Washington Marathon 2019

I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Washington DC Marathon this morning. I woke around 5:30am, showered, put myself together, and hailed an Uber from my apartment in Georgetown to 14th and Constitution Avenue. It was overcast and chilly, but much better than yesterday’s intermittent snow and rain. As we were set to start, with a view from the corrals of the Washington Monument, we sang the national anthem, then started at 7am.

It was a much different marathon compared to Philadelphia, in terms of fellow runners. There were three Irishmen who ran near me for a while; I think diplomatic corps in some way. A younger guy with a “Run Tokyo” shirt. A woman with a Palantir baseball cap. There was what seemed like a high percentage of military runners. The variety evident amongst the runners was a reminder of the character of the place I now live.

I left my phone at my apartment like I did last time, because I don’t like to run with it on longer courses. I did have my Apple Watch, which proved to be great in terms of battery life. After finishing (with cellular/WiFi/heart rate monitor off), I checked my watch and it still had 56 percent battery life.

Overall, the run went alright. I registered for this on February 4th, and until yesterday wasn’t sure I would actually run it. I’m glad I did, because in the process I set two personal records: First, for my personal worst marathon time at 4 hours, 47 minutes. And second, for my personal best half marathon time of 1 hour, 57 minutes. It was a great way to see Washington on foot, and like any of these runs it’s simple enough encouragement to remind yourself, “What else would you be spending a Saturday morning doing, typically?”

While the first half went well, I could feel myself starting to flag at mile 15 or so, once we crossed east into Anacostia, across the bridge over Kingman Lake and the Anacostia River. You can see that reflected in the map below from my Apple Watch:

I think this morning was my first time in Anacostia, and it was good to see that on foot too. I kept along alright until near mile 18/19, when I had to start coaching myself mile by mile. I kept at least a jog up until mile 22, and then the fatigue really hit and I slowed to an old-man shuffle or sped-walked until the final mile when I was able to start picking up. I had also expected it to be a bit warmer than it was as morning got on; as we ran along the Anacostia River toward the end, I felt near-frigid (in shorts and long-sleeve shirt) for a long stretch.

It was surprising to me that the onlookers/family/friends cheering along the sides pretty much disappeared by about mile 16, and so from then until about the final half mile leading to the finish large stretches of those final miles were just empty—as empty on a sleepy, overcast Saturday morning as those miles were when I ran the Mount Nittany Marathon a few years ago.

We finished at the D.C. Armony/RFK Stadium, and I took Metro back to Foggy Bottom. I hailed a D.C. cab outside the Foggy Bottom station to get home, and the driver asked how the race went, shared that he ran marathons in the 1980s, and we talked for a while. As we neared my place, I had probably one of the rarest experiences: Henry, the driver, said casually, “Well look, you’ve got a free ride. From one runner to another: just keep running.”

Visiting the D.C. Armory

It’s not visible, but it was snowing throughout the day in Washington today. I visited the D.C. Armory during lunchtime and captured this scene:

It was in the 30s today, and is apparently going to reach 70 this weekend. Spring is on its way. I had never been in the D.C. Armory before today, and it was my first time in this part of Washington in something like a decade, since last visiting RFK Stadium in 2008 or so.

‘What is the basis of our rights?’

Matt D’Antuono writes on human rights, asking about the source of our intuition that we possess rights as human beings:

“I have the right to believe whatever I want.” “I have the right to live.” “I have the right to make choices about my body.” “I have the right to an education.” “I have the right to be free.” “I have the right to walk where I want.” “I have the right to speak my mind.”

Do we have those rights? If so, why? What is the basis of our rights?

Most often, I hear people appeal to the government or constitution. “We have rights because they are granted to us by the ruling authorities,” they say.

It is true that the government is the source of our civil rights, but if the government were the only source of rights, then there could be no such thing as a government that does not recognize rights. A young woman in a country that does not grant the right of education to women cannot claim that her country is denying her right to an education; if the government does not grant that right, she does not have it. It would make no sense to argue for change on the basis of rights that are being denied; she can only claim that she wants to have a right that she does not have. If constitutions are the only basis of human rights, then there is no such thing as a corrupt constitution, no government that denies people their human rights.

