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Week of 23 July 2007

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Monday, 23 July 2007
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08:50 -I got email from Mary Chervenak about midnight Saturday/Sunday. The team was to stay that night in a five-star hotel in Ulan Bator, which would be their last contact with civilization for a while. The following night, Mary said, they'd be camping in the Gobi Desert. Some time early this afternoon my time, they'll reach the exchange point that's marked by a horse carcass.

Only eight days left until Mary and the rest of the Blue Planet Run team arrives back in the USA, and I'm sure most of them are looking forward to that.

I don't mind the fact that Border Collies can count. But the fact that Malcolm thinks he can count better than I can offends me.

Barbara usually buys half a dozen boxes of Alpo Snaps dog treats at a time. The last time, the store was nearly out of stock, so she got only a couple. In order to tide us over, she bought several boxes of Milk Bone dog treats for small/medium dogs. Those are about twice the mass of an Alpo Snap, so I've been breaking them in half. Obviously, that means I always start out with an even number, and as I give both dogs a treat at the same time, the number remaining should also be even.

Friday morning, I took the dogs for a walk. When we got home, I put the remaining six dog treats on the table in the foyer. The next time I walked the dogs, only five of the treats remained. I pointed out the pile of treats to Malcolm, and told him he was a Bad Dog. He looked at Duncan, as if I'd believe that.

I know exactly what went through Malcolm's mind when he stole that treat. "Hmmm. Here's a pile of six treats. If I eat all of them, Bob will notice and I'll be in real trouble. But if I eat just one of them, he probably won't notice."

People who haven't lived with Border Collies won't believe this, I know. But anyone who has lived with Border Collies knows I'm right. For those who don't believe that Border Collies can count and have this degree of cunning, how else would you explain just one dog treat missing from a pile of six of them?

After I chewed out Malcolm, I explained to him that he'd made a tactical blunder. I told him that if he was going to steal treats, he should always steal an even number, and explained why. I'll be keeping a close count from now on.


Tuesday, 24 July 2007
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08:20 - Update from Paul, who's on the road.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Yesterday 22:36:01
  Re: Mongolia


Updates have slowed obviously. I've been traveling; I left Hydro on Saturday morning and am now in Chinle, Arizona having visited Eric and Andrea in Puerto de Luna and then staying with Shari for a couple of days in Las Cruces. Thanks all for the hospitality.

Of course, these updates aren't about my travels. I've only spoken to Mary once since leaving Hydro. She called from Ulaan Baatar, capital of Mongolia, just after I arrived in Las Cruces. They're on the 0300-0900 shift, which they all find grueling as they have to leave the hotel around midnight or so and try to sleep during the daylight hours when it's bright and relatively loud. But she was in very good spirits. She said Mongolia is very nice. Good food, very nice people and a lighter atmosphere than Russia. She was happy about everything except that she was in the capital on Sunday and everything seemed closed. So, if she promised you a Mongolian hat, you may be disappointed (wait, I can't be the only one?). Her second run on the shift was 5 flat miles, followed by 5 very, steep uphill miles (some 12% grade). She said she was on about 7 minute pace at mile 5 and finished in 1:29. Teams have again been shuffled as there are some injuries. Shiri has been down completely for a few days along with some other sore/tired/hurt/sick runners so it's hard to say who is on whose team. Jason and Taeko have been temporarily separated for those following the romance.

Come to think of it, Mary's team has finished their latest shift and is on a day off. According to the schedule, they should be in China in the next 24 hours. I'm sure once they get to Beijing, I'll hear from her more often. That is, if I can get some sort of signal in Zion National Park, where I head next. No word on the horse carcass.

Anyway, halfway through Mongolia, she was really liking it.

Oh, and as for Harry Potter...nah, I won't spoil it.


PS If you're curious, the Chinle Holiday Inn doesn't seem to approve of Barry Bonds. They have ESPN, ESPNews and ESPNClassic, but not ESPN2, which is showing the Giants game.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Yesterday 23:02:47
  Re: Re: Mongolia

Something I forgot: Mary has seen a large number of the 2-hump camels. She spoke at length about them but I forget all the details. Evidently, as they age, the humps begin to sag, which makes for a sad sight. Also, the Mongolians don't eat the camels but use almost all of the animals but the meat once the animals dies/is destroyed.

It seemed important for me to add this.

Barbara notes that camel humps aren't the only things that sag with age. And I see that the Bactrian camel is officially listed as "critically endangered" despite the fact that there are about a million of them in Mongolia.

