Notes from Data for Good 2018

Last Friday, I went to an event called Data for Good, hosted by Washington University's Olin Business School. Here are a few notes from the event...

The most interesting new thing I heard was about the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative. In short: a group of people started working on a web portal at OpenSTL's 2017 hackathon to use data posted publicly by the city of St. Louis. They did this without permission—my kind of people—using data that was there, then provided the useful results to the city. There's a better description here from STLPR: Vacancy Portal opens door to data on abandoned parcels in St. Louis. Of course, the thing itself is interesting, but even more interesting is the thought that comes with it: there are opportunities to do useful work just laying around out there waiting to be discovered, and you don't have to be picked to do the work—you just decide to do the work. (See also: Seth Godin's latest Akimbo podcast: You're It.)

(More: OpenSTL has a Meetup group. They're still working on the project. Even tomorrow (2018-10-13).)

In the next panel, someone—I think it was Philip Bane of the Smart Cities Council—referred to wicked problems in designing solutions to social problems. Wicked problems are one of those terms that get thrown about without much thought. The term originates here, in a paper you should read if you care at all about solving difficult, intertwined, impossible-to-optimize-for-everything problems: Rittel, Horst W. J.; Webber, Melvin M. (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169. (doi: 10.1007/bf01405730, pdf). The thing deserves its own post. In the meantime, here are some notes about it.

At the end of the day, Jake Porway of DataKind gave the keynote presentation. Here are a few recommended resources from his talk:

Crazy People at the Naked Cabaret

Last Saturday, I took the train down to Boston to catch the Naked Cabaret.

Yes, now I've got your attention...

Some people just never question it

Well, not totally naked, but... Harvard Book Store hosted Chris McDougall, author of one of my favorite books, Born to Run, and a cast of crazy people [1] at the Boston Public Library to talk about barefoot running. These people are nuts--and good thing, too. Normal people aren't interesting to talk about.

I found Born to Run in February 2010. I was interested by the premise: an injured runner asking the question, "How come my foot hurts?" I had just come off a two-month forced running vacation thanks to a stress reaction (not quite a stress fracture) in my right hip. I wanted to know what his answer was. I didn't know about the rest of the story--the ultramarathoners, the barefoot runners, the persistence hunters, and so on. That was an added bonus, and even if you're not interested in running it's a hell of an adventure story. I encourage you to read it. [2]

Barefoot running, or nearly barefoot running... it's strange enough to be its own classification and comes with a list of benefits that can be recited by a group of True Believers. That is to say: it has all the trappings of being a cult. That's why I avoided it. I want no crazy-eyed don't-tolerate-no-disbelief-in-the-One-True-Path fundamentalist insanity of any kind, thank you very much.

But I do get the benefits. What I took from the barefoot sections of the book is that there is a different--better--way to run: softer. I don't do much running without shoes, but I did rescript how I run when I could run again, first concentrating on going ten steps, then twenty steps, then a whole block, then a whole minute without a taking a running step that thumps into the ground. When you get to the point of running softly, running with other people is almost painful when you hear them pounding each step into the pavement. It's no wonder running gets a reputation for destroying knees. Running isn't the problem; people are the problem.

Anyway, I'm not going to get into discussing the pros and cons of barefoot running. There's plenty of information out there. What I'll leave you with is a line from McDougall: "There's this mentality that you must wear shoes, and people just never question it." [3]

Songs in the key of Caballo

Let's get to the reason I started this story before I got carried away. The first and most colorful character in Born to Run is known as Caballo Blanco. He's the one that brings together the 50 mile race in Mexico at the end of the story. As Chris McDougall talked about running as the first art form, he recounted the poignant pre-race speech given by Caballo, a part of the story that I didn't recall because I was anxious to get to the action.

"I remember very vividly the moment when he stood up before the race and gave us our pre-race instructions. If you've ever had a pre-race instruction, it basically tells you where the Porta-Potties are and don't miss that left turn toward the finish line. That's what I expected from Caballo. Instead he gave this summation that was a beautiful expression of what all art is, but particularly this lost art of distance running. He took this bleak thing and turned into something really glorious."

After that, the program took an unexpected turn. Chris invited Brandon Wood, triathlete and opera singer, on stage to give an operatic rendition of Caballo's counsel--maybe a little over the top, but what the hell? Here it is, as recorded by mobile phone. (You might see two audio players here. Ignore that. They're the same. Gotta fix that. There's something wrong with this website (and it's probably me).)

Audio: 2011-04-16_Mas_Locos.mp3

Here is the relevant selection from the book, slightly condensed:

"There's something wrong with you people. Rarámuri don't like Mexicans. Mexicans don't like Americans. Americans don't like anybody. But you're all here. And you keep doing things you're not supposed to. I've seen Rarámuri helping chabochis cross the river. I've watched Mexicans treat Rarámuri like great champions. Look at these gringos, treating people with respect. Normal Mexicans and Americans and Rarámuri don't act this way.

"What are you doing here? You have corn to plant. You have families to take care of. You gringos, you know it can be dangerous down here. No one has to tell the Rarámuri about the danger. One of my friends lost someone he loved, someone who could have been the next great Rarámuri champion. He's suffering, but he's a true friend. So he's here.

"I thought this race would be a disaster, because I thought you'd be too sensible to come. You Americans are supposed to be greedy and selfish, but then I see you acting with a good heart. Acting out of love, doing good things for no reason. You know who does things for no good reason?"


