regret. This, however, will probably get me to subscribe. This could be for TV what the Lord of the Rings movies were for cinema, which i regard to be a good thing. It'll be interesting to see what they can get away with in the show, since there are some fairly taboo subjects in the books, even by HBO standards. Incest, for example, figures significantly into the plot, and one of the main characters is a girl who is wed (and impregnated) at age 14. But, hey, they handled Rome well enough, or so i've heard.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Vast Superiority of Yahoo! Search

I've never made any attempt to promote my blog, knowing that i'm the only person who reads it regularly. But i figured that the name would be odd enough that it would still show up fairly high on search engines. As it turns out, on Google search i don't find a reference to this blog until the 6th page! With Yahoo! search on the other hand, it shows up within the first 10 links. Yes, i work for Yahoo! and might have some small bias here, but surely this must show some fundamental flaw in PageRank (is there a "facetious" emoticon?).

Monday, January 22, 2007

Nope. 3:02

Didn't quite make it under 3 hours at the Carlsbad Marathon. I ran 3:02.36, good for 20th place over-all and 3rd in my age group. I was pretty close. I was at 6:46 pace through 20 miles, but i really struggled through the last couple (3:02 is 6:58 pace). The course was fairly tough (a bit hilly and windy), but what really got me was nausea. I had to slow down considerably over the last couple of miles to keep from puking. Can't decide if it would have been better to puke and then go for it, but it seemed like a bad idea at the time.

Apparently, the course was tough for everybody, as reports are that they had the slowest marathon time in 17 years. The headwind in the home stretch apparently slowed everybody down, so that gives me a bit of consolation.

Update: Got my name in the "paper":

Friday, January 19, 2007

Evicted from the Bridge

I found this to be a fascinating story:

2:54 p.m. January 18, 2007

JOHN GIBBINS / Union-Tribune
Ruben Alexander Lopez removes belongings from a living space inside the Cabrillo Bridge in Balboa Park.
SAN DIEGO – A group of homeless people living within the Cabrillo Bridge in Balboa Park was ordered out by police and park rangers late Thursday morning.

If you've ever been to San Diego, you've probably seen the Cabrillo Bridge that spans the 63 freeway from Balboa Park. In fact, it might be our most recognizable landmark. What most people don't know is that the bridge supports are like buildings, with rooms and floors, etc. Local news reported that the people living in the bridge had plans to expand upward and turn the place into a sort of hotel. Not sure if that's true, but it makes a good story.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Window on the Sole

Eww, sorry for the bad pun. I've never posted a picture of myself here, but i liked this one:

It's not because it's especially flattering, but because i'm making this face which is so expressive of the way i was feeling at that moment. This picture was taken near the finish of the Silver Strand half marathon. Imagine that you are in pain and also nauseous, and this is the face that you'll make. This is my "please let me get to the finish before i puke" face.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Not long ago i finished Michael Chabon's book The Final Solution. I picked it up on the bargain table at the Barnes and Noble for $4.99. I had no idea what it was about, but i like Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay so much that i bought it based on the author alone. It turns out that the story is about an elderly detective's final case (and yes there is a connection to the Nazis). The detective, though never named, is clearly meant to be Sherlock Holmes.

Upon finishing the book i decided to put it in the bookcase next to Kavalier and Clay. When i looked for that book, here's where i found it:

I love coincidences like this. They remind me of why human beings tend to believe so strongly in things that are so unlikely. I haven't really analyzed what the probability is that i would have put Chabon's novel on the shelf next to Conan Doyle. I've got maybe 1500 books, but there are also conditions to consider such as that the books are roughly the same size and both are fiction. I don't follow any conventional filing system so the fact that the authors' names end in 'C' is not relevant (notice that the book next to Chabon is Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, so filed because it also has a comic-book related theme).

Game Time

In just under a week, i'm going to attempt the most difficult athletic endeavor of my life so far: trying to break the 3-hour mark in the marathon. This rather mundane feat would not impress many people, but i know it'll be hard for me. Even though my training for the event has gone well and i feel very fit and i've managed all of my intermediate goals (including a 1:24 half); i get butterflies just thinking about the last 6 miles of this marathon. I know that i can run 6:50 pace for 20 miles, but sustaining that pace over the final 10k is gonna hurt. On the other hand i know that, barring unfortunate weather or sickness, i can do it. The barrier between what's possible and what's comfortable is what makes racing interesting.

