Monday, March 27, 2006


With the combined might of six Best Buy gift cards, I purchased my journal gizmo for the trip: a Palm Tungsten T|X. So far so good, for the two hours I've spent familiarizing myself with Garnet. Worth noting:
>>The 802.11b receiver interface is much snappier than the one in Windows CE. It finds networks faster than even my laptop does.
>>"HotSync" like it's 1996! Sheesh. Why not a file system explorer, so I can see how much space is left on the device? Or, say, so I can delete all the unwanted crap from my scant 128MB? Doc2Go is an especially terrible abortion of software.
>>VersaMail works seamlessly with gmail's POP3 interface. I can mail and journal away at the AYCE (hiker jargon for All-You-Can-Eat) restaurant using gmail and blogger's email-to-journal functionality. Provided there's a network around, of course.
>>The browser is extremely limited HTML only, but at 5.1 oz, I wasn't expecting too much browser.
>>Standard DC converter coupling? Not on our platform mister! This is such a common sin with manufacturers that it's hardly seen as sin anymore.
>>It seems to like my CSV databooks and my ALDHA PDFs, which is good. Saves me about five ounces of paper.
>>Bluetooth sucks insane amounts of power. Turned off.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Misheard Lyrics Part I: Tori Amos

It's no secret that I work out much, much harder when I'm about to cry. So I listen to music that makes me feel sad. Then I shake like a crazy junkie which means it was a good workout.

Johnny Cash's rendition of NiN's Hurt, Big Country's Big Country, Dave Matthew's Crash, and, of course, most Tori Amos does the trick. The problem with Tori is that the sad songs I have in my head seldom match what is actually on the lyric sheet. If I knew the original lyrics I wouldn't find the songs nearly as compelling. Let's make up a little quiz to illustrate:

1) In the "Great Expectations" anthem "Siren", the lyric:
"Almost brave almost pregnant almost in love . . "
is followed by what?
a) "He ain't in love"
b) "Vanilla"
c) "Be naked, ah"
d) "Caramello"

2) What Star Trek character is referred to at least once in Tori Amos lyrics?
a) Kirk
b) Spock
c) Bones
d) Scotty
e) Sulu

3) In Ms. Amos' collaboration with electronica artist Brian Transeau, "Blue Skies", the lyric:
"And I'm walking and crawling and"
is followed by what?
a) "So tired I'm insane"
b) "Steel belted, guaranteed"
c) "I tire of this tirade"
d) "Get off my lawn! Amscray!"

4) In "Talula", he's chasing what?
a) "Tomatoes"
b) "Placeboes"
c) "Galvados"
d) "Tornadoes"
e) "Chipotles"

5) In "Caught a Lite Sneeze", the lyric:
"Called my name but there's no way in"
is followed by what?
a) "Lucifer"
b) "Use that fame"
c) "Jumping Danes"
d) "Aslan's Mane"
e) "Easy lay"


Monday, March 20, 2006

Ghawar Field

Sometime around five hundred million years ago, some trillions of tons of biota decided to die and be buried underneath the oceans of the world. Layers of rock built up around them, cooking the organic substances down to hydrocarbons. The vast majority of the liquids escaped and volatized. They did so because in those places the world cracked and changed, whether by glacier, volcano, meteorite- what have you. The places that have escaped change had trapped the most of this strange liquid hydrocarbon. Petroleum loves the dead places of the world.

The 21st century will revolve around the most dead geological formation in the human world: the Arabian plate. As petroleum is sucked out of the plate by machines and fed to our machines to move us humans from machine to machine (ostensibly to make money, which is mostly used to gather more machines), we have to wonder: what are our machines thinking?

They are thinking the same thing we were thinking when we cleared the first land to create the first farm. They want a place that looks like food. Our cars conspire: let us make this place of life into a dead place, like that desolation which feeds us.

When America looks like an asphalt version of the Ghawar field, then perhaps our machines will be happy, and let us rest.

