Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I'm on Board!

Being a runner, specifically with a trail inclination, in the Charlottesville area, I've spent many an hour on the Rivanna Trail in the past few years. Charlottesville's got plenty going for it, but the RT is probably my favorite part. A month ago I attended a monthly trail work day (embarrassingly, only my second), and ended up sort of inviting myself to monthly board meetings for the Rivanna Trail Foundation. The first was last week, and I'm happy to say that not only did they not mind my attendance, they welcomed me friendly and have let me join the board! I'm not entirely sure what that entails, if anything specific, but I love the trail, and am always trying to get people out there on it, so I'm very much looking forward to helping out however I can.

My first task was, sadly, to modify the existing trail map to mark a previously-open section as closed (Sunset to McElroy, down by Azalea Park). At the same time, I was allowed to re-open another section (along the Meadowcreek Parkway), and I think overall there's a bit less red on the map than there used to be - definitely a good thing. This work is a little bit of a stop-gap, as there's plenty of other changes and updates that need to be committed to the map and trail descriptions (old link, but still has some use), but it's a start. It sounds like the board will be happy to let me have a crack at some of the technical aspects of maintaining a correct trail map, with trail conditions and pictures and descriptions and... all sorts of great stuff! Honestly, this is a project I've been tempted to just work on for fun a few times anyway, so I'm delighted to be encouraged to take a crack at it.

Anyway, I'm excited, and thought I'd share. If you're in the cville area and have never checked out the trail before, do me a favor and give it a try!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day Rambling

My dad died on Valentine's Day, 1991. He'd had lung cancer for some time before-hand, and had been at home in a hospice program for a while, so it wasn't exactly unexpected. I was in third grade, and on the day my bus driver didn't notice that I was on the bus until after we passed our driveway. She ended up stopping at the corner of our property, and on my short walk through our front yard, my mom met me outside and told me the news. At least, that's how I remember it.

Valentine's day is one of the days every year my mom can expect a call from me, though my father's death rarely gets an overt mention. She's never re-married, or, as far as I know, been at all involved with anybody since. I guess my sister and I kept her fairly occupied as we were growing up. She's got some sort of shared plot and headstone already arranged where my father is buried, and I've always wonder if that sort of commitment was why she never found (looked for?) anybody else. Probably I could ask.

It's easy to wonder what affects my father's death has had on my life since - how being that close to death at that age has impacted my view of life and death. An article that's come up a few times recently in my news feed is How Doctors Die (mirror, which I guess is why it showed up multiple times for me). I want to be allowed to die, if I'm in a bad way. Of course, it's easy to say that when you're something like young and healthy. But hey, accidents happen. If I end up a mess in the hospital tomorrow, it'd be totally ok to let me go. Seriously. It's not like I'm doing much particularly useful anyway.

My mother and sister would, naturally, be the most affected if I died, and I hope I don't put them through that any time soon. My cats might go hungry for a day or two until somebody sorted them out, but I'm sure somebody'd take them, and probably do a better job with them than I do. Folks at work would notice I was gone, and I humor myself that there'd be a notable productivity hit in the project I'm on, at least until they hired somebody else. But it's a great place to work, and I don't think they'd have a hard time finding another person who thought so. A friend or two might think about me occasionally, but they'll be fine. Like damn near everybody else, my death would go practically unnoticed in the wider world. The world 10 or 100 or 1000 years from now probably looks pretty similar whether I was in it for a while longer or not. Ok, whatever, butterfly affects and all that crap, I have no way to justify that claim, but it sure is easy to believe. But why should it matter if my life or death goes unnoticed? What's the point of any of it?

I think, maybe, I've always sort of figured there wasn't any real point to any of it. People come and go, the world keeps spinning, the universe goes on. I think this didn't use to bother me. Just enjoy what you're given, and when it's up, goodbye. Lately, I seem to be having a harder time accepting this, and I don't really know why (getting old!). There seems little point to working more hours or less, eating healthier or having pizza and beer all the time, running a bit or just sitting on my ass the whole time, find something more productive to do than reading my news or not, ...

Perhaps it's a growing sense of indebtedness. I've been given more than I deserve - a loving family, health, wealth, leisure, a life of comfort and ease, ... - and I've done f* all with any of it. I subjected some students to lectures, homework, and exams taught some folks formal symbol manipulation (algebra) which happened to have d/dx or ∫-symbols in it calculus for a few years, but that doesn't make up for anything at all (in fact, I feel I owe them an apology). I suppose you could find people at work who would say that what we're doing saves lives, but it never really feels like that. And why should we save those lives instead of those ones over there? I don't know what it is I should be doing. What could I do that would seem worthwhile? What gives your life purpose?

Unless I'm missing something, I guess a lot of people get their sense of purpose from their religion - I don't have that. I didn't grow up going to church, and, honestly, am glad for it. I figure I'm a bit like Laplace, seeing no need for those sorts of assumptions about how the world works. Mostly I see people's religions as accidents of their birth and the fact that they were, like their parents before them, taken to church before they knew much about critical thinking. And if your understanding about how the universe works is an accident of which country your grew up in, or your parents before you, it can only hold so much truth. Besides, most of the major religions are thousands of years old, and it just doesn't seem like we should be trusting people from that long ago to tell us how things work. We've learned some things since then. But I digress (from my rambling? Is that possible?).

