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August 31, 2006

In the shadow of the dam

I’m developing a taste for an odd sub-branch of non-fiction: industrial disaster histories. Yesterday I finished In the Shadow of the Dam, Elizabeth Sharpe’s book about the collapse of the Williamsburg reservoir and subsequent disastrous flood in the Mill River valley. The dam and its reservoir were created (along with two still-extant dams on the West Branch of the Mill River, in Goshen) to provide a more constant supply of water to the many water-powered mills and factories in the villages downstream.

I’ve mentioned this flood before, in the context of a drive up Route 9 to ski at Notchview, but when I was training for a marathon in 2002 nearly all of my long runs were done in and around the Mill River valley; most of my runs of sixteen miles or longer would include sections in Florence, Leeds, Haydenville, or Williamsburg. I know the sites of each of the memorials placed for the victims of the flood (starting in 1999, an amazing 125 years afterward,) and I know the villages themselves pretty well.

What I didn’t understand until I read the book was how much the flood changed them. It’s one thing to imagine rising water flooding a town and sweeping away things not anchored down; it’s another to consider the water tumbling, rather than flowing, down the valley, carrying an immense amount of wreckage and scouring the stream bed (and many sections which weren’t stream) down to bedrock. Some mills weren’t rebuilt because their sites simply didn’t exist anymore; the entire village of Skinnerville, between Williamsburg village and Haydenville, essentially ceased to exist.

As a result of this, it’s not really easy to stand in downtown Haydenville, for example, and imagine how the flood changed things; you can just find the places where the flood didn’t reach, and the places where everything has been built since 1874.

So the closing images are among the most striking ones, where Sharpe tells what it’s like to drive up the river valley today. She mentions the acres and acres of debris spread on the meadows between Leeds and Florence, and how, in the 1970s, a large piece of machinery began working to the surface on a fairway of what is now the Northampton Country Club; it was from one of the upstream mills, but a century later, nobody could tell which one.

Probably the most famous building involved in the flood is open to the public. The Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke includes details about how the house was renovated in its lifetime, and how the city acquired it for the museum; it doesn’t mention that the house originally stood in Skinnerville. His factories swept away by the flood (and a foot of muck deposited on the ground floor of his house,) factory owner (and stockholder in the company which built the Williamsburg dam) William Skinner relocated his family and his business to Holyoke. He also had his house carted there, where it stands on a hill, well clear of trouble should the immense Holyoke dam go the way of the Williamsburg reservoir.

Now Playing: You Dreamer from Why The Long Face by Big Country

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Posted by pjm at 11:09 PM | Comments (1)

Negative data is still data

This afternoon, I passed through the campus bookstore to see if I could figure out what the text was for my Compilers class. (The sooner I know the text, the sooner I can try to order it online. Online bookstore fulfillment for textbooks can be slow this time of year.)

Both that class and the one I’m TAing—in fact, nearly the whole CS department—are listed as “No book order placed.” I know that’s not right about Software Engineering; I have “desk” copies of the two books.

I was passing through the CS building afterward, so I looked in on Professor γ and let her know about the missing books. Hmm, a puzzle, she was sure she’d made that order—but now she’s checking up on it. Better to find out today than on the first day of class.

Posted by pjm at 7:52 PM | Comments (0)

August 30, 2006

I'm already "old school"

Well, that didn’t take long.

This afternoon someone noticed my hat—a year and a half old and already faded to an indistinct blue-brown—and joked, “They’re gonna take that away from you; it doesn’t use the Official University Font.”

Seems you can’t get hats in this design anymore, or for that matter those traditional block-letter sweatshirts; they’re pushing visual brand identity now. So I’m holding on to this hat; it’s going to be a collector’s item, right? Scarcity drives up demand?

Now Playing: Guitar Song from Strangest Places by Abra Moore

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August 29, 2006

Heads up

I picked up a penny a few days ago. It was heads up in the parking lot of the softball fields across the street. I’ve been looking at the mint years more often, and this one turned out to be the year I was born.

I pick up a lot of pennies, but I don’t usually think about luck; this time I did.

And how, I thought, could a penny make me more lucky than I already am?

Now Playing: Rollerskate Skinny from Satellite Rides by Old 97’s

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Information architecture for athletics events: wild speculation and idealism

If anyone actually read through both of my previous posts on web coverage of major track meets and open data formats for training logs, they may have seen the link between them. On the other hand, that might be evidence that this person thinks enough like me to require professional help of some sort.

I described the team and technical skills I would want to provide good coverage of a track meet, but I didn’t describe much of the technology they might use to make it happen. I raised the question of whether a consultant could make a business out of setting up such coverage for multiple events, but didn’t address the issue of integrating such standardized coverage with a wildly heterogeneous array of event websites. The answer to this, as I hinted in the training logs post, is more information architecture—a service-based architecture.

More similarly dull ideas after the jump…

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August 28, 2006

Good data leads to good science

So the internet blowhard says, a common, open data format for training data would “open the doors to … comparison of training data … [and] free developers from creating end-to-end solutions”.

And the cynic says, “Yeah? Name one example.”

And the internet blowhard blinks, then says, “Imagine if the National Runner’s Health Study didn’t send a paper questionnaire, but a little utility application which extracted the appropriate answers from your log data?”

Imagine if that application could “ask” your training data specific, detailed questions, prompt you for information only if it couldn’t find the data itself, and then “phoned home” the anonymized data?

I think you could even get a grant to write such a utility, if the data formats permitted it.

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August 27, 2006

Worst possible vantage point

I had a pretty good seat for most of the race (though I admit, I didn’t bike up around the north end of the park: I cut directly from the four mile marker over to five.) But I had to watch the finish from behind.

