Tuesday, December 30, 2008


In an interview with daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, Czech FM and incoming EU president Karel Schwarzenberg did not speak favorably of Hamas, not favorably at all. It's a completely different tack than his French predecessor took, in fact it's not a particularly popular stance at all.

"Why am I one of the few that have expressed understanding for Israel? ... I am enjoying the luxury of telling the truth," Schwarzenberg told the daily.

In these trying economic times, it's nice to be reminded that the best luxuries are free.

Astrophysics 1, Recreation 0

Remember back in the day, when we met at 7pm and rode for 90 minutes? Well now we have to be out the door at 3 just to scrape out an hour in the saddle. Why? Because of stupid goddamn freakin' physics.

If you tracked the position of the sun at the same time every day for a year, it would trace out a route in the sky, called an analemma. In the summer, the sun would be at the top of the analemma, and there would be plenty of daylight.
Now, though, we're stuck at the bottom. No sooner does the sun creep out from behind the horizon than it gets sucked right back down. Or some less-anthropomorphized version of what I just said.

Sucks for riding, but the analemma sure is pretty, right?

I'd elaborate, but I have to go get ready for my ride. Stupid winter.

Errata: Just as I was getting up from my desk, the adviser walked in to discuss my Sisyphean manuscript. So we worked on it for an hour. No riding outdoors today!


A brief preface: If this blog turns into a "here's what happened in my sleep" dream journal, then please, please punch me in the genitalia. You don't want to read it, I don't want to write it. That genre of blogging would be in the neighborhood of rock bottom for TheNinjaDon.

That said, I had a remarkable dream a few nights ago, and damnitall I'm going to write about the experience. So there.

There is a lot of storyline that I remember - a rarity for me - but that would be flirting with dream-journalism, so we'll gloss over those details. Instead, we'll pick up the dream where it gets interesting:

Amidst my adventurous goings-on, I realized that my friend Megan was missing, so I drove into the bad part of town to find her. The signs were all in Spanish, and I distinctly remember calling it Little Havana [are my dreams racist?].

Megan was standing in the road, next to Horatio from CSI: Miami (who, fortunately, never had opportunity to make a clever one-liner). I stopped the car - a 70s Cadillac pimp-mobile - a few dozen yards away, turned it off, and got out.

That's when the gunfire started, from the boarded up windows of an abandoned building [it really is a shame, the socioeconomic depression in the Little Havana in my subconscious]. I ducked for cover behind the car, but Megan was pinned down in the open, stranded in the middle of the street.

She used Horatio's body as a make-shift shield, and was screaming at me to drive to her. Crouched behind the Cadillac, I tried to get the keys out of my pocket, but they were stuck.

They were stuck.

They were stuck!

It was at this point that I awoke. It was after 4am, and my heart was racing. This kind of heart rate usually follows a hard effort up a hill, and each beat pounded in my ears.

Now here is where it gets really weird, so I'll recount it as accurately and without embellishment as possible:

Still half asleep, I thought back to what had woken me up. I couldn't get the keys out of my pocket. It woke me up. If I go back to sleep, I still won't be able to get the keys out of my pocket. I should fool myself. So I reached into my empty pajama pocket, grabbed at nothing, and pulled my hand out. My heart rate had slowed. I went to sleep.

Now I was sitting in the car, the motor running. I drove between Megan and the building, and she dove into the back seat. I sped away.

End of dream.

It is weird to me that I diagnosed a sticking point in the dream, and weirder that I devised a remedy in the form of self-deceit. It is weirdest that the remedy worked, but it is much weirdest-er that when I did resume dreaming, I resumed the exact same narrative, but had skipped a few steps.

Was I awake so briefly that the neural activity that had created the dream was still "cued" in my gray matter? Did the dream progress because the dream-related neural pattern had progressed in parallel, and independent of, my conscious thoughts? Had I not physically performed the act of removing (imaginary) keys from my (empty) pocket, would I have resumed the loop of stuck keys? Why did I remember this dream so much more vividly than any other dreams?

I therefore draw the following two conclusions:
  1. Neuropsychology is rich and fascinating
  2. I watch too much television

Get Your Fingers Off Their Asses

These posts aren't going to write themselves, people.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Posty Post

The past few weeks have proven to be surprisingly busy. I didn't have any finals (mostly because I didn't take any courses), but I had enough going on that I've had no energy, even if enough time, to blog. The dearth of posts has been tough for me - I really do take great comfort in this creative outlet - but it certainly must've been tougher for you, my voracious and dedicated readership.

