^zhurnal - v.0.06

This is Volume 0.06 of the ^zhurnal --- musings on mind, method, metaphor, and matters miscellaneous ... a rather cluttered set of sporadic Good Mistakes. What's it all about? Maybe "... to create moments of philosophy --- that is, to pass from opinion to thought ...." It's also the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann. See the ZhurnalyWiki on zhurnaly.com for a parallel "live" Wiki experiment. For back issues of the ^zhurnal see Volumes 0.01, 0.02, ... 0.41, 0.42, ... Current Volume. Send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com". Thank you! (Copyright © 1999-2004 by Mark Zimmermann.)


We enter the mountain through a fifty-year-old tunnel, blasted into the rock and lined with green-painted concrete. The corridor slopes gently upwards at a one-half percent grade, ten feet wide and a similar height, drainage gutters on each edge of the path. Most of the lights overhead are burnt out. A hundred yards into the hillside a pair of blast doors stand open. Just past them in a large room on the left a locomotive-sized diesel generator looms, battleship gray in the glow of our flashlights. Exhaust vents run up through the ceiling. Nearby is an emergency escape ladder. The climb to the surface at this point is 285 feet vertical.

The main access tunnel continues another hundred feet, passes a dark narrow passageway on the left, and then widens. The ceiling is higher here. A hoist hangs from an overhead beam, pulley chains dangling. On each side of the hall are separate chambers: office spaces, briefing rooms, a small restroom. Walls are covered with plywood; floors and ceilings are tiled. Random bits of debris lie scattered about.

The tunnel continues on, dark and low. Another fifty feet and the path divides. One passageway leads around corners with wrong-way dead end alcoves, designed to diffuse the force of an accidental detonation. Right, then left, then left again, and we enter a well-lit space. The floor here is graphitic concrete, made to eliminate static electricity; a grounding strap runs along the wall like a chair rail, above no-spark outlets; overhead lights are covered by wire mesh. A humidity sensor is ready to sound a stop-work alarm if the air becomes too dry. This is a disassembly and repair room, where high explosive components were examined and maintained.

The other connecting tunnel runs steeply upward: a two percent grade to ensure a good draft in case of fire. If something begins to burn here its smoke must not be allowed to contaminate the rest of the underground complex. Around a corner and we reach four storage rooms. Bank vault doors stand open; inside, the shelves are now vacant. Each compartment once held millions of dollars worth of nuclear materials.

Back down the corridor and to one side, then through a gas-tight door, we reach a pair of small chambers, walls painted stark white. Here is where gloveboxes stood, under negative air pressure to keep radioactive dust from escaping. Here is where plutonium pits, warm to the touch from their own decay, were disassembled by hand. Here is where bomb cores were checked for damage, where neutron triggers were replaced, where critical nuclear components were tested and rebuilt. The Holy of Holies, innermost shrine of the early Atomic Age. Nothing remains. Just two empty rooms, 570 feet below the surface of the earth. Silent, and terrifying.

- Saturday, March 11, 2000 at 19:05:48 (EST)


Fragments from a Boy Scout (Troop 439, Kensington, Maryland) visit to Patuxent River Naval Air Station, 4-5 March 2000:

Catapult and Arresting Engine

Airman Ryan Crawford, 21 years old and in the Navy for the past 18 months, shows us around the underground installations on both sides of the runway. Huge boilers make steam to drive hydraulic pistons. Fluid pressure pulls steel cables that accelerate aircraft from rest to takeoff speed in a couple of seconds. On the receiving end, similar cables, about 10 cm thick, form the "cross-deck pendants" that a tailhook catches to stop a plane as it lands. Those cables are good for ~100 traps; they're a spiral twist arrangement of six smaller cables, each made of about 20 steel strands, breaking strength 180,000 pounds. Cross-deck pendants are heavy but can be dragged out of their wooden crates by a single (strong!) man or, better, a fork lift. (Airman Crawford just got his license to drive one. He's looking forward to moving on from Pax to serve on a ship, perhaps in the Pacific. Meanwhile, he's studying for exams so he can advance in rank. Advice: "If you hear a number, memorize it.")

The cables that stretch across the runway are coupled in turn to stronger ones, good for about a thousand traps, that lead underground (below the flight deck, on an aircraft carrier). Cable ends hook together via big screw-thread fittings, where the strands are unbraided and anchored in a matrix made by immersing them in molten zinc. Cables turn corners via massive pulleys, with axles lubricated through metal tubes that snake over and down to a row of fittings on the side of the tunnel. When an aircraft is caught the cable whips out; pulleys whirl and throw grease across the room.

Under the runway is a Naval Air Engineering Laboratory Arresting Engine, "Mark 7 Mod 3, Weight 84,000 pounds" according to a well-polished old nameplate. The arresting cable loops back and forth in a block-and-tackle arrangement, 18 parallel runs. When a plane is trapped the end pulleys leap toward each other, converting the aircraft's kinetic energy to hydraulic fluid motion via pistons and dampers. As Airman Crawford shows us the machinery under the runway we're startled by a sudden loud whooosh! --- as a T-38 jet trainer makes a conventional landing directly overhead. A minute passes and another screams in. "The sound of freedom," Scoutmaster Cutting (Commander, USN) explains.

US Navy Test Pilot School

First Class Petty Officer Patrick Lusk leads the troop on a tour of the hangars: two echoing white rooms about 60' high and 200' across. Black Hawk helicopters sit by an F-18 test plane being stripped for parts, already half gone into carefully-labeled boxes on the floor below. Red water pipes climb the walls and lead to fire-prevention sprinklers. Massive 208 volt-400 cycle circuit breakers. Besides T-38 trainers there are "Beavers" and "Otters", high-wing prop planes and gliders, Lear Jets and Beechcraft King Airs, and a couple of intact F-18s. Signs throughout caution against "FOD," foreign object damage. A paperclip in the wrong place can wreck a jet engine.

Next door, in the school buildings, our guide describes some of the training that students go through --- 34 in each class for 11 months, two groups per year. The cost is a million dollars per student. This is the only test pilot school in the country now, one of three in the world, and foreign nations often send candidates for training. Many US astronauts came through Pax. Exhibit cases in the corridors show memorabilia from space missions and gifts from international students. Also in the glass cases are historical displays of USNTPS student gear: personal computers back through Apple IIs, Hewlett-Packard calculators and desktop units, analog computers with their plugboards and nests of wires, and then, first of all, precision slide rules, both linear and circular, next to blackboards and notebooks. Tools for computational fluid dynamics, still ready, for those minds who know how to use them.

Crash Trucks, Control Tower, Radar Room

The scouts visit the fire station. There are three bright yellow pumper trucks, each carrying three thousand gallons of water, able to put a 300' long stream on a burning aircraft at the rate of 1,200 gallons per minute. All three trucks are leaking onto the runway, a steady trickle coming out underneath. ("At least we know they're not empty!") Pumpers also can spray foam, nowadays a synthetic detergent mix that has to be used in moderation lest it run off into the nearby Chesapeake Bay. In years past, the fireman says, foam was a natural protein, good for the grass. ("After they got done making hamburger, then hot dogs, then scrapple, the stuff they couldn't use for dog and cat food went into foam. It used to come out red....") The last major accident at Pax was about six years ago, an F-18 crash. Trucks have to be ready to reach an aircraft fire within 90 seconds. Longer than that, there's not much hope for survivors. The station has a total crew of 72 people, and runs on 24 hour shifts with 22 on duty at any time. Firemen's gear includes a clip-on beeper that chirps in warning if the wearer doesn't move for half a minute. A few seconds later it sounds a blaring alarm --- to help find a fallen rescuer through smoke and chaos.

