Next week I have my class discussing Voltaire’s Candide, a classic of Enlightenment commentary and satire. To help my students prepare, I sent out a list of reading questions this morning.

When I checked my e-mail this afternoon, I had this reply waiting from one of my students:

I am sure we will be discussing this in class on Tuesday but I did not see how Candide was humorous or satirical.  The numerous calamities were a bit over the top but people being quartered and disemboweled seems a bit too disturbing to be funny.  Am I missing something or is it just a dark humor?

Sigh. I really don’t know how to respond to this e-mail. My first instinct is to wry a terse reply. Yes, you’re missing something.

My next thought was to write a slightly more expansive response. Yes, you’re missing something. Something big.

The response that comes to mind that I think would be most humorous (ironic, no?) would be to give this student a t-shirt that says, “A sarcasm detector, that’s a real useful invention.” But, alas, the humor might well be lost on the poor soul.

Instead, I’ll craft a lengthier reply that gently nudges the student to think about how the narrator’s initial belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” does not, perhaps, square with the awful things he encounters on his travels.

Punintended wordplay

Anyone who knows me well knows I enjoy good wordplay and frequently insert puns into my everyday conversation, just to show off how clever and witty I can be.

Over the years, I’ve given the world — or at least my closest friends and relatives — a ton o’ puns that have made the world a little bit better. We all remember the classics. (What do altar girls wear? Altar tops! Oh, the hilarity!)*

But with my proclivity for pun-ditry, it’s easy to take my wittiness for granted. And, as I learned today, even I fail at times to appreciate in full my own genius.

Take for instance the e-mail a student sent me today during the mid-class break. I had been lecturing about the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and right before break I was talking about Newton and his contributions to physics. I mentioned the concept of gravity, and how other thinkers had suspected such a force existed. But I mentioned that Newton is associated with gravity because he derived formulas that explained how this and other laws of motion functioned.

Evidently, at this point, according to my student’s e-mail, I added, “and that put some real force behind it.”

“Well placed,” wrote my student.

Indeed. So well placed was this bit of wordplay and so caught up in my own gravitas was I that my gem of a joke had gone unnoticed not only by most of my students, but also by me.

My un-WIT-ting pun also explains why this student and a couple of others around him were quietly laughing at one point during my lecture. And to think, I was afraid I had neglected to zip my fly.

Naturally, I wrote back to my student after class to thank him for his note, but also to take full credit for my ingenious pun. I saw no sense in confessing to the accident of my witticism. The joke, if unintentional, captured his interest and got him engaged in the course.

No, a candid admission of accident was out of the question. My unintended joke had done some pedagogical good, and I wasn’t about to sacrifice that for the sake of total and excessive honesty.

After all, I appreciated the gravity of the situation.

* I don’t care if there is no such thing as an “altar girl.” You can’t allow “reality” to get into the way of a legendary pun, just like you can’t allow the desire for straightforward storytelling to prevent you from recounting an anecdote in an especially tortured and convoluted way just so you can make a pun (or four) along the way. Like any good joke, the secret to great puns is in the set-up.

Kings of no media

One of the ostensibly nice things about my beloved Los Angeles Kings’ resurgence this season is that it’s led to increased attention and coverage in the North American media.

However, I’ve come away largely unimpressed with most of these stories, either because they tell me nothing I don’t already know from having followed the team intensely for the better part of the past two decades, or because they remain stuck in tired cliches that reek of journalistic laziness.

Take, for instance, a story I spied on the NYT this morning with the intriguing headline, “With Little Fanfare, the Los Angeles Kings are in the Playoff Chase.”

Oddly enough, I clicked the headline expecting a story about how the Kings have largely flown under the radar nationally, since it’s hard as hell for a West Coast NHL team to garner more than a cursory mention in the national media.

Instead, I got treated to yet another story about how Los Angeles isn’t really a hockey market.

Needless to say, I found the premise deeply insulting, and the reporting superficial.

The question surrounding the Kings is whether anyone cares.

