The Limitless Potential of a Slap to the Face: A Writer's Notebook


Redefining Romance Since 2001 C.E.


Reading: Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable

Watching: Persepolis

Listening: Tomahawk, Anonymous

Monday, 08.08.2011
08.08.2011 18:42 - Learning to Drown
I spend a lot of my recreation time doing relatively adventurous things. I try not to be a huge risk-taker, but I am by nature a bit of an explorer and a limit-pusher. I've climbed 90' cliffs, cycled across central Europe solo, backpacked Yosemite just as lonesomely, and run mountain marathons along seacliffs in the hail.

If you discount driving along the crowded California freeways to begin such an adventure, yesterday was the first time in years I'd really felt like my life was in danger. What I felt was in fact abject, panicked, and partly irrational mortal terror.

Yesterday was day two of SCUBA training. It turns out the hardest part was learning how to not breathe underwater.

This isn't nearly so complex as all the ins and outs buoyancy control, pressure equalization, and nitrogen elimination. Basically, if your buddy is around, you grab their second mouthpiece and breathe through it, then the two of you surface together. If not, you surface while emptying your lungs so they don't explode. It sounds frightening, but that's the easy part.

It was when we were practicing the first of these two skills that things went wrong. Instructor turns my air off: OK. Signal I'm out of air. Signal to share. Grab my buddy's alternate. Clear the water from the mouthpiece and breathe in. Grab my buddy's vest, signal I'm OK, and begin our ascent. All told, I only had my lungs empty for a few seconds, and everything went as planned.

Until we were at the surface of the choppy, turbid waters of the high school swimming pool. In order of increasing terror:

* My buddy forgot that the drill wasn't over, and let go of my vest.

* I forgot that I had to press the exhaust button on my vest hose when manually inflating it for this to have any effect. I kept sucking in from her alternate hose, blowing into the inflator, then getting a mouth full of water as I was blowing out too much air to carefully clear the alternate. Meanwhile, I was starting to drift away from her and slowly sink, so one precious breath diverted to shouting instructions to hold onto me.

* As I gave up on completing the drill successfully and let go of my buddy, I reached back for my own mouthpiece, stuck it in place, and-- nothing.

* She tried to explain that my air tank was still turned off, but enough water had splashed between my wetsuit hood and my ears that I couldn't understand what she was saying.

The idea of dropping my weights never came to me either, but I did manage to swim on my back to the edge of the pool and rest for a good 15 minutes until the panic subsided.

Even today, it's hard to get out of my head the idea that in the real ocean, you just drowned! How many of the same mistakes would we make? Would I remember to drop my weights if I really started to drown?

Of course, the certification process accounts for that, and I have to do four ocean dives in a class next, so I'm _relatively_ safe. Nonetheless, it's a jarring reality check about what I'm getting myself into.

I mean, other than a tight-fitting layer of neoprene. But that's almost another story altogether.

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Thursday, 09.09.2010
09.09.2010 20:55 - Burning Man as Context Art
Last week, I made my way back to Burning Man for the first time in six years.

I can tell you all about what I did at Burning Man, sure, and I can rattle off a list of details that made it fun and interesting and challenging and different. Burning Man, however, is a very difficult thing to communicate in writing (or speech or photography or video), in the same sense that it's difficult to dance about architecture.

It's not so much that Burning Man is so incredibly special, although in many ways it is. The thing of it is that Burning Man is context art, and context, by its nature, can only be experienced on its own terms.

Burning Man is not merely the context of a week-long festival, but a week-long festival inside a month-long city (references to Black Rock City are not particularly hyperbolic, even if it is mostly a city of tents and RVs) and the year-long planning and creative processes engendering it all.

Burning Man is life in the desert, at the mercy of weather unlike anywhere else, choked by endless dust, reminded by everything down to the hermetic sealing of each filthy pore in a white-out of how far removed the rest of the world must be, by necessity if nothing else.

Burning Man is the illusion of anarchy, the delusion of egalitarianism, and the undeniable presence of chaos.

Burning Man is a perpetual utopia machine, with a hidden battery of millions of U.S. dollars and a small army of volunteers.

Burning Man is a stadium of the id, where if it doesn't fuck or flash or burn or get you high or get you drunk or tower over everything, why exactly did you think anyone would notice?

Burning Man is not as smart or as dumb you expected, but keep walking and you'll find the smart or the dumb ones you were hoping for.

Burning Man is endless pranksterism, ingenious or obnoxious or both as the case may be.

Burning Man is the inevitable result of idle empire, too successful to put everything into production anymore and too jaded to give all the surplus back (as if it were so simple), entertaining ourselves by blowing up hundreds of hours of labor, naming temporary streets after the empires that fell before (Athens, Baghdad, Cairo, Detroit…) to host drug-fueled orgies in the neon-lit desert dusk.

Burning Man is the perfect chance to figure shit out and learn about yourself, or to try something you've always been scared of, or to learn how to do something useful while helping out, but many just come to get drunk, see some titties and watch some shit burn.

Burning Man is the most natural thing in the world, once you're there. Just mind the dust.

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Monday, 08.23.2010
08.23.2010 10:43 - Poorly Planned Desert Trip 2010
As of last Friday, it looks like I'll be at Burning Man this year. I didn't really see that coming, but after helping out a bit with the final push on Syzygryd, I'm very much looking forward to it.

