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September 26, 2008

My vote is not for sale

I used to see announcements for the Jesse Owens Award and sometimes wonder, “Who votes on these things?”

As of this year, the answer is apparently, “Me, for one.” But I’ve already sent my ballot back, so any lobbying you may wish to do will be ineffective. I may or may not remember to explain who I voted for, and why, when the awards are announced. Or sooner, if I have time.

I maintain that a shrinking population of full-time track writers (or, if I’m feeling cynical, “real” track writers) is the cause of this, but it may be that what little work I do has more to do with it. I suspect that the set of U.S. track writers present at all four of the USATF Indoor Championships, World Indoor Championships, U.S. Olympic Trials and Olympic Games is pretty small.

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Posted by pjm at 6:24 PM | Comments (0)

September 21, 2008

Speed perspective

In case anyone was too impressed by my 13 mph clocking the other day, I should point out that the second issue of Spikes magazine, which arrived in my mailbox recently, says Usain Bolt topped out over 27 mph in his 100m gold medal run.

Now Playing: I’m A Mountain from I’m a Mountain by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 10:38 AM | Comments (0)

September 20, 2008

Let's talk about role models

Before the results started rolling in and my clerking role picked up, I had time to watch part of the freshman girls’ race at today’s cross-country meet. Actually, I didn’t watch much of the race. Instead, I watched the guy in his car, stopped by the Public Safety officer until the race passed by.

He was flipping the bird to each and every runner going by. That’s about sixty 9th-grade girls. And this was not some college student; this guy had to be at least ten years older than me (and about fifty pounds heavier, while we’re at it.) I noticed that not only was he pretty emphatic, at some point he rolled down his window to better communicate his point.

I also noticed he never had his hands out of the car while the public safety officer was looking his way (which was, admittedly, seldom).

I sort of wanted to say something to him, but I couldn’t figure out what. “Way to demonstrate patience and maturity, man”?

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September 19, 2008

Clocked

Everyone’s seen one of those automatic speed-display radar trailers town police departments put out from time to time, right? It’s a little stand with an enclosed radar gun pointing up the road, a sign displaying the speed limit and a marked display showing “your speed” in lights.

Yesterday I was running down the left side of a town road by one of these (on the right) and realized there was an “8” showing on the display. It flickered to “7” and I realized it was showing my speed. I was on the opposite shoulder, though, so who knows how accurate a reading it was getting.

I’ve seen this once before, and that time I threw in a surge and got the sign up to 10. This one was on a downhill. When I realized what was up, I couldn’t resist. I checked traffic, crossed the road and headed back up the hill. When I spotted another break in cars approaching the sign, I turned around and started building to a full stride.

I managed to get the display up to 13 before I backed off. That was pretty close to flat-out, on-my-toes sprinting; 13 MPH is a tick faster than 70-second 400m pace, about a 4:40 mile. (I’ve no idea what the real precision of the radar is. Runners don’t generally talk about pace in those units, though I know one runner who ranks his races by meters per second.) I’ve never run a whole mile at 13 MPH, but I have done 10 miles at a pace that a radar-gun sign would probably round up to 10 MPH.

Now Playing: All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late) from English Settlement by XTC

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

Don't use that address

I can’t think of a better way to broadcast this information.

If you’re in the habit of sending me email at my old University address (firstname.lastname@university.edu), stop. That address is going away before the end of the month, according to multiple helpful robo-mailings from the University IT department. (It’s been determined that, as an alumni, I am no longer eligible. I retain an address on the CS department servers, but I’ve never used that extensively and don’t plan to start.)

A little research should reveal a similarly-structured, functioning work address for me (change the domain name to commonmediainc.com), but there’s also the gmail address, which doesn’t go through company servers.

Posted by pjm at 9:51 AM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2008

I might explain the context behind this someday

“Thank you for your well-thought out and professionally presented proposal. This is one of the best proposals I’ve seen for technical implementation.”

Posted by pjm at 2:30 PM | Comments (1)

Facebook policy

I was reading Clive Thompson’s NY Times article about ambient awareness the other week (have I mentioned that I’ve been a Clive Thompson fan for years now?) and realized something. No, I’m not signing up for Twitter. But I need a policy for connections on online social networks.

The problem is that my network has several centers. Many/most college students, the audience Facebook was built for, have two principal social centers: their college, and their friends from high school. Adults who’ve been out of the bubble for a few years have a lot more. I’ve participated in several networks, face to face and online, from insular and closed to wide-open and public. Some of my friends overlap networks. And in some contexts, it’s not enough for me to connect to someone just because we’ve shared a context in the past; I may still hardly know you.