Years of losing and mismanagement and the lockout of 2004-5 have dented the fan base, but there are others who have lost interest, too. The Los Angeles Times, until recently, rarely traveled with the team, a circumstance that prompted the Kings to hire a popular newspaper blogger to cover the team for its Web site.

First, virtually everyone outside L.A. grossly underestimates (and understates) the devotion of the Kings’ fan base, which may be small but certainly not lacking in passion. (Exhibit A: The graffiti tributes to Anze Kopitar during his rookie season in 2006.) The more salient point is that fan interest is inevitably tied to the quality of the product on the ice. L.A., like any city, likes a winning team, something the Kings haven’t produced too often in their forty-three years. Even the diehards are bound to invest less time and money on the team when it sucks. But as the team starts winning — and playing actual playoff games — attendance is going to trend upward.

Second, the article makes it seem as if the L.A. Times cut back on road coverage of the Kings due to lack of interest. In fact, the decision to reduce coverage is more likely a function of the hard times on which the L.A. Times and other newspapers have fallen. It’s rather pricey to send a beat writer on the road for forty-one games, with the attendant travel expenses, when the wire services can provide game recaps. It doesn’t yield better coverage — quite the opposite — but it’s a tradeoff many financially struggling news outlets are willing to make.

Third, the article greatly slights the credentials of Rich Hammond, described with what sounds like a disparaging note as a “popular newspaper blogger.” In truth, Hammond, whom the Kings hired to serve as a beat writer who would cover the team full time at home and on the road, was not just some “blogger.” Rather, he was a longtime beat writer for the L.A. Daily News who covered the team on a part-time basis the past couple of seasons after being promoted to deputy sports editor. Hammond maintained a blog, Inside the Kings, that was exceptionally popular as the go-to source for Kings news (it routinely generated the most traffic of any Daily News blog). But it was also more credible than some guy running a blog from his basement (though there are actually more than a few reputable hockey blogs in the digital world).

It just irks me to see this kind of cliched writing. It’s so passé in hockey circles to dismiss L.A. for not being a “real hockey market,” just because sports talk radio isn’t endlessly bloviating about the Kings, plus it happens to be 70 degrees in the winter. It’s just funny how Canadians and folks from cold weather climes assume you have to have lousy winters to be passionate about hockey. I think it’s just some a way to mask their envy of the balmy weather.

Anyway, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the NYT, just like other national media outlets, offers little nuance or insight in what amounts to a hit-and-run piece.

Instead, I’ll be quite content to let the rest of the North American media go back to ignoring my team. I’d rather stick to my “popular newspaper blogger” of choice any day.

It’s a red-letter day for Slovak aviation security officials, who committed a big boo-boo in planting and failing to remove explosive from passenger baggage.

It seems that someone got the bright idea to test the baggage screeners by placing explosives in eight suitcases. In seven of the eight cases, the explosives were detected and removed before ever reaching the aircraft. But in the eighth case …

A bomb-sniffing dog found one of the two explosive components, which was removed. But the dog’s handler was evidently too busy to be arsed to remove the second component.

As a result, 96 grams of plastic explosive went in the suitcase of a Slovak electrician flying from Poprad-Tatry Airport in Central Slovakia to his home in Dublin.

Of course, no one bothered to inform the poor electrician that his bag contained explosives. And the explosives were so well hidden that the man didn’t find them after unpacking his bag.

It must have been quite the experience when a bomb squad from the Irish Army came knocking on his door yesterday morning to search for the missing explosives, then police detained him for several hours, thinking he was a terrorist, until the Slovak police explained he was just an unfortunate victim of their ineptitude.

I have to say, it sounds like there isn’t nearly the sort of furor we’d see if this kind of incident had involved the United States in the slightest way. I can’t even imagine what sort of stupid measures TSA would implement in overreacting.

Getting committed

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve gone and registered for a full marathon. I have 139 days and a few hours till the race begins, which I’m hoping is plenty of time to build up my mileage and get in position to finish (of paramount importance!) and post a respectable time.