The plan, such as it is and as it currently stands, is to show up stupid-late Wednesday/dumb-early Thursday and plop myself in walk-in camping. I'm open to last minute camp-with-us offers, but I won't have time for much beyond my own preparation (if that), so I'm not looking for an organized camp to contribute to.

Regardless, if you'll be out there let me know where you'll be camping so I can swing by four days in and taunt you with my cleanliness.

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Friday, 07.09.2010
07.09.2010 22:27 - New Blog: Crusty Uppers
Crusty Uppers: A Trail Running Blog will hopefully encourage me to write more about, you know, that, while enabling me to bore those of you who couldn't care less about such things, you know, less. Posts deemed worthy will be cross-posted. Posts deemed unworthy will be immolated.


Sunday, 06.06.2010
06.06.2010 22:11 - It's Alive! TwitBak Preview Release 0.1a
TwitBak is an open source (LGPL) backup client for Twitter built on Java. Download TwitBak.jar to get started, or browse the project on github.

If your system doesn't know what to do with this file, you might not have the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) installed. You can download it here.

As of the current preview release, TwitBak backs up user data, statuses, direct messages, favorites, and mentions (aka @-replies). The output is stored in JSON format in a plain text file.

Twitter has placed a temporary retrieval limit on statuses, so only the last 3,200 are available (see When this limit is lifted, TwitBak will automatically adjust.

Follow @twit_bak for updates, and please report bugs and other feedback here.

UPDATE: Twitter has kinda screwed small, open-source developers like myself. We have to use OAuth for sign-in, but we can't distribute a key with our source code. Sadly, the password-authenticated calls from desktop applications no longer work, so even the first release of TwitBak is no longer useable.

I've decided my time is better spent elsewhere, and my next free-time coding project will not be a tool for a closed platform. I still like Twitter and use it daily, but they have no reason to care about my project, and I have no recourse as I would (at least in theory) with an open source platform.

I hope this doesn't sound bitter; I learned a lot on this small project, and I think Twitter's decision here was clumsy more than evil, but expedience got the worst of them.


Monday, 05.17.2010
05.17.2010 16:38 - The Accelerating Perversity of Mortality
In a family email thread about an extended relation who has been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, the tragic phrase "3-6 months" rings out to human and machine alike. The bearer of bad news, in search as ever of the almighty advertising dollar, frames the conversation with pitches for baby portraits, car seats, and infant care. We have so little time now: it seems we must automate everything, right down to the funereal humor that heralds acceptance.

Maybe a "Baby Time Capsule" is what we need after all.

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Monday, 04.19.2010
04.19.2010 13:56 - 26.2
Five years ago, I underwent knee surgery that kept me on crutches for three months.

Three years ago, I quit smoking, a steady thirteen-year habit that had sometimes burned through as many as three packs a day.

A year and a half ago, I was effectively housebound with daily headaches.

Six months ago, after a lay-off, I took up running the trails of Lake Chabot near my house. I would charge through a two mile loop, spend the next two days hacking up my lungs, then head back for more on day three.

Yesterday, I ran a marathon.

The Skyline to the Sea Trail Run was a wonderful, if ambitious, choice for my first run of this length. The course was absolutely gorgeous, winding down from the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains through Castle Rock State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park to finish just off Highway 1 along the Pacific coast north of Santa Cruz. Sometimes the only thing that kept exhaustion from overtaking me was looking down the embankment, through the redwoods, to the rushing, sunlit, jade river below.

Trail runs are harder than road runs in general, as hiking trails mean paying careful attention, navigating obstacles, mud, and stream crossings, working with steeper grades, and limiting your speed. Thanks to recent storms, this time we were dealing with washed out paths and downed trees, including a hundred year-old plus redwood that had fallen with its roots dead across the trail. I haven't run very much on pavement, but every time I do I'm surprised by the contrast: despite being harder on my body in the long run, it's deceptively easy, and five miles can feel like what I'm used to from three.

In spite of being a downhill course, there were 2200 feet of climbing involved (the Boston Marathon's infamous Heartbreak Hill, for comparison, rises all of 88 feet). And while being able to go with gravity so much might have improved my overall time, by about the fifteen-mile mark it had pretty well trashed my quads, the frontal thigh muscles needed for every kind of stride a runner takes. I had no illusions or intentions of being able to run every step, as I had in my previous races, and walked the steepest hills from early on.

The last five miles or so weren't pretty, but then, I hadn't really expected them to be. Even though the course had flattened out considerably by this point, I was spending more and more time walking.

It's common on these runs to hear, as you're being passed, "Good job," or other words of encouragement. This becomes increasingly true as the day wears on, you continue to slow down, and the bulk of those passing you are the ultramarathoners who have run an extra five mile loop. It seems to be commonly recognized that the newer you are at long distance running, the worse your time, the sloppier your form, the harder you're working to finish and the bigger the accomplishment when you do. True, the winner of the 50Km (a marathon is about 42Km) might have set a new course record in just over half the time it took me to run my marathon, but for him it was probably closer to the experience of a great workout. He already knew he could do it, the only question was probably quite how fast. That's impressive as hell, but it's got to be a different kind of challenge altogether.

