On The Road with The Mothers of Rotation

This was first posted on my fundraising page on the Team in Training site; I’m training for a 100 mile bike ride to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  This is a progress update on our training program.
In a sense, we’re halfway there: we hit the “half century” mark in our training program this weekend, with a beautiful 50 mile ride along and around the Pacific coast. My ride group, which happens to be mostly women, has chosen the name “The Mothers of Rotation”. It’s a maybe-too-obscure reference to Frank Zappa’s old band, and sure, it’s about wheels going around and around, but it’s also about the rotation our group was practicing this weekend: rotating through the front position in our ride group. This rotation is the essence of pacelining, which is what makes this sort of cycling a team sport. By staying in a tight line, with each rider a wheel’s diameter or less from the rider ahead, we can get a significant boost in efficiency thanks to the slipstream created by the riders ahead. The person in front doesn’t have the benefit of this slipstream, of course, and has to work a lot harder – hence, the need to for riders to periodically rotate from the front to the back, so they can enjoy some of that slipstream, and maybe even take a drink.
Pacelining takes a lot of attention, careful communication, and also the sort of trust the can only build up from working together over time. It’s not easy, and at my level at least, I don’t think I’d call it “fun”; I have to spend a lot of time looking at the wheel in front of me rather than the majestic redwoods or dramatic seaside cliffs we’re riding past. The reward, however, can be significant: you can go much farther and faster in a group than riding alone. And while pacelining takes away from the pleasures of sightseeing, daydreaming, or casual chatter, there’s a certain satisfaction and even exhileration when the group really comes together and starts to function as a larger organic unit. There’s the sensation of everyone doing their part, of the little bits of necessary communication becoming more automatic and more subtle – it brings to mind the concept of flow. Of course, some of that exhileration is just speed, as you find yourself going faster than you think you have a right to be going, and with less effort (as when our group was fighting a stiff coastal headwind for the last few miles back up to Half Moon Bay along Highway 1, and still making pretty good time)
Pacelining, then, is a pretty good metaphor for any sort of team endeavor: it adds a certain overhead over going it alone, but it has advantages that outweigh this, and it extends the range of what’s possible.  The same can be said of a group of engineers working together on a product, or a group of people coming together to fight a class of diseases.  There’s a sense of flow when it comes together, and you feel like you’re part of something larger, and accomplishing more than you thought you could.
Thanks to all of your for your continued support, and for helping LLS!
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Free Podcasts Worth Paying For

My daily commute runs about 40-50 minutes, and I’m not always interested in what’s on the radio, so I spend a fair amount of time listening to podcasts.  Here are my favorites; I enjoy them enough that I’ve been moved to donate money to support them.  All are available on iTunes (for free, of course).

Escape Pod: terrific science fiction short stories.  This one really lives up to its name, as it’s a great way to get my mind completely off work and into a totally different place.  The quality of the stories is high (a lot of Hugo and Nebula award winners), and the reading is good, too.  The “Intro” and “Outro” segments aren’t annoying; just a little bit of background on the author and what’s going on with the podcast, just enough to make you feel a little bit a part of the community, without droning on like so many podcasts do.  For much of its life, it was run by Stephen Eley, who also did a pretty big share of the reading; he’s come to feel like an old friend.  His voice isn’t going to put Morgan Freeman out of work anytime, but it works, and I can still get immersed in the story. Wow, it looks like I’ve listened to about 110 of these, and in all of  those recordings, there have only been one or two that I’ve quit on due to lack of interest or poor audio quality. These are far outweighed by the huge number of stories that have been enthralling and memorable. And hey, lucky me – most episodes are just the right length for my commute!  Some that still stick with me even after a couple years: Acephalous Dreams, Bright Red Star, Edward Bear and  the Very Long Walk, The Something-Dreaming Game, and “How I Mounted Goldie, Saved My Partner Lori, and Sniffed Out The People’s Justice”, about a hero cop dog.

Radio Lab: this is actually a radio show, from WNYC, though  the podcast often includes additional shorts and bonus material.  Most episodes consist of a a small number of inner segments exploring somewhat related topics, rather like This American Life (also a fine podcast!) or a raft of other NPR shows.  This show, though, has a few aspects that make it stand out.  First of all,  the subject matter – there’s a strong focus on science, particularly on its really interesting frontiers, with a strong emphasis on the mind and brain.  Second is  the aspect that probably gives the show its name: the show’s auditory inventiveness. These guys love to play around with creative editing, audio processing, and sound effects, to enhance how they tell the story.  It’s not just messing around or showing off – it really does help the story get through, and the tight editing means  there’s no wasted space. And third, the hosts – Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich do a great job, and have an enjoyable banter.

