Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Review: The Looming Tower

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright [Audiobook]

This book is fascinating. Anyone even remotely interested in US foreign policy, or failing that, just looking for a riveting crime thriller, should find it well worth their time. I listened to the audiobook over the past couple weeks and finished it on my drive home from C&O.

The book starts off with Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian scholar and American student whose writings from the 1950's inspired Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current al Qaeda leader, then brings in Osama bin Laden and other major players, and describes their entire lives, from childhood to construction company, to Afghanistan the first time, to Sudan, to Afghanistan the second time, to the embassy bombings, the Cole, and 9/11.

The first half of the book, which discusses Qutb's writings on religion, his dealings with the state of Egypt, and all of Zawahiri's terrorism there, revived all my negative feelings about religion in general. I strongly dislike anything that encourages belief in the supernatural. Let's just leave that there.

As far as the secular stuff goes, this book is still fascinating. Here's what I took away, in no particular order:
  1. The top private security official at the World Trade Center, John O'Neill, started his job there only 19 days prior to the attacks, after being forced out of the FBI and the position of being the top cop working on getting Osama. He was clearly a flawed person with a strong person some disagreed with, but he was acutely aware of the threat al Qaeda posed. This guy's story is enthralling.
  2. Dealing with terrorism like what it is (a crime) is absolutely more difficult than dealing with "regular" crimes. It's tough to get Pakistan/Yemen/Egypt/whomever to not beat up suspects, and then to get them to let FBI people be in the room while suspects are being questioned so that evidence will stand up in a US court, and even to get them to not blow up the hotel all the FBI people are staying in, but it's not impossible. The original Trade Center truck bomb and the embassy bombings prove that, despite our endless Guantanamo detention and/or waterboarding of Cole and 9/11 perpetrators.
  3. Bombing raids are not accurate. Wright thinks that after the embassy bombings, Sudan wanted to get on good terms with the US, and they would have even turned Osama over to us a few years prior. But instead, in response to the embassy bombings, we blew up the factory making half the country's medicine, and also,  instead of killing Osama in Afghanistan, we gave him some dud tomahawk missiles he sold to China for $10 million. Obviously, I am making extrapolations to drone strikes in my head right now.
  4. More so than I ever realized before, the Taliban really were responsible for sheltering Osama, and deserved to be taken out as a result. Wright makes the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship sound like it culminated in a quid pro quo: al Qaeda takes out Ahmad Shah Massoud so that the Taliban can rule the whole country, and Osama is then free to pull off his big attack.
  5. Call this Monday morning quarterbacking if you wish, but despite all this, 9/11 was really close to being stopped. I've always thought of "19 guys with box-cutters" (when box-cutters were allowed on planes), and that seemed basically unstoppable to me, since so few people can do so much damage with so little money. But that's really not the case. There was a lot of chatter going on, and were it not for the bureaucratic wall preventing the CIA and the FBI from sharing information, 9/11 would have been prevented. The CIA knew about a planning meeting in Malaysia, and they knew that al Qaeda members had US visas, but they didn't tell the FBI. Not just did they not volunteer the information, they actively withheld it. The FBI reciprocated in kind. Evidence for trials couldn't get mixed up with intelligence for operations. The NSA also didn't share information. Thankfully, one small part of the Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act was supposed to adress this. 
To summarize: go read this book.

Run Log: April 21-27

Ran 52 or so this week. Didn't get in anything super long on the weekend because I volunteered at the C&O Canal 100 Saturday and Sunday. The course was basically 25 miles of the canal out and back twice. I manned an aid station that got hit four times with one other person. It was all pretty low key, so I had time to go running on the canal, but I only did 8 because it was supremely flat and boring. I did a nice 8 at 6:50 pace on Thursday with the young rabbit guys from BMRC. Remember when I could run 26 miles at that pace? It's really nice to occasionally be able to gut out that type of speed. Then again, I basically hate running on suburban pavement, so I can only do it because of the group.

Up next weekend--Bear Mountain 50 Miler. Definitely more my style.

Bridges I Run Over

Here are some bridges I run over.