Travis and the Women

John D. Macdonald is one of those writers whose prolificacy is underlined by an intimidating quality. No earth-shaking moral breakthroughs or historical impacts, mind you, he just effortlessly writes books that are really damn readable, which happens to be the hardest thing to do as a fiction writer. The serial character, Travis McGee, is put into a "noir" classification by sexless critics, a genre Travis jumps from whenever he gets a few paragraphs of monologue. He's a happy gumshoe- with demons, sure, and a bit cynical about the tackiness of Florida- but still a guy who loves the act of living, unlike the oversexed sadsacks that pass for noir these days. He's not naturally prone to violence, statutory rape, or any of the dark crimes that usually set apart noir protagonists. No, his integrity is what sets him apart from the "real" world. Travis would counter that it's the "real" world that's useless, with its unreal mortgages and its massive, mysterious salaries. Considering I'm about to disapper from the civilized world for six months, it's not too difficult to figure out who I sympathize with.

If there's one thing that Travis does noir it's his women. When our hero runs into that mysterious gender, they're what we would call "maidens". A pretty broad stroke I'll grant, considering he runs into some that double-cross him, but still maidens. As maidens, they have never brushed paths with home and hearth, or, if they have, their families were taken from them with such brutality that they revert to voiceless children. Travis is with them for a time and then they move on either as whore or as crone. The mother and her panacea for all violence is left behind, not really because Travis avoids mothers but because violence makes for a much more exciting story.

The great thing about Macdonald is that he knows it too. His character knows it, and as Travis grows older this void in his life gets too big to scab over. Life can very quickly get too exciting. Pushing forty, Travis eventually does find his issue, the consequences of a life spent avoiding mothers, and makes good with her. It's too bad he missed a tender period, but as he was stuck in a mystery serial it's not something you could reasonably expect him to go back and correct. You can almost see Travis smirking at both the noir and the "real" world. He's avoided both on a shortcut to what really matters.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Estimated Date Town
3-May-06 Wesser, NC (The NOC)
15-May-06 Hot Springs, NC
21-May-06 Erwin, TN
6-Jun-06 Bastian, Va
15-Jun-06 Daleville, Va
24-Jun-06 Waynesboro, Va
5-Jul-06 Harpers Ferry VA
9-Jul-06 South Mountain, Pa
16-Jul-06 Pine Grove, Pa
19-Jul-06 Palmerton, Pa
24-Jul-06 Glenwood, NJ
2-Aug-06 Kent, Conn
7-Aug-06 Sheffield, Mass
23-Aug-06 Hanover, NH
26-Aug-06 Wentworth, NH
27-Aug-06 Glencliff, NH
29-Aug-06 North Woodstock, NH
19-Sep-06 Stratton, Maine
23-Sep-06 Caratunk, Maine
26-Sep-06 Monson, Maine
7-Oct-06 Baxter Peak (Katahdin), Maine

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Appalachian Trail- the Video Game

I am a pretty amazing dork. By "dork", I mean that I still play pencil-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons at the age of 31. To be honest, the "dork" assessment needs review, as there are legions of older "dorks" on EverQuest, World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and, oh, see here . The difference between me and them is that they use software to help imagine that they are a Cajun Aquatic Elf, and I do not. In this sense, a "dork" is simply someone who finds it easier to suspend disbelief in the unreal world. On the savannah, such an ability would indeed prove fatal in short order. So I am a dork, but so were the first priests so many tens of thousands of years ago. Not such bad company, although it'd be nice if roleplayers built up an ideology more long-lasting than that of Gary Gygax, which seemed to revolve around polearms.

