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September 26, 2006

Another first

I had two photos published in the University newspaper today. (They’re not in the online edition, so no links.) I’m not credited, though; they’re “Courtesy of [A].” This is for the eminently sensible reason that she simply gave them a CD of photos we took at this weekend’s cross-country meet, without distinguishing between photographers. And I happened to be hogging the good spots at that meet.

I should concede that one of the photos might really be hers, but it looks like the spot I was standing. It’s hard to tell in newsprint.

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University Holiday

Apparently the Trustees have declared today to be “Return the Algorithms Books You Borrowed From pjm Day.”

Unfortunately, that holiday doesn’t come with the “No classes” designation.

Now Playing: Honey Bee from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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September 25, 2006

Refresher course

I have a theory—actually it’s more like a fear—that if I stay in this field, I’ll need to take Calculus biennially simply to understand the readings.

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September 24, 2006


For someone who identifies as a runner, being betrayed by breathing is particularly bitter. Respiration is half of the “lungs on legs” formulation of the ideal runner. Training is designed to work on both ends of the energy equation, convincing our legs to do the most work with the least fuel on one hand, and convincing our lungs to absorb the most fuel from each breath on the other.

So the idea that a breath any deeper than “shallow” will trigger a convulsion of raspy coughs feels like rank treachery. (Treachery, thy name is trachea? Something like that.) I expected to be sick over the winter, but it usually doesn’t start this soon. (Some might suggest karma, after I wore my purple hat through Saturday’s activities.)

For some reason (probably the inherent humidity), I can still work hard in the pool without hacking and wheezing.

Now Playing: Hey Jealousy from New Miserable Experience by Gin Blossoms

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To what?

I admit this one has me a bit puzzled.

What am I agreeing to?

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September 23, 2006

In the homestretch

When I realized that half of my homework for one class was going to be almost trivially simple—it’s a review of some concepts from this summer’s class—it really began to sink in that this year is better than last year.

Not easier. I’m still pretty strapped for time, and assignments aren’t getting enough attention early in their life-spans to avoid stressful last-minute work. Some of my assignments still give me headaches.

But, somehow, better. Perhaps it’s that I have more than 2/3 of my classes done, and there’s a feeling of having the end of the M.S. in view. Being reminded that classes are additive, that what I’ve learned in the past year is helping me now, is a good feeling.

On Wednesday, I sat in on an information session for undergraduates considering graduate school in CS. At some point, the presenter said something like, “Most graduate students, if they can get through the first year, go on to finish.” And I thought, “Well, that’s good news.”

I may even have said it out loud.

Now Playing: All The Young Dudes from A Box Of Birds by The Church

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September 22, 2006

The first rule is don't get hit

The new year of bike commuting is both encouraging and depressing. (Here, I should note, my “commute” is less than a mile and would be under five minutes if I didn’t have to wait to cross a busy street.)

There are mobs of bikes in the racks outside the CS building, and some of them are pretty fancy; some are probably older than their riders. I’m amused at how often I see someone patiently grinding along—up a hill, perhaps—in the bike’s absolute top gear; they’ve never bothered to figure out the gear system, and just planted it somewhere and leave it there forever. They’d be better off with a coaster, but sometime back in the 80s we balkanized bikes so much you can’t just get a simple one anymore.

One day last week I heard someone yelling at me after I crossed the street on my way home. Turns out I’d cut off another biker. I didn’t bother to stop; I had cut him off, but it was well after dark, and I had lights on (he’d seen me well enough to yell at me,) and he didn’t (so I hadn’t known he was there until he yelled.)

Later that week, I found two more depressing links. The first was research from the University of Bath suggesting that cyclists who wear helmets may be at greater risk than those who don’t.

Dr Walker, who was struck by a bus and a truck in the course of the experiment, spent half the time wearing a cycle helmet and half the time bare-headed. He was wearing the helmet both times he was struck.

He found that drivers were as much as twice as likely to get particularly close to the bicycle when he was wearing the helmet.

And, to top it off, Scoplaw noted this site, with the pleasant title, “How not to get hit by cars.” (While we’re at it, Ghostcycles is a bit chilling.)

