Sue Wen Stottmeister was a preschool teacher, a runner, a mother, a nice person. She was murdered early last year while out jogging not far from here. On Memorial Day, 27 May 2002, some of her friends organized a four mile race. It started on the road in front of a neighborhood elementary school, turned down a path into Rock Creek Park, and then followed a route Sue often took, a heavily wooded trail alongside flowing waters.
Sue loved her country, and in her honor dozens of small flags were hung beside the course. The prizes for guessing how many? Traditionally symbolic apple pies. A volunteer official, Tara Wyckoff, sang "America the Beautiful" before the event began.
Then Connie Barton, race director and one of Sue Wen's running partners, spoke briefly about what a wonderful human being Sue was. Connie told of Sue's going out jogging with her at a critical time when Connie desperately needed to lose 3 pounds to fit into a dress: "Yes, it's a chick thing --- but it's also a friend thing," she said, with a catch in her voice that brought tears to the eyes of her listeners. Sue was like that.
Then it was time to run. The course was shaped roughly like a capital letter "T": starting at the base, it went to the crosspiece, bent to the right along the creek, did a U-turn half a mile upstream, proceeded back down to a parking lot turn-around, doubled on itself again to the center, and from there returned to the finish line at the bottom of the "T".
My own back-of-the-pack experience? I didn't expect to go fast --- and so I was dumbfounded when I checked my watch at the first mile mark and saw it read 7:35, a much brisker pace than I have run for decades. Several potential explanations come to mind:
No, strike that last hypothesis --- it fails to explain why she, and all the other racers around her, were equally startled by our first mile splits. And besides that, even sans t-shirt she remained modestly clad.
We ran together and chatted for the next mile and a half. She reported that she was recovering from knee surgery, hadn't expected to go faster than 9 minutes/mile, hailed from Colorado, didn't like the thick near-sea-level air, and had a fiance who was burning up the asphalt some minutes ahead of us. She was good at cheering on the leaders, already homeward bound, whom we met as we trotted down the trail. I followed her example. We took cups of water on the run from helpful volunteers.
We finished the second mile together in 9:02, a bit slower than I wanted to go, and when she lagged at the second turnaround I passed her and started pushing myself a bit harder for the final third of the race. I caught up with another woman who was setting a strong pace and then began to follow her. We swung by an older gentleman who advised us, "Don't look back, somebody may be gaining on you." I joked, "You're gaining on me," and he countered, "I'm gaining in reverse!" We chuckled together. Don't expect deep humor during a race.
Mile three took me 8:50. Then the fun began as we turned off the Rock Creek trail and headed uphill toward the finish line. My new pacer kept pulling me along at the perfect speed, a bit faster than I was comfortable with but not impossibly so; she thanked me after the race for pushing her similarly. We complained about the steep grade on the home stretch, a slope which was imperceptible when we did it in the opposite direction. We passed one more runner, sprinted across the parking lot, and then were in the chute at the end. My watch said 8:42 on the last mile, for a total time somewhat over 34 minutes.
Then it was our turn to pant, walk about, stretch, drink, and start eating. In line with the patriotic theme of the day post-race snack spreads included red, white, and blue tortilla chips, plus the customary bagels, fruit, cookies, and other munchies. Henry Stottmeister, Sue's husband, presented apple pies to contest winners who came closest to the correct flag count (97), and to the runners who wore the most patriotic attire.
We applauded each other, and went home. As usual, the Montgomery County Road Runners Club (http://www.mcrrc.org) and its volunteer officials did a superb job of organizing and managing the race. Hats off to Connie Barton, Cindy Hamilton, and everyone else involved --- some of whom stayed awake through the previous night's thunderstorms and arrived at dawn to clean debris off the course and set up for the event.
Near the trail by the creek where Sue Stottmeister once ran, in an alcove among the trees, there is an arrangement of racing medals and ribbons and bright flowers --- a small, personal memorial. We saw it as we passed by, and thought of Sue Wen.
(see also Memorial Day, 28 May 2002)
- Wednesday, May 29, 2002 at 12:53:22 (EDT) (+ minor edits Sunday, June 2, 2002)
Behind the scenes, of course, are the editors and publishers and managers and owners of the newspaper. They chose to invest huge resources in gathering information, building databases, and producing an extraordinary story, "... a lesson for history and a study in the human spirit."
And on Monday 27 May an NYT editorial, "On This Memorial Day", begins with that article in its discussion of the holiday, "... the symbol of a forgotten transaction involving the sacrifice of one life for the freedom of many others." The anonymous editor writes, in words that echo Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:
"There is something almost abstract about the idea of freedom, until you see it tested as we have. Then you realize its infinite practicalities, the fact that freedom is constituted in the details of the lives we actually live and not merely in principle. Today is a day to think about enlarging each of our lives, about the freedoms we omit or neglect, the freedoms we forget or refuse to grant each other. It's a good day to renew the sense of possibility. We live in a free country largely thanks to the men and women who now lie beyond the reach of possibility. They preserved it in principle. It is our job to preserve it in practice."