I see elsewhere that Team Silver was involved in a pretty bad car accident, with considerable property damage. Apparently, everyone is okay, with only some bruises. I almost wrote that Team Silver's van had collided with the other vehicle in Mongolia, but I suppose I should stop making fun of Mongolia.

Mary and all of the other runners seem to like Mongolia a lot. It's much nicer than Siberia, with much better food and plenty of it, and the people are a lot friendlier. Mongolia is a liberal democracy, and has supported the United States since 9/11, including sending a large (for them) troop contingent to support our troops in Iraq.

Still, it's only a week now until the runners return to the United States, and I'm sure they're all counting the days until they return to the world of a language they understand, clean hotels, good and plentiful food that's familiar to them, reliable cell phone and Internet connections, and so on. They'll have much of that when they arrive in Japan on the 28th, of course, but Taeko is their only Japanese speaker, and she has little English. I would imagine that most of the runners will kiss the ground when they arrive in San Francisco.


Wednesday, 25 July 2007
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08:29 - Cali Lewis is recruiting new agents for the GIA.

Which reminds me of the old joke...

The CIA needs to recruit a new assassin. The recruiting committee winnows down all the applications and comes up with three possible candidates, two men and one woman.

They decide that as a final test they'll give each candidate a pistol loaded with blanks and order him to kill a loved one as proof of his loyalty and ruthlessness.

So, they call in the first candidate, put the pistol on the table in front of him, and tell him, "Your wife is in the next room. As a final test, we want you to take this pistol, go into the room, and shoot her."

"What, are you nuts!", the guy says. "You can take this job and shove it."

The second guy comes into the interview room, and the committee explains to him what he has to do to get the job. He takes the pistol and goes into the room next door. Dead silence. A minute or so later, he comes back. "I just can't do it," he says. "I guess I'm not cut out for this job."

So, they're down to one candidate, the woman. They call her in and explain that her husband is in the next room. If she wants the job, she has to take the pistol, go into the room, and shoot her husband.

She picks up the pistol, goes into the room, and closes the door. The committee immediately hears shots: blam, blam, blam, blam, blam, blam. And finally a click, click, click, CLICK. After short pause, they hear screams and the sounds of breaking furniture coming from the next room. Finally, the woman candidate comes out of the room, disheveled and wide-eyed.

"You bastards gave me BLANKS!", she shouts, "I had to beat him to death with the chair."

12:45 - Mary Chervenak has a couple of new blog posts up on the Blue Planet Run website. The BPR website gremlins have been at it again. Things change for no apparent reason, often for the worse.

It used to be that if you went to a runner's page you'd see a link to the most recent blog entry at the top of the right column. Clicking on that would take you to a new page with the blog entry text. Now, if you click on the link, nothing obvious happens. As it turns out, the page refreshes, substituting the blog entry text for other text at the bottom of the page. I had to click a few times before I realized what was happening.

And the gremlins may not be satisfied. Mary's next-to-newest blog entry worked as I described. Clicking on the link for her most recent entry displayed a completely different page that was, to put it charitably, a mess. It's easier just to post the entries here, so here they are.

July 19

Until recently, I never thought much about Jell-O. Now, I think about it all the time. It's kind of a silly food, don't you think?

I've spent a lot of time this shift prone on a back seat in the van, my head mashed into a corner of the bench seat and my heels against the opposite window. Sometimes I'm joggling around on the seat, vibrating gently like a bowl of orange (I like orange) Jell-O. Other times, I'm slung back and forth, like a guy in a bad cowboy hat on a mechanical bull. The road is packed dirt and so deeply corrugated, I could completely conceal myself inside a single rut. Cars and trucks skate back and forth like drunken water bugs, avoiding the deepest of the holes and diving nose-first through everything else. A thick brown curtain of dust hangs in the air. I can't believe this is an actual road. I can't imagine what happens when it rains.

I'm bruised. All over. Even parts of me that aren't actively participating in the run – the top of my head (barrette accident), my left ear (headphone accident), the bridge of my nose (sunglasses accident) – have weird bruises. Starting a run is almost a relief. When I get out of the car, the world stops bobbing, swaying, jerking, jumping, and pitching and generally follows established laws of physics (of course, I never studied the law).