The theme of the Bicycle Safe site is that wearing a helmet is not enough, and in reading through the ways cyclists get hit, I saw recurring themes: Don’t ride on the sidewalk. Right on the right side of the road (the “correct” side, with the flow of traffic, which in North America means the right.) Get lights on your bike. (I’m now seriously considering getting a LED headlight to go with my incandescent, which is getting old.) I see these simple things violated all the time.

That said, I learned some things, too. I haven’t been hit yet, though I was almost doored a few weeks ago and I’ve locked the brakes up more than once recently. I’m lucky; my commute is pretty short, and on low-traffic roads.

Now Playing: Turn You Inside-Out from Green by R.E.M.

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September 21, 2006

That mindset thing again

I’ve mentioned that the Software Engineering course I’m TA for starts off by reading Brooks. The book is, for the most part, thirty years old, and shows its age in many ways. Mostly, the problem is technical details; the core principles still hold.

We asked students to pull out five terms they didn’t understand, and provide definitions. A lot of them were expected, but a few have taken me by surprise.

One of them: microfiche. If you’re my age, you remember hours in the library (libraries) doing literature research on microfiche, but for today’s undergrads, that’s apparently such ancient history they don’t even know the term.

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September 20, 2006

If Tolstoy was a programmer

Working programs are all alike, but every buggy program is buggy in its own way.

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Learning from the data

I’m contemplating a course project based on “knowledge discovery” in marathon chip data. Not published results with 5k splits, but the raw, direct-from-the-mats chip data, the stuff the timing company uses to re-run the previous year’s race as a system test.

Knowledge discovery (usually called “machine learning” at the University, but also sometimes known as “data mining”) is an interesting field, because it’s implies the idea that there are patterns in data which are too subtle for us to see. One of the major tasks is classification, often used in medical applications to distinguish a set of symptoms as ill vs. not ill.

That’s not a simple task for marathon data; what are the classifications? Did the athlete beat their seed time? Did they finish? It might be intriguing simply to see if a program could predict, based only on chip data, the gender of the athlete wearing that chip.

The profusion of data with a high level of variance is a big problem for this hypothetical analysis, but another one is the mentality. We know there’s a huge number of variables in play, and at some point we discard the possibility that we could ever make sense of it all. But one of the strengths of machine learning is that the software decides which variables are actually relevant, and which are just noise.

It’s also approaching the problem of identifying which data are representative and which are outliers; our gut instinct is to suggest that we’re all outliers, but that’s clearly not the case, or there wouldn’t be thousands of runners crossing the line every hour.

So if you stop worrying about whether the answer can actually be found—that’s a question to be answered later—and just think about questions you might ask, what would you look for in marathon data?

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September 19, 2006

I wouldn't want to explain

I accidentally left the house with a cat distractor yesterday. All through the day, I was putting my hand in my pocket and thinking, “What the heck…” before remembering why there was a faux-fur mouse there.

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September 18, 2006

Head to tail

Friday and Saturday was my fifth year in the vans for Reach the Beach. It’s entertaining to me to see fifteen or sixteen people clustered around the wreckage of post-race seafood asking how soon they can sign up for next year, considering that we are invariably scrambling for people to fill the roster in the weeks before race date. But there’s something euphoric about the race which I can’t put a finger on.

Some of it’s connected with this team, which includes runners from 10:00+ pace to 5:30 pace. Nobody worries about what others are capable of; we just run what we can to maximize what we’re collectively capable of. We don’t worry about our overall place; we just focus on that one runner in front of us, try to reel them in, and pass them.

This year, we were seeded higher than we usually are, and consequently started later. (The faster you are, the later you start, and vice versa. We wound up finishing 55th out of 300 teams.) As a result of that, we were at many exchange zones closer to their closing times than usual; when we arrived at T18 (also known as “VTA #3” because it’s the third van-to-van handoff,) they were about to close. We took advantage of this: we parked in a far corner of the lot, put in our earplugs, and slept in an empty parking lot with a minimum of slamming doors, engines, shouts, etc. etc. I put my ground pad and sleeping bag on the roof of the van and got two hours of uninterrupted sleep, a luxury.

Being so close to the back of the race reminded me of a New Year’s column I wrote after my third go-around, in 2004. Since it’s no longer on the web (unless you ever-so-carefully search the Wayback Machine) I’ll post it here, after the jump.

