^zhurnal - v.0.08

This is Volume 0.08 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.)

Education, Culture, & Blame

A few striking quotes from Mary Midgley's book Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: Problems of Philosophical Plumbing follow. (See the 10 May 2000 ^zhurnal entry for other Midgley comments.)

From Chapter 5, "The Use and Uselessness of Learning", on the value of a broad education:

" ... Gaining knowledge is not just collecting and storing facts, but becoming trained in handling them. We need practice in using may different methods, so that an effective education needs to mention whole ranges of facts that are quite different from those among which a student is liable to live and work. The reason why those in their final years at school may be asked to study Othello and the differential calculus and the geography of the Antarctic is not that anyone expects them to confront Renaissance Italians doing mathematics at the South Pole, but to develop their general understanding of the world they live in. They are being supplied with a set of rough maps --- physical, emotional and intellectual --- of central ranges of human experience, maps which they will later extend, refine and fill in for themselves.

"When shortages loom, educational authorities naturally try to prune away all teaching that is not part of a direct training for work, work that society will value enough to pay wages for. But if the general development of people's faculties is neglected beyond a certain point, they often become too depressed, alienated and discouraged to take in even the narrow training that can make them fit for this work. The general power of receiving particular trainings constructively is itself something which needs its own kind of training and cherishing.

"Adolescents who have not managed to develop these faculties in the course of education will develop them on their own, and will insist on finding a meaning for their lives on lines which may indeed be valuable, but may also range from soccer hooliganism through bizarre religious and political movements to drug-taking, despair and suicide. Less dramatically, they may just give up and retreat into dull inertia. Although there are limits to what education can do to put meaning into people's lives, it must surely be part of the business of educators to help people to make sense of the world around them, and so to find ways of life that are acceptable to others and also worthwhile for themselves. To treat this function as a mere luxury would imply a very strange idea of usefulness."

From the same chapter, on the "Two Cultures" tiff between the sciences and the humanities:

"This whole feud has been doubly disastrous. Scientists have tended to lose confidence and interest in the studies which might have linked their own work to the rest of life such as the history of science. Humanists meanwhile, by remaining ignorant of science, have lost an apprehension and admiration of the physical world which ought, by their own standards, to form at least as central a part of their equipment for life as the knowledge of human history. Human history itself cannot be properly understood without some grasp of the workings of the physical world in which its dramas are played out. But beyond this (as philosophers as well as scientists have stressed), natural science is for its students an enlightening vision, a form of contemplation which, equally with the arts, can properly serve as the centre of a full human life. Goethe was --- deservedly --- as famous in his own day for his pioneering work in comparative anatomy as for his poetry. Aristotle, Descartes and Kant shared this wider vision with Darwin and Einstein, and its loss from our local humanistic tradition has been a disaster."

And from Chapter 7, "Freedom, Feminism and War", in commenting on "...the easy game of blaming men..." for the unhealthy hyper-competitive nature of our society:

"Another trouble about blame is that, even where it is entirely appropriate and even necessary, it is inclined to be a barren, counter-productive proceeding. Blaming is an addictive habit and addiction to it is depressingly bad for the character. No doubt it serves to soothe cognitive dissonance, as other rousing group activities do. But we do not want just to soothe that dissonance. We want to sort out the issues which underlie it."

- Thursday, June 01, 2000 at 15:11:21 (EDT)

Socrates in the Headlines

A pair of newspaper clippings surfaced recently: In some ways, everybody is homeless....

- Tuesday, May 30, 2000 at 20:57:19 (EDT)

Deschooling Demythologized

Different people take (or keep) their children out of the conventional school system for different reasons. Some are disturbed by the lack of religion in public education, or by the particular choice of religion. Some find that their kids have begun to run with a bad crowd and are getting into trouble with sex, or drugs, or violence. Some reject a poisonous social environment of racism, sexism, and exclusionary cliques. Some discover that their children aren't learning well because the bureaucracy lacks flexibility (or resources) to give them what they need.

It all depends on the child. Many students do splendidly in regular schools; their happy presence helps energize both teachers and fellow students. Other young people are the opposite: disruptive, expensive failures for the system. Some kids find their only escape from horrible home situations at school.

Our family has homeschooled three children for their entire lives. We don't offer simple answers to anybody when they ask us why we did it and what we recommend for them to do. Every child and every family is unique. Society has critical reasons to ensure that all individuals get a chance to learn --- chief among which is basic justice. For some children growth and learning happen best at home under parental supervision. Freedom to do that is a marvelous thing.

