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Week of 13 August 2007

Latest Update: Saturday, 18 August 2007 08:37 -0400
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Monday, 13 August 2007
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08:20 - The end of their around-the-world run is in sight for the Blue Planet Run runners, with only a bit more than three weeks and 3,500 miles left. They'll be in Vail, Colorado this afternoon, Denver tomorrow, and Kansas the following day. In one week, they reach St. Louis and cross the Mississippi River, which brings them back into the eastern US.

As far as I know, no official announcement has been made, so I'm wondering how they'll handle the end of the run. Mary Chervenak was the first runner. She took the baton at the start of the run on 1 June, and departed from the UN. Presumably, they'll have her finish what she started by carrying the official baton on the last leg of the run, when they arrive back at the UN on 4 September. I hope it's not just Mary, though. All 21 of the runners should cross the finish line together.

The astronomy book is getting into the end stages. Brian Jepson, my editor at O'Reilly, just sent me the marked up Preface, with the comment, "We're almost there!". I still have 25 constellation chapters left to review, but those typically take only a few minutes to a couple hours each, depending on how much needs to be done. I'm hoping to have everything complete this month, which will let me concentrate full-time on the home chem lab book.

Ars Technica has an interesting article up about Google's decision to abandon the downloadable video market. Anyone who "bought" any of these DRM'd videos from Google is SOL come Wednesday, when they'll no longer be able to watch what they paid for. Google is giving people coupons instead of a refund.

If a company the size of Google can leave people holding the bag, why not Microsoft or Apple? The moral here is that if you give people your money for music, video, or software that continues to work only as long as they decide to let it work, you may end up holding an empty bag.

Yesterday, only half in jest, I sent this message to Pournelle's back-channel mailing list:

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Chaos Manor Advisors
Date: Yesterday 20:04:01
  Re: Computer Glitch Causes Massive Delays at Los Angeles Airport

Computer Glitch Causes Massive Delays at Los Angeles Airport


Any truth to the rumor that a WGA malfunction shut down LAX? ;)

Wouldn't it be a hoot if that's what really happened?

11:10 - SCO stock, which closed Friday (before Judge Kimball's decision was announced) at $1.56/share, has been falling all morning, reaching a low of $0.35/share. The words "rats" and "sinking ship" come to mind.


Tuesday, 14 August 2007
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08:37 - Update from Paul. The image captions are his comments.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Yesterday 19:28:55
  Re: run in space

Team Silver truly entered the eastern US today as they crossed the Continental Divide, running through Independence Pass at 12,095 feet (I know, I counted). I thought I would hang out for this shift and give myself, and you, a taste of what a shift is like (well, sort of - they didn't stop for breakfast in Twin Lakes).

I camped about a mile and 1500 feet below the pass and pulled myself out of bed, or bag, rather, and was at the pass by 4:10am. I was very early, but wanted to catch some of the Perseids. I wasn't alone as the parking area was nearly full. Most of these people were, cleverly, wearing pants. I believe I was the lone person on scene in shorts. Did you know that in the wee hours of the morning at 12,095 feet it is cold? I pulled a blanket out of the truck and lay down on the parking lot. The sky was amazing; the zodiacal light was by far the best I've ever seen and the stars were solid lights - they twinkled hardly at all. The Milky Way was visible horizon to horizon and (for my astronomy friends) I counted 15 stars in the Pleiades and 31 in the square of Pegasus. The Perseids cooperated with, I estimated, better than one meteor per minute with a number of bright fireballs.

It's taking me a bit to get to the Run because it took the Run awhile to get to the Pass. They started just outside of Aspen and headed uphill. Emmanuel and David split most of the 15 miles leading up to the Pass with Shiri picking up a couple. They had two guest runners for about four miles coming to the Pass. Mary and Shiri joined the foursome about a quarter mile from the top and they all crested together, which was quite exciting and caught the meteor observers (many of whom I suspect had fallen asleep) off guard. Shiri took off from the top and ran five miles downhill, joined by a guest cyclist who stayed on through the shift. David picked up the last of his "official" leg and then Mary finished the last ten. Mary's leg was at an average elevation of 9,400 feet and she looked really good finishing. I was around for the exchange between runners and groups as Mary handed off to Team Green's Simon.

