Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eggplant Eater

I never saw it coming. Over lunch, my dad mentioned ever-so-casually that he's been a vegetarian for months. Moreover, his reasons aren't health-related, but moral.


Apparently he's always had an underlying sense of outrage at the thought that we need to take life to survive. Growing up, "vegetarian" just wasn't in the vocabulary, and eschewing the animals wasn't particularly easy when my brother and I were kids. I guess it finally dawned on him that we are all grown up, and so now he's a vegetarian.

Whoa, I say, whoa.

It's probably not unusual that I developed a moral code that reflects my upbringing. I'd say that the recipe boils down to 2 parts Dad, 2 parts Mom, and 1 part TV. I'd even say that my moral code, while necessarily unique to me, fits squarely within the boundaries of both parents' guidelines. That's the way it's supposed to be, right?

I have no problem eating animals... but suddenly, this means that my sense of right-and-wrong doesn't agree with my Dad's. This is profoundly disturbing.

That's the blog post I would've written if I was utterly selfish. Here's what the actual post is:

Can you imagine spending decade after decade feeling guilty? Can you imagine the dilemma he faced every time he sat down to dinner? Rather than rock the family boat, he chose to suffer quietly. He put his comfort second to that of his friends and family.

That says a lot.


I've been riding my Mountain Bike a lot over the past week. There are a million reasons why I shouldn't be, not the least of which are the numerous stream crossings.

Still, isn't it a treat to be able to spend an hour or two every day with an ear-to-ear smile? I'm taking advantage of that while I can. Every afternoon, the peaceful Livingston Preserve is abuzz with whooping and hollering as I haul ass through its singletrack.

View Larger Map

Technically, legally, at least according to a sign I saw at a trailhead on the far side of the Preserve, there is no bike riding allowed in the Preserve. This doesn't mean that I'm not going to ride there, or even that I'm going to ride incognito in some other team's uniform.

I am, however, trying to do my part, to my part, to be a "responsible citizen" and all that good stuff. So far this weekend, I've spent about 20 minutes using nothing but bodyweight and elbow grease to turn waist-high felled trees into mild log obstacles. Clearing the singletrack of loose branches is proving to be more Sisyphean, as rainfall is just replacing the removed branches.

I'm really pleased with this Trail Maintenance. Last weekend, the Preserve's trails were barely distinguishable from the rest of the woods, and most were only accessible by means of a fire-road detour. Now, well, now it's a park I can be proud of.

The best part of this MTBing is the noticeable difference in my skill level. I'm easily clearing obstacles that I spent all summer not even trying, so scared I was of them. I feel like I'm working with the bike, rather than fighting it, and it's getting me really excited for racing this summer.

Looking back at some of my whiny, rationalizing posts from last summer summer, I'm a little disappointed in myself. Disgusted, really. Frustration got the best of me, I suppose, and my mopey lamentations were just my way of coping. Ugh.

I'd barely ridden my MTB before racing it, yet I expected to be able to handle it. Here's the secret, princess: To get good at something, you have to do it a lot. No more excuses, no more whining. I am going to get good at MTB racing, and I'm going to do so by working hard. It's going to be that simple. No more whining.

That's what I call Don Maintenance.

Friday, December 28, 2007

I blogged on Will's blog

Rather than craft an elegantly worded opus for TheNinjaDon, I spent a great deal of time and energy today having fun on Will's blog.

Consequently, today's dose of cleverness can be found in the comments here. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Thank You Santa... YES!!!

Santa left me quite the present under the ol' Christmas tree. Without even having opened it, I could tell what it was:

To say I'm excited is an understatement. All that remains to be seen, of course, is whether this is truly a gift or a lump of coal. No pressure, Mr. Manchester!

December 26th

Now begins our official respite from Christmas music. I try not to bitch about it too much, because it's important to most people and not really any skin off my back. However, I feel absolutely no compunction when I take some time on December 26th celebrate the disappearance of Christmas carols, references, and advertisements for the next 10 months.

Bah Humbug.

Monday, December 24, 2007

I Love TED

You may have noticed that in the list of blogs to which I link, there is a new one called "TED". TED is an awesome website, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

TED is a conference, or rather a series of annual conferences held around the world. Its name stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and the conferences are unique in that there are no breakout groups or special-interest sessions. Every lecture is given to every attendee, and that's a beautiful thing. Interdisciplinary idea exchanges are, in my opinion, the key to innovation, even if not to progress.

