Monday, December 8, 2014

The Shade of a Tree

"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

- Greek Proverb

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Science Tab Dump

Because when shit's falling apart around you, the sane man escapes into the wonder of the cosmos...

This article about the seven wonders of our solar system is a good reminder of the incredible scale of what's in our immediate vicinity. Check out some of these examples:
  • Jupiter's Great Red Spot. "A storm," Bova pointed out, "larger than the entire planet Earth that has been raging across the face of the solar system's largest planet for at least four hundred years." But it's just it's great size and height that gives it its distinctive color
  • Olympus Mons, a volcano on Mars, that is so large that it rises above the Martian atmosphere. 
  • The martian canyon Valles Marineris is as long as the United States. (There's a lot of awe about these natural features in KSR's Mars trilogy.) 
Sander van den Berg has animated thousands of stunning real pictures from NASA's Cassini and Voyager satellites in this short video. Wow. The images of the moving clouds of Jupiter and Saturn are mesmerizing.

Many people credit Poe with being the first Horror and Detective writers. Now perhaps he was the first SciFi writer as well? Click through to see Eliza Strickland talk about Poe's poem Eureka, which includes “a spookily intuitive description of the Big Bang theory more than 70 years before astrophysicists came up with the idea."

Get your Sunshine shades on!

More and more scientists are becoming more open to the idea that we might live in a multiverse:
If  modern physics is to be believed, we shouldn't be here. The meager dose of energy infusing empty space, which at higher levels would rip the cosmos apart, is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times tinier than theory predicts. And the minuscule mass of the Higgs boson, whose relative smallness allows big structures such as galaxies and humans to form, falls roughly 100 quadrillion times short of expectations. Dialing up either of these constants even a little would render the universe unlivable.
To account for our incredible luck, leading cosmologists like Alan Guth and Stephen Hawking envision our universe as one of countless bubbles in an eternally frothing sea. This infinite “multiverse” would contain universes with constants tuned to any and all possible values, including some outliers, like ours, that have just the right properties to support life. In this scenario, our good luck is inevitable: A peculiar, life-friendly bubble is all we could expect to observe.
Many physicists loathe the multiverse hypothesis, deeming it a cop-out of infinite proportions. But as attempts to paint our universe as an inevitable, self-contained structure falter, the multiverse camp is growing.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Neuromancer's Influence

William Gibson's Neuromancer, along with Stephenson’s Snow Crash, fully envisioned an entirely new SciFi idea: cyberspace. Essentially virtual reality, it was famously described by Gibson as “a conceptual hallucination… a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”  This concept was also very exciting to those of us who were limited to going to the arcade to pay-to-play or by playing Atari chunky-pixel games or text-based games at home.

Case, the main character of Neuromancer is an addict hacker tricked into jacking into a corporate network, after which, of course, complications ensure. The novel alternates between the incredible cyberspace scenes and his real live in "the Sprawl,” a megalopolis ranging down the east coast of North America from Atlanta to Boston (think Bladerunner).  With the help of Molly, a hip augmented "street samurai", Case tries to get his life under control while also changing the entire face of cyberspace.

It feels almost quaint now, since that vision of an electronic frontier with hackers as noir-like freedom fighters died an early death after 9/11 as government has taken more and more of a role in total mediation of the online experience. (This is one of the themes in Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, among other things.) It’s also incredibly influential – everything from the Matrix movies to the Lego movie owe Gibson a debt. He also predicted the modern focus on hacking, surveillance, terror, and an almost workship of technology. It should be said that Gibson's writing isn't the smoothest prose out there, but it gets the job done. For me, it’s hard to separate the strength of the book from the impact that it made upon me as a young’en. It sparked the cyberpunk aesthetic (google that term for fun pictures!), which was very exciting to a kid like me living in rural America that didn't even get Fox on our televisions. In the end, this quote sums up a lot:
"Neuromancer," says novelist and blogger Cory Doctorow, "remains a vividly imagined allegory for the world of the 1980s, when the first seeds of massive, globalised wealth-disparity were planted, and when the inchoate rumblings of technological rebellion were first felt. A generation later, we're living in a future that is both nothing like the Gibson future and instantly recognizable as its less stylish, less romantic cousin. Instead of zaibatsus [large conglomerates] run by faceless salarymen, we have doctrinaire thrusting young neocons and neoliberals who want to treat everything from schools to hospitals as businesses."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Comet Landing!

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko
So 10 years ago, mankind launched a box named Rosetta into space. It traveled over 4 billion miles to sync up with the orbit of comet 67P, a hunk of rock and ice only 2.5 miles in diameter and travelling 85K MPH. The comet is believed to have formed 4.6 billion years ago with material leftover from when the solar system was coalescing. Rosetta launched a lander Philae to the surface of the comet yesterday and, after bouncing twice (harpoon failure!), the comet is safely on the surface in a gravity just .01% of the Earth.

I'm awestruck, in the true sense of the word. And best of all, the comet is singing!

For more on the mission, check out this post on Bad Astronomy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

It May Be the Last Act Before Your Arrest

“What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary — property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life — don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart — and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory,”

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl"

Gone Girl is  one twisted book. The first half of the novel – despite some rather cheesy diary sections – contains some excellent writing as Flynn paints a picture of Nick and Amy, a husband and wife struggling through a tough life together. While they ostensibly are doing the same things, the chapters that alternate between their points of view reveal they are experiencing two very different realities. Filled with insights for anyone who has been in a close relationship for any significant period of time, it's easily the best part of the book. And while it’s obvious that there’s a twist coming, this is not telegraphed nor does it detract from the power of the story. However, once the secret is revealed, the book transforms into a thriller – a highly accomplished and exciting ride, to be sure, but one that wasn't as consistently insightful and engaging to me as the beginning.

[Spoiler alert!] This is partly due to the fact that, in the end,  the wife Amy becomes a super-criminal, inspiring awe in her ability to plan her way out of the most incredible situations. This ability dehumanizes her and thus belittles the interesting observations that she’s made before. For example, the famous Cool Girl speech, one of the best moments of the book, takes on a new light once you comprehend the depth of Amy’s psychopathic personality. I suspect that Flynn would argue that Amy’s perspective allows her to achieve these bitterly insightful observations, but I found myself pondering why I would trust anything stated by such a twisted personality.

And it wasn’t just Amy, all of the characters got flatter and flatter as the book went on. The only one that remained real to me the entire way was Go, serving as the Greek Chorus, keeping us grounded as to the insanity of it all.

The ending of the book is just fucked up. Expertly executed, it floored me in its cynicism, leaving me quietly angry at both the characters and the situation. I haven’t been this affected by an ending since Fight Club – high praise indeed. As frustrated as I found myself with the book, it’s stuck with me a long time.

