Thursday, June 29, 2006

Book Review: The Man in the High Tower

I just finished reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Tower. Briefly it is an alternate timeline wherein Germany and Japan win World War II. Nothing too exciting about that. Now how does Dick deal with it?

Dick's world has the two Axis powers dividing up the U.S. much as the Allied powers did with Germany. The Japanese are largely benevolent towards the occupied lands, however Germany continues along a path of extermination and police/military rule. The two Axis powers are also positioned in a sort of Cold War much like that between the U.S. and Soviet Union with proxy wars being fought in regions of Asia and South America. It seems that Dick doesn't want to stray too much from actual history here, but rather attempts to merely juxtapose the players.

One interesting facet of alternate histories for me is the possibility that moral problems are historically constructed. Winners write their own history. Portraying Nazi Germany as a "good" victor would be challenging and interesting version of events. Disturbing sure, but imagining a world where what was done was good is the kind of stretch I look for in this sort of book. Dick does a little of this, but ultimately the Nazis are still disfunctional and evil in his opinion.

One major theme in his book is the concept of "historicity" or that which separates the historical from the mundane. Think of the difference between a flag and a flag flown over the White House. Same object, but one gains a certain (though limited) amount of historicity. To illustrate this some of Dick's characters are forgers of historical artifacts. They have no qualms about flooding the antiques market with forgeries of Civil War revolvers and Mickey Mouse watches. Through the course of the book one particular forged item becomes a piece of history and must be contemplated as such. What is this ephemeral "historicity" is it real and what is it good for? Something to consider in the age of E-Bay where a wad of celebrity chewed bubble gum is worth bidding for.

Another theme is that of reality versus fiction. Dick presents us with a book within a book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This book presents the characters with an alternate reality in which the Allies won the war. Although different from the way things actually turned out it does turn the eye of the character back towards the reader. This becomes even more convoluted when a few of the characters come to the conclusion that the events of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy are reality and they are living in a false world (Interestingly the notion that they are living in a false world makes historicity impossible).

What does it mean to live in a false world? It doesn't make sense to me to say that although everything that we see says one thing, what is actually going on is another. Why would anyone believe that the events of a book are more real than what they live every day? It seems as ephemeral as historicity. There are some clear parallels here to The Matrix movie, but in that case there is a real difference (however unlikely one is to find it). I might recommend the film Total Recall as an example of this inability to distinguish real from unreal (Not suprisingly Total Recall is based on Dick's own short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which I have yet to read). This theme of living in a false world also harkens to Dick's own belief that we are actually living in ancient Rome and history has not progressed from there. It's a tough one to buy into.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Races anyone?

I took Cory's lead and signed up for Iowa Games today. I'm planning on riding to each event and doing every event on the same bike. Gotta have a gimmick.

I was planning on riding at Seven Oaks this weekend, but as Paul pointed out there's a race there on Sunday. Well, I wasn't really planning on racing this weekend, but I might just do it. There's free camping the night before so I think I might ride out on Saturday, do a couple of practice laps and work on my skills, then camp out and do the race in the morning. It'd be a pretty good weekend adventure and perhaps I need one of those. In some ways I hate XC racing, mostly because I'm not any good at it, but it can be a powerful motivator for improvement. Even if I decide not to race I could ride out, camp, and watch the race. That wouldn't be so bad. I'd get all the riding and wouldn't have to compete or spend too much money. Besides, I need to try out my ultra-lightweight camping setup.

Oh, and the IORCA website says that Seven Oaks is 7 miles now that they've added another 1.5 miles of trail. But I thought it was 7 miles two years ago. I don't know who to believe anymore.

Why do I have to do everything X-treme?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Blog resolve fading

I've been terrible about posting. Sometimes I get on these kicks where I do something religiously (brush my teeth, cook for myself, bike every weekend, etc.) for a while, but then I skip one day and everything falls apart. Classes while I was in school were like this, as was martial arts when I did that, and fencing too. I don't like being the kind of person who is so flaky when it comes to commitments, especially self-commitments. I don't know if it's a responsibility thing, wanting to quit, or just laziness. In any case I don't want blogging to become like that. I really do want to learn to write better and I think that this is helping. By the way, harassing me about it won't help. As my friends and parents know, this can solidify my failure into a will to fail.