The photographer on his motorcycle got a few shots of me cranking along, after laughing out loud when he recognized me. I halfway wish I’d had my own bike, rather than the dog of a rental hybrid I was riding…

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August 26, 2006

Open training data formats

While I’m shooting my mouth off about how other people ought to be doing things (and I’m incubating some more detailed and technical thoughts on that particular topic, incidentally,) I’ve had some cause to think about training logs, particularly online ones, in recent days.

I’m skating on pretty thin ice when I talk about online training logs. For one thing, I keep my logs on paper—six or eight of the John Jerome né Jim Fixx logs from Random House, a few more random notebooks, etc. This year’s log is an IAAF pocket appointment calendar, and has the dates of all the major international races in it.

Also, I was partly responsible for one of the uglier and less-functional running logs on the web, back in the day; I’ve blocked most of that experience out of my memory, but in a quick 20/20 hindsight evaluation, we tried to do too much fancy stuff without getting the basics right.

On the other hand, through that experience, I have thought a lot about training logs, and I’ve actually been paid to write a quick review of some PalmOS-based logs. (Remember?)

Here’s one problem with every computer-based log I’ve ever seen: every athlete tracks different data. There is no simple way of describing RDBMS tables to allow for every idiosyncratic log habit. You need to accommodate both the old-school runner whose log is simply a wall calendar where they check off days they ran (or, at most, note the time) and the new-school data hound who is uploading HRM data, has a library of regular routes, and is tracking mileage on three rotating pairs of shoes. (This is a puzzle in itself; you need an entire table for shoes.) I used to track not only weekly mileage but my mileage over a trailing four-week window. Different data is generated by different kinds of runs, ranging from a normal training run to track work to racing. And, if you’re not convinced yet, consider triathlon training.

The other problem is linked to the first: lock-in. Spend a few months using any log, and you have a few months of valuable training data locked up in that software without an easy way of getting it back out, even if the log isn’t doing what you want from it. Most web log developers see this lock-in as a feature, keeping users coming back week after week, but I think it’s a roadblock; users like me are reluctant to try new logs because we’re afraid we’ll be putting our training data in jail, like dropping money into a piggy bank that can’t be reopened. I’ve seen some logs nod to the idea of data export by producing flat pages of data which may be printed out. Printed out! On paper! Talk about regression.

And yet logging is a critical tool for runners of all levels. A log lets you step back from your day-in-day-out training and see what you’ve actually done; it shows your strengths and weaknesses, and it can show you where you screwed up and incurred injury or fatigue. A computer-based log offers the (as yet unrealized, as far as I know) potential to perform more intricate analysis, visualize data in clear and illuminating ways, and share both raw and summarized data with coaches and other advisors. It’s too useful a tool to be discarded simply because it’s difficult, and that’s why people are still trying.

So what we need is a flexible data model which allows a wide variety of data but mandates little, and applications which provide for import and export.

The thing is, I think it’s possible to create that now. Specifically, I think it’s possible to describe such a data model in an XML Schema or DTD. Any application implementation which could read and write XML data conforming to that schema/DTD would then be free to store the data however it chose (potentially competing on performance,) or even to simply leave the data in XML and compete on ease of use. What’s more, by divorcing the data model from the application, it would be hypothetically possible for athletes to maintain their own data store, adding training sessions using whatever application they chose (on whatever platform was convenient!) and viewing and analyzing the data using potentially different applications.

Developers would be freed from creating end-to-end solutions; because they would be working with a standard data model, they could create data input managers customized to specific athletes or training programs, analysis engines, or even coaching bots. They could stop trying to lock in the few early adopters, and compete on features for a potentially much larger market. Also, it would open the doors to apples-to-apples comparison of aggregate training data, which might give a lift to the creative training commons we discussed a few months ago.

This might count as wishful thinking, but I think it stands up. Creating the schema would take a lot of work, and getting developers to buy in would take even more. I think the rewards would be significant, though, and worth the trouble.

Now Playing: It’s All Too Much from A Box Of Birds by The Church

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August 25, 2006

Because eight months is better than never

Remember the T’s on-time service guarantee, and how we filed a complaint after our bad bus experience? And how we heard nothing from the T for quite a while?

The refunds (two subway tokens apiece) came today, eight months after we submitted the paperwork.

Note to future claimants: make sure you have an up-to-date forwarding address.

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Advice welcome: mentoring

I continue to be surprised by the gap between my own assessment of my academic abilities, and the faculty’s apparent opinion of me. An example came in this morning’s email:

The position of “CUSP [Computing Undergraduate Scholars Program - ed.] grad mentor” is an “add-on” position to a fully-funded RA/TA/GA position. Although in general an RA/TA/GA cannot take on extra work, there is a small codicil that says that in the case where it is to the mutual benefit of [the] University and to the graduate students, one may take on up to an additional 5 hours/week at an hourly rate. [snip] Other hours would be for planning what happens at the lunch meetings or possibly meeting with CUSP students individually not in the lunch meeting. Overall, it is similar to CSEMS [Computer Science, Engineering, and Math Scholars - ed.], but with fewer students, with them involved in computing research projects, and with the goal to mentor these students to consider graduate school seriously, as well as summer research. …

… I hope you will consider being a part of the mentoring team. I have heard good things about what kind of energy and creativity you might bring to the program that would of course impact the students’ experience.

Now, “energy” and “creativity” are not words I would have used to describe my year in graduate school. “Tenacity” and “thickheadedness,” perhaps. (“Energy” comes between “empty-headed” and “failure” in my dictionary, not that that means anything.)

