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Explaining modern activities Wed, Oct 15, 2014
Some activities in modern middle class life seem like they'd be difficult to explain to somehow who lives on the other side of the globe, or even someone who lived 50 or 100 years ago.  Case in point is last weekend's mud run.  I'm trying to envision explaining to a poor, dirt-covered villager the idea of running (willingly) through mud (for fun) while climbing over obstacles (for no purpose) while also paying a large amount of money to do so.  In what universe does that make sense? 

It's similar with camping:  Let's go trudge through the woods with heavy equipment and crappy food in our bag, then sleep on the hard ground while trying not to catch an insect-borne disease. 

Or apple-picking:  Instead of buying moderately-priced apples from one of many local stores, let's go walk around a muddy farm, pick the apples ourselves, try to avoid yellow jackets, then pay several times more than they're worth simply for the experience. 

Sometimes it seems like we've removed most of life's major obstacles and so feel the need to occasionally reintroduce them. #lifestyle

Tough Mudder Sun, Oct 12, 2014
I just ran my first Tough Mudder yesterday.  For the uninitiated, it's a 10-ish mile obstacle run through mud.  The obstacles are things like walls and ramps that require teamwork to complete.  It's not really a competition unless you want it to be.  My five-person team completed it in around 3.5 hours. 

My first observation is this:  Damn, white people sure do like their mud runs.  This is something I first noticed a few years ago.  The Tough Mudder came to town, and then a bunch of mom-and-pop races followed suit.  And I don't know if it's because of the demographic in my area or the friends I have on Facebook, but it seems like the only people who do mud runs are white.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but damn. 

The race itself wasn't all that terrible.  It's the farthest distance I've ever run at one time, and I didn't run out of stamina.  The obstacles were mostly fun.  I'm in moderate physical shape by doing weight training and running, so it was rewarding to be able to use my strength to climb up walls and ropes and help other people do the same.  One obstacle consisted of jumping into a pool of ice water, which didn't turn out to be as bad as I'd thought.  I was already cold and wet, and despite some brief hyperventilation, it wasn't that bad. 

The electrical shock as the final obstacle was fairly bad.  You had to run through dangling wires and jump over hay bales.  I made it over the first set of hay bales while getting shocked pretty hard, and the next thing I remembered was the pain of my face hitting the mud, which was after the second set of hay bales.  Apparently I blacked out and continued moving, which was good I guess, but also kind of unsettling because I didn't realize you could black out by getting electrically shocked. 

The weather was rainy and in the 50s.  The rain didn't matter because everyone got wet anyway.  But the temperature was a struggle.  It's difficult being shivering cold for three hours (and then blacking out by getting shocked with electricity).  It wasn't as cold as it could've been, but I wouldn't have minded if it was 75 or so. 

I'm not sure if it was a New Jersey thing or what, but the lines were stupidly long.  I realize it's a popular event and it's a crowded state, but I didn't expect the first obstacle to be standing around in the cold rain for an hour before the race actually started.  And they kept getting our hopes up and making us wait some more.  It was a little demoralizing.  Several of the obstacles had long lines too, which was annoying when you were trying to keep warm by running, only to have to stop to stand around in cold puddles. 

The end of the event was kind of poorly done.  The organizers (and participants) kept talking about the free beer and headband you got as you crossed the finish line.  But when you're cold and wet and exhausted, all you really want is something warm and dry like a giant bonfire or a heated pool to wash some of the mud off.  Instead we stood around shivering holding our ice cold beers, trying to get the mud out of our eyes after faceplanting unconscious. 

I realize that's a lot of complaints for a completely voluntary activity, but that's kind of my thing.  All in all, it was a fun experience, and I would consider doing it again in slightly warmer weather. #sports

