Both the Barrett and the Browning families had ties to the British West Indies and had various African relatives. It's not clear whether or not (or to what degree) Elizabeth herself was "black". Perhaps she thought she was; after all, "The Portuguese" in her "Sonnets from the Portuguese" is a self-reference, and she saw herself as dark and broad-featured. Her father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, had huge hangups and was a mega-control-freak, disowning any of his children who left his domain to get married. Did he hope to end his family's line?
And the anti-slavery poem that EBB composed shortly after her marriage is perhaps revealing: its original title was "Mad and Black at Pilgrim's Point". It deals with interracial rape, insanity, and murder. (When she wrote it, Elizabeth was herself with child; that pregnancy ended in miscarriage.) As biographer Markus writes of EBB, "She was not proud of this lineage 'of the blood of the slave.' She was much too close to its ramifications, both in moral and in family matters. Yet in the high pitch of her creative intelligence and her nervous susceptibilities, she may have left the world a body of poetry that to some extent merged disparate cultures into a unique and increasingly radical voice."
Elizabeth had to overcome multiple daunting barriers, including her own gravely ill health, to escape from the virtual prison of her father's house. And the way Robert courted and then cared for her is also most striking. The couple disagreed deeply about a host of issues, especially involving mysticism and spirituality --- and yet deeply loved one another. Markus quotes Robert's letter:
"I shall only say that Ba [Elizabeth] and I know each other for time and, I dare trust, eternity: --- We differ toto coelo (or rather, inferno) as to spirit-rapping, we quarrel sometimes about politics, and estimate people's characters with enormous difference, but, in the main, we know each other, I say."
And as Markus says:
That was the pride of their years of love. Whatever had altered, trust had not. They breathed with each other's breath. At the beginning they saw the other as a brilliant poet, an amazing intellect, a compassionate and strangely similar heart. They learned their differences through the years. Neither gave over to the other. Each remained a complex and thrilling person. An exciting person to know, a different person to know. As early as December 1851, Ba wrote to Arabel [her sister] about her and Robert's disagreement about Napoleon: "You know I do think for myself (if the thought is right or wrong) and I do speak the truth (as I am capable of apprehending it) to my husband always. Also, we agree absolutely always on the principles of things --- & therefore it is, that what you used to call 'our quarrelling' is an element of our loving one another, & a very important element too."
Marcus cites an earlier biographer (Betty Miller, writing in 1952) who quotes Robert Browning a few years after his wife's death:
"The general impression of the past is as if it had been pain. I would not live it over again, not one day of it. Yet all that seems my real life, --- and before and after, nothing at all: I look back on all my life, when I look there: and life is painful. I always think of this when I read the Odyssey --- Homer makes the surviving Greeks, whenever they refer to Troy, just say of it, 'At Troy, where the Greeks suffered so.' Yet all their life was in that ten years at Troy."
And Marcus concludes this chapter of her book with:
Yes, life had been painful. His mother's death; his own questioning, nervous temperament; the lawsuit against his father; money worries; the constant responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood; the failure of his best poetry; Ba's relationship with Sophia Eckley [a rich American psychic/medium/fraud]; the long, sad decline and loss of the woman who was the great love of his life ...
But what we can glimpse of the other side of the moon is much more compelling. After all, what was so extraordinary in the Brownings' marriage was that these two complex individuals both believed the years they spent in Italy together, her last years and his middle years, were the only years in which they really lived. Daring to marry secretly and to leave England to fend for themselves, they had actually brought each other to life.
A personal aside: perhaps the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning resonates so strongly with me because of the parallels (and divergences) with my marriage to PD? We have not been troubled (directly, much) by racism (or, methinks, I'm simply oblivious to it?!). But my love and I certainly hold radically different opinions in countless areas, and have had our share of fierce debates. Nevertheless ....
- Sunday, November 11, 2001 at 07:41:54 (EST)
But first, an aside: for any tool to be truly useful there's a really hard problem that's not (very) technical: people --- developers, managers, and customers --- must collectively recognize the system which tools need to augment and enhance (and fit within, and help to evolve). Otherwise, technical/organizational/personnel fixes aren't likely to have any significant impact. By "system" I mean something in the Senge "Fifth Discipline" systems-engineering sense --- a set of feedback loops and delay lines and dashpots and actuators and so forth, to put it mechanistically. (cf. Fifth Disciplinarians, 10 September 2000)
A few rare people understand this sort of thing --- generally from lessons that they've learned by having lived within a dysfunctional system for years. Most such tool customers, alas, aren't technologically savvy; contrariwise, most tool developers aren't sufficiently customer-problem-space savvy. Hence, among other recent catastrophes, witness so many dot-com silly shipwrecks, projects which ran aground when good technical ideas hit reefs of social issues such as privacy, security, inertia, data noise, etc.
But to answer the original question --- in general, good tools must:
Past attempts to deliver revolutionary tools often failed because:
On the brighter side, during the recent past there are real signs of:
So there is hope....