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September 17, 2006

Now we know who's winning NCAAs

I’m enough of a track geek that I have to laugh when I see this headline:

John McDonnell says he doesn’t see anyone beating Wisconsin

Defying E.B. White’s aphorism (“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog; nobody is interested, and the frog dies,”) I’ll point out that John McDonnell is the Arkansas coach, he’s won more NCAA championships in his career than the next two winning-est coaches in Division 1 combined, and he downplays his own team’s prospects so reliably that other coaches sometimes make a press-conference game out of trying to force him into an admission that Arkansas may have a chance.

So if the sandbagging has already begun, it’s probably safe to say McDonnell thinks the Razorbacks have a pretty hot team this year.

Now Playing: Bang from Leisure by Blur

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September 14, 2006

When "chair" isn't exactly the right word

I had a brief one-on-one meeting with the department chair yesterday, and while I think my initial apprehension had some basis in fact, I think I’ll get along well with her. If this woman had gone into the military, she’d be on her way to General Staff by now. She has clear ideas about the way she thinks things ought to go, and is talented at convincing everyone else to make it so without bulldozing them—more likely they’ll leave thinking it was their own idea in the first place.

She reminds me, in many ways, of the theater group director in my high school, though quieter. (At least two of you now know exactly the kind of person I’m talking about.) She’ll give you all the work, responsibility, and/or corresponding glory you can handle, but woe betide those who expect the rewards without the responsibility. I’ll do fine as long as I stay on her generally-good side, but I suspect everything I do for her will come with some low-grade, possibly-unjustified fear of not making the grade and being consequently cast into the abyss.

But I have to have respect for any manager willing to use the phrase, “read the riot act.”

Now Playing: Pizza Cutter from Wholesale Meats And Fish by Letters To Cleo

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September 13, 2006

You studied what?

My classmates never cease to amaze me. Today I discovered that one of the Ph.D. students I run with regularly has an undergraduate degree in Fine Art—drawing, specifically. And that before he got in to graduate school in CS, he was turned down (he says, thankfully,) by an MFA creative writing program, and an Ed.D. program. “So, yeah, I’ve got that Russian Lit degree of yours covered,” he said.

I also discovered that the department chair was a double major in English and wrote her undergraduate honors paper in literature. The next time someone drags out the myth about CS types having a narrow focus, I want to invite them to our department, to visit our little colony of escaped engineers, classicists, and lit majors, et alia.

Now Playing: Appalatia from Forget Yourself by The Church

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World's best

While “excitement” around here is limited to writing and grading labs and reading my own homework, last night I heard that one of my former co-workers is now a world record holder.

In the results of the 2006 World Masters Track Cycling Championships, being held this week in Manchester, England, you’ll find the women’s 500m time trial won in 36.997 by the former photo editor at RW. Her mark beats not only her own age group (35-39) record, but all the other masters records—in other words, it’s the fastest mark by any woman over 30.

Now, this is pretty cool just by itself, but it needs a little background. Emmaus is not too far from Trexlertown, PA, home of the Lehigh Valley Velodrome, a three-laps-per-kilometer concrete bowl in the cornfields which is one of the few Olympic-caliber velodromes in the USA. I remember going over to watch Liz race (and win) on a Saturday morning, and also going on Friday nights (the big nights) to watch her and other co-workers riding track bikes (no brakes, no coasting, no shifting) under the lights. And I remember when she tangled with another rider and got slammed to the track. After spending a few weeks in the hospital with a cracked jaw and the nicest shiner I’ve ever seen (we’ll not mention the condition of her helmet, which probably saved her life) she was out, back on the bike, and back in the velodrome.

And she’s still there.

Now Playing: You Wreck Me from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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September 11, 2006

I need to work on my estimating skills

I was worried about my lab students finishing the first lab too quickly.

It’s now over an hour after the lab period ended, and there’s still two students working. Only one finished in anywhere close to the scheduled time. Apparently I was worried in the wrong direction.

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The Shiftless Rounders at Club Passim

I saw the Shiftless Rounders last winter when they opened for Sarah Harmer at the Paradise. I was only lukewarm on them then, but I bought their CD and pulled a few more songs off the web and they grew on me. When I saw they were coming back to the area—to Club Passim down in Harvard Square—I figured I’d swing by.

