^zhurnal - v.0.10

This is Volume 0.10 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.)


Two vines:
Entwined each climbs
The other's stair to heights
Neither alone could touch. Like us,
In love.

- Sunday, October 01, 2000 at 15:20:56 (EDT)

College Collage (1)

(A year later, another autobiographical birthday card, sequel to the ^zhurnal entry of 29 September 1999, "Bookhouse Boy".)

The acorn falls close to the tree. In 1970-71, ^z stayed at home for his first year of higher education and attended the University of Texas in Austin ... a safe, cost-effective choice. Good test results placed him out of introductory courses in English, German, and Spanish. This came back to haunt him a few years later, when apparently-excess credit-hours made it seem as though he should have graduated in three years instead of four. He had to defeat a minor bureaucratic attempt to cut off his financial aid.

UT Austin was a mammoth state school, with tens of thousands of students. ^z was quite shy and could easily have become lost in the crowds. Fortunately he got into the habit of sitting in on physics department seminars, especially relativity and astrophysics talks, even though he understood little of the material under discussion. This brought him to the attention of some friendly faculty members. ^z also did well in his freshman classes, including classical mechanics taught by Professor Lawrence Shepley. Larry was an energetic, charismatic, approachable young lecturer who awarded science-fiction books to those who aced his exams.

In a brush with future greatness ^z met another Larry --- a grad student named Larry Smarr. Smarr went on to considerable fame in computational general relativity (numerical models of colliding black holes) and then rose to head a major National Science Foundation supercomputing center. In the early '70s Larry was (or seemed to be) an Ayn Rand fan, an Objectivist. This was a political philosophy which ^z empathized with, to a degree, during that youthful phase of his life. He was moving from conservatism through libertarianism to something less easily categorized. Along the way, he read many anarcho-capitalistic tomes by such authors as Benjamin Tucker and Albert Jay Nock.

But UT/Austin was too big and impersonal for ^z, dedicated introvert, to feel comfortable at --- although living with Mother was a cozy nest to retreat to. He gathered his courage and applied to Rice University in Houston Texas, and transferred there in the autumn of 1971. ^z had visited Rice only once before, ca. 1969. He made the 200-mile trek with a high school friend, private pilot Jim Howard, to hear John W. Campbell speak. Campbell, science-fiction author and editor, was aged and gravel-voiced but impressive. He advocated a healthy skepticism and played a tape of striking aural illusions: ever-ascending and descending tones which never really got any higher or lower. It was a sonic equivalent of the Penrose staircase (made famous in M. C. Escher art). Neat and memorable.

Moving away from home was a quick introduction to real life, in more ways than one. In his first year at Rice ^z lived in a rented apartment with another high school chum, Joe Walling, plus a couple of other students; call them "M" and "F". Both were eminently nice guys. They were also dopers, into recreational chemistry and the drug import business. This situation penetrated ^z's consciousness only gradually, however, as he was singularly naïve about worldly matters and spent most of his time at his studies. But eventually he figured out what was going on. Certain all-night parties were a clue; "M" and "F" were popular fellows. They are rumored to have gone on to military service and a career in medicine, respectively.

^z's classes as a sophomore physics major went splendidly. A part-time job shelving books in Rice University's mammoth Fondren Library was pleasant and paid the rent. In another coincidental close encounter with future fame, his faculty advisor was young Prof. Neal Lane, years later to become the President's Science Advisor.

Rice was small, roughly two thousand undergrads. No room to hide in the back of the room for a shy ^z! --- there were only a dozen or so physics students in each annual cadre. Every teacher got to know every student. Rice's Space Science depasrtment was strong and offered many good courses, which ^z took advantage of. A professor there, F. Curtis Michel, derived some measure of notoriety as a scientist-astronaut who left the NASA program when he (correctly) became persuaded that it was focused not on science but on spectacle. Curt Michel came to Rice from Caltech. The two schools had a rather close though informal connection, via bidirectional flows of both students and faculty. ^z was to become a part of that linkage a couple of years later.

( ... to be continued ... )

- Friday, September 29, 2000 at 22:14:21 (EDT)

Culture, Memory, Progress

Thoughtful comments read or heard recently:

- Thursday, September 28, 2000 at 05:46:17 (EDT)


A rose
That grows alone
Without companionship
Can never know how beautiful
It is.