I sat in the van for a bit and it is, if possible, dirtier, smellier and more chaotic than my truck. I have better food. Mary attempted to hand the baton to me but I wouldn't let her. Mary and Team Silver proceeded to Golden, CO (Days Inn), which is where I now am, though I stopped off for a quick swim in a mountain lake and some elk jerky. Did you know that mountain lake water above 10,000 feet is really cold? The elk jerky was quite good, though.

Mary and her teammates are getting massages this afternoon and run next tomorrow morning on the 0900-1500 shift. Obviously, things are going to get a bit flatter as they move into eastern Colorado and they shouldn't have another run above 7,000 feet. There is still no official word on team changes. Mary got an email Sunday that said word would come in time for Monday runs. Ah, well.

Several new things have happened on the website. There is now a China video. Also, Mary says that the throat singer featured in the Mongolia video was her team's driver. Will Dobbie, who was with us at lunch and is a really funny guy, now has a biography up. He claims never to have heard the philosophy he lives by, but doesn't disagree with it.

I took a number of photos this morning that I'll send along. The one attached to this email is of the team in front of the sign announcing the pass. As you can tell, I was not the principal photographer.

Cheers, Paul

This is part of the incline leading up to the pass. If you blow it up
and look in the upper portion, you can make out the guardrail in
places. This is just before the Pass.

This is the sign in daylight. Note the snow. The peaks in view are
above 13,000 feet.

This is just outside Twin Lakes. Mary is running with Mark, the night
shift paramedic who did 6 miles with Mary and another mile with David
and Emmanuel on the ascent. The cyclist is the guest cyclist, Elyse.  
Note the BPR videographer above and behind them. This is about two
miles into Mary's leg.

Mary has dropped the doc. This is within a few hundred feet of the
end. She is slowing to cross over to us - for reasons that aren't clear
to me, the runners run on the right. This makes sense when the pilot
vehicle is accompanying them, but that isn't typical in the daytime.

Mary and Shiri are relieved. Simon and Fast Eddie (seriously, that's
what they call him) discuss...I don't know, women, last night's scores?  
Something serious, anyway.

Mary knocks Simon over with her mind.
Seriously, your johnny-on-the-spot photographer has just missed the
baton exchange.  The two of them are reciting the poem that is recited
at every exchange.  They appear to have it memorized.

Team Silver and the Night Crew. Mark, David, Janell, Emmanuel, Shiri,
Mary, Alessandro.

You'd really like to know what's going on here, wouldn't you?
Well, Mary is headed toward the end, obviously.

Where I had breakfast, along Mary's route. This is about 200 yards
before the first running photo I sent. The coffee really is that good.  
Maybe it is just that you haven't had a deep breathe for a couple of hours.


Wednesday, 15 August 2007
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08:17 - I just happened across a neat 15-second video on YouTube of someone firing a .45 ACP MAC-10 with the Sionics suppressor. Years ago, I sometimes carried one of those. I've described the sound of the MAC-10 with the Sionics (assuming new wipes) as being like a "full-auto cap pistol", which some people have questioned. As this video makes clear, the MAC-10 really does sound pretty much like a full-auto cap pistol. Mitch Werbell knew what he was doing when he designed the Sionics.

Some people also doubted my assertion that the Sionics suppressor reduced recoil so much that the MAC-10 could be held one-handed and still keep most of the rounds on a silhouette target out at 50 feet. If you watch the (lack of) recoil in this video, you'll see what I mean.

Still, I can't imagine many situations where the MAC-10 would be my first choice. The combat-pistol champion Kenny Hackathorn once commented that a MAC-10 was useful only if you were going to have a gunfight in a telephone booth. And he's right. At about 20 rounds a second, a magazine empties fast. (I carried the MAC-10 in a shoulder holster with six spare magazines in a holder at the rear of my belt.)

One day, one of the MAC-10 bigots I worked with took issue with my comment that I'd rather have my High Standard 10-B riot shotgun than the MAC-10. So we decided to do a head-to-head trial. We both loaded up. Someone shouted GO and we both started shooting at silhouette targets 50 feet down range. When the smoke cleared, his target had 20+ bullet holes in it. My target was pretty much gone, with only a few shreds of paper hanging from the target frame. Of course, as one of the bystanders commented, we'd both ruined the bad guy's day.

