Vice president in charge of going to jail

During the 1970s, there was a big push to hold corporations accountable for crimes they committed. Resistance to the idea came from people who thought that any crime would be committed by specific individuals, and that those individuals, not the corporation, should be held accountable.

Activists pushing for direct criminal sanctions against corporations pointed out that the obvious tactical response by the corporations to a policy of only holding individuals accountable would be to hire a “vice president in charge of going to jail.” That person could be put in charge of whatever activities might end up being found to be illegal—and be compensated appropriately for the extra risk he was taking. (How much would they have to pay you to take a 3% chance that you might have to spend 2 to 5 years in a minimum-security prison? One hundred thousand dollars a year? A million? Ten million? Many people have their price, and it tends to be surprisingly low, at least for risks perceived as being fairly low.)

I was reminded of this in the wake of Marissa Mayer’s statements that Yahoo and other corporations were unable to reveal that they were caving in to US government pressure to turn over customer data, because they’d go to jail if they did.

What those corporations needed was a VP in charge of going to jail: Someone hired specifically to speak out if the company receives a National Security Letter—and appropriately compensated for the risk that they might have to go to jail.

Sadly, it’s tough to get the incentives right. The corporations that the 1970s activists were concerned about were engaged in things like illegal waste disposal. Their “VP in charge of going to jail” had two goals—dump the waste as cheaply as possible, while making the activity look like it might be legal. As long as it was close enough to being legal to avoid going to jail, all that extra compensation was free money—but if looking like they might be following the law wasn’t a lot cheaper than actually following the law, the board was going to figure that there was no point in employing the expensive VP.

In the case of being the VP in charge of going to jail for revealing that the company had received a National Security Letter, the extra compensation would be received in advance, when the VP wasn’t even doing anything illegal. It would be awfully tempting to pocket all that money—and then when the National Security Letter came, to say, “You know, upon reflection, I think in this case my conscience requires me to follow the law and keep quiet.”

I’ve tried to come up with some mechanism to get the incentives right. Maybe paying the extra money into a trust that pays out promptly if the VP goes to jail, but otherwise only after many years, when there’s reason to believe that there was no National Security Letter—and of course, if it turns out there was a National Security Letter and the VP didn’t speak up, the money goes to charity instead. But that has too many problems with being unenforceable due to being contrary to public policy.

It’s too bad. A VP in charge of going to jail seemed like a perfect solution.

Coal and fossil forests

I spent my lunch hour at an OLLI lunchtime lecture, learning about why we have coal in Illinois, and why sometimes coal formations have fossilized forests on top. The talk by Scott Elrick (of the Illinois State Geological Survey) was absolutely fascinating.

The first part of the talk looked at the history of continental drift, looking at where the land mass that eventually became North America (and the piece of it that became Illinois) was over the last few hundred million years. During the Pennsylvanian period, Illinois was roughly on the equator, which turns out to be important.

To get coal, you need to have lots of plant matter, but very little sediment. If you don’t have the plant material, you’ve got nothing to turn into coal. But even if you have the plant material, if you have any significant amount of sediment—inorganic material washed in by water and deposited on the ground—you don’t end up with coal, you just end up with shale.

There’s an area along the equator called the “convergence zone” where the weather of the northern hemisphere meets the weather of the southern hemisphere. Most of the time, this zone shifts north and south over the course of a year, meaning the tropics experience wet seasons and dry seasons. However, during the period in question there was extensive glaciation, meaning lower sea levels, which turns out to mean much less shifting of the convergence zone. Which means that, for a geologically long period of time, it rained a lot, all year.

That’s the circumstance that lets you get coal. To be more specific, that’s the circumstance that gets you peat.

Lots of plant matter, but very little sediment (because those plants had lots of roots to stabilize the ground, and they never had to die back, because there were no seasons). The plants grow, the plants die, the dead plants end up on the wet ground, they get covered with water, which limits the oxygen that gets to the plant, meaning that more plants can grow on top of them before they decay. Result: peat.

To get coal takes one more thing: Your peat has to get buried. If it gets buried well enough that air never gets in there, and if it ends up buried deep enough that there’s some serious pressure and heat, and stays there for long enough, all the volatile (i.e. non-carbon) elements in the peat get cooked off. Result: coal.

So, in the Pennsylvanian, we had this long period of nothing but rainy season, allowing layers of peat to build up. But eventually the glacial period ended.