Sometimes I wonder if people find a purpose in life through a relationship. I could let myself die and nobody would notice, but if I were married, well, there's her to think about - or "In my nothing, you meant everything to me". Actually, I sort of thought I might be heading in to a relationship recently (I was wrong, in case you were wondering (if you've read this far into my neurosis, you'll agree she's better off)), and something like this very thought occurred to me. But, then, it doesn't really seem fair to put that sort of pressure on somebody else. Perhaps a relationship doesn't give you a sense of purpose, it just makes it easier to forget the purposelessness. Find somebody that distracts you and you're set.

Or maybe you find some purpose once you've got kids. Hell of a gamble, and, damn, why should I have kids? I hardly know what to do with my own self, let alone anybody else. Even having cats has made me wonder if I should be allowed to have that sort of responsibility. And, damn, the purpose of your life is to make some more people? Aren't there enough people around? I remember, even in high school, thinking this sort of thing. My mom always says how much she loves seeing my sister and I, how there's little she'd rather do. It sort of makes me sad, that I'm what she has to look forward to, or whatever. A few times recently I've seen my grandmother at family gatherings, and it always seems like she's just waiting to die (she honestly may have said as much herself). Why the crap would I want that? What am I supposed to do instead?

It seems to me, when talking about death and not seeing a point, one's probably gotta get around to thinking about suicide before too long. Not necessarily your own, just the subject itself. Of course, it also seems a difficult topic to talk about. Like maybe if you do people will assume you are suicidal, and will try to "help" you out of it. To be honest, I'm not sure I really see the problem with suicide, why there's such a fuss, or stigma. I've got no plans for it for myself any time soon - like I said, I've got the responsibility of my cats, and don't want to cause a hassle for my family. But suppose, 10, 20 years from now, my family's dead and I have no responsibilities to anybody in particular, and haven't found a point. Why shouldn't I just wander off into the middle of nowhere and disappear?

Maybe I just want there to be no point. It hurts less to fail to achieve whatever goals you've got if you think they're pointless anyway. There's less pressure to make good decisions when it doesn't matter. Want pizza and beer for dinner, cake for breakfast? Go for it! Don't want to do some errand you're supposed to do this weekend? Screw it! Procrastinate! Maybe you'll die in a car crash on your way to work tomorrow anyway. Of course, if you weren't depressed enough about the lack of a point, start making some mildly bad decisions for yourself. Adopt some bad habits. Watch the broken window theory at work in your own life.

So, that's me. Welcome to my world.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Feed Weeding

I currently have just over 900 feeds going in to my Google Reader account, which looks to average out to nearly 400 posts per day on weekdays, and about half as many on weekends. Factor in work, eating, sleeping, and running, and it may not come as surprise that I don't get anything else done. I don't read the full content of every single article, and a handful of the feeds (and some of the more frequently updating ones) are comics. All the same, I spend a fair amount of time in Reader, and I honestly think a decent amount is worthwhile. I've said before that Reader and running were the two best things I got out of grad school.

As I added feeds, from the beginning of my time with Reader, I tried to put them in folders, and I think that's proved useful. I then have basically two aggregate folders, one ("start") for the articles and a small handful of comics, and another for some of the less-worthwhile comics (I've got an ichc habit, I'll admit it - sometimes, at the end of a long day, the laughs I get are totally worth it). I 'j' through the start items, reading headlines and maybe quickly scanning articles that catch my eye, and star the ones I'd like to actually read. After making it through the "start" items, if I've got time/energy, I buzz through the remaining comics, and then move on with my otherwise incredibly exciting life. I don't have a good feel for how long I spend in Reader in a day, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that it was around an hour. Typically I check in the morning while I'm having my coffee, and then sometime in the evening.

Recently, I found that the odd hours I wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep make some decent time to actually read some of the starred articles, but mostly that gets saved for the weekend. I love a slow morning with a mug of coffee and a few good hours reading my starred articles. Of course, some of the running I do interferes with this, but that's mostly good too.

All the same, I've been sort of trying to cut back. I buzz through my headlines and on a good week end up with maybe 20-30 items I still want to read. That's somewhere on the order of one article in one hundred. Now, maybe, for some of the articles I appreciate having the ambient awareness of having seen the headline, but I still figure there's a fair amount of cruft.

I claim to want to work on a software project that'll attempt to learn the articles I'd star, but I've been claiming that for a few years, and have yet to do anything about it. I almost made a New Year's resolution to not look at Reader, forcing myself to write my own, but that didn't happen. So, instead, I recently decided to try trimming down my feed list in Reader a bit more manually. Having quit the math and education scene, I decided to start with those two folders. Every feed in each of them is also put in my "start" feed, so what I did was remove them all from that feed, but left them in their respective folders. I let the unread count in those folders go up for a few weeks, and then read through what had accumulated to see if I'd found anything I would have missed. I moved a couple feeds into "start" and out of their respective folder (I've got a growing "misc" folder they ended up in, still a subset of "start"), and am back at 0 unread. I figure I can do this again a few more times in the next month or two, and, at some point, I just mass unsubscribe from anybody remaining in those two folders. Though I recognize optimism as the first step to disappointment, I'm optimistic this'll help me trim down my feeds.

