Thursday, September 29, 2005


As my years at Current Job have shortened to a few weeks and then to a few days and now, Thursday night, to just a few hours, I've been reflecting on how I've been assmiliating this new phase of life. I've never changed jobs before, really. Over the ten years since college, I have left one position to go to grad school, spent years there doing what you do in grad school, accepted and worked through a one-year appointment as an adjunct professor, and then took Current Job. Now after feeling as passive as a remora for three years, I've chosen to leave C.J. for Next Job.

While living out my strange time as a lame (but a busy) duck at Current Job, I've had the pleasant sensation of knowing things are drawing to a close, a feeling not unlike the feeling of being almost done with a cross-country race or the GRE or a long drive. It's not quite the satisfaction of having done it, but the warm expectation of soon being done with the trial.

At least, that's how I've felt on the job, while actually sitting at that damn desk I'll never have to see again after tomorrow. At home and especially on the bus back and forth each day, I've felt a different sensation: the sense of limbo or suspension that I have when flying - an airport feeling. This, too, is pretty pleasant; I've always loved that in-between feeling on the concourses, when you can't do much except read or people-watch or find something to eat. And I suppose limbo is a good way to view my current state, because I hope I'm my way up from something like damnation. That's both too grand and too juvenile, but on the other hand I don't have any naive expectation that N.J. will be paradise. It merely has to be moderately, humanely interesting and rewarding.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Bus, I Miss You

I realized as I rode down 7th Street this morning that my bus-riding days are nearly over. I've been riding the bus or train since 1995, when we moved to Chicago. I can remember my public-transit info pretty well:
  • from 1995-1997, I rode the #8 Halsted bus took me from our apartment in Chicago to work west of the Loop
  • the Red and Purple El lines took me from that same apartment to Northwestern's campus in Evanston from 1997-2000
  • from 2000-2002, the #670 Express hauled me back and forth between Minnetonka and downtown Minneapolis after we moved back to Minnesota
  • since 2002, I've taken the #23 up Cedar to downtown Minneapolis and then the#14 along more-or-less the same route (with a few months of riding the Hiawatha light-rail line in between).
Public transportation has been great, and I'll miss it while I commute by car and then probably feet and bike in Northfield. In the spirit of a fond farewell to public transportation, an anecdote from last Friday's ride home on the #14, the strangest bus I've ridden:

When I boarded at 2nd Avenue S., two men, a 20-ish guy in a track suit and a 30-something guy in dirty casual clothes, were blocking the aisle while they talked from seats on opposite sides of the bus. I had to push through their knees to get to an open seat, and as I passed, Dirty Clothes said to Track Suit, "Fuck trees! Man, fuck trees! Fuck 'em!" A few blocks later, T.S. got off, at Hennepin County Medical Center, naturally. D.C. proceeded to increase the general jitteriness on the bus by twisting around to closely and repeatedly examine everyone around him, adjusting his too-big cardigan over and over, turning his baseball cap forward and backward, sniffing loudly, and joggling his knees. Often, he was doing all five things simultaneously. When he finally got off somewhere in Phillips, he walked directly into Bloomington Avenue without even the scantest glance at the rush-hour traffic. Fuck trees, man. Fuck 'em.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Finland: "Living Its Own Political Life"

According to Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's an easy place to govern and a country that is "living its own political life." The only major problems facing the country are tougher economic conditions abroad and a slowly greying population. With regard to the second question, the paper asks, "we will soon need immigrants: young people, well-trained people, professional men and women. But where would they come from?"

Hmm. I can think of a few volunteers...

Monday, September 26, 2005

Not Missed

One thing I won't miss about Current Job is the way it has diminished my writing and thinking skills - which is ironic, given that for the past two years I've had "writing/editing" at the top of my job description.

I ascribe this degeneration to three main factors; trying to keep up with the frenetic pace, working on (and creating) business prose that ranged from the merely jargon-y to the illiterate, and discarding my preferred work style in favor of a looser method that better fit the "act before thinking" madness.

I hope that I can reverse this degeneration if those three factors are less - wait for it... - impactful on my new job. I only have this week until I can find out. Maybe I can even find my ability to remember things without writing them down or muttering them to myself. And if it's not too much, maybe I can do away with chronic back pain from sitting in a $%#&$# bad chair. Oh, Eden!