East Falls

East Falls and Several Others

Running Events

Mr B and I went to the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest track meet in the US. There were weird events like the distance medley relay (1200, 400, 800, mile) and the hurdle shuttles (4x110 (female) or 4x110(male), back and forth on the same stretch), as well as age group 100m dash, where former Olympians were still kicking butt, and a few Olympic Development competition groups where hopefuls were showing that they are, in fact, quite fast.

Best of all, a kid from a high school in my home county won the national high school championship in the mile. He led from the gun. (But was nowhere near Alan Webb's record.)

I also volunteered at the C&O Canal 100. So now I can run Western States. It was fun, mostly because it was gorgeous out and I just sat in a camp chair all day. This is only the second time I've manned an aid station overnight, and I was surprised how haggard people looked. "You look strong! You're doing great! How many fingers am I holding up?
Men in a Row

Swat in the lead (temporarily)

Chantilly in the lead (lap 2)

Chantilly in the lead (lap 3)

Chantilly in the lead (lap 4)

Chantilly winning

The Potomac River

John and George at the Lander Rd. aid station

George on the C&O Canal

What have you Philly for me lately?

The dog park, running back to Marks on Kater, Broad St., etc.


Kater St. Shadow

Broad St. [UPDATE: Notice the guy giving me the finger? Ha ha!]

Blooms at Sunset

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Going for Broke

I am seriously contemplating pulling the trigger on this bike. Thoughts? ("Be safe" and "Wear a helmet" are appreciated, but "How much are you really going to ride it? Isn't George in the car with you 99% of the time you go anywhere, because you only drive anywhere to go running or stay overnight somewhere, so how's that going to work?" might be appreciated more. "Here, buy my similarly priced bike with a sidecar instead" might be most appreciated.

On the topic of shopping, I bought two pairs of Brooks Pure Grit shoes. Mostly because they're last year's and they're cheap ($65). I'm not sure how I feel about them. They don't have rock plates, which to me is almost the definition of a trail shoe, so I'm not sure how much I like them on the roots and rocks around here. I wore Brooks Cascadias nearly exclusively for the last five years (last year's are also cheap), so I should probably stick with them, but I feel like I've moved on to lighter, lower drop shoes.  I like Altra's Lone Peaks for trail, and last year's model is also cheap-ish. I'll shut up about shoes now, but I really like Brooks Pure Flow for road, but I do not like Altra's road shoe. I guess I like running on a not-quite-zero-drop pillow when I am forced to run road, and when I run trail, I like a zero-drop shoe with a rock plate. But maybe that's just because that's what I'm used to.

Lastly, what source do people use for hiker news? Is there a website or blog that routinely links to, or writes about, regular joes who break the triple crown speed record, or any individual trail's speed record, or ride their bike around the world, or paddle the entire Amazon, or whatever? I need more vicarious living, and I only find out about these things through word of mouth.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Run Log: April 15-21, Plus Motorcycles

Last week was pretty bad, with only 34.2 miles. My excuse is coming down with a cold on Thursday night, and having motorcyle safety/licensing class on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The most interesting, if not the longest run of the week was Thursday evening's Bryn Mawr Running Company's Media store run. It's always pretty lame on scenery, and largely just paved streets, but usually makes for good conversation and a really good pace (this time 6.55 mi at 7:29 pace). I never run that fast by myself, but can fairly easily do it with a partner to push me. But it's also on pavement. So which of those is the most important factor? I'll do some regression analysis and get back to you.

Oh, and yes, the previous paragraph does imply that I took a motorcycle safety course. And I passed, so I now have my motorcycle license. I got the temporary permit a few months ago, but now I can have passengers and ride at night. And as far as I can tell, states recognize motorcycle licenses from other states, just like marriage licenses (except for the homophobia part), so I'm set for life. Have I been looking on google and craigslist for nearby bikes to buy since I passed on Sunday evening? I don't know. I don't really want to spend the money on a new Ural, and I think used ones are hard to come by, but I have a dog and a girl friend, so I'd probably ride the Ural much more than I would the Suzuki, even though the Suzuki is ready to go to ride across the country on the TransAm Trail

[Imagine there was a picture here of George in my sidecar with a scarf and big goggles on, and try and tell me I shouldn't by a Ural.]