- Monday, May 29, 2000 at 12:02:01 (EDT)

Embarrassed Libertarian

One day in January 1999 my son Robin and I were helping at the local library's used-book sale. An enlightening encounter developed late in the afternoon, beginning when a young woman with "nerd" written all over her --- petite, pallid, wearing a white sweatshirt, with black straight hair in a bowl-shaped cut --- came to the desk and asked where to find advanced economic texts. I showed her the "Business" shelves and requested more specifics. She hesitated, then admitted that she was seeking books by Hayek, Rothbard, von Mises, et al. I recognized these as big names in the Austrian School of free-market economics. She was rather startled to hear that this was, coincidentally, a subject I had studied (as an amateur) many years ago.

We found nothing along her desired lines; she had wanted something readable to lend to a friend. She did fill a couple of paper sacks with books on history and politics. I volunteered to look in my basement for old libertarian economic tomes that I could give her, and passed her a copy of my family business card so that she could reach me via email.

We shook hands, and she said her name --- perhaps it was "Eileen" or "Ellen". She warned me, with some embarrassment, that the email account she used was at the Heritage Foundation where she works. She was about to exit when she asked whether she could leave her heavy bags of books behind the counter to be picked up later. Eileen/Ellen said she had to walk several blocks north to return a rented videotape, and the books which she had bought were quite unwieldy. Robin and I said "Sure!", but warned her that the sale ended at 4:30pm, half an hour before the Library itself closed.

After a busy final hour it was time to lock the doors, with no rematerialization of Eileen/Ellen. Robin and I scratched our heads and decided to take her books outside in hopes of seeing her on the street. We walked around the library and indeed, about 10 minutes later, spied her hastening back. A light drizzle had started to fall, so we volunteered to give her a ride home.

Her directional sense was deeply flawed: Eileen/Ellen's wanted to get to her condo on a nearby street, but turned us the wrong way. We crossed the highway going west and ended up on the opposite side of town. But the ride in our ancient car (the 1972 Dodge Dart) gave us a good chance to chat.

Eileen/Ellen told us a little of her background. She confessed that she had recently registered to vote as a Republican --- clearly not something she was proud of. But she felt that the Libertarian Party wasn't viable any more. Traditionalist/minimalist approaches to government (such as Calvin Coolidge's) had come to seem best to her. With significant regret she admitted that she had worked on the 1996 Dole campaign for President before finding her current job at the conservative Heritage Foundation. About that time we located her home and dropped her off; we haven't heard from her since.

Libertarianism (especially in its more extreme variants, including philosophical anarchism) is simple and appealing, particularly to the young. (My personal political history is a case in point.) Part of growing up, however, is learning to sort out appropriate simplicity from its false friends, doctrine and narrow-mindedness. Eileen/Ellen seemed to be moving along that difficult road ... toward appreciating the real complexities of life.

- Sunday, May 28, 2000 at 14:34:24 (EDT)

California Sherpa

In the summer of 1976 a small band of Caltech astronomy grad students arrive at the base of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States. These kids are rock climbers, with ropes, harnesses, pitons, carabiners, and lots of other mysterious gear. I come along to take photos of them and help carry their stuff.

Mount Whitney rises in the Sierra Nevada, its summit just short of 14,500 feet, on the edge of Sequoia National Park. To get there we drive from Pasadena in southern California, over the San Gabriel mountains that bound the Los Angeles basin, and up the central valley. The land is dry; clouds from the Pacific have already dropped most of their moisture before they arrive. Much of what remains plus groundwater goes south to the thirsty big city via the L.A. Aqueduct. Big white dishes of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory stand in line to the east.

We turn left from the arrow-straight highway at the town of Lone Pine and begin driving up a series of switchbacks into the foothills. We can't yet identify Mount Whitney, since broken lands in the foreground and nearby peaks confuse the scenery. Finally we reach the end of the road, Whitney Portal, 8,300 feet above sea level. We park, empty the cars, sort food and tents and equipment, distribute loads, shrug on backpacks, and start walking.

There's a hiking trail to the top of Mount Whitney, 11 miles long. It's strenuous but straightforward, and thousands of people blister their feet on it every year. My astronomer friends are climbers. They want to tackle the East Face of the mountain: a cliff half a mile high, with cracks and ridges and plenty of tricky puzzles to work out. Snow and ice have melted except in a few shaded spots. The climb is well-mapped, and my comrades have planned their route. It's a technical challenge well within their skills. I'm not going.

