My least favorite word is “potential.” I despise this word.

In mechanical systems, potential is clearly defined. Potential energy is the amount of energy stored in a system. A ball suspended in the air has a measurable amount of potential energy; the higher you raise it, the more potential energy it has that can be converted to kinetic energy as it falls. A compressed spring has a measurable amount of potential energy that is converted to kinetic energy when the spring is released.

And so on. In a mechanical system, potential makes sense.

When it comes to people, potential makes no sense (unless you suspend someone in the air and drop them). This word comes up frequently in the corporate propaganda we get from HR at work, e.g., “Reach Your Peak Potential Through Learning and Development.”

I would be OK with personal potential if it wasn’t misused, i.e., if it didn’t assume that there is a measurable amount of potential that a person possesses. Imagine, for example, a bowl. The capacity of the bowl is a person’s potential. The level to which the bowl is filled is the person’s current fulfillment of that potential.

How do you measure the capacity of the bowl? What attribute would you measure to determine the capacity of the bowl? Do you have a different bowl for each attribute?

If someone has advanced leadership skills but does not become a CEO, is that unfulfilled potential?

If someone scores well on math and science exams but does not become an engineer, is that unfulfilled potential?

And so on.

And what happens when you achieve your “potential?” What happens when you fill the bowl? Why, you could make the bowl larger, call that potential, but wouldn’t that new potential be just as arbitrary, just as likely to be incorrectly measured as the previous limit?

I believe in improving — Citius, Altius, Fortius. I do not believe in potential. I certainly do not believe that someone else — especially a large organization — could tell me what my potential is. But I absolutely believe that I could be told by someone else that I can improve.

There is no conclusion to be found here. I want to break free of potential. I want to run in whatever direction suits me — not capriciously, but fundamentally — as long as it is far away from here, as far as I can go. And when I collapse and do not rise, bury me where I lie and inscribe this on my headstone: “This was his potential.”

Mapping Blue Highways

Similar to the previous post about Slowly Down the Ganges, I am mapping the places from another book: Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Reading these travel tales excites me — I want to know where the authors went almost as much as why they went and what they did there. I want to see the places they saw. I want to follow the roads they followed. Perhaps I should see if there is a local chapter of Geographaholics Anonymous.

Blue Highways is, so far, doubly exciting because I’ve spent a great deal of time traveling the roads of the US. The blue highways he refers to are the smaller roads on the map, not the freeways, not the interstates; in other words, as a native of the great nowhere, my kinds of roads. I’m only 20-some pages into Blue Highways and I’m getting the itch. If Least Heat Moon could do it, imagine…

Anyway. The places and backroads in Blue Highways are remarkable. Sometimes Least Heat Moon mentions them in passing, sometimes he stops and visits. Each encounter with the locals has had a welcome ring of empathy. I am mapping Least Heat Moon’s excursion as it happens — as it happens on the page, at least.

Here is the map I have created so far with places from Blue Highways.

If you are a Google Earth user, here is the same map as a network link file that you can follow as I update it: Blue_Highways.kmz.

As seen in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Welcome to Portsmouth Brewery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The wet concrete floors, the big metal tanks, the rubber hoses snaking everywhere — it reminds me of Grandpa Kittell’s old dairy farm. I offer that as a compliment.

Portsmouth Brewery

Brewing beer is science

Memorial Bridge is one of the connections between New Hampshire and Maine over the Piscataqua River. It is a big, foreboding, industrial, post-apocalyptic, rust-flecked beauty.

Memorial Bridge, Portsmouth

Memorial Bridge, Portsmouth

Friends, I have seen the weird. And the weird is surfing in New Hampshire. This actually happened. I did not Photoshop some California dudes onto a gloomy New England day. I’m pretty sure the Eighth Amendment prohibits that.

Surf City New Hampshire

Mapping down the Ganges

Last week at the Pollard Memorial Library I picked up Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby. Usually I pick up books based on recommendation from friends or from Goodreads. This one I just happened to pick up because it was in the travel section of the library where I had gone to pick up Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. The section of Indian travel books at the library is anemic however, which is a pity. Traveling in India is its own adventure.

Having been to India and having always had an interest in geography, I have been mapping the places that Newby visits in the book. This is difficult for the first half of the book because the Ganga travels through rural India. Not all of the village names he mentions are easy to find, whether due to his transliteration of the names or the lack of labeled villages in contemporary online maps.

Here is the map I have created so far with places from Slowly Down the Ganges.

Each of the labeled places represents a passage in the book. If you would like to add something to or correct something on the map, please leave a comment; I doubt it is entirely correct. So far, two-thirds of the way through, I have really enjoyed the book. I’ll post my review of it on Goodreads, so look me up there if you want to see my review.

This makes me want to return to India again. I will, however, stick to the roads and rails. I am not much of a river rat.

The report of Chevy’s death is an exaggeration

Found via Chris Guillebeau: Richard Chang, “Saving Chevrolet Means Sending ‘Chevy’ to Dump,” NYTimes.com, 9 June 2010.

I think General Motors is faking the demise of the “Chevy” name.

General Motors is emblematic of bailout angst. They’re not going to be more hated by dropping a loved brand name. They’re already at the bottom. However, by threatening to kill Chevy, they can make Chevy fans rally around the Chevy brand. They’ll take Chevy’s side to protect it from being crushed by big, bad GM.

GM loses nothing. Chevy gains support. Chevy sells more cars. Chevy is GM. GM sells more cars.

(See also: New Coke?)

That’s my opinion. On the other hand, maybe they’re not faking it. Maybe they’re serious. Or maybe, if they know GM isn’t going to turn the corner anyway, why not just step on the gas, blow through the guard rail, and crash fantastically over the edge of the cliff in a meteoric blaze?

(From a collector’s item Pontiac owner.)

Quote me on that

As an inferior writer, I enjoy collecting passages from writers that I admire. Often they say what I feel, but in a more eloquent, interesting, humorous — just pick a complimentary adjective out of a hat — way. Or, even better, they say things my brain is too small to have even considered.

I like to collect these quotes. It started by writing them here and there in notebooks and scraps of paper. Those were lost somewhere in the clutter. Then I began capturing them at kittell.tumblr.com. That was an acceptable solution.

Then I got fancy and starting collecting them here on my site: kirkkittell.com/quotes. There is a feed for it as well: feeds.feedburner.com/kirkkittell/quotes. It is an ugly, unstyled feed, but I’ve heard no complaints from my zero subscribers so far. Besides, I’m publishing the quotes for me, and if you like it, well, hooray for collateral benefits.

Also, meet my pet peeve: I loathe incorrectly transcribed or improperly cited quotes. Don’t ever do that in front of me. I will crush you.

One for the personal record books

Last year, when I set an arbitrary goal to train run a sub-19 minute 5 km race, I wondered about beating my old personal record of 18:26 that I set on 15 October 2000. That record wasn’t a huge weight on my shoulders, but I hate to see past me being more capable than current me.

I have a habit when I race at 5 km. I like to start near the back, let the other runners go crazy for the first one or two kilometers, then reel them in. The good runners are still good runners. They start fast and finish fast. But the masses start fast and finish in a haze of regret. I like the psychological boost of passing them. It’s the best.

In today’s Good Times Series Run, I started near the front line. Completely different. I avoided the clogging that occurs at the beginning. I started faster than usual, but it was not outside of my capabilities. Starting slow so I could pass was always an excuse — fear of burning out and slowing down like the rest of the crowd.

This time, at the 2.15 km mark, I was sitting in tenth place instead of my usual twentieth. I clicked my watch to get my split at this point. This is the high elevation mark of the race, followed by a slight downhill for 300 meters, then a slight uphill to the Oullette Bridge — slight only to the unfatigued mind.

The inflection between the downhill and uphill is where the crowd pulls up. It’s the third quarter of the race. It’s time for the questions (“Why am I doing this?”) and the self-diagnostics (“I think I’m more out of breath than usual.”) and the self-destruction (“I can’t do this.”)

This is my favorite part of the race.

Here I slipped from no man’s land to the group runners ahead of me. (Later one of these guys referred to me at the bar as, “That guy that always passes me at the two mile mark.”)

After the Oullette Bridge, it was me and two other guys making the 270-degree turn onto the riverwalk. This section of the course is a 1 km “straightaway” — it’s mostly straight, but it has some some curves and kinks in the sidewalk that keep it from being an all out bombing run to the finish. You have to slow down for the kinks unless you want to eat the guard rails. On one hand, this messes with your brain because you can’t see the finish line until the last 200 meters. On the other hand, if you know the course, you can slice the last 1 km into sections with their own personalities. If you get to know the personalities the course becomes your friend and you have an advantage.

The start of the riverwalk at Lawrence Mills is constricted, so it’s difficult to pass. That’s fine. When the sidewalk expanded, I dropped the guillotine on the trailing runner. I burst past him, tried to make him doubt himself that he would fall off the pace, tried to cut the race down to me and the other runner. I was doubting myself, so I needed that burst, too. On that straightaway the mind has a convincing way of asking the body to take it easy, enjoy the finish, don’t exert too much, etc. You have to tie yourself to the mast and ignore it.

The remaining runner didn’t give up any ground. Damn. We passed the remaining kinks in the riverwalk. 300 meters to go. And something rare happened, the moment you wait for in sports, where your mind and body gracefully, quietly do their jobs. No more translating information from lungs and legs to see what they could handle. No more convincing the conscious brain to go, go go, ignore everything, and go. Like floating. There is exertion and pain, but it is somewhere else, far away.

After the race, the guy I chased said he could hear me breathing behind me, and that he didn’t know if I was going to get him. I didn’t know either. I dropped it into low gear and passed him on the right. I didn’t think I was going to fend him off for the whole 300 meters. Then the finish line clock came into view, and it was still showing 17:xx. It’s deceptive. You’re still 20 or 30 seconds away from it. You have to avoid letting up, feeling satisfied with the time you see but haven’t accomplished yet.

No matter. 18:19.8, 7th overall. That’s no incredible time, but I’ll take it.

I’d like to be done with these 5 km races, but I know that time is the frontier. Pushing to and past the frontier is uncomfortable, to say the least. Maybe one more time to beat 18 minutes…

We don’t need to know that

I am going to offer you advice about how to run an online community for an alumni association: simplify. Complexity is intoxicating, but simplicity is useful.

I set up an alumni association website, isu-usa.org, to have ISU alumni share their contact info with each other. Our mother institution, ISU, had set up a site in 2007 to do this, but… let’s say… that… it is not the most useful… thing. (See that? Restraint. /twitch)

My initial take on setting up isu-usa.org profiles was to request the same data that the ISU site requested. Add to that a request from an alumna to also share our educational backgrounds, and ISU*USA profiles collected data from 42 fields. (Fields such as first name, last name, email address, etc.)

What a waste. Who cares? On Friday I overhauled the profiles. Goodbye, useless data. I didn’t tell anyone. They didn’t care. Who is “they?” Alumni weren’t using the site. It was like a personal site, but sadder since it was meant to be used by others.

First I decided which fields were being transferred to the new profiles. Friends, let me tell you: 42 is the answer to everything except keeping alumni connected. Now the magic number is 14 fields. This accomplishes all of the professional and social networking that is needed.

Then came manually transferring the information to the new profile database. This can be done automatically, but I wanted to verify that the transfer happened correctly, that fields which alumni requested to be private would remain private — or in this case, deleted, since there is no such thing as private contact info anymore. Either a phone number is posted for all alumni to see, or it isn’t posted.

Next up is inviting the alumni back. I think they will appreciate the new simplicity — not that they’ll appreciate it outright, but it will be less distracting.

The lesson here is that unnecessary complexity is unnecessary. Decide what you need to know. Stop there.

That site still has 99 problems, but at least profiles ain’t one.

Exploring the museum in my backyard

I like living in Lowell. I really do. But I’m accustomed to living here now and I rarely look around. The buildings are less… exotic. I mean, they’re not strange or different anymore, or otherwise worthy of notice. Each building, each street, each canal is now just an unnoticed landmark on my way to and from work or the grocery store or the train station. What a shame.

I suffer from a disease known as localitis.

This disease is not terminal. If the person who has contracted the disease can not cure himself simply by concentrating more, then external remedies are required. Specifically, entertaining a visitor often does the trick.

My cousin David stopped by today. Hooray. So I showed him around a little, walked up and down the canals, went to the museums. Most of the remaining textile mills are in good shape. The rest had already burned down, fell down, or were knocked down years ago. There are a few along the Hamilton Canal that look like scenes from a post-apocalyptic movie.

I live at Boott Mills, which is the center of Lowell National Historical Park. (Hooray for the National Park Service.) That is, I basically live in a museum. I look out my window, boom, there’s a museum. But I had never visited the museum itself. Without standing up from the couch, I can see the museum out of my window. Is that laziness? Not exactly. I like having something nearby that I haven’t explored yet — something to look forward to.

I visited the museum today. Inside the Boott Cotton Mills museum they have one floor of working looms. It’s an interesting touch — not just static machines on display behind a sheet of glass, but the real machines still being driven by water power, still spinning cotton thread into textiles. Below are a few pictures and a video of the action on the first floor.

Loom at Boott Cotton Mills from Kirk Kittell on Vimeo.

Boott Cotton Mills Boott Cotton Mills Boott Cotton Mills