Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I think I may have a problem

While unpacking from last night's grocery shopping expedition, I noticed an unsettling trend in my cereal purchases. Can you find it?

There's a monkey on my back. That monkey's name is Cinnamon. What a delicious monkey!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bad Variability

Sometimes variability perpendicular to your trajectory is good, but usually it's just plain bad. Watch the 11 car

Sometimes it's actually pretty good. Xtreme!

really it's just cold, crystalline steam

It's snowing right now in Central Jersey. Big fat wet flakes of cold miserable snow. I should be beside myself - who doesn't like snow? - but you know what, I'm just not. I should be psyched to get to play in the mud, but I'm not. I should be singing "SNOWSNOWSNOW!!!!1!11!" and setting my facebook status to snow exultation and delighting in the novelty of October snowfall. But I'm NOT.

Maybe I'm a Sour Puss, a Grumpy Gus, even a bit of a Cranky-Lou Retton. Whatever, say I to that. My humbuggery is justified! I'm just not ready for snow yet, not ready to part with the feeling in my fingers and toes, not ready to watch cars pirouette like intoxicated cows on slick asphalt, not ready to hunch my shoulders against the sting of icy wind.

Maybe in December. Maybe. But not yet.

I'm driving up to Massachusetts this weekend, to race both on Saturday and Sunday. The races would be difficult enough at 50 degrees and sunny. New England, though, is not quite known for its comparability to Southern California. It is with this in mind that I put New England on notice:

I am in no mood for your shenanigans, New England. Behave yourself.

Or else.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Added to the list of things that should never happen

Milky Manchester, DJ of the Harvest Moon Karaoke night, called up the next singer, as he's done a few times before. Actually about 5,000 times, and that's a conservative estimate. So, no big deal.

I don't remember the name. I don't remember the song, either.

All I remember is this: The man, a fat and disheveled drunk, took the mike from Milky. The song started. He sang a line. He took his shirt off. His pants were around his thighs.

I took a picture with my cameraphone. It is purposefully safe for work, and completely devoid of the details that you don't want to see. There have been better photos of Bigfoot. I only took the picture because I don't think I would've believed this story the next day.

There is, however, a naked fat man in the photo. Consider yourself warned. Click here if you dare!

Within 30 seconds, the fat naked drunk had been bounced. He went quietly. Normalcy resumed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Big Dance

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dream.” -Paulo Coelho

Can't remember where I found this quote. Some punk kid's web log, I guess?

So. I've been racing for about half a decade now. Not quite long enough to know stuff about things, but long enough to have developed a pre-race routine. A freak-out, if you will.

It starts the day before the race. I pace around, I pack and repack my bag interminably, I run through checklists out loud in an empty room. When it's bed time, sleep does not come. What little rest I get is fitful, and I can't stop picturing the race, predicting what's in store for me. My heart rate surges with each imagined hill.

Knowing this about myself, it was a fascinating study in contrasts to observe my behavior the day before the thesis proposal. There was almost no overlap whatsoever between my pre-race and pre-proposal neuroses!

At 11pm, I forced myself to just stop revising the presentation. I'd reached the point where I was only making the most minor of revisions, so I closed the laptop and watched TV with my roommate. By midnight, I was in bed. I slept like a baby.

Looking back, the only intersection between the pre-race and the pre-proposal happened in the few minutes before the talk began. While pacing around the podium area, I found myself shaking my legs, snapping them straight to shake the quad muscles about. As if I was going to use them. I do the same thing immediately before the gun goes off! Nervous habit, I suppose.

Why do I freak out before a race, but not before the biggest day of my career thus far? There are two possible interpretations:
  1. It very well may be that I take bike racing way too seriously. Maybe I have delusions of athletic grandeur that keep me awake at night, while grad school is just a humdrum way to earn the dollars. Might as well be a barista.
  2. Alternately, it's possible that I love cycling not in spite of, but because of, the inevitable suffering. The night before a race, I brace myself for the impending agony, week after week. Before the proposal, though, I didn't expect any undue problems, so I was correspondingly relaxed.
Over the years, Option 1 has been the fly in my ointment. When I started racing, I'm sure my family and friends were convinced of it. To this day, I wonder if my adviser might suspect that my priorities are off.