The terrain has changed and changed again and again this shift: an unfinished dirt road through a birch forest near Kansk, flat, fast, and freshly paved outside of Irkutsk, hilly with hairpin turns near Lake Baikal. I've ceased to worry about what the route is going to look like or where it is or when I'm going to run. Someone points at a stretch of road and swings open the car door; I tighten my shoelaces and start running. Relinquishing control has been surprisingly easy. I have only one thing to accomplish every day and it doesn't require much brain power; I am therefore free to think about other things. Small things. Simple things. Truly inconsequential things. I puzzle out Russian road signs. I study the intricately carved window shutters on the weathered houses we pass and am pained by the fact that every single one of them is painted Carolina blue. I wonder why all my artistic shots end up looking like building corners. I hope it doesn't rain, and then I hope it does. And I think about Jell-O, of course (primarily the orange kind).

Apparently, my brain, too, is sliding toward a Jell-O-like (orange) state.

With the conclusion of this shift, I take my last steps in Russia. In a moment, I will bounce over my last Russian rut, eat my last Russian cucumber, listen to my last Russian pop song. I plan, though, to continue to embrace my state of Jell-O-ness (orange, please – I'm liking the orange). Being loose and flexible, and letting go of unnecessary complexity, has enabled me to survive the constantly changing schedule, the terrible roads, the strange places and stranger food. I have bent, but not broken, in the face of the relentless Russian roads. Like Jell-O. A big bowl of orange Jell-O. Not so silly after all.

July 23

I have abandoned the rush of Russia for the timelessness of Mongolia. The slower pace, the gentle language, and the quiet, traffic-free roads are a welcome change. Where Russia left me tired and nervous, Mongolia makes me relaxed and a bit drowsy.

Just over the Russia-Mongolia border, the countryside looks as clipped and manicured as a golf course. Rolling hills are carpeted with short, bright green grass and dotted with tiny, twisted trees. The roadside is lined with mats of yellow flowers, colonized by miniature powder blue butterflies. The first morning, my team encountered a leisurely herd of Bactrian (the two-humped kind) camels being driven by a guy on horseback, a huge pile of spiritual stones swathed in blue scarves, a benign and smiling Buddha, wild horses, cashmere goats, nomadic yurts...

Mongolia is paradise.

Of course, the running kind of sucked. At least for me.

By the third day of the 3 AM to 9 AM shift, the terrain had changed from arid to sere. The earth and sky were stripped of color – sandy dirt the color of unbaked cookie dough and sky like a bleached blue sheet. No trees. No cover at all, in fact. The ground was spattered with hundreds of thousands of small stones, singly and in piles, stretching to the horizon.

Welcome to the Gobi Desert.

Now, Mongolia in general, and the Gobi in particular, didn't play to my strengths. If a road is straight and marked at regular intervals with large signs with contrasting lettering, I run really well and (usually) finish where I'm supposed to. Start giving me choices and things go downhill very quickly. I have a notoriously poor sense of direction. I once left Durham, North Carolina to attend my brother's graduation from Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (two cities that are not far apart and are connected by a huge Interstate) and didn't realize I was headed to Virginia until I saw the “Welcome to Virginia” sign on the state line. The Gobi has a hint of a road here and a suggestion of a road there and a scratch in the sand that might be a road over yonder, which adds up to...a trackless, colorless, featureless landscape with no roads. For someone who requires large neon arrows shouting “THIS WAY!”, this was less than ideal. My run was really more of a quietly desperate slog through sand that was alternately hard-packed and ankle-deep. I kept sliding and stumbling in a direction I thought was forward, hoping I wasn't headed into some section of the inner Gobi where the camels and horses go to die.

I left a lot of unnecessary footprints in the Gobi. Sorry for the mess, Mongolia.

Okay, my run through the Gobi wasn't spectacular and I didn't distinguish myself as a graceful dune runner, but I did see the sun rise over the sand while I was busy making all my footprints. Pretty cool.


Thursday, 26 July 2007
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10:47 - It's as well that I posted Mary's blog entries. Paul emailed me this morning to say that the July 23 entry is now missing from her page. I suspect I know why. The Blue Planet Run webmasters appear to be incompetent. Apparently, they're using dynamically-generated pages, but have no clue as to how their CMS works.

I check for new blog entries and other new pages by pointing my browser to http://blueplanetrun.org/node/. (Thanks to Roy Harvey for pointing out this workaround over on the messageboard; I had been using http://blueplanetrun.org/node/999, which works for now, but will point to one particular page once they've reached 999 pages posted.) That link always returns a page that lists the most recently posted blog entries.

If you look at one of those links now, you'll see Mary's two most recent blog entries. (That'll change as soon as they post some new pages, at which point Mary's current blog entries will migrate to page 2 or later.) Mary's July 19 entry is formatted normally, with:

at the end of the entry. But her July 23 entry ends with:
which is missing Mary's name and link. My guess is that this page isn't linked to Mary and so doesn't show up on her personal page.