(see also Among The Missing (20 Oct 2001) and World Trade Center (11 Sep 2001))
- Tuesday, May 28, 2002 at 06:29:12 (EDT)
But (perhaps fortunately) they don't seem easily excerptable. Maybe that's part of their magic? Each possesses a solid style, strong action, and sharp ideas. Each also has plot holes huge enough for an asteroid to comfortably cruise through. Setting all that aside (along with some pedestrian prose and thin characterization) both books are charming in distinctive ways. They are:
The parallel core concepts in these novels reminds me of one of the most engaging early video games: Defender, in which a player flies around a tiny world attempting to rescue 10 little people from alien attackers. Two-dimensional, to be sure, but with a (cylindrical) twist, and at least a minimal excuse for shoot-em-up action....
- Monday, May 27, 2002 at 06:14:25 (EDT)
But whatever their origin, thirty years after I first saw them the mystical symbolism of those four tiles is still engraved in my mind. They decorate a foyer in which one can whisper and hear, focused by the curved dome above, one's own voice or the voice of another person at a conjugate focal point. An entranceway into the universe of physics.
The tiles depict a quartet of anonymous savants who stand with eyes downcast, bodies clad in red-trimmed yellow robes, heads topped with blue berets. Each holds an open scroll. On each scroll appears a single word:
The bearers of Mind and Matter appear to be youths, virtually identical, of ambiguous gender. Motion is displayed by a middle-aged male with a black moustache. Method is held by a gray-bearded elder.
What might these iconic images imply? I have no idea --- but they do suggest a parlor game: What words are missing?
Magic? ... Mass? ... Metaphor? ... Moment? ... Mathematics? ... Meaning? ...
Or just Maybe ....
- Saturday, May 25, 2002 at 17:39:00 (EDT)
When the squalls hit I was out jogging, a mile or so from home, and experienced the elements first-hand. Debris scattered before the gale like chickens in front of a fox. Dust was cast into my eyes, followed by raindrops driven so hard that they felt like sleet against the skin. Trees swayed and small branches fell across the trail ... an unexpected opportunity to practice hurdle jumping. No major harm done, fortunately, though power outages were widespread.
But some time during the Coin Club meeting the cold front swept by and clouds vanished --- so when the numismatists emerged a little after 9pm they were startled to see in a clear western sky the planet Venus, glowing brilliant white like a magnesium flare. A degree away from it was a two-day-old sliver of a crescent Moon, dark side lit dusky gray by earthshine: light from the Sun that reflects off the Earth, travels 240,000 miles to the Moon, and then bounces back to Earth again --- quite a cosmic game of billiards. Above the Venus-Moon pair shone Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. (Mercury was there also, but already too low to be seen at that hour.) A pacific end to a violent day ....
- Wednesday, May 22, 2002 at 21:31:56 (EDT)
I once saw a rather stupid film (Big Trouble in Little China) in which a young man and an old man were walking in the rain. The old man held an umbrella, the young man did not. The young man admonished the old man, saying "A real man prefers to feel the rain on his face!" The old man was unfazed and replied, "A real man is wise enough to come in out of the rain."
I'm a congenital lurker on "Stoics", since >95% of the message traffic seems inscrutable or unhelpful or otherwise irrelevant to me ... but every month or so something hits a ^z hot button. In this case I still managed to restrain myself from public posting, but replied in my usual mock-serious quibbling fashion via a private side-note:
Big Trouble isn't at all "stupid"! --- it's one of our family favorites, with many thoughtful lines such as the one you paraphrased. From memory, with apologies for minor garbles:
- "It's all in the reflexes."
- "A thousand years and you can't find a woman? You must be doing something seriously wrong, Dave."
- "Here's to the red, white, and blue, the colors that never run."
- "Just happy to be alive."
- "Like I told my last wife, I never drive faster than I can see."
- "Is it just me, or is it kinda warm in here?"
- "Have I paid my dues? Yes, Sir. The check is in the mail."
- "My mind and my spirit are going North and South."
- "Her pen is mightier than your sword."
- "Rule the universe from the beyond the grave --- or check into a funny farm, whichever comes first."
Admittedly it's not Shakespeare, but it has some pretty decent writing in places ... as do Raising Arizona, State and Main, Galaxy Quest, Joe vs. the Volcano, Fight Club, and a variety of other failure-at-the-box-office dense-with-dialog flicks.
(excerpts above slightly edited to correct typos, improve readability, and enhance accuracy)
Thinking further about it, I believe that there's a common thread among the movies (and other artistic works) that PD & the kids & I like best: appropriate use of pithy, powerful, aphoristic language. (See ^zhurnal commentary elsewhere on proverbs and metaphorically-dense writing in general.)
And speaking of which, in a postscript to that same letter I commented on RB's recent "Stoics" musings concerning determinism. I wrote:
... which reminds me of another dialog-rich movie, Time Bandits, wherein the Supreme Being is asked near the end to explain the presence of evil in the world. "I think it has something to do with Free Will," he replies ....
- Tuesday, May 21, 2002 at 09:09:24 (EDT)
In particular, I've developed quite a fixation (pun intended) on finding and capturing coordinates of mile indicators for the Marathon in the Parks route; it fortuitously passes near my home (see http://www.marathonintheparks.com). Many of these markers appear as small, easy-to-overlook spray-painted, numbered lines on the asphalt. During the past couple of months I've tracked (pun intended) down #10 through #26 and also have pinpointed the finish line, 26 miles 385 yards from the start.