Nevertheless, I'm certain that the truth of the matter is Option 2. I want to do well at bike racing, but I am just not a bike racer, and I know it. If I freak before a race, it's because I've experienced enough nightmares of under-preparation to fear my own absent-mindedness. I overcompensate, and it makes me freak.

Before the proposal, on the other hand, I'd put in months and months of work, all in the name of that one hour. I was over-prepared, and I knew it. At a certain point, you just have to take a deep breath, smile, and realize that there is absolutely nothing left to be done.

Pat's blog talks about how this year, he's in the big leagues. It's fascinating to watch him grapple with the giant leap from Bs to As, from racing a bunch of Dons to lining up with national champions. This post rips off his latest for exactly that reason. I'm at the cusp of a leap to the next level, and I have to believe that I belong with the big boys.

After much thought, and with the (implicit, and purely preliminary) agreement of my thesis committee, I've reached the following conclusion:

I don't just belong at the next level of Motor Control research... I'm Sven Motherfucking Nys.

On Beard Connoisseurship

I don't normally like to cop out on blogging by just posting someone else's work, especially a cartoon, but this just makes me happy.

Setting up a Gedanken Experiment

It's a commonly accepted truism: As we drink, we get better at beer pong (or, because drinking games would never happen on campus, at darts). Of course, there's a limit - it's hard to aim when you're kneeling before the porcelain idol - but sober competitors generally complain "I'll do better when I've had a little".

Why? Why does a buzz improve your beer pong abilities?

Discuss. Please.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

For those keeping score

Yup, I successfully defended my thesis proposal. 30 mins of presenting my research plans, 40 minutes of answering questions, and then a big happy sigh of relief when the committee signed the form.

There's a whole big post in the works about the proposal, and I may even get around to finishing it.

Tonight, though, is celebration.

Thanks for all the well-wishing along the way. You guys really are great friends/blog-stalkers.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bicycle Racing

Begin the caption contest...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Gedanken Experiment: Control Your Motor

Yesterday I raced at Granogue. I finished 68th. End of race report. (Also I took off my pants in public. You're welcome).

Being in full-on hard-core thesis mode, I found myself caring much less about the racing and much more about the experience. The beautiful view from the top of the course, the kegs of Victory in the beer tent, and of course the spectating.

By luck, or more likely by my own subconscious design, there is a strong connection between my research and my sport. If you know what you're looking for, you can see principles of motor control playing out in real life... and it turns out, there's nowhere better to observe motor control than at a cyclocross race (except a rally car race, but people die watching that nonsense!).

So, motor control. The way we coordinate the body's movements. It has been studied (and is studied, and will be studied) at the level of muscle activation, at the level of force production, at the level of joint rotations, and it even applies to whole-body movements through space... as on a bicycle.

One lens through which to view motor control is the Uncontrolled Manifold hypothesis, the very mention of which is generally enough to make the eyes glaze over.

The long and short of the Uncontrolled Manifold hypothesis is that there exists a subspace (Manifold) within the space of all possible actions, and that in this subspace, the motor control system allows for variability (Uncontrolled, y'see). The body is inevitably going to experience variability (try to draw two identical circles, as a quick demonstration), so we try to structure that variability so that the end result is always what we want it to be. And that's why the eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of the Uncontrolled Manifold hypothesis.

It's best for me to explain by means of a simple example. Let's say I put two pressure sensors in front of you, showed you what the total pressure was, and said "try to keep the total pressure at a value of 20".

So, here's the space of all possible activities. Any combination of pressures exists somewhere in this space.
And here's the subspace that holds the end result - the sum of the pressures - steady. In this case, the subspace is just a line.
You're going to allow the pressures to wander anywhere along the red line, because as long as the sum is 20, everybody's happy. After a while, you'll find that you've produced a cloud of data that looks like this:
Notice how along the red line, the variability is huge, but the perpendicular direction sees very little variability. Your motor control system leaves the manifold uncontrolled, but it restricts activity that reduces accuracy.