Somewhere around mile 22 I drifted to the side of a flat, easy trail to catch my breath and stretch my thighs for a few seconds. As I stopped, the woman who passed me said, smiling earnestly, "You're awesome." At that moment I could only smile back, but I can't remember giving such a heartfelt smile to a stranger. It helped.

Not much farther down the path, I realized I'd run farther than I ever had before, and that I was going to finish a marathon. Tears came to my eyes. I pulled off my sunglasses to wipe them away, but couldn't find anything that wouldn't just make them sting with sweat and trail dirt. I jogged on, amazed that I could still manage better than five miles an hour between my walking breaks.

When I heard the cheers from the finish line around the bend, I just picked up and ran. I have no idea how fast, for how long, or how much of a train wreck it looked like.

I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 56 minutes.

Most of all, I crossed the finish line.

I don't know what's next for me as a runner. One day after an experience like that, I won't lie and say I'm raring to live through it all again, let alone to train for longer distances or faster times. I know now that I can run 26 mountain miles, however, more than I've ever even hiked (save a four-day backpacking trip), and no matter how arbitrary the marathon length might be, that's a hell of a thing.

Oh, and I know one other thing: I'm taking next weekend off from running, thank you very much.

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Sunday, 03.21.2010
03.21.2010 15:09 - Falling Down in the Land of Heads (Pirate's Cove 30Km, 3/20/10)
Yesterday wasn't my longest run to date, although it was by a wide margin my longest race. Nor was it my best placement or time per mile, but all things considered that was certainly to be expected. It was, however, easily my steepest long run to date, a bit of a personal victory in pacing myself, and a cheese-grater shaped object lesson in avoiding overconfidence on the steepest of downhill sections.

For those not intimately familiar with the Bay Area, the Marin Headlands are those rugged, coastal hills you see in postcards of the Golden Gate bridge that point away from the city. When it comes to the sorts of sights one might shove into a postcard, it's a dense sort of place indeed, marking as it does the nexus of the Golden Gate itself, the Pacific coast, and the southern approach to Mount Tamalpais, all within view of San Francisco, Sausalito, and Tiburon. If you want a gorgeous, gentle stroll through some world-famous scenery, you can easily find that here.

That wasn't what the race planners had in mind for us. The elevation profile looks more like a worrisome seismograph reading than a day's jogging. We started into it at the same time as the 50K ultra-marathoners, who would follow the same course before looping back in for an additional half-marathon. In one big crowd, we climbed 800 feet in about a mile and a quarter, with some sections steep enough for actual stairs.

One of my goals on every run is to run every step, unless stopped by a crowd, footwear issues, navigation issues, first aid, emptying my bladder, or refilling my water bottle. I'm told by more experience trail and ultra-runners that when it comes to steeper hills, except for those at the front of the pack, this is surprising, possibly insane, and generally counter to accepted strategy. Nonetheless, I think of every run as a training run, and cresting a hill with an average 13% grade over more than a mile without giving up and walking feels like almost as much of a victory as crossing a finish line sometimes, even if it slows me down overall. I'm extremely proud to say that I accomplished this goal on the Pirate's Cove run.

After cresting that first series of hills, things leveled off only briefly. If you take another look at the elevation profile for the course, you can see the trail almost appear to drop straight off leading up to the 3.0Km mark. I started down this section a bit conservatively -- my major goal for the day was to improve my pacing, after all -- but after a hundred yards or so, I just felt so good, so graceful... I had found the form I needed to just fly down the grade without hammering my knees, and I was handling the terrain with no issues at all.

Until just before things started to level off, that is, and my right foot must have caught on something, most likely a hay-filled erosion stop laid across the trail. I remember thinking, "Guess I'm going too fast to roll with it," which was probably more constructive than a simple, "Oh fuck" but carried most of the same information. I got my forearms up and landed first on knees and elbows, but had enough momentum that I immediately flattened out. Still, I managed to quickly skitter off to the right edge of the trail to avoid potentially tripping up any of the runners I'd just passed.

For a couple hundred yards, I jogged very slowly, checking myself out, making sure first and foremost my joints were operating normally. My right knee was slightly banged up, but apparently dead on the patella and seemingly only cosmetically. It took me another couple minutes before I got to my left elbow, which had been hidden by the rainbreaker I'd worn through the heavy morning fog. Separating joint and jacket let loose a little splash of blood. I stopped to clean up with the handkerchief I carry due to my allergies, and another runner kindly took some time out of her race to provide me antibacterial cream and bandaids.

Two miles later, I cleaned up with alcohol wipes and traded up for a gauze dressing at the first aid station (doubling today as a first-aid station). On the way, I also discovered a nasty case of trail rash covering maybe eight square inches of my chest, but it wasn't anything that would need immediate attention. Most importantly, my knees and ankles were doing fine, and I felt good to finish the remaining 14 and a half miles of the course.

The middle miles of a run are always hard to talk about. It's not that they were uneventful (although relative to the start of this particular course, most of my runs are uneventful), it's that they do not seem like a sequence of events. They are meditation. They are footfalls, hills, ocean, wild raptors, and the bashful intrusion of a friendly competitor calling out, "On your left," or sometimes pulling up alongside to chat for half a mile. They are the intersection of post-workout endorphins and an endless workout.

