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April 30, 2008

I hate Windows

You already knew that, but I want to vent.

I want to run a perl script on a server once an hour, all the time. On a Linux (or, for that matter, Mac) server, I could just set up cron to run the script hourly, or every third minute, or every seventh minute if I cared that much. (Anyone without the know-how to manage cron wouldn’t have written a perl script which needs hourly running.)

On a Windows server, the most reliable way to do this is using Windows’ built-in Scheduled Tasks. Scheduled Tasks can only run once a day, so I have to set up twenty-four identical Tasks, one for each hour. Tedious, particularly since they can’t be cut-and-pasted and must be created by Wizard, but not such a big deal. I need to provide the Administrator password (twice) to set up the task. And then, since I need to open the Advanced Properties in order to give a command-line argument to the script, I need to provide the Administrator password two more times, making a total of four for every task and a grand total of ninety-six password entries.

Honestly, I’d rather read cron manual pages.

Update: Right, so after I make all 24 tasks, I discover that in the Advanced Properties section of each job, the job can be scheduled to repeat at intervals. So we only need one job, but the wizard is worthless and I still hate Windows.

Now Playing: My Love by Auktyon

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"A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken"

Jeremy Zawodny links to a Web 2.0 conference presentation by Clay Shirky about what Shirky calls “the cognitive surplus.” It can largely be boiled down to this: that whenever anyone asks, about the massive user-driven online projects (e.g. Wikipedia), “Where do they find the time for all this?” the answer is, generally, “They watch less television.”

Or at least, they see television differently than they used to. (See the title quote, a summary of how at least one anecdotal four-year-old views television.) I seldom, if ever, watch television; I try to keep this to myself, because it’s the sort of statement that makes people accuse you of trying to be superior (or simply acting smug.) I know people who do, but only in the context of other activities, not in the old context of simply sitting and watching. I can’t promise that I’m always doing interesting things with this extra time, though seven or eight hours of running every week may be part of it.

The difference, Shirky explains, is that we’re no longer afraid of what to do with our brain when we’re not working, and we don’t feel the need to hide in passive entertainment. We’re increasingly able to choose how we use that “cognitive surplus”, and when a project like Wikipedia can get a few billion of those brain-hours, it can do impressive (if not necessarily always accurate) things. It’s an interesting theory, and one that may not be provable, but if he’s right, the TV people had better be looking around to figure out where they fit in to this new world.

But don’t take my word for it; take Shirky’s.

Now Playing: The Obscenity Prayer by Rodney Crowell

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April 28, 2008

Unraveling

The stitches came out this morning. Thanks to the novocaine used in the ER, they hurt more coming out than they did going in.

My finger already feels better with the pressure of the stitches off, though it’s oddly sensitive. It’s tender as you might expect, but the very tip (outside the cut) is numb, as though it’s asleep. The doctor says it may or not ever get sensation back. I’m not too bothered, as long as I can type again soon.

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April 26, 2008

The finger report

Nicole points out that I haven’t really explained exactly what I did to my finger last week.

The quick summary is: I got a mandolin for my birthday, which for those who don’t know their esoteric kitchen equipment (I only had a vague idea what one was before) is a fancy rack with a blade that lets you slice vegetables easily. However, the nature of them is that you’re holding the vegetable in your hand and pushing down toward a blade, which is always a scary proposition.

And I knew that was dangerous, and yet I still had a moment of frustration and inattention, and paid for it by slicing off a chunk of skin about an eighth of an inch wide and maybe a half-inch long from right smack in the middle of the fingerprint on my right middle finger. (I also nicked the index finger, but that was just a band-aid level injury.) I don’t know how deep it was; not very, but enough to start bleeding quite freely and quite quickly. And it wouldn’t stop.

Fortunately for me, once she knew what was going on, A hit all the right responses. She handed me a roll of bandage (where that came from, I’ll never know) with which I wrapped any fingers with blood on them (most of the hand) enough to slow it down, and reminded me to elevate it. (I spent the next hour with my hand over my head.) She also handed me three ibuprofen and said, swallow these now, you’ll appreciate it later. We sat with it a few minutes waiting for it to stop, but when it became evident that it wasn’t stopping (there’s only so much you can bandage with what’s in the house) we decided I needed professional help.

I kept the thing elevated so long on the drive that it just about fell asleep, but didn’t drip blood on anything in the car. The ER doctor tried more or less the same steps we had, minus some of the guesswork and plus some better tools, but eventually he concluded that the best way to stop the bleeding with any confidence was to stitch it up. This required some anaesthesia to the finger, as well.

Because there wasn’t a whole lot of spare material to stitch together (I was thinking we should’ve used a patch, like you would on the knee of your pants) I’ve had the feeling, ever since, of wearing a glove where the one finger is a size or two too small. More recently, now that the bleeding has stopped for real, I feel like the stitches themselves hurt more than the cut; every time I accidentally bump the fingertip, I get a jolt like a static shock or a bee sting which I think is the stitches pulling. I will be very glad to have them out on Monday.

