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June 30, 2007

Stupidity That Might Have Been

Casino Royale was one of my two favorite movies from 2006 (the other being Stranger than Fiction).

(As for the other obvious candidates, United 93 was excellent, but too devastating to think about watching again; Borat was hilarious in places, but so uncomfortable to watch that I actually had to pause the DVD for a few minutes at one point; The Queen was great, but not in my top two or three; An Inconvenient Truth was important and well-made, but not something I see myself watching more than a couple of times; and I haven't yet seen Pan's Labyrinth or Letters from Iwo Jima.)

A couple of months after watching Casino Royale, I watched GoldenEye with a friend. It was well-reviewed when it came out, and I had good memories of it. But watching it, I realized that Casino Royale had ruined many of the old Bond movies for me -- at least the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan films. The groan-inducing double-entendres; the ridiculously implausible stunt sequences; the moronic, exposition-loving supervillains -- it was just all too much. (I'm planning on watching one of the classic Sean Connery films soon to see if they, too, have been ruined; I'm mildly optimistic that they might still stand up as cultural signposts of an earlier time.)

Interestingly, I've talked with person after person who has said the same thing: after seeing Casino Royale, the old Bond movies were unwatchable. It seems to be a nearly universal reaction.

With all this in mind, I saw a story recently on a planned-but-never-made Sean Connery Bond film from the late 1970s, Warhead:

It is the most ambitious and action-packed James Bond movie ever. Sean Connery returns as 007, battles a robot shark in the New York sewers, water-skis the Hudson River, and parachutes on to the top of the Statue of Liberty -- reports The Scotsman.

Sadly, however, it was never filmed and exists today in a few recently unearthed sketches and photographs. Warhead never made it in front of the cameras, let alone on to the big screen...

["Author and Bond fan"] Sellers could hardly contain his excitement as he leafed through pages telling a dramatic story in which the mysterious disappearance of planes in the Bermuda Triangle is the work of the criminal organisation SPECTRE.

They are intent on causing havoc by exploding a nuclear warhead under Wall Street, delivered by a robotic hammerhead shark via the city's sewers. 007 not only has to battle mechanical sharks, but also a massive villain called Bomba.

"You had an underwater base that rises out of the sea, you had helicopter attacks on the Statue of Liberty," said Sellers.

"It would have been the most extravagant Bond film ever."

Of course, when you're a villain, you should be named "Bomba". And when you want to explode a nuclear warhead under Manhattan, what better way to deliver it than via a robotic mechanical shark?

To the makers of Casino Royale, thank you for delivering us from this kind of stupidity.

"I Don't Care About Holding People"

This is a couple of weeks old, but it has been nagging at me ever since I saw it.

Via Andrew Sullivan, an article in The Globe and Mail on a panel discussion at a legal conference in Ottawa earlier this month:

Senior judges from North America and Europe were in the midst of a panel discussion about torture and terrorism law, when a Canadian judge's passing remark -- "Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra 'What would Jack Bauer do?' " -- got the legal bulldog in Judge Scalia barking.

The conservative jurist stuck up for Agent Bauer, arguing that fictional or not, federal agents require latitude in times of great crisis. "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. ... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives," Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent's rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.

"Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?" Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. "Say that criminal law is against him? 'You have the right to a jury trial?' Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so." ...

Generally, the jurists in the room agreed that coerced confessions carry little weight, given that they might be false and almost never accepted into evidence. But the U.S. Supreme Court judge stressed that he was not speaking about putting together pristine prosecutions, but rather, about allowing agents the freedom to thwart immediate attacks.

"I don't care about holding people. I really don't," Judge Scalia said.

First, was Scalia actually using a television show to buttress his legal position? Second, and more seriously, did he actually say that he doesn't care about holding people? From Article 1, Section 9 of the US Constitution:

The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.
Habeus corpus is quite possibly the most important check on the unrestrained power of the state that the people possess. It's absolutely fundamental to the preservation of liberty. But Scalia doesn't "care about holding people"?

June 29, 2007

This Is Good News

This was a pleasant surprise in the news today:

Even in middle age, adopting a healthy lifestyle can lower the risk for heart disease and premature death within years of changing habits, researchers reported on Thursday.

Middle-aged adults who began eating five or more fruits and vegetables every day, exercising for at least 2 1/2 hours a week, keeping weight down and not smoking decreased their risk of heart disease by 35 percent and risk of death by 40 percent in the four years after they started.

"The adopters of a healthy lifestyle basically caught up. Within four years, their mortality rate and rate of heart attacks matched the people who had been doing these behaviors all along," said Dr. Dana King at the Medical University of South Carolina, who led the research.

Excellent! It should be noted, however, that it's not easy:

When [study participants] had picked up all four habits, they enjoyed a sharp decline in heart disease risk and in death from any cause.

It took all four -- having just three of the healthy habits yielded no heart benefits and a more modest decrease in overall risk of death.

"I Must Sound Like a Horrible Parent"

As noted before, I've been watching what I eat and exercising every day for a while now -- I'm currently at nearly 20 weeks of eating properly and 108 days in a row of exercise. I've proven to myself that I'm serious about this, and so decided to visit my new gym last night for a consultation on training. The first step is going to be full assessments of my resting and active metabolic rates, which will help me in planning my nutritional requirements (in the case of the resting rate) and will give me specific guidance on how to structure my cardiovascular workouts for maximum benefit (in the case of the active rate). After that, I'll make a decision about when and how to use a personal trainer.

During the consultation, the trainer I met with, Matt, asked me about my goals for strength training (I already lift weights three times a week):

Me: Well, I'd like to be able to lift without some of the nagging pains I've had in my elbows and wrists.

Matt: We can help you with that. What else?

Me: In general, I'd like to see how strong I can get. I'm making reasonable progress on my own, but I think I could go much farther with someone to help guide me.

Matt: We can definitely help you there, and that's the kind of goal we like to work with. That's good. Anything else?

Me: I'd also like to keep the ability to lift more than my sons. We're very competitive.

I paused for a moment.

Me: Oh, gosh, did I just say that? I must sound like a horrible parent.

Matt: No, you don't. It's something we see a lot of. Our clients tend to be successful people, which means they're usually driven, competitive types. So you're not unusual and you're not horrible.

I'm sure it still sounds bad, but at least I'm not alone.

Matt: So you can lift more than them now?

Me: Yes.

Matt: How old are they?

Me: 20 and 18.

Matt: Not bad!

Now, in my defense, when I compete with my kids -- whether at bike riding, weight lifting, a pickup soccer game, one-on-one basketball, or anything else -- I figure I can't lose. If I win, then I feel good about myself. If they win, then I'm happy to see them pushing themselves and doing well. And even when I'm telling myself to push harder, to try to win, I'm also cheering them on, wanting them to do their best and try to win. It's kind of complex.

Am I the only parent who thinks like this?

