December 31, 2007
Am I getting enough work done here? How can I?
Maybe I’ll do better next year? (I suppose it was working that warmed up the laptop for him, after all…)
Now Playing: Injustica from Building 55 by Kathleen Edwards
December 27, 2007
Bookshelf of fame
I noted a few missing ravens a few weeks ago, but Heinrich is still in the news. I got a press release today about his induction into the American Ultrarunning Association hall of fame… and for Christmas I got his latest book.
Heinrich’s a role model of doing many things well. I can’t say that I’d go in for all his interests, but I’m impressed at how well he’s balanced them all.
It was five years ago today that we went up to Dakin and came home with a sociable little brown tiger with no fear and an outsized appetite for nearly everything. After five years of purring, sleeping in the warm spots, and wheedling for more food, Iz isn’t little anymore, but his attitude of friendly insolence is the same as it was on day one.
Technorati Tags: cat
December 23, 2007
Writing the book on it
One way I know things have changed since my days as an undergraduate is that I’m no longer intimidated by writing. I used to sweat blood over five-page papers, but this past week I sat down and wrote an eleven-page project proposal draft in two afternoons. The difference, I suppose, is that now I tend to be writing because I know what I’m trying to say, rather than trying to articulate incoherence before I have it in order in my mind.
Last night, for example, I was stirring a pot of Christmas fudge and thinking about everything I’ve learned about that process since I started doing it at some Thanksgiving half my life ago. This morning I sat down and wrote 1,100 words on the subject, which is about enough text to fill a page of a magazine without much illustration.
Now Playing: Golden Age Of Radio from Golden Age of Radio by Josh Ritter
Getting Boston right (even though the details are all wrong)
Last night, I finished watching Saint Ralph, a 2004 movie about a 14-year-old boy who decides he’s going to win the 1954 Boston Marathon because it will bring his mother out of a coma.
Reducing the plot to that one sentence makes it sound silly, but remember, we’re talking about a 14-year-old boy here, the least logical and rational sub-group of the human species. And Ralph actually makes a pretty good go of it, inadvertently finding a coach with Olympic credentials and discovering, through his own misunderstandings, a lot of solid truths about distance running. It’s as though he’s in the same room with every other marathoner, but he climbed through the window instead of coming in the door.
The not-so-subtle sub-plot is Ralph’s relationship with God. Ralph is a student at a Catholic school in Hamilton, Ontario, and his rationale for taking on the marathon is almost completely religious: He’s heard that it would take a miracle to bring his mother out of the coma. He’s told it would be a miracle if he could win Boston. So he figures, maybe that’s the miracle his mother needs, and he goes after it.
Like Life at These Speeds is not a running novel but not a novel about running, Saint Ralph is a movie about running, but not a running movie. It’s difficult to credit Ralph’s ungainly form and dramatic improvement from September to April. And the segments at the Boston Marathon are only Boston by name, as though they were filmed by someone who had heard stories of the Marathon but had never even seen pictures of the city or the course. (Some details are closer: the age of the marathon, the warmup in a churchyard, and even Ralph’s tune-up race, Hamilton’s Around the Bay, which still turns up on the biographies of serious Boston contenders. Boston is run on a Monday, though at that point Patriot’s Day was not tied to Mondays and the race could have been any day of the week.)
The big picture, though, is spot on. Ralph’s coach takes him on only if Ralph will promise to stop talking about miracles; instead, Ralph is put on a rigorous program of hard work, patience, and attention to detail. His coach shows him how to hook his lofty dreams to a plan, and where persistence and patience can go. And, of course, the old wisdom about how “God helps those who help themselves.” (Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “The harder I work, the more [luck] I have.”)
Lest one think the movie gets too heavy, though, God turns up at irregular intervals to give Ralph advice. He looks like Ralph’s father, but dressed as Santa Claus.
Now Playing: East of the Mountains from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst
December 20, 2007
Small town, big city
My home town was in the Globe’s Travel feature yesterday. I should qualify this by noting that I actually grew up in an even smaller town (by population, anyway) just to the south, but even in-state it’s easier to just name the “city” than try to explain where the small town is.