Wedding Attended:

My roommates got married last Saturday. It was a good ceremony and reception, not much more to say about that. They had some edible Legos as party favors (or whatever they're called at weddings) and that was pretty neat. As usual when I get dressed up I forgot something. This time I forgot my belt and had mismatched shoes. I tried to find a belt at my parents' house, but there was no hope of wearing the two belts I found in my father's closet. As for the mismatched shoes, I have two pairs of dress shoes and they look pretty similar. Every so often I grab the wrong two. At least this time I got a right and a left rather than two rights that I grabbed for another wedding.

Mountain bikes ridden:
Bob and I went biking at Seven Oaks after work today. According to Bob's cycle-computer the course is now a full 12 miles. Wow, it's tough. The first half is very tight and there is a lot of climbing and not a lot of opportunities for carrying speed or resting. The second half is much more relaxed and makes you feel like you can at least attempt another lap.

I only crashed a couple of times and I seem to be getting pretty good at the uphill switchbacks. The downhill switchbacks are another story however. I get unnerved and feel like I'm going to crash. One of these days I'll gain some confidence on these and then I'll be a much better rider. I'd better hurry though. 24 hours of 9 Mile is coming up soon. Oh, and if anyone is heading through or near Ames on their way up to Wausau and has room for another bike and rider I'd like to beg a ride.

Adding to the list of demoralizing things I've heard recently:
Dave Nice, the awesome guy whom I met on TI, had his bike stolen on the GDR. Add this to the rash of stolen seatposts and headlights in Ames, the theft of a good customer's new (and well deserved) bike, and a cyclist getting beaten up by an SUVer in Des Moines and you might say I'm not feeling so great about being a cyclist. Sometimes I feel like the whole world is against us. I know I shouldn't let it get me down, but somedays I feel like throwing in the towel, getting a car, a credit card, phone, mortgage, and taking up golf. I suppose golfers have their problems too.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Psychologists as portrayed in Sci-Fi

Lately I've been reading a fair amount of science fiction. The past five books I've read have all been by Frank Herbert (of Dune fame) and Philip K. Dick (best known for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). All of these five books have had psychologists/psychiatrists as supporting if not main characters. Psychological professionals as presented in these novels are very different from the way I typically think of them.

Herbert portrays them as all knowing behavior predictors. They are able to tell what a person will do far in advance and use that information to advance their agendas. Psychology is an accurate and predictive science in Herbert's view. This seems to imply a rather simplistic model of the human mind. As if psychology were like elementary physics and we could predict behavior as though it were a cannonball on a trajectory. In reality it isn't so easy. No reputable psychologist would venture much more than an ordinary human guess at what a particular person might do in a particular situation. There are just too many variables to consider in each person. The science deals more in generalities than specifics. They can say what many people would do (and perhaps propose an explanation why), but not what the individual person would do.

Herbert's view seems like it might have had some weight in the popular media forty years ago when he was writing, but it seems to have little now. Science fiction is sometimes portrayed as a picture of the future. Viewed this way we can see that Herbert thought that psychology would someday become like the 'hard' sciences and be a predictive tool. Looking from where we are today though it seems foolish. We would never expect Dr. Phil to be a swami who knew what others were thinking and could control them with a word or gesture.

Dick shows psychologists as inept know-it-alls who have a psychobabble explanation and a snake-oil cure for any problem. In some respects he sees them similarly to Herbert: he sees them as people who believe that they hold the key to human behavior. They think that they see the true motives behind actions and have some control over them. In fact they are deluding themselves with their own fancy words and concepts.

Dick presents the popular view of the psychoanalyst who can come up with an after-the-fact reason why someone has done something. Dick is critical of these psychoanalysts and sees them as vain and self-important people who believe that they have it all figured out, but can't make heads or tails of their own lives. This cynical view helps Dick to give more credibility to the views of 'insane' people, a theme that appears again and again in his novels.

The psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts whom I have known don't tend to fit in either of these models. First, no one takes Herbert's predictive model seriously. As far as Dick's view goes, most psychologists and psychiatrists won't venture into the realms of motivations or mental states, but stick to simple correlations. In the case of clinical psychologists and psychoanalysts, most are hesitant to offer up patent explanations for behaviors and would rather listen and offer a few suggestions or hints to help the patient/client.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Atkins' Diet + endurance ride = bonk.

I went for an epic ride with Cory yesterday. It was to be a simple gravel cruise on the Rocket 88, but events conspired to make it a long 5 hours on the bike. Lets look at what these events were:

1. It was a longer ride than either of us figured. Cory's estimate going in was 50+ miles, but after some quick and dirty calculations with the map it seems that we went at least 60 miles. Now an extra 10 miles doesn't seem like much, but consider item 2.

