Sunday, 30 November, 2003

Recovery ride

Getting up for today's ride was more difficult than any of the previous three days.  My friend Tim Thomas is training for triathlons and wanted me to push him a little on the bicycle.  I needed to do a "recovery" ride anyway, to work out the kinks from the last three days, so he came out to my house at 9:00 and we headed out.  I really shouldn't have pushed as hard as I did.  The wind was still strong from the south, and we headed into it and up the hill to start.  Tim's a lot stronger on the bike than he thought, and I had to work pretty hard to push him.  The result wasn't a recovery ride at all, but rather a medium hard ride.  We covered 19 miles at an average speed of 15 MPH, which in that wind was doing pretty good.  My legs are totally destroyed now from a few hill sprints, and I'll have to take it easy the next few days to avoid hurting myself.  But at least I was able to keep in front of a guy who's almost 10 years younger than I am.

Saturday, 29 November, 2003

Three days, 150 miles

Except for riding my bike, I didn't do much of consequence over the long weekend.  I realized last week that riding over 100 miles per day for three days is a much different task than riding 150 or 200 miles in a single day.  I know that seems obvious, and I did know it.  But I hadn't internalized it, if you know what I mean.  So I decided to see how my body would respond to three longish rides in a row.

Wednesday night I finally gathered all the parts to put a dual band (2 meter/70 cm) antenna on my bike so I could talk on my radio while I was riding.  Thursday morning I hooked up the radio and set out on a 40 mile ride.  The wind was blowing 20 MPH from the north, and not being too bright I headed south so I could hit the Austin repeater and maybe get some conversation.  I did manage to talk to a few local people, and even a guy from Maryland and one from the north of England who were accessing the repeater via EchoLink.  The ride itself wasn't much, except for bucking that wind on the way home.  40 miles, average speed 13.6 MPH.

Friday morning I felt pretty good.  It was a little warmer but the wind was still whipping it up from the north, even stronger than the day before.  Learning my lesson from the day before, I headed northeast first so I could have the wind at my back on the way home.  Crosswinds are still difficult, but not nearly as bad as a headwind.  Unless you have a big rack on the back of your bike holding a trunk and a 45" antenna.  A good strong wind hitting that thing makes the bike very unstable.  I also found that the mounting bracket rubs my legs, and after 90 miles on the thing I decided I needed a different way to attach the antenna.  Back to the drawing board.  The ride went well.  I kept my heart rate down and conserved my energy so I'd have some left for Saturday's ride.  50 miles, average speed 14.1 MPH.

I was tired when I got out of bed on this morning, but my legs weren't sore.  Even so, I procrastinated for several hours before finally hopping on the bike at 11:00 for the 60 mile ride.  The wind had changed.  Now it was 20 to 25 MPH out of the south instead of the north.  That made for a little warmer ride, but still work.  I took a meandering route that wound through mostly residential streets to stay out of the wind as much as possible.  I headed mostly east, turning into every subdivision for a 2- or 3-mile loop in the shelter of the buildings before getting back onto the open road.  The return trip was much the same, with only a 5 mile stretch straight south into the wind before I turned around and let it blow me home.  60 miles, average speed 14.7 MPH.

All in all, I was pretty impressed with myself.  No, Tour de France riders need not fear my great cycling skills, but I feel like my training is right on track.  I realize that 350 miles is a much harder thing than 150, but I still have 4 months of training to do.  I made it through these three days with no major aches, no cramps, and a reasonably strong finish.  It's surprising what 2 months of concerted effort can do.

Sunday, 23 November, 2003

Bicycling vulnerabilities

I said before that one of the most frightening things to a bicyclist is a horn honking behind him.  Add to that screeching tires, again from behind.  Only slightly less frightening is the sound of tires spinning on wet pavement and the thought that whatever vehicle is making that sound is now out of control and fishtailing towards you.  I don't generally mind riding my bicycle in traffic, but sometimes I feel so vulnerable!

The elements provide a certain sense of vulnerability, too.  Yesterday's ride of 60 miles being a case in point.  Wind is a wonderful thing when it's at your back.  There's nothing quite as satisfying as cruising along at 25 MPH or faster while expending minimal effort.  There are few things as frustrating and downright annoying as heading back into that same wind.  The wind was 15 MPH when I started yesterday morning.  By the time I was done four hours later, the reading was 20 to 25 MPH with gusts over 30 MPH.  It took me 90 minutes to go the first 27 miles, mostly with the wind.  It took almost 3 hours to get back, and I was totally drained when I finally made it.  Note to self:  next time head into the wind to start.