A variability profile for this one simple task would look like this:
The variability along the trajectory is called "good", because it lets you do what you're trying to do. "Bad" variability, being perpendicular to the trajectory, impedes you (mostly... more on that later).

How does this apply to bike racing? I'm glad you asked. You're so smart and curious and attractive.

Consider a turn. Let's say the turn is pretty grippy, and somewhat tight, so that there's pretty much one way to take it: enter wide, apex inside, and exit wide. Like this:

Now, more usefully, let's portray it like this:

What actually happens over the course of a race, as hundreds of competitors take this turn a half-dozen times each, is that you get thousands of repetitions of that corner... I'll show you a few dozen for clarity's sake.

The trajectories are mostly consistent, but there is variability. See?

Let's say that we take slices of these trajectories, and treat each slice as a cloud of data, so that the corner becomes a collection of the simple variability analyses we've already dealt with. At each of these slices, we look at how much variability there is parallel to (Good) and perpendicular to (Bad) the trajectory. Lo and behold, it looks something like this:

Some technical notes, for those who are looking for slip-ups with which to question my credibility (you know who you are, Will).
  • I skipped the time-normalization step that contributes to variability parallel to the trajectory
  • I've made no mention of the linearization of the trajectory that is key to this analysis, but I'll be happy to walk you through it off-line
  • The trajectories I've shown you are rear-wheel only, because the front wheel takes a different and less interesting trajectory
  • All data presented in this post are completely and entirely made up out of thin air and may very well have no bearing on reality
Back to the story.

Let's look at a different corner. maybe one of the corners after the barriers at Granogue, the sweeping downhill turns that put you at the limit of grip. Here's Todd, on just such a corner.

By virtue of being at that ragged edge of control, the course designers are forcing you to change the shape of the Uncontrolled Manifold. While the easier turn was more forgiving of various lines - entering too narrow, apexing too wide, etc - this tough turn forces you into the good line. Now your variability profile looks something like this:

You're forced into that optimal line, and so your variability is significantly lower than in a more forgiving corner.

For my road-racing colleagues, this is comparable to the rainy, twisty courses that let breakaways reach deep into their suitcases of courage and stay away from the pack. The pack can't take the optimal line at full speed, because it's too wide to allow for the optimal line.

Oh, and for my motorsport-enthusiast friends, this is why a thrilling duel between two risk-taking drivers actually slows the duelers down.

My favorite part of this analysis, which is also my favorite part of spectating 'cross (except for heckling, of course), happens at the eXtreme corners. For example, the descent from the tower at Granogue, or the "Granogue-like" turn at Rutgers 'Cross Practice. Turns so sharp, on such slippery terrain, that likely s not, the rear wheel is going to slide out. The fun turns, ya dig?

Let's throw out the incidents where the rear wheel slides and never recovers; that is, let's ignore the thoroughly unsuccessful attempts at cornering that result in a complete stop, a bruised hip, and a curse-word or two. Our trajectories look like this:

So in some cases, riders roll cleanly through the turn, but in other cases, the rear wheel slides towards the outside before the rider recovers control.

This video is a great demonstration. The first rider locks his rear wheel and slides a bit, but the following four roll through smoothly. It's subtle, watch closely...

The variability here is quite different than what we've seen so far. The slide after entry forces you outside the Uncontrolled Manifold, and the variability profile reflects this loss of control. If you look at all successful turns, the fact that some repetitions include a slide will increase variability, especially the Bad kind.

And yet, we can see that "bad" variability isn't necessarily bad. You still get through the corner (if you don't crash), and nowhere here have I mentioned the speed of the rider (remember, this is all time-normalized). We're looking at two different Uncontrolled Manifolds (UCMs) simultaneously, which is why there is a spike in variability.

In fact, if we separated the two trajectories into two groups - Rolling, where the racer rolls as usual through a corner, and Drifting, where the rear wheel slides out - both groups would probably have variability profiles similar to what we saw in the first two corners. Each group has adopted its own control strategy, its own UCM.