I’ll be even happier to have that fingertip back in use for typing, which will take a little longer. I can make pretty good speed now with nine fingers (the index finger is pretty much completely healed), but the other four on my right hand aren’t thrilled about all the extra work. I can’t figure out why the ring finger hurt unless it’s just sympathetic pain.

I have successfully chopped vegetables since then, however. But I used a knife and a cutting board like a normal person; that’s a tool I’m used to.

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April 25, 2008

Packed racing schedule

There are four road races in Amherst over the nine days starting tomorrow. Three of them are fund-raising 5Ks at UMass.

There are maybe two other races in Amherst over the course of the rest of the year. Why can’t they spread them out more? They’d get more runners at all four races, and everyone would raise more money.

On the other hand, this makes finding a race to fit one’s schedule quite easy.

Now Playing: Tristesse from El Momento Descuidado by The Church

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Marathon Trials on TV

The kind of work I do at most running events can’t really be watched in real time. However, my work from this past Sunday morning can probably be picked out decently well in a TV show airing this Sunday at noon.

MSNBC is running a series, every Sunday from now until August, on the Olympic Trials. More specifically, every Sunday at noon, they’re doing a one-hour show on some sport selecting its Olympic team. The first show, this week, will be the women’s marathon trials, with Ed Eyestone and Al Trautwig. The hour is cut down from the nearly-three-hour live webcast they did during the Trials, with the possible exception of some voice-overs added after the fact. During that race, David Monti of Race Results Weekly was sitting in front of Ed and Al, patched in to a conference call with me, and the two of us were feeding them all kinds of data on the race.

So every time you hear a mile split—that came from our team. Every time they discuss the gaps between the leaders—that came from the spotters. Almost every time you see a cyclist with a headset on (if they don’t get cut out), he’s talking to me. (I had the easy job, as you can see.) I didn’t feel like I did any better than in any of the previous years of doing this, but for some reason this year the team clicked more than it ever had before, and I’m really proud of what we contributed.

The race was pretty good, too. I’m concerned about how it will play on one-hour highlights; marathons are really more exciting when you watch the whole thing, gun to tape. But if you didn’t see it last Sunday, spare an hour this Sunday.

Now Playing: Don’t Get Your Back Up from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

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April 24, 2008

A long wait for the doctor

One chore for this week was making an appointment to get the stitches removed. I called the office of the GP I used to see before I went to grad school.

It appears, however, that the ripple effect of our state’s universal-coverage law has reached his practice as it has many others. Because I hadn’t been in the office for three years (not quite true; I was there in July of ‘05) they considered me a “new patient.”

“And,” continued the appointments secretary, “our next available appointment for new patients is in January.”

That’s a long time to wait to have stitches removed. They suggested I go back to the emergency room to have them out, but the six-times-higher co-pay for ER visits made that a discouraging prospect. Fortunately, they decided to “take me back,” or I would’ve been calling all over the valley to find someone who could snip a few bits of thread in a hygienic manner for a reasonable price.

Now Playing: National Steel from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

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April 23, 2008

Iced tea

I have relatively few guidelines for my life, and those I do are more like biases than guidelines. One of them is that I maintain a strong bias in favor of buying beverages from front-lawn lemonade stands. (If I remember to carry cash while running, this bias begins to take the form of a rule.)

Yesterday afternoon, I bought a cup of iced tea from a pair of energetic young women (neither old enough to drive, I think, but one perhaps approaching her teens) who had thoroughly advertised their wares using sidewalk chalk for a hundred feet in either direction. They were closing up for the afternoon but were more than happy to pour me a cup and put a lid on for my walk in to town, not to mention a mint leaf.

It was sweet, slightly chilly, and very, very good. There was ball-point pen notation around the top of the cup telling me I’d done something good today.

They were donating their earnings to (I think) The Smile Train (warning: images meant to raise sympathy ahead), and though they had a little bar graph to show progress toward their funding goal, they had made woefully small progress. I think probably they were hoping to hit thousands and hadn’t made $100 on the iced tea yet.

But it was good, and I think I myself smiled more about it than the price of the beverage purchase might have warranted.

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April 22, 2008

The silent stakeholders

I just returned from listening to a politician with a Kenyan father explain why he refused to “go negative” in his campaign. This candidate, however, also had a Kenyan mother, and in his district, a President of African ancestry would be wholly unremarkable.

I donated to Edwin Macharia’s losing campaign for the Kenyan Parliament last year, and tonight he returned to the College to speak about the current state of Kenya. His perspective on that country was clear and interesting, particularly in that he sees a real and non-paternalistic role for Americans in the rebirth of his country.

There is a silent stakeholder in everything we do. When the credit market in the U.S. collapses, there’s a run on banks in Iceland. When the price of gas goes up, the cost of transporting food in Nigeria goes up—perhaps it becomes uneconomical.