About 150 lectures have been posted on the TED site so far, ranging from 3 minutes to 30. I've watched about 20 of them so far - I'm up to the Fs as of this posting. It's addicting.

Imagine, you can find a tirade by Richard Dawkins on the same website as the creator of the Vagina monologues. The chief designer for BMW is a click away from the Oxford physicist. Richard Branson is just a few speakers before Bill Clinton. Where else can you get such a high density of intelligence, of success and genius and experience?

It's not perfect. Some of the lectures are absolute crap, where nothing actually gets said, or where the speaker spends more time stroking his ego than explaining his work. There is this common theme, a strange fascination with indigenous cultures, as if they've been elevated by their exoticness and romanticism. Here's a thought: which is more important, the preservation of a subculture or the end of female circumcision? Not that it's a 1:1 tradeoff like that, but something about glamorizing lives of squalor just rubs me the wrong way.

In this way, the haughty concept of a facilitated idea exchange is somewhat like the era of garage bands. Free from the constraints of "normality", you get brilliance like The Ramones... but this ushers in a generation of atonal eardrum-shredding also-rans. I think that sometimes the TED conference organizers get so excited that they've booked The Ramones that they also book Jim and the Septic Tanks.

I'll confess, though, that I need to listen to the E and the D more than the T, no matter how interested in the latter I find myself. It is to my chagrin that the Vagina Monologues don't speak to me, and this communication gap isn't just because I lack the aforementioned equipment. Rather it's the use of language like "living in the body" and "my vagina needed a context". What does that even mean?! Still, if my Cognitive Science class has taught me anything, it's that there is a whole other version of the English language that I don't understand, and lectures like these are like Hooked on Phonics for the Engineering Grad.

Here are three videos that I think you should watch. They aren't the most informative of the bunch that I've seen, nor are they the most eloquent nor the funniest. What sets them apart is that they actually moved me, in a profound intellectual sense that is neither emotional nor scientific.

David Deutsch - What is Our Place in the Cosmos
Anna Deavere Smith - Four American Characters
Dan Dennett - Ants, Terrorism, and the Awesome Power of Memes

My favorite bit from the Dennett lecture is one slide that pretty well burned itself into my memory. While musing about how ideas are like viruses, in that they survive only by compelling their host to spread them to new hosts, he put up a slide that said simply the following:

the secret of happiness:
find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lies that are Worthwhile

Yesterday was my mother's birthday. Happy Birthday, Mom!

As of two weeks ago, the plan was to go out for dinner. With my brother staying in St. Louis after his finals, it would be up to me to buy a gift and give it to her at dinner. It was a good plan.

Then my dad got clever. With a series of surreptitious phone calls, he invited a few dozen of my mom's friends to the house for lunch. He demanded secrecy, covering his tracks as well as possible. All of the champagne and balloons and catered stuff would be stored at a friend's house. My mom would never see it coming.

The key in this plan was to ensure that my mom would be home and presentable for her surprise party. Normally, Saturday is gym and chores day, and she would've probably tore our heads off if we blindsided her completely. This is where I came in.

I had to lie to my mom. In retrospect, the story I concocted is just on the wrong side of implausible - a party in Monroe, carpooling with Aaron and his girlfriend, stopping by the house for about a half hour (not long enough to eat, but long enough to make sure that the house was put-together) for no particular reason. The hardest part, though, was that it was lying to my mom.

I'm not saying this with the deference of a mama's boy. Rather, it is the fact that I had to lie to a woman who is way, way smarter than me or my dad. In the end, she knew something was coming, but the magnitude of the surprise was a surprise in and of itself.

That was the small lie.

The big lie was actually easier to tell, because it was just so unforeseeable. My brother, who was planning to stay in St. Louis through winter break, informed me mid-week that he would be driving to Jersey in time for mom's party. It was so devious, so fantastic, that nobody saw it coming.

At lunch with my dad on Thursday, I could only shrug when the subject of my brother came up. Anything more verbal than a grunt would seem rehearsed and see-through. I'm a terrible liar.

