Tuesday, May 30, 2017

No time like the Salt Lake Gran Fondo

I participated in the Salt Lake Gran Fondo the other day. This was a supported bike ride of a hundred miles and change that circumnavigated the Oquirrh (/ˈoʊkər/ pronounced “Oak-err”) mountains. The course featured 3 miles of police escort along I-80 to start, and a timing chip to accurately record one’s time; unfortunately a bunch of participants’ times were lost to an overheating laptop.

After slowly dodging rumble strips, orange traffic barrels, and random freeway detritus we traveled south on the west side of the Oquirrhs to five mile pass, and then North along the East (Salt Lake City Valley) side of the same mountains back to the start/end at the Saltair palace on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. The weather was perfect, and I only got a little sunburnt.
I got a sticker like this in the swag bag.  Don't know what I want to stick it to yet.

I’ve long been confused by Utah names like “Oquirrh” or “Tooele”. These are ostensibly names from the Shoshoni branch of the central Numic group of Native American languages. However, this language group does not have a written component so, at some point, somebody thought it would be a great idea to write it out in a way that had only a passing relationship to the way it was pronounced.
OQUIRRH \ö’ kərr\. From Gosiute (Numic) /uukkati/ [uukkaRᏐ] ‘wood sitting’, containing /uu-/ ‘wood’ and /katł/ ‘sit’ – Native American Placenames of the United States (2004) W. Blight attributed to a personal communication from J. McLaughlin.

Part of the idea behind the creative spelling is, undoubtedly, to emphasize specific linguistic elements, and the Central Numic languages are purportedly identified by certain elements of pronunciation that might easily be lost. Among these are “voiceless” (sound produced without vibrating the larynx) fricatives and vowels. This means that the names are not so much Goshiute as they are an academic code that looks like it could itself be language, but instead it just describes the actual languages that people use; as with any academic code there are enough disagreements about how to use it to spawn shelving units full of dissertations.

The meaning is a bit ambiguous too. Oquirrh used to mean “glowing mountains”, and then it was re-interpreted to mean “wooded mountains”, and now it is widely reported as meaning “wood sitting”. I have no idea what “wood sitting” means. It sounds kindof like it could mean something, but try to focus on what that meaning is exactly it becomes obvious that it does not. A Google search suggests that it is a bad way of saying “chair”.

About half way around to the return leg my hydration strategy caught up with me and I stopped at a support station to relieve myself. In hindsight I have begun to doubt that the support station was actually for the Gran Fondo; it just happened to be where the courses of two events overlapped. I ended up waiting for 15 minutes while a very large pleasant volunteer stood at the door to the porta-potty trying to coax out her autistic son who was hiding in there; she would wheeze and sweat in the sun for a couple minutes, and then crack open the door to try and lovingly persuade the child into coming out. When the child finally did emerge he marched over to the food tent with his head held high and proud; I envied him a little.

The people before me in line were fast and efficient once the porta-potty was freed up. When I emerged the volunteers were packing up their tent, and one asked me if I was “the last one”. I became embarrassingly aware of the time I had lost at this stop, and decided to pick up the pace.

The East side of the mountains featured busier streets, and many more intersections. There was also, as I would find out later, another bicycling event taking place on those same busier streets. At one point I followed a cadre of Gran Fondo riders who were themselves following the wrong sets of multicolored arrows up a long hill away from the course. I didn’t remember there being a large hill on the course map so close to the end, but I was tired, and the riders I was following were on really nice bikes, so I followed them up to a dead end near one of the entrances to Rio Tinto’s big Bingham Canyon open pit mine operation. The nice-bike crowd had stopped and begun chatting with their smart phones to find a way back to the proper course.

The confusion spent the energy I was saving for a strong finish.

Back on course I caught up with a woman I had passed on the return leg before the nice-bike spur. It is amazing how unrecognizable someone can be when dressed in skin-tight spandex; it is the sunglasses and helmet that obscure the head and face. I recognized her from earlier on the basis of the number she wore; it was just one greater than mine. We exchange banal pleasantries, and, when I couldn’t find my number on the finishing list I looked for hers as she finished at about the same time. Her time was recorded, and when I saw her name, which was somewhat distinctive, I realized she was someone I had gone out on a couple dates with a while ago. She was pleasant enough then. I suppose that if it is going to be a small world it is nice that there are some pleasant people in it.