Friday, 21 November, 2003

Wrapping up the religious discussion

What do I hope?  I hope that God is a rational being. I hope that there is an after life where he and I can sit down over a couple of Heavenly Homebrews and discuss all the things I've learned, my successes and failures, joys and disappointments.  I hope that there is something beyond the century or less that I'm going to live here—somewhere else I can go and learn new things, to continue to grow, to strive, to become more than I am today.  I hope that God is not an all-powerful, perfect, all-seeing, all-knowing being, because such a being would be as bored as my former boss who spent his days playing Minesweeper and Solitaire, and even more boring to talk to.  I hope that God, too, is a fallible being who continues to grow and from whom I can learn lessons of love and loss, success and failure.  To believe that my life, my hopes, and desires are nothing more than the result of billions of years of random accidents and some simple chemical reactions is among the most depressing thoughts imaginable.  I want to believe that my life means something beyond whatever small mark I make in this world and on the minds and hearts of the people I've known.

Thursday, 20 November, 2003

A logical approach to faith?

I'm not the first person for whom a logical approach to faith has failed.  Nor am I by any stretch of the imagination the smartest.  At some point one recognizes that there isn't enough objective information to reach a logical conclusion about the nature of God.  Reaching that point, one is left with the following options:

  • Fully embrace God's existence and the tenants of whatever religion strikes your fancy.  Some people seem quite happy with this solution.  Fundamentalists (of whatever religion) are able to separate their spiritual beliefs from their logical thought processes.
  • Deny God's existence entirely, proclaiming that the lack of positive proof is proof of His non-existence.  This requires a complete disconnect between logical reasoning and spiritual beliefs.  Real atheists are as illogical and inconsistent in their spiritual beliefs as any other type of fundamentalist.
  • Give up entirely and put the whole question out of your mind.  This is the true agnostic.  Not only does he not know, he doesn't care.  In all honesty, this is the only completely logical course of action given the available evidence.
  • Except humans aren't entirely rational.  Most of us keep searching.  We want to believe that there's some meaning, but we can't figure out exactly what it is.  So we build in our minds a picture of the being that we want God to be, and live our lives in a way that we hope will bring us closer to that being.  I honestly believe that this is how the majority of people treat religion, regardless of their expressed beliefs.

Wednesday, 19 November, 2003

Thoughts on the nature of God

To me, spirituality consists of a search for Order, and an acceptance of my inability to fully grasp that Order.  Science, even practical science, is the search for that Order and, in my mind, The Creator.  Isn't that what religion is all about?  The personal search for God and the acceptance that you probably can't fully understand his/her/its true nature?

Or is religion really what I was taught as a boy?  Is it really all about rules, prohibitions, and required rituals?  If so, which rituals are correct?  Ask 100 people and get 100 different answers.  There's a disconnect here that I can't reconcile with any teachings with which I am familiar.  If there is a God who expects us to live a certain way, wouldn't He make those rules abundantly clear to us, with no possibility of misinterpretation?  To do otherwise is stacking the deck against us, setting us up to fail.  Each religion teaches that it is the way, and yet if there is only one God, then only one of those religions can possibly be right.

However I might try, I can't believe that The Creator would be so purposefully cruel as to give us free will and then expect us to follow a set of rules that is not clearly defined.  If that is in fact the nature of God, then I certainly don't want to spend eternity in His presence!

And yet, if God is the kind and logical being that I hope He is, then the existence of free will and the lack of clearly defined rules should lead me to the extreme existentialist view:  nothing matters.  That, too, is a doctrine that I can't embrace.

Tuesday, 18 November, 2003

Does God exist?

Continuing my rambling discussion of religion that I started here on October 28...

From my previous entries you might get the idea that I don't believe in God, a Creator, or whatever name you wish to attach to The Divine.  Whereas it's true that I don't believe in the type of being that's revered by any of the religions of which I am aware, I do believe in a Creator.  But I have no proof to back up that belief.  I recognize the possibility that this Earth, the life on it, and the vastness of the universe is all just the result of a huge explosion and random chance.  I choose to believe, however, that there is a plan that was set in motion by The Creator, identity unknown.  Call it a hypothesis based on observation.