Seven Days to the New Job

At this time next Monday, I'll be busy with whatever I'll be busy doing at my new job at Carleton. Expect more as we go. In the meantime:

Old office building

New office building

Julia = On Fire

A few moments in about ten minutes of toddling action at the Mall of America on Sunday:
  • Julia squealing in delight at seeing Dora the Explorer on the Macs in the kids' area of the MoA Apple Store.
  • Julia trying to grab one of the iPod nanos.
  • Julia saying, "Oh! Oh" and grabbing another woman's stack of clothes at Baby Gap because she just liked 'em.
  • Julia walking by a boy-sized mannequin wearing blue jeans and a sweater, tugging the pants leg, and going, "Dada?"
  • Julia going, "Ooooh!" and pulling down a baseball hat reading "Born 2 Skate" and then putting it on her head backwards.
If 16 months is this funny, what will 16 years be like?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

For Julia, Norms Are Everything

A partial list of things about which my daughter said, "Uh-oh uh-oh" this weekend:

1. Herself, peeing sans diaper.
2. The sound made when my wife dropped a tube of Chapstick on the bathroom tiles.
3. The mess in our alley after squirrels got into a neighbor's trash bag.
4. A discarded Ruffles bag lying on the sidewalk.
5. A black boot, lying in the gutter.

My baby, she don't like the mess around.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Inventing a Screw

Is harder than it seems, unless you're talking about the figurative kind of screws your average employer puts to its employees. Read how Kenneth LeVey invented new kinds of screws for plastic and concrete:
Screws are made, oddly enough, by squeezing metal rather than cutting it. A steel or alloy blank, a cylinder with no threads, is rolled between two heavy dies that are grooved with diagonal lines. The blank is put under so much pressure that metal is squished into the diagonal grooves, forming a threaded spiral. Manipulating the shape of the threads using this method, called thread-rolling, was thought to be impossible because it would be too hard to control the structure of the screw if metal oozed into odd shapes...

He was flabbergasted by how archaic screw design was. On rare occasions when a new screw length or width was needed, an engineer would consult a 300-page manual dating from 1936 that explains the relationships between certain heights and pitches of threads and the lengths and widths of the resulting screws. "They would go do math for a couple of days and come back with an answer," LeVey says--to how the grooved dies should look, how much pressure should be applied to the blank, and what the diameter of the blank should be.

LeVey had a handful of interns spend three months putting the mummified math of the old screw guide into software. Meanwhile, he grabbed an old thread-rolling machine out of a nearby factory and wired it to operate very slowly to let him observe exactly what was happening. Using three-dimensional solid-modeling software, LeVey gleaned a finer understanding of how the metal moved when it was squished. Possibilities opened up. LeVey could design intricate dies that, on a computer at least, could wrap screws with a helix of shaped threads.

To make dies capable of pressing tiny, intricate patterns onto the threads, LeVey had to borrow a technology often used to create injection molds for detailed plastic parts. The pattern of the die is milled into a soft, graphitelike carbon. The carbon is placed next to the steel die form, and very high voltage is sent between the carbon and the steel, creating a powerful arc of heat, which vaporizes the steel in the desired pattern. "No one had bothered to take advantage of all of this new technology available to us and apply it to this very old product," LeVey says.
Lead via

To Bore the Road of Cougar Burger

McSweeney's Internet Tendency is a great place to go and recover when work has so reduced your writing abilities that everything comes out reading like this:
But one time a cougar, a cougar, took an order. To bore the road of cougar burger, is to burn the road or roads of killers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

On the Way Out

After three loooooong years, I gave my two-weeks notice at my employer yesterday; I'll be starting a new job on October 3. While I reflect on all the silliness, stupidity, and sheer ugliness of my soon-to-be-old job, I have to think it's just coincidence that this quote came through my email today:
Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.
Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher (1844-1900)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Next for the Bushies?

