^zhurnal v.23

This is volume 0.23 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, ... 0.40, 0.41, ... Current Volume. Send comments & suggestions to "z (at) his (dot) com". Thank you! (Copyright © 1999-2004 by Mark Zimmermann.)

Where Was God?

Peter Steinfels writes a weekly "Beliefs" column on religious themes in the Saturday New York Times. His article of 31 August 2002 begins by asking "Where was God on Sept. 11?" For a person of faith, Steinfels argues, this is "... an inevitable, a necessary and a valuable question. It is also an odd one." After all, where was God on any number of other days, "... when tens of thousands of parents, as on every day, watched their malnourished infants expire, when drunken drivers, as on every day, smashed their cars into innocents, when in Africa, as on every day, more people died of AIDS than were killed in the twin towers, and when traitorous arteries and rebellious brain cells, as on every day, stifled vibrant personalities into silence and stupor."

Part of the story, Steinfels postulates, is in Rowan Williams's book Writing in the Dust. It discusses some of the last words of victims trapped in the towers, sent via cellphones to loved ones. Those final messages show, Archbishop Williams says, "... the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged." And as Steinfels observes, "Men and women facing anguishing deaths used these instants to reassure and to console those they loved, to anticipate grief and to try to ease it. ... They did not ask where God was. Having other things to do, they may have offered one hint of an answer."

Maybe so. My limitless state of ignorance and confusion about religion leaves me without any glib comments. I empathize with suggestions that human choice is central to the meaning of the universe, and that love is central to choice. But how can that be reconciled with my belief in physical determinism, at least at the level of fundamental particles and fields? I don't know.

And God, as far as the evidence goes, doesn't seem to take sides in our affairs ... in spite of countless attempts that people make to claim Him for their team.

(see also Free Will (11 Apr 1999), Mean Meaners (3 Jul 1999), Free Action (3 Apr 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Religion And Reverence (8 Jul 2001), Tolerance And Pacifism (8 Oct 2001), Bearing Witness (17 Jan 2002), Most Important (16 May 2002), ...)

- Saturday, September 14, 2002 at 18:19:41 (EDT)

Freedom, Peace, Commerce, Education

In a recent essay an insightful quote caught my eye:
"The progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace, the spread of commerce, and the diffusion of education, than upon the labours of cabinets and foreign offices."

(Richard Cobden, in a speech to the British House of Commons in 1850, cited by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the New York Times Book Review of 8 Sep 2002)

Yes! But the relationships among liberty, peace, trade, and knowledge are far more complex than those words suggest. The four factors are interwoven in a network of (to put it mechanistically) feedback loops, time delays, and nonlinear functions. They flourish together. Remove any one of them and, as history demonstrates, the system decays back toward a ground state of injustice, poverty, ignorance, and strife.

(see also Education Versus Eduction (30 Apr 1999), My Business (30 May 1999), Lost Inheritance (7 Jul 1999), Education Of The Youth (1 Dec 2001), Boston Public Library (20 Jun 2002), Invest In Peace (9 Jul 2002), ...)

- Friday, September 13, 2002 at 07:08:14 (EDT)

The Widows

From all the ink spilled over 9/11 one piece stands out in my memory: "Chic Bar, Yes, But Babies Clearly Make This Party" by Marc Santora (7 September 2002, in the New York Times). It's a brief item that recounts the gathering together of several dozen from among the 100+ women who were pregnant on September 11 and whose husbands were killed by that day's terrorist attacks.

The words are accompanied by a bittersweet-beautiful photo (by Monika Graff) of the mothers and their infants. It's a glimpse of the diversity, the deep loss, and the enduring love of families struck by sudden tragedy --- a world almost perpendicular to that of war and hatred and destruction, the more common subjects of massive media coverage on this day.

Santora describes the meeting as "... part shower, part support group, and part celebration." He concludes:

Then Jeena Jacobs, the mother of Gabriel and the widow of Ariel, who was killed in the trade center, gave an emotional speech. She found the words for what many of the women said was difficult to express.

"Sometimes I get the impression that people think we are the sum total of our loss," Mrs. Jacobs said. But that is not true. "Above all, we are mothers."

(see also Among The Missing, Fragile Beauty, Ink Blots, Memorial Day, ...)

- Wednesday, September 11, 2002 at 06:21:07 (EDT)

That Depends

A few years back I had the pleasure of taking a short course on telecommunications technology from a brilliant professor. I will refer to him here as JT in order to offer a thin veil to protect his privacy.

JT's personal energy and enthusiasm were contagious, even to those students who came from a nontechnical background. He described himself as a "Bell-head": a fervid admirer of the Bell System and the gutsy engineering that built the finest phone network in the world. He mourned its demise under deregulation, even as he acknowledged the inevitability of that fate.

And JT confessed to his own youthful indiscretion and exuberance (for which he was never convicted, mind you!) in exploiting various "undocumented design features" of the telephone system. On that theme, I shall say no more.

In his class JT limited himself to only two equations:

And he boiled down all of his subject into two wise mantras, which are in fact applicable far beyond the telecommunications industry.

Why is X the way it is?
That depends.

What does it depend on?

- Monday, September 09, 2002 at 21:47:59 (EDT)

Nature of the Good

Flash back to 1967: having just read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls --- more for the Spanish language profanity and the battle scenes, than for literary merit --- ^z sought out other works by Papa H. In the card catalog he found Death in the Afternoon, a paean to the art of the bullfight. This volume was held on a special shelf behind the high school Librarian's desk, presumably due to its "adult" content --- comments re sexuality, that is, not violence. By modern standards it would barely rate a "PG".

Most of DitA is long forgotten, but a bit of homespun Hemingway philosophizing still sticks with ^z. "What is moral is what you feel good after," Ernest opines at one point, "and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

Really? Agreed, it's probably wise to open up the time dimension (viz. the word "after" in the above) and rate actions on their long-term effects, not just on momentary sensation.