It turns out that glacial periods can end really fast. They start slow, with ice building up gradually over decades and centuries. But they can end very quickly, with centuries of ice melting in a matter of years.

The ice melts, the sea levels rise, and the convergence zone starts showing seasonality, moving north and south over the course of the year. Forests full of plants that expected rain every day suddenly had to adapt to tolerate dry seasons.

This produced a lot of changes, of course. The plant species show dramatic shifts. Crucially, they die back during the dry season—meaning that you start to see a lot more sediment.

In the fossil record, you see this as a thick vein of coal with a thick vein of shale on top.

And right here in east-central Illinois, something very interesting happened. Along a fault line, a series of earthquakes caused the ground on one side to sink. In that sunken area the sediment built up even more quickly—quickly enough to cover whole plants. Fallen trees were covered up faster than they could rot away. Branches with leaves were covered before the leaves could fall off.

The result is a thick vein of coal, with a fossil forest on top of it.

Is that cool or what?

This particular forest, near Danville, Illinois, was the first one discovered that was big enough that paleobotanists could study the forest at the level of the forest community. As opposed to just seeing what plants grew near a few other plants, they could see how the plants that grew near one another changed as you moved from one part of the forest to another.

Painting by J. Vriesen and K. Johnson via

Scott Elrick showed us all kinds of cool stuff. One thing was this artist’s rendition of the forest, showing large, tall trees growing very close to one another, something that would be rare in forest today. Turns out that these trees—Lycopods—had photosynthetic bark, and didn’t grow leaves until they reached their full height. So they didn’t shade out their neighbors the way modern trees do. They also had very long roots that extended many meters from the trunk, but the root systems were quite shallow, going just a few meters down.

He also had pictures taken from within the coal mine, showing the fossils of these trees—trunk and roots—growing right up out of the coal seam: Trees that had been alive when the weather changed and that ended up with a meter or two of sediment covering the bottom of the trunk fast enough that the tree never fell down. It just fossilized in place.

It was a great talk at which I learned all sorts of things about geology and paleobotany. I’m going to have to follow this guy’s work in the future.

Probable penultimate very long walk of the year

Jackie and I did another of our very long walks yesterday, going 18.25 miles. We hope to go even farther in a walk in a couple of weeks (we’re tentatively thinking 20 miles), but that will probably be the last time this year that we do a new longest walk ever, simply due to limited daylight as the year winds down.

Like the last couple of very long walks, we stuck with Milo’s as our lunch destination. If you go the shortest way possible, it’s about 14 miles there and back. We were aiming for a bit over 17, so we had to add some short side trips to get the length up. We went by way of the research park and had coffee at the iHotel, went through Meadowbrook Park, and then after lunch briefly visited Crystal Lake Park as well.

I’ve brought my camera on almost all of these walks, but have hardly taken any pictures. This time, I took some pictures.

We’d walked through Meadowbrook Park on a couple of our previous walks, but usually after lunch. This time we did Meadowbrook Park before lunch—and we walked the prairie path, rather than taking the paved paths through the sculpture garden.

It was fun to see Jackie through the big bluestem.

Jackie standing amidst big bluestem
Jackie in the prairie at Meadowbrook Park

I was also pretty pleased with this picture of a thistle flower, taken just a few yards further down the path.

Thistle Flower
Thistle flower in the prairie at Meadowbrook Park

After lunch we proceeded toward Urbana, passing through the neighborhood where Jackie used to live before we started dating. One feature of that neighborhood is a little Japanese Garden. Jackie and I used to visit it pretty often. Eventually the last couple of reasons to visit that neighborhood vanished, and we quit going. I was pleased to get there again, although a little sad to see that they’d given up on the water features, and instead filled the pools with gravel. It’s not the same.

Red bridge in a Japanese Garden
The red bridge at the Japanese Garden near Sunnycrest

We also did a preposterous thing. In the midst of our very long walk, we paused to walk the labyrinth in Crystal Lake Park. (Endomondo did not seem to give us credit for this extra walking. I suppose at the level of precision possible with GPS, someone walking a labyrinth looks an awful lot like someone sitting at a bench.)

Jackie walking the labyrinth at Crystal Lake Park
Jackie walking the labyrinth at Crystal Lake Park

For those who are interested in such things, here’s the data on our walk, via Endomondo:

It was a good walk.

Non-weekly training schedules

I got a great comment on my previous post (thanks Ilana!), and started to reply in a comment there, but realized that I was straying into something that I wanted to talk in a post—training cycles that aren’t a multiple of 7 days.