As the administration suffers through the Katrina crisis, perhaps they should take a cue from the monarchists and just do away with some time altogether: on this date in 1752, Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar, which caused the day after September 2 to be September 14.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

No One Gives a Sh#t about Calculator

iTunes 5 is pretty, all right. Not as pretty as the iPod nano, but then again, I can afford the former but not the latter. Anyhow, the iTunes interface has been redesigned, and boy, is the old interface pissed: "The iTunes 5 Announcement From the Perspective of an Anthropomorphized Brushed Metal User Interface Theme."

The best part of the dialogue had me laughing out loud for five minutes:
Brushed Metal: Calculator? I’m out of iTunes and you tell me I’ve still got Calculator? When is the Special Event scheduled for the next version of Calculator? Oh, that’s right, there is none, because no one gives a shit about Calculator.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The World's First Photo

Today, a pop quiz on the history of technology:

In what year did Joseph Niepce take the first known photograph?
a. 1807
b. 1826
c. 1845
d. 1864

The answer and the image.

(Link via

Norway: Best Country in the World

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Odds-Bjorn? (That's a pun.)

The European wagering site Betandwin has posted preseason odds for World Cup ski jumping and men's and women's cross-country racing. Oddly (ha!), they don't provide XC odds for the distance and sprint championships - only the World Cup overall.

The women's list puts Marit Bjorgen (NOR) top, with almost-even 1.65 odds. She's followed by Katerina Neumannova (CZE) at 6.50, which seems fair given her lack of sprinting ability, and Kristina Smigun (EST) at 8.00, which also seems fair given her inconsistency. Julija Tchepalova (RUS) is at 10.00 and Virpi Kuitunen is at 12.00. I'd put safe money on Bjorgen, some on Neumannova, who's the next-likeliest to win the Cup, and then a few euros on Kuitunen (FIN), who last year displayed some Bjorgenesque form in both sprint and distance events and in both classical and freestyle formats. If the Finn can continue to race well at all distances from the ca. 1-kilometer sprints to the 10km standard race and add the longer distances like the occasional 30km, Kuitunen could win the whole thing. (See the final 2004-5 standings.)

The men's odds list is harder to parse. I don't think Axel Teichmann (GER) can win again, despite his 2.75 odds: he barely won the crown in 2005, and the German racers seem to be driven more for one superb season than several consistent ones. (Witness, despite his 7.00 odds for 2005-6, Rene Sommerfeldt's dropoff after his win in 2003-4.) If any German wins the Cup, it'll be Tobias Angerer at 13.00, and not only because he has the best name on the circuit: he also has chops in both free and classic techniques and both sprint and distance, and he seems poised for a jump up from his fourth place in 2004-5. I'd love to say that one of the Norwegians could win it, but their specialists are too specialized (see Hjelmeset, Odd-Bjorn and Aukland, Anders [34.00]), so only those with some dual-technique chops have a chance. My favorite racer, Frode Estil (34.00), competes too rarely to win it all (he prefers the cheap stuff, like Olympic and World Championship golds) and Jens Arne Svartedal (21.00) just doesn't seem to be quite fast enough to win enough races. So, in the end, I'd put my money on two guys: Vincent Vittoz (FRA) at 5.00, who almost won it all last season and who could easily pull off a Bjorgenean assault on all distances and all techniques, and Mattias Fredriksson (SWE) at 8.50 who won the Cup a few years back and seems poised to improve on his 6th last season. (See the final 2004-5 standings.) I'd also put a few euros on Andrus Veerpalu, but only because I love how he races.

For what it's worth, the ski-jumping odds seem dead on: no one was near Janne Ahonen (FIN) in the first half of the season last near, and few approached Matti Hautamaki (FIN) in the second half. Ahonen's the superior jumper of that pair; hence his 2.50 odds.

Katrina and Lake George

I know you're probably on Katrina news overload, but Elise at After School Snack has a rundown of the best stuff on the event and its aftermath. Pay particular attention to her fourth item, which is a doozy:
Bush and Katrina: So many outrages, so little time. Bob Harris collects a host of links and commentary into one post. A great place to send any conservative friends/family/coworkers if they can't understand why you keep smacking yourself in the forehead and groaning.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Dawkins and Coyne on Intelligent Design