To be honest, the "roleplaying" part of gaming never appealed to me overmuch. I preferred the part where we reduce the world to a series of statistics. It's no accident that the first researchers of the personal computer were also Tolkein fetishists and, to a large extent, pencil and paper gamers. Information science is all about reducing the world to a series of numbers and simple themes. Gamers seek to reduce experience to a set of statistics and easily remembered themes. We reduced the world for our machines, and found that the machine's way of looking at the world was a lot more fun than ours. Now more than a million people around the world live through machines, run forests that exist only in the machines, hunt orcs in the machine, buy, sell, love, and die as people that exist only in the minds of our machines. Sometimes it's hard to tell if the world of online role-playing games is a sugary heaven or a sexy hell.

To keep in the spirit of this thing I propose an Appalachian Trail Role Playing Game. Character creation can use all six of the classic statistics- Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma. Starting money could be a derived statistic of Intelligence and Charisma, representing the level of income you had when your fake person decided to quit his or her life to start the appalachian trail. Mileage per day (MPD) would be the most important derived statistic. Constitution would be a core determinant of MPD, but Wisdom represents the willpower to resist spending days in town motels. Roll a Will saving throw versus pizza! Oh, no, another day in town for you! A ratio of strength to pack weight (LOAD) would also go toward the MPD- and provide a use for higher income, as super high tech lighweight gear would cost a lot (even if you make it yourself, that still represents high INT, so to some extent the income statistic does not represent a cash salary but a level of resources). Complicate the MPD by throwing in a Chance of Injury Per Day (CIPD), which would be some factor based on MPD, Dexterity, and LOAD. Injury is bad, it would do point damage to Wisdom, as well as taking multiple zero days, and you have to check Wisdom every time you leave town, or face a particularly bad stretch of terrain and/or weather, or phone your girlfriend. Wisdom also allows you to spot objects, like the bear and her cubs in the middle of the trail fifty feet away. So losing wisdom can easily lead to losing more wisdom. Charisma is a grease statistic, increasing chances of hitches into town, reducing prices in town, and generally serving as a "luck" statistic, as well as contributing to your starting income. And . . . and . . intelligence . . you know what? This is ridiculous. Anyone looking for "AT: the MMORPG" can, well, go take a hike.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


For a period after my motorcycle accident, I had seriously contemplated the priesthood. I was raised Roman Catholic, and after going through the standard period of rebellion, had come to some respect -even awe- at the Church's accomplishments in human history. The nostalgia I had felt at hearing the Nicene Creed again, dragged into church again with my useless left arm, was replaced by a mounting sense of the document's enormity. Every single sentence represented the end product of a separate centuries-long theological debate. Behind every word lay thousands dead, displaced, or otherwise silenced.

In studying the Church at college, I could safely separate myself from its majesty and power. Rational religion was supposedly buried by the Enlightenment, all true believers had supposedly gone into the grips of the charismatic churches. At Mass, I saw how wrong I was. This juggernaut of history lived on, and, furthermore, had the intellectual capacity to absorb everything learned from the Modern period. Ad majorem Dei gloriam. The sciences, literature, and the human mind are all part of the path to revelation of the Divine Mind. Like our Creator, we have universes within us.

Unfortunately for me (or, depending on your viewpoint, the Latin Church) I have no will to grace. Basically, I reject some key doctrines, like the Eternal Soul. Our brains are us, I'm afraid, which is a much less frightening notion than the various doctrines of the afterlife. Imagine: you die and are buried. Then, at some point in the future, you are restored to your flesh, somewhat confused, at which point you burst from the earth to terrify your descendents. Alternately, you die, then your soul- bodiless- is shifted into a state so close to the divine that it can have a conversation with it on a quiet day. This new soul has less to do with you than the e.coli living in your guts. In fact, since the perfect soul is in contact with the Divine, and we creatures of matter are an infinite distance from the Divine, our new souls would be about as different from us as something could be and still be something.