And when politicians encourage negativity and violence, they find they must govern a cynical, violent people. When Americans burn coal to power their electric lights, they raise the global temperature and cause food crises in Africa. Macharia pointed out that even though the events of 1994 in Rwanda were the worst in that country’s history, that Rwanda and Burundi have seen mass murder on a 15-20 year cycle for decades—and that that cycle is coming due in the next few years. A food crisis in that district could spark another round of ethnic violence fueled by grudges and resentments harbored since ‘94. There are many who argue that environmental changes driven by global climate change led to the ongoing killings in Darfur. As Macharia noted, just because the Kenyans are (temporarily) no longer killing their neighbors, does not mean there aren’t other countries in flames across Africa.

Happy Earth Day?

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April 21, 2008

Weekend's work

Minus: Even though the finger generally feels better (a development curiously coinciding almost perfectly with the end of my supply of prescription-grade pain pills) it still hurts to type lots, so I can’t broadcast all the good stuff of this weekend. (I did get one story out yesterday with another coming from today. Pain enforced a somewhat more spare style than usual. I hear that worked for Chekhov, too.)

Plus: Not much time to write, anyway.

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April 19, 2008

Subject matter problems

I would write more about my finger, but (a) pretty near all the fingers on my right hand (or at least, all but the thumb and the pinky) hurt when I type. The ring finger doesn’t even have a good reason. And (b) I feel like I should have some kind of warning before going in to the gory details. (We took a picture which will probably never go online.)

Plus, I spend all my time either meeting people here for the Marathon (by the way, I’m in Boston along with the rest of the running world) or calling people to arrange to meet them. Tomorrow, actual marathons will be committed, and about time.

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April 18, 2008

Bostonian's guide to the Olympic Marathon Trials

I meant to write a long post for Boston folks about the Olympic Trials marathon on Sunday. But my fingers hurt quite a lot. So here’s the roundup.

  • Two marathons this year. Trials on Sunday. Usual BAA marathon (the crowds) on Monday.
  • Top three in the Trials run for the USA at the Olympics this summer. Everyone else goes home. Simple and easy.
  • Local interest: Kate O’Neill, with a good chance of making the team, is from Milton. Several others are local; look for the blue BAA uniforms, among other local teams.
  • Best places to watch: Memorial Drive in Cambridge (fewer crowds, two or three passes per lap); between Boyleston and Comm Ave in Back Bay (close to the start and finish). (Check the map.)
  • T stops: Kendall for the Memorial Drive spots; Park Street and the Boyleston Green Line stops for the Boston side. Back Bay on the Orange Line is close to the finish as well.
  • Everyone ran faster than 2:47 to qualify, and nearly everyone should finish under 3:20 or so.
  • Watch for Joanie.

Avoiding the race? Avoid Memorial Drive, Mass Ave, and Back Bay. Storrow should be as good as it ever is, whatever that means.

You’re not going to see Olympians decided this close to Boston again soon; the track Trials for ‘08 and ‘12 are in Eugene, Oregon. This is really a big deal. Get out and watch Sunday morning.

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April 17, 2008

I run because I'm lazy

“Is it normal for your pulse to be so low?” asked the ER nurse.

I’m a runner, so of course the answer is “yes,” but I wanted to hear the number, so I said, “Maybe, what is it?”

The answer was 46, which isn’t actually all that low for me. 42 is in the realm of normal; I’ve seen 36 before. (46 is about three beats to four seconds.)

I look at it this way. If you average 60 bpm (not unusual) for a day, that’s 86,400 heartbeats in a day.

If I spend an hour at 140 bpm and the rest of the day at 42, that’s 66,360 heartbeats in a day—over a 20% reduction. I get a day’s worth of spare heartbeats every week. See? I work hard because I’m lazy.

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April 16, 2008

Tonight's excuse

Sliced off a bit of finger while attempting to make dinner. Abandoned dinner in favor of six stitches in the ER. Typing without a full complement of fingers. Back soon.

Posted by pjm at 10:27 PM | Comments (1)

April 15, 2008

The Weakerthans at Pearl Street

Saturday night, I went back over to Pearl Street to see the Weakerthans again, another installment of the Great Canadian Supergroup. Unlike the Kathleen Edwards show, which fit comfortably in the ballroom upstairs, this show was crammed in to the downstairs “club room,” and it made it a much less pleasant experience. Apparently there was some private function upstairs.

Unlike at the Paradise, this crowd was content to sing along with every song, rather than shout along out of key, but by the time the headliners started, it was uncomfortably crowded on the floor, and the lower stage (less than two feet higher than the floor, I think) meant that all of us were jostling around trying to see what was going on. I was occasionally worried that the guy in front of me was going to break my nose with his enthusiastic nodding back and forth—not because he was particularly out of line, but because there really wasn’t enough space.

All this really proves that I’m too old and cranky to be going to shows in the club room, not that it was a bad show. The band did well with the available space, played most of my favorites and a few which should be favorites now, and generally seemed to tolerate things. I have to wonder what it feels like to have fans so enthusiastic that their shouted requests start sounding more like demands, and their own sing-along is as strong as the amplified backing vocals. At some point you start to wonder who’s really driving this bus (and, I suppose, whether it matters.)