- Saturday, November 10, 2001 at 12:24:25 (EST)
- Friday, November 09, 2001 at 11:41:34 (EST)
But CGI was extremely expensive back then, and so the producers couldn't afford to leave out much of what they had invested time and money in. Hence, I suspect, a short sequence spliced in for no apparent reason: one character says, "Watch out for the Gridbugs!" and there follows a few seconds of cute but absolutely irrelevant animation.
Gridbugs come to mind whenever I see a distracting flaw in a film or other costly enterprise (e.g., a programming project) --- whenever something arbitrary is thrown in because it's a sunk cost and no one wants to admit that doing it was a mistake. "Watch out for the Gridbugs!"
- Wednesday, November 07, 2001 at 10:13:48 (EST)
But there seems to be something new and different with the computer takeover of people's time. So much effort is being expended to do what we used to be able to do quite easily. The day I began composing these words I had just subjected myself to hours of trying to get a dumb printer to work after an operating system update. I know that I spend ridiculous amounts of energy messing with layout and reformatting web pages, tweaking vugraphs of talking points, fine-tuning documents, etc. I often catch myself putting much less time into the content. Mea culpa!
But has computer "stuff" in general become too complex? --- with too many interacting parts, too many irrelevant options, and too little overall logic in what's hooked up to what? Perhaps that's part of why we're having so many difficulties getting things to work? (cf. Encapsulation And Trust) On the brighter side, however, this suggests that the threat of runaway nanotechnology, malign computer hyperintelligence, etc. may be a bit more remote than many folks hypothesize (cf. Gradualism Arguments and Safety In Complexity, etc.). And if people come to recognize the complexity barriers, perhaps then they can get focused on ruthless simplification wherever possible.
I bet that, for instance, with an effort of will I can some day wean myself away from futzing with the font menu (^_^) ....
- Monday, November 05, 2001 at 06:15:43 (EST)
But that's nothing. The soloist, and every one of the fifty-some-odd members of the orchestra, have each spent over 10,000 hours practicing to get to where they are --- and the total value of that time investment, even at minimum wage, dwarfs the price of all their instruments put together.
But that's nothing. The music that they're playing, the sequences of notes and rests, is far more precious. And it's not just the cash flow of the recording industry's intellectual property, the artists' royalties, or the costs of records, tapes, CDs, sheet music, etc. --- it's the psychic value, the spotless enjoyment, the spiritual energy, the lift that music uniquely provides. Bach by himself is worth billions ....
(cf. Ten Thousand Hours)
- Saturday, November 03, 2001 at 20:05:16 (EST)
"I hold the view that a clear and concise mission statement serves to concentrate the mind in times of stress and turmoil. When upper management is clueless, and stuff is happening, one can always ask one's self, "Are my actions accomplishing the mission?" A former colleague exemplified this for me as a result of his service in the Marines as a tank platoon leader. He would ask himself at the end of each day, "Am I better prepared, through fire and maneuver, to close with and destroy the enemy?"
Concise and to the point, albeit a bit violent ... but that was the job. (A tiny quibble: are the words "upper management" and "clueless" redundant? (^_^))
- Friday, November 02, 2001 at 05:24:10 (EST)
"A footnote: I still need a good hypertext authoring system. Surely one must exist by now --- powerful, open, flexible, and productive. Any suggestions?"
Wanna guess what I think an answer is? (not the answer, of course --- there is no one right answer)
Hint: its name is an anagram for "kiwi" ...
(cf. Para Mode and Wiki Wiki Web)
- Wednesday, October 31, 2001 at 22:41:29 (EST)
"This was a time when all Britain worked and strove to the utmost limit and was united as never before. Men and women toiled at the lathes and machines in the factories till they fell exhausted on the floor and had to be dragged away and ordered home, while their places were occupied by newcomers ahead of time. ... The Cabinet and Government were locked together by bonds the memory of which is still cherished by all. The sense of fear seemed entirely lacking in the people, and their representatives in Parliament were not unworthy of their mood. ... Vast numbers were resolved to conquer or die. There was no need to rouse their spirit by oratory. They were glad to hear me express their sentiments and give them good reasons for what they meant to do, or try to do. The only possible divergence was from people who wished to do even more than was possible, and had the idea that frenzy might sharpen action."
- Tuesday, October 30, 2001 at 05:36:51 (EST)
OK, I plead guilty ...
- Monday, October 29, 2001 at 20:01:27 (EST)
"For most purposes, this simple scheme is exactly what is wanted. When a more complicated structure is needed, it can easily be built on top of this; the converse, creating simplicity from complexity, is harder to achieve."
"Instead of creating distinctions, the UNIX system tries to efface them."
(cf. Awesomely Simple, Complex Simplicity, On Aesthetics)
- Sunday, October 28, 2001 at 19:00:18 (EST)
(cf. Resolution And Unification for a perhaps-related PROLOG joke)
- Saturday, October 27, 2001 at 19:22:53 (EDT)
Enter the KING
O that we now had here But one ten thousand of those men in England That do no work to-day!