June 23, 2007

"Simulation-Based Training: The Evidence Is In"

Earlier this year, I spent some time researching the question of hard evidence for the effectiveness of simulation-based training. I was expecting to find such evidence, but in doing my research, what surprised me was the breadth of research across a variety of industries, all pointing to the same conclusion: enhancing traditional training with the use of simulations resulted in improved performance. I documented my research in an article, "Simulation-Based Training: The Evidence Is In", which has just been published on the Website of Chief Learning Officer magazine. Here's the original, unabridged version of the article:

Simulation-Based Training: The Evidence Is In

Introduction

Preface

Pouring money into a theory is risky, especially when there is no documented evidence at hand to support that theory. An associate of mine who works for the Department of Defense was in search of evidence that proved simulations, games, and related training technologies improved performance in live situations. He was suggesting to his superiors -- both civilians and military officers -- that they spend precious research and training dollars on what appeared to them to be unproven ideas. The fact that these "unproven ideas" seemed, to my acquaintance, to quite obviously work, simply wasn't good enough.

As the co-founder of a firm that focuses on simulation-based training and serious games, I felt sure that hard facts existed regarding the effectiveness of using computer-based simulations for training. I began to survey literature in preparing to write this article, and what surprised me the most was not that I found exactly the kinds of research for which I was looking, but rather the breadth and sheer volume of such research. In every industry I examined, I found that people had already studied the use of simulations for training. In the reports I read, the results ranged from guardedly optimistic to wildly enthusiastic.

Having conducted the literature survey for this article, my belief is that, over the last few years, as simulation-based training has made the transition from high-cost, dedicated hardware systems to inexpensive, PC-based, virtual training solutions, and as a whole new generation of developers and managers has entered the industry, often with backgrounds in video game development, we have been unaware of the considerable research already in existence, documenting the effectiveness of what we were building.

Note

This is not a comprehensive survey of the literature on the effectiveness of simulation-based training -- such a survey of only one industry, such as medicine, would have to cover dozens upon dozens of citations. This article is instead a quick overview of a dozen or so citations that demonstrate the breadth of research in this area as well as its surprisingly long history. To read more about this topic, use the references section for articles cited at the end of the article.

Studies

Pilot and Aircrew Operations

The Naval Training Systems Center conducted a meta-analysis (Hays, et. al. 1992) of 247 published articles, research reports, and technical reports studying the effectiveness of simulation for pilot training. Of these, 26 experiments were identified as having sufficient information for statistical meta-analysis, and 19 of these experiments focused on jet pilot training. Among jet pilot training studies, more than 90 percent of the experimental comparisons favored simulator and aircraft training over aircraft training alone.

In a study (Nullmeyer, et. al. 2006) of the effectiveness of virtual training for crew resource management (CRM) conducted with the U. S. Air Force 314th Airlift Wing, a low-cost, PC-based simulator using Microsoft Flight Simulator was designed to elicit the communication and crew coordination behaviors associated with instrument and visual airdrop missions. Treatment group students received a four-hour training profile before their first airdrop flight while control group students did not. CRM performance ratings during the first subsequent airdrop flight were significantly higher for treatment group students than their for control group peers. Higher performance grades in training records were also observed for treatment group students in all CRM skill areas through subsequent flights, with fewer sorties to criterion for communication, crew coordination, task management, and decision making for both navigators and co-pilots. For the two targeted skill areas of communication and coordination, simulator-trained student navigators required, on average, 10.2 sorties to achieve proficiency, compared to 11.8 sorties for their control group counterparts -- a reduction of 13.6 percent.

Medical Specialties

In 1969, a study (Abrahamson, et. al. 1969) conducted at the University of Southern California School of Medicine evaluated the use of a physical patient simulator, Sim One, in training anesthesiology residents. The study demonstrated that simulator-trained anesthesiology residents required a mean number of 9.6 endotracheal intubations to achieve a skill level high enough to perform four consecutive professionally acceptable intubations, compared to 18.6 intubations for residents not trained on the simulator to reach the same standard. The same study showed that simulator-trained residents achieved the most exacting evaluation criterion applied in 55 days of training, compared to 77 days for their non-simulator-trained counterparts -- a savings of 22 days, or over 28 percent.

More recently, a randomized, double-blind study at the Yale University School of Medicine's Department of Surgery evaluated (Seymour, et. al. 2002) residents trained in laparoscopy using a virtual reality (VR) system, Minimally Invasive Surgical Trainer-Virtual Reality, from Swedish firm Mentice AB. The study found that VR-trained residents performed significantly better during cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal) surgery than a control group not trained using the VR system. VR-trained residents worked 29 percent faster than control group participants and errors were six times less likely to occur during their surgeries. Control group participants were five times more likely to injure the gall bladder or burn non-target tissue and nine times more likely to fail to make progress for a minute or longer at some point during surgery.

Equipment Maintenance

A researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses extracted 11 studies in which simulated equipment was used to train maintenance technicians (Fletcher 1998). These studies compared instruction with the simulators to instruction with actual equipment, held overall training time roughly equal, and assessed final performance using actual (not simulated) equipment. Over the 11 studies, the use of simulation suggested an improvement from 50th percentile to about 66th percentile achievement among students using simulation. The initial investment for simulated equipment averaged 43 percent of that for actual equipment, while the operating costs for simulated equipment averaged 16 percent of that for actual equipment.

At the request of the Canadian Air Force, the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering conducted a study (NGRAIN 2006) in which it adopted a virtual training system for what had been a two and a half day training course instructing students in the maintenance and removal of propellers for C-130 aircraft. The virtual training system consisted of CAE Simfinity's Virtual Maintenance trainer and NGRAIN's Virtual Task Trainer. After one day of study, all students passed the practical examination with an average score of 94 percent. This represented a 60 percent reduction in training time. Commenting on the study, a Canadian Air Force officer said, "Trainees can acquire knowledge faster when 3D equipment simulations supplement traditional methods."

Military Combat

The U. S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences and the University of Louisville examined (Shlechter, et. al. 1995) the instructional effectiveness of the U. S. Army National Guard's (ARNG) Reserve Component Virtual Training Program (RCVTP) -- structured exercises conducted in a simulation training environment, the SIMulation NETworking (SIMNET) training system -- to provide ARNG armor units with intensive training experience during their weekend drills or annual training periods. After 12 hours of training using RCVTP, units took 46.1 percent less time to complete their tasks while making 76.1 percent fewer errors and requiring 84.4 percent less coaching.

In 1991, the U. S. Army Research Institute compared (Bessemer 1991) results from 714 platoons that received conventional training in the Armor Officer Basic Course with 39 platoons that received training based on networked simulation using SIMNET and found that networked simulation both improved field performance ratings by 25 percent and saved 20 percent of time in the course.

Education

Researchers at Rice University conducted a study (Lane and Tang 2000) in which the effectiveness of simulations for teaching statistical concepts was compared to the effectiveness of a textbook. Subjects trained with the simulation, developed at Rice, outperformed subjects trained with the textbook on seven out of eight critical questions, and were more able to recognize the key elements of ill-defined problems embedded in various real-world situations and apply the relevant statistical principles. According to the authors, "this provides support for the thesis that simulation is effective for training on educational and cognitive tasks (as opposed to tasks such as flying an airplane where simulation has been shown unequivocally to be effective)."

