The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. — Richard P. Feynman

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Little Things

I know I haven't posted here for a while. I've been busy, of course, and also I've kind of run out of interest in doing much other than tending my own garden for now. But a couple of pretty wildflowers showed up recently, so I figured I'd display them here just to brighten up the place a bit.

The second chronologically, but the first I want to mention, is that when I opened my favorite weather site, Weather Underground, this morning, I noticed that all the data in Imperial units is immediately followed by the corresponding metric data. It's probably been like that for ages, and I just never noticed or had some ancient stale cookie clogging up the tubes or something, but for some reason it struck me particularly this morning, and it just made the world feel like a better place, like modernity is slowly but steadily eroding one more ingrained bad habit. Sometimes progress is hard to see, and sometimes it feels like we go backward more than forward, but this seemed like one more tiny little piece of forwardness, and, trivial though it was, it made me happy. So, thanks, Wunderground!

The Weather Underground change(?) also reminded me of another thing I discovered a few days ago that made me feel happy in pretty much the same way. When I drive, I occasionally listen to a local commercial music station, WRDA FM 105.7, which plays a sort of generic mix of whatever mainstream "alternative" music the studios are currently trying to get people to buy. It's not exactly an intellectually stimulating or varied listening experience, but I do find it calming when I'm starting or ending an intense day — except for the commercials, that is, which seems to be about a third of the airtime, and which are the exact kind of pointless chatter that requires me to erect mental barriers instead of relaxing them. So whenever the commercials come on, I switch over to the HD-2 subchannel, which is some kind of dance music station, and which is almost as useful for my purposes.

It so happened, last week, that for the first time I flipped to the dance station in the middle of some commentary by the DJ, and I noticed that he happened to have a hint of the sort of lisp that's stereotypically associated with gay men. My first thought was, "Oh, that's nice that the number of different types of voices that are considered acceptable for DJs seems to be expanding." And then he did the station identification, and I learned that the station is a member of the Pride Radio network, which plays a sort of generic mix of whatever mainstream dance music the studios are trying to get people to buy, specifically targeted to the LGBTQ community (in a sorta stereotypey way).

So, on the one hand, it's sorta shitty top-40 type radio, and the marketing seems to be designed mostly around a blandly conventional homogenization of LGBTQ folks into one amorphous and somewhat cartoonishly portrayed mass. But on the other hand, that's pretty much exactly how American commercial radio treats every other demographic in the country. And that made me feel just a little bit warmer inside. There are a lot of problems with "normal" American culture. But the presence of this station feels like one more sign that, despite all the obstacles and backsliding, we're slowly and painfully succeeding in expanding the fraction of the populace who are allowed to consider themselves part of that normalcy.

This kind of thing always hits me very personally, even when I'm not a member of the specific group that's benefiting in a particular case. I get a feeling like the partial relaxation of a tension I didn't even know I was carrying, like, yes, we can fix this eventually, and we are fixing it, however slowly, and someday we will have descendants who will be able to wonder how we could ever have allowed things to remain so broken for so long. I feel it, too, when I walk around my apartment complex, watching the children of foreign grad students and postdocs running around playing with each other and speaking languages I don't know — we don't need to share a language to live comfortably side by side as neighbors. I felt it when I was driving down a Philadelphia street and heard a woman wearing niqab swear pungently into her cell phone — I loathe the body-shaming dress restrictions that so many religions enforce, but this woman gave me hope that our vulgar, messy humanity can squirm its way out into the light through the cracks in even the most repressively sanitizing "modesty" code. I feel it when I walk through a conventional grocery store and see a moderately acceptable selection of vegetarian options; when I walk into a university classroom and run the headcount and see that there's maybe just a fraction more variability amongst my fellows than there was the year before; when I watch a Paralympics event and realize that it's not merely some consolation prize for people who can't compete "normally", it's actually just a damn amazing display of athleticism (and, in some cases, enabling technologies), often with a lot more variety than the conventional Olympics; when I do the hike up Stone Mountain (which has a sort of infamous Confederate memorial carving on the side and a history of KKK activity), and see that I'm climbing alongside Atlantans of all shades and visitors from around the world, a satisfying reproof to the racism and nationalism of the park's original boosters.

It's become cliché to observe that our society is pretty complex nowadays, probably too complex for any one person to meaningfully master any more than a very tiny part of of it. But with that complexity come many more opportunities for us to make these teeny microimprovements, each of which means that things get just a little better in some way, that there's just a tad more space for another group of people to unhunch their shoulders slightly, to stand a bit straighter, and to be a little more themselves and fear judgmental disdain and marginalization from their fellows just a little bit less.