For similar reasons I reject the Resurrection, although it seems possible that Christ was an emanation of the Divine. One of the high points of humanity, you might say. This makes me a heretic of a very old order, in league with the writer of the Gospel of Thomas. For this, though, I can blame the Church. It is a central Catholic teaching that you- and I mean every one of you- can do what Christ did. We can, but we don't. We reject the Divine in us, and in each other, and we fall. There is no reason for it. We play with mortal toys, like clockwork men walking in addled circles, when we have worlds within us. When we reach inside of ourselves, inside of others, we touch the Eternal, as did Christ, or Buddha, or Shakespeare, or Einstein. In touching it, it touches us. There is no reason to return to flesh and be hoovered up by the sky. Our reaching for Truth- this is true Grace.

This is also heresy. Note I never went for the priesthood.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On Reactionaries

Intellectual history, at its core, measures the effect of thought on the larger affairs of humanity. It is a field in crisis. At best, the pursuit of ideological causes in history is seen as endearing. At worst the historicist outlook is portrayed as dangerously naïve, a debutante wandering about in a room full of materialist realities. Economics, demographics, geology, climatology: in functionalism they form the wave of the phenomenological world. The wave is widely regarded as the sole source of dynamism in human events. In this weltanschauung there is no action but reaction; there are no crises but circumstance. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that intellectual history has likewise declined in importance. The mind has been discarded in favor of the wave.

This assumes that our ability to comprehend the world around us has remained unchanged for fifty thousand years. This assumption is false. Humans do not interpret the environment objectively; they do so through a complex filter that defines as it records. If our surfer - our historical actor- judges his course by the shape of the wave, the shape of the wave is in turn described by the net experience of countless minds. This is why ideas are so important when gauging the rise and fall of complex societies. Intellectual history is the measure of this comprehensive power, the capability of ideas to shape the destinies of peoples and nations.

Myriad power groups in human history have consciously tried to seize this power so as to improve their lot. Controlling ideas is an extraordinarily efficient way to control resources, as the distribution cost of information is always lower than capital. For this reason it is also unpredictable, as anyone with a new information distribution technology can overthrow the existing order. Unsurprisingly, this leads to the pitting of one group of intelligentsia against the other. Visionaries on both sides fall to cynicism and violence with increasing frequency. Progressives become militant, and the authorities turn into reactionaries.

The Hobbesian establishment of a reactionary force signals the end of culture. True believers split away, the established struggle to maintain the status quo; the young polarize and begin arming themselves. Old friends turn on each other with an easy viciousness born from decades of association and unconscious rivalry. The lives of such men are often at the crux of history. The Kangxi in China, Tlaxcalan in Mexico, Cosimo II in Venice- each has tried to change his or her culture at the very pivot of history. Their counterparts- Confucian, Aztec, or Catholic- were no less impressive in their defense of tradition and what they saw as right. They maintained the old world in the face of the new, and tore their universes apart.

This must not happen here.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Darkness Remembered Brightly

One of the things most do not realize about the Third Reich is its unhinged flakiness. Leni Riefenstahl, and, by way of imitation, the entire motion picture industry, have successfully persuaded us of authoritarianism's elegance, rationality, and inevitable power. It's a pity, because the writings at the intellectual core of the Nazi regime are some of the most humorous in the historical record. People like Lanz von Liebenfels and his Electric Aryan Bugaloo from Aldebaran simply do not fit into our preconceived notion of "Nazi". We make ourselves feel better by ignoring him, and other key architects of the Nazi Völkisch, but it doesn't make authoritarianism pretty, rational, or elegant. Its intellectual basis was bankrupt; Mein Kampf steered more by self-pity than self-discipline. The trains didn't actually run on time, they just killed anyone who noticed that the trains were running late. They didn't play Wagner at Auschwitz. They played polka.

Something to remember in these troubled times, when authoritarianism is undergoing something of a revival.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


What in the world is the consumer price index based on? No one can truly say. 2005 annual increases are around ten percent for food, thirty percent for energy, and . . . the CPI at negative point eight of a percent? How is it possible? The quick answer is, it's not.