What observations?  There appears to be an Order to things.  The Sun rises and sets in a predictable pattern for clearly explainable reasons.  Movements of other planetary bodies are similarly explainable.  Volcanoes and earthquakes, which not so many years ago were "explained" away as the wrath of gods, also are (partially) understood.  Our knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and even chaotic systems like weather continue to reveal that these "mysteries" are actually quite understandable and subject to logical rules.  We don't know all of the rules, but I believe that we know enough of the rules to say with some confidence that these are not just random events.  Given that, it seems highly unlikely to me that all of these logically consistent systems of rules could be the result of random chance.  I accept the possibility, but deny the probability.

Besides, I'm smart enough not to try proving a negative.  In one of my first computer science classes way back when, an instructor said that the statement "This program has no bugs" was, for all but the most trivial programs, impossible to prove.  Proving that there is no God would be similarly impossible.

Monday, 17 November, 2003

Barriers to entry

The cool thing about the Internet is that there's essentially no barrier to entry.  All one needs is a computer and a phone line, or access to a computer that has a connection.  With computers well under $500, and access at less than $10 per month, almost anybody can afford a connection.  And many who can't afford their own connections can get access through the public libraries or other community outlets.

The essentially free nature of the  Internet is also its greatest drawback.  There's no barrier to entry.  Anybody can log on, send mail, and post messages to Usenet groups and Web sites that allow user comments.  Everybody has equal opportunity to be heard in public forums.  Almost.  Unfortunately, not everybody is worth listening to, and many log on with the apparent sole purpose of causing trouble.  Since there's no regulatory body, these trouble makers can do their thing with relative impunity.  It's pretty tough to prevent  somebody causing trouble:  spamming email or Usenet groups, packet floods, hijacking machines, and generally being a nuisance.  Those of us who actually use the Internet are mostly powerless to prevent this behavior.

CB radio is almost as bad.  Anybody can buy a CB radio for under $50, and get on the air immediately.  It's a real free-for-all out there on those bands.  Most CB operators don't know the rules, and wouldn't know who to contact if they wanted to report violations.  The FCC will step in in extreme cases, but they usually have more important fish to fry when it comes to minor infractions.  I think the only thing that stops CB from being a complete zoo is that teenagers can't sit in the house and operate Dad's CB without Dad's knowledge.

Contrast the above with amateur ("ham") radio, which is largely self-policing.  Getting a ham license has never been easier.  Just take a 35-question test that covers FCC regulations and some basic electronic theory and you're licensed.  Inexpensive radios can be had for not much more than a CB radio, and you're on the air.  Passing the test is simple.  You can get a study guide from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) for $20 that contains all of the test questions and very clear explanations of the rules and theory.  Any reasonably bright individual could study for and pass the exam within a week.  Still, it's that small barrier to entry—the licensing requirement—that keeps a lot of people away from the hobby.  And any troublemakers who survive the entry requirements are usually tracked down by other hams or the FCC and taken off the air pretty quickly.  The FCC has no sense of humor.  Hams report violations to the FCC so that we can keep our operating privileges.

Conclusions?  None, really.  I'm not advocating licensing Internet users and imposing penalties for infractions.  It's just disappointing that people have to be threatened with fines and imprisonment because they're not smart enough to be more considerate when using a shared resource.

Sunday, 16 November, 2003

Fixing a flat

It's been a busy couple of weeks here.  Between cycling, juggling, ham radio, and myInformIT column, I've had little time for deep thoughts or web diary entries.  Yesterday's 48-mile ride was relaxing until it started raining about halfway through.  The flat tire (first flat in over a year, thanks to the kevlar strip in the tires) at 30 miles was kind of inconvenient.  Changing a flat on a dirty tire in a downpour while cars zip by at 70 MPH isn't much fun.

If you're not familiar with the process of changing a flat, go down to your local bike store and ask for a demonstration.  Then go home and practice until you're comfortable with it.  Do it over and over until you're comfortable with it.  There's nothing quite as frustrating as getting a flat out on the road, having all the tools to fix it, and being unable because you're not familiar with the process.  Like most things, it's not too difficult once you've learned the trick.