It's easy for the pursuit of these opportunities to become just another thing for us to fight over, too, another cause for tension instead of a cure for it, because sometimes people get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that a particular increase in freedoms for a certain group means less freedom for everyone else. And that's why it's so especially satisfying to encounter these little bits of improvement that will demonstrably do no one any harm whatsoever, while still improving someone's lot in life — they're evidence that we can make the world a net better place in some sense, rather than just redistributing a finite available amount of happiness, as some more cynical analyses would have it.

In an era in which the government that oversees one of the world's keystone economies can be almost entirely shut down (and our fucking amazing ROBOT ON MARS ignominiously relegated to indefinite safe mode) due to the spite, fearfulness, and belligerent ignorance of a handful of very bitter people; in which repressive fundamentalists across the world murder and otherwise intimidate schoolchildren who want to learn from more than one book; and in which we are simultaneously playing chicken with environmental devastation, overpopulation, and a dangerous resurgence of governmental, corporate, and plutocratic power, I think these little microimprovements can be a reminder that there's another way to do things. Sometimes, if we work at it, we can make things better without making other things worse, and I think it's worth learning to recognize and fighting to create these opportunities, and worth taking some time to savor them when we find them.

Anyway, that's all for today. Laterz.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Workouts #28-42

I've missed a lot of workout posts here because for the past few months I've been crazy busy trying to get my move to Atlanta organized. In that time I've also done two races: the Rothman Institute 8k in Philadelphia on November 17, with a time of 1:01:58, which is my fastest race pace ever at 12:28 /mile, and the Chattahoochee Challenge 10k this morning, with a time of 1:25:35.03 (13:46 /mile), which is unfortunately quite a bit slower than the 10k I did around this same time of year back in 2009 (Charleston Challenge Midwinter Classic, 1:21:28.95, 13:06 /mile).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

10-43 seconds, 10100 years

At once
Everywhere unfurls,
A universe from nothing,
Big Bang's shockwave clap,
Roman candle burst of light
Sprays glowing ashes of matter,
Clots into star-embers,
Flames again and swirls
In a smoky haze,
Scums over with worlds
Shivering by fading hearths
Just warm enough to wake
The faintest trace of life,
To wonder at the whiff of gunpowder
As the thundrous echoes still
And the fires sputter out
And the peace of the inevitable
Soothes away the remnants of the shock,
And welcomes the longest night.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Workout #27 - Light the Night

So tonight was the night we Lit the Night as Hitchens' Hikers with the Foundation Beyond Belief for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. We didn't quite hit our initial fundraising goal — as of now we're at $4703 of the $5000 I had said was required to make me shave my head — so I still have all my hair. But I'm pretty pleased by how close we got, and there's still probably time to donate that last $297 before the end of the year if you want to see me try out the Uncle Fester look.

The walk itself was an enjoyable time — free food for those who had raised enough money and a pleasant walk through the brisk evening air, in the company of a nice group of people. The impending approach of Hurricane Sandy may have put somewhat of a damper on the attendance, but there was still a pretty good crowd, and I was pleased to hear the Foundation Beyond Belief, our umbrella team, get a shout-out in the list of major sponsors of the event. That, combined with the relaxing chat with my teammates at a bar afterward, was worth the price of admission.

Next year in Atlanta!

Workout #26

About 20-some minutes run/walk on the treadmill, and almost an hour of slow walking.

For some reason I just felt like getting on the treadmill and walking for a while, but I figured I should run some in the middle (as per today's schedule), so I did. I kinda got tired quicker than I would have liked, though, and had to go back to walking, and then after about 80 minutes of continuous use the treadmill overheated and shut down. I really need to do something about the dented cushion deck (under the belt), as it makes it hard to run on fluidly and probably is what causes the occasional slowdowns and eventual overheating. I wonder how much a new treadmill deck costs. Probably almost as much as the treadmill itself. :/

Friday, October 26, 2012

Workout -5

So, my partner overworked our stand mixer last week and stripped one of the gears, and the replacement part isn't due to arrive for another week or so. But I wanted focaccia now dammit, so I spent like an hour kneading the dough for it last night. Focaccia needs very well-developed gluten chains to maintain large air bubbles in its rather soupy dough (according to The Bread Bible, at least, and our experience seems to match Beranbaum's claims), so it takes a long time to work it to the proper toughness. And damn is it good when it comes out well. Our dough probably actually could've done with a bit more flour, so it didn't rise quite as high as it should have, but with a little olive oil spread on top and a sprinkling of salt and rosemary before baking, it still came out pretty tasty.