Last night I started reading Ridley Pearson's Killer Weekend. I was surprised that Ridley included a pretty detailed description of how to make potassium chlorate from laundry bleach and potassium chloride salt substitute and purify it by recrystallization. Obviously, that information is readily available on the Internet, but you have to know to go looking for it.

I hope some kid doesn't decide to follow Ridley's instructions. Potassium chlorate is pretty dangerous to mess with. In combination with wax or a similar substance, it forms a powerful plastic explosive that can be detonated with a blasting cap. Even unconfined, when mixed with most any organic substance, such as table sugar, it forms a pretty potent low explosive.

I had my own experience with potassium chlorate when I was in eighth grade. There was a chemical storage room adjoining our science classroom. I was back there, unsupervised, and mixed up some potassium chlorate and red phosphorus. I stored the mixture in a rolled paper tube, intending to set it off after school. I left it lying on the work table.

A little while later I was sitting in class when there was a loud whump noise and clouds of white smoke and sparks came rolling out the open door of the chemical storage room. My teacher, Mr. Lanahan (I think his name was), rushed to the door and grabbed the fire extinguisher. I was right behind him. He grabbed the fire extinguisher, pointed it into the room, and started squeezing the handle. Nothing came out. He started looking at the mechanism, still holding it by the squeeze grip, and had the thing pointed at himself when I reached over and pulled the pin. His navy blue suit turned white when the fire extinguisher went off.

He showed great restraint. I would have strangled me. Instead, he sent me down to the school office to report the problem. I told them there seemed to have been a minor explosion and fire in the science classroom. They pulled the fire alarm and evacuated the school. Oddly enough, I didn't get in any trouble. Afterwards, they asked me what had happened and I told them exactly what I'd done. They told me not to mix potassium chlorate and red phosphorus, but they didn't even ban me from working in the chemical storage room. They didn't even require me to work with supervision.

That was actually the second of three times that I did something that caused a school to be evacuated. The first time was in sixth grade. We had a group project and we decided to make a model of the Mexican volcano Parícutin. My friend David Silvis built the model, with a plywood base and the volcano formed from aluminum foil and plaster of Paris. I supplied the charge, which was a couple of pounds of a mixture of potassium nitrate, table sugar, sulfur, and one or two other things.

David managed to be absent the day we were to demonstrate our projects. I touched off the charge and was quite satisfied with the result. An intense flame shot up two or three feet from the mouth of the volcano, accompanied by copious flows of lava and clouds of choking gas. Just like the real thing. Too much so, apparently. My teacher ran out into the hall and pulled the fire alarm.

They evacuated the school, and we all stood around waiting for the fire trucks to show up. Afterwards, the teachers and staff went back in and opened all the windows. It was an hour or more before they'd let us go back in. Happily, we did get an A on our project.

As to the third time, that was in high school. I had nothing to do with it, and they couldn't prove I did. And anyway it wasn't that big of an explosion. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.


Thursday, 16 August 2007
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08:21 - When Barbara got out of the shower yesterday morning, she said she'd barely made it before the hot water ran out. A year or two ago, I noticed that the hot water wasn't very hot. I turned up the dial a notch and thought nothing more about it. Then two or three months ago, I noticed that the hot water was again just warm. I turned up the hot water another notch and our hot water was again hot, very hot.

Then, a month or so ago, I asked our next-door neighbor, Gerald, who's a contractor. He said that a hot water heater was good for about 10 years before it needed to be replaced. Ours was installed in May of 1997, so it was about time.

Barbara suggested I called Logan Heating and Air Conditioning, which installed the hot water heater at the same time they replaced our furnace and air conditioning. The nice lady at Logan told me that they only installed hot water heaters as part of a larger project, and anyway they'd end up charging us much more than a plumber would charge. So I called our plumber. He showed up, measured the old water heater, and headed off to buy a new one. They got it installed this afternoon.

I have to say I was surprised by the amount of the bill. It was $941 for the water heater and labor. We've known Jerry for years, and I know he wouldn't rip us off. I asked him about the high price, and he said the price of water heaters has gone out of sight. There are apparently only two or three companies left making them, so there's little competition, and the cost of freighting them is very high.