Law Enforcement

The Justice and Safety Center at Eastern Kentucky University studied (Eastern Kentucky 2003) the use of a mobile, trailer-housed firearms and judgment simulation system, Professional Range Instruction Simulator (PRISim) from Advanced Interactive Systems, for training law enforcement officers. After two hours of training using the system, officers placed an average of 31.6 percent more of their shots on target, and were 52.9 percent less likely to fire their weapons without justification. In the words of the authors, the system "appears to be beneficial in building and/or enhancing skills that are arguably the most important for the safety of the officer and others, i.e., accuracy, effective use of cover, avoiding the unintentional shooting or endangering of innocents and ensuring the shooting is justified."

Driving and Trucking

Long-haul trucking firms have been adopting simulators for training and are quantifying the results, according to an article in Heavy Duty Trucking magazine (Lockridge 2006). One firm, Schneider National, saw a 21 percent reduction in preventable accidents in drivers' first 90 days after simulation-based training, and its vice president of driver training and safety remarked that "one hour of training in the simulator is equivalent to three or four hours of training over the road". Another trucking firm, Bison Transport, saw its accumulated safe driving miles increase by 50 percent after adopting simulators for training, and its CEO noted that his firm had observed "an 83 percent improvement in mean time between incidents after simulator training for preventable accidents". Both firms use the Mark III and TranSim VS simulators from MPRI.

The University of Utah conducted a study (Strayer, et. al. 2004) of a pilot training program at the Utah Department of Transportation developed for snowplow operators, using the Mark II and TranSim VS driving simulators. The authors stated that, in the six months following training, "the odds of getting in an accident were lower for the group of drivers who received training compared with a matched control group who did not receive it". They also noted a 6.2 percent improvement in fuel efficiency for drivers receiving the simulation-based training.

Conclusions

In every survey and every industry examined, simulation-based training was seen to have a positive effect. In every case in which simulation-based training was directly compared to traditional methods, simulations were observed to be superior on some or all criteria. In every case where the costs of simulation-based and traditional training were compared, simulations were found to be less expensive, whether due to lower acquisition costs, lower operating costs, or lower costs resulting from more effective or faster training. In every case in which the author(s) of a study made a recommendation about the use of simulation-based training, they recommended its ongoing or expanded use.

In short, simulation training has demonstrably reached the point where questions of its fundamental effectiveness should no longer play a part in evaluating its potential use for any given project. In conducting such evaluations, the basic usefulness of simulation training can now be taken as a given, allowing project planners and decision-makers to focus their attention on their specific applications and how best to utilize simulation training in the most useful and cost-effective manner.

References

Abrahamson, S., J. S. Denson, and R. M. Wolf. 1969. Effectiveness of a simulator in training anesthesiology residents. Journal of Medical Education 44: 515-519. Reprinted in Quality & Safety in Health Care 2004 13:395-397. http://qshc.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/13/5/397.pdf (accessed January 10, 2007).

Bessemer, David W. 1991. Transfer of SIMNET training in the Armor Officer Basic Course (ARI Technical Report 920), Alexandria, VA: Army Research Institute.

Eastern Kentucky University. College of Justice and Safety. Justice and Safety Center. 2003. The evaluation of a mobile simulation training technology—PRISim. http://www.jsc.eku.edu/reports/PRISimReportFINAL.pdf (accessed January 10, 2007).

Fletcher, J.D. 1997. What have we learned about computer based instruction in military training? In R.J. Seidel and P.R. Chatelier (eds.), Virtual Reality, Training's Future? New York, NY: Plenum Publishing.

Hays, Robert T., John W. Jacobs, Carolyn Prince, and Eduardo Salas. 1992. Flight simulator training effectiveness: a meta-analysis. Military Psychology 4(2): 63-74. http://www.leaonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15327876mp0402_1 (accessed January 10, 2007).

Lane, David M. and Zhihua Tang. 2000. Effectiveness of simulation training on transfer of statistical concepts. Journal of Educational Computing Research 22(4): 383-396. http://baywood.metapress.com/link.asp?id=w9gw5m9cuqvt1e0r (accessed January 10, 2007).

Lockridge, Deborah. 2006. Simulated training. Heavy Duty Trucking, October. http://www.heavydutytrucking.com/2006/09/044a0609.asp (accessed November 29, 2006).

NGRAIN (Canada) Corporation. 2006. NGRAIN and CAE help Canadian Forces increase training throughput. http://www.ngrain.com/solutions/casestudies/articles/NGRAIN-CDN_Forces_Train_60_percent_Faster.pdf (accessed January 9, 2007).

Nullmeyer, Robert T., V. Alan Spiker, Katharine C. Golas, Ryan C. Logan, and Larry Clemons. 2006. The effectiveness of a PC-based C-130 crew resource management aircrew training device. Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) 2006 Conference Proceedings. http://www.iitsec.org/documents/Trng_2807.pdf (accessed January 9, 2007).

Seymour, Neal E., Anthony G. Gallagher, Sanziana A. Roman, et al. 2002. Virtual reality training improves operating room performance: results of a randomized, double-blinded study. Annals of Surgery, October 236(4): 458–464. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/picrender.fcgi?artid=1422600&blobtype=pdf (accessed January 11, 2007).

Shlechter, Theodore M., David W. Bessemer, Paul Nesselroade, Jr., and James Anthony. 1995. An initial evaluation of a simulation-based training program for Army National Guard units. Research Report 1679. U. S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. http://handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA297271 (accessed January 10, 2007).

Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Stan Burns. 2004. The development and evaluation of a high-fidelity simulator training program for snowplow operators. Proceedings of the Third International Driving Symposium on Human Factors in Driver Assessment, Training and Vehicle Design: 464-470. http://ppc.uiowa.edu/driving-assessment/2005/final/papers/68_DavidStrayerformat.pdf (accessed January 10, 2007).

Turpin, Darrell and Reginald Welles. 2006. Analysis of simulator-based training effectiveness through driver performance measurement. Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) 2006 Conference Proceedings. http://ntsa.metapress.com/link.asp?id=ebe0e1hlf6adc67q (accessed January 10, 2007).

June 20, 2007

"...Fights Like Someone Having a Stroke"

Via Digg, a lengthy article rating the five actors to have played Batman in the movies. I doubt I'm giving anything away by saying that Adam West comes in last place. The article is generally pretty funny, the section on West especially so, but this is my favorite bit, accompanied by an inline video showing the climactic fight aboard the Penguin's submarine at the end of the campy 1966 film Batman: The Movie:

BatWest fights like someone having a stroke. To be fair, Batman: The Movie's supposed to be campy. To once again be unfair, it looks like they didn't so much choreograph their fights as just run around flailing their arms like the set just caught on fire...

Man, let that in. BatWest just got his ass handed to him there by a quacking Burgess Meredith with a pillow under his tuxedo. That's the point in your crime-fighting career where you just need to stop and frankly assess some things that might have gotten away from you. If BatWest had to fight a six-year-old girl on crutches, frankly, it could go either way.

June 19, 2007

Heard at the Office Today

Picking up in the middle of an end-of-the-day, walking-out-the-door office conversation about the infamous baby-versus-cobra video (in which a baby is allowed to 'play' with a cobra whose mouth has been sewn shut):

Me: I think it might be the worst thing I've ever seen that wasn't gory or pornographic.