Most of the course follows Rock Creek, wandering from side to side through gently rolling wooded terrain, intermittently emerging into open meadows. It's an extraordinarily pleasant ramble, if one doesn't mind pausing to avoid sudden death at major road intersections. I have a silly little ritual that I follow whenever I step over a marathon mile marker: I say ping! quietly to myself. It's part of a fantasy I have about running the entire distance some day ....
To within a second or two of arc, the Marathon in the Parks landmarks are as follows. (Note that the route wiggles and winds, with occasional diversions onto side streets to add distance or avoid obstacles. Obviously, all latitudes are North of the equator and longitudes are West of Greenwich.)
|on Southlawn Lane just east of Rock Creek Trail (RCT)
|nice forested area of RCT north of Norbeck Road overpass
|caution, many tricky branches join and leave trail
|on driveway entrance/exit to Aspen Hill Park, north of Veirs Mill Road
|after Parklawn cemetery, back on RCT in the woods; deer zone
|south of RCT's Randolph Road crossing
|on RCT south of Garrett Park Road; beware rabbits
|still on RCT south of Strathmore/Knowles
|before RCT crossing of Beach Drive
|just past Cedar Lane crossing on RCT
|RCT just before Kensington Parkway
|loop into Kensington residential neighborhood (9619 Kingston Road)
|RCT just before Beltway overpass, downhill from Mormon Temple
|north of dramatic Georgetown Branch Trail (GBT) railroad trestle
|on residential side street (3208 Coquelin Terrace) loop
|GBT within Columbia Country Club golf course, near 15th tee
|underground, long GBT pedestrian/biker tunnel
|surfacing in downtown Bethesda, at sidewalk café across from bookstore
- Sunday, May 19, 2002 at 15:04:25 (EDT)
In a recent response to Judy's always-provocative comments, I speculated:
"Maybe the Most Important Stuff all revolves around interactions of people with people --- and out of those interactions can come Things That Transcend."
I footnoted the above: "Please read 'people' to mean 'extraordinarily complex symbol-manipulating systems' --- I don't want to rule out other lifeforms, conceivable or inconceivable."
Later in that same note, concerning free will and how it might coexist with physical causality, I quoted a ^zhurnal entry long ago (Free Will, 11 Apr 1999):
"And perhaps, via strange loops between levels of meaning (as Douglas Hofstadter alludes to in his preface to the 1999 edition of Gödel, Escher, Bach) mental patterns can break 'free' of microscopic causality?"
Finally, in the context of poetry, writing, thinking, etc. I hypothesized in my letter to Judy:
"Maybe the magic is that the more important something is, the shorter it needs to be. Maybe the ultimate is Life, where there's only Now."
(see also My Religion, 6 Nov 2000, and associated pages)
- Thursday, May 16, 2002 at 09:11:19 (EDT)
(see also Ten Thousand Hours)
- Wednesday, May 15, 2002 at 09:51:37 (EDT)
JB & I invented a 3x3 matrix of coincidence, with "Class" on the horizontal axis and "Type" on the vertical. Our three "Classes" were Deep, Definitional, and Mere. The three "Types" of coincidence we named were Events, Form, and Quantity. Our matrix looked like:
Then JB & I talked about examples of various of these coincidence categories:
My housekeeping frenzy also uncovered a letter from another friend (DLM) dated 15 August 1984, provoked by the above, in which he described an amazing example of computational coincidence:
The Drude Model (pronounced Droo-dah and affectionately referred to at my undergraduate institution as the Crude Model) of thermal and electrical conduction in metals brings up a couplet of coincidences which clearly facilitated the bearing of fruit in the early days of solid state physics. Drude, through a classical model relying heavily on the kinetic theory of gases, was able to derive the Wiedeman-Franz Law (a proportionality between the ratio of thermal to electrical conductivity and temperature) in terms of fundamental ideal gas law parameters. The ratio which follows from Drude's model is about half the observed value. Drude, however, in his original calculation of the electrical conductivity erroneously found half the correct result --- placing his prediction, coincidentally, in extraordinary agreement with the observed value. But this wasn't half the coincidence (no pun intended). In fact, Drude's success was due to two errors of about 100 which in the ratios coincidentally compensated for each other. At room temperature the electronic contribution to the specific heat derived with quantum mechanics is 100 times smaller than the classical prediction, but the mean square electronic speed is 100 times larger. The fruitful aspect of this Comedy of Coincidences is that the impressive apparent success of the model drew many researchers into the field and probably accelerated the rate at which the true solution was found.
A highly readable account of this coincidence, ad the Drude Model, can be found in Ashcroft and Mermin's Solid State Physics, pps. 20-25 especially.
This reminds me of Johannes Kepler's decade-long struggle to compute the shapes of planetary orbits based on Tycho Brahe's data. At various stages along the way Kepler had derived the equation for an ellipse ... but he didn't recognize it as such. So he decided to throw out all of his work and assume an elliptical orbit --- at which point everything miraculously fell into place! Lucky man, eh?