UK plus and minus Wed, Oct 01, 2014
Traveling to Scotland made it easy to see some everyday differences between the US and the UK.  For example, here are some things they do better: 
  1. Hallway lights with motion detectors that shut off after a certain amount of inactivity.
  2. Bathroom fans that run for a few minutes after you leave.
  3. Drink measurements.  There's a difference between a medium glass and a large glass of wine.
  4. Paying the check at a restaurant.  You can pay on your way out or they can bring a wireless credit card reader.
  5. Gas mileage.  Our ridiculous little rental car got 45 mpg.
I make note of these things because they legitimately impressed me, but also because I try not to be overly enthusiastic about supposed American exceptionalism.  That said, here's what the UK does poorly: 
  1. Sinks.  For some reason, almost all sinks in Scotland had a cold spout and a hot spout.  How are you supposed to get warm water?
  2. Shower enclosures.  It was common to see a glass door that only covered half the length of the shower.  The obvious and immediate result was that water went everywhere.
  3. Door locks and knobs.  My favorite example was this one hotel where the lock was located under the knob, and it wasn't obvious which orientation the metal key should be in, and the knob was about two feet off the floor.
  4. Road sign size and distance from turn.  If I can't see what the sign says until I'm making the turn, how am I supposed to make the turn?
  5. Lack of screens on windows.  This was an issue in Italy too.  Isn't it a relatively established fact that window screens reduce the spread of insect-borne disease by like eleventy billion percent?  They at least would've prevented that giant spider from crawling across my pillow.  True story.

Purpose of environmentalism Mon, Sep 29, 2014
I used to think of environmentalism as a sort of "save the trees" hippie movement that was more concerned with plants and animals than with people.  But recently I've started to realize that that's a little naive, to say the least.  From my limited understanding and experience with environmentalism, it's basically the idea that we, humans, should be concerned with the environment, not just because we feel bad for some endangered toads or whatever, but because "the environment" encompasses pretty much everything, and by affecting one part of the environment, we're really affecting ourselves.  It's essentially a selfish pursuit.  The sun provides energy to plants, which feed us (and animals) and also generate oxygen to breathe.  Mess up one part of that equation -- sun visibility, plants, animals, air -- and you have problems across the board.  It's not so much that we can accurately predict what will happen if we mess something up, but the lack of predictable accuracy is kind of the whole point. 

What doesn't make sense to me is when people are anti-environmentalism.  I get that jobs and the economy and politics are important, but do people realize that without a suitably healthy environment, we'll all be dead?  Where do you think your food comes from?  What do you think your food eats?  The shortsightedness of it is frightening. #science

Phone conferences and speakerphone Tue, Sep 23, 2014
One of the ways my employer tries to save money is by doing phone conferences where people call in to a central number and conduct their meetings as if all the people were in the same room.  The problem is that for whatever reason, my co-workers like to emulate a typical chaotic meeting environment by leaving their phone on speakerphone.  That way, everyone in the cubicle farm can hear that person pretending to do work.  It's like wasting your time sitting in a meeting, except you don't even have to show up. #business

Scotland trip Fri, Sep 19, 2014
The wife and I recently spent 10 or so days in Scotland driving around, sightseeing, and sampling the local aqua vitae.  We flew into and out of Edinburgh, visited castles in Edinburgh, Stirling, and near Loch Ness, and drove through or stayed in Callender, Fort William, Inverness, Dinnet, and Aberfeldy. 

We sampled and mostly enjoyed the local fare, which largely consisted of fried meats and potatoes, though the haggis was an interesting detour.  There seemed to be about ten or so different meals that were available at every restaurant around the country.  None of them were bad, but there wasn't much variation. 

We visited and toured a few distilleries including Glen Ord, Cardhu, Macallan, and Glenlivet, and I personally tried about 30 different kinds of Scotch whisky throughout the trip.  Before the trip, I hadn't tried too many Scotches that I was a fan of, but I came home with an enormous appreciation for Glen Ord, Macallan Amber, and The Dalmore.  Even the wife, who is by no means a drinker of hard alcohol, could appreciate the difference between different brands and flavors, and even liked a few. 

The landscape was surprisingly stark.  There were green pastures and forests followed closely by rocky hills and steep slopes.  The weather was largely cool and wet, but we got a couple days of sunny warmth.  Because of the on-off rain, my shoes and socks kept getting wet, which was not cool. 

Good god, the Scots love their sheep.  Every hill and field seen from a distance was covered in tiny white dots.  Though the much beloved highland cow was seldom seen. 