What's he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin; If we are mark'd to die, we are enow To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more. By Jove, I am not covetous for gold, Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost; It yearns me not if men my garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires. But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive. No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England. God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour As one man more methinks would share from me For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more! Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host, That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart; his passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse; We would not die in that man's company That fears his fellowship to die with us. This day is called the feast of Crispian. He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, And rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall live this day, and see old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours, And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.' Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.' Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, But he'll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day. Then shall our names, Familiar in his mouth as household words --- Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester --- Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered. This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered --- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
(But of course, the person who wrote that speech did far more for the world, in too many ways to count, than did any king; his words had more impact than any battle. Compare with today's politicians, reading from the teleprompter speeches ghost-written by their appointees....)
- Thursday, October 25, 2001 at 22:15:46 (EDT)
But nevertheless! Please forgive, for a moment, as I carp. Look at the stock market mavens, who every day have a different explanation (or the same explanation, spun differently) for why prices went up, or down, or stayed unchanged. Look at the social "scientists" who tell just-so stories purporting to predict cultural developments or interrelationships among groups. Look at the politicians who, depending on their audience, shift their positions like a weathervane in a whipping wind. (Look at me, as I ride my hobby horse off into the sunset ... or is that the sunrise?)
Imagine running an experiment: isolate a set of ersatz forecasters from the outside world and from each other. Feed them an identical subset of the day's newspapers: e.g., in the financial case give them all the non-business news. Then challenge them: which way did the markets move?
This could be extraordinarily revealing. Do the predictions agree with one another? With what really happened? How much better (or worse) are forecasts made with more (or less) data?
Meteorologists have long done these sorts of quantitative stress-tests of their weather models. So have biologists, chemists, physicists, and engineers of all sorts. It's not perfect; people still fool themselves in the "hard" sciences. But the incidence of silliness is somewhat lower, thanks to such discipline.
Ah, I feel so much better now...
- Tuesday, October 23, 2001 at 19:32:36 (EDT)
- Monday, October 22, 2001 at 05:37:11 (EDT)
"But as the portraits of the victims have appeared in print day by day, the resolution of what we have lost has grown finer and finer. Each profile is only a snapshot, a single still frame lifted from the unrecountable complexity of a lived life, and there is a world more to know about each of these victims, as their survivors understand only too well."
PD, my wife, observes how strikingly, overwhelmingly, awesomely, nice were the people who died. A cynic could dismiss that as selective reporting by obituary writers. But maybe it's real ... maybe ordinary people are genuinely much nicer than we normally realize, carried along as we are in the day-by-day avalanche of events --- until in a flash of destruction we view a frozen moment, an afterimage glimpse of how good our neighbors truly are.
The anonymous NYT editorialist concludes:
"In a sense, these portraits map an America most of us know only intuitively. It reads, at first, as a map of loss. We see the houses left unfinished, the pregnancies that will never be carried to term, the engagements abruptly ended, the inexorable toll of chance as well as routine. But these profiles also offer a map of fulfillment. The bonds of family --- no matter how you define family --- are palpable in every story. The patterns of community service jump out. The generosity, the selflessness that emanates from these stories, is remarkable, and it makes the heroism of that day seem less surprising.
"Most of us tend to believe that we know something of the world that we live in. But the effect of reading these profiles is to realize that most of us grasp only our own tiny corner. Portrait by portrait, we are learning the larger story of the world, the chance interconnections, as well as the necessary relations, that made a place like the World Trade Center function. We are learning, in a way we rarely ever have, where Americans come from, how they get ahead, and what they expect when they do get ahead. No one wanted to learn any of this the way we are learning it now, but the knowledge still comes as a gift."
- Saturday, October 20, 2001 at 07:33:00 (EDT)
About 15 years ago a friend (JB) and I tried to come up with a taxonomy of coincidences --- or at least some useful categories to describe such things. We never finished or properly wrote it up ... but as an interim snapshot, here are some examples of our system:a
Of course, what's "deep" to one observer may be transparently obvious to another. Over time, a coincidence may shift from one class to another, as people understand it better. And some coincidences may belong in multiple bins, depending on how they're viewed or analyzed.
So what other categories of coincidence should be added to the above? (cf. Correlations And Causality)
- Friday, October 19, 2001 at 19:23:06 (EDT)
Question: What's black and has a white or yellow stripe down the middle of its back and goes "Cluck, cluck, cluck"?
Answer: I don't know, but it's what you get when you cross a chicken with a road!
OK, so maybe it's not really a joke --- it's a joke about a pun about a joke ....
- Thursday, October 18, 2001 at 08:03:31 (EDT)
Check out the predictions of nuclear energy ("power too cheap to meter") and computer science ("superhuman machine intelligence"). Read the articles foreseeing interplanetary space travel and personal aircraft for commuters. Analyze the alternative forecasts of economic collapse and ever-accelerating prosperity, of triumphant totalitarianism and inevitable anarchy.
