Aug 31, 2006

Planet Classification System is Discriminatory [LINK]

Complete, utter foolishness:

We lost Pluto because we had to limit the number of potential planets in our solar system. Why?

My lay understanding of the current exclusionary criteria is that Pluto is incapable of clearing its orbit of celestial debris. Never mind that Earth doesn't clear its orbit of meteors either.

This is a loss because it demonstrates a need to limit, to restrict, to confine, to exclude. We, as a people, are afraid to include, to expand beyond the current way, to imagine.

We see this in many spheres: "If you aren't with us you're against us," "There is only one way to God," "Marriage is between a man and a woman."

We teach our children from a young age to exclude -- gays can't lead the Boy Scouts; girls can't be priests; foreigners, immigrants, and anyone who isn't like us should be feared and sent back.

All of this lessens us as a people. What would it mean to have 12 planets? 20?

Let us explore our solar system and our souls and find room for more.

Boy, I'll bet schoolkids are really going to appreciate this woman's efforts once they find they have to learn the names of various pieces of interplanetary crap and trans-Neptune debris.

Of course, an obvious question is why not polygamous or incestuous marriages? And why exclude non-humans from marriage or the priesthood? Clearly it's not the act of making distinctions that bothers this person, but a particular set of distinctions.

UPDATE: A somewhat amusing (if restrained) response is here.

Aug 25, 2006

Thank You, Friends and PMC Contributors! [LINK]

[Note: This is the text I sent to contributors.]

I want to thank all the contributors who helped me participate in the Pan Mass Challenge this year. Thanks to you, the PMC expects to raise a rather astonishing $25 million for the Jimmy Fund.

I was one of 4,200 bikers participating in the event. Of those, 2,550 left with me at 6:00 AM from the starting line in Sturbridge in Central Massachusetts, biking 110 miles to Buzzards Bay. The rest traveled a shorter route from Wellesley in the suburbs of Boston, about 80 miles. Like me, most went on the next day to Provincetown, at the end of Cape Cod, another 80 miles, while some went back to Wellesley. Bikers hailed from 36 states and 7 other countries. The gender breakdown was 60/40 men to women. The average rider's age was 43. There were over 2,500 volunteers supporting the riders and doing an amazing amount of grunt work. In addition, essential traffic control was provided by police officials from the towns of Bumstable, Yummugth, Phlegmsbury, Yuxbridge, Stumpsboro, Wrencham, Addlebrat, Blighton, Natagatawasachassett, and Fizzlespit.

I had a pretty good ride, though a bit shaky on the first day, arriving at Buzzards Bay at 1:00 rather than my target of noon. The second day out to Provincetown was a bit more relaxed over easier terrain, and I got in around 11:00.

I'll try to give you some idea what the event was like overall and pass along a few things I learned, especially for the benefit of a couple of you who expressed an interest in participating next year. Since I was traveling light and forgot my mobile phone, I only got to snap a few pictures in Buzzards Bay, but I hope they give some idea of the scale of the event.

They release three different columns of riders from the starting line: fast, medium, and slow. Regardless of your planned pace overall, it pays to join a faster group at the start. Last year I was stuck in a slow-moving sardine can for the first 20 or 30 miles because I wanted to play it safe among the "medium" starters. But no matter how well you trained to bike at a certain pace over a long distance, it doesn't matter if you're stuck in traffic. And the same truth holds for rush-hour traffic: if one person slows down, you all slow down. So it's a good idea to guy a jump to give yourself some elbow room.

I learned that when you hear bagpipes up ahead, you're probably heading for a particularly nasty hill. (My wife, Ellen, whose ancestry is Irish, says there are two bagpipe tunes: Amazing Grace, and "the other one.") The first 40 miles are the most difficult terrain, but with only two or three steep hills that slow you to a crawl.

My problem the first day happened because by chance, unlike last year, I wasn't drinking from a large bottle of water when driving out to the starting line around 4:00 AM. Instead I started drinking Gatorade while on my bike, which is a poor substitute, and which I can't help but conclude clogged up my system. Simply put, dehydration causes your muscles to cramp up. Though I felt a few warnings, I was still surprised to find when going up a small hill about 60 miles in that my right leg simply stopped working. A moment later, my left leg did the same thing. It was an amazingly painful charley horse, causing me to fall off my bike ignominiously, but with only a minor scrape. The way to deal with such cramps is to walk them off, which worked quite well. But from that point on, I could feel my legs were often on the verge of cramping up again, forcing me into lower gears and slowing me down. Some bikers had to be taken out of the ride for the same reason. So the upshot is: drink lots more water than you think you'll need!