Openers were Christine Fellows, a frequent Weakerthans collaborator (she sat in at the keyboards during the main set) who played oddly morbid tunes, less gothic than colonially dour; and AA Bondy, a raspy-voiced Guthrie-type who sounded like M Ward sunk in deep depression. (The tickets promised Liam Finn, so I expect quite a few people in the crowd are confused about just who they saw.)

Now Playing: Rose Parade from Either/Or by Elliott Smith

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The experts pick Kastor

The “expert picks” article I mentioned a few days ago is out now, and it appears that pretty much everyone agreed that Deena Kastor is the overwhelming favorite (only one out of 31 of us didn’t pick her to win). There was near-unanimity, as well, that Blake Russell, Elva Dryer, and Kate O’Neill were the three strongest contenders for the other two spots. After that, consensus fell off rapidly.

That thirty-first person who picked someone other than Deena for the win isn’t as crazy as they may sound. Our best marathoners in Athens were not the ones who won the Trials; Kastor was 2nd in St. Louis. Weird things happen at the Trials, and there’s seldom such thing as a sure thing in a marathon. That said, picking Deena to win isn’t so much an expression of confidence in her victory as it is a lack of other options: if not Deena, who? And what makes us think she isn’t going to be in good shape?

Now Playing: Trip On Love by Abra Moore

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April 13, 2008

Who dopes, and why

Eddie asked in a comment, why do sprinters and throwers get busted for doping more often than distance runners? Do they dope less, or just get caught less?

I’d say, “both.” First, the payoff from most doping agents is greater in the speed and power events than in the endurance events. This is a fancy way of saying that the limiting factor of how far you can throw a little iron ball is how strong you are, and the limiting factor of how quickly you can cover 100m is how fast you are (both top-end speed and acceleration) and both of those limiting factors can be directly affected by things like anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and/or testosterone. Distance running is limited by so many different factors, from subtleties in physiology to simple matters of how quickly you can transfer oxygen from the air to your muscles, that doping offers fewer clear payoffs.

Second, because of the complications of doping for endurance, it’s harder to detect the performance-enhancing agents. Most of the ones that address endurance directly simply mimic the effects of being well-trained; some athletes use the strength/power agents (steroids) to allow them to train harder and recover faster, arriving at competitions free of the direct signs of doping but carrying the benefits of pharmaceutically-enhanced training. This is why out-of-competition random testing was created, but it probably makes the potential downside (the odds of getting caught) lesser for distance runners.

(The former East German sports complex supposedly used steroids this way, and 1976-1980 marathon gold medalist Waldemar Cierpinski supposedly appears on their doping records. However, the IOC has been less willing to pursue and redistribute the medals won through the wholesale abuse of the G.D.R. than they have been those won by Marion Jones.)

Most of the performance-enhancing substances used by distance runners, such as EPO (on the rise since the ’90s) and blood doping (favored in the ’70s and ’80s) are essentially taking existing biology and making it more so. EPO, for example, is made to treat cancer patients whose red blood cells have been decimated by chemotherapy; in a healthy athlete, it allows the blood to carry more oxygen. Cycling has been plagued by these agents because, oddly enough, the bicycle itself is a leveling agent, a mechanical means to erase the mechanical differences which would make one runner more efficient than another one with the same oxygen-transfer capabilities. There are new blood tests for EPO, but it’s still tough, and the testing is supposedly still lagging behind the alleged abusers.

But I think the first factor is the more important one, because the fact that doping agents aren’t as direct in distance running means that the general state of competition isn’t as distorted by them even if they are used pervasively as it is in the speed and power events (or cycling).

Which brings us to “why.” The classical profile of a doping athlete goes in two bins: the mediocre performer who suddenly breaks through with fantastic performances (e.g. Tim Montgomery,) or the longtime top performer who uses doping to extend their career (e.g. Maurice Greene, allegedly, or Regina Jacobs.)

Laurel points out a relevant Scientific American article (via 3 Quarks) which applies game theory to doping, mostly in cycling. The premise is that as long as they payoff for doping is high and the penalties relatively low, it will be pervasive, but that federations have the power (with some bold steps) to change the game between dirty and clean such that avoiding performance-enhancing substances is the smart choice. This means making the penalties draconian (which requires bulletproof testing, unfortunately) and making it easier for athletes to believe they can compete without doping. (Read the article for a better explanation of these suggestions.) These are things track (and particularly distance running) is doing much better than cycling, but for all the reasons already discussed, the game theory tips much less in favor of the dirty athlete in endurance events.

Now Playing: The Wake-Up Bomb from New Adventures In Hi-Fi by R.E.M.

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Ryan Hall, London, and Beijing

Before I get too far along on the bad news, some better news.