Why did all these dreams go awry? In most cases, the problem wasn't in what they looked at. Magnetic bubbles are really neat, and they still work. Catastrophe theory and fuzzy logic still follow the same valid equations that they always did. The laws of physics are well-enough understood for most practical (and many impractical) purposes. Even in the areas of economics and sociology enough factors are clear to make many sensible statements.
The hang-ups, perhaps, were in the larger contexts of these splendid visions. Some things turned out to be far trickier to implement than anybody could have guessed. Some things cost just a little too much compared to their competition. Some things were beloved by gadget freaks, but ordinary folks simply didn't see a need or want to bother with them. Some things came with risks or externalities that were too high for society to bear.
OK? Now try Exercise Two: read today's press coverage of biotech, nanotech, and all the other nouveaux-technologies. Where are they likeliest to run aground?
- Tuesday, October 16, 2001 at 19:51:11 (EDT)
"For at the same time that he was peculiarly deliberate and slow in forming opinions, he had a special dislike to the utterance of half-formed opinions. He declined altogether to be hurried into premature decision on any point to which he did not think he had given sufficient time and labour to have exhausted it to the utmost limit of his own thinking powers."
A wise caution ... and one that parallels a comment in The Examined Life, where Robert Nozick chides himself for having been too "opinion-full" in his youth, too driven to pass judgment on any issue. It's ok, as Nozick says, to have no opinion on a wealth of topics, even important topics.
Pause ... breathe ... think ... and be happy to float, suspended in mid-ocean for a moment (or an eon) between the shores of yes and no ... in a place where reason has a chance to whisper and be heard.
- Sunday, October 14, 2001 at 12:33:35 (EDT)
So be brave, please! To help you, here's a crash quick-start course on how to join in the fun: a dozen suggested rules for the green of thumb. Please take what works for you and ignore what doesn't resonate.
Before you know it, you'll be an elf too ...
- Saturday, October 13, 2001 at 12:23:03 (EDT)
(thanks, once more, to BD, JJ, LJR, RS, BW, et al. for insight and fellowship)
- Thursday, October 11, 2001 at 05:58:18 (EDT)
But the funny thing is that, in a serious sense, all (nontrivial) computer languages are not merely created equal --- they are equal. Any language powerful enough to be worth the name is "Turing Complete", able to emulate any other language, given enough time and memory. The only difference: which concepts are easier, and which harder, to express.
- Wednesday, October 10, 2001 at 06:06:38 (EDT)
Peter Freundlich (Washington Post "Outlook" section on 7 October --- cf. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14530-2001Oct5.html) tells of how, on 23 September in Yankee Stadium, a universe of people --- Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and members of countless other faiths (and of no faiths at all) --- came to grieve, hold hands, meditate, and pray. Elsewhere around the world these people hate and even kill one another. Here, something uniquely different happened. Freundlich writes:
"Never mind that it must prove only to have been temporary. That it took place at all is the remarkable thing. Not one but a dozen great chasms of the world suddenly closed up, all at once, in one place. It was in a way the exact opposite of the shattering of the 11th: Great monoliths reduced to a million shards, and then a million shards miraculously come together to make a monolith."
"What comes next? I haven't a clue. But I have seen with my own eyes something as marvelous as the earlier event was terrible. And I will cling to the fact of Yankee Stadium as hard as I can, for what it says about the absolutely singular air of this country. Sad to say, that air did not change any of those who lived here among us while they were plotting. But it has changed tens of millions of others. We had better continue to breathe of it deeply, though it hurts just now to inhale, what with the smoke, and the ash."
(In a related vein, cf. Independence Day, 4 July 2001.)
Along the way to his conclusion, Freundlich mentions a facet of his own background:
"As the son of a woman who was changed forever by her time in a concentration camp, I am wary of flags, wary of national pride, wary, frankly, of God. Six days out of seven, I am an atheist. On the seventh day, I am an agnostic. I believe in holy writ in any language because I believe in poetry, and in the power of myth and allegory to express ideas that ordinary narrative cannot express."
This echoes a lovely comment by Cardinal Newman in his "Definition of a Gentleman" (1852):
"If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honors the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization."
E. J. Dionne, Jr. (Washington Post op-ed page on 5 October; cf. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8710-2001Oct4.html) discusses the morality of pacifism, the deep religious belief of many who uphold it, and the quiet light that they shine for the rest of us.
"The irony is that as I became ever more convinced of the problems of pacifism, I developed an enormous respect for individual pacifists and for rigorous pacifist thinkers. These were people who understood the seriousness of individual participation in war and asked themselves hard questions about their own responsibilities. I was glad pacifists existed, even as I was glad they were not making government policy.
"The point of this reverie is to offer a hope that as a nation, we do not demonize pacifists in the coming months and years as we wage war on terrorism -- a war I support."
Dionne quotes from a 1940 essay (opposing pacifism in the context of the war against Hitler and the Nazis) by Reinhold Niebuhr:
"Whatever may be the moral ambiguities of the so-called democratic nations, and however serious may be their failure to conform perfectly to their democratic ideals, it is sheer moral perversity to equate the inconsistencies of a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern tyrannical states practice."