Still, my own cognitive dissonance isn’t the issue here. (Maybe later.) I need to figure out what to do about this mentoring program. Pros and cons:

  • It represents a pay raise (upper bound of 20%, if I’m figuring correctly.) I’m not as hard up as most grad students, but I still want to have good reasons before I turn down a raise.
  • This is an opportunity to do something good for the field. If I’m vaguely serious about sticking with it and becoming faculty someday, this is exactly the sort of thing I should be doing.
  • It will give me greater exposure to real research in the field and presumably help me clarify whether I want to do that as a career.
  • It’s another positive line in the recommendation letters people will be writing for me when I’m eventually trying to get a job at any level. In general, very good karma.

And, on the downside,

  • It’s another time commitment, another chunk of every week gone. I am already overprogrammed. I sometimes run with the Ph.D. student who is the other mentor; she’s unquestionably on the harried side.
  • I know little enough about research that I’m not sure how useful I will be.
  • Is it responsible for me to mentor others to consider graduate school? This is unquestionably a recruiting program; do we as a field really need more grad students? (Well, yes, of course we do, but we need the right grad students.)
  • The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

Anyone else have suggestions or advice? (I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in CS, but don’t let that stop the rest of you.)

Update, a few hours later: Looking at the web pages of the various faculty involved, nearly every one is involved at some level with the problem of attracting and retaining under-represented populations in engineering disciplines—for example, almost all of them are listed as co-authors on a paper titled, Model for Mentoring and Retaining Engineering Students from Underrepresented Groups. So add my stated interest in that goal to the list.

Now Playing: Sheltering Sky from Cherry Marmalade by Kay Hanley

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August 24, 2006

Online coverage of major track meets

In my first post-college job, I was involved in one of the early efforts to provide timely Web coverage of major track meets. In the five years I was there, our approach varied quite a bit due to circumstances, and I’ve learned things since then that have changed the way I look at the problem.

I’ve had an email conversation recently that suggested to me that laying out my ideas on this might be worthwhile, particularly since I’m not likely to have much time to think about this until we’re far enough into 2007 that it’s too late.

I’d like to think that this is interesting to everyone, but it runs pretty long, so I’ve put the meat down in the extended entry.

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August 23, 2006

Harsher penalties

In the interests of documenting every single time I get paid to write something, yesterday I sat in on a teleconference.

This weekend, apparently, there is no room for me on the press truck (even though I’m writing the quasi-official account.) The current plan has me following the race on a bike. I can’t wait to see where that one goes next.

Posted by pjm at 10:35 AM | Comments (0)

Long delays

The coach we’ve been running for on Tuesdays has a sufficiently long history in the sport that he has a lot of stories. He seldom remembers the names to go with them, but A and I are pretty good (perhaps better than most) at filling them in.

The problem is that once he’s sidetracked on a story, the digression can really set back the workout. The stories are almost recursive, since he follows a number of sub-stories within whichever story he’s telling; last night, for example, to tell a story about Joe Kleinerman playing a prank on him, we heard about his history with the Boston Marathon, how he lost his “card” to compete as an amateur athlete (ironically, for being paid as a coach,) some details about the AAU and the 1936 Olympic, and a more contemporary agent and his family. It wound up taking half an hour to get from “Joe Kleinerman got me good” to “…cup of coffee!”

As we finally started our warmup, we reflected that one of his saving graces was that no matter how far he digressed, he always managed to get back to where he started.

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August 21, 2006

I only have two weeks left

Actually, there’s less time than that before the semester starts; our weekly, obligatory colloquia start this Wednesday, and my “first day” will probably be the Friday before Labor Day, for the departmental Grad Assistant Orientation. (This year, I was asked to offer orientation, not be one of the disoriented; I wonder if they missed the memo.)

So here’s what I’m doing to get ready for my job switch:

  • Rereading Brooks. I now have two copies of Brooks, since I got a “desk copy” of the nice 20th Anniversary edition. My old copy was a pre-20th-anniversary edition, complete with pencilled notes, which I picked up from a table marked “Free Books” one evening at Westfield State. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be able to get much for it on the used market.

  • Playing with Audacity, which we’ll be using as an example in class. Not just as a programming example, though it’s probably that, but an example of a modularized software product—a system, perhaps—as opposed to a single program. It’s also a decent example of an open source project as opposed to commercial development, though the Audacity community probably isn’t as large as, say, the Mozilla community. This is probably for the best. I’m going to have a use case for the software tomorrow; sometime soon I should open up the code and have a look at that, too.

  • Thinking about lab scheduling. It’s “traditionally” on Friday mornings at 10:30, I’m told. I’m not sure I’m fond of that idea.

  • Thinking about office hours. I didn’t need to do office hours before. I don’t know why I’m thinking about them too much, since many other grad students report that they generally don’t have many visitors during office hours.

  • Checking my stock of “TA pens.” I may have mentioned this before: I find red pens unnecessarily garish and perhaps harsh, but it’s necessary to mark papers in something that’s not blue or black. The two remaining (useful) colors are purple and green, so I have a small stock of purple-ink pens. I am still amused by the idea of grading papers in a CS course.

Now Playing: Check It Out from Play by The Nields

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August 20, 2006

Working the circuit

This morning we ran the Wilbraham Peach Festival road race. (I took another three minutes off my post-injury five-mile mark; I am now under 6:40 pace. When I’m under 6:00 pace I’ll claim to be officially Back; this will probably happen next year sometime, if ever.)

On the way home, we heard a radio ad for the Tomato Festival in Granby, featuring the Tomato Trot (though judging from last year’s results, their claim to a 5k is dubious at best.) I got to wondering, how hard would it be to put together a full summer’s racing schedule just at various fairs, festivals, etc.? If they follow the pattern of the Peach Festival (pancake breakfast—with peaches—included with race entry,) you’d have quite a tour.

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August 19, 2006

As close as I'd ever really want to get

“Give them plenty of space,” said A. “We don’t want to be too close when they flip over.”