The finish feast was a jumbled stack of Little Caesar’s pizza, but I was just pleased to have finished an event, once again, in the top 90% of the field.

The same event organizers are putting on the “Utah County Gran Fondo” near Utah Lake in a few weeks; the jersey for that event features a picture of a mangled carp like those the shores of Utah lake is famous for. There was a century ride that used to circumnavigate Utah lake that I rode several times several years ago; in fact I was wearing an ULCER (Utah Lake Century Epic Ride) jersey for the Salt Lake Gran Fondo.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Burrito Colon

Recent statements by the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development have hinted again at the theocratic coup waiting for the dumpster fire of the 45th presidency to burn itself out. I’ve rarely been one to suggest that anyone look away from a good train wreck, but these days there are so many wrecks vying for one’s attention, and all I might suggest is that we spend a few minutes looking at some of the other spectacular collisions gearing up to spread their social shrapnel across the future of civilization; the accelerating theocracy will interact synergistically with the train-wreck in chief so spending a couple minutes looking at a facet of it is almost like keeping your eyes glued to the center ring of the train-wreck dumpster-fire circus.

I should really unstack the metaphors in order to uncover the focus of today’s post: Ben Carson. To be more specific I was struck by Carson’s comments yesterday that poverty could be avoided by personal vim and a positive state of mind. These comments are consistent with what Carson has said in the past, and are also consistent with a popular materialistic Christian narcissistic theology that would thrive on control of the means of production in modern society.

"I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind," said Carson. "You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street and I guarantee you in a little while they'll be right back up there.” – Ben Carso in a 23 May 2017 interview on SiriusXMPolitics

I also want to talk about some frozen burritos I picked up at Costco. I think they will make a good metaphor.

“I serve God, and my purpose is to please Him, and if God be for you, who can be against you?” – Ben Carson

There is something important to be said for the utility of a positive state of mind. Many books have been written on the subject, there are pamphlets and motivational talks enough to bury even the most intrepid climber, and most of this “positive state of mind” material is less than worthless. Carson was not really talking about a “positive state of mind”. He was talking about poverty. He is the sitting Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and so his discussions of poverty have the weight of policy, but how do you identify policy in a homogenized sound goo of feel-good theology mixed with half data on actual issues?

“I made a commitment to Christ. I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” – VP Michael Richard Pence

About those burritos. I bought them to help AYD pack for work as she is spending the home from college summer living with me and a microwavable lunch takes the edge off a long commute. I picked out a number of individually-wrapped food items that had pleasant pictures of highly edible food items on their boxes; I was hoping there would be a reasonable mapping of the contents to the pictures, and for the most part, due largely to my lenient standards for what constitutes food, I was not disappointed. The burritos were an exception.

What does a “positive mindset” view of poverty mean to policy? It suggests that assistance, like the assistance Ben Carson –ironically- received while growing up, is not needed to provide opportunity, and will not help improve the lots of those in poverty. This flavor of blame-casting is very popular in many Abrahamic religions, but it is nowhere more popular than in the redstate heartland of America.

The basic idea is simple: “if people are responsible for their problems and poverty, and quantifiable assistance doesn’t really help, then let’s spend the church’s money on something better than helping people; it is what God would do.” By doubling down on the “positive mindset” aspect it is possible to convincingly insist that proselytization and building megachurches are the best forms of assistance. These realizations, which must save billions of churches’ untaxed dollars, has not resulted in any perceivable decrease in the amount of money the churches ask for.

Carson also talks a lot about “values”, and how these values come from Jesus and deliver people out of poverty. The next logical policy step, if you are charged with spending tax dollars to develop policy to efficiently address poverty, is to spend those tax dollars trying to bring people to Jesus. Ben only offers his own personal experiences, about which he has written several books, and some impassioned hand waving as evidence for his assertion. The simple fact that there are A LOT of poor folks who have believed whole-heatedly in Jesus, and yet remain poor, suggests that Ben’s assertions are not consistent with reality.