I learned about the Globe feature through an evening email from my aunt, who hadn’t been able to get a copy up in Maine and was asking the Massachusetts wing of the family if we could save a clipping somewhere. I walked up to Teele Square a little after 11 and picked up one of the last two copies at the convenience store there; they didn’t sell out because, after all, their city is in the paper every day, and not even buried on the back page of the Food section.
I reflected that there weren’t many places where I could walk a few blocks and get a paper, a gallon of OJ, and a spare battery for the smoke alarm after 11 PM up in my home town—particularly in the small town, where most people aren’t in walking distance of any store. On the other hand, I reminded myself, this is the first time I’ve done that in over two years in the Boston area, and it’s possible it will be the only time.
Now Playing: Birdman from Live Light (France, 11/1994) by Ride
December 19, 2007
When you do systems administration and are professionally paranoid, you think a lot about backup policies. In particular, you think about off-site backups. What’s the point of having a copy of something, for example, if you’re storing it in the same place as the original? If you’re backing up your financial data, and the house burns down with both original and backup, what was the point?*
This explains why my department head from my pre-grad-school job sent me email today asking whether the safe deposit box key they found in a drawer in my old office was mine. It also leads us to a corollary to the off-site-backups policy: remember where you stored the backup.
* Of course, there is a point to keeping backups close by, and that’s that off-site backups are inconvenient for restoring files. Most professional paranoids advise a borderline-obsessive-compulsive regimen which involves frequent (e.g. daily) backups stored on-site, with less frequent (e.g. weekly) backups stored off-site, thus avoiding the convenience-vs.-safety conflict with overkill, attempting to both have the backup cake and eat it too.
Now Playing: Pieces of the Sun from Pieces of the Sun by Test Your Reflex
December 17, 2007
This is the payoff
I sometimes grumble about having a black car during the summer, when its interior temperature ranges from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘broiler’.
But on snowy days like today, I can give it a cursory sweep-off to expose its blackness, and let the sun do the defrosting. By the time I need to go anywhere, it will almost certainly be clear.
Now Playing: High And Dry from The Bends by Radiohead
Technorati Tags: snow
December 16, 2007
Milers have more fun
I raced my first indoor track mile in… I don’t know, a dozen years or so, yesterday.
I think the last time I raced an indoor mile was my senior year in college. Since then I’ve learned more than a little about being self-aware during my races, which translates to running smarter races—a good thing, because I don’t have the raw speed I used to. And the track work I have been doing has made me more confident about the speed I do have.
I figured I could run on the close order of 5:20, so that’s what I seeded at. The heats broke at 4:40, 4:50, 5:15, and 5:20, so I got in the fourth heat: eleven of us, I think, who all figured we would run between 5:15 and 5:20. Looking at the results, it looks like seven of us were right, which seems like an unusually high percentage. The good news was that I wouldn’t be running the race on my own, in a gap between people running too fast for me and people who couldn’t keep up. (That would probably have happened in the 3,000, so I picked the right race.)
I opted to go sockless in my spikes again, because I’d blistered when I’d run in them with socks so far, but they’re still gritty inside from cross-country. (This despite me washing them once.) No problems in the end, though.
We actually had a girl (young woman? Very young) leading for the first few laps, and I was hitting decent splits though I had a lot of people in front of me. I knew I had to save a bit, and I knew some of them would come back. After three or four laps I started to feel the pace, and I shifted my focus away from a steady pace and let myself float the corners if I hammered the straights. This helped a lot, because the little rests put me in a good position to eat up the small gap the lead pack had built. They were fading, too; even though my fifth and sixth laps were the slowest of the race, I was back in the thick of it by then, and passing people.
And I knew I could run two laps pretty hard. Everyone seemed to be coming back to me now, and the feeling of passing people buoyed me up. On the last lap, I found myself up at a speed I didn’t know I had; Dan said he clocked me at 35 for the last lap. He also said if I’d found that speed a little earlier (or hadn’t been so slow on the sixth lap) I would’ve been challenging for the heat win. I wasn’t even aware there were only two left in front of me; I just saw the time on my watch (5:15 low; 5:15.65 was the official time) and knew I’d run well.