Saturday, 15 November, 2003

POPFile spam filter

I honestly thought somebody would have fixed the email spam problem by now.  I resisted installing a filter for years, first because my spam problem wasn't all that bad, then because filters just shift the problem, and finally out of sheer pig-headedness:  I hate sub-optimal solutions.  I still have to review every message sender and subject line.  I'd still like a real solution, but the amount of spam I get is nearly unbearable.  On Jeff Duntemann's recommendation, I downloaded and installed POPFile—a trainable Bayesian filter.  It's been 2 weeks now since I first installed the thing, and after about 1500 messages (oddly, my spam count has gone down markedly since mid-October) I'm still teaching it the difference between spam and good mail.  I've added "magnets" that automatically classify important personal and work-related message, but I've resisted adding magnets for everybody in my contact list in the hopes of training the silly thing to tell the difference between jokes from friends and ads for questionable drugs.

Beyond automatically throwing almost everything in the "Junk" box, the filter isn't yet saving me much time.  Just as I feared, I still have to review the filter's output to ensure that it hasn't mis-classified an important message as spam.  I'm hoping that it gets smarter as it gets more experience, but at the moment it's just as much work with the filter as without.  I'm going to give it until the end of the year.  If it's still missing 5% or more after that, then I'll have to re-evaluate the wisdom of using this type of filter.

I'm very disappointed that nothing has yet been done at the protocol level to address the spam problem.  Maybe that's still coming?  I won't hold my breath.  From where I sit, it looks like another 5 to 10 years (if ever!) before the protocols can be changed to prevent  most types of spam.

Monday, 10 November, 2003

Homebrew antenna

The Kenwood TH-F6A that Debra bought me for my birthday is a wonderful little radio.  I've programmed local repeater frequencies so I can talk to others, the NOAA weather channel (the best weather reports available), and even the Austin airport communication frequencies so I can listen in on them when I'm nearby.  The radio does have one big problem, though:  one of those little "rubber duckie" antennas.  The radio itself can transmit 5 watts, but the antenna limits the transmit range and also the signals the thing can receive.  There are better antennae commercially available, and I'll probably get one eventually, but even those leave something to be desired.  The antenna on a hand-held radio can only be so long before it becomes unwieldy.

One of the guys at the WCARC meeting on Thursday recommended that I build myself a roll-up J-Pole antenna for use around the house.  My construction skills being what they are, I was a bit dubious about my ability to actually build one of these, but I decided to give it a shot.  It took a trip to Radio Shack for parts, and one to the local amateur radio outlet (called "The Candy Store" by the other hams in the group) for a BNC-to-SMA connector.  This evening I sat down with my soldering iron, wire cutters and wire strippers and followed the instructions on the page.  It wasn't pretty, but an hour or so later (most of which time was spent stripping insulation while trying to avoid breaking the wire) it was time to test.

There's a 2 meter repeater in Walburg, 20 or so miles from the house, that I was unable to trip with my radio when standing outside.  I could receive its signals, but it never received my transmissions.  Since that was the first signal I picked up after hooking up my new creation, I waited for a break in the conversation and announced that I was testing a new antenna.  The signal report I got back was "strong, a little scratchy, but quite readable."  The person responding was surprised that I was hitting the repeater so well with only 5 watts using a home-built J-pole antenna strung from the ceiling.  Apparently, others also have had trouble hitting that repeater from my area.  I didn't talk with him long, as I was standing in the middle of the room tethered to the antenna with 6 feet of coax.  I'll have to get an extension for the feed line.  But now I have a good enough antenna so that I can use the radio in the house.

A successful first project is a great motivator.  I've always been leery about any kind of electronics projects because I'm not very familiar with the nuts and bolts, and my soldering technique could use some work.  This antenna is a great first project:  it's easy for even a rank amateur like me to build, and the results are striking.  I'll take the little victories.  I'm considering a copper tube J-Pole to mount on the garage.

Sunday, 09 November, 2003

Losing weight

A minor milestone in my training this week.  This is the first week that I managed to do all six training rides.  I'm finally starting to get into shape and am beginning to see the effects of the training.  I'm becoming thinner, which externally is most easily noticed in my face, and I'm having some trouble keeping my pants up.  Another week or two and I'll have to pull in the next notch of my belt.  Oddly, I've not yet begun losing very much weight.  I lost 5 or 6 pounds (the easy part) over the first 2 weeks, but since then it's lessened to around (although not quite) a pound a week.  I'm not too worried.  Although I do have the goal of shedding 20 lbs or more during this period, I'm not going to be terribly disappointed if I don't lose it all.  I also know that this early in my training I'm losing fat and adding muscle.  I think it'll be a few more weeks before I start to see significant weight loss.

