Shackleton’s Endurance

I’m reading the classic book Endurance by Alfred Lansing, on loan from a friend CT. I had to laugh aloud when I read this poignant line that reminded me of the deceptively simple allure of ultrarunning:

“And in the space of a few short hours, life had been reduced from a highly complex existence, with a thousand petty problems, to one of the barest simplicity in which only one real task remained–the achievement of the goal.”

LaTeX modernization challenge

For those in technical fields, the LaTeX typesetting system is only slightly more invaluable than infuriating, not to mention shady to search for appropriately on the internet. As they say, LaTeX makes very difficult tasks easy and very easy tasks difficult. Though there are several excellent GUIs that address many of these shortcomings, there’s a problem in compiling efficiency that I think can be addressed. Every time you make a change and run the LaTeX command on a file, it recompiles the entire document, soup to pie. This is obviously useful when you have references that need updating throughout the entire file, but I bet there’s a way to implement a system in which LaTeX compiles only what changes, and beyond.

Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say I have a beamer presentation in LaTeX that has 10 slides. If I change information on slide 3 that has NO bearing on slides 1-2, I should be able to compile the document so that it only compiles slides 3-10, since potentially pagination on slide 3 changes the slides that follow. (In fact, beamer slides should be such that most changes made to slide 3 will not affect any other slide, so in that case LaTeX should retypeset page 3 and then maintain the other pages.)

Pitfalls of this are pretty clear: there are several scenarios, including references and labels, in which the entire document may need to be recompiled, and it may seem like considering these exceptions is cumbersome/inelegant. But I think that modern computing is easily capable of handling these challenges in a fairly efficient manner. It doesn’t even have to be all-inclusive for a first try.

It’s also not clear to me whether or not such a thing exists. I haven’t spent enough time on LaTeX community boards or mailing lists to really know. The reason for this is partly time, of course, but mostly because I don’t have the technical acumen to actually help solve these problems. But here I’m throwing out the challenge to do so, if it hasn’t been done already. It’s clearly not in the mainstream LaTeX distributions, but it’s a sorely needed feature that would save enormous amounts of time in preparing these manuscripts in LaTeX.


Just wanted to share this Kahlil Gibran poem. There’s a memorial outside of the Boston Public Library for Gibran, a beloved writer and one of my favorites. I don’t always understand his writing, but his poem “Faces” resonates with me.

I have seen a face with a thousand countenances, and a face that was but a single countenance as if it held in a mould.

I have seen a face whose sheen I could look through to the ugliness beneath, and a face whose sheen I had to lift to see how beautiful it was.

I have seen an old face much lined with nothing, and a smooth face in which all things were given.

I know faces, because I look through the fabric my own eye weaves, and behold the reality beneath.

BP oil spill in the Gulf

The BP oil well that sprung a leak has led to one of the most concentrated environmental disasters, especially for the Gulf Coast region of the Southeastern United States and surrounding coastal areas. The majorly oversimplified problem is that there is a leak in the well far below the water surface, and it’s hemorrhaging oil into the ocean. No one seems sure of how to fix it.

While I am ignorant with respect to almost anything beyond what I’ve stated above, the overwhelming complexity of the problem reminded me of another problem that I once read about as a child. In that case, there was a sunken ship or something that was submerged in the ocean, and someone had recalled an old comic where they put a lot of ping pong balls into a submerged ship in order to raise it. The idea is very simple: increasing the buoyancy in a closed system should exert a force on the object and raise it to the surface of the water.

In the case with the oil well, while the specifics of such a notion would need to be worked out, here’s one of my simplistic ideas. Because we cannot get to the source of the leak easily, perhaps we can try and contain the leak in another way, by placing a sleeve over the entire well. If sealed properly at the ocean floor, this could conceivably fill the sleeve with oil and give us a chance to contain it from the top instead of dumping into the ocean.

Another simplistic idea is to increase the size of the aperture at the surface, again where we can perhaps control the oil a bit better. Because there is pressure being exerted into the pipe, at the moment it is flowing out of the break. But if another aperture is created, perhaps the pressure is enough to push oil beyond the break and toward the surface. Consider a straw that has a hole in its side. Now actively push water through. If the pressure is relatively low, water will flow out of the side hole and little if none will reach the top, depending on several factors such as aperture size relative to the diameter of the straw and pressure. If the pressure is higher, however, this will send more of the flow past the side hole, since the side hole is oriented orthogonally to the flow of the fluid. Essentially, create another break at the top in order to lessen the impact of the lower break.