- Tuesday, September 26, 2000 at 06:04:11 (EDT)

Late Physicists

Gesture drawings of three (now-deceased) Nobel laureates, from scenes ca. 1975-76:

- Sunday, September 24, 2000 at 17:11:21 (EDT)

Big D = Beware!

The computer game Moria is a beautiful thing. It can be played on almost any hardware, even without a graphical display. You generate a character (literally an "@" symbol) and press various keys to move it on the monitor. You encounter monsters, and if you survive your fights with them you get better --- smarter, faster, stronger, and (maybe) wiser. You find loot: gold, weapons, magical artifacts. You descend deeper and deeper into a dungeon, and eventually you meet the Balrog, the biggest Bad Dude of them all. Beat the Balrog and you win the game, retire, and live out your life in peace.

What's most amazing about Moria (to a non-player) is its engaging nature. All of the action comes via arbitrary symbols on the monitor: "a" = ant, "c" = centipede, "k" = kobold, "r" = reptile (e.g., snake), etc. No pictures, no sound, no vibrating joysticks --- just a few letters. Yet somehow, after a short time the sight of a "D" (= Ancient Dragon) makes the pulse pound, the palms sweat, the knees knock. I've been killed (or rather, my characters have) by too many dragon attacks to take that letter "D" lightly!

But come to think of it, maybe what's really amazing is not Moria but the deep human ability to become engaged ... to imagine that a little blob on the screen is a person ... to develop an emotional attachment to an artificial "character", such that when it gets killed, we feel a genuine sense of loss. It's the same human talent that makes all storytelling work --- that lets a novelist build strings of sound-symbols, mere ink-marks on paper, and turn them into people in our minds: people whom we really care about, whose problems worry us, and whose successes against overwhelming odds give us hope that we too may win through our struggles. Moria is just another medium for that magic to work its wonders. We don't need 3-D graphic coprocessors to render millions of polygons per second. We're dreamers.

- Friday, September 22, 2000 at 20:12:51 (EDT)

Malapropos Decision-Making

"Unless we bite that can of worms, we will end up with a bunch of weenies in our lap!" (reputedly said by JMcM, mid-1980's)

- Wednesday, September 20, 2000 at 20:54:37 (EDT)

Numismatic E-luck

E-mail really stands for "Ephemeral mail". Online notes could in theory be filed, indexed, sorted, retrieved, etc. --- but in reality most messages are misplaced, deleted, or stashed away and then lost when the user changes from one email system to another or when a computer accident auto-erases an archive.

Fortuitously, however, a minor personal-historic piece of email surfaced last week --- a six-year-old letter with a lesson behind it, printed onto paper and discovered by my wife (the incomparable Paulette Dickerson) in a pile of old scraps. It's a note dated 14 September 1994 from Simcha Kuritzky, then and now Treasurer of the Montgomery County Coin Club, inviting me to come to an MCCC meeting later that month.

What's particularly amusing is the circuitous path by which Simcha "E-met" me. We live only a couple of miles from each other in physical space, but were total strangers until his note arrived at my old Caltech Alumni Association mailbox (hosted in Pasadena, California). Some weeks earlier in 1994 I had posted a naïve numismatic question to the USENET newsgroup rec.collecting.coins ... and that msg literally propagated around the world until it was seen and answered by the helpful Mr. Kuritzky. We exchanged notes and discovered that we lived in the same general area. I was looking for a local coin club to slake my hobbyist thirst for knowledge and camaraderie; Simcha suggested that I try the MCCC.

The rest (groan!) is history. I've been writing the Club Bulletin ("Early Web Edition") for several years now, and thus far have successfully resisted all efforts to push me into higher MCCC office. A lucky E-encounter led me to a dozen new non-E-friends and a monthly fix for my coin jones. Who says that the 'Net is destroying personal interaction and local social groups?

- Tuesday, September 19, 2000 at 06:01:20 (EDT)


Mary Midgley (in Beast and Man) writes, "Like most people who have spent time and caught colds on plenty of leftwing demonstrations, I am unhappy when I see the comrades tearing off down a useless blind alley. There are real things in the world that require their attention." The same, of course, applies to demonstrators on the right, the center, and off in other dimensions entirely.

What good are mass demonstrations? They may focus attention on an issue, yes. They may reveal depth of feeling in an otherwise-ignored subpopulation. If massive and/or bizarre enough, demonstrations may scare other parts of the society ("Freak the Mundanes!") and provoke action --- though not always action in the direction toward which the marchers are pushing.