The Pax NAS control tower says Field Elevation 40 Feet on the outside. To get to the top, however, takes a 125' climb up half a dozen flights of steps followed by a few more floors worth of tight spiral staircase, steel treads painted black. Local air traffic was minimal on an early Saturday afternoon. The controller was keeping an eye on a Cessna doing touch-and-goes on Runway 02 as he showed us his radar display and Aldis lamp, red and green directional beams to signal aircraft in case radio doesn't work. The field is far busier most weekdays, when students and test pilots are active. Pax NAS is an "Official Business Only" facility, prior permission to land required. There are multiple restricted areas in the vicinity, most notably the Chesapeake Test Range where new planes are put through their paces, watched by radar and laser sensors. Downstairs in the dark radar room five controllers monitor a dozen circular screens. They handle traffic out to 350 nautical miles at altitudes below 7000 feet.

Campsite & Museum

The Scout troop sets up tents and stays overnight on a patch of woods in the middle of the Naval Air Station. Large holly trees abound, with sharp-edged leaves and bright red berries. A woodpecker raps and gulls cry out. At sunset a P-3 Orion sub-hunter revs its engines for an hour on a nearby taxiway. The temperature settles down to the low 40's, but a fine blaze of sticks and small logs keeps people warm (on one side!). Dinner, chili and cornbread, turns out well. Everyone retires at 9pm. Sunday morning gets off to a slow start; a few boys rise at at dawn and start a fresh fire, but most aren't out of their sleeping bags until 7 or 8am.

After breakfast and clean-up the crew strikes camp, leaves the base, and visits the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum just outside the gate. The museum parking lot is rimmed with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Inside, exhibits include cut-away engines, cockpits, helmets and flight suits, a room full of model planes, and a timeline of naval aviation since 1911. A "Notice To All New Hands" reputedly from the World War II era offers advice to sailors on how to enjoy the area and avoid pitfalls like being absent over leave (AOL). It concludes with:

8. SEAMEN, STEWARD'S MATES and other non-rated men who work like hell and do dirty jobs as if they liked them are noticed and marked as petty officer material.
Good advice throughout life.

- Monday, March 06, 2000 at 06:17:43 (EST)

Personal Inversion

Want to play a game of empathy? Imagine yourself without your greatest strength, the characteristic you feel most proud of ... and then fantasize away a major weakness. Are you strong but inarticulate? Put yourself in a crippled body with the spirit of a poet. Are you well-educated but lack physical beauty? Be, in your mind's eye, stunning in appearance and utterly ignorant. Are you a sharp thinker who feels deep existential doubts? Dream of a life with absolute faith in God but minimal ability to reason critically. Are you patient with others but uninterested in academic pursuits? Try the life of a short-tempered professor. Do you scorn popular pursuits but sit lonely at home every night? Turn into a life-of-the-party sports fan.

The game is fun, but has a serious goal: to become a person radically different from your norm, at least momentarily. There are plenty of such individuals in the world. What if you yourself were one? Would you deserve less respect, less concern, than you currently merit?

And if changing your psychological bent is too easy, go further and alter your race, sex (or sexual orientation), economic status, and nationality. What's it like to look out through the eyes of such people? To be treated the way they are?

I'm quite comfortable where I am; I've spent my whole life getting here. It's tough for me to imagine myself otherwise. Doing so, once in a while, seems to help knock me out of my chair. Some people's "irrational" behavior suddenly becomes more comprehensible. And maybe if I try to be them, and they try to be me, we'll all figure out how to do a bit better for each other.

- Friday, March 03, 2000 at 06:00:07 (EST)

Necessity & Sufficiency

Thrift is beautiful. There's an æsthetic delight in efficient design: in the clean aerodynamic lines of a glider, the precise synchronism of a ballet, the smooth meshing of gears in a chronometer, the crisp language of a sonnet, the sleek body of a hare. Mathematicians capture this in two words: necessary and sufficient. The ideal proof wastes nothing. Every iota of input is used, and every possible consequence is deduced --- total economy of means and ends.

- Wednesday, March 01, 2000 at 06:01:46 (EST)

Learning to See

Tribalism is the big problem of our age. We form clubs and gang up on nonmembers. The dimensions along which we slice our mutual humanity are numerous --- race, sex, religion, language, wealth,... --- and the amount of suffering which results is incalculable.

My wife is "black" and I'm "white." No big deal. It's easy to forget about race, most of the time, when one lives with a person and interacts with her constantly in all sorts of contexts. The same sort of forgetting can happen at school, at work, wherever people are near each other and communicate. It often takes longer to break through the barriers, however, because the equivalent contact hours accumulate more slowly. Perhaps there's a human factor that sets the timescale for establishing interpersonal rapport: for getting to the point where one can see somebody as an individual and not a member of a category.

Generally it's tougher to forget about gender (I would say "sex", but that might be misinterpreted!). There are megayears of evolution for that kind of discrimination, and the ultimate penalty, extinction, for getting it wrong. But one can learn to see through gender; people do develop genuine friendships and collegial bonds across sexual boundaries (hard as that may be for the lust-stricken to believe).

It's like art: the big trick is simply learning to see again --- to stop forcing visual elements into categories and rendering them as icons. The usual (embarrassingly bad) sketches that most adults produce are built of cartoon tokens: "face" = "head symbol" + "eye symbols" + "nose symbol" + "mouth symbol", etc. Ugh! Quality zooms as soon as one discovers how to control that tokenization process and draw shapes as they are, natural forms projected on the retina.

To see people as people --- rather than as mere instances of a race, a sex, a whatever --- that's the magic. There's a skill to doing it, and the more one becomes conscious of that skill and practices it, the better one does it.

- Monday, February 28, 2000 at 06:03:09 (EST)

Telescoping Cancellation

A cute and important trick is based on "sliding things down a notch." Consider the decimal number 0.12121212... repeated forever. What fraction is it? Call it X; multiply by 100 to get 12.121212... and subtract the original; all the infinity of decimal places cancel out leaving only 12 behind. So 100*X - X = 12 --- that is, 99*X = 12 and so X must be 12/99 (= 4/33).

The same principle applies in a host of other contexts. IF a function can be written in powers of X (a series expansion) then dividing by X slides everything down a notch. With some luck and ingenuity one can then engineer a massive cancellation and reduce the problem to a simpler relationship. Analogous patterns hold for many continued fractions, differential equations, and so on.

Outside of mathematics the cancellation isn't likely to be perfect, but it still can be a helpful tool for analysis. Crystals are built of (nearly) regular periodic lattices of atoms, and sliding things down a notch helps to explain all sorts of solid-state physical phenomena such as sound, heat, and electronic properties. Generations of plants and animals (and people) succeed one another, and some insights may be found by looking at cross-generational differences. Perhaps similar tactics can aid thinking about problems in economics, politics, and philosophy?

- Saturday, February 26, 2000 at 07:12:39 (EST)

Life Logs

Imagine having a meticulous personal secretary who wrote down everything that happened to you --- all that you saw and heard (and smelled and tasted and felt) every day. Would this be a good thing, or an embarrassment (of riches, or otherwise)? Technology is almost ready to make it possible. Would a human being's life, recorded in such a fashion, offer a form of immortality, at least as long as the record remained intact? How much would be missing unless internal dialogue, "talking to oneself", were also recorded? (Must one transcribe every thought?)