When i talk about running with non-runners, most are impressed that i'm able to get in 60-70 miles a week while still having kids, a full-time job, and another avocation that requires regular training. But i find that fitting in a 15-mile run on a Wednesday before work is considerably less difficult than keeping my focus on family and work during race week. In the week before a race i usually try to increase my intake of carbohydrates and to drink lots of fluids, but it's also important to stay in a fairly regular routine so that it's possible to sleep at night and not be overwhelmed by anxiety. But it's really hard to keep my mind off the race. Even though it really isn't a competitive event in the sense that i'm not trying to win, place, or show; i get the same pre-game jitters that i had in high school before an important basketball game.

I'm finding the news of Ryan Hall's sub hour half marathon in Houston to be inspiring. That's a phenomenal run.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Code Monkey

This is fun:

Monday, January 01, 2007

Stuff From 2006 That Didn't Especially Suck

The most depressing trend in my musical taste last year was an overarching wimpiness. Good lord, i occasionally even found myself listening to The Fray. It got so bad that at one point in the year i facetiously made a "Music Most Likely to be Featured on Grey's Anatomy" play list. Whatever. It's not like i'm listening to Ray Conniff or Barbara Streisand or something, but i developed a taste for more folky, indie-rock, poppy stuff. In a word, wimpy. So here's the music that i listened to this year that i enjoyed, though note that not all of it was released this year.
  • Richard Buckner - Meadow: Buckner has a distinctive voice and an amazing sense of melody.
  • Tool - 10000 Days - I like Tool. Get over it.
  • The Decemberists - Crane Wife - The Decemberists are the most improbable rock band in recent memory, and this is the most compulsively listenable concept album ever made on the basis of a Japanese folk tail.
  • Rise Against - The Sufferer and the Witness - As a rule pop punk sucks, but this one had a bit of an edge. You know when you're in your car and you want to crank it up and sing along that it's good stuff.
  • Greg Laswell - Through Toledo - Laswell's a San Diego home-boy with an amazing voice and some catchy tunes. One of those albums that makes you feel good about being melancholy.
  • The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow - From 2004, but this is my favorite album that i discovered this year. I'm really looking forward to the Shins new album later this month.
  • Snow Patrol - Eyes Open - I told you: wimpy. Chasing Cars was abso-freakin'-lutely everywhere this year, but i still liked this album. Snow Patrol owns the anthemic love-song like no band ever.
  • Pete Yorn - Nightcrawler - Not as good as Music for the Morning After, but i still spent a lot of time listening to it.
  • Mike Park - North Hangook Falling - From 2005. One of the best albums with an overtly political message that i've heard in ages.
I read far fewer books this year than normal, in part because i was sucked into George R.R. Martin's fantasy world, which accounted for 4 books and maybe 3000 pages. Read it, you'll like it even if you don't care for fantasy fiction.

The most memorable non-fiction i read this year was probably Eric Blehm's book The Last Season, about the search for missing back country ranger Randy Morgenson. I think the book would have been interesting had it only documented the search and rescue process, but the parallel story of Morgenson's life made the book an almost philosophical study about self discovery.

My favorite novel that i read this year was Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. It was written in the 1920s and 30s, but still holds up well, especially if you had any experience with Soviet Russia. It's a comical, farcical novel, with a very modern style and structure that basically turns Faust on its head.

Movies? I saw none of the supposedly good films this year, not even Borat. By default, my favorite film of the year is probably Talladega Nights, because it was funny and wasn't animated.

My favorite things on the Intarwebs this year were mostly web comics. None of that Web 2.0 bullshit impressed me much, except for the preposterous amount of unwarranted hype it generates. But i'm totally addicted to Diesel Sweeties and Scary Go Round and Mouse Wax, none of which require me to have a profile or contact anyone or write a blog.