Most of the time, however, the net result of a demonstration is hard to discern. It's a lot like mass marketing. Advertising makes corporate executives feel good: they see the firm's name out there, and they fantasize that an ad campaign will be remembered, will increase mindshare, and will result in new customers and growth for the company. But generally, there's no measurable effect. The same holds for politicians and for demonstrations. As Midgley suggests, fundamental issues count far more in the long run. Big crowds and flashy spectacles are ripples on the tide. Ideas matter; good deeds matter; quality matters.

For other Mary Midgley comments see the ^zhurnal entries of 6 July 2000, 1 June 2000, and 10 May 2000.

- Sunday, September 17, 2000 at 20:33:25 (EDT)

September Sayings

Some noteworthy quips from the first fortnight of the month: * slightly edited by ^z

- Saturday, September 16, 2000 at 10:19:45 (EDT)

Questions <---> Ideas <--- Arguments <--- Questions

How to raise the level of a debate? How to make conversations more productive? How to break out of "Yes it is!" - "No it isn't!" point-counterpoint haggling? How to take complex, tangled webs and make them comprehensible? How to attack "wicked problems" and begin to solve them?

What's needed is a framework for disciplined argumentation --- something to provide:

There are many structured-thinking frameworks, but few of them are widely known and fewer still are much used in real life. One of the nicest (in my limited experience) is VIMS, the "Visual Issue Mapping System" developed and popularized by Dr. Jeff Conklin. (Jeff was formerly at Group Decision Support Systems, and before that at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Consortium (MCC); I hear that he's his own company now. See http://www.gdss.com/wp/IBIS.htm for an essay on VIMS and its ancestry. A form of VIMS is instantiated in some (rather idiosyncratic) software called "QuestMap".)

The power of idea-mapping comes from a simple syntax that organizes arguments. In a nutshell:

  1. Write down a key question ("?"). (Make it brief and open-ended. Seek to begin the question with "Why?" or "How?" or "What?" or "Who?". Avoid multi-clause queries; split them into their fundamental sub-issues. Stay away from questions which can only be answered "yes" or "no". Eschew biased pseudo-questions which imply a single answer or which contain arguments.)
  2. Write down candidate ideas ("!") in response to the key question, and link them to the question with arrows: "(?) <--- (!)". (Ideas are potential answers to the question. Express them compactly and objectively. A good idea does not include reasoning or argumentation.)
  3. Write down arguments pro and con ("+" & "-") in response to candidate ideas: "(!) <--- (+)" & "(!) <--- (-)". (Capture arguments succinctly. Indicate whether they support or refute the idea to which they are linked. Keep arguments atomic, one to an elementary block.)
  4. Repeat! (Formulate more questions and link them onto existing questions, ideas, and arguments. Add new ideas and hook them to questions. Connect additional pro and con arguments to ideas.)
This process results in a map of the conversation, a diagram that captures the essence of a debate. Questions can be linked in anywhere: to another question, to an idea, or to an argument. (Question authority!) Answering ideas, however, only connect to questions. Pro & con arguments only apply to ideas, never to other arguments or to questions. (No question is a bad question!)

These simple constraints give structure to a dialogue. They unravel tangles and result in a smoother, stronger fabric of analysis.

- Thursday, September 14, 2000 at 21:09:03 (EDT)


Concerning money, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) wrote:
"The Romans worshipped their standard, and the Roman standard happened to be an eagle. Our standard is only one-tenth of an eagle --- a dollar --- and we make all even by loving it with tenfold devotion."
Background for non-numismatists: an "eagle" is a $10 gold piece. This Poe quotation was found (by PD) in J. Willis Westlake's Common-School Literature, English and American; with Several Hundred Extracts to be Memorized (1876), on page 82.

- Tuesday, September 12, 2000 at 18:28:51 (EDT)


Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline is far more than what it's advertised as, a mere "business book". It's really a quick course in how to think more effectively, individually and in concert with others. Senge identifies what's important as: So maybe The Fifth Discipline is a business book --- about the business of life.

See also ^zhurnal entries of 11 May 1999 ("Transients"), 29 April 1999 ("Arnold Bennett"), and 30 May 1999 ("My Business").