"... Pacifists weaken their claims whenever they seem more eager to condemn our own violence than the violence of our adversaries. Those who espouse an absolutist creed should be especially wary of moral relativism.
"Here's the paradox: The fact that we live under a political system that honors the right of individuals to object conscientiously to engaging in war is one of the reasons why ours is a system worth defending. Osama bin Laden's world does not allow for pacifists. Ours does. To stand up for pacifists -- even when you disagree with them, and especially when they're unpopular -- is to protect this moral difference."
(cf. Underappreciated Ideas, 6 July 1999)
- Monday, October 08, 2001 at 18:00:08 (EDT)
I reacted with serious doubt --- the reasons for which perhaps merit explanation for the record here because they apply quite generally. How should one respond to headlines about a major discovery? In particular, what's the proper attitude toward something which purports to be a revolutionary explanation of hitherto mysterious phenomena?
First of all, be skeptical. Most good science is evolutionary, not revolutionary; most attempts at scientific revolution fail. Over the years I've matured (or ossified, some might say) into taking quite a conservative attitude about new findings, until they make it over a series of rather high hurdles. In spite of the Thomas Kuhn paradigm-shift paradigm (!) not all significant progress comes from a sudden leap. More important are gradual clarification of understanding, slow sharpening of theoretical concepts, and steady improvement of experimental measurements.
So, when you hear about the Newest New Thing:
Hypothetical discoveries that don't answer the above critical questions should be viewed with extremely jaundiced eyes. Sure, there are occasionally new things under the sun --- yep, the universe is stranger than we can imagine --- but that's not the norm.
Apologies now if I offend by mentioning concepts close to the heart ... but my severest skepticism surfaces when I read about psi (aka ESP), homeopathy, alien abduction, or countless subtle diseases and syndromes --- e.g., from silicone breast-implants, Vietnam or Gulf War chemical exposure, low-frequency electromagnetic radiation, and so forth. These fail far too many of the above tests.
On the other hand, when there's a physical reason to expect an effect, and when the size of the effect depends on the size of the cause via some plausible relationship, then sure! I'm willing to take a hypothesis seriously even if it's unconventional and even if the evidence is scanty. Heavy-metal poisoning can accumulate from tiny doses over long periods of time; so can (ionizing) radiation damage to the genes in a cell's nucleus. Greenhouse gases take decades to accumulate and change global temperatures, but there's a reasonable theory about how they might do so and how much they may heat things up. These are phenomena worth taking seriously.
And human minds-and-bodies are extraordinarily complex systems, so it's quite easy for me to accept that, for instance, when people really believe in something then it can have major effects on their health. If, for instance, someone prays for hospital patients and the patients know it, they may feel better and actually recover more quickly. On the other hand, if they don't know that they're being prayed for I have a hard time understanding how the patients get well faster without regard to distance from the praying person, or amount of prayer, or number of praying persons, etc. There should be some kind of proportionality between cause and effect, or some reason for there not to be. Re mysterious medical syndrome victims, I accept that their suffering is genuine --- and I sympathize --- but the best explanation may be that their problems are psychosomatic or coincidental, caused by belief in a phenomenon or by something entirely different.
How to improve the situation with respect to new discoveries and the media? Scientists and reporters both need to draw a clearer line between science and speculation. Of course, folks who draw that clear line don't get mega-press coverage ... they're not newsworthy.
Countless popularizations of science (which I won't mention here, to protect the less-than-innocent) share this problem. In order to sell books, capture headlines, and get quoted, too many otherwise-honest people blur the distinction between widely-accepted theories versus personal hunches about what might some day be proved. Others exaggerate their certainty in the hope of causing a good social result --- prevention of nuclear war, promotion of democracy and freedom, whatever. Yes, scientists are human beings; so are reporters.
A final Personal Disclaimer: just because I don't accept something as science doesn't mean that I can't fervently believe in it for personal, pleasurable, social, mystical, humanistic, or other reasons. I am blissful in my inconsistency! (^_^)
- Saturday, October 06, 2001 at 19:13:41 (EDT)
The key change between then and now? In past ages, Martin suggests, people tried (at least some of them, at least in public, at least some of the time) to appear modest, discreet, dignified, humble, and loyal. They didn't always live up to their virtuous ideals, of course. But they did set good examples.
Judith Martin's comments remind me of John Henry Newman's 1852 "Definition of a Gentleman" (cf. Cardinal Newman). Newman's archetypal gentleman is tolerant ... patient ... helpful ... and above all, kind. In the limit, a gentleman (of any sex) becomes invisible --- a forgotten part of the landscape, around whom things are magically more comfortable, more civilized, nicer.
A hopeful fantasy: perhaps by pretending to be better than we are, we can become better than we were?
- Thursday, October 04, 2001 at 05:59:29 (EDT)
But over the course of time I've come to appreciate stuttering, and for that matter, other speech "impediments". These pauses in the usual flow of words help to focus attention on what's being said, as well as on the normally invisible process of language itself. It's an everyday miracle: vibrations in the air --- made and modulated by vocal cords, mouth, lips, nasal cavities --- somehow stand for ideas. Thoughts are transcribed into sounds, and return to resonate in other minds. An astounding concept, if you step back and look at it ... almost as ridiculously improbable as the phenomena that make up consciousness itself, or the procedures by which new human lives begin.