What’s a “respectable time”? Many months ago, when the idea of running a full marathon, someday, first crossed my mind, I thought that if I ever found myself attempting such a thing that I’d like to break four hours. Why four hours? Mostly it’s because I remember being impressed by one of my classmates, who ran cross country, finishing the L.A. Marathon in just under four hours our senior year. It seemed impossibly fast to me, back then, to know someone who could run so far in such a time.

Actually, my goal is just a little more ambitious than breaking four hours. What I’d really like to do is to finish with an average pace of sub-nine minutes. Nine minutes a mile for 26.2 miles translates to 3:55:48, or not much faster than four hours. Based on the Runner’s World calculator, my time in the half-marathon suggests I should be able to run a full marathon in 3:36:58. That seems a bit ambitious to me, but I’d be ecstatic if I essentially split the difference and posted a time around 3:45:00.

I’ve done a fair job of maintaining my mileage in the two weeks since the half-marathon. I considered various marathon training programs, but I think I’m going to have to adapt one to my needs, since I’m starting from a baseline roughly halfway into most of the programs I’ve found. I have the wiggle room to increase my mileage gradually, throwing in the occasional week where my mileage remains the same. I also have the flexibility to add even longer runs (most programs seem to make the longest pre-race run twenty miles), or to not feel like I’m going to suffer if something comes up again to keep me from running for a few days.

So, we’ll see how it goes. At the very least, I now have a specific objective around which to plan my runs, which provides some nice structure.

I can’t promise that I’ll post daily updates on my run like I did during my half-marathon training. I don’t know that it’s that interesting, but also it feels like I’ve taken to blogging only about running (maybe I’ve just run out of things to say). But, presumably there will be progress reports and updates.

What’s next?

I’m faring well physically after the half-marathon. My calves are still a little sore, but I was able to do twenty minutes on the elliptical machine yesterday, and today I ran four miles on the treadmill after wimping out on running outside. (In my defense: it was 37° and I felt underdressed for the cold.)

But with the race now behind me, I’m finding it a bit challenging to try to put together a new running schedule. I want to keep running the same days of the week, and I’d like to maintain my fitness. But I’m also not sure what kind of mileage I should be doing, and whether I should do the same set of runs each week, or if I should vary the distance on my long runs, or how I should approach running for the next few weeks.

Of course, the simple solution is probably to target another race so I have a specific distance and program to prepare. I could easily do another half-marathon; assuming I keep up my running, I’d have no problems doing that distance again in the next month or two. But while I can always run that distance on my own, I’m not sure if the half-marathon is the distance I should target for my next race.

In fact, I’ve been giving some thought even before the half-marathon of trying to do a full marathon in the next six months or so. I’d have the advantage of already being in pretty good condition, since most of the marathon training programs I’ve seen start with much shorter runs in the early weeks than I’ve been doing lately. And I also feel like I might have an easier time training for that distance while I’m still a graduate student, since my schedule has enough flexibility to be able to run pretty much any morning. Plus, there are a few races in the region coming up in the spring, which leaves me more than enough time to get on a four-month training program.

I’m not really sure why, at the moment, I’m waffling on this issue. I know that if I do another half-marathon, I can train for a new personal record (especially since I now have an accomplished time to try to beat), and I feel like I have plenty of room to improve on my performance from Sunday, even though I was pleased with my time.

But, there’s still a strong pull to do a full marathon. For one thing, training to run that distance would probably help me shed the remaining few pounds I’d like to lose, and running considerably more miles than I’ve already been doing would also allow me to pay even less attention to my caloric intake and eat more or less what I want (it’s a nice perk of doing so much running). I’ve never really run much further than the half-marathon distance (I think I managed close to fifteen miles on a run in the summer), but then I had never run more than about four miles before mid-August, and it only took me three months to get into condition to do 13.1 miles at a healthy pace.

I guess part of my desire to pick another race is the knowledge that it’s a lot easier to run and maintain a routine when I have a specific goal. It’s not even that I think I’m going to stop running all of a sudden. It’s just that it’s so much easier for me to look at a training program that tells me exactly what distance to run on which days so I don’t have to think about it and can eliminate the guesswork on my part.

