2009-12-30

The people make the party

I've said for a long time that New Year's Eve is the second best party of the year, after Halloween. Halloween, of course, is propped up by my college years, when the costume parties were by far and away the best, and also that time I was in Sydney when all of the brits held it down at the hostel party. I've been to some classic holiday and Valentine's day parties, too.

Austria's Halloween parties aren't quite the same. I'm not saying they weren't good, but they are more like normal parties with horns and a little bit of makeup. It's been a bit disappointing, but I've always had some nice company along for the ride, which more than makes up for the lack of costume creativity.

For New Year's Eve, we had house party after house party in college, a couple of stints in Columbus (of Ohio), and a handful of parties in Chicago. I've done the bar thing, the apartment thing, the stay-at-home thing, and the formal party in a museum thing, and I've only seen one pattern related to how much fun the party was: the people.

The more friends I have with me on the big night, the more fun it ends up being. It doesn't matter where we are or what we're doing, as long as there are a lot of us there doing it. That goes for all parties, not just New Year's Eve. The reason the Halloween parties in college were so fun was that nearly everyone I knew in college was totally committed to finding a good costume and playing the part. Everybody came, and everyone participated.

Now, I go where the people are. Wherever they gather (and give me enough notice to buy buy a plane ticket), I will be there.

I'm looking forward to this year's party, as I do every year, even though this is one of the most loosely-planned that I can remember. The most important thing is that I will be with friends.

2009-11-21

Yo no soy marinero

...and sometimes I lose my way.

Most of us have been there: we're visiting a strange city and want to go out to eat, but we don't have reservations. There are, as always, parts of the city that are well-known for numerous restaurants and various cuisines.

Once upon a time, I was in New York City with my girlfriend, staying at a hotel up by the library they filmed part of Ghostbusters at. We wanted to have mexican food, so we asked at the hotel desk where we might find some. They pointed us up the street and around the corner, where we might find any number of mexican and south american eateries. We found one. And it was spanish.

We were treated to the driest chicken I have ever eaten and a spanish beer I couldn't pronouce when I tried to repeat its name after the waiter, three times, ("Papa-watch-oh?"; when he brought it, on the label was written "Budweiser"). "Epic fail" as they say.

The next night we decided to try our luck by Union Square, where I had heard there were lots of good places to eat, and I had even found a few restaurants on the internet. After an hour of walking around, I began to believe that these restaurants were ONLY on the internet, because they were nowhere to be found near Union Square.

Yout can call it bad luck, but I call it good, that we spent that hour wandering, one of us getting ever hungrier and ever crankier, causing a chain reaction of crankiness, because we finally found it. It was a restaurant I had never heard of, all by its lonesome, lights ablaze on a street that appeared to be nearly all residences. There were, outside and in, strands of what I might refer to as Christmas lights, but it was September. On the inside there were piñatas, enchiladas, and rather small pitchers of margarita of which you could drink only rather small amounts of before your body automatically chose either fiesta or siesta. We had reached la tierra prometida, and it was everything I had imagined it would be.

I will go back the next time I'm in New York, assuming the restaurant still exists; assuming it ever did. I would not be surprised if it had appeared like an oasis in the desert of downtown, a refuge for the pure of heart in a city of sin. I does have a web page, however. You might still be able to find El Cantinero at 86 university Place, between 11th and 12th streets.

Some dreams come true.

2009-11-19

My world of ballet

Almost exactly one year ago I became curious about ballet, since I had never attended one but for some reason thought I might enjoy it, and I contacted people involved in ballet in Vienna on a popular social networking site. Within twelve hours I not only recieved a response, but also an offer of a free standing ticket to a showing of The Nutcracker the very next day. Amazing was my reaction to both the offer, which I happily accepted, and the ballet itelf. Since then, I have seen every major ballet production that has come to Vienna. They are, in chronological order:

  • The Nutcracker - Tchaikovsky's true holiday classic. Christmas, presents, adventure, epic battles, dancing robots... it's so fun, it'll even entertain the kids. And the music has become synonymous with holiday. You know at least three songs from this show. The first half was better than the second half; the highlight without a doubt was the gift-bearing godfather leaping around amongst the children. I could, however, do without the five-minute digitally-animated video that interrupted the ballet, intending to demonstrate that one of the children had received an extremely boring version of something like World of Warcraft.
  • Die Fledermaus - This ballet based on Strauss' operetta definitely felt like broadway version of a ballet, with more show than dance. Despite that, I found myself getting bored sometimes. The highlights were the jovial scenes at the bar and a passionate dance in the street. The street scene was very well-set.
  • Anna Karenina - I was in the middle of the book when I saw the ballet, and I was disappointed that the ballet focused only on Anna, her husband Karenin, and Vronsky, none of which are particularly colorful characters. I think they need to rewrite it and include at least small parts for Oblonsky and Levin. Those guys are awesome. After being a little disappointed with Die Fledermaus, Anna Karenina started similarly, a bit on the boring side. But it builds. The second half is magnitudes better than the first, and the last two or three scenes (Anna trying to re-enter society, and Anna at the train station) were the most intense and enthralling bits of dancing I've ever seen.
  • Neue Welt des Balletts - This production kicked off the 2009-2010 season with a set of seven separate modern dance pieces. I didn't know what to expect, but I wasn't let down. Other than one or two lulls in action, I loved every minute. See below for the title, choreographers, and music for each piece, along with my notes about them.
  • Mayerling - This is a wholly Austrian story of the most beloved royal couple in the history of the empire. Empress Sisi, Emperor Franz Joseph, and their children all had men and women on the side. So, even though they are beloved, they apparently didn't love each other that much. The ballet was good, focusing on Rudolph, who has three mistresses throughout the story. Like Die Fledermaus, there was more show than dance, including a break in the ballet while Franz Joseph's lover sings a bit of opera. I enjoyed this one, but it wasn't my favorite.
  • Swan Lake - I begin with Tchaikovsky and end with Tchaikovsky. I saw this one two days ago. There are four acts, and two intermissions, after the second and third acts. The show begins with a wonderful bit of dancing at a royal party and heads into the forest where the swans and the evil Batman take it up a notch. The third act sucked. It was like an anemic version of the various international dancers scene in The Nutcracker. The swans (all 30 of them!) brought the show back on track in the fourth, which was the highlight of the ballet.

Though there were of course some boring parts, but I enjoyed all of them. Then, just yesterday I went back to the Staatsoper for the second day in a row to see Die Zauberflöte, one of Mozart's big operas. It was the first opera I had seen in years, and I was interested to see if I'd enjoy it. Overall, it was good, but a bit on the boring side. There were incredible moments, though. The three members of the Wiener Sängerknaben playing the roles of spiritual guides, had awesome three-part harmony. But, I could have done away with all the rest and simply watched the ten minutes that the Königen der Nacht was on stage. She... was... incredible. That's all I have to say about that.

So, imagine it is one year ago, and I'm going to make a few recommendations for the next twelve months of dancing in tights. Here they are:

  • For pure fun, you can't go wrong with The Nutcracker. It's my favorite for making me feel like a kid again.
  • If I had to choose a ten-minute section of one of these shows to watch again, without a doubt I'd pick either the very end of Anna Karenina or the Aria der Königin der Nacht, depending if I wanted to see some dancing or hear some unbelievable singing.
  • The show that I would pay money to see again in a heartbeat: Neue Welt des Balletts. There were so many good things on stage in a single evening, I couldn't possibly have appreciated them all, even if I tried. More information about it below, to remind me what I saw, should I ever feel the need to look back and remember.

NEUE WELT DES BALLETTS
Elo – Forsythe – Kylián – Lukács - Naisy

EDERLEZI (Premiere)
Choreographie: Myriam Naisy
Musik: Goran Bregović
[Sorry; nothing special here.]

DUO (Uraufführung)
Choreographie: András Lukács
Musik: Max Richter
[This was the best pairs dancing I've seen. Post-modern in a way, fluid, the two dancers really integrated their movements with one another.]

GLOW – STOP (Wiederaufnahme)
Choreographie: Jorma Elo
Musik: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Philip Glass
[Colorful group dancing, very bouncy and entertaining.]

SLINGERLAND PAS DE DEUX
(Wiederaufnahme)
Choreographie: William Forsythe
Musik: Gavin Bryars

PETITE MORT (Wiederaufnahme)
Choreographie: Jiří Kylián
Musik: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
[This piece focused on synchronization and fluidity of many people, including swords. Very cool.]