The payoff was on Saturday. Unfortunately, I had to miss the arrival of the first guests, so I cant say exactly how shocked my mom was. When my brother pulled into the driveway, though, and my dad's expression went immediately pallid... well, that was special.

I went into the house first, and as my mom came over to hug me, she noticed my brother. A woman whose picture appears in the dictionary next to the word "proper", my mom was reduced to cursing when she realized what was going on. She said "Shit". It was awesome.

So, I've been waiting to blog about this for a week now, but couldn't, for fear of ruining the surprise. I hate lying, but man oh man, sometimes it's worth it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Selected Nats Pics

Other teams may have ridden their bikes faster... but none of them had as much character!

5am at the New Brunswick Train Station,
where a supposed crack dealer told us to "F*** 'em up!"

Rich, Andy, and DK were excited about the monorail

Mark and FroJoe shared the monorail-related enthusiasm

FroJoe was all tuckered out,
and the terminal seemed like as good a place as any
for napping

We roll as a team,
and that includes minivan safety precautions

Joe is the epitome of style

The ice cream made its way into the hot tub

Not to be outdone, DK sported the sunglasses at night

enough hot tub pictures.

Kate brought, and was generous with, her espresso maker.
Thank you, Kate. So much.

Kate would later take 3rd in the U23 race.
Kate is fast. So much.

DK reveled in the ludicrous conditions.
This section was not good for Mark's hip, or dignity

It was too icy for barriers. This was a cyclocross

Mostly we tried to hang out by the heater,
either in the beer tent or the Verge truck
Thanks, Verge!

Conditions demanded that we spend some time outdoors,
chipping ice off our bikes with plastic brushes

Goodbye, Kansas.
May I never see you until next year's Nats

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Brilliant or Obnoxious? I can't decide

If it's a joke, then it's obstructing (at least at a glance) 10% of the Starbucks' tiny lot.

If it's serious, then I think I'm missing something.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Toes Update

My race ended on Sunday at 10:20am.

I got in a warm car on Sunday at 3pm.

It is currently Tuesday at 11am.

My big toes are still numb.

Should I be worried?

Two quick photos from Nationals

The start of the Collegiate Race. To find the Ninja Don, please look about a foot and a half left of your monitor.
photo courtesy of velonews

What's cooler than being cool?
I swear, I didn't even know until I saw this picture on Mark's blog that I was wearing that hood
photo courtesy of Ralf

Monday, December 17, 2007

Things That Don't Matter

Dirty Clothes
well, honestly, i knew this was going to be the case going in, but it's still a little shocking that so much clothing could get so dirty over 3 days. a big part of it is the fact that i like to be warm. warmth, in a kansas winter blizzard, comes from layers, and so i wore, and rewore, and rewore, everything i packed. this got a little stinky, but that rates so low on my care-o-meter that i'm surprised i even typed it.

i did overpack, though, and so i was left with some clean underwear and t-shirts. foolishly, i guess i expected that my clean clothing would be wearable during the coming week as i packed my bags on saturday night. on sunday, though, i raced, and then i spectated... with (good but not great) beer. my fingers went numb, and not "ooh it's chilly" numb, but "i wonder if i'm doing permanent damage?" numb. when the race bags became carryons, all of my muddy clothes and boots and gloves got tossed in with the clean stuff.

do. not. care.

Damaged Bicycle
our efforts to pre-ride the course on Saturday morning were cut a little short, leaving us about 20 minutes to roll around. 20 minutes was all it took for our bikes to get properly screwed, and we each spent more time trying to clean the bikes than we'd spent riding them. every bit of mud that got flung up from the course had ended up frozen to the brakes, the rims, the derailleurs, the cables. frozen solid. as it snowed sideways, we chipped away at the mud with plastic brush-handles, and the mud eventually fell away.

i was a little skeptical of charlie's technique. he actually took a screwdriver to his rims to clean off the braking surfaces, which struck me as a little risky. stabbing a bike with sharp metal is silly, but stabbing a centimeter from the tire is just loony. charlie, as usual, knew what he was doing, and it turns out that i did not.

i left just enough mud on my rims that the snow was able to accumulate. by sunday morning, i had a good quarter inch of ice every couple of degrees around the circumference of each wheel. the bike would not roll, let alone brake smoothly, and i had 60 minutes until my race.

in desperation, i borrowed a hammer from the verge guys. i took an f'in hammer to my bike. i'll tell you what, there was no ice left on that bike just a few minutes later... nor was there much paint. also, to prevent further mishaps, i soaked that puppy in WD-40. lord knows how much damage i did.

