Trail Half Marathon

They said that this Trail Half Marathon would kick your butt! And it sure did! After running a whole bunch of road halfs, I decided to do the non-wimp thing - run on dirt, through forest, and around lakes. (It was actually half wimpy, because some people ran the course twice for the full marathon)

I have been running trails for sometime now. They more fun and easier on your feet than the pounding on the pavement and roads. It was only last month after the ice melted that the trails were safe to run again. Snow on the streets melts, but due to the trees and a lower specific heat, the trails are still icy. A slip can land you in the Huron river!

I wasn't up to the miles for a half and then you train like you were cramming for an exam, I added hills, speedworkouts. After I ran 10 miles on the hills, I knew that at the very least, I would come out of it alive (Never forget that!).

But, hell the race course was tough! The course goes around the famous Potowatomi train in the Pinckney Recreation Area. At no point was the course flat. Either you were going up or down. In total, the course has 7,000 ft of vertical climb. Since the race began and ended at the Silver Lake, you had also 7,000 ft of downhills. While the downhills were welcome, a hasty step would be your downfall, literally. I saw a bunch of people trip and fall. The last thing you want, is to get injured and hobble through miles of forest. That would be a meditative experience in the forest.

Oddly, some miles are shorter and others feel longer. Up and down, then up again. Legs cramp up. Something aches. It goes away. Then after a point you are running from water-stop to water-stop, wondering when the torture will end. And there are people are still in bed somewhere. After a point, your mind shuts down and you are just running. You have no idea where you are, but just following the person in front of you.

But, like all races at the end you are mostly by yourself. At mile 11, I hit a root sticking out of the ground and that was really painful! Nature is beautiful, but you can't be idiotic out in the wild. My shoes have an ID tag, so they know where to deposit my body.

At mile 12, I think I hit my limit! But, who gives up with one mile to go? You calculate that it won't be more than 10 minutes. And then suddenly, you see the finish line. You get a sudden burst of energy to sprint to the finish. The race ends on 100 meters of a grassy flat and that was a relief after the relentless hills. The best part of the race? To ice my legs in the Silver Lake.

Twenty minutes later, it all seems worth it and you find yourself saying something that you would have never thought - "I should do this again!". The harder the race, the sweeter the taste of a finish.

A House of our Own

NY Times Magazine:

Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people who don’t feel like they need an organization ... they’re so independent that if they want to get involved, they usually don’t join an organization—they start their own.
- Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists

I never thought that atheism equated with nihilism. But, organized institutions?

Was Proust a neuroscientist?

Recently there as been a spike in number of popular books on the brain and a lot them have made it to the best seller list. Everybody wants know how the body's CPU works. The most ambitious of these projects has been the one by Jonah Lehrer, editor-at-large for SEED magazine, a Rhodes scholar and neuroscience blogger.

His basic premise about neuroscience is: Sub sole nihil novi est. (meaning, There's nothing new under the sun. It's remarkable how intelligent everything sounds when you quote in Latin, or talk in a BBC accent). Lehrer claims that artists and writers were incredibly prescient and had long discovered basic neuroscientific truths. He ascribes each of the following artists with different discoveries in neuroscience: Proust (memory and recollection), Woolf (mental states), Escoffier (taste and smell), George Eliot (neurogenesis), Whitman (unity of body and soul/mind), Gertrude Stein (internal grammar/syntax), and Stravinsky (neural plasticity). All modern science is currently doing is simply rigorously verifying their discoveries by rigorous testing, or re-discovering it.

Jonah Lehrer writes beautifully and the anecdotes of the giants of the arts are interesting to read. There are no new facts and the juicy anecdotes will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the particular artist (available cheap and free on Wikipedia). For example, the background on Stravinsky's premiere of The Rite of Spring was identical to the one I read in Alex Ross's excellent book on music in the 21st century, The Rest is Noise. I guess it is hard to come up with unique historical quotable quotes.

Where Lehrer's really contributes is in highlighting interesting experiments in neuroscience and explaining them. There is a great deal of misinformation and school textbooks have not been updated for decades. Why was Einstein smart? People believe that we use only 5% or 10% of our brains, and that Einstein used 20%, or some such figure. This is utter nonsense. But, someone has to inform the people and science is not always easy to explain and is not sexy. To complicate matters further, science is always forging ahead, not really waiting for things to be digested. The perverse nature of science overturns conventional wisdom and even central dogmas of science to create the 'latest' science.

Experiments have overturned what many believed to be true for a long time - "We all start with a set of neurons and they all die. No new neurons are created". This has been proven to be false. There is a great deal of life in the brain. Such experiments are fascinating to read and this book performs a great service in taking neuroscience to a broader audience.

The spectacular failure of the book is in putting the its title claim together. It's easy to find correlations if you look hard enough and the ones that Lehrer seems to suggest are rather tenuous and require a tremendous leap of faith. To reverse engineer Monsieur Proust and Ms. Stein as neuroscientists is more poetic license than science. The cover notes that Leher worked in Nobel prize-winning Eric Kandel's lab, but it is disappointing to report that he missed the essential lesson of the scientific method - framing a good hypothesis and then collecting data to confirm or disprove it. It is rather plain, even to a non-neuroscientist reader, that his hypothesis is weak and his conclusions are based on rather weak correlations.

This would all have still been okay, but then Lehrer goes on to commit parricide. Drawing from C.P Snow's Two Cultures theory, scientists like Dawkins, Pinker and Gould formed the 'Third Culture', scientists who bridged the gap between science and the lay audience with their cogent writing. Lehrer faults them, however, for viewing everything from the lens of science and missing the arts and humanities completely. What is needed, is a new'Fourth Culture', one that combines the arts and sciences and brings them both to the lay audience. This book and Saturday by Ian McEwan are examples of such writing, Lehrer goes on to write in his Coda to the book. Anyone who has read Dawkins, Gould or Pinker would suggest to Lehrer that he first work on coming up with a decent thesis for books before trying to create a new genre of writing. Clearly, Mr. Lehrer does not believe in half-measures when it comes to being audacious. He's young, the severe panning won't kill him and hopefully make him stronger.

On the Two Cultures, I think
put it beautifully:

Science is material for the arts and art is material for the sciences, yet each must maintain its own integrity. After all, each has its own virtue: The sciences lift us outside of experience, so that we can more clearly survey it. The arts immerse us in experience, so that we can more fully encounter it.

My perception while reading the book was that I was reading two separate books at the same time. One on art, and the other on science. Take any random set of artists and you could come up with essentially an identical book. Maybe this book is a grand joke on everybody; if not, it's ripe for parody.

A few selections:
Genghis Khan was a cell-biologist, or
Napoleon was an investment banker,

There are others, which I will get to once I, like Monsieur Proust, am in bed.