- Tuesday, May 14, 2002 at 06:12:19 (EDT)
Nearby a formerly-Soviet music teacher also was listening to the Americans talk, with growing disbelief at the apparent coddling of today's youth. Eventually, PD reports, the émigré could restrain herself no longer.
"In R-r-r-r-russia," she rolled her r's majestically, "ve haf vay to solve that pr-r-r-r-roblem: Father's Belt!"
- Sunday, May 12, 2002 at 16:17:38 (EDT)
- Friday, May 10, 2002 at 06:33:19 (EDT)
But perhaps some less conventional areas deserve coverage. For example:
- Thursday, May 09, 2002 at 05:58:34 (EDT)
Why Write Race Reports?
By way of example, let me address a different question: why do people gesture when they speak? One might think that a person gestures to help the audience, but in fact a person gestures to help himself. Studies test this conjecture by having a subject relate stories either sitting on his hands or gesturing. The accuracy and precision of the story improve dramatically when the subject gestures.
I write these reports because they help me understand what I do. I make them public because the exposure forces me to articulate my thoughts more carefully. That readers occasionally find them useful or amusing is a bonus.
People use the trail for many reasons, but this woman walks the trail for a very specific one. Even in my bonked state, I grasp that she walks to affirm that she can. She walks to walk.
She has my answer. I run marathons because I can. I run to run.
One of the interesting aspects of training is that it occasionally suggests an attractive model for the rest of life. There is plenty of time to mull over such models during low intensity workouts, which form the bulk of typical training schedules. Swimming balance is a great example.
It isn't hard to spot the unbalanced swimmers at the pool; it hurts simply to watch them. It isn't hard to spot who is leading unbalanced lives; similar criteria apply. A balanced life provides for accomplishment without wasted effort. As TI guru Terry Laughlin says, 'You're swimming fine.' So, how to balance life?
Perhaps drills can help. Swimming drills reduce drag. Possibly life drills reduce stress. Bookstores overflow with stress reduction prescriptions. The trick is to practice them.
and later in the same report
It is better to be lucky than good. Being good tends to beget luck, I think because less luck is necessary. Nonetheless, no one is good all the time. Sooner or later we each make our mistakes, and then luck is a very desirable commodity indeed.
To glide through half lit morning mist, to watch deer graze along the trail, to hear geese clamor their way to breakfast, to glimpse the occasional fox or heron, to sprint for sheer fun, to escape suburbia for a brief time is not boredom, but tonic. Each road crossing reminds me that the driver is caged, but I am free. Just thinking about it, I can hardly wait to go back out.
(See http://ise.gmu.edu/faculty/pammann/reports.html for more essays by Paul Ammann.)
- Wednesday, May 08, 2002 at 14:29:55 (EDT)
Recipients disposed to take action based on this information are strongly encouraged to contact the originator to ensure a clear understanding of what is represented by these data.
Don't you just love that phrase, "... disposed to take action..."?
(Confession: I changed "this data" in the original to read "these data" above. Yeah, I've got a problem.)
- Tuesday, May 07, 2002 at 06:10:21 (EDT)
But in the version as originally published Pohl made a couple of major technical goofs, which ^z as a snotty-nosed teenage ur-physicist couldn't resist pointing out in a Letter to the Editor. And decades later, a snotty-nosed almost-pentagenarian ^z (yes, I have a bad cold at the moment ... sniff) hasn't forgotten. Specifically:
"Picky, picky," you may say. Yes --- but part of the game that sf authors and readers play with one another is to avoid such slipskis, or to take pride in spotting them. Pohl later corrected these errors, as much as he could, in the published edition of the novel. The result was a better story.
- Sunday, May 05, 2002 at 20:53:21 (EDT)
(corrected on 18 November 2002, thanks to a tip-off by an anonymous reader --- I had mistakenly written "Fritz Leiber" instead of "Frederik Pohl" throughout the above --- oops! --- ^z)
"Arise, heroes! Go forth to meet your glorious deaths!" is the operatic high-decibel message.
Or perhaps it's just a just a friendly attempt to break the tension, add humor to a stressful situation, and bring some overworked scholars back to Earth. In any case, it's a school tradition.
- Friday, May 03, 2002 at 04:10:16 (EDT)
The Self Standardization (6 Apr 2002) theme reminds me of a comment I made to my kids, back when they competed in chess tournaments: my Class A rating is about midway between their beginner's level and that of the world champion.
So should I look down upon my kids as I crush them? Or up in awe at the towering strength of grandmasters? Both? Neither?
- Wednesday, May 01, 2002 at 14:20:48 (EDT)
Probably about 2,000 folks show up in spite of the weather. I get to the starting area about an hour early, follow the crowd through the drizzle for a couple of blocks to pick up the sensor chip assigned to my shoe, then come back and stand with a few others under a small tree as we wait for time to pass. It keeps raining moderately, lessening a bit now, then ramping back up to continue the heavy-steady shower scene. Lots of people are wearing impromptu rain gear, trash bags with holes cut for arms and head; some hang around in windbreakers; a few have umbrellas. Most just get patiently moist in their t-shirts. The temperature is warm enough to be comfortable, cool enough to feel good for a run.