So, when someone claims to have a right, the question is “Why?” If our rights are, in fact, inalienable, as the Declaration of Independence claims, then there is only one basis to which we can appeal: the nature of the human person. In particular, the social nature of the human creates the standard of right relationship we ought to have to one another, and thus our rights, what we can demand from others based on the duties we owe to one another because of the very essence of what and who we are.

For example, “Man by nature desires to know,” claimed Aristotle, and the full weight of experience is on his side. Our intellectual nature reveals to us our duty to refine our mind to be as excellent as it can be and to direct our intellect to the truth. As social beings, we do this together. We have a duty to learn and teach each other, and thus we have the right to an education. As a corollary, it is not true that I have the right to believe whatever I want; that would contradict the nature of my mind…

Evergreen: “…if the government were the only source of rights, then there could be no such thing as a government that does not recognize rights…”

Shrove Tuesday in Alexandria

We visited Old Town, Alexandria last night for a few hours with the Catholic University Chamber Choir, performing at the Basilica of Saint Mary. Timothy McDonnell, whom I met a few years ago when he was at Ave Maria University, is now the conductor.

It was my first time to the Basilica of Saint Mary, and an appropriate way to prepare for the start of Lent. The choir performed:

  • Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro in B minor, RV 169 (Antonio Vivaldi)
  • Stabat Mater, Op. 138 (Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger)
  • “Hospodi, vozzvah” from Vespers (Roman Hurko)
  • “Credo” from Berliner Messe (1992) (Arvo Pärt)
  • The Eyes of All (Jean Berger)
  • Peità Signore (Anonymous)
  • Ave Maria (Harold Boatrite)
  • Qui seminant (Herold Boatrite)
  • Die mit Tränen saēn, SWV 378 (Heinrich Schūtz)
  • Miserere in C Minor, ZWV 57 (Jan Dismas Zelenka)
  • Vesperae solennes de confessore, K. 339 (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)

We called the day before Ash Wednesday Fat Tuesday at home when I was growing up, the English for Mardi Gras, a day for indulgence before the self-denial of Lent. I also remember hearing Fastnacht Day at some point. But I think the older Shrove Tuesday speaks more to the point of the day as a time for preparation for the season of Lent to come, rather than as one more opportunity for the sort of indulgence that already characterizes almost any other time on the calendar.

‘Persuading people to buy less stuff’

When I was in Charlotte in October, I got into a conversation with a manufacturer who told me that China was no longer going to be accepting a lot of our recycling. He told me this was going to be a huge problem for companies and municipalities across the country that have been spending decades trying to get people to recycle, because American recyclers wouldn’t be able to compete on cost, among other reasons. I thought of that conversation when I read Alana Semuels’s piece today:

After decades of earnest public-information campaigns, Americans are finally recycling. Airports, malls, schools, and office buildings across the country have bins for plastic bottles and aluminum cans and newspapers. In some cities, you can be fined if inspectors discover that you haven’t recycled appropriately.

But now much of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash.

For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products. But last year, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.

Most are choosing the latter. …

In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. …

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff…

America’s present economy is fueled by consumption that is fueled in part by historically unknown levels of national debt.

Forward Operating Base Shank

J.P. Lawrence writes on what we’ve left behind in the form of ex-American military base in Afghanistan, and what it reveals about our approach to our presence there:

Limping as he climbed the stairs of a watchtower, the general turned his gaze south toward a once-sprawling base the Americans handed over to Afghan forces here in late 2014. Today much of it lies in ruins.

“Everything went to pieces,” Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq Safi said of the base, which the Americans dubbed Forward Operating Base Shank. “Everything fell apart.”

After more than 17 years and $80 billion to build them up, Afghan security forces still struggle to secure their country, while corruption and other challenges strain their ability to maintain equipment and facilities provided by foreign forces, largely the United States.