- Sunday, September 10, 2000 at 20:43:56 (EDT)

Right & Level

Who can pass judgment? Yet each day one must
A thousand verdicts render, each unjust
If time for thoughtful jurisprudence could
Be found to weigh the best against the good
Enough. Is that unfair? Where lies the truth?
Objective standard, geometric proof,
Requires perfect knowledge, error-free,
Plus power of reason past humanity
In order to apply such starry rules
To earthy situations. We are fools,
Admittedly, to even try
To implement the absolute. So why
Must all then struggle in the vain attempt?
"We hold these truths to be self-evident"
Is partial answer, as are other words:
Equality, peace, fairness, freedom, love,
"My country" and "Pursuit of happiness".
But words are not enough. If we do less
Than strive with every atom to achieve
That measure full of justice we believe
And know ourselves are capable of, then
The fight is ended; we have lost again.

- Saturday, September 09, 2000 at 14:55:34 (EDT)

Research & Life

In 1986 the (now late) Richard Hamming gave a talk, entitled "You and Your Research", at Bellcore (Bell Communications Research). There's much to admire in what he said, not least being his charming self-deprecation. But the speech also raises some rather debateable questions, and implicitly assumes that many of the answers are obvious. These issues deserve thought:

- Thursday, September 07, 2000 at 07:13:23 (EDT)


In an efficient and highly-evolved system, many different things are each responsible for a few percent of the final result. No single factor dominates. If one element were so important, then work (human, or via natural selection) could be devoted to improving that element --- optimizing it --- and thereby it would become less critical, less of a bottleneck. Every piece is in turn subject to that focused effort, until no piece stands out from the crowd. The system moves toward balance.

- Tuesday, September 05, 2000 at 21:43:37 (EDT)

August Aptorisms

Some felicitous quotes overheard last month: * slightly edited by ^z

- Friday, September 01, 2000 at 10:00:38 (EDT)


There was a country once, set up after a rebellion against an (arguably) evil dictatorship. The new nation had at its foundation a philosophy of maximizing human potential. It began with a complete theoretical road map, a clear path to the just society. Its dream was freedom, peace, and productivity.

But something happened. A band of thugs took over and ran the country as an enterprise for their private gain. The underpinnings of the original system were quickly forgotten, or perverted into an excuse for continued rule by the clique in charge. Eventually, of course, the scheme collapsed. It took down the gang who ran things, but it also destroyed countless innocent lives and wasted the resources of a once-great land.

What went wrong? Maybe the cancer was already there at the start --- when the final goals and how to reach them were defined. Maybe it's impossible to draw a picture of the ideal end-state, as impossible as it is to draw perfection itself. One can only show examples --- partial and flawed --- and then leave the door open for individuals to work things out for themselves ... to define their own goals, purposes, meanings ... and to seek them in their own ways, within a framework that minimizes their destructive tendencies and maximizes their opportunities to work together peacefully. No utopia, just us chickens, doing our best.

- Tuesday, August 29, 2000 at 21:20:27 (EDT)

Uxorious Errata

A couple of quick fixes to misstatements in earlier ^zhurnal posts this year: One of the reasons for posting ^zhurnal ramblings is to offer a target for corrections, so I can get my stories straight(er). More important, however, is to raise flags --- to encourage old friends (and other people with common interests) to link up and share ideas. Thanks to all of you for writing with your comments!

- Sunday, August 27, 2000 at 16:11:40 (EDT)

Pyramid Peaking

Tips of the iceberg and front-page phenomena,
  Ten in a million, celebrity-kings:
Obsessing on fame makes foundations invisible.
  Roots of the forest are critical things.

- Saturday, August 26, 2000 at 07:04:04 (EDT)

Further FreeText Friends

As noted here on 15 May 2000, an archæological dig through boxes in the basement unearthed a cache of letters from fans of my free text information retrieval software (q.v. "FreeText"). Belated thanks to several additional correspondents from the 1991-1995 time frame: Thanks to all of you for your kind support!

- Friday, August 25, 2000 at 05:39:18 (EDT)

Uncivil Servants

Mazes of cubicles, windowless corridors,
  Warrens of bureaucrats, beehives for drones:
Stalls filled by mules who are serving their sentences
  Pending retirement, dogs gnawing bones.

- Wednesday, August 23, 2000 at 06:12:18 (EDT)

Standing Waves

Light is made of electric and magnetic fields. Sound is made of pressure fluctuations in air (or other media). Both light and sound ripple along as waves, propagating at a characteristic speed. But add up waves going in different directions and you get standing waves --- vibrations that stay in place ... interference fringes ... local configurations of stabilized energy.