Rett: I actually felt sorrier for the cobra than for the baby.

Me: Why is that?

Rett: Because the cobra was saying to itself, "What's wrong? I should be killing this thing."

Me: Right. "WTF? Aw, snap!"

Rett: You can't say "WTF" and "snap".

Me: Yes, I can.

Rett: We've been over this.

Me: House says them. Well, he doesn't say "WTF", but he says "snap".

Rett: You're not as charming as House.

Me: Actually, I've already told David Smith he's the House of the company.

Rett: What did he say?

Me: He was down with it.

Rett: What you should have said was, "If you were smarter, you'd be the House of the company."

Me: Aw, snap!

June 18, 2007

Auto Shopping from a Strategic Marketing Viewpoint

I'm in the market for a new car, and I can't help but think about the task in marketing terms.

Two of the requirements on my list are "upscale car" (because I want the service and support offered by upscale dealers) and "foreign make" (because I'm not thrilled with the reliability of domestic makes). These two requirements narrow the list down to:

  • Acura
  • Audi
  • BMW
  • Infiniti
  • Lexus
  • Mercedes
I've omitted Jaguar and Land Rover for various reasons, including reliability; Saab and Volvo because I don't consider them to be true upscale makes; and Porsche because I'm looking for a sedan.

So how do these six makes brand themselves?

  • Acura: Visionary innovation meets exhilirating performance.
  • Audi: Attractive, sophisticated, and technically perfect.
  • BMW: The ultimate driving machine.
  • Infiniti: Vibrant design.
  • Lexus: The relentless pursuit of perfection.
  • Mercedes: (I couldn't find a simple branding statement for Mercedes.)
Just for fun, if I were to rate these statements, I'd give BMW an A+, Lexus a B (perfection of what?), Infiniti a C (design of what?), Acura and Audi a D each (long-winded and boring), and of course Mercedes an I for incomplete.

But the real goal here is to look at how these makes position themselves in their markets. The Germans came first, so let's start there.

  • Mercedes is the gold standard, but they want to be most things to many people, and their image is diluted as a result. Really, what does Mercedes stand for? Luxury? Performance? Reliability? I'd say they want to be associated with luxury, but some of their cars seem very ordinary these days. (The ML series comes immediately to mind.)
  • BMW wants to build drivers' cars, and they're doing a great job of it. Their market position matches their company's focus, and their position and focus both match their marketing.
  • I can't figure out Audi. Do they want to be Mercedes? BMW? Something else?
  • Lexus wants to be the Japanese Mercedes -- that's crystal-clear. And they're succeeding at it. Their cars are luxurious, reliable, and -- to my mind, anyway -- boring, though that's a matter of taste, of course.
  • Infiniti absolutely wants to be the Japanese BMW -- again, that's crystal-clear. And as with Lexus, they're succeeding at it. I note that Consumer Reports' top-rated upscale sedan is the G35, while their top-rated luxury sedan is the M35.
  • That leaves Acura. What does Acura want to be? As with Audi, I can't figure that out for the life of me.
So...
  • Mercedes: German luxury.
  • Lexus: Japanese luxury.
  • BMW: German performance.
  • Infiniti: Japanese performance.
  • Audi: ?
  • Acura: ?
I like some of the individual models made by Audi and Acura -- the A4 / S4 and the TL are nice, compact, upscale sedans. But I'd like my car to come from a company with a clear vision of where it's going and what it wants to be. So for that reason alone -- plus my perception that Acura in particular is a step behind the others on this list when it comes to service and support -- I'm dropping both of them.

As for the remaining four makes, I've come to the decision that I want a driver's car, not something that will coddle me. So Mercedes and Lexus don't make the list. That leaves us with BMW and Infiniti... but that's a story for another day.

June 17, 2007

The Economist on Apple and Innovation

I'm usually right on top of new issues of The Economist, but I managed to miss last week's cover story on Apple. There's a long piece on the history of Apple and Steve Jobs, and then a shorter piece on what other firms can learn from Apple. The lessons boil down to four:

  1. Innovation can come from without as well as within.
  2. The importance of designing new products around the needs of the user, not the demands of the technology.
  3. Smart companies should sometimes ignore what the market says it wants today.
  4. Fail wisely.
I find the third point especially on the mark. The Economist writes:
Listening to customers is generally a good idea, but it is not the whole story. For all the talk of “user-centric innovation” and allowing feedback from customers to dictate new product designs, a third lesson from Apple is that smart companies should sometimes ignore what the market says it wants today. The iPod was ridiculed when it was launched in 2001, but Mr Jobs stuck by his instinct. Nintendo has done something similar with its popular motion-controlled video-game console, the Wii. Rather than designing a machine for existing gamers, it gambled that non-gamers represented an untapped market and devised a machine with far broader appeal.
Generally speaking, breakthrough products -- from the Walkman to the iPod, from the Atari 2600 to the Wii, from Yahoo to Google -- don't come from focus groups and market research. They come because passionate, inventive individuals create visions of how things could be -- from portable music to video games to Internet search -- and then set out to make those visions real. If customers agree with them, so much the better -- but in the end, they're building products for themselves.

June 15, 2007

Business Leader Cover Story

As I've noted before, I don't typically talk about 3Dsolve on my blog; given the nature of our work, I would undoubtedly have to compromise some of the other things I say here. But it's a rule I bend on occasion, and this seems like a good one:

Business Leader Cover
3Dsolve CEO Richard Boyd on the cover of the June issue of Business Leader magazine.

The cover story of this month's issue of Business Leader magazine, "Gaming Is Big Business: Pioneers Lead Resurgence in Local Marketplace", is on gaming and serious gaming in the Triangle area of North Carolina, where we're located. 3Dsolve gets the cover photo and the lion's share of the story:

The Triangle's gaming-hub status is the result of some serious technology pioneers. At one time, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill housed the world’s fastest graphics computer. Raleigh native David Smith created "The Colony" -- the original first-person 3-D computer adventure game -- while local entrepreneur Richard Boyd has helped create games such as "SSN" as spin-offs of Tom Clancy's bestselling books. Additionally, Raleigh-based Epic Games recently sold the movie rights to New Line Cinema for its "Gears of War," which was named Game of the Year by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.

"We brought in people from all over the planet to work here in computer gaming" during the 1990s, Boyd says of himself and Smith, as well as executives at Epic Games and Red Storm. But the dot-com bust of the early 21st century left the industry reeling. "The period after the bubble burst was sort of a nuclear winter for gaming. There wasn’t a lot of local investment in the industry," he says.

To combat the economic depression, in 2001 Boyd, Smith and Frank Boosman -- who along with Tom Clancy were among the creative minds behind Morrisville-based Red Storm -- co-founded 3Dsolve, a Cary-based company that develops innovative technologies such as three-dimensional graphics as a medium to solve issues in government, military, and corporate functions. Since then, several other gaming companies have arrived, resulting in a strengthened local industry once again...

For the past five years, 3Dsolve has collaborated with the U.S. Department of Defense to train military personnel to identify explosive devices, set up communications shelters and maintain vehicles, among other skills. The company now is taking its software into commercial markets to train businesses using that first-person gaming experience.