But shouldn't the feelings of others haves some small weight in the calculus of goodness? How did the bulls feel about their part in the drama, for instance? And what about decisions that benefit one person at the expense of many other people?

Maybe just changing "you" to "we" in Hemingway's aphorism would be a good start. "What is moral is what we feel good after, and what is immoral is what we feel bad after." Then the job becomes to better define that little word we ....

(see also What Counts (19 Nov 1999), Kindergarten Environmentalism (28 Jan 2000), Suffer The Animals (11 Jun 2000), Fish Shake (24 Jun 2000), Robert Nozick (2 Feb 2002), ...)

- Sunday, September 08, 2002 at 18:30:49 (EDT)

Giving Up

At times the best way to get something new is to sacrifice something old. In mathematics there are properties that we often take for granted. Dropping them can lead to interesting discoveries.

Non-positive: Ordinarily all one sees in life are natural numbers, the integers to count things with --- one cow, two goats, a thousand stars, a trillion trillion atoms, and so forth. But relax that restriction, include negative numbers, and you can solve problems in addition such as X+3=2. (You can also go into debt!)

Non-integer: What fits between the whole numbers? How can equations like X*7=22 be answered? Relax the restriction to integers and you've got fractions, the rational numbers (ratios) like 22/7, 355/113, etc.

Non-rational: Is there room left between all the possible fractions? Yep. A ratio can get arbitrarily close to any number you care to name --- but you'll still never quite solve a problem like X*X=2 exactly with rational numbers (see Roots Of Commensurability (26 Jan 2000)). You need the real numbers. They have all the irrationals, including transcendental ones like pi or e that aren't solutions to equations with a finite number of powers of X.

Non-real: Once you've got the real numbers, what could possibly be missing? Well, there are still some formulæ, like X*X=-1, that don't have answers. To solve them, you need complex numbers that have both real and "imaginary" parts. Now, at last, all the numerical equations have solutions. But you can still give up other things and continue on, beyond ordinary numbers.

Non-commutative: Normally A*B = B*A --- the order of numbers multiplied together doesn't make a difference. But relax that assumption and you can have strange objects like "quaternions" that describe rotations in space and resolve quantum mechanical paradoxes. (The order of doing rotations matters, as does the order of making measurements on a quantum system.)

Non-associative: It's usual for A*(B*C)=(A*B)*C --- the various groupings of numbers being multiplied together doesn't matter. But relax that assumption and you can have strange objects like "octonions", about which I haven't the foggiest understanding. I first heard of octonions ca. 1975, when I was sitting in the back of the room at a high-energy physics seminar and Murray Gell-Mann described them. (He said that he didn't know what they were applicable to, but that he had a hunch they might be good for something.)

When one has thrown away all of the above properties, is there anything left to give up? I don't know. At what point does transitivity go away, for instance? Non-transitive relationships --- where, for example, rock beats paper which beats scissors which beats rock --- are fascinating and important in economics, politics, military affairs, and of course in games. Could non-commutativity or non-associativity have similar applications?

(see also Dense And Nowhere Dense (12 May 1999) and Subbook Keeping (21 June 2001))

- Saturday, September 07, 2002 at 19:06:52 (EDT)

That Which Is Not Seen

Hunters afraid of infected deer (animals with the wilderness equivalent of "mad cow disease", aka BSE) are going to stay home this season and thereby cost Wisconsin businesses a third of a billion dollars. Lost tourism post-9/11 has cost New York City a billion dollars. Baltimore-Washington's failure to host the Olympic Games will cost the region five billion dollars. All these items, and countless others of the same ilk, have appeared in the newspapers during the past few days.

Add up enough such reports and soon the entire world economy will vanish --- or rather, the fallacy will become obvious. Nothing is really lost. Goods and services are just flowing in different directions, down less obvious paths, along routes which aren't as easily labeled and recognized. Millions of extra transactions will take place in local stores, in thousands of communities, rather than in a few central sites. Resources are reallocated in order to maximize perceived utility. That's called change, and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

What's dangerous is when "victims" of economic change take over the mechanisms of government in order to recapture what they have "lost". Their suffering is visible, easy to dramatize, hard for a politician to ignore. The costs they inflict are spread broadly --- a few pennies of extra taxes on everybody else, not enough to be worth the postage stamp on a letter to one's Congressman. So more and more industries, and groups of people, try to play the same game ... and society pays for it through lowered productivity. Invisible inefficiency and inflexibility ... and nobody knows why.

(see also Celebrity History (8 May 1999), Basement Worries (15 June 2002), ...)

- Thursday, September 05, 2002 at 08:22:50 (EDT)

Desert Test

A causal-shift joke, adapted from the version told by my son Robin Zimmermann, aka Rad Rob:

Three candidates are being interviewed for a job. As part of the examination the interviewer asks each, "If you were dropped into the middle of a desert, what one thing would you want to have with you?"

The first replies, "A jug of water."

"Why?" the interviewer asks.

"So that if I became thirsty, I could get a drink."

"Good answer. Next?"

The second says, "I would bring an umbrella."


"So that if the sun bothered me, I could have some shade."

"Good answer. Next?"

The final person says, "I would take a car door with me."

"That's unique. Why would you want to have a car door?"

"So that if it got too hot, I could roll the window down!"

- Wednesday, September 04, 2002 at 06:54:09 (EDT)

Summer Ball 2002

Scoresheet memories from this season's minor league and amateur baseball games:

(see also Keys To The Kingdom (1 July 2001), Tbolt Monkeys On My Back (19 Jul 2002), ...)

- Tuesday, September 03, 2002 at 06:35:13 (EDT)

Sturm und Leuf

Jonathan Sturm and Bo Leuf are a pair of online journalizers (or diarists, or musers, or commentators, or ...) whom I look up to as elder blogsmen. We're all 50ish, but Sturm and Leuf are at least a few months ahead of me (and I don't want them to forget it!). Both are consistently entertaining and prolific in their writing. Both on occasion post startling, thoughtful insights that at least temporarily derail my trains of thought. Often we disagree, but that's fine ... it's a chance to learn, or to sharpen opinions.