SOOOO do not care.

everyone got pulled out of the collegiate race. i would've liked to do more laps, but i am not as fast as jamey driscoll, or even as fast as captain chaz. on the one hand, this isn't the elite race, and goddammit i wanted to ride, but on the other hand, you want to keep the race safe.

now, i don't think it's too much to ask that when pulling people, the officials make some effort to keep track of who is where. these results are straight-up wrong. that said, it was an unforgettable race, and is there really a difference between 69th (which i'm pretty sure i got) and 101st (where they scored me)? no there is not.

words cannot describe how little i care.

what a weekend! i am all chapped lips and tired eyes and smiles. mostly smiles.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

En Route to Nationals

Oh man. No cleverness in this blog post, I'm far too all-over-the-place. I just submitted the final project for my Cog Sci class, for which I had to start from scratch on Tuesday night. As you can imagine, that was more than a bit of a challenge, but here I am, still alive.

Somewhat fortunately, the team's flight to Kansas City was canceled due to weather. This gave me time to finish the paper now, rather than in Kansas. On the other hand, the scrambling that ensued, especially on the parts of Mark and FarmerAndy, was more stress than we'd anticipated.

Interesting factoid:
Under stress, an inert material like steel or glass has one of two options. It can bend like elastic, returning to its original shape once the stress is gone. Otherwise, it can deform like plastic, reorganizing on a molecular level so that it's never the same as it once was. Eventually, under enough stress, the material will fail.

Under stress, a biological material has these same options. However, after failing, (most) living tissue begins to regenerate. You need an X-ray just to tell if a bone has ever been broken. Scars are even harder than the original skin. Muscles actually need to be torn in order to grow.

My humongous laptop doesn't fit in my carry-on, so I'm leaving it at home. Maybe I'll borrow a laptop to blog from the Midwest, maybe I won't. I'm bringing my notebook, though, so I'll keep writing, and you'll just have to be patient.

I'm also bringing enough clothing to overheat an Eskimo. F'in Kansas in f'in December, I'll tell you what.

P.S. Welcome back, GI Mark

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Nose Knows

I want to give you a link to an article, but a subscription is required to read it on the interwebs. I found it in a book, The Best American Science and Nature Writing of 2007, and (unlike most of the drivel in the book) this article lives up to billing.

It's entitled "The Olfactory Lives of Primates", and it has some trivia in it that are not so trivial. For example, you might not have known that men (yes, human men) are attracted, albeit subconsciously, to ovulating women... more specifically, to the armpit-sweat of ovulating women. Gross and true.

Even cooler: in the middle of the 20th century, neurologists were trying to figure out which part of the brain does what. One group found that an interconnected network of small regions (amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, etc) is vital to mammals' sense of smell, so they named it the rhinencephalon - literally, "nose brain". Another group, however, designed their study differently, finding that the same network is responsible for the emotions.

Which is it? Smells or emotions? The answer is "yes".

Your sense of smell is inexorably linked to your emotions.

Does anyone else suddenly have the overwhelming desire to pop a breath-mint?

Sapolsky, R. "The Olfactory Lives of Primates". Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2006, p86-90.

Monday, December 10, 2007

With apologies to cartoonists everywhere

the following is a purely fictional account of what might foreseeably happen to one of my grad friends...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

My Brother, My Muse

Every artist has his favorite medium. For Michaelangelo, I think it was marble, maybe. For Raphael, it was probably paint, I guess. I know for sure that Donatello definitely favored the bo-staff.

While I'm obviously a big fan of the written word, perhaps my most inspired work has been with a camera. More specifically, it has been photography of my younger brother, who will likely hate me after seeing this post. That's a risk I'm willing to take.

Just as the artist has his medium, the model has his Look. You may recall Zoolander's Blue Steel. Well, my brother's Look puts Blue Steel, Le Tigre, and even Magnum to shame.