SECHS TÄNZE (Wiederaufnahme)
Choreographie: Jiří Kylián
Musik: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
[This was a riot. It was more a show than a ballet piece; the audience was laughing a lot and the unconventional dancing was very good.]

2009-10-23

What I like about fashion

It's easy to think someone looks beautiful, but it's hard to know why. It's also easy to think an american tourist looks stupid in Nikes and a fanny pack (don't laugh, brits), or a french fashionista looks snobby in her italian designs.

Fashion is something most people don't have to worry about, even if they do. It is one of the very last visible steps to enlightenment, or it is the last stage for the wannabes. Caught somewhere between individualism and conformity, between modesty and arrogance, fashion means many things to many people. It depends on where you're standing as well as in which direction you're looking.

I used to think that I had no business thinking about fashion, but I simply didn't realize that I was already. I thought some people went over the top with their obsession, but I laughed similarly at the "clueless".

Now, I realize my error. Fashion is not something to be worshipped or scoffed at. Just as a literary classic or modernist masterpiece cannot define our existence, neither can our clothing style. But, just as we use rhetoric and stylism to refine our language, and just as we carefully pick the color of our living room walls and the view from our bedoom windows, we dress ourselves in the expressions and impressions we want to give.

Fashion is like architecture. Architecture is art that is not at home in a museum. Often it is the museum, and the offices and houses we see and use daily. Fashion is adding art to something that there anyway, and going about our business, part functionality and part aesthetic.

I honestly think it was The Sartorialist who made me realize how cool some people look as they simply walk down the street. I enjoy looking at them more than I do many paintings or sculptures, and the best part is that there is no museum, no entrance fee. It is art and expression that comes to me, in a sense, or at the very least stands on a street corner or sits on a bench until I pass by.

I think that's exactly the point: people can be paintings, or sculptures, in their everyday lives. I enjoy looking at them, and the creative side of me wants to be a painting, too. I am, quite likely, an artist, and this is one of the many media with which I can play. If only I had the money.

2009-10-20

I need this job like I need a shot in the arm

An american friend of mine showed me this article and explained how he, too, was being forced to get this season's flu vaccinations under threat of losing his job.

Isn't this oddly similar to the smoking ban issue, in the sense that one of the strongest arguments for banning smoking in restaurants and bars is to to allow employees the freedom from secondhand smoke? Yes, I realize secondhand smoke and vaccines aren't the same, but some people have legitimate concerns about vaccines, too, such as the woman in the article who is concerned about the mercury used in the one vaccine's preparation, and there are others who may be allergic to various elements.

At first look, it seems like requiring medical staff to inject potentially harmful (even if only slightly) substances into their bodies is a blatant violation of rights. On the other hand, we need to do everything possible to protect patients. Perhaps a series of alternative precautions, such as masks, gloves, and thorough cleansing, can reduce the risk of passing along an infection as much as a vaccine.

But, if the data show that there is no way to reduce the risk of flu outbreaks in hospitals as much as having all staff vaccinated, then steps need to be taken to ensure that the appropriate staff members are vaccinated. Particularly since a person can be contagious before they realize they are infected, hospitals are especially sensitive to outbreaks.

Maybe it's not financially feasible, but what about positive reinforcement instead of negative? Small bonuses or rewards might do the trick better than the threat of getting fired. And, yes, at-risk employees should not be in contact with patients who are susceptible.

Does anyone know more about this, or have a better solution?

I'll tell you where you can smoke

I have smoked one cigarette in my life--because I wanted to blow smoke rings--but I reserve no ill-will for people who smoke. I reserve all of my ill-will in this regard for people who smoke in the presence of others without regards to their wishes or their health. And, yes, smoking in public places has a negative effect on health, according to a[nother] recent study.

The argument about smoking bans is fairly polarized, but there is some middle ground. My own opinion lies in this middle ground, actually, where I have the right to a large selection of smoke-free public places such as restaurants and bars, and where those inclined to smoke also have a reasonable selection of places where they might be allowed to do so. I firmly believe that people should be allowed to harm themselves given that they accept all risks, and they don't impose on others.

The options for partial smoking bans range from the very lenient mandatory "non-smoking section" to the banning of smoking everywhere except in private establishments such as cigar clubs. I don't know how many countries or U.S. states enacted which versions of bans (I wish I had the statistics) but I know that my home state of Ohio went whole-hog. I think that's stupid.

People have a right to smoke, but they don't have a right to blow it in my face. The city and local governments should be able to issue a fixed number of smoking licenses, in much the same way that liquor licenses are distributed. There would be enough licenses for, say, 10% of restaurants and bars to be able to allow smoking. Maybe there could be more. There must be a fair method of distribution. Mechanisms for alcohol and possibly also carbon emissions might be used as models.

The last hurdle would be smoking opponents who say that workplaces engulfed in smoke are not safe for employees. There must be a solution for this problem, whether it be simple monetary compensation, heavy-duty air filtering, or rotational employment between smoky and fresh-air locations.

Smoke definitely bothers me, to the point where sometimes I believe I have an allergy. But then again, some people like that sort of thing, and I'm not above letting them participate.

2009-10-19

An old problem

I ran across this article a couple of days ago. The very short summary is that there is new but as of yet unconfirmed evidence that a certain virus causes what has come to be known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

This topic is of particular interest to me because I had it, and I can't say that it ever really went away.

In August of 2001 I was sick with a fever over a weekend immediately following a hard training session, and my post-sickness fatigue didn't go away for a few years. No amount of sleep, change in diet, rest, doctors' visits, or research could provide a cure for my tiredness. One thing I did know was that the antibodies related to the Epstein-Barr virus showed the pattern particular to people who were recovering from mononucleosis. Other than that, I knew nothing.

But, in May 2005 I found myself suddenly feeling better, and since then I've lived in a delicate balance between near-normalcy and recurrence of symptoms if I overstress myself by running too much, not sleeping enough, or doing other generally unhealthy things.

Of course I resent my condition for basically ruining the second half of my college running career, but dealing with it has also changed my perspective, in some cases for the better. I can name a few things that I would never have done had I not been prevented from running, and had I not been extremely tired for months on end. It wasn't all bad, but I still would rather be without it. That's why it's exciting for me to hear about possible progress in the research, and the founding of an institute for related research.

Go science.

2009-10-14

The language post

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that there are lots of cases and tenses in the Latin language, more than in any of the modern languages which came from it. Thus, for those and some other reasons, Latin is more complex than any other languages in its family. I think the same holds for ancient Greek, though I am no language scholar, so I might be oversimplifying the situation.

This leads me to believe that languages have become simpler in the last two thousand years. How can this be? Languages can't always become simpler, because I know for a fact that language developed from single words into the phrases, tenses, sentences, and cases that we know and love today.

That means that since spoken or written language first developed tens of thousands of years ago, there was a period of ever-increasing language complexity, as speakers wanted to convey ever move complicated thoughts. Then, there was a peak some time and somewhere, whether it was Greek, Latin, or otherwise, at which point it all began to simplify.

The way I see it, there are three possible explanations. The first is that ancient Latin and Greek were artificially complex; i.e. they were created by academics who wanted a fully-expressive formal language. Second, there might be some other factor of language which has picked up the leftover complexity, such as context, tone, word order, etc. And lastly, it could be that geographic and cultural differences determine which language features are important in a particular locale, and other are left away as extraneous.

The first is supported by the concept of vulgar latin, spoken differently by uneducated people in various locations, and classical latin, which was explicitly agreed upon by prominent scholars. The second possibility above is extremely difficult to measure, though intuition and reasoning lead me to believe it is nearly identical with the third reason, meaning that speech in a given city or countryside automatically brings a stronger context with it than if it were studied from the entire country or empire. It would seem both of these explanations double as motivations for diverging language. People want to be special, and they want to be able to communicate as easily as possible with those people they see most often, and so their language may develop locally. I doubt that it is, according to Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, a curse placed on humans by a demigod, prohibiting language convergence.

However, one element of Snow Crash's explanation of languages hits the nail on the head: there are many parallels to be drawn between written languages and programming languages. Stephenson tips Sumerian as machine language, and offhand, one might call C computer's Latin, with BASIC, Java, Perl, Python, etc. all specifically and contextually powerful variants on the language tree.