For those who haven’t already read about this elsewhere, Ryan Hall, who won the men’s Olympic Marathon Trials last fall in New York City, was fifth today in London in a swift 2:06:17. This is (obviously) a PR for Hall, the best American male finish in London in ages (Deena Kastor won there in ‘06) and also happens to be the third-fastest marathon ever run by an American. The two faster marks, a 2:05:38 and 2:05:56, are both from Khalid Khannouchi, and the first, the standing American Record, was also a World Record at the time, and was the London CR until a minute or so before Hall finished.

This is good news, of course. Assuming Hall recovers well from this and is in similar condition come August, we can say something of him which we haven’t been able to say of American Olympic marathoners since the days of Shorter, Salazar, and Rodgers: he’s capable of running whatever pace is necessary to win the gold. Odds are excellent that all three medals will go much slower than 2:06; the Olympic Record is only 2:09:21, and Hall has yet to run that slowly in three marathons. So anyone can say with good reason, “A healthy Ryan Hall is a medal contender in the marathon.” There’s no US partisanship needed.

Saying Hall’s anything more than a medal contender, however, is a little tougher. 2:06:17 won’t scare the Kenyans, or many of the Ethiopians—but it will get their respect. There were four very good marathoners in front of Hall this morning in London, one of them a proven championship runner, and at least two (if not all four) of them will likely be in Beijing. (The question mark is the Kenyan team; the Kenyan federation has provided few signs of how they’ll select their Olympic trio.) Haile is still active, too, if he is convinced to run.

Here’s what Hall has proved, and I hope he and his coach take this approach going in to the Games: he has the wheels to put himself in medal contention. Once he’s there, it doesn’t matter where he finished in London or who holds the world record; it’s a foot race. And as Kara Goucher proved in Osaka, sometimes being there to grab the opportunity when it presents itself is the important part. There’s an element of luck in winning an Olympic medal, but there’s a very large element of hard work and talent in being able to seize that luck when it’s going your way, and that’s what Hall showed in London.

Now Playing: Take You To The Moon from Why The Long Face by Big Country

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April 12, 2008

Suckered again?

Last month, I wrote:

Now that he’s retired, Greene has locked up a position as the fastest guy who’s never been busted, and that means something; the only retired sprinter with comparable credibility is Carl Lewis. Unlike some of his predecessors … Greene didn’t get caught in some bizarre late-career trying-to-hang-on doping. He was never implicated in the BALCO mess. … This doesn’t mean Greene was clean, but unlike many cynics, I’m willing to give him the benefit of belief; I do think people can run that fast without doping, and I don’t have reason to believe that Greene didn’t.

That should teach me. According to today’s NYT:

Among his clients, [the supplier] identified 12 Olympic medalists who had won a combined 26 Olympic medals and 21 world championships. … Eight of the 12 — notably, the sprinter Maurice Greene — have never been previously linked to performance-enhancing drugs.

The Times is careful to note that “The documents … are not definitive proof that any of these athletes took performance-enhancing drugs” but it’s clear that things are going to get uncomfortable for Mr. Greene and several others over the next few months.

And for someone as cynical as I am about so many things (I once told a financial planner to base a retirement plan for me on the assumption that I would receive no Social Security income) it’s becoming harder and harder for me to presume innocence on the part of any modern sprinter. The dealer in question defends himself with the same old canard about how “everyone else is doping, you have to do it to stay at the top,” an idea I’ve been dismissive of in the past. I may need to reconsider my position on that one, too.

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April 11, 2008

Found money report

Another year, another tin of loose change. The total was slightly down this year.

$7 in folding money this year (a five and two ones). Quarters overtook dimes in overall value, with 31 of them coming to $7.75. Only 68 dimes. 30 nickels; I have no idea why so few nickels turn up. (They’re also generally in better shape; some of the dimes and pennies are in remarkably tough shape.) 388 pennies, five of them barely recognizable as such. Grand total: $26.93. The foreign total is €.10 (actually found in Europe), £.02 (I assume that’s the value of a coin marked “2 New Pence”) and ¥1.

The previous two years’ worth of found money have earned $3.31 in interest since I started counting and depositing them.

Now Playing: Lost A Friend from Whiplash by James

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April 10, 2008

Picking the Trials

If you haven’t been reading the running news sites lately, you might not be aware that it’s only ten days until the “2008 Olympic Team Trials—Women’s Marathon”, the stumblingly inelegant name forced on an event most of us just call the Women’s Marathon Trials. Earlier this week, I was asked to come up with my picks for the top five, a similar survey to the one I missed for the men, and it took a bit of thinking.

Like the men’s Trials in November, the women’s Trials will precede by a day a major international marathon, in this case, the venerable and historic Boston. I suspect much of Boston is still unaware of this fact, so here’s the quick summary: there’s another marathon this year, on Sunday the 20th, on a different course downtown, and the first three women will go to the Olympics. So it’s a Big Deal.

Unlike the men’s Trials, where we selected a pretty astounding team even though none of the ‘04 trio—including the Athens silver medalist—made it, the women’s field is not terribly deep. Of the ‘04 team, only Deena Kastor is even running; Jen Rhines has decided, with some justification, that the marathon isn’t for her, and Colleen De Reuck pulled out earlier this week, citing lack of fitness. (At 43, De Reuck can be excused for not bouncing back from having her second child as she did from her first, and after a career like hers, it’s also understandable that she wouldn’t want to race a hard marathon unless she felt she could compete for a spot on the team.)