Lastly, a buddy of mine is riding his bike from Reno to Prudhoe Bay and back. He's helping to collect data for scientists on the way. Check it out.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Run Log: April 8-14

A very good week. Started strong, lagged in the middle, finished strong. 91.97 miles for the week. That's got to be the most I've ever run in a week without a race.

Did a good 24 in the Wissahickon with MRB Saturday, then 15 more there today with a new Swat alum guy I met. He's from Colorado, so mostly we talked about how much better everything is out west.

Here's a great picture I got of George and a new friend he made on trail. The other dog (whom I'll call Max) looked more like George than any other dog I've seen.


Friday, April 12, 2013


Here's something that's bugging me: conservatives who are liberal on the one issue that hits them close to home. Yglesias calls this the "politics of narcissism," Mark Schmitt called it "Miss America conservatism," and I call it hypocrisy. You're conservative, but you think the government should support special needs education, and you just happen to have a child with special needs? You're conservative, but you support marriage equality, and you just happen to have a gay son? Well, Palin, Portman, and outdoorsy/environmental friends who joke about their taxes being given to people who don't work as hard as they do, it's really too bad that you can't empathize with any situations that don't happen to affect your very own family. I was like that too, until I hiked the Appalachian Trail (living on government land for free for four months) and realized I'd be a horrible person if I was in favor of government programs like the AT that, let's face it, mostly benefit middle or upper class white people, but was opposed to government programs for people who didn't have basically everything handed to them on a safe suburban platter.

How did I, probably one of the least empathetic persons you'll ever meet, realize this, but so many others haven't?

Google Reader Replacement

Google Reader is dying. Everyone should start using The Old Reader instead. It looks like the old Google Reader, you know, before the redesign, and before they got rid of shared items. So use it, and look me up on there. I tried as well, but as far as I can tell it doesn't have the ability to search, making it much more difficult for me to find the link to some cool development paper on something or other, especially when I can't remember whether I read about it on Blattman's or WB Impact's blog.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Let's Hope McKibben's Right About This

A movement is starting. (Rolling Stone)


Garmin keeps improving the web interface for their GPS watches (Garmin Connect), which makes me happy. It seems obvious, but they finally just added automatic monthly and yearly totals (instead of just weekly).

So here you are:

P.S. Do you use Garmin Connect and are a friend or acquaintance of mine in real life? Look me up on there.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Run Log: April 1-6

Running was off this week--gf was in town so I did less running and more hiking. Probably something like 45 miles total, 15 of which was walking/hiking.

Have I mentioned I'm addicted to running now? Because I totally am. Big deal, you say, you run ultras and of course you're addicted. But I've never run anywhere near this consistently before, at least not since 2003 or so, when I training for my PR marathons in St. George, and even that's doubtful. Anyway, I basically need a fix of 5+ miles 6+ days a week or I'm a little out of sorts.

The highlight for the week was camping and running on Assateague Island National Seashore and walking around the national mall looking at the cherry blossoms.

Chase me faster, dammit!

George loves running.

Tidal Basin

Cherry Blossoms



Cherry Blossoms




In other news, I watched Ewan McGregor's motorcycle adventures Long Way Round and Long Way Down. In LWR they rode from London across Europe and Asia to far eastern Russia, then from Alaska to NYC. In LWD they rode from the northern tip of Scotland to the tip of Italy then from Tunisia all down Africa to Capetown. LWR was definitely a better viewing experience--they seemed to spend a lot of LWD complaining about how tight their schedule was. Their support and film crew was ridiculously large, but for a movie star, it's still a pretty impressive adventure.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Run Log: March 25-31

Much better this week. Ran 79.3 miles, plus some minor biking and walking. Here's the best run, part of which was with MB in the Wissahickon.

Maybe I should move to the Roxborough neighborhood of Philly/Manayunk so I have better access to all these trails? I'm getting a little bored with the same 12 miles of Crum. Though I'm sure I'd get bored with a 1:20 commute pretty fast, even if I only had to do it three days a week. But at least there'd be a coffee shop in the neighborhood open after 6PM. (Also, since when did Craigslist get a map view? It's pretty excellent.)