In this beautifully written and argued essay, scientists Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne demolish the fallacious argument for "teaching the controversy" between evolution and "intelligent design." Some particularly brilliant bits of the piece:
Intelligent design is not an argument of the same character as these controversies. It is not a scientific argument at all, but a religious one. It might be worth discussing in a class on the history of ideas, in a philosophy class on popular logical fallacies, or in a comparative religion class on origin myths from around the world. But it no more belongs in a biology class than alchemy belongs in a chemistry class, phlogiston in a physics class or the stork theory in a sex education class. In those cases, the demand for equal time for "both theories" would be ludicrous. Similarly, in a class on 20th-century European history, who would demand equal time for the theory that the Holocaust never happened?
If ID really were a scientific theory, positive evidence for it, gathered through research, would fill peer-reviewed scientific journals. This doesn't happen. It isn't that editors refuse to publish ID research. There simply isn't any ID research to publish. Its advocates bypass normal scientific due process by appealing directly to the non-scientific public and - with great shrewdness - to the government officials they elect.

The argument the ID advocates put, such as it is, is always of the same character. Never do they offer positive evidence in favour of intelligent design. All we ever get is a list of alleged deficiencies in evolution. We are told of "gaps" in the fossil record. Or organs are stated, by fiat and without supporting evidence, to be "irreducibly complex": too complex to have evolved by natural selection... One side is required to produce evidence, every step of the way. The other side is never required to produce one iota of evidence, but is deemed to have won automatically, the moment the first side encounters a difficulty - the sort of difficulty that all sciences encounter every day, and go to work to solve, with relish.
The claim that something - say the bacterial flagellum - is too complex to have evolved by natural selection is alleged, by a lamentably common but false syllogism, to support the "rival" intelligent design theory by default. This kind of default reasoning leaves completely open the possibility that, if the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved, it might also be too complex to have been created. And indeed, a moment's thought shows that any God capable of creating a bacterial flagellum (to say nothing of a universe) would have to be a far more complex, and therefore statistically improbable, entity than the bacterial flagellum (or universe) itself - even more in need of an explanation than the object he is alleged to have created.
(Article pointed out at

Monday, September 05, 2005

Here Comes the Neighborhood

Driving over to the freeway today, we saw some pedestrians whose presence and juxtaposition in our neighborhood is wonderful and crazy. A pair of young Somali(-American!) women, decked out in brilliantly-colored hijab and only their faces visible, were standing at a bus stop. Passing them were two middle-aged Mexican(-American!) men, both wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and cowboy hats and one with his white wife-beater shirt pulled up over his belly. Man, I sure could go for a plate of Som-Mex food right now!


I just spent a half-hour reading today's coverage of Katrina in the Times. The hurricane is, it's clear, worse than 9/11. As one journalist argues, "one of the most fundamental lessons Americans thought their leaders had learned [from 9/11] - that mountains needed to be moved to prepare for the unexpected - seemed to some to have fallen short."

Fittingly, Bush is under fire from the right and the left. David Brooks:
Katrina was the anti-9/11... Katrina means that the political culture, already sour and bloody-minded in many quarters, will shift. There will be a reaction. There will be more impatience for something new. There is going to be some sort of big bang as people respond to the cumulative blows of bad events and try to fundamentally change the way things are.
Frank Rich:
Though history is supposed to occur first as tragedy, then as farce, even at this early stage we can see that tragedy is being repeated once more as tragedy. From the president's administration's inattention to threats before 9/11 to his disappearing act on the day itself to the reckless blundering in the ill-planned war of choice that was 9/11's bastard offspring, Katrina is déjà vu with a vengeance. The president's declaration that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees" has instantly achieved the notoriety of Condoleezza Rice's "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." The administration's complete obliviousness to the possibilities for energy failures, food and water deprivation, and civil disorder in a major city under siege needs only the Donald Rumsfeld punch line of "Stuff happens" for a coup de grâce. [See below!]
I could hardly make it through the stories. I mean, come on:
There were still signs of lawlessness today. The New Orleans police said officers shot and killed at least five gunmen who had opened fire on a group of contractors traveling across a bridge on their way to make repairs to the 17th Street Canal, The Associated Press reported. The contractors were traveling across the Danziger Bridge under police escort when they came under fire.
As one volunteer says in a horrifying piece about the rescuers, "I don't feel like I'm in the U.S. I feel like I'm in a war. All the guns, the chaos."