My brother's look transcends naming, but if I had to give it a title, it would probably "Shove That Camera Up Your Ass", or STCUYA for somewhat-short.

Even in its earliest incarnations, STCUYA was an instant classic. Full of passion and fratricidal rage, it has the power to freeze me in my tracks to this very day. Back then, it lacked the discipline that would refine later versions of the Look, but it was still a doozie.

Over time, STCUYA evolved into a sophisticated, multi-layered Look. It still clearly expresses exactly what my brother wants me to do with my camera, but by drawing back slightly, he's added a subtle flavor of intrigue. This was a boy who did not want to be interrupted while reading the TV Guide.

I'm glad to report that I haven't lost my touch, nor has my brother. At Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, STCUYA made its most recent appearance over dinner. The indignation is plainly written on his face, but now it's so inconspicuous, so understated, as to be poetic.

STCUYA has progressed from a glared warning of my impending doom in a flurry of tiny child-fists to a profound insinuation of intense distaste. Eyes that once screamed STCUYA now simply whisper it. It is the very definition of art.

I'll take my Pulitzer now, thank you.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

In Support of Creationism

What's great is that just now, while reading the title of this post, my roommate Will had a mild heart attack. I'm sure he'll be fine, don't even worry about it.

First, some facts: The universe is more than a few thousand years old. Dinosaur bones were not planted by god to test our faith. We are related to monkeys. Okay, moving on...

Because the book is in Will's room, and Will isn't yet awake, I'll have to paraphrase something written by Richard Dawkins. He said something along the lines of "before Darwin, anyone who was an atheist wasn't paying attention". This implies, much like his books explicitly profess, that religion is inherently antiquated.

While I am inclined - and raised, and taught - to agree with Dawkins, I have to begrudgingly temper that with a concession to spirituality. Recognizing that it is, in fact, possible to believe in some higher power while simultaneously accepting scientific explanations for natural phenomena, I can't help but look at anatomy and physiology with a sense of wonder, a sentiment that can easily translate to faith.

The most macroscopic example I can think of is pennation, or the way muscles attach to tendons at an angle in order to increase their force production. Discussing this phenomenon in an Engineering class, it's inevitable to use words like "design", as in "the fiber arrangement in the calf is designed to maximize the force through the tendon". Note that this is grammatically comparable to, but conceptually independent of, something like "the arrangement is Intelligently Designed".

Then there is the ever-popular controversy over the origins of bacterial flagella. I despise the claim that the structure of the flagellum is "irreducibly complex", which asserts that there is no way something so utterly dependent on each of its constituent proteins could have evolved over time. People still stubbornly make this assertion, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
If the existence of such contrary evidence will inherently lead to the undermining of their faith, then it isn't surprising that they're ignoring it. That said, you have to appreciate the beauty of this incredibly complex mechanism, which has been called "the world's most efficient motor". Yeah, that's right, you have to. Do it.

Or, if that doesn't do it for you, we can look a little deeper, at the membranes of mitochondria, where there exists another rotary complex of proteins. This structure is fueled by the flow of protons, and as it rotates, it drives a cam-shaft that re-energizes your ATP. Even if most of that sentence didn't make sense, it's worth repeating one part: there is a freaking cam-shaft, just like the one in your car, only this one's made of protein and is a few thousand times smaller and a few hundred thousand millenia older.

It boggles the mind, even at a glance... this, I think, is part of the reason that Creationism is so palatable to people. And here's another spin on it, an animation of cellular processes from the good folks at Harvard:

My favorite bit is at 1:17. I know you hate watching youtube videos, but indulge me on this one. We humans are fantastically good at anthropomorphizing what we see, and this little protein is no exception. What we're looking at is a molecule driven by chemical gradients and ATP dephosphorylation along an actin skeleton, the completely unconscious behavior of an automaton; what we see, though, is an animal trudging along a path, struggling to tow a massive load.

Unimaginably complex systems like this make it somewhat easy for me to put myself in the shoes of Creationsists - excuse me, Design Proponents. Like sequined, high-heeled galoshes, I think the shoes are ridiculous, but I have put myself in them just to see how they feel. Shouldn't it be even easier, though, to accept the scientific explanations - the theories that are rigorously tested, revised, and instantiated methodically?