Even after that, there are missing names. Kate McGregor, one of the top 10,000m runners in recent years, has opted out of the marathon trials, following similar reasoning to Rhines’. Marla Runyan, a U.S. champion in 2006, and an Olympian twice already (at 1,500m in 2000 and 5,000m in 2004) has been plagued by injuries and also won’t compete.

Kastor is still one of the world’s best, but the hole behind her in the U.S. list is yawning.

This is not to say there aren’t good marathoners in there. Elva Dryer and Kate O’Neill have both had credible runs at Majors marathons in 2007, and Blake Russell, who was 4th in ‘04 and essentially made the race that day in St. Louis, is both tough and determined. Magdalena Lewy Boulet, who was 5th in ‘04, is also back.

But none of these women are the kind of reliable international competitor that Kastor (or, for that matter, Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein, the first two at the men’s Trials) is. There’s still a lot of room for a dedicated outsider, like Jenny Spangler in ‘96 or Christine Clark in ‘00, to show up and steal a spot on the team. This should actually make things more exciting; not only does it promise surprises, it puts pressure on the pros to settle the team spots early, which is extraordinarily difficult to do.

It’s also possible that one of these women will make the Trials their stage to make the step up to international class, the way Hall did last November in Central Park.

It’s also worth noting that Emily LeVan, who could reasonably be expected to get a top-20 finish at the Trials, is still over $7000 away from her goal at twotrials.org. One hopes that marathon hasn’t hit the wall.

More on the Trials next week, no doubt…

Now Playing: Slowly Sinking by Leeroy Stagger

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Posted by pjm at 9:03 PM | Comments (0)

Google has a hand over our eye

I was looking at site traffic statistics this morning and discovered that at least one site I have a hand in gets more search traffic from Yahoo! than Google.

How did that happen?

This particular company launched a website in the late ’90s on an ISP account without their own domain. The site was tricky to maintain, and for various reasons it stagnated. More recently, we set up another site, with the same design and largely the same content but easier for a non-technical person to update, and on its own domain. This site includes a lot of more search-friendly features, including an XML site map (seems silly when you only have five pages, but there it is.)

The ISP, however, won’t close or redirect the old site, even though it hasn’t been paid for it for years. We can’t redirect it, and it still comes up first in Google searches, and it’s not going anywhere. The new site has slowly battled its way up to eighth. (N.B. Because the company name uses a deliberately archaic spelling, there’s not a whole lot of competition for the significant keywords.) On Yahoo!, the old site is also first—but the new site is third. In other words, in my opinion, Yahoo! is returning better results. But Google’s stranglehold over English-speaking search results makes our job a lot harder. And search drives a tremendous amount of web traffic; more than half, for most sites.

After thinking about this for a minute, I went up to the search box on Firefox and switched the search engine to Yahoo!. I feel like this is important not just because of our site, but for perspective.

Search results are a view of the Internet. It’s easy to convince yourself they’re the only view, the same way you can convince yourself that the view from your back door is the only way to see your yard. But clearly they’re not. And if everyone sees the same search results, it’s the same as if everyone reads the same newspaper… or if you tried looking at everything from one eye. You still see stuff, but you don’t see depth, and you can’t judge distance. (Try driving with a hand over one eye. On second thought, don’t.)

Using one search engine is like looking at the world with one eye. (And using one meta-search engine isn’t much better.) We should be changing those search settings periodically, like farmers rotating crops. There’s nothing wrong with Google—but it’s not always right, either, and if we never look anywhere else, we might forget that.

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

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Posted by pjm at 8:43 AM | Comments (0)

April 9, 2008

What I did with my day other than writing anything here

I merged a branch in and pushed a big revision to the La Cucina Italiana website. There are now recipes available—by which I mean, about 1% of all the recipes they have available, but that’s just the start, of course.

If you’re interested in reading me geek out for a few hundred words about asset hosts and revision control, that’s possible, too.

Now Playing: The Reasons from Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans

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Posted by pjm at 9:00 PM | Comments (0)

April 8, 2008

Overloaded shelves

Last weekend I spent some time rearranging the bookshelves. When the books got here, they were simply unloaded directly on to the shelves as they came out of the boxes; this process not only put them in a more coherent order (which matters only to me) but gave me a chance to unpack three more boxes of them, and to weed out two boxes to move along. (Even at that, some of the shelves in the bookcase are loaded two-deep, with cheap paperbacks hiding behind the more showy hardcovers. I know what’s in there. And still, the computer books are in another bookcase in the basement, and there’s at least one, maybe two more boxes labeled “books” down there as well.)

“Move along” means different things in different contexts. I found about fourteen books, mostly textbooks, worth listing on Amazon, and I’ve sold seven so far. Another, larger box will be donated to the League of Women Voters book sale on the Common in May.

