Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's My Birthday

What I most want for my birthday is for Obama to win. I am afraid to say anything about how it looks like he is ahead. Hubris. Linus saying "if" the Great Pumpkin comes (though I guess that is the reverse). I could spend hours looking at the blue states on the various online maps.

Lila got me a chocolate cake from Trader Joe's. I will get to take a day off some time soon since I worked today. My present was a new flat screen monitor to replace the one we had that every so often lost its ability to show the green pixels and would therefore make everything muddy red unless you could smack it just so on the side or top. I think there may be some books in my future too . . .

All in all, I am very happy with my life at 45. :)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


For a golden time in 1993-95 when I worked at the Cleveland Law Department, I rode my bike to work every day. I was getting exercise. Mayor Michael R. White once called out to me in the hallway to make sure I worked in the building because bicycles weren't generally allowed in the building. Then I worked at the airport, too far to ride. For exercise I did some rollerblading and plenty of walking with Sascha, then Max in the park. For Lila's 40th birthday, she got a treadmill. I heaved it into the car and then up the steps into the house but there was no way I could carry it up the stairs to the bedroom where we wanted it. We hired two guys to do it. Then, as the joke goes, we hung clothes on it.

Well, I was determined this year to start some kind of exercise. My stumbling block had been when to do any exercise. So I got a piece of graph paper and nerdiliciously graphed out every hour of every day of the week. I could see that the only time free was in the evening after dinner, Max's bath, Max's bedtime and before Sascha's bedtime (roughly 8:00 and 9:00 going on 10:00). So I moved the clothes off the treadmill and walked through one of the programs, which make the speed go slower and faster and the incline go up and down. First I tried the shorter programs -- 20:00 and just walking. Looking back, I think of this as the geezer pace. Then I tried the other programs -- 30:00 and 40:00 minutes with some running in intervals (and lots of hills). I settled on one with fewer hills and more intervals. Then I crossed some kind of divide between enjoying exercise as a comfortable experience of the body's power to move and push and enjoying exercise as a crisis: a not quite comfortable, rising-to-the-occasion, can-I-do-it, breathless test of the body. God, it's better that way.

First I liked the running intervals in the program. Then I added intervals where the program had me resting. Then I ran the early intervals at the faster speed. Then I tried to finish the last X minutes at the sprint pace. Soon I was just putting the machine on manual, not on any program, and running at a good pace. I had settled on 40 minutes so I had to see how far I could go in 40 minutes. I triumphantly went 3 miles in 39:00. I also tried faster intervals, say 1 minute at 7 miles per hour (the machine uses mph).

Oops. I made what I have since learned is a beginners error: too much too fast. I injured my knee, not badly but enough to be sore walking and unable to run. I told Lila that now I would be able to hold forth whenever the subject of running came up: "Yeah, I used to run but then I blew out my knee." I kept up my schedule (which is every other day) with walking as fast as my knee would allow. And it seemed a long time but it was only ten days until I could run again, this time armed with information from running websites about not overextending my stride. I practiced and practiced having a shorter stride before starting to run faster. Then I made my way up from 4 mph to 4.5 to 5 and from 3 miles to 3.5 to 4 to 4.5 to 5. I timed it so that I could try to run 10K (6.1 miles) when we were at Wrightsville Beach on vacation. I did it. I was much slower in the sand but I made it.

Now, during all this time, I noticed the weird sounds the treadmill makes. If I step off-center, it makes a zip zip sound like corduroy pants rubbing together. If I run a certain pace, the magazine hold above the consoles starts to vibrate. I stuffed a washcloth in the gap. If I take a long stride and come down hard, there was a wheezy springy sound. And there was a sound that became more and more common, a sound like a fan belt in a car. And if you are thinking that a fan belt in a car is not supposed to make that noise, you are thinking right. Last week, I was running hard and hearing the squeaky noise and a really loud vibrating noise. I pushed down on the magazine stand (which usually stops the vibrating noise) but the noise persisted. But not for long. With a loud boom something inside the machine gave way and the belt stopped. I did not fall down. Lila called out to see if I was okay. Sascha came to see and to try to fix the treadmill for me. Such confidence!

I hope you know I am clearly boasting. I am just tickled that I ran far enough hard enough to wear out my treadmill. My new goal is to wear it out again.

Later that night I took the plastic cover off the motor part and discovered that the drive belt (just like a fan belt) had come off and was frayed along one edge. All hail the internet. I was able to find a parts dealer that still had the parts for our model. I ordered a new belt and pulley spring (which had also come off). On Friday and Sunday I ran in the park. I came up behind a tiny poodle who panicked and ran off, then turned and starting to chase me with that rapid-fire barking only little bitey dogs can do. I tried to outrun her but she was gaining on me so I turned to make peace or at least drive her off. She backed down.