More importantly, what good would a complete log be (other than perhaps settling certain arguments and solving crimes)? What really "counts" in a life? Great histories are not just exhaustive catalogs of events. Biographic genius lies in the discovery of meaning --- shining a searchlight on key moments, critical decisions, turning points, crises and their resolution. Making sense of a life takes imagination and insight, not mere voyeurism.

- Friday, February 25, 2000 at 05:52:32 (EST)

Log Scales

Stars differ widely in brightness. Some of that is due to variation in distance: light spreads out, and geometry causes intensity to fall off like an inverse-square, so that a source ten times farther away is only one hundredth as bright. Stars also have different intrinsic luminosities --- supergiants shine far more intensely than dwarfs (and have correspondingly shorter lifetimes).

To measure and compare light levels, astronomers define a magnitude scale. It's both simple and useful, once one learns a few landmarks. Every five magnitudes is a factor of 100. The most prominent stars in the Earth's sky are about 0 magnitude. The dimmest stars visible to the naked eye, about +5 or +6 magnitude, are one percent as bright; the brightest planets, Mars, Jupiter and Venus, are roughly -2 to -4. A full Moon is about -13 and the Sun itself is -27. The faintest stars that can be detected via long exposures on large telescopes are almost as far in the apposite direction, +25 magnitude or so.

Those are apparent magnitudes, how bright things seem. Imagine putting stars at a standard distance (chosen to be 10 parsecs, about 33 light-years, for historical reasons) and you get absolute magnitudes. On that basis the Sun drops to +5, and several ordinary-looking first-magnitude stars like Betelgeuse and Rigel jump to -5 or brighter. (They are many hundreds of light-years away.)

The stellar magnitude scale is logarithmic: each step doesn't add, it multiplies. One magnitude is a factor of about 2.5; five steps multiply together, 2.5*2.5*2.5*2.5*2.5 which comes to the ratio of 100 mentioned earlier. Ratio systems are extraordinarily good for measuring things that vary over a huge range --- like sound (decibels), earthquakes (Richter scale), or skill at chess (Elo ratings).

- Wednesday, February 23, 2000 at 20:06:27 (EST)

Conflict Aversion

One day in 1978 I gave some visiting Soviet physicists a ride between Pasadena and La Jolla. They taught me how to say "I love you" in Russian, and besides that I still remember the proverb that one of them repeated for me: "Don't trouble Trouble unless Trouble troubles you."

By that advice he meant that it's wise to avoid stress whenever possible --- to hang back from difficulties, unless they come to you and you have no choice. Arnold Bennett in his essay How To Make the Best Of Life (1923) comes to similar conclusions. He suggests three big rules:

Bennett calls the above "three aids for establishing good humour". Like the Russian proverb, they don't sound very profound ... but perhaps by consciously practicing this sort of gentle, understanding, tolerant behavior one can be happier and more productive, as well as catalyze similar good will in acquaintances and colleagues.

- Tuesday, February 22, 2000 at 05:46:30 (EST)

For Your Own Good

When asked what he would do, given absolute power to rule, Ludwig von Mises simply replied, "I would abdicate."

That seems an amazing choice at first blush. With so much potential ability to do good, wouldn't it be better to end war, free the oppressed, fix the world's broken political systems, and restructure all commerce for maximal efficiency? Von Mises, a classical liberal (or libertarian) scholar of economics, knew well the room for improvement in the human situation.

Yet he also knew that great power inevitably causes great damage to those on whom it is wielded --- and to those who wield it. Nothing is more destructive than actions done "for your own good". No one can see perfectly from the viewpoint of another. And even if choices could be imposed that were indisputably correct, the victim would still lose both dignity and all chance to learn from experience. And the chooser, the hypothetical benign dictator? She would devolve, step by imperceptible step, into a tyrant; her successor would be worse.

- Monday, February 21, 2000 at 07:52:21 (EST)

Temporal Utilitarianism

How should a person handle Time in making choices? That is, what if something that will clearly be a great Good for a long time were not at all good right now? Should one maximize personal utility moment-to-moment, or integrated over that which is yet to come? Must future goods get discounted in the calculation, perhaps by some implicit interest rate? How far need one look ahead --- just for a lifetime, or over generations to come?

- Saturday, February 19, 2000 at 06:47:27 (EST)


Data compression programs seem at times to work magic. Squeeze that file and if it's text it will likely become less than half its original length. A spreadsheet, a picture, or a piece of music often map to under a tenth of their original dimensions. Yet it's easy to prove mathematically that not all files can be compressed (if one doesn't throw away information).

In the same way, clever notations and problem-solving techniques seem at times to collapse complexity as though by magic. We admire, publicize, share, and pay big bucks for such brilliant hacks. Yet just as with data compression, not all problems can be made simpler. Some are intrinsically difficult.

Perhaps most of the real challenges of life are like that. There may not be any short cuts, any genies in bottles, or any answers in the back of the book. Such problems may never be completely solved. They take patience, hard work, and experience to make progress on. That's the best anybody can do.

- Thursday, February 17, 2000 at 06:11:50 (EST)

Webs of Evidence

How do we "know" that we know anything? The roots of confidence are a tangled mesh of facts and theories, measurements and hunches, linked in a network of mutual support. Different realms of knowledge have radically different characteristics:

- Tuesday, February 15, 2000 at 06:15:13 (EST)

Long Tails

Some seemingly-rare events show up more often than one might expect. Remember all those "once-in-a-century" floods we've had recently? How about the countless personal "coincidences" that strain probability? And don't forget political crises and stock market movements (down as well as up).

There's a little-known probability curve that's worth studying. It's called "1/f" or "inverse-frequency", and is sometimes referred to as "pink noise" to contrast it with white noise. The 1/f distribution describes a system with extreme fluctuations --- changes that sporadically leap far outside any bounds suggested by historical experience. Strictly speaking, there aren't any pure 1/f probabilities in Nature, since the 1/f function has an infinite area under its graph. But for practical purposes, 1/f applies in host of cases. What's the distribution of word usage in a text? The Nth most common term occurs about 1/N of the time (Zipf's Law). The same rule holds for city populations. It also describes the long-term drift of atomic clocks and low-frequency noise in electronic systems.

Do 1/f considerations also apply to human reckoning of goals and goods? Might the Nth most important value be roughly 1/N as critical as the first in rank? Could one then balance the achievement of many lower priorities against success in a few top-of-the-list endeavors, and vice versa?

- Monday, February 14, 2000 at 05:53:04 (EST)


What are the roots of disgust? Why are some things repugnant (to most of us, most of the time) while other choices are simply matters of taste, not worth arguing about? Why do some cultures find eating some substances repellent, for instance, and others feel precisely the opposite? More violently, why do we tend to refrain from eye-gouging in even the most desperate circumstances unless trained to overcome inhibitions against it? Why are chemical and biological attacks viewed as morally unacceptable, but putting a supersonic chunk of metal through a person (in times of war, facing an enemy, if properly authorized) is ok? What makes torture wrong, even when its goal is to save lives?