Rereading my post, I see that it does look like my only runs are my long run and my fast run. That’s not the case, though. I try to include two or three easy runs each week as well.

In years past, my training schedule was pretty ordinary. Each week would include a long run and a fast run, each followed by a rest day. The other three days would each be a chance for an easy run. I found that I could just about maintain my fitness if I ran three times a week, but that I had to run four or five times a week if I wanted to improve either my speed or my endurance.

This summer my training routine has been complexificated by these very long walks I’ve been doing. It turns out that I need about two days to recover from a walk that pushes beyond the farthest I’ve ever walked before. Adding a long walk and one or two recovery days to my usual schedule pushes it out to a 9 or 10 day cycle, instead of a 7-day cycle.

The obvious thing to do would be to create a 9-day cycle—something like this: long walk, rest day, easy run, easy run, long run, rest day, easy run, fast run, rest day. One obstacle to that is that the various tracking tools I’m aware of all provide summaries for weekly periods, not for 9-dayly periods. (If you know of an exercise tracking tool that can produce useful summaries for training cycles of arbitrary length, let me know.)

So, I’m just winging it as far as a training schedule goes. Since it became clear that we wouldn’t get to Kalamazoo for the Kal-Haven trail walk this summer (we’re now hoping to do it next summer), we’ve eased up a bit on lengthening our very long walks, although we’re still planning to do 17 miles shortly. At these distances, it seems like doing each “even longer” walk ought to happen only every other week (with the long walk on the alternate weeks being comfortably within our established capability).

Long run, fast run

Last week I got out for a long run. At 5.14 miles, I exactly matched the distance of my previous longest run of the year. (I ran the same route.) I also just about matched the time, running it in 1:07:04 versus 1:07:50 back in June (a 13:03 pace, versus a 13:12 pace).

At this point, I’m pretty happy with the duration of my long run. I want to be able to run for an hour, and I can now do that. Running for an hour makes me feel great. I like to attribute this to endocannabinoid production, although I don’t actually have any evidence for that. Whatever the cause, running that long makes me feel good in a way that running for 20 minutes doesn’t.

At this point, I don’t see much reason to ramp up the distance further. It might be that running even further would make me feel even better, but I hesitate to risk finding out. Where would it end? More particularly, would it end before my body broke down from the stress of running ever-longer runs?

On the other hand, I’d like to run a bit faster. In particular, I’d like to be able to run 6 miles in the hypothetical one-hour run that makes me feel so good.

To see whether I was in striking distance of that, I went out for a fast run yesterday, doing what I call a tempo run. (I run a tempo run simply by running a comfortable distance—the same as I might run for an easy run—but running pretty hard.) I ran my Kaufman Lake loop, which is 1.5 miles, and I did it in 14:12 for a 9:36 pace.

So that’s pretty promising. I can run the duration I want to run and I can run the speed I want to run. Now it’s just a matter of closing the gap—getting fit enough to run that speed for the whole distance.

I think that’s doable. Today I did my usual easy run of 2.2 miles, but I ran just a little faster than I’ve been lately, setting a 10:43 pace.

In fact, I don’t think I even need much of a plan. I’ll just go on doing a long run of about an hour every week or two, picking up the pace a bit as it feels comfortable to do so. And I’ll try to fit in a fast run every week, letting the distance creep up a bit as it seems like my fitness supports it.

With any luck I’ll be running an hour at a 10-minute-per-mile pace before the snow flies.

When you mess with reporters

I’ve always admired the way reporters come together when a reporter is messed with. It reminds me of the way the police engage in a big show of force when a policeman is killed.

Once when running a quick errand, I found that I’d put myself on the other side of an hour-long police funeral procession. It did not endear the police to me, but it did make a powerful statement that the police are not just willing to make people suffer when a policeman is killed, they want to make everyone suffer. They think it gets the incentives right. They think if everyone suffers just a little bit when a policeman is killed, everyone will have just a little bit more interest in keeping that from happening.

I think that sort of tactic is ill-advised—almost all people are much more strongly motivated by decency and compassion than they are by intimidation. But I understand that the police are motivated more by grief than by thinking a show of force will make a difference. Their legitimate feelings make it hard to argue with their tactic, even when its results will be mixed.