Besides parallels of ages and interests (and family situations), there's an amusing geographic relationship between JS and BL and ^z: our homes lie almost along a great circle on the Earth's surface running through Tasmania, Sweden, and the USA. The Farthest Place (11 July 2002) has a bit more on that cartographic theme.

Are there other middle-aged webbish scribblers on our same geodesic? (Polynesia? India?) Send a note, please, if you think you may qualify ....

(see http://www.sturmsoft.com/Writing/diatribe.htm and http://zhurnal.net/cgi/wikidn?CurrentUpdate for the latest direct from Jonathan and Bo)

- Monday, September 02, 2002 at 10:12:21 (EDT)

Century Hence

A hundred years from now, what will people do? They almost certainly won't yak on cellphones, surf the 'Net, or burn petroleum derivatives in big vehicles to move their bodies from place to place. (They may, however, pursue other ways to communicate, retrieve information, and get about physically.)

People almost certainly will get married and raise children. They'll watch (and participate in) games of runnning, throwing, catching, etc. They'll study at centers of learning. They will read and write, make music and pictures. They'll work to create value and then trade what they've produce with each other. And they will band together to maintain peaceful, cooperative, productive environments in which such activities can take place.

Different in detail, but the same in substance as we've been doing for millennia ....

- Sunday, September 01, 2002 at 07:31:45 (EDT)

Quantity Quality

"Quantity has a quality all its own" is a nice aphorism. It means that if you accumulate enough of something eventually you'll reach a realm that's radically (qualitatively) different. In military affairs, getting there "firstest with the mostest" has some of that quantity-quality feel. In mathematics, crossing the line between finite and infinite (and then between levels of infinity) does the magic trick. In physics, gathering many particles together engenders valuable new phenomena like surface tension, temperature, and entropy.

And turning the proverb around, consider: "Quality has a quantity all its own". Understand a problem deeply and the answer becomes obvious. Do something right and you don't have to do it again. Provide great examples and you don't need to give long explanations. (OK, so I still have to work on that last one, eh?)

(see also Genius And Complexity (25 May 1999), Transfinite Meaning (31 Jul 1999), Deliberate Speed (23 Aug 1999), ...)

- Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 15:02:42 (EDT)

Think Again

Think by Simon Blackburn is subtitled "A compelling introduction to philosophy". And, even if the book is only compelling to somebody who already feels a compulsion to think, it's still a fast and fun survey of many central ideas in life. The chapter titles give a good sketch of its coverage:
  1. Knowledge
  2. Mind
  3. Free Will
  4. The Self
  5. God
  6. Reasoning
  7. The World
  8. What to Do

Blackburn commences with a nice description of what he does for a living:

... I would prefer to introduce myself as doing conceptual engineering. For just as the engineer studies the structure of material things, so the philosopher studies the structure of thought. Understanding the structure involves seeing how parts function and how they interconnect. It means knowing what would happen for better or worse if changes were made. This is what we aim at when we investigate the structures that shape our view of the world. Our concepts or ideas form the mental housing in which we live. We may end up proud of the structures we have built. Or we may believe that they need dismantling and starting afresh. But first, we have to know what they are.

Quibbles? Think slips at times into severe word-gamesmanship. It often ventures into the tar pit of introspection, and accepts as true that which is merely obvious. It frequently applies the common philosophical tactic of using tools (e.g., logic, reason, observation, shared common knowledge, existence, consciousness) in order to undercut themselves --- sawing off the tree limb on which it is perched. And it has a rather strong anti-religious bias in many places.

But despite such shortcomings, Think is an fine book, provocative and entertaining. It quotes extensively from classic writings of Descartes, Locke, Leibnitz, Hume, and others, and is quite successful in stirring up desires to read more of the originals. Blackburn turns repeatedly to one of my favorite metaphors, Otto Neurath's "We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom." (cf. At Sea (24 Aug 2001) for a slightly different translation) In other words, our beliefs can be consistent and coherent --- a self-supporting structure --- without having a "foundation" somewhere upon which everything else is built, but which depends on nothing. That's comforting. (at least to me!)

Blackburn tends not to reach many conclusions; he asks questions but often fails to answer them. But he ends Think on a mildly optimistic note:

I believe the process of understanding the problems is itself a good. If the upshot is what Hume called a 'mitigated skepticism' or sense of how much a decent modesty becomes us in our intellectual speculations, that is surely no bad thing. The world is full of ideas, and a becoming sense of their power, their difficulty, their frailties, and their fallibility cannot be the least of the things it needs.

- Thursday, August 29, 2002 at 21:33:59 (EDT)

All Your Base Are Belong To Us

Popular catch-phrases are funny human phenomena. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds Charles Mackay mentions several that suddenly rose to popularity in Elizabethan times and, as suddenly, faded out: "What a shocking bad hat!", "Flare up!", "Does your mother know you're out?", etc. In recent decades television and movies have been good vectors for such infectious memes as "Just put your lips together and blow", "Would you believe?", and "I'll be back".

The latest fad around our house is a koan that has been bopping around the video game world for several years now: All your base are belong to us. This mystical utterance, for those who haven't encountered it, first appeared in a port of "Zero Wing" to the Sega Genesis, as part of a bad translation into English of the story that introduces the game. Since then the phrase has spread to countless web pages, posters, and animations. And now, it punctuates our dinner table conversation ....

- Wednesday, August 28, 2002 at 20:04:38 (EDT)

Mary Landers For Mathias

When we first moved to this part of the USA I fell victim to a parsing error. It was 1980, an election year, and Charles Mathias was running for the Senate. As I took the bus home one day I saw a sign stretched across a row of four windows on an upper storey of a small office building. It read:


with one word showing in each window.