- Sunday, February 13, 2000 at 17:15:20 (EST)

Complex Simplicity

Things are always more complicated than they seem ... and they're also always far simpler. It all depends on what level we look at. Examine events on too microscopic a scale, get distracted by day-to-day ephemera, try to do too many tasks at once, turn everything into a crisis --- and life becomes impossibly complex. Or focus on what's really important --- and life is suddenly simple. Most of what we worry about is unworthy of us. Some situations, individually or in conjunction, are critical. Keep watch for them. Relax & be alert.

- Saturday, February 12, 2000 at 05:43:23 (EST)

Learning Investment

Some things accumulate slowly, and if one hasn't built reserves of them in advance then when crisis time comes it's too late. Airspeed and altitude in a plane, for example, or musical skill earned from long hours of practice before a performance. Knowledge is like that. Studying puts money in the bank; if you've done your homework, when the test arrives your savings (plus accrued interest) will be able to pay the bills. And this isn't just in school --- it's throughout life.

The Learning Organization" is a popular cliché these days. To really have an agile and creative enterprise, however, takes a serious investment. People need time, probably a minimum of four hours per week, to get out of their daily grind and study something new, something that will turn out to be important next year or next decade. It's a delusion to expect productivity without putting that money in the bank. Alas, few outfits are wise enough to do it.

- Friday, February 11, 2000 at 05:45:35 (EST)

Two Faces

A good person is both responsive and responsible --- she both pays attention to her surroundings (reacting appropriately to events) and follows her inner compass (doing what's right in her judgment). That dualism is important. People have to look outward and inward to succeed in life.

There's a nice parallel in the results of applied game theory, where the simple "Tit for Tat" algorithm does astoundingly well in prisoners-dilemma situations. "Tit for Tat" is responsive: it changes its behavior according to what the opponent does. It's also responsible: it never is the first to betray a trust. The result is a robust and powerful strategy.

- Thursday, February 10, 2000 at 05:50:12 (EST)

Cold, Hard Mind

Are consciousness and emotion separable? Or are they inextricably entangled by the physical substrate of thought, the body? Certainly human minds are subject to emotional perturbation, from embarrassingly trivial distractions to profound depths of loyalty and love. And certainly we can imagine emotion without (much?) conscious thought, as seems to be the case for some animal behavior.

But can we imagine pure emotionless mind? Or is there something about consciousness that demands "feelings" --- without which one might have a simulation, but no real "being"? If emotion is the result of unconscious biochemical influences, could those be emulated as well in circuitry (or in mathematical equations) as in bodies? And are there modes of human development (perhaps found through meditation or philosophical discourse) that can do away with most or all emotion?

If a person were totally emotionless, would she still be a person? And if a computing machine were to have sophisticated enough programming to do (close enough to) the same behavior as a person, including emotions, would the machine then be a person? Or are emotions an irrelevant frill, a mere façade on the important business of mind?

- Wednesday, February 09, 2000 at 17:01:02 (EST)

Getting What You Need

My wife's friend JM died at the end of January. She was 45, and for the past year she knew that the end in sight. Half a decade earlier she had a melanoma removed; the cancer came back, again and again, and finally it killed her.

JM lived a good life. She was a happy person with a delightfully wicked sense of humor. She served on the county Library Advisory Board with my wife, and the two of them had a way of setting each other off, triggering mutual fits of giggling in response to the more ridiculous bureaucratic posturings at the meetings --- so much so that they had to consciously avoid looking at one another during certain critical moments, lest they both crack up. JM kept working until the last few months of her life, and continued her volunteer activities. But she also made time for music (especially live concerts), for visits with friends, and for a bit of traveling. She spent her days well.

JM had cerebral palsy, which slowed her walk and slurred her speech --- a major handicap in telling jokes, which she nevertheless loved to do. In planning her memorial service a few months ago, JM began by asking for the Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" --- thoroughly appropriate and fitting to her personality, but (as she well knew!) not something that her family was quite ready to go along with. So JM accepted "Amazing Grace" and the "Ode to Joy" chorale from Beethoven's Ninth. She didn't get what she wanted, but she got what she needed: a peaceful end, a joyous funeral service, and a host of friends who will always remember her.

- Tuesday, February 08, 2000 at 05:48:35 (EST)


Humans are toolsmiths; that's our specialty. But making tools is far from enough. First-generation tools are pitifully inefficient, both to fabricate and to use. Sharpened sticks aren't much good against a charging rhino; scraped shaggy hides aren't cozy warm during a snowy night; smashed seeds simmered on a hot stone aren't a convenient way to fix a family dinner.

Mere tools don't hack it. The breakthrough is the discovery of meta-tools: tools to make tools. Not obvious! Meta-tools aren't of direct utility themselves; they only have value indirectly, via the products of their products. But once the concept of higher-level tools is grasped, there's no limit --- and so today we make tools to make tools to make tools ....

The same holds for the abstract human tools par excellence: ideas. Having thoughts isn't special; lots of animals do. But being able to think about thinking, and to think about thinking about thinking, etc. --- that's radical. We know that we know that we know....

- Monday, February 07, 2000 at 05:50:48 (EST)

One in a Score

Fifty good people in a bureaucracy of a thousand can make an incredible difference --- not by being managers and ordering others around, but by being leaders. The five percent show everybody else how to behave through the examples they set. They carry forward the traditions of the outfit. They demonstrate caring, collegial spirit, teamwork, and collaboration. Most importantly, they recruit and teach the next generation of leaders to replace themselves, so that the whole enterprise continues to thrive.

A leavening of ~5% is the fraction typically needed for this job, though in a robust and healthy environment 1%-2% might be enough. If an organization is profoundly dysfunctional, on the other hand, 10%-20% or even more could be required. The order-of-magnitude figure comes out of human tribal psychology: people work best in groups of a few dozen, and that's the effective radius of influence of a local activist. Moreover, it tends to take at least few years to get competent at any worthwhile mission, and turnover of a few percent per year again suggests a ~5% critical density.

People don't sign up to be members of the five percent crew. In fact, most of those playing the part don't even realize what they're doing. They're just happy, creative, energetic folks who love their work and share their enthusiasm with their neighbors. But if the culture doesn't appreciate and encourage their spirit, the ~5% will drift away and the entire machine will grind to a halt.

The ~5% effect also applies to communities, towns, states, and even to societies writ large. Look at the historic decline and fall of some countries (or at the seemingly perpetual stagnation in others) and contrast that with the productivity that humans demonstrate they can achieve in better circumstances. There's a critical concentration of fissionable isotope needed for any chain reaction to persist. The same holds for civilizations.

- Sunday, February 06, 2000 at 08:00:34 (EST)


Look closely enough at anything and it starts to get fuzzy --- not simply from imperfections in the eye, or resolution limitations due to the wave nature of light, but rather because of quantum mechanics. Objects are described by wavefunctions. It's impossible to measure both position and velocity with absolute precision. The more accurately you try to sense one, the greater the disturbance you induce in the other. The limit applies to any pair of "conjugate variables".

In ordinary circumstances the quantum limit is too tiny to matter. But if you want to detect something really subtle (like a gravitational wave from an exploding star halfway across the universe) then problems arise. Ordinary sensors, that couple to bodies in the usual way, won't work --- they add noise that drowns out any signal.

You need quantum non-demolition (QND). The trick is simple: measure one variable while (carefully now!) making sure that you learn nothing about its conjugate. Do it right and you can detect arbitrarily small perturbations. Vladimir Braginskiy and colleagues at Moscow State University recognized the QND challenge in the mid-1970s; Kip Thorne and colleagues at Caltech worked out the solution. (See Caves, Drever, Thorne, Zimmermann, and Sandberg, Rev. Mod. Phys., 1980, and associated papers.)