It really makes me wonder which way language is going. Since we live in the Information Age, I'm tempted to think that in a thousand years, everyone in the world with grow up like the Irish: learning one common language and possibly also a somewhat obsolete colloqial one, which in their case are English and Gaelic. I'm not sure yet if I'd be happy or sad about that.

Are there any language scholars out there who can point me in the right direction?

2009-10-11

Post-ironism

Irony is a confusing concept, not just because it implies a double meaning or intention, but because the definition of the word itself is a bit hard to grasp. You can check out the Wikipedia page to see what I mean. There are multiple types of irony, on which people disagree, mainly concerning what is "actually" irony, and what isn't.

And then there was the great debate about whether Alanis Morissette's song, Ironic, actually contained irony.

What intrigues me the most, though, is the association of irony with emo kids and hipsters, which give an example:

For example: a person who wears, say, a Legend of Zelda t-shirt, but who does it ironically in the hipster sense, is being self-aware of the irony of their situation — they are in essence saying "Man, isn't it so ironic that someone as cool as me would wear such a geeky shirt?" Thus it is that emo kids and hipsters get away with wearing and participating in a lot of what is otherwise considered "fringe" or uncool behavior.

So, what I was wondering is, since we all obviously define our styles based on emo kids, have we moved on to post-ironism?

In about 1999, a man wearing a pink shirt was obviously gay. Perhaps it wasn't 1999 that was guilty, but in fact the age of my friends at the time. By 2001, however, the pink shirt had been run through the dredges of irony in the sense of, "Look at me! I'm wearing a pink shirt and I'm not gay!" A side-effect of metrosexualism, most likely, and before long every self-respecting frat boy wore a pink shirt at least twice a week.

Now, I wonder out loud, can I wear a pink shirt without proclaiming my bubbly heterosexuality? Can I wear a Zelda t-shirt because I actually like Zelda? The answer is: of course I can; I always could, and I don't really know why I'm asking that question.

Now, the more important issue is that I thought I was founding the post-ironism movement, but I have just noticed that "Post Irony" is, in fact, a section of the Wikipedia article on irony.

Isn't that ironic? (I mean, that trying to found a cultural movement led me to realize it has already been founded.) No, probably not, huh? I don't really know.

Well, anyway, as a warning to all sensitive people out there: don't take my post-ironic statements the wrong way. If I say "women can't drive", it doesn't mean that I don't think women can drive, or even that I'm making fun of people who say that women can't drive, but instead making fun of people who make sweeping generalizations. Got it? Good.

2009-09-13

The Supper Club

Miles Fisher is a new favorite of mine. I know I don't normally have favorites, especially people, but I've taken to putting the label favorite on anything I can plausibly defend my affection towards, and of which I have not yet had enough. I've lowered the bar for favoritism, you might say. But Miles Fisher deserves it.

My introduction to him came through the omniscient website Facebook, when a friend sent me the video for the Miles Fisher cover single This Must be the Place, which I wrote about here.

Only a few days later, I recognize him as a new character (not sure if it's recurring) in my current favorite TV show, Mad Men.

Then, I make the obligatory rounds, when you discover something new: I found Miles Fisher on Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and his personal web site. Now I'm in the Miles Fisher loop. Keep in mind I hardly know anything about the guy, but I love a couple of things he's done, so I'm fully prepared to drop my fanship at a moment's notice if something goes awry.

Then I read this article, which Miles Fisher posted himself on Facebook and elsewhere, and I'm not sure how to interpret it. He himself calls the article "a bit silly" (Twitter, Sept 8th), but what else could you write, when people pay $5000 per year to be a member of a highbrow fraternity for grown-ups?

The organizer of the Supper Club has the right idea. This kind of thing was popular in Anna Karenina's 19th-century Petersburg and Moscow, and there's no reason it shouldn't be popular today. People like to belong to something, and even more than that, they want to belong to something meaningful, or important, or both. Belonging to something, no matter how superficial the connection you share is, people open up a bit more when there is a connection, and even more than that, when someone else says this person is worth knowing.

And, practially speaking, this would be a very good way to branch out. The planners take care of the arrangements, and the art of what I can only call "Society" conversation. (I think it's also an awesome sociological study.) Think of it like Facebook, except without a computer. Computerless Facebook, where only cool people are invited. You could spend hours online looking for people who do things you are interested in, or you could pay a woman to sit you next to someone interesting at a friendly dinner. It's a closer connection, without the desperation. I'd do it, if they'd let me in.

Seriously, I am constantly on the lookout for people who are interesting to talk to, or who do something that interests me, either personally or professionally. If the Supper Club planners do it well, I'd be meeting "good matches" a couple of times per month. My current modus operandi is to write random people on Facebook and wait for them not to write me back. I guess they don't want to meet people, or they think I'm weird.

If I'm going to turn the conversation to me, which apparently I am, I'd like to think that if you plop me down at a dinner table with the Miles Fishers of the world, I'd fit right in, if you bought me a new suit first. And come to think of it, is that the problem? I mean, I can talk, film, art, music, literature, food, wine, Europe, ballet, whatever. Do I not look the part, maybe? Have I not done anything great enough yet? Or is it about the money? There's no way to know, really, or, rather, it's obvious it's a combination of all of them. And you have to be lucky, and know people.

Some people are really good; some people are really lucky. I can't help but think that I'm not that far away from Miles Fisher and his Supper Club, but I can't prove that. It's not even that I want to be like him, either; I just envy his accomplishments and his access to the lifestyle and resources that I would like to have. I don't like being excluded from anything.

But keep doing your thing, Miles. I'll be there some day.

2009-09-10

Surprise: Like our cars, our markets are not efficient

This is an awesome writeup from the NY Times by Nobel Memorial Prize winner Paul Krugman about the state of macroeconomics today. It's long, but really good, if you're interested in this sort of thing.

I'll admit that I've never been fully "in the loop" with macroeconomics. I think you have to study the subject regularly to do so, but the way Krugman describes the situation is very compelling. He lumps American economists primarily into two groups: "freshwater" and "saltwater". The freshwater economists (sometimes loosely called the Chicago School) love Friedman and the efficient market hypothesis, while the saltwater guys lean towards Keynes and possibly more government intervention.

I wish I knew more about the subject; if you're interested, read the article. One thing I do know is that my first few finance classes (I have minors in finance, and economics) focused on the efficient market hypothesis. Everyone likes to think that competition, rational investing, and arbitrage cause every price in the market to be where it should be, employment/unemployment included. Yet somehow they all want to find the "best" investments in the stock market or wherever. If pricing was perfect, all investments would be equally good, given the risk involved.

That's why I never bought the efficient market hypothesis. Being a methematician, I can prove this. Let's assume a stock appears on the market, perfectly priced. Several smart traders trade the stock, keeping it perfectly priced as news and developments of the underlying company become known. Then, one not-so-smart investor---let's call him "I Know This guy Who's a Stockbroker"---he starts trading the stock. If Mr. Stockborker is not listening to the news, or if he's just stupid, he makes the wrong trade at the wrong time, and all of the sudden, the pricing of the stock is not perfect any more. Bingo. No more efficient market.

Yeah, yeah... I know; it's all a question of scale. One guy won't change the market, but a thousand people with the same or similar idea might, and that's the kind of things that develop over time, creating a bubble. All it takes are a few people who buy houses simply because their parents told them "a house is the best investment you'll ever make", and the modest price increase caused by these people makes housing look like a better investment to more people, and the chain continues.

Maybe this particular example is circumstantial, but there's nothing keeping the prices grounded to the truth when people are ignoring investment fundamentals and are participating in what Krugman calls "ketchup economics", which is when people see that a half-liter bottle of ketchup costs half as much as a one-liter bottle, and assume that pricing is efficient. No one knows how much ketchup should cost, without looking at a ketchup bottle of a different size.

There are a lot of investors who buy the most undervalued stocks in the market. This works well until all stocks are overpriced. One guy who never forgot that, who never got caught up in the efficient market hypothesis despite its tremendous popularity, is Warren Buffett. He pulled completely out of the stock market during the 1972-73 boom, and people called him crazy for missing out on the gains that other popular investors of the day were making. Then everything crashed, and no one was laughing, not even Buffett, because he knows it's not a game.

Buffett steadily climbed Forbes' World's Richest list, and appeared second on the list for a few years before finally claiming the number one spot. When? In 2008, as the market again took a spill.

I'm going to have to read Keynes.