The castles and history were great to see in person.  It's always amazing when you can walk around a structure that's been standing for 500 years.  An interesting side note is that many of the churches are no longer churches; instead they're tourist information centers and business offices. 

I had driven on the left side of the road one time before in Grand Cayman, so it wasn't entirely foreign.  But it was still foreign.  I got used to it after a week or so, but it still didn't feel quite right.  I attempted to teach my wife how to drive stick, which was interesting because we were in a foreign country with unintelligible road signs, driving on the left while sitting on the right and shifting gears left-handed, on a one-lane two-way road that wound through farms where we had to frequently stop for cattle and sheep.  It was a moderate success. 

The language barrier was pretty minimal.  I expected to have some problems understanding people because I'm bad at understanding people whose accent doesn't match my own.  But even in the more rural parts, the language was pretty understandable. 

Our visit happened to almost coincide with the Scottish vote for independence from the UK.  The "Yes" campaign's alternative "No Thanks" nicely sums up the friendly nature of the vote. 

In conclusion, this was a good trip.  It was a little pricey because of the length of the flight and the currency conversion.  We had a good time checking out the cities, small towns, and mountainous back country, as well as sampling some of the local food and drink.  But because of the nearly constant cold and wet, we probably won't be returning.  No hard feelings though. #travel

Ancestral ambiguity Tue, Aug 26, 2014
At what point in a person's family history do their ancestors stop being what they used to be and start being who they presently are?  My family tree has always been a little unclear to me.  My parents have information about some family members going back to around the mid-1800s, but before that it's muddy.  And the information they have is that my ancestors have been born and raised in America for at least four or five generations.  Their surnames aren't overtly Italian or Irish or German, and we're not black or Asian, so I'm probably a mixture of various breeds of British.  But I'm not British.  And my parents and their parents aren't British.  So at some point in time, my ancestors stopped identifying themselves by their history.  And that was likely the case for my ancestors' ancestors, who went to England by leaving some other ancestry behind.  And so on.  Modern human civilization likely started in Africa, so we're all technically Africans.  But what about before that?  Primordial oozians? #lifestyle

Capitalism vs. environmentalism (2) Mon, Aug 04, 2014
I'm a bit ignorant on the topic of economic policies, but it seems from the outside that capitalism is pretty good at making people rich by sort of exploiting other people and things.  That's fine and all, because it enables class mobility.  But I think an even bigger issue is the exploitation of things that don't have a voice, namely the environment.  Capitalism has a tendency to bleed things dry, like oil wells and forests.  As long as people make money, it's deemed a success.  I think -- and I'm pretty sure I'm right about this -- there's a limit to how much capitalism can exploit the environment.  It's fine for now because there's a lot of nature and a lot of money being made.  But at some point, the wells will dry up and the forests will disappear, and no amount of money will be able to undo it.  I like capitalism, but I think it should be regulated to an extent. #economics

Large gatherings Tue, Jul 29, 2014
It took me up until about a few weeks ago to realize that I hate large gatherings and I don't have to feel bad about it.  I'm an introvert, and I find large groups of people intimidating and unnerving.  Who am I supposed to talk to?  Where should I stand?  Why is everyone watching me?  The whole thing is terrible, and what I realized is that I can simply not go.  I didn't go to a BBQ at work.  It felt awesome.  I'm not going to a wedding reception this weekend.  Couldn't feel better about it.  I wish I realized this sooner in life. 

This all stems from a few particular things about introversion.  One is that being around people is draining for me.  My energy comes from being alone, or not interacting with other people much.  The other is the quality of interaction I experience at large gatherings.  If I don't know people, will we talk about where we live or work?  Pass.  If I do know people, will the setting be intimate enough to talk about things, or will the music be too loud to hear anything?  I value conversation, but only when it gets past the introductory stuff.  If it's just simple stuff, I can play along for a little while, or I could just skip the event entirely.  I think I'll just skip the event entirely. #psychology

Scientifically Accurate animations Tue, Jul 29, 2014
Fox made an animated series of videos called Scientifically Accurate that portray common cartoons and video game characters in a more scientific way.  For example, Spongebob would have no organs and wouldn't move, and Sonic the Hedgehog would eat things and rub the scent on himself.  Equal parts informative and terrifying. #entertainment

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