In closing, i'd like to thank Ms. Flynn for giving us Tanner Brock: the best name for a lawyer, ever.

Cross-posted in Reading, Running and Red Sox

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Managing in Agile Scrum

Being a manager in an Agile environment is a bit like taking your first child home from the hospital. You have a general sense of what you need to do, and a lot of people giving you advice, but no really specific guidelines.  So what’s the best way to make sense of the role?

First of all, it’s normal to feel confused when first managing people working in Agile Scrum. After all, the Scrum framework only includes three roles, none of which is a manager. In fact, it’s common for Scrum Teams to shut out managers because they are not clear what their role is. What these people are missing is that when done right, managers have a lot to offer Scrum Teams, and are essential in the effective running of an enterprise company.

Managers can help drive a high-performance organization by moving away from a command and control mindset to one that is principles driven. This means less focusing on the specific actions that your teams are performing as it is guiding and incrementally improving the system within which the teams work.  Some examples of this might include:

  • Support implementing engineering practices like automated testing and continuous integration so that teams can spend less time on routine tasks and focus on creating truly innovative software. 
  • Listen closely to teams and remove the structural and process problems that they say are holding them back. This may mean protecting them from disruptions.
  • Provide a larger context for your employee’s work, helping them to connect what they are working on into a cohesive, company-wide picture. 
  • Design or support work routines that allow for code refactoring – although it would be up to the team to figure out exactly what would be refactored.
  • Build a bridge between the product management strategy and what teams can deliver.
  • Use Performance Management to align your teams to where the company will need to be six months or even years in the future. For instance, do we have the right people in the right jobs? Do they have the skills and technology they need to succeed?

As a manager, only by combining these various skills together into a web of support for the people you manage will you help them to navigate the rough waters of modern software development. Managers can guide the change the organization needs to be successful. And while you may make some mistakes along the way, that's okay - as long as you take it upon yourself to get better every day, carrying everyone along with you, the organization will be in a better place tomorrow then we are today. Good luck!

Related Posts:
The Paradox at the Heart of Scrum
The Science of Innovation

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dispelling the Dread and Darkness

"This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of the day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature."


Thursday, October 9, 2014

First Lines of "The Bone Clocks"

"I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place on Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom."

- David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks.

I'm only 20 pages in and already love it. Love me some Mitchell-vibe.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

First Lines of "Gone Girl"

"When I think of my wife, I always think of her heard. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily."

- Gillian Flynn, from Gone Girl.

An incredibly fun book. Ripped through the second half of it in a sleep-deprived three-day fever dream. More thoughts on it coming soon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: Game of Thrones and More

I was a latecomer to the Game of Thrones novels as my introduction came through the excellent HBO series. The show was so consistently excellent that I was forced – forced! – to pick up the book because everybody knows that the books are always better than the movie. (There are, of course, notable exceptions like Blade Runner, but not many.). A Song of Ice and Fire - the title of all of Martin's novels - is no exception to this rule. Taking nothing away from the wildly entertaining show, George R. R. Martin books show his incredible talent as a storyteller and first-class world builder. His books are intimidatingly long - all are 700 pages or more - and for this reason, rather than reviewing the three novels I've read (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords) I've simply written an unordered list of my reactions to the books. Note that there are spoilers!


  • Scene. Perhaps as a result of his years working in the movie industry, the episodic nature of his novels – each chapter is told from the POV of one of the characters – works masterfully. Almost every scene ends with a dramatic cliffhanger that feels like a natural culmination of what happened before while leaving you starved for more.
  • Shades of Grey. Martin revels in ambiguity. The novels expand upon many of the no win situations that the characters find themselves in. Look at the famous one: Neddard Stark continually does what on its face appears to be the right and honorable thing to do. However, things are not that easy, and Stark's behaviors dooms him in Martin’s realpolitik world. This might be the grimmest fantasy series I've ever read.
  • Mixed emotions. Martin always shows you both sides of the situation. For example, because he's a horrible person doing horrible things, you find yourself wishing for King Jeoffrey to die. When he finally does, Martin doesn't let you forget that Jeoffrey's a 13 year old boy that never had a chance at a normal life, having been spoiled and pampered and used as a political pawn. None of this excuses his awful acts, but it does make you pause.  


  • Details. Damn the guy is a completist. He details the power structures and families in such numbing detail that it becomes exhausting to impossible to follow the complex lineages - and that's with a guide in the back of the books! Quite frankly I don’t care about a fraction of most of these minor characters and backstory, since most of them are minor to nonexistent characters. 
  • Sexism. There’s a casual sexism to the books that pops up occasionally, usually when talking about whores, that is disconcerting. This becomes doubly so when you see it acted out on screen in the series, dramatized most with 
Differences to the HBO Series:

  • Theon. I was pleasantly surprised that the books contained little to no Theon Grayjoy! The series had way too much of his torture-porn story line that not only served no point but was absolutely disgusting to see depicted on screen.
  • Sansa. While I’m not a Sansa fan - she's way too passive in the show to be entertaining - in the books, you receive so much insight into the thought processes behind her mask that you sympathize with her rather than tiring of her empty expressions. 
  • Wilding Love. The relationship between John Snow and Ygrette, so subdued in the book, is amplified to 11 in the series, not always for the better. Still, I did love hearing Rose Leslie say "you know nothing Jon Snow!"

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What Do We Save?

I've touched upon this before, but a report from the World Wildlife Fund details that the way we live is just decimating wildlife across the planet. As Christopher Ingraham writes:
We’ve killed roughly half of the world’s non-human vertebrate animal population since 1970. … The declines are almost exclusively caused by humans’ ever-increasing footprint on planet earth. “Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to provide the ecological goods and services we use each year,” according to the report. The only reason we’re able to run above max capacity – for now – is that we’re stripping away resources faster than we can replenish them. 
To choose just one example, it's why you're seeing entire populations of walruses stuffed together onto rocks - because there's no more ice!

Along those lines, David Biello takes the occasion of the 50 year anniversary of the Wilderness Act to observe that most "wilderness" as we define it in the states is land that has either been used in the past and now protected and recovering, or protected land that still shows signs of human interference.
The natural world can only persist now as a deliberate act of human will. That will require firm human purpose as a gesture of humility, yes, but also a form of self-protection. “This is not really an ‘environmental problem.’ It’s a human problem,” writes environmental historian Roderick Frazier Nash of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “What needs to be conquered now is not the wilderness, but ourselves.”
This all reminds me of a Radiolab podcast about the Galapagos. One of the interviewees, in a conversation about the insane lengths that the country made to save a species of tortoise, observes that we've changed our world so dramatically that the only way forward is to accept that Nature will never be how it was. As they pithily stated it: if we're going to play God, we should at least commit to doing it right. In other words, that means making careful and deliberate decisions about what species or environments we want to save given our limited resources - and which we should let go.