But first we have to get to the starting point, our so-called base camp. We hike up a ravine and look for trail markers: little cairns of rocks, or blazes painted on trunks of stunted trees. We find some for a while, and then get slightly lost. The path we want to take to the East Face crosses a stream, Lone Pine Creek, "at a big rock that looks like the Matterhorn" according to our guidebook. Unfortunately, every big rock looks like the Matterhorn to at least one of us. We zig-zag through scrubby brush and then have to scramble up a steep slope. It's trivial for the experienced climbers, but I find it tricky, especially with a heavy pack unbalancing me. I'm wearing my watch with the face on the inside of my wrist to protect it. Of course that's precisely the wrong orientation; the crystal grinds against the granite as I reach for handholds. (When we get home, a frugal Turkish physics student helps me polish it smooth again using Ultra-Brite toothpaste as an abrasive.)

Finally we find our mini-Matterhorn landmark and get back on course. Piles of pebbles by the trail are frequent, and somebody jokes about all the Boy Scout labor that must have gone into making them. A couple of hours later the sun is setting behind the mountain and we're in position for tomorrow's work. We pitch a pair of tents at Iceberg Lake, elevation 12,300'. The landscape is Martian: desolate, frigid, almost lifeless, with boulders scattered across a blue-gray stone valley that we have all to ourselves. We boil water over a tiny stove, gulp reconstituted freeze-dried dinners, sip hot tea, and retire to shiver in our sleeping bags. A couple of us have slight headaches but nobody is bothered so far by altitude sickness, a risk above 10,000' for the non-acclimated who stay more than a few days. Our plan is to go down again quickly, before trouble can develop.

Early next morning the astronomers get ready. They show me the route they plan to take, and I prepare to follow them --- through binoculars and telephoto lens. Before they leave I take a few dramatic close-ups of each with the peak in the background. They point out the "Mountaineer's Route", an alternative and much easier way to the summit which they hint I might like to try. It's a couloir: a channel of broken rock on the northeast shoulder of Mount Whitney, a steep scramble that doesn't require ropes or special abilities. John Muir took it to the top long ago. I thank my friends for their suggestion, but I'm not interested.

The climbers check their gear one last time and turn west. I lose sight of them for a while among the nearby ridges. They reappear as they work their way up the East Face, red and orange jackets bright in the morning sunlight against the stone. Through a long lens they're buglike specks creeping upwards, pausing, regrouping, and climbing again. I snap photos at what might be critical moments, transitions from one pitch to another. The silence is profound.

Then coming up the trail to our tents a lone hiker appears. He nods and walks by, continuing on toward the mountain. I catch sight of him next through binoculars as he moves, smoothly and steadily, up the walls and cracks. He overtakes my friends in about an hour, and without rope or companion proceeds past them to the top. They recognize him: Galen Rowell, a famous climber and author. He signs the register at the summit and walks back down the hiking trail, making a one-day jaunt out of our three-day expedition. That's the difference between a master and a strong amateur. (On the other hand, if Rowell had slipped and fallen, his career would have abruptly ended.)

The astronomers make it to the top by mid-afternoon and celebrate. Then they descend via the Mountaineer's Route and rejoin me as the shadows of evening begin to deepen. They're exhausted and happy. We boil water, eat up most of our supplies, look at the bright stars for a few minutes, and crawl into our sleeping bags. The next day we pack up everything and straggle down to the cars. An excellent trip; nobody got hurt.

- Saturday, May 27, 2000 at 13:58:52 (EDT)


The Anthropic Principle argues, in brief, that because we're here we can draw certain logical conclusions about the universe. The cosmos has to be old enough to permit evolution of intelligent life (or else we wouldn't be here). The Sun has to be a reasonably stable star (or else we wouldn't be here). The laws of chemistry have to allow complex self-reproducing molecules (or else...). Nuclear binding energies have to accommodate elements beyond hydrogen and helium (...). And so forth. Serious people use the Anthropic Principle to deduce limits on the possible values of the natural constants --- the strength of gravity, the speed of light, the charge of the electron, etc.

Well, maybe! For starters, there isn't really a single Anthropic Principle --- there are many. They range from the loose premise that "the universe has to permit intelligent life" to the strict "natural law must be able to result in humanity as we know it today". And there's no reason not to argue even more strongly that "the world must be so arranged as to make me, as I am right now, with absolute precision". (After all, here I am, eh?!) Contrariwise, what's so horrible about a universe that doesn't contain intelligence (whatever that word means)? How can one plausibly pick a single Anthropic Principle from this wide spectrum of equally-good candidates?