Charlie and Jay are masters of the brief rear-wheel lockout. They use the temporary abandonment of control as a control scheme itself, employing "bad variability" for functional gain. It's the exception that proves the UCM rule. And it's damn fun to watch... but even more fun to ride.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Just under the surface

Inspired by an episode of Life, I did a little bit of reading on Wikipedia. What did I find in perusing that font of unassailable factoids? Scary, scary, infamous, scary stuff.

Item #1:
Stanford Prison Experiment
Take a dozen kids, separate them randomly into groups, and give all the power to one group (the "Guards"). The Guards become monsters, treating the "Prisoners" as subhuman, even though they were randomly assigned into their roles.

Item #2:
Milgram Experiment
Tell someone to push a button to induce an "electric shock" in another person. Tell the button-holder that they have to keep shocking, that the experiment requires that they keep shocking, that they must ignore the cries for mercy. See how far you can push someone before he refuses to submit to authority. Will he kill if you tell him to?

Item #3:
The Wave
Start with a little bit of discipline, add a dash of elitism, let ferment in a high school. Within days, the group will be so loyal, so fiercely devoted, that they'll report one another for not saluting properly. A recipe for Hitlerjugend, but in Palo freakin' Alto.

There's a lot of controversy about the research methodologies of these experiments, which leads to questions about the specifics of their conclusions. Fine. The underlying message, which is what matters, is that people are capable of terrible things. Even good people.

Only one in three subjects refuse to administer lethal levels of shock in the Milgram experiment, and rarely does anyone insist that the experiment be stopped altogether. A simple "please continue" from a gray-beard in a labcoat is enough to get most people to commit murder.

So, what makes us do good? Or perhaps, what prevents us from becoming monsters? Is it a commitment to humanitarianism? Is it the values of our forebears? Surely it's not just a sense of right and wrong.

I do hate to bring this up, but it's probably not even religion [Darley and Batson 1973] that keeps us honest.

It seems, as these studies lead us to conclude, that the situation dictates behavior more than the individual. Mob mentality rules. Authority persuades. Anonymity abides. The list goes on.

The solution, then, is striking in its counter-intuitiveness. One doesn't need religion, nor does one need an atheist's Humanism, nor even a particularly profound moral compass. All of these fail, when the situation applies the wrong pressure.

What matters, when push comes to shove, is the ability to resist that pressure. To stand out of a crowd. To refuse authority. To reject the relativistics of the situation in favor of your own sense of global right and wrong. What matters is personal strength.

Man oh man, that's a scary thought.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Collegiate Cyclocross

The world is a complicated place. We are simply incapable of taking it all in, of perceiving every detail at a conscious level. Instead, what we do is extract features from our experiences, and we treat these features as representatives of reality.

You don't see every little discoloration and bruise and bump on a fruit; you see a shiny round red object about the size of your fist and you know it's an apple. You don't calculate brow-ridge prominence and hip-to-waist ratio to identify gender; you see boobs and you know it's a girl. Well, I do anyway.

This subconscious processing is part of the human condition. Actually, with some guesswork, some experience, and a healthy academic curiosity, we can identify these features post-hoc, if only for curiosity's sake.

For example. People talk about cyclocross courses as being "a real 'cross course" on the one hand, and a "dirt crit" or an "MTB short-track" on the other. Like pornography, we know it when we see it, but it's hard to put a finger on what makes a "real 'cross course".

Here's a start, organizers of the Hillbilly Hustle race, which I otherwise love... if racing around your course necessitates ducking under branches, lest your head get torn off mid-corner, it's a little bit less 'cross and a little bit more MTB.

Another fun example of identifying wholes based only on features. Roof racks. You can tell a lot about a driver based on the bike rack on his roof. For example, if there is only one tray, then the driver is probably a triathlete... or he's a prick who considers himself too cool for a team (i.e., a triathlete [just kidding! okay, no I'm not]).

If there are two or three trays, the driver is probably an active rider whose frequent trips to races (or off-road trails) make rear-racks inconvenient. This driver prefers to ride with the company of his teammates and may even be a pretty swell individual.