It’s not easy to pin down what’s so enjoyable about their shows. The lyrics have all the tragedy and bitterness old-time folk music was known for (“Memphis has the worst drunk tank, and the meanest fuzz,”) but they also have the tight, careful poetry you don’t often see. Phil and Ben also harmonize perfectly, both vocally and instrumentally, so much so that despite Phil’s relatively distinctive voice it’s not always easy to tell who’s singing which part, or whether the melody is being carried by Ben’s self-made dobro or Phil’s banjo (or guitar.)

This was a much smaller show than the Paradise. When the opener, Paul’s Big Radio, was playing, I counted twelve people there; in the break between the two acts, it developed that slightly more than half of them were personal friends of one of the various musicians. More people filtered in during the break, so there were probably more than twenty of us, but not many more. Two dozen at most.

The Rounders don’t get fazed by this; they have a song about the show they played in Colorado (Phil doesn’t think much of Colorado) where nobody came, but they played anyway. They have a fair mix of traditional songs and Phil’s compositions, and they flow together easily that without introduction, I might still be wondering why that Paul Simon song sounded so familiar. I think “House Carpenter” is an American Folk echo of the European-traditional “Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” for example, but with less rebellion and more remorse.

They play with a degree of enthusiasm and passion that’s hard to get outside of, say, punk rock; I didn’t really expect Phil to light his guitar on fire, but if he had, it wouldn’t have been too shocking. (Their MySpace site bills their sound as “Imagine if Kurt Cobain had been from West Virginia…”) I was grinning halfway through their first song.

Passim’s “green room,” at least during this warmer season, is a little porch outside the stage door, about five feet below Palmer Street; I’d spotted them having dinner out there when I came in. They went back out there when they were done, but we clapped them back out; then they weren’t sure which song to play. “Anybody have anything they want to hear?” I always scoff at the fans who holler out song titles midway through a set, as though the musicians don’t know what they want to play, but the audience was quiet, so I called out, “Places!”

“All the Places I Go,” a short inventory of travels (“Iowa showed me more roads than I could drive / One Minnesota summer I just barely survived”) was one of the songs I wanted to hear again. (The other one I missed was their “Denver Jane”: “There was a woman I did wrong / she turned into a song / that always breaks my strings / or is a little out of tune.”) Ben said, “That beats trying to decide on one,” so they played it, and I was happy.

Now Playing: Over The Water from (Places) by The Shiftless Rounders

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September 10, 2006

Fastest four

Yesterday’s race had me thinking about my best-ever four-miler. It was the Greenfield Winter Carnival race in 2002, the year I ran all my best races since college. I hunted up my (lengthy) write-up of the race from the day afterward, and discovered that the race was actually on February 2nd: 2/2/02, for 22 miles. I ran just over 22 minutes. And the race started and finished on Route 2A.

The full report, slightly edited as usual, is included after the jump. For perspective, you know.

Now Playing: A Kiss Before I Go from Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

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September 9, 2006

Publishable results

I wanted to get a second hard run in this week, so I left the house just after 9:30 to run down to Fresh Pond. I cut my warm-up pretty close; I just had time to sign the waiver before race instructions started.

Whereupon I discovered that not only was there a mob of runners there—more than one high-school cross-country program, I think—but due to construction on the golf-course side of the pond, the short race was now 1.9 miles (or so) and the long race four miles, not five. (I won’t detail the course changes involved… let’s just say there were two U-turns.)

There was plenty of traffic at the start; lots of kids jockeying for position and not paying very close attention to whether they had room to cut in. (Not unlike Boston traffic, I might add.) I settled in twenty or thirty meters back from a big snowball of kids I figured would be stopping after the short race, and started picking off the stragglers. Experience will help these kids; they’ve got energy and enthusiasm, but they don’t have the kind of efficiency that comes from lots of miles (they over-stride with slow turnover) or the craftiness that comes from lots of races (don’t ever look back. Nothing behind you matters, until it’s in front of you; then it matters.)

One of them actually kept going past the short race finish, suggesting he’d go all the way; I was impressed. I ran with another guy, about my age, who said he was training for a 50-miler and was inserting the race in the middle of a long run. I was impressed; I didn’t expect to be able to do more than run home post-race. I pointed out the kid in front of us and noted that he was probably feeling sorry for himself now, but that he’d bolt like a scared rabbit if we pulled up on his shoulder in the last half-mile.