A living cell is a standing wave in a sea of chemicals. Molecules come in through the cell membrane. They're seized and rearranged by nano-scale manipulators. The cell builds structures, repairs damage, fights invaders, corrects mistakes, and expels wastes. It powers itself by controlled transfers of electrons from one atom to another. It copies itself. If conditions move too far from its realm of stability, the cell dies. But while it lives, the cell persists as a recognizable pattern --- even when most or all of the specific atoms that make it have been replaced.

A person is a standing wave in a sea of cells. She breathes and drinks, eats and excretes, grows and matures, works and plays, learns and teaches. She recovers from illness and injury. She undergoes radical change over the years, both physical and mental. Yet she persists as a recognizable pattern --- even when most or all of the specific cells that form her body have been replaced.

An organization is a standing wave in a sea of people. Whatever it may be --- club, corporation, charitable society, or governmental agency --- it recruits individuals, helps them learn their jobs, supervises their work, and pays their wages. It transfers employees from post to post, retraining them as conditions shift. It takes in revenue, sells (or gives away) products, and accumulates capital. The mission may change; the name may change. Yet the organization persists as a recognizable pattern --- even when most or all of the specific people who work there have been replaced.

A civilization is a standing wave in a sea of organizations. Nations rise and fall ... languages mutate ... industries prosper or wither ... populations thrive, shrink, migrate ... science & technology, literature & art, religions & laws, plus a host of other social structures all co-evolve. Yet the civilization persists as a recognizable pattern --- even when most or all of the organizations which comprise it have been replaced.

- Monday, August 21, 2000 at 20:27:17 (EDT)

Conversations in Paint

Charles Dunn has written --- if that's the right word --- a lovely and enlightening art book, Conversations in Paint: a Notebook of Fundamentals (Workman Publishing, 1995). Dunn's work resembles Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind in that both consist of dozens of chapters, each only a page or two long. But Conversations is predominantly graphical, rich in watercolors by the author. Almost every chapter has a sidebar of apt quotations. The book's structure is a clean, well-thought-out hierarchy. Major sections explore: ... plus there's a final module on learning in general, and how to do it more effectively.

Without using illustrations it's hard to convey the beauty and clarity of Conversations. Faint shadows, from among the aphorisms that Dunn cites:

"One ought, every day, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." --- Goethe
"Though analogy is often misleading, it is the least misleading thing we have." --- Samuel Butler
"I am going on with my researches ... I am continually making observations from nature, and I feel I am making some slight progress." --- Paul Cézanne (at age 67, a month before his death)

- Friday, August 18, 2000 at 05:44:02 (EDT)

Postalite 1992-96

Chess by mail is an exciting sport, particularly to those who enjoy watching paint dry or grass grow. A typical game takes 6 to 18 months. I played postal chess beginning in the mid-1960's, took a break, and then got back into it in the early 90's. Most of my games were far from memorable ... but the people whom I met were fun to correspond with. Here's a summary of my encounters, based on US Chess Federation records. If you find your name on the list (or spot somebody you know) please drop me a line and tell me how it's going! My correspondence chess rating began at 1600, the bottom edge of Class B. It random-walked with a slow upward drift during the next five years, and ended in the lower third of Class A ... a proud 1859. Five years, hundreds of dollars in postage, thousands of hours of head-scratching, for a gain of 259 points. Definitely worth it!

- Wednesday, August 16, 2000 at 20:15:30 (EDT)


The Hilltop Motel is run by Theresa Callanan (or was that a typo on her business card, and it's really Theresa Callahan?), a tiny gray lady with a gravel-driveway voice and a cigarette in one hand. The inn is just off Interstate 81 in New York, halfway between Albany and Montreal, a few miles west of Lake Champlain. The low white building consists of half a dozen rooms set in a straight line, framed by the Office at one end the Laundry Room at the other. A monster satellite dish looms over the parking lot. The road curving up the ridge starts across from a gas station mini-mart and climbs past a newish-looking cubical building labeled as a Bible church. The motel is a nice place, classic Americana, clean and modest and friendly. A pair of plastic lawn chairs sit outside each door, so guests can enjoy the woodsy view. No phones in the rooms. Good.

Theresa lives in the office; her bed and refrigerator are visible through a doorway. A bowl of candy bars sits on the counter. A little brown dog and a fluffy white cat lie on the floor nearby. Paulette and I arrived after a 600-mile drive to pick up our daughter Gray from Meadowmount summer music camp. Paulette stayed at the Hilltop a couple of months ago when she dropped Gray off. Then Theresa's husband was there. Now he's dying.