This morning, as I was sending a Discrete Math textbook off to Alaska, the clerk at the Post Office commented on my frequent package-sending, and I described what I was up to. She sighed and said she had a hard time parting with her books, but her husband said she had too many and she had to start paring down the shelves. I mentioned Reader to Reader and she lit right up. “That sounds like a great idea,” she said, and pulled out a sticky to note the name, thanking me for the tip as I left.

So I feel like I’ve given away more books than just my own already—or perhaps, that I gave a lot of gift books, yet kept all my favorites on the shelves.

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Posted by pjm at 9:06 PM | Comments (1)

April 6, 2008

It helps to define "majority"

Massachusetts had its primaries months ago now, but yesterday the parties held caucuses to determine exactly who the delegates would be. A running-club friend of ours was hoping to be a delegate for my candidate, so I walked over to the College (where the caucus would be held in the old gym) and asserted that yes, I was registered with this party in this congressional district. (I voted in the local elections on Tuesday.)

A process which is obscure to me—I assume it happened at the state committee level—determined that we would select one male and two female delegates. The candidates had two minutes to make their pitch before we voted. After the five men spoke (one of them essentially asking people to vote for one of the others, not him) and we voted, the women spoke while the men’s votes were counted.

We did some quick arithmetic on the men’s tallies and determined that there were 98 people voting, a pretty small number considering the size of the district (and that this caucus was for the top vote-getter in the district in either party). After the four women spoke, we were instructed to write two names on our ballots; in response to questions, it was clarified that we could not vote twice for the same person, we could write just one name if we wished, and if we had two ballots (some people did) they could write one on each ballot.

As the votes were being counted, someone asked for more clarification about the process, and it was announced that any delegate must gain a majority to be selected; if nobody gained a majority, the lowest vote-getter would be taken out of the pool and we’d go again. This sounded fine, but then when the results were announced, they claimed that nobody had a majority. The totals were announced, however, and one of the women had 72 votes. Our friend was second with 46. (N.B. I may be mis-remembering these votes by a few, but I do have them within two or three.)

There were some murmurs, and I raised my hand. The moderator nodded to me, and I said, “It sounds to me like one of the candidates does have a majority. Unless there are over 144 of us voting, 72 should be enough.” At this point the parliamentarian stood up, glared at me, and said, “The candidates need a majority of votes cast,” or something along those lines.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “We were instructed not to vote twice for the same person. Even if we all voted for the same candidate, it would be impossible for anyone to get more than half the votes.”

(In hindsight, it would be possible if enough people only voted for one candidate, but this still doesn’t invalidate my assertion that this is a poor way to vote.)

I’m still not sure the parliamentarian understood the simple arithmetic involved, but he was mollified when someone offered to check the actual rules. The printed rules arrived to a round of applause, and it was determined that, in fact, a majority of voters, not votes, was required. It was still unclear exactly how many people had voted in that first round, but everyone seemed to accept that it wasn’t more than 140, and this candidate (who happened to be a sophomore(!) at the University) was elected to some applause.

Then we set to the second round, where we got one name per ballot, one ballot per voter. If none of the remaining three attained a majority, any candidate with less than 15% of the vote would be taken off the list and we’d do another round. That was, in fact, what happened, and our friend eventually lost on the third ballot, with her numbers declining with every round. (Hopefully not because of the loudmouth sitting behind her.) Her husband was doing the figures on the announced vote totals from the second round, though, and he figured there might have been few enough voters (i.e. fewer than 92) in the first round that her 46 would’ve constituted a majority then. We shrugged at each other, and headed home.

The local campaign is organizing volunteers to car-pool to Pennsylvania in the coming weeks to work for the primary there. I find this amusing both because Pennsylvania didn’t have a primary that meant anything in the five years I lived there, and because they’re actually going to my old area, working out of the Allentown headquarters. I’ll be in Boston that weekend, however.

Now Playing: Over-Ground from Into the West by Pilot Speed

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Posted by pjm at 7:41 PM | Comments (2)

April 5, 2008

Pricing as incentive (or, why I still pay some bills by mail)

The online parking ticket payment I just mentioned is a great idea in concept: I sit down at my computer and pay my ticket, sparing me an envelope, a stamp, and whatever time it would take to write a check and mail the envelope.

In practice, it’s not so simple. For one thing, the system just throws errors; I gave up after two attempts to start the process were met by un-helpful error messages indicating some kind of software problem. (Probably it requires me to use IE on Windows, but (a) it doesn’t say so, and (b) even if it does, I won’t.) For another, they’re adding a $3.50 service charge to a $10 ticket.

Given a choice between paying a $10 ticket by mail and a $13.50 ticket online, I’m paying by mail. I’m guessing hundreds of others are making the same decision, and Northampton is probably not seeing mass adoption of their online ticket-paying system. This is disappointing to them, because if we pay the tickets online, they get $10, but if we pay by check, they get $10 minus the cost of opening all the envelopes and making the bank deposits.