Of course, she was joking about the car ahead of us on a winding stretch of road, but I did give them plenty of space as they appeared to be looking for an opportunity to pass some of the cars in front of them.

But the fact that she’d said that made it somehow more startling when, on a straight, flat stretch, they pulled out as if to pass, then kept going off the left side of the road, launched off a dirt embankment, and stopped against a tree, resting on a fieldstone wall.

We made the 911 call, and were there an extra 45 minutes or so, making statements to a state trooper.

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August 18, 2006


I heard the telltale “Sssss” of the liftoff last night, and looked out the window to see smoke in the park across the street: someone else was launching rockets in the park! I looked up, but didn’t see it come down; I did hear what I thought was a little voice saying, “Daddy, do it again!”

As I made dinner, I picked out the man doing the launching, and what was probably his son sitting on the ground not far from the launcher. I watched them fuss over something which was probably the rocket; I saw the streamer. Eventually they had it set up to launch again, and I thought, it really looks like they’ve got the pad at quite a dramatic angle, don’t they?

Well, apparently they weren’t *ahem* exactly rocket scientists. (Granted, most hobby rocket launchers aren’t, myself included.) I watched it launch, then flinched even though I was across the park from them: it did a tight loop, then drove straight into the ground about twenty meters away from them, still blazing. Then it puffed smoke (the tracking smoke) and popped the ejection charge. Don’t know what that did; I expect it may have ruptured the body tube. I heard someone shouting; there were others on the field, who probably weren’t too thrilled to have this landshark flying nearby.

There are some pretty cool photos of this sort of thing on Flickr; this is the best one, and contains a pretty good explanation of what happens:

… Luckily, that setting perfectly captured the full trajectory of this chaotic flight of instability. The rocket had too heavy a motor in the back, a J-class motor in this case if I recall.

For those of use who have set off a bare Estes rocket engine as kids and watched it skip randomly through space, you have a sense of what happened here. You can add a nose cone and some fins to a motor, and it will be still be unstable. You need a proper balance of weight and thrust vectors. … To be stable, the rocket’s CP (Center of Pressure) should be one or two body diameters behind the CG (Center of Gravity).

The fins are there to streamline the flow of air and provide a large surface area and help to keep the center of pressure below the center of mass of the rocket.

This is why I didn’t fly my newest rocket this week; I don’t know where the center of gravity is, and I haven’t tested its stability yet.

Now Playing: Americans in Corduroys from Ghost Repeater by Jeffrey Foucault

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August 17, 2006

Unexpected kindness

I’ve seen the cabs out here do some scary stuff, like passing on a double-yellow (in front of the CS building!), right on red without stop, etc. etc.

So it took me by surprise this morning when a cabbie stopped on Highland Street in Somerville and waved me across the street on my run. He didn’t even need to; there wasn’t anyone behind him, nor was there anyone coming the other way.

Now Playing: The Unguarded Moment from Hindsight by The Church

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Steel springs

I ran a lot last week. Partly because I didn’t take a zero day during the “week” defined by my current log (an IAAF pocket appointment book, running Mondays to Sundays,) and partly because I had two or three monster days, I ran 6:19 last week (that’s six hours, nineteen minutes, for those who track miles, like I used to.) I figure that’s on the close order of 45 miles, a high for me since 2003.

In some ways, I still have a long way to go. I start out slow and I take a while to get warmed up. When I have a hard day, it takes me a day or two longer to recover than it used to. And the endurance to hold a strong pace through a longer race is still not there.

However, I’ve been going with A to run with a new training group up in Wakefield on Tuesday nights. The coach has quite a resume (several ARs and a few Olympians in his day—I could name some of his athletes, and you’d know them. Yes, you.) I’m not, and never was, of the caliber of athlete he wants to recruit for this group, but A is, and I go essentially to be her personal workout rabbit, like Hicham el Guerrouj is supposed to have had.

He’s a character in a lot of ways, with his sentences piling out so quickly he can’t finish one before he wants to start another. He’s talking as though he’s training us in secret, with his special formula, but everything he’s given us so far has felt like nothing more than plain commonsense training to me. And it’s helping; I do feel like I can pick up the pace now, and run for a little while at a quicker pace than I would if I was just looping around by myself. Despite his semi-lunacy, he has one very important part of coaching down: he gives me confidence in what I’m doing, and lets me see week to week improvement.

So even though I won’t be in shape for any 2002-quality races any time soon, I am planning one or two hard efforts for the fall. And I’m approaching some kind of mental confidence I haven’t had, what I think of as “Gallipoli fitness,” after the scene from that movie:

“What are your legs?”
“Steel springs!”
“What are they going to do?”
“Hurl me down the track!”

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August 16, 2006

Retro rockets

Tuesday's lineupYesterday at noon, the CS department model rocket team met for another flying session on the athletic fields. We were pretty lucky with the weather; it had stopped raining just a short time before, and the wind had not yet picked up. We could pick our launch times between gusts.

We made six launches, one each of six rockets, and recovered five of the rockets, which is an excellent record for us. Last time, we did five launches between three rockets, and only recovered one of the rockets. I launched three of my old rockets, which we figured were probably on the order of twenty years old; they’re the ones in red on the left, an Estes Echo, Estes Courier (with decals from a Vector), and an unidentified kit. (Unsurprisingly, none of these are still in the Estes catalog.) I also sent up an Estes Swift (in bright orange,) a new construction. We launched another Swift and a Cosmic Cobra as well.

My “retro” rockets did pretty well. They had all required fin repair, and in some cases I had to replace the shock cord holding the nose cone, streamer, and body together. The Vector and the Echo, respectively my first-ever rocket and my first no-parental-assistance rocket, had unremarkable flights; the Echo, I think, had some issues with the streamer coming out, even though the nose cone detatched, so it hit pretty hard, but only suffered some minimal damage. The larger, unidentified kit landed on a concrete pad and dinged one fin; it’s still flyable, but I’m tempted to get a sheet of balsa and cut a new fin. All three have paint job problems, the big one worst of all, but they’re not really durable enough to be sanded down and repainted. Plus, who cares what it looks like when it’s in the air?