Well, I'm glad we took this break, glad we decided to see other blogs. You do know that it wasn't you, it was me, don't you? It's like they say, if you love some blog, set it free; If it comes back to posting, then it was truly meant to be. Cliche #4 escapes me, but it would go here.

Anyway, now that we're back together again (couldn't split up Kato and Nash, couldn't split up Tango and Cash), I can guarantee a 40% increase in allusion, 63% reduction in parenthetical, obscure song lyrics, and 3 times the content. OR YOUR MONEY BACK.

Merry Christmas, by the way, to those who observe it.

In closing, here is a picture from Cyclocross National Championships, in bitter, frigid, barren Kansas City:

Yes, that is beer, frozen to my sweet-ass red mustache.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oh Lord, They Gave Hack a Gun

(This post is dedicated to Bill, who's back from the 'Stan, and Mark, who's en route)

Regardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that sending letters to servicemen stationed overseas, especially around the holidays, is a very nice thing to do. It's a classic "it's the thought that counts" gesture, and I doubt they'd very much care how eloquent your writing was.

If you know Hack - and if you attended Case Western Reserve between 1997 and 2003, you know Hack - then you'll understand why this letter was as eloquent as it gets. From the mouths of babes...

Dear Lieutenant Hack, I hope you came back safely. Thank you for helping our country. My name is David and I'm a kind of kid who believes in winning.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Waxing Roadie-Douchization of Cyclocross

It's hard to define the lines between the road attitude, the cyclocross attitude, and the mountain bike attitude. Lots of people, myself included, belong to all three subsets. Stereotypes abound - MTBers smoke pot, roadies are pretentious, etc - but they are accepted as stereotypes, not as reality.

I think we can all agree that the fights at Nationals were not in the spirit of cyclocross. Heckling during an interview? Fistfights?! One might characterize that as fitting in the realm of Roadies. It was, dare I say it, churlish.

You know who the innocent victims were in all of this? the bikes.

Update: Can anyone please enlighten us as to what in the hell happened between Myseron and Baker? The elder Wells' blog mentions a mid-race fistfight, but that's all I've been able to find. Inquiring minds demand to know!

Update 2: Oh, I see.

Monday, December 15, 2008


My department is having a competition at the Holiday Party, sort of a science-meets-art contest. Participants will take figures - graphics, microscopy, protein maps, whatever - and present them as a gallery. There will even be prizes!

So, here's my submission. I'm leaving out the caption, because BORING. If you're really curious, it'll be added after the competition, or if you're Will, Aaron, or Chaz, you should probably just show up to the Holiday Party.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Decisions, Part 1

Hi. Do you have free will?

No, I'm not asking if wcuk is a pay site.

The question of free will is fundamentally deep (and deeply fundamental... zing!). What is consciousness, what is "I"? Hofstadter took a swing at it, and while I'm only about 1/3 of the way through, my mind is already boggled.

There's a great clip from Waking Life that deals with this question. It doesn't answer the question, because who could hope to answer it? Instead, it looks at free will by way of physics, applying deterministic and probabilistic physics to neuropsychology. Both of these approaches are ... unfulfilling. To paraphrase: Either we're cogs in a giant machine whose initial conditions were set at the big bang, or everything is the consequence of random chaos and is therefore meaningless.

Surely there is a theological response to the question of free will. I am not aware of it, because as a policy, I've tried to stay away from theology, and I will continue to do so in this post. You understand.

In fact, let's abandon this level of thought. Frankly, the only reason I included it at all was to impress you with my cleverness and depth (Do you like me? Check one: ___ Yes ___ No ___ Maybe). Let's instead assume that we do have free will, that we do make decisions that are based on the Self and the Conscious.

The question now is: Just how free is our free will?

There's a program on NPR called Radio Lab. It is amazing. I can't recommend it highly enough. In one of their episodes, they did a better job of answering this question than I can ever do. You should probably stop reading and just listen to their show.

Still here? Well, that's your choice. Or is it? (Damn, that was a good segue).

The episode describes three experiments that were conducted by behavioral psychologists, each of which reveals something about the nature of our decision-making process. Namely, that this process is so easily manipulated as to be laughable. I'll summarize them here, and in Part 2, but please don't hold me to the details.

Do you like the Hang In There Baby cat posters? I don't, I find them puerile and saccharine. I, personally, would much prefer some Impressionist art, although I'll admit that I couldn't tell Impressionism from Cubism from a hole in the wall.

A few dozen people (enough for statistical significance, I presume) were given the choice between the two. They were sent into a gallery full of posters, half Kitty and half Impressionist. They were told, "here's a gallery, you can take one, and it's yours to keep!"