However, the same was not true for food. The day before the ride I went out to lunch at a wonderful little Greek place in Cambridge. I had their Mixed Grill combo plate, which has so much protein it'll make your eyeballs vibrate, plus a couple of baskets of bread since the waitress was so kind as to keep bringing it over. I had a light dinner that night (fish), and no breakfast at all the morning of the ride. At the 70-mile lunch break, I downed a peanut butter sandwich for depleted sodium, a banana for potassium, and some melon. That was it until the finish line, and even then I ate about half of what I did the year before. (Those who read my description of that meal last year are bound to be disappointed.) So let this serve as a recommendation: Desfina, on the corner of Third Street and Charles. Tell them "that oinker" sent you.

The level of organization behind the event was incredible. One volunteer I recall in particular was stationed at a sharp left turn. There were already signs posted marking the route for the bikers, but frequently they'd place people at certain trouble spots to make sure they didn't get misdirected. I don't know if this was her actual job, but this woman was not only directing traffic, but also standing in a pothole, saying the word "pothole" over and over again, some 3,000 times I imagine. By the time I got there, it sounded a little like "puddle."

Ellen was gratified to learn that I had a bar-code tag on wrist the whole time I was riding, with her mobile number listed as an emergency contact. A similar bar-code was attached to my bike. Myself, I wondered what sort of emergency might separate me from my bike by more than a few yards. (Yuk!) I saw one guy's front wheel had curled and snapped in two like a potato chip, but he appeared to be fine. I heard there was one nasty crash with a motorcycle during the event, but that the injuries were not life-threatening. As it turns out, most of the remaining hospitalizations came after the finish line, and seemed to involve acute dehydration from drinking too much Harpoon IPA, which of course is a diuretic. (Again, keep drinking water, you lush!)

It was exceptionally beautiful dry weather the whole weekend, though the temperature spiked 87 degrees rather than the expected high of 80. There was a gentle tailwind for most of the way. At about 70 miles you start to notice the sea breeze and the smell of salt water coming at you. Even though the headwind slows you down a bit, the thought of jumping in the cold water after the finish line charges you up.

I've said it before, but it's hard to believe how many people came out to sit on the side of the road so early in the morning to cheer you on. Some were there to cheer on specific riders, some held pictures of loved ones they lost to cancer, while others declared themselves as survivors. Yes, they helped encourage you to the finish line, but mostly they reminded you why you were there in the first place. The most touching sign was held by a young boy who was walking around a rest stop on the second day. It read: "I'm 10 years old now thanks to you." Not the most accurate statement, mind you, but it touched many who felt compelled to mention it later. For me, this ride was less dramatic and emotional than the previous year's, which came a mere week after my brother-in-law Bryce died. Last year was by necessity a catharsis, while last weekend was more of a reaffirmation. I briefly considered sewing Bryce's picture onto the back of my jersey, the way so many PMC riders do for friends and family they've lost to cancer. The weird thing is I'm not sure why I rejected the idea: because it would have made Ellen uncomfortable, or because it would have made Bryce uncomfortable. Yes, that still matters a great deal.

If I ride in the PMC next year, I think I may join a team. Some teams are formed in support or memory of a particular person, while others are identified with companies. As it turns out, there's a firm near where I live called SolidWorks that fields perhaps the largest team -- about 100 riders -- and it's unclear how many of the riders even work there. I think one of the benefits of joining is that you get some help with fundraising. Another is that, once you get to the first day's finish line, you don't have to feel like you're at a big party where you don't know anyone. You don't necessarily have to ride together, but you can hang out later and do all sorts of things like pose for group photographs. You can also give each other lots of high-fives and engage in vaguely uplifting banter, like: "Yo, you are the man!" "This is my crew!" "Boy, you know how to get down." "This man is the one. He rules us fools." Perhaps, I thought, this sort of thing helped compensate for the strange absence of African Americans at the event. Or I don't know, maybe it's just middle age creeping up.