My companion decided that it would therefore be a good idea to put the kid away early, and pulled away from me. As he ran with the kid, they passed one unleashed dog which first challenged him, then bit him. He stopped to berate the owner, but I still didn’t have time to catch them.

He dropped the kid, and I started coming up on him in the last half-mile. As we came down the hill to the finish, I said, “Let’s see some of that finishing speed!” He looked puzzled for a second, but picked up a bit when he saw I was bearing down on him. I knew he could out-kick me, but I wanted to make him work for it. I got up on my toes and tried to pull even, but he held me off and we finished a second apart, then congratulated each other.

I got the #5 popsicle stick, which suggests that I’ll be in tomorrow’s Globe. I ran 25:24 by my watch, 6:21 pace if the course is actually the four miles they say it is. This is a big improvement on my last Fresh Pond result and my per-mile pace from the Peach Festival, but still over three minutes behind my four-mile PR from 2002.

Now Playing: King’s Crossing from From A Basement On The Hill by Elliott Smith

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September 8, 2006

Not your usual Friday night in Medford

On the softball field across the street, things are a bit different tonight:

  • Red, white and blue bunting on the backstop
  • A massive U.S. flag on the opposite ballfield
  • A lectern with microphone in front of home plate; two speakers on the foul lines
  • Flags on either side of the lectern
  • More lining on the field than usual
  • The parking lot got swept this morning
  • A catering truck (of the “contractor’s lunch truck” variety)
  • An ice cream truck (periodically)
  • Lots of uniformed cops
  • A bagpiper

Earlier this week, too, they went over the infield with a Bobcat (!) and roller to finally erase the ponds between second and third bases and the annual pits dug by the batters around home plate.

I gotta say: South Medford does softball up big. Maybe we’ll get fireworks.

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September 7, 2006

Yet another markup system

I’m finally learning TeX. (Four days ahead of my lab students, I think; I’ll be teaching it on Monday.)

I am losing track of the various methods I’ve learned, over my lifetime, for marking up plain text so it can be displayed in neatly-formatted ways for reading. There’s all the various word processors (three that I can think of,) then HTML in its various iterations, Markdown, POD (which I only picked up a few weeks ago), and now TeX.

At least I never got to manually editing PostScript.

Now Playing: Thankful from Winter Pays For Summer by Glen Phillips

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September 6, 2006

Encouraging results

  • Several years after the parking lot in the Bird Sanctuary, Zipcar is coming to the College.

  • The female undergrad (sophomore) who wanted to know how many courses until she “caught up with all the boys who already know everything” last year is in Comp 20, the “multimedia programming” course that’s a forerunner of the “advanced web programming” course I took last spring. She asked me which course I was TA for, and acted disappointed when I named the Software Engineering course, which is only for grad students, seniors, and ambitious juniors.

  • So far, I have been able to debug all the problems Professor γ is having with PHP and web forms. I am tempted to unilaterally declare myself course webmaster and fix all her code; I apparently have significantly more experience with PHP. (This may be true for most professors.)

Unrelated, but interesting: does anyone know of a PHP function for translating Perl POD documentation to HTML?

Now Playing: Riding on the Subway from The Fine Art Of Self Destruction by Jesse Malin

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Oddly-named hires

It seems there is a career in software for me after all.

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September 5, 2006


Friday afternoon, I participated in a panel for new graduate assistants in our CS department. There were far more “experienced” GAs than new ones in the room; while the cohort joining the department with me last year was apparently relatively large, comparatively few (five or six, I think) are coming in this year.

One thing I learned was that the University has gone ballistic about plagiarism this year; supposedly that was the major topic of the University-wide new-TA orientation in the morning. Last year it was hardly mentioned. I was amused to see that the University has now contracted to use turnitin.com to help sniff out plagiarism; I’ve been seeing their bot in my server logs for years now. I can’t imagine what kind of trouble someone could find themselves in by copying indiscriminately from this site, even if the sourcing wasn’t detected.