One last thought. Creationists seem to have a big problem with the idea that life happened spontaneously, that the organic could be derived from the inorganic. While the window for that event was hundreds of millions of years wide, it was (at least intuitively) a low-probability event. The idea that life started by chance, that rather than being made in god's image we were the result of probabilities and mutations, must impart a sense of fragility.

Nobody likes feeling fragile.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Please refund that hour of my life

There's no question that I am the best thing to happen to Academia since the free pre-seminar donut binge. You know it, and I know it, but do my future employers know it? With all of these big things happening in the lab, I'm still trying to keep my eye on the prize: a post-doc appointment, a professorship, tenure, and a hot-air balloon ride over the Grand Canyon.

As part of their never-ending endeavor to justify their own existence, the "TA Project" organized a panel session today. A couple of tenured professors from the sciences gave short lectures and answered audience questions about what to expect during the "Job Talk". When I saw the announcement, I thought, 'wow, the TA Project did something useful!'

They did not.

Almost immediately, what should have been a description of "how to get a job in academics" turned into a rudimentary explanation of how to give a presentation. The main points included such gems as:
  • Don't read directly off your slide
  • Don't read from a script
  • Use citations when appropriate
  • Tailor your presentation to the audience
Now, granted, 90% of the audience needed to hear that. In fact, 90% of the audience needs to have that burned into their minds, as in A Clockwork Orange...

A discussion of the "Job Talk", however, is no place for these sort of basics. I learned that stuff in 7th grade (thanks, Mr. Nieskens!), for crying out loud.

Surely there are other tips about the Job Talk that could have been discussed. Surely there are hints that are specific to getting a job in Academia. I'd give some examples, but I don't know any... that's the reason I was in the audience in the first place! Anyway, after sitting through an hour-long list of the common pitfalls of Powerpoint use, I officially learned nothing.

In fact, I may have actually gotten dumber. Among the advice we were given was the following: the second slide should be an outline of the presentation, to give the audience an idea of what to expect.

I don't know about you, but I have suffered through way too many terrible presentations, and a common thread among all of them was a slide that looked something like this:

I will never get that hour back.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Red Berets

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased to present to you this winter's hottest trend for grad student cyclists: Red Beret Training. With the off-season fast approaching, you might think that this idea was inspired by CSC's ludicrous training camps. Equally plausible is the possibility that I'm gearing up for Survivor 42: Donaldson Park.

In reality, this is but an homage to my good friend GI Mark, who is only 8 days from finishing Boot Camp at Ft. Benning.

Like Mark, participants in Red Beret Training will navigate treacherous Obstacle Courses. After a vigorous tire-sprint...'ll have to go under...

...and over...
...the trickiest obstacles known to grad-kind.

You'll learn camouflage, the art of blending into the jungle like the mutant offspring of monkeys and ninjas.

However, in this modern age of Urban Dorm Warfare, you'll need to disappear in a lecture hall as easily as in a rainforest. That's why our staff includes ex-CIA spooks, to make you a master of disguise.

You'll be taught markmanship, of course...

...but we'll also teach you to work in close quarters. By the end of Red Beret Training, you'll be able to kill a man with a dull #2 pencil, a graphing calculator, a stick of chewing gum, or your bare hands.

Sign up now. The first hundred registrants will receive a complementary Veyron. No fat chicks need apply.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Duck or Platypus?

Is it a duck or a platypus? Please comment.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Plasticity and Elasticity

First, I'm going to have to define terms. Elasticity is springiness - a paperclip holds papers because it resists deformation and wants to return to its original shape. Plasticity, on the other hand, is the capacity to undergo long-lasting change - under enough stress, the paperclip can be permanently reshaped.

Okay, here's the post:

Plasticity or Why I'm not afraid to race That Guy from That Team

If you've been doing the 4/5 races in Central or Southern Jersey, you know exactly who I'm talking about. I'm not going to call him out by name, or even by team - I try to hold myself to higher standards. But yes, he is That Guy.

People hate riding near him. He can't pedal smoothly, and the jerky trajectory that is the result makes him utterly unpredictable. In bike racing, as in driving, as in anything social, predictability is the keystone of safety. Wherever That Guy is in the pack, there's always a wide buffer around him. Nobody wants to ride near That Guy, because you never know when he'll suddenly move six inches to the side. I have, on more than one occasion, stuck my nose into a wicked headwind rather than draft off him.