Some favorite episodes that got me hooked: Sleep, Morality , War of  the Worlds.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: a friend turned me on to this one.  There aren’t many episodes, as it takes him a long time to put these together, but these are some fascinating monologues and discussions about history, from ancient to modern.  Dan will tell you clearly he’s “not a historian”, but he selects events or facets of history that interest him, researches the heck out of them, and talks about them in a way that makes his clear enthusiasm infectious.  He’s very engaging to listen to, and he manages to glean the human element out of  these old sources, helping you get to know some of  these historical figures, and giving you a feel for what it must have been like to be present for  these events.  I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be riveted by a three-part podcast about the Punic Wars, to the point where I’d sometimes sit in the parking lot a little while because I didn’t want to stop, but Dan did it for me (I also didn’t expect that it would have powerful lessons that still ring true today, like what can come out of negotiating with someone who’s bent on your total destruction).  My favorite set of episodes might be the four-part series “Ghosts of the Ostfront”, about the conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II; this part of the war is little-known to most Westerners (including me), but, as I learned from Dan, was breathtaking in its scope, drama, horror, and savagery.  Some favorite single-episode episodes, if you want a smaller taste, are “Steppe Stories” and “Apache Tears”.  These shows come out about every two months, and run an hour or more in length, so if you try it, you’ll quickly blaze through them and find yourself eagerly waiting around for the next one, along with me.

(Dan has another podcast, “Common Sense with Dan Carlin”, that’s more about current events.  I don’t enjoy it as much, as they’re more free-form than the history podcasts, and Dan’s got a tendency to ramble when he’s further off script; he’ll express an interesting thought in 30 seconds, and somehow reiterate it for another several minutes, without adding much that an intelligent listener wouldn’t simply fill in for themselves.)

Skeptoid: every week, host Brian Dunning turns his skeptical eye toward some pseudoscientific therapy, paranormal claim, or other popular meme, and digs up the real story – or at least enough of it to show that there just isn’t enough there for anyone to draw those fantastic conclusions.   Many are about ghostly sightings and spooky events that are pretty easy to be skeptical about, but he’ll also fearlessly go after what are sure to be a lot of people’s favorite beliefs, such as organic foods, the Virgin of Guadalupe (a very interesting episode), and the “SuperSize Me” critique of fast food.   Skeptoid’s episodes are frequent and pretty short (under 15 minutes), so they’re a nice bite-size chunk if you’ve only got  that much further to drive.  Some leave me wanting a little more depth, but they’re just about always entertaining.

Honorable Mention: The Moth (people telling true stories about  themselves, in front of an audience, without notes), and This American Life (the radio show).  Also, author Scott Sigler has put out some of his books as podcasts – he’s not for everybody (not for the squeamish, that’s for sure), but I got hooked, and plowed through “Earthcore”, “Infected”, “Contagious”, and “Nocturnal”. I’d love to be able to cut the memory of some of those scenes out of my brain, but  that probably won’t stop me from reading more.

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Nothing for Breakfast

[In relaunching the Graystuff.com blog on WordPress, I might as well start by carrying forward one of the old ones from the last system; I wrote this in September 2005, when S was 3.]

“So, what do you want for breakfast?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing.  Hmm.  Let me see if we have any.”  I open the cabinet, grab an imaginary box.  ”Hey, here’s the nothing.  Let me see if  there’s any left.  Yep, I think there’s still a bit in  there.  You want some?”

“Sure”, you reply.  You pull yourself up onto the stool at the breakfast counter.

“Hey, how about two cereals?  How about nothing and…Mini-Wheats.”

“No.”

“Okay, how about nothing and…All-Bran.”

“No.”

“Alright, how about…nothing and Oatmeal Squares?  Mommy just got some of those.”

“…Okay.”

“Mkay, let’s start with the nothing…is there enough in there?  Yep. I’ll put some of this in the bowl.”  The bright orange plastic bowl is about half full of nothing now.  ”There.  Want to look at the box? I’ll put that in front of you there…okay, now some oatmeal squares.
Here you go!”  Between the nothing and the Oatmeal Squares, the bowl is somehow pretty full.  I put it on your alphabet placemat, along with a strange plastic spoon from Ikea that has two little snail eyes at the other end of it.  In a matching color, because sometimes  that
turns out to be very important.

“I want to pour my own milk!”

“Sure thing.”  I get the little metal pitcher, originally an espresso machine accessory, that now serves mainly as your morning milk dispenser.  Fill it carefully with about the right amount of milk, as you haven’t quite mastered the idea of not dumping the entire pitcher-full into the bowl at once.

“Thanks.”  The dump goes pretty well.  You dig in.  Belatedly, I decide to snap a bib around your neck, just as a precaution.  You’re actually a fairly neat eater these days.

“So, how is your nothing?”

“Good!”  And you beam me the big milky smile that tells me you’re over the grogginess of just getting up, and getting back to your normal cheerful self.  I set up my coffee and bowl of raisin bran with banana slices, and join you at the counter.

“Can I have a taste of your nothing?”  You dip your spoon, hold it out to me.  I take a taste, wondering whether the box of nothing is going to become one of our daily rituals.  Which it does.

“Mmm,  that’s good nothing.  Thanks!”

“You’re welcome!”

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