Obviously these two notions are very simplistic, but they could conceivably lead to a solution to containing the growing problem in the Gulf.


In the running world, one of the most polarizing topics of conversation these days is minimal footwear. For most runners, shoes are intensely personal and are blamed for as many injuries as they’re lauded for preventing. Likewise, my experiences with minimal footwear is personal, and the lessons I’ve learned might be useful to other runners who are simply trying to enjoy their sport more.

Continue reading

Browser spaces

Like many, my work involves computers, and researching scientific articles is almost completely online now. Ever since Xerox’s Tab Manager that was a drop in replacement for Progman.exe (oh yeah) in Windows 3.1 (was it autoexec.ini that you edit?), I’ve been hooked on tabs. Tabbed browsing could not have appeared fast enough, but it’s now ubiquitous. Similarly in the window-organization world, virtual desktops are something I used in some iteration since the early 90s — in Windows, a virtual desktop was a large number of pixels, and the focus was simply moved around as your monitor showed different parts of one big desktop. In Debian, I think it was a Gnome window manager that enabled N distinct desktop spaces that were all of the monitor’s native resolution but were discrete — you could not see half of two different spaces. However, these were seamless in the sense that you could drag windows between them easily or even have a window appear on all spaces. In Mac OS X, it has taken forever to get a reasonable virtual desktop solution, from the CodeTek Virtual Desktop to Spaces+Hyperspaces+Warp. It’s not without its problems, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

Instead, I was thinking about my workflow in a browser. I generally keep 1-2 windows open that contain anywhere from 1-10 tabs each. Window 1 is usually reserved for Pubmed/Google Scholar searches for various topics I need to read about. Each tab is a different paper on a specific topic. Window 2 is everything else — email, RSS, news, etc. However, I would love to see a feature in a browser that is based on the idea of projects in the browser. Each project gets its own named window. Window 1 could be “Papers” and Window 2 could be “Other.” But this could be very powerful for me — Window 1 could be “Interlaminar connections of auditory cortex” while Window 3 could be “Pharmacology of auditory thalamus.” The integration in the browser could run deep enough so that I could tell a tab to go to a specific window using a menu, and I could be able to recall any window I wanted very easily, almost in a cmd+tab type interface, using cmd+~. Additionally, I could have an “Open in Tab in Project 1” option on links so that I can easily keep my windows organized in tabs in projects. The possibilities are endless.

The basic idea is simple, I think, but it would take some thoughtful integration to make this useful. Go, forth, Safari/Chrome/Camino/Firefox developers.

Running goals for the new year

Let’s look back at the last decade of running, shall we? Let’s make it a 12-year Doublewood, or else this decade’s running would really only include two years.

1998: I ran 4-8 miles each morning before school, which started at 8:30 am. It was the last time I was ever considered a morning person.
also 1998: I ran my second race in my life, a Twilite Fun Run 5K held by a local radio station. I spent the entire race chasing some 12 year old kid who was faster than I was. My first memorable race was actually in first grade, a footrace probably about 30 or 40 meters, and I slid into third place. It would be my only podium finish in my running history. Oh, there were three competitors.
1999-2007: I probably ran a good 50 times between 1999-2008.
2008: I logged 581.9 miles from June 15 to December 31. The longest run was 18 miles. The longest week was something in the 63 mile range.
2009: I’ve thus far logged 1,058.6 miles from April 19. Considering the weather report for the next couple of days, there’s little chance of logging very many more, since I go in these spurts of fighting the good fight against the weather and being ultralazy with it. Anyway, I paced for 53 miles (and ran about 63 miles) at the Vermont 100 miler and met some great folks. I went on to run the Vermont 50, my first official ultra, under pretty horrible conditions, and despite it being a frustrating experience, it was an incredibly rewarding one. 2009 Update: Total miles for the calendar year are 1,069, after today’s fun snow storm run!

My running goals for 2010 are, in no particular order:
1. Continue running healthy and consistently
2. I should be able to bag 1,500 miles from Jan 1 to Dec 31, if I can fulfill No. 1
3. Run Mt Washington Auto Road (7.6 Miles, +5,000 ft.)
4. Run (2) 50 Milers (Vermont and … ?)
5. Run (1) 100 Miler (Vermont?)

I feel like these are actually a reasonable set of goals. I came into the bitter cold of January of this year running sporadically, injured, and not logging miles from Jan to Apr. Here’s to a year of healthy running for all. See you on the trail!