Now I want to try again. The oddly encouraging thing is this: my PR is 4:48, from college, when I weighed at least ten pounds less than I do now. (It was disappointing at the time, because I ran 4:49, probably for 1,600m, as a sophomore in high school.) Figure the two-seconds-per-pound-per-mile thing, and yesterday’s time suddenly looks pretty decent. (Aside from the obvious question of why I’m carrying those extra ten pounds.) I’m pretty sure I could get under 5:10, given the chance; could I run under 5:00 again? That would really be remarkable.
December 14, 2007
How we treat our neighbors
Around Boston, we like to kid a bit about how in Southie, they’ll slash your tires if you park in a shoveled spot that’s marked with something—a chair, a garbage can, whatever.
The idea behind marking the spots is that the person who did the shoveling should get the benefit. But various municipal officials (mayors, etc.) make noises about having garbage trucks pick up the markers, because parking gets wicked tight when there’s nowhere to throw the snow; you wind up losing one in every three spots (if you’re lucky) just to stack the snow.
It looks like Somerville is a lot closer to Southie than I thought. As I walked up to work around lunchtime, I saw a lot of trash cans and sawhorses marking spots in the street. And I spotted something too large to be a ticket on a car window. Amused, I snapped a shot with the phone:
And then the owner came out. Thomas told me he had lived up the street for ten years, but this was a rental car so his neighbors must not have known it was his. He noted that there should have been room for two cars where he was parked, but that only one spot had been shoveled out. And then, folding the note up, he said, “I’d take a note like this more seriously if it was signed. They don’t sign because they are cowards.”
I can sympathize with wanting to have the spot you shoveled available when you come back, but aren’t anonymous notes a little… I don’t know, passive-aggressive? There’s plenty of street out there, folks, even if you can only park on one side of it right now. Shovel a bit more of it (but hurry, it’s going to set up like concrete tonight.) Pitch in for other people and maybe they’ll let you park in their spot someday. That’s the benefit of sharing, instead of staking out your own little patch and hissing at anyone who comes near.
(And maybe we should all consider fewer cars and more alternatives. I wouldn’t want to take my bike out last night, but today it was fine.)
Now Playing: Never Enough from Show by The Cure
December 13, 2007
I've been away
Like nearly everyone else in the country over the age of 20, I’ve had mail lately from the Currency Conversion Fee litigation people. I don’t have the kind of records that would let me itemize my overseas purchases for the last ten years, but that passport I just retired got used once or twice, so I decided to pass up options A (take $25 and run) and C (itemize everything and we’ll figure a refund) in favor of B, in which I estimate the days I spent outside the USA in the ten-years-and-a-few-months from 1996 to 2006, and get a refund based on “average spending” multiplied by that number of days.
The number I came up with was 60, which surprised me a little. I’m no hardened traveller, as you can tell by the enthusiasm I approach my trips with, but I didn’t imagine that I’d averaged nearly a week outside the US for the last ten years.
Too bad the window doesn’t extend to the end of 2008; I’d be over 100 days total and the average would be over a week.
Now Playing: Fortress from Summer In Abaddon by Pinback
I’d love to know why I’m getting (on average) two visits a day to this site, over the last week, referred by the search string
site:flashesofpanic.com chain grease.
Sure, I’ve mentioned bike chain lubrication a few times (including alternate uses for the gunk, which seems to be when this all started) but why restrict the search to this site?
Now Playing: Saint Simon from Chutes Too Narrow by The Shins
December 12, 2007
If all else fails I can get a job as a handyman
WD-40 failed to make keys turn any more easily in the front-door deadbolt, so I removed the blasted thing and replaced it. I suspect this may have been a perfect home-improvement project, as I got to visit the hardware store, employ both WD-40 and a screwdriver, and get my hands greasy to boot, while A was left to explain to our landlord why we now have different keys for the front and side doors—and possibly why we made the repair without checking first. (But the door locks without pliers now.)
Now Playing: A Girl Like You from 11 by The Smithereens
December 10, 2007
Tell us about your running shoes
At work, we’re getting close to a working state on our latest project. Simply put, we’re trying to recommend running shoes without having to ask a user a question they don’t know the answer to. Rather than asking things like “How much do you pronate?” or “How high or your arches?” the only thing we hope to ask is, “What shoes have you run in before? How did you like them?”
The hitch is that first, we need a bunch of people (I’m not sure how many, but probably a few hundred will make a good start) to tell us how they like their running shoes. If we can use that as “training data” for our system, we can start making some recommendations.