The CPI is calculated using some advanced economics, more than a bit of wishful thinking, and a dash of syncretic voodoo. One of the fantastic ways they can keep CPI low (if they want) is by separating products into feature sets. For example, let's say last year's DVD player cost a hundred bucks. This year's DVD player costs one hundred fifty. Holy God, you might say, that's an increase of fifty percent! In saying so, you reveal your lack of economic sophistication (as well as your lack of friends in the Bureau of Labor Statistics). In reality, this year's DVD player can answer emails, play video games, and record television programs. The BLS essentially separates one product into three (or more). To get last year's "price" for your "DVD player" it sums up last year's costs for a computer, a game console, a VHS tape recorder, and a DVD player. It's remarkable that the figures aren't even more ridiculous, but we can take it as a given that the BLS is only performing this snake dance for a select few generous lobbyists.

They might think they're quite clever at first: all the technologies are pretty close to free, and they can keep milking the DVD franchise. Then something happens like HD-DVD (or Blu-Ray, depending on where your loyalties lie). All the staff moved from the DVD department is busy chunking out another piece of email bloatware, or working on some useless game, or downloading midget porn, while the competition comes out with a media that not only plays movies but allows the audience to sniff the actress' panties.

What happens then is you are sunk. By adding false value to your stagnant products you have basically boxed your resources into the corner, and are a sitting duck for the oncoming technology that has a grip on what the market wants. Lessons? The consumer, not the CPI, is what determines value.

The Void

Thursday Afternoon Dao

Thirty spokes will converge
In the hub of a wheel;
But the use of the cart
Will depend on the part
Of the hub that is void.

With a wall all around A clay bowl is molded;
But the use of the bowl
Will depend on the part
Of the bowl that is void.

Cut out windows and doors
In the house as you build;
But the use of the house
Will depend on the space
In the walls that is void.

So advantage is had
From whatever is there;
But usefulness rises
From whatever is not.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Neel's Gap

Given the late date of my 2006 departure, I decided to bite the bullet and start where I left off in 2003: the Walasi-yi center at Neel's Gap. It'll trim the first four or five days from my AT attempt. I'll need every day I can get to make Katahdin by October 15, when Baxter State Park closes for the winter. Technically speaking, this makes my through-hike just a really long section hike, but you know what? Who cares. As long as I am standing on that big rock come October.

If things go really slowly on the way to Maine, I suppose flip-flopping is always an option, as well.

Gear List

Here it is, the standard gear list posted by all AT hopefuls. Hopefully it will help others looking for only moderately overpriced backpacking equipment.

Keep in mind I went extra cheap on the real cold weather gear, since I am looking at a late April departure.

Wght(oz)    Item
21    Tent-Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny 9ft
11    Insulated Jacket-USAARM M-65 Jacket Liner
10    Insulated Pants-USAARM M-65 Pants liners
36    Sleeping bag-Campmor Campor-20
12    Rain Jacket-Marmot Precip Jacket
6    Rain Pants-Marmot Precip Pants
7    Thermals-Bodysensor Bodysensor long tee
7    Thermals-Bodysensor Bodysensor tights
56    Pack-Granite Gear Nimbus Ozone
1    shorts-asics shorts
1    bike shorts-generic underarmor
1    Hat-generic hat
13    Thermarest-thermarest sleeping pad
2    Tent pegs-Vargo Titanium Tent Stakes (6-pack)
2    Insect spritz-generic deet
4    Water treatment-aquamira water treatment
1    Pepsi can stove-me stove
6    Fuel-alcohol alcohol
1    Food bag, line-gorilla 80lb test braided monofilament
1    Kettle-MSR kettle
1    Headlamp-generic Red LED
1    Camp shoes-me slippers
4    Water bottle-camelbak hydration pack
2    Bear spray-generic capaiscin
1    Spray holster-me holster
6    Book-whatever whatever
9    Camera-sony cybershot
8    Notepad-generic sketch pad
3    Toilet-generic unmentionables