Also, different networks get different rules. Flickr, for example, realizes that not all connections are bi-directional, so there’s a lot more room to express nuance. Facebook, on the other hand, has stopped pushing people to explain the links in their network. And LinkedIn exists purely for the network. So, for those latter two, I need to think about whose links I accept or request.

On LinkedIn, for example, I’m going to ask myself: have I worked with this person? Have we been introduced and talked more than a minute or so? If I know them online, how? If we’re members of the same public forum, but haven’t necessarily interacted as individuals, do I know what they do, or even understand what they do? Would I “talk shop” with them, asking them questions or answering theirs? If so, sure, I’ll make that link.

On Facebook, it’s a little more constrained, because the size of the network is not the point of Facebook the way it is on LinkedIn. Some links (family, former teammates, etc.) are obvious. When they grey areas come up, though, in general, if I’ve run with a person, they’re in. If I’ve had one-on-one conversations with them, sure. If I’ve only met them online? Mutual membership in a larger group isn’t really enough here, I think; but if we could sit down on a park bench and play a game of Scrabble, or meet for a run, without significant awkwardness, that’s enough. (And when we ask questions like that, things get significantly simpler.)

Now Playing: I Wanna Be Ignored by Ezra Furman & The Harpoons

Posted by pjm at 9:27 AM | Comments (1)

September 16, 2008

Writing for programming

Two years ago, TAing a software engineering course and attempting to explain to Computer Science majoring undergraduates that yes, you still had to know how to write well even if you were a programmer, I really wish I’d been armed with my current experience.

In the past twelve months, while supposedly employed as a programmer of some sort, I’ve written over a hundred pages of RFPs, proposals, and functional specifications. I’m willing to bet I’ve written more words of copy than of code.

Just in the last week I’ve done about fifteen pages of proposals (of which about one page could be easily copied from one to the next, and even that took some editing). Looking at the six-page proposal on my screen this afternoon (which isn’t even done yet; there’s probably two more pages in it) I said out loud, “I can’t believe I used to sweat blood over three-page papers in college.”

In the discussion following that, we agreed that the projects we’ve documented most thoroughly before we started coding were the ones which have been most successful. So take that, writing-avoidant undergraduates!

Now Playing: Chewing Gum Weekend from Between 10th And 11th by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 8:29 PM | Comments (0)

September 11, 2008

Following the fun

We talked about working at things you love a few years ago.

Off and on over the last nine months or so, we’ve been doing some developing work for a lawyer who had an idea he thought might be worth exploring.

He’s getting close to having a complete system, and he’s been showing it around to people in hopes of sparking some interest and getting things started. I don’t know much about this end of what’s going on, so I’ve mostly stayed out of the conversation.

Today, one of his messages included, in passing, the paragraph

Exciting stuff. Beats practicing law.

So now you know why I never considered going to law school. (And the Kenworth of my Dreams is looking more and more like a bad bet, these days. Anyone interested in a business venture in a cargo schooner? How many shipping containers do you think we could get in one?)

Now Playing: Los Angeles Looks Prettier on TV by Greg Koons

Posted by pjm at 1:52 PM | Comments (0)

September 10, 2008

Homophone note

Lose, as in losing games, losing your car keys, or losing your mind, is spelled with one “o”. Remember that the opposite of a win is a loss and you’ll have the “o”s right.

Loose, as in letting loose, on the loose, or loosening your tie, is spelled with a double “o”.

This is a public service announcement, not a chastisement; your spell-checker will not help you with this, and I’ve seen people who supposedly work with the English language professionally get it wrong. Don’t start me in on “rein”, “rain”, and “reign”, which are so frequently confused, I wonder if I might be getting them wrong myself.

Now Playing: This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open from Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans

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Posted by pjm at 12:36 PM | Comments (1)

Deciding vote

Since the major-party candidates announced their nominees for Vice President in the last month, I feel like I’ve been reading more about those nominees (one in particular) than about the top-of-ticket candidates. Part of this is because they’re new and there’s not much about the candidates themselves that didn’t get hashed over in the primaries, of course.

I see a lot of VP discussion centering on the nominee’s role in the campaign and the “qualified to be President” argument. (The last VP to become President through succession was Gerald Ford; despite the candidate’s age, we can probably count all of them in U.S. history on our fingers.)

What I haven’t seen, and what is probably more relevant, is the reminder that the VP is also President of the Senate and the 101st vote in the event the Senate deadlocks with a 50-50. That deciding vote doesn’t happen too often, but reminding voters about it might help clarify the importance of the VP pick a little more: it’s an extra, nation-wide Senate race.