2. We both ran out of water with about 10 miles to go. Cory ran out a little before me, but he seemed to be in better shape during the second half of the ride. I was really dragging and while no water for 10 miles usually wouldn't be too significant, consider item 3.

3. It was over 90 degrees out. I was unprepared for the heat. I didn't have anything in the way of electrolytes and only a little food, which brings me to point 4.

4. I didn't eat any breakfast that morning. I rarely do before rides and usually it doesn't make much difference, but I think that it could have helped for this ride. Besides, I didn't have anything in the house that I could have eaten for breakfast, see item 5.

5. I had accidentally gone on the Atkins' Diet for the previous couple of days. I happened to have a lot of eggs and hamburger around so that's what I had been eating. Hamburger omelets. I did have a little ramen, but that hardly counts. I really needed more carbs in order to do a ride like that.

So that's about it for analysis. Next time I'll know a little better. Not that I'll listen to what I know, but at least I'll know it.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel explores the topic of human history through a rarely seen and yet compelling lens. Diamond sees history as the interplay of evolution and accident (one in the same by some accounts, notably mine). First I'll explore what is meant by evolution and accident.

Evolution, in biology, is generally thought of as "survival of the fittest." We think of one species being better suited to a climate or food source and prospering while another is poorly suited and failing. In the short run this is a reasonably accurate view. However, evolution is not a short term process. We have to ask ourselves, how did these two species become different. This leads us to the true mechanism of evolution, accident.

In some sense, evolution might be thought of as "survival of the luckiest." By this I just mean that if one species happens to live in a particular place it will do well, while if it happens to live in another it will do poorly. The same species then is both fit and unfit, depending on the circumstances.

If we view human history as evolutionary then we can see that some cultures have flourished and others have failed. Why? Genetics? Well, yes, that is a factor (though only one), but only on the surface. We have to look beneath the surface to find the accidents that led to this and other factors.

The biggest factor that Diamond sees is geography. Where a people live, what resources are available, in terms of plants, animals, climate, and communication and migration routes are what makes for success or failure.

Diamond is sensitive to the fact that this makes him look like a historical determinist. That is, history is an inexorable march that can not be slowed, diverted, or changed. History is fixed. He defends himself by claiming that history is unpredictable because of it's accidental nature.

While he is partially right, we can't know what, exactly, will happen next, we can still make some predictions about how it will happen. He might not be a historical determinist, but he does seem to be a historical fatalist. There's not much we, as individuals, can do about it. We can't make the less fit culture predominate, because it would therefore be more fit.

Diamond makes much use of the somewhat controversial science of linguistic chronology in showing the various waves of migrations that have populated then displaced, assimilated, or destroyed those populations. In order to defend this science, much of the book is dedicated to giving evidence for it's usefulness in establishing dates and relationships among peoples. This topic is at least as fascinating as his main historical thesis and deserves (and probably has many) a book of it's own.

The only problem with Diamond's book is it's practical application. What exactly are we supposed to do about the bad things in history if history is fatalistic? Diamond mentions that this avoidance of the mistakes of history is the purpose of his book in the introduction, but only alludes to it vaguely in the main text. The book appears to be largely a curiosity for overeducated people such as myself.

If I had to draw a lesson from it, and this doesn't seem insignificant, it would be: don't take history too seriously. More specifically, don't be too proud of who you are or your homeland. We are all immigrants of some sort or another. Using historical lands as a guide to whose land is whose is a false way of deciding political arguments. Also, our genetics is an accident rather than a cause of history. Thinking of oneself as superior based on genes is wrong.

This review was hastily written and poorly edited so don't put too much stock in it. This book is a thought provoking and very readable. I recommend it and not just because you'll look intelligent to your friends.

Friday, June 16, 2006

No more griping about work.

I had another pretty interesting conversation, if you can call it that, at the coffee shop this evening. A guy whom I sold a bike to last week was looking a bit lost and so I waved him over and asked if he wanted to sit down. He did, well sort of. First he asked if I'd rather stand. I said no and he sat. He seemed to have a really short attention span and couldn't seem to string two sentences together in a very coherent way. His responses to my questions or comments were vaguely related to what I had said, but not quite right.