There are many such timebombs in Cat 5 racing. C'est la guerre, I suppose. I like to call it Schrödinger's Crit; when racing a Cat 5 event, you are immersed in the near-inevitability of being crashed by such an idiot - you are simultaneously racing and bleeding in a ditch - and it isn't until your race is over that you can know if you've been crashed or not.

The guy I'm talking about - That Guy on That Team - is a special case, though. Rumor has it that somewhat recently, he was shot in the torso, and the bullet did damage to his spinal column. Obviously, the spinal cord wasn't completely transected, or he'd be a paraplegic. It is clear, however, that the damage has affected his motor control system.

As I said, I'm not afraid of That Guy on That Team. He's not some jerk who's too selfish to learn how to pedal. On the contrary, he actually just can't pedal smoothly. The Cat 5 jerks simply need to spend time riding, and their "muscle memory", the neural plasticity at the lower levels of control, will retain the ability to activate the muscles in the way that is proper - in other words, enough time in the saddle will make them smoother riders. That Guy on That Team, on the other hand, has suffered damage that interferes with lower-level control.

Fortunately, his mind is made of brains, and brains are brilliantly adaptive. I've already touched on this in the visual system, but the motor system is a little trickier. The best example of this is rehabilitation after stroke - if someone suffers damage to the right side, the right side's responsibilities can be transferred to the left. We know this happens because if a second stroke damages the left side, then all of the functional gains that had been made between strokes will disappear. Like a commuter stuck at rush-hour, That Guy's brain just needs to find a way to bypass the damage.

Easier said than done, but I have faith. For one thing, the adaptive process is accelerated by feedback, such as the twitchiness of a bike ride. Moreover, by next summer, I'll have earned another upgrade and will no longer need to race him ever again.

Elasticity or I hate to see you go but I love to watch you walk away

The way people move has always fascinated me. Consider the quarterback; I sure as hell can't throw as accurately, as far, or as fast, but I can appreciate the difference between Tom Brady and Jeff Garcia. Running gives an even easier example; it is absolutely enthralling to watch Paula Radcliffe break every biomechanical rule in the book as she wins yet another marathon. You just have to know what you're looking for.

It comes as a surprise to many novice biomechanicists that the best way to study motor control is to interfere with it. It makes sense, though... there's only so much you can do with the knowledge of how the average person walks, throws a dart, or whatever. To get any insight into the underlying mechanisms, you have to tease away the familiar.

Why are we so impressed by the "and one" in basketball, when a shooter makes the basket even after being fouled? It's because we know how hard it is to perform motor tasks accurately when some external force has interfered with the normal progression of things. Science can quantify the profundity of these effects, but we know intuitively that perturbations screw with our motor control systems.

While most of my research deals with the arms, I cut my teeth on motor control in the lower extremities, and my athletic leanings are pretty obvious too. What can I say, I'm a fan of the legs. We usually take walking for granted, but there is beauty and elegance to be found if you just look for it.

The supermodel walk. Their long legs cross-over each other, which does crazy things to their hip trajectories. It is a wholly unnatural walk, but I could watch it for hours.

Imagine a woman in high heels walking on a flat surface. Suddenly, her heel drops below ground-level... she's stepped in a pot hole. It's safe to say that she won't fall (if she does, though, feel free to laugh), but the way her body compensates for this sudden dynamical change - the extension of the swing-leg, the stiffening (hehe, yeah) of the stance-leg's joints, the slapstick flailing the arms - reflects the mysterious neural circuitry that feeds the "something is awry!" message into her brain.

It's hard to observe someone's reaction to that sort of obstacle outside of a lab setting, mostly because it's as surprising to the observer as it is to the walker. That's why I'm much more fascinated by the act of walking with an asymmetrical load. Imagine a woman walking with a heavy purse. The hips jut out towards the load, the shoulders lean in the opposite direction, and the gait pattern loses its symmetry and timing... she's never in danger of toppling over, but she's not designed to walk this way, and there is no "right" compensatory approach.