A simple example (my little contribution to this work, a minor and obvious insight) will make it clear: consider a (quantum!) child on a swing in a totally dark room. She promises that she will refrain from "pumping", dragging her feet, or otherwise disturbing her free oscillation. Your goal is to keep her honest. But the only way you have to observe her is to flash a bright light at her --- a strobe that causes her to flinch unpredictably. So whenever you look at her position, you inevitably cause a huge and unknowable change in her velocity. How can you tell if she cheats between flashes? There is a way; if you want to come up with it for yourself, stop reading now...

The girl on the swing in the dark room is precisely the same as the quantum gravitational wave antenna. How can one couple a sensor to an antenna without demolishing its quantum state and inducing an intolerable level of noise? Answer: look once per cycle of the swing, and space the measurements exactly one cycle apart. The magic of the (ideal) swing is that its period is a constant, independent of the amplitude of its oscillation: perfect simple harmonic motion.

When you trigger the strobe you make a precise position measurement. That causes a big kick to the swing's velocity --- but no matter what the unknown kick may have been, after one cycle the swing comes right back to where it was. That's when you take the next flash picture. If the swing is any place other than the previously-observed location, then (aha!) something must have happened during the time between flashes.

That's the QND stroboscopic technique, a straightforward way to beat the quantum limit. (You can actually measure twice per cycle, but you have to flip the sign of the position measurement on the odd observations; looking once every cycle is easier to explain.) Strobing makes use of the fact that momentum and position uncertainty slosh back and forth in a quantum harmonic oscillator --- they trade places every quarter cycle. Extensions of the same principle let one couple to a quantum system more often (even continuously) though at the cost of greater complexity.

The key idea of QND remains: look carefully at one parameter of a system, and make sure not to learn anything about the conjugate parameter. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle still holds; QND skates around it and averts its eyes at the critical moment.

- Saturday, February 05, 2000 at 12:42:29 (EST)

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

The "OODA Loop" is a model of human behavior. It was a military training doctrine a few years ago (and for all I know, is now passé --- but is no less valid). OODA means: ... and then repeat (hence, "loop").

The OODA Loop is a brilliantly simple systems model that highlights four key aspects of life. It's applicable not just in the heat of battle but in any situation. If you can "turn inside the enemy's OODA Loop" then you respond quicker, you control the situation, and in short order you win the dogfight. Contrariwise, if you receive bad information, if you're confused, if you dither, or if you fail to move, you're likely in trouble no matter what enterprise you've undertaken.

- Friday, February 04, 2000 at 05:57:26 (EST)

Altered States

Consciousness takes on different aspects at different times. Some are obvious changes, caused by drugs, disease, brain injury ... some happen frequently, like the transition from wakefulness to sleep ... and some are subtle shifts of mood or propensity, almost unnoticeable. Some mental modes disrupt the capability for self-appraisal, so that the person involved is less able to detect the difference than are other people. Some changes are sought avidly, and others are conversely avoided. Quite probably some altered states of mind, unexpected and misunderstood, can explain many reported observations of psychic phenomena, UFOs, supernatural beings, and similar unconventional experiences.

- Thursday, February 03, 2000 at 05:53:03 (EST)

Appropriate Units

Studying for their prelim grad school exams, ES & DR were testing each other on memorized values of fundamental physical quantities: the gravitational constant, electron charge, Boltzmann's constant, speed of light, etc. I walked by and ES asked, "What's Planck's constant?"

"One!" I replied, "in appropriate units." It seemed funny at the time (we were under a lot of pressure) but it was also true. By the right choice of dimensions --- length, time, charge, mass, and so forth --- it's possible to make many constants of nature equal any numerical value you please. Do that artfully and the result is simpler, easier-to-manipulate equations.

There are exceptions, dimensionless constants that have no knobs to adjust; they just are what they are. The fine-structure constant, for instance, is about 1/137.036 and governs atomic spectra. The electron/proton mass ratio is another, with a value around 1/1836. No amount of finagling with units can change them --- they're pure numbers.

- Wednesday, February 02, 2000 at 06:06:44 (EST)

Singular Points

Equations break down at certain special places. Sneaking up on those critical locations from various directions can be most enlightening. Think about the simple reciprocal function, "1/x" --- what happens when x = 0? Yes, it "blows up" --- but how? Come at zero from the positive side and 1/x gets bigger and bigger; approach from negative numbers and 1/x heads toward minus infinity. Move toward zero via other routes in the complex plane and find other values.

Understanding the singularities of certain functions tells one everything there is to know about them. It's like figuring the shape of a drum based on the sounds that come out when you strike it, or deducing the configuration of electrical charges inside a black box by measuring the fields on the surface. Some quantities are tightly interwoven with each other: change one of them, and the others must follow. Singularities are often like that --- anchors that hold everything else in place.

- Tuesday, February 01, 2000 at 05:48:34 (EST)

KWICs & Chinks & Chunks

Half a century ago ago John Tukey (of Fast Fourier Transform, "FFT", fame) invented a superb user interface for free-text information retrieval. Tukey took titles from thousands of papers published by the American Statistical Association and built an amazingly powerful yet easy-to-use index to them. His design incorporated three key insights: Tukey used the computers of his time to do index generation, permutation, and sorting --- with decks of punch cards and reams of all-caps line printer output. He split titles at chinks, bound chunks together as units, and generated KWICs from the results. The product was a three-volume reference set, useful in its time, now almost impossible to locate --- essentially forgotten.

I only know of John Tukey's work because of a chance meeting with him in the early 1990s. I showed him my little indexer/browser software (see Notes on Free Text Information Retrieval and the FreeText Archive). Tukey laughed with joy. He had dreamed of a virtually identical information interface but could only implement a static version of it on paper; now, the personal computer had brought it to life.

- Monday, January 31, 2000 at 10:44:52 (EST)

Things <-> People <-> Ideas

Reality shows three faces: things, people, ideas --- all coequal. "Things" comprise the universe of nature. "People" are creatures who sense and understand (mostly homo sapiens, on this planet, nowadays). "Ideas" are the building-blocks of consciousness --- threads that weave the tapestry of relationships among phenomena.

Things exist only through people, who perceive and give meaning to mere matter. Ideas are dry abstractions until they come to life within people's minds. People are things with ideas.

- Sunday, January 30, 2000 at 07:37:30 (EST)


While waiting for our carry-out food to be ready at El Norteño, the neighborhood Salvadoran restaurant, R and I were trying to crack a math problem he had struggled with for over an hour: to completely factor x**4 + 64. ("**" means "to the power of", so x**4 is x to the 4th.) R was clearly getting frustrated, as is his wont: he's persistent and somewhat emotional when he cannot do a job the way he wants to do it (or feels that it should be done). I used some tricks that his book hadn't yet introduced to get the answer, (x+2+2i)(x-2+2i)(x+2-2i)(x-2-2i), but of course that didn't satisfy him. The book hinted that one should add and subtract 16x**2 from the original polynomial, but neither R nor I could see how that might help.

So we stared at the problem and ate chips with salsa. I tried working backwards from the answer, getting the intermediate result (x**2+4x+8)(x**2-4x+8), which we still couldn't see how to connect up to the starting point. R was getting downright mad. He studied our scribblings for another five minutes, and then laughed and said, "It's obvious!" He had figured out the right grouping of terms, quite a counter-intuitive one.