He asked what I was reading and we talked about that for a while. He made some comment after looking at the cover like, "I can tell you that there are better things you could be reading." I asked him what he considered good reading and he said that he wished that he had never learned to read. I tried a different line and asked what movies or TV shows he preferred (he had previously expressed that he had some interest in these). The Chapelle Show was the only one he could come up with. He asked if I read a lot and I said yes. Then he said something like, "So you prefer to do this than live?" I told him a little about my philosophy of reading, but he started to glaze over. He said that if a book didn't catch him in a couple of sentences then it wasn't worth reading. Same thing with TV or movies. He said that he was an artist, photoshop and photography.

He started flipping through the book, looking at the pages, but not really reading them. It was like the letters didn't mean anything to him. He seemed to have a lot of trouble with symbols and ideas. He asked if the book wouldn't be better off as a tree. It was as though looked at things as objects without meaning or context rather than as objects with a use, purpose, or deeper significance. He didn't seem dumb, but he didn't seem to be in the same content-rich world as I am.

Then he asked me if I had a flag. I asked what kind of flag, thinking that he meant something like a personal flag (based on his art background) and he pulled a US flag out of his backpack and gave it to me. He gave me a talk about proper ways of displaying the flag and we discussed that for a while (about two short exchanges which seemed to be about the best he would do). He then decided it was time for me to go and told me to "say one for Uncle Sam," whenever I saw the flag.

Odd. I'd like to know what goes on in some people's heads. If I had to make a diagnosis I'd say schizophrenia (based on his inability to see things for other than what they are, though this doesn't mesh well with his artistic aspirations), but it might just be drugs. Who knows? It was actually kind of enjoyable though difficult for me to have a conversation with him. I've seen him hanging around quite a bit so maybe I'll get to talk with him more. Anybody need a flag?

Bike stuff:
I'm starting to get used to riding the Rocket. I've finally got the seat at the right height and I'm starting to remember how to ride a full-suspension bike. I hit a couple of tough technical climbs in the area (very short, but steep with no way to carry momentum) and re-learned how to use my gears and body weight. The headlamp is also taking some getting used to. The long ride I'm doing this weekend should teach me how to conserve energy on the bike. Something I haven't quite figured out with this bike. The bike also feels a lot sketchier on gravel and loose stuff than my Crosscheck. I feel like my tires are going to wash out in the corners. Maybe it's the higher CG or perhaps it's the suspension that is taking some getting used to.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A couple of classic dreams

I just had a dream that I was arrested for running a subversive website. I was caught because I rode the Rocket 88 in to work which is the only bike I have licensed. The police found my bike, impounded it and waited for me to show up at the station. In the dream I fell for it.

I also dreamt that I was at work and one of my co-workers had flooded the basement up to the ceiling by plugging the drain. I kept working while wearing scuba gear, flippers, and an inflatable PFD. I was annoyed primarily about all the cardboard getting wet.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why aren't YOU out riding?

I finally managed to fit in a ride. Last winter while I was training (or pretending to train) for the Arrowhead I plotted out a loop through town. The idea was that if I'm tired, it's dark out, snowing, or I just don't feel like a real out of town ride I can do this loop and still manage to get some riding in. It links together all the in town singletrack, a lot of bike paths, a little gravel, and some hilly roads to make an at least 12 mile workout. I really don't know how long it is, but it took me about an hour to complete it tonight on the Rocket. I've now ridden it three times. Each time I've been sitting at the computer, read someone's "why aren't you out biking" comment, stood up and gone biking.

I found out yesterday that a friend of mine was in a pretty bad cycling accident on TOMRV last weekend. Apparently he went down while descending a pretty big hill. I don't know all the details, but he broke a rib, punctured a lung, and suffered two seizures on the way to the hospital. He's conscious, though sedated, which is at least something good. I've never ridden a bike with him, but from kayaking and XC skiing with him I know that he has the right attitude to pull through something like this.

Head injuries scare me. I've met too many people (mostly through work) whose lives have been affected by them. It's one thing to be physically disabled, but to be mentally disabled is incredibly tragic. Sometimes the person before the accident and afterwards seem like different people (I won't delve into philosophical and psychological ramifications here). I don't have much reason to think that this has happened to my friend, but it worries me nonetheless. Take this as you will, but most of the people I've known with serious head injuries were riding a motorcycle without a helmet when it happened.

I'm getting way behind on book reviews. A couple of Rushdie novels and Guns Germs and Steel are in need of reviewing. I've also been reading quite a bit of sci-fi lately. The good stuff, Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert, not fluff. Dick's troubled characters and unique time imponderables along with Herbert's sociological insights have kept me too busy reading and away from writing. Maybe I'll have to do a series of one-minute reviews or something like that.