Even worse, there's a embarrassing lack of imagination hiding behind the classic Anthropic Principle. Who's to say, for example, that a cosmos with only hydrogen atoms in it couldn't evolve brilliant creatures, with their thinking based on nuclear spin-flips or other subtle non-chemical interactions? Sure, we carbon-based critters wouldn't be around to pat ourselves on the back, but so what? (In the smart-hydrogen-spin world, no doubt philosophers would argue cogently that humanoids were inconceivable.) So how can one contend that a completely different set of physical laws won't work?

And how solid is this after-the-fact retrospective "logic" anyway? OK, things are the way that they are (barring observer error) --- but does that imply anything unavoidable about the past? Couldn't we have arrived here via other routes? And couldn't the here-and-now just as easily be somewhat different than what we see? People often have the hubris to deduce that others deserve their inferior position because of past sins, mistakes, or misfortunes. (Funny, hardly anybody deduces that they themselves belong in the cellar ... it always seems to go the other direction.) But "is" doesn't necessarily imply "ought" or "must" or "should".

Maybe the best escape from narrow anthropocentrism is radical open-mindedness. The "Many-Worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics is one example; see the 24 October 1999 ^zhurnal entry.

- Friday, May 26, 2000 at 05:55:30 (EDT)

Status Genetics

Some people care about appearances --- and sometimes they care a lot. They need the showcase home, the shiny new car, the big desk in the bigger office, and the job title that indicates their importance to all beneath. Other people are virtually colorblind to such marks of distinction. They're happy to work anonymously and drive an old but functional wreck. They get satisfaction not from recognition but from secret wellsprings that are hard to identify.

A retired colleague (PD) told me of this contrast between his wife and himself. He speculated that the "status gene" she exhibits might have come from a mutation: when she was young, her family's business failed and they went from well-to-do circumstances to near-poverty. He grew up poor and never paid it much attention. His focus today is on function, not form.

Is there a metaphorical "status gene"? If so, is it dominant or recessive? Does it skip generations? What external events trigger its display?

- Wednesday, May 24, 2000 at 20:36:05 (EDT)

PET ^z Bibli

In the late 1970's, when the personal computer bug bit you the choice was simple: Apple II v. Atari 400/800 v. Commodore PET. In retrospect, the answer is obvious. But I guessed wrong: first Commodore (~1977 - ~1982) and then Atari (~1982 - ~1984). I was an impecunious grad student, and the Commodore PET ( = "Personal Electronic Transactor" --- what a dorkismatic name!) at $800 was cheaper than the competition. It came with a massive 8kB of RAM, a built-in monitor, and a tape cassette drive for (slow) program storage and retrieval.

Once I got the PET I began to raise money for frills by writing magazine articles on hobby computing themes. The prose was pedestrian but the cash flow was good --- something close to minimum-wage, if one counted all the software development time, but I didn't know any better. And I would have done the programming regardless, so any return was pure gravy. (I wasn't a vegetarian then.)

A recent dig in the ^z basement uncovered a small shelf of old magazines containing many of those long-forgotten articles. Lest they be (mercifully!) lost to posterity, here's a summary of what surfaced, plus some notes on a few gaps in my PET bibliography.

The basement archæological dig also revealed a BYTE issue that contained an article by two good friends, Caltech astrophysics grad student comrades Doug Macdonald & Yekta Gürsel. They used my Commodore PET to develop the code for "Solving Soma Cube and Polyomino Puzzles Using a Microcomputer", a fascinating exercise in assembly-language programming and problem-solving heuristics. (Vol. 4, No. 11, November 1979)

These hobby-computing articles didn't change the face of human civilization, but they did trigger some interesting correspondence. Computer magazines at that time published the author's address, and I began to receive fan letters, including a couple from a mass murderer in California's Lompoc prison (the "trash bag killer"; he was interested in number theory).

I also got a series of long missives postmarked Mexico City, on onionskin paper, punched out in all-caps on a manual typewriter. Their author explained that Radio Shack was involved in a conspiracy against him, and that the gas ovens in WWII German death camps were teleportation/time-travel devices. He enclosed lists of license plates from cars that were following him. I did not write back.

- Tuesday, May 23, 2000 at 05:55:43 (EDT)


Biologists sort creatures by kingdom (plant v. animal v. ?), phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Big bureaucracies have a similar structure. Begin with the executive branch of a national government. Within it are departments (aka agencies, ministries, ...) each devoted to a more-or-less coherent theme: War, State, Interior, Energy, Commerce, Justice, etc. A department is made of offices (or bureaus or centers), and that's typically where people begin to actually know each other --- or at least where the bosses can vaguely recognize the majority of their employees. Within an office are groups (or divisions) generally of a few score people. Groups are divided into branches, and now (finally!) we're down to the level where real work gets done: a crew of a dozen or so people. Coincidence? --- a branch is about the size of a hominid tribe of individuals, or a large family.