I figured all that work oughta count as exercise, so I went in this morning to log it on Fitocracy. The closest exercise type I could find was "Shake Weight", so I figured, okay, that sounds reasonable, and I logged 100 reps as a rough approximation for the amount of time I spent. Imagine my surprise when Fitocracy rewarded me with a grand total of -5 points for my efforts. :D I guess the site creators don't take shake weights any more seriously than the South Park guys do. Anyway, it was too funny to delete, so I left it as a permanent blemish on my record. There oughta be a "Sucker" badge for spending too much time using gimmicky As-Seen-On-TV fitness equipment.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Workout #25

11.27 miles of cycling, 59:16 (Schuylkill River Trail and them home).

My partner and I did an actual proper cycling workout today. It was really a pretty trivial distance in terms of what genuinely dedicated bikers do, but we got a good reasonably fast ride up the Schuylkill River Trail from the Drexel/Penn area to the East Falls Bridge. It's a pretty smooth ride with a gentle upward slope, and the trail is well lit and mostly empty at night, so it's actually a good addition to the ride home. When we lived over near the Schuylkill, by the south end of the trail, we used to go up and then back down sometimes on our way home to turn our 2 mile commute into a 13 mile ride. Now that we live along the Delaware a bit further north, the most sensible route is to just go up the river to the bridge and then turn pretty much straight east to go home, which approximately doubles the length of the trip from about 5.5 miles to about 11 miles.

The only problem is that it comes at the end of the day, when it's easy to be tired and unmotivated and just want to go home dammit, because I've gotta get up tomorrow and I've already stayed here too late. And I was feeling almost like I was starting to get sick at a couple of random points today, so I came pretty close to reneging on my promise to go tonight. But biking is the one exercise that my partner really likes to do in a focused way, and he finds it really demotivating if I abandon him to do it by himself. So I couldn't quite bring myself to just say no outright, and instead we negotiated back and forth a bit and I agreed to do a little bit at least and then we actually ended up doing the whole thing we'd originally discussed anyway. And it was actually pretty good — a nice fast sprint about five and a half miles up the river, a quick snack break, and then a somewhat more leisurely ride home from there (about the same distance).

I'll probably feel a lot less good about this when I'm struggling to drag myself out of bed for my 9 AM appointment tomorrow, though.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dances with racists

So, I encountered a lovely little racism fail yesterday — a newly-met person congratulated my partner and me on working toward our PhDs because "we need more white people doing that". Yeah, a real person really said that, to our faces. It was hard for me to believe it too.

In fact, it was so non-sequit that neither I nor my partner was really able to respond effectively, but we must've looked dismayed, because the person immediately tried to cover by turning it into a critique of laziness in "our culture". So I said, "Don't worry, we're pretty lazy too." Then there was a little more back-and-forth in which he kept angling for us to agree with him about the importance of white PhDs and we kept disagreeing with the "facts" he was using to support his stance while not quite being able to believe what was going on enough to just straight-up yell at him for being a racist like we probably should have. And then the subject turned to the weather. But, ugh. There's not enough water in the world to wash that off.

L'esprit de l'escalier suggests that we probably should've just told him that we study science because we like it, not because we're racists. But it's so damn hard to summon hostility in a nominally friendly environment, even when somebody else starts it. So I'll have to settle for being hostile now.

Hey, racists: I'm sorry your lives are so pathetic that the only thing you have to be proud of is having been born with the same color skin as some of the many people who actually have real accomplishments, but the rest of us are too busy trying to achieve successes of our own to share in your ugly little obsessions. When you tell people your creepy racist thoughts and they just sit there looking uncomfortable, it's because they've been trained so thoroughly in politeness that they try to be polite even when they shouldn't be, and because they're so shocked they don't quite know what to do, not because they consider your behavior remotely socially acceptable. So stop assuming that other people are as hateful and worthless as you are just because their skin is approximately the same color as yours, and keep your grotesque, slimy, retrograde vileness to yourselves. Because, seriously, fuck you.

I'm not sure I can say that enough, actually. Fuck you, guy, just, fuck you fuck you fuck you. Keep your racism off my PhD. Fuck you. I'm going to build a time machine just so I can go back to that conversation and say it to you properly. Fuck you. Fuck you sideways with a rotting porcupine corpse. Just, fuck you. Stop contaminating the world I have to live in with this poison. Stop alienating and marginalizing my friends and my colleagues and my fellow human beings. Stop trying to get me to side with your small-mindedness against a goodly percentage of the people who make my life worth living. You're my enemy, not them, and you are not welcome in my life. Your good will is worthless to me, and next time I am not going to be nearly so "polite".

Friday, October 5, 2012

In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support...

Pam Geller is not a good person. As everybody probably knows by now, she's been fighting for a while to get some rather unpleasant posters put up in the advertising space of various transit systems around the country. The ads say:
In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.
Defend freedom.
Defeat jihad.
(Others say, "Support Israel." instead of "Defend Freedom.") Here's a picture of one of the posters: