Monthly Archives: June 2010

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

A fundamental flaw in the universe

There is no "Invincible for a Day" card. Apparently.

I went out for a 17 km run today and it was awful. Dreadful. Broken down. Humid. Stiff. My only salvation on long runs, the trails through Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsboro State Forest, was choked with bugs. My heart rate was out of whack -- probably because I jammed up and down the trails trying to outrace the bugs, to no avail. Ah, but it seemed so easy last week...

Thus I submit this as feedback for whichever of your favorite deities gets dibs on setting up the next universe. Cue whiny voice.

It's not fair that a guy breaks through a barrier one day -- we're talking about the 50 km run again, we will keep talking about this until we stop -- and then he has to keep pushing in order to maintain that same level. And that he has to work harder to get to the next level, to break down the next barrier. I earned immunity from this.

What kind of universe does that? I didn't vote for this universe anyway.

I think a just and loving universe would recognize that I earned an effective day off, where I could reap all of the rewards of a long, hard day on the trail without all of the effort.

Who's with me? Let's take our universe back and make it work for us.

Congratulations; or, fear and loathing on my career path

First, honest congratulations to SpaceX for a successful first launch of their Falcon 9 rocket. I have no suitable analogy for how difficult it is to do such a thing on the first try. Just now that it's extremely difficult. Incredibly difficult. Nearly impossible. But they did it.

Jon Hofeller, one of my classmates at the 2006 Summer Session Program at the International Space University, works at SpaceX. Out of the blue, he began sending launch update emails, letting us -- whoever "us" was on the bcc of his emails -- know how the launch preparations were going, how long the delays were, when new launch times were scheduled, etc. I'm glad he did it. I don't have the stomach to watch the live feed of rocket launches anymore. Too many things can go wrong. Even these rockets that I've never worked on break my heart when they fail. I'll read the launch report instead, thanks.

So, congratulations, Jon, et al, for crushing the first launch.

Thus endeth the congratulatory part of this post.

I read Jon's emails from my cubicle at work. It was mid-afternoon, but I was the last person left in my seven-desk wing of the cubicle farm, which is unironically called a "Collaborative Office Area." Everyone else was either on vacation or, as is often the case on a Friday, just gone because they know that no one will notice they are gone. (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) Meanwhile I got to read these fantastic updates from someone enjoying their job. Fortunately I don't have any soul left to be crushed by that.

Following Jon's Falcon 9 updates reminded me of one of the best days of my life -- maybe top ten, maybe not, but good enough to be memorable. It reminds me of watching the launch of AIM at Orbital on 27 April 2007. That's one of the peaks of my professional career, and it wasn't even my mission. Sitting with those experienced Pegasus rocketeers, feeling them hold their breath at certain stages of the pre-launch check, leaning forward in their seats during drop and ignition, applauding as the vehicle lofted out of view...

I read Jon's emails and I thought of that. And the jealousy expanded inside me to a point I couldn't bear. Every day I regret leaving Orbital when I did. The throwaway line, "Live and learn," doesn't apply here. What did I live? What did I learn? I learned that if I can get this time machine working, then I'll go back and start over.

I spent half of my life studying math because it was supposed to be a key need for my profession, only to never use it at work. So I finagled that skill into personal budgeting. If all goes as planned -- when does it ever? -- I can repay my student loans, the sole remaining component of my debt, in their entirety by the end of August. After that there will be nothing but blue skies -- and total, if temporary, illiquidity -- in front of me.

That constitutes the total of my professional goals at the moment: break the yoke. Then I'll see your Falcon 9, and raise you one.

The shadow of the valley of motivation

Ironically, considering I'm just a few days downstream of running 50 km, what doesn't hurt is my legs. No, instead, what hurts is my upper body -- everything above the waist. Everything.

I'm taking five days off running as a precaution against overtraining. Historically the only time I know when to slow down is when my musculoskeletal system abruptly tenders its resignation. Wednesday seemed a good time to go back to the weightroom. I hadn't been there since 6 April. First, I stopped going when I went to Calgary. Then I decided to rest until after the half marathon on 2 May. Then I decided to take it easy until after the 50 km race.

You know how it goes: an excuse here, an excuse there.

So I sucked it up and went to the gym on Wednesday. I am not a bodybuilder. (Shocking, I know.) I do a cycle of one set of fifteen exercises through all muscle groups. I lift like I run: I concentrate on form, not appearance. Two counts up, four counts down. Form, form, form. I'm going to need those joints later.

I tortured my legs for five hours on Sunday and they feel fine. I lifted weights for an hour yesterday, but today it's uncomfortable to even lay on the couch.

The toughest time to train, for me, is the valley between motivational peaks. When pumped, it's easy to go to the gym or to go running, whether by desire or habit. Similarly, when not motivated, it's easy to stay home and do something else (read: do nothing). After the race, motivation goes down into the valley.

How do professionals do it? How does someone, say, Kobe Bryant or Michael Phelps, come off the high of a championship, rest, then voluntarily go back and obliterate themselves into shape for a performance that is over the horizon? I suppose that it helps when your vocation is aligned by a regular set of challenges.

So what do you do when you're a casual -- but serious, harrumph harrumph -- athlete? Set your own challenges, I guess.

Next up: the Escarpment Trail Run, 25 July 2010, in the Catskill Mountains. There's nothing going on in this valley anyway, so let's head for the mountains.

Therein lies our redemption

We reach the mouth of the canyon and the old trail uphill to the roadhead in time to see the first stars come out. Barely in time. Nightfall is quick in this arid climate and the air feels already cold. But we have earned enough memories, stored enough mental-emotional images in our heads, from one brief day in Aravaipa Canyon, to enrich the urban days to come. As Thoreau found a universe in the woods around Concord, any person whose senses are alive can make a world of any natural place, however limited it might seem, on this subtle planet of ours.

"The world is big but it is comprehensible," says R. Buckminster Fuller. But it seems to me that the world is not nearly big enough and that any portion of its surface, left unpaved and alive, is infinitely rich in details and relationships, in wonder, beauty, mystery, comprehensible only in part. The very existence of existence is itself suggestive of the unknown--not a problem but a mystery.

We will never get to the end of it, never plumb the bottom of it, never know the whole of even so small and trivial and useless and precious a place as Aravaipa. Therein lies our redemption.

—Edward Abbey. "Aravaipa Canyon." Down the River.

Because they only talk to me when they want money

Last night I got a phone call from the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hail Alma Mater, don't throw shade on the corn, etc. It was a student doing a fundraising call on behalf of the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Would I, as an alumnus, be interested in making an $x tax-deductible donation for student scholarships, programs, etc.

I said, trying not to sound menacing, "No, I'm not going to."

She asked why I didn't want to.

I told her, "Because they only talk to me when they want money."

Is that a fair response? I could describe the conversations I've had with the Aero department since I left four years ago in two lines. One, I talked to the department's external relations coordinator at a wedding. Two, I got an alumni newsletter from the department in 2008.

There may have been others, and I'm remiss to forget them, but even that should be a problem. I think they should want to say something memorable.

It's not easy to keep track of alumni. I do it for ISU alumni in the US. Alumni are elusive. They have other lives now. Their contact information gets stale. Some of them need to be nudged a few times. Some of them don't want to be affiliated anymore.

But dammit I've tried to contact every one of them (that is on my list) personally. Every. Single. One. Personally. I hate to sound like an attention-starved child, but if the Aero department won't commit to communicating with me, I won't commit anything to them.

I have the resources to help, though, and it's a shame to withhold them. So I'm going to donate the $x to 826 Boston instead, where I tutor students on weekends. They ask me for money way more often than the Aero department. However, they also tell me what's going on, share what other volunteers are up to, and ask for my time and attention even more often than they ask for money.

I know what 826 Boston is doing, I know where the money is going, and I can affect in some small way the direction of the organization by helping. I can write a check to anyone, but 826 Boston lets me make a difference.