- Sunday, May 21, 2000 at 17:08:09 (EDT)

Suspension of Disbelief

Sometimes you've gotta cut a storyteller some slack: turn down the critical faculties and just listen. It doesn't always pay off; frequently things just get silly or incredible or pointless. But once in a while a new world unfolds. OK, a lion can't talk --- but if he could, how would he think and what would he say? Sure, we're not going to travel to the stars any time soon --- but if we could, what would we see? Yeah, there aren't any magic rings --- but if there were, what risks would their use entail? We can, in the best of circumstances, return to earth from such flights with rich new perspectives on our actual lives.

- Saturday, May 20, 2000 at 11:14:13 (EDT)

Skipping Ahead

An older friend says, "If I had known how much fun grandchildren are, I would have skipped having kids entirely and gone straight to being a grandparent!"

That skip-a-generation theme is the basis for a classic Russian story. A man spends his rubles on a bottle of vodka, drinks it, but fails to get the buzz he wants. Frustrated, he digs deeper in his pockets. He finds several kopecks and buys a succession of smaller glasses of liquor --- none of which pushes him into intoxication. Finally, in desperation he uses his sole remaining coin to purchase a tiny spoonful of alcohol which he swallows. With that he achieves the drunken state that he seeks. "Oh, if only I had bought that last spoon of vodka first!" he complains.

Silly, sure --- and we do it constantly: blaming current leadership for the consequences of decisions taken a decade ago ... praising the player who happens to score the final goal of the game ... punishing children whose parents neglected them in their infancy ....

- Thursday, May 18, 2000 at 21:38:55 (EDT)

Social Robustness

Most people are well-intentioned, most of the time. It's easy to overlook the exceptions (I plead guilty!) during day-to-day life and make the tacit assumption that everybody is rational, peaceful, and productive. But that benign postulate becomes suddenly dangerous when one starts to design social systems.

A nation, a corporation, or a community has to be able to handle "broken components" --- people who are somewhat crazy, dysfunctional, maybe even malign. Such disruptive forces need to be absorbed and dissipated so that they don't destroy the larger good that the organization is striving to achieve. And it has to be done gently, since often the problem is only a temporary one. The individual who is causing trouble now will soon return to being a positive contributor, maybe even a saviour of the whole outfit.

But how to achieve that delicate balance? There aren't any cookbook formulæ. Social reformers who propose simple answers usually aren't looking at both sides of the equation. Some point (correctly) to the gross inefficiencies and injustices of a system, and overlook the fact that those may be an insurance policy against rare but dangerous behavior. And on the opposite shore are those who focus on immediate punishment to the exclusion of mercy and charity. They miss the chance to move in the longer term toward a fairer and more productive society.

Sometimes a group evolves naturally toward a healthy configuration, with reasonable checks and balances among its members so that good people can do good and naughty people can't do (much) harm. Other times the natural evolutionary process breaks down --- and we get a police state, or tribal war, or large-scale corruption. How can one encourage the growth of a sound, robust system?

- Wednesday, May 17, 2000 at 06:04:10 (EDT)

Tex(as) History: a FreeText Retrospective

This is a tardy thank-you note to some too-long remote friends. Cleaning out the basement last week, I found a pile of correspondence. The letters concerned various free-text information retrieval (IR) programs that I wrote during my ill-spent early-middle-age. They dated from the pre-Web era, 1988-1991 --- when mailing lists, USENET newsgroups, and CompuServe fora were the dominant dinosaur species. (What will today's newest new things look like in retrospect a decade from now? To imagine is to laugh (^_^)....)

Some quick context: beginning ca. 1984, with encouragement and support from colleagues, friends, and the (now defunct) corporate library at Apple Computer, Inc., I wrote indexer/browser software in my spare time. The programs were designed to help people take huge disorganized collections of textual data and make them useful for personal high-performance research. (See also Notes on Free Text Information Retrieval and the FreeText Archive, as well as the 1999 Nov 27 ^zhurnal entry.) The earliest and crudest of these chunks of code were named "indxr" and "brwsr". (I wasn't much of a naming wizard!) The software then evolved through "qndxr.c", "Texas", "Tex", "multindxr", and finally several "FreeText" instantiations of the same fundamental ideas.