Now Playing: Couple Days Off from Hard At Play by Huey Lewis & The News

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Posted by pjm at 9:30 AM | Comments (1)

Answering the "W" questions up front

The purpose of newspaper sports coverage in the age of the Web has been an interesting question for years now.

However, this morning I received a newspaper (The Daily Hampshire Gazette) where the top story in the Sports section (picked up from the Hartford Courant) was all about the Tuesday evening Red Sox game… without once mentioning who won, or the score, or in fact anything at all that happened on the field. There’s a picture of on-field action, but two and a half of the story’s three columns are about David Ortiz, who didn’t even play.

A careful scan of the rest of the paper finally reveals a score in the agate page, but no box score. I’m guessing that the game went too late for the paper’s press time, though checking the official site shows that extra innings weren’t required (though it was close). I finally found an AP report on the Gazette’s website.

Maybe I’m unusual in that I do actually tend to get actual game reports from the newspaper. Undoubtedly the blame rests not with the Courant reporter who filed the story but with the local-paper editors who used an obvious sidebar or notebook type piece in place of an actual game report which may have been unavailable at press time. (The Courant has a perfectly clear game story by the same reporter on their website.) But even if all the box-score details are available to anyone online seconds after the game, whatever happened to providing “who, what, when and where” in the first paragraph (if not the first sentence) of the story?

Surely the Gazette editor could’ve spent two minutes to put together a lead on the article to say something like,

The Boston Red Sox were unable to wrest leadership of the American League East away from the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday evening at Fenway Park, losing 5-4 after a two-run homer by Jason Bay in the eighth inning put them up by one run going in to the ninth.

…and that covers the essentials for a casual reader. You don’t even need to go to journalism school to figure that out. (The lead of the AP story is better, but unlike myself, they’re pros.)

Now Playing: You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful from Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Pt. 2) by XTC

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

September 7, 2008

The Last Town On Earth

This morning I finished reading The Last Town on Earth after starting it on Friday, probably the quickest I’ve read a novel in recent years (excepting times when I’ve been sitting on planes and have read multiple books straight through, sometimes without benefit of bookmarks).

I don’t know how much attention this book got when it was new and I don’t know if everyone else has read it; I do know that I bought it at a used bookstore in my hometown while shopping for plane reading (obviously, I overstocked) because Nicole brought it over to me, pointing to one of the short excerpts of newspaper reviews on the back and saying, “See that? That was me.”

I’d read a relatively dry history book about the first World War last winter, and I appreciated this quite different approach tremendously. Since I finished it, I’ve read several online reviews faulting the author’s writing style, but I didn’t really notice that. What I did enjoy greatly was the premise: during the 1918 flu pandemic, an event curiously under-discussed in our national histories, a town attempts to protect itself by imposing a reverse quarantine: nobody goes in or out, to keep the flu out. It sound like a grand idea, but like all abstract policies it really gets interesting when they have to actually put the concept into practice.

So many of the conflicts which come into play have echoes in today’s world: capital vs. labor, isolationism vs. engagement, pacifism vs. militarism, civil rights vs. fear and power, or when an individual’s duty to family, community, country or humanity conflict with each other.

The author doesn’t have an axe to grind or a message to preach (although I can see from the way I’ve phrased the list above that perhaps I do); he creates characters who are human, gives them principles (or at least motivations) and puts them in positions where they’re forced to act on that basis. It was an interesting experiment, and I think made interesting reading for that reason alone.

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Posted by pjm at 7:55 PM | Comments (1)

The search wars never ended

Earlier this year I wrote about how I had found Yahoo search producing better results than Google. The inbound link I created in that post seems to have awoken Google to the presence of the newer website, but after I encountered the situation once I’ve been seeing it all over.

It looks like I’m not the only one to notice this situation. Doc’s argument, if I understand it correctly, is this: Google only notices pages when there are recent inbound links to them. This means you’re only likely to find a page if someone else has found it and linked to it recently. (Or, more nefariously, if someone has created a whole bunch of links to something so you would find it.)

This argument gets detailed a little more in the comments:

If I have to do SEO tricks with the content I put online — tricks meant to “increase traffic” and otherwise game a search engine’s ranking algorithms — just to get that content indexed at all by a search engine — then I would say that search engine is corrupted by the external systems built to game it. Or worse, by its own advertising business model.

and

…if Google only catches up when one makes a new post pointing to old posts that Yahoo has seen all along, which is the better search engine?

My experiment using Yahoo as my browser’s search has gone pretty well, incidentally. The only time I’ve been disappointed in it at all has been when someone has told me to find a particular page by searching certain keywords.