Theresa is philosophical, even cheerful, about her situation. She tells us that they had 50 fine years together, and that next month would have been their 51st anniversary. Now, she says, "It's all in the hands of the Man Upstairs." Her husband is in the Plattsburgh hospital, 40 miles north of the motel, after a blood vessel burst near his heart last week. Theresa spends time with him every day, but he doesn't recognize anybody; he just struggles against the breathing tube and life-support machinery. Their son, a lawyer, is on the phone with the doctors trying to keep them honest.

Theresa tells us that she was impolite with a person checking in earlier that day --- quite excusably, given her situation --- and now she's heading down the line of rooms past ours, going to knock on his door and apologize. She laughs at her hesitation to do so, and says of herself, "We Irish don't bend easily!" Yes, Ma'am. You don't.

- Tuesday, August 15, 2000 at 19:07:32 (EDT)

Down Danger Drive

My risky choices tiptoe into town:
  They creep across the plaza like a fog
And glide through intersections, silently
  As ghosts which drift from pools of dark to dark,
Where streetlights fail and shadows under trees
  Cling hard to night long after risen sun.
My hazards come, at first unrecognized.
  They smile, shake hands, make conversation light ---
And so I welcome them into my home.

Just as a swimmer strokes out one last time,
  Not feeling tired yet, nor knowing fear;
Just as a hiker in the forest climbs
  Up one more hill to reach the summit view;
Just as a pilot skirts the edge of storm
  To make the destination's scheduled stop;
Just as an erstwhile lover presses on
  Past hesitant objections, asking more
Than what the other is yet poised to give ....

So step by tiny step I venture out
  From harbor's safety toward the foaming reef.
And all along the way there is no sign,
  No tipping point, no knee, no line to cross.
The gradient is imperceptible,
  Continuous and smooth as down I slide ---
Until the spider's silk clings, cloys, winds, wraps.
  My desperate struggles only tangle more,
And self-selected doom embraces me.

- Sunday, August 13, 2000 at 20:08:41 (EDT)

Epistemological Engine-Room

How to handle uncertainty in the analysis of complex situations? How to juggle a constellation of alternative hypotheses? How to derive actionable advice to offer a harried decisionmaker? Technologists and software developers, bless them, don't have the area expertise to build the tools that the specialist-analyst needs --- so the analyst had better learn to talk to the technologist.

Epistemology --- the study of knowledge itself --- is the true foundation of powerful information-handling tools. Substantive experts don't need to know the mathematics of uncertainty, but they do need to at least speak some of the language. Then they can guide the toolsmith-methodologist toward useful action. A basic vocabulary of these ideas is also a splendid way to lift a discussion up from the "yes it is" / "no it isn't" level to a higher-dimensional space --- where all sides can see how the uncertainties and alternatives balance out. Moreover, knowing something about the underpinnings of knowledge gives the thinker a new stock of metaphors ... and thereby enhances the ability to formulate and solve tough problems.

There are a host of disciplines that help wrestle down uncertainty, including:

This quick tour of the epistemological engine-room will help a captain pilot the ship of thought with more precision. A little understanding of how the machinery works will also assist in diagnosis and recovery when things go awry. The bottom line: clearer thinking about complex issues.

(The above snapshot of a work-in-progress is derived from a talk I gave today to a small class. More to come!)

- Thursday, August 10, 2000 at 21:17:01 (EDT)

Bureaucratic Immune System

"When people are ignorant, they build committees and processes to hide it!" a retired colleague (PD) commented.

It's not always that bad. Sometimes committees are valuable --- in building consensus, in bringing disparate organizations together, or in helping to lift distributed knowledge to the surface where it can be used. Sometimes processes are valuable --- in formalizing and organizing what was a chaotic situation, or in adding reliability and responsibility to the delivery of a critical service.

But too often, not. Committees are frequently a waste of time for all involved. Processes are turned into a wall to keep the customer out, to protect a non-responsive bureaucracy. "You can't do that without a permit" ... "You have to send in your request for change to the Review Board" ... "Your application for service will be considered at our next quarterly meeting" ... etc.

Clients complain to no effect. Nothing gets delivered, yet nobody gets fired. Eventually, perhaps, the deck is shuffled, the outfit reorganizes, and things improve --- at least for a while. But without high-level attention (or a catastrophic failure) dysfunctional modules of an organization can survive (and even grow) for an amazingly long time. They've evolved defense mechanisms against doing their real job, and against detection of their failure.