Monday, June 12, 2006

I'll never qualify for RAAM at this rate.

Guitar Ted's ride has been moved to the 19th of August. I just might be able to attend. I think I'll try to get Friday beforehand off from work and ride up, then ride back on sunday. Lets see, that'd be 100 miles on Friday, 150 on Saturday then another 100 on Sunday. 350 miles in about 60 hours with sleep. Do-able, but tough. I think I'll give it a shot.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so cavalier about it. I didn't manage to do the 120 miler that I was planning on for last Saturday. Lots of little things came up that, when taken together, prevented me from riding. I needed the rest, but on the other hand I need to ride too. I haven't ridden since Memorial Day, two weeks ago, and that was just a 40 mile road ride. Nothing to brag about.

Over the weekend though I got a good look at some gravel roads in the NE part of the state. There were some pretty nice hills and great views up there. I was hoping that G-Ted's ride would head out that way, but it doesn't look like that'll be the case. I'll have to make it a bike destination someday.

Tomorrow I start my Rocket 88 only training. I'll be riding the Rocket to and from work and on every other ride I do until 9-Mile. I need to get used to the way the bike handles and figure out if anything needs to be changed before the race. I'm thinking about some SRAM X-7 and one of those funky Titec Jones bar ripoffs.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Back on the blogger wagon

I've been breaking my resolution, such as it is, this week. Now it's time to catch up with the blog and see about some bike riding. First the news:

An 18 hour LAN party/bachelor party last weekend kept me off the streets. I haven't done anything like that in years. Endurance computer gaming is tougher than endurance biking for me. Good to see old friends though. Civ 4 is a pretty okay game, but I'm a little sick of it.

Work is as crazy as ever. A guy came in today with a "Winnipeg Centennial 1874-1974" sticker on his old Sekine. He was trying to peel it off. I thought it was a shame to waste such a nifty sticker myself.

It looks like I'll be doing a 120+ mile gravel ride this weekend. I'm biking to Cedar Rapids on Saturday and then hopefully getting a ride back by Monday morning. Tomorrow I'll have to photocopy some maps so I don't get too lost.

Speaking of long rides, Guitar Ted's endurance ride later this summer sounds like fun. I won't be able to make it though as I'll be in Michigan that weekend. I like the idea of more semi-organized rides popping up in the area. Perhaps I'll have to do my own someday. Perhaps Paul could do his Stratford century ride or something.

Joe Partridge also made some good points about travel time vs. event time. His rule, as stated on G-Ted's website is:
Sounds like fun, but I have a new rule: I won't drive to ride unless the total ride time is greater than the total drive time. That means TI is in (26hr drive, 27+ hour ride) but DK (26hr drive, 16hr bike) is out. The GTEF (Guitar Ted Endro Fest) is also out.
I made a similar rule for myself after an ill-concieved kayak trip to North Carolina and Georgia. I don't think that my rule is quite so strict as Joe's though. Fun/experience time is also counted into my equation. Thus for me DK was: 10hr drive <>

Friday, June 02, 2006

What else did I miss?

Hopefully everybody stopped by the shop today for the Cannondale demo. Rumor has it there was even a new Cannondale 6 there. I don't know for sure because I was chained to the bench for 10+ hours today. So if you didn't see me at work today it just means that I was working on someone else's bike.

I've been slacking on the blog these last few days. It may continue to be that way for a while. I'll see if I can divert some of my attention to writing, but I just don't know right now.

The real trick to writing a blog in my opinion is not what to write, but rather what not to write. I could go on about personal details or trivial incidents of my day for pages, but that wouldn't be appropriate for me. Certainly it is appropriate to the medium. What is a blog if not a place to publish whatever you happen to fancy? A place to rant and rave, say sappy and inappropriate things to perfect strangers.

But I know better. Many of my opinions are better left inside my head. There's no need to get others concerned, infuriated, or bored by them. Not only that, but a blog is not anonymous. People read this and thereby know something about me. I have some control over what people know about me and what they don't. I tell some things to some people and not to others. If I publish my thoughts on the internet I no longer have control over who reads them, who knows about me. Therefore you'll never read my innermost secrets on this blog.

I've taken up enough of your time for one day and revealed more of myself than I probably should. I'll try to get back to something less trite tomorrow.