"A game environment is a place where you really care about what's happening, rather than sitting back passively, watching a PowerPoint presentation," says Boyd, 3Dsolve's CEO. "It's all part of the experience." ...

In his book, "Digital Game-Based Learning," author Marc Prensky discusses the concept of digital natives, or people who have grown up with the Internet and video games...

"They socialize differently," says Richard Boyd, co-founder and president of Cary-based 3Dsolve, of digital natives. "You can't get in front of them and show them a video or do a chalk talk to try and train them. They're spending more time in the evenings in online virtual worlds or playing games." ...

3Dsolve, for one, is harnessing the medium for training and education. "Understanding how digital natives prefer to have their media experiences and socialize will shape the media landscape over the next decade," Boyd says. "The area is poised to be the leaders in that revival, and we expect 3Dsolve to be a part of it."

June 14, 2007

Googling Glamour Shots for Cats

I'm informed by my friend and colleague Rett that doing a Google search for "glamour shots cats" leads to this blog entry being first on the list. The only conclusion I can draw is that very few people are interested in glamour shots for cats. Including me, actually, except as a commentary on the decadence and obsession with the trivial of modern society. Wait, that doesn't work, since as far as I can tell, they don't actually exist. Where am I going with this? I have no idea.

June 13, 2007

Clearing My To-Blog List

With few exceptions, I dislike the idea of blog entries that are context-free (or mostly context-free) links to other pages. "Check this out!" just doesn't do much for me. But I have 20 windows of links in Firefox, and it's either a) dump them all or b) clear them out with a single post. So, and in no particular order:

The BoGo Light is a great idea -- a solar-powered flashlight designed for the Third World. Here in the First World, we're so accustomed to having light whenever we want it that it's hard for us to remember just how much more difficult life would be without it. Buy one and they donate one to charity.

The Economist's blog from Europe reports on the use of the familiar tu and the formal vous (tutoiement and vouvoiement, respectively). The French are considering enforcing vouvoiement in schools, even as its use at EU headquarters seems a thing of the past.

News from the world of health: Soy promotes weight loss. Proof of the effectiveness of interval training (and not just for elite athletes) is on the rise.

Via Andrew Sullivan (among others), London chooses a horrible logo for its 2012 Olympic Games. See it and some of the reactions here -- I can't mention my favorite, which involves Lisa Simpson, but I also like the comment that it looks "as if the 80s has thrown up into 2012". The Sun holds an impromptu design competition, and their in-house artist does a fantastic job.

More examples of awful logo design here and here.

The rise in the Canadian dollar versus the American dollar has left Canada hungry for tourists. Hey, I did my part -- I was in Whistler earlier this month.

Yesterday was the 40th Loving Day. It's nearly incomprehensible to me that as recently as the 1960s, some people were arguing against interracial marriage. My hunch is that 40 years from now, the arguments made by today's opponents of gay marriage will sound similar.

This statistic is staggering, or should be: "Texas, where coal barely edges out cleaner natural gas as the top power source, belches almost 1 1/2 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide yearly. That's more than every nation in the world except six: the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India and Germany." So Texas alone is contributing more to global warming than all but six countries.

June 11, 2007

Tragedy, Guilt, and This Strange World in Which We Live

Certain aspects of this story have me walking along two lines, one being that of what I'm comfortable writing about when it comes to my personal life, and the other being protecting the anonymity of a dear friend of mine. I've tried my best to tread carefully down those lines here, balancing storytelling with privacy, but if my storytelling seems awkward at times, blame a writer on unfamiliar ground.

Tragedy

M is one of my best friends in the world. We've known each other only a couple of years, but I think we both realized early on that we'd be friends for life. She's smart as hell, one of the funniest people I know, and a kind soul, but for me the clincher is how we tease each other relentlessly and without mercy. I don't know how to explain it -- it's just how we relate. When she becomes sincere on occasion, and tells me how much she cares about me as a friend, the first words out of my mouth are, "Do I have cancer?" (She says something similar when I'm sincere with her.) She had a rough few years there, but her fortunes are looking up -- she recently married a great guy and has a beautiful new baby daughter. I think of her as my sweet, sharp-tongued kid sister.

While I was in Whistler last week, M's best friend from childhood, J, died. Not of some disease that gave everyone time to say goodbye, but unexpectedly and to the shock of everyone who knew her.

M was devastated and drove to her old hometown the next morning to be with J's family and friends. M and I talked while she was on the road, and I've never heard her so upset. She'd get a sentence or two out, cry for a moment, pull herself together, then start all over again.

J was young, M's age, in her late twenties. I didn't know her, but M had told me about her in the past. From what little she had said, I had a picture of someone attractive, intelligent, and loving, trying to move past hard times in her life. Since J's death, M has written more about her, and I can see from what she has written that my impression was accurate. M posted a photo of J, and when I look at it, I see a beautiful dark-haired girl, relaxed, comfortable with herself, yet sad somehow.

The funeral was held a couple of days ago. I spoke with M afterwards, and from what she said, it was understandably emotional. I haven't had a loved one die unexpectedly as J did, so I don't know how hard that must have been for everyone. I don't want to find out.

Guilt

The night before J died, she talked with M. J had been engaged some years before, and it ended painfully for her. She had recently been reminded of the engagement, and was hurting. When M asked, it turned out that J still had a number of mementos from her ex-fiancé -- pictures, journals, clothes, and the like. They discussed it and decided together that J should burn the mementos to put him behind her. M suggested waiting for a little while, so that she could come up with a cleansing ritual, and they could do it together on her next trip home.

J died when her house burned that night.

I know what I've said to M. I know her friends have said the same things. I know she's told herself the same things. She suggested waiting. She didn't mean for J to do it on her own. She wouldn't have done it in the house. It's all true. It wasn't M's fault, not in the slightest.

But I also know how I'd feel in M's place. I'd feel that it was absolutely my fault. I'd feel that my friend was dead because of me. Even if all her friends and family, and all my friends and family, were telling me it wasn't true, even if I rationally knew it wasn't true, I'd still feel that it was my fault, without question. I know that. But again, I don't know how hard this must be for her, and I don't want to find out.

So now M is dealing with both the sadness at the loss of her best friend from childhood and the guilt over feeling that the responsibility was hers. And I know that there's nothing I can say or do that will really, truly help. I can tell her how sorry I am, tell her that it's not her fault, ask her if there's anything I can do. But no one, not me, not even her husband, can make this better. Only time can.

This Strange World in Which We Live

M told me about the fire and its cause over the weekend. I thought about it often until we talked again earlier today.

"This may sound macabre," I said, "but I'm surprised you didn't introduce us."

By way of background, my relationship with my long-time girlfriend ended permanently a few months ago. (The term "long-time" is an oversimplification, but it will have to do here.)

The more I thought about it over the weekend, the more I read and re-read M's words about her friend, the more I wondered why she hadn't tried to set us up. I can't point to anything specific about J that made me feel that way, like her enjoying the same food as me, having similar goals in life to me, liking the same music or movies as me... it wasn't anything like that. It was just something in the way M wrote about J, something in how she described her attitude towards people and her outlook on life.

"I actually thought about it," M said. "I really did. Don't you remember me talking about her?"