No roof rack at all? Pro. Don't question it, it's just the way of things.

If there are four or five trays, the driver is clearly a cyclocross racer. It is near-impossible to fit four people, all their gear, and all their front wheels into the car and trunk, and five is just out of the question. In 'cross, though, all the cool kids have spare bikes (in case of a mid-race flat tire), so you'll need all five racks, even if there are only three racers in the car.

If none of the four or five trays match, if every component of the roof rack was bought used, if the paint is chipping and the trays are rusting, if you can buy a sticker of your team's logo at the local convenience store... then you're almost certainly a collegiate cyclocross racer.

one of the trays is empty because Jay overslept

See you in Northampton!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Core Strength

Some people do situps to strengthen their abdominal muscles. Others do pilates.

I support my ludicrously drunk roommate, who outweighs me by 40 lbs and is ludicrously drunk, as he stumbles from the grease trucks back to our house.

It's like Rocky IV, but in New Brunswick rather than Siberia. And much less quotable; "I must break you" trumps "I think I just want to sleep here on the bridge" anytime. Then again...

Thursday, October 09, 2008


There has been an epidemic of half-assedness here at TheNinjaDon. I've got almost a half-dozen posts that I've started. Once I lost momentum, I completely gave up on them... it is the way of blogging, for me at least. Catharsis by composition only functions in one sitting.

Rather than try to build momentum back up, to finish these half-baked posts, I'm just going to copy them here. In fact, I'll copy them, and then I'll finish the idea in no more than one sentence - this supplementary sentence will be in italics, for your convenience.

OK, here goes. Notice, by the way, how each section is shorter than the last. Quite the disturbing trend!

from Prophylactic Oven Mitts, Sept 3:

I burned the bejeezus out of my finger while cooking dinner tonight. This being one of those nights when preparing the meal was somewhat involved, there was plenty of time to meditate on the burn.

What immediately came to mind was the college application of a friend I haven't talked to in 8 years. The prompt was something along the lines of "write page 187 of your autobiography", which is actually pretty cool.

Most of what she wrote was the sort of sophomoric prose one finds in a college application essay, although I'll grant her that she'd managed above-average palatability. What I do distinctly remember was that she'd included a brief description of an injury. Weaved into her narrative was a slip and fall, and, on page 187 of her autobiography, she bit her tongue.

It's a brilliant little literary device, I daresay. The minor injury as a metaphor for fallibility. The scar as a lesson learned.

Apt... apt.

You might say I'm a bit scarred. Especially after the past few weeks. Especially after the past year. By no means have I had to visit the emergency room, nor have I gone under the knife. I'm not claiming to be the scarred-iest in all the land.

But I have put some miles on the ol' largest-organ-in-the-body, and there are some marks to show for it. Many of them are from biking, so let's restrict our scope accordingly. My poor legs are covered in scabs and scars. I've been bruised and sliced and damaged every which way.

But have I learned anything? Well sure! With a little imagination, there is no situation in life that can't be reduced to a cycling analogy. Think about it.

Except, no. There's a difference between analogizing and really incorporating a lesson.

Supplement: I'm pretty happy with my lot in life.

from Lifestyle, Sept 28

Ho hum. Another week, another weekend. A half dozen hours on the bike, plenty of sleep, and not a drop of alcohol. I watched the debate, I worked on my thesis, and I even woke up early enough on Sunday to watch simultaneous coverage of the cycling world championships and the F1 grand prix. The weekend left me recharged, healthy, and a little bit closer to adulthood.

Okay, none of that actually happened. Not even a little bit. Here's the real story:

Supplement: Going to the city and bar-hopping until 4 and then trekking across midtown to find greasy gyros, with all the associated debauchery and adventure, is totally worth the consequences of irresponsibility.

from Epiphanies are Bad for Training, Oct 1

This morning found me riding in the wet grass of the 'cross course, silent but for heavy breathing and grinding gears. I know I need to work on my focus. All the fitness in the world won't do me any good if I can't stay in it, so to speak, because cruising uncomfortably is not the same as really pushing.