I checked Lowes for natural gas water heaters. They had some small, cheap units for around $300, but the brand Jerry installed was much more expensive. The American Water Heater 50-gallon unit he installed cost about $600 at Lowes, so $941 for that water heater installed isn't at all unreasonable.

I'll have to remember to warn Barbara when she heads for the shower in the morning. She's used to taking a shower with almost all hot water, which she won't have to do any more. Jerry set the temperature dial one notch above default. The default setting is a CYA setting that the manufacturers use to make sure they don't get sued for delivering hot water that's too hot. I tested the temperature after Jerry left, and it's stable at 129 °F. That's hot enough to cause third-degree burns after 30 seconds' exposure. If we had kids or elderly people in the house, I'd drop that to 120 °F or even 110 °F, but 129 °F is safe enough for Barbara and me.

Update from Paul.

From: Paul Jones
 To: Paul Jones
 CC: <many recipients>
 Date: Yesterday 22:04:36
Re: Re: run in space

Hi from Kansas,

Mary ran from Colorado into Kansas this afternoon under a big, bright sky that heated the world up quite a bit. I found Mary running with guest runner Ned along what I would call a section line but Colorado calls County Road V. It was very dusty and, as I said, hot, so I left them in peace. Guest runner Ned* (who had run with Emmanuel yesterday) dropped out after about 8 miles and Mary almost finished alone. However, I had stopped at the intersection of County Road 60 (it had changed designation crossing the state line) and had framed what, if I do say so myself, was a fine looking photo opportunity. Dill had been accomanying the runners on his Vespa and he came by and we talked a bit. He liked my idea and flagged down Chris and Polly (the photographer and videographer) and they set about lining up many more photos and Polly did a short video interview. Dill said they were 25 minutes ahead of schedule and only had a mile left. They shot some good footage I think and I got a couple of pics (I'll only send one this time, I promise). Unfortunately, along highway 24 (running alongside I-70) Kansas has no sign saying "Welcome to Kansas!" So, we get the shot of Mary entering Kansas looking back into Colorado. Anyway, we then let Mary alone to finish her leg.

She'll be running tomorrow at 9am central about 30 miles east of Oakley. I'll be making my way to Salina, KS.

*Ned was the guy behind setting up a guest runner for every leg in Colorado. He is the head of an organization called Water for People and is an accomplished distance runner. He was a really nice guy and he and his group raised a lot of money and really cheered the runners through the state. Team Green, heading off to cross Kansas was really bummed to discover that they didn't have a guest runner.

11:25 - Updates from Paul.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Today 10:29:38
  Re: Kansas, knees and painkiller

Good morning,

Mary is running as I type about 30 miles away. I thought I'd give a quick early update. She was complaining this morning that her knee is hurting again. I think this happens when she gets tired, which is happening a lot lately. Hopefully, the modern pharmacopoeia can deal with it. This reminded me that I haven't really told you guys how the team is doing. They're very tired. Even the seriously strong professional and semi-professional runners have slowed considerably and are availing themselves of therapeutic massage and Advil and disturbing rates. Several runners are injured, though no one is absolutely not running (I suspect there are at least two runners who should not be running, but I won't tell them that - it isn't Mary (yet, fingers crossed)). Tempers have gotten shorter and everyone I've spoken to for any length of time has expressed a quiet, intense desire to be home.

Anyway, I just wanted to be sure I wasn't making it sound too easy. I'm very impressed with how tired and sore they all are and yet they still go out and run and, when the time calls for it, they're in good spirits and put on a nice show for the crowds, which are steadily growing. Colorado gave them a nice turnout and there are supposed to be some good events planned in the college towns in eastern Kansas.

Oh, and there is a new BPR video. This is the main video on the home page. You probably watched a version before the Run started, but they've replaced a lot of the generic running footage with footage from the actual Run. It isn't especially important to watch, but you can catch Mary in a few places. Based on the shoes, I think her feet are prominently displayed.