Bush sent his can't-do squad of deputies down to see what's happening, and as Frank Rich insinuated, they exhibited their usual people skills:
Upon his arrival at the airport, Mr. Rumsfeld spoke to and shook hands with military and rescue officials, but he walked right by a dozen refugees lying on stretchers just feet away from him, most of them extremely sick or handicapped, Reuters reported.
That's par for the course. One Louisiana official is quoted to devastating effect in the long story on criticism of Dear Leader's non-leadership:
The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything... His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, 'Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' And he said, 'Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday.' And she drowned Friday night.

Cross-posted to After School Snack

Friday, September 02, 2005

Cross-Country Ski Poupourri

My trusty rollerskis haven't been getting enough kilometers this summer, but I have tried out a few new trails over Minnesota's rainy spring and now its overheated summer, piquing my interest for the upcoming World Cup season. Unlike me, the big guns on the cross-country World Cup circuit are training hard. After all, as the cliche goes, winter's races are won in the summer. The powerhouse teams like the Norwegians are spending time on glaciers and at altitude all over Europe and doing a great deal of dryland training. Less powerful teams, like the Americans, are shuffling around the world seeking snow. Next season is no ordinary ski-racing season: the World Cup will take second place to the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy. The home snow has brought Italian racer Stefania Belmondo back from retirement, hoping to add to her score of Olympic and World Champs medals.

With that in mind, Sweden made maybe the biggest non-athlete change of the year, importing as national-team coach Norway's Inge Braaten, who has coached some of the best skiers ever, like Bjorn Dahlie. Braaten's aiming for six medals at Torino and ramping up the training accordingly. Accompanying Braaten to the Swedish training camps, in fact, is perhaps the best racer of the last decade, Thomas Alsgaard. This makes for an interesting reunion between "Tall Thomas" and Jorgen Brink, the top-notch Swedish racer who, while leading the field during the anchor leg of the marquee men's relay at the 2003 Worlds in Italy, was so overcome by the knowledge that Alsgaaard was chasing that he literally stopped racing and faded from first to third - in nordic racing, a collapse as great and famous as the Yankees' choke in the 2004 World Series.

Contra the customary strength of teams from Norway, Germany, Italy, and Russia, and the rise or revival of teams like the Swedes, Czechs, and French, the United States is fielding a tragically small team for the World Cup: just five men and no women. (It's snowier in Canada, of course, but national-level will surely must account for the comparatively ginormous Canadian nordic team.) Why? Well, our skiers aren't doing very well on the international level:
No U.S. cross-country skier met the ski team's standard of excellence -- top 50 in overall World Cup rankings or top 30 in distance or sprint rankings -- in the last two seasons. (More.)

In fact, not a single American named to the team over last six years has met the standard. The Olympic team may be somewhat larger, if strong racers do well early in the World Cup season.

On the World Cup circuit, controversy ensued after Norway's skiing chief criticized the International Ski Federation (FIS, from the French) for allowing race venues to use courses that are too easy for the top level of competition and for cutting the number of racers each country can place in World Cup race. This decision favors weak skiing countries over strong ones like Norway, which will have to keep many of its best racers competing to make room for far slower racers from other countries. No matter their nations, the racers are coming in for some good purses next year, though - up to about $12,000 for winning an individual race.

For my dollar, the most interesting race of the year will be the Vasaloppet, the 90-kilometer (55.8-mile) monster ending in Mora, Sweden. 13,000 hardy souls took part in the 2005 race, which has never before been part of the World Cup. The 2006 race takes place in early March, just after the Olympics, and may have a big impact on the World Cup standings as there will be only three more distance races after it. Besides the Vasaloppet, the 2005-6 season has races in many of the classic venues. I'm an especially big fan of the wooded hillsides of the narrow tracks in Kuusamo, Finland; the alpine surroundings of the brutal courses at Oberstdorf, Germany; and the way the courses in Val di Fiemme, Italy, zoom past beautiful old stone buildings. Unusually, the upcoming season also takes racers abroad for December events in Canada (in British Columbia and Alberta) and for March races in Asia: sprints in Changchun, China, and double-pursuit and team sprint races in Sapporo, Japan. All in all, it promises to be an exciting season.