Another joke my wife likes was by Ellen DeGeneris. She said there's one sure-fire way to tell just how boring a person you really are: when lying awake at night, you think to yourself: "I like grapes." When you're out on the road pedaling for so many hours, effectively alone much of the time, such thoughts come very easily indeed. I also found myself singing silly little variants of popular songs. "Heaven, I'm in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak; It's a wonder I don't just bug out and freak, when we're dancing on the floor cheek to cheek." Then there was one where Lennon got to make fun of McCartney: "Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be. Maybe that's because I'm an amputee. Oh, I believe in Yesterday."

Yes, you have to cast around for little things to keep you amused. You'd approach another bike, and the rider would look at the tag attached to your back and say: "way to go, Concord," referring to my town. You'd respond: "hey, good going, Hing-Ham." (For out-of-staters, many Massachusetts towns have non-obvious pronunciations, in this case Hing'm.) I teased another woman whose tag identifed her town as "Manchester." No, I'm afraid that simply won't do. She was from the pretentiously named "Manchester-by-the-Sea." And there's actually a place called West Northboro, or South Eastbury, not to mention Westborough, Westford, Weston, Westport, Westfield, Westminster, and Westhampton. It got to the point where I had to ask people, "Okay, I give up, where the heck are you from?"

Those who've endured me talking about biking know I'm a bit of reverse snob, one who's only recently made peace with spandex. So another fun thing was to check out all the bikes I was passing with my old clunker of a Miyata. "Okay, that frame is at least $1,500. Pedal systems and shoes, maybe $300. Whoa, carbon fiber over there, maybe a Trek, state of the art, tapered top tube, must be five grand at least." Before the ride I went to replace my rusty old bottle-holder at my local bike store, and nearly did a Homer Simpson yelp when I saw the price: over $50. Okay, that was the super-duper high-end lightweight model for the guys with way too much money on their hands or the crazy ones who shave their legs to reduce wind resistance. I wanted to talk to the owner of the store about something, but he had to leave to sell someone else a TEN THOUSAND DOLLAR BICYCLE!

As it turns out, I do like Grapes.

No, I did not get to meet Sen. John Kerry, who also biked from Sturbridge the first day, having biked in the event for several years now after having his cancerous prostate removed. In fact, I had no idea where he was. I would have been more impressed, at least with myself, if I found myself anywhere near Greg LeMond, the three-time Tour de France winner who also rode in the PMC this year.

Anybody planning to drive out to Provincetown to meet you should count in an extra hour or so to account for traffic. If the first place, it's Cape Cod on the weekend. But also, Interstate 6 is pretty much the only way to get up those last few miles, and at that point it's jammed with bikers. Consider taking the boat back instead and meeting up in South Boston.

For the better part of a weekend, you're single-mindedly focused on all the factors leading to a successful ride: scanning the road in front of you for bad pavement, perhaps checking your distance to the wheel of the guy in front of you, gauging your speed to attack the next hill, making sure you keep you cadence (pedal speed) up, making sure you pull your pedals up as much as you push them down, or changing your hand position to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. So after I met Ellen and the kids at the finish line, I found it was hard to go back to having my attention scattered. First there's my 2-year-old Aidan, who has very strong opinions about the food he's eating but is unable to articulate them, all while trying to see if your nose will go in some other direction. Then there's Isabel, 6, who hasn't seen me all of Saturday and has saved up a whole bunch of things that she wants to tell me. (I'll try to approximate her delivery.)