For what it's worth (nothing), I did, indeed, manually go through each feed in my "ed" and "math" folders, clicked the little drop down for each one, and clicked to remove it from "start". Reader doesn't do much about making bulk subscription changes easy, besides being able to upload an OPML file. I actually have, in the past, downloaded my subscription list, changed the xml to accommodate some bulk changes I wanted, deleted all my feeds, and then re-uploaded my modified list. Probably would have been quicker this time too. Alas. Not my only mistake so far this year. Certainly not my last.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


My boss described me as having "that ambivalent Nick look" the other day. This was a little bit of a new one for me, sort of like the time one of my students wrote that I was "aloof" on their end of semester evaluations. I don't know that I'd ever heard myself described in either of those ways, prior, though both are probably apt descriptions.

While I have some vague sense of both words, I wouldn't have been able to particularly correctly define either, if you'd asked me to (luckily, you didn't). I tried to piece together "ambivalent" for myself before looking it up. "ambi"... Well, ambidextrous... so... some sort of plural. "valent"... The valence of a node in a graph is the number of edges hitting it (or so). So... I'm going in many directions? Hit from all sides? Nope. According to etymonline.com, which I enjoy, ambi means both and valent is along the lines of valor, strength, for thoughts in this context (I guess the "strength" of a node in the graph makes sense). So, I'm of a divided mind. Somewhat along the lines of cognitive dissonance, though not exactly, I suppose. Glad I looked it up, because I'd have guessed it meant something more like uncaring. It's not that I don't care, I just can't make up my mind, then. I see many options, but have no way to distinguish them by rank.

Aloof's an interesting one, too. Coming from "windward direction" or "the weather side of a ship" to mean "at a distance." Just as a combination of letters, it's also reminiscent of alot.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Write More

A friend recently told me I should write more. I had just used the phrase "peddle my wares" reasonably naturally in conversation, and I think it caught her off guard. Of course, I wouldn't be particularly surprised to find that she's stopped talking to me, so perhaps I shouldn't use her comment as any sort of motivation... But that's a story for another day, perhaps.

I've sorta been thinking about writing more here anyway. I mean, I've got this space, I'd like to try to use it. Since I basically don't have anything worth saying, though, I've refrained. Apparently some sort of bridge has been crossed, and I'm prepared to babble to you, internet (at least this once, we'll see if I actually keep it up). Lucky you. I think it may be that I think writing helps me organize my thoughts or something (I'm so unique!). While I could certainly just write on localhost and leave you all alone, apparently I'm not going to do that. Maybe the public-ness will help motivate me to keep writing, or to work on my arguments. Or maybe it's a desperate plea for attention. Maybe I don't want to talk directly to any of the people I personally know (due to lack of comfort (why? so I don't have to continue this/a conversation?)), but want to talk anyway.

What will I write about? "They" say to write what you know. Unfortunately, I think that puts me at writing about being confused, with fluctuating levels of depression, and generally not feeling like you know anything or will contribute much. I don't understand much about the world or my place in it. Some online comics, if nothing else, I've seen suggest that maybe this is something that basically everybody goes through, and that maybe I'm just "at that age" (or does it spans ages?).

I suppose an argument could be made that I know about running. Of the last few posts I've had here, several were about running. However, I seem to have found some sort of a place among the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners (thanks, all), and might use space there for whatever running-related things I have to say. (On a side note, if you're in the Charlottesville Area, and looking for a Trail Run, you really should check us out).

Aside from running, I hold a paying job as a computer programmer (technically my title is "Systems Engineer", but most of the best parts of that, which I'm fortunate to spend most of my time doing, are programming). So perhaps I know something which could usefully be shared about... R, or Javascript, or the practice of programming in general. Except I've already got a (also pretty quiet) blog I'd rather use for technical things and, really, I don't even know that much about any of this. I've only got a little experience at this point, and rarely feel that anything I do know isn't already online.

It doesn't seem that that leaves much for me to talk about here. I'm in a mood, at the moment anyway, where I'm maybe inclined to try to talk through some of my general confusion (probably to myself in the open, though you're certainly welcome to comment) (it occurs to me that if I were saying all of these things to myself on a bus, say, people would be giving me all sorts of funny looks). So probably if I actually do end up continuing to write more, here, it'll be very... well, confused. Incomplete. Self-contradictory. Personal? Self-centered. Rambling and pointless.

A wiser fella than myself once said that the unexamined life is not worth living, or so. Of course, other wiser-than-myself fellas have said that life's a piece of s*, when you look at it (this reminds me of the disparity between "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" and "it's the thought that counts"). I guess I'm looking. I may try sharing. Forgive me.