There’s a slightly more detailed explanation in my announcement and call for reviews on the company blog, if this piques your curiosity, but the short story is this: if you run, I’d love it if you’d drop by Common Running, sign up, and review your running shoes. You should be able to sign in and plug in a few reviews within five minutes. We may not have your shoes listed; I figure we probably have less than half the currently-available models in the system right now. In that case, we’d like to hear about that as well; it will help us find the models we’re missing.
If you have a running blog, I wouldn’t mind it if you asked your readers to drop by, either, of course!
Now Playing: Hotel Womb from Starfish by The Church
Hey there, steeplechaser
At some point last week I got a little sick of press releases like this one about the USATF Club Nationals making a point of mentioning that steeplechaser and Columbia grad Delilah DiCrescenzo was the “Delilah” of that Plain White Ts song you’ve probably heard a few times if you ever listen to pop radio. For someone trying to be an Olympic Trials contender and a successful athlete, you’d probably prefer that a sappy love song not be the first item on your résumé. For pity’s sake, folks, she’s run a sub-10:00 steeplechase, right?
I think Amby had the same feeling, but the reaction he got from DiCrescenzo after she won Saturday’s race was at right angles to what he was expecting (and what I would’ve expected.) “It was actually awesome to be associated with this song. I just think I was in the right place at the right time. The stars were aligned or something.”
Now, maybe she is getting sick of people greeting her saying “Hey there,” and just doesn’t say so, but I think DiCrescenzo’s positive reaction is actually indicative of a champion’s mind-set. We’ve frequently used a term about Deena Kastor’s attitude, which may even have been hers in the first place: “relentlessly positive.” It’s just not possible to get under Deena’s skin; there’s nothing she can’t turn into a mental advantage, even if it would be an annoyance for someone else. DiCrescenzo’s doing the same thing.
For myself, I don’t really like knowing the real story. Josh Ritter pointed this out in an NPR interview back in October, where he explained that knowing the story behind a song can get in the way of the listener forming their own personal relationship with the song. “They cease to be interesting because they give you everything.”
Now Playing: I Turn My Camera On from Gimme Fiction by Spoon
You are only as good as your tests
I’ve been getting the testing religion. This is one of those things where serious software engineers respond with something along the lines of, “You mean you’re only now discovering testing?!?” and everyone else says, “Huh?”
I’m not going to try to explain testing in detail, but the rough outline is that a testing infrastructure allows you to define a set of acceptable output parameters from a program, then run the test against the program every time you change it. This provides you with some warning if an “improvement” you made turns out to break the program. It’s a great tool for making more-reliable software, and there are some people who actually practice “test-driven development,” where the tests are written first, and then the programs created specifically to pass the tests.
There are drawbacks, of course. One is that you can spend as much time writing tests as writing “real” software. (The counter-argument is that you supposedly spend much less time bug-fixing or otherwise re-writing.) The one I’ve run up against lately is that the tests really do have to define the most-important facets of the tested program. At one point last week, I wrote a test, then wrote a stub method which passed the test but didn’t actually do any work.
Noah suggested that we really needed a t-shirt which reads, “You are only as good as your tests.” We went looking—surely on the whole vast ‘net such a thing is for sale—but according to Google, there’s only one other document with that exact phrase, and it’s a PDF. Clearly we need to create such a thing and offer it in the company store. If we had a company store.
Now Playing: Jimmy Olsen’s Blues from Pocket Full of Kryptonite by Spin Doctors
December 9, 2007
Fred’s statue is generally placed near the East Side of the park, near the 90th Street entrance (and therefore close to his workplace, the NYRR offices on East 89th.) During Marathon Weekend, however, the statue is moved over by the finish line, and since the press room operations this year were at Tavern on the Green rather than on Central Park South at the NYRR, I snapped a few shots of the statue, carrying some flowers left by well-wishers, in good morning sunlight before the race.
I finally got around to posting the two shots to Flickr, realizing as I did so that I’d taken the close-up of the medal for a reason: it didn’t really look like an NYCM medal. I zoomed in on it and realized it came from the Mt. Desert Island marathon, which is definitely a post-2000 event if my memory serves correctly; Lebow died in 1994.