One one hand, this argument makes sense. The science behind climate change is so overwhelming and irrefutable that it's logical to start looking at the small corners that you can preserve in order to avoid being overwhelmed by it all. But on the other hand, I don't feel that our species are capable of making these types of decisions. Just look at how our decades of inability have action have led us to his mess to begin with! I don't have any answers but these are important questions to ponder.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Thinking of You

"To think that I am not going to think of you any more is still thinking of you. Let me then try not to think that I am not going to think of you."

-  R. D. Laing

Friday, October 3, 2014

What is Life?

"Life consists in what a man is thinking all day."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Running and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

In three short weeks - October 19th - I'll be running in the Empire State Marathon. I've decided to do so as a member of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) Team in Training program in order to help find cures and ensure access to treatments for blood cancer patients. So I've set up a little widget in the left corner of this blog - anything you can spare would be appreciated. (Mobile users might need to view the standard webpage.)

Some history: my wife was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Lymphoma last year. While she has since eradicated the disease (after undergoing an unpleasant chemotherapy program), the whole experience was extremely scary. The LLS website was one of the few calm, objective sources of information that helped us get our minds around what we were dealing with in the initial dark days after the diagnosis.

Since the recovery, I strive to continually be grateful for my family's health, and recognize how lucky I am to spend absurd amounts of time running outside. So it only seems right that I spend some of that time trying to help those that aren't as lucky. The LLS does excellent work funding treatments that save lives every day; like immnuotherapies that use a person’s own immune system to kill cancer. I was beyond impressed how the oncologist was able to customize a chemo "cocktail" to address my wife's specific form of lymphoma. LLS helps give doctors these tools.

So if you can, send along what you can to help us get closer to a world without blood cancers. Any money I raise will be matched by my company - so anything you give will be doubled! If you don't have any money to spare, no worries - I understand. Thanks for your attention, and i'll be sure to let you know how the run goes!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Banned Books Week!

"We all know that books burn, yet we have the greater knowledge that books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man's eternal fight against tyranny of every kind. In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man's freedom."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
The American Library Association has named September 21-27th Banned Books Week as a way of celebrating the freedom to read. It's remarkable to think that it wasn't so long ago that books were regularly being censored - the famous ones I can think of are The Catcher in the RyeLady Chatterly's LoverNaked Lunch, and - one of the great formative novels of my youth - Robert Cormier's excellent The Chocolate War. Luckily, through vigilance and additional delivery platforms such as eBooks, censorship appears to be minimized these days, but it's worth remembering how grim the situation was.

In reading about this event, I came across this powerful afterward added to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451:
"About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles? A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I "do them over"? Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.  Two weeks ago my mount of mail delivered forth a pip-squeak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story "The Fog Horn" in a high school reader. In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a "God-Light." Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in "the Presence." The editors had deleted "God-Light" and "in the Presence." ... Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture? How did I react to all of the above?
By "firing" the whole lot.
By sending rejection slips to each and every one.
By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches."
h/t Daily Kos

Cross Posted in Reading, Running and Red Sox


Two news items from The Church:
  1. They have a new album coming out on October 17th! According to the press release, their 25th studio album is going to be called Further/Deeper. Being a big fan of the poppy space jazz of their last album Untitled #23, I’m intrigued to see if they can follow up on its success.
    Stream one of the songs here:
  2. Marty Wilson-Piper has been replaced with Ian Haug from Powderfinger. (In Kilbey's inimitable fashion, he blogged about MWP's apparent retirement by stating "this is my fucking band after all.") I know nothing bout Haug, so I'm not sure what this will mean, other than i'll miss the interplay between MWP and Peter Koppes. Not being a musical expert, I can't tell you that I know anythning about which guitarist played what, but The Church's sound has been driven by the interplay of two lead guitarists with lots of cool ideas. Although both MWP and Koppes have left The Church at different points, leaving the other to take on all of guitar duties (see Koppes work on The Refo:mation LP), this didn't result in any major changes of direction. We'll find out soon!
    I'm also curious to see how MWP's absence affects their live show. You know i'm going to see them on tour, and will be looking to see if the experience misses  MWPs undeniable charisma.

Monday, September 22, 2014

First Lines of Murakami's "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage"

"From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying. He turned twenty during this time, but this special watershed—becoming an adult—meant nothing. Taking his own life seemed the most natural solution, and even now he couldn't say why he hadn't taken this final step. Crossing that threshold between life and death would have been easier than swallowing down a slick, raw egg."

- Haruki Murakami

Fell right into this one. Started Friday night and am already half-way through!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

First lines of George R.R. Martin's first three "Song of Fire and Ice" novels

I've been lax at posting these lately, but over the summer I plowed through the first three novels in George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy. Here are the first lines of each of them:

Game of Thrones
"The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement."
Clash of Kings
"The comet’s tail spread across the dawn, a red slash that blew above the crags of Dragonstone like a wound in the pink and purple sky."
Storm of Swords
"The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent."
Some quick reactions:

  • Well-written and amazingly entertaining. Despite their incredible size, these books kept me riveted.
  • Ambiguous. Martin doesn't shy away from the shades of grey in all of his characters. At times, you root for the "evil" characters and wish for the "good" ones to die. Fun!
  • Complex. Martin has constructed and incredible world filled with a wonderfully complete and nuanced history.
  • Genuinely unpredictable. Part of the fun of the ride of these books is that you never know what's going to happen next... unless of course you've seen the TV show.
I need a break from the Song of Fire and Ice epic for a bit - mainly because my bedside table is filled with books that are crying to be read (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of Pilgrimage, The Bone Clocks, Gone Girl, etc.) but i'll be coming back before too long.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What is the Inferno?

Inspiring lines from Calvino's classic novel:

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

Friday, September 5, 2014

Where has all the Nature Gone?

A sobering statistic:
Invertebrate numbers–not species, but total numbers–have fallen 45% in the last 35 years.
Combine that with news like this and it's enough to drive you to drink (not that I need a reason):
A new study just published shows that—using more accurate measurements than ever before—Greenland and Antarctica are together losing ice at incredible rates: Together, over 500 (±107) cubic kilometers of ice are melting from them every year.
That means 450 billion tons of ice are lost every year, melted away into the oceans. 
It's hard to not let facts like this demoralize and overwhelm you, especially when confronted with the willful ignorance of some that it's even existing and the utter lack of ability to change things by most of us. The effects of all of my recycling and composting is put into harsh relief every time I travel to a state where recycling isn't mandatory, or even a conference where everyone tosses their plastic bottles and plates into the garbage.