Getting back to business, the other silly dimension along which I judge music is the amount of stormy weather that occurs. A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan) is 'way up there, for example, as is Bad Moon on the Rise (Creedence Clearwater Revival). I can't explain, but I like it when I hear it. (It works in drama too, e.g., the scene on the blasted heath in King Lear.)
So why aren't there more lisping-blizzard or stammering-hurricane songs? They sound like real winners to me!
- Tuesday, October 02, 2001 at 21:23:32 (EDT)
Later Bennett books (e.g., Self and Self Management (1918), How To Make the Best of Life (1923), and The Human Machine (1925)) are similarly thoughtful and inspirational. A selection of Arnold Bennett's essays appear together in one volume titled How to Live (along with Friendship and Happiness (1905); cf. Bennett On Life, Bennett On Stoicism, Christmas Faith, Dear Diary, Human Nature, Personal Energy, and Zhurnal Anniversary2).
All of these books are available from online auctions and used-booksellers at embarrassingly low prices compared to the cost of current bestselling fluff. Some are free for the downloading.
Hazlitt concludes his new (1969) epilogue to Thinking as a Science:
"The present generation has been privileged beyond all others in acquiring this great intellectual heritage. It is a cardinal sin for any individual to neglect to acquire at least some small part of it for himself. It is more than a sin; it is a folly. It is a failure to take advantage of one of the greatest sources of human enjoyment."
- Monday, October 01, 2001 at 20:26:03 (EDT)
As ^z arrives, August 1974, Pasadena is smog-shrouded: not eye-stinging or throat-rasping smog, but merely a gray haze with optical depth significantly greater than one. Two weeks later our protagonist is riding in a car with new friends, heading up Lake Street on the way to snag some famous Foster's Donuts. Suddenly the mists thin and he gasps in amazement --- the San Gabriel mountains loom, totally unexpected, only a handful of miles north of campus but hitherto invisible through the late summer atmosphere.
The San Gabriels thrust to a climax more than 5,000 feet above the edge of the Los Angeles basin. They bear a spikey crest of transmitter towers plus the snow-white domes of Mount Wilson's 100 inch telescope and associated equipment. Over the next five years, ^z and fellow students take dozens of hikes in the mountains, including a few foolish races up the eight-mile winding Mt. Wilson trail. Sporadic brush fires later in the '70s paint tendrils of flame down the sides of the hills and replace the noon color palette with sunset hues of orange-red light; black ash sifts down and floats on the Caltech main library's decorative pond.
But that's all in the future. First come classes in nuclear astrophysics and general relativity, quantum mechanics and high-energy physics, mathematical methods and hydrodynamics, etc. and etc. The honor system works well: closed-book time-limited self-scheduled at-home exams are taken with honesty, not with proctoring. People trust one another. Students have master keys so they can get into their buildings at 3am to study and do lab work. The saying is that your wallet or calculator are perfectly safe from poachers, but watch out for your wife or girlfriend. Women make up less than 10% of the 'Tech population, and there are even fewer of them in the "hard sciences". Social life ranges from not-much to nonexistent.
So ^z lives happily on the northeast corner of campus in an all-male grad student dormitory, Mosher Jorgensen House. He runs a magnet-wire antenna out of his window to a nearby tree for amateur radio transmissions and short-wave listening. With his callsign N6WX he uses the Caltech ham club's equipment to chat in Morse code with his brother Keith (K5WX) in Texas. His hair lengthens. (cf. http://www.his.com/~z/zStudentIDs.html)
Dorm comrades lend each other science-fiction books and classical music records, walk half a dozen blocks together to the Burger Continental for dinner, study, go to movies, and good-naturedly commiserate about the monastic environment. The steam tunnels are an underground maze of twisty passages to explore. A small shrine to Richard M. Nixon, yellowed newspaper clippings glued to the wall, occupies one cul de sac. Other corners bear mysterious graffiti from past adventurers.
Student shopping trips tend toward Fedco, a mega-discount membership store. Visiting Soviet scientists prefer the Santa Anita Fashion Mall, where they snap up skis, blue jeans, and phonograph records. ^z buys a 35mm camera (a Canon single-lens reflex) and commences shooting rolls of color slides: pictures of cliffs and valleys, ocean waves, girl's faces, flower displays at the nearby Huntington Gardens, and whatever else catches his eye. He acquires a small stereo system, major components of which are still in use a quarter century later. Advent speakers and Harman Kardon receivers were built to last.
^z joins the Caltech Chinese Students Association in order to find foreign films, food, and fellowship. He also attends evening classes to learn a bit of Mandarian at nearby Pasadena City College. (Fantasies of meeting nice, unattached lady friends there fail to materialize.) The scuba club takes him to the Pacific coast for dives, fortunately without disaster even though he's not quite strong enough as a swimmer to be fully safe underwater. Longer trips expose him and his photographic emulsion to Yosemite, Death Valley, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, Bryce, Zion, Arches, and other national parks and monuments. He doesn't get a car until after he turns 25 years old in 1977.