Yesterday I went to put the belt on and realized that it could not be slipped on since it had to go over the roller, which was attached on two sides. So I undid the bolt on one side. Just as it came free I heard the clink of something falling into the machine. The nut, of course, now nestled at the bottom a hollow steel beam. Lila said, easy, just pick up the treadmill and shake it upside down. The roller still would not come free so I had to undo the other side. Long story short I got the belt over the roller, the belt on and the roller back on (I found a nut that fit). Then I had the puzzle of the pulley spring. I had figured the old one to be broken since it came off but the old part looked just like the new part. Hmmmm. And I could not tell for the life of me how the spring could make the pulley tighten on the belt. There was an obvious was for the spring to attach but that left the pulley without any tension.

I resolved to call it a night and work on it the next day. But the pulley question kept pulling at me. So I went online again and googled treadmill pulley tension spring etc. I had the sense that I was not getting what a tension pulley really did. Then I found a picture on an appliance repair website that showed a tension pulley making it obvious that I had the pulley in the wrong place (or rather the drive belt on the wrong side of the pulley). I was thinking of the setup on a bicycle with a loose chain tightened somewhat by a spring loaded derailleur. A tension pulley puts much more tension on the belt by pushing it out of an oval shape and into a "C" shape. All hail the internet again. I was up to midnight but I did get the belt on and pulley into place and pulley spring pulled tight. So the trusty treadmill is ready for tonight, the belt good for another 150 miles. I am getting exercise!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Maslow's Calabi-Yau Manifold

Let's start with a favorite movie moment. In My Beautiful Laundrette, the main character's father, a disaffected ex-patriate Pakistani journalist, says to his son: "The English working class has been a great disappointment to me." It's a moment that has always stayed with me since I always want to find a movement that I can believe in and never do. They are all a disappointment to me. I do not think I will end up living alone, drinking vodka and having Sascha clip my gnarly toe-nails while I stew over my disappointment. Better to keep searching.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I never pinned my hopes on the working class. Oh no, it is humanism that has been a disappointment to me. I first heard in public school about Maslow's pyramid. From Wikipedia: "Abraham Harold Maslow (April 1, 1908June 8, 1970), American psychologist, noted for his conceptualization of a "hierarchy of human needs", considered the father of humanistic psychology." I mention public school because it shows how bland and sanitized the whole thing had to be to be taught there.

I loved the pyramid idea and wanted to learn its intricacies (and, of course, ascend myself to the top of the pyramid and be "self-actualized."). Turns out there are no intricacies. The very idea that certain human needs are contingent on others is just wrong. Wikipedia again: "in their extensive review of research which is dependent on Maslow's theory, Wahba and Bridgewell[3] found little evidence for the ranking of needs Maslow described, or even for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all. Chilean economist and philosopher Manfred Max Neef has also argued fundamental human needs are non-hierarchical, and are ontologically universal and invariant in nature - part of the condition of being human; poverty, he argues, is the result of any one of these needs being frustrated, denied or unfulfilled." Go Manfred. Except that the Chilean working class may yet prove a disappointment to him. (Or, more properly, the members of communities in the developing world).

Neef does not have a pyramid but a matrix of needs. Columns are: "Being," "Having," "Doing," and "Interacting." Rows are "Subsistance, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identify and freedom." A 4 by 9 matrix gives us 36 categories. Neef is right that there is no a priori reason to suppose that some set of these must be met before satisfying another set. We don't need a "sense of humor" before we can organize a "religion" (and maybe those two can't go together). We don't need to have "parties (get-togethers)" before we can have "political dissent." But I don't see how we can avoid choosing some values over others. Maybe his economics approach allows some kind of maximizing theorem (but what would the inputs be).

No, I find I have to wrap the human values on Neef's chart into some kind of shape. What kind, you ask? And thank you for asking. The blogger needs you to ask. Well, if you want to fold up a two dimensional space, you could use three dimensions: a pyramid (Maslow really just made a triangle), a cube, a saddle-shape. But what if you want to wrap your 36 spaces in ways that would tear a 2-dimensional sheet. Well, the mathematicians (and particle physicists) have plunged into these depths. The Calabi-Yau Manifold is (from Wikipedia): "a special class of manifold used in some branches of mathematics (such as algebraic geometry) as well as in theoretical physics. For instance, in superstring theory the extra dimensions of spacetime are sometimes conjectured to take the form of a 6-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifold." And since human needs ought to be at least as complicated as physical matter, maybe there is a Calabi-Yau manifold that describes the way human needs are contingent on each other. So there could be intricacies just like I wanted when I heard about Maslow.

Big problem, though. It turns out that there are a stupendous number of ways to make a Calabi-Yau manifold. Whether this is a cause for despair or hope for physicists looking for a final theory of the universe is the subject of an excellent book: The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind. How would we ever find out which shape, however complex, is the shape of the human psyche? That thought occupies me, which is better than being disappointed in some movement or theory that did not work. And it gives me something to blog about, thanks for listening, that is more than the ho-hum of day to day.

Thursday, June 12, 2008