With about 15 minutes to go I put my dripping jacket into a plastic bag labeled with my bib number (2292) and turn it in to be trucked to the end of the course with a thousand other bags. Then I lurk under my favorite tree some more. A guy comes up and chains his bike and helmet to the trunk. On the wet grass a woman throws herself down on her back and does stretching exercises. A thick chain of polychromatic helium balloons is supposed to form an arch above the starting gate, but there's too much wind and rain for it to work --- so it lies by the side of the road and drifts back and forth, with unlucky balloons popping like firecrackers every few seconds as they encounter sharp twigs. The sensor mats across the path are all set up, with blinking lights on the control panels and extra car batteries for emergency power. By this point my shoes and socks are supersaturated. My floppy hat symbolically keeps my head "dry".
Then it's time to begin. The huddled masses fill the street, more-or-less sorted using an honor system based on anticipated pace: under 6:30 plus potential age-group winners, 6:30-8:00, 8:00-10:00, and everybody else. I find a niche toward the back and laugh with my neighbors about the weather. Some people try jumping up and down in place to warm up. I stay cool. My plan (if it deserves the dignity of that term) is to begin slowly, conserve energy, loosen up along the way, and finish strong.
We wait as the first group leaves, then the second, and begin walking forward when it becomes our turn. We're still walking when we cross the starting line but are able to break into a slow jog soon after, about two minutes post-gun-time (though I hear no gun --- perhaps a kinder, gentler signal is used?).
There's not much to report about the run itself: splashes of water... car dealerships ... myriads of bright orange traffic cones ... a college campus ... county police cars parked, lights flashing, to insulate the route from manic Sunday drivers ... mile markers ... friendly spectators and volunteer race officials who applaud and wave indiscriminately at runners ... digital clocks inexorably ticking off the seconds ... flattened paper cups that cover the road after the 2- and 4-mile watering spots ... and a blur of strip-malls and gas stations. The overall terrain is slightly downhill, but with enough gentle valleys and hills along the way to sporadically give a good view of the river of humanity as it floods down the highway.
Amplified voices at the commencement and conclusion of the race provide humorous commentary. As I approach, loudspeakers boom "... and now finishing, the runner with the longest beard!" I untie the sensor chip from my shoelace, turn it in, and get a ribbon for completing the course. Then with the rest of the population I walk to a big multilevel parking garage where the goodie tables are arrayed, eat a slice of pizza and a cup of frozen yogurt, have a soft pretzel and a soft drink, pick up my bag with the wet jacket in it, and trek to the nearest metro station for a ride back to where the event began.
The rain tapers off and, naturally, is over shortly after the race.
As for my own performance, the official results (see http://www.mcrrc.org) put me in 637th place at 56:14, which my calculator suggests is about 9:03/mi. From memory and my wristwatch I estimate that the first five miles went by at rates of about 9:30, 8:45, 9:00, 9:00, and 9:15. Then I accelerated to maybe 8:45/mile ... not quite enough to pull my average down below a 9. But it was a comfortable run, and except for some wobblies in my left knee I felt, and feel, fine. Good result for my first 10k. Major kudos to the organizers for putting on an excellent event.
- Monday, April 29, 2002 at 07:28:11 (EDT)
But atoms also contain neutrons to help bind their nuclei together without (much) affecting the element's chemical properties. Variant numbers of neutrons make variant isotopes of the same element. "Atomic weight" is the total number of protons and neutrons. The usual form of hydrogen is 1 proton and 0 neutrons; heavy hydrogen (deuterium) has 1 proton and 1 neutron, for an atomic weight of 2; fissionable uranium has 92 protons and 143 neutrons and since 92+143=235 it's called U-235; and the commonest uranium variant has 92 protons and 146 neutrons, aka U-238.
Now plot a graph with atomic number on one axis and atomic weight on the other. Show how stable an atom is by the height at every point in the graph. The isotopes found in nature fall along a zig-zag line slanting out and up from the origin of the graph. What you've got is like a map of a peninsula, an irregular ridge rising up above the surface of the ocean, extending towards the northwest.
It's a magical map, with gaps in places where there are no stable elements due to the vagaries of nuclear structure, with snaky sandbars along the shore, with treacherous reefs hidden just below the waterline, and with surprising islands of stability popping up far from the mainland.
This image of the nuclides comes to mind sometimes in the context of people and their stability (or lack thereof). At summer music camp last year my daughter (GD) was complimented by her cabin counselor, who described her as a "defuser", someone who reduced tensions and restored peace in potentially explosive situations.
In my youth I flattered myself by imagining I was a rock of stability, an immovable mountain of calm. Now I know I'm not; I have had far too many sad experiences of unreason. Only in a few lucky instances have I had the wit to (try to) refocus and recenter myself out of a crisis. It helps me to remember certain fictional or real-world heroes --- immovable objects, masters of that hardest challenge: themselves.
(see In Stability (20 Aug 1999), Beyond The Inner Citadel (26 Sep 1999), Standing Waves (21 Aug 2000), Lens Manic (16 Jul 2001), ...)
- Sunday, April 28, 2002 at 06:04:32 (EDT)
In the 1970s I met Bill Burke when he visited Caltech, where I was a grad student. Bill was a big fuzzy bear of a man --- quick to laugh, but infinitely patient in his explanations of complex phenomena to naïve junior colleagues. We hiked together in the canyons of the San Gabriel mountains above the Los Angeles basin. Our paths crossed again in Yosemite at a Tuolome Meadows astrophysics gathering, and again in Seattle at a Battelle-sponsored research conference.