For half of them (Group A), that was it. For the other half (B), there was one more caveat: They had to write a paragraph or two explaining their selection.

The results are unsettling: Group A tended to choose the Impressionist posters, while Group B chose adorable little Kitties.

The group that had to justify their decision was driven towards the simplistic, inane, stupid choice. Now, it would be downright unscientific of me to do that, to let my own personal prejudices color my interpretation of the results. Instead, why don't I let the subjects' do the talking?

In a poll a few months after the gallery experiment, subjects were asked if they were happy with their selection. The trend was that Group A was happy, while Group B was not. Nobody wanted the Kitty posters! By simply making the subjects verbalize their reasoning, the experimenters manipulated them into taking what they didn't even want, even though they'd walked out of the room feeling satisfied!

Free will indeed.

to be continued...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When I don't get what I want, I tantrum by blogging

I want a new phone. I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it. I want it NOW.

Having done my homework, I know exactly which phone I want, and I went to the Verizon store to buy it. I was ready to pay, cash monies.

Apparently, the deal that had been offered online is only available to new customers, or to current customers who've earned an upgrade.

I'll fit into the latter category - that is, I will be eligible for an upgrade - in late April. Until then, the purchase of the phone will be FOUR TIMES as expensive. April 21st: $400. April 22nd: $100.

Now, I didn't go to business school. Remember that microeconomics-tutorial Apple game, Lemonade Stand? Perhaps you remember its darker TI-83 cousin, Drug Wars? Well I couldn't stand them. Still, naive to economics though I might be, I'm pretty sure that this arrangement is stupid.

Let's examine why, using a series of case studies...

Case #1 - New customer
Wants: A phone and a plan.
Moneymakers as they stand: The plan (or, to some degree, the new phone).
Potential to make more: Convince the customer to get a better plan (or a more expensive phone).
Summary: There is no effect from the Current Upgrade Policy on the new customer. He is not upgrading, because he is a new customer.

Case #2 - Joe Schmoe
Wants: A new phone every so often
Moneymakers: The plan.
Potential: Maybe the customer will NEED a new phone before two years are up, and will be forced to pay full price. Or maybe he'll pay more for service, just to speed up the upgrade delay.
Summary: A new phone every two years and the slim possibility of a pricier plan.

Case #3 - Fashionista
Wants: The newest phone
Moneymakers: The new phones that he buys at full price because OMG BLACKBERRY STORM!
Potential: Charge him even more for the phones, because he can't say no.
Summary: Phones are like crack to this customer. Have your way with him.

Case #4 - Penny Pincher
Wants: A new phone for free.
Moneymakers: The plan.
Potential: The customer is in it for the upgrades. Only wants the cheapest phone. Will always wait for his free upgrade, even if the old phone is held together with twine and chewing gum.
Summary: There is no money to be made here.

This system works well enough, I'm sure. Why else would the phone companies keep using it? The Fashionistas' paychecks burn holes in their pockets every time they see an iPhone, and even the Joe Schmoes occasionally break or lose a phone.

Assuming (and this is a big assumption) there is money to be made off of phones, here's an alternate proposal: Instead of a quantum leap from full-price to heavily-discounted upgrade price, why not set up a gradient, such that the longer you wait, the greater the discount.

Setting a limit would keep the price from dropping too low, and it would probably even encourage people to buy phones earlier. People like me. I hope you didn't need my money, Verizon, 'cause you're not getting it until April.

There are downsides to my proposal. Fashionistas would still buy frequently, but each purchase would be discounted. Joes with broken phones would also be spending less, even though the company had them over a barrel already.

If companies are selling phones at a loss, then this plan may break down. The increased frequency of purchases would be costly. People may be drawn to companies that offer better discounts, but on the other hand, how many consumers think "I may want a new phone in 18 months, but I'll have to wait a further 6 months"? Tell me, MBAs-to-be, does business school teach you to rely on consumers' ability to delay gratification?

I contend that my plan would, at worst, yield no change in profit. At best, it would boost the number of sales, have minimal effect on each phone's profit margin, promote pricier plans (to match the phones' bells and whistles), and increase customer satisfaction.

Somebody please tell me why I have to wait until April?

Sent from my computer, because I don't have a Blackberry or Palm or anything cool.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Just Cous

These are some pictures worth keeping. The stories behind them don't really need to be told, although a caption or two wouldn't hurt.

All the cousins and the common set of grandparents. Posed.

Every family affair mandates a posed portrait, and that's acceptable. Personally, I prefer the candids, which tend to tell a tale by themselves.