Reporters are better at being circumspect and targeted with their reaction, but when anybody within the power structure messes with a reporter, a vast swath of the journalistic community sits up and takes notice. They write stuff about what happened. They point out governmental overreach. They remind one another that they’re all on the line if this goes unchallenged—and they remind ordinary people that the same powers being used against reporters are available to be used against ordinary people.

It’s really good to see. It’s not perfectly effective, but it is effective.

It’s the right response.

Harvesting flax

It’s hard to decide when to harvest flax. If you harvest early enough to get the finest fiber, you get no seeds. If you harvest late enough to get seeds to plant next year, you get coarse fibers.jackie harvesting flax

The books suggest various compromises. One suggested 30 days after the peak of flowering, if you mostly care about fiber, and two weeks later if you mostly care about seeds.

Flax flower

We decided to harvest half of our plants today. We think it’s early enough to get good fiber. Indeed, some of the plants are still in flower. But there are plenty of seed pods that look like they’ll be full of seeds.

flax seed pods

Depending on how things go, we’ll harvest the other half in a week or two. That may get us some more or better seeds. At least as important to me, it adds a bit of redundancy—if something goes wrong with the processing of this batch, we’ll have another batch that won’t suffer the same fate.

Jackie has suggested that we not try to save seeds to plant, but rather eat the seeds we get. (I assume she means to grind them up to use as flax-seed meal, which we do buy at the store and put in bread and such. Even if every seed pod turns out to be full to bursting with seeds, we’re only going to get a few tablespoons of flax-seed meal, but that’d be enough for several loaves.)

The first step to turn flax into linen, after growing the plants and harvesting them, is to dry them. The books suggest that you tie the stalks into bundles, then arrange the bundles into loose stacks for drying.

That’s where we are now:

sheaves of flax

Using tt-rss

I’ve experimented with various alternatives to Google Reader for quite a while now. I used The Old Reader for a while, and then Hive Reader for a while. Both had limitations. (Hive is still in beta, and isn’t quite ready for prime time. TOR is closer, but had various issues, probably the biggest being that it doesn’t get feeds updated promptly enough.)

I had earlier tried using tt-rss, which also isn’t quite there yet, but has a different set of issues.

It requires a server. Steve had tried to cobble together an instance that ran on the server where we host our websites. It had just almost worked, but kept bumping up into the limits of running as a cron job, rather than a daemon. It eventually had several bad days in a row (which we later traced to an unrelated heavy load on the server), and we gave up.

Now Steve has installed an actual server machine in his house, and is running a tt-rss instance there, and has made me an account on it.

Running on an (essentially) dedicated server with a (reasonably) high-speed connection to the internet, it’s now doing a fine job of keeping all my feeds up to date. I’m having some minor user interface issues, but nothing that would keep me from using it as my rss reader for the foreseeable future.

So, I have officially switched over. You can follow the interesting stuff I share via a feed from that site, and have updated the “interesting stuff” item in my sidebar to draw from that feed.

Genevieve Kierans

Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion meeting in 2002.
Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion in 2002.

I just learned that Clarion classmate Genevieve Kierans died earlier this month.

It was great to have her in the circle at Clarion. Nobody was nicer or happier than Genevieve, and her critiques were always gentle and often incisive and useful—and often different from what everyone else had to say. It was nice to know that she was somewhere ahead in the circle, when you started getting a lot of “ditto what the last three guys said.”

She’d already had ALS back in 2001, and wrote a number of stories that drew on her experiences with disability. Where she excelled, though, was in telling the story of a callow youth growing into being an adult. Each one of those stories left me with a “How does she do that?” feeling, and I’ve more than once gone back to reread one, trying to tweeze apart the structure of that particular character arc.

I’m sorry not have had the chance to read more such stories.

Running injury officially healed

This is just a quick post to note that my calf injury seems to have healed completely.

Last week I did two test runs—a 0.5 mile run with no turns, followed (after a rest day, to see if I had any delayed pain or swelling) by a 0.63 mile run with some turns.

When neither of those caused any problems, I went out later in the week and did my usual early-season short run of 1.5 miles.

Over the weekend, Jackie and I hiked nearly 6 miles at Fox Ridge, a state park about 60 miles from here. It’s another place where there’s elevation change available, and a set of trails to take advantage of it.

I took a rest day after the hike (having learned that lesson), and went out this morning for a 2.15 mile run, my usual mid-season short run.

All went well. No pain, no soreness, no swelling. There’s no tender spot in my calf when I poke at it.

I’ll take it quite easy as I ramp up speed and distance going forward, but I’m declaring the injury officially healed.