But something is happening, and we do know what it is. It's time to be mindful about the damage that we're doing and take any steps - no matter how small! - to fix the situation.

“…have the courage to assume that you can solve tomorrow’s problems tomorrow” - Scott Ambler

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Earth's Eye

"A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."

- Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Problem

"The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem."

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Fire to be Kindled

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."

- Plutarch 

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Paradox at the Heart of Scrum

"People's ability to participate increases over time if they are developed properly, but giving too much responsibility before they are prepared can cause some real problems."
- Ross Silberstein, former VP and Director of manufacturing, Sherwin-Williams Automotive Aftermarket Division, as found in Kimball Fisher's Leading Self-Direced Work Teams

Agile Scrum is a methodology built upon having self-directed work teams deliver software in small iterations, inspecting and adapting their work at the brief pause between iterations.  A way of working that’s simple to learn but difficult to master, Scrum feeds off of the strength of an engaged team of diverse developers (the theory states that anyone on the team should be able to do the work of anyone else when necessary) and of building confidence that you’re building the right solution though the constant validation of working software at the end of every iteration. In theory, it’s a simple way of working that provides a lot of benefits. I experienced many of these benefits myself working in a small company (>40 people) that built an excellent CRM software product.

And yet over the last few years I've seen nothing but complications in my current work helping with an Enterprise company with its Agile transformation. Some of these changes are perhaps inevitable when you take a system designed for a small team and scale it up to a group of 7K developers – the need for more and more status meetings, planning at ever higher levels to keep the individual development teams in sync with the large company and solution strategy, etc. (There’s even a scaled version of Scrum called SAFe that’s gaining traction with many larger companies.) But the main issue I think is what seems to me to be a paradox at the heart of Scrum: The need for strong individuals to help empower Scrum Teams.

Arguably the most important factor in implementing Scrum is the need to move accountability from the individual – be it a single developer or a general manager calling the shots – to the team or larger group. Scrum requires that the team own their work in a way that unleashes their creativity and passion to solving business problems. The ideal Scrum Team is made up of entrepreneurs who take great pride in their work. However, it’s been my experience that it’s very difficult in a corporate environment to promote this type of ownership without a few strong people leading the way. Call them coaches, guides, or teachers, these people need to bring both a credible and deep knowledge of Scrum as well as charisma (an ability to persuade people) to the table. In short, the teams need to respect this person and her ability so that they want to emulate them.

Many companies feel that they can build these coaches by taking their highly skilled technical people and training them. But faith in technical acqumen does not provide these figures the skills they need to lead people on the journey from individual to team accountability. Knowledge workers have been taught, both implicitly and explicitly, that they are valued for their technical skills. Once we stop promoting employees that are skilled coders into management positions and assuming that this skill alone will ensure success will we move in the right direction. Instead, corporations should be looking for and upskilling leaders – even those that have no deep technical skills – to guide their companies down the Scrum path.  My experience has led me to believe that the necessary skills include a deep knowledge of group dynamics and effective hands-off management (servant leadership, if you will) is the most effective way to get past the barriers to success in larger organizations.  This is a hard skill to teach!

But it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Developing a cadre of Agile leaders is the key to successfully coaching self-directed Scrum Teams to achieve true independence. Without it, the potential for teams to get caught in an endless storming phase is high. Seems to me like investing in a few Agile coaches is worth the price.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on a few Comix and the Kindle Panel View

Most of the comics I’ve read over the last six months were on the Kindle reader.  The “Kindle Panel View” presents first the full page of the comic, and then you scroll through each of the individual panels on that page. It’s fascinating, and has both benefits and negatives. On one hand, it’s difficult to see the complete picture that all of the integrated panels construct – which can be a problem when reading Alan Moore comics, or comics where the layout contains unusual panels. On the other hand, zooming in on some of the smaller panels provides an intense focus on the brushwork details of the (for example, some of the amazing inking in the Swamp Thing's Floronic Man).  Overall, I still find myself wanting to read comix in their original format, but I imagine if I had a larger color screen I’d feel differently.

So what have I read? Let’s start off with the most recent: Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1, which contains issues #20-27 of the series run, starting from when the imitable Alan Moore took over writing the story of this strange plant man. The first issue is a creepy but pretty straightforward closing of plot lines from the previous writer blatantly called “Loose Ends.” But with the next issue Moore started to put his stamp on the story, taking us into a trippy world where the Swamp Thing is more than just a cheesy monster but something of great power and beauty. Moore takes us on a journey, showing us how Swamp Thing realizes that the bio-restorative formula accident (a formula "that can make forests out of deserts") that that everyone thought  turned scientist Alec Holland into Swamp Thing in reality simply put Holland’s consciousness in some elemental plant-thing. (It’s much more interesting than I’m making it sound.) Despite the stories’ cosmic and epic nature, Moore's writing remains very human – giving us a depth of feeling and motivation behind most of the major characters in a way that most major label comics simply don’t have. Does it all work? No – cameos by the Justice League are strained, and the later issues where Swamp Thing confronts the bizarrely-clad demon Etrigan aren't nearly as moving as the issues without the rest of the DC Universe. Still, Moore’s immaculate pacing and creepy sensibility shine through, supported by Stephen Bisette and John Totleben’s detailed and creepy drawing. Their art - a strange mixture of awkwardness and twisted beauty – consists of lots of crosshatching flowing together in fascinating ways. It’s not at it’s best when depicting action sequences, or traditional “men-in-tights” superheros, but then that’s okay, since at it’s core this is a horror comic par excellence.

(As a side note, since I was reading this on the kindle it was black and white. I've since taken a look at the colored version on the iPad and it was a MUCH lesser experience IMO - the garish colors overwhelmed and took away from the mood and the beauty of the art. Be warned.)

Now the term "horror" is overused these days – it’s more of a genre description than a description of a feeling. Take Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, for example. Uzumaki  (“spiral” in Japanese) tells the tale of Kurôzu-cho, a Japanese town that is haunted by the pattern of the spiral and is touted as “a masterpiece of horror magna”. It’s a fantastic comic, one that’s genuinely creepy, disgusting, and macabre. But the book as a whole I can’t promote as true horror because the stories don’t combine to tell a complete tale. In reality, after the first few issues honest characters would have run screaming from the town, or crumbled into insanity under the weight of what they saw and their inability to escape it. But this is due partly to the episodic nature of monthly comix: Ito sets up his theme and explores it in inventive and genuinely creepy ways. (The man’s ability to generate genuinely horrific and disturbing images is uncanny.) But like weekly tv shows, the characters needed to be reset before each episode, or change so incrementally that they’re essentially the same. It's only as the series starts to reach its conclusion in the last few issues that it starts to really tell a cohesive tale. In short, despite many excellent moments, it doesn't have the depth of character to inspire the same levels of horror as Moore. But some of those images will just not leave my mind.