Ben is often at odds with more reality-centric ideas. One of my favorites is his often repeated claim that he thinks the Pyramids in Egypt were actually made for the purposes of storing various types of grain. Although his ideas are often interesting simply for their skewed relationship with the universe as we know it this current crop is harvested in the context of policy suggested by a man with the power to create policy.

Rather than just chewing nonstop through some wacky ideas of Ben Carson, let’s talk a little about those burritos. The box showed a burrito cleanly sliced open to reveal its filling which consisted of little bits of brown meat surrounded by some artistically arranged yellow cheeses, and some unidentifiable greenish stuff that I thought represented vegetable matter; these were “steak and cheese burritos" so the picture was consistent with what the contents were supposed to be. The actual contents did not look like the picture on the box. Microwaving does not work well for many types of foods, and tortillas often do not survive microwaving unscathed. The flour tortillas that wrapped the burritos became white all over; crispy in some places and just a translucent gelatinous film in others. Attempting a clean slice resulted in the knife simply poking a hole in a section of gelatinous film, and then the knife got caught up on a crispy bit and smooshed the whole thing flat; squeezing the filling out onto the plate. The filling was a homogenous brown paste; I suspect they pre-masticated all the wonderful texture displayed in the box’s photo so they could squirt the contents into the tortilla as it sped past on a conveyor belt. The resulting consistency was more like what I imagine a colon section from an alien autopsy would look like rather than food. As a section of an alien colon I might be thrilled that the presence of oozing brown paste might allow mankind to determine what the aliens’ diet was, and if they really ate humans; in the “here is lunch” context the burrito was less exciting.

I am obviously juxtaposing inconsistencies here. Ben Carson’s ideas and reality vs the box picture and the burrito. It is the directionality of these inconsistencies that makes them uncomfortable. If I had purchased a box of burritos with a picture of a section of fecal-filled alien colon with the ends folded shut, only to find the burritos in the box were stuffed with discernable steak and cheese I would have been pleasantly surprised; although I’m not sure what would entice me to buy a box of alien colon bits. If Ben Carson had a data-driven secular strategy to address poverty in the US, and the poverty problems were currently exacerbated by some reality free concepts of hand-waving justified theological blame casting, then I might have more confidence that future policy had the potential of heading in a productive direction. The fact that currently it appears as if US poverty problems are also currently exacerbated by some reality free concepts of hand-waving justified theological blame casting that resonate with Ben’s ideas might be where my juxtaposition fails, but it does not provide any warm fuzzy feelings.

There are two things we know, from many studies, help bring communities out of deep poverty. The first is access to an affordable secular education, and the other is access to effective family planning which includes safe abortions. There are “chicken vs egg” arguments to be made, but a lack of those two things is correlated with higher levels of community religiosity. Rather than spend federal dollars on bringing people to Jesus it might be cost effective to entice people out of churches, give them a good secular education, and subsidize all family planning efforts to include abortion.

Ben’s statements are only part of a right wing conspiracy to make the USA a Christian nation with a Christian agenda. This is not a secret conspiracy either. There are no secret signals embedded in pizza ads or backwards masking of satanic directions on albums. This conspiracy is advertised and promoted.

The team currently in positions to assemble the pieces are, from the outside looking in, a collection of people with disparate theologies. Ben’s singularly Seventh Day Adventist beliefs appear to be inconsistent with the heterodoxy of Pence, the Calvinist beliefs of DeVos, or whatever the heck Trump believes. However, on the idea of creating an isolated religious economy within a Christian nation that only, and just barely, tolerates secularism they are surprisingly resonant with each other. I do not think this conspiracy is highly organized. It appears more like a bunch of folks getting whatever they can get in the hopes they can do something with it all once they get it.

“I’ve got great beliefs, all the best theology, my piety is huuuge. Believe me” -fake quote that sounds like something Trump could say.

This conspiracy will not destroy America. It might screw up a generation or two; especially for those already in poverty, but it doesn’t rapidly charbroil millions of people in the way a nuclear war with North Korea would. I’m not even sure that the trump administration can muster the political will to craft many of these conspiracy puzzle pieces, and those they do manage to create might easily be dismantled by the next administration. However, there is the very real potential for very real damage to occur, and I'm one of those people who, on the morning of 8 November 2016, was prepared to celebrate a Clinton win that evening; you can't trust my minimizing of potentially disastrous outcomes.   