At the third and final aid station, with six kilometers to go, I felt amazing. I felt good. I'd run fifteen miles of rugged hills, both the ups and the downs, climbing and falling hard, and I'd kept my pace well enough that I still felt like I was running, not just struggling to keep my feet from settling where they landed with each stride. After what I judged to be about a third of the remaining distance, I picked up the pace a bit more. As the trail leveled off, I fought to keep the pace up. A certain mixture of scenery and architecture told me I was just around the corner from the finish line, and joyfully, I shifted into the highest gear I still had--

And of course, I was wrong. There was still almost a mile to go.

But still, I made it across that finish line in 4:19:03, 81st of 91 runners, at 13:47 per mile. It's hard to say what my time or my pace would have come out to if I hadn't taken that fall, even assuming fifteen minutes lost to self-check and first aid. Surprisingly, it's sometimes harder still to remember how that's not even remotely the point. I'll be damned if I didn't run that thing, run it hard, and run it well, and until the day I'm in it for the competition (which I expect will never come), there isn't much that numbers can add to that.

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Tuesday, 03.09.2010
03.09.2010 18:36 - Things That Are Not OK: Forcing Prisoners to Inhale Their Own Vomit
I'll be brief: You do not treat living things this way, let alone human beings, period. This country can lay no claim to conscience, nor rule of law, if those responsible for these atrocities are never held accountable (and treated humanely).

Remember that video wherein Christopher Hitchens, who had opined that waterboarding wasn't torture, could only stand up to about four seconds of it? That was the pussy version. In the Gitmo-type experience, they keep you awake for a week, put you on a liquid diet for when you start breathing in your own vomit, and use saline instead of water so they can fill you full of an amount of water that would otherwise ruin your bloodstream, and physicians of the hypocritical-oath variety take notes so that you'll edge closer to death next time. One detail not mentioned in this article: one lucky detainee was treated to 183 rides on the rack, all without a single call to a lawyer.

Should you happen to find yourself in a room with Attorney General Eric Holder, get that man a drink. Might I recommend a nice, nutritious can of Ensure Plus?

Cross-posted from Things That are Not OK.


Sunday, 02.28.2010
02.28.2010 12:08 - The PG&E Monopoly Protection Measure
The other day, when I looked up the weather forecast for a California zip code, I was treated to a banner ad for
TAXPAYERS Right to Vote

Paid for Californians To Protect Our Right To Vote, Major Funding from Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a coalition of taxpayers, environmentalists, renewable energy, business and labor

Naturally, this made me curious and concerned. I hadn't heard that I was in danger of losing my right to vote so that elections would be decided only by non-taxpaying citizens, never mind that the many foreign nationals who pay taxes in California had all been granted that right and might lose it along with me. However, I know better than to go around clicking banner ads, so I headed over to Ballotpedia for an explanation instead.

In a nutshell, Proposition 16 is a measure written and sponsored by PG&E that would require local entities to win two thirds of a public vote before forming municipal utilities or clean electricity districts -- in other words, before competing with PG&E. That is the only circumstance under which this measure would have any effect. Explicitly, this makes it harder and more expensive for California communities to offer competition to or opt out of PG&E's monopoly, and nothing else.

On the surface, particularly when steeped in language about voting rights, this might sound reasonable. As the rhetoric goes, if your taxes will pay to setup this new utility, shouldn't you have a say in whether or not it's created? If you don't, isn't that taxation without representation?

Well, no. The decisions are being made by the representatives you already elected through the same basic processes as other public works and services initiatives, and this is not a referendum on whether or not to revamp those processes in general. If it were, I would say fair play, although it might be poorly thought out fair play.

The real consequences from Prop 16's passage would be that PG&E would have an opportunity to swoop in with a PR blitz every time a California town wanted to build its own solar farm, with a budget that no public entity in this state can compete with, and only one in three residents to convince. If the town has to budget the additional spending on public education and the cost of holding a special election on top of forming the municipal utility and installing the solar panels, they no longer pay for themselves in ten years, do they?

My congratulations to PG&E on a remarkably bald-faced and cynical ploy, and the chutzpah to tell the voters that nothing less than our very democracy is at stake. Which proposition is it that lets you take over the Water Works?

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Friday, 01.15.2010
01.15.2010 11:14 - A Steady Pace
On Monday, I’ll be starting my new job. It’ll be good to get back to work. Unemployment hasn’t been the worst thing, but I’m ready for it to be over with.

My new gig is a Linux admin job in Palo Alto. The main draws are that the people I’ll be working with all seem nice and smart so far, the company seems to have a future, and so far as I can tell they like to do things intelligently using technologies I approve of. The main downside is that it isn’t an engineering role, but with the job market being what it is and my resumé being so much stronger for the ops side of the house, as soon as finances started to get tighter* I got used to the idea that my next job would probably look a fair bit like this one on paper. The cloudside with a sliver lining is the location: downtownish Palo Alto is probably the very top of my list of Silicon Valley neighborhoods, but I’m still partial to SF or the East Bay. This also means we won’t be moving in the near future as we had hoped, since corpsefairy is working part-time in Berkeley, and anywhere closer to PA would make her commute downright hellish.

Next week will also mark the start of my formal CS education. I’d previously enrolled in several community college classes, but thanks to what I expect will be a very demanding new job, I’ve dropped all but one of them. I don’t expect Intro to Structured Programming in C++ to be very difficult for me, having covered most of the themes in the syllabus during my own studies of Python, Java, and Scheme, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be time consuming, and I’ll have plenty to learn and brush up on for work.