I had to laugh too, because there are so many things like that: "obvious" only after hard work or bitter experience. I imagined struggling with a problem not for an hour, but for months or years --- and not with a known answer, nor with any hints, but with only the vague hope that a solution exists ... like Copernicus trying to derive the orbit of Mars (it took him a decade) or Wiles's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.

What kind of faith must one have to win through near-impenetrable thickets of complexity to achieve the (after-the-fact) "obvious"?

- Saturday, January 29, 2000 at 08:54:57 (EST)

Kindergarten Environmentalism

There's a tendency, part of human nature, to make simpleminded and silly judgments based on emotion, not analysis. Thinking things through takes too much time and doesn't provide the thrill of decisive action. So what if we're destroying more natural resources in our "recycling" project than we save? Our hearts are in the right places, and we mean well. Pay no attention to the people on the other side of the globe who are starving; we've gotta fly to a convention, rent a car at the airport, check in to our hotel, and maybe even march en masse to demonstrate our seriousness and good will. Don't think about the energy (and ethical) costs of raising animals, slaughtering them, preserving and transporting pieces of their flesh to market, preparing them for consumption, and discarding the remains. Just enjoy the meal.

It's tempting to focus on what's immediately visible and ignore long-term, higher-order, more distant consequences of our choices. Hard work is needed to build good models of a situation, to gather accurate input data, and to analyze the results. Oftentimes a simulation suggests that inaction (or something counter-intuitive) is the best thing we can do. Worse yet, modeling may just demonstrate the uncontrollable complexity of the future --- the fact that nobody can predict what will occur.

The need for mature thinking doesn't just exist for environmental issues. Economics, politics, technology, and every other sphere of human action all demand focused analysis if they're to be done right. It's not easy, but if people don't choose to make the investment we'll just keep on wasting resources and needlessly increasing entropy.

- Friday, January 28, 2000 at 05:51:06 (EST)

Positive & Negative Choice

"Bear & forbear," someone said. Balance force with stability, motion with meditation. Endure & refrain.

- Thursday, January 27, 2000 at 05:46:01 (EST)

Roots of Commensurability

Ordinarily any quantity can be measured in terms of any units, to an arbitrary accuracy. Pounds or kilograms work equally well for weights; feet or light-years are both fine for distances; and so on.

But in the pure realm of math, some quantities are incommensurable --- they don't ever relate, not to the absolute perfection that mathematicians demand of their ideals. No ratio of integers can match pi (3.14159265..., the circumference of a circle with diameter of one), though some like 355/113 come pretty close. Even the square root of two (sqrt(2) = 1.41421356..., the diagonal of a unit square) never can be computed as a fraction made of natural numbers.

There's a neat way to see that sqrt(2) is irrational, a clever proof by contradiction that the ancient Greeks geometers found. Here's a quick summary of the argument (skip ahead if you're not interested in the details). Suppose there were a magic fraction, call it A/B, that gave sqrt(2). Squaring that fraction implies A*A = 2*B*B. Now A can't be an odd number, since the product of two odds is still odd, yet the right-hand-side of this equation is clearly even. So A is even; call it A = 2*C. Then plug that into the equation and simplify to get B*B = 2*C*C. By the same logic as we just saw, B has to be an even number; call it B = 2*D.

Zooks! We seem to have proved that both A and B were even numbers in our mythical fraction A/B = sqrt(2). So that fraction could have been simplified by dividing both A and B by 2, reducing A/B to the smaller fraction C/D. And nothing prevents us from applying the same method to that fraction in turn, to get a ratio of still-smaller numbers E/F, and so on, and so on. This is no good! Eventually we've gotta reach a smallest fraction. We can't descend forever, dividing both sides by 2 without end and still always having even numbers. So our original assumption, that the fraction A/B = sqrt(2) existed, must have been wrong. There are no such numbers A and B.

Where was the sleight-of-hand in this proof? Magic crept in on an infinite number of little cat's feet, via the never-ending non-repeating decimal that represents the square root of two. Infinity is counter-intuitive. Some gears never quite mesh; some patterns never exactly recur; some things can never be precisely measured in terms of other things. Infinite variety....

- Wednesday, January 26, 2000 at 13:36:40 (EST)

Righteous Rage

The Sunday New York Times Magazine of 16 January 2000 carried a short Q&A (by David Rakoff) with Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. One key exchange:

[Q:] You've been quoted as saying that bitterness will consume its own vessel. After one of the recent school shootings, the very next day the kids who had survived posted a sign saying, "We forgive you." And I thought, "Well, that seems a little premature." So tell me, is there a difference between bitterness and wholly justified anger?

[Carter:] "They're the same thing. Gas will fill a chamber evenly and completely no matter what the chamber is and no matter how small the quantity of gas. And that's what suffering does, is fill the human soul and the human psyche evenly and completely. So once you're in a state of anger you can be angry at anything. You can't sleep, you can't eat, you can't walk, you can't talk. And you cannot forgive anybody until you first forgive yourself."

Is anger ever appropriate? Or is it a perversion of emotions such as frustration and fear? Can people learn to control rage, the way they control other urges in polite society? Should one get angry at injustice? (Is most injustice caused by anger?) Does getting mad ever cause good to happen which couldn't have been achieved through better means?

- Tuesday, January 25, 2000 at 11:57:56 (EST)

Splits & Joins

What are the dimensions along which humans separate themselves from one another? A few common examples: Some of these categories are mutable, by choice, by accident, by time, by technology; others may be disguised but not (ordinarily) altered. Some are exclusionary and have a unique setting (at a given moment); others can assume many simultaneous values. Some vary along a continuum; others are limited to a few discrete answers. Some positions are heartfelt, cherished, tenaciously held; others seem of little consequence and can trivially be let go.

The most troublesome bins, as far as society is concerned, are ones that:

Prime instances of this are sex and race --- universal foci of cultural problems. But there are many other danger-ridden dimensions, including religious belief, national origin, and economic status. The key challenge for human civilization (and the individuals who comprise it) is to understand and overcome these divisions between people.

- Monday, January 24, 2000 at 05:49:17 (EST)

Mujeres Frias

Monday afternoon Robin and I were walking around the neighborhood, both for exercise and to visit the local grocery store to buy milk and munchies, when from across the street a tiny Hispanic lady in a big red coat called to us. She seemed to be asking for help in finding "Flower Belly Jelly", which made no sense. So we crossed the road to get closer in hopes of figuring out what she needed.

She was with two young women, also Latinas, and they each had a baby carriage --- though the contents of the carriages were bundled up against the cold and couldn't be seen. I talked with the little woman, the only one of the group who spoke English, and it turned out that she was trying to find a flower shop near the street we were on. According to her notes (the bulk of which were in Spanish) the name of the shop was indeed "Flower Belly Jelly" --- which still seemed like nonsense.

But it was windy, the temperature was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the ladies had no car. So Robin and I decided we had better walk them down the road and help them find the mysterious florist. I practiced some of my high school Spanish with the leader, much to her amusement, while the other two women followed pushing their prams.

About half a mile later we reached an industrial park and found a deli that was still open. It was then about 5 p.m., the sun was setting, and the rest of the shops were closed or closing. Robin and I got the ladies into the diner where it was warm and well-lit. I scouted around the area and found one wholesale floral business. An Asian woman was shutting the office for the night. She was new there but thought that she remembered another florist further down the road.