2009-08-05

The original conformist in a music video

A friend pointed me to this video. It's not perfect, but he's got the right idea. I'm going to nominate it for best music video I've seen in a long time.




Parts that annoy me a little:
  • Business cards with song lyrics on them.
  • The raincoat dance needs a lot of work.

I give him props for:
  • Being naked for the prostitute scene.
  • Having better-looking prostitutes.
  • Taking a break in the song to plug his own song to the prostitutes.
  • Looking, acting, talking, and smiling astonishingly like Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman.
  • The video overall; I love it.

2009-08-03

I love buying new mobile phones

After the miraculous disappearance of my backpack in June, I replaced most of the stuff, including getting an HTC Dream to replace my iPhone 3G. The phone arrived about two weeks ago. I celebrated a friend's birthday on Friday evening, and on Saturday I found myself writing this email:

I have to buy another mobile phone because some dude decided he wanted mine, and took it by force. I was almost home last night, after being out for a friend's birthday. It was almost 3am, and between the bus stop and my apartment (400m) a guy started talking to me, nicely, and he asked me if I had a cell phone. Me, being a dumbass, said "yes". I may have had it in my hand; I don't remember exactly, but at some point I took it out of my pocket and had it in my hand, and he said "cool, let me see" and just grabbed it. He actually walked next to me for like 50 meters still talking to me, and me telling him to give me my phone back. Then I just grabbed it back and ran, but he caught my shirt and swung me around and started hitting me. I got thrown on the ground as I slipped out of my shirt which he was holding onto, and the phone slipped out of my hand. We both grabbed it at the same time, and I ended up coming up with only the back of the phone, the battery cover. He had the rest. At this point, I was sitting shirtless on the side of my street (my own street!) with him standing over me telling me to give him the battery cover. I just said "what?" and acted like I didn't have it, because it was dark and I didn't know if he could see. I also briefly considered my options, which weren't too many. He asked me again, and I said "what?" again, but in the end, I just gave it to him because I was on the ground bleeding, and he was obviously winning. I'm not sure if he kicked me in the head before or after that, but he did it at least once.

I told the police I wasn't unconscious, but now I'm not sure, because I don't remember seeing the dude running away. If I was, it was only a few seconds. The police station was only 300-400 meters away, so I ran there and told them. They called it in to the dudes on the street, I guess, with a description of the dude and the girl that was with him. I filed the report, and after a few minutes the paramedics showed up. I guess I was bleeding noticeably from my head, and there was blood on my face and hands. So, of course it was really convenient that the police station was so close, but the hospital they took me to was pretty far away. That means after they cleaned me up and the most inept x-ray technician ever made images of my head, I had to wait well over a half hour for the bus, and then it took me at least an hour to get home.

So now I'm sitting here with a big white bandage covering my head, which I have to leave on for three days, and then I can't wash my hair for ten, but I'll probably do it earlier. So today I got a new SIM card to put in my old phone (it's getting a lot of use this summer) and I was wearing what was basically a winter hat the whole time I was shopping. People were looking at me funny, but not as funny as this morning on my way back from the hospital.

So that's that story. I'll probably be more careful in the future, but maybe not.



Some observations I'd like to make, after having a few days to think about it:

  • I was never scared, and I don't know if that's good or bad.
  • It's hard to outrun someone in flip-flops, even if you're in sub-4:00 1500m shape.
  • I walked a different, and darker, way home from the bus because I was hungry. I probably won't do that again.
  • I never through a single punch; I was completely focused on getting my phone in my hand and then getting away. I should have punched him somewhere where it really hurts. Maybe that would have been preferable.
  • What bothers me the most is that this guy won. I would much rather have beat the crap out of him and then had him arrested, but completely destroyed my phone than have "lost" the fight and kept my phone.
  • Three days later, I don't even notice the cut on my head except when I touch it on accident, but I keep discovering new bruises, including a weird soreness in the bone between the nostrils of my nose. There's no visible bruise or swelling there.
  • At the police station this morning, as I was bringing them the IMEI number from my phone, the officer who took the report of my stolen backpack walked in and recognized me, having remembered me and my stolen backpack and phone from two months ago. Both he and the officer I was talking to today asked me how I liked Austria now, and then wished me better luck in the future.
  • The possibility of a knife or other weapon is the main reason why, if this happens again, I'd probably still just [try to] run away.
  • There was a pretty girl in a pink skirt with the guy when he started talking to me. She probably saw the whole thing, and will probably still hang out with the guy even after what she saw. Maybe she'd seen it before. She's just as bad as he is.

Does anyone else have any comments, suggestions, or stories?

2009-07-31

Baby Got Way Back

With the incredible super-seriousness of my last post, and the subsequent discussion, I've been wanting to write something light and airy, fresh and clean. Maybe now's the time to recount a story I've been wanting to put into words for a while. It goes way back...

Back when I was a wee lad of just 17 years, I had the opportunity of participating in the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships for high school athletes. The evening after the race, which was in the late morning, we had the honor of a beautiful banquet dinner, awards ceremony, and guest speakers. The main speaker was Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner, who is perhaps better known for being married to Florence Griffith-Joyner, "Flo-Jo", who still holds the 21-year-old 100m world record, and who died only two and a half months before these championships.

Al Joyner had a very good speech prepared, but the biggest moments of the evening for me came when, after we were done with dinner, and done with the awards, a couple of dudes on stilts and dressed like aliens busted in the door just as The Beastie Boys Intergalactic started pumping through the sound system. The aliens were keepin' it real, and getting people out on the dance floor, including Al Joyner. Yes, I've busted a move next to Al Joyner.

We were having fun as kids do, enjoying a little post-race fun with some of the fittest high schoolers in the country, and the DJ just kept the songs coming. Perhaps the DJ wasn't a runner; perhaps he didn't think, but fairly soon, he dropped Sir Mix-a-Lot onto the turntables. I didn't think twice; the song is good, and I like dancing to it. Baby Got Back. But Al Joyner... he knew. In the middle of the song, Mix-a-Lot proudly proclaims, "I keep my women like Flo-Jo."

At this point in the song, I swear on everything that is holy that every single person in the room whipped their head around to look wide-eyed at Al Joyner, and immediately froze. There was that record-skip sound exactly like in the movies. RRrrrrreeeeeeeeeeatt! And we were just staring at him, frozen.

He's a class act, that Al Joyner. He never missed a beat; he clapped his hands together once, with a hearty laugh, and the party continued as if nothing had happened. The music had never stopped, and everything was okay again.

My condolences to Flo-Jo. Sir Mix-a-Lot was indeed paying you a compliment, and Al Joyner knew that. God bless you both.

2009-07-27

Equality

Equality is a dangerous word.

There are some things that have been done in the name of equality which are counteractive to its principle. That's hypocrisy at its grandest.

I am writing this blog post as a reference for myself and my acquaintances; I have wanted to make this point on many occasions, and it would help if I could simply refer to this, a hopefully well-formed, well-expounded argument. As a disclaimer in advance, I want to mention that I've been in many arguments in which my opponent, so to say, thought that I was denying the existence of a problem, such as sexual prejudice. In reality, I was fully aware that there was a problem, but I simply felt that we were going about solving it in the wrong way. This is one of those cases. I am not denying the existence of a problem, but I am considering the many manifestations of said problem, and refuting that the "solution" indeed solves anything.

The two main targets I concern myself with here are Title IX and Affirmative Action, but there are certainly others. Many of you are familiar with these two instances of enforced equality in the United States, but if you're not, Title IX (well, it's executors) requires universities to spend equal amounts of money on men's and women's sports, which Affirmative Action places minimum bounds on the numbers of so-called "minority" employees (or students, etc.). In both cases, someone is required to give preference to, or increase the participation of, a certain group of people, when compared to the general population.

Both legal measures started with a good heart. The lawmakers noticed (or claimed to notice) a disparity, and they moved to correct it. Good for them, I say, for seeing a problem and then correcting it.

But they went about it wrong, unfortunately, and this has been realized, as witnessed by the general disuse of Affirmative Action in today's workplace. This is not the case with Title IX. Despite the fact that the big Title IX boom around the turn of the milennium has come and gone, its effects still linger. The "problem", whichever way you want to look at it, has not gone away.

Let me [carefully] explain my opinion. As a mathematician, I like logical reasoning, so I'll go about my arguments in that--my favorite--way, in a fictionalized hypothetical circumstance.