- Wednesday, August 09, 2000 at 06:31:54 (EDT)

Numismatic Ramblings

Some musings and comments on coin collecting, mostly in response to questions that have come to me as writer/editor of the Montgomery County Coin Club Bulletin:
Why collect coins?
There are as many reasons as there are collectors. Coins are fun. Coins are historical artifacts, connected at a fundamental level to the lives of people in the past. Coins are miniature works of art. Coins are (rarely!) good investments. Coins are fun.
What's the value of my coin?
"That depends" is the only honest answer. What type of coin is it? What is the date and mintmark and variety? What condition is it in? Is it genuine or counterfeit, a restrike or a copy, a regular issue or a proof or a fantasy piece or an error? Has it been authenticated and graded? Does it have a pedigree? These are some of the questions which have to be answered to estimate the value of a coin.
How can I get an estimate of my coin's value?
There are many ways. You can check out books about coins from your local library (see the 737.4 area of the Dewey Decimal System) or purchase numismatic reference materials from various sources. You can take your coin to a dealer, or a coin show, or a coin club meeting. You can send your coin in to a commercial grading service and have it encapsulated, authenticated, and graded professionally. You can also find numerous online sources of numismatic information --- though to apply them to your particular coin will demand significant expertise on your part.
What is this little "California gold" coin?
It's probably a replica token, of negligible numismatic value. During the California gold rush (which began in earnest in 1849 and reached a peak in 1852) small denomination coins were in short supply in the California territory. Local mints produced tiny tokens made of real gold with values of $1 or fractions thereof. You can read about them in various numismatic reference books. Genuine territorial gold tokens are worth hundreds of dollars --- if they are authentic and in nice condition. Far more commonly seen, however, are modern replicas. These are typically made of brass, perhaps plated with a thin coating of gold. Such tokens are of nominal value only, perhaps a dollar or so. (If a replica is made of solid gold, it is worth roughly the meltdown value of the metal.) Real territorial gold pieces usually have the word "dollar" along with a denomination on one side, and the year of issue with a Liberty head on the other side. (See, for example, http://www.his.com/~z/gallery1852.html for obverse and reverse images of a genuine token.) Replicas generally lack the word "dollar" and often have a bear (or anteater-like creature) on one side. Beware of spending too much for a replica which has been misrepresented as genuine!
What are some good coin books?
There are many. The classic "Redbook" is a fine starting point for US collectors. (Its official title is A Guide Book of United States Coins and new editions are issued every year.) The Redbook includes short historical discussions of each type of coin, information on how to grade specimens, and retail price estimates by year, mint, and condition for major varieties. Beyond the Redbook, you may wish to look at Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopædia of US and Colonial Coins, the Krause & Mishler Standard Catalog of World Coins, or countless other books. (See, for example, http://www.money.org/club_mccclibr.html for a catalog of the books in the Montgomery County Coin Club's library.)
Where should I look for online numismatic information?
An excellent place to start is the American Numismatic Association, http://www.money.org. The ANA web site has pointers to coin dealers and local clubs, as well as historical data about coins, paper money, tokens, and other numismatic materials. The ANA Headquarters is in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the organization has a major money museum, a research library, and a staff which is extraordinarily helpful.
How can I sell my coins?
There are many ways. Quickest is to find an honest dealer and sell directly to her or him; unfortunately, many less-than-honest dealers are around. (Membership in the Professional Numismatists Guild and/or the American Numismatic Association is a good sign to look for.) Dealers must make a living and will not be able to pay you as much as you might get from other, slower, methods. Auction sales are another possibility: live, via Internet, by telephone, or by mail. But prices realized at auction can fluctuate widely, and there is likely to be several months of delay in addition to significant commissions to be paid. Selling coins by consignment through a dealer is a slow process, but often can yield good prices. (Direct sales via Internet or in person have additional complexities and risks --- good luck!)
What are authentication, grading, and encapsulation services?
The "grade" of a coin is a shorthand way to describe its condition. Standard coin grades range over Good, Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine, About Uncirculated, and Uncirculated --- on a numerical scale from 1 (severely worn) to 70 (perfection). Grading a coin is a complex business and demands great experience; it's not something that an amateur can do reliably. Commercial services take a coin, inspect it, assign a grade, seal it in a tamper-evident plastic "slab", and guarantee the authenticity and condition of the coin. This typically costs $10-$30 or more, so it is only worthwhile for relatively valuable specimens. Widely-recognized major grading services include PCGS, NGC, and ANACS. A coin encapsulated by one of them can be trusted to be genuine and in the condition specified on the slab, so it is likely to be easier to sell quickly and for a good price.
What is a "proof"?
Proofs are special coins, often struck more than once at the mint (to bring up design details), often made from highly polished dies, and often carefully handled after their production. This gives proofs an unusual surface finish and can make them lovely coins. Proofs, however, are not necessarily valuable; in fact, in recent years various mints have issued huge numbers of proofs and have sold them to the public at excessively high prices --- which have since fallen sharply.
What's the most important thing to remember about coins?
Don't clean them! More precisely, unless you have a lot of experience any attempt you make to clean a coin will likely scratch it and reduce its value. Don't rub a coin's surfaces, don't polish it, don't brush it, don't dip it in chemicals, don't run electricity through it, and don't store it in an environment that will cause its surfaces to deteriorate. Ask a professional for advice before doing anything to "improve" a coin's appearance.
What's the second most important thing to remember about coins?
Take your time! Don't let yourself be rushed into buying coins, especially not over the phone, at an auction, or from a person whom you don't know well. Don't sell try to your coins hastily either. Don't expect to make money on your coins on timescales of less than decades. Find some good books about coins and read them; visit a coin club and talk with the people there; go to a coin show or a store and browse. Buy a few inexpensive coins and enjoy them, then expand your collection in whatever directions interest you most. Go slow.