FOB Shank’s fate — left to rot in the hands of overwhelmed Afghans — illustrates those challenges…

Roaming packs of feral dogs now bed down at what was once Shank’s busy helicopter landing pad. Crows pick over scrap heaps amid metal tent skeletons whose torn plastic skins whip in the wind. Snow blows through collapsed walls of wood huts that once housed military offices.

As more Americans have been pushed out to Dahlke to advise front line units in the past year, U.S. troops have forayed into the wasteland to reclaim abandoned equipment, such as heaters and generators.

“You drive through and it’s like the ‘Walking Dead,’” 1st Lt. Tom Kopec, 26, a soldier in the 1st Cavalry Regiment, said in December. …

Even with a base full of troops, Safi couldn’t afford to maintain it, he said, claiming the facilities are too costly to run. Everything the Americans left requires power, he said, even bathroom door locks his troops have replaced with ordinary padlocks.

Despite $2 billion in U.S.-funded power projects, Afghanistan’s grid remains underdeveloped and unreliable, and bases often depend on electric generators to power lights, heaters and other equipment.

For just one of the big tents now rotting in Zombieland, the Americans would burn about 80 gallons of fuel a night, said Safi, who spent hours one January morning searching room to room in his headquarters for a working heater.

“Where are Afghans supposed to get that much fuel?” Safi asked. He said later: “The Americans, money has no value for them.” …

“We were being less than truthful with ourselves that the Afghans would be able to take care of these bases,” [retired General Richard P.] Mills said.

Thinking back on our most recent September 11th.

Inspiration from Morehouse College

Eric Stirgus writes:

Morehouse College visiting professor Nathan Alexander said he was just trying to help when he not only allowed a student to bring his infant daughter to his class on Friday, but volunteered to hold the child as he taught.

Pictures of the unconventional situation have garnered such attention on social media, with many hailing Alexander’s efforts to assist the student, Wayne Hayer, when he couldn’t find childcare.

“I’m not an exception,” Alexander said in a telephone interview Saturday afternoon with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have teachers who (assist students in similar ways) every day.”

Alexander said he initially discussed the idea of the student bringing the child to class a few weeks ago when Hayer said he couldn’t stay for office hours because he needed to pick her up.

To the professor’s surprise, Hayer took Alexander up on his offer. Hayer arrived to Alexander’s algebra class with the baby girl dressed in a pink outfit. The professor said he was “gleeful.”

Alexander, though, noticed Hayer was distracted watching the child during the beginning of the 50-minute class and offered to hold her.

“Hey, I’ll take her so you can take some good notes,” Alexander recalled saying.
Alexander said he rocked the child with his left hand and lectured with his right hand. The child, the professor said, was quiet through the class and fell asleep near the end of his lecture. …

Alexander, who joined the Morehouse faculty in 2017, said this was not his first experience allowing a student to bring a child to class. He recalled a student once brought a child Alexander believes was 8 or 9 to his class.

Alexander said such allowances, to him, are part of the mission of colleges such as Morehouse, the nation’s lone college for African-American men  — men finding ways to help other men. The Atlanta college’s most famous graduate is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When I’ve written about the need for a broader, authentic spectrum of choice, this is the sort of thing I have in mind beyond law and policy reforms. We should be able to respond in better ways to the natural needs of mothers and fathers than to promote extreme choices like abortion or expensive childcare, both of which are sometimes impossible or anathema to many people—and both of which, by the way, are economic in nature.

We want more Americans to feel more able to thrive in the world, with children regardless of particular circumstance. Professor Alexander provides a good model for what sort of response contributes to a more humane culture. It’s the little things that make the big differences.

Cuba introduces mobile internet access

When Americans think about Cuba, nostalgia often points to things like the island’s 1950s American cars that continue to line city streets and occasionally coast along Cuba’s mostly-empty highways. But more than nostalgia for particular things that have remained in a sort of amber in there due to Community captivity, there has been something like a nostalgia one feels for a way of daily life that existed prior to globalization, commercialization, the internet, and mobile devices. It wasn’t just that being in Cuba felt isolating when I visited in 2010, rather it was that the ten days I spent there felt like something close to time travel. Andrea Rodriguez reports on how that is changing, specifically on the impact of mobile internet access:

In the 2 1/2 months since Cuba allowed its citizens internet access via cellphones, fast-moving changes are subtle but palpable as Cubans challenge government officials online, post photos of filthy school bathrooms and drag what was one of the world’s least-connected countries into the digital age. Communist authorities, in turn, are having to learn how to deal with more visible pressure coming from outside of party-controlled popular and neighborhood committees.