Let us first consider the case of men and women in the workplace, and further assume that a certain lawmaker would like to increase the number of women hired, an idea similar to, if not a part of, Affirmative Action.

Now, when I ask this lawmaker why he wants to pass a law to increase the number of women hired, he might say, "The number of women hired today is considerably lower than the number of men; men and women should be equal."

"Equality," I might say. "Interesting. Why do you think there are fewer women being hired?"

"Because they're being discriminated against in the workplace, and I won't stand for it!" The lawmaker might reply.

"So there should be the same number of women in the workplace as men?" I say.

"Yes," the lawmaker says, "Well, the same as the proportion of working-age individuals. So, perhaps slightly more women than men."

I reply, "You're saying that, proportionally speaking, there should be no difference between men and women?"

"That's correct. They should be equal."

Then I would get to my point: "Are men and women equal?"

The lawmaker would get cross, "No! Of course not! That's why I'm trying to make a law! To stop the discrimination!"

"No," I'd say, "I mean: are men and women the same?"

He might look confused. "Well, no, but in the workplace they should be considered the same!"

"So, they're not the same, but in the workplace they should be considered the same?" I say.

"Of course there are differences between men and women; that's anatomy, you know, but that doesn't matter."

"It doesn't matter?" I reply with a smirk on my face. "Should basketball teams hire equal numbers of short people and tall people? Should Google be forced to hire half of its employees from the under-100-IQ set? Should we have deaf telephone operators? I'm sorry for the absurd examples, but to say that we must treat two vastly different groups of people (the biological difference doesn't get much bigger than that between males and females) exactly the same in every case in the workplace, or the university?"

"Well, we can't discriminate!" might be the lawmakers response.

"You're saying we're not allowed to discriminate at a job interview? That sounds counterproductive. Interviews are held in order to discriminate between candidates."

"Yes, I know," the lawmaker says, "in each case, that's true. But, on average, we should see equality between men and women."

"What if I told you that more men than women want to be, for example, engineers?" I ask.

"There's no reason that women can't be engineers," he replies, "there should be equal numbers."

"Then why are there more female than male elementary school teachers?"

"Because that's an arena where women are no longer, or never were, discriminated against," the lawmaker says confidantly, "Engineering is a different type of job."

"So you're telling me we should have quotas based on sex for the jobs in which there are more males than females, but not in the jobs in which there are more females than males?"

"Yes," the lawmaker says, slightly unsure of his answer, "but it's not that simple."

"I'll leave that that battle for another day," I say, "but let me ask you something else. Are you telling me that even though we can both admit that there are huge biological differences between men and women--namely sexual organs, but also height, weight, body composition, voice pitch, and the list goes on--you won't admit that perhaps women and men differ also in such intricate areas as preference for a certain type of job?"

"Men and women should be treated equally." And the lawmaker's eyes glaze over.

I turn to the camera and say, "And that, kids, is why you can't ever win an argument with a person who doesn't think logically. But, if you're wondering what good can come of all this, I can tell you there is hope. You see, I'll admit that there is still prejudice in the workplace, in universities, and elsewhere, but we can't just force everyone to be treated "equally". First of all, it's not an efficient use of our resources if we force organizations to make choices that are not in their best interests. And, using a law to discriminate is just as bad as the original discrimination, even if it is in the "reverse" direction. Who's to say the orginal discrimination even exists? If you know it exists, fire the person who's doing it. Trace it all the way back to the source; prejudice should not be tolerated. But, as in the case of Title IX, perhaps girls don't like some sports as much as guys. I find that believable, particularly because high school sports see the same disparity as colleges, even when boys and girls truly have equal opportunity."

"We need to fight any kind of prejudice, but putting a Band-aid over the problem isn't going to help, particularly when that Band-aid is prejudicial by design. Too many qualified candidates have lost job opportunities, too many companies have lost better-qualified candidates, and, perhaps more to the point, the single largest effect of Title IX was to take opportunities away from men instead of giving them to women. We can certainly do better than that. Let's instead make laws that get rid of the immoral discrimination, and don't just cover it up."


I apologize if you read this far and this is old news to you. But, I'm sure you know someone who might benefit from the arguments I present above. There are still people in this world for whom "equality" means men being allowed to be wet nurses, and the blind being given jobs as chauffeurs. If you disagree with anything I have written here, please write to me, whether in the comments section, or the email address listed in my profile. I enjoy having my opinions changed for the better.

2009-07-23

Random thoughts

The city of Vienna is considering banning "Bermuda Shorts" from public swimming pools, because they apparently soak up 2.5 liters of water (liter-a-waters) per person per day, which is a lot more than Banana Hammocks, Sausage Slings, and Pickle Packers. Sorry, America; there will be no swimming for you in Vienna. It's a Speedo or nothing.

The number of people I can smell as they walk by me in a subway station (for example) increases exponentially with the temperature.

Lance Armstrong may have given up his chance at winning the Tour de France yesterday, principally by being a good teammate and riding in support of Alberto Contador. Check out an awesome analysis of what happened here.

2009-07-21

Book Review: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

While I was reading the book:

I just read a review on this site about this book, saying that the it was boring and strayed away from the "main plot" too much on "tangents" and "thoughts". I think the reader missed the point. By the way, she started reading it because she... BA-dum BUM... heard about it from Oprah.

-----------------------------------------------

After I was done:

Partially in reference to the review I mentioned above, let me reiterate a point I made in a prior review, in which I described my theory of what makes a "good" book: "main plots" suck. Seriously, if you've got some motivation, moral, conflict, crime, romance, or whatever pulling you through the pages just to get to the end, you can't enjoy each page. For me, the pages have to be interesting in order for the book to be good, and many-a-time a driving plot ruins this. J.S. Foer almost falls victim to this in Everything is Illuminated, but everyone knows how great a book that is. He almost forgot the trees for the forest.

Tolstoy didn't. He remembered the trees, and he built the forest out of them. I've had someone ask me, "Isn't Anna Karenina a total love story?" And my answer was, "no." Sure, there are a few loves stories running through the entire book, and they might even be the main focus, but considering marriage and social relationships were possibly the most important thing amongst 19th Century Russian gentry, it's only logical. This book is about life in a specific time, in a specific place, among specific types of people. Plus, immediately after I finished this book, I began a real love story (on recommendation from my aunt), and the two books are worlds apart.

Anna Karenina is for those readers who like to transport themselves into the shoes of people probably very different from themselves, and spend a little time there, learning about their perspectives, friends, ideals, and dreams. And, from the shoes of these other people, you can (I did) learn bits of wisdom about yourself and your own life.

I highly recommend this book, but be aware (if you're not already) that my version was 980 pages, with more words per page than average. It took me about six or eight times longer to read than a standard 250-page book. But I honestly never got bored reading it, and was a little bit sad when it ended, because I wanted to read more about Levin and Oblonsky.

2009-07-20

Battle Belgium

Explanation of the title:
The title of this post comes from a sign we saw while running past what looked like an indoor arena on the outskirts of Hasselt, Belgium on Sunday morning, after the big track meet in Heusden on the previous evening. For those of you who didn't read my last post, I ran in a heat of the 5000m at the meet (it ended up being the "National" heat 2, or the fourth heat) hoping to set a new PB.

Boring details:
For you running nerds, here are some times I remember passing a clock during the race: 1:06, 2:51, 4:31, 9:41. Side note: there were rabbits in the race who were supposed to run 2:48/km (14:00 pace) until 8:24 at the third kilometer. I wasn't too far behind those guys for the first part of the race. Matching my splits above with their respective distances indicates I started the first 1600m (4:31) faster than I ever have, except for the 4:26 I ran at the 2003 NCAA regionals, when I finished in 14:10 for fourth and qualified to nationals. The 9:41 was the 3400m mark, I believe, making my 3000m/3200m splits something like 8:33/9:07, which would be a bit too slow for my taste. Then obviously I died in the last 2km. I got really confused at the end and thought for sure I would still be under 14:20 until I saw the clock while on the homestretch.

Ohio shoutout:
I had race number 513.