Arthur? in "Arthur," told Buster? "Buster, why don't you get off the bike when parking it. 'Cause you see, he didn't stop the bike, you see? and he crashed. Lucy has a bike and she doesn't have to push backwards on the pedals to get it to stop. She uses her hands. Her bike has only one handle. I wish we could go to the beach now. Aidan's going to have a party at Phyllis's, but he doesn't know it's his birthday. He's too young. I'm going to wrap his presents. Aidan has four presents, and I'm going to use four different kinds of wrapping paper. No Christmas paper. When I wrap? the presents? first I put a piece of tape at the end to get it to stick. Daddy says to fold both sides the same way, but I like to do them differently on each side. We're going to have cupcakes and cookies. I'm going to make a face on the cookies, with three different colors, red, green, and blue. Blue used to be my favorite color, but now it's green. I'm going to put sprinkles on the cupcakes. Maybe? if we go to One Stop Fun? I can show Aidan how to do gymnastics. There's a big ball pit for little kids. I know why they paint the lines on the road yellow. It's so that you can see them in the rain. When I get older I'm going to have two kids. I hope they're not both boys. I know what my favorite car is, it's the big one over there. I don't want a red convertable any more. Daddy, do you know how many people can sit in that car? When I get married, we're each going to have our own cars, one for me and one for him. My car will have car seats for each kid, one for the boy and one for the girl. It'll also have a great... big... [...] Do you know what color Lucy's car is? I went to One Stop Fun for Lucy's birthday party. Aidan hasn't been to One Stop Fun yet. Are we staying in a motel tonight? I can't wait until I swim in the pool. I can swim underwater without holding my nose. And I can open my eyes without goggles. And sometimes? I get water up my nose? That's no fun. Are we going to the motel before we go to the beach?
At times like these, I remember a woman named Christine who agreed to take care of Isabel one day a few years ago. Izzy was a lot more shy then, especially around people she didn't know well. Up to that point, Christine had never actually heard her raise her voice. But, lo, the floodgates opened that day, and when we finally came to pick her up, Christine had the sort of thousand-yard stare common among combat veterans.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the halfway point in the town of Buzzards Bay. Bikers were hosted at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which is where you go to be a Merchant Marine or a MassPort official.

Here's the first day's finish line. Note that someone has scrawled the word "DONE" in chalk on the pavement, as if the many whooping people and the... you know... finish line didn't tip you off. At about 7:30 that night, I heard a great cheer as the final biker came in. Well, I would not want to be on the road for over 13 hours, but even though this wasn't a race, I would not want to be identified as the last!

This was the area reserved for luggage that was trucked from Sturbridge, which in typically organized fashion they alphabetized by rider's last name. Hard to believe, but by the time I snapped this photo, over half half of the luggage had already been removed.

Here are some bagpipers. They're playing The Other One.

A field crammed with parked bikes, hard to appreciate without a wide-angle lens. I talked with someone whose father had been taken away in an ambulance for dehydration. His son was trying to locate his bike with no idea where it was. I helped him find the approximate horizontal band he should concentrate on based on the time of day his father arrived, since earlier arrivals were clustered in front.

This is the food tent, and again, it's hard to appreciate the size except to say it's the length of a football field. More food than you've ever seen in one place, like a dozen Jewish weddings going on at once. I saw them setting up breakfast in the middle of the night last year with forklifts, I kid you not. There are few places to sit in the shade, so it starts to resemble a scene out of high school: "Excuse me, is this seat taken?" "Well as a matter of fact, I'm saving them for members of my team." (Again with the team!)

Some of the more outstanding fundraisers got to sleep on the ship, a training vessel unimaginatively called the Enterprise. No way you're ever going to get me in there, stacked to the ceiling like dinner plates. No thanks, I'll stay out here on the lawn!

This is the view from the Mass Maritime Academy, which is situated at the mouth of Buzzards Bay and the Cape Cod Canal. At this point I was walking around taking pictures mostly to walk off the cramps and to keep my legs from seizing up again. You should have seen me sitting in my tent trying to take off my socks. What a riot.

Few riders seemed aware that they didn't have to wait in line for a shower, and that the MMA had a nice little beach where you could take a dip. Some guys were out clamming, but I wasn't exactly in the mood to sample questionable seafood.

This is the endless line to sign up for a massage. I managed to score one only informally as they were breaking down the operation at about 8:00 PM. Some of the masseuses had worked straight from 11:00 AM, rather a feat in itself! I credit that rubdown for allowing me to ride comfortably throughout the next day. And it's a good thing I was able to get one there, or I would have had to rely on the nice young Swedish lady I was sharing a tent with.

Okay, just kidding. Here are the bazillions of tents. I wanted to nap earlier in the day soon after I arrived, but found it was so hot with the sun beating down that I had to sit up just to get the cross-draft from the triangular vent on the side. So I moved my sleeping bag and spent the rest of the night outside. (No bugs!) That thing in the background is MMA's new windmill, an imposing half-million-dollar structure whose blades look like they're going to come down and cut you to ribbons when stepping out of the "Handy House" near its base.