The California cousins

The Jersey cousins

This is my favorite picture. Out of context, it could be the juxtaposition of the oldest cousin and the youngest cousin. It could also be the vaguely beard-related (technically speaking, I think the term is "barbaric") gesture - my cousins took to calling me "Bearded Donnie", which is fantastic. But mostly it's about the breakfast that was still on his chin.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

When is a 5k not a 5k?

My uncle started a tradition in the family, running a fun 5k the morning of Thanksgiving. A Turkey Trot, if you will. Certainly this tradition is not unique to our family, but it is a welcome addition to the usual list of turkey and cranberry sauce and cornucopia centerpieces.

Two years ago was in Delaware, not two miles from Granogue, where I paced Sol to a then-excellent 24 minute 5k. This year we were in California for a holiday weekend hosted by the other cousins, so my uncle found us a Turkey Trot in that neck of the woods. Along with 8,000 other Trotters (at least half of whom had baby carriages, it seemed), we raced around San Jose while working up ambitious appetites (and staying out of the hostess' hair).

Sol lined up towards the front, and he ran his way to a top-50. No longer just a sporty kid, Sol is now an athlete in his own right. If he would only get a haircut... sigh.

The youngest paced himsef admirably, finishing soundly - and with enough energy to spend an hour on the trampoline later that day!
Trampoline Enthusiast

My brother ran with the red-head, and while she has a great deal more experience than him, he's got longer legs. And more facial hair. Anyway, she's more of a sprinter, and he's more of a ... thinker. Me, I could've used a bit more thinking.
These two? Showboat? Well I never!

When the gun went off, I started. Walking. It took a good two and a half minutes before I got to the start line, and even then, there was a wall of walkers in front of me. If there's one thing I've learned from 'cross, it's this: Ride the tape. So I cut over to the sidewalk and tried to settle into a rhythm.

When the sidewalk ended, I was back to the "running back" mentality, as my uncle so aptly put it. Cut between obstacles, surge when in clear terrain, and always look for holes. I've no idea how many people I passed, but it must've been in the hundreds, if not thousands.

So focused was I on the zig-zagging, and so short on oxygen, that I didn't keep my head up. There was a water station on the right, and the whole mass of humanity started moving right (because you NEEEED water in the middle of a chilly 5k). So I went right too.

Still fighting for space, still riding the tape, I zigged and zagged so far to the right that I went behind the water station. No big deal, I thought, unaware that there had been signs saying "Turn Around Here for the 5 K!!!"

When I hit the second water station at the 3 mile marker, I thought to myself "something is wrong". People are dumb, sure, but nobody's dumb enough to take a water break 160 meters from the finish line.

"Am I on the 10k course?" I asked? "Yes," some tan guy in an Ironman shirt answered with an air of smugness. Thanks, you overqualified orange jerk.

I did not quit. I did not walk. I just laughed. Again. And then the hurting started.

When I finished the full 10 kilometers (outsprinted somebody, too, because he was there), I was not feeling too well. I know my body, and I'd pushed too hard somewhere around the 4th mile. My quads were ablaze with pain, and I knew I needed to sit down as soon as possible.

Twenty minutes later, after posing for pictures...
Everybody smile and say "cramp"!

...and hiking up a neverending flight of stairs...
Why did we park all the way up there?!

...I finally got to put on warm clothes and eat.
nom nom nom

The soreness lasted through Monday, preventing me from fully enjoying traditional family activities like trampolining, football, and walking.

Worth it? Absolutely.

But so help me, I'm not running again until August.

Shutting it Down

I am unofficially ending my season at HPCX. That is, I am done racing bicycles, as of November 9. Unofficially.

My last race, at Whitmore, was a farce, and I've barely spent any time on the bike - aside from racing - since October. The motivation's just not there, and on the rare days that it is, my legs are absent instead.

That's normal. That's what happens at the end of the season. It's okay.

So why don't I officially hang up the 'cross bike and call it a year? Because I'm a team player, and also because flying doesn't allow for flexibile travel plans.

This weekend, there will be two ECCC races in Warwick, Rhode Island (which is known for its tropical climate and ... screw it, all I really want, and so all I will passive-aggressively indict, is the temperature). Rutgers has a shot to win the ECCC again, but it's damn close. If we lose to UVM, I will be so pissed. SO PISSED. If we need me to roll around Warwick for 45 minutes and earn whatever scraps that dude from Cornell and the UVM duo leave for me, then that's what I'll do. So there that is.