I got email from Mary last night. She enjoyed Mongolia, but is happy to be in China. She was in Beijing when she emailed me, preparing to attend a Dow event. Later, she'll have a chance to see the Great Wall, which she's really looking forward to. Mary says she's tired. I'd be surprised if she wasn't. She's run the equivalent of two full Marathons a week for the last eight weeks in a row. The runners arrive in San Francisco next Wednesday. I'm sure they're all counting the days.


Friday, 27 July 2007
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09:14 - The Blue Planet Run team arrives in Japan tomorrow. Back to the first world, with reliable Internet connections, working cell phones, hot showers, bug-free beds, and decent food. After Japan, they're back to the USSA, then a short time in Canada, and finally they run a long loop through New York state, Pennsylvania, Maryland, DC, Delaware, New Jersey, and back to the starting point in front of the UN in New York City.

I'm working right now on the chromatography lab, which was originally going to be four or five separate labs, but I decided to consolidate it into one long lab. I debated about including TLC, but eventually decided to do all paper chromatography. I'm constantly keeping in mind the cost and availability of equipment and materials, because many readers are going to want to do as many labs as possible on a shoestring budget. I was going to make my own thin-layer chromatography plates from microscope slides coated with albumin (or Elmer's glue) and crushed silica gel, but I decided that was simply too much work for too little benefit.

I finished writing the solvent extraction lab yesterday, using a test tube and eye dropper instead of a sep funnel, and using Lugol's solution with lighter fluid as the product layer. Of course, the DEA last month tightened the restrictions on iodine, of all things. Apparently, the limit to avoid black helicopters is now one fluid ounce of a 2.2% or less solution. Still, readers should be able to get their hands on tincture of iodine or Lugol's.

For that matter, it's easy enough to produce elemental iodine from potassium iodide, which isn't restricted. A kilo of potassium iodide yields about 764 grams of iodine. You'd think even the DEA could figure that one out. Or perhaps they think meth lab operators are completely clueless about basic chemistry.

10:42 - Update from Paul. I didn't include the missing blog entry Paul mentioned. Scroll up to read that one.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Today 10:23:12
  Re: Re: unusual phone call

Hey gang,

Not a lot new to report. Mary is still in Beijing, hopefully has seen the wall at this point. For some reason, I thought the wall was far away from Beijing. it is only an hours drive away, which in Beijing is something like two blocks. Team Orange finished their leg 60km from the city, had a day off to enjoy Beijing but it wound up taking 13 hours to go those 60km. Ouch.

Anyway, Mary did a big Dow event. I've attached two photos. Also, since the BPR site can't keep her blog up, I've attached the one they seem to have lost.


PS While writing, Mary reported that she saw the wall but didn't walk on it. I quote from her email:

"I saw the Great Wall, but didn't have an opportunity to walk on it. The air quality was so horrendous that visibility was only a few feet. You'll see in my pictures. At four in the afternoon, the sun, when it was visible, appeared dark red."

Mary Chervenak speechifying

Left to right, Mary Chervenak, Dot Helling, David Christof, unknown, Shiri Leventhal, Emmanuel Kibet, Chinese Olympic Gold speed skater Yang Yang


Saturday, 28 July 2007
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09:07 - Reading about the mid-air collision of two news helicopters, something occurred to me. Two people were aboard each of the helicopters, a cameraman and a pilot/reporter. I'm not a pilot, but I've known some rotary-wing pilots. More than once, they've commented that flying a helicopter requires full-time attention. The pilot actually has to fly the machine constantly, and can't afford to be distracted even momentarily. So how can one person possibly be both the pilot and the reporter? I suspect that one or both of the pilot/reporters in this case were too busy watching what was happening on the ground to pay attention to what was going on in the air.

The Blue Planet Run team has arrived in Hiroshima, Japan. They'll spend three days running across Japan to Tokyo, arriving there on 1 August, and then fly to San Francisco and begin working their way east to their starting point outside the UN in New York City. It's tempting to think it'll all be downhill from here, but I suspect the final third may in some ways be the hardest part of the run. Sure, the runners will have good food, clean beds, hot showers, and reliable communications again, but they're all beat up and exhausted after two full months of running. Most of the runners have had to overcome injuries and illnesses along the way, not to mention sleep deprivation and lack of food, so at this point I suspect many of them are running on sheer guts. Ah, well. Only 5,000 miles or so left to go.


Sunday, 29 July 2007
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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.