"I do, yes." She had mentioned her briefly during a conversation a few weeks ago after a trip home -- nothing special, just in passing while talking about her visit.

"I had thought about setting up the two of you. I just didn't get around to it."

M knew that I was fairly fresh out of my relationship, and that I was deliberately taking some time to reconsider my priorities and to focus on myself -- not in the sense of buying myself this or treating myself to that, but in the sense of thinking first about living the best life I can, as opposed to thinking first about making a relationship work (which can come once again down the road).

I don't think it was that M "didn't get around to it". I think she felt -- rightly -- that I wasn't quite ready to launch into another serious relationship. Given time, would she have tried to introduce us? I think so.

It's not that I think, "there but for tragedy goes my would-be love", not at all. Had M eventually introduced us, I don't know whether J and I would have been available, whether we would have been interested in each other in the slightest, whether we would have hit it off. I don't know and I never will. And since I don't know, it's not something I'm pining over -- which would in any case be self-indulgent of me given the pain my friend is in. So I'm not pining.

But I do wonder.

June 09, 2007

The Police in Concert

So, after all the build-up, how were The Police in concert? They were terrific. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had this to say of the show:

Police fans were walking on the moon Wednesday night.

The Police opened the U.S. leg of its long-anticipated reunion tour with the bang of a gong and a parade of hit songs at KeyArena. Concertgoers responded with handclaps, singalongs and whoops of approval...

In Seattle, the good vibes and celebratory nature of the opening shows in Vancouver were still evident in the band's spirited performance, as well as fans' excited reaction to seeing their longtime heroes back on stage...

The band's performance was tighter and more focused than the tour's opening night May 28 in Vancouver...

Sting, playing a scuffed and seasoned electric bass and wearing a tattered white tank top, smiled broadly for much of show and looked happy to be back on stage with his former bandmates. Summers looked far more serious, while Copeland was positively intense.

And The Seattle Times wrote this:

Competing with the memory of your own greatest performances is a daunting proposition.

But the Police, the classic English rock trio that had not played in the Seattle area since its memorable 1983 show at the Tacoma Dome, managed to pull this feat off pretty well Wednesday night at KeyArena.

Though the band wasn't exactly relaxed -- you could often feel their concentration -- they played their old songs with real spirit and commitment and were sometimes even inspired.

By the end of the show, pumping out those insistent punk/new wave beats, they had worked their magic. It felt like 1983 all over again.

The energy level of the band and the audience was amazing. And the band maintained that energy over a two-hour set without breaks. That gave them time to play all the songs I really wanted to hear (though Duncan was disappointed they didn't play "Omega Man").

Here are a few of the photos I took of the concert. I'm not vouching for the quality of the photography here, just trying to convey the feel of the show:

The Police 1 (Synchronicity II)

"Synchronicity II".

The Police 10 ("Roxanne")

"Roxanne".

The Police 15 ("Next to You")

"Next to You".

My Flickr photoset from the concert is here. I've posted two videos on YouTube; until they're undoubtedly taken down, they're here and here.

In short, if you're a fan of The Police, try to see them on this concert tour. It's a great show; you'll always be able to say you were there when they reunited; and given their legendary fights, you never know -- it could be their swan song.

June 07, 2007

Flying Is Hell These Days

Duncan and I are flying home from our brief vacation today, and while the vacation itself was great -- mountain biking in Whistler, catching up with old friends in Vancouver and Seattle, seeing The Police in concert -- the flights on both ends have been wretched.

Our plan last Saturday was to fly into Seattle, rent a car there, drive up to Vancouver for dinner, then drive up to Whistler and check into our hotel. We arrived in Chicago to find that our flight to Seattle had been cancelled, and that there were no seats on the next available flight. The best United could do was to get us into Seattle five hours late. By that time, it would have been 5:30 PM, and we would have faced five to six hours of driving plus a dinner break. So, I suggested, why not just fly us into Vancouver instead? There was an earlier flight with seats available, and by not driving from Seattle to Vancouver, we'd end up just about even. They agreed, but it meant (for rental car purposes) that we had to fly out of Vancouver on the way back as well. So be it. My one concern was our bags, but the Red Carpet Club agent assured me that there was plenty of time for the baggage people to change their destination and get them to the right plane. Fine.

Of course, we arrived in Vancouver without bags. The baggage agent assured me that the bags would either be on the next flight to Vancouver, or were on their way to Seattle, and that either way, they'd be delivered to us in the middle of the night. Fine.

Of course, our bags didn't show up during the night. This led to multiple phone calls to United's baggage service line. Unlike the elite flier phone lines, the baggage service call center is located in India, staffed by people who read from apologetic, supplicating scripts, but who are empowered to do exactly nothing. They told me that at least one or two of our bags, and possibly all three, would be delivered that afternoon. Fine.

Of course, our bags didn't show up that afternoon, and anyway, we didn't want to miss our day of mountain biking, so we went ahead and purchased clothing for the day (for which, theoretically, United will partially reimburse us). Our bags showed up in the middle of the following night, almost 36 hours late, and just a few hours before we had to leave.

Today we're flying back home. It has been a long day already -- we didn't get out of the parking lot after The Police concert until after 11:00 PM. With a 6:20 AM departure, and a two-and-a-half or three-hour drive, it didn't make sense to stay in a hotel, so we had dinner along the way, pulled into a rest stop for a bit, and arrived at the airport just after 4:00 AM. The flight to Chicago was fine, but we arrived to discover that for the second time on the same trip, our connecting flight had been cancelled. High winds are causing problems all throughout the East, leading to hundreds of cancellations. We're on standby for a flight at 4:30 PM; if we don't make it onto that, we'll be placed on standby for a flight at 6:00 PM; and if we don't make it onto that, we'll be placed on standby for a 9:00 PM flight. If we don't make it onto that, we're stuck here for the night, with no bags -- they're going onto Raleigh-Durham with or without us. And no hotel voucher, either, since it isn't the airline's fault. And if we have to fly back tomorrow, we won't be flying together -- there weren't two seats available on the same flight until tomorrow night.

Flying really is hell these days. The scary part is that I'm experienced, have been through this sort of thing, have an idea of what to expect, and have elite status with multiple airlines. How rough is this on the average traveler?

June 06, 2007

Druyan on Sagan and Agnosticism

In the current issue of Skeptic magazine (unavailable online), which is partly devoted to the legacy of Carl Sagan on the 10th anniversary of his death, Michael Shermer interviews Sagan's widow and collaborator, Ann Druyan. Reading the interview reminded me of how much Sagan's presence in the world is missed, and of how I probably owe at least some portion of my philosophy on religion to his influence:

SKEPTIC: I want to get down to where the rubber meets the road in the ontological question of god's existence. What did Carl call himself -- atheist, agnostic, non-theist...?

DRUYAN: Carl really was an agnostic, truly. He felt that people who say that they know how the universe came to be, who made it or didn't make it, are kind of foolish in a way, whether they are believers or atheists. Carl believed that in a universe that is so vast, and for a species as young and ignorant as we are, the only reasonable position to take on these ultimate questions is agnosticism.

SKEPTIC: What most people mean by "atheist" is "belief that there is no God," whereas agnostic means that we just don't know?