In his professional work, as in his wilderness expeditions, Bill paid scant attention to artificial boundaries. He happily climbed over fences between traditional disciplines when his instincts told him that a new topic was worth closer inspection. From general relativity, to astrophysics, to the mathematics of chaos (or rather, quasi-chaotic behavior of deterministic systems), to differential geometry, Bill ranged wide and free. His eyes lit up as he talked over breakfast about the patterns of light focused at the bottom of a swimming pool --- "caustics", he said they were, a type of "catastrophe". His hands gestured as he described "strange attractors" and his experiments to simulate them using electrical circuits. He saw subtle connections between things, often years ahead of everybody else in the field.
At a physics departmental picnic one time I asked if I could take a picture of him lounging on the grass. "Sure, the photons are bouncing off me anyway," he replied. Then he tipped his head and grinned for my camera, and gave me one of the best shots I ever took. Thanks, Bill.
- Friday, April 26, 2002 at 06:02:37 (EDT)
But on a positive note, consider the most famous scientist of all, Albert Einstein. The Caltech News that just arrived (v.36, n.1, 2002) contains a little article, "Editing Einstein", by Hillary Bhaskaran. It talks about the Einstein Papers Project (see http://www.einstein.caltech.edu), an effort to sort out and publish Big Al's correspondence. The team, led by associate professor of history Diana Kormos-Buchwald, is now working on volume 9 of a projected 29.
Kormos-Buchwald notes that as Einstein's public appeal grew, "... the media took great advantage of him. But he learned to take advantage of the media. ... [H]e felt a responsibility to do something with the reputation and fame that accompanied him."
And in a most striking observation she continues, "I believe, for some reason that is not yet clear to me and that is worth exploring further, that Einstein was good-hearted in a simple way."
Good-hearted in a simple way. Perhaps that's key....
(see also Gibbon Re Fame, Noblesse Oblige (15 Jan 2000), Big Names (13 Jun 2000), Foam On The Ocean (23 Jul 2000), Iambic Honesty3 (6 May 2001), ...)
- Thursday, April 25, 2002 at 07:04:46 (EDT)
Why remember such things? I don't mean the pair of anecdotes in the bullets above; they're of no real significance to anybody but me and maybe my Mother (Hi Mom!). But rather, why bother to store and retrieve isolated bits of information?
The answer is that no information is an island, separate from the main. Things link up --- and progress comes from spotting hitherto unseen connections between facts: threads that can be used to pull strings, then ropes, then cables across the gaps, until a solid bridge is built. Sparks from rubbing cats and amber don't seem to have much to do with lodestones and compass needles; nor does falling fruit seem related to the movements of lights (planets) in the night sky; nor does a new translation of Homer ordinarily bring to mind the first view of the Pacific by a European explorer. But ...
(see also Naming Names (10 Oct 1999), Webs Of Evidence (15 Feb 2000), Threads Of History (6 Jun 2001), Altered Native (24 Jan 2002), ...)
- Tuesday, April 23, 2002 at 09:32:04 (EDT)
Acton's tome is a delightful read. I discovered it as an undergraduate in 1973, and it opened my eyes to a host of powerful problem-solving techniques. It also lodged in my mind deeply enough to earn a place on a short list of influential titles that I came up with early in the ^zhurnal learning process. (Books To Consider (16 Apr 1999))
In addition to a perfect blend of theory and practice, Acton offers a splendid mix of gravity and levity. Take the external appearance of the first edition hardback of Numerical Methods That Work: the red fabric bears the book's title in bright silver letters, deeply embossed. But look closer, and before the word "Work" you find, faintly pressed into the cover, "Usually".
- Sunday, April 21, 2002 at 18:29:33 (EDT)
It had been a long time since I'd met anyone promising in the romantic arena and I'd pretty much retired the dreams I'd carried since childhood about marriage and children. I'd been settling instead for a sprinkling of dates here and there, taking what I could get, almost forgetting that I ever wanted more. ...
But then Hurtes tells of a fortuitous meeting with a man named Richard: an encounter which blossomed from initial eye contact across a crowded club ... into a dance ... into a conversation ... into an easy, open, eager, pretense-free first date ... and then nothing. No call back. No reply to messages. Bleak emptiness.
Richard had died, suddenly and inexplicably, in his sleep a few days after that first date. Hurtes only learned what had happened a week later:
... I sat very still, waiting to feel something deep and dark inside, something that would move me to cry bitter tears. But I felt nothing. No, I felt eerie. Why, I wondered, through the slow, steady shock that grew heavier, not lighter, as the days stretched into weeks. Why was I pulled in at the final hours to witness the end of a life I barely knew? What was the reason for us to meet? ...
Months later, after an emotionless date with a third-rate fellow, Hurtes figured out the answer:
... There was nothing to hope for with this new man, no fantasies to get lost in. It was all pretty dim. That's when I understood why I had to meet Richard. The feelings he stirred in me showed me my desire for love wasn't dead, just buried, and the dreams of my childhood still lingered in anticipation that they might yet come true. No, Richard wasn't cruelly taken from me to leave me hungry and wanting. He was given to me to show me the kind of life in which I had stopped believing.