Have a good day. -Paul

And this.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Today 10:52:08
  Re: Re: Kansas, knees and painkiller

Of course, I left out the main bit of news. David was transferred to Team Yellow with Will coming over in exchange. It looks like that is it as far as team switches go, so Mary will likely finish out on Team Silver. A lot of runners have requested switches and an equal number, more or less, have dug in their heels and refused to move (see previous email about tempers shortening).

She will be switched around for individual runs around Midland and Elmira. This is likely to start happening a lot as we get in the east, and especially Michigan which has a high proportion of runners. The runners are able to request certain legs for family and/or home reasons. Dow wants her to be around for the big Midland event and she has requested an afternoon leg through Elmira. Don't be surprised if she peels off and heads to the Moosewood.

It will be hard for her to select a leg in the DC/Baltimore area as lots of runners are selecting legs there and they have to keep havoc to a minimum. Okay, well, I'd like them to keep havoc to a minimum, but they don't seem too keen on that.



Friday, 17 August 2007
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08:53 - Netflix is getting smart. A year or so ago, I had to go through hoops to find a toll-free customer support number for Netflix, or any number at all, for that matter. Like most companies, Netflix really, really didn't want to talk to its customers on the phone. Now they've done a 180. Clicking on the Help link now displays this:

Netflix customer service can be reached at:
24 hours a day

And, mirabile dictu, their call center is located in the US and staffed by people whose first language is English. Obviously, Netflix is doing this to complete with Blockbuster. Although Netflix still has twice as many customers as Blockbuster, for the first time ever last quarter Netflix actually showed a net loss in customers, while Blockbuster showed a large net gain. Blockbuster's new program, which allows rent-by-mail customers to return discs to a local Blockbuster and replace them immediately with a disc from the local store's stock, is apparently really hurting Netflix.

I wouldn't belong to Blockbuster on a bet. I prefer the convenience of renting purely by mail, but even if I found the local return aspect of Blockbuster's program attractive, the problem is that Blockbuster simply can't compare to Netflix in any other aspect of renting discs. In terms of breadth of selection, Netflix simply kills Blockbuster. I've been a customer of both. When you get past the popular movies, there's simply no comparison. Netflix is deep and broad. Blockbuster is shallow and narrow.

Even worse, Blockbuster's fulfillment simply sucks. Netflix almost always ships the same day it receives a disc back from me. About 95% of the time, the service is one-day both directions. I send a disc back on Monday. Netflix receives it Tuesday and ships the replacement disc the same day. I receive it Wednesday, watch it Wednesday evening, and send it back on Thursday. Netflix receives it Friday and sends the replacement disc the same day. I receive it Saturday. Rinse and repeat.

I rejoined Netflix on 21 May this year. For the calendar month of June, Netflix sent me 26 discs on the three-at-a-time plan. For July, they sent me 22 discs. So far in August, they've sent me 14 discs.

During my 2-week trial with Blockbuster, when presumably they'd be on their best behavior, I got worse service than the worst I'd ever gotten from Netflix. (That was January of 2006, when Netflix sent me only 13 discs.) Blockbuster never once showed me one-day service in either direction. If I sent a disc back on Monday, it would be Wednesday or even Thursday before they admitted receiving it. And they almost never sent out a replacement disc the same day that they admitted getting back the original disc. When they did send me a disc, it always took at least two days and sometimes three to arrive. And this during the free trial period, when presumably they'd be doing their best to impress me with their service.

Based on that experience, I made a few assumptions and ran a back-of-envelope calculation. It turned out that, assuming Blockbuster service didn't get worse once I started paying for it, I could expect only 9 or 10 discs a month from them in a bad month and only 12 to 14 discs on a good month. Call it 11 discs per month on average, versus twice that with Netflix. Even if I were willing to drive to the local Blockbuster and return discs there, assuming they had anything in stock that I wanted, I'd end up getting fewer discs per month with Blockbuster.

I sometimes get email from readers asking how we could possibly watch that many discs, but it really isn't difficult. Barbara and I watch almost zero regular TV, so nearly all of our TV-watching time is spent watching DVDs. Lately, we've been running through the 35 discs of Midsomer Murders, a British mystery program. Each disc contains one 100-minute program, so even in the peak month of July that would amount to only 2,600 minutes of programming, for a daily average of about 84 minutes. We usually start a disc when we sit down to dinner, pause it while we clean up and walk the dogs, and then watch the rest of it. Sometimes we watch a second disc that same evening, if we have one available, and a few evenings we've watched three.