"Who is Mary Landers?" I wondered, "and why should anybody care about her opinions?"

Of course, as a new resident of the state of Maryland I wasn't yet acclimated to the local vocabulary. Eventually I figured out who "Mary Landers" really was ....

- Sunday, August 25, 2002 at 21:55:06 (EDT)

Belated Apologies

An old guilt surfaced again today when I remembered an impoliteness committed by me three decades ago. On an end-of-semester feedback form at Rice University, in a moment of juvenile foolishness I quoted the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song ("Don't Think Twice, It's All Right") and wrote "You just kinda wasted my precious time" along with some other negative remarks about the just-finished class.

Those words were uncalled for, untrue, and unhelpful. Belatedly, I'd like to say I'm sorry to whoever read that message of mine. And let me extend the apology to countless other people with whom I've been snippy over the years. I'll try to do better in the future.

(For a contrasting message that I am happy to remember writing above my name in the Rice 1974 yearbook, see What Is My Life (30 Apr 1999).)

- Saturday, August 24, 2002 at 21:28:18 (EDT)

Light Mind

Jogging along yesterday I finally figured out a good name for that special exercise-induced euphoric state: light mindedness. It's a happy mental escape hatch from the counterproductive tension that dominates life in this part of the 21st century world. No time-pressure, no heaviness ... just sensation, immersion in the present moment, plus alert anticipation of what may lie around the next corner. Attentive poise. Grace. Zen.

I went at a comfortably slow pace and set new personal marks in distance (~15 miles) and duration (~3 hours) for an outing. And when I was done I felt pleasantly foolish in my pride, the way Samuel Pepys once said he felt about his new pocket watch, and the way I felt six months ago when I first managed to run ~10% of that distance without collapsing.

Twenty years ago CS, a senior colleague, politely asked me to stop finishing his sentences for him. "Slow down," he advised. "This job isn't a sprint, it's a marathon.". CS is now retired from a successful career and spends his time enjoying his grandchildren. He was light minded. May we all be so wise.

(see also Go Words (29 Aug 1999), Good Day (25 Jun 2002), ...)

- Thursday, August 22, 2002 at 21:07:17 (EDT)

Muddling Through

The simplest things are the most important --- especially when people need to work together. Witness a recent newspaper report re lawsuits filed by college professors who were denied tenure because they weren't "collegial" enough. These were smart, highly creative individuals, expert at getting grants and doing research and publishing papers. They just weren't any good at relating to other human beings. And nobody told them (or so their lawyers argued) that they should be!

Hmmm ... maybe they weren't so "smart" after all? As a comrade (JS) pointed out to me long ago, the big reason for people to band together is not to maximize short-term productivity --- it's to make up for each other's deficiencies, to help one another over the rough spots, and to take turns in hacking away at intractable problems, so that eventually the problems can be solved ... or at least reduced to tolerable annoyances.

Efficiency is often overrated. Yes, an individual genius can make a brilliant breakthrough --- sometimes. But such quantum leaps only take a chip off the mountain. There's a lot more of life that doesn't yield to laser-like mega-clever insight.

Poul Anderson in one of his science fiction stories named a spaceship Muddling Through. The name was an allusion to the real way to make progress: not by centralized planning but by patient effort, recovery from mistakes, and the steady accumulation of many small contributions. (And luck helps too!)

(see also Peter Kropotkin's comments in Common Understanding (8 Oct 1999), plus musings in Talent For Collaboration (8 Dec 2001), Ultra Man (8 May 2002), ...)

- Wednesday, August 21, 2002 at 11:17:42 (EDT)

My Ob

"And Then There Were None" is a much-anthologized sf short story by Eric Frank Russell. Its peaceful anarchism enchanted me when I first read it, decades ago; I still think that it holds great and gentle wisdom. I'll struggle to restrain myself from spoiling the tale for those who haven't yet seen it. But one facet, the monetary system that Russell sketches out, is so central that I have to describe it here.

On the planet where the story takes place people trade not coins or currency but "Obs" --- their shorthand word for "Obligations". Do me a favor and I owe you in turn: you've laid an ob on me that you can call in, or use to kill an ob that somebody else has put on you. (It's similar to a famous exchange of favors in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather.) Maybe an ob-based economy couldn't work on a larger scale than a village, where everybody knows everybody else. (Or maybe it could?!).

No matter. Think beyond mere money. Why should people try to do incredibly difficult things in their lives? Why strive against overwhelming odds? Why work so hard, when a lesser effort would suffice? Sir Edmund Hillary's excuse to climb Mount Everest, "Because it is there", seems lame and unsatisfying.

The human self-actualization movement that inspired the US Army's (now abandoned) slogan "Be all that you can be" hits closer to the mark. And Judy Decker struck a bull's eye in a letter some months ago when she explained why she has taken on some huge personal challenges. "Because I can", she wrote.

And that reminded me of obs. Most people simply can't do certain things. Most people are too poor, and have to expend all their free energies just to survive. Or they're too young to know the importance of a task, or too old and frail to physically accomplish it. Or they lack the specialized talent or education or skills required. Or they're overwhelmed with other duties.

So if I can do something really tough and really amazing and really good, well, I kinda have an obligation to try --- on behalf of those who cannot. And the ob is laid on me by my own past and future selves too. As Arnold Bennett noted (see Bennett On Life (19 March 2000)):

I am far off old age, but old age is approaching daily. The terrors of old age are solitude, neglect, boredom, lack of suitable activity, utter dependence on others, and the consciousness of wasted opportunities, of having achieved less than one might have achieved. What am I doing now to destroy those terrors, or even to minimise them? Am I sufficiently providing for the final years? Am I keeping my old friendships in repair and constructing new ones? Am I, in the intervals of satisfying my greatest interest, creating minor interests which will serve me later? Am I digging my groove so deep that I shall never be able to climb out of it? Am I slacking?

It's my ob to undertake the hardest and most important jobs I can handle ... because I can.