Yesterday marked a milestone as well, when I ran my first half-marathon, solo, at Redwood Regional Park. I’m pretty firmly and for now exclusively in the trail running camp: not only does pavement put more wear on my knees, but the terrain tends to be less challenging, scenic, and, you know, fun. Anyway, this was a beautiful place to push myself to a new limit. I followed the 20Km course here with an extra half-mile, essentially making a grand circuit of the park along the ridge trails with a couple of detours down to the canyon floor.

The two major challenges I had going this new distance were in pacing and in not bringing enough food, neither of which should have surprised me too much. I took two energy gels along, one caffeinated and the other palatable, and over the last three miles or so I was dying for a third snack. While the caffeine did me a lot of good, it might also have sent me off too fast five miles into the course.

For those who care about stats (i.e. me): 13 miles, ~1750ft total elevation, ~2h48m.

And heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s back to work I go.

*: Housemates can be wonderful things if you avoid the self-detonating models.

P.S.: About a mile into the course, on the East Ridge Trail near the San Leandro Reservoir, I saw what I figured couldn’t possibly have been a bald eagle. I mean, sure, that was the obvious association -- vulture-like wingspan, white head, white tail feathers -- but really, now, what are the odds? What else could it have been?, I asked at dinner, and heard osprey as the answer. If only I’d gotten a better look at the head, I lamented, that would surely clear it up pretty well. A couple of quick Google Images searches clears things up pretty neatly.

My bird’s chest was all black.

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Tuesday, 12.29.2009
12.29.2009 19:20 - The Ten-Milestone
When you take up trail running, there are days when you just go out and run a few miles, maybe in a local park you already know pretty well, and there are days when you go out and push yourself to new limits, be it in terms of distance, time, or terrain. Time here is distinct from speed and only related to distance the same way it is to terrain; trail runners often try to run for longer without emphasizing distance. Yesterday I pushed myself by all three metrics.

I’d done a full loop around Lake Chabot one week before, for a total of about 8.8 miles. This time, I thought I’d go in the other direction, with a detour up to the ridge for a nice view across the Bay. The first two miles were a nice, easy warm up, mostly on a paved path thick with joggers, fishers, and dog-walkers, before I hit the longest steep uphill segment of my running career to date, climbing almost 500 feet in under a mile. I was glad to have recently read a good article on running steep hills, and impressed by how much of a difference a little advice really made.

When I hit the park’s biggest campground, I realized I’d made a wrong turn, so I stopped to study a map and suck down an energy gel (not recommended under most other circumstances). I made another wrong turn only a few yards away, and when I found myself all the way back down at the shoreline I decided, masochistically enough, to turn around and ascend the 300 feet back up to the trail I wanted. This kind of mistake is much harder to avoid than at hiking speed, especially when bounding downhill like a bisected gazelle.

Although this was hard, it wasn’t yet enough to wear me out entirely, and it brought me to my favorite part of the loop around the lake, a narrow trail that winds through a lush, dense eucalyptus grove, far from the roads, parking lots, and marina. By the time I was literally out of the woods and back to easier terrain, but not yet back to the paved track, my legs were halfway done for, hamstrings refusing to lift the lower bits as high as they should when without the advantage of downhill momentum. As rough as they had it, though, the rest of me felt just about fantastic, or at worst pleasantly sore. I could breathe easily and move freely.

Just down the embankment from the trail, fifteen feet away and hip-high, was a tree branch. As I approached, a flurry of motion blossomed into the distinctive plumage of a red tail hawk seeking a safer perch.

It was about there that I came upon a sign telling me I had 3.3 miles to go. By my estimate, I’d covered just about seven. I had no trouble with the rest, even if I was a little more slow and awkward than usual. In my one-man race, there would be no DNFs.

I got back to the car, after more than ten miles of running, under a light sprinkling of rain. I said to myself, out loud: “I am the only person in the world who just did that.” I mean, sure, there were many who could have, but only one who was actually me, and that would be the one who did. Maybe that sounds silly, but after a run like that, goddam, it seemed like something.

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Sunday, 12.13.2009
12.13.2009 20:57 - How I Finally Got Sucked Back Into Santacon

The 12th Nutcracker Brigade, Sugar Plum Service, and 103rd Sleighborne prepare to deploy to to San Francisco Santarchy 2009. Photo by edrabbit. More here.

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Sunday, 12.06.2009
12.06.2009 11:37 - MungBeing #29: Expectations
Surprise! I have a piece in MungBeing issue #29: Expectations. Predictably, it is packed with great art and writing. Make with the clicky and enjoy!


Sunday, 11.29.2009
11.29.2009 12:37 - To Send The World Another Step Behind
I started running because I discovered I could.

I was maybe fifteen the first time I blew out one of my knees. I don’t remember doing anything in particular that time, but I got a prescription for some anti-inflammatory horse-pills and was told to change how I walked so as to balance out the strength of the muscles in my legs.

Three years later, I was sitting down on the bus with my girlfriend, I felt something go pop in my right knee, and I screamed. She looked at me, understandably, as if I was insane, but torn cartilage hurts. This time I ended up with several months of physical therapy and a cane.