I used quite a few old engines and igniters, as well, and was pleased to discover that after twenty years in a tackle box, they all worked fine.

The Swift, billed as one of Estes’ smallest rockets, is supposed to eject the engine with the ejection charge and then “tumble” back down, being pretty light. It flew quite high, though—high enough that we lost sight of it even before we heard the ejection charge pop. We never saw it come down. The other Swift, which had made a successful flight and recovery last time, didn’t eject its engine; instead, it blasted off its nose cone. We lost sight of it as well, but found the body when we were recovering another rocket.

The Cosmic Cobra was the most dramatic launch of the day. It’s supposed to have a chute for the body and a separate recovery system for the nose cone, but all this stuff packed pretty tight in the tube, and the nose cone didn’t come off at all. Instead, the rocket just augered in nose-first, planting the nose cone two inches into the dirt and buckling the body tube. I think the owner plans to get a new body tube and rebuild for another flight.

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August 15, 2006

Where's the "unsend" button?

I just had one of those moments where you wish you could recall an email.

I got email from the department chair this afternoon about my role in orientation (this year, I’m one of the supposed voices of experience, on the panel of grad assistants telling the new cohort how to do well,) and she mentioned in passing that she’d noticed that I didn’t have a grade entered for this summer’s course.

Now, this made me panic a little bit. Not that the grade was missing—I know how I did in the course, and I consider the letter irrelevant—but that the department chair, who I have yet to meet, thought this was an issue. I’m intimidated by this professor’s reputation, and I don’t know what to make of the fact that she’s taking an interest in my transcript (though least hypothesis suggests simply that as chair, she skims these things now and then.)

I whipped up a quick but polite email to the professor of the summer course, asking if perhaps I’d neglected to turn in some major assignment, or otherwise crash landed in a way I might be oblivious to.

When my mail client connected to the SMTP server to send that message, it also checked in with the IMAP store and downloaded the message from the chair, saying, “Never mind, I checked with him, the grades just aren’t in the system yet.”

So I had to send another message, saying, “I just had one of those moments where you wish you could recall an email.”

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August 14, 2006


I am not a puzzle geek. I sometimes do crosswords on airplanes, or other situations where I don’t actually have a book handy, but what I get out of it is the little thrill of solving the clue, which is akin to the satisfaction of finding a neat block of code for a specific problem or function. I don’t like the idea of solving for time. And I certainly don’t have, as NYT puzzle editor Will Shortz has, a degree in “enigmatology.”

But when I couldn’t tolerate another hour staring at the Perlish guts of Movable Type this afternoon (even though Perl was my first programming language—I don’t count the Pascal I supposedly learned in Comp 11 fourteen years ago, because I didn’t remember it past that semester—it’s about fourth or fifth by now,) the idea of going out to Arlington and watching a movie about a bunch of puzzle geeks was really appealing.

Wordplay” is a bit about Shortz, a bit about the Times crossword puzzle, and mostly about the national crossword tournament Shortz hosts every winter in Stamford, Connecticut. It introduces us to a number of contenders and past winners, not unlike the movie about the spelling bee a few years ago, and ends sweeping through the weekend-long tournament, where hundreds of crossword aficionados tear through seven puzzles, scored on time, completeness, and accuracy.

Unlike the spelling bee, though, this is a low-stress meeting of people who recognize that what they’re doing is, perhaps, a bit off-centered—and even though there are clips, throughout the movie, of celebrities (Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina) talking about their love of the Times crossword, what really made the movie, for me, was the atmosphere of the tournament. It was competitive, yes, but it was also hundreds of people coming in to this otherwise-unremarkable hotel and saying, “These are my people!”

I’ll never take a crossword as seriously as any of the people in that hotel. But that’s fine; that’s not the point. I do know the feeling they’re talking about, and that’s what they wanted to show me.

Now Playing: 10 A.M. Automatic from Rubber Factory by The Black Keys

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August 13, 2006

It's the race photo that's most important

Spending part of this morning with A’s second-best camera at a good spot approaching the six-mile mark of the Falmouth Road Race got me thinking. There is, after all, only one winner in any given race (two, if you subscribe to the theory that the men and women run separate but concurrent races on the same course,) and everyone else is chasing some kind of watered-down title like “first over-50” or something completely subjective like a personal best performance. Clearly the really important thing is the race photo.

(Can you tell yet that I now have my tongue firmly in cheek?)

Anyone who has ever run a big road race has received in the mail some dreadful photo taken during the race by the official photo service. (I have a small gallery of these postage-stamp-sized proofs. Least likely to be purchased: the ones taken at a marathon I dropped out of.) Obviously, the photographers are trying as best they can, so for the education of the race-running public, I offer these suggestions for achieving a race photo to be proud of:

  • Don’t run with headphones. I won’t even half-push the shutter to auto-focus on you. Seriously, now, you can’t go an hour without your tunes, particularly when you may need to be focused on where the photographers are? (Or whether some oblivious spectator is about to cause a collision by stepping out onto the course right in front of you?) Would you bring your iPod to a magazine cover shoot?

  • Run by yourself. A good fifty meters of space between you and the runner ahead of you should be sufficient. Hanging on to some kind of “pack,” or that silly “drafting” idea, are both sure-fire routes to a lousy photo. Running in front of a pack may be OK, but the other runners in the pack will divide the photographer’s precious attention.

  • Ditch the hat, or at least wear it backwards if you look good that way. A scanned my photos after the race, stopped at one, and said, “That’s a great shot. Too bad you can’t tell who it is.” The hat’s shadow completely obscured the runner’s face.