We also don't necessarily watch every disc we get. For example, we rented Series 1, Disc 1 of a British show called Absolutely Fabulous. We watched part of the first episode, decided it should have been named Absolutely Horrible, and returned the disc. Same thing for a British comedy named Father Ted, except that time I rather foolishly rented three discs of it at the same time. We watched about five minutes of the first episode and sent all three discs back unwatched.

But generally the Netflix recommendation system works pretty well. For example, we'd rented Duchess of Duke Street last year. Only the first series, five discs and 14 episodes, was available at the time. I made a mental note to check periodically to see if the second (and final) series had become available on DVD, but it never showed up. The other day, I was looking at the recommendations Netflix had for me, and there was Series Two of Duchess of Duke Street, which is now in my queue.

If you're bored with what's on cable or satellite and you don't already belong to Netflix, I highly recommend you give it a try.

I may have created a monster...

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Mary Chervenak
  CC: Paul Jones, Barbara Thompson
Date: Yesterday 09:35:57
  Re: New water heater

We had our hot water heater replaced yesterday, so we have plenty of hot water again. I know you'll probably have a thing about hot showers for the rest of your life, so any time you're over at our house, feel free to jump in the shower.

From: mary chervenak
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Yesterday 21:54:53
  Re: RE: New water heater

Be careful -- I may just shower at your house all the time, once I'm back in Winston.

On a more serious note, I sent Mary an email to offer my encouragement and support. Obviously, that's pretty meaningless, but there's nothing else I can do at this point. All of the runners are, in a literal sense, running on empty. The only things keeping them going are guts and determination. As Paul said, even the world-class professional runners are running slower legs. They're all simply worn out at this point, hurting and with no reserves left. Finishing this last 3,000 miles or so must seem more of a challenge to them than finishing the first 12,000 miles was.

Only 18 days left, and I'm sure they're all counting the minutes.


Saturday, 18 August 2007
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08:37 - Updates from Paul.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Yesterday 17:32:23
  Re: OSU >>> OU

Hi all,

We're in Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas and Jayhawk basketball. I myself drove by Allen Fieldhouse just an hour or so ago. I stopped in to have lunch with a friend I know in the chemistry department. We had hoped to attend a big BPR event on campus this evening, as I had heard from a BPR staffer that there would be such an event at the "Kansas University". KU is in Lawrence, of course, and I had told Rich about the event and he and his wife were planning to come by. It was funny, though that the website showed the Run getting to Lawrence tomorrow morning. Checking into it, I discovered the event was in Manhattan (no, not that Manhattan) at...Kansas /State/ University. Many of you will know that I'm quite sensitive about this type of mistake and was a little embarrassed at having told Rich there would be a party near him. Of course, he's been at KU for quite awhile and so is used to such mix-ups. So, just a reminder to everyone to double check: University of or State University. This is important, like the difference between good and evil (in Oklahoma at least). :)

Mary and Team Silver wrapped up their shift today with a run through hot rolling hills. Mary continues to complain of a sore knee and says she's getting slower with each run. Most of the runners have similar stories and despite the fact that if any of them sit for more than a couple of minutes they go to sleep, the Run continues apace. She now has a day off and we have a run overlooking the Kansas River. Her next run will be during the 3pm to 9pm shift on August 19 somewhere in Missouri.

Dad sent this link: http://www.kansan.com/stories/2007/aug/17/run/

BPR has a new video up (Japan): http://blueplanetrun.org/run/video

It appears to have a western US video, but that also links to the Japan video. If you click on US-West from the Japan video page it takes you to the Route. I'm sure that'll be fixed in a few days, or at least by the end of the Run.

The video guys are actually quite good, I think and these videos have been really cool. Mary isn't in the Japan video and given what she's told me of her time in Japan that may be good for all of us.



From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Yesterday 23:04:28
  Re: US-West video

The US West video is up and working at this link:


Let it be known that in the events filmed at Independence Pass, I am just off camera. /This/ close to fame!


Sunday, 19 August 2007
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00:00 -


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