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Week of 16 July 2007

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Monday, 16 July 2007
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09:20 - News from the Blue Planet Run. Our friend Mary Chervenak and the other 20 runners persist, despite the hardships. They've now turned the corner, at least of those of us in the EDT and CDT timezones. They're now 13 hours ahead of us EDT folks.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
  Date: Today 08:01:26
Re: imprisonment

Good morning.  Mary has a new blog up:


I spoke to her very briefly last night. Her first words were, "I'm in a gulag!" Of course, I took this literally and began thinking of rescue plans but it turns out this was simply an opinion on her current hotel. She isn't sure if actually was a gulag at some point. Most of the worst hotels she's stayed in have really nice, fancy lobbies. It seems that Russians like they're lobbies to be really nice and most people spend most of their time in the lobby, socializing when they stay at a hotel but that the rooms are usually very, very spartan and in a lot of cases. At this hotel, however, the lobbies matched the bleak rooms. Our conversation was cut short when she was told lunch was being served and that this lunch is the only opportunity for food in town. So, off she went.

She had a good run last night and says she feels good. She seemed more amused at her current accommodation than irritated. It evidently was pretty grim.

Have fun.  -Paul

PS Just as I was about to send, Mary called. She is 13 hours ahead now and so is on her way to the first exchange point for her team's 9pm-3am shift. She will run the 0130 leg. Notes on the gulag: no toilet seats; one shower, in the basement, with no hot (or warm) water (most declined the use, Will got in, spun around and got out. Victor, on the other hand, got in, lathered up and hung out for almost 20 minutes and claims it is the best shower they've had in awhile. To each his own). They are running the the M-53 on the way to Irkutsk. If you look on Google Earth (by the way, does anyone know how to get Google Earth to display English words for Russian cities instead of Cryllic?) you'll see that the M-53 isn't yet complete. The bits not shown on the map are under construction. Construction evidently begun under Stalin. She reports ruts in the road that are deep enough for her to stand in. She got a paved bit but it was still rough going. They're passing through the Sayan mountains which have several peaks above 3000m. It's beautiful and very empty, she says.

Oh, and they lost her laundry, leaving her with one pair of running shorts, one pair of underwear and a shirt. It was recovered after 36 hours.

Saturday afternoon, Paul picked up Barbara and me. We drove out to Friendship Sporting Clays to try Paul's new shotgun, a 12-gauge Remington 1100 autoloader that his father gave him. Paul and Barbara shot very well. Neither of them is going to win any clays competitions, but if I were a bad guy I sure wouldn't want either of them shooting at me.

I shot less well, distracted by having to mount the shotgun right-handed. I can actually shoot a rifle or shotgun from either shoulder, but I'm a natural leftie and I have more trouble tracking clays when shooting right-handed. The fact that I'm left-eyed makes it even harder, particularly because the frame of my glasses gets in the way. For the last couple rounds, I gave up and shot left-handed, trying to ignore the empties being ejected right in front of my nose.

The good news is that Friendship Sporting Clays is currently building rifle and pistol ranges. Barbara and I belong to GFTC, which is currently closed and in the process of relocating. Unfortunately, for political correctness reasons, GFTC restricts shooters to bulls-eye targets. That and the limitations of a 50-foot indoor range means we don't shoot there often.

It takes half an hour or so to drive out to Friendship Sporting Clays, but I think we'll shoot there more often. A combat pistol course is too much to hope for, but at least we'll be able to shoot at silhouette targets, and at longer distances.


Tuesday, 17 July 2007
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08:30 - Update from Paul.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Today 00:13:04
  Re: Re: imprisonment
Mary continues to be imprisoned. When they pulled up to their hotel at 4am, the first three floors were boarded up. The hostel was on the top floor. The showers were again cold water and consisted of hoses in a big room. Mary says some persons in her group - not her - rebelled and demanded a nicer hotel. Their drivers found a place and they got a good morning's sleep and a hot shower. Mary said she felt bad for the owner of the hostel who had put out little bouquets of flowers in honor of the BPR. And she said the place was very tidy and clean. To make matters worse, two other subteams stayed at the original hostel without incident. Like I said a few emails ago, tempers have flared.

She had a really good run last night (that would be the 0130-0300 leg of July 16. She'll be back on the road this evening. Three more full days and they're out of Russia.

On to the Horse Carcass!

Oh, I remembered one  more thing she wanted me to tell you. It has finally gotten cold. It fell below freezing during her run. I would guess this helped her out quite a bit. Since her stay in Edmonton, she has been a better runner in the cold than hot. Afternoon temps in the flats were above 90. Nighttime in the mountains is, not surprisingly, cool. Hence, better runs. QED.

I should explain one thing about Paul's message. The Blue Planet Run website lists the individual exchange points where the runners exchange the baton after every 10-mile leg. In the US and Europe, these exchange points were pretty ordinary. Things like "BP gas station at the intersection of Main Street and Rt. 128" or "Parking lot of the First United Presbyterian church".