"Yah, right. Crazy people. Más Locos. But one thing about crazy people--they see things other people don't. The government is putting in roads, destroying a lot of our trails. Sometimes Mother Nature wins and wipes them out with floods and rock slides. But you never know. You never know if we'll get a chance like this again. Tomorrow will be one of the greatest races of all time, and you know who's going to see it? Only crazy people. Only you Más Locos.

"Tomorrow, you'll see what crazy people see. The gun fires at daybreak, because we've got a lot of running to do."

And now for something completely different

I pulled this off a bottle of #9 while I was writing this, and it seemed to fit the theme:

Feel Strange at least Twice A Day

Prospective race calendar for 2011

Perhaps ironically, after running three marathons and three half marathons in India in the first quarter of the year I'm just now getting back into shape. Here's where I think I'll be racing this year as of... now:


  1. The crazy people were:

    [back to text]

  2. You can buy the book here at Amazon: Born to Run. Or, you can buy the book at Amazon via this link and I'll get 4% of the proceeds at no extra cost to you: Born to Run. Or you can borrow it from your library: WorldCat. Whatever's Right--just read it. [back to text]
  3. Chris McDougall. Interview by Shawn Donley. "Christopher McDougall: The Interview." PowellsBooks.Blog. 19 April 2011. [back to text]

In spite of itself, Wrigley Field hosts a brilliant evening of football

I am not a Cubs fan. I have nothing against the Cubs, but growing up in Central Illinois meant that all of the locals were either Chicago Cubs fans or St. Louis Cardinals fans. If you've ever had the urge to plumb the depths of human stupidity, ask a Cubs fan what they think about the Cardinals, or a Cardinals fan about the Cubs--but not until you've got your riot gear firmly attached.

When I think of the Cubs, I have mostly pleasant thoughts: Andre Dawson, Harry Caray, etc. Then I remember going to the University of Illinois, where the population was, as would be statistically expected, from the city and suburbs of Chicago. So, after having one too many of these urban--ah--people ask me to talk faster, I took an interest in watching their precious Cubs lose like... the Cubs.

Nonetheless, even I recognize that Wrigley Field is a shrine--a national treasure.

Wrigley, as part of the cityscape

When Joe called and asked if I wanted a ticket to see Illinois play Northwestern at Wrigley Field, I didn't bother with my usual no/no/yes pattern [1], I immediately said, "Yes." Wrigley Field is historical, and since it hadn't hosted a football game in forty years, this was a truly special event.

On Friday, the day before the game, officials announced that both teams would use the end zone on the left field side of the stadium because the brick walls were too close to the right field end zone to be safe; meaning: every single offensive play would go to the left field end zone. Instantly the national coverage of the game was focused on the goofball rules and not on the special event itself. Only Illinois football could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with such verve.

One way

OK. How could they fit a football field in Wrigley from 1921 to 1970, but not in 2010?

There are a few differences between then and now. For starters, the goal posts were moved from the front of the end zone to the back of the end zone in the 1974 NFL season, i.e., after the Bears vacated Wrigley Field. That's why the eastern goal post was installed in the wall for the Illinois game.

The big difference was the orientation of the field. On Saturday the field was oriented east-west. When the Bears played at Wrigley Field, the field was oriented north-south. Hmmm. Well. Allow me to put on my rocket scientist cap: so why not orient the field north-south for the Illinois game?

Here I am introducing a dramatic pause because I'm just quivering to give you the answer to this question. My brain exploded in a massive, "Aha!" when I read this. Nothing could convince me more that Wrigley Field exists in some sort of fated-for-failure parallel universe.

Answer: the field never fit.

Lazy web, take it away: Wikipedia: Wrigley Field#Football. The Bears played 365 games at Wrigley Field and the field never fit in the stadium. The south end zone extended into the visitors' dugout. [2] The end zone was slightly clipped.

Though it was handled poorly in public, it was a good idea to change the rules to accommodate the one-way game. The game was not hampered by the switch. After every change of possession, the referees would carry the football from one side of the field to the other. I was afraid this would be awkward, but it wasn't noticeable. In every televised football game, there is a commercial break during a possession change anyway. The switch from one side of the field to the other happened cleanly in this break.

And what did it matter anyway? Illinois owned the east end zone, winning 48-27.

In spite of--or perhaps because of--the strange rules, the game was a spectacle. In a place like Wrigley Field, not even the most hapless mistakes can diminish the impact of the game itself. The crowd, mostly wearing Northwestern purple, alternated between roaring for the frequent big plays on the field--a 70-yard run, an 80-yard run for a touchdown, an interception returned 59 yards for a touchdown, a 58-yard punt return--and buzzing in reverence for the chance to watch football in Wrigley. Mikel Leshoure ran for 330 yards--three hundred and thirty yards, an Illinois school record and outstanding feat that under any other circumstances would not be outmuscled for the top headline by a brick wall.

Go Illini!

They played on into the night

Wrigley Field, empty

Hooray for the good guys



  1. "Would you like to go to the game?"
    "Would you like to go to the game?"
    "Would you like to go to the game?"
    "Yes."[back to text]
  2. Let me repeat that, with emphasis: The SOUTH END ZONE extended into the VISITORS' DUGOUT. Only in Chicago could something like this happen. [back to text]