I should say that it's unfair to compare any other comics to Moore’s work. His ideas that span multiple issues or volumes seems to rise up out of him fully formed. For instance, check out Watchmen, and how single graphic frames in one issue will have powerful implications many issues down the road. Anotehr great example are the incredible multi-page spreads in Promethia where the art promotes the theme of the story while also moving forward the plot. In short, Moore thinks thematically while retaining a command of the details - a hard skill in any field, but one that is in short supply in comix.

Unless you also read Carla Speed McNeil's Finder, that is. She's the first comix artist since Moore that has impressed me with her thematic reach while being so impressive at a detailed level. (and I'm talking really detailed: check out the depth of thought revealed in the footnotes of her Finder Library volumes and you get a real sense for the amount of time and effort she's spent building up her world.) I have Volumes 1 & 2 and while I can’t say that I understand everything about it, she’s is simply a fantastic storyteller: both engaging & entertaining. What I love are the sheer profusion of bizarre details in her "aboriginal science fiction" – most of the stories take place in a far future where everyone lives in domed cities with fascinating technology, not all of which works (some details of maintenance have been lost to time). The main plotline is ostensibly about Jaegar, an aboriginal of some kind who can both track anyone (the Finder of the title) and serves as a “sin eater” (Wikipedia describes it as being a “ritual scapegoat” which I really like).  However, my favorite plot is Dream Sequence, where Magri White, a person who grows an extremely popular virtual reality in his head around which a successful corporation grows – but when White starts to lose his grip on reality, the people hooked on the world in his head start suffering strange and dramatic fates. The skill by which she weaves the effects of the big story together with the struggle in White’s life – and how she visually depicts White’s loosening grip on reality – is very complelling, to the point where I’ve revisited the story multiple times since it was first published in the late 2000s.

So other than the occasional Hellboy, that’s all of the comix I’ve been reading these days. What else should I be checking out?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Human Mind Dwells Deep in Darkness

“It’s not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. People have their own reasons for dying. It might look simple, but it never is. It’s just like a root. What’s above ground is only a small part of it. But if you start pulling, it keeps coming and coming. The human mind dwells deep in darkness. Only the person himself knows the real reason, and maybe not even then.”

- Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review: Sergei Lukyanenko’s "Night Watch"

My attempts of describing of the plot of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch would take a carefully crafted world and crudely distill it down to an artless pulp, so you can read what it's about on Amazon. Lukyanenko doesn't  help matters by calling his agents of the Light and the Dark “the Others,” an unfortunate phrasing bringing to mind 50s B-movies and overwrought Nicole Kidman movies. But Lukyanenko infuses his struggle of good and evil with refreshingly liberal doses of Russian-tinged ambivalence and philosophy which, to this American reader, lifted the story above other countless fantasies superficially like it.

Anton Gorodetsky, the narrator for the large majority of the book, is a human with extraordinary magical powers. However, these powers don’t make him happy; rather, they're a burden that separates him from the rest of humanity and whose responsibilities weigh down his soul. This isn't helped by the fact that the collections of good and evil are divided into overtly complex and shadowy bureaucracies whose rules and structures provide an ironic blue collar contrast to the story. For instance, after a particularly rough experience, Anton’s team goes on holiday to the country and as a drunken bender, leading to this delicious observation:
“…now he understood what real Russian drunkenness was all about. … It’s all about waking up in the morning with everything around you looking grey. Grey sky, gray sun, grey city, gray people, gray thoughts. And the only way out is to have another drink. Then you feel better. Then the colors come back.” p.398
Anton drinks and desponds because this is heavy stuff. When things like the fate of the world and a keeping a millennium-long truce between good and evil hang on what you can accomplish, you might need a drink. And Lykyanenko does not take it easy on Anton – in the world of the Night Watch, the best you can hope is to not fuck up. To wit:
“Sveta, we’re not given the chance to choose absolute truth. Truth’s always two-faced. The only thing we have is the right to reject the lie that we find most repugnant. Do you know what I tell novices about the Twilight the first time? We enter it in order to acquire strength. And as the price for entering it we give up the part of the truth that we don’t want to accept.” p. 24
Another rehashing of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, this is not. It's a dark book with a sensitively ambivalent heart. Anton wallows in for most of the book in Russian cynicism, but this only makes occasional flights into romanticism that much more powerful, partly because of the lack of irony. Lukyanenko’s writes as if the struggle is not only ongoing right now but also the most urgent thing in the world. All of this in an entertaining story that sprinkles its adventure and mysticism with a variety of interesting dilemmas. It kept me solid company for two solid weeks and I miss it's view of the world. I'll have to try one of its many sequels one of these days.

Cross-posted at Reading, Writing and Red Sox

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Warning to Children

Children, if you dare to think
Of the greatness, rareness, muchness
Fewness of this precious only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this:
Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
Red and green, enclosing tawny
Yellow nets, enclosing white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where a neat brown paper parcel
Tempts you to untie the string.
In the parcel a small island,
On the island a large tree,
On the tree a husky fruit.
Strip the husk and pare the rind off:
In the kernel you will see
Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
Red and green, enclosed by tawny
Yellow nets, enclosed by white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where the same brown paper parcel -
Children, leave the string alone!
For who dares undo the parcel
Finds himself at once inside it,
On the island, in the fruit,
Blocks of slate about his head,
Finds himself enclosed by dappled
Green and red, enclosed by yellow
Tawny nets, enclosed by black
And white acres of dominoes,
With the same brown paper parcel
Still untied upon his knee.
And, if he then should dare to think
Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
Greatness of this endless only
Precious world in which he says
he lives - he then unties the string.

- Robert Graves

I'm a sucker for cyclical concepts of the world. For example, it's why i'm one of the few people I know that actually liked the "ending" of SK's Dark Tower series. In this poem, I love how Graves plays with the notion of infinite cycles but provides you ways in and out of it through subtle changes of phrasing. Good stuff!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Meta Blogging (or Why There's Nothing New Here)

I'm in the process of packing up to move my family across town. So between work, taking care of three kids, closing on two houses, and packing everything up, ye olde blogge has taken a backseat. Looking to do some more writing shortly, but expect light posting for the next month or two.

Until then, enjoy my main man playing some of the original acid jazz (from way back in 1991!). Sounds fresh and not over 20 years old.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Many Realities

"Reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities which it can be made into."