  • Speaking of identification, wearing your number where it belongs—on the front of your shirt—is a good idea. Some people like to pin theirs on their shorts, presumably so they can wipe sweat off their faces with their shirts. Not only does this make them hard to identify, but who wants a picture of themselves wiping sweat off with their shirt?

  • Particularly since you’ve skipped the hat, sunglasses are good on sunny days: not only do they reduce the amount you squint (with the less-important side effect of allowing you to relax more and therefore run faster,) but they hide any remaining squint.

  • If you tend to grimace when you run—twisted mouth, tongue out, whatever—well, I don’t know what to tell you.

A word or two for the spectators: It’s lovely that your spouse/parent/child/drinking buddy is doing the race. This day is not about you. When you see someone with a professional camera (you’ll know it: it has interchangeable lenses and lacks stickers indicating how many megapixels it captures,) and a lens as long as their forearm, do not set foot on the pavement. I don’t care if the closest Starbucks is on the other side of the race course and you’ve got the shakes from caffeine withdrawal: cross the course somewhere else and pass behind the lenses.

Now Playing: Genius from Dandys Rule OK by The Dandy Warhols

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August 11, 2006

The Midnight Softball Society

An hour or so ago, I noticed that the lights weren’t on at the softball fields. I assumed there were no games tonight, so they hadn’t turned the lights on. Or maybe there was some kind of regular night off, it being a Friday, after all.

But just now I looked out and saw two teams milling around the benches, presumably wondering how to play softball in the dark. Or, perhaps, conducting some kind of experiment to determine if the beer is as good without the game beforehand.

There was a summer program I attended while in high school which attracted, shall we say, more than its fair share of eccentrics. Among the many things I had forgotten (until I recalled it just now) was the Midnight Croquet Club, an organization made up (necessarily) of faculty and staff for the purpose of playing croquet at midnight. Somehow I suspect midnight croquet is somewhat less dangerous than midnight softball.

Update: Fifteen minutes later, the lights are on. This is going to be a late game.

Now Playing: Fumble by Frank Jordan

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August 10, 2006

Marathoners Anonymous

In light of Mario’s recent posts about his new girlfriend, I thought it might be worth dragging out a column I did about three years ago. This actually predates my PF problems; the column before it, about my ITBS issues, got a number of positive email responses (I’d forgotten about that,) but I can’t find the column in my own archive, nor in my outbound email… and part of the reason I feel free to re-post these columns here is that RW unapologetically “lost” their archive at some point not long before I stopped writing the column.

As usual, I’ve elided places where I used my real name in the original; pages on this site come up third in searches for my full name (different pages depending on where you search—go figure,) and I’d just as soon it not go higher. Also, despite the assertions I made three years ago, I currently have no intention of running any marathon, anywhere, in the foreseeable future. Nor do I live in Northampton.

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Continue reading "Marathoners Anonymous"

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August 9, 2006


If I’d ever made a list of things I never expected to do (and, I’ll admit, it would’ve been quite a long list,) I might have put washing my feet with Fast Orange on the list.

Fast Orange is a pumice-based industrial hand cleanser, not entirely unlike a liquid scouring pad for skin, and I was working my feet because I had been riding my bike in sandals. The street perpendicular to ours has been intermittently ripped up and patched for weeks, and today they put what we hope is the last coat of patch on the road (though I expect the street to be poor driving for a few years.) The edges of the patch were “sealed” with exceptionally sticky, gummy tar, and my bike tires picked up bits of it and flung them around as I rode down the road. One or two wedged between my sandals and my feet.

I wonder how messy it would have been if I hadn’t had mudflaps on the bike.

Now Playing: I’ll Meet You In The Sky from Live From Northampton by The Nields

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My bit for the Commons

Starting offI was a bit late in figuring it out, but it turns out I actually had a photo picked up for use on the web. LAist used one of my shots of a race on a beach in LA for this post around New Year’s.

Of course, I don’t get anything tangible from this, but it’s kind of amusing.

Now Playing: English Beefcake from Pleased to Meet You by James

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August 8, 2006


I admit it: I took the library for granted. So much of what I do (so far) is available online, I didn’t really explore what was available through the University library.

On Friday, though, somebody at MPOW pointed out that through the library website, I could link into Safari Books Online, which bills itself as an “electronic reference library for IT and programmers.” It might be easier to explain that they have a near-complete line of O’Reilly books, plus several other tech-book publishers (I found all of Julie’s books, for example,) available as browser-readable text.

So instead of riding down to Quantum Books in Kendall Square and coughing up $100 for an array of JSP and XSLT titles, I could have accessed all of them and several others on the topic through the library. Yesterday I was comparing my hard-copy O’Reilly XSLT book (Tidwell) with the New Riders book on the subject (Holzner) on Safari; they both covered the topic I’m beating on (the key() function) slightly differently, and it’s been invaluable to have both perspectives. (Of course, the stylesheet still doesn’t do exactly what I want, but let’s not split hairs.)

I was so excited about this, I sent email to Professor α who, last spring, had set up a custom “Safari bookshelf” for our web programming course rather than assign books for us to buy. I pointed out that they’re all available free through the library if he really wants to cut down the cost-per-book for such courses. I think now he’s plotting how to assign fifteen books for his next class and not require the students to buy any of them, so I suppose I should apologize to the undergraduates I pushed to take Comp 20 in the fall.

Now Playing: Penny Look Down by Decibully

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August 7, 2006

It's not even work

We were anchored in Quahog Bay (as my father puts it, we had “dropped the lunch hook,”) near the rope swing at low tide, doing the most sensible thing to do in that situation (i.e. picnic lunch and swimming off the boat,) when the marketers cruised by.