- Sunday, August 18, 2002 at 17:42:43 (EDT)

Scientific Revolutions

Once in a great while, revolutions succeed; far more often, however, they fail in their attempts to overthrow the prevailing order. A few revolutionaries are well-prepared and methodical in their assaults; far more are wild-eyed and fuzzy-minded, impatient and inconsistent.

Revolutionary attacks on science are no exception. Most cranks begin from a state of ignorance about the fortress they're going up against. Their big mistake is to launch their assault on orthodoxy in areas where the defenses are too strong, where things are solidly known.

Every physics professor in a respectable institution has had the pleasure of receiving a thick envelope (or nowadays a bulky email) from an unknown party, working in isolation, who purports to have found a gaping flaw in the underpinnings of quantum mechanics, or special relativity, or Einstein's theory of gravity (aka general relativity). These manuscripts are almost always a total waste of time. Their authors have fundamental misunderstandings of both the theories they are attacking and the experimental evidence supporting those theories.

Look at the situation a century ago. Newtonian physics was strong, virtually impregnable in its predictions across a huge range of phenomena. The quantum mechanical revolution succeeded because it attacked classical mechanics at a weak point: the behavior of tiny objects such as atoms and electrons. Special relativity succeeded because it attacked another vulnerability: the behavior of fast things, objects moving at or near the speed of light. General relativity succeeded because it attacked yet another weakness: the behavior of heavy things.

If today's quantum theory were as trivially wrong as many cranks postulate, then it wouldn't be able to compute the hydrogen spectrum to parts per billion or better precision. If special relativity were trivially wrong it would fail a myriad tests involving high-energy particles and electromagnetic waves. General relativity is a bit less well-protected --- but it gets solid support from its successful predictions of light-bending near massive objects, gravitational redshifts, and planetary orbits.

And note that all three Twentieth Century revolutions in physics have one thing in common: they agree perfectly with old calculations for the vast realm of ordinary-sized objects moving at slow velocities. None of the existing Newtonian evidence has to be discarded.

So, coming back to the present, where should Science be attacked? That's easy: all the places (there are many) where experiment and observation don't fit our current understanding. Of course, to do this one has to know something about the "current understanding", and that takes a serious investment in study. (Too bad for those who want a quick and easy win.) An attacker is not likely to succeed alone, so the fame and glory of victory will have to be shared, perhaps widely. (Too bad for megalomaniacs.)

Successful scientific revolutionaries must be not just clever, but also methodical in their scholarship and generous in sharing their work. They shouldn't expect wealth or widespread recognition. They have to engineer their overthrows from within the system. And they do exist, in large numbers. They're called "scientists".

(see also Negative Results (2 Nov 1999), Exposure And Encapsulation (7 Jan 2000), Science And Pseudoscience (6 Oct 2001), High Precision (16 July 2002), ...)

- Friday, August 16, 2002 at 21:25:18 (EDT)

Rich Flammang

Not long ago a grad school comrade passed away: Richard Flammang, of a heart attack at age 56. As noted in Soft Outside Crunchy Center (1 May 2000) Rich was a rather unconventional student, particularly for Caltech: older, more physically fit, and far more extroverted than most of his classmates. Describing his studies, Rich's sister Janet and our advisor Kip Thorne wrote:

After graduating from Caltech in 1968 with a degree in physics and economics, Richard received a master's degree in economics from Harvard, and then returned to Caltech for graduate study in physics. His 1982 PhD thesis was a definitive theoretical study of the flow of optically thick gas into a black hole. Among other things, he discovered the manner in which outward diffusing radiation influences the inflowing gas, smearing out the critical point at which the flow becomes supersonic. This research is a foundation for our modern understanding of black holes in dense astrophysical environments.

But beyond his work in physics (and later in the aerospace industry), I remember Rich Flammang for his iconoclastic attitude toward Authority, his exuberant friendliness, and his love of wilderness, particularly the California mountains.

That side of Rich came to mind again when news reached me of Galen Rowell's recent death in a plane crash. Rowell's fame was as a photographer and mountaineer. Our paths intersected at the base of Mount Whitney in 1976 when, as described in California Sherpa (27 May 2000), I tagged along with some Caltech astronomy students to take photographs of them as they climbed. Rowell, solo and unaided, flew past my friends as they labored up the sheer rock of Whitney's eastern face.

Rich Flammang had that same ineffable lightness of foot and spirit, of sole and soul. I recall now those hikes and scrambles with Rich in the Sierra Nevada and other western ranges ... plus a wild nighttime ride along Mulholland Drive after a party at his parents' home, with the lights of the Los Angeles basin twinkling below us like a mirror of some surrealistic galactic core, polychromatic and brilliant.

I'm sorry that we lost touch for the past few decades. Good-bye, belatedly, Rich ....

- Thursday, August 15, 2002 at 20:17:31 (EDT)

Need for Speed

Lose a pound, run a mile two seconds faster. That's a good rule of thumb for distance racing. (Metric equivalent: ~3 seconds/kg/km.) Like any rule it's fun to extrapolate, to push it to its limits and discover the point at which it breaks down. Eventually too little muscle mass can't propel a person; in the other direction, too much of a load causes skeletal systems to fail. And there should be an age factor, maybe ~1% per year. (Alas, I am becoming more aware of this as I get older.)

But by and large, ~2 s/lb/mi is amazingly accurate. The marathon makes a handy test distance, since it fortuitously converts the relationship into an easy-to-remember "run your weight" goal. It's tough for a man to go 26.2 miles in less than ~1 minute per pound of net body weight. Women tend to have an additional handicap of ~20 minutes, due mainly to differences in the percentage of fat that the sexes naturally carry.

Which brings to mind one of the stranger fragments of conversation overheard in recent memory. At the Rockville Twilight 8k last month I was standing in the pre-race latrine line behind a buff pair of teenagers, male and female. "Have you thought about surgery?" he asked her. "Yeah," she replied, looking down at her breasts, "I think I could gain 20 seconds if I had them reduced."