In the fall of 2004, I was kneeling down to pick up a foam ball when I felt that telltale pop again, this time in my left knee. I could neither bend nor straighten it fully, and without health insurance it took almost two months to get the treatment I needed. I was lucky to be able to get a meniscal repair surgery through Medi-Cal. I was luckier still that when they sewed up my cartilage, it took. The success rate is only about 50%. I had about another two months of PT and crutches from there, and three months more with a cane.

You can imagine why I might have become reluctant about an activity like running.

This year, especially over the summer, hiking and backpacking and the occasional use of hamster machines at the gym had gotten my legs into reasonably good shape, but I’d still yet to venture onto the treadmill, let alone the track. Then came the day when I discovered I could.

I discovered I could run on the evening of Friday, September 4th, when I locked my keys in my car a mile and a half from home. In lieu of calling a locksmith, paying about $70, and possibly damaging the car, I decided to run home to grab the spare key before anyone unsavory might notice the keys were left in the car (in plain sight) and find that rarest of grails, a blunt object.

Fortunately, if disconcertingly, I was able to break into the house through a window without much trouble or causing any damage, although it was a royal pain keeping one hand free to toss the cats back inside while I climbed through. I also remained blissfully unarrested, but then I was under the age of sixty, not particularly cranky, and white.

Before heading back out, I changed my sweat-soaked shirt and sucked down a glass of water, my delight in that my gym bag and running shoes were still in the trunk of the car, and my deep joy that the return trip would be uphill most of the way.

Then something amazing happened: I did it. I might have been slow as shit, but I ran all the way back without stopping (except for one red light). And it didn’t even hurt.

When I talked to my doctor about it, she told me that running is far more of a concern for people who have ACL tears than meniscus injuries, so long as we still have cartilage. Build up slowly, she said, and ice my knees afterward if they get sore, but don’t sweat it too much. Except, you know, for the sweat.

Since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the trails in the woods around Lake Chabot. It’s hilly, which makes things a bit harder, but it’s quiet, it’s shady, and every now and then I stumble on a family of deer, or a rabbit, or pack of grazing goats.

Yesterday, I ran four and a half miles at the Hayward Shoreline, a strange landscape of serene salt marshes, high tension power lines, and unspoiled views of the San Francisco Bay. Charging into a brackish headwind while my feet got heavier and heavier, all I had to do -- all I could do -- was breathe, and keep on moving.

Which is pretty much all I ever do, anyway.

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Tuesday, 11.24.2009
11.24.2009 11:16 - Unabashed Studentry
According to my credit card and the Dean, I’m now officially a college student. A freshman at thirty, and even at a community college this will put me in a somewhat unusual position (if less so this year), but looking back over the course of my life I’ve never been able to regret my lack of schooling with a straight face.

When I finished high school, there was simply no way that college was a good idea for me. I was not stable enough, I was not convinced that formal education was a good idea in general, and I didn’t feel like I needed it. For what my goals were, I turned out to be right: I crafted a creative and autodidactic life for myself, and I was able to make a living, if sometimes just barely. Perhaps a lot of this came down to luck and privilege, but it did indeed come down.

As I was finding my way deeper into the tech industry, I also found my way deeper into a drinking problem and a string of health issues. These are not the sorts of auspices one wants to begin schooling under, and in all honesty I never seriously considered it until after I had quit drinking.

Settling into truly full-time work in a professional career is a major undertaking, particularly when you discover that the job itself is making you miserable.

When attempting to switch careers from IT to development midstream, I had enough make up work to preclude any time for structured classes.

Now, however, things look nice and open. Sure, I’m still job hunting hard, still studying on my own course most days, and still working on my own projects, but it’s impossible to say where I’ll be when classes start come January. Why not get some credits under my belt? I may never get a degree, and I’m far enough away from one that I’m not worrying too much about the requirements yet, but there’s plenty to be gleaned along the way that I expect I’ll enjoy.

Despite being out of work, I’m only taking evening classes to avoid interfering with job prospects, and I’ve only signed up as a part-time student (thirteen credits) for now to avoid raising eyebrows down at the unemployment office. Since this will be my first time taking more than one class in thirteen years, starting off slow doesn’t sound so bad anyhow.

Now, where did I put that Trapper-Keeper with the sparkly dolphins?

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Friday, 11.13.2009
11.13.2009 13:59 - Stuck on the Bridge I'm Trying to Sell You
As of yesterday, I am officially untrustable. I celebrated with a job interview, several horrible traffic jams, and a quiet night at home watching Strange Culture and finishing the hard guitar tour in Rock Band 1. These things all seemed like good examples of why one ought not to trust me, and goddam is Molly Hatchet ever a slavering hell-beast of excessive solo wankery. My original plan had been to head down to Big Sur and hike Double Cone with no one not to trust me but myself, but the job interview of course took precedence. I'd keep my fingers crossed, but you might mistake that for a signal that I was lying.

According to Google, I'm now old enough to know better. This had best not interfere with my climbing plans at Mount Diablo tomorrow. In fact, were I to heed such a transformation, my total recreational output could quickly be reduced to sitting in one place and breathing rhythmically. You know. Like my dad.

Wikipedia tells me this is the age at which Jesus got wet. I don't particularly feel like getting wet just now, thanks. Anyway, I never trusted that guy.