Back at the deli, the young women had unwrapped their children --- cute daughters, one almost two years old, the other an infant. The kids and their mothers were thawing out with hot soup and coffee. The older lady's name, she revealed, was Mercedes; she was indeed an abuela, grandmother to the baby and great-aunt to the other child.

Mercedes and Robin and I set out walking again, questing for the legendary "Flower Belly Jelly". We left the rest of the crew behind in the delicatessen. Before we had gotten very far the Asian florist on her way home drove up and offered us a ride in her minivan. The first side street she tried led to nothing; we struck gold on the second, though, a winding "No Outlet" avenue that hooked around a car parts place, a body shop, and a couple of other automotive facilities. Behind them were two big trucks labeled "Flowers by Jeni" --- doubtless the source of a "Flower Belly Jelly" garble.

We thanked the kind florist, climbed out of her van, and walked back to the cafe. Mercedes explained that her daughter-in-law was seeking a job at the flower store. The wintry expedition had been designed to locate the place and identify bus routes to get there and back. Mission accomplished, in other words.

Robin and I left the Latin ladies and hiked home (and were coincidentally stopped along the way by another lost soul, this one in a car, seeking a furniture store; we got her pointed in the right direction and went on). But the obvious thought occurred to us: standing around waiting for one bus, then transferring to another, might not be the best thing in the world for these people --- especially the kids, especially with it getting dark and the temperature falling into the teens. So when we reached the house I got the old Dodge Dart started up and drove back, helped fold the baby carriages and put them into the trunk, and got everybody packed in comfortably. We drove past Flowers by Jeni to make sure everybody could find it again, and then I took the women several miles to where the various buses they needed converged.

The next day gave me a chance to cash in whatever "good deed" points (and more!) that Robin and I had earned. Unexpected snow turned the evening rush hour into an icy crawl. On the way home, stuck in traffic five miles out, the dreaded Battery Discharge Light came on. (This was in the Honda, twenty years newer than the Dart.) I couldn't do much more than watch for turn-off opportunities and hope. First the lights dimmed, then the radio failed; clearly there was an electrical problem and I was running on borrowed time, battery power feeding the sparkplugs.

Finally the traffic broke open and I was able to make progress via side streets ... four miles to go ... three ... two ... to save energy I turn off headlights ... engine develops a ragged idle ... stalls on the approach to a stop sign, but restarts when I pop the clutch (thank goodness for manual transmissions) ... one mile ... roll through five stop signs ... then a straight shot into the only empty parking space in front of the auto repair shop, where the car dies as soon as it is parked. Whew! Diagnosis: dead alternator; fixed next afternoon.

- Sunday, January 23, 2000 at 15:50:56 (EST)

Shakespeare's Ivy

Walking across the long-abandoned campus of a girls' school in my neighborhood, I saw a stone marker: "Ivy from the Birthplace of Shakespeare." Nearby were others: "Ivy from Mount Vernon"; "Ivy from Mark Twain's Birthplace"; and so forth. The ivy is dead. The students are gone. The sidewalks are cracked; windows are boarded over. Water leaks through roofs; paint peels and woodwork rots; statues are eroded, arms and heads broken off. Walls slump; fountains stand dry. A few years ago fire destroyed one building. Bricks and debris lie scattered about.

We remember Shakespeare, Washington, Twain, et al., but not because of any monuments. Their names live because of what they did and why they chose to do it --- that is, because of who they were.

- Saturday, January 22, 2000 at 12:20:54 (EST)

Bits of Consciousness

A thermostat responds to its environment with an on/off, a 1 or a 0 --- a single bit of information. An insect has thousands of nerve cells, carefully interwoven and wired to sensors that detect light, pressure, trace chemicals, etc. --- and so the bug brain manipulates thousands of bits of information. Higher creatures are correspondingly more complex. Human brains detect millions of input signals and have billions of active neurons with hugely greater numbers of interconnections.

People are (most of the time!) inarguably conscious. There's a general consensus that animals, especially mammals, are conscious too, though their mental states are perhaps simpler and their problem-solving abilities more limited. This suggests many questions:

(It seems to me that answers to all of the above could well be "yes"....)

- Friday, January 21, 2000 at 06:03:38 (EST)

Opposite Attractions

Contradiction is the most important element in life --- and it's also the least important. Through disagreement we discover how to balance opposing forces; via consensus we build enduring relationships. By making mistakes we learn; from success comes confidence and achievement. Conflicts are challenges from which we emerge strengthened; in harmony we find comfort, joy, and peace.

- Thursday, January 20, 2000 at 16:30:40 (EST)

Human Diffusion

Diffusion is a random-walk: items move from a place of high concentration to sites where they are less common. A good rule of thumb to remember in all diffusion situations is "square-root-of-N": on the average, after N steps a thing is the square root of N away from where it started. Another good rule of thumb is "equal energy": objects in equilibrium come to a single temperature and have the same average energy as each other.

Molecules provide a classic example. Place a drop of ink into still water, or open a bottle of perfume at one end of a room, and in a short time the material spreads throughout the entire available space. The rate of spreading is ruled by the square-root-of-N law, with each particle taking steps of length equal to the mean free path between collisions. The speed of motion is ruled by the equal energy law, so (since kinetic energy goes like velocity squared) heavier molecules diffuse more slowly (proportional to the square root of molecular weight). Eventually the concentration approaches a constant everywhere --- unless there are penalties (energy costs) in some zones which cause density gradients to persist.

People "diffuse" too, through an organization, within a region, and among nations. Individuals move away from unfavorable surroundings --- crazy bosses, towns where the culture is too boring, countries that lack career opportunities, etc. --- and move toward better circumstances. Some go faster than others; some travel more direct routes, while others take a series of slow (perhaps even multigenerational) steps.

Ideas also "diffuse". Tiny ideas (e.g., catchy tunes, or brand name logos) can leap great distances almost instantly. Big ideas (concepts that require thought or experience to grasp, such as liberty and justice) take longer, but spread just as inexorably.

- Wednesday, January 19, 2000 at 08:23:08 (EST)

Question Authority

On the way to the Caltech faculty club (the Athenæum) for lunch, a few physics grad students were arguing the question, "How can one determine scientific Truth?" Is good science something that gets validated by experts in the field? If so, who picks the experts, and how are their judgments weighed and resolved when the graybeards differ among themselves? Alternatively, is Truth a mere social consensus with no greater claim to respect than any other opinion? Or is there perhaps no such thing as scientific Truth? Is everything we "know" subject to refutation?

Stephen Hawking was then (~1977) a visiting scholar and was rolling along with us in his motorized wheelchair. He grinned when we asked him who had the authority to answer such questions, and simply advised, "Ask Nature!"

- Tuesday, January 18, 2000 at 06:06:24 (EST)


"There is still a difference between something and nothing --- but it is purely geometrical, and there is nothing behind the geometry," Martin Gardner said recently. That's a radical position, but maybe it's necessary. How else can one answer the radical (in the sense of "root") question: why is there anything in the universe?

The best non-mystical candidates for a solution start with mathematics, mind, and meaning:

(Well, perhaps "non-mystical" is a bit too strong a term for some of the above!)

A final tack, suggested by Robert Nozick (Philosophical Explanations), is to question the question itself, and to ask "Why should we be surprised at the existence of something?" Why do our prejudices suggest that nothingness is the more natural state of affairs?