In rural Russia, and particularly in Mongolia, it's apparently a bit harder to come up with landmarks, so the exchange points are often described as "pile of rocks on side of road" and so on. A couple days ago, I was reading through the list of exchange points for Mongolia, and almost sprayed my monitor with Coke when I read:

7/24/07  1:30  horse carcass  N45 12.519 E109 53.424

So there you have it. At 0130 on 24 July, the BPR team will exchange the baton at a point marked by a dead horse on the side of the road.

It's only two weeks until Mary and the rest of the Blue Planet Run team arrives back in the United States. I'm sure that'll be a long two weeks for them.


Wednesday, 18 July 2007
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08:30 - I'm still working heads-down on the home chem lab book. At the moment, I'm writing the lab chapter on colligative properties of solutions.

Mary Chervenak is currently in Irkutsk, Russia, which marks the halfway point of the 15,200 mile Blue Planet Run. With 47.5 days and 7,600 miles down, they have only 47.5 days and 7,600 miles to go.

I got email from Mary this morning. She says she'll be on the early morning shift in Mongolia, and promises some pictures of herself with the dead horse. Mary also notes that she's looking forward to meeting her husband, Paul Jones, in San Francisco when the BPR team arrives there on 1 August. But what she's dreaming about is food. Mary says there's a really big pizza in San Francisco with her name on it.

Paul left yesterday, headed west with his 15" Obsession Dobsonian telescope in the back of his SUV. He plans to visit his parents in Oklahoma on the way out, and get in some dark-sky observing sessions along the way. (Note to burglars: Paul left their house in the care of a house-sitter, and it's someone you really, really don't want to mess with. Trust me on this.) After he meets Mary and the BPR team in San Francisco, Paul will loosely follow them back across the US, staying in Mary's general vicinity but not tracking the run itself closely. Here's an update from Paul.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Today 01:32:17
  Re: Re: imprisonment

Mary has arrived in Irkutsk. She has one more run on this shift and then a day off, also in Irkutsk.  She's hoping to get a chance to go out to Lake Baikal; I'll keep you posted.

Also, a package I boxed up and Bob kindly delivered to the DHL store has arrived and is in her hands. So she is now awash in protein bars and contact lens solution. Thanks, Bob.

Of course, I'm disillusioned. I covered 827 miles today which dwarves BPRs piddly 160 miles. I told Mary the secret: drive more, run less. She'd be home by now if she'd followed my formula. Unfortunately, just as I told her this, the call was dropped. Strange, that.

It also interests me that she is now 14 hours ahead of me. I have moved to CDT, headed west while she heads east, yet we're moving toward each other. For a while now, if I were to point at her, I would point toward the north and down about 30 degrees. Now I have to point northwest and down. Perhaps I'm a little punchy from the road.

Have a nice night, all.  -Paul

In private mail, Paul noted that the package of protein bars and contact-lens solution is now in Mary's hands. He was talking to her on the phone and heard the paper rustle. Thinking ahead, Paul had included an anniversary card. That worked out perfectly, because Mary got the package on their ninth wedding anniversary. Happy anniversary, guys, and many happy returns.


Thursday, 19 July 2007
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08:30 - I figured out why I'm unable to play the Blue Planet Run videos on my machine, while they (usually) play just fine on Barbara's. Barbara has the Mplayer plugin for Mozilla installed, while I have the VLC plugin.

BPR posted a new video yesterday, Russia Part II, so I finally decided just to go back to Barbara's office to watch it. Mplayer has a status bar that shows download progress as it buffers the data. That status bar gets to 99% and freezes on Barbara's system. That happens on any of the videos. When the status bar reached 99% and locked up, I could simply press the Play button in Mplayer and watch the video. VLC senses that the download is incomplete, and simply times out. There's no status bar or Play button, so there's no way to watch the video.

Speaking of the Blue Planet Run, I suspect it's about to go dark for a while. As I write this, it's late evening on 19 July for the runners, who are nearing the border between Siberia and Mongolia. They have another day or so remaining in Siberia--they're in Selinginsk right about now--but all of that is in rural areas with not much chance of cell phone signals, let alone Internet access.

Then, late tomorrow evening or early the next morning, they enter the trackless wastes of Mongolia, where they'll run for four days before reaching the Chinese border. The only settlement of any size they encounter during that four days is Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator), which is built on permafrost and is famous primarily for being the coldest national capital in the world. The population of Ulan Bator is about 1,000,000, so presumably there is some sort of Internet service there, but there's no guarantee that the runners will have access.

We're in the finishing stages of the astronomy book. I just got email from my editor and replied to him:

From: Brian Jepson
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Yesterday 23:02:10
  Re: Last of the Astronomy chapters back to you

Here you go! We're getting close!

Did you send me the preface yet?