Most importantly, I appear to be old enough to run out of coffee. It's a drastic condition, a bit like early onset dementia, only somewhat more treatable. The aging connection will require further research; stay tuned.

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Friday, 10.23.2009
10.23.2009 21:32 - There and Back and Never the Same [Yosemite 10/08/2009]
On Monday, October 5th, I was laid off from my job. I don't want to go into all of the details of how and why, but what's important to note is that I liked my job and hadn't expected to lose it.

On Thursday, October 8th, I woke up at two in the morning, took a quick shower, drank a cup of coffee, and hit the road to Yosemite. With no traffic, it's an easy drive from my house, barely more than three hours to the Big Oak Flat gate, which was unattended at that dreadful hour.

The only downside to doing the drive this way is that I was robbed of That View. If you've ever come into Yosemite Valley from highway 120, you know the one. You descend around a certain sharp curve on a steep grade, and by then you're starting to think it's just yet another in a long series, but then your eyes are pulled up from the road as if on puppet strings, and you see it: the Holy Shit This Place is Real and I'm Head Straight Down Into It Vista. Yeah, that one.

It's no small wonder that single car accidents are a leading cause of death in the national parks.

Even with nothing more than the moon to light the sky, however, I could see shape of my destination peak as clear as day, and my grin, as they say, was shit eating.

It's a popular hike. There's a reason I've never gone up to do it on a weekend. To give you some idea, all I had to do was follow signs for "Trailhead Parking," as though it were the only trailhead in a park the size of Rhode Island.

It was still dark when I got out of the car, but I left my headlamp in my pack and let my eyes adjust. I'd just have to take it off and put it away again in a few minutes anyway. An older couple passed me out of the parking lot as I was still getting ready.

"You guys doing Half Dome?" I asked.


"I guess I'll see you up there, then."

"If we're lucky," they laughed.

It's a hard hike, as popular as it is, especially if you do it in a day: over eight miles out, and just over one mile up, then you turn around and do it all in reverse. If you haven't trained for it at all, you might be better off attempting the Boston Marathon. At least there you can always catch the subway.

Those two did just fine, by the way, and passed me heading back down as I made the final approach later that day. At least I think it was them. It was still awfully dark in that parking lot.

I couldn't help but laugh a bit ruefully when a string of cars pulled in just as I set out on the trail. Sure, it was still the middle of the week, but this would be the last Thursday for at least seven months when it would be possible to summit Half Dome as a hiker. After Columbus Day, the cables come down.

Ah, the cables. Don't worry. We'll get to the cables. Well, I did, anyway.

The sky finally began to lighten as I walked along the flat valley floor to the trailhead, trekking poles slung over my shoulder so they wouldn't scrape on the pavement. I mostly use them to take some strain off my knees when descending, so they were of limited value here anyway.

I spent the first hour or so finding my pace for the day. After that, I stopped only when I needed a snack or a sip of water, when I needed to deal with my gear, when at the summit, or when the view wrestled me to immobility. I had to laugh a little at the speedy young things who kept passing me, only to let me plod on past them again while they took a rest. Aesop would've been proud. I mean, they still finished first, but hey.

The trail is steep and almost relentless, but I'd trained for it well. About three weeks before, the second day of a solo backpacking trip had taken me up over the shoulder of Tuolumne Peak, well over 10,000 feet above sea level in the northern part of the park. That had been a 13-plus mile day with a frame pack, almost 40 pounds with a full load of water. I'd never seen so many switchbacks in my life, and I'd had the good fortune to see them at noon under a cloudless sky. With the exception of the final approach on Sub-Dome and the cables, this really did feel like a walk in the park by comparison. Which, of course, it was.

Coming up on the shoulder of Half Dome, still just under the tree line, there was sparse snow on the ground, a remarkable thing at below nine thousand feet in early October.

From just off the trail ahead of the next hiker, one hundred yards away, there was a rich gray blur of startled motion across the frozen ground to a spot thirty yards uphill from me. I was still and silent, and until the next pair of nattering tourists came around the bend I had a view through the trees of a coyote in full winter coat, perhaps the most beautiful creature I've ever seen in the wild.

Emerging from the woods onto the bald granite of Sub-Dome, the bare eastern shoulder of the peak, I had my first view of the cables. I should probably apologize for the way I keep alluding to them without explaining. Would a picture help?

I thought as much.

The cables are kind of a thing. The cables are scary as fuck. People die going up the cables. People die going back down the cables. Throughout the afternoon people are doing both at the same time, and speedy young daredevils are passing them on the outside of the cables.

It's not that a whole hell of a lot of people are falling to their doom all the time there. It's not the nose of El Capitán. That, in effect, is the problem -- people seem to think it's safe, and nothing could be farther from the truth. It's bald, slick granite with nothing cut out but the post-holes, and the course you take up it is probably at an average angle of forty-five degrees. That middle section is certainly steeper.

As a burgeoning rock climber, I was not particularly nervous. I was, however, awed, and more to the point I knew enough to be scared shitless of this approach. That's why I had a harness, runners, and carabiners rated for 22 or more kilonewtons in my pack. Out of the dozens of people there that day, I saw maybe five others who had come similarly prepared. If you hike Half Dome, follow my lead. This page lays it all out pretty well, although I recommend taking two separate runners instead of just one.