The following morning, there's an amazing amount of activity taking place well before dawn. Someone goes around the tents at 4:00 and does a very good imitation of a rooster. These people are from an endless procession getting ready to saddle up for another day's ride. Their shoes make the characteristic sound of pedal systems, like horse's hooves.

Here's the truck that takes your luggage out to P-Town. They're calling out different destinations like circus barkers. At this point, I was chugging water bottles and stretching my legs every way imaginable to make sure I didn't experience the previous day's cramps.

And here's the first hint of sunrise over Cape Cod Canal. By dawn, we were on the Bourne Bridge (behind the railroad bridge) watching the sunrise. Worth it right there!

I didn't take this picture, but I remember it well. It's what it looks like when you cross the finish line at P-Town.

Thanks, all,


Aug 17, 2006

"Biking in Boston does not have to be as stressful as it is" [LINK]

Then what the heck is this girl doing riding on Memorial Drive? (BTW, this is the perfect example of the Self-Righteous Biker I mentioned a few days ago here.)

I've been an avid bicyclist for many years, so I read with special interest Marika Plater's account of hostile behavior from an automobile driver in town. I'd suggest that while it's instructive for her to recite the law permitting bicycle traffic on Memorial Drive, common sense dictates that most of that road is narrow and winding, and that automobiles regularly drive it at highway speeds. Unless she was riding unusually fast, I'm not surprised that drivers would perceive her as an obstacle.
Then there's the comment: "Please watch out for bicyclists and remember that we are not protected by pounds of steel as you are." Unfortunately, when I encounter problems with other vehicles, it is almost always with other bikers, not with car drivers. Sadly, they often drive as if they are well aware they can do little damage to others through their own carelessness. For example, I remember one Self-Righteous Biker complained that I was riding too fast and cut her off in traffic. I had to explain (at the next light) that I actually gave her plenty of room, that I was getting back into single-file to make room for passing cars, and that she had only been surprised at my speed because she had no rear-view mirror, and had no idea what was going on behind her. Would you drive a car without a rear-view mirror?

"Proponents of a traditional patriarchal ideology"... [LINK]

Just catching up in all the letters to the Globe, and I run across this zinger:

CATHY YOUNG ("At 40, is NOW what it set out to be then? " op ed, Aug. 14 ) brings up legitimate concerns about the future of feminism, but she targets the wrong organization for criticism . Certainly, gender equality is a battle that both sexes need to work on together, but the National Organization for Women understands that already.

Many of the leaders of the fathers' rights movement are proponents of a traditional patriarchal ideology that hurts women and girls. Young should be critiquing the anti feminist men, not NOW.

No evidence whatsoever of the last paragraph's claim, just the handy label demonizing the whole effort.

"No good would come of it" [LINK]

...even though by all accounts there are fewer mosquitoes on the South Shore, and none testing positive for EEE! To be fair, there are risks of DDT through biomagnification up the food chain, namely eggshell thinning in some species of bird, but the point remains that it should be considered part of a trade-off.

Rebecca Stevens criticizes south shore resident Kevin Gallinger for belittling environmental concerns leading up to the recent mosquito spraying, and suggests we read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" to become more aware of the dangers of long-term pesticide use.

Ms. Stevens seems unaware that, while Carson's book forms the basis of much environmentalist thought, many of its specific claims have long been discredited: in particular that DDT is a human carcinogen, and that there is a great difference in how humans and other organisms respond to artificial and "natural" chemicals. Indeed, some scientists believe the abandonment of DDT in the wake of the book's popularity caused many thousands of third-world malaria deaths.

There may well be a long-term risk to spraying even today's non-DDT pesticides, and that is a trade-off worthy of discussion when paired against the very tangible risk of EEE. But to fail to spray simply in order to adhere to the precautionary principle is to base one's decision in ignorance.

Aug 12, 2006

Clash of civility in East and West [LINK]

Second one today:

Responding to Cathy Young's column on Western military timidity, Arnaz Malhi says: "My history classes tell me that the biggest crimes against humanity (in the last 300 years) were committed by the British empire and Nazi Germany." This is an astonishing statement to begin with, made worse by the fact that he is addressing Ms. Young, who was one of the lucky few permitted to emigrate from the former Soviet Union. That regime was far more lethal than Hitler's Germany, and both were topped by Mao's China.. Mr. Malhi needs to further his study of history.
Malhi also fails to note that while India produced Gandhi, his countrymen utterly ignored him when it came time to partition Pakistan. In the ensuing fighting between Hindus and Muslims, about a million people died, many by matchete.