“Life has changed,” said Alberto Cabrera, 25, who is part of the team that developed the Sube app. “You see it when you walk down the street. The other day, looking from the roof of my house I could see that a neighbor had mobile internet service, as did the person in front and the person beyond him. You never saw that before.”

In the first 40 days after Dec. 6, when people could start buying internet access packages for 3G service, 1.8 million Cubans on this island of 11 million purchased the services. A government report last week said about 6.4 million residents use the internet and social networks.

Previously, nearly all Cubans could use mobile phones to link only to their state-run email accounts unless they connected to the internet at a limited number of government-sponsored Wi-Fi spots.

“We are in a process of learning about how to use the data” packages, said Claudia Cuevas, 26, a university professor and member of the Sube team. “Before you went to the park (with Wi-Fi zones) once a week to communicate with your family.”

The history of the internet in Cuba has been rife with tensions and suspicions since it began in the 1990s. Cuba’s government accused Washington of blocking its access to the fiber optical cables near the island, forcing it to use an expensive and slow satellite service. It was only in 2011 that Cuba got access to a submarine cable with the help of Venezuela. And it wasn’t until 2015 that the general population gained access through the opening of Wi-Fi points in hundreds of parks. …

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel opened a Twitter account prior to December and recently ordered all his ministers and senior leaders to do the same. But many of them only retweet official messages or propaganda slogans without providing their own content or answering citizens’ questions.

‘All human problems become ones of neurochemistry’

Theodore Dalrymple reviews Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel:

Not reading many contemporary French novels, I am not entitled to say that Michel Houellebecq is the most interesting French novelist writing today, but he is certainly very brilliant… [he identifies] the vacuity of modern life in the West, its lack of transcendence, lived as it is increasingly without religious or political belief, without a worthwhile creative culture, often without deep personal attachments, and without even a struggle for survival. …

Houellebecq’s underlying nihilism implies that it is not there to be found. The result of this lack of transcendent purpose is self-destruction not merely on a personal, but on a population, scale. Technical sophistication has been accompanied, or so it often seems, by mass incompetence in the art of living. Houellebecq is the prophet, the chronicler, of this incompetence. 

Even the ironic title of his latest novel, Sérotonine, is testimony to the brilliance of his diagnostic powers and his capacity to capture in a single word the civilizational malaise which is his unique subject. Serotonin, as by now every self-obsessed member of the middle classes must know, is a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter to which is ascribed powers formerly ascribed to the Holy Ghost. All forms of undesired conduct or feeling are caused a deficit or surplus or malalignment of this chemical, so that in essence all human problems become ones of neurochemistry.  

On this view, unhappiness is a technical problem for the doctor to solve rather than a cause for reflection and perhaps even for adjustment to the way one lives. I don’t know whether in France the word malheureux has been almost completely replaced by the word déprimée, but in English unhappy has almost been replaced by depressed. In my last years of medical practice, I must have encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of depressed people, or those who called themselves such, but the only unhappy person I met was a prisoner who wanted to be moved to another prison, no doubt for reasons of safety.

Houellebecq’s one-word title captures this phenomenon (a semantic shift as a handmaiden to medicalisation) with a concision rarely equalled. And indeed, he has remarkably sensitive antennae to the zeitgeist in general, though it must be admitted that he is most sensitive to those aspects of it that are absurd, unpleasant, or dispiriting rather than to any that are positive.

Houellebecq satirises what might be called the neurochemical view of life which is little better than superstition or urban myth.

“His work, not least Sérotonine, is filled with disgust, as was [Jonathan] Swift’s: but it is the kind of disgust that can only emerge from deep disappointment, and one is not disappointed by what one does not care about. There is gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation.”