Next weekend is Nationals. On the face of it, I have nothing to gain at Nats. I can barely even hope for a lead lap finish, and my more realistic goal is to finish in the top 2/3 of racers. I can't root for my teammates, as I'll be racing concurrently. But the round-trip ticket is already booked, so there that is too.

So instead of looking at these from the viewpoint of functional gain, let's look at it differently. 45 minutes of suffering (and believe me, even just rolling around, it will be suffering) is a small price to pay for two straight vacation weekends! I'll get to road trip with my friends, and we always find a way to have fun when we road trip.

"But Don," you chorus, "isn't racing all about fun anyway?" Yes, except that mentally, you (more specifically, I) need to turn that competitive drive on when the race starts. Not everybody is like that, but it's the way I am. Lacking that sharp edge, with my heart not in it anymore, it really isn't fun now. It's time to take a holiday.

It worries me that this will come across as preemptive excuse-making, and excuse-making is the absolute worst kind of blogging, or thinking. Let me be clear: I don't think I'll lose to anybody who couldn't have beaten me before I mentally pulled the plug on the season. Rather than being defeatist, I'm simply throwing the baby away with the bathwater, and there should be no inferences drawn beyond that.

See you in Warwick... but if you're looking for my heart, you'll have to wait for March.

Post Script: If any of my teammates are pissed that I'm spending so much of the team's money to race... I have no answer for you. You're absolutely right to be upset. As stated above, though, there's no way around it now. Nevertheless, it may ease your concern to know that Nationals is paid for by a funding source separate from the team's budget.

I Can Ride A Horse With No Handlebars

On Friday, for the first time in my life, I rode a horse. The family went to Half Moon Bay, just South of San Francisco, and we all rode horses. Horses!

Here's the thing about horses: They're alive.

Don't get me wrong, I had a great time, but it was so very unnerving. Maybe I'm too used to bicycles... I just don't want control being out of my control. My steering inputs should be crisply and promptly executed, not taken into consideration for further review. When I need to stop, it shouldn't be treated as a suggestion.

It was like riding at Cross Nats last year. Except, I could feel my fingers and toes. And I didn't get pulled out.

The following photo is the perfect snapshot of the experience. At a glance, you can tell that I'm moving fast, or at least fast enough that my horse Truck is kicking up sand and its mane is whipped by the wind.

I name almost all my bikes after animals. How fitting that my animal was named for a machine.

Anyway, if you look at the full-size picture (i.e., click on it), and if you look at my expression, it's all written there... I'm trying very very hard not to panic. Man was not meant to travel at such breakneck speeds! Abject terror, induced by trotting. The illusion of velocity.

There were two impressive stories that day, and my heroic struggle not to openly weep wasn't one of them.

First was Kurt. No sooner had he mounted his horse, Zapatos, than it began to buck. Like a bronco, in a rodeo. In just more than the blink of an eye, but slightly less than two shakes of a lamb's tail, Kurt had been bucked right off that horse, and he'd landed on asphalt.

He could've walked away right then, and nobody would've thought any less of him. Shit, even I almost dismounted when I heard that thud! Instead, Kurt, all of 15 years old, got right back on the horse, lending rare reality to on an oft-abused metaphor. Although, to be honest, he did get back on a different horse.

What then became of Zapatos, the bucking bastard? (and had he thrown my Aunt rather than her son, would he have been a mother-bucker?) My brother rode him. Ben's is the second impressive story of that day.

While my cousins and I went through the five stages of grief -
  • Denial, as in "The horse will eventually realize that I'm trying to steer him left and will go left"
  • Anger, as in "Goddammit, horse, you will go left or so help me I'll..."
  • Bargaining, as in "If you go left, I won't kick you in the ribs for a while"
  • Depression, as in "This is it, I'm going to be killed by a docile herbivore"
  • Acceptance, as in "Screw it, the horse knows what to do, might as well enjoy the ride"
- Ben took control.

When the rest of us couldn't convince our horses to trot, Ben would dart ahead, then rein back and wait for us. When Truck turned sideways and held up the pack as he munched on weeds, Ben was able to turn Zapatos completely around, saunter back to us, and mock me thoroughly before I could convince my Truck to continue. When we were commanding our horses to trot in every language possible (I went through everything from "hup hup hup" to "allez allez allez" to "venga venga venga" - okay, that's about all I came up with), he and Zapatos were frolicking way up the beach.

Ben really showed some innate talent. But, since I am his big brother, and so it says to do this in the manual, I should point out that it was probably beginner's luck, and had Ben known that he was on the horse that had thrown Kurt, things might have progressed differently. Also he (Ben, but also Zapatos) smelled like horses.