I like to think that there was something special Richard got from me that he took with him to his final sleep. Perhaps he, too, experienced the sweet rush of old dreams resurrected and the wonder of living again in long forgotten hope. These exquisite treasures so many of us search for and never find. And maybe even worse, some of us no longer look. If that's true for you, then I'm here to tell you. Bringing a heart back to life can sometimes be so simple. For me it all started with a look, a touch, and a dip on the dance floor.
- Saturday, April 20, 2002 at 17:48:28 (EDT)
For an arbitrary shape, in real life the best that one can do is to take samples --- points every so often along the route --- and then do a connect-the-dots game between those points (or maybe even fit a smoother curve through them). If the sample points are close enough together they may track the actual path pretty accurately. But how accurately? And can one do better without laboriously gathering a hugely greater number of data points?
Lewis Richardson, a computational meteorologist of the early 20th Century (see Cooking The Books (8 Jun 2001) and Forecast Factory = http://www.his.com/~z/weather.html) had a smart idea: take giant steps and make a crude estimate of the curve's length. Then try again, with baby steps. Compare the results for various step sizes, and extrapolate the answer to the impossible ideal of infinitesimally tiny increments.
The answer might not converge. Some shapes get wigglier as one looks at them more and more closely; they're called "fractals" in the mathematical limit. But for many practical purposes Richardson's trick can be a good way to get a sharp estimate of path length.
The idea of Richardsonian extrapolation came to mind recently in the context of measuring my jogging trails around the neighborhood (see Global Positioning System Runs (16 Feb 2002) and Ragged Runner (23 Mar 2002)). My GPS-based estimates always seemed to come out ~10% short compared to the distance that I thought I had run. Was the problem related to the fact that my path was curvy?
To test the hypothesis that Richardsonian extrapolation could give a more precise answer, last week I took coordinate readings every 2 minutes as I ran along the last few miles of the Montgomery County "Marathon in the Parks" route near my home. I lost the satellite signals, of course, at several places (e.g., going through a long tunnel under a major urban thoroughfare). But I ended up with over 40 good latitude-longitude pairs, recorded to within a few seconds of arc.
A simpleminded connect-the-dots between 2-minute markers yielded a distance of 7.7 miles --- suspiciously low even when allowing for (a) my snail-like pace, (b) delays while I waited to cross streets through heavy traffic, and (c) the time I spent locating the finish line of the marathon in front of a swanky sidewalk café in downtown Bethesda. (I wonder what the diners thought of me, sweaty and clutching my GPS receiver while I looked at parking meter serial numbers to find the exact endpoint of the race?)
So I modified my spreadsheet to compute the distance based upon twice the step size, using the samples taken every 4 minutes. The result: 7.0 miles for odd-numbered coordinate pairs, and 7.3 miles for even ones. Shorter yet, because the larger spacing missed many more curves and jitters in my path.
But now apply Richardson's magic: average the 4-minute estimates, extrapolate through the 2-minute estimate, and you come out with, voila, a figure of 8.2 miles for an imaginary "0-minute" continuous sampling rate. And that 8.2 mile value fits quite well with the measured course markers painted on the road and my time between them. Maybe this approach is worth testing in other contexts.
True confession: I haven't ever seen the above tactic for path-length estimation published anywhere. It came to me while I was out running. (An original ^z thought? --- stop the presses!) But really it's a pretty obvious hack, and probably can be derived as a special case of the more general Richardsonian method for the numerical solution of systems of differential equations. If anybody is curious about the equations, please contact me and I'll bore you with the gory details.
- Thursday, April 18, 2002 at 14:48:50 (EDT)
"A bit talon-y, isn't it?" KM observed, with an arch note in her voice. The sculpture she critiqued is a roughly lifesized eagle in flight, banking into a hard turn, with prominent needle-sharp claws and an angry-looking gilded beak.
I love her word, "talon-y" ... and I have to admit that I love that metallic eagle too, in a semi-guilty way (in much the same fashion that I confess to admiring certain fine artistic images of distaff pulchritude). An eagle is a magnificent creature in appearance, regardless of its actual lifestyle as a cowardly scavenger. And eagles appear prominently on some of the best US coin designs of all time (e.g., the Peace dollar, the flying eagle cent, and the recent Sacagawea dollar), although other numismatic representations of the American totem are embarrassingly static and low-dimensional.
As for the depiction of the raptor in the foyer ... yes, it's rather militaristic ... and yes, it probably was put where it is because of post September 11 patriotic sentiment on someone's part.
Nevertheless, for me that statue is a beautiful image of soaring, swerving power and glorious freedom. When I saw it I remembered "The Windhover", Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem: "... My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, --- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! / Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, ..."
- Tuesday, April 16, 2002 at 05:44:33 (EDT)
I won't name any names, to avoid speaking ill of some otherwise good individuals --- but really now, wouldn't it be better to work on making your product better? Is your case so weak that you have to spend considerable time (and money) to orchestrate a media blitz?