Some thoughts on the race:
It was cool being at a meet with all of those talented people. But, clearly the talent wasn't in my race. Honestly, I felt like I was on the track with a bunch of elementary school kids. One guy pushed me back right at the start and then a few laps into the race, he reappeared and tried to cut me off for an entire lap, pointing to the rail telling me I should let him over. One time, when he tried to come over, I refused to move for him, and he stumbled and I believe he had to put his hand on the ground to keep from falling. But, then he still didn't leave me alone! I ended up letting him get in front of me, and then I passed him on the outside (never saw him after that). It seemed like no one else on the track knew how to run, either. Everyone was pushing and cutting me off, and another guy who cut me off later in the race almost went down when I didn't move for him. These guys are seriously idiots. They turned my whole race into an obstacle course instead of a nice, smooth run. But, it doesn't change the fact that I was struggling to breathe as easily as I should have been during the race; that was my main problem.

More whining:
Overall, the race was close to a worst-case-scenario, but I am happy, though, that I took the chance I did. I had to spend about €400 on transportation and hotel, and if I would have run well, it would have been worth it. At least this time around (as opposed to some other races I've run in Europe) I had friends with me, who also ran, and we had a good time. Only one of the three of us ran well, but that's the way it goes, sometimes. It was also cool to see the faster heats (my friend Martin was in the third, and ran 13:46) where there were a lot of recognizable names and faces.

Euro meet anecdote:
I apparently sat next to Pamela Jelimo in the van back from the stadium. Among other things, she was the Olympic gold medalist at 800m in Beijing, and and won a cool million dollars by winning all six 800m races of the 2008 Golden League series. I didn't recognize her in the van because it was dark, but after we got out of the bus, Martin told me that he thought it was her. I don't have confirmation though. Looking back, its funny to think that I asked a millionaire Olympic gold medalist if she might be able to "squish over a bit" because another athlete wanted to get in.

Something/someone else cool:
Thomas Chamney dropped 3.5 seconds off of his 1500m PB in Heusden, bringing him down to 3:37. Last week he missed the world championships A-standard in the 800m by 0.01. He gave this interview after his race in Heusden:

Track and Field Videos on Flotrack


When he said he was "going for a pint", he wasn't kidding. We saw him at the kebab shop at midnight, and then at a pub between 2 and 3am. One of my friends knows him, so he came over and talked to us for a while. Yeah, he acts like that all the time, and it's really hilarious. And his girlfriend is smokin' hot. But he had time to talk to us "little people". Actually, I was with a 3:39 1500m guy and a 13:36 5000m guy, so I was the only "little" person around. The last thing I saw Thomas doing was, as he was leaving the bar in the drizzly, chilly weather, ripping his shirt off and was yelling like he had just scored a goal in the World Cup.

Closing remarks:
I guess all of that is what happens at European track meets. I've decided I like to do that sort of thing every now and then, but I don't want to make a habit of it. It can get lonely, and chaotic, and it's not all that much fun, unless maybe you run really well, which is not something I want to bank on. Plus, after chasing some cash in Baltimore, I realized I don't like running for money, though I have no problem taking it after the fact. That'll be my excuse why I'm not a professional; I want to be the best amateur I can be, and also do something else with my life.

2009-07-12

I've got the speed; do I have the stamina?

As most of you have heard a little bit about how I'm running some races this summer, I figured I'd fill you in on the whole story. Not that it's really a bit story, but maybe you'd find it interesting how I'm trying to have a sort of track season for the first time since college, way back in 2003.

Having not raced since the marathon on Mallorca with Jeff last October, after which I didn't run for six weeks, and barely ran for another two months, I started running regularly again in February in preparation for a half marathon in Heidelberg, Germany at the end of April. I have friends near Heidelberg -- I met them through other friends at a backwards running race -- and they invited me to be on their team for the race. The three fastest people would count towards the team scoring. I was rushing to get into shape, because after the marathon I had taken more time off than ever, or at least since junior high school. Even though I didn't win like I thought I could have, I enjoyed some great racing on that course, and came in fourth place, less than a minute behind the winner. It was this great racing, strategy, surges, and just having fun out there which kind of re-ignited the spark of wanting to race again.

I continued training and improving quite rapidly. Within a few weeks I knew I was in much better shape, and could most likely win that half marathon, if it were re-run. Then, an interesting thing happened. On the evening of May 28th, I came down with a stomach ache and a fever. I didn't sleep much that night, but by the next day my stomach ache had gone away, but I was still feverish and extremely tired. Even sitting watching TV wore me out, and I had to lie down often during the day. Before I had gotten sick, I had planned to go buy some vitamins at the drug store, which is close to a half mile away. I was so tired, I knew it would be a kind of challenge for me to get there, but I did it anyway. I also bought a thermometer, which it turns out doesn't work very well, but I think my temperature was around 101 degrees that afternoon. After sleeping a ton and drinking only fruit juice all day long, and lying down even when I wasn't sleeping, I felt much better by early afternoon on the third day, a Saturday. After being so tired and weak, I felt a little like Superman. I also had this strange feeling feeling that this fever would be a sort of positive turning point for me, much like the weekend fever I had in August 2001 was a turning point for the negative, because that's when
the mononucleosis started. One thing that being sick did accomplish was that I went from being the heaviest I'd ever been to my ideal racing weight, which means I lost about six pounds.

Even more than that, I felt pretty good the entire next week, better than I usually do, and on the following Friday I decided to try some fast running to test myself. What I did was run easy up one of the big hills around here, and then run down it very fast, to let my legs practice running faster. I found a nice, gradual downhill road that is about 5% downgrade for over 5km. I ended up running a 14:30 downhill 5k. I've never done this sort of thing before, but I was pleased with the result. Still even better, only three days later, I stepped on the track for the first time in years, and tried some 400m repeats. I decided to do 12x400m with 1 minute rest between them, with a goal time of 69 seconds per 400m. I could feel that my legs wanted to run that day, so I was excited to see what I could do. I was very surprised to find out that not only did my legs have no problems running 69 seconds, but that they gradually wanted to run faster, so my average for all of them was 67 seconds, and my last two were 65. This is one of my best track workouts ever. (I think the best I ever did at Miami was maybe 66 average when we did 3-minute goes, which is almost twice as much rest). Anyway, I was extremely happy with this workout, and afterwards I was more excited to race than I had been in years.

I laid out a plan, starting two weeks later:
June 21st: local 5km road race to kick off the racing season
June 28th: 5000m at an international track meet in Villach, Austria
WEEK OFF
July 11th: 1500m at an international track meet in Kapfenberg, Austria
July 18th: 5000m at HUGE track meet in Heusden, Belgium

July 18th would be the main focus, because the conditions could be perfect for a fast time. Last year, there were five heats of the 5000m, and the THIRD heat had a group of twenty guys between 13:50 and 14:10, which is ideal for me. This meet has more fast 5000m runners than any meet I've ever heard of.

The little road race turned out OK. On a very nice day, I ran 15:08 (my goal was under 15) by myself the whole way. And then my backpack got stolen afterwards, which wasn't cool. I'm still working on replacing everything from my wallet, my mobile phone, etc.

The following weekend in Villach, the plan was to run 2:50/km with an italian guy who was trying to run 14:10 to qualify for a championship race. Unfortunately, it was raining pretty hard before and during the race, so we started at "only" 2:53 pace until 3km, when I couldn't even hold that pace any more and dropped off. The italian must have run 2:45 for the last two kilometers, because he finished in 14:09, and I must have run 3:07, because I finished in 14:54, which was still second place. I was incredibly disappointed about this race, and I reminded myself that I shouldn't get so excited about races, because if they don't turn out well, I get... well.... very disappointed. The problem here is that I don't have many races, so I only have one or two chances to run well, and if I don't, then I'm out of luck for a few months.

Of course, I don't know if it was the rain, or something else, but I was a little sick and had heavy arms and legs for the following week. I was hoping that I had been sick a little even during the race, because then I'd have a good excuse for the poor performance, but that's hard to say. I hardly ran that week, and I started regretting the €200 I spent on hotel and flight to Belgium, because it was clear I wasn't going to run well. At least I had a weekend off, when I could rest.

The week after the weekend off, last week, I felt better, but not 100%. I managed a 3x500m workout in 1:19 per repeat. That was my tune-up for the 1500m in Kapfenberg. It was barely a workout, but I don't know if my sickly body could handle much more without getting run-down again.