Stargazing remains a ^z hobby, though he's no astronomer. In spite of city lights he sees Nova Aquila and Comet West from the yard just outside the dorm. Under exceptionally dark skies during a Grand Canyon trip he spies, naked-eye, the Andromeda galaxy (M31) and the zodiacal light, a faint glow in the plane of the ecliptic. On top of the Caltech Astronomy building he uses the 20 inch telescope, a 1/10th semi-scale model of the Mount Palomar "big eye", to look at a variety of nebul as well as planets, double stars, globular clusters, and other celestial objects. The telescope mounting does not rotate low enough to observe more terrestrial heavenly bodies --- unlike a memorable 1973 session on the roof of the Space Science building at Rice University with roommates, where lines of sight were more favorable. (Cf. Seeing Stars3 for notes on a visit to the 200 inch mountaintop.)
Moving from the macro to the micro universe: 'Techers have free computer access to a timesharing PDP-10 system. Programming and problem-solving are the official uses, but a major time sink is an addictive, continuous, campus-wide tournament in a number-logic recreation called "Cows & Bulls" --- an ancestor to the commercial "Mastermind" game. The monthly first prize is a chili burger from Tommy's in Eagle Rock, a legendary late-night Mecca for starving students. Mathematician friend Eric Verheiden, in between his thesis search for projective planes, writes an unbeatable "Cows & Bulls" program and ends the competition by winning every time. Eric is also a famous figure in the world of Diplomacy (cf. Zar Story), a game which ^z dabbles in.
But life isn't all play. Expenses are paid for by a Schlumberger fellowship during the ^z freshman year, and thereafter via teaching and research assistantship work. He studies hard, learns a lot, and comes in #4 out of ~30 students in his class who take the comprehensive second-year written physics exams. He gets hooked up with Kip Thorne and commences working on projects in the relativistic astrophysics group.
^z also begins to glimpse the real business of doing research --- the personal side of creative discovery. He attends seminars, talks with visiting scholars, sees the underside of faculty politics, and eventually realizes that scientists are human beings, not godlike apparitions. Famous professors flirt with their students, gripe about writing grant proposals, and seek better office space. Junior faculty members compete for tenure. Postdocs scramble to get their names on papers, in hopes of attracting attention and getting a more permanent appointment.
But the petty behavior is far outweighed, overall, by collaboration, imagination, and the wonderful shared enterprise of uncovering Nature's secrets. Good scientists work together well. And they have fun. At lunch in the student cafeteria, Dick Feynman (a Nobel laureate) jokes that he missed a chance to make a lot of money yesterday: he was too late in calling his broker to sell short a company that had supposedly discovered how to extract free energy from water. (The Los Angeles Times had reported the story uncritically, without a thought for the laws of thermodynamics. The company collapsed within days.) Other big-name professors are similar in their self-deprecating humor --- and in their patient devotion to teaching the next generation of knowledge explorers.
And in 1977, ^z meets Paulette, his first, last, and best love ...
(For a variety of other anecdotal notes from the Caltech years of ^z, cf. Appropriate Units, California Sherpa, Cherished Beliefs, Embros Herete, Greek Eagles, Jon Mathews, Kip The Dragon, Late Physicists, Ni And Me, Pulsar Waves, Quantum Nondemolition, Seeing Stars1, Seeing Stars2, Seeing Stars3, Silly Seminars Of75, Soft Outside Crunchy Center, and Spinning Sources)
- Saturday, September 29, 2001 at 19:46:26 (EDT)
Or so the story goes. But what kind of a "gem" is this mysterious law? After taking a fair bit of undergraduate math I can read the equations of the quadratic reciprocity theorem, and can more or less follow the steps of its proof, if led by hand. But understand it? Not really.
As Robin Zimmermann (at a similar stage in his mathematical learning) says: They've taught you enough to pick up the magic sword --- but not yet how to wield it!
- Thursday, September 27, 2001 at 18:53:18 (EDT)
Plus silly trivia quizzes, silly photos of players clowning around, and silly stories of late-night escapades. Oh, yes, there were also excellent annotated games and news from international events. And fine articles about chess on the Internet in its early (pre-Web) days. And lovely tournament reports from WIMs Vesna Dimitrijevic (dating, shopping, partying, ...) and Alexey Root (before and after her baby Clarissa was born). Good writers, all.
But the part of Chess Chow that brought tears (of laughter) to my eyes when I flipped through a set of old issues recently was a series titled simply Agony --- GM Michael Wilder's comic tales of painful over-the-board encounters. A few sample bits follow, slightly edited to fit here. Volume 1, number 5 (Oct-Nov 1991, p. 45):
Failing to win a game where you are the equivalent of a full piece up right out of the opening is a classic type of agony --- you must feel like a real horse's patootie! I instruct my students not to capture more than an extra two pawns during the first twenty moves, because a greater surplus so randomizes the game that material becomes meaningless. An example is Wilder-Leow (Philadephia 1981):
1. d4 f5 2. Bg5 h6 3. Bh4 c5 4. e3 Qb6 5. d5.