I’ve also committed to help out on the mentoring project. I raised a few questions with the department chair, who had good answers for them. I expressed reservations about my qualifications, and she pointed out first that they wanted students with a range of experiences, so with the other grad student being post-quals and into dissertation work, they needed someone early in the process as well. (So I was selected for my inexperience—thanks, I think.) The fact that I’m not doing research with any of the project faculty (or any faculty, for that matter) means the students can ask me questions without betraying confusion or ignorance to people they’re trying to work with.

Finally, she pointed out, “We’re trying to help them through a successful graduate school application process. You’ve done that, right?”

I couldn’t really deny it.

Now Playing: Snow is Gone from Live at The Paradise Rock Club (Boston, 12-11-04) by Josh Ritter

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September 4, 2006

Ground rules

I’ve been doing this closer to three years than two, and I suspect there are a few dozen people who are reading without benefit of my occasional asides and meta-blogging explanations of what’s going on (when I bother to explain, that is,) so here are a few footnotes:

  • I tend not to identify myself, other people, my workplace(s), or my school(s) by full names. This is not out of any wishful attempt at anonymity. It is an attempt at maintaining something like what Scoplaw once called “googlenonymity”—keeping the links between my little vignettes and the actual people and institutions involved at a level more subtle than what search engines will recognize. So when I write about “The College” or “The University,” this is more than just a tic of personal language (though it is that, too.) I have assigned pseudonyms to a few faculty members; I will obviously not be discussing individual students except in their occasional roles as accomplices. The lone exception, of course, is the cat, who has many names, all of which are pseudonyms.

  • This is not a memoir, nor is it even a narrative. I will mention developments in my life and leave them unresolved. I will discuss resolutions without setting the scene. I will present context without relating it to issues, and I will discuss situations devoid of context. This is not meant to infuriate you, nor am I (normally) trying to hide anything; I’m simply lazy.

  • I try to write only about things which I find interesting and intriguing. However, sometimes when interesting and intriguing things are happening, I am simply too busy to write, and sometimes I think it is more important to continue writing about boring things than to fall silent entirely. So I make no promises about consistency, quality, or regularity.

  • If you want to know, ask. The worst I will do is politely decline to explain.

Now Playing: Almost from All of Our Names by Sarah Harmer

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Going way back

This weekend, at the wedding of a younger cousin, I talked with her other grandfather (i.e. not the one we shared.) Turns out that not only did he get his undergraduate and medical degrees at my current University—a feat now known as a “Double Jumbo” for reasons stemming from the University mascot—but he ran cross-country.

Class of 1936, or thereabouts. I wish the University posted all their old team photos the way the College did so I could see if I could find him.

The bride’s other grandparents were represented by a photo from their own wedding day; they were married in the same church about seventy years ago. The photo was taken at the reception, on the front lawn of the house I knew as theirs. In black and white, our grandfather looked even younger than than the ten or so years younger than this photo, with even more hair; our grandmother looked startlingly like the mother of this weekend’s bride.

My older niece was easily distracted, playing with her necklace; the younger, rapt. I whispered, “Promise you’ll invite me when it’s your turn?” She nodded solemnly.

Now Playing: Leave Them All Behind from Going Blank Again by Ride

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September 1, 2006

Multiplayer Game Of The Year

I’m a bad geek.

When the Nike+ iPod kit was announced earlier this year, I dismissed it. Another unnecessary gadget in a sport that’s delightfully gadget-free, I thought, not to mention the promotion of running with attention-reducing headphones. I’m generally able to keep myself engaged with just my own rhythm, and if I’m lucky, the chink of small change in the key-pocket of my shorts.

Cabel Sasser, however, does not have my history. While I was running track and cross-country in high school and college, Cabel was learning programming. When I was working for a running magazine, Cabel was launching a company that makes the best Mac FTP client ever. (I promise, the names are totally coincidental.)

And the Nike+ is making Cabel into a runner:

Despite all of this, and all three mighty paragraphs of setup, I recently had a small epiphany. I’ve found myself totally enraptured by a new kind of online gaming experience, one that’s got excitement, thrilling rivalries, stats and achievements, mind-blowing graphics, and seriously perfect music. And sweat. Ridiculous amounts of sweat.

My online game of the year? Jogging on the streets of Portland with the Nike+ iPod kit.

Now, if only there was a similar gadget to make me a better programmer.

Now Playing: Jason And The Argonauts from English Settlement by XTC

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