But if they want tickets paid online, they should be reducing that service charge. 35% is too high; maybe they should try 10% and see how that does. (I’m betting a $3.50 surcharge doesn’t bother someone paying a $250 traffic fine, though.)

I ran in to the same thing with my taxes. Why should I cough up an extra $11.95 to e-file, when by doing so I’m going to be saving the government a chunk of money? If they want to encourage people to e-file, they need to provide a price incentive to move us that way. Imagine it costs the IRS $5 to handle every paper return, and $1 for every e-file. If they give a $2 discount for e-filers, they still save $2 per return e-filed, and they probably get hundreds more of them. Instead, they charge (or, they provide the service only through contractors who charge) and fewer people e-file.

(It does look like there are free services available, but only for people with adjusted gross income under $54,000. So I could’ve spared myself the agony.)

For an example of companies doing this the right way, see nearly any utility company. Every major electricity, gas, or telecommunications utility I’ve dealt with in the last few years has offered online bill payment for no extra charge. I’ve signed up, we’ve both enjoyed increased convenience, they’ve saved some money, and at least I haven’t paid extra.

If you want people to use the service which saves you money, price it so it saves them money, too.

Update: I sent email to the webmaster to point out that their site was broken. I just got a response: “The problem has been corrected. Please try again.” Um, no.

Now Playing: Попробуй спеть вместе со мной from Группа Крови by Кино

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Posted by pjm at 10:08 AM | Comments (2)

Half-step behind

I was in Northampton yesterday to figure out what’s wrong with my left hip. (Diagnosis: I’m very tight in my psoas, piriformis, and a very short muscle with a three-word name and three-letter abbreviation I can’t remember.) Leaving the office, I was told to walk around a bit (like a lap around the block) rather than just sitting right down in my car.

Consequently, I arrived at my car just after the parking ticket was placed under the wiper. I guess I earned this one, since I was 15 or 20 minutes over the time, unlike my last parking ticket, where I was busted for being five minutes over time. Also, at least this time it was a parking meter, so the meter reader didn’t know how long I’d been over time; the previous ticket involved a time-stamped pass, so they knew my pass had only just expired when they ticketed me.

Plus, this is only a $10 ticket, and I can pay it online. It’s as though they’re trying to be punitive as agreeably as possible.

Now Playing: Video from Ben Folds Five by Ben Folds Five

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Posted by pjm at 8:58 AM | Comments (2)

April 3, 2008

Not in Central Park

Over the last few years I’ve mentioned to several people how great it would be to have the World Cross Country Championships in Central Park in New York City. There’s a sort of knee-jerk reaction among the New York running crowd that hears “cross country” and immediately thinks “Van Cortlandt Park,” but if you’re going to bring the world’s most competitive non-marathon distance race to New York, why stick it out in the Bronx? Put it on center stage!

I’m not sure if Mary Wittenberg is one of the people I’ve nagged with this idea (I can’t imagine that I would’ve missed the chance) but it looks like she’s actually run the numbers on the idea and, for the time being, ruled it out, according to this story by my Osaka press-tribune neighbor, Doug Gillon:

“We’d love to do it ourselves, and have looked at Central Park and Meadowlands Race Course New Jersey, where it was held in 1984 but unlike other New York Marathon events, we don’t own the TV rights or title sponsorship. Without concessions we’d be looking at quite a healthy bill, perhaps more then $3m. So right now we’re not planning to bid…”

So I suppose I’ll have to move that idea from the “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” pile to the “It would be cool if it was possible” pile.

Now Playing: Relative Surplus Value from Reunion Tour by The Weakerthans

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Posted by pjm at 1:06 PM | Comments (0)

April 1, 2008

Why I still buy CDs - and when

Moving last year finally made me think, hey, not only is there a lot of music on all those CDs, but they weigh a lot. And there’s a lot of plastic there. I’ve been buying a lot more of my music online since then, largely through the iTunes music store. But I still buy some CDs, and there’s a good reason for that.

There’s a ton of good music available at no cost online, both legally and illegally. It’s frightfully efficient to distribute digital music that way, and despite the RIAA’s bizarre and backwards policy of suing its own customers, that seems to be where things are headed. It removes the necessity of using a lot of paper, plastic, and gasoline to distribute the music, and in many cases it removes the necessity of dealing with layers of music-business bureaucracy between musicians and their audience.

However, it also removes the flow of compensation returning to the musicians from their audience, and we haven’t really come up with an online model which replaces that flow. ITMS purchases don’t send much cash back to the musicians, unfortunately, less than a CD sale, but even before the internet, the most lucrative sale a musician could make was selling their own CDs at concerts, with a minimum of middlemen.

With that in mind, if I know someone has a new release and they’re coming to town soon, I’ll often wait (as I did last week with Kathleen Edwards’ new disc) and buy the CD at the concert. It costs me a bit more, but I can hope to get more music from them in the long run.

Now Playing: The Cheapest Key from Asking For Flowers by Kathleen Edwards

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Posted by pjm at 8:04 PM | Comments (0)