Something worked in my favor. Yesterday I ran in Kapfenberg, on a very nice day, and I got out well in 63 for the first lap, in the second lap there was a sort of traffic jam, and everybody slowed down. I had to sidestep a bit to not step on people's heels, but once I got out to the side, I passed several people and was feeling really good at that pace. I maintained a good tempo, and then with 600m to go, I tried to start hammering for home. I was on the second place guy's shoulder at 150m to go, but of course I'm not a miler, so I got buried on the final straightaway to finish sixth. I didn't know my time, until after I cooled down, but I was thinking I was under 4:00, and my PR from 2001 (sophomore in college) was 3:58.62. Like I said, something worked, because the results on the wall read 3:56.55! That's over 2 seconds off my 8-year old PR! It might even be a bigger accomplishment than my 3000m PR from last year, because 2 seconds in a 1500m is more than 3 seconds off my 3000m time, and in my life I've run at least ten 1500s, whereas I've only run five or six 3000s. (Then again, I could have gone a lot faster in that 3000m race) Anyway, I'm excited about my 1500. Now I'm happy with running again, and I'm not really thinking about quitting.

So, fresh off a big improvement over a time I ran when I was a younger, sprightlier 20-year-old chap, I'm both excited and nervous about this coming weekend. I've got a lot of pressure on myself for this, partly because I'm traveling all the way to Belgium and spending a lot of money for this one race, but I'm trying to get into the mindset I know is the best for me. Back in college, when I ran 14:03 in 2001 and then 14:02 in 2003 (both at Penn Relays), I went to the races thinking mainly of staying relaxed in the first part of the race, and then simply *racing* the last part. Obviously worrying about times is not good for me, and it's not fun. The feeling I had yesterday of passing people on the third lap was simply awesome; it's something I had forgotten about. I want to have that feeling next week again. That means I have to forget about the clock and just race. I hope I can do that.

The race is late Saturday evening, Euro-time, and the web site is
http://www.sport.be/kbcnacht/2009/eng/
in case you're interested in having a look at results.

2009-07-10

Transformers: still not as good as in 1986

I saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen last night, and I had a handful of thoughts about it. There are some spoilers in there, so beware. Here they are:

  • Michael Bay can't resist cheesy moments. Several times I thought, "No, please don't use this cliché again,", but then he would. But I forgive him.
  • The rumble in the forest is an awesome scene.
  • Optimus Prime died in the original Transformers movie, and it was one of the least-expected and best cinematic decisions of all time (maybe I'm exaggerating). The best part about it was that they never brought him back. Take a hint, Michael Bay (or screenwriters).
  • Megatron almost died in the original Transformers movie, and he came back as Galvetron. I liked that better.
  • Can Hollywood let a main protagonist or antagonist stay dead? (And a side comment with a Shia LeBouf connection: please let the Indiana Jones series die where it is now.)
  • One small detail that made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen cross the line from disappointing to enjoyable: Peter Cullen. I disliked Megatron's voice, and I cringed every time Starscream spoke, but Optimus Prime made everything right again.
  • I liked Jetfire a lot, despite the liberties the screenwriters took with his character.
  • I did not like the Constructicons.
  • Bumblebee is a little annoying.
  • The final fighting scene between Optimus (we're on a first name basis) and Megatron reminded me of TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze. I think Optimus turned into Super Shredder for a few minutes.
  • Megan Fox is hot, but that Decepticon chick may have been even hotter. Maybe.
  • Come to think of it, I should have gone to whichever university Shia LeBouf goes to in that movie. For one, huge dowm rooms. Two, I own some tight shirts. And, three, the students there are insanely good-looking.
  • John Tuturro is still awesome.
  • I desperately wanted to hear the song "The Touch" during the movie.
  • What, was Eric Idle busy during filming?
  • Can we please have a Transformers 3, maybe with Unicron?
  • Please don't put Christian Bale in it.
I think that's all I have for now. Maybe I'll think of some more things later, though.

2009-07-06

How to learn German in two years

Since a lot of people have asked me how I learned the German language so well in a relatively short time, I figured I'd write it down and post it on the internet. What follows is a rough diary of what I did, written as a sort of plan for you to do what is prescribed in the time frame noted. Of course, if you didn't do what I say to do in, say, October 2005, feel free to move the whole schedule up to a convenient date for you.

September-December 2005: Learn first words of German, using Pimsleur audio CDs in your car, one lesson per day, 100 days. I borrowed the starter set of CDs from the library, but then I bought the full set from something like www.cheappimsleur.com, which apparently doesn't exist any more. It may have turned into www.ultimatelanguagestore.com. You may be able to download them using your favorite torrent client or related software. That's good for an MP3 player.

January-August 2006: Do nothing. (not recommended)

October-December 2006: Enroll at Berlitz, six hours per week, five weeks (good, but too expensive).

January-April 2007: Move to Vienna, enroll for two months at the Deutsch Akademie, the first month 12 hours per week in the normal course level M2(1) or something (it was something like the 7th month/level after starting from zero). The second month I took a "Konversationskurs", which met only six hours per week, but we talked a lot more. (Talking is very important.)

May-July 2007: Be very frustrated that you still can't speak conversationally, but that the courses don't seem to help much any more. This is the hardest part of learning. You need to try to spend at least an hour per day on MOST DAYS doing something with German, more than half of which is either speaking or writing (emails, or anything in complete sentences). You should also read stuff which is "slightly above" your level of German, by which I mean that you should understand most of what you're reading without any help, but looking up a word or two every couple of minutes is good, too. Also, try to use a German-only dictionary, like a "Deutsch als Fremdsprache" one. That's much better than translating into English. Actually, that rule
should carry over into everything: that is, when you're doing something in German, use English as a last resort, and tell that to everyone with whom you speak.

NO ENGLISH WORDS DURING GERMAN CONVERSATIONS, UNLESS IT'S ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.


Most people you speak with will try to translate every word you don't understand into English; tell them to stop it. They won't listen to you, and you have to remind them to stop it. You can't get into the habit of translating words back and forth.

August 2007 to present: People will finally speak to you in German without finding it incredibly boring and annoying. Use this to your advantage, and talk to them a lot. Write emails to them, and continue to read in order to build vocabulary (but it's not as important as talking to people).

The final, and sort of main thing you should know is that, in my opinion, once you know all of what I just wrote, the hardest part is yet to come. Learning a language is an exercise in tolerating discomfort. You have to think a little like a masochist in order to learn a language reasonably quickly, because conversations can turn very awkward and painful when you're having a bad German day, and you just have to keep telling people not to speak English, and you have to keep talking to them. But it gets better.

People say it's hard to learn a language if you're no longer a teenager or younger, but I knew literally three words of German before I started with those CDs in my car on my way to work when I was 24 1/2, and it seems to have worked out okay.

I wish you luck with your learning of German. I have a friend who lives here in Vienna, and who stopped trying to learn German because "it didn't work". I don't know how long he tried, but it definitely doesn't happen overnight.

2009-06-16

I need to read Nietzsche

I really need more time to read. Aside from my love of [nearly] anything fiction [but not genre], I sometimes go about trying to learn something specific from the things I read. I usually aim for the big stuff: philosophy, physics, psychology, etc. Most of this stuff is hard to get through, at least when compared to fiction, even if I do learn a bit in the end.

To get to the point: I haven't read Nietzsche (but he's on my reading list, and I downloaded his eBook onto my iPhone) but I really feel that I need to. You see, I'm a nihilist. (Give me the money, Lebowski.) Or, I haven't found a better alternative yet. That is to say, I am finding it increasingly difficult to find meaning in anything. The only meaning I can justify at the moment is found in people. I value my friends, family, and even strangers, but it's hard to say why. Do I value them because it makes me feel good? That's what, I presume, nihilism is about.

So, here's a quick challenge to you well-read individuals out there. I have read in some synopsis somewhere, that Nietzsche provides an answer to the nihilism he is credited for conceptualizing. What is it? Is there inherent meaning in something, or do we simply have to distract ourselves from the unpleasant truth?

For convenience, you may avoid clarifying that religion and public service fit the bill as distractions. I've already ruled out these possibilities as being "The Answer", since each of them must must have begun with an honest belief, or else you just end up fooling yourself.

And, I already know that the answer is not within myself, or else I wuld have found it by now. It must lie with people, or at least my relationship to them.

Are there any Nietzsche fans out there?

2009-05-27

Preposition 8: regarding

I just read about the California Supreme Court upholding the Proposition 8 referendum. My first reaction was that it was ridiculous to "discriminate" against homosexuals, but then I realized that this case was not about sexual orientation, but about the process of amending the state constitution, which is how the court could rule "for" gay marriage one year and "against" it the next. So it made sense.