And I do mean, “cruised.” It was a mother and son team, the mother piloting a medium-sized Boston Whaler and the son holding up a sign reading, “Cookies for sale.” They had a good-sized black dog sitting in the bow.

On their southbound pass, we waved them over, and while the dog investigated our boat for sandwich scraps, we bought two “blondies” for a buck apiece, following the “always patronize lemonade stands” dictum.

Now Playing: Strangest Places from Strangest Places by Abra Moore

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Strength and balance

“Which foot was it?”

I had the opportunity to run with Scott this weekend, and in that time after the run where you’re sitting (or standing,) stretching, soaking up Gatorade and feeling the sweat evaporate, he asked about my injury. It was my right foot.

“Because your right calf is more developed than your left.”

Well, he was looking at it, and when I looked down, I could see it too. I wonder if a cloth tape (or a piece of string) around them would show the difference. I can come up with a hypothesis linking the overdeveloped calf and the foot: the calf is, after all, the last muscle to apply force at toe-off, and the plantar fascia (which is what I had injured) is what delivers some of that force to the toes. I may simply have developed a muscle strong enough to strain that bit of connective tissue, which was then very slow to heal (particularly since the calf didn’t get notably less strong.)

We also discussed the theory which Scooter has raised here in comments, and which we both heard quite bluntly and directly from Arthur Lydiard, that if I wore “less shoe” (that is, less supportive, less built-up running shoes,) my feet would get stronger and support themselves. It’s an interesting theory and it seems like common sense to me, but it’s not one I’ve been able to successfully apply at earlier stages in my recovery process. I like less shoe; my favorite shoes ever have always been in the “lightweight trainer” category, the light slipper-like shoes that are just a few ounces from racing flats.

Of course, there’s also those rigid orthotics.

This is where the experiment of one aspect of running is a real liability. If I experiment with light shoes and strengthening my PF, and it goes badly, I could conceivably lose a few more months of running. Would I really want to try such an experiment, or would I rather just keep running? (And I wonder if I can correct the calf imbalance, and if that might help me stay relatively consistent?)

I told Scott I would consider myself 100% injury free when I could run in spikes again.

Now Playing: Come Home from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst

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August 5, 2006

Squirreled away

A side effect of my family’s business is that when a project doesn’t get off the ground, there are often left-over parts. And a consequence of the age of the business is that these parts and materials can acquire ages into decades while waiting for another calling.

This afternoon, for example, I helped my father haul three lengths of heavy-duty culvert (thick-walled PVC pipe, about thirteen feet long and maybe a foot in diameter) out of a collapsed shed and load them onto a truck for delivery to a work site. There were probably seven or eight more lengths left in the shed; my father speculated that they had originally been bought for a redevelopment project of my grandfather’s which didn’t take off. (If I looked in enough corners of the woods down there, I might find a supply of clay culvert sections, on the order of eighteen inches per section and maybe four inches in diameter, from some unidentified project even further back.)

This particular shed, which was old even when I first remember it, appears to have simply become tired enough to lie down, like the sagging barns you can see on back roads throughout New England. The side walls just picked a direction to tip, and a rectangular cross-section of the shed temporarily became a parallelogram before going completely flat. The roof, which may or may not have had holes even when the shed was standing, just lay down on top; we extracted the pipes through a gap in what had been the rear wall.

It’s possible that this wasn’t a spontaneous collapse; other sheds are supporting (or fallen under) downed trees or tree limbs.

For the most part, it’s simplest and easiest to simply leave the contents—generally building supplies—where they are, as they’re equally as protected under the collapsed sheds as they were by the standing ones. The trick lies in remembering what’s where.

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August 3, 2006

Josh Ritter in Copley Square

“Look,” he said, “I know we’re in the epicenter of Puritanism, here between the library and the church, but can we get a big redneck yell?”

That was Josh Ritter playing a free outdoor concert at Copley Square this afternoon. A and I went in two weeks ago for one of the earlier shows in the series, but we left late and spent so long on the T that we only saw Edie Brickell (and a band that must be, I joked, the New New Bohemians,) play three or four songs before the show was over. I wanted to see all of Josh’s set, so we left earlier this time, and got there just as they were breaking down the opening act and setting up Josh’s band. It was ten or fifteen minutes between when we got there and when the show really started, and meanwhile WBOS, playing over the speaker stack, played “Wolves” on the radio.

I only had two problems with the concert, which I’ll get out of the way early: first, where I was sitting, the bass overpowered the rest of the band. This doesn’t help a lot of Josh’s songs, even though his bassist is quite good. I had trouble hearing Josh sometimes because of his habit of mumbling into the mike between songs; that pitch of voice would carry to the worst seat in the Horse, but it didn’t really make it past the first ten rows in Copley Square. Second, this was an outdoor concert, which meant quite a few of the people around me weren’t really paying attention to the show; they were sitting around yakking. Which is to be expected, I suppose, and if it really bothered me I could’ve stood up and gone closer to the stage.

Josh spent a few years in Cambridge, so he was pretty excited about being back and playing right in the center of things in Copley Square. He said that a few times in between a few songs. He opened with several songs off “The Animal Years,” which I’ve heard often enough now even though I haven’t gotten around to buying the disc yet: “Monster Ballads,” “Wolves,” and another which I hadn’t heard (maybe it was “Another Mouth”?) He wasn’t afraid to go into his back catalog, though, hitting the high notes from “Golden Age of Radio” (“Harrisburg,” “Me & Jiggs,” and the title track, among others,) and “Hello, Starling” (“Kathleen,” “The Bad Actress.”) He even dipped back to his first CD for “Hotel Song.” (“You checked in, I checked you out…”) Of course, he did have trouble remembering how to start the verses.