Because I felt secure, I took my sweet time going up, letting people pass on their way down each take as long as they needed. I just clipped in to the right-hand cable above the next post, swung down under the cable itself, and sat down with one foot leaned on the post to give myself a nice rest and a beautiful view. It would have been a fun challenge to heave myself up all 400 feet of the final approach as quickly as possible, sure, but as one of the only people in the early afternoon crowd guaranteed not to fall I opted instead for helping everyone's climb as much as I could.

It's hard to do justice to the view from the top of Half Dome justice, either in pictures or in writing. There's all the rest of Yosemite Valley in clear relief directly below, and there's all the the strange, sculpted contours of the high Sierra peaks stretching out to every horizon, crags and domes and ridges like a collection of granite teeth and skulls, every one of them acknowledging that just maybe you'll get up there one day, too.

I walked on over to the Diving Board, lay down on my belly, let my face hang down over the edge, and took a breath so deep--

I let the crowds have their Valley-view and cell phone reception tests and trundled off northwest down the gentle slope of the plateau. I found a big enough rock that I could almost pretend I was alone behind it, and ate my lunch gazing out over Liberty Cap and beyond.

I did not merely feel blessed, lucky, or proud to be there. I felt privileged. It's more than luck that led me to live in Northern California, giving me easy access to this place, or the physical condition to make the trek through it. It's more than hard work that gave me the ability to pick up and go when I had the free time, with a vehicle that could charge up Old Priest Grade Road without overheating and a wallet that could handle an extra tank of gas for a day's frivolity. It's a lot less, however, than divine provenance that made me one of the relative few who indeed made it up there that day.

On the way back down the cables, a stranger introduced himself and asked me to stay close behind him and provide moral support. Down is a lot less tiring, sure, but either you're walking down a slick granite wall face-first, or going backwards (side-stepping is actually best, but this takes most people, myself included, a while to figure out). Climbers will tell you: up hurts, sure, but down kills. I was happy to oblige, and we both made it back to Sub-Dome without incident (although a bit of sliding toasted the soles of my hiking boots and even popped their bindings).

As I was putting my harness away in my pack, he told me why he'd been quite so nervous. This wasn't actually his first trip up Half-Dome. Six years earlier, he'd gone up with some friends. A storm moved in while they were on the summit. He said it took them two hours to get down the cables.

Storms above tree-line: bad news. Storms on Half Dome: not even worth contemplating. There's a reason you see signs like these on the way up there.

On the way back down the trail, I realized I'd made an error in judgment. When I'd reserved my campsite for the night, I'd expected that I'd be exhausted from the hike, so I'd reserved the site closest to the trailhead. This meant I had a spot waiting for me on the thickly touristed Valley floor. While the real schmucks I'd encountered on this hike had only been a small minority, they were a vocal enough one to make me rethink my desire to wade through such a teeming pool of humanity.

As my poles clacked onto the paved lower section of the trail, less than two miles from the car, the sun finished disappearing for the night. By the time I was back to the valley floor proper with just over half a mile to go, it was completely dark, with no moon in sight. Once again, I opted to leave my headlamp out of the picture. My eyes were adjusting well enough, and the poles helped make up for their deficiencies at ground level.

The way back to the trailhead lot led me right past my campground. The sounds of acoustic guitars and bickering families led me to a decision. I popped the trunk, changed into my street clothes, popped a caffeine pill hidden in the glove box, and drove on home. I walked through the door at three minutes before midnight. On the way, I spotted a gray fox and a ringtail in my high beams, as well as four deer, only one of which required the full force of my brakes. Always assume something is waiting just out of sight around the corner when driving in the mountains.

Twenty-two hours. Seventeen-plus miles of hiking, with two-plus miles of elevation change. Three hundred and seventy miles of driving. One hell of a way to turn the week around and remind myself that, yeah, I can make it up there. All I ever really need to do is hit the trail and find my pace.

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Tuesday, 10.06.2009
10.06.2009 12:17 - Walksies
Hello, free time! I think I'll go take a walk up Half Dome before they pull down the cables. Anyone care to join?

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Monday, 10.05.2009
10.05.2009 18:03 - Screw-Job
Just got laid off.

I will keep the details away from public fora such as this, but suffice it to say I am severely nonplussed at the moment. At least I have continued to delve into my chosen lifestyle of full-time dark comedy -- had I stayed in the "safe" path of my previous position at VMware, I would have been let go along with ~85% of my coworkers in California-based support just last week. Pro tip: Never consent to train your replacement.

Thus many of the big plans that had been coalescing around this household are now on hold, at best. With any luck they won't stay that way for long.

To that end, I am making it known straight out of the gates that I am looking for work, preferably continuing to code in Java as at this last gig, with bonus points for working with GWT or similar frameworks (ETA: Huge bonus multiplier for a chance to work on -- not just with -- anything open source again). I'm also known to dabble in Python, and perfectly happy to learn to learn pretty much any language you might toss my way (except, say, Visual Basic, but let's at least try to be reasonable here). In my life as a pre-developer, I coalesced pantloads of experience in virtualization, networking, storage, Linux, *ix, and Mac tech. Windows doesn't leave me totally clueless either, but, hey, you know.

And with that, I shall proceed to put the "incoherent, garbled, high-decibel ranting" back in "funemployment."

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