But, a lot of people were quoted saying that any majority could discriminate against any minority through this mechanism. The San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, had the best quote, taken from the best article on the topic I've seen:

"I never thought I'd live in a state where the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judicial branch are all made irrelevant in a context of protecting a minority's rights - that's where we are in California today."


That made me think again.

But, the end issue is simply the definition of the word "marriage", which I think is almost an irrelevant argument, because the court's ruling also specifies that no "major" differences are allowed to exist between marriage and the domestic partnerships into which gays can enter. So, basically, equality in all senses already exists, except in the name. Need I quote Shakepeare?

If there was a legal standing "straight", I suspect that those people who have entered into a same-sex domestic partnership would be prohibited from registering as such, and for good reason. I, myself, will never be called an "Austrian" no matter how long I live here, even though that title carries with it some measure of respect here, just as the equal-rights groups are claiming "marriage" does. Am I, therefore, being unfairly discriminated against, as part of a minority?

The whole topic makes me wonder why so many people are up-in-arms over semantics and word choice. I wonder why the word "marriage" is in the law books at all, when it most often occurs only as a subcategory of "domestic partnerships", wherein all types of partnerships have equal rights.

My conclusion at the moment--even though I'm still considering the possibility that heterosexual partnerships might have a greater benefit to society than homosexual ones, and I'm wondering if that's even relevant--is that Proposition 8 might as well specify the definition of the word "breast" to be only the "traditional" female kind; to some people, that's always been true, and others are afraid to discriminate based on sex.

My solution: take the red pen to the law books, and scribble "domestic partnership" over every crossed-out "marriage", and leave the marrying to the churches.

2009-05-20

A short movie review: Taken (2008)

I just watched Taken last night, and there's pretty much only one thing for me to say: this is my type of serious action movie.

Here's my explanation: everyone I've talked to about my movie preferences knows I enjoy comical, sarcastic action movies--Last Action Hero, Kill Bill, Planet Terror, some James Bond movies--but I get easily bored with thrillers that take themselves too seriously--The Bourne Trilogy, Spiderman, The Matrix. Action movies that I like, but which don't make me laugh, are few and far between. So few and far between, in fact, that I am hard-pressed to think of one at the present moment. Transformers? It has its high points, but I rolled my eyes too many times. Transformers: The Movie? Yes, but it's a cartoon; I'm not sure if that counts. Gladiator? It's more drama than action. But apparently I'm heading in the right direction: 300. That was a sick movie, and perhaps the last movie to give Taken a run for its money. I'm sure I'll think of another one some time, but the fact is that right now I can think of only one movie from the last ten year that is on the level of Taken.

If you want to see someone kick ass and take names without all of the cliché hubris that directors usually pin on their demi-superheroes, see Taken. Liam Neeson is no X-man, but that point might have been lost on the guys who kidapped his daughter.

In other news, I read my first review of Terminator Salvation today, and it's very good. The review, that is. The movie, not so much, apparently. In the review, Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle succinctly sums up my own opinions of the recent histories of lead actor Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman!) and director McG (Fastlane!). He also confirms my fears of what bad things can happen when the two of them team up for a big-budget Hollywood action-drama. It's too bad too of my favorite film people are doomed as soon as they set foot on the same set as one another, but that's the way it is. Maybe it's time to move on to smaller and better things, gentlemen... smaller and better things...

2009-04-02

The Vice Squad

It occured to me some time ago, as I was having a discussion about Lent and the prospect of giving something up during these forty symbolic days. Most people give up chocolate, alcohol, coffee, or even cigarettes. Usually it's something at least somewhat addictive, in some sense, which causes problems for that person. Perhaps they avoid something to lose weight, improve their health, or increases their quality of life.

I thought about this for a while, and even though at the time I drank coffee and beer a few times per week, though almost never at the same time, I decided I wasn't addicted to anything I ate or drank, and I don't think I consumed enough of anything for it to do damage of note. I decided that my only addiction---at least among habits and things I do---is running.

It's more an addition to pride, but that's another post altogether. The point is that quitting running is, for me, not really a possibility. I didn't run for eight weeks at the end of last year, but then I had to start again. I've gone longer periods of time running just two or three days per week, but that's still regular running, and I could still crack 16 minutes for a 5k. But as soon as I got served on a silver platter, I was back in the saddle, looking for my next quick fix.

Running is healthy, right? It's not a vice, is it? Considering that when I'm seriously training, I spend at least one week per month extremely tired and some degree of sick, I'm not too sure. And then there's the time I could be spending doing any of my other hobbies. That bothers me to think of everything I could be doing: how many books I could have read, how much I could have written, how good I might be at playing the drums, or what kind of fun stuff I could have gotten into with my friends.

But those are the sacrifices we make as runners. About 20% of our waking hours are dedicated directly to the sport, and the rest of our time is planned around it. Runners earn a lot of respect with their ability to make sacrifices for one end: not to sacrifice The Gift. It's a noble cause to chase our bodies' limits and our athletic dreams, or is it? My running doesn't help anybody but me, at least not like being a doctor helps people stay healthy, or like teachers educate youngsters. It's merely another pursuit of ego, like Ultimate Fighting Championship or a beauty contest, or a social event, like a keg party or a trip to an amusement park, nothing more. A man is not great because he chooses to forego a lifestyle, a career, or any of life's pleasures to become the fastest runner he can be. He may become a great runner, but not a great man. With the exception of those runners who feed their families with prize money, all great runners became great for one reason: themselves. Call it pride, desire, will, ego, narcissism, ambition, whatever you want; it's all the same.

I don't want to tear down our sport, I just have this welling feeling inside of me that we should stop holding our performances and sacrifices on a pedestal, and recognize running as a narcissistic, hedonistic pasttime that can be enjoyed with others and feels good when it's over, like sex.

That being said, I enjoy taking names, bashing heads, cracking skulls, digging deep, dropping the hammer, rolling out, and unwinding my wound-up speed on anybody who chooses to race me. And that's what I'm going to keep on doing, when I can. But I'm not going to look at myself or anyone else like I would look at Mother Theresa simply because they got 120 miles in last week. That's your choice; this is my choice; we're all after the same thing.
Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.


2009-03-11

Another thought on freethought

Once again, Mike Chapman has gotten me thinking. This time it was a sort of direct challenge, because he asked me some questions directly. I thought my response to his question, "Do you label yourself with a term(s) related to unbelief? If so, what is/are these terms and how do you use them to signify your worldview?" is worth copying here. Again, it's something I've been thinking about for a while, but hadn't gotten around to writing it down. Thanks, Mike.


I have long identified myself as an "agnostic", and I mean this in an intellectual/rational sense of knowledge, and nearly completely distinct from any form of belief or faith. I use the term "agnostic" to say that evidence of the existence of a god or "higher" power is and never will be available. Scientific methods of inquiry would be the only rational way to show such evidence. However, what one believes is separate from what one knows, in that a person does not need to prove something to believe it. Feelings, epiphanies, moments of clarity, instincts, and many other things affect our beliefs and our faith.

I, personally, believe there is a higher power. That higher power could, from my perspective, be labeled as God, or just as well by any of the laws of physics that apply. There is order in the universe, and science is slowly uncovering its ways. Humans will never discover every law and every force under which our world operates, and this unknown can very easily be labeled as a god. I do, sometimes, find myself thankful for the way things happen, and I tend to revert to the judeo-christian standard of looking towards the sky and giving a quick thanks. i do this because I think upwards is as good of a direction as any in which to look, and I don't want to live my life ungratefully. This might make me some sort of spiritual, but I tend not to identify with such labels.

Similarly, I might call myself a fatalist, since I believe that, given the laws of physics that we have and have not discovered yet, and given complete knowledge of the state of every particle in the universe, as well as unlimited computing power, one could "see" the future, much as one "sees" that a ball falling from a rooftop will soon be on the ground. I doubt that many other people would consider this view to be "fatalism".

Only very recently have I become acquainted with the term "freethinker". I think this describes me very well, because I have long been a staunch proponent of thinking about reasons for anything instead of making decisions based only on tradition, previous impressions, rhetoric, or other non-logical methods of persuasion. If such a term has been defined, I would be a "passive freethinker", since freethought itself is not a cause or a belief, but a method and a way to arrive at conclusion, and not a conclusion itself. Thus while I firmly believe that the tenets of freethought should be made easily available to all people, I don't see freethought as an alternative or as a competitor to religion, spirituality, or faith. These are completely separate, and it is the antagonistic aspect of freethought with which I don't identify.