My own idiosyncratic case: I got back into numismatics in the early 1990s, after ignoring it for some decades ... began by filling in the gaps in a set of Mercury dimes, Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters, and Franklin halves ... started acquiring nice coins of 1852 (a century older than I am) and slowly built up a type set for that year ... and recently have been accumulating Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver commemorative half dollars (from the 1946-1954 era; they seem extraordinarily cheap nowadays). Numismatics gives me something relaxing and intellectually stimulating to do in my spare time, and has inspired a few web pages with images and commentary (see for instance http://www.his.com/~z/1852.html). I wrote a tiny article for The Numismatist about the idea of building a single-year type set (which I call "Annual Collecting"). And via the Montgomery County Coin Club I have met a host of wonderful people. Numismatics is a splendid lifelong hobby. I've already received quite a (nonmonetary) return on my tiny investment!

- Monday, August 07, 2000 at 05:51:50 (EDT)

Summertime Quips

Some notable quotes overheard during the past fortnight:

- Saturday, August 05, 2000 at 19:32:48 (EDT)

Traditarians vs. Libertitionists

Back in the late 1960's a small war broke out. The Young Americans for Freedom (William F. Buckley's youth auxiliary, meant perhaps as an intellectual counterweight to the Students for a Democratic Society) experienced a power struggle between the Traditionalists and the Libertarians. Traditionalist conservatives believed in the genius of the Founding Fathers, in the importance of morality, and in the slow natural evolution of social systems. Traditionalists tended to be clean-cut kids, serious types. Libertarian radicals sought to maximize individual freedom. They didn't mind drugs, sex, or rock & roll --- among consenting adults, barring neighborhood effects, and as long as these goods were supplied via free market mechanisms, (preferably over non-governmental roads!). Both sides were in violent agreement about a vast number of issues --- but usually for reasons which were repugnant to each other.

The Traditionalists won the battle for control of the YAF; they threw out the Libertarians. I saw this conflict through the wrong end of a telescope, while in a central Texas high school, via the pages of the YAF news 'zines. It was like a fight between two fleas, over a square millimeter of prime dog.

- Thursday, August 03, 2000 at 21:06:32 (EDT)

Questions Without Answers (1999iii)

The last (or first, for now) installment of notes from Philosophy Breakfast conversations --- issues and ideas, puzzles and propositions, as discussed for a few minutes before work on Friday mornings: Acknowledgments to JB, BD, GdM, JJ, AP, BW, JC, TA, MK, GS, DW, JMcC, et al. for encouragement, patience, good humor, and incessant curiosity about what's really important.

- Wednesday, August 02, 2000 at 21:15:57 (EDT)

Round-Table Head-Scratches (1999iv)

Questions, fragments, and quotes-out-of-context from the last quarter of last year's Philosophy Breakfast --- Friday-morning conversations among friends: Thanks beyond measure to BD, GdM, AP, BW, JC, JB, JJ, TA, MK, DW, JMcC, GS, et al. for their thoughtful help.

- Tuesday, August 01, 2000 at 06:41:17 (EDT)

This is Volume 0.23 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!