The hobby of IR programming taught me a lot and occupied many pleasant months of my life (thanks to the near-limitless tolerance of my wife, Paulette Dickerson --- to whom I owe more than I can express). But the best part was that it let me meet and help many nice people. Here's a core sample of names from the letters I received. If you find your name below, please drop me a line and let me know how you're doing these days. And thank you, belatedly, for writing!

Belated thanks to you all --- and apologies to those whose kind letters and messages have not survived the friction of my household filing system. (Please forgive inadvertent typos and garbles.) To those who have been forgotten: remind me gently. And to those who enjoyed FreeText (and Tex, Texas, qndxr/brwsr, etc.) but who never got around to writing: drop me a line ... it's never too late.

- Monday, May 15, 2000 at 07:58:35 (EDT)

Tex(as) History (North America)

Continuing an overdue thank-you note to a host of distant comrades (see Tex(as) History: a FreeText Retrospective above), Canadian and US correspondents were prolific:

As in Part I: belated thanks to you all!

- Monday, May 15, 2000 at 07:47:37 (EDT)


Back in grad school there were astronomers who looked at the universe "up there" and physicists who thought about the laws of nature "down here". Between them in limbo were astrophysicists, folks who took abstract concepts and applied them to explain real events in the cosmos. Nice work, if you can get it.

The research group I was in included astronomy-types as well as gravity theorists, people who worked on general relativity. I did some of each, part-time. So, you could say that I was a half-relativist and a half-astrophysicist. (say that last word fast!)

- Sunday, May 14, 2000 at 07:02:43 (EDT)

Log Slow

Some things blow up. They run away, chain-reaction-fashion, exceeding all limits, like 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + .... Or they march steadily out of control like 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + .... Think about a landslide on an infinite mountain, or compound interest running on forever. In contrast, other things are well-behaved. They stay nice, no matter how much rope one gives them, like 1 + 0.1 + 0.01 + 0.001 + ... which clearly just adds up to 1.111... = 10/9. That's like a decelerating car coming gently to a stop, or any other natural self-limiting process.

Now for the fun part: what's in between, on the bleeding edge of convergence? Take a look at a progression like 1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 + 1/5 + ... , the sum of reciprocals. There's growth, but at an ever-decreasing rate. Yes, after ten contributions the pot is up to a bit over 2.9, seemingly moving along at a good pace. But a hundred terms only reaches to just shy of 5.2, and after a thousand the total snails along to not quite 7.5 --- and then it really slows down! Throw in millions and billions of further reciprocals, and the sum only crawls up to a grand result of a couple dozen. What? This scarcely looks like runaway growth at all; it's more of a snooze than an explosion.

Yet no matter how big a number we name, add enough terms and the sum will exceed it. It moves slower than molasses in midwinter, slower than any power of the term count --- but nevertheless it moves, beyond all bounds. That's an example of logarithmic divergence. Multiplication turns into addition: throw an order of magnitude more donations into the collection plate and the total only grows by a constant (roughly). But grow it does, forever.

- Saturday, May 13, 2000 at 09:29:45 (EDT)


An aphorism says "The best defense is a good offense" --- but (when?) is that a fallacy? Is a preemptive attack ever acceptable? What if it's far cheaper than a successful after-the-fact defense against an assault? Would it (still?) be immoral? What if the blow is aimed at a person who's almost certain to do something evil? How sure must one be to justify such a strike? What if one is wrong?

Freeman Dyson (in Disturbing the Universe) argues for a simple "defense good, offense bad" rule on moral as well as practical grounds. John McPhee (in La Place de la Concorde Suisse) tells of the Swiss army's vision --- to be so hedgehog-like that no sensible attacker would even try to swallow it. Are these examples of the right direction to move?

Mutual Assured Destruction ("MAD") is a strange beast, wherein defense becomes offense: it's arguably destabilizing to defend a country's civilian population (because that takes a hostage away from the adversary). And to maximize deterrence, it's better to cultivate the perception that one is a ruthless automaton than to be seen as an empathetic human being. Is MAD madness? Or does it just make good sense from a game-theoretic perspective? Is it an example of an evolutionarily stable strategy, which perhaps isn't optimal but rather is like a local minimum, the best we can do given our history?

- Friday, May 12, 2000 at 05:50:29 (EDT)


Mary Midgley in The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality writes about important things:
"... When we say that any actual thing in the world (as opposed to a concept that is already abstracted) is quite simple and needs only one sort of explanation, we are, almost unavoidably, saying that it is something fairly trivial. Spoons are a great deal easier to explain than laws or trees or earthquakes or passions or symphonies, and even spoons have several aspects --- culinary, metallurgical, æsthetic and what not. Anything more important than spoons is bound to have many more.