- Wallace Stephens

The Science of Innovation

Interesting Podcast with John Sullivan, who had some very interesting points to make about the science of innovation. My distilled takeaways:
  • Employee interaction encourages innovation. Contrast this with telecommuting/working from home, which boosts productivity and creativity.
  • Creativity is idea generation, not innovation. Innovation is ideas implemented in the marketplace. 
  • The methods of boosting productivity are totally different than those that improve innovation. 
  • There’s a science to increasing innovation. Larger technology companies like Google and Apple are refining these all of the time. And this is why Yahoo recently discontinued it's telecommuting policy. 
  • Sullivan paraphrases Larry Page: "if you focus on continuous improvement—or efficiency or productivity, in my terms—if you focus on continuous improvement, you are guaranteed never to be wildly successful because you’ll be so focused on improving by, you know, these small percentages, you’ll never see the big picture."
  • Innovation is what's driving the worth of Google and Apple - and is why Yahoo is pursuing it.
  • Sullivan mentions the science that large tech companies are leveraging to encourage collaboration, saying that maximizing have done around maximizing collaboration and thus innovation - even going so far as to study the effects of cafeteria lines - but i'd love to see the practical side of this. 
The distinction between innovation and productivity is an interesting one, and one that I hadn't pondered before. So Sullivan says that Google believes that innovation comes from three factors:

  1. Rapid learning, or what they call “discovery.” 
  2. Collaboration, which occurs when you bump into people.
  3. Fun, which when you’re having fun and you bump into employees, you learn and discover." (It's why these companies have so many perks.

I get the idea that working closely together with someone could drive innovation. After all, it's collision between diverse experiences that spark new ideas. What I don't see is how this collaboration can drive the implementation of these ideas. In my experience, In my experience, implementing things, requires focus -- heads-down work devoid of interruptions and the random interactions they say innovation requires. They seem like two different things to me. So what's the best way to integrate the two? Do these ideas only apply to software developers?

I'm an educator, working in Agile Scrum. I've been sold on continuous improvement, build up innovation incrementally into something bigger than the sum of it's parts. What Page says above contradicts this approach, and reinforces what I've been realizing recently: that while Scrum works most excellently on a small scale, when you use it on a large scale (like at the Enterprise company where I work), the lack of a big picture can be a huge impediment. I'm also not sure good Scrum is for the ideation portion of large projects, where you need to have a vision and big picture in place before you start. It seems to me that an effective company would be aware of the phase of the project this line of thinking, and adapt their policies accordingly. Something like making sure that all workers are present during planning sessions and other important project phases (reviews, etc.) while being more flexible during the regular work phases.

One last thought. Telecommuting is a godsend for parents. It's a fact of life that schools and doctors aren't configured to accommodate modern life (i.e., two working parents with full-time jobs). Thus, parents like myself need to juggle working with early release days, open houses and teacher conferences, doctor's appointments, early sports practices: the list goes on and on. Without a telecommuting option - I can check and respond to emails while watching soccer practice! - parents would be forced to use sick or vacation time when it wasn't truly necessary. This is the biggest reason why i'll always be a proponent of at least occasional telecommuting, and i'm curious how companies who prioritize innovation would respond to this challenge.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

How Little You Know

“What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin.

“You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.

From Sarah Lewis' The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

H/t Brain Pickings

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Antarctic Ice Synchronicity

So I'm getting close to the end of Green Mars, when the revolutionaries are waiting for a trigger - the best time to try and take down the multinational corporations that control both Earth and Mars. Spoiler alert: the trigger comes when a volcano erupts underneath the glaciers of West Antarctica. In the book, the melting of this ice is projected to occur relatively rapidly, throwing an already chaotic Terran society into chaos. But guess what? Other than the volcano, this ain't just fiction:
Scientists studying huge glaciers in Antarctica have found that they are already in the early stages of a huge retreat, and—although the entire event may take more than 200 years—this melting may also be unstoppable. By the time this plays out, it could cause a sea level rise of more than a meter, which would be very bad indeed.
For us Americans, one meter is ~3.3 feet, a big problem considering how much of humanity is crammed into our coastlines. (The CPO sez that "More than 8 million people live in areas at risk of coastal flooding. ") One can see why KSR it as a tipping point. Scary stuff. Read Bad Astronomy's excellent synopsis for more information, including a slick video explaining what's going on.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Blue Sunsets

Mars sunsets are blue:
A 6-image mosaic taken by Curiosity on sol 587 (April 1, 2014) of the sun setting behind the tall western rim of Gale crater.
I was reading about this phenomenon in Green Mars, where Sax, the "disinterested scientist", ponders the effects that the thickening atmosphere on Mars is having on the color of the sky. The short answer is that it all depends on Rayleigh scattering (the elastic scattering of light by particles much smaller than the wavelength of the light). Essentially, the martian atmosphere contains a lot of very small specks of rocks and minerals ("fines") which, combined with the different chemical makeup of the atmosphere, diffuse light differently. Here's another, undoubtedly better, explanation.

One of the fascinating things about KSR's Mars trilogy is how the details how the human colonization of Mars would change things. For example, finishing his research, Sax "...concluded that if the atmosphere was thickened to one bar, then the sky would probably turn milk white." p. 162 Now that would make for an interesting sight!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

First Lines of Kim Stanley Robinson's "Green Mars"

"The point isn't to make another Earth. Not another Alaska or Tibet, not a Vermont nor a Venice, not even an Antarctica. The point is to make something new and strange, something Martian.
In a sense, our intentions don't even matter. Even if we try to make another Siberia or Sahara, it won't work. Evolution won't allow it, and at its heart this is an evolutionary process, an endeavor driven at a level below intention, as when life made its first miracle leap out of matter, or when it crawled out of sea onto land."

- Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars.

I was compelled last week to read the amazing last 100 pages of Red Mars again, which led me straight away into the second book of KSR's Mars trilogy. Green Mars starts off on a different tack then its predecessor - the revolution is in the background, and KSR shows us the life in hiding for those committed to keeping Mars as unblemished as possible. While the first 65 pages contain as much landscape description as advertised, it's still a very compelling book: KSR has a gift, unequaled by any other SciFi writer i'm familiar with, to write compellingly both about science and about human nature.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


I've had this song in my head all week.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

McMansions and the Mortgage Credit

Completed the always painful and frustrating process of doing my taxes last night. As someone that likes to think about good design, I continue to be amazed at the byzantine structure of our tax code. Ostensibly, the many, many (MANY!) rules and regulations in the US tax laws are supposed to push people towards the behaviors that we, as a society, want to encourage. For example, take the home mortgage deduction. Promoting home ownership is a good thing, right? Well, that's what I've always thought, but watching the ecologically disastrous and soul-crushing sprawl taking over our country I've started to have second thoughts.