Monday, May 8, 2017

Giro D'Big Mountain

This past Sunday found me all too aware of being at least 10 pounds over the weight I would like to be
so many days after the start the cycling season ever. I was climbing up “Big Mountain” pass after just having shot down the southern/eastern side of “Little Mountain” pass. I was willing myself to relax as I subconsciously tensed up in preparation for yet more uphill road. The gates down at Little Dell reservoir were still closed, and half the cyclists west of the Mississippi were taking advantage of this wonderful day to wheeze up this hill.

The Mormon pioneers had come down this way in the summer of 1847. The official LDS church history website describes big mountain pass (1,279 miles from Nauvoo) as: “really just a hill among the surrounding Wasatch mountain peaks, was nevertheless, at 8,400 feet, the highest elevation of the entire Mormon Trail.” Big Mountain pass would be the highest point of my cycling trip on Sunday as I would turn around at the Morgan county line, and head back down towards the State Capitol and my starting place.

I was still about a mile or so shy of slowing to an unsteady four miles an hour when I heard a spirited conversation coming up behind me. Loud and relaxed enough to hear over my wheezing it sounded as if one of the conversants may have had an English accent. They whipped past me as if I was standing still (I almost was) and disappeared up around a bend in the road.

One of the cyclists was at least the second person I had seen in full Team Sky kit, and like the other was riding a black Pinarello that might have been one of the hugely expensive ($13k) 2017 F10 Dogmas like those that another squad from Team Sky is racing in the 100th edition of the Giro D’Italia right now.

While I was climbing on Sunday, Fernando Gaviria (a Columbian sprinter on the Quick-Step Floors team) would battle severe crosswinds to take the flat coastal stage 3 (and get the pink jersey) that ended in the capitol of Sardinia. Tuesday sees the first big climb of the Giro as the race will finish on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. There are informed hunches pronouncing that Gerent Thomas of Team Sky may pull on the pink leader's jersey after that stage.

If I was dusted by actual members of Team Sky they were probably the squad getting ready for the Amgen Tour of California that starts in Sacramento on 14 May this year.

 I pulled over to stretch to keep from losing the battle with the tension in my legs, and my riding companion shot past me. I was momentarily distracted by the almost erotic power her spandex coated thighs were delivering to the pedals, and I decided that the rhythmic swaying of her rear on the seat of her carbon fiber bike would pull me up the mountain in her wake. Unfortunately she was just a little too far up ahead after I climbed back on my bike and began to chase. I huddled into my pain cave and never got to within 50 meters of her before we hit the top of the pass.

Big Mountain Pass looking west

On the way down every ounce of excess personal mass turned into speed. I went way too fast, and the bike shuddered from braking as I approached each corner in the road.

"The descent down the big mountain (as it is called) is very steep, a regular jumping off place, worse than Ash Hollow.” -- William Clayton’s Journal description of the Mormon pioneers traveling down from Big Mountain pass in 1847.

A year ago on Saturday I was battling rain-tinged headwinds on a metric century called “The Front-Runner Century”, and complaining to myself that I was a little too heavy for where I wanted to be
so many days after the start of cycling season ever. I also had a very different view of what I wanted my life to be like.

One year, and things are exactly the same only completely different.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Zen and the Art of Chariot Maintenance

Because the radio was long dead I was making do with tinny plinkings from the iPhone’s internal speaker. These sounds were losing a competition with the rush of speed wind through the open window as the dead carcass of the air-conditioner was also over a decade in the rearview mirror. Pandora wanted to help a much younger Brian Ferry tell me how he was a “Slave to Love” and I worried it would lose data signal before the end of the song. My new cellphone carrier worked out this road much farther than my last one, but the invisible communication borderline was right around here someplace. I might resort to listening to an audiobook version of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” I had locally stored on this phone. Listening to something helps to take my mind off the spiral negativity of boredom that can sometimes color a drive that lasts for more than an hour or so; especially if it is a drive I have done a few hundred times.