The crowd knew what they were there for, with quite a few of them streaming to the front when the music started, and cheering loudly for “Kathleen” and “Me & Jiggs.” Josh isn’t used to big outdoor venues; he takes a long time to set up his jokes, so you really have to be paying attention, as when he took the bridge of “You Don’t Make It Easy, Babe,” to dedicate the song to Dick Cheney, “who couldn’t be here with us tonight; his cat is sick.” (And then the last verse includes the line, “I hope you find someone just as hard as you come / but in this hard world sadly that’s so easily done.”) I didn’t catch the intro to “Girl in the War,” but the crowd up front did, and cheered; they were waiting for that song.

He closed with “Snow is Gone,” which is a pretty good finale, but the crowd managed to scream up an encore; back out, the band played “Song for the Fireflies,” which was a good summer-evening wrap-up and put us in the right mood to go home.

It was a great evening out, actually; after the roasting heat earlier in the week, it was genuinely cool downtown, just right for sitting out on the grass and watching a show. Next week the opener is Sonya Kitchell, who has drawn me some search engine traffic in the last few months as she gets radio airplay; I don’t know if we’ll make it in or not, but we might try.

Now Playing: Me & Jiggs from Golden Age of Radio by Josh Ritter

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Litter doesn't scale

Firecracker wreckageFirecracker wreckage

From our front windows, it looks just like the kind of plant litter you’d see under a hanging plant which just dropped its red blossoms, or maybe a pile of small, reddish autumn leaves someone raked together but didn’t haul off.

When you get closer, though, you can tell it’s paper. In fact, it’s firecrackers: thousands of the little ones sold in “mats” of a few dozen with entwined fuses and wrapped in thin red tissue paper. Sometime around 10:30 last night, someone stacked a large number of those packs together—maybe even with a meta-fuse or something like that—and lit the whole stack at once, producing a tremendous racket lasting nearly a minute and a plume of smoke that would’ve been visible for several miles in daylight.

The softball games that run pretty much constantly from spring through fall in the park across the street from us are generally only a minor annoyance; they can make it hard to park on the street, sometimes they’re noisy, and the lights are on until 11 PM or so. On the other hand, it gives some life to the neighborhood, and brings a lot of people outside to move around and have fun.

It’s never clear to me who the league organizers are. Once I spotted Boston Sports Clubs logos on t-shirts, but it looks like there are several leagues which use this field through the course of the year; sometimes it looks like it’s a police league, or a fire department team, or something like that. I presume any non-resident leagues pay the City of Medford (which rakes, mows, and lines the field regularly,) for the use of the park.

Of course, some of the yahoos who play tend to forget that there are people living here. Since late June, late-night pyrotechnics have been a relatively unwelcome off-and-on feature after the last game. More common is for a bunch of players to hang around drinking beer until the lights go off, but for the most part all they leave behind is a lot of beer bottle caps and the occasional broken bottle. The fireworks, particularly if the windows are open and we’re not running the AC, can really set your teeth on edge.

And sometimes they leave behind massive quantities of litter. Come on guys, how old do you have to be before you recognize the responsibility to pick up after your fun?

Now Playing: Tomorrowland from Play by The Nields

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August 2, 2006

By name

I have been doing a lot of thinking in recent weeks about my connection with my hometown. Quite a lot of it has to do with actually understanding that community relative to the rest of the country, hence my strong response to reading The Lobster Coast.

The more immediate aspect was illustrated this weekend, when I was in a shop downtown, talking with the owner, and she said, “You look like one of John’s boys.” (I am.) It reminded me of when I was working in the lumber company, back in high school, and a customer made the same observation; we had to take a second to disambiguate, because in his context, I was actually “one of John’s boy’s boys”—he was talking about my grandfather.

There’s a lot to be said about this kind of recognition; it’s an instant connection to a community, in a way that doesn’t happen much nowadays. This is a mixed blessing, though, because every connection comes freighted with all past interactions with the rest of your family, and I don’t think there’s a family in the world where all such interactions are viewed positively.

I’d love to have a neat, pithy denouement for this observation, but there isn’t one. It’s a situation everyone resolves in their own way, assuming they even consider it, and the resolution is the way you live your life, not a few sentences I can write here.

Now Playing: East of the Mountains from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst

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August 1, 2006

Exam room ambiance

When we used to take Iz to the vet in Northampton, he would make noises we’d never hear at any other time. He’ll yowl and howl any other time, but only on the way to the vet (and in the waiting room, and until we were back in the car,) did he ever growl.

Today was his first visit to the vet out here, and for the most part he was pretty good about it. The yappy dogs in the waiting room bothered him (we went to a cat-only vet in Northampton,) but they didn’t start him growling. It wasn’t until I lugged him into the examination room proper that the noises started. “Rrrrrrrr,” he said pointedly, in a register at least two octaves below his normal speaking voice. “Rrrrrrrr.”

What was it? The smell of the room? There were cat posters on the walls, a little Mac Mini on the counter showing his database entry, and the standard metal table; maybe it’s the table that set him off.

I put my face down to the carrier and talked to him, and he seemed to stop growling until it was time to dump him out of the carrier and let the vet examine him. She started off well by complimenting his appearance, but he got no points for good behavior—she had to ask “Daddy” to hold him so he couldn’t bite her. (This, too, with a compliment—“What good teeth he has!”)

They have three-year rabies shots now, but given Iz’s taste for bats, I opted to continue the annual schedule. We’re supposed to be on the lookout for unusual behavior, but Iz is pretty bulletproof as far as vets are concerned; even back when he had his spark plugs out and they told us he might be lethargic, he was tearing around the apartment as though nothing had happened.

I’m not sure I’ve been forgiven for this trip yet. We’ll see tomorrow morning when the breakfast campaign starts.

Now Playing: The Precience Of Dawn from Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans

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