"A cynical canard at best" [LINK]

There's also the question of why tip off the perp's before arresting them, but concision is key.

Leroy Johnson is missing the point when he unfavorably contrasts President Bush's use of the military in Iraq with the "brilliant investigative police work" that foiled the latest terrorist threat. Scotland Yard's arrests were based largely on information culled from the intelligence agencies of Pakistan, Great Britain, and the United States, which are fundamentally military in orientation. If the would-be bombers had taken up residence in a hostile country, then the threat of military action would have been the appropriate response. It should be obvious that the anti-terrorist efforts of the British police are more visible than our own due to their more significant threat of domestic terrorism.

Aug 3, 2006

Why I Hate Wikis [LINK]

No, not for the reason you might imagine. Sure, the information you find on a wiki is likely to be unreliable or incomplete, but we already knew that. For me, what makes wikis so often unbearable is the quality of the prose.

Never mind why, but a friend directed me to the wiki page for CNN's Anderson Cooper, where I found the following sentence in the "trivia" section:

His height is reported to be no more than 5' 10".
Granted, this is "trivia," which shouldn't concern us at all, but think about that sentence for a moment. If you read wikis you'll run across a lot of others like it: grammatically correct, but utterly confounding.

The most obvious problem is the use of passive voice: "His height is reported to be..." So who is doing the reporting? At least say something like: " reports that Cooper's height is..." Even: "A source who has actually met Mr. Cooper estimates his height as..." Or: "Sources familiar with Anderson Cooper's height say it is..." The passive voice just makes the information more tenuous and questionable. What is his actual height, anyway? Can't you just call his publicist? After all, the 5' 10" figure is pointlessly specific for a figure you have no real faith in. It's a lot like saying: "The federal government estimates this quarter's job-growth rate as 3.279 percent."

Another problem is the "no more than." Since we've failed to accurately state Cooper's height, we're now forced to rely on imprecise terminology that leaves us open to misinterpretation. For one thing, it sounds judgemental. Anderson Cooper's height is no more than 5' 10". Should he be taller than that? It's like saying Anderson Cooper is not even six feet tall! It also sounds vaguely controversial, as if there have been competing claims as to how tall he is. Some allegations were floating around that Cooper is six or perhaps even seven feet tall, but we have since learned he's no more than 5' 10". The "no more than," of course, doesn't address anyone claiming he's 5 feet tall. What makes us certain he's not 6 feet tall (not an inch more than 5' 10"), but uncertain whether he's 5 feet? If you just said his height is approximately 5' 10", would it sound quite as controversial?

I'd be interested in knowing if there's a particular tendency for wiki authors to use the passive voice in particular, as opposed to your run-of-the-mill blogger. Perhaps it's a form of defensive prose -- a way to ward off having your material summarily deleted? "It is claimed that Cooper 'doesn't drink hot beverages.'"

Wikinados might counter that I should go ahead and fix the problem I described, which I did, and in the process got to read some hilarious hand-wringing over how much about Cooper's sexual orientation to include in the article. But that doesn't get around the underlying problems. Like voting in national elections, there's little reason to believe your efforts will alter the underlying dynamic that results in consistently poor outcomes. That, plus I really don't care!

Aug 2, 2006

Kerry in PMC [LINK]

There was a nice article in the Globe about John Kerry's participation in the Pan Mass Challenge, which I'll also be riding in this weekend. (He'll only be doing the 111-mile leg from Sturbridge on the first day. Wimp.) My brother-in-law, who worked on his campaign, also received one of those fundraising letters mentioned in the article, along with some 3 million other supporters I guess. A colleague who did the PMC last year says he shared the road with Kerry for a little while. I may be a little star-struck if I have the same experience this year, but I'll actually be more impressed if I'm anywhere near Greg LeMond! At any rate, I can totally relate to his statement about being pissed off by cancer more than anything else, but then again I haven't been in the position to be directly scared of it.