But mostly it’s just a little crazy when I think about how, at the beginning of the year, I labored to complete fifteen minutes on a treadmill, and now I’m giving serious consideration to running a marathon that will probably require me to run for close to four hours.


I’d say that went pretty well.

I managed to finish with an average pace just under eight minutes a mile. I was hoping to run a little faster, but I feel pretty satisfied all the same.

My pacing was pretty good, I think. At the very least, I managed not to run too fast at the start. I maintained a comfortable pace at the beginning, averaging about 7:40 a mile for the first five miles, and I felt pretty good. That part of the course was also generally level, so they were pretty easy miles. I was hoping to pick up the pace a little over the next five miles, but that was easier said than done. The worst uphill section of the race was right before mile 7. It was basically a one-block steep uphill section, then a level intersection before another long but somewhat less incline. It was a tough hill, but I think the big hill I’ve been running on all my training runs is worse. The hill I’ve been running is probably at least as long as the one on the race course, but it’s also a continuous ascent without any respite, whereas the race course was flat for the couple of hundred feet through an intersection, which was a nice break after the steepest portion.

Of course, a couple of people had told me that there was a “brutal” hill that they recalled being around mile 10, only it turned out to be the one just past the midpoint. So, I kept expecting the other shoe to drop and probably held off from going faster, since I thought I’d need to leave more in reserve.

Once I got past the ten-mile mark and only saw a gradual incline, I started pushing my pace a bit more. I figured I’d try to give it what I could over the last portion of the course, and I started to pass some of the people I had been using as informal pacers. I overtook a lot of runners on the downhill segments, since I usually find it easy to use gravity to my advantage. But what I was expecting was to have a couple of short but steep uphill sections near the finish. It was brutal to hit that so close to the end, especially because I wasn’t really expecting it.

And really, that’s the one thing I think would help me the most if I ran this race again next year. Just having the familiarity with the course and knowing where the toughest sections are would allow me to plan accordingly and run faster.

Still, I can’t really complain. This was my first half-marathon, and I managed to beat my time and finish in the top 15 percent or so of the field. I’m feeling pretty good, not just in terms of my mood (though the runner’s high is pretty sweet), but also physically. My calves are a little achy and my feet would probably appreciate me investing in some socks made of technical fabric. I might be sore or achy tomorrow, but it’s not awful.

And, it’s a lot better than when I started running in August. I still remember the first time I ran a long distance, deciding in the middle of a run I initially expected to last maybe six miles or so that I would instead go for a complete 13.5-mile loop. I managed to run the entire half-marathon distance, but it wasn’t pretty. I think it took me about 2:27:00 to run 13.5 miles, and my legs ached so much that it hurt to descend stairs for two or three days.

So, considering I began running regularly and seriously only in August, I think it’s a fair accomplishment to shave essentially forty minutes off my half-marathon time in about three months. It took a couple of hundred miles or so to get to that point, and I still have plenty of room for improvement. But it feels good.

Also, as a final note. I wore my iPod (sans headphones) to see how the Nike plus did in terms of recording my distance. I knew this was a well-measured distance, and that I’d probably actually run more than 13.1 miles (since that’s the minimum distance and runners often tack on a few tenths of a mile over the course of the race), especially since I started recording my data when the horn sounded and I was several yards behind the start line, and I stopped somewhere beyond the finish line. And the Nike plus estimated that I only ran 12.77 miles. At least I know I’m not crazy when I think it’s shorting my distance by a fair amount.

Today’s stats:

  • Distance run: 13.1 miles
  • Time: 1:44:04 (unofficial); 1:44:20 (official)
  • Average speed: 7.6 mi/h
  • Average pace: 7:57/mi (unofficial)
  • Calories burned: 1975

Finishing stats:

  • Overall finish (men’s half-marathon): 491/3037
  • Division finish (age 25-29): 91/484
  • Split time 1 (first 6.2 miles): 51:19
  • Split time 2 (last 6.9 miles): 53:01