- Saturday, August 10, 2002 at 15:58:11 (EDT)

Last Good Deed

Suppose (God forbid?) the world were suddenly to end, or (equivalently?) you were abruptly to drop dead. Then run the movie of your life backward and consider: what ultimate act of kindness would you have done before that final instant? Did you bring in the morning newspaper for a still-sleeping spouse? Pick up a piece of trash on the sidewalk? Slow your car to let a maniacal driver merge into traffic in front of you? Listen patiently to a friend's rant? Smile at a stranger?

Choose any random moment. Odds are overwhelming that the last positive action preceding it will be trivial, not a heroic front-page-news rescue or a world-class contribution to the welfare of humanity.

That's all right; hey, maybe it's even great. Simply imagining "this could be the last time" ennobles even the most negligible good deed.

Just don't think it constantly, OK?

- Friday, August 09, 2002 at 21:49:19 (EDT)

Pleasant Surprises

Joe Henderson (see http://www.joehenderson.com ) is a gentle (and gentlemanly) essayist whose love for long distance running has helped countless joggers turn mere exercise into pure joy. At one point in his 1996 collection Better Runs Henderson counsels moderation and suggests:

Failures are less devastating when expectations aren't excessive, and successes are all the more satisfying when they aren't planned.

What a nice thought! And it applies to so often --- especially, for me, as I get older and crash headlong into my new, sometimes-embarrassing mental and physical limitations.

Maybe aging is just Time's way of helping me grow up a bit? At least it's less painful when I take Joe's advice, turn down the gain on my hopes, and leave more headroom for unforeseen happiness ....

- Thursday, August 08, 2002 at 21:24:43 (EDT)

Just the Jokes

At Caltech seminars in the mid-1970s I would sometimes sit near Donald Page, an older (and wiser) grad student. I noticed a singular thing about the notes Don took: he rarely scribbled down equations, experimental measurements, or substantive parts of the presentation like the rest of us. Instead, in his beautiful cursive hand Don meticulously recorded the speaker's aphorisms, banter, humorous asides, and idiosyncratic comments.

This puzzled me to no end at the time. But belatedly, I think I understand. The "serious" parts of a talk will always appear in published papers. The gory details will all be reported, with laborious derivations and appropriate graphs, accompanied by plenty of footnotes and cross-references.

It's the human side of science that gets lost in translation to print: the hunches and blind alleys ... the long nights in the lab ... the broken apparatus ... and the lucky breaks. Those are the parts that need capturing when a guest is gracious enough to share them.

So now when I go to talks I focus my notes on jokes and quotable turns-of-phrase --- so that, much later, I can re-read with a smile and remember the real content of the meeting.

- Tuesday, August 06, 2002 at 21:29:36 (EDT)

No Retrenchment

Andrew Tobias (author of The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need and many other good books on personal finance) once noted that it's somehow far more comfortable to earn a little more money year by year than it is to achieve wealth, enjoy it, and then lose it and be forced to revert to a more modest lifestyle. Retreat is painful, even if it ends at a higher level than steady progress would have reached.

Maybe the same wisdom applies in other areas? Life is wonderful if one can look forward to gradually improving health, or incremental growth in learning, or a slowly expanding circle of friends. Overshoot followed by collapse is the core of tragedy.

(see also Imperfect Storm (28 March 2001) and Bubble Busters (6 Feb 2002) ...)

- Monday, August 05, 2002 at 16:49:06 (EDT)

Read Well and Remember

What does it mean to be smart? Mental quickness is part of the story, though it's far less significant in correspondence or composition than it is in conversation. Good health plus a high personal energy level enables persistence in problem-solving. And, at least for some fields, a mysterious inborn "talent" seems to contribute a lot. If you've got it, you've got a big head start over somebody who doesn't.

But in a practical sense, by far the biggest share of intelligence can be traced back to strong abilities for: (1) taking in lots of information, and (2) retrieving it under appropriate circumstances. To win in performing the first part of that couplet almost always demands reading. The printed word is simply the highest-bandwidth, most information-rich channel available for capturing and conveying knowledge.

And in that vein the extraordinary book Read Well and Remember by Owen Webster comes to mind. It was first published in 1965. (Fortunately I discovered it in a local library not long thereafter. Unfortunately, as a foolish youth I only read parts of it then. Fortunately, a few decades later a used copy came into my hands and I finally had a chance to finish it. Unfortunately, I haven't yet had the time or wit to re-read it and study it properly. Fortunately ...)

Owen Webster was a British journalist who moved to Australia and focused his time on teaching people how to read better. His writing combines iconoclasm, dry humor and sage advice. Read Well and Remember finishes up with a thoughtful chapter, "On Becoming a Mature Reader", which then concludes:

The mature reader is quite likely to deny that he is a mature reader; but this is not to say, of course, that everyone who makes such a denial is really a mature reader. I am not a mature reader; neither am I a well-read man. But one day I hope to become both. I will admit to being a self-educated man, but that much must be obvious from the anti-academic flavor of many of my remarks in this book. For many years I was limited by average reading ability. Then I took an evening course in efficient reading and saw its possibilities. Today I am a more powerful reader than I was, and that power is increasing my power to educate myself. I have tried to articulate as much as I can remember of the processes by which I became the kind of reader I am, in such a way that I hope others can make use of them, too. I have tried to point out a few of the ways along which further progress might be directed. Now we are each of us alone. But if you have accompanied me this far, you have the ability to develop further. Go in peace. Keep your curiosity alive, and develop your personality with diligence.

(see Genius And Complexity (25 May 1999), Book Houses (14 December 1999), Learning Investment (11 February 2000), Readings On Thinking And Living (1 October 2001), ...)

- Wednesday, July 31, 2002 at 21:08:53 (EDT)

Self Improvement

¡TOOL! the worn and faded white letters say, painted on the asphalt park trail a few miles from here. What can it mean? Perhaps some graffiti artist just wanted to encourage her cross-country team-mates as they ran back to the local rich-girl's school. A simple exhortation to speed up, in a single word.