This rethinking was sparked again by Thomas Frank's "Let them eat McMansions!" article where he claims that "we have sprawl, wars over cheap gas, stagnant wages and longer hours because your boss wants this awful, ugly house." Heh. Beyond the snickering, however, is a darker truth: these ugly opulent houses are damaging to our social fabric. Frank provides plenty of examples in the article, but on tax day, this was the most interesting fact to ponder: what sparked the McMansion trend in the first place? A: Our tax policy!
There have always been grand houses in America. What put them into mass-production in the mid-’80s? The most obvious answer is that decade’s transfer of wealth to professionals and managers, a shift made possible by the top-bracket tax cuts of 1981. Where corporate earnings had previously been spent on skyscrapers and company planes, it now poured into the personal bank accounts of executives. Tax policy then steered those executives’ spending toward residential real estate. According to James K. Galbraith, “The 1986 Tax Reform Act removed the deductibility of non-mortgage interest,” leaving mortgage interest as the only remaining deductible type and thus “creating a powerful incentive for households to try to own their own homes.”
Essentially, those with extra money look to take advantage of a legal tax haven by sinking more and more of it into ever growing houses. And so this is what the market provides! I'm actually in the market for a house right now - a "mid-level home," meaning ~2000 square feet, with 3-4 bedrooms and a half-acre or so of land.  It's shocking how few new houses meet these specifications.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Escaping the Web of Social Pressure

"The creative individual has the capacity to free himself from the web of social pressure in which the rest of us are caught. He is capable of questioning the assumptions that the rest of us accept."

- John W. Gardner

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

First Lines of Sergei Lukyanenko's "Night Watch"

"The escalator crept along slowly, straining upward. In an old station like this, what else could you expect? But the wind swirled like a wild thing inside the concrete pipe--ruffling his hair, tugging the hood off of his head, sneaking under his scarf, pressing him downward.
The wind didn't want Egor to go up."

- Sergei Lukyanenko (translated by Andrew Bromfield), from Night Watch.

A fabulously entertaining book about a centuries-old struggle between the forces of light and dark that I picked up on the strength of the popular Russian film. So far, it's a very quick read infused with very interesting philosophical ideas and (to me) exotic Russian mysticism and fatalism. Hard to put down!

Friday, March 28, 2014

An Unfilmed Classic

Dune is one of the best books I've ever read. I haven't read any of the sequels, but the original is a fascinating story with immense personal and political insights. Like most books I really enjoy, I've steered clear of any video adaptations - I saw and was sorely disappointed in David Lynch's 1984 take (the only one of his movies I didn't like). But it's fascinating to see the plans and storyboards for Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted 1975 film. I mean, just look at this design team:
A then-obscure H.R. Giger designed the creepier Harkonnen settings. Dan O’Bannon, known at the time for his work with John Carpenter on the sci-fi film Dark Star, was brought on as the special effects wiz. ... British artist Chris Foss designed the space craft. And Jean Giraud, aka French comic book artist Moebius, brought Jodorowsky’s dreams to life in some 3,000 storyboard drawings that perfectly capture a character or scene with a few quick pencil marks on the page.
Really worth the click through. I agree with the author as he notes "I wonder how all of Jodo’s wild images would have been captured by circa 1975 technology. Probably poorly. In a way, I’m glad the film was never made." I've always thought noble failures are more interesting than masterpieces. This film may be another for the list.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Gonna Have to Face It...

The Dish recently posted some thoughts on being addicted to running. I think that anyone that runs even moderately seriously has either felt this way or can easily see it happening. James McWilliams tells us that
An estimated three percent of the general population suffers from exercise dependency. The more endurance-oriented the sport—ultra-marathoning, Iron Man competitions—the better the chances there are for some sort of addiction to set in. Exercise addiction overlaps with other disorders—most notably eating disorders, but also drug and alcohol abuse—about 25 percent of the time. ...
He details the varying stages of the addition and concludes:
It’s hard to see how—given the tendency of the high to diminish for the exercise freak—the temptation to add one more mile could be resisted, especially when acute negative consequences do not result. It’s hard to imagine ever effectively treating this “disorder.”
While I find this interesting, I have a hard time seeing running or endurance exercise as an addition on par with a chemical addition. Despite what he says, its seems to me that there's a world of difference between not wanting to stop something and being unable to stop something (e.g., as in the case of a meth addict). Glibly, I note that our bodies also have a built-in way of treating this type of disorder: it's called injury. I know more that one person who has over-trained or over-raced themselves into an injury that could have been easily avoided if only they had rested now and again.

Regardless, I think any person who doesn't recognize that any endurance athlete gets off of endorphins is fooling themselves. I've always looked at it as similar to people that get hooked on spicy food. McWilliams describes it this way:
My own experience of needing increasingly more miles to feed the seductive opiate rush of a workout speaks to the insidious impact of this possible chemical rationing. The body and mind recall all too vividly what it’s like to exist (blissfully, mind you) in post-exercise equilibrium and will do what it must do to rediscover that balance. 
Andrew astutely brings in Stanton Peele, who points out that
“People can become addicted to anything, whether drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, gambling, love, or sex, if it is the focus of an encapsulating experience that alleviates bad feelings and buttresses their self-esteem”
Which seems to me to get more to the point. I feel that "addictions" of these kinds aren't so much a change  in body chemistry leading to loss of decision-making ability as they are a positive feedback loop gone awry. The trick to to realize that and put it in perspective. Easier said than done, but to my mind a better way of treating the condition than like you would a normal addiction.

Interestingly enough, McWilliams concludes his article by flipping the whole premise on its head:
Contemplating the mysterious nature of this pleasure, something occurred to me that led to rethinking the whole idea of exercise addiction: Those we classify as exercise addicts might be a rare sort who are honoring what their bodies are designed to do and, historically, have done.
What if the real addicts are those who seek to be sedentary—which could be just as unnatural as seeking to be drunk or high—while the crazed athletes are the ones who are seeking the deeper wisdom and capacity of the human body?
Now that's a theory I can get behind!

Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Monday, March 17, 2014

Our Acknowledgement

"You and me are molded by things
Well beyond our acknowledgment"

- Stereolab, from anonymous collective off of their great 1996 LP Emperor Tomato Ketchup

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Mysterious

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

- Albert Einstein

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Random Tab Dump

Have always liked Giovanni Piranesi's (1720–1778) architectural drawings (see some here). Thought of it because the Dish quoted Frances Stonor Saunders, who "suggests that urban wrecks offer a shortcut to self-transcendence, “a steroidal sublime that enables us to enlarge the past since we cannot enlarge the present.”"

400 year old "cubist" art from Giovanni Battista Bracelli. Insane drawings for the time. I'm amazed he wasn't burned at the stake!