Why MDI, I wonder? There are, literally, hundreds of marathons in this country annually which owe some debt to Lebow; he’d be downright encrusted with medals if they all sent one. Was it an official gift, or did someone slip in and hang it on Fred’s neck unofficially?
Now Playing: Nine Acre Dust from The Charlatans UK V. The Chemical Brothers by The Charlatans
December 8, 2007
Sunset day is coming
I’ve been getting antsy, anticipating the arrival of Sunset Day. It appears to vary a bit from year to year; according to a program called SunGraph, it looks like Sunset Day in Massachusetts this year will be Monday, eleven days before the actual shortest day and much later than last year. Since I’ve been notably bad at getting up with the sun lately, Sunset Day will be the real start of more daylight for me.
SunGraph also gives me more geeky data than I expect to ever have a good use for—for example, here in Amherst, though the actual sunrise was at 8:00 AM, first visible light was at 6:36 AM and Civil Twilight started at 7:28 AM. Which leads me here: first ever song about the time “between the sunset and certified darkness.” (I imagine this is a much bigger deal in Winnipeg.)
Now Playing: Civil Twilight from Reunion Tour by The Weakerthans
December 6, 2007
No more paper newsletters from the IAAF
While I confess some pleasure in the false romance of regular mail from Monaco, I’m pleased to read that the IAAF newsletter will no longer be printed and mailed, but only available online. What’s the point of using all that paper and postage (and packaging, given that the eight-page newsletter was frequently mailed sheathed in plastic, as some magazines are) when most of the enclosed news has been available on the website for weeks by the time the newsletter arrives?
There are places for magazines in this world—I happen to think that airplane seat-pockets are one of them—but a newsletter like this one is really much more useful as an online publication than as paper.
Now Playing: Dear Madam Barnum from Nonsuch by XTC
Simple and useful
A few weeks ago, looking for some kind of technical issue, I stumbled across a site called My Mile Marker (or “M3” as the production team calls it.) It’s a very simple database application: you register a vehicle (no details needed, just a label that makes sense to you) and whenever you put gas in, you record the car’s current odometer reading, how many gallons you put in, and the per-gallon price you paid.
The output is a set of simple numbers: your average miles-per-gallon since you started using the site, your projected odometer reading in a year, and your projected gasoline expenses over the next year. There are also a set of simple graphs tracking your MPG over time (plotting the MPG for each fill-up, I assume) and your odometer readings. (This second graph would be more useful as a first derivative, I think: the slope of the line, i.e. miles-per-day, is more interesting than the absolute number.)
It’s very simple math, of course, and nothing you couldn’t build in an hour or less of bored-in-the-office time if you have decent Excel skills. But you don’t have to; it’s been done for you, now. The trick is that it’s simple (all I do is get a receipt when I fill up, and write the odometer reading on the back of the receipt; all the data is then on one slip of paper for later entry) and that it becomes a small, slowly-played game: can I run up my MPG? Can I trim that annual cost? I can look at the graph and see what makes the difference: more highway driving (i.e. trips to Amherst) than in-town, short-haul driving means better mileage on a tank. More city stoplights and traffic means worse mileage. Back on the bike, you slacker!
Now Playing: Something in the Way by Nicolai Dunger
December 5, 2007
The dessert of track work
Coach picked up on an offhand comment I made a few weeks ago, and since we moved indoors, he has been setting me up with shorter and, generally, faster workouts. I’ve had my spikes on and spent the bulk of the repetitions up on my toes. And, as I noted a few weeks ago, I’m having fun with it.
I have a naturally long stride, perhaps a little longer than is really efficient for my leg length. I don’t have the turnover for the long sprints, nor the efficiency to be a really comfortable long-haul runner (marathons, for example, are a bad idea for me.) My natural distance on the road is probably somewhere between the half-marathon and the 10K, but the races that feel best are still the middle distances on the track, where I get to unroll my legs and indulge my urge to go fast.
We’re looking at the three “mini meets” that Boston University hosts, usually the last three Saturdays in December. I figure I may be able to hit the first one, a week from this Saturday, and possibly also the third. We talked tonight about distances, and I said, “Why don’t I just take on the mile?”
“That’s what I was going to suggest,” he said.
“I think I have more fun as a slow miler than as a faster long-distance guy,” I said.