DRUYAN: Literally yes, we do not know. Not that we can't know, but at the moment in the present state we know so little about the universe. We've only been at this exploration of the universe in any sort of systematic way for what, four centuries? That's such a tiny fraction of history. Carl would say "we just don't know," and the more we acknowledge how much we don't know, the less chance we have of assuming things that turn out not to be true.

[...]

SKEPTIC: It seemed like Carl -- and you as his collaborator -- make a point of being extra polite and thoughtful with those who are religious. Is this conciliatory approach just a political strategy, just making nice so that we can all get along?

DRUYAN: No, it is respect. It is remembering how many times all of us have been wrong. I think that attitude is at the heart of the methodology of science. There is nothing patronizing at all in this approach; it is simply respect. And this approach comes from life experience. I am 57, and I have been wrong plenty of times. Every time I think that I know everything, somebody demonstrates how completely deluded I am. And this is what is so great about the scientific method: it has that built-in error correcting mechanism that is always reminding you, "You could be wrong."

A few weeks ago, I wrote of Douglas Adams:

He... had an ongoing interest in the intersection of science and religion, and was speaking on that subject as well. It's particularly sad to me that we lost his voice in that particular discussion, because it's so difficult for me to imagine anyone being truly angry with Douglas. How can you hate someone who's making you laugh? It would be a great balance to the thoughtful but serious Richard Dawkinses, Sam Harrises, and their like to have Douglas around, disarmingly poking holes in religion without truly offending anyone.
And it's sad to me that we lost Sagan, too, for similar reasons: he could poke holes in religion (and did so about as well as anyone) while nevertheless respecting its practitioners. And how could you hate someone who sincerely respects you and your beliefs?

June 04, 2007

Whistler Mountain Bike Park

Our time in Whistler is over, and we're now in Seattle. A few photos from our time there:

Bike Park, Here We Come

The Whistler Mountain Bike Park as seen from our room in the Sundial Boutique Hotel.

Duncan

Duncan taking a break on the mountain.

Whistler Mountain Bike Park

Whistler Mountain Bike Park.

On the mountain, Duncan fell more often, but far more gracefully -- he'd jump off his bike in mid-fall and generally land on his feet, and walked away essentially bruise-free. Me? I went down twice, but each time I went down hard. The first time I fell, I tumbled, and when I righted myself, I saw two long cuts running down my left thigh. They weren't bad, but blood was beginning to run from them. I looked at the cuts for a moment and thought, "Cool!"

As we were gearing up at the rental store in the morning, I remember wondering if I really needed all the protective gear -- the helmet was a given, but forearm-elbow pads and shin-knee pads? Later in the day, I wondered, "What would have happened if I hadn't worn the gear?" Let's say it wouldn't have been pretty and leave it at that.

June 03, 2007

Consistency and Exercise

Four months ago, I decided it was time to do something about my diet and fitness. Over the prior six months or so, I had lost track of these issues, eating food that was bad for me (and too much of it), and exercising inconsistently at best. I can't say what led me to make the change, but looking back, I'd say it was a feeling that grew, the growth unnoticed like a child you see every day until suddenly you look up one day and realize they're taller than you. I woke up one otherwise unremarkable day and knew it was time.

Starting that day, I began rigorously keeping track of my diet and staying within guidelines I set for myself. I also began exercising five days a week, a mix of cardio work at the gym, a weekly soccer game, a weekly bicycle ride with my daughter, the occasional long walk, and lifting weights here and there. The results were good, but after a few weeks, I began to think I might feel and do better if I could exercise every day.

For as long as I can remember thinking about exercise, I've always assumed that days off were necessary components of an fitness regimen. Everything I can remember reading about exercise programs preached the idea of days off for all except elite athletes. But is that really good advice? Do we really need days off? I found myself not so sure, and wondering what would happen if I exercised daily without fail for an extended period of time. And I had always assumed that if I tried to exercise every day, I'd be setting myself up for failure. But is that true?

As it happens, other people have been thinking similarly. One blogger writes:

The first few times I tried to install exercise habits, they fell apart. Attempting to exercise three or four times a week, simply didn't stick. What eventually did the trick was making it a daily habit. It may seem counterintuitive that exercising more frequently is an easier habit to install, but when you look into the mechanisms that create habits, it makes sense.
And other blogger writes:
The problem with trying to make exercise a habit, and it's something that we've all faced, is that you usually try to exercise 3 or 4 times a week... and that makes creating a new exercise habit difficult. The reason is that the more consistent an action is, the more likely it is to be a habit.
These entries were written after I made my decision, but it was nice to see people agreeing with me after the fact.

So, 12 weeks ago, I began exercising every day. I didn't make any other radical changes to my exercise habits, with the exception that I set a goal of lifting weights three times a week as part of my program. A typical week might look like this:

  • Monday: soccer game
  • Tuesday: weightlifting, elliptical trainer
  • Wednesday: elliptical trainer
  • Thursday: weightlifting, elliptical trainer
  • Friday: elliptical trainer
  • Saturday: weightlifting, elliptical trainer, walking
  • Sunday: bicycle ride
(I should note here why it is that running isn't a part of my program. I enjoy running, and ran my first half-marathon early last year, but have been suffering from a persistent case of tendinopathy in my left knee since then. Supervised physical therapy hasn't helped. After reading through the latest medical journal articles, I'm trying eccentric patellar strengthening at home, which seems to be helping, but very slowly. Until it's better, my orthopaedist's advice is to avoid impact activities as much as possible -- so the only running I do is during my soccer games. which I refuse to give up.)

At first, my goal was to see if I could go three weeks in a row without missing a day -- I couldn't remember doing that since I was in the Army over 20 years ago. When I reached three weeks, my goal became eight weeks -- I figured the longest stretch of daily exercise I might ever have had was that long, while I was in basic training back in 1980. Now I'm at 12 weeks and figure it's time to blog about what I'm doing.

So far, the results have been great. I'm losing a pound a week. I'm wearing clothes I hadn't put on in a few months. I have more energy. I'm sleeping more consistently. I'm feeling faster during soccer games and on bicycle rides -- I assume partly because my cardiovascular fitness is improving, and partly because I have less weight to move around.

I've also seen good results from the weightlifting. I had been lifting now and then for a couple of years, but never with consistency, and never tracking what I was doing. Now I'm lifting three times a week, and keeping a log of everything I do. I push myself to make progress -- even a little -- every session. I think I'm stronger than I've ever been, and I'm starting to see muscles appear in new places, which is nice.

All that said, I think the most important change has been in my attitude towards exercise. I don't think of it as something that I need to try to work into my day; I think of it now as a given, as something I will do no matter what. It's not always easy, I have to say. It means going to the gym at 5:00 AM because I know I'm going to be busy all day, or going at 11:00 PM because I've just flown in from a long trip. It means planning ahead, ensuring that no matter where I am, no matter what I'm doing, I have the opportunity and ability to exercise. Sometimes it just means exercising when I what I really feel like doing is going home, having dinner, and crawling into bed. But I always feel better for having exercised, both physically and mentally.