And on the other side of the table, aren't there enough interesting and important discoveries to fill an honest publication without stooping to rewriting press releases? Isn't your long-term reputation worth more than a cover story showing some billionaire (and frequent advertiser) in make-up and an eye-catching pose?
Maybe this mutual hand-washing exercise between Marketing and Media has been going on for a long time, and I'm only belatedly catching on to it. Perhaps an inferior technology can win out over a better one via promotional propagandizing.
Call me naïve ... but I still believe that the Best will triumph, though admittedly it may take a long time. I'm patient ...
- Sunday, April 14, 2002 at 05:25:15 (EDT)
Analog was subtitled "Science Fiction / Science Fact" and was the descendant of Astounding Tales of Super Science. Its editor, John W. Campbell, ruled his domain with an blue steel pencil. (For notes on a small personal encounter with JWC see College Collage1 (29 Sep 2000).) Campbell's politics were conservative, though he had a soft spot in his heart (or head) for intricate mechanisms that purported to violate various laws of nature, e.g., vibrating thingies that seemed to lose some of their weight or magically move forward without pushing against anything. But to his credit, Campbell introduced a cohort of teenagers (mostly boys, for various societal reasons) to the joys of scientific discovery and technological imagination. He tried, perhaps with less success, to put an uplifting moral into every story.
"Something to Say" was no exception. A pair of people are shipwrecked on an alien planet. The locals are primitive but have some aboriginal glimmerings of emergent civilization. One of the humans, a professional linguist, falls in with the priestly sub-culture; she learns their language but can't persuade them to do anything much for her and so becomes essentially a sideshow freak, a quasi-prisoner, well-fed but irrelevant to the effort to get home to Earth. The other human, an engineer and Obviously Our Hero, never figures out any grammar or syntax ... but via hand-signs, model-building, and practical demonstrations manages to teach the natives how to improve their technology, build better gliders and other machines, and eventually get signals out to the rescue party so that he and his fellow homo sapiens can be picked up.
The punch line, of course, is that it's not enough to know form and method and framework and style. "You have to have something to say", something of practical import. Content counts....
- Saturday, April 13, 2002 at 06:23:48 (EDT)
As we write this book, we have paper all around us. On the desk are stacks of articles, rough notes, outlines, and printed e-mail messages. On the wall are calendars, Post-it notes, and photographs. On the shelves are journals, books, and magazines. The filing cabinets and the wastebasket are also full of paper. Among all this sit our computers, on which the composition takes place. Yet, if the computers is the canvas on which documents are created, the top of the desk is the palette on which bits of paper are spread in preparation for the job of writing. Without these bits of paper ready to hand, it is as if the writing, and more especially the thinking, could not take place in earnest.
I borrowed a copy of Myth from interlibrary loan but only had time and energy for a fast skim through it before I had to turn it back in. It's well-written but a bit low in information density; worse, its graphics are pedestrian, far less useful than they could be (see Tufte Thoughts (18 Dec 2000)). Fortunately a Malcolm Gladwell review of the book (in of all places the New Yorker, 25 March 2002, pps. 92-96) summarizes Sellen and Harper's thesis in a powerful and engaging fashion. The challenge now is to go beyond observation of the paper phenomenon and into quantitative understanding of it. (see Science Versus Stamp Collecting (20 Jun 2000))
- Friday, April 12, 2002 at 05:45:26 (EDT)
The phrase "a long think" stuck in my mind. In fact, I remember saying it to myself at a tournament back in 1992, when on 26 April in a highly tactical Giuocco Piano opening my opponent, Alexander Passov, deviated from the line I expected. I thought I might be able to gain an advantage and so, even though the time control was SD/30 (Sudden Death in 30 minutes), I invested more than five minutes in a (hurried) long think. It paid off: I emerged from the middle game with a significant material advantage and managed to stay ahead and win in a scramble of an ending --- checkmating the foe with less than 30 seconds left on my clock. Whew! The victory was particularly sweet since:
(see Chess1991 To1993 (21 Dec 2000))
As it turned out, a slightly longer think would have been an even better investment. A few years later I took a couple of lessons with International Master Allan Savage, who lives not far from me. He helped me analyze some of my games, and in the key position of Zimmermann-Passov pointed out that I could have had a forced mate in five had I only seen a little deeper into the position. So my instincts were stronger than my calculational skills.
"A long think" sometimes seems appropriate in other arenas. There are a couple of philosophical issues that have come up recently in correspondence and conversation ... questions about life, meaning, and morality ... all of which deserve a long think before I say anything more about them.
- Tuesday, April 09, 2002 at 06:04:36 (EDT)
In the 1974 Boston Marathon, I was in agony and considered quitting when Californian Harry Cordellos passed me. On the back of his T-shirt were the words: "Caution, Blind Runner." I was so inspired I had to try and keep up. He pulled me through the race --- and beat me. But I finished.
- Sunday, April 07, 2002 at 19:35:24 (EDT)
But more often than not, cross-comparison gives a bad result. Either
and therefore I don't have to work harder; or
and therefore I may as well stop trying.
A better approach: measure oneself against one's own past achievements, and work toward setting new "personal records".
(see also Rad Rob's comment on Impossible Standards (21 Jun 1999))
- Saturday, April 06, 2002 at 16:44:00 (EST)