But as I jogged along in a free-association mood the other day a better interpretation came to me. "Tooling" is the act of carving something into shape --- machining an object --- fashioning it into a better form.

Tooling is thus precisely the purpose of exercise applied to the body. And tooling is the purpose of study applied to the mind. Honing. Sharpening. Progress. Betterment.

So now I have a new mantra to chant as I work on myself: ¡TOOL!

(see also Optimist Creed (16 April 1999), What Is My Life (30 April 1999), Bennett On Life (19 March 2000), ...)

- Monday, July 29, 2002 at 20:59:24 (EDT)

My Speciality

When I was tiny I always wanted to be an astronomer. Alas, I'm not there and probably never will be.

But then, I've always been easily distracted. It seems that my destiny, such as it is, is to be a generalist --- to know a little bit about variety of things, and where feasible to have foggy notions about some of the fundamental principles underlying diverse phenomena. Then the trick is to apply that knowledge in helpful ways.

Frankly, this wasn't my first career choice. The job security could be better, for one thing, as could the pay. And there are far too many shoddy impersonators who call themselves "generalists" but who don't really have a good handle on how little they know. At least I try to be honest about my limitations.

But hey, it's a living. And in a dilettantish way it's kinda fun ....

(see perhaps No Concepts At All (22 February 2001), Semi Astrophysicist (14 May 2000), Focus And Fanout (11 December 1999), ...)

- Sunday, July 28, 2002 at 20:46:02 (EDT)

Dow Theory

Back around 1977 I remember regaling some fellow Caltech physics grad students with my fearless forecasts of the stock market. At that time, some of you may recollect, interest rates were high, gasoline was in short supply, and there was great chaos in the US economy. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was ~1500 or so, moving rapidly downwards. I nevertheless predicted a Dow of (gasp!) 2000 by the year 1980, 4000 by 1990, and 8000 by 2000. They laughed at me.

It wasn't rocket science. A doubling time of 10 years corresponds to a growth rate of about 7% per annum. That's high for a developed economy as a whole, but if you add in a bit of monetary inflation and international trade then it's not too far out of line for better-managed businesses to achieve.

And as for the next few decades? Polishing my crystal ball and doing a bit of round-off, I foresee a DJIA of ... 20,000 in the year 2010 ... 40,000 in 2020 ... and 80,000 in 2030. Pay no attention to the fluctuations during intermediate years.

(see also Bubble Busters (6 February 2002) and other Zhurnal Wiki rants such as The Cancer Ideology (19 May 1999), Rail Web (3 Jan 2001), Money Wisdom (20 May 2001), Pop Goes (19 Jun 2001) & Hopeful Rejoinders (23 Jun 2001), Looming Disaster (6 Aug 2001), ...)

- Saturday, July 27, 2002 at 17:09:33 (EDT)

Triple Think

Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym for Dr. Paul Linebarger when he wrote science fiction. Smith's sf was among the most mold-breaking and mind-expanding in the genre. His stories wrestled with the intersections of religion and technology, wealth and slavery, sensation and madness. Back in my high school days I read all the Cordwainer Smith that I could get my hands on, and although there was a lot in it that I couldn't understand, I knew it was important to try. The Planet Buyer, The Game of Rat and Dragon, The Ballad of Lost C'mell, ... they were hyperbolic parables, beyond escape velocity.

Cordwainer Smith came to mind again the other day, as a friend talked about the advantages of an exercise machine over jogging outdoors. You can pedal away while listening to music, watching TV, talking on the phone, reading a newspaper, or any of a dozen other simultaneous things. Yep ... and I suddenly remembered a character named Jestocost, one of the Lords of the Instrumentality, who in a critical encounter with a telepathic adversary had to hold one thing in his consciousness, say something else, and simultaneously do a completely different act. "Triple Thinking", Cordwainer Smith called it. A clever plot device.

So while I handle a telephone call I am also instant messaging any number of buddies and still keeping an eye on the news ticker. And the other people are in turn doing it to me. Invisible impoliteness, writ large. And the quality of our "conversations"? Don't ask.

In the context of an overworked, dysfunctional organization, some years ago a colleague noted that people aren't actually good at rapid context switching --- and that's the key act behind all multitasking. We may fool ourselves into imagining that we're doing a variety of complex things "all at once", but we're really just jumping among them, the same way that a single-processor computer has to do.

And as my comrade also observed, "No matter how fine you slice it there are still only 168 hours in a week." Fragmenting attention lowers total productivity, even if it gives the illusion of action on a multiplicity of projects.

There is, however, one thing that human timesharing does seem to be good at creating: stress.

So don't ask me to run on a treadmill or pump away on a stationary bicycle. I'd rather just ramble through the woods and watch what's around me ....

- Thursday, July 25, 2002 at 21:01:29 (EDT)

Sparky and Sandy

From Thomas Boswell's The Heart of the Order ("Born-Again Sparky") some line drive observations by Sparky Anderson in 1985:

I decided I don't think you have to "burn out." .... I put everything on my own back, even though it didn't have to be there. Losing, or the thought of losing, will never affect me like that again. I'll be laid-back now forever. Just watch. I'll never burn out. I don't have to prove anything anymore. .... You burn out when you forget the big picture, take yourself too seriously. The game goes on without anybody. Babe Ruth's in a graveyard in Baltimore and we're still playing today, aren't we. I'm learning to say no to people. .... I told the team, "People will tell you that you've gotta repeat, you gotta do this and that. You don't gotta do nothin'. Be in the best shape you can be. Play with your hearts all season. That's all you gotta do. If that's fifth place, it's fifth. If we win again, that'll be wonderful."

And a Sandy Koufax strike-out quotation from Boswell's How Life Imitates the World Series (1982) ("Koufax: Passing the Art Along"):

When someone praises him too much, Koufax gives a weary, knowing look and says, "Who are we talking about? I don't think I know this person."