I wrote about the goals I've had: three weeks in a row, eight weeks in a row. I find myself no longer thinking in those terms. I don't feel like I need a goal like that to motivate myself on a daily basis. As one of the bloggers mentioned above wrote, "the more consistent an action is, the more likely it is to be a habit". Daily exercise is a habit for me now, something I don't consider skipping. Of course, the day will come when I'm sick or injured and simply unable to do anything physical. I'm not looking forward to that day, but at the same time, I don't worry about it being the first step down a slippery slope. If I can't help missing a day or two, I believe I'll get right back out the next day and keep going. It's what I do now.

June 01, 2007

Off to the Pacific Northwest

Tomorrow morning, my son Duncan and I are off to the Pacific Northwest. We're going to spend two nights in Whistler so that we can go mountain biking on Whistler Mountain (something I've wanted to do for years now). Then it's three nights in Seattle, where we're going to visit friends, bike the Burke Gilman Trail, do some sightseeing, and then see The Police in concert at Key Arena. Bon week-end!

Remembering Shasta

Shasta

Shasta, Christmas Day 1999.

My ex-wife Karin had our Siberian Husky, Shasta, put to sleep yesterday. It was for the best. Shasta had a cancerous growth on her leg that kept regrowing and wouldn't heal, was partly blind and deaf, and lately was having a great deal of trouble just moving around the house. The veterinarian recommended that Karin make the decision, not only for these reasons, but because he found fluid in her lungs as well -- she didn't have long left to live, and would have suffered greatly.

But I'm writing this entry not about Shasta's death, but rather about her life.

In the mid-1990s, Karin and I were still married and had just bought a house here in North Carolina. We knew we wanted a dog, and Karin was researching possibilities. She found a no-kill rescue shelter in Nebraska that seemed like our kind of place, and the shelter had recently taken in a female Siberian Husky. This dog had wandered into a little town, malnourished but just as friendly as she could be, wandering down the sidewalks, into and out of shops, and responding warmly to people. The people at the shelter took her in and started looking for a home for her. It was clear from talking to them that this was a dog they all wished they could keep for themselves.

From the photos, we could see that the dog was beautiful, though still gaunt from her time on her own. They estimated she was a year old, though they couldn't be sure how long she had been fending for herself. They interviewed us, decided we were a good match, and we made arrangements to adopt her. There was a direct flight from an airport in their region to Charlotte, so they shipped her there rather than to Raleigh-Durham (which would have meant changing planes). Karin and I made the drive down in our van to pick her up.

In Charlotte, when we took her out of her crate, we saw she was even more beautiful in person. Being underweight made her look dainty, in a way, and I always thought of her that way as a result. She hopped up in the van and seemed delighted to be with us -- many huskies remind me of bottlenose dolphins in that they look as if they're always smiling, and I suspect that perhaps they really are, that it's not just an accident of the evolution of their facial structure.

We named Shasta after a husky we had met years before at a party held by acquaintances of ours in San Diego. They had a husky named Shasta, but who was often called Shasta the Wonder Dog for various reasons, notably her habit of 'speaking' when spoken to. We always remembered Shasta the Wonder Dog, and when we got our own husky, we never seriously considered any other name for her.

That first night with Shasta, before turning in for the night, we were talking about whether we should allow her to sleep on the bed when, out of the blue, she hopped up there on her own and made herself comfortable. She had a habit of crossing her paws when she laid down, which seemed very ladylike and never ceased to amuse me. Karin and I looked at each other, looked at Shasta, and I think it was me who said, "Well, it looks as if she made the decision for us." With her crossed paws, and smiling up at us, we couldn't imagine refusing her anything. In the end, though, she decided she was more comfortable on the floor, and always slept there, not far from us.

In all the time I was with her, I have only one memory of Shasta being aggressive with any of us. It was in the first day or two after we brought her home. I can't remember what I was doing, but it was something she didn't like, and she turned to yelp at me. When she did so, her teeth grazed my hand. It was nothing, but I decided to be firm with her, and alpha-rolled her on the spot. She responded perfectly and she never did anything of the sort ever again -- despite the presence of our three kids, whom I'm sure tortured her when we weren't looking.

Shasta wasn't aggressive, but huskies have reputations as big babies, and she was no different. Someone would barely step on her tail and she'd cry out like they were ripping it off whole -- though she wouldn't nip at them. I took her in to have her tattooed for security purposes, and it took four of us to hold her down, and you would have thought she was having surgery without anaesthaesia from the way she was crying. The veterinarian, the staff, and I were all laughing, actually, at how much she complained.

Shasta was incredibly intelligent. We knew she was smart, but we didn't know quite how smart until the first or second Easter after we adopted her. We hid eggs for the kids around the house -- both hard-boiled eggs and the hollow plastic kind filled with miniature candy bars (the little ones from Hershey). We tracked down all the real eggs, but missed a few of the plastic versions. We left Shasta at home and went out for part of the day. We came back to find plastic eggs popped open and empty candy bar wrappers nearby -- not torn-up wrappers, mind you, but unfolded wrappers with their candy missing. It was hard to believe a dog was capable of such a thing. We decided to see how she did it and placed more candy in plastic eggs and set them out in front of her. In our presence, she acted innocent, as if she had no interest in them. We had to leave the room and spy on her to see how she did it. After she thought we were gone, she carefully picked up an egg in her mouth, gently bit down until it popped open, fetched the miniature candy bar out of it, then used her paws and her teeth to carefully unwrap the candy.

Shasta didn't 'speak' like her namesake, but sometimes, if I pretended to howl, she'd howl along with me. I wondered if she dreamed of running with huskies, or hunting with wolves. I'll never know, though I do know that when we tried hooking her up to a sled one winter to see if she'd pull one of the kids, she acted like we were from another planet. So much for having sled-pulling in her genes.

With the cats in the house, Shasta was always gentle and tolerant. We brought home a rescued longhaired kitten named Saffy for my son Duncan, and once she came out from beneath Duncan's bed -- which took a while -- she gravitated towards Shasta. They became friends and always were until Saffy died a few months ago.

Somehow, as with so many dogs, Shasta was perfectly capable of distinguishing between friends (like our cats) and prey. She didn't have much opportunity to hunt, because we didn't have a fenced yard most of the time we owned her, but we did when we lived in California in the late 1990s. The kids were out back and yelled for me to come. Shasta had caught a squirrel and had it in her mouth. I was actually proud of her for catching it, but the kids didn't want to see her eviscerate an animal, and I was worried about parasites and disease in any case, so I had her drop it and led her away. But when she had the squirrel in her mouth, she looked more than ever like she was truly smiling -- like she was the happiest dog in the world.

I knew that Shasta wasn't going to be around much longer. I had offered to be the one to take her to the veterinarian, but it was easier for Karin to take her. Writing this, I wish I could have been there for her, too. I'm sorry she's gone, but I'm glad she's not suffering, and I'm very glad she was able to die peacefully, with dignity, and with a loved one there.

I haven't owned a pet since I moved out eight years ago -- I've moved too often, and even when I've been settled for a while (as I am now), I'm on the road too much to have a pet as a single person. I do want a dog again someday when the time is right. I don't know what kind of dog I'll end up with, but I know that if that dog is as beautiful, as happy, and as loving as Shasta was, I'll consider myself lucky.