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Brian Jepson
Date: Today 07:57:45
  Re: Last of the Astronomy chapters back to you

Preface? I need to write a preface? Arrrrghhh. I somehow marked that one as complete on my to-do list without actually, uh, doing it. I'll get you something in the next couple of days.

This is excellent timing. I just finished the home chem lab book chapter on colligative properties, so I can do a review pass on these chapters before I start the next chem chapter.

10:30 - Just got email from Mary. Apparently, I was mistaken about Internet access in rural Siberia. For all I know, there'll be a Starbucks at every crossroads in Elbonia Mongolia. The mention in the subject line of Mary's voice is from an earlier unpublished email I sent her in which I commented that Barbara and I both thought that Mary has a radio-quality voice, which was particularly noticeable in the videos.

From: mary chervenak
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 09:32:23
  Re: Your voice and the Elbonian dead horse

Hi Bob --

The package was completely awesome.  Thanks so much for going to the trouble of sending it.  It completely made my day.

Right now, I'm in an Internet cafe near the Mongolian-Russian border.  How weird.

I ran around the largest freshwater lake in the world last night -- in the dark, unfortunately, so I didn't get to see it.  The team, however, stopped this afternoon to dip our toes in.  Wow.  The lake looks like an ocean -- and it's COLD!!!  I've never seen anything like it.

We cross into Mongolia tomorrow -- everything is a bit rushed, because the border is only open for five hours.  We have 50 people (teams and support staff) of all different nationalities to get across, so naturally, we're all a bit anxious.  My team's next run will be in the desert somewhere.  I'm excited, but I hope the running isn't too difficult.  To be honest, I'm a bit tired!!  More than halfway done.  Thank goodness.

Take care and I'll talk to you as soon as I can.  M.


Friday, 20 July 2007
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10:38 - I finished the chapter on colligative properties and have started another chapter. Well, two actually. I'm still at the stage where I'll be writing one chapter, have an idea, and have to stop what I'm doing so as not to lose the idea. That means I may have a dozen or more chapters in progress at any particular time.

The Blue Planet Run web site has finally posted bio videos for all 20 of the runners. The 21st runner, Will Dobbie, doesn't yet appear on the team page, which I think is probably just an oversight on BPR's part. I'm sure the original 20 runners consider Will to be a full-fledged team member.

In watching the videos, I was struck by the commitment these folks have to bringing safe drinking water to the one sixth of the world's population that lacks access to clean, safe water. According to BPR, 6,000 people per day, mostly children, die because they lack safe drinking water.

All of us take safe drinking water for granted. It's there when we turn on the tap. But for a billion of the world's population, clean drinking water is either completely unavailable or requires unimaginable time and effort to get. The videos show scenes of (mostly) women and children who have to walk miles every day to a source of water and carry it back to their homes in buckets and pans. Even discounting the physical labor required, the time required to obtain water means they have that much less time for school and productive work.

Early in the run, I talked to Paul Jones about the problem. I admit that I didn't understand the scope or scale of it. As a chemist, my first thought was, "how hard can it be to provide sand filters and chlorine bleach for these people?" Chlorine bleach is trivially easy to manufacture, requiring only raw water, ordinary salt, and a source of electricity. Surely that should be within the means of just about any community, even the poorest, particularly with government aid and the assistance of NGOs like BPR.

But the problem goes much further than that. Tens of millions of people, for example, have been displaced by national conflicts or tribal warfare, forced from areas where water is readily accessible to areas where there is no surface water and wells are few and far between. And many of those who live near water might just as well be living in the Sahara desert. Their water is unsafe to drink, and no amount of sand filtration or chlorine treatment will fix the problem because the water is polluted with heavy metals and other poisons from manufacturing pollution, mine tailings, and so on.

Ultimately, the answer is to build infrastructure, and that's just what the Blue Planet Run organization is trying to do. According to them, it costs $30 to provide safe drinking water for one person for life. On that basis, bringing safe drinking water to the one billion people who currently lack it would cost $30 billion. That's a huge problem and a huge amount of money, certainly, but BPR is addressing it by dividing the problem into manageable chunks.

BPR has some interesting figures on its donation page, from a $30 donation buying 500 bricks to line a well to $10,000 buying a complete water system for a village of 110 families. Barbara and I have already donated, and I encourage all of my readers to do the same. BPR doesn't charge any administrative overhead against donations. Every penny donated goes directly to providing safe water for someone who now does without.

If you do decide to donate to the cause, please take the opportunity to make Mary smile. On the donation form, there's a field where you can enter the email address of the person who told you about the BPR. BPR sends that person an email to tell them about your donation. (The amount you donate is not revealed.) Mary's email address is chervenak at hotmail dot com.

Oh, yeah. You'll find the form is one of those designed by an incompetent programmer. When you enter your credit card number, don't include spaces. Otherwise, it just refreshes the page and you have to fill in the credit card information all over again, not to mention Mary's email address. At least it kept my name and address information.


Saturday, 21 July 2007
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Sunday, 22 July 2007
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