- Monday, January 17, 2000 at 07:44:08 (EST)

Zar Story

The Zar was a chucklehead --- oblivious to his station as ruler of all Russia. His wife cuckolded him, his daughters caroused and galavanted around Europe, while he hunted in the woods, drank schnapps with his friends, smoked his pipe, and was happy. The Zar didn't exist. But he became real; he developed a sincere personal empathy with two other fantasy-world leaders who decided, when the moment for a final, critical choice arrived, to trust the Zar --- to rely on his word, and his word alone, to determine their fate. The Zar was worthy of that trust. He repaid it with honor and with interest.

But I get ahead of myself. In 1954, a Harvard undergraduate named Allen B. Calhamer invented a game with rules so brilliantly simple that, like the Asian game of go, its equivalent probably exists on planets of other galaxies. That game was called Diplomacy, "Dippy" for short. ("Diplomacy" was a trademark of Games Research, Calhamer's company; the rights were later bought by Avalon-Hill, which in turn has been bought by somebody else. And so the fruits of intellection go.)

Diplomacy is a board game, a trivial matter of sliding blocks of wood around a map of Europe and capturing dots that represent supply centers. Whoever gets 18 dots first, wins. But Diplomacy is also a rôle-playing game of utmost subtlety, of shifting alliances and abrupt betrayal, of back-stabbing and naked deceit. To do well at Dippy one needs not so much tactical acumen as support from other players. Cooperation pays off --- up to a point. Then a prisoner's-dilemma situation arises, and whoever betrays will profit at the expense of the player who trusts too much. At least, that's the usual way Diplomacy works.

Over-the-board (face-to-face) Dippy is a quick route to hurt feelings and shattered friendships. (Or not so quick; it tends to take at least six hours to finish.) So most Diplomacy games are played against strangers by mail, nowadays email. With negotiations among players and a move season every few days, an email Dippy game runs for many months. Computer programs called "Judges" serve as referees.

In the mid-1990s I played in my first and (so far) only Internet-based Diplomacy match. It was a German-language game, and with the aid of a dictionary my high-school German was barely good enough for me to communicate with the other players. (This was before the era of online translation services.)

I was assigned Russia, a tricky country to handle since it is vulnerable in the early years to attack from Turkey, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and England. For fun (and because it helped explain my limited linguistic capabilities) I decided to become the dimwitted "Zar" (German for Tsar or Czar). This reduced the seriousness of the game and added humor opportunities --- a good thing from my perspective since I expected to be crushed quickly.

The Zar was a fool, and illiterate to boot. Via his "Secretary" he mouthed platitudes in his letters and public announcements, repeatedly calling for peace and friendship among the countries of Europe. Fake press releases described the Zarina's liaisons with various heads of state. The result? Russia was soon attacked by just about everybody who could do so, whether because of the Zar's seeming naïveté or the opposition's general aggressiveness. Things looked grim.

The Zar fought back --- but never held a grudge. Russia was always willing to forgive and forget; the Kremlin doors were open to renew alliances with any country once its attacks on the Motherland ceased. Absent a betrayal, the Zar was dogged in his loyalty. This struck several of the other players as passing strange --- but it was merely the classic "tit for tat" game-theory strategy applied to Dippy, as the Zar's Secretary tried to explain.

After a few game-years, the Russian situation stabilized and then began to improve. Victories in Scandinavia against England (plus a strong partnership with Germany) helped the Zar's armies and fleets move forward. At that point, I (not the Zar!) failed: I saw an opportunity to play Dippy the usual way, stab a loyal ally in the back, and likely get a quick solo win. I hesitated, then betrayed. I was wrong to do so.

In response, the other nations united against Russia and, with brilliant tactics, pulled together a mathematically invulnerable stalemate line stretching across southern Europe. It looked like the end; all of us would have to settle for a draw. We might as well not have bothered to play the game at all. What a waste of time.

That's when the Zar came back. He reminded Austria and Germany of past good times together; he apologized for Russian treachery and abased himself; he promised "never again". He talked about his family ... about growing old ... about his hopes to leave a legacy of peace and honor to his children. The Zar became a real person, in a tiny way --- a kind but sad old man, who saw his life as a series of mistakes and felt that redemption was yet possible, with help from his friends.

It "worked" --- because it was true. Austria, then Germany broke from the anti-Russian alliance, rejoined the Zar, and in return were supported in their battles. The Turkish Sultan, architect of the defense, was dumbfounded. The Zar had a trivial win; why not take it? Answer: because the Zar was a man of his word. When people trusted him, he trusted them.

As the war came to an end with a peaceful three-way armistice, the Zar passed away, a peaceful death surrounded by his family and friends. He taught me a lesson: honesty and honor are infinitely more important than "winning". The Zar won, and not just on the Dippy board.

- Sunday, January 16, 2000 at 07:39:53 (EST)

Noblesse Oblige

There's magic in wealth --- when it is ignored. Remember Bilbo Baggin's mithril coat of armor (in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings), gathering dust for years in a museum and worth more than the whole Shire. Remember the Old North Australian farmers (in Cordwainer Smith's novels of the Instrumentality), simple farmers turned into billionaires by an accident of nature, and choosing to remain simple. Remember Sam Walton (in real life) eating a plain breakfast in a small-town diner with neighbors.

There's similar magic in other forms of wealth --- when they're ignored. Think of the impact that Albert Schweitzer had: organist, theologian, philosopher, physician, setting aside comfort to aid others in need. Remember your own best teachers, who could obviously have made more money or achieved greater fame had they forgotten about their students.

It's not necessary to squander one's gifts to do good --- but it seems somehow critical to forget them, or at least set them to one side, in order to see other people clearly ... and to make one's life meaningful by reaching out to them and helping them.

- Saturday, January 15, 2000 at 07:32:13 (EST)

This is Volume 0.06 of the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann ... musings on mind, matter, method, and metaphor ... new posts every few days, since April 1999. See ZhurnalyWiki on zhurnaly.com for a parallel "live" Wiki experiment in shared thought. For back issues of the ^zhurnal see Volumes v.01 (April-May 1999), v.02 (May-July 1999), v.03 (July-September 1999), v.04 (September-November 1999), v.05 (November 1999 - January 2000), v.06 (January-March 2000), v.07 (March-May 2000), v.08 (May-June 2000), v.09 (June-July 2000), v.10 (August-October 2000), v.11 (October-December 2000), v.12 (December 2000 - February 2001), v.13 (February-April 2001), v.14 (April-June 2001), 0.15 (June-August 2001), 0.16 (August-September 2001), 0.17 (September-November 2001), 0.18 (November-December 2001), 0.19 (December 2001 - February 2002), 0.20 (February-April 2002), 0.21 (April-May 2002), 0.22 (May-July 2002), 0.23 (July-September 2002), 0.24 (September-October 2002), 0.25 (October-November 2002), 0.26 (November 2002 - January 2003), 0.27 (January-February 2003), 0.28 (February-April 2003), 0.29 (April-June 2003), 0.30 (June-July 2003), 0.31 (July-September 2003), 0.32 (September-October 2003), 0.33 (October-November 2003), 0.34 (November 2003 - January 2004), 0.35 (January-February 2004), 0.36 (February-March 2004), 0.37 (March-April 2004), 0.38 (April-June 2004), 0.39 (June-July 2004), 0.40 (July-August 2004), 0.41 (August-September 2004), 0.42 (September-November 2004), ... Current Volume. Send comments and suggestions to z (at) his.com. Thank you!