In conclusion, if you see me staring at a girl, please assume that I'm observing her biomechanics rather than leching.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Big Stupid Question

As I warned you last week, the theme here at TheNinjaDon this week is "Pissing People Off". With that in mind, I'm leading off with a post that is sure to alienate, insult, and possibly infuriate some of my closest friends. It's honestly taken me weeks to work up the courage to post this. So, here goes.

Indulge me. I'm going to ask what must be a stupid question:

Why haven't we cured every disease?

I use the term "cured" loosely. In some cases, it would more than suffice to simply diagnose diseases early in their courses. So why can't we?

Some day, you'll be able to walk into a General Practitioner's office, stand near a machine, and leave with a very clear picture of what is or is not wrong with your innards.

If only someone would write a book about this.

The keys to this whole process will be in the hardware that takes the pictures and the software that analyzes them. The former can always be clearer, higher-resolution, more multimodal, smaller, and faster. The latter can always be more accurate, more robust, have larger libraries, and of course be faster. Let's leave cheaper to the business majors.

Once we've found the problems, nothing should stand between the patient and a clean bill of health. A simple surgery, a cocktail of drugs, perhaps a few sessions of acupuncture, and you could be on the road to recovery! It'll take untold man-hours to develop these cures, but in many cases it just a matter of time and resources before we figure out what to prescribe and how to make it happen.

I predict that most, if not all, of the trailblazing - and oh, but there is a lot of it to be done - will happen at universities. This, of course, mandates that the lion's share of the burden will be shouldered by graduate students (just as the lion's share of the glory will go to the professors).

Consider this: The technology that may save your life in twenty years is being developed by an unkempt twenty-something in a dark cubicle. The person whose work could make cancer as dreaded as a head cold makes as much money as the stoner high-schooler who pours your coffee - and only one of those two gets tips.

This brings us back to our original question. With all of these poor (literally) researchers slaving (literally) away in their labs, why haven't we cured every disease?

Allow me to rephrase that: Why are we wasting money on things that aren't medical research?

Okay, wait. I am not anti-art. On the contrary, I recognize that art, poetry, theater, and the like are vital to any healthy society. We shouldn't be pursuing a new Sparta, but a new Renaissance. That said, for every 100 federal grants in 2004, 15 went to the arts, while 14 went to health (the latter grants were admittedly larger, since incubators probably cost more than easels) [1]. Wouldn't that money be more productive elsewhere? More to the point, is the weekend artist any less beneficial to society than the one living off a government stipend?

At the risk of making an even-more-hugely unpopular political statement, I'm going to limit your political statements (here at TheNinjaDon, free speech is a right only for Ninjas, and a privilege for all others). I reject any point you make about the expense of the Iraq War as moot, as the problem at hand predates 2003. Furthermore, I reject any points you make about Welfare, Global Warming, the War on Drugs, etc., as those cans of worms are deep enough to drown in.

Having just summarily rejected a few dozen legitimate, feasible solutions, I feel comfortable enough with these boundaries to move on.

It doesn't make sense to me that the researcher's holy grail isn't knowledge, but funding. Too many friends have been bounced out of grad school for want of grant money - some for lack of "what it takes", but most for bad results, bad timing, or just plain bad luck.

A series of flabbergasted letters to the editor in a recent issue of Science echo my sentiments with heartfelt incredulity and provident timing. John Moore of Cornell put it best when he said,
...the number of papers that are written is diminishing because scientists are able to spend less time writing papers! Instead, we spend ever-more time on the increasingly burdensome administrative requirements of conducting science legally, and on writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting grant applications as the NIH’s pay line drops to catastrophically low levels.
The system is putting the passionate scientists in the backseat to the bureaucrats. It is the rare passionate, bureaucracy-savvy scientists who give me hope, and I can only aspire to be one of them.

In the meantime, I'm not asking for handouts, and I'm certainly not delusional enough to expect wealth. I'm just surprised that given the demand for our services, we researchers aren't more highly valued.

  1., "Federal Government and Grant Foundations Statistics",
  2. Letters, Science, 318 (3 Nov 2007) p913,

N.B. Today's argument will be rebutted soon, with an equally scathing counterpoint. With that in mind, feel free to flame away.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Rutgers Cycling Women's Spring Preview

I wrote a post on the Rutgers Cycling blog. Read it.

Then buy a jersey.