Supplement: Solving a puzzle that's been plaguing me for weeks may cause me to stop pedaling in the middle of a hard interval, but damn it feels good to solve a puzzle, and it'll probably feel even better to propose my thesis, which I can do now.

from Are We In Brooklyn Yet? Oct 7

I didn't leave the lab until 4am last night. Part of me was tempted to just sprawl out on a chair or two and spend the night at my desk - it's not like I haven't done that before.

Supplement: Oh holy crap, my thesis proposal is so close to complete that I can taste it!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hello, deadline

I have to get a draft of my thesis proposal to my committee by the end of the week. Hence the late hour at which I find myself taking a break.

With the light at the end of the tunnel starting to twinkle with a hint of promise (or is it a dash of Pollyanna-ism?), my thoughts are drifting to the great hereafter. Someday I will graduate (he says before knocking on wood and throwing salt over his left shoulder and spitting thrice), and that means finding some sort of gainful employment.

For the sake of argument, let's say that a post-doc counts as gainful employment.
Stolen blatantly from

This process officially started a year ago. While driving through Massachusetts on the way to a race in Sterling, I found myself wondering how I'd fare as a post-doc at any one of the dozen fine institutions in the great Bay State (it's never too soon to start brown-nosing).

So I heard about a post-doc opportunity at the University of Michigan, beginning at least 6 months before my most ambitious date of graduation. Out of curiosity more than pragmatism, I started looking around the website, and I've gotta tell you, I like what I saw.

With no further ado, here is my pro-vs.-con stream of consciousness:
  • Pro: Large department with specialties in my favorite fields
  • Con: Michigan is cold. I don't enjoy the cold.
  • Pro: They want to hire me. This describes me circa 2012
  • Con: Why weren't they on my radar until now?
  • Pro: There seems to be a decent cycling scene in Michigan
  • Con: Wolverines
  • Pro: Wolverines!
Just musing out loud. For whatever it's worth, though, all of these things are major considerations of mine, even "trivial" features like weather and cycling. Well, there is the exception of the last Pro... there doesn't need to be a subtle movie reference associated with the locale. It's just a bonus.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Man enough... admit I'm wrong. Or at least partially wrong.

Karaoke was not ruined yesterday, because the bar filled up soon after the debate ended. Of course, there was a great deal of debate talk, and it was as obnoxious as predicted.

I'm just glad that Karaoke night didn't totally live up to my expectations.


Okay, I'll say one thing about trends in the buildup to the election. And only one thing.

Most of the places where I spend my time - a college campus, the internet, and sometimes TV - are full of passion about politics. It is the way of things, and it always has been. Never, though, have I seen so much venomous language about the other side as I've seen in the past few weeks. As if McCain and Palin are the devils themselves - or maybe Obama's the antichrist (thanks for the link, Sal!).

Again, I'm not commenting on the issues, as I think we all know what the candidates' platforms are. The negativity of the candidates' ad-campaigns and podium rhetoric is also beyond the purview of this post. Instead I'm talking about the rhetoric that I hear from the voters themselves, the people on the sidewalk and in the coffee shops and on the interweb fora.

Isn't it time for us to organize? To streamline our talk into a powerful, coherent message; to share in each other's fervor; to concentrate our daily politicking into an efficient experience.

Let's get together at 2pm, everyday. Let's get together and let's just hate. Let's get together and hate for, say, 2 minutes?

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Karaoke is going to be lame tonight, and here's why: the debate. The bar will be empty, because everybody and their brother will be staying home to watch the incredibly important vice presidential debate. People who leave the debate to come to the bar will be talking about the debate, mostly regurgitating John Stewart's jokes as their own. There will be no sanctuary from politics.

On the other hand, Harvest Moon seems to serve as New Brunswick's answer to the Roman Forum. Where better to have a free and public exchange of ideas? I couldn't begrudge anyone so open a medium, courtesy of MPQK (Milky Manchester Popolusque Karaokei)

On the other other hand, you can't fight logic:
  • Karaoke is good
  • The debate will ruin Karaoke
  • Ergo, the debate is bad.

Blog Post

There, are you happy?