Monday, November 18, 2013

Reflections from Bouldering

I've been spending a lot of time bouldering recently, a few times a week.  Besides strongly incentivizing me to lose 10 lbs, I have started to learn some interesting lessons, the hard way.

Indoor bouldering is like rock climbing, but the highest it gets is about 17 feet, the floors are padded about two feet thick, and there are no ropes.  That means I can show up whenever I want, alone, and climb for as little or as much time as I want, and not need someone to belay me.  It also means that the first few times you climb, it can be pretty unnerving because when you fall, you just fall, boom, onto the mat.  In fact I noticed that as I grew more tired during climbing, if I thought I wasn't going to be able to make it to the top, I would frequently climb or jump down while I still had control, even if I had some power left,  because I wanted to avoid being all the way at the top and having no strength left, forcing me to fall uncontrolled from the top, as opposed to falling in a controlled way from halfway up.  But, after you fall from the top a few times, this turns out to be a mistake: falling from the top doesn't hurt.  That's why they let you do it and don't get sued too often (although, the place is actually blanketed in cameras, in deference to our tort-happy society: just in case someone does something stupid and sues, they have you on record.)

But, the more interesting thing that I discovered was that the barrier to failure was often simply exhaustion rather than skill.  And this has a particularly interesting consequence: often, the best next move is making the next move.  As a beginner, your instinct is to stop at each hold, look around, and see where the next move is.  Which hold can you reach without falling over?  But, watching other skilled climbers in the gym, they do it differently: first, they study the route before they start climbing.  Then, once they're on their way up, they move gracefully and smoothly from one hold to another, and importantly, they keep moving.  While you're stopped, looking around, your arms are growing tired, your tendons are aching, the skin on your fingers is starting to grate under the hand holds.  And what I found, through brutal trial and error, was that I was much more consistently successful if I just kept moving.  In an indoor bouldering gym, the holds are laid out somewhat logically, but also somewhat deviously, so that it's not always obvious what the solution is.  But your brain moves pretty quickly, and without even realizing you're doing it, you're not even considering 9 out of the next 12 possible moves.  The extra 5 seconds that it takes per move to decide amongst those three remaining moves is probably the difference between near-complete exhaustion and complete exhaustion.  And complete exhaustion means failure.  I'm a big fan of stopping and thinking about what you're doing, but the lesson is, when you're resource constrained and time is not on your side, don't think too hard.  You might back yourself into a corner, but it's no worse than falling on your ass.

Friday, November 1, 2013

We Apologize for the Interruption in our Interrupted Programming

Not much call for blogging these days; most of the interesting Data Blogging Topics(tm) have been around the Snowden NSA leaks, and I've been trying to slog through a number of other things at work, so it's hard to find the energy to get invested in it.  But, I wanted to stop by the blog and give you a brief update, to the assembled masses who may read this later (and, I have found out the hard way, blogs left unattended can come back and bite you in the ass.)

When the Snowden/NSA leaks first started coming out, the scope was pretty limited.  Phone call metadata logging was the big topic, and my comments were primarily technical in nature.  My decision to not express a particular opinion on the politics might have been construed as a tacit approval, or at least a lack of outrage, and I think the latter was probably not far off.

In the meantime, however, a lot more things have come out, such as the fact that the NSA has p0wnz0red the entire internet, and we've been eavesdropping on foreign heads of state and American citizens for essentially no reason.  So, I wanted to update, for clarity, my feelings: this is odious, unamerican, and a fundamental breach of the public trust.  The excellent New Yorker article about Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, indicates that we're still just seeing the tip of the iceberg; the only limiting factor is how fast the journalists can process and understand the documents they've been given*.  If you want to read more, the incomprable Bruce Schneier is your go to source, and I truly couldn't hope to add anything.

Sadly, in my search for hyperbole to compare this with, my mind goes back only as far as the buildup to the Iraq War, and it's hard for me to draw a comparison really: it's apples to oranges.  The Iraq war was a breach of the public trust in a fundamental way, but it involved a lie which resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 humans.  It's hard for me to draw a meaningful comparison there that doesn't minimize those deaths.  But the consequences of fundamentally weakening the internet is hard to grasp, in both its scope and consequences.  The ripples from this tidal wave will continue to leave marks in the sand well into the next generation, and only time will tell.

*The article refers also to Rusbridger's memoir in which he interleaves his Herculean work publishing the Snowden leaks with his year long struggle to master a particularly difficult work by Chopin.  I immediately thought, "He must not have any children," but of course, we find out, he does.  It is times like this that I am reminded of the late great David Foster Wallce's characterization of Wilhelm Leibniz in one of my favorite books ever written, "Everything And More: A Compact History of Infinity".  He describes Leibniz, one of the inventors of the calculus, as "a lawyer/diplomat/courtier/philosopher for whom math was sort of an offshoot hobby", which he tags, in typical David Foster Wallace fashion, with a footnote, saying only, "Surely, we all hate people like this."