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Posted by pjm at 7:08 PM | Comments (0)

September 2, 2008

Don't forget about Jenny Crain

I got a press release yesterday about a fall cross-country “running initiative … featuring a tribute to cross-country runner Ryan Shay.” Shay, for anyone who has been out of touch with the American running community since last November, was a former national marathon champion and NCAA 10,000m champion who died of an apparent heart attack five miles in to the Olympic Marathon Trials in New York.

Meanwhile, on August 21, an anniversary passed unmentioned: that’s the day last year when Jenny Crain was hit by a car when training in Milwaukee. Crain had been a national-level athlete for as long as I’ve been in the sport, but a year after her accident she’s still on her recovery road.

I met Crain very briefly; she was on my flight back from Fukuoka in 2006. I don’t remember her official role, but she spotted me talking to one of the junior team managers and automatically included me in the friendly group of Americans navigating through our connection in Osaka, even though I wasn’t officially part of their group. I doubt she would remember my name or even necessarily my face, but I appreciated her friend-until-proven-otherwise approach.

Nobody has named a shoe after Jenny Crain. There weren’t any soft-focus up-close-and-personal segments interrupting the women’s 10,000m in Eugene in June (or the women’s marathon Trials in Boston in April) about Crain’s accident, her career, a spouse left behind. No national magazines have sent feature writers to Milwaukee to talk to the Crain family and analyze the accident report.

And frankly, I’m not sure why not. Crain’s about an order of magnitude more photogenic than Shay ever was. The redemption story on the Shay side (widow Alicia returns to inspiring victories somewhere?) is much less of a sure thing than it is on the Crain side (Jenny walks unassisted! Jenny runs again!)

Maybe it’s that Crain was just one runner in the Adidas stable, while Shay was one of the best Saucony sponsored. Maybe it’s that Crain was out on a training run on busy streets, while Shay was in a major televised race with all his peers. Maybe it’s that Shay had titles on his resume, while Crain was something of a journeyman, always in the money but seldom in the front. Maybe (whisper it) it’s that we still take men more seriously than women as professional athletes and heroes.

Maybe it’s because we know that however much or little we do in Ryan Shay’s memory, the outcome is the same: we can’t bring him back. But we’re afraid we can’t do enough for Jenny Crain.

And with medical bills which must verge on the catastrophic themselves, and a story which could just as easily be that of any runner who’s in the right place at the wrong time, it seems to me that Crain deserves to be remembered just as much, if not more, than Ryan Shay.

Now Playing: I Figured You Out by Mary Lou Lord

Update, November 2009: Over a year later, I’m happy to be proven wrong on at least one of the above statements. Runner’s World sent John Brant, possibly the best writer I can imagine for the job, for a feature story which was in this month’s magazine. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to read it.

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Posted by pjm at 10:19 AM | Comments (1)

September 1, 2008

The Olympic bubble

However much I posted about the Olympics, I didn’t post much about China. There’s a perfectly good reason for that: I barely saw it.

Great Wall at BadalingI could blame this on the Chinese government and BOCOG, who really wanted me (and all the other foreigners in China for the Olympics) to stick around the Olympic Green and talk about, write about, and generally appreciate what Great Olympics they were putting on. I didn’t meet any bureaucratic resistance to tourism, but the Authorities had the power to make some things easy and other things complicated, and “staying close to the action” was made easy and “rambling around Beijing” was made hard.

I could also blame my work, which (quite correctly) required me to focus monomaniacally on the inside of the Bird’s Nest and the awesome things happening in there. Most days, my schedule involved being up at 7:15, showered, fed, and out of the hotel by 8:15, and on the job at the stadium by 8:30 or so. (Yes, it took anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to cover the 200m straight-line distance from the hotel to the stadium, thanks to multiple security checks, limited entrances, etc.)

I’d have a window starting anywhere from noon to 2 PM until around 5, when I needed to be working my way back through security to the stadium to eat (I had access to an IAAF VIP lounge—note that access to the lounge did not make me a VIP—which was where I ate dinner most nights.) Subways downtown were free but required at least two train changes and took as much as an hour, between walking to the Olympic Green stop and the actual travel time, which doesn’t leave much exploring time. The Forbidden City, they say, can take a full day to “do” properly, even when your credential (again) gets you in free.

Forbidden City sceneAnd then the evening session would have me working until midnight (earliest) or 2 AM (latest), giving me somewhat less than enough time to sleep before starting over, which meant I liked spending that window time sleeping.

Certainly these conditions made things difficult, but I can’t help feeling I could’ve applied myself more. I did make it up to the Great Wall on one of the days with no morning session, and down to the Forbidden City on the other, but in tourism terms that means I just managed to clear the opening height. If you asked me, I’d have to say I still haven’t really seen Beijing, let alone the rest of China.

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Posted by pjm at 1:13 PM | Comments (0)