We had sat down early, and played these moves in less than a minute. Objectively, White's last move was a trifle questionable, since 5 ... Qb4+ clipped the White cleric on h4. A full piece down with White after 6 moves (against an International Master), I was more concerned with the fact that neither player on the adjacent board had yet arrived, and it would be embarrassing to have to resign before the round officially began. Suffice it to say that White won in about 20 more moves. After the game I was gracious to my opponent (though I laughed in his face and taunted him with a stick, I did promise him I would never publish the game). The point is that in situations like this the player on the losing end should take the initiative in being unsportsmanlike.
Volume 2, number 3 (Apr-May 1992, p. 34):
Your game reminds me of a certain game I lost once that cost me a lot of money. It was an absolutely fantastic struggle, involving multiple underpromotions and a problem-like endgame culminating in a chimney mate. Not that my loss and your game are particularly similar (though I couldn't tell you for sure, because I haven't actually looked at your game). In any event, I'm not going to show you that game.
Instead, witness this ordinary and all-around tedious affair with (British junior) Matthew Sadler. What will be unique is the revolutionary new annotating technique I will be introducing. Have you ever read Kotov's Think Like a Grandmaster? If you haven't, don't lose any sleep over it --- it's a load of rabbit-poody anyway. (He tries to describe the way the thought processes of a grandmaster are supposed to work. My reaction was, "Wake me up if there's any nudity.")
What I will be doing today will go Kotov one further: thanks to the miracle of Chess Chow Technology, we will be bringing you "Grandmaster-Vision". This amazing device will enable you to follow what I was actually thinking during the game --- uncut, uncensored, and real. Through a verbatim transcription of my thoughts, you will be privy to the stream of consciousness in the mind of a grandmaster. You will see how a grandmaster really selects candidate moves and weighs options, and the disorganized process by which he finally decides which course to take. Grandmaster-Vision will be signified by quotations.
[ ... after move 8 ...] "Things aren't going that well. Don't panic. Remember when I panicked because I thought I had a tiny lump on my left testicle? And when I went to the doctor he told me that the tiny lump was my left testicle? Well, the principle is the same --- there is no need to panic here, no siree. Just have to figure out how to channel my nervousness into something constructive. I know ..." (I got up and went outside and changed my socks. The reader should not get the misimpression that grandmasters carry an extra pair of socks with them --- I simply took the socks I was wearing and switched them on my feet. Back at the board ...) "Yeehaw! My feeties feel nice. Maybe I'll try to discombobulate him with a side-winder."
[ ... and after the loss at move 31 ...] I was drawing a blank trying to come up with an appropriately nasty remark, but then recalled a quip that a Chow staffer had ad-libbed at a collegiate insult contest. So I grinned at my opponent, pumped his hand warmly, and said "You look like a pine-cone."
So if there is a moral to the story it is this: Chess will always embitter you; the important thing is to keep everything in perspective, and to be unpleasant to other people whenever possible.
Volume 3, number 6 (Nov-Dec 1993, pps. 23-24):
[ ... at move 14 ...] Recognizing that my queen was about to be trapped, my heart skipped a beat. Then it added a beat. Then it started to accent off-beats to create a syncopation effect. Then I had problems with my tummy.
I thought about the scene in the movie "Alien" where this nice astronaut is having a pleasant dinner when all of the sudden his stomach starts to throb violently, and then a monster bursts out of it, ripping him open and killing him. (In fact, the exact same thing happened to me shortly after the last time I ate sushi.)
14 ... axb5 15 Nd1
Parting with the lady, part deux. Sigh.
Few are aware of this, but in grandmaster practice it is common, even expected that you will converse extensively with your opponent during a game. I would recommend to our amateur readers that you try, whenever facing a GM over the board, to start talking to your opponent after the first few moves, and try to say something after every move. The goal is to build "good will" (i.e., receptivity to bribes). Do not be discouraged if your GM opponent does not respond, or if he/she complains to the tournament director.
It was around here that I made the first conversational overture of the game. I said, "Lev, I don't think the game is going well and I'm feeling a little vulnerable. How about a hug?"
(No response from Lev.) "Lev, what are you, made of stone or something? (My tone becomes increasingly hysterical.) I finally work up the courage to express my feelings, and you just toy with them."
(Still no response from Lev.)
15 ... Rxa4
"Say, Lev. I have been told that my upper body is so freakishly muscular as to be unsettling. What's your view on this?"
(No response from Lev. Cannot get a rise out of this guy. But amazingly, my position is starting to improve.)
But not by much.
Well, perhaps you have to play in chess tournaments to appreciate GM Wilder's deathless prose. Everybody else in my family just stares at me as I chortle and choke ....
- Wednesday, September 26, 2001 at 18:18:02 (EDT)