"Important things are, by definition, ones that have many connections and many aspects. Certainly we can sometimes praise people or their actions for being simple. But that seems to be because, in their particular situations, a certain particular kind of simplicity is called for. Explaining why it is called for can be very complicated indeed.

"In general, important and valuable things seem to be complex ones which provoke wonder. These things impress us, producing a sense that there is a great deal about them that we do not know and perhaps do not even know how to ask, and that we are not likely ever to get to the end of pursuing it. ..."

And later, Midgley says of metaphors:

"... Metaphors are not just cosmetic paint on communication. They are part of its bones, crucial members in the structure of thought. ... They have always been essential parts of the conceptual system. They work as pointers towards particular ranges of theoretical possibilities, ranges which, so far, are only seen in outline. Those pointers can be immensely useful. But in following them, the first need is always to remove irrelevant ideas which the metaphor is liable to suggest.

"All metaphors have their misleading features. In order to guard against them, it is essential not to rely blindly on a single image. Sensible thinkers use one to correct another, as Einstein constantly did, and as physicists have done in the case of waves and particles. In fact, people who find their thought being dominated exclusively by a single image ought always to become suspicious, to look for the limitations of that image, and to warn their readers about those limitations. ..."

- Wednesday, May 10, 2000 at 20:16:14 (EDT)

Rise & Fall of Para Mode

Where do new ideas come from? From conjunctions of needs, facts, experiences, and people. A personal example:

During late 1990 I was traveling out West, visiting computer research labs and contractors. A friend and colleague, Diane Q. Webb, was orchestrating the design of a hypertext-building and -browsing system. It was called "Hyperion" and ran on NeXT workstations. Creating it was a big, first-class software development effort costing many hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was a supportive user and part-time technical advisor to Diane, and so had become immersed in the challenges surrounding Hyperion.

(Aside: DQW was tiny, red-haired, quick, and driven, about a decade younger than me, highly articulate in her advocacy for new concepts. She started some good fires burning, but tread on countless bureaucratic toes (and land mines) in the process. Impatience and frustration led Diane to move on after a few years, first into the corporate software world, and then to form her own company, where she is today.)

In contrast to the Hyperion mega-project, for the California trip my wife had loaned me her wimpy notebook computer which she bought used for $100. With its 300-baud built-in modem I did a some email and USENET newsgroup browsing from my motel room. (Painfully slow, yes, but it did give one time to think in between reading messages.) At one point that evening a neuron fired and I realized that I had seen something Hyperion-like before in a completely different context: the "Info" mode of GNU-Emacs.

GNU was a disorganized effort to promote free software that grew up around Richard M. Stallman and his Emacs text editor. Emacs was an early windowing word processor. It had a built-in LISP interpreter that permitted anybody to write extensions and add new features --- kind of like macros on steroids. One such extension was "Info" mode. Using "Info" anybody could take a technical manual and turn it into a set of pages, with cross-references magically transmogrified into jump-links. (N.B.: this was before the Web but after Bill Atkinson's HyperCard on the Apple Macintosh.)

All very well --- but it had taken me several months to become semi-proficient at GNU-Emacs, and one could hardly expect a normal and busy person to make that kind of investment. Info files had to have all their tags and links edited in by hand, too laborious and risky a procedure to recommend in an office where work had to get done.

Aha! What we need is an easy authoring system for Info, says I to myself. That sounded do-able using Emacs extensions, but it also sounded much beyond my meager eLISP programming abilities. What to do? Ask somebody! So that night from my room I posted a note on the USENET "comp.emacs" discussion forum describing my semi-baked notion.

The message spread around the world over the next several hours. In Massachusetts the following day it caught the eye of Robert Chassell --- LOGLAN/Lojban enthusiast, private pilot, Free Software Foundation officer, technical writer, eLISP hacker, and personal acquaintance of Richard Stallman. By coincidence, Bob had already done something vaguely similar to what I sketched out. Over a weekend he modified it and posted it on the Net. Yowzik! It was free, it was ugly, it was fun, and it worked. Bob named it "Para" mode, as a play on the Greek "hyper" prefix of hypertext. It expedited and quasi-automated the process of crafting Info files.