(see also World Series Lines (22 June 2002) and Heart Of The Order (3 July 2002))

- Wednesday, July 24, 2002 at 16:27:11 (EDT)

Tai Chi Running

A couple of decades ago I got a bit into tai chi: took an early-morning class at Caltech, read some obscure books, and practiced slow, circular movements and the centering ritual. It's quite nice, in a peaceful way. I see no need to believe in chi energy (or qi via the more modern transliteration) or for that matter in any of the other associated mental mysticisms. They're not necessary in order to feel the real benefits of gentle motion, both physical and psychological.

Tai chi came to mind again recently in the context of exercise, when some stale neurons fired and I made a few happy connections. A calm relaxed attitude is extraordinarily helpful when running, as it is in playing tournament chess, listening to one's boss (or spouse!), studying difficult material, or working on any complex creative challenge. Might a conscious application of something analogous to tai chi help along the trail?

As you jog, try an experiment: with your arms relaxed, elbows near your sides, turn your hands palm upward in front of you. The running rhythm will cause them to move in bobbing fashion. Now, gently accentuate that, so that each hand moves in a small circle. They naturally will cycle out of phase with one another, each making a loop, the right hand moving clockwise (deasil), the left counterclockwise (widdershins). Together they create something like the classic eight-on-its-side infinity symbol. (How mystical!)

This is precisely the motion used in juggling three objects in the simplest of patterns, a "cascade". And juggling, to make another quick connection, is a task that can be either extraordinarily stressful or extraordinarily relaxing, depending on one's attitude. It took me more than six months to learn to juggle three things, because I fought the process every step of the way; it took one of my kids only a few hours to get good at it. Another example of the central importance of "letting go", perhaps.

So while you run, hands cupped loosely, imagine that you're juggling. Visualize lacrosse balls, or casaba melons, or something similarly spherical and delightful to the touch. (No comment!) Let them float in front of you, guided gently by your hands along their paths. Relax into their orbits. Be one with them. After a time, try varying the patterns that your hands take. Maintain the balance and circularity and rhythm of their motions. Ebb and flow, wax and wane with the universe and the drumbeat of your feet.

What does this have to do with making better times in the marathon? Maybe nothing ....

- Sunday, July 21, 2002 at 18:45:39 (EDT)

T-bolt Monkeys On My Back

A baseball umpire is a lot like an orchestra conductor. Both make crucial, real-time decisions about the course of play; both are absolute, final authorities within their realms.

Coincidentally or not, the conductor of my daughter's orchestra is also an umpire for amateur baseball. A few weeks ago the notion crossed my mind to go see him officiate. Chuck (when wearing a chest protector and mask on the diamond; he's "Charles" in a tuxedo on the podium) suggested a game for me to attend. It was scheduled for 11 July, to be held on the holy ground where Babe Ruth himself first played, a field near the site of the orphanage in southern Baltimore where The Babe spent his early teenage years.

Chuck gave me directions to the ballpark but added the cautionary note:

... I warn you NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER (!) to utter the words "We're friends of the plate umpire's"; if the other spectators inquire if you have a son on one of the teams. just fabricate some line about how you: a) love baseball, b) were interested in a little Ruthiana, c) were visiting someone at St Agnes hospital (across Caton Ave), saw the game going on, and decided to stop by for a while.

On the afternoon of the 11th I got into my wife's car, started the engine, and was about to set off on the drive to Baltimore (perhaps an hour away from here, modulo traffic) when I realized that I had forgotten my floppy hat --- an essential item to keep the sun off my bald pate. I turned off the engine and went back into the house, only to find that Chuck had just phoned. The game was cancelled; another activity had preempted the field.

At that point, however, my jones was in full force, and demanded satisfaction. I checked the online schedule and discovered a game would occur that evening within a few miles of my home. The Reston Hawks were to meet the Silver Spring - Takoma Thunderbolts. Both are members of the Clark Griffith League, a local group that sponsors wooden-bat play by under-21 college kids.

I went, I saw, and I was hooked. The baseball was excellent; a couple of errors were more than counterbalanced by brilliant fielding and sharp hitting. Some minutes before starting time I was worried that I might be the only person in the stands. But soon a few dozen fans materialized, so we ended up with about as many spectators as players.

And there was drama! Tied 3-3 coming into the bottom of the 8th inning the Thunderbolts scored two runs. The Hawks came back in the top of the 9th to hammer in three and gain the lead, 6-5. But in their final turn to bat the home team took advantage of a new pitcher and knocked in two more to win the game.

Since that experience I've been back ... to see an extra-innings loss by the T-bolts to the Vienna Mustangs, and then last night a revenge match as the local boys snuck one home in the bottom of the 10th to beat the same visiting team. A son and I also attended an amateur game at a fancier field, where the Bethesda Big Train plays its home games. It was fun, but the crowd (of over 700) gave me a touch of agoraphobia after sitting among less than a tenth as many for the Thunderbolts.

Moving down the baseball food chain has significant advantages. There's less distance to travel. The stands are closer to the action; one can actually see the players as people. Getting in to an amateur game costs maybe half as much as a minor league ticket (and infinitely less than a major league show). Food and drink are similarly cheaper. Pizzas are delivered from the parlor down the street. When the folding table "concession stand" ran out of peanuts somebody went off to fetch more from the storeroom. The little girl who was helping her mother remembered I had wanted some and brought a bag to me where I sat on the bleachers keeping score.

Most important of all, at a small-scale local affair there's a feeling of connection with the sport and the folks (mostly volunteers) involved. You're actually supporting human beings in their pursuit of individual excellence, and the numbers are small enough for your contribution to make a difference. Kinda nice, in this impersonal world of mega-greed and commercialism ....

(see also Keys To The Kingdom (1 July 2001))

- Friday, July 19, 2002 at 09:01:38 (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!