The trouble with just popping Zen into the player was that I was still fidgeting some realizations that had surfaced the last time I had been listening to it.  I had also read Zen a few times when I was young.  It was so popular, and so many people I knew had read it, that the title had shortened to just "Zen" and most people would know exactly what one was talking about.   I had gotten to a part in this latest listening about remembering the process of forgetting something, but in an exquisite detail made horrific by the application of technology. I wondered why I had forgotten this part from back when I was re-reading it, and "Zen" was becoming "Zen". The whole metaphorically fractal design of knowing the organization and patterning of knowledge was the texture I remembered from the book, but some of the critical elements of the narrative were lost for some reason.

I was especially taken by Pirsig’s recursive application of systems engineering principles to the process of knowing anything of value. The complete title of the book is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”, but the “An inquiry into Values” part is usually written in a smaller font on the cover or lost entirely to the tittle page inside. “Values”, when placed on the same page with a word like Zen, sounds like a purely moral construct, but Pirsig manages to dancethrough every possible meaning of the term within a single unified context.

I had not forgotten a casual element of the story. I had forgotten the identity(s) of Phaedrus. As Phaedrus was slowly introduced through the first six chapters I could remember a much younger me discovering the Phaedrus dialogs of Plato that featured descriptions of madness and love and knowledge, and which are perhaps best known for the Chariot Allegory (Phaedrus 246a-249e). The Chariot Allegory is arguably a close second to the Allegory of the Cave in the pantheon of Platonic allegories.

In order to avoid disrupting the flow of this blog post by forcing you to look up the Chariot Allegory I will paraphrase it here; if you still want to look it up you can laugh at how foolishly simple I make it sound here.

The idea of the Chariot Allegory is that understanding can be gleaned from picturing the human mind as a soul (the chariot) pulled by two winged horses. One of the horses is noble and godly, and the other is ignoble and base. The charioteer is reason and the when the animals pull in harmony the chariot can take flight into the immortal godly realms of existence. However, driving the two horses is terribly difficult because of their different natures, and so they often act as if they have no wings at all.

It is easy to misinterpret this as being a version of the dialog some animated characters have when they face a moral dilemma; a conversation with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the opposite shoulder. That is a type of over simplification which misses many of the riper intellectual fruits of this allegory, and is linked to the reflexive desire to label a "value" as some sort of moral construct.

Values can be numerical or the stuff from which adjectives are crafted. Values can be the information our senses choose to use to craft everything we call knowledge of the world. In a parallel way the ignoble base horse is not just morally bad as it also represents appetites for substances like food and water and air which are critical for survival. Let that horse do all the pulling and the chariot gets into a bad place, but let that horse be pulled by the noble godly horse and things get pretty bad too.

I remember the younger me being awed by the simple parallel between the Phaedrus of Plato’s chariot and the Phaedrus of Zen; the parallel being that both a chariot and a motorcycle are vehicles with just two wheels. There is also the self-referential parallel. Pirsig recounts the story as a journey; a journey where the prose itself is pulled in one direction by the mundane requirements of a cross-country road trip, and in a slightly different direction by the philosophical musings of the ghostly memories of Phaedrus. When the two competing elements are driven in harmony the story whizzes across beautiful landscapes.

As Phaedrus was revealed I remembered more of my understanding. I re-discovered the allusions, and they felt new.

For a short time I tried to graft some misinterpretation of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood duet called “One Velvet Morning” onto my re-immerging knowing, but the fit was disharmonious; like I was being distracted into a strange unproductive direction.

Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight
I'm gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you 'bout Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight

Flowers are the things we know, secrets are the things we grow
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name

The song I was listening to transitioned into another so I didn’t need to fumble with the phone to load up the audio book. It was the meandering lead-in to the three cord march of Lou reed’s “Sweet Jane”. It would turn out to be only partially buffered though, and it would cut off just as the Lou informed me that the “roses seem to whisper to her”.

The day had warmed to the point where I could open the windows all the way and still not be cool enough. So I opened the windows and sped up till I couldn’t have heard the iPhone even if it was still making noise.

The Dodge always seems to be such a large truck after I’ve spent too long driving the Corolla. The reason it can go fast at all is because of the V8 pulling me along. It is not a big V8, but it is still a big powerful engine as engines go; it puts out 230 horsepower. I was being pulled along by 230 horses.

Two-hundred-and-thirty horses, and I was flying.

Robert Maynard Pirsig - 06 September 1928 - 24 April 2017