The rebooted Cosmos debuted last Sunday. I'm always up for a good space documentary, and this didn't disappoint. Neil deGrasse Tyson - the scientist with the Barry White voice - was excellent as always, and the sfx were impressive. Nice to see a show that's honest about our space in the universe in prime time competing with modern distractions (reality TV!). Just about the only thing I didn't really get was the "Spaceship of the Imagination" but I can deal with it. Looking forward to next week. Until then, here's an interview with Tyson about the series.

Developments in nanotechnology are making the idea of space elevators less far fetched everyday.

What is string theory? Take it away Brian Greene: "It's an attempt to unify all matter and all forces into one mathematical tapestry."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

First Line of Stephen King's "11/22/63"

"I have never been what you'd call a crying man."

- Stephen King, the first lines of 11/22/63.

I'm back at the SK well again, and 300 pages into this 880 page behemoth there's no signs of the exhaustion that beset Doctor Sleep after an excellent start. It's very entertaining so far, and has already unexpectedly crossed paths with the history of one of his earlier - and best - books. More as I get farther along but 11/22/63 is an excellent read so far.

Friday, February 28, 2014

What is Education?

“Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”

- Mark Twain

Like most Mark Twain quotes, I love it while the optimist in me cringes. He certainly was a cynical bastard, but it's hard to argue with what he has to say.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sitting in the Darkness with Open Eyes

“Love blurs your vision; but after it recedes, you can see more clearly than ever. It's like the tide going out, revealing whatever's been thrown away and sunk: broken bottles, old gloves, rusting pop cans, nibbled fishbodies, bones. This is the kind of thing you see if you sit in the darkness with open eyes, not knowing the future.”
- Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye

Cat's Eye, along with books like Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and Chekov's short stories, taught me about the true power of literature. It's that good. And even if you don't like the story you get lots of gems of perception like the one above. "Nibbled fishbodies" indeed.

Stretched by a New Idea

"Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions."

- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Updike's "Perfection Wasted"

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That's it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren't the same.

- John Updike, "Perfection Wasted"

Can't say I like everything that Updike writes but damn when the guy is on, he's on.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Restless Aquatic Organism

"For not having slept in twenty-four hours, I felt surprisingly awake. My body was hazed to the core, but my mind kept swimming swiftly around through the convoluted waterways of my consciousness, like a restless aquatic organism."

- Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase, page 23

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Tab Dump

The Guardian's George Monbiot has a great rant about what's behind the incredible flooding in Britain this season. After detailing what's happening, he concludes:
It's hard to get your head round this. The crop which causes most floods and does most damage to soils is the only one which is completely unregulated.
So why did government policy change? I've tried asking the environment department: they're as much use as a paper sandbag. But I've found a clue. The farm regulation task force demanded a specific change: all soil protection rules attached to farm subsidies should become voluntary. They should be downgraded from a legal condition to an "advisory feature". Even if farmers do nothing to protect their soil, they should still be eligible for public money.
You might have entertained the naive belief that in handing out billions to wealthy landowners we would get something in return. Something other than endless whining from the National Farmers' Union. But so successfully has policy been captured in this country that Defra – which used to stand for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – now means Doing Everything Farmers' Representatives Ask. We pay £3.6bn a year for the privilege of having our wildlife exterminated, our hills grazed bare, our rivers polluted and our sitting rooms flooded.
The Guardian keeps the optimism flowing with an interview with the prescient James Lovelock who predicts that climate change has already reached the tipping point:
It's just too late for it," he says. "Perhaps if we'd gone along routes like that in 1967, it might have helped. But we don't have time. All these standard green things, like sustainable development, I think these are just words that mean nothing. I get an awful lot of people coming to me saying you can't say that, because it gives us nothing to do. I say on the contrary, it gives us an immense amount to do. Just not the kinds of things you want to do." ...
What would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: "Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."
Weird magna short horror stories! Just some creepy stuff. I can testify to how powerfully macabre Junji Ito's Uzumaki is. Shudder.

This seems interesting. I know nothing about Bartók, and my library has none of his music. Any suggestions to what I should listen to first?

Dorthe Nors muses on solitude being a condition for art:
Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can't run away from yourself. You can't run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you're working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.
It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you've experienced in your life become the writing that you do. And there's no easy way to get to it, if you want to write literary fiction. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Off Balance with Awe

Cayte Bosler, while examining the benefits of awe in The Atlantic, quotes Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota:
"The experience of awe is one where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world," explains Vohs. "People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty air-tight. It is hard to get people to shake from those because that’s just how the brain works. We are always walking around trying to confirm the things we already think. When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned."
It's one of the reason that I like space so much. The scale is so huge that it puts your mind a perspective that its hard to achieve on an everyday basis.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review: Chinghiz Aitmatiov’s "The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years"

Chinghiz Aitmatiov’s The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years is a timeless novel occurring at a very specific location and time – Kazakhstan in the late-to-mid period of the Soviet Union – and tells it in such a way that it speaks to everyone.

Aitmatov introduces us to Yedigei Burriani, a Kazakh worker on a Soviet railroad, who aims to bury his best friend in a historic Muslim graveyard. It’s hallowed ground because of Naiman-Ana, a long-suffering mother whose son was gruesomely transformed into a mankurt – an old Kazakh myth used here as a brilliant metaphor. In fact, as with any good Soviet novel, ambivalent metaphors abound: there’s even a science fictional subplot about our first contact with alien races that can be read as a prejudice of the unknown, as a critique of the Cold War, or even just as the impossibility of true communication between two sentient beings. And all of this occurs without feeling academic in the least – on the contrary, Aitmatov’s prose (translated by John French) is naturally beautiful, effortlessly flowing along from one story to another, always circling back to Burriani and his continual questioning about his purpose, and the conflict of the past with the modern. For example, the characters in the book honor the traditional Kazakh ways of living, (although Aitmatov doesn't whitewash out the harshness of this lifestyle) but also do not deny themselves the benefits of modern technology. On the contrary, Aitmatov seems genuinely excited about the possibilities of modernity – mainly the ability to quickly travel long distances and benefits of communications with other cultures that this engenders, but also smaller things. For instance, one great set piece involves Burriani’s famously powerful camel raging about in heat (powerfully symbolizing primal human emotions) but when it comes time to actually perform the burial, the hard work is done with a backhoe.

Overall, this may have been the most entertaining book I read in 2013. It came from an honest, true place and spoke to me on many levels. It was also a fascinating glimpse into a part of the world I know nothing about – just looking at some of the pictures of the Kazakh steppe quickly reveal how truly foreign this land is to me. Luckily we have fantastic books like The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years to give us a sense of what it's like.

Cross Posted at Reading, Running and Red Sox.
Related Post: First Lines of The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years