Para mode evolved a bit over months thereafter, and from 1991-1993 I made it my personal information management system, built networks of ideas, cross-indexed them, and wrote papers with that web of references as a foundation. It was a highly productive research environment for somebody with appropriate hardware, software, and background.

Alas, Para never caught on; there were at best a dozen users scattered about the known universe. We formed a little email discussion group and exchanged ideas for a few years, and then drifted on to other things. The Para mode learning curve was just too steep for non-GNU-Emacs-weenies to climb without ropes.

But the history of Para mode does highlight three deep sources of power that, in one form or another, lie behind all successful new ideas --- and not just in the software realm. Those power sources are:

Three obvious factors, but perhaps not so obvious in their real-life implementation. Sic transit gloria Para.

A footnote: I still need a good hypertext authoring system. Surely one must exist by now --- powerful, open, flexible, and productive. Any suggestions?

- Tuesday, May 09, 2000 at 17:47:15 (EDT)

Movement Fore & Aft

(Questions from a Philosophy Breakfast, October 1998) What is progress, and how can one recognize it? Entropy is always increasing ... "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold" ... free energy degrades into heat ... heat inexorably flows from hot to cold ... mountains erode ... valleys fill with debris ... everybody dies someday.

So is "progress" but a brief slowing of the rate of degeneration? Are all the seemingly-positive developments of history illusions, colored by our interpretations and prejudices? (The logic goes: "We're good" + "It had to happen that way, or else we wouldn't be here" --> "Progress") Can accumulated and shared knowledge do anything more than cause a hiccup in the race toward anarchy? If (or when) our planet vanishes, without a trace, has everything been in vain? What's the point of all this? Can we justify our existence, somehow?

- Monday, May 08, 2000 at 19:03:45 (EDT)

Flashlight Music

Last year in January an ice storm struck. Tree branches were sheathed in shiny-smooth frozen tubes, brilliant crystal in the cold sunshine once the freezing rain had passed. Weeping willows flattened under the weight. Rigid limbs drooped, broke, and fell. The Boy Scout camping trip began Friday night as planned (though I took advantage of an excuse --- power outage! --- and drove home instead of shivering in my sleeping bag). That first evening icy boughs plummeted like random daggers, and everyone had to move into a lodge for safety. The kids (and a few doughty fathers, not including me) did get to spend Saturday night in their tents.

On Sunday morning I rejoined the group at 9 a.m. The breakfast fire was burning well, the sun was shining, and the campers were proud of their survival. The Scoutmaster cleared his throat and asked the boys to name some of the ways in which they were fortunate --- and to think about other people in the world who were less lucky. Kids around the circle in turn mentioned food, shelter, family, friends ... a quiet, thought-provoking minute of meditation.

A different show-must-go-on event came later that frigid weekend. Musician/teacher/friend Gina had long before scheduled a recital in her home for ten of her young piano students. Our family was invited. When we got to the house in late afternoon, however, there was still no electricity and Gina was in a panic! Fortunately, we had brought flashlights. As each child played one of us stood behind, shining a beam onto the sheet music. Notes echoed through the dark room with power and beauty rare at a student recital.

After the music ended and the parents left we sat in front of the fireplace with Gina's mother-in-law, Nancy. She was born in Scotland in 1915, but moved to Italy when five years old and there survived World War II. She told us about the tough times, the soldiers, the games, the fears, and the sharing that went on. We poked at the fire and listened.

- Sunday, May 07, 2000 at 20:14:50 (EDT)

Cave Time & Party Time

Introverts are never less alone than when alone. They thrive on solitude and gain energy in isolation --- reading, thinking, and talking to themselves. They're exhausted by group events and are among the first to seek the exits from the party (if they ever show up!). Introverts hope that nobody's home when they call, so they can leave a message and avoid personal contact.

Extroverts (or extraverts) come alive in a crowd. They don't know what they're thinking until they've had a chance to say it to somebody else. They wilt and shrivel when kept away from social contact. Extroverts roam the halls in hopes of a chance meeting; they knock on doors; they wave flags to attract attention.

Real people float between the extremes. Some spend most of their time happily hiding in caves --- but when they emerge, watch out! Others live to party --- except when they can't stand the sight of another person. The trick is to recognize where somebody is on the spectrum, and to allow for their current state. The hard trick is to do that for one's self.

- Friday, May 05, 2000 at 05:47:26 (EDT)

Information Handling

Different types of databases demand different containers, different tools, and different interfaces. Key factors to consider include: These are the sorts of questions to ask when somebody says "I need a database!"

- Wednesday, May 03, 2000 at 14:47:28 (EDT)

This is Volume 0.08 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!