Of course, my results tend to be better in the longer distances. “I figure racing some miles might get you a faster 3,000m,” riposted Coach.
Now Playing: Reunion Tour from Reunion Tour by The Weakerthans
December 4, 2007
Not for the same reasons...
…but it appears that the Mass Highway has decided that overpasses can’t be signboards anymore. They’re citing safety issues, not the “
THIS IS LITTERING” counter-sign I saw a few years ago, though. Some sign-posters are claiming not to understand; if the sign is “behind a fence,” they say (I assume this means “attached to the overpass-facing side of a fence, facing the highway”) then Mass Highway told them it would be OK. I’m sympathizing with Mass Highway here: such signs may be less likely to wind up on the highway, but little is stopping them from blowing into cars on the overpass itself. Plus, do we really want to see car dealerships and real estate agents posting their banners on the overpasses?
Now Playing: Criminal from Tidal by Fiona Apple
December 3, 2007
Secret message to the guy who pushed me out of my parking spot on Amity Street this afternoon
…thanks. I would’ve been able to rock my ground-clearance-challenged car out of the too-snowy spot eventually, but the extra push probably saved me a few minutes of frustration.
December 1, 2007
Erin McKeown goes all-request at Brandeis
I saw notes, when I was ordering tickets for Erin McKeown’s show last night at Brandeis University, that the show would be “all-request”, but I didn’t really know what that meant. (Not quite the same as old days?)
It turned out that it meant a student walking around the lobby before the show with slips of paper and two pitchers marked “Songs” and “Questions”. There were signs on the wall saying, “Deep cuts? Burning questions? Ask!” I wrote down the song that hooked me on McKeown five years ago: “Blackbirds—I saw you play it at the Academy of Music on New Year’s Eve, 2001, and it was great” and put that in the “Songs” pitcher.
The auditorium was surprisingly empty—maybe five rows filled in the front, plus a dozen or so other people scattered through the hall—and eerily quiet if the applause faded. I was surprised the crowd wasn’t bigger; I wonder if Brandeis doesn’t “get the word out” like the venues crawled by Tourfilter do.
McKeown has toured with what she calls a “little big band” recently, but last night it was just her, two guitars, and the recital-hall piano. She favors Gretsch behemoths, making for a “little woman with huge guitar” effect, but it’s less like tool-too-big than that her own skill and talent with the instrument seems to require that much material to play with.
She walked on with the two pitchers and just started pulling slips out, a few from “Songs,” a few from “Questions,” and she’d play them as they came. She opened up with “Cosmopolitans” from “Grand,” and I continued to be impressed through the night at how well she could take a fully-instrumented album piece like “Cosmopolitan” or “Cinematic” (which would work well with Josh Ritter’s horn section) and do it well with just herself and the guitar. She started commenting on how the songs came out: “Normally I would close with this song, it’s interesting that it’s coming up second,” or “It’s cool that these two songs [“Queen of Quiet” and “Cinematic”] came up together, because they’re both opening tracks on their albums.”
The questions were a little more offbeat, particularly coming from a university crowd. “What is your favorite piece of furniture?” “What did you want to be when you were five?” (McKeown used that to segue into the title track from her fourth album, “We Will Become Like Birds.”) “Who is your favorite classical composer?” (That became an introduction to “Vera”, a back-story I hadn’t known.) Eventually there was a litter of paper around her feet, she’d faked her way through “Blue Skies” and the opening verse of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” (among others); I was half expecting either “Purple Haze” or “Tiny Dancer” to come up. She did this without a fake book, entirely from her memory of what the song sounded like.
And yes, she did play “Blackbirds,” and judging by the reaction, I wasn’t the only one who requested it.
It was a really good show, and I’m surprised there weren’t more people there.
Now Playing: Cosmopolitans from Grand by Erin McKeown
Apparently, to be a good indie opening act, you must do an unironic re-interpretation of some 80’s-era Bowie track as part of your set list. First I saw The Last Town Chorus playing a slowed-down and elegaic “Modern Love” (a track she’s actually gained some notoriety from) at the Weakerthans show. Tonight, at Erin McKeown, the opener was Ryan Fitzsimmons, who closed with a one-guitar neo-folk rendition of “Let’s Dance.”
More on Erin later, when I’ve had some sleep.