One of the most effective tools for losing weight, by the way, is to keep a food diary.  Write down everything that you consume.  You'll start to notice patterns and will be able to identify snacks or foods that you can eliminate, and others that you can replace with something healthier.  For example, you can replace the afternoon soda with a diet drink, fruit juice, or just plain water.  My problem is that I don't like being hungry.  When I get hungry I eat whatever is convenient at the time, regardless of its health benefits.  As far as my stomach is concerned, a Snickers bar is just as filling as a rice cake.  I usually eat the Snickers because the vending machine doesn't have rice cakes.

Sunday, 02 November, 2003

Overtraining

Taking it easy this past week paid off.  I did the prescribed training rides, but at a slower pace than usual.  Wednesday, rather than doing the fast 17 miles on the schedule, I did a moderate one-hour mountain bike ride with a few hills thrown in just to get the heart rate up.  I took Saturday off from riding, but got a little exercise turning the compost pile.  Today's ride was with the Austin Cycling Association:  41 miles in the country out west of Round Rock.  I showed up on time for the ride, but forgot my helmet, so I had to drive back home to get it.  By the time I got back everybody had left, and it took me a bit more than an hour of hard pedaling to catch up with the group at the planned water/snack stop in Hutto.  The rest of the ride went smoothly, except for the downpour that hit us about 4 miles from the finish.

The sore, tired, heavy legs that plagued me last week are gone.  I was tired after the ride, but certainly not completely exhausted.  The only negative was that my right foot started to cramp while I was changing clothes in the truck.  I'm still not sure what causes those foot cramps, but I get them every time I do a long hard ride.  At worst, they're a minor annoyance, but they are painful.

Keep an eye on your training.  If you start to experience symptoms similar to those I described last week, consider backing off for a week or two to let your body rest.  Continuing to push when your body is telling you to slow down will end up causing you much more lost time due to injury than will taking a few weeks off.

Saturday, 01 November, 2003

Reviving the religion discussion

An acquaintance once asked me if I wanted to live in a world where the majority of people acted as though God doesn't exist.  At the time I conceded the point, but I frequently come back to ponder the question.  Implied in his question is that belief in God (or, more specifically, the thought of a reward or punishment in the afterlife) is what keeps people in line.  The assumption is that Man's laws or established societal rules of behavior aren't strong enough to motivate people; that if people don't think they're answerable to a higher power they'll run amuck:  raping, pillaging, plundering, and in general making a mess of things.  But one only has to look at current events and religious wars through the centuries to see that a majority's belief in God or religion doesn't prevent people from doing bad things to each other.  At best, a belief in religion helps prevent people from doing evil to others who hold the same beliefs, but even that parallel is tenuous.

The question is phrased in such a way as to make an unbeliever look stupid either way he answers.  If he says, "No, I would not like to live in such a world," then he has in effect admitted that a belief in God (and, by extension, whatever religion is currently being advocated) is necessary for a society to function.  If he answers "Yes, I would like to live in such a world," then he is assumed to be an evil anarchist in need of saving (which could involve being put to death to save his immortal soul).

Belief in God or some other supernatural being is deeply ingrained in most societies.  Children are indoctrinated early on.  Even professed atheists and agnostics can be heard saying things like "God willing," or "Heaven knows."  It's like the little kid who says, "I know there aren't any monsters under the bed,"  but then snuggles in tight to prevent an uncovered arm or leg from being snatched in the middle of the night.  The number of spontaneous conversions by condemned prisoners and soldiers on the front lines is pretty astonishing, and I think would be impossible if some form of that belief hadn't been ingrained at an early age.  Given that, I wonder if it's even possible to have a society in which people don't have a strong belief in God.  Certainly such a thing wouldn't be possible on a large scale in the U.S.  It would take hundreds of years to remove those beliefs from a large part of the population.

I'm not saying that belief in God is a bad thing.  Nor am I saying that a majority belief in God is required to create an orderly society,  although due to the aforementioned deeply-ingrained beliefs that might be difficult to prove.  Certainly the government doesn't have to be based on religion although many today are, either overtly or in subtle ways that reflect their history.  (Including the U.S. government, by the way, but that's a topic for an entirely different series of postings.)

After years of pondering, my answer to the original question has become:  "I want to live in a society where people treat each other with respect and dignity, tend their own gardens, and are held accountable for transgressions against others."  Unfortunately such a society doesn't exist on a large scale, nor does it seem to have existed in recorded history.